Monday, November 14, 2016

Exhaustion, Fear, Sorrow and Rage

All getting in the way of my writing.

What can I say, the election was certainly historic.

A personal friend was the victim of a Trump-fueled hate crime.

I am swinging between each of the titular emotions I listed at any given time. It's definitely getting in the way of my ability to concentrate. But today I am going to write a paragraph into the first chapter of Masks in the Glow that is directly inspired by the election. And I will continue to work on this WiP with this election in mind. After all, The City Darkens didn't come out of nowhere. I just didn't think we'd have our own dystopia unfolding within a couple of years of its publication.

I don't know what this means for the future of my writing--I had plans for the next novel(s), and they were not dystopic. And I may still go forward with the main idea--I was going to try to create a beautiful world, one that I would enjoy escaping to. Which was actually the plan with The City Darkens but then it didn't work out that way at all! But maybe now my readers need it more than ever, and I certainly will be seeking out such worlds to immerse myself in, as I choose the novels I will be reading.
"Escaping the Dome," by yumikrum on wikicommons

But I also feel like dystopia may well be the way to go. I only have so many ways to try to warn the world, to try to stop the tide--and it may be futile. Hell, it might be like painting a target on my back. I know this comes off as melodramatic, but the man asked multiple times why we don't just use our nukes. We are in a melodramatic age.

I plan to join some progressive groups locally and I have another plan I'm following through on but it's going to be a few months before I get a sense of whether it's likely to come to fruition.

No matter what, I have to get back to writing. I am not really well unless I'm writing--at least not in times like these.

Monday, October 31, 2016

No Nano this year...

At least, not the real 50K deal. My quiet goal is to work on my current WiP every day, or as close to it as I can. I know last year I embraced the challenge Kristen Lamb threw down to MAKE TIME. And I'm hoping next year that'll be possible, maybe. Sigh. This year I just don't see it. Between actual demands on my time and the exhaustion that some days makes it impossible to concentrate, it's too much. Do I sound like I'm arguing with someone? I am. I am arguing with the part of myself that only cares about my writing. That part is like, DUDE. IT'S NEVER GOING TO BE EASY TO SCHEDULE WRITING TIME. But right now I'm a nursing a baby parenting three kids under five part time teaching trying to keep the house from exploding machine. I'm just hoping next year, it'll be more doable. The eldest will be in school, the middle will be in preschool, and the littlest will still be napping. BY GOD HE WILL STILL BE NAPPING.

Anyway. I'm working on Masks in the Glow, the third book in the Raud Grima trilogy. The other day for the first time in months I did some work on it, rereading most of the sections for one point of view (I ran out of time but the goal was to read them all) and improving them. One of the things I'm really focusing on in this novel is voice--I have four points of view that I switch between and I really want each to be so distinct you'd have no trouble reading a couple of lines and figuring out which character it is.

Oh, and pretty cool news:

On November 18 I'm going to be interviewed on S. Evan Townsend's Speculative Fiction Cantina program on the Writestream Radio Network. He says to prepare to read a 5 to 8 minute section of one of my books (PG-13 rated). Um. This makes me really nervous. I'm going to have to practice reading it about fifty times. I don't know what to choose, either. Suggestions welcome!

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Guest Post: "Six Movies That Never Should Have Been Remade" by Isa

Well, everyone, the baby came 4 weeks early! It was a big surprise, as I'd convinced myself he was going to go all the way to term (there were signs that wasn't going to be the case, but I decided they were just false alarms). I'm very happy to say he's doing really well. But as a result, all my writing and social media time has pretty much vanished. What luck that Isa from Culture Coverage contacted me to propose that she contribute a guest post to this blog! I'm very pleased to present her post on six films that should never have been remade. Enjoy!

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Movies are more than just entertainment; they are a form of art. As such, it's everyone's duty to put on the hat of the critic from time to time. I would like to express my appreciation to sophia-martin.blogspot.com for affording the opportunity to do so with this post. When you're finished reading, it's worth checking out some of the other content on this site!

Some movies are way ahead of their times. They’re done with limited resources that couldn’t possibly do the film justice—made too early. Filmmakers frequently look to past films for ideas, sometimes completely remaking them. At times, it goes well; the recent Batman trilogy is an example of just how successful this kind of ideology can be. Some films are just worth waiting for.

But then there are “those” movies. We’ve all seen one before; they’re remakes of movies we once loved. Even if the originals lacked the technology, were horribly campy, or deviated hugely from their source material (in the case of films based on books), there was something we loved about them. But the remakes often fail to capture that spirit.

A few remakes were done so poorly that the fans of their basis have mentally distanced themselves from them like a bad memory. Those are the films we’ll be looking at today.

Psycho (1998)



Movie remakes usually hope to bring something new to the table. Whether they tweak the story, add new special effects, or update the setting to reflect a more modern and relevant feel to audiences, there’s usually something distinctly different. This is not the case with the 1998 remake of “Psycho.”

For some unknown reason the remake of "Psycho" is virtually shot for shot identical to the original piece from 1960. True, there are a few differences; the movie is shot in color with a higher quality playback rate on the audio, and the cast is entirely different. But the actual scenes haven't changed at all.
In fact, a lot is lost in transferring the film to color. Without the dim, dark environment (and no special effects to help instill that same feeling in color) the film is abjectly inferior to the original. The cast also lacks the authenticity of the original actors, particularly Norman Bates (now depicted by…Vince Vaughn?...) whose character was designed to start off very innocent, almost non-offensive.

Perhaps had the film brought something new to the table, it would have fared better. Ironically the next movie tried to do exactly that and was even worse.

Godzilla (1998)




Oh my goodness gracious, I just don't know where to begin. There is so much wrong with what fans have come to know with disdain as "Godzilla '98" that it could use its own government-backed study.

To begin with, Godzilla has always been a franchise of very mediocre acting; there’s plot in each film, but the focus is really on the kaiju (the big monsters). Whether Godzilla is facing Rodan or King Gidorah, the movie is about him. And for a monster that was created by nuclear radiation that destroys cities (exclusively in Japan) he often ends up depicted as the hero.

