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The New Heroines

A dialogue about teen and YA heroines in pop culture.

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television series

Claire Underwood – House of Cards

Claire Underwood (House of Cards, Netflix Original)

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Meet Claire Underwood. The 46th First Lady of the United States, and is currently running for Vice President under the Democratic Party for the upcoming election. She has held positions such as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, and has run non-profit organizations like the Clean Water Initiative. She earned her Bachelor’s Degree in Environmental Health and Chemistry from Radcliffe College, and received her Masters Degree in Public Health from Harvard. Her husband, President Frank Underwood, is the main character of the popular Netflix Original series, “House of Cards”. “House of Cards” is a Netflix political drama set in modern time, following the story of Francis J. Underwood, a Democrat from South Carolina working his way up the political ladder.
The best way to start an analysis on Claire Underwood is by defining her relationship with her husband. They have an interesting dynamic in their love life, feeding off each other strengths and weaknesses in an almost unnatural synergy. One of the first episodes shows Frank (at the time he was only the Majority Whip in Congress) having relations with a journalist named Zoe Barnes. He walks back into the house and Claire is aware of the situation. She does not care, for the simple reason of power. She recognizes that by him sleeping with a journalist, they can make EXTREME power moves in congress based off of media presence. She craves power. She loves her husband, but the two of them together is a power trip on steroids.
Claire is the epitome of a strong and powerful woman. She is cunning, intelligent, and bold. She has the power to be blunt and manipulative in order to push herself up above the rest. Her goal is to get as much power and influence as she can with the partnership she has formed with Frank. In terms of how her character is portrayed, she is an ultra-confident and in charge personality that can take control of any room she walks in. For a majority of the first three seasons, she is an obvious equal to Frank, playing off each other like building blocks. She doesn’t take anything other than respect from anyone, no matter who it is. She even had a point where she felt disrespected by the President of Russia, specifically a statement where he accused Frank of “pimping her out”, as a method of seduction to make visiting diplomats feel more comfortable in making deals with the United States. Instead of reacting harshly, or turning to Frank to do something as the president, she made her toast at dinner, to President Petrov and “his little pickle.” This was a pun off of a pickle related ritual he had just completed after having everyone at the party taking a shot of Russia’s finest vodka. She is not afraid to play with the “Big Boys”. After sitting around as the First Lady, she put her name in the hat to run for the Ambassador position at the United Nations. She is not afraid of a challenge, and after seeing the show 5 times over, I am unaware of a time where confidence left her side.

 

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Feminist Criticism

One of the frameworks I am going to talk about in the analysis of Claire is feminist criticism. I have mostly pulled from Toril Moi’s reading, “Feminist, Female, Feminine”, in talking about the feminist criticism in media. Feminist Criticism, as described by Moi, refers to the following;

“specific kind of political discourse; a critical and theoretical practice committed to the struggle against patriarchy and sexism, not simply a concern for gender in literature, at least not if the latter is presented as no more than another interesting critical approach on a par with a concern for sea-imagery or metaphors of war in medieval poetry. It is my view that, provided they are compatible with her politics, a feminist critic can use whichever methods or theories she likes” (Moi page 3).

In modern media, the debate over the representation of women has become a hot topic. With “House of Cards”, Claire seems to be one defying the odds of what has been thrown at her. When one of the top searched items to go along with Claire Underwood is “feminist moments”, it gives a good look into how she is fighting back against the patriarchy set up against females. Patriarchy can be defined as “a system of society or government in which men hold the power and women are largely excluded from it.” This really means that feminist critiques, are people looking from the outside of the margins of society, outsiders who are critiquing the social norm that’s occurring on the inside of the world. I believe that Claire goes against the norm by being so prevalent and involved with politics just like her husband. There are multiple points of the show where she openly steals the spotlight right out from under him, showing how she is the one to “wear the pants” in the relationship.
One of these points is an episode from season 2, where Claire is supposed to be having an interview with CNN, talking about the Underwood family now that Frank had been promoted to Vice President. Frank is stuck at the Capital due to a chemical threat. Claire has to decide to either do the interview by herself, or not at all. She chooses to go on alone, and encounters what comes off as an extremely personal attack on her character. The interviewer starts asking questions regarding the possibility of Claire being pregnant during one of Frank’s campaigns, accusing her of aborting the child. At this time, Frank had to sit in the capital building and just watch. He had to hope for his own reputation and career, that she would pick the correct choices and phrasing to ensure that they ended up on top. Claire moved forward, saying that the child was aborted, but it was due to a sexual assault that had happened to her. She shifted the conversation from one that was targeting her and her husband, following their choices to avoid having children, to a topic of sexual assault, prompting her to start writing bills on behalf of sexual assault. Although it wasn’t the truth (she was sexually assaulted, referred to two episodes earlier), she made a decision to keep herself and Frank on the path to stay in power and in good graces. It was not a good decision for the exterior, but it was a good strategical decision for the Underwood’s.
Although Claire never directly puts her views out on the topic of feminism or civil rights in general (not really covered through the show), but the way she carries herself shows how she will never let anyone ever put her down, or treat her differently than others because of her being a woman.

 

Structuralism

The second framework I’m analyzing in relation to Claire would be structuralism. Structuralism refers to the hero’s journey laid out by Joseph Campbell in “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”. The two specific portions of this hero’s journey that I am going to cover in relation to Claire are “The Road of Trials”, and the “Temptress”. The road of trials refers to the issues and battles that a hero/heroine will have to engage in in order to fully embark on their journey. Claire has to face a different struggle each and every day, simply by being in the spotlight and being associated with Frank. She has had to watch her back at every turn, losing privacy in their lives, as well as having to sacrifice different things she loved to do in order to stay compliant to what goes on in the life of the president and first lady. One simple example of this is her runs. They usually were smaller scenes, but Claire would go for runs to clear her head, usually allowing the viewers to get an inside look into her process, showing her at what some would consider her most vulnerable. Once she became the first lady, she was unable to go on a run by herself, thus ruining the point of her clearing her head. This is a smaller example, but it was still something important to her nonetheless.
A bigger example would be when she was an ambassador in the United Nations. She dealt with issues regarding peace negotiations between the United States and Russia. One of these negotiations was around a United States citizen who was arrested in Russia for simply being gay. Claire had to move to make arrangements for him to be released, as well as making arrangements for the two countries to come to peace over a dispute in the Middle East. As part of the deal, Frank and Claire fly to Russia. Frank and President Petrov start to work on negotiations for the Middle Eastern Crisis, while Claire is brought to the holding cell of the American citizen, Michael. She talks with him for a while, learning about his story and trying to convince him to read the public apology to Russia, written by both the US and Russian Foreign Affairs. He refuses, and she falls asleep. When she is awakened, she finds Michael, hanging from the window bars of his cell. He felt that it was a better answer and way out than publicly stating that being homosexual is a crime/sin. That was a huge blow for Claire, even pushing her to lose her cool on international television, saying “shame on you Mr. President” referring to Petrov. This incident led to more foul interactions with Russia, ultimately using Claire as a pawn because she was a woman, which to Petrov, was not worth the time that he could be using to work directly to work with the president.

The temptress is a shorter and more simple piece to Claire’s journey. As referred to in the introduction, Frank had extramarital affairs, in order to keep pushing them forward as a political power couple. Claire had similar temptations. One of these was shown in the first and second seasons, a former lover of Claire’s named Adam. Adam was a famous photographer, who regularly helped out Claire by selling his art to raise money for her non profit. He was rewarded with her time and thoughts of something more with her. Eventually, the Underwoods take a hit in the media because of a photo that was leaked, showing Claire in the shower, a photo taken by Adam. It creates a PR nightmare, and they eventually throw Adam under the bus, ruining his reputation as an artist. This is also touched upon in the 3rd and 4th seasons, where Frank is having a writer starting a book about his time as president. He gives Claire the attention and love that she can’t get from Frank, who seems to always be caught up with, I don’t know, running the country? It is still an ongoing affair, leading to a strong emotional bond that will continue into season 5.

