How I Name My Characters, Part Two: Character Names That Don’t Sound Like Character Names

In the first part, I talked about where names get their associations. Next time I’m going to talk about various ways to use those associations to enhance a story. But first, I wanted to share advice on making sure those names don’t sound so literary that they distract readers from the story. An arbitrary name isn’t nearly as fun or evocative as one that really suits a character, but one that fits too well draws attention to the fact that a writer constructed this world.

Beware of Tropes

As I mentioned in the last post, names are multifaceted, and characters are multifaceted. It often works very well to give your characters a name that matches up with some, but not all, of who they are. There are many directions you can take this, but the absolute worst is to name a character for the trope they best fulfill. Nothing screams “this is a story” like naming everyone for where they fit into the narrative.

There are three exceptions to the avoiding tropes rule; one-scene characters who will exist just long enough to need a name but then disappear from the story, stories with a comic, self-aware tone, and characters who initially fit a trope but then subvert those expectations. Jane the Virgin uses both of the last two criteria. Her love triangle is between Michael, the stable boyfriend of two years, and Rafael, the rich playboy who broke her heart. Except, as the series goes on, Michael gets increasingly hard to trust, and Rafael seems more genuine and pure in his intentions. This role reversal combined with the loving-parody-of-a-telenovela vibe makes the names perfect.

And if I’m totally off base, I’m only halfway through season one, so don’t tell me, okay?

Don’t. Tell. Me.

But that said, there’s a difference between an homage and a replay. Several years ago the film Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow got my hopes up. It promised to be tribute to classic 1940s adventure stories, and it was. Unfortunately, it wasn’t really anything else. It was a restitched series of familiar tropes and twists; it had no heart of it’s own. The names they chose had the same problem. Joe Sullivan, Polly Perkins, Dex, Totenkopf. Which of those is  the reporter girlfriend, the heroic pilot, the villain, the sidekick?

Yup. You got it.

Don’t do that. Write characters, and name them for who they are as people, not who they are as pieces on the chess board.

Be Aware of the In-Story Reason

I loved Juno, both the film and the character. But I must admit, it always irked me that she had such a conveniently quirky name, to go with her character. We didn’t get to know her parents very well, but they didn’t seem like the type of people to pick a name like Juno. They seemed like the sorts to name their girl Hailey or Kimberly. The quirky name for a quirky protagonist thing worked a lot better in Easy A, where Olive’s parents are named Rosemary and Dill, and it’s quickly established that the only thing they like more than a joke is a running joke (her little brother’s name is Chip).

Names say things about the person who picked them. They reflect hopes, expectations, values and personal tastes. When a character’s name doesn’t sound like the kind of thing their parent (or other namer) would have chosen, it points back to the author.

If your heart is set on a type of name that your character’s in-story namer would not have chosen, there are no shortages of ways out. In both fiction and real life, people change or adjust their names all the times. Whether they choose an appropriate nickname, like Jo from Little Women, or they are given a name that reflects how others see them, like Fat Charlie in Anansi Boys, or whether there’s a subtle consensus to reshape the name into something more appropriate, like Pepper from Good Omens, it’s a perfect way to make an on the nose name sound natural. It feels right because it happens fairly often in real life, as well. Names shape people’s expectations, and when those expectations don’t fit, their bearers often seek something more appropriate.

Vary Why They Fit

As I mentioned last time, names are multifaceted, and characters are multifaceted, and names can fit in ways that are unexpected. A perfect way to make names feel appropriate without being contrived is to have them fit different characters for different reasons.

One of my all-time favorite shows didn’t do well with this; Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy, Cordelia, Willow, Xander… each name fits perfectly, on an individual level. But they all line up with their namesake’s personalities so well that, collectively, it’s clear they have been named by some omniscient author. Especially when the British librarian introduces himself as Giles. Later on, as characters evolved and others were introduced, this problem gradually went away.

On the other hand, How I Met Your Mother got this right from the start. First, three characters have names that fit, both on the level of sound and meaning.

  • Ted, the old fashioned romantic nerd. It conjures up images of your old, safe stuffed bear, and that’s the kind of lover he tries to be; the kind who makes you dinner and always returns your calls right away. As a diminutive, it also indicates that he has some growing up to do before he’s ready for The One.
  • Marshall, the gentle giant. Its soft sounds give Ted a serious challenge for most huggable name contest. At the same time, the law enforcement gives it a little backbone, and he does have a surprisingly tough and mature side, when needed.
  • Robin, the mercurial beauty. She is feminine, but with an androgynous streak, and like her namesake bird she sometimes needs to fly away.

But then you have Barney and Lily. A lily is a delicate flower, commonly used as a symbol of purity. Barney conjures up either a hay chewing hick or a purple dinosaur. Lily’s personality is half den mother, half scrappy hellion. Barney is a smooth city player.

These two names that break the pattern have an effect of naturalizing the entire cast. What coincidental appropriateness? Clearly we are just five people, named by five sets of people who had no idea how we would turn out. And sure, some of us did end up like our names, and that happens. Nature and nurture and all that. But sometimes you get a wild card, and look at us. Wild cards. Totally didn’t end up anything like our parents thought. Nope, our names and our personalities have as little to do with each other as you can imagine.

It’s a big lie, by the way. Barney and Lily’s names still signal something; they signal it by contrast, rather than emphasis. But I’ll get into that in the next installment.

How I Name My Characters, Part One: Finding a Name

God, I haven’t done something purely writerly in a while. I’ve been a bit distracted lately. I dunno if you’ve noticed, but our country is desperately backpedaling from the cliff’s edge while an orange troll yanks our handlebars forward, muttering “fake news media claims thousand foot drop may cause injury or death. SAD.”

Anyway, it’s nice to do a post on one of my favorite aspects of writing. I don’t think naming is the most important part of character design. My favorite show, Parks and Recreation, sounds like they wrote common names on slips of paper and pulled them out of a hat; Tom, Ron, Chris, Ben, Andy, Ann, April, Donna, Larry/Gary/Jerry. The most evocative name in the whole cast is Leslie. But I do think a well-chosen name can enrich a character and help the reader keep track of your cast. Also, I personally have an easier time connecting to my characters once they have been named. It’s like, in my head, an unnamed character is a quantum particle, potentially one of many things, and then it’s only when I’ve named them that I’ve properly seen them, and snapped them into a single, solid reality (feel free to explain to me how badly I just botched quantum mechanics). So the only real hard and fast rule I have is to choose a name that works for me.

That said, names are not blank slates. They come pre-loaded with associations, and picking one that will help the reader connect as well as me is always a plus. That’s the real challenge of picking a good name. There are many things that give names their public associations; famous namesakes, fashion trends, or use in slang or idioms, for example. Everyone has their own private associations as well. I, for example, have color-grapheme synaesthesia, and I like to match the colors of a character’s hair, eye or favorite clothes with the first letter of their name. That said, there are four things that I think authors in general should be mindful of when choosing names.

