Escapism

Each quarter I ask my Freshman Composition students to tell me what they see as the value of reading. While several of them tell me honestly that they’re “not much of a reader” and they can’t recall the last book they enjoyed, I always get some good answers — expansion of knowledge and awareness of the world, expansion of vocabulary, etc. And there’s always at least one who says something like this: “I know it’s lame, but we read to escape.”

I know it’s lame…

Students always seem so darned apologetic when they give this response. They’ve been told often enough, though perhaps not in so many words, that escape is the least productive, least valuable reason for reading. The word escapism is rarely spoken without a judgmental wrinkle of the nose. When critics and other arbiters of quality want to call a story shallow and/or meaningless, they often dub it “escapist trash,” or, if they’re feeling a bit generous, “escapist fun.” Of course the fantasy genre, the genre I love to read and write, is not infrequently dismissed entirely as “escapism.”

I want to reclaim that word, wipe it clean of its negative taint. I’m quick to tell those apologetic students they should never be ashamed of reading to escape, and I let them know I’m an avid fantasy reader. Escapism has value the critics may not be able to wrap their minds around. Indeed, I think this sad, confusing world we live in would be better off if more people, at least once in a while, embraced escapism.

Escapism might be loosely defined as “to get out of one’s own head, or to get away from one’s own problems.” Those who decry it have the idea that “get away from” is synonymous with “avoid” or “hide from,” but is this necessarily the case? I think of it as akin to what dean of science fiction Isaac Asimov calls “the Eureka Phenomenon.” In his essay of the same name, he explains that when he’s beset by writer’s block, he puts his notebook down and goes out to the movies. As he gains some distance from his story, more often than not, a good idea will come to him. In getting away from his problem, he finds a solution for it. Why shouldn’t an ordinary person’s escape from the stresses of daily life into a well-written piece of fiction have a similar effect?

Readers choose many different kinds of stories to escape into, and while those stories may not necessarily inspire us with the exact solutions to our problems, they offer something almost as good — perspective. Some of us choose light, breezy, humorous reads, like Janet Evanovich’s “Stephanie Plum” series, which makes my husband laugh (and laugh) when he reads them.  (He also laughs at Deadpool comics, but I digress.) As we laugh with these stories, we may find the wisdom to laugh at ourselves and our frustrations. Others of us choose darker, grimmer worlds, such as the Westeros created by George R.R. Martin, and in traversing those worlds we may find our own situations far less bleak than they might be. While we’re escaping, we’re also learning from how the characters solve, or fail to solve, the difficulties they face, and we’re also consuming a vital antidote to self-absorption or “poor me”-ism. The latter is something we could surely all use from time to time.

Another worthwhile aspect of escapism is the chance to step into the consciousness of others, both the author of the book and the characters s/he creates. Some years back I asked a student who claimed she hated to read, “Haven’t you ever wanted to become someone else for a little while?” She answered flatly, “No.” This may have been a sign of how comfortable she was in her own skin, but I can’t help finding it one of the saddest things I’ve ever heard a student say. When we become someone else, we may grow in understanding, of others and ourselves.

When I was first in college, I noticed something about myself. None of the pictures I painted of the life I wanted included me bearing children. I simply couldn’t see myself as a mom, and I came to realize that maternal instinct, often presumed as “natural” in women, was missing in me. When I told my parents about it, they did not, then or afterwards, try to talk me into having children. The alienating pressure came from outside, from a world that told me time and again that something was wrong with me. “Oh, you’ll change your mind” — unless, of course, you’re evil.

While I was coming to terms with this, I saw Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun for the first time, and entered the world of southside Chicago in the 1950s and the lives of an African-American family therein. I found myself imprinting on Beneatha, the daughter of the house, who aspired to be a doctor and had to deal with a mother and sister-in-law who burst out laughing when she told them, “I’m not interested in who I want to marry yet — if I ever get married.” From Beneatha’s words, and her sticking to her ambitions despite ridicule and outright disapproval, I could take a particle of strength for myself, a tiny gift from Hansberry. That particle helped me resist the pressure to take a path I knew in my heart wasn’t right for me. I stepped onto common ground with a character who, on the surface, could not be more different from me. Our similarities meant more to me than our differences. Discovering such similarities, such common ground, can strengthen and expand our capacity for empathy.

