Why Can’t More Movies Pander to Me?

We all have our favorite websites, and for me no day is complete without at least one visit to Tor.com, where I can find a variety of commentary on SFF books, movies, TV shows, and games, as well as short fiction and excerpts from longer fiction and lists of forthcoming SFF titles. Among the commentary, I especially enjoy Liz Bourke’s “Sleeps With Monsters,” in which she reviews books and raises issues of representation that need addressing. In a recent post she asks a question that’s come to my mind more than once: “Why Can’t More Books Pander to Me?” While I identify strongly with the early part of the article, in which she describes the alienation she as a queer woman feels when confronted with so many, many books that cling to the image of the Hero as white, male, and heterosexual, it’s the second part — her description of how she feels when she encounters a book that welcomes her, in this case Max Gladstone’s Ruin of Angels — that most gets to me. Few joys can match that of finding stories that embrace us, that assign us value and importance.

As a white heterosexual woman, I have my share of unearned privilege. I don’t have to look quite as hard to find books that welcome me. Since January I’ve found welcome in Kate Elliott’s Black Wolves, Brandon Sanderson’s Arcanum Unbounded, Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (a sci-fi treat that would welcome almost anyone who reads it), Mark Lawrence’s Red Sister, Michael J. Sullivan’s Age of Myth and Age of Swords, Mickey Zucker Reichert’s Beyond Ragnarok, Robert Jackson Bennett’s City of Stairs, Kate Forsyth’s The Cursed Towers, Leigh Barduro’s Crooked Kingdom, Insitar Khanani’s Memories of Ash, and M. H. Boroson’s The Girl With Ghost Eyes. Books like this thrill me because they show me, not what I am, but what as a woman I could be. They affirm that women can be heroes.

Yet I still recognize the alienation Bourke writes about. As frustrating as it can sometimes be with regard to books, I’ve found it far worse when it comes to movies, particularly in the SFF and action-adventure genres. Occasionally we see a movie in those genres with a female lead, and even more occasionally, that movie will turn out to be good (e.g. this year’s Wonder Woman and Atomic Blonde). But as this list of the Top 25 Fantasy Films of the Last 25 Years makes clear, those few good films are vastly outnumbered by movies about men, made by men and (usually) for men. That majority of movies claims, in implication if not in words, “Ladies, here are your choices: you can be a Love Interest, a Sex Object, a Victim, a Villain, or (if the writer is feeling a bit enlightened) a Sidekick. But Hero? Hands off that one, ladies. It’s for Men Only.”

Of course I have the option of not seeing these films, but I still catch their trailers, their ads, and their reviews, partly because as a participant in pop and geek culture I like knowing what’s out there. And I can feel that alienation start to gnaw at me, that sense that I’m meant to exist only in relation to men and that I can be powerful only if I’m evil. The most recent big release to do this to me, Kingsman: The Golden Circle, is a perfect example. Its predecessor, The Secret Service, featured a female character with the potential to be a hero, but she was under-utilized and her best moments took place off-screen; many of the movie’s fans liked her and were vocal in their hope they might see more of her in the sequel. How does filmmaker Matthew Vaughan respond? By including less of her, almost none in fact, but instead giving us a scene in which the main hero must place a tracking device on the wall of a woman’s vagina, and throwing in a female villain for the heroic Bro Squad to vanquish — nearly point for point everything I do not want to see. Vaughan joins Guy Ritchie, Edgar Wright, and Michael Bay on my list of filmmakers who obviously do not care about me, or women like me, as an audience. If I sound like I take this personally, it’s because I do.

Yet these men keep getting work, and they keep repeating the same old sexist shtick because they know they can get away with it. Despite its being “old-fashioned” in the worst sense of the term, or perhaps even because of that, Kingsman: The Golden Circle is a box-office smash. Wright’s Baby Driver is one of 2017’s most highly praised films, yet even the many critics who champion it admit that its portrayal of women is poor indeed. We’re meant to think this flaw is unimportant, something easily overlooked. Comments like, “The movie’s really entertaining, if you can get past the female characters” suffice to spark that sense of alienation in me, and every year I catch myself thinking more than once that I should just write off movies altogether and stick to books.

But I can’t quite do it. Because there are always those movies that welcome me, that make me giddy with possibility. (Spoilers ahead.)

Because of Rey receiving wisdom from an alien female mentor and later calling the light saber into her hand in Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens.

Because of Mercedes, an unexpected hero and a friend to the young Ofelia, firing a bullet into the head of the monstrous Captain Vidal just as she lets him know his baby son won’t follow in his evil footsteps — “He won’t even know your name” — in Pan’s Labyrinth.

Because of young witch Kiki finding her magic again, just in time to rescue her best friend and maybe-sweetheart in Kiki’s Delivery Service.

