The Many Small Deaths of the SJB

A List Post

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

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

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

A more hopeful list will come soon.

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Book Report: Recent Reads

Warning: Spoilers

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

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

An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors

Alchemy cover

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

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

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

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

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

The Infernal Battalion

Battalion cover

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Okay, Hollywood, Now What?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About Movie Posters

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

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

A Wrinkle in Time poster

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boss Baby poster

(Courtesy of Roger Ebert)

Despicable Me 3 poster

(Courtesy of IMDb)

Coco poster

(Courtesy of IMDb)

Peter Rabbit poster

(Courtesy of IMDb)

Hotel Transylvania 3 poster

(Courtesy of IMDb)

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

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

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

Things I Love about… Black Panther

WARNING: SPOILERS

“That movie was amazing,” I told my husband just after we’d finished seeing Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It took me a minute or two — long enough for us to walk out to our car — to pinpoint just why the movie made me so giddy, but when I did, I proclaimed with an even bigger grin that this was the first live-action superhero movie I’d ever seen in which I didn’t have a single problem with the portrayals of women.

I knew Matt would appreciate this, since he’s had to listen to my frequent rants about the limited roles usually given to women in superhero films — either the powerless damsel love interest who exists to keep the hero “grounded” and to need rescuing at appropriate moments, or the femme fatale whom the hero must resist and then vanquish. I might have enjoyed any number of superhero movies, from 1978’s classic Superman (which ignited a crush on Christopher Reeve that lasted for years) to Thor: Ragnarok, but I’d always had at least one complaint about the women in the story. Even my beloved Peggy Carter was, sadly, a Smurfette. So after seeing Black Widow and Agents Maria Hill and Sharon Carter all kick butt at different points in the film (with Black Widow getting one of the best scenes — “Did I step on your moment?”), I let it be known that Captain America: The Winter Soldier was my favorite live-action superhero movie.

For quite a while it maintained that status. None of the subsequent films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe reached The Winter Soldier‘s level when it came to female characters, and I found some of them to be big fat “feminist fails,” particularly Thor: The Dark World (the one where the love interest falls into a coma and has to be carried around for half the movie) and Doctor Strange (the one where not one single female wizard is left alive at the end). It took Wonder Woman to compromise The Winter Soldier‘s standing as my favorite. At any rate, it remained my favorite Marvel live-action superhero movie.

Until this past Monday — when Black Panther pole-vaulted over it.

Many of the things I love about it have already been examined at length by others. (I especially love the take by Tor.com’s Liz Bourke.) But I offer my own observations nonetheless, and if they prove repetitive, I’ll just have to live with that.

T’Challa’s first adventure sets the tone. We first see T’Challa, the Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and his right hand, Okoye (Danai Gurira), general of the all-female Dora Milaje warriors, in the midst of a mission. They mean to “get Nakia out,” and we’re led to think “Nakia” must be someone in need of rescue; that’s what we’ve seen, after all, in countless superhero movies heretofore. T’Challa and Okoye banter as he prepares, and their dialogue establishes them as friends who value and trust each other. He says he’s going into the fray alone. She doesn’t argue but simply says, “Don’t freeze.” And he’s off.

Then we see Nakia (Lupita N’yongo) herself, in the back of a truck alongside of a throng of frightened young female captives. She might seem to blend in with this desperate group, but for something distinct in her eyes — a sharpness, an awareness. She’s waiting for her moment. When Black Panther arrives and goes into action, we think that moment has come, as she throws off her distressed-damsel disguise and reveals herself as a skilled fighter. Yet when the battle is over, Okoye having descended to save T’Challa with a couple of well-executed spear moves (because “you froze”), we learn that Nakia was actually on a rescue mission of her own and is far from happy that T’Challa compromised her. Crucial character attributes are established in this early sequence — T’Challa’s courage and sense of responsibility and lingering feelings for Nakia, Nakia’s idealism and wider-ranging views, and Okoye’s tough badassery combined with her sly, understated sense of humor. It made me want to follow them wherever they might go.

