Advice to Girls Looking for Heroes Like Moana and Judy Hopps

One of the reasons behind my current dissatisfaction with Hollywood is the depressing lack of female protagonists among mainstream American animated releases in 2017, especially as compared to 2016, which gave us both Zootopia and Moana. (I’m still keen to see the smaller-scale indie animated film The Breadwinner, but its release has been so limited that it’s quite a bear to find a theater where it’s playing — a disgraceful way to treat a film that would appeal to families.) I understand that everything media-related comes in cycles, and that a year with one or more solid girl-centered offerings will frequently be followed by a year in which girls get shoved back into sidekick, villain, or background roles, if they appear at all. Remember 2011, when the front-runners for the Best Animated Feature Oscar were the male-heavy Rango and The Adventures of Tintin? The following year gave us Brave and Wreck-It Ralph, both enjoyable movies featuring female characters in central roles. So, since 2017 was lacking in noteworthy animated heroines, at least we can look ahead to the next months of 2018 with hopeful hearts, right?

Well, maybe not. Check out this YouTube compilation of trailers for 2018’s animated releases, at least in the first half of the year. Some look like fun — Aardman’s Early Man might be amusing, at least, because Aardman’s films usually are — but for all their differences, these movies, going by their trailers, have one thing in common that isn’t hard to spot:

Male protagonists.

It looks very much like this year will just be last year, all over again.

One of these movies, The Incredibles 2, is an interesting case. I loved the original, so I can’t help but be a little bit interested in the sequel, and I’ve read some excerpts from promotional material suggesting that Elastigirl, a.k.a. Helen Parr, will take a leading role and that the movie will be a female-led superhero film following in the footsteps of 2017’s Wonder Woman. If that’s true, then hurrah! But I’m afraid I can’t help being a little skeptical, since the teaser-trailer — which, like most teaser-trailers, gives us no hint of the film’s actual plot — chooses to focus on Mr. Incredible and baby Jack-Jack. I can’t help being reminded of the prominence of Olaf the Snowman in the marketing for Frozen and of Maui in the marketing for Moana. No matter how well a female-centered animated feature may do with audiences, marketers are still squeamish about letting people know when or if an upcoming release is focused on a female character.

Yet the rest of the movies are very clearly about dudes, so girls watching them will have to daydream themselves into the shoes of the male heroes or settle for identifying with the sidekick or love interest — again. And again. And again, and again. What are girls to do if they want a female hero as cool as Moana or Judy Hopps? Two things come to mind. The first is to fall to our knees and pray that Ava duVernay’s upcoming A Wrinkle in Time is every bit as good as we long for it to be.

The second: read instead.

Good books for young readers (children and tweens, not teens) centering on boys may outnumber those centering on girls, but good books about girls certainly outnumber good recent movies about them. If you make a friend of a good book when you’re ten or twelve, you’ll have a friend for life. A few of my favorites:

Matilda (Roald Dahl). Despite what movies and television want us to believe, child geniuses are not always boys. Matilda uses her immense brainpower to defy those who would tell her she’s nothing (parents, school principal) and to empower those around her. She’s a rule-breaker, a game-changer, and a wrecker of oppressive authority.

The Wee Free Men and its sequels (Terry Pratchett). Young witch Tiffany Aching is no Chosen One in the Harry Potter mold. Rather, she earns her hero status through a winning combination of hard work, determination, common sense, and fearlessness.

The Enchanted Forest Chronicles, beginning with Dealing With Dragons (Patricia C. Wrede). Wrede employs a light-hearted, humorous style to tell the story of two female characters who become the best of friends. One is a dragon who eventually becomes King (yes, you read that right), and the other is an unorthodox princess determined to chart her own course.

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: Squirrel Meets World (Shannon Hale). The indomitable Doreen Green, a hero with the combined powers of Squirrel and Girl, may be in high school in this novelization of the popular comics character. But I can’t think of anything in this breezy, entertaining tale that couldn’t be enjoyed by smart girls as young as ten or even eight.

Ronja, the Robber’s Daughter (Astrid Lindgren). I picked up this novel after its anime adaptation charmed me. If you’ve always dreamed of living in a forest and learning the ways of the wild things, finding a best friend on your own adventurous wavelength, and conquering hate with the force of friendship and love, this is the book for you.

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2017: My Year in Fiction, Part 2

Part 2: Movies and Television

How can anything good come out of Hollywood, a community where reprehensible abuse of power is apparently so prevalent? Strange as it seems, good entertainment does happen, and I’ve had some good times at the theater this year, as well as at home in front of the television set. A fiction enthusiast like myself appreciates any medium through which engrossing stories might be delivered.