The American adaptation captured very little if any of Godzilla’s essence. Instead, he’s just a big angry lizard destroying New York; “he” also lays a ton of eggs that are an essential plot point, although a confusing point at best.

Besides rarely actually showing Godzilla in the film (perhaps due to budget limitations), the film is distinctly about the people with Godzilla used merely as a plot point. He also has no atomic breath, a huge disappointment to fans. Perhaps the film would have done better had it not tried to tie itself to the Godzilla franchise and just been called “Big Lizard in New York.”

The Haunting (1999)



The remake for “The Haunting” can only be described as a victim of 1999. It tried to take the original films concepts and make them grander. The sets are huge and detailed, and the plot goes out of its way to try and mislead the audience. Both efforts amount to naught.

Instead of a creepy haunted house that is depicted in the original, we’re presented with a mansion that looks like it was constructed by hundreds of skilled artisans. Its over-the-top attention to detail actually distracts from the whole point of the setting: it’s a scary haunted house.

But the film also tries to convince you the house isn't haunted…but it is! Surprise! Unfortunately, the well-paid cast does little to help carry the movie's inept script. Without the uniqueness between characters, we're faced with a bland and uninteresting variety of the same person dressed in different clothes.

Besides being an unnecessary remake, “The Haunting” remake goes one step further by just being an all-around bad film. And not just a bad movie, but a PG-13 film—in the 90s. There's nothing more to be said because there's not much going on with this movie. At least it made money.

Guess Who (2005)



The original film, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” touched a very sensitive nerve for its time. In 1967, interracial marriages were still a very controversial thing [Sophia's buttinsky, here: they still are, if that Old Navy ad controversy is any indication]. When the story’s couple comes home to meet mom and dad, they are understandably shocked. But at least their daughter has managed to catch herself a wealthy foreign doctor.
The modern rendition seen in the remake titled “Guess Who” hopes to flip the premise on its side; instead of a white woman (Katharine Houghton) bringing home a black man (Sidney Poitier) to her white folks (Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn), you have Zoe Saldana returning home with Ashton Kutcher meet with Bernie Mac and Judith Scott.
While the film isn’t as awful as some of the others we’ve gone through, it fails to capture the essence of the original. It’s thoroughly inoffensive, barely pushes any bounds, and does little to inspire any sort of conversation regarding racial politics. It’s just another film that simply wasn’t necessary.

Footloose (2011)



By all accounts, the original "Footloose" was set up in a way that should have yielded a terrible movie. Instead, it became an American classic long remembered for its fun dance scenes, good acting, and believable plot. Its focus on dance makes plenty of sense, being a film in the early 80s.

Having not learned from the mistakes of the “Psycho” remake, the movie again attempts to recreate (including in dialogue) many scenes from the original but does so poorly at it that one can hardly justify the film’s existence. The actors are less believable, particularly Ren who is depicted by Kenny Wormald and no longer looks lost, confused, or even well…young.

The dances have been updated to reflect the period, but that does little to help the movie along. Instead of the more innocent dances of the 20th century, we’re treated to the waist-to-waist grinding of modern dance that would make any Reverend protest, a plot element sadly wasted by the remake.

Total Recall (2012)




Everything I say here I must first preface by admitting this one bias: I am someone who thoroughly enjoys cheesy Schwarzenegger films. And by all accounts, the first "Total Recall" did virtually no justice to its source material. It was truly an adventure of its own making; it was an 80s sci-fi shoot’em up complete with corny one-liners, explosions, and bad acting galore.

But what the original had in spades, the remake lacks by all accounts. With none of the original's fun, the remake sets about creating a plot with nearly identical key points depicted in a slightly different way. Instead of being largely on a Mars Colony, the film is portrayed on post-apocalyptic Earth.
The change in secondary antagonist is equally questionable. The original featured a slew of “named” bad guys all going after Quaid, the protagonist. The remake replaces most of them with Quaid’s wife, leaving us with a decided shortage of characters to care about and a glut of faceless nobodies.

In some ways, the sets of the new film capture the feel of a "futuristic" society better, but there's just something very…forgettable about it all. While the memory of the original lives on well into the present, the remake has already faded into obscurity. Alas, another wasted opportunity.

Sequels and remakes are always a topic of debate. If you feel differently about one of these films or would like to discuss a different remake, post it in the comments. We’d love to hear from you!

About the Author: Isa is a critic in her own right, frequently blogging about her most and least favorite films. When not discussing entertainment, she spends her time writing about internet security and advocating online safety. To read more of her work, visit SecureThoughts.com or CultureCoverage.com.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

We interrupt this regularly scheduled program for: Pre-Eclampsia Survivor Rant

Okay, folks, I'm going to apologize in advance, because this is a rant and it has nothing to do with writing or fiction or anything else this blog is usually about. It's coming at you now because of two experiences I had this week, one on Facebook and one on Twitter.

So, for context, some facts up front:
I am pregnant. This is my fourth pregnancy, but the second one was a loss. In my first pregnancy everything was hunky dory until about week 27 or so when I was diagnosed with pre-eclampsia. In short, that meant I had dangerously high blood pressure (that's not all there is to it, but that's the main thing I was dealing with). Ever watched Downton Abbey? Sybil died because she had eclampsia--what develops from pre-e if it's allowed to. Basically to avoid that you have to have the baby earlier than the due date. My son was induced at 37 weeks (normal pregnancies go to 40 weeks as a rule). Very luckily for me, we both came through without harm. Seizures were a big concern for me for the duration of those weeks, and I was put on bed rest and eventually magnesium--it was not a fun time.

No one knows what causes pre-e. Some of the most recent research suggests that not eating enough protein in early pregnancy may be a factor, but I have no way of saying if that was the case for me. I mean, I ate meat probably most days. But it's true that protein requirements for pregnant women are significantly higher than for the general population. Was I getting enough? I don't know.

Anyway, some things that have not been proven to cause pre-e are: being overweight, having high blood pressure when not pregnant, having blood sugar problems, whether or not you exercise, whether your diet is high in fiber, vegetables and fruit, and whether your diet is low in fat. But today on Twitter, I saw an account devoted to pre-e education that said this:


Okay, so I thought, are they talking to someone specific about their issues with their pre-e, or just everybody? So I tweeted them and asked.