Pure Sound

We’ve all repeated a word until it stops sounding like a word. When that happens, it’s easy to notice how, regardless of their meaning, some words and phrases sound good (cellar door) while others just don’t (moist).

Just as there seem to be some universal mathematical underpinnings to visual art, and some universal wiring behind our basic facial expressions, there does seem to be some human consensus about which words sound pleasant or feel nice to say. If you are want to go down a fun linguistic rabbit hole, google phonaesthetics. Tolkien was a fan; it’s how he designed Elvish to sound ethereal and sophisticated, and the Black Speech to sound gutteral and snarly.

The science there is still fairly fuzzy, but anyone can say a word or name aloud, over and over again, and see what it really sounds like, apart from any meanings or cultural associations. When you do that, you start to notice things that help you match them up with a character.

    • Your tongue clicks through both Tristan and Keiko, but Tristan rolls into a clean ending with the “n” while Keiko bounces off of it’s final vowel. To me, both feel like young, active characters, but Tristan wears ties and shakes hands, reserving his fun side for his close friends, while Keiko laughs freely and has a touch of ADHD.
    • Short names feel simple; Dean, Hope, Anne, Ron. They get right to the point, and fit characters who are humble or practical. Long names feel complicated; Nicodemus, Gwendolyn, Roderick, Cordelia. The attention and time they demand from you suggests sophistication, or perhaps intellectualism, or possibly just arrogance.
    • Names almost can’t help sounding nice when they are mostly rs, ls, ms and vowels. Oliver, Leilani, Eleanor, Lamar, Amelia. I like using these for especially attractive characters.
    • Hortense twists your tongue so much you almost gag. I would never use this for a character; I would hate her too much to end up making her interesting. Honestly, can any of you come up with an uglier name, I will name you Lord/ Lady/Gender-ambiguous High Commander of the comments. 

My favorite thing about this is you can use it without making a name sound contrived. The risk of putting too much thought into a character’s name is that it could end up sounding like the author put too much thought into it. Just like everything else in a story, a good name has a purpose that enhances the story, but feels like it naturally belongs there.

Meanings

This is the part of names that we obsess over the most, but fairly often, they don’t actually matter. Take Armand and Bob. Let’s suppose I was going to pick one of those for a suave, successful businessman whose face you see on magazine covers at the checkout stand. The other one is an army sergeant from Kansas. It’s pretty obvious which name fits which description. But Armand means “soldier”, while Bob means “bright fame.”

Names have meanings because they come from words. Robert comes to English name books from the Normans. It’s composed of the old Germanic elements “hrod” and “beraht.” Beraht turned into bright when it came to words but “bert” when it came to names, and somewhere out there is a very smart linguist who can tell you why. That person is not me. Armand also came from the Normans, but took a detour in France, where it picked up a Parisian flair. It has the same roots as Herman (“hari” for army and “man” for, well, man). When names travel circuitous routes like these, their original meanings become overwhelmed or lost completely.

On the other hand, some names stay close to the words they came from. On the opposite end of Robert and Armand are common word names; Rose, Pearl, April, Joy, Melody, Robin, Gray. In addition to the sounds and cultural associations, these are names inevitably flavored by their literal meanings.

This isn’t a tidy binary between word names and everything else. It’s a spectrum. One tick down the scale from Grace and Faith are names like Viola. A viola is a musical instrument, and also a plant closely related to the violet. If you aren’t much of a musician or gardener, you might not know that, but you don’t really have to. It sounds something like “violet” or “violin” and invokes the beauty of strings and petals, regardless of whether or not you  know that connection is literal. There’s a whole class of names like that which do technically have meanings, but because they are jargon, or regional, or archaic, the names feel like names first and words second; Felicity, Mason, Cooper, Bonnie.

Next comes a whole band of names that are no longer words, but have visible roots with their origin. Sometimes they only drift one letter away, as with tailor and Taylor. Other times, you might need a large vocabulary or a second language to see the connection. Amy shares a root with “amiable” and “amity,” but as we learn these words later in life the association isn’t nearly as visceral. Perdita comes from Latin for “lost.” In English, the most common influence is “perdition,” which doesn’t quite mean the same thing anymore. But it also ties into the common Spanish verb “perder,” so to a Hispanic person it might feel more destitute.

The last degree brings us to misleading similarities. Timothy doesn’t mean timid. The connection between Jean and blue jeans is completely coincidental. Melanie is not a variation on Melody. Yet, Timothy sounds like a shy person, Jean is practical, and you can easily see Melanie singing, dancing or playing an instrument. Or at least, that’s how I’ve always seen them.

In brief, a name’s meaning makes a difference, when the meaning is still kept alive in the reader’s language. But that connection isn’t a direct line. It is subject to the whims of history, as well as the reader.

Cultural trends/origins

I think it is useful to think of your character’s name not only from the perspective of the author, but from the perspective of the person who named them in story. Usually this is a parent, but, depending on the story, they could choose it themselves, or it could be the nickname their older sister gave and that just stuck, or perhaps in their village the astrologer names every child, based on what is lucky for their birthdate, or maybe they were named by the scientist who grew them in a lab. Wherever it came from, it will break suspension of disbelief if the name is something the namer would never have come up with.

The point of caution here is not to over-rely on a character’s cultural background. There are so many names out there that are stereotypically the Hispanic name, or Black name, or French name, or baby boomer name… A good character is informed by their cultural background, not defined by it. The same goes for their name.

Namesakes

Namesakes are powerful associations. The problem here is that, like wasabi, they can be too powerful. It can be too obvious that a character is named for someone else, and they can feel like copies instead of homages. There are a few ways to get around this though.

  • Make a more obscure reference. If your heroic mutant with superstrength is named Hercules, it’s obvious what you’re going for. If his name is Jason, you’re still referencing a mighty hero of Greek mythology. It’s just less of a neon sign, more of an Easter egg.
  • Disguise the name. You could the character who conquers your dystopian post-apocalyptic landscape Caesar, but your audience will probably roll their eyes and think, “gee, I wonder what the writer is trying to tell me about this character.” Julian or August, on the other hand, wink at the reference without drawing your readers out of the story.
  • Disguise the reference. It’s one thing to name your character Merlin because he’s an elderly magical mentor of your chosen one. But what if he’s a clairvoyant child, constantly disoriented by his visions? What if he’s a mentor, but is in his thirties, clean shaven and never seen without a perfectly knotted tie, and is teaching the protagonist the fine art of insider training? What if he is a crotchety bastard who lives in a trailer and initially refuses to help the heroes, an anti-Merlin in every respect except age, then, after your readers have come to associate Merlin with “trailer park asshole” and not “King Arthur’s teacher”, he gradually comes to like and guide the protagonists? In other words, let the name be a reference to a facet of your character, not their entirety.

