Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The Woman Joke? Rape Victims in Storytelling

Confession time: I’m not a fan of Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke.

I’ll admit that the shock appeal was ground-breaking at the time, highlighting the lengths The Joker will go to break Batman, but the concept behind it doesn’t strike me as appealing or interesting. At least, not like this. I recognize that it has fans, but, save that brilliant monologue in the finale, it’s not something I attach to.

Here’s a general synopsis of this comic. By the way, there’ll be spoilers:

The Joker, who’s escaped from Arkham Asylum once again, rents out a funhouse at an abandoned carnival to try and break Batman. He makes an unannounced trip to the apartment of Barbara Gordon, aka Batgirl, with a gun, a camera and a tourist’s outfit. He shoots her right in the pelvis, rendering her paralyzed, and knocks out her father, Commissioner Gordon, to be taken to said funhouse. Once there, he strips Gordon nude, straps him to a cart, places him in a straight-jacket and inundates him with photographs of Barbara being raped. Batman makes his way to the funhouse, whereupon The Joker monologues about Batman being a stick-in-the-mud before confronting him in the rain. The comic ends with The Joker telling Batman a joke, which gets him to finally laugh at him for the first time.

Sounds heavy, huh? Well, it was, and it began a path for Barbara that’d eventually lead her to don the persona of Oracle in another comic. It was also another example of how twisted The Joker was, on top of another comic where he’d murdered Jason Todd, aka Robin #2, for shock value (albeit, this time, as a response to fans voting for it.) The Killing Joke remains a favourite to this day, such that an animated film was released this year…that added controversy to the already controversial story by way of a sex scene.

Like I said before, I’m not a fan of the comic. I’m not a big comic reader as is, so part of it might be that too, but I couldn’t help finding it vapid when I read it all those years ago via a YouTube video that probably doesn’t exist anymore. It seemed like it had no reason to exist other than shock value, and that it dragged Barbara Gordon, who’s one of my favourite DC characters, into this for no reason irked me. Because, really and truly, why Babs? Why her specifically? What was it about her that warranted a crippling from The Joker-actually, it’s The Joker, I understood that.

But in the years since, the idea behind the comic irked me even more. It’s especially bad because women in comics, let-alone storytelling in general, have a tendency to get shafted when it comes to depth and fairness of character. They’ve been subjected to torture, violence, death, kidnapping and even sexual abuse in ways that their male counterparts rarely see. So to have Batgirl, one of the most-iconic superheroines in comic book history, go through a traumatic event for the sake of “shock value”, well…it makes her a cheap, disposable pawn.

I know what some of you are thinking, and no, I have no problems with violence and/or rape stories…when done with nuance. To demonstrate what I mean, I’ll use two stories based on comic books as examples. Once again, there’ll be spoilers:

First, Rose from Fullmetal Alchemist. This is a show loosely based on a Manga by a woman named Hiromu Arakawa, and it’s become so famous that the controversy surrounding its existence is best left for another day. Rose initially appears in a town called Lior, and she believes in its corrupt priest’s alchemy because he’s promised to revive her dead boyfriend. It isn’t until the main characters, Edward and Alphonse Elric, reveal the priest’s scam that she realizes that she doesn’t need men to be happy. This also leads Lior into civil war, causing the military of Amestris to intervene with guns and violence.

The last we see of Rose in the first-half of the show is her defending some innocent children from Amestrian soldiers while being told to surrender. She doesn’t, boldly shouting words of defiance. It isn’t until Edward and Alphonse return to Lior in the second-half of the show that we find out Rose had been raped, impregnated with a child that she’d given birth to and lost her ability to speak. She’d become the figurehead of the Lior resistance, most-notably via Scar, one of the show’s antagonists, using her as a pawn for his revenge against Amestris and Lyra, an alchemist’s apprentice who’d bounced jobs several times, as a pawn for the resistance in Lior. Both turned her into something she’s not, and it’s through Ed and Al that she regains her voice and humanity long enough to escape the creation of a Philosopher’s Stone.

Fast-forward to the final arc, and we see that Lyra’s using Rose once again for her own, selfish gain. This time, however, it’s though her baby, whom is revealed to be a gateway to the door to truth. It turns out that Lyra’s actually a crooked alchemist named Dante, who’s desperate to live forever and will swap bodies with innocent people. Once again, Rose has had her humanity stripped to serve someone else’s agenda, and once again she’s freed by Ed and Al when they foil Dante’s plans.

