Showing vs. Telling: A Case Study

800px-RIAN_archive_604273_Barricades_on_city_streetsToday I’m going to return to the old writing principle of showing, not telling. I’ve previously expressed skepticism about the necessity of always showing. Telling can and does play an important role, allowing the author to describe events that took place over a long period of time or that are of minimal importance without taking the focus off the central story. However, when you’re writing a scene that takes place all at once and that’s dramatic, visually interesting, or important to the main story, showing is the better option.  It lends a vividness and immediacy to the scene that telling would dampen.

I recently made use of this principle in my new novel.  Early in the story, the heroes arrive at Moscow during the panic of October 1941.  Valya recounts the scene in a letter.  Here is the first version of the scene she describes:

 I could see Iskra pale and her eyes widen when she saw what had become of her beautiful hometown.  We could hardly go a block without passing a cordoned-off factory or apartment building reduced to rubble by the bombings.  Other city blocks were intact but eerily abandoned, their inhabitants fled or herded into empty apartments in other buildings to save on heating costs.  Bulbous barrage balloons rested in every park and open space, even Red Square, giving the strange impression of a city filled with beached whales.  The main streets are crisscrossed with sandbag barricades and tank stoppers and everywhere is choked with traffic.  We were constantly weaving our way through cars, wagons, people on foot, and even herds of livestock, all fighting to get out of the city.

There’s no organization, no plan.  People are smashing windows and looting shops and the soldiers and police stand by and do nothing.  And really, what could they do?  Millions of people swarming the streets with no money and hardly any supplies.  The industrial workers are a hair trigger away from a full-blown riot anyway: They were promised a month’s pay to keep them going during the evacuation and most of them didn’t get it.  Some shopkeepers are throwing their doors open and letting people take what they like.  They figure the Nazis will have it all in a few days anyway.

800px-RIAN_archive_403_Antiaircraft_balloons_in_MoscowThis paragraph is 100% telling: Valya doesn’t mention any specific blocks, streets, or open spaces; those are just general things she saw.  As a result, despite the dramatic things that are happening, it’s difficult to care very much about Moscow or its inhabitants.  It’s a serviceable way to set the location, but it doesn’t add much to the story.

When I wanted to add some additional details, I seized the opportunity to rewrite this scene and incorporate more showing.  Here is the result, omitting the paragraphs of additional detail that I added.

We stood at the corner waiting for a bus, but a passerby pulling a hand cart shook her head and told us, “You’ll be waiting there until you’re as old as me.  The buses aren’t running.”  So we walked, weaving our way through cars, wagons, people on foot, and even herds of livestock, all fighting to get out of the city…

We wound our way through streets that have become a maze of tank traps and checkpoints.  Even Iskra’s reliable sense of direction was at a loss here.  We had to stop and ask for directions from a sturdy woman in a headscarf who was helping to construct a wall of sandbags.  Despite the throng in the streets, the apartments buildings in this part of town were eerily dark and empty, no light shining from windows blown out by air raids.   Notices posted on the chained front gates announced “ATTENTION: THIS BUILDING HAS BEEN CONSERVED TO SAVE ENERGY.”  We picked our way around the pale, bulbous form of a grounded barrage balloon.  They occupy every park and open space, even Red Square, giving the strange impression of a city filled with beached whales.

Iskra stopped in front of a cordoned-off block of apartments that had been reduced to concrete rubble in a bombing.  She turned pale and her eyes widened.  She said, “This was where we lived.”

I fumbled for something to say, but all I could come up with was, “At least it was empty.  So no one got hurt.”

“Yeah,” she said vaguely.  “It’s not as if I had a home here to come back to anyway.”

As we neared the city center, the chaos grew.  A mob had formed outside one factory.  Workers were hitting the chained steel gates with sledgehammers and trying to scale the walls.  The panicky factory director stood a safe distance away inside the gates, unsuccessfully trying to calm the crowd down.  A burly man armed with a crowbar demanded, “You promised us a month’s pay to keep us going during the evacuation!”

“The banks don’t have any money,” the director protested weakly, and ducked as someone threw a rock through the gate.  Across the street, a couple of militiamen stood by and did nothing.  And really, what could they do?  Millions of people swarming the streets with no money and hardly any supplies.  Some shopkeepers are throwing their doors open and letting people take what they like.  They figure the Nazis will have it all in a few days anyway.

800px-RIAN_archive_789_People_digging_trenchesThere’s still some telling and even some of the same sentences, but we’re moving away from generic situations.  They now stand in front of a specific bombed building and see a specific angry mob of workers.  Notice that we don’t necessarily need more detailed descriptions of the objects in question (although it never hurts): Just mentioning that it’s an individual thing makes us feel closer and more connected to the action.  The only part that remains completely unaltered from the original is the bit at the end about the shopkeepers; I could have expanded on it, but by this point I feel I have enough anecdotes.