I’ll go more into background and namesakes in part two, where I talk about how to use names in a way that serves your whole story. In the meantime, here’s some helpful links

  • Behind the Name – each name has a ratings tab where you can see other people’s impressions of a name. Many names sites allow people to rate names, but this one lets people break down their impressions into fourteen categories, including intelligence, strength, formality, and humor. It also has a section that sorts names by thematic meaning, a name translator in case you need the Dutch version of Margaret, a surname themed sister site… basically it’s my favorite online resource
  • SSN baby name records – perfect for checking the real world history of popular names in the United States
  • Nameberry – the official site of Linda Rosenkrantz and Pamela Redmond Satran, the queens of baby names. Their books are essential for the writer learning to think about the images popularly associated with baby names. While their target audience is parents, and some of their advice must be adjusted accordingly, there is probably no one else on Earth right now who knows more about names. 

Happy writing!

Good Offense, Bad Offense

Whenever I write about social justice and storytelling, whether I’m sharing my own perspective or asking for someone else’s, typically someone will come along and inform me that it’s impossible to avoid offending everyone. Therefore, apparently, my entire effort is fundamentally pointless. I was recently in an argument with a particularly belligerent person, out to save me from my futile quest of political correctness, and I realized he was misunderstanding something very basic to my goals. Contrary to his assumption, I’m actually all for offending people with my writing.

I’ve heard people say that good writing is often offensive, and I’ve heard that idea attacked by fellow social justice geeks. I actually think that attack is misguided. It’s not that the very concept of “good art offends” is wrong. It’s just normally presented as part of an overall bad argument. It’s like a seed that’s been dropped on concrete. It won’t ever have room to properly bloom and fruit, but that’s not the seed’s fault. It’s the fault of the dumbass who planted it there.

Offense is the reaction of people who have been made to question something that they profoundly did not want to question. Sometimes that reluctance itself needs to be challenged. Some things stagnate and decay when they aren’t shaken up and re-examined regularly. Politics and religion in particular are improved by periodic interrogation. Great storytelling hacks our brains to make us think about something in a way we didn’t expect, so we should want it to occasionally offend people.

However, that principle doesn’t apply to everything. A person shouldn’t have to question their basic self-worth; their behavior or habits, sure, but not their fundamental value or basic human rights. That’s my first issue with the whole “you can’t please everybody” argument. No, I can’t please everybody. That’s why I try to prioritize pleasing people by treating them like humans, as opposed to pleasing people by tiptoing around their worldviews.

Which brings me to the core issue. The kind of offense I’ve been targeting these days really doesn’t come from any kind of intentional statement (most of the time). Instead, it comes from laziness. We have built up a vast tapestry of tropes that center around treating straight, white, heterosexual cisgender non-disabled men as normal and everyone else as subtly less human. Writers, from romance novelists to screenwriters to stand-up comics, draw from art that came before them, and often that means borrowing racist, sexist, ableist or homo/transphobic tropes. Even recognizing them takes conscious thought. Figuring out how to write without them takes serious effort. But failing to put that effort doesn’t make you the good type of offensive. It’s not thought provoking to stereotype Black women. It’s not constructive to question a disabled person’s basic worth and dignity.

Every norm eventually takes on a basic comfort; even ones that have no other redeeming quality. Challenging bigoted norms, therefore, is offensive. It isn’t even just offensive to people who are actively invested in oppression. It’s offensive to people who intellectually dislike oppression, but also have gotten comfortable with the rhythms of it. They don’t like to be confronted with the idea that their own story ideas, inspired by bigoted works, might have inherited bigotry. They really don’t want to be challenged to do the work to undo it. That’s the real reason for the ubiquitous pushback. It’s easy to tell others that the real world doesn’t have safe spaces, or that other people need to grow a thicker skin. It’s a lot harder to grow one yourself.

So to everyone out there who makes it your mission to remind people that they’re eventually going to piss off someone, or that they’ll kill themselves trying to make everyone happy, or that good art is sometimes offensive; take a moment to consider that maybe you’re the one they are willing to offend.

This rant has been brought to you by a really annoying conversation, a bad case of staircase wit, and my sudden realization that I hadn’t met my four posts a month standard. You probably picked up on that. You smart reader, you. 

How to Come up with Diverse Protagonists

A couple years ago I wrote a post titled What to do When All Your Characters are White. I liked it, but in retrospect, it describes short-term solution. Panicking about representation partway through planning a novel is not exactly the ideal situation. It’s better to have character ideas that naturally run across a spectrum of identities.

Some might argue authors have no control over what inspiration they are struck with, but I disagree. Personally, I have gotten better at this over the years, although it’s still a work in progress. So, as a follow-up to that old piece, I thought I’d share some of the things that have helped me avoid the problem of whitewashed casts in the first place, instead of just patching it up at the last minute. I’m focusing on race, because that’s the area where I’ve needed the most improvement, but I think these tips can apply to any kind of diversity.

1. Honestly identify your comfort zones.

This was a tough one for me, but it was an important step. It’s uncomfortable to tell yourself something like “I’m more nervous to write Black characters than any other race,” but when I did I could work on it, and it’s not a problem in the same way any more. I think white people have a sort of collective don’t ask don’t tell policy when it comes to worries about race. None of us are supposed to admit that we have gaps in our knowledge, or stereotypes, or anything of that ilk. But if you aren’t willing to recognize what needs to be worked on, you’ll never improve.

The Chaos

The Chaos, by Nalo Hopkinson: a weird, fun novel about confronting your inner demons.

2. Research pro-actively, not reactively.

Something I’ve noticed about research in general; last-minute research works best for details and side characters. The quality of your story improves if the main elements draw on subjects you are already familiar with. This means you should never wait for a story idea before researching something of interest. If you want to write mysteries, make it a habit to read about crime, the history of police work, law, forensics etc.

By the same token, if you realize at the last minute that your 1930s Chicago crime thriller needs more Black people, and you only have superficial knowledge of race relations in that time and place, you might have to decide you don’t have the expertise to write more than a few minor characters. But the more time you spend educating yourself about race relations and other cultures, the easier it will be to write more and more significant characters from all backgrounds. This also applies to educating yourself about racist tropes and what people really want to see more of. It’s easy to stumble blindly into a problematic trope. Educate yourself by reading media criticisms written by POC, and awesome blogs like Writing With Color.

Saving Face

Saving Face: an wonderful comedy that wouldn’t have worked without the author’s intimate knowledge of Chinese-American culture.

