Friday, November 30, 2012

Guilty Pleasures: Griffith

Griffith from Berserk is a great villain. His razor-sharp intelligence, immense ambition, and alluring elegance all pull viewers in and make them want to root for him, to consider Griffith the kind of villain that both dreams and nightmares are made of. All the fanboys who can't take a male villain seriously just because he's pretty, step away. Y' got no power here.

I appreciate him for all that and more. I like the fact that Griffith makes the "beauty is only skin deep" thing work for a male character, which is harder to do these days. In modern times, beautiful men are already perceived as suspect and decadent more often than they are seen as virtuous, but Griffith sells the idea that this double standard doesn't exist. What he is turns out to be is a genuine shock to the characters, who believed in him.

So what's the problem with this amazing villain? The problem is that Griffith committed rape. There's no way around this: Griffith is Femto, and Femto is Griffith, with his rape of Casca and mutilation of Guts a reflection of Griffith's desires. Griffith needed to assert his dominance over Casca and Guts, "punish" them for being "above" him, because he felt he should be the one in charge, and others his servants.

Ultimately, that is what Griffith wants: for others to be below him, and to use them. He could have said no to the Sacrifice, and continued his suicide attempt. The fact that he said yes proves that despite Griffith's charisma, and despite his fear and pain, a demon is always what he was deep down, someone who viewed others as the means to an end.

As I've said before, you can try to boil it down to statistics, to say that Griffith should be condemned more for the loyal men he sentenced to be mutilated and devoured by demons, rather than his rape of a single woman, but this isn't rational. The smaller, personal microcosm of evil is the one that punches you in the gut.

I'm saying these things maybe as a way to come to terms with the fact that even after seeing all this, I still like Griffith as a character, enjoying him as a high-quality villain. Griffith might be the guiltiest of guilty pleasures, an interest that haunts me a little, which proves the power Berserk can have when it's operating at its peak. Berserk isn't so shocking that it's immune to critique, but I admire it for being able to create violent events that would be over-the-top in other hands, and making them powerful and poignant.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Holding Two Minds: Villain Apologism

I try to be open to all widely-varying interpretations of fictional characters, to remember that other people don't perceive characters the same ways I do. But there's just certain things I can't  agree with, and one of them is villain apologism.

You know it: the insistence that a villain is "not that bad", that because their actions are the result of a bad life or a bad situation they can't be blamed for the harm they cause. Nerd wars are fought over whether this is "true", and my stance is always firm.

Once a character voluntarily chooses to harm others, and they are aware they are causing harm, the reasons you commit these actions don't matter: you're the villain, the bad guy, not a nice person. There are plenty of ins and outs in this viewpoint, but I'm trying to keep it simple for the sake of making a point.

I support and prefer making stories emotionally and morally complex, creating changing, multifaceted characters, and authors being able to look at a story from multiple viewpoints. However, a story with these things doesn't mean the villains aren't easy to identify. There are exceptions, stories with truly blurred moral lines, but having a villain with understandable motivations and emotions doesn't on its own erase the possibility of moral judgement.

The truth is, most people aren't evil for the sake of evil. There are always reasons underlying their actions. But it's not right to throw away morality and punishment because the villain had "reasons", because otherwise, anyone can do anything.

So then why are there villain apologists? Many people like to blame sexual attraction for "blinding" fans to the faults of their favourite villains, but it's too simple to only think that's the only reason. And even when someone is attracted to a fictional character, that doesn't explain why the morality of that character should matter to them, when the character doesn't exist and can't hurt them.

There are lots of reasons why this morality would matter, though. The first one is that attraction to a character can be more than sexual. Whatever the intentions of the writers, it's inevitable that a character will "click" with a viewer in a way the writers did not intend. The viewer will find some strange sympathy or empathy with the character, sometimes making a connection between their experiences and the character's.

This connection might cut very deep, and change the viewer's perception, so that because they don't believe themselves to be bad, they can't see the character they intensely identify with as bad, either.  To judge this character as evil will therefore seem like a personal insult.

This could also take a different form. A viewer, even if their connection to a villain isn't so deep, could still feel squeamish about the thought of liking an evil character, and believe that to like an evil character reflects badly on their personal morality. So they deny this evil in order to make themselves feel they're still on the side of right.

Thirdly, it can simply be too difficult to balance a dislike of the character's deeds with a liking for the character themselves—and trying to could water down or even corrupt the affection one has for the character. Never being able to reconcile these two viewpoints might therefore make the hobby too much of a strain. To pretend that this character is not evil would therefore simplify things, and make it possible to love the character unconditionally.

And yeah, sometimes it has something to do with lust. I can't deny it entirely. After all, beauty is supposed to get you places, and onto a pedestal in a nerd's psyche could be one of those. Just that it might be a little bit different from that, too.

Attractive villains may get apologists more often, but unattractive ones can still "click" with a viewer in the way I mentioned above, still be liked without the viewer actually being in love with them.

I've seen it implied that villain apologism is a commonly female phenomenon. Female fans are suggested to be more likely to be into a fantasy rather than the "real" character. They produce insufferable sexual fixations, corrupting fandom with their squee-cooties.

If there's any truth to the idea that female villain apologists are more common,  it's not because women are hardwired for blind masochism or too stupid to see what a character is "really" like, but because women have greater concerns about social reputation.

Fandom therefore reflects this…women don't want to be seen as "bad", so they try to excuse their own interests lest others judge them. Furthermore, don't deny there's a double standard—that fangirl lusts are perverse and ridiculous, while fanboy lusts are normal and sensible, even though there's nothing to suggest that.

If all of this seems stupid, it's because it sort of is. It's all just fiction, after all—shouldn't we be able to realize that liking a character doesn't mean we approve of what they do or the morals they represent? Yeah. But people are weird, and fiction is meant to evoke emotions, to make us dive into imaginary worlds and react to them as we would to experiences in the real world.

So it's not surprising that things can get intense, and that fans might want to save face in one way or another, be worried that their choices say bad things about them. But it's possible to like a character while not approving of them in all aspects. Heck, it can be fun sometimes, to insult a character you love when they do ugly things. You still love them, and I don't think a fictional being cares if there are caveats to that love.

Oh, and all this applies to anti-heroes, too, for whatever way you define "anti-hero".

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Horns and Brains: Another 4Kids TMNT Recap and Other Ninja Turtles Things

I've decided to resign myself to blogging about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles whenever I feel like it. I fight the urge because this sudden mix of the past and present is a bit weird, not to mention that TMNT is a huge step down from Macross in terms of emotional resonance and depth of respect, so I will be on some levels, dragged into accepting this new interest. But, to quote from MST3K the movie, let's see how many times I can skip this thing.

The current plan is to start each post with a recap of my opinion on whatever season of the 4Kids series I watched, then throw in opinions on anything else at the bottom. I also leave a possible change in format open, especially if I think a topic is important enough to discuss separately.

