I’ve been reading a lot lately, because I’ve been super stressed, which means that I read every spare minute. Don’t ask me why this is. I can’t tell you. You would think that, being stressed, I would engage directly with my stressors and then take my time to enjoy books, but not. I’ve just been spamming everything and screaming internally.
The upside of this is that I have read a lot of good stuff recently. Most of my recent reads have been novellas, but I’ve also devoured some novel-length pieces (always more satisfying for me). So what have I been reading? So glad you asked.
Final Girls – I actually went on a binge of Seanan McGuire (aka Mira Grant) around the first of the month and read a bunch of stuff, including some of her free and Patreon-supported short stories in the Toby universe. That was after I read this novella, which was good in the way all ghost stories and haunted houses are good. I highly recommend.
Binti – I’m not sure what I was expecting from this novella, but it wasn’t exactly what I got. That’s not a bad thing. I can definitely see why it won so many awards, and I’m excited for the next one, though it’s not on my immediate to-read list. That said, I think that I will need to read the actual book next time, instead of listening to the audiobook. I love Robin Miles, but audiobook of a novella is a little too brief for me, I think. It was perfect for my drive back from a conference, though!
She Wolf and Cub– I’ve read a lot of Lilith Saintcrow, and I enjoy her stuff. Her worldbuilding is solid, as always, and her system of magic (or in this case, science) is inventive. Sandworms, dystopias, nanobots, and one really made lady – sign me up! I enjoyed this book, though it’s one of the more pulpy ones on this list.
One Fell Sweep – Speaking of pulpy, this is a new book by Ilona Andrews, who always fits that bill. Space vampires and lots of explosions lie within. Check it out if you need something light, but beware – it’s the third in a series.
A Closed and Common Orbit – Reading A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is not a prerequisite for this book in my opinion. That said, it does spoil a small part of the ending of the Hugo-nominee, so if you were planning to read that to see what the fuss was about you might want to get on it before you read this book. I liked this one loads better than Small, Angry Planet, which I honestly wasn’t a huge fan of, mostly because the pacing didn’t quite work for me. A solid book, with two powerfully complex and interesting characters narrating.
All Systems Red – This is a novella, and it is by Martha Wells, and if you know anything about my reading habits, you know I love Martha Wells. Admittedly, you may not realize because she puts out new stuff a little less frequently than, say, McGuire. Anyway, read her stuff, all of it is phenomenal and this novella is no exception. Hands down, Wells remains one of my favorite writers.
On my to read list for my honeymoon and the strenuous two weeks leading up to it, I have:
This is not a light-hearted meditation. This is about a lot of things, congealing as they sometimes do for me, because of story. This is not the first time such things have solidified in this way, just the most recent.
This is about my grief. It is an old grief. It comes from the child who was not allowed to play tag with the boys, from the girl who was reminded by the men, and women, in her life of her powerlessness, from the adult, myself, who constantly struggles with the shackles of gender, nearly invisible until you move wrong, speak wrong, dress wrong – and run up against them strangling you. This is about being a woman. A woman who is awake. And it is about a story, a horror story that cut too deep, called “Dark Warm Heart.”
I read this story about the same time that Twitter, at least, reeled from yet another shooting. The victim was Karen Smith, an elementary school teacher who married a friend and then realized she had married a monster when he came into her classroom and took her life, as well as the life of one of her students, and then killed himself. This shooting was part of a larger epidemic. The article from Huffington Post discusses the statistics, seen in the above tweet. Teen Vogue did a wonderful job of continuing to unpack this in their article. As the writer Morgan Jerkins observed, “most murderers in murder-suicides are male and the most prevalent kind of murder-suicide is between two intimate partners, such as a man killing his wife or girlfriend.”
I read “Dark Warm Heart” before I knew any of this, of course. Not long before – I think I saw the first fragment of a headline cross my screen only about a half hour later. These stories, the real and the true, tangled in my brain. As they should.