These days, empathy seems in woefully short supply. We see signs of its lack everywhere, particularly in what I’ve come to call “selective outrage” — that is, “It’s only a tragedy/problem when it happens to People Like Me.” We see it when a corporate lawyer claims that the victims of the recent mass shooting in Las Vegas don’t deserve sympathy because they were at a country music festival, and country music fans are supposedly all “gun-toting Republicans.” (Sure, just like all fans of classical music are supervillains.) We see it when our current president responds with indifference to the plight of the victims of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. We see it when people’s reaction to terrorist attacks depends on the race, religion, and/or ethnicity of the terrorists and victims. We see it when comments on the Internet reveal less outrage at Hollywood ex-producer Harvey Weinstein’s appalling treatment of women than at his victims’ “cowardice” at not coming forward sooner, failing utterly to take into account the hell that too often awaits women when they do come forward. “They’re not like me, so what happens to them doesn’t matter.” Those who still wonder how the Holocaust could have happened have only to look around.

One thing that can help bridge the gulfs between us is escapism, the willingness to leave ourselves behind and step into another person’s shoes, see through another character’s eyes. Whether that other is a conscientious leader, a persecuted mage, or a misunderstood monster, every time we let ourselves feel with him/her, we’re reaching across a divide, something we could all stand to practice.

We need escapism. And we need it now.

Maybe, more than ever.

 

 

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Book Report: Recent Reads

Even in these trying times, when it seems every day brings another depressing news item that highlights the hurtful divisions in our society, I can still take comfort in good books. It can’t fail to make me happy when I discover new favorite authors or series, or when old favorites remind me why they’re favorites. In the last months I’ve read one of each kind that stands out. (Warning: Spoilers likely.)

Age of Swords (Michael J. Sullivan)

This is one of my new favorite series, not because it has especially breathtaking prose or complex world-building, but because it’s packed full of so many of the things I hope to find in epic fantasy. I praised the previous book in the series, Age of Myth, in another post a few months back, for its sympathetic depictions of female authority and its portrayal of friendship between women. That book must be read first, but the sequel takes these already pleasing elements and turns them up to eleven. Persephone, the woman whom we saw rise to the position of chieftain in the last book, grows and evolves as a leader, making mistakes but learning from them and ultimately triumphing. Suri, the young mage, discovers her capabilities with guidance from her Fhrey mentor Arion (another active and interesting female character), and in the end pulls off some impressive day-saving moves. Also, Moya the archer, Brin the historian, and Roan the engineer, noteworthy but fairly minor characters in the last book, become major players in this one. Roan even gets to invent the wheel!

While I love that the ladies dominate the scene, some of the chapters I found most intriguing were told from the perspective of the villain, the Fhrey prince Manawydule, who is desperate to avenge himself on the human race after the death of his mentor in the last book. Through him, Sullivan paints a portrait of radicalization, as he falls in with a group who plan to overthrow the current Fhrey power structure and replace it with a new order in which their race will dominate and all others be brought under subjection. At a time when hate groups are dominating the news more than they have in decades, this story should be told.

A solid four stars.

Time of the Dark (Barbara Hambly)

Hambly has been a favorite author of mine ever since I read The Ladies of Mandrigyn some years back. Time of the Dark, the first of Hambly’s “Darwath” series, has a lot of what I’ve come to expect from her work: strong, involving prose, good conflict, and a brave and capable woman at or near its center. Yet my response to this book ended up being a little more complicated than my love for Ladies and its sequels, Stranger at the Wedding, and Bride of the Rat God.

I’ve always found Hambly to be a feminist-friendly writer, and while I wouldn’t call this exactly an exception, I couldn’t help noticing a more conservative streak in this novel that I hadn’t observed in the other Hambly books. First is the use of a highly old-school trope, the male Chosen One. In this portal fantasy, a young man, Rudy, and woman, Gil, from modern-day California are pulled into the fantasy realm of Darwath because they’re meant to save it, and they must figure out this strange new place and their responsibilities in it. Their learning curve is fascinating, to be sure, but in the end, even though Gil is introduced first, Rudy turns out to be the important one, the heir to the wizard Ingold’s magic and the key world-saver. In the very last pages, poor Gil is left to wonder just why the heck she’s there. The good news (I hope): this is only the first book in the series, so maybe we’ll see Gil discover her purpose in the later volumes.

