Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Female-Centered Stories and Some Thoughts on Man Pain

My husband and I went to a drive-in movie a couple of weeks ago. I hadn't been to one since I was a teenager, and there's a six screen complex not too far from where we live. They show double features of recently released movies and are much cheaper than normal theaters. The main challenge lies in going on an "off night" when there won't be a long line of cars waiting to get in before sunset.

It was a blast (it helps that we went in my new Toyota mini-SUV, which is pretty comfortable). We saw The Secret Life of Pets (which was fun and cute) and the new Ghostbusters Movie. In spite of the lukewarm reviews and my misgivings about remakes, it was an enjoyable movie that made me laugh. It actually wasn't a straight-up remake of the original, but a new story with four characters who didn't feel like female versions of the original cast. The main flaws were that the pace actually might have been a bit too fast in places, with less time for character development. There were a number of cameos and Easter eggs from the original movie that I enjoyed, but they probably would be over the head of younger viewers who haven't seen the original several times over the years. Also, they had an amusingly inaccurate portrayal of what it's like to be faculty trying (and failing) to get tenure at a major research university (female profs wearing spiked heels and having to clean out your desk the day the bomb is dropped instead of finishing out the academic year and fading away over the summer. Right), but movies usually mess up the details of academic life.

I'll admit, most of the reason I decided I wanted to see it was the rancor and derision some have expressed over the notion of making an action movie, especially a remake of one where the original all-male cast went unremarked, with a female cast. Remakes of beloved classics are always controversial, but I don't think for a second that it would have gotten anything like the same amount of negative press if it had been made with a cast of four contemporary male comedians, or (as is more usual today) with a central cast of, say, three men and one token woman (who would, of course, be billed below the guys in the credits).

Stories with male-heavy casts still seem to be regarded as normal and expected. No one's thought to have an agenda or accused of trying to "prove a point" when they write such stories. But have a movie that's mostly about women, and there has to be a reason (and if it's not about something where the characters have to be female and the target audience is female only) then the reason has to be that evil of evils, Political Correctness!

And while remakes always get more scrutiny, I'm guessing that any movie, especially comedies and action movies (where the cast doesn't have to be female) with an all-female cast will have more than its fair share of detractors, not to mention out right haters.

It's a bit like people who insist that a character in a book or movie shouldn't be black, or gay, transgendered, or differently abled, unless the plot requires them to be one of those things specifically. Yet male, white, straight, cis-gendered, or able bodied characters don't need to be justified. Such characters are supposed to be the "everyman" with whom any reader or viewer will relate.

So male-focused narratives still seem to be our default norm. Male actors still get the overwhelming majority of speaking roles in movies, and far more movies have male "lead" characters than female. Male characters even talk more in movies with female leads. Most films flunk the Bechdel Test (this is the test that asks whether a movie has at least two named female characters and whether they have at least one conversation with one another about something that isn't a man). It's much harder to get an accurate count for novels in different genres, but aside from genres aimed specifically at female readers, like Romance and Women's Fiction (the fact that books by and about women and their concerns gets its own "special interest" label kind of says it all, actually), I'm guessing a similar bias exists in most genres of published fiction that aren't aimed at a specific gender.

Men and their relationships, problems and concerns are Important and Interesting to everyone. Women are often presented as plot devices that advance the story of a male character, not as important agents in their own right. And the frustrating thing is, the more we see this presented as the default norm, the more invisible it becomes to us, and the more we notice (and sometimes resent) movies that step outside of this comfort zone.

This is a topic I've run across on a couple of blogs lately, re the topic of the plot element that's come to be called "man pain" or "mangst."

I grew up before the internet, so it was much harder to find people with whom to discuss concepts like the Double Standard, let alone have glib phrases like Women in Refrigerators. This doesn't mean these plot devices didn't exist or people didn't recognize them as problematic at times.

I first became aware of this phenomenon during my childhood (I'm old. Shut up), when we used to watch a show called the Six Million Dollar Man. It was about a former astronaut who had almost died and was rebuilt as a cyborg and had all these superpowers used to fight crime for a fictitious branch of the US government. There was a special multi-part episode called "The Bionic Woman," where the love of the protagonist's life (who had somehow never been mentioned in the plot before this episode) surfaced, and they were about to get married when she suffered a deadly parachuting accident (she was a Strong Female Action Girl type). He got his supervisors to use their technology to save her and make her a superpowered bionic woman, but alas, she rejected her bionics and died. He suffered horribly while this was happening, and the last scene was of him kissing her cold, dead face with a single manly tear sliding down his cheek.