3. Re-imagine your favorite stories with diverse casts.

Writers are inspired by other writers. I think this is a major source of the ubiquitous white man protagonist. Sherlock Holmes inspires House. Clark Kent creates a genre for Bruce Wayne and Peter Parker to be born into. King Arthur creates a trope of Secret Royalty with Epic Destiny, and sets the default to “straight white teenage boys.” What happens if you take your favorite white characters and make them Black, Asian, Hispanic, etc? Do they actually change? Does it bring up new issues that could be fodder for an interesting story? Would this story be too challenging for you right now, and if so is there something you can do to bridge that gap? See point two.

sister-mine

Sister Mine, also by Nalo Hopkinson: fits into the Gods-on-Earth subgenre, but with loads of Afro-Caribbean mythology

 

4. Remember that everyone around you is a protagonist.

As writers, we love talking about gaining inspiration from all around us. But is that unadulterated inspiration? Or are we still influenced by the narratives around us? The think often we are. The interesting looking white guy gives us an idea for a main character. The story our Uber driver tells about growing up in Cameroon just inspires a scene where that white guy gets in a cab with a Cameroonian driver.

We all know everyone is the protagonist of their own story. But I’ve found it helpful to actively look at everyone around them and imagine the story where they are the main character. Some of these are stories I couldn’t write. One Uber ride didn’t give me enough material to capture all the nuances of Cameroon. That’s not the point. The point is getting into the habit of seeing everyone as equally protagonist-y.

Little Mosque

Little Mosque: a fantastically funny show where the Muslim community gets the spotlight.

5. Read and watch work by non-white creators.

Saved for last because it’s the most important. First, as I said before, art inspires art. This could be a whole post of it’s own, but short version; I’ve grown up in a world that mostly puts white artists in front of me. This means that my inspiration for non-white characters has largely come from white artists, who themselves were copying other white artists, who were inspired by other white artists… This process can’t create original, lifelike POC characters who represent the diversity that’s out there. If you want a fresh outlook, go straight to the source. Find musicians, actors, comedians, directors and yes, writers who aren’t white.

Second, while I think white people have a responsibility to undo some of the damage our ancestors have done, it’s important to not go so overboard that we talk over POC. You need to respect the actual voices of the people who you are trying to represent. You need to elevate their voices directly, not just borrow them. There are also plenty of reading lists on the internet. Also, every book/film/TV show pictured on this post was written by someone who isn’t white, so if any of them appealed to you, there’s your starting point.

Warning; if you follow this advice, at some point you will be angry because all these authors with their awards and their amazingness and yet I’ve never heard of them why????!!!!!

BloodChild

Octavia E. Butler: you are so wonderful. Where have you been all my life?

Mulan and Masculinity

I’m at the Philadelphia Trans Health Conference, and I’ve got that song from Mulan running through my head. You know the one. On the surface, the lyrics of this song reinforce many of our most problematic ideas about masculinity, including;

  • A person’s ability to perform masculine ideals define their gender identity
  • Masculine ideals are so lofty as to be nigh superhuman (“you must be swift as a coursing river, with all the force of a great typhoon, with all the strength of a raging fire, mysterious as the dark side of the moon.”)
  • Being womanly and being weak are practically synonymous, which is why the most humiliating thing is to be defeated by a woman

Yet everyone who hears this song knows it is from a movie where the protagonist is a woman.* We know the joke is on the singer, even before we see the film, but one of my favorite things about this movie is that it goes a step further than the standard gender-bending woman power stories. All too often, those stories challenge the first idea, by having a woman successfully perform masculinity, but leave the second untouched and sort of whistle awkwardly past the third. Sometimes the men are the butt of the joke for being outdone by a woman, and very often the only person worthy of her affection is the one man who really can best her. In Mulan, on the other hand, everything is taken a step further.

Li Shang and Ping

First, Mulan is, initially, terrible at fulfilling Li-Shang’s expectations… and so is everyone else. The cisgender men are all overwhelmed and struggling. The film has introduced Mulan as someone who struggles with femininity, which makes her feel inadequate, but then it dares suggest that people of all genders can struggle to live up to the idealized expectations of masculinity and femininity. When Mulan succeeds, it is celebrated because it marks a turning point for all of them. They ultimately live up to Li-Shang’s standards, not because of the inherent gifts of testosterone, but because of teamwork, persistence and loads of practice. It’s like the “masculine” ideals of strength and bravado can be fulfilled by anyone sufficiently dedicated to master them, regardless of their hormones or chromosomes. What a novel concept.

Speaking of which, I love the three soldiers who become her friends. Initially, they bully her. This is… honest. Brutally honest. In my experience, the worst gender bullies are always the ones who are insecure about their own presentation. From the Republican senator who bemoans gay rights only to be caught with a rentboy, to the scrawny nerd who trolls anyone who dares identify as both geek and woman, hypocrisy is the classic defense of the man who can neither live up to standards of masculinity, nor work up the courage to rebel against it. Because toxic masculinity is so hierarchical, it’s easy for them to decide that, if they can’t climb the ranks, at least they can make sure everyone below them stays down.

This is what her friends initially do. They are failing Li-Shang’s tests, so they make sure those around them won’t succeed and make them look bad. But Mulan refuses to play this game. Instead, she persists and, through her success, inspires them to work on themselves rather than keep putting down anyone weaker. I love that this is addressed. I love that children get to see how shitty that bullying is, and cheer for the discovery of a better way. I love the reminder that masculinity doesn’t have to be about being better than everyone else. It can be about collaborating and being better together.

Yao Ling Chien-Po

Second, the love story isn’t about Mulan finally finding a man who can defeat her, or some such sexist bullshit. In fact, Mulan never fixates on or pursues him. It’s Li-Shang’s character arc that drives the romance. He learns that his rigid concepts of gender roles are stopping him from finding true love with someone whose best traits are best recognized outside of the gender binary. Mulan is not the “Girl Worth Fighting For” they sing about (another song where sexist lyrics are deftly skewered by the context). She doesn’t need to be. Everything she is is wonderful enough.

Finally, and here’s my favorite part, Mulan never comes to perfectly embody masculinity, or femininity. She does become a much, much better warrior, but so does everyone else, and throughout the story she is more likely to use creativity and intellect to solve her problems than brute force. In the end, she returns to feminine clothing, albeit in a more subdued, gender neutral way.** The story isn’t about how she’s awesome because she’s masculine, unlike all those awful feminine women. It’s about how she’s brave, smart, resourceful and loyal; heroic traits that can go with any gender presentation.

Mulan

I want to do many more reviews of stories that explore gender, and especially explore how we tell stories about masculinity; how we spread toxic messages, and how we can do better. But for now, I’m off to hang out with awesome trans-spectrum type folk. If you have any requests for gender-centric stories that you want me to review, please leave a comment. Films are preferred, because it’s easier for me to find the time to watch and rewatch them, but if there are books or TV shows or anything else I’ll do my best. As always, thanks for reading!

*Her portrayal is consistent with just about any gender identity, including trans male and nonbinary. That is to say, she never says anything about who she feels she is, but rather about her sense of duty to her family, so you can read into the story what you want. I’ll refer to her with female pronouns, because that’s what she uses in-story, but I support all headcanons.

