Sunday, 12 December 2010

Beautiful, Strong, Broken Women

Those of you who follow me on Twitter will know that tonight I watched Buffy s5 ep12 ('The Body') for the first time in ages. In case you can't recall, this is the episode where Buffy finds her mother's dead body on the couch and has to deal with the immediate aftermath. The episode is wonderfully played by Sarah Michelle Gellar, and beautifully directed. There is no soundtrack, and each of the central characters plays out the most attractive facet of their character. As I said on Twitter, I'll only get behind a Buffy reboot if they can pull off something as beautiful as that episode.

Sarah Michelle Gellar's performance as the amazingly strong, yet perfectly vulnerable, Buffy got me thinking about femininity. And the way in which women are forced to juggle 'surviving' with 'being beautiful' and 'being good'. This is something I've had to deal with in my own life - as an apparently 'confident' and 'successful' woman - and I'm going to give you a run-down of women that have given me strength. Don't get me wrong... I find strength in so many women (from Emmeline Pankhurst to my bestest mate K), but these are the beautiful, strong, broken women who speak to my experience.

I would love to hear who your beautiful, broken icons are...

5. Buffy. This time last year, my dad found out he had cancer. During the time of his treatment, I got dumped and had to deal with my younger brother's 'issues' with his relationship to our dad. Of course, there are a lot of background issues, and my brother is only 16 months younger than me, but up until now his whole experience with death has revolved around my protecting him from it (mine hasn't - as my job from being 16 entails I've had to go to a lot of colleagues' funerals). Our (me and my bro) first bereavement was three days before my 8th birthday - I understood, he (aged 6) didn't - and our next was on his 13th birthday, and I've spent a lot of time making sure his birthday doesn't remind him of Grandma's death (he doesn't actually remember that Granny died around my birthday, but I'd rather he didn't remember our first bereavement). When the next death happened (when I was 17, he was 15), I had to be the one to break it to him. I might not be a slayer, but I am a big sister - and a child of a cancer patient -which is why Buffy is the first on my list of beautiful women. I can't show the whole episode, and you really do need the whole soundtrack-less thing to get the picture, but you'll get it from this:

4. Stacey Slater in Eastenders. Bipolar rape victim who wasn't totally sure what consent might mean when she was ill. (And the older, wiser me will say, hun, you can't consent if you're having an episode. And yes - I am bipolar. And yes - I am a rape victim.) Found one good man... and he died for her 'crime'. Beautifully, beautifully portrayed by Lacey Turner:

3. Tina Turner. This should be considered a clarion call to all of us who have suffered domestic abuse. And trust me, I know whereof I speak (My ex - hit me, hit his son, hit the cat). When they hit us, when they make us feel small, when they rape us, we should remember:

2. Blanche Dubois. A double one here. The character is a (possibly) mentally ill rape victim; the actress is a perfect, fragile, violent, broken harridan. No-one wanted to help Blanche or Vivien, because they were too much like hard work. I'm mentally ill (which should have been apparent throughout this post), and I've been forced to accept all NHS treatments short of sectioning. Blanche took it like this (I didn't... and Vivien Leigh didn't either...):

1. Judy Garland. I left her to last, because this says it all. For me, she is the beautiful, strong, broken woman par excellence. This is one of the most painful videos I've ever seen. Look into her eyes. You will see her soul... and mine:

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Review: Jennifer Lynn Barnes, Raised by Wolves (Quercus, 2010)

Raised by Wolves, published by Quercus in 2010, is a YA urban fantasy novel, which tells the story of Bronwyn (otherwise known as Bryn), a girl raised by a werewolf pack. When she was four years old, a lone "Rabid" werewolf - the "Big, Bad Wolf" - attacked and killed Bryn's family. She only escaped by hiding in a cupboard until the Stone River Pack arrive to kill the lone wolf and save the girl's life. Bryn is then taken into the pack by powerful alpha Callum, who "Marks" her and raises her. When human woman Ali arrives - searching for her sister who has run off with a werewolf - she is given Bryn as a surrogate daughter, despite being only a few years older. This semi-stable family set-up continues until Bryn is seventeen, when the arrival of newly-converted "Were" Chase causes Bryn to question everything she thinks she knows about the pack and her place within it.