More problematic, for me, is the contrast set up between Gil, the scholar-turned-warrior, and Alde, the Madonna-like widowed queen with whom Rudy falls in love. If Gil represents the way forward in SFF heroines, a precursor to Hambly’s own Starhawk, Alde comes to us straight from the old school, a woman whose importance rests on being the widow of the last King and the mother of the future one, with little power or skill of her own. It’s to Hambly’s credit that she is able to endow her with a personality, a dash of courage and even a touch of humor. The trouble with Alde is that she’s living proof of the persistence of traditional gender roles in a society where women can fight in the Guard and even hold leadership positions in the church (though the only example we see of the latter is 100% pure evil, so that’s not much of a positive). Women are tougher than men, Alde tells Rudy; “we have to be, to take care of children.” So even if other roles are open, the main business of women’s lives is still, or should be, children. Also, while Alde is written as warm and sweet, almost an ideal, Gil, supposedly our heroine, is presented as deficient, lacking some vital internal component, describing herself as “the woman who doesn’t love” — as if the truly good women are the motherly ones, while those who follow other paths have questionable priorities.

Yet as I mentioned before, this is only the beginning of a series. A lot can happen in two more books.

A slightly disappointed 3.5 stars.

 

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??

 

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.)

DragonCon 2016 Photos

It’s August 31, and a Georgia SFF writer’s fancy turns to thoughts of DragonCon. In my preparations I haven’t had time to compose a full post, so as I anticipate a delightful convention in 2017, I thought I might share a few memories from last year.

First, my fashion show:

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Last year’s convention ended on a high note, as I had the chance to speak about my work at a panel that Monday. Here I am with my editor, Nancy Knight, who runs the Writer’s Track at DragonCon:

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And here I’m holding forth about how much fun I had while writing Nightmare Lullaby.

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Happy Labor Day Weekend, 2017.

Fiction’s “Straw Feminists” and Why I Hate Them

I find my attention turning again to villainesses, since of late they seem to be on the rise. So far this year, we’ve seen Charlize Theron’s character in The Fate of the Furious, Wonder Woman‘s Doctor Poison, the would-be-homicidal High Priestess of the Sovereigns in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, and the titular Mummy; coming up, we have Julianne Moore’s “evil Martha Stewart” type in Kingsman: The Golden Circle and Cate Blanchett’s Goddess of Death in Thor: Ragnarok. On the small screen we have Evil Business Suit Lady in the reboot of The Tick, the ultimate villains of Iron Fist, and Sigourney Weaver in The Defenders, while we’ve recently gotten word that Battlestar Galactica‘s Katee Sackhoff has been hired to play a recurring baddie on The Flash. We can look forward to more female villainy in the near future, with X-Men: Dark Phoenix depicting a heroine’s devolution into a villainess who must be destroyed because redemption isn’t an option, the upcoming Flashpoint presenting us with an alternate timeline in which the Joker is a woman, and psycho-bunny Harley Quinn being absolutely everywhere and showing no signs of going away anytime soon.

This wouldn’t be such bad news, if we saw a rise in female heroism accompanying the glut of female villainy. But as far as I’ve been able to discover, in all the examples I’ve mentioned above, only Wonder Woman, The Defenders, and possibly Thor: Ragnarok feature female heroes brave and confident enough to go up against the bad ladies. (My disappointment in Gamora’s limited role in Guardians 2 is already documented.) The other villainesses either destroy themselves or are thwarted by men. Despite the glimmer of progress we see in movies like Wonder Woman and Atomic Blonde, men still get to do the bulk of the hero-ing, and we who relish seeing female heroes in action have to take what we can get. This recent article on Tor.com shines a light on what can happen when female villains significantly outnumber female heroes.

My main hope is that as few of these female baddies as possible will emerge as the type of villainess I detest most deeply — the “straw feminist,” the woman whose rebellion against real or perceived gender prejudice is painted in a negative light. The straw feminist’s rebellion is shown to be either unreasonable or simply unnecessary, and whether she’s misguided or downright evil, she makes feminists look bad, as she affirms all the worst assumptions about us.

The “straw feminist” villainess has a signature line: “You men have been in charge for long enough!” By the end of the story we’re meant to wipe our nervous brows and think, “See what happens when you let women take charge?”

