Archive for April, 2011

Warning: spoilers and ranting off the port bow!

So.

OK.

So. 

My devotion to Bones has been firmly established for some time now. Which isn’t to say that there haven’t been any ups and downs to the relationship: not so long ago, there was a dethroning moment of suck so heinous as to constitute the Worst Crossover Ever. Even so, Season 5 went a long way towards repairing the wounds of Season 4 and its oh-so-lamentable attempts at novelty murder, unbelievably shitty characterisation and wacky hijinks via a judicious application of episodes that actually made sense. Look: I am sympathetic to the bestial nature of television writing, which demands increasingly higher stakes and exotic scenarios the longer a show stays on the air. I understand that, past a certain point, They Fight Crime inevitably becomes less the motive and more the background, such that the imaginative slack needs must be picked up elsewhere. (Or at least, that it’s perceived to be needed to be picked up, but that’s a whole ‘nother argument.) So even as I roll my eyes at the proliferation of bizarre and improbable crimes with which the Jeffersonian team are increasingly presented – and by this I mean, crimes which either:

(a) require the investigation and simultaneous deconstruction of a subculture;

(b) have been executed in a bizarre fashion using mysterious props; or

(c) whose discovery and solving involve under-cover dressups of any kind

– I have nonetheless been willing to tolerate their presence, on the sole condition that these episodes otherwise meet the criteria of consistent characterisation, good writing and eventual solutions which do not cause me to go all squinty and swear at my laptop. Of course I make exceptions for the odd dud episode. I can deal with that, because sooner or later, even in the best shows, it’s inevitable. What I don’t want to see is a pattern of laziness, obviousness and bad scripting such that I start to grind my teeth at the sheer tackiness of it all.

Possibly you see where I’m going with this.

I tolerated the devil thing. I was even willing to overlook the whole naked witch fiasco despite the hideous product placement – that is to say, the centering of an entire plotline around something the Toyota Prius does – because it’s also the episode where Angela and Hodgins tie the knot. God help me, I was even amused by the Avatar worship episode, on the grounds that a little meta never hurt anyone, no matter how much free advertising it gives to James Cameron. And it’s not like Season 6 hasn’t delivered some of the best episodes – if not the single best episode ever – to help balance things out. But the negativity has been building, too: a subtle pattern of increased product placement (hello, cars and computer software!), lowest common denominator gags (“Canadian, or afraid?”, Hart Hanson? REALLY?), a backsliding on previously established (and, crucially, left-wing) characterisation and – again – ludicrous plot elements. Even so, I’ve been coping: this is, after all, a favourite show of mine, and despite all my bitching and moaning, I have a high pain threshold for narrative.

And then came The Finder.

I just.

I don’t even.

So, we all know what a spinoff series is, yes? Where one or more of the primary supporting characters from an existing show get upgraded to protagonists elsewhere? Like Angel from Buffy, Torchwood from Doctor Who, Joey from Friends, Frasier from Cheers? We are all familiar with this concept. It is sort of a big thing! SO WHY THE HELL HAS HART HANSON SUDDENLY INTRODUCED THREE ENTIRELY NEW CHARACTERS ADAPTED FROM A DIFFERENT SET OF NOVELS FOR THE SOLE PURPOSE OF HAVING THEM APPEAR ONCE – JUST ONCE! – SO HE CAN CALL THEIR NEW SHOW A BONES SPINOFF?

Deep breaths, Foz. It’s just a TV show. I shouldn’t care this much.

And yet, I DO care. I am actually furious – not because forty minutes of my evening was stolen away by a trio of characters I’ve never met before and don’t give a shit about under the guise of watching Bones, or even because Hart Hanson is apparently unfamiliar with the universally established definition of what constitutes a spinoff series. No: I am furious because the show I watched was clunky, badly scripted, sexist and unoriginal, comprised of cast members whose entry into the Bones-verse was so forced and unnecessary that it was like watching the writers prise open their own continuity with a crowbar and dump in a sackload of Awful.

Cases In Point:

1. Our new lead, Walter Sherman, is an imitation Booth. Iraq veteran with brain damage? Check. A Catholic whose beliefs are challenged by his line of work but who otherwise keeps faith? Check. Sexually interested in Temperance Brennan? Check. Works on intuition rather than science? Check. Surrounded by people who owe him their lives? Check, check and check.

2. Clunky exposition-laden dialogue. OH MY GOD THE CLUNKY. Such that Ike and Leo, Walter’s offsiders, actually have a conversation with each other about how they’ve been put with Walter (by God or destiny) to help him use his gift, and how they both owe him their lives, and how they fear what will happen on the terrible and inevitable day that Walter can’t find what he’s looking for, until which time they’d better just stick right by him, quirks and all. In the first ten minutes.

3. Oh, and we wrap with Ike, a prime candidate for the inevitable UST, actually saying how ironic it is that the one thing Walter can’t find is lasting love. You guys, SHE ACTUALLY SAYS THIS.

4. Presumably so as to demonstrate his quirkiness, Walter breaks into the house of the dead guy and snoops around for clues. OK, fine: but is it really necessary for him to strip down to his boxers, too? Well, duh: how ELSE would we get those lovingly executed panning shots of his perfectly sculpted abs? Or, better yet, the coup de gras, wherein he sits naked on the toilet and chats on the phone, with only a strategically-angled sink to shield his genitals from the cruel gaze of the public? (Excuse me while I facepalm and strangle Hart Hanson in effigy.)

5. The sexism. By which I mean, Walter goes to a tattoo shop and describes a girl with ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ tattooed on her chest, and is instantly told by the owner (after a lengthy exposition about how of course he owes Walter everything because of the rare tattooing needles he found for him that one time) that the girl in question is self-loathing, has daddy issues, and is probably a lesbian. Because OBVIOUSLY, these are three related problems! Never mind he’s going off the tattoo alone when he says this; never mind that I actually wanted to reach through the screen and strangle him. No, it’s cool. Daddy issues + self loathing = lesbianism. BRILLIANT. Which sets up an in-joke in the next scene, where Walter tries to get Ike, played by Saffron Burrows, to go and distract the suspected lesbian with her feminine wiles. To which Ike replies, “I’m not a lesbian! I just have a confident demeaniour!” – the in-joke being that Saffron Burrows actually is a lesbian. And before you’re wondering: yes, I misspelled ‘demeanour’ on purpose, in keeping with the fact that Ike’s character, in addition to being possessed of a glaringly fake chav accent, apparently mispronounces words of more than two syllables. You know, to balance out her intelligence and make her less threatening. LOVELY.

