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Archive for January, 2012

Ok, I just have to come out and say it; I love Avatar: The Last Airbender. I’ve loved it ever since I watched the premiere episode for this show back in 2005 on Nickelodeon. The artwork is beautiful, the storyline is perfectly balanced with drama and humor, and the characters captivate and develop wonderfully over the series’ three seasons. It’s one of those rare forms of fiction that comes along that can still bring all the emotion and excitement on the second or third viewing as it did on the first. The other nice thing about Avatar: The Last Airbender is its ability to be relatable and be liked by a very large age group–the creators of the show managed to bring us a story with complex issues without either dumbing it down (my sympathies go out to those parents who most see more and more potty joke-filled, impossibly immature kids’ movies) or trying to make it “more adult” by adding unnecessarily graphic content.

Katara & Sokka

I could go on and on about this show, but rather than prattle on too much, for this post I’ve decided to narrow down my focus to the first season. While the entire series boasts a great cast of strong female characters and plenty of shining moments for them, the first season is particularly interesting for its dabbling in sexist/feminist scenarios which surround two of the main characters, Sokka and Katara. From the very first episode, these two introduce the issue so, I want to look at three particular examples.

To start, for those of you who don’t know, the basic story of this show is in a world divided between four nations–Water Tribes, Fire Nation, Earth Kingdom, and Air nomads, each with their own ability to “bend” a.k.a. manipulate an element. One person is able to control all the elements who is called the Avatar is supposed to keep the peace and reincarnates after death. But 100 years before the start of the show, the last Avatar vanished, no new Avatar came, and the Fire Nation began a war to take control of the other nations.

When we first meet this brother and sister, they’re living with their war-battered tribe (the Southern Water Tribe) in an environment much like the South Pole. These two are the oldest children in the tribe (both are in their mid-teens), their mother has passed away, and their father is away with all the men of the tribe left two-years prior on a war mission, leaving a lot on these two’s shoulders. With that in mind, on this particular day, Katara has accompanied her brother on a fishing trip in a tiny canoe floating along in silent waters with large glaciers scattered about them. In typical brother-sister fashion, the two get into a fight and this momentary distraction leads the two to getting stranded on an iceberg. Within the first several minutes, this show is already introducing the audience to the dynamics of Sokka and Katara relating to sexism/feminism. Sokka puts the blame on Katara, saying he should have left her at home and, as a final insult, “Leave it to a girl to screw things up!” Now some of you reading this might roll your eyes at this. “Big deal. No brother has ever said that before.” Well, sadly these little jibes are the types of prejudice most people had in past centuries and some still cling to. For example, I’m reading a non-fiction book called Mistress of the Vatican about an Italian woman named Olimpia Maidalchini, a powerful woman credited with being the mastermind behind Pope Innocent X, and during her time (1600s), Sokka’s rather juvenile jibe was believed so strongly that according to Eleanor Herman (the author), “There was an Italian saying of the time–‘to make a girl,’ which meant failure, disaster, plans gone awry.” (11) (For any history buffs that are wondering, that’s a great book so far.) So, while it seems a silly taunt to many people, statements like the one mentioned in Avatar have been quite harmful. This show brings up those G-rated but detrimental beliefs at various times throughout the first season, including comments about how girls are better at domestics and guys are better at bringing food to the table and fighting.

Katara doesn’t let these comments slide though. Avatar: The Last Airbender is actually a pretty humorous show so, Katara’s retorts to her brother are often a nice mix of sarcasm/humor and spot-on point. (One of my favorite scenes is a scene where while Katara is stitching back together a hole in his pants, Sokka says one shouldn’t bother a girl when she sews. Katara demands to know why Sokka says girls specifically which is when he explains girls are naturally better at domestics. Suddenly, Katara beams. “I’m done with your pants! And look what a great job I did!” she announces cheerfully, holding up the pants to show the gaping hole in them.) In the scene I mentioned above, Katara actually blows up at Sokka. Her bending skill unintentionally activates because of her anger, cracking open the large iceberg behind her to reveal the lost Avatar (named Aang) who had been frozen inside. He’d been lost for 100 years and probably would have continued to be if Katara hadn’t gotten mad and used her bending. Thus, in a sense Katara is rewarded for her outburst against Sokka’s unfair sexist comment.

