Monday, March 31, 2014

It's Not This One, It's Everything Else (Teen Wolf and Hannibal)

Let's cut right to the chase. Female characters: they die a lot, don't they? Like, a lot more than their male counterparts. A lot more. Even, dare I say, a whole butt-ton more. I find this irritating and annoying and all manner of bad. Why? Because I happen to like female characters. Not only do I like them because I personally happen to have lady bits, but also because a representative cast that shows some resemblance to the diversity of the human experience both sexually and racially tends to lead towards more interesting stories and therefore a better show. So I tend to get a little ticked off when a female character dies on a show I happen to watch.

And I tend to get a little bit more ticked off when it's a female character who dies on a show that I watch that has a bad habit of killing off female characters. It's even worse when they don't have a habit of killing off the male ones.

SPOILERS, from this point out because this whole article is spoilers.

Needless to say, I was a bit less than thrilled when, in the space of one week, two of my favorite female characters on two of my favorite shows happened to die. Though, given the rate that female characters tend to drop, I'm surprised this hadn't happened earlier.

I refer, of course, to the frustratingly timed deaths of Teen Wolf's Allison Argent (Crystal Reed) and Hannibal's Beverly Katz (Hettienne Park). Both of them were cool, interesting, well-written (for the most part) female characters, and both of them died well before their time - taken out, in one case by a vengeful samurai spirit controlled by a fox trickster spirit, and in the other by a cannibal who thought she knew too much. So, not a good day on either end.

The sad thing is, though, that I probably wouldn't have thought much of this if both actresses hadn't gone on record to defend their deaths. I mean, I probably would be pissed, because I like Beverly and Allison, but I wouldn't necessarily find it weird or odd that they both died. I would find it sexist and irritating and move on.

But. They did both write articles or give interviews talking about why it was important that their character dies. Crystal Reed spoke out in an interview, explaining that it was her decision to leave Teen Wolf, citing the massive age difference between her and her character (twelve years, which is a lot), and the fact that she wants to do more artistic work). Hettienne Park wrote a lengthy blog post where she went through the logic of her character's death and thanked her fans for loving her, but tried to convince them to stop hating on Bryan Fuller (the showrunner) for killing her off. 

Both of them had valid points: Crystal's character was killed because she wanted to leave the show, and Hettienne's because it made logical sense in the progression of the story.

The thing is, I'm still upset. I'm still pissed that they both died. More than pissed. Livid. Because while I recognize that in this case both of those characters had reached their natural end points, there is still a culture of dead women all around us, and the justification of two deaths doesn't make up for the slaughter of hundreds.

Let's take them one show at a time.

Teen Wolf already had me on edge this year because of their utterly not stellar track record with female characters. In the only three seasons that the show has been airing, two of which were only 12 episodes each, they have already killed off almost all of the major female characters: Kate Argent, Victoria Argent, Erica Reyes, Kali, Jennifer Blake, and now Allison. Then there are the female characters who were dead before the show began: Claudia Stilinski, Mrs. Lahey, Talia Hale, Laura Hale, and Paige. Oh, and let's not forget the female characters who have mysteriously disappeared or just never been referred to again: Cora Hale, Ms. Morrell (sure she comes back sometimes, but it never makes sense).

Finally, we have the female characters left standing: Lydia Martin, Melissa McCall, Kira Yukimura (new this season), Malia Tate (new this season), and ... some moms, I guess? Not sure. It's slim pickings.

I feel like I shouldn't have to make a point after listing out all of that, but I will anyway. Teen Wolf has a horrifying attrition rate for female characters. They die. A lot. And while the male characters who die are usually remembered fondly, and, often, brought back to life by the help of vengeful magic, the female characters stay, with one exception, very dead. Also, the male characters die as a result of their own actions. The female characters are, with very few exceptions, collateral damage.

All of this sets the stage, then, for Allison's big death scene. From a storywriting standpoint, I understand why it was written this way: for the Nogitsune plot to have satisfying stakes, it needed to kill someone, ideally someone beloved on the show. From a producer's standpoint, since Crystal Reed wanted out, it made perfect sense to have her be the Nogitsune's victim. Easy peasy.

But it's not. It's not that simple. Because even though this one character had a good reason to die, and even though this one time it was somewhat justified in the narrative, that doesn't excuse all of the other times it wasn't. I'm not mad about Allison dying. Not really. I'm mad about Erica and Jennifer and Laura and so, so much more.

Now let's talk about Hannibal. Funnily enough, for a show about a serial killer, it actually has a much lower death rate among the main cast than Teen Wolf. Still, of the characters who have been an integral part of the show and then dramatically bit the bullet after finding out Hannibal's secret, both of them have been women: Abigail Hobbs (Kacey Rohl) and the aforementioned Beverly Katz.

I find this show in general less problematic, because of the intentional lack of sexualized violence against women - Park actually mentions in her article that they wrote her fight scene with Hannibal to be relatively brief because Fuller had no desire to show Park's character being beaten violently - but that doesn't mean it is without its flaws. Even though it makes perfect sense why both Abigail and Beverly had to die, and the timing of their deaths was quite well thought out, that still doesn't change the facts of the matter: two women down, no men. At least, not any men we cared about.

It's less noticeable here, because the sample size is smaller, but I feel it important to point out that the same dynamic applies: the women who have died on this show, or who have been wounded or attacked, have been hurt as a result of collateral damage, and rarely because of their own actions. While Beverly did die because she got too close to the truth of who Hannibal is, it doesn't feel right to say that she died because of her own actions. She died because Will pushed her towards the truth.

And while I appreciate this show a lot for its portrayal of women - Beverly Katz is amazing as a role model, I wish we got to see more characters like her, and not just because she plays an Asian-American Jew - it still smarts a little. I want to see women live and thrive. And not just die all the time.

Which brings us back around again to the topic at hand. Women dying. A lot. All the time. 

Too much.

I've been slowly reading through the Game of Thrones books recently, in all of my spare time, and I've noticed a couple of changes from the books to the TV show. A lot of that makes sense, sure, because books and TV are really different media, but still. One of the things I noticed, and the thing that has hands down bothered me the most, is the violence. The violence has been amped up, especially against women. Actually, almost exclusively against women.