The first thing to understand about straw feminists is that they are obsessed with MEN. Not men, but MEN, the evil monolithic hivemind to which they assume all males of the species belong. For them, feminism is not about broadening women’s opportunities or encouraging women’s achievements. It’s all about MEN — hating them, turning the tables on them, gaining mastery over them by any means necessary. Straw feminists might initially have a reasonable point to make about men’s status as compared with women’s, but in the end they go so far beyond the reach of reason that the point disappears, the original complaint goes unaddressed, and by the end of the story men are restored to their proper positions of control and authority.

A perfect example of straw feminism in action is found in “Turnabout Intruder,” the swan song episode of the original Star Trek, from 1969. One of Captain Kirk’s legion of former flames is resentful of the fact that a woman can never become the captain of a Federation starship, so she switches minds and bodies with Kirk so that she can seize control of his ship and he can learn what being a woman feels like. He learns nothing at all, her evil plans are thwarted, and when she meets her end, Kirk and Mr. Spock express regret that she couldn’t be content with being a woman. If anyone is tempted to question the inequity of a system that won’t allow women to attain the highest ranks in the otherwise egalitarian Federation, this episode settles that question by making the straw-feminist villainess such a nutjob that we’re persuaded women shouldn’t hold authority. Thank God men are in charge. Case closed.

But that was the ’60s, right? What can we expect? I might accept that, if we didn’t see examples of the straw feminists appearing in subsequent decades when gender equality has supposedly been more widely accepted as a positive good. An even more cringe-worthy example occurs in the otherwise excellent sci-fi drama Farscape. The female regular characters on this show are often more actively heroic than those on Star Trek got a chance to be, but in the show’s worst episode by far, “Coup by Clam,” their agency is stripped from them for the sake of cheap humor. The crew of the liveship Moya visits a planet with an oppressive patriarchal government that makes the Taliban look enlightened. A group of women have risen up to demand change. We might expect these women to be the episode’s guest heroes, but soon we learn that the rebels are so vicious in their desire for revenge on MEN that the patriarchy actually seems like a better alternative. Farscape‘s female regulars try to infiltrate their ranks, but they’re soon captured and about to be killed, so their male comrades must disguise themselves as women (presented as a laugh riot) and sweep in to save them in what’s meant to be a laugh riot. The rebels are ruined, and Moya sails away without the smallest dent having been made in the patriarchy. Indeed, the women of that planet will probably be worse off than before, yet thanks to straw feminism, we’re not meant to care.

I hate most when straw feminists cast a dark cloud over stories I otherwise love, not only Star Trek and Farscape but the DC animated universe, which in the past has offered some of the best-written depictions of superheroes and their conflicts. In a Christmas episode of Batman: The Animated Series, “Holiday Nights,” Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy use poor hypnotized Bruce Wayne as their pack mule while they shop ’til they drop — a scenario straight from a lot of men’s nightmares — and then plan to kill him because as a man, he’s served his purpose. Even my beloved Justice League puts us through the straw-feminist wringer with “Fury,” in which an evil Amazon concocts a poisonous germ that will kill every man and boy on the planet; the fact that Wonder Woman, Hawkgirl, and Hippolyta are the ones to oppose her does offset the effect somewhat, but it’s still probably my least favorite two-parter. Now we have Flashpoint in the offing, a story that turns Wonder Woman herself and all her Amazon sisters into a raging homicidal coterie of straw feminists. I tried to watch the animated version, The Flashpoint Paradox, and couldn’t make it past the first fifteen minutes, especially once it became apparent that the Flash’s only superhero allies would be male. How the whole thing turns out I don’t know, but I’m not keen to sit through more than an hour of murderous straw-feminist antics in order to find out.

The straw feminist isn’t just a villain who happens to be female. Like her sexy cousin the femme fatale, she’s a villain because she is female. The first kind of female villain, the one whose evil isn’t specifically linked to gender, could actually represent a step forward (as long as there’s an awesome heroine somewhere in the picture). But the straw feminist sends us into full-speed retreat to the Stone Age, and every time I see a movie or TV show in which she appears, I have to cleanse my palate with a few chapters from a Kate Elliott or Barbara Hambly novel. I guess that’s one silver lining…

 

What’s Making Me Happy: August 2017

A week ago, Matt and I were listening to an episode of NPR’s All Songs Considered, featuring songs selected from the “150 Greatest Albums by Women.” I was struck by a selection by Roberta Flack, a song I’d never heard before called “Tryin’ Times.” It was written and recorded several decades ago, yet my first thought was, “She’s singing about now.” It remains relevant because we’re still fighting battles that began even longer ago and may take just as long to win at last.

