This Star Trek Post is Brought to You by Not Getting Whooping Cough

So there is a pertussis epidemic afoot in our neck of the woods at present, and after one local news source referred to it as the Hundred Day Cough—the Napoleon of viruses!—I ran out and got myself vaccinated. At which point my brain fell all to pieces.

It's not whooping cough, and it's not an allergic reaction: it's just my body taking energy to make antibodies, like it's supposed to. But it has drained all the thinky-juice from my brain-parts, so instead of making headway on any of my works-in-progress I am weeping over episodes of My Little Pony (that poor tortoise just wants to be loved!) and watching a lot of original series Star Trek for the first time ever.

Which is why I want to talk about the Unnamed Female Romulan Commander.

A still shot from 'The Enterprise Incident,' featuring (among other figures) the Unnamed Female Romulan Commander in a long-sleeved, two-tone asymettrical mini-dress with black over-the-knee boots and sheer black hose.

That's her there, center left, in one of the greatest outfits Star Trek has ever given humanity. She appears in an episode called 'The Enterprise Incident,' which is also pretty fantastic. The UFRC is in charge of the Romulan flagship (!) with a cloaking device, and spends most of her on-screen time seducing Spock (!!) using her words, logic, and that incredible minidress-boot combination. (Which is, of course, what any right-thinking dude-inclined woman would do if dropped into a Star Trek episode.) All while trying to also seduce him into defecting, which somehow doesn't come across as evil so much as it does, well, strategic. Spock is clearly a badass and good to have on your side, plus if he's fighting with the Romulans then she can keep seducing him, and it feels like everybody wins.

Spock, of course, is there to steal the cloaking device. There's an elaborate game of espionage being played, though the episode goes to some lengths to keep the reveal from happening too early. It's one of Star Trek's most effectively plotted stories. And though the UFRC doesn't win, she's not humiliated, and she's treated with the respect due to her rank by everyone on the Enterprise, and Spock even privately admits that their brief sexytimes will have a greater impact on him than the theft of the cloaking device.

And then she disappears from the Star Trek universe forever.

This is unacceptable.

I mean, look at her accomplishments!

  • She can command a damn Romulan flagship, which bespeaks a certain amount of ruthless intelligence and political cunning, but she is never vicious or cruel in the use of her power.
  • She can seduce both the human and Vulcan sides of Spock, and very nearly bend him to her will without denting his awesomeness or independence. Not even Kirk can do this—except in the slashier areas of internet fandom (love you, K/S!).
  • She respects the rights and dignity of her prisoners, even those she has condemned to death.
  • She does not lose control when she discovers Spock's betrayal, and she is as gracious in defeat as she is in victory.
  • She has emotions and expresses them, but they are not her sole motivation.
  • She manages to find two flattering, tasteful outfits in the Star Trek universe—which let me tell you, is no small feat. I expect she has a personal dressmaker on staff, because every other non-Federation lady has the worst outfits.

I don't really have a larger point here. Just that one of the weaknesses of the original series is a tendency to ignore opportunities for long-form narrative arcs, as well as a distressing amount of sexism for a show that was/is considered a progressive benchmark. Following up on the UFRC would have been an excellent way to address both.

And if anyone knows where I can find a replica of that minidress, please let me know.

Questionable Taste: Analyzing The Cannibal Romance

Last week, Ruthie Knox on Wonk-o-Mance wrote about a Regency romance called Beau Crusoe, which featured—wait for it!—a cannibal hero. I could not hit the buy button fast enough.

The reviews across the web are mixed, but count me as one of those who fell completely in love with our hero and this love story. Partly it's just that James himself is adorable, and lonely, and (as Ms. Knox aptly pointed out), legitimately angsty about having eaten other human beings. None of your one woman was mean therefore all women are bitches whinging here. No, this is I had to eat people once—people whose names I knew—and now I have serious issues with food and may in fact be going mad.

Combine those issues with a heart of gold and genuine wit and no wonder I was rooting for this guy.

But that's not what I want to talk about today.

