Posts Tagged ‘Storytelling’

1.

A few years ago, I tried to read Ivanhoe, by Sir Walter Scott. I made it about halfway through before the roaring anti-Semitism finally drove me to fling the book at the wall, never to be resumed. I still don’t know how the story ends, but once I’d calmed down enough to think about it, I was struck by the difference in characterisation between Rowena and Rebecca, and what that particular contrast still says about the way we write women in fiction. Rowena, as Ivanhoe’s beloved, is meant to be the personification of all the feminine virtues of Scott’s period – beautiful and pure and obedient and yearning – while Rebecca, reading between the very broad lines, is someone we’re meant to root for despite her Jewishness without ever liking her best.

Except that, for precisely this reason, we do; but¬†even though he wrote¬†her that way,¬†Scott doesn’t seem to realise it. Rowena never reads like an actual human woman because she was never intended to be one: she is, quite literally, a platonic ideal, and that makes her dull and lifeless in addition to being passive. But because Rebecca has to work to even be seen as a person in the first place, she’s much more fully human than Rowena ever is. Rebecca fights; she wins admiration by her actions, by sinking her teeth into the story and demanding to be seen: she has rough edges and strength of character, she’s narratively active, and as such, it’s impossible not to like her.

Here is what I took away from Scott’s treatment of these women: Rowena, passive and set on a pedestal, is what he thought women should be, while Rebecca, active and human, is what he grudgingly acknowledged women were;¬†or could be, at the very least, if they actively tried to overcome the handicap of their gender.

And thus the question I ask myself, when examining female characters on the page or screen: is this woman a Rowena, or a Rebecca? Meaning: has she been written as an ideal, so defined by what the author wants her to do – usually for a man’s benefit, or to benefit his narrative (which classification, I hasten to point out, applies equally to female villains, who benefit the hero’s narrative by being Evil Because Cartoonish Misandry And/Or Incompetence)¬†that she doesn’t come across as an actual human being? Or has she been written as a person, comprehensive and flawed and possessed of agency, even or especially if it makes her seem unlikeable or imperfect?

Slowly but surely, we’re getting more Rebeccas. But most of the time, for a very long time, Rowena has dominated.

2.

There’s this feeling I get, whenever I read a Rowena-heavy story. It’s a physical sensation, a sort of ephemeral chill that sinks into me with every male-only page, every chapter where women only exist to fill in the edges of stories that are really concerned with men. It feels cramped, like I’m crawling into some metaphysical box, and the older I get, the less comfortable it is, and the sooner I have to pull out again, the narrow confines chafing across my shoulders. It feels small in those stories, as though there’s no room for me there. I feel the same way about heteronormative storytelling: the more aware of myself I become, the more conscious of my own identity, the stronger the impulse to scream at books that don’t so much as acknowledge my existence.¬†I feel a similar level of disgust about whitewashed stories, but being white myself, that visceral, squeezing element is missing – it’s an intellectual outrage, rather than a personal affront, and while it still makes me angry, I can’t pretend it’s the same thing. Not, to be perfectly clear, because I think the absence or stereotyping of POC is somehow less important; rather, it’s the difference between seeing your best friend punched in the face, and being punched yourself. Both assaults are utterly unacceptable, but one blow you feel secondhand, and the other in the flesh.

In 2010, I went to see the film Buried, which is shot almost entirely from the perspective of someone buried alive in a small box. It made for an intensely claustrophobic viewing experience: even knowing the camera wasn’t going to suddenly cut to a different scene, you still expected it, still wanted it to, and the lack of variation swiftly became a physical itch, a writhing unease and discomfort.

That’s what homogeneous storytelling feels like from the other side, when all the characters like you are either Rowena or stereotyped or absent altogether: claustrophobic. Go away and watch Buried, and whatever else you think of it – I hated it for reasons that had nothing to do with the cramped perspective – at least you’ll learn what it’s like to read a book or watch a show where part of you keeps waiting for the POV to leap to something new, something other than unrelenting sameness, only it never does, and all you feel is the tension caused by the absence of innovation.

Like being buried alive.

3.

I’m sick of the Sad Puppies.

Look: let’s be honest. The Puppies, by their own admission, aren’t interested in stories about people like me, or the stories of other people who aren’t like them, or stories which feature political arguments other than their own. There’s something fundamentally paradoxical about their hatred of diversity: they seem to think of it as a box-checking exercise, some arbitrary, unrealistic obsession with describing impossible, or at least implausible, persons – but at the same time, they clearly believe such individuals not only exist, but do so in vast, conspiracy-carrying numbers, because who else do they think they’re arguing with? The real world, according to Puppy gospel, is being steadily overrun with politically correct SJWs who are all queer or black or female or disabled or – gasp! – some dread combination thereof, and because they resent this tyranny, they don’t want to encourage it by acknowledging those demographics in fictional stories. This doesn’t stop them arguing, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, that their stories are really reflective of the real world, even though their daily lives (they claim) are defined by a ceaseless political struggle that their fiction never reflects, partly because it’s meant for entertainment purposes only (they say), but mostly (one suspects) because the only actual struggle they’ve experienced can be better described as a personal failure of empathy, viz: why the hell would anyone want to read a book about her?

“Her” being Rebecca, both literally and metaphorically. The Puppies are agoraphobic in a genre otherwise defined by sweeping claustrophobia: they want to stay in the buried box with the dwindling air supply, while the rest of us are desperately clawing to get out, away from them and into the sunlight. We want to breathe, to change the scene, and they’d rather we suffocated wholesale than let us.

4.

