Howl’s Moving Castle and character devolution.

August 19, 2008

In a good movie, characters learn and grow stronger as the plot keeps throwing bigger and bigger challenges at them, so that someone who looks interesting in the beginning it totally awesome by the end. This is called character development. It’s what turned Elizabeth Swann from “at least there’s a woman in this story” to “OMG Pirate King!!1”

In Howl’s Moving Castle, however, we see the opposite, which I am hereby naming character devolution.

Howl’s Moving Castle, one of Hayao Miyazaki’s many fantastic Studio Ghibli films, passes the Bechdel Test with its first two lines of dialogue, and takes nearly half an hour to get around to the reverse Bechdel Test. Sophie, our protagonist, is plain-looking but doesn’t care (a rarity in films). She gets along well with her boss, coworkers, and lovely sister. She works hard but seems to enjoy what she does. She’s a strong woman, but not exceptionally strong, not isolated in her strength. (I’m sure the Hathor Legacy wrote about this concept, in reference to Juno, but for the life of me I can’t find the article. EDIT: I was wrong. It was Shakesville, here. The Juno bit is here.)

Anyway, Sophie: made of awesome. And then, when Sophie kicks the Wicked Witch of the Waste out of her shop, the witch curses her with old age. Sophie does the requisite freak-out, and then she decides, “Well, I was never pretty anyway, so it’s no loss,” and sets off on her quest to get the curse reversed (presumably out of desire not to die of “old age” before she hits 25.) And off she goes! She’s delightfully self-reliant, installing herself as a cleaning lady for the wizard Howl (Despite the fact that he supposedly eats pretty girls’ hearts– “I was never at risk for that,” she says).

So there she is, in a magical castle, bullying a fire demon into cooking her breakfast and wrangling wizards into cleaning the house, making jokes about her “old age.” And then…she stops doing anything.

Seriously, after she’s cleaned out his house, all she does is give Howl something to protect. She tries going to the castle for him so he won’t be conscripted into a pointless war, but then he shows up anyway; she was only useful because she “gave him the courage to go.” And after that, all she does is “give him something to live for,” by which he means, something to nearly get himself killed for, since he starts literally catching bombs to prevent them from blowing up Sophie’s house (which is magically connected to the moving castle) despite the fact that the castle can, y’know, move, and he can change where it connects. It would have made far more sense to disconnect the castle from the townhouse, let the townhouse get bombed, and find another house later, and Sophie even says so. But instead Howl flies off suicidally, leaving Sophie to worry about him.

Oh, she makes a valiant effort, actually figuring out how to disconnect the castle from the townhouse by herself, despite not having any magic powers of her own– but she has to essentially destroy the castle to do so, and it would have been far better if Howl had simply listened to her advice to begin with.

Some semi-confusing dream sequences follow, plus a big fight scene, and then there they all are, dying all around her, and Sophie saves everyone by kissing them. No, really, that’s it. She gets Howl’s heart from the Wicked Witch (who had stolen it from Calcifer) by pleading with her and then, after kissing her, the Wicked Witch is thoroughly devoid of Wickedness. She returns the heart, but Howl doesn’t revive until she kisses him, too. I’m pretty sure either Calcifer or Marco needed a kiss for something or other as well– or maybe it was the dog– and then the turnip-headed scarecrow that had been following her around hops up, and she kisses him too, and it breaks his curse too, and I was ready to vomit.

I’m sure it was meant to be her loving heart that was saving everybody (especially since nobody ever talked about how her own curse was broken– she just looked younger the more lovey-dovey she was acting.) And it’s not that I’m opposed to love, but a girl who just stands around loving everybody is not my idea of a kickass hero (which is what she looked like she was going to be.) After she falls in love with Howl, they have this exchange:

Sophie, looking young: So you are going away. Please, Howl. I know I can be of help to you, even though I’m not pretty and all I’m good at is cleaning.

Howl: Sophie! Sophie! You’re beautiful!

Sophie, turning old again: Well, the nice thing about being old is you’ve got nothing much to lose.

