Tag Archives: feminism

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: The One About Trust

Sorry this was posted late. I decided at the last minute that, although this was a two part episode, there was really only enough material for one post. It took a little extra time to put the merge the two drafts I had together.

This is the last episode of the political series, and of course it had to be one of the two election stories. The first election story they did was about Tom Reilly’s bid for mayor against corrupt businessman Bart Rathbone, and honestly, it did not have that much to say about politics. It was just a lot of silly goofs. This episode, well, in its own way it also has very little to say about politics. But it pretends it does, and that’s the problem.

It begins with Connie finding out she is not going to graduate high school on schedule. Somehow, she has neglected to take a required government class, and it won’t be offered until the semester after she is due to graduate. The counselor offers her an alternative. As the election is going on, Connie can volunteer for one of the candidates, write a report on what happened, and they’ll call it square.

Connie jumps on the offer, but finds out there are two candidates, neither of which are her ideal. First is, once again, the token villain of the entire town, Bart Rathbone. Second is Margaret Faye, feminist.

Okay, there’s a fair bit more to her objections than that. Margaret Faye and Whit kinda-sorta used to date. They respected each other’s intelligence, but disagreed on almost every issue. Margaret liked having someone around who challenged her, and wanted to get serious. Whit instead chose to break it off, and she was pretty petty about it. I’ll probably get into that episode during the romance theme. Anyway, despite the bad blood between Margaret Faye and Whit, Connie still considers her less objectionable than Bart, so she starts working.

When she brings this up to Whit, he is initially flabbergasted. He can’t believe she is working for Margaret, and only concedes the decision when Connie spells out how bad the situation is, and how much worse working for Bart be. Throughout this episode, he will emphasize that he is not going to vote, because an intelligent, experienced woman whom he disagrees with and dislikes is just as bad as a corrupt, inexperienced and frankly dangerously incompetent nincompoop.

In case you’re wondering, yes, this episode was made by people who endorsed Trump in 2016.

Whit backs off eventually. He gives Connie her paycheck, but accidentally hands over Eugene’s. She offers to take it to him, but he insists on taking it back. It’s awkward. Then Eugene comes in, hears about Connie’s decision, and begs Whit to make her reconsider. It’s even more awkward. Then Bart comes in, seeking Whit’s endorsement, but when he finds out that Connie is volunteering for Margaret, he too tells Whit to tell her not to do it. Connie asks why everyone is talking about her instead of to her. Whit says she can make up her own mind, but he says this to Bart and Eugene instead of telling them to talk to Connie. It’s really, really fucking awkward.

At Connie’s first campaign meeting, Margaret asks if Whit sent her. Connie is angry at the suspicion and responds that she’s here for school credit. Margaret doesn’t like that as much as “I actually care and believe in what you stand for,” but it’s better than, “I’m spying for Whit.” She still isn’t sure about Connie’s relationship with Whit, though.

She wants to “shake up the status quo,” which everyone takes to mean tearing down the patriarchy. Part of Bart’s pitch to Whit is that she wants to tear down the “old boys’ network,” which means Whit and Tom Reilly and a few other guys. Whit says there is no such thing as an old boy’s network, by which I assume he means nobody is meeting in a dimly lit room to hatch conspiracies. But Tom and Whit have considerable clout around town; that is not up for debate. Apart from wanting to shake up that unquestioned power, we don’t learn anything about Margaret Faye’s plans for Odyssey. She wants things to change, because it’s time for a change, a changey kind of change, and the way she’ll make that happen is by changing things.

What a monster.

Going back to Connie and Whit, Margaret worries that Whit tends to think for her, and is not always fair. Connie protests at this. Margaret counters by asking about her and Eugene. Connie has worked at Whit’s End longer. She does the cleaning up and supervising kids. Eugene works on the computers and inventions, and is in charge when Whit isn’t around. Connie initially answers that those are the things Eugene is good at, and that he was hired for. Still, when she goes back to work at Whit’s End, she is bothered by the conversation. This is made worse when she sees Eugene with a cash bag. He is being sent to do the deposits. Connie asks why she isn’t given the deposit, and Eugene replies, “because you’re a girl.”

You know, Eugene and Connie famously bicker, and it’s usually presented as both people’s fault. And sometimes that’s right, but in doing these reviews, I’m noticing that, quite frequently, they are arguing because Eugene is a sexist jerk.

When she and Whit talk it over, Whit concedes to some sexism on the point of the deposits. Honestly, his response is pretty classy. He says that he tends to think of a young woman with a lot of money as a larger target than a young man with a lot of money. When it comes to the other things, it’s a mixture of Connie showing less interest and Eugene coming in motivated and qualified to do these things. But, now that Connie is showing interest in all this, he is happy to change things around. He’s going to start teaching her to work with the computers, and take on more responsibility.

I say this is classy because, in the real world, sexism is often unconscious. Anybody can go along with the status quo unconsciously, especially when raised in a more traditionally gendered generation. It’s how people act when their behavior is called out that tells you something about their character. Whit did not intentionally limit Connie and he is willing to change. Good for him.

And here I want to circle back to Margaret Faye. Her nebulous desire to shake things up is generally framed as a problem. But what would have happened if she hadn’t made Connie question the way things are? Connie would have been limited. Connie is a smart, spirited young woman who is constantly frustrated by the way people underestimate and overlook her. You don’t even have to go to other episodes to see this; Bart and Eugene’s conversation with Whit is a perfect illustration of how people talk about how to handle her rather than talk to her about what she thinks. She deserves to have her potential nurtured, especially by Whit, who genuinely does have an incredible amount of influence in her life. So, good on Margaret for pushing her to have that long overdue conversation.

Before I return to the episode, I need to point out one more problem, because it is about to become important. The disparity in Connie and Eugene’s duties would be a problem if they were both hired out of high school, at the same pay grade, for the same reasons. But they are in completely different positions. Eugene is in grad school, and specializes in computer science. He’s an adult, while Connie is still a minor. Eugene has a specialized skill set. Connie… is still a minor. This isn’t a feminist issue. I’d say Margaret is being a straw feminist, but, uh, nobody else brings that point up later. They just talk about how Connie isn’t great at computer stuff.

Meanwhile, at the bank, Eugene runs into Bart Rathbone’s wife, and they have a classic spilled-paper-collision-mixup. She ends up with Eugene’s paycheck stub. She nearly throws it away, but Bart wants to hang onto it. He has a suspicion, based on what he saw at Whit’s End earlier. They go back and dig through the trash, and find the paycheck stub Connie threw away.

Meanwhile, at Margaret Faye’s campaign, she asks Connie to look up on some information. Margaret says she has been contacted by a woman named Roxie McCormick, who once worked at Whit’s publishing organization. She says she was fired by Whit after trying to point out some of his discriminatory practices towards women. Connie finds the idea ridiculous, and Margaret says she doesn’t want to act on this information until she has verified it. Connie’s relationship with Whit gives her an opportunity to get an inside scoop, which is why Margaret went straight to her. That said, Margaret emphasizes that this is Connie’s choice. If she is not comfortable, she can turn the job down, and Margaret will completely understand, no hard feelings. She ends by repeating her advice, to Connie, to think for herself.

This scene is played with sinister background music, but honestly, Margaret is being completely reasonable. She’s taking steps to get all the facts before she acts, she is giving Connie the choice of whether to be involved in the investigation or not, and she is also taking the risk that, with Connie’s relationship, she might choose to cover up information rather than expose it. I suspect part of why Margaret chose her was that, if Connie of all people can bring back confirmation, despite her attachment to Whit, you know the intel is good.

Back at Whit’s End, Eugene warns Whit that Connie is in a bad mood. He talks about how she has been in a bad mood off and on for a while, such as on the day of the bank deposit. He thinks Margaret Faye is at the back of it, as she had just come from the campaign. Whit and Eugene piece together that this is why Connie has suddenly been complaining about her jobs and asking for tutoring on the computer. Their tone suggests that this explains sudden, irrational behavior; it was all Margaret’s fault! It’s not like the way Connie generally thinks and acts would suggest that she has aspirations beyond wiping tables, and Margaret just gave her the impetus to actually voice those in more explicit terms, and that impetus made her life better. Plus, nothing says “sexism free workplace environment” like two men talking about the mood swings of a woman who is trying to expand her skill set.

