A Review of Utopia (TV series)

[Trigger warning: sexism, pregnancy, sterility, violence, child abuse]

So, Utopia is a comic-book inspired, refreshing series of 6 episodes. There would be much to say about it, for example about the style of it, with endless static shots and extremely edited colours (it’s like a comic book, get it?) which could be seen as… a bit pedantic, to be honest, but it’s really only just annoying in the first couple of episodes, the later ones are much less over-stylized, thank fuck.

However, I wanted to consider only the representation of women in it. At first sight, we should be delighted: so many female characters! Utopia is really symptomatic of the numerical view of fair representation. But when you see a bit more about who these characters are… Well, maybe 6 episodes is just not enough to really develop that many characters.

One woman, is pregnant. Her sole role in the series is being pregnant. Then it turns out she was a liar and gets killed.

One woman is sterile. Her sole role is to be sterile, and (obviously) reallly really to want a kid. At any cost.

One woman is diseased. Genetically. All her actions are imputable to the fact she is diseased: her interest in the conspiracy, her betrayal, her not wanting to date the male hero. She is that bisexual girl from House, basically.

One woman is Leeloo from the Fifth Element. This dawned on me mid-series (unhuman-likeness, improbable haircut) but you’re supposed only to realize it at the end, when she learns that what they were looking all along (it’s not called the Fifth Element, so let’s say the genetic disease thingummy which will change life on Earth forever) was IN HER. The actual words she is told is something incredibly tasteless and disturbing, like “You were looking for answers, for proof of your father’s love, he loved you so much he put it inside you”.

So, we have: the pregnant, the sterile with a will to mother, the diseased and the miraculous walking pharmaceutical. The four main female characters are therefore pure expressions of their biology. The only one that seems like a real character in the end is one we never get to know anything about, as she is a spy whose alllegiancies or real story are uncertain til the very end. But she is a powerful strong-willed woman who seems not to have everything about her dictated by her biology, so yay.

All this to say, fair representation is not about numbers, and forcing a higher number of women can mean just using more set female stereotypes, which Utopia chose to do.

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In Feminist defence of the Mystical Pregnancy trope

[Trigger warning: discussion of pregnancy, abortion, pictures from horror movies, mention of suicide]

After my rant against the Manic Pixie Dream Girl being perceived as an evil to ban from all culture forever while avoiding to think of the issue of representation of women with mental health issues in films, which proved suspiciously popular, I decided to write my own defence of the Mystical Pregnancy trope, which was also popularized by a Feminist Frequency video. Despite the fact I have, at least in both these instances, different views, I want to make clear that I still recommend that series of videos which are accessible and thought-provoking. Sadly enough, I find them also, in some cases, too consensual and superficial. The mystical pregnancy trope is summarized very eloquently by a blogger in these terms:

“Hey we’ve got this awesome independent strong lady character what sort of story lines shall we give her?”

“Oh I know, how about we strip her of her bodily autonomy and reduce her to her biology by having the bad guys make her pregnant against her will with an evil baby”

“Genius! I can’t see any problems with that story line. It doesn’t sound hackneyed and hugely misogynistic at all!”tumblr_m74kjkJM9s1rrn3uao1_500

The problem I have with “banning” such storylines is that, like many women, I see myself as, or at least I aspire to be a strong woman; like many women, I have become pregnant against my will (although fortunately not by a bad guy or, I suppose, with a particularly evil baby) and I definitely felt stripped of my bodily autonomy and reduced to my biology. I am glad sci-fi and horror exist to show us an image of pregnancy that is not the happy pregnant woman, or the woman that discovers in the end pregnancy is not that bad, even if she does not want to be a mother (thinking of Juno here, which I like for other reasons, but not the idea that pregnancy can be fun and quirky after all), or, more generally, the woman whose pregnancy changes and defines her whole life, and that’s why Deanna Troi’s adventure does not bother me so much. I actually like the “oh yeah, she got pregnant, got a weird kid that disappeared mysteriously, well that’s never going to be mentioned ever again because who cares, she has other issues” aspect of it!

