Once Upon a Bait-and-Switch

I want to point to this recent Peter David post only to acknowledge it as sparking inspiration. Before that goes anywhere, though: this isn’t a response to David’s point, but I didn’t want to pretend this particular post sprang out of thin air. David is largely discussing slashfic writers who seem to be insisting on the wholesale rewriting of Once Upon a Time characters–in directions that don’t really make much sense for them–under the auspices of diversity. I agree, I find insisting that two heterosexual female characters suddenly fall in love with each other is stretching, to put it mildly.

That said, the mention of diversity in general with regards to Once Upon a Time does bring up an old itch I’ve had with the show. Setting aside fan pairings, this little series about fairy tales come to life does have what strikes me as a fairly problematic relationship with diversity. Insofar as I can spoil events which are several seasons from having happened, consider this a warning.

There’s really not much to tell when it comes to LGBTQ characters in OUaT. There’s exactly one: Mulan (Jamie Chung). In terms of characters, she’s not a bad one to have. The show positions her as a warrior. Much more of one than the prince and then princess with whom she travels. Mulan isn’t anyone’s sidekick; she’s hanging around to Get Things Done.

So, thumbs up for agency. Mulan originally develops a pretty clear crush on Prince Phillip (Julian Morris), with whom she’s been questing following the events of a curse. Mind you, a good 80% of the plots on this show involve characters of both sexes pining after other characters who may or may not reciprocate those feelings, so I’m not making a “defined by the man she loves” complaint here. That Mulan is quickly thrown into the position of having to protect Princess Aurora (Sarah Bolger, whom Phillip really loves) after unpleasantness temporarily befalls Phillip twists things well enough to keep them interesting.

Then Phillip wakes back up, and there is still pining and moping, but, we eventually discover, it’s not for Phillip anymore. It’s for Aurora. I might be persuaded to believe that she really loves both members of that fairy tale duo, but given how cagey the writers were in revealing Mulan’s bisexuality,1 I’m not inclined to think they were also positioning her as polyamorous.

Though you can think what you like, since the scene revealing Mulan’s LGBTQ status is also the last scene she’s appeared in since. The series has a bisexual character just long enough for someone to notice, then she’s gone to make room for the heteronormative couple.

Some searching online suggests that part of this may be due to problems with Jamie Chung’s other commitments, but the problem is, Once Upon a Time sort of has a history of this kind of replacement of minority characters. By my count, there’s been a grand total of four other POC on the show who have had a significant impact,2 so let’s just take a look at all of them. It won’t take long:

Cinderella’s fairy godmother: In a flashback to the Enchanted Forest, the story of Cinderella starts out just like you remember it, as a young girl meets her fairy godmother. Said godmother, in a pleasant surprise, is played by an African-American actress (Catherine Lough Haggquist). But before the two women can even have a full conversation, Rumpelstiltskin (Robert Carlyle) destroys her with a flick of his finger and takes both her wand and her place in the rest of the story.

Lancelot: African American actor Sinqua Walls shows up in the second season to portray the classic, valorous knight in a flashback. The good news: he makes it to the end of the flashback alive. The bad news: in the present, he’s been murdered off-screen by Cora (Barbara Hershey), who’s taken his place using an illusion spell.

Tamara: Sonequa Martin-Green’s character lasts longer than the two above, but given that her spy mission essentially turns her into a prostitute (she’s the fiancee of her mark at the behest of her employer) and said employer–Peter Pan (Robbie Kay)–only keeps her alive long enough to get him the little Caucasian boy he’s actually interested in, I’m not sure it’s an especially impressive run.

The only POC other than Mulan who manages to live through a run on Once Upon a Time, in fact, is Sidney Glass (Giancarlo Esposito). In the context of how disposable most other POC characters have been, however, it’s especially troubling that Glass’s fairy tale counterparts are not one, but two slave selves: first, he’s “Genie,” who is freed not by Aladdin, who then would have been the show’s first Middle Eastern character, but by yet another Caucasian male character. “Genie” is free just long enough to be manipulated into committing murder and subsequently re-enslaved by the Evil Queen (Lana Parrilla), this time as her magic mirror.