Connie has told Eugene about the accusations of Roxie McCormick, and Eugene passes these on to Whit. Whit explains that Roxie was actually fired for embezzling funds and there is plenty of documentation to prove it, including a police investigation. So, okay. There’s that subplot over and done with.

Whit is upset that Margaret told Connie this information, and instead of going to Connie, he goes straight to Margaret. He asks her, accusingly, why she sent Connie. Margaret explains, very calmly, that she didn’t send Connie, Connie accepted a request. When I say calmly, I should add that the voice actress adds a slightly imperious edge to Margaret Faye’s voice. Margaret has not, so far, done anything especially sinister, but the voice actress makes her sound like, well, a conniving bitch. Someone wily and adept at causing chaos while having plausible deniability. There’s a dissonance between the text of the episode and the framing, and it’s important to note that, because very often, when this kind of dissonance exists, the impressions of the framing are what stand out.

While he’s here, Margaret asks Whit if the accusations are true. Whit’s response is, “Not that it’s any of your business, but no, it isn’t.”

Sidenote; I think it actually is her business. This isn’t a personal relationship she is investigating, but the business practices of a large company which Whit happened to oversee. If a politician was running on curbing environmentally destructive business practices, and found out a local business did something highly dangerous, they would probably want that information to be let out so their constituents would know the legislation is necessary. That’s why Margaret tells Connie she wants the information. A major part of her platform, in fact the only one we know for sure, is that she wants to combat sexism. Establishing sexist practices of a powerful local businessman would show Odyssey why this is necessary. You can do the math.

Margaret takes his word, but Whit isn’t done. He presses her on why Connie was chosen. He won’t take, “because she works for you dumbass,” for an answer, and they get into Margaret’s belief that Connie needs to learn to think for herself. Whit’s response is to scoff at the suggestion that she doesn’t. He even accuses her of influencing her. Margaret laughs at that, and tells him that he’s been influencing her since she arrived in Odyssey. She says that what this is really about is Whit’s fear that anyone but him might have an influence on what Connie thinks.

God, it’s almost like she listens to the show. 

Just outside of the campaign headquarters, Bart ambushes Whit. He presents Whit with two paycheck stubs; Eugene’s and Connie’s. Whit pays Eugene three times more. Bart threatens to go public with this information unless Whit endorses him. Whit openly laughs at this threat. Obviously such proof of systemic sexism will flood the polls with voters for Margaret, and Bart will lose. There’s no way in hell Bart would do that. After spelling this out, Whit walks off, leaving Bart dumbfounded.

But the very next morning, this story is in all the papers, and Connie has quit Whit’s End.

Margaret Faye personally calls Whit to deny that she is the source of the leak. She also apologizes for the harm done and avoids talking to the press about it… okay, that’s weird and out of character. I think this is their attempt to make her character complicated and not a total villain. That attempt is itself weirdly telling. It would make more sense to complicate her by showing how, from her point of view, a crusade for women’s rights makes, you know, sense? Like it’s a valid thing to seek? But instead she sabotages her own quest, as a favor to a man who she frankly has mixed feelings about. Uh, okay then.

Election day comes and goes, Margaret wins, and Connie still won’t talk to Whit.

She will, however, talk to Tom Reilly, who tells her the real reason behind the paycheck discrepancy. See, back when she came to Odyssey, Whit set up a secret surprise trust fund for her college. Tom Reilly says he knows about the trust fund because, during Whit’s mission trip to the Middle East, Tom did the payroll. He emphasizes that Eugene and Connie are paid equally, when you factor in the bonus that she never sees because it goes immediately to her trust fund.

So Whit’s a good guy after all, because he set up a trust fund. Which Connie pays for. With a bonus she doesn’t know she’s getting. So she’s being paid more, even though she’s being paid less.

Wait, what? What? What?????

Let me break down why this is so absurd.

First, Whit is fucking loaded. This was established in Tales of Moderation and referenced in several others. He could have set up the entire trust fund out of his own pocket if he wanted, and that’s what anyone who actually cared about Connie would have done.

Second, not knowing that Whit is doing this, Connie and her Mom are probably already doing something to prepare for college expenses. What sacrifices are they making now that they don’t realize they don’t have to? People on the edge of poverty have to budget their money tightly and make a lot of sacrifices. Heck, maybe Connie’s Mom wants to go back to college, or take some self-improvement courses, and she’s holding off because her daughter’s education comes first. Surprises are nice, but it’s also nice to know that you can dip into your savings to get your roof fixed.

Third, is Eugene actually supposed to Connie’s equal or not? Because it doesn’t make sense that he would be. He’s older, more educated, and has a profitable specialized skill set. Oh, and he’s supporting himself while Connie still lives with her Mom. You know, cause she’s a minor.

Do the writers of this show think pay equity means that all male and female employees should be paid the same regardless of what they do? ‘Cause that’s not the issue. The computer guy gets more money. It’s fine. What’s not fine is that a lifetime of gendered expectations means women get discouraged from becoming the computer guy in the first place.

Oh, and when they get that training, they often encounter demonstrably hostile work environments, directly tied to their gender.

And then there’s still the expectation that they will eventually quit and stay home with their babies, because stay at home dads are stigmatized. And people use that expectation to justify paying all women less just for being female, cause all women secretly want babies even if they say they don’t so we can pretty much assume there will be babies, hormones amirite?

And women are also socialized to be more accommodating so they are less likely to negotiate for a raise.

And on top of all that some bosses are just straight up sexist assholes who actually do give women a pay cut just for being women, so that’s not good.

In conclusion, this episode’s contrived solution to a contrived problem actually makes Whit look worse than if he just paid the high schooler minimum wage, you know, cause she’s a minor.

Anyway, the music tells us, along with Tom’s flowery speech about Whit’s compassion for a poor divorced single mother and her kid, that our heartstrings are supposed to be pulled. Connie is driven to tears and runs to Whit. She reveals that she is the one who leaked the story! Oh what a twist! Oh my goodness! She’s such a horrible person who has been proved so very wrong and she should have trusted Whit oh the humanity! And just to hammer the point home, when she gets an A on her final report, she says she doesn’t deserve it because she “failed trust.”

Uuuuggggghhhh.

Final Ratings

Best Part: During his concession speech, Bart starts talking about reports of ballot stuffing, which he intends to investigate. Then someone whispers that it was his son, Rodney, who did the stuffing. Bart promptly shifts to advertising upcoming sales at the Electric Palace.

Worst Part: “I’m not paying you less! I’m just subtracting two thirds of your paycheck without telling you about it.” God, at least when the government takes some of your paycheck, it tells you how much and where it’s going. But it’s fine when a small business owner does it…

Story Rating: Starts strong with some interesting conflicts, but fizzles into contrived resolutions. D –

Moral Rating: This is my final review in the politics theme, and despite being set around a mayoral election, it barely talks about politics. It alludes to them, then throws contrived monkey wrenches into the conversation to make you feel bad for distrusting the Designated Authority Figure. And that’s, well, that’s really destructive. It doesn’t educate. It just programs distrust. F

Final Ratings For Political Topic

Best Episode: Viva La Difference

Worst Episode: ….literally all of the others?

Okay, most of them at least had stories that were interesting apart from the political ignorance, while this one was bad from a story perspective alone. So, The One About Trust wins. Er, loses. Whatever, you get what I’m saying.

Good Things They Said: Women and Black people aren’t actively subhuman.

Bad Things They Said: It is, however, completely normal and natural that they have less power than white men. Anyone trying to shake up a Pleasantville-style set of norms is probably evil.

Things They Failed to Address: Liberals sometimes have good ideas. Gay people exist.

Overall Rating: I don’t think this show should have to give a comprehensive political education. The complexities of fiscal policy is a bit beyond the scope of your average kids show. I would not have faulted this show if it had opted to be as apolitical as possible. But it doesn’t. It does specifically argue against feminist, anti-imperialist and socially progressive ideas, and it does so by consistently misrepresenting the positions they are arguing against, and framing liberal characters with sinister music.