No, what I want to get into, a la the marvelous Teach Me Tonight, is how effectively this book used imagery and structure.

And just in case lit-crit is not precisely your thing, I've punctuated my analysis with cannibal-appropriate accessories for happy shopping.

Needless to say, thar be spoilers ahead. Also trigger warnings for violence, slut-shaming, and general gruesomeness.

It's a really great romance, I swear.

Eat Your Heart Out

The big thing you have to do with a cannibal romance hero, of course, is to re-civilize him. James is given three tasks upon his arrival in London: to get rid of the toucans living in our heroine's father's foyer, to "do something" about our heroine's embittered sister Loisa, and to marry our heroine, the domestically named Susannah Park, widow and mother of adorable Plot Moppet Noah. These tasks, in order, are the foundation of James' reentry into the social world:

  • Getting rid of the filthy, tropical toucans is a repudiation of his filthy, tropical past.
  • "Doing something"—which turns out to be matchmaking—for Loisa is the reordering of disorder in the family.
  • Marrying Susannah Park reintegrates our hero fully with society (in the form of a family that includes the world's only legitimately adorable Plot Moppet—seriously, little Noah is a doll).

Throughout Beau Crusoe, you have characters on the side of wildness (Lord Watchmere, Timothy Rowe) and on the side of civilization (Sir Percival Pettibone and the sharp-tongued tailor). Some characters, notably Susannah and James, have aspects of both. It's not a simple good/bad binary, either—Sir Percival's characterization in particular reveals some of civilization's most glaring weaknesses. But the one thing that civilization has going for it is that it is full of people. Wildness is lonely, and hungry, and that combination drives men mad.

James alternately fears isolation and takes refuge in it. After five years of being a hermit, loneliness is at least familiar. But isolation also leave James vulnerable to the terrible guilt and horror of his past.

The other big issue for a cannibal hero is: appetite. Food imagery is all over this book, and actual food is vital in both the sense of significant and in the sense of life-preserving. The hunger for flesh as food becomes entwined with both sexual hunger and the hunger for human company—a pretty fascinating trifecta for an otherwise light narrative. Just as there are three tasks, there are three characters who represent these hungers and their dangers.

And now I have to talk about Lady Audley.

Cover shot of a hardback book with an anatomical illustration of a human being, showing veins and arteries and bones with certain annotations.

Lady Audley is our villainess, and our most disappointing character. She's a constant nymphomaniac whose only personality traits are sexual insatiability and a misplaced vindictiveness now that James is resisting her advances. There's a "sex is gross and dirty," slut-shaming tone to Lady Audley's scenes in the book, but the interesting thing about her is that she is entirely anti-food. She makes malicious cracks about Susannah's weight, and—in a scene that's arguably more shocking than any of the cannibalism parts—she grabs our hero's hand and uses it to bring herself to orgasm beneath the dinner table in the middle of a meal. She embodies sexual appetite: "If there was a position known to Venus that they did not try, he couldn't have named it." (Kindle location 3496)

Lady Audley is a maneater, but carpenter's mate Timothy Rowe is an actual eater of men. Like James, Timothy Rowe was forced into cannibalism to survive starvation; unlike James, Timothy Rowe got into it:

James and Walter Shepherd vowed not to eat any more, but Rowe could not be restrained. Over the next few days, they watched in stupefaction as the carpenter's mate consumed the foretopman down to his toenails. James tried to throw the disgusting carcass overboard, but Rowe only snarled at him like a feral dog and hugged the grisly remains. (Kindle location 3063)

James is haunted by Timothy Rowe, the "ghoul" who appears most frequently by James' bed at night, offering a mangled arm or leg in case our hero wants a snack. Tim is not a flashback, nor precisely a hallucination: he appears in James' POV as any other character, coming and going as he pleases, listening (though never speaking), with a mind and agenda of his own. The effect is plain and frank and thoroughly, deliciously creepy.

At the end of the novel, we learn precisely how Rowe died, and we find that James' fear is not only that he will become uncontrollably voracious, but also that he himself will be eaten as a meal by some ruthless predator. (Spoiler: land crabs. Terrifying, terrifying land crabs.) Barbaric eating sustained Tim Rowe, then destroyed him, and now feeds his memory in James' mind.