6. And yet more sexism! Such as: Walter propositions Bones within moments of being introduced to her. Later, on meeting Angela and Hodgins and being told that the pair are married, he asks whether Hodgins is rich. His reasoning? Angela rates an eleven on a scale of one to ten, whereas Hodgins is only a seven: his being rich, however, would “explain the disparity.” (Because intelligence and personality couldn’t possibly enter into it.) Later still, the Do Not Resuscitate girl – whose character, Brittany, is played by model Mini Anden – abases herself in conversation, claiming she can’t understand why Walter would want to talk to her because she isn’t pretty enough. And then he tells her no, she’s beautiful, which simple statement is apparently so gratifying and unprecedented that she kisses him right there and then. (She is, of course, murdered in the next scene, the better to Add To Our Hero’s Emotional Angst while painting him as a Sensitive Soul Who Falls Right In Love With Troubled Women, even though he says at the end of the episode that Tempe could really be The One And Only For Him. Riiiight.)

And so on.

The whole time I was watching, my jaw was literally tense with anger. I tried to calm down – it’s why I waited before writing this up – but my temper hasn’t abated. Because in the end, it’s not the prospect of a new and crappy spinoff hitting the air which bothers me, or the fact that my regularly scheduled viewing was interrupted to make way for a half-assed pilot of same. It’s that the people who write Bones – a show I have hitherto associated with good female characters, intelligent scripting and believable ensemble quirkiness – have not only produced a piece of television which shares none of those characteristics, but one which they’ve presented as being equal in theme and content to their previous, better, output. And so I’m angry, because more and more, it feels like the things I love about Bones are showing up only by habit, or worse yet, accident: that the product placement, bad characterisation, shitty plots and offensive logic aren’t just the unfortunate consequences of season fatigue, but the result of deliberate planning on behalf of the creators. That this is one more example of intelligent, fun television sliding into the tainted Gutter Of Crap.

And now, because I’m exhausted and cranky and can’t think of anything else to say that’s relevant, I’m off to bed.

I’ve just read this wonderful post by N. K. Jemisin, about – among other things – how she became an epic fantasy fan. Every geek I’ve ever met has a story, not like this, but an origin myth: the Tale of the Turning Point, wherein the first seeds of their fascination were sown. And somehow, just by reading it, a different story has fixed itself in me, and as I can’t think of anything else to do with that story but tell it here, I will.

So:

There is a door in your heart. It wasn’t always there. But when you were a child, you dreamed the door, walking the hallways of your own blood with outstretched hands until suddenly, there it was! You didn’t open it straight away, though. The door is a question, and once asked, it can never lie unanswered. Most of us creep up to our door -contemplating it in odd moments, perhaps, or resting a tentative palm on its wood, daring ourselves to one day turn the handle. And when we finally do, it’s no one thing which prompts us, but a natural act, as familiar a motion as brushing our own hair.

Behind the door is a room – not empty, as we might expect, but heaped with all the loves and lessons of childhood. Though precious, it is also cluttered, and so we set about cleaning house, each of us according to our nature. But whether we cling to some things or discard them all, the end result is an emptier room than there was before, sweet and clean in anticipation of being filled up again. And where before our childhood passions ruled our hearts according to whim, now we have each been given a door, and mastery over the things which pass its threshold.

But even so, who can long resist the lure of an empty room? Flush with the novelty of our newly-opened hearts, we fill them indiscriminately with wild and glorious things, with magpie-treasures and scraps of lore, feathers and thoughts and rags, and if some of these things are perhaps, in truth, not equal to our impression of them, then that is only right, just as any colour in an empty room, no matter how gaudy elsewhere, serves to brighten it. And because of our love for them, these first possessions swell with pride and fill the room near to bursting, until the very door itself strains against its hinges and threatens to break.

Rather than let this happen, we dim our passions, shrinking them back to a manageable size. Our love is not less – in fact, our hearts have grown – but now, we are more judicious in its bestowal. Once again, we consider the furnishings of our secret room, and set about reordering them. Perhaps we only tweak a thing here or there; perhaps we throw everything out and start anew. But either way, we must always remember that the room and its fittings are destined to change from this point on: that what fills it now did not always fill it before, and that this is simply what it means to live. Not without very good reason should we disdain old loves, nor should we take lightly any decision to lock the door, no matter if our purpose is to prevent intrusion or escape. The heart was built to be many things, but a prison is not among them.

The door is a riddle, and one to which we do not know the answer. Not yet. But one day – and that day comes differently for all of us – we will cross its threshold for the last time. We will turn our key in the lock, switch off the lights and gaze out a window that wasn’t there before. And if we are very lucky, the sight of what lies beyond will make us smile.

But that’s another story.      

Warning: complete spoilers, much rant.

Up until about a week ago, I hadn’t planned on seeing Sucker Punch at the movies, primarily because I didn’t know it existed. That all changed when rumblings in the blogsphere alerted me both to the film itself and to the suggestion that it was a sexist, misogynistic piece of rape-obsessed trash, as opined (among others) by The Atlantic reviewer Sady Doyle and blogger Cassie Alexander. This did not provoke in me a desire to spend money at the box office so much as a profound feeling of disgust – and yet, I remained a little bit intrigued, too, if only because of the amount of controversy racking up. First, lead actresses Emma Browning and Abbie Cornish both defended the film, and then I saw a favourable review that had been published, of all places, on the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center blog, wherein the author praised it as “the best movie about dissociation [he’d] ever seen.” 

Despite my initial reaction, Sucker Punch was starting to look like something I ought to see, if only for curiosity’s sake. Going in, I was prepared for the worst, but also open to the possibility of redemptive surprise, particularly as I’ve found Zack Snyder’s previous three efforts to be something of a mixed bag: I loathed 300, was on the fence about Watchmen, and liked Legend of the Guardians. Given that these were all adaptations, what then might I make of a story that Snyder had written himself? Accompanied by my long-suffering husband, I bought some popcorn and prepared to find out.