Erik Killmonger’s first appearance also gives us a clear idea of whom we’re dealing with. Killmonger has been touted as Marvel’s most interesting villain since Loki in the Thor films. I concur, and not only because Michael B. Jordan brings so much charisma to the table. He’s an angry young man who has every reason to be angry. He wants to seize T’Challa’s homeland of Wakanda and its “vibranium” (a comic book mineral also responsible for Captain America’s shield) and use them to fight against injustice. In the long run, he ends up being a catalyst for positive change, though not in the way he intended; he awakens an isolationist nation from its long sleep. Yet for all that, he’s still a villain, as we see clearly when, in his first scene, he poisons a British museum docent so he can steal an ancient Wakandan weapon and make his getaway. He may have some bitterness towards her for being one of the “colonizers,” but first and foremost she’s collateral damage — a concept which, as I’ve mentioned before, a true hero never accepts. Killmonger might make some valid points about justice, but we see at once that he’s the wrong person to administer it.

The story’s coolest character actually IS female! T’Challa’s younger sister Shuri — scientist, engineer, inventor, healer, and bringer of much sass — is already a hit with fans; plenty of them, including my husband, don’t hesitate to name her as a favorite. And why not? She gets all the best lines! Letitia Wright invests her with such humor and distinct individuality that she’s evaded the accusations of “Mary Sue” usually leveled at a female character who is awesome at so many things. Audiences just accept her as the badass she is and welcome each scene in which she appears.  Shuri also has Matt’s favorite line in the movie: “Oh, great.  Another white boy I have to fix!”  (By the way, if you want to know about the fate of that other “white boy,” sit through all the closing credits.)

Wakanda is a stunning example of a gender-egalitarian world. So many feminist stories are written and told in the mold of The Handmaid’s Tale, and show their female characters struggling mightily to defy, or at least survive, patriarchal oppression. These are important and valuable stories, when told well. But what a relief it is, at least on occasion, to enter a world like Wakanda, in which women do not have to prove themselves but rather are accepted as powerful and competent individuals. Here we see men and women working well together, valuing each other as friends, helping each other — something I’ve longed to see more of for years. It’s especially uplifting to see a group of women who are completely confident in their abilities, comfortable in their own skins. Self-doubt doesn’t plague them. Even when they’re grieving the apparent loss of T’Challa, they don’t flounder. Rather, they take it upon themselves to save the kingdom.

Also refreshing is the absence of the Ordinary-Girl Love Interest (TM) who keeps the superhero “grounded.” Though romance is kept to a bare minimum, it’s clear the object of T’Challa’s romantic interest is Nakia, Dora Milaje warrior and spy, anything but ordinary. Instead of “grounding” T’Challa, she opens his eyes to new possibilities. It’s her vision of Wakanda’s emergence from isolation, to serve as aid and guide to the world around them rather than murderous avenger, that ultimately wins the day.

It represents a forward path for Hollywood storytelling. What would movies look like if “white male” were not the default setting for heroes/protagonists? What would they look like if we were at last free of the notion that stories with white male leads are universal while stories with non-white and/or non-male leads are for niche audiences only? A lot like this one, probably. This is the future this feminist wants.

We’re not there yet. Matt and I saw seven trailers before Black Panther finally started to roll. Of those seven, only one featured a non-white male lead (Rampage, with Dwayne Johnson), and only one featured a female character who gets to share protagonist status with a white guy (Ant-Man and the Wasp). The rest (Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Mission Impossible: Fallout, Ready Player One, Solo: A Star Wars Story, and Hurricane Heist) offer white male business as usual, with POC in secondary roles and women doing their duty as sidekicks, damsels, love interests, or fatal femmes. Fans who complain of an “SJW conspiracy” to take over Hollywood ought to know that three out of fifteen mainstream releases per month with leads that aren’t white men does not evidence of a conspiracy make.

