The Most Frustrating Time of the Year

After Monday, January 13, a friend of mine posted a Tweet that the most wonderful time of the year had arrived — the time to complain about the Academy Award nominations for 2019’s crop of films. The complaints have hit so hard and fast that much of what I have to say on the subject may seem redundant.

But I can’t help myself. This year I really thought things would change, as I noted the release of a number of strong, well-reviewed movies with female characters at their center — The Farewell (98% on Rotten Tomatoes), Booksmart (97%), Little Women (95%), Knives Out (97%), and some I’ve yet to see, Us (93%), The Souvenir (90%), and Portrait of a Lady on Fire (97%). I couldn’t stop myself from hoping that scores like this would make these movies impossible for Oscar to ignore; surely, even given their long history of honoring man-centered movies, the voters might find just a little love in their hearts for high-quality stories about women.

They didn’t.

Of all the movies nominated for Best Picture, only Little Women focuses on female characters. The rest are about men. Some, like 1917, are simply about men — that is, male-character focused, but made without a specific demographic appeal in mind (e.g. The Shawshank Redemption, Schindler’s List, and 90% of all war movies, good and bad). Others, like Joker, The Irishman, and Once upon a Time in Hollywood, are not only about men but for men, designed specifically with a male audience in mind. Movies that are about men may exclude women from major roles due to the practicalities of their settings. In movies about men, for men, the exclusion, marginalization, or shallow/stereotypical characterization of women is part of the point. Obviously I’m not going to favor the latter type of movie with my time or money, so this may be a year in which the Best Picture Oscar goes to a movie I have no intention of seeing, ever. Since Little Women‘s chances are slim, Greta Gerwig having been denied a Best Director nomination, I now feel obliged to root for either 1917 or Parasite, both of which I will eventually see.

The all-male slate of Best Director nominees has already been discussed quite a bit, so I’ll keep it brief on that point, and only mention that when protests of the exclusion of women like Gerwig and The Farewell‘s Lulu Wang appeared on Twitter, they were shouted down by Tweets (mostly but not all from men) claiming that the nominees were chosen because they were the best, and quality matters more than diversity, and those of us who thought Gerwig or Wang deserving of Oscar’s attention are just loony leftists who need to “get over it.” I couldn’t help remembering a discussion that had gone on on Reddit Fantasy just a day or two earlier, concerning why so many women have been winning Hugo Awards of late. Quite a few posters suggested the choices were politically motivated, a reaction against the notorious “Sad Puppies” campaign a few years back. So if I understand this correctly–

Only men are nominated for, and have a chance to win, Best Director Oscars for 2019: It’s because they’re the best!

Mostly women have been nominated for, and won, recent Hugo Awards: It’s political.

Maybe that latter view isn’t altogether wrong. Perhaps all tastes, all preferences, have a touch of politics about them. My own preference for a story of a Chinese-American woman confronting cultural differences within her own family as well as the impending loss of a loved one over a fresh serving of Charles-Mansonia may be motivated on a certain level by politics. But if that’s the case, might the nominations for Best Director, as well as the omissions, be political as well?

Take, for instance, one of the most puzzling snubs: the absence of Knives Out from the Best Picture and Best Director categories. Rian Johnson is a man, after all; why isn’t he up there with Martin Scorcese and Quentin Tarantino? The popularity of Knives Out with audiences as well as critics — an original story, not a sequel, remake, or part of a franchise — has surprised and delighted many. Its success shows people do indeed want to see such films, as long as they’re well-made and entertaining. Besides, I have yet to hear a negative word about this movie from anyone whose opinion I have reason to trust. I thought it was a shoo-in. But no.

Instead, Academy voters chose to nominate the highly polarizing Joker and its even more polarizing director, Todd Phillips, who has made a whole career out of making movies about men, for men, and who not long ago claimed that he made a drama largely because he felt his bro-tastic comedies (e.g. Old School, the Hangover series) were no longer welcome in our current “woke” culture. Phillips’ name alone would suffice to keep me away from Joker, since all his movies have one notable thing in common: the view that women exist to make men miserable, either by cheating on them or nagging them or threatening to break up their Bro Gangs or simply expecting love and commitment. In the Phillips-verse, the only tolerable women are prostitutes, since they’ll give men the only thing men truly desire from women — sex — and will expect neither respect nor affection in return. As a review of Old School put it, “women are, if not the enemy, at least the mystery meat.” Based on what I’ve been able to ascertain from both reviews and word of mouth, Joker doesn’t depart from this: the driven-mad protagonist’s evil mother is the root of all his woes.

Why, then, did the voters choose Joker when Knives Out was right there? I have a theory I pray isn’t true. Knives Out exposes the poisonous hypocrisy of a super-rich family as the protagonist, a young working-class woman of color, is forced to deal with them in very dire circumstances. The voters themselves are super-rich, and it may be they saw themselves not in the put-upon, kind-hearted Marta but in the horrible Thromby family. Joker, on the other hand, especially considering Phillips’ “woke culture” complaints, could be seen as a finger in the eye of the #MeToo Movement that has shaken Hollywood to its core. It wouldn’t surprise me a bit if at least some voters’ support of it weren’t a teensy bit political.

