The Force Awakens; Joseph Campbell Sleeps Through Alarm

So I’ve seen The Force Awakens twice now, and will probably be seeing it again today. I like it. It feels like Star Wars should feel, and while I do have some complaints, this is not the prequels. We have left that dark age behind, and have entered into a new era of hope and wonder. Or something.

The thing is, it’s still not quite the Star Wars that I’m looking for. I think it could be a decent introduction to it, but this movie is definitely more fanservice and set-up than a story in and of itself, and while I honestly don’t mind it all that much, it is definitely its greatest weakness. And upon watching Star Wars (what some people call A New Hope, because they’re wrong) the other night, I finally put my finger on exactly what it is about Awakens that leaves me wanting.

Not enough Joseph Campbell. Not nearly enough.

Because even though Awakens has the look, the feel and the terminal velocity of a good Star Wars movie, it lacks that one vital ingredient that makes Star Wars quite possibly my favourite film of all time: a by-the-numbers Hero’s Journey executed with style, passion and, most importantly, understanding how and why the Hero’s Journey works.

Which Awakens does not. Let’s talk about Rey. Who I really like. And who does actually go through an on-paper perfect Hero’s Journey. Spoilers ahead; for that matter, if you haven’t alrady seen The Force Awakens this entire post might not be of interest to you, because it kind of assumes you have.

And as for the question of why, on my writing blog, I am talking about a movie: it’s Star Wars. This is where I learnt how to tell stories. If there is any film franchise that can be more or less directly translated into the medium of writing, it is Star Wars.

The first one anyway. As for this one …

Continue reading


It’s the journey that matters

The writing world is fascinating. You’d think that, as an aspiring Writer (though also somebody who vehemently declares themselves Not A Writer Anymore), I would be more interested in what’s going on with my kin. Apparently not.

Thankfully there’s this wonderful thing called Twitter that does all of my engagement for me.

There’s apparently been a huge shitstorm brewing with the Hugo awards, the most prestigious sci-fi literary awards in existence, or so I gather. Neil Gaiman and Ursula K. Le Guin won a bunch of them so I assume that’s all the evidence I or anybody else needs. TL;DR: a bunch of bitter white conservative cishet dudes are gaming the voting system to flood the nominations with their own selected nominees. It’s worked.

It’s disgusting.

The fact that the system works like that to begin with is … well, no system is perfect. It goes to show, though, that it is only angry white dudes who have opted to game the system in this way, despite it being open for exploitation for anybody with a chip on their shoulder and enough friends with enough money to do so. Then again, maybe that’s partly why it’s only angry white dudes who have managed to game the system.

The argument they’re making is basically that “the good old days” are gone, replaced by politically-correct placard-waving feminists, gay rights activists and people who aren’t white. Daring to speculate on things like pertinent social issues of the day, human nature, politics – absolutely nothing like the entire fucking point of science fiction. And one of them openly supports gamergate. I would pray for you, Hugo Awards, if I believed in any kind of higher power that responded to prayer. Instead, I just hope you get your shit together.

What really frustrates me is that within this viscous morass of inanity is, deeply submerged, a nugget of value: the issue of what is “typical”, and what is “neutral”. We’re talking about people like Orson Scott Card here, who openly and financially opposes gay marriage and gay people in general, yet has written one of the most widely-celebrated science fiction novels of all time, across political spectrums and social demographics. I haven’t read it because 1): I can’t be fucked and 2): I totally buy into personality politics and don’t really want to read something written by a raging homophobe. But that’s not to say that I don’t have my own problematic faves (hello Vampire Academy), nor to call out anybody who likes Card’s work from an artistic point of view. The one sliver of valid discussion in the Rabid/Sad Puppies’ rabies-infected rhetoric is that certain stories do get more celebrated than others – not the ones they’re talking about, because their outrage is so narcissistic they can’t help but miss the point – but, for instance, the Hero’s Journey.

I’ve been thinking for a while now that Joseph Campbell’s celebrated monomyth is not as universal as writers, editors and anybody who knows who Joseph Campbell is seem to claim it is. I mean it’s fairly obvious that it gets used to tell pariticularly sexist, racist, homophobic, trans-erasing and all other manner of regressive stories, but that doesn’t mean that the model itself is regressive. You could use the Hero’s Journey to tell a story about a trans protagonist, or Black, or disabled – it’s just that it either doesn’t happen very often or, as is more likely, mainstream readership doesn’t have it marketed towards them.

That’s what I thought up until very recently. While I still believe that you could do that – because, well, you could – there’s also a problem with it, because the monomyth is very heavily gendered. A posthumously published book of Campbell’s, Goddesses, does explore the feminine divine and the role it plays in world mythology and narratives, but I can’t help but find it a bit suspicious that Campbell never published these lectures in book format during his life – he obviously had a lot to say on the subject. I have to suspect a bias on his part, not finding the topic quite worthy of publication – or perhaps he had plans to do so but never got around to it, or was turned down, or fuck it why am I speculating on a dead guy’s motivations anyway the book exists and I want to read it.

But this book existing – as it has for quite a while – has done nothing to diminish the near-reverence that the hero’s journey is treated with, and it certainly doesn’t seem to have encouraged the big-money mainstream media to find alternatives to it. It may well be less that the gatekeepers of the storytelling industry view the hero’s journey as gender-neutral and more that they have a bias towards gendered-male narrative storytelling, probably without realising it, like I’m imagining Campbell didn’t realise he de-valued the importance of publishing a book about female and feminine myth and narrative. Perhaps unfairly, but I really don’t trust men. And being a man myself, I have quite a bit of material to back that stance up with.

Regardless, this question of whether the hero’s journey as a structure, rather than an actual story, is male-specific, because I think that it is. So what would a heroine’s journey look like? Would it be fundamentally different to the hero’s journey, or is the hero’s journey truly neutral enough to accommodate any protagonist, any setting, any quest, so long as the basic structure is kept in tact? I found a couple of articles discussing it, and in the process I think I’ve discovered my favourite topic ever: Narrative and Gender. There is nothing more me than this topic, and I need more of it.