**Okay, okay, my personal headcanon is that today she would label herself genderfluid or a gender non-conforming woman. This is largely because she seems clearly uncomfortable with her initial attempts at performing extreme femininity, but not at the end when she is presenting as a woman again. I don’t think she would have looked as happy if she didn’t feel that “woman” was at least partially true to who she was. But that’s just my interpretation.

Watching Dogma With a Nun

Note from the future: I ended up a neopagan witch. The nun is still my best friend. This is not relevant to anything. 

A few weeks ago, I wrote a review of the movie Dogma, an old favorite of mine. At the end of it, I promised to write something about my journey figuring out how to follow advice from a certain character; advice to try having ideas, instead of beliefs, because an idea you can always change if you need to. I also hinted that it would have something to do with my experience watching this with my friend RJ, who is in the process of becoming an Episcopalian nun. This post ended up being harder to write than I expected, because the conversation RJ and I had about the movie quickly became very personal.

What RJ and I ended up talking about (other than squeeing over all our favorite bits) was theodicy, and the question of how atheism answers the meaning of life. These, in my opinion, are two of the most difficult questions in all of religion, because they can’t escape being incredibly personal. I can put my meaning of life in the most beautiful prose, and I have, and I can’t make that feel meaningful to someone else. In turn, I can hear explanations for evil that I can intellectually acknowledge are at least internally consistent, but I can’t find any of them satisfying. One of the things I appreciated about the conversation with RJ was how she admitted that she’s still figuring things out, and that the answers she has work for her, but she doesn’t expect them to convince anyone else.

I’ve been involved in a number of discussions about faith, evidence and belief, and it seems the one point that is consistently overlooked, by religious and non-religious people alike, is the influence of community. Not just the influence of community on what we believe, but on what we don’t want to change our minds about. I remember vividly from my Christian days how much that affected me. There was fear of ostracism, but even more than that, there was fear that if I stopped believing, I wouldn’t know who I was anymore. From birth, I had been raised to make religion an integral part of my identity, and how I saw the world. It was difficult to leave religion, even when it completely failed to make sense to me, because it would mean leaving behind my entire sense of what the world was and where I fit into it.

When I ventured out, in search of a new worldview, I found myself both drawn to and afraid of communities that were similarly agreement-centric. I was used to relating to people by believing the same things they did, and defining myself that way as well. At the same time, I was evolving very rapidly, and every time I bonded with someone over shared ideas, I felt like I was glimpsing a future where I was rejected for someday having a new idea. I’ve now started to realize certain things (like people being quick to insult those who disagree with them, or trying to bond with me over ideas instead of actions) as anxiety triggers.

After a few years of drifting through social circles and philosophies, I met RJ. One of the things I noticed early on was that she talked about other people she liked by listing their faults, not as insults, but as endearing quirks. This made me finally relax around someone. Perhaps without realizing it, she was saying, “be different from me, be irritating, show me your worst side, and I’ll still like you.” I try to be open with people as much as possible, but that still comes with a certain degree of anxiety most of the time. RJ is one of the few people who I can be as open as I want to be without any anxiety.

The other reason I had trouble writing this post is that I felt it would in some way become an advice post. I didn’t think I could tell about my journey away from beliefs and towards ideas without giving some pointers to people on that same journey. So here’s the only thing I know; find people who you know will care for you even if you change your mind. It takes a while, but it’s worth it.

Watching Dogma When I Doubted

When I first watched this movie, I was a bit disappointed. On each subsequent viewing, however, I’ve enjoyed it more, and now its one of my favorite comedies.

At the time, I was right at that in between space, between belief and disbelief. I had grown up with a religion full of answers. This is why bad things happen. This is how forgiveness works. This is how we know God is real. I had been assured so many times that if my faith was tested, it would always be found true, and so I had plunged into testing it, researching and arguing with unbelievers in hopes that I could save their souls. Instead, I found that the simple, tidy answers I had been given were not so satisfying. They held up well to the straw men portrayed in my childhood literature, but real humans had more complex, thought out ideas, more probing questions. I didn’t know what to believe.

So when I watched this movie, I hoped I would find those answers. Instead, I found something better. I found permission to not have answers.

I’m not going to try to recreate the experience of this movie, because I think jokes are extremely vulnerable to spoilers. I’d hate to ruin the humor for someone who hasn’t seen it, so I’ll just briefly summarize the plot. A pair of fallen angels find a way back to heaven, but unfortunately a side effect of their plan is obliteration of all existence. God is mysteriously MIA, so Metatron (the angelic voice of God) resorts to the oldest, most reliable plan in the book; assemble a ragtag team of unlikely misfits. The protagonist is Bethany, a Catholic who still goes to church, but has essentially lost her faith. She is helped by Jay and Silent Bob, a muse named Serendipity, and Rufus, the previously unknown black apostle.

Metatron

Metatron is Alan Rickman, which in and of itself is reason enough to watch this film.

When I most recently rewatched it, I expected to be frustrated by the fact that it teases you with doubt and complexity but ultimately concludes that God is still the bestest ever, but I actually don’t think it’s that simple. God does cause suffering, or at least allows it to happen, and nobody says you have to worship her. Her characterization allowed for a number of interpretations, and I decided mine was that she is a being of power who sustains the rest of the world by her infallible assertion that it exists, but she herself is a flawed and evolving person, just like the rest of us.

God

Oh yeah, and God is played by Alanis Morissette

I said its one of my favorite comedies, but it would be more accurate to say its one of my favorite films that happens to be in the comedy genre. I think some of the jokes are great and others just aren’t my preferred style of comedy. What I appreciate most about Dogma up is the empathetic attitude towards those in a place of doubt. There isn’t really a genre of atheist movies out there, so when you see discussions of religion onscreen they are invariably from a religious perspective. This means that those who doubt, or who have been wounded by their religion, are typically treated very callously. They are given pat answers and regarded as imbeciles for not having thought of them before. The opposite happens in Dogma. Bethany talks about her struggles, and people listen sympathetically. Metatron not only doesn’t have answers for her, but feels bad that he doesn’t. Rufus and Serendipity, who both have actually met Jesus and God respectively, claim that the former was black and the latter is a woman. But they also accept that nobody gets everything right, and argue that trying to understand everything is pointless. Ultimately, Bethany’s character arc isn’t meant to restore her faith. The closest the film comes to a “state the theme” moment is the following exchange about Jesus.

Rufus: He still digs humanity, but it bothers Him to see the shit that gets carried out in His name – wars, bigotry, televangelism. But especially the factioning of all the religions. He said humanity took a good idea and, like always, built a belief structure on it.

Bethany: Having beliefs isn’t good?

Rufus: I think it’s better to have ideas. You can change an idea. Changing a belief is trickier…

This line about ideas came back to my mind, over and over, as I struggled with my faith, and it was a source of comfort greater than any aphorism or Bible verse I had heard. It ultimately lead me to skepticism and atheism, but I’ve found that even there it can be complicated advice to truly follow.

