Guardians of the Galaxy

I saw Guardians of the Galaxy*, and I liked it, but not nearly as much as I wanted to like it. Spoilers ahead.

First, the things I liked:

– Chris Pratt. Let’s just take a moment to appreciate the adorable awesome that is Chris Pratt. Seriously. Put me in a Chris Pratt/Aubrey Plaza sandwich and I’d have all kinds of recreation if they were into it. (That’s terrible, Tiffany. Stop trying.)

– Groot. Challenging humanoid-centric representations! Being awesome!

– Rocket. Challenging human-centric representations (ish – unlike Groot he gains his value by being made more human than he previously was. But I still loved him.)

– ‘Splosions! Battles! Music! Rollicking good fun!

I really did enjoy the movie.


Now, the things I didn’t:

– Race relations. I’m still thinking this through and I am looking for writing by Indigenous bloggers, so I recognize that I may be way out to lunch here, but it really rubbed me the wrong way that Ronan, a genocidal Kree, was introduced in what seemed like such a tribalized manner – was it meant to gesture towards a “dangerous savage” trope? Is the homonym relevant at all, paired with the introductory scene? I don’t know. I do know that the whole film had a strong thread of coloured skin = more likely bad, white skin = definitely good. I found it incredibly frustrating that the first part of the film laid out so clearly that white folks are the good guys, whether they’re human or not. I also find it suspect that Gamora is coloured – she is subjected to misogynist insults multiple times in the film, and I think the fact that she is not white is what allows those “jokes” to play. Imagine Drax calling Black Widow a whore – it wouldn’t be played for laughs, I don’t think. It just seemed to tie in, again, as so much media does, to tropes of the sexually available/dangerous/hypersexual woman of colour.

– Gender representations throughout.

  • Drax’s dead wife and daughter – I understand that a fridged family is insta-motivation for a character. I get it. But I’m irritated by the heteronormativity, by the fact that it reinforces an idea of aggressive/potent masculinity and vulnerable/disposable femininity. I also think that this ties into the harmful representations of masculinity that Manisha Aggarwal-Schifellite has noted in the film.
  • Star Lord’s treatment of women. I’m just so done with the frat boy trope and the disposable women they sleep with. Gavia Baker-Whitelaw nails it when she said, in her recent article, “Peter flees back to his spaceship to discover an old one-night-stand camping out onboard. He’d forgotten she was there: hilarious. So, what are we supposed to take from this? That he’s an idiot who leaves near-strangers onboard his beloved spaceship? That this woman is too much of a non-entity to do the interesting thing and try to steal said spaceship?”
  • The treatment of Gamora’s sexuality. First when she’s asked to seduce someone to get them out of jail (wtf, Rocket?!) and when Drax, a person who “doesn’t understand metaphors” calls her a whore. Gavia Baker-Whitelaw, linked above, talks about both issues. I wanted Gamora to be a less earnest Black Widow, but instead she was subject to this gross misogyny throughout. Even though she kicked ass, she was “put in her place” multiple times. It was disappointing.
  • Andé Morgan over at BitchFlicks brings up three more reasons gender relations in the film are fucked, and the one that really resonated with me was the “tortured pink girl” in the Collector’s scene. As Morgan notes, “We see that the Collector has enslaved at least two women; both are displayed in pigtails and pink jumpers. One is forced to wash the glass cage of the other. The woman in the cage is on her knees, bound and gagged with electric sci-fi ropes, a clear look of pain and fear in her eyes.
     Quill and crew are less concerned with the fate of the women than with money and exposition. When the uncaged woman, Carina (Ophelia Lovibond), desperately attempts to use the power of an ancient artifact to free herself, she’s immolated instead. We’re left to assume that the other captive woman is also killed in the subsequent cataclysm (though a dog and an arguably misogynistic duck survive).”

– Ableism. Like whoa. I mean… I guess it’s funny that Rocket wants to take all the prosthetics? I guess? No, you know what, it’s not. It’s not funny at all. I laughed, because it’s written to be funny and it’s acted well and it fits into the film, but it is not funny. It’s not okay that there was so much ableism throughout the film. (I’m really noticing ableism right now – I seem to have become sensitized to it in the last weeks.)

– The “whore” issue. As one of the friends I saw the film with pointed out, a character who “can’t understand metaphor” calls a woman he has not seen engage in sex work or had any indication of a sex working past or present, a whore? Misogyny, the metaphor that transcends species’ socialization? Gross. Christina Vasilevski writes about that specific issue on her blog.

