Monday, 28 January 2013

Miscellaneous Mondays: Female Monsters

This week’s Miscellaneous Monday is brought to you by the brilliance of Tumblr user terror-incognita, who summed up a tremendous problem in media (and one of my pet issues) in a single paragraph:
I want to see more girl monsters. Girl giants, girl dragons, hulks & trolls. Scylla and hydra. Girl monsters who are huge and whole. Teeth and plush fur and long muscled tails. Heads enough to see you anywhere. Gleaming green or brown. But girl monsters are usually zombies or vampires. Pale and thin, bleeding or dead. Not Lady Lazarus, not a phoenix from the ash. I want to see how you get strong without being broken first. Get strong and stay strong. Get big and bigger.

I once had a lengthy argument about just this issue. My male conversation partner argued in favour of our current standard of female villainy, suggesting that women must enact their evil through their seductive appeal. What makes these women terrifying is the control they exert over men using the innate power of their sexuality. The example he gave was Angelina Jolie as Grendel’s mother in Beowulf (2007). I suggested that such an approach was reductive nonsense.

I, like terror-incognita, am sick of seeing monstrous women as pretty, humanoid corpses or gorgeous succubi. Hollywood dictates that female monsters must be attractive, causing pleasure while wreaking destruction. We rarely get the opportunity to see truly monstrous women, because it seems that being sexy is more important than being terrifying. What I’d like to see is more female Grendels, mutilating and consuming dozens of people at a time before having their arms ripped off in a violent struggle. I’d also like to see these kinds of monsters embrace their rage without this rage being reduced to some supernatural example of that time-tested adage that “bitches be crazy.”

What really strikes me in terror-incognita’s observations, however, are those final lines: “I want to see how you get strong without being broken first. Get strong and stay strong. Get big and bigger.” We started this blog with a post that riffed on Joss Whedon’s responses to the question of why he writes strong female characters. Although we wanted to use the form of his speech, we also wanted to begin by acknowledging a writer whose work with female characters is contentious. In many cases, his writing is contentious for just this reason: many of Whedon’s women must be broken before they can become strong.

A basic Internet search should produce a number of critical analyses of this trope in Whedon’s work. I’m not interested in getting into the details of these issues in this post -- though rest assured, we will be doing a whole host of Whedonverse series -- but I will offer two examples. In Firefly and its accompanying materials, we learn that River Tam underwent extensive, traumatic experimentation in order to become the perfect assassin. In Dollhouse, Echo had her self removed in order to have it replaced by a whole host of plug and play personalities before she ultimately fashioned a complete self. 

As another tumblr user, sorveharth, observes, “I think the main difference between a hero and a heroine in traditional narratives is that a hero’s strength is defined by how much he can win, while a heroine’s is defined by how much loss she can endure.” I don’t know about you, but I agree with sorveharth in saying that “that’s kinda fucked up.”

For further discussion of the problematic implications of women being broken in order to become strong, see also: Rape As Backstory and Sorry, But Rape Won’t Make Your Female Character More Interesting.

Friday, 25 January 2013

The Preacher's Daughter and the Deviant Hero

“Bomb Girls is unusual in several ways. For one thing, the four lead characters are women. Happily, MacLennan has a special affinity for creating female roles. The main trick, he says, is to avoid making them much different than male roles. Rather than portraying them as peripheral or sexually objectified, MacLennan’s women display depth, complexity and intelligence.”

In this excerpt from an article released to promote the second season of Bomb Girls, we see Michael MacLennan answering that age-old question: How do you write strong female characters? This may be one of my favourite questions asked of writers, simply because the answer is -- and always will be -- “treat them like human beings.”

However, MacLennan goes further. He suggests that women should be the focal point of their own stories, and that they should be portrayed as subjects, not objects. By figuring his show in opposition to the overwhelming majority of television and film, he shows that he and his writing staff are highly cognizant of what’s at stake. Mainstream media is quick to dismiss women’s stories, and studio executives tend to view the success of women-focused pieces as either a fluke or the result of employing typically masculine narrative tropes. (Case in point: any and all recent films in which women characters suddenly become knights.) If Bomb Girls had failed, its failure would likely have been seen to reflect not on the relative appeal of one show but on the validity of women-centered stories in general.

So it seems as if the creators decided to go big or go home. Instead of merely writing real, strong female characters, they chose to use this opportunity to critique the mainstream media’s portrayal of women and expose the social falsehoods that produce these flawed depictions. Whereas the treatment of Gladys and Vera explored the societal double standards that existed in the 1940s and continue to dominate our thinking today, the portrayal of Kate and Betty addresses the way in which media filters reality for mass consumption.

Kate Andrews

The very first thing we see in Bomb Girls is a shot of a woman’s legs. It’s a familiar image, recurring in films and television shows across decades. It’s not a new idea to begin a piece with an extended act of objectification; it is, however, pretty novel to have the person looking at these legs be a woman.