In the years since “Tryin’ Times” was recorded, our culture has been moving, slowly but steadily, step by step, toward an concept of egalitarian individualism in which everyone has value, and each of us is born with promise and potential that we may choose to squander or develop. Whatever our race, gender, nation of origin, or religious affiliation, each of us is a unique creation, and our merit is derived from our choices, achievements, and accomplishments. No one is born more deserving of respect than others. Respect is earned by the individual as he or she grows and ages. There are few ideals I hold more highly than this one, few I deem more worth fighting for. Yet still, for all the progress we’ve made, some people continue to push back against this ideal — people who believe in “roles” or “places” into which certain human beings must fit regardless of their own unique tastes and talents, who believe respect is a birthright granted only to those “like them” rather than an achievement open to all. Whether they wear Nazi swastikas or the white sheets and hoods of the Ku Klux Klan or some unholy amalgam thereof, they see egalitarian individualism as a threat to be destroyed. When they come out in force, demanding our attention, it’s sometimes easy to imagine all our progress has been an illusion.

Being happy can be a challenge in times like these. After all, we ought to be angry. But can our dismay at current events co-exist with the joy we take in the people and things closest to us? Surely it can. That joy is a part of what we fight for. So, here are a few things making me happy in this August of 2017.

Reading Age of Swords, the sequel to Age of Myth. The previous book was one of my most pleasant surprises earlier this year. I’m a third of the way through the sequel, and it actually improves on the original. I liked the prominent place given to women in the first book, and in the second book intriguing female supporting characters like Moya the spirited beauty, Brin the lore-keeper, and Roan the engineer/inventor get more page time and development. Persephone the chieftain is honing her leadership skills as her people seek to go on after their home is destroyed. Suri the mystic is learning to tap into the magic within her. Meanwhile, the threat of the Fhrey (elves) grows: their plans include genocide. Their traditional enemies, the Dherg (dwarves), make their first appearance, and it’s already apparent they are not to be trusted. If you’re looking for fantasy in the classic style, but with a more plentiful and active roster of female characters than the Founding Authors of Fantasy ever dreamed of, check out Michael J. Sullivan’s newest series.

Reading Stiletto, sequel to The Rook, a.k.a. my favorite contemporary urban fantasy. Like Sullivan, Daniel O’Malley is one of those male writers who loves writing about women. His interest in and enthusiasm for heroines is clear in his work. In The Rook he introduced us to Myfanwy Thomas, an awkward, introverted office drone (not quite so boring when the office is an organization of secret agents with mutant superpowers) who, despite her total memory loss, discovers her abilities and saves the day, with the help of letters written by her pre-amnesiac self. The conclusion shows Myfanwy forging a historical alliance between her organization, the Checquy, and their long-time rivals/enemies, the Grafters. In Stiletto we have a chance to see what comes of this alliance, and we meet two new superpowered heroines, Felicity of the Checquy and Odette of the Grafters. I’ve only just started this book, but the humor and excitement that made me love the first book are already in evidence here, and I can’t imagine not liking a book that includes the following sentence: “With them, she had battled bunyips in the Barbican, hunted horrors on Hampstead Heath, been air-dropped into Acton, sloshed through the sewers under Soho, and served as sentry at Sandringham House” (21).

Listening to A Darker Shade of Magic on audiobook. I’m partly through the fifth disc, and I have a significant quibble. Author Victoria Schwab does not share Sullivan’s or O’Malley’s enthusiasm for including multiple female characters in primary, secondary, and tertiary roles. Here we have one intriguing female lead and one black-hearted villainess, and that’s it for noteworthy female presences; all the supporting characters worthy of our attention are male, and that tries my patience a bit. Nonetheless, the male protagonist is engaging, and the scenario of multiple parallel Londons (based on the degree of magic in the environment and the people) fascinating, and Stephen Crossley’s mellifluous voice helps keep my nerves steady when I’m in sticky traffic situations.

Rewatching Ken Burns’ Jazz, and immersing myself in music that sounds like this.