I was so mad. There was this great woman character with superpowers, a rarity in the 70s, and they killed her off because they couldn't possibly detract from the male protagonist's importance by having him be married and sharing the limelight.

Evidently, my feelings weren't alone, because the producers brought the Bionic Woman back to life (she was really in a coma, see) and gave her her own show, but with a convenient case of Amnesia so she was no longer involved with the Bionic Man character. Her show had a successful run. As for the Bionic Man's man pain? It was conveniently dropped and forgotten when it was no longer relevant to his arc.

Unfortunately, I've run across this kind of thing over and over in the decades since, and most of the time the writers in question don't bring the female "plot device" back for a book, movie, or TV series of her own :(

In the defense of the creators of the Six Million Dollar Man and Bionic Woman shows, the 70s were a different time. The modern incarnation of the women's movement (or "Women's Liberation" as it was called back then), was younger and pretty controversial in many circles, but there seemed to be at least some interest in expanding viewerships by showing women in new and different roles in books, movies, and television with shows like Charlie's Angels and Wonder Woman (and of course, they tried to avoid alienating male viewers by having the female characters be very attractive and most often sexily clad) but many of the old prejudices and assumptions about gender still went unexamined. As they do today.

I wish the whole man pain thing would, if not die in a proverbial fire, at least be rarer, or examined with a more critical eye. I'd love to see more books, for instance, where a male character gets into one of those "her suffering is all about me" jags and be brought up short by the woman in question (or at least have someone ask him, "Are you so hung up on this because you're sad for her and miss her, or is it mostly because you're experiencing tedious masculine guilt because her death symbolizes your own personal failure?")

Men are cool. Men are important. Their relationships and feelings are interesting. They are half the human race, after all. But there is no shortage of stories about them. It would be nice to see more books, movies and TV shows where they share the limelight, or maybe even take on the support roles for a change.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

How Small, Personal Biases can Shape Society

I ran across this simulation called "A Parable of the Polygons." In a nutshell, it demonstrates how an integrated society can become increasingly segregated over time if individuals harbor even a small amounts of personal bias towards living near their own kind.

It's fun to play around with the numbers. One thing that's interesting is that once segregation occurs, an elimination of bias doesn't result in greater mixing. I'd love to see a version of this with more "shapes" and where the bias can be manipulated to be different for some "shapes" than others.

While this demonstration focuses on physical proximity, it's possible that something similar could happen with regards to the choices people make about the books they want to read (both with regards to the gender or race of the authors or of the characters therein).

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Joe Abercrombie's Shattered Sea Trilogy

Shattered Sea Trilogy by Joe Abercrombie, published in 2015 by Del Rey.

I've been quiet lately, but I just finished Half a War, the third book in Joe Abercrombie's YA The Shattered Sea fantasy trilogy. I wasn't sure what to expect when I picked up the first novel in this series, Half a King. I really enjoyed his First Law Trilogy when I read it a couple of years back, in spite of finding a few bits and pieces problematic. I loved the way the author gave each pov character a distinct voice, narrative style, and personality and made me care about people I wouldn't like at all in real life.

I wasn't sure if his YA titles were going to be the same exact thing with teen protagonists, or if they were going to copy the style that dominates YA fantasy nowadays (nothing against it, but it's very different from Abercrombie's writing in some ways).

As it turned out, I needn't have worried. The story is very different, but the world building is, if anything, deeper and more internally consistent than what appears in The First Law books and their sequels. The writing style is smoother and a little more consistent across characters, but each character still has their own voice and personality. Unlike a lot of YA fiction these days, the stories are written in limited third (and in past tense), but the narrative is so immersive that it feels as if the story is unfolding as it's read.

As for tone and style, there are fewer "f" bombs than in Abercrombie's adult fiction, but the characters still talk the way you'd expect warriors and sailors to talk. There's no dumbing down or sugarcoating anything just because the story is written with teens in mind. The protagonists have adult responsibilities thrust upon them (as one would expect in a war-torn, pre-industrial society), and they rise to the occasion convincingly without coming off as adults in teenagers' bodies.

