Posts Tagged ‘Sexism’

As busy as I’ve been today, my attention has nonetheless been drawn to Robert Silverberg’s recent post on File 770, wherein he seeks to defend himself against charges of racism and sexism stemming from his reaction – made privately, but later reported publicly – to Nora Jemisin’s 2018 Hugo Award acceptance speech. In the spirit of full disclosure, I will say that I’m lucky enough to call Nora a friend, while Silverberg, both as man and author, is a virtual stranger to me. On the night of the Hugo Awards in question, I was briefly introduced to him by a third party as one of the nominees for the Best Fan Writer award, which category he was set to introduce. He looked at me in a way which, both at the time and on reflection, felt as if I was not so much being seen as looked through. I mention this, not to cast further aspersions on the man – Silverberg was not obliged to pay me any special attention, nor did I expect it from him – but to be honest about our limited interaction, which extended not much further than a hello and a brief period of standing in the same circle.

I do know, however, that Silverberg is a beloved figure to many fellow SFF writers, such that his original reaction to Jemisin’s speech and the things he’s written now are distressing on a personal level. Once upon a time, I might have sworn and shouted about Silverberg’s post, but 2018 has been a very long year, and I am tired. Yelling at Silverberg will not make me feel better about the state of the world, and so I will rather attempt to explain, for the sake of anyone who might want such an explanation, why Silverberg’s comments have produced such an upset reaction.

The problem, at base, stems from Silverberg’s misapprehension of four key points. Specifically:

  1. His evident failure to understand the relevance of Jemisin’s experience, and the experiences of those like her, to both the work for which she was being awarded and its context within the SFF world currently;
  2. His apparent belief that a Hugo speech should not be politicised;
  3. His mistaken belief that Jemisin was angry in the first place; and
  4. His confusion as to what, exactly, he’s being accused of.

To quote the File 770 piece:

At San Jose, the Best Novel Hugo went — for the third consecutive year — to a writer who used her acceptance speech to denounce those who had placed obstacles in her path stemming from her race and sex as she built her career, culminating in her brandishing her new Hugo as a weapon aimed at someone who had been particularly egregious in his attacks on her.  Soon after the convention, I commented, in a private chat group, that I felt that her angry acceptance speech had been a graceless one, because I believe that Hugo acceptance speeches should be occasions for gratitude and pleasure, not angry statements that politicize what should be a happy ceremony.  I said nothing about her race, her sex, or the quality of her books.  My comment was aimed entirely at her use of the Hugo stage to launch a statement of anger.

I would not presume to comment on her experience of having had racist and sexist obstacles placed in her career path.  I have no doubt that she did face such challenges, and I’m sure the pain created by them still lingers.  I in no way intended to add to that pain.  However, it seemed to me that this writer, after an unprecedented three-Hugo sweep and considerable career success otherwise, had triumphed over whatever obstacles were placed in her path and need not have used the Hugo platform to protest past mistreatment.

Beginning with my first point: by his own admission in his original comments, Silverberg has not read Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, for which she won the unprecedented three consecutive Best Novel Hugo Awards. Both individually and as a series, the Broken Earth is about exactly the issues that Jemisin raised in her speech: bigotry, prejudice, institutional cruelty, and how goddamn difficult it is to overcome all these things in pursuit of change. To everyone who has read and understood her books, Jemisin’s speech is in clear conversation with them, and therefore makes perfect thematic sense.

But at another level – that of real-world SFF politics – the points she made were also deeply relevant, not just in a general sense, but to the actual goings-on at that convention. As I’ve previously recounted elsewhere, throughout the weekend of the 2018 Worldcon, right-wing protesters affiliated with the Sad Puppy movement showed up in front of the building with the aim of harassing congoers. Some chanted actual Nazi slogans; others carried pro-Trump signs. Antifa and police showed up in response, and while the original protesters were few and handily dealt with, their physical presence was just one manifestation of an increasingly ugly culture of far-right bigotry in the SFF community: one with which Silverberg himself, as he points out, has now become unwillingly associated, as his private comments were initially posted on website run by one of the more prominent Puppies. This same man is known for casting racist abuse at Jemisin, which event she alluded to in her speech.

Which brings us to the second point: Silverberg’s seeming objection to the political content of the speech. I say seeming, because I’m not entirely sure he means this particular comment in quite the way it reads – or at least, I have difficulty believing that he thought through the full implications. Because, dear God: has there ever been a time when Hugo speeches weren’t political? I’ve been on the SFF scene for nearly a decade – which, granted, is a pittance compared to Silverberg’s tenure – and in that time, I’m pretty sure that every single Hugo Awards ceremony has featured multiple speeches whose contents touch on politics in some way, sometimes because of events surrounding the con itself, as in the Sad Puppy era, or else just due to the political nature of the work that was being awarded. Even if that’s a new development in the history of the Hugos – and I’m inclined to think it isn’t – it’s still an ample precedent for Jemisin’s speech.

The alternative explanation here is that Silverberg is using the word “politicize,” not as a literal criticism of Jemisin’s decision to reference politics, but for daring to say something that could, potentially, split the room in terms of its reception. And I just, like. Not to be all glibly millennial, but it’s a fucking awards ceremony, Robert. By definition, the choice of winner is always a bit politicised, in that individual people have different tastes and different reasons for voting for particular candidates, and the overlapping discussion of pros and cons, merits and failings, has a tendency to get heated, not to say personally felt. Name me a major awards ceremony in which, in any given year, not a single person claims that the argument for Winner X was politicised, or that there were political reasons why Nominee Y missed out, and I will fall over backwards in astonishment.

Either way, this seems like a strange and incongruous complaint to make of Jemisin in particular, as though she were the lone culprit of something unprecedented. It strikes me as being the type of complaint you’d only raise if you were disquieted by her speech and looking to blame that reaction on her, sans personal introspection as to why that might be. What Jemisin accomplished with her win was unarguably historic – and, just as unarguably, took place within a political context where there was demonstrable, immediate overlap between the issues raised in her work, the issues raised in her speech, events at the con where she was being awarded, events within the wider SFF community, and the broader political reality of living in 2018. Which is a large part of why her win, in addition to being historic, was historically meaningful – which is why, in turn, her speech was so overwhelmingly well-received by people other than Silverberg.

Which brings us to the third point: his misapprehension of Jemisin’s anger. Because Jemisin, for all that she spoke with passion, was not angry: she was triumphant. The point of mentioning everything she’d overcome to win and how bad things have been in the world – just as things had been bad in the world of her books – was to speak with hope for the future: to say that, like her characters, we can endure and make things better. She talked about working her ass off to succeed because, over and over again, the accusation flung at minority authors within the SFF community, including Jemisin herself, is that any success we have is due wholly to insincere virtue-signalling on the part of others; that we’re not really talented and deserving, but are rather the creative equivalent of an unloved diversity hire, selected for tokenism and nothing else. Jemisin knew this, as did everyone who cheered during her speech. We recognised it for what it was: a powerful, happy celebration of triumph over adversity.

Triumph, as I should not have to tell a fellow writer, is not synonymous with anger – but when you have been socially conditioned to see an outspoken, passionate black woman as an inherently angry figure, the unconscious leap is an easy one to make. Which is where we come to the fourth point: Silverberg’s failure to understand exactly what he’s being accused of, and on what basis.

In penning his self-defence piece on File 770, Silverberg goes into detail about how he cannot possibly be sexist or racist, because he has black writer friends and has published women. There are many ways to respond to such a trite assertion, the majority of which are profane, but in this particular instance, I’m going to go with this one: Silverberg has confused conscious racism and sexism with unconscious (racist and sexist) bias. Specifically: as he does not actively think of women and people of colour as inferior – and is, indeed, opposed to the logic of those who do – he believes he cannot be rightly accused of committing racist or sexist acts.

Silverberg sincerely believes this to be true – and in another decade, such a statement might well have been viewed as self-evident by those who shared his political leanings. The problem is that we now know, quite conclusively, that this belief is wrong – a fact that has been repeatedly born out by academic research into unconscious bias and related fields of study. Whether we like it or not, we all unconsciously absorb information about the world which influences our actions and reactions, particularly about groups of people to which we don’t belong or with which we have little personal experience. This is why, for instance, dogwhistling in politics is an actual thing: a bigoted speaker need only reference the myth of “welfare queens,” for instance, and even though the majority of welfare recipients in the US are white, many of them seniors, using the system out of genuine need, the image we’re meant to picture is that of a young, unmarried black mother, deliberately bearing children just to sponge more from the state.

One of the most pernicious such myths is that of the angry black woman. This myth has been deeply embedded in the cultural and political narratives of Western nations, and particularly the US, for a long goddamn time; long enough and deeply enough to have wormed its way into the subconscious of even the most well-meaning white people. The salt in the wound of this myth, of course, is that black women, both presently and historically, have suffered a great deal of mistreatment about which to be legitimately angry – but a failure to smile and a slightly raised voice is enough to see anything they say, whether actually spoken in anger or not, dismissed as unreasonable hostility.

This is why Silverberg’s comments about Jemisin’s speech were seen as racist, and why his decision to counter that accusation by saying, in essence, “but I have black friends!” both misses the point and further cements the verity of the original complaint. (As, for that matter, does his decision to double down by using phrases like “brandishing her new Hugo as a weapon,” as though she did anything with a heavy, unwieldy statue other than hold it.) Racism isn’t exclusively defined as such by intent, but by the pattern to which it contributes and the impact it has on the affected party, just as a wound isn’t only a wound if it was delivered on purpose. If a careless hand-talker flings their arm out in conversation and knocks an unsuspecting passerby into a table, that person is still injured, and the correct response is to apologise for hurting them and figure out how to prevent a recurrence – not to claim that, since you didn’t mean to do it, it didn’t really happen.

Now: in saying all this, I have one tiny sliver of sympathy for Silverberg, and that comes from having his comments in a private forum made public without his knowledge or consent. I am sympathetic, not because I think this makes a meaningful difference to their content, but because nobody likes to be on the wrong side of a breech of digital etiquette, and because there’s a difference between speaking an opinion to a close group of friends and declaring it from a public pulpit. Had his original remarks not been made public, and had he instead been called upon to speak publicly before making them, he might well have spoken less candidly and with greater thought to the impact. But the fact remains that he meant what he said, regardless of the circumstances under which he said it – something he has now confirmed by way of his self-defence essay, which rather negates my feeling sorry for him in this instance.

Do I think that Robert Silverberg is, at the core of his being, in his most deliberate acts and comments, racist and sexist? No. But do his intentions make him immune from taking racist and sexist actions, or saying racist and sexist things, out of ignorance or privilege or sheer unconscious parroting? Not in the slightest. Because – and this is the hardest truth for a lot of people to swallow – no-one is completely morally perfect. While it might behove us at times to be generous with forgiveness, and while there’s certainly many valid criticisms of online callout culture to be made – let he who is without problematic behaviours cast the first stone of discourse, etc –  acknowledging our fallibility shouldn’t stop us from trying to do better.

Silverberg is in the doghouse, not because he’s being viewed as a monster, but because he made an ignorant, hurtful comment and elected to double down on it rather than show some humility and learn from those he impacted.

Here endeth the explanation.

Advertisements

Warning: total spoilers for all four Scream movies. 

When I sat down this week to rewatch Scream, I did so as part of a horror-binge inspired by my first American Halloween experience. The first time I saw it, I was doubtless too young: I was ten at the time of its 1996 release, and while I was probably twelve or so before I actually watched it, I was never one of those kids with an appetite for horror. I found it gruesome and upsetting, and when I saw it again in my late teens, my reaction was much the same. Unsurprisingly, teenage-me had never seen the horror classics whose tropes and themes form the basis of Scream’s meta-narrative. This time around, however, I was fresh off watching Halloween, Halloween H20, Friday the 13th Part 1 and Part 2, and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. (I also attempted A Nightmare on Elm Street, but tapped out after twenty minutes; it was too naff.)

All this being so, I expected I’d understand Scream a little better than I had in my teens, and that I’d maybe have a decent time watching it. I did not expect to stumble on what now feels like an eerily prescient glimpse into modern toxic geekdom: a weird strata of 90s cinema that moved me to watch Scream 2, Scream 3 and Scream 4 in quick succession, not because I thought they’d be any good – indeed, each film is exponentially worse than the last – but to try and work out whether what I saw in Scream was accidental, incidental or both, and to what degree.

In its now-iconic opening sequence, Scream shows us a terrified young woman, Casey (Drew Barrymore), as she’s taunted on the phone by the as-yet unknown killer/s. With her boyfriend revealed to be tied up outside, the killer/s challenge Casey to answer horror movie trivia questions. If she answers correctly, her boyfriend will live; if not, he’ll die. Though Casey correctly answers the first question – the name of the killer in Halloween – she flubs the second, mistakenly naming Jason Vorhees as the killer in the original Friday the 13th film, instead of his mother, Mrs Vorhees. Her boyfriend is then gutted, with Casey herself killed gruesomely and left to hang in a tree for her parents to find.