Favorite Blockbuster: Star Wars VIII: The Last Jedi. I know not everyone loves it. In fact, I have friends that hate it with astonishing vehemence. I know that sensible complaints involving plot holes and miscommunication and extraneous subplots can be made against it. But darn it, I still loved it. I’ll have more to say about it in a later blog post, once I’ve had a chance to see it again. Close runner up: Wonder Woman, the movie many of us (including myself) thought stood no chance of being watchable, but turned out to be amazing.

Favorite Non-Blockbuster: The Emily Dickinson biopic A Quiet Passion, among the best depictions of a woman’s creative power put on film. It was released too early in the year for Cynthia Nixon’s amazing performance to get Oscar’s attention, and that’s a terrible shame.

Favorite Date Movie: The LEGO Batman Movie, which my husband and I saw together on Valentine’s Day at the Movie Tavern in Suwannee, GA. After all, what could be more romantic than sharing laughs — lots of them? The movie also deserves props for giving us the best depiction of Barbara Gordon (Batgirl) we’ve seen to date.

Least Favorite Date Movie: Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2. Friends loved it. Critics liked it. My husband and I rode the wave of positive buzz into the theater, and we came out wondering what the heck we’d just seen. For me the worst part came during the credits, where a scene made it clear that the aspect of the movie I disliked most, the villainous matriarchal super-race the Sovereigns, would be back for the third film. I doubt I’ll bother.

Most Pleasant Surprise: Atomic Blonde. The trailers didn’t impress me. This looks cheesy, I thought. Yet it turned out to be a well-made action-packed spy thriller with my favorite movie soundtrack of the year.

Most WTF Comment on the State of Entertainment: A Tweet that turned up in my feed, positing that The Last Jedi and the Thirteenth Doctor were evidence that Hollywood was falling into a “feminist black hole.” Uh, just how many big money-making adventure movies with female protagonists did we see this year? Three, I think? That’s hardly evidence of a feminist takeover. It is evidence, however, of the theory that for some people, one big movie hit with a female lead character out of twenty such movies with male lead characters is one too many.

I Still Need to See: Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water and Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird.

Favorite TV Shows Watched in 2017: Netflix’s Luke Cage and GLOW, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Supergirl, Agents of SHIELDiZombie, and PBS’s Victoria (Season 1) and Poldark (Season 3).

When It’s Good, It’s Really Good: Peter Capaldi’s final season of Doctor Who, featuring my favorite New Who Companion, Bill Potts. (Why is it that these days, the ones I love most only get one season?) We got some lackluster episodes this year, but also some darn fine television.

Television Show With the Best Score: Poldark.

Television Show With the Best Soundtrack: Luke Cage.

I Can’t Believe I Actually Like This: I’ve never been a wrestling fan, and GLOW took me completely by surprise as I found myself connecting with the talented but hapless and often unlikable protagonist played by Alison Brie, as well as the diverse cast of female characters around her. What started as a show about female rivalry evolved into a show about female friendships, and I relished seeing that happen.

These Things Were Absolutely Made With Me in Mind: Poldark and Victoria.

Show We All Need to be Watching Right Now: Brooklyn Nine-Nine, a sitcom that mixes humor with heart as it depicts a group of very diverse individuals working well together, feeding off each other’s competence, and appreciating each other. Nearly every week we see that a show need not be mean in order to be funny.

Best TV Boss: Without question, Captain Raymond Holt of Brooklyn Nine-Nine. He also speaks my Favorite Line of Dialogue: “Any time someone stands up and says who they are, the world becomes a better, more interesting place.” (To put it in context, he says this to one of his officers, Det. Rosa Diaz, just after she has come out as bisexual.)

Most Improved: Agents of SHIELD. I was lukewarm on the show when it began, but I kept watching in the hope it would get better. The last season shows just how far it’s come since its awkward beginnings. I did have issues with this season’s ending, though…

Female Villains Need More Unique Motivations: Does it always have to be jealousy? The villain of the last half of Agents of SHIELD‘s season tries to destroy humankind because the man she loved preferred someone else. The villain who threatened the earth at the end of this past season’s Supergirl did so because her son chose his sweetheart over her and the privileged domination she offered him. In both cases, a woman goes genocidal because a man rejected her. Darn, but this kind of thing gets old.

Most Disappointing Departure: Floriana Lima, a.k.a. Det. Maggie Sawyer on Supergirl. Losing the character would be regrettable enough in itself, but the writers could at least have had her accept a promotion in another city and shown her and Alex Danvers (Chyler Leigh) trying their hand at a long-distance relationship. Instead, they chose to break them up and add these ladies to the already-too-long list of lesbian TV couples denied a happy ending.