In translating Game of Thrones for a television audience, it seems that the writers thought they needed a little bit more punch. And by punch, apparently they mean sexualized violence against women. It's everywhere. From Joffrey's sadistic treatment of prostitutes to the casual death of Roz to Khal Drogo and Dany's wedding night, the source material was amped up, or changed outright, to make the story more salacious. More vicious to the women involved.

I think it says something deeply terrifying about our culture that we are so inured to the sexualized violence we see every day and to the way that female characters are marginalized and abused and killed, that I wasn't surprised when two prominent female characters were killed off in the same week, I was shocked that the actresses were okay with it.

If you take anything away from this rather long rant, I hope you understand that. It's not that the deaths of Allison and Beverly were in and of themselves bad. Nope. I actually think both of those were well written and generally well done.

The problem is all of the other deaths, the ones that make these two just two more in a string of statistics. The problem isn't that Allison died, it's that Erica did. The problem isn't that Beverly died, it's that female characters are generally considered disposable.

The problem isn't this case, it's all the other ones.

I'm going to miss you both.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Crossover Appeal - Episode 77 (Teen Wolf)

No Dan Ingram today (he had to work), but Patrick Bohan, Elizabeth Kobayashi, and I all talk through the Teen Wolf finale, and then crawl through the various plotholes and issues in the show. Well, some of them. Not all of them. We didn't have enough time to look at all of them. That would be like a dissertation length discussion.

I mean, I like the show, but still...

Friday, March 28, 2014

Strong Female Character Friday: Intern Dana (WTNV)

In honor of the fact that I am almost done marathoning through the Welcome to Night Vale podcasts (I consume a lot of media, and I am usually behind on something), and in more honor of the fact that tomorrow night I get to sit in a fancy theater and enjoy a fancy liveshow crossover with Welcome to Night Vale and The Thrilling Adventure Hour, today's SFC Friday is all about Intern Dana! And, really, all of the Night Vale Community Radio interns. Because they are rad.

I've talked pretty extensively about Welcome to Night Vale before, so I'm not going to recap it again. Suffice to say, it's a fake radio program about the world's weirdest small town. The main character and main voice is the host of Night Vale Community Radio, Cecil Palmer (Cecil Baldwin voicing), and he has a variety of interns and friends who make their way onto the airwaves with pretty solid regularity.

Most important of these, though, is Intern Dana, who started off as yet another of the disposable interns, albeit harder to kill than most, but managed to stick around, due to her tenacity and also probably the fact that her name is fun to say. Intern Dana. Intern Dana. Daaaaaanaaaaa.

The reason Intern Dana gets her own article is partly because she is actually the most prominent secondary character on the show, next to Carlos, of course, but more because of the way she is characterized. Intern Dana isn't a supporting character in the traditional sense, nor is she in any way meek or subservient, or even forgettable. Intern Dana, and it is honestly hard to write her name without Intern in front of it, has her own story, her own struggles, and while that story is tangentially related to the overall plot of the show, it's really more about Dana herself, wandering through the wasteland, refusing to give up.

It's that refusal to lay down and stop trying that makes me love her, and it's why she merits her own article on here. You see, a while back on the show - gosh, Episode 20, "Poetry Week" - Dana (or her double, one of them was killed during the Sandstorm but even Dana isn't sure which) enters the Dog Park to investigate a mysterious pyramid. The doors of the Dog Park then close behind her, trapping Dana inside with the Mysterious Hooded Figures and also the Man in the Tan Jacket. Of course, the Man in the Tan Jacket isn't really bound by any laws of nature or even of supernature, and so he gets out, but Dana is stuck, for months, in the Dog Park.

Source [x]
Dana doesn't give up or break down. Instead, she sends regular text message updates to Cecil, and carries on with her job of investigating the Dog Park and the Mysterious Hooded Figures. One day a door appears - a door that doesn't seem to lead anywhere - and Dana walks through it. She ends up in a twilight realm, where no one can see her, and the only person she can see is John Peters, you know, the farmer. Then Carlos and his scientist friends do see Dana, but they see her exiting the House that Doesn't Exist. After that, Dana is gone.

Well, sort of. She's still around, and still texting with Cecil. Sometimes she sends him voicemails, and he plays them on the radio. Dana (voiced by Jasika Nicole) finds herself wandering through the desert, trapped in a side-reality that is completely devoid of, well, everything. And does she give up? Nope.

In fact, from what we know from the show, Dana continues wandering in that desert, climbing a mountain, finding a suspicious settlement, all that stuff, for months. Almost a year now, actually. And she even mentions several times that she is sometimes tempted to just give up, sink down to the ground and join the grey nothingness of the matter that surrounds her. Only she doesn't. She doesn't stop trying to find a way home because she desperately wants to see her mother and her brother again, because she wants to live and breathe and enjoy her life, and because she wants to know what this place is and why she was brought there.

Dana's awesome, and cool, and seriously just a really fun character, but she's even more impressive when stacked up against the other Night Vale Community Radio interns. You see, aside from Dana, nearly every single other intern has died or disappeared or turned into a tree on their first mentioned errand for the radio station. The Night Vale Community Radio internship program has a freaking awful attrition rate, and it's not because people aren't committed to the program or because they keep quitting, it's all deaths and disappearances.

In all of this, though, stands Intern Dana, who has somehow managed to not only survive months and months of utter solitude and potential death, but actually to stay herself. She didn't just stay sane, she also stayed sweet. It takes a lot of force of character to do that.

Source [x]
One more thing - this isn't going to be a super long article - but can we appreciate for a second the level of diversity represented in Night Vale? While we don't get a visual representation of Dana ever, because this is a radio program, we do know that the writers generally consider the voice actors to be a rough basis for any visual of the character, and so the casting of Jasika Nicole, an African-American actress, as the most important and central female character on the show, and the second most central figure full stop, is kind of a huge deal.

Can you imagine a show like this, like, say, Supernatural, where the main character was a nice white guy, sure, but his main sidekick was a tenacious and incredibly sweet African-American woman, and then his boyfriend was a Hispanic scientist, and the town around him was filled with diverse, interesting, well-characterized people?

Well, it wouldn't look anything like the Supernatural we've got right now, at any rate. But more than that, shows like Welcome to Night Vale, which prioritize the representation of minorities as people with lives and stories and engaging perspectives on the world, are so incredibly important to the shifting face of the media landscape. We need more shows like this. On nearly any other show, Intern Dana might be a recurring character, but she probably wouldn't have her own storyline, and she certainly wouldn't be so independent, so thoroughly characterized. She wouldn't be Dana.

