Archive for August, 2011

My current laptop was purchased around early March this year – an act of necessity after its predecessor suddenly carked it. Though I ported all my files across, the one thing I didn’t do – have never done, in fact, because I can’t be bothered – was save my browser settings and bookmarks. Starting afresh on the current machine, I defaulted to Firefox for the first week or two before finally conceding to the superiority of Google Chrome. After that, it was another week or so more before I bothered to set up specific folders for any links that caught my interest. Factoring in the fact that we moved house on March 20, that makes their approximate start date the 1st of April. It is now the 31st of August – meaning that my folders have been live for roughly 122 days.

Since then, based on nothing more than my daily browsing of Twitter, Facebook, blogs and news sites, the folder titled Feminism, Motherhood, Sexism and Sexuality has accrued a grand total of 208 links. That’s almost exactly 1.7 articles per day that have struck me as pertaining to the feminist debate. The first link is to a green paper on rape statistics in Camden, written by PhD student Brooke L. Magnanti – who, as some of you may recall, was revealed in 2009 to be the author of a once-pseudonymous¬†biography titled The Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl. The paper debunks the previously established idea that the prevalence of strip clubs in the borough directly contributes to a higher incidence of rape. The most recent link is one I added this morning: a t-shirt made by American retailer JCPenney for ‘girls [aged] 7 to 16’ which reads: “I’m too pretty to do homework so my brother had to do it for me.”¬†A random sample of other bookmarked articles includes:

And this is before we cross over to my other folder on SFF, YA and Literary Culture, where a vast majority of the 274 articles bookmarked concern the portrayals of women in narrative, culture and subculture, as well as discussing issues like racism, homophobia, culture and discrimination. Some of these include:

Feel free to look at all those links, or some, or none. There’s not a lot of coherency between them, except for the fact that they all relate to the treatment, perception and acceptance of women, whether in the positive or the negative. But they’re all things I’ve read since April this year – bookmarks of discussions I’ve had, arguments I’ve followed, scandals that have broken, cultural¬†linchpins¬†I’ve railed against. The creation date of some posts predate my finding them by weeks, months or even, more rarely, years; others popped up on my radar almost as soon as they were published. All are relevant to feminism, to women and to society. If I’ve had a conversation with you about anything even vaguely feminist at all this year, the chances are I’ve made reference to something bookmarked in my links folders. Possibly I might even have sent you the articles themselves, if you expressed interest in seeing more.

I didn’t use to be a feminist. As a teenager, I did the weaselly thing of calling myself an equalist, which is a way of saying that I thought women should be treated the same as men (good) but that I was afraid of being associated with man-haters who just wanted to turn the patriarchy into a matriarchy (good in principle, bad in that this is a toxic misconception of feminism). Crucially, I also thought the change in terminology was necessary because, apart from sounding more, well, equal, it seemed as if feminism itself had already¬†succeeded¬†to such a degree that the very word, feminist, had been rendered as anachronistic as bluestocking. Sure, I’d copped my share of flak for having short hair and acting the tomboy, but I went to school and was praised for my brains; I had equal rights with men under the law; I had the vote; I wouldn’t be married off or penalised for divorcing an unwanted husband; I could sleep with whom I wanted, use contraception, aspire to any profession I chose and wear pants with¬†impunity. Surely all of that freedom meant that feminism had seen its use and should gracefully pass on, the relic of a bygone era? ¬†Wouldn’t calling myself a feminist under such circumstances be an innately radical act, putting me in the same camp as those hysterical man-haters I’d heard so much about? What more did I want?

The successes of feminism thus far are many, and huge, and vital – but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing left to fix, nor that all the remaining problems are small. Women are still paid less than men for doing the same work. They must have better qualifications to be hired for the same job. They are still the primary domestics and caregivers for children, even when both partners work. Discrimination is still widespread. Sexism, misogyny and chauvinism still exist. Institutions like the business world, academia and popular culture are still rife with negative stereotypes, to say nothing of the progressive under-representation of ¬†women the higher up the food chain ones goes. Yes, we can vote, and yes, we have rights – lots of them! These are all good things. But they are meaningless if we do not¬†exercise¬†and fight for them; if we ignore every person who impedes equality as an¬†anomalous upstart; if we are afraid to call ourselves feminists because we don’t want to be perceived as radical; if we are content to assume that everyone thinks as we do, because it’s 2011; if we dispute the existence of anti-feminist (or anti-equalist) sentiment on the large scale of culture, institution and subconscious bias simply because we’ve never experienced it ourselves (that we know of).

Looked at in isolation, any of the articles listed above – or, indeed, any of the myriad others I’ve never encountered, or haven’t mentioned – might well seem like a storm in a teacup; a glitch on the social radar that, while dispiriting, is ultimately a minority example of behaviour that everyone knows is unacceptable. Looked at in the context of the whole, however, a different picture starts to emerge: one where, quite possibly, there are still miles and miles to go before we sleep. And that’s why I argue with people in pubs and online; why I get frustrated at having to explain, over and over and over, why I bother; why feminism is still necessary.

Because suffrage wasn’t the end of things. It was only the beginning.

I just took a photo of a photo

of myself.

 .

In it, a twelve- or thirteen-year-old me

sits on a wedge of carpeted stair,

a GameBoy in her hands as a fixed stare

rearranges TETRIS blocks, with her gold hair

lopped at shoulder-length, tan arms bare

and noticeably darker than a chest more fair,

a pale slope yet without cleavage; and a still air

of concentration. I doubt she knew the camera was there.

 .

My mother sent me the photo. A friend of hers

dug it up, then passed it on.

None of us can recall where it was taken, or why:

the steps are unfamiliar, the occasion itself, if there was one,

lost to history. Still, I recognise things:

the green shirt, favourite, acquired at Christmas ‚Äď my best friend had one, too;

the black crepe skirt I wore to the theatre;

the sandals, as yet new, which I wore and wore

until they fell to bits.

 .

The GameBoy isn’t mine, though.

This one belonged to my godmother’s son,

a special clear case with black and white graphics

made (or so I can Google now) in 1995.

Mine was yellow, a colour model

not released for another three years, at which time

I saved my birthday money to buy

what my parents wouldn’t. Either way,

it dates the photo: December ’98, I think,

or early ’99.

