Archive for July, 2010

Let’s Hear It For the Bi

Wednesday, July 28th, 2010

Update: See end of entry.

Quick, name a current bisexual celebrity. You have until the other end of this picture to think of one.


Ba-da, ba-da, ba-da-da-dum. Time’s up. Who did you think of? Was it Megan Fox? Anna Paquin? Angelina Jolie? Ooh, ooh; Lady Gaga? Lindsay Lohan? Was it Drew Barrymore? Pink?

I’m willing to guess that you probably didn’t think of Duncan James, even though that’s his picture you just scrolled past, either because you’ve never heard of him, or because you wouldn’t recognise him even if he was standing right in front of you.

You may have spotted the pattern in all those other names I mentioned, all of whom are self-identified bisexuals. Most famous bisexuals are women. It may in fact be the case that more bisexuals in the general population are women -  it’s a common enough assertion that female sexuality is more fluid than male - but even so, male bisexuals do exist, and a good male bisexual is hard to find. In terms of current celebrities, Duncan James is about as famous as it gets.

Sure, there are actors who came out late in life, or who were outed post-mortem - Brando, Clift, Olivier, Dean - and there is a handful of musicians who have sort-of come out as bisexual, but have also sort-of come out as ‘rejecting all labels’ - David Bowie, Billie Joe Armstrong, Mika. It’s easier to come out if your identity hinges on being ‘alternative’, or if you’re, well, dead. Male bisexuals are otherwise fairly invisible, and it’s not hugely difficult to work out why this might be. It’s harder for guys in the public eye. People are generally more accepting of bisexual women.

On the one hand, the idea of women who like boys and girls has huge value in a pop culture dominated by the tastes of straight men. Female bisexuality is titillating, so it’s credible and cool. On the other hand, any guy who comes out as bisexual is usually labelled ‘gay and in denial’, and guys who sleep with both men and women aren’t considered trendy; they’re considered a health risk, and banned from giving blood in otherwise civilised countries.

It’s therefore rather big news that Tom Hardy came out today, especially because of what he came out as.


Hardy is a rising star. He’s not a big name yet, but his role as Eames, the slightly swishy forger in the movie Inception, has already elevated him above his usual world of BBC dramas and low budget British indies. He’s the star of the remake of Mad Max (and let’s face it, that’s pretty well timed given the state of the former Mad Max), and just this week he landed an action/romance role in McG’s forthcoming spy comedy, This Means War, opposite Chris Pine.

Today, Hardy is quoted in the Daily Mail as admitting that he has had sex with men. The matter-of-fact manner of his revelation is extraordinary. When asked if he’s had same-sex experiences, he said; “Of course I have. I’m an actor for fuck’s sake”.

Hardy may have outed most of Hollywood with that admission, but he didn’t exactly come out as bisexual. He came out as someone who used to experiment with same-sex relationships, and he says that these relationships don’t “do it” for him any more. This is perhaps an unprecedented statement for a young, good-looking actor courting leading man roles in Hollywood blockbusters. He just confronted the unsuspecting mainstream multiplex audience with the notion of male sexual fluidity!

It helps that Hardy is quirky, of course. He’s British; he has tattoos; he’s a self-confessed recovering alcoholic and crack addict. He was never going to be Zac Efron. Hardy also has a fiancée, and a son, and an ex-wife - none of which prove straightness, but, taken in concert with his frankness, would seem to indicate that he’s not a gay man in denial. He can’t easily be dismissed.

So, this is kind of a big deal.

It’s not the biggest deal.One day, an actor of the calibre of ’80s-era Tom Cruise will come out as gay, and it will not destroy his career, and that will be the big leap forward - and it may happen ten years from now, or it may happen tomorrow. In the meantime, we’re likely to see incremental steps towards that level of acceptance, and Tom Hardy’s admission is one of those small steps. Tom Hardy can be the action hero, and the sex symbol, and he can unabashedly admit to a little youthful experimentation. Tom Hardy just changed the world a little bit.

