The West Wing ranking continues! We have made it through the good, the bad, and the Ted McGinley in PART I and PART II. There are a few flaws with some of these episodes, but on the whole, they’re classic–warts and all. And by warts, I mean Commander Crap Reese. So put on your oversized Josh jammies, grab some whiskey and Blow Pops, and snuggle up with Marion Coatsworth of Marblehay. It’s time for the best!
Here are the Top 50:
50. “Evidence of Things Not Seen” (season 4, episode 20)
I love that Toby’s accoutrements for poker include a giant bottle of whiskey and two Blow Pops. With that noted, let’s play some poker! Oh wait, other things keep getting in the way, including a job interview with an actor who just got out of rehab, a telephone farce with a Russian leader, and a shooting in the Briefing Room (!!). The titular evidence and things not seen relate to each of these distractions, including Josh not seeing Joe Quincy’s (yeesh, what a name!) little Republican sticking out, and suppressing any feelings over the shots fired. The spy plane, the egg, Will hitting the fifth row. Get it? Hope? Faith? Skepticism? Fear? This is Sorkin being a little cutesy, and also trying to scare us a bit. See, we all know the season finale is approaching, but know not what shape the menace might take. Last episode we wondered about a plane crash. Now we wonder about another shooting. In the meantime, this fake spider under the sheets doesn’t move us very far but allows us to enjoy our favorite characters for a bit. That ain’t all bad.
Points Lost For: Very special guest star Matthew Perry. Blech. Joe Quincy is written like a pancake.
Awkward Suspension of Reality Moment: Remember back in “20 Hours in LA”, when Donna’s at the fancy-pantsy party and she wants to try and meet Matthew Perry? That makes Joe Quincy’s appearance less believable than his name.
49. “Manchester: Part 2” (season 3, episode 2)
Finally, we’ve settled at the Bartlet Farm! Can I just say that every single White House speech should be written in a barn with a serpentine test audience? Ach, but we’re doing the time warp again and it really dampens any dramatic crescendo that I might’ve enjoyed. What elevates this episode over its previous counterpart is the levity that we get from apple cider and Toby handling all the campaign signs with his magic marker.
LOST Crossover Theory: Has anyone considered that Evan Handler’s character, Doug, might actually be a figment of Sam’s imagination, just as his character on LOST, “Dave”, was Hurley’s imaginary tormentor? He is Sam’s conscience and coping mechanism after his recent paternal meltdown, followed by the revelation that his father-like President was also leading a secret life. He wants an apology from everybody. So he has invented Doug, who shouts at him and pushes him. Just like Dave. Connie might be his therapist who tries to explain what
Dave Doug means and help him through this troubling time. Hmmmmm. I’m on to something here.
48. “Stirred” (season 3, episode 17)
It seems to me that over the past few episodes, Josh and Donna really don’t have much to do. First, they were prank calling the Flenders of Hartsfield’s Landing, and then they were blowing up Lemon-Lyman.com. Now they’re debating the legitimacy of making a teacher appreciation day. Donna really is sweet, though, and I love the solution that they eventually cultivated. Most of us really did have one of those teachers, didn’t we? Mine was Mrs. Barbara McClanaghan. English teacher. Twelfth grade. She told me she saw something in me when really no one had to that point in my life. A friend, a wry mind, and really supportive mentor. She passed away from breast cancer in 2002. Darn you, Donna, for digging all of that up.
Points Awarded For: PB’s commentary on James Bond’s snooty martini order
Points Lost For: The gang seriously floating High Priest Leo’s name for V.P. He brings nothing electorally, he isn’t the folksy yin to the President’s brainy yang, and…I have a premonition that Leo might be really bad at campaigning.
47. “Bartlet’s Third State of the Union” (season 2, episode 13)
Do any of you people have accents? How about you, you special bastard, Ted McGinley? Is that gum in your filthy Alpha Beta mouth? I’m interested, because, see, I just do not get a lady-boner for the State of the Union. Never have, doubt I ever will. As a matter of fact, I loathe it. But at least my annoyance can be channeled into Abbey’s anger. She gives such good wrath. And just to tie a big ribbon on this episode, I’ll note that any day, any time, I’d rather be dancing and drinking a Pink Squirrel in the steam pipe trunk distribution venue over watching even two minutes the SOTU.