Here’s what fanfiction understands that the Puppies don’t: inversion and subversion don’t ruin the story – they just give you new ways to tell it, and new tools to tell it with. Take a platonic relationship and make it romantic; there’s a story in that. Take a romantic relationship and make it platonic; there’s a story in that, too. Take a human and make her a werewolf; take a werewolf and make him human. Don’t try and sidle up on hurt/comfort like it’s something you’re ashamed to be indulging in; embrace the tropes until you have their mastery. Take a gang of¬†broken souls surviving the apocalypse and make them¬†happy in high school; take a bunch of funny, loving high school kids and shove them in the apocalypse. Like Archimedes, fanfic writers find the soul, the essence of what makes the characters real, and use it as a fulcrum on which to pivot entire worlds, with inversion/subversion as their lever of infinite length.

Without order, nothing can exist; without chaos, nothing can evolve. So the saying goes, and so it is.

5.

A tip for male writers: if your female characters never defy your expectations – if they never surprise you, never throw a wrench in your plans, never successfully beg a greater share of the story and your attention than you’d initially planned on giving them – then you’re not really writing women. You’re giving us Rowena, not Rebecca; over and over and over.

Be wise to the difference.

Warning: spoilers.

Together with my husband and mother, I went to see Michel Hazanavicius’s¬†The Artist on Thursday night. Our session was completely packed out: there was no allocated seating, so half the audience had to rearrange themselves when it became apparent that every space was needed. Though this is nothing new – our local cinema is both tiny and anachronistic – it felt strangely appropriate on this occasion; as though the venue, like the film, were deliberately harking back to the earlier days of moviemaking.

Thanks to my father’s influence, I grew up watching black and white films. Most were talkies, but he showed me some silents, too, with the result that I grew up knowing all about the transition from silence to sound; how lots of old artists had lost their jobs when the change came through. Above and beyond any historical sense of nostalgia, then, The Artist was also personally nostalgic: a return to the type of film I watched in childhood, regardless of the generational difference.

From a cinematic point of view, The Artist is utterly brilliant. Having opened with scenes from protagonist George Valentin’s latest film, the camera pulls back to show us the screen on which it plays and the duplicate audience sitting beneath, so that we – the real cinema-goers – could almost be watching ourselves. ¬†It’s a gorgeous trick of perspective, and one that Hazanavicius employs several times throughout the film. The camerawork is eloquent, purposefully making up for the lack of spoken dialogue. The rare intrusion of sound is used to tremendous effect, a commentary both on Valentin’s neurosis and the significance of the talkies themselves. The music, too, is wonderful: an emotive tribute to the wordless storytelling of silent cinema, and a beautiful score in its own right. Jean Dujardin as George Valentin is perfect, the visual personification of old Hollywood’s leading men, while Berenice Bejo as Peppy Miller is exactly the right mix of vivacious and coy – a real Judy Garland girl.

As a homage to silent cinema, then, The Artist is a rousing success. Undeniably, it succeeds as a form of visual nostalgia, tipping the hat to movies past while simultaneously acknowledging the importance and inevitability of change – which is exactly what it set out to do.

However.

As well as copying the visual and musical styles of silent cinema, Hazanavicius has also employed their narrative stylings, leading to the construction of a story which is both deeply cliche and boringly simplistic. From the outset, it’s obvious that the fortunes of Valentin, the beloved and happy-go-lucky son of silent cinema, must fall as the talkies rise; obvious that Peppy Miller, the bright young thing with the suggestive name, must ascend in his place; obvious that the two will fall for one another; obvious that Valentin, abandoned by his wife, will fall into ruin; obvious that Peppy will save him.

And this is where I started to get cross, because narratively, The Artist is nothing more than a bland, archetypal tale of white male hubris where old-school sexism is played for modern laughs. Valentin is cheerful and friendly, but rude and dismissive of his female co-star, giving his dog more credit than her and then, after seeing her sound test for the talkies, laughing in front of the investors. When photographed with Peppy, he condescendingly waves away his wife’s jealousy, sending his driver off to buy her jewels in appeasement for the tiff and then later dismissing her unhappiness in the marriage because he’s too busy wallowing. Only Valentin’s pride keeps him out of the talkies: offered the chance to participate, he turns it down, then later acts surprised when this results in his dismissal. Once apart from the studio, he turns passive and nostalgic, pawning his possessions instead of looking for work, and sinking into despair. At the height of his sadness, he sets fire to his old movies and nearly dies; but when Peppy not only rescues him but gives him a second chance, he still runs away and toys with committing suicide before she can convince him that he’s worth saving.

The only twist we get – and it’s not much of one, given his name – is that, when we finally hear Valentin speak, he has a French accent, which is meant to explain why he’s been so adamantly convinced that he can’t succeed in talkies. Admittedly, this is a reasonable barrier for the time, but given that Peppy finds a way around it in about three seconds flat – dancing – it doesn’t quite justify the fact that he’s spent four years moping about a problem that only existed because he was too proud to change with the times. Remove the novelty of silence, then, and The Artist becomes a cliched tale of artistic self-indulgence: the struggle of a successful man who mistreats the women in his life to overcome the consequences of stubborn pride and be redeemed by the undeserved care of a prettier, younger woman. With a funny dog added for laughs.

And that’s a problem, because this is not a nostalgic theme, or something we should feel nostalgic about. Stories of white male hubris with bonus! comedic sexism are pretty much what’s always been wrong with Hollywood, then and now, and while I can feel nostalgic for the visual conventions of an earlier age, I don’t want them tied to the type of cliched storytelling that routinely makes me shout at the internet. I don’t care that sexism was rife in the period: that’s not an excuse to duplicate it for laughs. Ditto with racism, because really: there was no excuse for the inclusion of jungle-dwelling, spear-waving tribesmen in a Valentin film except that someone, somewhere thought it was more funny than inappropriate, and, yeah, no.