Visually and narratively, Sucker Punch operates in three different realms: the real world, where heroine Baby Doll has been committed to an asylum after her abusive step-father frames her for the murder of her little sister; the first dissociative layer, portrayed as a bordello, where Baby Doll and four of the other inmates plot their escape while enduring sexual abuse at the hands of the male orderlies; and the second, deeper dissociative layer, where the girls’ efforts to overcome their situation are expressed as  fantastic battles against giant warriors, dragons, androids and – wait for it – steampunk zombie Nazis. (And I’ll bet you thought only Hellboy had those, right?) In honour of this approach, I’ve elected to critique the film on three different levels – construction, continuity and context – in order to cover all bases.

Are you sitting comfortably? Then we’ll begin.

1. Construction 

Besides Baby Doll and her fellow inmates – Sweet Pea, Rocket, Amber and Blondie – Sucker Punch has three other noteworthy characters: villain Blue Jones, a crazed orderly (real world) and sadistic pimp (bordello); ally Vera Gorski, their psychiatrist (real world) and madame (bordello); and a character listed only as the Wise Man, who commands the girls during their fantasy battles.  (He also appears in the real world, but we’ll get to that later.) From the moment she enters the asylum, Baby Doll is on a tight schedule: unless she can escape within five days, a doctor will come and lobotomise her. To this end, the Wise Man lists the items she needs to achieve a “perfect victory”:  a map, fire, a knife, a key, and a fifth thing he refuses to name, which Baby Doll doesn’t mention to her friends. One by one, these items are acquired during the fantasy scenes, returning afterwards to the bordello realm, in which we spend the greatest amount of time. Our only visits to the real world, in fact, are spaced far apart: the very beginning and very end of the film. While this lends a certain sort of symmetry to the narrative, it’s a conceit which swiftly becomes problematic (more of which during the continuity section).

Despite their disparate themes, Zack Snyder’s previous films are united by a common visual aesthetic to which Sucker Punch is no exception: stylistic slow motion interspersed with lighting-fast flashes of violence and a sepia-tinted colour scheme give the film an eerie feel, while his trademark close-ups and swooping vistas provide a strong contrast between personal scenes and battles. The soundtrack is, I’ll admit, catchy, but at a price: the song-to-dialogue ratio is so heavily skewed that vital character development is done away with in favour of what are, effectively, music videos. Snyder’s distinctive visuals only compound this problem: the action scenes are long, almost totally unscripted except for the Wise Man’s briefings, and delivered with such a predictable rhythm that they soon become self-defeating, like endless cut-scenes in a video game.

As per the traditional laziness of the trashy action genre, our five man – or in this case, five girl – army is desperately under-characterised. Although we witness the chain of events leading to Baby Doll’s imprisonment, these opening scenes have no dialogue, leaning heavily on the straw-man Evil Step-Father image to justify her wrongful incarceration. Of the other girls, only sisters Sweet Pea and Rocket are ever given the slightest bit of history, and even this is flimsily done: Rocket ran away from home after clashing with her parents, and Sweet Pea, despite not being part of the argument, followed. How they ended up in the asylum is anyone’s guess – but then, there’s not much real world logic to Sucker Punch, even when we’re actually in the real world.

2. Continuity

As was demonstrated by the recent success of Inception, it is entirely possible for a Hollywood blockbuster to switch back and forth between multiple interlocking realities in a way that actually makes sense. Sucker Punch, however, does not do this. Partly, this is down to laziness, but there’s also an ample helping of fridge logic, too. For starters, it’s inferred that the real world is not the present day, but rather sometime in the 1950s, an assumption supported not just by the cars, technology, clothing and general mood of these scenes, but by the type of asylum Baby Doll is sent to. The fact that her step-father openly bribes an orderly to admit her might still work in the present day, if one were willing to explain the visuals as an affectation; but the threat of a lobotomy conducted via a chisel through the skull-front is undeniably past tense. To borrow from another recent film, think Shutter Island with women. That’s our base level of reality, and even with the dearth of early dialogue, it’s still as plain as day.

And that, alas, is a problem. Even allowing for the creation of an internally dissociative fantasy, I cannot buy the presence in that world of anachronisms – one or two, maybe, but the number here is enormous. Baby Doll’s outfit, for instance, is pure weaponised Japanese schoolgirl, down to the fact that her gun is accessorised with cute little dangling charms. The same is true of all the fantasy costumes, never mind the presence of touch-screen technology, battle suits and silver-gleaming androids. This is further compounded by glitches in the bordello realm: near the end, one male orderly plays with a touchscreen device, his ears adorned with the trademark white earbuds of an iPod, while earlier, a major plot point revolves around Sweet Pea’s ability to photocopy a map of the asylum. Or at least, that’s what we assume she’s done: a machine that looks like a very old, very simple photocopier is shown in Blue’s office, and if Sweet Pea was only going to draw a copy – a lengthy and improbable option – she wouldn’t need to take the original off the wall.

But these are all nitpicks when placed against the bigger problem: understanding how anything in either fantasy world possibly corresponds to the real. In the bordello level, for instance, Baby Doll dances to distract the men while the other girls steal each item – but what does the dancing represent? Sex? Are we witnessing a calculated seduction of all the male orderlies as expressed through Baby Doll’s decision to dance for them, or is she taking advantage of their ongoing coercion? When Amber takes a lighter from one of the men, giggling in his lap while Baby Doll dances nearby, what is actually happening in the real world? Either way, Baby Doll is meant to be so distracting that the men don’t notice the other girls sneaking around – and that’s before you factor in that Baby Doll’s dance is always the cue to segue into the higher fantasy world.

During the botched theft that results in Rocket’s death, for instance, we switch back to the bordello from the fantasy to witness two interpretations of the same event. In the fantasy battle, Rocket is blown up by a bomb on a speeding train, unable to escape because her jetpack is broken. In the bordello, we see her stabbed by the cook, dying in Sweet Pea’s arms while finishing the conversation they’d  started on the train. At no point do we drop down into the real world – because, of course, doing so would reveal the entire action to make no sense at all. If the bordello-dance is already a layer of metaphor, then how do we explain a reality in which Baby Doll distracts the cook in his tiny, cramped kitchen so effectively that he doesn’t notice that four other girls are occupying the same space? The final break with reality comes when Blue kills both Amber and Blondie in the bordello world, with Gorski and several other orderlies as witnesses. Clearly, the girls must die by Blue’s hand in the real world, too: and yet, despite this overwhelming evidence of his savagery, Blue remains in charge. In fact, his next act is to try and rape Baby Doll, who defends herself by stabbing him in the shoulder. So total is the dissonance between the bordello world and reality that when, much later, real-world Gorski is explaining Baby Doll’s history to the lobotomist, she mentions that yes, the patient did stab Blue, but omits to mention that Blue is a murdering rapist. And lest we think she’s simply glossing over a tragic, traumatic event, in the very next scene, we see that Blue is still working at the asylum. As, for that matter, is the equally murdering cook.

