Monthly Archives: May 2015

Mad Max and the Damsels Who Do Things

I saw Mad Max a couple nights ago, and I got at least two blogs worth of thoughts out of it. My overall impression of this movie was that it not perfect, but I enjoyed it and if you’re in the mood for a lot of good action scenes you will probably love it.

(major spoilers avoided, but beginning and subplot spoilers ahead)

One thing that stood out to me was how many of the characters, specifically the protagonists, were women. In fact all but two of the good guys were female. Charlize Theron was absolutely terrific as Imperator Furiosa, a badass hero who really wasn’t written as a Female Action Hero TM, but just a complete all around boss who happened to be female. Eventually she is joined by other characters who are fabulous and heroic and happened to be women. Then there were five damsels in distress, whose escape early on kickstarted the plot.

The trope of damsels in distress is a sticky one. The damsel exists to be victimized, but then her victimization is not explored from her perspective. Instead, it is in the story to set up an end trophy for the hero, with the implications of a traumatized wife never explored, nor the question of whether his possession of her constitutes salvation or just a different kind of prison. Played straight, it can’t avoid being incredibly sexist. However, Mad Max subverts the damsel trope in ways that are both obvious and subtle.

The most obvious subversion I have already mentioned. The damsels do not sit around waiting to be rescued at the end of the movie. They start the plot themselves by breaking free together. I’ve seen other examples of this, but in this film it felt particularly appropriate because of what they were escaping from.

The damsel in distress trope is highly objectifying. It effectively turns a human being into a living MacGuffin*. The villain of the movie, Immortan Joe, is also highly objectifying. The beginning scenes set his world up as one where humans are regularly treated and used as machines, as cannon fodder, as cattle, even as living blood bags. The girls are his breeder concubines, and when they leave they write on the walls, over and over again, that they are not things.

In too many movies, this promising start would end there. The hero would enter the film and it would once again center all around him. The girls would not emerge as real characters. However, this does not happen.

To begin with, they do have individual personalities, and small subplots to themselves. The Splendid  Angharad is the leader, brave and aristocratic, and fully willing to sacrifice herself for the rest of the group. Toast the Knowing…

Okay, I have to take a break to acknowledge the weirdness of the names in this movie. Because they are all collectively so weird, it sort of works, in that they feel like they all belong to a world where naming practices have changed radically. Still, I have to ask what kind of drugs or drinking game aided the invention of these names? Anyway…

Toast the Knowing is quiet, and as such is the hardest to pin down, but she is the one who is able to handle guns, not fire them but load them and identify which bullets go with which weapons. In several scenes she reiterates their goal of finding “the green place,” which suggests to me that she is highly focused. Capable is the most compassionate, the kind of person who can look into an enemy’s eyes and see someone vulnerable, maybe in need of a second chance. The Dag’s suffering has made her fierce. She is delighted when she finds a mentor among the other female characters. Cheedo the Fragile lives up to her name. She is the most frightened and the most tempted to surrender. Typically she is seen standing behind or under the arm of another character. This makes her the most classical damsel in distress of the five, but when the time comes to be brave she finds her courage.

I liked that they were individualized, because it made an interesting counterpoint to the villain’s objectification. He treats them as inhuman, as women valuable only for being beautiful and fertile, but the writers and actresses take steps to remind us that they are people. On top of that, I loved the way they continued to be worked into action scenes as the plot continued. Letting them scream in the backseats would have been bland and expected, but the expected subversion, letting them all be action heroes, would also be cheap. It would reaffirm that the only kind of person worth being in an action movie is a stunt master, and would also be unrealistic given their background. And yes, I realize I’m talking realism in a movie which features an electric guitar that’s also a flamethrower.

But what happens is a kind of realism that is appropriate even in a movie so self-indulgently absurd as this one. They don’t become magical shots or martial artists just for the convenience of the plot, but they continue to find ways to help the characters who are actual warriors. Sometimes it’s loading guns in the backseat, sometimes it’s doing something incredibly brave that I won’t mention because spoilers, and sometimes it’s just defying genre expectations by bracing themselves in the background and not screaming. Honestly, these damsels scream less than in any other movie of its type that I have ever seen. It’s because they are brave, they knew what they were getting into, and they understand that when the action heroes with actual action hero training are stunt driving, dodging bullets and solving Inconvenient Equipment Malfunction #37, probably more noise is not what the situation calls for.

The point is, whether by action or by consciously chosen inaction, these characters participate in their own escape from beginning to end. This wasn’t heavy handed, but it still felt like the result of deliberate action taken by the creators to not do what they were condemning the villain for doing. Damsels or not, they weren’t going to erase these characters’ humanity, or their agency in their own story.