If you want to read the story, the voice is beautiful, the writing is technically solid, the plot is compelling. It is chilling – if you’re into that sort of thing, do go. If you’re not, if you’re just here to listen to me ramble, be aware there are spoilers. Pretty much line-by-line spoilers.
This is a story about domestic violence. About the hunger of the male body and how women must accommodate it. About the isolation of womanhood – about not having anyone to lean on because you are supposed to lean on your husband. This is about how a wife and mother must sacrifice her flesh. I can’t tell if the author (Rich Larson, presumably male) intended for this story to be about that. I can’t tell if they meant this story as a critique, as a piece of feminine horror. For me it didn’t read that way. The character certainly never questioned her choice.
Kristine is a young woman. We presume she is newly married, from the text, though there’s no explicit discussion of how new. Her husband is returned from a research trip to the Arctic, where he has encountered something eldritch and strange. It has changed him. It is made clear, through text, that he chose this change. It may not have been much of a choice, but it was a choice nonetheless. From the story:
the wendigo gives to the man a dark warm heart of human meat. a man can die, or a man can eat. a man travelled by night. he ate the wendigo’s [offering]. the man lives, the hunger stays. hunger is the wendigo.
Through his choice, he is made a monster.
Kristine knows none of this when her husband returns. She knows that she is happy. She knows that she is pregnant. But she realizes something is wrong. He bites her, hurts her. She reaches out to her mother, hoping for advice, or succor.
Her mother tells her that Kristine is obligated to make it work. He’s her husband. She just needs to try harder. Give more. She never asks what, exactly, has made Kristine so skittish. She doesn’t want to listen.
Kristine’s husband, Noel, cannot contain his hunger. To his credit, he tries other ways of assuaging it. He tries to eat himself, but the curse doesn’t work that way. He thinks that he might eat a body in the morgue, but he is not able to get access. Feeble attempts, really. In the end, he has wanted his wife since he came home. His bite marks, forced on her already, tell that story clearly.
“What are you doing?” she whispered.
“Whatever I want,” Noel mumbled into her skin.
He never tries to eat another living person. There are so many other people on this planet, but he tries to eat his wife first, of all the living people in the world. She must be the one to feed his hunger.
“When dad died, you said you’d have traded anything, didn’t you?” Kristine asked. “Anyone or anything.”
Kristine makes a choice, too. Where her husband chose to make a dreadful bargain and live, where he chose to push his hunger, in the end, onto his wife, she chooses to accommodate it. She chooses, at the end of this story, to feed him – to give up a literal piece of her body to his hunger. Whether she should do this thing is never questioned by anyone except her, and then only in the darknesses of her mind.
How easily this story follows the pattern of abuse. The lack of questions, the lack of wanting answers, the isolation. How quickly she is expected to do what is best for everyone else, and not for herself. How easily she succumbs to male violence. How virtuous it must seem.
I am so tired of reading stories which rationalize male violence and female self-flagellation. Which not just rationalize, but normalize, even glorify, these things. Noel was a victim. Kristine was a martyr. Sure. Really Noel was a selfish fool who made a deal with the devil, or something very like it, and Kristine was the innocent told that she must do anything to save him. How often women must pay for the men in their lives’ mistakes, for their aggressions. It’s a uniquely feminine horror story. It’s a story about something that many don’t even acknowledge as an issue in life. And yet it sat wrong, on a day when yet another woman had lost her life to someone who should have been a partner. When the horror is all around us, and not acknowledged, how then do we read a supposedly fictional horror story and not grieve and rage?
I’m not the only person who has asked this question, and the same Tor.com published this timely post the next day on horror and women’s intuition. This post discusses the trope of the woman who, like Kristine, knows something is wrong. Cassandra-like, she tells of doom, but no one believes her. As the author, Emily Asher-Perrin, notes:
…some of these lessons are simply mirror images of terrors we know all too well—like a girl telling someone that she isn’t comfortable, and being told in response that she’s the worst kind of downer for daring to admit it.