I left the theatre feeling kind of happy to have seen another superhero film, and mostly disappointed that it fell so short of what it could have been. It doesn’t take that much to challenge the harmful systems of oppression that ended up being replicated in the film – fridge Drax’s husband instead, skip the misogyny, make Rocket’s requests for the prosthetics tie to a desire for shiny things that isn’t linked to ableism… you can keep the film almost exactly as it is, and get rid of the oppression. (I mean, ideally I’d like more female characters, but I would be happy just to not have active oppression!)

* It doesn’t meet my requirements for the Year of Curated Media but a friend was seeing it for their birthday so I used one of my passes.

Rewatching Year of the Carnivore: Laughing at Rape

Content note on this post for discussion of rape.

I don’t remember the details of what I thought when I watched Year of the Carnivore the first time, a few years ago. I remember that I liked it. I watched it with some of my favourite people, and I love movies about women exploring their sexuality, and I love awkward quirky characters, and I love Sook Yin Lee. I remember really enjoying the film.

So when I wanted to host a “feel-good sexy awesome mini film marathon” I put Shortbus and Year of the Carnivore in the line-up. Because sex! Awesome, sex-positive, empowering sex, right?



I refer to myself as a pleasure-positive feminist rather than a sex-positive feminist, because I think there are problems with the sex-positive movement that I want to avoid. (Note to sex-positive folks – I do not think these problems are endemic to the movement itself, but the focus on pleasure is something that feels right for me.) I like pleasure-positive because I feel that it brings consent explicitly into the picture right from the beginning. Because I do not believe that all sex is good sex (that’s not what sex-positivity is, of course) and I think that negotiations that focus on *pleasure* for all partners are really valuable. Anyway, all that to say – I think about consent. A lot.

I try to behave in ways that are consent-focused.

Consent, consent, consent, consent. It’s one of the most important things in my life!

And yet…

Partway through Year of the Carnivore I thought, and said, something along the lines of “yikes, that’s coercive.” And then I said similar things many more times. I called what was happening on screen coercion, or non-consent. It wasn’t until hours later that I named it what it was – rape. And the word felt violent in my mouth and my experience of the movie was suddenly, irrevocably altered, and I want to unpack, if I can, why that word didn’t come easily as a descriptor, and why that’s a problem, and what I’ve internalized that allows me to view multiple rapes in a film and still laugh at it, and enjoy it, and not see it for what it is until hours later.

First, the things I love(d?).

The character of Sammy Smalls is, as so many reviews point out, adorable. She’s awkward. She’s quirky. She’s disabled and self-conscious about her body, and it’s so rare to see a disabled character in a leading role! She wears multiple layers of jeans to “give [herself] some shape” and the first time she has a bath with Eugene, she doesn’t take her undershirt or bra off. I see myself in Sammy Smalls, and I see the parts of me that I like. The toughness and vulnerability, the awkwardness, the thirst for connection, the curiousity, the inquisitiveness, the sense of restriction and self-doubt and negative self-talk and the awkwardness. Oh, the awkwardness.

And she has lots of sex! And the film doesn’t shame her for it. And I love that. I love it. I want more films that show disabled women having lots of sex and not being shamed for it. Fuck, do I ever want that.

I love other things, too. I love the way that queerness is introduced in such a casual fashion. I love Sammy’s relationship with Miss Nakamura, and I love that there is an elderly woman who still has a sex drive.

But a significant amount of the sex that Sammy has is rape. She is a store detective, and she starts taking men that she catches shoplifting into the woods, handcuffing them, and having sex with them. It’s rape. It’s not some grey-area, fuzzy, “lack of consent” (and wow, am I ever going to be watching my language from now on, because I had not realized how deeply problematic that phrase is when it comes to discussing rape, with the way it moves the focus onto the victim and their lack of consent and away from the rapist and their act of violence). It’s rape.

I realized it when I was thinking about the film and flipped the script.

I imagined a film where a man takes shoplifters into the woods, handcuffs them, and has sex with them. That’s fucking rape. Multiple scenes of rape. She is a serial rapist.

The realization makes me feel sick.

But she’s a girl. She’s small. She’s got a “bum leg.” She’s quirky. She’s adorable. She can’t be a rapist, right?

And her victims are men. Generally large men. And they have sex with her, so they must have wanted it, right? Can’t be rape.

Because men can’t be raped.

