Gender Bending and sci-fi action

March 31, 2011

Check this out …

This is a rather pivotal scene from the 2009 film Star Trek, with one very obvious change …. the role of young Kirk and Captain Pike are played by women ( I was pretty damn impressed with the woman playing Pike).

I think this brings up a pretty interesting point of discussion.  Every so often I will come across some actress or critic bemoaning the fact that there are so very few good roles for women in films these days.  That may be a matter of opinion, but I think that something that can be said is that even when there is a pretty good role, they tend to be pretty much the same.  Sandra Bullock won an Oscar for playing a wife and mother.  Natalie Portman won hers for playing a ballerina.  I think if you go back through history and see in any given year, the good roles for women break down into:

* Mom/wife/girlfriend

* Royalty (queen, princess, baroness, etc)

* Nurse/teacher/other female dominated profession

* Writer/journalist (note: rarely anything important)/performing artist

* Prostitute/home wrecker/addict/bitchy underqualified administrator

* Secretary

* Victim

Keep in mind, sometimes women get some more glamorous occupations, but they are variations on these themes.  Lois Lane may be a professional journalist, but you never see her as the great reporter on film (she is Superman’s girlfriend or the damsel in distress).  That also isn’t to say that some of these can’t be great roles.  Jodie Foster won Oscars playing both sides:  the victim of rape (The Accused) and tough young FBI agent Clarice Starling (fth fth fth fth fth).

As I was watching that Kirk/Pike film clip, I pondered a few questions:


1. How many roles like this do you routinely see women in?

My answer was “very few”, but when they do come along, they tend to be in films like this:  science fiction, fantasy, or action adventure.  Ironically, it seems that many of the top flight actors in Hollywood stay far away from these films unless they are desperate for a paycheck … yet here is where women tend to get some roles that allow them to stretch into new characters:  soldiers, detectives, pilots, leaders …


2. Had these roles originally been played by women instead of men, would I, personally, have reacted differently?

Admittadly, Star Trek, is a long standing franchise, and if anyone would have up and decided “we’re changing everything”, it might have been unnecessarily distracting to the point of annoyance.  So maybe this particular clip is a poor example to judge.

Even in many cases … the job description may not be that traditional, but it doesn’t take long before the character’s conversation turns to men, fashion, cooking, and its a stereotype in a different costume.

Perhaps the best example would be one of my all-time favorite films, Alien.  The character of Ripley that turned Sigourney Weaver into some kind of avenging feminist angel was originally written for a man, up to the point where original casting calls were for male actors.  It was only at the last minute that someone decided to change the character to a female and send Miss Weaver down the path of stardom.  I’ve always regarded Ripley as one of the great film heroes of scifi and action films, her gender be damned.  Ironically, the greatest portrayal of the character, in Aliens, involves the development of a mother-daughter bond with young Newt.  Does that somehow make her less of a hero?  I would think that had they made Ripley a man, and made Newt a little boy, that Ripley would still be a great hero, all things being equal.  I treat the character as I would any other action hero.  I wonder if most women look at Ripley the same way they would an Indiana Jones or Han Solo?


3. (The million dollar question) Why are there not more roles like this for women?

I’m not saying that there needs to be more roles where women strap on flame throwers and ride off to save the galaxy … but why aren’t there more roles where women do some different things without treating it as if it were an after school special?

Think about it!  In Air Force One, it was about 20 minutes from the end of the film before I realized “The vice-president in charge of the crisis at the White House, is a woman.” (Glenn Close for those who haven’t seen it).  In Salt, you get Angelina Jolie as a James Bond-esque spy.  In The Abyss, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio plays a structural engineer.  In Episodes I-III of Star Wars, Natalie Portman gets to be a politician who carries a gun.  The list starts getting short.  These films were all successful to one degree or another …. Its a non exhaustive list, but I’m not sure how much further you could take it.