There are times when you just want to get from the airport to the university and you don’t care what lies in between.  For those times, telling is fine; there’s no need to drag us through a detailed description of something that doesn’t matter.  But in situations like this, the journey is just as important — or at least as interesting — as the destination, and showing us what’s going on makes the story come to life.

Oppressed Magical White People

This article was originally posted at Feminist Borg.

They look like us, but they are not us.  They have powers we don’t understand.  They don’t trust us.  We don’t trust them.  Out of fear of what we might do, they have concealed their existence from us.  They are the Oppressed Magical White People.

You’ve seen this media trope everywhere, from the wizards in Harry Potter to the X-men to the vampires in Twilight.  On a technical level, it can be done well, thoroughly exploring insider/outsider dynamics and the fear of the Other, or poorly, kludging together a flimsy excuse why these really cool and powerful people have to remain in hiding.  But no matter how well it’s done, there’s always a problem: These works always star white people.

Most often, the stars and most, if not all, of the supporting cast are white, straight, and male.  There are individual exceptions (eg, Storm from X-Men), but the makeup of these fictional oppressed groups is generally the same as the makeup of book and movie casts in general.  It’s rare for the cast to even approach the demographic makeup of the country where the story takes place, and essentially unknown for the superpowered people to be, say, all black.

You may be thinking that this doesn’t sound any different than media as a whole, and you’d be right.  However, the Oppressed Magical White People (OMWP hereafter) are a bigger problem than the general preponderance of straight white dudes in fiction for one key reason: Because the oppression narrative on which the stories hinge is taken from the experiences of marginalized groups.

Civil rights metaphors are a common template.  In some of these stories, the “normal” people react with fear against the OMWP, attempting to restrict their civil rights (reminiscent of Jim Crow), demanding that they be registered so that they can be easily identified (reminiscent of the Holocaust), holding witch hunts against suspected OMWP (reminiscent of the Lavender Scare), restricting them to certain locations (reminiscent of the Holocaust again, Japanese internment, and American Indian reservations), violently attacking them (reminiscent of the KKK), and even committing full-scale genocide (reminiscent of many historical atrocities, but particularly the genocide of Native Americans — especially if the OMWP were the rightful original inhabitants of a place).  And in the many stories where the OMWP have concealed their existence from the rest of the population, it’s usually out of fear that the above will happen*.

You see the problem: The story is taking real things that happened to real people and recasting them with, well, Harry Potter.  Even if the creators are actively trying to make a point about the original form of oppression and how it’s wrong, there’s always an unfortunate implication that people wouldn’t care about the issue unless it’s happening to a straight white guy.

As a case study, consider the X-Men film franchise.  Writer-director Bryan Singer, who is gay, has made the franchise a gay-rights metaphor, as seen in scenes like this one from X2, where Bobby “comes out” as a mutant to his parents.

The X-Men films, especially X2 and X-Men: First Class, are well executed as metaphors and they raise a lot of interesting points.  But the fact remains that, Charles and Erik’s epic bromance aside, there aren’t any gay mutants in the movies.  We can have a conversation about gay rights.  But it can’t feature actual gay people**.

Simply increasing representation doesn’t really solve this problem, because the work is still fundamentally taking the story of a marginalized group and recasting with mainly people from the non-marginalized group.  For instance, adding the openly gay Northstar to the X-Men film lineup wouldn’t eliminate the problematic aspect of those films: He would still be a token character in his own story.

As an example of an alternate approach to magical oppressed people that doesn’t invoke the OMWP, consider the cultish 1984 film, Brother from Another Planet.

The titular brother looks human, but isn’t.  He has superhuman powers.  He’s being hunted.  But in this movie, he’s black and the bounty hunters who pursue him are white.  Casting a black person as the escaped alien slave and setting the story in Harlem makes the metaphor far sharper and more poignant than it would have been if it had starred a white man.

*I’m not fond of the Masquerade as a plot device in general, as it always feels like it’s cheapening the experiences of real-life groups who weren’t resourceful enough to go into hiding en masse.

**I’m not blaming Singer for this, since he’s shackled to both the existing canon and the demands of the studio.  But regardless of who’s at fault, the X-men are still OMWP.

Pacific Rim: Progressive Representation?

When Pacific Rim came out, many sources praised it for its progressive representation: The presence of non-American, non-white characters in heroic roles and, in particular, Mako Mori, a Japanese woman, getting to play a central, active role in the story.  Mako Mori even inspired a new feminist film test:

The Mako Mori test is passed if the movie has: a) at least one female character; b) who gets her own narrative arc; c) that is not about supporting a man’s story.

somniBut in many ways, Pacific Rim doesn’t seem very progressive at all, certainly not groundbreakingly progressive.  The protagonist and narrator is still a white American guy, the cast is still vastly male-dominated, and this is not the first action-hero Asian woman with a pageboy and colored highlights ever to grace the silver screen*.

So is Pacific Rim a progressive example of minority and female representation or not?  I’m going to take the middle position here: Pacific Rim‘s characters are progressive relative to cinema as a whole.  But that’s not because Pacific Rim did anything terribly right, but because the rest of cinema does representation so terribly, terribly wrong.