“Women in Government? That’s Crazy!” Moment: Two of the most high-profile women in the White House are so bubble-brained they both sit on a bench with wet paint, in spite of signs. Therefore, they must go on TV bottomless, or dance in bathrobes. Why isn’t Rob Lowe in a banana hammock, damn it all?
Side Note: It always bugs me that Ted’s show is spelled “Capital Beat”, instead of “Capitol Beat”. The former isn’t exactly wrong, but the latter makes so much better sense.
Pink Squirrel Recipe: (Because you’re dying to know) 1 part almond liqueur, 1 part creme de cacao, and 1-2 parts heavy cream or vanilla ice cream. Mmmmm.
The Bartlet fun never stops. We’ve already ranked West Wing episodes #101-155 in PART ONE. Now it’s time to move on from the awful episodes that Curtis had to carry around, to some truly lovely stories, killer lines, and classic moments. Most of these episodes below have some serious flaws, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t worthwhile. Get ready to enjoy Chicken Bob, a goldfish pin, and Toby singing.
On we march to the top 100:
100. “Han” (season 5, episode 4)
I have han just watching this episode, even though it’s a sweet little LOST reunion of sorts (or was LOST a “Han” reunion? Time riddle!). Listen, this is an episode where PB and Leo are just wrong and so adrift in an ocean of uncertainty that they missed the obvious inevitability that the North Korean talks would fall apart. They sacrificed the young confused musician, and then PB had the nerve to blame the pianist’s lack of understanding of “freedom”. Really, Jed? Teach him freedom. Ack, the writers have positioned the POTUS as doddering, weak, confused, and myopic. Not cool.
99. “The Lame Duck Congress” (season 2, episode 6)
Zzzzzz. ZzzzzzZzzz. This is one snoozer episode. I don’t care a fig about the drunken Russian getting to see the President. And Donna is petulant and ridiculous in this episode about repetitive stress injuries. Nothing about this episode is particularly offensive, it’s just boring and overly focused on procedures.
98. “The War at Home” (season 2, episode 14)
You know they’re seriously spinning their wheels when the SOTU takes up the better part of two episodes. The speech isn’t exactly a thriller movie, so I can’t believe we’re still listening to Ted McGinley and a very fake Detroit cop who is busy explaining his “Jump to Conclusions” mat while C.J.’s auctioning him off to the friendliest press outlets. The real point of this episode, of course, is the building tension between POTUS and FLOTUS. For the record, I am complete on the side of FLOTUS, and she is the mature, brilliant, feisty voice of reason among a mob of ostriches gathered in a sandbox. Quick bit of trivia: You could skip this entire episode, and apart from a handful of clever lines, you really wouldn’t miss it. Episode 13 to 15. Woosh! C.J.’s running crazy, Ainsley gets humiliated, Toby is frustrated. You’d never notice.
Points Awarded For: In the moment before Donna describes monogrammed towels, Josh gives her a brief look like he might rip her clothes off. And for three heartbeats I don’t breathe.
97. “The Black Vera Wang” (season 3, episode 20)
Alternate Title: “Mark Harmon Episode #2”
Oh, Sam. Sam, Sam, Sam. My cats saw that ploy coming. But this is how much effort the writers are willing to dedicate to the re-elect campaign. After all, we know Bartlet’s going to win. They know Bartlet’s going to win. James Brolin knows Bartlet’s going to win. So a lot of this is marking time until PB can begin his second term (and, *cough*, season 4). That leaves us twiddling our thumbs while Toby argues about balloons, and Josh argues about moose meat, and CJ pouts around a department store with Special Agent Handsome. Our thumbs only stop twiddling when, in the last five minutes, the writers dangle a big, fat, juicy carrot in front of us: Shareef’s plot to blow up the Golden Gate Bridge.
Great Line: “Nah, I’m hoping it’s porn.”