Because somewhere in my mind, that disgusting, insidious bit of rape culture had embedded itself so deeply and so securely that I did not recognize rape when I saw it on screen. In my house. With my friends. In a space and with a group of people that bring the consent-focused feminist to the fore. I didn’t see it.

I laughed at it.

Out loud.

I commented in horror at her lack of condom use.

Victims of women rapists face this kind of erasure all the time. I know, because I post articles about it. I know, because I have friends who are survivors. I know, because I am a consent-focused, pleasure-positive feminist activist, and it is my job to know.

But I laughed.

Like Kate points out over on Autostraddle regarding Orange is the New Black, “That material was carefully crafted for you to laugh at it. The show is designed in order for you to find it funny.” It’s true of the coercion and rape in OITNB and it’s true here, and in both cases, it is so important that we simultaneously forgive ourselves for laughing, and think critically about it going forward.

I found a gross bit of rape culture in my mind today, and although I can’t do anything about the fact that I didn’t realize it was there before, I am sure as shit going to be aware of it going forward. We laugh at these representations of rape because they’re scripted to be funny, because we’re conditioned to view women as victims rather than perpetrators, because consent is the exception when it comes to media representations of sexual interaction. All those reasons are real, and valid, and impossible to avoid. And they cannot be excuses for contributing to rape culture by refusing to see it once you know it’s there. They can’t be excuses for perpetuating the harm.

I still love Year of the Carnivore. I consume problematic media all the time, and I’m okay with that. But I will never talk about this film again without talking about the fact that it is the story of a serial rapist. A likeable, relatable, adorable rapist. The film doesn’t represent her as a rapist and I doubt she sees herself as a rapist, and I doubt her victims view what happened as rape either. And that doesn’t change the fact that that’s what it is.

Concussion, Buffy, Charmed, Earthseed and Adventure Time

We’re most of the way through January, and I’ll be honest… this year is kicking my ass. Fibromyalgia, depression, and now the cold that won’t quit – I’m wiped. My Year of Self-Care is suffering. But! My Year of Curated Media is proceeding apace.

So what am I consuming?

Mostly, Buffy. This is, I think, my sixth time through the series and I’m watching it through a much more intersectionally feminist lens. Buffy meets my criteria because of its well-rounded, nuanced, respectful representations of women, and its inclusion of queer characters. Also, the episodes written by Jane Espenson tend to be my favourites, so it occasionally meets the creator criterion as well.

Here are three topics I’d like to eventually research or blog about so far (we’re halfway through Season Three):

  • Kendra, Jenny Calendar and race representations. Kent Ono has an excellent chapter on the topic of race, with a detailed analysis of Kendra’s treatment on the show. Regarding Jenny Calendar, wtf is up with the frequent use of “g*psy” – even in the 90s, that language was not okay (even Entertainment Weekly knew that!).
  •  Xander, and the hatred I bear him. I have disliked Xander since the first time I watched the series (I ship Buffy/Angel hard) and every time I watch again, my distaste for him grows. This is the first time that I’ve really noticed all of the myriad microaggressions that he directs towards the women in his life. He is forever expressing his feelings of entitlement to their bodies and time, and he has a serious case of Nice Guy. He expects (and gets!) praise for not date raping Buffy when his love spell goes wrong, and that just sums him up, right there. Gross.
  • Rape culture in the Buffyverse. Lady T over at Bitch Flicks comments on quite a few of the instances of rape culture represented in the first two seasons here. (And you should be reading her blog and articles – SO GOOD!) My biggest issue related to rape culture, the one I keep coming back to over and over again as I watch, is that the show makes it so easy to gloss over the fact that sexualized violence is what we’re watching. It’s very normalized within the Buffyverse. I find the fact that Buffy regularly confronts and overcomes rape culture awesome, but I find the fact that we do not see it named or commented on very disconcerting. In Go Fish, particularly, I wanted her friends to say something about the fact that she was, again, the victim of an attempted sexual assault in the car, and that it was completely disgusting that the coach then blamed it on her outfit. But they don’t. It’s just glossed over as part of the normal violence of the environment, and that bugs me. I’m still working my way through my thoughts on why and what I want them to do differently, but it’s a big one. Name it. Name it! Showing it, it seems to me, is not enough. (And I do recognize that showing it is a long step beyond most television shows, so I’m asking for “above and beyond”… but I’m okay with that.)