Let me repeat that, in case you missed it: three girls have been killed by two staff members in the space of a week. Two of the murders took place in front of multiple staff witnesses. And yet neither man is disciplined, or queried, or imprisoned or suspected or anything until – cue the Narrative Convenience fairy, and also the fairy of Unbelievably Stupid And Offensive Plots – just after Baby Doll’s lobotomy.

Oh, yeah. She gets lobotomised at the end. Apparently, the fifth thing Baby Doll needed was to sacrifice herself so Sweet Pea could escape instead. And by “sacrifice herself”, I mean “get lobotomised”. By a doctor who didn’t really want to do it. In a way that makes no sense. Or, sorry: in a way that makes even less sense than you might already think, because in order to get Baby Doll lobotomised, Blue had to forge Gorski’s signature on the paperwork. Except that Gorski, who is standing right there throughout the procedure while holding the paperwork, objects to the lobotomy taking place. And presumably, if Blue had to forge her signature to get it done – this is, after all, what Baby Doll’s father bribed him to do – then only Gorski has the authority to authorise lobotomies. So you could be forgiven for wondering why, at some point prior to Baby Doll getting lobotomised, she didn’t stop to look at the fucking paperwork and question why the lobotomy was taking place. Oh, no – that particular revelation is saved for three seconds after an irreversible procedure has already happened. Which is also when, all of a sudden, the other orderlies suddenly declare that they don’t want to help Blue hurt the girls any more. Oh, but they’re still willing to leave him all alone with a newly lobotomised girl they’ve just helped strap to a chair – it’s just that they’ll feel bad about it now.

And then the cops come – literally, they reach the place in about two seconds – and arrest Blue, just in time to stop him molesting Baby Doll (well, molesting her more, anyway – he still gets a kiss in). And not because he killed Amber and Blondie, though. Heavens forbid! No: Gorski has dobbed him in for falsifying her paperwork. 

Capping off this carnival of narrative errors and continuity gaffes, we come to the final scene: the newly escaped Sweet Pea at a bus station, trying to find her way home. As the bus doors open, the police appear and try to question her on the suspicion that she is, indeed, an asylum escapee. It looks like she’s doomed, but wait! Who should the bus driver turn out to be but the Wise Man himself?That’s right: the figment of the girls’ collective dissociative imaginations who commanded them through their battles is actually a bus driver, that is to say, a person previously unknown to them who actually exists in the real world. And of course he lies to the police, telling them that Sweet Pea has been on his bus for miles now, when of course he’s never seen her before (But has he? Wait, no, because that makes no fucking sense) and so they let her go, and on she gets, right behind a young male passenger whose face, as it happens, we’ve also seen in the fantasy world, fighting in the trenches of the zombified World War I. Which also makes no sense.

Yeah. About that.

3. Context

Speaking in a recent and undeniably sympathetic interview, Zack Snyder said that Sucker Punch was “absolutely” a “critique on geek culture’s sexism.” Regarding two early moments of metatextual dialogue, he has the following to say:

“She [Sweet Pea] says, “The dance should be more than titillation, and mine’s personal,” and that’s exactly a comment on the movie itself. I think 90% are missing it, or they just don’t care… As soon as the fantasy starts, there’s that whole sequence where Sweet Pea breaks it down and says, “This is a joke, right? I get the sexy school girl and nurse thing, but what’s this? A lobotomized vegetable? How about something more commercial?” That is basically my comment on the film as well. She’s saying, “Why are you making this movie? You need to make a movie more commercial. It shouldn’t be so dark and weird.””

In some ways, this is a perfect explanation of the film’s failure. Snyder has tried to be ironic in his handling of sexiness and objectification, taking schoolgirl fetishism, harem fantasies and sexy nurses and putting them in a situation which is decidedly unsexy -that is to say, a deeply misogynistic environment rife with violence, rape and abuse of power – in order to make his male audience members feel guilty about finding the girls attractive, and thereby forcing them to realise that their lusts align with those of the villainous male characters. To quote the same interview:

“Someone asked me about why I dressed the girls like that, and I said, “Do you not get the metaphor there? The girls are in a brothel performing for men in the dark. In the fantasy sequences, the men in the dark are us. The men in the dark are basically me; dorky sci-fi kids.””

It’s a self-aware sentiment – and yet, the film itself is anything but self-aware. Despite his intentions, Snyder has created a film which systematically disenfranchises its women in order to teach men a lesson about not disenfranchising women. Which, you know, would seem to defeat the purpose. Certainly, it’s possible to empathise with the characters, despite how thinly they’re drawn – but that’s because the entire film is engineered to paint women as victims and men as abusive bastards. What Snyder sees as a dark, edgy ending, perhaps even a cautionary tale about the dangers of male lust – that is, Baby Doll’s lobotomy and the deaths of all her friends bar Sweet Pea – actually reads as a story of victimisation: the girls couldn’t save themselves. Even in the very depths of their fantasies, they still needed a male general to formulate their plans and give them orders. I understand the sexy costumes of the bordello realm, to an extent – it’s a logical leap of dissociation, given the culture of sexual abuse – but why, then, would the girls still imagine themselves in titillating outfits during the second realm’s fantasy battles? The answer is, they wouldn’t: those scenes are there as fanservice, not to make a disquieting point about fetishism and rape, and however much Snyder might have wanted the film to rebuke exactly the sort of objectification its merchandising provokes, the Hollywood factor means that in the end, it can’t help but reinforce the very cultures it attempted to satirise.

