Posts Tagged ‘Rant’

One of my favourite things to do in the shower (and don’t you wish more sentences started that way?) is to rake my fingernails over my face and slough off the wet, dead skin. Reasons for this include, but are not limited to: because I am deeply weird; because it feels nice; and because it keeps my complexion pretty. Leaving aside the first point as both an inevitability of my existence and a perennial lost cause (I also collect hats!), the latter two motives combine to form a habit which is both satisfying and, insofar as I can tell, cleansing. And lest you be disturbed by the image of long, sharp, manicured talons being gouged down my rosy cheeks, please bear in mind that I am, in fact, possessed of the shortest, bluntest nails in Christendom. Seriously. They are messed up.

There’s a point to all of this. Honest. Just bear with me.

Last weekend, my husband and I went on a picnic, taking advantage of what has thus far been one of Scotland’s four genuinely sunny summer days. Much to my surprise, this actually resulted in a light sunburn, such that I’ve been gently peeling all week. Today’s nail-enabled exfoliations therefore took longer than usual, which afforded me time to wonder: Do other people do this, too? Did I start doing it because it felt nice, or because it improves my appearance? And if it didn’t feel nice, would I still do it to look pretty? And that made me think about all the other things I do to maintain myself, and whether they count as active beautification – and that was interesting question.

Because the thing is, I don’t wear makeup. This is not a shorthand to indicate that I only sometimes wear makeup, nor is it a dishonest means of saying that I wear very little makeup, be it regularly or semi-regularly. I mean, quite literally, that I wear no makeup at all. I own one tube of fifteen-year-old lipstick, worn maybe three times between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five, that my mother gave me a decade ago. I wore clear lipstick at my wedding, and nothing more. Twice, female friends have given me party makeovers: once recently for the hell of it, and once as a teenager, when we were dressing up as vampires for a fantasy fancy dress birthday. I certainly experimented with makeup as a young tween, putting on blush and lippy and foundation and eye-shadow that I’d found in my mother’s bathroom cabinet, or else trying those same things at various girls-only sleepover parties, but that never really translated to my actually wearing makeup as an adult. There’s a number of reasons why this might be so – my mother rarely wore makeup herself, I was proudly a tomboy, I was too lazy to bother, I’d rather have spent my pocket-money on books – but the practical upshot is that I’m a grown woman who doesn’t wear any makeup, something which seems to be comparatively unusual.

And what really struck me today – the thing that made me sit down and blog – was the realisation that my decision to avoid makeup was not, in fact, a decision at all, let alone a political one. I never chose a makeup-free existence, because that would imply an actual, active thought process on the matter. I just never bought or wore it, in much the same way that I neither buy nor wear designer clothes: it’s simply something other people do. And that bothers me, because the more I think about the sexism and inequality of our culture and its obsession with unrealistic and frequently negative beauty ideals, the more it feels as though my abstention from makeup should be part of my politics. Which is where the comparison with designer clothes falls down: because while I can postulate a theoretic future, no matter how distant and unlikely, in which I take an active, positive interest in clothes design and the aesthetics and history of fashion (which is, for the purposes of this example, a different creature entirely to the horrific inequalities of the actual fashion industry), I cannot think of a similar future where I’d suddenly take an active, positive interest in wearing makeup. Or, to put it another way: despite the fact that I never decided not to wear makeup for ethical, moral or political reasons, I would nonetheless feel it to be an ethical, moral and political capitulation on my part to start wearing makeup.

That doesn’t seem so irrational, surely? And yet saying so makes me feel horrifically judgmental – a gender traitor, even, for all that I’m trying to make a case in support of women. Because the fact is that most Western women do wear makeup, and for much the same reasons that I scrape the dead skin off my face in the shower: because they enjoy it, and because doing so makes them feel cleaner and prettier than if they didn’t.

And so I ask myself: am I a total hypocrite? After all, I still have a beauty regimen. I exfoliate; I use body wash and a loofah, facial scrub and moisturiser. But I do these things as much in the name of cleanliness as beauty. The nice feeling they give me overlaps, is equivalent to, the sensation of having freshly-washed, non-greasy hair and sweat-free skin. But I also shave my underarms and, when I can be bothered, my legs, which is something different again. There’s nothing innately clean about the idea of hairlessness – our culture  just teaches us to prefer clean-shaven men and women with minimal body hair. And there’s problems with that, because who the hell decided it, and why do most of us do it anyway? But while it makes perfect sense to keep such social imperatives and their malleability in mind, ultimately I don’t foresee a version of the human species wherein we don’t have some beauty norms, and if I were given ultimate control over humanity for a day such that I could forever revoke a particular beautification practice, shaving wouldn’t be it; or at least, not leg/arm/facial shaving, the practice of women removing their pubic hair to effectively recreate the image of prepubescence being considerably more problematic. Anyway: what I’m getting at here, or trying to, is that we adhere to different norms for different reasons, and even though women’s hairlessness is politicised in ways that men’s is not – hairy-legged or unshaven feminist being well-known terms of abuse – the trend ultimately seems to be more in line with the vogue of hairstyles than the application of makeup.

Possibly that’s a false distinction, and I’m very much open to the idea of being wrong: it’s something I’ve thought about before, and something I want to keep considering. But when it comes to sculpting, altering and otherwise emphasising our physical appearance (and ignoring the much more complex issues of body size and type, which is worth myriad other essays in its own right), what ultimately puts me off makeup is the extent to which it conceals and alters our faces. If I shave my legs and arms and crotch (or not); if I cut and colour my hair (or not); if I wear jewelry and pierce my ears (or not); if I paint my nails and get a tattoo (or not), then I am, for whatever reason of preference and aesthetics, changing my physical appearance: I am striving to look different, and regardless of whether I’m doing so to conform to an external standard of beauty, a social standard of beauty or simply to my own tastes – and those three things overlap more often than not – they are changes which serve to emphasise my identity and selfhood, rather than obscure it. Obviously many women – probably most, in fact – feel the same way about makeup: that wearing it serves to emphasise who they are. And I can understand that position; it’s why I’ve bothered writing this piece, because I’m honestly conflicted about where the line is between expressing oneself through physical beautification and objectifying oneself through adherence to (potentially damaging) cultural norms. Perhaps there’s no single solution, after all – maybe the question will never be answerable on anything other than a case-by-case basis; and that’s fine, too.

But makeup doesn’t empower me. The few times I’ve ever put on a face (and isn’t that a telling expression?), it’s made me feel, not beautified, but erased. It feels like compensating for my features, instead of emphasising them; like saying my native self is, if not actually ugly, then insufficient. Bland. Unmemorable. I don’t define myself by my hair or nails, my legs and arms or groin; I don’t consider that dyeing, styling and cutting my hair is anything other than an aesthetic act. But my face is what others see of me, and what I see of myself. It’s where people look when I talk to them; it is how we talk, and the act of acknowledging, even tacitly, that my primary means of expression could benefit from cosmetics, leaves me feeling utterly unbeautiful. And what’s worse, makeup is a considered to be a strictly female domain. Men bathe and exfoliate; they shave and wax their body hair; they use dyes and moisturisers and hair gel and even nail polish – and yes, it’s still more common for women to use those things; and yes, some few men do use cosmetics; and yes, they have every right to do so, and more, should be allowed to do so without fear of social reprisals. I know all these things, and they are relevant and important. But knowing them will not convince me that I can find an iota of self-confidence, one ounce of esteem, in the application of tinted animal fats and powdered chemicals to any part of my face – and nor, I think, should it.

