There’s Always (More Th)a(n One) Woman

I’m perpetually behind in my reading, so it’s only just now that I got around to listening to Aimee Ogden‘s “The Forty Gardens of Calliope Grey,” which went up on Cast of Wonders several months ago. Spoilers for anyone who’s similarly behind, but there’s no way to talk about the positive buttons this pushed for me without them. You’ve been warned.

The story premise is intimate and simple: small gardens have a tendency to find Calliope, sprouting suddenly in teapots and baking dishes, thriving in all manner of tiny spaces throughout her cozy apartment. Then one day, a garden goes missing. But even after Calliope retrieves it, the garden seems to want to leave her for the teenage girl downstairs. Cue angst.

As with most things, the wonderful bits happen here in the execution. Not least of all in the way Ogden deconstructs the notion of the Kick Ass Woman.

No, nobody enters into fisticuffs. I’m talking, instead, about the idea that there is only ever one Kick Ass Woman, where kick ass is a stand in for “really good at something.” We see it all the time: an ensemble of male characters of varying abilities and specialties, and the The Woman, who is better at her one thing than any other man (for which: hooray), but who also seems to be the only woman around who is competent at anything, much less her kick ass thing.

And should another woman show up, she will either be completely artless so as to show us our woman’s kick ass-ness, or she will be kick ass on exactly the same vector as our woman. In which case, what must inevitably ensue is a showdown to prove who’s really the kick ass one and who’s the pretender who will give it all up.

Because, of course, there can be only one. It’s yet another riff on the stale maiden-mother-crone paradigm no one who’s made it through high school English can avoid learning, and for which there is no real male parallel. This isn’t just a fictional trope, though. It’s a trope built on a persistent societal thread, that women are replaced by “the younger model.” That unlike men, women aren’t competing against their entire field, only against their fellow women for those limited spaces available to them.

And for a moment, as Calliope worries that the loss of one of her gardens will inevitably lead to the loss of more, to the loss of all, that if she shares the thing that makes her feel the most wonderful with another woman, she will lose it to her, I’ll sheepishly confess I worried the same thing. Like Calliope, I wasn’t sure where this was all headed. Like Calliope, I fell right back on that tired societal trope that told me if a new, younger woman was showing up with a similar skill, things could only end if one of them soundly trounced the other.

Ogden has other ideas. And she’s had those ideas from the beginning. The story’s resolution isn’t a twist so much as an object lesson in paying attention, in the reminder that worldbuilding isn’t just atmosphere, it’s integral to story. We know that gardens have been finding Calliope for years, that the number of gardens has been growing. There is literally nothing to suggest that one garden departing changes this fact. But because we’re ensnared in a binary, in societal notions that one woman can’t succeed unless another woman fails, we ignore logic and reason and facts.

The author doesn’t, though, and the result is an incredibly kind surprise as the story takes its final turns, and a reminder that, like surprise gardens, life isn’t nearly so restricted as we’re wont to believe.

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That Word. I Think It Both Does and Does Not Mean What You Think It Means

Doing or saying or thinking a racist thing does not make you a cross-burning, hood-wearing, swastika-sporting Racist. I think that’s important to articulate because, much the same way people seem to get confused by marriage the secular set of rights vs marriage the religious institution, the resonance of the same word applied to different circumstances makes it difficult to parse on an emotional level. It’s vital that people are able to identify racism in themselves without feeling that any such identification makes them some villainous terror.

However, and just as important to articulate, is that doing or saying or thinking a racist thing is also not entirely divorced from cross burning and hood wearing and swastika sporting. It’s not a straight line, certainly, but on one level that’s how systemic abuse works. It makes “tiny things” easy to hand wave off. It requires people to “have a sense of humor” about said tiny things. And, in isolation, perhaps that off-color joke or that tension in our shoulders or the way we whisper certain colors or tell someone they don’t act like one or more stereotype are small.

