Women, Weakness, and Warfare in the Written Word

[Trigger warning for discussion of rape and sexual violence.  Spoiler warning for Garth Ennis' Battlefields Vol. 1.]

CaucasusOne key decision I made while writing Among the Red Stars was the choice not to have any of the characters experience sexual violence.  Some people may be puzzled by this choice; after all, isn’t rape a common war crime committed against enemy women in many armed conflicts, and weren’t the Night Witches, in combat against the Nazis, particularly vulnerable?

I’m not a historian and I won’t deny that many atrocities took place on the Eastern Front, but the women of Aviation Group 122 make virtually no references to sexual violence.  (If you need a brief explanation of who these women were, go here.)  One of the only mentions comes from Anna Timofeyeva-Yegorova, who wasn’t a Night Witch but the commander of a mixed-gender attack squadron:

I don’t know if I lost consciousness, but when I opened my eyes there was a fascist standing over me with his boot on my chest.  I was seriously injured: I had a broken spine, head injuries, broken arms, and a broken leg.  I was burned on my knees, legs, and feet, and the skin was torn on my neck.  I remember the face of the fascist; I was very afraid that I would be tortured or raped.  (Anne Noggle, A Dance with Death 224)

8xbRKP5VjhsTimofeyeva-Yegorova only mentions the fear of being raped, which implies that it didn’t actually happen to her.  It’s possible that the women simply chose not to mention the sexual violence that took place, although, as the above quote shows, they didn’t shy away from detailed descriptions of physical violence and injury.  But rape clearly wasn’t a ubiquitous part of the Night Witch experience.  Most of them never even met enemy combatants face to face.

But it isn’t purely a question of historicity.  Thematically, how does the inclusion of a rape scene affect this kind of story?  What message does it send?

One of the few English-language fictional representations of the Night Witches is Garth Ennis’ graphic novel Battlefields: The Night Witches.  Despite its gorgeous illustrations and solid writing, I found myself not liking it.  Partly this was because I’ve read so much about the topic that I’m now impossible to please, but another major reason was the prominent role of rape in the storyline.  One Night Witch gets gang-raped and murdered by the Nazis, two more shoot themselves to escape the same fate, and a fourth is rescued by another Wehrmacht soldier, all in one short volume that only manages to give two airwomen names.

Night-Witches-#2-smallRape, a gendered threat, thus replaces death as the primary danger these women face (only one airwoman is actually killed in combat).  This framing emphasizes women’s unique weakness.  Sexual violence, of course, can and does happen to men during wartime as well, but neither Battlefields nor war fiction in general acknowledges this.  Thus, the focus subtlely shifts off of women as strong and heroic and onto women as weak and vulnerable.  These women aren’t defying death, they’re avoiding rape.  The reader’s implicit reaction isn’t “Those total badasses,” it’s “Those poor things.”

We do need stories that tackle real-world problems like rape.  But we also need stories where women are allowed to be brave and tough and adventurous without the specter of gender-specific violence constantly hanging over them.  Among the Red Stars is about real-life heroes and I intend to portray them as exactly that: Not victims, not “poor things,” but heroes.

PO-2 illustration by me. Photo of Anna Timofeyeva-Yegorova found here.

Filler Versus Content

Today I’m going to discuss a real writing problem I’ve run into for which I have no solution.

Filler is bad.  This I trust to be a universally recognized fact.  What exactly constitutes filler is up for debate; it’s easy enough to define it as “anything that isn’t content,” but that just shifts the question to what exactly constitutes content.  The old chestnut that content advances the plot or builds character strikes me as too limited.  Vivid descriptions neither advance the plot nor build character, yet they are essential; strengthening the themes of the story (say, through a parallel side plot) is another kind of content.  But we all know filler when we see it: Those dull passages where people you don’t care about do things you don’t care about.

Common wisdom states that filler should always be removed; a good story is composed entirely of content.  I believe common wisdom is right, but there’s an equal and opposite problem: If every scene in a novel is important, it can start to feel like too much.  The reader might be overwhelmed and unable to keep track of the plot if zie is constantly faced with one thing after another without any downtime, and the whole thing may feel too rushed.  But how can you slow it down without adding filler?

Most of the possible solutions are not really solutions at all.