 

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Conclusion

Claire is independent. She works heavily with her husband in order to achieve the success and power that they have always craved as a couple. They work together to feed off each other to get what they need. In some ways, she could be considered an anti-heroine, causing more problems than good, fighting for her own values and benefits, versus the moral values of society. She almost has a cover to be fake and fight for things because of the good press that it could get for her and Frank. On the other hand, her character, being as strong and bold as she is, can push the limits on what used to be a smaller role. She is showing that she is a character to be messed with, and is not someone who is just going to sit back and enjoy the ride. She wants to and continues to be a front facing woman, who represents what is going wrong in current day America. She fights the fight, making sure that people are not just looking in on the patriarchy that is our government from the margins of society.

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Eleven: The Unusual Heroine

Who is Eleven?

Abducted at a young age by the CIA and forced to be subject to psychokinetic skills tests, Eleven is not your typical girl. She was ripped from her mother and home to participate in Project MKUltra with Dr. Martin Brenner in Hawkins, Indiana. Brenner is the man to which Eleven came to know as “Papa” as she has to connection with her parents and believes this man is her father. Eleven goes through tests and trainings conducted at the Hawkins Laboratory in order to hone in on her skills and essentially become a weapon for espionage for the CIA to use in order to connect with other dimensions. Eleven has the ability that once placed in a sensory deprivation tank to transport to these other dimensions and on November 6th, 1983, she made contact with the dimension containing the monster that was going to turn her world even more upside down than it already was (pun intended). The dimension she made contact with is indeed called the “Upside Down” which is an alternate universe in which everything is the same except it is desolate, dark, and covered in a thick layer of grime. This is the dimension in which the creature lives. When Eleven made this initial contact with the creature, it opened a gate between the two dimensions and the creature was able to enter the human world at leisure. It was then that Eleven realized the danger she was in and fled from the laboratory. She then ran into the other main characters of the story: Mike Wheeler, Lucas Sinclair and Dustin Henderson. These boys had recently discovered that their friend, Will Buyers, had gone missing and they were on a mission to find him, a mission that Eleven joined without hesitation. The caveat being that Eleven has a limited vocabulary so when she is found by the boys, she is unable to explain who she is or where she is from. The boys take her under their wing and they all band together to find Will. The boys soon realize Eleven’s powers and understand that she may be the key to find their friend as they begin to understand that supernatural forces are at play. It is when the boys, teamed up with local police officer and other members of the community, create a makeshift sensory deprivation tank out of a bathtub that Eleven confirms that Will is in the Upside Down and she comes up with a plan as to how to save him. It all comes down to Eleven sacrificing herself to the creature in order to bring Will back from the Upside Down. As this series is only in its first season, it is unclear if Eleven is alive in the human world or if she is stuck in the Upside Down.

Feminist Criticism

Feminist criticism is the framework dealing with the ways in which women are oppressed through different aspects of our culture. Often this criticism points out male misogyny in media and other different social, political and economic ways in which females are not on the same level as men. Typical tropes showing this include the damsel in distress, the princess needing the prince to save her, or the overly sexualized super human woman in tight spandex outfits and thigh high boots.

I got: 'Stranger Things'! Can We Guess Which TV Show You're Streaming on Netflix Right Now?:

Eleven takes this framework and shatters it upon the ground. From her short cut hair, to the plain gown that she escaped the laboratory in, Eleven is not your typical looking, or acting, young girl. She is mentally and physically strong, enduring so much in her short life. Abuse, abduction, psychological testing, she has endured things in which no young female should ever encounter in her lifetime. There is no point at which Eleven self declares herself a feminist, but the audience of the show has placed her on this pedestal as she is a great fit for the role. Eleven is unsure even to what the concept of being a female even is until the boys help her don a wig and dress so they can take her to school, in a way showing the feminist criticism, that the boys think that she needs to look a certain way in order to be accepted. Eleven proves to be a strong role model to other young girls showing that it doesn’t matter what you look like or the past in which you have had, you can still be a strong body and minded person who can fend for themselves as well as make strong friendships along the way. The Chicago Tribune hits the nail on the head with an article headline of, “‘Stranger Things’ isn’t for kids, but Eleven is the feminist role model young girls need”. The article goes on to say how most of the media that young girls are shown includes them being the weakest character or always worrying about appearance. Instead, Eleven colors outside the lines of this typical female role and instead is a character that both males and females can look up to: a mentally strong badass who can blow monsters up with her mind and can demonstrates that you can conquer hardships and fight for yourself. (http://www.chicagotribune.com/redeye/redeye-stranger-things-eleven-feminist-role-model-little-girls-need-20160815-story.html)

Post-humanism

Another framework in which Eleven can be analyzed through would be post-humanism. This framework consists of what would be considered to be “beyond human”. This idea continues to say that humanity can be molded and formed around technological advances in the evolutionary process. Within this framework, there are seven different ideas. The idea that Eleven fits most closely is transhumanism. This idea furthers on developing the normal human’s intellectual, psychical and psychological capacities with the goal to achieve a “posthuman future”.

Eleven is a cyborg, defined as “a transitional figured that is defined by its body boundary issues.” (Wright, 3). She has capabilities that surpass those of humans that allow her to participate in life in ways that others cannot. She has the ability to snap people’s arms in half with the flick of her neck, the ability to teleport to other dimensions, and the ability to defeat out of our world creature with the powers of her mind. Eleven is in all senses “beyond human” as she is able to access the recesses of her mind that others don’t even know exist. The CIA lab involved with her testing used her in order to communicate with “beyond human” worlds in order to establish connections that could help them in world wars to come. Eleven brings the supernatural into the natural world, creating a gate that allows the impossible to become possible.

 

 

 

Ezra Bridger (Star Wars Rebels)

Who is Ezra Bridger?

Ezra Bridger was a force sensitive human from Capital City, Lothal (Outer Rim Territories) who later became a revolutionary leader in the early rebellion against the Galactic Empire (starwars.wiki). Ezra was left an orphan after his parents, Ephraim and Mira Bridger, were imprisoned and later killed for their crimes against the Empire. As an orphan for eight years, Ezra was forced to live off the streets, where he would constantly steal goods to later sale in the black market.

Although the first time we find Ezra, we wouldn’t consider him a “hero” per say, all of that changed the day a Star Destroyer flew over Capital City. Curious to find out what was going on, he took a speeder towards the city where he spotted three rebels attacking a group of Imperials. The rebels were trying to steal supplies that were on Imperial speeders.

During the chaos of battle, Ezra managed to jump from the rooftop, and stole one of the speeders that had crates on it. As he was making his escape, a TIE Fighter began chasing Ezra. Before it had the chance to kill him, a VZX-100, nicknamed The Ghost, appeared and shot the TIE Fighter down. The rebels on The Ghost let Ezra aboard, and they fled out of Lothal to escape the Imperial soldiers. It was here that Ezra first met his team, and his journey to becoming a leader of the early rebellion against the empire officially began.

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Universalism (Postcolonial criticism):

Universalism is the concept that all human experiences are the same, in some way, and are connected to one another. We constantly see this in the Star Wars universe, especially when speaking in the context of the Force. In the Star Wars universe, there is an aspect of the Force known as Force vision. Force vision gives the user the ability to see into the past and into the future.

As Ezra’s knowledge in the Force increased, he began to gain the ability to have Force visions. Whenever Ezra had a Force vision, this experience was shared with Kanon, as well as other Force users in the area. A specific example is episode 10, season one Path of the Jedi.”

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In this episode, Ezra and his master, Kanan, travel to a Jedi temple on the planet Lothal. Kanan brought Ezra there to test his readiness to be trained as a Jedi. As they make their way through the temple, Ezra, alone, is forced to confront his fear of abandonment, which is manifested through visions of Grand Inquisitors killing his friends, the crew of The Ghost. Through the journey, both Ezra and Kanan shared similar experiences separately.