I disagree with the politics of Focus on the Family, which produces Adventures in Odyssey. But that disagreement isn’t the problem here. I dig intelligent disagreement. I still enjoy C. S. Lewis for that reason. What pisses me off is that they emotionally bully kids into being afraid of liberals, without properly understanding liberal positions.

F, for Fuck that Shit.

Advertisements

Midnight Robber, by Nalo Hopkinson

Midnight Robber

What It’s About

An epic bildungsroman about a young girl’s journey from fugitive to folk hero, set in a future where space is colonized by Caribbean peoples.

Why I Think You Will Like It

God, there are so many levels on which I want to recommend this, it is honestly hard to pick where to start.

First there’s the sci-fi coolness level. This is a fucking awesome world. You’ve got your androids, your nanotechnology, your pocket dimensions and your aliens, all well thought and neatly integrated into the coolest fucking neo-Caribbean culture. The dialect and carnivals and food and clothing all make for a spin on space opera that I desperately want to see more of. This was my first taste of Afrofuturism and I got hooked, in the best way.

Then there’s how it handles abuse and trauma. Tan-Tan is a fun protagonist, full of spark and wit and ferocity. She’s a perfect blend of larger-than-life enough to be thrilling, but flawed enough to be relatable. In her childhood you see the makings of a rogue on par with Han Solo or Jack Sparrow. At the same time, people don’t become that devilishly tough without surviving some absurdly scary shit first. This is a hard balance to portray; how to be honest about the pain of trauma survival without losing the fun of a thrilling adventure? Not only does Nalo Hopkinson pull this off, but she pulls it off with some subject matter that even very skilled Serious Literary Authors can fumble badly. (see content warnings for details, and some mid-book spoilers)

And then there’s just the story as a story. It starts out fascinating, takes several twists, builds to a point where you can’t see a way out and are internally bargaining for at least a bittersweet ending, and then explodes into a perfectly satisfying eucatastrophe. This book is not just science fiction at its best; it is storytelling at its best, period.

With all that, I still have not mentioned how it handles imperialist colonization tropes, or how the aliens as individuals are some of the most relatable characters but as a group feel genuinely alien, or the beauty of the prose, or how the folk tales within the novel are beautifully atmospheric… gah, just go read this book! Read! This! Book!

Content Warnings

It’s definitely a grown-up book. There are fight scenes, alcoholism, nudity, and lots of swearing. Also, by way of a trigger warning, there is child abuse, including sexual. The actual scenes are brief, but realistic and scary.

I’m almost reluctant to admit to that last, because if I had known I might have been more shy about this book, given that I picked it up wanting a fun adventure (which I got!). Sexual abuse and fun adventure stories don’t usually go together, or if they do it’s because the victims were used as cheap props to artificially up the stakes.

One in three women and more men than you’d think survive some form of sexual assault, and in the real world that does not mean their lives have to be doom and gloom forever. The problem with addressing that in fiction is that it can too easily turn into dismissing or understating the pain. But it is equally a problem to build up the expectation that a survivor of sexual assault is Ruined Forever(TM)! It’s just another thing that makes coming out as a survivor more difficult. People are genuinely baffled to meet a survivor who is not Ruined Forever(TM)!

This is one of the few books I’ve read that actually has an honest, painful, doesn’t-happen-in-one-epiphany recovery for a survivor of abuse. It does this while also giving you a fantastic fantasy romp. If sexual assault is a major trigger for you, probably don’t read this book. But if it’s not, give it a try. Books like this need to exist.

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: Back to Bethlehem, Part 3

When last we left off, Judah was pestering Connie and making plans to ask her master (aka Eugene) about owning her body and entire life from now on marrying her.

Then they run into the Romans, and Judah insists on eavesdropping. Felix and Lucanus are expecting some kind of revolt, but have opposite views on how to handle it. Felix is spoiling for a fight. Lucanus is hoping to de-escalate any situation that arises. Once that has been re-established for the audience, Lucanus announces he’s sleeping in the courtyard, since there’s no inn. It’s not like he could commandeer any building he wants or anything.

Next comes a jarring cut to the sound of a baby crying, and Connie announcing to the men that Jesus has been born. Off-screen. Which, you know, is fine. It’s not like we were building up to that moment or anything.

Eugene and Connie have about ten seconds of back and forth. Connie is thrilled by what she just witnessed, and she’s just shouting about how Eugene should have been there. Eugene makes a point about how he couldn’t, old timey traditions say “no mensfolk allowed in the birthing chambers.”

This almost feels like they are trying to reward Connie for enduring all this sexism. This entire adventure has sucked for her, but at least she got to see one thing Eugene didn’t get to witness! It’s a pretty lousy compensation. It’s not like his absence somehow made it more special. I mean, I’ve certainly heard people arguing that sexism was fine because while women are dehumanized they are also idolized, and stuff like childbirth and menstruation gets to be all magical and inaccessible and those two things totally balance out…. wait, is that actually the point they are trying to make?

You know what, let’s put a pin in that. We are almost at the end.

Eugene goes to get Hezekiah. While waiting for him to return, Connie to accidentally runs into General Lucanus, who is pretty much playing creepster bingo. Interrupting her work and ignoring her protests? Check. Ignores multiple attempts to leave? Check. Says he’s been watching her? Takes her hands without her permission and talks about how soft and delicate they are? Asks if she wants to go to Rome, and then cuts immediately to “I’ll speak to your master about it” without giving her a chance to give a clear yes or no? Check check checkity check.

It’s like he knows the story is almost over and he is way behind Judah on the creepster scale.

Speaking of Judah, he pops out of nowhere and heroically announces that no, he’s not taking her to Rome! Because who needs all that “respect a woman’s choices” crap when you can just have two men fight over which choice she doesn’t get to make?

So Lucanus and Judah have a swordfight while Connie begs them to stop. They both ignore her. Lucanus easily beats Judah, then Connie knocks Lucanus out with a water pot. Judah, once again, is upset that she helped, and then decides to just kill Lucanus while he’s unconscious and helpless. Wow, my hero.

Connie won’t let him, proving once and for all that even if these guys gave a shit about her as a person, and even if they weren’t just simulations in a computer program, she would still be way too good for either of them.

Naturally, as Judah respects neither basic human ethics nor Connie’s point of view, she can’t just say “don’t do the bad thing” and let that be that. No no no, she’s more stalling him with an argument until some menfolks come along to actually stop it. Hey, you know who we haven’t seen for a while? Eugene and Hezekiah.

They come in, see her arguing with Judah and wrestle his sword away. Hezekiah and Judah rant politics vs religion at each other for a little while, without listening to what the other is saying. Then the Romans show up. Felix arrests Hezekiah and Eugene, assuming that being in the vicinity of an unconscious Roman means they are somehow guilty of something, while Judah runs off.

I’ve given this episode a lot of grief for inaccuracy, both historical and human, but they got one thing right. If a guy’s ego can’t handle a woman helping out, then, when you leave him to handle his own shit, he’ll be a total wuss.

Once the coast is clear, Judah returns and tells Connie that he’s running off. Again. In a more permanent sense this time. He asks her forgiveness for being stubborn. She adds immature and inconsiderate to the list, but does forgive him. See previous statement, re: her being way too good for him. But oh-uh, Felix once again shows up and arrests him.

Is it just me, or is this episode mostly just people showing up and disappearing and showing up again?

Well, now all the men are locked up and none of them have gotten to see baby Jesus. We don’t have time for a cool jailbreak, so instead Lucanus regains consciousness. He tells Felix that Judah isn’t to blame. He was attacked by a “wild-eyed revolutionary, but all I see here is a jealous boyfriend.” Wow, nice burn. You’re still a creepy-ass motherfucker. He tells Felix that Eugene and Hezekiah aren’t responsible either, and tells everyone to go to bed.

Later Judah retracts the proposal that Connie totally didn’t accept, because the feelings of two people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Dude, you’re not Humphrey Bogart, there’s no plane, and she did not come to you last night asking that you decide for all of us because everything is too complicated. You’re a loudmouthed wuss with no real plans except taking off, and she’s a woman who has repeatedly told you she’s not interested.