One constraint placed on YA fantasy is the need to keep the story within a limited scope or time frame so the protagonists don't "age out" of the demographic as an epic tale or series unfolds. Abercrombie deals with this issue by changing viewpoint (pov) characters with each book. Half the World, takes place a few years later and follows two different viewpoint protagonists (not Yarvi, who was the protagonist in Half a King). Book three took place three years (more or less) after book two, and has three new and different pov characters.

This may be a bit frustrating to readers who prefer to stick with the same pov character/characters for an entire series, but in each case, the protagonists from the previous book appears as important secondary characters in the subsequent ones. The development of Yarvi's character across the series, as seen through the eyes of new povs, was particularly intriguing.

One thing that Abercrombie received some criticism for in his First Law trilogy was his treatment of women and the prevalence of rape and female victimhood as a plot element. Out of six pov characters in First Law, only one was female, and she was possibly the least developed of the bunch in terms of motivations and backstory. It wasn't a deal breaker for me, but it did bother me in a couple of places.

This was far less of an issue in the Shattered Sea Trilogy. While book one was more male-centric (only one character, who was male, had pov time), books two and three had well-developed female pov characters. The fantasy world portrayed wasn't a feminist utopia by any stretch, but women played an important role in the culture and society and all the female characters, viewpoint and secondary, had well-developed personalities, goals, and agency.

Another characteristic of this trilogy is that I found each book better than the one before it. I liked Half a King, really liked Half the World, and couldn't put Half a War down. The ending was satisfying and stand alone, but there's enough going on in this world that I'd be happy to read another book or series set in it if the author decided to write one. I'd love to learn more about who those "Elves" really were, though the narrative provided enough hints about their cities and artifacts for me to formulate some hypotheses of my own.

I recommend it to anyone who likes gritty, sword-and-sorcery style fantasy set in a low-magic world, centered around a culture that feels vaguely Norse. The writing is tight but full of voice, the pacing fast, the emotions intense, and the characters are flawed human beings who are nonetheless endearing.

Don't read below here if you don't want mild, non-specific spoilers/content warnings.

Things that may be issues for some readers: the stories contain a fair amount of gore, battle scenes with descriptions of injuries and death, slavery, some swearing, consensual sex that is less graphic than in the First Law trilogy (and endearingly awkward enough to remind us that the characters are teens), death of major characters, references to torture and mistreatment of prisoners. I don't remember rape being depicted or mentioned overtly in the story.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

The Pervasive Myth of the Chastity Belt

I remember learning about these devices in my European history class in high school. They were presented as lurid examples of how horrible it was to be a woman in the middle ages. People referenced them from time to time in articles or discussion, and their existence were pretty firmly in the camp of things "everyone knew" to be true. But something always bothered me about those stories: they didn't seem like something that could be terribly effective, unless they were constructed in a way that would make their wearer likely to succumb to a nasty infection.

Belt claimed to be from 16th-17th century

Of course, my misgivings turned out to be correct. There's little evidence that medieval and Early-Modern references to the things were anything but metaphors or jokes, and the "real" ones that exist seem to date no earlier than the 18th or 19th centuries, when they were probably created as fakes to put in "medieval torture museums," or perhaps as sexual novelty items.

Here's some reading on the history of this pervasive myth.

Add this to the long list of things people "know" about the middle ages that just ain't true. As the old adage goes, a lie makes it around the world before the truth gets its boots on.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

BathRuby 2016 - The Surprising Neuroscience of Gender Inequality by Jane...

This is a fascinating video that touches on things I've noticed (as someone who teaches science at a college).

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Fantasy Novels I've Read Recently

We're already almost a quarter of a way through 2016, so I wanted to list some of the books I've read and enjoyed over the past two months or so. The last two, Updraft and Uprooted, were published in 2015 and are eligible for the 2016 Hugo Awards. If you're eligible to nominate for the Hugos this year (the March 31 deadline is rapidly approaching), I recommend you give these a read if you haven't already. I'd never tell anyone else what they should like, but I think both of these books are Hugo Worthy. 

The other titles on this list are excellent too, and I strongly recommend them.

