Growing Up Feminist, Part 3

Just how troubling is it to come to the realization that you’re just not the person the world wants you to be, and you don’t want what the world wants from you?

Very — even when you have a strong support system through your family. You may know you’re loved, but at the same time you know that being true to yourself means being an outsider, and directly or indirectly you’ll be made to feel as though something is wrong with you.

Before I entered my tweens I, like most little girls, loved to play with dolls. I had many an apple-cheeked plastic baby to cuddle and caress. I gave each one a name from my list of favorites-of-the-moment, and I imagined personalities for them that went beyond babyhood. One of my favorite play-pretends was to rescue my babies after they’d gone missing. I always succeeded. It didn’t register with me then that these kinds of stories don’t always have happy endings.

Not only did I have the right toys, but I also read the right books, or at least the ones I knew about at the time. My picture books were full of mother bears, mother tigers, and mother rabbits doing motherly things like feeding and tucking-in and even scolding their (usually male) offspring. Moms didn’t have adventures They were anchored to the home to which the (almost always male) child adventurers had to return. All well and good, I suppose — except that these moms made up approximately 70% of all the female characters I saw.

As I noted in my previous post, the only female character in A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh stories is Kanga, Roo’s mother, and “mother” is the beginning and the end of her personality. The first of Kipling’s Mowgli stories, “Mowgli’s Brothers,” features a much cooler mother figure, Raksha, the wolf who adopts the human toddler and terrifies the ravenous tiger Shere Khan away from her den; sadly, after that first story she disappears, leaving Mowgli to be guided through his formative years by male mentors. Charlotte, the titular spider of Charlotte’s Web, fascinated my younger self far more than either of these, since she was active and clever and played a much larger role, but even she is essentially Mom, and when she has fulfilled that biological function, she perishes.

It’s little surprise, then, that I spent a large part of my childhood thinking that being Mom was just part of being a girl, that one went with the other. Nor did that idea come only from stories; I saw very few non-moms among the grown women I knew. I had no reason to question it, and I wasn’t conscious of any discomfort I might have felt at the prospect of becoming a mom myself. That was so far in the future. I could wait, and put off considering what being a mom would mean for me.

Then, when I was in my twenties, something small planted a seed — a leaf through an issue of People Magazine in the optometrist’s office. One of the articles profiled former tennis champ Chris Evert and her life as a mother. The article’s first line was her answer when the interviewer asked her what books she’d read lately: she had no time for reading at all, because, as she put it, she was too busy watching Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers with her kids.

The comment was meant to be light-hearted, but it struck right at my heart. No time for reading? For my favorite thing in the world? If being a mom left no time for reading, how could it leave time for writing? How would I stand such a life? True, I had seen my own mom reading aplenty when I was small, but my feelings about Evert’s little jest impacted me as much as the jest itself. If I was more horrified by the prospect of not being able to read than charmed by the description of Evert’s life as a mom, maybe I wasn’t as maternal as I was supposed to be. Maybe I didn’t have quite the right heart for motherhood. As the seed took root, I started to wonder — did this make me a bad person?

After all, I couldn’t recall reading or seeing a single story in which an admirable heroine decided she didn’t want children. All good girls and women wanted them, if the question came up at all; only shallow, materialistic shrews turned up their noses at motherhood. Nor did I see or read about many girls and women whose work meant to them what reading and writing meant to me, save Anne Shirley and Jo March (which may be why I’m passionately devoted to these characters to this day). Girls in stories, for the most part, had no concrete ambitions, no passions or callings. They were concerned primarily, if not exclusively, with their relationships with others, as if this was where their only real value lay. I know now I should have read the work of Tamora Pierce and Robin McKinley, whose brave and purposeful heroines would have been a welcome alternative to uninspiring TV characters like Mallory Keaton. But I didn’t know about Pierce or McKinley at the time.

So it fell to my own mother to help me understand my feelings about having children, and to assure me I wasn’t defective or mean for not wanting to become a mother. If I changed my mind later, that would be okay, but if I never did, that would be okay, too. Yet again, my own family helped me by counteracting the messages of popular culture and arming me against them. In the intervening years they’ve stayed on my side. But not every girl or woman is so lucky, and the messages that made me wonder about myself back them have persisted, to pressure new generations. Remember the reason the late comedian Jerry Lewis cited for thinking female comedians weren’t funny?

Jurassic World, anyone?

The sad truth I’ve come to understand is that a lot of people are afraid of women like me. To them, a woman who opts out of motherhood spells the doom of the human race. If she can choose to remain child-free without facing condemnation from the world around her, pretty soon other women will do it, and then all women will do it, and we’ll have a population crisis on our hands. If we open the door to a choice, we can’t control how many people will walk through it. It’s the same fear that once drove the argument against women’s suffrage: if women have the vote, and have options other than depending on their husbands, they’ll soon defect from their domestic duties.