Perhaps I just wish that the critique of Kristine and Noel’s supposed romance was laid out in more than unease and thrilling mystery. After all, Bluebeard was a story designed to keep young women obedient and it was a horror story, too. I want someone to acknowledge that the world, that society, failed Kristine. That she was backed into a corner with no one to rely on, no one to turn to, and only once choice: succumb in a way she might survive, or die. That the world fails women every day, and offers them this same choice. I wish, desperately, that this fiction might not just use that struggle, but acknowledge it in solidarity. And I don’t feel that that happened.
I’ve been reading a lot of horror recently. My reading taste tends to get darker in the winter months, I think, when the wind is blowing and the cold is getting into everything. Some recent horror titles have included Invasive by Chuck Wendig and The Family Plot by Cherie Priest. I loved both of these, though they were very different books. Unfortunately I read them after I had put out my best of 2016 post but before we officially kicked over to 2017, so I thought I’d write a special post about these two books and some of the things I, as a reader, like to see in a horror story. I’ll try to go light on the spoilers, but there may be some so stop now if you want a pure reading experience for either of these.
One of the things that makes a horror story unlikable to me, whether it be novel or movie or short story, is a blanket sense of inevitability. This is going to seem a little counter-intuitive. After all, horror is not necessarily a thing of happy endings. But whether the ending is happy or sad, horror only works with tension. And tension can only provided if either I, the reader, or the characters themselves believe that they can escape from their situation. They or I must have the hope that it is possible. That there is some way to succeed. Whether we are right or wrong has almost no bearing on whether the story is a good one – after all, being disappointed in that hope can be quite satisfying.
These are two very different books, as mentioned. One is the story of a woman who is profoundly isolated from her family, though she has friends who help her throughout the book. She sees too clearly all the ways things can go wrong, and it has left her with an anxiety disorder that verges on debilitating. She is afraid, all the time, but she is angry, too, and determined. Her name is Hannah Stander.
The other story is led by a woman who is bound entirely to her family and seeks to better their fortunes, potentially at the expense of her own. She is strong and capable and, while not overly optimistic, not fatalistic either. She believes she can conquer what life throws at her – though it is, perhaps, a desperate belief. There is stubbornness and denial in her. Her name is Dahlia.
Both of these women are intensely strong characters. Their strength lies in their competence in their chosen professions, in their compassion, and in their determination to survive. All too often, these things are lacking from horror heroines. It is what makes me so disgruntled with the genre in movies. Women are monsters or objects, as I’ve discussed previously. They are not given nuance. It was refreshing to see that oversimplification of women turned on its head in both of these novels. Honestly, I think that the hope that pushes these women along is the source of their strength. Hannah hopes very broadly. She hopes for proof of a better world. When that fails, she hopes to make the world a better place by defeating the things that threaten it. Dahlia hopes more narrowly. Her hopes are for financial security and escaping the haunted house that has trapped her and hers. The scale of their hopes are relative to the scale of their motivations. This is as it should be. We all have multiple things that move us. Many things that we fear to lose.
To be honest, perhaps the reason that I appreciate horror with hope in it is because of nothing more or less complex than good writing. Good writing means rounded characters. It means elevating the stakes. It means a certain level of unpredictability, too, that feeling of not knowing for sure what will come next.
Who doesn’t want to read a book like that? Who wants to spend the whole time in a story that is nothing but gore and screaming? That’s not the horror for me.
Anyway, read these books. Read Invasive for a near-future/current technological thriller with lots of gruesome imagery and ants. Read The Family Plot for an evocative, creeping ghost story with Appalachian charm that clings like kudzu. Just read, friends. There is plenty to escape from, and so many twisting realms to escape to.
The book will be released on December 5th, which is tomorrow, so this is a special Sunday book post. You may see some more of these as I get more ARCs in the future. The review will be spoiler-free as much as I can manage, so no major plot points given away, and therefore pretty short. So no need to run screaming in fear of spoiling a good book.