So yes, the Jaeger pilots who aren’t white Westerners (or their love interests) have no arcs, scarcely any lines, and they all get killed off in the first battle without accomplishing anything.  The Chinese triplets are treated as literally interchangeable.  Meanwhile, the white supporting cast pilots get to live through the battle; one survives to the end and the other plays an important role.  But in other hands, we might have had an entirely American fighting force composed of only white dudes.  Progress.

Sasha_KaidonovskyAnd yes, Mako Mori doesn’t even show up until 20 minutes into the movie and we only see her backstory quite literally through the eyes of a white guy.  She also gets far fewer lines than any of the other main characters and never talks to the other female pilot (whose name is Sasha Kaidanovsky, by the way; don’t pretend you knew that without looking it up**), who herself only gets two or three lines before getting killed, and aside from them, there’s only one unnamed female extra who gets a couple of lines in a crowd scene.  But neither of the women is sexualized, kidnapped, or rendered helpless by being grabbed by the upper arm, and there are two of them, which is one more than you’d find in most movies.  Sasha even looks old enough to drink.  Progress.

And as for GLBT characters, there’s…um…

Well, you can’t expect progress on all fronts.

*I have nothing against any of these attributes and will continue to be delighted by characters that fit this profile.  But acting like Mako Mori is revolutionizing cinema is ignorant of film history and discourages further progress.

**In fairness, I had to look up Raleigh Beckett’s name, too.

Indie Game Round-Up

Doad says that his impulse-buy threshold is about $2.50.  It got free reign during the Steam fall sale, and we’ve had a chance to peruse some of the notable new indie games.  These games span a wide variety of genres and styles; the only similarities are low prices, modest scope and length, and divergence from the typical material found in mainstream games.  Otherwise, they’re all markedly different, and odds are, whatever you like, there will be something here that strikes your fancy.  Let’s have a look.

Lilly Looking Through

Geeta Games, November 1 2013

Lilly-2012-05-01-21-28-32-911-460x287This gentle, dreamy adventure game met with critical praise, especially from reviewers outside the mainstream, and at a glance it’s easy to see why.  It’s a gorgeous piece of work, from the lovingly drawn settings to the protagonist’s realistic and unmistakably childlike movements.  Lilly balances across boards, clambers on her hands and knees, and imitates a frog.  Although the environments are derelict, perhaps suggesting some dark past event, the game nevertheless doesn’t have a dark tone, but rather one of wonder and enjoyment.

The main mechanic is a pair of goggles that, when worn, transport Lilly back in time.  Thus, there are two versions of most of the sets, and the puzzles revolve around switching between them in order to complete objectives: A bridge that has collapsed in the present may still be intact in the past, for example.  The puzzles are engaging and creative, but compared to other point-and-click adventure games, they’re quite easy.  If you completed the Myst series without ever consulting a walkthrough, you may find them boring; for the rest of us, they’re a relaxing change.  They also make this game suitable for young children.

My only objection to Lilly Looking Through is its briefness and abrupt ending.  Here’s to hoping it’s only the first chapter in a series.  But even if it isn’t, it’s well worth checking out.

Gone Home

GoneHome_4Fullbright, August 15 2013

You arrive at the creepy old mansion at midnight in a storm and inside you discover…a sweet story about a teenager’s first love?  This game confirms something that everyone except the game industry already knew: That ordinary people’s everyday lives can be fascinating.  There are no monsters, no guns, not even any puzzles, just a young woman, her teenaged sister, their parents, and all their secrets, choices, mistakes, and dreams.

Since the whole game consists of nothing but walking around, looking at things, and listening to diary entries, this game really has more in common with epistolary novels than with the first-person shooters it takes its interface from.  The writing is fantastic.  You’ll immediately be sucked into Sam’s story and, to a lesser extent, the stories of the other family members.  But then, every aspect of this game is masterfully done, from the lush soundscape of lashing rain and humming televisions to Sam’s earnest voice acting to the fact that every bit of in-game handwriting, and there’s a lot of it, was actually written out by hand.  Wow.

Even a leisurely playthrough will only take about three hours, but that’s simply how long it takes for Gone Home to tell its full, rich story without any puzzles or fights to break up the narrative flow.  I promise you don’t have a better use of that time.

Papers, Please

Papers-Please-InterrogateLucas Pope, August 8 2013

This is a strange and difficult to classify game.  Steam calls it an adventure game; Wikipedia calls it a puzzle game; its own description is “A Dystopian Document Thriller.”  You play border security at a communist nation in the 1980s, attempting to sort out the law-abiding citizens from the terrorists, smugglers, and human traffickers armed with only your country’s increasingly complex and bureaucratic entry requirements.

Don’t be fooled by the retro low-res graphics: This is a deep, psychological experience.  It’s easy to turn into a small-time dictator, reveling in your power over the poor civilians who are just trying to get through the checkpoint as compensation for your own helplessness against poverty, suspicious secret police, and the citations that seem to keep landing on your desk no matter how careful you are.  It makes you ask questions.  Why is it so easy to turn down the man who begs you to let his wife through early in the game, but nearly impossible to refuse the border guard who makes the same request after a few brief exchanges with you?  Can you be absolved of responsibility if you were “just doing your job?”