If this is true, then motherhood must really be the worst thing in the world, something no woman would choose if she had any alternative. But in fact, motherhood is a choice multitudes of women embrace with open eyes and hearts. I may be child-free, but I don’t expect other women to be like me. I’m grateful for the women who aren’t. In back of nearly every A student I teach is a mother or mother figure who has done her job well. And few things make me happier than going to Dragon Con and other conventions, seeing the nerdy moms and dads with their kids in full cosplay. Those youngsters might be my readers one day.  (My husband and I once saw a family cosplaying as the family from My Neighbor Totoro.  We both properly geeked out from having our hearts warmed.)

It seems to me that a woman makes a much better mother when she bears and raises children out of genuine desire rather than a sense of obligation. Through such women, the human race will survive and even thrive. Yet we need to understand, once again, that women are not all alike, we’re not all good at the same things, and one woman’s happiness may well be another woman’s Purgatory. Demonizing women who choose not to have children is just one more of our culture’s attempts to impose a sameness on women, to undermine that glorious variety that is all humanity’s gift.

This, then, is the heart of my feminism — to examine, question, and defy those expectations of sameness. To claim individuality and variety for all people, not just a privileged few.


Growing Up Feminist, Part 2

“It is vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquility; they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it. . . Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do;. . . it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more and learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.” — Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre

Star Wars burst onto the scene when I was eight years old. I remember sitting in the theater mesmerized, gazing with awe at the galaxy far, far away, falling in love with R2-D2, and grieving the loss of Obi-Wan. My sister, two years older, also loved it, so naturally we wanted to stage our own Star Wars adventures in our backyard. The problem: which of us would be Princess Leia? Leia was so cool, with her blaster and her white dress and her weird hairstyle, so of course we both wanted to be her. In contests between siblings, the older generally wins, so I ended up having no idea who I would be, since I didn’t want to pretend to be a boy. Apart from Leia, there was no girl character into whose shoes I could happily imagine myself. I don’t recall exactly what I ended up doing, but in the version of Star Wars that ran in my head, R2 was always referred to by female pronouns. I mean, why not?

I understand now that I was searching for something that the stories I grew up with were rarely willing to give me. I wanted the most interesting character in the room to be female, so I imagined a female Water Rat, a female Eeyore, a female Bagheera, a female Fiver. I was happy with these alterations, but far less happy with the characters who were actually female. Either they were the only girl in the galaxy, like Princess Leia, or bland, unadventurous caregivers who spent most of their time on the sidelines, like Kanga in Winnie-the-Pooh, or absent from the story altogether. One striking exception appeared on HBO in the early 1980s: Fraggle Rock, whose two major female characters were funny, frenetic, quirky, and flawed. I would have been happy being either the wild, competitive Red or the dreamy, artistic Mokey, and at different points in my life I’ve identified with each of them. But by that time my sister and I had outgrown our backyard adventures.

It may have occurred to me then to wonder why there weren’t more Reds and Mokeys in my life, why there weren’t more female characters who were as active and engaging as their male counterparts. Mokey and Red were special because 1) there were two of them, which matters more than some are willing to admit; and 2) they had a uniqueness about them, an individuality that not many female characters in my favorite children’s books, movies, and television shows seemed to have. Since then, I’ve made a point of seeking out female characters with that wonderful spark of individual life.

My value of individuality forms the core of my feminism. Behind the concept of strict gender divisions, whether those who advocate them realize it or are willing to admit it, is the notion that women, simply because they are women, share the same set of basic traits that fit them for a range of possibilities far narrower than men’s. A society that demands adherence to these gender divisions only works if all women are nurturing caregivers, all women are content to be relational (daughter, wife, mother) rather than individual, all women are followers rather than leaders, and all women are “not quite as good” as men at any task or skill that lies outside their designated sphere. Men may be politicians, soldiers, doctors, lawyers, inventors, engineers, writers, artists, church leaders, law officers, and film and stage directors, but women must be women first and foremost, as if the gender itself were a calling or occupation. For centuries, in order to make this system work, girls growing up were taught not to think of themselves as too unique (as a character from Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall puts it, “You see what it is for women to affect to be different to other people”) and to value themselves in purely relational terms. Yet always, some women have managed to break out of their narrow room, and now we’re starting to wonder just how much potential has gone unfulfilled, unrealized, over the long, long years.

The core of my feminism should be simple common sense. Not all women are alike. We don’t all share the same daydreams, hopes, and ambitions. We don’t all share the same interests, skills, or talents. Each of us has a passion of her own that springs from her uniqueness, and being of a certain gender should not hinder us — any of us — from following that passion. It astonishes me that even now, some folk still have so much trouble accepting this notion.

Yet while I may grind my teeth in frustrations at all the signs of how far we have yet to go, my heart leaps with joy at every sign of progress I see. After all, nowadays, girls who act out Star Wars in their backyards have a number of characters to choose from, girls who move in the thick of adventure and save lives and who are, quite often, the coolest in the room.