Well, damn. If I’m going to go to the trouble of ranking every Gilmore Girls episode, then I’d better get on the ball and fire up…whichever digital service has the licensing for… The West Wing as well! This paragon of American political optimism and snark is simply one of my favorite shows of all-time. But, it might also be the trickiest show to rank. See, I have to balance entertainment with political views. That’s dangerous stuff right there. So dangerous I might need the full box of Franzia and a big block of cheese to get through these tough negotiations. And maybe some pie. Definitely all the doughnuts and bagels in the land.
Let’s start with the worst, or as I call it “the Angela Blake end of the list”. The top 54 will take you through some pretty rough territory–Camp David negotiations, Brian Dennehy, heart attacks, some Harry Potter vomit, and human fruit fly.
From the bottom:
155. “Isaac and Ishmael” (season 3, episode 0)
Alternate Title: “The 9/11 Episode”
Airing less than a month after the 9/11 attacks, this was never supposed to be an episode. This was thrown together in a matter of about two weeks, from writing to filming to post-production, specially to address the attacks. And it’s awful. Preachy and dark and utterly self-aware. This is an after-school special mixed with a 70s variety show, with a whole lot of racism thrown in. The shockingly prejudiced, rude, and naive teens–who accuse Toby of being a terrorist for wearing a beard, and ask P.B. if he thinks he’s a “man of principle”–are treated to a cast of characters who pop “on stage” one at a time. First Toby drops in! And then it’s C.J. And then a very special appearance by P.B. and the First Lady! The characters are each condescending as shit, using Biblical stories and and patchy WWII analogies to try and explain terrorism in short-prose form. Diarrhea would be more fun than watching this episode. If you ask me to swear on it, this is not West Wing canon. It isn’t even television canon. It does not exist, anymore than does the finger puppet show in which I pretend that Andy accepts Toby’s marriage proposal and loves the house he bought. They eat pie a lot.
154. “Here Today” (season 7, episode 5)
My Toby. My brilliant and beautiful Toby. What have they DONE TO YOU? Let’s do a quick rundown of this episode: It’s crammed packed with Charles Frost (zzzzzzzzz), Oliver Blabbish questioning (please god nooooooooo!), the President reprimanding and firing Toby (sniffle), and the introduction of fucking Vic the Human Fruit Fly (ewwwww!). I thought Vic was super-duper skeezy and icky when he was banging Miranda on Sex and the City. And now he has impregnated Ellie? Gross! If I’m looking for something to believe in, my only hope is that Josh fired Negative Ned.
153. “Ninety Miles Away” (season 6, episode 19)
Alternate Title: “Leo Takes On Fidel Castro”
What the fuck is going on? Why is the former White House Chief of Staff meeting Fidel Castro? How is the Cuba issue a single-serving flyby? Why is Brian Dennehy on my screen? And why is he making orange juice really creepy? What is the point of setting up an intertwining history between Kate and Leo? Oh, and speaking of Kate, why has every episode become about her analysts cultivating some new urgent international crisis? Has the Bartlet administration given up on domestic issues so much and has decided to go legacy shopping internationally? This is a baaaaad episode. Baaaaaaad.
152. “The Birnam Wood” (season 6, episode 2)
Alternate Title: “The Third Israeli-Palestinian Episode”
Camp David negotiations keep going. Hhhhhhhhhhhhh. Okay, we can do this. It’s like getting a pap smear–no one enjoys it, but it’s something we have to do, so we slide down and relax, make polite chitchat with the well-meaning jelly-fingered doc, and get ready for the negotiations to come. I love how the director decided that we’d have an easier time getting us to swallow the conflict debate if we heard it over basketball, skeet shooting, and NERF football. SPORTS! It doesn’t work. All that truly comes of it (because there are no good answers to this quagmire, not even from TV writers), is that Leo quits. Leo quits. Then, like a wounded animal, sweaty and gray, he staggers into the woods away to isolate himself while he has a major cardiac attack. Oh, Leo. I almost feel bad for all the horrible things I’ve said about you lately.
Suspension of Reality Moment: While the early-morning gang is still trying to decide on talking points, PB shows up in a dark three-piece suit that seemed a little stuffy for the gnat-infested cabin in the dewy hours of the morning. But then he shows up to the initial review of topics a few hours later with the other two leaders wearing a sweater? While they’re wearing suits? What’s going on, wardrobe?
