Tag: feminism strikes

Review: My Sister, the Serial Killer

Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister, the Serial Killer is, as the title suggests, a tale of two sisters. Korede, our narrator, is a senior nurse in a Lagos hospital, the sort of person who takes charge in a crisis and is handy with a bottle of bleach. Her sister, Ayoola, beautiful and self-absorbed, is in the unfortunate habit of murdering her boyfriends. Korede’s the one who gets to clean up after her – until her crush Tade takes a shine to Ayoola.

What makes this taut, slim thriller so much more than just a taut, slim thriller is the fact that we have very little insight into Ayoola’s motives: the story’s narrated entirely from Korede’s point of view. Ayoola claims that her boyfriends threaten her with violence, and she reacts in self-defence, but the narrative gives us plenty of room to doubt her – for example, the fact that Korede has to remind her not to be cheerful on Instagram the day after one of her murders. (She’s supposed to be a grieving girlfriend, after all.)

And what about Korede, too? What does it say about her that she’s willing to cover up Ayoola’s murders, to clean up her little sister’s messes? Braithwaite nails the sibling dynamic here: Korede’s exasperation at her sister’s self-absorbed vanity, the way everything goes her way without her even noticing – as an older sister, I feel that. (Note: my younger sister is not, of course, a serial killer.) And yet, in the end, Korede chooses her frustrating sister over everyone else – yes.

Korede and Ayoola are both profoundly damaged people, it turns out: damaged by an abusive father who punished the girls’ expressions of individuality while being willing to trade them away as wives to strengthen his business contacts. The novel opens as Ayoola, Korede and their mother prepare to mark the tenth anniversary of his death in a celebration of his life and character and everything he did for his family – because it’s easier to lie to the wider family; because, ultimately, their experience as women doesn’t matter to anyone else. That’s really the kernel of My Sister, the Serial Killer: the trap of being a woman in a world where male figures of authority can’t be trusted (and there are no female figures of authority). In Ayoola’s eyes, every man she dates sees only her beauty, not her personhood, and so (the text implies) she’s justified in treating them likewise. You can’t murder an object, after all. It’s not clear that she’s wrong, either.

I mean: Ayoola is a horrifying character. She’s not, like, a feminist icon for the ages. She literally can’t stop murdering people. Korede is horrifying, too, in her way, for her quiet enabling of her sister. They are trapped in circumstance and in a culture that doesn’t recognise women’s humanity, though: it’s hard to see how any of the novel’s events could have gone any other way, given what both of these women are and what they have undergone. This is a novel about two sisters closing ranks against the world; and if they are horrifying, then how much more so is the culture that made them what they are?

Review: Gideon the Ninth

“Gormenghastian” is a word that gets thrown around a lot. I absolutely did not believe people who said Tamsyn Muir’s debut (and Hugo-nominated) novel Gideon the Ninth was like Gormenghast, because quite often what people mean when they say something is like Gormenghast is that it has a big scary house where weird things happen occasionally. Which is only, like, 10% of the point of Gormenghast.

Gideon the Ninth‘s eponymous heroine hails from the Ninth House – last in a series of necromantic Houses strung out across space, serving a mysterious Emperor. The Ninth House is in pretty bad shape, having lost all its children eighteen years before and being de facto led by an eighteen-year-old, Harrowhark, who accidentally killed her parents as a child and is trying to convince the rest of the world that they’re still alive and still in charge. It is a cheerless and decrepit place, filled with skeletons and elderly people and the dead. Not a great place to grow up, as Gideon (an eighteen-year-old indentured servant) and Harrow have, hating each other.

Soon after the novel opens, Harrow receives a message from the Emperor. He’s summoning representatives from all the Houses so he can pick a new Lyctor: a kind of ascended advisor who’ll help him govern the empire. Each House must send a team of two people: a necromancer and their cavalier, a specialised fighter who observes strict rules of etiquette and who has normally worked with their necromancer since childhood.

Harrow is an accomplished necromancer. And Gideon is a very good swordfighter – though not a cavalier, and certainly not someone who’s worked with Harrow for any length of time. But they’re all the Ninth House has to show; and so off they go, with the other Houses’ teams, to a decaying mansion called Canaan House. Once a fabulously luxurious palace, it’s now broken, decayed, overgrown, looked after only by a Sourdust-ian old relic called Teacher. (Actually he’s nicer than Sourdust, but they are both ancient and vaguely dusty priest-like figures, and the comparison feels apt to me.) Teacher has no instructions for any of the Houses: just a key and an instruction not to open any locked doors. With no better ideas, people start exploring. And then dying.