Since I was young, I have always likened the prospect of ever being pregnant with what you can see in the Alien movies, and if I am such a fan of those movies (yes, all of them, even whichever one you feel is a betrayal of the franchise) and along with them, of many of the stories cited in lists of supposedly anti-feminist stories based around the mystical pregnancy trope, it is because I feel they address my own anxieties about pregnancy, body-changes, reproduction and motherhood, more accurately than other attempts to portray these issues in media.

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In the same way, I found David Cronenberg’s The Brood fascinating, despite the fact that it can easily be seen to have a Men’s Rights’ Activist subtext, especially when we consider it is a Canadian movie made 10 years before the Polytechnic massacre.

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What society in general tells me is that I am an abnormal woman, or less than a woman, to have no desire to be pregnant, have a child or be a mother, and a whole branch of Feminism reinforces that. I am the monster, when what I feel is that pregnancy and babies are monstrous. I have never found a doctor that believes that not wanting a child ever is possible for a woman. A GP actually gave me some information about what is practically grief-counselling when I planned my abortion, and mentioned that I would “not be human” if I did not feel some kind of remorse. Well-meaning, but really confusing to me. And the half-amused “oh, you will see, you’ll come round!” is in many ways a lot more insulting than accusations of being monstrous as it is basically considering me as a child.

Being pregnant made me physically and mentally sick, it was a horrible experience which I do not recommend to anyone. I really wish my body had had a way to “shut the whole thing down” and maybe in some psychosomatic way it was trying its best. During that period, I went to see Prometheus at the cinema. In this film, skip this if you are a spoiler-hater, the protagonist performs a surgical abortion (ceasarean?) on herself to extract the monster gestating in her. At which point my friend turned to me to enquire if I was okay or wanted to leave. But I found it AWESOME. It depicted exactly my state of mind at the time, and I think that is the major reason why I am almost the only person who actually enjoyed that film. Later, we discussed the numerous things which do not make sense in that film, and he listed the fact that she has to self-operate on herself, as the surgery machine does not have software for female body-types. It is true that it would make logical sense that the machine would either only work on one particular body, or all, although justifications can be found. However, the real justification for that detail, and the reason why I strongly appreciated it, has to do with the fact it addresses, in a single sentence, powerful issues about bodies, medicine and gender.

I believe that if our society puts such an emphasis on how awesome pregnancy and babies are, it is not only because of woman-hating patriarchy, it is also to try and avoid women whose pregnancy make them feel like I did (like you are no longer yourself, like your body is not yours, etc.) killing themselves. Now that safer ways exist to end a pregnancy, though, this cultural insistence has obviously lost this positive role. But if we still fight for abortions’ rights, when no abortion procedure is entirely safe, when we don’t believe that DNA is something anyone can ‘own’, or that parenthood is in any way based on it, and adoption is an available option, then we have to recognize that pregnancy in itself can be a cause of intense suffering to women.

If the mystical pregnancy trope exists and is so popular, it is in my opinion because a lot of women, whether they intend to get pregnant or not, whether they decide to be mothers or not when they are, have deep, complex feelings about pregnancy, and sci-fi and horror is a space in which to address those feelings, while putting aside what is perceived like more “normal” issues surrounding pregnancy.

Pixie-bashing is woman-bashing

I first became involved with the formalized concept of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl in a comedy YouTube video my friends were sharing. I thought to myself ‘O dear, woman-hating is really everywhere’. In this video men could unload their Manic Pixie Dream Girlfriends to a special care hospital designed for them. Disturbing and tasteless. A bit later, I realised they were not sharing this video to fuel their disgust for it, but they seemed to find the video either funny or at least cathartic for some kind of hatred for Manic Pixie Dream Girls they shared.

At first, I thought it was ridiculous to think about it, because the films revolving around MPDG are generally terrible. And I ended up watching a lot of them. Power to the people who punish bad cinema. MPDG are sickening, they belong to the exact same category as Doctor Patch and Forrest Gump.

