Welcome to Night Vale is a bi-monthly narrative podcast. It’s presented as a small town radio news program hosted by Cecil, who is a valued member of his community. Beyond that, it is kind of hard to describe. Imagine that every episode of the X-files takes place in one isolated town in the desert. People are abducted by the Sheriff’s (not very secret) Secret Police, obelisks appear overnight, and strange winged beings that resemble angels, but are definitely not angels, seem drawn to Old Woman Josie’s house, but the townspeople don’t think it’s weird.
“A friendly desert community where the sun is hot, the moon is beautiful, and mysterious lights pass overhead while we all pretend to sleep. Welcome to Night Vale.” – Episode 01, Pilot.
It’s an incredible piece of storytelling that blends lighthearted comedy, creeping horror, and scathing political commentary into seamless, extremely entertaining 20 to 25 minute episodes.
Yeah, But is it Feminist?
Night Vale is a perfect example of how a piece of media can be utterly in line with feminist ideals without being about feminism or “women’s issues” or even about a woman. Considering that the entirety of Welcome to Night Vale is told through the eyes of the male narrator, Cecil, it would have been easy for Night Vale to have poor female representation. Instead, this production’s writers, Joseph Fink and Jeffery Craner, created a world apart from the usual gendered trappings of mass media.
Not only are the female characters plentiful, but with every mention, quote, and guest appearance, Night Vale consistently treats women as humans who have thoughts, feelings, and lives. Though our direct observation of female characters on this show is limited, Night Vale’s female population soars straight past “not robots” into full, well-rounded women. They have a wide range of personalities and roles. Several women hold positions of power, including the Mayor and a high level manager of the evil Strexcorp corporation. There are old women (who a lot of media pretends do not exist), professional women, young women, women of color, and some genderfluid beings all called Erika, who answer to all kinds of pro-nouns, some of whom probably fit some definitions of “female.” In fact, it’s so diverse in population, one of it’s women, Sarah Sultan, is actually not human at all, and is a smooth, fist-sized river rock who is president of the Night Vale Community College. This character, along with Megan, a detached man’s hand, gives cutting commentary to the usual objectification of women by literally making them objects. This diverse and fair treatment of women makes Night Vale beautifully feminist.
How Does it Treat its Men?
Feminist analysis isn’t complete without also examining the role of men in the story. Patriarchal media harms men as well as women by forcing rigid gender roles on everybody. In this type of media, women must be emotional, sexual objects, and must be weak of character. In turn, men must be violent, powerful, virile, and express no emotion other than anger. This toxic masculinity is wonderfully absent from Welcome to Night Vale. The male characters do not go out of their way to prove how manly they are, problems are not solved with violence, men have healthy emotional reactions, and no one reacts negatively to Cecil’s romantic relationship with Carlos (the scientist with the perfect hair).
In fact, hardly anyone reacts to their relationship at all, except to wish them well. Their prominent, queer relationship (though it is one of the main running plot lines) is treated as unremarkable – as is a female mayor, a young black girl leading an uprising against an evil corporation by using books as weapons, or The Glow Cloud (ALL HAIL THE GLOW CLOUD) serving on the Night Vale School Board.
The creators are also conscientious of problematic casting. Originally Jeffrey Cranor, one of the creators, voiced Carlos. However, Cranor is white, and based on Carlos’ name and description (and as stated on the Night Vale Wiki), the listener understands Carlos to be Latino. Though these actors are voice actors and we don’t see their faces and bodies, white-washing is still harmful because it lowers representation of people of color, adds to the trouble non-white actors have finding jobs that aren’t for racially stereotypical characters, and feeds the white-as-default mindset that classifies all characters as white until explicitly stated otherwise. This casting was quickly fixed. With the addition of their live shows, the cast is growing, and they continue to add diversity.
Overall, Fink and Craner show a deep sensitivity for the people they are writing, and an awareness of the changes in media people are clamoring for. Welcome to Night Vale exceeds many of its contemporaries on television and in movies in terms of diversity of cast and characters, and the portrayal of well-rounded, well-written women and men.
Find out how to listen to Welcome to Night Vale at commonplacebooks.com.