So, I finished watching the second season of the 4Kids series, and am now well into the third season. I knew most of the Turtles' original origin through my internet tracks, not to mention knowing a few other things, so the reveals in the earliest episodes didn't rock my world, but it was still interesting to see them played out as a cohesive, if clichéd story.

I had the Triceraton action figure as a kid, and  never realized until a couple of years ago that they came from the Mirage universe having a race of aliens that were essentially humanoid Triceratops, with no explanation. But, see, it's perfect for this "anything goes" media franchise, and is really no worse than the cliché of making aliens that are exactly like humans, or humanoid versions of Earth animals. A good writer like C.J. Cherryh can still make that work, and the Triceratons get by on the sheer weirdness of their presence.

I found out even later that Laird is a fan of things ceratopsian, which was kind of cool. I'm a huge dinosaur fan, too, and I can see the temptation to create things on your favourite saurians. Intelligent dinosaurs are usually based on carnivorous species (like Robert J. Sawyer's wonderful Quintaglio Ascension trilogy), probably due to the greater initial brainpower, so the Triceratons are even more of a novelty. So, dinosaurs, those are neat.

But I've never been a fan of the "proud warrior aliens" trope. The one exception is the Zentradi of Macross, and their story was more about exposing such a race as living in slave conditions, rather than celebrating their way of being.

Both the Utroms and the Triceratons are a little disappointing for the fact that they're one-note alien races with a single culture and so far, a narrow range of characterization. These days I'm easier on SF writers for being unable to capture the complexity of the human race within a single piece of media, but that doesn't mean there's no possibility of variation among the single culture the author has work with. I do like the Utroms being a mostly peaceful race, when they look like something that would be the villain in a B-movie.

I'm completely neutral on The Shredder being an Utrom. It was an interesting twist, and I have no personal attachment to the Shredder as he was or as he is, and Ch'rell is a great villain regardless, not needing to have any necessary species. The only thing I don't like is that Ch'rell himself has an "evil" design, red with horns and a scar, so you know he's evil, which seems a little corny. Some of it could be attributed to body modifications, but I don't know if the series ever goes that far.

It raises an issue I've tackled before, and never came down on one side with: how do you take advantage of a visual medium and create a character whose body reflects their personality, without degenerating into lazy stereotypes? I hate stereotypes, but there's something appealing about a character design whose "parts" all work together.

Speaking of body modifications, Baxter Stockman is an organic head in a little spider robot, and then he's in a robot body, the head apparently all that was left of him after the explosion that easily should have killed him. And then he's a brain in a jar, poor fuck.

It just all looks so cool and disturbing, especially the way he casually has his head turned backwards in the robot body. Baxter obviously doesn't think it's that cool, but I like how Baxter still continues to be insolent and arrogant when he can, despite no longer having a body and being at the mercy of others. That's very funny, appealing to whatever strange part of me likes seeing her favourite characters get fucked up.

That being said, I'm starting to re-evaluate 4Kids Baxter's competence level….but without any disgruntled feelings. He's still in the clear when it comes to fitting with a more modern, sensible portrayal of cartoon villainy, just…slipping a little. My reaction is more pity than contempt, though, especially since Baxter literally can't leave his job at this point.

(Again, despite the obvious differences between the two, ones that go beyond race, I can't help but be reminded of the way Fred Wolf Baxter keeps showing up once you thought you've gotten rid of him. I still love 'em both, naturally.

I'll have to look at other versions of the character before I consider myself a fan of Baxter Stockman in general. Would I find him interesting without transformation and a fucked-up life?)

Hun also seems to be slipping, which is disappointing. I hope the secondary villains get back up to code soon.

Splinter isn't in this season very much, and I surprised myself by not missing him. It leads back to something I've wondered about, if my interest in Splinter exists on a purely nostalgic, low-brain level, so it's harder to transfer it onto a Splinter I didn't grow up with. It doesn't make the interest any less worthwhile, but I'm also a different person now than I was as a tot, and that's bound to affect things. That said…I was flailing with joy at the image of Splinter fighting a dragon.

Karai is very interesting. Her personality is at first sharply defined, but with an ambiguous future that has me interested. Her treatment of the Turtles seemed honorable, but she's still on the Shredder's side, with her place being precarious. I'm looking forward to how this would play out.

But why is Casey Jones being portrayed as such a doofus? I'm not that familiar with the character outside of the first live-action movie, but I just hate it when secondary characters aren't competent, and when a character becomes pure comic relief in a story that is supposed to be serious. It never serves any purpose, and is just clashing with the story.

I still have my issues with April O'Neil. I'm starting to warm up to her, and she does have a slightly more defined personality as time goes on, which makes her easier to deal with. I still think she suffers from "the normal one" syndrome, or whatever you would call it, when a character's role in a story somehow permits them to be less developed and harder to write about, but at least it feels more like being the mother/sister-figure is part of her personality and not just a writerly obligation.

Though her character isn't developed much, I like Quarry, because we need more grotesque female characters in animation, and I liked the oni and insect influences in her design. I was surprised to discover that that spider-creature, and the "Quarrysaurus" were apparently women, too.

In between all the major plot beats there are breather episodes, and these aren't as good. I'm not yet invested in the characters to watch their adventures without a larger plot involved, so I sit and wait patiently for the main plot to begin again. I think in general, the season started to sag after the earliest episodes, so I didn't enjoy season two as much as season one.

And the "Big Brawl" four-parter just bored me. I appreciated that they added plot so it wasn't just a series of fight scenes, but damn, I just didn't care. Despite everything, I just didn't care.

Ancillary Turtles Stuff:

I'm thinking of re-reading the Archie comics series, once I get my hands on a portable hard drive to save space on my machine. I loved that comic, which I "graduated" to after the Fred Wolf cartoon and followed until the end of the Moon-Eyes saga, though maybe I won't love it after I read all those environmentalist messages again.

Speaking of comics, Mark over at TMNT Entity has reviewed the amazing Soul's  Winter  trilogy  from Mirage Comics, a piece which I've loved for a long time.

The phrase "like you've never seen them before" is said a lot, but there's no other way to describe Stephen Murphy and Michael Zulli's take on the TMNT. It's a powerful, strange, and mystical self-contained tale that completely re-invents the universe and makes you believe in it, all backed by Zulli's gorgeous art, which I also see every time I open up the last volume of The Sandman and my eyes get misty. It manages to tell so much with so little that it's amazing.

And another thing about comics, I did forget one thing before: there was actually one change made to Turtles continuity that I wasn't "chill" over. The IDW comics idea of Splinter and the Turtles being a reincarnated human father and his biological children was something that was an unexpected punch in the gut when I first heard of it.

It was because, without realizing it, I had become invested in this franchise's notion of a family being made, not born, and in this case, crossing boundaries of species (whatever species Splinter was to start with). But by establishing that genetic connection, it makes things more conventional and convenient. I'm not saying I won't read the IDW series eventually, but I've learned not to be ashamed of disliking changes made to media.