Most Unjustly Overlooked Show: iZombie. The zombies here aren’t mindless monsters but intelligent humanoids trying to figure out how to satisfy their need to consume brains without becoming menaces to society (although some of them would be fine with that). To me, this makes them a lot more interesting. Plus, Rose McIver’s Liv Moore is one of those smart, capable “female Other” protagonists I absolutely adore. Yet nobody seems ever to talk about this show. In discussions of supernatural-tinged action shows with strong female leads, this one rarely if ever comes up. I wonder why.

Now That’s How You Do A Reboot: Disney’s new Duck Tales, which manages the neat trick of improving on the original while still honoring its memory. I’m enjoying all the characters, but the new Webby is my favorite, not just because she’s more badass but because she’s flawed, which gives her more chances to be funny than the sweetness-and-light original ever got. Plus, David Tennant, my favorite of the “New Who” Doctors, voices Scrooge McDuck! I’m on board. But I’m well past ready to see some new episodes. Come on, Disney.

2017: My Year in Fiction, Part 1

Part 1: Books.

When the news gets sometimes scary, other times depressing, or both at once, fiction becomes more important to me than ever. While the news may show me the sad state of society and politics, fiction can offer hope, or at least a sense that things don’t have to be like this. The act of writing in itself is hopeful, as we take bits and pieces from the world around us, both light and dark, and knit them together into something new and potentially beautiful. While stories of sexual harassment and assault and violence motivated by racism have been buzzing in my ears, I’ve been hammering away at my most ambitious fantasy novel project to date, as well as crafting plays about Santa Claus’s elves and reindeer. And of course, I’ve been reading.

Some highlights of my year in books:

Most Epic Epic Fantasy: Kate Elliott’s Black Wolves, a 780-page feast featuring a myriad of complicated and intriguing characters, vivid world-building, and clashing cultures and belief systems. I need the next book ASAP.

Most Epic YA: Leigh Barduro’s Crooked Kingdom, the sequel to Six of Crows. Six outlaw heroes deal with conflict between nations and potentially deadly skirmishes between rival gangs on the streets of a quasi-17th century Ketterdam (Amsterdam). Tamora Pierce meets George R. R. Martin.

Most Lyrical Urban Fantasy: This one doesn’t have much competition, but it’s Patricia McKillip’s Kingfisher. McKillip brings her distinctively luminous style to the usually gritty urban fantasy genre, with (for me) satisfying results. If only more urban fantasy were written like this.

Most Underrated Read: Intisar Khanani’s Memories of Ash, the novel-length sequel to her novella Sunbolt. Khanani’s lovely, fluid prose and skillful characterizations deserve far more attention.

The “Welcome to My World” Prize: This one goes to the authors whose work I’ve read for the first time this year, whose future efforts I intend to seek out. N.K. Jemisin (The Shadowed Sun), Robert Jackson Bennett (City of Stairs), Michael J. Sullivan (Age of Myth, Age of Swords), Becky Chambers (The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet), Melissa Caruso (The Tethered Mage), Mickey Zucker Reichert (Beyond Ragnarok), M.H. Boroson (The Girl With Ghost Eyes), Adrian Tchaikovsky (The Tiger and the Wolf), Mark T. Barnes (The Garden of Stones), Ken Liu (The Wall of Storms), Phil Tucker (The Path of Flames), Mark Lawrence (Red Sister).

The “Continues Awesome” Prize: For authors I already love and whose works I read this year didn’t let me down. Kate Elliott (Black Wolves), Kate Forsyth (The Cursed Towers), Patricia McKillip (Kingfisher), Daniel O’Malley (Stiletto), Terry Pratchett (Witches Abroad), Brandon Sanderson (The Bands of Mourning, Arcanum Unbounded, Oathbringer*). *– Still in progress, but I’m listing it anyway, because what I’ve read so far is just that good.

Favorite Female Heroes Who Have Passed Their Prime: Marshal Dannarah (Black Wolves), Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg (Witches Abroad), Persephone (Age of Myth, Age of Swords), Silence Montane (“Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell,” Arcanum Unbounded).

Favorite Female Heroes Who Are In Their Prime: Hanani of the Hetawa (The Shadowed Sun), Li Lin (The Girl With Ghost Eyes), Shai (“The Emperor’s Soul,” Arcanum Unbounded), Suri (Age of Myth, Age of Swords), Hitomi (Memories of Ash), Shara Khomayd (City of Stairs), Marasi and Steris (The Bands of Mourning), Zomi and Thera (The Wall of Storms).

Favorite Female Heroes Who Are Children (Sort Of): Lift (“Edgedancer,” Arcanum Unbounded).

Favorite Female Supporting Characters: Kizzy and Sissix (The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet), Sunandi (The Shadowed Sun), Highmarshal Azure (Oathbringer), Jane (A College of Magics), Mulaghesh (City of Stairs), Lifka (Black Wolves), Arion, Brin, and Roan (Age of Myth, Age of Swords), Dame Scotia Malory (Kingfisher).

