Apr 17 2015

Book Love: Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee

Description from Goodreads: “Missouri, 1849: Samantha dreams of moving back to New York to be a professional musician—not an easy thing if you’re a girl, and harder still if you’re Chinese. But a tragic accident dashes any hopes of fulfilling her dream, and instead, leaves her fearing for her life. With the help of a runaway slave named Annamae, Samantha flees town for the unknown frontier. But life on the Oregon Trail is unsafe for two girls, so they disguise themselves as Sammy and Andy, two boys headed for the California gold rush. Sammy and Andy forge a powerful bond as they each search for a link to their past, and struggle to avoid any unwanted attention. But when they cross paths with a band of cowboys, the light-hearted troupe turn out to be unexpected allies. With the law closing in on them and new setbacks coming each day, the girls quickly learn that there are not many places to hide on the open trail.”

I have a secret affinity for Westerns or, more accurately, I love the idea of Westerns — although I don’t often read or watch them.

My interest is closely connected with my love for folklore and mythology and the ways modern storytellers break it apart and shape it anew. There is a myth of the American Wild West, often based almost on the image of lonely, noble white cowboys standing up against the dangers of a lawless land. I can understand the appeal of figures like Buffalo Bill Cody and Wild Bill Hickok and the characters portrayed by John Wayne. Although, I’m more partial to the female versions, seen in Calamity Jane and Annie Oakley. I love cowgirls and will be immediately drawn to any story that has women facing the Wild West on their own terms, even not-great movies, like Bad Girls.

I come to this interest in Westerns with the full knowledge that this mythology is deeply problematic, erasing and villainizing the image of POC, particularly Native Americans. It’s a mythology to be tangled with carefully, with room for dismantling, and approached with reservation, oodles of research, and a sense of inclusion.

One of the things that drew me to Under the Painted Sky was not only the diversity of the main characters — Sammy is Chinese and Andy is black — but the fact that they disguise themselves as boys to make their road safer. I loved both of these girls, how they faced their fears and strove for their own freedom. They both have skills and knowledge of their own and learn a lot from each other. Their bond of friendship is powerful, as strong as sisterhood by the end, and I loved the mutual respect they had for each other.

“You miss being a girl? I ask her.

Not as much as I thought I would. Just feels like when I’m being a boy, I can cut a wider path.”

The trope Under the Painted Sky most clearly breaks from is the image of the lone noble cowboy image/hero image. Instead of solitude, the story presents the strength of community and the power of being backed by the family you choose. On the road, Sammy and Andy meet three young cowboys — two from Texans and one Mexican — who join them on their journey to California and teach them some cattle wrangling skills. The interactions between the five characters are often hilarious, and the author does a great job of showing how their friendship blossoms into complete trust.

Under the Painted Sky is sometimes thrilling, sometimes touching, and often funny. It had me staying up way to late so that I could finish it. A fantastic debut and a wonderful read from Stacey Lee. I’ll be looking out for more work by her.


Sep 10 2013

The Gun-Toting Macho-Babe: A Review of Riddick

Trigger Warning: mention of violence and rape.

Another Fair Warning: This post contains spoilers for a couple of movies, including the Riddick, which released this year.

I loved Pitch Black (2000). The story involves a ship full of passengers that crash lands on an unknown planet. As they are trying to find their way off this world, they discover that something much more sinister lurks beneath the surface.*

In addition to having a cool, fast paced story with awesome and stylish use of lighting, as well as fantastically scary creatures, the movie also had a diverse cast with three awesome women — Shazza Montgomery (played by Claudia Black of Farscape fame), a free-settler who easily pulls her own weight; Jacke/Jackie (played Rhiana Griffith), a kid who becomes digs on Riddick’s bad boy appeal and tries to emulate him; and Carolyn Fry (played by Radha Mitchell), one of the ship’s pilots and the lead in the movie. Carolyn is especially interesting as she’s the most complicated, starting out as a coward by wanting to jettison the passengers at the beginning of the movie to save herself and then growing into the leader of the group, one willing to risk herself to save others.

The movie also introduced the audience to the bad-assery that is Riddick and made Vin Diesel a star.**  Riddick was presented at first as the villain, a criminal and murderer, who later turns out to be less of an evil than Johns, the bounty hunter who tracked and caught him. In the first movie, Riddick is far from perfect, but has some depth with his own sense of morality (he refuses to kill a kid and leave her for dead in order to protect the group from monsters, as Johns wanted to) and his own perception of god.

Following Pitch Black, came two sequels (one of which is animated), each of which was of far lower quality than the first movie, and neither of which I saw. So, I went into the third sequel, Riddick, with very low expectations. We really only went to see it, because both my friend and I love Vin Diesel.

Following right after the events of The Chronicles of Riddick, in which he apparently had become some sort of king, Riddick starts with his being betrayed and left stranded on a desert planet, at which point it eventually becomes a sub-par rehashing of Pitch Black and Vin Diesel grumbling out some of the same lines from the first movie. The bigger threat this time is small, mud creatures with scorpion-like tales that seemed like less-intelligent versions of the creatures from the Alien franchise, once the rain started and released them en-masse. The story itself may have been redundant, but, in and of itself, it was entertaining enough.