Also, in a battle of the two creepsters, you’re the non-imperialist of an appropriate age, yet you still managed to be the less likable character. Just, fuck off already.

Shepherds show up raving about angels, and after they’ve had their turn to fawn over the baby, Eugene, Connie and Hezekiah finally get to meet Jesus. I mean, Connie already has, but now she gets to do it with Eugene. And a random old guy. Hezekiah gushes over the baby, and Eugene starts crying. He ends the program, as he’s too choked up to continue.

Aaaand that’s it. That’s seriously where the story ends. Whit and Connie are all, “aw, Eugene got emotional? That’s so sweeeet,” and roll credits.

I’ve already said a lot about the three major issues with this story. Eugene’s character arc relies on him forgetting that this is all a simulation, and he’s canonically a computer scientist. The historical accuracy is overhyped, to say the least. And Connie spends most of the time being subjected to one kind of humiliation or another. Each of those things are problematic individually, but I’ve talked plenty about that during parts one and two. Now I want to look at how they all interact together, because even if they had been executed better, they are a very incongruous mix.

Good writers use thematic elements to link disparate elements together. Les Miserables, for example, follows a large cast of characters, many of whom never meet. It contains stories so complex that an entire revolution becomes a subplot and we are all cool with it. But every story element feels like it belongs, because of their thematic links. They all show characters who are powerless against systemic oppression, but able to alleviate each other’s pain with small acts of individual kindness. So what is the point of Back to Bethlehem?

Well, at the beginning, Eugene and Connie have a conflict. They trust Whit to resolve it with his computer program because he is so wise and all-knowing. That’s why the continued, if somewhat undeserved, insistence  The text of that conflict is that Eugene is skeptical of the Nativity story, while Connie views it through sappy eggnog tinted glasses. This is a narrative from a Christian perspective, so naturally Eugene needs his skepticism to be fixed, so he can eventually become religious and not burn for all eternity in hell, simply for expecting evidence. Okay, internally consistent if not something I can really approve of. Why does Connie need her perspective changed?

As I said last time, while I think Connie’s feminist leanings are awesome, I still am in favor of her learning a more complex understanding of women’s history. But I don’t think this episode showed that happening. She spent a lot of time being humiliated, dehumanized and harassed, and very little time appreciating her work. The only happy moment she really had was when she witnessed the birth of Jesus, and that was mostly offscreen. If we are assuming AIO is aiming to teach her what I thought she needed to learn, that was a very clumsy execution.

But there’s another way to look at this story. See, I’ve said over and over again that Connie was humiliated, but her reactions aren’t those of someone in real pain. She is experiencing days of isolation, but doesn’t act lonely. She is experiencing days of hard manual labor, but doesn’t act exhausted. She is experiencing sexual harassment, but doesn’t act scared.  She rants and grumbles, sure, but in a way that only someone mildly inconvenienced has energy to do.

Also, while the argument that started all this might have been about the realism of conventional nativity scenes, the subtext was about sexism. In the middle of some normal teasing, Eugene took offense at a comment that threatened his masculinity, and reacted by pretending she should, for some reason, follow old fashioned sexist norms.

Then, during one of her final scenes, she is overjoyed at witnessing a birth that men were barred from.

I think the real point of this was to tell Connie that things weren’t all that bad back in sexism times.

As to the writer’s actual intent, I don’t know. I don’t live in their minds. But I do know that, when talking to men, especially older men, experiences of sexism often get discounted. As a kid, I was often told that things used to be so much more unfair and nobody minded. The fact that people bothered to change things is, apparently, not proof enough that somebody minded. I also notice that, now that I’ve transitioned, simply being male is enough to make people take my experiences of female gender bias more believable. I tell men who routinely dismiss sexual harassment about what it was like to be scared to wander down the streets, and they pause. They are startled. They take me seriously, because I’m trans male. My point is, I don’t think it’s unfair to think that these writers might be writing this episode to show little girls how sexism really isn’t that bad, because it’s a mentality I encounter all the time, among both conservative and liberal men.

And even if that was not their intent, I think it is worth taking a bit of a death of the author stance here. When I listened to this episode, for the first time in years, I did not remember how sexist this episode was towards Connie. That is, each event individually felt familiar, but I was thinking, for the first time, “holy shitballs, Connie is being picked on for her gender in literally every scene.” Sometimes, I actually remembered finding the scenes of harassment funny, even though, when I was placed in Connie’s shoes in real life, I found it painful and dehumanizing.

I think that’s why we don’t get to see Jesus’ actual birth. We are watching and laughing at Connie, but we are feeling with Eugene. They are both protagonists, but Eugene is the locus of empathy. His feelings matter, and are (however inaccurately) developed. Hers don’t, and we get to laugh at them.

I’m featuring this as part of my politics theme, because it did the best job of showing how AIO treats gender issues, on the rare occasion that they are addressed even sort of explicitly.

Hardly anybody on this show breaks with gender norms in any way. Girls like shopping and makeup, women are either housewives or have an appropriately feminine job description. And to be honest, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. Many women are like that, and if, as a writer, you prefer writing femme women, that’s cool. It also shows femme women as strong. Lisa from my prior episode was a great example. She’s both outspoken and a girly girl, and the episode shows how her gentle caregiving approach is not inherently less valuable than Nick’s manly confrontational one. I genuinely think stories like that are awesome.

But it does sometimes have female characters complain about sexism, and when that happens, those complaints are rarely taken seriously. They are instead used as setups for jokes at the female characters’ expense. Sexism passes without comment, while feminist characters are quietly humiliated.

This show rarely does anything as straightforward as argue against women’s issues. It just quietly normalizes sexism, so subtly you can’t even be sure how intentional it is.

Final Ratings

Best Moment: Eugene is worried that his name won’t fit in with the denizens of the Imagination Station. So he introduces himself as Eugenius. The more you think about it the funnier it gets.

Worst Moment: The one where you realized that Whit actually had think up a program where his teenaged employee gets not one but two virtual reality stalkers. I just hope there’s something to the program that stops General Lucanus from treating girls who are younger than her that way. The more you think about it, the creepier it gets.

Moral Rating: What was even the point!?!?! I mean, I guess I just spent several paragraphs speculating on the point, but even my best guess was equal parts shoddy and shitty. F

Story Rating: To be honest, if you took the adventure out of the Imagination Station, and made Eugene and Connie two regular travelers who happen to meet Mary and Joseph in ancient Bethlehem, this might be a pretty good story. But the Imagination Station sucks the drama out of every plot point. How does Hezekiah know that Jesus is the Messiah? Because he was programmed to. It’s the Imagination Station. Are Connie and Eugene going to find Mary and Joseph? Of course they are. That’s the point of the whole adventure. It’s the Imagination Station. Will either of Connie’s icky suitors win her over? Probably not, because both of these people will cease to exist once the program ends, because it’s the motherfreakin’ Imagination Station! D-

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: Back to Bethlehem, Part 2

When the last episode left off, Felix was harassing Hezekiah for no reason other than this story needs a bad guy, and the two guys sexually harassing Connie won’t do. Connie yells at Felix to stop, but he ignores her, because she’s a girl, but then Judah pops up out of nowhere and Felix is all, “sweet, new target! I look way cooler beating up on a young man than an elderly one.” Connie continues to beg that he stop, and continues to be ignored. Finally Lucanus returns and breaks it up.

Afterwards, Connie and Judah have a nice bonding moment over their shared passion for politics and justice and standing up to The Man. Yeah, no, I’m just kidding. Instead, Judah complains about the humiliation of being defended by a woman. Nice. Real nice, man.

Well, now that we’ve exhausted that plot point, it’s time for Joseph and Mary to show up! Benjamin says they don’t have any space, but Connie convinces him to put them up in the stable. Hezekiah hovers and fanboys over the pair until Eugene drags him away. Eugene may be socially awkward, but even he sees the faux pas of drooling over an exhausted pregnant woman.

Side rant; when Joseph reveals his fiance is pregnant, Benjamin says a sarcastic “mazel tov.” Ummm…. mazel tov is a modern Yiddish idiom. I mean, the words are Hebrew, but the phrase isn’t, based on my internet research. I bring that up for three reasons.