Interpellation (Marxist Criticism):

Interpellation is defined as a system where its participants feel that they have freedom of choice, but in actuality, everything is controlled and decided for them by some higher power. In episode 20, season three “Twin Suns,” we witness interpellation in action. Ezra Bridger believes that he is feeling the presence of Obi-Wan Kenobi, but in actuality, it is Maul, a Dathomirian Zabrak male who was the apprentice of Darth Sidious, who is manipulating Ezra’s Force vision. Here, because Ezra believes that the vision he is seeing is true, we see an example of when an individual believes they are in control, but in actuality, a higher power, in this case, Maul, is actually in control.

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Ezra Bridger as a Hero:

Throughout the series, we see Ezra grow from the lost child he once was, to the military leader he was always meant to be. Despite being a criminal in his early life, we have seen Ezra grow into a confident, and mature, teen who now leads a part of the rebellion against the Empire. Ezra began his journey by walking it as a criminal. Towards the end, Ezra turns into this person who is not only cared about, but one who cares back, and does everything to ensure the safety of his crew, and the people around him.

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Fiona Gallagher

What is a new heroine?

A new heroine is a modern take on the hero/heroine. Someone who is an ordinary person that does something extraordinary or is brought into a world that is anything but ordinary. However, “new heroine” does not always have to be someone who does something profoundly extraordinary. The concept of the new heroine allows room for those people that embrace heroism in a humble and non-extravagant way. Those whose heroism comes from doing the things they do best, sticking to their true selves, and quietly changing the lives of those around them.

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Why is Fiona Gallagher a heroine?

Fiona Gallagher, played by Emmy Rossum, is one of the main characters on the Showtime hit series Shameless. Fiona grew up in the ghetto of Chicago with a drug addict, bipolar mother, deadbeat, alcoholic father, and five younger siblings. She is forced to care for her five siblings at a young age after her mother leaves, and her father, Frank, is hardly there. Throughout the show, Fiona puts her siblings before herself in order to ensure that they grow up in the most normal way that they can. In the area where the Gallaghers grow up, they do not have much. They live in a bad neighborhood, and constantly have to find new ways to come up with money for their bills. Even though Fiona is the head of the house, and the one who manages all of the kids, they would not be able to make it if they didn’t all pitch in.

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According to Barry, structuralism boiled down into one sentence is the idea that “things cannot be understood in isolation – they have to be seen in the context of the larger structures they are part of” (810). This directly relates to Fiona as a heroine. Even though she is the head of the house, she wouldn’t be able to make it without the help of her siblings, and her neighbors Kevin and Veronica. The Gallagher house, and the neighborhood that live in, is very much interdependent. Each sibling plays an important role in the family, however Fiona is the glue that keeps them together. While trying to live her own life, and dealing with their neglectful, alcoholic father, Fiona essentially raises her younger siblings. She keeps the family afloat, and always puts their needs ahead of her own. In season three, episode two, Frank gets mad and calls the department of family services on the kids. In episode six of season three, Fiona’s siblings are taken from the house. As soon as they are taken, Fiona steps up and does everything in her power to try to get them back. After talking to the social worker, she finds out that the only way that she can get the kids back quickly is if she legally becomes their guardian. Because the youngest child is two, this would mean that Fiona would have to dedicate the next sixteen years of her life to raising her siblings. Because keeping the family together is the most important thing to her, she accepts the responsibility and becomes their legal guardian. Fiona would not be the strong, hard working, mature woman that she is if she wasn’t forced into the position of taking care of her siblings, and keeping the house together at such a young age. It is because of the environment that she is in that Fiona is a hero to her family and those around her. Their family dynamic is extremely important throughout the show. There is a constant theme throughout the series that being a Gallagher means something greater than just who your family is, it means that you do things a certain way. They don’t give up on anything, they always accept a challenge, and they know how to have a good time. In the last episode of season three, the oldest brother, Lip, becomes the first to graduate high school. All of the siblings are in a funk because their father has a failing liver, but Fiona still wants to celebrate Lip graduating high school, because it is such a significant accomplishment in their family. She says to her younger sister, who is not in the mood to party, “sometimes life throws a couple swings at ya, but we’re Gallaghers, okay? And there’s two things that we’re really good at: knowing how to get back up, and knowing how to party” (S3E12). She wants to set a good example for her younger siblings, and make sure that they have the chances that she didn’t. Keeping them motivated and sticking to the ‘Gallagher way’ of not giving up on anything, keeps the younger siblings on the right path.  In season seven, Fiona tells her brother when he second guesses going to military school, “Gallaghers are a lot of things, but no one says we back down from a challenge” (S7E6). Even though all of the children are extremely independent, they all rely on each other, and most importantly, rely on Fiona. Without her siblings, Fiona would not be a hero, and without Fiona, her siblings would be lost.

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Barry claims that, “The representation of women in literature, then, was felt to be one of the most important forms of ‘socialisation’, since it provided the role models which indicated to women, and men, what constituted acceptable versions of the ‘feminine’ and legitimate feminine goals and aspirations” (2181). Women are frequently portrayed as sex symbols in television, and although it is getting a lot better, there isn’t an abundance of strong women as protagonists on TV shows. In Shameless, Fiona is a gritty go-getter who doesn’t care if her hair’s a mess and there are holes in her clothes. In the first episode, she meets a man named Steve, who has to convince her to go out with him because she is so focused on her younger siblings. He calls her on the phone and says “your life’s not simple, Fiona, and you can’t stop it from showing because you’re no fake. You’re not lost. You don’t need finding” (S1E1). She is not someone who needs a man in her life, because she knows who she is and how to get it on her own. In the first five seasons of the show, Fiona is strictly focused on doing what is best for her siblings and their house. She sacrifices a lot of personal opportunities, such as going to live with her boyfriend, in order to keep the family together. It would be easy enough for Fiona, who is over eighteen, to go off on her own and leave her siblings to be put in foster homes. However, she makes the decision to step up and maintain the house to keep them together, because in the area where they grow up, family is the most important thing. Throughout the entire show, Fiona does things for everyone in the family, except herself. In the seventh season, Fiona decides to start business ventures on her own. After dabbling in club management in earlier seasons, she is promoted to manager of the diner she works at in season six. Fiona finds herself struggling to balance taking care of her siblings and running a business. Since they are all older at this point and can take care of themselves, she decides to place more responsibility on her siblings. In season seven episode four, she gets backlash from the oldest brother for doing things for herself. She defends herself in her decision by telling him, “In the past 10 years, I’ve taken care of every single Gallagher in this family except one. I’m done” (S7E4). Despite doing things on her own, she still lives in the Gallagher house, and continues to raise her siblings in the best way that she can.

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Throughout the show, Fiona’s character develops from the mother figure who always has a boyfriend, to an independent business woman. Fiona never makes a grand gesture in her small world, she never does anything majorly significant, and she certainly doesn’t always get everything right. However, she is the constant rock to her siblings, and always tries to do what is best for her family. She learns and grows from her mistakes and steps up when her parents are absent. Fiona is a hero to her siblings and those who know her, and she is an example of a strong woman that any young girl can look up to. She proves that you don’t need to have nice clothes and major sex appeal to be successful and loved by those around you, and that is something that is refreshing for young people to be exposed to.shameless 2

Fiona is not a heroine in the traditional sense that she saves the world, or does something hugely significant for humankind. Rather, she is a hero in the way that she lives her life. By stepping up to take care of her siblings, and becoming a businesswoman on her own, she exemplifies someone who is strong, independent, and resilient. The thing about life is that it is never perfect, and it never will be. There are many heroic figures who seem to be invincible, and always manage to get everything right. That is not the type of heroine Fiona is. Her life is oftentimes a mess, she is raising a family of six in a bad neighborhood with a deadbeat dad, and she definitely makes her fair share of mistakes. However it is through all of these struggles, that we see the raw, honest reality of their life, and see Fiona remain the rock of their family. She makes their house in a rough neighborhood into a home where her siblings are able to grow up in a loving environment. She is a perfect example of someone who is real, and who is a hero in the way that she lives her daily life, rather than by doing grand things for the world. She may not have it all together, but she is someone that we can look up to as an inspiration for when times are difficult. Fiona shows us that it is possible to make the best out of a bad situation.

