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“Wonder Woman” poster. Image via Wikipedia, re-used under “Fair Use”.

Superhero movies are not my favorite genre. But I have long enjoyed watching re-runs of the old Wonder Woman TV series starring Lynda Carter, so I made a point of seeing this one.

Another thing that intrigued me is that the movie is set in World War I. (The character of Wonder Woman was originally created in the 1940s, and therefore was naturally depicted fighting in World War II against the Nazis.)

This was interesting to me for a couple of reasons: first, Hollywood normally can’t resist inserting Nazis into things on the flimsiest of pretexts; so to have no Nazis when the source material actually includes them is a pretty bold artistic choice.  Second, World War I is not nearly as well-known to modern audiences as World War II, so this setting seems like a bit of a risk from a marketing perspective. I like risk-taking.

I also like spoiling movies, so be warned–I’m now going to describe the plot, with spoilers!

The film begins in the present-day with Diana (Gal Gadot) receiving a photograph from the first World War, showing her in her full Wonder Woman garb, standing alongside a ragtag band of soldiers.

This segues into young Diana’s childhood on a hidden island of Amazon warriors. Diana wishes to train as a warrior under General Antiope (Robin Wright), but her mother forbids it, and tells her a cautionary tale about the horrors of war. She explains that Zeus created men to be peaceful, but they were corrupted by the God of War, Ares. Zeus then created the Amazons to protect mankind, and Ares was ultimately defeated. But Zeus also created “the God-Killer”–a weapon housed on the Amazons’ island, in case Ares should return.

Despite these warnings, Diana trains in secret anyway.  Her mother eventually finds out and initially disapproves, but ultimately is persuaded to let her continue.

One day, after a sparring session, an airplane crashes just off the shore.  Diana rescues the pilot, Captain Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), and the Amazons defeat the German forces pursuing him, but General Antiope is killed in the battle.

The Amazons question Capt. Trevor, who explains that he is fighting in the “War to end all Wars”. His plane was shot down as he was fleeing the Germans having stolen a notebook from a chemist nicknamed “Dr. Poison” and her commander, General Ludendorff, who are working to create a super-deadly poison gas.

Diana quickly realizes that the war Steve describes must be the work of Ares. She takes the God-Killer weapons and asks Steve to travel with her to the outside world and the center of the fighting, where she is sure they will find Ares.

Steve first takes her to London and delivers Dr. Poison’s notebook to his superiors. They can’t read what it says, but Diana can, and realizes it means the Germans are manufacturing and preparing to deploy the new, more lethal gas at the Front.

Sir Patrick Morgan, one of Steve’s superiors, is close to getting the Germans to agree to an armistice, but Diana believes Ludendorff is actually Ares, and will use the gas no matter what.

Diana, Steve, and a small group assembled with help from Sir Patrick go to the Front to destroy the supplies of poison gas.  Thanks to Diana’s heroics, they successfully liberate a small town and learn that Ludendorff is in the area, planning to attend a gala for the German officers at a castle nearby.

Sir Patrick orders them not to attack the gala, as he is close to finalizing the armistice. However, they go anyway. (Notice a pattern here?) The Germans fire the gas into the recently-liberated village, killing the inhabitants, much to Diana’s horror.

Diana tracks Ludendorff to an airfield where the Germans are about to deploy a massive long-range bomber loaded with the poison gas. Steve and his men attempt to take the bomber, while Diana kills Ludendorff with the God-Killer sword.

Diana is shocked that the fighting doesn’t stop on Ludendorff’s death. She starts to wonder if all mortals truly are inherently evil and prone to violence. At that moment, Sir Patrick appears, and reveals that he is in fact the God Ares, but that he does not cause wars–he merely exposes the true, dark nature of Zeus’s creation.

Meanwhile, Steve and his men fight their way to the bomber, and Steve is able to get aboard, knowing the only way to stop it from delivering its payload is for him to personally destroy it.

Diana and Ares fight a massive battle, and when Diana sees the bomber explode with Steve aboard, she rallies and defeats Ares, having been persuaded that humanity has the capacity for good as well as evil.

The closing scenes show Diana in London, somberly remembering Steve as cheering crowds celebrate the end of the war. The film ends with a return to the present-day Diana, looking at the old photograph of her and Steve, taken when they liberated the village.

As is typical of the genre, there are lots of drawn-out, special effects-heavy fighting scenes.  These are not bad for the most part–though definitely not to my taste. Each of them seemed to go on longer than necessary–thanks in part to an overuse of slow-motion effects. This was especially true of the final showdown between Diana and Ares. Since Diana’s victory was a foregone conclusion, it really did not need to drag on that long.