But that’s another topic, for an upcoming review where I watch this movie with a nun. Stay tuned, let me know your thoughts and, as always, thanks for reading.

Batman v. Superman; Yeah, It’s Not Good

This movie gave me an actual headache.

Spoilers ahead, but I recommend reading anyway. It’s not worth the trip to a theater, and if you’re determined to do so, knowing what you’re in for might save on brain cells. But you know, you do you.

batman-v-superman

We are brooding men. Look at us brood. Producers tell us brooding = interesting. Broooooooooood.

I find that I generally agree with the Rotten Tomatoes rating of a film, but disagree with the consensus on why. Many critics said this movie was too complicated. On the contrary, it was very simple. Batman and Superman don’t trust each other, and Lex Luthor manipulates that distrust until they fight, but then Batman changes his mind because both their mothers are named Martha. They team up with Wonder Woman to fight a big monster, and Superman dies but only for until the sequel. Obviously.

All that seems complicated because the film is made of too many short scenes, all of which cut suddenly to the middle of the next one, so your brain is constantly playing catchup. The following is typical of my thoughts throughout the movie.

“Wait, how did Batman know to be here? Oh, he was decrypting those files last we saw him, so I guess they had the location. And he assembled a whole team in the meantime. Wait, how did he know which files to decrypt to begin with? Okay, he was stealing them from Lex Luthor, and I guess they established back when he got the invitation that he thinks Luthor has information on something for reasons. That scene wasn’t really clear on what Luthor had, so I think I was looking too hard for clues about that to remember how he knew Luthor had whatever it was. Or maybe it was the other way around. Anyway, he’s opening the thing, and…. oh, looks like a trap. And the person behind the trap was, uh, Superman? Why is Superman being so aggressive? Is that out of character? They haven’t fully established where this interpretation falls on the Pacifistish Hero spectrum. Oh, okay, it was all a dream. Hey! Hey movie! You’re only allowed one of those dream sequence fake outs per film, and you already done that twice!”

Oh, yeah, about ten percent of the in media res scenes turn out to also be dream sequences or fantasies. That really helps with the coherency.

So that’s the first issue; in lieu of having a complex web of intrigue, they shoot all the scenes in the most confusing way possible and hope you can’t tell the difference. The second issue has to do with broken promises and the elements of stories.

There are many ways to model stories, but one of my favorites is to break them down into elements of plot, character, setting and theme. It’s a helpful abstraction because it works across genres and culture, and it helps explain why the same errors can be tolerable in one story and unforgivable in another. All four elements are present in all stories, but most stories choose to emphasize one or two over the others. Mad Max: Fury Road had some flaws in its worldbuilding, but from the start it emphasized events and characters. The action was exciting and well choreographed, while the characters were remarkably rich. As a result, we were satisfied with the two other elements lagging behind.

Way back in the earliest teasers for Batman v. Superman, the creaters began promising that this would be an idea story. They took two characters with a common goal but deep ideological differences and pitted them against each other. They showed us society disagreeing in conflict about which was good and which was evil. They even brought in religious references. So we came prepared for superheroic fisticuffs, but we also brought our egghead glasses. We were prepared to go home talking about the mirror this holds up to society, or something equally pretentious.

Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent don’t have any interesting philosophical debates. Bruce Wayne goes, “You have too much power and might turn bad, so even though you’re clearly good now I have to destroy you!” Clark Kent goes, “You hurts bad guys a lot so you must be stopped!” I go, “Anyone going to point out that you are both powerful guys who might eventually be corrupted by said power, and furthermore you’ve both chosen a career path that involves some collateral damage? Anyone?” No one does. The only reason anybody objects to either of them is that they’re super powerful and also sometimes people get hurt. Well, that applies to the police, the military, the government, and any other agency of power. People point out that some people approve of them and some people don’t. That applies to… everything. Period. The specific contrasts between Superman and Batman are there, but nothing is said or done about them. Lex Luthor doesn’t even have an interesting reason to oppose them. He’s just a generic nihilist.

And yet, the film never stops reminding you that you were here for a thinky movie. It’s got the non-linear complex structure of the intellectual action film. It’s got the somber music and dark lighting.

And the religious symbolism! Symbolism works best when used sparingly to subtly emphasize certain characters or events. This is just everywhere, crosses and halos and the camera zooming in on some bystander praying. It’s not there to say anything, but its everywhere. Some people draw parallels between Superman and God, because, uh, they’re both way powerful and people look up to them. That’s it. They weren’t saying anything interesting about God, so much as giving me the impression the props department had a 50% off your entire purchase coupon at Family Christian Bookstores.

It was so ubiquitous, I started looking for it when it wasn’t there. Honestly. At one point the camera lingered on a hole in the wall. The hole looked kind of like a fish, so I wondered if they were going for an  ichthys, but it looked more like the Moby Dick restaurant sign. Then the fighting resumed and I decided it was just the place where Superman threw Batman through drywall. In my defense, my head had been hurting for a while.

In short, they let people down on their main promise. If this is an idea film, it explores said ideas like an argument on Facebook. Nowhere does anybody articulate their full point of view. Nowhere does anybody change their mind for any interesting reason, and when characters do talk they talk past each other. The only aim of 70% of the dialog is to spout some quotable soundbite, each of which sounds good in isolation, none of which meaningfully advances the conversation. Put that all together and you get a lot of people with black and white mentalities babbling at each other and saying nothing.

Huh. Maybe, in a completely unintentional way, it said something about society after all.

Tune in next time for me being way less grumpy, hopefully. As always, thanks for reading.

Mental Health and Creativity

I’m not sure how to categorize this post. It’s certainly not a review, and its not exactly writing advice either. I suppose, in a way, its my own personal PSA.

Starry Night

I just read yet another book where the author went on a rant about what would happen if we had medicated Van Gogh. Psychiatric drugs are turning us all into zombies and the negative feelings in life fuel our art and many great geniuses would have been diagnosed with mental health problems today. Therefore meds are bad! Sigh.

I do think we often rush to medicate when other options might be better, and there are people out there with good, educated opinions on this issue. But when your example of someone who should not have been medicated is a man who mutilated himself and took his life at 37, my bullshit alarm starts clanging. These arguments make me angry for many reasons, but one of the biggest is that they, at one point, prevented me from even exploring the option of medication. I have an anxiety disorder, and as it turned out, a low dose of an SSRI was extremely effective in treating it. Medication isn’t the answer for everyone, and I’ll get to that in a minute, but first I want to talk a bit about our ideas about the relationship between mental health and creativity.