The OA

About The OA

The OA is a show filled with twists and turns that ends with you questioning what is real. It has a very mysterious and otherworldly tone that makes it very unique. It centers on The OA, a young woman who has gone by three different names throughout her life. Her names are often used to differentiate different times in her life. The show uses an embedded narrative to tell The OA’s story. The viewer learns about The OA’s story along with the group of kids she is telling it to, but to make it easier I am just going to summarize The OA’s story chronologically. 

Her story begins in Russia where she was born with the name Nina Azarov. She lived with her father, a wealthy businessman who provided Nina with whatever she needed. Nina was plagued with vivid nightmares during her childhood. One of her recurring nightmares was of her being trapped in an aquarium, unable to get out. Her father tried to help her get over this nightmare with some fairly questionable methods. He brought her out to an ice covered lake where he makes a hole in the ice and asks Nina to get in. She enters the freezing cold water and faces her fear.

As it turns out Nina’s nightmares weren’t just regular nightmares. They were warning her of events that were going to come. One day Nina and other upper-class children were going to school when the driver of the bus purposefully drove the bus off a bridge into a body of water. Nina was the only child on the bus who didn’t start to panic. She took in the situation and found a way out of the bus. Unfortunately the was was already too deep underwater and she died. We were a message, see? From the Voi to our parents. And the message said, ‘You are powerful businessmen to be sure, but you are not all-powerful’. The youngest sons and daughters of every Russian scion was on that bus that day. They all died. Every single one of the. Including me” (The OA).

This is the OA’s call to adventure, this is where her story really begins. She travels to a different plane of existence where she meets Khatun, who asks Nina if she wants to go back. Nina is told that if she goes back she will not only experience great love but that she will also suffer. Khatun advises Nina to stay and not go back, but Nina chooses to go back. Khatun allows her to go back, but she needs to take her eyes because she can not bear for Nina to see what is going to happen to her.

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“Then I will take your eyes. Because I cannot bear for you to see what lies ahead. It’s too horrible” (The OA).

Nina then awakens next to the river with her father unable to see anything. After this incident, Nina’s father sends her away to a boarding school for the blind in America to get her away from the Voi, basically the Russian mafia. It is here Nina’s father hopes that Nina can live in peace, but when he father is murdered she is sent to live with her Aunt Zoya. While living with her Aunt Nina is treated badly and was often just an afterthought.

After some time, an elderly couple comes to Nina’s Aunt, who runs a black market orphanage, to adopt a baby. While finalizing the details of the adoption, Nancy Johnson goes to the bathroom and finds Nina. Nina is sold to the Johnson’s and is renamed to Prairie Johnson. Prairie continues to have her dreams or premonitions where she saw her father at the statue of liberty holding 21 candles. The Johnsons brought her to a psychologist who recommended that they medicated her. The medication made Prairie feel numb but they didn’t stop her premonitions. When Prairie turned 21 she ran away from her adoptive parents to New York in hopes of finding her father. She waited for her father at the statue of liberty hoping that her father would find her, but he never showed. Prairie didn’t want to go home and have to face her adoptive parents having failed in her mission, so she stayed in New York hoping to find her father.  

“I should have gone home but I was heartbroken and ashamed. Too proud. I didn’t want to give up, so I devised one last plan. If I couldn’t see my father, maybe he could hear me. I would play my violin in the underground until he stepped off a train, heard my song, and came running” (The OA).  

Prairie continued playing her violin in the subway until she met 93951a50-a603-0134-1959-060e3e89e053Hap. Who can instantly tell that Prairie has had a near death experience or a NDE. Hap is warm and welcoming to Prairie. He takes her out and buys her dinner and eventually asks her if she would be willing to take part in his studies involving people who have had NDEs. Prairie has no reason to not trust this man so she goes with him. She fully places her trust in this man, because this is the first time that she has felt a sense of purpose in a long time. She gets on a small airplane with him that he flies to his house. He brings Prairie to the basement where he says he has a bed for her to stay in.

Once in the basement Prairie is lead to her “room”. She doesn’t realize anything is wrong until she hears the door shut and lock into place. She is trapped in a circular cage that is separated into five sections with a small spring running through each section of the cage.

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“The biggest mistake I made was believing that if I cast a beautiful net I’d catch only beautiful things” (The OA).

It is at this point Prairie starts to freak out. She is blind and has no idea where she is. After Hap leaves she is introduced to three other prisoners in the enclosure: Homer, Rachel, and Scott. We also learn that there was another prisoner named August, but she had recently died. Once a day Prairie and the others are fed food pellets that look like something you would give a hamster. A gas is also pumped into one section of the enclosure once a day. The gas knocks out whoever is in that section and then Hap comes to collect them. When they return they have no memories of what was done to them.

Prairie is able to manipulate Hap into trusting her. She uses the fact that she is blind to argue that she needs to go outside to feel the sun on her skin. The captives use this to their advantage and they try to escape multiple times. Hap never notices them trying to escape so Prairie is finally able to push Hap down the stairs to the basement and run outside. She blindly runs through a forest not knowing what’s ahead of her. She stops when she reaches the edge of a vast deserted mine and Hap knocks her out with the back of a gun and for a second time in her life, she died.

“The sudden rush of loss made me realize that for the second time in my life I was dead” (The OA).

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She meets with Khatun again who again gives her the choice of staying or leaving. Although this time if she stays she can be with her father. But again Prairie again chose to go back because she can’t leave the others with Hap. Khatun knows that if Prairie goes back as she is then she will never escape, so she gives her a way to get out. She gives her the 1st of 5 movements. She has no idea what these movements are at this point or what they will be used for, but she knows that they are important. When Prairie returns to the real world she realizes that she has her sight back. It is at this point that Prairie starts to call herself the OA, you later learn that it stands for “The Original Angel”.

The OA then works with the others to figure out the rest of the 5 movements. When they figure out the first 2 movements, The OA is able to use them with Homer to bring Scott back from the dead.

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Eventually, they are able to learn all 5 of the movements, but they are unable to use all them together because Hap releases The OA, hoping to use the movements for himself. In an attempt to get back to the others The OA jumps off a bridge, but she was unsuccessful in killing herself and she wakes up in a hospital. From here she is reunited with her adoptive parents and is brought back to their house. They try to figure out what happened in the 7 years that she was gone, but she won’t tell them. They are also confused as to how she got her sight back. Instead of telling her parents, The OA tells her story to 4 local boys and a teacher from the local school. She teaches them the 5 movements and tells them that she needs them to help her get back to the others.

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The show ends with the group using all 5 of the movements to potentially send The OA back to Homer and the others. At this point it is unclear if this attempt was successful or not, it seems like it was, but we won’t know until season 2 is released.

Posthumanism

There are a lot of different concepts that go along with the idea of posthumanism, but at its core, it is the idea that we can become more than human. Whether this is through the means of technology or something else. In the case of The OA, they are becoming more in tune with a spiritual side of the world. The OA uses the 5 movements that are given to her and the other 4 prisoners to become more than human. The 5 movements allow The OA to bring people back from the dead. Something that she did with Homer twice. In the last scene of the show, The OA potentially uses the movements to get back to Homer and the others. In the show, the movements are treated like a new piece of technology that was recently discovered. Their origins are more spiritual and mystical, but that is what is furthering humans in The OA. Humans are becoming more that human because they are learning more about what happens after death. The OA is able to travel to what appears to be other planes of reality and learns about the existence of angels.

Along with the 5 movements being used to become more than human, they also need 5 people to complete them. This promotes another idea in posthumanism about being connected with others. The relationships that The OA forms with the other captives are essential to her story. It is why it is so detrimental to her that she gets back to the others because without her they can’t escape.

The OA calls herself “The Original Angel” meaning that she has somehow become more than human. Prairie gets the name when she asks Khatun: “Am I like you?” and Khatun responds with “No, you are the original”. It seems as if in the show you become more than human if you die and come back to life. All of the people that Hap studied had come back with a special talent that they didn’t have before. The OA came back with the ability to play the violin, Rachel and Reata both got the ability to sing well, and so on. While these abilities don’t make you more than human, the way that they got them do.