Much more interesting are the “character” scenes–yes, that’s right; the parts where people actually talk to one another. Gadot and Pine have excellent chemistry together, and their scenes were my favorite parts of the film.  Romantic sub-plots in action movies can very easily become pointless and tiresome, but the sparks between Diana and Steve seem genuine, and it gives the story some real heart.

One interesting aspect of their scenes is that they frequently talk simultaneously or interrupt one another.  This happened quite often–almost to the point of being overused–but it also made their conversations feel spontaneous, rather than just like two actors reciting lines at each other.

I wish the film had dwelt a bit more upon Diana’s relationship with Steve, and her impressions of the “outside world” in general–there was a little too much time in the second half devoted instead to Steve’s merry band of sidekicks.  They were mildly entertaining, but I think it would have been better to let them be nameless grunts rather than try to make them “colorful”. It’s Diana’s story, after all.

The script didn’t even try to use language that was appropriate for the time period–all the allied soldiers and officers spoke in modern lingo. Even more puzzling to me was that occasionally some characters would speak in a foreign language, with subtitles, but the Germans (and some of our heroes when posing as Germans) would speak in German-accented English.

I’d be interested to know the details of some of the weapons used in the film.  Some are obviously fanciful, others seem to have been trying to stay faithful to the period.  At one point, Steve still has a Colt 1911 despite being disguised as German colonel–that seemed weird to me. But after all, this is a comic-book superhero movie, so I tried to tune out the nit-picking historian voice in my head.

This brings me back around to the setting, which as I discussed at the outset was something that interested me in the film. I still think it was daring (by Hollywood franchise standards, that is) to change the setting to a less-familiar time period.

However, given what actually happens in the movie, it’s a bit puzzling. In fact, World War I actually did end with an armistice, and the real Ludendorff survived the war and went on to be influential in the early years of the Nazi Party.  So, given what happens in the film, is it supposed to be the beginning of an alternate history tale in which World War II did not happen? That would be quite interesting, but it’s left very vague and unexplored.  Fertile ground for a sequel, I suppose…

It’s not a bad film by any means, the plodding CGI boss fight at the end notwithstanding. The other fights are good enough, if you like that sort of thing, and Gal Gadot is a very likeable and charismatic lead.

As I said, I have seen few superhero films. The only recent ones I have watched are Marvel’s Thor and its sequel, The Dark World. The former is a delightful adventure that ranks among my favorite movies.  The latter, sadly, is more what I gather the typical superhero movie is like: a CGI-laden affair, with little time for character development or nuanced emotion of any kind.

This is noteworthy because Patty Jenkins, who directed Wonder Woman, was originally hired by Marvel to direct The Dark World, before leaving over the dreaded “creative differences”. It’s a pity; having seen Wonder Woman, I would have liked to have seen what she could have done with it.

Wonder Woman isn’t a great movie, but it’s certainly an entertaining summer flick, and it’s nice to see a film with a female lead and a female director drawing crowds to the theaters.  Hopefully, this will be the beginning of a trend in the entertainment industry.

Wonder Woman, Jane Got a Gun, and Ghost in the Shell
From left: “Wonder Woman”, starring Gal Gadot, “Jane Got a Gun”, starring Natalie Portman, and “Ghost in the Shell”, starring Scarlett Johansson

Have you heard? Feminists and superhero fans have been getting anxious about the relative lack of promotion for the upcoming Wonder Woman film, starring Gal Gadot and directed by Patty Jenkins. They are concerned that it is going to suffer the same fate as recent DC Comics films have, and be cast as second-rate superheroes in comparison to Marvel’s string of successes.

I’ve been following the fortunes of the Wonder Woman film for a while now, and I also noticed this lack of publicity.  It registered with me because it fit into a pattern I’ve seen before.

My favorite movie of all time, Jane Got a Gun, was another film whose marketing campaign I watched closely. The Weinstein Co.’s promotional efforts for it were abysmal–I think I saw one trailer for it, and it made the movie look like an action/adventure flick when in fact it was a romantic drama. (Even the title is kind of misleading. They should have called it Jane Ballard.)

Jane Got a Gun had an infamously turmoil-filled production, and apparently the Weinstein Co. based its decision on the film’s history, rather than the finished product. (It’s usually a mistake to focus on process over results.) As such, they didn’t put much effort into promoting it, and didn’t hold advance screenings for critics.  As a result, few people heard of it, and it fared poorly at the box office.

This isn’t the only recent example of a film getting hamstrung by bad marketing.  Ghost in the Shell was a big-budget sci-fi picture with a strong story, and it flopped badly at the U.S. box office.

