I’ve been cleaning up my study this week, shelving stacks of books and bagging issues of comics, and as I’ve been working, I’ve noticed something:
This year has given us a lot of amazing women in art to celebrate. Films, comics, books, television — women are kicking ass.
Two of my hands-down favorite films this year were Mad Max: Fury Road and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Each included an absolute badass woman lead, an action heroine who was also a fully rounded human being and the center of the film she helmed. Charlize Theron so dominated her film — and it was Furiosa’s film through and through — that I usually refuse to refer to it as anything but Fury Road, dropping Max from the title altogether.
And (no spoilers here, really), Rey is such a force to reckon with in the new Star Wars movie that the old guard from the original trilogy are basically supporting characters, circling this new, amazing young woman. Daisy Ridley puts in a hell of a performance and absolutely owns the scenes she’s in, but more importantly, her character is skilled, intelligent, and fierce but also has a full range of emotions and a believable character arc. (Yes, there’s some discussion of her being a “Mary Sue,” a term I’ve only just learned this week, but I won’t brook any such complaints here. See the recent io9 article on the subject if you want it put to rest.)
And women aren’t just kicking ass on film. I’ve recently started collecting serial comics again, and three of my favorite comic book series this year are all woman-centric, and all three are woman reboots of traditionally male characters.
I’ve been loving Mark Russell’s Prez, and while the wit and and satire throughout the series have been spot-on (and sometimes eerily prescient), Beth Ross, a teenaged girl at the helm of the nation, is the smartest, savviest, and most humane character in the whole series. That comes as no surprise since it’s her series, but it’s breathtaking to see on the page — and it’s worth noting that in the original Prez series from the ’70s, the character was a boy. None of that patriarchy in the Year of Women!
I’ve also become hooked on Spider-Gwen, which I picked up as a curiosity but have been totally charmed by. There’s a lot of gimmickry in the series, with its multiverse in-jokes about the fates of long-established characters in this alternate reality, and personally, I’m not thrilled with the way they’ve turned MJ into a vapid fame-hungry narcissist. But the character of Gwen is beautifully rendered, a believable image of a young woman thrust into heroism before she was ready for it, with some of the same problems that Peter Parker faced when he first became Spider-Man but also with a whole range of new issues that feel unique to Gwen and her competing roles in her new life. It’s an interesting book that seems to be successfully outliving its function as just another experiment in the Spiderverse, and I’m enjoying the story direction.
And then there is the big powerhouse herself, the Goddess of Thunder, Thor. She caused quite an uproar both in our world and in hers, in our newspapers and within her own Asgardian world, when a woman took up Thor’s hammer and became Thor herself. One of my favorite moments in the whole series was when the old Thor, who has renamed himself Odinson, conceded that she was now Thor, because whoever wields the hammer wields the name. The new Thor is powerful yet conveys some wonderfully human doubts, and, as drawn, she is feminine without being sexualized, and her appearance expresses enormous strength without resorting to an overmuscled, “masculinized” form. There are also some fabulous feminist assertions in the series on behalf of several characters, and it’s as strong a female heroine as I’ve ever seen in a comic book.
I also bought the first collected volume of Bitch Planet, which looks and sounds an awful lot like sexploitation but is in fact brilliantly subversive in its feminism. “Think Margaret Atwood meets Inglourious Basterds,” the website says, and that’s about as awesome a line of praise as I could imagine. And, most importantly, the series is written by a woman. It’s an important series, I think, and one I’ll be keeping an eye on!
Speaking of women writers: several of my favorite books this year have also been by women, including Portland’s own Margaret Malone (People Like You) and Lydia Yuknavitch (The Small Backs of Children). Both women have written books primarily about women and womanhood, and the results are powerful, assertive, sometimes funny and sometimes brutally violent, yet also beautiful, illuminating.
In fact, as in years past, my reading list this year has been dominated by brilliant women writers, including Ellen Urbani (Landfall), Sally K. Lehman (In the Fat), Gwen Beatty (Kill Us On the Way Home), Gay Degani (Rattle of Want), Linda Barry (Syllabus), and the ever-present Jane Austen (this year, I read Emma and reread Sanditon — and speaking of Jane, I’m genuinely interested in seeing the film version of the fun but silly novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, because that’s how relevant Jane manages to remain).
On television, my wife and I both became immediate fans of Agent Carter (we eagerly await her return next year!), and our favorite characters on The Librarians are the two women, one of them a genius and the other a kickass soldier. I also let myself get sucked into Supergirl in spite of myself. It’s ridiculously silly, all comic book colors and camp, but it tries (not always successfully) to present a feminist message, and the lead actress is utterly charming. She also does a great job of conveying uncertainty in her own power but also “Super” ferocity in defense of her city, her friends, and herself. (I’ve not seen Jessica Jones because I don’t have Netflix, but I hear it is amazing and the perfect example of the superheroine we all need. Supergirl’s got some womanning-up to do!)
My wife and I also became immediate fans of the tv series Outlander. (My wife is reading the novels now; I hope to pick them up soon.) The series, like the books, is ostensibly a period romance, but it’s brilliantly subversive within its genre, not only bending the genre with elements of time travel but also upending many romance tropes, especially in the bedroom, where Claire is an experienced and commanding lover, and on the battlefield, where Claire — a former wartime nurse — is equally commanding and competent but also suffers from the same PTSD as her male comrades-in-arms. The complexity of the roles throughout the series is admirable, but it’s especially thrilling to see such a strong, complex woman at the center of the show.
Of course, we’ve always had these women in our arts. Notice I titled this post “a year of kickass women” — one among many. But for some reason, the importance and blockbuster appeal of strong, intelligent, complex women is feeling more prominent this year, and with some eagerly awaited books, films, and comics on the horizon, it looks like we’ve got some momentum for more equal — and more exciting — representation in our popular arts. And that’s thrilling.