Saturday, November 21, 2015


Brawny.  Beastly.  Brave.  Powerful.  Demanding.  Vigorous.  Competent.  Robust.  Fierce. Determined.  Aggressive.  Authoritative.  Forceful.  Triumphant.

Do any of the above words describe your favorite female character?  Maybe all of them?  What if none of the words describe her?  Is she still strong?

Readers, viewers and gamers - especially females - are almost assaulted with the phrase "strong female lead" (SFL).  It's even a Netflix category, at least in my account: "Period Dramas with a Strong Female Lead" or something like that.  Directors, producers and screenwriters are raked over the coals if their works don't feature enough "strong female leads".  People everywhere have "rediscovered" the Bechdel test and are applying it not only to new films but old favorites.  If you've never heard of this test, read the comic below.  It was originally written by an America cartoonist Allison Bechdel, waaaaaay back in 1985:

Image from

SFC #1: Diplomatic, intelligent, passionate,
self-sacrificial, determined.  Can handle firearms.
Image from
The thing is, a movie can still be "good" without passing the test.  It can even have an SFC without passing the test.  Two of my all-time favorite trilogies, the original "Star Wars" series and "Lord of the Rings", actually fail this test. However, they contain some of the most amazing, powerful, BA female characters in the realm of sci-fi/fantasy: Princess Leia, Arwen, Galadriel, and Eowyn.  I'd be hard-pressed to find someone who didn't consider these ladies strong characters.

But - wait a minute.
SCL #2: Wise, commanding, compassionate, noble.
 Likes coffee.  A lot.
Image from
What makes a character - in particular a female character - strong?  I mentioned this in my last post, specifically in regards to some of the characters in Once Upon a Time, but I didn't really explore it a lot.  I mean, who defines strength?  The words I used to open this post are all considered synonyms of "strong", but I don't know if they are all necessary for an SFC.  What makes an SFC?  What qualities does she have?  What qualities would make a female character weak?  Does it depend on her environment, the setting of the movie or book?  I don't think a lot of people would consider the lead characters in movies from the 30s, 40s, and 50s to be "modern" SFCs.  Maybe Scarlett O'Hara.  Maybe Cleopatra.  Maybe Gilda.  Are these women SFCs in our time period, or during their own, or not at all?  Can a woman who just wants to be loved be considered an SFC?  Could a stay-at-home-mom or chicken-roasting housewife be an SFC?  Why or why not?

SFC#3: Fierce, loyal, brave, devoted,
skilled.  Unlucky in love (at first.)
 Image from
We lay the contemporary definition of feminism on so thick when we adapt fairy tales and historical fiction and non-fiction that I think it's hard for us to see a lot of female leads from the past as "strong" by today's standards.  If they're not speaking up for themselves, or smashing the patriarchy, then they're meek and weak and awful role models.  Yes, that's a generalization, but let's see...everyone knows the Lizzie Bennett is the heroine of Pride and Prejudice, right?  She thinks for herself and expresses her own opinion and still ends up with the right guy in the end.  Swoon.  Her older sister, Jane, is gentle and soft-spoken, long-suffering and forgiving.  She struggles with the loss of her beloved, but chooses to carry on with her life.  Is she weak?  We would probably consider her to be, yes, because she doesn't actively fight for what she wants.  But when we remember the society in which she lives, we need to view her differently.  She truly wants to make her parents happy, and knows that all four of her not-always-obedient sisters have the potential to break her parents' hearts, embarrass the family, and bring lasting shame on their name.  To choose your family's reputation over your own happiness seems ludicrous to us today, but when her family's future was on the line, Jane was willing to quietly wade through sadness and disappointment in order to spare them embarrassment or worse.  Self-sacrifice can be a sign of strength.  We see Lizzie as strong, but some of that strength came from a selfish, proud place.  She didn't think twice about embarrassing other people, as long as she had the chance to speak her mind (we see Austen's Emma Woodhouse struggling with the same attitude).  

