Archive for September, 2017

Warning: spoilers for Shin Godzilla.

I’ve been wanting to see Shin Godzilla since it came out last year, and now that it’s available on iTunes, I’ve finally had the chance. Aside from the obvious draw inherent to any Godzilla movie, I’d been keen to see a new Japanese interpretation of an originally Japanese concept, given the fact that every other recent take has been American. As I loaded up the film, I acknowledged the irony in watching a disaster flick as a break from dealing with real-world disasters, but even so, I didn’t expect the film itself to be quite so bitingly apropos.

While Shin Godzilla pokes some fun at the foibles of Japanese bureaucracy, it also reads as an unsubtle fuck you to American disaster films in general and their Godzilla films in particular. From the opening scenes where the creature appears, the contrast with American tropes is pronounced. In so many natural disaster films – 2012, The Day After Tomorrow, Deep Impact, Armageddon, San Andreas – the Western narrative style centres by default on a small, usually ragtag band of outsiders collaborating to survive and, on occasion, figure things out, all while being thwarted by or acting beyond the government. There’s frequently a capitalist element where rich survivors try to edge out the poor, sequestering themselves in their own elite shelters: chaos and looting are depicted up close, as are their consequences. While you’ll occasionally see a helpful local authority figure, like a random policeman, trying to do good (however misguidedly), it’s always at a remove from any higher, more coordinated relief effort, and particularly in more SFFnal films, a belligerent army command is shown to pose nearly as much of a threat as the danger itself.

To an extent, this latter trope appears in Shin Godzilla, but to a much more moderated effect. When Japanese command initially tries to use force, the strike is aborted because of a handful of civilians in range of the blast, and even when a new attempt is made, there’s still an emphasis on chain of command, on minimising collateral damage and keeping the public safe. At the same time, there’s almost no on-the-ground civilian elements to the story: we see the public in flashes, their online commentary and mass evacuations, a few glimpses of individual suffering, but otherwise, the story stays with the people in charge of managing the disaster. Yes, the team brought together to work out a solution – which is ultimately scientific rather than military – are described as “pains-in-the-bureaucracy,” but they’re never in the position of having to hammer, bloody-fisted, on the doors of power in order to rate an audience. Rather, their assemblage is expedited and authorised the minute the established experts are proven inadequate.

When the Japanese troops mobilise to attack, we view them largely at a distance: as a group being addressed and following orders, not as individuals liable to jump the chain of command on a whim. As such, the contrast with American films is stark: there’s no hotshot awesome commander and his crack marine team to save the day, no sneering at the red tape that gets in the way of shooting stuff, no casual acceptance of casualties as a necessary evil, no yahooing about how the Big Bad is going to get its ass kicked, no casual discussion of nuking from the army. There’s just a lot of people working tirelessly in difficult conditions to save as many people as possible – and, once America and the UN sign a resolution to drop a nuclear bomb on Godzilla, and therefore Tokyo, if the Japanese can’t defeat it within a set timeframe, a bleak and furious terror at their country once more being subject to the evils of radiation.

In real life, Japan is a nation with extensive and well-practised disaster protocols; America is not. In real life, Japan has a wrenchingly personal history with nuclear warfare; America, despite being the cause of that history, does not.

Perhaps my take on Shin Godzilla would be different if I’d managed to watch it last year, but in the immediate wake of Hurricane Harvey, with Hurricane Irma already wreaking unprecedented damage in the Caribbean, and huge tracts of Washington, Portland and Las Angeles now on fire, I find myself unable to detach my viewing from the current political context. Because what the film hit home to me – what I couldn’t help but notice by comparison – is the deep American conviction that, when disaster strikes, the people are on their own. The rich will be prioritised, local services will be overwhelmed, and even when there’s ample scientific evidence to support an imminent threat, the political right will try to suppress it as dangerous, partisan nonsense.

In The Day After Tomorrow, which came out in 2004, an early plea to announce what’s happening and evacuate those in danger is summarily waved off by the Vice President, who’s more concerned about what might happen to the economy, and who thinks the scientists are being unnecessarily alarmist. This week, in the real America of 2017, Republican Rush Limbaugh told reporters that the threat of Hurricane Irma, now the largest storm ever recorded over the Atlantic Ocean, was being exaggerated by the “corrupted and politicised” media so that they and other businesses could profit from the “panic”.