If the entertainment industry were truly as inclusive as it should be, the racial and gender make-up of Black Panther‘s characters would not be worth remarking on. But it isn’t — and so it is. The movie is superb in terms of storytelling and groundbreaking in terms of representation. (Some have said that people who praise Black Panther for giving us a POC superhero lead are forgetting Blade, and maybe they have a point, but hey, from what I recall, Blade wasn’t backed up by a badass corps of Dora Milaje.) And audiences are loving it. I’m down for the ripple effects, even though it may take some while for us to see them.

In other words, Matt and I had a fantastic time at Black Panther.  My husband was not all that thrilled with the obligatory Stan Lee cameo, though (yes, he shows up in the film at a place you would not expect.  The filmmakers should have tried harder, according to Matt…)

 

Growing Up Feminist, Part 3

Just how troubling is it to come to the realization that you’re just not the person the world wants you to be, and you don’t want what the world wants from you?

Very — even when you have a strong support system through your family. You may know you’re loved, but at the same time you know that being true to yourself means being an outsider, and directly or indirectly you’ll be made to feel as though something is wrong with you.

Before I entered my tweens I, like most little girls, loved to play with dolls. I had many an apple-cheeked plastic baby to cuddle and caress. I gave each one a name from my list of favorites-of-the-moment, and I imagined personalities for them that went beyond babyhood. One of my favorite play-pretends was to rescue my babies after they’d gone missing. I always succeeded. It didn’t register with me then that these kinds of stories don’t always have happy endings.

Not only did I have the right toys, but I also read the right books, or at least the ones I knew about at the time. My picture books were full of mother bears, mother tigers, and mother rabbits doing motherly things like feeding and tucking-in and even scolding their (usually male) offspring. Moms didn’t have adventures They were anchored to the home to which the (almost always male) child adventurers had to return. All well and good, I suppose — except that these moms made up approximately 70% of all the female characters I saw.

As I noted in my previous post, the only female character in A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh stories is Kanga, Roo’s mother, and “mother” is the beginning and the end of her personality. The first of Kipling’s Mowgli stories, “Mowgli’s Brothers,” features a much cooler mother figure, Raksha, the wolf who adopts the human toddler and terrifies the ravenous tiger Shere Khan away from her den; sadly, after that first story she disappears, leaving Mowgli to be guided through his formative years by male mentors. Charlotte, the titular spider of Charlotte’s Web, fascinated my younger self far more than either of these, since she was active and clever and played a much larger role, but even she is essentially Mom, and when she has fulfilled that biological function, she perishes.

It’s little surprise, then, that I spent a large part of my childhood thinking that being Mom was just part of being a girl, that one went with the other. Nor did that idea come only from stories; I saw very few non-moms among the grown women I knew. I had no reason to question it, and I wasn’t conscious of any discomfort I might have felt at the prospect of becoming a mom myself. That was so far in the future. I could wait, and put off considering what being a mom would mean for me.

Then, when I was in my twenties, something small planted a seed — a leaf through an issue of People Magazine in the optometrist’s office. One of the articles profiled former tennis champ Chris Evert and her life as a mother. The article’s first line was her answer when the interviewer asked her what books she’d read lately: she had no time for reading at all, because, as she put it, she was too busy watching Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers with her kids.

The comment was meant to be light-hearted, but it struck right at my heart. No time for reading? For my favorite thing in the world? If being a mom left no time for reading, how could it leave time for writing? How would I stand such a life? True, I had seen my own mom reading aplenty when I was small, but my feelings about Evert’s little jest impacted me as much as the jest itself. If I was more horrified by the prospect of not being able to read than charmed by the description of Evert’s life as a mom, maybe I wasn’t as maternal as I was supposed to be. Maybe I didn’t have quite the right heart for motherhood. As the seed took root, I started to wonder — did this make me a bad person?