SFC #4: Confident, talented, devoted,
 loving.  Retains sense of humor despite danger.
 Image from
Jessica Jones is the latest SFC to burst onto the Marvel/Netflix scene.  As her story unfurls, we learn that she is physically extremely strong - "gifted" - but deeply emotionally damaged due to severe sexual and mental abuse.  She has been diagnosed with PTSD and self-medicates with alcohol.  In my opinion, it would be more a show of strength to ask for help rather than to shut one's friends out of one's life - so I don't see her, at least early on - the same way I see Princess Leia, who, when we meet her, has already made sacrifice after sacrifice for the cause of peace, having found something to believe in.  Apples and oranges, maybe, but it's something to consider.  What kind of strong is the SFC?  Does she grow in strength as her story is told?  Does her kind of strength change?
I haven't watched Scandal, but from what I've read and heard about Olivia Pope, it's unlikely
SFC #5: Powerful, fearless, gifted, courageous.  Actually capable of
physically smashing the patriarchy.  Image from
that I personally would admire her. From what I gather, she's dangerously manipulative, influential, and selfish.  (Please, fans of the show, correct me if I'm wrong!) I can't deny that she is a strong character, but it's interesting that "strong" doesn't necessarily mean "likable", "virtuous", or even "at least vaguely morally upright". 

It looks like I'm uncovering more questions than I have answers.  What do you think?  What makes a female character "strong"? How does her femininity, her sexuality, or anything else play into it?  Who are the SFCs that you admire?  Are there female characters you admire that you would not consider "strong"?  Why do you admire them?  If you can compare them to male characters with similar paths or personalities, what do you see?  How much of the SFC's environment contributes to your perception of her strength?

Does this feel like a Literary Analysis essay test yet?

Yes?  Then my work here is done.  Think on these things, friends.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Magic Mirrors, Pretty Princesses, and Daddy Issues

When it comes to the hottest TV shows, I'm frequently late to the game.  I didn't start watching "The Office" until a few years after the series finale.  (I missed a LOT of co-workers' show-related jokes during that time.)  I didn't tune in to "Doctor Who" until well into Matt Smith's reign (although I did start with Nine).  For most of our marriage, Ross and I never had cable, but we consider the monthly commitment to Netflix well worth it.  We've found some gems on there ("Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries" is a well-written and witty favorite, plus a costume designer's paradise).

So, it's no surprise that I waited until a few seasons of "Once Upon a Time" were available to stream.  I knew I'd like the show; I've loved the idea of "fractured" fairy tales for almost as long as I've loved the Disney treatment of them.  I wanted to share some of my thoughts on the way the series is going.  So, with that in mind, I'm going to be courteous and state right now that there are most definitely SPOILERS ahead.  I've just finished watching the third season, so if anyone hasn't gotten there yet, please don't read ahead.  Likewise, if you're into the fourth or fifth season, please respect my desire to be surprised and don't include any spoilers in YOUR comments.  Thanks.

First, this being a Disney production, I think it's fabulous that the star couple on the show are Snow White and Prince Charming.  That was Disney's first animated feature, and so it's perfectly fitting that the pair should be the power couple (at least in the beginning) on the series.  

Image from
While I often struggle with anachronisms in historical drama (yes, "feminist" screenplay writers, I'm talking to you, because many of the sassily-written females contemporary audiences so admire are as much a myth as the Golden Fleece, due to their respective status quos), I think it's appropriate in the context of this series.  First, fairy tales themselves have evolved with the times in which they were shared.  It's no surprise that many of the female characters are as heroic as the males, as daring, as brave, and as smart.  I love that this does not demean the male characters, either.  One challenge I've seen with certain aspects of modern feminism is that men have the be put down in some way for women to rise up.  I hate that.  Hate it beyond belief.  I'm so sick of seeing the nuclear family portrayed with a beautiful, brilliant wife and a dopey, clueless dad.  In OUAT, Snow White can rescue her prince without emasculating him.  For his part, Charming can accept that rescue and not perceive himself as "less of a man" because a woman saved his life.  Yes.  This.  So much this.  I also love that the strong female characters aren't simply written as "sassy".  We see that a lot in film and television.  We are told that a series features a "strong" female lead, but why is she strong?  Is she written in a respectful way in order to explore her many complexities?  Is she physically or emotionally powerful?  Is she manipulative?  Does she have some type of gift or talent?  Does she have to overcome unbelievable obstacles, or struggle with a troubled past?  Does she grow at all during the course of the series or movie?  Or is she "just" pretty and mouthy?  That alone a "strong female lead" does not make, in my opinion, but I think that's what we are often told by the entertainment industry. 

