Sleeps With Monsters: Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

A new column over at

This week, I’d like to talk about a film that qualifies as SFF either tangentially or by association, and which I enjoyed enormously. If Argo counts as SFF enough to find itself on the Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo ballot, then surely Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is sufficiently close to speculative fiction for our purposes.

Sleeps With Monsters: Annihilation is Amazing, and Full of Women

A new column over at

Annihilation is luminous. It’s dizzying and visionary and strange, a balletic question with no certain answer, peculiar and horrifying and layered and gorgeous, and lit from within with its own artistic vision: unified, structurally and thematically, in a way that few Hollywood films ever are. It’s a film that speaks with its silences, embraces them. It layers implication, symbolic meaning, from the opening shot of a dividing and re-dividing cell—revealed by Natalie Portman’s Lena in a lecture to her students to be a tumour cell—to its asides about grief and self-destruction, and from the horrifying wonders (and bewildering horrors) of the Shimmer to the fact that the film is subtly framed as Lena’s narrative, and all things considered (“Lena is a liar,” as Anya Thorensen, played with brilliant intensity by Gina Rodriguez, says in a moment fraught with psychological horror), we can’t be entirely sure about our narrator’s reliability.

“You look different when you tell the truth. Your eyes change.” ATOMIC BLONDE (2017) – Patreon



It is August 2017. I’m tired and overwhelmed by world events (the USA, Iraq, Finland, Malaysia, Catalonia, and of course Australia’s wonderful idea to hold a marriage equality plebiscite), local events, and how much work I have to do in order to get paid.

This is not a review of the news, though, but of Atomic Blonde, the film I went to see in order to distract myself from all of that.

Based on the graphic novel The Coldest City by Sam Hart and Anthony Johnston, directed by David Leitch (in his first feature-length film), and starring Charlize Theron, Atomic Blonde is a spy film set in 1989 Berlin. Claustrophobic, stylish, rooted in its time and place, Atomic Blonde reminded me a little bit of The Sandbaggers, a little bit of The Bourne Identity, and a lot of Greg Rucka’s spy novels and graphic novels (some of which, come to think of it, were published by the same outfit as The Coldest City).

The cinematography is excellent. There’s a recurring motif of shots through doors and windows, of shots in reflections, of mirrors, of things seen at an angle or edgewise-on. Everything is angles, everything is deceptive, nothing you see can be taken at face value. The characters are all angles and smooth surfaces, frictionless except where they’re playing it rough: everything is nested betrayals and triple-crosses.

Theron plays spy/agent Lorraine Broughton with a chill like the ice-bath we see her climbing out of in the opening scenes — bruised, battered, bloody and still somehow entirely collected. Her performance is light on dialogue, in contrast to the ninety-to-the-dozen chatter of James McAvoy’s David Percival (played with a combination of boyish charm, brutal self-interest, and sincerely dangerous competence): instead, her character is given definition through body-language. The physicality of Theron’s performance is intense, at times almost feral, in a way that fits seamlessly with the really good fight choreography.

(The fight choreography is really good: utterly brutal, unforgiving, full of found objects and with occasional appropriate punch-drunk stumbling. It’s visceral in a way that fight choreography seldom manages.)

Atomic Blonde is a spy film in which most of the characters seem to end up dead of Being A Spy.

It also portrays a queer relationship.

Theron’s Broughton is approached by French agent Delphine (Sofia Boutella), a younger and rather more innocent spy. Broughton is enthusiastically into it. (An aside: I didn’t know I wanted to see something like this until I did, and I didn’t know Atomic Blonde had a queer relationship in it until I saw it. A queer relationship! Treated just like a straight one! Not marked out in any way, not a giant part of the plot as in Carol or The Handmaiden, just spies being spies in bed.) This relationship is the only place where we see a hint of something that could be considered softness in Broughton, the only place where she’s a little less than perfectly guarded. It seems that she does actually feel something for Delphine — enough, at least, to tell her to get out of Berlin rather than killing her when Broughton thinks that Delphine has double-crossed her.