The idea that creativity and mental illness are linked is an old one, but studying it is problematic. Search the internet for mental illness and creativity studies, and you’ll find a tenuous statistical connection that raises more questions than it answers. People who spout the Van Gogh argument tend to assume that when mental illness comes along with creativity, the former is essential to the latter. This is only one explanation. Here are some others;

  1. Artists tend to live unstable, stressful lives. This means that those who are predisposed to mental health problems are more likely to develop them.
  2. People who happen to be both mentally ill and creative often turn to art as a kind of self-therapy. If they hadn’t been mentally ill, they still would have been creative, but would have channeled their abilities into other arenas.
  3. Mental illness and creativity share a genetic cause, a bit like those genes that cause both blue eyes and deafness. Just because a person wears a hearing aid, that doesn’t mean their eye color will change.

It’s funny how those who wail the loss of a hypothetically medicated Van Gogh never mention Monet, Manet, Renoir, Pissarro, Cezanne, Morisot or Degas. All of them, like Van Gogh, produced moving Impressionist art that is beloved today. They used the good and the bad in their lives to inspire them. See Morisot’s portrait of her husband on holiday…

 

eugene-manet-on-the-isle-of-wight

… and Monet’s portrait of his dying wife.

Monet's Wife

For most of them, there is no historical evidence that they suffered any kind of mental illness. Others, like Cezanne or Degas, did have some moodiness and isolationism that might have been signs of a disorder, but then again, maybe they were just shy eccentrics. It’s almost as though great creativity appears across a spectrum of functioning, rather than being dependent on extreme mental anguish.

Now, I should say, there have been people who have tried medication and then gone off it, because the side effects were awful, or because the meds didn’t help, or because they felt they could manage it better with therapy alone. Some people who use the Van Gogh argument just mean we shouldn’t force medications on people who don’t find them a net positive. I do agree with that point. Unfortunately, it is just as often used as fear mongering by people who don’t really know anything about either psychiatry or what its like to be mentally ill.

The stigma around mental illness made my parents inclined to ignore it, and the image of the tortured artist was a convenient way for them to explain away the warning signs in young me. I wasn’t really miserable. I was just “moody, like all the great writers were.” Growing up with this as the way to understand myself made me feel guilty even considering that I might have a medical problem. When I considered getting help, my brain filled with some Orwellian nightmare of personality erasure. Even when I broke away from them, these images fed my anxiety disorder and added one more boulder to the massive wall of issues stopping me from seeking help.

For years, I managed my anxiety by educating myself on calming techniques, recognizing my own personal triggers and picking my battles. At some points in my life, that worked fairly well. I would face my fears in order to maintain friendships or keep my job, and then I would go home, cry and crash, not because anything had gone wrong but because I was exhausted from fighting through my fear every time I was around people. Other times, I had to miss out on things I really wanted to do, because I did the math, and I knew I didn’t have enough spoons to both see my friends and face the crowds of strangers at the grocery store. I thought I was doing pretty well. The tears and shaking became almost invisible to me, because they were so normal. Then, I moved in with my boyfriend, and those breakdowns weren’t private anymore. He was loving and supportive, but simply having another pair of eyes on me made me realize how unusual my mental state was.

Then, last fall, my long estranged older brother started reaching out to me. I had to take advantage of this, because I loved and missed him, and our visit went very well. Unfortunately, the trip was so hard that the anxiety crash didn’t take an afternoon of crying. It took weeks, and I couldn’t limit my outbursts to home. I started having breakdowns at work, over nothing. My boss took a moment to talk to me privately about what was going on, and shared her story about how she had gotten on medication. Obviously that story was private, but it debunked a lot of my worries and got me to set up an appointment with a general practitioner (I had tried to get an appointment with a therapist, but invariably my first few calls would go to people who weren’t accepting new patients, and of course one of my major anxiety triggers was making phone calls).

Now I’m on meds. I still feel fear, sadness, and all the other normal negative emotions that we all need to function. What changed is that after I feel them, I calm down normally, without exhaustion, tears and shaking over something that I know, rationally, was no big deal. It hasn’t harmed my creativity. If anything, I have more time and energy to write. Once again, I need to say that everyone reacts a little differently, and what worked for me might not work for someone else. My point is not “go on medication, you will definitely be fine.” Instead, my point is twofold.

To those of you who struggle with mental health problems but have been spooked by those who say you’ll lose your ability to feel, let me tell you, they don’t know what they are talking about. Psychiatric medication might not be the best option for you, but then again it might improve your life more than you ever thought was possible. And here’s the great thing; if you try a medication and you hate how it affects you, you can stop taking it. Do talk to your doctor first, because sometimes you need to wean yourself off gradually, but any decent doctor won’t make you stay on something that is hurting your quality of life. If they aren’t willing to listen to you, change doctors. There are plenty of good ones out there. Your brain is a wonderful, powerful instrument, and your life is a precious thing. Take good care of them both.

To those of you who spew the cliche about Van Gogh, I understand that you probably didn’t mean anything by it. You probably hadn’t thought of this perspective. I hope I’ve given you something to think about. I leave you with this. Perhaps Van Gogh would not have responded well to medication, but given how much pain he was in, he should have been given the choice, and that choice should be respected by us all. If that would have resulted in a world without Starry Night, I dare say we’d have consolation enough from Monet’s Sunrise.

Impression, Sunrise

Reviewing VeggieTales as an Atheist: Jonah Part Two

(note: I’m now a vaguely spiritual neopagan witchy-type. Otherwise, I stand by pretty much everything here)

Throughout their narration, the Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything make a big deal about compassion and mercy. In one scene they give definitions that I quite like. Compassion is “when you see someone who needs help, and you want to help them,” and mercy is “when you give someone a second chance, even if they don’t deserve it.”

They go on to say that of the two, mercy is most important, but you can’t have mercy without compassion. This connection seemed obvious to me at first, but then as I thought over it some more, it seemed arbitrary, almost like Yoda’s “fear leads to anger” speech in The Phantom Menace. Then, as I thought about it even more, it became brilliant. Their definition of mercy creates a question. If someone doesn’t deserve a second chance, why would you give it to them? Often in my childhood, the answer was “because God says so.” Occasionally it was even, “Matthew 6:15. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” This is kind of a terrifying verse when applied to people are mistreating you, saying they are sorry, and then mistreating you again, especially when you can’t get away from them. I think about this verse every time I’m informed that the Duggars have forgiven Josh Duggar for his hypocrisy and abuse.

Thankfully, Matthew 6:15 is not the answer the Pirates are giving. They imply that mercy is an act of compassion. People who have done something wrong may be in need of help, and a second chance may be the help they need. This applies directly to Jr.’s conflict with Laura, and Bob’s with Dad Asparagus. In the first case, Jr. can only see the brat who got her comeuppance, but there’s a bigger picture, one where they are both kids who do stupid things all the time and both have need of a break now and then. In the second, Dad Asparagus messed up, and feels terrible, but there’s no way to undo what happened. He apologized, and because Bob has been blowing him off he is worried he has completely ruined a friendship. At this point, both Jr. and Bob have legitimate grievances, but neither of them are balancing that with the compassion to see things from someone else’s perspective.