After all, I couldn’t recall reading or seeing a single story in which an admirable heroine decided she didn’t want children. All good girls and women wanted them, if the question came up at all; only shallow, materialistic shrews turned up their noses at motherhood. Nor did I see or read about many girls and women whose work meant to them what reading and writing meant to me, save Anne Shirley and Jo March (which may be why I’m passionately devoted to these characters to this day). Girls in stories, for the most part, had no concrete ambitions, no passions or callings. They were concerned primarily, if not exclusively, with their relationships with others, as if this was where their only real value lay. I know now I should have read the work of Tamora Pierce and Robin McKinley, whose brave and purposeful heroines would have been a welcome alternative to uninspiring TV characters like Mallory Keaton. But I didn’t know about Pierce or McKinley at the time.

So it fell to my own mother to help me understand my feelings about having children, and to assure me I wasn’t defective or mean for not wanting to become a mother. If I changed my mind later, that would be okay, but if I never did, that would be okay, too. Yet again, my own family helped me by counteracting the messages of popular culture and arming me against them. In the intervening years they’ve stayed on my side. But not every girl or woman is so lucky, and the messages that made me wonder about myself back them have persisted, to pressure new generations. Remember the reason the late comedian Jerry Lewis cited for thinking female comedians weren’t funny?

Jurassic World, anyone?

The sad truth I’ve come to understand is that a lot of people are afraid of women like me. To them, a woman who opts out of motherhood spells the doom of the human race. If she can choose to remain child-free without facing condemnation from the world around her, pretty soon other women will do it, and then all women will do it, and we’ll have a population crisis on our hands. If we open the door to a choice, we can’t control how many people will walk through it. It’s the same fear that once drove the argument against women’s suffrage: if women have the vote, and have options other than depending on their husbands, they’ll soon defect from their domestic duties.

If this is true, then motherhood must really be the worst thing in the world, something no woman would choose if she had any alternative. But in fact, motherhood is a choice multitudes of women embrace with open eyes and hearts. I may be child-free, but I don’t expect other women to be like me. I’m grateful for the women who aren’t. In back of nearly every A student I teach is a mother or mother figure who has done her job well. And few things make me happier than going to Dragon Con and other conventions, seeing the nerdy moms and dads with their kids in full cosplay. Those youngsters might be my readers one day.  (My husband and I once saw a family cosplaying as the family from My Neighbor Totoro.  We both properly geeked out from having our hearts warmed.)

It seems to me that a woman makes a much better mother when she bears and raises children out of genuine desire rather than a sense of obligation. Through such women, the human race will survive and even thrive. Yet we need to understand, once again, that women are not all alike, we’re not all good at the same things, and one woman’s happiness may well be another woman’s Purgatory. Demonizing women who choose not to have children is just one more of our culture’s attempts to impose a sameness on women, to undermine that glorious variety that is all humanity’s gift.

This, then, is the heart of my feminism — to examine, question, and defy those expectations of sameness. To claim individuality and variety for all people, not just a privileged few.

Growing Up Feminist, Part 2

“It is vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquility; they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it. . . Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do;. . . it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more and learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.” — Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre

Star Wars burst onto the scene when I was eight years old. I remember sitting in the theater mesmerized, gazing with awe at the galaxy far, far away, falling in love with R2-D2, and grieving the loss of Obi-Wan. My sister, two years older, also loved it, so naturally we wanted to stage our own Star Wars adventures in our backyard. The problem: which of us would be Princess Leia? Leia was so cool, with her blaster and her white dress and her weird hairstyle, so of course we both wanted to be her. In contests between siblings, the older generally wins, so I ended up having no idea who I would be, since I didn’t want to pretend to be a boy. Apart from Leia, there was no girl character into whose shoes I could happily imagine myself. I don’t recall exactly what I ended up doing, but in the version of Star Wars that ran in my head, R2 was always referred to by female pronouns. I mean, why not?

I understand now that I was searching for something that the stories I grew up with were rarely willing to give me. I wanted the most interesting character in the room to be female, so I imagined a female Water Rat, a female Eeyore, a female Bagheera, a female Fiver. I was happy with these alterations, but far less happy with the characters who were actually female. Either they were the only girl in the galaxy, like Princess Leia, or bland, unadventurous caregivers who spent most of their time on the sidelines, like Kanga in Winnie-the-Pooh, or absent from the story altogether. One striking exception appeared on HBO in the early 1980s: Fraggle Rock, whose two major female characters were funny, frenetic, quirky, and flawed. I would have been happy being either the wild, competitive Red or the dreamy, artistic Mokey, and at different points in my life I’ve identified with each of them. But by that time my sister and I had outgrown our backyard adventures.

