At the site “Nerve” they have made a list of the most to the least feminist Disney Princesses. I was overjoyed seeing Tiana From “the Princess and the Frog” and Fa Mulan from “Mulan” being at the very top, i.e. considered highly feminist – those two are aweseome animated characters! As a added plus, Belle from “Beauty and the Beast” was criticized for making Stockholm Syndrome look like true love. Glad to see that pointed out.
Here’s the link.
Tag Archive: Feminism
I’m a little late in posting my article on the newest Sherlock Holmes adaptions, sorry. Will be coming up soon enough! Until then, here’s a link to an interview with Louise Brealey. She plays Molly Hooper, a pathologist with a crush on Sherlock Holmes, on BBC’s “Sherlock”.
My two favorite parts in the interview where she explains why her character has suddenly become so popular:
“Molly works because, while Watson is “the audience”, Molly is every woman of a certain age sitting at home on the settee fantasizing about running their hands through Benedict Cumberbatch’s hair. Which is basically what I’d have been doing if I wasn’t in the show… Also, I think most people have experienced the agony and the ignominy of unrequited love.”
And when she talked about Feminism!:
“Seriously, though, I’d like every man who doesn’t call himself a feminist to explain to the women in his life why he doesn’t believe in equality for women. I think Page 3, Nuts and Zoo are bullshit. I don’t wax my pubic hair off. I don’t think working in a titty bar getting fivers shoved up your bum is empowering. And I’m bored of pictures of women in their smalls on buses with fuck-me mouths”
Right on, Ms. Brealey!
The whole interview is interesting. Worth checking out!
“Murdoch Mysteries” is a Canadian Television show, based on the Detective Murdoch series of novels by Maureen Jennings. Ms. Jennings is also the creator of the TV-series adaption, which centers on William Murdoch (Yannick Bisson), an eccentric, enlightenment inclined detective, who solves murders in the late 19th Century Toronto. This mystery series features detailed portrayals of the ideologies, scientific developments as well as harsh injustices of the time area. The characters are colorful, strongly three-dimensional people in addition of being very likeable. Murdoch himself is a man of science and logic yet still a devoted catholic, with a big heart and passion for justice despite his sometimes rigid opinions. Constable George Crabtree (Jonny Harris) is a faithful, eager helper with a fondness for flights of fancy (which often predict inventions and the nomenclature of our times) and, at times, supernatural explanations. He also tends towards the rambling, sliding from silly to brilliant ideas. Inspector Brackenreid, Murdoch’s superior, is a Yorkshire man who’s a bit rough around the edges while simultaneously being a lover of high culture. Beginning with a bit of skepticism to Murdoch’s methods at first Brackenreid slowly comes to subtly recognize Murdoch’s gift in crime solving. And then there’s Dr. Julia Ogden (Helene Joy), the one responsible for post mortem examination of the dead (coroner and forensic examiner combined) as well as being the shows voice of reason. Dr. Ogden’s character is one of the most extraordinary female characters featured a long time on Television. She’s not only strong, tolerant and smart, but also is one of the few characters who address the subject of Abortion on Television in a remarkable fresh and frank way.
The first episode where Dr. Ogden shows her strong belief in tolerance is in the episode “Till Death Do US Part”, season one of the series. In this episode a murdered man who was about to get married is reveled to be homosexual. Murdoch reacts to this fact in disgust and starts on how immoral and wrong such a personal trait is. Dr. Ogden is quick to scold Murdoch for this un-thought through prejudice and through solid arguments gets Murdoch to reconsider his judgment. Dr. Ogden’s self-sufficiency is made most clear in season two in the episode “Snakes and Ladders” where Dr. Ogden saves herself from a serial killer, showing she doesn’t need a man to rescue her. She is also later in the episode shown to be a little shaken by the incident, giving a great realistic twist to her strong persona: She’s strong, but still human. Being attacked by a murderer does shake her up a little and haunts her thoughts making the heroic also the human. “Murdoch Mysteries” builds Dr. Ogden as a fighter, but not stereotypically the tough, breaking the trope that strong women are emotionless and cold. The subtlety of Dr.Ogden´s shock from the meant-to-be-fatal attack also averts the additional stereotype of a woman who can’t control her emotions properly.