And I'll bite: Costco was selling the Fred Wolf Turtles Van box-set for $70 Canadian instead of the standard $100, so I asked family members to buy it for me for Christmas. At first I wanted to hold back, but I can't anymore. I can't justify keeping the pirated copies of the small number of post-season 2 episodes I want to keep, when there's a chance to give money back to the company.

Lion's Gate didn't do that great a job with the DVD releases, but that's never on its own been a justification for piracy. Suck it up, buy the legit releases, and so on. But I don't regret getting seasons 1 and 2 on DVD: they were cheap, after all, and portable. It was fun lying on the couch sick and watching the Sarnath arc again, dizzily wondering again how the search for a stupid Do Anything jewel can be so much fun.

(Though I really didn't need to know that Splinter doesn't wear anything underneath his robe)

I've also started to reconsider watching the Fred Wolf series a la carte. It's not about "disrespecting" a series I still don't respect, but I feel sort of humourless and dull, when I thought I had the usual nerd capacity to ironically embrace absurdity. Sometimes with Fred Wolf stuff, I do, but other times….

Of course, my interest in the Fred Wolf series is not purely ironic. As these posts show, at times I show an earnest, sentimental interest that might cripple my ability to be all cool and distant. So that might make me more vulnerable to the show's faults.

I don't mind thinking critically about the Fred Wolf series, and I'm critiquing it for not being good as a goofy spoof show, not in secretly wishing it was like the 4Kids series. I just that I wish I was able to tolerate the OT better. So I might try to watch more episodes if I get that set, is what I'm saying.

However, I've also been able better describe why I dislike Fred Wolf April O'Neil so much. The problem with her is twofold, the first being that it's hard to get a handle on "who" she is. The male characters are simple and easy to describe, but April it's hard to get a bead on for some reason. Sometimes she's timid, other times she's bold, sometimes she's useful, sometimes she's not. Naturally I can't attribute this to April being complex, but just becoming whatever she needs to be in that moment. It just seems like even less effort was put into her than the rest of the cast, and as a result, fans remember her mostly for her breasts.

The second problem is that being "the girl" apparently puts April in this totally neutral position, where she never gets judged for anything, because she's not a "real" character. If somebody were to judge April's character, the assessment would be pretty dire: there are so many times when she is totally useless, and displays traits that in male characters are judged as cowardly or inept. But because April's just "the girl", no one calls her on that, and there's the implication that she can't be disliked for it, because we just aren't expected to form an opinion of this non-entity.

It could be argued that April's portrayal was ironic, mocking the damsel in distress stereotype. But…I don't think it was meant to mock anything, just that the series went through the motions, and then called attention to that fact, not making fun of stereotypes but just talking about itself. And when April is the major female character, there's still the urge to judge her for not being able to hold her own as a heroine—we simply expect more of characters when there are so few of their demographic represented. Even though April is an ordinary human, if the writers had tried, she could have been useful more often, and it also is a little heartbreaking to see how many times April showing initiative just leads to her getting kidnapped.

I feel a little bit bad picking on one of the few representatives of my gender in this show, but it can't be helped. April just gets on my nerves, in a completely different way than any other character. Irma, though she's an annoying stereotype, still has a consistent personality, and because she's a secondary character, we have less of an expectation that she will be effective.

Anyway, with that out of the way, my 1988 Splinter and Baxter toys arrived in the mail, with their file cards included. I hadn't touched my old Splinter in years and have no idea what happened to him, and I was surprised at how small the toy now felt in my hand, which is your mental Kodak moment for the day.

Playmates Splinter doesn't look much like any other version of Splinter, but the nostalgia of that sculpt is just overpowering. I lost the cloak to mine as soon as I had him, and he was naked for all time. I had the hard plastic-headed one, and this was the one with the "soft" head. I'm not sure which is rarer, or why those differences exist, but I'm pleased to have this one.

Baxter Stockman doesn't look much like the Baxterfly of the cartoon, but after the Exedore toy from Matchbox, any other off-base cartoon likeness looks more acceptable than it could be, especially when you know the toy was created first. Looking at this figure again, I wonder if it, with its exposed veins and muscles and psychotic grin, was the large inspiration behind almost every fanartist drawing Baxterfly as a drooling hell-beast.

(He also has a little watch, so he'll always know when it's revenge o' clock)

I'm all for radical artistic re-interpretation, but it's so hard to find art of Baxterfly that's not out of a horror movie that I jokingly wonder if the dark and edgy version is what people believe the character is actually like. If childhood memories could distort the main Fred Wolf villains into badasses, I guess anything's possible, but the idea of anyone recalling Baxter as a threatening villain is very hard to wrap my head around. He's supposed to be a malicious but silly creature even in the confines of his own very silly universe.

(Honestly, if I feel like I've got enough new stuff to say on the issue, I'll deal directly with the presumption that Fred Wolf Baxter Stockman is an innocent victim or "tragic" character: why it happens, and why it's not true)

The Playmates toys always did have interesting sculpts though, with a lot of grotesque detail everywhere, and in some cases, extra vermin crawling on them. These vermin manage to avoid that, and are cute little things to add to my collection.

Sadly, I've discovered the secondary market for toys based on the 4Kids series has them trading for high prices, so I won't be able to make any new additions anytime soon. At the same time, I'll likely buy the upcoming Nickelodeon Baxter Stockman toy, since he was the only enjoyable thing about this very boring series. I'm sorry, everybody, I tried, but I can't get into it.

But even so, until next time.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

A Better Breed of Bitch: Female Zentradi and the Assumption of Superiority

I always used to notice this weird thing in both Macross and Robotech fandom: the consistent off-the-cuff assumption that female Zentradi (or "Zentraedi") are a higher quality of soldier and personage than the Zentradi men. Nothing in any Macross material states this, so it's "fanon" in the truest sense, meaning fans coming together and agreeing upon some truth that they all perceive in the material, but that is not actually an official part of the universe.

I can think of a few reasons why this perception took root, but none of these reasons are enough for me to declare it a canonical "truth", or even something that aligns with my own interpretations of the series. This is true for Macross or Robotech, though only Macross' material holds weight. The Robotech-exclusive material can be studied more as a reaction to the original Macross, than something equal with it.

(Oh, and I'll add "Meltrandi" here to get search results, but I pointedly don't call female Zentradi "Meltrandi" because they don't need a special term, and it's used very rarely in media outside of DYRL, whose portrayal of Zentradi I hate anyway.)

The first reason that female Zentradi might be considered a better breed is that all of them are beautiful. The only"unconventional" female Zentradi design is the very muscular but otherwise pretty Veffidas Feaze of Macross 7. Any other female Zentradi are generically gorgeous according to the standards of modern culture, with the only thing odd about them being anime hair. Male Zentradi designs, on the other hand, run the gamut from the ugly to the handsome, with weird skin colours and the occasional cybernetic attachment.

