Janelle Monáe: Q.U.E.E.N

The Ladyist has been dealing with some heavy stuff lately, so here’s a brighter subject.

Janelle Monae
Doesn’t get much brighter than this.

This, for the uninitiated, is Janelle Monáe. Sci-fi visionary. Dance icon. Robot angel. Q.U.E.E.N. Make-up model. Hair magician. R&B superhero. Stop me when this gets too much; she’s too much for words. Instead of words, watch this:

Then watch this:

And lastly, this:

The sharp-eyed among you will notice that I posted the same video three times. This is no mistake; this is to make sure you take in the magic and majesty that is Janelle Monáe. That one-footed slide she does is worth watching again on its own (don’t worry, it’ll be back).

That Letterman appearance was my introduction to this dynamo, and what an introduction it was. Packing the pizazz of James Brown into a tiny, dapper frame, she moves with the kind of fluidity that feels as game-changing as early Michael Jackson performances and writes songs that make Prince sit up and pay attention (he guested on her second album). All of that in one song? Incredible. And that’s before we even begin to talk about her voice.

But then you get to The ArchAndroid, and you realise ALL THAT was only a teeny tiny fragment of the beginning of an idea of what Janelle can do.

The Fritz Lang reference of the cover is the first hint that this isn’t your ordinary pop album.

The ArchAndroid is an epic, a stage musical in audio form. No sound is off limits to Janelle’s voracious creativity: she moves as lightly through dreamy classical-inspired suites (‘Suite II Overture) as she does through pop (‘Faster’), through torch ballads (‘Cold War’, ‘Neon Valley Heart’)  and robo-funk (‘Wondaland’). Each song moves into the next so smoothly that the transition between the nightmare funk of ‘Come Alive (The War of the Roses)’ and the hip-hop-inflected Julie Andrews numbers (‘Mushrooms & Roses’) seems natural and obvious.

Her second album, The Electric Lady, is less keen on the genre-hopping, but there are still flourishes of Bond themes, Herb Alpert, the score to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and brilliantly on-point android-radio interludes to spice up her super-tight funk/soul/groove explosion. That concision makes Electric Lady as less showy album, and it’s maybe not as game-changing as The ArchAndroid, but it’s an incredible record in its own right, and features an astounding array of guests like Erykah Badu, Solange, Esperanza Spalding, Miguel and, yeah, Prince.

Then there are her video clips…

Her clips are as perfectly considered and beautifully executed as her albums, which is no small feat. Janelle herself is a powerhouse, unafraid to show off her ability to sing, dance, rap and act, and she does so while being better dressed than I’ll be on the finest day of my life. They’re art projects, particularly ‘Q.U.E.E.N.’, which continues Janelle’s fascination with black and white contrast.

Even the label-mandated, Samsung-branded clip for ‘Electric Lady’ is more fun than it has any right to be.

Cold War, though, speaks to the human part of Janelle’s work, the heart that keeps this from all being an exercise in showing off.

That intimacy, that directness takes a different kind of strength than the flashy performer, or the would-be artist. It’s a whole other side to a woman who was already as multi-faceted as a gemstone. An artist. A designer. A model. A dancer. A composer. Oh, and a writer.

As she began on her debut EP, Metropolis: The Chase Suite, Janelle frames The ArchAndroid and The Electric Lady with the story of Cindi Mayweather, a time-traveling android who just might be a kind of robot messiah. In the way of all good sci-fi (and genre) writers, Janelle uses Cindi and the android working class as a way of getting at race relations, gender relations, sexuality, privilege and a whole host of other ideas. Is that enough for her? Is it what. She’s spoken in the past about turning The ArchAndroid into a graphic novel, and a Broadway production. I for one would be there at the launch of either, given the chance.

I’ll leave you with a great piece by Charles Pulliam-Moore at NPR’s Code Switch blog. He mentioned Janelle in a piece on Marvel’s ‘Black Panther’, Wakanda, and Afrofuturism, and I think you should go read it in full. Here’s a snippet for you anyway, quoting comic book historian Adilifu Nama:

“Afrofuturism creates a space in which blackness is equated with futurism, cybernetics and super-science,” he explained. “All of these ideas undermine the trope of the urban, or the subservient, or the criminal.”

Not just any pop album. No ma’am.

Advertisements
Janelle Monáe: Q.U.E.E.N

On ‘Being Me’

This post was supposed to be about Janelle Monae (don’t worry, that’s still coming), but something came up that I couldn’t ignore.

On Monday night, ABC’s Four Corners aired an episode called “Being Me“, which featured three transgender people talking about their identity and the obstacles they face in their efforts to be recognised as their true gender. In the intro, host Kerry O’Brien uses the words “courage” and “inspirational” to describe that struggle, and usually this would send me scurrying for the unsentimental hills, but this story is especially powerful, and personally relevant.