Look, I don’t think that every character who falls into some kind of minority must instantly become The Most Important Awesome Flawless Character Ever. That’s not my intent here at all. I want real, human characters as much as anyone else–even in my fairy tale-inspired fiction.

And I don’t think that the writers and producers of Once Upon a Time are secretly a gaggle of racist homophobes. I’m not trying to ascribe malicious intent to the examples above any more than I’m trying to insist on paragon status for minority characters.

What I am saying, or trying to say, is that the smaller the nod to diversity, the more impact the event surrounding that diversity are likely to be. Killing off an African-American character doesn’t in and of itself send a message. Killing off three out of four (two of them in their first appearance) for the sake of developing your Caucasian characters, then making the fourth a double slave…. I should hope it’s clear that this starts to generate a pattern for the place of POC in your narrative which is, at the very least, problematic.

It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that when the details of the first nod toward LGBTQ inclusion seem to fit that same pattern of bait-and-switch which has plagued the inclusion of POC (and when the disappearance of Mulan not-incidentally marks yet another POC stepping aside for the sake of Caucasian character arcs), folks might be inclined to make some negative assumptions.

Yes, people like to see folks like themselves in their entertainment. But I think, sometimes, being repeatedly teased with that representation can have a far more negative impact than not seeing it at all.

ETA / Related: As fate would have it, Abigail Nussbaum just posted a far more in depth look at racial issues in another ABC/Disney property: Agents of SHIELD. Take a look.

1.Mulan never quite comes out and says she loves anyone, though I think the intention’s clear

2. There’s an African-American vet in Storybrooke who serves as an expository device in one episode. And one of the dwarves is played by a Phillipino actor, but given that the writers largely use the dwarves as “Grumpy and sometimes six other guys,” I’m not inclined to call him a full-fledged character at this point.

Selling Women Online

It’s probably incredibly understated to say that I’m really not an American Football guy. I’m not much of a traditional sports fan in general. So I definitely don’t follow much of the media surrounding sports, either. It was only via Rebecca Eisenberg on Upworthy that I ran across Katie Nolan’s recent discussion of the place of women in sports and sports media:

It’s worth a watch, and a lot of thinking and talking and thumbs ups. Then I Googled Nolan to see what responses might be out there to her piece, and I found myself fairly disheartened by the headlines:

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I mean, you have to get to the third article in the list before the headline is about the primary content of the video, and not “Don’t boycott the NFL!” which, you know, seems to spectacularly miss the point.

I was wholly prepared to start taking people to task for headlines which so clearly buried the lead in something that looked like nothing so much as corporate shilling. Except that clicking through, I saw that both of those articles pretty evenly move from the “no boycott” into the larger commentary on women in sports / sports media.

And then I realized my Google search is ordered by “relevance,” which in Google terms largely relates to how many people link to / click links to the articles in question. A realization which was, honestly, even more depressing.

Because that means those first two articles got more attention than any of the others with headlines that directly address the feminist concerns of the video. While I’m not especially keen on manipulative headlines that feed web hits, it’s an even more sobering realization that, apparently, the very mention of feminism and/or sexism in relation to sports media is a whole lot less interesting than “This lady says it’s okay to keep watching our sports!”

Which pretty much makes Nolan’s point for her, I think. When you have to sideline the very topic of sidelining women, the double-secret probation becomes rather painfully clear.

And yes, that’s exactly why I titled this blog post the way that I did.

Just Love Me (but Not On the Lips)

I’m still ambivalent about a The Last 5 Years1 film, largely because its concept has always seemed so tied to live theatre. Mind you, I don’t mind adaptation. It happens all the time. Filmmakers adjust stories to better fit the new medium and I totally think they should.

That said, the central conceit of The Last 5 Years–that Cathy is moving backwards through the relationship as Jamie moves forward–feels both essential to the material and all wrong for film. In all honestly, while there are a lot of songs I love in the show, I think the reason you sit through those songs all at once is the time juggling. It’s a device that engages your mind in a different way than a linear narrative, and by around the midway point, starts encouraging you to try fitting songs back together internally. The intellectual exercise of figuring out who is when keeps your brain working to put together what is, on its face, a fairly standard relationship narrative.