My main criticism of Papers, Please is that, despite its multitude of endings, it gives you an illusion of control over the plot rather than any real control.  Recurring characters will show up at the exact same points whether you approve, deny, or detain them.  The game pushes you towards helping the shadowy anti-government organization by not allowing you to detain them, and most of their missions don’t have any meaningful effect: There’s one that I never solved because I kept forgetting about it.

This game won’t appeal to everyone, but if you’re detail-oriented and like old-school graphics and MIDI sound, you should check it out.  You might learn something about yourself.


thumb_2Polytron, May 1 2013

I’m not a big fan of platformers, so you may want to take my opinion about Fez with a grain of salt.  This was supposed to be the next Braid: An indie platformer with a clever twist (in this case, your ability to rotate to get different 2D views of the 3D world, with each perspective allowing you to find items and get places that you couldn’t from a different perspective).  And, as far as that goes, it is.  But the devil is in the details.

Everything about this game is bright, flashy, and distracting, from the fake reboot near the beginning to the more stylish than functional world map to the rapid day/night cycles that constantly reminded me how slow I was going.  It doesn’t feel committed to the 16-bit aesthetic the way Papers, Please does, abandoning it in several places to render twirly hypercubes instead.  Overall, it feels like it’s trying too hard, as if it’s concerned that you’ll lose interest if it ever stops distracting you for a minute.  And then there’s the writing.  Maybe it’s unfair to criticize the script of a platformer, but the dialogue is incredibly weak, including a deliberately irritating sidekick who never tells you anything you couldn’t figure out yourself.

If you like platformers, you’ll no doubt like this game — everyone else seemed to — but its basic premise, clever as it is, gets overwhelmed with the sheer amount of “stuff.”  There are Flatland-style ideas beneath the surface here, but they aren’t explored very well.  Fez doesn’t truly succeed at being to space what Braid is to time.  If you’re not usually into platformers, this isn’t likely to be the one that wins you over.

Incidentally, its featureless, plain white, male protagonist is a good illustration of the stick figure principle.

All in all, it’s been a good year for indie games.  We rounded up some good ones and have several more on our to-play list, including Contrast, Redshirt, and Shelter, which I’ll have to play alone because Doad finds it too traumatic.  The ready availability of indie games is introducing all kinds of new material that you don’t see in mainstream games.  Let’s hope that it keeps up.

Images found here, here, here, and here.

A Theory About Backstories


I finally saw Pacific Rim and, alas, it’s not a major triumph for women’s representation by any means.  Sorry, folks, but blond guy plus “exotic” chick with highlights is not a new equation.  But it did make me come up with a new theory relating to male and female character backstories in action/war movies.

Mako Mori and Raleigh Becket both have backstories.  Mori’s starts when she’s a little girl, as she’s chased by a kaiju which is killed by Stacker Pentecost, who then adopts and raises her.  Becket’s begins when he’s already an adult and a Jaeger pilot.  It shows him piloting with his brother, who is killed in combat.  There are similarities–both have family members killed by kaiju–but the differences are notable.  Mori’s backstory primarily addresses the question “Why does she want to be a Jaeger pilot?”  On the other hand, Becket’s backstory primarily addresses the question “Why does he have emotional damage?”  His backstory doesn’t explain why he wanted to fight the kaiju; he’s already fighting them when we first meet him.

These differences suggest a larger trend rooted in cultural ideas about men and women.  A woman fighting giant monsters (or fighting anything) is an aberration.  It requires explanation.  “She wanted to” or “she was good at it” are insufficient; there needs to be some major event that caused her to abandon the “normal” stuff that women are supposed to like and to choose to do something as unfeminine as kicking ass.

A man in combat, on the other hand, doesn’t need any explanation.  Why did young Becket want to fight giant monsters?  Well, why wouldn’t he?  On the other hand, a male character having emotions does require explanation.  Men are expected to be stoic or aggressive, but if they’re going to be emotionally fragile and express more femine-coded feelings like fear and sadness, they need some event to justify it.

Of course these rules aren’t hard and fast.  Superhero movies typically include backstories explaining how their heroes got into that role.  Many backstories, such as those in the revenge genre, explain both the characters’ will to fight and the characters’ emotions.  But even these are likely to put more weight on the former if the character is female and the latter if the character is male.

Anyway, that’s the theory that Pacific Rim inspired.  I haven’t done any quantitative analysis to see whether it holds up in movies in general, so feel free to suggest examples that either fit or deviate from the theory.

Image found here.

Stick Figures

(This article was originally posted on Feminist Borg.)

You may have seen this comic that was floating around Tumblr a few months ago.  I haven’t been able to locate the original source; if you know it, please comment and I’ll add it.


