The Many Small Deaths of the SJB

A List Post

“I die a little inside.” I’ve been saying that a lot lately, every time I see, hear, and see something that compromises my hopes for the future of the world around me. It is a kind of death, I think, when something chips away at hope and casts shadows over our vision of the road ahead. This year has already brought with it a heavy share of tragedy, and we have grieved together; we cry out that something needs to change, but we can’t agree on what. Yet more often than not, it’s the small things, the little symptoms of great diseases, that get to me the most.

It’s time I compiled a list of those things that move me to say or write, “I die a little inside…”

  1. When one of my students in my English classes tells me he/she hates reading.
  2. When Internet users go on record to say that animated movies are “kids’ movies” and therefore not worth seeing, and, in a similar vein, they claim science fiction and fantasy are “juvenile literature” and therefore not worth reading.
  3. When I read quotes from politicians whose idea of “debate” is name-calling and personal insult, and I’m reminded of the depths to which political debate in this country has sunk (even if the story does have a happy ending).
  4. When I remember all the close-ups of Vladimir Putin’s ice-cold, soul-dead face throughout the TV coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, and I realize we’re no closer to seeing the last of him now than we were then.
  5. When new book or movie releases offer evidence of how many writers are unwilling to let go of the old-fashioned “Damsel in Distress” ,“Stuffed into the Fridge”, and “Disposable Woman” tropes.
  6. When books and movies that rely on these old-fashioned tropes get nearly unanimous raves from critics and consumers.
  7. When writers and fans defend the excessive and ubiquitous use of rape in epic fantasy as “realism.”
  8. When female-led movies get creamed by critics (less than 50% on Rotten Tomatoes) so that I’m no longer interested in seeing them in the theater, and I have to wait months for another woman-centered movie to be released.
  9. When I find myself wondering if poor female representation ceases to matter when the male protagonist is black, trans, or gay.
  10. When critics call out books and/or movies for poor female representation, and then get attacked for doing so, their complaints dismissed as “SJW” rantings.
  11. When guy nerd characters, particularly in movies and TV shows, act surprised, nay, shocked, any time a girl expresses an interest in SFF or comics.
  12. When writers seem to think that wish-fulfillment fantasies for boys involve saving the world or otherwise defeating evil, while wish-fulfillment fantasies for girls involved being rescued and adored by a supernatural hunk.
  13. When yet another of my favorite used bookstores closes its doors for good.
  14. When I’m reminded that Harvey Weinstein exists.
  15. When I learn that, apparently, some folks are still keen to excuse him, and/or claim his actions weren’t really so bad.
  16. When I catch myself reflecting on the fact that Sir Terry Pratchett is dead and there will never be any more new adventures for Sam Vimes or Granny Weatherwax.
  17. When I catch myself thinking that the sublimely plus-sized Lady Sybil Ramkin, heroine of Pratchett’s Guards! Guards!, would almost certainly played by a svelte, petite actress in the upcoming TV series if it were made by an American company rather than (thankfully) the BBC.
  18. When I think of how few people seem to know who Patricia McKillip, Juliet Marillier, and Barbara Hambly are.
  19. In a similar vein, when lists of “25 Greatest Fantasy and/or Science Fiction Novels and/or Series” pop up online, and only one of the titles (if that) is written by a woman or focuses on a female lead.
  20. When I reflect that our culture, popular and otherwise, is having “growing pains,” but where and how are we growing, and can we handle the pain?

A more hopeful list will come soon.

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Book Report: Recent Reads

Warning: Spoilers

Some while ago, a writer I follow on Twitter posted that she bridles every time female authors are criticized for writing male protagonists, with the usual accompanying accusations of “internalized misogyny.” On principle I wholly agree with her, since no author of any gender should feel pressure to restrict themselves to certain types of lead characters, as if there were only one kind of story they had a right to tell. Yet I admit I’ve found myself irked more than once by certain highly talented female authors’ (say, Carol Berg’s or Sarah Monette’s) clear preference for male leads — not because I believe they suffer from internalized misogyny, but because I love to read good epic/historical fantasy with female leads, and if women don’t write such books, who will?

The answer, at least in part: authors like Curtis Craddock and Django Wexler.

An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors

Alchemy cover

She may have been born into the richest and most powerful of the “saint-blooded” families in her land, but Fate has dealt Isabelle des Zephyrs a particularly cruel hand. For one thing, she’s a woman with an active and expansive mind, searching for ways to exercise her faculties in a society in which women are denied access to higher education and are barely even allowed to think without being censured. For another, she lacks the magical power that would mark her as a member of her family, so her parents and brother regard her as useless and deny her any semblance of affection. Finally, she has a deformed hand, which ostensibly renders her unmarriageable. A recipe for misery all around.