Feminist Criticism

The main point of analyzing something with feminist criticism is to look at how males and females are portrayed and how they interact with one another. One of the main relationships in the show is between The OA and Hap. This isn’t a romantic relationship (at least not for The OA), but ohapne where both The OA and Hap are constantly fighting for control. While it may seem like Hap has all the control over The OA since he is the one who has kidnapped her, The OA actually has quite a lot of control over Hap. During the first few months of The OA being held captive, she gains Haps trust. Enough that he lets her upstairs to go outside and eat something other than the disgusting food pellets. In exchange for being allowed upstairs, The OA does all of the chores around the house and cooks for Hap. This puts The OA in the position of a very stereotypical housewife. But The OA uses her time upstairs and Hap’s trust in her to make multiple attempts at escape. One of these attempts involved The OA trying to put Hap to sleep by putting a bunch of sleeping pills in a soup she made. While none of them ever worked it did lead to The OA getting her sight back. Once The OA gets her sight back she is able to deceive Hap into believing that she is still blind for quite a while.

Hap only gets real power when he releases The OA. Once they figured out all 5 of the movements Hap drove The OA out into the middle of nowhere and released her, he then drove away, presumably to go use the 5 movements with the other prisoners. At this point in their relationship, Hap had all the power. The OA had no way of getting back to the others and saving them because she had no idea where they were. The only way he could possibly get to them was to use the 5 movements, which is what she did at the end of the season (again we won’t know if it worked until season 2).

Conclusion

The OA is a character that changes what it means to be a heroine. She was often able to take control of whatever situation she was put in, even if she was put in a position that most people would crumble in. She used her what some would say is a disability to her advantage and never let her being blind get in the way of anything.

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One big thing that I took away from The OA was her affect on other people. It seemed whoever The OA came into contact with was changed for the better after they met her. For example, one of the people that she tells her story to is a local teacher, Betty Broderick-Allen (also known as BBA). At the beginning of the story, BBA was a teacher who lost her passion for teaching, she wasn’t willing to put in the effort to help her students succeed.

But after hearing The OA’s story, BBA was willing to risk her life for her students. Overall I think The OA has changed how heroines are viewed, showing that no matter what situation you are put in there is always hope.

Eleven

Despite only existing for about ten months, Netflix original series Stranger Things has received widespread acclaim through multiple media outlets in no small part to its main character.

Character background

Set in a fictional town called Hawkins, Indiana during the 1980s, the story revolves around a soft-spoken young girl named Eleven. She is born with psychokinetic abilities due to her mother’s pregnancy while participating in an experimental government program called MKUltra in the Hawkins National Laboratory which involved the use of sensory deprivation and psychedelic drugs. Because Eleven’s birth was falsely declared a miscarriage, there were no records that indicated her existence which allowed Dr. Martin Brenner—a high-ranking research scientist within the Hawkins National Laboratory—to kidnap and use Eleven as a test subject without restriction.

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Eleven’s ability to spy on other people from a long distance intrigued Brenner to the point that he placed her in a sensory deprivation tank with the intent to have her spy on a Russian agent. Instead, she wound up coming across a monster from another dimension called the Upside Down. When this experiment was done a second time, it resulted in a gate between Hawkins and the Upside Down being broken leading to the Monster being able to cross over to the real world and cause havoc. Eleven fled into Indiana and comes across Mike, Will and Dustin. Their friend Will went missing into the Upside Down and Eleven is their only shot at finding them. Because of her socially-deprived upbringing, she is particularly shy and has difficulty communicating with others although both show improvement over the course of season one. Eleven has a strong loyal bond with people who show genuine care for her and does her best to protect them at all costs.

Feminist criticism

One of the theoretical frameworks I will be addressing in connection to Eleven and Stranger Things is feminist criticism. Feminist criticism challenges the misrepresentation of women historically in literature and media. Torii Moi specifically takes three terms into account when discussing distinctions in feminism: the feminist, the female, and the feminine. The feminist represents a political position, the female represents the biological affiliation, and the feminine represents a set of social and/or cultural characteristics. Eleven in some way, shape or form fits the bill for all three.

Eleven doesn’t outright declare herself a feminist as her isolated upbringing and would make it difficult for her even be aware of the political implications surrounding feminism. However, she is considered a feminist icon especially for young girls by publications such as the Chicago Tribune. As a young socially-underdeveloped loner, Eleven is still the undisputed highlight and focus of the Stranger Things. Eleven’s ability to rise above circumstances such as kidnapping, abuse and manipulation makes her a hero in the eyes of many feminists. From a biological standpoint, Eleven is a female but even biologically, she is different than all of the other female characters in Stranger Things because of her powers. She is a cyborg while the rest of the female characters are strictly human. The feminine is the most complicated aspect of Eleven’s character in the show. The show has feminine characters like Nancy Wheeler but unlike Eleven, Nancy had a relatively normal/traditional upbringing which included awareness and compliance with the social and cultural stereotypes of how a woman should behave. Eleven was brought up in a lab away from her parents and civilization as a whole, therefore rendering her blind to the concept of feminine until breaking out of the lab and running away to Hawkins. Eleven is first introduced to the concept in “Chapter Four: The Body” when Mike and his friends dress her up in a pink dress and a blonde wig to sneak into their school. Mike compliments her look which sets it in Eleven’s mind that this look is more acceptable because she has a crush on him. Before that scene, she had a buzzed head and would just wear Mike’s old clothes, far from the feminine makeover she received in Chapter Four.

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Narratology

Another theoretical framework that applies to Eleven in Stranger Things is narratology. Narratology studies how narratives create and shape meaning as well as the commonalities between all attempts at storytelling. Narratology as outlined by Aristotle includes three frequent plot elements: the hamartia, the anagnorisis and the peripeteia. The hamartia is the fatal flaw that prevents the protagonist from reaching a state of immortality. Depending on the level of the flaw, this can be a minor hindrance or a complete undoing. The anagnorisis is when the protagonist recognizes the truth about or within their predicament. The peripeteia is when the protagonist goes through a reversal of fortune–more likely good to bad than vice versa–that alters their situation. If the reversal of fortune changes from good to bad then it can lead to the protagonist’s undoing. These three plot elements can be found in Stranger Things.

While Eleven is abnormally powerful–even more so when her age is considered–she does possess a flaw that prevents her powers from being used without consequence. Whenever Eleven uses her powers, she suffers from nosebleeds and fatigue. The level of exertion increases the severity of both side-effects. One example of these side effects took place in Chapter Six: The Monster when Mike and his friends were being bullied by Troy. Eleven saves the boys by using her psychokinetic powers to break Troy’s arm (bleeding from her nose in the process) and collapses immediately after doing so, proving she isn’t invincible.

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The anagnorisis or recognition of truth occurs in “Chapter Four: The Body” when Eleven uses her psychic abilities to determine that Mike and the boys’ missing friend Will Byers was trapped in the Upside Down dimension rather than dead. The peripeteia happens when Dr. Brenner finds out where Eleven escaped to and takes a group of agents to hunt her down at Hawkins Middle School. While Brenner is attacked by The Monster and fails at capturing Eleven, she is forced to kill the monster and vanishes after doing so. The reversal of fortune doesn’t cause a severe downfall for Eleven like the downfalls that happen in many Shakespearian tragedies but the events that take place after Brenner finds her is far from the peace she was looking for upon escaping to Hawkins.
Eleven emerges from Stranger Things with predicaments such as being trapped in solution, being very young and longing for reciprocated affection. These factors would normally make someone a weak and dependent character but Eleven’s weaknesses are treated as obstacles that she overcomes rather than succumbs to. The face of a widely talked-about series is a twelve year old who just so happens to double as an ass-kicking machine.

Samurai Jack: Defying Traditions

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Long ago in a distant land… I, Aku, the shapeshifting master of darkness, unleashed an unspeakable evil. But, a foolish samurai warrior, wielding a magic sword, stepped forth to oppose me.”

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“Before the final blow was struck, I tore open a portal in time, and flung him into the future- where my evil is LAW! Now the fool seeks to return to the past, and undo the future that is AKU.”

-Aku, series villain

The story of the cartoon Samurai Jack is summarized in its entirety in the monologue above, read by the series’ villain, Aku.