Overall, then, The Artist is a disappointment. The success of shows like Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire¬†and Deadwood¬†has proven that indulging in the visual aesthetic of a previous era doesn’t have to mean capitulating uncritically to its morals or sense of self-perception, and yet, despite being given an opportunity to both display and critique ¬†our nostalgia, Hazanavicius has instead opted to affirm it on all fronts. I can get behind the visuals, and as a piece of cinema history, The Artist is worth seeing – but as yet another example of Hollywood’s collective narrative hubris, it isn’t.

As keen readers of this blog will have had occasion to notice, the most recent season of Doctor Who has not exactly met with my approval. That being so, and with the marvelous advent of¬†A Doctor World to inspire me, I decided to rewatch the whole new series – Eccleston, Tennant and Smith – with an eye to understanding the show’s development. Right now, I’m midway through Season 3, and in keeping with the seriousness of my self-appointed task, I’ve been taking handwritten notes on the structure, themes and byplay of every episode. Specifically, I’m interested in the depictions of female characters. How much agency do they have? Are their odds of survival comparable to that of their male counterparts? How do they die, and under what circumstances? Are they villains or allies? Do they rescue other characters as often as being rescued? How many episodes pass the Bechdel test?

It’s this latter question which has occupied most of my thoughts. How heavily should I rely on it? Though undeniably useful, the Bechdel is far from being the ultimate arbiter of narrative – or even feminist – success. Passing it does not, for instance, guarantee that the female characters in question are three-dimensional, believable human beings, nor does it protect against thematic sexism. Pass or fail, however, the results are always interesting – not just because of what they say about particular stories, but because of how the test itself reflects our culture of storytelling. At first glance, it’s utterly trite and obvious to point out that every day, everywhere in the world, human beings pass the Bechdel: after all, half the human population is female, and in accordance with the fact that we are all (as it were) named characters, the overwhelming majority of our conversations, if transposed to a narrative context, would pass. And yet, despite the obviousness of this fact, a disgusting number of movies, TV shows, books and plays all fail. Looked at as a purely narrative problem, it’s a disconcerting dissonance with reality. Looked at as a human problem, however, it’s a travesty.

As per Gail Simone’s observations on women in refrigerators, there are any number of reasons why individual writers might choose to structure a story such that there are no female characters, or only one female character; or why, given the presence of two or more such women, they don’t have occasion to speak to one another; or why, if they do, it’s only about a man. The limit of the Bechdel is the ease with which its detractors can argue – correctly – that the inclusion of women characters who talk about things will not automatically improve a story: not on a thematic level, if the point is to allay concerns about sexism, and not on a narrative level, if the point is to fix a plot. The failure of this objection, however, is that it willfully¬†misconstrues the inclusion of women to be meant as a panacea. It’s not about instituting what amounts to a storywide¬†affirmative¬†action policy, because the suggestion has never been that women, by themselves, make stories better, or fairer, or anything other than stories with women in them, just as stories which lack women, or contain few of them, aren’t innately inferior. Rather, the point has been to ask why, if we believe our society, culture and ethics to be egalitarian – and, more, if we personally support these ideals – our stories say something else.

Consider the following hypothetical instance of a film centered on the adventures of a male lead, Guy, and his female love interest, Gal. Already, Gal is defined by her relationship to Guy: because the narrative fulcrum rests on Guy specifically, Gal’s presence is justified by her participation in his story. (There’s no reason why this scenario can’t work in the reverse without changing the genre – and yet, how much more common is it for stories with female love interests to be action-oriented adventures, while stories with male love interests are billed as romantic comedies?) Thus, Gal’s only investment in the plot comes through her association with Guy, making it much more likely that he, and not she, will take the lead in future plot-oriented conversations – after all, it’s Guy who needs answers, while Gal is just there for the ride. Obviously, that’s a simplification of matters: in save-the-world plots, for instance, the ultimate stakes affect everyone, while personal survival is a pretty strong incentive for even the most reluctant, dragged-along love interest to sit up and take an interest. Assuming Guy and Gal encounter other women in their travels, either as villains or comrades, there’s every reason why Gal might talk to them, and they to her.

Except, more often than not, they won’t – which is where we hit the gender snag. Because in instances where Guy is the protagonist, Gal’s character development matters less than his: not because she’s a girl (or at least, we hope not) but because it’s his story, and any conversations which don’t include or mention him are going to be viewed as extraneous to the plot. Ignoring the false economy of a storytelling style which jettisons secondary character development in the name of streamlining – and ignoring, too, the fact that female love interests are so deeply ingrained as an action movie archetyps that their very presence can feel like last-minute shoehorning – this puts considerable pressure on any fem/fem conversation to be relevant to the action; and if the writer wants to really showcase Guy’s intelligence, strength and resourcefulness, then having two other characters think up a plan, chart a course of action or otherwise save the day will only serve to undermine his specialness. Throw in the necessity of keeping Guy and Gal together for most of the plot – you can’t kindle sparks if the flints don’t touch – and just like that, you’ve practically eliminated any opportunity for Gal and Gal2 to have a conversation. Trying to force them together would just be another sort of shoehorning; and anyway, what does it matter? It’s just a story.