The first article I found talks about what the hero’s journey lacks in terms of being a good fit for a female protagonist. There are a few points that I take issue with in the specifics of the argument – the suggestion that Katniss Everdeen is a heroic character in particular, though that is probably because I am a total book purist when it comes to the series – I absolutely agree with one of the big points: the hero’s journey, because it is an aggregate of myths and folklore throughout history, is inherently retrospective, lending itself to a “good old days” kind of thinking, and often that is exactly what happens (anybody who doubts me can go watch Seventh Son, and then rejoice in the fact that they are one of the only people in the world who watched Seventh Son). Trying to build a heroine’s journey out of the myths that Campbell works with in the hero’s journey, using the kinds of roles that he allocates to women in the monomyth, is a recepie for disaster unless you are looking to be very, very subversive. And subversion is fun as fuck, don’t get me wrong, but it also often feels like a response, a reaction rather than an action, and in doing so can feel like it has less of a self-determined identity. I hate stories like that. And thus the assertion in this article that a heroine’s journey must be “forward-looking” is one that I am absolutely on board with. The only issue for me is that it assumes that the monomyth is the full scope of our possible material to draw on for constructing a heroine’s journey, instead of looking at, for instance, some of the myths and folklore that feature girls and women in the leading role, but then seeing how prevalent and insisted-upon the hero’s journey is for storytelling at a commercially viable level, this implicit assumption is pretty fair. There’s only so much you can cover in a single argument and keep it coherent.

The second article expands upon this concept of the heroine’s journey, giving some specific examples of where a heroine’s journey would differ from a hero’s. Two points stuck with me in particular. The first was this line:

Sometimes, we rob the dragon of its fire by giving it a task.

Cooperation over confrontation, yo. It stuck with me because I cannot, for the life of me, remember this ever happening in a story that featured a male protagonist, unless that protagonist was also a small child and unable to fight his way out of the danger he was in.

The second is this passage, quoting Carol Pearson:

In our culture, the heroic ideal of the Warrior has been reserved for men–usually only white men at that. Women in this plot are cast as damsels-in-distress to be rescued, as witches to be slain, or as princesses who, with half the kingdom, serve as the hero’s reward… The Warrior archetype is also an elitist myth, which at its base embodies the notion that some people take their heroic journeys while others simply serve and sacrifice…

[Although] many women enact the Warrior archetype… they do not see slaying dragons as very practical, since the people who often entrap women are husbands, mothers, fathers, children, friends–people who insist that good women forgo their own journeys to serve others. That is why there often are no true villains in stories about female heroes.

Spirited Away, anyone?

Harry Potter is essentially in this situation until Hagrid comes along and jailbreaks him, and it is this tension that opens his story. It also makes for the tightest, most satisfying storytelling portion of Philosopher’s Stone, so very obviously this is one to consider. Also considering the kind of toxic socialisation that a lot of women and girls go through, where they are taught to put others before themselves, in both subtle and non-subtle ways – I’d say that’s a pretty damn solid setup for some heroics to follow.

But both of these articles – and the very act of questioning the gender-neutrality of the hero’s journey, or any other narrative model – also raise the equally serious issue of gender determinism, the “well why should a heroine’s journey have to be fundamentally different to the hero’s journey?”, and, of course, “why couldn’t a male hero’s narrative follow this supposed female-centric structure?”, never mind what happens if we have nonbinary protagonists (which I have yet to find any writing on). It is this question that keeps me from completely giving up on the hero’s journey as being doomed to serving the patriarchy, because I see the structure it offers as being, if not neutral, then at least very adaptable. But on the other hand, the proposed heroine’s journey – I like it a lot. I think we need more heroes like that; we already have a couple with Harry Potter, Frodo Baggins and the Guardians of the Galaxy, and if this article is correct in its assumptions – well, I hope it is. I want more of this collaborative-effort-heroism, and definitely more diversity within that collaboration. And while the issue of gender determinism is a really important one that should not be glossed over just because the rest of the argument is good … the rest of the argument is good. Particularly the part about involving other people in the journey, because I’ve always been drawn to ensembles in my storytelling, and I feel lately that my more recent stories are missing that element, which is perhaps why I’m so loath to actually write any of them. Heroics are all well and good, and I love A Wizard of Earthsea for its introspective hero’s journey. But at the same time, that’s a pretty subversive twist on the formula as well, because in the end it is Ged who is the main antagonist and main protagonist. It is his arrogance and pride that threatens the world, and only through learning to accept himself as he truly is can he save himself, and thereby save the world. Granted, that also makes it an incredibly myopic hero’s journey, but no less pure of an example for it. It’s just that stories of a lone hero doing lonely hero things really doesn’t appeal to me, unless that loneliness is part of the journey. Because there’s more than one important person in the world, and it certainly takes more than one person to change it.

Even the Puppies get that part.

I lament the toxicity that seems to have engulfed the Hugo Awards, but I am also somewhat hopeful that it is a backlash that is indicative of the death throes of that particular way of thinking, rather than a resurgence of it. I hope that’s what it is. And in the meantime, I am very glad to have found some eye-opening discussion on the way that we tell stories, the gendered assumptions we collectively make about our culture’s most defaulted-to narrative models, and to consider the possibilities that arise from this discussion.

It’s also gotten me to dig myself out of my creative writing rut a little bit, and has taught me a valuable lesson: there’s interesting shit going on in the writing world, and it’s not just interesting to read – it’s also useful for getting me out of my own head, opening up my perspective and getting me closer to being as involved in storytelling as a craft, a philosophy and a culture as I’d like. Because just like the hero’s journey suffers from isolation and myopism, writing suffers from trying to “go it alone”. I miss having a writing buddy. I miss the feeling of writing in the company of others, because storytelling is a very social act. And I’m remembering that I need that part of it.

Lovely (a rant about Princess Buttercup)

So. Love-interests.