We are introduced to Marion Rowley on a street corner, singing hymns with her family and unsuccessfully hiding her interest in those legs. She is a preacher’s daughter, and when the preacher notices her noticing people -- a man, in this case -- he immediately turns to deliver his sermon to his ostensibly wayward daughter. To ensure that his message gets across, he grabs her hand in a punishing grip. The next time we see her, later in the introductory montage, Marion and her mother are making final preparations for her escape, a feat accomplished with her father’s assurances of her damnation ringing out behind her. And so Kate Andrews is born.

Kate is, arguably, the nicest character. When Edith gets word of her husband’s death, Kate attempts to soothe the nervous tension in the factory by singing Irving Berlin’s “It’s a Lovely Day Tomorrow.” When Gladys investigates Hazel Macdougall, she volunteers to accompany her and urges Betty to do the same. Having withstood her father’s destructive influence, it seems as if Kate has decided to become his opposite.

She further accomplishes this by breaking down the restrictive boundaries her father established. In the first episode, this is demonstrated quite subtly; whereas her father punished her for her appreciative gaze, now she openly looks. She sees two women dancing and asks Betty for a twirl, breaking a social taboo. She regards Gladys’ silk stockings -- yet another woman’s legs -- and asks to touch them. By taking these seemingly innocuous actions, she begins the process of actively engaging with a world that she was previously banned from seeing, much less enjoying.

While learning to exist beyond her father’s carefully constructed walls, Kate also demonstrates the ability to see the similarly arbitrary nature of certain social rules. When Lorna suspects Kate of theft, she assigns her to the storeroom, a vast, dark space that seems devoid of life until Kate hears a male voice singing. Looking for the owner of the voice in the canteen, she alerts a White male worker to her presence in the storeroom. He later attempts to rape her. In a subversion of the Birth of a Nation-style trope of Black masculinity violating White femininity, the owner of the voice, an African-Canadian man named Leon, saves her. While Betty cautions her to avoid Leon, arguing for the bigoted belief that he was merely saving her for himself, Kate spends much of the next two episodes seeking him out.

An argument could certainly be made that Kate displays a tremendous amount of privilege in constantly trying to converse with Leon in public, as it would be him who most likely suffered for the transgression. At the same time, however, this can be seen as a positive step in Kate’s progression toward becoming her own person. Harbouring little to no negative sentiment toward “Negroes,” she is unwilling to obey societal rules that dictate the people with whom she can and cannot converse. In this way, she is markedly more open-minded than Betty, whose racist attitudes can be only partially explained -- and certainly not excused -- by her fear that Kate is more attracted to Leon than to her.

Leon is much more than mere evidence that Kate can disobey rules. Beyond his value as an intriguing -- if somewhat underdeveloped -- character in his own right, Leon is Kate’s gateway to music, and music is Marion’s gateway to Kate. As Marion, Kate was raised with religious music, but it is through Billie Holiday’s work (and Leon’s recommendation) that she becomes empowered by her singing. She appears to identify with the singer to the point of projection, interpreting Holiday’s musical stylings as the message, “Don’t judge me. We all have our secrets.” She sees in a musical career the potential to find happiness and proudly plans to pursue it despite the risk of failure: “I found something I love. I don’t care if I fall on my face.” Singing allows her to assert her desires, giving both literal and figurative voice to her new goals.

Music is Kate’s chosen form of self-expression. As she observes in the sixth episode, “You know, I used to sing to feel something. Now it’s more like I feel something and I sing.” As Marion, she was so divorced from her own emotions that she had to experience them vicariously, employing other people’s words in order to access other people’s feelings. As Kate, she has broken through this barrier and finds herself able to experience and express her own emotions, relying on the words of others merely to lend some order to her newly liberated feelings. It’s the difference between false Hallmark sentiment and a sonnet by Neruda.

In the most effective instance, however, it’s actually a song by Ralph Rainger and Dorothy Parker called “I Wished on the Moon.” Kate directs her performance toward Betty, her sort-of love interest and number one cheerleader. Despite this dedication and a number of other indicators of attraction on Kate’s end, her true feelings about Betty are left frustratingly ambiguous. What is perhaps even more frustrating is the fact that that is precisely how things should be. Kate has had any possibility of a healthy relationship to her sexuality quite literally beaten out of her. Although she has pushed her way into a world where she can physically look and touch, her new freedoms cannot completely obliterate the old, ingrained psychological restrictions.

We see her struggle with these internal blocks on several occasions, most notably the photoshoot with Betty’s associate, Chet. In order to secure papers for her new identity and render valid the person of Kate Andrews, Kate agrees to do a pin-up photoshoot. When she expresses reservations, Betty encourages her, stating that she has a “new name, new job, new life.” Marion cannot pose seductively, but Kate must, if only to establish herself as the new person she needs to become.

Here we see the matter of the gaze pop up again. Initially, Chet is figured as the bearer of the gaze, the traditional male viewer who controls the mode of objectification in the form of the camera. However, the gaze soon shifts to rest with Betty, who watches Kate from next to the camera, encouraging her to try flirty poses. Betty helps Kate to access a heretofore unknown sexy side, and she does it by treating her like a human being. Unfortunately, the status quo is restored when we are again made aware of the presence and power of the male gaze, with Chet’s charming observation that “Kate Andrews is going to be comforting a lot of lonely servicemen.” It is a harsh reminder that the performance that Betty and Kate collaboratively produced will ultimately benefit men who think of the woman in the picture as nothing but a sexual object.