What a stunning lack of self-confidence from a woman who started out so completely secure in herself! Here, here’s what she was like before:

Sophie: All right Calcifer, lets get cooking.

Calcifer: I don’t cook! I’m a scary and powerful fire demon!

[Sophie ignores him and squashes him with her frying pan.]

Bullying a fire demon into making bacon: pretty assertive and confident!

Sophie: I wonder what Howl disguised himself as? Surely not a crow. Can’t be a pigeon, he’s too flamboyant for that.

[a glider plane with a giggling young woman and her lover flies overhead]

Sophie: That could be him.

Totally aware of how childish Howl usually is, and completely unimpressed by it: pretty self-assured!

Sophie: Do you know what Madame Suliman said? She said that Howl’s heart was stolen by a demon. Tell me now, what do you know?

Calcifer: I’m so sorry but that would be confidential information.

Interrogating fire demons! That’s just straight-up brave!

I mean, come on! In the beginning, she gets cursed because she stands up for herself, even when she’s stupidly overmatched. She’s self-confident, self-assured, self-reliant, and most of all driven (which is the nice way to say “kinda pushy”) and even though it was obvious she’d be breaking everyone’s curses– she’s the protagonist, after all– I really expected it to be because of her pushiness, somehow. Perhaps everyone else had given up too soon, and missed something, and by simply standing her ground and marching forward, Sophie would be able to recover the MacGuffin and save the world.

Instead, we got…magical kisses. And I think a hint of magical tears as well. It was just…disappointing.


Zack and Wiki

August 13, 2008

Zack and Wiki is a fun adventure game that I picked up because it looked like a Wii version of the Humongous Entertainment PC games I grew up with (Pajama Sam, Spy Fox— does anyone else remember those?) The key similarity is the point-and-click gameplay and the “puzzles” which are all about getting to X item or activating Y machine (as opposed to having them be straight-up moving-pieces puzzles). I like it because rather than doing a lot of fiddly moving blocks around, you just have to say, “Hey, that statue looks different from the rest. What happens if I poke it?”

I’m only on the second boss so far (I’ve been playing other things with my brothers too much) but it’s been a lot of fun right now.

Except for the gender stuff. Ohh, man.

When I started the second boss (which keeps freezing me, grr!) the main villain of the game showed up again– Captain Rose! And wow does she drive me crazy.

Captain Rose, as far as I can tell, is the only female anything in the game (the goons and animal-people reproduce asexually, I guess) and the game plays up the “female” part really obnoxiously.

She’s got the miniskirt, the high-pitched giggle (instead of an evil laugh), and the total incompetence that just screams female. She’s even got an hourglass figure (making her the only person in the game to have any kind of human figure at all.) She’s annoying, but completely non-threatening– her “scar” is drawn on with bubblegum pink lipstick.

That’s what drives me craziest– that they worked so hard to make her as non-threatening as possible. What’s the point of a villain that you just mock? Aren’t you supposed to be worried at least a little bit that you won’t win?

I think there must be some kind of villain-swap coming up– maybe Barbados turns on us after we finish putting him together?– but that’s somehow worse, that obviously the female villain isn’t the real villain.

It’s not uncommon for games to have joke villains before the big bad (Mario & Luigi Superstar Saga actually had Bowser as the joke villain and it worked really well) and there’s nothing wrong with making a female character ridiculously over-the-top for comic relief. The problem comes when the over-the-top joke villain is the only female in the game, because when there’s only one woman, she has to represent all of womankind; a tough task for an ordinary female character, and nearly impossible to do well with a joke character.

That’s why the Bechdel Test can help so much, really: if you’ve got enough women in your story that two of them can talk to each other about stuff other than the main man, you’ve probably also got enough women in your story that no one character has to represent half the world’s population.

I’m still going to play the game, because it is fun and that’d the point of games, but I’ll be keeping an eye on Captain Rose. Maybe she’ll improve as we see more of her…but I’m not holding my breath.

Tee hee hee!

