Anatomy of a Trope: Sleeping With the Target in Spy Flicks

Yesterday I saw Kingsman: The Golden Circle. To be clear, I loved the first film, and I did enjoy the sequel, despite some major problems in the narrative. I do love the characters: Eggsy is fun to watch, as is Harry Hart and Merlin. I’m also a fan of men in well-tailor suits beating up bad guys and over-the-top, ridiculous fight scenes set to upbeat music.

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But Kingsman has gotten a lot of attention for a particular scene in which Eggsy has to seduce a woman (named Clara, played by Poppy Delevingne) to plant a tracking device on her, which he hopes will lead the Kingsmen to Charlie, Clara’s (ex?) boyfriend and one of the major antagonists of the film. Simple enough, but like me, a lot of viewers found the scene uncomfortable for a number of reasons. First, the tracing device had to be planted on a mucus membrane so some chemical could be absorbed into the bloodstream – so naturally, that means the woman’s vagina. Second, as Eggsy is fingerbanging the target, the camera pans down her body so we get an up-close shot of CGI vulva. What the actual hell?

Kaila Hale-Stern for The Mary Sue wrote about her discomfort watching that scene, and I want to make clear that I absolutely agree with putting responsibility on Matthew Vaughn. I also want to express some sympathy for actor Taron Egerton (who plays Eggsy), who had to be diplomatic while promoting the film and who was clearly uncomfortable with the scene – so much so that he refused to be the one to film it (the hand shown in the film was actually that of Poppy Delevingne’s husband).

But I want to also use this post to respond to other things that have been said about this scene, mainly Vaughn’s commentary and something Egerton said that has been repeated around social media. Vaughn told Entertainment Weekly:

“Some bloody feminists are accusing me of being a misogynist. I’m like, “It couldn’t be further from the truth.” It’s a celebration of women and the woman being empowered in a weird way in my mind, which will cause a big argument again I’m sure. It’s meant to be tongue-in-cheek and crazy… I was surprised when people are saying to me, “I loved the movie. I think it’s great, but I was offended by that.” I said, “Really? That’s more offensive than exploding heads, massacres in church, swearing, people being cut in half?” I was like, come on. It’s just a joke. It’s not even graphic […] For the 20 percent who were offended by it, there are 80 percent who are rolling around laughing so hard. Those 20 percent of people just need to lighten up a little bit. It’s about pushing boundaries and having a bit of fun. It’s not meant to be offensive, and it’s definitely not misogynist or any attack on women. That’s for sure.”

Egerton told Screen Rant:

“It’s what Matthew [Vaughn] does, it’s his signature thing. He likes to do something that shocks. In Kick-Ass it was Chloe Grace Moretz saying the C-word, in Kingsman 1 it was the bum shot of the Swedish princess, and in this one it’s the thing. And, you know, it’s not to everyone’s tastes, but it certainly gets people talking. All it is is explicitly showing what Bond alludes to and says in a double entendre kind of way.”

Together, these comments got me thinking: is the scene different than what Bond does, or any spy for that matter? Is the whole “sleeping with the target” trope inherently misogynistic, or is there a way to do it that is empowering?

In this blog post, I’m going to compare the Kingsman sex scene with a number of other instances of spies or secret agents sleeping with a target, hopefully illustrating why I was so uncomfortable with Kingsman while also exploring the trope as a whole.

Trigger warnings for misogyny, including rape and graphic images of violence against women. Also a brief mention of homophobia and the “Bury Your Gays” trope.

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“My Middle Ages Will Be Intersectional Or It Will Be Bullshit”

Medieval Studies has a reputation of being a conservative field dominated by white men – and to be fair, a lot of it is. But while there is a large percentage of scholars who are actively pushing for diversity, it doesn’t help when one of our own reinforces the status quo. Over the weekend, a white tenured faculty member wrote a blog post targeting a junior scholar of color, attacking her for pushing for diversity. This blog post also pointed out her race… as if that was a reason to discredit her work. It spiraled out of control from there – the bullying professor tagged a notable alt-right troll, who in turn wrote a blog post filled with numerous pop culture references that was meant to threaten physical violence – if not in real life, then at least online. You can read a comprehensive overview of the whole incident here, or, if MSM is more your style, there’s a link here.