I’m not trying to claim superiority over women who wear makeup; far from it. I’m not even trying to suggest that the concept of makeup is innately wrong – only that, for me, it crosses a personal line, and that part of that crossing is exacerbated by the fact that it applies almost entirely to women. The lines between personal aesthetics and social aesthetics will always be blurred, because we’re all creatures of the world in which we’re raised, and even if we can see where the habit of leg-shaving or lipstick comes from, that doesn’t automatically mean we should strive to destroy those practices out of pure contrition. Or, to put it another way: we are all empowered by different things. There will never be a perfect world where none of our customs have problematic consequences, and while I fully believe in our ability to create more and better societies than the one in which we now live,  the way to do that isn’t to issue a new mandate to the masses about what they should and shouldn’t do with their bodies.

But in order for that to happen, we have to think about why we do things, the better to understand – and, in some cases, change – our reasoning. And so I ask: if you do wear makeup most or all of the time, why? Is it habit, or ritual? Does it empower or undermine your sense of self? Does it make you feel happy, or sad, or nothing at all? Does it give you a sense of belonging, or dislocation? Does it feel right or wrong, natural or unnatural? Does it make you feel beautiful or ugly, enhanced or lessened? Do you wear it because you want to, or because you feel you have to?

I already know how I feel. So what about you?

Here is a think I hate about the UK: being carded at the supermarket for daring try and buy wine with my shopping. I hate it with the fiery vengeance of a thousand flaming suns. Not just because my only form of photo ID is my passport, which for obvious reasons I don’t carry with me at all times, and not just because I’m inevitably carded on the basis of what I’m wearing. Work clothes? Never carded. Velvet coat, gothy skirt, geeky t-shirt and/or hooded jacket? Hellooooo, humiliation!

Because that’s what I really hate about the whole experience, and the reason why I am currently furious: being carded is fucking humiliating. No, I do not care that it’s a “compliment” to be told I “look” under 25, because how I look shouldn’t matter, and in any case is such a ludicrously subjective measurement as to be rendered utterly useless – and that’s even before you get to the mind-boggling nannyism of stopping people based on a standard that requires them to look at least eight years older than the legal drinking age.

But look. I get that countries have stupid laws. I really do! And after the first few incidents, I started taking that into account. Either I take my passport shopping, or I choose my line at the checkout based on the age of the person serving (I have never been carded by anyone in their teens or twenties, and was once able to negotiate a purchase from a sympathetic employee in her thirties). If all else fails, I can now accept my circumstances with a graceful laugh and move on.

Or at least, I could. Until I went to Morrisons today, passport in hand, and was still refused service. Why, you ask? Because two weeks ago, Morrisons was apparently handed down a verdict from some trade commission or other – I rang their customer service line for details, and the woman on the other end didn’t seem to understand it either – specifying that, in order to keep their particular kind of licence, they could only accept a UK ID as proof of age. This is because, to paraphrase the bemused service rep, “it’s not possible for Morrisons staff to learn to accurately recognise the passports of the world.” I tried to ask her why this standard seemingly applied only to Morrisons, and not, for instance, to any other supermarket on the planet, but answers were not forthcoming. Thus, I made my complaint, hung up, and went to put away the bottle of wine I bought at Aldi  on the way home (the twentysomething employee didn’t card me), thinking vindictive thoughts about how at least, despite the inconvenience of having to visit two separate supermarkets, I’d managed to save £1.20.

There’s a special humiliation that accompanies being carded in the UK, in that it only ever seems to happen at supermarkets. You’re in there doing your weekly shop, you think of grabbing a bottle of wine – and all of a sudden, you’re overcome by a nagging, uneasy guilt, as though you’ve done something wrong. It’s like that momentary fear you get passing through the theft detectors on your way out of a shop: the everyday paranoia that worries they’re going to go off even though you haven’t stolen anything. Except in this case, it isn’t momentary. It poisons every trip to the shops I take, fearful of the inevitable humiliation. Perhaps if I were still a teenager, or if I was used to being carded, I wouldn’t care. But in the entire time I’ve lived in Australia and bought alcohol there – that is, from ages 17 through 24 – I have been asked for ID exactly once: outside a packed nightclub in the Rocks, on a Saturday night, when I was nineteen. That’s one carding in seven years.

Over here, it’s a different story. Including our visit in 2009, I’ve been in the UK for roughly ten months. In that time, I’ve been carded at least once in every single supermarket I’ve entered more than once. In the past week and a half alone, it’s happened twice. On one occasion when we were shopping together, my husband was carded because I was with him and he was the one paying, despite the fact that he is a fully grown man in his thirties. I cannot even begin to describe how angry this made me. Now, every time we shop together, I’m scared to be the one who pays, just in case the cashier decides to ask for ID. I am a married woman. I am twenty-five years old. I am not a student, though I reserve the right to dress like one without fear of having my age estimated downwards. STOP FUCKING CARDING ME.

And while you’re at it, stop carding my friends, too. A twenty-four-year-old friend was carded recently because she was buying a pair of scissors and was deemed to look under sixteen. (Scissors! WHAT THE FUCK!) Another friend, a PhD student in her late twenties, is repeatedly carded and refused service because her ID is international, even when she isn’t shopping at Morrisons. In fact, I’m starting to think that being female is a handicap all by itself, which is possibly unfair, but as one male friend pointed out, he at least can grow a beard to look older.

At the risk of upsetting the good half of the status quo, why am I never carded in pubs? Are pub servitors simply better at guessing my age? Are they more pragmatic than supermarket servers? Does the law apply differently on pub grounds? Or is it a combination of all three? What bothers me in this is the element of hypocritical absurdity: that right now, I could walk into any pub in the UK and buy a round of double tequila shots without anyone batting an eyelid while being simultaneously unable to purchase a single bottle of cider along with my groceries.

God only knows how I’ll cope if we ever visit America.

Reading through the second book of Ally Carter’s excellent Gallagher Girls series, Cross My Heart and Hope to Spy, on the bus home yesterday afternoon, I was suddenly struck by how the representation of schools in YA writing is, in many ways, reflective of the wider problems of modern education. Now, when it comes to the subject of education generally and high school in particular, I am not what you would call an objective commentator: I have passionate opinions, and I like to share them. I mention this by way of establishing from the outset that my perception of modern education and its problems are not necessarily universal. (I like to think it should be, but that’s another story.)

The point being, high school is problematic, and regardless of differing opinions on why that is or how it might be fixed, the simple assertion that  problems do exist is not a controversial statement. And so, while reading a book about a spy academy for teenage girls, it occurred to me to wonder why some types of school are held up as interesting, awesome and excellent in YA novels, while others either blend into the background or, at worst, are depicted as hateful, prisonesque institutions. At first glance, this is something of a ridiculous question: YA is about teenagers, teenagers go to school – is it any wonder, therefore, that depictions of education in YA should vary, too? Well, no: but probing a little deeper, it’s possible to discern an interesting pattern about the types of school on offer.

To start with, let’s consider the cool schools. These are places where the actual content of various classes is depicted as positive and interesting, not only to the characters, but to the readership – and more, where the skills they teach are of demonstrable use to the protagonists. These are the schools that cause real-world teenagers to read about them and think, man, I wish I went there, and what should be instantly significant about this is not that such schools exist, even hypothetically, but that their status as such is contingent on the combination of three factors in varying ratios: glamour, agency and relevance. Dealing with the foremost of these, it’s undeniable that cool schools train their students to be, well, cool. Carter’s Gallagher Academy is a school for spies; J. K. Rowling’s Hogwarts trains witches and wizards; and, though they don’t attend schools in the modern sense, Tamora Pierce’s heroines nonetheless learn to be knights and police officers in institutional settings.

