Tag Archives: feminism

Review: Supernatural: “Wayward Sisters” (13.10)


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My collected recaps and reviews of season one, which first appeared on Innsmouth Free Press, are now up (with a few extras) on Kindle and are currently on sale through this Friday (May 18). The Kindle version is available through Amazon. The print version is also up. If you buy the print version, you get a Kindle copy thrown in for free. I also get paid if you get it on Kindle Unlimited (for free), read the Kindle version, or lend it to a friend via the Kindle Owners Lending Library. Just FYI.


[lots o’ spoilers ahead]


I’ve been dawdling over this review for months, largely because, on top of working full-time as an English tutor and museum science educator, I just finished a semester full of an internship for finishing up my Historic Preservation Technology degree and College Algebra (for my sins). Well, I passed those classes and graduated on Friday – and the CW has passed on picking up Wayward Sisters after months of strongly implying the series was practically a go for launch. And the season 13 finale is on Thursday.

So, now seems like a good time to revisit this episode.

I usually try to start with something positive in reviews and get to the critical stuff later on. There are some episodes where it’s more difficult to find the positive than others (translation: almost all of the Nepotism Duo entries). However, with this one, I’m going to spin the format around and go with the critical stuff first, then the viability of the characters, then the viability of the spin-off this backdoor pilot was intended to introduce. I think this spin-off’s actually pretty doable, with some tweaks, but it’s going to take a bit to explain that, and why the potential spin-off is fairly unique. I’ve seen some concerns by posters (legit concerns), though, and I want to discuss them first. Not everyone would want to sit through the viability discussion on the spin-off to get to the review of the episode itself.

Also, I’ve been trying to go in order with the episode reviews, but since there’s a whole lot of talk about the spin-off right now, I’m going to talk about this one and then go back to catching up with the other episodes I haven’t reviewed yet, this season. Also, it means I can put off reviewing yet another dull and cluttered episode by the Nepotism Duo (“War of the Worlds” (13.07)) a little while longer.

So, here’s the Bad, the Mixed and the Good.

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The Bad

Let’s talk about why some posters weren’t overly thrilled with the way the episode was set up. They were on to something. The basic premise is a hoary Western cliché that was old when Gunsmoke was on. It’s called “The men are incapacitated/out of town, and the wimminfolk have to step in and save the day.”

A signal example of why this isn’t exactly the most feminist trope ever popped up in 1978 in the original Battlestar Galactica‘s early episode, “Lost Planet of the Gods, Part I.” In it, most of the fleet’s (male) Viper pilots fall ill with a mystery virus, forcing a reluctant (and sexist) Apollo to rely on a bunch of new recruits. Most of them are young women and one of them is his new bride, Serena.

Lots of strident faux-feminist speechifying from the female characters and “down to earth,” condescending sarcasm from the male characters ensue. Naturally, as soon as the men are back on their feet, the women revert to being helpers and girlfriends, and fade into the background once more. In Serena’s case, she straight-up gets killed off in a Doomed Girlfriend in a Coma plot.

That’s the problem with the trope. It’s based on the idea that women are inherently weaker (and dumber) than men, and will only be called upon to engage in such heroic measures in an emergency when the men can’t protect them. As soon as the emergency is over, traditional gender roles snap right back into place and the women return to their kitchens. I’ll bet women who worked in the factories and trades during WWII, and lost their jobs to returning (male) GIs, cringed every time they saw this trope.

Now, obviously, the Wayward Sisters don’t quite revert to their previous roles at the end of the episode. In fact, part of what makes using this trope so awkward in this case is that it’s simply unnecessary for bringing these particular women into action. Jody, Donna, Alex and Claire are already actively Hunting. They’ve even specialized, Donna with Vampires and Claire (apparently) with Werewolves, aside from a smattering of other monsters (ghosts, not so much). Meanwhile, Alex has acquired a certain expertise in autopsying the supernatural.

This is all something of which the Brothers are well aware, having worked with Jody and Alex as recently as episode three of the season because they trust these women and their skills. Only the two new characters, Patience and Kaia (who have superpowers, but are otherwise total newbies to the Life) struggle to fit in. When Patience goes into battle with the other women, a gun is shoved into her hands and she gets offhand noises of approval when she finally manages to kill a monster.

So, why the condescending nonsense about the Little Women riding to the rescue and the dumbing down of the Brothers to accommodate the introduction of the women’s new team? Lousy, tone-deaf writing, that’s why.

Even the task the women have set themselves basically involves their staying at home in one place, waiting for the monsters to come to them, as opposed to the Brothers’ traveling around the country, putting out supernatural brushfires. Not so feminist and progressive, Show. Just sayin’.

This pops up repeatedly in the wheel-spinning the show has Sam and Dean do in the Bad Place. I saw a lot of spec that the mothershow would get canceled midway through season 14 to make way for the spin-off (pretty darned unlikely now). I think that would have been a very, very bad idea if the network wanted the mothershow’s core audience to accept the spin-off (and, at least a few months ago, it seemed apparent that they did).

Ever since the Dawn Ostroff era, saltgunners have been extremely sensitive to any hint that the CW is trying to kill off Supernatural (not least because Ostroff repeatedly did try to do that). Replacing it directly with a spin-off involving a different cast and premise would bring down that paranoia and wrath on the new show. It would kill the spin-off right at the start.

If they had taken this to series, unless Padalecki and Ackles had wanted out right away, I didn’t see the mothershow checking out before the end of season 15, in order to give the new show a good boost and remove any sense that the mothershow was being summarily replaced. Granted, that’s all moot now, unless the CW actually listens to the fan backlash over its failure to pick up the series. But this is a network where its ostensibly female-lead series are even more misogynistic than its male-lead series, while touting the mere fact it has any female-lead series in the first place as something great and progressive, so you probably shouldn’t hold your breath.

Do the showrunners and network understand this dynamic, especially after the ignominious crash-and-burn of previous would-be backdoor pilot, “Bloodlines” (which fans roundly hated for being terrible storytelling and barely even fitting into the SPNverse)? Well … some of the writing and direction this episode could have been a lot more reassuring on that level (and the network’s decision to pick up Yet Another Spin-off of The Vampire Diaries that is even less female-lead than the previous two shows kinda says it all for them).

If the Bad Place really was as deadly as Kaia kept saying it was (she claimed the Brothers wouldn’t last more than a few hours and they made it at least two days), there were better ways to show that than to write Sam and Dean as plot-stupid and suddenly unable to fight their way out of a wet paper bag with a hole in it and a pink neon sign in Kidprint font saying EXIT HERE. There simply was no way that EVOL!Kaia could have taken them both down, even though the plot was writing them as too stupid to pull out their angel swords (which EVOL!Kaia apparently never thought to take from them) until they reached the rift, let alone their guns. Guns trump a cute stick with a blade on it 99% of the time.

Sure, Meg managed it in season one. But she’s a demon and she enlisted help. Plus, that was season one.

Even the figure taking them by surprise was a dumb idea. That whole sequence failed to do what it was supposed to do – make EVOL!Kaia look badass – and just served to irritate the mothershow’s usual audience. I get that the Brothers couldn’t be the focus of the story in the sense of screentime, but their sojourn in the Bad Place could have been written a lot better. A few cute bits about Dean automatically going survivalist and Sam (unrealistically) being squeamish about eating a lizard didn’t cut it.