Whatever the case, I won’t feel the same surge of hope this year if high-quality woman-centered movies appear. It seems clear that the Oscar voters won’t be opening their hearts to films that tell women’s stories anytime soon, no matter how good those films happen to be.

Here’s a relevant video:

 

My Year in Review, Part 2

Books.

Aside from writing — because for me, the two can’t be separated — reading is my favorite activity. As long as there’s one good story I have yet to discover, I’ll always have something to look forward to.

But I don’t read very fast. Not only are the Internet and current affairs a distraction, but the reading I have to do, to prepare for classes, often supersedes the reading I want to do. Those who have managed to read a hundred or more books this year must forgive: I’ve only finished twenty-six, not counting a couple I didn’t manage to get through. But despite the lack of quantity, I call this a good reading year. Here are some of the reasons why:

I’ve discovered new favorites. This year, Samantha Shannon’s The Priory of the Orange Tree takes my top prize, with Kate Forsyth’s Beauty in Thorns a near photo-finish second. Other standouts include Tasha Suri’s Empire of Sand, Jen Williams’ The Ninth Rain, Curtis Craddock’s A Labyrinth of Scions and Sorcery (why the heck are fantasy fans sleeping on this Risen Kingdoms series?), Robert Jackson Bennett’s City of Blades, and Kate Elliott’s King’s Dragon.

I’ve been exploring some older fantasy works by women. It turns out that the ’80s, ’90s, and ’00s produced quite a few epic fantasy series that have been unjustly neglected or forgotten, much of it written by and starring women. This past year I’ve set out on a mission to find them and give them a read. I started out with King’s Dragon, the first book in Elliott’s Crown of Stars series, since I already knew and admired Elliott’s later work. Afterward I gave Rowena Cory Daniells’ Beseiged and Jude Fisher’s Sorcery Rising a try, and finished up this year with Katya Reimann’s A Tremor in the Bitter Earth. I found all to be compelling, and I look forward to finishing their series. Just now I’m in the midst of Diana L. Paxson’s The White Raven, a stand-alone retelling of the Tristan/Isolde legend from the point of view of Isolde’s lady-in-waiting, and in the coming year I plan to make the acquaintance of Paula Volsky via her French Revolution tale Illusion, as well as dive into Katherine Kerr’s Daggerspell.

In one respect, the older books I read this year show their age; with the exception of King’s Dragon (which may be why it’s my favorite), they all lean heavily into the theme of misogyny, in both world-building and characterization. Beseiged introduces us to three races — human, half-human, nonhuman — each with their own religions and cultures, yet they all have one thing in common: men hate and fear women. Sorcery Rising seeks to contrast two societies, one where women are kept under strict confinement and another where they have considerably more freedom of movement, but even in the latter society, the heroine is nagged by her father and brothers to give up her dreams of exploring, get married, and start having babies. In A Tremor in the Bitter Earth, the protagonist, in order to rescue the man she loves, must travel from her home, where she has the freedom to be herself, to a country where women have no value at all, must like those “Planet of the Taliban” episodes that get on my last nerve in science fiction TV shows. I still found the books well worth reading and the series worth pursuing, but continued heavy emphasis on the misogyny theme is wearying for me, and I feel a deep sense of relief to see, in works like The Priory of the Orange Tree and Sam Hawke’s City of Lies and Melissa Caruso’s The Unbound Empire, that the epic fantasy genre may at last be starting to move away from it.

I got acquainted with some fun and fascinating people. I don’t think you’re ever too old to learn from fictional characters. This year I learned from Turyin Mulaghesh (City of Blades) that sometimes the best way to defeat evil is to tap into the darkness within oneself. I learned from Vintage de Grazon (The Ninth Rain) that it’s never too late to travel, explore, and discover. I learned from Nona Grey (Grey Sister) that kindness that can be a strong offense as well as a solid defense. I learned from Ead Duryan (The Priory of the Orange Tree) that compassion and the willingness to help should never be kept confined within a single insular group. And I learned from Mehr (Empire of Sand) that nothing is more powerful than a woman who knows the steps to the Dance of Life. Even if the lessons aren’t new — even if they’re driving home what life has already taught me — I love discovering what characters like this have to teach me, and I look forward to what I’ll learn in the new year.

I look ahead to 2020Among the books I got for Christmas are A Memory Called Empire (Arkady Martine), Gods of Jade and Shadow (Silvia Moreno-Garcia), The Ten Thousand Doors of January (Alix E. Harrow), Realm of Ash (Tasha Suri), Ships of Smoke and Steel (Django Wexler), Starsight (Brandon Sanderson), The Red-Stained Wings (Elizabeth Bear), Children of Virtue and Vengeance (Tomi Adeyemi), and The Deepest Blue (Sarah Beth Durst). These and more will keep me happy, engaged, and ready to create.

Happy New Year!