Barnes' werewolves are of a recognizable type: presented as a sort of cohabitation of human and wolf within one 'shifting' bodyt; 'born' not 'made' (on the whole); subject to the strict regulation of a hierarchical pack structure; and telepathic via a "Pack bond", a shared consciousness that links all members of a particular pack. The societal organization of the pack is utterly patriarchal, reliant on obedience to the alpha male. Bryn is doubly subject to this patriarchy; as a woman, but also a human, she has ostensibly little power to rebel against the rigorous and controlling influence of alpha Callum. The novel begins with Callum chastizing Bryn for three transgressions: she has 'borrowed' a motorbike from a classmate [What is it with YA heroines and secret motorbikes??]; her Algebra marks are low; she hasn't fully complied with her curfew. These circumstances may be reasonably familiar to readers of YA fiction. However, on eof the strengths of Raised by Wolves is that Barnes extends this marginalized, powerless situation of the heroine to a wider presentation of women within the werewolf world.

It is made clear throughout the book that there are very few female werewolves. This is presented as a fluke of werewolf biology: "Something about the chemistry involved in werewolf conception made it impossible for girl embryos to survive the first trimester, unless they were half of a set of twins and had a brother to mask their presence in the womb." This 'scientific fact' has a series of deep repercussions for the female characters in the novel. It makes female werewolves very rare: Bryn's foster-sister Kaitlin and close friend Lake are unusual, and thus highly prized members of the pack. As werewolves are 'born' and not 'made', the only way to breed 'purebred' werewolves is for these females to mate with male members of the pack. Their relative scarcity means that they are the focus of an undercurrent of sexual violence and coercion. In the later chapters of the novel, Bryn becomes aware of this when Lake - a rebellious tomboy of breeding age - hides in the mountains when a group of alphas visit her home. As Lake's father explains: "Some Weres, especially the dominant ones, get real funny around females, and Lake's not a kid anymore." Not only is the fifteen-year-old Lake now at risk of the "real funny" behaviour of dominant males, she may also be subject to "bartering" by her own alpha. Bryn comes to a realization that her friend - and, evenutally, her younger sister - will be seen as "commodities" by Callum.

One of the ways alphas exert power over each other is through the size of their pack. The more members to a pack, the more power the alpha has. As there is no way - apparently - of converting humans into werewolves, breeding is an important concern for the pack. The rareness of female werewolves results in most werewolves taking human wives. Barnes is fairly stark in her portrayal of these women - they are little more than breeding machines, and maternal mortality rates are ridiculously high. At one point, the narrator Bryn comments on mass, unmarked graves of female women who have died giving birth to werewolf children. The cumulative effect of this focus on reproduction, mating and mortality is to create a world in which to be female is to be inferior, fragile and vulnerable to patriarchal violence and control. Barnes sustains this throughout her novel, adding to the tension and precariousness of Bryn's situation.

Nevertheless, Bryn is not the sort of heroine who will simply compel with such monolithic societal controls. As Lake's father comments, she is "scrappy". The characterization of Bryn, and her determination to rebel against and subvert the world in which she lives, is one of the most compelling aspects of the novel. Bryn is adept at finding loopholes in pack rule, and discovers a number of skills and attributes that allow her to fight back against the injustices she has faced. (And I will say no more on these, as they are integral to the development of the plot.) Moreover, Bryn configures an alternative society, at odds with the traditional pack, made up of the marginalized, the disenfranchised and the powerless. This social group includes Chase (the werewolf convert who 'shouldn't' exist), Lake and Bryn's close friend Devon - "the world's only metrosexual werewolf". This group - also incorporating Bryn's strong and principled foster-mother Ali and adorable wolf-cub Kaitlin - is likable and sympathetic. The reader sides with them easily against the rigid and brutal pack patriarchy.