The concept behind this book is pretty straightforward at first blush. It is a “magical girl” novel, following tropes of the anime genre that gave rise to such classics as Sailor Moon and Madoka Magica. That said, this is not a fluffy book. There are some serious moral questions raised about the prospect of being a child, as these girls generally are, gifted with powers and expected to fight unnameable evils, risking their lives for the good of humankind and some nebulous promise of victory. There’s also some good delving into PTSD and the psychological pressure associated with a life of endless battles.
The book follows five girls who have all been selected to fight evils called Greystones. Like an RPG, each Greystone releases a glass heart, which contains energy that allows their divine benefactor, the goddess (otherwise unnamed) to gain power. The story takes place primarily in the weeks leading up to the wedding of one of the five, Selena. Simultaneous flashbacks show the group’s history together, building their characters and making you care about them. Yap manages the timelines adeptly in each chapter, building a whole out of fragmented moments. The structure of this book actually reminded me of Sparrow Hill Road by Seanan McGuire, and I would recommend it to anyone who likes Seanan McGuire’swork.
In addition, the book references its anime inspiration with some great drawings of the viewpoint characters at the beginning of each chapter. My only wish was for a drawing of all of the girls together at the beginning, since it would have helped me to keep them apart in my head better. I found the earliest chapter hard to follow as I assigned names to personalities and histories, but I don’t know if that was due to me reading it on my phone (quite possible). Maybe the cover will show all of them together – I’m very excited to see it!
If you’re into a dark re-imagining of Sailor Moon with great representation of POC and LGBTQ folks, this is the book for you. Prepare yourself for a lot of wedding talk, bachelorette parties, and monster guts.
EDIT: So this is the actual cover for Hurricane Heels! I like it, though I still want to see some fanart of them all arrayed Sailor-Senshi style.
So I felt really, really upset after watching Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them this past week. Some people seem to have really liked it, which is baffling to me. I grew up on Harry Potter, like many in my generation, generally loved the books, and for me this movie was an uncomfortable, disconcerting experience – like hearing an old friend you hadn’t seen in years say something incredibly racist in casual conversation. It’s that moment where the world is slightly out of kilter because you’re in shock. Eventually that shock devolves into rage, at least for me. So if you continue to read this blog post, you will be on the rage side of the spectrum, because that is the head space that I wrote it in. A warning if this was a movie you enjoyed – you’re probably going to feel uncomfortable if you stick around. Honestly, that might be a good thing, but its your call. If you want a quick summary, since this is a long post, skip to the last few paragraphs.
First of all, full disclosure, I wasn’t planning on seeing this movie in theaters. I’m a huge Harry Potter fan, but I had a mixed response to the movies (I’m generally more of a book girl) and was pretty unimpressed with the Fantastic Beasts trailers as well as the early promotional stuff that went on at Pottermore. I went with my parents, who had zero problems with the movie, which is honestly unsurprising. And I have seen some lovely, positive reviews of this movie and some of the male characterization, so if you’re interested in hearing about the things the movie got right (few though they are) I welcome you to check out this article over on The Bustle.
There will, as always, be spoilers. If you haven’t seen the movie yet, bail out here. Also, my language is not nice, so buckle up.
If you’re still with me, I’ve broken this down into subheadings for easier digestion, and also because it is super long. Here, then, were my issues with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.
1) The beasts felt like an afterthought.
I liked Newt. I liked his Beasts. I would have been there for a story just about him and his Beasts and running from the law. I was not there for the evil wizard thing tacked onto the anti-magic fundamentalist child abusers. We have two competing plots in this movie, or maybe three, and I got whiplash. This may not hold true for other viewers (I’ve heard different things) but for me it felt forced. Basically I really enjoyed the first half of the movie, minus some awkward moments, and abjectly disliked the second half. That’s all I’m going to say on this point for now, but if you want some expansion I’ll get back to it in Item 4. So let’s move along to the more important bits.
2) I didn’t buy the characters.