Unlike the case of Jane, the studio could never be accused of not spending resources promoting Ghost. Paramount even bought a Super Bowl ad for it.  But it was hit with an intense negative buzz, in which people accused it of “whitewashing” because of the decision to cast Scarlett Johansson as the lead character, Major Killian.

This accusation is obviously nonsense to anyone who bothers to watch the film. Major Killian is a cyborg–a human brain housed in a machine.  True, she was originally a Japanese woman, but the entire premise of the film is that her mind and consciousness are transferred to an artificial body.

And yet the accusation of whitewashing persisted, and undoubtedly contributed to negative press surrounding the film. Which is too bad, because while it was not a great film, it was certainly one of the better sci-fi movies I’ve seen in recent years. It was far better than the highly-successful blockbuster The Force Awakens, for example.

This is why what’s happening with Wonder Woman doesn’t surprise me too much.  I have, as they say, seen this movie before. But like Ian Fleming wrote, “Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, the third time it’s enemy action.” At this point, I have to think this is part of some pattern.

So what’s the common thread?

While they are all very different films, Jane Got a Gun, Ghost in the Shell and Wonder Woman do have a few shared characteristics.  Most obviously, they all feature female protagonists.  They also are all categorized as action films. (Although Jane probably shouldn’t have been).

Is Hollywood deliberately sabotaging female-led action films? That seems crazy, since the easiest way for studios to prevent such films from succeeding would be to… not make them in the first place.

Let us, like Woodward and Bernstein before us, “follow the money”.

One thing to look at is the studios producing the movies: Warner Bros. is handling Wonder Woman, because they own DC Comics.  As I mentioned earlier, DC has been in competition with Marvel on superhero movies, and they have been losing.

Marvel is owned by Disney, which acquired it in 2009.

It so happens Disney also originally had a deal with Dreamworks to release Ghost in the Shell, but it was terminated in 2016, and the movie was released through Paramount instead.

Jane Got a Gun is the clear outlier here–the Weinstein Co. isn’t on anything like the same scale as Disney, Warner Bros. et al.  Also, Jane was rated “R” whereas the rest of these are “PG-13”.  So, presumably it had a much smaller marketing budget at the outset.

The key point is that all three of these movies are released by companies that aren’t Disney.

This is most significant for Wonder Woman, because of the ongoing DC/Marvel battle, which is really a proxy war between Warner Bros. and Disney.  And Disney has been winning it.

Part of the reason I brought up The Force Awakens to contrast with Ghost in the Shell  was because it got way more positive press despite being an inferior film.  But of course, Force Awakens was made by Lucasfilm, which since 2012 is owned by… Disney.

The upshot is that I think Disney is way better at promoting their movies than most of the other studios are.  Even when Disney has something sub-par, they can generate enough positive buzz about it to get people to buy tickets.

It’s important to understand what promotion really entails.  It’s more than just advertisements on television and the internet.  It’s more even than tie-ins, and red carpet events, and sending the cast and crew on talk shows.

It has to do with how PR firms work.  They feed stories to industry journalists to create a buzz around their clients’ products. (Read this marvelous essay by Paul Graham for an in-depth description of this process.)

My impression is that Disney–or perhaps the PR firm they hired–does a vastly better job of promotion compared to the other studios.  They have a much higher success at generating positive buzz for whatever they are releasing next.

Now, to some extent, there is bound to be a “crowding-out” effect. If Disney can internally do better PR, or if they can pay more to get it, it leaves less room for other non-Disney productions to get good PR.

And of course, none of this has anything to do with the actual quality of the movie in question.  (Indeed, I often wonder just how many movie reviews are influenced more by the PR campaign surrounding the film than by the film itself.)

In my review of The Force Awakens, I concluded by saying:

“[W]hy do so many people like The Force Awakens?  I don’t know–maybe it’s the same reason so many people like Donald Trump: both are loud, in-your-face, and have so much money backing them that they won’t go away.”

The comparison actually runs a bit deeper than that.  Trump, whatever else you want to say about him, is great at promotion.  He is like a one-man PR firm in terms of his ability to draw an audience for whatever he is peddling.

Disney, or whoever is handling PR and marketing for their movies, has a similar level of promotional skill.  And the other movie studios are unable to match it.

I think there is also something of an escalation going on, in that the more Disney hypes their releases, the more the other studios are then going to be expected to do to hype theirs. Expectations for marketing campaigns get higher and higher, and when studios fail to meet them, people don’t go to see their movies.

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Natalie Portman in “Jane Got a Gun” All Rights Reserved by the Weinstein Co. and re-used under “Fair Use”.
[UPDATE 4/23/2016: I loved this movie so much I also wrote a more in-depth analysis of it here. Note that it gives away the ending.]