First, this episode has prided itself on historical accuracy, but there isn’t much to back up their boast. Little details like this make the pseudo-intellectual bravado more irritating. Second, Benjamin has a pronounced Yiddish accent, but not every Jewish character does. Mary doesn’t, Joseph doesn’t, Judah doesn’t, and most of the extras don’t. Benjamin is a stingy, self-absorbed businessman. A funny one who you are supposed to like, but he does not care about people. He cares about the stability of his inn. Hezekiah also has an accent, as does Benjamin’s wife, so it’s not like every character who sounds stereotypical is also greedy, but of the three Benjamin gets the most dialog. Third, the Yiddish phrases and accent create a paradoxical whitewashing effect. Sure, they say everyone is Middle Eastern and Jewish (except Connie, Eugene and the two Romans). But by making a few people sound stereotypically Yiddish and the rest sound like they come from Idaho, it’s hard not to picture an Ashkenazi minority among a white majority, when instead everyone should be Middle Eastern.

Okay, rant over. There will episodes where I can talk more about the racial politics of AIO.

Connie continues to do chores around the inn while the women tease her for her housekeeping ignorance. The women also bond over past experiences with childbirth and work, which… well, it’s the closest this episode comes to really teaching Connie something new. I do think it’s important to understand that, historically, traditional women’s work might have put women on the lower strata of society, but it also could bring meaning and community. If you’ve read Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (and everyone should), a central point was how modern conveniences like microwaves and dishwashers stripped feminine work of required skill and therefore pride. This, combined with the isolation of suburbia, left women lonely, bored, and preoccupied with putting up an appearance of a feminine ideal that technology had rendered superfluous.

Breaking down the divisions between men’s and women’s work was essential for letting women take meaningful roles in society again. Unfortunately, when historical scorn of women’s work was combined with efforts to leave the confines of the home, feminism became conflated with femmephobia. Lots of more qualified people have talked about this, and I’m happy to say that while it is a problem, it is also a problem that is being discussed constructively in feminist circles. Meanwhile, the world outside of feminism tends to, on the one hand, mock feminists for being anti-feminine, and on the other, do nothing to actually portray housework as important and valuable.

This episode is a perfect example of that. There’s even a brief exchange where Connie asks, incredulously, if all this work is really necessary. A woman responds, “it is if we don’t want our families to complain.” Not “starve” but “complain.” The phrase conjures up images of the women in the fifties who actually did cook just to stop their families from complaining. Sure, some genuinely had a passion for it, but many cooked because a fancy meal cooked by a stay at home mom was a status symbol. They could have just as easily ordered takeout or reheated something frozen, and had time to pursue other life choices, but that would have emasculated their husbands, and heaven forbid the men just learn to be less fragile in their masculinity!

That wasn’t the reality for women of ancient times. They cooked to keep their families fed. They sewed to keep them warm. They cleaned to keep them healthy. Conflating modern housework with the housework of old times simultaneously puts down the legitimate problems of the former while degrading the importance of the latter. The writers don’t seem to truly understand their own criticisms of Connie’s feminism, which is why, instead of learning to participate in the feminine community and take pride in their work, she is just embarrassed.

And it’s about to get worse. Shepherds show up, loudly announcing they are about to head to the hills where everything will be nice and quiet. We, who know there will soon be angels freaking them all out, are supposed to find this hilariously ironic. Ok, whatever.

Connie asks them a bit about sheep herding. Big mistake. The main shepherd first say, “and who might you be, pretty little girl,” in this intensely condescending voice, and then laugh about a girl being curious about a man’s job.

There is no narrative reason for the shepherds to show up. They poke their heads in to ask if Benjamin is around, and they seem to just want to say hello before they leave. Nothing in the story changes because of their arrival, nor are they used to establish some “historical accuracy” about the work of shepherds. All you learn is that they sometimes went out into the fields because that’s literally where the grass was, and also they smelled bad. These are short episodes, and we’ve spent several minutes where nothing happens except Connie gets picked on for not fitting into this uber historically accurate sexist old timey Israel.

Uuuuuuuuuuuugggggggggggggghhhhhhhhhhhhhhh

Hezekiah takes Eugene back to his home, which is full of toys that he has been carving for years in the expectation that he would one day have the opportunity to give them to baby Jesus. Eugene is blown away by the level of effort and all the blind faith that it took. This is really Eugene and Hezekiah’s dynamic in a nutshell. Hezekiah knows things about the virgin birth, and Eugene is blown away by his intuitions, and Hezekiah being all “yeah, isn’t faith amazing!” Then Eugene is all, “I’m so conflicted because this level of faith does not make sense and yet is so moving!”

Um………. YOU’RE ALL IN A VIRTUAL REALITY MACHINE!!! Hezekiah can say or do or know anything, because he’s not real! Whit made him up! If Eugene were a real agnostic skeptic, not a figment of the AIO writer’s imaginings, he would not be impressed by this shit.

But enough of that. Benjamin’s wife Rebecca starts asking Connie about possibly settling down in Bethlehem, because Judah clearly has the hots for her. This makes Connie highly uncomfortable. Not only does she not reciprocate those feelings, but she can’t exactly say “neither you nor Judah are actually real so this is literally impossible whether I want it or not.” Rebecca still reads Connie’s hesitation and keeps trying to pressure Connie to be emotionally okay with Judah’s attraction, which is such a mindfuck. Even though neither Judah nor Rebecca are real, they are realistic, and Connie is immersed in their world to such a degree that she can’t help empathizing with them. So Connie genuinely feels the pressure to play along with the Judah love story, just to avoid disappointing them. But the more she does, the more attached she gets to people who, as soon as the program stops, will cease to exist. She can be distant and uncomfortable now, or attached and miserable later.

On top of all this, Rebecca isn’t actually seeking Connie’s consent for the relationship. Sure, part of her is really into the idea of seeing a match unfold; enough to be all, “what, you don’t like Judah? You don’t like Bethlehem? Give me a reason for disliking either of these things so I can condescendingly shoot it down.” I guess she likes the idea of these two hotheads together, or she thinks its her duty to make Connie find the security of a spouse, or something like that. But at the same time, she does not empathize with Connie’s powerlessness or discomfort. In fact, she seems to be reveling in the schadenfreude of Connie’s discomfort. Rebecca is half old woman identifying with the oppressor and imposing sexist norms on the next generation, half first grader squealing, “Judah’s got a crush on yo-ou!”

Oh, also there’s a huge dose of “his constant immature petulance is just proof he likes you, boys will be boys, this is a normal and healthy way for relationships to start” thrown in. Again, this is a program Whit devised for kids.

I wish this was one of the areas where I could complain about implausibility, but I’ve known too many older women who actually are like that, so……

Mary’s labor begins and, well, it’s pretty much just a repeat of the plot points from the cooking scene. Connie is supposed to help, but is lost and confused. Rebecca is exasperated by Connie’s incompetence, and this is not used as an opportunity to teach Connie about old timey female bonding but merely to laugh at Connie’s ignorance of ancient midwifery. Meanwhile, Benjamin, Joseph, Hezekiah and Eugene wait for the baby. This too is just a retread of the previous Eugene/Hezekiah scene. The three not-real men debate the various levels of faith and skepticism they have been programmed with, and Eugene is blown away by the faith of the faithful, even though he knows it’s just a virtual reality program.

In our final scene, Judah meets Connie by the well, where she is getting water for Mary. He startles her into spilling the water. Then he helps her draw another bucket, and apologizes for yelling at her earlier, but it’s one of those weird apologies that is mostly guilt trip. He’s so miserable and humiliated all the time, and Connie made it worse and that’s her fault. But also he admires her for being so bold and brazen as to stand up to him. She’s not like all the other girls! (TM) He wants to know what she thinks of him. By which I mean he wants to pester and pester her until she kind of admits that maybe if a thousand different things were different she might be into him. At that stunning confession of love, he announces that he will speak to her master Eugene about a marriage. He ignores literally every attempt of hers to say no, and runs off to find Eugene, because it’s Eugene’s consent that really matters.

Also he spills the second bucket and leaves her to draw the third on her own. Worst. Proposal. Ever.