Of the three stories, one focused on transgender man Paige Elliott Phoenix and his very public coming-out on The X Factor; another introduced Jamie, a transgender woman in her teens, and dealt with her family’s legal battles to access hormone blockers without requiring a court order. Both Paige and Jamie’s stories are heartbreaking and critical to our conversations about gender. Paige’s estrangement from her mother and Jamie’s depression and suicidal ideation are trials we can save future transgender people from having to face if we share these stories, and help others to understand the very real nature of their gender dysphoria.

It was the story of Isabelle, age 11, that struck me hardest. An articulate and sweet child, Isabelle (then called Campbell) told her mother 18 months earlier that she didn’t feel like she was in the right body. Parents Andrew and Naomi weren’t expecting this revelation, but their response was the kind I think all transgender folk hope for. Supportive and caring, they’ve helped Isabelle in the transition into living as a girl, and she’s now seeing a paediatrician who works in the gender clinic of the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne.

I can’t quite explain what it is about Isabelle’s story that hit me so hard, but the effect was unmistakeable: mid-bite into a huge sandwich, I was ugly-crying, heaving with sobs and trying to not inhale chunks of haloumi. Maybe it was the serious, matter-of-fact way that Isabelle discussed her dysphoria, or the idea that 30% of children like Isabelle attempt suicide if they don’t receive treatment. In truth, it was probably all of those things, plus a personal connection.

I first noticed the way stories of transgender women affected me when Against Me!’s lead singer came out as trans in an interview with Rolling Stone. I’d been a long-term fan of Tom Gabel, as he was known then, but my response to his revelation struck some chord deeper than that. She’s lived as a woman for the last two years, going by Laura Jane Grace, and put out the best album of her career.

Transgender Dysphoria Blues isn’t just a cracker of an album title; it’s a fierce and furious statement of identity, and a scathing attack on the people who reacted poorly to Laura’s transition. That it also happens to test the limits of her songwriting and take her into new genre territory is an excellent bonus that makes repeated listening even more necessary.

The title track, which opens the album, pulls no punches. As a taste of the abuse a transgender woman gets, it’s devastating: Laura doesn’t shy from slurs like “you’ve got no cunt in your strut”, but the fire-eyed intensity with which she responds is electrifying. On the other hand, ‘Unconditional Love’ drives home the loneliness and hardship of dealing with gender dysphoria, where even the support of a loving wife isn’t enough to get by. It’s a strange subject for a raucous rock song, but then, Grace has been writing Against Me! songs about anarchism, racial politics and the redundancy of protest songs, so nothing’s out of bounds.

The personal connection that binds these subjects is something I can’t dismiss, though it’s maybe not so clear as it might seem. At this stage in my life, I don’t consider myself transgender. As often and as intensely as identify with women, I don’t think that I am one of them. Nor, however, do I think of myself as particularly at home with the idea of being a man. I don’t mean that in the sense that masculine identity is nebulous and ill-defined (though it’s true, and relevant); I mean it in the sense that I don’t think of myself as a man any more than I think of myself as a woman. I don’t know exactly what I am, and I’m really at the beginning of working all that out.

What I cannot deny, though, is the way that stories like Isabelle’s and Laura’s affect me. I’m only relatively new to these ideas of gender, and I can’t be the only one struggling to recognise their identity in that way (plus the many, many other factors that influence it). Isabelle’s paediatrician, Michelle Telfer, notes that referrals have jumped from 1 in 2003 to hundreds now, and that such increases are occurring internationally. As she observes, it’s less likely that there are more transgender children, but more that there are greater numbers recognising their situation and seeking support. These sorts of stories are critical to help more of us understand our gender identity, and equally critical in legitimising the people grappling with dysphoria so they can get access to the medical care and support they need.

On ‘Being Me’

Kate Leth Appreciation Day 2014

Hey Internet, you’re a beautiful thing. Well, you can be; you can also be a cesspit of wrongheaded entitlement and unmerited keyboard ownership at times, but there are plenty of diamonds to be found, if you only know where to look.

I’ll readily admit that I didn’t (and often still don’t) know where I was looking. When I was looking for podcasts, I could Google “podcast women” and maybe find some decent suggestions, but even then I know that I’m missing out on heaps. I’ve found it even harder for comics: apart from studying the new releases each week via Comixology’s poorly-optimised mobile site, I wasn’t doing much to find the interesting and novel work that women are doing in the medium.

This is where the Internet showed off its brighter side. I’d been a fan of Kate Leth’s work for a short while before the Ladyist kicked in (I’m slow on the pickup with some things, OK?), but all I knew were a few of her excellent kate or die strips that appeared on Comics Alliance.

Straight to my heart, Kate.