Like anybody else who was raised on a steady diet of Disney animated films during their larval stage, I got real familiar with the whole romance narrative while I was growing up. As such, my first stories all had some kind of romance. I remember my surprisingly long-lived comic series, The Onions, which was about a pair of squirrels who smelled like onions, and fell in love due to their mutual freakishness. They then spawned an entire brood of onion-scented rodents, and the last time I tried to tell a story with them I was about 8 or 9 and they were going to Xanadu because I’d heard a song by the same title on the radio and it had catchy whiplash-guitar noises that sparked my imagination, man those were the days, but my point is that it started with the girl-meets-boy thing.

As I grew older and more openly and caustically judgmental of things, I started taking issue with the trope of the Designated Love-Interest. They were boring, they were constantly getting into trouble and making stupid decisions, and couldn’t ever get themselves out of a tight spot. The particular subject of my anti-love-interest agenda was Mary Jane Watson from the Sam Raimi Spider-Man films, to the point where I decided that no superhero story should ever have a love-interest, because they’re all completely useless.

Now, just to clarify: my issue was not that these characters were women. But my rationale did go something like: “the only female characters I ever seem to see in movies/TV/narrative media in general are love-interests. All the love-interests I seem to see are horribly-written, one-dimensional sex-objects that I know I’m supposed to find appealing because I’m male, and that’s how the people who make these movies/TV shows/videogames think. And they’re probably not going to write female characters any other way. And since that’s the case, then I’d honestly prefer that people just stop putting women in stories altogether.”

So … yeah.

Nowadays I get angry with the creator/s and producer/s (not always but by and large male) of such texts, not the characters within them, but that’s more or less the only thing that’s changed. Other than the whole ‘just don’t put women in things anymore’ thinking. That has also changed. *ahem* My point is that, while my issue has moved from the individual (the character) to the societal/political (writers, producers, directors, marketing people, historical context, cultural norms), it does nothing to change the fact that these kinds of characters are still fucking annoying, and by extension insulting.

Or are they?

Once you start looking at characters like Buttercup from The Princess Bride and calling her a bad character, not only is that shooting the messenger so to speak, but it’s also saying that the traits that she does possess – insecurity, pacifism, fatalism, shit now that I think about it Buttercup is a bit of a downer huh – are somehow inherently bad.

They’re not.

Let’s take the sequence in the Fire Swamp for example.

Yes, that one.

This entire sequence involves Buttercup being rescued by Westley

numerous times

and some exposition.

He obviously has to carry her while expositing; she needs her energy for listening to him talk.

Then there’s the infamous R.O.U.S scene, wherein Westley does all the fighting

while Buttercup …

… does not.

She even picks up a log at one point, and just uses it to pet the ROUS’s nose. I mean I know she hasn’t exactly been training for this day or anything but still it’s a fucking stick that shit is basically instinctual.

Need I explain that this was written and directed by a man? Because it was. And adapted from a book that was also written by a man.

The Princess Bride is wonderful in that it is half-parody, so it’s not like there’s no level of self-reflexivity in this scene. All the same, the fact that Buttercup’s being incredibly ineffectual in this scenario is too exaggerated to quite take seriously does nothing to change the fact that she is incredibly ineffectual in this scenario.

But I still like her. I think that’s mostly because of Robin Wright, because on paper Buttercup is kind of insipid and sexist, because she’s the eternal victim. Whether it’s because she’s assailed from without


or within

which paints a very broad picture of her as an almost too perfect Damsel in Distress, only topped by the likes of Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and the chick from Rumpelstiltskin, who as far as I know never actually got a name.

Throw in the romance angle, which is the central premise of the entire story, and imagery like this:

and it’s not just a broad picture; it’s an icon. She is an iconic Damsel in Distress/Designated Love-Interest, and it’s even in the title: The Princess Bride. What do princesses do in stories? Get kidnapped and rescued. What do brides do? Get married and live happily ever after.

However, dismissing Buttercup just because she looks the part would be a very bad move in my opinion, because all of this trope-following, stereotype-fulfilling tunnel-vision erases some very important parts of her personality.

Let’s take this scene for instance:

Yet another Damsel in Distress scene, right?

I mean she even actively tries to escape and the story won’t allow it. Not only is she too naive to recognise her kidnappers when they not-at-all-suspiciously approach her in the woods

but now she is doubly naive for jumping off a ship in the middle of the night and the middle of nowhere AND so sheltered that she doesn’t know about the Shrieking Eels. Yay feminism.

Here’s my angle though: Buttercup may not be winning any nautically-themed pub quizzes in Florin anytime soon, but given what she does know and what her options are, she’s getting shit done.

Maybe not successfully, but that’s the story working against her, not any fault of her own.

That’s not all, though. It’s pretty easy to write even this act of defiance off as nothing more than a feeble attempt to show that, unlike all those other Damsels in Distress, Buttercup actually tries to escape – it’s just that it doesn’t work; but she tried, so now you can’t call her a poorly-written, one-dimensional character. Feminism.

I don’t agree with that argument myself, though I can see it being made. But what I’m actually thinking of is her interaction with Westley during his stint as the Dread Pirate Roberts.



After he basically calls the love of his life a gold-digging slut, Westley gets shoved down the hill (quite rightly), Buttercup comes tumbling after, and he goes on about how she was ridiculous to get upset about him getting murdered by pirates and move on with her life (by being … forced into marriage against her will …) because “death cannot stop true love”, and apparently it can’t stop misogyny, either.

The reason I like this is not, as you might suppose, because Westley is an ignorant entitled daydreamer who can’t recognise blatant misogyny either in the form of Prince Humperdinck having the power to force women to marry him or his own petulant whinging. The reason I like this is because Buttercup was trying to move on – that while it’s never explicitly stated in the film, what her actions show is that without her man she still had something to live for: herself.

Yes, she gets fatalistic. Yes, she gets depressed. Her boyfriend was killed; that’ll about do it. But the only time she actually goes so far as to contemplate suicide is after it seems like Humperdinck has already won, because regardless of whether Westley is alive or not, she has become Humperdinck’s possession by right of law, and he is now the king. Basically she is out of options at that point; and while I do not and never will condone suicide – I can see where she’s coming from. I’ll put it that way.