I’ve also been watching Charmed, because when I posted about rape culture in Buffy on Facebook, someone recommended it as another show that regularly shows rape culture and women resisting/evading/overcoming it. I’m not nearly as enamoured of Charmed as I am of Buffy, but I am enjoying it. It meets my criteria because of the representations of women, and because the creator is a woman.

The topics that keep coming up for me (most of the way through Season One):

  • Race, again.
  • Sex-positivity! I really appreciate that the sisters are all sexually active, and all fine with that. Sex is a normal part of their lives, with partners who are one-night-stands, long-term boyfriends, etc. It’s refreshing.
  • Class. This is a pet peeve of mine, but I really want to see a variety of classes represented in my media. I know that money makes things run more smoothly, but it gets fucking boring seeing only upper middle class folks (straight, cisgender, white upper middle class folks, mostly) in my media. Come on. One thing that I love about Buffy is that the Scoobies do eventually represent a variety of class positions. Listening to Phoebe talk about how broke she is so often, despite the clothes, the “manor,” etc…. it drives me a bit bonkers.

And, finally, to round out my televisioning, I’m watching Adventure Time, finally. It’s SO GOOD! I love it. How does it meet my criteria? That’s tricky, because it’s created by a white guy and the main characters are voiced by white guys, but it does meet my criteria because of the way it challenges, regularly, hegemonic norms. Finn casually referencing that he doesn’t know the gender of a creature, or LSP’s ability to be read as trans*… there are so many moments of subverting expectations. I love it. The Adventure Time Analyzed tumblr talks about some of the ways that the show challenges expectations.

In other media, I’m listening to an unabridged audiobook of Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, the first of her Earthseed books. It is amazing. And fucking depressing. But mostly amazing. I love Lauren, the young Black woman at the centre of the story – she kicks so much ass. I’m having trouble making it through the book, though, because it truly is terrifying and depressing. A near-future speculative fiction book, it’s set in California after complete economic collapse. It’s believable, and I hope it’s not prophetic.

I’m also listening to Elizabeth Moon’s The Speed of Dark, which is another near-future speculative fiction, centring on an autistic man and his community. I am loving it so far.

And last, but not least, I watched Concussion. That’s what I actually came here to write about.

Autostraddle says that Concussion is a Watch Now movie and I heartily agree. Feminist Spectator also gave it a thumbs up, and She Wired also approves. I learned my lesson and am reading way more reviews before jumping in to a movie, and it helps when a film meets so many criteria right off the bat – about women, starring women, who are interested in women, written by a woman, directed by a woman… it might have sucked, but it was unlikely to have failed as spectacularly as Anchorman 2.

So, Concussion. Immediately after watching it, I had pages and pages of thoughts about it. I also came down with a nasty cold/flu/abomination and didn’t write any of them down. So we’ll just see how much I remember. Spoilers ahead.

First, the fact that Abby and Kate are a married couple is introduced as secondary to the fact that Abby (a stay-at-home-mom at the beginning of the film) is fallible and human. She yells at her kids, she’s angry, she’s frustrated… as someone who has watched my friends and family parent, and who sees the incredible pressure that parents are under to be (or to be seen to be) calm, caring, compassionate, collected at all times, Abby’s initial outburst was just so refreshing. It is possible to be a good parent and to also yell at your kids. (I say this as someone who is not, and will never be, a parent. But also as someone who loves the parents in my life. So, grain of salt, etc.)

That she is a married lesbian was also refreshing and welcome, and there was no drama around their orientation. No issues of skeptical doctors, homophobic friends… the whole environment of the film was beautifully accepting of (cisgender) queer identities. I love this because so often the response to critiquing homophobia in films is “but that’s reality” and that response makes me want to scream. It’s as though there is an expectation that in order to tell the stories of marginalized communities, you must focus on the ways in which they are marginalized because that’s the only “real” thing about them. And that’s bullshit. Yes, homophobia happens. Yes, a film that addressed or included homophobia would be true to (parts of) reality. NO, that is not the only way to tell stories about queer characters! Concussion does a fantastic job of telling a story about queer characters – a conflict-filled, tense, complex story! – without it being about their struggles as queer characters. It’s just about them as characters. Ahhhh… fresh air.

And when it comes to the queerness represented, here is something else beautiful and refreshing about Concussion – Abby is a lesbian. She’s a “men? god, no” lesbian. She doesn’t want to have sex with men, or even penetrative sex with a strap-on, and that’s awesome. AND there are bisexuals in the film. Bisexual women. Coexisting with lesbian women. No big deal. ‘Cause queer women come in a variety of flavours, and both lesbian and bisexual are a-okay.

