Friday, February 3, 2017

Emerald City and Gender the Good the Bad and the Mediocre

Image result for emerald city

One of the ways in which we examine gender, is by employing various tests that have become popular on the internet. We’ve all heard of the Bechdel test and more recently the Mako Mori Test. We consider whether there is more than one female character, and if said characters have a conversation with each other, about something other than a man.  Though the Bechdel Test has become the standard, Emerald City reveals that media can easily pass this test while still portraying problematic elements when it comes to gender.

I must admit to being absolutely smitten with Emerald City since the very first episode. I knew right away that we weren’t in 1939 anymore and that there wouldn’t be an endearing scene of a young girl singing Somewhere Over the Rainbow in a barn.  What I didn’t know is exactly how far Emerald City would stray from Warner Brothers version of this classic tale. This Dorothy comes with a gun and she’s not afraid to use it.

Dorothy with a gun gives you the shivers a little doesn’t it? Just admit it you’ll feel better.  Well, the first time Dorothy pulled out that gun, I got excited but as the season passed I’ve come to discover that Dorothy’s reliance on her gun evidences her absolute stupidity as a character. In Emerald City the Wizard has outlawed magic and each time Dorothy pulls out her gun, she gives people evidence that she’s a witch.  Lucas warns her about this but Dorothy refuses to see simple common sense.  The only time that the gun has come in handy, is when Dorothy manages to trick the witch of the East into killing herself and incidentally, this moment marks the last time that Dorothy actively saves herself.

I know that some will argue that since Dorothy originally freed Lucas, and Tip that she’s proactive but these are but two incidents among the many times that Dorothy has needed to be saved.  One would think that upon suddenly finding yourself in an unfamiliar world that a moments caution just might be a good idea but not Dorothy, who just happens to be the avatar of the spunky agent, running towards trouble without pausing long enough to even make a half assed plan.  If it were not for plot amour, Dorothy, gun or not would already be dead. Who decides that it’s a good idea to enter a castle masquerading as an acolyte of the witch that you killed and then step inside a fricking tornado? Dorothy that’s who. Who decides to run into a town filled with soldiers, who are actively looking for you, without wearing so much as a disguise or creating a backup plan? Dorothy that’s who. Heaven’s save us all from such stupidity.

A point can be made that since Dorothy is a woman out of place that maybe she would need more support, more help, more time to adapt and, yes, some rescuing. But with the large number of female characters here it would be nice to counter this example elsewhere and have more women not under the thumb of a man, dependent on a man or being saved by man. Even Lady Ev, who is politically powerful, and not under the Wizard’s sway or in his shadow (perhaps the only women who, due to not being of Oz, could actually be totally free from his influence) had to have a scene where she was saved by Jack. If anything, it was a scene that robbed from her storyline. Lady Ev building a relationship with Jack, by learning to see him as a person, didn’t have to be forged by her being saved by him. That Jack's rescue occurred directly after Lady Ev told the Wizard off, served to undermine the strength of her character.

Fortunately, Dorothy isn’t the only female character in Emerald City, there’s also West and Glinda, who are both powerful witches.  These women are capable of picking someone up and slamming them against a wall, using nothing more than magic and yet, they are subservient to the Wizard. Look, Vincent D'Onofrio is amazing to watch as The Wizard but there’s no way he should be policing either of these women. Sure, Glinda does give him some virgins ostensibly to act advisers; however, in reality to act as spies but Glinda shouldn’t have to be calculating given her power. Naturally, the Wizard is more than happy to take these so-called advisors to bed, thus expressly breaking Glinda’s rule about their chastity.  Whether these women have sex or remain virgins is not up to them because they don’t have the power to oppose Glinda or The Wizard.

West, runs a bawdy house and really isn’t much better off than Glinda. Yes, West takes a special joy in trolling The Wizard whenever she can, but it’s clear that she feels impotent in the face of his false power.  West has survivors guilt from the last confrontation with the Beast Forever and wrongly believes that the Wizard is the one who managed to save Emerald City. West doesn’t see her own value anymore and so it’s easy for her to allow the Wizard to run roughshod over her.  That this low self esteem is based in PTSD does not suddenly justify having an extremely powerful witch in a position to continually have to answer to a man who is inferior - at least in terms of power.