Update: Commenter Ásta has pointed out that the interview with Hardy was given last year - a fact that has been omitted in most of the coverage. It’s possible that Hardy wouldn’t give the same interview today, and it will be interesting to see if he distances himself from it while he courts the mainstream.

Beyond that, the full interview adds more detail, but it doesn’t change what we know. Hardy isn’t interested in guys today, but he did experiment in his youth. “To me it just doesn’t compute now; I’m into my 30s and it doesn’t do it for me and I’m done experimenting”. Male sexual fluidity, especially expressed as frankly as this, is perhaps what the bigots fear the most.

SDCC 2010: The Vindication of Dr Wertham

Sunday, July 25th, 2010

Over half a century ago, psychiatrist Dr Fredric Wertham warned about the corrupting influence of comics. He drew special attention to the ‘injury-to-the-eye’ motif, a common comic trope showing eyes being threatened by sharp objects. It was Wertham’s belief that such gruesome images were encouraging delinquency in America’s youth. “The injury-to-the-eye motif is an outstanding example of the brutal attitude cultivated in comic books”, wrote Wertham, adding, “it causes a blunting of the general sensibility.”


It took about 55 years, but yesterday, one nerd finally stabbed another nerd in the eye. If only Dr Wertham were alive today to see the promise of his fearmongering realised!

The incident happened at the San Diego Comic-Con, and reports are fuzzy, but it seems that two nerds were fighting over seat-squatting in the big hall where the major movie panels take place. And they weren’t even good seats! The police said it was off to the side of the hall! The good news is, the attacker stabbed the victim in the eye with a pen, so comics can still be tied to a culture of literacy in America’s youth.

It will be tempting for the nerd blogs and forums to read far too much into this incident over the next few days. Questions will be asked about security at SDCC (no more pens at book signings!), about the ethics of seat-squatting, and about whether rooms should be cleared between panels - though those questions are raised every year anyway.

There’s also bound to be some attempt to define and expand upon the phenomenon of ‘nerd rage’, and to link this incident to the sort of frothing, intemperate anger that manifests on online message boards, where fanboys in the comfort of their homes thoughtlessly and senselessly hurl out violently invective at writers and artists whose work they don’t appreciate.

These people are not representative, they’re just loud. There’s an inclination in some professional quarters to dismiss all online criticism because of this vocal but unpopular minority, and that’s a shame. The crazies are easy enough to identify, and their impotent anger should easy enough to dismiss. Let’s remember all the people at San Diego this weekend who have never stabbed anyone in the eye.

godhatesnerdsPhoto source.

This incident is the second brush with real-life news at this year’s Comic-Con. The first occurred on Thursday when the bigots from the Westboro Baptist Church went through with their promise to picket the convention. I’m told they lasted about half an hour, and photos reveal that they were substantially outnumbered and outclassed by the counter-protesters, who revelled in their sin of idolatry with signs boasting, ‘All Glory to the Hypno-Toad’, and, ‘Magnets How The *?*! do they work?!’ Nerd pride!

In terms of actual comics news, I’ve been disappointed by how little of interest seems to have seeped out of the convention. Last year’s big announcement from Marvel was that they had acquired the rights to Marvelman - and what an exciting rollercoaster of Marvelman comic releases we’ve had since then! This year, Marvel was a little more stealthy in hinting that it will be bringing CrossGen books back into print.

CrossGen was a publisher with promise. It boasted of having the money to present a serious challenge to the market dominance of Marvel and DC, and it offered up an interestingly diverse slate of titles. Of course, the money thing turned out to be an exaggeration, and the line folded in 2004. Disney acquired the assets in bankruptcy court, and with Marvel now owned by Disney, there was already some speculation about a CrossGen revival under Marvel.

Hopefully that’s what we’re going to get, and if this means new CrossGen books, that’s great. If it only means reprints, that’s also kind of great, just not as great. One thing that I’d really like to see the major publishers get better at is repackaging and republishing old out-of-print material - both their own and other people’s. And wouldn’t it be nice to be able to buy some more Marvel trades that don’t have ‘Dark Reign’ or ‘Siege’ on the cover?