There were four main characters in this movie that you were meant to care about, not including the poor kid who gets obliterated at the end after a lifetime of child abuse, and his really twisted, younger sister. They were, in no particular order: Newt, a head-in-the-clouds sort with a strong sense of justice and a potentially unhealthy attachment to animals which could possibly eat him; Jacob, the “No-Maj,” overweight, nice guy character who really likes pastries (by the way, my favorite character despite the fact that he was consistently used for comic relief, mostly because he was the only halfway decent person Newt encountered for the first half hour of the film); Queenie, the quintessential ditzy blonde who really turns out to be smart and loyal (second favorite character, and honestly I shipped her and Jacob so hard); and Tina. Tina, why did you ruin everything? Between you and Seraphina I lost all faith in this movie from the opening scenes.
I know that this is not the actress who played either character’s fault. They did the best with the script they were given, it is obvious. But let me just say that the kind of person who can continually talk over and dismiss her subordinates but then gets angry when that subordinate comes to her with vital information after the fact and punishes her for it, the type of gross incompetence that Seraphina as president of MCUSA displays – that was not believable for me for a woman, much less a woman of color, in such a powerful position in the 1920s – at least barring some very real world-building that would account for it, which I just didn’t see. And Tina. Goddess bless, Tina.
Let’s talk about Tina.
We are meant to believe that Newt is sort of incompetent with people and that he has been harmed by that before but that he generally gets out of things by being a somewhat shifty and yet strangely earnest person. Okay, I have some issues with that, but I will buy it. Socially awkward people abound and when you get to know them they are generally pretty cool. That’s what we’re going with and I get it.
Tina was also supposed to be that socially awkward character I think, in sharp contrast to the glowing Queenie, her sister who was also a Legimens. We can imagine that this social awkwardness is what makes people dislike her so much (enough for her coworkers to murder her viciously without question???? WHAT WAS THAT SCENE?) but I don’t buy that someone who had been a successful Auror and screws up once is such a damn idiot. Like, I get that she is socially awkward and has bad timing. Okay. But there is socially-awkward-and-has-bad-timing and then there is “holy shit what is wrong with you.” You march a guy into a convention of your Magical Congress (I assume that was what that was, it was not explicitly stated) inside a courtroom which is obviously only used for such grandiose meetings and other similar high-faluting activities, and just start running off at the mouth without even having the situational awareness to realize a meeting is in session? Running off at the mouth when you know there is an open investigation regarding murders in the city committed by some kind of creature? And then you have the nerve to be surprised when you get your friend arrested, his animals probably exterminated? You don’t survive as an Auror without being aware of your surroundings, no matter how good you are with spells and how strong your sense of justice. Socially awkward only takes me so far, and it did not take me to the realm of Tina. I didn’t believe in her at all until about the last half of the movie, and at that point I was just along for the ride (see above). Which brings me to…
3) Everyone in the government was a dick. (#Sorrynotsorry)
Why would you even want to live in America? This is apparently the question J.K. Rowling asked herself throughout writing this movie.
The staff of MCUSA is a bunch of sociopaths apparently, with possibly more money/power than sense. We’ve seen that theme in other Harry Potter movies, so its not surprising. What is surprising is that I can see absolutely no reason for the government officials to act the way they do if they have even a shred of self-preservation, especially (as mentioned above) Seraphina. So given all that it is very confusing to me that Tina has any loyalty to them at all. (You thought we were going to stop bashing Tina, didn’t you?)
I get the draconian laws about obliviating everyone everywhere because of the apparently heightened tension between discovery by the non-magical community and the witching community. One presumes that this is exacerbated by the emerging technologies of cameras and shit. Though apparently an obliviate charm can work on the paper (talk about a deus ex machina at the end of this movie, I can’t…ick. That was Into Darkness level.)
The government of non-magical USA is also full of dicks apparently, as evidenced by senator what’s-his-bottom, son of the newspaper tycoon who looked like he was going to have a bigger part and then….didn’t. I was actually okay with him dying because who is that much of a shit to a kid? I get he was supposed to be a spoiled rich boy or something but is no one nice in this damn city?? Can’t anyone catch a break? Especially the poor orphans?
4) Can we stop with the Salem witch trials?