I started to pay more attention to the person behind this amazing work, and Kate quickly completed the Ladyist Holy Trinity (alongside Neko Case and Kelly Sue DeConnick). Not only is she a passionate fan, she’s also worked in comics retail for years, so she knows how to channel that passion into exciting and unexpected recommendations.

What, that’s not enough for you? OK, try these on for size: a small sample of the staggering stuff I’ve been introduced to via Kate’s recommendations.

Through the Woods by Emily Carroll

 Less Than Live listeners will recognise this instantly, as Kate’s been talking about it for months now. I took a while to get to it, but I was already imploring people to read this before I was halfway through. Through the Woods is Emily’s first printed work, and the book itself demands to be read in the dead-tree format; not just because of the gorgeous paper-stock and embossed dust jacket, but for the slow-dread that comes with every slow turn of the page. I mean, you could flick through it and still enjoy Through the Woods, but taking it slowly emphasises the stony fear at the heart of each story (kinda like the clunky, slow door-opening cutscenes in the first Resident Evil game). Emily’s stories have a Brothers Grimm feel to them, reaching back to some doomy ancient folklore as she tells of menacing woods, ghosts and dismemberment. She’s an incredible horror writer, wrapping threads of panic through each story until you realise you’re wrapped up tight on the final page. Her art is the star, though, and another argument for the print edition. Her style often resembles old European woodcuts, with ominous inks and spilled-blood reds seeping across each page. Her ghosts are unlike anything I’ve seen elsewhere, and the body horror of the collection’s final story still has me squirming.

Babs Tarr

How could you not love Babs, seriously?

Like a whole lot of people, I first heard about Babs Tarr when DC announced her as part of the new creative team taking over Batgirl and released a picture of the yellow-booted costume redesign that set the internet on fire. When Kate interviewed her on Less Than Live, they talked about Babs’s background as an artist, particularly her Tumblr-famous biker-style redesigns of Sailor Moon. Her style taps into fashion with far greater panache than so much of mainstream comics art, with plenty of rosy-cheeked ladies dressed fantastically and ready to kick butt! She also brings a very different approach to drawing women’s faces, which often have a limited range; her Barbara Gordon is cartoonish and broad in some ways, but Babs does wonders with her linework in providing real complexity to Batgirl’s expressions. In her chat with Kate, she talked a bit about the challenges of moving from standalone images to sequential art with the help of co-writer Cameron Stewart. I love the tone of her work, and I’m really excited to see how her work evolves over the course of her run on Batgirl!

Lumberjanes, by Grace Ellis, Noelle Stevenson and Brooke A. Allen

Lumberjanes #1 (image via publisher Boom! Comics)

Comics about summer camp do not sound inherently awesome. Mix in three-eyed foxes, shape-shifting bear-women and a bunch of kick-ass girls who say things like “What in the Joan Jett are you doing?”, though, and you have my attention.

Lumberjanes manages to be hilarious, silly and tense within the same issue. Ripley, Molly, Mal, Jo and April have great chemistry, and are just as likely to face the challenges of in-group teenage crushes as they are a three-eyed river monster (that’s just issue #2).

Being a summer camp, the girls get Scouts-like badges, though these badges (designed by Kate) aren’t exactly standard issue. So far, they’ve earned the Pungeon Master, Naval Gauging and Up All Night badges, just to name a few. And all that goes on while they try and figure out the mysterious animals and mythical goings-on around their camp.

Lumberjanes is published by Boom! comics, who’ve become an unlikely source for amazing all ages books, including the Adventure Time and personal favourite Bee and Puppycat. Don’t let the all-ages tag put you off, though; this is necessary reading for anyone who likes the idea of awesome, adventuring girls (which really should be everyone reading this). Friendship to the max!

She-Hulk

Jennifer Walters is an under-appreciated force in the Marvel Universe, and not just because she can get big and green like her cousin. She’s a gifted lawyer as well as an intergalactically-regarded smasher of things, but she doesn’t always get the treatment she deserves, often pulled into team line-ups as a heavy-hitter without much regard for her as a character. Dan Slott’s run from a few years back is a personal favourite, but the pairing of artist Javier Pulido and Thunderbolts writer Charles Soule seemed like a strange choice for Jen. Pulido’s flat art style didn’t seem like an obvious fit, and I wasn’t familiar with Soule’s work, so I hadn’t jumped in.

I was so wrong to hesitate. Soule’s version of She-Hulk is a great balance of spandex-clad clobbering and courtroom drama, with each somehow complementing rather than undermining the other. Pulido’s art turned out to be an incredible choice — distinctive, sure, and not always capital-P perfect like Marvel usually pumps out, but his flat style makes Jen feel like a hero from a bygone era, recalling the (terrible) animation of cartoons like Mighty Mouse to surprisingly lovely effect.