The big ‘other media’ news yesterday was the formal unveiling of the frighteningly handsome Avengers movie cast.


That’s Robert Downey Jr, that SHIELD agent guy, Scarlet Johansson, Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Samuel L Jackson, Jeremy Renner, Mark Ruffalo, and writer/director Joss Whedon. More pertinently, it’s Iron Man, that SHIELD agent guy, Black Widow, Thor, Captain America, Nick Fury, Hawkeye and the Hulk.

This is a much stronger cast than I think anyone ever expected, for a movie that seemed unlikely to ever get made. It should be manageable, though, as all the characters bar Hawkeye will have been introduced by other movies (and even Hawkeye is likely to cameo somewhere, probably in the Captain America movie). It also seems plausible that the Hulk (now played by Mark Ruffalo) could be one of the threats in the story, in keeping with Marvel tradition.

Two things jump out at me about this cast. First, there’s no Don Cheadle/War Machine. That actually makes sense; what’s the value of having two Iron Men in an already crowded ensemble? On the other hand, that makes it a very white cast, but it’s fair to say that the Avengers have always tended a little towards the Aryan. As great as it would be to have Black Panther or Luke Cage in there, I’d rather they were introduced in their own movies first.

Second, there’s only one woman. I would hope that they can add at least one more to the roster, and given Joss Whedon’s penchant for nerd madonnas, I’m sure he’ll find the room. Whedon has confirmed that Ant-Man won’t be in the movie, but Wasp still could be, and as Thor already brings magic into this world, it wouldn’t bend the genre to introduce the Scarlet Witch. Ms Marvel could be a lot of fun - I don’t think ladies with the basic Superman power set have been shown on-screen since Supergirl. I assume they’ll save Mockingbird for a Hawkeye spin-off.

I also have a couple of reservations about this movie. It’s going to be released in 3D, but there’s no word on whether it will be shot in 3D or converted. I’ve yet to see a live action 3D conversion that worked, and besides, I’m already bored of 3D movies - I suspect I won’t be the only one by the time this movie comes out in 2012.

I’m also reticent about Whedon as writer/director. Like Avengers comics writer Brian Bendis, Joss Whedon is very talented, but like Bendis, he has a very distinctive voice as a writer, one that tends to overwhelm the voices of the characters. I don’t think Bendis’s idiosyncracies serve an ensemble cast very well, and though Whedon has had better luck with ensembles, he still feels like an awkward fit for the Avengers.

Of course, Bendis’s Avengers books have been a big success for Marvel, and Whedon’s Avengers will likely be a huge hit as well. That’ll be one in the eye for me.

The Gay Menace

Tuesday, July 20th, 2010

The above video is from the National Organization for Marriage - the same whiny hate group that gained some notoriety for its support of anti-gay ballot propositions like Proposition 8, but which is perhaps better known for its hilariously awful Gathering Storm ad. (”The clouds are dark, and the winds are strong, and I am afraid.”)  The group is currently touring the US, spreading their gospel of intolerance.

The video tells the harrowing story of a mother who was bullied by marriage equality advocates at a NOM event in Albany. Bullied! First, they blocked her view of the event. And then they set her on fire.

Sorry, typo; first they blocked her view of the event, and then only some of them were considerate enough to turn around when she wanted to breastfeed her baby.

This was a happening so heinous that NOM felt it was worth making a video about it. “Gay marriage protesters” bullying and intimidating a “mother with young kids”. And at a peaceful rally, no less. Spot all the manipulations there; first you should be outraged that they were gay (well, ‘gay marriage protesters’, but you know where the emphasis is here), and then we’re told that the woman was a mother - mothers are always good - and that she had her kids with her - sweet innocent babes who have never harmed anyone, poor souls! And it was a peaceful rally; no-one tried to water the tree of liberty with the blood of tyrants all day.