Sokka, however, doesn’t embody deeply rooted sexism, but rather ignorance. Perhaps because of the environment he grew up in where the break up of work is more traditional, Sokka has accepted this as the natural order of things. I know, it’s shocking, but he just doesn’t believe his younger sister when she says otherwise. It takes others to prove him wrong–a group of nimble female warriors that kick his butt to be exact, but once they do, he’s able to reconsider things. After Katara, Sokka, and Aang are ambushed and captured by this group of female warriors, Sokka makes excuses for why he, a guy, could have been outdone by girls and continues to insult the warriors. But when he attends one of the young women’s practice sessions as a guest and is once again completely outmatched, he begins to change. Sokka is not so steeped in beliefs of women’s inferiority that he can’t open his mind to new ideas. He changes his feelings of humiliation at being beaten by a girl into an opportunity to learn from someone–even if she is a girl–who is more skilled than him and apologizes for his behavior. This ends the sexist comments from Sokka who develops newfound respect for women.

In my next post, I going to continue this talk about Avatar: The Last Airbender‘s handling of sexism and compare Sokka’s more ignorant sexism to the sexist beliefs of another Avatar character whose sexism is derived from his culture’s rigid traditions.

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Ask a person for an author who writes young adult novels with strong female characters and undoubtably someone will mention Tamora Pierce. Pierce is the author of several series and debuted with a series by the name of Song of the Lioness, a four book installment with the good old plot centering around a girl, Alanna who wishes to join the army (or in this case, become a knight) and, barred from it because of her gender, must pretend to be a boy to do so. But the book I am writing about today is a sequel to this series called Trickster’s Choice which follows the adventure of Alanna’s daughter, Alianne–or Aly, as she’s often called (it makes things a lot less confusing that way). Therefore, if you haven’t read Song of the Lioness and would like to, you may not want to read this review or Trickster’s Choice just yet as it does have some spoilers for that series. 

*****   

Taking place years after the conquests of Alanna in Song of the Lioness, Alanna is still a famous knight, but now she’s also a mother. Aly is one of Alanna’s children and quite the troublemaker for her mother and father. At sixteen, Aly yearns to become a spy like her father, but as the only daughter of her parents they are reluctant to let her assist in such dangerous work. Because of that, Aly spends her time without a goal to achieve, flirting with boys without any seriousness, butting heads with her very driven and often absent mother, and occasionally dying her hair blue while turning her parents hair white with exasperation. After a fight with her mother, Aly decides to take her boat out to get away from her mother for awhile, but is captured by pirates along the way and sold into slavery in a neighboring realm, the Copper Isles, known for its instability between its luarin conquerors and raka natives. But just as Aly plans to make her escape, a god appears before her and offers her a wager: keep the children of the family she’s been sold to, the Balitang, safe through the summer from political schemes threatening to sweep them up and the god will make her a spy as she always wished to be. Unable to resist the temptation of the reward nor the intrigue of adventure, Aly accepts.

Initially, Aly does come off as an unserious, slightly rebellious teenage, but Pierce does a good job of deepening the character beyond that. First of all, neither Aly or her mother are made out to be the bad guy who’s come around just to make the other person’s life miserable (even if it may seem that way at first). As happens all the time in real life, both Aly and Alanna have good points and good intentions, but butt heads with each other because personality differences and different opinions without taking the time to slow down and consider the other person’s point of view. In some ways, Aly and her mother are very similar and this also causes them to clash. I came to really like this relationship in the book as it shows such an honest and even view of this dynamic between some parents and children.

Pierce also manages bringing favorite characters back from previous books without making readers cringe. Tell me you haven’t had this happen at least once; you read a book/manga or watch a movie/TV show and just love the story and characters to pieces so, when the tale comes to an end, there’s a bit of sadness. Then you catch word of plans to continue the story somehow (an unexpected sequel perhaps). Oh, the joy! You wait anxiously for it, counting the days on your calendar, but when you finally read/see it, it fails the original so badly you wish the creators had just left it and the characters alone. Luckily, I felt Pierce keeps the integrity of the old characters.

