Thursday, 21 June 2012

Raiding Tombs

 I’m always excited to hear about a new Tomb Raider game, because I love Lara Croft. I am a rubbish, and occasional gamer.  I see it primarily as a social activity and prefer games which put more emphasis on problem solving than fighting.  I find war games distasteful and strategy games uninteresting.  I like a first person adventure with a good story.

Lara Croft was just an image to me for a good few years before I actually played any of the Tomb Raider games and I found her sickening, unrealistic and overly sexualised, in no way reflective of the women around me.  While (largely thanks to vastly improved graphics) she now has a much more human appearance, I have to say this remains the case.  

Because I am rubbish at games, everything I learnt about Lara on my first time controlling her reinforced this image.  I spent a lot of time running into walls, which prompts her to make a slightly orgasmic ‘unh’ noise.  She also moans when she bends down to pick up health or ammo, presumably as a result of her shorts being too tight.

I don’t remember the chronology of my introduction to the Tomb Raider games, I think I had a brief go on a friend’s playstation of the second game, then at some time acquired the first game on my PC.  Soon afterwards a housemate got a playstation and my two male housemates and I worked our way through the first few games together.  The more I played, the more intrigued I became.

Lara Croft is different from any female character you will find in literature or film for many reasons, some to do with the medium in which she exists, and some to do with her as a fictional creation.  In the first game, you experience her as the only person in a very remote landscape, prey to dogs, bats, bears and dinosaurs – obviously.  When you encounter another human being, it is no different from encountering a lion, although they are harder to kill.  The game play emphasis is much more on problem solving and your ability to control her accurately than it is on combat.  It’s just you and Lara, and as you progress through the game, your skills develop and she becomes capable of extraordinary feats.  
I loved the first game.  I loved the solitude and simplicity of it, something I appreciate more as each new addition to the canon is released and is less solitary, more complicated, and as a result, rather messy.  I love that at no point in the game does it have to be explained how Lara came to be capable of such daring expeditions, super intelligent and capable of reading obscure ancient languages in spite of being a woman; she just is.  I love that her gender has nothing to do with anything.  I bonded with her over that.  I also found it interesting how her personality changed depending on who had the control.  In my hands she was cautious, slow and thorough, in one housemate’s she was reckless and quick, and with the other, aggressive and certain.  I found myself wondering things about her, her career, her family life, how a woman like that operated in the world I live in.  Let me be clear, there are reasons why Lara Croft is not, and probably never will be, a feminist icon, among them that titillation has played a big part in some of the design and even story choices along the way.  Hollywood had the chance to do something more interesting but made such a ridiculous hash of it – twice – I’m glad they have since been content to leave her to games.  

The new trailer promises a bit of a Lara Croft origin story.  Her history has gradually come out over the course of the games and comics, often re-writing itself, but this game depicts the plane crash which is the catalyst in her development as an adventurer as she learns to survive by herself in the Himalayas - or in this version, a desert island.  Excellent, I thought, just Lara learning how to be Lara.  For me it doesn’t need explaining but it might on the other hand mean a return to that solitary, simple game play and pure Lara of the first game.  And moments of the trailer don't disappoint.  

But there seems to be an awful lot of bad guys hanging out in this wilderness and one of my reservations is how many strands to the story are introduced in this trailer.  And the issue that has caused some controversy ( beautifully summed up in this Guardian article) and concerns me greatly is the apparent attempted rape of Lara by one of these bad guys.  Maybe one day I will write a whole blog post about the portrayal of rape in popular culture, but there’s an excellent one here which covers the main points.  It began to be a problem for me after I realised that in pretty much every film I watched over about a three month period, a woman was raped or nearly raped.  And it was handled the same way every time; usually she would be either saved by the hero or this violent crime would spur the hero on to exact some revenge on her behalf.  Apart from the issue of it trivialising rape, it’s really lazy writing, and insulting to both genders.  It reduces all men to potential rapists and all women to victims.  We never see the consequences of a woman dealing with life after rape, it is never reported to the police and it never works its way through the normal justice system.  