And that would be a damn shame.

Source [x]

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Nostalgia, Fandom, and Kickstarter, Oh My! (Veronica Mars)

The reason this article took so long to reach you is because, having seen the new Veronica Mars movie this weekend and then spent the week since then obsessively rewatching the original series, I found that I didn't actually have a lot to say about it. Well, not a lot that was coherent or worth saying in a public forum, that is.

Sure, I had plenty of loud, high-pitched squeals about the various cameos and character developments, and I am generally over the moon about my favorite PI returning to my screen after a much too long absence. But actual honest-to-goodness thoughts? Not really.

Which, as it turns out, is a thought in and of itself. You see, the reason I didn't have much analysis of this movie, why my brain just started turning to mush every time I tried to analyze it, is mostly because the movie was so perfectly and completely what I wanted. Like, exactly what I wanted. Wrapped up in a little bow with a cherry on top.

This isn't to say that it was perfect, or that there weren't little flaws here and there. There were, and while the movie was very good, I would hesitate to call it great. But that's okay, because, and I have to say this again, the movie was exactly what I, as a fan, wanted it to be.

I know that doesn't sound weird. That doesn't sound particularly earth shattering. But it is. To get this, we kind of have to go back a ways and talk about how this movie came to be, and what that says about the future of movie-making in general. Whee!

As some of you probably remember (and donated to), the Veronica Mars movie happened because of Kickstarter. It was a pretty publicized Kickstarter campaign about a year and a half ago (I am terrible with dates), where the creator and stars of the show sent out a little clip of what this movie, a Veronica Mars feature length theatrical release movie, would look like. The fandom went nuts. Completely bonkers. Like, so crazy that you're just going to have to take my word for it. The campaign was fully funded way ahead of schedule, and, in fact, went well over the funding. They raised a crap ton of money. It was the first major project like this to get funded on Kickstarter, and pretty much immediately all the other fandoms for lovely cancelled-before-their-time shows started cooking up schemes to cash in.

Sadly (or not), none of those other shows has yet to come to fruition like this one did. But the fervor does suggest something interesting about the future of the film industry. More on that later.

So the Veronica Mars movie was funded by the fans and made as a labor of love by the cast and crew. It was then distributed and sent out to theaters, where it has received a good critical showing, and okay box office. The box office has been only really okay, because, well, this is a movie based on a cult TV show from the early 2000s, and while a lot of people love it, not all that many people remembered when it was coming out.

The funny thing, though, is that the movie itself is perfectly aware of the weird position it sits in. Alternately a run through the best times of Neptune High (such as they were) and an extended pilot for a new Veronica Mars show (yes, please yes), the plot of the film is incredibly concerned with perception of self, with identity, and with the all important question: Can you go home again?

In a word, yes. That's what planes are for.

But seriously, the simple idea of revisiting one's past is the actual framework for the film, and I have to say, it totally works. It also raises some really interesting questions about the role of fandom in authorship. More on that later too.

The movie starts with our hero, Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell) interviewing for a position at a law firm. In the "nine" years since she left the screen, Veronica has stopped investigating, gone to Stanford, gotten a law degree, and managed to make herself a pretty cozy life in New York City. She's now dating Piz (Chris Lowell), and seemingly quite content, if bored as hell. All that changes when, just in time for the Neptune High ten year class reunion to occur, a pop star is murdered, and Logan Echols (Jason Dohring) is accused of doing it. Because of course he is.

The pop star in question, Bonnie DeVille, was actually Carrie Bishop (Andrea Estella, though played on the show by Leighton Meester), a former classmate of Veronica's. Bonnie and Logan were dating, though it was famously rocky, and he was found passed out next to her body, so obviously Logan is suspect number one. And who does Logan call when he's accused of murder and not sure he can prove his innocence? Why, Veronica Mars, of course!

Veronica rushes back to Neptune to lend a hand, all while telling herself, and Piz, that it doesn't mean anything, and she's just going to help out a friend. She then repeats that to her father (Enrico Colantoni) and her old friends, Wallace (Percy Daggs III) and Mac (Tina Majorino). They all totally buy it. Definitely.

She then throws herself into helping find a lawyer, and when that doesn't really work, she decides that maybe, just a little, she can break her rule about no more investigations and help out her old friend Logan. Just a smidge. For old time's sake. She breaks out the camera, taser, and lockpicks, and almost immediately gets arrested for breaking and entering. She's gotten a little rusty.

The investigation takes Veronica through a lot of history, both her own and Bonnie's. She finds that Bonnie had a stalker, but that the stalker is largely harmless. She also discovers that Bonnie was probably hiding something, and that there was a distinct possibility that it was something terrible. Something in the past. 


That something turns out to be the death of Bonnie's best friend, Susan Knight, almost ten years ago. Bonnie, Susan, and a group of other people were out partying on a boat, and Susan disappeared, presumably overboard, but that's not the real story. The real story involves a drug overdose, blackmail, and ten years of deeply creepy dudes. The real story also involves Gia Goodman (Krysten Ritter, fabulous as always), who Veronica runs into when she is unhappily forced to go to her high school reunion after all.

A lot of the stuff that happens is pretty par for the course for Veronica and Neptune. The case gets solved, and it is indeed as sordid as it seems, if not moreso. Logan is cleared, but his name is still dragged through the mud, because when isn't his name dragged through the mud? And Veronica's relationship blows up in the aftermath, because for some reason, her nice, sweet, stable boyfriend isn't cool with her taking off and leaving him so that she can deal with her ex-boyfriend's murder charge. 

I'm so shocked.

And then, of course, there are Logan and Veronica themselves, who finally, after about an hour and a half of tension, give in and kiss and you just feel so relieved and happy and excited and a little bit like you want to make a high pitched screeching noise for the next twelve hours. Even better? When the film ends, and Logan has to go back to his real life, which apparently involves being a pilot in the Navy (who knew?), he and Veronica are solid. They're going to go long distance. Weather it. 

Also, Veronica is moving back into her dad's office and being a private eye again, because let's be real. Is there anything else Veronica Mars could ever do that would bring her this much satisfaction? I don't think so. Girl is not cut out for boring.