As for the new characters, they’re excellent! My other fear when people make sequels about the children of the main character from the original story is that the child will be a copy of the parent. Aly’s character is well done, however. Readers of Song of the Lioness will recognize similar traits in Aly to those of her parents, but it’s a good mix, making Aly a fresh and unique character. She’s strong-willed like Alanna, but where her mother’s skill was fighting, Aly’s is her cunning. This is excellently portrayed early on when Aly is captured by those pirates. Thinking quickly, Aly deduces her situation and realizes she could easily by sold as a “bed warmer” as Pierce puts it. To avoid this fate, Aly purposely takes a beating before the slave auction begins, not only to ruin her looks, but also to mark herself as a troublemaker and therefore much less desirable as a slave. It takes some guts to let yourself get beat up and some brains to think that far ahead in such a bad situation. I also like the fact that when Aly is later offered the chance to erase scars left over from that beating and fix the bump created from breaking her nose, she declines, preferring to live with them.

But as most fiction with a strong female lead, Aly isn’t the only strong female character. Two of the Balitang children from the lord of the household’s first marriage are key players in this story. Teenagers Lady Saraiyu (Sarai) and Lady Dovasary (Dove) are part-raka and part-luarin, an unusual thing in a place where many luarins look down on the native raka and many of the raka hold deep feelings of hatred for the luarins who stole the land from them in the first place and now receive poor treatment. Because of their mixed heritage and noble bloodlines, Sarai and Dove are in the middle of those political schemes I mentioned earlier. However, these are no damsels-in-distress. Sarai excels at the sword despite being barred from practicing because of her gender and captivates people with her charisma. Her younger sister Dove is often overlooked because of her quiet nature and collectedness, but Dove is often just as sharp as Aly, reading situations and seeing between the lines before even her parents (and she’s excellent with a bow and arrow). As a bonus, the relationship between the girls is petty cat-fight-free. Other strong female characters include Dove and Sarai’s step-mother and the house cook who are also not to be underestimated.

Trickster’s Choice is yet another entertaining read from Tamora Pierce and the tension steadily builds as Aly and readers alike try to figure out just what others are hiding and scheming. I recommend this book for anyone who has read Pierce’s other works, those who are starved for more strong female characters, and/or anyone looking for a good fantasy filled with political plots, a little romance, and a lot of great characters. There is also a sequel to this book by the name of Trickster’s Queen.

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Kristin Cashore’s Fire is not only a very entertaining and gripping story, but is a true gold-mine of deep questions concerning men and women. This was the impression Kristin Cashore’s second book, Fire left on me after I’d finished feverishly reading it, unable to wait to read what happened next in the story. Some of you may be rolling your eyes at that. Very cliché, I know, but honestly, I’m a person who has very high standards for my fiction and limited time so, if it doesn’t wow me I tend to meander with my reading a bit. (That, and I have a habit of picking up too many books to read at once, but that’s another issue.) Fire, however, had me completely enthralled in its rich tale and left me thinking long after I’d finished it.

The story follows Fire (yes, that’s her name), a young woman with an interesting and unwanted origin: she’s a “monster,” born dangerously alluring to people and with the power to control minds. If that didn’t make people wary enough, her father, Cansrel was a monster in both body and mind, using his “monster” abilities to control the previous king and spread violence throughout the kingdom until his death years ago. Together with her legacy and her given powers, people are filled with suspicion and hatred for her (if they’re not blindly lusting after her). Fire has stayed away from those who might harm her, living in a village with the former army commander Brocker, who has become a father-like figure to her, and his son Archer, her friend and lover. But when circumstances lead her to the King’s City, Fire becomes tied up in dealings with the royal family and suspicious activities.

When I read Cashore’s debut novel, Graceling (Fire is a prequel of sorts to it) I liked it in many ways, but I wasn’t wowed at the time. Don’t get me wrong. The lead female character in it was very good and it was also thought-provoking so, I still liked it and would not hesitate to recommend it, but I did have a couple of problems with it. The flow of the story felt a little uneven at times and the main antagonist had me yawning a bit (a little too pure evil and a little less realistic and fleshed out in my mind). (I will say that I read Graceling years ago and this was just my first impression.) In fact, when I finished Graceling and read the preview of Fire in the back of the book, I initially wasn’t interested in picking up Fire since it focuses on the same antagonist and, let me to tell you, even as a kid, this guy is evil. Obviously, I liked Graceling enough in the end that I did pick up Fire and I am extremely happy that I did. Fire succeeds in fixing the problems I had with Graceling as Cashore’s writing and story-telling goes to the next level. Where Graceling was good, Fire is breathtaking.