I’d like to make something very clear.  A woman does not need to be raped, or have someone attempt to rape her, in order to become (in this case) Lara Croft.  It is possible that some women just are strong, powerful, determined and dispassionate enough to shoot a dog without hesitation if it looks like it’s about to eat her (this incredible story from This American Life comes to mind).  

I suspect being a victim of rape does not in any way make you stronger.  There is no justification I can imagine for putting this attempted rape into the game, and the trailer (would seeing this scene make anyone actively WANT to play the game?), and I’m disappointed that the makers don’t have enough faith in their central character to give her a more positive origin tale.  The executive producer said this about Lara in an interview with Kokatu: “When people play Lara, they don't really project themselves into the character.  They're more like 'I want to protect her.' There's this sort of dynamic of 'I'm going to this adventure with her and trying to protect her.'"  I would love to know what research this is based on. If you really want to protect her, surely you wouldn’t take it out of the box, because then she’d never have to go through being munched on by wildlife and shot at by bad guys.  Perhaps you could have a version where Lara stays at home and bakes and you have to stop her burning herself on the oven. 

 I’ll play the new Tomb Raider, and I’m still hoping I’ll love it in spite of this.  But by giving Lara this experience, the makers have undermined their character and my relationship with her.  How can I think less of her because of an attempted rape, and how can I not?

Monday, 9 April 2012

Jenny Ringo Saved My Life: Is Jenny a Feminist?

This is the third blog in a series about two short films I have made in the past couple of years.  You can find out more about the films here.

Ages ago the Writer by Night wrote a blog about whether Jenny Ringo is a feminist, and how he would leave it to me to answer that question.  I suppose now I really ought to get around to doing as I am told like a good little wife.

My timing is spectacularly bad; I have missed Women in Horror Month and International Women's Day, which I mostly celebrated by getting very angry about Texan abortion law and women's healthcare funding.  If you are a woman in the States reading this, might I suggest that this is addressed as a matter of urgency?  Once you've got that sorted, feel free to come back and catch up on the blog.

I think for many people who will read this post, the biggest question is not 'is Jenny Ringo a feminist?', but 'does it matter?'  Yes, it does.  It matters tremendously to me, and I hope I can make it matter even a little bit to you too. 

When my grandmother was born, she was born without the right to vote when she reached adulthood.  In England, in the twentieth century.  Isn't that utterly extraordinary?  And here I am, 100 years later, voting, with a career and the ability to be financially independent from my husband, I have been to university and graduated.  I have chosen to change my name in marriage and I enjoyed every part of being able to make that decision.  I have a thousand freedoms my great-grandmother could only dream of, and were scarcely more real to her daughter.

Feminism isn't complicated, or controversial.  Caitlin Moran in How to be a Woman (read it!) sums it up beautifully: 'Put your hand in your pants. a) do you have a vagina? b) do you want to be in charge of it?'  However, feminism isn't the exclusive right of people with vaginas, people without can join in too.  Basically, if you think everyone has the right to be in charge of what is in their own pants, you are a feminist. Wikipedia has a slightly more sophistcated definition (it was closer than my dictionary):

'Feminism is a collection of movements aimed at defining, establishing, and defending equal political, economic, and social rights for women.[1][2] In addition, feminism seeks to establish equal opportunities for women in education and employment. A feminist is a "person whose beliefs and behavior are based on feminism'.

...but essentially it is saying the same thing.  