Except they aren’t in isolation, and it doesn’t matter how small something is if there’s enough of it. It doesn’t even matter how little of it comes at a time if it never stops coming. A handful of sand each day is meaningless, if we sweep it up and throw it away.

But if we leave it, if we groan at the people who ask us to clean up after ourselves, if we argue it’s not our fault the dust bin is already overflowing, if we say ‘it’s just a little sand what’s the big deal?’ Then it’s not just a handful of sand each day. It’s a handful of sand every day, and soon enough, there’s a great big beautiful sandbox for the people who like playing in the dirt to take advantage of, and guess who’s buried underneath?

Your New Boyfriend Is an Asshole, and You Know It: a Fable

Here’s the thing: your friends warned you when you started dating this new guy that he was bad news. They told you stories about the stuff he’d done to mutual friends. They told you the kinds of things he was saying about them. But he promised he was going to take care of you and give you nice things and how important you were to him. So you told your friends they just didn’t understand. He had a different sense of humor. He was a little blunt, sure, but they were blowing everything out of proportion.

You continued to believe it when he went to court to force the Sanchez family to tear down the pool they always let you use so he could build that eyesore of a fence between you. When he blew off taking Gran to her heart transplant surgical consult because his friend Josh needed to have a corn removed. RSVP’d “no” with a Bible verse to both Lance and Henry’s wedding *and* little Hannah Goldman’s bat mitzvah.

You told Fatima she was totally over-reacting when he made that comment about wanting her to take a few laps around the block before coming in so she wouldn’t stink up the place. And while you and he were the only ones who knew where Celia and her son moved, there’s no way he told her abusive ex how to find her — even if her ex is an investor in the firm.

Yes, out of town clients got wasted when they came over, but it’s not *his* fault they retaliated against the Johnsons’ noise complaint by vandalizing their house.

No, you aren’t your new boyfriend. And he may be sweet as all get out when you’re alone. But at this point, it’s time to stop pretending you don’t understand why the Johnsons turned their noses up at your basket of apology muffins. Why the Sanchez family won’t answer the door even though their cars are in the drive. Why Lance and Henry returned your wedding gift and they and the Goldmans and Celia and Fatima aren’t returning your calls. You know why, just like you know why Gran gets a “tone” when you use unpaid time off to take her to the doctor.

Apparently It Isn’t Woolf They’re Actually Afraid Of

I’m still reeling a bit about a recent decision by the estate of Edward Albee re: a production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?:

According to sources, the estate of the late playwright, Edward Albee, demanded that a theatre company in Oregon, The Complete Works Project, who was producing Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, fire the black actor playing the role of “Nick” and be replaced by a white actor or they would rescind the rights to the show.

I don’t know which wrongheaded defense to tackle first, not least of all because of the conflation of multiple arguments. So how about I break the arguments apart first, since my answers to some of them are different than my answers to others:

1) The Rights of the Albee Estate

I’m seeing defenses of this which cast this argument as one about the legal rights of the Albee estate. They assert the rights attached to production of the work, assert the law, and so completely miss the point that it’s no longer a point, but rather a round blunt object.

No one, including the theatre which complained about the decision, claims the Albee estate isn’t invested with the legal power to exert its rights.

Rather, people are following the standard trajectory of free speech: the Albee estate is fully entitled to make fucked up, racist decisions. And everyone else, likewise, is fully entitled to call out just how fucked up and racist those decisions are. You would think that anyone running the estate of a man whose work is rife with people calling each other to the mat might be able to recognize that pattern outside of a three act structure.

2) The Importance of Authorial Intent

As a writer, obviously I have a soft spot for authorial intent. When I write something, I’m attempting to evoke some range of emotions and thoughts in my audience.