To which they replied:

With the following infographic attached:


Now, I'm sure this person means well, but honestly, fuck them.

Because the original tweet might have been helpful if they were speaking directly to someone they knew with pre-e who actually had bad blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol, etc. Otherwise it's just a shitty thing to say. Why? It implies that people who get pre-e have some kind of control over it.

They don't.

No amount of dieting and exercise can protect a woman from developing pre-e. Dieting is really controversial these days and it's just plain stupid to go around telling people they need to diet. That's a conversation people have with their doctors. Stay out of it.

In my case I have naturally low BP when not pregnant. I have never had a problem with blood sugar, even while pregnant. My cholesterol is normal. All of it is normal. I am a size 20, though, so clearly I need to go through some sort of weight loss plan to be thin before I should consider having more kids. Because we all know what the outcome rates are for people who do weight loss programs. So what you're actually saying, Twitter twit, is that fat people just shouldn't have babies.

As for the oh-so helpful graphic, thanks a lot for all the stats telling me I'm going to die and develop terrible diseases. That's so helpful and good for my stress. It's not like I don't already worry about this pregnancy's impact on my body, now I have to worry about a pregnancy that happened five years ago, too. Fabulous.

People keep "liking" and retweeting the tweet with the infographic and that, dear readers, is why we are here.

Just in general, please don't tell fat people they need to lose weight. Don't you think most of us would go ahead and shed the pounds if we could? Don't you think we've tried? Actually, many people don't think fat people have tried, they think fat people are lazy asses who never try to do anything healthy. Truthfully, I have stopped trying. I maintain my weight at 220lbs. Why? Because the last time I tried, like, really tried to lose weight, I spent four months drinking two slim fast meals a day and having one actual meal. I also worked out every day for a minimum of an hour and half. I went down to 175lbs after three months and that was it. No more weight loss after that. I tried decreasing my daily intake of calories from 1400 to 1200. I tried adding a half an hour to my daily workouts. Nothing. The scale did not budge. And you know what? I was exhausted and miserable. So I went back to eating like I normally do, which is pretty healthy. I never drink soda or eat fast food. I eat a lot of vegetables, avoid overly processed foods with high fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated fats, etc. I make most of the food I eat from scratch. I exercise some, though not as much as I'd like. I've tracked my eating and basically I eat 500 calories a day more than the recommended amount, so that's why I'm heavy. But when I cut those calories out, we come back to the situation described above. What's the point? I'm not going to give myself headaches and feel wrecked and shitty every day so I can drop maybe twenty pounds and maintain my weight at 200lbs instead of 220. I'm just not enthused by that idea and considering my blood pressure is typically 110/70 and I don't have any signs of blood sugar issues... it's just not something I think about much anymore.

So that was Twitter today. A couple of days ago, there was Facebook.

I made the mistake of commenting on an NPR article that was warning pregnant women to wear long sleeves and long pants and bug spray because ZIKA IS COMING TO GET YOU.

And maybe it is, in Florida, I haven't checked the news stories recently. But here's the story I told in my comment on the article:

A couple of months ago my husband, two sons and I went to what is essentially a zoo nearby. When I was there I noticed the most unusual mosquito--it had stripey legs. Of course we all got bitten. When I got home I googled it and found out it's one of the two main types of mosquitoes that carry Zika. Now, I'm in Northern California and when I told my husband this he was like, "Meh, Zika happens in tropical places." But then a day or two later he and my older son both got sick, with flu-like symptoms and bloodshot eyes. Guess what? That sounds like Zika. So I told my OB about it. He was very nice and not at all condescending, but he basically told me I was being paranoid. At that time there had been no cases of people getting Zika in California or Oregon. All cases of Zika were people who had caught it elsewhere and traveled here.

I concluded my story by saying that I thought the NPR article was fear-mongering, and we shouldn't let these sorts of fears get the best of us, or something to that effect. So this guy answered me telling me I shouldn't blow off the risk and good luck with my pregnancy because I had probably been exposed to Zika.

I responded to him saying I don't need luck. I've had several ultrasounds (for completely unrelated reasons) and they've measured the baby's head multiple times and he's growing just fine.

To which several people then replied in so many words that clearly my ultrasounds were flawed and didn't pick up the birth defects and my baby would no doubt have microcephaly. One went so far as to say I would no doubt have to have a late-term abortion at 30 weeks. (As I write this I am 31 weeks.)

It was so important to those people to cling to their fears about Zika and their need to police pregnant women that they told me, a real person who is pregnant, that her baby is going to die at 30 weeks.

By the way, if I did get exposed to Zika and my baby was harmed, you know what can be done about it? Absolutely nothing.

But the thing is, I really don't believe that I was. I know my baby is okay. And I also know it probably wouldn't be good for him if slather myself in pesticides because I'm afraid of catching the Zika virus in an area of the world which, as far as I know, still hasn't had any local cases.

Okay I feel better. Thank you for reading this whole thing, it's a bear. But these are just two examples--people police pregnant woman all the time and it is SO TIRESOME. After several pregnancies, in some ways being preggo does get easier, but in others, NOT SO MUCH. Like when people think they are being helpful when they tell pregnant women how to live their lives.

Have you ever dealt with this sort of "well-meaning" bullshit?
Do you feel entitled to tell pregnant women what to do and not to do to have a healthy pregnancy?
Please, comment and let me know, though be careful if your answer to the second question is yes. I have pregnancy hormones and I know how to use them.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Embracing the "Ugly" as Beautiful: Melisandre in Game of Thrones, Season 6

My husband and I watched the first episode of Game of Thrones season 6 last night. There were several moments that shocked or surprised me. The big reveal at the end of the episode was not one of them.

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SPOILERS AHEAD.

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It's not that I somehow secretly suspected that the Red Woman, AKA Melisandre, is actually centuries old. It's that I don't care. I mean, really, unless her removing the necklace actually leads to something plot related (will she die? will the necklace somehow resurrect Jon? will Thorne find it and put it on, then get strangled by it? I'd like to see that). However, the Twitterverse is all... atwitter over it. People all over the internet are extremely excited about this new TWIST.

From an article on e-online:


Plenty of other articles were tweeted announcing their intention to discuss this big twist.



