Without warning, the rain fell as I was on my way to the designated target. The Wheeler Centre, to see John Birmingham on a cold and bitter Melbourne evening. But my wimpishness was only reinforced when, having braved a bit of winter rain on the arduous trek up the hill, the man otherwise known as @JohnBirmingham spoke about tough action heroes. Action heroes who happen to be women. So the fact I cared about having wet, oily hair just seemed, how do I put this nicely, weak.
Do not misinterpret this as a sexist comment, please. Well aware that there are many women who could roundly and soundly kick my arse, the talk of Buffy, Ripley, and Birmingham’s killer characters Jules and Caitlin made me feel just a little, teeny-weeny bit like a girl.
Which brings me nicely to one of the early, and important, points that JB made in his talk. There is no reason why, all things being equal, a woman cannot be just as much of a highly trained and efficient killing machine as any man. And, he went on, arguably the world would be a better place if more of them were. (TheRuffStuff would argue that the world would be better if fewer men were highly trained and efficient killing machines, but we’re all about equal opportunity here so let’s aspire to a gender balance in the near future, eh?)
Birmingham got the memo, he was dressed in Melbourne black, but the Brisbane influence came out when he said, twice, that he wouldn’t have been bothered coming out in such terrible weather to hear him talk. The weather may have contributed to his manflu. Maybe it was a way of making us feel a little bit braver, given the bad-ass(assin) women being talked about included Xena and Starbuck. And a little plug for his new book, After America, although it was the last day of his tour so there no infomercial vibe about the evening. (I sense JB, even as someone who managed to get a plug on 7.30 Reportland, isn’t the type to bang on about the product without offering other insights as well. That was pretty evident during our chat* when he was happy to talk about broken arms and computer games and how much of a bastard he was to be around during deadline time, and without trying to insert references to the book into every sentence.)
So, what is the book? (Those who know skip this paragraph.) After America is part two in a yet-to-be-named trilogy, following from Without Warning, set in an alternate reality where on March 14, 2003, almost everyone in the continental US died in a mysterious wave. Most of Mexico, Cuba and Canada too, for that matter. So, instead of the Iraq war (or Gulf War II: Clone of the Attacks) we now have a world where millions of Americans are dead. This is not a good thing. (That should go without saying, but let’s say it anyway.) In the ensuing chaos, there are heroes and villains who battle to survive and thrive in the new reality. Among them are Caitlin Monroe, a sexy assassin, and Julianne “Jules” Balwyn, a daughter from a fallen line of English nobility thrust into extreme situations. Without Warning (which I’m still reading) was the initial confusion and coming to grips with the new reality, After America (which I read first) is the fight for the east. Much of the fight takes place in New York City, with pirates and extremists and all sorts of misfits trying to claim Manhattan.
Birmingham rather modestly refers to the series as airport thrillers (“They improve with elevation,” he quips) but while they may be fun and popular, they are by no means idiotic. Written as a possible computer game or movie series, sure, but that does not automatically mean crap. (The genre versus literature “debate” is boring, and besides, how many supposedly worthy – even award-winning – “masterpieces” have been turgid, over-written, adjective-laden and dreary reads? Would there be more than a handful of writers on this list who are widely read, to pick a random list completely at random to illustrate the point?) Birmingham’s take on this is that there is no war between genre and literature, but rather “a war between reading and the Nintendo DS.”
But that is another matter. Chicks rule, okay? Birmingham explains that he is trying to challenge paradigms with these books. Just because they’re popular thrillers doesn’t mean they have to be Tom Clancy. (Which is alright if you like that kind of thing, we think, having read a couple and not hated them. But the point is not that Clancy is bad, but there are other ways of writing popular books.) Part of the challenge to the playbook is to feature two killer women. There is also a Mexican cowboy cast on the side of the angles retaking Texas for the US. But let’s get back to the point, chicks rule, okay?
Caitlin and Jules are two different sides of the women as action hero coin, to very roughly paraphrase the argument. Caitlin is the perfect, fit, sexy, aspirational character. The kind of female superhero that men like, according to some theories. Jules is more human, more fallible, and the character women are expected relate better to. Caitlin is in the Lara Croft tradition, Jules is more Ellen Ripley.
The fun part of the talk, for me, was not the exploration of what different readers want in a female action hero but Birmingham’s brief history of their progress on screen. He began with Dr Who references which predated me by several decades, but the point was most of the female companions were useless. Then one behaved as though she did have half a brain, and it was not only a minor step forward in feminism but stopped the young Birmingham from getting mad at the screen. He pointed to Ripley as an important moment in female action hero history, less so for her skimpy outfit in the climax of the first movie than for the showdown in Aliens. There she kindly asks the alien queen to “Get away from her you bitch” and battles for the child. Two females fighting over the fate of a young girl in an interplanetary blockbuster, and there was nothing particularly maternal or soft and cuddly about it. In 1986.
He then spoke about how Buffy was an evolution, and how she was extraordinary for her ordinariness. A high school girl with normal boy and homework problems. (And, for Melbourne Buffy fans who weren’t quick enough, you have already missed your chance to see Joss Whedon at the Melbourne Writers Festival.) The latest evolution is Starbuck, the hot-shot pilot who can out-fight, out-drink and out-fuck any of the men around her. And we accept this as normal, which we should. (On a side note, BSG is the most awesome TV of this or any other century. Well, certainly in the top five.)
While Angelina Jolie has been proving that she can do a lot more than dance backwards and in high heels, and is about to blow her enemies away in Salt, this is still the exception rather than the rule. Society more broadly, but popular culture including TV and film, has progressed a long way in its portrayal and acceptance of strong women. Elizabeth Bennett should not be the only role model for girls in 2010. But there is still progress to be made, because it should be the norm, not a novelty. Still, Birmingham has a few more years yet of being paradigm-pushing with Jules and Caitlin. At least for one more book to round out the trilogy.
Incidentally, getting my copy of Without Warning signed (I took a few funds from my mortgage fighting fund to put into JB’s, even though most of it will end up in the hands of middle-people) I had to let him know a fact I found fun. Like Aliens and The Empire Strikes Back, I was exposed to the second part of the series first. So, it’s in good company.
* I interviewed John Birmingham for The Canberra Times. None of the paper’s copyright material was used for this post. This was done in my own time.