Of course, Bury Your Gays is a thing. So I knew Delphine was doomed from the moment she and Broughton kissed. And hey, what do you know? I was right. It’s a film that buries its gays, and I don’t want to say, “But at least it has them” (but at least it has them), although having them at all is unusual for a spy film.

But it’s 2017. I wanted to at least to be able to hope for Delphine to walk off alive by the time the credits rolled. I want there to be enough films where that happens that Queer Death becomes unpredictable. Not, “Oh, she’s doomed now, right?” “Oh, maybe NOT DOOMED JUST YET — nope, that was a fakeout. Doomed.” “Sigh.”

The strangulation scene, when Delphine very nearly fights off her murderer, is so annoying wrong. Hollywood has this tendency to show both CPR and garrotting to be very effective within a short timeframe. In reality, if you are going to choke someone to death, even if you crush their windpipe, it’s going to take a while. Even if it is restriction of bloodflow rather than oxygen that’s the root cause. And they’re going to be unconscious for a few minutes first. Like, three-six minutes. This is why, in sport martial arts, you can actually choke someone out without killing them. Their eyes don’t just roll up and go straight to dead!

I knew better than to expect Atomic Blonde to subvert the Buried Gays/Dead Girlfriend tropes, but seriously, GIRL AIN’T DEAD YET USE A BULLET. Bullets are harder to argue with: the part of me that knows how strangulation works kept expecting her to show up later, at odds with the part of me that knows how Hollywood works.

Atomic Blonde is a good film. I’m going to go see it again. It works well. (And it has a really great soundtrack).

But, you know. Fuck the Bury Your Gays trope. It’s boring and predictable and tedious and bad storytelling. Atomic Blonde would have been a better film without it.


This review brought to you thanks to my Patreon backers. bonanza day!

I have two, count ’em, two whole posts over at today!

First up, an essay I’m pretty proud of, on “The Politics of Justice: Identity and Empire in Ann Leckie’s Ancillary trilogy.”


From a certain angle, the Ancillary trilogy—and certainly Ancillary Mercy—is about the permeability of categories taken to be separate, and about the mutability, and yes the permeability too, of identities. Mercy of Kalr has no ancillaries anymore, but it (she) begins to use her human crew to speak through as though they were ancillaries—but not against their will. Breq is both AI and Fleet Captain, Radchaai and not, simultaneously a colonised body and a colonising one. Tisarwat—whose identity was literally remade during AncillarySword, both times without her consent—uses what that remaking has done to her to give Athoek Station and a number of ships a choice in what orders they follow: she allows them to be more than tools with feelings. Seivarden—learning how to live with who she is now—is wrestling with her own demons; Lieutenant Ekalu—a soldier promoted from the ranks to officer, a previously-uncrossable barrier crossed—with hers. Athoek Station and Mercy of Kalr and Sphene make laughable the Radchaai linguistic distinction between it-the-AI and she-the-person. (And numerous characters draw attention to the Radchaai linguistic quirk that makes the word Radch the same as the word for civilisation, while quite thoroughly demonstrating that Radchaai and civilised are only the same thing from a certain point of view.)


And my Sleeps With Monsters column this week is on Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and Hollywood’s Problem With Really Low Bars”:


[M]uch as I enjoyed Star Wars: The Force Awakens—much as I was thrilled to see background characters who were women, women in the crowd scenes and in the cockpits of the X-Wings, women making up part of the world of people who do things—I have some serious problems with the portrayal of every narratively significant female character who isn’t Rey in The Force Awakens. (Quite aside from how hard it is to find Rey or General Organa in the merchandise for said film, which is a problem for another day.)


I can’t recommend the comments, though. (I may owe the moderation team the good beer.)