Watching the premiere of the new “DuckTales.” I remember watching the original in my dorm room in college and delighting in the adventures of the prickly, miserly, but ultimately good-hearted Scrooge McDuck. Now Scrooge is back, and as charismatic as ever, voiced by my second favorite Doctor, David Tennant (an actual Scot, no less!). His nephews, Huey, Louie, and Dewey, are more individuated this time around, and Webby, a token squeaky-voiced tagalong in the original, has been upgraded into an imaginative, hyper-enthusiastic tomboy with a knack for spotting adventure in commonplace things (e.g. the garden hose of destiny, which does have a purpose in the show!). This is the kind of funny, energetic, and optimistic entertainment everybody could use right now, and I can’t wait for regular episodes to start in September.

Finally, this past weekend Matt and I went to my old home town of Douglas, GA for my 30th high school reunion. My friends back then all knew I wanted to be a writer, and I vowed I’d go to the first reunion that took place after I got published, and so, with Atterwald, Nightmare Lullaby, and six short stories under my belt, I greeted people that I hadn’t seen in a very long time but used to see every day. Good times came back to me I thought I’d forgotten. I wouldn’t have missed it for anything, and barring disaster, I’ll be there for the next one.

 

 

The Role Model Issue

When Jodie Whittaker was cast as the thirteenth Doctor, fans’ reactions ranged from “Finally!” to “WTF?” Responses from other actors who have played the Doctor, however, have been almost uniformly positive. Colin Baker, the Sixth Doctor, has been perhaps the most enthusiastic in his support, and tenth Doctor David Tennant, who stars with Whittaker in the crime drama Broadchurch, has given the choice a thumbs-up as well. Ninth Doctor Christopher Eccleston, normally reticent about the show and his time on it, has declared that with the casting of a Northern, working-class actress, “What could go wrong?” Yet one former Doctor has expressed reservations about the character’s regeneration into a woman — fifth Doctor Peter Davison (also the father-in-law of David Tennant), who says that he supports Whittaker yet at the same time laments the loss of a “role model for boys.”

Cue the controversy. Many fans enthusiastic about the change rose up to go after Davison with torches and pitchforks, to the extent that Davison chose to close out his Twitter account — yet more evidence that civil disagreement and debate are all but unknown in the world we now live in. Though I was never tempted to attack him (I still remember how much I loved him on All Creatures Great and Small), I admit that when I first read his complaint I dismissed it out of hand as the most ridiculous thing I’d ever heard. Yet after some time to reflect, while I still disagree with him, I can almost, sorta kinda see his point. Role modeling is a complex issue, and when we speak of role models we ought to consider what is being modeled, and how.

Let us say that what’s being modeled is heroism. What are some specific tenets of heroism that we can all agree on? Courage springs to mind at once, a willingness to take risks, a refusal to rely too much or too often on someone else to solve the problems. Resourcefulness is another essential ingredient, as are resilience, an unwillingness to give up even when the temptation is strong, and kindness, a readiness to help and fight for others. The reasons Davison’s complaint seems absurd is that for centuries we’ve seen these qualities modeled almost exclusively by male characters. What heroism female characters have been called upon to show has usually taken the form of patience and endurance — passive virtues, while men have gotten to display the active ones.

We can see this in a quick overview of the iconic tales so many of us take in as children. In the myths of the ancient Greeks and Romans, which fascinated me in my younger days, male heroes abound; when women take active roles, it’s usually to cause trouble (Pandora, Medea, Clytemnestra, Helen…). King Arthur and his knights are presented as bold, chivalrous heroes, albeit a little flawed at times; the women in their orbit, with the possible exception of Isolde, are either weak or wicked. Robin Hood and his Merry Men rob from the rich to give to the poor, righting the wrongs of an oppressive government, occasionally taking time to rescue the damsel Maid Marian from danger. Some hundreds of years later, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, we have the works of Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, and Mark Twain, full of fearless and resourceful boy heroes like Jim Hawkins, Mowgli, Tom Sawyer, and Huck Finn, characters who have stood the test of time. In this same period, many “books for girls” were published, but such works emphasized domesticity rather than adventure, and only a small handful of them (e.g. Little Women, The Secret Garden, Anne of Green Gables) are still read today.

What’s a young girl to do if she wants to daydream about being a hero and having adventures far from home? What I did when I was growing up, and countless others have done for years, of course — identify with male characters. Go into the backyard and pick up a good, sturdy stick, swing it like a sword, and imagine herself as the Gorgon-slaying Perseus, or the bold Sir Galahad, or Robin Hood, or even Peter Pan. Girls have had countless years of practice finding their role models in the boys and men of fiction. Boys have rarely, if ever, had to do this. So it’s all too easy to fall into the trap of thinking that if the Doctor regenerates into a woman, she can no longer serve as a role model for boys.