So, you may have question marks floating over your head about this “monster” power. Here is another story about a pretty girl who has to beat the guys off of her because there are so many interested in her (Hi Bella Swan!). But despite sounding like a petty cliché, this was actually a very interesting aspect  of the story. People constantly objectify Fire because of her looks and because she is female and desired, her beauty becomes a danger to her since it often draws the unwanted attention of men. Some men are fine, but as I said earlier, others are the type to blindly lust after her and don’t use control. In Fire, the situation is exaggerated by Fire’s inhuman beauty, but Cashore brings up an interesting question; is it more dangerous for a woman to stand out? Here’s one quote in particular that struck me: “Cansrel had loved attention, Fire thought to herself dryly. More to the point, he had been a man. Cansrel had not had her problems.” (Cashore 181) Her father held a powerful position and was infamous for being tough and cruel and, while everyone should understand that men can most definitely be victims as well, women still are at higher risk to be attacked. Fire is perceived as less of a threat, perhaps in part because people see a female who, unless proven otherwise, are often equated with fragility. Rape and gender issues are something that is discussed seriously within the story. (By the way, for those of you who are wondering, although it gets into deep and serious issues, rape is only discussed and never depicted in Fire.)

It should also be noted that Fire isn’t actually an easy victim, even if she may seem to be. She’s become tough, both mentally and physically and can hold her own. Fire does have issues which she must work out and that is a big part of the story, but she’s no damsel-in-distress. Fire dislikes her powers and has a fear of following the path of her father who misused his power, but can use them when need be. Keeping on the issue of how people tend to objectify Fire, some of my favorite moments showing off Fire’s strength are when people attempt to force her into the role of a pretty little doll. Fire does not allow others to objectify her. For example, after a long and hard journey with some people Fire doesn’t really care much for, she’s given the chance to bathe and change into some slinky dress. She doesn’t have much choice, but thinks twice about the bath “because she sensed, and resented, that its purpose was to prettify her” and blatantly refuses to walk around in a sexy dress, defiantly throwing a man’s long, heavy coat over it. (Cashore 367)  She also uses her beauty and assumed docile nature to her advantage. There are plenty of other strong female characters in the story as well.

This is a fantasy that delves headlong into issues like relationships, birth control, rape, and coming to terms with things. The romance of Fire is mature and realistic and the plot is well thought out and paced. This was one of those books where I was struck frequently by just how thoughtful and provoking some of the issues were in the story. It just goes to show you that you can’t underestimate a young adult book!

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A year or so ago my need for great storytelling and strong, realistic female characters was more than satisfied when I came across an anime called The Beast Player Erin. Frankly, I’m not sure how I found it; the book series (by Nahoko Uehashi) which it’s based on has never been translated and published in America*, the anime hasn’t been released on DVD either, and on the one site that streams it legally (Crunchyroll.com), it’s currently tucked away on page 5, overshadowed by super popular shows like Bleach and Naruto. However it is that I happened upon The Beast Player Erin, I’m glad I did as it’s become one of my favorite anime and the heroine, Erin, is definitely one of the strongest heroines I’ve seen. So, without further ado, let me introduce you to it!

When it starts, Erin is a very bright 10-year-old living with her widowed mother, Soh-Yon in a quiet village. In this fantasy country, the country is governed by the Shin-Oh, a queen said to be a god, while the military is left to the direction of the Taikoh whose army utilizes giant dragon/lizard-like creatures called Tohda to protect the country. This is a key point because it just so happens that Erin’s mother is the best care-taker in this village of the Taikoh’s precious Tohda, something that Erin aspires to do herself one day. Eager to learn and very observant, Erin has all the potential to do so.

The Beast Player Erin begins as a somewhat slow-paced tale about an intelligent young girl with an insatiable hunger for knowledge and leads to much darker times with political intrigue and plots that Erin unwittingly gets drawn into. The first several episodes follow Erin through a series of small adventures within the village, exhibiting her inquisitive and observant nature and her relationship with her mother. This part is more setting up the series and although I wouldn’t call The Beast Player Erin a fast-paced series, the beginning feels more like a more innocent slice-of-life type story. However, there are hints of deeper issues that will play a large role in Erin’s life staring with the discriminatory behavior some villagers show toward Erin’s mother, Soh-Yon who comes from an aloof group of people known for their distinct green eyes who are believed to have magical powers and are thus feared.