How is it a twist? To me, a plot twist means something that significantly impacts the plot. So she's old. I mean, seriously. She has wrinkles, she's got saggy breasts, she's lost most of her hair. Okay. And?

Which brings me to the other reason people are all freaking out: OMG, the Red Woman is actually old and NOT HOT.


The shock of the reveal...


Yes, that's Sam from Supernatural. It was actually a gif cycling between his face and Dean's equally horrified face.
And my personal favorite:

Because it's totes cool to pull your pants down for the young Red Woman, who advocates burning children alive.


Let me get something out of the way. I get it. We as a culture are so flooded with images of "perfect" women's bodies that it must be a big surprise and shock when a show gives a rare glimpse of a woman's body that doesn't fit in. But come on, people. Not every body you see has to be evaluated for sexual attractiveness.

I like all kinds of bodies for different reasons. There are certain female bodies I find sexually attractive. The elderly body of last night's episode is not one of them, but in all sincerity, that didn't even enter my mind when I looked at her. Young Melisandre took off her clothes and I admired her beauty (though the character has always seriously creeped me out and I don't find her sexually attractive as a result), and then she changed into the crone, and my thoughts were along the lines of, "Wow, they found an elderly woman with very smooth features, much like the younger actress."* They did. The elderly woman shown wasn't hideous by any stretch of the imagination. People on Twitter have had to go find images from other movies and shows to express their horror at the change.




The fact is, elderly Melisandre may not be sexually attractive, but she's also not disgusting. She's just old. Her body has no blemishes. Okay, the sparsity of hair on her head isn't pretty, but it's not horrifying. She's clean. And I would go so far as to say, she's even beautiful--not in a sexual way, not in a hot way, but in terms of being a beautiful example of an elderly body. The slump of her shoulders and her facial expression convey deep sadness and disillusionment--the power of the emotions they show is beautiful.

But then, I tend to love things like this:
Camille Claudel, Clotho, 1893
This sculpture is by Camille Claudel, a female artist who hit her peak around the turn of the 20th century in Paris. I studied her quite a bit some years ago because I intended to write my master's thesis about her. She had a fascinating, tragic life, and this sculpture is one expression of her experiences. It represents Clotho, the fate who spins the thread of human life--not even Atropos, the one who snips the thread and ends lives. Claudel saw the spinner of life as this twisted, withered crone caught in her own threads, which also seem to be her hair.

Claudel eventually became paranoid and reclusive. Ultimately her family institutionalized her for the last 30 years of her life, though whether that was an ethical choice is a matter of serious debate among those interested in her.

I find this statue of hers beautiful and powerful. Obviously, Clotho as Claudel depicted her is not sexually attractive. But she is an expression of pure suffering--a work of art that succeeds vividly in what it attempts.

Melisandre's old body isn't even close to as twisted and withered as Clotho's in Claudel's interpretation, and it shouldn't be the same, because what's being expressed isn't the same. Claudel's Clotho is a personification of Claudel's rage and confusion at life--and possibly gives hints at Claudel's mental illness, though in 1893 she wasn't exhibiting obvious symptoms yet. Elderly Melisandre conveys the character's grief and despair at the way things have turned out, not according to her visions at all. She is a personification of loss of hope.

I actually did find one article, at theatlantic.com, that addressed the scene the way I felt it needed to be addressed:



The issue I'm having with the more common reaction, I think more than any other, is that the response most people on Twitter are having to seeing Melisandre's elderly body completely misses this point. They are so focused on "OMG NOT HOT" that they aren't asking themselves what the scene actually means. Why has Melisandre chosen to remove her necklace? Is she giving up? Is she going to die? Does this mean Jon is doomed? Not to mention his allies at Castle Black, who talk specifically about how powerful Melisandre is moments before the necklace scene.

In the e-online article I excerpted above, they do ask what it means, but then they ask what Melisandre has been doing on order to stay young, and how old she really is. They then actually state that they've never been so interested in Melisandre subplots not involving Jon Snow. Are you serious right now? I mean, sure, it's great when female characters are interesting without being props for male characters. If you've read this blog at all you know how into that I am. But how many separate character plots are there in GoT these days? It's getting to be as bad as later seasons of Lost. I would really prefer if Melisandre's role in the show remained tied to the established plotlines she's already attached to, and that pretty much means I want one question answered about her: is she going to raise Jon, or is she going to die/fail somehow? If we're going to focus on female characters, I'm just fine with Sansa, Arya, Cersei, Brienne, Margaery, Osha, and Daenerys getting the deeper storylines. I really don't like Ellaria, so she's off the list, too. I don't care about the larger picture when it comes to her or Melisandre. I have enough characters I do care about--and some of my favorites are male, so my list is actually even longer than the one in the sentence above. That's a lot for the show creators to keep track of without adding more.

Anyway, my point is this. I wish people could stop flipping out about a non-perfect body long enough to look past its supposed imperfections. They might appreciate it for what it does show us in a powerful way, and they might also start asking much more interesting and relevant questions.

How about you, were you shocked/horrified by the elderly Melisandre reveal?
What do you think of art and other mediums that show elderly female (and male, why not) bodies?
Can things typically seen as "ugly" actually be beautiful?

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* It has occurred to me that they simply aged Carice van Houten's face, but that doesn't address the parallels with her body. I'm not saying they are the same by any stretch of the imagination, just that they had a similar smoothness.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Machiavelli, Mary Sue, Supernatural, and Gale from The Hunger Games

What do all of these have in common, you ask? Allow me to elucidate, as Scat Cat once said.

Actually Mary Sue isn't really going to fit with the rest. She's the "one who doesn't belong," if you will. Which is ironic, considering that's essentially her role in bad fanfiction. But back to the first question before we let her take over everything.

Instead, let's look at Niccolò Machiavelli, Supernatural, and Gale from The Hunger Games in yet another post about violence in fiction. If you're curious, I've addressed violence in fiction before, mainly here and here. It's been a while, so I hope it doesn't feel like I'm obsessed with the topic, but in reality I do spend a lot of time thinking about it, and may even be a bit obsessed. I am concerned with whether it's ethical to portray violence in an entertaining manner. It seems to me that to be effective, violence must inherently be cruel. I'm going to discuss why I think so here.


