Friday, November 11, 2016

Three Days After



So, it's almost 3:00 here, and I'm still in my PJs. Yeah, it's been that kind of week, and I know I'm not alone.

I rarely speak directly about politics in this blog, though I'm guessing most people can tell where I stand on things based on my feelings about diversity in fiction. Overall, I'm a pretty conflict-adverse person, and I know many women (and other, even more vulnerable people) who receive harassment and threats for airing their views online.

Nonetheless, I have to say something about this election. Like half (or more than half) of voting America, I spent the first Tuesday evening in November in a state that started with hearty denial (well, Romney got off to an early lead too, and all of these are "red" states) to still clinging to hope (Well, shit about Ohio, but there's no way Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania can all go red) to shock, followed by sick grief.

No election has affected me like this. I grew up during the Reagan years, so I'm used to political disappointment and frustration. Like all Americans, I've had elections not go my way and have walked around feeling blue and anxious about the future of our country because of it. This is different, though. It's more than just politics or fear that the kinds of programs and policies I support will be stalled for another four years, or even just fear of another Scalia type on SCOTUS. I've never felt this mixture of grief and fear. It's as if someone I loved has died.

This is how I feel right now.

Many visible, eloquent and talented people have aired thoughts and feelings similar to mine over the past few days, so I honestly don't think I can say anything newly profound, let alone have any impact, with this blog that has "tens" of regular followers. But there's one thing that's starting to bug me: white, straight, cisgendered people who are telling people that everything will be all right, even sneering at people for being afraid "just because they lost an election."


This isn't about just losing another election. Yes, I'd be frustrated and somewhat angry if we now had another President Bush or Kasich or Rubio (or, shudder, Cruz) etc. to look forward to, especially with congress also being under the control of the GOP and a Supreme court with several liberal and several aging moderate justices. But we don't have a qualified, competent politician, or even a rational, well-meaning human being at our helm. We have Trump (and Pence, who is in many ways, just as chilling, and with the political chops to back it up).

I won't list all the reasons I think he's unqualified to be president, in terms of experience, temperament, character, or goals, or why I think he's going to be a disaster for everything from the economy and national security to human rights. Others have done this very well indeed. Others have also done a good job of expressing the anger and disappointment I share that most of the white people in America, even most white women, voted for a man endorsed by the KKK and who wants to discriminate based on religion. A man who frightens children. A man who disrespects the men and women in uniform who have sacrificed their lives, freedom, or health for this country. A man who wants to overturn the Oberfell decision and feels that discrimination against LGBTQ+ people should be a protected form of free speech.

I'm not at all proud of my race today, and I earnestly hope that we will be just one of many minority groups in the not-too-distant future. No one group should have the ability to deprive others of their basic rights, and sadly, the white majority, as a group, has shown they're not willing to go to bat for others. Instead we think of success and security as a line we're all waiting in for years and years and shake our fists at other groups for, in our perception,"taking cuts." Think what we could do if she stopped acting like a bunch of dogs fighting over the last few scraps of meat and instead questioned why the fucking line is so long to begin with and why we all have to paddle so hard just to keep our chins above water. I get that many Trump voters didn't specifically choose to support him because of the bigotry and racism (though too many did), but they were willing to tolerate it as part of a package deal.

So please, please, please stop telling people who are scared and hurting they shouldn't be heartbroken and afraid. Some of us are more fortunate, more secure, than others and can possibly ride out another major recession, and (because of our race, gender, and orientation) we can hope be emerge personally unscathed from a period of rising intolerance for diversity and human rights. Some of us live in states that are going to at least try to resist the New World Order. Lucky us, but even so, we're not immune from the potential harm. I'm already wondering what will happen to the mental health care coverage in our insurance plan when the ACA (which mandates mental health coverage) is repealed, and I'm wondering how generous my state legislature and senate (and voters) will be with keeping the money flowing to make up for lost federal dollars if we go into another recession that depletes their coffers again. I'm wondering what will happen to the funding for the college where I teach, semester to semester on an as-needed basis, if the economy goes south again.

I'm not just scared for myself, though. You see, I care about people who aren't just like me. I don't assume that everyone who is less fortunate is where they are from being lazy or stupid. Not everyone will be equally insulated from harm when (and with the GOP controlling both houses, and soon, SCOTUS, it seems like a when, not an if) Trump's policies start to take effect. Half of us aren't male and are wondering what kind of behavior and harassment of women we might see more of over the next few years, since we've gotten a man who calls women pigs and dogs and thinks bragging about sexual assault is just generic "male banter" in the white house. Will sexual harassment in the workplace become another protected form of "free speech?"

 I've got friends, family, students and colleagues who aren't white, straight, economically secure, cisgendered, Christian (or likely to be taken as such by casual observation). What are their lives going to be like now? Jim C. Hines did a good job of listing reasons why many of us are afraid in his blog the other day. I don't see any point in duplicating those reasons here.

In light of all this, it's rather insulting to tell us we're being melodramatic when we say we think Trump and his movement remind us more of certain events in1930s-era Germany than it does the ascension of Silvio Berlusconi in Italy (not that the latter would be anything to be complacent about either). If you don't agree or understand, there's not much I can do to sway you. But if you can't lend support to your distraught friends, colleagues, and family members, please don't try to feed us platitudes about how everything will be okay. I'd love for that to be true, for this to be just another election cycle that didn't go the way approximately half of us wanted, but I don't have a lot of optimism right now.

I think we will be seeing more of these kinds of crimes over the next few years, and it makes me feel ill. When will our country finally lay this shit to rest?

The only thing that gives me hope is huge number of people who are drawing together, pledging to support those who need it most. Planning to fight back. If there has ever been a time to get involved, to reach out to those who are most vulnerable, this is it.

One thing I do want to say to the friends (offline and online), neighbors, and family members who are more vulnerable than I am: I won't mock or dismiss your fears, and I'll do whatever I can to support you and have your back. If you need something, please let me know.

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.

http://ncase.me/polygons/

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.

http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/everything-youve-heard-about-chastity-belts-is-a-lie/?utm_source=facebook.com&utm_medium=atlas-page

http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/medieval-chastity-belts-are-myth-180956341/?no-ist

http://historynewsnetwork.org/article/160509

http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2014/05/chastity-belts-never-actually-used-medieval-times/

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