But what’s important to take away from this kill-the-chauvanist scene, as well as the Shrieking Eels scene, is that Buttercup hasn’t actually lost all will to live now that the man she loves has died. Unlike Westley, she’s actually willing to carry on without True Love. If not, she could have let the Eels kill her, or thrown herself off a bridge, or whatever. But she doesn’t. Even if it is only compared to some, Buttercup is brave.

The reason this is important is because this is where Buttercup resists the typical Designated Love-Interest role and does not go into a coma without her man by her side: because she is a realist. No, death does not stop true love, but that’s because true love is not necessarily a once-in-a-lifetime thing. Many people fall in and out of love, and then back in again, sometimes with the same person, and sometimes with a different person, or different people. If this story had been instead about Westley actually dying and then Buttercup falling in love with somebody else – Fezzik, for example – and that serving as the “death cannot stop true love” moral-of-the-story, I’d be willing to forgive this story’s backwards-ass woman-blaming crap.

And I still love this movie. This is one of my favourite movies with some of my favourite characters of all time; I do look past the problems and enjoy the hell out of it. But the problems are most definitely there.

And Buttercup is not one of them.

Again, I attribute this to Robin Wright, because I’ve never read the book. But her points of resistance set her apart from other Designated Love-Interests that I know about, and make her kind of, dare I say it, radical, albeit in a very minimalist kind of way. There’s certainly a danger of celebrating her for doing nothing more than not killing herself because her boyfriend dies, which is such a low bar to set that … just no. But I’m not really looking to argue for Buttercup as a good character because of her better-than-absolute-shit writing. I’m saying that she produces multiple points of resistance throughout the narrative that explicitly draw attention to the narrative itself, its conventions of romance and gender roles and its place in wider media. While ultimately the narrative keeps on telling both her and us that her pessimism is wrong and her fatalism unnecessary, why not look at her as a resisting, defiant, subversive character, whose actions may not resonate so much within the story she is placed within, but beyond it, to all the stories in which these points of resistance do not exist at all? And even if she is fatalistic and pessimistic and all the rest of it, even if she’s not one of the lovers and dreamers who’s found the rainbow connection – she has every right to be. It’s only the moral of the story that paints these traits in a negative light. But I think there could have been a whole other story there, where she finds liberation through that negativity because it’s realistic, and where she can come to find her own agency empowering, even if her initial framework was highly negative.

But that’s a fanfic for another time.

It took me writing this to articulate why, exactly, I like Buttercup as much as I do, and always have. Because I couldn’t see past the Damsel in Distress, the Designated Love-Interest, and yet there was something there, something that the rest of the story obscured and distracted me from. And now I think I get it: the shoe fits, but she does manage to dance a few steps to her own beat while wearing it.

While I still don’t like Designated Love-Interests or Damsels in Distress and am certainly not advocating continued reliance on these tired cliches played straight, I do think that there’s more to them than we might assume at first. Maybe not enough to justify them overall, but maybe enough to see that, actually, writing them off entirely without looking a little closer at what they might have to offer can be a missed opportunity.

So if there’s a problematic character that you like but don’t really know why you like them, try to take them out of the context of the story and its moral framework to see them with fresh eyes.

And also make gifs to express your opinions. That shit is fun.


More than words

As Tallulah is taking a well-deserved vacation for the time being, I started writing something else to tide myself over. I’ve had this idea kicking around for a little while of various fairytale princesses banding together to save themselves and each other from the various Big Bads rather than waiting around for Prince Charming to come their way, and decided that I didn’t have to wait until I felt like a good enough writer to do it justice, and could just jump in and start making things happen instead. (If somebody’s already written a story with this idea in mind, don’t tell me, let me live that fantasy.)

It’s fun so far. It’s also very … generic. And when I say generic – well, the main characters are all female, this being about fairytale princesses and all, and a couple of them are *shudder* Action Chicks.

Look, I like Action Chicks, I just hate how they’re generally written – I like good characters, and I also like action, and that is generally not what you get with your average Action Chick, perhaps because most Action Chicks that have currency in popular consciousness are written by men.

And so in my attempt to buck the trend of badly-written Strong Female Characters, it came as a bit of a disappointment to actually stop and read a bit of what I’d written. Namely, what I will dub the ‘I see your sexism and raise you a witty comeback’ trope, wherein, inevitably, the Action Chick will have to deal with some bit-part henchman who will, in their frustration, throw a mantrum and accuse them of providing sexual favours in exchange for money. Action Chick responds with some kind of witty comeback, generally also of a sexual nature, turning the slander back on the offending henchman, and scene.

I don’t like this.

On the one hand, yeah, take something offensive and ‘reclaim’ it so that it’s empowering instead. But on the other hand – it just feeds into that kind of attitude. Not so much in real life, but in fiction. It reinforces the code and makes the trope, well, a trope. Which is a trope of women who defy gender norms being subjected to sexist slander, invariably and inevitably.

And, yes, most of the writers of this trope also happen to be male. I can now add myself to that number. Yay.

It did not dawn on me just how much I dislike this trope until I wrote it myself, and it was even worse for the fact that it just kind of slipped out. Writing a first draft of anything involves a lot of autopilot, a mix of stream-of-consciousness with conventional wisdom. I ended up replicating this trope without even thinking about it, and by chance (or perhaps not, but this isn’t the first time I’ve ended up regurgitating the tropes and conventions I’ve been exposed to ad infinitum so I’d say chance) I came across this article today, talking about how movies are controlling us.

I don’t like the idea that media controls our minds, and I don’t believe that it does. But it does provide us with information, and while we can always excuse ourselves from being ‘gullible’ by telling ourselves that we know fiction is fiction, the article makes the good point of the fact that we don’t know which parts are fiction of any given narrative, unless we happen to have firsthand experience. The whole ‘you get one phone call’ thing, for example – I still don’t know if that’s a thing or not. But it is a trope, and even if you ‘know’ it’s all fiction when you see Garden State and we have our sad-puppy male protag ending up with the impossibly idealised and accommodating Manic Pixie Natalie Portman, if you don’t have anything to compare it to, does it matter that you know it’s fiction? If you have nothing else to go on, then you’ve only got what you’ve got.