  • Add subplots: If the problem is that the main plot advances too fast and if the overall story isn’t too long, a subplot can be a great breather.  Make it something lighter in tone than the rest of the story and without high stakes or too much complexity.  But if your novel is already on the long side — or if an excess of complex subplots is the problem — then that’s not a good answer.
  • Remove subplots: The inverse solution.  This is a good idea if your novel is too long and too full of convoluted plot threads for anyone to keep track of, and most of the time it falls under the “no filler” rule as you prune subplots that don’t actually contribute to the overall narrative.  But what if the story is neither too long nor too short?  What if all the material that’s in there is good, but it simply happens too fast?
  • Rearrange scenes: If there are particular important scenes that are getting lost, taking a close look at your organization may help.  Space out those important scenes, especially side plot scenes that may not obviously tie in with the main story, in between slower-paced, less important scenes.  But reorganizing is no help if many scenes are getting lost or if there are no less important scenes to juxtapose them with.
  • Add description: I feel the need to mention this one for completeness.  Sometimes a novel may be paced too fast because it’s too terse.  Descriptions serve an important pacing purpose by preventing the plot from reading like an outline, and they also work as a moment of downtime because they rarely contain essential information.  But there’s a limit to how much description you can include without sounding like Bulwer-Lytton.  So, again, this only helps if your story was too short and description-light to begin with.

Do you have any other suggestions for how to slow the pacing of a novel without adding filler?

In Defense of YA Literature

Critics are used to being able to state nearly any media-related opinion with some degree of immunity, but there is one pitfall that they fall into with surprising regularity: Making an a priori declaration about the inferiority of one form of media or another and then attempting to justify it with a posteriori arguments.  This is always going to be a mistake.  Ebert fell into this trap with his curmudgeonly announcement that video games could never be art, for which he had to apologize.  Other critics ought to learn from his mistake, yet they don’t.

The_Fault_in_Our_StarsThe latest curmudgeon is Ruth Graham in this Slate article denouncing adults who read young-adult literature.  Her thesis, such as it is, is that all YA books are perfectly good for children and teenagers, but that they lack the complexity to be proper literary fare for adults.

Before I dig in, I’d like to mention that I’m not myself a fan of the young-adult genre.  My personal predilections skew towards tome-length classics with bigger casts and more subplots than you usually find in YA, and I don’t relate to most teenaged protagonists.  While there are plenty of YA books that I’d classify as “good books,” I’d hesitate to argue that there are any that qualify as “great literature,” and I have a low opinion of many books that get trotted out as examples of high-quality literature for young people, like Harry Potter.  Thus, I’m not criticizing Graham because I’m defensive about books I love.  I’m criticizing her because she’s wrong.

71MT0ceUanLIt’s difficult to know where to begin.  Like most people inclined to write off large categories of things out of hand, she doesn’t seem particularly familiar with what she criticizes–she classifies The Westing Game and Tuck Everlasting as YA books from her youth, when in fact they are both middle-grade novels for younger children–and it’s tempting to dismiss her criticisms as being simply misinformed.  But the real problems with her view run deeper.

There’s the aforementioned a priori versus a posteriori problem.  Graham, to her credit, acknowledges that it’s unfair to judge the entire YA genre based on trash like Twilight (although she fails to acknowledge that most adult fiction is also trash; the closest she comes is a sidelong jab at the inferiority of genre fiction), but she nevertheless feels confident making dismissive generalizations about YA: That adults only read it for “escapism, instant gratification, and nostalgia;” that it “present[s] the teenage perspective in a fundamentally uncritical way;” that “the emotional and moral ambiguity of adult fiction—of the real world—is nowhere in evidence.”

9781423152194_custom-576e89df094fe00930112e441b559f8db507b92e-s6-c30The problem with her reasoning is obvious: She has stated unequivocally that all YA literature is unfit for adult consumption, but then she has supported her position with a number of concrete traits that she claims all YA shares, thereby tacitly admitting that if even one YA book did criticize the teenage perspective or present an ambiguous ending, it would be worthy of adult readers and her whole position would be negated.  And, of course, there are YA books that fulfill her criteria.  I’d love to see her twist herself into a pretzel trying to explain how Code Name Verity, the entire first act of which consists of a girl being tortured by Nazis, is escapism and instant gratification.

7-A-Christmas-CarolConversely, as Neil Gaiman pointed out in a deleted tweet, the classics that she presents as examples of acceptable adult fare are guilty of the very sins that she reviles.  Charles Dickens, for instance, made likable protagonists, morally unambiguous situations, and tidy endings his stock and trade (and works like A Christmas Carol, written for children, ought to be off-limits by Graham’s standards anyway).