It may have occurred to me then to wonder why there weren’t more Reds and Mokeys in my life, why there weren’t more female characters who were as active and engaging as their male counterparts. Mokey and Red were special because 1) there were two of them, which matters more than some are willing to admit; and 2) they had a uniqueness about them, an individuality that not many female characters in my favorite children’s books, movies, and television shows seemed to have. Since then, I’ve made a point of seeking out female characters with that wonderful spark of individual life.

My value of individuality forms the core of my feminism. Behind the concept of strict gender divisions, whether those who advocate them realize it or are willing to admit it, is the notion that women, simply because they are women, share the same set of basic traits that fit them for a range of possibilities far narrower than men’s. A society that demands adherence to these gender divisions only works if all women are nurturing caregivers, all women are content to be relational (daughter, wife, mother) rather than individual, all women are followers rather than leaders, and all women are “not quite as good” as men at any task or skill that lies outside their designated sphere. Men may be politicians, soldiers, doctors, lawyers, inventors, engineers, writers, artists, church leaders, law officers, and film and stage directors, but women must be women first and foremost, as if the gender itself were a calling or occupation. For centuries, in order to make this system work, girls growing up were taught not to think of themselves as too unique (as a character from Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall puts it, “You see what it is for women to affect to be different to other people”) and to value themselves in purely relational terms. Yet always, some women have managed to break out of their narrow room, and now we’re starting to wonder just how much potential has gone unfulfilled, unrealized, over the long, long years.

The core of my feminism should be simple common sense. Not all women are alike. We don’t all share the same daydreams, hopes, and ambitions. We don’t all share the same interests, skills, or talents. Each of us has a passion of her own that springs from her uniqueness, and being of a certain gender should not hinder us — any of us — from following that passion. It astonishes me that even now, some folk still have so much trouble accepting this notion.

Yet while I may grind my teeth in frustrations at all the signs of how far we have yet to go, my heart leaps with joy at every sign of progress I see. After all, nowadays, girls who act out Star Wars in their backyards have a number of characters to choose from, girls who move in the thick of adventure and save lives and who are, quite often, the coolest in the room.

Next week: Part 3

 

 

Growing Up Feminist

Part I

“Let husbands know/ Their wives have sense like them. They see, and smell,/ And have their palates both for sweet and sour,/ As husbands have. What is it that they do/ When they change us for others? Is it sport?/ I think it is. And doth affection breed it?/ I think it doth. Is ‘t frailty that thus errs?/ It is so, too. And have we not affections/ Desires for sport, and frailty, as men have?”       Othello Act IV, lines 99 – 107

(I can’t help but laugh at how much like plain common sense these words sound, yet how radical they must have seemed to the audience that first heard them.)

I’m not sure how it all started. It may have been once I began to notice all prospective parents in the books I read and movies I saw seemed to long for boys, as if, even in the very womb, girl-children weren’t good enough.

My parents do all they can to ensure my sister and I knew we are loved and valued and they wouldn’t have traded us for a thousand boys. But an idea so deeply ingrained in our culture as the preference for boys can seep through the cracks of the safest house, like toxic smoke. It’s everywhere — in the Bible (in the stories of Mary and Elizabeth, as well as all those women in the Old Testament who prayed desperately for sons or competed to see how many sons they could bear), in history (remember the story of Henry VIII and his quest for a male heir?), and especially in popular culture, in those classic movies on which I cut my teeth.