The saddest part is that the Soule/Pulido run on She-Hulk only has a few more issues due to decisions by Marvel HQ (who obviously haven’t read the sternly worded letter I’ve been meaning to send them), so please buy the next couple (or at least spring for the trade paperback when it comes out)to show Marvel that we still need Jen Walters in print.

You’re awesome.

That’s just a few of Kate’s amazing recommendations. Follow her on Twitter (@kateleth) to catch some of these suggestions first-hand, and to eavesdrop on her awesome friendship with other amazing comic creators like Matt Fraction, Chip Zdarksy, Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie. And of course, you should listen to her podcast, Less than Live, which is definitely Ladyist-approved. Seriously, every episode of the podcast is packed with great things to read, especially when Kate has an equally interesting guest on (like Babs, or Kevin Wada, who drew the She-Hulk cover above). And please, tell us about the ways you find new stuff: is it a friend, or a celebrity, or a particular site? Let everyone know in the comments below!

Kate Leth Appreciation Day 2014

How’m I doin’

The beginning of October marked six months of the Ladyist Experiment, and ordinarily that would make for a great excuse to reflect on the past few months, and some of the things I’ve discovered while on my media diet. Being that I’ve been terrible at updating this damned thing, it’s three weeks into the month, but what say we pretend that this is all on schedule, eh?

It’s hard to reflect on something that has become everyday, at least to me. After a few weeks of adjustment, the self-imposed confines of the Ladyist Experiment became ordinary. Even now, I find myself looking at a new game, or reading an album review, and suddenly remembering that other people aren’t subject to the same limitations. It might be solipsistic (ok, it is), but that also makes this whole thing easier on me. The first month was like the bargaining stage of grief, where I wracked my brains to find ways I could justify going to see The Lego Movie; now, six months later, it sits on my DVD shelf, but I’m not even a little tempted to watch it. That impulse broke like a fever, and the same happened with other temptations like Guardians of the Galaxy — once the hype cycle passed, and people stopped asking me if I’d seen it, it became easier to shrug and say, “eh, I’ll see it one day”.

That ‘one day’ is less significant to me than most people seem to think. The assumption is that I’ll be raring to get back into dude-heavy pop-culture, that I’ll have Mad Max and AC/DC cued up waiting for me to hit play at 12.01 AM April 1st 2015. I understand where that kind of thinking comes from, but I feel like it misses the point of the Ladyist Experiment. When you do something for a year, you can’t help but be changed by it, and that was always the real goal. To go rushing headlong into all the male-fronted stuff I’ve passed over the moment I cross the finish line would reduce the Ladyist to a year-long bar bet, when it’s got more in common with the decision to become a vegan (that I’ve taken to calling it a ‘media diet’ is no accident).

As it stands, I’ve accumulated such a huge array of Ladyist-friendly books, games and DVDs that I’ll be continuing in the spirit of the Experiment well beyond its advertised end-date, though perhaps with less stringent standards in place. Finding suitable things makes them even more valuable to me for all the sifting I’ve had to do, especially when they come from surprising places: that two out of the four playable characters in Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel was a pleasant shock for a series that tended towards the hyper-masculine such that it’s sometimes called Broderlands. That’s not to mention the legion of indie comics I’ve found, and the quiet cabals of female devs making inventive games, neither of which I’d have come across if I weren’t forced to look past the AAA titles and same-old superhero titles.

This turned out to be a sober and very serious post, so here’s a bit of the ever-wonderful Cameron Esposito to take the edge off. You should definitely buy her new album, Same Sex Symbol, and listen to her podcast, Wham Bam Pow!.

How’m I doin’

Girls to the front

If you were lucky/cool enough to be part of the Girls on Film Festival last month, I hope you came away as excited and inspired as I did. I didn’t get to see as many films as I would’ve liked, but the three I did catch made a huge impression on me. I knew next nothing about the Australian film Radiance (1998), and it turned out to be one of the best surprises I’ve had in recent memory. Rachel Perkins debut is a beautifully shot family drama, where three estranged sisters return home to regional Queensland in the wake of their mother’s death. Playwright Louis Nowra wrote the screenplay, and it’s a subtle, sophisticated portrait of three very different women bound by blood, but the real strength of the film comes from extraordinary performances from Rachel Maza, Deborah Mailman and Trisha Morton-Thomas as the sisters. As they dig up more and more buried resentment and family secrets, their relationships to one another change over and over, pushing each of them to their limits as actors. It’s an intense story, more than it seems at first, and one that deserves far more respect and recognition in Australian film history.