This story has one more episode to go, and my plan is to post the final part on Christmas Eve. Apologies for getting this up a little late; I was feeling sick and didn’t get to work on this episode as much as I wanted. Thanks for your patience, enjoy your holidays, and look for part three in just four days!

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: Back to Bethlehem, Part 1

I’m back from the land of Nanowrimo! Thanks to everyone for your patience, and we will now resume the political theme, with an episode that just happens to be seasonal.

This Christmas special opens with Chris interviewing Dr. Julius Schnitzelbanker, a stereotypical mad scientist with an annoyingly nasal voice. He has an invention that transmogrifies random objects into commercialized holiday paraphernalia, like tinsel and eggnog cartons and shit. He brags about the money he’ll make off of this, and Chris tsk tsks, because clearly he doesn’t get the True Meaning of Christmas (TM). But this is just a silly cold open frame device thingy, so they don’t have time to really get into it. Instead Chris uses his own device to transmogrify him into a Tinkerbell ornament.

Well, whatever we’re supposed to learn from that, I’m sure it will tie neatly into the main themes of the episode.

The episode proper opens with Whit making a new Nativity display. He wants some reference photos, so Connie and Eugene are posing in costume. While they pose, they rib each other over how silly they feel in their first century robes and tunics. Eugene mentions not having a period accurate beard, and Connie teases him for not being able to grow one. He immediately takes serious offense and lectures her on how, in the first century, she wouldn’t be allowed to speak to him that way. She would be required to speak only when spoken to, cause that’s how things were for the womenfolk.

Uhhhh… WTF?

Connie rebuts that she is playing Mary and Mary was special. She’s missing the obvious “last I checked, this wasn’t the first century” response, but hey, we’ve all had staircase wit. Eugene says that he bets she thinks Mary also had a halo and gave birth in a nice clean stable with no labor pains and the animals smelled nice and the baby never cried. Wow, way to strawman her, dude. Connie, caught completely off guard and being a genuine fan of the Hollywood Nativity, goes with “well, who knows, because God,” as her counterargument. Look, nobody said she was a candidate for the debate team.

Connie and Eugene often get into silly arguments that escalate quickly, but even for them, this is ridiculous. Whit finally intervenes. He says that obviously Connie struck a nerve, but bringing up antiquated gender norms to get on her nerves is not an okay response. They both need to take a deep breath, think about how this conversation made them feel, and then share that with each other and really listen, like two people who are friends and adults.

Oh wait. That’s what I would have said if I were Whit. No, that’s not what he says at all. He says this all important historical accuracy question should be settled with a trip in the Imagination Station.

Wait, what? Whaaaaaaat?

First of all, the historical Nativity is not even close to the important thing going on. The important thing is that Eugene and Connie are being assholes, Eugene in particular, as he is being sexist as well as petty. Second of all, even if historical accuracy was the issue, your solution is “let’s see what my magic hallucination machine says?”

Just… Whaaaaaaaaaaaaat????

But naturally, both Eugene and Connie are totally on board with this. The Imagination Station drops them in ancient Bethlehem, where they see a crowd around a young zealot shouting about Roman oppression and coming change.

Man, I haven’t seen such detailed historical accuracy since Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

An innkeeper named Benjamin fears that this chaos will bring Roman attention and ruin his business. He breaks up the crowd. Eugene thinks Benjamin might be a good lead on the whole Mary and Joseph situation, and runs off to speak to him. Connie, meanwhile, tells Judah, the zealot, that she doesn’t think his approach of screaming at people is likely to be helpful. He immediately scoffs and asks what a woman would know about it. She’s not taking that bullshit from a first century hologram, so she starts listing all the things she can do that he probably can’t. Judah is lost for words, mostly because she’s talking about oil changes and making double decker sundaes and he is completely lost.

Then she starts ranting about guys like Eugene treating her like she’s just a human tool for jobs that are beneath them. Just as she does, Eugene himself turns up, and announces that Connie will be working at Benjamin’s inn. How did this come about so quickly? Oh, Eugene just told Benjamin that Connie is his servant girl and he has the right to pawn her off at his convenience. You know, like slavery, but we’re saying servant because it’s a kid’s show.

Why has Eugene done this? Well, Benjamin told him about a weird old guy named Hezekiah, who rants about the coming Messiah a lot. Eugene wants to go find Hezekiah, and insists that Connie can’t come with him, because women, wandering the streets, totally not cool back then.

What exactly is supposed to happen to her? She’s in a virtual reality program.

Yeah, there’s this whole thing in Imagination Station episodes where the characters act like they have actually gone back in time and there is actual shit at stake? I guess it makes sense. Games are more fun if you pretend they are real, and this is supposed to be fun. But on the other hand, games are also more fun when you know you won’t be harmed. Whit explicitly said this was a program he had already been working on. The Imagination Station is for kids. So are we supposed to believe that Whit programmed a lot of sexual harassment in to teach little girls that they had to be afraid to roam old timey streets alone? Or just that Eugene is letting his sexist perceptions color his expectations for what he and Connie will experience? I dunno. Let’s see which interpretation is better supported by events as they unfold.

Anyway, the job at the inn introduces Connie to one of the two main things she will be doing this episode; performing menial chores while grumbling about gender. The other thing will be dodging sexual harassment.

Man, I wish I was kidding.

Her first stalker comes when a pair of Roman officers show up. Captain Felix is just concerned with getting a room. General Lucanus is just concerned with informing Connie that she has the look of a princess, rather than a serving girl. Oh, but he can’t tell her that to her face. She’s a lowly female common person. Instead he turns to Captain Felix and pointedly talks about how hot Connie is. Nothing turns a girl on like talking about her like she’s a piece of art in a museum. And I say girl, because Connie is canonically fifteen or sixteen at this point in the series. She is also clearly put off by this, but neither Roman acknowledges her reaction at all.

Eugene returns to the inn, and tells Connie he hasn’t found Hezekiah. He thinks that maybe this inn, which they’ve happened to turn up next to, is the one where Mary and Joseph will turn up.

No, really? You think that this virtual reality simulation, made to let you encounter the Nativity, dropped you right where the birth of Jesus would go down? What a stretch.

Eugene’s actual reasons are threefold. The first two are rather transparent efforts by the authors to impress us with their Historical Accuracy (TM). Unfortunately, they get things wrong. First, Eugene says that this inn has real rooms, which wasn’t actually common back then. Typically inns just had large communal hostel-type spaces that the guests all shared. And since the Bible says “there was no room for them at the inn,” the Official Nativity Inn must have had rooms, right? Uh, no, actually. First, even in English, “no room” can mean “we have several rooms and none are available” or “there is no space to cram another person into this general area.” Second, when you are looking at the original Greek, it’s not clear that inn was even the best translation.

Eugene’s second big clue is that this inn has a stable, which they initially overlooked because it’s in a cave instead of a big red barn… yeah. Big red barns would have been an anachronism. Knowing that is not as impressive as you think it is. Also, again, if you read the above link, the whole stable thing itself might be a mistranslation.

Eugene’s final reason for thinking they are already at the right inn? This inn has a massive shining star hanging over it, and everyone’s been talking about it since they arrived. No, really?! You think that might be a clue?

Finally Hezekiah shows up at the inn, talking about stars and Messiahs and signs from the scriptures. Eugene is interested, even though nothing Hezekiah says actually brings up new information to us. It is news to the Roman officers, however. General Lucanus thinks Hezekiah is just a harmless old kook, but Captain Felix hasn’t punched anybody in way too long. He tries to make the case that Hezekiah is a dangerous radical who must be dealt with, even though nobody takes Hezekiah that seriously and he’s not even saying anything directly against the Roman Empire to begin with.

Lucanus is all, “yeah, whatever, I’m gonna go do literally anything else, don’t rough him up too much,” which Felix hears as, “blah blah blah rough him up blah blah.” He starts pushing Hezekiah around, Connie starts yelling for him to stop, and then Chris breaks in to announce that the story will be continued in part two!

Dun dun duuuuuuunnnnn!