In my latest Foz Rants piece for the Geek Girl Riot podcast, which I recorded weeks ago, I talk about how we’re so acclimated to certain political threats and plotlines appearing in blockbuster movies that, when they start to happen in real life, we’re conditioned to think of them as being fictional first, which leads us to view the truth as hyperbolic. Now that I’ve watched Shin Godzilla, which flash-cuts to a famous black-and-white photo of the aftermath of Hiroshima when the spectre of a nuclear strike is raised, I’m more convinced than ever of the vital, two-way link between narrative on the one hand and our collective cultural, historical consciousness on the other. I can’t imagine any Japanese equivalent to the moment in Independence Day when cheering American soldiers nuke the alien ship over Las Angeles, the consequences never discussed again despite the strike’s failure, because the pain of that legacy is too fully, too personally understood to be taken lightly.

At a cultural level, Japan is a nation that knows how to prepare for and respond to natural disasters. Right now, a frightening number of Americans – and an even more frightening number of American politicians – are still convinced that climate change is a hoax, that scientists are biased, and that only God is responsible for the weather. How can a nation prepare for a threat it won’t admit exists? How can it rebuild from the aftermath if it doubts there’ll be a next time?

Watching Shin Godzilla, I was most strongly reminded, not of any of the recent American versions, but The Martian. While the science in Shin Godzilla is clearly more handwavium than hard, it’s nonetheless a film in which scientific collaboration, teamwork and international cooperation save the day. The last, despite a denouement that pits Japan against an internationally imposed deadline, is of particular importance, as global networking still takes place across scientific and diplomatic back-channels. It’s a rare American disaster movie that acknowledges the existence or utility of other countries, especially non-Western ones, beyond shots of collapsing monuments, and even then, it’s usually in the context of the US naturally taking the global lead once they figure out a plan. The fact that the US routinely receives international aid in the wake of its own disasters is seemingly little-known in the country itself; that Texas’s Secretary of State recently appeared to turn down Canadian aid in the wake of Harvey, while now being called a misunderstanding, is nonetheless suggestive of confusion over this point.

As a film, Shin Godzilla isn’t without its weaknesses: the monster design is a clear homage to the original Japanese films, which means it occasionally looks more stop-motion comical than is ideal; there’s a bit too much cutting dramatically between office scenes at times; and the few sections of English-language dialogue are hilariously awkward in the mouths of American actors, because the word-choice and use of idiom remains purely Japanese. Even so, these are ultimately small complaints: there’s a dry, understated sense of humour evident throughout, even during some of the heavier moments, and while it’s not an action film in the American sense, I still found it both engaging and satisfying.

But above all, at this point in time – as I spend each morning worriedly checking the safety of various friends endangered by hurricane and flood and fire; as my mother calls to worry about the lack of rain as our own useless government dithers on climate science – what I found most refreshing was a film in which the authorities, despite their faults and foibles, were assumed and proven competent, even in the throes of crisis, and in which scientists were trusted rather than dismissed. Earlier this year, in response to an article we both read, my mother bought me a newly-released collection of the works of children’s poet Misuzu Kaneko, whose poem “Are You An Echo?” was used to buoy the Japanese public in the aftermath of the 2011 tsunami . Watching Shin Godzilla, it came back to me, and so I feel moved to end with it here.

May we all build better futures; may we all write better stories.

Are You An Echo?

If I say, “Let’s play?”
you say, “Let’s play!”

If I say, “Stupid!”
you say, “Stupid!”

If I say, “I don’t want to play anymore,”
you say, “I don’t want to play anymore.”

And then, after a while,
becoming lonely

I say, “Sorry.”
You say, “Sorry.”

Are you just an echo?
No, you are everyone.

 

 

 

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A few days ago, I went on a Twitter rant about female characterisation and Mad Max: Fury Road which ended up attracting rather more attention than I’d anticipated. As such, a few people replied to ask for advice about how to write good female characters, and while I answered in brief at the time, it’s something I’d like to address in a bit more detail.

Whenever the topic of how not to write women comes up, usually with reference to such narrative basics as avoiding objectification, lone Exceptional Girls and gender stereotypes, there’s a predictable sort of outrage from people who’ve missed the point. Are you saying we can’t write beautiful women? they ask, only semi-facetiously. Is there a quota for female characters per story we have to hit to avoid being called misogynists? Is romance allowed at all? Can women have any feminine interests, or is that sexist, too? And because we’ve already gone on at length about all these things, we’re usually too exhausted to reply.