Finally, we come to Anna, who is an adviser to the Wizard.  Anna is clearly very smart and has an intuitive understanding of the politics at play around her. Unfortunately, Anna is so eager to show her loyalty the Wizard, that she has no problem letting slip that she is well aware that he doesn’t control the stone giants. This lands Anna in a prison cell until the Wizard decides that she can be useful again.  For all of the things that Anna is able to see and understand, she has no real power. At anytime, the Wizard can choose to imprison her once again. Anna seems to exist simply to serve the Wizard. We don’t even know why exactly Anna decided to throw her lot in with the Wizard rather than Glinda.  At this point she’s a bit of an enigma. At the end of the day, Anna is yet another powerful woman working for the Wizard, with very little to show for it. I suppose we should be thankful that she spurned his romantic advances but as displays of power goes, having the ability to control who one will be romantic with is a basic right and not a display of power.

One thing that also stands out with these relatively large number of female characters is the lack of positive interaction between them. West and Glinda may be sisters but there’s clearly no love between them; there's considerable mistrust from West and borderline contempt from Glinda. They’re hardly happily co-operating despite their mutual foe - and that seems to hold true for the deceased East as well who, at very least, didn’t rate Glinda.

Dorothy has entered the world with a male ally and has had little meaningful repeated interaction with any woman who isn’t a child (and I will lay odds Sylvie is the Beast Forever). Anna and Elizabeth both work for the Wizard, who holds them in virtual slavery - but they have a rivalry rather than mutual cooperation and respect. Anna even seems to have thrown her lot in with the Wizard and shows little loyalty to Glinda, who she is supposed to be an agent for.

We even have a scene in Everybody Lies where West is shown to be basically abusive and uncaring of the women closest to her who follow her. Would it really have hurt to have West be surrounded by women who regarded each other with mutual respect? The only real interaction with Lady Ev and another woman was when she appropriated Jack from his saviour - again, no sign of co-operation or respect.

If anything, the number of developed female characters on this show makes their lack of positive female relationships more sadly glaring

Having said all this, we have to be clear that we’re not saying that Emerald City does not have positive elements when it comes to its depiction of gender- far from it. Frankly, with so many low bars out there, merely having multiple female characters is something of a (depressing) tick.

Having multiple women who have their own plots, relationships and motivations that don’t involve men? Yes, that is definitely a plus and sadly far far far too rare. Having so many different kinds of women is also, again, interesting and novel. In far too many shows - and books - “female” is not just a gender but equally a characterisation. There’s a very narrow, set way to be female, personality is shallowly developed (if it all) - when the characters aren’t reduced to being Sexy Lamps. But in Emerald City, we have Glinda and West, who are radically different, Lady Ev and Anna and, of course, Dorothy - and they are all very different women, with very different personalities and wishes, goals, strengths and struggles. These women are capable because of their magic, or their intelligence, or their knowledge, or experience, or determination, or cunning: we have a variety of strengths - their strengths are as diverse as their flaws. No-one is just throwing the “woman” template out there and letting it go.

And we have some genuinely complex characterisations here - from the layers of Lady Ev, her ignorance and shallowness overlaying the clearly adept political expert, to the deep pain yet core of ruthless ambition that radiates from West’s every scene.

We also have some nice moments where the show excellently calls out issues like the Madonna/Whore complex which Tip so excellently skewered

And while there is considerable rivalry and not nearly enough collaboration, there isn't the all-too-common female hate for the sake of female hate either.

These are good things and we definitely don’t want to take away from that. But at the same time, we need to recognise the purpose of tests like the Bechdel Test (or the Mako Mori test - or any other) which even their creators are quick to point out are not the be all-end-all of tests.

Acknowledge the good - and we definitely have good here, we would never deny that - but don’t tick the Bechdel test and run to the celebration parade: nor can we see the, admittedly refreshing, plethora of interesting female characters and decide sheer numbers and even sheer variety is enough that we don’t need to look a little deeper and see the flaws.

As ever, this is what we do at Fangs - we love our genre, we love so many of our shows and books and we certainly love Emerald City - but we always see the issues.