What you need to accept in order to understand that it matters whether Jenny Ringo is a feminist film, is that while massive progress has been made, WE AREN'T THERE YET.  You might not realise it, because in your day to day life you meet women who appear to have equal political, economic and social rights to men.  But statistically, there is still a massive gap (and I'm just talking about the UK now) between the salaries of men and women.  Many of the government welfare cuts will affect payments made to women rather than men.  Women are under represented in parliament and especially in government; but socially (and culturally) is where the gap is biggest, and most insidious.  Have you seen this advert?  Its a perfect illustration because its so... innocuous.  But in every kind of media, everyday, there are a thousand little moments like this, very gently putting women back in 'their place'.  I very rarely see a world where men and women have equally social rights portrayed in print, on film, tv, in video games, or anywhere.  Playing the excellent and weird Deadly Premonition on xbox at the moment, I told Chris I thought it suffered from Steig Larsson (writer of Girl with a Dragon Tattoo etc)'s problem of being rather unhealthily obsessed with highly sexualised violence against women.  He commented that it was referencing the American style of detective story, and he was right.  But if all we see is these works referencing each other, where are the women who aren't victims? Where are the men capable of treating women as equals rather than dishwashers?  Because they exist in the world I live in, but not the one that is presented to me as the world I live in.

This pisses me off.  It should piss you off too.  So it matters whether we have made a feminist film, because if we haven't, we are adding to the massive cultural heap of stuff that prevents women from achieving true equality.

Jenny Ringo is a feminist character although she never declares that her beliefs and behaviour are based on feminism, and sorry to disappoint but you never see her put her hand in her pants. If you asked her herself she would probably say she prefered not to align herself with any particular political ideology, or any organisation with an ideology come to think of it.  But you can tell from every action that she takes in both films that no one is going to be in charge of what is in her pants apart from her.

Jenny Ringo and the Monkey's Paw and Jenny Ringo and the Cabaret from Hell are feminist films because they were films made by men and women working under equal conditions, and everyone was not-paid equally.  They were written by my favourite feminist and another feminist I know and love.  Because of this, in both films you get to see women doing and saying things they don't usually get to do and say in films.  They do and say them while wearing clothes.  In both films all the female characters exert a kind of power which isn't linked to their sexuality; in fact they are more powerful than any of the male characters, but they don't have to behave in masculine ways to achieve this. Compare this with, I don't know, Sucker Punch, and you see what female empowerment is actually about.

Although the feminist credentials of the films aren't perfect.  There's a bit in the second film where Jenny does some washing up.

If reading this has inspired you to watch the first film, you can go to, and find out how.  Once you are on the mailing list, we'll let you know when the second film is finished!

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Jenny Ringo Saved My Life: How I Met Jenny Ringo

 This is the second blog in a series about the inside story of our short films featuring Jenny Ringo.  To find out more about the projects, read the prologue here.

I said this story was sad in places, luckily, this bit isn't one of them.  Meeting Jenny Ringo coincided, not at all coincidentally, with getting involved with a young writer called Chris Regan, which is an almost exclusively happy story.  I apologise for the lack of pretty pictures to distract you from the block of text, but this all happened in the days before digital cameras, and it feels kind of wrong to write about that Jenny with pictures of Jenny Ringo as she is now.

 I first encountered Jenny in November 2000.  Chris and I were in that stage of a new relationship when you have just realised this could be something special and want to know everything about the other person immediately.  We were swapping favourite books, films and music (on mix tapes, it really was that long ago).  I asked for some of Chris's stories, and he gave me a handful.

I had never read anything like them; he had such an easy, casual style completely different from the kind of modern fiction I was used to.  He blended humour and horror that bordered on surreal in a way that appeared to be effortless.  To me it seemed utterly daring and original.  Sure, it wasn't perfect, he was a 20 year-old student and still had a lot to learn, but I don't think I had ever read something by one of my peers that displayed such natural talent and confidence.  I have been scouring the flat for one of them to share a snippet with you, but I haven't unearthed one yet.

And in with that handful of stories must have been one or two early outings of Jenny Ringo; dyed black hair, goth clothes and style, an enormouse sense of adventure and capable of real magic.  As a character, I loved her immediately.  As the fictional creation of my new boyfriend, I found her extremely intimidating.  Surely this was, on some level, his ideal woman.  The bad news was, she was nothing like me.  She was way cooler.