 

The Western genre more or less died out after the 1970s. The social scientist in me wants to attribute this to the cultural change in that decade–the mythology of the American West was focused heavily on the image of white men with guns as heroes, and cast other groups as either supporting characters or villains. Not the most progressive genre.

But as the title indicates, Jane Got a Gun gives the firearms to a female–a mother, protecting her family from a gang of villains called “The Bishop Boys”, named for their cruel leader. (Ewan McGregor)

Natalie Portman plays Jane, the frontierswoman whose husband Bill Hammond (Noah Emmerich) encounters his old gang and is shot nearly to death by them. When he returns home on the verge of death, Jane takes her young daughter to safety and rides off to get help from her old fiancé, Dan Frost (Joel Edgerton), whom she believed had died in the Civil War, and had met again only after her marriage to Bill.

Dan at first refuses to help, still bitter that Jane left him for Bill. The Bishop Boys, meanwhile, are interrogating one of Hammond’s associates in the fur trade regarding his whereabouts. Bishop clearly remembers Jane as well, and means to track them both down.

Having been rebuffed by Dan, Jane rides into town to buy weapons. As Jane is leaving town with her arms and ammunition, one of the Bishop Boy goons drags her into an alley and holds her at gunpoint, demanding to know where Hammond is and threatening to rape her.

Dan arrives, and aims his rifle at the gang member, who offers to split the bounty on Bill Hammond with him.  Dan listens, feigning interest, and Jane takes the opportunity to fire a shot into the thug’s head.

Jane and Dan hastily ride out of town and back to Jane’s ranch, where Jane pays Dan to help prepare them for the inevitable attack by the Bishop Boys.  During this, we see flashbacks to Jane and Dan’s courtship, as well as to the beginning of the trouble with the Bishop gang.

Gradually, as she and Dan scramble to prepare the home’s defenses while also tending to the wounded Bill, their old feelings start to emerge.  Dan recounts how his love for Jane had sustained him through the War, and how it broke him to find that she’d married another man and had a child with him.

That night, Dan’s resentment towards Bill nearly boils over, and he holds his gun at the bed-ridden man–until Jane enters, which prompts the drunken gunslinger to stagger away, muttering “I don’t know what you saw in him.”

As Dan keeps watch from the upstairs window that night, Jane joins him and tells him about what happened to her after she joined the Bishop’s wagon train.  She had a daughter (named Mary, after Dan’s mother) with her when she placed herself under Bishops’ “protection”.  The Bishops then took Mary from Jane, and forced Jane into prostitution. The scene flashes back to when Hammond, as a member of the gang, tried to free her, but was prevented by Bishop.

The next scene was perhaps the most disturbing, as Hammond asks one of Bishop’s men what became of Mary. He chillingly replies something to the effect that “Bishop told me to ‘take care of her’–he didn’t explain what he meant, so I made my best guess.  Did you know she can’t swim?”

In a fury, Hammond races to the brothel and, in a violent but extremely cathartic scene, guns down the clientele and rescues a weeping Jane.

The transition from Dan’s face as Jane begins telling the story, to the flashback sequence, and then back to Dan, is really powerful.  His expression changes completely, and his rage is such that he can barely spit a few words to say that he hopes John Bishop himself is coming.

As the night wears on, Jane and Dan venture outside the house.  The scene is dark and atmospheric, and Jane utters a few words of courageous resolve.  Then, shots ring out and Jane and Dan both hit the ground.

So begins the climactic showdown–I won’t spoil the ending for you, but suffice it to say that it is immensely satisfying.  Not to give too much away, but watch for a certain transition that begins with a close-up on a revolver barrel–it works really well.

What a lot of the “feminist” or “strong woman” action movies get wrong is to portray the woman as a Rambo-like super-human, crushing everything in her path.  Jane Got a Gun avoids this pitfall–Jane is believably vulnerable, but gains her strength on fiery resolve and force of will, rather than impossible physical strength. Portman does a terrific job conveying the transformation from sweet, innocent girl to hardened frontierswoman that Jane undergoes.

Edgerton is suitably gruff while conveying an underlying decency, and his chemistry with Portman is absolutely marvelous. McGregor is the very picture of the “villain we love to hate”. All the Bishop gang henchmen are utterly loathsome in different ways, making each one’s demise a satisfyingly bloody catharsis.

The beautiful landscapes and moody soundtrack really stuck with me.  I’ve been a sucker for desert movies since I saw Lawrence of Arabia as an impressionable sixteen-year-old, and my Fallout: New Vegas binge only solidified my love for the harsh, barren landscapes. Jane uses this type of scenery to create a marvelous feeling of loneliness and isolation.