We’ve come quite a long way in just the last three decades. With the help of such writers as Tamora Pierce, Robin McKinley, and Gail Carson Levine, we’ve come to accept that girls can be heroes, with the same active traits of courage and resourcefulness we’ve seen for so long in their male counterparts. Yet while we see more female heroes than ever before, they’re still significantly outnumbered, on both page and screen, by their male counterparts. The top ten novels on the Goodreads list “Best Fantasy Books of the 21st Century,” for example, are as follows: The Name of the Wind, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, The Wise Man’s Fear, A Storm of Swords, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Mistborn: The Final Empire, The Way of Kings, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and American Gods. While several of these titles feature women in significant and interesting roles, exactly one of them — Mistborn — has a female lead who occupies the center of the action for the balance of the book. With a one-out-of-ten ratio like this, if boys and men want heroic role models, they surely wouldn’t have trouble finding them.

But here is where I come close to seeing Davison’s point. We still have plenty of male characters for a male audience to identify with, but how many are role models? How many of them mix courage and resourcefulness with kindness and decency? Harry Potter does, as do the male leads in The Way of Kings, but at a time when Marvel Comics turns Captain America, once an exemplar of sturdy and uncompromised goodness, into a Hydra agent, it’s not unreasonable to ask just what a good many male characters in SFF, especially in film and TV, are modeling. The Doctor is a role model because the character displays insight and intelligence, willingness to make hard and even heartbreaking choices, and a desire to do the right thing, the kind thing, as Peter Capaldi puts it in his most recent episode, “The Doctor Falls.” How many character like this, male or female, do we see?

I’m thrilled we’re finally getting to see this character in female guise, but I would also love to see more male leads in books, movies, and TV who do not 1) think with their lower halves, and/or 2) use violence as their first resort when solving problems. I still hope with all my heart that we’re moving toward a future in which we see role models of every gender, that anyone in the audience can look up to.

 

Women on Doctor Who: Where We’ve Been, Where We’re Going

Part 2: “New Who”

(WARNING: Spoilers)

I find I have less to say about the female Companions who have graced Doctor Who since its revival in 2005 than I did about the ladies of its classic days, for a sad and simple reason: their comparative sameness.

The Companions of yore could come from all over time and space, not just the world viewers would recognize. Susan, one of the first Companions, was the Doctor’s granddaughter, the “unearthly child” of the title of the very first adventure. Victoria, a Companion of Patrick Troughton’s Doctor, may have been mostly a helpless screamer, but at least with her we got the fun of seeing a proper 19th century Englishwoman adjust to a life of intergalactic travel; for Zoe Herriott, the writers went in the other direction, into the distant future. Leela was a savage warrior on a rocky planet, a descendant of human astronauts. Romana was a Time Lady. Nyssa was a native of the planet Traken. Women like these could bring a variety of different perspectives to the table.

Yet when the show was revived so successfully in the Thousands, its creators decided that the Companion should always be a 21st century human (with the exceptions of Nardole and recurring Companion Captain Jack Harkness, both men). Not that these women don’t have their own distinctive qualities, which have led me to take some to my heart and find others disappointing. But within that strict 21st-century-human template there’s only so much variety a creative team can find. Furthermore, it lays unwelcome stress on the Companion’s ordinariness. More than in the early seasons, the Companion is presented as an audience surrogate, the Everywoman to whom we’re meant to relate; the Doctor, an ubermensch, is too far above us. Here, as in so many superhero stories and YA SFF romances, we see the pairing of the Ordinary Girl and the Exceptional Guy, the just-like-us heroine and the better-than-us hero. It can be well done, as it is in the best “New Who” adventures, but its seemingly endless reiterations can be tiring indeed, and can start us longing to see, just once in a while, the woman be the Exceptional one.