I’ve signed a number of letters in support of the targeted scholar, and I’m notably not using names in this post to partially shield myself from potential blowback (I’m a coward). But the purpose of this blog post isn’t to repeat things already said by medieval scholars or reaffirm my personal commitment to diversity in my professional life. Instead, as a nerdy pop culture blog, I want to respond to a number of things: first, I want to explore the subtle use of pop culture imagery as a weapon in alt-right troll’s blog post and how the weaponization of pop culture imagery works in our current social climate. Second, I want to turn away from the negativity and highlight some of my favorite women of color characters in medieval pop culture and talk a little bit about how their presence (when done well) can enhance our understanding of history in addition to being good for representation and diversity in non-academic realms.

Trigger warning for discussions of racism and violence.

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Asking Tough Questions: Ms. Marvel and Tokenism in the Classroom

I’m proud to say that teaching the first volume of G. Willow Wilson’s Ms. Marvel in my college fiction classes has become somewhat routine. In each of the zillion times I’ve helmed an “Intro to Fiction” course, Ms. Marvel has always been someone’s first encounter with a “Muslim superhero” (I put that term in quotes because of the difficulty in defining that term) and it has always been someone’s favorite work of the semester. Most of our conversations revolve around how Ms. Marvel undoes stereotypes that pop culture at large attaches not just to Muslim figures, but heroes and villains more generally. Thus, Ms. Marvel becomes a tool that I use to help students look at the media they consume more critically, precisely because it is “outside the norm.”

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Recently, I had the privilege of guest teaching Ms. Marvel for a 300-level course. At my university, these courses are typically reserved for professors and senior grad students. Having never taught anything myself above a 100-level course, I was admittedly quite nervous – these undergrads were smart, sharp, and would keep me on my toes. They did not disappoint: while I didn’t have to go through my usual schtick of “here’s is why representation is important,” I did have to teach in a way that required me to adapt and formulate ideas on the fly. I’ve never been very good at that, even as a student myself. So, when a student pointed out that Ms. Marvel was problematic because of tokenism, I froze. In teaching 100-level classes, this point had never been brought up by my own students, and I myself had never considered it. I was at a loss for how to respond, and looking back, I’m still quite sure I made a mess of it.

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Gendered Space: The Alamo Drafthouse Wonder Woman Screening

If you’re excited for the upcoming Wonder Woman movie and have been keeping a close eye on on the press, like me, then you may know that a bunch of people have their boxer briefs in a twist because of an upcoming women-only showing of the film.

Alamo Drafthouse is a popular movie theater chain in Texas, and one location in Austin has recently announced a planned showing for June 6 in which only women (and people who identify as women) are allowed to attend. On top of that, the theater released a statement saying, “Everyone working at this screening — venue staff, projectionist, and culinary team — will be female.”

So of course, men flipped their shit.

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People have been calling the event sexist and threatening to boycott the film and the theater. None of these threats had much effect, however. The Alamo Drafthouse defended their event, offered a second women-only showing, and made plans to expand the event across the country.

While it’s satisfying to sip a cup of male tears, I want to put snarkery aside for a moment and actually think about this whole situation. People (mostly white men) have been trying to make the argument that if the tables were turned in any way, the situation would not be seen as positively. How would a showing of Black Panther for African Americans-only go over? What about a men-only showing of any film?

They’re right in one regard – a men-only showing of a film would definitely not be the same. But why? The answer, I’d argue, has to do with purpose and privilege.

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Visions of the Past and Corruption in “The Dark Phoenix Saga”

I’ll talk about Jean Grey forever. For comics fans, she’s probably the character that is most cited in discussions about women and cosmic power, and for good reason. Her bond with the Phoenix Force and her iconic storylines (such as The Dark Phoenix Saga) are rich with opportunities for critical inquiry. While scholars such as Lenise Prater have talked about Jean Grey and female power, many of these arguments merely end with a criticism of sexism in comics. In her article about gender and power, Prater specifically takes up the issue of adapting the comics to film, emphasizing how the X-Men films “exhibit an anxiety about women’s capabilities and construct their power as inherently dangerous” (Prater 160). Jean Grey’s turn to evil, notably, is changed from the comic to the film. As Prater observes, ” Jean Grey/The Phoenix is slowly corrupted by power thanks to the machinations of the Hellfire Club… When the women in the films lose control of their powers, it is because of something inherent to their powers rather than because villains exploit their weaknesses. Indeed, whereas Jean Grey cannot retain control over her powerful psychic abilities, the male characters’ loss of control is always due to an attack from an outside force” (Prater 163-164). While useful, I find Prater’s description of “power” to be vague – is Jean corrupted by power itself? I have a hard time believing that, since as the Phoenix (the good version), she seemed to do just fine.