Undeniably, then, glamour is a factor: to borrow Monty Python’s favourite example, who wants to read a book about a school for chartered accountancy? But even so, there’s something significant in the narrative success of schools whose aim is to churn out graduates with qualifications for a particular career: the idea of educational relevance. Beyond the novelty of reading about single-focus schools, all these stories show students being trained for an identifiable purpose, taking on difficult assignments not just through their own adventuring (though this also happens), but because the structure of the institution demands that they do so. Regular homework, genuine danger, obedience to teachers and repetitious training are never omitted or skimmed for the sake of making school look like a cakewalk: instead, they are emphasised, because in a setting where teenage protagonists are allowed to have personal ambitions – and more, where these can be actively pursued through school – then all those educational necessities which in the real world are seen as tedious, pointless and intrusive suddenly become interesting, worthwhile and relevant. Put bluntly, it’s one thing to sit resentfully through hours of geography class without the slightest idea of when it might ever be useful, and quite another to read about a scenario where, in order to prepare for their future career as a globe-trotting spy, a teenage protagonist sits down to memorise all the world’s countries and capital cities. Sure, actually doing the memory work would be difficult, time-consuming and perhaps even dull, but the end reward – being a spy – would more than compensate for it.

And then there’s the question of agency: the fact that teenage attendees of cool schools are not only expected to know what they want from life, but are frequently allowed leeway in their efforts at pursuing it. By and large, cool school teachers don’t care about standardised testing: they care about the material, about preparing you for the real world; they stand up for their students, support independence, encourage critical inquiry and – most importantly – treat teenagers as though they’re intelligent enough to have real opinions. As a result, the students of cool schools get to have genuine adventures without being constantly told that doing so is impossible, illegal or irresponsible. Which isn’t to say that their actions never have consequences, or that no one ever gets punished for breaking the rules, or even that adults never call them idiots. What it does mean, however, is that there’s a general acknowledgement that the most important, powerful and significant moments of one’s secondary education do not necessarily take place in class or as a result of school-sanctioned activities, and that a certain amount of disobedience is to be, if not actively encouraged, then certainly expected as part and parcel of growing into an independent adult. Thus, while Professor McGonagall has no compunction about taking house points or assigning detention (for instance), we never see any evidence that particular crimes at Hogwarts have lasting consequences beyond the (drastic, rarely issued) threat of expulsion. At cool schools, there is no such thing as a permanent record, and if you can’t see the link between the freedom to make mistakes without endangering your whole future and an assertion of teenage agency, then I’d be so bold as to suggest that you’ve forgotten what high school is like.

So, to recap: cool schools have glamour. They make the students work hard, but towards well-defined goals that are actually relevant, both to the real world and to their personal ambitions. They are understanding of error: punishments are personal and immediate, rather than long-term and general. They have good teachers and interesting subjects, with an emphasis on curiosity and independent research. Students at cool schools have agency, and are treated like adults-in-training rather than merely teenagers. This, to my way of thinking, distinguishes cool schools in YA fiction from most actual schools, but you’re allowed to disagree. (Note: real world schools can still have awesome teachers. If I’m asserting any dissonance in that regard, it’s that awesome teachers in cool schools never have to answer to an underfunded, over-nannied bureaucracy and are actually well-paid for their services. Which, you know. Matters.) Hopefully, though, you’ll agree that the characteristics listed above, with the exception of glamour, are all good things.

It doesn’t strike me as a coincidence that writers – that is to say, intelligent, creative people working in a profession that cares absolutely nothing for their school marks or qualifications  – have a tendency to question the current educational system. Without wanting to assume my own experiences to be even vaguely universal, I can’t have been the only teenager who knew that they wanted to write stories for a living (or play sport, or be a musician or an artist or a dancer), and who therefore dedicated thousands of hours throughout high school to personal projects utterly unconnected with anything on the curriculum. Quite arguably, the fantasy of cool schools is as much for the authors as it is the readers: what would our teenage years have been like if, instead of being forced to learn things we’ve never found a use for and have subsequently forgotten, we went to schools specifically structured around our interests? What if our passions hadn’t had to compete with our coursework – if every school was like the one in Fame, only geared to our personal interests? What if we’d been taken seriously as teenagers?

It’s a rosy-lensed hypothetical, to be sure. Back here in reality, even radical educational reform would never allow for the kind of schools we all secretly yearned to attend. But even so, our desires come through in our writing: testing the waters, trying to see what school could be like if people like us were in charge. Both Liar and How to Ditch Your Fairy by Justine Larbalestier play with the idea of different secondary systems: in Liar, the protagonist attends a class called Dangerous Words, where censorship and media dishonesty are discussed, while in Fairy, subject-centric schools are run on lines designed to foster traits valued in their particular professions, so that the rules of a sports high emphasise teamwork, discipline, obedience, punctuality and coordination over everything else. It goes without saying that YA novels feature a certain amount of escapism, but while the base assumption about teenagers is that they all want to escape from school all the time, the idea that they might be taking refuge in stories about better schools is not nearly so normative.

And when, in such novels, the teenage protagonists do rebel against school, it’s usually for very good reasons: either the school itself is terrible, or it has become terrorised. In Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, for instance, Marcus sets himself up in opposition to authority because his rights are being violated: government politics are interfering with freedom of speech, his best teacher is being muzzled, and the principal has started using particular students as informants. In Libba Bray’s trilogy about Victorian schoolgirls, Gemma Doyle and her friends use magic, courage and cleverness to make lives for themselves beyond what society expects of them as women, escaping the confines of a college that, for all its sorority, only wants to turn them into wives. To quote the final book, The Sweet Far Thing:

“They’ve planned our entire lives, from what we shall wear to whom we shall marry and where we shall live. It’s one lump of sugar in your tea whether you like it or not and you’d best smile even if you’re dying deep inside. We’re like pretty horses, and just as on horses, they mean to put blinders on us so we can’t look left or right but only straight ahead where they would lead.” 

Which brings us, finally, to the traits of mediocre schools in fiction: how are they characterised? Usually, it’s enough that the characters have more important things in their lives than what goes on at school: that they’re learning elsewhere, and – more particularly – that such external subjects are of greater interest and relevance than the content of their classes. The characters in Kiki Strike: Inside the Shadow City by Kirsten Miller, for instance, are both exceptional individuals and largely self-taught: Betty is a master of disguise, Luz is an inventor, DeeDee a chemist, Oona a hacker, and Ananka an observant intellectual. While it would be foolish to ignore the glamour factor of these interests, what’s important is that the girls are independent, resourceful and clever, pursuing their passions in their own time precisely because a traditional school environment would only limit them.

As I’ve previously had cause to mention, science tells us that the human brain continues to develop throughout our teenage years and doesn’t actually settle until sometime in our twenties. The upshot of this information – or at least, one of the social upshots – is that many adults consider their suspicions about teenage childishness to be correct. This is why schools and universities are compared to daycare centers: because students cannot be trusted to act like adults, must be coddled and protected and talked down to, protected from agency and relevancy and all the danger that comes from actually acting like an independent person held to be responsible for your own actions. Never mind that the same research about brain development talks about the power of teenagers to sculpt their own identities by exercising their intellect – by thinking, by acting, by engaging with the world – and the far from radical notion that a good way to encourage this behaviour might be to, you know, treat teenagers like adults. Oh, no: their brains are not ready! No one should do anything that matters until they’re twenty-five!

But how can the brain develop if the person attached to it is only ever treated like a child?

And this is why, to come to the long-awaited point, the depiction of schools in YA is so reflective of the current problems with Western education: both narratively and in terms of the real world, writers and readers understand the disconnect between what school is meant to achieve, and how it actually works. Passionate students must follow their interests outside the classroom. Adventurous, inquisitive, questioning students are disproportionately punished in the long term for misdemeanours that are, at base, attempts at critical thinking and independence – skills that schools are theoretically supposed to foster, but which in practice they actively suppress . Average students drift through classes without a sense of either purpose or agency, unable to find meaning in lessons that most of us forget by the time we’re twenty, and which have no bearing on anything they might care about otherwise or be interested in doing.

And so they turn to fiction: stories where the schools are genuinely good; or where, outside of school, there’s a means of learning relevant, interesting things with friends; or where, if the school is terrible, there’s a way of fighting back. Over and over, we tell ourselves stories of how things could and should be different, to the point where novels – and through them, authors – are in a sense picking up the shortfall left by school itself: suggesting interests, provoking passions, encouraging dreams and critical thinking and courage and independence, proving that there are at least some adults who understand that the way things are is not necessarily the way they ought to be.

