Things I Love about… Avenue Q

WARNING: NOT SAFE FOR WORK. I have posted links to songs throughout this blog post, and some of the lyrics are raunchy.

I’ll come right out and say it: being happy these days is no easy feat. In my lifetime, I’ve never found the news more depressing, more indicative of a dearth of the values I was taught to hold dear — courage, knowledge, reason, and kindness. It’s enough to make me wish I could hide out with my loved ones in a bomb shelter. Come get us when it’s over. But that, of course, would be a failure of courage.

Isn’t it nice to reflect, in times like these, that everything in life is only for now?

Avenue Q 4

Avenue Q, winner of the Tony Award for Best Musical in 2004, has been popping up in various community theaters around the country, including the historic Springer Opera House in Columbus, GA, my husband’s home town. This Mother’s Day weekend, we went with his parents to see the production, and a delightful time full of much cathartic laughter was had by all. What with my already documented love for Jim Henson and Sesame Street, I could hardly be surprised that this “Sesame Street for adults,” featuring a group of young people making the best of their lives in a depressed New York neighborhood, should charm me.

Avenue Q 1

The Sesame Street fan will recognize many of these characters and appreciate the little tweaks the show gives them. Bert, our straight-laced pigeon-loving paper clip collector, becomes Rod, investment banker who irons his underwear and closely guards the secret of his homosexuality, while the fun-loving Ernie becomes the fun-loving Nicky, who assures his buddy in song that their friendship would still be strong if he were gay. We recognize Cookie Monster in the deep, growling voice and quirky grammatical cadences of Trekkie Monster, a recluse who has his own ideas about the purpose of the Internet (and it isn’t to debate “Star Trek,” either). Helpful humans Luis and Maria become considerably less helpful humans Brian and Christmas Eve, he an out-of-work aspiring comedian, she a therapist who loses clients thanks to her habit of being just a little too truthful. Christmas Eve may give some viewers pause, since she’s saddled with a thick stereotypical Asian accent, yet with her temper and her toughness she subverts the image of the submissive and empathetic “little woman.”

Along with these sort-of-familiar faces we meet a pair of new puppet characters who become the core of the show, Princeton, a recent college graduate who isn’t sure what to do with his B.A. in English (and as the holder of a PhD in English, I indulge in an understanding chuckle), and Kate Monster, idealistic, ambitious, with a plan to open a school exclusively for monster children and a hope that she can find true love along the way. Then there’s Gary Coleman, the former Diff’rent Strokes star who has fallen on hard times but still keeps his spirits up while working as the Superintendent of the apartment house on Avenue Q (despite the real Gary Coleman having passed away in 2010). That rounds out our ensemble of good guys, and an endearing lot they are, as they sing cheerfully about how much their lives suck.

Once they’ve all been introduced, the musical now has the job of making its audience care about these crazy kids. For that, it needs to strike a hard-to-find balance between satire and sweetness, and it manages beautifully. We may roll our eyes when Princeton contemplates the different paths he might take to find his purpose, or when Kate shouts in frustration that the Internet has many uses rather than just one, or when Rod sings in desperation about his girlfriend, who lives in Canada. But the story and the songs still put us on their side. We root for them, and when we laugh it’s far more often with them than at them. Kate is perhaps the most sympathetic of them, with her yearning for love and her earnest desire to make the world better for “people of fur.” She’s my favorite, even if she is a little bit racist.

Of course, a musical is nothing without great songs, and much of the credit for that satire-sweetness balance should go to the songs. Many of them are such spot-on echoes of Sesame Street tunes that songsmiths Jeff Moss (“Rubber Duckie”) and Joe Raposo (“C is for Cookie”) might have written them — particularly the “lesson” songs “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” and “Schadenfreude,” and “If You Were Gay,” close cousin to Ernie’s “That’s What Friends are For.” But we also have quieter songs like “There’s a Fine, Fine Line,” Kate’s heartbroken-but-coming-out-swinging ballad, and “I Wish I Could Go Back to College,” a lament for missed opportunity that almost anyone might identify with. (Who doesn’t wish they had taken more pictures?) When I bought the Original Broadway Cast CD back in 2004, I couldn’t stop listening to it for months, relishing the natural shifts in tone.