I couldn’t name every example if I tried; the ones that stick most fast in my memory come from movies I otherwise admire or even love. 1934’s Little Man, What Now? has pregnant Margaret Sullavan (pregnant of course in a 1934 way, so that her figure is maidenly throughout) told repeatedly to pray and hope for a boy because “girls are useless.” In 1939’s Made for Each Other, as James Stewart and Carole Lombard gaze enraptured at their newborn baby son, a cabbie asks them if the baby is a boy or a girl; Lombard replies simply, “What do you think?” as if no girl-baby could possibly inspire such joy as he sees in their faces. In 1941’s Penny Serenade, Cary Grant and Irene Dunne suffer the loss of their adorable adopted daughter, but they’re consoled with a happy ending, as they’re on the phone with the adoption agency and hearing that the boy they wanted in the first place is finally available. Peter Marshall of A Man Called Peter and Dr. Noah Praetorius of People Will Talk, both brilliant men, insist the babes their wives are carrying must be sons. (The latter goes even further and insists that all their future children will be boys.) To have “all boys” is heavenly, as 1939’s Goodbye, Mr. Chips makes clear. For a less admired example, we have comedian Eddie Cantor making a whole career out of jokes about his desperate longing for a son and bitter disappointment at having so many daughters — clearly a laugh riot back in the 1930s, but I wonder if any of Cantor’s daughters ever felt happy and secure in their father’s love as I did in mine.

For me as a young girl and then later a young woman, the worst of it was that it seemed this lust for boy-children, expressed again and again in different ways in different stories, was never critiqued or even called into question. It was presented as natural, as right. Of course boys were preferred. Boys were a sign of a father’s virility (a backward idea with no basis in science), and they just might grow up to change the world. Girls, apparently, had nothing to offer the future, except the promise of more boy-children. This idea may be a remnant of the past, a reflection of a certain time and place, but it nonetheless got under my skin and made me wonder exactly what about me was sub-par, at least in the eyes of the world beyond my own home.

Moreover, the preference for boys isn’t as much a relic of decades gone by as I wish it were. When I read about countries and cultures in which female infanticide is common, or read a statistic stating that men who have sons are less likely to abandon their families because they’re more invested in their boys and anxious to provide a role model, or see an episode of a popular TV show in which a woman, already the mother of two boys, terminates every pregnancy once she learns the baby will be a girl (because “girls are nothing but trouble anyway”), or overhear a conversation at a restaurant in which a mother with three sons tells a waitress how “happy and relieved” she is that none of her children are girls, I get that familiar tense, angry feeling. They still get to me, these signs of the notion that girls, and by extension women, are not and can never be good enough.

When you’re loved within your own family but the outside world sends you messages that you’re less valuable, less important, because you lack a Y chromosome, there are three ways you can respond. You can give in to it, accept the idea that you were born inferior. You can laugh it off. Or you can take the sense of pride and self-worth that your family, against the odds, fostered in you and fight. I’ve gone with the third option. I’m still fighting, in the ways I read and write and teach.

Coming next week: Part 2

Book Report: Recent Reads

Of all fantasy novel subgenres I have two unrivaled favorites: big, sweeping epics with sprawling casts of characters that include plenty of interesting women, and smaller- scale fairy-tale retellings with lovely, lyrical prose and a mystical feel. In the past couple of months I’ve read a fine example of each.

Oathbringer pic

Oathbringer by Brandon Sanderson

The world of Roshar, which Sanderson has constructed for his epic Stormlight Archive series, is deep and wide enough for a fantasy fan happily to drown in. Whenever one of these novels comes out (Oathbringer is the third), I know I’m going to get thoroughly lost in an amazing landscape. I love this series so much that it’s not enough for me to have and read a print copy only. I must own it on audiobook as well, so the world can sweep me away a second time, or a third, or however many times I like.

I’ll keep my description as simple as possible. The Stormlight Archive centers on a military conflict between the humans of the kingdom of Alethkar and a formidable race of humanoids called Parshendi. A malevolent immortal force plans to use this conflict as a means to destroy the world, and the only hope for survival rests with a group of magically gifted individuals, the Knights Radiant. Three of these Knights are our central characters — Kaladin, a resentful young hero with an instinct to protect victims of injustice; Shallan, a noble woman with a troubled past, who can manipulate perceptions and create illusions; and Dalinar, a military leader with a history of ruthlessness, now seeking to unite opposing factions and recover what honor he can. Surrounding these three is an array of splendid supporting characters, kings and queens and farmers and warriors, foreigners from mountains and deserts, human and nonhuman. One of my favorites is Jasnah, Dalinar’s niece, whose logical perspective is often mistaken for cold-heartedness. I also adore every member of Kaladin’s crew of misfit ex-slave bodyguards, “Bridge Four” (except one, but I don’t want to Spoil too much).