Next week: Part 3



Growing Up Feminist

Part I

“Let husbands know/ Their wives have sense like them. They see, and smell,/ And have their palates both for sweet and sour,/ As husbands have. What is it that they do/ When they change us for others? Is it sport?/ I think it is. And doth affection breed it?/ I think it doth. Is ‘t frailty that thus errs?/ It is so, too. And have we not affections/ Desires for sport, and frailty, as men have?”       Othello Act IV, lines 99 – 107

(I can’t help but laugh at how much like plain common sense these words sound, yet how radical they must have seemed to the audience that first heard them.)

I’m not sure how it all started. It may have been once I began to notice all prospective parents in the books I read and movies I saw seemed to long for boys, as if, even in the very womb, girl-children weren’t good enough.

My parents do all they can to ensure my sister and I knew we are loved and valued and they wouldn’t have traded us for a thousand boys. But an idea so deeply ingrained in our culture as the preference for boys can seep through the cracks of the safest house, like toxic smoke. It’s everywhere — in the Bible (in the stories of Mary and Elizabeth, as well as all those women in the Old Testament who prayed desperately for sons or competed to see how many sons they could bear), in history (remember the story of Henry VIII and his quest for a male heir?), and especially in popular culture, in those classic movies on which I cut my teeth.

I couldn’t name every example if I tried; the ones that stick most fast in my memory come from movies I otherwise admire or even love. 1934’s Little Man, What Now? has pregnant Margaret Sullavan (pregnant of course in a 1934 way, so that her figure is maidenly throughout) told repeatedly to pray and hope for a boy because “girls are useless.” In 1939’s Made for Each Other, as James Stewart and Carole Lombard gaze enraptured at their newborn baby son, a cabbie asks them if the baby is a boy or a girl; Lombard replies simply, “What do you think?” as if no girl-baby could possibly inspire such joy as he sees in their faces. In 1941’s Penny Serenade, Cary Grant and Irene Dunne suffer the loss of their adorable adopted daughter, but they’re consoled with a happy ending, as they’re on the phone with the adoption agency and hearing that the boy they wanted in the first place is finally available. Peter Marshall of A Man Called Peter and Dr. Noah Praetorius of People Will Talk, both brilliant men, insist the babes their wives are carrying must be sons. (The latter goes even further and insists that all their future children will be boys.) To have “all boys” is heavenly, as 1939’s Goodbye, Mr. Chips makes clear. For a less admired example, we have comedian Eddie Cantor making a whole career out of jokes about his desperate longing for a son and bitter disappointment at having so many daughters — clearly a laugh riot back in the 1930s, but I wonder if any of Cantor’s daughters ever felt happy and secure in their father’s love as I did in mine.

For me as a young girl and then later a young woman, the worst of it was that it seemed this lust for boy-children, expressed again and again in different ways in different stories, was never critiqued or even called into question. It was presented as natural, as right. Of course boys were preferred. Boys were a sign of a father’s virility (a backward idea with no basis in science), and they just might grow up to change the world. Girls, apparently, had nothing to offer the future, except the promise of more boy-children. This idea may be a remnant of the past, a reflection of a certain time and place, but it nonetheless got under my skin and made me wonder exactly what about me was sub-par, at least in the eyes of the world beyond my own home.

Moreover, the preference for boys isn’t as much a relic of decades gone by as I wish it were. When I read about countries and cultures in which female infanticide is common, or read a statistic stating that men who have sons are less likely to abandon their families because they’re more invested in their boys and anxious to provide a role model, or see an episode of a popular TV show in which a woman, already the mother of two boys, terminates every pregnancy once she learns the baby will be a girl (because “girls are nothing but trouble anyway”), or overhear a conversation at a restaurant in which a mother with three sons tells a waitress how “happy and relieved” she is that none of her children are girls, I get that familiar tense, angry feeling. They still get to me, these signs of the notion that girls, and by extension women, are not and can never be good enough.

When you’re loved within your own family but the outside world sends you messages that you’re less valuable, less important, because you lack a Y chromosome, there are three ways you can respond. You can give in to it, accept the idea that you were born inferior. You can laugh it off. Or you can take the sense of pride and self-worth that your family, against the odds, fostered in you and fight. I’ve gone with the third option. I’m still fighting, in the ways I read and write and teach.

Coming next week: Part 2

Book Report: Recent Reads

Of all fantasy novel subgenres I have two unrivaled favorites: big, sweeping epics with sprawling casts of characters that include plenty of interesting women, and smaller- scale fairy-tale retellings with lovely, lyrical prose and a mystical feel. In the past couple of months I’ve read a fine example of each.

Oathbringer pic

Oathbringer by Brandon Sanderson

The world of Roshar, which Sanderson has constructed for his epic Stormlight Archive series, is deep and wide enough for a fantasy fan happily to drown in. Whenever one of these novels comes out (Oathbringer is the third), I know I’m going to get thoroughly lost in an amazing landscape. I love this series so much that it’s not enough for me to have and read a print copy only. I must own it on audiobook as well, so the world can sweep me away a second time, or a third, or however many times I like.

