Sunday 20 April 2014

Charlie Don't Tweet

Heinlein took a progressive step in his novel Starship Troopers. He gave women an equal role, as he saw it, in warfare, with women as the starship pilots and men as the troopers. Which was a bold portrayal at a time when women were present on the battlefield only as nurses.

Or maybe it wasn't, for according to Ty Franck, one half of the sci-fi writing duo James S.A. Corey, Heinlein was being sexist. His failure to portray women as combat soldiers, on the ground and at the sharp end, was tantamount to claiming that women can't do the job as well as men.

In the whole gender debate, there have been a few discussions about women in combat roles. One line of reasoning is that no job anywhere should be allowed to bar women. Period. The other is that upper body strength is no longer necessary in the modern age, for even child soldiers can handle automatic weapons, so there is nothing to prevent women from excelling as infantrypersons. After all, some already fly jets and helicopter gunships in combat, so what's the problem?

The problem is that strength is not the only issue in being a combat soldier, though even on today's technologically advanced battlefield, strength plays a bigger part than most people realise. What an infantryman really needs is aggression. Physical aggression.

Infantrymen must want to fight, and that includes the kind of brawling that frequently takes place in pubs and bars near army bases on a Saturday night. Just ask any military policeman.

So for women to be in the infantry in equal numbers, as Mr Franck sees it, they too must look forward to a punch up.

Yet feminists frequently decry the kind of aggression exhibited by men. The aggression of men is the focus of many campaigns, including one fronted by Hilary Clinton, to 'end violence against women'.

Not violence against anybody. Just women.

Even the UN has gotten in on the act, with Afghanistan topping their poll of places that are dangerous to women. Not dangerous to the men who are shot, skinned alive by rival tribesmen and tortured. Not dangerous to the young boys who are routinely raped by warlords and the Afghan police.

No. Just women.

The equality campaigns of the 50's and 60's were about freeing women from social constraints, so that they could go out into the world and do whatever men did, enjoying the freedoms and wealth-rewards that men received. Women were encouraged to be bold, brash and assertive. Under the circumstances, it was probably natural to assume that women would branch out into every aspect of life, including the military. For if the only thing holding women back was a conservative and patriarchal society, then the removal of those barriers would be like opening the gates of the prison. Women would come flooding out, leaving their aprons and wooden spoons behind.

And at first glance, that is what they appear to have done. It's a bit of an illusion, though, as the jobs that women have flooded into have been administrative and service industry jobs that are safe and clean. Jobs that involve being outdoors in all weathers, that involve taking risks, or are dirty and uncomfortable, haven't attracted women at all. Those are still left to men. So the idea that women will one day fight in equal numbers on the frontline does take a stretch of the imagination. Far from embracing discomfort and challenge, feminism today demands that men protect women from such things and desist from anything that appears to take advantage of women's vulnerabilities. Because women, it seems, are too weak to defend themselves. They don't put it like that of course, but that's the implication of what feminists in the popular and mainstream media are saying.

Take the recent twitter scandals for instance. This was where high profile women kicked up a fuss because of sexist abuse they received, 'just because they were women'. One woman who campaigned for a female historical character to appear on a banknote even managed to get the police to track down her sexist abusers, one of whom turned out to be a woman. But the idea that male misogynists were being unfair to women with their sexist bullying has become something of a meme, with women involved in a recent twitter argument over some subject in science fiction, for instance, complaining about the awful bullying and the sexist spite they had to endure - just because they were women.

Physically assaulting a weaker woman may involve an imbalance of power, but sending messages on twitter does not require upper body strength, physical aggression or the patriarchal patronage of an institution. Considering that women's greater communications skills have been lauded for some time now, one would think that they would be able to hold their own in a twitter argument without bursting into tears or demanding new laws to protect them. But no, it appears that women are victims in the virtual world too. Are these the future recruits who will go toe to toe with an enemy on the battlefield? We can only hope that the enemy don't get hold of their twitter accounts, as the resulting breakdown in the ranks could be eye watering.