In the episode “Hangman” from season three, Dr. Ogden expresses difficulty to accept the Death Penalty as something good, stating to Murdoch that she finds it difficult to understand why it is a necessary punishment. All of these personality traits in Dr. Ogden are interesting. However the most fascinating aspect of Dr. Ogden’s character is her past, and how she relates to it.
The below discussion (related to the issue of abortion) will follow the episode “Shades Of Grey” from season two, and will contain major spoilers for this episode.
“Shades Of Grey” begins with Murdoch investigating a possible murder prompted by the discovery of young nude woman’s body in a ditch. The Case accumulates in Murdoch discovering that the young victim is a working girl by the name of Lily Dunn, who had been impregnated by her sexually predatory boss and fired for it. Desperate to get rid of her child, she had ingested a poison in hopes it would make her abort. The process instead leads to her death. It is made clear in the episode that Lily died mostly because she couldn’t have a legal abortion. (Abortions were outlawed in Canada in 1869 and would remain completely illegal there until mild legalization in 1973. Fully legalized Abortion did not become law in Canada until the late 80’s.) It is then later revealed that Julia Ogden herself, when younger, had an illegal abortion. She explains to Murdoch, who dislikes the idea of abortion, that she did it in order to continue her studies towards becoming a doctor. Having the baby would have made it difficult, if not impossible, to do so. Murdoch is shocked, and since he has recently started a relationship with Dr. Ogden, he is torn in whether he should stay committed to her or not. He asks then if she regrets her actions. Her answer is a calm “No”.
It is unusual for a fictional television series to feature a female character that has had an abortion and not regret her decision. Even in films the topic is quite taboo, especially in non-European films. That Dr. Ogden states clearly she doesn’t regret her decision, the episode portrays an honest truth about choosing to not keep a child: it is sometimes the right thing for the person making the decision to do. In Dr. Ogden’s case, she knows she couldn’t handle a child right then, nor would the society surrounding her allow this in the context of her medical schooling (to say the least!). So she chooses not to continue the pregnancy, which obviously turns to her favor, since she was then able complete her studies and become a highly competent doctor.
The episode also highlights the dangers of making abortions illegal. Dr. Ogden, who had to make an illegal and therefore an unsafe abortion, nearly died in the process. This was a major problem for the out of wedlock (and especially those who were not part of the upper class) women who found themselves pregnant during the 19th and 20th century in Canada and continued as a horror until the changes within the law occurred.
It is also a problem in today’s world. In 2009, a study done by The Guttmacher Institute calculated that 70, 000 women a year die from illegal abortions. Women who take illegal abortions also face the danger of becoming maimed or sterilized. This is also mentioned in “Murdoch Mysteries”; Dr. Ogden survives her illegal abortion, but becomes sterile from it. The show clearly states that giving women the right to choose is important, and illegalizing abortion is a problem for everyone. This episode of Murdoch Mysteries makes no bones about being on the side of women in this catastrophe.
While watching “Shades of Grey”, I couldn’t help but think of the Pro-life movement in the US (and other countries too). At the moment there seems to be resurgence in a vocal part of the communities of the world for reinstating the illegality of abortion (and maybe even conception!)- entirely and without qualm. In counties such as Nicaragua, this is already the case, putting many women’s lives at risk, from such diverse complications as obstructed labor to cancer. A study done by Amnesty International in 2010 even showed that this complete ban abortion has a harsh and dangerous impact on young girls. “Shades Of Grey” made makes us think of the actual cost that the anti-abortion movements call for – to send us back to days where women die or are put in high risk for their lives? In reality this is merely to control the “species of human” called women and to circumvent them moving freely in society (as Ogden is able to do in becoming a Doctor).
