Tag Archives: sexism

We Need New Names, by NoViolet Bulawayo

We Need New Names

What It’s About

The story of Darling, a mischievous Zimbabwean pre-teen in a shanty town where the adults no longer know what to do with themselves.

Why I Think You’d Like It

This is a beautiful, engaging, heartbreaking novel. It tells the Darling’s story in sporadic anecdotes of trials and misadventures. In a way, it reminded me of an Upside Down version of Tom Sawyer or Anne of Green Gables; it has the same episodic structure, the same cast of recurring friends and enemies, the same sense of childhood mischief. But of course the mischievous episodes involve stealing guavas to ward off starvation, seeing adults lose their grip on reality, parents dying of AIDS, and pregnant friends who are barely old enough to be called teens. In Darling’s life, the horrific and the diverting are all mixed up together. Innocence and corruption are experienced side by side.

Darling’s narrative voice is distinctive and fascinating. I love some of the metaphors she comes up with, and how her phrasing evolves through the story. I loved the way she never apologized for her perspective, or tried to make it more comfortable for a Western reader. She bluntly states her mind and takes it for granted that this is simply how things are.

That was especially interesting during her childhood stories. I often thought, “this is how kids think. They don’t censor. They don’t apologize. They just wonder why the rest of the world is doing such a bad job conforming to their expectations.”

It got a little more dissonant as we got into her adolescence, and she immigrates to America.  I did expect her to become a bit more empathetic more quickly. In retrospect, I like that she didn’t. To clarify, she is not a mean or heartless protagonist. She does care about the well being of others. It is more that, while she gets better at the adult hypocrisy of acting how she is expected to act, she has trouble grasping the shape of another person’s suffering. If someone endured something she could directly compare to her own struggles, she would care, and care deeply. But if someone’s pain had nothing to do with her own experiences, (a teenager with an eating disorder, for example) Darling’s reaction is usually anywhere from annoyance to scorn to anger. I don’t think that made her a bad character. It made her complex, realistic and interesting. If she was frustrating at times, she was always frustrating in thought provoking ways.

The only downside is that it did make the last third of the book a little less fun, but again, I think that was honest and smart. Part of the point is that immigration did not magically solve all of her problems, and we got to see her learn that. The only thing I wish is that we had seen her press on to a level

I thought it was among the most interesting and well crafted books I’ve read. It’s probably a love it or hate it book, and if you’re interested in immigration stories that are equally brilliant but a little less dark I’d recommend Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. But if nothing I’ve said so far has put you off, you will probably love it.

Content Warnings

Violence, sex, profanity, references to bodily functions, physical emotional and sexual abuse… and of course all of that is witnessed by children, if it does not happen directly to them. It’s a book for those with strong stomachs.


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.


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!

Falling in Love With Hominids, by Nalo Hopkinson


  • Genre
    • Short stories, Folklore, Urban Fantasy
  • Plot Summary
    • Eighteen short stories from one of my favorite authors. The topics wander from apocalypse to mourning to falling in love to loving yourself to discovering a giant flying elephant in your apartment. What they have in common is that they are all amazing. 
  • Character Empathy
    • It’s Nalo Hopkinson. If you don’t both like and relate to at least 90% of the characters, you’re probably a sociopath.
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • The stories cover a wide range of emotions. There’s funny, sad, scary, trippy, wistful, triumphant… what they all have in common is the characteristic weird and fun originality that you get from Nalo Hopkinson every time.
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • One of the creepiest werewolf stories I’ve ever read (and you know how I feel about werewolves). 
    • A giant flying elephant. Did I mention that already?
    • Sometimes the protagonist is queer in a “this is one of several things about the person and not the most important thing at all” way.
    • A cherry tree who is really into body positivity and women power.
    • Look, every story here has multiple cool shiny things, and I don’t want to spoil them all because it is really fun to go in blind and discover them. Just go read it!
  • Content Warnings
    • You’ll be fine
  • Quotes
    • (From the Intro) “I’ve learned I can trust that humans in general will strive to make things better for themselves and their communities. Not all of us. Not always in principled, loving, or respectful ways. Often the direct opposite, in fact. But we’re all on the same spinning ball of dirt, trying to live as best we can. Yes, that’s almost overweeningingly Pollyanna-ish, despite the fact that sometimes I just need to shake my fist at a mofo.”

Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie


  • Genre
    • Drama, Realistic Fiction, Romance
  • Plot Summary
    • The story of Ifemelu, Nigerian immigrant who becomes a successful writer and returns home, and Obinze, the college boyfriend who she hopes to reunite with.
  • Character Empathy
    • Much of this book is about making you understand people. Why do some people become religious extremists, or pick up a sugar daddy, or attempt suicide? Why do people lie and steal identities? Why do people try to hide their accents? Why do people change their hairstyle? This book never preaches. You don’t get to come to conclusions as simple as “she did the wrong thing” or “she did the right thing.” You just learn to understand.
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • You’re surprised at how much you laugh, given that the protagonist grows up with war and then endures poverty, sexism and racism. Ifemelu survives by her wit, both in the sense of her intelligence and her snark. Her ability to cut through bullshit is absolutely delightful. 
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • Nearly half of the book is just Ifemelu sitting in a hair salon getting braids and reminiscing about Obinze, and I don’t even care. She makes a hair salon so vivid and funny I could have spent the whole book there. If she ever writes a spin-off about the braiders at the salon I will buy it immediately.
    • So much feminism. It’s feminist heaven.
    • Obinze and Ifemelu are so damn shippable. I’m not typically a romance reader, because I’m too picky about couples chemistry. You can’t just tell me two people are soulmates; you have to really sell it. At the end of this I was making threats to the book about what would happen to it, library copy or no, if it didn’t end well for them.
    • Relationship conflicts that aren’t contrived and do resolve in ways that make sense for the characters.
    • Speaking as a white person to other whites, I’ve learned a lot from this whole project, but nobody has schooled me like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. This should be required reading.
  • Content Warnings
    • One sex scene may be triggering for survivors. It also might be comforting, in a “somebody gets it” kind of way. It doesn’t dominate the story but it’s a necessary turning point, and it doesn’t sexualize the event in the slightest.
  • Quotes
    • “Racism should never have happened and so you don’t get a cookie for reducing it.”
    • “If you don’t understand, ask questions. If you’re uncomfortable about asking questions, say you are uncomfortable about asking questions and then ask anyway. It’s easy to tell when a question is coming from a good place. Then listen some more. Sometimes people just want to feel heard. Here’s to possibilities of friendship and connection and understanding.”
    • “The only reason you say that race was not an issue is because you wish it was not. We all wish it was not. But it’s a lie. I came from a country where race was not an issue; I did not think of myself as black and I only became black when I came to America.”
    • “What a beautiful name,” Kimberly said. “Does it mean anything? I love multicultural names because they have such wonderful meanings, from wonderful rich cultures.” Kimberly was smiling the kindly smile of people who thought “culture” the unfamiliar colorful reserve of colorful people, a word that always had to be qualified with “rich.” She would not think Norway had a “rich culture.”
    • “She rested her head against his and felt, for the first time, what she would often feel with him: a self-affection. He made her like herself.”

The Best Reason to Remake Beauty and the Beast

Beauty and the Beast

I finally got to see the live action remake last week, and on the whole I really enjoyed it. I didn’t think it was perfect, but I did leave the theater wanting to see it again.

It got me thinking about my old posts on Beauty and the Beast and Stockholm Syndrome.  Beauty and the Beast does have, at it’s core, a story about a woman being captured and falling in love with her captor. Now, that isn’t actually Stockholm Syndrome; it’s one of the many cases where popular culture gets abuse and mental health seriously wrong. But it is still awful, and we have to face that. Our society grows from roots that are deeply oppressive to many people, and that oppression is often embedded in our favorite stories. This creates a tension between the desire to hold onto what is familiar and nostalgic, and the desire to destroy what is broken in order to make room for something better. A compromise is often to reimagine; to reshape a story in order to get rid of the worst parts while keeping whatever is left. The original Disney film did this brilliantly.

Stockholm Syndrome isn’t merely falling in love with a captor. It happens when a victim feels they cannot escape an abusive situation (whether they are literally captured or compelled to stay for any other reason) and then learns to adjust their behavior to protect themselves. Because they can produce a conditional kindness, they come to believe their abuser is a good person deep down, and that any abuse they do experience is their own fault. Falling in love doesn’t even necessarily enter into it.