I’ll keep my description as simple as possible. The Stormlight Archive centers on a military conflict between the humans of the kingdom of Alethkar and a formidable race of humanoids called Parshendi. A malevolent immortal force plans to use this conflict as a means to destroy the world, and the only hope for survival rests with a group of magically gifted individuals, the Knights Radiant. Three of these Knights are our central characters — Kaladin, a resentful young hero with an instinct to protect victims of injustice; Shallan, a noble woman with a troubled past, who can manipulate perceptions and create illusions; and Dalinar, a military leader with a history of ruthlessness, now seeking to unite opposing factions and recover what honor he can. Surrounding these three is an array of splendid supporting characters, kings and queens and farmers and warriors, foreigners from mountains and deserts, human and nonhuman. One of my favorites is Jasnah, Dalinar’s niece, whose logical perspective is often mistaken for cold-heartedness. I also adore every member of Kaladin’s crew of misfit ex-slave bodyguards, “Bridge Four” (except one, but I don’t want to Spoil too much).

The first book in the series, The Way of Kings, focused primarily on Kaladin, while the second, Words of Radiance, centered on Shallan. Oathbringer is Dalinar’s book, though the others get their shining moments. In the first two volumes, Dalinar’s past has been shrouded in mystery, hidden even from him, but now his worst memories, once taken from him as an immortal’s “boon,” have returned to him, and both he and we learn that whatever we might have imagined about his history, the truth is worse. The core theme of this story is redemption, as he must struggle with the man he has been in order to become the man the world needs him to be. Redemption isn’t pretty, it’s messy, and above all, it’s painful. If Dalinar is to be redeemed, he must own his misdeeds.

The redemption theme may center on Dalinar, but it reaches out to others, including Shallan, who transforms into other personas to avoid the weakness she sees in herself, and Venli, a Parshendi woman indirectly responsible for the death of her more sympathetic sister, who finds herself called upon to become the person that sister should have been. (In actuality one of my favorite parts of Oathbringer is how much we learn about the Parshendi, far from a one-dimensional malevolent race of Orcish monsters.) So many of the main characters are broken in some way, but Sanderson deftly handles the darkness of their situations without ever crossing into nihilistic grimdark territory. In grimdark, virtue is a lie and redemption an illusion. In the Stormlight Archive, hope is never fully lost.

Bear Nightingale pic

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

This wintry tale takes its inspiration from the old story of “King Frost,” in which an innocent maiden is sent out to die in a frozen field by her wicked stepmother, but she survives and is rewarded for speaking to the winter king himself with courageous civility. Arden takes her readers back to an Old Russia ruled by the Tsar and his landowning boyars, and her novel’s greatest strength is the lovely, detailed prose with which she sets her scene, creating a world never truly warm, a world where humans’ survival depends on respect for the spirits of both nature and hearth.

Like all my favorite fairy-tale retellings, this one centers on a female lead, Vasilisa, or Vasya. Unlike the rather passive maiden of the fairy tale, whose chief virtue is endurance, the spirited, tomboyish Vasya is active in her support and her respect for the spirits, fostering a connection with them that she uses to protect those she loves and even, at two separate points, to save the life of an enemy. She’s easy to like, smart and observant and brave, unwilling to fall without a fight into a role she isn’t suited for even though her father and brothers keep telling her it is the “lot of women.” Interestingly, though the father and brothers might represent the status quo, the narrative depicts them with sympathy and understanding. All the important characters are understandable in their own ways, even the villains, the prideful priest “tempted” (from his own perspective) by Vasya, and the envious, tormented stepmother, so unable to catch a break from her first scene to her last that I can’t help pitying her just a little.

Sadly, the book falters where it ought to be the strongest — the climax. Vasya has been a proactive figure throughout the narrative, and we have every reason to think she’ll save the day in the end. But at crunch time, her courage and her power prove insufficient, and it’s left to someone else to strike the death-blow against evil. Yet despite my disappointment, I’m eager to continue with this series. I suspect Vasya’s ineffectuality might be a symptom of “first book syndrome,” since this is the beginning of a trilogy. Arden can’t have her hero (for I have faith that’s what Vasya will become) peak too early. Just how, and how far, will she grow? I want to see.

Differing Perspectives

Since my 2017 Year in Review posts, I’ve had the chance to see Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water. I loved it. I felt that, like Pan’s Labyrinth before it, it reflected the filmmaker’s sympathy with daydreamers whose wavelengths are out of tune with the ordinary and mundane. I viewed Sally Hawkins’ Elisa, like Mercedes in Pan’s Labyrinth, as a powerful woman who knows society views her as powerless and uses that perception to deceive and defy those who would dismiss her. I connected with her almost immediately, thanks to Hawkins’ deftly detailed performance. How could I not like a woman who wishfully imitates Bill Robinson’s dance moves? I came away hoping this movie might clean up at this year’s Oscars, embracing it as a welcome rarity, a critically acclaimed film with an abundance of heart.

Then I read the following article on (Warning: it contains Spoilers.)

