Monthly Archives: July 2012

Guest Post: Stella MT

Here’s a guest post from my friend and sometimes critique partner (when she’s not working on her doctoral program – sheesh, can’t she just find a few hours to squeeze little old me in?) Stella MT from The Great Big Jump. She’s been a great supporter of this blog and has some wise “You go girl” insights. I’m honored that she wanted to dabble in the badassery and examine when some femme characters fall short of that right. But, she changed her mind midstream and this is what she came up with. Please enjoy!

Stella MT’s Post:
Originally, I had set out to write a funny article about network TV procedurals and their lack of convincingly bad-ass female characters, which could be attributed to several different factors that affect TV and film writing in general. I had it all planned out: who to snark on, who to blame, what could have been.

Then the news of Nora Ephron’s death broke out all over the Internet.

I admit that, outside of her most popular movies (When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, even You’ve Got Mail and Julie and Julia), I’ve never really considered Nora Ephron as a “girl power” icon; all I know is that she’s a superb writer with a lifetime’s worth of snappy anecdotes to share, and I wish I had been able to truly develop my appreciation of her work before she passed away.

And yet, as the news of her passing flooded my timeline on Twitter, I found myself reading Ephron’s commencement speech at Wellesley College in 1996, where she spoke as an alumna of the school:

Many of my classmates did exactly what they were supposed to when they graduated from Wellesley, and some of them, by the way, lived happily ever after. But many of them didn’t. All sorts of things happened that no one expected. […] The women’s movement came along and made harsh value judgments about their lives—judgments that caught them by surprise, because they were doing what they were supposed to be doing, weren’t they? The rules had changed, they were caught in some kind of strange time warp. They had never intended to be the heroines of their own lives, they’d intended to be—what?—First Ladies, I guess, first ladies in the lives of big men. They ended up feeling like victims. They ended up, and this is really sad, thinking that their years in college were the best years of their lives.

What does this passage have to do with good writing? 

Put it simply, a good story often begins with the choice that must be made by a character in response to an unexpected and difficult situation.  In the case of most female protagonists, the “unexpected” could be as simple as a bad breakup (see: Rachel Green in Friends and Jess Day in New Girl) or as overwhelming as working for an office that might as well be a frat house (see also: Brenda Lee Johnson in The Closer and Ziva David in NCIS).  These moments are filled with the realization that things will never be the way it used to be: all of the sudden, there’s no going back to the old house, the previous branch, the trust that was broken by that lying piece of shit.  Survival, in one form or another, becomes the name of the game.

And yet, not all female protagonists get to become heroines in their own stories.

I look again at all the characters I set out to mock, and it becomes clear to me that they were intended to be strong and sexy in their own way: handy with a gun, easy on the eyes, tough enough to turn the tables on a perp yet sensitive enough to do everything they can for the ones they truly love, be it their messed-up families or the team of crime-fighters in their squad. Yet, as time went on, I found that they’ve only become less compelling as time went on: sure, it may be “realistic” to show our heroines not getting their way, but does it always have to happen on a regular basis? It’s already bad enough to be stonewalled by bureaucrats and left in the dark by lovers and family members… but do they also have to be tortured by psychos every other season, too?

It’s as if the creators of their respective shows are trying to tell us, over and over again, that any woman who chooses to take the bad guys down has chosen a life of martyrdom. Choose that journey, they say, and you will be doomed to a lifetime of trust issues, bad sex, substance abuse, and abandonment from nearly every single person that you’ve ever loved. You may be strong enough for this, they’ll say, but you’ll never be a hero… not even to your own self.


In a way, characters like these are marks of lazy storytelling – and the writers are partly at fault for the inconsistency – but, from my point of view, the repercussions may be more serious than we think. At a time when the entertainment industry has gone completely global, these shows are now shown all over the world, in different cycles, and in every possible language. And not only that, but there is a major chance that these shows – and stories – are being watched, right now, by viewers in countries where women don’t have the same rights and privileges that we have in our comfortable corners of the world.

Is this the message we want to send to the rest of the world: that, even in a democracy, there is no point for an educated woman to stand up and lead the charge against injustice? Is it fair for everyone else to think that the only stories we have to tell about our women – all women – are the ones where they have to do only what is expected, if they want to survive without being victimized?

I don’t know about you, but I’d like to think that a true heroine would never choose to live her life like this.

A true heroine, in my opinion, does not need to blame “the system” for her lack of initiative. She doesn’t have to dress up and go to work: she chooses to dress up and go to work, every day, because choosing otherwise would only make her more restless. She doesn’t always make the best decisions, but she takes responsibility for all of them, and finds a little humor in every situation. She may have to work a little harder to get some respect, but she will earn it – win or lose – and the guys in the office better recognize if they knew what’s best for them. 
And while it may be possible for her to “have it all” – good looks, great job, wicked skills, maybe a family and/or a nice house – a true heroine knows where the reallines are drawn in the first place. Cute shoes are a luxury, the right connections are a privilege… but truth, love, justice, peace of mind? Those are non-negotiable rights, and our heroine will fight for them, to the bitter end.

Which then brings us, once again, to Nora Ephron, and her message to the Class of ’96 at Wellesley:

Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim. Because you don’t have the alibi my class had—this is one of the great achievements and mixed blessings you inherit: Unlike us, you can’t say nobody told you there were other options. […] Did I say it was hard? Yes, but let me say it again so that none of you can ever say the words, nobody said it was so hard. But it’s also incredibly interesting. You are so lucky to have that life as an option.

