Julie & Julia & food & love & bravery

September 25, 2009

Julie & Julia tells the stories of Julie Powell, a woman who decides to cook through Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in a year, and Julia Child, an woman in love with food who decides to write a French cookbook for servantless Americans. Contrary to our expectations, the two never meet, but their stories are intertwined, synchronizing the highs and lows of each endeavour to tell a cohesive story about women finding joy by following their love of food, and of the people around them.

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The appeal of this light-hearted movie comes in two main forms: wonderful, genuine relationships between wonderful, genuine people… and food porn.

chocolate-cream-pieStarting with the food: this movie made me hungry! Even in scenes not revolving around either characters’ cooking endeavours, the camera lingers lovingly on plates of food, and the characters spend half their time talking with their mouths full. Often, people don’t eat in movies; they might deign to converse in front of plates of food, but we rarely see them putting bite after bite in their mouths. Neither Julie nor Julia would stand for such half-heartedness in eating, and it makes a refreshing change from the sometimes food-phobic atmosphere of Hollywood to hear a movie say (paraphrasing), “There’s no such thing as too much butter. Everything delicious you’ve ever eaten, the trick was butter!”

juliehubbyEven more fun, for me, was seeing the tiny moments between characters that revealed the depth and strength of their relationships. When Julie tells her coworker that she’s gotten a record-breaking number of comments, the two of them do a cheerful hand-clapping routine reminiscent of girls on the playground. When Julia and her sister “jinx” each other later in the movie, they have their own hand-game ritual as well. In both cases the moment takes a character with a tiny part, and makes the viewer feel as though she has an extensive backstory. It also increases our feeling of connection between our two aspiring chefs, which increases as the movie goes on.

 

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Now, I don’t want to give the impression that this is an overwhelmingly joyful movie. Honestly, the “ups and downs” are probably more down than up. One of the most compelling tiny-moment scenes comes when Julia receives news of her sister’s pregnancy; she sits on the counter and cries, all while yelling, “It’s wonderful! I’m so happy for them!” The topic of children never comes up again, but it’s a valuable moment. However, the tender way that her husband holds her, while moving, isn’t exactly nice. Julie has a number of meltdowns and her marriage nearly falls apart from the stress. It’s not all chocolate cake and boef bourguinon! There are also aspics.

However, the message of the movie as a whole is essentially a joyful one. Both Julie and Julia are told to be courageous and embrace their strength, and, in the end, they do so, leaving us with one message: “Bon Appétit!” I would definitely recommend it for anyone looking for a pleasant way to spend a few hours.

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Lesbian love in webcomics: Punch and Pie

February 18, 2009

Punch and Pie is a collaboration between the creators of Queen of Wands (which has finished, and was completely amazing!) and Striptease (which is ongoing, but which has somehow failed to capture my imagination.) The story follows a side character from the Queen of Wands story, Angela. None of the main characters recur and most of the story involves new characters, so you don’t have to read Queen of Wands first, but you should, because I loved it. However, Queen of Wands isn’t nearly as interesting on the lesbian front.

Punch and Pie begins with Angela moving in with her girlfriend, Heather. At first I was really excited because it was the first comic I’d read where the lesbian couple was just established, right from the very beginning, no angst about getting together. And then they made a very sweet couple, and it was a fun slice-of-life comic. And then, well, plot things happened that were even more interesting and rare, but this is a review, not a critique, so I don’t want to give anything away. 🙂

I’ve now reviewed four comics with prominent lesbian characters (Red String, Penny and Aggie, and two by Rosalarian), but this is the first in which the sexual orientation of the women in question provokes almost no commentary from the other characters. Red String and Penny and Aggie both had primarily-straight casts in which, significantly into the story, a well-known character comes out. YU + ME focuses entirely on its lesbian relationship, and the obstacles it faces, and especially the ways that those obstacles are tied to persistent homophobia. And Punch and Pie just has the Angela and Heather, in a universe where one’s orientation is one’s own business. (I suppose Kidnapped by Lesbian Pirates from Other Space! falls into the same “nobody cares about the gay” category overall, since the few exceptions are played for laughs.)