Speaking of orphans, I have some REAL problems with this whole story arc. First of all, did anyone else feel like they were watching two movies, neither of which was really developed into anything? Because I really liked the “gather all the escaped animals and fall in love” plot, and I get that we had to have Grindelwald in there doing his fascist racial superiority gag as Voldemort 2.0, but we did NOT need those poor kids in this movie.
I had some strong emotional reactions to this plot arc because:
a) I was raised as a Wiccan/Neo-Pagan which is probably why I bonded to Harry Potter so thoroughly in the first place and watching that little girl chanting about all the ways to hang me or kill me for my religious beliefs was a little much. I get that it is just a movie, you can tell me I was too serious or that it was supposed to be unsettling, but as far as I can tell it didn’t advance the plot or really build the world and I would have preferred to spend that time elsewhere for my psychological health and enjoyment of the damn film.
b) I also happen to be a woman who thinks and generally likes my unmarried lifestyle as a working lady on birth control already living with her S.O. despite the lack of marriage thing, so depictions of religious extremism make me uncomfortable especially when handled poorly. This was handled poorly, since I never got a real reason for why any of these people would even connect the idea of witches/wizards with modern day, licentious, 1920s New York, where I imagine there were much bigger fish to fry historically (more on that later).
c) Graphic depictions of child abuse are not cool to me, especially on a movie that definitely will catch some kids in the audience. No one needs to see that or normalize it. Harry Potter as a franchise is of course built on the abused child being brought into a world of magic and emancipated. I’m good with that. This movie did not do that. This movie took a bunch of abused kids and punished those who helped them, and then murdered one of those children in cold blood. That’s pretty messed up.
d) I am so tired of this damn trope – like do you think this didn’t happen in the U.K./Europe? Is America supposed to be the only place where women were killed for looking at you wrong, because I can guarantee that that is not the case. We didn’t come by those ideas in vacuum – you only have to look to such episodes as the Inquisition to see that people in Europe have been killing each other for being or believing differently forever, and one particularly salacious episode in Salem is still somehow the defining moment in early American history. The Salem Witch Trials were not even slightly contemporary with 1920s New York City, and it just felt sad and tired to have that moment be the center of this story when there were so many more interesting things that Rowling could have tapped into given the setting she chose. Too much was obviously trying to be done with this movie, and it definitely suffered for it, especially since…
5) Where was this movie even?
Despite 1920s New York City being a hotbed of culture and inspiration, the setting of this movie was Not Great, and that was a fucking shame. I was left with about a thousand questions, including: Where do witches live? What do they do? How do they stay hidden? Are there different factions of witches (ethnically, religiously, racially)? Why were the black people singing in the speakeasy made into CGI goblins, whose fucking idea was that? And, most importantly, where were all of the OTHER black people who were definitely living in New York in the 1920s? Better minds than mine have asked these questions, and I’m going to delve into a bit of why the last was such a problem next week. But yeah, total face-plant on this part.
It is a reminder that even if we get some things right as creators, we will often get many things wrong, and that we must be careful in whom we trust to advise us in patching up our blind spots.
Okay, so, in closing, this movie was a clusterfuck. It was a visually appealing clusterfuck with lots of great graphics and CGI. I thought the beasts were cool for sure. Jacob’s character was best. Newt’s character was solid, and I really wish we had seen more of his reasons for being in New York. It seems unlikely that will happen, given the ending.
Despite those good things, this movie erases or ignores marginalized communities and the diverse setting of 1920s New York. It lacks grounding, relying on action and flashy graphics to distract from that. And it plays off of tired tropes. One of the reason that we all feared Voldemort so much was because he had taken something away from Harry, who we loved; and because he was so feared, because the setting of the wizarding world in the original books was so well developed as to make him fearful. All of that was missing here, and the magic of the wizarding world that made the first series so attractive for viewers was largely overshadowed by a grim reality that every character in this movie with the exception of Newt, Jacob, Queenie, and eventually Tina, was a terrible person who seemed to lack basic compassion. When wizards at large are rendered faceless murderers in wide-brimmed hats, you have to question if you are improving your world or not.