All of which is, frankly, bullshit. Characterisation shouldn’t be the sole privilege of protagonists. Male heroes don’t require a monopoly on good ideas and snappy dialogue to be viewed as heroic – and if you think they do, you’re probably part of the problem. Women shouldn’t be token characters: I love a good, sassy romance as much as the next person, but there’s a profound difference between a love interest whose only investment in the plot is their attachment to the hero, and a fully functioning character who develops into¬†a love interest. As for the age-old argument about some eras, professions and settings being necessarily male dominated, I put it to you that if Deadwood, a well-researched, historically anchored show about life in a lawless town on the American frontier can pass the Bechdel test with ease, then any film the sole premise of which is Shit Gets Blown Up should be able to do it backwards and upside down, particularly if the setting constitutes a departure from everyday reality in any way, shape or form. Which is another way of saying that if you’re willing to break the established laws of physics and human endurance such that the male hero can get blown up, tortured and beaten shortly before running approximately ten miles at top-speed during a thrilling laser gun battle, you can probably stretch to having a female character whose capabilities extend beyond the rigours of looking decorative.

Unless you think women shouldn’t really have key roles in action movies, in which case, see above, re: being part of the problem.

All of which brings me to¬†my sudden inability to think of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth as a realistic fantasy world (which sounds like a non sequitur, but bear with me). I’ll be brutally honest: watching the How It Should Have Ended clip for The Lord of the Rings has not done wonders for my perception of its plot, such that when I sat down this evening to watch the extended version of The Fellowship of the Ring, I found myself wanting to yell at Gandalf to just GO GET THE FUCKING EAGLES. But as I tried to settle into the narrative, I kept asking myself: where are the women? I don’t mean Arwen, Eowyn and Galadriel, who are all wonderful characters despite their lack of screen time: I mean, where are the wives and sisters and mothers? Why, when the succession is so important, is neither Faramir nor Boromir married? Where are the wives of Denethor and Theoden, the mothers of Arwen, Eowyn and Frodo? Why are so many races – the Ents, the Orcs, the Uruk-Hai, the Goblins, the Dwarves – drawn as if they were all male? For a setting which is otherwise so rich in cultural and historical detail, this reads as a serious problem. It’s not just that the trilogy fails the Bechdel test; it’s that the lack of women means we have very little idea of how that society treats them, beyond the basic, obvious knowledge that there must be wives and sisters and mothers of some sort, even though almost every woman in a position to occupy such a niche is either conveniently dead or mysteriously absent. And when, in The Silmarillion, Tolkien does venture to write female characters, it’s almost always in a romantic, devotional context: women who died to support their brothers or husbands, or who were pursued against their will, or who tragically fell in love with someone they shouldn’t (or couldn’t) have.

Which is where I start to wonder if the absence of female characters in Middle Earth is less a species of exclusionary sexism than it is a tacit acknowledgement on Tolkien’s part that, for all he was trying to write a magical, romanticised version of the medieval period, he didn’t know how to do so in a way that would benefit his women the same way it did his men. The happy resolutions to the lives of Luthien, Arwen and Eowyn all hinge on partnerships with men of their own choosing, men with whom they are genuinely in love; and yet a scholar of Tokien’s standing can’t have been unaware of how rare an occurrence that would have been, historically speaking. Perhaps, then, the wives and mothers of so many characters are absent as a preventative against the acknowledgement of exactly that problem; of the fact that one can believe in the restorative magic of feudalism and the aesthetic stylings of chivalry for only so long as one either postpones the question of women’s happiness or takes its existence for granted. As compassionately as Tolkien paints Eowyn’s desire for glory, and as determinedly as he makes Luthien the saviour and rescuer of Beren, the latter stance seems less likely than the former. But in dodging the issue, he undermines the story – because while his male characters are allowed to ask questions about their purpose in life, expressing bitterness at their circumstances and feeling haunted by unwanted duty, he cannot dare let the women do likewise, or else the whole myth of Middle Earth’s glory would come crashing down around him. The elves, conveniently enough, are exempt from this dilemma, presumably on the basis that if everyone in a given society is granted magical supremacy, immortality and eternal beauty as a matter of course, then unhappiness as a result of imposed gender profiling probably won’t be an issue. But humankind are not, which is why, despite how well-drawn she is, Eowyn’s fears are masculinised: her biggest concern is being denied a chance at battle, and not that Theoden or Eomer will see her married off, even though the structure of Tolkien’s society dictates that one must be at least as distinct a possibility as the other.

And that’s why I’ve lost my faith in Middle Earth: because I cannot reconcile Tolkien’s aesthetic mood of beauty, nobility and contemplation with the necessary ugliness and bias of male-dominated feudalism. Which explains why I’m such a fan of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, adapted recently to the HBO series A Game of Thrones: all the history and pageantry is still there, all the chivalrous words and noble aspirations, but we still get to see the women – their desires, struggles, success and persecution – without recourse to either convenient absenteeism or rosy-lensed love. Call it gritty fantasy or nihilism if you must, but no matter how pure and glorious your ambitions, it’ll take a lot to convince me that a standard medieval setting will lack the problems of forced marriage, rape and battery – or worse, that these things don’t matter – just because you choose to emphasise chivalrous conduct.

So, to recap: if you find yourself steering clear of female/female dialogue because:

a) women have no place in your story;

b) it doesn’t feel plot-relevant;

c) you don’t want to develop your female characters; or

d) the women might question the logic of a world you want your male characters to enjoy,

then I would humbly suggest that you are, in fact, part of the problem. Which is why the Bechdel test matters: not because all stories need women, but because the manner of their absence shouldn’t contribute to a culture of inequality.

Warning: total spoilers, much rant.

I just finished watching A Good Man Goes to War. I was not impressed. In fact, my unimpressedness is such that I’m close to declaring it the Worst Episode Ever. I mean, even the one with the Ikea Darleks wasn’t this bad – or maybe it was exactly this bad, and only a sudden rosiness of hindsight is making it seem otherwise. Either way, unless the series manages to execute a pretty fabulous face heel turn, I’m going to call shark jump from this point onwards.