The original fairy tale does leave room for this interpretation. Beauty is trapped, the Beast has compelled her to come by threatening her father and he is a perfect gentlemen once she begins to cooperate. But the first Disney film makes some important changes. The biggest ones are that 1. Belle is only restrained by her promise, and early on she attempts to leave, returning only when the Beast has earned a second chance by saving her life. This proves that she doesn’t actually feel trapped. She knows her safety is more important than keeping her word. 2. Belle stands up to him, and it’s he who has to change his behavior in order to have a relationship with her. 3. Belle does not actually fall in love until after he has explicitly set her free (the original fairy tale has him granting her a temporary vacation, after which she never gets to leave again).

In the remake, I did initially get worried about the second point. The animated film at least indicates early on that the Beast feels guilt and self-loathing. The desire to change is already there. The remake has him much darker, to start out, and even pulls out the old “daddy was mean to me” excuse. But then something happened that I loved. The servants made a conscious, collective decision NOT to tell Belle that her love would lift the curse. They instead said that what happened was their own fault, not her responsibility. The Beast was cruel and none of them stopped the events that made him that way. Nobody challenged him to become something better. Privately, they hope Belle will lift the curse. They are prepared for the possibility that this is just their fate.

After I made my first Beauty and the Beast posts, I talked with someone who has was abused by someone who expected her to change him. She talked about how the real underlying message of Beauty and the Beast isn’t “Stockholm Syndrome” but the idea that it’s the victim’s job to change the oppressor. That was a really good point that I’m a bit ashamed to have missed the first time around. This is a massive myth in our culture, and it’s incredibly damaging. It brings me back to the question; is it better to abandon a story with toxic roots, or reimagine it?

I think that when a myth is pervasive, it’s often because there is an element of truth. For example, I think there are times when love can change the behaviors of someone oppressive. Look at this story about how tthe son of David Duke abandoned white supremacy, or this TED talk by a former member of the Westboro Baptist Church. I myself used to have deeply oppressive beliefs, and my friends from outside the religious right changed me. But fairy tales and romances carelessly pass around the maxim that love can redeem, and we ignore basic limitations of that principle.

  • It doesn’t work when we pretend love means never challenging or offending or calling someone out
  • It doesn’t work when the oppressor has no desire to change
  • Even if there is a desire to change, some oppressors want something else even more; power, status, the ease of a life where everyone works to accommodate their bad behavior. I know plenty of people who never changed
  • The potential redemption of an oppressor is not more important than protecting their victims

I think that a complex truth can never be told by cutting stories out of our culture. Instead, we need a variety of stories. When it comes to oppression and redemption, we don’t have much by way of stories that teach us how to recognize oppressors who aren’t willing to change, or that affirm the importance of a victim’s safety. This is one reason I loved The Force Awakens. Kylo Ren, just like Vader, has someone who loves him asking him to choose goodness. He makes the wrong choice. We almost never see that. We need to see more stories that show that, and that remind us that this whole “love redeems” thing is a gamble.

But in addition to telling more stories that show the other side, I do think we need to be more conscientious about how we tell the “love redeems” story. I think that of all the changes the original film made to the fairy tale, the addition of Gaston was one of the best. The difference between Gaston and the Beast is that, when Belle asserts herself, the Beast responds by fighting his inner darkness, and Gaston responds by escalating his misogyny. He goes from street harassment to manipulative proposals to locking her father up in order to blackmail her to, finally, attempting to kill his romantic rival. At no point does he learn that Belle’s “no” is sufficient reason to leave her alone. His entire rationale is “she’s the most beautiful, and that makes her the best, and don’t I deserve the best?”

The new film takes this contrast even further. It becomes even more explicit that the Beast has realized that, whatever the cost, nothing can justify keeping Belle against her will. As much as he wants Belle’s love to save him, he has no right to demand it. His darker behavior in the beginning even works to support this. He never really seems to expect that Belle will love him. LeFou, meanwhile, becomes explicitly attracted to Gaston. He becomes an example of love leading a person to enable oppressive behavior, rather than challenge it. In the end, he is betrayed, and learns to look for happiness elsewhere. His arc embeds into this “love redeems” story an example of how, sometimes, it doesn’t.