In the end, I suppose there are two main reasons that women don’t get these roles more:

A.  Much as I said earlier, no one picks up Star Trek for real and starts recasting the characters from scratch, many films are based on previously written works.  I suppose that it takes a special director or producer to say “change this” when “this” is a big deal.  If it is a popular work, then you risk alienating the fan base.  If the work isn’t that popular, it might fly, but then again, if the work isn’t that popular, what are the chances it just got a $50 million green light?  I am sure that if more and more writers would include these things in print, it would go.

One of the few instances I can think of where a director made such a small tweak was in Jurassic Park.  In the original novel, Tim was the computer nerd who ends up saving the day while Lex was the sterotypical blonde girl interested in pleasing her father and making fun of her brother.  She is the one who on more than one occasion almost get them killed when she won’t listen.  In the film, while hardly a nerd (she calls herself a “hacker”), she is the one who manages to get the computers under control.  It was a small tweak by Spielberg that did nothing to alienate fans.  Ironically, Ellie, the paleobotanist (not a standard role for a woman) really was screen candy because Micahel Crichton did not write the character particularly strong.  I think Spielberg gave her a little more to do than in the book, but in the end, she has to hide behind Alan Grant while the Raptors move in.

B.  Film producers/studio heads, in their glorious infinite wisdom, don’t think people will want to see this (read: the film will lose money).  I would like to think that we have moved past this … a good film and a good part are a good film and a good part.  I don’t think that people will look at a woman as the chief mining engineer and throw their hands up and say “ridiculous”!  I can’t imagine if the person who happens to break the code to save the day happens to be a woman, that people will say “unrealistic”.

I guess what I am saying is:  Its been 33 years since Ripley, and there’s no reason these roles have to be 33 years apart … and she doesn’t have to kill aliens or carry a gun to be the hero.

Baseball cards: Full circle

March 31, 2011

I started collecting baseball cards when I was 6 years old (that’s 1977 for those who don’t want to do the math).  I remember the colorful team names in big block letters … 35 years later I could tell you the colors with each name (the White Sox were in red, the Rangers for some reason were in yellow … I can even remember the special cards for the Mariners and Blue Jays …. this was their first season ever).

I collected until 1982 … for some reason I stopped before 1983 … just in time to miss the White Sox historic run to the playoffs.  Ironically, I started up again in 1984, but by 1987, I was done again.  I had kept the cards from 1984 and later … but those early treasures I had given way to a cousin.

Nary a year went by when I didn’t kick myself.

I don’t think turning 40 for me is mid-life … I suspect I am a ways past that.  But my recent re-entry into memoribillia collecting got me started back on baseball cards.  Needless to say, I don’t blow a lot of money on worthless things like drinking on Saturday nights or stuff like that … and I have a greater chance of getting struck by lightning than getting married (girlfriends and wives, I have heard are notroiously expensive to have around the house), and the prospect of kids is even lower (very expensive).  Thus, I have saved a certain measure of disposable income.

So, I decided the time had come to reclaim that which was rightfully mine, and I started rebuilding my baseball card collection.

Over the pat few months, I started going back in time  …. completing my 1984, 85, and 86 sets …. I was able to obtain 88, 89, 90, and 91 … then I was able to obtain a complete set from 1983, 82, 81, 80, 79, and 78 (really neat cursive writing for the team names).

Yesterday, the final piece of the puzzle arrived … the 1977 set arrived.  I now have a complete set of baseball cards from 1977 through 91.

I don’t look at this as investment … that lesson is clear … part of my ability to do this is that prices on these cards are pretty cheap today compared to 20 years ago … the bottom fell out of the market and it is a buyers market.  I am interested in this because it is a part of me.  With some luck, my nephew Liam will become a baseball fan, and he will stand to inherit a wonderful collection.  If not, I could eventually sell it and maybe make a small profit (though this is unexpected) … or perhaps I will find a young baseball fan with some passion for the game and leave them with an unexpected treasure.

For now … I am content.