It was interesting to watch this movie so soon after seeing the new Star Wars film. Jane’s behind-the-scenes connections to Star Wars are well-documented, as Portman, McGregor and Edgerton all appeared in the prequel trilogy. More significantly than that, the original Star Wars, which the new one tries so hard to imitate, was really just George Lucas’s reinvention of the western–an attempt to translate the familiar Good vs. Evil melodrama for a new generation.

The latest Star Wars tries to do this too, but fails badly on every level. Jane Got a Gun (while obviously not a film for children, because of the violence) succeeds in capturing this old-fashioned spirit.

Both films feature a Good vs. Evil plot with a strong heroine, a reluctant hero, and a cruel villain. But while Star Wars‘s Daisy Ridley and John Boyega fail in their attempts to portray the archetypes of “strong heroine” and “reluctant hero”, respectively; Portman and Edgerton play those same roles to perfection. McGregor, meanwhile, brings a chilling charisma to the villain’s role–exactly the sort of touch Adam Driver failed to give his cartoon bad guy in Star Wars.

Jane Got a Gun does not reinvent the Western by any means, but it certainly revives it admirably. The performances are all first-rate, and the pacing is terrific.  It is marketed as an action film, but there is plenty of romance and suspense as well, and the haunting desert landscape and soundtrack give it a very strong atmosphere.  Go see it.

Interesting article in The Guardian about a renewed interest in witchcraft, or “Wicca”, and the associated mystical stuff among young women.  The general point of the article is that witchcraft is feminist because witchery is about female-headed authority structures. Naturally, traditionalists are upset by this trend, though whether they don’t like the witchcraft because it’s feminist, or that they don’t like the feminism because it’s witchcraft is hard to say.

I bet somewhere conservatives are saying “See? We told you the “Harry Potter” books would lead the youth into more serious pagan witch-cults!” Although it’s not like Harry Potter invented presenting magic as a good thing.  Why not blame Samantha Stephens? Or Glinda the Good Witch? Actually, to be honest, I’m not exactly sure when people were not interested in witchcraft in some form or other.

I wonder when traditionalists and conservative religious people will realize that the only reason people get into tarot cards and potion-brewing is because they know it will annoy the conservatives.  Once they quit acting upset by it, it won’t seem cool anymore.

I’m not kidding about this–most of the people I know who are into this stuff are doing it because they are rebelling against their religious families.  Personally, as a non-religious (though not really anti-religious) person, I find it pretty tiresome. It’s just trading one set of rituals and relics for another, as far as I’m concerned.  Wicca is religion for hipsters: they’re only doing it because it’s not mainstream.

People are always getting renewed interest in the mystical and the occult.  Back in the 1920s, there was a wave of fascination with the occult. I think it waned a bit in the 1930s what with the Depression and all, but there was still Aleister Crowley being Aleister Crowley. Find me some point in history when there wasn’t interest in the occult among some group or other.

As the preeminent video game critic of my time <insert laugh track here>, I feel compelled to weigh in on the recent series of events referred to as “GamerGate”.

As I have stated before, I absolutely despise this habit of appending “-gate” to everything that is considered a scandal.  Following this logic, you’d think the Watergate scandal was about water.  Attention, people born after the 1970s: the Watergate was an office complex. The scandal was called that because it centered around a break-in at said office complex.

Now, then:

The origins of GamerGate are shrouded in the mists of the internet, but the facts are these, as related by that always perfectly factual and unbiased source of information, Wikipedia:

The controversy came to wider attention due to the sustained harassment that indie game developer Zoe Quinn was subjected to after an ex-boyfriend posted numerous allegations on his blog in August 2014, including that she had a “romantic relationship” with a Kotaku journalist, which prompted concerns that the relationship led to positive media coverage for her game. Although these concerns proved unfounded, allegations about journalistic ethics continued to clash with allegations of harassment and misogyny.

Kotaku is a video game focused blog from the Gawker network. Being outraged at them for giving biased coverage to a given game is a bit like being outraged at The Chicago Tribune for giving biased coverage to the Chicago Bears. Or maybe being outraged at Weekly World News for giving biased coverage to Bat Boy.

Zoe Quinn’s game Depression Quest supposedly, according to the GamerGate crowd, got more favorable press than it merited, either because she was romantically involved with a critic (not true) or else because the gaming press generally was biased in favor of a game made by a woman.

Might the latter be true? Sure.  Remember, the first rule of journalism is that “Dog Bites Man” is not a story, but “Man Bites Dog’ is, because it’s unusual.  “Man Makes Game” is not interesting, because most games are made by men.   So of course the press would pay extra attention to her game; regardless of any extracurricular romantic activity on anyone’s part.