Using a trope such as the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is lazy and terrible writing, and they are annoyingly often the ‘muse’ of a male character (although not always), like is justly pointed out in the Feminist Frequency video.

The terrible lazy writing aspect is that the male character is entirely bland. MPDG movies are films written for women and the man is 1. cute 2. full of love to give. In Elizabethtown, Garden State and My Sassy Girl, he has just lost a relative and needs some good old mothering.

Is it sexist? Well, women’s role is not to help men through mourning, and MPDG does appeal to the part of women which sees themselves as caregivers. But then again, picture of kittens appeal to that side of us as well, and I do not find them sexist.

The truth is, the male ‘lead’ is as irrelevant as he is bland. The grief he wallows in is not what the film is about, it is the background for the MPDG’s charming quirkiness. The Elizabethtown girl has a terrible, boring job, an estranged boyfriend she does not love and is terribly lonely, the Garden State girl has mental health issues, in My Sassy Girl, she is herself dealing with grief, addiction and mental health issues. They are not exactly post-feminist ideals of strong independent women juggling careers, luxury consumerism and trophy boyfriends.

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When I looked at the origin of the concept of MPDG, I started thinking there was a point in attacking it after all. I do not understand how people could rally behind an idea that is born from the fantasy of violence against women. When I said they were in the same category as Forrest Gump and Doctor Patch, I was anticipating this point. A lot of characters are terribly annoying. Jar-Jar Binkses are everywhere. What the creator of the concept of MPDG did though, is to take out a subsection of these annoying characters from bad movies on gender lines and on grounds of their hyper-femininity, and made them the annoying characters towards which we can direct our anger at bad cinema. I think that is sexist:

“The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is an all-or-nothing-proposition. Audiences either want to marry her instantly (despite The Manic Pixie Dream Girl being, you know, a fictional character) or they want to commit grievous bodily harm against them and their immediate family. As for me, well, let’s just say I’m not going to propose to Dunst’s psychotically chipper waitress in the sky any time soon.”

As a concept, the MPDG only makes sense if you count in our cultural propensity to fantasize about hurting women. The male ‘lead’ gets off lightly, but the MPDG is so annoying she has got to die. Ideally suffer a lot first. Or you know what, we could just lock them up in a mental hospital.

I am not saying hyper-femininity or child-like femininity are not annoying. I am generally annoyed by people with baby voices, a lot of people are. A lot of people are annoyed at camp men and wish they would ‘tone it down’. A lot of people cannot be bothered putting the extra effort in to understand a non-native English speaker, or just someone with a thick accent. Some people think American accents sound stupid. Some people cannot stand the way people from certain other races smell. Some people cannot be bothered learning that not all people from a different race look the same. That is true, but we need to be better than that. As long as they are women who feel most comfortable with their baby voices and their dainty clothes, portraying them in film will not be a sexist thing to do.

In many reviews about MPDG films, strangling is the preferred way of killing them, as their being annoying is associated with the noises they make. They do not speak, they chirp, they nag, their voices are too damn high-pitched. They are too needy, but they are also too independent.

500 Days of Summer is a film about a boy being rejected by a woman. It has strong sexist undertones, but not because of the female character who rejects the male lead and refuses to feel bad about it. In a film like Sweet November, the female character conducts a meaningful relationship with a man under her own terms, breaks it off when she wants to, without reason, as per previous agreement. The male character is confused and ends up finding out why she broke up: the female character is terminally ill and she cannot project herself in a long-term relationship. He confronts her about this and she maintains that these were the boundaries they had agreed on, that she has every right to stand by them and that she did not have any duty to disclose her illness. It’s a bad movie for other reasons, but that all story-arch is pretty good. Once analysed through the MPDG spectrum though, the female character is just another quirky misfit girl who is only interesting because of the influence she has on the hero, and, in the second case, is so disposable that she is conveniently terminally-ill.