Right or wrong – and regardless of who gets to run “the show” – a true heroine gets to choose her own destiny. And that is always a story worth telling, for all time. 



Badass for Armageddon

Margaret, or “Maggie”, Falling Skies
I love Falling Skies. There’s something so inherently real about it. Yeah sure, the idea of aliens and space travel aside, what would actually happen if the Earth were invaded by a violent race? Would human beings be able to put aside our differences and unite to fight for our home? I’ve often wondered if we could bring it down to the core fundamentals of what it means to be human or if we’ve grown too self-aggrandizing to change. We are supremely stratified as a culture, in America alone. Across the world, even more so. In fact, I just saw an MSNBC show on a security company that fortifies billionaire’s homes with panic rooms and 12-gauge shotgun mounts hidden inside walls to kill intruders. The proprietor of this firm joked that the last people on Earth would be the billionaire and his family holed up in the mansion stocked full for Armageddon. Is that right? Or even fair? Why do the rich get to survive the Apocalypse?
And what about the Doomsday Preppers? Are they really that crazy or might they have the right idea? If what happened in the backstory to Falling Skies actually occurred and a race came to stripmine Earth of its resources and people then, yeah they sure did. These ‘crazies’ would be the people that might lead the rest of humanity to salvation. They’d be the regular guys, the hunters, the former military and law enforcement, maybe even criminals who’ve learned survival by any means. Throw in a few Call of Duty fanatics who learned strategic guerilla warfare by default and we might have a chance if our active-duty military is decimated. That is if we could just stop being selfish human beings for long enough to band together and organize. But it often takes millennia for humans to change.
The story of the human connection and the will to fight has always been popular. The underdog story, or the reluctant hero character trope. On Falling Skies, one of the most interesting personalities is a secondary character that came in quietly after the first few episodes and made her presence known. Her name is Maggie, we don’t know her last name, nor does it really matter, the conventions of society have gone to Hell. But if you look at it with a critical eye, she has no last name because she is just “Maggie”, the young woman who has survived on her own recognizance and wherewithal. All she has is herself. She’s a total badass.
We first see Maggie as a member of Pope’s gang, a rival and antagonist to our educated and honorable hero Tom Mason. Pope is everything that Tom is not. But Maggie is painted in shades of gray. We don’t know where she stands or if we should trust her until she whips out her guns and shoots two of the gang members in the heart to help Tom and Anne escape. One was Pope’s brother. Turns out he’d been raping her since they took her in for ‘protection’. It was implied that they’d all molested her in some way, but never really spelled out. (Side note: rape as a character developer has come under much scrutiny in the prequel story of Tomb Raider and has many people in an uproar. I may or may not do a post on this as I find the whole notion of rape as entertainment abhorrent. But check this link out in the meantime.)

Nevertheless, her experience with the gang has added to her hardness. If you look closely and pay attention though, she was tough even before Pope’s gang. She was just biding her time. We find out later that she survived cancer in her youth and this is what actually made her the mature, world-weary young woman she is now.

Once she joins the 2nd Mass, a regiment in the Massachusetts Militia, we see that Maggie is a skilled fighter. She can handle a gun as if she was trained to do so. She rides motorcycles and is a strong hand-to-hand fighter. Most importantly, she goes into battle without fear. She carries herself tall and with a brick-sized chip on her shoulder. This season, we’ve seen a bit of a lighter side with her smiling and teasing. Her sarcasm is right up front and center but she’s a good soldier and follows orders because she believes in the cause.

Of course, what badass on TV is complete without the gorgeous looks? She’s blonde and beautiful. She’s a tiny scrap of a thing but damn can the girl wear a leather jacket and motorcycle boots like a pro. She’s got tattoos on her arms and usually walks around with messy hair. I love this because seriously, there’s got to be a lack of hygiene products and water. These women don’t have time to worry about eyeliner or if their armpits stink. Aliens have invaded the planet. They’ve got bigger things to stress over. One of the coolest things about Maggie, played by Sarah Carter, is that sexy, gravelly voice. She’s got “dirt” in her voice as Adam Levine once described Juliet Simms’s on The Voice. It’s raw and earthy and just does something to you. And I’m not even into girls.
This brings us to the love interest, or partner. Hal, Tom Mason’s son: cute, affable, boy becoming a man and a soldier way earlier than he should. He started out as impetuous and foolhardy but has grown into his roll of squad leader. He follows orders and is fiercely protective of his two younger bothers. He is often with Maggie on patrols, or scouting runs. They work well together. I think it’s supposed to be implied that she’s taught him a fair amount over the last few months (we’ve skipped ahead in time three months between seasons). But there’s a flirtation there in their jokes. They smile a lot at each other and tease one another. It’s one of the developing relationships on the show and I for one would like to see it happen. They compliment each other and I think that she could use a man who respects her enough to fight along side of her, who was loyal and who might even treat her like a girl every once in a while. Up to this point, he’s denied that there’s anything between them. We’ll see what happens, because Hal’s actual girlfriend is still lingering around, harnessed and under the control of the aliens. If she ever gets back, you can bet a triangle will exist.
I have to say, if an alien apocalypse ever occurs in my lifetime, I’d look to Maggie to save my ass. Or at the very least teach me how to save my own. We could all stand to figure out how to put our past behind us and find new ground to flourish. It doesn’t matter where we came from, it matters what we do now and the choices we make today. I won’t have a billion dollar panic room or 500 gallons of water stored in my basement. All I’ll have is me.
Pack your ‘go-bag’ and find your leather because you bet your ass when you’re fighting off zombies and aliens, you want them to see you coming and shiver in fear.
Happy Independence Day!