Yet this princess refuses to feel sorry for herself. She doesn’t waste time pining for what she lacks and instead values what she has: her best friend and confidante, Marie; her mentor and father figure, the musketeer Jean-Claude, the novel’s co-protagonist; and the joy of learning, even despite the obstacles. If you’re among the readers who are tired of the equation of “strong female character” with “female character who can punch, shoot, stab, or otherwise fight,” Isabelle is the female hero for you. She consistently leads with her brain and thinks her way out of dangerous situations. When she’s sold into an arranged marriage that might be the death of her, she uses her wits and insight to navigate unfamiliar territory and, in the end, to broker a peace between feuding princes. She saves the day with mind and heart rather than with fists and sword.

Also pleasing is debut author Curtis Craddock’s avoidance of a trope that too often emerges when writers create a brilliant female hero — “Not Like Other Girls.” Isabelle is super-smart and she knows it, but she never puts herself above other women and is open to their friendship. One of her top priorities throughout most of the story is to find a cure for her friend, Marie, whom evil magic has robbed of her free will. She appreciates her ladies-in-waiting rather than mocking or avoiding them. She views her new sister-in-law as a potential friend, even though that sister-in-law has been conditioned to see her as a rival and treats her coldly. Isabelle may be extraordinary (and Craddock happily follows the “show, don’t tell” principle), but she’s never propped up at other female characters’ expense. Bechdel Test: Pass.

Isabelle may have drawn me to this book, but she’s not its only selling point. Her mentor Jean-Claude, the only person through much of the book who has her best interests at heart and whom she can truly trust, is another gem of a character, a close cousin of The Curse of Chalion‘s Lupe dy Cazaril, weary and a little dissipated but brave and fiercely loyal. Though we do see some slight glimmerings of romance for both Isabelle and Jean-Claude, each remains the most important person in the other’s life. It’s refreshing, as always, to see a story place its primary emphasis on a form of love other than romance.

I’ll let Isabelle speak for herself: “The most important things we have are dreams. . . Without them we cannot conjure new truths or better worlds. Where we get into trouble is when we tell ourselves dreams don’t matter, or we let other people tell us our dreams are silly or stupid.” (355)

The Infernal Battalion

Battalion cover

Django Wexler’s Shadow Campaigns series, which I have been praising to anyone who would listen for several years now, has reached its end. Every series most have an ending, and it was high time for the evil, soul-devouring Beast to be stopped for good, but I will miss adventuring with General Winter Ihernglass, Colonel Marcus d’Ivoire, and Queen Raesinia Orboan. At least I can take satisfaction in knowing they have made their world at least a little better and fairer than they found it.

I’ve posted previously about this series, highlighting Winter’s awesomeness as a soldier and commander (this female hero does fight), Raesinia’s efforts to reign wisely and well, and the “old-fashioned” Marcus’s growth in understanding and willingness to learn. All those facets of character feature significantly in this last volume, so I will endeavor not to repeat myself too much. But at the end of it all, the book puts the final proof on the series’ overall ethical thesis: when you must confront evil, use what you have. Each of our heroes faces a moment of crisis, a low point at which giving up becomes a great temptation because he/she feels tapped out, with nothing more to give. But each finds a way to keep fighting, to get the job done.

Even when capable female characters are featured, countless narratives follow a similar pattern: “women facilitate, and men achieve.” In the Harry Potter series, for instance, Hermione Granger saves Harry’s life on a semi-regular basis, but it’s Harry who must save the world from Lord Voldemort; likewise, in the Terminator films, Sarah Connor’s job is not to save humankind from sentient, lethal machines, but to raise her son so that he can be the savior. Happily, both Wexler and Craddock turn this pattern on its head. In The Infernal Battalion Marcus knows what he has to do: keep fighting as long as he can so that Winter can strike the final blow against the Beast. In Winter we see the proper exercise of supernatural power, while in Marcus we see the determined resilience of the (comparatively) ordinary man. In An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors, Jean-Claude protects Isabelle, but Isabelle saves a nation from civil war. Men are the capable and hard-working facilitators, and women the world-shaping achievers.

Before leaving The Infernal Battalion behind, I should also mention that Raesinia, too, gets her moment to shine, made all the more impressive by her fear of being, and her determination not to be, useless. She uses what she has and emerges as a Queen we can admire, something we could stand to see a bit more often in the fantasy genre. I’ll further say, without going into too much detail, for all three of Wexler’s heroes, love conquers all. The series has yet another thing we should see more often — romance plots that work.

I can’t wait to see what Craddock and Wexler give us next.

 

 

 

 

Okay, Hollywood, Now What?