I had thought, at one time, that Avenue Q would resonate more strongly with Generation X-ers and others who grew up singing “I Love Trash” and “Bein’ Green” than with older audiences. But I’m happy to report that my in-laws enjoyed the Springer production every bit as much as my husband and I did. Indeed, that theater was full of people of all ages, and an electric current of enjoyment ran from seat to seat. When curtain call time came, we all sprang to our feet.

Good songs and a funny story can unite us.  Even if our lives suck.

Avenue Q 2

From left to right: myself, my husband Matt, and my mother-in-law, Nicole Ceccato.

Advertisements

SFF’s Good Women, Classified

From time to time I’ve had friends question me about my relative lack of enthusiasm for female villains, specifically when no “good” female characters are around to challenge them. It’s an awkward time not to love female villains, as they seem to be all the rage on the Big Screen these days. Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 has one, plus several henchwomen. The Mummy of the title is a very ancient and very evil queen. Kingsman: The Golden Circle features a female Big Bad, while Thor: Ragnarok, if the trailer is all we have to go on, puts two bad-news femmes in key roles. If I cared about female villains and didn’t mind the paucity or ineffectuality of women on the good side, I’d have a lot to look forward to.

But no. Women on the good side interest me far more, because while female villains have been destructive forces to be reckoned with for as long as literature has existed, heroines and female heroes have only recently, over the last several decades, started to show up in large numbers. Not that we didn’t see them at all in centuries past — Antigone, Shahrazad, and many of the female leads in Shakespeare’s comedies serve as early examples — but their recent increase marks a sign of change for the better, as more writers and creators, men and women alike, show their faith in such characters.

As I’ve absorbed stories, both on page and on screen, and observed the female characters positioned in the stories as “good,” I’ve noted three broad categories into which they fall, based on how active a role they play in crucial events: the damsel, the heroine, and the female hero. Of the three, the damsel is easiest to identify. She’s the woman who finds herself overpowered by villains and needs to be rescued. That’s her function — to be rescued. She may have no useful skills at all, or she may have a few abilities that look impressive at first but prove to be no more than window dressing when crunch time comes.

A well-known example of the former is Buttercup from the film (not the book) The Princess Bride, whose idea of saving herself from being forced into a loveless marriage is to threaten suicide when her he-man hero doesn’t show up to save her as she expects. Of the latter type, we have Scarlet Benoit from Marissa Meyer’s Scarlet, who totes a gun but never manages to use it successfully, and Folly from Jim Butcher’s The Aeronaut’s Windlass, who has some magical skill but has the bad luck to fall into the clutches of a villainess so powerful that her own magic does her no good at all. A heroine or a female hero in Folly’s situation would find a way to turn her relative weakness, and the villainess’s underestimation of her, into an advantage and escape. But Folly, for all the quirks and speech patterns that make her an interesting presence, never manages this, and proves a damsel. The Folly/Scarlet types may be the most frustrating damsels of all, since we’re led to expect more from them than we actually get.

Once, women characters in the SFF genre were overwhelmingly divided between damsels and villainesses. Now, thankfully, heroines and female heroes have started to outnumber them, in print fiction at least.

The line between the damsel and the other categories is clear, but between the heroine and the female hero, things get blurry. Heroines are active, courageous, resourceful, and useful. They don’t wait around to be rescued; they rescue themselves and often rescue others. They bring their skills to the table to help ensure the triumph of good. But the operative word is help. A heroine may offer invaluable assistance to the main (usually male) hero, or she may be part of a team that defeats evil with combined powers. But she does not save the day on her own.

In current SFF, heroines may be the most crowded of the three classes. Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter series is the most famous and best-loved example. Hermione is a splendid character, a girl with brains, courage, and integrity who never backs down when she knows she’s right, even when her friends tell her she’s crazy. (She persists in her commitment to house-elf liberation, despite ridicule from nearly every one of her peers.) Without her, the titular hero would have been killed several times over. But even though Harry has far less personality and fewer observable skills than Hermione, he is still the story’s Chosen One. Hermione may help him and even save him, but only he can save the world.