Favorite Male Supporting Characters: Sigrud (City of Stairs), Kellas (Black Wolves), Adolin and Rock (Oathbringer), Wylan (Crooked Kingdom), Mni-inh (The Shadowed Sun), Wayne (The Bands of Mourning), Gaetona (“The Emperor’s Soul,” Arcanum Unbounded), Luan Zyu (The Wall of Storms).

Favorite Male Heroes: Dalinar Kholin (Oathbringer), Kelsier (“Mistborn: A Secret History,” Arcanum Unbounded), Asho (The Path of Flames), Indris (The Garden of Stones), Captain Ashby (The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet), Rudy Solis (The Time of the Dark).

Favorite Audiobook: A three-way tie: Arcanum Unbounded (read by Michael Kramer and Kate Reading), A Darker Shade of Magic (read by Stephen Crossley), and The Curse of Chalion (read by Lloyd James).

Disappointments: Barbara Hambly’s The Time of the Dark, K.B. Wager’s After the Crown, Sharon Shinn’s Wrapt in Crystal, Kristen Britain’s The High King’s Tomb, and Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven. None of these books were terrible; I just didn’t love them quite as much as I have these authors’ other work.

Books I’m Most Looking Forward To in the Coming Year: Django Wexler’s The Infernal Batallion, Mark Lawrence’s Grey Sister, Michael J. Sullivan’s Age of War, Melissa Caruso’s The Defiant Heir, and Kate Elliott’s Dead Empire, all to be published (hopefully) in 2018.

A Christmas Treat from the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company

One of my best accomplishments of 2017 came near the end: on December 9 and 10, the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company produced and performed my new Christmas play, “The Sleigh of Unspoken Dreams.” The very first draft was a heavy-handed polemic about the gendering of toys and toy-giving.  Over time, with the company’s help, it became something more and better. While my previous holiday script, “Christmas Rose,” is rooted in reality, this one is a North Pole fantasy that touches on a question of import: just how do Santa’s elves cope with burnout?

I herewith share the performance with you. I think it went beautifully. Featured are the voices of:

  • David Benedict as the Announcer and World of Learning Historian,
  • Melody Bonnette as Zoe,
  • Elisabeth Allen as Lydia,
  • Chris Little as Rupert,
  • Kelley S. Ceccato (that’s me!) as Vixen the Third,
  • Joe Ravenson as Santa Claus,
  • Paige Stedman Ross as Maya and World of Learning Singer, and
  • Christa Burton and Billy Barefoot as Elf Sergeants 1 and 2.

Special thanks to Ron N. Butler, who gave me the ending (the Santa Claus scene is almost entirely his work), and to the Stewart family of Marietta, who lit the spark that in time became this play.

Since this is a live recording, please turn up the volume on your chosen device all the way for better playing.

The Sleigh of Unspoken Dreams

 

Christmas, Christ, and the Christian

I haven’t written much about my faith in this blog, since I haven’t wanted to give my readers the impression I might be preaching to you, or worse, at you. But today I feel moved to bring it up, since it’s been on my mind a good bit lately. I was raised Baptist, and as a young adult I switched to Methodist, and today I am happily Episcopalian. I have never not thought of myself as a Christian, and this Christmas season, 2017, has been a challenge for me. Why? I’ve felt my faith under attack.

The threat doesn’t come from Muslims, Jews, agnostics, or atheists. It doesn’t come from homosexual couples who want to get married or from women (like me) who have no interest in motherhood. It doesn’t come from Starbucks coffee cups or retail clerks who wish their customers “Happy Holidays” in December.

No, the threat comes from those who invoke the name of Christ but demonstrate little to none of his spirit and thus paint a distorted picture of Christianity itself. It comes from those who shout about Christ and Christianity, yet almost none of their shouts are shouts of joy.

It comes from those who pluck bits and pieces of Scripture, rarely from the Gospels, out of their context in order to persuade themselves and others that straight white men rule by divine right, and everyone else must fit into a narrow “role,” as if the gift of individuality, of uniqueness, was only given to that one privileged segment of the population.

It comes from those who hang “Keep Out” signs on the door of faith, and would hang those signs on our nation’s halls of power and even on our nation itself if they only could. I read this philosophy expressed in a simple statement on a political website: “A good sermon makes the heathen run screaming into the night.”

Really? That flies in the face of everything I’ve always thought and felt. A good sermon doesn’t chase anyone away. Rather, it makes the “heathen,” such as they are, listen and reflect. A good sermon helps those who hear it grow in understanding, however much faith they may have come in with.