 .

And now I hold the image twice: once in the print

propped up on my desk, the physical copy passed

from hand to hand, plucked from some album

and mailed overseas; and now, again,

in digital form. I pull out my camera

and suddenly, I’m sucked through time and space,

back to that unknown date and unknown place

to take a photo of my younger self

with a camera more advanced than the game she holds

by a full decade ‚Äď

 .

And then I’m back, sitting at my rented desk

in Scotland, staring at a tiny screen

and the unblinking face of the girl I was,

wondering what else she knew, and did,

that was never seen.

Is that it exists.

I am a fan of anime, and have been since I was about twelve. The earliest stuff I remember seeing was Ghost in the Shell, Akira and¬†Vampire Hunter D, with some snippets of Rurouni Kenshin and¬†Gunsmith Cats thrown in for good measure. The first series I ever properly watched were Evangelion, Bubblegum Crisis: Tokyo 2040,¬†Cowboy Bebop and¬†Noir, with the Lain soundtrack providing background music to many a high school party. Later, at the start of university, I was introduced simultaneously to Ninja Scroll, Love Hina, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex¬†and the works of Hayao Miyazaki, which is a surprisingly thorough gamut for the range of anime narratives. Since then, I’ve been watching pretty much anything that gets recommended to me or which catches my eye, the most recent examples being Last Exile, Fruits Basket, Bamboo Blade and Yamato Nadeshiko Shichi Henge. All of which is a way of saying: I love anime. It’s been part of my life for thirteen years, and at no point during that time has my interest for it been passive or half-hearted. Which is perhaps why it’s taken me so long to come to realise that there is, in fact, a caveat on those affections. Because when you love something deeply – and particularly when it’s a thing you’ve loved since the cusp of adolescence – it can be very, very hard to pull back and deal with that thing in a critical manner.

But.

I hate fanservice so fucking much.

Anyone who’s ever watched anime knows what I’m talking about. For anyone who hasn’t, allow me to demonstrate the scope of the problem as follows:

Yeah. About that.

To be clear: I still watch anime that contains fanservice. Partly because, in the case of shows I knew and loved prior to the revelation of my hatred, it doesn’t taint my appreciation of them; partly because fanservice does not, by itself, make the rest of a show terrible; but mostly because there isn’t an alternative. While there’s certainly anime out there that lacks fanservice, it’s a definite minority and can be tricky to find, particularly if you’re wanting to watch a show with multiple female characters. Fruits Basket and Nadeshiko, for instance, while both awesome and non-fanservicey, are also examples of male harem shojo, meaning that the female protagonists – respectively Tohru and Sunako – are effectively lone women surrounded by gorgeous men, the extent of whose Regularly Demonstrable Sexiness tends to hinge on bishie sparkle, cross-dressing and occasional shirtlessness. Which is, of itself, noteworthy, because I can’t think of a comparable genre/form that regularly creates male harems or caters to female sexual fantasies that way. What strikes me in the comparison, though, is that moments of male sexiness are almost never built into costume design in the way that female fanservice is. The practical upshot of this is that while¬†Fruits Basket looks like this:

and Nadeshiko looks like this:

Motoko Kusanagi of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex still has to spend a season like this:

while Cowboy Bebop’s Faye Valentine gets to wear this:

To highlight the disparity further: both Fruits Basket and Nadeshiko are romantic shojo, meaning that they are specifically aimed at women and actively concerned with relationships – in other words, the type of show you’d most expect to get fanservicey if it were written for men. But¬†Ghost in the Shell¬†is a cyberpunk political thriller with existential undertones, while¬†Cowboy Bebop¬†is a hard SF drama about bounty hunters in space. ¬†Which begs the question: if that’s the base level of fanservice in shows that aren’t aimed purely at men and which don’t have any inherent investment in sex, romance or relationships, then how bad does it get when those elements are also in play?

Internets, allow me to introduce you to Hyakka Ryoran Samurai Girls. It looks like this:

It’s shows like this which make me love Boobs Don’t Work That Way¬†so very much. And that is the only good thing I will ever say about Samurai Girls.

The strongest attraction anime has for me is the profusion of female characters doing every conceivable type of awesome thing. They are hackers, warriors, starship pilots, psychics, mages, priestesses, ambassadors, thieves, bounty hunters, police officers, mothers, students, friends, sisters, daughters, alchemists, mechanics, cooks, wives, dress-makers, geeks, villains, heroes, anti-heroes, athletes, goddesses, demons, chosen ones and unchosen ones, carpenters, cleaners, queens, doctors, psychologists, nurses, witches, waitresses, writers, gunsmiths, swords-fighters, shapeshifters, teachers, confidantes and lovers. They are everything, and what’s more, they are everything equally, as though there were never any question that a top-level military submarine might have a female captain or an experimental space station be populated by as many women as men. I cannot describe the thrill of elation that went through me as a teenager when, after channel surfing one night, I landed on¬†SBS¬†and caught the last ten minutes of what I only later learned was an episode of Gunsmith Cats. Still new to anime, I was amazed by a cartoon that depicted violence, but flat-out hooked by the idea of one where the gun-toting, badass protagonists were women. I didn’t notice the fanservice, and even if I had, I wouldn’t have known what to call it. What mattered was the ladies themselves: the fact that I was watching, not just a show where women did awesome things, but where their ability to do so went unquestioned.

Here’s what saddens me about anime: that shows like Samurai Girls¬†pass the Bechdel test at the same time as their visuals undermine everything that it stands for.¬†So do Full Metal Panic, Azumanga Daioh,¬†Lucky Star, Love Hina¬†and just about any other shonen-oriented, slice of life or female harem story you care to name – but all while upskirting, side-boobing, cleavage-enlarging, skintight-wearing, fetishenabling, proportion-warping artwork creates a visual dissonance with characters whose dialogue, friendships and personalities would otherwise stand on their own merits. Even in shows which don’t pass, like Ghost in the Shell: SAC and Cowboy Bebop, lone female characters who are tough, multifaceted, intelligent, complex, competent and believable still end up drawn like Playboy bunnies for reasons that have nothing to do with plot and everything to do with pandering to a horny male fanbase. This isn’t just an argument about unrealistic portrayals of women (though that’s certainly a parallel concern), but of what happens when you draw beautiful girls for the sole purpose of sexually objectifying them – and worse, when doing so is deemed to be such an integral part of a given culture that you not only start to expect it, but make allowances for it. Because anime is just like that, and how can I say I like anime if I’m going to criticise it? Isn’t that like saying I like fruit, then bitching about strawberries?