FURY ROAD Feminism

Anita Sarkeesian was critiquing Mad Max: Fury Road on Twitter. Me and a friend had ourselves a conversation on the ways in which we disagreed.


Liz: I think Anita Sarkeesian is being wrongheaded about Fury Road on Twitter

Jenny: I have to agree with you
completely and totally agree with you
and I think that
the lack of options for women who want to see movies that treat women as people is contributing to the problem

Liz: It draws so much of its arc from 1970s/early 80s feminist science fiction
I mean it sort of IS Suzy McKee Charnas. Its arc is a compressed version of the narrative arc of her Motherlines series (REALLY HORRIFIC DYSTOPIA) done as an action film with extra added DEATH CAR STUNTS.

and I think people are confusing the fact that YOUR HEART DOES NOT STOP WANTING TO ESCAPE YOUR CHEST throughout the whole movie
for gore
bc really
not all that gory
the camera moves away when the gore happens
that’s so very rare these days

Nope. Not particularly violent, either.


but it’s an aesthetic
(Eighties aesthetic).

I also think she’s maybe confusing viewers being all THAT WAS FUN AND AWESOME
with the movie showing it [violence] as fun and awesome
but fuck
there is nothing about that world that makes me want to live there
EXCEPT Furiosa and the wives.

The movie didn’t show it as fun and awesome.
The movie is all, “Out here, everything hurts.”
It’s pretty explicit.
And the arc of redemption isn’t killing things.
It’s liberating the means of production.

I feel like she’s confusing criticism of patriarchy with criticism of sexism
sexism in real life is not cartoonish, it’s often subtle (and sometimes cartoonish)
patriarchy is often very cartoonish
that’s how it survives
in part bc everyone’s like, “No, that can’t be the truth. that can’t be what the system really does.”
But yes, that’s really what the system does.

It’s not film that deals with sexism.
It is a film that deals with PATRIARCHY as a system.
It reifies its metaphors
because that’s what SFF does

I mean, I go into schools that have leaking roofs and carpets so warped they are trip hazards
and then there’s a capitalist mogul that just had his sixth? heart transplant
patriarchy is depressingly cartoonish

Immortan Joe is the Patriarchy.
The warboys are his footsoldiers, men who the patriarchy hurts too. Furiosa is the woman who bought into the system, UNSEXED herself, and then rejected it.

yup yup yup

the wives and the – it’s obviously a LESBIAN SEPARATIST COMMUNE COME ON. The Vuvalini.
They represent two different perspectives on women vs. the patriarchy. The women who have fought to cast off their chains and discover that maintaining their liberation is a constant struggle and the women who have chosen to live apart but in choosing to live apart, they are… abandoning a different and just as important struggle.

as I was just saying on twitter
it’s actually really important thematically that they return back to the Citadel

I think it’s significant that there are no children and young women among the Vuvalini.
The fight for liberation involves a return to the place of enslavement.
They don’t run away.
They take their liberation and decide to spread it.

and that’s why it’s about patriarchy and not sexism

They decide to fight for a better world.

about systems
because they need to go back to the Citadel in order to destroy the patriarchy
the plot could have had them killing Immortan Joe in the process of escaping
but thematically he needs to be killed in the process of returning

But not to destroy the patriarchy so much as to… overthrow the local expression of it, I think. There’s no suggestion that you can destroy the patriarchy
because I think the barren world represents the systems of oppression, at some level.
I realise this is a very arguable reading
but it is significant that WHO BROKE THE WORLD is a refrain.

oh no
I think you are right
all three of those quotes
it’s not…
despite the detail, it’s not exactly a subtle movie?
like, he gives us the themes right there
and they all three work together

So the idea of the green place – the whole nurturement of seeds, the fact that they go back to the site of enslavement – the green place of many mothers is the feminist revolution. In a sense?
But seeds need to be planted. Seeds need to be tended.
“The soil’s too sour,” the Seed Keeper says
when the Dag (I think) asks her if any of them have grown.

not just who started this all
but who is still breaking it, even now?

