Sunday, May 28, 2017


May is sort of a weird month for me in terms of being a fan of nerdy things in general and of space operas specifically.

See, in spite of loving adventure stories set in space, in spite of Star Trek: TNG, Firefly, Mass Effect, and the more recent iterations of Captain Marvel being among my all time favorite pop culture properties, I never got in to Star Wars.

Every May the 4th, I sigh and shrug and apologize for missing whatever reference I inevitably miss and try to explain why I never got in to a thing that, on paper, has the hallmarks of my favorite things.

There's not a simple answer to this question. Usually, my response is some version of "I missed the boat." Star Wars is, in my experience, sort of a difficult thing to get into as an adult in a world where it's existed for 40 years. I was ten or eleven when The Phantom Menace came out in 1999, and I saw it in the theater. It, understandably, didn't get me hyped about the series as a whole. I didn't watch the original trilogy until my early twenties, and when I did finally make it through all three, my general reaction was along the lines of, "That was okay, I guess."

No one ever really accepts my "didn't get into it at the right time" explanation. Which is fair, I guess. There are some problems with it. I mean, it's not like I didn't have the opportunity to watch the originals as a kid--my parents are fans; some of my friends have been fans their whole lives. If I had asked, I could have seen them. And I obviously knew of them, so I would have been able to ask.

But I never did. I've been thinking lately about why, and I think the answer is actually pretty simple.

I've been hungry for stories for as long as I can remember. And not just stories, but stories that would pull me out of reality. I wanted space adventures, or to travel through time, or to live in a world with magic. So I sought out fantastical stories. There were plenty among children's media, and I had the good fortune of growing up around voracious readers and librarians in an overall pretty bookish community. It was great. Except for one thing that I kept noticing.

There weren't a lot of girls in these stories. I mean, there were some exceptions.
Sailor Moon had an all-female team.
Reboot had Dot from the beginning and eventually added Mouse and both the child and adult versions of Andraia (not to mention Hexadecimal, who's one of the best villains ever).

But the pattern for the stories I found was pretty much the same across the board: the main hero was a boy. Sometimes he lead a team. Pretty much always, the other members of that team were also boys, with the exception of one girl.

There's a name for this phenomenon. It's called the Smurfette Principle. And it's everywhere.

I didn't know anything about tropes when I was a kid. And I didn't know anything about how media are made that might have explained why I saw so few women and girls. (And I didn't know that I'd be living in a world that, almost 20 years later, would see a major network passing on a pilot because it skewed "too female.") All I knew was that I wanted to see stories that starred girls. And I was tired of the stuff that I liked that starred women and girls being dismissed as being badly made or too girly.

So I started being more selective. If a book or a movie didn't have a girl on the cover, or if the back copy didn't mention a girl by name (meaning not just in terms of her relationship to a boy--his sister or his crush), I put it back on the shelf.

This drastically changed the types of stories that I interacted with. I piked up fewer adventures, fewer fantasies, fewer space operas. I read a lot of historical fiction--the Dear America and Royal Diaries series made up a hefty chunk of my reading after this period because they were all about girls and (mostly) written by women. I kept going with some series--Harry Potter didn't really meet my criteria, but I started reading it before I made my changes, so I kept on (and thank goodness I did, because I need a hero like Minerva McGonagall in my life), and though many of the Animorphs books had boys as narrators, there were still two girls in the main cast.

I guess the reason why I never asked about Star Wars was because I already knew the score as far as women characters. Though I recognize now that the character of Leia has more going on than a damsel in distress narrative, at the time, the image that defined Leia for me was this one:
And ten-year-old me was aggressively not interested in another property where the girl was there to be pretty and to date one of the heroes.

Whenever I mention to someone this period in my life where I steered clear of stories about boys as much as I could, someone inevitably points out all of the cool things I missed. And, yeah, there's a lot of neat stuff that I didn't see because I was looking for things that starred girls. But, ultimately, the "look what you missed" sentiment misses the point.

It seems odd that I would actively avoid stories about boys because, even if we're not consciously thinking about it, we know that stories about boys are everywhere. They're the vast majority of the stories that get told--particularly when we're talking about genre fiction (sci fi, fantasy, action/adventure, etc. etc.). The idea of avoid stories about boys and men strikes as odd because it's practically impossible.

But do we think it's weird if boys don't want to read or watch stuff that's about girls? Do we ask what boys who didn't read Dear America books missed out on?

I guess my ultimate point is that someone shouldn't miss out on "cool stuff" because they're looking for a character that's like them. And also that maybe content makers could stand to be more aware of the messages that they're sending to their potential audience. Leia may be more than a metal bikini, but that's all that I saw. It might not be the only reason that I'm not enthusiastic about Star Wars now, but it's definitely part of it.