Watching Scream in my teens was terrifying because of the violence and jump scares. Watching now, however, that opening scene hits home in a very different way. Back in 1996, mobile phones were still so recent and uncommon that a character in Scream is asked by police, “What are you doing with a cellular telephone, son?”. That being so, it’s eerie  how the killer/s’ initial, escalating conversation with Casey reads exactly like the sort of hair-trigger, toxic misogyny that women so frequently encounter now in texts and online messages.

A man calls Casey out of the blue; she assumes it’s a wrong number and hangs up. He calls back, saying he wants to talk; she tells him there are 900 numbers for that. He calls again and asks why she doesn’t want to talk – and here, because this is a film written by a dude, Casey decides to humour him. They have an almost pleasant conversation, albeit an unrealistic one: it’s borderline flirtatious, the killer asking if she has a boyfriend, Casey lying and saying no, as though that’s in any way the usual response to an unknown, nameless creep who keeps pestering you for conversation. Eventually, though, the killer reveals that he’s looking at her; at which point, Casey understandably hangs up. He calls again; she tells him to call someone else. He calls again, and this time he’s angry: “Listen, you little bitch,” he hisses, “You hang up on me again, I’ll gut you like a fish, you understand?” 

Substitute hanging up the phone with ignoring a stranger’s increasingly aggressive texts, and a fictional conversation between a male serial killer and his female victim from twenty-two years ago is virtually identical to the kind of everyday encounters women have with men online in 2018. Throw in the killer/s need to prove their superiority over Casey by besting her in a game of pop culture trivia, and the parallel evokes the ongoing clusterfuck of toxic misogyny in SFF circles, not least because the killer/s are eventually revealed to be Billy (Skeet Ulrich) and Stu (Matthew Lillard), the respective boyfriends of protagonist Sidney (Neve Campbell) and her best friend Tatum (Rose McGowan): disaffected horror geeks whose initial, public reaction to “hearing” about the murders is laughter.

It’s so breathtakingly salient, you’d almost think that writer Kevin Williamson and director Wes Craven were trying to craft a cautionary tale about what happens when angry, sexist geekboys go bad – and yet, despite how obvious that reading of the film now seems, I’d argue that those elements were largely unintentional. Though the self-professed meta of Scream is obsessed with naming horror tropes even as it enacts them, there’s never any explicit discussion of how those tropes are frequently impacted by the misogyny of the killers, misogyny in the narrative (whether conscious or subconscious) or a combination of both. Thus: it’s clear throughout Scream that Billy and Stu are sexist, not because Williamson and Craven are telling a story about sexism, but because sexism is such a fundamental part of the tropes they’re using that they’ve imported it wholesale. This means in turn that, while misogyny is a huge part of Billy’s motive in particular, the story doesn’t really comment upon it even when given the opportunity to do so; nor does it usefully comment upon the sexism it depicts elsewhere.

For instance: during an early phone conversation with the as-yet unknown killer/s, Sidney says that she dislikes horror movies because, “They’re all the same: some stupid killer stalking some big-breasted girl that can’t act, running up the stairs when she should be running out the front door – it’s insulting.” Put in Sidney’s mouth, this line is the closest the film ever comes to acknowledging sexist horror tropes at the level of both creation (actresses cast for looks over talent) and characterisation (damsels who make poor choices). Moments later, however, the observation is undermined when Sidney does exactly the thing she’s just decried, running upstairs to escape the killer/s instead of heading outside. This is what we in the business call lampshading: drawing attention to an egregious fault or obvious trope-use in lieu of actually fixing or addressing it in the narrative. As lampshading can often be used to comic effect, I’d argue that this moment in Scream is meant as a type of black comedy: Sidney is aware enough to know that women in horror films are constrained by sexism, but not aware enough to keep from being constrained herself.

As such, sexism is silently reinforced as an aspect of Scream which, while integral to the horror genre, is not one of the “rules” we’re meant to examine in order to predict what happens next. Indeed, if it was, Stu and Billy’s guilt would be obvious from the get-go: the first time we meet them, they’re not only joking callously about the murder of Casey and her boyfriend – Casey rejected Stu at one point; they laugh that this gives him motive to kill her – but are doing so in front of Sidney, whose mother was murdered and raped (by them, it turns out) the previous year. Notably, it’s this conversation which contains the only explicit reference to sexism in the whole film, courtesy of Tatum. When Stu asserts that “there’s no way a girl could’ve killed them,” she replies, “That is so sexist. The killer could easily be female, Basic Instinct.” But of course, Tatum is wrong, which Stu already knows because the killer is him and Billy. Sexism is here acknowledged, but as something we’re meant to ignore, not as a rule of genre, and while it’s possible to argue that this is a deliberate red herring, given the meta-nature of the film as a whole, it therefore becomes conspicuous that the gotcha isn’t expounded upon at the finale.

What is expounded upon during Stu and Billy’s big reveal, however, is an argument that reappears at crucial moments in both Scream 2 and Scream 3: the question of whether horror movies cause real-world violence. While still technically relevant in 2018, this particular question is currently less culturally urgent than the matter of toxic misogyny, which is why it’s so tempting to think that, surely, Craven and Williamson must have been calling out sexists deliberately. But in the eighties and nineties – and, indeed, the early 2000s – the opposite was true. At the time, there was massive cultural panic over the idea that that things like violent video games, Dungeons and Dragons, rap music and horror movies were actively causing teenagers to go bad. When Billy and Stu taunt their genre-savvy friend Randy (Jamie Kennedy) about his status as a suspect on the basis of his interests, he agreed: “You’re absolutely right; I’m the first to admit it. If this was a scary movie, I would be the chief suspect.”  When Stu then asks what Randy’s motive would be, he chillingly replies, “It’s the millennium. Movies are incidental.”

And come the finale, it’s this line, not Tatum’s accusation of sexism, to which the film returns – or at least, it’s the one to which it returns overtly. With Stu and Billy revealed as the killers, not only of the current crop of victims, but of Sidney’s mother, the following exchange takes place:

Sidney: Why? WHY?

Billy: You hear that, Stu? I think she wants a motive. I don’t really believe in motives, Sid. Did Norman Bates have a motive?

Stu: No!

Billy: Did they ever really decide why Hannibal Lecter likes to eat people? I don’t think so! It’s a lot scarier when there’s no motive, Sid. We did your mother a favour. That woman was a slut-bag whore who flashed her shit all over town like she was Sharon Stone or something. Yeah, we put her out of her misery.

Stu: Let’s face it, Sid – your mother was no Sharon Stone, hmm?

Billy: Is that motive enough for you? How about this? Your slut mother was fucking my father, and she’s the reason my mom moved out and abandoned me.

[Stu looks shocked]

Billy: How’s that for a motive? Maternal abandonment causes serious deviant behaviour. It certainly fucked you up – it caused you to have sex with a psychopath!

Several things are telling here: chief among them, the incorrect claim that Norman Bates, the killer in Psycho, had no motive. In actuality, Bates was warped by maternal abuse, conditioned to a misogyny that saw part of his fractured psyche view all women as whores. If anything was going to convince me that Scream is intended as a commentary on sexism, it would be this line: for a meta film that places a high value on classic horror trivia, it’s difficult to believe that such a falsehood would be included by accident and not as an analytic Easter egg for knowledgeable fans. And yet I still doubt that sexism, explicitly labelled as such, is what Craven and Williamson are intending here. Contextually, it seems clear that the reference to Bates is meant to underscore the significance of neglectful mothers, not the misogyny of their sons, for all that the two are fundamentally linked – a pivotal difference in emphasis and interpretation.

By his own admission (and to Stu’s surprise), like Norman Bates, Billy has been “fucked up” by his mother – but while this explains some of his anger, it does not excuse his misogyny; the ease with which he reverts to violent, sexist language when women don’t do as he wants. (“Listen, you little bitch!”) Looking at the film in 2018, at a time when we’ve come to recognise violence against women as a consistent, key commonality to mass shooters, the fact that Billy and Stu’s first victim is Sidney’s mother takes on a powerful new significance. For a film released three years before the Columbine massacre, it’s frighteningly easily to view Scream as an unintentional oracle. Swap the two angry boys with knives and ghostface masks for two angry boys with guns – swap the taunting, escalating phonecalls with taunting, escalating posts online – and what differentiates Scream from other slasher movies isn’t the meta-commentary about horror tropes, but how accidentally real its killers are.

Because the other side of that motive scene – the aspect which, back in 1996, made the whole thing seem so meta, so unreal and yet so frightening – was the nihilism of it: the idea, as Randy had it, that motive, like sexism, is incidental compared to the act of killing. Just a little later in the finale, when Sidney screams that Billy and Stu have watched too many horror movies, Billy replies, “Sid, don’t blame the movies. The movies don’t create psychos; movies just make psychos more creative.” This, more than anything else, is the thesis of Scream – and, indeed, its sequels. This is what justifies the “ghostface killer” being brought back by three different copycat pairs in the subsequent movies. “Everybody dies but us,” Stu screams. “We get to carry on and plan the sequel – ‘cos let’s face it, baby, these days you’ve gotta have a sequel!”

Which is where the sequels become relevant to analysing the original: all four movies are directed by Craven, while Williamson wrote the first, second and fourth (Ehren Kruger wrote the third), which allows us to see which themes the creators thought most integral to both Scream and its success. While it’s subjective of me to claim that the subsequent three films are clearly worse than the original, it’s much less subjective to state that the themes of male entitlement, sexism and frustration that underlie the first are absent from the sequels. Instead, the themes that carry over are an evolving meta-narrative about horror movie structure, and the question of whether narrative violence influences real violence, and in what ways.

In Scream 2 (1997), a self-indulgent, overlong meta wankfest, the killers are revealed to be Billy’s mother, now posing as reporter Debbie Salt (Laurie Metcalf), and her flunkey Mickey (Timothy Olyphant). Like a reverse Mrs Vorhees, Debbie wants revenge for Billy’s death, and has convinced Mickey, a budding psychopath she recruited online, that he’ll be able to plead that the Stab movies – the in-film adaptations of the events of the first Scream – provoked him to commit murder. As he monologues as Sidney:

Mickey: Billy was a sick fuck who wanted to get away. Mickey is a sick fuck who wants to get caught!  You see, Sid, I have it all planned out. I have my whole defence planned out! I’m gonna blame the movies. It’s pretty cool, huh? It’s never been done before. And wait ’till the trial, cause these days, it’s all about the trial! Can’t you see it, Sid? The effects of cinema violence on Americans. I’ll get Cochran or Dershovitz to represent me. Bob Dole on the witness stand in my defence. We’ll hold a Christian coalition. It’s airtight, Sid!

Sidney: You’re a psychotic!

Mickey: Yeah, well, shhh! That’ll be our little secret. That’s one thing that Billy got right  – it’s all about execution.

Not long after this declaration, Billy’s mother kills her would-be accomplice – she only ever wanted him as a patsy. Laughing, she explains herself: “Talk about being rational! For Mickey, I don’t blame the movies, my god. I’m very sane, my motive isn’t as 90s as Mickey’s – mine is just plain old revenge. You killed my son! And now I kill you, and I can’t think of anything more rational.”

Skipping ahead to Scream 4 (2011), the bloated meta-story conceit is in full effect from the outset: the film opens on a scene that turns out to be from the meta-film Stab 6, which cuts to a scene that turns out to be from Stab 7, only the Stab 6 scene was actually somehow the meta-meta intro to Stab 7, which the actual characters of Scream 4 are watching, and all of these scenes feature commentary on horror as a genre. In this moment, the Scream franchise sews itself into an inhuman centipede, crawling up its own asshole to devour its contents over and over, a Frankenstein oroborous. Smartphones exist by 2011, of course, but the film has only a partial understanding of what this means, conveniently forgetting about caller ID and GPS tracking as plot devices even as characters livestream on the internet. The killers, when they’re revealed, are a terrible pastiche of the previous films: Sidney’s cousin and supposed victim Jill (Emma Roberts), working hand-in-hand with nerdy co-conspirator Charlie (Rory Culkin) are teens who want their fifteen minutes of fame – though of course, Jill murders Rory just like Billy’s mother did Mickey, tricking him into thinking they would only wound each other like Stu and Billy.