Oh, it’s a very subtle movie.
But it achieves subtlety by hitting you over the head with its themes and then distracting you with explosions – the three thematic statements are shown, but briefly, and for all the attention Immortan Joe pays to them they may as well not be there.
And because the viewer is so used to parsing what’s on the screen through the gaze of a man, through the reactions of men, it half-tricks you into OVERLOOKING their importance
and because the frames, the set design, the costume design, the world design, they’re all filled up with detail…

it’s CLEVER is what it is
obvious and detailed and subtle and pared down all at the same time

…it does mental judo.
It uses your expectations against you – not just narratively,
it uses how it expects you to pay attention and makes a statement of that.

it does a fantastic job of getting you to focus on what it wants you to focus on

If you overlook these things – because Immortan Joe does – if you dismiss them as unimportant, the film puts you effectively in Immortan Joe’s place.

which means it does what Code Name Verity does
no wonder why I love it
ok so obviously people react to that book in different ways?
but I get the impression (based mostly on my uncle reading, which to be fair is not the largest sample size)
that part of how much of a twist the twist is, that how much you identify with Verity versus being judgy of her
is directly tied to one’s expectations about young women and what they are capable of
if you think they are capable of being Verity, as we know her to be at the ebd
you know her account is full of shit
if you don’t
well, then you read about her being a coward and traitor and take her word for it
because LIKE THE NAZIS that’s what you expect her to be
a silly girl in over her head who doesn’t know what she’s doing and ends up betraying everyone because of it

that’s it
that’s – if you see the women primarily as sexual objects
you’re being IMMORTAN JOE.

that’s how you are going to see them
it’s a litmus test

And when Max is staring at the women bathing
we’re set up to think it’s the WOMEN he’s staring at
but fuck me, he’s lusting after the water.

and to a certain extent the decadence of it all
SO MUCH WATER and people that look happy and healthy
but yeah
dude is not thinking about sexy times.
I would also like to add, regarding the scene when Max wakes up and sees the wives
that what you hear, very loudly, is the sound of water hitting the ground
loud enough, and at the right frequency that this is clearly A LOT of water hitting the ground

It’s all about water. And life – Fade was mentioning how the camera lingers not on breasts or buttocks but on Splendid Angharad’s pregnant belly.
This is a vision of life among death. Life out of death, out of the sandstorm, out of the dead lands.
It’s a profoundly life-affirming film, for a post-apocalyptic action movie.

Further reading:

Kameron Hurley, Wives, Warlords, and Refugees: the People Economy of MAD MAX

The Toast, Movie Yelling With Shrill And Mallory

Alix E. Harrow



Edge of Tomorrow

Too much Tom Cruise, not enough Emily Blunt.

Seriously. EMILY BLUNT.



Apart from Tom Cruise, well-acted, well-paced, lots of explosions. Emily Blunt is amazing and I want the film that stars her as the badass sergeant. (Dammit, people, do we always have to have the [white, straight] guy lead?)

Overall a better film than I expected, but too much Tom Cruise, so not actually as good as I hoped.

On the plus side: Emily Blunt shoots Tom Cruise. Multiple times.

Seriously. EMILY BLUNT as  Rita Vrataski. AWESOME INCARNATE.

Seriously. EMILY BLUNT as

Interesting link discussing CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER and Black Widow

CATWS gave us the most complex look we’ve seen of Black Widow so far. Her characterisation was just as subtle as we’ve come to expect, but this time round it fit much better with the film’s overall tone as an espionage thriller. Plus, she was actually given second billing on the cast list, which is practically unheard-of for a female character who isn’t a love interest. In the action/adventure genre, we typically see a central cast that either focuses on a male hero + female love interest, a team where men outnumber women by about five to one, or a female hero + large supporting cast of men to “balance it out.” Black Widow is a rare example of a female action movie character being given the kind of platonic ally/partner role that would usually be taken by a dude.