Dr. Julia Ogden as a character is a moral conscience of the show “Murdoch Mysteries”. She is a modern woman, whose ideals make her a good role model for both women and men. But her message of being proud of her decision over her body and standing up for women’s reproductive rights is the most outstanding part of her character. Her character has an important message that one should take seriously.
For an article on how Abortion is depicted in Hollywood, read Katherine Butler’s excellent column from “ecosalon”.
For a recommendation on a film depicting an illegal abortion, I highly recommend Cristian Mungiu’s superb “4 moths three weeks and 2 days”.
For a few causes of women who died do to illegal and unsafe abortions, go here.
Note: “Murdoch Mysteries” is one of the few Canadian shows with a major international following, with fifth season in production. Alas, the fifth season has been announced to be the last one, which has disappointed many fans.
Update to the note: There has also been a promise of a sixth season, yay! Read about it here and on Maureen Jennings homepage here.
Cartoons used to be just for kids, but in wake of Matt Groening’s landmark creation of “The Simpsons”, cartoons took an interesting twist: some cartoons came to be made solely for the adult audience. Since the popular recognition of the Simpsons cartoons as broadcast series have gone thought the gambit of issues from raunchy political incorrectness to slice-of-life portrayals of “the common people” and their families.
Yet what is of most intriguing issue to me, is when these series tackle the questions of gender, the place and oppressions of women, or just begun to look at the issues or questions of rights which circulate around the feminist complex.
In this post I will discuss some of my favorite cartoons episodes that (may) be feminist.
“Lisa Vs. Malibu Stacy” from “The Simpsons” (aired 1994) – Let’s start with a real classic, shall we? This is one of the very, very few episodes from “The Simpsons” which deals with gender, as well as one of the few which actually raises feminist issues. It starts with Lisa, the 8 year old daughter in the Simpson family, buying the newest talking Malibu Stacy doll (a fictional satirical doll based on “Barbie”). Excited, the young girl “gathers” all her other dolls to hear the astonishing first words of the talking Malibu Stacy… only to hear the doll say, “I wish they taught shopping in school”, followed by the doll claiming one should not ask her anything, she’s “just a girl”.
Lisa, disgusted at the sexist and demeaning message of her new doll, devotes herself to stop the production of such dolls. She visits the company to express her feelings, explicitly states to her friends that the things Malibu Stacy says are sexist, and tracks down the inventor of the original doll, Stacy Lowell (Voiced by the great Kathleen Turner). Together with Stacy, Lisa starts to make her own talking doll, hoping to make a more feminist toy for girls. The episode was a direct critic of Mattel’s Teen Talk Barbie, a toy that appeared in the 90’s, which was criticized for enforcing shameful stereotypes of women. However, “Lisa vs. Malibu Stacy” can also be seen as an attack on dolls that are marketed to little girls on a whole. As Lisa points out in the episode, girls learn through such toys to be shallow and center their lives around looking pretty and landing a man. Lisa bravely fights for change, demanding a better role model for girls, advocating for women’s right and hoping to teach young girls to be more than empty vessels.
“Breast Cancer Show Ever” from “South Park” (aired 2008) – This episode is entirely about female empowerment, pure and simple. The plot centers 9-year old Wendy, who attempts to raise awareness of Breast Cancer by doing a presentation on the subject in class. She is rudely mocked and interrupted by her classmate Eric Cartman’s* sexist and taunting remarks. Wendy enraged by the callousness of Cartman to the plight of this disease (and its victims) challenges him to fight. This episode is a remarkable depiction of a strong girl standing up against, and calling out, sexism. Cartman is portrayed in this episode as a typical sexist bully: he acts tough and is a loud-mouth, but in actuality is a coward. Wendy is also shown to be quite alone in her battle against Cartman, with little sympathy from her parents (mostly due to Cartmans manipulation). But near the end, there is one adult woman who encourages Wendy to fight the “cancer”, giving a rarely shown positive portrayal of women supporting each other. Even in the fictional world of South Park, Sisterhood is powerful!