Whatever quarrels we might have with the winners and losers, most of us would agree that the 2018 Oscars as a whole serve as a hopeful sign of the growing diversity in the entertainment industry. Jordan Peele won Best Original Screenplay for Get Out, the first time an African-American has ever been honored in that category. Best Director went to immigrant Guillermo del Toro for The Shape of Water. Coco, a celebration of Mexican culture and the strength of the family, took Best Animated Feature (albeit without much serious competition). And while some have complained that The Shape of Water is a “safe” choice for Best Picture, in comparison with the more challenging Get Out, it still represents one of the few times that a movie with a female protagonist has taken the top prize. All in all, not a terrible night for movies that aren’t about, or created by, white guys.

Maybe Hollywood is at last broadening its views of what kinds of stories have value.

It’s been a lesson that has badly needed learning. In the wake of the Oscars, a chart floated around my Twitter feed, showing the results of a study of what percentage of dialogue went to men and to women in the Best Picture winners over the last four decades. In winner after winner, men were shown to do a vast majority of the speaking. The movies that came closest to striking a balance were American Beauty (not a feminist film by any stretch of the imagination) and The Silence of the Lambs. Clicking on the comments, I saw, to my lack of surprise, that many people didn’t see the point of the study. They took it as a suggestion that the winners didn’t deserve their awards or would have been better movies if the female characters had talked more. “Should The King’s Speech have been The Queen’s Speech?” That was the general gist. I happen to love The King’s Speech and was thrilled when it won Best Picture. I wouldn’t have changed a word of dialogue in that movie or in most of the other winners. But that is not the point.

The real point might best be seen in the Oscar race for the best film of 1995. Going into the ceremony there were two clear front-runners: Mel Gibson’s Braveheart and Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility. The latter had already picked up a Golden Globe for Best Picture — Drama, and most of the critics were behind it. But Braveheart was a story about a manly male hero and his manly heroic deeds, a splashy, sprawling epic. (I admit I once found it stirring, though my Mel Gibson cooties has made it impossible for me to watch it now, or for me to tolerate him in anything other than Chicken Run and Gallipoli.) Sense and Sensibility, an adaptation of Jane Austen’s first published novel, told a more intimate and woman-centered story. The Academy gave the top honor to Braveheart. But honestly, is it a better film than Sense and Sensibility, which boasts note-perfect performances across the board, a solid storyline, and a screenplay both witty and heartfelt (which did win Emma Thompson an Oscar)? Braveheart has a more epic scale and a better score. That’s all.

Braveheart‘s win illuminates the true point the study is making: that historically we have tended to honor and value stories about men far above stories about women, even when the latter are every bit as good or even superior. Men’s stories are seen as more important, and of course more universal. And more movies are made about men, which naturally increases their chances of being honored.

That’s why The Shape of Water‘s win does my heart good, safe choice though it might be. Dare I hope it may be a sign of good things to come — woman-centered movies given the creative energy, attention, and care so often lavished on the man-centered historical dramas, movies so good the Academy can’t afford to ignore them? (I do remember that the Emily Dickinson biopic A Quiet Passion, lauded by critics, might never have been made for all the notice the Academy paid to it.)

It starts, perhaps, with quantity. According to IMDb, thirty-three more movies are slated for release this March, and thirteen of those have female leads (including I Kill Giants, which I hope against hope does better with critics than A Wrinkle in Time has). IMDb lists twelve releases for the month of May, which ushers in the summer movie season. Seven of them have female leads. So far, so hopeful — until we reach June. Seventeen films are listed, but only one of them, Ocean’s 8, is clearly centered on female protagonists; marketing for The Incredibles 2 continues to sell it as a retelling of Mr. Mom with superpowers, and in Mr. Mom, who thinks about Teri Garr?

So what now, Hollywood? Keep the forward momentum going, or continue with business as usual?

I have a very specific wish list. If I see these, I will be convinced at last we are living in a time of progress.

  1. Another major, high-quality American animated release with a female protagonist, and at least one per year afterward. Moana was over a year ago. It’s time.
  2. Biopics focusing on Zora Neale Hurston, Lorraine Hansberry, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, Gertrude Stein, and Zitkala-Sa. Creative geniuses aren’t always white dudes, and it would be nice if the movies in general made that clearer.
  3. A movie adaptation of Linda Medley’s splendid graphic novel Castle Waiting.
  4. A new movie written and directed by Jordan Peele, with a woman of color in the lead. Bonus if she’s played by my newest girl-crush, Letitia Wright.

If Hollywood really cares about me as a target audience, we’ll see all of this within the next decade.