Tee hee hee!


Arthur, King of Time and Space

August 11, 2008

Arthur, King of Time and Space, against all odds, remains one of my favourite webcomics.

I’m a fairly art-oriented person, and the art in AKTS is pretty unapologetically bad. Well, his line drawings are actually extremely good, but then they’re scanned in such high contrast that they get rough and pixelated, and then he colors them in MS Paint. MS Paint! Using (primarily) the default colors it puts in your colorbar!

I think about half the punchlines are puns, often terribly contorted ones, and it’s not unusual for me to be confronted with a joke that I do not get and cannot figure out how to google. On those days, I just scowl at the website and its rather offensive MS-Paint-green and -yellow layout, and move on to other sites.

But the next day, I’ll be back again, eager to see what he’s up to.

I think there are two main things that just keep drawing me back to it, day after day.

1. The story. This is the same Arthur story that I’ve heard many times before, but I love watching Gadzikowski tell it. First of course there’s the fantastic gimmick that the same story has been/is happening at many times at once, and it adds a lot to the story to see it play out in the traditional Old Tymey setting and a modern setting and a futuristic setting and all the other settings he sneaks in.

I adore the fact that this is so much more than a gag-a-day comic– there’s a story happening, subtly, over time, and since it’s been planned out in advance, I don’t have to worry about the comic betraying me, if that makes any sense. Gadzikowski’s not going to kill off my favourite character to boost ratings (though he might do it for the story); he’s not going to go on forever, wandering around his premise until it’s worn dull and everything that was great has faded; he’s not going to stop part-way and leave me hanging. He knows where he’s going and he’s going there.

I’m sort of mentally comparing him to TV shows here– BSG, Heroes, Lost– since they more often seem to totally lose track of whatever story they were originally intended to tell– but it happens in webcomics as well, that they start to wander. So I really appreciate a fellow who has a story, and sticks to it.

2. The women. And yes, even though it’s a King Arthur story, there are women, plural, as opposed to just Guinevere! Gadzikowski hasn’t changed the original fairytale arc, but he’s made a practice of gender-swapping some of the characters so that the present-day and future arcs have a more equal number of women in them. The most notable (and my favourite) is Tristam, who carries on with his Queen in the fairytale arc and with her boss’ wife/commander’s wife in the other two. It just makes the later arcs so much more representative of real lives, by adding more women and by adding some no-big-deal homosexuality.

But even more refreshing, perhaps, is the fact that it’s clear Gadzikowski thinks about these things. He didn’t add a lesbian because boobies and girls kissing bring in readers– he did it because he’s actually something of a feminist ally. The commentary frequently reveals his thoughts on the matter. He intentionally passes the Bechdel test! Here, take a look:

I didn’t start out planning to do this one in triangles. But I knew a followup on contemporary Guenevere’s parents was due. And after trying to decide who would feed her the straightlines I decided on Eglante. The dilettante feminist in me was pretty proud while casting yesterday’s of accomodating Bechdel’s Law, until I went to draw it and I realized that any task I could draw two Chivalry Age women doing together would effectively negate any points scored under the Law. But then I realized I wanted the same cast today, for another talking heads gag. And I realized today isn’t a Daily Grind day, with the rule against re-using art. And I realized it’d be a fun challenge to edit yesterday’s cartoon to change the time zone. And I realized I could do that so that Guenevere and Eglante weren’t doing something stereotypically female.

siiiigh…isn’t he dreamy?

Actually, since he mentioned the Daily Grind, I ought to make a quick note of reason 3 I adore this comic: it just keeps updating! Completely regularly! He’s out of the grind now, but only on what I consider to be a technicality (the limit on one-panel comics) and he’s still updating as regularly as ever.

Which means that there are a ton of strips in the archive, but if I haven’t already convinced you that an archive trawl would be worth it, I may not be able to. This strip has an addictive quality that makes the archives a particular pleasure– I accidentally got caught up in them and read a year’s worth of strips while looking for the two posted above– and that makes one dependable update a day feel somehow like it’s not enough.