Because of Judy Hopps discovering the truth about predators “going savage” and racing back to the city to stop the spread of hate in Zootopia.

Because of Diana racing through a hail of German bullets to liberate a captured village in Wonder Woman.

And because of the “moments of awesome” from women in films that don’t fit as neatly into a given genre. Because of Katherine Goble Johnson solving a crucial equation whose answer eludes everyone else in Hidden Figures. Because of Emily Dickinson scribbling poems in the middle of the night in A Quiet Passion. Because of folk artist Maud Lewis selling her first painting in Maudie.

Because of how I feel when I see their triumphs — when I see that female characters on the big screen can be heroes, geniuses, and creators.

And then I’m forced to ask, along with Liz Bourke, Why can’t we have more like this??

 

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Wisdom from DragonCon 2017

When I wrote last week’s post featuring highlights from DragonCon 2017, I omitted one of my favorite panels, for the simple reason that I felt like it deserved a post of its own. The panel, a Young Adult Track offering called “YA Myths and Fairy-tale Retellings,” attracted my attention partly because I would have given my left eye to be on it myself, considering the extent of the inspiration I take from fairy tales. Nearly every short story, novel, and radio play I’ve worked on has a fairy-tale element somewhere in its bones, and whenever I’m stuck for an idea I go to the well of my fairy-tale/folktale collections. I would have had so much to say.

In the end, however, I felt I benefited as much from being in the audience and listening to the panelists — Carole E. Barrowman (the Hollow Earth series), Zoraida Cordova (the Vicious Deep trilogy, Labyrinth Lost), Clay and Susan Griffith (the Vampire Empire series), E.K. Johnston (Ahkosa, A Thousand Nights), and Mari Mancusi (Scorched, Gamer Girl) — share about the myths and stories that have sparked their imaginations and the ways that inspiration has worked, and how it might work for other aspiring writers. Much of what they told us, I already knew, at least on some level. But we should never underestimate the value of hearing our own thoughts spoken aloud and validated by others who have found success doing what we love to do. Certain pieces of wisdom stood out to me, because they seemed to speak so clearly to what I’ve been striving for in my own writing.

From Carole E. Barrowman: “The best stories that use formulas are the ones that stretch them.” From Zoraida Cordova: “You have to make the story yours.”

The malleability of the bare-bones mythic or fairy-tale narrative lures writers, inviting so many opportunities for stretching. Such stories excite me, I think, less for what they are in themselves than for what I might change. If I like “The Tsaritsa Harpist,” the story of a queen whose husband has been captured in a foreign land and who disguises herself as a male musician and sets out to liberate him, but I don’t like the idea that only as a man could she travel and perform music, how can I change that? Disguise is essential to the story; what disguise might I employ other than gender? What if, in a certain steampunk world, all music were played by clockwork androids? What if a young woman who has learned the art of music in secret must pretend to be a clockwork minstrel to set free the fiance she has never met? From this came Sarabande for a Condemned Man, one of my favorites among my plays for the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company, a story that I intend, at a point down the road, to shape into a novel.

From Susan Griffith: “Whatever bothers you, that’s an itch you should start scratching.” Similarly, E.J. Johnston tells us we should “find those moments that make us angry.”

One of they key motivating factors in my writing has always been dissatisfaction, the sense that no matter how many wonderful stories I take in and how many intriguing characters I get to know, there is still something I’m not seeing, or at least not seeing often enough. My favorite example to cite is still the lack of female rats in Pixar’s Ratatouille, which pushed me to create the were- rat heroine of Atterwald, my first published novel. (I suppose I owe Brad Bird a thank-you.) Yet this is just one instance of a narrative in which I’ve found male characters occupy the most unique and most compelling places in the narrative. Whenever I’m reading, watching, or listening to a story in which a male character strikes a (non-sexual) cord of fascination in me, I consider what might be different, and what the same, if the character were female; my end goal is to shape this thought into a female character who has the same uniqueness, the same freedom of individuality, that made me admire the male one. Meliroc, the eight-foot-tall heroine of my second novel Nightmare Lullaby, is an outgrowth of my enthusiasm for misunderstood “gentle giant” characters, who are nearly always male.

From Mari Mancusi: “Create an ‘Id list.'” Consider what myths and tales we love, and how and why they manage to hit that undefinable mark in us that so many other narratives miss.

This piece of advice is perhaps the most challenging, yet also the most fun. My own Id list would be made up more of characters and character types than specific stories, but the question behind the list would remain the same: why do these things resonate with me, and how can I use that resonance to create something new? My list is where the monsters live, not evil but feared for their power and their difference, longing to reach across the gulf to find connection and community. There are dragons here, and giants, and shapeshifters, and gryphons, and goblins. They have tales to tell, and I’m only just getting started.