No, actually. It’s like saying I enjoy sex, then bitching about rape.

Some of the shows I’ve listed are ones I love; others I’m ambivalent towards, or actively dislike. But in almost every instance where I’ve ever stopped watching an anime, the reason has nothing to do with a dislike of the plot, premise or characterisation, and everything to do with how the women are treated. Samurai Girls and Full Metal Panic both have plots and settings that appeal to me; in both cases, I’ve turned away, furious, because I can’t stand to watch another upskirt shot or listen to another hatefully forced conversation about women’s boobs or underwear. And then I see something like this:

and end up angry all over again. Because, look: I know that poster’s meant as a joke. And I have a sense of humour! But for female viewers, fanservice is not gravy. Fanservice is sexism’s way of making us accept our own objectification for the sake of a good story, even where the story would be just as good – if not considerably better – without it. Because ultimately, the logic behind all fanservice can be boiled down to the following sentiment: that female characters, no matter how powerful, awesome and complex, are at their most interesting and relevant when drawn to look fuckable.

And to that I say: FUCK NO.

I didn’t make it to Worldcon this year (as you can tell by the intolerable air of jealousy I’m suddenly generating) but thanks to John Scalzi, I’ve just had my attention directed towards this clip of Chris Garcia winning the Hugo Award for Best Fanzine. And as I watched it, all I could think was, this is why I love SFF; why genre pwns my soul. Because we give awards, not just to the people who make awesome things, but to the people who love awesome so much that they put time and effort and passion into intensifying, discussing and spreading the awesome. Because fandom is what continues to ensure that SFF isn’t just a label, but a community. And because a grown man can get up onto the stage on our biggest awards night in floods of tears, embrace everyone, forget not to swear, sit down crosslegged to hug his award and have a friend speak for him – and receive nothing but applause.

Because that is how we roll.

Recently, several writers I respect have been blogging about¬†backstory, exposition and simplicity. The first of those posts, by Patrick O’Duffy, got me thinking about what backstory really means. Heading into a novel, it’s quite usual for me to have dedicated reams of wordage to figuring out who my characters are, what they’re like, what major events (if any) have defined them, how they relate to everyone else in the story, and where they might end up. Depending on the narrative, anything from all to none of this information might prove to be plot-critical; even so, there’s a decent chance that a reasonable portion of it will get used. Once upon a time, I’d have been happy calling that backstory, but having read O’Duffy’s piece, the term no longer feels applicable. Or, more accurately, it doesn’t seem to apply in quite the same way. As a word, backstory¬†is suggestive of information that has already been¬†superseded¬†by the coming narrative – ¬†the sort of character-blurb you might write into an obliging box on a D&D character sheet in the sure and certain knowledge that anything you say, no matter how personally relevant, will have no bearing whatsoever on the coming adventure. At least, that’s my memory of high school level RPGing, anyway; whatever personality I gave my character would be as¬†detached¬†from the main narrative as if I’d bothered to try and impose a fictitious history on my avatar in¬†Neverwinter Nights. In such gaming scenarios, the importance of backstory is reduced to a fairly binary set of good/evil questions designed to shape your personal morality, such as: will my character kick this puppy? Should I steal the gold from the old lady, or give her more to buy medicine? Will I help the druids defend the trees, or shall I fight their preachy asses? (Note: I am probably the only person in the entire world who helps the druids at that point. Some NPCs just ask to be eaten by bears.)

But writing a novel, it seems to me, is a markedly different endeavour. If the story is¬†analogous¬†to the gaming campaign, then the characters – and their histories – have ceased to be detached from the main quest arc: there are no more NPCs, because every character is a potential party member. RPG campaigns constrain the narrative in that certain characters exist only to help the protagonists forward. The helpful tavern wench cannot suddenly join the quest, no matter how resourceful, brave and clever her backstory might prove her to be. But then, why would you give an NPC backstory beyond what’s necessary to explain the aid they give the protagonist? The answer highlights a significant, crucial difference between pantsers and plotters, viz: for pantsers, the wench can always join the party. Backstory grows organically, so that any random secondary character might suddenly leap into the limelight and refuse to leave without being granted six soliloquies and a curtain call. For plotters, however, such things are fixed from the outset: the relevant leads have already been chosen, and the wench is not among them. Which might go a long way towards explaining why some plotter-writers are leery of backstory – any details they include must, of necessity, be plot-relevant; and if it’s plot-relevant, then it’s not backstory, which instead becomes a label for all the information that had no place in the main narrative. In this context, therefore, suggesting that writers should keep backstory out of their writing doesn’t mean their characters shouldn’t have history; only that said history should be¬†relevant.

But for some of us, to paraphrase Faith from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, there is no such animal as irrelevant history. Pantser or plotter, if you’re in it for the characters, then the nitty-gritty of their lives – past or present, regardless of the degree of plot-importance – will always be meaningful.¬†Which is where we come to Chuck Wendig’s post on exposition, because this is not, contrary to how it might appear, an excuse to dump any old crap about the protagonist into the story and call it plot-critical. Exposition is a question of structure, not content: if you’re going to flesh out your characters, then it shouldn’t be at the expense of readability. Relevant to the plot and relevant to the character aren’t mutually exclusive conditionals – in fact, they ought to overlap. But if we were to render the story as a Venn diagram, it shouldn’t be mandatory for the two circles to appear as one: there’s plenty of room for play. As Aliette de Bodard’s piece on simplicity points out, economical stories aren’t necessarily better than expansive ones; in fact, there’s a lot to be said for sprawl.

