Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Think of the Children! Tuesday: On My Actual Childhood

Oh to never be sixteen again.
So today, instead of talking about some particular book or movie and how it relates to the emotional and mental development of young children (a topic which all of you apparently are pretty invested in - well done), we're actually going broader. Like a lot of you, I have been spending my holidays with my family, and, like for a lot of you I'm sure, this means plenty of reminiscences and shared nostalgia about the past. 

Today while I was getting ready to go out, I happened to stumble into a conversation with my mother and sister about our childhood, and it made me realize that I've never quite addressed it in whole. I've given all of you snippets and pieces here and there, but I've not gone into much depth on what my childhood was actually like, at least from a media standpoint. So that's what we're going to talk about today. Grab your britches and bear down*, because we're getting personal.

I've mentioned this before, and I'm sure it'll come up again, but I don't think in the grand scheme of things that my childhood was probably all that different than yours. Everyone has facets of their past that are weird and unique, but when we average them all together, we're much more alike than we realize. As a child I was roughly aware of this, but in the way of most kids, I vacillated between assuming everyone else was exactly like me or thinking I was the specialest snowflake ever.

The truth is, of course, somewhere in between. I'm a millennial and I was born into a nuclear family of statistically average size in the late 1980s. We are white, middle-class Americans who live in New England. When I was growing up we had a dog and two cats. My sister and I did not share a room because our parents didn't want us to fight. We went to Sunday school every week until I was in high school**. And my father read us stories every night before we went to bed.

I generally tend to assume that at least some of this is relatable to you. Probably not all of it, but I'd bet at least a little resembles your childhood and a little bit doesn't. That's fine.

The part I want to focus on is that last bit. My father read to us every night before we went to bed. On the surface this is a really simple statement, but it turns out that this fact is actually one of the main foundations of my life. See, my parents were very intentional about having children and they put a lot of thought into how they raised us. While I don't love all of the choices they made, I do have to admit that, looking at my sister and I, they did a pretty good job. One of the choices I really genuinely like, though, was the decision to emphasize reading and stories.

No matter what was happening emotionally in the family, no matter the stress or tension or tantrums or illnesses that had hit us that day, at a certain point in the evening, everything was put aside so that Dad could read to my sister and I. We each had our own book we were reading with him, but we'd generally sit on the edges and listen anyway. At least, that's what I did. So growing up I got to hear stories picked just for me, and I got to hear stories that were a few years ahead of me, just out of my age and comprehension level. 

More than that, though, this cemented stories for me as something that you can use as a form of communication and emotional connection. Stories always brought us together. There are stories that everyone in my family holds dear together. While my mother wasn't the one reading to us, she was always there. Together we heard my father read us The Little House on the Prairie books and Little Women and Jeeves and Wooster and The Chronicles of Narnia and Anne of Green Gables. We'd all sit as a family and listen, soaking up these stories.

So it's little wonder that I became a prolific reader. Granted, I didn't have a whole lot of choice in the matter. While my father did read to us every night (and I seriously mean every night), there were also other ways in which reading was emphasized in my household. The main one was that aside from reading there just wasn't a whole lot to do.

We didn't have a huge amount of money and we weren't big toy people, so playtime was either stuffed animals and imagination or reading. Our television could only get one channel - and it was the local PBS station that only aired educational programming - so it wasn't like I could zone out to Ninja Turtles. We lived on a very quiet street with a house that backed onto the woods. There was stuff to do, but the main thing we did when I was a child was, well, read. 

Have to go with Mom while she has a work appointment? Read in the car. Have to go to church and then sit through a two hour meeting afterwards? Better bring a book. Going to Grandma's for dinner? Yesssss, the one time in the week to watch cartoons! But you'd better bring a book in case the TV isn't working.

My childhood was defined not just by reading but by a general lack of anything much else to do.

This is not to make it sound like we were deprived, by the way. I personally think that I turned out just fine. My parents made a conscious choice to limit our contact with television and movies, and while I have completely turned on that in my adult career, I don't think it was a bad plan. 

We certainly still got a good film education. The local library got to know us very well, both for our voracious book appetites and for our tastes in movies. Our town has a book exchange that allowed my sister and I to constantly be rummaging for more reading material to take home. And our house encourage and practically demanded reading. Our entire second floor hallway is a floor to ceiling bookshelf. If I as a child wanted to know more about Egyptian art or how to rig a sailboat, all I had to do was pull down a book and find out.

What I'm saying is not that my childhood was any better or worse than yours, just that it was probably different in some ways. My family loves books, and I love stories because in a big way I was programmed to. There was no escaping it for me, and I don't mind. While my father did eventually stop reading to my sister and I, I kept it going for as long as I could. It wasn't until I was well into high school that we finally quit. By then, we'd worked our way through just about every appropriate series available and even moved onto reading nonfiction books together, from theology to micro-histories. Heck, sometimes we still do it now too.

I guess there are a couple of reasons I'm bringing this up now. The first is simply that having my sister around reminds me of how I wasn't made in a vacuum. I didn't come out of the womb loving stories, but it's also not something that was spontaneously geminated in me one day. My parents put a lot of work into making us love books and stories, and it paid off.