What helps to temper this brutal realization is the restoration of the queer female gaze. In her final scene of the episode, Betty sits on her bed, cross-legged, perusing Kate’s photos. She appears to view them with just as much sexual interest as the men, but the difference lies in her familiarity with the subject of the photographs: she is interested in Kate as a person, and the pictures merely allow her to enjoy her image. These looks were directed at her just as they were directed at the camera.

Unfortunately, Betty is not the only person who recognizes the person in the photos, as Kate’s father uses them to track her down. Despite leaving her father behind, Kate does not entirely escape him. If Gladys’ boundaries are societal, Kate’s are paternal. He is the towering figure in her life, the one true authority to which she turns when she seeks guidance, as evidenced by her tendency to quote her father when she is in need of an adage. He is her tormentor and warden, forcing her to adhere to his unconscionable moral code. Ever-vigilant and ever-present, he is an almost supernatural being, a corrupted god produced by Kate’s fear.

When he arrives, the show suggests that he may be a paranoia-produced apparition, a flashback like the one that featured a helpless Kate looking on as Marion was nearly drowned by her father’s hand. He soon proves himself all too real, and his influence immediately starts seeping back into Kate’s life despite her insistence that she would rather kill herself than return to him. Still, the signs that she is slipping back into her earlier identity are abundant. “You honestly think your father would rather hurt you than see you happy?” she inquires of Gladys, as if she didn’t have ample experience of this kind of paternal control. She apologizes for her father’s behaviour, telling Leon that “he worked so hard to find [her], [her] father, so very sorry for what he’d done.” She is justifying her decision to return home even before we learn that she has made the decision.
When Kate leaves the boarding house, her regression is complete; the show makes this explicit by having Kate respond to the use of her new title with “My name’s Marion.” She rejects Betty’s assertion that she has freedom in a new life, dismissing both the quality of that life -- “What kind of life? I make things that kill people, I debase God’s gift, I sing in dens of sin, I drink, smoke, consort with deviants” -- and the idea that she acted of her own free will -- “I was seduced.” All of this comes across as an impressive act of ventriloquy, as Kate speaks the words that her father likely used to undermine her new self. Still, her delivery is hardly robotic, even if we may have to wait whole seasons to identify the emotion that causes her voice to break when she tells Betty that she never wanted her. It is this emotion that suggests that Kate has not been completely eradicated to make room for Marion; this woman still feels.

Many viewers of the show argue that Kate’s decision to return to her father in the final episode of the first season shows her to be weak. I contend, however, that there is basically no way in which Kate can be seen as weak. She survived traumatic physical, emotional and psychological abuse and managed to escape with only the help of her similarly abused mother. She forged a new identity (sometimes literally) and sought to make Kate Andrews a happier, more complete person than Marion Rowley had ever been. She did things that terrified her, simply because they had to be done. She also went back to her abuser because she needed to tend to her sick mother. She is anything but weak.

Verdict: Actual strong female character

Betty McRae

"In terms of the story I wanted to tell of [Betty], it was not of somebody who understood herself and could identify or have the language to come out, per se," MacLennan said. "Rather somebody, like many women at the time, who is discovering herself. And discovering her kind of, what sets her heart ticking. I think she's somebody whose [sic] been very guarded until this sort of transformative force comes along in the shape of Kate Andrews."

Betty is a young woman from the Prairies who fears the threat of German U-boats from any and all bodies of water. Betty is a master practitioner of the carefully careless lean. Betty is the best worker at Victory Munitions. And Betty, despite lacking the vocabulary to identify herself thusly, is very, very gay. Accordingly, her first season storyline revolves around the difficulties of being a queer person in the 1940s.

Betty’s secret is a strangely open one and she herself appears on paper as something of a stereotype. She wears trousers, keeps her hair short, and has a typically masculine gait. Raised on a farm before she moved to Toronto, she comes from a family of brothers and, as MacLennan suggested in the same interview already quoted, she is “really only comfortable in a male milieu.” She’s one of the guys, and now, faced with the prospect of a few years spent surrounded by women, she has to learn to adjust.

She is also one of the only women in the factory who is used to doing manual labour as a job, and it shows in her status in the factory. Not only is she the best bomb-maker on the line, but Betty is entrusted with training the new workers. She introduces them to their new jobs with a telling pep talk: “Here’s the deal, ladies: you do fine embroidery, you can assemble a time fuse. If you sew buttons, you can thread a detonator. If you can pour tea, you can pour amatol. It’s no big whoop. Except some folks don’t see it that way, and the guys are crapping bullets, afraid they might not get their easy street jobs back after you’ve helped them win the war. You ignore ‘em first, talk tough second... That doesn’t work? You slap ‘em silly.” In one speech, she dismantles the hierarchical value structure of gendered work, showing that women’s domestic tasks and men’s public jobs are differentiated by nothing more than the materials used. She also reminds the women that they have a right to defend themselves against disparaging comments, even offering violence as a possible tool. She wants to instill confidence in her co-workers.