In expanding this analysis and looking more closely at the ways in which the Hellfire Club seeks to corrupt Jean Grey, I want to examine the trajectory of the illusions which Wyngarde uses. Whenever Jean is overcome by the illusion, she is “transported” back to the 18th century. Given that the role of these illusions is to “[give Jean] a taste of some of her innermost – forbidden – needs and desires,” these visions of the past can largely be understood as a point of exposure for the pleasure taken in socially unacceptable emotions. In Jean’s case, I suggest, the forbidden need/desire is the privileging of the individual over the group.

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This blog post will examine Jean Grey’s “visions” of the 18th century in The Dark Phoenix Saga by Chris Claremont. By analyzing the way in which her individuality corrupts her, we can read The Dark Phoenix Saga as not only a story about the dangers of female pleasure and power, but also as a criticism of the individual, lonesome hero. Granted, the characteristics associated with the Dark Phoenix can be read as “unfeminine desires,” such as sexuality and superiority over men. Feminist criticism would read this comic, then, as a metaphor for patriarchal control of the feminine and the fallout that results from it. However, Jean’s power is not only femininity gone awry: by reveling in the pleasure of being not only a slave owner, but a monarchist in her 18th century vision, Jean’s “dark desires” are less female agency and more inappropriate models of individual power.

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“That Has Nothing to Do With Us” : Renee Montoya and Male Entitlement in Gotham Central

Gotham Central is a 2002-2006 police procedural comic set in Batman’s hometown of Gotham. Focusing on the underappreciated Gotham City Police Department (GCPD), the comic follows various officers as they take on big bads like Mr. Freeze, Firebug, and Two-Face with minimal involvement from our favorite caped crusader.

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My favorite badass.

One of the story arcs, “Half a Life,” follows detective Renee Montoya as she is outed as a lesbian by Two-Face, who has fallen in love with her. The story is by far one of the most famous ones from Gotham Central, having won an Eisner Award, a Harvey Award, and the Gaylactic Spectrum Award, all in 2004. While many have praised the story, I want to focus on Montoya as the nexus point for male entitlement in the comic. Those who have commented on the topic before mostly point to Two-Face’s affection for Montoya. Two-Face still believes that he and Montoya can have a relationship, despite being at the center of the plot that outed her. Blogger LadyRhian for “Deep Thoughts” describes this assumption as the result of Two-Face’s mental state, writing, “You have to wonder why, knowing of Renee’s lesbianism, Harvey Dent thought it was still possible to win her love. Well, I suppose that’s part of why he’s insane- refusing to accept outcomes he doesn’t like.” While the inability to accept defeat can certainly be part of the explanation, I don’t think an analysis like this explores the comic as much as it could. The whole story is not just one of lesbian experience, but of male entitlement. Harvey Dent is just the culmination of everything the comic sets up from the very beginning.

In this post, I’m going to examine the story of Montoya’s outing and Harvey Dent’s refusal to accept her lesbianism as part of a larger conversation about misogyny and the rejection of queer women. I by no means am suggesting that author Greg Rucka is rejecting queer women or that the story is meant to reject queer experiences, but rather, “Half a Life” dramatizes society’s misogyny over the entire story arc, not just in the climatic moments.