Lots of people have addressed the message already, so I’d like to talk, not about the text, but about the art.  The medium is the message; what is this medium — a stick figure comic — saying?

Stick-figure comics have become popular in the webcomic era for two main reasons: First, they allow just about anyone to make a comic, regardless of their artistic talent, and second, their featureless appearance make them popular as “everyman” characters.

The stick figure, as commonly used, is indeed a generic character who could stand in for anyone.  But it’s also a man.  A generic figure with no visible characteristics is assumed to be male.  In order to be interpreted as female, a character must be differentiated with some feature, most often long hair.  Thus, in this comic, the female character has a ponytail, but the male character doesn’t have any special gender signifiers (say, a baseball cap or bow tie) because he doesn’t need them.  The artist knows that a plain stick figure will be interpreted as male.

The “everyman” stick figure is also white.  As demonstrated in this comic, the plain white circle head represents a Caucasian person; when the comic needs a non-white person, that person gets a different skin tone, but the white character remains plain white.  The associations of plain white = Caucasian are so strong that color webcomics sometimes leave their characters’ skin white with gray shading.

Have a look at some other comics with stick-figure or simplified art and observe how gender and race are expressed.

In each of these comics, the character with the plain circle head is male, while the female character is invariably given some kind of hair.  Many of them also give the man a plain stick or rectangle body, but give the woman a more defined body with breasts or a skirt.  And several give the woman lipstick or eyelashes, just in case there was any ambiguity left.

Nonwhite characters are mostly left out of comics entirely, but when they do appear, it’s with a signifier such as skin color or hair.  Meanwhile, there are several examples of color comics that leave the characters’ skin white.  (Order of the Stick is the exception on both counts, giving its characters various hairstyles and skin tones.)

So the stick figure is a generic character, but it’s also part of of one specific demographic.  It’s demonstrating the cultural idea that a “regular” person is a white man, and anyone of a different race or gender is an aberration.  The gag-a-day comics, with the exceptions of XKCD and Doghouse Diaries, further reinforce this idea by using white-man stick figures for all their jokes except those that specifically require a female or nonwhite character.

Returning to the original comic, we can shed some light on the questions it poses.  One generic white-male stick figure making a disparaging comment to another generic white-male stick figure doesn’t carry much of a connotation, nor does a female or nonwhite character making a mean remark to a generic white-male figure who is supposed to represent anyone.  But if you first single someone out as different from “normal” people and then make a disparaging mark about zir: That definitely carries a connotation.

I’m not going to tell webcomic creators to stay away from stick figures, but it’s important to think about the message your character-design choices send.  Even something that seems neutral, like a stick figure, can work to reinforce our culture’s harmful ideas about who is normal and who is abnormal.

Janelle Monáe

130903-Janelle-Monae-featureDoad and I were lucky enough to see Janelle Monáe last night.  If you aren’t already listening to Janelle Monáe (Cindi Mayweather, the ArchAndroid, Electric Lady #1, Android #57821, etc), you should be.  Her series of concept albums about a fugitive android who falls in love with a human are easily the most creative thing happening in music today.  I have assembled a miscellany of reactions presented here in no particular order.

  • She is so good at dancing.  She.  Is.  So.  Good.  At.  Dancing.  No one has made moonwalking look this cool in 20 years.
  • janelle-monae-brings-the-electric-lady-to-saturday-night-liveShe’s lost the signature tux and saddle shoes, but is still keeping everything clean and black-and-white and is still sporting that amazing pompadour.  This isn’t just an aesthetic choice: She’s said that the black and white clothes are meant to evoke the uniforms that her working-class family members always wore.
  • Using robots as a civil-rights metaphor is so natural that it’s kind of strange that it’s never been done before (to my knowledge).  It makes you realize how much we’re missing due to the absence of minority voices in science fiction.
  • And yet, her message is universal.  She makes it clear that her themes of freedom and acceptance are meant to resonate with everyone, whatever personal struggles zie may be facing.  And they do.
  • Our friends came in by a different door and got handed the ten droid commandments.  Lucky.
  • The 5’0″ Monáe knows how it is: During the surprisingly quiet and intimate (yet intense) finale, she had the entire audience get down on the floor and then went out into the audience and confessed to being a short person.  Then she went back onto the stage and people my height finally got a perfect view of her dancing.
  • Aside from that, the conceit of this concert was not the android storyline, but rather the Palace of the Dogs, the asylum seen previously in the music video for “Tightrope.”  She came onstage in a straightjacket.  The Palace of the Dogs is about the importance of individual self-expression and how society seeks to control people by crushing it.  These are themes common to Monáe’s work, as in “Cold War,” where she sings “I was made to believe there’s something wrong with me.”  There are so few artists today who talk about things like this.