 

*A common trope in which something exists not to influence the story directly, but spur others to action by being desirable; the letters of mark in Casablanca, the diamonds in Notorious, the quest objects in the Indiana Jones movies, etc.

Why Do We Want to Know What the Author Meant?

This post has had a long history.

First I was trying to write a post on writing disabled characters, and it assumed that Sheldon Cooper from the Big Bang Theory was autistic. That post will definitely still happen, for the record. Then I kept getting sidetracked by explaining why I believed he was autistic, even if it has neither been confirmed in story or  by the authors. Explaining that in part means explaining my philosophy on the validity of interpretations. So I decided to make that a post all on its own. As part of that post, I started casually polling friends about their interpretations of interpretations. As I did this, I realized I was being a little dishonest to myself about my own philosophy, or rather how I apply it.

I originally meant to assert once again that all interpretations are equally valid, regardless of what the author says outside of the text. The only way an interpretation can be less valid is if it’s poorly supported by the text. I still essentially believe that, but as I talked to my friends I realized that I also like bending to the author’s stated intent as much as possible. I need a very serious reason to disagree with an author about their own work. Why do I do that?

Simple. Because the author is a point of reference who I have in common with all other readers.

I wrote a while back about how, while I enjoyed Harry Potter, I missed out on part of the Harry Potter experience by reading the books after the series was completely published, and the community that grew up with it and waited for each individual release was already nostalgic. Despite our common desire to have our own interpretations, most readers want to share their reading experience with somebody else. Having a community enhances the enjoyment for everyone who is a part of it… except perhaps when the community schisms. There are some divisions that seem to be playful, like certain popular shipping wars, but others that seem vitriolic and spiteful, like certain popular shipping wars.

In particular, divisions seem to get bitter when they depend on fundamentally different interpretations of the text. If you just like the dynamics of Katara and Zuko better than Katara and Aang, everything can stay fun, but if you believe, as one friend of mine did, that Katara and Aang getting together was incompatible with Aang’s mission to save the world, things can get heated in a not-fun way. When disagreements cut this deep, they can be hard to resolve, because the fans don’t have any evidence beyond the text, which is what caused the split in the first place.

In these cases, the author feels like the only one who can arbitrate. All us fans are on an equal footing, and there’s no reason any of us should be listened to over the other. The author, simply by virtue of having gone to the work of creating the piece, does stand out from the crowd of interpretations.

Or maybe that’s not it at all.

Maybe it’s that fiction is a shared delusion, but of course because your mind and my mind are different places, we are both bound to differ slightly in our interpretations. In your mind the flowers on the table are red roses. In mine they are yellow tulips. Most of the time these differences are so tiny they don’t disrupt the game of make-believe, but when they aren’t so small, that draws our attention to the fact that this is fiction. It slightly spoils the illusion. We want to be lost in our suspension of disbelief. When we let the author be the God of their world, able to dictate its laws, we can return to the illusion.

Unless of course the “word of God” fails to make sense. This brings me back to Sheldon, the original inspiration. I work with autistic children. I am regularly required to attend workshops about autism for my job. These workshops are taught by national experts, and they regularly illustrate their points with clips and gifs and screenshots of Sheldon. Sheldon exhibits the symptoms of high functioning autism so perfectly that when the creators say he doesn’t have it, to anyone with any real world experience of autism it sounds absurd. It’s like saying “he’s not blind, he just can’t see things and has a trained dog guide him around,” or “he’s not deaf, he just can’t hear so you have to learn to make words with your hands if you want to communicate.” The writers are drawing our attention to the fact that this is constructed universe, because we can only believe that Sheldon doesn’t have autism if this is a bizarre fictional world where the whims of some author reign supreme. Its impossible to both believe in Sheldon as a person, and believe in the Big Bang Theory universe and our universe, and not conclude that Sheldon has autism.

On reflection, I still think it’s the text that matters and not the author’s interpretation of it. However, I am perfectly capable of hearing somebody else’s interpretation and adopting it as my own because I like it. The author’s interpretation is as good as everyone else’s, and often it’s nice to adopt it because it helps lend coherence and verisimilitude to the story. Still, I don’t have to if I don’t want to.

What do you think?

Stockholm Syndrome and The Devil Wears Prada, Part 3

At one point in the story, the stress of the job causes Andy and Nate to break up. Specifically, it causes Nate to break up with Andy, when in the middle of an argument, she gets a phone call from Miranda, which he doesn’t want her to take. Shaking, crying and apologizing, she tells him she has to take it. He says “You know, in case you were wondering – the person whose calls you always take? That’s the relationship you’re in. I hope you two are very happy together.”