Although, as I have said, Barnes' werewolves are of a reasonably familiar type, the author plays around with the usual formula. For example, the "Pack bond" shared by the werewolves can also be enjoyed by humans who have been "Marked". Bryn and Ali have the opportunity to share in this bond, but choose to close off their minds to it. This leads to some consideration by Bryn about what exactly separates humans from "Weres". Though she realizes that she is not actually a werewolf, Bryn doesn't feel or act fully human either. Snarling in anger and revelling in the unrestrained physical freedom of "running with the Pack", Bryn seems to be part-werewolf, despite the impossibility of this. This all raises an interesting question: is it nature or nurture that makes a werewolf?

Raised by Wolves is an enjoyable and gripping YA fantasy. Believable characters and a well-handled and suspenseful plot make for a great read. While the basic premise of the book (and its werewolf world) may seem like well-trodden territory, Barnes' handling of these ideas is original and fresh. The writing bears favourable comparison with other bestselling examples of YA fantasy - and, indeed, is an instance of the genre at its best. Definitely recommended.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

CFP: Revenge - Probing the Boundaries

16th July 2011 - Monday 19th July 2011
Mansfield College, Oxford, United Kingdom

Call for Papers

Revenge, so we are told, is a dish best served cold: a ‘sweet’ wreaking of vengeance on those who have – either in reality or in our minds – slighted, wronged or in some way ‘injured’ us and who are now ‘enjoying’ their just deserts by an avenging angel (or angels) on the great day of reckoning. This inter- and multi-disciplinary research and publications project seeks to explore the multi-layered ideas and actions of vengeance or revenge. The project aims to explore the nature of revenge, its relationship with issues of justice, and its manifestation in the actions of individuals, groups, communities and nations. The project will also consider the history of revenge, its ‘legitimacy’, the‘scale’ of vengeful actions and whether revenge has (or should have) ‘limits’. Representations of revenge in film, literature, tv, theatre and radio will be analysed; cultural ‘traditions’ of retaliation and revenge will be considered. And the role of mercy, forgiveness and pardon will be assessed.

Papers will consider the following indicative themes:
  • the nature of reveng
  • vengeance in history
  • revenge cross-culturally
  • the role of revenge
  • is there any proper and improper time for revenge? Can an act of revenge be carried across generations?
  • revenge, vengeance, retaliation: to avenge
  • justice and revenge; redressing the balance, just desert
  • betrayal, humiliation, shame, resentment and revenge
  • revenge and the individual; revenge and the group; revenge and the nation
  • revenge in literature and the arts
  • revenge in music
  • revenge in tv, film, radio and theatre: the nemesis
  • relationship between revenge and mercy, forgiveness, pardon
  • revenge case-studies: individual and collective

Papers on any other topic related to the theme will also be considered. The Steering Group particularly welcomes the submission of pre-formed panel proposals. Papers will also be considered on any related theme.

300 word abstracts should be submitted by Friday 14th January 2011. If an abstract is accepted for the conference, a full draft paper shouldbe submitted by Friday 27th May 2011.

Abstracts should be submitted simultaneously to both Organising Chairs; abstracts may be in Word, WordPerfect, or RTF formats with the following information and in this order: a) author(s), b) affiliation, c) email address, d) title of abstract, e) body of abstract

E-mails should be entitled: REV2 Abstract Submission.

Please use plain text (Times Roman 12) and abstain from using footnotes and any special formatting, characters or emphasis (such asbold, italics or underline).

We acknowledge receipt and answer to all paper proposals submitted. If you do not receive a reply from us in a week you should assume we did not receive your proposal; it might be lost in cyberspace! We suggest, then, to look for an alternative electronic route or resend.

Joint Organising Chairs:

Karolina Wigura
Institute of Sociology,
Warsaw University,

Rob Fisher
Network Founder and Leader
United Kingdom

The conference is part of the Probing the Boundaries programme of research projects. It aims to bring together people from different areas and interests to share ideas and explore various discussions which are innovative and exciting. All papers accepted for and presented at this conference will be eligible for publication in an ISBN eBook. Selected papers may be invited for development for publication in a themed hard copy volume(s).

For further details about the project please click here.

For further details about the conference please click here.