So many people who call themselves Christians spend nearly all their time wagging their fingers at the supposed sins of others. But I was taught that my duty as a Christian was to look at myself first, and ask, “What am I doing? What should I be doing? How can I do better?” One of my favorite fictional clergymen, Father Mulcahy of M*A*S*H*, declares that God put humankind on earth “so He could be here Himself.” Am I part of that? Do people see Christ’s love in me? Every day I fall far short of where I should be. But Christ urges me to keep trying, to look out for opportunities to show love and to see those around me as He would see them.

I want to make the effort, for the Jesus who never said a word against gay people or birth control, but who did say, “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me in. I needed clothes and you clothed me. I was sick and you looked after me. I was in prison and you came to visit me. . . I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25: 35-40) For the Jesus who, at a time when women were denied any role in public life, spoke and listened to women, and who befriended those cast to the margins of their society (fishermen, tax collectors, Gentiles), and who rebuked the religious leaders of his day for their small-hearted hypocrisy. For the Jesus who lived by the radical idea that every person has value.

Here is a song not many people know, but for me it gets right to the heart of, as Linus van Pelt might say, “what Christmas is all about.”

 

Book Report: Recent Reads

(Spoiler Warning)

Often, how much I enjoy a good SFF adventure will have a lot to do with whether the female lead “saves the day” — that is, how instrumental a role she plays in solving the book’s central problems. Where is she at the climax, and what is she doing? Is she off stage, tucked away in a place of safety? Is she passive, observing the crucial events from a distance? Is she incapacitated and rendered helpless? Or is she in the thick of the action, mixing it up with the bad guys in some form or fashion? So many novels have been ruined for me by a heroine’s ineffectuality or even irrelevance at crunch time. Likewise, I’ve found myself on the fence about some novels, only to become their champion when the heroines prove their worth at the climax.

Two recent reads, each brilliant in its own way, have brought this issue to the forefront of my mind.

Stiletto (Daniel O’Malley)

The Rook, the first volume of O’Malley’s “Checquy Files” series, overcame my usual dislike of contemporary fantasy to the point of becoming one of my favorite reads of 2013. It has quite a few of my favorite elements to recommend it, among them a writing style that deftly mixes humor and horror and eschews urban fantasy’s usual “noir” shtick, an unlikely and resourceful female protagonist, and a welcome emphasis on supportive relationships between women. These ingredients are still present in its sequel, Stiletto, a longer and more complicated book featuring not one female protagonist but two.

The Rook introduces us to the Checquy, a London-based organization of mutants whose aim is to neutralize eruptions of the paranormal. By the end, our heroic mutant bureaucrat, Myfanwy Thomas, has thwarted a takeover by the Checquy’s enemies, the Grafters, a group of Continental Europeans who have given themselves special abilities through technology, and she has brokered a cessation of hostilities between the two. Peace is in the offing. Happy ending, right? Not so fast. Hatred and suspicion between the Checquy and the Grafters runs deep, and many doubt that the two can coexist, let alone cooperate. In Stiletto, it’s up to a Checquy pawn, Felicity Clements, and a Grafter surgeon, Odette Liefeld, to ensure the future of cooperation and stop a murderous conspiracy aimed at sabotaging the treaty.

Giving us the points of view of both Checquy and Grafter heroines is a master stroke, as we see how even fundamentally decent people can fall prey to a hatred with centuries behind it. Felicity and Odette, much like Elphaba and Galinda from the musical Wicked, loathe each other on sight, expecting the worst of each other and, at first, getting it. Yet over time, as they work toward their common goal, they come to tolerate, appreciate, and even like each other. Since we like them both, we’re thrilled to see this happen.

Yet as I was enjoying the novel, I hit a wall at the climax. Though our heroines do a good job at figuring out the villains’ identity and tracking them down, they end up captured, and they’re saved less through their own skills and competence than through luck and the foresight of Odette’s male cousin, who inserted a fail-safe device into her without her knowledge. All those moments showcasing the ladies’ courage and ingenuity were leading up to this? Seems a bit of a let-down, especially considering how active Myfanwy is at the climax of the previous book — until I consider that O’Malley might be putting to the test our common notions of “saving the day.”

What is, after all, the central problem of the book? The age-old hostility between Checquy and Grafters, and the attitude that the two groups cannot be expected to work together. Considering this, I can see that Felicity and Odette actually do save the day, through becoming friends. Together they embody the hopeful future their leaders are working toward, and it’s fitting that the book’s final scene shows them chatting and joking with each other as friends do. Through them, we see that old hatreds can indeed be overcome.

The Shadowed Sun (N.K. Jemisin)

In this, my first experience with acclaimed novelist Jemisin, the question of whether the female lead saves they day has a less ambiguous answer. Yes, she does. Hanani is, without question, a female hero, and her triumph makes an often troubling, tough-meat novel a hopeful read.