A couple months ago, my sister and I talked a lot about abuse on the blog we share. I posted some meandering thoughts, based on my experiences, on how to be supportive when someone you love is being abused. It’s a difficult question, because while you want to get them out, sometimes pressuring them too hard can actually put them in more danger. The last thing you want to do is give them an ultimatum, to threaten to remove support from them if they don’t leave their abuser right now, because the fact is that if the victim hasn’t left yet, a probable factor is that they don’t feel they safely can yet. It’s unfair to demand that they leave if you can’t provide a safe place for them to escape to. Even if you can, that’s an option to be offered gently, without force or coercion or expectations of compliance that they can’t fulfill. They have enough of that in their lives. If you can’t provide that, you can still help simply by being patient and kind to them, giving them a part of their life where they aren’t abused, and responding to their stories of abuse with affirmation that they don’t deserve to be treated like that. Be a person with whom the Stockholm Syndrome rules don’t have to apply, where abuse can be acknowledged without all the defenses against it being torn down.

Being the patient and gently loving ally of an abused person is difficult, both because of the delicate balances and the lack of guidance available for people in that role. So keep in mind that I acknowledge that when I say this; Andy’s friends and especially her boyfriend are a perfect example of what not to do.

When Andy first starts working, her time with her friends is her time to vent about Miranda. They all laugh things off together, and for a while this seems to give her some relief. That doesn’t last. Things are too bad for a simple vent session to fix. This is when her style of dress begins to change, and I start really disliking her boyfriend, Nate.

The change of clothes is part of her Stockholm Syndrome, but it’s not really hurting anyone. It’s not accompanied by vanity or meanness and real change of character. She just dresses differently. Nate hates it, and just as the Runway girls put down her old style, he puts down her new. Now, he doesn’t do this to anything like the degree that they do. He just states that he doesn’t like it. For the record, he doesn’t have to like it. It’s awesome that he liked Andy back before she was stylish. However, he is close enough to the situation to understand that Andy is doing this because she is being picked on and needs a way to connect with her coworkers. Furthermore, as the film goes on, her interest becomes more genuine. After she leaves Runway, she finds a happy medium between her old style and new; more casual but still stylish.

Nate’s saying he doesn’t like her clothes makes her feel like she has to defend her quite reasonable actions. It makes her feel like he isn’t on her side. A better reaction than “I don’t get this, I don’t like your clothes, I liked the old clothes better” would be something that includes an affirmation that he will love her whatever she wears. If I were in her situation, I would really need to hear that, and it would be a valuable reminder to me that those people who are only nice to me when I look like them aren’t my real friends.

In fact, his reaction is fairly shallow. We associate fashion with shallowness, and so its tempting to see his reaction as loving the “real Andy,” but the thing about real love is it totally transcends outward appearance. Rejecting someone for not being unfashionable or alternative enough is just as superficial as rejecting somebody for not knowing what Sephora sells.

The other primary complaint that Nate has is that she’s never around. She used to have lots of time for him and her other friends, and now she rarely does. This is a more valid concern, but he seems to forget the fact that Andy has no control over this. Andy will be fired if she doesn’t do everything Miranda demands, and Miranda makes demands that keep her up past midnight, interrupt the lunches she’s legally entitled to, take away days off at the last minute, etc. That’s not Andy’s fault.

Nate pressures her to quit at times, but I never see him address the valid reason she has for sticking with it. They share an apartment in New York, which given everything I know about New York, they couldn’t afford it on just his salary. He never brings up a kindly rich uncle who can cover her half of the rent if she quits. He never suggests making budget cuts that would allow them to make it together. He never addresses her fear of losing her dreams for their future. And yet, he’s shocked that she always takes her boss’s calls.

While the way her coworkers treat her is much worse than how Nate and her friends treat her, I find the latter less forgivable. As I explained in my last post, I think her coworkers are all dealing with some variety of Stockholm Syndrome. Her friends and Nate are far enough from the situation to think clearly, but close enough to see and hear stories that should clue them in to how bad things are. Even if they don’t attach the word “abusive” to it, they should recognize it as unhealthy and coercive.

And yet, this is a part of the story that I also find very realistic. Victims of abuse often doubt their own feelings because those around them don’t use the label “abuse,” but the lack of that label can happen for many reasons. One of them is a preconceived notion about what abuse looks like. It varies from person to person but it is usually a variation a low class male hitting his wife while wearing soiled jeans and an undershirt, but abuse isn’t about hitting. It’s about a pattern of behavior that systematically tears down another human being.