An even larger problem is her silly either/or framing of the issue, which makes the morally correct act not reading the wrong books, rather than reading the right books.  Either position is nonsense, of course, but at least putting a moral value on reading the “right” books is, at the end of the day, encouraging people to read, whereas Graham puts the moral value on avoiding the “wrong” books and is therefore fundamentally discouraging people from reading.  Reading a wide variety of books is apparently not an option to her; immediately after acknowledging that “[t]here’s room for pleasure, escapism, juicy plots, and satisfying endings on the shelves of the serious reader,” she turns around and contradicts herself by saying that people who read YA “are substituting maudlin teen dramas for the complexity of great adult literature.”  This focus on the purported mediocrity of YA perversely places the wide-ranging reader of all genres on a lower moral level than someone who avoids reading the offending books by simply not reading at all.

9780375842207_p0_v6_s260x420Finally, Graham may claim that she disapproves of YA based on the experience it gives to the reader, but her essay betrays another motivation: Appearances.  She doesn’t like YA because it’s for kids and she wouldn’t want to be caught reading something for kids.  It’s right there in the subtitle: “You should feel embarrassed.”  The social pressures of reading play heavily into her reasoning.  “I know, I know: Live and let read,” she grumbles, like an oenophile who honestly resents that he can’t prevent the diner at the next table from ordering a sauvignon blanc with his steak.  Her concern about appearances explains why reading both adult and YA literature is not an acceptable solution: It’s not that reading YA prevents you from appreciating the complexities of adult literature, but that reading YA may give the appearance of not appreciating the complexities of adult literature.  Read whatever you like, but if it isn’t great literature, have the decency to be ashamed of it.

Bullshit.  If you’ve judged something to be worth reading, embrace it.  You should never be ashamed of your own likes and dislikes.  An adult would know that.

Intersectionality in Sherri L. Smith’s Flygirl

9780399247095This article was originally posted at Feminist Borg.

One of the benefits of the rise of YA literature has been an expansion of literature for girls and the sorts of topics they can cover. With hits like The Hunger Games, YA girls’ literature has moved away from being dominated by books about romance and relationships and into genres like sci-fi and action/adventure, incorporating a wider variety of female protagonists in the process.

However, there hasn’t been a corresponding expansion of literature for and about minorities. The face of YA literature is still distinctly white. There are few YA books featuring nonwhite protagonists, and those are usually books about racial issues, such as Malorie Blackman’s excellent Noughts & Crosses. Minorities in YA literature rarely get a chance to have other goals and conflicts outside of race issues. But one good counterexample is Flygirl by Sherri L. Smith.

Flygirl tells the story of Ida Mae, a Southern black girl who passes as white so that she can join the Women’s Auxiliary Service Pilots (WASP) during World War II. Race and gender politics both play important roles, but always in support of the main narrative of Ida Mae’s journey to become a WASP. The different issues are skillfully balanced; gender isn’t used as a metaphor for race or vice versa, but both parallel and highlight each other.

Early in the story, Ida Mae applies to get her pilot’s license with an instructor who she knows will pass black pilots, only to be denied because of her gender:

Mr. Anderson looked at me and said, “You can fly, no doubt about it. But no woman’s gonna get a license out of me. Go home, Miss Jones. You’ve failed.” (Flygirl 4)

Later, when the war breaks out and she wants to join the WASP program, she finds herself in the opposite situation:

In fact, it’s like Uncle Sam runs two armies at onceone all white and the other colored. Grandy says that’s the way it’s always been. They’ve finally decided to let women fly military planes. I don’t know why I thought that meant colored women, too…

“[I]t’s like when I tried to get my license. If you’re colored, you get the short end of the stick. If you’re a woman, you get the short end of the stick. So what do we get for being colored and women?”

Jolene sighs. “Beat hard with both ends of a short stick.” (Flygirl 32-33)

When Ida Mae pretends to be white in order to enroll in the WASP training program, she is surrounded by other women who share her passion for flying, and as she makes new friends and works through her training, she begins to form a new identity as a white woman. When her mother comes to the base to report that her brother is missing in action, Ida Mae is forced to pretend she’s her maid:

I will go to hell for this, I think. I should go to hell. My mother’s face looks back at me in the dark, my own mother who let me treat her like a servant just so she could talk to me. When the first tear rolls down my face, I can’t tell if it’s for Thomas or for pure shame. (Flygirl 166)

But sooner or later, she will have to decide who she really is. Is she willing to be a pilot if it means denying her race and even cutting off contact with her family? Or should she embrace her racial identity at the cost of being a WASP? And where does her gender fit into all this, in an army that’s hostile to women in almost any role?

Flygirl is a great example of a book with a nonwhite female protagonist that nonetheless isn’t “about” race or gender. It deals with both topics as they relate to the greater story, addressing them straightforwardly without being preachy or didactic and without attempting to offer easy answers to the complex, thorny problems of race and gender in mid-20th century America. On top of it all, it’s a great read with an engrossing story and memorable characters. You should definitely check it out.