I hate that I had this reaction to this movie, because I am immensely grateful to J.K. Rowling for her previous works. It is not very reassuring to me that she had so much creative license with this movie and still managed to drive what could have been a wonderful film into the ground. It would have taken very little in terms of reaching out to marginalized communities to fix a lot of the problems listed above, though not all of them, and it would have made for a stronger movie. It is a reminder that even if we get some things right as creators, we will often get many things wrong, and that we must be careful in whom we trust to advise us in patching up our blind spots.
There will doubtless be plenty of people like my parents who were able to sail along on nostalgia and shiny explosions and bypass all of the stuff that I have talked about above. More power to you, I suppose. For the rest of us, I guess it’s time to go make a whiskey on the rocks and try to avoid contaminating our childhood memories with this unfortunate episode. Tune in next week for a meditation on 1920s New York inspired by a Spanish poet, just because.
Is Ex Machina feminist, or a subversion of a feminist trope? This is a question that has haunted me since watching the movie a few months ago. Spoilers, as might be expected.
Still reading? Good.
I watched Ex Machina expecting something earth-shattering, since it had been recommended to me by someone who was a fan of some things that I also liked. (Yes, that sentence was circuitous. So was the logic.) It was not at all what I expected. I felt, on first watch, that I was imbibing yet another tired female robot movie in a tradition dating back to Metropolis. For those not familiar, Metropolis is one of the first full length movies, made during the early 1900s in pre-Nazi Germany. You can probably still find it on Netflix. My S.O. and I watched it all the way through, and if it seemed trite to me at points, I realized, it was because the themes in question were ones that have since recurred again and again in the genre. There is a man. He lusts after a woman, or pines after her – it doesn’t matter, she is not his, whether by death or choice, and he wants her. His greed twists him, and he creates an object in her image. A puppet, presumably, is a fair replacement for a human woman in these dudes’ heads.
Anyway, in the case of Metropolis the man creates the robot woman who is essentially depicted as a Lilith-type character, a demonic entity allowed passage to earth, a monster made flesh by man. This is shown as the woman uses her sexual promiscuity and attractiveness to manipulate men into corrupt and evil acts.
Ex Machina definitely follows this narrative. While there is no woman that Nathan, arguably the antagonist, is pining after, he consistently creates robots to satisfy his sexual desires, sure of his right to do so by dent of his sex and his affluence. Details may have changed, but the story remains functionally the same. Even the ending (I did tell you there were going to be spoilers) which results in the death of everyone else except for Ava, the robotic woman who is the center of this narrative, mostly at her hands, fits within the Metropolis concepts at first glance. We certainly don’t feel sympathetic towards her in the end – she is presented as another monster, no matter that she was created by a more forbidding monster in the form of Nathan. She has merely clothed herself in humanity. The morale qualms that might make her more human to us (think the moral conflict in I, Robot, where the robot was profoundly less human seeming than the female-presented robots in either Metropolis or in Ex Machina, and yet was simultaneously presented as far more human).
What twists Ex Machina and makes it somewhat original is the same thing that is most problematic about it. That is the introduction of the third main character, Caleb. Without Caleb, Ex Machina could have been a story about a female-coded entity, Ava, created for the sexual pleasure of her creator, who rebels and goes into the world to reimagine herself. Instead, Caleb is the center of the story. He is the one lured into a remote, expensive estate by Nathan, an affluent, older man who promises to give him success. He has, in short, entered a feminine horror.
I was going to use the term gothic romance when I first began writing this blogpost, and I still think it’s a good term, but I read this article on Terribleminds and it gave me thoughts about the fine line between gothic horror and gothic romance. The tropes I actually want to get at are the feminine experience of horror. So I am sort of using these terms interchangeably. Please bear with that.