Not all women are bothered by such things of course. Many of the victims in these scandals have tended to be upper middle class women, nurtured from the cradle by wealth, privilege, nannies and campus grievance committees. Such women were never going to sign up as lowly infantrypersons anyway, which is why they spend more time campaigning to get into executive posts than into trenches. But working class women, while being a lot more robust when it comes to replying to insults, online or off it, remain choosy about which occupation they venture into. They prefer childcare, hair and beauty or restaurant serving to bricklaying or road sweeping. If you're looking for women to fight and die in the squalor of battlefields all over the world, then it's these girls from the trailer parks and housing projects who will be recruited alongside their equally poorly-educated male peers to fix a bayonet to their rifle and assault their way out of an ambush (and yes, that kind of thing still does happen, even today). Decades of social engineering and gender education haven't changed much and, left to their own devices, men and women will still make different choices.

There are, and always have been, adventurous, physically robust women who can take their knocks and still go looking for more. But the truth of the matter is that such women are rare, which is why they make such great characters in stories. Such women who do get to serve on frontlines either learn to love the rough banter and culture of men, or end up leading a lonely existence because their sisters can't be persuaded to join them. No amount of legislation or affirmative action programs will change that, as evidenced when Norway decided to bring in conscription on an equal basis for men and women and received complaints from women's groups. Even though Norway isn't likely to get involved in many wars (if any), most women still don't want to do it.

Fiction is all about fantasy, of course. Do you want to take on a whole squad of Nazis or commies single-handed, with a gun that never runs out of ammo? Then a fiction writer will provide. Would you like to fly through the air in a cape and underpants? Have big breasts and a slim physique but still pack the punch of a heavyweight? Find the sensitive hunk of your dreams and live happy ever after? Have male and female space marines in equal numbers on a dropship, prior to a planetary assault? Then come to the world of fiction where, for just a few dollars, we will indulge, amaze and leave you feeling good about yourself and the world.

Just don't do what Ty Franck did and mistake it for reality, either now or in some surmised future. People read fiction to get away from reality, and while it may sometimes provoke some into asking questions of the world about them, it rarely provides correct answers.

That's what makes fiction so appealing. The incorrect answers are easier to bear.

Related posts:
Sherlock's Veiled Victorianism
What Women Want
What Women Want Too

Sunday 13 April 2014

A Hobbit Too Far

Seriously, how many more fucking elves do we need?

Watched the Desolation of Smaug yesterday on DVD. I never thought I'd say this, but I'm getting sick to death of bloody elves.

My first recollection of Tolkein's The Hobbit was of having it read to us in primary school, by Mr Campbell as we all sat on the square of carpet in his classroom. I was probably eight or nine at the time. It was the only story I remember being read to us, and I was quite enchanted by the adventures of Bilbo and the dwarves as they battled spiders in the dark forest of Mirkwood.

I didn't read The Lord of the Rings until I was about eighteen, and I enjoyed that too. When I later played the RPG version of Middle Earth with some friends, I acted as gamesmaster and, as I couldn't afford the commercial supplements that contained the game missions, I created my own, using the original book as my guide. It would be no exaggeration to say that I studied The Lord of the Rings, cover to cover, appendixes included. Not out of undying fan devotion, but because I wanted to pillage it for game ideas.

The years passed by, leaving but a memory of moss covered stones and ruined troll towers, until Peter Jackson unleashed his recent movie extravaganza and I found myself in the cinema, bombarded by in-your-face special effects and nursing a bursting bladder as I sat through each marathon session praying I'd make it to the end without galloping to the toilet (alas, the final movie was just too long and I succumbed).

And it was okay. I mean, it was a pretty impressive effort, considering what there was to cram in. I wasn't impressed with Viggo Mortensen's debut - he made a fantastic action hero, but to my mind he wasn't really Strider. It was only near the end of the trilogy that he gained some of the necessary gravitas. And I thought the Nazgul were badly done - they were nowhere near as awesome and scary as they should have been. More like stiff, stupid robots than the tragic dread souls of ancient kings. But those are minor points. On the whole, I thought it passed, and it will probably be remembered as a great cinematic achievement.