This sounds not that much different from Barbara being shot, but there’s a huge difference: Rose being stripped of her humanity is a plot-point that’s properly explored in Fullmetal Alchemist. It isn’t used solely for shock value, Rose’s pain is validated in-show on multiple occasions. We see the aftermath of her being raped, used, abused and nearly made a host for Dante. She also gets a happy ending in the final episode, raising her son surrounded by people who care for and love her. Barbara Gordon never gets that reconciliation in The Killing Joke.

Then there’s Hope Shlottman from Season 1 of Jessica Jones. Jessica Jones’s main theme is about the psychology of abusive relationships anyway, but Hope gets crapped on the most. She’s introduced in Episode 1 as a hostage of Zebediah Kilgrave, who can control people’s actions briefly through words. He uses Hope as a tool to get back at Jessica for breaking free of his hold and nearly killing him all those years ago, deciding that a pretty face with a clean track-record is the way to do it. Kilgrave’s hold on Hope also comes with a caveat of her murdering her parents in-front of Jessica and forcing her to go to go jail as a fall-girl. Once there, we find out that Hope’s pregnant with Kilgrave’s baby, which she opts to abort.

Hope lives with the agony of being one of Kilgrave’s victims until Episode 10, when she’s released from prison on hopes of a court hearing. Kilgrave gets to her first, and he takes her to a diner, along with several other victims, to stage his ultimate revenge against Jessica. When Jessica arrives, Hope seizes the opportunity, grabs a knife and slits her throat. In her dying breaths, she makes Jessica promise she’ll kill Kilgrave, which Jessica reluctantly accepts. The episode then ends.

Like Rose, Hope is more than a pretty face. She’s tortured and robbed of her humanity, even being sexually assaulted and impregnated. Like Rose, Jessica Jones also doesn’t skimp out on developing Hope. She has a personality, made an integral part of the story and has her frustrations and pain validated. She doesn’t get a happy ending, unlike Rose, but she gets justice when Kilgrave’s neck is snapped by Jessica in the season finale.

You see the pattern? Like The Killing Joke, both shows have a woman put through trauma. Like The Killing Joke, both are horrifying. But unlike The Killing Joke, these shows don’t skimp out on the aftermath. They don’t abruptly end, or even leave it up to the viewer what happens. They show and discuss what happens after the victim is violated, the former on multiple occasions, and their inevitable fates. In both cases, the victims feel like real characters, not simply a plot device.

Which is more than I can say about Barbara Gordon in The Killing Joke, a fact made worse in the film with her having a romantic affair with Batman. This is meant to signify their bond, but even ignoring the questionable subtext of a father and daughter figure having sex, it makes Barbara an even bigger pawn by objectifying her for the sake of Batman’s personal motivation. And Barbara Gordon not getting reconciliation for her trauma until years later, under the helm of a different team of writers altogether, is especially troublesome because she becomes another victim in a medium that’s already cruel enough to women.

Remember, to paraphrase Anita Sarkeesian (yes, I’m going there), you can enjoy something while still acknowledging its problematic elements. I don’t doubt the influence The Killing Joke has had on comics and mainstream geek culture, and it’s definitely a well-crafted piece of work. Additionally, if you like it, that’s fine! I simply don’t connect with it for the aforementioned reasons, which is a shame because there’s potential in-story for an exploration of the aftermath of rape and violence on women. It’s simply unfortunate that they’re not explored until years later, and by different people.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Reflections on Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Movies have a weird effect on me the second time around. Sometimes I like them more, having gotten over the initial reaction and moved to a deeper appreciation of what’s being presented. Sometimes I like them less, having gotten over the initial reaction and realized how bland or unimpressive they are. And sometimes I like them about the same. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the former, being a movie that left me initially cold, to the point of even harshly criticizing it in my review, yet respected enough to enjoy for what it was. Since the movie’s available on Netflix, I figured I’d revisit this film.

FYI, there’ll be spoilers, so be on guard.

Let’s get the biggest elephant in the room out of the way: Rey’s character. Detractors have pegged her as a Mary Sue, meaning that she’s super good at what she does and has no flaws. I don’t agree. Rey has fears and concerns throughout the film, most-notably using her family as an excuse to avoid attachments, and she does make mistakes, like when she accidentally releases the rathtars aboard The Millennium Falcon. Rather, I think Rey’s a victim of a different problem. It’s one that I normally expect more from Hollywood’s most-infamous stink-writer, aka Damon Lindelof, than Michael Arndt and Lawrence Kasdan, and that it appears here is annoying. Essentially, Rey’s a “mystery box” character, a character where everything about her is riddles and secrets meant to be revealed in the next film.