I once wrote a dissertation arguing that Gormenghast is, broadly, about the profound existential threat World War II posed to the English upper classes. Well, there’s a real war in Gideon the Ninth; an imperial war that seems to be eating up much of the resources of at least the Second and Fourth Houses. The Ninth House may be languishing, but the rest of the empire doesn’t seem to be far behind.

If the setting is Gormenghast to a tee, the same can’t be said for the tone, exactly. Gideon is, to put it mildly, irreverent:

Back in the bathroom, she smeared cold wads of alabaster on her face. The nun’s-paint went on in pale greys and blacks, swabbed over the lips and the hollows of her eyes and cheeks. Gideon comforted herself by recoiling at her reflection in the cracked mirror: a grinning death’s-head with a crop of incongruously red hair and a couple of zits. She pulled her sunglasses out of the pocket of her robe and eased them on, which completed the effect, if the effect you wanted was “horrible.”

She likes porn, giving people the middle finger and inwardly cursing people who are usually Harrow, giving her narration a decidedly meme-able feel that’s a nice counterpoint to the heavy Gothic aesthetic Muir’s got going on. It’s tempting to read Gideon as a type of Steerpike, an anti-establishment figure rebelling against the decadence and waste of the hidebound Houses; her flippant narration a corrective to, and criticism of, overblown Gothic prose. But I think such a reading would be wrong. For one thing, Gideon actually wants to join in the interstellar war the Houses are conducting. For another, I don’t think the novel is really at odds with the conventions of the Gothic (a genre that’s always teetering on the edge of self-parody anyway): Gideon’s internetty humour feels somehow just as excessive as the insane crumbling mansion she and Harrow explore. Extra might be a good word for both. Gothic in general is a pretty extra mode.

So where does this leave us? Another way that Gideon the Ninth is similar to Gormenghast is in its thematic concern with identity and self-definition. We can see this, metafictionally, in its liberal use of internet-type humour, its fanfic tropiness: much humorous internet speech is at its heart about performing identity and belonging in specific social circles. Gideon’s arc, really, is about discovering who she is and what she values beyond the morbid confines of the Ninth House; it’s about her being able to establish relationships on her own terms rather than being forced into them. In this way she’s a little like Gormenghast‘s Titus, only he has to leave the haunted castle to find himself. Which is interesting! The haunted house usually functions as a place that threatens characters’ subjectivity through its uncanny, ever-changing and thus semi-organic architecture; it’s not normally where they go to define it, as Gideon does. So in this sense, at least, Muir is working against established Gothic tradition: defanging the haunted house, casting it as a place where fulfilment can happen.

It’s been said (I wish I could remember by whom) that the Gothic mode is characterised by a house in love with a woman. Or vice versa. Whether or not that’s entirely accurate is debatable, but it’s true that for much of its early history the Gothic novel was seen as the province of silly women; kind of like prototypical chick-lit. I don’t think it’s coincidental that Gideon the Ninth is a very female novel; and its central story is one of two women, Gideon and Harrow, working out their fraught relationship and ultimately learning to trust each other. If many Gothic novels are about women isolated and scared, at constant risk of assault by men (see Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho or Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto for good examples), then this Gothic novel is about (fairly badass) women finding themselves and each other, learning to operate independently of control – something that’s still pretty radical in today’s misogynistic society. Essentially I’m reading Gideon the Ninth as a kind of reclamation of the Gothic mode for millennial women – women with real agency who’ll claim their self-actualisation with a sword, if necessary.

Review: Her Body and Other Parties

Carmen Maria Machado’s debut short story collection Her Body and Other Parties looks, in every respect, like a book I should love. These are dark stories using fantastical elements to throw light on systematic misogyny. They often refer to and riff on fairytale. Within their pages dwell queer women and women who have lots of sex and women in complicated relationships with their own bodies that are frequently mediated by The Patriarchy. Women who know what it’s like to be low-key afraid in public places all the time.