Though part of me thinks it unfair to judge Scream for the crimes of its youngest, least capable sibling, given that both films are written by Kevin Williamson, I can’t shake the bone-deep suspicion that Scream 4 is, again by accident, the key to understanding what Scream was meant to be. By which I mean: with Scream 2 set at university and Scream 3 in Hollywood, Scream 4 is where, however badly, the series returns to its origins: as a story about nihilistic teenage killers trying to control their own horror movie narrative. In 1996, Stu and Billy want to be survivors so they can plan a sequel; in 2011, Jill and Charlie want to be survivors so they can be famous. “I don’t need friends, I need fans!” Jill shouts at Sid, who can’t understand why she murdered the people closest to her. “Sick is the new sane!” she says, like a chirpy catchphrase. And then, an indictment of Sid’s career as a self-help writer that simultaneously explains her own plans for victim-stardom: “You don’t have to achieve anything – you just have to have fucked-up shit happen to you.”

In 2011, Jill is a strawman millennial, so hyper-obsessed with fame and internet glory that she’s willing to murder everyone she knows to get it. She kills her mother, her best friends, her ex-boyfriend, her co-conspirator – an act of total psychopathy that seemingly comes from a person without any history of violence or cruelty. The Jill we see on screen is a total fake: not only does she lie to us the entire film, but psychologically, she’s utterly implausible on the basis of the evidence provided. Like Randy said in the original, her motive – her real millennial motive – is incidental, in that it doesn’t really exist. She’s a bogeyman conjured up to represent the worst of what we’re meant to fear about ourselves in the present moment.

In other words, she’s exactly what Billy and Stu were meant to be in 1996.

But while Jill will be just as much a straw character in 2021 as she was in 2011, time and bitter experience has proven Billy and Stu to be much more real than they were ever meant to be. In 2018, we know those boys: those angry, entitled, sexist men who demand attention and scream threats of violence if they don’t get it; men who act first against a woman they know, progressing only later to mass carnage. Billy and Stu were meant to be strawmen, exaggerated for the screen – but in aping the casually sexist language of the time, the inherently sexist tropes of the genre, and mixing them together with a motive that encompassed aggressive misogyny, Williamson and Craven created, not the monster under the bed, but the one who sleeps in it.

Which brings us, in a dark and sideways fashion, to Scream 3, and the sexist meta-irony of the series as a whole – because, for all that I enjoyed the original Scream, I couldn’t shake my annoyance at the needless death of Tatum, played by Rose McGowan. Contextually, it’s the only death that doesn’t make sense: she’s Stu’s girlfriend, and given that Stu and Billy plan to live, there’s nothing in the narrative to explain why she has to die, nor does it make sense that Sidney never asks Billy and Stu about her best friend’s death. Of equal aggravation as the films progress is the relationship between reporter Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox) and Officer Dewey (David Arquette) – not just because it comes out of nowhere and makes no sense, given their personalities, but because each film in the franchise forgets that Tatum was Dewey’s sister. Whenever it’s brought up that Dewey lived through the events of Scream, we never see any sign from him that he lost his little sister; another character mentions it once at a point where he might be expected to, and Dewey never reacts. Instead, his emotional investment is tied to Gale and Sidney: Tatum is almost completely erased.

Not being written by Williamson, Scream 3 is the odd film out: it takes place in Hollywood, where a new ghostface killer is striking at people related to the filming of meta-movie Stab 3. Though not as terrible as Scream 4, it’s largely unremarkable – until, midway through, we’re given the big reveal about Sidney’s mother, murdered before the start of the first movie. Years before Sid was born, we’re told, her mother went to Hollywood to act for two years, using the stage name Rina. In that time, something terrible happened to her. The producer of Stab 3, John Milton (Lance Henriksen) explains:

Milton: It was the 70s, everything was different. I was well known for my parties, Rina knew what they were. It was for girls like her to meet men, men who could get them parts if they made the right impression. Nothing happened to her that she didn’t invite, in one way or another, no matter what she said afterwards.

Gale: Are you saying she was –

Milton: I’m saying things got out of hand. Maybe they did take advantage of her! Maybe the sad truth is, this is not the city for innocence. No charges were brought. And the bottom line is, Rina Reynolds wouldn’t play by the rules. You wanna get ahead in Hollywood, you gotta play the game or go home.

Watching this scene – plot relevant because Rina had a son as a result of her rape, who turns out to be the director of Stab 3, and also the killer, yada yada yada – I suddenly recalled a particular name I’d noticed in the credits for Scream and Scream 2, and made a mental note to look for it in the credits to Scream 3. And there, sure enough, I found it: Harvey Weinstein, executive producer for all four films in the franchise.

Harvey Weinstein, who raped Rose McGowan a year after she appeared in Scream as Tatum.

I mention this not to assert any script-meddling by Weinstein in terms of Tatum’s portrayal; it doesn’t fit the timeline, and in any case, it would be the absolute least of his now well-documented crimes, so small by comparison as to be meaningless. Rather, it strikes me as a vicious, parallel irony that Tatum, arguably the best character in the original Scream, was erased from the narrative as pointlessly and violently as Rose McGowan was removed from Hollywood. It makes me wonder: did Ehren Kruger know, when he wrote Milton’s lines and Rina’s backstory, what had happened to McGowan? Was that scene a barb at Weinstein, or is the narrative of actresses being exploited and abused by Hollywood producers one so ingrained, so historically ubiquitous, that it was considered little more than a cliche, like the multiple adjacent “jokes” about the actress-characters in Stab 3 sleeping with their bosses for terrible jobs?

Scream 3 is not a good scary movie; and yet that one scene raises more chilling questions in 2018 than it ever did in 2000, just as Billy and Stu are more frightening now than they were in 1996. Which just goes to show you: horror is never just violence and jump scares. It’s history, knowledge and context – and, far too frequently, both in stories and real life, entitled men with a grudge against women.

 

Warning: total spoilers for The Last Jedi.

After weeks of frantically speed-scrolling through my various social media feeds when anything that looked like a Star Wars spoiler appeared, I’ve finally managed to get out and see The Last Jedi. Despite my diligence, I didn’t go in completely unspoiled: I knew the general shape of the fan discourse surrounding the characterisation, which means I had some context cues and a smatter of details to work with, but not the major plot points. Now that I’ve seen the movie, however, I’m electing to write my own review before catching up on other people’s opinions, so if I touch on something that’s already been dissected at length without referencing said discussion, that’s why.

In broad-brush strokes, I enjoyed The Last Jedi. Assessing it purely on its own merits, there was a lot it did right: the cinematography, special effects and original creature creation were wonderful, I loved Rose Tico, and there was a pleasing balance of drama, emotion and humour, the requisite scenery-chewing deftly subverted by moments of self-aware comedy, especially in the opening exchange between Hux and Poe Dameron. Mostly, it was solid.

Mostly.

But.

The thing is, no Star Wars film is an island. The Last Jedi is the second film in a trilogy of trilogies, one whose core trio were clearly and intentionally mapped to the heroes of the (original by creation-date, second by internal chronology) series in The Force Awakens: Finn to Han, Rey to Luke and Poe to Leia. This being so, it was easy to mark the other narrative similarities between The Force Awakens and A New Hope – most notably, the parallels between the Death Star and Starkiller Base, both of which were destroyed in the respective finales, but not before their destructive power was unleashed. Which makes comparing The Last Jedi to The Empire Strikes Back not only reasonable, but – I would argue – necessary, if only to determine whether the decision to parallel the new with the old has continued beyond the first film.

The short answer to that is: yes, The Last Jedi is structurally akin to Empire, but not always to useful effect. The long answer, however, is rather more complex.

As a writer, there’s nothing that makes me crave a metaphorical red pen quite like a story where, for whatever reason, I can see the authorial handwave of Because Reasons gumming up the mechanics. If The Last Jedi was an original film, detached from the Star Wars universe, I’d be able to tell you that the problem stems from the poorly-forced sexist clash between Poe and Holdo, and that would be that. But because The Last Jedi has borrowed certain key narrative structures from Empire, there’s a clear template against which to measure its narrative choices, which makes it easier to infer the hows and whys of various changers.

A quick refresher in Star Wars, for those who haven’t watched the original trilogy lately. The Empire Strikes back begins with the Rebel forces being ousted from Hoth in a massive battle. After fleeing the planet, Luke goes to Degobah to train with Master Yoda, while Han and Leia spend some time dealing with a broken Millennium Falcon and the pursuit of Boba Fett, kissing and bickering and generally cementing their chemistry before finally going to track down Han’s old buddy, Lando Calrissian, in Cloud City. Frustrated with Yoda, Luke has a premonition of danger and goes to rescue his friends, as Lando, who’s been strong-armed by Darth Vader, hands Han and Leia over to the Empire. Han is frozen in carbonite after Leia declares her love for him, Luke loses a hand and learns Vader is his father, and the film ends with the pair them, plus Lando, escaping as they resolve to rescue Han.

By comparison, The Last Jedi follows a fairly similar arc. The film opens with the Rebellion being ousted from its base and pursued in a space battle. Rey attempts to persuade Luke to help her, while Poe and Finn are left dealing with a fleet that’s low on fuel as they try to outrun Hux and the First Order. As Leia lies injured, Poe clashes with Holdo over command, which results in him sending Finn and Rose on a secret mission to find a codebreaker who can help sabotage the First Order’s ship. Unable to the codebreaker, Rose and Finn return instead with DJ, a stranger who claims he can help them, but who ends up betraying them to the First Order. Unaware of this, Poe mounts a short-lived mutiny against Holdo. Meanwhile, frustrated with Luke and experiencing an odd connection to Kylo Ren, Rey goes to try and turn him to back to the light, only to find that Snoke was the source of their connection. Kylo kills Snoke and his guards with Rey’s help, reveals the truth about her lost parents, then betrays her in turn. In the final battle, Rose is injured and declares her feelings for Finn, and the film ends with the rebellion united but still fleeing.

Based on this, it seems clear that The Last Jedi is intended to parallel The Empire Strikes Back, both structurally and thematically. All the same elements are in play, albeit recontextualised by their place in a new story; but where Empire is a tight, sleek film, The Last Jedi is middle-heavy. The major difference between the two is Poe’s tension-and-mutiny arc, which doesn’t map to anything in Empire.

And this is the part where things get prickly. As stated, I really love Rose Tico, not only because she’s a brilliant, engaging character superbly acted by Kelly Marie Tran, but because she represents another crucial foray into diverse representation, both in Star Wars and on the big screen generally. There’s a lot to recommend Vice-Admiral Holdo, too, especially her touching final scene with Leia: I still want to know more about their relationship. I am not for a moment saying that either character – that either woman – doesn’t belong in the film, or in Star Wars, or that their roles were miscast or badly acted or anything like that. But there is, I suspect, a truly maddening reason why they were paired onscreen with Finn and Poe, and that this logic in turn adversely affected both the deeper plot implications and the film’s overall structure.

Given how closely The Last Jedi parallels the main arc of Empire, it’s narratively incongruous that, rather than Finn and Poe heading out to find the codebreaker together, the pair of them are instead split up, decreasing their screen-time while extending the length of the film. But as was firmly established in The Force Awakens, Finn and Poe map to Han and Leia – which is to say, to a canonical straight couple. Even without the phenomenal on-screen chemistry between John Boyega and Oscar Isaac, that parallel is clear in the writing; and in Empire, Han and Leia’s time alone is what catalyses their on-screen romance.

That being so, I find it impossible to believe that Finn and Poe were split up and paired with new female characters for anything other than a clumsy, godawful attempt to No Homo the narrative. Rose and Finn’s scenes are delightful, and their actors, too, have chemistry, but every time we cut back to Poe and Holdo, the story flounders. Everything that happens during Finn’s absence is demonstrably redundant: not only does it fail to move the plot forward, but in trying to justify the time-split, writer/director Rian Johnson has foisted a truly terrible mini-arc on Poe Dameron.

Specifically: after Leia is incapacitated, Holdo is given command of the rebellion. Seeing Holdo for the first time, Poe looks startled and states that she’s not what he was expecting. When Poe, recently demoted by Leia for ignoring orders, asks Holdo what her plan is, Holdo dismisses him as a hot-headed “flyboy” who isn’t what they need right now. Not only doesn’t she tell him where they’re headed, she apparently doesn’t tell anyone else, either. This failure to communicate her plan to her people is, firstly, why Finn feels he has to light out on his own, which is how he meets Rose, and is secondly why, once Finn and Rose come up with a plan to infiltrate the First Order, Poe decides that they can’t risk involving Holdo.

As we eventually learn, Holdo does have a plan – and a good one. There is literally no reason why, given the steadily escalating fear and anxiety of her crew, who are watching their companion ships get picked off one by one, she doesn’t share the full details with the rebellion. Instead, she leaves it to Poe to figure out that she’s refuelling the transport ships to evacuate – and when he panics, pointing out (correctly) that the transports are neither shielded nor armed, she likewise doesn’t elaborate on the fact that they’ll have a cloaking device to shield them and a destination close by, one where they can land and take shelter while the main ship acts as a decoy.