Oh, and there is this whole subplot (that I love) dealing with the corruption of the Neptune Sheriff's department, as well as the institutional racism of the police force. It's a theme we see a lot of in the series, and I was glad - maybe glad isn't the right word - to see it brought back in the movie. Weevil (Francis Capra) is still around, as it happens, and his story arc was probably the most painful in the film. While he has changed and turned his life around, now a married man with an adorable daughter, he finds himself the victim of racial violence and charged with a crime he didn't commit. The only recourse he can see? Returning to his old life of crime.

All of that is super interesting to me, and trust me, there is a longer article coming along the pipeline talking about the representation of class and race in Neptune (because the dang show and movie are really good about that, actually), but for now, let's table all of that and go back to talking about mushy gushy love stuff.

Let's talk about Veronica and Logan and fan intervention, shall we?

As some of you might be aware, but most of you probably aren't, the role of Logan was not actually intended to be a series regular. Dohring was hired to play a jerkface rich kid, the former boyfriend of Lilly Kane (Amanda Seyfried) who hated Veronica. But Logan wasn't supposed to be in the whole show, and the writers certainly never had any intention of him ending up as the leading man, the Nora to Veronica's Nick. 

The reason Logan stuck around, and the reason why his character became so integral to the show as to be Veronica's endgame relationship, is largely due to fan response. Dohring gave the character such life, and it was so much fun to see Veronica and Logan verbally spar, that the two of them became a huge fan favorite. The show responded, and Logan stuck around. And around. And eventually, Veronica's original love interest was written out, and Logan took over center-stage, which led to the movie, where Veronica upends her whole life in order to help the guy who once called her a whore and smashed the headlights on her car with a tire-iron.

I think of this as the Spike effect, for Spike (James Marsters) on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but it's not an uncommon phenomenon. What's more interesting is not that the fans fell in love with a minor character, even a psychotic one, and demanded more of him, it's that the writers went along with it. That they engaged with the fans in this sense of authorship, and that they allowed fan response to actually change the show.

That's pretty big.

Which brings us handily back around to the Kickstarter for this project, and what implications that has for the future of movies and television. 

For starters, it's my general opinion that the real reason this Kickstarter worked, and why this movie was so successful at getting funding and fan support, is precisely because of the close relationship between the creator and the fans. The show has always relied on its fandom, and this monetary commitment was really just an expression of that. It certainly sends a message about the importance of fan engagement for cult shows, and I would hope that the writers who currently spurn and annoy their fans (like, say, the writers of Supernatural and Teen Wolf) are taking notes.

But more than that, this says something interesting about fan engagement and the rise of personalized media. With Netflix starting to use our viewing patterns to predict hits, and Kickstarter campaigns to show how much we love the shows, with the increased use of social media to track the popularity and depth of engagement in shows, we as a culture have never been so well known. And, interestingly enough, there has never been more data about what we do and do not like.

What does this mean? Well, hopefully good things. I think it's interesting to note that Netflix's new shows have featured female protagonists, women of color - minorities in general - and a lot of other underrepresented groups, and I also find it encouraging that, of all the fantastic cancelled shows to get a second life via crowdfunding, it was the show about a teenage girl solving mysteries and being generally kickass that made a comeback.

Mostly, though, I'm just still really happy about this movie. I'm happy that Rob Thomas, the creator of the show and movie, has mentioned the possibility of a sequel (I am so down for that), and that the cast and crew are on board. And I'm happy that I got to see an ending that makes me feel all squishy inside.

I am grateful for this movie. I love this movie because it was exactly what I, as a fan, wanted it to be. And it was that because the cast and crew actually listened to their fans, and used that knowledge to make a better story. What isn't awesome about that?

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Want to Actually DO Something? Support A Period Film!

Yeah. You read that right. DirActor Kristine Gerolaga is making a movie that we can all relate to, in one way or another. She's making a movie about periods. A period film, if you will. Why is this important and noteworthy? Well, how many movies can you think of that explicitly deal with menstruation?

Carrie. Pitch Black. Umm...Ginger Snaps?

Anyway, this movie, which is currently titled A Period Film, seeks to rectify some of that. But mostly, it's a really funny comedy about two women who aren't just sitting around talking about their relationships or the yogurt they just bought and how much better their poop will be after they've eaten it.* It's about women and friendship and terror and blood and screaming. Sounds, awesome, right?

It's also an independent film written by, directed by, and starring women. Women of color, even! So even if the idea of a movie about periods makes you feel all icky inside, please consider helping these guys out. This is the indiest of indies, and they need some monetary support to get this puppy off the ground.

You can check out their indiegogo campaign here:

*I actually shouldn't rag on those commercials so much. I do, in fact, buy yogurt, and my friends and I have been known to sit around and talk about poop. Because we're grownups.

Hang On, Were You Trying to Be Sexist? (The Maze Runner)

In case you guys haven't picked up a trend so far, young adult dystopian fiction is kind of my jam. Whether it's The Hunger Games, Divergent, Matched, The Selection, Uglies, or pretty much anything else I forgot to mention but love uncontrollably, yeah, I like it a little bit.

Which is why I was so excited to finally get my hands on The Maze Runner and its two sequels. I love me a good yarn about oppressive governments and coming of age, and this one is widely considered to be one of the best. I settled down into my comfy ikea chair to read about a dude for once, and remembered fondly that the main character in this one, Thomas, is actually going to be played by Dylan O'Brien in the movie that comes out this fall, and all is right with the world. Except for the part where it's not. Because it wasn't too far into the book when I realized that crap, these books are actually incredibly deeply sexist.


So while some people read books like this and get swept up in the plot or the story, I actually read this entire trilogy with a single mantra in my mind: "Please be all in my head. Please don't actually be sexist. Please let Teresa turn out to be awesome."

Spoiler alert: it didn't get better. It actually got worse. A lot worse.

And now, to back it up for those of you who have no idea what I just said. The Maze Runner and its sequels (The Scorch Trials and The Death Cure) are all books written by James Dashner, and they focus on a group of teenage boys who have been abandoned, seemingly without purpose, inside a giant maze full of monsters and other things that could kill them. The boys are given food, shelter, equipment, and even the tools to farm and raise their own animals. But they aren't given any way out.