OUAT has some very interesting and strong female leads.  While Mary Margaret/Snow White's driving forces are love and hope, she is called upon to make very difficult decisions that question her very nature.  Most often, she makes the "correct", selfless choice.  Sometimes, she doesn't, and we are left to watch her as she struggles through the consequences of her actions.  We watch Emma go from a physically strong but emotionally conflicted - and often scared - woman to one who begins to allow herself to be vulnerable, to love, and to admit to her fears.  Regina/The Evil Queen, too, is given a backstory that explains, but does not excuse, her actions.  We learn that the darkest characters are still capable of love and sacrifice, and the kindest ones still possess the potential for great evil.  

I was also pleasantly surprised with the way some of the other characters evolved.  When Neal/Baelfire was introduced as an adult, I really expected him to be a "throwaway" character, good for a plot twist or two, then not much else.  I love, love, LOVE how he got the chance to redeem himself as a father and friend, but that it was still a process for him.  It wasn't that he burst onto the scene like a hero and saved the day.  He tried, and failed, and fumbled around for some time before he got things right.  So, of course he had to die. The role of the good guy on the show is played by Charming, the bad-guy-turned-good is already being fulfilled by Hook, and the good-guy-turned-bad-turned-good-turned-bad is Rumple/Mr.Gold, so that really left no place for Neal.  It would have been too perfect a happy ending to have him permanently reunite with his precocious son and the mother of his child.  Even Snow and Charming's happy ending is still riding out some bumps.  Sorry, Neal.  I had really, REALLY gotten to like you.

Ruby/Red fascinates me.  We don't see much of her in seasons 2 and 3, but I love how the concept of the female as an unpredictable force/monster is addressed and played out. When you add the color red, the wolf, the moon, it's a symbolism-laden tale.  Her story is a coming-of-age one, and it also is an interesting juxtaposition of the original fairy tale.  Talk about a woman embracing her destiny!

Belle is a personal enigma to me.  I find myself both loving her relationship with Gold and wanting her to end it.  Which would show more strength?  Loving and supporting a deeply flawed and volatile man, or giving that up for your own safety and emotional well-being?  Belle is the character I always end up with in those online quizzes, you know - Which Disney Princess Are You Most Like? and so on - so I feel I have something invested in this character.  Her love is both innocent and pure - perhaps even more so than Snow White and Prince Charming's, but it continues to blind her.  I'm interested to see where this leads her.

I have always loved the question "what happens after happily ever after?" and I think that. most times, we don't want to know.  We like the idea of riding off with a lover into the sunset, or a neatly-packaged conclusion.  But, even as we in the real world find our true loves, or welcome a long-awaited child, or accept that coveted promotion, there is still life to live after that.  And life comes with challenges, consequences, fear, disappointment, and loss - even for beloved fairy tale characters.

One thread that has been woven carefully and continually throughout the series has been abandonment - specifically, abandonment by one's father.  I think it's a bold step to address, and keep addressing, something so relevant to society today.  It's one thing I see in common with many people I know, regardless of their race, age, sexual orientation, or religion.  MANY of them lack fathers or healthy father figures.  MANY of them have been left or abused by the men in their lives - husbands, fathers - for different reasons.  I won't speculate on them here, but I love that the ultimate statement made by the series is that yes, you've been hurt, and yes, it was by someone who was also hurt, but you can still CHOOSE to be happy.  You can CHOOSE not to hurt another person, specifically, your own child.  In particular, I love that Neal was able to act out that choice before he died; he forgave his father (and grandfather) and physically laid down his life for his family.  

(There's a Bible study lurking around in there somewhere, but I'm not going to root it out right now.  Just don't be surprised if someday I release a devotional about finding God in fairy tales...)

Something that I both love and hate is the phrase and concept that "There's got to be another way."  I love that it reinforces the idea that hope is a living thing that stirs in our hearts, that forces us to search for decisions that don't hurt the ones we love, but as a plot device, it's trite.  In every other episode, a character in an awkward or dangerous situation is given "the only way" to escape or remedy it, but decides immediately that the price is too steep.  By the end of the episode, or within a few more, we learn that there IS another way, of course, and sometimes its consequences are harsher than the first option.  It's a bit tedious.  