It is the story of Samurai Jack, the son of an emperor, whose life changes when the shapeshifting embodiment of evil, Aku, returns and lays waste to his home. His father, the emperor, is captured but Jack is spirited away to safety by his mother, who places him in the care of warriors all around the world. They train him in all forms of martial arts, archery, knife-throwing, and sword fighting; his mother also gave him his father’s magical sword, the only weapon capable of harming Aku, his sworn nemesis. The Samurai then returns to his home, now a ravaged hellscape under the control of Aku, and challenges the shapeshifter to a duel to the death. Aku takes many forms—a bear, scorpion, tentacled monster, and even a ram—to defeat his mortal foe but fails, and is beaten badly.

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Before Jack can strike his adversary down, Aku says something that does not make sense.

“You might have beaten me now…” Aku whispers, “But I will destroy you in the future.”

He lets out an unearthly shriek and a white ring appears above the Samurai, that opens into a spinning white-and-black portal. Jack is plunged through.

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The Samurai is flung through the portal to a strange and futuristic city with flying cars and impossibly tall buildings, where Aku’s face is on every billboard, sign, and poster in the city like an Orwellian nightmare. He realizes that Aku sent him far into the future, where he is the ruler of Earth, and now he must return to the past so he can prevent this horrible outcome. However, Jack is a force for good, and he vows to help everyone he encounters as he goes about his search for a way back to the past.

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In summary, the main themes of the show are good versus evil, light versus dark, absolute rebel versus absolute ruler: Jack versus Aku. In every episode of the series, Jack seeks to find a way back to the past, or help a group of people downtrodden by the rule of Aku, and in every episode Aku seeks to stop Jack from getting back.

3a9d5186765229c21665147b353d89cf Aku preventing Jack from jumping into a time portal.

However, what makes the series so unique is the character of Samurai Jack himself. He is the only one capable of standing up to an immortal shapeshifting demon, but he is far from a traditional masculine hero. He is reserved when other characters are aggressive; peaceful when others are violent; and respectful where others are boastful. And despite being a warrior, violence is always his last resort.

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Feminist Criticism

Feminist criticism is the analysis informed by feminist theory. As a framework, it asserts that male dominance is seen across all parts of the human experience, including literature and entertainment. Lisa Tuttle defines the six goals of feminist criticism as follows: “(1) To develop and uncover a female tradition of writing, (2) to interpret symbolism of women’s writing so that it will not be lost or ignored by the male point of view, (3) to rediscover old texts, (4) to analyze women writers and their writings from a female perspective, (5) to resist sexism in literature, and (6) to increase awareness of the sexual politics of language and style.”

Samurai Jack, as a character, is both feminist and an anti-masculine character. This is exemplified in the episode, “Samurai vs Samurai”, where Jack encounters his antithesis in a bar, in the form of another samurai. This samurai bursts into the bar, blaring music and dressed in bedazzled purple and gold robes. He uses his status as a warrior and a samurai to bully his way into getting free drinks from the bartender and intimidating the other bar attendees.

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Meanwhile, Jack calmly sips tea by the fire. Later in the episode Jack is attacked by some robot mercenaries, and dispatches them with haste. Without wasting a moment, the purple-robed braggart (called the Sam-oo-rai) drops what he is doing, insists that the bar isn’t big enough for the both of them, and challenges Jack to a duel to prove he is the better warrior. Jack accepts, but only to get the Sam-oo-rai out of the bar.

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When they finally square up to duel, Jack cuts down two branches of bamboo and insists they fight with them to avoid lethal violence. The Sam-oo-rai begrudgingly accepts and is taught a lesson when he is thrashed by the better warrior.

This episode demonstrates Jack’s anti-masculinity. The Sam-oo-rai represents the traditional masculine mindset of strength- a boastful, aggressive, alpha male type. Jack, in the episode, is presented as an opposite to the Sam-oo-rai, as a peaceful, quiet, respectful type, despite being the more powerful fighter. This departure from traditional aggressive masculinity makes Jack’s character so unique.

Postmodern criticism

“Walter Truett Anderson described postmodernism as belonging to one of four typological world views, which he identifies as either (a) Postmodern-ironist, which sees truth as socially constructed, (b) Scientific-rational, in which truth is found through methodical, disciplined inquiry, (c) Social-traditional, in which truth is found in the heritage of American and Western civilization, or (d) Neo-Romantic, in which truth is found through attaining harmony with nature and/or spiritual exploration of the inner self.”

In a nutshell, postmodern criticism is looking at modern concepts with skepticism and asking if the traditional ways to analyze those concepts are necessary or complete. In this way, concepts and ideas are diffused in ways that were previously unconsidered.

Samurai Jack, as a cartoon series, defies traditional cartoon ‘rules’, and combined three-panel action sequences from manga, extended periods of silence and nature, slower pacing and an emphasis on symbolism, and a visually striking, painted art style to create a completely unique viewer experience.

The comparable leading male characters on the other Cartoon Network shows at the time were Johnny Bravo, Ed Edd and Eddy (as a trio) and He-Man. These shows were comedy experiences based purely on 20 minutes of slapstick entertainment, and the lead characters were masculine and rude, and their rudeness got them in silly situations. Their entire show concepts hinged around those silly main characters and the silly experiences they have. Samurai Jack is the story of Jack but often times the show writers would have extended sequences without Jack, something that was not possible in He-Man or Ed Edd and Eddy, and the episode would still work.

The episode that exemplifies how Samurai Jack differed from the traditional cartoon structure of 2002-2004 and is a ‘postmodern’ work of art is “The Princess and the Bounty Hunter”.

The episode begins with six bounty hunters assembling in a snowed-in cabin, all for a common purpose: they had been told by a mysterious stranger that Samurai Jack was going to be passing by the cabin in a few days. They were all keen to collect Aku’s large bounty on his head. As they wait, they all introduce themselves and describe their individual plans to capture or kill Jack. Every bounty hunter shows their plan in the form of a mini cartoon, and each hunter’s plan is acted out with a different art style. The gentlemen wielding daggers tells his story like a 1920’s silent movie; the Mongol strongman shows his Crayola sketch of a plan; the African blow-darter shows his plan using a traditional Anansi art style; et cetera.

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Needless to say, they are essentially bragging to one another and almost break out in a fight amongst themselves to prove who is the strongest bounty hunter. But one hunter among them ends the conflict- the mysterious stranger- who turns out to be the princess of a kingdom hit with hard times. She convinces them to create a collective plan, and work together to take the Samurai. In return, she would split the reward with them, and the kingdom would pay them riches beyond their imagination once it returns to its former glory.

The bounty hunters come up with a plan to ambush Jack that involves them all to bury themselves in the snow, and this scene follows. No picture does it justice, you have to watch it using the link.

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Jack is only in the twenty-minute episode for three minutes, and he does not say a word. Yet he is the focus of the entire episode, so he is undoubtedly the frontrunner of the show. The episode is simultaneously serious, funny, creative, and completely unlike the other cartoons at the time. It combined many elements from different genres of entertainment to create a completely unique viewer experience…

Cultural Significance

…And that is why Samurai Jack is such a creative and culturally significant work of art, and why Jack is such an interesting hero. He was badass but not masculine; funny but not silly; calm but powerful. Samurai Jack quite different compared to the other cartoons shown at the time, and through Jack and his quest to return to the past, it was able to teach the viewers important lessons. As mentioned above, Jack was so different from the other cartoon heroes: despite being a powerful warrior, he always showed strangers respect and violence was always his last resort. There is no better scene to illustrate that reserved attitude than “Jack vs the Guardian“. Jack comes across the blue guardian of a time portal, or someone who is literally standing in between him and his goal of returning to the past. Jack’s first instinct is to reason with the guardian, and humbly request his permission to use the portal, and when that request was rejected, he continued to plead until he was absolutely sure the guardian would not budge. Only then did he challenge the guardian to a duel.

This makes Samurai Jack culturally significant because he was such a different kind of hero than most viewers were used to in a cartoon. The Samurai taught that problems can be solved with reason, meditation is important, and violence is a last resort. He was a warrior that defied traditional masculine principles, and a postmodern character with depth past his white robes and sword.