In the end, Sucker Punch is a sexist wasteland: a ham-fisted attempt to make chauvinist geeks care about rape by luring them in with action scenes. The idea of creating strong, competent, interesting female characters whose looks play no part in their marketability is apparently too radical for Snyder, who might have saved himself a lot of bother by watching Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof and seeing what real girl action heroes can do, if only you don’t embrace the “rocks fall, everyone dies” approach to storytelling. Because, look: when your five main female characters are all being raped, wrongfully imprisoned and generally abused; when the only names they have are diminutive, sexy-sounding nicknames bestowed on them by rapists, which they then use even among themselves; when you dress them in sexy outfits, call it ironic and then merchandise statuettes of the characters wearing those outfits to your male fanbase; when your female resistors, even in their deepest dissociative fantasies, must still take all their orders from a Wise Man; when all your girls bar one are either murdered or lobotomised at the end, and that selfsame Wise Man calls it a “perfect victory”; then you have not created a film which is empowering for women. Instead, you have taken the old, sexist trope of hurting female characters to motivate goodness, chivalry and protectiveness in their male counterparts to a new and disturbing level: that is, you are hurting female characters to motivate goodness, chivalry and protectiveness in the male audience. And I’m sorry, but I just can’t bring myself to see that as an improvement. Because of how, you know. It’s not.

Great soundtrack, but.

Just days before the first episode of HBO’s A Game of Thrones goes to air – an adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s amazing series, A Song of Ice and Fire – New York Times writer Ginia Bellafante has written a none-too-impressed review, in which she writes, among other things:

“The true perversion, though, is the sense you get that all of this illicitness has been tossed in as a little something for the ladies, out of a justifiable fear, perhaps, that no woman alive would watch otherwise. While I do not doubt that there are women in the world who read books like Mr. Martin’s, I can honestly say that I have never met a single woman who has stood up in indignation at her book club and refused to read the latest from Lorrie Moore unless everyone agreed to “The Hobbit” first. “Game of Thrones” is boy fiction patronizingly turned out to reach the population’s other half.”

I am, quite literally, furious. Shaking with fury, in fact. But before I go into why, allow me, if you will, the luxury of what might appear at first to be a complete non sequitur, couched in the form of the following anecdote:

I was eleven when I started high school, tall for my age, and at that point very much disinclined towards the idea of bras. I’d never liked wearing a singlet under my shirt, as my mother sometimes suggested I do; neither did I like tights, because they always fell down and you couldn’t run in them, never mind the fact that they itched. So even though I knew that I’d have to start wearing a bra – this strange, unfamiliar thing that felt lumpy and uncomfortable and embarrassing to boot – I still resisted wearing one, even though I’d started to feel self-conscious about the new prominence of my own nipples beneath my new white school shirt. Besides, at primary school the boys had laughed and teased the first girls to wear bras, pointing at the all too obvious outline beneath those older, greyer shirts. Why should high school be any different? At least I felt happy in my choice of footwear: brown riding boots rather than the usual black clogs or lace-ups, because I rode horses on the weekend and because the boots were comfortable. They felt like me.

The first week of Year 7, no one much noticed anyone else’s clothes: we were all too terrified, to awed and hyper and jostling in this strange new world, where all of a sudden our supremacy as the oldest kids in our previous schools was utterly gone, demoted back to the very lowest rung on the social ladder. But then that passed, and all of a sudden I found myself being laughed at by girls I barely even knew the names of, girls who made whinnying noises and clipped their tongues in imitation of hoof-falls when I went by, or who else ran past me deliberately to do just that, teasing me for my choice of shoes. I didn’t care – not exactly – because I wasn’t ashamed of my boots, and anyway, who cared what those girls thought? What did get to me, though, was the next lot of barbs: the girls from my grade and grades above who took it upon themselves to start calling me things like saggy tits, mocking and jeering because I didn’t wear a bra, which, unlike at primary school, was the thing that set me apart. They pointed and teased and whispered, and even though I didn’t then have breasts enough to fill even half my own hand, I felt ashamed – mortified, even – that I was going to be forced into wearing something uncomfortable just to stop strangers from making fun of me.

More than just strangers, though. Other teenagers. Girls who’d already decided the bralessness was next to freakishness, even for an eleven-year-old, despite the fact that they must have gone through something of my transition, surely? Or maybe I really was a freak, and every other girl in the world felt absolutely no self-consciousness at all about growing breasts or wearing bras. Maybe other girls looked forward to it. Whispered, giggly conversations with female classmates in primary school and daring, uninformed gossip sessions at slumber parties hadn’t prepared me for any of this: that suddenly, other girls would turn on me, not because I’d ever done anything to them, but simply because I didn’t act like they did. Because I wasn’t girl enough.

And this is why, to return to the subject of Ginia Bellafante’s remarks, I am currently fighting a fury-tremor in every finger, struggling to type cleanly. Because right now – and let me resort to pejorative, here, because honest fury bespeaks a certain rash privilege – I do not give a fuck that Bellafante knows so little about the original novels that she thinks the TV series has sexed their content up. I certainly don’t give a fuck that she’s taken the time to toss off an obviously insincere disclaimer to the effect that possibly, somewhere, women like me read books like Martin’s, nor that this very careful phrasing on her part fails to suggest that women might actually read Martin’s books themselves, and not just other, unnamed novels like them. What I do give a fuck about is her arrogant, hand-waving dismissal of the idea – so cuttingly implied, yet skirted around for the sake of precious propriety – that any real woman would want to read fantasy novels, let alone have anything to do with the whole nasty business of medieval times.

Need I make a list of female fantasy authors to sway her mind? Do I need to gesture to the internets at large, to the hundreds of thousands of girl geeks I’ve seen blogging and tweeting and fangirling and chatting and generally keying themselves up in anticipation of the start of A Game of Thrones? Ought I try and explain – to a woman who has apparently held some quite interesting views on feminism over the years, no less – the prejudicial unhelpfulness of making declarative, gender-based statements about What Women Like And Don’t Like based on nothing more than one’s own personal preferences?

I could do any of those things. I’m tempted to do all of them. But right now, the only thing I can think to say is this:

Ginia Bellafante, you are the girls who laughed at me for being a girl who wasn’t a girl like them, who mocked my breasts and made me shamed of my gender; who chased me away from femininity for more than a decade, fearful of being defeated in an arena not of my choosing but in which I had no choice but to try and compete. You are the women who called the first bluestockings slatterns. You are the blight on your own cause, the judgmental feminists who turn tomboys into self-hating misogynists and misanthropes, the irreconcilers of disparate femalehood. You and your ignorance; you sit there and wonder, why the hell would any self-respecting woman care about swords and dragons and politics instead of – what? Sex and the City? – and then chortle your guts out, no doubt, at the thought of any one hysterical reader getting herself all anted up over a TV show review. Clearly, if this is the kind of reaction such fantastic works provoke, you’ll think yourself right to steer clear of them and their devotees both, regardless of gender. But just in case any scrap of you feels shamed by this, should you read it – just on the off-chance a sliver of empathy splinters its way through your chitinous shell – know this: it was never about the show, but that you’d mock us for being what you’re not.