I left the panel wishing it could have been a little longer, as is always the case with the best DragonCon panels. But the seeds are still with me, and I look forward to seeing just what they’ll grow into.

Things I Loved about… DragonCon 2017

Another DragonCon has come and gone, leaving me (as always) eager to see what the next Con will bring and sad that I have to wait so long to find out. Might my favorite big-name author, Brandon Sanderson, return again next year? His absence was the only disappointment, guest- and programming-wise, of this year’s Con. Everything else was wonderful. Some of my favorite things:

Friday’s Q & A with Megan Follows. Readers of my blog know well my enthusiasm for Anne of Green Gables, both Lucy Maud Montgomery’s novel and the miniseries directed by Kevin Sullivan and broadcast on PBS in the 1980s, which made Follows a star here and a superstar in her native Canada. Anne came along when I needed her, at a time when not a single teenage girl character on television represented who I felt I was or whom I wanted to become. Anne showed me that girls my age could be brave, brilliant, unconventional, resourceful, creative — all the traits I admire most. As it turns out, she had a similar effect on a lot of people, enough to form a line around the block in the hot Atlanta sun to hear Follows speak. Even before the panel began, one of DragonCon’s organizers, a gay man, spoke of what Anne meant to him: through her, he said, he learned to embrace being different. (See? Female characters can and do serve as role models for boys.)

Follows, it turns out, is every bit as smart and classy as I wanted her to be, and fully aware of the impact her performance has had. (She offered an example of a letter she’d received from a prison inmate, who thanks to an abusive father had gained a misogynistic outlook at a very young age; watching Anne, he informed her, gave him a far better and healthier view of women.) “What I loved about Anne were the rough edges around her,” she told us. Drawing a line between the sympathetic Anne and the morally dubious Catherine de Medici, whom she plays on the CW’s Reign, as female characters who refuse to be contained by society’s boxes, she declared, “I love strong women. I love them when they’re a mess.” And my heart was full.

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Performing with the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company for their Friday night show. Taking the stage with my friends in ARTC is always a DragonCon highlight for me. This year I got to play a perky robot detective transformed ever so briefly into… something more… in Ron N. Butler’s “Rory Rammer, Space Marshal: The Last Boojum.” And I got laughs! Not many things are more satisfying than making an audience laugh.

Participating in the “Y/A and Away!” panel for the Writer’s Track. Thanks to Nancy Knight, the generous coordinator of the DragonCon Writer’s Track and editor/publisher for Gilded Dragonfly Books, I not only got to talk about my own favorite YA novels and my writing process, but also got to interact with authors Claudia Gray (Lost Stars, Defy the Stars), Diana Peterfreund (the Killer Unicorns series, For the Darkness Shows the Stars), E.K. Johnson (A Thousand Nights, Ahsoka), A. J. Hartley (Steeplejack and its upcoming sequel Firebrand), Rebecca Moesta (the Star Wars: Junior Jedi Knights series), and Kim Harrison (the Madison Avery YA series, the urban fantasy series The Hollows).

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DragonCon Night at the Georgia Aquarium. This special event has been a staple of the Con for several years, and this year Matt and I thought we’d give it a try. So we gathered with a crowd of like-minded fans, most in their cosplay best, to enjoy, among other things, a special costume contest and a Harry Potter-themed sea lion show (at which we, alas, were not permitted to take pictures — though the rest of the aquarium was fair game for photography).

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Monday’s “Women in Comics” panel. I always love it when at least one highlight of the Con falls on its closing day, and this year that bright moment was a discussion led by Jamie Jones, Megan Hutchison, Babs Tarr, and the goddess Kelly Sue DeConnick, all creative forces in the comics industry. Whatever we who attended that panel were expecting, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t what we got. It was announced that as a “tribute” to all the discussions of “Women in Comics” with all-male panels, this all-female panel would lead an examination of “Men in Comics” — and at once, and for as long as the panel lasted, we were transported into a parody world in which women dominated the comics industry, male characters were hyper-sexualized (they had slides), male writers and artists weren’t taken seriously, and male fans were often called “fake geek guys.” This could have gone badly, but the whole audience got in on the joke. (When DeConnick asked a man in the audience, “Did your girlfriend get you into comics?” he struck an aw-shucks pose and responded, “How’d you know?”) What made the parody work were the panelists’ experiences of how talk about women’s roles in comics (as characters, as creators, and as fans) too often goes. While we were laughing, we were learning.

So my husband and I made our way home in satisfied spirits, already contemplating next year. Such is DragonCon’s effect.

(Up next: Wisdom from DragonCon 2017.)