This is why I was glad to see Hollywood take on the old classic again. This is why I think it’s worthwhile to retell old, problematic stories. Stories are a product of their past. So are all of us. We do ourselves no favors by failing to acknowledge that. But when we revise our stories, we also re-examine ourselves; our old beliefs, our assumptions, and the oppressions we have been complicit in. Like the Beast, that examination can lead us to better ourselves.

Long Hidden, Edited by Rose Fox and Daniel Jose Older


  • Genre
    • Short Stories, Fantasy, Science Fiction, Alternate History
  • Plot summary
    • This isn’t just any short story collection featuring authors of some minority or other. These are the stories that, for so long, people in Western Society haven’t been able to tell. These are the stories of the resistance, of the people who had to hide their identities in the margins, of the ones who were too busy surviving to write and who, if they had, would have had their voices muzzled by the colonizer’s need to only see narratives that paint them as heroes. 
  • Character empathy rating
    • Varies by author, but on the whole, these are stories unafraid to make you empathize with characters who are dirtied, broken, and ready to fight with nothing to lose. 
    • The focus is on protagonists of color, but you also get protagonists who are trans, disabled and political dissidents. If you’ve always hungered to see yourself in a story, odds are there’s someone like you here.
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • These stories will make you feel fierce. There is always a heartbreaking element to them. Some characters survive and triumph. Others are broken, but take their oppressors with them. But whatever happens to them, they are wild, they are angry, and they are free. 
    • In short, if you liked the way Rogue One made you feel, get this anthology.
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • If you want to sample a lot of award winning authors of color at once, this is a great option. 
    • An encyclopedia of East African ogres
    • Gangsters squaring off against sirens
    • Baba Yaga teaming up with striking coal miners
    • Enchanted soldiers rising to challenge the conquistadors
    • In short, all the cool monsters and fierce fairies you could ask for
  • Content Warnings
    • Not for the faint hearted. Blood, guts, violence, dark magic and scary monsters, the scariest of which are often human.
  • Quotes
    • “I dream in shades of green. The dusty hue of swallow herb; the new growth of little hand flower; the deep forest shade of cat’s claw. Plants are my calling and, as in waking life, they sprawl across boundaries.” – The Dance of the White Demons, by Sabrina Vourvoulias
    • “Out in the middle of the Cross River there is an island. It appears during storms or when the river’s flooding or sometimes even on clear summer days. And sometimes it rises out the water and floats in the air. The ground turns to diamond and you can hear the women playing with the sparkling rocks. I call them women, but they are not women. So many names for them: Kazzies. Shuantices. Water-Women. The Woes. I like that last name myself.” – Numbers, by Rion Amilcar Scott
    • “You got to sell your heart for freedom… I’ve been watching them round up your people. Soldiers come knocking at the door, don’t give nobody time to gather clothes. Everything you had is gone. They take the children in one wagon, the parents in the other, just to make sure nobody runs. You think they dreamed that up special for you? The ones who run – well, they don’t listen to their hearts, do they? Their hearts are as cold as ice.” – Free Jim’s Mine, by Tananarive Due

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.

How to Write Gender; a Trans Man’s Perspective

As someone who has lived on both sides of the gender binary, and mucked about in the murky swamp of the genderqueer, here is my carefully considered, foolproof, all-encompassing and patent-pending method for writing a character who is not your own gender; write a well rounded character, and then supply the appropriate pronouns.

Yeah, on second thoughts I can’t actually patent that, now can I?

Writers get hung up on gender a lot. Women assume they can’t write men, men assume they can’t write women, and if you even consider writing a non-binary character you’re a very rare breed (a breed so rare I’m going to ignore it for the rest of this post. I do so not without guilt, and will probably do a follow-up on how to write outside the gender binary). For the most part, though, writers who are worried are over-complicating what they have to do. They’ve heard that men don’t cry, that women can’t stop talking, that one gender is obsessed with cars and the other is obsessed with shoes, and they feel they have to shoehorn every stereotype into this character. At the same time, they don’t want to seem to be writing a stereotype. Their creativity is blocked by these contradictory intents, and as artists they want to be creating compelling, vivid characters, which neither cliches nor social obligations to be PC can inspire them to create.