Come here. Shh. I’ve something to say. It’s a secret.

Ready?

Here it is: I’ve done no writing this year.

Obviously that’s not a literal statement. I’m writing now. This blog has been kept updated. I’ve emailed and edited, outlined and annotated, wordbuilt and whimsied and worked. But at no point have I sat down, opened a document and started to build something new.

This is something of a personal record, especially when you consider that this stretch of not-writing, while heavily centered in 2011, extends backwards into the previous year, when I was finalising edits on The Key to Starveldt and getting ready for our UK move. Usually, when I go this long without writing something, I start to crawl up the walls – but then, as above, it’s not that I haven’t been writing so much as that I haven’t been writing stories. Even so, it’s a new phenomenon. At one point, I was worried about writer’s block, but that doesn’t quite seem to be the case, even though my ongoing battle to reclaim my Microsoft Office CD and thereby install Word on my new computer means that I’ve been stuck using Open Office instead, a stopgap program whose peculiarities routinely make me want to stab the monitor. So yes, there’s been some reticence on that front. Call it a fussiness: I’d like to write in the program of my preference, but if I really and truly wanted to, I’d find some way to do it.

Then, too, there’s a question of hesitance: there’s so many things I want to write that the choice of which one to take up first is a little overwhelming. I used to work on parallel projects all the time, but that was before I’d ever managed to finish any of them, and though I’m confident now in my ability to stick with something I’ve started, both the profusion of viable, interesting plots I have outlined and the number of years since I attempted multiple narratives has made me wary of my reach exceeding my grasp. Even with all the free time I’ve had until recently, I was leery of using it.

But what really seems to be holding me back – and I use that phrase in the best possible sense – is other people’s opinions. So far this year, I’ve worked my way through 54 books. I’ve blogged and thought and involved myself in arguments about genre, structure, fantasy and feminism, and the whole time, I’ve been in such a whirl of inspiration that it feels like my head will explode. I’ve been questioning my own assumptions, picking up plots I’d thought were sound and tearing great, gaping holes in their logic. Old characters, set aside for lack of proper story-homes, have suddenly been raising their hands and begging for inclusion in new plots, old plots, somewhere-in-between plots, changing and twisting and reshaping themselves into new and shinier forms.

Logically, I know this state of affairs can’t last – or rather, that it shouldn’t. Sooner or later, I have to sit down and put the theory into practice, because even though it’s a good thing to aim for ongoing improvement, there’s a balance to be struck between constant alterations and actually completing a project. But until then, I’m reveling in a glorious sense of possibility: that beyond all the culture wars, I’m in a position to write the changes I want to read, rather than just lamenting their lack. And even though that’s a different sort of pressure, too – what if I get it wrong or can’t do it justice or slip up in some other way, what if what if what if –  it’s still a feeling of power, an exhilarating sense that part of me has somehow leveled up.

I hope I’m right. But the ultimate proof, as ever, will be in the product.

Gina, in the scientific world, when they see that something is happening again and again and again, repeatedly, they don’t call it old hat. They call it a pattern.

John Clarke, The Games, IOC Man

Something that’s bothered me for a while now is the current profligacy in YA culture of Team Boy 1 vs Team Boy 2 fangirling. Beginning with Team Edward vs Team Jacob in the Twilight fandom and expanding rapidly to other series – such as Jace vs Simon and Will vs Jem in Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments and The Infernal Devices respectively, Daniel vs Cam in Lauren Kate’s Fallen, and Dimitri vs Adrian in Richelle Mead’s Vampire Academy, to name but a few – the phenomenon has arisen as a natural consequence of so many boy-girl-boy love triangles. Despite the fact that I have no objection to shipping, this particular species of team-choosing troubled me, though I had difficulty understanding why. Then I saw it applied to Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games trilogy – Team Peeta vs Team Gale – and all of a sudden it hit me that anyone who thought romance and love-triangles were the main event in that series had utterly missed the point. Sure, those elements are present in the story, but they aren’t anywhere near being the bones of it, because The Hunger Games, more than anything else, is about war, survival, politics, propaganda and power. Seeing such a strong, raw narrative reduced to a single vapid argument – which boy is cuter? – made me physically angry.

So, look. People read different books for different reasons. The thing I love about a story are not necessarily the things you love, and vice versa. But riddle me this: are the readers of these series really so excited, so thrilled by the prospect of choosing! between! two! different! boys! that they have to boil entire narratives down to a binary equation based on male physical perfection and, if we’re very lucky, chivalrous behaviour? While feminism most certainly champions the right of women to chose their own partners, it also supports them to choose things besides men, or to postpone the question of partnership in favour of other pursuits – knowledge, for instance. Adventure. Careers. Wild dancing. Fun. Friendship. Travel. Glorious mayhem. And while, as a woman now happily entering her fourth year of marriage, I’d be the last person on Earth to suggest that male companionship is inimical to any of those things, what’s starting to bother me is the comparative dearth of YA stories which aren’t, in some way, shape or form, focussed on Girls Getting Boyfriends, and particularly Hot Immortal Or Magical Boyfriends Whom They Will Love For All Eternity.

Possibly I say this because the prospect of having ended up married to, vampirised by or otherwise magically linked with any of the boys I crushed on and lusted after in high school is a grim and frightening one, even if they had all looked like GQ cover models and been in a position to shower me with riches. (They didn’t, and weren’t.) As a fantasist, I well understand the power of escapism, particularly as relates to romance. But when so many stories aimed at the same audience all trumpet the same message – And Lo! There shall be Two Hot Boys, one of them your Heart’s Intended, the other a vain Pretender who is also hot and with whom you shall have guilty makeouts before settling down with your One True Love – I am inclined to stop viewing the situation as benign and start wondering why, for instance, the heroines in these stories are only ever given a powerful, magical destiny of great importance to the entire world so long as fulfilling it requires male protection, guidance and companionship, and which comes to an end just as soon as they settle their inevitable differences with said swain and start kissing. Notable exceptions to this theme can be found in the works of Tamora Pierce and Scott Westerfeld (for starters), but they’re bucking the trend, not starting one. And that worries me.