Points Awarded For: The way they do skeet shooting in Brooklyn. Heh. Oh, Toby.
151. “Impact Winter” (season 6, episode 9)
Alternate Title: “The Second Stupid China Summit Episode”
Ever since this episode, I can’t hear the Mamas and the Papas without thinking of Josh and Donna. Sigh. But let’s get to it: PB is making a huge mistake–I have already made this point to perfection during the previous episode’s review–but let me reiterate: This season of international healing is not only ridiculous, it’s brain-stabbingly boring. Oh, and there’s a thing where Phil from LOST comes in with bags of Utz potato chips and warns that the world might end. And, yes, the episodes of LOST and Mad Men I just referenced are more entertaining than this story. Oh, and did I mention that this is this year’s Christmas episode? CHRISTMAS! This episode is everything dry and irritating that this Sorkin-less era embodies. Fail. Christmas Fail.
Points Lost For: Jed’s “LOOK AT ME!” moment of leg pounding. The self-pity may be realistic, and I’m not attempting to judge his angst, but this isn’t the show we signed on for. And my mom has been a drama queen in a wheelchair her entire life, so I’ve heard the “LOOK AT ME!” speech every time she’s brushed her teeth since 1986. Actually, probably longer than that, but my younger self blocked it out.
150. “Access” (season 5, episode 18)
Oh no. John Wells, this isn’t E.R. And this is hack filler crap that tries to treat this show like it is a hospital procedural is irritating because it doesn’t add to the Bartlet universe. Moreover, this adds nothing to the overall narrative or the characters. This was a gimmick. And a really unwatchable one.
Suspension of Reality Moment: Casey Creek. No fucking way. You can’t rewrite the history of the administration to which we have been such close witnesses. Casey Creek never happened.
Suspension of Reality Moment #2: C.J.’s phantom staff that magically materializes, and then instantly vanishes. Maybe they’re all really ghosts…from Calvin Coolidge’s administration! They died there and didn’t realize they had passed, so they just keep holding imaginary ghost staff meetings with whomever is Press Secretary once every seven years on the day of the full moon.
Okay, RPG fanatics, it’s time to play one of my favorite time-killing games, “The D&D Alignment Game”! Which of your favorite characters falls into which Dungeons & Dragons-prescribed boxes?
If you need a little background, characters in the Dungeons & Dragons worlds are saddled with “alignments”–personality traits and motives that dictate their behavior. But appreciating the nuances of these traits and how each might be personified has led to a lot of nerd sparring. I’m sure that’s how this game started–just apply the cryptic guidelines to pop culture examples and you can help others to understand why they are totally and utterly wrong.
This is the game I play (sort of like the “desert island” game) when I’m stuck in an airport or waiting for my show to finish downloading. Or that time after you’ve ordered your food at the restaurant and you’ve run out of other conversation. What I love best is the number of heated arguments that has launched between me and my husband. I yell at him that he doesn’t understand the definition of “chaotic”, and then he yells that Jaimie Lannister absolutely does not fall in the evil category. Then I stab my fork into a dinner roll, yell something about Cersei’s vagina, and everyone in the restaurant stares. Good times.
Anyway, here is today’s inaugural post for this game. I just had to start with my favorite animated show of all-time, Gravity Falls (sorry, Muppet Babies). Take a look at the chart below to see how some of the characters might fit into the Dungeons & Dragons world (or as Dipper would say, the “Dungeons, Dungeons and More Dungeons” world). What do you think? Do I have it right?
(I’ve even put a handy little glossary at the end if you aren’t sure what these mean.)
A Few Definitions
Season 2 marks the first full season of The West Wing during which we have the privilege of watching for Goldfish Gail. C.J. Cregg’s office has never been more exciting, and a lot of scary and surprising things happen to Gail–she is mobbed by turkeys, interrogated by White House lawyers, and has a missile land in her bowl. But still she finds time for love and to make a new elephant friend.
Here it is, a list of Gail sightings from season 2.
If you think that you can identify one of the mystery props, please do comment and if you can convince me, I will happily give you full credit for the spot!