The other two films I saw made for terrific companion viewing: The Runaways (2010) and The Punk Singer (2013), a doco on Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill and Le Tigre. As a double-act, they blew me away repeatedly as I realised how truly transgressive women in rock (or music in general) can be. Particularly in the case of bands like Bikini Kill, who started the still-powerful riot grrl movement even as the hyper-masculine grunge movement was selling flannel and Big Muff distortion pedals by the thousand. It was revitalising to see how powerful can be, and how people like Kathleen could loudly confront the social biases that held women back. Just watching the doco took me back to being a teenager, the age when you really believe that music can change the world. I’ve lost that sense over the last few years, but The Punk Singer made me see that any change has to come from outside, from the underpowered and under-represented.

That got me thinking about the powerful, challenging music women are making right now, even as the music industry tries to equate ‘feminine’ with ‘weak’, ‘wussy’, and worst of all, ‘nice’ (as a synonym for ‘anodyne’). Don’t get me wrong, I have plenty of room in my life and my music collection for wussy music made by both men and women; there’s no imperative on women to make transgressive or confrontational statements with their music any more than that expectation exists for men. Traditionally, though, those statements are less valued and less celebrated than the statements made by men, so here’s my tiny attempt to redress the balance somewhat.

St. Vincent

Annie Clark is a maniac, of the best possible kind. Her music is wild and unpredictable, as likely to be sweet and innocent as it is to hear a furious outburst of shredding guitar. Her latest album, St. Vincent (2013), is an even stranger evolution of her distinctive sound, a more electronic twist on her savage, thoughtful, lovely and thoroughly odd back catalogue. I won’t say much more: I’ll leave that for Anna to cover in an imminent episode of the Ladyist podcast. Instead, I’ll let ‘Birth in Reverse’ speak for itself, in a language unlike any other.

Janelle Monae

Picking any one Janelle Monae song instantly does a disservice to her staggeringly diverse catalogue. Even with just two full-length albums and an EP to her name, Janelle’s worked in torch ballads, robot anthems, funky explosions, punk fury, classical overtures (several of them) and about a billion other genres, all nestled neatly alongside and within each other. Listening to The Archandroid in full is a quick tour of 20th century popular song, all filtered through her fantastically inventive lens. Add to that the ongoing sci-fi narrative that spans all her releases, with that metaphor touching on ideas of femininity, identity and a host of other complex ideas, and you’ve still only got a partial image of the breathtaking creative mind that is Janelle Monae. And, at the risk of falling into the trap of defining female musicians by the way they look, it’s impossible to look past Janelle’s impeccably neat suits and the engineering miracle that is her quiff. It’s a marvel, and just one of the impossible things Janelle makes normal with every move.

FKA Twigs

FKA Twigs (Tahliah Debrett Barnett) makes music that you can’t easily pin down. Like Burial and the xx, there are flavours of British dance culture, particularly garage and two-step, mixed with soul, choral harmony, and a host of other genres. The combination is unique and incredibly expressive, feeling intimate and impossibly distant at the same time. That duality makes her music compelling and strange, but it’s also incredibly physical. Songs like ‘Lights On’ hint at Tahliah’s conflicted state of mind as she grapples with trust and intimacy; that confusion turns into deep longing ‘Hours’, which drips with unfettered desire and sensuality. Pop music typically constrains or judges any expression of female sexuality, so her declarations of physical longing feel revelatory, and even more human amidst the track’s alien tone.

Courtney Barnett

Maybe it’s just my bias towards anyone who can come up with a title like ‘Avant Gardener’, but Courtney Barnett’s A Sea of Split Peas double-EP has quickly become one of my go-to listens. The sun-drunk strum and casual Aussie twang she sings with are awesome, but a total misdirect: Courtney’s way, way smarter than the drawl suggests, both as a songwriter and a lyricist. Her style is unflashy, but there’s a great mix of sublime, off-handed wordplay and sharp observations that belie the sharp mind behind them. ‘Avant Gardener’ is full of great lines (“the paramedic thinks I’m clever ’cause I play guitar/I think she’s clever ’cause she stops people dying”), but ‘History Eraser’ is a miracle of a song, the most casual earworm you’ll ever hear. If Courtney ever wants to sing me a Triffids song in the back of a cab, I’ll be there in a flash.

That’s just a sample of the amazing women making music right now. If you’ve got an artist or band you want to share, tell us all about her/them in the comments — bonus points for including links so everyone can check them out!

Girls to the front

In case there was any doubt that games have a problem with women…

I’ve made a conscious effort to keep the Experiment positive so far, but there are some harder parts of representation that I can’t always ignore.

Today, Games.on.net posted this announcement. In a bold, stirring statement, editor-in-chief Tim Colwill drew a line in the sand for readers of his site: 

So, here’s another change for you: if you really think feminism, or women, are destroying games, or that LGBT people and LGBT relationships have no place in games, or that games in any way belong to you or are “under attack” from political correctness or “social justice warriors”: please leave this website. I don’t want your clicks, I don’t want your hits, I don’t want your traffic. Leave now and please don’t come back.