And, in a theatrical setting, no one really balks at just having two people performing a series of musical monologues. We’re used to folks getting up on a stage and doing just that. It’s the buy in. We don’t need anything cinematic. And, again, that intimacy seems kind of crucial to what this particular story is trying to accomplish. As, effectively, an elaborate he said / she said story, forcing the audience to lock in on whomever is currently doing the saying is important. It’s not a tug of war if you aren’t being yanked from deep within one person’s perspective to deep within another’s. Film tends to want to be far more immersive with its environments, and rightly so.

So, yeah. Given that the two things that I think make The Last 5 Years, you know, The Last 5 Years are both elements which I think don’t work especially well in cinema, I’ve been apprehensively curious about how things are going to work in this new film.

The first clip from the film feels a bit like my concerns are at least reasonably valid2:

So, in an effort to help things move, to give the world of the film that immersive environmental element I was talking about above, we have our lead characters in a car. We get wind, we get scenery, we get all that wild, fun energy of being out on the road with the person who gets you going, which of course leads to pulling off said road in order to get going with said person.

But because Cathy has to keep singing the whole time, the scene plays really awkwardly for me. There’s no real musical break to let Anna Kendrick fully connect with Jeremy Jordan. She manages to sneak in one, very quick kiss, but the rest of the scene, which is attempting to build to some spontaneous roadside nookie, keeps fighting with the need for Kendrick to keep singing. I count three or four different spots where it’s clear that the actors’ instincts (which I think are spot on) are to be kissing, but: Must. Keep. Singing.

So instead we have Jordan going to town while Kendrick sings about how into it all she is without being able to actually be into it. It’s kind of a perfect example of the tension between the needs of the filmmakers and the needs of the show they’re adapting.

Maybe this is just a particularly off example of the rest of the film released because “look, we made it full of sexy stuff!” or something. Still, it’s not doing much to reduce my ambivalence.

1. I thought for half a second about going back and forth between 5 and Five in the titles to distinguish film from stage show, but it just became confusing, not least of all because, while MTI lists the title with Five-the-word, the poster just about everyone associates with the show uses 5-the-number, and I’m done with the headache, so this is what you get.

2. The original clip is actually from Entertainment Weekly, but after much screaming and gnashing of teeth, I cannot get that into WordPress. Thus the YouTube.

Internal Conflict

Venice Theatre, whom I last mentioned when their open secret of paying some but not all performers went public, has decided to modify the script some more. They announced a move hinted at in the previous Jay Handelman article on the subject of payment–acting internships:

The chosen actors will get housing and a small weekly stipend. They also will be expected to audition for several mainstage, Stage II or cabaret shows, where they will compete against other local performers. [Producing Director Allan] Kollar said there are no expectations that the interns get leading roles. Auditions will remain open to all interested actors.

The interns will also take part in a variety of outreach programs, presenting brief shows at community and retirement centers and schools in the area.

The first few times (that I know for sure) I was in a Venice show with a paid performer, those performers were Equity actors. It was a pretty solid line: union received paychecks, and had their names marked specially in the program, making their status clear. It wasn’t until later that I discovered non-union volunteers were receiving paychecks in some cases, as well, which is where things start getting incredibly muddy.

On one level, I think this new program is perhaps meant as an attempt to re-establish that “professional” line. Over here are the people who will be paid. They went through special criteria to get on the books. They are, effectively, staff. Or, at least, they’re meant to be regarded as such.

I’m especially interested in the comment about the roles interns will play in shows. In what I’m assuming is a bid to assuage volunteer fears and head off attrition, the theatre wants to make sure folks know that interns aren’t guaranteed any kind of lead roles. They’re auditioning just like everyone else. And I’m sure most directors will try to be fair about that kind of thing.

Of course, it seems like it would speak especially ill of either the applicant pool or Venice’s choices if their interns aren’t the kind of performers who are going to be in contention for significant roles throughout the year. Especially when they’re picking the interns knowing full well their performing needs for the season.

Even tossing that aside, it’s hard not to expect that interns won’t be used regularly, lead or no. Not using them would seem to be a rather horrible ROI, after all. If they aren’t the leads, then it only stands to reason they’d be filling out the ensemble of Venice’s larger shows. Which brings us to the same, chafing situation as has happened before if you’re paying ensemble members and asking your leads to do it all for free.