The author of this article is looking at the movie from a different perspective from my own, focusing on the ways in which it portrays the heroine’s disability. As I read it, I could understand, point for point, all the elements in the movie that she found frustrating. I remembered them all, but caught up in the film’s dreamlike romanticism, I didn’t see them in the same way. While I was engaged by Hawkins’ performance, I didn’t consider that some might be bothered that the role didn’t go to an actress with the same disability as the character. Now I can see it. I can’t say that a single word of this article is wrong.

So, is it okay if I still love The Shape of Water?

The worst thing anyone can say in response to a differing perspective is, “You shouldn’t be offended.” It’s not one person’s place to judge what someone else finds offensive or problematic. Yet while I can perceive the movie’s problems, I can’t deny it caught me up in its spell. I can’t deny I want to see it again. The difference of opinion/response offers more proof that each of us creates meaning in tandem with the creators of the art we consume. Our own identities and experiences affect our responses to it. If we bear this in mind, surely we can understand and appreciate someone else’s different movies on a piece of art we love, without necessarily losing that love.

I had a similar experience when I read Tor’s review of Roald Dahl’s Matilda:

I’d praised Matilda as a good read for girls in my previous blog post. The story still has my heart, more than ever since I saw the musical recently. But I can’t deny that everything the author found problematic is very much a part of the tale. Miss Trunchbull is as despicable as the story demands (and I have my own issues with the ways in which her evil is bound up with her physical strength and bigness), but did her more competent replacement have to be a man? Why not promote Miss Honey instead, as happened in the film version?

But darn it, I still love Matilda. I actually think it does us good to read perspectives on stories that diverge from ours, particularly when it concerns something we love. Understanding that not everyone sees the same thing the same way doesn’t have to diminish our joy. But maybe it makes us think a little more about where our joy might be coming from.

What I appreciate about these two articles I’ve shared is that neither author is what I call a “Missionary of Hate.” They state, “I find these aspects problematic,” and then they explain their case. They do NOT cry out, in so many words, “I hated it, and if you didn’t hate it too, then you’re WRONG!

For contrast we have only to look at the Internet vitriol directed at Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi. Now, The Last Jedi has problematic aspects of its own, and some have pointed them out with a great deal of insight. Foz Meadows, for instance, notes how the choice to ignore the chemistry between Finn and Poe in favor of building up a heterosexual love subplot for the former diminishes the movie as a whole (though she does point out she enjoyed it). Again, beware Spoilers:

Yet voices like Meadows’ have been drowned in a flood of shouts declaring that critics who praised the movie must have been paid off. Some haters have even started a petition with the apparent aim of forcing writer/director Rian Johnson to admit publicly that his movie sucks. When I read Meadows’ article, I know we saw the same movie. But when I venture a look into the haters’ spew, I can’t believe we saw the same movie.

The haters’ aim is to make those who disagree with them feel like fools, to the point where we may be embarrassed or even afraid to admit that we actually like the object of their scorn. They’re not happy until their voices alone are heard. While we should be accepting and understanding of opinions different from ours, we should take care to keep a clear view of the line between disagreement and bullying. Disagreement we should appreciate, but bullying we should resist with all our might.

Bullies should never win.

Advice to Girls Looking for Heroes Like Moana and Judy Hopps

One of the reasons behind my current dissatisfaction with Hollywood is the depressing lack of female protagonists among mainstream American animated releases in 2017, especially as compared to 2016, which gave us both Zootopia and Moana. (I’m still keen to see the smaller-scale indie animated film The Breadwinner, but its release has been so limited that it’s quite a bear to find a theater where it’s playing — a disgraceful way to treat a film that would appeal to families.) I understand that everything media-related comes in cycles, and that a year with one or more solid girl-centered offerings will frequently be followed by a year in which girls get shoved back into sidekick, villain, or background roles, if they appear at all. Remember 2011, when the front-runners for the Best Animated Feature Oscar were the male-heavy Rango and The Adventures of Tintin? The following year gave us Brave and Wreck-It Ralph, both enjoyable movies featuring female characters in central roles. So, since 2017 was lacking in noteworthy animated heroines, at least we can look ahead to the next months of 2018 with hopeful hearts, right?

Well, maybe not. Check out this YouTube compilation of trailers for 2018’s animated releases, at least in the first half of the year. Some look like fun — Aardman’s Early Man might be amusing, at least, because Aardman’s films usually are — but for all their differences, these movies, going by their trailers, have one thing in common that isn’t hard to spot:

Male protagonists.

It looks very much like this year will just be last year, all over again.

One of these movies, The Incredibles 2, is an interesting case. I loved the original, so I can’t help but be a little bit interested in the sequel, and I’ve read some excerpts from promotional material suggesting that Elastigirl, a.k.a. Helen Parr, will take a leading role and that the movie will be a female-led superhero film following in the footsteps of 2017’s Wonder Woman. If that’s true, then hurrah! But I’m afraid I can’t help being a little skeptical, since the teaser-trailer — which, like most teaser-trailers, gives us no hint of the film’s actual plot — chooses to focus on Mr. Incredible and baby Jack-Jack. I can’t help being reminded of the prominence of Olaf the Snowman in the marketing for Frozen and of Maui in the marketing for Moana. No matter how well a female-centered animated feature may do with audiences, marketers are still squeamish about letting people know when or if an upcoming release is focused on a female character.