That kind of unwavering declaration is a wonderful thing, and I’d be delighted to see more high-profile sites taking a similar stance. The problem isn’t with the statement, but the circumstances that made it so necessary. 

Anita Sarkeesian leapt into the limelight in 2012 when she sought crowd-funding for her web series, Tropes vs Women in Video Games. As the name implies, the series takes a close (and often unflattering) look at the way the games industry represents female characters, and the way those patterns of thinking recur. Focusing on tropes like the ‘Damsel in Distress’, ‘Ms. Male Character’ and ‘Women as Background Decoration’, Sarkeesian cites the numerous instances where games treat female characters as objects to be observed, sought, or fought for. Her criticism is, I feel, the gentle admonition of a good friend; she clearly loves gaming, but quite reasonably wants it to be better in the ways it thinks of women. 

Since her Kickstarter garnered attention, though, there’s been a cruel and antagonistic subset of gamers who took offence to her criticism. That howl of irrational upset has cast a pall over Tropes vs Women, but this week, the abuse reached a critical point. Polygon reported that Sarkeesian had been driven out of her home following “very scary threats” made against her and her family (you can see a sample of those threats directed at Sarkeesian’s @femfreq Twitter account here, but with strong trigger warnings). This, coupled with the similar treatment of game developer Zoe Quinn, marks a low point in the gaming world. 

In all of these odious displays of human depravity, the detail I find most frustrating is the way Sarkeesian and Quinn’s abusers couch their misogyny in nebulous allegations of corruption, as though that’s grounds enough to drive a woman and her family from her home with grotesque (and specific) death threats.

All of them can get fucked.
All of them can get fucked.

Let’s be very clear about the kind of people who are abusing Anita Sarkeesian (and Zoe Quinn and Wil Wheaton, and Phil Fish, and Tim Schafer, and anyone else who dared to suggest that Sarkeesian might have a point). They aren’t “trolls”; they’re wretched, cruel and morally poisoned, but they’re also people, and that makes their actions so much worse. They aren’t the basement-dwelling neckbeard that persists as a stereotype of gamers — these people are ordinary people, the kind who have mugs that say “You Don’t Have To Be Crazy To Work Here”, who are coming third in their office tipping competition, who catch the train and shop at the same kind of supermarket you do. They’re not in a special class, not a breed apart about whom we can cluck our tongues and thank god we aren’t like that. They are normal people, and that makes their actions so much worse. They choose to do this, with their adult brains and their adult fingers and their adult keyboards, to berate a woman and threaten her with unspeakable violence for pointing out that games don’t often treat women very well. They chose this, and that makes their actions so much worse. These regressive, reactionary, angry, scared and pathetic purveyors of cruelty are to gaming what the Birther movement was to the Obama presidency: an irrational response that pretends to Know The Truth. They don’t believe that Anita Sarkeesian is truly corrupt; all of this is an attempt to legitimise their hate, and undermine Sarkeesian as a critic. All of this, because she’s right; because she touched a nerve, and they’re scared, and rather than learn from that response, or demonstrate a shred of self-awareness, they attack the source of that fear, threaten her safety, threaten her parents, threaten everything she loves so that maybe she’ll stop telling them what they don’t want to hear. 

I take some comfort in the thousands of supportive responses for Sarkeesian and her work, like the Games.on.net statement. Leigh Alexander’s piece for Gamasutra is a deeply observed piece that considers the roots of this anger, while firmly and calmly rebuking its entire basis. Australian games writer and academic Dan Golding also wrote a great article that you can find on his Tumblr, and those seeking a bit of context would be well-served by checking out Polygon’s article, “An awful week to care about video games“. In some ways, these conversations are necessary to help gaming evolve, but it’d be nice if no one had to be too scared to go home while we work this stuff out.

In case there was any doubt that games have a problem with women…

Spy? Yep. Serial killer? Sure. Space Wizard? Easy! Woman….? Maybe.

I still struggle with simple definitions for the Ladyist Experiment, but better representation is one of the fundaments of the project. For the most part, I’ve focused on amazing creators like Kelly Sue DeConnick and Neko Case, whose voices are extremely powerful and important, but it’s not fair to expect that women do all the heavy-lifting to overturn the systemic bias against them and their stories in popular culture. After all, if a writer can imagine himself in the shoes of an international spy, or a serial killer, or a space wizard, or any number of fantastical creations, can it really be that hard to write from the perspective of a female character? (To answer my own rhetorical question: no, it can’t be). While new(ish) media like comics and video games have a problematic history with representing women, here’s a few instances of male creators who are challenging that status quo.