As the creeper that girdles the tree-trunk

the Law runneth forwards and back —

For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf,

and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack.

– Rudyard Kipling, The Jungle Book

I’ve been trying to find a clear, clean word or phrase to express myself in this post, sadly without much luck. But what I mean to invoke is something of the danger of mob rule, only applied to narrative and culture. Viz: that the comparative harmlessness of individuals does not prevent them from causing harm en masse. Take any one story with the structure mentioned above, and by itself, there’s no problem. But past a certain point, the numbers begin to tell – and that poses a tricky question. In the case of actual mobs, you’ll frequently find a ringleader, or at least a core set of agitators: belligerent louts who stir up feeling well beyond their ability to contain it. In the case of novels, however, things aren’t so clear cut. Authors tell the stories they want to tell, and even if a number of them choose to write a certain kind of narrative either in isolation or inspired by their fellows, holding any one of them accountable for the total outcome would be like trying to blame an avalanche on a single snowflake. Certainly, we may point at those with the greatest (arguable) influence or expostulate about creative domino effects, but as with the drop that breaks the levee, it is impossible to try and isolate the point at which a cluster of stories became a culture of stories – or, for that matter, to hold one particular narrative accountable for the whole.

By way of demonstration, consider the following two articles: Women in Refrigerators, by Gail Simone, and Who Cares About The Death Of A Gay Superhero, Anyway?, by Perry Moore. Both pieces are concerned – legitimately – with the depowerment, torture and generally horrific abuse leveled at female and gay characters within the comics industry, by way of the comics themselves. Reading through the respective lists, there’s a grim inevitability to the conclusion that something, somewhere has gone horribly wrong. But when it comes to the reactions of creators whose works appear on the list, as Simone puts it in a conversation with Tom Peyer,

Every writer has jumped in with a defense of why they stuck THIS one in the fridge.

And the thing is, they’re not entirely wrong to defend their work, particularly if the aim is to counter the suggestion, however reasonable in the big picture, that they’re contributing to a wider, negative culture. Context is everything in both narrative and real life, and while the accusation is never that these creators deliberately set out to discriminate against gay and female characters, the unavoidable implication is that they should have known better than to add to the sum total of those stories which, en masse, do exactly that. And if the listmakers can identify the trend so thoroughly – if, despite all the individual qualifications, protests and contextualisations of the authors, these problems can still be said to exist – then the onus, however disconnected from the work of any one individual, nonetheless falls to those individuals, in their role as cultural creators, to acknowledge the problem; to do better next time; perhaps even to apologise. This last is a particular sticking point. By and large, human beings tend not to volunteer apologies for things they perceive to be the fault of other people, for the simple reason that apology connotes guilt, and how can we feel guilty – or rather, why should we – if we’re not the ones at fault? But while we might argue over who broke a vase, the vase itself is still broken, and will remain so, its shards ground into the carpet, until someone decides to clean it up.

In the end, it all comes down to individual preference and a willingness to change. I love a bit of romance with my stories, but when I look at the culture being created around true love in YA, it’s not something I want to be a part of. Even though I could explain, with eloquence and conviction, why the perennial woman in the freezer belongs in certain of my plots, having looked at it this way around, I don’t want her there. And so I go back to the drawing board and ask myself, how else can I write this story?

And the whole world answers: let me tell you.

Back when I was a teenager, I spent a lot of time lurking around Elfwood, drinking in the fantasy geekness vibe. Particularly, and in addition to gawping at all the awesome artwork on offer, I’d check out member profiles for book and author recommendations, partly because I was still new to reading adult (that is, non YA) fantasy and wanted some reassurance that I’d been picking the right sort of books, but mostly to try and find new authors. Time and again, a name that cropped up as a must-read was Katharine Kerr, which puzzled me at first, because I’d already tried to read A Time of Exile, the first book of her Westlands cycle, and not been able to get into it. This was before I implemented a firm policy of never starting a series midway through, a lazy attitude attributable in no small measure to the difficulties of reliably finding first volumes of anything in second-hand shops – which, as a tween and teen limited to a pocket-money budget, is how I bought most of my books. But even though I’d already tried and, by that sloppy standard, failed to read Kerr’s works – a single attempt being the usual limit of my effort – I couldn’t ignore the regularity with which I saw her books recommended. Thus it was that I expended some energy to acquire the very first book of her very first Deverry series, Daggerspell, in the hopes that reading from the beginning would solve whatever problems I’d hitherto had.

It did, of course, and from then on, I was absolutely hooked. But what I didn’t realise, way back in 1999/2000, was that the series itself – because even though you can break the entire Deverry collection up into four discreet acts, the story they tell is one continuous, interlocking narrative – was incomplete. Having powered through the first two quartets, I finally found myself at the end of The Fire Dragon (third book, third act) with nowhere else to go. And yet, I had hope, because at that time, circa 2001, there was a release date circulating for the planned final book, such that I have a surprisingly solid memory of walking into a local book store to check when it was due, and noting with some excitement that, according to their system, it was only a few months away. Alas for my younger self, this turned out to be something of an ambitious overstatement: due to illness on the author’s part, it was 2006 before the next volume eventuated. Still, I reread all the other books in preparation, then dove right in, eagerly anticipating closure, only to find that there were three more volumes still to come. Though I picked up the next of these a year or so later, by then it had been so long since I’d fully immersed myself in the world that I couldn’t keep track of what was happening – or rather, of the detailed web of backstory, past lives and history connecting all the characters. And so I made a decision: I’d wait until the final book was out, and then, in one grand gesture, reread the entire series start to finish.

It’s been two years since The Silver Mage, the final Deverry book, was released. Ever since we started packing up the bookshelves for our UK move, I’ve had it in mind that this would be the year to tackle the series in full. I even set the books aside on a special shelf at our new house, certain I’d be wanting them sooner or later. I’d planned for it to be later – the number of new books I’ve acquired since January is truly staggering – but all the while, Deverry has been calling me. When I saw The Silver Mage on sale this week, it felt like an omen: though still lacking a copy of the penultimate novel, The Shadow Isle, I went to the shelf, pulled down Daggerspell and started to read.