So governments: if you’re out there, and you want to really improve your education systems? You could do a lot worse than asking some YA authors (and – gasp! – teenagers) what they think. Because in the end, we never resented  school for being school. Instead, we resented it for all the things it should have been, and could have been – but wasn’t.

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.

If clothes shopping were a boardgame, my copy of the rules would have long since disappeared down the back of the couch, forcing me to play with only my own sartorial proclivities as a guide (warning, warning), issued with loaded dice and assorted mismatched thimbles instead of regulation tokens, with only a broken crayon and an old receipt on which to keep score, although given that I would always loose, this would be a pointless, jaw-grinding exercise in masochism akin to maintaining staunch optimism in the ability of the New South Wales Labour Party to suddenly turn into a quasi-worthwhile amalgam of human beings, as opposed to a ratfaced pack of liars, fraudsters and no-hopers who wouldn’t know common sense if it knocked on their doors, politely introduced itself and then gave them all a lapdance.

Anyway.

The point being, I am not good with clothes. It’s not as if I’m advocating a policy of conscious nudity or anything – it’s just that, faced with the prospect of having to sally forth and choose between innumerable rows of tacky, nylon, probably-made-in-a-sweatshop gimcrackery that I can actually afford and gorgeously intimidating, real-fabrics-but-desperately-overpriced couture, my native response is to decide immediately that I don’t give a rats’ and resort to slouching around the house in a dressing gown and a pair of little woollen socks that look like they were made by somebody’s grandmother. Which, yes, is comfortable, but as my beloved husband has on occasion pointed out, it’s not exactly business casual.

And thus my policy of buying the vast majority of my clothing second-hand. I have never, for instance, been sneered or giggled at by the girl behind the counter in a charity shop for daring to enter her place of business whilst dressed in jeans and an offensively geeky t-shirt. Similarly, I have never examined the price-tag on any article of clothing sold by the Red Cross and had to consider taking out a loan from the bank in order to afford it. I enjoy the act of rummaging through various disorganised racks, setting aside hilarious paisley mumus and PVC lederhosen in my quest for that one nice top I know must be lurking there somewhere. Tragically, however, the Nice Top is all too often a Nice Top Which Would Look Utterly Fabulous With Everything I Already Own If Only It Were A Size Bigger, Instead Of Which It Makes Me Look Like An Improperly Asymmetrical Sausage. Alas!

Which hopefully illustrates the main problem with shopping second-hand, viz: the unpredictability. Many’s the time I’ve been heartbroken after finding a wonderful article of clothing, only to discover that it’s just a weense too big or too small for comfort. (The latter is particularly dangerous, as it tends to lead to fantasies of immediate weight loss in order to jusify the purchase of a ten-year-old dress with a torn hem and ciarette burns on the shoulder straps. Sense, schmense: it’s the principle of the thing.) Which isn’t to say that I’ve never found a perfect bargain treasure (eight dollars for a leather jacket!), but when it comes to hunting down specific items, you might as well be randomly trawling the Pacific Ocean for that message in a bottle your Auntie Agnes set adrift from Bondi Beach in 1937. The cardinal rule of women’s fashion, as related to me by my mother circa age nine, is to Never Walk In Knowing What You Want, because doing so will automatically guarantee every shop within driving radius not to have it, especially if it’s a plain black swimming cozzie that doesn’t make you look like a walrus – and however true this is of normal shopping, it is about a quadrillion times more so of second-handing.

Take, for instance, today’s quest for a plain, brown top with long sleeves that one might wear under various t-shirts or singlety things in a bid to stave off the cold Scottish winds without actually cocooning oneself in a series of anoraks. When nothing was doing at the first three shops, I abandoned reason and ended up in a fourth trying on a pair of what promised to be size 14 bootcut corduroy pants and a greenish, satiny sort of hidden-clasps-that-do-up-at-the-front Raph Lauren shirt purporting to be a ‘medium’, whatever that means, though presumaby not that the shirt possessed an innate ability to commune with the spirits of the deceased. Absconding to the changing cubicle to try on my finds, the following problems soon became immediately apparent:

1. the definition of ‘size 14’ as promised by the pants did not in any way fit with reality, unless you happen to believe that buttocks are optional; and

2. that Ralph Lauren, bless his cotton socks, has apparently only had breasts described to him third-hand, thus precipitating the creation of a garment which, despite featuring the type of curving, low-but-not-too-low-cut neckline favoured by women of average bosom, was categorically too small to accomodate anything larger than a golf ball, or maybe half a lemon.

Now, admittedly, I am no longer the same undernourished sylph I was at the start of university, before a disposable income and close proximity to an all-night pide, pizza and kebab shop wrought their carbohydrate-laden magics upon my person, but neither am I particularly large. And yet, when it comes to finding a pair of pants that can actually accomodate my legs, I might as well be inquiring after the pricing and availability of unicorn steaks at the local butcher. (One has documented the phenomenon of Impossible Pants quite closely this past decade, and does in fact remember the point at which the Pants Conspiracy first reared its head, viz: with the introduction of teeny-tiny pant zippers that are approximately the length of a pinky finger back in 2005,  a trend which has not so much flourished as exercised a lantana-like stranglehold on the fashion industry ever since. Used in conjunction with skinny-leg jeans and bikini-cut everything, those of us with hips wider than the average dinner plate and any sort of padding in the arseular regions have found it nigh on im-bloody-possible to buy a pair of pants that actually fits for any price less than three-hundred and sixty-five trillion dollars and three Faberge eggs, or put another way, to buy any pants AT ALL.) And if you’ve got breasts above an A-cup and want to wear a fitted top? GET RIGHT OUT.

Faced by such impossible circumstances, what else is a sensible author to do but purchase a banana-and-peanut-butter-flavoured cupcake and retire to the internet for solace and ranting?

P.S. Bonus points to any reader who drew a connection between the style and content of this blog and the fact that I’ve recently reread the collected columns of Kaz Cooke, more of whom later. Now there was a lady with sense!

Right At Home

Posted: March 24, 2011 in Life/Stuff
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before, but I have a shoddy neck. And back. And shoulders. Basically the whole spine region is sort of borked. Partly this is a genetic thing: my mother has many of the same problems I do. Injury has exacerbated them. For instance: I spent the last few years of high school carrying a heavy bag for prolonged periods of time. By heavy, I mean I once weighed it on a good day and it hit ten kilos. And by prolonged periods of time, I mean I walked an average of eight kilometers every school week for three years between my house, school and various train stations while lugging it around. It wasn’t a backpack, either: it was shaped like a gym bag. There was literally no other way to carry it than on one shoulder, usually my right. The practical upshot of this is that nearly ten years later, my shoulders make a sound like marbles grinding together if I so much as roll them. Other people can hear this noise if they stand near me. Sometimes they can hear it from across the room, if there’s no music playing. Then there was the time I slipped while working as a waitress, landed square on my hip and wrenched my whole back out for a week and a half. Ever since then, I’ll sometimes feel as though my hip has popped out of the socket, which means I suddenly start limping while my back twists. It always goes away after ten minutes or so, but it’s a little disconcerting when it happens. Every couple of days, I get vile tension headaches and a pounding pain over my left eye that feels like someone’s using a nailgun on me. I once kronked my neck so badly that I spent three days in a stupor, having been prescribed a cocktail of codeine, Panadine Forte and valium, during which time I could barely move. And so on.