“The Story of Catcher Freeman” from “The Boondocks” (aired 2008) – I’ll be honest, this show wasn’t always positive in its portrayal of women. But this episode is one of the most critical attacks against male centrism and patriarchy that has been seen in recent years in Adult animations. The episode is a recounting of a tale from the family-tree about a “slave who struggles and fights” for Freedom. The story of Catcher Freeman takes place during 19 century, when slavery was in full play below the Mason-Dixon line and the protagonist of the tale is attempting to slip the bonds of slavery (or not?). While the tales spun by the ancestors to the “hero” describe Catcher as a strong, avenger of the wronged who is determined to the task of freeing all of his brothers-in- bondage (and who is recounted, at times, as being a animalistic hunter with super powers) the truth turns out to be that Thelma, the famous love interest of Catcher, was the real hero.
Thelma all by herself found the strength to fight back against the white slave owners after trying to escape. She kills two men who attempted to rape her, and in a final leap of courage and honor, returns to the plantation (she originally escaped from) to organize a rebellion among her brethrens to oppose the oppressors and she, ultimately, leads them in battle to freedom. Thelma is strong, smart and a highly skilled fighter. Yet even if she is the true hero, the male centric world, where men are the ones who dominate the dialogue of history, choose to portray Catcher as the hero, which is far from the truth and it unfairly excludes the women from history as well as the present day and the contemporary context.
I have written a longer post on the depiction of women in “The Boondocks”, which you can read here.
“Stupid Spoiled Whore Video Playset” from “South Park” (aired 2008) – This episode was produced when Paris Hilton was constantly in headlines and was a new idol to some young women. In this episode, Paris Hilton arrives in South Park, causing all the girls to become crazed with the idea of mindless shopping and pointless partying. Wendy is at first appalled at the girl’s behavior, believing they’re purposely killing their brains, but due to peer pressure goes to the notoriously masochistic gay man, as well as her teachers lover, Mr. Slave for advice. “Stupid Spoiled Whore Video Playset” has a bit of a nasty title, but the episode is an interesting critic of how society favors mean-spirited and shallow women, ignoring the intellectuals, as Wendy in the episode articulates. The writers of the episode show a concern that young women are given terrible role models who do nothing but party and rely on men to “buy them things”, while actually ambitious women are viewed as strange. Parker and Stone made clear in the episode that accomplishment, struggling with thought and self-awareness are to be considered the important, something which is ultimately devalued in our commodity and idol driven culture.
“A Leela Of Her Own” from “Futurama” (aired 2002) – Honestly, it’s hard to tell whether this episode is feminist or not. So I’ll just explain why I think it’s feminist.
The episode centers Leela, who after being spotted by a sports agent gets signed on to play Blurnsball, a fictional future sport similar to baseball. Leela is excited about being the first woman to play Blurnsball on a professional team, ignoring how she obviously got the job mostly for her utter lack of talent in the sport. She is used to make people laugh, since she always hits a person in the head with her bat instead of hitting the ball. As Leela grows in popularity, she comes to believe that she’s pioneer for women in sports, but Jackie Andersson, a female star in a college Blernsball team, approaches Leela to tell her she’s actually making it harder for female athletes, since Leela’s incompetence causes more sexism in the sports community. Leela is crushed by Jackie’s words and goes about, with a sudden insight into her position in the sport, trying to approve her skills. “A Leela of Her Own” deals with the fact that there are still a lot of communities where women are seen as inferior to men and it is considered a triumph if a woman, any woman, rises to the top of a field where men hold dominance.
However, it is not always that simple: what if that woman actually makes it even harder for women to join the overly male centric clubs?
Even if it is unfair that people group all women into one category – like people do with Leela and other female blurnsball players – it’s important to discuss whether some women actually reinforce certain stereotypes of women, such as them being dumb or weak, in fields where they are already highly discriminated against. (By the way- the episodes title is a reference to Penny Marshall’s awesome movie “A League of Their Own”, which centered the first professional Baseball League in the US. Worth checking out!)