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Kim Ah-Ro

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Hwarang is a 2016-2017 Korean drama that details a fictional account of the political unrest that lead to the formation of the hwarang warriors from the time period when Korea was split into three kingdoms. Ah-ro is the daughter of a noble (the highly respected Master Ahn-Ji) and a servant. As a result, she is well known around the Capital, both because of her father and her master storytelling abilities, but she is of a low class. Ah-ro works multiple jobs to help support herself and her father, as well as work off her massive drinking tab.

Ah-ro’s title changes from that of a “half-breed” (half noble, half servant) worker to the physician of the hwarang to the physician of the princess to wonhwa (female predecessor to hwarang) over the course of the show. She captures the attention of the hidden king, the queen, the princess, every member of the hwarang, and, of course, the main protagonist, Dog-Bird. Not too bad for a half-breed.

The first major scene with Ah-ro is when one of her employers refuses to pay her because of her low rank. She responds by grabbing a large jug of alcohol and downing it before storming out. Drunk and wandering home, she runs into Dog-Bird (literally) who catches her as she falls but she loses her shoe. Cue the classic Cinderella moment where she begs for her shoe and he throws it at her and hits her in the head. Romantic, right? Drunken Ah-ro sure thought so, as she instantly fell in love with him and still thought of him a bit when she sobered up.

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Her relationship with Dog-bird is weird, to say the least. The next time she meets him, he points a sword at her (accidentally). She goes home after almost dying to find Dog-Bird at her house. It turns out he is her long-lost brother, Sun Woo. He has zero social skills and doesn’t know how to fit into society because he lived his entire life outside the capital as a peasant, so she takes him under her wing and teaches him how to fit in. She loves her brother and they become very close. It’s heartbreaking for her when he snaps at a parade and tries to kill the queen’s head guard (it’s a revenge thing) and is taken off to jail. He is forced to become a hwarang to save Master Ahn-Ji and Ah-ro, but he must leave home to be a hwarang. He can’t see Ah-ro unless it’s a rare visiting day. She is sad to see him go because she loves her brother. She’s also starting to think she’s in love with him at this point.

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Fortunately, her separation from her brother isn’t permanent. One of her employers happens to be good friends with Master We Hwa, the guy in charge of the hwarang. He needs a physician for Hwarang House and Ah-ro’s employer recommends her. After all, she trained under renowned physician Master Ahn-Ji for her entire life. She gets to see her brother and, more importantly, she has an important position and an in with the sons of the most notable nobles in Silla. From here she unknowingly teaches the hidden king how to read and write, heals many hwarang, and gets on the queen’s bad side for seeing the face of the king (she kills anyone who sees his face). She would’ve died if the king wasn’t in love with her and he hadn’t ordered her head guard to not kill Ah-ro. She gets around this by sending the princess to Hwarang House and appointing Ah-ro to be her personal physician. The promotion was mostly to keep Ah-ro close to the princess so she could be personally murdered by the princess of Silla, but after that all blows over the princess keeps her around because of her medical skill.

On a peace mission to Baekje (another of the three kingdoms), Ah-ro gets arrested for supposed theft. She is thrown into a jail cell with sick prisoners who have lost their hope. Ah-ro used what little medicinal supplies she had on her to heal a few of prisoners, but she gave the rest of them hope. She used her storytelling abilities to tell them of a great hero called Sun Woo and his band of hwarang who would come and save them all. They were reluctant to buy into this, but a lot of them did. A few of them died along the way, but Sun Woo did save them and Ah-ro gave them hope for life after he did. She also helped a newly-orphaned boy find a new home with a loving father.

Back in Silla, the peasants outside of the capital are getting very sick. The remedy is easy to make, but both key ingredients are mysteriously missing from every shop in the capital. The illness is spreading fast and people are dying. Ah-ro discovers a corrupt nobleman has been buying up the ingredients to sell at inflated prices once the disease hits the capital. She organizes a raid to get the ingredients and save the peasants.

Ah-ro and the princess get made into wonhwa so the queen can use them to take control of the hwarang, since wonhwa should be the rightful leaders of the hwarang. Although this is just so the queen can use her, it’s momentous that a half-breed like Ah-ro was promoted to such a high-ranking and respected position. Behind the scenes, it’s a ploy, but the public doesn’t see the ulterior motive behind the wonhwa; they just see Ah-ro, the wonhwa. Her appointment as a wonhwa causes Sun Woo to rush to visit her and make sure she is okay. The queen’s head guard is trying to kill him, so Ah-ro uses this opportunity to be the heroine she always was and takes an arrow for him (which mirrors when the princess was trying to kill Ah-ro so Sun Woo took an arrow for her, but it’s the thought that counts).

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Marxist Criticism

Marxist criticism is being able to examine a work and determine what part economics and wealth play into the work and the lives of the characters/people. Social status and class are either determined by wealth or vice versa. The struggle between characters and the economy is what drives Marxist critics.

Class is very important in Hwarang. There is a class ranking system called the “bone-rank system”. Sacred Bones (royalty) are at the top, followed by True Bones (nobles), half-breeds, and servants. Peasants are lower than servants, but they are killed if they enter the capital so that’s not applicable for much of the show.

Ah-ro definitely gets the short end of the economic stick. Although her father was a very respected True Bone, her mother was a servant and that is what people seem to see her as. She is always in debt to someone for something, whether it is her slight drinking problem or someone paying off her debts to get loan collectors away from her. She has to work multiple jobs to pay off her debts and support herself and her father. Despite her class, she always seems to have nice clothes to wear and there is always food on her table so she isn’t living in poverty like a peasant might be, but she still isn’t treated well.

A specific episode where Ah-ro’s class is the first episode. One of her employers refuses to pay her because of her low rank, stating that her father may be a True Bone but her mother was just a servant and she shouldn’t expect to be treated above where her mother was. He tries to mask his bias by saying she owed him money for drinking too much of the alcohol he was trying to sell, but she insists that this isn’t the case. She responds by grabbing a large jug of alcohol and downing it before storming out since he wasn’t going to pay her and she might as well do what she was being accused of.

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An important thing to note about Ah-ro is that she defies her class. She goes from a half breed working multiple jobs to the physician of the hwarang to the princess’s personal physician to a wonhwa and she is assumed to marry a Sacred Bone, something that would be completely unheard of for someone of her rank.

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Feminist Criticism

Feminist criticism looks at the idea of feminism with respect to other frameworks like Marxism and also the idea of power between characters and who holds the power. It also has to do with gender and how gender roles come into play.

Ah-ro has a considerable amount of power over people, especially considering she is a woman. The hidden king would do anything she asked, as would Dog-Bird. Master We Hwa respects her opinions and listens to what she says and every hwarang is somewhat afraid of her, probably because she has a tendency to threaten to kill them with needles and other medical equipment.

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The amount of power she holds is unusual for a woman, especially in Korea 1500 years ago. Let’s compare her to her best friend, Soo Yeon. Soo Yeon is from one of the most prominent families in Silla and everyone knows and loves her. Despite this, she is often ignored and treated like she doesn’t matter. Her brother, Soo Ho, discredits her thoughts and feelings. The princess is treated similarly by the queen. The level of respect and power that Ah-ro has is on par with some of the male characters and even above a few of them, like Dan Se.

A specific scene where we see Ah-ro having power and being respected is after one of the tests that the hwarang had to do. They had to make and argument about what a king should be based on a specific text, since the point of hwarang is to protect the king. Sun Woo makes a fantastic argument about what a king should be, but he says that the text is wrong and argues against it instead of with it so he fails the test. Master We Hwa wouldn’t listen to Sun Woo or Ji Dwi when they tried to argue that he shouldn’t have failed, but he listened to Ah-ro when she talked to him about why Sun Woo shouldn’t have failed. He didn’t change the fail to a pass, but he listened to everything she had to say and arranged a special task for Sun Woo to give him a second chance. Master We Hwa didn’t listen to what the male leads said, but he listened to Ah-ro and valued her opinion on the matter.