These problems first became apparent when I was ten or eleven. I’d wake up in the morning with a ripping pain in my neck, unable to turn my head to the side. At first, I’d spend the day at home with a hot pack wrapped over the affected area and moving like Lurch in the Adams Family. After about the fourth time this happened, my parents realised I wasn’t just having a run of bad luck and took me to get it checked out. I was too young to really remember what the doctor said, but came away with the vague knowledge that my neck was crap, and that I needed a special pillow to help me sleep without hurting it. The pillow was expensive, smooshy and filled with goosedown, and as soon as I started using it, I felt better – or at least, I stopped waking up every second day in pain. Over the years, various people have suggested that I see a physiotherapist to see what’s changed since then. This is sound advice that I’ve never followed, primarily because physio is expensive, but also because, day to day, the situation is manageable. Lots of people have worse problems. I can cope. And a large part of that coping is my special pillow.

We bought it when I was, at most, eleven. I am now twenty-five. That means I’ve been sleeping with the same pillow almost every night for more than half my life. It has grown up with me, molding to fit the shape of my head. It is the most comfortable pillow I have ever used. It has accompanied me on innumerable sleepovers, holidays, school camps and weekends away. It came with me to college. But when we visited the UK in 2009 – and when we moved back here in January – it stayed behind. Or rather, it stayed in storage. For the past few months, it has been, along with all our other possessions, in transit, awaiting the day we finally found a place of our own and could take it home again. In the interim, I’ve had to use the cruddy pillows they give you as part of student accommodation. I have woken up most mornings with a sore neck, despite having spent upwards of ten minutes each night scrunching, twisting and rearranging the damn thing so as to try and make it comfortable.

We signed a lease on Sunday. The house is furnished, so we moved right in, but though it was an undeniable step up from where we’d been, it still didn’t feel like home.

Yesterday, we got up a little after 6am, caught the bus to Dundee, rented a van and moved all our thing into the new house. It was glorious. It was brilliant. All the creature comforts we’ve been living without were restored to us in one fell swoop. I spent the whole day unpacking, storing away all our things, most of which were books (well, mostly my books, if I’m honest) in neat little storage spaces.

Last night, for the first time in months, I slept with my special pillow. Though all my muscles hurt from a day of hard work, my neck is fine and free. We’ve really done it. We’ve really moved to Scotland.

And suddenly, I feel right at home.

 

In what will come as a shock to absolutely no one, I have a contentious opinion to put forwards.

Tentatively.

I’m not a hundred per cent on any of this: it’s something I’ve been chewing over for the past while, and I’m writing it up because I’d like to hear what other people think. But this is not a definitive statement of my beliefs – rather, it’s an attempt to tease out an idea that may or may not stand up to actual criticism. Still, I think it’s an interesting problem, and I’m going to make an effort.

So:

As things stand, female notions of male sexiness in our culture are deeply problematic, particularly as relates to feminism. Traditional concepts of masculinity – and, by extension, patriarchy – hinge on the three P’s of strength: protectiveness, power, and physique. Feminism has sought to challenge this ideal, emphasising equality, intelligence and agency for both sexes. The P’s aren’t just for men, this argument goes, but even so, they need not and ought not be the defining characteristics of society. Women have taken charge of their own sexuality, and feminists are fiercely – and rightly – determined to protect that agency. And yet, when it comes to male sexuality as coveted by women, it doesn’t seem like much has changed.

To be clear: I am not saying that feminists have never argued against traditional notions of male sexuality, nor that they’ve argued badly. In that respect, what I’m saying isn’t new. But what has struck me recently is the extent to which the three P’s are still used as the basis for male sexiness in narratives written by feminist women – and worse, that the sexiness of female characters is frequently expressed as the ability to provoke those characteristics in men. I do not excuse or exclude myself from that statement. Part of what has prompted me to sit down and write this out is the fact that, in planning romantic and/or emotional encounters between various of my characters – something I do to do help me fall asleep – I’ve been hitting a wall of cultural preconceptions. Like it or not, I have a learned version of sexiness stored in my head, a set of rules to which I’ve subconsciously been adhering, but recently – perhaps because I’ve been thinking about feminism and writing – I’ve started to see that they’re there, and to poke at them.

Here are some of the tropes I’m talking about:

1. A strong female character surrounded by men who find her attractive and a smaller number of rival women will demonstrate her strength by showing up one or more of the women in front of the men, frequently through a refusal to behave in a traditionally feminine (negative) way. This proves she is better than the other women, and therefore more deserving of male companionship, because she does not Play Games.

2. A variant on the above, where the strong female character is picked on by other women in the sight of one or more men who find her attractive, such that her dignity in coping with the situation and/or her subsequent stoicism in refusing to complain about it becomes proof of her strength. In this instance, it is important that the male observer(s) remain concealed and not intervene, ostensibly to show that the woman is strong and can deal with things on her own, or that the man respects this about her, but in reality to ensure that he is later able to confront, comfort and offer to protect her.

3. Male love interests who are physically dominant, who always initiate the first kiss, the first touch, and who might go so far as to hold the heroine’s wrists or push her forcefully against a wall. This would perhaps be less detrimental if it weren’t a default setting – if we saw a comparable number of narratives, or really any number of narratives, where the woman was physically dominant, the first to initiate everything, who pushed or held the man. Instead, the reigning logic says that male dominance is sexy, while female dominance is wanton and potentially pitiable.

4. A more chaste version of the above, but still with sexual overtones: the protective male character who, in response to whatever plot-specific necessity, will grab the heroine, carry, push or embrace her in the name of ensuring her safety, such that the heroine must reflect positively upon and ultimately be made grateful for his physical strength. Again, this would be less detrimental if the reverse situation was equally as popular, but where male protectiveness of women is permitted, female protectiveness of men is seen as emasculating.

5. A strong heroine is shown to be strong by her decision to confront the villain alone, always for noble or altruistic reasons, so that we cannot suspect her of being headstrong or rash. Inevitably, she is injured or overcome in the subsequent confrontation, such that she must be rescued, healed and comforted by a male character, whose protectiveness of her is (of course) sexy. This shapes the heroine as decisive, brave, competent and selfless while still allowing her to be a damsel in distress.

6. A male love interest must be two things: traditionally strong and non-traditionally sensitive. If he is just strong, he is a villain; if he is just sensitive, he is the geeky best friend who lusts after the girl and never actually gets her. (Sidenote: this is one of my LEAST FAVOURITE TROPES EVER.) The combination of strength and sensitivity is explained by trauma in the man’s past, such that the female character, even if she’s the ostensible protagonist, is ultimately bound to a narrative arc designed to orchestrate his redemption. Note that the female character will probably have trauma of her own, but because she is female, her behaviour is never bad enough that she needs redemption: instead, it makes her stoic, so that the male character, as part of his own emotional development, can comfort and protect her.

And so on.

The thing is, though, that what I’ve just described are some of my favourite narrative devices – and I’m not alone in that. It actually hurts me to mock them, on which grounds I’ll beg bias and say that, despite the way I’ve painted them above, they can be done well, to a purpose, in a way that genuinely works. But the problem I’m trying to identify isn’t that such tropes are being used badly. It’s that they’re being used exclusively. They enforce the idea that the only viable definition of male sexiness is the traditional definition of male sexiness. This is tempered and excused in the narrative by the fact that the woman is strong, too, and maybe the man’s a bit sensitive, but what it excludes is the idea that women protecting men is sexy; that men who are just sensitive are sexy; that any alternate permutation is sexy.

I understand the popularity of these tropes: I really do. They appeal to me, and on some level, because I am a product of our culture, I can’t help that. At best, they represent a balance between traditional masculinity and feminism: scenarios where women are strong and competent, but in ways that allow for male protectiveness without emasculation. It’s the perfect compromise. Everybody wins! But at worst, the definition has become a subconscious default, and not one possible option among many. Men can’t be sexy in different ways, this trope says, any more than female strength can be derived from sisterhood, rather than the ability to keep up with and/or impress men by the adoption of traditionally masculine traits. There is only one proper way, and we ought not question it.