Here where my personal favorite episodes with feminist themes. Hope you enjoyed my post!
*Eric Cartman often is the embodiment of the “incorrect”, mean-spirited, capitalistic (in the pure-greed sense), immoral, prejudiced, and un-self reflective person in the South Park meta-narrative (through all of the whole series)
A legendary musical, loved by nearly everyone, the film “The Wizard of Oz” (1939) was directed by Victor Fleming and starred Judy Garland. It was based on the novel with the same title by L. Frank Baum. The novel “Wizard of Oz” was followed by thirteen more books, all about the Land of Oz.
Dorothy is a young girl who lives in Kansas with her aunt Emily (nicknamed “Aunty Em”) and her uncle Henry, who own their own farm. After Dorothy’s dog, Toto, has caused a stir with the mean but powerful townswoman Miss Glutch Dorothy is at risk of losing her beloved pet. To protect Toto from being put down, Dorothy runs away from home. However, she quickly decides to return home since she worries that her aunt might become sick with worry. Unfortunately, as Dorothy heads home, a tornado heads towards her home. Dorothy’s aunt and uncle must go into their storm shelter without knowledge of Dorothy’s return. Dorothy arrives to the home to the farm, runs into the house just as the tornado reaches the farm. After getting a hit on the head, Dorothy passes out for a short while. When she wakes up she realizes that her house has been lifted into the air by the tornado. It lands, and when Dorothy steps outside of her house, she discovers that she is in a whole new world, Oz. Much to her bad luck, her house also landed on an evil witch, killing her. This causes Dorothy to make a dangerous enemy, The Wicked Witch of the West, who was sisters with the dead witch. But Dorothy also is promised protection from Glinda, the Good witch of the North. Glinda is also the one who advices Dorothy to go and see the Wizard of Oz if she wants to get back home to Kansas. Dorothy sets out on a grand adventure, finding loyal friends in a talking scarecrow looking for a brain, a tin man looking for a heart and a lion hoping to gain courage.
Oz, as any fictional fantasy land, has a lot of interesting political and social issues that could be analyzed and interoperated in different ways. Especially regarding the witches in Oz. Glinda as well as the Wicked Witch of the West seems to be matriarchal leaders. The same goes for the other witch that never shows up in the film. The witches seem to be the most powerful beings in Oz and most followed and worshipped than any of the males in Oz.
As matriarchs, just like with any leaders, the witches can be good or bad leaders. The witch who gets killed in the beginning, The Wicked Witch of the East, is told to have ruled mercilessly over Munchkin land. When Dorothy accidently kills her, the Munchkins (little people dressed in bright colors) celebrate by singing and dancing and making sure “she’s really, sincerely dead”. This could be seen as an oppressed nation celebrating the death of a cruel dictator. The Wicked Witch of the East was clearly a powerful ruler, which is illustrated by the major party which is thrown by the Munchkins after they are finally freed from her reign of terror. The Munchkins however never really tell Dorothy of what the witch did that was so terrible, which makes their celebration of a person’s death seems a little bit strange and creepy. But if we consider that the Wicked Witch of the East was a malevolent dictator and that the munchkins had live in fear, their behavior becomes somewhat understandable. The Wicked witch of the East was clearly the matriarch of Munchkin Land. The ones in charge of Munchkin land after the Witch, however, are all men. So when the evil matriarch is overthrown, patriarchs take over. This raises the question if the Munchkins were just unhappy a woman was in charged or not. It is a possibility, even if unlikely, since the male leaders of Munchkin land has no problems listening to Glindas advice.