Machado’s clearly an accomplished writer with plenty to say, whether it’s about internalised fatphobia (“Eight Bites”), men who demand everything of women and then some (“The Husband Stitch”) or the prevalence of raped women in popular culture (“Especially Heinous”). My favourite story, “Inventory”, is eerily relevant right now: as a deadly epidemic rages through North America, the female narrator remembers everyone she’s ever slept with, relishing memories of physical intimacy as she faces a future with no-one in it at all. Social distancing is impossible when you’re having sex with someone, after all.

Ultimately, though, the collection left me cold, for reasons that have everything to do with me and very little to do with it. Machado’s style is perhaps a little too capital-L Literary for me: too controlled, too obviously formal, perhaps, for its subject matter. I like my feminist fairytales wild and wide; I like them to leave darknesses unplumbed and frightening for it.

Having said that, I’d readily recommend Her Body and Other Parties to fans of Angela Carter, Roxane Gay and Helen Oyeyemi. We didn’t meet at the right time, this book and I, but others might.

Review: The Angry Chef

Anthony Warner’s The Angry Chef has its origins in his science blog of the same name: a site dedicated to the sweary, rage-filled mythbusting of fad diets and food-related pseudoscience. This book, subtitled, clickbait-ily, “Bad Science and the Truth about Healthy Eating”, is more of the same: a look at some of the most harmful and ill-founded modern diets, from GAPS to paleo, an examination of a few of the most pervasive myths about food (“evil sugar” features prominently), a handy guide to spotting bullshit in the world of food and a hard-hitting conclusion discussing some of the abuses perpetrated in the name of food pseudoscience. Young autistic children being put on heavily restricted diets in the hope they’ll be “cured”; cancer patients turning away from Western medicine, only to die in agony having put their trust in unscientific diets; these, Warner argues, are the eventual end point of the detox salad you choose for lunch.

Which seems a slight exaggeration, and indeed that’s the biggest flaw in the book. Warner isn’t a scientist – in fact he’s a development chef, which I’ll get to in a minute – but his whole schtick revolves around the Power of Science, and particularly of the scientific method. The pseudonymous Captain Science (who I believe is a real scientist who doesn’t want her name splashed all over the internet) is a regular visitor to his blog, supplying neat precis of scientific papers – an approach that’s carried over into the book, which is meticulously referenced. Warner also covers common psychological fallacies like regression to the mean, confirmation bias and mistaking correlation for causation – all things the scientific method can protect us from. In other words, a lot of the material in this book is valuable and well-sourced; it’s just a few eyebrow-raising arguments that let it down. Such as Warner’s assertion that looking down on convenience food is sexist, because convenience food has freed women in particular from hours of labour preparing meals from scratch.

There’s a good point in there somewhere. It’s true that, pre-convenience food, people spent A Lot of time preserving, baking, boiling, salting, chopping, pickling, churning and generally making sure their households had enough food throughout the year. And that those people were mostly women. It’s also true that convenience food has made many, many people’s lives easier and more viable: pre-chopped vegetables and ready meals are lifesavers for disabled people, people working three jobs so they can feed their families, carers, busy professionals and the like. But none of this addresses the actual problem at hand, which is that convenience food – by which I mean Dolmio’s sauces, ready meals, supermarket cakes and the like, not relatively innocuous things like tinned tomatoes and diced carrots – generally contains vast amounts of fat and salt and sugar, all of which have been shown to be bad for you in large quantities, and all of which are addictive when they’re present in large quantities, especially together. No, demonising convenience food is not the answer. But saying it’s specifically sexist to do so is a distraction.

A distraction from what? This is where Warner’s own biases come in. You’d think the answer to making convenience foods healthier and better for the people who rely on them would be to regulate the food industry. As a development chef working for a large food manufacturer (presumably looking at ways to make convenience foods more delicious and more addictive), this would, I suppose, make Warner’s life a bit more difficult. So: sexism!

I dwell on this example not because it’s a hugely important part of Warner’s argument (his general stance is that people should feel free to enjoy food without guilt or unnecessary restriction, which I am in wholehearted agreement with) but because it’s representative of the book’s overall pro-industry bias and the odd leaps of logic Warner tends to take when he’s straying outside the realms of scientific evidence. It is not by any means a bad book: I’d recommend it to anyone who likes food unashamedly, and anyone who’s thinking about dipping a toe in the dieting pool. If you’ve already a reader of the Angry Chef blog, though, I don’t think you’ll find anything new here.