Season 2, Episode 1
No Gail. But she does send her best wishes to President Bartlet and Josh for speedy recoveries.
Season 2, Episode 2
- Prop: Completely no idea. The bowl is barely visible, and only for a moment. There is some sort of large monolith in the bowl, but it could be anything.
- Gravel: Brown
- Nod to Plot: Unknown
Season 2, Episode 3
- Prop: It’s a little ballot box with Gail’s ballot ready to drop in!
- Gravel: Rainbow
- Nod to Plot: It’s the midterm elections and Gail is ready to vote.
Season 2, Episode 4
- Prop: An elephant
- Gravel: Black and white
- Nod to Plot: Republican Ainsley Hayes was just hired, and Gail wants her to feel welcome among friends.
Tracking the many adventures of Goldfish Gail in the White House.
Many fans of The West Wing already know the terrific inside joke and easter egg that frequently popped up in C.J. Cregg’s office: Goldfish Gail had little props stashed inside her goldfish bowl that were typically thematic for the episode. The trick is to try and spot what it is. And this friends, became my obsession recently. Some of them are pretty obvious and easily visible in any given episode. But some of them…are a bit of a guessing game.
Now, for those of you who need a re-introduction to Gail, she is C.J.’s office goldfish who was gifted to her by reporter Danny Concannon when he attempted to woo her through a gift. Josh had cleverly recommended to gain C.J.’s favor through her love of goldfish. Danny sweetly presented the Press Secretary with our finned friend, not realizing that she actually is keen on the cheesy bagged crackers. Such a cute mistake. But Gail would not be denied, and she became an important friend to the show.
If you think that you can identify one of the mystery props, please do comment and if you can convince me, I will happily give you full credit for the spot!
Season 1, Episode 9
- Prop: Nothing. Welcome, Gail!
- Gravel: None? Oh, com’on, Danny.
- Nod to Plot: It’s a new fish! (And Danny loves C.J.)
Season 1, Episode 10
- Prop: Christmas tree, with some festive poinsettias atop
- Gravel: White, like snow. Snow with fish poop.
- Nod to Plot: Christmas episode!
Season 1, Episode 11
- Prop: What appears to be a military vehicle or building
- Gravel: Red, like blood
- Nod to Plot: India-Pakistan conflict
Political correctness is the poison-tipped sword pointed at the armor of the average American asshole, for the asshole is on a great, noble quest, larger than that of humor, cruelty, or domination. Assholes stand behind a great bulwark of free speech in order to assert their basic human rights. And in the name of freedom, they cast their gaze upon the hurt and horrified sword wielders, and dub them “snowflakes”. These great knights of vulgarity are righteous in their endeavor to preserve traditions and fortify the American spirit against the delicate.
It is a lovely fairytale. We have heard similar tales from local citizens at a nearby bar, from our grandfathers and uncles at holiday dinners, and from asshole celebrities, like Bill Maher or Rush Limbaugh. I am therefore a bit sad to present the argument that their tale is mere fantasy invented by assholes, for assholes, to protect them from consequence and remorse.
One cannot ever be certain which words, gestures, outfits, or social media posts may be offensive, for offense is entirely the domain of those who perceive it. This is a frustrating truth, especially to those of us who write and crack jokes now and then. Satire may be taken as truth. Parody may be viewed as propaganda. Shenanigans may be seen as insults. This, friends, is the risk we take in the delicate art of communication. If only wishing made it so that I could control the reaction of every eardrum and eyeball so that what I find humorous was laughed at, and that the absurd was recognized universally.
The fault does not lie with the offended, though. Delicate sensibilities can arise from grief, fear, anger, and being shit upon throughout one’s entire life. Just as the asshole cannot control the domain of perceived insults, the offended cannot control the filter through which they digest words and deeds. This is the consequence of so many disparate roads of experience intersecting, criss-crossing, and getting tangled like a knot of spaghetti.
Since neither the asshole nor the snowflake has control, the ongoing saga of enduring each other’s company must be done with a series of deliberate choices, and a fair acceptance of consequences for those choices.
When the common asshole ventures to make a joke or commit an act that he senses may be reviled by snowflakes, a calculation must be made: What is the price he is willing to pay for the expression?