Of course, the marriage equality protesters were also peaceful. They did not threaten anyone. They did not push, provoke, or abuse anyone - if they had, you can be sure NOM would have said so. The video makes it quite clear that they simply stood still and refused to move. They played by the same rule book as NOM, yet what NOM was doing was peaceful and what the marriage equality side was doing was ‘bullying’.

(Should they have looked away when the lady breast-fed her child? I’m sure I would have, but no-one is obliged to look away if you breastfeed in a public place.)

The point of this video is to paint NOM and their supporters as victims. This is their favourite role to play; long-suffering martyr guardians of traditional values trying to preserve their way of life against the deviant infidel. This was also their position in the Proposition 8 trial, the verdict for which should come in any day.

Yet when it comes to showing the world the face of their oppressor, the best they can manage is some people obstructing a woman’s view in a park - oh, and someone gave their tour bus a flat tyre. They know they can’t prove that gay marriage invalidates or weakens their own marriages or their families. They know that it won’t corrupt their children or destroy their churches. They know that it won’t do anything worse than offer some stability to people they don’t like. So they show you people with umbrellas, standing in a park, and ask you to be afraid.

Contrast that to what organisations like NOM are doing to gay people in the US. They’re demonising them, spreading lies about them, damaging and marginalising their families, driving up their tax bills, taking their rights away and keeping them from enjoying equality. Clearly they are the bullies, but their best cover for this is to try to convince you that they’re the victims.

Here’s another video from another NOM event. This is the voice of the National Organization for Marriage. This is as coherent as it gets. See if it makes sense to you.

On the subject of incomprehensible right wing protests; it’s San Diego Comic Con week again, and this year the show may receive a visit from the grand wizard of all bigots, the Lady Gaga of hate, Mr Fred Phelps himself. His Westboro Baptist Church is expected to be at the convention centre at 1:15pm on Thursday because - and I swear, this is their given reason - comics are full of false idols.

Obviously these are trivial-minded, sensationalist, publicity-hungry people. I rather doubt they believe in anything other than the importance of their own celebrity. Even so, the horrific ideas that they promote are dangerous - though they probably make far more converts against them than for them.

Counter-protests are likely - my favourite is the proposal for Glee fans to assemble to sing ‘Hate On Me‘ - but the best idea came from comic writers Kelly Sue DeConnick and Matt Fraction and their GodLovesBatman initiative. They intend to donate $100 to AIDS research if the Phelps clan makes their scheduled 45 minute appearance, and more if they stick around longer. You can read all about it here, and you can make a pledge of your own. I will happily match their $100 pledge.

Ironically, the Phelps clan will also be also be protesting at the Manchester Grand Hyatt in San Diego on the same day, because Al Gore is appearing there. As long-time readers will know, the hotel has been the subject of ongoing protests and boycotts by gay rights activists because its owner was a major donor to Proposition 8, though the comic industry has seemingly never participated in that protest. Doug Manchester claims to have repented, and pledged money to support civil unions, which is rather like claiming to renounce racism and demonstrating your sincerity by paying for blacks-only drinks fountains.

Airbender: The Mickey Rooney Club

Sunday, July 4th, 2010

M Night Shyamalan’s new movie, The Last Airbender, is not getting much praise from critics or from audiences. As of this writing, it’s averaging 8% on Rotten Tomatoes, 20/100 on Metacritic, and a 4.7/10 user rating on IMDB. Those are seriously awful notices; even Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen had ratings of 20%, 35/100 and 6/10 respectively. GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra scored 35%, 32 and 5.8. Even Sex & The City 2 fared better.

The movie will probably perform well at the box office this weekend, even up against the titan of a new Twilight movie. It should even make its money back in the long run, and I wouldn’t completely rule out the possibility of sequels. Even so, Last Airbender will be hailed as one of cinema’s great critical turkeys, alongside Oliver Stone’s Alexander (15%/39/5.4), Halle Berry’s Catwoman (10%/27/3.2%), and John Travolta’s Battlefield Earth (still worse than Airbender, at 3%/9/2.3).