I mean, come on, writers. The Brothers spent most of season one looking for their father, but that was because he didn’t want to be found, not because he was too dumb to get out of his own mess.

Also not cutting it were a few random and vague references to the importance of the Brothers to the new team. Padalecki and Ackles could easily have had more time off, and the focus could still be on the women, without making the connection between them all so damned generic. This was a golden opportunity to show how much influence the Brothers have had on the next generation of Hunters, and deflect fan anger away from the new interlopers, by showing that the Sisters had an emotional connection with Sam and Dean.

Instead, the writers blew it with a few platitudes that made Claire’s motivation, especially, seem as shallow as a kiddie pool. They wouldn’t have even needed to invent a Woobie character for her to lose if they’d done a little more digging into why she would want to rush off to save Sam and Dean.

I wasn’t wowed, either, by the equally-lazy cliché of Jody and Donna (the adults) going off to investigate the boat and then having to be rescued by the teen girl pack. Well … more like Claire with a flamethrower while the others stood around looking awkward. The image definitely cut down on the danger vibe at the end of the scene.

Admittedly, part of that was another fail of the Bad Place set-up. Those creepy monsters that came through were not even remotely scary. They looked and were filmed like exactly what they were – athletic stunt guys doing parkour in creepy monster suits. The only time one looked cool and like an actual MOTW was when Alex was cutting up a dead one and removing its Mad-Max-style facemask.

Another problem with this was all the mucking about with Kaia and her character development (or sheer lack thereof). I’ll talk a bit in the section on characters about why making her and Claire a romantic couple was actually the most successful (or, at least, the least unsuccessful) aspect of their dynamic. For now, let’s focus on why that twist at the end was oh-so-not-good.

There was a common tactic in action and syndicated fantasy shows of the 80s and 90s to introduce a likeable character who appeared to be part of the main cast and then kill that character off right away, either in the pilot or the next episode or two. Basically, he or she was a disguised Red Shirt. The intent was to give the illusion that anyone could be killed off, even though everyone else usually proceeded to have adamantium plot armor until at least the end of the season.

With Kaia, they seem to have added on the cliché of replacing a likeable auxiliary character (especially one played by a PoC) with an EVOL version. Remember Sydney’s roommate in Alias? Like that. Sometimes, this works (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine had a doozy of a reveal involving Doctor Bashir, and I don’t mean the part about his being Khan-adjacent), but more often, it doesn’t, especially if the switch is permanent.

Part of the problem is that we just barely met Kaia and already, they’re rebooting her. Even if this person wearing Kaia’s face is really her with a personality change, as opposed to an EVOL alt-version of her or a monster taking on her appearance, she’s been rebooted. And it’s not as though we were especially attached to the person they just killed off, so there’s even less emotional investment in the reboot.

You have to care about an original in order to care about a reboot. This isn’t a situation like Fred and Illyria in Angel. We’ve barely met Kaia, so there’s little reason to care about her fate.

It just feels like a cheap way to introduce a really powerful character (at least, in terms of superpowers) very briefly to scatter characters into new configurations and then kill her off because she’s too superpowerful for weekly MOTW use. Plus, Dean would totally have wanted to go after his mom right now at the end of 13.10 if the Kaia of 13.09 were still alive.

So, the whole episode was locking down the new team and the premise, and not only was one character left swinging in the wind, but the writers intentionally did that. Rest assured that as this backdoor pilot isn’t going to series, we’re not likely ever to see a resolution to what happened here, any more than we had any resolution to the twist at the end of “Bloodlines” (not that anybody cared about that, but still). Look at how Jody and Donna and the rest of the crew just up and disappeared after the Donna-centric episode following this one.

Kaia’s been the focus of two episodes now and she still doesn’t feel like a real person. She feels more like a checklist of attributes, most of them making her a victim rather than a character. I feel as though the writers keep shoving her in my face (LOOK, LOOK, SHE’S A POOR INDIGENOUS STREET WAIF, FEEL SORRY FOR HER, HOW DARE YOU NOT FEEL SORRY FOR HER?), which gives me a headache and irritates me with the writers’ constant attempts to handwave their own sketchy writing. Don’t give me retro characterization and then try to guilt me into accepting it as groundbreaking writing in diversity.

While her bonding with Claire was a nice idea, it felt extremely rushed (especially with all the slashy overtones). I could see Claire feeling bad that she’d failed to save an innocent she’d sworn to protect (like the little girl at the beginning), but flinging herself into Jody’s arms and weeping as though she’d lost the love of her life after Kaia’s death? That I don’t get.

I could see her grieving over Dean like that, or Castiel (who gets zero concern from Claire or anyone else this episode, despite also being in the wind at this point as far as they know). It’s certainly how she grieved over her mother. And in the episode where she gets turned into a werewolf, we see Dean leave the room when he believes she is dying because he can’t watch. So, there is a bond between those two. But Kaia? Claire knew her for all of five minutes. Where is all of this emotion coming from?

And why does Kaia suddenly decide to trust her after flatly refusing to help Jack or the Brothers? That seems vaguely misandrist. It’s the same lesbian-knight-saves-superpowered-damsel-in-distress conflict as the one involving Charlie and the fairy in “LARP and the Real Girl,” except that this time, the fairy dies and is a WoC (Woman of Color). The plot eventually resolves into a case where a WoC with sparkly powers gets fridged to motivate a white character who is being presented as the episode’s Hero. Hmmm, yeah, nope, not so progressive.

Also, Kaia wasn’t very sympathetic in either of her episodes. She was whiny and helpless and not even very good at escaping humans, let alone taking care of herself against supernatural creatures. She seemed to oscillate between fearful “Well, screw you all; I’m leaving you to clean up my multiverse mess” and “I shall face my fears by coming over to the other world and helping you, fair Claire.”

I never got any sense of responsibility for her own actions, let alone heroism, from Kaia. Granted, it was a stupid idea to let her actually go with Claire to the Bad Place, since she was the only one who could find it, but a little stepping-up-to-the-plate seemed in order for her being part of the team. She seemed very selfish and immature, except for the jarring shift to “By golly, I will help you” at the end of both this and the previous episodes.

It might have worked with an older and more experienced actress, but really, a lot of it was down to the poor writing and weird direction. I also sensed, from the terrible and choppy way the fight scene in the Bad Place was staged (a lot like the very frustrating cutting back and forth in the dark that you see in Arrow), that a natural at stage-fighting she’s not. It reminded me of all the dancing around Katie Cassidy’s lack of stage-fighting skills in season three.

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The Mixed

On the opposite end of the spectrum from Kaia, I think Jody and Donna were the best-realized of the characters. Sure, they’ve had multiple episodes to develop and the characters are also played by older and more experienced actresses. But also, I think a lot of it came down to the fact that Jody and Donna have their own supernatural-rooted conflicts, based on their being cops in a rural area, and Jody’s loss of her husband and son to monsters. Plus, their training and experience as law enforcement officers have given them a jump-start on the skills they need to survive as Hunters.