How many people never defy any gender stereotypes? I can’t think of anyone. The most feminine person I can think of, my mother, likes action movies more than almost anyone else in my family. The most masculine person I can think of is my boyfriend. As the previous sentence indicates, he’s gay. When I think of well written male and characters, the same thing is true. Penny from The Big Bang Theory is a gossipy, emotional shopaholic, who also loves beer and football games and prioritizes her career over romance. Marshall Erikson from How I Met Your Mother is a big softy who harbors a secret love of fruity cocktails. Boys are supposed to be brave and stalwart, particularly around the creepy crawlies, so they can come rescue their girlfriends from the snake on the porch and the spider in the bathroom. Indiana Jones loses his shit around snakes.

As a trans person I tend to think of your gender as your core identity, and not any of the traits or biology conventionally associated with it. I came to this conclusion because for years, I was studying gender, trying to find a way to justify my feeling that I was a boy. I tried doing it by finding a checklist of gendered traits and putting all checks on the male side. The checklist failed because not only couldn’t I do it, but nobody I knew could. Everybody I knew deviated from what men and women were supposed to be by at least one trait. Then I tried making it a game of averages. I was male because I had a crucial level of masculine traits. Again, I failed, because I knew of both women who were more masculine than me, and men who were more feminine than me, none of them uncomfortable with their birth sex. Then I tried to find some cluster of essential traits that made somebody a boy or a girl. Again, I failed. Even biology doesn’t work, and not just because of trans people. Is a woman who has had a double mastectomy less female? Even at the level of hormones and chromosomes, some people have intersex conditions with very subtle external effects, so they live most of their lives unaware they are XXY, or that their bodies produce an unusual amount of estrogen or testosterone. Are you going to tell them they are wrong to keep on considering themselves male or female? As far as I’m concerned, all you need to be male is to say you are male, and all you need to be female is to say you are female. That goes for real people, and fictional characters.

Are there differences between the genders? It’s a controversial question, but I’m going to say yes. Studies show measurable differences. Are they biological or cultural? I’m not going to touch this one, as scientists contradict each other wildly, and both can produce evidence supporting their claims. What is consistent, however, is that the differences measured, whatever their origin, are overlapping bell curves, not distinct columns. Your aim isn’t to write only characters who exist at the exact peak of the bell curve, but to write human beings, and human beings exist in every gendery combination imaginable. So if you feel like you know about a rough, masculine sort of person, don’t worry about your inability to write convincing dialog about manicures. Write a rough, masculine, wouldn’t be caught dead in a dress girl, and tell an interesting story about what it’s like to be her.

Now, I have been a little bit disingenuous. There is one important difference between men and women that is absolutely relevant to your writing. They live with different social expectations. Imagine two characters, one male and one female, who are both attracted to women, majored in physics and teach high school science, are quiet around people they don’t know well but chatty with their friends, shun makeup but think they look good in purple, prefer cats over dogs and enjoy mysteries and classical music. I can continue to list similarities, and go on to cover every gendered trait and not list a single difference between them, and you will still perceive them differently, based on their gender. A trait that is surprising for one will be presumed for the other. If one was picked on for being too feminine, the bullying will look very different from how the other was picked on for not being feminine enough. One might feel self conscious about a trait that the other barely notices. If they are equally competent at fixing a car, the woman probably had to fight harder to learn. If they can both knit, there’s probably an interesting story behind why the man can, perhaps involving an abundance of sisters.

I can’t tell you how to write that social pressure into your story. The social rules of gender change by time, culture, class and family, and every individual responds differently to their society. Scout Finch is not Scarlett O’Hara. Jane Eyre is not Mina Harker. Dean Winchester is not Sam Winchester. The only advice I can give is to be aware of it. Research if you are writing an environment outside of your experience, and if you are writing in a familiar environment, practice your observational skills. The only tools you need to write a good character of any gender are the ones you need to write any character, and the most essential one is seeing your character not as a collection of traits, but as a person.

My Response to the Lady Who Thinks All Marriages are Between Traditional Straight Couples, Part 2; the Nitpicker’s Edition

As I said previously, this is directly a response to this blog. Part one had my overview with what was wrong with what she said, so now it’s time to break Kimes’ advice down point by point, because I am nothing if not thorough in my overthinking.