Now before you get annoyed with me because Machiavelli didn't write fiction, let me just address his part in this discussion. In my experience, people who have heard of Machiavelli and who reference him tend to be a bit harsh in their judgment of him. Just in case you aren't really familiar with him, he was a Renaissance writer who created a kind of manual for rulers entitled The Prince in 1513. From wikipedia:


"Machiavellianism" is a widely used negative term to characterize unscrupulous politicians of the sort Machiavelli described most famously in The Prince. Machiavelli described immoral behavior, such as dishonesty and killing innocents, as being normal and effective in politics. He even seemed to endorse it in some situations. The book itself gained notoriety when some readers claimed that the author was teaching evil, and providing "evil recommendations to tyrants to help them maintain their power."

See what I mean? Harsh. But I read The Prince some years ago, and Machiavelli doesn't, in my opinion at least, advocate violence. He does take a practical approach to ruling. In one passage he talks about how to administer violence--that may not be how he puts it (it's been a long time since I read it), but the gist was, if you're going to do violence to people for some reason as a ruler (put down an uprising, say) you have to do it as quickly and as extremely as possible. You should always draw out benevolence, because people have short memories when it comes to benevolence. Violence they remember much more clearly. So to avoid becoming unpopular, don't draw it out. Do it thoroughly, do it fast, and make it memorable. So he's not going to back a ruler like Joffrey, for instance, (should I revise the title of this post to include Game of Thrones? Too much?) because the violence Joff does is constant and he pretty much has no idea about the whole benevolence aspect of ruling.

Who could forget that crossbow?
For the purposes of this discussion, I'd like to take Machiavelli's advice to rulers and apply it to violence in fiction in general. Meaning, in a fictional setting at least, the most effective violence is quick, thorough, and memorable.

Is violence always most effective when administered quickly, thoroughly, and memorably? Good question. Is "quickly, thoroughly, and memorably" the same as cruel? Another good question. And can one categorize such effective, potentially always cruel violence as good or evil? Ethical or unethical? Also a good question. These questions bring me to Gale.

It's been four years since I read The Hunger Games, so please correct me in the comments if I misremember something. Also, I'm going to be talking in detail here, so, spoilers ahead. You have been warned.

Specifically, I want to talk about Mockingjay and Gale's attitude towards violence in the rebellion. I really enjoyed the books and one reason they resonated so well for me was the way Collins addresses violence. She specifically questions the way we voyeuristically use violence as entertainment. On top of that, she questions the use of violence by the rebels. This is significant, because it would be easy to simply accept their use of violence as necessary, ostensibly a legitimate use of violence since the rebellion intends to overthrow a terrible regime. To bring it even closer to home for the reader, Collins has Gale, a main supporting character and love interest from the beginning, display a talent for designing weapons. Katniss becomes uncomfortable with how brutal the weapons he develops are. They also have disagreements because Gale doesn't have a lot of scruples about targeting areas where innocents will be killed. Ultimately, Gale is at least somewhat responsible for the death of Prim, Katniss's sister. Katniss's love of Prim is the reason she went to the Hunger Games to begin with. The importance of Prim's life cannot be overstated. Gale's talent and inclination for violence end Prim's life, undoing everything Katniss sacrificed for. It's never clear whether he is directly or indirectly responsible, but at the very least, the bombing that killed Prim was based on his design, using the ingrained belief that people in their society have that little parachutes bring good things, rather than bad. The way the bomb drops are timed, the intent is to kill first responders, and Prim is acting as a first responder when she dies.

Heavy stuff. The message is: to be effective, violence must be cruel. And, I would go so far as to say, it must be evil. Does it fit into the Machiavellian "fast, thorough, and memorable"?

I think so. The bombings orchestrated by the rebellion are not part of a long, drawn-out punishment-fest, unless I misremember. They are surgical strikes, quick, incisive, and brutal. They certainly are effective and memorable. By targeting first responders, they are all the more effective in crippling the enemy. But they are not ethical.

Do the ends justify the means? Or the reverse? Does the process of setting aside ethical considerations in the winning of a war taint the outcome irretrievably? Collins raises these questions, and I have a great deal of respect for her for doing that.

Okay, so looking at Machiavelli's approach to administering violence and Collins's questioning of violence as entertainment and its use in effective, unethical ways in a rebellion, what I come away with is a sense that violence in fiction is really problematic. In most fiction, violence occurs either to harm the protagonist (and get the story moving) or it is administered by the protagonist as a righteous act (to punish the bad guys and achieve the end goal). I don't know about you, but often I really enjoy stories with both kinds of violence.

Which brings me to Supernatural.

Supernatural is a good example of fiction I really enjoy and am a fan of, but that I have to admit is problematic in a lot of ways*. The gender stuff is cringe-worthy, for instance (the absolute worst thing the guys can call one another is a woman). For a couple of seasons there were essentially no female characters at all, except for the occasional flashback with Mary Winchester. In terms of LGBT stuff, the show is usually pretty weak, too (notable exception, the episode with Felicia Day). Characters continuously go out of their way to assert their heterosexuality--so much so it really starts to feel like they are protesting too much, you know? The race stuff isn't always great, either, as the the vast majority of people of color on the show are evil (at least up to season 7, which I just finished). Rufus is a notable and lonely exception, and he's dead by season 6. We see him again after in flashbacks and otherworldly moments, but overall he's only in a handful of episodes.

Anyway. Supernatural is also a very violent show. My husband, who is sensitive to violence, can't watch it. The violence in the show doesn't really bother me on a visceral level because it's so over the top. Jessica Jones was much harder to watch. The special effects guys on Supernatural are really into blood splatters. And in terms of how violence is used as a story device, I actually enjoy it. There are scenes where the main characters torture bad guys, and these don't bother me at all. Sometimes I even want to see the bad guy du jour suffer some serious punishment at the hands of the Winchesters. Ruby springs to mind, oh my gosh did I want to see her die. Not Dick Roman, though---I just enjoyed James Patrick Stuart's portrayal of him so much, I didn't want him to die. Anyway. This enjoyment I experience of the violence in Supernatural is very much at odds with my sense of ethics and whether it's okay for violence to be a form of entertainment. And whether it's ever ethical to use violence in an effective/cruel manner, as explained by Machiavelli and illustrated by the use of Gale's weapons designs in Mockingjay.