The first book in the series, The Way of Kings, focused primarily on Kaladin, while the second, Words of Radiance, centered on Shallan. Oathbringer is Dalinar’s book, though the others get their shining moments. In the first two volumes, Dalinar’s past has been shrouded in mystery, hidden even from him, but now his worst memories, once taken from him as an immortal’s “boon,” have returned to him, and both he and we learn that whatever we might have imagined about his history, the truth is worse. The core theme of this story is redemption, as he must struggle with the man he has been in order to become the man the world needs him to be. Redemption isn’t pretty, it’s messy, and above all, it’s painful. If Dalinar is to be redeemed, he must own his misdeeds.

The redemption theme may center on Dalinar, but it reaches out to others, including Shallan, who transforms into other personas to avoid the weakness she sees in herself, and Venli, a Parshendi woman indirectly responsible for the death of her more sympathetic sister, who finds herself called upon to become the person that sister should have been. (In actuality one of my favorite parts of Oathbringer is how much we learn about the Parshendi, far from a one-dimensional malevolent race of Orcish monsters.) So many of the main characters are broken in some way, but Sanderson deftly handles the darkness of their situations without ever crossing into nihilistic grimdark territory. In grimdark, virtue is a lie and redemption an illusion. In the Stormlight Archive, hope is never fully lost.

Bear Nightingale pic

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

This wintry tale takes its inspiration from the old story of “King Frost,” in which an innocent maiden is sent out to die in a frozen field by her wicked stepmother, but she survives and is rewarded for speaking to the winter king himself with courageous civility. Arden takes her readers back to an Old Russia ruled by the Tsar and his landowning boyars, and her novel’s greatest strength is the lovely, detailed prose with which she sets her scene, creating a world never truly warm, a world where humans’ survival depends on respect for the spirits of both nature and hearth.

Like all my favorite fairy-tale retellings, this one centers on a female lead, Vasilisa, or Vasya. Unlike the rather passive maiden of the fairy tale, whose chief virtue is endurance, the spirited, tomboyish Vasya is active in her support and her respect for the spirits, fostering a connection with them that she uses to protect those she loves and even, at two separate points, to save the life of an enemy. She’s easy to like, smart and observant and brave, unwilling to fall without a fight into a role she isn’t suited for even though her father and brothers keep telling her it is the “lot of women.” Interestingly, though the father and brothers might represent the status quo, the narrative depicts them with sympathy and understanding. All the important characters are understandable in their own ways, even the villains, the prideful priest “tempted” (from his own perspective) by Vasya, and the envious, tormented stepmother, so unable to catch a break from her first scene to her last that I can’t help pitying her just a little.

Sadly, the book falters where it ought to be the strongest — the climax. Vasya has been a proactive figure throughout the narrative, and we have every reason to think she’ll save the day in the end. But at crunch time, her courage and her power prove insufficient, and it’s left to someone else to strike the death-blow against evil. Yet despite my disappointment, I’m eager to continue with this series. I suspect Vasya’s ineffectuality might be a symptom of “first book syndrome,” since this is the beginning of a trilogy. Arden can’t have her hero (for I have faith that’s what Vasya will become) peak too early. Just how, and how far, will she grow? I want to see.