Then we had The Hobbit. That slim book was really just a fun children's story. Peter Jackson obviously had the ambition and gall to make it something much more than that, and he had the reputation of his LoTR movies to build on, plus much of the original CGI and location teams. And New Zealand certainly needed the tourist funding. So off it went on the East-West road, over the hills and far away.

I had my doubts when I first saw the trailer for The Hobbit - An Unexpected Journey. To start with, the dwarves didn't look very dwarf-life, most of them. Thorin especially looked like a Viggo Mortensen clone - fit, young and proud, but nothing like a Dwarf at all. The dimensions were all wrong.

It also had that annoying idiot James Nesbitt, who plays the same part with the same accent in anything he stars in, and who comes across as someone taking the piss rather than acting. Thankfully he was upstaged by the rest of the cast, so I didn't have to endure his excruciating performance like I did when I watched Coriolanus. Whoever decided it would be a good idea to cast him as a Roman tribune ought to be fed to the lions.

Anyway, I watched the first Hobbit movie, and it turned out to be okay. My kids loved it, and that was fine by me. Then we got to the second movie...

It started well, with an inserted scene in Bree (cue Peter Jackson cameo in the first few seconds) that set the scene for those who'd forgotten the first movie. The goblins did their thing, Beorn came and went from the screen a little too quickly, the spiders caught the dwarves and Bilbo rescued them just as he did in the book. Then, for no reason at all, the elves were brought in to finish the spiders off, just to show what cool fighters they were. Orlando Bloom reappears as Legolas, with his amazing moves, and a she-elf is added for the ladies in the audience. Or for the guys to fantasise over, I don't know. And of course, because we're no longer in the dark ages, the she-elf is the obigatory kick-ass heroine.

Action movies used to have token females. Now they have token feminists.

But apart from displaying lightning fast reactions and swift martial arts moves, this elf needs to be given something to do in the story - so she falls in love with a dwarf who, as luck would have it, doesn't look like a stumpy, stout beardy dwarf, but like a young, handsome man. Lucky her, eh?

But we're soon back to Legolas and the she-elf defeating half the goblin hordes all by themselves.

In the LOTR movies, we were treated to a whole range of elven martial arts moves ripped straight from the Matrix movies. It was new and interesting then, with mind bogglingly complex choreography and impossible gravity-&-physics defying stunts to wow the audience. It was original.

It isn't now, though. As I watched Legolas twist, stab and shoot goblins at the rate of one a second in the water barrels scene, I felt weariness start to set in. The same moves that I'd seen in the LOTR, the same effortless smugness, even the same surfing-dude-with-a-bow move, this time with a dead goblin instead of a shield. If the elves are really as hard and as cool as that, one wonders how any goblins or orcs could possibly be left alive in Middle-Earth. And they go on stabbing and posing in Lake Town as well, even though they didn't in the book. I was getting sick of the sight of them by then and I just wanted them to piss off. Or maybe the pointy eared master race was going to conquer the whole of Erebor as well? Why not stick around to shoot the dragon, clear the mountains of orcs and take Dol Guldur as well, all before breakfast? And after that, they can drive their tanks through Poland.

Up till that point, the movie had been going fine for me, but worse was to come once Bilbo and the dwarves (remember them?) reached the mountain and slipped inside. After we got past the initial Sherlock and Watson Smaug and Bilbo encounter, we then got to see the (added on) spectacle of Thorin inflating his ego to no end, and the next thing you know, the dwarves are themselves swinging about pointlessly, leading the dragon to the forges, dragging out the movie with more impossible physics and special effects, just so the dragon can be covered in gold prior to pissing off to do what he was going to do anyway - which is to torch the town.

Except the bloody movie ends before that actually happens. Agh!

Would I pay money to watch the third one in the cinema? No I wouldn't, even if I could afford it. Three hobbit movies is too much - two would have been enough. The whole thing's been dragged out too far, with too much special-effects filler and too many desperate plot contortions.

Probably a great movie for kids - if you can get them to restlessly sit through it for long enough, as it's another marathon epic. Or maybe it just felt like that to me.

Still, at least the dwarves didn't sing in this one. And I got so pissed off at the elves and Thorin that I actually forgot James Nesbitt was there. So it wasn't all bad.