A slight aside, at this point: the other day, I was mulling over the sameness of mainstream Hollywood films. Specifically: why is the stereotypical Five Man Band¬†so ubiquitous, and why do so many movies keep failing the Bechdel Test? Trying to tease out the cause of the problem – using, as my case study, the appalling Captain America – it suddenly struck me that backstory might be the missing element, with narrative oversimplification a major contributing factor. Consider the following premise: that Hollywood films will usually focus on the exploits of a single protagonist, with any secondary characters set to orbit the lead like satellites. Because of the time constraints inherent to cinema as a medium, this creates a strong impetus to make every interaction count, and if the story is meant to focus on the protagonist, then the natural default, script-wise, is to ensure that the vast majority of conversations are held either with or about the lead. If, as is so often the case, the protagonist is male, this sets the film up for near-guaranteed failure of the Bechdel test, for the simple reason that the secondary characters – regardless of gender – aren’t allowed to have superfluous conversations. This also means that the secondary characters don’t matter in and of themselves. It’s the difference between writing about a hero and his gang, and writing an ensemble cast: the two stories might have the same number of characters in identical roles, but the distinction is one of emphasis. A Five Man Band is there to support a single leader, whose personal struggles dominate the narrative – but in an ensemble, everyone matters equally.

Hollywood is not good at ensembles.

This is particularly evident when existing stories are adapted to the big screen. It’s generally assumed that any adaptation must, of necessity, pare back the secondary character development in order to allow a sharper focus on the Main Plot. Though done in the name of time-sensitivity, what this actually means is that, far too often, all the nuance which attracted people to the story in the first place – the worldbuilding, the detail and the cast as a whole – gets butchered in translation. Audiences react badly to such treatment because they can see what’s missing: there are holes where better characterisation (among other things) should be. But here’s the kicker – this is just as true of original feature films. All scripts go through multiple drafts, and if you assume that relevant information isn’t being lost in those cuts, I’d invite you to think again. Right now, the Hollywood default is to pick a protagonist, deny them backstory, throw them into an adventure with a bunch of NPC Pokemon sans the evolutionary moonstone, and hope that events are strong enough to carry them forwards. This is what happens when we demand utility from every conversation while simultaneously acting under time constraints and ¬†focusing exclusively on immediate, rather than past, events; and it is not my favourite thing.

Which is why, to return to the earlier point, worldbuilding and backstory are two of the qualities I look for most in a narrative. Stories without sprawl, while nonetheless capable of being utterly awesome,¬†tend to feel like closed ecosystems. Combine Ebert’s Law of Economy of Characters with The Law of Conservation of Detail, add a dash of¬†Chekhov’s Gun, and you can start to see what I mean. Such stories aren’t predictable, per se – though this is can definitely be a problem – but are rather defined by absolute catharsis. They’re murder mysteries without the red herrings, worlds where you can’t go off-mission and explore the map, meals without any delicious leftovers to be used for future cookery and consumption. Speaking of his Discworld novels, Terry Pratchett has said that he created the city of Ankh-Morpork as somewhere that would keep going once the book is closed; the sort of place where the characters have lives to be getting on with even after the story ends. The Discworld might well exist on the back of four elephants stuck to a giant turtle flying through space, but it feels real, because its many stories, inhabitants and cities are – just like our own world – awash in irrelevant detail. To wankily quote myself, I’ve said before that:

The stock premise of epic fantasy ‚Äď defeating the Dark Lord to save the kingdom ‚Äď has always sat awkwardly with me, if only because it so often comes to feel as though the world in question only exists as a setting for that one battle, and not as a realm in its own right…¬†Ultimate confrontations with ancient evil¬†are fine, to be sure, but they don‚Äôt lend much to the idea of a world which, left to its own devices, will just be a world: one where good and evil are intermingled in everyday human activity, rather than being the sole province of warring gods and their acolytes.

It’s a view I stand by, and something I think it’s important to remember. More and more often, it feels like arguments about writing in the SFF community – such as the recent Mary Sue debate, for instance – hinge on a fundamental failure to distinguish between bad writing and narrative tropes and decisions exacerbated by bad writing, as though the inclusion of specific ideas, character traits or story-forms¬†¬†is the real problem, and not, as might actually be the case, the quality of their execution. Point being, I think we’ve started to become a bit too deeply invested in streamlined narratives. We talk about trimming the dead weight from stories the same way one might imagine some shark-smiled management consultant talking about axing the creative department over budgetary concerns; as though the story is a high-profile office in which can be found no room for cheerful, eccentric sentences who wear colourful shirts on Friday and eat all the biscuits at meetings. Stories without foible, indulgence or quirk, but where everything must arrive at 9am sharp in a business suit with a briefcase.¬†In fact, it strikes me as telling that much of the language we use to discuss the improvement of books is simultaneously fat-phobic, sports-centric and corporate. Bad books are flabby, soft and bloated; good books are lean, raw and hard-hitting. Or maybe I’m just projecting.

In my own writing, I tend to sit somewhere in the middle of the pantser/plotter continuum, which isn’t particularly unusual. Though I almost always start with a single protagonist as a narrative focal point, my casts invariably grow in the worldbuilding process, and while I do write out copious backstory for my original characters, I’m still frequently surprised when bit-players queen themselves, or when planned protagonists turn out to be happy in the background. I chart my main plot points and narrative arc, but leave everything else to chance – often with unexpected results. Some writers are far more rigid; others are far more lax. But if this blog had a point, it was the realisation that the reason my stories tend to end up with so many main characters is because I inevitably become involved with their backstories. As has been pointed out by innumerable people, every character is the hero of their own adventure – and as I’m now nearly 40,000 words into a new novel, jumping between POVs while wrangling multiple events, this felt like a good time to stop and discuss what that actually means. Thanks to O’Duffy, I’ve come away with a much stronger concept of what backstory is – to me, to others and in general. Thanks to Wendig, I’ve got a sharper idea of how to apply it without turning my story into a swamp of boring detail. And thanks to Bodard, I’ve realised the importance of sprawl – not just in the worlds I already love, but in the creation of my own.

The dreadful ease with which a fire starts,

that match-head flick and short, sharp scratch

that brings the sparks like shrapnel shards

and sets the world ablaze.

  .

We choke on smoke, the London sky a failing lung

consumptive with the greed and deeds

of men who run, and men with guns,

and humankind who, hungry, hunt,

and wanting, wreak

 .

but do not speak

a language easy on the tongue.

 .

When rhyme and reason mount the curb

and see their foes, and will not swerve,

and better men who stood to save the things they loved

are knocked instead to early graves

we ask ourselves where parents were ‚Äď

what bridles checked might otherwise

have reined the rage and spared their lives ‚Äď

 .

when everything is going up in flames.