Cover by Todd Lockwood
A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan. Tor 2013. I put off reading this book, because I thought it was going to be a fake reference book or something, but it's actually a delightful story, written memoir style, about Isabel, a woman living in a quasi-Victorian world that is very similar to our own, except that it has dragons. Fantasy elements are slight, and the dragons portrayed are very naturalistic--intelligent animals. The book starts with a the protagonist's childhood memories of dissecting a dead dove (and getting punished for it) and collecting specimens, and nearly being killed by a creature called a "wolf drake."

After Isabel marries a man with similar interests, she manages to get them a berth on a research trip to a mountainous country to study a breed of dragons called "rock wyrms." The narration is alive with voice and the protagonist's wry wit, and the tale kept me riveted until the end. I've just read the sequel, entitled The Tropic of Serpents, and it's every bit as good. These books definitely a change of pace from the style of epic fantasy I usually prefer, but I enjoyed them thoroughly and plan on reading the rest of the books in this series.

Cover by John Jude Palencar
Broken Blade by Kelly McCullough. Ace books, 2011. Aral, the protagonist, is a former assassin priest of a goddess of justice who has been murdered by her fellow deities. Robbed of both faith and identity, he's a tattered remnant of his former self who works as a blade for hire between bouts of drinking. The only thing keeping him sane is Tris, his shadow-dragon familiar. I'm a sucker for "hot mess" characters and for stories with animal companions and magical familiars, so this premise attracted my interest. The author's wonderful deconstruction of the "trouble walked in wearing a red dress" trope in the opening scene drew me in.

The book was entertaining, cleanly written, and well paced, and I liked the pov character's voice. If there's a flaw, it's that the author was a bit light on environmental and character detail for my tastes. I tend to favor leanness here, but I couldn't really visualize the kinds of clothes they were wearing, the style of architecture, and the appearance, coloring, racial characteristics of the characters, so my mind kept defaulting to "pseudo-medieval, European with everyone white," but I don't know if this was the author's intent. It's a small thing, though. This is the first book in a series, and I look forward to reading the next one soon.

Cover by Kris Kamikakushi
"Hunting Monsters" by S.L. Huang. Book Smugglers Publishing 2014. This is a short story, published as a stand alone. It's available as an e-book on Amazon, and Barnes and Noble online. Set in a fairy tale world (incorporating elements from "Little Red Riding Hood," "Beauty and the Beast" and other classic tales), this is a wonderful example of how a good writer can layer world building and history into a short story. Like many good fairy tale protagonists, the main character lives in a small cabin in the woods. On her fifteenth birthday, her mother is arrested for the murder of a grundwirgen, creatures that resemble beasts but are people in the eyes of the law.

The writing in this story is very good. I've always had a weakness for retellings and reinterpretations of fairy tales, and this one was a page turner.

Cover by Steven Martiniere
Updraft by Fran Wilde. Tor Books, 2015. This has to be one of the most unique speculative fiction settings I've ever encountered. Set in a world where people live in bone towers (which appear to grow from somewhere below the clouds) and fly on silk wings, it follows Kirit, a protagonist who wants to become a trader like her mother, but is manipulated into becoming one of the singers who protects her city safe from attacks by invisible predators.

As a singer in training, Kirit stumbles across multiple layers of intrigue and discovers a truth that could change her world forever. This story is fascinating and well written. If it has a fault, its that the alien setting and culture, along with the highly immersive approach to world building (it's told in a very "here and now" style of first person with not an info dump in sight) makes it hard to understand and relate to the characters' motives at times. This may be a fault in me as a reader and not the book itself, however, and I found myself increasingly pulled in as I read. I look forward to the sequel, which is coming out later this year.

Cover by Scott McKowen
Uprooted by Naomi Novik. Del Rey books, 2015. This story draws from Polish fairy tales the author remembers from her childhood, and it's beautifully written. Set in a village where a 17-year-old girl is taken every ten years by the wizard who protects it from encroachment by a cursed wood, the story has a strong female protagonist who is driven by her love for her best friend. The world is vividly drawn and simultaneously familiar and relatable yet fresh with many unexpected twists. I liked the way the author was able to create a sense of menace while remaining basically optimistic about human nature. Kept me guessing until the end.

This is a stand alone-novel, something that's probably too rare in fantasy. I love series and I understand why writers and readers of fantasy like sweeping epics and want to return to their favorite worlds for tale after tale, but it's also pleasant to be able to lose oneself in a book and to reach the end without feeling like there are plot threads that still need to be tied off.