They don’t suffer from constant comparisons to Sam and Dean because their central character conflicts aren’t directly pilfered from Sam and Dean. I’d definitely watch a show with just Jody and Donna (I especially liked their incidental theme music while they were boarding the boat). They make a great team and come across as salty old Hunters in the Winchester tradition, already. I’m rather less certain I’d watch a show with just the younger women.

Some people had issues with Donna due to her accent and boisterously pro-gun attitude, but Jody was the one who struck me as a bit of a weathervane character in “Wayward Sisters.” I don’t mind Donna’s accent. She’s an obvious homage to Marge Gunderson in Fargo, whom I love as a character. I love the series, too (plenty of broad accents in that).

You may ask why I hated the RP English accents of last season, but had no problem with Donna’s. Let’s just say that the RP accents of characters like Bela and Toni were genuinely fake, and represented some weird and ugly national stereotypes. But there are some people in the U.S. who actually talk like Donna and certainly some who act like her. And that regional stereotype really is more broad than negative.

More to the point, she’s not an antagonist, and is a solid and capable Hunter. Donna may have issues with her weight and with men (especially her jerkoff ex), but she is fully confident and competent Hunting Vampires.

Jody is fine this episode when she’s off with Donna, but she flip-flops a lot whenever she’s with Claire. She wants Claire to be safe. No, she wants to let Claire go save the world. Make up your mind, Jody.

In the process, she also ends up ignoring Alex, a girl she previously had gone to bat for with the Brothers to save her when Alex was forcibly turned into a Vampire and they were considering killing her. I get that Jody’s desire to create another family to replace the one that died (no matter how much she may protest that’s not so) fuels this emotional conflict. But the writing for it could be a lot better and not portray Jody as an emotional jellyfish. Also, there was no way she should have let Kaia go through the multiverse rip with Claire.

I noticed a lot of questions on social media about why Claire gets so much prominence in the backdoor pilot (and honestly, I hope the series doesn’t go the route of an ensemble cast where one character gets far more coverage than anyone else). Her being white and blonde seems a rather obvious factor. But more so is that as a character, she’s been around longer than any of the other characters in the spin-off (since season four’s “The Rapture”), though Kathryn Newton has only been playing Claire since season ten, when the character popped up again after a six-season hiatus.

Another cogent reason is that Claire is a legacy member of Team Free Will. Castiel has been wearing her (now-dead) father’s body since before he met the Brothers and she has also harbored him as a vessel. So, she has a direct “familial” connection to the Brothers. It helps that Newton seems pretty comfortable with all the physical stuff of the role.

That said, Claire, despite having a lot of roots in the mothershow, is still a bit nebulous in terms of motivation and character. I noted before that I thought making her lesbian – or at least bisexual – was actually a good idea. It defuses a potentially problematical aspect of her character to this point – she has developed a monumental crush on Dean, which has caused a fair amount of unease for both Dean and Jody.

Dean actually loves Claire dearly, enough that, as I said before, he was forced to leave the room when she took the torturous werewolf cure last season and didn’t want her to go through with it due to the high mortality rate. But he loves her as a father and would never, ever sleep with her. He is acutely aware of the fact that he is twice her age and that she is effectively his best friend’s mortal daughter. Claire may talk about how much she owes both Sam and Dean (and she does have a bond with Sam, as well). But she is carrying a big, bright, sparkly Daddy-Figure torch for Dean and this has caused him to put some emotional distance between them.

If Claire is gay, then this soft ground firms up considerably for the writers. The highly inappropriate puppy-dog-love chemistry with this scarred Hunter old enough to be her daddy becomes much less squicky and turns into more appropriate father-daughter chemistry.

Dean has also distanced himself because he appears to blame himself for her self-destructive path into Hunting and sees himself as a terrible role model. Jody, on the other hand, appears to see that Dean’s very mental health issues make him a good role model for troubled young Hunters like Claire because he is a survivor who has used his own damage to become a Hero. A damaged person like Dean, much more than some unattainable paragon of virtue, gives hope to the damaged people who enter Hunting as a major avocation or even full-time profession. Him they can emulate.

One problem is that Claire strives to be like Dean without quite understanding who Dean is or what makes him a great Hunter and Hero. Claire goes in, half-cocked and guns blazing, without understanding that one of the most cunning, sneaky, and strategic people in the SPNverse is Dean Winchester. If Dean does go in big, dumb and beautiful, that’s a tactic, not a sign that he’s too dopey or prideful to do it any other way.

Claire, now being fully orphaned, also doesn’t quite get Dean’s loyalty and devotion to family. The person who gets this, weirdly enough, is Alex. So, while Claire thinks she’s being like Dean, Alex is being like Dean. Claire is more like season-one Sam in that she is seeking revenge and being a hot-head. Alex is staying home and backing Jody up. We even saw her save Jody from a brainwashed Mary last season.

Alex also has important support skills in that she is now a nurse or in nursing school, or something. Let’s hope the show actually starts researching emergency medicine a bit better from now on to suit her role (because she and the others will probably be back, at least on the mothershow). Alex (like Sam) is really only in Hunting out of loyalty to Jody and also (like Sam) feels tainted by her years with a vampire family. Like Sam, Alex is seeking a kind of normal that is so idealized it probably doesn’t exist, while not feeling especially worthy of it or able to identify and find it.

Unfortunately, while Alex got in some good Dean-style lines (“You look like Biker Barbie”), she had very little development aside from some bonding with Claire and Jody. She was effectively shunted aside by all the other characters.

So, let’s talk about Patience. Patience got a full-episode introduction earlier this season in the eponymous “Patience” (13.03). Admittedly, she comes off as bland and low-key in this one compared to all the over-the-topness of certain other characters, but I think her character arc worked the best of them.

Alex desires Normal. Patience just left Normal behind in Atlanta and went off on a Hero’s Journey. She wants to use her power of prophecy to help people. She even basically got disowned by her father in the previous episode for leaving to come to Jody’s. So, Patience may look boring at the moment, but a lot is going on with her.

In addition, Patience also had a few checks on her ego about the above big mission to save others. For one thing, everyone else (except for Kaia, who was kinda grandfathered in) knew a lot more about Hunting and handling guns than she did. For another, the vision that sent her to Jody’s in the first place to try to save Claire ended up saving no one. Not only did it come true, but Patience belatedly realized that it came true because she had misinterpreted it. What she had thought was Claire’s death was actually Claire grieving over Kaia’s death. Prophecy isn’t quite as straightforward as she thought or as the show made it look in her first episode. This is humbling for her.

It’s also really, really nice to see an African American woman who isn’t a condescending stereotype. Patience is boring, middle-class, and academically smart, and that’s the whole point. Technically, she doesn’t have to be there. She has a stable home she could return to. Despite losing her mother and grandmother at a young age, she’s not rocked by trauma and forced out onto the road. She’s a volunteer. She just wants to do something good with her gift.

What makes no sense, though (and I can’t believe I’m saying this because I hated the incessant, years-long focus on Sam’s psychic storyline), is that Sam never has a conversation with her about her visions. Her visions are almost exactly the same as his psychic abilities in the first two seasons, and her grandmother lampshaded Sam’s abilities like crazy back in season one. But nope, not a peep between Sam and Patience about it. Sam has no conversation with Kaia about it, either, for that matter, nor does Dean ever bring up with her the considerable amount of dreamwalking and travel beween worlds he’s done. That absence was glaring to me.