Even the most impudent assholes will typically never don blackface for Halloween, for example. For even if the asshole himself is not offended, and he intends no malice in the act, he, at the very least, recognizes that society has established mores against the practice for the last fifty years. The price for doing so would be extreme: The asshole may be violently attacked, may attract the attention of local news, and may lose his job, friends, and any shred of social standing he had left. Ostracism is the bare minimum price for such a crude act.
This is an extreme example, of course. The difficulty for the average asshole can be in calculating the cost of acts or words for which mores are still being formed, or remain unclear.
Returning to the Halloween scenario, an asshole may dress in caricature form as a Native American or a Mexican. The taboo exists, but not quite to the extent that complete ostracism is the cost. The nature of such an offense is still evolving, and so the rules and consequences are shifting even from year to year. It is understandable that the moving goalposts of offense are confusing and frustrating to assholes, but these shifts must be added to the risk-reward calculation for wearing such a costume. The thinking asshole might consider that such a costume is a high-risk proposition. Not only might people be more vocal in their offense than in prior decades, there could be personal consequences for the asshole.
Not every situation is so grievous for the asshole, however. Sometimes the calculation is more nuanced. For example, when I consume a surfeit of wine at Thanksgiving and become an asshole, I must make the calculation: If I tell my mother’s favorite story using a mocking voice in order to provoke laughter from others at the dinner table, I may make her cry. Or I may provoke her to do the same against me or someone else I love. Or she may take away my wineglass. I have to accept these consequences for my actions instead of dubbing her a snowflake who needs to “get over it” or alter her sensitivity and perception.
Many an asshole believes that he should not be vulnerable to such consequences because of the rights of free speech provided by the United States Constitution. The link between the First Amendment and protection from political correctness is engineered to fortify the asshole’s position of righteousness and patriotism. Except that this is an unfortunate misunderstanding, or deliberate perversion of the First Amendment’s powers.
The scope of the First Amendment merely affords protection against government persecution and prosecution.
The list of consequences for the average asshole entirely outside of the scope of the First Amendment includes (but is not limited to): Social shunning, withdrawal of political support or paid sponsors, termination of employment or work opportunities, and protests.
If you were a child of the 80s, then you likely know the tale of the silly and harassed Davis family who bought a haunted house in Lucifer Falls and then battled an evil ghost with a magic cloak. You watched Kristy Swanson (the worst actress ever) pout on a picnic blanket with cheese curls, and a robe-clad Bud Bundy get pulled kicking into the air by an inflated fireplace shovel. The kid from ALF even bickered with a little kid ghost over a snot-soaked teddy bear, and all the spirits glowed in neon. It was the spooky and mesmerizing children’s tale called Mr. Boogedy, which originally aired as a Disney made-for-TV movie in 1986.
I’ve been watching and rewatching this movie every October for many years now, and it has come to my attention that there is, in fact, something very haunting about this tale. But it isn’t the house or how the Davis family was plagued by ghosts. It was the treatment of a misunderstood man named William Hanover that lasted for hundreds of years. You see a hamburger-faced demon zapping lightning at a wisecracking family, whereas I see a trod-upon and anguished soul.
To see my point, let us all go back to the beginning. Boogedy’s beginning.
The Origin Story
Here is the story of Mr. Boogedy–as he is known pejoratively known–in the words of crackpot historian, Neil Witherspoon:
300 years ago, long before any of us were alive, a small group of pilgrims lived on this very spot. They were a hard-working, decent group of people. Once in a while of course, they would enjoy a good laugh. Most of them, that is.
She trembles. She bites her lips and feels shaking all over. She is a beaten dog who is filled with righteous fear and a sudden articulated need to vomit or evacuate her system through other orifices. She shakes and hesitates, and has traumatic flashbacks of the terrible times that came before. And she fidgets her way through spilled soups, clumsy meetings where she averts her eyes, physical stumbles, and horrid dreams that make readers pay for their faith in the author. As soon as she catches a cross glance, she loses her appetite. She befriends other underdogs and creates a bench of friends that she treats like Disney animal companions. And most assuredly she feels that her knees will buckle at the most critical moments of her experience, and prays that no one notices her tremors. Her brain tells her to run, but somehow she continues her stride in spite of her instincts.