  • One of the main points of difference between The Electric Lady and its predecessor The ArchAndroid is its candid-yet-classy exploration of sex and sexuality, as seen in “Q.U.E.E.N.”  Monáe’s booty don’t lie and she isn’t afraid to shake it.  But, unlike a lot of female artists, Monáe’s sexuality always feels like hers: It isn’t a concession to male viewership, but rather another facet of her shameless self-expression: “Even if it makes others uncomfortable, I will love who I am.”
  • The differences between concept-album storytelling and other forms are interesting.  Media like movies and books are usually highly structured and bound by realism and internal consistency.  Music, on the other hand, lends itself to very loose, unstructured storytelling that only touches on the important events in the story, rather than locking them into a rigid chronology.  This, curiously, allows an album to contain more ideas, plots, themes, and elements than a book or movie could, because it can add things that would feel too disconnected in other media.  Thus, Cindi Mayweather the android from a dystopian future can coexist comfortably in the same fluid narrative as the dance-powered psychics of the Palace of the Dogs and the time-traveling rebel artists of Wondaland.

  • I have a theory that no artist has more than 2 1/2 narrative concept albums in them, since that’s how many the Who produced (Tommy, Quadrophenia, and half of Who’s Next).  Monáe has released two full-length albums and an EP, but she chose not to bring Cindi Mayweather’s journey to a close in The Electric Lady, so she’ll have to destroy my rule to bring her story to a close.
  • Monáe is getting big, so it was a real privilege to see her at a venue as small as Club Nokia.  We may never get this kind of opportunity again.
  • But I hope she does get big, because this kind of talent deserves to be rewarded and her message deserves to be heard.  And then maybe she’ll get that movie deal and we’ll finally get to see Cindi on the big screen.  Because this story has been cinematic since day one.

I’m not shy with my criticism and I hate the word “perfect,” since I tend to believe that no work is perfect and that aiming for perfection cramps creativity and discourages experimentation, but this concert was perfect: Slick but not overproduced, technically competent but still full of heart, making every number, from the up-tempo hits to the mellow ballads, feel like the highlight of the show.  Usually big, daring works that take risks also make a lot of mistakes and the works that avoid major mistakes are timid and spiritless.  Janelle Monáe proves that you can have your cake and eat it too.  Her discography is big and daring and yet it contains absolutely nothing I could label a mistake, nothing she experimented with but didn’t really work.  Instead, her music is great on every possible level: Her gorgeous vocals, her infectious hooks, her always-meaningful lyrics, powerful themes, and intriguing story, and of course, her magnetic stage presence.

Images found here and here.

Rating Inflation: It’s Not Real

star_ratingsIf you’ve spent much time on IMDB, Netflix, or any other site that lists ratings for media, you’ve noticed that, whatever scale they’re using, the average is never in the middle.  It’s skewed noticeably to the right.  Mediocre media often gets a 6 or 7 out of 10; even the worst trash rarely falls below a 2 or 3.  Rotten Tomatoes, in an apparent attempt to compensate, sets their Fresh threshold at 60%.

Many people conclude that we’re suffering from rating inflation:  We’re giving bad things okay reviews and okay things good reviews and everything ends up clustered at the top, thus making ratings meaningless.  For instance, from Tevis Thompson’s masterpiece of obfuscatory writing:

The review scale is one of the most embarrassing aspects of the videogame community.  Where else is an 8 the acceptable level at which to criticize a failure as colossal as BioShock Infinite?  The score that won’t cause too many waves, since anything in the 7’s is average at best, and below that: no man’s land.  Where else do you see these numbers?  School, that’s where.  There is perhaps no clearer admission that videogames have not escaped their adolescence than grading them on a high school curve.

This is an old problem, but one that even relatively new sites show no inclination to address.  When Polygon launched last year and began putting out higher caliber feature stories, I had some hope that they might approach reviews differently as well.  I read their review policy and saw a lot of fuss about updating reviews over time but nothing new when it came to the scale.  Worse, the scale they put forward actually validated and reinforced our current low standards, only gussied up with professional language.  9’s “may not innovate or be overly ambitious but are masterfully executed.”  7’s are good but “have some big ‘buts’”.  A 5 “indicates a bland, underwhelming game that’s functional but little else.”  Not 5 as average, as commonplace, the middle instead of the bottom of the scale.  (Their 2’s, 3’s, & 4’s list some silly trinity of ‘complete’ failures to justify their existence.)

The concept of rating inflation suggests that reviews were lower on average in the past, which I don’t think anyone has ever provided evidence for, but let’s assume that the inflation we’re talking about is compared to a theoretical “correct” rating, rather than a past rating.  Even by this metric, there’s no real evidence that rating inflation exists.  To see why, first we need to separate consumer ratings from critic ratings and look at the differences between them.

I’m defining consumer ratings as ratings given by general users on sites where the primary focus is media consumption.  This includes sites like Netflix and Goodreads.  Most of these sites allow you to write reviews, but user reviews aren’t the main focus and are usually less important to other users than the aggregate rating.  These sites often have extremely high average ratings, with hardly anything dipping below a 3 out of 5.  But what does the rating actually mean?