And thus we end up replicating the stories we are exposed to, because we rely on the information that we are exposed to, and if that information happens to come in the form of movies – it’s not that it’s controlling us, but if we lack compelling alternatives, they may as well be.

The other reason I don’t like it is because, as a male writer who feels constantly out of my element when writing female characters, this kind of shorthand is really seductive, and relying on it to get you through a story with a character can end up preventing you from actually getting to know the character, thinking of why they respond a certain way to certain events or provocations. It’s the same with relying too much on any kind of conventional wisdom, and when you throw in the whole gender thing, the tendency for men to Other women because social conditioning and social attitudes encourage us to do this (or at least don’t really give us any penalties for not doing so), this particular instance of it proves … problematic.

I don’t like it, is what I’m saying. I don’t like that I’ve done this. But I’m going to let it stand because it’s a first draft, and if there’s one thing I’ve learnt first drafts are good for, it’s being absolutely dreadful, and coming back to bite you in the ass so that not only do you see your mistakes, you remember them. And that is how you learn.

And I like this story, so I want to give myself a fighting chance at writing it. If there is any possible way I can make it work, I want to find that way. And it’ll be good to have something to write while I take a bit of a break from Tallulah. Something to do over the holidays.

Happy Holidays, my wonderful readers. See you next year.


So today, the dude who directed the little webseries thing I filmed over the course of this year sent me this little meme.

At first I was a bit: ‘Oh look, more generic battle-of-the-sexes humour, elle owe elle’ – I’m really not into that sort of thing – but upon reflection, the ending makes it interesting.

The back-and-forth, highly gendered narrative conflict between the ‘male’ and ‘female’ students is a conflict of legitimacy and representation. Whose story is more valuable, more viable? Rather than attempting to work together, each party barrels forward with an extremely normative presentation of gender, and gender expectation – girls are into romance and domestic drama, boys are into action and the fantastical. Not particularly imaginative, and very reductive across the gender board. It embodies the constant struggle between male and female voices to be heard and taken seriously, and although it does not have anything to say about which voice tends to come out on top, the use of genre is very telling – women get more recognition if they weave narratives, fictional or otherwise, of romance and domesticity, while men get theirs from narratives of adventure and flights of fancy, sky-high ambition to the point of absurdity.

But it’s the ending that really stuck with me. The ‘teacher’ gives the ‘collaboration’ an A+ grade, remaking that they ‘really like’ the end result. Said teacher is, of course, male (and a professor). What is it that he likes, exactly? The story? I don’t think so.

But the story of the writers? The narrative conflict?

Considering representations of gender and the way certain narratives, in mainstream media, are ascribed to heteronormative masculine and feminine gender codes, I can’t help but see this A+ as an approval of the status quo, where men and women are always at each other’s throats, where the nuances of lived experience is split neatly down the middle to allow for no overlap, to have men and women Othering one another, in life and literature alike. And particularly in literature, and perhaps especially given the large amount of YA I’ve been reading of late, I can’t help but link this meme back to the gendered narratives of City of Bones, The Hunger Games and Vampire Academy. And just the way gender is coded in literature that is marketed to the masses, that is intended to appeal to the largest audience for the most profit. It’s split down the middle, with boys and girls set up to oppose each other’s lived experiences like we have the idea of dogs and cats as natural opposites. And it’s just as ridiculous. Men and women are ‘natural opposites’ as much as bumblebees and pineapples. And it is the constant reinforcement and legitimisation of narratives of codified difference, taking what are, in many cases, shared experiences and tethering them to either side of a conceptual divide, that gives us the narrative landscape we have today.

A case in point here is the webseries Emma Approved. I am not at all sure about the show – I like it, but not for the reasons I’m meant to, and certainly not because I think it’s good. But the gender dynamics drive me insane. We’ve got Emma, who is cartoonishly narrow-minded and actually really toxic and privilege-blind in her abuse of Harriet, not a peer this time but an employee who is materially dependent on Emma’s approval of her. And then we’ve got Knightley, who is the moral centre, the voice of reason, and he’s been set up to be so obviously in the right, so utterly without fault, so face-palmingly perfect – it’s quite despicable. These were similar problems that I had to the Gigi arc in the LBD, the dynamic between her and Darcy (a total counterpoint to the incredibly awesome relationship crafted between Lydia and George, for instance), and it is this kind of ‘men are from mars, women are from venus’ dichotomous representation of gender that the meme reminds me of. The meme has no obvious gender critique agenda that I can see, but it still points out the problems of gender normativity in the narratives we all live within and interact with, whether we reproduce or subvert them individually.

(On a side note: I am compiling a list of books to review for next year, and the Twilight saga has just found a place there. Because for all that I hate the hideous gender stuff and moral bankruptcy of those books, I only feel that way in retrospect. I feel I need to read them again and get a better sense of how I actually feel about them. And who knows? Maybe there will be some redeeming factors there. So that’ll be right after Artemis Fowl. Or before, perhaps, seeing as I don’t have the last book yet.)

Represent Again

Got a nice long rant for y’all today, but first: after a very intelligent comment left on my last post I love The Hunger Games even more than I did upon finishing it, and Katniss Everdeen now occupies a particular place of honour in my pantheon of favourite characters. I have also started reading City of Bones, and it’s so pulpy. It’s amazing. I can see why it got so popular – I’m never sure whether I should allow myself to enjoy the humour because I can’t help but wonder how much of it is plagiarised, but since I already paid for it I guess it’s a bit late for that now. And anyway we all have to get our ideas from somewhere.

Seriously though plagiarism is really shitty don’t do it.