 .

Elsewhere, a po-faced banker knots his tie

and strangles like a Tyburn son

in auto-erotic ecstasy; but then he kicks the chair away

and jerks and spasms in the throes

of sex and death and ‚Äď look, who fucking knows?

But that’s the joy of double-dipping, chaps:

the money breaks, and and then its spenders snap.

 .

And everyone is asking why,

as though some word or magic curse

could tell them how to steer away from worse.

But in the rubble, born and grown by greed

that burns both ways, and fear, and hurt, and need

Dame Trickledown is turning deadly tricks

for stolen gold

 .

and newly-bloodied bricks.

Provoked by this news article.

Warning: total spoilers, much rant.

Straight off the bat, tonight’s excursion to see Captain America constitutes the most physically uncomfortable experience I’ve ever had at a cinema. My neck has been sore as hell this past week, so sitting on a slight angle that I’d go so far as to suggest was exactly calibrated to exacerbate the problem hasn’t left me in the best of moods. Above and beyond that, the 3D was either appallingly rendered, out of focus, or more likely a wretched combination of both. The whole right-hand side of the screen kept flickering into multiple lines, and every time the camera went to a long shot, the same thing happened. Also, I couldn’t get my packet of seaweed peanut crackers open, and even though I totally loosened it for him, neither could Toby. So! It’s entirely possible my reaction to the film itself has been irrevocably sullied by the circumstances under which I watched it. Given preferential Gold Class seating, continuous neck massage, fully immersive 3D and a complementary bottle of Veuve Clicquot, I might well have been left with a tingling desire to fight for the good ol’ US of A while simultaneously flinging myself at Chris Evans.

But I doubt it.

To begin with, the film has no script, unless shaking the Cliche Bag over a Xerox machine and distributing copies of the resulting wordsoup counts as a legitimate writing process. Still, better action films than this have gotten away with worse, because what they lacked in verbal originality they made up for in character development, narrative coherency and awesomely choreographed action scenes. Captain America has none of these things, instead presenting as a hodgepodge of abortive relationships, nonsensical segues, pointless fighting montages and bizarre decisions. A small example to demonstrate this latter: Dr Erskine (Stanley Tucci), a renegade German scientist on the side of justice, has just been shot dead by an enemy agent seconds after turning Steve Roberts into a super soldier. Roberts gives chase and, after saving a small boy from being used as a hostage, catches the killer, who promptly chews his suicide pill and dies. The very next scene, we’re back in the lab – it feels like later that same day, but apparently not, for reasons which will soon became apparent. Present are Roberts, aka Captain America, the female Agent Carter, head military honcho Colonel Phillips and financial backer Senator Brandt. Their conversation goes something like this:

PHILLIPS: Whelp, Dr Erskine’s death means that we can’t make any more super soldiers, presumably because he’s left behind no notes or formulae of any kind although I’m not going to come out and say as much. The point being, he’s dead, and his brilliant ideas have therefore died with him. Apparently. So now we’re going to head over to Europe and kick the ass of the guy who killed him. Any questions?

CAPTAIN AMERICA: Ooh ooh! Pick me, sir, pick me! I want to avenge my mentor’s death – and even though I have no combat training of any kind, I feel I’d be awesome at that, seeing as how I’m a super soldier and all!

PHILLIPS: No way. I asked for an army. All I got is you.* So now you can just stay in the lab, I guess? I mean, even though you’re all awesome now, we’re not about to just let you fight. Because, um –

BRANDT: – because you don’t have a costume yet, and only I can give you one. Give you a chance, I mean. Not a costume.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: Um…

BRANDT: You see this newspaper I’m holding? The one with a photo of you saving that boy yesterday or whenever, even though it felt like ten minutes ago? That photo means you’re a SYMBOL TO THE PEOPLE, and even though the colonel here doesn’t want you, I think you’ve got some important work to do. SYMBOLIC work.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: Well, sure! So long as I’m serving my country by putting myself at risk of actual death – which is my explicitly stated goal and the sole reason why I refused to take up other jobs for the war effort despite my previously puny frame – I’ll do it.

BRANDT: *coughs* I know I totally just implied that you’d get a fighting role, but what actually happens is that two minutes from now, we cut to an honest-to-god musical number slash montage where you dress up in a leotard to help me sell war bonds. But it does explain your eventual costume, even though it otherwise makes no sense. Did I mention I’m a senator?

CARTER: But why can’t he come with us? Or at least fight with the regular army guys? I mean, he IS a super soldier.

BRANDT & PHILLIPS: COSTUME!

Which, yeah. Makes absolutely no sense. We’re never told why the only available choice is between being a performing monkey and getting stuck in a lab: apart from anything else, with Erskine is dead and his research discontinued, who’d be doing the labwork? Given the experiment’s obvious success, why would it even be necessary? And this is where things start to get really weird, because all of a sudden we’re stuck in a musical montage, watching the Captain appear on stage – over 200 times, we’re later told – while comic books and movies featuring his fictional exploits are released to an admiring public. How much time passes here is anyone’s guess, but it’s got to be months at the very least – films aren’t made overnight, and especially not when the star is simultaneously part of a travelling show. But somehow, this wacky jaunt eventually takes the Captain to Europe under the guise of entertaining the troops. Of course, he’s received badly; of course, it’s his friend Bucky’s regiment he’s performing for; of course, they’re just back from a hellish mission to enemy territory; and of course, Bucky – plus 400 other men – are imprisoned deep behind enemy lines.

Maybe because they’re badly sequenced, maybe because there’s no tension, or maybe because we haven’t seen Bucky since the opening scenes and don’t give a shit if he lives or dies, the end result is some truly unthrilling heroics. Which is doubly disappointing when you consider that this is meant to be the Captain’s glorious moment to shine, the point at which he transitions from Hopeless Dreamer to Action Hero. We’ve been waiting for this moment ever since the movie started – so why the hell is it so underwhelming? This is some basic stuff, right here: I mean, I watched Burlesque last week, which is essentially about Fictional Cher teaching Fictional Christina Aguilera how to wear corsets, and the glorious moment when Aguilera’s character finally gets to sing on stage was infinitely more raw, more powerful and better-scripted than the point at which Captain America sallies forth to get his fight on.