As time goes on, the design gulf between the genders grows wider. The film Do You Remember Love?  added giant brains to male Zentradi advisors and more extensive cybernetic attachments, and hinted that all male Zentradi soldiers were now bald. Not all of this was carried through to the main continuity, but much of it was, so that we have male Zentradi who still look like normal humans, but other characters with a more intense variety of "ugly" designs. The female designs, however, remain unchanged across all continuities.

There is also the question of whether the male Zentradi's goofy anime faces are meant to represent actual physical deformity, with buggy eyes, saggy skin, and apelike features. I don't think they were, though the Robotech novels certainly thought so. However, even if it's not deformity, it still represents the greater range of character designs among male Zentradi.

I'd argue that nobody on the creative ever intended that female Zentradi were literally more beautiful than male Zentradi, were be manufactured to be exactly that. Rather, it's just that old thing where male characters can have a wide variety of body types, while female characters must all be generically sexy. It's not actually part of the characters' biology, but just a motif that's used without thinking. In this case, I think fanboy-pleasing is part of the intention, but other than that, there is no deeper explanation for why female Zentradi are always "hot".

And viewers should never underestimate the power of beauty. Female Zentradi could be assumed to be of a higher class, more refined, intelligent, and elegant, simply because none of them are ugly or goofy-looking. My reaction is sort of the opposite—having a wider variety of character designs makes the male characters more interesting and engaging, while the more uniform female designs are duller.

It's also harder to call a group flawed when they have little screen time. While beautiful female Zentradi might make for popular characters, in the original series only Milia (Miriya) and Laplamiz (Azonia) had any substantial role, and only a small number of female soldiers and staff had any lines at all.

And even though Laplamiz exists, Milia Fallyna is undoubtedly more prominent. As usual, whenever a character is the major representative of their group in a series, he or she starts to define the series' representation of that group. Milia, who is beautiful, skilled, and whose comical moments are minimal, therefore becomes what viewers think all female Zentradi are like, because we see little to contradict that. And so the logic goes, if female Zentradi are all close in quality to Milia, of course they are superior to the men. In other words, because SDFM has a smaller amount of female Zentradi in speaking roles, it's easier to base the faction off of what we do see, than to assume it is diverse.

But to me, having less female Zentradi characters makes their faction less interesting, not more. I just can't imagine the entire faction being like Milia, every soldier only a little bit shy of being an "ace". Why would that be true of any army, even a fictional one? There have to be female equivalents to the Regult pilots that die like flies, Zentradi women who simply weren't fast or smart enough.

Regardless, I sometimes wonder if female Zentradi are given prominent roles in later stories, exactly because Milia was so popular. This is especially true if you include characters of mixed Zentradi/human race, but even so, most of the major Zentradi characters following Space War 1 have been female: Klan Klang, Veffidas Feaze, and the returning Milia. Likely this is just due to following what worked with the audience before, but I can see how this might contribute to a greater perception of the "worthiness" of female Zentradi to the fanbase, if the female Zentradi characters keep being the primary ones.

Male Zentradi also have many types of mecha, while female Zentradi have only one: the Queadluun-Rau battle suit. The Queadluun-Rau is one of my favourites, a big, bulky machine that's a far cry from the sleek and sexy armour I expected. Other people seem to agree with me, as the Queadluun is a popular choice for mecha art and kitbashing.

 However, there's when the only female mecha is this wonderful, powerful death machine, it brings up the reputation of the female fleet. While the male fleet has smaller, more disposable mecha, such as the "legendary" Regults/Battlepods that get destroyed by the boatload, if the cool Q-Raus are all you have, it makes the female fleet look cooler by comparison. We all know there are female Zentradi soldiers dying left and right in the actual battles, but Queadluuns just look better than those fragile walking eggs, and the former might overwhelm the latter truth.
(I've also wondered if writers were  less comfortable with using female characters as disposable infantry, and that is why female Zentradi don't do ground warfare. The only exception is the "Draug", a female Zentradi ground vehicle found in the PC game Macross VOXP, and its obscurity might still prove the above point. Also, it looks like a squished Queadluun rather than having a unique design.)

Notably, the upgraded mecha that cracked the "mainstream" of Macross are the Queadlunn variants: the Queadluun-Rae (or Rare) from Macross Frontier, and the Queadluun-Quilqua from Macross 7: The Galaxy is Calling Me. Sure, there are many upgraded versions of male Zentradi mecha, but they are confined to games and guidebooks, while anime releases are the backbone of Macross media. Furthermore, the Queadluun-Rae had several toys made of it, strengthening its representation. The accidental implication is that female Zentradi mecha reflect the supposed quality of their owners, both of being more worthy of being perpetuated and upgraded than their male equivalents.

Once again, though, my reaction is to prefer a range of things than just one "cool thing". I love the Queadluun-Raus, but was disappointed to understand it was the only mecha that female Zentradi had (despite those mysterious Regults in the belly of Laplamiz' ship, which have to be a continuity error). More is better, a wider range of things is more appealing.

I realize that no one takes stock in Robotech these days, but to make a point, I'll say that the Robotech expanded universe has its fair share of material that could promote this view of female Zentradi as superior. However, in this case this material is, if not strictly "fanon", still the result of people not involved in the original production looking at the material and drawing their own conclusions.

Every new female Zentradi created for this side of the Pacific is still good-looking (and usually has a name that sounds feminine to English-speakers, for some reason), and are more prominent than any new male characters created, with the most important ones being Seloy Deparra and Kazianna Hesh. All of them are Queadluun pilots, or in this case, the messy Romanization of "Quadronos", but given that their army was made of little else, I can let that slide. However, the focus on only creating new female characters for prominent roles might suggest a greater perception of "worthiness", the same way that most prominent new Zentradi in Macross are women as well, especially if we include those of mixed race. It's an odd coincidence.

In the original Palladium Robotech RPG, the only character class that a female Zentradi can have is "officer", while the male classes include the ranks of Officers of the High Command, Fighter Pilots, Officers, and Foot Soldiers. That makes so little sense: if they are all officers, who the hell do they have authority over? The exact reason for this choice is never given, but to me it seems like they thought a female Zentradi army would be more glamorous and didn't think about anything else.

Furthermore, when James Luceno wrote the midquel Robotech novels, he decided to chronicle the pointless and contradictory self-destruction of the Zentradi race. Stupid, but he also made a point of saying that the female Zentradi lasted longer, and that their deaths involved a last-ditch attempt to protect the earth. The choice of which gender to survive longer could have been random, but given what else we've seen, Luceno may have been another one of those who thought that female Zentradi were just better.

Newer Robotech material just doesn't deal with Zentradi because of the legal trouble surrounding Macross, but the newer version of the Palladium RPG does something very strange. You see, the Robotech dub made a few mistakes and had male voices among the female Zentradi one-offs, and the RPG tried to explain it by saying male Zentradi were assigned to "menial duties" among the female fleets.

This defeats the entire plot point that Zentradi were sexually segregated, which was a major component of their character arc. Besides that huge error, though, it might suggest that Palladium has bought into the fanon hype, because female Zentradi are just too cool and glamorous to concern themselves with the menial day-to-day running of a ship.