To be fair, Luke Skywalker had minimal development in the original Star Wars film. And, like Rey, he was innately and unnaturally skilled. But that movie didn’t hide who Luke was from the audience. We knew who he was, what he wanted and how the war had impacted him. We get a bit of that with Rey, especially with the revelation that she’s a Jedi, but most of her character remains a mystery. I’m willing to suspend my disbelief if it means her being fun and relatable, but I’d have liked to not have more questions after watching the film than when I started it. If she doesn’t have a payoff in the sequel, I’ll be disappointed.

Speaking of which, the montage when Rey touches Luke’s lightsaber, which I’ve seen a few times on YouTube, bugs me for that same reason. I’ve heard theories as to what it means, but it’s never resonated. It never directly makes sense in the context of the film, and it leaves too much open for interpretation. I always scratch my head when it happens, and while I know that film is all about show-don’t-tell…there’s a fine line between that and being vague for the sake of it. Also, the movie brushes off how Maz Kanata acquired the lightsaber in the first place, which is lazy…even with the film’s time constraints.

The destruction of Hosnian System remains a mixed bag, even after seeing that part of the movie multiple times on YouTube too. The reason why is the reverse of Alderaan in the original movie; where as that had the emotion from Leia’s end, at the expense of seeing it from the people of Alderaan’s point of view, the Hosnian System has the emotion of the system, but no reason to emotionally be invested in its destruction. This is because there’s no build-up. I wouldn’t have even known why the Hosnian System was so important without a YouTube video’s explanation. MYSTERY BOX INCORPORATED!

Finally, little details leave open questions of in-story character decisions. Questions like, “Why did Kylo Ren turn to the Dark Side?”, or, “Why did R2-D2 turn on at the exact second that he did?”, or, “Why didn’t Leia accompany Rey to Luke’s location if she was so insistent on finding him?”. Considering that film has such progressive leads, i.e. a woman and a black man, for its franchise, that Leia gets shafted for the fourth time in a Star Wars film is starting to get grating. We see that she’s become a general, so why relegate her to the sidelines?

Also, Finn’s character development is rushed.

So what do I like about this movie that I didn’t pick up on before?

Well, pretty much what everyone else has praised: the acting, the effects, the music and the sense of scope. I’ll forever remain steadfast in my belief that Star Wars, up until now, was never known for A-list acting. People give the Prequels crap for being badly-acted, but guess what? So were the original films. They tried, but I can think of a dozen moments where the acting was off or bizarre. The Prequels merely upped the ante, such that it was overtly apparent. But yeah, this is the first film with actual, genuine performances.

As for the effects, they’re good. The overhype about “practical effects” didn’t initially impress me, especially since I’m not a believer that “less CGI is automatically better”, and the idea that so much of it was supposed to “look real” was a turn-off. After all, the original films didn’t look real either, as much as people state otherwise, while the Prequels had effects that, in my opinion, looked decent. But I guess the lived-in, gritty feel is important for immersion. And it’s definitely a beautifully-realized world.

In my original review, I criticized the film’s score for being subpar by John Williams’s standards. I still hold that to an extent, but I’ll admit the orchestrations are growing on me. I’ve had the opportunity to listen to many of the tunes on the radio, and I like them a lot more now. I’ve especially become fond of March of the Resistance and The Jedi Steps, the former for being incredibly catchy and the latter as a haunting remix of one of the most-iconic pieces of music in film history. It’s not an excellent score, but it comes pretty close in certain places.

Finally, there’s the scope, both in wonder and emotional resonance. The former is self-explanatory, as the movie looks like big. I always thought that the Prequels did too, especially since they, like it or not, expanded on the Star Wars lore, but this film acknowledges its scale on several occasions, most-notably with Poe Dameron staring at the ceiling while being escorted by Stormtroopers through Starkiller Base. The emotion is made most-apparent through the relationship Kylo Ren has with Han Solo, making Han’s death that much more tragic. That the movie made Kylo Ren more interesting in one film than Darth Vader in six is also a testament to how much thought was put into him.

In my original review, I gave Star Wars: The Force Awakens 4/5 stars. It’s actually a quarter of a star higher, maybe half if I’m being generous. I still have issues that keep it from getting a higher grade, but I can’t say that it hasn’t grown on me. And who knows? If the sequel fixes some of my problems, I might like it more in the future!

(By the way, did Kylo Ren actually lose a limb in his fight with Rey? It was never clear.)