But let’s stick a pin in that and get back to Jonah.

Jonah snooty face
He’s not having the best week.

Jonah is stuck in the belly of a whale. Khalil tries to cheer him up, but this is ineffective, because Jonah just can’t get past the fact that he’s about to be, what’s the word? Oh yes, digested. Just as Jonah admits he was wrong to disobey, a choir of angels comes down to encourage Jonah. They tell him the story is not over, and though they aren’t specific about what comes next, they do tell him that God is the God of second chances.

Jonah Khalil pose
Naturally, when the choir of angels showed up Khalil was down to boogie.

Three days later, the whale gets sick and vomits Jonah and Khalil up, conveniently next to Jonah’s old camel. Well, it’s not a pleasant way out, but it’s better than the alternative.

Jonah goes to Nineveh, but he’s still not happy about it, muttering “get in, give the message, get out.” On his arrival, he almost gets an excuse to bail, when the guard will not listen to him. Luckily, or unluckily, depending on how you see it, he once again runs into the Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything.

The Pirates, not willing to let an idea go just because its completely bonkers, used all Jonah’s payment to continue buying up twisted cheese curls, and did finally get the golden ticket to the factory in Nineveh. They are more than happy to smuggle Jonah in. I guess they figure that last time they obstructed his mission, even unintentionally, everybody almost drowned. Can’t blame that reasoning. This turns out to be not such a good deal for Jonah after all, because on one of their previous trips to the factory (apparently the golden ticket is good for multiple trips) Pirate Larry mistook some bags for free samples. The penalty for petty and entirely accidental theft, in Nineveh, is “the slap of no return!!!!!”

They tie you up to a pole and drop a giant metal fish on you. In a big gladiatorial arena. Oh, and they nab your friends and traveling companions to be slapped as well. Cause that’s fair and all.

Jonah Nineveh
Worst. Week. Ever.

Jonah attempts to mount a legal defense mid-execution, and when he mentions that he had just survived three days in a big fish’s stomach, the Ninevites take notice. I don’t know if you noticed, from all the subtle hints, but fish are kind of a big deal to them. This causes them to pay attention to his whole turn and repent speech, and they let him and his friends go.

Jonah promptly goes to find a good vantage point to watch the city be destroyed.

Yeah, turns out that through all of this, he never considered that the actual point of his speech would be for the Ninevites to be given a second chance that they might actually take. This part is all true to the original Bible story, but most children’s versions leave it out. Slaughter a whole city? A-ok. Moral complexity in your prophets? Woah, let’s not get crazy here. But, if any children’s Bible series was going to pleasantly surprise us all, it would be VeggieTales.

Jonah climbs a mountain, just to get a good view of the destruction of buildings, and presumptive death of human beings, including children. It takes him a while to realize that this destruction isn’t going to happen. The Ninevites repented, and they meant it. They got right to work changing their ways and generally making amends, so for once God isn’t going to go all fire and brimstone on them. God doesn’t explain that to Jonah right away. First, he grows a tree, just to give Jonah a bit of shade, and perhaps a subtle hint that he’s gonna be waiting a lo-o-o-ong time. Then, he sends a worm to eat the tree and cause it to fall down. Jonah completely and utterly loses his shit.

Jonah Khalil tree
And you thought he was just the quirky sidekick. Turns out, he was the worm all along.

This was all to teach Jonah a complex and subtle lesson, which can be roughly summarized as “You literally care more about a single tree than thousands of men, women and children. What the fuck is wrong with you dude?!?!”

This is spelled out to him by Khalil. In the Bible, it was God himself who points out the hypocrisy of Jonah’s reaction. Apparently, he finally realized that communication via storms and convenient whales is perhaps a bit ambiguous. As in the Bible story, Jonah does not see reason, but instead throws himself to the ground, wailing that it would be better if he had died in the belly of the whale. Khalil decides to leave him. That is Jonah’s punishment; no whales, no fire and brimstone. For failing to accept that other people deserve the same second chances he wants for himself, he is left to wallow in his own selfish indignation. It is, in my opinion, the most just comeuppance ever delivered in the Bible.

The reaction of the veggies back home is similar to mine when I first heard the unedited version of the story. What? What the hell kind of ending is that? What? In this film, the happy ending is found not in a Hollywood rewrite, but in Bob and Jr. learning the lesson that Jonah didn’t. Bob finally accepts Mr. Asparagus’ apology, while Jr. offers his ticket to Laura, repairing their friendship. Then, of course, the musician in question shows up looking for directions, gives everybody backstage passes and ends this episode on a big musical number.

Jonah twippo
He looks oddly familiar…

I mentioned earlier that forgiveness was often presented to me as something that is required, on pain of not being forgiven yourself. And when your religion says everyone is inherently sinful and needs to be forgiven to not be burned alive for all eternity, that’s a legitimately terrifying prospect to have imprinted on you. So its interesting to note that in this movie, Jonah himself isn’t forgiven. Jonah gets a second chance, but he doesn’t get a third chance. You could say this is because he isn’t sorry, so the lesson is still forgive everyone who is willing to say sorry, but I want to analyze things a little further. Jonah’s first crime is running away, his second is preparing to gloat over the destruction of a city, and what both of them have in common is that he is unwilling to see the Ninevites as being equally worthy of forgiveness. Earlier, I noted how his line “your messages are meant for me” implies a mentality where he is the center of the story. He expects to be told what to do and given opportunities to make up for it when he makes a mistake, but he doesn’t even want to consider that there are other sides to his own story. It’s his lack of compassion that makes him unable to truly get over his own faults.

And that’s the real difference between him and the Ninevites, as well as Laura and Mr. Asparagus. Mr. Asparagus had his own perspective, where he was just trying to keep everyone’s spirits up, but was willing to see that Bob had another, equally valid one where he wasn’t being given the help he really needed. Laura initially refuses to take Jr’s seat, which shows she isn’t a permanently selfish person, but a kid who, like Jr., is capable of moments of good and bad, and still learning to have more of the former than the latter. We aren’t shown the Ninevites’ reaction, but we are informed their change of heart was genuine. Jonah was willing to say sorry to get out of a bad situation, but his attitude towards the rest of the world didn’t fundamentally change.

In my experience, that’s highly accurate of toxic people. Anyone can move their mouth and say “I’m sorry,” but it is only people who can adjust their point of view who get around to changing their behaviors. This movie managed to emphasize the importance of compassion and mercy while still giving us permission to step away from those who are stuck in damaging old behaviors, and that’s a balanced, honest message that I can really get behind.

I’m working on my next series of Reviews as an Atheist, and I can’t wait to start sharing them with all of you. Until next time, thanks, as always, for reading.