I’ll give you a moment to let that statement achieve the proper impact.

(Also, Burlesque stars Stanley Tucci as a wonderful, witty gay man with emotional depth and snappy dialogue rather than as a scruffy German scientist who gets shot and killed to facilitate an already dubious plot point. But I digress.)

So now the Captain has come into his own, we get the requisite Level Up scene where a young Howard Stark presents him with a selection of new and shinier weapons. This is, without a doubt, one of the most ridiculous gadget-bestowal scenes ever filmed, and I say that as a woman who’s watched every single James Bond movie. As before, allow me to lovingly recreate the pivotal conversation between Stark and Our Hero:

CAPTAIN AMERICA, inspecting shields: What’s this one? Me likes!

STARK: Don’t touch that! It’s a prototype!

CAPTAIN AMERICA, instantly donning prototype shield: Wow! What’s it do?

STARK: It completely stops all vibrations from projectiles, because it’s made of VIBRANIUM, a completely real metal that’s lighter than steel, but much stronger.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: Why isn’t this standard issue?**

STARK: Because vibranium is the rarest metal on Earth – so rare that we used all of it to make your shield.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: But didn’t you just say it was a prototype and I wasn’t meant to touch it? Why would you make a prototype out of all the metal and then tell me not to use it? Also, you only knew I needed a new shield, like, five minutes ago – did you just have some vibranium lying around, or were you just making shields for the hell of it? This doesn’t make any sense!

STARK: I’M BRAFF ZACKLIN!

The rest of the film makes just as little sense. There’s some disjointed action scenes strung together in slowmo, an entirely pointless motorcycle chase, lots of explosions, the most ridiculous Evil Salute in the history of ever, and the assembly of a Five Man Band¬†to fight alongside Bucky and Captain America. None of these members are never named, developed or given meaningful dialogue, leaving them to be distinguished solely on the basis of race and nationality: one Englishman, one Frenchman and three Americans who are respectively white, black and Asian. This would actually constitute progress, if not for the total lack of any character development and the fact that none of them are on screen for more than five minutes altogether. Oh, and Bucky dies falling off a train, but even though he’s really sad about it, Captain America can’t get drunk to mourn his buddy because of how quickly his new metabolism processes alcohol. Which is just tragic.

And then there’s the Agent Carter, the requisite Female Love Interest who has all the personality of a limp noodle. The best I can say about her treatment in the film is that it’s lead me to coin a new trope term: Kick The Bitch. A feminist variant of Kick The Dog (see what I did there?), Kick The Bitch occurs when a lone female character is inserted into an environment that the audience is likely to associate with sexism, if not outright misogyny, but where the main male characters, despite being comfortable in this environment, need to be shown in a positive light. Thus, because actually talking about sexism would be breaking an unwritten rule of cinema (Thy Manly Films Shalt Not Touch On Feminist Issues), a bitch-kicker character is introduced for the sole purpose of acting like a vile, sexist sleaze – the absolute straw-man epitome of misogynist behaviour. Depending on the story, the female character will then either stand her ground against said cretin, thereby affirming or earning her the respect of her male counterparts and establishing them as Good People, or fail to do so and be rescued, which achieves the same thing, only with even less semblance of equality. In fairness, Agent Carter does punch her bitch-kicker square in the face, but the scene is so textbook as to render it meaningless. Plus and also, she’s subsequently depicted trying¬†to motivate an all-male group of soldiers by calling them girls and ladies as insults. Which, I’m sorry, but¬†no.

It’s a much lesser crime that Carter and the Captain have zero chemistry, but it’s still worth a mention. Apart from anything else, it highlights the film’s failure to find an emotional core. Dr Erskine was a promising character, but then he was killed before anything could come of it; Carter is absent in for long stretches of time, precluding actual banter; and Bucky is almost a non-entity despite his supposed importance in the Captain’s life. By trying to juggle all three relationships while refusing to spend time on any of them, the film has effectively hollowed itself out around a series of narrative disjunctions: just as we’re starting to care vaguely about one person or another, they’re whisked away and replaced with someone else. But then, none of them are terribly interesting anyway: Carter and Bucky are both as cardboard cutout as the Captain himself, while Dr Erskine was seemingly murdered for the crime of having an emergent personality. (Either that, or so the Captain could get a costume. Which is quite possibly worse.)

Finally, after the big battle with Red Skull, Captain America crashes a plane into the arctic to stop it from exploding in New York, which noble sacrifice somehow has the miraculous effect of freezing him in stasis for nearly 70 years. Which, um, yeah. Regular ice. No ageing. In stasis. So he wakes up in our time, just as was foretold in the opening scene. Huzzah! You can’t even blame this endpoint of ridiculousness on the Magic Cube Of Power they’ve all be fighting about, because it fell out of the plane mid-flight. I suspect I’d have felt more outraged, but then the credits came up, and I was just happy I was being allowed to leave.

At the end, my husband turned to me.

‘People should go to jail for that movie,’ he said.

I’ll put it this way, internets: I didn’t disagree.

(Except for Stanley Tucci. He can stay.)

 

*An actual quote.

** Also an actual quote.

In the past few days, Zoe Marriott, Sarah Rees-Brennan,¬†Holly Black¬†and Cora Buhlert have all written awesome posts about the problem of reviewers dismissing female characters who aren’t to their tastes as being Mary Sues, with added discussion of what the term actually means, why male characters and/or authors aren’t held to similar standards, and the awesomeness of ladies. All of them have made excellent points. Zoe Marriott begins by saying:

When I read reviews, I see the term Mary-Sue used to mean:

1. A female character who is too perfect
2. A female character who kicks too much butt
3. A female character who gets her way too easily
4. A female character who is too powerful
5. A female character who has too many flaws
6. A female character who has the wrong flaws
7. A female character who has no flaws
8. A female character who is annoying or obnoxious
9. A female character who is one dimensional or badly written
10. A female character who is too passive or boring

This is, quite obviously, a contradictory list, as Marriott is at pains to point out:

Take another look at the list of complaints against so-called Mary-Sues and you will see one thing all of them have in common.

‘A female character.’

What many (though not all!) of the people merrily throwing this phrase around¬†actually mean¬†when they say ‘Mary-Sue’ is: ‘Female character I don’t like’.

That’s it. That’s all.