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier review, Part 3 — Black Widow & Falcon” – Hello, Tailor, April 7, 2014.

Interesting fascist nonsense, and its opposite

Saturday night, I’d just arrived in a different city, fairly exhausted and not filled with brainpower.

Naturally, this was a good time to watch all three Starship Troopers films and follow them up with Frozen. The juxtaposition of Interesting Fascist Nonsense (two rather good B-movies and one incoherent mess, in that order) and Musical Family Adventure is a strange one.

But the story of sisterly love and the tales of ETERNAL WAR AGAINST INSECTOID ENEMY have something unexpected in common: they’re both really good at showing women as people. I’m, frankly, astonished.

Links: a picture, a story, a lovely piece of artistic sarcasm

It looks like Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem is going to have quite the shiny cover.

Chaz Brenchley situates a British empire on Mars in his short story “The Burial of Sir John Mawe at Cassini” at Subterranean.

Annalee Newitz takes on 300: Rise of an Empire at io9:

When the Greek fleet is destroyed by the suicide bombers, Themistokles is hit and sinks deep underwater. Arrows and dead men and ship parts float past his head, in the gooey slow motion style that elevates the 300 franchise from mere war porn to aesthetically rich political statement. At that moment, Themistokles sees huge sea monsters rising up from the depths, eating men out of the water. The metaphorical implications are incredible. These creatures snarf up men the same way Artemesia tried to consume him with her anti-democratic sexuality. And their immense size suggests the power of Persia, rising up against the perfect democracy of Athens, where slaves treated really well and women who don’t want to be chattel have the choice to become slaves or whores if they don’t like patriarchy.

I am going to go see this film. Please donate to charity in honour of my sadly lost sanity.

Pacific Rim: Man, Machines & Monsters: The Inner Workings of an Epic Film by David S. Cohen, with a foreword by Guillermo del Toro

Review copy provided by Titan Books.

The short version? Wow.

If you, like me, fell head-over-heels in love with del Toro’s grand, epic, gorgeous giant-robots-fighting-giant-monsters, co-operation-is-the-key-to-survival summer blockbuster Pacific Rim, this shiny, textured, large paean to its production is undoubtedly relevant to your interests – although at a recommended retail price of stg£29.99, its possession will probably for the most part be limited to those with deep pockets, deeper enthusiasm, or generous friends and relatives.

The first, most striking thing about Man, Machines & Monsters (apart from the unfortunate incidental sexism of the alliterative title) is how beautiful it is. I want to pet it while humming preeeettttty, for the same visual intelligence that made Pacific Rim such an impressively satisfying spectacle is evident here: not just in the stills and concept art, as might be expected, but in layout and design.

The images. They leap off the page. You feel as though you should be able to reach into the book and touch what they depict. So pretty. So many gorgeous stills and concept art. Not enough pictures of the Russians, alas, but plenty of Idris Elba. There are some detachable items: Jaeger badge stickers, copies of pages from del Toro’s notebooks, Jaeger designs and Kaiju sketches, but me, I wouldn’t like to remove them – they’re plenty fine where they are, and compared to the rest of the book, the quality of paper they’re printed on is somewhat lacking.

As for words? There are four sections, integrated with the art. “Monsters in the Mist,” about the script and story and characters. “The Cray Kids in the Submarine,” about the art and design process, particularly designing the Jaegers. “Doing It For Real,” which talks about production and special effects, and makes the point that del Toro built as many sets as the budget could bear – including the inside of the Jaegers, which were mounted on airbags and gimbals to simulate movement. And “Simulating the Apocalypse,” which talks about the visual effects and the sound design, and the process of designing the Kaiju.

Visually stunning. Lovely. Pretty. Pretty. Pretty.