Review: Moranifesto

I didn’t not enjoy Moranifesto, a collection of journalist Caitlin Moran’s irreverent, feminist Times columns, together with some new content covering familiar ground. It’s well-written: Moran has a lively, colloquial style of the sort that’s very difficult indeed to achieve. It’s inoffensive, apart from a liberal dose of swearing. Even the claims of irrelevance plenty of Goodreads reviewers are making miss the mark: it’s true that the columns here cover events as long ago as 2012, but we’re talking about once-in-a-lifetime, big-ticket things like the London Olympics and the Diamond Jubilee. It’s not as if Moran’s tackling obscure current events with players nobody remembers any more.

And yet, that word irrelevant keeps coming to mind when I think about Moranifesto. Of course it’s hard to achieve anything earth-shattering within the constraints of a 1000-word newspaper column. But it doesn’t help that nothing Moran says is truly that original. She sets out, I think, to be shocking, with her profanity, her frequent references to vaginas and other taboo feminist issues, her irreverence for royalty and politicians and other things the Sunday papers like to treat as Very Serious. And it works! It works when it’s a page in the Sunday Times Magazine talking about periods or how difficult it is to find comfortable women’s shoes or how shitty and exploitative Benefits Street is – it’s a breath of fresh air amid four-page interviews with celebrities and strait-laced pieces about politics. As a book, though? There are fiercer and bolder voices out there: voices like Zadie Smith, Roxane Gay, Catherynne M. Valente. Actually even Moran’s novel How to Build a Girl is more groundbreaking: the principle of “show not tell” inherent in all fiction gives her themes greater power and greater impact.

Moranifesto is fine. There’s no reason not to read it if you already like Moran’s columns; if you’re a feminist and a little bit of a socialist too. If you’re looking for a read that’s appropriately angry without being too mentally taxing. But nor do I think there’s a particularly compelling reason to read it. Try How to Build a Girl instead.

Review: Fire

The second novel in Kristin Cashore’s Graceling Realms series – in publishing order – Fire is actually a prequel/companion of sorts to Graceling. It takes place the other side of the mountains, in a country called the Dells where there are no Graced people, but there are monsters: unnaturally coloured creatures who inspire fascination in all who see them. Our eponymous heroine, Fire, is the last human monster: her flaming red hair puts her in constant danger from predatory men, as well as other monsters. She can also control minds. She’s the daughter of another monster, a decidedly unpleasant man who until his death had great power over the weak king – and thus great power over the Dells. Fire is in part about how its heroine grows out of that shadow and comes to terms with her own power.

It is, in truth, very similar to Graceling, and I have very similar things to say about it. In aesthetic and mood it’s Generic Fantasy: the Dells are a cod-medieval-Europe analogue so conventional that the world doesn’t really need building. But its conventionality is a feature, not a bug: it’s integral to Cashore’s feminist project in Fire, which is about writing female experiences into a setting where they’re often ignored.

Cashore’s only fantastical innovation, the monsters, focus anxieties about mind control and also female agency. Like Graceling, Fire can be read as a primer for young adults on abusive relationships, as Fire deals with the legacy of her controlling father, who used his power to manipulate and harm those around him, and attempts to come to terms with her own power and how she can use it ethically. Cashore also makes the point that Fire is treated very differently to her father: whereas his monstrous powers of attraction won him admiration and subservience, her own otherworldly beauty attracts lust, jealousy and the threat of sexual violence from the men around her. Here Cashore is putting the cliché of the supernaturally attractive woman to work to examine contemporary rape culture and the gendered double standard. Her work here carries reflections of the grimdark convention whereby every fantasy woman is ever at risk of rape; except that rape in Fire isn’t a constant and thus normalised background reality as it is in, say, A Song of Ice and Fire, it’s a major violation of personal sovereignty, a devastating and exceptional crime. This is rape culture as seen by the women who live at its mercy, not the men who use it for set-dressing.