“1.  Have a hot meal ready for your man when he gets home from work. Let’s face it, I’m a busy woman, and I don’t always have time to cook. But if I don’t think I’ll have the time that night, I’ll have my cook prepare something, or I will pick something up.”

There are two issues with this advice. First, she assumes that a hot meal is going to mean the same thing to everyone as it does to herself and her husband. Second, she assumes everyone has the capacity to have a hot meal every night. It’s almost hilarious how she casually mentions her cook, like “oh, you don’t have one? You should go talk to your friends at the yacht club; they’re bound to have a good recommendation.” Meanwhile, on planet Teacher’s Salary, we find spouses who can live with leftover lasange tonight.

Probably the best advice I have ever heard for any kind of close relationship, friend, family or significant other, is to first out what makes the other person feel loved. Don’t rely on the cliched “nice things.” Those are for the coworkers who you don’t know that well but who you need to do something nice for because it’s their birthday/retirement/their mother just died. If you’re in a close, personal relationship with someone, you should be basing your nice things on what works for the relationship between the two of you. For some people, a warm meal ready is the nicest gesture possible. Other people don’t care if it’s PBJ on paper plates tonight, so long as the two of you can snuggle on the couch and watch How I Met Your Mother on the Netflix account.

Hot on the heels of that advice is that one of the first steps in taking care of others is taking care of yourself. I don’t care how nice the meal is, I want to have it with someone who is happy and healthy, not someone stressed out by the pressure of working two jobs while still rushing home to cook three courses and clean up, every single day. That will absolutely break a marriage, especially if the work starts to be taken for granted and the cook feels unappreciated for their effort. I’m glad Dr. Kimes and her husband found a gesture of love that works for everyone. For everyone else out there; find your own. Don’t feel like you need to do what someone else is doing to have a successful relationship.

“2. Don’t be a prude in the bedroom. Of course, I am not encouraging you to go out and have a threesome, BUT keep an open mind to the new things that your husband wants to try. Don’t be so quick to say “no.” Take pleasure in pleasing your man. And please try not to ever go to sleep angry.”

Oh god, no. Okay, there is the seed of a good thought in this idea. For a lot of people, opening up and trying new things in the bedroom is a great way to stay connected and happy. Sex is awesome and you and your partner should enjoy it without worrying about what outsiders might think of it. That said, sexual boundaries are also very personal. I know someone who is intellectually accepting of kink and alternative sexualities, but has also had some bad experiences and anything but the vanilla-est of vanilla sex can be emotionally triggering for her. There’s enough out there about how women have a duty to please their men, and it’s a really gross kind of pressure to put on anyone. Bottom line, nobody should make you feel like you should try a type of sex you aren’t comfortable trying. Sometimes couples split because their desires and libidos are mismatched in those areas, and that’s okay.

Also, it bothers me how the first thing she says is that of course you shouldn’t go have a threesome. Why not? Assuming it’s consensual and everyone is using appropriate protection, what business is it of hers to decide that’s the line you shouldn’t cross? It’s like she’s saying, “ignore society’s narrow ideas about what is and isn’t okay for a consenting couple to do in bed; follow mine instead!”

“3. Don’t be a nag. You don’t always have to have response. As women, we like to give our opinions, often times, unwarranted. It’s OK to not have a comment. Pick and choose your battles if it’s not that important…let it go!  Your husband does not want to hear your opinion 24/7, especially when using a loud, high-pitched tone (that some of us like to use).”

There are times in a relationship when you have to let it go. Everybody has lots of opinions and nobody can get their way one hundred percent of the time. So long as you both feel like the big things are being handled in a mutually satisfying way, you don’t have to worry about losing some of the smaller battles.

There, was that so hard to say? Notice how I phrased it in a way that made it sound like this was advice that anyone of any gender could follow, and that both people in a relationship have a responsibility to follow it? When you phrase it like it’s an issue of women having stupid little issues that bother men, you reinforce the outdated idea that women like to whine over tiny little issues. And often they do, because they are human beings and human beings like to complain. Whining just means complaining while possessing a high-pitched voice. Characterizing women specifically as the nags just encourages men to either not take the women in their lives seriously, or to just give in because “women, amirite? Can’t reason with them, and you’ll never hear the end of it until they get their way.” Which is ironic, because as a trans man who has seen both sides, a lot of the time the nagging attitude I saw in women came from the feeling that the men in their lives didn’t take them seriously unless they nagged.