A little while ago, I tried to write something about representation. Then I did write something about representation. I am never happy with anything I write that involves personal disclosure when it comes to issues of sexism, because I’m afraid it’s going to be taken as some kind of apologist statement, and that’s absolutely not my intention. My intention is to use my own personal experiences as a testament to how pervasive the kinds of sexist attitudes that are so prevalent in Western culture are – and perhaps more importantly that it does not matter what we intend, not in terms of whether what we say or do is hurtful or offensive to others. What matters in terms of intention is the intention to be considerate of other people and why they might react a certain way to things that may seem ‘normal’ first and foremost, rather than going for the ‘well I tried to apologise so lay off or you’re just as prejudiced as you say I am’ knee-jerk reaction. I think sincere apologies are not only the respectful thing to do but something that should be acknowledged, but at the same time those making the apology have to understand that it’s not going to be enough if what you’re apologising for is being yet another person who didn’t consider, who ‘never thought about it that way’ – having the privilege to not have to consider it, basically. It may be new for the offending party, but for the offended party/s, especially when we’re talking about things like sexism and racism, it’s almost certainly not, and that really needs to be respected.

A case in point I came across today was this poem/speech/thing about Cho Chang, and by extension the representation of Asian women in Western media. I have written a few times about how much I love Harry Potter, and that’s not changing anytime soon. I have perhaps written less frequently about the fact that I myself am half Chinese. I really don’t feel it. There’s like one instance I can think of where a couple of drunk girls were backing out of their driveway a little recklessly while I was walking home and they shouted ‘Whoops! Sorry Asian man!’ before driving off. I mean I felt rather uncomfortable for a while after that, but that was mostly because I hadn’t expected it, and in the grand scheme of things it could have been much, much worse.

I could see myself as Asian according to a white world, for example: I could be really good at maths and be working towards a job as a banker, or I could take up Kung Fu and dispense Taoist quotes to those in need of philosophical guidance. And every time I do one of these things I would know that, to anybody who knows I do these things who does not know me, the first thing they’re going to think of is a racial stereotype. I have to wonder how much of the fact that I don’t feel Asian has to do with the fact that I just don’t do very stereotypically Asian things to begin with, the fact that, again, the racist comments and stuff don’t seem to come my way that much to constantly remind me of how non-normal I am in other people’s eyes and make me feel like a gimmick for reasons beyond my control. I imagine, especially with the second one, it’s a pretty huge factor indeed, and one that I’ve never really considered until quite recently.

The young woman who wrote and performed the piece also made this video response to some of the critiques she’s gotten about it, and I want you to watch it, because this is really what’s at the heart of the debate. The issue is not whether Rowling was being intentionally racist, not least because it is highly unlikely that she was. If anything her intention was to be inclusive. I mean look at all of these ‘alternative’ representations being included in this story that isn’t about people who aren’t white. There’s Dean Thomas, for example. The Patil sisters. Blaise Zabini. Lee Jordan. Let’s not forget Kinglsey Shacklebolt. I mean he fought Voldemort, man. Voldemort. And didn’t die. And then became Minister for Magic. That’s like … that’s pretty awesome, right? And then Cho Chang, who is, like, into sports, which makes her really original because she’s both a girl and Asian, what Asian girls like sports amirite?

No but seriously, while there is some avoidance of ethnic/racial stereotypes through the fact that all of these characters are very, as a blog post I read today terms it, ‘Western Neutral’, there are myriad subtle forms of racism in their representation. And yes, subtle racism is different from the straight-up racism you might find in Gone with the Wind, but it’s still racism.

For one, they’re all minor characters. They get some cool stuff to do if their name is Kingsley Shacklebolt, but that’s about it. The Patil sisters don’t get to go to the Ministry of Magic with Harry and the others, despite being members of the DA; Cho Chang doesn’t get a character-arc beyond being upset about Cedric dying and having feelings for Harry – it’s on the sidelines, and maybe important for one book. There is no significant narrative through-line for any of them beyond Cho Chang and Harry’s very peripheral romance sub-plot.

For another – her name is Cho Chang. Never mind whether it’s two Korean surnames, never mind whether it could be a Chinese name but probably wouldn’t because the meanings don’t match up – it’s Cho Chang. It almost would have been less offensive if her name had been Hong Kong. I mean they’ve got Kingsley Shacklebolt, whose surname, I will point out, was not Washington, Jackson, Freeman or, I dunno, Brown. It’s a very Rowling kind of name; it fits in with the Slughorns and Snapes and Shunpikes (and not just because it begins with ‘S’), rather than advertising his ethnicity in neon lights on the face of the moon.

There is also the whole Western Neutral thing. Luna freaking Lovegood (who I love) brings more cultural diversity to the Hogwarts gang than all six named ‘ethnic’ characters combined, and I have to imagine it’s because she’s just another white person, rather than the sole Caucasian representative in the Wizarding World; she’s allowed to be ‘different’ because she has to many ‘normal’ people to play off against. By no means am I saying that the Patils should have been portrayed as devout Hindus or Buddhists or spoken with accents or have it pointed out how much they loved curry (btw I wonder if the House Elves could make a good korma because I would totes go for that), because among other things I am a living testament to the validity of having Western Neutral ‘ethnic’ characters. It happens. A lot. And making these characters overtly ‘ethnic’ would have been, in a sense, just as bad, but mostly because of the whole ‘sole representative’ thing. If there had been more than one named Asian character then perhaps Cho would have been given the opportunity to be fleshed-out a little more as a character, rather than having the pressure, intentional or not, of being completely and utterly Tokenised, and therefore the pressure of being as inoffensive as possible on a surface level, which rather fails because of how offensive it is within the broader context of the representation not just of Asian female characters but any PoC character in mainstream, well-known media texts in general. Either they’re an ethnic stereotype or they’re so Western Neutral that they may as well be white anyway, and the only way to begin alleviating that is to make it so that they’re not alone on the page or the screen to try and ‘represent’.