Let me tell you how thrilled I was when one of Abby’s older clients talked about her husband, and it wasn’t in order to demonstrate how much she wished she’d married a woman. I was SO THRILLED. It is rare to see multiple queernesses given equal legitimacy in a film. (All of these queernesses are cisgender, to be clear, and most of them are white. The film does not represent all the queer women, only some of them. There are no queer trans women, for example. And there are no queer women of colour who get more than a few moments of screen time.)

Did I say client up there? Yes, yes I did. Because Abby becomes a sex worker.

And it’s okay.

And she’s not shamed for it, or ashamed of it. (!!!!)

And she’s safe! We see her multiple times at the doctor, talking about her work and getting tested. She goes to the STI clinic, and it’s okay! She’s not punished with an STI. She’s not shamed by her doctor. Nobody pressures her to go get tested. She’s a responsible, sexually active adult and sex worker, and that’s just the way it is. Again, no big deal. This is amazing! (Okay, I know, hyperbole all of the place here. But I really did love this movie.)

Her sex work isn’t perfect. Kate doesn’t know about it, and that’s not cool – she should have the opportunity to consent to her involvement. But perfection is not the goal here, respectful representations are, and this film definitely meets that requirement far more than many other films that include sex work. Concussion has been compared to Belle de Jour, for example, and like the blogger at Autostraddle I completely disagree because of the level power between Abby, The Girl and her clients. Nobody is being coerced, manipulated, or lied to (except Kate, as I mentioned).

Kate, though, introduces another aspect of sexuality that is rarely seen in films. Kate can be read as asexual, particularly when she tells Abby that she “doesn’t want anyone.” Asexuality is so invisible, even more than other non-monosexualities, and although the film doesn’t give it more than this one line, it is at least present. It’s impossible to know whether this is a shift for Kate, or a result of external factors, but it’s there. 

Similarly, consensual non-monogamy gets two brief nods – first, when Abby asks Justin if he and his girlfriend are still “swingers,” and again when The Girl asks whether it’s “gross” that Justin slept with her friend, and Abby replies that she is “learning that it depends.” These are small gestures towards the existence of consensual non-monogamy, and they are somewhat countered by Abby’s inability or unwillingness to understand why one of her clients would be seeing her despite having a husband who is “passionate” about her. She doesn’t seem able to recognize that her client might want sex outside of a sexually fulfilling and passionate marriage. This, though, seems to speak more to Abby’s own feelings about her own marriage and her reasons for pursuing sex outside of it, and less to the films own views of monogamy in general.

There are multiple sex workers in the film and they are almost all treated well. The Girl, Abby’s madame, is a student hoping to get into law school and she respects Abby’s boundaries and treats her with respect. The second sex worker that Abby sees (before she becomes a sex worker herself) is also treated well by the film.

The film also treats the clients with compassion, which I loved. Abby starts as a client, and Abby’s own clients are each unique and sympathetic. The shy virgin whose mom is pressuring her to lose weight, the older, sexually dissatisfied married woman, the bored housewife – each of the clients is presented as a complete person rather than a caricature or criminal.

Even Justin and The Girl, who each act as liasons between clients and sex workers, are treated with compassion and humanity. I wonder whether a film that includes heterosexual sex work would be as willing to treat all of the people involved in the transactions so well, but the fact that Justin maintains his likability and isn’t reduced to the stereotype of a pimp gives me hope. (He does, though, become concerned about Abby’s sex work and is the only one in the film who comes close to moralizing at her to stop, despite the hypocrisy of this.)

However, the first sex worker that Abby sees is described (by Abby) as “dirty” and she’s a much more stereotyped representation of a sex worker. She’s on drugs, the room they meet in in dingy, and where Abby seems to approach sex work as a vocation and a form of self-expression, the first sex worker seems to be doing a job. This is a problematic binary to set up, where the only acceptable sex work is sex work that is art, rather than sex work that is work. It also points to my biggest problem with the film, which was the representation of class position.

The film is about upper class women. Abby becomes a high-price, high-class sex worker. Kate makes a lot of money. Abby’s clients pay her a lot of money. Money, money, money. The only character in the film who does not have visible wealth is described as “dirty.” That’s not okay.

In the end, it’s unclear whether Abby goes back to sex work, finds an extramarital affair, or stays celibate in her marriage. She is still with Kate, and the film ends on a melancholy note that is open to interpretation. I loved it.