In the end, I’m left thinking about this ad, wherein the perfect man is discussed with no small degree of irony. In these tropes, men are shown to be a faultless combination of everything – strength, support and sexiness – while women derive their agency, not from their own selves, but through their ability to attract a man who is strong, supportive, sexy. And when that happens, it stops being female agency, and starts being female worthiness. And that is, I believe, entirely antagonistic to feminism.

So, people: what do you think?

Earlier today, I wrote a quickish post about the YA mafia, prompted almost entirely by the fact that:

a) two authors whose work I like and whose blogs I follow were discussing it this morning; and

b) because other authors were still discussing it on Twitter a few hours later, primarily in a jocular fashion.

On the basis of having read the above, my default position was: yeah, OK, I can see why people would be concerned about this, and clearly a couple of rogue authors have been acting like dicks about bad reviews, but it’s not really a problem, because none of us have that sort of power. And then, because I am a curious person, I decided to Google the term “YA mafia” in order to see what came up, because while Holly Black, who started the discussion, mentioned having seen the phrase crop up a few times recently, she didn’t actually link to anywhere specific, and even though I’d already posted my own opinions, it didn’t feel right to leave it at that until I’d poked at it a bit more thoroughly. Because despite the fact that my Google Reader is populated almost entirely by Pure Awesome, it is neither God nor Skynet, and therefore doesn’t know everything. Yet.

Which is how I found this post on the matter, written on a feminist YA review blog called The Sparkle Project. Being a conscientious Foz, I went back into my original post and linked to it retrospectively, even though I was, at the time, still reading through all the associated links it contained. I did some more Googling after that, and then went about the rest of my day, churning things over. And then I came back to the computer tonight, and found that someone had commented on my post, thanking me for writing it. Almost – almost – I left it at that. But being as how getting actual comments on this blog from actual people I haven’t personally met is still something of a novelty, I clicked through to their website and found this: that the commenter was a book blogger who, due to advice and criticism she’d recently received from both published authors and active literary agents, had decided to completely abandon her book blog, set her Goodreads profile to private and generally keep her head down. So I did some more reading, and then I decided to write this post, because, dude: the whole idea of a YA mafia might seem like a massive overreaction, due largely to the fact that talking about mafia anything is sort of like talking about pirate anything and therefore innately hilarious at the level of nomenclature, but regardless of what you want to call it or even whether it extends purely to the YA genre, some worrisome shit is going down when it comes to critical reviews and the freedom of bloggers to write them.

So, look: as Justine Larbalestier rightly points out, the online disinhibition effect – or, as it is more widely known in internet/gaming subculture, John Gabriel’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory – is a genuine problem. People get on the internet and spew rage like students on a three-day fury binge, letting fly in a way they wouldn’t – couldn’t – approach in their everyday lives. Specifically as relates to YA and literary culture, there are a number of reviewers out there who sit down with a deliberate eye to writing snarky, humorous reviews – or at least, whose critical reviews inevitably take the form of snark, and whose glowing recommendations are just as equally written with comedic effect in mind – or who, if we are being honest, are not particularly tactful in the first place. Such reviewers are by no means the majority. More to the point, however, all of us are from time to time irked by a particular plot device, character, setting or, let’s face it, story to such an extent that our usual inhibitions go out the window. For whatever reason of red mist, we are rendered furious by a particular thing, and all concerns about the anonymity of the internet leading people to act like dickheads aside, sometimes it’s healthy to vent in a setting that won’t send your family comatose or cause the ears of your friends and colleagues to blister. Sometimes, ranting is necessary.

Also! An absolute tsunami of adult, predominantly female readers with a ravenous appetite for YA novels is swamping the shores of Bookdonia at present, the sort of deluge one hopes will never end: women who are not necessarily the intended audience of many of the novels they pick up, at least insofar as age is concerned, but who nonetheless crave it like the kind of chocolate that simultaneously causes weight-loss and orgasm. Now, I have never held with the idea that writing YA constitutes a form of writing down, or that it somehow contains less critical merit than books that are written for adults, or that teenagers are less critical readers than adults: I want that to be particular clear. I am, after all, a YA author, and very much an advocate of teenage intelligence. But possibly it is fair to suggest that, as adults are not the intended, primary audience of many YA novels – even where the authors are aware that other adults will read their work – they will, as readers, bring a different set of values, desires and assumptions to their reading than many teenagers will, with the result that their reactions might also be different, too.

So when I said recently that I’d become a little obsessed with reading negative reviews on Goodreads, the thing I didn’t admit to was the fact that most of the bad reviews I read were of YA books aimed at female audiences, and that the grounds for their being criticised by adult, female readers was, 99% of the time, to do with a perceived failure of feminism. It might have been J.K. Rowling who made the adult world sit up and take notice of YA novels, but it was Stephenie Meyer whose work provoked the greater degree of feminist scrutiny. And here’s where things really start to get controversial, because as far as I can see, the issue at the heart of the YA mafia sentiment – the logic which underpins so many critical, bad or outright scathing reviews, and which is therefore in no small part responsible for the stances of those  authors, publishers and agents who object to them – is twofold: firstly, the objections of adult, feminist readers to a perceived lack of feminist values in a number of books aimed primarily at teenage girls, and secondly, the open admission of particular authors and agents that yes, it really is best not to ruffle any feathers.

That’s a big claim, right there. So before we go any further, here’s a summary of some of the things that lead me to this conclusion:

1.  The Sparkle Project post, wherein cliqueyness among authors is discussed, and the argument is put forward that the most controversial review the blogger ever wrote – which itself contributed hugely to her concerns about the whole YA mafia thing – was an (admittedly harsh, lengthy and pejorative) dissection of Becca Fitzpatrick’s Hush, Hush, on the grounds that Patch, the love interest, was an emotionally abusive stalker. To quote:

“Authors become good friends with bloggers and reviewers… giving interviews and freebies to give away, organising competitions and web-chats, and then they have these glowing reviews pop up everywhere. We have writers defending each other online from criticism because they’re friends with each other… We have authors giving each other glowing reviews and cover quotes often as big as the book author’s name without any sort of disclaimer that the writers are good friends. We have books that aren’t very good being trumpeted as the hot new thing because of combinations of all the above. If you’ll forgive my admittedly sketchy word choice, it’s all begun to feel a little incestuous.”

2. The Hush, Hush review mentioned above, in conjunction with a later post which quotes and responds to a dissenting author’s comments.

3. This post on Becca Fitzpatrick’s blog, wherein she advocates a ‘be nice’ policy with regard to other authors and publishers, citing an incident where, having read a scathing review of Hush, Hush by a particular reviewer who later had their novel accepted for publication, she later refused to blurb said novel on the grounds of their review. And yes: that’s an entirely reasonable thing, to be cranky at someone who slammed your book when they later come asking for favours. I get that. What I’m less comfortable with is this statement:

“The reason I decided not to read the manuscript was because I wondered what would happen if I did read it…and loved it. What if I sent the editor a handful of glowing words, and she decided to stick them on the front cover of her author’s book? Would the author love having my praise splashed on her cover? Probably not… Interestingly enough, this once-aspiring author didn’t limit her somewhat rantish reviews to HUSH, HUSH. She’d made quite a habit of belittling authors’ books along the way, and I suppose it comes to no surprise that, as far as I know, she was never able to find an author to blurb her book. This isn’t to say an aspiring author can’t be honest when writing reviews, but if your goal is to be published, it might serve you well to drop the books you don’t love, and talk up the ones you do. You don’t have to love every book, every time. But I think a bit of courtesy in saying, “This wasn’t for me, and here’s why,” says volumes about you as a reviewer and a person. No one wants to start their career surrounded by nothing but a lot of burned bridges.”

4. This post by Lilith Saintcrow, which Fitzpatrick quotes in the above blog. The relevant lines are these:

“Publishing is really a small business. You never know when the person you’re rude to on a convention panel or in an elevator at a trade show may hold the power of life or death over your wee manuscript in the future. It’s best to be tactful and interested in other people at cons and shows, not to mention writer’s group meetings.”