My high school job? Junior librarian.
Second, part of this is a defense of screen-free childraising. While I am ambivalent myself over whether or not I'll ever have children and whether or not I will allow those children to watch as much television as they want, I know that the debate over how to deal with kids and screentime is a vicious one with a lot of good points on both sides. So a little bit of this is me just giving anecdotal evidence to prove that depriving your children of screens does not mean they'll turn out to be cultureless, unlovable cretins. Probably.

The third reason, though, is more specific to this website. Sometimes when I talk to you guys, one on one, one of you will mention that you don't read all the articles or that you feel like I move through media and stories much more quickly than you do. And there's an implication in that that suggests I'm better or more virtuous because I've read all these books and seen all these television shows and I'm so informed about all of these things. I've had people straight up apologize to me for not knowing all the references I make.

In no small part, the reason I'm telling you all of this is to explain why I know what I know. I don't expect any of you to have the same background I do. If you do, great! We should compare notes! But if you don't, that's fine. There are probably amazing ways that your childhood prepared you for life that mine completely missed. My ability to read a book a day isn't some superhuman capacity or a virtue of the soul. It's just that I read a lot as a kid because there wasn't anything else to do. Well, that and when I was ten my mother taught me how to speed read.

I'm telling you this because I want you to understand that I don't want to take pride in my pop culture savvy. I know a lot of things, that's very true. I'm a huge nerd. I like learning and reading and taking classes and knowing stuff. But I know that I like that because my childhood wired me that way. Some of it's personality and some of it is just a very specific environment. I'm the over-educated daughter of two people who really value education. Reading was a priority for us. It was always assumed that I would go to college. I am very very very privileged in that way, and I know that.

So consider this my explanation. My admission of privilege. I am white and from a middle-class family and I have educated parents. My childhood was very privileged in a lot of ways. Most specifically, I was privileged to have a family that encouraged my curiosity, my intelligence, and my mad reading skills. Not everybody gets that, and I never want you to feel like I'm looking down on you for not having the same background I did.

And I think it's important for me to remember that a lot of this is not my doing. My intelligence is much less something I can take credit for than a product of my upbringing. It's hard to admit that you aren't ultimately responsible for your own success, but in my case it's really not my doing. Anyway.

I talk a lot about my childhood in these kids' media related articles. It seemed time to give all of you a more concentrated look at how media shaped my childhood. Granted, this is still just a little taste of it. I haven't even gotten into the great high culture vs. low culture wars that characterized middle school. But for now I'll leave you with this: for better or worse, my parents and my childhood have shaped me into the person I am today. I'm okay with this. I happen to think that I'm pretty cool. 

Chances are, your childhood and your parents have also shaped you into the person you've become. Whether that was a good or bad experience, whether they loved reading or never let a book inside your house, whether you knew them or not, I just want to say that I think you're pretty cool too. 

That's all.

*I need to stop making up folksy sayings on the spot as they always end up kind of poop-related.

**I might have gotten a little bit banned when I was fifteen.

Monday, December 28, 2015

'Star Wars: The Force Awakens': Good, But Didn't Trust Its Instincts

I've never made any secret of my ambivalence about Star Wars. When I first encountered the films as an eight year old, I liked them well enough. I even dressed up as Leia in her combat gear from the Battle of Endor for Halloween that year.* But I never really got into them. Not like I got into Lord of the Rings, which basically consumed my soul for six years and had me learning high elvish and memorizing obscure facts. I never got that way with Star Wars. The extended universe did nothing for me, and the prequels didn't help.

So upon hearing that Lucasfilm was finally going to get around to making more Star Wars movies, I wasn't really overjoyed. Not unhappy, for sure, but not thrilled. Just sort of meh. While the rest of the world (including all my fellow Crossover Appeal hosts) lost their collective shit over this new movie, I was sitting back and waiting to figure out what to make of it. Which is to say, thank you for being patient. I have now reached a verdict:

It's pretty good.

I know this isn't the rapturous response that you might have wanted to hear, or the vicious but hilarious takedown some of the rest of you were hoping for, but this is my honest opinion. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is pretty good. Not amazing, not spectacular, but fun and good and a solid Star Wars experience. 

There's a lot of good groundwork here. So much stuff is done incredibly well, and the characters they've set up for the rest of the series are ones I look forward to following. There was also stuff that was handled not so well, characters and allusions that made my eyes roll and my heart disengage. So overall I have to say that it was pretty good. It could have been better, but it also definitely could have been worse.

[SPOILERS from here on out.]

It's very hard to make a good sequel. The more time that has elapsed, the more beloved and "important" the story, the more cultural expectation attached, the hard it's going to be to make an even halfway decent sequel. And if ever there was a movie with a whole lot of baggage attached, it's this one. So it's really not surprising that in making a sequel to one of the most beloved film franchises of all time, JJ Abrams got some stuff right and some stuff wrong.