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Comics to Read (and Teach) in the Trump-Era

In addition to being a huge nerd, I’m also a college literature instructor. I teach students how to analyze literature and media in various forms, though my specialty as a medievalist usually relegates me to introductory-level English courses. For fun (and to bolster my job application portfolio), I sometimes design syllabi for future courses I’d like to teach. Go ahead and judge me, but it’s a legitimate way to procrastinate and be productive at the same time.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what kind of comics I’d assign to a class were I given the freedom to do what I want. Given our current political landscape (and the massive amounts of reading lists out there, like this one, that do the same thing), I thought about comics that would be fruitful for analysis during the Trump era. I’ve included a list with a brief description of the comic and why I think it would be appropriate, and hopefully (if I never get to teach it), it’ll at least be of some use to you, my readers.

In no particular order, here they are. I’ve provided 15 entries to reflect the 15 weeks that I teach during the semester.

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Revising Notions of Feminism and Medievalism in “Monarch”

When I watched episode 4.03 of Tabletop, I teared up.

I haven’t been a board gamer for very long, but gaming has always felt like a male-dominated hobby, even as more and more game designers increase the level of female representation in the worlds of their products. Granted, the exclusion of women is not at the same level as video game and comics communities – to my knowledge, there aren’t nearly as many board gamers that go around protesting feminism, but there are still pockets, whether it be at cons or public events, where I feel anxious meeting other gamers for the first time.

So imagine my delight when Wil Wheaton showcased Monarch on the latest season of Tabletop – a game designed by a woman (Mary Flanagan), with art by a woman (Kate Adams), featuring all female characters. And with a medieval-fantasy theme to boot!

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Wil’s praise of the game echoed my feelings exactly: “It is the only game I have ever played where all the characters are women, which I think is pretty awesome in a male-dominated hobby.” But my delight went further than just gratefulness for representation. As a medievalist, I’m always interested in pop culture that makes use of medievalism. Much of it tends to be very masculinist – the thrill of the Middle Ages in pop culture is in all the barbarism. Killing and pillaging are encouraged, as we see in Game of Thrones and even Champions of Midgard, a board game featured on Tabletop just before Monarch. I’m not disparaging violence in any kind of fiction, but there is a tendency for fantasy set in the faux-Middle Ages to focus entirely on that violence and derive a kind of pleasure in it that is discouraged in real-life or even more modern-set media.

Monarch is not about fighting. There is competition, but there isn’t a moment where one player has to combat or kill another player (or even a NPC in the game). While other board games are nonviolent, there’s something delightful about the way Monarch is working that can not only revise our ideas about women in gaming, but also our ideas about the Middle Ages (however fantastical they may be portrayed). In this blog post, I’ll first analyze the gameplay of Monarch to show how the combination of all-female characters and nonviolence pushes back against more masculine norms in board gaming, especially when examined as an alternative to games where colonialism or militarism is the main objective. Next, I’ll talk about how the premise and gameplay has the capacity to revise pop culture’s misconceptions about the Middle Ages and fantastical elements we associate with the “medieval” to shape more complex and feminist views of the past.

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De-Gendering Heroism: the Case Against Essentializing the “Female Hero”

A colleague/friend of mine is teaching a class this semester on the development of heroes and politics, focusing primarily on comics and graphic novels, but with a few prose works thrown in as well. We went over his syllabus together, and I saw some canonical choices: Achilles, Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, Batman, Superman, X-Men, Watchmen, and V for Vendetta. All wonderful characters and properties, mind you – I’ve taught a lot of these myself in my “Heroes and Monsters” courses, and there’s definitely a trajectory to trace in the development of heroism starting with ancient Greece up through today. I also think there’s value in looking at pop culture’s most revered and successful heroes – the money makers, the figures that audiences will flock to see in movie theaters. By reading original material, we’re more equipped to see how a hero/character has changed (or not) depending on the social and political climate in which they appear. The origins of James Bond, for example, shows us how the figure has been changed and adapted over time but still retains roots in a post-war era.

While male heroism has visible threads that stretch back to classical literature, female heroism is rather hard to spot, much less define. Lest you get the wrong impression, my colleague/friend is not neglecting prominent female characters. His syllabus includes Wonder Woman, Kamala Khan, and others where women play prominent roles (Jean Grey in X-Men, for example, and Irene Adler). But for many critics, the pattern of female heroism has been inconsistent: where women aren’t damsels in distress, they’re sidekicks or imitating violent masculinity. Where women aren’t scantily-clad sexual fantasies, they’re wielding power that’s either too much for them to handle or threatening to the male characters. The premise of the course got me thinking: Where does feminine heroism lie, and how does it exist in a form that isn’t imitative of masculinity yet is also not constructed as less valuable?