So, look. The idea of the episode – the significance of Amy and Rory’s baby, why she’d been stolen, how the Doctor set about getting her back – is a good one. Ditto the reveal about River Song, although seeing as how I already picked this a few episodes back, it was less of a big surprise than a confirmation of fact. Even so, the laboured business of waiting to see her name spelled out really bugged me: the only time the TARDIS has struggled to translate written language was back in Season 2’s The Impossible Planet and The Satan Pit, with the given reason being that the script in question predated Timelord civilisation – so seeing a sudden, convenient time-delay trotted out for the sole purpose of garnering a few seconds’ extra anxiety over River’s identity felt like retconning at its cheapest.

Which, you know. It was.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, here: let’s start at the very beginning, wherein Amy Pond spends a good few minutes telling her newborn daughter about the wonderful and magnificent man who’ll always, always look out for her. So far as I can see, this monologue was designed to do two things:

1) tug our heart-strings about her having to hand over Melody; and

2) pull a big ‘surprise!’ moment when we realise she’s been talking about Rory, not the Doctor.

Fine. Whatever. I get that, though at this point, the joke about confusing the two men in Amy’s affections is wearing very, very thin. Ship Tease¬†a love triangle once, I thrill to it. Ship Tease a love triangle every single episode, and I start to get stabby. More practically, though, this exposition serves no narrative purpose other than the above: it doesn’t move the plot forwards, it doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know, and it goes on longer than is strictly comfortable. Cut to Rory in a Cyberman base, dressed as a Centurion and issuing Manly Directives while the Doctor blows shit up outside.

I’m sorry, what? The Doctor, that is to say, the man who has spent the better part of forty years trying not to blow shit up and interacting very sternly with those who do, is blowing up an entire base just to make a point?

Sorry. You’ve lost me.

Oh, wait, right – but Amy is special, so she gets a special rescue! Very, very special, although as Cat Valente and Stephen H. Segal¬†pointed out on Twitter this week, that specialness is looking less earned and more forced the longer the series goes on. Or, to put it another way: the Doctor has a time machine that can go anywhere. Even if he really did need to call in all these amazing debts across the universe and put together a crack team of aliens to help him break into Demon’s Run, blowing up the Cyberman base was just gratuitously violent. I don’t care that River sort of, almost, indirectly calls him on it at the end; that we’re meant to worry about the sort of man he’s becoming because of this one, out-of-character incident. Bullshit: we were¬†worried already. This is the big contradiction of the Doctor, the subtle line that Moffat and Davies before him have played from minute one of the reboot: that the Doctor is a wounded soldier, recovering from his unwilling genocide of the Timelords and Darleks, battle-forged and fighting the violence of grief, power and loneliness as the last surviving member of an all-powerful species.

All of which says to me that the Doctor does not, will not wipe out a whole Cyberman base just to make a fucking point. If such a heinous act really is his tipping point, a sign of character slippage that signals an end to everything he’s tried to be, we should see him at that pivotal, damning moment, and not just be pacified with a shot of Rory looking all badass before the credits come up.

From this point on, what fast becomes notable about A Good Man Goes to War is how little screen time the main trio actually gets. The Doctor himself is conspicuously absent from the first half hour: instead, we follow innumerable secondary characters through various disparate locations. This is meant to give us a sense of grandeur, and to some extent, it works, in that each individual setting – the Battle of Zarathustra, Victorian England, a skeezy alien bar, Demon’s Run itself, even River’s prison block – is somewhere we’d like to be; or rather, a place where we’d like to see a story told. Instead, we skim into each one for about three minutes: just enough time to introduce a new character, a vague sense of context and their debt to the Doctor before we’re whisked away to the next one. This is, to say the least, dizzying. And then there’s River herself, who declines to show up only because she has to be there at the very end, when the Doctor finally finds out who she is. She says this in such a way as to intimate, backed up by ominous music, that he will be angry at the truth, shocked or betrayed or poisoned, that she must stay away in order to savour these last few moments of anonymity, when of course – as it turns out – he’s delighted. This doesn’t surprise her at all, though: the earlier, melodramatic scene with Rory was a bluff.

Which makes no sense: because now there’s no good reason why River stayed away.¬†Conceivably, it would’ve been awkward to have her there – except that there’s no narrative reason why this should be so, no mention of the don’t-cross-your-own-timeline directive (which, frankly, would have made more sense). The only reason River refuses to go, it seems, is because Moffat wants to tease us with the prospect of finding out who she really is, and feels her revelation will have more impact if she doesn’t show up until the very end. That’s an obvious ploy I don’t appreciate, and one that serves otherwise to ensure that an episode full of oneshot characters doesn’t accidentally stray towards meaningful development of the regulars.

Then there’s a bit which just plain doesn’t make sense: the introduction of a married, gay marine couple who talk to Lorna, yet another oneshot, ¬†and to each other, about the Headless Monks, the Doctor and various other sundries. Then we see one of the couple get taken away by the Monks, whose ranks he is forced to join. At the time, this is set up as an emotional thing: we’re meant to feel sorry for the chosen man, and briefly, we do – right up until it becomes apparent that neither he nor his partner have anything else to do with the rest of the episode. That is to say, we never see them again, and the five minutes we spent in their company are wasted. Lorna, at least, is important, though her scene with the couple isn’t: she sews the name of Amy’s daughter onto a prayer leaf and gives it to her, sympathetic because she, too, spent time with the Doctor as a child, and has only joined the army in order to meet him. This is, alas, an emotionally borked scene: in yet another hideous, long-winded display of telling rather than showing, they talk about how awesome the Doctor is, how worth it and wonderful, by which point both my husband and I were shouting at the episode to get on with it!, sadly to no avail.