Have the Spanish invented synthetic petroleum

March 31, 2011


Biofuels have been trendy for farmers trying to raise money, but as a long term solution for petroleum depletion, it is often mocked among scientists because the amount of land that would need to be turned over for production would severely reduce the land needed to raise food in a world where overpopulation is still an issue.

However, the Spanish claim that they may be on the brink of something big …. maybe.

They seem to have produced synthetic petroleum, and they claim (read:  no certainty) that it may be able to eventually produce enough petroleum in a day as some OPEC members export in the same time.  That is a ballsy claim, but if it works, and production is sent across the world, it would allow the world to wean itself off of natural petroleum, lower fuel prices, yadda, yadda.

The article claims that industrial scale production is still a decade or two off … which sounds optimistic to me … assuming they have it right.

The key is using algae instead of crop land … algae reproduce much faster than crop plants, and can reuse the same space over and over again, meaning that you don’t need to put aside any crop land for fuel production.  Further, the claim is that this process requires using carbon dioxide that would otherwise be dumped into the atmosphere, so on one level, it is a more ecologically friendly form of petroleum (vs. petroleum that took carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere hundreds of millions of years ago).

I hope they’ve got something right about this!

Timely piece on the advent of #40 …

March 31, 2011

It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops … and summer was gone.

Somehow, the summer seemed to slip by faster this time. Maybe it wasn’t this summer, but all the summers that, in this my fortieth summer, slipped by so fast. There comes a time when every summer will have something of autumn about it. Whatever the reason, it seemed to me that I was investing more and more in baseball, making the game do more of the work that keeps time fat and slow and lazy. I was counting on the game’s deep patterns, three strikes, three outs, three times three innings, and its deepest impulse, to go out and back, to leave and to return home, to set the order of the day and to organize the daylight. I wrote a few things this last summer, this summer that did not last, nothing grand but some things, and yet that work was just camouflage. The real activity was done with the radio–not the all-seeing, all-falsifying television–and was the playing of the game in the only place it will last, the enclosed green field of the mind.

A. Bartlett Giamatti (father of actor Paul Giamatti) penned these words as part of his essay “The Green Fields of the Mind” which was published in his book From a Great and Glorious Game.  Giamatti understood intellectual pursuits:  he had a doctorate in English Renaissance literature from Yale, the same university he would go on to serve as president for nine years.  He left that job to become President of the National League before briefly succeeding Peter Ueberoth as Commissioner of Major League Baseball.  He would die before finishing one year in office, but not before dealing with one of the biggest and most controversial decisions of any commissioner:  the banning of Pete Rose from baseball for life.  As a lifelong fan of the game, it must have been gut wrenching to be a part of the sad but necessary duty of defrocking one of the game’s most accomplished players.

This particular writing is pretty much a classic piece of baseball literature now.  Baseball, like all other sports, is about glorifying great accomplishment.  But baseball, I think differs in that it serves as a stern teacher that failure cannot be avoided;  rather that failure is a constant companion on the journey of life, and that it must be accepted.

Other sports don’t do that.  Take for example soccer:  Back in 1994, when the United States hosted the FIFA world cup, a Colombian player named Andrés Escobar scored an own goal for the United States (he accidentally put the ball in his own net, and scored a point for the United States).  When he returned home, he was gunned down.  It was likely related to someone losing money on the game, but the response to making a mistake like that was to takes his life.  Columbia would likely have not advanced, and certainly would not have been a favorite for placing.  Nonetheless, failure was seen as something that was irredeemable.  There are times when failure can lead to fatal outcomes … but they are not too often.

Consider in contrast Bill Buckner.  Bill Buckner not only cost the Red Sox a chance to win the World Series in 1986, but an end to (what was at that time) a 68 year wait for a World Series winner!  The people of Boston were understandably upset.  In the film Rounders, Matt Damon’s character describes his feelings on visiting a Russian mob boss whom he owes money to as “this must be how Buckner feels when he comes back to Fenway”.  Yet, Bill Buckner is now rehabilitated.  People recognize him for the great player he truly was.  In the end, baseball fans learn to understand failure.  The greatest hitter to ever walk the Earth still failed over 60% of the time.