Now, I don’t know how much coverage the game really got compared to a lot of the triple-A titles.  I do know that I would never have heard of it if not for this GamerGate business. So they have not exactly done a marvelous job, if their goal was to correct what they saw as an imbalance in the game’s favor in terms of press coverage.

But things quickly went beyond Zoe Quinn and her game. First, internet troublemakers started publishing her personal information online.  People responded by saying the attacks on Quinn were “misogynistic” and constituted harassment. More troublemakers responded to this by posting those people’s personal information as well.

Among the people whose info was posted was actress and writer Felicia Day, after she wrote a post about “GamerGate”. This is noteworthy because Day’s biggest claim to fame is writing the web comedy The Guild, the final season of which culminates with a huge protest made by a bunch of gamers, who have something of a reasonable point, but undermine it with their insults, sexual innuendos, and boorish behavior.  Life imitates Art, it seems, and all that stuff has given the “GamerGaters” a bad name; and while their concern may be journalistic ethics, they have been completely overshadowed by the trolls on this one.

Putting aside all the sordid instances of harassment against female gamers/game developers/journalists that have been perpetrated by those allegedly affiliated with the “GamerGate” crowd–which invariably devolve into arguments over who is truly part of the “GamerGate’ crowd–I want to focus on what a singularly unlikely and useless thing it is to want “ethics” and “fairness” from gaming journalism.

First of all, we will never have unbiased gaming journalism as long as companies like Electronic Arts exist and have a seemingly endless supply of money to throw at promoting whatever re-hash of a game they are selling. (I actually don’t despise EA as much as many do; but I think they are a negative influence on gaming.)

I don’t know what an un-biased entertainment journalism industry would look like, to be honest.  I mean, what’s the idea?  the good games get coverage and the bad ones don’t?  Well, I mean, this may shock people, but there are disagreements as to whether particular games are good or bad.  I love KoTOR II; other people hate it.  I thought Half-Life 2 was a mediocre FPS; most people think it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread.

Do people think we have an unbiased movie journalism industry? The truth is, which movies get reviewed and given awards is based on which studios decided to pay which journalists to review them, to submit them for which Academy Awards, etc., etc., etc.

Does this mean the gaming industry is doomed?  No; not really.  I don’t think that journalism matters that much when it comes to gaming.  I don’t make my gaming decisions based on what some review on Kotaku said; I make it largely based on what genre it is and whether or not Chris Avellone wrote it.

Integrity, honesty and ethics are easy things to ask for from journalists who are covering subjects like politics, weather, crime and so on.  We don’t get them, but it’s reasonable to ask for them.  It’s much harder to ask for them from people covering art and literature.  But the good news is, we don’t need integrity in gaming journalism; because we can just go right to Steam and download whatever strikes our fancy.  I don’t care that Destructoid gave Alpha Protocol a 2 out of 10; I still know it’s a very good game. And I’ve said so.  On this blog.  That anyone can read.

Do you want to see an example of what happens when gaming journalism gets hit with a truly innovative game?  Here it is:

If you’ve played the game, it’s hard not to cringe at some of the questions the reporter asks there.  It’s not her fault, because nobody knew what to expect from SO:TL, but the questions are in anticipation of a typical “choose your ending”-type military game, when Spec Ops is… let’s say… different. If you think Depression Quest is ‘not for typical gamers’, well, Spec Ops is actively against them.  You want to know more than that, play the game.  But my point is just that all kinds of games can flourish now; gaming journalism isn’t holding them back.

John Trumbull’s ‘Declaration of Independence.’ 1819

So, first of all, happy Independence day. My conservative friends may not believe me, but part of the reason I spend so much time criticizing politics in this country is because I think it really is a very great country. One of my favorite JFK quotes is “This is a great country, but I think it could be a greater country.”

[This is the same reason that when I write about football, I critique good teams–it’s way more interesting than criticizing lousy ones.]

With that in mind, let’s talk about the Supreme Court.

First off, let me talk about Chief Justice Roberts.  I can’t figure him out.  Liberals I know say he is just a Conservative who rules however the Conservatives want something to go.  But that’s obviously not true; or else he would have struck down the Affordable Care Act. So he isn’t just some guy who rules based on the party line.  He has some kind of judicial philosophy–the question is, what is it?

Second item: the latest Supreme Court case in the news is the Hobby Lobby case, wherein Chief Justice Roberts ruled, along with the Majority, that employers don’t have to pay for insurance plans covering contraceptives.  I’ve heard a lot of criticism of this ruling, saying it is a disaster for women and a re-ignition of the “War on Women” from 2012.

My opinion? Yes, but it’s even worse than that.