However, I’m also well aware that what I want as a writer and what the audience of my work will take away from it aren’t the same thing. If it’s co-opted by a group whose ideology I find abhorrent, and if that co-opting happens in clear breach of my copyright, I have legal recourse to remove it from their use. I can’t, however, control what they think about my work, what they take away from it. The only art which isn’t a conversation is art which has no audience in the first place.

This is especially true in collaborative arts. Yes, the playwright is important. I’d go so far as to say they’re essential. They are not, however, the only aspect of their art. Again, unless a playwright is writing work which they never want to see performed, the nature of their work is to be adapted and interpreted through the lens of those other artists (actors, directors, designers) who attach themselves to it.

And unlike, say, film or television, live theatre is in constant intepretive flux. Hell, something as small as an actor’s mood on a given night can drastically shift a performance. Live theatre is at its core alive. That means it changes, it grows. If it doesn’t, it no longer serves a purpose.

Shakespeare wrote all of his work to be performed by exclusively male casts. He wouldn’t, at the time he wrote his plays, have even conceived of a performance where his female Ophelia was actually played by a woman. Nor would he, for that matter, have imagined the panoply of temporal and environmental backgrounds future theatres might use as the setting for his stories. Last I heard, however, no one’s spending much time grousing that Shakespeare’s intent has been bastardized by contemporary artists bringing new and different influences to bear.

Rather, the response by many is to praise Shakespeare for providing a template which continues to resonate and inspire, which ebbs and flows in a way that allows it to remain relevant, rather than proving itself a hidebound cultural dinosaur.

3) The Slippery Slope

Otherwise known as “Good God! Next you’ll say you want women playing men” and … probably?

Look. I am just the wrong audience for this kind of thing because I’m not seeing the problem here. Aside from my previous point re: Shakespeare, honestly, even if your show is explicitly “about” men, I still can’t think of a lot of instances where there isn’t something interesting an artist might bring to the work through variable gender casting, not least of all interrogating the notion of Man.

Also, let’s be honest, there are still painfully few acting roles for women with the same richness and variety as exist for men. Ditto actors of color and other marginalized identities. If it takes women in traditionally male roles and ethnic minorities in traditionally white roles for audiences and playwrights (or their estates) to stop making lazy, default cultural narrative choices about what constitutes a character of a given gender expression or a character of color or a character of disability or a character of a given sexuality or, or, or? Then I say re-cast the hell out of that shit.

4) “Historical Accuracy”

I’m sorry. I can’t even write that phrase without the scare quotes.

It took me a hot minute after entering “African-American professors 1962” in Google to have third party verification of what I shouldn’t have to prove to reasonably well-educated people: not only did African-American professors in the US exist in mixed race settings, but they’d been around for over a century already:

1849: Charles L. Reason is named professor of belles-lettres, Greek, Latin and French at New York Central College in McGrawville, New York. He appears to be the first African American to teach at a mixed race institution of higher education in the U.S.

That Albee couldn’t conceive of a scenario in the 1960s where such a character could exist without hopelessly straining credulity says a metric ton more about institutional erasure and the success of privileged narratives than it does about verifiable historical reality.

That those caring for Albee’s estate continue to be unable to imagine such a scenario in 2017, especially in a play where every other damn thing the characters say has two or three meanings and / or is elaborate fiction meant to stymie genuine interaction — where the primary actors go so far as to invent people who don’t actually exist but apparently it’s too difficult for the rights holder to imagine people who do — borders on intellectual failure of the sort that, come to think of it, deserves Albee-style disdain and mockery.

A Drop of Gay Goes Further, Apparently

I went on a bit of a Twitter rant the other day about Mass Effect: Adromeda and gay male romance. Not about the restricted choices, since I realize that isn’t new. I’d already read a bunch of the romance guides and seen that, if I wanted to have me some boys macking on each other, I’d have a narrow range of options.

But since I’d read those guides, which all said basically the same thing, I felt okay with the restrictions. Both of the male options for a male Ryder were, I kept reading, casual romance hookups that you could choose to commit to or not. So, hey, I could sample the wares for maximum boy kisses.