As for gender roles, Ah-ro doesn’t completely conform to the stereotypical feminine archetype. She is sweet and a caring woman at times, and she cries so much. However, she is also kind of terrifying, especially when she is threatening to kill people with acupuncture.

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Ah-ro is also pretty blunt and doesn’t beat around the bush. She doesn’t embrace the cutesy image of the sweet girl that one might expect from looking at the promotional pictures for the show. Her drinking is also not a very traditionally feminine thing that she does. Ah-ro challenges the ideas of femininity and holds power where she probably wouldn’t be able to if she was any other woman.

Cultural Significance 

Ah-ro is an interesting character because she fills the role of heroine from a Western viewpoint and is a moldbreaker when it comes to Eastern views of women in the present and at the time during which the drama takes place (1500 years ago). Most women in Korean dramas I’ve seen serve the purpose of providing a love interest for the male lead (or male leads) and don’t do anything heroic themselves. While she is the main love interest, she is also a figure who inspires the people of Silla and Baekje and a courageous woman who saves the life of the male lead at the risk of her own. In a time where women mostly did work at home, Ah-ro went from helping her father with medical work (among other things) to becoming the physician in Hwarang House, where men train to protect the king, before becoming the personal physician of the princess and finally a Wonhwa (female predecessors to hwarang who later helped lead hwarang). When she isn’t in Hwarang House, Ah-ro helps her father provide free healthcare for the people in the capital. To the people she helps, she is a heroine. Ah-ro also rises above her low rank and is made a Wonhwa and is assumed to marry someone of royal blood. No ordinary woman could do this, but a hard-working and heroic woman could.

If a heroine is someone who is courageous and kind, Ah-ro is a heroine. If a heroine is someone who challenges expectations and the social norm, Ah-ro the working woman who defies her class is a heroine. If a heroine changes lives for the better, Ah-ro who rehomed the orphan boy from the Baekje prison is a heroine. If a heroine is someone who saves lives, Ah-ro the physician who takes arrows for people is a heroine. Ah-ro is a heroine worthy of noting and more people should be aware that she exists.

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Tragically Time-Travelling

 I’ll do it over, no matter how many times it takes. I’ll relive it over and over again. I will find a way out. The one path that will save you from this destiny of despair. Madoka, my one and my only friend. I don’t care, because if it’s for you, I’ll stay trapped in this endless maze… Forever.

Homura Akemi of the anime Puella Magi Madoka Magica is trying to save her first friend (and love, to be honest) Madoka Kaname from becoming a Magical Girl and consequently dying/becoming a Witch. She attempts to stop Madoka from making a contract with a rabbit-esque familiar, named Kyubey, who makes said contracts in exchange for the granting of any one wish.

Magical Girls have jewels called Soul Gems, which are actually tied to their being itself. They must fight Witches, as Witches cause despair to infect other people in the area they inhabit. When a Witch is defeated, they leave behind “grief seeds”. Magical Girls use these grief seeds to cleanse their Soul Gems of their own despair, caused through fighting and just life in general. However, the insidious plot behind all of this is that all Magical Girls are fated to fall into despair and become witches, as the intense amount of emotions that Magical Girls go through during their transformation into Witches are actually harnessed as energy by the Incubators — which is what Kyubey and his species actually were all along.

When Madoka falls victim to the powerful witch Walpurgisnicht in the first timeline, Homura makes a contract with Kyubey with the wish to redo her first meeting with Madoka and be someone who could protect her. Homura had been quite meek and awkward back then — however, due to the trauma and challenges she endures, she becomes quite resilient, strong, and protective.

Despite the length of this, that’s actually somewhat of a concise version, so here’s a flowchart:

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…And an important scene from timeline 3:



However, that is just the anime series. There are more movies, but the most recent and important one is Rebellion. Basically, in rebellion, Homura becomes a “demon” in order to rewrite the entire universe, break off what is known as the Law of Cycles, punish Kyubey by channelling all the despair into him, eradicate the Magical Girl/Witch system, erase everyone’s memory, and have them live normally. Her main motivation in this is, as always, protecting Madoka. However, this is framed as a morally dubious action in the movie, as the Magical Girls now feel somewhat “out of place”, and Homura has to strip Madoka of her godly abilities (which were achieved when Madoka made a contract and wished to stop all Magical Girls from becoming Witches, which meant she sacrificed her own human existence). Sayaka, Madoka’s best friend, actually remembered the past timelines at first — until Homura erased her memory, saying she’d be an enemy to her when the time has to come.

In this way, she can be seen as a tragic heroine as she does experience a “fall from grace”, however, her actions (as far as we know until the next sequel) made the universe “normal”. Some people think she is a villain, some think she is a heroine, and that is what I think makes her so interesting. She is a dynamic anti-heroine who sacrifices everything for the one she loves.

Puella under a Posthumanist Lens: Transhumanism

Posthumanism is a philosophical framework that, at its core, revolves around the idea of concepts “beyond human”. There are seven different branches within posthumanism. The one most applicable to Puella Magi Madoka Magica is transhumanism, which is defined as “an ideology and movement which seeks to develop and make available technologies that eliminate aging and greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities, in order to achieve a ‘posthuman future’” (Bostrom). In simpler terms, cyborgs and superheroes and cool things like that.

Magical girls undoubtedly fall under the transhuman category. They can “transform themselves into different beings with abilities so greatly expanded from the natural condition as to merit the label of posthuman beings” (Bostrom). In fact, there is even a “transformation sequence”, which is a staple in multiple pieces of media in the “magical girl” genre.

Firstly, the relativity of the soul gem should be noted. The most important thing for a magical girl is her soul gem. The gem is posthumanist in that it, quite literally, is an extension of their human form, as well as a work of advanced technology. They cannot survive without it once the contract is made. If the gem moves too far from their body for too long, they will die.

Secondly, the force behind the creation of the gems and the magical girls themselves, Kyubey, plays a significant role as well. Kyubey is represented as rabbit-like creature, not a human. This makes it easier for the audience to believe that he does not have any emotions like he claims, and that he truly cannot empathise with human suffering. He can resurrect as another copy of himself, too, making him as unrelated to conventional humanity as he can be. This allows him to act as a symbol instead of a character throughout the series. He is a walking lesson: one cannot evolve without giving up something in return.

If humanity wishes to extend its capabilities beyond the natural realm, we will need to pay a cost. Homura’s own power ends up destroying her sense of values — all that matters in the end is Madoka, and nothing else. This has consequences for the rest of humanity, as she rewrites the entire universe. She calls herself evil, at the end, a demon who has messed with the powers of a god (Madoka). Madoka, throughout the series, is shown as incredibly forgiving, humane, and even weak at times. She is an embodiment of humanity, even when she becomes a god. Homura’s saving/ripping of Madoka from the Law of Cycles, a natural occurrence in their universe, is symbolic of Homura disrupting natural order and letting her abilities evolve beyond what she could mentally handle. She has become the ultimate power, but at what cost?

Feminism

It is often difficult to find a well-written series that portrays women as dynamic people, due to the majority of male directors that have no idea what they’re doing, institutionalized and systematic misogyny, and people forgetting that women are, uh, people. However, the entire main cast of Puella Magi Madoka Magica is female. All of the girls have complex emotions, realistic developments, and unique identities — especially Homura. Homura develops from a shy, glasses-wearing, braid-touting girl to a cold, tough, long-haired badass.

However, Homura isn’t just a feminist character because of her development. Homura hardly, if ever, interacts with men. She does not need a male character to support her. She does not need a “male figure” to model herself after. Her entire motive is centered on Madoka, a girl. Homura is not a character made for the purpose of catering to men or the male gaze.

Additionally, Homura is implied to be a lesbian. As a result, she goes directly against the purpose of the male gaze, which is to “reassure men of their sexual power and at the same moment deny any sexuality of women other than the male construction” (Berger, 1972: 64). She is a girl who loves a girl in a popular piece of media, and that on its own is feminist, because men are just not apart of her equation. They don’t matter here, and that is honestly so refreshing. Basically, Homura is a powerful morally-ambiguous lesbian, and that’s awesome.

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