Because then we have the army itself (no, we don’t ever find out why they’ve decided to fight the Doctor – he’s just the Big Bad as far as they’re concerned, and we have to take River’s nebulous word for it that possibly, maybe, somehow he deserves it, or is in danger of making himself deserve it) getting geed up by their commander. More Headless Monks emerge; we get another long speech about What The Doctor Is And Is Not, followed by more speachifying about how, just this once, the papal authority in charge of the Monks – who wear big, voluminous hoods – are allowed to show people what they Really Look Like, even though doing so is normally a heretical offence. This is, I mean, um. Because the Headless Monks? The big reveal about them? Is that they are headless.

Wow.

Let’s ignore the fact that if Moffat wanted anyone to be astonished by this, he could quite easily have called them, I don’t know, anything other than the Headless Monks. Their lack of heads, for all its obviousness, isn’t the biggest problem. No: it’s that he’s introduced a cowled, hooded order of Mystery Mystics, established that looking under their hoods is heresy, then lifted their hoods in a one-time special offer all in the space of fifteen fucking minutes. Which, you know, tends to kill the mystery pretty quicksmart.

Also, they fight with red lightsabers, like headless Sith Lords. LIGHT. FUCKING. SABERS.

And then, finally – FINALLY – the Doctor shows up. We don’t see his oh-so-carefully gathered compatriots at this point; instead, he talks a bit about himself (because nobody else has done that yet, oh wait), some stuff happens, he disappears, and then we get the whole army chanting WE’RE NOT FOOLS over and over again, somebody please kill me, Rory shows up and rescues Amy with their baby, the Doctor’s secret army (not his chosen few, who are doing things elsewhere at control panels, but some other random guys) show up and surround the enemy, and then we have an excruciatingly saccharine ten minutes of Everything Is Over And Yay We Won, Look At Our Cute Baby. Which, OK, I get that babies are cute, and I know the point is that everyone is happy and safe, but you’re trying to make me feel relived at the cessation of what is, in fact, a total lack of tension. Because up until the very end of the last episode, we didn’t know where Amy was, or that she was actually pregnant; we don’t see the birth, we don’t flash back to her capture, she isn’t threatened at all, Melody isn’t harmed, and the most menacing thing that happens in the whole episode is when Amy has her baby taken from her in the opening scene. The rest has just been strangers and oneshots talking, talking, talking – and so, to return to the point, when you follow half an hour of dialogue up with two minutes of something almost happening and then celebrate a bloodless victory with ten minutes of schmaltz, I am not feeling relieved that the characters are safe, because so far as I can see, they were never actually in danger. Telling the danger is not showing! Show. Me. The danger!

Which, of course, eventually comes. There’s a small trap, in that the Monks come back and attack the Doctor’s chosen guardians, one of whom dies, and Lorna, who also dies, but not until she’s had a tearful farewell in the Doctor’s arms. (Of course he remembers her. Apparently, he remembers everyone, even though he’s been known for forty years as an irascible, absent-minded professor. But I digress.) Oh, and the flesh copy of Melody that Rory thought was his daughter dissolves, thus putting the real baby well and truly beyond rescue. Except she’s not, really, because then River Song shows up, castigates the Doctor a bit, then reveals herself to be Melody Pond grown up, regenerated (because she’s sort of a Timelord, but not quite) and with her name changed via translation into an alien language.

Oh, and the name of the next episode is¬†Let’s Kill Hitler.

I’m not making that up. Believe me, I wish I was.

There were other things, too, small gaffes and glitches that niggled. Where did the photo of Amy and Melody come from in Day of the Moon? I can’t see eyepatch lady stopping to take one. Why were the Headless Monks and their order so heavily invested in a battle against the Doctor, when we’ve never seen or heard of them before?¬†The music, too, was desperately OTT, swooning and sugary well beyond what the situation called for, making this the first time since Eragon that I’ve actively wanted to mute a soundtrack.

So, yeah. I wasn’t impressed with A Good Man Goes to War. Not because it didn’t work, but because, despite all the problems, this should have been a good episode. There’s so much potential there, I can just about rewrite the episode in my mind. In fact, despite the probable arrogance of doing so, I can and will. So here’s my version of how things should have been.

Picture this:

In the opening scenes, Amy poses for a photo with her newborn daughter. Her smile collapses as soon as the flash dies. She tries to talk bravely to Melody, but three¬†sentences¬†in, she’s rudely interrupted by the army officers. The eyepatch woman declares how little patience she has for sentimentality; Melody is taken forcibly from a crying Amy, cuffed to the ground when she tries to snatch her back. They don’t need her alive any more, she’s told, but maybe she’ll be useful as bait. They leave, and we are left uncertain about Amy’s future.

Cut to Rory and the Doctor at the TARDIS controls, talking about a Cyberman base. It’s the only place they can go to get the information they need, but dealing with Cybermen is always tricky: without a show of force, they won’t tell them anything. Rory goes in, but keeps in touch with the Doctor by comm. We see the moment when the Cybermen refuse to speak; we see the Doctor’s face as he realises that violence is his only option. He tells Rory to brace, and then we see him go cold and hard, blowing up an entire base to make the remainder reveal where Amy is being kept. Later, he looks to Rory for absolution, but Rory says there’s nothing to forgive. They weren’t innocents, they were Cybermen. They needed to die.