More than that, more boys keep arriving. Once a month, on the same day each time, the Box comes up, and in it comes another boy, roughly teenaged, with absolutely no memory of who he is or how he got there. All that boy will know is his name. And the other boys will haze him a little, before enfolding him into life in The Glade, as they call it. Some boys raise cattle, some boys farm the land, some cook the food, some clean the latrines, and some boys, just a few, run the maze every day before the doors close, looking for a way out.

Into all of this carefully constructed something comes Thomas, the new boy in the Box. Thomas has no idea who he is or what he's doing there, only that the Maze and the Glade seem somehow familiar, and that more than anything, he wants to be a Runner. But mostly he's just terrified and wants to go home, wherever home is.

It's with Thomas' arrival, though, that things seem to kick into high gear. Whoever put the boys in the maze to begin with is ready to take things to the next level, and the day after Thomas appears, something completely different happens: a girl comes up in the Box. She's a month too early to be their new Glader, and she's the first girl ever to arrive. Also she's in a coma and carries a piece of paper that says she's the last one, ever.

So totally not ominous.

She also appears to know Thomas because, moments before slipping into a coma, she said his name. This does not help with the Gladers, who are already suspicious because girl, and then suspicious because she has "WICKED is good" written on her arm, and also everything else is super not kosher. Thomas is just freaked out that she appears to be speaking to him inside his brain. And that she looks very familiar.

For the majority of book one, Teresa is in a coma. Then she wakes up, and, her memories now completely gone, she and Thomas try to solve the maze before the Grievers (horrifying monsters that roam the maze at night) kill them all. Or, well, Thomas tries to solve the maze. Teresa gets locked up for a while, then sits around in the map room making puzzles, while Thomas heroically sacrifices himself and runs around and is generally heroic.

Eventually (not really SPOILERS, but whatever), they manage to escape the maze, only to find that they have been held as part of an experiment held by the group WICKED, which is a really dumb acronym, and that the whole point of the maze was to test them against various Variables. Because the world has succumbed to a pseudo-zombie apocalypse, and clearly trapping a bunch of teenagers in a giant maze for two years was the most efficient way to deal with the problem. Totally.

In the second book, The Scorch Trials, the Gladers think that they've finally escaped, only to discover that, no, they haven't, and WICKED is still testing them. Thomas and company are "rescued" and taken to another location, only for Teresa to be kidnapped, because of course she is, and for the boys to find themselves abandoned in the wasteland that is The Scorch (a part of North America completely fried by sun flares), and beset by "Cranks" - people with the Flare virus who are at varying levels of zombification.

They have to walk through the Scorch in order to reach safe haven, and they have a deadline, because, again, of course they do. Also, Teresa is still missing, and probably in danger, and it seems that there is a second group of Gladers out there, this one a group of all girls and one guy (the guy is now with our heroes because we needed another dude). And also these girls want to kill Thomas. Because plot, I guess.

Thomas meets a pretty girl: Brenda. Brenda wants to kiss Thomas, but Thomas wants to kiss Teresa. Brenda is mad. Teresa comes back, only to be kind of mildly psychotic. Teresa kidnaps Thomas, tells him to trust her, and then declares loudly her intent to murder him.

Teresa tries to murder Thomas, with the help of some other people (mostly girls). Thomas is very unhappy for some reason with being stuck in a gas chamber in the middle of the desert. He and Teresa are not really friends anymore. Teresa claims that she was trying to save his life. By trying to kill him. They all make it to the safe haven, and find out that this was just another test, and also that WICKED is still monitoring them and studying their brains. Thomas is then taken away and put in a little white cell for a while, because plot, I think.

Book three: The Death Cure. Thomas gets out of his cell, and discovers that WICKED has decided to play with all of their lives because they are trying to make a cure for the Flare. But, because WICKED is super horrible, not all the boys are immune to the virus. Thomas is immune, but his best friend Newt isn't. Also, Teresa is totally sure that WICKED is great, even though Thomas is sure it isn't. Oh, and Brenda is actually working for WICKED but not working for them and still wants to kiss Thomas.

Blah blah blah, Thomas and some friends escape from WICKED and go on a rollicking adventure through a post-apocalyptic Denver, only to eventually end up back at WICKED, trying to save the immune people from being blown up. The series ends with Teresa dead (she died trying to save Thomas, because of course she did), and the rest of the immune characters escaping to a magical land where they can be safe from Cranks and repopulate the earth in peace. The end.

In case you couldn't tell by my tone in there, the books kind of lost me after the first one. Not only are these books where the entire cast is made up of guys, and the only female character spends all of her time either being useless or being an antagonist motivated by wanting to bone the hero, they're also just kind of badly written. 

It's sad, but true.

The problem comes from the setup of the story. I'm all for the idea of a story where it turns out that the characters are actually labrats in a giant experiment (I've actually got a great comic script like that kicking around), but the problem with this is how much it blames on that conceit, and how little sense it actually makes.

Thomas is stuck in the maze because of the experiment. Then he escapes, then he is rescued, then he escapes again, then he wanders in the desert, then he kisses some girl, then he escapes another freaking time, and all of these things - all of them - are supposed to happen. They're part of the experiment. What it does is degrade the stakes of the story. It makes it all feel meaningless. 

And I suppose that some part of that is intentional. Thomas and the others feel like labrats. They feel like their lives are being controlled, and that they have no power. Every move they make has been anticipated, and is actually playing into their captors' hands. Unfortunately, while that is conceptually interesting, it really blows in a book series.

When I am absolutely sure that my hero cannot win this battle, and that in fact it is wildly rigged against him, and then the story goes on to show me that literally every fight he is in is rigged against him, at some point I stop being outraged on his behalf, and I just start getting bored. I stop caring. It's too much effort, and I know he's going to lose. Whatever.

Plus, most of the "Variables" that WICKED puts Thomas through feel a bit more like plotlines that the writer wasn't comfortable fully committing to. Like when Thomas is trapped in the insane asylum. The second book ends with him locked away "for his own good", and then the third book starts with him being let out a few weeks later, everything fine, no worries, carry on. And it is never explained or really referred to again.

This happens, for the record, all the freaking time. All these Variables are actually just random excuses stuck in there every once in a while to say, "Oh right, yeah, there's an explanation for that! A good one! But you don't need to know what it is."

I find this rather frustrating.