There will always be irrational, immature people of all genders who can’t keep their needs in perspective relative to the needs of others. Try to be one of the ones who grew out of it, and try to avoid the individuals who did not grow out of it. Don’t pretend gender determines anything but the pronouns of the person doing the complaining.

“4. Show him your appreciation. You can catch more bees with honey than you can with vinegar. Be kind, and polite to your husband, and he will reciprocate. Show him that you are thankful for all that he does. Make your words soft and sweet. You won’t be disappointed with the results you’ll get.”

This advice isn’t bad, but it’s also annoyingly vague. How do you show appreciation? How are you kind and polite and thankful? The vagueness could be a feature rather than a bug, if she talked about how every couple develops a unique way of showing appreciation over time, whether it is leaving notes for each other or a quick “can you get the trash for me?” “sure” “you rock,” and maybe had some suggestions for how to find the best way to show appreciation (I’m thinking it would start with “comm-” and end with “-unication”). As it sits, it’s just fluffy aphorisms with a heavy salting of cliche. It bothers me that she doesn’t have actual suggestions here, but she has a very definite idea of which gender is being thankful and which one is receiving the thanks.

But other than that, yes, appreciation is good. Do that thing.

“5. Follow his lead. You married your husband for a reason, right? Hopefully you trust him enough to make the important decisions in your household. Again, don’t go with things that are immoral, or wrong, but definitely always remember to make him feel like he wears the pants.”

You married your wife for a reason, right? Hopefully you trust her enough to make the important decisions in your household. Just let her make all the calls, and trust they will be in your best interest as well. Remember, women like to feel like they wear the pants in the household.

Just because you trust someone, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t need for discussion and joint decision making. That said, some people do have personality types that are naturally inclined to strong leadership roles, or supporting roles. For people who happen to be a natural supporter in a relationship with a natural leader, this is great advice. In fact, in any relationship there is likely to be one person who is a little more dominant than the other. The trouble is when you tack those leader/supporter roles into people based solely on their gender. I’ve known women who would be more suited to the leader role, men who would be more suited to supporting roles. Furthermore, what works when one person is a happy leader and the other is a happy follower might not work if you have a leader and a slightly more assertive leader, or a follower and someone who is more comfortable holding the reins but doesn’t want to micromanage. Power is a reality of relationships, so talk about what kind of dynamic makes everyone happiest, and don’t assume that testosterone or estrogen alone are going to decide the issue.

“6. Your career does NOT come first. I have a super busy schedule, especially now that I am a cast member on Bravo’s “Married to Medicine.” However, when I get home from work, I turn my phone off. I am there to get my kids off the bus. Family time is very important to me. I cherish those moments.”

I was going to go into a rant about how it’s so unfair that it’s always the wife who has to make this sacrifice and not the husband, but come to think of it, this is actually one of the few tips where she doesn’t say it. Maybe her husband does hold himself to the same standard. I’m tempted to assume he doesn’t, because of the tone of the rest of the tips, but it would still be an assumption. So good for her; for once she just talked about something she does as a person without being all gender role-y about it.

I also think she’s mostly right. People don’t talk about holding down a family to provide for their jobs, after all. Careers are an important part of life and what you leave behind you, but if you’ve taken on the responsibility of children they had better be a big priority. They are also one of the biggest things you will leave behind you when you’ve gone, so get them right.

Of course, there may be circumstances when your job trumps your children, like when you’re president of the United States and someone kidnapped your kids to blackmail you into starting a nuclear war. If that every happens, I highly recommend that you immediately resign and let it be the vice president’s problem. If you neglect to do this, you are probably in a Michael Bay movie and have nothing to worry about.

7. Look sexy for him. It is so important to look good for your man. Know what your man likes, and what he thinks is attractive. I realized recently that this is MOST important! Try to keep yourself in shape and put together.”

And we are back to the gender double standard. See if you can spot it.

When I started dating my boyfriend, I started trimming some of my body hair, because that was more attractive to him. Often I shower before I see him because I like to smell nice around him. If he told me there was a shirt he thought looked good on me I would wear it around him more often. All of these are small things. They make me feel attractive around him, and they don’t make me feel any less like myself, so I am happy to do them.