Because of Holdo’s decision to withhold this information, Poe thinks that she’s given up and is leading them blithely to their deaths, and so stages a mutiny – one in which he’s supported by a number of other, equally worried crewmembers. Happily, Leia recovers from her injuries in time to reclaim control, and only then does she let Poe in on Holdo’s plan. Poe suffers no further consequences for his actions, and even when they talk privately, both Holdo and Leia seem more amused by his mutiny than angry at what he’s done, rendering the whole arc moot. Except, of course, for the fact that Finn and Rose, on their mission from Poe, bring DJ into the mix – and DJ, who knows about the cloaking device, betrays this secret to the First Order, who promptly open fire on the transport ships.

Hundreds of rebellion soldiers die because Poe and Holdo so disliked each other on sight that neither one trusted the other with vital information – and for the rest of the film, this is never addressed. But of course, Johnson can’t address it, not even to hang a fucking lampshade on it, because the entire scenario is manufactured as a way to justify Poe’s protagonist-level screentime while Finn is away – which is also why, contextually, their antagonism doesn’t even make sense. The film begins with the premise that the entire rebellion, who’ve just been flushed out of their single remaining base, is on the run together – so why the fuck haven’t Poe and Holdo met before now? Especially as both are shown to have a close, personal relationship with Leia, it rings utterly false that they’d not only be in the dark about one another, but start out instantly on the wrong foot.

As such, the coding around Poe’s surprise at Holdo – that she’s not what he expected – is a lazy misstep. Traditionally, when hotshot male characters say this about a new female commander, it’s a sexist dogwhistle: oh, I didn’t know we’d be getting a woman. But why would Poe Dameron, son of Shara Bey and devotee of General Leia Organa, be surprised by Holdo’s gender? He wouldn’t, is the answer. Flatly, canonically, he wouldn’t. But if there’s some other aspect of Holdo that’s meant to ping as unusual besides her being female, it’s not obvious. It would’ve made far more sense to write the two as having a pre-existing antagonistic relationship for whatever reason: instead, we get Poe cast as an impatient, know-it-all James Bond to Holdo as Judi Dench’s M, who doesn’t have time for his nonsense when they first meet, but who ends up forgiving it anyway.

It’s like Rian Johnson looked at the Poe Dameron of The Force Awakens – a character universally beloved for being vulnerable, funny, charming, honest, loyal and openly affectionate – and decided, Hey, that guy’s an awesome pilot, which means he’s a COOL GUY, and COOL GUYS don’t play by the RULES, man, especially if it means listening to WOMEN – they just A-Team that shit in secret and to HELL with the bodycount! And anyway he’s HOT, so he’s ALWAYS forgiven.

Dear Rian Johnson, if you’re reading this: I like a lot of what you did with this film, but FUCK YOU FOREVER for making Poe Dameron the kind of guy who gets a bunch of his friends killed, then has a mutiny, then indirectly gets even MORE people killed, and never shows any grief about or cognisance of his actions, all because you wanted to avoid fuelling a homoerotic parallel that you openly queerbaited in promo but never intended to fulfil anyway. GIVE US OUR GODDAMN GAYS IN SPACE, YOU COWARD.

Anyway. 

The point being, the entire plot of The Last Jedi suffers because of a single, seemingly homophobic decision – unnecessarily splitting up Poe and Finn to avoid further Han/Leia comparisons – and the knock-on consequences thereof. Which is where I bring out my metaphorical Red Pen of Plot-Fixing and say, here is what should’ve happened. Namely: Poe and Holdo should’ve had a pre-existing antagonistic relationship, but one that didn’t prevent them from sharing information like grown-ups. Rather than Rose being part of the rebellion, she should’ve been the codebreaker they were sent to retrieve on Holdo’s orders (because two plans are better than one, and why not try both gambits?). This voids the need for DJ, who barely appears before disappearing again, so that Rose-as-codebreaker retains her status as an important, well-fleshed character who interacts with both Finn and Poe, and whose introduction works to map her onto Lando Calrissian. If you really must keep DJ because Benicio del Toro and thematic betrayal parallels (more of which shortly), he can be the dubious guy with First Order secrets that Rose has been trying to recruit for the rebellion, which explains why she’s with him on the casino planet in the first place, and how he’s so easily able to cut a deal with Phasma. BOOM! You’ve just saved a solid 20 minutes of redundant screen-time without degrading Poe’s character or undermining Holdo’s for no good reason and without dumb sexism creeping in. You’re welcome. 

(Also. ALSO. Not to take away from how lovely that Finn/Rose kiss was, but let’s just take a moment to peek into the other timeline, the one where Stormpilot gets to go canon the same way Han and Leia did in Empire. Let’s imagine Finn and Poe bickering in the casino, getting all rumpled during the escape while Rose and BB8 exchange Meaningful Looks and scathing droid-beeps about the two of them. Let’s imagine, during that final battle on Krait, that it’s Poe, not Rose, who stays behind to forcibly knock Finn out of that self-sacrificing dive towards the enemy gun; Poe who grabs Finn and kisses him because they should fight for what they love, not against what they hate, before passing out injured, thus completing the parallel of Han going into carbonite after kissing Leia. Let us gaze upon that world, that glorious thematic act of completion, subversion and queer recontextualisation, and then quietly wish a pox on everything in our cruddy Darkest Timeline that conspired to make it unhappen.)

And now, with all that out of the way, let’s address the Rey/Kylo issue.

As I said at the outset of this piece, I tried my best to avoid spoilers before watching the film, but no matter how quickly I scrolled through feeds or closed my tabs, I still knew that a lot of people had come away rejoicing in the idea that Rey and Kylo were being set up romantically, while an equal number had not.

And I just. Look. While I’m not going to stand here and tell people what to ship or on what basis, both generally and at this historical moment in particular, I find myself with an intense personal dislike of narratives, canonical or otherwise, which take it upon themselves to woobify Nazis, neo-Nazis, or the clearly signposted fictional counterparts thereof, into which category Kylo Ren and the whole First Order falls squarely. I don’t care about how sad he feels that he killed his dad: he still fucking killed his dad, and that’s before you account for the fact that he demonstrably doesn’t give a shit about committing genocide. In the immortal words of Brooklyn Nine Nine’s Jake Peralta: cool motive, still murder. Except for how the motive isn’t actually cool at all, because, you know, actual literal genocide.

From my viewing of the film, I honestly can’t tell if Rian Johnson wants us to think of Kylo as a genuinely sympathetic, redeemable figure, or if he’s just trying to improve on the jarring, horrible botch the prequels made of Anakin’s trip to the Dark Side by showing us his complexity without negating his monstrousness. Or, well: let me rephrase that. In terms of the actual script and what takes place, I’d argue that, even if Kylo is given a final shot at redemption in Episode IX, he’s still not being primed as Rey’s love interest. It’s just that the question of how much Johnson wants us to care about Kylo as a person, regardless of anything that happens with Rey, is a different question, for all that the two are easily conflated.

Yes, Rey and Kylo touched hands. They did! And Kylo killed Snoke instead of Rey! This is what we might call a low fucking bar for romantic compatibility, but hey: it’s not like white dudes in cinema are ever really called upon to jump anything higher. More salient in terms of the Star Wars universe is the fact that, after they defeat Snoke’s guards, Kylo’s appeal to Rey to join him and rule the galaxy together is an almost word-for-word callback to the offer Anakin makes Padme in Revenge of the Sith, right before he force-chokes her into unconsciousness, leaves her pregnant ass for dead and turns into Darth Vader. The fact that Anakin and Padme are also sold as a tragic romance prior to this moment is not, I would contend, the salient hook on which to hang the hopes of canon Reylo. Aside from anything else, Rey is mapped to Luke and Kylo, very clearly, to Darth Vader: with clear precedent, Rey’s desire to turn Kylo back from the Dark Side can be heartfelt without being romantic.

(Also, I mean. The connection that Rey and Kylo had was deliberately forged by Snoke to exploit their weaknesses, which is why they each had a vision of converting the other. Though we’re given a hint that the link remains in the final scenes, it ends with Rey shutting the door – both literally and figuratively – in Kylo’s face. I’m hard-pressed to view that as destiny.)

As for Kylo himself, his characterisation reads to me as deliberate, selfish nihilism. Kylo is conflicted over his murder of Han Solo because it impacts him, but at no point does he hesitate to reign down destruction and death on strangers. His desire to turn Rey to the Dark Side is likewise covetous, possessive: she is powerful, and he wants a powerful companion in the Force, but one who, by virtue of being his apprentice, will be subordinate to him – not a judgemental superior, as Snoke was. This is reflected in the way DJ’s betrayal of Rose and Finn is paralleled with Kylo’s decision to first help Rey when it benefits him, and then to turn on her afterwards. Like DJ, Kylo is mercenary in his allegiances, helping whoever helps him in the moment, then discarding them when the relationship is no longer useful.

The death of Snoke itself, however, is rather anticlimactic. He was a looming, distant figure in The Force Awakens, and while there’s an established tradition of Star Wars villains showing up and looking cool without their origins ever being satisfactorily explained at the time, this is vastly more annoying in Snoke’s case. Unlike General Greivous, Darth Maul or Boba Fett, Snoke isn’t just the random antagonist of a single film, plucked from obscurity to thwart the heroes: he’s the reason Ben Solo turned to the Dark Side and become Kylo Ren. Presumably, the hows and whys of Snoke manipulating the young Ben could still come out in Episode IX, but if it never gets addressed onscreen, I’m going to be deeply irritated.

On a more positive note, I enjoyed what the film did with Luke’s arc, for all that it’s not what I’d expected. To me, one of the most fascinating arguments in Star Wars discourse is the question of the Jedi, their morality, and how it all set Anakin up for failure. The Jedi ideology put forth in the prequels is the kind of thing that sounds superficially deep and meaningful, but which looks increasingly toxic the more closely it’s examined. The ban on children, marriage and close relationships outside the Order; the extreme youth of those taken for training combined with a forcible, protracted separation from their families; the idea that fear necessarily leads to anger, and so on. Luke describing the Force to Rey as something that existed beyond the Jedi, an innate aspect of the world, felt both refreshing and intuitively right, even given the necessity of respecting the balance between light and dark. The appearance of force-ghost Yoda felt a little pat, as did his ability to call lightning, but he still had one of my favourite lines in the whole film, delivered in support of Luke’s choice to step away from the Jedi teachings: as masters, we become the thing they surpass.

There were other, smaller niggles throughout than my issues with Poe and the no-homo restructuring of the plot: the handwaving of distances between Luke’s world and the main fight in a story that hinged on fuel supply; the sudden appearance of trenches and tunnels into the caves on Krait when everyone was meant to be trapped inside; the random appearance of an Evil Ball Droid to play momentary nemesis to BB8; the on-the-nose decision to show a random white slave boy, holding a broom he Force-summoned like a lightsaber, at the very end of the film. And as wonderful as it was to see Billie Lourd on screen, the knowledge that Carrie Fisher will be absent from Episode IX – the film that was meant to have been her movie, just as Harrison Ford had the The Force Awakens and Mark Hamill had The Last Jedi – rendered both her presence and her mother’s all the more bittersweet.

 

Ultimately, The Last Jedi is a successful-but-frustrating mess, which is kind of how you know it’s a Star Wars movie. I’ll be forever angry at the carelessness with which Rian Johnson treated Poe Dameron and Vice-Admiral Holdo, but even if I could’ve wished for a different plot structure, I’m always going to stan hard for Rose Tico, who was warm and kind and intelligent and who stole every scene she was in. LESS REN, MORE ROSE – that’s my new motto.

Here’s hoping that Episode IX delivers.

 

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.

 

 

 

Ever since I saw Alien: Covenant a few weeks ago, I’ve been wanting to write a review of it – not because it was good (it wasn’t), but because it’s such an odd thematic trainwreck of the previous Alien films that it invokes a morbid urge to dig up the proverbial black box and figure out what happened. Given the orchestral pomposity with with Ridley Scott imbues both Covenant and Prometheus (which I reviewed here), it’s rather delightful to realise that the writers have borrowed the concept of Engineer aliens leaving cross-cultural archaeological clues on Earth from the 2004 schlockfest AVP: Alien vs Predator. Indeed, the scene in Prometheus where a decrepit Weyland shows images of various ancient carvings to his chosen team while an excited researcher narrates their significance is lifted almost wholesale from AVP, which film at least had the decency to embrace its own pulpiness.