While the Doctor picks up everyone else, the same as before (except he also grabs a regiment or two), Rory goes to River. She tells him she can’t come because she can’t cross her own timeline; that she’s already been to Demon’s Run. Rory assumes this means she’ll show up during the fighting and help, which perspective River lets him believe. We see her face as he walks away, though, and know that she’s lying – but not why. Back in the TARDIS, the Doctor asks Rory where River is, and he tells him she’s already there; and the Doctor says, of course she is. Now, we see the strike team all together in the TARDIS, listening as the Doctor explains the situation: what’s happening, what they have to do to save Amy, and why there’s an army after him. Cut this with slice shots of them actually infiltrating the base in real-time, sneaking through to their positions, fighting their way in. End with the Doctor telling them cheerfully not to die, then smash cut to Amy blank in her room as Lorna comes in, proffering the prayer leaf, which she puts down on a table when Amy won’t take it. Their conversation is different this time: it starts out with Lorna telling Amy that she used to know the Doctor as a child, but when she describes him, it’s as a great warrior, held reverential in her eyes for the violence he did. It’s why she became a soldier, to meet him in battle – an almost Sontaran glory – and Amy becomes furious, yelling at her to get out. She throws the leaf at Lorna, but the other woman won’t take it. Close the scene on Amy picking it up, trying to rip it, failing, then crying over it, all while trying to pull herself together. This she does – but just then, the lights go out.

Red light flickers on; we follow back to the Doctor’s posse, watching them put the finishing touches on their infiltration. Soldiers in chaos during a drill; Lorna rejoins them, excited because she knows what this means. But when the lights come up, there’s an army there instead of the Doctor, surrounding them: all weapons must be laid down. Elsewhere, we see Rory and the Doctor split up, looking for Melody. The Doctor reclaims her from eyepatch lady after a tense confrontation; he pulls a weapon,says he’ll spare her if she gives him the child, then prepares to shoot anyway when Melody is handed over. Eyepatch lady expects him to do it, which is all that stays his hand; and then Rory arrives, desperate for his daughter, in which moment of distraction eyepatch lady flees. The Doctor hands Melody over, gets word on the comm about what’s happened with the army, then leaves Rory to be the Amy-rescuing hero while he goes off to take charge of things on the ground.

Back to Amy, who’s actively trying to break out of her cell rather than waiting passively to be rescued. Just as she finds something to prise open the door, Rory opens it from the other side. Reunion! They go to the window and watch, tense, as the Doctor negotiates the final stand-down of the other army’s troops, sending them out with only a few casualties on either side. All three reunite; Rory explains to Amy what’s been happening while the Doctor goes to check the records with his Silurian sword-master. The scene about Melody’s genetics happens mostly as before, except that, when the trap is revealed and eyepatch tells him about the Monks’ involvement, they’re a new threat, one he recognises as deadly when their name is spoken. This time, we actually see the fight between them and his motley crew, including Lorna joining fight, the¬†disintegration¬†of the false Melody, and then the death scene of the Sontaran. A difference with Lorna’s death, though: the Doctor doesn’t remember her at all, and the last thing she sees is his face, stricken with apology, as he tries – and fails – to recall her name.

Only then, into the silence, does River emerge; she’s been watching from the shadows. The Doctor shouts at her: where has she been? She argues back, bitterly, about how rich this is coming from him, who’s forever swanning about and showing up where he pleases, never a care for those left behind, like the dead girl whose name he couldn’t remember; the Doctor retorts that he, at least, is always where he needs to be, to which River calmly replies that she is, too. Both reside a bit: he says she told Rory she’d be here; what did she mean? At which River breaks a little and says, I was, but you missed me. He understands the truth, then – heavy with the weight of what it means – but Rory and Amy don’t. The others are curious, but know this isn’t their business: he leads the survivors back to the TARDIS, giving the trio privacy. River tells Amy to pull the prayer leaf, forgotten until now, out of her pocket. Amy can’t understand how she knew it was there at all, and Rory is totally baffled, but both stop talking when they see the name on it: River Song, translated by the TARDIS. Lights, curtain, exeunt all.

Aaaand now I’m done. But seriously, is it so hard to throw in a little danger, to show us the conflict and tone down the melodrama, so that the emotional moments actually mean something? Apparently. And yet also, to my mind, not.

I’ve just been reading this interesting post¬†over at Katharine Kerr’s blog about trying to define what constitutes a work of literary fiction, as opposed to a work of genre fiction. She also talks about the dangers of arguing against litfic and the literary establishment by way of derogatory strawman arguments, not only because this is exactly the kind of negative pigeonholing SFF fans and writers have always railed against when it’s turned our way, but also because it’s unhelpful in trying to understand what literary fiction actually is. It’s an interesting question, but in trying to answer it, I ended up in quite a different place to where I started. Rather than hijack the conversation, therefore, I’m going to take the comment I left as a starting point for answering a slightly different question: how might a lack of named literary subgenres be impeding the success of women literary writers?

As a casual glance at the blogsphere will reveal, there’s been considerable recent debate in SFF quarters about the feminisation of epic fantasy and the nihilism of gritty fantasy, conversations that have been in no small part facilitated by our ability to distinguish between the different SFF subgenres. We know that Tolkien is the Mitochondrial Eve of fantasy writers: one way or another, all our works descend from his. But as with the human race, things have grown more and more diverse with successive generations, such that trying to use fantasy as an exclusive, catch-all terminology has become, except in the most general sense, both useless and inaccurate. Without a language of subgenre terms with which to discuss these differences, it seems inevitable that SFF writing would automatically default to using Tolkien as a blueprint for all new stories – and indeed, up until very recently, we can see that this was the case. Only when writers started trying to break new ground did an alternate language spring up to try and describe their efforts. Partly, it must be admitted, this happened as a means of distancing such heretical works from their canonical predecessors, but also because it was suddenly necessary to look back over everything that had happened since Tolkien and ask whether fantasy could – or should – be more than just the same old Eurocentric, medieval vision of elves, dwarves, men and halflings fighting a succession of ultimate Dark Lords over and over again.