The thing is, there’s no one “right” way to write women, just as there’s no one “right” way to write any type of person. In talking about common mistakes, and particularly when we’re talking about them in brief, we’re rarely saying “avoid this one, overly simplified Bad Thing in its entirety,” but are rather expressing frustration at how that particular element is overwhelmingly used in certain quarters, while emphasising how to do it well.

As writers, it behoves us to get into the mindset of our characters: to understand their personalities, backgrounds and motivations, whatever they might be. Bad characterisation is what happens when a writer fails to do this; and while that failure can occur for any number of reasons, one of the most common (and therefore most frustrating) permutations occurs when the writer has a reductive, inaccurate or otherwise stereotypical view of what certain types of people are like in real life, or when they fail to acknowledge that their own experience of the world can’t be universally applied to people from different backgrounds.

So: let’s talk beautiful women and the ostensible ban on writing them, which is one of my personal bugbears.

Culturally, women are expected to be beautiful. In the West, the mainstream concept of “beauty” is held to expire at a certain age while being inherently fetishised, diminished or inaccessible to anyone not white. This means that, in a large number of Western narratives, female characters skew conveniently young, even in contexts where you’d expect such a person to be older; are conveniently long-haired, fashionable and permanently made up, even when disdain for such trappings is ostensibly part of their characterisation; and are frequently written as though beauty is a personality trait instead of a personal judgement. What this means is that we’re all collectively conditioned to make female characters “beautiful” as a reflex, because if we’re going to invent a woman out of thin air, then why on Earth would we want to make her ugly?

But as even the type of misogynist prone to rating women’s looks has tangentially realised, not being beautiful isn’t the same as being ugly. Even given the massive cultural dominance of mainstream Western beauty standards – white, blonde-haired and light-eyed, slim but busty, of medium height, able-bodied, aged between sixteen and thirty, or thirty-five at the absolute most – most of us are generally able to acknowledge the attractiveness of women who differ from those parameters by virtue of more than their hair colour. And when it comes to the question of individual preference – well. The world, as they say, is our oyster. Beauty is not an absolute, but a personal judgement, and that’s before you get into the question of attractiveness as determined by personality rather than looks, which is a great deal more significant than many reductive persons care to admit.

All of which tells us a great deal about how female beauty is perceived, and which is therefore relevant to how female characters are viewed by the audience. But when you’re writing a story, the character has their own internality: you have to know them from the inside, too. When a story tells me in the raw narration, rather than from a character’s POV, that a woman is beautiful, it invariably feels forced, as though the author is imposing a false universal over any judgement I might prefer to make for myself. But in a narrative context where women have every reason to be aware of the value placed on their looks, a story that goes out of its way to tell me about a female character’s beauty from an external perspective only is doing her a disservice.

One of the great paradoxes of mainstream beauty culture is that, while women are expected to look good for men, the effort that goes into maintaining that beauty – physical, emotional, financial – is held to be of zero masculine interest. On TV, it’s common to see a hard-bitten female detective whose hair is worn long and sprayed into perfect coiffure, whose heels are high, whose face is permanently made up, and whose fashion choices visibly outstrip her salary, because we expect all TV characters to be exceptionally pretty. It’s just that, with women, by virtue of the extra accessories and effort “mainstream” beauty requires, making any and all characters strive to clear that bar can’t help but impinge on their characterisation in a way that it doesn’t for men. A flock of teenage boys all showing up to school in various dapper vest, suit and tie combinations would raise eyebrows on TV, but we’re inured to the sight of teenage girls in math class dressed like they’re off to a movie premiere. And what this means, whether intentionally or not, is that we void the prospect of women who, at the level of characterisation, have different approaches to beauty, not just in terms of individual style, but as a social expectation.

So: you tell me your character is beautiful in context, wildly attractive to the men around her. Great! But what does she think about that? Did she go through puberty so early that she was teased about having breasts for years before the same boys started to hit on her? Is she uncomfortable with the attention? Does she enjoy it? Does she deliberately “dress down” to avoid getting catcalled? Does she even like men? Is she confident in her looks? Does she feel insecure? Does she enjoy make up? If so, how much time, money and effort does she put into using it? If not, how sick is she of being cajoled into trying it? How does she dress? Does she actually enjoy shopping at all? What cultural norms have shaped her idea of beauty? Have you noticed how many of these questions are context-dependent on the modern world and our implicit association of beauty with makeup and fashion? If your setting is an invented one, have you given any thought to local beauty standards, or have you just unconsciously imported what’s familiar?