Nextflix spells it out for us: Hated it, didn’t like it, liked it, really liked it, loved it.  These user ratings aren’t meant to be complex analyses; they’re only meant to describe how you felt about the movie.  If you liked it, you should give it a three.  If most people who watched it liked it, then it will have an average score of three.  That’s a “true” rating.

So why does practically everything have a three or above, even things that were really bad?  It has nothing to do with inaccurate ratings; instead, it’s due to inaccurate sampling.  Movies are rated by people who have seen them.  People usually see movies that interest them.  If Transformers is rated 4/5, that doesn’t mean that the general population really liked it; it just means that people who watch Michael Bay movies really liked it.  So when user ratings skew high, all that means is “People mostly like things they think they are going to like.”  A truism, to be sure, but truisms are true.  All attempts to correct the skew are less true.

I’ll define critic ratings as ratings given by professional movie critics, leaving out hobby critics like myself for the moment.  Critic ratings don’t suffer from the sampling problem, because they review a wide variety of media, not just what they expect to like.  However, ratings still tend to end up on the higher side of the spectrum–not so much with movies, but definitely with video games.  Does this mean that video-game reviewers are a bunch of softies who don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings?  Not at all.  It depends on one’s philosophy of what the rating means.

Rating inflation generally implies that ratings ought to form a vague bell curve: If you’re rating from 1 to 5, 10% of films should get a 5, 10% should get a 1, and 40% should get a 3.  But, as you know if you’ve ever taken a curved class, bell curves are subjective: No matter how well you did, you fail if everyone else did better than you.  That’s not a very useful way to grade a class, because your grade doesn’t actually reflect whether or not you know the material, and it’s not a useful way to rate media, either.

Instead, media can and should be rated based on theoretically-objective criteria.  Evaluate the story, characters, themes, writing, cinematography, gameplay, whichever criteria are applicable to that medium, and then give the work an overall rating based on all of those.  At no point in the process do you need to compare the work to other works.  Are the characters believable, relatable, and three-dimensional?  Then the work is well-done in that respect, regardless of how well-written characters in other works may be.

Thus, while these ratings might still fall into a bell curve, they don’t need to.  Maybe most stories have well-written characters.  Maybe most stories have poorly-written characters.  Either way, it would be misleading to present them as mostly in the middle if they aren’t.

So why do the ratings end up mostly at the high end of the spectrum?  It makes sense if you think about it.  Theatrically released movies, books published by large presses, primetime television, and video games from major studios all have a great deal of work put into them by competent professionals, so it stands to reason that most big-name media achieves a basic degree of competence.  Complaints about bad things getting okay reviews often forget just how bad it’s possible to be.  Boom mikes, spelling errors, game-breaking bugs: These are all major mistakes and they’re all usually absent from important media.  So reviews skew high in acknowledgment of how much worse things could be, and they should skew high so that exceptionally bad works that do make those basic mistakes can correctly be rated lower than those that don’t.

Video game ratings show the most skew because video games are the medium that combines the most elements and, therefore, they have the most axes along which they can fail.  The worst possible game would have to fail along every possible axis.  Most games don’t–they usually succeed in at least one respect and therefore deserve higher ratings.  Some games have terrible graphics but fascinating stories, bad writing but great gameplay, or clumsy interfaces but gorgeous visuals, and they all might deservedly fall in the 60%-75% range, despite their flaws.

The asymmetrical rating scheme isn’t just an alternative to the bell-curve scheme: It’s better.  It portrays each individual work as good, okay, or bad based on its own merits, so the rating can help a reader decide if zie will like something.  The bell-curve scheme forces most media into the okay category even if it’s really better or worse, so while it may appear less skewed, it’s not useful to actual readers.

It’s time to put to rest the idea of rating inflation.  Ratings should reflect how good a work actually is, and that includes the possibility that most of it actually is pretty good.

Comic from XKCD.

How to Fix Agents of SHIELD

So we’re five weeks in and by now we can all agree that Agents of SHIELD is okay.  It’s not really bad, per se, but it feels very, very safe, and given the sheer volume of executive restrictions within which Joss Whedon has to work, it couldn’t really be otherwise.  This show was designed to take absolutely no risks that might cause it to fail, and that’s what will guarantee that, in the grand scheme of things, it does fail.  This is not going to be remembered for years to come or become anyone’s favorite show.  The best it can do is pave the way for better Marvel shows in the future.

OMG, women!

OMG, women!

Agents of SHIELD has a fine premise and fan favorite Agent Coulson to hold it together; also, in contrast to the Avengers films, it actually has some women in the main cast, including the first woman of color we’ve seen in this universe*. So what is it actually doing wrong and how could it, theoretically, have been done better?  Let’s have a look.

The most obvious weakness is the arc, or lack thereof.  Villain of the Week shows just don’t cut it anymore, nor should they.  There’s simply a limited amount of investment that can be built around characters and situations that were only introduced at the beginning of the episode and will be resolved by the end.  Building a continuity while avoiding disrupting the continuity of any other Marvel property would be a major problem, but it’s absolutely necessary and would play to Whedon’s strengths.  Who would want to watch a show where, every episode, they discover a MacGuffin and then launch it into the sun?