(This isn’t a list to say “congratulations, have a cookie”. Most of the creators on here aren’t writing about women to be Good Dudes, so far as I can tell; instead, they write about people, and that definition rightly includes women.)

Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie

Jamie McKelvie (L) and Kieron Gillen (R)

It’s hard to know where to start with Gillen and McKelvie. A long-standing collaborative pair, Kieron’s thoughtful and empathetic writing is a perfect match for Jamie’s gorgeous, precisely crafted art. Since the first run of their series creator-owned series, Phonogram, Kieron and Jamie have made beautiful comics full of complicated, complex characters unconfined by the Straight White Male stereotypes common in the medium. Their work on Young Avengers, in particular, felt vital and progressive without a trace of pretence or calculation: in a world of shape-shifting part-alien boys and resurrected Norse Gods, why can’t the cast be full of amazing women like Kate Bishop and Miss America Chavez? That these Marvel-owned heroes also were all over the sexuality spectrum was another wonderful detail I’m sure we’d all like to see more often.

Tell me you don’t want to read this.

If you’ve been following this experiment for a while, you might recognise Jamie’s distinctive art style; in fact, you’ve seen his stuff since the very beginning. His redesign of Carol Danvers’ costume, for Kelly Sue DeConnick’s run on Captain Marvel, was a huge part in that title’s success (as well as Kelly Sue’s phenomenal writing, of course!). Stripped of the male-gazey costume she wore as Ms. Marvel, Carol now took off in a military-inspired flight suit that reflected not only her history as an Air Force fighter pilot of some regard, but also made for a costume that is both practical and fucking awesome. You can still see the impact of his design in Cameron Stewart and Babs Tarr’s re-working of Batgirl, which looks similarly excellent.

Hell. Yes.

Not content to leave it there, Kieron and Jamie’s new creator-owned series (which has delayed Phonogram Vol.3, HARRUMPH), is three issues in, and bursting at the seams with stunningly beautiful, mysterious and powerful women. Seventeen year old Laura is our POV character for The Wicked and the Divine, a grounded viewpoint from which to watch the spectacle of reincarnated gods as pop stars. Lucifer (but she prefers ‘Luci’) is a sexually-charged demon in every sense, all sharp teeth and David Bowie suits; Amaterasu is a Shinto deity reincarnated as a teenage Florence Welch; and then there’s Sakhmet, a languorous deity equal parts cat and Rihanna. Let’s not forget about The Morrigan, either:

It’s a strange, thrilling book that’s holding onto a lot of its mysteries (and there are several of them). I’m reading each issue as soon as I can get my hands on it, and you should do the same.

Neil Druckmann

As the writer and co-director of The Last of Us and its DLC, Left Behind, Neil Druckmann didn’t just make one of the greatest games in living memory (Australian audiences, including yours truly, voted the 2013 game #2 in Good Game’s Top 100); he also pushed the limits of what it meant to be a character in a game. I’m not talking about Joel: though Troy Baker’s performance is nothing less than excellent, and his arc is beautifully executed, we’ve seen the Haunted By Tragedy Man with His Gravelly Voice before. What we haven’t seen nearly so often is the suite of deep, well-realised characters that make the world feel real even in the face of shrieking fungus-faced monsters of nightmare. Tess is Joel’s partner in crime, running a smuggling operation from inside the quarantine zone. There’s a hint of some deeper connection between them, too, but Tess is just as emotionally damaged as Joel, so their relationship is more pragmatic than romantic. We don’t get any backstory for Tess, so everything about her comes down to the steely jaw and weary resolve of Annie Wersching’s performance, which crams a huge amount of pathos into every sigh. The animation carries that grit through perfectly, as well it should given the elaborate performance capture rigs the actors wore.

Unflattering? Yep. But the payoff is worth every ping-pong ball.

The Last of Us is full of characters like Tess: Marlene, leader of resistance group the Fireflies; Sarah, Joel’s daughter; and Maria, who’s heading up an attempt to get a hydroelectric dam back online. But there’s one character who stands alone, even in such stellar company.

Yep.

Technically, Ellie’s the secondary protagonist, or deuteragonist, of The Last of Us, but I don’t think I’m alone in suggesting that her story overshadows Joel’s. Even as the two of them grow together across the course of the main game, Ellie remains the most compelling thing about the story. Druckmann and the rest of Naughty Dog went to great lengths to make Ellie a detailed and identifiable character, and I think it’s safe to say that Ashley Johnson’s performance exceeded even their expectations. The end result was a character that’s still a rarity: a teenage girl who is both capable and vulnerable, one who is hardened by trauma but still has a childish sense of curiosity. She’ll read bad puns from a joke book in one scene, then shoot a hunter in another, and it all feels like part of her character. You can’t help but care for her; not in a patronising way, but on a human level, an empathetic level, that is rare in any medium, but especially so in gaming.