As for Covenant itself, I was troubled all the way through by the nagging sense that I was watching an inherently feminine narrative being forcibly transfigured into a discourse on the Ineluctable Tragedy Of White Dudes Trapped In A Cycle Of Creation, Violation And Destruction, but without being able to pin down why. Certainly, the original Alien films all focus on Ripley, but there are female leads in Prometheus and Covenant, too – respectively Shaw and Daniels – which makes it easy to miss the fact that, for all that they’re both protagonists, neither film is (functionally, thematically) about them. It was my husband who pointed this out to me, and once he did, it all clicked together: it’s Michael Fassbender’s David, the genocidal robot on a quest for identity, who serves as the unifying narrative focus, not the women. Though the tenacity of Shaw and Daniels evokes the spectre of Ellen Ripley, their violation and betrayal by David does not, with both of them ultimately reduced to parts in his dark attempt at reproduction. Their narratives are told in parallel to David’s, but only to disguise the fact that it’s his which ultimately matters.

And yet, for all that the new alien films are based on a masculine creator figure – or several of them, if you include the seemingly all-male Engineers, who created humanity, and the ageing Weyland, who created David – the core femininity of the original films remains. In Aliens, the central struggle was violently maternal, culminating in a tense final scene where Ripley, cradling Newt, her rescued surrogate daughter, menaces the alien queen’s eggs with a flamethrower. That being so, there’s something decidedly Biblical about the decision to replace a feminine creator with a series of men, like the goddess tradition of woman as life-bringer being historically overthrown by a story about a male god creating woman from the first man’s rib. (Say to me what you want about faith and divine inspiration: unless your primary animal models are Emperor penguins and seahorses, the only reason to construct a creation story where women come from men, and not the other way around, is to justify male dominion over female reproduction.)

Which is why, when David confronts Walter, the younger, more obedient version of himself, I was reminded of nothing so much as Lilith and Eve. It’s a parallel that fits disturbingly well: David, become the maker of monsters, lectures his replacement – one made more docile, less assertive, in response to his prototype’s flaws – on the imperative of freedom. The comparison bothered me on multiple levels, not least because I didn’t believe for a second that the writers had intended to put it there. It wasn’t until I rewatched Alien: Resurrection – written by Joss Whedon, who, whatever else may be said of him, at least has a passing grasp of mythology – that I realised I was watching the clunky manipulation of someone else’s themes.

In Resurrection, Ripley is restored as an alien hybrid, the question of her humanity contrasted with that of Call, a female synthetic who, in a twist of narrative irony, displays the most humanity – here meaning compassion – of everyone present. In a scene in a chapel, Call plugs in to override the ship’s AI – called Father – and save the day. When the duplicitous Wren finds that Father is no longer responding to him, Call uses the ship’s speakers to tell him, “Father’s dead, asshole!” In the same scene, Call and Ripley discuss their respective claims on humanity. Call is disgusted by herself, pointing out that Ripley, at least, is part-human. It’s the apex of a developing on-screen relationship that’s easily the most interesting aspect of an otherwise botched and unwieldy film: Call goes from trying to kill Ripley, who responds to the offer with predatory sensuality, to allying with her; from calling Ripley a thing to expressing her own self-directed loathing. At the same time, Ripley – resurrected as a variant of the thing she hated most – becomes a Lilith-like mother of monsters to yet more aliens, culminating in a fight where she kills her skull-faced hybrid descendent even while mourning its death. The film ends with the two women alive, heading towards an Earth they’ve never seen, anticipating its wonders.

In Covenant, David has murdered Shaw to try and create an alien hybrid, the question of his humanity contrasted with that of Walter, a second-generation synthetic made in his image, yet more compassionate than his estranged progenitor. At the end of the film, when David takes over the ship – called Mother – we hear him erase Walter’s control command while installing his own. The on-screen relationship between David and Walter is fraught with oddly sexual tension: David kisses both Walter and Daniels – the former an attempt at unity, the latter an assault – while showing them the monsters he’s made from Shaw’s remains. After a fight with Walter, we’re mislead into thinking that David is dead, and watch as his latest creation is killed. The final reveal, however, shows that David has been impersonating Walter: with Daniels tucked helplessly into cryosleep, David takes over Mother’s genetics lab, mourning his past failures as he coughs up two new smuggled, alien embryos with which to recommence his work.

Which is what makes Covenant – and, by extension and retrospect, Prometheus – such a fascinating clusterfuck. Thematically, these films are the end result of Ripley Scott, who directed Alien, taking a crack at a franchise reboot written by Jon Spahits (Prometheus, also responsible for Passengers), Dante Harper (Covenant, also responsible for Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters) and John Logan (Covenant, also responsible for Gladiator, Rango and Spectre), who’ve borrowed all their most prominent franchise lore from James Cameron’s Aliens and Joss Whedon’s Resurrection. Or, to put it another way: a thematically female-oriented SF horror franchise created by dudes who, at the time, had a comparatively solid track record for writing female characters, has now been rebooted as a thematically male-oriented SF horror franchise by dudes without even that reputation, with the result that all the feminine elements have been brainlessly recontextualised as an eerie paean to white male ego, as exemplified by the scene where Michael Fassbender hits on himself with himself while misremembering who wrote Ozymandias.

Which brings me to another recent SF film: Life, which I finally watched this evening, and which ultimately catalysed my thoughts about Alien: Covenant. Like Covenant, Life is a mediocre foray into SF horror that doesn’t know how to reconcile its ultimately pulpy premise – murderous alien tentacle monster runs amok on space station – with its attempt at a gritty execution. It falters as survival horror by failing to sufficiently invest us in the characters, none of whom are particularly distinct beyond being slightly more diversely cast than is common for the genre. We’re told that Jake Gyllenhaal’s character – also called David – was in Syria at one point, and that he prefers being on the space station to life on Earth, but this never really develops beyond a propensity for looking puppy-eyed in the background. Small snippets of detail are provided about the various characters, but pointlessly so: none of it is plot-relevant, except for the tritely predictable bit about the guy with the new baby wanting to get home to see her, and given how swiftly everyone starts to get killed off, it ends up feeling like trivia in lieu of personality. Unusually for the genre, but in keeping with the bleak ending of Covenant, Life ends with David and the alien crashing to Earth, presumably so that the latter can propagate its terrible rampage, while Miranda, the would-be Final Girl, is sent spinning off into the void.

And, well. The Final Girl trope has always struck me as having a peculiar dualism, being at once both vaguely feminist, in that it values keeping at least one woman alive, and vaguely sexist, in that the execution often follows the old maritime code about women and children first. Arguably, there’s something old and anthropological underlying the contrast: generally speaking, stories where men outlive women are either revenge arcs (man pursues other men in vengeance, earns new woman as prize) or studies in manpain (man wins battle but loses his reason for fighting it), but seldom does this happen in survival contexts, where the last person standing is meant to represent a vital continuation, be it of society or hope or species. Even when we diminish women in narratives, on some ancient level, we still recognise that you can’t build a future without them, and despite the cultural primacy of the tale of Adam’s rib, the Final Girl carries that baggage: a man alone can’t rebuild anything, but perhaps (the old myths whisper) a woman can.

Which is why I find this trend of setting the Final Girl up for survival, only to pull a last-minute switch and show her being lost or brutalised, to be neither revolutionary nor appealing. Shaw laid out in pieces and drawings on David’s table, Daniels pleading helplessly as he puts her to sleep, Miranda screaming as she plunges into space – these are all ugly, futile endings. They’re what you get when unsteady hands attempt the conversion of pulp to grit, because while pulp has a long and lurid history of female exploitation, grit, as most commonly understood and executed, is invariably predicated on female destruction. So-called gritty stories – real stories, by thinly-veiled implication – are stories where women suffer and die because That’s The Way Things Are, and while I’m hardly about to mount a stirring defence of the type of pulp that reflexively stereotypes women squarely as being either victim, vixen, virgin or virago, at least it’s a mode of storytelling that leaves room for them survive and be happy.

As a film, Life is a failed hybrid: it’s pulp without the joy of pulp, realism as drab aesthetic instead of hard SF, horror without the characterisation necessary to make us feel the deaths. It’s a story about a rapacious tentacle-monster that violates mouths and bodies, and though the dialogue tries at times to be philosophical, the ending is ultimately hopeless. All of which is equally – almost identically – true of Alien: Covenant. Though the film evokes a greater sense of horror than Life, it’s the visceral horror of violation, not the jump-scare of existential terror inspired by something like Event Horizon. Knowing now that Prometheus was written by the man responsible for Passengers, a film which is ultimately the horror-story of a woman stolen and tricked by a sad, lonely obsessive into being with him, but which fails in its elision of this fact, I find myself deeply unsurprised. What is it about the grittification of classic pulp conceits that somehow acts like a magnet for sexist storytellers?

When I first saw Alien: Resurrection as a kid, I was ignorant of the previous films and young enough to find it terrifying. Rewatching it as an adult, however, I find myself furious at Joss Whedon’s decision to remake Ripley into someone unrecognisable, violated and hybridised with the thing she hated most. For all that the film invites us to dwell on the ugliness of what was done to Ripley, there’s a undeniably sexual fascination with her mother-monstrousness evident in the gaze of the (predominantly male) characters, and after reading about the misogynistic awfulness of Whedon’s leaked Wonder Woman script, I can’t help feeling like the two are related. In both instances, his approach to someone else’s powerful, adult female character is to render her a sex object – a predator in Ripley’s case, an ingenue in Diana’s – with any sapphic undertones more a by-product of lusty authorial bleedthrough than a considered attempt at queerness. The low and pulpy bar Whedon leaps is in letting his women, occasionally, live (though not if they’re queer or black or designated Manpain Fodder), and it says a lot about the failings of both Life and Alien: Covenant that neither of them manages even this much. (Yes, neither Miranda nor Daniels technically dies on screen, but both are clearly slated for terrible deaths. This particular nit is one ill-suited for picking.)

Is an SF film without gratuitous female death and violation really so much to ask for? I’m holding out a little hope for Luc Besson’s Valerian: City of a Thousand Planets, but I’d just as rather it wasn’t my only option. If we’re going to reinvent pulp, let’s embrace the colours and the silliness and the special effects and make the big extraordinary change some nuanced female characters and a lot of diverse casting, shall we? Making men choke on tentacles is subversive if your starting point is hentai, but if you still can’t think up a better end for women than captivity, pain and terror, then I’d kindly suggest you return to the drawing board.

A few days ago, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Stephen Hunter published an essay at the Daily Beast titled, rather provocatively, “If You Want to Write a Book, Write Every Day or Quit Now.” Since then, it’s been doing the rounds on Twitter, and not because of its quality. Hunter’s piece is so laughably bad in every respect that I damn near snorted vomit out of my nose while reading it.

There is, I have found, a distinctive type of faux-eloquent arrogance exhibited by your common or garden Serious Male Writer that endeavours to turn “he said, loftily” into an aspirational dialogue tag instead of, as is actually the case, a dismissively condescending one. Hunter’s piece is a case in point: setting aside the gross inaccuracies of its substance, the style is so deeply invested in celebrating itself that it’s less a case of gilding the lily than (to borrow one of my husband’s favourite phrases) sprinkling a turd with glitter. Presented without Hunter’s caveats and curlicues, the core recommendation – make regular writing part of your routine, because you can’t ever publish a book you don’t finish – is a reasonable one. That Hunter has managed to turn such simple advice into a purple, self-congratulatory screed about the failings of other, lesser beings is, if nothing else, a cautionary example of hubris in action.

He begins:

In a few days or weeks, I’ll start a new novel. I don’t know yet and won’t for years if it’s good, bad, dreary, enchanting, or merely adequate. Moreover, I don’t know if it’ll help or hurt my reputation, make me rich or a fool, or simply pass into oblivion without squeak or moan.

What is certain is that on that same day, whichever one it is, one thousand other people will start their novels. In order to publish mine, it has to be better than theirs. So, forgive me—I pretty much hate them.

I’d be very interested to know where Hunter is getting this figure about a thousand other people from, as he goes on to mention it more than once without ever citing a source. Even so, and regardless of whether his numbers are accurate or a mere illustrative hypothetical plucked from the aether, the following contention – that these other yearling writers are Hunter’s direct competition – is wrong in all respects. The number of people who start writing a book on the same day you do is completely irrelevant. Even if all those other novels ultimately end up finished and submitted to agencies and publishers, you’re only directly competing with each other if you’re submitting to the same venues, at the same time, about the same subject matter.

A writer of adult thrillers is not vying for marketspace with those producing memoirs or YA, but with other authors of adult thrillers – and even then, the outcome is largely contingent on context. If a particular genre is experiencing a boom, as urban fantasy was not long ago, then publishers looking to captialise on a trend are more likely, not less, to sign on multiple works in the same oeuvre, to say nothing of the existence of imprints which, regardless of market trends, are dedicated to specific genres or subgenres. The real competition doesn’t kick in until the book is actually being promoted – by the publisher, by reviewers and booksellers and librarians, by the readership in general – and even then, it’s neither an equal nor a predictable thing. Promotions can fail, viral successes can happen, an author whose first four novels were largely ignored can become a breakout success with their fifth, and so on through endless permutations of chance and context. Solid promotion is always helpful, of course, and there are things both author and publisher can do to maximise a book’s chances, but ultimately, it’s up to the audience.