(I see you judging me. Look, if you can run around crunching numbers to optimize your combat prowess, the least you can do is let me optimize my sexytime prowess, too.)

I tried to stick to the bare bones info on the romances: where to find them, how to make sure you didn’t accidentally shut them down. I steered clear of full video walkthroughs because it’s no fun if you know how the first date’s already gonna go, right?

For exactly that reason, I should also probably pause here and say: romance spoilers for several characters in ME:A, especially Gil and Reyes.

Okay. You’ve been warned.

So I jumped on in. Spent entirely too long making sure my male Ryder looked like he could charm a few pants off (side note: some day a character creator won’t woefully disappoint me with its facial hair options). Flirted all over the place. As expected, most of the male characters politely brushed me off, but, you know, don’t put a heart icon conversation option on the dialogue wheel if you don’t want me to at least give it the old college try.

The first guy who returned my interest was, as the guides had told me, engineer Gil. And he’s a fun flirt. Nothing much was happening beyond that, but I was assured by every list out there that Gil had a “casual romance” option on offer.

Then I started flirting with the other MM available option, Reyes, who was also receptive, but unlike Gil, we went out, got drunk, made out, and then got a nice slow pan away from us that I could easily fill in with the story of how we had ourselves a thoroughly good time in other ways, as well.

But, dude, Gil was still just flirting. And I’d been flirting with him for so long. When did his face sucking option show up? I broke down and went looking for a video walkthrough. Then I went looking for another, because that couldn’t be right. And another. Then I did some creative swearing.

Here’s why: after flirting with Gil at every opportunity, there comes a point where Gil asks Ryder to meet his best friend. Right before Ryder meets her, Gil asks if they’re just friends, or if Ryder is “his guy.” At this point, friends, Ryder hasn’t even kissed Gil. I know that because at this “so are we dating or not?” juncture, male Ryder gets the option to say exactly that: woah, dude, we haven’t even kissed, what are you talking about?

If you take that option, Ryder can get a kiss. Then, you decide if you’re together forever or not. And that, dear hearts, is what constitutes Gil’s “casual romance.”

headdesk

To be clear, this isn’t especially about Bioware’s choices in this case. What leaves me so red faced is how every damn site is totally on board with classifying this (*flails at monitor and scowls*) as a casual romance.

You could try to argue with me that flirting constitutes casual, but here’s the thing: remember, above, how everyone offered me at least one flirt option? If flirting = casual romance, then all those other NPCs are also casual romances for a male Ryder: the straight men and gay women are only casual, the rest are casual you can commit to.

Except that isn’t the case. Every guide or walkthrough has no problem taking the straight male and gay female NPCs out of the list of options for a male Ryder, and vice versa. And so long as one of the people in the pair is a woman, no one writing these things is confused about the fact that, if I can’t do more than flirt and maybe steal a kiss before being faced with deciding the fate of a relationship, then your romantic partner isn’t any kind of casual.

Yet when the participants are two men, stray innuendo is somehow of a piece with zero G sex with an alien woman.

Is it the romantic equivalent of people perceiving gender parity when a group is only 30% female? Certainly it wouldn’t be the first time I’d been told there were gay characters all over the place in my entertainment media when they’re still in most cases a single instance (or pair) in a much larger cast.

Then, too, for reasons I can never wrap my head around, the barest suggestion of MM romantic interaction seems to equate to sex in the minds of some people. It’s the reason kids’ books where two men kiss wind up the subject of protests. We can see men and women, or maybe even two women, kissing without “going there,” but if this recent experience is any any indication, apparently the barest suggestion that two men might be into each other somehow releases a flood of every homosexual act ever in the memory centers of the human mind.

Which: do better, people.