A few more notable heroines include Starhawk from Barbara Hambly’s The Ladies of Mandrigyn; Sarene from Brandon Sanderson’s Elantris; Amara, Isana, and Kitai from Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera series; Inej and Nina from Leigh Barduro’s Six of Crows/ Crooked Kingdom; Suri and Arion from Michael J. Sullivan’s Age of Myth; Steris, Marasi, and MeLaan from Sanderson’s Second Mistborn Trilogy; and Iselle from Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Curse of Chalion. I love them all, and would recommend the books in which they appear; each gets her moments of awesome throughout the stories. But none of them get to strike the climactic blow against evil by themselves. That doesn’t make them bad or weak characters. It just makes them different from those in the final category, the female hero.

The female hero confronts evil on her own, and wins. She may have help along the way, but in the end she proves the key difference-maker. One of my favorite signs of progress is the growing number of female characters who fit this description, among them the ladies I praised in my previous post, Doreen “Squirrel Girl” Green and Matilda Wormwood. I can’t say too much, lest I stray too far into Spoiler territory, but here are a few more from my recent reading:

Shara Komayd, from Robert Jackson Bennett’s City of Stairs; Granny Weatherwax and Tiffany Aching, from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld; Vin, from Sanderson’s Mistborn: the Final Empire; Li-Lin, from M. H. Boroson’s The Girl With Ghost Eyes; Maia, from Todd Lockwood’s The Summer Dragon; Winter, from Django Wexler’s Shadow Campaigns series; Samarkar, from Elizabeth Bear’s Eternal Sky Trilogy (especially in the second book, Shattered Pillars); Kirit, from Fran Wilde’s Updraft; Paama, from Karen Lord’s Redemption in Indigo; Anyanwu, from Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed; Onyesonwu, from Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death; and Senneth, from Sharon Shinn’s Mystic and Rider.

Damsels I can do without, although I acknowledge they may at times be a necessary irritant. Heroines I always welcome. But what I love best are female heroes. Who are some of your favorite female heroes, from page and from screen?

 

Hoping for a Doreen-Matilda Effect

If I could consign one single idea from and about pop culture to the ash heap of history, never to rise to show its face again, it would be the prevailing notion that stories about girls are just for girls, while stories about boys are for everyone. We may see more girls and women playing important roles in fiction than ever before, but this one idea, I believe, is the root of the problems that stubbornly persist.

It’s why, despite strong (and well-performing) exceptions like last year’s Zootopia and Moana, the vast majority of “family” films continue to focus on male protagonists, with female characters usually stuck in the stock roles of sidekick, foil, or villain, if they’re there at all. It’s why animated movies like Mr. Peabody and Sherman and Mars Needs Moms don’t even bother to conceal their sexism — little boys and their parents won’t care about that, or so it’s thought. It’s why, when a family film does feature a female lead, trailers and ads mostly highlight the male characters to the point where potential viewers could be forgiven for thinking Moana actually played a supporting role in the movie that bears her name; we should not forget that the weak box-office performance of The Princess and the Frog (a fine movie that deserved better) was blamed on the use of the word “princess” in the title, and why the title Rapunzel was changed to Tangled to keep the movie from sounding too “girly” (the movie, for example, was called Rapunzel in Germany). And it’s why, in 2017, only two American animated films feature female leads, one a story about a ballerina, Leap, and the other a My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic movie.

It’s why, even though print fiction is many miles ahead of American cinema in terms of female representation, and even more in terms of female writers and creators, male leads dominate (albeit to a lesser degree) in children’s and middle-grade fiction. It’s why many writers of animal fantasy continue to make the majority of their characters male even though their maleness has no apparent bearing on the plot. It’s why, when award-winning author Shannon Hale visits a school to give a reading, boys are excluded from the assembly because the reading is “for girls.”

What’s the result of all this? Young men and women, the potential writers and creators, of pop culture future, grow up with “male as default gender” hardwired into their brains. They grow up thinking that stories about girls and women are by their very nature narrower in scope and therefore less interesting than stories about boys and men. If they’re aware of what they’re swallowing, their own writing may be a welcome reaction against this way of thinking. If they’re not, they will likely produce the same kinds of limiting stories, and the problem will go merrily on. One of the comments responding to The Mary Sue’s article examining the Twitter thread #ThingsOnlyWomenWritersHear is sadly telling: “I’d say that because of the overwhelmingly male perspective in lit and society can often mean WOMEN can’t write women,” citing J.K. Rowling (open for debate) and Anne Rice (no debate necessary) as examples.