What else? There’s a bunch of angry reviewers on Goodreads condemning Fire for having too much (extra-marital) sex in it for a YA book. Think of the children! How will they cope!!!! Any author who manages to attract the opprobrium of reviewers like this gets a win in my book: the reality is that most teens have sex, or at least think about having sex, and yet there are so few YA fantasy novels that deal with sex in a meaningful way. In any case Fire’s more interested in relationships than in sex per se: there are no on-page sex scenes, and much of the casual sex is actually frowned upon. Fire’s friend-with-benefits Archer (yes, really) has an unpleasant habit of seducing women, breaking their hearts and leaving them pregnant; Cashore sees this as another example of male entitlement. Fire’s own sexual relationship with Archer is pretty refreshing for a fantasy novel: they are friends as well as lovers, and Fire genuinely doesn’t care about exclusivity. And unlike a great number of YA heroines, she’s not interested in putting up with jealousy: when Archer’s behaviour becomes controlling, she dumps him, and later on finds a healthier relationship with someone who doesn’t try to tell her who she can talk to.

Fire also has reproductive decisions to deal with, as well as inconvenient menstruation (the smell of Fire’s blood attracts monsters, some of them deadly), both of which are again rare territory for YA fantasy. I suppose a valid criticism of Fire might be that it confines its heroine to traditionally female concerns like relationships and periods and pregnancy; she’s not a fighter like Graceling‘s Katsa, although she does have her moments. But if she’s confined to such concerns, it’s because those are the concerns we assign to medieval/cod-medieval women in Western culture. It’s the way that Fire deals with them that’s important: by asserting her agency and working ethically. Fire is a corrective to the morass of grimdark fantasy epics that depict worlds designed around men; it’s a story in which women’s concerns take centre stage.

Doctor Who Review: Spyfall

Spyfall, a two-part story, kicked Season 12 and Jodie Whittaker’s second season of Doctor Who off with…a fair amount of confusion, I thought. Part 1 begins with spies dying and disappearing in mysterious ways all over the world, leading the Doctor to two men: Daniel Barton, CEO of a major search engine company; and O, a former intelligence agent and friend of the Doctor living in the Australian outback. Two men, and the Kasaavin: a race of extra-dimensional beings apparently made of light who are the direct culprits of the murders. But Why?

The story looks at first to be a fairly formulaic Who tale: a tycoon in league with an alien race, both of them up to no good; classic, if slightly unoriginal, fare. That’s until it takes a hard left at the end of Part 1, with the reveal that O is actually the Doctor’s old nemesis the Master in disguise (played by Sacha Dhawan), and that he’s been orchestrating the entire caboodle for nefarious reasons of his own. “Everything you think you know is a lie,” he says, before vanishing from a plane that’s plummeting from the sky.

So ends the first episode, rather propulsively. The second episode, which sees the Doctor propelled through history by the Kasaavin, with Ryan, Graham and Yaz working to foil Daniel Barton’s apocalyptic plans, is quite frankly a mess. There’s a heck of a lot going on here and writer Chris Chibnall doesn’t seem terribly interested in much of it. The Doctor meets a couple of famous women, Victorian computer programmer Ada Lovelace and WW2 British spy Noor Inayat Khan, only to wipe their memories of her at the end of the episode, non-consensually, to “[wipe] away the things [they] shouldn’t have knowledge of” – treatment notably not extended to Nikola Tesla when he appears a few episodes later. Graham, Yaz and Ryan discover that Daniel Barton intends to turn the entire human race into biological hard drives, only for this plan to be foiled off-screen, anti-climatically, by the Doctor’s judicious use of time travel. I’m not even entirely sure where the Kasaavin come into all of this, or why they were needed in the first place.

No: this story is very much about the Master and the Doctor. It’s hard not to see it as basically a sparring match with the entirety of humankind at stake, which I think is what bothers me about Spyfall, and all the Who stories (most of them written by Steven Moffat) that are essentially about themselves. This isn’t, like Russell T. Davies’ The Waters of Mars, a story that draws attention to Time Lord hubris. Nor does it have the kind of deliberate, consistent imagery of a story like The Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lords, which for all its overblown sentiment does carry strong religious/moral overtones. There is no such consistency here, as we see from the pile-on of ideas and themes and images. There is only fannish self-absorption in the show’s own history; a self-absorption that treats other people as backdrop or soapbox (it’s nice that Chibnall wants to showcase notable women in history, but not if he won’t give them any agency).