5. This post on rape culture in YA – which, yes, makes particular mention of Hush, Hush. Full disclosure: this is not a book I’ve ever read, nor have I ever met the author. But no matter how lovely Becca herself may be – and by every account I’ve ever heard, she is lovely – the fact remains that Hush, Hush is a novel I consistently see cited by adult readers as being anti-feminist; or rather, of having a male love interest who comes across as abusive. Perhaps I should shut up until such time as I’ve read the book myself, but until then, I can’t help noticing a pattern in the commentary.

6. This post by an aspiring author and former book blogger, who closed her review blog when told by authors and literary agents that maintaining it would hurt her chances of being published. The context for that post can be found here, wherien she explains her hiatus from blogging, and links to the remarks which eventually prompted her decision.

7. The remarks themselves: this post on book reviewing, wherein literary agent Jill Corcoran speaks against it (or rather, is reported to have done so, as the conversation took place during a query session on Twitter), and these remarks by Stacia Kane, who also took part in the discussion. Specifically:

“I mentioned that I personally would be rather hurt if my agent signed someone who’d trashed me/my work, or even just said negative things about me/my work online. My friend… said she wouldn’t help that person out, either, like with a blurb or whatever. Which I agree with, as well… Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion, and to express that opinion wherever and whenever. But…the purpose of a review, the whole reason reviews came about and exist, is to tell people whether or not they should read that book/buy that TV/use that hair gel/wear those shoes. That’s what a review is, and what it does. You may do a lot of other stuff along with your reviews, and use them to start long involved discussions, but the fact is, people read reviews first and foremost to see if the product–in this case a book–is worth buying. In other words, you’re querying an agent whose client’s book you’ve publicly told people not to buy. If you ask that author for a blurb, or promo help, or a guest blog, you’re asking for help from someone whose book you publicly told people not to buy.”

8. Any one of a million reviews of YA novels on Goodreads which complain about anti-feminist sentiment. I’m not going to link these, partly because I’ve already done enough singling out and feel bad about it, but mostly because anyone can go and find them. What I will link to, however, is something I’ve already (again) blogged about recently, viz: the Bitch Magazine controversy over their list of feminist YA titles, the fact that some of those titles were pulled, and the ensuing debate about whether or not Bitch was behaving reasonably (general consensus in short form: no). Nonetheless, it is relevant, not because this is a debate about censorship, but because the whole shemozzle goes a long way towards demonstrating that readers, authors and reviewers all care deeply about the role of feminism in YA novels, and are willing to dig in and defend those views in public.

SO. That about does it for links, though if you want to read more, the internet will oblige. What I’m trying to get at here is that while there might not be an actual YA mafia per se, the issue of whether or not book bloggers who also happen to be aspirant authors are free to write critical reviews without potential risk to their future careers is not as open and shut as it might have initially seemed. Specifically as concerns book blogger authors submitting to the agents of authors whose work they’ve given a negative review: Stacia Kane and Becca Fitzpatrick both make very intelligent, important points that I am in no way trying to dismiss or diminish. Namely: if you are an aspirant author submitting to a particular agency, you should know ahead of time who that agent represents in order to gauge how likely they are to respond favourably to your own work. If, for whatever reason, you choose to lie to that agent and compare your own work to a best-selling book on their lists that you not only can’t stand, but have publicly trashed, then do not be surprised if the author in questions takes offence when asked to help promote your own opus. The fact that you hated their book does not mean they will hate yours – in fact, they might find it to be brilliant. In a totally fair universe, such authors would always ignore your review and try your work anyway; but human beings are human beings, and will not always do the fair thing. Also, and just in case I haven’t made this clear already: I am not condoning purely pejorative reviews. It is perfectly possible to critique a book – critique it harshly, even – without doing so in a way that is sarcastic, snarky and/or ad hominem, and it should go without saying that doing so will not win you any friends.

But that, I fear, is exactly the point: friendship. I have thus far been lucky enough to make friends with other authors on the basis of having loved their work, or vice versa – what I’ve not yet had to do beyond the confines of a writers’ group meeting is tell a friend that I think their work sucks, or that I don’t like the moralism of it, or that it just isn’t for me, or that, because of all or any of these reasons, I don’t feel comfortable publicising it. Hopefully, I’ll never have to. But if I did, I honestly can’t predict whether, to paraphrase The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, I’d be able to escape without completely compromising my honour and artistic judgement. Maybe that makes me a terrible elitist, or a terrible friend, or both. But what I hope, should that day come, is that I have the strength of character and the eloquence to be honest – or, at the very least, to keep silent. There are times when I suspect friends have had to do the same for me, and that’s fine: disliking my work is not the same as disliking me, and so long as they don’t mention it and I don’t push, everything’s peachy. On the converse, there are other friends I have who always critique up front – no punches pulled – but even though they might rip my work to shreds, that doesn’t mean we can’t still go for a drink afterwards.

I love my friends, and I love their work, too. But when I tell other people about X new book or Y new series, I want that to mean something objective, insofar as objectivity is ever really possible. Becoming a published author should not be synonymous with an abdication of critical judgement in public. Book bloggers should not be made to feel that they can’t have real opinions for fear of damaging their careers. The quality of such reviews is a different question altogether: despite having touched on tone, the issue is whether reviewers are free to criticise at all, and even in instances above where authors have cited scathing reviews, the general verdict is still to err on the side of caution.

A while ago, I read a truly fascinating article about the dangers of praising children for their intelligence rather than their skills – or rather, the danger of praising too much, and never criticising. One particular quote stands out:

” Once children hear praise they interpret as meritless, they discount not just the insincere praise, but sincere praise as well.”

In the context of reviewing, the above finding strikes me to have another application: the idea that, if all we ever hear from a particular reviewer is praise, we begin to discount their critical faculties. As it is highly unlikely that every reviewer will like every book they read – but as reviewing is a process innately predicated on critical analysis – the act of publishing only positive reviews, even where this is achieved by the simple expedient of withholding the negative ones rather than never writing them, will inevitably cause many readers to doubt the reviewer’s sincerity. Knowing what a reviewer likes is much less helpful if you cannot simultaneously identify what they don’t like, and if the message currently being sent to the book blogger community is along the lines of if you can’t say sumthin’ nice, then don’t say nuthin’ at all, then the upshot, however unintentional, is an erosion of meaningful criticism.

And that, if we return to the feminist argument, is a real problem. Because feminism is – I am not ashamed to say it – worth getting angry about. It is worth being passionate, perhaps even tactless and ranty and full of snark, if the problems one is endeavouring to address are about repeated patterns in stories that serve to render heroines as passive, stupid, unimaginative and useless, constantly in love with men whose behaviour would be deemed reprehensible in any other circumstance and are only justified narratively by the presence of True Love. This is not an argument about censoring books: it is about writing better ones, and discussing the undeniable impact out culture has on the stories we produce. By way of evidence as to this latter, I submit the following film clip from 1956: tell me that type of happy ending wasn’t socially sanctioned, and then try telling me that our own cultural biases have nothing to do with our writing. Something I love about the SFF community is the extent to which we’re willing to discuss problems in our field – the dearth of non-white characters and authors, the absence of gay protagonists, questions of cultural dominance and subversion – and yet, if this debate is anything to go by, certain parts of the YA world are shrinking from doing just that. Perhaps I’m drawing a long bow, or making mountains out of molehills, but from where I sit, it seems a fairly incontrovertible thing to say that a large portion of criticism currently directed at YA novels has to do with adult female readers being concerned at the presence of anti-feminist or unempowered characters and potentially abusive romantic scenarios. But if this is what’s leading to more vehement reviews in the blogosphere than usual – if this is the one subject about which people are losing their cool and behaving unprofessionally more than any other – then I think it’s an important enough concern that, rather than trying to get those bloggers to shut up by making them feel insecure about their own future careers, we ought to be throwing the debate wider.