Differing Perspectives

Since my 2017 Year in Review posts, I’ve had the chance to see Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water. I loved it. I felt that, like Pan’s Labyrinth before it, it reflected the filmmaker’s sympathy with daydreamers whose wavelengths are out of tune with the ordinary and mundane. I viewed Sally Hawkins’ Elisa, like Mercedes in Pan’s Labyrinth, as a powerful woman who knows society views her as powerless and uses that perception to deceive and defy those who would dismiss her. I connected with her almost immediately, thanks to Hawkins’ deftly detailed performance. How could I not like a woman who wishfully imitates Bill Robinson’s dance moves? I came away hoping this movie might clean up at this year’s Oscars, embracing it as a welcome rarity, a critically acclaimed film with an abundance of heart.

Then I read the following article on Tor.com. (Warning: it contains Spoilers.)

https://www.tor.com/2018/01/16/i-belong-where-the-people-are-disability-and-the-shape-of-water/

The author of this article is looking at the movie from a different perspective from my own, focusing on the ways in which it portrays the heroine’s disability. As I read it, I could understand, point for point, all the elements in the movie that she found frustrating. I remembered them all, but caught up in the film’s dreamlike romanticism, I didn’t see them in the same way. While I was engaged by Hawkins’ performance, I didn’t consider that some might be bothered that the role didn’t go to an actress with the same disability as the character. Now I can see it. I can’t say that a single word of this article is wrong.

So, is it okay if I still love The Shape of Water?

The worst thing anyone can say in response to a differing perspective is, “You shouldn’t be offended.” It’s not one person’s place to judge what someone else finds offensive or problematic. Yet while I can perceive the movie’s problems, I can’t deny it caught me up in its spell. I can’t deny I want to see it again. The difference of opinion/response offers more proof that each of us creates meaning in tandem with the creators of the art we consume. Our own identities and experiences affect our responses to it. If we bear this in mind, surely we can understand and appreciate someone else’s different movies on a piece of art we love, without necessarily losing that love.

I had a similar experience when I read Tor’s review of Roald Dahl’s Matilda:

https://www.tor.com/2018/01/15/precociousness-and-telekinesis-rereading-roald-dahls-matilda/

I’d praised Matilda as a good read for girls in my previous blog post. The story still has my heart, more than ever since I saw the musical recently. But I can’t deny that everything the author found problematic is very much a part of the tale. Miss Trunchbull is as despicable as the story demands (and I have my own issues with the ways in which her evil is bound up with her physical strength and bigness), but did her more competent replacement have to be a man? Why not promote Miss Honey instead, as happened in the film version?

But darn it, I still love Matilda. I actually think it does us good to read perspectives on stories that diverge from ours, particularly when it concerns something we love. Understanding that not everyone sees the same thing the same way doesn’t have to diminish our joy. But maybe it makes us think a little more about where our joy might be coming from.

What I appreciate about these two articles I’ve shared is that neither author is what I call a “Missionary of Hate.” They state, “I find these aspects problematic,” and then they explain their case. They do NOT cry out, in so many words, “I hated it, and if you didn’t hate it too, then you’re WRONG!

For contrast we have only to look at the Internet vitriol directed at Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi. Now, The Last Jedi has problematic aspects of its own, and some have pointed them out with a great deal of insight. Foz Meadows, for instance, notes how the choice to ignore the chemistry between Finn and Poe in favor of building up a heterosexual love subplot for the former diminishes the movie as a whole (though she does point out she enjoyed it). Again, beware Spoilers:

https://fozmeadows.wordpress.com/2018/01/11/star-wars-the-last-jedi/

Yet voices like Meadows’ have been drowned in a flood of shouts declaring that critics who praised the movie must have been paid off. Some haters have even started a petition with the apparent aim of forcing writer/director Rian Johnson to admit publicly that his movie sucks. When I read Meadows’ article, I know we saw the same movie. But when I venture a look into the haters’ spew, I can’t believe we saw the same movie.

The haters’ aim is to make those who disagree with them feel like fools, to the point where we may be embarrassed or even afraid to admit that we actually like the object of their scorn. They’re not happy until their voices alone are heard. While we should be accepting and understanding of opinions different from ours, we should take care to keep a clear view of the line between disagreement and bullying. Disagreement we should appreciate, but bullying we should resist with all our might.

Bullies should never win.