Psychological abuse is often considered somehow less serious than physical abuse, but it is equally abusive, and many experts even consider that it to be more damaging. Personally, I think all abuse is psychological; every other category just describes the efficiency of the delivery mechanism. Physical abuse is harder to hide and thus easier to recognize and get other people take seriously. Verbal abuse is less obvious, and when abuse isn’t recognized it’s often internalized, leading victims to believe they deserved to be neglected, insulted and mistreated.

Miranda isn’t hitting Andy or her other employees, but she is creating an environment where they all feel like shit. She makes it the norm for her employees to neglect their health, personal lives and autonomy just to survive. At one point Andy says that if Miranda was a woman, nobody would call her anything but good at her job. I think she’s got that exactly backwards. Miranda is a white upper class woman who uses her words to destroy rather than her fists. That takes her so far beyond what we normally expect an abuser to look like that she is effectively camouflaged, and even though everyone knows what she does nobody takes it all that seriously.

This ties back to my original series about Beauty and the Beast and my whole motivation for writing this series. You can’t deal with a problem if you can’t even recognize it. If you try to judge people by their appearance instead of their actions, you end up following Gaston’s mob to the Beast’s castle, and ignoring the real devil because she’s wearing Prada.

Balancing Writing, Criticism and Social Responsibility

I’m still working on the next part of the Stockholm Syndrome series, but I’ve had something of a rough week and that series is too important to me to do half assed. So here are some rambling thoughts on one of my favorite issues.

Recently I was reading a very vitriolic criticism of a popular author, who I personally like. Now, I’m not writing this to defend him. In fact, I will not name him, because I don’t want to distract myself from the point that I am about to make. I’m mentioning this because the criticisms were mostly of the fact that his female characters suffered. The assumption was that if they suffered, it was because he was misogynist. I couldn’t agree with that. If a trope such as Women in Refrigerators had been in effect, or they had suffered primarily so a man could rescue them, I would see the critic’s point, but neither applied. In fact, one of the things I appreciate about the writer is how his female characters usually suffer as part of an arc where they take action to regain their own agency.

The critic didn’t seem to realize that part of good characterization is letting your characters suffer. Suffering drives character arcs. It can add depth and reader sympathy. In fact, if I don’t make my characters suffer, its a good sign that I’m not actually very invested in them.

This lead me to thinking about an issue that I think is common to writers who want to do a better job writing diversity, or even addressing social issues in any form. On the one hand, you want to listen to criticism in order to do this properly. There are actions that seem like good ideas until you look closely at them (see the entire Magical Negro trope). Often pride will blind writers from taking an honest look at their work.

On the other hand, sometimes the critics haven’t thought hard enough about their own criticisms. I remember a conversation I had with my ex when he flat out admitted that for  him, finding the problematic element of a story and ranting about it on Tumblr was a game for him. It was about being able to hold that problematic element over his head and declare that he had won, which made me very angry. Criticism shouldn’t be about an ego trip. It should be productive and of benefit to both fans and writers.

So how do you know whether you need to listen to a criticism or not? How do you know whether you need to call someone out on a something or not? I’ve thought about this issue for a long time, and the only conclusion that I’ve come to is that you can’t. Not with absolute certainty. You might ignore somebody who has a good point. You might bend over backwards to change for somebody who is wrong. I myself could be completely wrong in my criticism of that critic’s criticism. I am not, last I checked, infallible.

There are a few things I think can be done to improve your chances of being productive. First, you can check your ego. Don’t write for praise, don’t tear somebody else down to elevate your own standing, and don’t let yourself forget that you are a constant work in progress. If you can’t separate your writing from yourself, it increases the odds that you will either ignore criticism because it is uncomfortable, or accept it too readily because you want everyone’s pat on the back. Second, you can make it a point to expose yourself to multiple points of view, even ones you think you already disagree with. If you get comfortable listening to people with wildly different perspectives, you can make yourself less likely to reject a valid point just because it comes from a field you don’t like, or accept a poor one just because it comes from someone you like to think of as “one of my people.” Third, you can study critical thinking in general. Take a class, read a book on logic and rhetoric, practice taking off your emotional glasses and just thinking objectively.

If I may be tautological, I think the best you can do is to do your best. Odds are, you will not create the unimpeachable work, free of problematic tropes and destined to end racism, sexism and all the isms. As my boyfriend likes to say, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Write what’s in your heart, think long and hard about whether what you’re saying is really what you want to say, and be ready for the possibility that someday you will look back, smack your forehead and say “what was I thinking?” It happens to everybody.