Also, would it have killed them to add some more women? It's a whole galaxy.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Cafe Diem

I have an unusual amount of free time right now. The Spring semester ended last week, and Summer term doesn't start for another week. I wrapped up my story for the Mata Hari anthology and even finished up the first round of edits. There aren't any friends or family visiting from out of town at the moment. Where I normally only have a few hours a night to work on my writing, I've now got full days.

It's great, and I'm getting things done. But I've definitely been going a little stir crazy. 

While I love spending time with my cats and dog, and working from home is a great option, considering how anxious I get in even the most benign social situations, even I can only stay at the house so long. By late last week, I needed to get out.

Though I wanted to get out of the house, I didn't want to give up my working time. So, I decided to camp out at a coffee shop for a few hours--a place with lots of windows, an outside seating option, and a staff that wouldn't be concerned about a patron claiming a table for an undetermined length of time, since so much of the traffic is drive through or carry out.

Not pictured: The guy that didn't understand that my headphones meant I was not interested in a conversation.

There are all manner of sneering stereotypes about people that write in cafes. It's not something I've done much of, myself. It's always struck me as a little performative, and my imposter syndrome is generally unwilling to let me perform the role of writer in public--at least, outside of times when I've been invited to. And being a woman in a public place comes with the burden of being assumed to be available for chit chat. Even if you're clearly working on something. And have headphones in. 

But I wanted a change of pace. Not just to look at something other than my house's walls, but also to shake loose some of the blocks I've had. The last few problems that I'm trying to patch up in Project 2016 have proven to be somewhat difficult to untangle. I'd hoped that changing my setting might shake things up enough to reveal new avenues.

And it did help a bit. I've been able to work out some of the major issues, and I have the beginnings of new solutions for most of the rest. I managed a blank-page rewrite of the center of a chapter that's been giving me trouble since the beginning, and now the sequence of events makes more sense. I've been able to trim some fat from a few chapters so that I can add in more important bits of story. I visited the cafe twice last week, and did some good work both times.

But I'm not sure I want to make a habit, however temporary, of cafe writing.

I can see the appeal, in some ways. There is something about a cafe setting that sharpens the brain (or at least my brain). And if you get stuck, there are goodies--never underestimate the power of goodies. If you're the type that gets energized by being around other people, it's a great workspace.

All that said, it doesn't really work for me. I mean, I'm all about tasty baked goods and coffee, but there are some issues. First and most obvious is the expense. Cafe coffee ain't cheap. And, if you're like me, you feel like an asshole sitting somewhere for hours after your coffee and croissant have been consumed so you buy another coffee and croissant.

And then there's the music. I went to a chain cafe, so I expected that I'd hear some pretty generic tunes--whispery-voiced indie singers and soft guitar strumming. I can work through most music, so I thought I'd be fine. The days that I went to the cafe, though, the music of the day was apparently "whales screaming."

Not exactly conducive to work. I guess some people find it relaxing?

And then there are the people. I'm sure others' mileage varies on this, but I work best when I'm allowed to do my own thing without interruptions. For most of my stay at the coffee shop, I was able to do this reasonably well. But now and then, someone tap at my shoulders to ask about the other chair at my table (and then to put it back). And once, someone asked me to move (my body, my laptop, my laptop bag, my coffee and my croissant) to another table. Worst was the man who decided that I must have come out in public to be talked to by a stranger (pro tip: if someone has headphones on, they're not interested in talking--if they're not in danger, leave them alone).

It was a good experiment. I'm glad I did it. But I don't expect that cafe writing is going to somehow become my thing.

Are any of you cafe writers? If you're not, what do you do when you want to write somewhere other than your usual office or writing nook?

Sunday, May 7, 2017

My First Girlfriend Turned Into The Moon

The semester is winding down, which means that I've been spending a lot of time grading. I don't mind this too much. It's repetitive work, which is a nice change from the acrobatics of managing three hundred students' needs during classes.

I like to have something going on in the background while I'm grading. When I'm in the office, I use podcasts. When I'm grading at home, I use TV. Generally, I like to turn on something I've seen before, stuff that I'm familiar with--I've used Community, Roseanne, The Closer, Forensic Files, Snapped. This time has been a little different. Our Netflix account isn't working, and our dog ate most of the remote control for the blu ray player, so I've been making use of the Amazon Prime account. And they recently added one of my all-time favorite shows to their options.