However, after the bad bomb test, Betty proves herself somewhat unwilling to challenge the status quo. When the women are blamed for the bad bomb, she offers suggestions to improve their work environment. Still, she does not support Gladys’ attempt to stand up to Harold Akins. Instead, she dismisses their valid concerns as just talk, “like women do.” Confronting individual male workers is fine, but challenging the system itself is unthinkable.
It is completely unthinkable, until Gladys Witham comes along with her suggestion hatbox. When the male workers read out the lewd, insulting suggestions with which they filled the box, they allow Betty to see the act of challenging the system as an opportunity to tell off the men whose behaviour, in and of itself, is a threat to workplace safety. Whereas Gladys is somewhat chastened by seeing her tool of empowerment become a weapon of oppression, Betty is spurred into action. She realizes that allowing the men to bully Gladys in this way will lead to them pressing their advantage and tormenting the rest of the women. So she steps forward and uses the box for its intended purpose, stating, “These pinheads think we should work six days a week and never have an idea in our pretty little heads about how to do our own damn job.” It’s a matter of pride; Betty might not buy into Gladys’ grand feminist ideals, but she’ll be damned if she lets a bunch of knuckle draggers tell her she doesn’t know how to do her job.

As the wealthy outsider, Gladys could not gain support for her suggestion box, but Betty, the star worker, convinces every woman on blue shift to make their voices heard. She also refuses to let Gladys take the blame, pulling a sort of “I am Spartacus” show of solidarity when Lorna demands to know who is responsible. What is particularly notable about this scene is the way in which it is framed within the episode. When Gladys began her unsuccessful crusade, Kate informed her that her failure was a sign that “nobody wants a Joan of Arc to lead us to battle.” After a working class woman steps up to lead, however, she assumes just this role. Gladys makes this explicit by referring to Betty as “our Joan of Arc.” In her moment of rebellion, Betty becomes a heroic figure.

The heroic narrative clings to Betty throughout this first season. When she is selected to star in a newsreel, Kate calms her nerves by telling her that “they’re all gonna see what [Kate] see[s]: a hero.” Even in the final scene of the season, when Gladys suggests that they will work together to find Kate, there are narrative underpinnings of a knight going to save her bewitched lady from a scripture-citing dragon. The figuring of a queer woman in this light suggests that the show is doing some deliberate critical work. As I argued in our post about Adventure Time’s Marceline, “when shows refuse to represent LGBTQ people onscreen, they are telling these audience members that they have no place in the world that the show creates. They cannot be heroes or princesses or badass vampires; they can only be silent and invisible.” Bomb Girls not only includes queer people, but explicitly argues for their recognition as heroes.

Because this critical work is carried out so subtly, the show couples it with an explicit critique of LGBTQ media representation. In the fourth episode, Victory Munitions is selected to be featured in a newsreel to recruit women for the bomb factories. Initially, the filmmaker, Russell Joseph, wants Gladys for the role of everywoman bomb maker. The show uses this opportunity to demonstrate the problems inherent in assuming that the women will be attracted to the kind of bomb girl that pleases the male gaze. Lorna points out the flaw in Russell Joseph’s plan: “Just because you’d like to get her out of that uniform and into your little movie, doesn’t mean the average girl will see her and think, ‘That’s me.’” When he responds that he knows how to sell this war, she responds, “To men, maybe.”
Lorna argues that women want to be able to identify with the woman onscreen. She proposes that they select the best worker, and with her recommendation, Betty becomes the model bomb girl. For a person like Betty, well versed in all the reasons why she is not society’s ideal woman, this could be her moment, when what she can do might prove enough to overshadow what she is. Unfortunately, at every step of production, Betty is transformed into an alternate self, one that Joseph assumes is more palatable to the masses. Her face is caked with makeup, her hair carefully coiffed, and her breasts made the centre of attention.

While most of the production focuses on making Betty something she detests, one element makes her fictional self someone she might aspire to be. The film crew does a location shoot at a picturesque, white house, and Betty reveals to Kate that that is what she is saving up for: a house of her own, to be shared with a “housemate.” She wants to take advantage of the opportunities afforded her by the changing social structures to make a life for herself that resembles the perfect white picket fence fantasy that she’s internalized. At the same time, she wants to subvert social norms by reimagining this scenario with a female partner. Unfortunately, her preferred partner has internalized the same image in its original form, responding to Betty’s plan to buy a house with “That’s what husbands are for.” Still, the dream remains, as Kate also agrees to be Betty’s housemate.