On My Being, Political

It is once again the time of year when people in my social media feeds start posting about Not Removing Friends Over Politics. I’ll paraphrase here, but given the content is pretty much of a piece, I’m all right boiling it down to variations on one or more of these:

Friends are more important than simple politics.

We have to be able to have intellectual discussions about political issues.

If you ‘unfriend’ people, you’re choosing to cut off thought in favor of emotion.

The problem with all of these is that they insist on characterizing “politics” as an emotionless, intellectual debate. If it’s political, it’s just an idea, after all. Except that in this case the ‘idea’ up for debate is the actual humanity of another person.

I’m not sure if this “politics is ideas” thing is intentional gaslighting or a profound lack of understanding, but it’s infuriating in either case. If it’s the latter, I have serious concerns for the posters’ ability to navigate the world, since apparently they think people are severing ties over things like interstate highway routes and the taxes on a fresh strawberry. Which means they’re completely missing the part where people’s RIGHT TO EXIST is up for debate. In which case: yes. We need to be talking to those precious little flowers, because there is a whole lot of reality that’s not getting in.

In the former case, however, someone is well aware that one side of the debate is “I exist and deserve the same level of humanity as everyone else,” and the other is “It makes me uncomfortable if you exist, so could you maybe stop doing that?” I mean, yes, one side is existential, but the others side is an actual person. Saying that someone who is already fighting madly to gain or retain their humanity must also put up with having that humanity turned into something to be puzzled over like it’s choosing which Jenga piece to pull is just gross.

Trust me, I wish that the very fact of my gay existence weren’t political, but right now it is. People are debating whether I deserve service, whether I deserve employment, whether I deserve to marry, raise children, inherit. For a lot of people of marginalized identities, politics isn’t something they get to choose to enter or exit. Everyday interactions, from going to work to just holding hands, bring their very self up for scrutiny such that daring to draw breath becomes a political act.

Look, I absolutely agree that, in the case when the marginalized have the emotional energy to engage, that engagement is invaluable. However, it is also profoundly unfair to insist that people who are already assaulted by the world must engage, and must engage in all venues and on all platforms, and must engage with the same emotional distance that someone whose humanity is a given has the luxury of maintaining. That kind of insistence, whether willfully or ignorantly blind to the reality of the imbalance at work, winds up being just another abuse. It’s one more damn thing someone who’s struggling to survive has to worry about before they try to scrounge up the resources to actually enter the fray.

And anyone who’s standing around making pronouncements about understanding ought to make sure they understand that first and foremost.

Not Really That Much Stranger

My better half and I binged our way through new Netflix series Stranger Things last weekend, and I’ve been chewing on it ever since. On its face, the show — a sci-fi suspense period piece set in suburban Indiana in the 80’s — is kind of custom-made to hit a metric trailerful of my geek-nostalgia buttons.

Spoiler warning here, since I can’t talk about some of my strongest responses without them. You’ve been warned.

So, on that surface level I referenced above, the show delivers. The Duffer Brothers and their cast and crew do an amazing job of re-creating 80’s sci suspense. Hairstyles and clothes are spot-on 80’s Hollywood without being over-the-top The Wedding Singer riffs, but that’s kind of the least of it. The recreation here is much more immersive, including a synth-y soundtrack reminiscent of a Carpenter film and title credits that call back to basically every 80’s movie based on a Stephen King book ever.

Unfortunately, it’s such a good recreation of an 80’s sci suspense flick that I had a hard time seeing what this brought to the table that all its predecessors hadn’t done already. Movie posters for Jaws and Evil Dead and Carpenter’s The Thing remind us that there was a time when what Stranger Things is doing was innovative.

That time isn’t now, though. While my own eternal weakness to jump scares holds true, most of the twists of plot and nearly all of the character arcs feel staid and well-worn. Of course Finn Wolfhard’s Mike and Millie Bobby Brown’s Eleven will develop a crush on each other. Of course maternal instinct will drive Winona Rider’s Joyce to face horrors for the sake of her son.