The trouble is, when religion gets involved, things always get murky.  I don’t want to insult anybody’s beliefs, but the fact of the matter is that religion is based on faith, not legal precedent or factual evidence.  Which is fine, but it makes it tough to deal with in a legal case, because it is about unquantifiable, supernatural things.  As the greatest legal mind in the English-speaking world, the Lord Chancellor from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe, said:

Ah! but, my good sir, you mustn’t tell us what she [Chorused nature] told you — it’s not evidence. Now an affidavit from a thunderstorm, or a few words on oath from a heavy shower, would meet with all the attention they deserve.

There are a lot of different religions. And all of them give different versions of what God is supposed to have said what to do or not do.

My question is: how far does this really go? What if I’m a business owner and my religion forbids all health insurance?  Can I not provide coverage?  For that matter, if I’m a business owner, and my religion forbids following government safety mandates, can I get out of that, too?

Obviously, this Court ruling doesn’t really mean that. But the question is, why doesn’t it mean that? Because that is the implied logical precedent, it seems to me.

Generally speaking, I don’t like to comment on peoples’ appearances much on this blog.  You wouldn’t go up to random people and start criticizing their looks, so it seems similarly rude to do so in a public forum.  It’s true that I occasionally do talk about it, as in this post, but I justify that by saying (1) it was about appearances as they related to politics, and (2)  it was about politicians, who are sociopaths whose feelings can’t be hurt.

But for the most part, I try not to go around playing “hot or not” just for fun–people pay enough attention to surface appearances as it is, and this blog is supposed to be about examining the less-obvious things in the world, and the subtle points that people too easily miss.

This post is going to be about looks, though–and it’s even going to involve one particular lady’s looks.  (I am especially hesitant to blog about women’s appearances, since I think they tend to be judged on those too much as it is.)  I’m only doing it because I think it’s a good jumping-off point for sociological and cultural discussions, and because the lady in question already discussed the topic on her own blog, which I think (at least, I hope) means she does not mind a polite public discussion of it.  But before I get to the point, I’ll need to give some background.

Felicia Day is an internet celebrity, popular especially among gamers because she is not only pretty, but also a gamer.  This, of course, makes her very popular with many male gamers.  She’s been in several online video series, including starring in the show The Guild, which she also wrote.

I mainly like watching her show Co-optitude, where she and her brother play multi-player games.  It’s a very funny show. (be warned: lots of profanity, only some of which is censored.) Here is a recent interview with her for those unfamiliar with her:

Anyway, though, the point is she had a lot of male gamer fans, until one day, she cut her hair short. Well, ok–she still has a lot of male gamer fans, including yours truly,  but according to this post on her blog, she started losing some, who complained that her new short haircut made them lose interest in her.

She linked to this article by Laurie Penny about why short hair on women is a political statement.  That article is itself a  response to another article called “Girls With Short Hair are Damaged” by someone called “Tuthmosis”.

At this point, I should like to pause briefly for an editorial comment: there may be many articles on the internet about celebrity haircuts.  But what site besides Ruined Chapel gives you assigned reading in the course of such an article?

Now, there are lot of interesting points in all these posts. For starters, I don’t buy Penny’s idea that a woman cutting her hair short is a political statement.  I know conservative Republican housewives who cut their hair short because they find it more practical and convenient.

But what I really want to focus on is this: in the “Girls With Short Hair” article, “Tuthmosis” asserts that long hair is “almost universally attractive to men.”  And Penny, in her feminist response to that article, implicitly agrees with this assertion.  She views short hair, therefore, as women rejecting the notion they need to please men, whereas “Tuthmosis” views it as a negative thing.

What I want to examine is whether the assertion is even true.  It is qualified with the word “almost”, which may be enough to save it, but I want to see the data backing it up.  I say this because I am one of those men who find short hair more attractive. I don’t mean this in some high-minded “it’s attractive when a woman asserts her independence” sort of way (although I do think that as well.) I mean that at a very fundamental level, I find women with short hair to be, for lack of a better word, “prettier”  than those with long hair.

My personal opinion does not prove the assertion false.  I am the “almost”.  (I might even say, “I am the 1%”) Even so, the fact that such an exception as myself exists admits the possibility of this taste for long hair changing, and short hair being preferred.

But while I may be in the minority, I’m by no means convinced I’m in as small a minority as that.  And anyway, if the 1% elites are allowed to control every other aspect of society, why not hairstyles as well?

I’m kidding.  But really, is long hair that overwhelmingly preferred?

Thingy pointed out something I haven’t really addressed in my posts about John Steinbeck: that his preponderance of flat, unlikable and (in the case of Cathy from East of Eden) downright evil  female characters may not have been simply a reflection of animosity towards women on his part, but symptomatic of the era in which he wrote.