Yet the rest of the movies are very clearly about dudes, so girls watching them will have to daydream themselves into the shoes of the male heroes or settle for identifying with the sidekick or love interest — again. And again. And again, and again. What are girls to do if they want a female hero as cool as Moana or Judy Hopps? Two things come to mind. The first is to fall to our knees and pray that Ava duVernay’s upcoming A Wrinkle in Time is every bit as good as we long for it to be.

The second: read instead.

Good books for young readers (children and tweens, not teens) centering on boys may outnumber those centering on girls, but good books about girls certainly outnumber good recent movies about them. If you make a friend of a good book when you’re ten or twelve, you’ll have a friend for life. A few of my favorites:

Matilda (Roald Dahl). Despite what movies and television want us to believe, child geniuses are not always boys. Matilda uses her immense brainpower to defy those who would tell her she’s nothing (parents, school principal) and to empower those around her. She’s a rule-breaker, a game-changer, and a wrecker of oppressive authority.

The Wee Free Men and its sequels (Terry Pratchett). Young witch Tiffany Aching is no Chosen One in the Harry Potter mold. Rather, she earns her hero status through a winning combination of hard work, determination, common sense, and fearlessness.

The Enchanted Forest Chronicles, beginning with Dealing With Dragons (Patricia C. Wrede). Wrede employs a light-hearted, humorous style to tell the story of two female characters who become the best of friends. One is a dragon who eventually becomes King (yes, you read that right), and the other is an unorthodox princess determined to chart her own course.

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: Squirrel Meets World (Shannon Hale). The indomitable Doreen Green, a hero with the combined powers of Squirrel and Girl, may be in high school in this novelization of the popular comics character. But I can’t think of anything in this breezy, entertaining tale that couldn’t be enjoyed by smart girls as young as ten or even eight.

Ronja, the Robber’s Daughter (Astrid Lindgren). I picked up this novel after its anime adaptation charmed me. If you’ve always dreamed of living in a forest and learning the ways of the wild things, finding a best friend on your own adventurous wavelength, and conquering hate with the force of friendship and love, this is the book for you.

2017: My Year in Fiction, Part 2

Part 2: Movies and Television

How can anything good come out of Hollywood, a community where reprehensible abuse of power is apparently so prevalent? Strange as it seems, good entertainment does happen, and I’ve had some good times at the theater this year, as well as at home in front of the television set. A fiction enthusiast like myself appreciates any medium through which engrossing stories might be delivered.

Favorite Blockbuster: Star Wars VIII: The Last Jedi. I know not everyone loves it. In fact, I have friends that hate it with astonishing vehemence. I know that sensible complaints involving plot holes and miscommunication and extraneous subplots can be made against it. But darn it, I still loved it. I’ll have more to say about it in a later blog post, once I’ve had a chance to see it again. Close runner up: Wonder Woman, the movie many of us (including myself) thought stood no chance of being watchable, but turned out to be amazing.

Favorite Non-Blockbuster: The Emily Dickinson biopic A Quiet Passion, among the best depictions of a woman’s creative power put on film. It was released too early in the year for Cynthia Nixon’s amazing performance to get Oscar’s attention, and that’s a terrible shame.

Favorite Date Movie: The LEGO Batman Movie, which my husband and I saw together on Valentine’s Day at the Movie Tavern in Suwannee, GA. After all, what could be more romantic than sharing laughs — lots of them? The movie also deserves props for giving us the best depiction of Barbara Gordon (Batgirl) we’ve seen to date.

Least Favorite Date Movie: Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2. Friends loved it. Critics liked it. My husband and I rode the wave of positive buzz into the theater, and we came out wondering what the heck we’d just seen. For me the worst part came during the credits, where a scene made it clear that the aspect of the movie I disliked most, the villainous matriarchal super-race the Sovereigns, would be back for the third film. I doubt I’ll bother.

Most Pleasant Surprise: Atomic Blonde. The trailers didn’t impress me. This looks cheesy, I thought. Yet it turned out to be a well-made action-packed spy thriller with my favorite movie soundtrack of the year.

Most WTF Comment on the State of Entertainment: A Tweet that turned up in my feed, positing that The Last Jedi and the Thirteenth Doctor were evidence that Hollywood was falling into a “feminist black hole.” Uh, just how many big money-making adventure movies with female protagonists did we see this year? Three, I think? That’s hardly evidence of a feminist takeover. It is evidence, however, of the theory that for some people, one big movie hit with a female lead character out of twenty such movies with male lead characters is one too many.

I Still Need to See: Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water and Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird.

Favorite TV Shows Watched in 2017: Netflix’s Luke Cage and GLOW, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Supergirl, Agents of SHIELDiZombie, and PBS’s Victoria (Season 1) and Poldark (Season 3).