All of this is based on guesswork, since no one, to my knowledge, has ever actually said why they believe female Zentradi are of a higher calibre. Looking at what we're presented, I see plenty that would trigger that perception, but no real evidence for it. Furthermore, it helps me understand why, even though I'm a female Zentradi fan, the actual female Zentradi characters never interested me that much. It's because there are less of them in speaking roles in Super Dimension Fortress Macross, and in that group, a narrower range of designs and roles. What seems to make some fans think they're of a greater quality are the same traits that make me disinterested. Which is a shame.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Lola Bunny and "The Looney Tunes Show"

Image from Toony Time

I have a dog in this fight, but it's more like a Chihuahua. Still, there's an opinion I have to share: Lola Bunny is the best thing about The Looney Tunes Show, and a character who is a million times better than her initial appearance in Space Jam. Not that being better than Space Jam Lola is hard, but I appreciate the principle.

I don't have a problem with adding new Looney Tunes characters, male or female. If you are trying to bring back fondly-remembered characters, you're already going to have to rewrite them, so adding a new character to suit the changing times also shouldn't be out of the question.

The trouble with Lola Bunny (voiced by Kath Soucie) was only that she was a shallow character, and one that had no comedic aspects whatsoever, no one involved in her creation who pretended they were making a new addition to a comedic cast. In Space Jam she took herself entirely seriously, and the narrative let her. She was saved from slapstick instead of participating it. All of that sounds like nothing a Looney Tunes character, however removed from their original roots, would be. And there's that creepy sexualisation….

And dammit, Lola felt so calculated. Tokenism isn't adding a minority character itself, but adding them superficially, not as characters, but as points to score with advertisers and executives. The way that Lola Bunny was so distant from anything recognizably Looney Tunes shows how little effort was put into making her.

Lola from The Looney Tunes Show (voiced by Kristen Wiig), on the other hand, starts out as an insane stalker with the attention span of a very stupid insect. Canada is behind on episodes of the series, but from where I sit, Lola is now, actually a funny, cartoony, loony character. She's exactly what a comedic female character should be: subject to the same pitfalls and pratfalls as the male cast, instead of getting stuck being the moral centre, the "straight" one who is there to roll her eyes at the men's antics.

Some have taken offence to Lola's insanity, saying that it pushes the idea of women in love as desperate and crazy. But craziness should be allowed in cartoons, and Lola isn't defined by her relationship to Bugs: she's got a weird personality that shines through everything she does, and that is what defines her, rather than the attraction to Bugs (unlike Space Jam, where "love interest" comes above "sexy basketball star"), and furthermore, her possessiveness of Bugs is just plain fun. Lola is simply a complete and total nutbar, and it's not because she's female—it's because she's a funny cartoon character. In addition, she does things without Bugs, such as the President's Day song.

Lola still might not be to everyone's taste, because the writers do a very good job of making her sound and act exactly like the type of flighty, rambling person that you might encounter in real life and have grate on your nerves. There's a certain realism to Wiig's line delivery that you don't get from a lot of cartoon characters, including everyone else in the cast. But for all of that, Lola is likable, so that you can enjoy her enough to appreciate that quality.

However, while I like Lola, I don't find The Looney Tunes Show to be that interesting. I'll watch it when it's on, but it doesn't grab me. It's not that I'm a big fan of the original Looney Tunes shorts and don't like to see them changed: I like those old cartoons, but they don't loom large in my mind. It's just that something feels unnatural about The Looney Tunes Show, the sheer weirdness of trying to place characters from the 30s-50s into a modern style of humour and pacing.

My inner schoolmarm likes to wag her finger and remind me there's nothing that can't be done well, but even so, you've got to establish these personal standards, so you can get a better idea of what you want from entertainment. You are free to make exceptions to these standards at any point, but you have to make note of them.

In this case, I'm usually not comfortable with the idea of "eternal" fictional characters, being remade for every era and taste, long after the creator is gone. I see this as based on the conceit that a character is just an image, and not a personality that depends on their era. I believe the opposite….a character can't just be ported from one era to another, but we do it because of the longer and broader reach of mass media today, where because we can touch the past so easily, we can bring it back in a new form just as easily.

Lola Bunny is a good example of this. She's a fun character, but she's so obviously the product of a modern style of humour, it shows that Looney Tunes have to be totally rewritten to conform to modern standards, and I fundamentally don't understand why writers need to go through that trouble, instead of creating original characters. It's because I'm a nerd, I guess, who doesn't emotionally understand the value of name recognition or why going with a recognized brand is still "safe" even if you have to rewrite it.

That stays true, even if I think Lola is damn great. We need more cartoony female characters, and if something like Lola can be turned to the side of good, then we can hope for more cartoony female characters to show up in unexpected places.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

I have a Tumblr

For posting pictures and links and nerdy thoughts too small for a place like this. Enjoy!

Guilty Pleasures: Fred Wolf Baxter Stockman

Here are three things I dislike: incompetent villains, whitewashing (in the sense of changing previously non-white human characters into white ones), and bugs. But when I started to watch reruns of the Fred Wolf Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon, I realized I now liked its Baxter Stockman, a character I had no opinion of as a kid, and no interest in.

It's a little embarrassing, first because I want creators to create the best antagonists they can. Even a comedy show shouldn't make the villains dumber than the heroes, because that writes the end of a story before it starts. Baxter is a particularly bad example, being inept, cowardly, and just plain stupid, the kind of villain nobody should write.

Also, while it's very funny that so much bad stuff happens to Baxter, it's obvious there's no real running joke meant or considered…it was just a bunch of random stuff the writers threw at the wall, with some stuff left unexplained. Again, that's a bad way to write a character—you should be aware of what you're creating, make it clear, and then play to that.

What bothers me even more, though, is that Baxter is a whitewashed character. It is true that the kind of character Fred Wolf Baxter is would have looked very, VERY wrong with his original race, but nobody had to write the character that way to begin with. Many people believe Baxter's race was changed over concerns of a recurring black character being a villain, and while I can get behind that sentiment, they didn't have to make him a regular character to begin with. I just can't make any excuse for the racelift, or get around the fact that I'm enjoying a whitewashed character, either.

I agree with the choice to have other versions of Baxter Stockman keep his original race and go for robotic transformation over the insectile. I particularly like the 4Kids Baxter Stockman, who is what you would get if you took a similarly terrible life, but actually had it written by people who gave a damn about creating an effective villain and giving him a clear arc. 

However, despite all this, I like Fred Wolf Baxter. I just find him to be surprisingly funny, which becomes acceptance of most of his faults. It's his comically crappy life, of course, and that he's so tiny and nebbish and ridiculous that he becomes lovable. Because of this, all the asinine things I've seen silly villains do suddenly become amusing when Baxter's the one doing 'em. It doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but I like this unholy fusion of Jerry Lewis and R.M. Renfield.