And, like I said before, the sexism in these books is really remarkable. For starters, the only female character in the first book at all is Teresa, who spends most of the story comatose. Then there's the thing where there are only three notable female characters (Teresa, Brenda, and Chancellor Paige), and two of them are love interests for Thomas. The other one, Chancellor Paige, of course, is the secret mastermind behind everything and never appears in the story. At all. I think we glimpse her hand once.

All of this is annoying. The lack of girls in the maze, and the existence of "Group B", the girl group, are explained away as the Variables, but the reason for those particular variables is never given. Nor do we ever really learn anything about Group B, other than that they were slightly better at the maze than the boys. 

The problem is that Dashner focuses the story on the guys, and never questions it. He gives us one female character, who sucks, and who the hero literally cannot even mentally refer to without calling her pretty, but he ignores the entire massive group of female characters at his disposal, because of "the Variables."

It really seems more like he just didn't feel like writing any women. Like it felt easier to just write about a bunch of guys, but he needed to throw in the idea of a female version of this happening too, just so people like me didn't get upset. Too late, Dashner. A little too late.

For all of this, though, it's not a bad story, per se. There's a movie coming out this November adapted from this material, and I will probably go see it. In theaters, even. It's an entertaining concept, and while I was grossly let down by the execution, I'm willing to give it another chance.

It better not screw it up.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Your Values, Not Your Aptitude, Will Determine Your Life (Divergent)

So. The time is finally upon us. The great Divergent movie has been released, made a ton of money, and suggested the possibility that a world of young adult adaptations that don't suck might just be upon us. What are we to do with this information?

Uh, be happy, I guess? And also, analyze the crap out of it!

For those of you who studiously avoid things like this until I tell you about them, which is statistically at least one of you, Divergent is another young adult dystopian franchise, the successor to The Hunger Games' crown, and one of the more imaginative iterations of the whole "teenage girl in oppressive society must rebel against government's desire to squash her bodily autonomy" subgenre. Which is weirdly getting big enough to be its own genre.*

The movie and book (written by Veronica Roth) follow Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley), a young girl who has grown up in a very weird world. She lives in a city that we know is Chicago, but that she has never thought to know the name of. She knows that there was some kind of war, and that the founders of her city took great pains to create a society that would discourage the ill effects of human nature.

To do this, they created the faction system: five groups based around five important values to a free society. There is Erudite (intelligence), Amity (kindness), Candor (honesty), Dauntless (courage), and Abnegation (selflessness).** When children of this society come of age at sixteen, they are forced to choose which faction they will join. They can stick with the one of their birth, which most do, or they can defect to another faction, but in so doing, they will lose all rights to their family, and their new faction will become their family. It's a weird system.

Fortunately for the undecided, they don't have to make the decision blind. Nope! They get told what to do. Isn't that comforting? Each student takes an aptitude test, or simulation, that basically sees what they really do in a variety of situations, and uses that information to determine which faction they belong in.

Tris is Abnegation and while she loves and adores her family, she's never really felt comfortable in selflessness. It doesn't come naturally to her. I would argue that it doesn't come naturally to anyone, but it's hard for a sixteen year old to get that. Anyway, as much as she loves her parents (played by Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwyn), Tris is pretty sure she's not going to get Abnegation when she takes her test. And she's right. Sort of.

Because she does get Abnegation, but she also gets Erudite and Dauntless, and that's a very, very bad thing. Tris is someone they call "divergent", which pretty much just means that her brain is a little bit different, and the serums and tests the government uses to control its citizens don't work on her. Which is a very bad dangerous thing. And while this is explained in a kind of confusing, herky jerky way in the books (and the movie), it does end up being very important. Tris is divergent, and it's probably going to get her killed.

So Tris decides to follow her heart, and joins Dauntless. She loves being brave and doing silly, adrenaline junkie things (I would not be in Dauntless, not even a little bit), but more than that, Tris likes protecting people, and Dauntless makes up the city's security forces, its police, its law and order. Tris wants to keep people safe, so she learns to be dangerous.

In Dauntless, though, things are more dangerous than they seem. While Tris gets on very well with her gruff (and dreamy) instructor, Four (Theo James), she also makes quick enemies with Four's supervisor, Eric (Jai Courtney). And it's refreshing to see that while she has guts to spare, and a determination to do well, Tris isn't actually very physically strong, and it takes a good long while for her to measure up in the initiate rankings. Fortunately, she has a solid motivation. If she doesn't do well, she'll get booted out, and become Factionless, which is a fate worse than death, apparently.

And then in the end, (SPOILERS), Tris and her divergence, her ability to be unaffected by the serums and simulations, both save her life and create a big problem: while she and Four are able to stop the evil Jeanine Matthews (Kate Winslet, who reportedly took the role because she wanted to "play the baddie for once") from killing off Abnegation, they must then go on the run while society crumbles around them.

I skipped a few steps in there, I know, but don't worry. I'll make it up to you.

What makes this story somewhat unique in a sea of dystopian fiction is that it is so highly philosophical about the whole thing. And it's the rare dystopia where, aside from that thing where Erudite is trying to murder Abnegation, it's not actually that dystopian. It's weird, and strict, and kind of intense about things that don't immediately seem to matter, but the faction system itself isn't actually awful. It's actually kind of nice. Or, well, it should be.

I say this not because the idea of segregating people into cliques based on common personality types seems like an inherently good idea (it's not), but because the basic idea behind the most basic idea here is actually freaking great. It's not the factions that are awesome, it's the Choosing Ceremony. Allow me to explain by way of another, better known, book series: Harry Potter.

You all know what happens in Harry Potter, especially in the first book. We're going to skip right to the part in the Great Hall, where Harry meets the Sorting Hat and determines his fate. Now, there are fourteen kajillion tests online that will tell you what house you belong in, and the houses are based around basic character traits and values, just like the factions. Harry gets the Sorting Hat put on his head, and he expects it to tell him exactly what house he ought to be in. Only it doesn't.

Instead, the Sorting Hat asks Harry what house he would like to be in. It's not that the Sorting Hat doesn't have an opinion. It does. But it maintains that this is Harry's choice. Harry has the qualities to be in pretty much any of the houses, though he's best suited for Gryffindor and Slytherin, but the Hat is actually letting Harry decide where he'll go. And that is absolutely crucial.