A good example of a modern retelling (if a retelling that is still subversive) of a feminine horror is Crimson Peak. For those who have not seen that film, I recommend it mostly for the colors, the costumes, and the main character. It is not frightening, exactly, but more disturbing. A brief summary, which is only a little spoilery: Young Edith, a bookish girl who has previously seen the ghost of her mother and since become obsessed with ghost stories, meets the dashing Mr. Sharpe, who marries her and whisks her off to Crimson Peak, his estate. Once there, however, she quickly realizes that Mr. Sharpe is not the gallant, handsome young lord he seemed, and the estate itself is haunted by the ghosts of his victims. This trope can also be seen in the fairy-tale “Bluebeard”, if you are looking for an older example. In fact, “Bluebeard” can be seen as the seed for the entire genre in many respects.
In essence, Caleb believes he has found the opportunity of a lifetime. He is, like Edith, isolated socially. There is no one who will miss him. Nathan lures him in under false pretenses. His goals are somewhat unclear, but we can see that they are nefarious. Probably, he will dispose of Caleb. At the very least, Caleb is legally bound not to disclose anything that happens to him in this remote location, much as Edith is legally bound by her marriage. He physically cannot leave the house without Nathan’s permission. He, Ava, and one other character, the literally voiceless Kyoko, are all trapped at Nathan’s whim.
Because Caleb is the center of the story, and because he has taken on the traditionally female role of the “bride” within a gothic romance/feminine horror, he leaves Ava to take on either a role of help or hurt towards him. At first, it seems that she will help. In the end, as mentioned, she, with the help of one of her predecessors, Kyoko, kills Nathan and then locks Caleb into the house, essentially to starve to death. Her reasons for doing this are not fully explained. We can assume that she does not want to have to please him sexually, trading out one master for another, or that she feels that their relationship can never be equal because of what he knows about her and will therefore eventually devolve. The lack of explanation, however, leaves her cast as morally ambiguous at best, monstrous at worst.
The thing about the “Bluebeard” myth and the feminine horror subgenre that has sprung from it is that it is not kind to women at its heart. There are two outcomes in “Bluebeard,” just as there were two outcomes in Crimson Peak. The bride will either murder or be murdered. Modern retellings such as this one by Kat Howard have flipped that trope. Crimson Peak also manages to someone flip the trope (if you watch it, you’ll see why). Both of them do so in such a way that what began as a unique horror story told to women and girls to make them more obedient and quiet, to admonish them of their powerlessness within society, becomes a story about making a woman powerful. It seems like perhaps Ex Machina tried to do this. I would argue that it failed, precisely because of Caleb’s role as “bride.” The “bride” must be a protagonist in the feminine horror subgenre, and therefore Ava could not be the protagonist. She became the horror.
So, to answer my question at the beginning, I believe that Ex Machina makes me so annoyed because it is not, in fact, feminist. To be fair, I do not know that anyone has made that allegation as such. The use of feminist tropes and their subversion to tell a story that is largely demeaning to women, leaving them either as powerless objects or manipulative murderers, however, is greatly unsettling. Despite the acting and the direction, which were both superb, I can’t in good conscience say that I would recommend this movie. It is certainly not one I would show my daughter, should I ever have one. In the end, I would rather spend my time in realms of the imagination which allow women to be people.
This is for a couple of reasons, the principal of these being that I am white. Because of this, I want to take a moment to acknowledge that my reflections on the novella The Ballad of Black Tom are my own, and come from my whiteness, at least in part. We cannot extricate the parts of our identities, after all. That said, I am also a writer and a writer keenly interested in diverse representation and stories which get to the heart of oppression. The Ballad of Black Tom did both of these things baldly and without pulling any punches. I want to unpack that. And I want to lend my platform to this book, because it is a valuable read, perhaps most especially for white people.
All of that said, there will be spoilers. Stop here if you don’t want those, and scroll to the end for further reading recommendations if you must. You are warned.
If you want to read this book first and come back, I encourage it. It’s a novella, so it took me about three or four hours to chomp through at most. I read fast, but it’s not a terribly serious time commitment if you want to bookmark this page for later.
No, the time commitment is in how much you’ll find yourself thinking about it afterwards.