There are a rare few moments that stand out as bucking the trend. When Charlie Heaton’s loner teen Jonathan and Natalia Dyer’s popular Nancy decide to face down a monster, it’s Nancy, with no experience, who turns out to be a natural with a gun. For once, too, the third point of a teen love triangle (Joe Keery’s Steve) manages not to be a total garbage fire of a human being.1 And on the visual front, there’s a really fun inversion of the E.T. flying bicycle moment that I literally applauded.

Sadly most of these happen both very late in the season and are isolated in general. Much more likely, and in several cases frustratingly, the show doesn’t seem to have any real interest in more than pushing the verisimilitude of its 80’s Hollywood-ness. One of the reasons this reads as such an amazing recreation of an 80’s flick, for example, is how very White, Male, and Straight it winds up being.

The women in this show are intriguing, but by and large they aren’t capable of doing anything until the men in their lives empower them.2 Joyce knows her son is alive, and even creates a way to communicate with him across dimensions, but she can’t do anything about it until David Harbour’s Sheriff Hopper decides she isn’t crazy. Similarly, it takes Jonathan to empower Nancy to go out monster hunting. There’s an almost palpable theme here wherein nothing is real until a Dude believes it is.

Hell, Eleven — who has actual kickass super-powers — almost never uses them save at the behest (or imminent danger to) the trio of boys she falls in with early in the series.

There’s an even smaller ethnic minority presence than there is a female one, largely represented by Caleb McLaughlin’s Lucas, who at least seems to do as admirable a job as his young peers. There’s probably an argument to be made about why he of all the characters has to be the constant voice of dissent, but Lucas at least has a measure of agency, though mileage on that may vary.

Perhaps I’m simply more forgiving because Lucas (1) exists and (2) isn’t called out by slurs. Which is the exact opposite of the show’s treatment of LGBT and the 80’s. I went on a bit about this on a Twitter thread already, but the long and short of it is: while the show tosses “you’re a queer” around as the ultimate insult (indeed, in two separate cases people come to blows over the insinuation they might be “a queer”), there’s no evidence that anyone is actually queer. The creators get the benefit of claiming they’re accurately recreating attitudes of the time without bothering to actually deal with the people most affected by those attitudes.

Daniel Reynolds over at The Advocate is much more willing to buy into a “coded queer” reading of the show than I am. I just think we’re well past the point where I should have to rely on coding. We aren’t working against an actual 80’s standards committee trying to get this work made.

In general, it all points to a lot of energy being spent on recreation and not much at all on reflection or examination. A lot of these elements would get little more than an eye roll from me in a film produced in the 1980’s. Whatever its setting, though, Stranger Things was produced by people who have a lot more distance with which to recognize that era’s cultural baggage and a lot fewer barriers to inclusivity.

This all comes back to what I think is a central weakness of the show. Stranger Things peppers its background with movie posters for Jaws and Evil Dead and Carpenter’s The Thing. And the influence of these movies (and more) are similarly plastered all over the film-making. I can’t tell you how many times I got a nostalgic thrill recognizing a riff on a sequence from E.T. or Alien or Firestarter or Carrie or several other movies I’m sure I’m missing.

Unfortunately, while the creators show a seemingly exhaustive love of the innovative films which form the series’ inspirational sources, they aren’t bringing much of anything new to the table themselves. That may ultimately be all that most of its fans want, mind you. Surely there’s a piece of me that responds to a lot of it. But, like “The Upside Down” that plays a pivotal role in the show, I can’t help but also see the dangers of the wider, other world the show leaves unacknowledged.

1. This Variety interview suggests Steve’s better qualities may have less to do with purposeful subversion and more to do with directors enjoying an actor, but the end result is nonetheless refreshing.

2. Hat tip to Adam Michael Sass over on the The Geeks OUT blog for hitting this particular nail on the head: “No woman can save the day until a man believes her.”