As you can guess, I slightly prefer Baxter in human form, post-sanity, though I'm not sure why, since as a fly, he's a more distinctive character. In bug form, Baxter gets dumber, but keeps that same appeal, now with the bonus weirdness of being a mutant and hanging out with a Hal 9000 parody. He's still lovable, probably only as a consequence of streamlining his design for animation, but it works for me. I'm not too sad that Baxter never got a resolution, because that was a consequence of the sort of show he came from, but I still feel sorry for 'im.

(But I don't look at Baxterfly as an innocent villain, the way some other people do. C'mon, he's silly and gullible, but he still does evil stuff, and he likes it.)

Baxter going through more lasting change than any other character in the series, and then becoming a guest villain, might also make him go over better with me. It makes Baxter interesting, and also keeps him from getting stale. I couldn't follow any character through the almost two hundred episodes of TMNT, because there are limits to what I can take of the series, even if I'm looking at it with amused, ironic detachment.

It's still so weird for me to like Fred Wolf Baxter, and I can't forget that by all rights I should find him incredibly annoying, or let my principles overcome my interest. But even if I layer it with cynicism and irony, this liking is genuine, an exception to a few personal rules.

(The other Fred Wolf TMNT villains, though, man, forget those guys.)

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Thoughts on "How to Train Your Dragon" Ancillary Media

I haven't given my love of the film How to Train Your Dragon its due yet. The film is just great—it has a sharp character arc, focusing simply and cleanly on a protagonist that actually earns his lovable companion, and who also has to learn to value his own skills instead of wanting to be someone he is not. It's the most earnest and heartfelt thing I've seen from Dreamworks, and I love it to pieces.

A couple of weeks ago, I drove out to Saskatoon to see Dreamworks How to Train Your Dragon: The Live Experience, the touring stage show that adapts the animated film, using animatronic dragons and much of the same people who produced the Walking with Dinosaurs live show.

It was totally amazing. The dragons weren't perfect illusions, with the ground-based animatronics walking around with mobile platforms attached to their underbellies, but after a while you stopped caring, for these creatures came alive. They tossed their heads, their eyes glowed in the dark, and they padded along like real animals. The dragons in flight were great, travelling on an oval track above the arena. The Red Death, the kaiju-sized dragon enemy, could only be represented as a head and tail with 3D projection taking the place of the rest of the body, but the animatronic parts were just a squat, warty, beautifully hideous design. In fact, all the dragon designs were great translations from cartoony to realistic, both suiting their mediums.

I love Toothless as much as the next girly nerd, and he was the best choice for a lead dragon to capture the audience's heart, but my favourite dragon design is actually the Deadly Nadder, the blue, spiked wyvern-type. Fortunately, there was a lot of Nadder action in this show, and even a plush one to buy from the souvenir stand.

The rest of the special effects were great. They used projected images to create sets that weren't there, 3D imagery swirling around the stage to become the ground and sky. The dragons only "breathed" smoke and flashes of fire, but the on-stage pyrotechnics were flaring through the action scenes, and I could feel their heat washing over my face.

The story of the stage play pretty much followed that of the movie. It was presented with more exposition, was a little bit more comedic, and the emotions were a bit broader, to communicate the story from the stage. The result was not quite as poignant as the film, but it still worked. And they kept the ending where Hiccup loses his leg, so it wasn't actually censored.

Before I left to go to the show, I caught the Canadian premiere of Riders of Berk, the TV sequel to the movie. I've watched some clips before, and my impressions were always the same—the series is annoying in many ways, but I can't stop watching because the dragons are so damn cute.

The series is a little more cartoony, a little lighter in tone, and heavier on the anachronisms than the film was, but the main problem is that, with a few exceptions, Hiccup is the one who knows best, the one who solves whatever problem the episode is about, and everybody else looks like an idiot.

I also realize Hiccup is supposed to be more cerebral than his peers, and a protagonist is the one that will do something special that only they can do, and that is why the story is about them, but it can be taken too far. Hiccup's role in the film was fine, but if you have a TV series, with a broader storyline, lower stakes, and the potential to tell a story from multiple viewpoints, then it becomes annoying when a protagonist is still the only one to solve everyone's problems.

To add to the problem, it also seems like the dumb kids have gotten even dumber, and many of the adult characters also look stupid compared to Hiccup in several scenes. That's no way to make a protagonist look better, if his people are already a step below him. That's why people still discuss Gary Stus, y'know.

Some episodes of the series are off in other ways, too. A particularly bad one was "Portrait of Hiccup as a Buff Man", a plot which depended on Hiccup's father approving an overmuscled portrait of his scrawny son, and them Hiccup feeling he needed to prove himself a man by finding an ancient treasure. Essentially, it was about Hiccup and Stoick re-learning the lesson they had already learned in the film: that Hiccup's "unmanly" nature did not mean he was worthless, and that Stoick loved his son despite sometimes being unable to understand him. This was an empty re-hash.

The antagonist of the series is Mildew, a crotchety old Viking man who hates dragons and always tries to cause trouble for the village…for no apparent reason. He's the kind of villain who does things just to be a dick with nothing else to him, and it's so boring. No other character seems to like him, either, and there's no suggesting Mildew ever has any kind of a point. The moral lines are clearly drawn, and the endings are predictable.

But dragons are so cute. They still have mannerisms like real animals, and their wide variety of distinct designs. The other kids, no matter how dumb or jerkass they are, obviously love their dragons—I particularly like the way Fishlegs babies his Gronckle, Meatlug.

(But why is Hookfang male now? In Gift of the Night Fury, that dragon was seen with hatchlings. Maybe it's a retcon because otherwise, the main characters would have three female dragons to two males, and we all know how much children's television hates that. Or maybe Monstrous Nightmares are like seahorses.)

The film was great, and one day I'll write a full review. The stage show is also great, but the TV series not so much. I thought it had the potential to be great, but if they have Hiccup solving everyone's problems, and no effective antagonist, it almost loses me. Except for those adorable dragons, darn it.

(I probably should read the books now, shouldn't I?)

Friday, November 9, 2012

New Addi(c)tions: 4Kids Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Other Stuff

Why do I keep writing Turtles posts?

Okay, so I decided to start watching the 4Kids/2003 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series. I intend to watch it in full, even if the re-branded seasons get as bad as fans said they are. I'm disappointed with the Nick series, and I need to class up this joint. But for the purposes of fun, there will be a piece at the bottom of this post where I'll talk about whatever TMNT stuff I feel like bringing up at the moment.

I have watched the entire first season of the 2K3 series, and was very, very impressed. This is a show almost on the level of Gargoyles (almost), and just one of the great American action series. It's well-written, builds its world slowly, and I'm surprised at some of the things they got away with.

I'm not completely ignorant of the 2003 TMNT, but at the time it was airing, I had no interest in seeing more Turtles stuff. I had no nostalgic urges, and never knew anyone who recommended it to me as simply a god cartoon. I did watch Turtles Forever, though, and I enjoyed that.