After a while, I realized I’m not really that interested in these questions at all.

Trying to define what “female heroism” looks like, to me, misses the point. It’s impossible to essentialize womanhood and femininity, just as it is impossible to essentialize heroism. While it is worth while to try to develop models of heroism for female characters that differ from the archetypes we see in movies, tv, and comics that privilege a certain type of masculine heroism, to say that female heroism is somehow, at its core, different from male heroism is to ignore areas where human behavior is not defined by gender and to insist on a gender binary that pop culture critics are struggling to overthrow.

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There are so, so many books and articles about Joan of Arc embodying “female heroism.”

This blog post will overview classical and folkloric definitions of “hero” and put them in dialogue with feminist criticism in order to reach a definition of “hero” that shirks gender identifiers. First, I will overview the “male as default” worldview and show how it affects fiction’s construction of the superhero. From there, I will propose turning to a de-gendered definition of “hero” which can help audiences avoid gender binaries and essentialism. Lastly, I will apply the de-gendered definition of “hero” to several models to show how heroism is at work.

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The Middle Ages is Not Your White Male Patriarchal Fantasy: Ten Medieval Women Who Would Make Excellent Protagonists

***Spoilers for Vikings Season 4 below***

Recently, I’ve maintained that it’s near impossible to make a movie or tv show set in the Middle Ages or antiquity that’s “good” – partly because whenever these things are made, the tendency is always to portray the time period as particularly barbaric or strange. Stories set in the middle ages, whether historical fiction or fantasy, typically manifest this barbarism through “weird” religious practices, excessive violence, or extreme sexism. As a result, it seems like the same stories are told over and over again: man wants land and/or power, man fights with other people to get land and/or power, women stay on the sidelines and serve male interests by either having babies or being victims of violence. Imagine my fury as a medievalist – I can barely read epic fantasy or historical fiction anymore, and I cringe at every announcement that a new medieval-inspired tv series or movie is announced.

That being said, I made an exception for Vikings, because although it had a lot of fighting and drama, it did a relatively good job respecting the various cultures and portraying its women in various roles: shieldmaidens, mothers, wives, queens, earls, seeresses, etc. By having women who were complex and different from one another, Vikings seemed to break the mold of excessively patriarchal medieval dramas and push for a more familiar or relatable middle ages. Season four, however, seems to resort to Game of Thrones gimmicks concerning their women. While previous seasons saw Lagertha and Aslaug respect one another and even get along, season four pits them one another, having Lagertha resent Aslaug for seducing Ragnar. Aslaug is also killed off, becoming another victim in the show’s string of female characters who die needlessly. [Insert nerd rage.]

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There are countless articles and blog posts that explain the harm in having stories which kill off female characters for shock value, as well as the nonsense of season four of Vikings. There is also plenty of discussion about the stupidity of insisting that things must be horrible for women in the name of “historical accuracy,” and how creators all too often equate the barbarity of the middle ages with sexism in order to make our current time period look better by comparison. But while it’s good to criticize shows for these lazy storytelling techniques, there’s not much discussion of what historical figures and stories could be drawn on instead. My guess is that the extend of knowledge isn’t all that great, and I don’t blame people for this – after all, it’s primarily male and white history that gets showcased in popular depictions of the middle ages, and it’s the same case for classrooms, unfortunately.

As a result, my purpose in this blog post is not to summarize the arguments for better female representation, but instead, to showcase a number of women who lived during the middle ages who would (whether by themselves or as inspirations) make excellent protagonists for a tv show, book, or movie. Ultimately, I don’t want the stories of these women to be replicated on screen with 100% accuracy – we already throw accuracy out the window when adapting history for popular consumption, and honestly, I’d rather throw out the “problematic” parts of history, however “accurate” they are, in favor of a more inclusive story. My goal in showcasing these women is to not only give out free ideas (*cough cough* credit me in your acknowledgements *cough cough*), but also to communicate, through just a few examples, that the excuse for “historically accurate” misogyny in medieval-set stories is simple fuel for a white male patriarchal fantasy.

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