Thursday, August 8, 2013

The Bletchley Circle

This British miniseries isn't perfect, is a little slow, but great acting and one of the most subtly feminist movies I've seen in a while makes it so much worth your while. The series follows four women who worked at Bletchley Park during World War II, which was the group, mostly women (80% of those who worked at Bletchley were women), who worked on cracking the German codes. After the war, the four women have mostly returned to their old jobs, or else gotten married and quit work all together. Due to the Official Secrets Act, the women (and men) were forbidden to divulge what they did during the war--certainly couldn't use it on resumes to find other work, weren't even supposed to tell your spouses, or have the opportunity of finding others who had done the same job and connecting that way. Seven years after the war, the main character, Susan, is now married with two children. She is trying to fit into the housewife life, but she is bored and stifled. When a serial killer starts targeting local women, she decides that with her experience, she can help track the killer through his patterns and stop him. Susan goes to some of the other women she worked with at Bletchley: Millie, Jean and Lucy, and the four team up to stop the killer.
It deals with the themes of women being forced out of jobs they loved or forced into domesticity; the patronization and dismissal of those in authority because they are women, or because they can't cite their credentials; and also the dismissal of their husbands, who don't want to hear about it, don't care what they did in the war, don't care about their wives' interests. Which isn't to say that the male characters are all horrible misogynists or anything, but they are definitely products of their time. Moreover, the series regularly smashes the Bechdel test, and follows not one but four women. When in 2012, only 27% of speaking roles in movies went to women; and when the number of women directors, producers and screenwriters is falling alarmingly, we need movies and series like this. That don't just have one token female character, but have several full-formed women; who aren't perfect, but are complex human beings just like their male counterpoints found just about everywhere onscreen. And the good news is that apparently there is going to be a second Bletchley series next year.

Further reading on the real Bletchley Park, which is pretty fascinating (unlike the movie Enigma...which was pretty boring):

4 stars out of 5

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Post-Apocalypse Beauty Pageant

In two post-apocalyptic series I've read, there was a kind of troubling way that beauty and disfigurement was dealt with. This isn't something solely confined to this genre, of course, but I felt like it was such a misstep and missed opportunity, especially because it's a main theme in these series, that I'll just focus on these two.
The first series is the Pure trilogy by Julianna Baggott. It takes place a decade or so after a series of bombs has gone off around the world(? maybe just U.S.). When the bombs exploded, people fused together with whatever they were holding or standing near. So the main character, who was 5 or 6 years old at the time, now has a doll's head for a hand. Her grandfather has a miniature fan lodged in his throat. The love interest has several live birds embedded in his back. Groups of people have fused into unrecognizable mass of arms/legs/heads. Those that fused with animals or the earth, have become mindless ravenous things that will kill and eat anything that crosses it. And so on. It's been about 15 years or so since the bombs, so the main character in the course of the series is now early 20s. There is a dome which was erected before the bombs went off, and the people in the domes are considered "pure," and weren't affected by the bombs, are considered superior; and the "pures" send out propaganda that one day, they will emerge and help fix everyone/everything. The main character has never seen any of these "pures," but is obsessed with getting her hand fixed and entering the dome. Despite every single person she knows being fused since the time she was around 5 years old, she constantly tries to hide her doll's head hand, and is horrified if anyone finds out what her fusion was. Despite her fusion being so incredibly minor, relatively speaking, as to be rather trivial compared to having living birds in your back, or having been fused onto a window pane or whatever other horrible hybrid and suffering constant pain because of it. Despite it being 15 years or so later, and having all that time to adjust.

The other series is the Birthmarked trilogy by Caragh O'Brien. This one has an environmental collapse with water/food/etc shortage, also with benevolent overlords who are perceived as superior in looks and intellect. The main character has a large birthmark (which is later revealed to actually be a burn) that covers much of one side of her face. She tries to arrange her hair to hide it, but it's still visible. She has incredibly low self-esteem, and is shocked, shocked I tell you, every single time it happens that someone doesn't run away screaming in horror. Despite the fact that no one has ever done so. Despite the fact that she has loving parents who tried to instill a sense of worth and self-esteem in her. Despite the fact that many of her immediate friends and neighbors accept her without a whole lot of comment. A few kids when she was younger teased or laughed at her, but otherwise, little to no bullying. No horror. No rejection. Additionally, almost every eligible man her age she runs across starts to fall in love with her. Seriously, over the course of just the first two books, she has three or four guys showing interest in her. And yet, she still obsesses almost on every page, about her scars, about her looks, about how horrible she must appear.

I realize that not everyone with obvious disability or disfigurement is going to accept that, and that my own issue is an invisible disability and so very different. And there are times with a disability that it ebbs and flows, sometimes you are dealing with it just fine, other times you're kicking against the pricks. But I think what bothers me about these series is that they could be about the main character coming to terms with what's happened to them. When there are so few obviously disfigured main characters, especially women, and especially that don't magically resolve itself within the course of the series; it could have been so different, and so much better. It could have been that the main character could have had a strong self-esteem in the first place. Or that the main character didn't have to obsess over beauty or her supposed lack thereof quite so much. Or even at all. Why does beauty have to be such a obsession at all, especially in a time and place when you're living with the effects of bomb radiation, little food/water/plants and every single other person you know is also disfigured; or when you're living in a land where the water and most plants have disappeared and even what little there is, is also in danger of disappearing? I don't know, it just seems like when you're in a constant struggle for survival, maybe there are other things worth obsessing over.