This wonderful piece of poetry also reminds me about that baseball serves as a clock; unlike other sports it is intimately intertwined with the passage of time … it starts in spring like a flower opening for the first time … it goes through the comfort of summer, and it ends when the days are shortening and you have to realize that winter is creeping closer.  Every baseball season is in some ways like the entirety of life replayed over and over again with great hopes, and in the end more lost opportunities and failure than successes … and we learn to live with them.  It is with great irony that baseball is one of the few major sports that operates without a clock … this is one of the great mysteries of the game:  a clock without a timepiece.

As Giamatti points out though, as you grow older, the summers seem to be a little shorter each time.  I suppose that is that biological timer reminding you that time has been passing … and that there are fewer and fewer days ahead of you, and that you should enjoy them as best you can.  There have been 101 million poems on that topic, but none captures that essence (I think) to a modern American like this one.

This summer I will leave my 30s behind.  Quite by accident, and only because of a quirk in the schedule, I hope to be in Denver visiting my aunt, uncle, and cousin to see my first ball game at Coors Field (the White Sox will be paying a once-in-six or seven years trip to play an interleague game there against the Rockies).  The middle game of the series happens to be my birthday.  So, by coincidence, I hope to be enjoying myself as I turn 40 contemplating outfield shifts, hit-and-runs, and coming home.

Today is opening day.  That’s one of those days where it is much easier to remember the good times in life.

I am Hand!

March 25, 2011

Today is the last day of school before Spring Break.  I had scheduled a test for today, but because over 40% of my class was gone, called out by parents, I had to reschedule the test for after break.  It has been a rougher than usual year here, and this week has been the roughest.

Today I am walking out of the office after eating lunch when I see a kid come up the stairs carrying a pizza.  This is odd … I follow him.  He goes to the back door of a classroom, a door that is usually locked, but is propped open by a pair of scissors.  He gently cracks the door open and puts the pizza inside the door.  He closes the door and goes back into the classroom through the front door.

This is indeed curious.

I go in the front door.  The teacher in question (our AP Enviro teacher) was attending an AP conference, and was gone.  The sub was showing a movie.  I called the sub over (who was seated in the front, watching the movie intently), and asked about the student who had just returned.  She said he had gone to the bathroom.  I informed her he had gone to the bathroom and returned with a pizza.  She turned around and sure enough, junior was munching on a slice of pizza.  I beckoned junior over and asked what the deal was.  All he would say is: “I got some pizza.”

The pizza was confescated, and junior was written up to the deans.  I suspect, knowing that he had a sub today, that he had called in the pizza, waited until the guy arrived, and went to the bathroom to meet the driver.  Yet another bad thing about the damn cell phones in school!

The thought crossed my mind for one second to actually pass out the remaining pizza to the class, but I suspected that the kid would like the opportunity to be the class hero.

Why we should rely more on standardized testing … NOT!

March 17, 2011

The SAT’s aren’t what they used to be even as more and more politicians and people who know little about education clammor for more high stakes testing to determine how good a job teachers are doing.

According to the most recent SAT, it would be good for teachers to put away Shakespeare and focus on reality TV.

A number of students who took the latest SAT were a little shocked to find one of the writing prompts asking them to write about the legitimacy of reality television … a problem because more than a few top students don’t watch much TV, and if they are, they are avoiding the Kardashians, Osbournes, and the supposedly Real World.

A few described a moment of genuine panic when they read the prompt and, despite having prepared some mental outlines on a particular work of literture or two, suddenly found themselves between a rock and a hard place when the prompt asked them to write about something completely non-academic and something that they had taken zero time to prepare for.

I wonder how many folks who support high stakes testing would allow some of these kids to take a mulligan?  Too bad in NCLB testing there are no second chances.


March 15, 2011,0,7514206.story?track=rss


Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a fan of this particular procedure, but shouldn’t it be a medical committee?  Committee on health and welfare?