I think that with this series, I’ve been trying to articulate how to tell lesbian stories “right,” looking at what I considered to be good examples, and I’m learning that there are a lot of “right” ways. At first I thought, well, it should be part of a larger story, so it can’t be seen as a “special case,” to normalize it for other people. But then I thought of YU + ME and thought, no, it should reflect our real lives, the stories should be about us, so people can see it from our point of view and empathize. And now I’m thinking, why do we have to make a big dramatic deal about it at all? Isn’t it better to just treat it as what it is, i.e., a fact of life for a huge number of otherwise ordinary people? But the conclusion I’ve come to is that they’re all valuable, and important, and probably even necessary ways to tell lesbian stories. Any story that treats its lesbian characters with respect and understanding is a good one, regardless of the general focus of the comic.

So, add Punch and Pie to the list of comics that really succeed. The main characters identify as varying flavors of queer, and the story doesn’t shy away from that, but their orientations don’t define them. The story is really well-done, too; it feels like a gag-a-day comic (and a good one, too!) when you’re getting the updates one at a time, but when you read through the archives, you see that it’s actually a narrative comic. (Queen of Wands did the same thing, quite successfully.)

And I really wish I could find more to say on Punch and Pie specifically, but what’s wonderful about the story is the way it is a gradual surprise, something I can’t do justice in any summary even if I wanted to do a proper critique. And with sexual orientation being so unexceptionable to the characters themselves, it leaves me without too much to say on that front, either, other than “hey, good job!”

So– hey, good job! Folks, you should really take a look.

(Check out my other “lesbian love in webcomics” posts here!)


Lesbian love in webcomics: Rosalarian

February 17, 2009

I read two lesbionic webcomics by Megan Rose Gedris (also known as Rosalarian): I Was Kidnapped By Lesbian Pirates From Outer Space! and YU + ME. They’re rather different comics, but I’d gladly recommend either of them.

Lesbian Pirates! is a much more consistent product– the skill behind the art improves a little with with each new installment, but only to the degree that’s to be expected of any webcomic– the style stays exactly the same throughout. The story is also much less complex, at least so far; it’s a ridiculous and enjoyable romp, but it stays firmly in the category of “casual fun reading” for me. However, I think Rosalarian never intended for it to be anything else, especially given the depth and complexity of YU + ME, which proves that she could do more if she wanted to; it reads to me like she just wants to have some fun with it, and she is certainly succeeding in that goal.

However, YU + ME remains more interesting as a topic of critique. It’s much older than Lesbian Pirates (it began in 2004), and there is a lot going on with it. If you’re going to read it, you should begin at the very beginning and read all the way through; that’s what I did. At first, it seemed very crude to me. The art is nowhere near as beautiful as the current comics she is producing, and the story looked stimple. However, it is a comic that will reward its readers, both with improved (and often truly stunning) art and with an increasingly complex and fascinating story. It’s long on purpose, and it wouldn’t be nearly as good if it didn’t spend the time on the minutiae in the beginning. The author clearly had A Plan from the very beginning, and it’s so well-executed that my second time through the archives was almost more fun than the first, since even though I knew what was next I was impressed by how obvious it was in retrospect, and how surprising it was at the time.

Plus, of course, lesbians! Both comics have cheerfully gay (well, at least cheerful-about-being-gay) characters, and several of them! I also really like the way they are drawn, with respect to body types. All the characters are or can be pretty, but in a way that I really enjoy, rather than in the stereotypical I’m-a-dyke-but-I-kind-of-look-like-a-straight-girl way which happens in, for example, the L Word. Instead, they all have distinct “looks” and (my favourite part!) completely realistic “chubby” bodies (which is to say, they look like my body, which is “chubby,” but are actually pretty normal.) As much as I love both Red String and Penny and Aggie, this is one way in which Rosalarian really takes the cake for me– she’s not at all afraid to have less-than-completely-gorgeous characters, and it’s refreshing in its own right.