I continue to watch and enjoy Supernatural because I long ago accepted that I will end up enjoying problematic fiction, and as long as I am willing to admit that it's problematic, as long as I am willing to discuss how it's problematic and not dismiss concerns raised by others about it, then I'm being ethical about it.

But it's one thing to enjoy and consume problematic fiction. It's quite another to produce it.

I've blogged before about the trickiness of writing in a genre like dieselpunk, for instance, because of the genre's long tradition of orientalism. It's actually probably the blog entry that got the most response over the course of this blog's life. I wrote the entry working from the assumption that if you are writing true dieselpunk, avoiding orientalism is really tricky because in a dieselpunk story, the main characters are white and western** and in most stories they encounter mysterious, exotic, dangerous foes/locations that stereotype and otherwise disparage real non-western** cultures and people of color. The resulting discussion was really illuminating for me, at least, because others pointed out that some of my basic assumptions where flawed. There's no reason that a main character of today's dieselpunk fiction has to be white and western. Anyway. My point is, it's really worthwhile to discuss these ethical dilemmas, because people can shine a light and provide a perspective that I'm lacking. So here I am with my latest dilemma:

How do you use violence in fiction in an ethical manner?

That was the question that spurred the writing of After the Fall, the second book in my decopunk dystopian trilogy (after The City Darkens). I'd been reading a lot about grimdark and its popularity in fantasy fiction. Some writers were really problematizing it, especially the use of sexual violence as titillating horror. And I asked myself, how can you portray sexual violence in a way that would remove all possible titillation? And that gave rise to the concept of a scene in which rather than describing what was happening to the person being assaulted, I zoomed in on a witness to the scene who is hiding, terrified. I focused on her reactions and mental state. I think it was effective without being titillating, though you'd have to read it yourself to see if you agree. For me the whole book became an exploration of violence and whether it can be righteous and justified. The main character of After the Fall, Ginna, is a basically good person, unlike Myadar, the main character of The City Darkens, who really is more neutral in moral alignment--Myadar's not driven to do good so much as serve her own interests. Ginna witnesses the aforementioned assault and essentially makes a deal with the god Luka (we'd call him Loki in our world), god of chaos, to become an instrument of divine wrath (although there's actually more going on there, but you'll have to read the book if you want to know about that). Soon she experiences a loss of control when confronted with those who are perpetrating violence around the ruins of the city in which she lives, and when she comes back to herself, she finds she has slaughtered them.

Ginna is seriously distressed by this, and ultimately after she witnesses and survives yet another extreme act of violence, she cuts herself off from the part of herself that taps this divine wrath. After that, Ginna just isn't very powerful anymore. She tries to do the right thing and she tries to help those she sees as innocents, but she isn't successful.

I've received some critiques of the novel that were pretty discouraging to me. Two different readers criticized Ginna for being too passive. That critique brings me to the Mary Sue connection, but let me set that aside one more time and come back to it in a minute. Instead, let me address what one reader told me: that all these terrible things happen to Ginna and those around her, and she never triumphs against the perpetrators, so the book is frustrating. It's a valid critique. I see that. Ultimately I wrote the book that way because for me as a writer, the purpose of the book was to explore whether I could write about a good protagonist who perpetrates violence righteously in an ethical, non-titillating way, and what I found was that I couldn't.

Really Subway? REALLY?
I'm not saying it's not possible. I'm saying I haven't figured out how to do it in my writing. I mean, I think Collins did an amazing job dealing with violence in The Hunger Games trilogy. So much so that I was really taken aback by the marketing of the movies, particularly Catching Fire, in which YOU TOO could win a Victory Tour. It's like, really, guys? Did you read the books? No? ::facepalm::

So part of the reason I've been so stuck when it comes to writing book 3 of my own trilogy is the whole, how do I do this? How do I give Ginna back her violent power, but have her be essentially good, and not make the violence titillating and feed the idea that it's okay to be entertained by it?

As an aside:
You understand that this blog post is entirely focused on violence in fiction, right? I'm not even going to start to address whether violence is ever justified in real life. I really haven't figured that one out at all. I love Gandhi and Malcom X and what they each stood for, you know? I've had plenty of moments where I'd choose violence--but would I be right to do so? Real life is far, far too complex and complicated for easy answers.

Back to the questions at hand:
In fiction, it's much too common for violence to go unquestioned and unchallenged. Sam and Dean can use torture as a method of interrogation/punishment because they are only ever going to use it against nonhuman monsters. That's what makes it okay. But try telling that to my husband.

Dean waterboarding a demon with holy water, IIRC.
"No, really, honey, it's okay that they're cutting into that guy helplessly tied to a chair screaming his head off, because he's not human. He's a demon."

My husband's response would be a slow nod, and something like, "Sure, sweetie. But I don't want to watch it, okay?" He's very sweet and nonjudgmental of my shows. But underneath that, I know what he's thinking (because I've read many of the same books he has, I guess). Making the victims of the Winchesters' violence nonhuman is just an easy way to bypass any questions about whether torture is ever okay (even in fiction). Same goes for any other violence employed by a righteous hero against villains, human or not. In Rambo IV, Rambo can kill 3 people per minute (after his first kill) because he's the good guy and they are the bad guys and it's satisfying to see bad guys get killed. After all, we all have people in our own lives who richly deserve punishment of some kind (maybe not so extreme as death, but there are slaps going to waste among some folks at my work right now, I can tell you...). But each and every bad guy who gets killed by a good guy is someone's child. Some have brothers or sisters, friends, children, etc., who love them and will grieve them when they don't come home. People, even in fiction, should never be easily disposable.

So that's one problem I'm facing with book 3. How do I embrace Ginna's talent for violence? Does she somehow magically pass it on to Myadar? Myadar wouldn't have nearly the trouble Ginna does with it, because Myadar isn't fundamentally good. But where would that take the story? I don't think I'd like what Myadar would do with that kind of power (it's actually an interesting idea--I may go there for a bit--let Myadar have the wrath and Ginna be unburdened, but ultimately Ginna would have to take it back, because she wouldn't like what Myadar would do with it, either).