The Shadowed Sun is actually the second volume in a duology, the first of which establishes the struggle for power and territory between two peoples with deeply conflicting ideas about religion and culture. I chose to read the second volume first after it was recommended in response to my request for sympathetic portrayals of clergywomen in SFF (since the novel I’m working on will include such characters). I was told I would have little trouble catching up, and once I had absorbed the world-building details, I was able to connect with Hanani’s story without much difficulty. She is the first ever woman of the Hetawa, her people’s religious leaders, since her healing powers are undeniable. But she’s not exactly made to feel welcome, and her superiors send her and her mentor on a dangerous diplomatic mission without caring much whether she makes it out alive. Yet it turns out that Hanani, the disregarded and undervalued, has both the skills and the heart required to save her people from a psychic plague foisted on them by a monstrous man, who has turned his abused and mentally damaged daughter into a weaponized nightmare. The hero’s courage and compassion overcome the darkness.

Then comes the part that at first disappointed me. After having more than proved her right and her fitness to belong to the Hetawa, she turns her back on it and walks away, leaving the Hetawa a boys’ club once again. Yet as I reflect, I can see that this too serves as a sign of why Jemisin has such renown as a strong feminist writer. Hanani abandons the Hetawa because — once again I’m reminded of Wicked — she’s “tired of playing by the rules of someone else’s game.” With the strength she has gained on her journey, she’s ready to live life on her own terms, both as a healer and as a lover. And rather than regressing, the Hetaway has realized at last that it needs to change, thanks to her.

On the surface, Stiletto and The Shadowed Sun couldn’t be more different. Yet both offer the same hopeful thesis — there are many ways in which a woman can be a hero.

An Open Response

The following is a response to a friend of mine who, after reading my previous post “It Might Have Been,” noted that he didn’t see the imbalance between male-centered and female-centered movies I’d written about. There are so many movies about girls and women now, he said, and to support his contention he cited Twilight, Divergent, and The Hunger Games as popular movie series that center on strong heroines.

As my friend, he deserves the best response I can give him, but I can’t help thinking he’s not the only one who may not notice the imbalance, particularly in this year of Wonder Woman. So herewith I present my answer.

Dear (Name Withheld),

I would certainly agree that representation of female characters in Hollywood movies has improved vastly since the 1980s, when a kick-butt SFF heroine like Ellen Ripley was pretty much out there on her own. But we still haven’t arrived at the balance I so long to see.

First, you cite Divergent, Twilight, and The Hunger Games as movie series with strong central female characters. With The Hunger Games, point taken. The first two films were critical and commercial successes, and while critics were more lukewarm on the last two, audiences still flocked to them. I loved the first two and even enjoyed the last two, and actually found the Katniss Everdeen played by Jennifer Lawrence a stronger and more proactive character than the Katniss of the books (something I would normally never say).

Yet I have to dispute the other two examples. The Divergent series failed miserably with critics, and bad movies, unless they perform spectacularly at the box office, tend to lead to fewer movies with female leads, not more. (Catwoman, anyone?) In fact, the underwhelming response to Divergent and others of its kind has led me to suspect that adaptations of popular female-protagonist YA SFF book series may be on the way out.

Twilight is its own animal. The book series’ fanbase would storm the theaters to see these films no matter what critics might say. Yet I have to respectfully agree to disagree with those who see the vacant, passive Bella Swan as a strong character. One of my biggest regrets about the current state of YA fantasy fiction is that Twilight and its legion of imitations have made more scarce the sort of adventure-driven female-led stories that Tamora Pierce and Robin McKinley are known for writing. I know I want to read about and see young heroines saving their worlds, not obsessing over their hot supernatural boyfriends. (Buffy the Vampire Slayer at least got to do both.)

Also, that these movie series exist doesn’t prove that male-driven movies no longer dominate the screens. This summer we got two good mainstream movies with powerful female leads, the energetic and hopeful Wonder Woman and the darker Atomic Blonde. But since the summer, what have we seen? True, “Oscar bait” limited releases like Battle of the Sexes, Lady Bird, and Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri have popped up (all of which I want to see), but of major mainstream releases, how many have boasted female characters who are not love interests, sidekicks, or villains? Among family films and animated films, the lack speaks loudest, at least to me. Where is this year’s Hunger Games? Last year Disney released a strong pair of heroine-driven cartoon features, Moana and the Oscar-winning Zootopia. This year, however, every single major American animated release has had a male protagonist, except Leap (which failed) and The My Little Pony Movie.