The show has the rudiments of an arc–most of the episodes end with some hint of how the person, organization, or plot object might reappear–but it’s a facade.  Nothing important is really changing as a result of each episode.  The stakes are not growing.  Everything could instantly be wrapped up by introducing (and then defeating) a big boss who was behind everything for no particular reason.  So the first way to improve the show would be to commit to a strong, meaningful arc.


And they just fly around in a plane all the time?

The plotting is weak in the details, too.  Far too many of the obstacles are overcome by “use computers to do something” or “apply science gadget.”  You might not think there’s better or worse technobabble, but there is.  Technobabble needs specificity (think Bond gadgets: the interest comes from how they will come in useful) and setup (so that it doesn’t come out of nowhere and create the feeling that anyone could produce anything as needed).  Setting things up in one episode to be used in the next is helpful, so improving the arc dovetails with improvement in this area.

The themes are another problem.  The Marvel films deserve credit for not taking a post-9/11 American-imperialist approach to SHIELD and portraying it as a government agency that’s always in the right no matter what it does because it’s fighting the bad guys (like, say, the Counter-Terrorism Unit of 24)  SHIELD has its moments of ambiguity: The time when they steal all Jane Foster’s stuff and then act smugly righteous about it and the excellent scene where an argument breaks out after the Avengers discover that Coulson has been lying to them about SHIELD’s activities.  Questions about SHIELD’s purpose and ethics get raised and not completely answered.

Those questions get raised now and then in Agents of SHIELD, too, but in a far more mealy-mouthed way.  A character will pop up to rant about the evils of government surveillance, but the next moment the team will be happily jetting off to save someone who SHIELD’s surveillance has discovered kidnapped.  People may discuss whether SHIELD is right or wrong, but it’s ultimately meaningless because SHIELD is always right.  The show would benefit massively from some major blunders and failures that would demonstrate the dangers of SHIELD’s strong-arm approach.

The rest of the problems relate to the characters.  It’s surprising that Whedon turned out such a weak cast, but no doubt there was a lot of executive meddling at work.  The cast is mostly young, adorable, and bland, which is neither very realistic for an elite government agency nor very compelling to watch, and their blandness leaves very little room for development.  Coulson is strong and his backstory is intriguing, but May’s arc feels forced and Fitzsimmons are eminently forgettable.  But the biggest problems–and the most room for improvement–fall on Ward and Skye.

And he does this thing with his eyebrows.

And he does this thing with his eyebrows.

Ward is supposed to be the highly competent field agent with absolutely no interpersonal skills, but that’s a completely informed flaw.  I can’t think of a single instance where he’s actually made a faux pas or had trouble interacting with someone.  Instead, he makes woobie faces and stands around looking sympathetic while people tell him about their troubled pasts.  A character who was actually abrasive and repellent, both to other characters and to the audience, would actually be more sympathetic, because we’d have a vested interest in seeing him develop.

And then there’s Skye.  Skye falls into what I call “Snape syndrome.”  Here’s the issue: Characters with ambiguous motivations are interesting.  In a single movie, book, or TV episode, it works great to introduce a character who claims to be an ally but does questionable things and raises suspicion, until the end, when zir true motivations are revealed.  But you can’t do this every episode with the same character.  It’s tempting on the principle that what worked once will work again, but in order to keep a character acting ambiguously for the entire length of a series without ever doing something that provably puts zir on one side or the other, zie has to act more and more improbably, until finally the only possible explanation for zir behavior is that zie is actively attempting to look ambiguous to the audience**.

Now, it’s fine to make Skye ambiguous, but not at the expense of being a coherent character, and not by making that the only inter-team conflict that we ever get to see.  Skye is introduced just fine with a couple of episodes where her motivations are a little dodgy, but the show would be better if she then lost the ambiguity and acted entirely like a good guy for the entire middle of the season.  Then, at the end, she can double-cross the team and we might actually be surprised.

Overall, I’d say Agents of SHIELD is more in need of a number of small changes, rather than a big overhaul.  Unfortunately, most of these changes couldn’t actually be made at this point (Ward couldn’t suddenly lose his social skills, for instance).  Soon we’ll start seeing episodes that were filmed after the show began to air; I hope we’ll start seeing some changes based on viewer response, but if we do, they’ll have to be rather mild changes.  Most likely, it will continue to be a pretty good show, and that will be all.

I’ll still watch it, though.

*The main cast is still awfully white (though less white than the Marvel cinematic universe), but Whedon seems to be attempting to balance this out by introducing guest characters of color in nearly every episode.  Unfortunately, this means that they’re almost always villains.  Oops.

**Additionally, it becomes necessary to raise the stakes in order to keep the audience invested and to prevent them from going “Oh, it’s just that person being kind of sketchy again.”  So zie needs to do more and more terrible things, justified afterwards with more and more improbable explanations, until finally Snape has to kill Dumbledore.

Images found here, here, and here.

RIP, Lou Reed

You were amazing.


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