The Left Behind DLC is even better, making Ellie the protagonist and sole playable character. Split across two timelines, one part of the story jumps back to Ellie at 13, before her path crosses Joel’s. In this prequel, Ellie and her friend Riley explore an dilapidated shopping mall, throwing bricks at car windows and messing around like teenagers would, apocalypse or no. The other timeline expands part of the main game’s story, filling in a gap in which Joel is critically injured and unconscious. Also set in a shopping centre, the contemporary timeline is woven through the flashback sequence, each emphasising the other and adding even more layers to Ellie. It’s a beautiful addition to the main game, and features some of Ashley Johnson’s finest moments.

Like Kieron Gillen, Neil Druckmann clearly cares deeply about his characters, and writes them with an incredible empathy. In such a powerful role at developer Naughty Dog, it’s exciting to see that Neil thinks so deeply about his characters, and directs with that same considered approach. He’s currently at work on a screenplay for a film adaptation of The Last of Us, which has me breathless with anticipation.

Matt Fraction

Husband of Kelly Sue DeConnick (isn’t it nice to refer to a guy in terms of who he’s married to for once?), Matt Fraction is a prolific comic writer. He’s written about a million books for Marvel, including Invincible Iron ManImmortal Iron Fist and other, non-metal-derived titles. His breakout hit, Hawkeye, reinvigorated a pretty dull Avenger (the one Jeremy Renner was supposed to be in The Avengers) by grounding him in an ordinary world of rent, landlords, purple Cons and you-can-take-the-boy-out-of-the-hero stories. Like Kieron and Jamie’s run on Young Avengers, the series also includes Kate Bishop, the teenager who adopted Clint Barton’s codename when…you know what, you don’t need to know that. Kate’s a major character in Hawkeye, an equal to Clint in every way. She’s not quite his ward (she’s better off than he is), and they’re definitely not a couple, but they’re close enough for her to call him on his bullshit, and save his butt with a few trick-shots and well-timed getaway vehicles. When Kate finally leaves, though, she doesn’t drop out out of the story: instead, her adventures in LA continue, with Hawkeye alternating between Kate and Clint with (roughly) each issue. Her West Coast adventures are drawn by the inimitable Annie Wu, whose style is distinct from lead artist David Aja, lending Kate’s story a feel of its own.

It’s not Hawkeye that merits Matt’s inclusion here, though. Like Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie, Matt has a number of creator-owned comics going at the same time, and his strongest work to date is the marvellous Sex Criminals. Don’t let the title put you off: it’s far funnier, sweeter, and more deeply considered than you might assume. Lead characters Suzie and Jon are on any register of offenders — instead, the couple find that they both have the ability to freeze time…when they orgasm. Together they hatch a plan to rob the bank that employs Jon, and to whom Suzie’s library is deeply in debt. So…Sex Criminals. It’s at once weirder and less crass than you thought.

Sex Criminals1_cover

What makes this comic so brilliant is not just its sense of humour (which it has in spades, thanks to Matt and artist Chip Zdarsky’s unique mix of high- and low-brow wit), but the humanity of Suzie and Jon. The first issue is all about Suzie, and her sexual awakening as a teenager. It’s just as awkward as you’d imagine, except even worse given that times stops whenever she orgasms. It’s an absurd premise, but Fraction uses it to dig into something real. All the questions Suzie grapples with are the kind we all go through as teenagers: is this normal? What’s my body doing? What if I’m weird and no one else is like this? With that complex foundation, Matt and Chip’s bizarre sense of humour only highlights the strangeness of being a teenager. I’d tell you more, but you really have to read it. If you’ve got a tablet or smartphone, buy the first issue from Comixology; it’s 99c, so you’ve got no excuse. When you’re done, come back here, and we’ll talk about brimping.

OK, there’s a pattern here: white, often bespectacled guys who create cool things about ladies. Well, I’m about to jump on that bandwagon, and make an announcement.

cropped-ladyistexperimentlogo.jpg
The Podcast.

It’s been a long time in development, and it’s finally almost here: the Ladyist podcast will be hitting iTunes, Podbean and your podcast machines very soon. Each week, it’ll feature another wonderful, intelligent, articulate and charming woman talking about a favourite Ladyist-friendly stuff. It’ll include musicians, characters, writers, artists, poets, movies, games, TV shows, and just about anything else that is about a woman. I’m really excited to release it, and, more importantly, excited to interview any lady who wants to be involved. If that’s you, send me an e-mail via theladyistexperiment@gmail.com, or visit the Ladyist Facebook page and send me a message with your ideas!

Spy? Yep. Serial killer? Sure. Space Wizard? Easy! Woman….? Maybe.