As for The Wicked Witch of the West, she controls a whole army of flying monkeys and green men. It is revealed at the end of the film, after the Wicked Witch of the West is accidently killed by Dorothy. The men serving under the Wicked Witch are overjoyed by her death, just like the Munchkins. The matriarch they were under is gone, so they automatically hail the person who overthrew their previous leader: Dorothy. Dorothy would become the next matriarch if she wished, but prefers to go home to Kansas. Unlike with the munchkins, the audience can easily understand why the men are happy that the Wicked Witch is dead. The audience sees the Witch order them around, trying to kill other people, and threatening innocent people. Considering the fact that the men had to serve under her, it is understandable why they would be happy she’s gone. The fact that they “hail” Dorothy, meaning that they see her as a possible leader, erases the idea that they wanted a male leader instead. These men don’t care if the leader is a man or a woman, they just don’t want to be bossed around to do crummy jobs.
Glinda the good witch is an absolute matriarch. She is the first to talk to Dorothy in Munchkin Land, showing political power over the mayor of Munchkin Land. When she appears in Emerald City, everyone bows down to her as if she were a god. While the Wizard as admired and respected, when he was in public no one in Emerald City bowed to him. But as soon as Glinda arrives, the people of Emerald City become completely silent and drop to their knees. Glinda is worshipped, while the Wizard was just strongly admired and respected. Glinda is the true leader of Emerald City, even if she rarely makes an appearance.
The last interesting thing about Oz, in the terms whether it is a matriarchal land or not, is the Wizard. As it turns out in the end, the Wizard does not poses any real magic powers, but by visual effects fools the people of Emerald City that he does. The three witches of Oz, though, all have real powers, which makes them the most powerful rulers of Oz. So the people with the most power in Oz are the witches, and therefore run the show, are women. The men in Oz may have political power to a certain degree, but in the end it is the witches that are the all powerful ones.
The ending of “The Wizard of Oz” suggests that Oz was all just a dream that Dorothy had after getting a hit on the head. This is an interesting aspect regarding how Dorothy sees the world. It is shown at the beginning of the film that Aunty Em seems to be the one giving orders at the farm, advicing the men working there what to do. When Miss Glutch appears, she mostly talks to Dorothy’s aunt. The two women are obviously used to making the important decisions. This translates into Dorothy’s dream as one good, powerful witch and one bad, powerful witch. Dorothy is accustomed to a matriarchal life, so she dreams of a matriarchal land.
My theory of Oz would be that it is a matriarchal society. What do you guys think?
Anyone familiar with the Riot Grrl movement? For those that answer no, here’s a short summary: it was a feminist movement that took place during the 90’s. The movement was most known in the music branch, with bands like Bikini Kill, Bratmobil and L7. Typical themes addressed in songs made by these groups where rape, domestic abuse, female sexuality and empowerment. Feminism, the Riot grrl movement, and Girl Power were a big and totally hip set of phenomena which ran rampaged in the wonderful 90’s. Not only in the world of adults, but also in the world for children.
Enter “Powerpuff Girls”. Created by Craig McCracken in 1998, this cartoon broadcasted on Cartoon Network ran for six full seasons. It centered on three Kindergarden aged girl who had superpowers and use their abilities to protect the town they live in, “Townsville”. Each of the girls had all a specific character trait: Blossom, the leader of the group, is the smart one who loves books and math, and yet is overly obsessed with her looks. Buttercup is the tough one, always ready to fight anything in her way. Bubbles is naïve and sweet, yet at times wanting to prove she is tough as well. The writers of this show used common prototypes of female characteristics while also breaking major stereotypes: Blossom for instance is unusual in the way that even if she puts a lot of effort into her looks, she’s still intellectual and totally into reading. This broke with the typical stereotype of women as either beautiful or smart, but never both. Bubbles’ character was shown in a number of episodes as reasonable and brave, something not often associated with overly sweet girls. Buttercup, while obviously being our stereotypical tomboy, is always wearing a dress with matching shoes, clothing not often associated with tomboys.
This show was obviously inspired by the Riot Grrl and feminist movement which took place during the same ten years. Sure, the show obviously couldn’t address domestic abuse etc. but had a strong theme of female empowerment, which the Riot Grrl movement adhered to and strongly spread. And to this day there are few children’s shows that deliver the message “Girl power is cool” as strongly as this one does.