But unlike some fans, I actually don’t mind the women being on the show and I think the focus on the spin-off gave the writing a direction last season distinctly lacked (let’s be honest – Lucifer on the Loose was boring as hell. So was anything to do with the LoL). But considering Sam and Dean are the inspiration for the formation of the Wayward Sisters in-verse, the least the show could do was have some more expression about what that means. A little vague mumbling from Claire and Jody about how Sam and Dean are missing (really? Those guys go missing more often than a tomcat on the prowl) and the women owe them doesn’t cut it. I’d like to see how that thinking has evolved to this point. I mean, hell, every time Bobby and/or Rufus popped up in their later appearances, the show practically went into hagiography mode. I did not sense anything inspirational or special about the Brothers’ appearance in this episode (though there were hints with Dean in the Patience episode).

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The Good

As for SPN being sexist or misogynistic, simply put, it’s not. Women have always been portrayed as Hunters or potential Hunters in the show. They handle weapons. They kill things. They kick ass.

Patience was actually slapped on the back for killing a human-like monster this week. Women don’t get to kill anything on American TV without a huge negative deal made about it, let alone praised for it. Yet, after the Sisters killed all those things, it was Miller Time. The only dampener was the loss of a comrade, not any squeamishness or guilt over killing monsters.

The potential for a female-led storyline has always been there, which is a lot more than I can say for The Vampire Diaries (where the two male leads metaphorically smothered the female lead) or The Originals (where women are either victims or evil bitches – sorry, evil witches), two supposedly female-oriented CW dark fantasy shows that utterly fail to be feminist.

Legends of Tomorrow plays up Sara’s character a whole lot, but the sole other female character (who is always a WoC) seems to get switched in and out interchangeably, rendering women barely a third of the cast. Similarly, male characters also dominate Arrow and the female characters are either love interests, annoying little sister types or screeching harpies (oh, hello, Laurel).

I love Kara and her sister’s relationship on Supergirl (not to mention Alex’s coming out), but dear God, if I have to hear her apologize and grovel one more time for something a male lead never would have been dunned on, I’m gonna scream. Same deal with iZombie and the title character having to be “nice” to everyone (she’s a freakin’ zombie, people!).

Jane the Virgin is female-centric, but it’s also basically a soap opera – very traditional roles for women. And have you seen lowest-rated-show-in-network-history-for-two-whole-seasons Crazy Ex-Girlfriend? Sure, the songs are bouncy, but between the songs are long, arid, grim stretches of the title character actually being a crazy ex-girlfriend, doing things that a male character in film or TV rom-com or adventure would be considered heroic for doing (even though, in the real world, they would indeed be creepy and stalkerish). The only difference is that it’s a woman doing it and women are never portrayed positively doing this stuff. It’s a really negative portrayal.

This baffles me, since Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is hailed as feminist, yet it’s about as anti-feminist as it can be. It breaks no new cinematic ground whatsoever.

There’s The 100 (which I never got into much), but even they did a Bury Your Gay Girls storyline and the showrunners never figured out why that was a problem.

Black Lightning started out a bit iffy on that score (Lynn and her youngest daughter are both rather annoying cliches at the start), but Anissa at the drug store was about the most badass intro to a character’s new powers under fluorescent lighting since we saw Demon!Dean take out an Amara fan at the beginning of season ten. Any showrunners for the “Wayward Sisters” spin-off ought to have taken notes.

There’s a reason why some female viewers like SPN but really dislike other CW shows. And it’s not self-hate or internalized misogyny. The CW claims to have young women as its target audience, but most of its entries are every bit as sexist and misogynistic as the rest of TV.

Not a surprise, considering the network is no more welcoming to women and People of Color as producers than any other network. The pro-Girl Power thing is all just a big marketing dodge. On Supernatural, it’s downright refreshing to see women kill multiple human-like monsters, handle guns, and brag about their weapons collection, without an ounce of remorse or squeamishness (and several actresses from Samantha Ferris to Cyndy Sampson to Marisa Ramirez to Kim Rhodes and Briana Buckmaster have commented over the years on how refreshing it is to get to handle weapons and do real stunts). Go team.

This is usually the point where we get into how a woman can be strong and feminist without wielding a gun or other weapon. And that’s true. But don’t discount the number of contortions TV or film writers go through to avoid having women – ordinary women – get physical in fights and, especially, handle guns. If the only way a woman can be strong compared to men is never in a fight, that’s a problem. If the only way a woman can be strong compared to ordinary men is if she has superpowers (especially if she has to keep apologizing for having them), that’s a big problem. Supernatural doesn’t have that problem. It never did.

Dabb isn’t all that great a writer or showrunner, and he lacks the kind of support Kripke had in the early years. But the world of SPN was established years before he came on board. It is one that has always portrayed characters from many walks of life, both genders, different cultures, different ethnicities, and GLBT who were solid Hunters, years before that was actually fashionable. It’s easy to forget that shows like Highlander portrayed women as physically and even mentally inferior to men, to the point where it seemed a ludicrous idea that a woman Immortal could ever win the Game without cheating. Hence, the female-lead sequel, Raven, bombed horribly, despite having a likable female lead who had been a fan favorite on the previous show. Admittedly, the unlikable male lead and the misogynistic writing didn’t help, but neither did six seasons of the previous show telling us an Immortal woman was so useless in a fight that even a really ancient Immortal like Cassandra couldn’t team up with Methos and take out the rest of the Horsemen. Or any of the Horsemen, for that matter, despite her being almost as old as they were.

As for the much-vaunted Buffy and Angel, if you watch them again, you’ll see a lot of traditional gender roles for women who aren’t superpowered superheroes. For every Buffy, there are five Willows or even Freds. Shows where women are regularly shown as strong, capable and lethal in a physical fight (like Xena: Warrior Princess, or even the far-more-recent Lost Girl) are rare. And even then, the women in Xena wore some pretty revealing outfits clearly not intended to attract a straight female audience (though the Xena showrunners happily pandered to the enthusiastically lesbian portion of their fandom that grew up, at least for the most part).

So, it was no small thing when, a full season before an annoyed Dean informed Jo Harvelle that he had no problems with female Hunters, just idiots, an equally annoyed Dean handed young Kat in “Asylum” a saltgun because she was the one with the gun skills and the moxie, not her dippy boyfriend. And it was Kat who tagged along with Dean and got some grumpy instruction in Hunting from him.

The show has definitely had its issues with portraying gender and women’s issues over the years (and the godawful fight scene in which Sam and Dean are dumbed down enough to get taken down by a lame hooded figure with a blade on a stick is unfortunately not a first), but it’s also tried hard to portray a world where women are in no way inferior to men, as a group, when it comes to battling supernaturally dangerous creatures. Even if that means physically.

This is how “Wayward Sisters” can have an all-female cast of new and established Hunter characters who still feel as though they belong in the SPNverse (as opposed to the obnoxiously snobby One Percenter monsters of “Bloodlines,” which felt like Supernatural: The Originals, which is not a compliment). The casting is extremely critical for such a show (as we saw with the casting of Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles). So, even though the writing for “Wayward Sisters” was creaky, cliched and often tonedeaf, while the direction was uncharacteristically clumsy for show veteran Phil Sgriccia, the chemistry the women on this team have (which is mostly considerable) overcame that because it had the worldbuilding at its back (like Xena) rather than undercutting it (like Highlander: The Raven). The new show can always get new, and better, showrunners, certainly better writers, but none of that would do it any good if the cast chemistry weren’t there.