I love that magic always comes with a price.  As a Christian, I suppose I COULD condemn the show entirely, and in fact all fairy tales, movies, books, and media that involve magic or fantasy in any way (buh-bye Star Wars, Doctor Who, and probably 75% of what I watch and read).  But I'm not going to do that.  I think that it can be very healthy to engage in make-believe, and since the biggest part of make-believe is being able to do what we normally cannot do, it's only natural that we like to imagine we can fly and perform feats with our minds and understand the language of animals.  The reason that desire exists within us at all is because God put it in our hearts to want the supernatural - the things that we cannot do with our own minds or hands.  I'm not going to travel down the OMG HARRY POTTER IS THE DEVIL road because I'm hoping that most Christians who choose to engage in that (now quite hackneyed) debate are looking at the whole picture and not just what they are told by social media and conservative sources.  I'm also not going to get into a flame war about that right now either.  But as I said above, "Magic comes with a price".  Even the things that blow our minds - conjuring fireballs out of nowhere, locking doors with spells, enchanting objects - come at a cost to the user.  Power of any kind comes at a price.  Whether it's the training we put into improving our bodies and minds, or it's the loss of privacy and increased scrutiny as we enter into the spotlight, power is never really free.

What a thought.

Anyway, I'm probably going to binge-watch the fourth season this weekend. Actually, I think I'm going to go pop some popcorn right now...

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Culture Shock

Legitimately in Paradise!
Ugh.  How is it that I passionately recommit to writing more often, even vowing to post three times weekly in November, yet I haven't blogged in nearly two months?  Life keeps getting in the way.  My poor kid has had three ear infections in the past three months (he ended up in the ER last week; but he's all right now) and I was quite preoccupied with my first-ever passport-required vacation.

To Jamaica.

Which is what I'm sharing with you today.

Way back in February of this year, my husband asked if I'd mind him spending Valentine's Day with my dad at a car show.  I DID mind, a bit, but since every attempt we've ever made to "be romantic and go out to dinner" on V-Day has not gone well, I told him to go.  They had a good time, and a few weeks later, Ross got a phone call that he'd won a trip to Jamaica via a contest sponsored by a local radio station.

Yeah, right.  Most of us have heard that too-good-to-be-true line, only to learn that you've got to invest in a time share or travel club.  No thank you.  Well, it turns out the prize was legit, and I needed to get my passport.  We had to use our tickets and reservations before a certain time, so we elected to go just before my birthday in November.  My parents would watch our son for the five days we were gone, and we'd return home on Veterans' Day, thus enabling my husband to use just 2 vacation days.  We're so clever.

I spent several months envisioning myself in a chaise lounge chair at the pool or on the beach, glistening with sweat and sunscreen, quietly baking myself to a warm golden brown.  I made several attempts to lose enough weight to match the vision I'd had of myself, to no avail.  I'm still at my "default" weight - the weight my body seems to like best regardless of how much or how little I eat or exercise (unless I am seriously counting calories).  I lamented to my husband that, even though I was determined to wear a two-piece suit, I would not be happy in it.

I needn't have worried.  At the family-friendly resort, there was every body type represented: boyishly skinny, morbidly obese, pregnant, curvy, scarred, pale, bronze - and every single person what there to enjoy himself or herself.  I was almost shocked.  Where I had spent my entire life avoiding situations that would require anything other than at least a tank top and skirt, suddenly I was free to accept my body and have fun using it.  I couldn't believe how freeing it was to realize that - honestly - people were very likely NOT looking at my body to find fault with it.  (Truth is, that's probably the case a lot more often than we think.  Not EVERYONE is  ALWAYS looking at our bodies to try to rip them apart or judge us, despite what we might feel.)  I wasn't trying to be sexy or trashy; I just wanted to be brave.  For me, wearing a 2-piece suit was not about making a statement about modesty (suuuuuuch a hot topic is Christian circles these days...), or about being pro-plus size, or really anything other than letting go of shame.  Even at my "skinniest", I was able to find plenty of faults with my appearance.  Should I suddenly drop 45 pounds overnight, I am fairly certain there will be freckles, lines, split ends, cracked nails, an a myriad of other things for me to condemn.  So what good does it do to hate myself for my weight or my figure?  Should I hide because I haven't been able to drop the baby weight?  Should I spend my days in the shade because I have a pooch where I carried my son?  Because my arms aren't toned?  Because my thighs touch?  Because I prefer cookie butter to celery?