This critical floppage is The Last Airbender’s second claim to infamy. I talked about its first back in one of my first posts to this blog back in January of last year. The Last Airbender is based on the cartoon series Avatar: The Last Airbender, set in a fantasy world that draws heavily on Asian culture. None of the characters in the series are Caucasian, but all of the actors picked to play the four central roles were Caucasian. Fans were inevitably outraged, and they protested, and one of those four key roles - that of the main villain - was re-cast with an Anglo-Indian actor. This did little to quell the protests.

I don’t know to what extent the movie’s critical drubbing is informed by disgust at the cast whitewashing - it’s mentioned in many reviews, but the movie seems to struggle under a weight of other problems, including soulless performances and forced 3-D. At the very least, I suspect the race controversy preconditioned critics to be unsympathetic to the movie’s flaws, and served to ensure that many of the cartoon’s fans - who ought to be the movie’s greatest cheerleaders - would be its loudest opponents. This video from ReelzChannel shows people dressed as characters from the cartoon lining up to say that the movie “sucked”. (Fans can be notoriously critical of adaptations of their favourite works during production, but they usually come around when they actually see the movie, if it has any redeeming qualities at all.)

Shyamalan responded to the race controversy in an interview published at IndieMoviesOnline, opening with a familiar gambit; “As an Asian-American, it bothers me when people take all of their passion and rightful indignation about the subject and then misplace it.”

This is the minority author as the sole arbiter of minority identity. Last time we heard that response, it was from Torchwood writer Russell T Davies on the subject of Ianto’s death on that show, and that time it was even less elegantly expressed; “We’re talking about issues in my entire life here, not just one small television program. … [Critics] should simply grow up, do some research, and stop riding on a bandwagon that they actually don’t know anything about.”

Never mind that critics of Davies were often gay, and critics of Shyamalan have often been Asian; because Davies is gay and Shyamalan is of Asian-American, it is the audience’s ‘misunderstanding’ that’s to blame, and no reflection on the author or director’s insensitivity.


Shyamalan’s justifications don’t improve thereafter. He insists that the villainous character recast from white to brown is “the actual hero of the series”. Last time I wrote about Avatar: The Last Airbender, I admitted that I hadn’t seen the show. Now I have, and I loved it - I would say it is easily one of the best TV shows of the ’00s - and unless Shyamalan has changed the story radically, I know which roles the characters play.

When he says, “They immediately assume that everyone with dark skin is a villain. That was an incredibly racist assumption which as it turns out is completely incorrect”, he’s being disingenuous. Fans of the show know which characters are the villains, and it happens that all the major villains in the movie are dark-skinned, though all the dark-skinned characters are not villains. Some of the villains do go on journeys towards heroism, and ultimately commit some of the most heroic acts in the story, but they can’t steal the title of ‘hero’ from the guy that kids know is the hero; the one whose role is to save the world.

The second justification? “What happened was, Noah Ringer walked in the door – and there was no other human being on the planet that could play Aang except for this kid.” Ringer is the white actor picked to play the Tibetan-looking lead character. Judging by reviews, there are in fact other actors in the world who could have played Aang at least as well. Shyamalan’s hyperbole is not a convincing defence.

Third justification: There are four tribes in the series. Shyamalan cast three of them as non-Caucasian and one as Caucasian, so his world is one-quarter Caucasian, which he considers very fair and balanced. Of course, one of those tribes is extinct in the series, so his world is really one-third Caucasian. Eithier way, the real world is less than one-fifth Caucasian, so Shyamalan gave white folks an upgrade. More crucially, his defence here is that he cast the background characters as non-Caucasian. As a response to the criticism that he made the three heroic leads Caucasian, it’s hopeless. Aang should appear Asian; Katana and Sokka (below) should appear Inuit. All three are played by white Americans.

katarasokkaWhite People.

Shyamalan also says, “The Last Airbender is the most culturally diverse movie series of all time.” Well, that’s nonsense; I doubt there’s an ethnicity you can name that James Bond hasn’t run through a crowd of.