Will she ever overcome this? Will she ever find her strength and become her own woman? After all, adversity knocks at her door once more, and dear reader, we are eavesdroppers. Can she pull it off?
The answer is, of course, yes. She is the modern young adult fantasy heroine. In spite of her palsy and digestive failings, she manages to do the impossible and vanquish the evil! Oh, hooray for the reluctant savior who wins the day and overcomes insurmountable odds!
Except that I hate her.
I hate her overly bitten lip and fidgeting. I hate the way she devours broth and bread and fights to hold it down. I hate those moments when she stares at her shoes and prays to move on unnoticed. Our tormented lady is weak, naive, and far too easily intimidated. And she keeps showing up in a number of modern young adult fantasy books.
For the life of me, I cannot understand what the authors are thinking. Are they convinced that they need their own Bella Swan to sell copies? Are there really so many women in the modern world who relate to this?
I don’t know about you, but I face adversity like a motherfucking woman. I fly across the Atlantic Ocean by myself, rent cars and drive on the totally improper side of the road, dodging cows and tractors. I stand up at a funeral when no one else will, and deliver a eulogy that brings to life a most beloved family member. I have changed diapers full of diarrhea and have chopped down trees. And do I tremble? Do I bite my lip?
No. I fight through it. And maybe I need a swig of gin at the end of it, and maybe I need to sob in an embarrassing way when I reach the end of a long week and have a little Sam Cooke playing. But I motherfucking own my struggles and only fight impulses to lunge or shout or at least give one hell of a death glare.
Yes, let’s acknowledge that there are a variety of traumas the likes of which I have never experienced. And I am the first one to sing the praises of the traumatized who tremble and hesitate during their recovery. Facing demons is damn heroic.
Let us also concede, however, that only a portion of these quivering piles of feminine gelatin have any proposed traumas in their backstory. Enter Bella Swan again. Theoretically, she was drawn as a clumsy underdog to make her relatable to the “every girl”. Same with Anastasia Steele. If they seem mortal and vulnerable, then any girl can find love with Edward or Christian (…and be physically abused by her partner–wait, that’s a different feminist literary issue).
The problem, of course, is that in the wide, wild world of women, we possess so many other different types of charms that the simple, shaken variety needn’t be our go-to. Coy and embarrassed isn’t a good look on most people, and I dread the thought of teenaged girls putting on the “oops” act to seem like they need a caregiver more than a partner or minion.
Now, there are plenty of instances where the heroine is good-and-plenty traumatized, as in the newest book I just picked up, “Poison Study”, by Maria V. Snyder. Her “lady of woe” is Yelena, and she seems to have assertiveness Tourette’s. One moment she is too shell-shocked to focus on swirling visions in front of her, and the next she is leaping to her feet and chiding or threatening a powerful superior who could execute her with a crook of his finger. There is something very real about her suffering and paralyzing flashbacks, but I picked up the book not to read about recovery and perseverance, but rather to read about a fantastical life at court with poisons and intrigue. The author has snagged us with a bait and switch. Utilizing trauma as a plot device is a bit like torture porn or grief porn. Every now and then I can stomach it, but not too often.
Where have all the plucky heroines gone? I am craving a leading lady who is so gritty that she tells herself, “Fuck the tremors, I want some revenge. Where’s the plunger and a hot poker?” I want more Rachel Morgans and Mercy Thompsons. Us grown-ass ladies know how wonderful and deliciously wicked they are, but the young folk may not realize what a firebrand the hard-luck lady can be.
If you still aren’t convinced, consider carefully that you almost never read novels with male protagonists who tremble and cower, who bite their lower lip, stutter, and twirl their locks nervously around their fingers. They can eat their broth without spilling a drop, and they certainly don’t swoon. This is a woman problem.
So what kind of commentary is this on young women in our time? To all of the authors out there, I want you to remember that ladies, even those of us who have been terribly hurt, are not beaten dogs. We are fierce fucking bears who lie in wait for our moment to strike. So let’s start showing the literary world what it’s like when we show our teeth.