Maybe so.  As I said in my comment on Thingy’s blog, I can think of some female characters from other periods who were better than Steinbeck’s, but still, her point is a good one: maybe that was just how things were back then,

I’m glad this came up, because I’d been planning to do a post about this article in The New Statesman by Sophia McDougall. The point of the article is basically that “Strong Female Characters” can be almost as bad as “Weak Female Characters”, in the sense that both imply a dearth of character development.  They are equally simplistic and flat as characters.

I don’t like to list “favorite” fictional characters, because you can get to comparing apples to oranges very quickly.  Nevertheless, if you forced me to choose, I would say my favorite female character in all fiction is (you guessed it) Kreia from Knights of the Old Republic II.  In fact, she’s probably my favorite fictional character, regardless of genderAnd the reason is because she’s complicated.

None of Steinbeck’s female characters are that. They are all very one-dimensional.  Now, as Thingy said, some of his male characters are pretty much cut-outs as well, but I can’t think of any female of Steinbeck’s who is as interesting as Mac from In Dubious Battle.

But back to Thingy’s point: was that just Steinbeck’s attitude, or was it the spirit of the time? I think probably both, but I also think it’s significant that I couldn’t think of any ’30s-era female characters in books written by males that I’d consider good examples.  Perhaps you, dear reader, can think of some?

As I mentioned here, I’ve been planning to read some John Steinbeck books.   I haven’t gotten to The Grapes of Wrath yet, but I recently read Of Mice and Men.  It’s very well-written, and effective at describing the scenes and characters. The first and last chapters especially do a good job painting an evocative scene for the reader.  The dialogue is also very good—Steinbeck captured rural, uneducated dialect convincingly while still making it flow naturally, so as to be readable.

The story itself is tragic, and indeed, I was duly depressed at the end of it.  But I couldn’t get past one thing about the tale: the vague undercurrent of misogyny. Curley’s wife—no name, just “Curley’s wife”—is treated as not really even a person.  By Steinbeck’s own admission, she is “not a person, she’s a symbol.” This dehumanization is quite evident in the book, and I found it rather disturbing.

There also is a heavy implication that her ultimate fate is her fault. I mean, who can blame her for flirting with the farm workers, considering what a jerk her husband is? And yet George, who is supposed to be a sympathetic character does blame her for it.  I can’t really decide if this is author’s perspective, or just the character’s perspective, though.

Steinbeck’s quote above notwithstanding, there is some attempt to humanize the character at the end, so it may be the point is just that the farm workers have misogynistic attitudes.  (Interestingly, I notice that the Of Mice and Men article on Wikipedia is in the category “misogyny”, even though no reason for this is given in the body of the article.)

However, it is still a very well-written and powerful  book.  I read that Steinbeck wrote it so that it could be either read as a novel or performed as a play.  That’s a very interesting idea, and I can definitely see how it could be easily adapted to the stage, although I don’t know if the quiet, melancholy nature scenes at the beginning and end could be translated to the stage effectively.

Do I have to turn in my liberal card if I’m not excited about this?  Yes, I think it was a stupid policy to exclude women, but frankly I don’t see why the whole thing got made into such a big deal.  It’s a place for rich people to hang out with other rich people and do, I don’t know, rich people stuff.  And play golf.

I seriously doubt that this will open new career paths for Condoleeza Rice or Darla Moore.  Rice was the Secretary of State; I’m guessing that carries more weight for networking purposes than being a member of some fancy golf club.  I bet when she was picked to be Secretary of State, her first thought wasn’t “Great!  Now maybe I can finally get into that golf club!”

Look at this list of famous people in this club.  I bet none of them got where they are by becoming members of that club.  I’m thinking their success was the cause, rather than the effect, of their membership.

It would be one thing if it were the only golf course in the world, or if the ladies they admitted were, for example, too poor to go to another location to golf.  As it is, why, surely there are adequate substitute golf clubs that Rice and Moore could go to if they wanted.  Maybe loyal reader and golfer P.M. Prescott can explain why this particular place would be so special.

I don’t actually see how discrimination really hurts anyone in this particular case, except for the discriminators.  Since the entire point of the club appears to be propagating a prestigious reputation that it has manufactured for itself, the bad P.R. for being “the place that doesn’t admit women” could get to be very damaging, as indeed it ultimately did.  I’m not defending their policy, but I don’t see that it was hurting anyone except the people who made it.

Bottom line: I think the people running Augusta National were being stupid by not admitting women.  However, I think people need to quit acting like the change in policy is some kind of giant feminist victory. It’s nothing of the kind.