When It’s Good, It’s Really Good: Peter Capaldi’s final season of Doctor Who, featuring my favorite New Who Companion, Bill Potts. (Why is it that these days, the ones I love most only get one season?) We got some lackluster episodes this year, but also some darn fine television.

Television Show With the Best Score: Poldark.

Television Show With the Best Soundtrack: Luke Cage.

I Can’t Believe I Actually Like This: I’ve never been a wrestling fan, and GLOW took me completely by surprise as I found myself connecting with the talented but hapless and often unlikable protagonist played by Alison Brie, as well as the diverse cast of female characters around her. What started as a show about female rivalry evolved into a show about female friendships, and I relished seeing that happen.

These Things Were Absolutely Made With Me in Mind: Poldark and Victoria.

Show We All Need to be Watching Right Now: Brooklyn Nine-Nine, a sitcom that mixes humor with heart as it depicts a group of very diverse individuals working well together, feeding off each other’s competence, and appreciating each other. Nearly every week we see that a show need not be mean in order to be funny.

Best TV Boss: Without question, Captain Raymond Holt of Brooklyn Nine-Nine. He also speaks my Favorite Line of Dialogue: “Any time someone stands up and says who they are, the world becomes a better, more interesting place.” (To put it in context, he says this to one of his officers, Det. Rosa Diaz, just after she has come out as bisexual.)

Most Improved: Agents of SHIELD. I was lukewarm on the show when it began, but I kept watching in the hope it would get better. The last season shows just how far it’s come since its awkward beginnings. I did have issues with this season’s ending, though…

Female Villains Need More Unique Motivations: Does it always have to be jealousy? The villain of the last half of Agents of SHIELD‘s season tries to destroy humankind because the man she loved preferred someone else. The villain who threatened the earth at the end of this past season’s Supergirl did so because her son chose his sweetheart over her and the privileged domination she offered him. In both cases, a woman goes genocidal because a man rejected her. Darn, but this kind of thing gets old.

Most Disappointing Departure: Floriana Lima, a.k.a. Det. Maggie Sawyer on Supergirl. Losing the character would be regrettable enough in itself, but the writers could at least have had her accept a promotion in another city and shown her and Alex Danvers (Chyler Leigh) trying their hand at a long-distance relationship. Instead, they chose to break them up and add these ladies to the already-too-long list of lesbian TV couples denied a happy ending.

Most Unjustly Overlooked Show: iZombie. The zombies here aren’t mindless monsters but intelligent humanoids trying to figure out how to satisfy their need to consume brains without becoming menaces to society (although some of them would be fine with that). To me, this makes them a lot more interesting. Plus, Rose McIver’s Liv Moore is one of those smart, capable “female Other” protagonists I absolutely adore. Yet nobody seems ever to talk about this show. In discussions of supernatural-tinged action shows with strong female leads, this one rarely if ever comes up. I wonder why.

Now That’s How You Do A Reboot: Disney’s new Duck Tales, which manages the neat trick of improving on the original while still honoring its memory. I’m enjoying all the characters, but the new Webby is my favorite, not just because she’s more badass but because she’s flawed, which gives her more chances to be funny than the sweetness-and-light original ever got. Plus, David Tennant, my favorite of the “New Who” Doctors, voices Scrooge McDuck! I’m on board. But I’m well past ready to see some new episodes. Come on, Disney.

2017: My Year in Fiction, Part 1

Part 1: Books.

When the news gets sometimes scary, other times depressing, or both at once, fiction becomes more important to me than ever. While the news may show me the sad state of society and politics, fiction can offer hope, or at least a sense that things don’t have to be like this. The act of writing in itself is hopeful, as we take bits and pieces from the world around us, both light and dark, and knit them together into something new and potentially beautiful. While stories of sexual harassment and assault and violence motivated by racism have been buzzing in my ears, I’ve been hammering away at my most ambitious fantasy novel project to date, as well as crafting plays about Santa Claus’s elves and reindeer. And of course, I’ve been reading.

Some highlights of my year in books:

Most Epic Epic Fantasy: Kate Elliott’s Black Wolves, a 780-page feast featuring a myriad of complicated and intriguing characters, vivid world-building, and clashing cultures and belief systems. I need the next book ASAP.

Most Epic YA: Leigh Barduro’s Crooked Kingdom, the sequel to Six of Crows. Six outlaw heroes deal with conflict between nations and potentially deadly skirmishes between rival gangs on the streets of a quasi-17th century Ketterdam (Amsterdam). Tamora Pierce meets George R. R. Martin.

Most Lyrical Urban Fantasy: This one doesn’t have much competition, but it’s Patricia McKillip’s Kingfisher. McKillip brings her distinctively luminous style to the usually gritty urban fantasy genre, with (for me) satisfying results. If only more urban fantasy were written like this.

Most Underrated Read: Intisar Khanani’s Memories of Ash, the novel-length sequel to her novella Sunbolt. Khanani’s lovely, fluid prose and skillful characterizations deserve far more attention.