In considering how we might slow down this vicious circle until it finally stops, we have to realize we’re playing a long game. I’m not the most patient of people, but we can’t put an end in mere years, or even mere decades, to ideas about characterization and gender that have centuries of reiteration behind them. We need to think carefully and consider all the facets of the problems we want to solve. Just why do boys’ stories presumably have more universal appeal, and why do so many authors, both men and women, prefer to write about male protagonists? No doubt a big part of it might be put down to plain old-fashioned sexism, but what else might be going on?

From an unconscious standpoint, the white male lead, the “default,” can seem wonderfully freeing. Because he is the default, the norm, the conflicts that he might face are without limit. Almost any story might be told about him — hence, the supposed wider appeal, and the presumption that his stories are for everyone. But if the protagonist diverges from this norm, say, in gender, many writers (again unconsciously) decide the story must revolve around said divergence — hence, the huge number of stories about “being a woman in a man’s world” in SFF, a genre that comes with the option of designing a world that’s at least a bit less of a man’s world. These stories foreground gender in ways the white male protagonist’s stories don’t have to do. This can limit their appeal, even for female readers who feel, like me, the endless repetition of gender-based conflicts is getting very boring.

The first step toward improvement is for us to get conscious, to train ourselves to think of the female protagonist as we think of the male protagonist, as someone who can carry any kind of story. If we writers can feel the same freedom writing about women and girls as we do writing about men and boys, it’s bound to result in female characters who are a lot more fun for all readers.

In the recent controversy about whether “diversity” is responsible for the drop in sales for Marvel Comics, one name kept coming up: Squirrel Girl. Nobody wants to lose Squirrel Girl. Male and female readers love her, and with good reason — because Squirrel Girl, a.k.a. Doreen Green, dashes into danger completely unhampered by all the self-doubts and second-guessing that slow down far too many female protagonists. She’s a combination of fearlessness and humor that wins readers over. Tor.com recently published a post about her appeal, and in the Comments section (which is actually worth reading most of the time on Tor.com) one person suggested the comic was obviously aimed at preteens, being too silly for anyone else. Two older fans, both men, wrote in at once to shut that nonsense down and make it clear that all ages of readers enjoy the character and her adventures.  I only need look at Matt, who laughs uproariously when he reads Squirrel Girl comics and shoves them into my hands when he is done.

More recently, we (Matt and I) took in the Tony-nominated musical Matilda at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta. I already loved Matilda. I’d read her story as Roald Dahl originally wrote it, and I’d seen her underrated movie. It hardly took a nudge for me to fall in love with her again, particularly as she sings that we shouldn’t just shrug off life’s unfairness because if we do, “you might as well be saying you think that it’s okay, and that’s not right.” Matilda has a brilliant and unbridled mind. She soaks up information whenever and wherever possible, reading every book she can get her hands on despite the obstacles her family throws in her path. She has a keen sense of justice and stands up not only for herself but for others who are mistreated. She fights the power, and she wins. When she overthrows her bullying schoolmistress, “the Trunchbull,” all the audience cheers — not just girls. I loved seeing so many little boys in the audience. If they weren’t supposed to admire or identify with Matilda because she’s a girl, they and their parents didn’t get the memo.

We love Doreen and Matilda because they display the qualities we want to see in our heroes, whether those heroes are male or female. Courage, determination, capability, and confidence are strong traits that needn’t be linked to gender. Doreen and Matilda are the very last people who would ever let insecurity and gender-related angst stand in the way of getting a job done. They are role models for everyone.

I would dearly love to see more heroines like this, heroines whose very existence flies in the teeth of the notion that the appeal of female-led stories is confined to girls. They are drops of rain, and in time, enough steady rain can wear away the hardest stones.

And remember: Squirrel Girl has the powers of both squirrel and girl. Eat nuts and kick butts!