*pets it*

The 300 Spartans (1961)

This is an amusing spectacle of a film with an awful lot of ridiculously boring bits. Alas, the guy playing Leonidas has no acting chops at all, and set against the rounded vowels and British consonants of the gentleman playing Themistocles (who actually can act), his tendency to pronounce “earth” “oyth” and rush out his lines as if speed is all that matters… is hilariously jarring. The costuming is a little obviously pasteboard, and at least one of the sets is a terrible cardboard wall.

This film is actually aware of Herodotos: it has no clue at all about how to choreograph a battle involving Greek hoplites (protip: short shorts go stabby, not slashy, and CLOSE UP YOUR LINES), but it does speechifying to a very Greek length. Alas, not really willing to go full-on GREEK HISTORY: Xerxes is distracted from war by sexytimes with a (sadly unattended by her own entourage) youthful and pale Artemisia, and there is some subplot involving a young Spartan and his affianced bride who follows him from the Lakedaimonian plain to the Hot Gates – afoot, without change of clothes or supplies – and much manly beating of chests and disclaiming responsibility among the Persian generals. It does have the Thespians, though, which is nice. It wasn’t just Leonidas’ bodyguard at Thermopylae, you know… although, as usual in cinematic depictions, the lightly-armed auxiliaries have been left out of the picture.

The division the film makes between “East” and “West,” “tyranny” and “freedom,” also echoes Herodotos a little (tho’ for the author of the History, the division was less “East” and “West” and more “barbarian” and “Greek”), although its expression here to my mind has as much to do with its Cold War context as any attempt at faithful historicity.

But it bears comparison with the Frank Miller/Zach Snyder 300, because – poor dialogue, bad acting and all – it tries. And cruelly whimsical as it shows Xerxes to be, it demonises none of its characters: all of them are men, not inhuman monsters, though some of them are over-proud tyrannical men.


How in all the world is it possible for something that should be so ridiculous to be so AMAZINGLY FUN?

Guillermo del Toro must be the answer.

Guillermo del Toro should make all the GIANT FIGHTING THINGS films ever. Science fiction and fantasy film-making? Needs more Guillermo del Toro. He brings beauty and flair and makes the ridiculous sublime. The hideous beauty of the kaiju. The jaegars’ beautiful brutality. Idris Elba, outlined against the sun like the image of some martial saint.



I agree with everything Aisha says here at Practically Marzipan. Especially YES YES YES YES YES.

It’s not perfect. But it comes a damn sight closer than most skiffy films I’ve ever seen.


Linky would like you to believe in justice and fairies

First, we have two posts on Snow White and The Huntsman: Ana Mardoll with Snow White and Trust

What I am instead going to talk about today is how tired I am of movie scenes where women apologize for not trusting every potentially damaging secret and/or minute corner of their heart to strange men they have no reason whatsoever to trust. Because I so tired of this trope.

– and, via the said Ana Mardoll, Culturally Disoriented from last year on Dear Snow White and The Huntman: Kissing: You’re Doing It Wrong

Which is when I realized that the technically-lesbian kiss was also the only consensual kiss in the movie. And that while this consensual kiss led to Snow White’s demise, the non-consensual kiss imposed on Snow by the Huntsman… ends up saving her life.

Elizabeth Bear is brilliant about not policing other women’s clothing:

So I read some feminist fitness blogs, like you do. And one of them recently linked to a couple of posts that I’m not going to link to, but the gist of which was that women should not wear “running skirts,” or “fitness skirts,”* because it’s unfeminist to try to look cute when you work out. That women wearing skirts to work out “creates a sexist atmosphere.”

That we can’t take ourselves seriously as athletes if we’re wearing sparkly ruffles. And that it’s okay to mock women who wear them.

To which all I have to say is, “Fuck you, ladies.”

Alyssa Rosenberg on Think Progress on the VIDA report.

Inequality By Interior Design on the social construction of childhood. Now including extra baby cage!