Green leaf holding a silver bracelet, stamped with the words 'I WILL EAT YOU ALIVE,' for which proceeds are (rather inappropriately) offered to juvenile diabetes.

Our third character, who personifies the extreme hunger for human society, is more subtle than Timothy Rowe or Lady Audley. (It would be difficult to be less subtle than Lady Audley.) Sir Percival Pettibone would be "chaotic neutral" on anyone's character alignment sheet. He's foppish and fashion-obsessed, frivolous and hugely privileged. He's also expansive and kind and generous, when he realizes it's needed. But he exemplifies a class of people that takes everything from others and gives back virtually nothing. James compares Redfern's eternally unpaid bills with the anger that sparked the French Revolution:

Maybe the French revolutionaries were right, James thought. Quite possibly there wasn't a more useless set of people than aristos. He imagined that the road to the Place de la Concorde, with its dripping guillotine, must have been lined with cheerful tailors, seamstresses and housemaids, happily sending their former employers to untidy ruin. Perhaps they had even pushed the tumbrels along, and no wonder. (Kindle location 1841)

Sir Percival himself may be relatively harmless, but he is still a potential source of ravenous destruction. He can do good things, but they will not outweigh the large imbalances inherent in the system.

Ultimately James rejects all three of these figures and the values they represent. He chooses making love, macaroons, and high-minded science instead of fucking, cannibalism, and lavish society parties. (AKA a typical Saturday night -- hey-oh!)

And there's still plenty more we could talk about in this book: everything about Susannah, Noah's addiction to maccaroons, the two crab pictures and what they mean, the toucans. It's an incredibly rich book, and one I'm going to be thinking about for some time to come.

As a postscript, here is the creepiest love song ever written: "Unworthy of Your Love," by Stephen Sondheim, is a beautiful duet between John Hinkley and Squeaky Fromme. Bonus: John Hinkley is sung by John Barrowman!

Make Yourself A Victorian Doll

We here at Olivia Waite have a long history with paper dolls—not merely the basic kid kind, but the fancy and detailed presidential kind you can buy at the Smithsonian. Jane Austen paper dolls. 1920s flapper paper dolls. We had sharp scissors and infinite patience for fiddly tabs and zigzag edges. But the magic of the internet provides instant gratification, infinite customization, and increased safety for our scissor-scarred thumbs. So it is with great delight that we point you toward today's discovery: The Victorian Doll creation page on Doll Divine.

Here is my first try, which is pretty much me in Victorian gear—note that I am something of a bluestocking:

Here I am with blue stockings:

Here I am as a vampire:

And as an adventuress:

Leave your own creations in the comments, or on my Facebook wall!

Last Night On Project Boobway

We here at Olivia Waite enjoy Project Runway. It's fun to watch someone else struggle with the killer combination of creativity and deadlines, and it's equally fun whether a designer soars to the heights of fashion glory or crashes and burns in the Valley of Michael Kors' Caustic Semi-Wit. It's also fun to watch the normally hidden process of clothes being designed—at least, until it inevitably bumps up against the reality of women and the fashion industry's general attitude toward them.

Saying last night's episode bumped up against female body issues is like saying the Titanic bumped up against the iceberg.

Photoshopped image of Kate Winslet from GQ, where her belly and thighs have been erased significantly, but where the photoshopper forgot to do the same with the reflection in the background.

Linda Holmes from NPR's Monkey See blog has written a brilliant piece about designer Olivier's glaringly antagonistic attitude toward female body size; I could say the article is written from a feminist perspective,  but really it's written from a realist perspective:

This is partly just a guy who says dumb things on television without thinking, but it's also partly about a very real part of the fashion industry, which is how much it has to do with anything women would actually wear — and how much it's supposed to. Perhaps it's just art, and you might as well demand that all your models be seven feet tall, because when you make art, you can make it however you like.