Fourth: “The art form of Anime in and of itself is what’s causing the confusion.” Here, Shyamalan has a point, sort of. Avatar isn’t anime, but it is influenced by Japanese animation, and the simplicity of character design in animation - and in line drawing in general - does allow people to see themselves in characters regardless of ethnicity. They can say that a character is ‘just like me’, and pretend to be him or her in the playground.

Movies don’t allow for that sort of ambiguity, so Shyamalan had to pick a side - and he picked white kids. This was a movie that kids from non-white ethnicities rightly thought they would be able to own, to identify with without having to reach for it, and Shyamalan chose to take that gift away from them and give it to the white kids. Non-white kids have long had to look for heroes they can identify with regardless of skin colour, because they’re not being served and they don’t have a choice. White kids, it seems, will never be asked to stretch themselves in that way.

Shyamalan also says, “If there’s an issue with why Anime does not put particularly specific Asian features from the PC Asian types that people think should be there … take it up with Anime animators. It has nothing to do with me.”

This is not right at all, but it’s a common enough trap, and one that I’ve fallen into myself in the past, before learning more about anime and manga. Because drawings are easy to identify with, we tend to see the familiar elements and ignore the unfamiliar ones. Many people have said that the lead character, Aang, ‘looks white’. His skin is pale and his eyes are wide.

lastairbendercastNon-White People.

Aang does not ‘look white’ if you’re Asian. Anime characters do not look Caucasian if you’re Asian, unless they’re meant to be (in which case they’ll probably have big ugly noses, because that’s how Caucasians are often viewed by Asians).

It’s ignorance and presumption to say, ‘if I can see my race in this character, this character can only be my race’. This video brilliantly (but rather hurriedly) skewers that presumption by pointing out exactly how Anime characters look Asian if you’re Asian. Anime characters have rounded Asian faces and Asian bone structure; their round eyes are an animation convention that doesn’t signify any particular race; and plenty of Asian people are pale-skinned.

Japan does prize pale skin as an aesthetic ideal, but that has nothing to do with aspiring towards a Caucasian look, any moreso than white people getting tans is due to ethnic insecurity in the West. Sailor Moon is not white. Ryu from Street Fighter is not white. Aang is not white.

But Aang is also not Tibetan. None of the characters in Avatar: The Last Airbender are actually Asian, or Indian, or Inuit. Avatar is set in a fantasy world; the characters could look like any ethnicity, so why shouldn’t they be white?

This is the most willfully pig-headed justification anyone could offer for the movie’s casting, and Shyamalan is wise enough not to lean on it, but others have made the case. The setting of the series is explicitly inspired by Asian (and Inuit and Mesoamerican) cultures, from buildings to clothing to calligraphy to iconography to hairstyles to weapons to fighting styles to codes of conduct to matters of faith. This isn’t a secret, and it isn’t disputed, so you would need to make a compelling case to explain why the culture should be heavily Asian but the people should not be. That case has not been made.

The case against making that change is simple; Why take heroes away from minority kids in the West who don’t have a lot of heroes in Western culture that they can aspire to? Why make that change at all? There isn’t even a sound business explanation, as none of the actors cast have any box office cachet. The business argument may simply be that audiences are inherently racist, but that will surprise the makers of the hugely successful new Karate Kid movie, with its black and Chinese leads.

It’s true that sometimes characters in fiction are changed from Caucasian to another race, and few people complain, but the clear difference is between adding to the diversity of our entertainment culture, and taking away from it. Caucasians have little cause to protest the former; non-Caucasians have good cause to agonise over the latter. That pained reaction is exactly what we’ve seen from the whitewashing of The Last Airbender, and the outrage is entirely merited.

A lot of fans of Avatar: The Last Airbender will be celebrating the movie’s critical excoriation this weekend, and praying that it under-performs at the box office. Even if the movie meets expectations, the message has been sent that fans and minority groups will not take this sort of thing quietly, and movie studios will do well to show more sensitivity in future. Hopefully the studios and the filmmakers will listen. More likely, they’ll just keep making poor justifications.