The best thing about this show is how “girly” it is (and purposely meant to exaggerate), yet how tough and unapologetically kick-ass these girls are. They are often surrounded by golden stars, pink hearts and flowers and dress up in cute clothes with bright colors. However, this doesn’t stop them from being wild and strong, beating up all the super evil geniuses which try to destroy their home town. As a child watching this show, I found this message to be extra influential: embracing cute and girly stuff doesn’t mean you can’t be independent and rough. It is possible to combine these two things and they should be combined. Girls don’t have to give up their “femininity” to defend themselves and take stands – it is only natural that they can do both.
The Cartoon was also, beside the strong feminist message, pretty funny and deeply ironic. It had colorful characters, including a dimwitted mayor whose luscious secretary was ten times smarter than this bumbling politician (another smart woman with brains!). The villains were hilarious as well. With the evil and brash super villain HIM being my personal favorite. He was a demon with horns on his head, claws as hands, wearing a tutu and indulging himself with the application of a lot of make-up. His character was most likely male, but neither I nor any viewer could be sure. His outlook was great, but what made him even more fun was his wit and powers: shape shifting and cunning use of manipulation. The animation of the show was very anime influenced and pretty nice.
The show had several clever ways of telling and re-telling classic superhero tales. Some good examples is “Three girls and a monster”, where it is shown that sometimes in order to stop a bad guy you have to talk instead of using violence, “Members only” where the Powerpuff Girls face gender discrimination when trying to join a superhero league and “Him Diddle Riddle” where the girls try to solve riddles HIM sets up in order from saving their father from “paying”.
“The Powerpuff Girls” was a big love of mine in my childhood, and yet today it’s hard to find any form of popular culture that has these memorable female superheroes. After the female members of X-men and Wonder Woman, it is hard to name any strong-spirited women crime fighters.
So, if you have kids, show them a few episodes from this fine series. Or watch some by yourself; either way it’s pretty good entertainment.
Iain Banks is perhaps most famous for the novel”The Wasp Factory”, which was published in 1984 and was Banks literary debut. Banks, after “The Wasp Factory” has written several popular Science Fiction novels, along with his more “conventional fiction”, most notably these include The Culture Novels which deal with a future planetary society where machines have become conscience creatures and humans and machine-consciousnesses live side by side. The first book in the series is “The Player of Games” and he begins the slight alteration of his name in the science fiction literature with the inclusion of an “M” as middle initial.
“The Wasp Factory” tells the odd tale of 16 year old Frank. He lives on a small island with his father, spending his time in the strangely personal ritualistic killing of animals and grandiose pleasures of seeking prophecies from his Wasp Factory. The prophecies work through the dreadful trapping of a wasp into the terrible machinery of a clock prophecy machine. Inside the mechanism are many pathways the wasp can make its way through but all inevitably lead to death: one is where there is a small fire leads to a prolonged burning to death, another is filled with Franks urine which leads to a gruesome drowning and a third, of the many pathways to prophetic death, is a tunnel which leads the wasp to slow crushing. Frank believes he can foretell the future from what way the wasps will “choose” to die and the metaphors which surround the dreadful device of death. The novel begins with Frank receiving one of these steadfast and defining prophecies from this appalling engine of foretelling that informs him that his brother Eric will escape from the mental hospital has been sequestered in for years. This beginning sets the stage for a series of bizarre phone calls from Eric. The series of phone calls trigger in Frank remembrance of his earlier years when he went through a “phase” of early childhood spontaneity and detailed “play” in which he thought through and killed three playmates and relatives (one which is his other, younger brother Paul). Frank recalls his murders one by one while continuing his ritualistic and shamanistic killing of animals on the island. When Eric calls, Frank attempts to reason with his brother and figure out where he is hiding and his plans for making his way to the island, all the while keeping these calls a secret from his father and carrying out his own irrational agenda.