This self-absorption plays out rather uncomfortably at one point, when in WW2 Paris the Doctor takes advantage of the Nazis’ racism to have the Master taken away. Like…really? you went there? There’s just this…lack of awareness of how story-imagery works on viewers. The Nazis in this story are handy tools to be used in service of the plot, regardless of the heavy, heavy associations they carry in the West today.

Yeah. I didn’t like Spyfall very much. And although it didn’t turn out to be exactly predictive of the concerns of the rest of the series (or, at least, the half of it I’ve got around to watching!), it’s not an auspicious start to it.

Film Review: Love Actually

Lindy Miller’s piece in Jezebel says just about everything there is to say about Love Actually, viz., that “this is a movie made for women by a man” wherein the only expressions of straight romantic “love” on show are ones where men lay claim to voiceless women.

If you haven’t seen the film, it consists of multiple interlinked plotlines, all of them centred on an actual or potential straight couple. An eleven-year-old pines after a cool girl from America. The Prime Minister (Hugh Grant) crushes on his secretary. A writer (Colin Firth) falls in love with his Portuguese housekeeper, who speaks no English. There are lots, I won’t list them all, but suffice it to say that none of them are particularly original and/or revelatory. Straights gonna straight.

It is a fact, though, that the storylines that come closest to showcasing actual, healthy love as it manifests in the real world are the ones where a romantic connection is missed or dropped; the ones that end unhappily from a traditional rom-com perspective. So: Sarah (Laura Linney) chooses her mentally ill brother over her workplace crush, which, in the world of Love Actually, is a terrible tragedy that dooms her to a life of spinsterhood. Women: men require your complete attention at all times! Meanwhile, Karen (Emma Thompson) chooses to stay with her emotionally unfaithful husband for (it’s implied) the good of their children, a sacrifice I’m not sure I can see any of the male characters making.*

What to make of this? That romance is incompatible with real life and real commitments? I’m not sure director Richard Curtis really means to suggest this, but it’s a compelling reading of the film’s worldview nonetheless. I’m particularly thinking of that bizarre subplot where Colin, who is everything his name suggests, heads out to America to find women to sleep with. The scene where three impossibly hot American ladies ALL find him adorable and invite him back home for a foursome reads like a dream sequence, honestly, so removed is it from reality. Oh, then there’s the subplot where Karen’s husband’s hot employee throws herself at him repeatedly, despite the fact that he literally looks like Snape. And then there’s the bit when a woman whose husband’s best friend has been creeping on her is FLATTERED rather than running away extremely fast…And then

Well, you get the idea. Almost the entire film is the fantasy of an average-looking straight man: filled with women whose entire world revolves around him (because LUURVE). And woe betide them if they care about anything other than him: they shall be denied the comforts of romantic male company FOR EVER! (Just as well, you might think, given Love Actually‘s conception of what romantic love is.)

And yet. Love Actually remains quite watchable. Doubtless that has something to do with the calibre of the actors involved – it’s one of those films that will have you playing the “now, what were they in?” guessing game – but I also think there’s something about the mildly unconventional shape of the film, the various intercutting plots and subplots, that holds the attention. There’s something for even the most hostile watcher to enjoy (for me, Emma Thompson; Bill Nighy; Rowan Atkinson in a cameo as an officious department store worker). And the whole thing is nicely paced, too, bringing those interconnecting strands together towards the end of the film to place the characters in a community of sorts. Because, you know, love is all around us.

Gods help us.


*I’m still not sure what to do with the storyline about an ageing rock star played by Bill Nighy and his manager, which is also quite sweet. I always read them as gay/bisexual, but I am assured other people don’t.

Film Review: Star Wars – The Rise of Skywalker

I’ve come to the conclusion that there is no point asking questions about the plot of The Rise of Skywalker, which sees Our Heroes racing around the galaxy in search of various MacGuffins which will eventually help them tackle the resurrected Emperor Palpatine, who’s assembled a massive secret fighting force on a remote planet.

The film just isn’t interested in considering such pressing procedural questions as, “How did Palpatine hide all those ships?” “When did Sith Lords get the ability to come back to life?” “How did the First Order not notice the traitor in their ranks?” and so on. There are a lot of these questions. The answer to all of them is *shrug*.