This particular show, though, specializes in the idea that clothes are for wearing, not just for looking at. And in this strange little moment, Olivier suggested that they aren't for wearing or for looking at, at least if the person looking is a woman. They're for his expression only, and if you don't shut up and wear them quietly, he just doesn't know what to do with you.

Olivier's special target for rage is: his model's supposedly giant boobs. But once she showed up, her boobs looked pretty average-sized to me. But suddenly everything was about boobs. The A.V. Club noticed this as well:

The only significant change with the arrival of the wives is that now, EVERYONE is talking about boobs. No matter what the question is, “boobs” is the answer, like one of those Match Game ’74 episodes where everybody on the panel is all liquored up.

When I was growing up, I knew that bigger boobs were supposedly better from a cultural standpoint. I also read a lot of young-adult books and romance novels where the main characters were fairly flat-chested and learned to love their smaller size. We've all read historicals where the heroine's rival is a voluptuous Other Woman with prodigious cleavage and a way less virginal attitude.

It started to reach a point where being small of boob started to seem, well—classier. More educated. More refined. Audrey Hepburn helped, not to mention the ever-skinnier supermodel. Men like women with huge boobs, the story goes, but women like women with small ones. Big boobs are so—big, you know? They're too obviously sexy. Slutty, even.

Certainly the question of men liking larger boobs was not helped by one of our husbands on Project Runway, who must have spent fully five minutes acting like an overgrown frat boy and talking loudly about how much he enjoyed his wife's massive rack. And then motorboating one of the dress mannequins.

As though his wife's cup size were something he personally had the right to boast of. (Achievement unlocked!) On national television. And then to talk about how his wife's boobs were why he fell in love with her.

I found this appalling.

I've been on both sides of the Boob Divide: I was a B-cup for many years and am now, um, significantly more well-endowed. And it's true that now that my boobs are bigger, I feel less intelligent. Because growing larger boobs obviously means that my body spends less time building and repairing the cells and synapses of my brain. They'll probably be rescinding my masters degree any day now ...

Oh wait that's not even the slightest bit true.

And the one constant, on the spectrum between heroines are small and slender and real women have curves and this NYT trend piece on small cup sizes is this: your boobs define who you are.

And I for one say nuts to that. I've had different cup sizes in my lifetime, and so do my heroines. Some women are curvy and some are surfboards but all of us—all of us!—are real.

In Defense Of Slave Leia

We here at Olivia Waite hover happily on the edges of geek culture. And lately we've been noticing a bit of a trend in various blog posts on and around convention season. Apparently the internet has declared this the Summer Where Everyone Criticizes Slave Leia.

For instance, this satirical public service announcement:

Heather from the delightful Galaxy Express argues in favor of Bounty Hunter Leia cosplay and general diversity in costuming:

By talking up my favorite heroines, I can advocate for the idea that SF/F/SFR heroines are more than the sum of their sexual parts. If enough people add their voices to mine, in time we could make serious inroads (not just for us, but for future genre fans). Rather than devolve into an endless parade of Slave Leias, conventions could become places where many types of cosplay outfits are accepted and valued.

And naturally, Courtney from Geek Feminism gets right to the heart of the matter (emphasis hers):

But the actions of women are not the cause of their objectification. Women have a lot of good reasons to perform beauty work and to dress sexy, especially in the sexist cultures represented at your average con. Women aren’t the problem, whether they crossplay and eschew femininity altogether or they pull out the sexy Leia costume. The problem is that women who dress sexy, who frame themselves as sex objects, are rewarded by geek culture for doing so. ... The problem, then, isn’t what women do, but a culture in which the only way that women can be recognized as a desirable part of the culture is when they participate by making themselves consumable sexy objects for geek men.

I have to admit that it bothers me to see "Slave Leia" becoming seen more and more as a token—as proof that you haven't been creative enough with your costume, or that you're not as authentic a geek like the dudes dressed as Han Solo or Spiderman, or that you're given in to dudely pressure on a grand scale. (Which is not to say that pressure does not exist on a grand scale—hoo boy, does it ever.)