We next met in a story Chris wrote for me during the Christmas holiday; giving you a rundown of the plot would probably make you throw up so I'll spare you too many details (there is also a talking, smoking cat called Ted) but Chris meets Jenny for a drink in the ideal pub in his head, and she gives him some really good relationship advice.  I loved the story, but reading this, I realised Jenny wasn't his perfect woman, she was his female best friend.  This was even worse news.  I'd had boyfriends with a female best friend before.  This never turns out well.  As the girlfriend, you are the one who causes all the problems while the female best friend is there giving great advice and creating hassle-free fun times.  Before you know it, they are more in love with their female best friend than they are with you.  And Jenny, being fictional, was never going to ditch Chris for a boyfriend or mess things up by turning into a stalker.  I began to resent Jenny just a little bit.

Chris had to explain to me the real roots of Jenny Ringo.  She was really aspects of himself, and if she was his ideal, it was who he wanted to be rather than fall in love with.  She isn't perfect, in fact, she's highly flawed, but this never deters her from trying to do the right thing; fight evil, help people, make awesome music.  She's the part of him that loves goth culture, that would really like to tell evil people to fuck off, that wants to exist outside of what everyone else thinks.  I had been blind to it for the most basic of reasons, that Jenny's a girl and he's a boy, but once we'd talked about it, it was glaringly obvious to me.  From then on, my insecurities disappeared and I loved Jenny Ringo unconditionally.

Over the years, she has put in sporadic appearances in stories written for me, and for Chris, and occasionally for the rest of the world.  She's had her own feature, she's joined forces with some of Chris's other characters that I can't tell you too much about but you may get to meet in the not-too-distant future, and even had a cameo in a computer game once.  Recently its been a bit like status updates from an old friend on facebook; you are briefly reminded how much they mean to you and you wish you could hang out more.  I can't pretend I wouldn't have produced any film which Chris asked me to, but I'm really glad it was a Jenny Ringo film.

After drafting this blog post, and asking Chris if he minded me blogging about him, he told me he'd written a blog about Women in Horror Month which also covered the origins of Jenny; as well as why we shouldn't get upset with Zach Snyder over Sucker Punch.  You can read it here.

Friday, 24 February 2012

Jenny Ringo Saved My Life: Prologue

She did, in some ways.  And she isn’t even real.  This is the beginning of a series of blogs about the role that this fictional character has played in my life over the last eleven years, and how she came to be the subject of two short films I have produced.  Its not a particularly long story; it's a little sad in places, but as far as there is an ending, it is more or less a happy one.

You might have found this blog because you know me, or someone involved in the film.  You might have been kind to the strange people at EMS giving out lollies and free films and signed up to our mailing list.  You might have serendipitously stumbled across Jenny in the vast landscape of the internet.  So to get you all up to speed:
Jenny Ringo and the Monkey’s Paw is a 25 minute horror-comedy we shot on a shoestring budget in the summer of 2010.  Post production was slow for various reasons and the completed film was unveiled in September 2011, by which time we had started planning the sequel, Jenny Ringo and the Cabaret From Hell, which we shot 11th-17th February this year.  The film is just entering post production and our goal is to finish it by the end of June 2012. 

 If you fancy seeing the first film, sign up to the mailing list at and you will get a confirmation email with a link and password to the film online.  We don’t spam you, it's just to keep you up to date with the progress of the second film once a month.  Here is the trailer:
 and if that doesn’t convince you, previous viewers have likened it to Spaced, The Mighty Boosh, or a kids tv show with swearing in it.  We’re generally pretty happy with these comparisons!

Over the next few weeks, I’m intending to blog about the inside story of Jenny Ringo, what she means to me and why its important to me that other people get to meet her too, through these films and future projects.  If you also want to know about the ‘outside’ story of Jenny Ringo and the making of the films, check out my husband’s production diaries for the first film, starting here.  If big chunks of text aren't you thing, how about liking us on Facebook and getting your updates in nice little bitesize pieces?