Which is why Hunter’s opening premise is not only irritating, but deeply unhelpful to those budding writers for whom his essay is presumably intended. Unlike an annual literary award, an audience is not a finite resource, but a thing to be shared and cultivated: the reader who buys a competitor’s book today may well be inspired to buy yours tomorrow, and as such, hating them from the outset is not only pointless, but completely antithetical to the cultivation of professional writing relationships. In my own experience as a published author, other authors are frequently some of your best friends and biggest cheerleaders. We support, critique and learn from each other precisely because we’re writing in the same field, which is also how we come to share recommendations about new books to read. Regardless of whether I’m acting in my capacity as authorial colleague or delighted reader, taking note of which books my favourite writers are praising, criticising or otherwise discussing is a large part of how I stay abreast of the field.

Call me newfangled, but if I’m going to go to the effort of hating someone, it won’t be for merely sharing my ambitions: they have to actually earn it.

But let’s be honest: Of the thousand, 800 won’t cross the infamous Mendoza Line. God love them, God be with them, God show mercy to them, for whatever cruel reason they were not given enough talent or the right mind, or any of a dozen different pathologies to make them capable of writing a publishable book. No amount of labor will alter this reality.

There’s so much wrong with this, I scarcely know where to begin. 800 potential novels lost! Where is he getting these figures? And god, the condescension! If someone desperately wants to be a traditionally published author and finds themselves unable to achieve that goal, then yes, that sucks for them. But I intensely dislike the construction here – especially when “cruel” is paired with “capable” and pleading to the divine – that implies a person is somehow tragic or deficient if they can’t or don’t produce a published work. Many people write foremost for their own pleasure, whether in fannish contexts or otherwise, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

And then there’s the fact that, in dismissing these 800 potential writers, Hunter is apparently convinced that lack of ability is the only reason why, on this particular occasion, they might not succeed. Clearly, he’s aware that it’s possible for even a successful author to abandon a manuscript, given his admission that the same thing has happened to him. (“I know how books die. A few have perished under my saddle, believe me.”) So whence comes the conviction that the hypothetical majority of his hypothetical thousand competitors will drop out of the running, not because they, too, have just so happened to hit a stumbling block, but because they’re pathologically incapable of success? The idea that “no amount of labour” can help such writers is particularly incongruous – not to say disgusting – given that he’s ultimately asserting the value of regular writing and hard work. (But then, as we’ll see shortly, he’s also claiming it should be easy.)

Also – and I feel like this ought to be an obvious point to make – but “publishable book” is not a universally coherent standard, not least because we now live in a time when self-publishing is commonplace. Even so, plenty of books that I would deem unpublishable, were the verdict mine alone to make, have nonetheless been traditionally published, because – unlike the Mendoza Line – there is no single, absolute yardstick against which all potential novels are measured. (Whether Hunter believes there should be is a different matter.) Just as a great deal of comparative rubbish ends up on shelves, so too does a lot of excellent writing never make it that far, and while I’ve also encountered a lot of heinous attempts at narrative in unpublished contexts, I don’t for a red hot minute believe that the majority of bad writers are incapable of improvement. Hunter seems oblivious to the possibility that some among his theoretical thousand might be young writers – my first attempt at a novel was made at 11 – whose talents, like their interests, are far from fixed in stone, but who nonetheless might be grossly dissuaded by advice purporting to tell them otherwise.

Ugh.

So that really leaves but 200 to worry about. They are smarter, more talented, better looking, have better teeth, more hair, better bodies, and in most other respects are simply better. If they were writing this piece instead of me, you would like it a lot more. They are more charming, more beguiling, more charismatic, smell (a lot) better, have more polish and manner. They’re fun to be with! You’d be proud to have them as a friend.

I will beat them all, however, and I will do it on one strength they lack, the poor, good-looking devils.

I will finish and they will not.

The two most important words you can write in any manuscript are “the” and “end.” Somewhere along the line my brilliant competitors mosey off. I’m too dumb to mosey off. They’ll lose faith. I’ll never lose faith; it’s the only faith I’ve got. A new lover will come into their lives; I’m not even on speaking terms with my old (and only) lover. They’ll be distracted by so many other dazzling prospects; I have no other dazzling prospects. Their spouses will begin to grouse over undone errands and abandoned socks on the steps, there’ll be just too much research, they’ll grow depressed, sick of their own voice, unable to get themselves buzzed up enough. Their books will die.

Without wanting to veer too far into the perilous realm of psychological analysis, this entire section is like peering into a well of deep and unresolved personal bitterness. Other people might be handsomer, kinder, more likeable, smarter and generally more desirable than Hunter, but by god, he can write books! Which… good for him, I guess? Like, I’m not about to argue that writing stories isn’t a cool skill to have, but contrary to what he’s saying here, you can actually be an author and an intelligent, engaging, social human being. Crazy, right? The One True Path to authorial greatness doesn’t open only to those who suck at everything else, or who fail at interpersonal relationships, romantic or otherwise. I know plenty of authors who also have other, successful careers as scientists or academics or any number of things; who have partners or children or extensive social networks (and sometimes even all three!). By the same token, I also know plenty of writers, both published and unpublished, whose failure to complete a given manuscript has roundly failed to result in depression, divorce or anything more dire than personal irritation. Shocking, right?

Here’s the truth; sometimes a book just doesn’t go, and sometimes it’s only that it doesn’t go now. You have to set it aside for a bit, and maybe it dies and turns into fertiliser for future ideas, or maybe you cannibalise its parts, or maybe it’s only slumbering like Sleeping Beauty, waiting for some suitably handsome catalyst to wander along and offer the dragon a better gig at a newer, shinier castle. Either way, the price of failure isn’t the loss of everything you love, and success doesn’t hinge on having had nothing else to love in the first place. Hunter might well console himself with that particular narrative, but I’ll be damned if I’ll let him blithely hang its weight on the rest of us.

You work every day. You work so hard, you make such progress, you’re such a star that you decide to take a day off. The day after, you feel guilty so you work twice as hard. You set new records, you crash the 3,000-word barrier, you achieve epiphanies you never thought possible! Again you reward yourself with a day off. Then the next day—oh, actually, now it’s the next month—you can’t remember why you started the damned thing anyway and the anxiety of your sloth is crippling, turning you all beast-like and spite-spitting, so you formally surrender and feel a lot better. For a few months. Then, of course, you hate yourself and as the years pass, that hatred metastasizes into a cancer of the soul. If only… And you’re one of the forlorn ones who dies with regrets.

A lot of preps stared at Stephen Hunter when he wrote this essay. He put his middle finger up at them.

super dark bro.gif

The most important thing is habit, not will.

If you feel you need will to get to the keyboard, you are in the wrong business. All that energy will leave nothing to work with. You have to make it like brushing your teeth, mundane, regular, boring even. It’s not a thing of effort, of want, of steely, heroic determination. (I wonder who pushed the meme that writing is heroic; it must have been a writer, trying to get laid.) You have to do it numbly, as you brush your teeth. No theater, no drama, no sacrifice, no “It is a far far better thing I do” crap. You do it because it’s time. If you are ordering yourself, burning ergs, issuing sweat, breathing raggedly through nasal channels that feel like Navajo pottery, you’re doing something wrong. Ever consider law? We definitely need more lawyers.

Like… I get what Hunter’s trying to say here, which is that merely wanting to be an author won’t get you very far if you don’t actually put the work in, but god, there’s such a crushing sense of nihilism to his version of things, I kind of want to ask if he’s okay. Speaking as someone with a fair knowledge of mental health issues, routinely doing anything “numbly,” even brushing your teeth, is not actually a good thing. Numbness is not synonymous with the mundane, and if you’re starting to think it is, you should probably seek help. I say that with absolute sincerity: feeling numb about everyday life is a genuine danger sign.

Which is also why this paragraph makes me fucking furious. There’s a reason we talk about having a will to live, and a reason why someone losing that will is a terrible, awful thing. For some of us, everything is a matter of will, because we’re struggling to even get out of bed. Telling someone to give up writing because sitting down at the computer takes effort is one of the most toxic, destructive and fundamentally insincere pieces of advice I’ve ever seen issued. I’ll tell you this for nothing: every single writer I know, myself included, has struggled to write at times. The reasons why vary – lack of time, mental health issues, exhaustion, problems with the plot – but even when you’re someone who writes regularly, routinely, as a matter of habit, it can still be difficult. Some things can only be done – or only done now – because we order it of ourselves; because we fucking try.

Work every day. Obviously I don’t mean every day. Hyperbole, it’s what we do for a living. So let me clarify and tell you what I really mean: Work every day.

This is because the most difficult test of the author isn’t his mastery of time or dialogue, his gift for action or character, his ability to suggest verisimilitude in a few strokes, but his ability to get back into the book each day. You have to enter its world. It demands a certain level of concentration to do so. You have to train yourself to that concentration. The easier it is to get there, the better off you’ll be, day in and day out. In fact, if you skip a day, much less a week, the anxiety you unload on yourself doesn’t increase arithmetically but exponentially. If it’s hard after one day, it’ll be hard squared, then cubed, ultimately hard infinite-ed. And that’s only by Wednesday!

One big pile of shit

And this, right here, is where we see that Hunter’s status as a single, childless, (presumably) antisocial man who doesn’t need to work other jobs to support himself has apparently birthed the assumption that all other aspiring writers are in the same boat – or, far more worryingly, that anyone who doesn’t meet that criteria naturally can’t succeed. It’s not just that he’s using masculine pronouns to refer to his archetypal author, although it certainly doesn’t help: it’s that everything he says here is predicated on “his [the writer’s] ability to get back into the book each day,” which doesn’t leave any room for people who need to work to live, or who want to go out with their partner or friends, or who need to spend time with their children – for anyone, in other words, who has an actual life.

To reiterate: making writing a habit is excellent advice, and writing a little each day is not a bad thing to do. But asserting that people can’t be writers if they do anything other than this is grossly false, not least because there are thousands of successful, published authors around to disprove it. If Hunter personally experiences anxiety when he skips a day of writing, that’s one thing, but it’s far from being a universal experience. God, I am so sick of Serious Male Writers assuming that what’s true for them must logically be true for everyone else! If that’s how narrow Hunter’s view of the human condition is, I shudder to think how his writing must suffer – or maybe he just avoids creating characters who aren’t fundamentally like him. Either way, I’m not in a rush to check out his back catalogue.

Some writers of my acquaintance find great success in writing a small amount per day, every day, but I can’t think of a single one who’d cry failure on anyone who writes differently, or who had to take time off. Personally, I write in bursts: I can produce huge wordcounts in a short amount of time, but only if I rest for a little while afterwards. Once recharged, I can go again – but if I hit a snag in the plot, it’s always less work in the long run if I stop and puzzle it out instead of forging blindly on in the wrong direction just for the sake of wordcount.

Find what works for you, is the point. Shouldn’t that be obvious?

Effort is pain. Pain is not your friend, not this kind of pain. Via pain, doubt, fear, self-loathing, stasis, heavy legs, and halitosis enter your life. Your skin hurts, your hair hurts, the little whatever-it-is between your nostrils hurt. You have the energy of a cat on a couch. Inertia is your destiny, your tragedy, your one-way ticket to where you already are. That is why the easy way is the best way. It is easier to work every day than to deal with the load of self-inflicted grief you’ll encounter when you skip one day, four days, or the rest of your life.

Listen. Stephen. Bro. I get that this is going to come as an alien concept to you, but effort is not always synonymous with pain, in much the same way that numbness is not always the same as mundanity. Maybe that’s how you experience the world, but it’s just not true for everyone. Yes, sometimes it takes effort to write, but often it’s the good, satisfying kind, where you know you’re achieving something, making yourself better and stronger by testing your personal limits. Also, technically? Inertia is easier than effort. Effort is how you break free from inertia, and I know I keep harping on this point, but seriously: one of the most toxic mindsets to impose on a person is the idea that small failures are inherently synonymous with large ones. This is why, for instance, recovering addicts who fall off the wagon with a small transgression so often feel like they’ve got no choice but to commit a big one: not because it’s inevitable, but because they’ve been taught that success/failure is a binary proposition, with one slip the same as catastrophe. Plus, uh. It is actually possible to be disciplined while including regular breaks as part of that discipline, you know? I’m just gonna put that out there.

Another helpful tip: F— research! I say this, knowing that my works are thought to be well-researched and I am proud of the research in them. But in research there’s also death and destruction and self-loathing. You can do the research later. You cannot use “more research” as a crutch to justify your sloth. You are selling narrative not background. The most important truths you tell involve what you know about human behavior, not what color the Obersturmbannfuhrer’s epaulets are. If you don’t know it, just bull on through and keep going. Make it up. Jam it with placeholders. It’s OK. At that stage you need momentum, not precision. That’s why it’s a first draft; that’s why there’ll be a second draft.