The other major problem--aside from questions I've been wrestling with to do with POV and who my narrator(s) should be--is this criticism I got from two readers about Ginna being passive.

Mary Sue, this is your moment.
You can't tell, but her eyes are purple.

I was reading some blog articles today that addressed the popular complaint among book (and, I would add, movie) reviewers that a female protagonist is a Mary Sue. Here's one of these blog posts, and here's another. It's apparently very common, and I remember seeing someone on a forum say that Phedre from the Kushiel books is a Mary Sue, for instance. One blogger addressed this tendency as a pet peeve of hers, because to her, the label is often misapplied, and it's too vague to be meaningful anyway. She felt that often the ways people apply the label are contradictory--the character is too perfect, the character is too flawed, etc. And really what underlies the complaint is that the character is female, because if a male character had all the same characteristics, there would be no complaint. I've certainly seen some of that with Rey from The Force Awakens. A lot of Star Wars fans are very frustrated with how quick she is to learn the Force skills she displays, and that she also has fighting skills, and also has brilliant mechanical skills. It's possible that there would be complaints if Rey was a guy, but I'm betting there wouldn't be as many. Ultimately I agree with Erik Kain, who said that it isn't that Rey is a Mary Sue, it's that the whole movie is so rushed. The good guys have a three minute brainstorming session that leads to the solution to destroying the new and improved Death Star, folks. The filmmakers tried to jam too much in to 135 minutes.

This accusation isn't restricted to characters who display some aspects of Mary Sueness, either. Apparently there are people out there who will accuse Hermione Granger of being a Mary Sue. Meanwhile Harry Potter is this kid raised in a closet who somehow manages to be The Ultimate Hero and good at Quidditch, a sport he's never even heard of, without even trying. Don't get me wrong, I love me some Harry Potter, but come on, double standard, anyone?

In one of these articles I read, maybe in the comments section, I'm not even sure anymore, someone made the point that being "too passive" is a flaw people throw at female characters who are good, and that struck a chord with me. And then in another spot someone talked about how deeply discouraging and stifling it is to be a female author and try to write a character who won't be accused by someone of being a Mary Sue.

To be clear, no one accused Ginna of being a Mary Sue. The feedback I got was much more constructive. But this complaint about her being passive has really bothered me, because I don't think she's passive at all. She does stuff. She makes a deal with Luka. She goes on wrath-fueled rampages. She uses her wits and talents to survive in a very dangerous setting. She puts herself at great risk to protect those she loves and those she sees as innocents in danger. The trouble isn't that she's passive, it's that she's unsuccessful. She doesn't actually manage to save most of the people she tries to save. She doesn't manage to stop bad things from happening. She doesn't save the day.

Why doesn't she succeed? Well, that's my cynicism and frustration with the world at work, I think. Plus the sense that I have that in the second installment of a trilogy, it works for the ending to be unhappy. Look at The Empire Strikes Back, for one example of a second part that most people agree is the most powerful installment of the three original films. I'd argue that that's because it's so dark. But my cynicism is at work in After the Fall, I fully admit that. And having identified that, I really want book 3 to remedy it--what I mean to say is, I want Ginna to win in book 3. I want her to triumph over her adversaries in a major way.

Which brings me back to my violence dilemma.

How does Ginna win against the fascist tyrants who rule in Helesey without turning the wrath back on? And if I can enjoy shows and novels where a good protagonist is violent, why can't I figure out a way to write a good protagonist that is violent? Grumble.

What do you think of the questions I raise here?
Do you ever think about the portrayal of violence in entertainment?
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*The link takes you to an article that's been reblogged because the original link I'd saved doesn't seem to work anymore. The original article, "How to be a Fan of Problematic Things," is by Rachael at the Social Justice League.
**I use "western" and "non-western" here despite the objections some have raised (after all, who defines what's east and west?) because I'm talking about orientalism, a phenomenom in literature (and I would argue, many other forms of media) which pits cultures from the East (the "Orient" means the East) against dominant cultures of the West. However, I also tend to extend the meaning of orientalism to include the stereotyping of cultures not traditionally viewed as part of the East, such as South American cultures.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Deadpool -- I didn't love it, Part 2: The Details

I know you all have been biting your nails, waiting to see when I would finally get around to writing the second part of this review.* Well, here it is, folks. Some deeper thoughts about a couple of aspects of the very popular Deadpool. For the overview I wrote shortly after I saw the movie, go here. Long story short, I found the movie disappointing, in that it really fell short of doing anything original. With no further ado...

SPOILERS GALORE.

It's been so long since I wrote the first half that I'm not even sure what I was talking about when I said something that happened with Vanessa surprised me. It certainly isn't her overall arch. She starts out as a prostitute (or does she? Some have speculated that everything in that first dialogue between her and DP is a lie, and therefore she isn't really a sex worker at all. That would be too bad, as it does make her more interesting, imo). But by the time DP comes back from the experiment that turns him into a mutant, she's become a waitress. Because on some level, everyone agrees (everyone being the filmmakers and their target audience, ie, not me) that being a sex worker is fine as long as you aren't in a committed relationship. Even though Vanessa thinks DP is dead, we have to believe she's still being faithful to him. Had she been one of the strippers in the bar where she works as a server, I would have been far more impressed. But even that's not the same as hooking. I've seen places where much is made of Vanessa as "sex positive" and "not ashamed to be a sex worker" and in fact the narrative doesn't support the latter at all. Sex positive, sure. But you take sex positive and apply it to most female leads and you're not going to get very far in terms of feminist statements. Does she like sex? Sure. It's great that she seems assertive about what she wants, too. But she's still just a "hot chick," as the opening titles define her, whose main role is to be the hero's prize and the damsel in distress.