That was on Tuesday. It’s now Sunday afternoon, and I’ve just started A Time of Exile, volume five overall. I’ve been hungry for these books, devouring them, and even though I’ve read the early volumes multiple times before, enough time has passed that the story feels new again. Kerr writes beautifully, with an intelligence I can only envy. A Celtic world, Deverry’s richness comes from its reality: humour and hardship feature equally in the characterisation, while the world itself is so perfectly detailed that it can’t help but make me aware of how important research is to a fantasy writer. Magic, politicking, alliances, duty, culture, the minutiae of daily life, historical resonance, religion and local peculiarities are all so lovingly yet naturally rendered that Kerr makes the culmination of 23 years of work look easy – right up until you contemplate doing the same thing, and realise how fiendishly difficult it must be. Small yet crucial details like local accents, the layout of towns given over to specific industries, the daily domestic consequences of war and the problem of communicating over distance are all slipped in, fleshing out the background of every scene without ever resorting to an infodump. And then there’s the characters, so sparsely yet perfectly drawn that it’s like looking at a piece of Japanese calligraphy, with vocal mannerisms, distinguishing physical characteristics and individual quirks investing even those with walk-on parts.

There’s so much I want to say in praise of Deverry – and doubtless I will, once I’ve finished the series this time – but for now, I wanted to make a particular point that has less to do with the series in its own right and more as a commentary on some of the problems extant in the current crop of YA paranormal romance. When I started my current bookblitz, I was looking only to finish a series that’s been dear to me since my early teens; certainly, my motives had nothing to do with finding fodder for the feminism in fantasy argument. And yet, as I re-immersed myself in the main premise of the first four books – that of the ancient dweomerman and former prince, Nevyn, trying to right the chain of wrongs he set in motion four hundred years ago – I couldn’t help but notice that many of the most crucial plot elements are those so popular in current YA paranormal romance. The love triangle, for instance: the whole dilemma Nevyn faces is due to the fact that, once upon a time, he and two other men, Blaen and Gerraent, were in love with the same girl, Brangwen. After a bad decision on Nevyn’s part tragically resulted in the tragic deaths of all three, he was bound to the world, unable to die until he makes things right in their subsequent lives. The reincarnation of lovers is another big YA theme of the day: as Nevyn physically ages, time and again he encounters the souls of Brangwen, Blaen and Gerraent reborn, always together, and always with Brangwen torn between the two men, one – Blaen – her lover, the other – Gerraent – always chasing dangerously after. It’s worth noting, too, that as Kerr takes her realism seriously, Deverry is a society in which thirty is considered a ripe age for a warrior and marriage frequently takes place at fourteen for girls and only slightly older for boys. This means that, as the key players in the drama meet, love, fight and die across various lives – always guided by Nevyn – they are simultaneously adults and teenagers: adults by the measure of their own society, but still teenagers by the standard of our own. Though these reborn souls carry loves and grudges across lives, they don’t remember their past incarnations at all: that is Nevyn’s burden alone, to try and bring Brangwen, who he has loved for four hundred years, to the dweomer, the study of magic, for which she has a powerful natural aptitude.

So, to recap: we have a love triangle, magic, reincarnated lovers, and a rash vow sworn through the ages. Mix any or all of those elements into any number of YA paranormal romances, and what you have is a recipe for angst: eternal male lovers breaking every vow of magic by falling in love with a teenage girl, or two reborn lovers separated by some past wrong struggling desperately to be together, or some other permutation thereof. And it’s not that I don’t enjoy those stories – I do – but I can’t help but applaud Katharine Kerr for breaking a set of narrative tropes which, while still known when she wrote the first quartet between 1986 and 1990, have gone on to become a backbone of popular YA culture. Perhaps this is just the benefit of telling a story that can show the events of multiple incarnations, but not every instance of the trio meeting plays out the same way. Though the romance is there, it’s far from the sole focus of the plot, and deep, true love – while certainly present – is never used as a justification for immoral, foolish or questionable actions. We are never made to feel, for instance, that either Blaen or Gerraent’s violent, jealous protectiveness of Brangwen is in any way justified: it is bad behaviour that all too often leads to terrible things, and one of the major reasons why they all originally died such tragic deaths. Neither does Brangwen take it lying down:  in one memorable incarnation as a moon-sworn warrior, a sacred position that requires celibacy, she threatens both men with a solid thrashing in the training yards after they nearly come to blows over her, each being open with his lust despite the fact that, in that instance, wanting her is heresy.

Of most importance, however, is the way the first quartet ends. Having had these past incarnations revealed through flashback chapters, the bulk of the narrative concerns the modern incarnations of Brangwen and Blaen, now Jill and Rhodry, and their many adventures together. Rhodry is noble-born; Jill a commoner and, once more, a warrior. Though disinherited and sent into exile by his jealous elder brother at the end of the first installment, by book three, Rhodry has inherited as the sole heir to a significant territory, with Jill poised to become his wife. But Jill, who loves the freedom of the open road, has finally been brought to the dweomer: she wants to study, an impossibility if she marries the man she loves. And so she leaves him – a painful act, but ultimately necessary, and the denouement of the first quartet: Jill becomes Nevyn’s student, her destiny sealed, not by the love of any one man, but by accepting her innate powers and choosing to learn to control them. It’s a wrenching moment, but we know it’s the right decision, because even though we might accept Nevyn as Jill’s real true love, the point of them leaving together at that moment has absolutely nothing to do with romantic destiny, or youth, or beauty, and everything to do with the core of Jill’s soul – her intelligence, talent, compassion, and her desire to learn. And all the while, she’s a character who, for the best part of the series, has been a teenager: seventeen when she first meets Rhodry, and no older than twenty-one or twenty-two by the end.

And so I can’t help asking: why are so many YA fantasy novels, PR or otherwise, geared towards a conclusion where the hero and heroine ending up together is of greater narrative importance than either one mastering their magic, or bringing peace, or learning what they want to do in life? Why do we end up with stories where actually achieving anything at the end is only a real achievement if the protagonist has someone to kiss? I’m not exempting myself from this problem, mind. But reading Deverry again, it makes me realise that there’s more than one sort of story to tell – and more, that I’m glad of it.