No, The Rise of Skywalker is, I think, best read in terms of its emotional content; as an example of what Adam Roberts calls the “visual spectacular”. In this reading, things happen because they make emotional (rather than logical) sense; they fit the meta-narrative that director J.J. Abrams is trying to tell. So: what is that meta-narrative?

I want to start with one of the scenes I found most effective; by which I mean, it damn near made me cry. Towards the end of the film, as Rey faces down the fearsome Emperor Palpatine, the Resistance faces certain destruction at the hands (cannons?) of his mega-army. Someone comes up with a daring plan: what if we just ask for help from everyone in the galaxy? Everyone who hates the First Order? And, at the last minute, the cavalry arrives, a motley fleet of thousands of ships of all kinds and sizes, led by the legendary Lando Calrissian – “That’s not a fleet,” says a First Order officer in wonderment, “That’s just…people.”

Just people. Just ordinary people who have chosen to resist tyranny. This is the sentiment at the heart of The Rise of Skywalker, maybe of all of Star Wars since Episode IV. Here I like Andrew Rilstone’s reading of the film as a place where ordinary people – like Poe’s ex-lover Zorri or the ex-Stormtrooper Jannah – get outsize roles and meaningful character development. And it’s impossible – or, at least, it was impossible, back in December when coronavirus was hardly a blip on the West’s radar and we were all still worried about climate change and American politics and Brexit – not to see in the film’s strong imperial/resistance imagery (filtered through the lens of most current pop culture) metaphors for the rise of the co-opting of the machineries of government by the alt-right; which is to say, it’s impossible to watch The Rise of Skywalker without thinking about Donald Trump. Not just because the imagery is in itself suggestive, but also because everything is about Donald Trump at the moment, meaning a lot of pop culture referencing itself, creating a cultural shorthand that means The Trump Administration. What The Rise of Skywalker is intending to suggest, clumsily, is that this is a time for ordinary people to make extraordinary decisions; to resist, in the small ways that each of us can, the rising tide of intolerance, bigotry and tyranny.

Not just that, though. The Rise of Skywalker is full of ruins – the ruins of the original trilogy, Episodes IV through VI – most notably in a magnificent scene in which we see the Death Star II fallen into a turbulent sea, rotten, dead, yet full of menace. Rey is dwarfed by it, larger in death than it was in life, as she clambers through it in search of some plot coupon or other. She and Kylo Ren, who inevitably turns up to battle her there, are like “squeaking ghosts” (Tolkien) amid this colossal wreck. And there are other fragments of the original films too: Leia herself, played by a Carrie Fisher who was dead before filming began; an aged Lando Calrissian; Luke’s old spaceship, brought up from the depths of another sea. There is in this semi-Gothic abundance of ghosts and ruins and fragments a sort of nostalgia for the (imagined) simplicity of an earlier age. In the original films there were no parents grieving for radicalised sons; no children taken by the empire to be made into soldiers; good and evil were separate, easily distinguished; to return to real-world politics, we were not fighting an enemy within. I don’t want to suggest that The Rise of Skywalker is morally ambiguous; it clearly isn’t. But it is about living in an authoritative regime in a way that the original trilogy isn’t (and the prequel trilogy is). The world of The Rise of Skywalker is weary, the realm of the ordinary, not of heroes.

Which makes the film’s assertion that, contrary to what The Last Jedi had to say, Rey is actually the scion of an important family – Palpatine’s family, no less – puzzling. Or, not puzzling, really, in the way that the various plot inconsistencies are not puzzling; just annoying, and self-contradictory. There are other anti-progressive moves on the part of the writers that are problematic for an anti-Trump reading of the film: the sidelining of Rose Tico, the only woman of colour to have a starring role in the Star Wars universe; the fact that the only significant female character apart from Rey, Leia, gives up her life to redeem her son; the ultimate redemption of Kylo Ren, mass murderer, architect of genocide, radicalised space Nazi in all but name. None of these things speak particularly of standing up to bigotry, more indeed of enabling it.