They do take the time to wrap up the opening teaser, however. Chris turns Dr. Schnitzelbank back into a human, and after listening to that episode he’s all on board with the spirit of Christmas. Even though nobody talked about the spirit of Christmas at all during that episode. Mary and Joseph haven’t shown up, let alone Jesus. I’m guessing his real reasoning is “say whatever the crazy lady wants, I don’t want to be a Tinkerbell ornament again.”

I too will be continuing the story in part two, so until then, happy holidays!

(that’s right, I said it. I’m a dirty, dirty heathen)

Flygirl, by Sherri L. Smith

Flygirl

What It’s About

Ida Mae Jones, a light skinned Black woman, passes as white in order to join the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots, or WASP, in WWII.

Why I Think You’d Like It

Because it’s everything historical fiction should be. The research is excellent, and Sherri L. Smith includes a cool postscript on what real world events inspired various scenes in the novel. The story is moving and emotionally real, but it isn’t just about angst and difficult choices. It’s about female friendships, fulfilling dreams, being part of a cause you believe in, and the sheer joy of flying.

I loved both Ida Mae and all the supporting characters. She bonds with a couple of other quirky misfit girls and they support each other through flight school. She also has a close relationship with her father and brothers, as well as an interesting, tense relationship with her mother, who is afraid Ida Mae will abandon them for a life of passing for white full-time. The complexity of their relationship is raw and relatable. I love how you are made to see both of their points of view. In fact, while there are a few characters who are just straightforward villains, most of the time you can see both sides of a conflict, and feel for everyone involved.

It’s also one of those stories that absolutely needed to be told from within the group. I’ve seen a lot of passing-for-privileged narratives, for all kinds of identities, written from someone of the privileged group, and they’re usually crap. I’d honestly gotten pretty sick of them, but Sherri L. Smith shows how poignant and thought provoking these stories can be when an insider chooses to tell them.

It took me to another time and place, put me through an adventure, and left me thinking about the issues and problems it raised. What more could you ask for?

Content Warnings

Racism towards some of the main characters, or witnessed by them. Otherwise it is fairly tame; the work the WASP do is dangerous, but they aren’t involved in anything gory or graphic.

Pashmina, by Nidhi Chanani

Pashmina

What It’s About

Priyanka, daughter of an Indian single mother, uncovers the story of her past with the help of a magical pashmina.

Why I Think You’d Like It

It’s a beautiful, expressively illustrated graphic novel that is simultaneously simple and profound. With a fairly straightforward story, ideas about love, home, choice, family and the price of dreams were interwoven beautifully and naturally. I was carried from cover to cover in less than a day.

I liked Priyanka a lot. She was a relatable teen girl; good at heart but full of questions and insecurities that she sometimes handles poorly. Her most interesting relationships were between her and various elders, and there wasn’t a simplistic mentor/mentee relationship with any of them. They all had struggles understanding her, she had questions that none of them had perfect answers to, and they still had wisdom to offer her. I was one of those dreamy kids who got on better with adults, and her relationships felt honest on a level that not a lot of authors have captured.

Also, as a fantasy geek, I loved how seamlessly the magic integrated with the real world. It almost felt like magical realism, which I have a serious weakness for; if you liked stories like Beasts of the Southern Wild you will probably love this. I will definitely be looking out for more books by Nidhi Chanani!

Content Warnings

Traumatic events are referenced but nothing is graphic or detailed. I think you’ll be fine.

Dealing With Dragons, by Patricia C. Wrede

Dealing With Dragons

  • Genre
    • Fantasy, Comedy, Young Adult
  • Plot Summary
    • To escape an unwanted engagement to an insufferably dull prince, Princess Cimorene volunteers to become a dragon’s princess. This turns out to be a great career move. 
  • Character Empathy
    • This book has some of the most likable characters I’ve ever read. Special shoutout to Princess Cimorene. She was the first spirited, non-traditional princess I read, and most who came afterwards haven’t lived up to her. Too many authors aim for rebellious and hit spoiled brat. Cimorene is someone you would want to invite over for a dinner party, and wouldn’t mind asking to grab some chairs or watch the grill while you get the drinks set out. 
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • Adorable and goofy and really, really fun. 
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • Morwen. She’s a sensible, scrupulously neat witch who keeps nine cats, none of which are black. All the traditionally warty witches think she’s a hopeless mess and Morwen gives zero shits.
    • Negotiations with an accidentally freed genie; one of the funniest scenes I’ve ever read.
    • Patricia C. Wrede uses a great mix of famous and obscure fairy tales. When updated-fairy-tale-mashup stories rely too hard on the ones everyone knows, it gets really easy to see where everything is going. She included some that even I hadn’t heard of before, which kept things interesting.
    • So many feminism metaphors. And, you know, just straightforward feminism.
    • If you like it as much as I do, there are three more books in the series.
  • Content Warnings
    • You’re good
  • Quotes
    • “Well,” said the frog, “what are you going to do about it?”  “Marrying Therandil? I don’t know. I’ve tried talking to my parents, but they won’t listen, and neither will Therandil.” “I didn’t ask what you’d said about it,” the frog snapped. “I asked what you’re going to do. Nine times out of ten, talking is a way of avoiding doing things.”
    • “Then they gave me a loaf of bread and told me to walk through the forest and give some to anyone who asked. I did exactly what they told me, and the second beggar-woman was a fairy in disguise, but instead of saying that whenever I spoke, diamonds and roses would drop from my mouth, she said that since I was so kind, I would never have any problems with my teeth.” “Really? Did it work?” “Well, I haven’t had a toothache since I met her.”  “I’d much rather have good teeth than have diamonds and roses drop out of my mouth whenever I said something”
    • “No proper princess would come out looking for dragons,” Woraug objected.”Well I’m not a proper princess then!” Cimorene snapped. “I make cherries jubillee and I volunteer for dragons, and I conjugate Latin verbs– or at least I would if anyone would let me. So there!”

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.

Rereading the Screwtape Letters as an Atheist; Part Fourteen

In Chapter Nineteen, Lewis leaves aside the philosophy and theology for some world building. Screwtape has accidentally contradicted himself. He has claimed, on multiple occasions, that love is not real, and also that the Enemy (God) truly loves humans. Wormwood has pointed it out, and Screwtape backpedals, claiming that of course all that stuff about the Enemy loving humans is propaganda and he didn’t mean they should actually believe it, he was only quoting because A. they don’t understand what the Enemy is really about and B. in the meantime they might as well quote his filthy lies, because that’s the closest they can come to understanding, and thus predicting, his aims. It’s up to interpretation how much Screwtape believes this. He also seems to be afraid that Wormwood might have shared some of these communications with the Gestapo of Hell, in the most literal sense. I don’t have much to say about it, which is good, because I have quite a lot to say about Chapter Twenty.

You may notice that in the last chapter I quoted Screwtape naming one advantage of the human belief that love is the best reason to get married. There was a second, which was that demons can use love, or sexual arousal mistaken for love, to convince a human to get married to someone they really shouldn’t. Or as he puts it, “any sexual infatuation whatever, so long as it intends marriage, will be regarded as ‘love,’ and ‘love’ will be held to excuse a man from all the guilt, and protect a man from all the consequences, of marrying a heathen, a fool or a wanton.” I suppose I might as well say now that Lewis’ idea of a good pairing and mine don’t entirely line up.

Here’s my acknowledgement of the good grain of a thought for the day. Simply being in love is not a sufficiently good reason to get married. The world is full of couples who are in love, but who would probably murder each other if they tried living together, much sharing finances and/or raising children as a team. Our lewd secular culture is not so blind to that fact as Lewis would paint us. TV, books and movies are full of break-ups and divorces between people who really loved each other but were not a good long term match. Magazines, online or in print, print quizzes to help you decide whether you’re with a keeper or not; these quizzes are of fairly, erm, varied quality, but they stand as testament to our general understanding that while love should really go with marriage, but we don’t think love and attraction alone make a good marriage.