Swimming in the anime-geek hatred of 4Kids at the exact time this series was airing might have also steered me away from it, even though I knew this was an original production, and that I shouldn't have let my issues with the production house give me a bad attitude towards their American content.

But I'm better now.

I am also clean of any urge to dislike any differences between versions of the Turtles. I say, if you start out with Fred Wolf Splinter as your favourite, a character who had his very birth species changed, then you have no right to complain about anything that doesn't impact the fundamental quality of the show.

The way the 4Kids series slowly develops reminds me of a novel, of revealing stuff piece by piece instead of throwing the cards all out on the table. Knowing the way some of these other people rewrote scripts for anime, I am surprised by what this show is getting away with. But this is only to its benefit: the reason I like darker and more serious stuff in kid's cartoons is because conflict makes for better stories, and kids, you know, shouldn't be shielded from that.

How much of this quality and this subversion of the 4Kids model is due to Peter Laird's involvement, and how much to the talent of the other writers involved, either the cartoon veterans, or the hidden talent of the 4Kids staff? I have no idea. But including the original creator is generally a good thing, setting up a consistent rhythm between the different media, and an understanding of what makes the material "work", and therefore Laird's involvement is an important factor.

(It's really fun to spot voice-actors, too. Hi there, Mike Sterniklaas, Ted Lewis, Dan Green, Eric Stuart, Marc Thomspon, Darren Dunstan....).

Unfortunately, I was spoiled for many of the important beats due to my years of Turtles research. That didn't made things boring to sit through, though, because I appreciated the execution. The return to battle Shredder at his building was especially great, even though the engineered antagonists were pretty ridiculous.

It's too early to tell if I'll like any of the other characters besides the ones I was already predisposed to, namely Splinter and Baxter Stockman. And of course, both men are better characters than they ever were before, along with everyone else.

(Though April still doesn't have much of a personality—at least she's more active and self-possessed, but it's still hard to describe who she is. I guess we can't expect miracles.)

I'm not saying I like 4Kids Baxter to save face, to cover my liberal guilt about finding white Baxter to be a hilarious candy-ass: I genuinely do like this guy. I like the combination of hubris and grotesquery we've got going on here, and that he remains arrogant even as his mutilations continue, which is an unconventional reaction for a minion.

In its own sadistic way, this notion is more fun than the norm, as Baxter'll keep setting himself up higher only to fall again, rather than continuing a monotonous pattern of submission. Shredder and Hun slowly removing Baxter's body parts is also a wonderfully creepy take on the whole "you have failed me" song and dance. I already know where his plotline goes, but it's interesting on rewatch.

(And yet, despite all the differences, there are parallels between 4Kids Baxter and Fred Wolf Baxter that I can't help but notice again.)

It's hard to get used to Darren Dunstan playing Splinter, not because he's different, but because Darren Dunstan's role as Pegasus has been branded onto my brain, and Splinter's voice sounds a little forced, too. I also think the bend in his snout looks odd, though I dig the Nicodemus eyebrows.

My interest in Splinter is more respectable, but he's unquestionably written better in other mediums than in Fred Wolf's version, including the Archie comics and the earlier live-action films. The 4Kids version is better for all the usual reasons: the fatherly aspects are emphasized more, creating a more rounded character, and due to coming from a more serious and well-crafted show, Splinter now has much more gravitas and presence, a sense of grandeur.

It's also true, though, that I'm not looking for something to "convert" me away from the Fred Wolf cartoon. I do think that it is objectively a bad cartoon, and not because it's not "serious" enough. There's an objective standard of quality that transcends the tone of a work, so that the Fred Wolf series is bad as a children's action-comedy series, with The Real Ghostbusters, during its pre-Slimer! era beating the series out for quality with a similar tone.

So, I have zero actual respect for the Fred Wolf cartoon, and not because it's supposed to be a humorous show… everything about the Turtles was done better in other mediums. But godammit, I still like watching it. Splinter's iconic status can't be topped by any kind of practical thinking, and realize that I like white partially Baxter because he's so pathetic and stupid. I wish I could ride the Irony Train through the whole series run instead of cracking as I did. I won't forget any of this just because I've seen a version that's actually good.

Actually, I think seeing the better version of The Turtles has strengthened my interest in the Fred Wolf cartoon, and all the related convictions, if you can believe it. It's because I know that I don't have to expect it to be anything much better, because there already is a better version about. I'm still critical of the Fred Wolf show, and there are still some things I would have changed, but I feel less guilty about enjoying it.

I don't pretend to have perfect tastes in entertainment. Having that's impossible unless you pretend or deny whenever you inevitably like something below your usual standards, and I prefer to just indulge. What I looked for, and found, was another cartoon to enjoy, and this time to respect, and not to forget about the other stuff.

Other TMNT Stuff:

I did watch the "Metalhead" and "Monkey Brains" episodes of the Nick  Turtles cartoon, and…at this point I should have dropped the show. The show is still bland, not goofy enough or not serious enough to be exciting.  Both episodes also pushed my buttons a little, with their back-to-back anti-intellectualism. Donatello shouldn't use technology to take the place of walking actively into battle; Donatello should not think so much or he'll get his ass kicked. Gah.

Maybe, somewhere, these could be valuable lesions to impart to kids. But kid's cartoons are already full of this self-congratulatory "Being dumb means you're fun/nice/good" crap that I can't take any more of it. 

"Metalhead" was the first episode with the Kraang in it that I saw. I have no interest in the original Krang, but it's a letdown to see modern villains apparently being drones to knock down like bowling pins.

Donnie and his crush on April still creeps me out, though I'm not sure if it's the species gap or the fact that he seems older than her, even if he's actually not. Maybe the vast age difference between the VAs bothers me, too….

Since my last TMNT post, I also bought the season 1 and 2 DVDs of the Fred Wolf show. I told myself I wouldn't be willing to buy beyond the second season, because the percentage of likable episodes goes way down, but I'm starting to waffle, because I want to avoid piracy. Awkward, with that full set coming out.

Anyway, I had told myself not to bother with the "Red Sky" seasons, because they aired after I had stopped watching the series and didn't have that nostalgic cachet. That, and this more "serious" retooling of the series, apparently done to complete with Batman: TAS, sounded like a very stupid idea. But the season 1 disk had four Red Sky episodes as a bonus feature, so I thought I might as well get my money's worth.

It was exactly what I thought they'd be. It's just so obvious the retooling is a desperate grab for attention, mainly because they don't change anything substantial. Sure, they change the art style, tone down the slapstick, maybe add a dash more seriousness in atmosphere, but none of the major problems with the series are "fixed". For example, April still has no character, and still gets kidnapped and/or makes a fool of herself. Seen in the harsh light of adulthood, the end result is a little pathetic.

It's also a little painful to say, but not even the wonderful Tony Jay as Dregg, the alleged "cool new villain" can save this. Yes, The Shredder was a silly villain, but at this point in a series run, there's no changing the fact that the series had the villains it deserved.