Harry decides he wants to be Sorted into Gryffindor, because that seems like the best house to him. What this means is actually really important: it's not that Harry examined himself and determined that he had the most aptitude for Gryffindor, or that he looked at their classes and determined them to be the easiest, or anything like that. Harry chose Gryffindor because he agreed with them the most. That bravery is important, and, for him, the most important thing.

How is this like Divergent? Well...

The Choosing Ceremony, like the Sorting Hat, is less to do with your natural aptitudes than it is about your values. You choose your faction based on natural ability, sure, but you also choose it based on the thing you find most important. Because your faction will determine the rest of your life, you choose based on the values that you will be most comfortable upholding for the duration of your (hopefully long) existence. 

And this matters. A lot. It matters because it forces you to, at least once in your life, publicly declare what you believe to be good.

Whenever I take online tests about this, because I am a nerd and I love taking tests, it tells me that my Hogwarts house would be Ravenclaw, and my Divergent faction would be Erudite. And those are both pat, neat answers. I am a nerd, and I do love learning more than I love almost everything else, so those seem like totally easy solves, right? Well, no, because that's not what I would pick.

I don't actually want to spend my life surrounded by a bunch of people who think intelligence is the highest value, because I don't think intelligence is the highest value. I like intelligence. I am quite fond of my own, and I get rather a lot of mileage out of it. But it's not my core belief. I don't cherish my brain. If tomorrow I woke up, and I had lost my ability to remember everything, to analyze, to think circles around my teachers, I would be sad, yeah, but I wouldn't be devastated. In short, I would make a great Ravenclaw or Erudite. But I would be totally miserable.

When I sort myself, I pick Hufflepuff, and when I choose, I choose Abnegation. Not because loyalty and selflessness are values I inherently have. They aren't, trust me. But because they are values I deeply, deeply want. I want so much to be loyal and kind and selfless. I want to be that person, and I try so hard to make my choices reflect that. If I chose in the ceremony, I would probably pick Abnegation, even though I have every bet that my aptitude test wouldn't show that.

Which brings us back around again to why this is such an interesting story. In the world of this book/movie, the faction system is supposed to be about choice. It's supposed to be about the values you hold most dear. If you think of it like that, the faction system is actually great. The problem comes, like with most societies gone wrong, from the implementation: the aptitude test. (Also that whole thing with the death and the killing. That wasn't great.)

The aptitude test is like those online quizzes: it shows you what you are, but it doesn't say anything about who you ought to be. It doesn't give any indication of who you want to become, and it doesn't take your values into account. This is important.

It's important because it creates an artificially narrow view of what it means to be brave or smart or selfless. It matters because people change. Tris changes. And also, Tris stays the same.

I really wonder sometimes what would have happened in this story if Tris had understood the Choosing Ceremony to be not about what you're good at, but what you value. Because Tris actually does value selflessness. She values it so much that she never gives it up. In true divergent fashion, Tris manages to show the selflessness of courage and the courage of selflessness. Dauntless and Abnegation have quite a lot in common, but then, so do all the other factions.

Tris isn't less selfless just because she wants to learn to fight. She wants to learn to fight in order to be able to stand up to bullies. How is that not selfless? But because society has defined selflessness narrowly, she is shunted into another corner. Because society has decided to base the system on what you're good at, and not what you value, everything gets all messed up. 

It's a terrible system, when they do it this way. Because when we decide to define our lives by our aptitudes, we only look at who we are now. When we define our lives by our values, then we can see a glimpse of who we will be.

Okay, this is all really philosophical. What's the bottom line?

The bottom line is that you should probably go see Divergent. Not just because it's a good movie, or because I want you to watch the hell out of most movies with a realistically drawn, compelling female protagonist (good reason, though it is), but because this is a movie that will make you think. And, if you're willing to let it, this is a story that will make you choose. What do you actually hold most dear? What do you value?

And how are you going to define your life?

*The Hunger Games, Divergent, Matched, Uglies, The Selection, and even The Maze Runner which is about a dude, but has the same basic plot as all the others. There are more, I just got sick of listing them. But isn't that weirdly specific? Well, I think it's weird. And I wrote a paper about it! For more on this, be on the lookout for The Age of Dystopia, a new book about dystopian fiction, with a chapter on this very topic, written by moi, on your bookshelves sometime in 2015 (hopefully).

**Also be on the lookout for another article by moi on the courage of selflessness in Abnegation, and the perils of a society that seeks to enforce it, in Divergent and Philosophy, which will be on your shelves in...2015? Maybe? It's really hard to tell with these things. But probably sometime around Christmas, if we're lucky.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Crossover Appeal - Episode 76 (Almost Human)

As some of you may or may not know, on Sundays I participate in a fun webcast with Elizabeth Kobayashi, Dan Ingram, and Patrick Bohan - all fantastic nerd people. We talk about pop culture, the news, comic book movies, and pretty much anything that strikes our interest.

This week we talked about Almost Human. As well as the ethics of personhood and robotics, Bender from Futurama, and how Patrick is Dad and I'm Mom, and Dan and Elizabeth just want us to stop fighting. Which will probably never happen.

Also there is an extended reading from Les Miserables used to make a point. 

Friday, March 21, 2014

Strong Female Character Friday: Deloris/Mary Clarence (Sister Act)

I would just like to say this before I begin: yes, today's Strong Female Character Friday is literally just an excuse for me to watch Sister Act again and call it "work". I am completely comfortable with that, and you should be too. Besides, she really is a strong female character, isn't she? I would actually argue that along with Elle Woods, Danielle, and Wednesday Addams, Sister Mary Clarence (or Deloris Van Cartier, but I never think of her by that name) is one of the defining female role models of my childhood.

Best childhood.

Anyway, as I was recently rewatching the film, it occurred to me that some of the things I have taken totally for granted about this movie, largely because it came out when I was five, are actually kind of really surprising. And more than that, I honestly do not believe that this movie could come out today. But more on that later. To start, what is Sister Act (I pray you all know, but just in case), and why is Sister Mary Clarence a strong female character?

Sister Act is a bitchingly awesome musical that came out in 1992, and stars Whoopi Goldberg as Deloris Van Cartier, a lounge singer from Reno who accidentally witnesses her mob boss boyfriend (Harvey Keitel) kill someone, and has to go into witness protection. And because her WitSec officer has a sense of humor, he decides to hide Deloris where her boyfriend will never find her: a convent.