Gender issues are also introduced early on because Soh-Yon’s position as a beastiarian gives her power that women don’t usually have. As we are shown in one of those early episodes, girls are usually married off in their teens and are limited to more traditional, domestic roles. These two issues will be part of Erin’s journey and, after some shocking events, the series shifts from its set up to a story of a determined girl with a goal.

But while we watch Erin grow and learn, we as the audience are also given glimpses of another set of lives; those in the political sphere such as the Shin-Oh, her nephew Damiyah, and her granddaughter, Princess Seimiyah, as well as the Taikoh and his two sons and a couple of other very important characters connected to these political parties. Slowly, the tension builds as we watch Erin and the rest of the cast go about their lives; the story acts in a way that makes the series feel as though it’s all in preparation for the moment when these two groups meet (but don’t disregard the journey to that point). The stakes get higher as the series gets into the darker half of the plot where Erin’s strength, which was ever-present and impressive before, grows to whole new levels. By the end, it’s an all-out drama involving the entire country.

It’s hard to go into such a complex story without spoiling it, but I’d like to talk about a few specific reasons why I loved this anime as a feminist.

First and foremost, the main character, Erin and the messages that accompany her character; as I said, even at ten-years-old Erin shows an interest in life and learning about things. She avoids being a stereotypical genius and instead we see her naturally observant nature and her enthusiasm to learn aid her. Erin never lets life or society take her for a ride, but shows initiative, following her heart and living for goals that go against the grain. For one, she pursues an education. In a society in which pursuing an education isn’t what girls typically do, Erin definitely takes a very different path and this is something that is pointed out at several points in the story. At a crossroad, Erin is given the choice to be adopted into a wealthy family by someone who becomes a father-figure/mentor to Erin. Erin declares with firm conviction that although it is difficult, she would prefer to live on her own and get an education rather than be adopted which would lead to a traditional education in domestics and later, an arranged marriage.

The other characters add to Erin’s story greatly, often either taking a stance contrary to Erin’s which makes Erin’s strength and determination shine all the brighter or support Erin, helping her grow. For example, being so different isn’t always easy on Erin, but Erin’s friend encourages her to be herself and says there is nothing wrong with who Erin is, a message I always appreciate a story for telling. Over the course of the show, Erin matures from an inquisitive girl to a highly intelligent and independent woman with responsibilities. And unlike so many other heroines, I never once felt Erin took the backseat in her own story, upstaged by a hot savior. In short, she’s a very refreshing character.

But Erin isn’t the only strong female character in the show. There are several that enter the story, starting with Erin’s mother, Soh-Yon. As I said earlier, Soh-Yon holds a unique position in the village as a person originating from a group of people who are looked upon warily and being a woman who has a job that is vital to the village. This causes resentment in certain people, but Soh-Yon takes it all in stride, showing strength by not letting it get to her and going about her job. Her job is not without dangers either; not only are Tohda dangerous creatures, but they are so important to the country that failure on the job, i.e. the death of a Tohda in her care, means severe punishment. She is also a single mother and has raised Erin since birth on her own after the death of her husband.

Speaking of which, Erin’s relationship with her mother is also something I like about The Beast Player Erin. Soh-Yon acts as an influence on Erin all throughout the story and sparks Erin’s initial interest in what becomes her goal to take care of and study animals. Seeing Erin’s interest, Soh-Yon encourages and teaches her daughter, endowing knowledge on her that will be indispensable down the road. It’s not an understatement to say that Soh-Yon is a huge part of the story, something that’s nice to see when a very big portion of fiction hardly mentions good ol’ mom.

Gender issues aren’t the main subject of the story, but rather one of the larger theme of society caging people (and animals) in with laws, traditions, prejudice, etc. Erin is unwilling to let herself or others be chained by these unfair circumstances. (Can you tell why I like this anime?) The show presents these ideas wonderfully, giving the audience a cast of complex and realistic characters that each add something to the story. With a refreshing heroine, strong cast (including a lot of good male characters as well) and story, and thoughtfully done themes, The Beast Player Erin is one of my favorite anime. And get this: there is absolutely no fan-service! None! So what are you waiting for? Check it out on Crunchyroll.com!

I love the art, too!

*Speaking of books, if you’ve heard of Moribito, a series that has been translated into English and stars another very strong female lead, The Beast Player Erin was created by the same author, Nahoko Uehashi.

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