I’m not asking these questions to situate them as absolute must-haves in every narrative instance. I’m asking because I’m sick of “she was beautiful” being treated as a throw-away line that’s nonetheless meant to stand in lieu of further characterisation, as though there’s no internal narrative to beauty and no point in mentioning it unless to make clear that male readers should find the character fuckable.

This goes double for warrior women in SFF novels particularly, not because powerful, kickass ladies can’t be beautiful, but because there’s a base degree of grime and practicality inherent in fighting that’s often at odds with the way their looks are described. A skilled fighter who has no scars or bruises at any given time is as implausible as a swordswoman with baby-soft, uncalloused hands. Long, silky hair might look good, and it’s certainly not beyond the realm of possibility for a warrior to have it, but your girl is still going to need to tie it back when she’s in the field, and if she’s out on the road or in battle with no more bathing opportunities than her male comrades, it’s not going to fall out of her helmet looking like she’s a L’oreal model. If your armies are gender diverse and there’s no stated reason why women can’t hold rank, but the only women we ever see are young and hot, then yes, I’m going to assume you’ve prioritised beauty over competence at the expense of including other, more interesting characters. A woman’s looks are far from being the most salient thing about her, and if a subconscious need to find your female characters conventionally attractive (unless they’re villains) is influencing who you write about, believe me, it’s going to be noticeable.

I could address those other, early queries at similar length, but what it all boils down to is a marriage of context and internality. No, there’s no quota for female characters per book, but if you’re going to give me a POV perspective on a lone woman associating with an otherwise all-male cast, simply telling me “she’d always gotten along better with men than women” is not sufficient to explain the why of it, especially if her being there is contextually incongruous. By the same token, if you show me the POV of a woman who has every reason to associate primarily with other women but whose thoughts are only ever about men, I’m going to raise a disbelieving eyebrow. If you can’t imagine what women talk about when men aren’t in the room, or if you simply don’t think it’s likely to be interesting, then yes, it’s going to affect your ability to write female characters, because even if you only ever show them with men, those private judgements should still inform their internal characterisation.

One of the most dispiriting experiences I’ve ever had in a writing group was watching a man in late middle-age describe a young woman of his own invention. As an exercise, we’d all taken fifteen minutes or so to write out a detailed rundown of a particular character, either one we’d invented on the spot or who featured in our fiction, and to share that work with the group. This man produced an unattractive girl in her late teens who had no interests besides working in a dollar shop, who lived with her mother but didn’t really have any friends, who liked shopping and eating chips – and that was it. Every time a member of the group prompted him for more details, he just shrugged smugly and said she just liked being in the shop, and that was it. When pressed further, he insisted that he saw plenty of girls like this on the bus and around his area, that she was a realistic character, and that there was no need to develop her beyond this dim outline because she just wasn’t clever or interesting or curious, so why would she have opinions about anything else? It was maddening, depressing and so unbearably sexist I wanted to scream, because by his own admission, what he’d done was look at women in the real world and assume that his reductive judgement of their goals and interests, made on the basis of their appearance, was genuinely the be-all, end-all of who they were as people, such that even when it came to putting a woman like that in fiction, he didn’t feel moved to develop her any further.

Ultimately, if you want to write good female characters, there’s no one way to do it. But if I had to distil all this into a single piece of advice – a practical thing for writers to do, to try and better their skillsets – I’d say: as an exercise, try writing a story with only female characters, or in which men are the clear minority. When women only ever appear singly or in contexts where they never talk to each other, it’s easy to fall into the habit of letting their gender and beauty stand in for characterisation, because you only need to distinguish them from men, not from each other. But try your hand at a story whose five characters are all women, and suddenly the balance shifts. You can’t just have The Feminine One and The Tomboy, or The Ultra Hot One and the Girl Next Door, and nor can you lapse into defining them as such in their own perspectives. You can certainly pick a narrative setting that explains why they’re all or mostly the same age (high school, for instance), but it’s harder to lump them together.

And if it’s never occurred to you to write women as a majority before? Then you might want to ask yourself why that is, and consider how your answer might be impacting your ability to write them as individuals.