Suddenly, fantasy ceased to be a universal term, and once we started talking and thinking in subgenres, it became easier to understand why new types of story were arising; to pinpoint the tropes their authors wanted to address or change, and for what reasons. True, it also became harder to classify individual works, and the need to fit each and every book into a particular box is something we’re all still arguing about. But the fact is that language is important. Naming a thing allows us greater control over it, and that’s true regardless of whether we’re talking about the magic of Earthsea or the politics of Earth. Consider, for instance, this article by feminist philosopher Jennifer Saul, wherein she talks about the significance of language in feminism. To quote:

“Languages may also lack words for things that matter a great deal to women. This sort of gap is another way that a language can be seen as encoding a male worldview. The term ‚Äėsexual harassment‚Äô, for example, is a recent feminist innovation. Women’s discussion of their experiences led them to see a certain common element to many of their problems, and as a result they invented the term ‚Äėsexual harassment‚Äô. Once the problem was named, it became much easier to fight sexual harassment, both legally and by educating people about it.”

Which brings me to the matter of the Orange Prize – or rather, to the recent suggestion that an equivalent award is necessary to combat sexism in the Australian literary scene. It’s none too encouraging a sign when women take steps to set themselves apart from men, not because they want or ought to, but because discrimination has left them with no other means of achieving success. For an intelligent and comprehensive rundown on the issue, I highly recommend this excellent piece by writer Benjamin Law, wherein he says, among other things:

“If you take Brookner‚Äôs insistence that a meritocracy exists, what are you supposed to make of the raw figures?¬†Books written by women are reviewed less. Women win fewer literary prizes. If that is a meritocracy, then you have to buy into the argument that books by women must be inherently inferior. I can‚Äôt accept that. The danger on relying on meritocracy is assuming one actually exists.”

But what, I hear you cry, does any of this have to do with SFF subgenres? Only that women SFF writers seem to have a stronger platform from which to argue their case for equality, simply because their dialogue about content, bias and narrative is so much more linguistically robust than in the literary community. This is not to say that the problems outlined by the recent VIDA statistics on the representation of women vs men in literary reviews are absent in SFF; indeed, it has been demonstrably proven that they aren’t. But when it comes to the question of awards, it doesn’t seem unduly optimistic to say that change is in the air. The Hugo Award nominees for Best Novel in 2011, for instance,¬†are all, with one exception, women, and the situation is identical when it comes to the Nebula. The 2010 Campbell Award was won by a woman, Seanan McGuire, and for the purposes of my argument about subgenre, it doesn’t strike me as irrelevant to note that McGuire’s debut novel, Rosemary and Rue, was the first work of urban fantasy to win its author the Campbell, nor that it did so in competition with another female-authored UF novel: Gail Carriger’s Soulless.

So much of the debate I’ve seen about the disenfranchisement of women literary writers centers on anger at the perception of women’s novels as being “domestic” (where such a label is pejorative) compared to those written by men, which naturally deal with Big Themes and Important Issues. What has always struck me about this complaint – aside from the fact that it appears to be correct, both intuitively and in terms of critical perception – is the difficulty these writers seem to have articulating the problem. They talk about literature and literary fiction as a single entity, grasping after a magical phrase that will allow them to explain simultaneously why women might indeed be more prone to writing about domestic topics, why this is not a bad thing, and why it still counts as literature. Because such amorphous justifications are exactly what subgenre terminology exists to prevent, allowing us to acknowledge that two different types of storytelling are related to one another, that they share a common ancestry and ultimately a common genre, but that their conventions and approaches may nonetheless be very, very different. As in the case of last year’s Hugo Award nominees for Best Novel, it allows us to put vastly different works like China Mieville’s The City & The City, Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl and Catherynne M. Valente’s Palimpsest on the same ballot, despite the fact that the first is heavily noir/New Weird, the second is dystopian SF, and the third is urban fantasy/mythpunk.

It also puts the SFF community in an excellent position to discuss tropes and archetypes. A communal, cultural resource like TV Tropes provides a go-to lexicon for discussing narrative structure in shorthand, with many such terms finding their way into the mainstream dialogue as a matter of course. Perhaps it’s because the origins and inspirations of SFF are so heavily rooted in jargon-heavy areas like mythology, science, linguistics, pop culture and folklore that the community has taken so readily to isolating and naming its parts; alternatively, it seems reasonable to assume that any group of people who spend a significant proportion of their intellectual lives reading made-up languages, interpreting new cultures and memorising invented systems of magic will inevitably come to appreciate the deep precision and relevance of language. Whatever it is, the literary community doesn’t seem to share it – or if it does, then to nowhere near the same extent.

As more than one would-be inventor of slanguage has come to realise, there’s no telling which new terms will enter our collective vocabularies or die a series of quick deaths. But as corny and New Age as it might seem, it strikes me that the writers most deeply concerned with the state of literary fiction and its biases against women could do a lot worse than trying to coin some terms of their own: to name the archetypes they wish to invert or criticise and thereby open up the discussion. If authors can be thought of as magicians in any sense, then the root of our power has always rested with words: choosing them, arranging them and – most powerfully – inventing them. Sexism won’t go away overnight, and nor will literary bias. But until then, if we’re determined to invest ourselves in bringing about those changes, it only makes sense to arm ourselves with a language that we, and not our enemies, have chosen.