The “Welcome to My World” Prize: This one goes to the authors whose work I’ve read for the first time this year, whose future efforts I intend to seek out. N.K. Jemisin (The Shadowed Sun), Robert Jackson Bennett (City of Stairs), Michael J. Sullivan (Age of Myth, Age of Swords), Becky Chambers (The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet), Melissa Caruso (The Tethered Mage), Mickey Zucker Reichert (Beyond Ragnarok), M.H. Boroson (The Girl With Ghost Eyes), Adrian Tchaikovsky (The Tiger and the Wolf), Mark T. Barnes (The Garden of Stones), Ken Liu (The Wall of Storms), Phil Tucker (The Path of Flames), Mark Lawrence (Red Sister).

The “Continues Awesome” Prize: For authors I already love and whose works I read this year didn’t let me down. Kate Elliott (Black Wolves), Kate Forsyth (The Cursed Towers), Patricia McKillip (Kingfisher), Daniel O’Malley (Stiletto), Terry Pratchett (Witches Abroad), Brandon Sanderson (The Bands of Mourning, Arcanum Unbounded, Oathbringer*). *– Still in progress, but I’m listing it anyway, because what I’ve read so far is just that good.

Favorite Female Heroes Who Have Passed Their Prime: Marshal Dannarah (Black Wolves), Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg (Witches Abroad), Persephone (Age of Myth, Age of Swords), Silence Montane (“Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell,” Arcanum Unbounded).

Favorite Female Heroes Who Are In Their Prime: Hanani of the Hetawa (The Shadowed Sun), Li Lin (The Girl With Ghost Eyes), Shai (“The Emperor’s Soul,” Arcanum Unbounded), Suri (Age of Myth, Age of Swords), Hitomi (Memories of Ash), Shara Khomayd (City of Stairs), Marasi and Steris (The Bands of Mourning), Zomi and Thera (The Wall of Storms).

Favorite Female Heroes Who Are Children (Sort Of): Lift (“Edgedancer,” Arcanum Unbounded).

Favorite Female Supporting Characters: Kizzy and Sissix (The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet), Sunandi (The Shadowed Sun), Highmarshal Azure (Oathbringer), Jane (A College of Magics), Mulaghesh (City of Stairs), Lifka (Black Wolves), Arion, Brin, and Roan (Age of Myth, Age of Swords), Dame Scotia Malory (Kingfisher).

Favorite Male Supporting Characters: Sigrud (City of Stairs), Kellas (Black Wolves), Adolin and Rock (Oathbringer), Wylan (Crooked Kingdom), Mni-inh (The Shadowed Sun), Wayne (The Bands of Mourning), Gaetona (“The Emperor’s Soul,” Arcanum Unbounded), Luan Zyu (The Wall of Storms).

Favorite Male Heroes: Dalinar Kholin (Oathbringer), Kelsier (“Mistborn: A Secret History,” Arcanum Unbounded), Asho (The Path of Flames), Indris (The Garden of Stones), Captain Ashby (The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet), Rudy Solis (The Time of the Dark).

Favorite Audiobook: A three-way tie: Arcanum Unbounded (read by Michael Kramer and Kate Reading), A Darker Shade of Magic (read by Stephen Crossley), and The Curse of Chalion (read by Lloyd James).

Disappointments: Barbara Hambly’s The Time of the Dark, K.B. Wager’s After the Crown, Sharon Shinn’s Wrapt in Crystal, Kristen Britain’s The High King’s Tomb, and Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven. None of these books were terrible; I just didn’t love them quite as much as I have these authors’ other work.

Books I’m Most Looking Forward To in the Coming Year: Django Wexler’s The Infernal Batallion, Mark Lawrence’s Grey Sister, Michael J. Sullivan’s Age of War, Melissa Caruso’s The Defiant Heir, and Kate Elliott’s Dead Empire, all to be published (hopefully) in 2018.

A Christmas Treat from the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company

One of my best accomplishments of 2017 came near the end: on December 9 and 10, the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company produced and performed my new Christmas play, “The Sleigh of Unspoken Dreams.” The very first draft was a heavy-handed polemic about the gendering of toys and toy-giving.  Over time, with the company’s help, it became something more and better. While my previous holiday script, “Christmas Rose,” is rooted in reality, this one is a North Pole fantasy that touches on a question of import: just how do Santa’s elves cope with burnout?

I herewith share the performance with you. I think it went beautifully. Featured are the voices of:

  • David Benedict as the Announcer and World of Learning Historian,
  • Melody Bonnette as Zoe,
  • Elisabeth Allen as Lydia,
  • Chris Little as Rupert,
  • Kelley S. Ceccato (that’s me!) as Vixen the Third,
  • Joe Ravenson as Santa Claus,
  • Paige Stedman Ross as Maya and World of Learning Singer, and
  • Christa Burton and Billy Barefoot as Elf Sergeants 1 and 2.

Special thanks to Ron N. Butler, who gave me the ending (the Santa Claus scene is almost entirely his work), and to the Stewart family of Marietta, who lit the spark that in time became this play.

Since this is a live recording, please turn up the volume on your chosen device all the way for better playing.

The Sleigh of Unspoken Dreams