“The Wasp Factory” is a breath-taking reading experience, even if the story is disturbing. Franks calm and matter-of-factly narration of violence and murder is chilling. The narrative violence is also quite surrealistic in the underlining of Franks claim that he committed his first two murders under the age of ten. Even if the book is very grisly, Banks is also able to add a dark and light humor to the disturbing narrative. Eric’s maniacal phone calls to Frank are strangely hilarious and a conundrum of language and sense. Much like his brother, Eric is unjustly and absurdly cruel to animals. And we find out fairly early that Eric was been committed and shipped off to the mental institution for setting dogs on fire. Why Eric has been doing this is later revealed in the book.
“The Wasp Factory” deals with many interesting themes. One is its critique of human superstition. Franks obsession with his prophecies and the rituals in which he mercilessly tortures animals is a sharp attack on the horrors and absurdities engendered in “magical” thinking which requires of its followers and believers the most ridiculous and absurd of things. Banks points out that believing fanatically in the magical, the irrational, the unjustified and the illogical, without the application of thought, human reason and moral concern, can be that which is most dangerous for us and our societies. Another major theme attacked by Banks is the grounds of deception and the language of the lie. Here Banks is particularly and especially focusing on the lies of parents lying to their children and those under their care. Franks father keeps many, dark secrets from Frank which bares unbelievable and dire consequences.
But the most interesting theme explored in this novel is gender. At this point I will reveal a major spoiler, so be warned! If you decide that you want to skip the spoiler, scroll down to the last passage and read only that.
Frank is an extreme misogynist. He considers women to be, as he puts it, one of his greatest enemies:
“My greatest enemies are women and the sea. These things I hate. Women because they are weak and stupid and live in the shadows of men and are nothing compared to them”.
Frank later in the novel continues his ruthless bashing of the female gender by saying:
“Women, I know from watching hundreds – maybe thousands- of films and television programs, cannot withstand really major things happening to them; they get raped, or their loved ones die ,and they go to pieces, go crazy and commit suicide or just pine away until they die ”.
He proudly claims that men are good at killing and strong because of this. Frank bathes in male chauvinism, seeing women as the stereotypically “weaker sex”. Frank can’t find anything redeeming in the entire class of women. Nothing. His misogyny, however, backfires on him in the end of the novel, when Frank realizes he himself is actually a female. Frank is actually a woman who has just been secretly fed male hormones and has been nurtured as one of the gendered male clan. Franks father has experimented on Frank to see if he could change him/her into a male without him/her realizing it and so he/she has been told that his/her penis was bitten off by a dog when he/she was a toddler and therefore had nothing “down there”. At the end of the novel, when Frank is confronted with his/her supposed biological gender he/she is horrified and cannot accept this fact. Frank cannot accept himself as a woman, but in the oddity of her/his psyche it is because he/she thinks of themselves as ” good at killing” which would, in the strange logic of the ritualistic sex and death, crush the idea that women were weak and men the strong ones.
Frank turns out to be a woman that hates women. It is ironic to remember his hate speeches of women only to discover he himself has an XX chromosome.
“The Wasp Factory” bravely states, by the narrative mechanism of Franks ideology being crushed by his true identity, that we as humans always think we know where the line of femininity and masculinity are drawn, but in the end it is impossible to say how women are and men are and is a function of our cultures and our families. Since all humans are individuals what we are is human and not gender.
When “The Wasp Factory” was re-published on its 25th anniversary in 2009, it came out with an edition that featured a new preface by Iain Banks. It is interesting to read what his goal was when he wrote “The Wasp Factory”:
“…it was suppose to be a pro-feminist, anti-military work, satirizing religion and commenting on the way we’re shaped by our surroundings and upbringings and usual skewed information we’re presented with by those in power”.
These were Banks intentions and targets in the work of the Wasp Factory and he succeeded perfectly in reaching his goals! Few authors in my opinion have done such a well job on getting this still important and contentious “message” across to the reader with such force and clarity. “The Wasp Factory” is a work that is so good it hurts.