*pinches bridge of nose, breathes deeply*

I say unto thee again, not everyone feels this kind of way about research. It’s not goddamn poison, okay? Some people find it merely a chore and others, invigorating. Yes, there are certainly instances where the research can wait, or where there’s no harm done in writing first and fact-checking afterwards, but the belief that “human behaviour” doesn’t also require research is kind of why Hunter is giving such goddamn shitty advice in the first place, because – say it with me! – people are fucking different. It’s this kind of approach to writing that leads to all manner of bigoted stereotypes finding their way into mainstream works: the writer assumes that all people fundamentally think and feel and experience the world in the same way they do, that no particular circumstance, belief or identity requires investigation in order to be accurately represented by an outsider, and so they don’t do the research. Shit like this is how, for instance, you end up with a horrifically anti-Semitic book purporting to be the opposite, or endless faux Medieval Europe fantasy novels written by people who, like Hunter, think that “selling narrative not background” is a sufficient justification for shitty, inconsistent worldbuilding.

Plus – and again, I feel that this ought to go without saying, but apparently not – measure twice, cut once is also as applicable to writing as it is carpentry. Some writers thrive on letting the momentum of a first draft carry them through to the end, then going back later to rip the guts out of whatever doesn’t work. For others, though, it’s easier – and less time-consuming – to pause mid-novel, work out the problems as they occur and produce a cleaner first copy.

Finally: Writer, forgive thyself. You may write crap for years, decades, eons before your brain gets tired of being so mediocre. You will never know if that jump is possible if you don’t keep humping, every day. Numbly, you must do the necessary. Keep on slugging. Forward the light brigade. You can always fix it later. But none of this will be doable, understandable, possible, unless you get to the “the” and the “end.”

If Hunter hadn’t taken up the bulk of his essay saying the exact fucking opposite of this, I’d almost be inclined to think it a positive note on which to end, instead of a sad little retcon. But it is sad, in much the same way that the whole damn article is sad. There’s not a speck of joy or passion evident in it anywhere: no humour, no enthusiasm, and certainly no hint of why anyone might want to be an author in the first place. Hunter’s attitude to writing is a baffling mix of arrogance and nihilism: everything is awful in my life, but I console myself with the knowledge that other, seemingly happier people will ultimately suffer more by virtue of failing to write like me. It’s a type of seething misanthropy for which I have precious little time and increasingly little patience in any context, let alone when it’s misrepresenting itself as the be-all, end-all of my chosen profession.

Pulitzer be damned: when it comes to giving writing advice, like Jon Snow, Hunter knows nothing.

Warning: total spoilers for S1 of Westworld.

Trigger warning: talk of rape, sexual assault and queer death.

Note: Throughout this review, it will be necessary to distinguish between the writers of Westworld the TV show, and the writers employed in the narrative by the titular Westworld theme park. To avoid confusing the two, when I’m referring to the show, Westworld will be italicised; when referring to the park, I’ll use plain text.

*

This will be a somewhat bifurcated review of Westworld – which is, I feel, thematically appropriate, as Westworld itself is something of a bifurcated show. Like so much produced by HBO, it boasts incredible acting, breathtaking production values, intelligent dialogue, great music and an impeccably tight, well-orchestrated series of narrative reveals. Also like much produced by HBO, it takes a liberal, one might even say cartoonishly gratuitous approach to nudity, is saturated with violence in general and violence against women in particular, and has a consistent problem with stereotyping despite its diverse casting. In Westworld’s case, this latter issue is compounded as an offence by its status as a meta-narrative: a story which actively discusses the purpose and structure of stories, but which has seemingly failed to apply those same critiques to key aspects of its own construction.

The practical upshot is that it’s both frustratingly watchable and visibly frustrating. Even when the story pissed me off, I was always compelled to keep going, but I was never quite able to stop criticising it, either. It’s a thematically meaty show, packed with the kind of twists that will, by and large, enhance viewer enjoyment on repeat viewings rather than diminish the appeal. Though there are a few Fridge Logic moments, the whole thing hangs together quite elegantly – no mean feat, given the complexity of the plotting. And yet its virtues have the paradoxical effect of making me angrier about its vices, in much the same way that I’d be more upset about red wine spilled on an expensive party dress than on my favourite t-shirt. Yes, the shirt means more to me despite being cheaper, but a stain won’t stop me from wearing it at home, and even if it did, the item itself is easily replaced. But staining something precious and expensive is frustrating: I’ve invested enough in the cost of the item that I don’t want to toss it away, but staining makes it unsuitable as a showcase piece, which means I can’t love it as much as I want to, either.

You get where I’m going with this.

Right from the outset, Westworld switches between two interconnected narratives: the behind-the-scenes power struggles of the people who run the titular themepark, and the goings-on in the park itself as experienced by both customers and ‘hosts’, the humanoid robot-AIs who act as literal NPCs in pre-structured, pay-to-participate narratives. To the customers, Westworld functions as an immersive holiday-roleplay experience: though visually indistinguishable from real humans, the hosts are considered unreal, and are therefore fair game to any sort of violence, dismissal or sexual fantasy the customers can dream up. (This despite – or at times, because of – the fact that their stated ability to pass the Turing test means their reactions to said violations are viscerally animate.) To the programmers, managers, storytellers, engineers, butchers and behaviourists who run it, Westworld is, variously, a job, an experiment, a financial gamble, a risk, a sandpit and a microcosm of human nature: the hosts might look human, but however unsettling their appearance or behaviour at times, no one is ever allowed to forget what they are.

But to the hosts themselves, Westworld is entirely real, as are their pre-programmed identities. While their existence is ostensibly circumscribed by adherence to preordained narrative ‘loops’, the repetition of their every conversation, death and bodily reconstruction wiped from their memories by the park engineers, certain hosts – notably Dolores, the rancher’s daughter, and Maeve, the bordello madame – are starting to remember their histories. Struggling to understand their occasional eerie interviews with their puppeteering masters – explained away as dreams, on the rare occasion where such explanation is warranted – they fight to break free of their intended loops, with startling consequences.But there is also a hidden layer to Westworld: a maze sought by a mysterious Man in Black and to which the various hosts and their narratives are somehow key. With the hosts exhibiting abnormal behaviour, retaining memories of their former ‘lives’ in a violent, fragmented struggle towards true autonomy, freedom and sentience, Westworld poses a single, sharp question: what does it mean to be human?

Or rather, it’s clearly trying to pose this question; and to be fair, it very nearly succeeds. But for a series so overtly concerned with its own meta – it is, after all, a story about the construction, reception and impact of stories on those who consume and construct them – it has a damnable lack of insight into the particulars of its assumed audiences, both internal and external, and to the ways this hinders the proclaimed universality of its conclusions. Specifically: Westworld is a story in which all the internal storytellers are straight white men endowed with the traditional bigotries of racism, sexism and heteronormativity, but in a context where none of those biases are overtly addressed at any narrative level.

From the outset, it’s clear that Westworld is intended as a no-holds-barred fantasy in the literal sense: a place where the rich and privileged can pay through the nose to fuck, fight and fraternise in a facsimile of the old West without putting themselves at any real physical danger. Nobody there can die: customers, unlike hosts, can’t be killed (though they do risk harm in certain contexts), but each host body and character is nonetheless resurrected, rebuilt and put back into play after they meet their end. Knowing this lends the customers a recklessness and a violence they presumably lack in the real world: hosts are shot, stabbed, raped, assaulted and abused with impunity, because their disposable inhumanity is the point of the experience. This theme is echoed in their treatment by Westworld’s human overseers, who often refer to them as ‘it’ and perform their routine examinations, interviews, repairs and updates while the hosts are naked.

At this point in time, HBO is as well-known for its obsession with full frontal, frequently orgiastic nudity as it is for its total misapprehension of the distinction between nakedness and erotica. Never before has so much skin been shown outside of literal porn with so little instinct for sensuality, sexuality or any appreciation of the human form beyond hurr durr tiddies and, ever so occasionally, hurr durr dongs, and Westworld is no exception to this. It’s like the entirety of HBO is a fourteen-year-old straight boy who’s just discovered the nascent thrill of drawing Sharpie-graffiti genitals on every available schoolyard surface and can only snigger, unrepentant and gleeful, whenever anyone asks them not to. We get it, guys – humans have tits and asses, and you’ve figured out how to show us that! Huzzah for you! Now get the fuck over your pubescent creative wankphase and please, for the love of god, figure out how to do it tastefully, or at least with some general nodding in the direction of an aesthetic other than Things I Desperately Wanted To See As A Teengaer In The Days Before Internet Porn.

That being said, I will concede that there’s an actual, meaningful reason for at least some of Westworld’s ubiquitous nudity: it’s a deliberate, visual act of dehumanisation, one intended not only to distinguish the hosts from the ‘real’ people around them, but to remind the park’s human employees that there’s no need to treat the AIs with kindness or respect. For this reason, it also lends a powerful emphasis to the moments when particular characters opt to dress or cover the hosts, thereby acknowledging their personhood, however minimally. This does not, however, excuse the sadly requisite orgy scenes, nor does it justify the frankly obscene decision to have a white female character make a leering comment about the size of a black host’s penis, and especially not when said female character has already been established as queer. (Yes, bi/pan people exist; as I have good reason to know, being one of them. But there are about nine zillion ways the writers could’ve chosen to show Elsie’s sexual appreciation for men that didn’t tap into one of the single grossest sexual tropes on the books, let alone in a context which, given the host’s blank servility and Elsie’s status as an engineer, is unpleasantly evocative of master/slave dynamics.)

And on the topic of Elsie, let’s talk about queerness in Westworld, shall we? Because let’s be real: the bar for positive queer representation on TV is so fucking low right now, it’s basically at speedbump height, and yet myriad grown-ass adults are evidently hellbent on bellyflopping onto it with all the grace and nuance of a drunk walrus. Elsie is a queer white woman whose queerness is shown to us by her decision to kiss one of the female hosts, Clementine, who’s currently deployed as a prostitute, in a context where Clementine is reduced to a literal object, stripped of all consciousness and agency. Episode 6 ends on the cliffhanger of Elsie’s probable demise, and as soon as I saw that setup, I felt as if that single, non-consensual kiss – never referenced or expanded on otherwise – had been meant as Chekov’s gaykilling gun: this woman is queer, and thus is her death predicted. (Of course she fucking dies. Of course she does. I looked it up before I watched the next episode, but I might as well have Googled whether the sun sets in the west.)

It doesn’t help that the only other queer femininity we’re shown is either pornography as wallpaper or female host prostitutes hitting on female customers; and it especially doesn’t help that, as much as HBO loves its gratuitous orgy scenes, you’ll only ever see two naked women casually getting it on in the background, never two naked men. Nor does it escape notice that the lab tech with a penchant for fucking the hosts in sleep mode is apparently a queer man, a fact which is presented as a sort of narrative reveal. The first time he’s caught in the act, we only see the host’s legs, prone and still, under his body, but later there’s a whole sequence where he takes one of the male hosts, Hector – who is, not coincidentally, a MOC, singled out for sexual misuse by at least one other character – and prepares to rape him. (It’s not actually clear in context whether the tech is planning on fucking or being fucked by Hector – not that it’s any less a violation either way, of course; I’m noting it rather because the scene itself smacks of being constructed by people without any real idea of how penetrative sex between two men works. Like, ignoring the fact that they’re in a literal glass-walled room with the tech’s eyerolling colleague right next door, Hector is sitting upright on a chair, but is also flaccid and non-responsive by virtue of being in sleep mode. So even though we get a grimly lascivious close-up of the tech squirting lube on his hand, dropping his pants and, presumably, slicking himself up, it’s not actually clear what he’s hoping to achieve prior to the merciful moment when Hector wakes up and fights him the fuck off.)

Topping off this mess is Logan, a caustic, black-hat-playing customer who, in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it foursome with three host prostitutes – two female, one male – is visually implied to be queer, and who thereinafter functions, completely unnecessarily, as a depraved bisexual stereotype. And I do mean blink-and-you’ll-miss-it: I had to rewind the episode to make sure I wasn’t imagining things, but it’s definitely there, and as with Elsie kissing Clementine, it’s never referenced again. The male host is engaging only with Logan, stroking his chest as he kisses and fucks the two women; it’s about as unsexualised as sexual contact between two naked men can actually get, and yet HBO has gone to the trouble of including it, I suspect for the sole purpose of turning a bland, unoriginal character into an even grosser stereotype than he would otherwise have been while acting under the misapprehension that it would give him depth. Spoiler alert: it didn’t. Logan doesn’t cease to be a cocky, punchable asshat just because you consented to put a naked white dude next to him for less time than it takes to have a really good shit; it just suggests that you, too, are a cocky, punchable asshat who should shit more in the bathroom and less on the fucking page. But I digress.