Fortunately, the cast chemistry is there, especially for Jody and Donna, and Claire and Alex. Patience is bland, but the actress seems capable of taking her somewhere (her reaction to her first monster kill was a hoot) with some decent writing.

So, while there are definitely improvements to be made, and some things could go horrendously wrong (especially with the current showrunning and writing team), I think there are some solid bones here on which to build a new show. Too bad it didn’t get picked up.

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Next: War of the Worlds: The Nepotism Duo return with another confusing tale about the alt-SPNverse, Lucifer, alt-Michael and Asmodeus.


I’ll be doing my live recap of “The Thing” here later tonight or tomorrow. I’ll try to catch up with the recaps of the rest of the season before Thursday night. Wish me luck.


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My Dad and Donald Trump


By Paula R. Stiles


My dad died three years ago this fall and I’m about 99% sure he would have voted for Donald Trump if he were still alive. Even after Trump’s epic fail at the first debate (the second one is tonight) and the recent infamous bus video, my dad would never have chosen a woman over a man, ever, certainly not a Democratic woman over a Republican man. He actually believed the crap Rush Limbaugh spouts and felt himself very hard-done-by in this PC society. I still remember the day he absolutely forbade my mom to take me to see Bela Abzug talk.

He and my mom were only a few years older than Trump and Hillary Clinton, and therefore in that same generation and attitude. My dad was well-educated, with a Masters degree in History, and he married a well-educated, assertive feminist in my mother, who had a Masters in Nurse Midwifery. He served seven years in the Navy and twenty-two years in the Coast Guard, before retiring and becoming an English teacher in Poland. By all accounts, his students loved him. He was also a Peace Corps Volunteer in China. You would think he’d have been smart enough not to vote for Trump, but there you go and here’s why.

My dad had no respect for women.

In addition to the above accomplishments, my dad also abused my mom and his children, and he cheated on my mom endlessly during their marriage. In fact, my mom was in the process of filing for divorce when my dad was thrown out of Peace Corps a year and a half in for punching a guy in a traffic altercation. The “provocation” involved the guy calling my dad’s then-30-year-old, grad student Chinese girlfriend a “slut.” She was my age. And I was also in grad school at the time.

So, needless to say, my dad did not respect women, and made various nasty and demeaning comments about our gender over the years. Oddly enough, I don’t think he was as bad as Trump. He was more between Bill Clinton and Trump in that I don’t believe he ever engaged in sexual assault. He prided himself on charming the pants off women and all of his girlfriends that I met (he liked to introduce them to me when I was a kid) thought he was a great guy – which he was, during the Honeymoon period. Just as Clinton had grown up poor, my dad grew up respectably working class. Unlike Trump, he didn’t have the assumption that he could do whatever he wanted because he was rich and anyway, I think he liked the chase. He liked them willing. Trump, obviously, doesn’t see women as even that human.

It would be easy to wonder why my mother didn’t just up and leave my dad. Where was her self-respect? I have wondered that and asked her about it many times over the years (when you’re one of the direct victims of that refusal, you get to ask). The most chilling response she ever gave me was that she worried he would show up at the door one day with a gun. She had a point. Attitudes and services for battered women are not too great these days, but they’re a cornucopia of support compared to what was available in the 1970s. Abused women, especially educated abused women, were expected to put up with it. And hope he didn’t kill them and their children.

The attitude was that if you were an educated, professional, working woman getting out there doing a “man’s” job, then you deserved what you got if he felt intimidated by your accomplishments and beat you or cheated on you. If you couldn’t be a “good” wife, you could expect another woman – a younger, hotter, more-accomodating model – to come along and steal him away. Smart women were supposed to compete over men, not the other way round.

People ask the same questions about Hillary Clinton and look down on her for things her husband did to her. They actually use it against her that there’s no evidence Bill has abused her or treated poorly aside from cheating on her incessantly for decades. They make victims out of the women with whom Bill cheated. They are willing to listen to the dumbest excuses and most egregious lies made up by some of these other women to justify that cheating because those women are only chasing after powerful men and not after power itself. It’s still more okay, in our society, for a woman to take another woman’s man than it is to take that man’s place. And we’re all for feeling lots more “sympathy” for hot, young college girls who fangirl Bernie than for “over-the-hill” women who favor Hillary Clinton.

Too many people are happy to believe that Hillary was a cold-blooded political pimp for her husband rather than a victim of a sexual Catch-22 where she couldn’t win whether she kept him or dumped him, just as there were people who were happy to believe my mom deserved my dad treating her like dirt because he resented her success. My dad liked strong women and he liked to break them down. There were a lot of guys in his generation like that and too many, still, who are young enough to know better.

So, the next time, boys, you start going on about “Billary” and “Hitlary” and how evil she is, and holding her to an insanely higher standard than the no-standard-at-all you hold Trump, please stop. Just stop. If you’re going to vote your sexism and your misogyny this election, own up to it, already. Stop blaming Hillary. Stop blaming my mom. Stop blaming us.

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High School Politics and a Woman’s Ambition: Female Power in “Election” (1999)


By Paula R. Stiles


Election (1999). Director: Alexander Payne. Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Matthew Broderick, Chris Klein, Jessica Campbell.

[Spoilers ahoy]


Election is a black comedy about a young woman (Witherspoon), Tracy Flick, who is running for school president for her senior year of high school. She is opposed by her math teacher (Broderick), Jim McAllister, who fears she will turn into some kind of female Hitler, or at least a Madame Defarge, so cold and manipulative and ambitious is she. I’d been avoiding it for a while, since I’m not really into teenage femmes fatales who ruthlessly take down hapless older men (and that’s precisely what the poster and tagline promise), but I figured, Well, what the hell, and gave it a try.

It’s not quite what I’d expected. I’m not too sure that’s a good thing.

You see, Jim was friends with another teacher, Dave Novotny, whom Tracy seduced to get ahead and then reported to the Principal when she was done with him, getting him fired via a note her ball-busting mother found. Since Tracy is running for Class President unopposed, Jim decides she needs a run for her money and persuades another student, affable Paul, to run against her. In the process, Paul’s closeted lesbian sister Tammy also decides to run and it becomes a three-way in which Tracy might conceivably lose. She doesn’t. In fact, she triumphs over Jim, and gets him fired and disgraced. He also ends up divorced and leaves for New York, where he sees her years later, getting into a car with a wealthy politician. He engages in one final act of defiance by throwing his soda at her car.

And that’s the way the film presents things (almost entirely from Jim’s POV, save for a few Tracy and Tammy and Paul voiceovers that could easily be the way Jim imagines they think), except that there are a lot of details that completely change things round from the above summary.

See, first of all, the reason why Jim hates Tracy is rather disturbing. Tracy was 16 when she had her affair with Dave, a guy played by an actor who was 48 at the time the film came out. Also, Dave was married with a new baby. So, Dave’s “indiscretion” was hardly without collateral damage and the idea of a 40-something married guy getting it on with a 16-year-old would be very off even without the statutory rape aspect and the fact that he’s her teacher.