Let me stop right now: ensemble is hard. It’s exhausting and frantic and often filled with the kind of nightmare quick changes and whiplash shifts in character that no featured role outside A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder will experience. This isn’t about belittling any of that.

However, if we’re talking about teaching folks about professional theatre: barring hazard or specialty pay, in professional theatre, isn’t ensemble remuneration lower than that of featured performers? Not only, then, might that situation wind up rubbing featured performers badly; it seems to be actively working against the stated intent of the internship, which is to prepare the interns for the reality of a professional career.

I’ll give a thumbs up to this inasmuch as this program, on the books and publicized, provides the kind of transparency that I think a community organization should have. It’s out there and everyone knows about it. Or, at the very least, folks would have a hard time pretending anyone was hiding it.

Of course, this kind of publicity is also one of the continuing frustrations. You know, hooray for bringing it out in the light, but I’m not sure this does much of anything to change the message to volunteers or the frustrations I outlined last time.

It’s also hard not to notice this announcement rather neatly sidesteps questions about how much other hiring might still happen. In any event, I’ll be especially interested to see how this inaugural class shakes out, both in the way Venice implements and uses the interns, and the way volunteer performers respond to them.

Apparently, Myths About Them Breed Quickly, Too

A couple of stories I’ve been working on pull heavily from stuff you’d classify as Tall Tales: Paul Bunyon, Pacos Bill, that sort of thing. Because I don’t just want the people to be over the top, but also the wildlife, I’ve been doing some research into animals that I think would be appropriate in the same kind of story. It didn’t take long at all before I figured jackalopes would fit right in. When you have giant blue oxes wandering around, a rabbit with antlers doesn’t seem too silly. Or, maybe it is silly, but it’s a silly that’s in keeping with the other silliness, right?

Anyway, so I start bouncing around (ha!), trying to figure out what there is in the way of “lore” for the jackalope. I was pleasantly surprised to find all sorts of crazy details I could use, but also more than a little bemused to find that the jackalope is just one of what seems like an oddly widespread range of rabbit hybrid critters.

I’ll stop right here and make it clear: I’m no folklore expert (or medical expert in the case of Shope papilloma). What follows is just what I’ve gathered from link clicking and googling. There will be no Grand Unified Theory of Lepus here, just some amateur compiling.

First, because sometimes reality is a whole lot more messed up than anyone’s taxidermic fantasy, there’s the likeliest source for all these horned rabbit myths (aside from, of course, “bored taxidermists with spare parts lying around”): The Shope papilloma virus. Shope papilloma causes large, horn-like tumors to grow on rabbits’ skin. Usually around the head. The pictures I found were both terrifying and heartbreaking at the same time: what looks like big, nasty horns and fangs can eventually become so large that the victim is no longer able to eat, so the rabbit starves to death. Don’t google that one if you’re at all sensitive, folks.

One upside of the disease is that apparently research on affected rabbits and the virus itself was part of the model used to help develop the HPV vaccine. So, there’s that. But you’re not here for medical realities. You’re here to read about crazy hybrid rabbits, so let’s get to them.

We’ll start with the skvader. Apparently the Swiss were less impressed by horns, so their taxidermic experiments in folklore grafted wood grouse wings onto a rabbit. Now, not only did you have to worry about rabbits burrowing in under your fence to steal your vegetables; they could just fly over the bloody fence.

Completely unsatisfied with either / or options, Bavarians spliced both antlers and wings onto the wolpertinger. Also, because flying, antler-goring attacks weren’t enough, they added fangs. Which makes sense, really; it’s not a good, Germanic fairy tale creature if it can’t eat you, now is it? See, you thought Monty Python was just pulling that man-eating rabbit out of thin air, but actually, we now see they just did better research.

Hybrid / mutant rabbits don’t appear to be an exclusively European construct, either. While I have a lot harder time finding actual sources on it, there does appear to be a hybrid rabbit creature in some Islamic poetry, too: the Al-mi’raj. This one only has a single horn, which is usually drawn as straight and tapering. So rabbit-narwhal, I suppose. Or rabbit-unicorn, depending on your preferences.

So, you know, maybe Bullwinkle wasn’t pulling the wrong thing out of his hat. He was just grabbing another hybrid variant.