When the factory workers sit down to watch the newsreel, Bomb Girls makes its point about the devastating effects of queer erasure on real LGBTQ people. Betty sees that they have edited the scene shot at her dream house to include children running into her arms. To make matters worse, the voice-over states -- to the accompaniment of the male workers’ catcalls and sexual innuendo -- “It’s not just love of country that keeps Betty going, it’s her love of a very special man. Once her husband comes home from fighting Jerry, she’ll be happy to return to her wifely duties.” Like Kate before her, Betty finds that her image has been manipulated to suit the male gaze. In addition, her real identity as a lesbian has been erased in order to reinvent her as a false heterosexual ideal.

In so doing, the filmmakers unknowingly destroy Betty’s dream of a normal life. As she says, “It shows you what a freak I am. They had to make up a whole set of lies about me.” Lorna assures her that women will see her worth as a worker and as a person, and that they will want to be like her. Betty dismisses these words of comfort, stating, “Nobody would want to be me, Mrs. Corbett. Nobody.” Understanding that the fiction is the only acceptable truth, she can no longer see herself as a person worthy of audience identification.

Complicating this critique is Kate’s response. She dismisses Betty’s concerns with her portrayal, telling her that “people just thought it was fun” and thereby presenting the familiar “it’s just a TV show” argument. Betty, however, knows that what is just a TV show is also her life, and she confesses that she would sometimes like to be that person, if only to make her life easier. Kate responds by telling her that “you don’t need everybody liking you, just the ones that matter.” She tries to make Betty understand what she herself has discovered: you don’t have to be or do something just because other people think you should. Kate is reminding Betty that she isn’t her mass-produced image, but a person that other people appreciate.

This is why Kate’s rejection in the final episode is so crushing. Although she answers Betty’s love confession with an assertion that she never wanted Betty, I would argue that it’s the rest of Kate’s speech that causes the most lasting damage. By calling Betty a deviant and claiming that she seduced her, she is expressing the common belief of the time. She disavows knowledge of the actual Betty and condemns her by reducing her to a stereotype. Kate, the person who mattered most, delivers the cruelest blow.

The last time we see Betty and the rest of the bomb girls is in the final scene of the season. Emotionally battered by their romantic losses -- Kate to her father and James to officer training -- Betty and Gladys contemplate their next course of action. Betty’s ruminations take a philosophical turn: “The big promise: that we might actually get the things we want. What if it’s a lie?” By this time, Betty is painfully familiar with the duplicitous nature of desire, as she has had the things she most wants within her grasp only to have them ripped away. Gladys responds to her pessimistic observation, saying that they can’t stop trying and that they’ve got a war to win.

This war, while ostensibly the massive historical conflict around which the show revolves, could just as easily be read as the show’s battle for proper representation. In these final moments, Gladys links her arm with Betty’s and they both confidently stride toward the factory, Edith and Vera joining them. Playing over this proud march is a snippet of “Ain’t Nobody’s Business”: “There ain’t nothin’ I can do, or nothin’ I can say that folks don’t criticize me, but I’m gonna do just as I want to anyway. Ain’t nobody’s business if I do.” In the final shot, set to that final line, we see the four women, arms linked, the picture of female friendship and solidarity. Each one of them has done wonderful and awful things, but in every case they have done what they thought was right.

The season closes as it opened: on the image of women’s legs. This time, however, we know the women as people and know, therefore, that this final nod to objectification is actually a refusal to fall victim to it. These women have earned their subjectivity, and it is therefore particularly telling that the gaze in the last shot is not only not attributed to any character, but is indeed filmed from such an angle that it could not constitute a character’s point-of-view. After all, it ain’t nobody’s business what they do.

Verdict: Actual strong female character

Monday, 21 January 2013

Miscellaneous Mondays: LEGO my Eggo

This week we would once again like to bring attention to the gender segregation of the once-universal LEGO world. Anita Sarkeesian is a feminist video blogger who became famous due to the violently misogynistic backlash to her proposal to make a webseries about sexism in video games. In these less contentious videos -- part of her Feminist Frequency series -- she traces the history of LEGO’s marketing, as the product transformed from a fun-for-the-whole-family creative outlet to an exclusive mess of gender stereotyping.

I have a long history with LEGO. I used to spend hours playing with the basic sets. I actually had the Paradisa “Sand Dollar Café” set, as well as the complete LEGO soccer field. I played LEGO Island back in the nineties and now own most of the film franchise tie-in games. I made a point of visiting the impressive LEGO display at last year’s Emerald City Comicon. I’m a LEGO fan.

However, I know that I was able to get into the toys because my brothers and male friends owned sets. I know that I am enjoying playing video games intended for male fans of male-centered franchises. I know that, in order to walk around Gotham City as Black Canary, or Huntress, or Lois Lane, I have to spend hours adventuring as Batman and Robin. It’s a broken system but, as Sarkeesian suggests, it would be easy to fix.

Friday, 18 January 2013

The Bomb Girl and the Soldier

After the first season of Bomb Girls aired, its showrunner and co-creator, Michael MacLennan, did an interview with the pop culture bloggers of The Mind Reels. Drawing a comparison between the two shows as period dramas, one of the interviewers asked MacLennan what he thinks of Downton Abbey. MacLennan’s response was an impressively diplomatic phrasing of a very simple message: it all went to hell in the second season. (This section begins around 49:30, but do yourself a favour and listen to the whole thing.)