(Okay, eating healthy is a whole 'nother story - but my point here is that I have to accept my body and all its flaws, love it for what it can do and had done, and move forward to take care of it - whatever that means to me.)

At any rate, I didn't just wear a two-piece and feel confident.  I also swam in the ocean.  Big deal, you might say - your family does a beach vacation every year.  Well, for me it IS a big deal.  I don't know how to swim, and I've always been afraid of the water.  I avoid public pools and almost drowned in high school gym class, assuming that I could just hop right into the deep end and be fine.  Yet, in the dazzlingly blue water of the Caribbean sea, with the security of my husband nearby, I slowly plodded along with a graceless doggy paddle.  But I was swimming.  I wasn't touching the seabed.  Strands of seaweed wrapped around my arms and legs, and saltwater lapped at my lips.  The brilliant midday sun shone on the gentle waves, and I yelled out, "I'm a mermaid!"
Saltwater tastes awful!

So, that was pretty far from the truth, I guess, but I had a revelation that day.  A few, actually.  First: I can totally see why people are obsessed with beach vacations.  The sun, sand, and sea combine for a trinity of peaceful beauty that you really can't find anywhere else.  The ocean can be both calming and chaotic, and that's a huge part of its appeal.  So much raw, unfeeling beauty that can soothe you or steal you away.  The second revelation I had was that it's okay to face your fears little by little.  I don't know about you, but whenever I hear the phrase "face your fears", I automatically imagine St. George and the dragon.  Or Prince Philip and Maleficent.  You know, the sword and shield, the valiant hero, the fire-breathing lizard.  The all-or-nothing, now-or-never final showdown.  But that's simply not how overcoming fear always works.  I had to first decide to take steps toward the ocean.  Then I had to take them.  Then I had to trust my husband that I would be safe.  Then I had to believe that.  Then, I had to trust myself.

And I'm so glad I did.  

Those brilliant and life-changing realizations aside, the trip itself was pretty wonderful.  Although I broke down emotionally our first day there (I hate flying, missed my baby, and hadn't eaten or rested enough), things picked up quickly, and we enjoyed amazing food, beautiful weather - even the afternoon and evening rain was beautiful, met a fun couple from Canada, avoided serious sunburn, and had some much-needed romantic time away from our beloved baby.

Sunset on the water.
Something I struggled with, however - and my former college roomie pals can attest to this - was the vastly different culture I experienced upon first arriving in Jamaica.  Chaos, noise, disorder - maybe you imagined things to be much more mellow as Jamaica is the homeplace of reggae, Bob Marley, and the glorification of marijuana.  Maybe that's the case for day-to-day living here, for some of the people, and once we arrived at the resort, that spirit of relaxation did seem to take over.  But the hustling at the airport, the terrifying two-lane roads (drivers use the left side and passing in no-passing zones is expected) - these things really jarred me.  I'm an introvert, an introvert bordering on anxious, sometimes, and I was left feeling shaken and exhausted by our first few hours on the island.  There was also the assumption, either because we were Americans or because we were simply foreigners, that we were in Jamaica to party and get high.  Weed is legal there, up to a certain amount, so it would not have been wrong for us to partake.

I think Ross was convinced he'd NEVER get
me to the beach.
However, Ross and I are not "party people". I'm pretty sure that we are the textbook definition of "not party people".  We rarely drink, although sometimes we enjoy a glass of red wine with our Netflix, pajamas, and pizza dates.  See?  I told you.  We're boring.  We don't even do "Netflix and chill".  We do "Netflix and fall asleep halfway through the movie". We politely but emphatically replied to every person inquiring about our plans that we were there to enjoy the beach and work on our (nonexistent) tans.  As alcohol was part of the all-inclusive nature of the resort, we did have a drink with dinner most nights, but that was it.  I can honestly say that, as a freshly-minted 34-year-old, I've never been drunk in my life and I'm okay with that.  I've also never been high.  Yeah - I was mostly the goody-two-shoes in high school...and college...and I think I actually still am, so never mind.  It's just who I am.