About Movie Posters

Confession time: I find Madeleine L’Engle’s inspirational nonfiction more engaging than her fiction. When I first tried to read A Wrinkle in Time, I bounced off what struck me as a rather dry, stiff writing style, and as with the also beloved The Golden Compass, I never managed to finish it. Nonetheless, I appreciate its importance within the canon of YA science fiction and its role in paving the way for smarter, more active female leads in the genre, and I totally get it when SFF writers and fans in succeeding generations point to Wrinkle‘s protagonist, Meg Murry, as an inspiration.

The movie version about to appear on the scene, however, looks inviting even for me. When reading a book you may like or dislike certain prose styles, but in a movie adaptation all you have is the story itself, and this story just might hit me where I live. (I may return to the book for another try.) In particular the young actress playing Meg, Storm Reid, makes the character seem like someone my inner twelve-year-old might follow anywhere. Movie posters like this one don’t hurt, either.

A Wrinkle in Time poster

(Courtesy of http://www.shockya.com)

The poster clearly situates Meg as the point of view character, and the geometric shapes hint at her predilection towards STEM. The coloring gives the whole an aura of wonder. The images alone excite my curiosity. Yet not everyone is quite so enamored of it. One woman whose comment came up in my Twitter feed praises the poster on the one hand, but then adds the question, “Don’t they want little boys to see this too?”

To which I respond with the question, “Do we really have to do this again?” Because when I look at the poster I can’t see anything that might drive little boys away, except that it makes it clear that a girl is the central character. It’s that same very old and very bitter story I’ve railed against in the past: boys won’t see or read stories about girls. Boys can’t identify with girl protagonists or see female characters as role models. Never mind those little boys who enjoyed the heck out of Wonder Woman or who come away from Black Panther loving Shuri or Okoye even more than the title character.

It’s just one woman’s comment, and I could easily ignore it but for the fact that it’s all of a piece with the litany of protests that have rung out over the internet ever since the Star Wars franchise followed up The Force Awakens with Rogue One (two female leads in a row! Horrors!) and went through the roof when it was announced that Jodie Whittaker would play the Thirteenth Doctor. Now that we’re seeing more female characters in important roles in movie genres other than romantic comedy and domestic drama, the rallying cry of the push-back is, “Will no one think of the men?” Or in this case, the boys?

What the pushers-back can’t see, apparently, is that plenty of people are thinking of the boys, particularly in the genre to which A Wrinkle in Time belongs, the family film. Since the 1980s — quick, name a memorable live-action family film from the ’80s that featured a girl as the central character, other than Jim Henson’s Labyrinth — family films have been overwhelmingly male–dominated. In the area of live action, while teen protagonists might occasionally be female (e.g. Clueless, the Freaky Friday remake, and of course the Hunger Games series), child protagonists are nearly always male, and the characteristics these boys exhibit, exploration and innovation and risk-taking, are coded as male, while female characters are called upon to represent stability (yawn). In animation, male leads get to be thieves and vagabonds and lion kings and lords of the jungle, not to mention toys, ants, cars, and rats; female leads, by contrast, are usually princesses and rarely anything other than human (which is a big part of why I took Zootopia to my heart). If parents of sons are looking for movies and TV shows that feature boys being awesome, they have plenty of options to choose from. I’ve said it before but it bears repeating: every major American animated release in 2017 featured a male protagonist, and this year it’s more of the same. Boys aren’t hurting for male heroes. They just aren’t.

But on the matter of movie posters, let’s take a look at these:

Boss Baby poster

(Courtesy of Roger Ebert)

Despicable Me 3 poster

(Courtesy of IMDb)

Coco poster

(Courtesy of IMDb)

Peter Rabbit poster

(Courtesy of IMDb)

Hotel Transylvania 3 poster

(Courtesy of IMDb)

Has anyone looked at these posters and thought, “Don’t they want little girls to see this, too?”

I daresay not. As we all know, boys are the default. Girls are fine with seeing movies that center on boys, and they won’t even mind when the depiction of female characters gives off a whiff of misogyny, as we see in Mars Needs Moms, Mr. Peabody and Sherman, and Minions (although the first two on this list didn’t exactly set the box office on fire). Girls can happily identify with boys and look to male characters as role models, yet hoping that boys might do the same with girls and female characters is asking far too much. We all know that, right?

So when a movie like A Wrinkle in Time promises to give girls a character of their own gender worth admiring and identifying with — not a princess of an age to fall in love and marry but a real girl-child, and a socially awkward nerd at that — I can’t spend too much worry on the boys who might be driven away by “girl cooties.” It might just be that movies like this one, along with Black Panther, could help any number of little boys see that girl characters can be just as fun, and worth identifying with, as the boys, and in the long run, if the movies are good enough, the “boys’ stories are universal, girls’ stories are particular” notion might at last begin to die the death it deserves.