This is precisely the reason why, although the original Strong Female Character schedule had January booked as Downton Abbey month, we couldn’t go through with it. Why discuss a show that’s gone off the rails when you can spend your time on a series that shows every sign of staying on course?

The reason why we chose Bomb Girls -- and the reason why we will eventually deal with Downton -- lies in its writers’ approach to historical drama. In its first season, Downton Abbey looked like it was going to chronicle the downfall of the aristocracy, the rise of the middle class, and the changing status of women’s rights. Instead, it became a soapy mess dominated by love triangles and half-baked storylines often made possible by what seemed like daily trips back from the frontlines of the First World War.

Bomb Girls, by contrast, follows through with its premise of representing the often unacknowledged efforts of the women left at home. More than this, though, it does what we would like every period drama to do: use its historical setting to address issues that are still relevant in contemporary life and to interrogate our perception of ourselves as a society advanced beyond the people of that era.

Gladys Witham

A perfect example of this is the character of Gladys Witham. Gladys is the wealthy heiress of Witham Foods, a company doing its part in the war by capitalizing on rations contracts. After getting a job in the office at Victory Munitions, she finds herself attracted to the life and work of the bomb girls. Over the course of the first season, she struggles to find a place for herself both within and beyond the restrictive boundaries of her privileged life, confronting the realities of a social system that prefers to view her as a cardboard cutout than as a person.

In exchange for her wealth, Gladys is expected to relinquish all aspirations of being anything but arm candy and breeding stock. She possesses a keen mind for business tactics, but is excluded from taking an active role in her father’s enterprise by virtue of being a woman. Following a dinner that Gladys disrupted by daring to stand up to the guest, her expected role is explained by her mother: “There are other ways -- our ways -- to effect an outcome. So you powder your nose and walk downstairs. You’ll titter at jokes, compliment tie clips, and charm Tank Treleven’s cold, crass heart. That, dear Gladys, is your job.” Her power is limited to motivating the people who possess real power. She is intended to be, at best, a conduit; through her, her father’s power passes to her husband and her sons. Gladys, however, refuses to play this role. Instead, she takes advantage of the new opportunities offered by the war to become an active participant in her own life.

Gladys’ obsession with the roles people play in life appears to originate in her love of film. Her vanity mirror is surrounded by pictures of glamourous movie stars, and she models her own dress and behaviour on theirs. While she yearns to be onscreen, she tries to temper this longing by imbuing her life with Hollywood magic. On one occasion, her father suggests that her enthusiastic support of the war effort is just part of a game, in which she dresses up as the starlet du jour and re-imagines the war as a production with her as the lead. On another, she uses the events of a Hitchcock film in order to confront her fiancé about his infidelity. The problem with this approach to life, however, is that Gladys sometimes forgets that other people do not have the luxury of playing a part.

Being faced with the real conditions of factory work helps her to examine her privilege. Bomb-making begins as yet another role to which Gladys is attracted. In the first episode, Gladys looks on as Betty gives the trainees a pep talk and the expression on her face bespeaks her enchantment with their work. Ironically, she first becomes enamoured with the job while listening to Betty explain just how simple and unremarkable it is. Still, assisting in this work makes her instrumental in the fight against Hitler and therefore feeds her dramatic appetite; as she argues when she first asks for the job, “I came here to battle the Axis, Mr. Akins. I feel I can do more than just alphabetize.”

The problem is that almost no one else in the factory believes her. The other women on blue shift are reluctant to accept her as one of them, expressing their opinions that she will either get herself injured or give up when the work gets too hard. They are always aware of their vastly different socioeconomic positions; whereas Gladys is attracted to factory work as a matter of patriotic duty, the other women need this job in order to feed themselves and their children.

Gladys receives her first lesson in this harsh reality when she sets out to improve factory conditions following the detonation of a bad test bomb. She stands up to the Victory Munitions boss, Harold Akins, about the double standard inherent in blaming only the women workers for the problem. When she asks for support from the other women, however, they claim that their own demand for better conditions was just talk -- the inconsequential chattering of women. As Kate tells Gladys, “Nobody wants a Joan of Arc to lead [them] to battle.” Even when Gladys offers them the shelter of anonymity in the form of a suggestion box -- a fancy hat box converted into a useful object, a neat symbolic representation of Gladys herself -- they have to be crudely insulted by the men and led by one of their own before they will act. Because Gladys is not as invested in this fight, she must learn to play a supporting role. While her distance from economic reality allows her to speak up and initiate the women’s rebellion, she cannot fully take part.

Helping to make her part of the group are Betty and Kate. Initially, Betty is unhappy with Gladys’ presence on the line, resenting the security of her seemingly charmed life. Kate is more open to the idea of forging a friendship, but it is ultimately Betty -- the best worker, the working class Joan of Arc -- who must accept Gladys. The combination of her support and Gladys’ willingness to be part of the team of bomb-makers allows her to state unequivocally, “I belong here. I earned the right to stand with these women.”