Following on from this, Holly Black expands on the dangers of using the phrase beyond outside its original context:

The problem with using this term outside of fanfiction is simple: the world of a novel has always configured around main characters. They are at its center and, often, they are the best at stuff. Kirk is, for example, is the best with romancing the green-skinned ladies. He’s also the best at leading. Spock is the best at being smart. Scotty is the best at keeping the Enterprise from being blown to pieces by the actions of both Kirk and Spock. Their skills are important and it’s unlikely that anyone is going to come along and be better at those things than they are.

So when a book is about a girl who is the best at something and about the boys (and/or girls) that love her and how she defeats the bad guy, well, that’s because¬†she’s the protagonist.¬†It is good and right that she be at the center of the story.

For example, I have seen complaints that the protagonist always wins the love of the main male character. What’s problematic about that is, well, of course she does, because if she’s the protagonist then whoever she loves¬†becomes the main male character by virtue of his connection to the protagonist.

Sarah Rees-Brennan makes a hugely important distinction between female characters who are realistically self-deprecating and those who aren’t allowed to like themselves, saying:

I am not saying that all girls in books or real life should never be insecure. I know I’m insecure about a bunch of things! And I have loved an insecure fictional lady many times…

I just don’t want to read about fictional girls who¬†can’t¬†think they’re awesome. I don’t like reading about those characters and I don’t like the mindset that produces them. The fictional girls I’m talking about aren’t meant to be depressed (I’d like to see more actually-depressed characters in literature: they can be heroes too)–they’re meant to seem normal, and likable.

I do not want to read about girls who think they’re worthless. I do not want to write about girls who think they’re worthless. I do not think I’m worthless.

Nobody has to like a girl, fictional or otherwise. But words like ‘annoying’ or ‘Mary Sue’ are both used as shorthand for ‘girl I want to dismiss.’ We’ve all read about characters who seemed overly perfect, or who had flaws the narrative wouldn’t admit were flaws, and those characters¬†are¬†irritating. But I’ve seen just as many fictional boys like that as fictional girls (with the caveat that boys tend to get more pagetime, so they get more explored) and those boys don’t get seen in the same way. As I was saying on twitter a couple days ago, I want characters to be flawed and awesome: I want them to be flawesome.

Finally, Cora Buhlert makes an important point about the hugely exclusionary tests designed to expose the flaws of Mary Sue characters:

The term ‚ÄúMary Sue‚ÄĚ has become completely overused of late. Partly this may be due to the various¬†Mary Sue litmus tests¬†that are available online and according to which pretty much every character is a Mary Sue. I just did the test for a female character in a realist novel of mine and even that character, with no magical powers whatsoever, scored 40 points. That‚Äôs not to say that such tests aren‚Äôt useful, within reason. But plenty of traits listed as Mary Sue symptoms in these tests are perfectly legitimate, as long as they don‚Äôt all occur at once.

Take a moment to click through to the test in question and eye a few of the questions. What quickly becomes apparent is that, as per Marriott’s list, correlation and causation have been deeply confused in the issue of Sueness to such a degree that many people now mistake – well, I was going to say the symptoms for the cause, but given the scope of the test, that metaphor doesn’t really work. Calling a character Mary Sue in the current climate on the basis of their having a traumatic background, an interesting name and an affinity with animals is equivalent to calling an old woman with a wart on her nose, a knowledge of herbs and a black cat a witch in the context of actual witch-burning. By which I mean: people are so terrified of accidentally countenancing the presence of a Mary Sue that they’ve started trying to identify them by sight, with predictably bad results.

The term Mary Sue began in fanfic, which is all about personal participation in other people’s narratives. It’s an awesome way to learn the ropes, make friends, test ideas, participate in fandom and generally have a good time, but self-insertion is more or less the point: not because all original fanfic characters are avatars for their authors, but because the whole point of fanfic is using your own ideas in someone else’s world. Extending this argument to original fiction is therefore inherently problematic, not least when reviewers and Sue-tests alike start sneering that such-and-such an author only did X because they thought it was cool, so obviously it’s a case of self-insertion.¬†And it’s like, what? Did you honestly expect me to sit down and pour my heart into something I didn’t think was awesome? Writing stories we think are cool is sort of what authors do. We think, ‘Time-travelling lady space pirates? Hell yes!’ – ¬†and then we go and do it. You might have different tastes, which is fine! But let’s be very clear on the matter: writers don’t insert themselves into stories. Stories insert themselves into us.

But the most damaging aspect of reviewers calling original characters Mary Sues is the fact that, precisely because of this lingering self-insertion argument, it only ever happens to female writers. By way of example, compare the description of George R. R. Martin’s Daenerys Targaryen – ¬†a silver-haired, purple-eyed, impossibly beautiful teenage queen born in exile with three dragon companions, legions of suitors, an abusive childhood and a prophetic destiny – with the contents of any Mary Sue checklist you care to name, and she’ll probably register at close to 100%. But what sort of critic is going to imply that George R. R. Martin, a straight man in his sixties, must secretly want to be a thirteen-year-old girl? A fairy unhinged one, is the answer, and even though Google can probably turn up a couple of examples to prove me wrong, the point is that all this dialogue about Sues tends to center on YA and UF novels – stories which, as Buhlert notes, are written predominantly by women.

But wait, I hear you cry, that’s not a fair comparison! Daenerys isn’t Martin’s only character. She’s one protagonist among many.¬†Well, and I suppose that female authors only write about women? That they feel no connection to their male characters, and that no matter how large the cast, it’s only ever the leading lady who matters? (Anyone who answered yes, go to your room.) This is the other problem with calling Mary Sue on original works: it’s a scenario in which the author has created¬†every single character. This is wildly distinct from the traditional fanfic setup which birthed the term, in which a single, original protagonist would be catapulted¬†into an existing narrative. In those instances, that single character literally becomes the extension and embodiment of the writer’s will – a whole different kettle of fish to creating a cast from scratch. To quote Holly Black again:

The Mary Sue warps the story; the female protagonist is the story.