In fact, let’s talk about Kylo Ren some more. I recognise, intellectually, that Kylo’s redemption, based as it is on saving a single very important life before he dies, is unearned and insufficient to atone for the millions of lives he has canonically ruined. But Adam Driver sells Kylo as conflicted, misguided, ultimately lovable teenager so well; I may also have shed a tear at the film’s climax, when Rey and Kylo get the kiss they’ve been building up to for three films. This is, though, of a piece with The Rise of Skywalker‘s feelgood, ill-examined liberalism: ordinary people are important, thus we must give the benefit of the doubt to all people, even if they are mass murdering space Nazis (who are “ordinary” by dint of really being confused teenagers, and isn’t everyone confused and misguided and hurt some of the time? Yes, J.J., but most people don’t turn into white supremacists).

While I enjoyed The Rise of Skywalker, I wouldn’t say it’s a good film. There are great ideas, but most of them don’t go anywhere much. The writing is lazy, depending on a general cultural shorthand to generate much of its affect, which means that the conclusions the narrative comes to are muddled and contradictory. I can’t really see myself watching it again, is what I’m trying to say.

Review: How to Build a Girl

I’ve always enjoyed Caitlin Moran’s columns in the Sunday Times Magazine. Her writing feels unstudied, off-the-cuff, casual, in a way that’s both very rare and very hard to achieve, the smattering of ALL CAPS SENTENCES, slang and brand names belying compelling rhetorical structures and serious political (often feminist) points.

How to Build a Girl is her first novel: a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age tale about a young woman called Johanna Morrigan living in 90s Wolverhampton and dreaming of being – someone else. Almost anyone else, really. So, she invents Dolly Wilde, a gothpunk Manic Pixie Dream Girl Lady Sex Adventurer alter ego in a top hat, gets a job as a music critic and embarks on a life of drink, drugs and moderate, grungy showbiz. So far, so standard a teenage rebellion; what makes How to Build a Girl notable is its commentary on the poverty created by the closing of traditional industries under Margaret Thatcher; the Morrigans’ ever-present fear of having their benefits cut; and the objectification of female bodies. It is altogether a more…cerebral novel than its subject matter and origin might suggest.

The conversational nature of Moran’s non-fiction writing has been dialled back here: gone is the brand-name specificity, the knowing-wink directness. In long form, and without these embellishments, the relative simplicity of her sentence and narrative structures become apparent: I don’t think I’d ever categorise How to Build a Girl as literary fiction, it is too artless for that. But, just occasionally and at its best, Moran’s prose is reminiscent of Catherynne Valente’s in its very artlessness, its tumble of teenage emotion:

…it is a million times easier to be cynical and wield a sword, than it is to be open-hearted and stand there, holding a balloon and a birthday cake, with the infinite potential to look foolish.

One consequence of this artlessness is that the novel is, let’s say, quite tell-y not show-y. Which is to say, instead of allowing its readers to come to conclusions based on narrative and character, it spells out what you should take from it: see the above statement on cynicism, or this, from John Kite, a singer and Johanna’s crush:

When the middle classes get passionate about politics, they’re arguing about their treats—their tax breaks and their investments. When the poor get passionate about politics, they’re fighting for their lives.

Despite the fact that How to Build a Girl is ostensibly written from Johanna’s point of view, these passages feel like statements from an insecure author who wants to make very sure we Get The Point.

Which we do. And we agree with you. Don’t worry, Caitlin. It’s all good.

And yet. This is still, I think, an important book. Something I haven’t mentioned yet is how very many sex and masturbation scenes there are in this novel. Johanna/Dolly is, after all, a teenage girl discovering all the mysteries and pleasures of incipient adulthood, all at once, with multiple partners, or no-one at all if necessary. In one memorable scene, she gets cystitis from someone with a very large penis. This is important because, as Johanna herself says, “There is very little female narrative of what it’s like to fuck, and be fucked.” There are not many stories in which women are allowed to be like this without being seen as a kind of fascinating lusus naturae. There are not many cultural narratives as honest about the female sexual experience.

I don’t know that How to Build a Girl is going to stand as a classic through the ages, or anything like that. It is not a novel that can sustain much critical scrutiny or discussion – it wears its messages too obviously on its sleeve for that; we are never in much doubt as to Moran’s politics or Johanna’s opinions or motivations. As a “lighter” read, though, a chick-lit-style novel that doesn’t make you feel like you do when you’ve binged on Dairy Milk (unsatisfied and slightly nauseated) – well, it’s much better than Shopaholic, let’s put it that way.