If, on the other hand, he thought the nerdy T-shirts I wear were childish and pressured me to get rid of them, that would suck. I wear them because they make me feel comfy and Lane-ish. If he thought I should lose weight, when I’m already on the small side, that would suck even more. How we look is a huge part of our sense of self, taking care of our bodies is part of nurturing that sense of identity. There is  a line between looking nice for a partner and changing yourself for a partner.

She says she’s recently realized looking sexy is the most important thing, with capital letters and everything, which makes me worry about her husband’s priorities. I don’t know her or her husband, so I don’t know what was going on that made her say that. Maybe it’s entirely social pressure that has nothing to do with what her husband actually thinks of her appearance. In any case, whenever I’ve been in love with someone, he cannot look bad to me. However he looks, he is handsome, because it’s his face, right there, being all him-ish. If fulfilling this “MOST important” item is something that actually requires a lot of deviation from how you would want to look anyway, you should really question whether you are with somebody who loves the real you.

“8. Let him know it’s OK for him to be stressed. Because he is the man and is expected to take on a lot of things and it can sometimes get stressful for him. Men aren’t always good at expressing themselves when they are stressed or depressed. Let him know that it’s OK to feel that way, and make yourself emotionally available.”

Good advice. Let’s apply it to wives and girlfriends and friends and siblings and parents and coworkers and bosses and people who look like they’re having a bad day on the street. Except maybe that last one would be creepy. I dunno, some people can pull it off. I’ve had people approach me randomly on the street and say something along the lines of, “You look like you’re having a bad day. Hang in there.” It’s made me feel good, even if I was mostly okay. I wish they taught classes on how to be able to go up to random people and say nice things to them. If everybody could do that, all of us with our stressful lives would just have random people coming up to us all the time and giving hugs and the world would be full of hugs all the time and everything would be awesome.

Where was I? Oh yes, this is good advice, except for the weird sexist spin she puts on it. Husbands get “appreciate him” and “let him know it’s okay to be stressed.” Women get “don’t be a nag.” There’s something terribly unbalanced about that.

“9. Marry someone you genuinely admire and find east (sic) to respect. When you admire the man you chose to marry, it doesn’t feel like a chore when you’re accommodating him. It will be something you want to do. You’ll want to give him the respect he deserves.”

Actually, I think everybody should marry someone they genuinely dislike and find difficult to respect. It’s all a part of my evil gay agenda to destroy traditional marriage and bring on the international communist plot.

Again, this isn’t bad advice, as far as it goes. But where is the advice about how to bring up your issues diplomatically and maturely? I get the sense that she thinks if you marry a good enough guy, you can just let him take the lead in everything and not have to bring up your own issues ever. You won’t have any issues because he will read your mind, and all of your problems are stupid little whiny woman problems anyways so you should just live with them. She says pick someone you admire and respect so you can accommodate him. I say pick someone you admire and respect because odds are that’s someone you can have a healthy respectful conversation with and you can both accommodate each other really maturely.

“10. Get a support system. Surround yourself with people who are like you, or people who support your lifestyle. There is nothing worse than a friend who doesn’t agree with your lifestyle trying to give you advice. There is nothing wrong with being a submissive wife, and your closest friends should be people who aren’t judging you for it!”

Absolutely right. Being surrounded by a world that judges you for who you are really sucks. And I’ll be honest, I have met women who feel judged for their femininity by the feminist mainstream, and I feel for them. See my boxes analogy at the end of part one.

In the end, though, it’s kind of annoying getting that advice from someone whose big point of controversy is that she lets her husband run the household. Last weekend, I visited my boyfriend, who is working every weekend this month in Philly. As I said goodbye to him on Sunday in the hotel lobby, I didn’t give him a kiss. I wanted to so badly, and I think it would have been safe to, but he’s fairly cautious and I would never do anything that made him feel uncomfortable or unsafe. Instead I hugged him and kissed his shoulder, where nobody else could see. Unless Kimes is married to a white guy and they got together back in the sixties, I don’t think she has any idea what that’s like. I don’t want people to sneer at her for having a relationship that makes her happy, but I’d have a lot more sympathy if I got a sense that she had respect for queer marriages or straight couples who don’t want a patriarchal structure to their relationship.