And with Cho Chang in particular, since she’s the only one of these minor minority characters (like there are any other kind) in the story who we do actually get to know on some level, it’s extra disappointing that all she’s there to do is turn out to be a bad fit for Harry, whether it’s done specifically to push him into the arms of Ginny (which is another thing I have issues with, but that’s another rant, and one that other people have already made) or not. She’s not just a romantic interest; she’s a fake-out romantic interest. She isn’t an interesting character, but she could easily have been as well-realised as say Luna or Neville if she’d been given the space for it. And yes this is more of a gender issue than an ethnic one in a sense, the fact that her primary reason for existing is the fulfillment of a romantic sub-plot, but there is certainly something to be said about the tragic Asian female character archetype which, again, mightn’t have been so bad if she’d gotten more to do. Like she and Harry break up but she actually sticks around and does stuff afterwards, and maybe they reconcile and become friends later on or something. She gets shafted as soon as it becomes apparent things aren’t going to work out romantically between her and Harry, whereas bloody Neville (who I also love) gets to stick around for the whole heptalogy.

At least she isn’t overtly defined by being Asian – she doesn’t have an accent (not a written one anyway, thank the Morrigan), she isn’t shown to be super-geeky or meek and subservient to men (or just in general), and she does come across as a fairly typical, irritating female romantic lead (which brings us right back around to Western Neutral, but I – slightly – digress). If that’s what we’re going to call progress, though, then we need to really think about what progress actually means, who it benefits, and why we should be interested in it.

Or, put another way: this is not progress. This is not something to be celebrated or held up as an example of how to be ‘inclusive’. This is something to look at and say: ‘we need to do better than this, because wow‘ – as well as saying: ‘it did some things right’, to be fair. I mean Hermione even defends her emotionality to the boys; she doesn’t get to do it herself, and Hermione is also notably, invisibly white, but in terms of gender it’s … better than it could be. I’m certainly not of the opinion that Harry Potter is particularly sexist, rather the opposite in fact, other than perhaps the fact that the three most powerful magic-users in the canon (whose power we have any measurement of) are all male (and two of them are white).

And I don’t think that, taken on her own, Cho Chang is an unbelievable character. She’s pretty dull, but she makes sense. She does fare better than she could have done, all things considered, but that still doesn’t make it good enough or prevent it from being racist, intentional or not. And the most disappointing part of it all is that I firmly believe that it absolutely was not intentional. Rowling does not strike me as somebody who looks to make anybody feel bad about themselves or marginalise them, at all. But it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

And I think that’s the main point Rachel Rostad was trying to make: white writers with the best intentions do not amount to white writers with sufficient understanding of the kind of impact their decisions may have on non-white fans. I never cared about Cho Chang as a fellow Asian because I have never seen myself as Asian to begin with. But if I did, I have to assume I’d see myself consistently not represented outside of Hong Kong cinema as anything but a token martial arts badass with next to no lines or personality, some mystical old hermit who helps some whiny white kid find self-esteem, a sexualised and most likely underage schoolgirl, or Jackie Chan. Don’t get me wrong, I love Jackie Chan, and I hardly think  I’m in the minority when I say that, but he’s Jackie Chan. He is the Token Asian. Just like Wonder Woman was, and kind of still is, the Token Woman in the all-boys’ club that is the Justice League – that’s how she’s seen, even if it’s not technically true. She is one of the only female superheroes to not be a distaff counterpart, to have a distinct backstory and set of powers, and to have avoided refrigeration. She’s still looked at to ‘represent’ her ‘side’, which is women in general. She is still Tokenised in the public eye even if she’s no longer the only woman in the DC universe to not also be a love-interest in recurring distress, and if that’s still the case after over seven decades I have to think it’s not going to go away anytime soon.

These kinds of representational prejudices are so culturally ingrained and have historically been largely unexamined (and still remain so with a lot of people) beyond vague, general declarations of believing in equality for everybody without really comprehending what that means, what it feels like to live with, and that’s only going to change when the people who don’t have to care about this stuff in order to live secure, satisfying lives make themselves start caring anyway, and realise why it is that they don’t have to – and that so many other people do.


It gets hard when you’re just looking at your situation, tying up events in a line to form some causal argument to give narrative to the current state of affairs, and that narrative is “nothing’s happening, and it should be”.

I don’t know what it is. I feel really, really un-prepared for this exam happening in 13-ish hours. But for all that, I feel incredibly comfortable. I think this is the stage I’ve been wanting to get to all semester, the point where I just let things be what they are, and get on with life, with everything.

Having said that – I wanted to write a post about representation in media, and when I first started writing it I just couldn’t get it to sound right. Over the past couple of days, however, some things have happened that made me want to give it another go. So, here is that go. (Warning: much disclosure to follow.)

I had a writer crisis the other day while doing a reading for exam prep. It discussed sexism in superhero narratives (I’m planning to write about Wonder Woman, and after picking up an omnibus of some of the first WW comics, holy family values Batman, this stuff is really damn patriarchal), using Claire Bennett from Heroes as an example of a powerless and passive female, unable to defend herself from Skyler, unable to fly like either of the Petrelli brothers, and the entire first season hinging on the cryptic tagline: “Save the cheerleader, save the world”. I have to admit, I never liked that tagline, and while there are female superheroes who do fly (flying is apparently a sign of empowerment), there’s still the issue of how often they end up in refrigerators and, well, Escher Girls and The Hawkeye Initiative exist for a reason.

This reading got me to thinking about my own superhero project that I really want to write, which features a primarily female cast and had two female characters sharing the lead role. It’s something I’ve wanted to write for a couple of years now but never got started for two reasons: I couldn’t think of anything about it that was even remotely original in terms of distinguishing it aside from all the other superhero stories out there, and the only possible exception to that was the fact that it had two female leads as the main (original) characters.

I’ve been very sensitive about my political position as a man writing female characters for the majority of my ‘serious writer’ phase, which I’m still in now, and being reminded of this project got me to thinking about all the other stories I’ve come up with recently, and specifically the fact that every single one of them features a female lead protagonist, if it isn’t a shared top-billing situation, in which case it’s multiple female protagonists. And I realised, with dawning horror, that all of these stories might not actually be stories at all, but a by-product of my mission to ‘write good female characters’, which started, for all the wrong reasons, when I was 16, so this has been going on for a decade now.