As for the gals themselves, YU + ME is much more of the straight-up just-like-my-life lesbian love story, and it is handled beautifully, but it’s the lesbian characters in the not-at-all-like-my-life-unfortunately comic Lesbian Pirates! who really enchant me. They’re so delightfully campy that I always have a smile on my face, and while there are at least a few other serious relationship comics that center around lesbians, I don’t think I’ve seen any delightfully campy adventure stories with lesbian characters, let alone so many of them! (If there are others, you totally have to tell me.)

These are also the first comics I’ve reviewed in which the lesbian storylines are the main storylines. In some ways, it might be better for “the cause” (or whatever) for the lesbian characters to be included in stories with more “broad” appeal, because it normalizes that kind of story as being a part of life, rather than a “special case” kind of story that needs to be told elsewhere. But at the same time, it’s really nice as a reader to know going in that I’ll see characters who reflect my own life (as opposed to being pleasantly surprised when they show up later, as in both Red String and Penny and Aggie), and it’s extra-nice to be sure of seeing those characters every time I visit the site. No more super-frustrated waits between glorious moments of lesbian inclusion! It’s gay time all the time!

It’s odd, actually, that as much as I think YU + ME is the better comic, and the one that better shows off Rosalarian’s amazing talents, it’s Lesbian Pirates! that I find myself wanting to rhapsodize about here. Part of this is almost certainly that there’s a lot going on in YU + ME that I can’t talk about without spoiling it, whereas the name “I Was Kidnapped By Lesbian Pirates From Outer Space!” tells you pretty much all you need to know about the plot… but I think there’s also something else going on. It’s like the way that I love Les Miserables and I love Ella Enchanted– I believe Les Miserables to be wholly superior, but I just can’t gush about it, because it’s Literature, and there’s too much going on to reduce it to a couple sentences.

So, I’ll have to admit defeat here as well– YU + ME, like Literature, can’t be described succinctly, so you’re going to have to read it yourself. And if your brain is feeling awfully full afterwards, check out those Lesbian Pirates for some lighthearted fun.

(Check out my other “lesbian love in webcomics” posts here!)


Lesbian love in webcomics: Red String

February 8, 2009

It occurred to me recently that I’m reading a number of awesome webcomics that include massively enjoyable lesbian characters, so in honor of Valentine’s Day, that upcoming celebration of patriarchal heteronormativity, I thought I’d do a mini-series on lesbian love in webcomics. I know for sure that I’ll be talking about Penny and Aggie, Fans! and YU+ME — if you guys have any other recommendations, let me know!

First up: Red String!

The title is a reference to the “red string of fate,” which is an idea from Chinese legend, basically saying that men and women who are destined to fall in love are connected by a red string. So, Red String is a webcomic that explores the concept of love.

At first glance is looks like a very typical manga– soap-opera-y relationship drama, cute girls in short uniforms, and so on. However, the more I read it, the more I am amazed by its depth, and by it’s un-manga-ness. (As a note, I know I am making gross generalizations about manga here, and that it’s a hugely broad category of story-telling. I am referring here to the non-magical, shoujo romance-type stories that form a large subsection of manga. Also, for the record, I adore all the manga I’ve read. If you find yourself offended by any generalizations that I make, please, I don’t mean your favourite manga. I’m just trying to identify trends.)

Now, when I check the F.A.Q., I see that the author outright denies any claim that her comic is manga–

As an American I create comics, not manga. Red String does not claim to be anything else. My art is influenced by many different artists and writers, both American and Japanese. My work reflects those influences. As for why I set my story in Japan, as an author, I find that if something interests me, I want to write about it. I am interested in Japanese culture. I have tried my best to write a tale as accurate as possible to the traditions and nuances of the culture. However, this story was primarily written for an American audience by an American author, so pacing and style will obviously be different from Japanese manga stories.