Edgar Rice Burroughs and Alien Gender

This article was originally posted at Feminist Borg.

One of the areas in which the male-dominated nature of the media often shows through with dazzling clarity is in the gender representation of alien species. All too often, artists and designers will come up with a creative, complex, fascinating design for the species, but then hit a brick wall when trying to make it female. For instance, the art director of Mass Effect 3 said:

We usually try to avoid the females because what do you do with a female Turian? Do you give her breasts? What do you do? Do you put lipstick on her? There’s actually some of the concept artists will draw lipstick on the male one and they’ll say “Hey, it’s done” and we’ll go “No, can you take this serious?”

He deserves mild credit for recognizing that putting lipstick on a male creature is not, in fact, actual design, but instead he’s gone the route of leaving female aliens out altogether (In fairness, female Turians were eventually introduced, and it was awesome). He is still suffering from that mental block: A complete inability to imagine how gender could be depicted separate from our cultural signifiers.

Now let’s rewind about a century and turn to about the last person you’d expect to demonstrate progressive gender representation: Pulp adventure writer Edgar Rice Burroughs. Best known as the creator of Tarzan, Burroughs also wrote the John Carter of Mars series, which can be summed up as “man goes to Mars, has adventures.” The first alien species that John Carter encounters in the 1917 book A Princess of Mars are the Tharks, or green Martians. These are not the little green men that would be popularized later, but something far more unusual:

They seemed mostly head, with little scrawny bodies, long necks and six legs, or, as I afterward learned, two legs and two arms, with an intermediary pair of limbs which could be used at will either as arms or legs. Their eyes were set at the extreme sides of their heads a trifle above the center and protruded in such a manner that they could be directed either forward or back and also independently of each other, thus permitting this queer animal to look in any direction, or in two directions at once, without the necessity of turning the head.

Thark

Thark

The ears, which were slightly above the eyes and closer together, were small, cup-shaped antennae, protruding not more than an inch on these young specimens. Their noses were but longitudinal slits in the center of their faces, midway between their mouths and ears.

There was no hair on their bodies, which were of a very light yellowish-green color. In the adults, as I was to learn quite soon, this color deepens to an olive green and is darker in the male than in the female. Further, the heads of the adults are not so out of proportion to their bodies as in the case of the young.

The iris of the eyes is blood red, as in Albinos, while the pupil is dark. The eyeball itself is very white, as are the teeth. These latter add a most ferocious appearance to an otherwise fearsome and terrible countenance, as the lower tusks curve upward to sharp points which end about where the eyes of earthly human beings are located. The whiteness of the teeth is not that of ivory, but of the snowiest and most gleaming of china. Against the dark background of their olive skins their tusks stand out in a most striking manner, making these weapons present a singularly formidable appearance.

These aliens, then, are exactly the sort of thing that puzzled the Mass Effect art director. In some ways they resemble insects, in some ways reptiles or amphibians, in no way humans. Obviously it wouldn’t make sense to give female Tharks breasts, since they aren’t mammals, and because they don’t wear clothes or have hair, options for tertiary characteristics (dress, makeup, hairstyle, etc) are limited. You might well expect Burroughs to take the easy route and simply make all the green Tharks male. But he doesn’t. Here’s how the female Tharks are described:

The women varied in appearance but little from the men, except that their tusks were much larger in proportion to their height, in some instances curving nearly to their high-set ears. Their bodies were smaller and lighter in color, and their fingers and toes bore the rudiments of nails, which were entirely lacking among the males. The adult females ranged in height from ten to twelve feet [males are about fifteen feet tall].

Female Tharks vary from the males, but (aside from size) the differences between male and female Tharks are not at all like the differences between male and female humans.

It’s important to note that Burroughs did not design the Tharks out of some egalitarian ideal. He was about as diametrically opposed to feminism as it’s possible to be. The Tharks are portrayed as a brutal, savage species, while the more civilized human Martians fall into very rigid, traditional gender roles, and his stories are filled with the typical rugged heroes and fainting damsels. For instance, in Warlord of Mars, when Carter and his wife are beset by attackers, his wife’s contribution to the fight is to hide behind him and sing to raise his spirits while he defends her.

Burroughs must have simply observed that mammals, reptiles, insects, and so on all have their own types of gender differences and concluded that his distinctly non-human aliens ought to have distinctly non-human gender features.

If he could do it in 1917, today’s designers have no excuse.

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.

FEZ

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.

The Pacific Rim Principle: A Theory About Backstories

3166992-pacific-rim-charlie-hunnam-rinko-kikuchi2

I finally saw Pacific Rim and, alas, it’s not a major triumph for women’s representation by any means.  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.

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