Second, the way the “affair” is portrayed makes it look like a clear-cut case of statutory rape, which, in light of Tracy’s age, it is anyway. Tracy doesn’t seduce Dave. It’s the other way round. Granted, this film came out in 1999, but grooming by pedophiles (albeit Dave is technically an ephebophile) was known by then, largely thanks to the then-growing sex abuse scandals surrounding the Catholic Church, and he definitely is grooming her in those seduction scenes.

We get a voiceover from her in which she insists she’s not looking for a father figure and that what she likes about the affair is their “talks,” juxtaposed with Dave regaling a disgusted Jim with pornographic details about the affair that clearly show he’s thinking with Little Dave not Big Dave. We even get a scene where Dave slowly pulls Tracy through a door in a hallway. Her face is childlike and passive. Somebody’s in charge and it’s not her.

When she finally tires of it and ditches him, Dave goes full-on stalker and starts bombarding her with notes, one of which her mother finds and reports to the Principal, who fires a weeping Dave on the spot. Dave is spared prison, though, and gets to leave town to embark on his career as a box store employee without a criminal record.

Third, Jim is angry about Dave’s getting fired, but pretends he’s not. He decides Tracy is at fault because Dave was just chasing his youth or some such midlife crisis nonsense, but tells himself he’s going after her because she’s genuinely dangerous and must be stopped now and anyway, it’s not democratic for her to run alone. He talks about worrying about Dave, but never bothers to contact him. It’s his duty to report Dave’s behavior, but he never does (and is never called out for his inaction, either, even though he’s a mandated reporter of the abuse). He even has an affair with Dave’s wife, which is what actually blows up his marriage.

Oh, and he also likes to watch porn involving teenage girls.

And how does he blow up his career? Well, when the student in charge of counting the votes tells him that Tracy has won by one vote (despite Jim’s active interference all the way down the line), Jim makes sure to dump a couple of them in the trash so that she loses instead. Only, he’s busted because he’s managed to act like a jerk to the janitor, who rats him out to the Principal.

So, Jim, who is the narrator in the film, turns out not to be the protagonist but the antagonist. Sort of. And that right there is the problem with the film, because not only is this second narrative entirely subtextual, but the first narrative is presented as entirely valid, with Jim pathetic and sad-sack, and Tracy cold and vengeful. It doesn’t help that this is a black comedy, in which, if the Hero loses, it’s to be expected. So, when Jim loses, that just emphasizes that we are really supposed to sympathize with him. Never mind that he is a rancid, bitter man who perceives his students as pawns at best and enemies at worst. The best you can say about him is that he’s Ferris Bueller all grown up.

This isn’t the first film ever in which we are supposed to sympathize with a repellent male predator or dictator when he meets a young woman who is more than a match for him. Witherspoon plays Tracy, not as a seductive Lolita, but as a painfully awkward, earnest kid from the wrong side of the tracks who is just trying to work and think her way out of poverty. One might almost see her as having Asperger’s.

But the film treats her unsympathetically as cold and lacking in compassion. We are invited to mock her and see her least fault as something awful (which, in light of this recent expose about the creepy misogyny behind the scenes during the making of the film, is probably not unintentional). The film seems afraid of Tracy’s power and, especially, her anger.

She is also contrasted with the affable, totally unambitious, and profoundly stupid Paul, and not in a good way. Paul is a golden boy and a One Percenter. Until recently, he’d been a star athlete, but an injury blew his chances of a college sports career. His father is a rich contractor, making him town royalty, so of course he’s pleasant to everyone. He’s started out very well in life. Paul may be a “nice guy” on the surface, but he trails privilege behind him like a wedding gown train through mud. He’s totally oblivious, for example, to the reasons why Jim wants him to run, or why his sister’s opportunistic lover, Lisa, quickly switches to him. As long as she’s giving him blow jobs, it’s all good.

Paul would have made a horrible leader, but the film passes over that very lightly.

Tammy isn’t much better. She’s a lesbian, but insists she’s not. She sucks off her parents’ money every bit as much as her brother, only enters the election to spite him when her ex gets with him (Jim allows it, even though Tammy is technically too young to run for the office), and turns a bit stalkery on them both. Tammy’s lies eventually do let Tracy off the hook, but in no way is Tammy lying for Tracy. It’s all about her own ends.

Probably the character who gets the shortest shrift is Lisa. When the best thing you can say about a character is that she’s a thoughtless slut, that’s problematical. Yet, even though we see her do nothing but use her sexuality to get ahead (aside from a brief scene where she goes a bit Lady Macbeth on Paul’s “behalf”), the film implies that even she is a better person than Tracy. What the hell?

In case you hadn’t noticed before, the women in the story are treated much more harshly than the men, even though the men are just as bad, or worse. So much for equality.



Mommy’s Burning on the Ceiling: Mary Winchester in “Supernatural”


By Paula R. Stiles


I’ve made no secret over the years that Mary Winchester (Samantha Smith), the fridged matriarch of the Winchester family on CW show Supernatural is one of my favorite characters. I’m also quite partial to Meg, both versions. I liked Jessica, Ellen and Pamela. I like Amara, as well as Jody and her adopted brood. And I’ve warmed to Rowena. Clearly, my tastes run toward older, experienced and spiky, played by talented actresses. Jessica wasn’t the first three, but Adrianne Palicki is definitely talented (still sad her Wonder Woman series never took off), so she gets a pass.

Mary’s popularity increases with me in that she is now the longest-running character on the show, even appearing before her sons Sam and Dean. Plus, the show has teased us over the years with versions of Not-Mary played by Smith (most successfully with Eve in season six episode “Mommy Dearest), and the younger Hunter version of her played by Amy Gumenick in season four’s “In the Beginning” and season five’s “The Song Remains the Same.”

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However, the older I get, the less patient I am with the dire writing of women on television, to the point that even an irritating side character can turn me off to an entire show (The Flash and Arrow, for example). I doubt I’ll stop watching Supernatural any time soon, but it’s been on so long that its early seasons encompass a very different television landscape from the one (admittedly with its own imperfections) today. And one of the things that still seemed acceptable without comment in 2005 was bookending your pilot episode with a double-fridging of female characters.

It’s therefore still disappointing to see a character with so much potential as Mary initially introduced as Fridged Mommy, though in her case, she’s burned on a ceiling, instead. Even more disappointing is seeing Sam’s girlfriend Jessica endure the same fate at the end of the Pilot, simply because the show’s creator Eric Kripke was too lazy to think of anything else to do with her. There’s no doubt about it. That’s bad writing.

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So, it’s understandable that when the omnipotent goddess Amara rewarded Mary’s son Dean for helping her reconcile with her brother by resurrecting his mother, not all fans of the show were enthused. Bringing back a fridged character usually results in that character’s immediate refridging (often after she turns EVOL). But I’ve always wanted to see Mary back and hope springs eternal.

Let’s talk a bit about what makes a fridged character. I think we can all identify her fairly easily from back in the day. You’re watching Bonanza or Miami Vice or Magnum P.I., or reading a Batman comic or whatever, and let’s just say there aren’t a whole lot of regular female characters on the show or in the comic.