I find that the interplay between manga conventions and the American writing produces something that I haven’t seen anywhere else. A Japanese high school is an excellent setting to explore ideas of romance, self-identity, and social politics; although the people are very much the same deep down– i.e., awkward teenagers with all the accompanying problems– the stricter societal norms can really highlight the conflicts inherent in that time of life. There can be drama in just who is speaking to whom, or where one sits, and so on. Some of these were topics of conversation in my own high school, but not all of them, and certainly not to the extent which they seem to be here.

But Red String does something unusual, in taking that setting and then doing something with it that actual manga rarely does, in exploring constantly-changing plots. At least in my experiences with manga, a series tends to be defined by its “pitch,” and so a story about three high school students dealing with will-they/won’t-they relationships is always going to be a story about those three students dealing with their relationships, until everything gets resolved at the very end, or until the series just fizzles out and stops. In Red String, on the other hand, the author is not at all afraid to change things, even extremely important things. People actually get past the flirting and indecision, and date each other. And they break up. “Friends forever” who in traditional manga really would be friends forever move away or drift apart. And then they make new friends. Sworn enemies soften and learn to understand each other. The story is always changing, always focused on the same themes of love in all its forms, but always fresh and interesting.

And then there’s The Gay. Same-sex relationships are not uncommon in manga, but they are almost always implied, rather than acknowleged, especially female ones. Part of this is the way that all romantic relationships in manga spend long periods of time in that will-they/won’t-they stage, but there’s something extra going on with the gay relationships. The characters will rarely state sincerely that they would like to have a relationship. It’s all joking innuendo; I don’t think I’ve ever seen a lesbian couple in a manga that could’t be interpreted as “just close friends.” Even those who are probably intended to be seen as “more than friends”– Tomoyo’s feelings for Sakura in Cardcaptor Sakura, or Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune– never quite go out and say it. Which is why I am thrilled to say that Red String continued to be very un-manga-like.

Quoth the author:

This comic’s main theme is LOVE. It is not confined to just heterosexual love. It deals with all forms of love; romantic, parental, platonic, heterosexual, homosexual, unrequited, etc. I believe if you have love, you are a very lucky person. I believe in not discriminating against people who have love in their hearts. Love is better than hate or prejudice. Also, some people have brought up the religious aspect. I am writing a story set in Japan and most Japanese are Buddhist or Shintoist. Less than 2.5% of Japanese are Christian. It would be grossly inaccurate to push Christian beliefs on characters that obviously were not raised in that religion.

Later I will probably talk about the specific gay characters and how fantastic and refreshing I’m finding their storylines to be, but for now I just want to say: AWESOME. Especially because there’s no way to pretend that we’re just talking about “admiration” or “close friendship.” The gay characters talk to their friends, and to each other, and they are honest, and they kiss. That’s the best part! KISSES! Right there! On the page! Unambiguously romantic! AWESOME!

This is not, by any means, the only reason I enjoy this comic; Red String, does, after all, deal with all forms of love, and it deals with them all in fascinating and refreshing ways. It’s just particularly refreshing to see a comic that talks about love without shying away from homosexual love.

To those who are just joining the blog from Red String, welcome! If you want to read some more of what we’ve got here (and I know you do!), why don’t you check out my other “lesbian love in webcomics” articles here? Or you can check out some of my old favourites! I’ve always loved “More Xena; also, thoughts on pregnant heroes“, as well as my critiques of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Kiki’s Delivery Service. I hope to see you again– and please share your thoughts in the comments!


Violet: a video game! In which you can be a lesbian!