SO: Arthur, King of Time and Space. Bookmark it.


Mass Effect

August 7, 2008

Mass Effect is a videogame that passes the Bechdel test, really easily. Even if you don’t play as female (which I and my brothers did.) I wasn’t aware such a thing was even possible! And yet, of the six characters that can be added to your squad, three are male, three are female (one human and two aliens of each). All the females have the exact same sexy body, but you know what, I take what I can get.

Actually, it’s pretty easy to overlook the lack of variety in body types (even though the male characters, especially the male aliens, have way more variety and are therefore way more awesome) because the characters have distinct faces, voices, and personalities. One of the female aliens suffers a little bit from the “sexy like a human girl, but blue” trope, but the other is completely covered and doesn’t even have a visible face, and the human girl is average-looking and, get this!, the only character who is 100% combat-oriented!

(All characters specialize in combat, technology, or biotics, or a combination of the three…all the others are a combination, but one is all-biotic (the sexy blue girl) and one is all-combat (the human girl).)

Since my brothers and I decided to make a character who is all-technology, the “natural” squad of three for us is made of three women. I love that! Our default assumption is that this group of women is best, and we only rotate in some of the males if we know we need to focus on a certain skill for a specific mission.

We went out with a group of all-females at the beginning just because we could— we took the all-combat human girl and the faceless tech/biotic girl– and I was glad just to have this option. When we met the all-biotic girl and I realized how perfect a team we made, I was overjoyed!

Now, maybe this would be a less awesome dynamic if one was playing a male character– surrounded by ladies, who were eager but not particularly useful (well, okay, handy, but nowhere near as good as the person playing the game because, well, they don’t have real brains.) But even then the game really pressures you to get to know them as people. They all have origins and goals and dreams and lives outside our story, which they clearly intend to return to; this is just a diversion. They’re not totally in love with Awesome Protagonist, they just want to help save the world. And sure, we meet them by rescuing them– but that’s pretty much how we meet everybody. That’s basically all we do.

And my favourite part? If you’re in an elevator, or just standing around in one place too long, the characters will start talking to each other. About themselves, about each other, about the news, about our mission– about whatever matters to them. And it’s such a fascinating insight into who they are that it makes me want to try all the different combinations and do nothing but ride elevators and listen to them talk all day.

And it’s such a perfect example of imbuing female characters with a sense of personhood, that I just want to kiss everyone who created this game.

This is why passing the Bechdel Test matters.


What I Did Today

July 26, 2008

I hope in future I’ll be able to be more thoughtful in terms of what I write, and there’s a part of me that wants to set a good precedent, but I wasn’t actually expecting to create this blog and nothing is springing to mind right now. Hopefully tomorrow I’ll be able to write while I’m reading my blogroll, instead of hours afterwards.

So! What I Did Today. Mostly, I watched Babylon 5.

I watched the first two episodes with my family ages ago but they weren’t much taken with it, so the boxed first season (a gift?) has just been gathering dust (literally– it made me sneeze!). I remembered liking it, though, so I got it out, and I’ve found it to be really good so far– good enough that I hardly minded that my DVD player is a little broken and forced me to re-watch the first two episodes!

I’m really excited about Ivanova and Tanya Winters. They fascinate me as characters. And together they passed the Bechdel Test ten minutes into the first episode!

(The Bechdel Test: to pass, a movie (or whatever) must have (1) two or more women, who (2) talk to each other, (3) about something other than a man. Ivanova and Winters talked briefly ten minutes in about why Ivanova was avoiding Winters, and then at great length later about the Psi Corps and Ivanova’s mother! Passed with flying colours.)

I’m now halfway through the first season– or at least, three disks into the six disks (perhaps one is just bonus features? That would be disappointing.) and it hasn’t once sent me into Angry Feminist mode. Now, I enjoy Angry Feminist mode– I think everyone should be a lot angrier!– but it’s always refreshing to take a bit of a break. I’m sure it’ll infuriate me later. The patriarchy always does.