Non-Binary Digital Debates

I have to give a lot of thumbs up to the points John Scalzi raises in his recent essay on the Amazon-Hachette public negotiation troubles. My favorite quote:

This is where many people decide to opine that the cost of eBooks should reflect the cost of production in some way that allows them to say that whatever price point they prefer is the naturally correct one. This is where I say: You know what, if you’ve ever paid more than twenty cents for a soda at a fast food restaurant, or have ever bought bottled water at a store, then I feel perfectly justified in considering your cost of production position vis a vis publishing as entirely hypocritical. Please stop making the cost of production argument for books and apparently nothing else in your daily consumer life. I think less of you when you do.

It’s one of the things at the heart of digital pricing: the specter of production costs, and the impact these sorts of arguments have on the perceived value of content itself. I won’t for one second pretend there’s not a discussion to be had about the value of content. It’s just that sometimes “lower production costs” winds up as a stand in for “this didn’t cost you anything to make,” which is both not true and tends to overshadow any other discussions.

Favorite sound bite notwithstanding, the biggest reason I’m linking Scalzi’s post when I’ve not really pointed at anything else I’ve seen on these sorts of negotiations is because the essay as a whole actually sounds like an opening for discussion. Just about everything else I see seems to declare that either the publisher or Amazon is Evil and Trying to Screw Us, and by comparison the other party is Totally On Our Side.

Scalzi rather directly makes the point that BOTH Amazon and any given publisher (1) are not evil, but (2) are on their own sides. If you want to have a debate about which position is best for authors and/or readers, I think that’s vitally important. The binary ideology here is a trap, and winds up shutting down real discussion in favor of one spin or another. That in turn retards real progress that helps the people at either end of the production chain, instead of just the corporations in the middle.

Sliding Backwards

I don’t know that I have a whole lot to say about the current, final season of True Blood, but a tiny little detail in this past week’s episode gave my process-brain a bit of a tickle. Don’t worry, this is completely non-spoilery.

All you need to know is that, in the episode, Sookie is reading aloud from someone’s diary. At first, I thought it odd, since she’s trying to find out recent information, but the entry she starts with is from late in 2010. Then she flips to entries near the end of the diary, and those are from 2011.

Then I realized what was happening. You see, with two big exceptions, True Blood has no time gaps between its season finales and its season premieres. In fact, quite a few season premieres happen mere seconds after the finales, even though it’s a year–or more–between seasons.

Like I said, there are two exceptions to this. There’s a gap of a year that occurs at the start of season 4 (though even this feels like it’s immediate to at least one character), and then, the end of last season involved another jump, this time of 6 months.

Honestly, I’d not thought much of it. I suppose I might just be used to corporate super-hero comics, where the exact When of things sort of exists on a sliding scale. Otherwise, Spider-Man and Batman would be ready for retirement.

But, yes: if we assume that Bill and Sookie met in 2008, when that episode first aired, then the active structure of the narrative really would build up several years’ worth of lag behind the present.

I guess the interesting thing to me about this past weekend, then, is that the writers chose to raise their hands and draw attention to that gap. It wouldn’t have been particularly difficult to have Sookie say “this entry is from October of last year … this one is from last month.” Actually, that likely would have caught my attention less than the way they chose to structure it.

Clearly the dates weren’t accidental. Someone had to sit down and work out a timeline there so that the diary entries synched up with at least a rough approximation of the progression of time in the series as presented.

Given that it seems like a fair amount of effort to do that calculating, I wonder if there’s more purpose to it. I wonder what’s happened between then and now that might effect the writing. Are they trying to avoid one or more developments in the world? If they’re keeping track of dates like that, does it make pop-cultural references more difficult? Is that also something that’s being vetted?

It’s possible it’s nothing more than the writers waving to the audience and saying “yes, we’ve been paying attention. Have you?” I just found it an interesting choice for the writers to draw attention to the discrepancy, to effectively announce that the series takes place in the recent past. And I wonder how that does or doesn’t impact the writers and the production choices being made.

Something like The Newsroom is intentionally designed to take place in the recent past. It’s been that way from the beginning. True Blood, though, has sort of slowly slid its way into that temporal space, and I’m curious to see if there are any other noticeable effects still waiting to crop up as the season progresses.