I felt really uncomfortable with this realisation – when I looked at them, there just seemed to be so much overlap between these stories, so much shared emphasis on the same themes, and it all had to do with the fact that the lead characters were female. It was all some kind of commentary on media representation and cultural gender norms, and it was all really iterative and samey, and it defined the characters and the story, at least in my head. So I thought two things. The first was: ‘Is it possible that some of these stories just need to be combined, seeing as they’re so similar?’ And the second was: ‘Fuck, I’m a closet misogynist’.

It’s really demoralising to be faced with all the ways in which you’ve been socially conditioned to take certain things to be true. In this case, the idea that a lead character’s gender, if that gender is female, is the only appropriate focus for a narrative about such a character. Do they fight crime? Gotta be tied in with their being female. Do they run a country? Gotta make it about how it’s a man’s world and we have to crush the patriarchy. Do they have superpowers? Well make sure to include snippets of everyday woman-life like engaging in fandom arguments over Tumblr, because women can relate to that.

Okay honestly regardless of gender I want to see more slice-of-life stuff like that in stories in general, especially the more ‘bombastic’ ones like the superhero genre which very easily gets removed from the sphere of real life issues, but you get what I mean.

This only really happens when I’m thinking about fictional characters, which I guess is a good thing, or at least not as bad as it could be. I think of actual women I know and there’s more or less no problem; I can’t name a single woman of my acquaintance who falls into the horrible stereotypes women are shoehorned into in popular fictional narratives, or at least none who do that and have nothing else to them. We all fall into horrible stereotypes every now and then, and they have to come from somewhere (and so do we). But what I started to realise, and have been slowly realising over the past few months, is just how little I do think about the women I know in real-life when I’m thinking about writing female characters – or for that matter, how little I think of the people I know in real-life when I’m thinking about writing characters period. In a sense, like in the sense that I might want to be published and ‘marketable’ one day, that’s a good thing? But in the sense that I might actually care about this whole ‘representation’ thing, which I do, not so much?

I frame that as a question because, honestly, while I do think that part of the problem with representation, particularly in terms of gender, is because writers (or editors) use other fictional characters rather than real people as reference-points for character and narrative-building, I can see the merit in thinking about fictional characters as reference-points when looking to write fictional characters of your own, not just in terms of marketability but also in terms of understanding the craft, getting familiar with cultural narrative and values and what audiences respond to and recognise. It’s the main reason I liked the City of Bones film so much the first time around (and part of the reason I didn’t enjoy it so much the second time). But then again, that’s upholding the status quo, unless you sustain yourself on a diet of counter-cultural, subversive media texts primarily, which I don’t, and as we can see with the treatment of female superheroes – and female characters in general, at least in much of mainstream, well-known media – the status quo can be kind of lame.

So, crisis in hand, I set out to do a test. I’d write out the premises of all of these post-Tallulah stories (the other thing tying these stories together for me was the fact that I came up with them only after I felt confident about my handling of Tallulah, or maybe interest is a better word, seeing just how far I could go as a man writing women), and see how much of this panic was justified, and how much of it was perceived.

Turns out that the stories were actually different enough to warrant being individual stories – it was just that I was fixated a bit on the whole ‘female lead character’ thing.

It was simultaneously disappointing and relieving – disappointing because, if this test of mine was any good (and my judgment on it), it means that I was being ‘one of those guys’, and felt the sting of my gendered social conditioning something fierce; and relieving because it meant that despite my hang-ups, I actually did have more than one idea in me – and that the ideas were not contingent on the main characters identifying as a certain gender. And given that – well, given that I do care about this ‘representation’ thing, given that these stories, at their core, were pretty ‘gender neutral’ – why not have female leads? They were already in place, after all, and I really am tired of seeing certain narratives being reserved seemingly exclusively for certain identities. The only thing left to do was to get out of my own way.

I never thought I could write something like Tallulah, and after getting about the most positive feedback I could have hoped for right at the start it was no wonder it went to my head a little – if this sort of thing had happened to somebody else, well, at least they caught on and managed to see what was happening before it got away from them entirely. But still, there’s that disappointment of not being quite where you think you are, seeing that your reach really does exceed your grasp.

And that’s okay. Knowing is half the battle, as somebody said at some point. These stories feel like they’ve opened up for me now; I can see what they each have to offer that is unique to them, and it’s making me excited to get started on it. And after talking to my best friend, who has read the first draft of Tallulah, about this crisis of mine (and receiving some very much appreciated validation of my not actually being a horrible sexist, at least in my writing, said best friend is female so she can tell me I’m not a horrible sexist and that makes it true that’s how it works), and talking about superheroes, suddenly I found an identity for my superhero project, which means I’ll try and give it a go at some point.

When it comes to matters of representation, in terms of gender, ethnicity, sexuality or whatever, I don’t think there’s much point in avoiding political issues if they’re relevant, such as the issue of being a woman in a ‘man’s world’. But if that comes to dominate the story – I mean other than anything else, I just find that boring. And offensive, because it’s reductive. Noble in intent perhaps, but reductive nonetheless, because it’s still all only about one thing, one aspect out of many viable, authentic, legitimate aspects that make up any well-rounded character, and when you’re talking about human beings (or anthropomorphic stand-ins), that’s important to respect. I think to ignore it entirely is to be either incredibly naive or incredibly irresponsible, but to let it define the entire character and/or story is to fail to understand the problem in the first place, and we’re back to square one.

This is part of what being a ‘good writer’ is for me: being responsible with and for what I write, and making a commitment to being critical about why. It’s actually strangely comforting to have realisations like this and be faced not just with my limits, but with certain attitudes that I overtly disagree with people having – disappointing as well, but it’s invaluably educational, and at the end of the day that means I’m learning to do it right, and I think that’s all I can realistically hope for.

Well, that sure was a lot of disclosure. But then again it is 2am. Here’s hoping it makes for better writing.