Then, one day, a female character who actually seems pretty cool shows up. She falls in mutual love with the Hero (eh, okay, whatever) and then, by the end of the episode, she’s dead, insane, evil and then dead, or moved to Timbuktu with a new boyfriend and ten cats. Either way, she’s gone for good. It’s like, “Hello, Female Character with Potential; goodbye, Female Character with Potential!”

And all the time, the male writers of the show are complaining that they’ve gotta put in female characters with “romance” plots because “chicks dig it” and that’s why they also write them out as quickly as possible, because they were forced into sullying their magnum opus with girl cooties. Why, if they had their druthers, the show would be a sausagefest 24/7 (except, like, not with any canonical slash overtones, c’mon, dude), just as it should be.

The nerve of the network making them do changes like that. The show would be perfect without them, don’t you agree?

It takes you quite a long time to unpack just how thoroughly misogynistic it is to resent having to include 51% of the population in a story. It takes you even longer to figure out that the real reason they put these love interests and doomed mothers/sisters/cousins into stories aimed at male audiences is because these female characters are not really characters — they’re plot coupons and rewards for the Heroes. Those female characters are actually necessary to the story the writers want to tell and insisted on by the writers themselves. They just aren’t meant for the female fans.

Everyone knows that the Heroes can’t be Heroes unless they are restless and miserable, so these rewards are constantly taken away from them, in a way that creates as much angst as possible. And the fact that women are not job promotions or cartons of Ben&Jerry’s ice cream — they are people — is never, ever acknowledged. In fact, it’s strenuously ignored.

Which brings us to the Women in Refrigerators website. It was originally based on an incident in the Green Lantern comic in which the Hero’s new girlfriend gets murdered by a villain and stuffed in a refrigerator for her boyfriend to find.

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Now, aside from the fact that this plot alone sounds incredibly stupid (and the art in the comic panels does it no favors), the author of the site’s point that this happens a lot to women in genre fiction is well-taken. I may not agree with every single entry on her list, but she’s dead-right that a disturbingly high number of female characters in genre media are introduced as Love Interests, Mothers, Hot Sisters/Cousins, etc., only to be brutally killed off or otherwise written out almost as soon as we meet them. The Green Lantern’s girlfriend, for example, is introduced a mere six issues before she’s killed off. So, these characters, on top of being horribly dead, have little audience investment because they are one-dimensional.

Surprisingly, some of them turn out to be really popular because the writers, to save time, make them perfect and awesome (or get lucky with casting, as Supernatural did with Samantha Smith and Adrianne Palicki) so that the pain of losing them can be felt by the reader/viewer as it is by the Hero — you know, instead of actually developing them over time as real characters and then killing them off for reasons that are about them and not their boyfriends.

Many writers go another route. They have them “meet cute” in a way where the female Love Interest treats the Hero like dirt right off the bat (so we don’t actually like her that much after all) and usually interferes with his (or sometimes, her) main purpose in the story. This is why I call Love Interests “soft antagonists.” They are usually good people, but they create conflict for the Hero’s mission in the story and interfere with its continuation in some way. Therefore, at some point, they’ve gotta go.

Green Lantern’s girlfriend, Alexandra DeWitt, doesn’t like him initially and then doesn’t like it when he gets his Green Lantern ring, so she’s gotta go. It’s her or the superpowered Call to Action. In a comic, the superpowered macguffin always wins that war.

An equally high number of women with actual agency in these stories (i.e., protagonists) are depowered/turned evil/killed off through similar means. A Xena: Warrior Princess is quite rare. Sexual violence is especially favored, used in a tone-deaf way as a tool to create more angst or, worse, as an origin story for toughening up a female victim into a hero. Game of Thrones pre-season six fairly leaps to mind here and from the rape rumors surrounding the upcoming Westworld series, HBO hasn’t learned a thing. Joss Whedon even did a fridging with a lesbian couple in Buffy: The Vampire Slayer. I can’t say I was thrilled about it.

I don’t believe in over-applying such tropes to the point of pointlessness, as it were, but I trust it’s not hard to see why the Mary of the Pilot, like Jessica, is a fridged character. Where it gets interesting is that not long after, Mary starts being something else.

For one thing, show creator Eric Kripke always claimed that he intended for Mary to recognize her demonic murderer (keeping in mind that none of the rest of her family had any clue about his identity for over two decades after her death), but decided to hold that reveal until near the end of season two. This would explain why, halfway through season one, we get the episode “Home” where it’s hinted that Mary wasn’t your usual sunny, innocent fridged woman, that she wasn’t killed to get her husband John out on the road, either. She was killed for reasons that had to do with her — and as a ghost, she has power.

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That storyline wasn’t about John. It wasn’t even about her sons. It was about her. In Supernatural, knowledge is power. Paradoxically, Mary had to die, not just to push forward John’s story, but because she knew too much. It was the same reason the show killed off John early in season two.

Jessica never stops being a fridged girlfriend (to the point where the prelude to the reveal of her gruesome fate is nearly identical to that of Alexandra DeWitt’s). That’s even emphasized in later seasons. But Mary goes from June Cleaver to Queen Gertrude to someone even darker, someone more like Sarah Connor, very quickly. So, there’s this mystery to her, a subtext that belies the innocent mother of the Pilot, that is intriguing.

Then we get to season four, where she turns out to be a badass Hunter (“Aha!” cries the subtext) and even fights one-on-one against an angel in season five. While pregnant with her badass son Dean, no less. And we find out that the Winchester tragedy of demon deals began with Mama — not Papa — Winchester, that he was the innocent civilian in that marriage while she was the one who knew about the supernatural world and was trying to retire from hunting all along. Like Shane, she brought the job home, despite her best efforts, and it caught up with her in the end. The traditional roles of the trope have been reversed and they never quite flip back.

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Unfortunately, the writers recast her (still leaving poor Samantha Smith in that damned nightgown). And once they were done with that past storyline, they promptly got rid of Young!Mary via a mindwipe, of all things, so they could ensure she walked into that nursery unaware. The worst part was that the writer of that episode, Sera Gamble, not only was a woman, but she became showrunner and then wrote another episode where she fridged a Love Interest with a similar trope. Ugh. We women sure can be our own worst enemies, sometimes.

Now, I’ve been dying to see Mary come back in her older form, especially since Smith’s turn as Eve the Mother of Monsters in season six’s “Mommy Dearest.” So, I’m thrilled to see her back. Granted, there are ways they could do horrible things with this, but the trailer (despite its unnecessary commentary by the most irritating fangirls the show could find) indicates we won’t be getting a return to Fridged Mommy in a Nightgown. It indicates we will be getting Sarah Connor. I am all for Sarah Connor, preferably with that stupid mindwipe lifted. That’s meaty. That’s fun. Let’s go there, show.

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Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “Herland” and Feminist Utopias


By Paula R. Stiles


Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. Moving the Mountain (1911). Forerunner Magazine.

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. Herland (1915). Forerunner Magazine.

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. With Her in Ourland (1916). Forerunner Magazine.


Recently, I’ve come to the conclusion that many dystopias are really utopias but from the viewpoint of a narrator who hates them. If you look at Brave New World (1932), for example, most of the people in that story are actually happy with their situation. Never mind that they’ve been both natured and nurtured that way, or that they are in a permanent state of shallow indulgence in seeking the next new pleasure. They like it. They aren’t suffering as the characters are in, say, We (1921) or Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949).