Is this element of analysis helping feminism? Or is it making all female characters suspect. Not good enough. As some reviewers have noted, maybe to avoid being accused of sexism, films should just do away with the female annoying sidekick altogether, it would be much easier than to write a better script.

But the whole discussion of the MPDG avoids an issue altogether in those films, and that is the representation of women and mental illness in films. There is a pretty old cultural idea that being a woman is a mental illness. See Bergman’s Through A Glass Darkly, or Suddenly, Last Summer for depiction of insane women.

On the one hand, mental health is an issue that concerns a very large number of women. Statistics on anti-depressant prescriptions are frightening. And, a bit like the depiction of homosexual characters for a long time, there is the idea that any kind of depiction is good. Being able to see in a film a woman suffering from mental health (AND who does not hack anyone into pieces) is pretty amazing. On the other, like gay side-kicks helping their straight friends with their love-life, the MPDG’s (who almost always explicitly has some mental health condition or another, that is the ‘Manic’ part of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl) idiosyncracies (or symptoms) are charming and help the main character see life differently. There is no darkness attached to it, a bit like romanticized homeless ‘free’ people teaching rich people that there is more to life than work and money.

This representation of mental illness is not healthy by a long shot, but neither is the one proposed by anti-MPDG reviews. They demand independent post-feminist superwomen juggling careers and trophy boyfriends. Those barely functional Manic Pixie Dream Girls should just be locked back in the mental home where they belong.

And that is why I think we need to scrutinize our art and culture, but I think the phrase ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’ should be banned from our vocabulary. It is a lazy trendy concept that does not help study or change the depiction of women or mental health in films. Thankfully, like many concepts which do not lead to fruitful analyses, it has already mostly disappeared on its own.

Women non-fiction writers, how I started a double-list on my ebook reader

So I started this blog all feminist, then value critique came along and it’s all about older white males. So, first of all, value critique has some female writers. Not many at all, and to be honest the only one I could name is Roswitha Scholz, who is very often presented as the partner/wife/widow of Kurz, which makes me cringe everytime. Despite the extreme minority of women involved in it, value critique does not ignore the issue of gender oppression, which leads to weird things like published collections of essays on gender oppression written largely mostly by men. There’s nothing much that can be done about this, apart from propagating these ideas and making sure gender opression is not ‘forgotten’ along the way.

Anyway, it made me think of how little I read by women these days, and especially how little non-fiction by women I read. I instored a double-list system on my ebook reader: like in meetings where women/minorities/people who have yet to speak get their own VIP list when they ask to speak, books on my reading-list written by women are not only in the category they belong to, but in a new category, very imaginatively called ‘women’. This list is much shorter than I am ready to admit, but as it does contain a bit of everything, I use it quite a lot when I have no idea what I want to read, and it has helped with establishing an almost fair gender divide in the books I read.

So, thanks to this fact, and the fact that I have decided to read vulgarisation books about almost anything for professional reasons, I can tell you that I will soon be writing about all these books I started reading: Demon Fish, by Juliet Eilperin; The Story of Stuff, by Annie Leonard; Now You See It, Cathy N. Davidson; Complexity: A Guided Tour, by Melanie Mitchell; Mary Tudor: Princess, Bastard, Queen, by Anna Whitelock; Packing for Mars, by Mary Roach; 97 Orchard: An Edible History Of Five Immigrant Families, by Jane Ziegelman; Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism by Susan Jacoby.

It also means that David Graeber’s Debt will have to wait. I did start it but he manages to sound very boring and self-important in the dinner-party anecdote in the introduction, so I stopped…

“Insoumise à nue”, by Elisabeth Schneider

Aside

Ageism is usually one of these -isms that is simply added to a list but rarely acted upon. I found this portrait refreshing. Thérèse Clerc, 84, briefly talks about her life-long engagement, from Marxist Christianity to women’s liberation, and the current project she is involved in of a old-women’s home self-managed by its inhabitants in Montreuil. Some beautiful pictures by Elisabeth Schneider and some inspiring words (in French, I’m afraid), whatever that means.