But I really, really didn’t like the way the movie treated the women, of which there are two. And, in fact, as I’ve thought about it more over the past couple of days, I’ve come to realize that I’m actually rather pissed off about it.

The first is a nameless black woman (played by Keri Hilson),*** chained inside the bounty hunter Santana’s ship, who has clearly been abused at the hand of the bounty hunter (and based on his later behavior, also raped). Santana decides to let her go on the grounds that he has more important things to deal with, only to shoot her in the back as she is fleeing. She locks eyes with Riddick, who is hidden from the bounty hunters behind a rock, and he stares at her passively as she takes her last breath. It’s just so clear that her only role in the movie is to show viewers that Santana is a bad, bad man. And it’s gross.

The second is Dahl (played by Katee Sackhoff), a gun-toting macho-babe. She saunters in leather-clad, carrying weapons, and sporting an attitude. When some dude, like Santana, says something she doesn’t like, she punches him and makes him bleed. Other than that she doesn’t do much, stand around looking sexy, and taking some choice shots with the sniper riffle.

Now, I don’t inherently have anything against the Gun-Toting Macho-Babe. She can on occasion be awesome, providing there is more to her than being a gun-toting macho-babe. It depends on the level of power she’s actually allowed to have and how the men around her treat her and her response to that treatment.

At one point, the scum that is Santana, propositions her. At which point, she punches him again, and says, “I don’t f*ck guys, but I do occasionally f*ck them up.” (And I thought,” Oh, okay. She’s gay. Cool.”)

In the continuing interplay between Dahl and Santana (she rarely interacts with anyone else), he throws her to the ground and tries to rape her. After she escapes his brutality and is asked why there’s so much blood, she explains with a smirk, “I had to kick his ass again” — because rape is obviously something to laugh about.

Later, Riddick explains to the group that he’s going to go “balls deep” in Dahl. Her response is to roll her eyes and essentially say that that’s never going to happen. (And I, after grimacing at his awful and sexist dialog, prayed that she wouldn’t, all the while knowing better.)

Because what happens at the end when she lowers down on a wire to extract Riddick? She straddles as she straps him into the harness, smiles sweetly, and says, “Let me ask you something sweetly…”

Apparently, his manliness is so manly that Dahl could not help herself and had to f*ck him. It was just so “oh, look, Riddick, you won the impossible prize that none of the other less manly men could win!” that it made me want to gag.

I don’t understand how the same writers and director who did the original managed to work their way into creating this mess of a movie without any layers. I can picture them sitting there, talking about what a strong woman Dahl is, while smugly smiling at how awesome they are.

Which reminds me of Sophie McDougall’s excellent New Statesman article, “I Hate Strong Female Characters,” in which she expertly explains the problem with the concept of Strong Female Charaters. She says, “Sherlock Holmes gets to be brilliant, solitary, abrasive, Bohemian, whimsical, brave, sad, manipulative, neurotic, vain, untidy, fastidious, artistic, courteous, rude, a polymath genius. Female characters get to be Strong.”

As I think back to Pitch Black, I would describe the women there as intelligent, capable, complicated, brave, cowardly, disciplined, troubled, conscious-stricken, honorable, and/or dishonest, depending on the woman. They are closer to people, closer to being layered.

Not one of them was a gun-toting, macho-babe (which is not to say that the women in Pitch Black never carry or fire weapons, but that they do so out of necessity, not as a matter-of-fact).

Not one of them is a hot sex bot in leather.

Not one of them is a nameless victim, either.

Not one of them is reduced to an one-dimentional object for the men to play off.

Like Sophie McDougal, I want a women to be more than strong, more than the what the writers and director of Riddick reduced both the nameless woman and Dahl into being. I want more, because I know it’s possible for writers and directors and creators to do better. I’ve seen better. And I’m sad and disappointed that more creators don’t seem to even try.

Comments are welcome, but try to be constructive.

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Recommended Reading: “Somone Like Me,” by Cindy Pon is an article about diversity or lack thereof in fiction and movies. She writers, “I play “Spot the Asian” when I watch movies. I remember doing this for The Avengers recently, and feeling disheartened near the end of the film when I had yet to see an Asian American face on the big screen. The movie redeemed itself in a montage of post-conquering-the-bad-guys scenes in New York City, where I saw Asian faces as extras in the background and even a brief cameo of an excited Asian American boy with actual lines to speak. For those who are not people of color (PoC), this might seem an odd ritual. But imagine growing up and rarely seeing someone who looked like you in the media—not even in commercials, much less on television shows, in films, or in magazines. I was a voracious reader as a child, but it was only as an adult, looking back, when I realized that I had never read a book with a character who looked like me.”

Read the whole thing. It’s a great post and includes a list of books at the end that the author recommends.

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*This btw represents one of my favorite horror movie tropes. Put people in an already scary situation (crashed on a plant with no sight of help and no easy way off), then escalate the situation by having something worse crawl out of the woodwork.

**Well, Pitch Black, along with his followup roll in The Fast and the Furious a year later in 2001.

***There is a separate, but equally important discussion to be had about race, and the fact that the nameless victim was a black women, as well as the fact that yet again, the only survivors were white folk.

****It should be noted, by the way, that while Riddick never seems to be bothered by Santana’s continuing attacks on women, he finally gets angry and kills Santana for the crime of killing his dog.