Of course Wonder Woman was great — I saw it twice in the theater, and regret not having gone back for a third time — but compare the number of Wonder Woman films we’ve seen to the number of Batmans and Spider-Mans. Good movies with female leads are out there, but for every one of them, we see ten or more movies with male leads. I’d like to see things even out just a little more.

It Might Have Been

I went to my first Atlanta Radio Theatre Company rehearsal in January 2004, to offer the group my skills and service. I thought, naturally, I would make my mark as a voice actress, and to some degree I have. But once I got a look at my first script for radio drama, I decided I would write for the company. That very week I started work on my first ARTC script, which became, in time, The House Across the Way.

The first draft had problems galore. I’d included a folksy narrator whose frequent interjections slowed the story’s pace to a crawl. Yet Bill Ritch, our leader, and other members of the company heard enough potential in it to encourage me. They helped me see I didn’t need the narrator at all. They coached me in writing instructions for sound effects and gave me suggestions I could use to sharpen my characterizations. Thanks to their guidance, the script grew better bit by bit, and the day I heard it performed was the proudest moment of my life up to that point. I knew I’d given the company something of value, and also that they’d helped me every step of the way to make the script the best it could possibly be.

I’ve had many such proud moments since then, all the culmination of the same process: I’ve brought an imperfect first draft to a rehearsal, the actors have read through it, Bill and others have helped me see where it’s strongest and where it most needs improvement, and I’ve worked on it until it’s just right. Each time I’ve gone through this process, I’ve been bolstered by their faith in my work. Their nurturing has helped me evolve into a better writer. Bill even helped put me in contact with Nancy Knight, who would become my agent and later my publisher.

I thrived at ARTC because I was welcomed and valued there. At no point was I ever made to feel I had nothing worthwhile to contribute. In my eyes, ARTC is what a creative community ought to be — an organization of mutually supportive individuals who respect and are respected by each other. To that vast, corrupt creative community of Hollywood, I find myself shaking my fist and shouting, “Why the hell can’t you be more like the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company?”

This past DragonCon I heard the story of how and why Gates McFadden, who played Dr. Beverly Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation, was fired after its first season. It seems she went to her bosses to suggest that the show’s female characters could be better served by the storytelling, and rather than addressing her concerns, the bosses chose to ignore them. After I learned that, I couldn’t get one question out of my head: what if, instead of replacing her with Diana Muldaur (which ended up not working out), the men in charge had listened to her? What sorts of intriguing storylines might have showcased the female characters in ways that might have made them fan favorites? What memorable, powerful moments might they have been given?

We’ll never know. Her complaint was silenced. And since then, I’ve learned that this incident with McFadden was just one instance, a comparatively innocuous one at that, of a far-ranging system-wide silencing of women’s voices. Hollywood, it turns out, has an abundance of ways of letting women know that their concerns are not valid and their contributions are not appreciated. For skeevy producer Harvey Weinstein and his ilk, it involves treating the women who work with them as if they were living blow-up dolls, present solely for their gratification. For others it’s more passive — continuing to give work and even accolades to actors and directors with a history of undervaluing if not downright mistreating women (e.g. Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, Mel Gibson, Casey Affleck). And for others, it means directly limiting the opportunities given to women: Cartoon Network Adult Swim’s head honcho keeping women out of the writing room because apparently we create conflict rather than comedy; DC Comics keeping known harasser Eddie Berganza on their payroll and “solving” the problem by not assigning female writers and artists to the departments of which he is in charge (he’s been fired at last — too little, too late); Matt Damon, on Project Greenlight, responding to a suggestion that a a woman and a man of color might be assigned to direct a certain project with the assertion that the place for diversity is in front of the camera, not behind it. How can aspiring female writers, artists, and directors fail to get the message?

What this means effectively is that, outstanding exceptions like Kathryn Bigelow, Ava du Vernay, and Patty Jenkins notwithstanding, control over Hollywood’s narratives — which stories are told, and how they are told — rests largely in the hands of men. Of course, quite a few men can tell women’s stories well and create fully actualized female characters, but those aren’t likely to be the kind of men who would participate consciously in a system that denies women a role in the crafting, not just the performance, of stories. Not long ago, I asked in this blog, “Why can’t more movies pander to me?” This was before the Weinstein story broke, and similar stories followed. Now, not only do I know why most movies don’t pander to me, but I find myself surprised that it happens at all.

In many ways, the current shake-up in the entertainment industry is the best thing that could happen to it. The curtain hiding the corruption has been lifted, and women who have been victimized and exploited by the system and the men within it are at last being listened to. In the long run, we may see considerable positive change. But systems that have been in place for decades don’t collapse overnight. We’ll see more darkness before the light breaks through. For now, men still control Hollywood’s narratives, and I find myself contemplating a boycott of movies starting next year. (This year, I admit, I still want to see Star Wars VIII, The Shape of Water, and The Breadwinner, and possibly Lady Bird and Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri.) I might come out for a well-reviewed movie with a female creative team, but otherwise I doubt that Hollywood as it stands now has much, if anything, to say to me.