Because, for me, Slave Leia and the gold bikini were life-changing.

To explain, I'm going to have to talk about saddle shoes.

Black background. Facing right is a black-and-white saddle shoe with ivory laces and a hard rubber sole.

When I was a little tyke I was pretty active: running, climbing, falling down (active =/= graceful), kicking things, chasing and being chased, the whole bit. And like many others my school had a concrete parking lot as a playground. But for all of kindergarten and half of first grade, my mother refused to buy me tennis shoes or sneakers. (Hi, Mom!) Instead, I did all that running and climbing and chasing while wearing saddle shoes—hard-soled, stiff-sided, pinch-toed monstrosities that supposedly were a better match for the French braid or bun or pigtails that I wore, because I was also not allowed to go to school with my hair down.

I hated all of it. I still remember the rush of relief I got when finally my mom got tired of seeing scuffs and scratches on those nicer shoes (or just worn down by my constant griping—it's a toss-up) and bought me a pair of purple Reebok hi-tops. Oh, the glorious eggplant shade of comfortable footgear!

It was another two years before I won the right to wear my hair loose one or two days a week. (Little does Mom know—now that I'm a writer, it's a banner day when my hair even gets brushed!)

This was also the time I started watching the original Star Wars trilogy every time it was televised. Which was every year for a lot of years, all the way up into high school and puberty. And one of the things I liked best was Leia—this badass, intelligent, passionate woman who sometimes found herself kidnapped and threatened and other times did the rescuing herself.

And as soon as she shows up in the gold bikini, with the high ponytail and the neck-chain, every cell in my being went, She must be so pissed about that.

Because what people forget, when they talk about Slave Leia outfits, is that it's the one costume she doesn't choose for herself. She's forced into it, compelled to wear that bikini for Jabba's dubious and slobbery pleasure. And I can see why people are upset that this happens—because if there's one thing we do not need to gratify so much, it's the male gaze in film—but at the same time, I think it's important that this happens to Leia, because it happens to plenty of women, all the time, every day, around the world, with or without help from a gold bikini.

And here is what Leia does, when you force her into a scanty outfit and choke-chain: she takes that chain, and she kills you with it. She doesn't let her clothing get in her way or limit her more than she can help—she waits for her moment to strike, and then she conquers her would-be conqueror and saves the day.

And I was a little kid, not yet desensitized to violence (that would have to wait until I saw my first R-rated movie in theaters—that Connery and Cage masterpiece known as The Rock). Jabba's death scene freaked the hell out of me. It wasn't a clean blaster shot to the chest or a slice from a lightsaber that sent sparks flying or made you turn invisible. There were struggles, and flailing, and twitching limbs. The shots are close-ups, and very dark—it's vicious, and vengeful, and physical, and very very personal.

So for me, wearing that gold bikini does not mean Here I am, a sexy toy for your amusement and gratification.

To me, that gold bikini says, If you fuck with me, I will end you.

It says, What I wear is not the same as who I am.

And if my reading is a good one, and the gold bikini is dangerous, that explains the double reaction from geek culture to the Slave Leia cosplayers: they are both dismissed and demonized. They are simultaneously insignificant and threatening—like feminists, or gay people, or trans people, or people of color, or anyone who tries to speak out against the various types of privilege that are active in geekery. These speakers are not normal because they're not like us, so you can ignore them—or you can insult them, either one.

But what they're not is comfortable.

When geek culture says, Don't be Slave Leia, what I hear is: Don't unsettle us. Don't make us think about the consequences of our misogyny, or our entitlement, or our privilege. Don't remind us that female sexuality can be a power as well as a commodity.

This is not to say that Slave Leia (or Jabba-Killin' Leia, as I think we could more accurately call her) is the only or even the best choice for cosplay. Because I am also really, really enthralled with this steampunk Tardis trend I've been hearing so much about.

But I find it troubling when there's a whole category of women that we are Officially Allowed to Mock and/or Hate. Because that line is a really arbitrary thing, and it's really easy to imagine that, some day, I'll end up on the wrong side of it.