The alligator won, BTW...
We stayed at the Grand Palladium and it truly was beautiful.  There were three buffet restaurants and five ethnic restaurants, and the food was pretty amazing.  Something that struck us as interesting in the ethnic restaurants was that we as Americans really have a skewed image of portion sizes.  When Ross and I ordered appetizers, they were exactly that.  A few bites of a delicious and well-prepared food item, presented artfully.  In America it's a cinch to order an appetizer that spoils your whole meal because you're too full to eat your entree!  Determined not to be close-minded, culinarily speaking, I tried several different foods at the buffets: ginger-seafood soup (with whole prawns still floating in the pot), jerk chicken (yes, it's very good), and braised kidney. 

The kidney ended up in my napkin, TBH.

Ross proudly announced that we'd checked two items off his "marriage bucket list".  We swam in the ocean, and we played mini-golf.  I know it's hard to believe, but we had not, until last week, even enjoyed mini-golf as a married couple.  Granted, the "course" on the island was pretty pitiful and there were no real challenges, but we did it and Ross did end up with a hole-in-one.  At one point, I think I missed the ball three times, then finally kicked it into the hole.  

My grandfather would be so ashamed.

I really missed Ronen, more than I thought I would.  There were a lot of children at the resort, everywhere from a few months old to school-age kids.  There were provisions made for children, including a day-care center and special entertainment just for them.  In hindsight, I think Ronen would have enjoyed certain aspects of the trip, but I don't know if it would have been worth the trouble to get him his passport and work our schedule around his.  Especially since he's not walking yet and has recently been plagued with ear infections.  Maybe next time.

On a more light-hearted note, I wanted to share some things I learned - specifically as a petite/plus-sized, curly-haired, pale female traveling to a Caribbean island.  Here are my tips:

Yes, I found an island cat.
Two, actually,
1. Your hair will not obey you.  If you straighten it, it will curl.  If you curl it, it will frizz.  You will NOT have "mermaid hair".  Don't bother with products.  Throw it in a messy bun and be at peace with your world.

2. Shapewear will be useless.  It is so humid that the spandex will literally melt to your flesh.  Just be pudgy and be free, sister.  Embrace your curves.

3. You might think maxi dresses would be your savior, but unless you bring ones cut from actual, breathable material, you're dead wrong, lady.

4. BABY POWDER BABY POWDER BABY POWDER.  If your thighs touch in any way, you MUST PROTECT THEM FROM THEMSELVES or you will have heat rash for weeks after you return.  Trust me on this one.

5. If you're not going to the clubs, leave the clubwear at home.  Sexy strappy platforms are great for, like, full-body photo ops and that's pretty much it.

6. Protect your lips SWEET MOTHER OF ALL THAT IS SACRED PROTECT YOUR LIPS!  Ross and I were pretty careful with sunscreen but I forgot my lips and now, a week later, they are still stiff, sore, and peeling.  Ouch, ouch.

"Caribbean Blue" is a REAL color!
7. Don't be bullied into buying anything you don't want.  The hotel employees were pretty persistent when it came to pushing spa packages and whatnot.  Couples are better targets, so Ross and I frequently split up when walking past them, and met up again at our destination.  Also, those photographers aren't just being nice - they are employees, too, and that great shot they got of you in the ocean (without your awareness, by the way), will cost you $50.  Ross and I avoided this by looking unhappy with each other whenever he came around.  It was our private joke.  We looked like the angriest couple at the resort in order to avoid harassment.  You have to do what you have to do.

8. Your swimsuit should be designed for swimming, if you will be swimming.  Two-piece, one-piece, whatever.  Just make sure you can actually move in it without a wardrobe malfunction, unless you just plan on lying around looking pretty.  Which is fine, too, really.

In spite of our antics, we actually DID and DO
enjoy each others' company...
9.  Leggings for the plane.  I saw women traipsing through the airport in fancy scarves and stiletto boots and that's cool and everything, but I'm all leggings and flip-flops and glasses and a jacket and crosswords.  I didn't have anyone to impress.  Oh, and if you need compression stockings for travel, DO IT.  For your health.  Seriously.  

10.  Be open to trying new things.  Which might include accepting and actually loving your own body for the first time ever.  Island magic!