And as with Gates McFadden’s situation, I can’t help wondering how much might have been different if brilliant women with stories to tell had been made to feel welcome by Hollywood, as I was by ARTC. Might we have seen both more and better woman-centered movies? Might the lines between “chick flick” and “guy flick” have over time become so blurred that they lost all meaning?

Might we have seen well-made, intelligent historical dramas detailing the lives of such women as Irena Sendler, Nancy Wake, “Stagecoach Mary” Fields, Mary Lou Williams, Sybil Ludington, Marie Marvingt, Katie Sandwina, and Isabella Bird?

Might we have seen top-notch big screen adaptations of Octavia Butler’s Kindred and Wild Seed and Sarah Zettel’s Fool’s War? Might the work of Tamora Pierce and Robin McKinley, as well as Nnedi Okorafor’s Akata Witch and Zahrah the Windseeker, have been made into high-quality family films?

Might every year have brought a wealth of movies that pandered to me, along with every other movie buff eager to see girls in women in more important, complex, and varied roles?

Maybe not. Perhaps male-driven stories would still have dominated the big screen. But we’ll never know, will we?

 

 

What’s Making Me Happy: Thanksgiving 2017

Lois McMaster Bujold, The Curse of Chalion, Audiobook

It’s been more than a decade since I first read this novel in print, and while many of its details might have slipped my mind, I hadn’t forgotten its stirring effect on me. I seized the opportunity to revisit the story in audio form, and now I find I love it even more. It has so much to offer the fan of second-world fantasy: brisk and artful prose; a well-built world tinged with echoes of Old Spain; a detailed and fascinating religious system; nauseatingly evil villains, adept at deception and treachery and brutality; an indomitable young heroine; and a protagonist, Lupe dy Cazaril, who in many ways is the best of men — a man with a strong sense of responsibility, humility, and respect, a mature man rather than an entitled overgrown adolescent. The mentor/pupil bond between Cazaril and the spirited princess Iselle warms my heart; it’s a joy to watch him support and encourage her, step by step, to become her best and most powerful self.

I’ve written a great deal in this blog about the kinds of female characters I enjoy and would love to see more of, but lately I’ve come to see more clearly than ever how important it is to see good male characters (emphasis on good) as well. By this I mean male characters who behave like adults, who fight for something larger than themselves, who take responsibility for their actions, who treat others with honesty and kindness, and who show themselves capable of forging solid based-on-respect friendships with women. Fiction, not just fantasy fiction, needs more Lupe dy Cazarils.

Melissa Caruso, The Tethered Mage

I don’t want to say too much about this one, as I’m still only a little more than halfway through it, but I don’t doubt it will make my favorites-of-the-year list. It centers on two female characters, one a privileged heiress and another a scrappy street urchin blessed (or is it cursed?) with fire magic. Their prickly, difficult relationship forms the heart of the book, and I’m relishing watching it develop. Yet my favorite aspect of the novel is the world itself. It’s influenced by Renaissance Italy, with its political infighting between powerful families, but Caruso has made it refreshingly gender-egalitarian, with men and women occupying all roles and stations of life. Both Amalia the heiress and Zaira the urchin have daunting obstacles to face, but gender prejudice is not among them. Hallelujah! This is how it’s done, my friends.

Brandon Sanderson, Oathbringer

It’s finally out! I’ve been thirsting to get my hands on the third volume of Sanderson’s epic Stormlight Archive series, ever since I heard Sanderson read excerpts from it at DragonCon 2016. Now it is mine at last. I’ve just passed page 200, so all I can already say is that it’s huge and beautiful and I love it, and I’m thrilled to spend time once again with Kaladin, Syl, Dalinar, Shallan, and the brave, funny men of Bridge Four. Ah, to be in Roshar now that fall is here!

An Atlanta Christmas, to be performed by the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company at the Good Acting Studio in Marietta, GA on December 9 and 10.

More than a decade after Christmas Rose, I have finally written a new Christmas piece for ARTC! Set at the North Pole and called The Sleigh of Unspoken Dreams, it focuses on a trio of elves who are just plain sick of turning out corporate and licensed merchandise and flex their creative muscles by crafting toys that haven’t yet been, but should be, asked for. Its debut performance takes place in just three weeks. If you happen to be in the Atlanta area and want to take in a special festive activity, check out our show, which also includes scripts by gifted ARTC writers David Benedict, Rhetta Bodhaine, Ron Butler, Cyd Hoskinson, Dave Schroeder, Brad Strickland, and Jonathan Strickland.