Unfortunately, the right she earned and the privilege she maintains come into conflict in the final episode. Her controlling father learns that she has been working on the floor instead of in the office, and he risks the lives of every person at Vic Mu simply because he wishes to discipline his daughter. Gladys’ mother orchestrates a plan in which she offers Lorna money to send Sheila to medical school in exchange for Lorna firing Gladys. Lorna refuses, and does not give in even when Gladys responds to her warnings about marriage with a callous “Mrs. Corbett, I’m sorry if you hate your life. Did you ever think that maybe I have a better one?” She does, however, use her own positive pregnancy test to get Gladys fired when she learns that Gladys put Vera on the line with no consideration for the psychological scars she might disturb. She can enjoy her right to stand with the other bomb-makers until the moment she puts their lives on the line.

In addition to this reclamation of personal agency, represented by the transition from the informal “career” of entertaining to the formal job of making explosives, the show uses Gladys’ character to explore the issue of sexual double standards. Both Gladys and her fiancé, James, are unfaithful in some way, Gladys by engaging in some sexual experimentation with a soldier and James by having a full-fledged affair with one of the factory workers. Initially, Gladys becomes a willing enforcer of these double standards. While Gladys is hurt by James’ actions, she focuses most of her ire on the “other woman,” Hazel, who has been stealing things that Gladys received from James in order to validate their secret, physical relationship. Gladys tries to convince Hazel to confess to the thefts, again caring very little for the fact that that would lose Hazel her job. Even when Hazel transfers to a different shift, Gladys slut shames her, stating, “At least I earned my pin money standing up.”

This again leads us back to the topic of roles. Gladys is constantly defining herself as “not that kind of girl.” She does so in the first episode as a way to discourage the soldier’s advances, and again when she asks James why he chose to pursue Hazel instead of approaching her about taking the next step in their relationship. The problem is not that Gladys doesn’t want to have sex with James; on the contrary, her introductory scene shows her trying to take things further at their engagement party. The problem lies entirely in the societal construct of “that kind of girl” and the Madonna-whore dichotomy that it suggests.

Despite her behaviour with Hazel, Gladys demonstrates a canny understanding of this additional limitation. She explores her sexuality, first with Lewis and then with James, and her continued assertion that she’s “not that kind of girl” suggests that she refuses to be painted as dirty or corrupt simply because she had the audacity to seek out pleasure. She also rejects the idealized virgin role, telling her fiancé, “You put me up on a pedestal, James, and when I fall? I’m going to hurt something.” She fights to be seen as a person, capable of making mistakes and worthy of experiencing pleasure without the pressure of societal expectation.

There is one final area in which Gladys must confront the difference between the real and the ideal: the war itself. Gladys spends the first season championing the war effort, not only doing her part in the factory but verbally defending the soldiers at every opportunity. She risks familial repercussions when she calls Tank Treleven out for disrespecting the troops, and she is instrumental in convincing James and her father to improve rations production to prevent spoilage. She only questions her approach when her personal romance comes into conflict with her romanticization of the war. When James joins up following the attack on Pearl Harbor, he tells Gladys that he did so because she wanted him to be a soldier. She tries to tell him that that was before she knew the realities of what he would face, and that she isn’t “looking for a hero.”

This is the power of Gladys’ story. In every respect of her life, she is trying to discover how to negotiate the boundaries of the real and the ideal. She makes mistakes, but she is willing to learn from them. Through her struggle, the show explores the construction of social identity and the arbitrary designations we have for what is “right” or “proper.” Faced with almost insurmountable societal pressure to conform to a prefabricated ideal, Gladys nevertheless fights to define the role that she will play in her own life.

Verdict: Actual strong female character

Vera Burr

Vera is introduced via what comics fans often call a “butt shot,” a shot in which we see her from behind, leaning down to light a cigarette. In a show filled with deliberate symbolism, it’s hard to dismiss this moment. Over the course of the first episode, we learn that Vera is well-known for her active sex life. She has accepted three soldiers’ marriage proposals, and considers this to be an act of charity, because, as she states, “they only propose to you so they got someone to think about when they’re off sweating in their bunks.” What we love about Vera is that she controls and embraces her sexuality; she decides to have sex, she knowingly becomes masturbatory fantasy material, and she feels no shame for doing so. Just as amazing is the fact that, while some of the other women are scandalized by her attitude and exploits, there is absolutely no slut-shaming.

As we all know from our exposure to media, a woman who takes obvious pride in her physical appearance is often punished for her pride by losing her beauty. On a superficial level, Bomb Girls plays into this trope, as Vera suffers a horrible, disfiguring injury during a moment of distraction on the line. Instead of portraying this as a punishment, however, the show uses Vera’s injury to delve into a number of different issues, among them the value of women workers relative to male soldiers, the reduction of women to their physical attractiveness, and the effects of depression and PTSD.