Sure, you’d hate the World State if you were deeper than a puddle or an outsider, but it’s questionable whether John Savage (or any of the other Alphas) is all that deep. This becomes especially true as our society’s tolerance wanes for whiny man-children who feel entitled to a girlfriend who understaaaaannnds them, or for Huxley’s reflexive assumption that all women can only be, at best, Betas. Gee, thanks, Al.

This is important to keep in mind when reading Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s feminist utopian Herland trilogy. It comprises Moving the Mountain, the narratively unrelated Herland, and Herland‘s direct sequel With Her in Ourland.

Moving the Mountain is not set in the same world as Herland. It’s really Gilman’s version of Looking Backward from 1888 (her male narrator even mentions this early on) and is her vision of the mid-20th century circa 1950. Some stuff she gets so right that it almost elicits a shrug from the reader (Well, yes, of course regulated, cleaner food and water happened, and that was an improvement, but it hardly resulted in a utopian world). Other stuff (no more war in 1950? The Temperance movement was a success? Yeah, sure) she gets pretty wrong.

The male narrator, John Robertson, goes off to Tibet, gets bonked on the head, lives there in a state of amnesia for 30 years (which Gilman dismisses as of no account with an off-hand contempt for Tibetan culture), accidentally meets his sister Ellen, gets his memory back of his previous life while losing all memory of what he did in Tibet, and returns home, only to find that the wimminfolk have changed into emotional aliens and basically taken over society.

No, I’m not kidding. That’s really the plot.

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In Herland, in what sounds eerily like a precursor to Lost Horizon (1933) or even At the Mountains of Madness (1931), three male explorers travel up a river and past some kind of old lava flow to discover a country full of millions of women and no men. After the natural disaster of a volcanic eruption, these women somehow evolved two thousand years ago into giving birth parthenogenetically. To their chagrin, the male explorers are quickly captured and “educated” like children in the new culture, with varying success. Part of this education includes falling in love with three of their captors and getting married, which is written as natural, straight male aggression and sex drive, but comes off a little bit like Stockholm Syndrome.

In With Her in Ourland, two of the men go back home with one of the men’s Herlander wives, who is acting as a scout for her people to see if it’s worth opening up communications with the rest of the world. Her husband tries to explain to her how civilized his world really is and then they land right in the middle of WWI. Awkward.

Personally, I liked Herland better than Moving the Mountain, albeit in a lukewarm way. There’s actual conflict and it is written better as a story. While Herland and With Her in Ourland have a lot of the usual extended and wordy exposition about the culture that you find in utopian novels, Moving the Mountain is almost nothing but, save for the beginning and end of the story. Herland has more of a plot than Moving the Mountain and more of a story arc and structure.

The three men in Herland represent a continuum of manhood from Jeff the romantic lover of All Things Woman, through the milquetoast narrator Van, to Terry the creepy date rapist (Van even admits at one point that he and Terry’s other friends never let any of their female relatives be alone with him back in school. Nice). Needless to say, Terry doesn’t take being deprogrammed out of super-macho douchebaggery too well and things end rather badly for him.

(There is an unintentional irony in that in all three books, the POV is male, and the female characters are idealized and one-dimensional. Not only do the women of Herland dress alike, they also act alike for the most part (save for some distancing exposition about off-stage bad behavior here and there) and are blandly amiable. She even has her Herlander heroine bear a male child at the end of With Her in Ourland, signaling a sea change that probably wouldn’t bode well for the Herlanders in real life. Though Gilman writes the men in the story as overgrown children, it cuts into the feminist message just a tad to write her women entirely through the Male Gaze. It also cut down on my enjoyment of the stories.)

The Herland novels also don’t have quite as much “Good Lord, did she just say that?” stuff in them as Moving the Mountain. For example, the future society in Moving the Mountain advocates eugenics on the level of euthanasia for physical handicaps, long-term mental illness, and hardened criminals, but also women who like sex too much or alcoholics/drug addicts who flunk rehab after one try. And yet, when the men mention to the women of Herland that women in their own culture have abortions, the Herland women are utterly horrified. Hmm. Okay.

In all three books, Gilman also shows a general dislike of sex except for procreation and the women of Herland are obsessed with the ideal of motherhood, which also derails any discussion of why women who have spent two thousand years without men would be attracted to them, let alone what those women are getting up to together in the bedroom without any men around (for that, check out Joanna Russ’ unnerving and often wickedly funny “When It Changed” (1972)).

The women talk incessantly about how regretful they are that they can only have one child, due to having to keep the population down to accommodate their environment. They’d happily have the full five kids their unique biology allows them, so having just one kid is awfully hard. Even with Gilman’s enthusiastic endorsement of “It takes a village of women to raise a child” forms of child rearing, that she considered this idea remotely feminist, even in 1915, gets a Spock eyebrow from me. I mean, what if a Herlander doesn’t want to have kids? Does that make her some kind of freak?

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Also, they are all white – and by white, I mean Northwestern European. Gilman doesn’t beat away at this fact repeatedly, but she does make it very clear. Women of Color are absent from her two utopias for a reason (in fact, the only Man of Color we meet is near the end of Moving the Mountain and he’s a walking submissive stereotype). Even if she doesn’t rodomontade too much about that reason, her ideas of the genetic superiority of some women over others (who shouldn’t be allowed to breed) make the unpleasant extrapolation pretty easy.

Gilman also shows a distinct antipathy toward the messiness and chaos of nature in both books. In Moving the Mountain, most wildlife except for some birds (Gilman had a thing for song birds), vermin like rats, cats and dogs, and even cattle, have been eliminated. Herland has no dogs and no non-productive trees, just one big orchard. Cattle have been phased out. And cats have been bred to become complacent, never go into heat, and never hunt birds. Ha.

The trilogy hasn’t aged well post-WWII. The Nazis did an excellent job of killing the Eugenics Movement, while Prohibition did a number on the Temperance Movement. Moving the Mountain, in particular, puts forth some ideas that must have appeared entirely sensible to Gilman at the time, but didn’t play out well at all in the reality of the Nazi Fatherland.

What’s especially odd is how these books (which detail what Gilman saw as perfect societies) contrast with some of her other work, particularly the horror classic “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892). That story is told from the point of view of a woman suffering from postpartum depression and subjected to a chilling social isolation treatment by her dim-witted physician of a husband. Motherhood is not idealized in this story and the women on either side of the wallpaper in their violent and psychotic rebellion would not be allowed at all in either of the utopias of the Herland trilogy.

Gilman was perfectly capable of writing unruly women, as “The Yellow Wallpaper” amply demonstrates, so it’s a bit of a shock to see how placid and bovine the women of Herland frequently appear. Even the women in Moving the Mountain are spikier and fiercer than that. I suppose this is a classic example of why utopias are almost always so creepy. What seems normal and desirable to one person can have an unintended dark subtext for others. While I don’t think everything fictional should be grim or sturm und drang, I wonder if an attraction of horror (and of dystopias) is that intentionally and consciously grappling with our dark sides can evoke a certain honesty not present in utopian fiction.