Oh my gosh, do I have OPINIONS about this show. And I've expressed those opinions pretty frequently. When I was in graduate school, I wrote a paper on how differently gendered behaviors were valued in the context of this show. I introduced it to every member of my friend group in college. If you were to ask me about Lu Ten's death or about brainwashing in Ba Sing Se, I would likely talk for literal hours.

As I've been rewatching the show, I've been trying to pin down what it is exactly that works so well for me. If I can see the parts that sell it for me, I can maybe use those tools to make my own work better. But I'm deep into season 2 on my rewatch, and my list of things that are great about this show is long.

Really long.

So, I've tried to distill the key ingredients down to three main things. I had to go sort of broad strokes with this, but I think I managed to get to the three things that I want to make use of in my work.

1. The overall story.

I think by now, my stance on outlines is pretty clear (but if you've somehow missed it, I am very much pro-outline). Something about having a map for a story makes it easier for me to put the thing together. If you want to see a good story plan in action, just look at A:TLA. The main conflict, the endgame, the major players, the teen romance subplot are all laid out in the first episode. The pilot makes a very clear promise--a hero coming of age story with characters that have complicated histories, well choreographed action scenes, emotional drama, and enough goofs to make it palatable.

The only reason this works--the only reason we can get this clear promise so early on--is because the creators already know the story. Maybe not every single beat, but the benchmarks are already there.

This is also important in terms of writing for limited space. A season only gets so many episodes. A show, even one as successful as A:TLA was, is only granted so many seasons. The plan lets the creators get the most punch out of each episode. It lets them better sell their story--there's not an open-ended run; the story has a specific endpoint. And it cuts WAY DOWN on filler. One of the best things about A:TLA is that the vast majority of the episodes move the story forward. They aren't wasted. Even some of the "filler" episodes give us something--"Tales of Ba Sing Se" quickly communicates the hurry up and wait that goes on in Ba Sing Se and gives us hints as to what happened to Appa. Even "Ember Island Players" serves as a great play on the clip show trope and gives us a chance to explore some of the character relationships. (There's also "The Great Divide," but let's not get into that one).

The episodes do work, and they're able to do that work because the plan is so clear.

2. The characters.

I could go on for days about how Zuko's character arc is one of the best in animation. Or about how characters like Teo and Toph rewrite the script on how the stories that characters with disabilities can tell. Or about Iroh's role as moral center for Zuko and the questions that I have about how he got to that point. Or about Katara and Suki and the ways that women can and do balance "feminine" demands with "masculine" ones. Or Azula's downward spiral towards the end of season 3.

The characters are deep, is what I'm saying. The main cast, the villains, the recurring characters read as having full and complex lives and personalities. They exist within the plot, but they don't exist for the plot, which is a complicated thing when you consider that the plot is literally what they were created for.

It goes beyond the major characters in the story. Even the bit players shine. I'll give two examples that, with gifs alone, illustrate the personality that go into characters that only briefly appear.

3. It doesn't pull punches.

At the end of the day, A:TLA is a story about a war--a war that's been going on for a hundred years. The world the show takes place in, in spite of its magic and bright colors, is a dark place. And the show doesn't conceal that--at least, not to the degree that you might expect in a show geared towards children. We see wounded soldiers. We hear about or see implied deaths in combat. We see the extreme measures taken by both sides.

And that's just the main arc conflict. We get subplots surrounding Aang's guilt at running away (essentially leaving his people to die and ensuring that the war would continue), Sokka and Katara's truncated childhoods and the loss of their mother, Toph's complicated relationship with her parents and with her class position. We see the complicated family politics and the straight up abuse that happened within the Fire Nation royal family (and we get a glimpse of the different tactics Ozai uses on his children and their different coping mechanisms). We get examinations of colonialism and cultural appropriation.

This is, again, at the end of the day a coming-of-age hero story that is geared towards children. But it does so much and in such a way that it doesn't feel like a sermon and doesn't underestimate its audience. That's a fine line to walk under the best of circumstances. And let's remember, because it's easy to forget when you're binging a show that's been off the air for almost ten years, the creators were beholden not only to the network itself, but to advertisers. Imagine telling a toy company that you'll be airing their ads during a show that going to depict, on screen, the brainwashing and murder of a child. Sounds like a tough sell, yeah?

There are a million things I could say about this show, but these three are the most impressive bits to me. It's hard to tell a good, complete story. It's harder to do that with a set of characters that, down to the last, live and breath beyond their story purpose. And it's even harder to balance that story with the complexities that would accompany it in reality. And then to succeed in the business end and sell the complete thing.

A:TLA isn't a novel, but it's definitely a master class in storytelling. I'm not getting things graded as quickly as I might have planned, but I'm so glad I decided to rewatch it. I can only hope that I've learned at least a little of what it has to offer.