I think having a good marriage is a mixture of having personalities that are either similar or complimentary, multiple shared interests and values, and the basic maturity to resolve inevitable conflicts fairly and compassionately. Lewis seems to think that a marriage can be bad simply because the woman involved is the wrong kind of hot. I wish I were making this up. To begin with, there’s the following; “in a rough and ready way, of course, this question [of which sort of men they should trick The Patient into marrying] is decided for us by spirits far deeper down the Lowerarchy than you and I. It is the business of these great masters to produce in every age a general misdirection of what may be called sexual ‘taste.’ This they do by working with the small circle of popular artists, dressmakers, actresses and advertisers who determine the fashionable type. The aim is to guide each sex away from those members of the other with whom spiritually helpful, happy, and fertile marriages are most likely… At one time we have directed it to the statuesque and aristocratic type of beauty, mixing men’s vanity with their desires and encouraging the race to breed chiefly from the most arrogant and prodigal women. At another, we have selected an exaggeratedly feminine type, faint and languishing, so that folly and cowardice, and all the general falseness and littleness of mind which go with them, shall be at a premium. At present we are on the opposite tack. The age of jazz has succeeded the age of the waltz, and we now teach men to like women whose bodies are scarcely distinguishable from those of boys. Since this is a kind of beauty even more transitory than most, we thus aggravate the female’s chronic horror of growing old (with many excellent results) and render her less willing and less able to bear children. ”

The slim silver lining here (that Lewis is criticizing the unrealistic beauty standards that women are pressured to conform to) is not only undermined but utterly obliterated by his blithe assumption that every woman who conforms to these fashions has a personality to match their outfits. A person’s taste in fashion might give clues about their background, their culture, their hobbies, the sort of work they do or that they aspire to and their favorite color, but their outfits are utterly useless for telling whether they are kind or clever or fair-minded or anything that really matters about who they are as people. The only clues clothes give prospective partners are individual, rather than general; they can help two people realize they like the same TV shows but can’t identify a person as being generally the sort you want to be in a relationship with or not.

There is also an assumption above that female value in relationships is largely defined by  their willingness to produce children. He specifically lists “won’t want to have babies” as a disadvantage of modern fashion, and also talks about using these women to breed a worse set of human being. So we’ve got a woman’s right to choose dismissed without a first, much less second thought, and a nice big side of eugenics. Fashionable women are all horrible people, and they are also terrible mothers, and if you aren’t getting married to have babies you are doing marriage wrong. Now, I realize that he isn’t writing for a modern audience, but nor is he writing in medieval times. Feminism was a thing when he was around, so while his position might have been less controversial back then, it isn’t as though this is a stance I am artificially pushing him into with the lenses of modern values. There were controversies back then about women in jobs and their role in the family, and he is consciously taking a traditional, stay in the kitchen stance.

And somehow, it gets even worse.

“You will find, if you look carefully into any human’s heart, that he is haunted by at least two imaginary women-a terrestrial and an infernal Venus, and that his desire differs qualitatively according to its object. There is one type for which is desire is such as to be naturally amenable to the Enemy-readily mixed with charity, readily obedient to marriage, coloured all through with that golden light of reverence and naturalness which we detest; there is another type which he desires brutally, and desires to desire brutally, a type best used to draw him away from marriage altogether but which, even within marriage, he would tend to treat as a slave, an idol, or an accomplice. His love for the first might involve what the Enemy calls evil, but only accidentally; the man would wish that she was not someone else’s wife and be sorry that he could not love her lawfully. But in the second type, the felt evil is what he wants; it is that ‘tang’ in the flavour which he is after. In the face, it is the visible animality, or sulkiness, or craft, or cruelty which he likes, and in the body, something quite different from what he ordinarily calls Beauty, something he may even, in a sane hour, describe as ugliness, but which, by our art, can be made to play on the raw nerve of his private obsession.”

Elsewhere in this book, he regularly uses male pronouns, as writers of his time tended to do, when talking about humans in general, but in this passage something very strange happens. He follows “every human’s heart,” with a description that is unmistakeably only about heterosexual males, while he talks about women as being the subject of temptation, with no mention of how they feel about the whole thing or whether they are tempted by men in an equivalent fashion. Women, in this passage, are not only objects of affection, they are good or bad objects of affection based solely on how they physically present and what sorts of emotions they raise in the men observing them. Their feelings and choices have no part in whether they would make good partners or not, and the only acknowledgement that they even has personality comes with the assumption that the type of beautiful they happen to be can tell a professional tempter everything they need to know about the woman’s character.

I want to note that this is actually very uncharacteristic of Screwtape’s tone. He is very aware of how humans work, as people. His whole business is taking advantage of how people, as people, make mistakes, so while he might belittle, scorn or abuse them, he never dehumanizes them, based on gender or anything else. He explains to Wormwood how they tick, and when he thinks men and women tick differently, he will take a moment to explain how women work, presumably because he hopes that Wormwood will go on to tempt a multitude of humans, some of whom may be female. That is why, in the majority of this post, I speak of the dehumanization of women as Lewis’s problem, not a problem of Screwtape’s that we are supposed to criticize him for. Believe me, if I thought there was reasonable doubt that the misogyny was something we were supposed to criticize, rather than adapt, I would have given Lewis the benefit of the doubt, but the text does not support that conclusion.

At the same time that Lewis warns us all of this infernal Venus, his description of her is so vague as to be completely unhelpful. I’m not even sure whether he means that all women who arouse that sort of feeling are horrible women who will drag them down the road to hell by their actions, or whether they are bad because they are attractive to men in the wrong sort of way and will encourage the wrong sorts of thoughts in their heads, no matter what those women as individuals choose to do. Assuming, as he is, that all of us (meaning all men, because women apparently don’t actually exist except as philosophical zombies) are aware of this phenomenon based on it residing in our hearts. I suppose that means I can assume that the first thing that sprang to my mind, based on his crude description, was correct. I think he means Betty good, Veronica bad. If a girl is sweet and conservative in her sexuality, she’s good material, but if she is assertive and exotic and owns her sexuality, she’s bad. Apparently we also think that type is ugly deep down, and if we think that’s bunk we just haven’t explored the depths of our souls enough, sort of like how I’m not really a man and my boyfriend isn’t really not attracted to women, we are both just deceived by Satan.

Now, I don’t want to defend either Bettys or Veronicas, because number one I think that’s a very simplistic way to divide real people up, and number two… no, there is no number two. Number one covers it. In fact, most of the most strongly Veronica-ish people I can think of are actually happily married and have been for years. I can think of a number of people who are much more Betty-ish, but would probably be disastrous to marry, simply because they aren’t at that stage in their life yet. There is some maturing that needs to happen first. The majority of people I know aren’t either one; they are comfy down to earth sluts, or brash independent individuals who are looking forward to having kids, or they wear sweaters one day and stripper heels the next because real people have multiple modes they switch in and out of day to day, hour to hour. You can’t take half the population, sort them into two categories, and then say, “pick a wife from box A. and stay away from everyone in box B.” Those boxes are incorrect.

For a chapter about chastity, this is actually very sexually objectifying. People often think the “sexually” part of that phrase is the important one. It’s not. Being attractive to someone else is not a problem, and most people want to be attractive on some level. It’s the “objectifying” part that is an issue. Being aroused by someone is not a problem, but treating them as if their humanity and dignity ceases to matter in the face of your own arousal is a huge problem. Noticing that someone walking down the street has a fine ass is not necessarily sexually objectifying, but whistling at them generally is, because it ignores the fact that the ass is attached to a person who might not feel comfortable with that. Lewis is favoring women with toned down sexualities, but he is still valuing them entirely by how they sexually interest men, ignoring the fact that they have thoughts and feelings and histories and character beyond whether they wear short skirts and halter tops vs. smell like homemade cookies. Women, in this chapter, are objects.

He closes out by saying that getting a man to marry Veronica is as effective in capturing his soul as merely sleeping with her is. Again, whether this is because of the interaction between the two of them or just because the demons get to say, “ha-ha, we made you marry wrong girl” and then something mystical happens to everybody’s souls, that is not explained at all. Certain types of women are just bad, and we are supposed to all intuitively understand that he is correct about that. In this series of reviews, I have always tried to be fair, and I’ve tried to be aware of my current political and religious biases. I have erred on the side of caution, looking for the good in each chapter, as well as the bad. This is the one chapter so far that has completely failed to turn up anything redeemable. This is pure sexist sludge, with no universal moral lessons to be gleaned among the morass of misogyny.