Several of these issues are introduced in a speech Lorna delivers to the doctor responsible for Vera, urging him to treat her as he would any man injured in service to his country: “You can’t let her leave here deformed; it will destroy her future. … Vera is a soldier. Vera risked her life every day to help win this war. Do not turn your back on her. If you want to see our boys with bullets in their guns and bombs in their planes, you will show her the same respect. … Now go in there, and book the operating room, and you do the surgeries, no matter how expensive or lengthy. You do your best for that girl.” Although we touched on the meaning of that speech for Lorna, we’d like to discuss it in more detail as it relates to Vera.

While Lorna is clearly thinking of Bob when she says that a deformity would destroy Vera’s future, there is more to this than one person hoping to save another from the kind of suffering she’s witnessed for decades. These women are enjoying a short period of time during which they are the ones driving the economy and earning their own livelihood. As long as the war continues, they have an opportunity for independence; however, once it’s over, it’s likely that pre-war social realities will be re-established (with a vengeance, as it turns out). Vera’s injury doesn’t just put her out of the job while she recuperates or limit her options for future employment; instead, it stands the chance of destroying her opportunities for marriage and financial support when the men come back to reclaim their jobs.

Lorna also argues that Vera is a soldier, and that is one of the show’s many compelling propositions: that these women in their jumpsuits, making the bombs, are just as much a part of the military as the men in their uniforms, using them. Women produce what the men will employ, and that makes them integral to the fight. The doctor claims that the men must be their first priority, and Lorna immediately links the process of prioritizing with ideas of value. That is why it’s so perfect that she tells them to “do the surgeries, no matter how expensive or lengthy.” She is telling them that Vera is quite literally worth just as much as any soldier.

It is one thing for Lorna to make this claim, and another for Vera to believe it. Vera’s storyline over the course of the season revolves around her decision to commit suicide. She sees no future for herself, admitting in the third episode that she can’t even go home to her family: “Why give them the satisfaction of knowing all along that I was nothin’ but a pretty face? Now I’m nothing.”

As one might expect, mirrors play a major role in Vera’s story. At the beginning of the second episode, she appears detached and numb, claiming that she “can’t feel a thing.” She does not express any emotion until she gazes at herself in the mirror, looking first at the unchanged left side before shifting the mirror to show her right, where the stitches and swelling dominate her face. It is only when faced with her reflection that she cries. If you’ll excuse a little English major indulgence, I’d also argue that the mirror symbolizes the fact that, at this point, Vera cannot see past her own appearance. Any view of the future is blocked by this mirror, that can only reflect her own trauma.

This is where Archie comes in. Archie is another Victory Munitions worker who sustained a major injury on the job. Although Vera is initially angered by his comments about her injury -- including one particularly tasteless one about her looking like she’d made out with a cheese grater -- she comes to understand that jokes are a coping mechanism. As Archie observes, “You gotta laugh about it, or you’re gonna cry.” Upon discovering that Vera has been collecting sleeping pills, Archie tries to convince her not to commit suicide, but she cannot be swayed. It is only when Archie becomes fatally ill with sepsis that she gives up on her plan and decides to live.

The speech she delivers in this moment, as she helps someone else die and decides to live, is an echo of the one Lorna gave in order to save her: “You know, after my accident, Edith told me Lorna argued with Dr. Poitier, said he had to do right by me in the surgery. She called me a soldier, same as any man here. And I liked that. I suppose I still do. That’s the two of us Archie: we’re soldiers... on the home front.” Vera has come to value herself and her contributions, and this allows her to continue to fight.

This is the point at which many other shows might stop; Vera has decided to live, she’s displayed great strength in helping someone die with dignity, and she’s served as an inspiration to us all. That’s why what happens in the next episode is so necessary to her storyline.

In the final episode of the season, Vera has decided to go back to her family, seeing no future in Toronto with “a face only a mother could love.” Lorna refuses to let her go, saying, “My husband came back from the Great War, months in the hospital, same as you, then home, where the ankylosis set in. He went in, Vera, and he never came out again.” When Vera dismisses this comparison by saying that she’s not him, Lorna states, “That’s right. You’re stronger.”

With this vote of confidence, Vera returns to the factory, where Lorna sets the example and treats her as she did before the accident. Again, stopping here would have provided us with our unrealistic happy ending, but the show follows Vera to the factory floor, where she has been posted in the same line where she was standing when the accident occurred. She experiences a panic attack, during which her flailing arms bump the hanging bombs. In her current psychological state, she would be a danger to herself and others on the floor. Her future is again threatened.

Vera’s final scene is one of the most effective, excruciating moments in a season finale full of them. Knowing she needs employment and can’t risk working on the line, she offers the factory boss, Harold Akins, sexual favours in exchange for an office job. The first time I watched it I had trouble with this scene, but looking at it with a more critical eye, I would argue that this is the point where Vera proves that she is a survivor. Before the accident, she had what appear to be fairly high standards for her sexual partners. She used to do it for her own enjoyment, but now we see a shift; this isn’t fun, it’s survival. Unlike Bob, who wallows in his suffering, Vera decides to work her way around it. She needs to have a life again and cannot do so if she is constantly subjecting herself to her trauma, so she does what she must. It’s not nice, it’s not fair, but it is necessary.

Verdict: Actual strong female character