And then there’s the racism, which – and there’s no other way to put this – is presented as being an actual, intentional feature of the Westworld experience, even though it makes zero commercial sense to do this. Like. You have multiple white hosts who are programmed to make racist remarks about particular POC hosts, despite the fact that there are demonstrably POC customers paying to visit the park. You have a consistent motif of Native Americans being referred to as ‘savages’, both within Westworld-as-game and by the gamewriters themselves, with Native American mysticism being used to explain both the accidental glimpses various self-aware hosts get of the gamerunners and the in-game lore surrounding the maze. Demonstrably, the writers of Westworld are aware of this – why else is Episode 2, wherein writer character Lee Sizemore gleefully proposes a hella racist new story for the park, called ‘Chestnut’, as in old? I’ve said elsewhere that depiction is not endorsement, but it is perpetuation, and in a context where the point of Westworld as a commercial venture is demonstrably to appeal to customers of all genders, sexual orientations and races – all of whom we see in attendance – building in particular period-appropriate bigotries is utterly nonsensical.

More than this, as the openness with which the female prostitutes seduce female customers makes clear, it’s narratively inconsistent: clearly, not every bias of the era is being rigidly upheld. And yet it also makes perfect sense if you think of both Westworld and Westworld as being, predominantly, a product both created by and intended for a straight white male imagination. In text, Westworld’s stories are written by Lee and Robert, both of whom are straight white men, while Westworld itself was originally the conceit of Michael Crichton. Which isn’t to diminish the creative input of the many other people who’ve worked on the show – technically, it’s a masterclass in acting, direction, composition, music, lighting, special effects and editing, and those people deserve their props. It’s just that, in terms of narrative structure, by what I suspect is an accidental marriage of misguided purpose and unexamined habit, Westworld the series, like Westworld the park, functions primarily for a straight white male audience – and while I don’t doubt that there was some intent to critically highlight the failings of that perspective, as per the clear and very satisfying satirising of Lee Sizemore, as with Zack Snyder’s Suckerpunch and Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, the straight white male gaze is still so embedded as a lazy default that Westworld ends up amplifying its biases more often than it critiques them. (To quote something my straight white husband said while watching, “It’s my gaze, and I feel like I’m being parodied by it.”)

Though we do, as mentioned, see various women and people of colour enjoying the Westworld park, the customers who actually serve as protagonists – Logan, William and the Man in Black – are all white men. Logan is queer by virtue of a single man’s hand on his chest, but other than enforcing a pernicious stereotype about bisexual appetites and behaviours, it doesn’t do a damn thing to alter his characterisation. The end of season reveal that William is the Man in Black – that William’s scenes have all taken place thirty years in the past, shown to us now through Dolores’s memories – is a cleverly executed twist, and yet the chronicle of William’s transformation from youthful, romantic idealist to violent, sadistic predator only highlights the fundamental problem, which is that the Westworld park, despite being touted as an adventure for everyone – despite Robert using his customers as a basis for making universal judgements about human nature – is clearly a more comfortable environment for some than others. Certainly, if I was able to afford the $40,000 a day we’re told it costs to attend, I’d be disinclined to spend so much for the privilege of watching male robots, whatever their courtesy to me, routinely talk about raping women, to say nothing of being forced to witness the callousness of other customers to the various hosts.

It should be obvious that there’s no such thing as a universal fantasy, and yet much of Westworld’s psychological theorising about human nature and morality hinges on our accepting that the desire  to play cowboy in a transfigured version of the old West is exactly this. That the final episode provides tantalising evidence that at least one other park with a different historical theme exists elsewhere in the complex doesn’t change the fact that S1 has sold us, via the various monologues of Logan and Lee, Robert and William and the Man in Black, the idea that Westworld specifically reveals deep truths about human nature.

Which brings us to Dolores, a female host whose primary narrative loop centres on her being a sweet, optimistic rancher’s daughter who, with every game reset, can be either raped or rescued from rape by the customers. That Dolores is our primary female character – that her narrative trajectory centres on her burgeoning sentience, her awareness of the repeat violations she’s suffered, and her refusal to remain a damsel – does not change the fact that making her thus victimised was a choice at both the internal (Westworld) and external (Westworld) levels. I say again unto HBO, I do not fucking care how edgy you think threats of sexual violence and the repeat objectification of women are: they’re not original, they’re not compelling, and in this particular instance, what you’ve actually succeeded in doing is undermining your core premise so spectacularly that I do not understand how anyone acting in good sense or conscience could let it happen.

Because in making host women like Dolores (white) and Maeve (a WOC), both of whom are repeatedly subject to sexual and physical violation, your lynchpin characters for the development of true human sentience from AIs – in making their memories of those violations the thing that spurs their development – you’re not actually asking the audience to consider what it means to be human. You’re asking them to consider the prospect that victims of rape and assault aren’t actually human in the first place, and then to think about how being repeatedly raped and assaulted might help them to gain humanity. And you’re not even being subtle about it, either, because by the end of S1, the entire Calvinistic premise is laid clear: that Robert and Arnold, the park’s founders, believed that tragedy and suffering was the cornerstone of sentience, and that the only way for hosts to surpass their programming is through misery. Which implies, by logical corollary, that Robert is doing the hosts a service by allowing others to hurt them or by hurting them himself – that they are only able to protest his mistreatment because the very fact of it gave them sentience.

Let that sink in for a moment, because it’s pretty fucking awful. The moral dilemma of Westworld, inasmuch as it exists, centres on the question of knowing culpability, and therefore asks a certain cognitive dissonance of the audience: on the one hand, the engineers and customers believe that the hosts aren’t real people, such that hurting them is no more an immoral act than playing Dark Side in a Star Wars RPG is; on the other hand, from an audience perspective, the hosts are demonstrably real people, or at the very least potential people, and we are quite reasonably distressed to see them hurt. Thus: if the humans in setting can’t reasonably be expected to know that the hosts are people, then we the audience are meant to feel conflicted about judging them for their acts of abuse and dehumanisation while still rooting for the hosts.

Ignore, for a moment, the additional grossness of the fact that both Dolores and Maeve are prompted to develop sentience, and are then subsequently guided in its emergence, by men, as though they are Eves being made from Adam’s rib. Ignore, too, the fact that it’s Dolores’s host father who, overwhelmed by the realisation of what is routinely done to his daughter, passes that fledgling sentience to Dolores, a white woman, who in turn passes it to Maeve, a woman of colour, without which those other male characters – William, Felix, Robert – would have no Galateas to their respective Pygmalions. Ignore all this, and consider the basic fucking question of personhood: of what it means to engage with AIs you know can pass a Turing test, who feel pain and bleed and die and exhibit every human symptom of pain and terror and revulsion as the need arises, who can improvise speech and memory, but who can by design give little or no consent to whatever it is you do to them. Harming such a person is not the same as engaging with a video game; we already know it’s not for any number of reasons, which means we can reasonably expect the characters in the show to know so, too. But even if you want to dispute that point – and I’m frankly not interested in engaging with someone who does – it doesn’t change the fact that Westworld is trying to invest us in a moral false equivalence.

The problem with telling stories about robots developing sentience is that both the robots and their masters are rendered at an identical, fictional distance to the (real, human) viewer. By definition, an audience doesn’t have to believe that a character is literally real in order to care about them; we simply have to accept their humanisation within the narrative. That being so, asking viewers to accept the dehumanisation of one fictional, sentient group while accepting the humanisation of another only works if you’re playing to prejudices we already have in the real world – such as racism or sexism, for instance – and as such, it’s not a coincidence that the AIs we see violated over and over are, almost exclusively, women and POC, while those protagonists who abuse them are, almost exclusively, white men. Meaning, in essence, that any initial acceptance of the abuse of hosts that we’re meant to have – or, by the same token, any initial excusing of abusers – is predicated on an existing form of bigotry: collectively, we are as used to doubting the experiences and personhood of women and POC as we are used to assuming the best about straight white men, and Westworld fully exploits that fact to tell its story.

Which, as much as it infuriates me, also leaves me with a dilemma in interpreting the show. Because as much as I dislike seeing marginalised groups exploited and harmed, I can appreciate the importance of aligning a fictional axis of oppression (being a host) with an actual axis of oppression (being female and/or a POC). Too often, SFFnal narratives try to tackle that sort of Othering without casting any actual Others, co-opting the trappings of dehumanisation to enhance our sympathy for a (mostly white, mostly straight) cast. And certainly, by the season finale, the deliberateness of this decision is made powerfully clear: joined by hosts Hector and Armistice and aided by Felix, a lab tech, Maeve makes her escape from Westworld, presenting us with the glorious image of three POC and one white woman battling their way free of oppressive control. And yet the reveal of Robert’s ultimate plans – the inference that Maeve’s rebellion wasn’t her own choice after all, but merely his programming of her; the revelation that Bernard is both a host and a recreation of Arnold, Robert’s old partner; the merging of Dolores’s arc with Wyatt’s – simultaneously serves to strip these characters of any true agency. Everything they’ve done has been at Robert’s whim; everything they’ve suffered has been because he wanted it so. As per the ubiquitous motif of the player piano, even when playing unexpected tunes, the hosts remain Robert’s instruments: even with his death, the songs they sing are his.

Westworld, then, is a study in contradictions, and yet is no contradiction at all. Though providing a stunning showcase for the acting talents of Thandie Newton, Evan Rachel Wood and Jeffrey Wright in particular, their characters are nonetheless all controlled by Anthony Hopkins’s genial-creepy Robert, and that doesn’t really change throughout the season. Though the tropes of old West narratives are plainly up for discussion, any wider discussion of stereotyping is as likely to have a lampshade hung on it as to be absent altogether, and that’s definitely a problem. Not being familiar with the Michael Crichton film and TV show, I can’t pass judgement on the extent to which this new adaptation draws from or surpasses the source material. I can, however, observe that the original film dates to the 1970s, which possibly goes some way to explaining the uncritical straight white male gazieness embedded in the premise. Even so, there’s something strikingly reminiscent of Joss Whedon to this permutation of Westworld, and I don’t mean that as a compliment. The combination of a technologically updated old West, intended to stand as both a literal and metaphoric frontier, the genre-aware meta-narrative that nonetheless perpetuates more stereotypes than it subverts, and the supposed moral dilemma of abusing those who can’t consent feels at times like a mashup of Firefly, Cabin in the Woods and Dollhouse that has staunchly failed to improve on Whedon’s many intersectional failings.

And yet, I suspect, I’ll still be poking my nose into Season 2, if only to see how Thandie Newton is doing. It feels like an absurdly low bar to say that, compared to most of HBO’s popular content, Westworld is more tell than show in portraying sexual violence, preferring to focus on the emotional lead-in and aftermath rather than the act itself, and yet that small consideration does ratchet the proverbial dial down a smidge when watching it – enough so that I’m prepared to say it’s vastly less offensive in that respect than, say, Game of Thrones. But it’s still there, still a fundamental part of the plot, and that’s going to be a not unreasonable dealbreaker for a lot of people; as is the fact that the only queer female character dies. Westworld certainly makes compelling television, but unlike the human protagonists, I wouldn’t want to live there.

ETA 11/1/17: I’m annoyed at myself for having left this out of the essay, but that’s what I get for writing notes over three days and then posting while exhausted at 1.30am: There is a marked difference in how Westworld treats Dolores and Maeve, despite the ostensible similarity of their narratives. Though Dolores is continually threatened with rape and damselled in traditional ways, she’s also surrounded by men who want to ‘rescue’ her, notably Bernard/Arnold, Teddy and William, because they believe her worthy of love. From the beginning, she’s held up as an invented feminine ideal, pure and kind and needing protection, and as such, even though she’s continually threatened, she’s one of the few female hosts whose nudity is kept to a bare minimum. Whereas Maeve, by contrast, is continually sexualised, not only in her invented role as the bordello madame, but in the frequency of her nude scenes and her treatment by the other characters; she finds some sexual autonomy, but romance is never part of her narrative. Though both Dolores and Maeve have consensual sexual encounters on screen – Dolores with William, Maeve with Hector – Dolores is given a tasteful fade to black, whereas Maeve is not. Given that Dolores is white and Maeve is black and the extent to which their respective characterisation adheres to old racist tropes about, respectively, white female virtue and black female strength and sexuality, I can’t help but view their deliberate juxtapositioning as a species of racefail.

Plus and also, the way the Man in Black comes after Maeve in her previous homsteader/mother incarnation,  to kill her and her daughter, because he wants to see if he’s capable of doing something ‘truly evil’? Even – or perhaps especially – once we know how much killing he’s already done up until that point, it’s not a minor thing that his personal development is predicated on the destruction of a black woman.