It's the kind of really classic one sentence comedy that flourished in the 1980s and 1990s, and personally I think it's one of the best. Obviously Deloris isn't going to fit in with the nuns at the convent, and we've got a real fish out of water story on our hands, haven't we! Deloris immediately butts heads with the uptight Mother Superior (Maggie freaking Smith), and befriends some of the misfit nuns (most notably Kathy Najimy and Wendy Makkena). And, because she has musical experience, Mother Superior assigns her to the choir, to maybe help the ladies harmonize a bit better, and to give her something to do.

Deloris, frustrated by how boring life is at the choir, and annoyed by all these old white women eating bran and praying all the time decides to shake it up a little. She teaches the choir to sing and harmonize, but she also teaches them how to, well, put some funk in it.

And that's where the story really starts. It's not a story about Sister Mary Clarence (as she is now called) being changed and turned away from the awfulness of her life outside by the convent, nor is it a story about one woman fixing a horrible broken place. It's a movie where the two sides help each other, influence each other, and heal each other. Sister Mary Clarence teaches the nuns how to get back on the streets and really help people. She helps them relate to the new generations, and she uses the choir to draw people to the church who haven't been in years. 

The nuns, on the other hand, show her that she doesn't have to be hard to be strong. That there is room for faith, even in a secular life. And that loving people well, and truly believing that everything we do matters is important. At the end of the movie, everyone leaves changed. And it's a good thing.

I feel it's important here to emphasize how unusual this storyline is. I mean, seriously, how many other movies can you think of that are explicitly about faith and love and the Church, but which never really force their opinion on you? I mean, the nuns in this movie are clearly in love with Jesus, totally sure that they have done the right thing in choosing this life. But Sister Mary Clarence, or Deloris, isn't a nun, and we don't actually know what she believes. She never says. And, the other characters never really press her. I mean, we can assume from the beginning of the movie that religion probably wasn't a big part of her life, but it's never really brought up again.

And that's what I respect about this movie. Or, one of the things. Not that it never told us the faith of its main character, but that it left it open. The nuns love Jesus, and Deloris may or may not have any faith at all, but that doesn't mean they can't love each other and learn from each other. 

In reality, that's actually a much better application of the Gospel than most "religious" movies you see these days. By the end of the movie the nuns know Deloris is really a lounge singer, and they don't actually care. She's still their friend, and they still love her. That's what matters. The real life application of "Love thy neighbor," as manifested by a bunch of women loving their lounge singer friend. 

Okay, but why is Sister Mary Clarence, aka Deloris Van Cartier a strong female character? Well, as you can tell from the outline above, she's certainly an interesting one. But she's also really resilient. I mean, she goes from witnessing a murder and having her whole world torn out to living in a convent with a bunch of old white ladies, and while she complains a fair amount, she still lands on her feet. But more than that, she doesn't hold her prior experiences with nuns, which we see from the beginning were largely negative, against them. She lets these women be her friends, and they help change each other. That's being strong.

I also think that the ending, where Deloris is revealed, and she goes back to being a lounge singer, is actually a very courageous ending. It would have been a lot easier for the movie to keep her a nun. I mean, it's kind of safe there, right? She wouldn't have to worry about all the moral issues or frustrations of her previous life, and she would be settled in a community that loves and adores her, full of people she loves and adores, doing a ministry that is established, respected, and by the end of the film, pretty freaking popular. She could have stuck around and run the convent choir, a now internationally renowned institution, and lived happily for the rest of her life. She didn't.

And that takes guts. It takes a lot to see that your time somewhere is over and to transfer somewhere else. To decide to pick up and move when the time is right. Deloris is moving into a world of unknowns now. She doesn't have a job anymore, nor does she really have a place to live, and while she is now more sure of herself and fulfilled, fulfillment doesn't really put a roof over your head. Still, she decides to try. And I like that about her.

That's why the movie is good, and why Deloris/Mary Clarence is a strong female character. But what about the other bit? Why couldn't this movie come out today?

Well, this ties in to a few factors. First, there's been a growing trend in Hollywood of the past twenty years to steer away from mid-budget action and comedy films, movies that aren't too expensive, but aren't exactly cheap either, which will bring a modest box office but definitely turn a profit, in favor of out and out blockbusters that cost billions and make even more (hopefully). Sister Act as a movie probably just wouldn't get picked up. Or it would be an indie. Or a movie made and marketed exclusively for the "black audience". Because that's a thing that happens and is super annoying.

I think this ties in with who is in this movie, and what it's about. Sister Act is a comedy with a 99% female cast about nuns and lounge singers, where the main character is black, where race is an addressed issue, and where no one has a happy romantic ending. Oh, and all the female characters spend most of the movie in incredibly unflattering nun habits. 

I think I just gave a movie executive hives.

Seriously, though, think about it. Think about Whoopi Goldberg's whole career. Can you imagine her having that career, having that long stretch of playing leading ladies, dramatic roles, side roles, complex figures, even the freaking Queen in Cinderella, today? Most people are lucky if they can name two commercially viable black actresses. And usually one of them is Whoopi. Or, maybe you can name more than two. Yay! Now, of those actresses, how many of them have been artificially shoe-horned into the "black movie" market?

And that's sad. I hate that. I really do. I wish the industry weren't like that, but I still want to celebrate that it was once. Not that Ms. Goldberg was making her films in the height of cultural sensitivity (um, no), but that when Hollywood was less obsessed with abnormally large box office receipts, it was somehow easier to take a risk on a non-conventionally attractive, non-white actress. 

Lower budgets mean more risks. That's why indies are either terrible or great, and why blockbusters are usually so bland. Risks are good, they make life interesting. And you can see how the fear of failure has crippled our entertainment industry.

But that's a lot of big talk. What's the takeaway here?

Well, for starters, if you don't love Sister Act, I'm not sure we can be friends, or you're lying (in which case we definitely can't be friends), but also, it's important to remember that movies like Sister Act have been made and that they could be made again. It's not impossible. And, actually, it's pretty freaking important that they are made again. Soon. We need movies like this, so that little girls like, oh, say, Lupita N'yongo can look up at the screen and see an actress who looks like them, an actress who is funny and cool and at the top of her game, and realize that they can be a star. Or an astronaut. Or a superhero. Or whatever. 

Representation matters. It matters more than blockbusters, and it matters more than the safety of a sure bet. Representation can change the world, and it will. For better or worse.