So none of that surprised me, at all. Probably it was the pegging. That is a surprising moment, and maybe one of the only moments of true originality in the film. Why? Well, throughout the scenes depicting DP and Vanessa's romance, it's clear that DP wants more than anything to please her. That's certainly unusual. Most films with the dominant male hero (super or not) show women eager to please him, or some variation. They orbit the hero, not the other way around. It's not even a macho, "Look what a hot stud I am" kind of eager to please with DP. He's just sincerely motivated. And he is clearly willing to do things with Vanessa that most straight cis men don't consider doing, such as, most blatantly, the pegging. It's a pity he doesn't enjoy it, and the tone of the scene is joking, not sexy, but I guess you have to expect the filmmakers to pull back from really showing pegging as a potentially pleasurable act. The core of homophobia, some have noted (and I agree), is misogyny. There's no sin like being a woman. For a man to lose his masculinity by taking on the role of the receiver in sex is the worse possible thing. So it's a big deal that they have Vanessa, a woman, top DP like that. But to have him enjoy it...? That would be irredeemable.

And it's a real shame, for a couple of reasons. First off, I think it's actually great that the film portrays DP as so motivated to pleasure Vanessa--apparently the target audience for the film is 15 year old boys, and I'm told they tend to get their sex education mostly from porn. One big problem with this, aside from getting really skewed expectations, is that most porn is not about guys sincerely trying to please women. There may be a category of "Look what a hot stud I am, I can please a woman" porn (I'm not that well-versed, tbh) but the plain, clear eagerness to please that we see in Deadpool is no doubt a very, very rare thing. So if 15 year old boys watch the sex montage and get the idea that having that kind of attitude is cool, hurray for the filmmakers! They've done a good deed. Sincerely wanting to please your partner is golden, after all. So it's really a pity that they have to show DP uncomfortable, and ultimately the object of audience derision, in the pegging moment. What kind of reward for eagerness to please your partner is that? The moment is only what, maybe three seconds long? They couldn't have shown him enjoying it, the way Vanessa enjoys herself in other moments in the montage? Incidentally, aside from a cruel little smile, she doesn't seem to get off on the pegging, either. And they do it because they are celebrating holidays, and it's something like "National Woman's Day" or something similar. Like, okay, women get to top a man once a year, hardy har har. And neither of the participants will really like it, because it's such a backwards thing to do, hee hee hee. Which brings me to my next point.

Another reason it's too bad DP doesn't enjoy the pegging (and, in the minds of Hollywood filmmakers, can't be shown to enjoy it) is because everyone thinks (see above definition of "everyone") that if a guy enjoys any kind of anal stimulation, he must be gay. And we can't have a gay main character in an action movie, now can we? This is all the more disappointing because from what I've read, the DP comic book character is supposed to be pansexual. Not just bi! Pan. Of course, to the comic book writers, this means he'll try anything with anyone or anything. I'm fairly new to the idea of pansexuality, but I do like the concept, and might even go so far as to identify that way. But I do see some folks (even some who consider themselves pan) defining it as an "I'll fuck anything" approach to sex, and that's a problem. Biphobia has a long history of equating bisexuality to promiscuity and inability to be monogamous (and not in a good way). And of course in more virulently homophobic circles, you've got the homosexual sex = pedophilia idea. As if being attracted to men and women makes a person unable to commit, inherently dishonest, fickle, oversexed, dangerous, and predatory. Looks like this pansexual = will fuck anything concept is the same, only multiplied by ten. However, I've also seen it defined, instead, as meaning one isn't restricted in their attractions to one or even two genders. Meaning as a pansexual, someone like DP would go for men, women, transfolk, and gender queer and gender fluid people. But not children, mkay? Or animals. Or other potential hook ups that are upsetting for many good reasons. It would have been nice to see that pansexuality portrayed in Deadpool--nice? Hell, it would have been revolutionary. But the most we get are jokes about how DP has a crush on Wolverine, a masturbation scene involving a plush unicorn, and a cartoon at the end where he rubs a unicorn's horn until a rainbow shoots out.

As an aside, I did appreciate the historical value of that cartoon. I don't think a lot of people know that the unicorn's horn was conceived as a phallic symbol. That's why unicorns go for virgins, folks, and vice versa.

Anyway.

My point is that I do get why the filmmakers shied away from really showing any kind of pansexuality, bisexuality, or homosexuality in the film, but it's disappointing. I wonder if they aren't totally underestimating their audience. From what I've read, Ryan Reynolds, the actor who portrayed DP, and who is supposedly one of the driving forces behind the making of Deadpool, has stated that he's like to see DP have a relationship with a male character. If he's comfortable with it, maybe the fans would be, too? God, I can't wait for the day when showing a M/M relationship with main characters in a fun Hollywood action movie isn't too much to ask.

And both characters get to survive the movie, too. That would be something.

Okay, so I said I'd address another small moment (really, several small moments) that surprised me, and that was with Colossus. He's the CGI character, all metal and brawn, with a Russian accent and a hair cut (can you can a tin head of molded hair a haircut?) that strongly evokes Dolph Lundgren in Rocky IV. But while Lundgren embodies a kind of unnaturally extreme masculinity driven to destroy the natural masculinity of Rocky, Colossus is, instead, a voice of reason/heroicism. So that in itself shows we've come a long way since Rocky IV. Note that I realize this is probably not news to the comic book readers. I don't read the comics, though, so this is my only experience with Colossus. Anyway, there's the way he is that's kind of interesting and different, and then there's the puking. If I understand correctly, one of Colossus's attributes is that he vomits at the sight of blood. Now there's an incongruous quality in a guy who physically embodies the hypermasculine. So kudos for choosing a character that has that kind of inherent contradiction going on. I do think that's worth noting, even if it's certainly not central to the plot. There are these moments, these attempts to turn expectations on their heads.

We also see a lot of male nudity, and often not in a flattering way, too. That's unusual, especially when an effort is made to avoid showing female nudity. It's almost always the other way around. So I have to acknowledge that, too. It's just a shame you can have a film with these cool little nuggets, but they don't add up to anything in the end. In the end the plot is mediocre and there really isn't anything revolutionary about any of it.
Not really.

What did you think of Deadpool? Did you find it revolutionary?
What do you think of the way it addressed DP's pansexuality? Did you find Vanessa to have more value as a feminist heroine than I did? What are your thoughts on Colossus?

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*In case sarcasm isn't your thing, I am actually grounded in reality and realize that this review's second part is way too late for anyone to really care about it. I just like knowing I finished what I started.