My favorites among the Everywomen come from Russell T. Davies’ tenure as showrunner; they have their flaws, but I’ve found something to admire about each one of them. Billie Piper’s Rose Tyler might seem the most ordinary of all, a working-class shopgirl who, if the episode “The Unquiet Dead” is to be believed, has never heard of Charles Dickens. (A piece of weak writing in an otherwise solid episode! Whatever social class you’re from, if you’re a kid growing up in modern-day England, you will learn who Charles Dickens is, at least through the multiple BBC adaptations of his novels.) Yet in her very first adventure, she saves the Doctor’s life by using her own skill set. Some episode later comes a key moment that crystallized my respect for her: when she is about to explore a dark corridor, a situation that never ends well, she picks up a lead pipe and takes it with her, determined not to let trouble find her unarmed. It’s a tiny bit, but character-defining. Rose won’t be pushed into distress without a fight.

Martha Jones, the medical student played by Freema Agyeman, could have been a disaster, as one of her key attributes is her unrequited passion for the Doctor. Yet when she helps save the world through the power of telling the Doctor’s story, she becomes a heroine after my own heart, and whatever dignity her unrequited feelings might have cost her, she reclaims when she departs. Donna (Catherine Tate), her successor, got off to a rocky start with me, as an office temp obsessed with celebrity gossip and desperate for romance in “The Runaway Bride.” Yet when she joins the Doctor in the TARDIS, she becomes a figure of courage and compassion, the first one to see people in the adventure’s equation, and her office temp experience helps save more than one situation. She also has the advantage of being older than the two Companions before her, and the only one in the Davies era who has no romantic interest in the Doctor. Of all of them, she undergoes the most substantial growth. Were it not for her botched departure, in which she loses all the wisdom and experience she’d gained, she might have joined the ranks of my favorite Companions ever.

The message we get from the Companions of the Davies era might be summed up as, “An ordinary woman can do extraordinary things.” When Steven Moffat took over as showrunner, that message regressed once again to, “An ordinary woman can get into trouble and be rescued by a man who can do extraordinary things.” Karen Gillan brings as much pluck, energy, and humor as she can to the role of Amy Pond, yet she gets notably fewer chances to be the hero than any of the Davies-era Companions; were she “damselled” less frequently, her growth arc’s revolving almost entirely around marriage and motherhood might not bother me as much. Clara Oswald is a teacher with a curious mind and a sense of humor, engagingly played by Jenna Coleman, yet her potential is also squandered with a long succession of distressed-damsel plots. The case of Clara is particularly regrettable because she was originally meant to be the nineteenth-century governess we meet in the Christmas special “The Snowmen,” but that idea was scrapped, leaving us with yet another (yawn) 21st century girl.

Third time is the charm, or nearly so. Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie), a black lesbian working-class girl with a thirst for discovery and a taste for science fiction, is the first Moffat-era Companion I actually like. Though I’m white and hetero, I see more of myself in Bill than in any other female Companion; she won my heart completely in her second adventure, when she and the Doctor explore an abandoned spacecraft and she cries out in adorably geekish glee, “I’m on a spaceship!” Sadly, even this likable, fleshed-out Companion falls victim too often to Moffat’s predilection for distressed-damsel scenarios. He was apparently convinced that the only way to show off the Doctor’s strength was to put his Companions in need of rescue as often as possible, and toward the end of her time in the TARDIS, he put Bill in jeopardy in an especially painful way. (I’m not the only fan who objected.) In the Moffat era, no longer do we see those occasional awesome moments where the Companion saves the Doctor; she may try, but she almost always gets it wrong. The extraordinary man is Protector, and the ordinary woman is Protected. End of story.

In the wake of the Moffat era, I find myself hungry for something different and especially pleased that the creative team have chosen this moment to have the Doctor regenerate into a woman. As a new showrunner, Chris Chibnall, takes charge, the female thirteenth Doctor represents a fresh start in the show’s gender dynamics. As still happens far too rarely in SFF, now the woman gets to be the Extraordinary, the Exceptional. What will her Companion be like? An ordinary person who can do extraordinary things, or a perpetually distressed foil?

I’m hoping hard for the former, and I’m ready to find out.

Incidentally, the actor selected to play the new Doctor, Jodie Whittaker, can currently be seen on Chris Chibnall’s show “Broadchurch” on BBC America (with other “Who” actors!).  Her character on “Broadchurch,” a social worker still in mourning over the death of her young son, is pretty much the exact opposite of The Doctor.  Matt’s happy with the casting choice because it will force Ms. Whittaker “to actually be jovial!”

For further reading on the Doctor and his female co-stars, check out the books Chicks Dig Time Lords and Chicks Unravel Time.