January 28, 2009

Finally, an answer to this post, in which I pleaded with the world to bring me lesbians in movies and video games. Well, okay, I specified science fiction as well, but this is close enough.

Violet (walkthrough here) is an interactive fiction game (that is, text only) in which you are a graduate student attemtping to finish your dissertation.

Your girlfriend Violet has put her life on hold, waiting for you to finish, and she’s getting fed up. If you don’t get a thousand words written today, your relationship is over and she flies home to Australia. Unfortunately, your office is full of every kind of distraction, from the window overlooking campus hijinx to the computer on your desk, always ready to show you the latest blogs and web comics instead of your chapter-in-progress. So you have no choice but to shut out everything that’s causing you distraction so that you can turn in a few hours of solid work for once.

A friend sent me a link to this game a while ago and I got sucked in right away, but since I was playing in order to procrastinate my real work, I had to make myself stop. Today, though, I had free time, so I finished it!

It’s a very quick game, but quite entertaining. Text-only games can feel like they exist in barren wastelands (and often do, in fact) but because Violet is such a brilliant narrator here, I actually felt a stronger emotional connection to this game than most fancy-graphics big-budget games.

Your character is male by default, but all you have to do is type “female,” or, charmingly, “heteronormativity off” to play as a female character, and while a little bit of your backstory with Violet will change, she herself will not! It’s such a small, simple thing to implement, and yet it made a huge difference for me. It felt true to life before, with the ever-worse battle against procrastination, but with this switch it felt so true to life I played it twice just to revel in it (and explore the fun ways to lose.)

I wholeheartedly recommend this game if you have some time to kill (type “hint” if you get stuck) though maybe not if you have some work you should be doing instead. The irony might destroy the universe.


The Comics Curmudgeon

January 22, 2009

This is a quickie, but hopefully you’ll forgive me because the Comics Curmudgeon is so funny that you can read the archives for days of near-constant giggles. I’ve been reading for a long time, but especially lately it’s been my go-to source for good laughs.

It used to be that the Daily Show could always guarantee a smile, but during the primaries I had to stop watching, as something about the coverage of Hillary Clinton combined with the severe underrepresentation of women on the staff (on-screen as well as writing backstage) made it much more hit-or-miss. That’s kind of a post for another day, though.

What I really want to tell you is that Josh Fruhlinger is funny, and in a consistently feminist-friendly way. He reads all the most terrible newspaper comics, and mocks them mercilessly (the title of the blog used to be “Josh Reads the Comics So You Won’t Have To), and he’s not at all shy about pointing out (in hilarious ways!) the misogyny that shows up in comics, though he doesn’t really use those words.

Today, for example, he brings us this strip:

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It’s from Marvin, a (terrible!) comic strip about bizarrely-intelligent babies, and poop jokes. Josh has a number of choice things to say about this strip, but he concludes with the following:

And as a human being with a shred of decency, I am disgusted by the idea of a baby making her profile sexy, what the hell, this is monstrous beyond description.

It makes me giggle, and it’s a strong feminist statement on a topic that flies under the radar for most people!

He doesn’t identify as a feminist, as far as I know, but that doesn’t always matter; as smadin recently articulated, getting caught up in whether or not someone is A Feminist (or A Racist) tends to just distract from whether their words or actions are feminist (or racist). So, I don’t care if Josh is A Feminist– the Comics Curmudgeon has been a pretty feminist-friendly place, and if you enjoy laughing at things that are so bad they’re good, you might want to check it out.


Kate Beaton, and clever, clever comics.

November 4, 2008

Click on that, and read it, folks!

It’s a genuine Kate Beaton comic! Kate Beaton is one of my favorite webcomic artists; I love her so much, I forgive her for her somewhat un-intuitive website. She doesn’t usually tell “girl jokes”– instead, she hilariously recounts historical events, with occasional glimpses into her life on the Atlantic coast in Canada.

I don’t really know what to say, except that hey, here are comics. You should read them.

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