Which means that, if we want to play the Mary Sue card constructively – if we want it not to be sexist, applicable just as equally to the works of male authors as female, with Gary Stu put into equal usage – then we need to consider the trope for what it really is: the ultimate example of poor characterisation. Gama Stues – as I’m now going to call them, in the spirit of equality – do not grow. They come to their roles as static, perfect characters, capable of angst and internal monologues but without ever actually changing. Regardless of the genre trappings – because neither do I want to assume that Stues are solely the products of SFF – they are, contextually, so beautiful or¬†desirable¬†that everyone falls in love with them at the slightest provocation; a description which, as Cora Buhlert points out, is textbook James Bond. Their skillsets are deeply convenient to the plot, which by itself makes perfect sense, but are distinguished in this regard by being either so broad as to verge on the ridiculous, acquired with an ease that’s wildly disproportionate to their difficulty, or unreasonably inexplicable given the character’s origins.

They are, in short, badly written – but bad writing is a manifold thing, expressible in near-infinite variations. Tropes employed badly by one author might prove successful for another; the same is true of literary styles. And while I appreciate the tendency for particular characters to drive us up the wall, particularly when we detect similar themes emerging across multiple stories, pinning a label on just the women – let alone one that’s been hastily appropriated from a different context – does not constitute intelligent critical analysis. If you feel justified in disliking a certain story, then show your working. Don’t just say that someone is a Stue – tell us why.

It really is that simple.

 

A Softer World: 642

Warning: spoilers for True Blood Season 4

Falling asleep last night, I found myself considering a question that’s been niggling at me for months: why is it that I’m fine with forgiving some True Blood¬†characters who’ve done terrible things in the past, but not others? Despite all the protestations and boundaries of my own ethical system, the distinction seems to have less to do with the type of terrible thing (up to a point) and more about why it was done.¬†By all accounts, I should find Eric Northman to be a more horrific vampire than Bill Compton; his torture and imprisonment of Lafayette alone is one of the more harrowing plots in an already gritty show. And yet, I don’t – and while a reasonable portion of that discrepancy can probably be attributed to the not inconsiderable charms of Alexander Skarsgard, the vast majority of it isn’t.

Looking at Bill’s history, we see an interwoven pattern of love and violence. For love of his maker, Lorena, he committed multiple atrocious murders, their goriness shown to us in a series of flashbacks. For love of Sookie, he took it upon himself to kill both her¬†pedophile¬†Uncle Bartlett and the¬†villainous, violent Rattrays. No matter how deserving of death we might view these characters to be, all their murders were premeditated, placing them well outside the show’s internally acceptable justification of self-defense which. By contrast, his multiple betrayals of Sookie – selling her to Queen Sophie-Anne, returning to Lorena, forcibly draining her blood – are all the worse for being committed against a loved one, even when we can acknowledge the extent to which his hand was forced.

In Eric’s case, however, there’s a sense in which the worst thing he’s done to Sookie personally (as opposed to her friends) is to buy her house and refuse to sell it back. Not only does this give him unprecedented control over her, but the house has such significance to Sookie that the threat of withholding it constitutes emotional blackmail. Compare this to earlier incidents: though Eric both tricked Sookie into drinking his blood and has forcibly bitten her, these crime are nullified – comparatively, if not absolutely – by the fact that Bill has done likewise in a far more awful manner. His history is violent, yes, but nonetheless designed to make us sympathetic: killing Nazis for one thing, and avenging his family’s murder for another. Elsewhere, his devotion to Godric and care for Pam are both used to underscore his benevolence and loyalty, whereas Bill, having first been a spy for Sophie-Anne, has more recently been revealed as a double agent, killing his queen with the aid of Nan Flanagan. Finally, there’s the terrible incident of Tara’s rape and imprisonment to consider. At the time, both Bill and Eric were witnesses to her plight, and it’s a significant mark against both of them that neither one helps her escape. The difference is that whereas Eric remains a relative stranger, his aid neither looked for nor expected, Tara and Bill are friends. When she pleads with Bill to free her, he refuses – and given what comes next, it’s this betrayal which damns him most of all.

Where am I going with this? That love is simultaneously the best and worst justification for committing terrible crimes, and also a leading cause of terribleness when love is the thing betrayed. Acting against a loved one, no matter how pure or necessary the motive, is bad. Acting for a loved one in a terrible way, no matter how pure the motive, is just as bad, but mitigated in cases of extreme necessity. Acting for a loved one in a pure or necessary way is good – which should hardly need to be said, except that distinguishing these latter instances from one another is where we tend to struggle. By this point in True Blood, pretty much every single character has either committed murder, attempted murder, betrayed their friends, run amok or otherwise behaved badly, to the extent that eliding certain events and justifying others is the only way to like anyone. But even then, some crimes stand out as¬†unforgivable – it’s just that we don’t always agree on which these are,¬†and the emotional byplay as the characters argue their respective cases is fascinating.

And that’s where the opening comic comes in: because doing terrible things for love has become the show’s¬†raison d’etre. Whether it’s Sam and Tommy’s relationship with the Migginses, Sookie sheltering a mind-wiped Eric, Tara lying to Naomi about her real identity, Lafayette dealing drugs to pay for Ruby-Jean’s hospice, Crystal imprisoning Jason, Amy betraying Hoyt, Bill imprisoning Marnie or any one of a hundred other scenarios, True Blood has somehow become a show about the intrinsic difficulties of trying to redeem dysfunction. After three seasons of madness and bloodshed, the cast has been left demoralised and broken. Nobody is innocent, and where we once were quick to judge this character or that as being virtuous or villainous, both those terms have now been rendered fundamentally moot.

As to whether that answers my opening question, I’m not sure. Every fandom has arguments against or in favour of particular characters, but in the case of True Blood, it really is impossible to hinge that debate on superior moral fortitude. For my part, the line I draw, however shakily, seems to hinge on love. Killing someone in self-defense is one thing, but killing to show how much you care is a contradiction in terms.

Unless you’re Eric Northman. Then it’s OK.

Sort of.

The Key to Starveldt is here! My second novel is now a real, live thing that I can hold and flip through and poke! It’s due for release in October 2011, which is barely two months away, which is awesome – but which also means, alas, that my ability to launch said novel will be curtailed until sometime early in 2012, being as how plane trips from Scotland to Australia do not come cheap. But! That doesn’t mean I don’t have Special Things planned in lieu of a timely launch.

Oh yes, internets. Special Things, the nature of which shall be revealed between now and October. But until then: new book! Squee!