The best thing would have been to start over with a new series, not shoehorn in a new villain, especially not who acts more sophisticated, but does the same shit as before. Sticking in a tougher, cooler new character is one of the weakest ways for an old series to pretend to be relevant.

Carter, that cool new human friend of the Turtles, is another example. At least he's an adult instead of a kid sidekick, and it's nice to bring some diversity to the cast, but he's not much of a character beyond his superpowers. It's also strange and off-putting that he's more like a Marvel-style "Mutant" who can transform from an altered humanoid form to normal, than an anthro animal who can't change back. Because he can change back at times, it's also harder to sympathize with Charter's transformation angst.

The final evidence of it all being a "desperate grab" is to have the Turtles start mutating into monstrous forms, with Leo being the one who gets it the most. It's almost as if they heard all the complaints about Leonardo being too boring, and decided, "Fuck it, we'll just turn him into a monster", instead of trying to do anything substantial.

(Not even Splinter was that entertaining at that point. Was it that he sometimes speaks in faux-Eastern wisdom even more? Or that he technically wasn't nostalgic anymore?)

So, that's that. I'm still very happy with the 4Kids series, and hope it keeps entertaining me. But some things you just won't forget about. And then sometimes, there are things that are just forgettable.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

On the Purported Emasculation of Stock Movie Monsters

You've heard it: these days, werewolves and vampires are too wimpy. They've been turned into love objects for teenage girls, made friendly to young children, have been figuratively and even literally defanged.

My gut reaction is to prefer monstrosity in my stock monsters, to prize those examples that are violent, bloody and accursed. Until recently, I've never tried to understand why I do this, but now I think I understand: it's because these types of vampires and werewolves are generally better for telling intense, conflicted stories.

I'm still not interested in pushing my preferences on the media culture at large, in pretending to dictate what monsters should be. If we're going to keep using the same monsters over again, we had better keep them open to all possibilities, to reduce the repetitiveness.

The problem is not that monsters have become lovers. I hate Twilight as much as the next nerd, and I don't like the idea of vampires and werewolves as something to fall in love with rather than maul you. But this phenomenon is just one part of the larger thing, the real reason I'm uncomfortable with the "modern" portrayals of vampires and werewolves: that authors transform being a monster into being a gift rather than a curse, and in the process, remove a source of conflict. Being a "monster" now becomes wish fulfillment, and leaves writers scrambling to come up with new sources of conflict.

New writers are often told that the goal of a popular fiction story is to "hurt the hero". It means that you must put the protagonist under fire because how they respond will show who they really are, and it will drive the story. If there is no conflict, there is no plot, and we never get to see what the hero is made of (even if it turns out to be mush).

This is reflected in the many stories that have wishes and dreams that never turn out to be what they appear to be. There are caveats, deception, and eventually the hero will be forced to sink or swim. If a character gets everything they want right away, then there is no plot.

In the standard formula, the vampire or the werewolf is the source of the conflict. They are the obstacle for the heroes to defeat, or the curse that affects the protagonist. In this, it is made clear that being a vampire or a werewolf is not desirable.

Writers obviously have found new sources of conflict to drive stories where being a vampire or a werewolf isn't destructive, but there's still that bedrock need to have werewolves and vampires who are frightening. The desire for conflict isn't the only reason for this, but it's the most relevant. That's why I don't like it when the vampire is no longer a monster to be defeated, and the werewolf is no longer a ticking time bomb. There's no longer any tension, anything to draw an audience in.

Vampires and werewolves becoming lovers is only the offshoot of this. Once you have it so that vampires and werewolves are more like superheroes, or they are just "good people", you have the potential to make them into unalloyed love-objects.

 If you are going to have a vampire or werewolf love interest, that means dialing back the cursed aspects at least a little (how much varies widely), and that would involve taking them in a direction that was more to do with superpowers. It's not that far from Selene to Edward, really.

This is especially true of vampires. You can argue the tradition goes back to Dracula and so is beyond reproach, but even so, the idea that being a vampire means you get to be beautiful, aristocratic, and immortal, with tiny, pretty fangs seems much more like wish fulfillment than even the most easiest and voluntary of werewolf transformations. You can try to layer angst on top of the facts, but even so, it sounds hollow because of the opulence involved.

Yes, it's true that everybody seems to have a much smaller problem with superhero werewolves and vampires than they do with "romanticized" ones, but I think they're two closely related things.

I doubt everybody is thinking the issue through to this degree, both on the side of fans or creators. Some are simply acting out of a conservative instinct: if monsters have always been this way, then there is no reason to change them, no matter what the quality of the results.  That might also be true for me, too, a little.

Many blame women for this phenomenon, considering it the result of girl cooties getting into the horror genre, whether it's Anne Rice or Stephanie Meyer. Usually this is an unspoken accusation, but sometimes it's out there in the open, such as an article about an upcoming TV series based on Guillermo del Toro's The Strain. It characterizes its horrific, parasitic vampires this way: "Fittingly for male-driven FX, unlike the traditional, romanticized portrayals of vampires as tuxedo-clad studs, The Strain‘s bloodsuckers have no seductive powers […]" The implication is that women don't know what "real" monsters are, and have polluted the genre with their idealized blood-sippers.

That's wilful ignorance at its finest, what with sexualized female vampires being so popular. This is a direct example of the sexism brewing whenever  nerds complain about monsters "no longer being scary", but it's not the only time these sentiments are obvious.

I refer to "emasculation" intentionally, because even if they don't blame women for it, the nerd rage is directed almost entirely at male monsters, often calling them "pussies" or "fags". They're no longer scary because they're like icky women, is the message. I haven't seen anyone complaining that modern female monsters aren't scary enough.

Twilight deserves all the garbage thrown at it, but to act like the worst examples of monster emasculation are the result of some female thing, of tainting monsters with femininity in one way or another, or that seductive female monsters are totally okay, just kills the argument that monsters are no longer scary. If  you blame women for it, you lose.

Besides becoming gifted beings and romantic objects, another way that monsters are supposedly emasculated by modern culture is to make them out-and-out good guys, or even persecuted by humans, the "real" villains. Children's cartoons like Hotel Transylvania or the Monster High franchise are the most recent examples, but of course there are many. Because this stuff is for kids, and far older than Twilight, it seems to have passed off the nerd radar, but I'd like to talk about it briefly.

This stuff bothers me is because it just flips the absolute morality around, so that we're still dealing with simple lines between good and evil, but then the writers can pretend they're being creative. Straight reversals can be effective, but a lot of the time it just leaves a story feeling cheap and simple. And that's a lot worse than monsters no longer being scary.

In short, while I do dislike the idea of vampires and werewolves not being obstacles or threats, it's a phenomenon that's larger than paranormal romance. It's about supernatural powers becoming superpowers, about wish fulfillment over conflicts. Not to say it can't be done well, but it can be hard to create new sources of conflict and rebuild a mythology. And whatever the results, just don't blame women for it.