And now, having just committed a form of suicide by internet, I’ll sit back and deal with the consequences.

So, we’ve been watching Season 1 of Fringe on iTunes, and have just finished episode 7. And while I appreciate that this is only a tip-of-the-iceberg, start-of-a-long-game thing, and while I’m still enjoying the show, a number of things are bugging me. They are:

1. Each episode begins by focusing on one or more strangers who will, inevitably, either die or be subject to something truly weird in the space of the first five minutes. While this is a nice narrative device in the sense that we come to care for these people, and by extension care about discovering what was done to them, by whom and under what auspices, it’s also five minutes of every episode which isn’t spent developing the protagonists – and this early in a series, I really feel like we could do with more of that. For instance: who the hell is Astrid? How did she come to be working for Olivia, or even for the bureau? She doesn’t seem to have come from the Pattern unit, so what qualifications have marked her out to be transferred across when Olivia was? What makes her exceptional within what is undeniably an exceptional unit? So far, we know two things about her: she did a bit of Latin, and knows some basic cryptography, which in context makes her a dumping ground for skills that later plots might require, but which fall outside the knowledge of the main characters. That’s it. No wonder Walter can’t remember her name.

2. Another problem with these opening sequences: they necessitate a lot of narrative double-handling, which possibly bulks out the episodes, but also detracts from the tension and the sense of stakes being upped. Viz: we meet the people to whom weirdness is about to happen, shit goes down, and then, when our protagonists get on the scene, they discuss EXACTLY WHAT WE HAVE JUST SEEN HAPPENING – which, yes, must logically precede their forming theories about each event, but which means the audience ends up hearing the same information twice, but from different people. On their own, the visuals would be dynamic. On their own, the discussions would be attention-grabbing. Together, they are deeply unnecessary.

3. All right. Look. I get that there’s a long game afoot here. Particularly in television, I applaud the long game! But in the course of seven episodes, there has not been a lot of continuity in terms of the Pattern. To clarify: there has been some continuity regarding John Scott, Massive Dynamic and Walter’s having worked on a proto-version of every goddamn oddity they encounter, but this continuity is being undermined by the number of crazy twists we’re being given that DON’T appear to relate to these things, including but not limited to: the role of the bald man, Walter’s relationship with the bald man, what Walter might have done to Peter as a child to change him permanently, Olivia’s violent stepfather, and why Agent Loeb and his wife are apparently working for the other side. I know, I know. Seven episodes isn’t a long time. But with so much to learn in such a short span, and with not all of it clearly linked, the plotting just feels… busy.

4. A related point: dangling or ill-explained plot points, such as the question of how Peter was able to know something he didn’t know he knew, just because Walter knew it. Possibly this links into a bigger plot, or to Walter’s childhood experiments? It’s not clear! But in that unclarity, the whole climax of episode four makes no sense, because the Big Magical Thing that needed explaining isn’t actually explained. Instead, we get a story about how Peter and Walter were saved by the bald man after a car crash years ago. This allows us to understand Walter’s motives, but not what happened next in that episode. And then there’s the omissions: where is Peter’s mother? Is she dead or alive? Given all the father-son tension and the fact that Walter’s been locked away for fourteen years, her absence from the narrative past a brief reference in the first episode is starting to irk me. I’d like to think that I’ve just not being paying enough attention, that some remark has already been made to explain why nobody mentions her, but even if she is dead, and that’s what I’ve neglected to comprehend, her absence still shouldn’t be this total. Or so it seems. Oh, and we’ve also seen two different methods employed for talking to the newly dead, and despite the fact that the success of the first one is what cemented Olivia’s trust in Walter back in episode one, everyone is still shocked at the idea of reanimating a dead man in episode seven – and despite the desperate need to do so, no one thinks of suggesting that first method. Huh.

5. The traumatic details of Peter and Olivia’s lives. Really: it’s not enough that our heroine has a bad history with men, falls in love with her partner despite this and then is betrayed by him both emotionally and professionally in a way which still allows some soul-crushing ambiguity as to whether or not he really was evil after all – we have to give her an abusive stepfather who she shot in defense of her mother when she was nine? And she tells Peter about it without prompting when doing so is an admission of attempted murder, a fact she’s clearly been concealing for years? GAH. Oh, and then, THEN, in what is only the fourth episode, Peter is tortured! Just like that! And then he calmly walks away from it without any evident psychological damage, despite the fact that the method by which he was tortured – electrocution – strongly resembles the experiments Walter used to conduct on him as a child, a similarity which is glaringly evident to the audience but apparently not to Peter himself? And despite the intimation in episode one that Walter was an abusive father – which Olivia rejected to Peter’s face on the strength of having known both men for all of a day – all of Peter’s interactions with or about him are either jocular or world-weary, with no glimpses of what this might cost him otherwise. Nope. Not buying it.

6. Yes, Walter is a mad scientist. He crazy! And very endearingly, well-actedly so. But even in the space of seven episodes, his quirks have grown repetitious. For example: any time he lists the multiple things he’s thought or discovered, he always forgets to explain the most vital one and has to be prompted. He has a food obsession. He cannot remember Astrid’s name and keeps calling her something else. He is inappropriately impressed by the evil accomplishments of enemy scientists. He drives Peter bonkers. All lovely traits, but if they are all that we ever see of Walter’s personality forever and ever, amen, then I will be disappointed. Unpeel the man! I want to see glimpses of who he was before the madness, and not just the subsequent caricature.

Other than that…

OK, actually, yes. Those are some quite significant complaints. But for the moment, I shall persevere in the hope that the pace picks up. Or else, J. J. Abrams. Or else!

Since our arrival in Scotland, we’ve been introduced to a whole new suite of advertising, particularly through the miracle of digital TV. Three such ads, all of which are shown with hateful regularity, have been driving me absolutely nuts. They are:

Covonia Nose and Throat Morning

Reason For Suckage: Shows a black woman sick in bed, her hair in a natural afro state. After taking the medicine, however – surprise! Her hair has been straightened and coiffed to denote that she is now both healthy and professional. Oh, and she also meets western standards of physical attractiveness, as denoted by her white, male neighbour blowing her a kiss from his bath. Verdict: Racefail.

Kingsmill 50/50 Bread

Reason For Suckage: Dad comes downstairs for breakfast, where mum, already perfectly made up, is doing the ironing in the kitchen while the kids eat, because we have apparently been transported to the 1950s. Alas! Dad’s shirt is creased and he’s in a hurry, so mum offers to iron it – but because Kingsmill bread is so delicious, dad decides he’s got enough time to sit down to eat the toast his wife had made for herself. Both daughters giggle, and mum, smirking, takes her revenge by ironing a huge burn into the back of her husband’s white shirt, which he, oblivious, wears to work. Yes. Because passive-aggressive housewife rage at the selfishness of her breadwinner (HAH!) spouse is OH SO FUNNY. Verdict: erafail, and also feminismfail.

Feminax Express

Reason For Suckage: Boyfriend and girlfriend are watching TV on the couch. Boyfriend laughs at the show; cut to girlfriend scowling. Boyfriend inspects his fingernails; girlfriend’s scowl deepens. Then, because enjoying the show and staring at his hands apparently constitute a hanging offence – or, you know, ANY KIND OF PROVOCATION AT ALL – girlfriend pulls a lever on the lounge that catapults the screaming boyfriend out the window and into the wild blue yonder. As girlfriend stretches out, smiling, across the whole length of the lounge, the female voice over chortles: “If only getting rid of all pains could be as fast as Feminax Express!” Who says that PMS turns women into irrational bitches? Answer: advertising! And what’s more, girls, we should all be able to laugh about our crazy together! Verdict: feminismfail.

GAH. I mean, SERIOUSLY. Who are the braindead ad execs who greenlight this bullshit, and where do I queue for the privilege of kicking them in the face?