We'll start with the good. In this case, the best thing that Star Wars: The Force Awakens has going for it is the new characters. Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega), and Poe (Oscar Isaac) - and even BB-8 - are all precious lambs who I immediately fell in love with. There's a progressive bent to each of them, a way in which they are heroes for our new millennium, which I adore. Two men of color and a white woman who doesn't need their help but wants their friendship. These are heroes I'm happy to let my potential future children grow up watching, who I know will set good, compassionate examples.

I mean, each of them individually is a fantastic character, and taken together they're almost overwhelmingly lovely. Yes, it's brilliant that the protagonist of this series is a woman, but it's even more brilliant that she's such a complex and endearing woman. Rey is exactly the kind of mythic hero that Luke Skywalker was, not watered down or fetishized in any way. Her backstory is tragic, but she's a sweet and kind person in spite of it. She's crazy powerful with the Force. She's adorable and licks her plate. She can fly the Millennium Falcon on her first try. She thinks rain is magical.

Rey is a wonderful character, and while I can hear the baiting cries that she's nothing more than a Mary Sue, I beg all of you to disregard them. Rey is exactly as much a Mary Sue as Luke was, and I see nothing wrong with that. She's the special-est special to ever special, but gosh darn it, it couldn't have happened to a nicer girl. And there's something so lovely in having her be the one taking the lead, walking Finn through what it means to be a person. She doesn't need anyone to hold her hand, but after the initial frustration, she doesn't seem to mind it either. 

Rey is neither fiercely and psychotically independent (like so many other "strong female characters"), nor is she weak and cringing and dependent on her male friends. She is a whole person, with facets and quirks, and I love that. 

Also we got through her storyline with nary a shoehorned romance or inexplicable scene of nudity, so let's all rejoice on that one.

Then there's Finn, the cinnamon roll we didn't know to hope for. Finn is an interesting case because of how he so completely subverts our expectations about soldiers, masculinity, and race. I mean, sure, this is all taking place in a galaxy far far away, but our prejudices tend to linger with us there. It would have been very easy for the film to make Finn a caricature of himself. He's a strapping young black man who was raised since childhood to be a mindless killer for a genocidal regime. This could have gone full Beasts of No Nation. But it doesn't. Instead, Finn is an exploration in humanity and what is left behind when all of it gets stripped away.

According to this movie and Finn's characterization, what's left behind is a precious lamb who deserves all of the hugs. More seriously, what Finn personifies is the human desire for connection and recognition. Finn's an amazing hero precisely because he's so open about what he's feeling all the time. He's not fronting. He tells himself out loud to be calm. He holds Rey's hand not for her sake but for his own. 

He has no idea what he's doing, and he admits that pretty easily. Finn's value as a hero is in his humility and emotional honesty. It's refreshing to see a character like him raised up as the new hero of the rebellion. A young man of color who is fighting for the right thing, who might want to run away but always comes back, and who isn't ashamed of his feelings. Hell yes.

And finally we've got Poe Dameron, the most emotionally secure person in the galaxy it seems like. What makes Poe distinctive and amazing is how he manages to be a sort of carefree wisecracker and also a sensitive, emotionally intelligent man at the same time. He's snarky and sassy, but it's not coming out of insecurity. I mean, basically Poe seems like a genuinely happy person, which is bizarrely rare in an action movie. He's a man who really isn't haunted by his past. He likes people immediately and intensely. After all, it's only the second time he's ever seen Finn when he tells the guy to keep his prized leather jacket, the one that source material tells us Poe got for becoming a pilot in the first place.

Poe is kind and generous and funny and sweet and not at all what you expect when you explain his character as the "best pilot in the Resistance". He's not cocky. He's just...good. This too is valuable. Poe is an exemplary figure as a man with nothing to prove to anyone. He has no chips on his shoulders, he's just trying to do the right thing. I love that. I want more of that. I'm so happy Poe is going to be in the rest of the movies as well.

But here is where my praise starts to turn a bit. While there are other bright spots in the film - Captain Phasma is fantastically intimidating and scary, BB-8 is adorable without being obnoxious, and Jessika Pava needs more screen time - what unfortunately didn't work for me in this movie was just about everything else. Except Maz. I really liked Maz.

The real issue I had with this film was that it felt a bit too committed to making its audience nostalgic for the first Star Wars films. It was everywhere. From the sweeping John Williams score coming in to make us nostalgic about Han and Leia to the visual call-backs to episode four to the constant and unrelenting insistence that everything in this film be wrapped up in Skywalker family drama, the big problem for me in this movie was its reluctance to do its own thing.

Or, to put it another way that's going to make you all hate me, the biggest problem with this movie was Han Solo.

Before you start auto-addressing your hate mail, hear me out. By bringing Han into the story so early on, it kills the momentum that Rey and Finn have on their own with their own adventures. Bringing Han into the plot essentially means bringing in a character to say, "The adults are here. It's all fine. We'll fix it now." 

The issue with this from a storytelling standpoint is that it takes the pressure off of our heroes. With Han in the picture and his considerably larger knowledge of the galaxy, Rey and Finn don't actually have anything to do. There's no reason why they should stay in the story at all. Pressure is good and important in a plot - it's necessary for the plot to feel important. When Han shows up the pressure is off and therefore the plot goes into a freefall.

This is of course not even mentioning the fact that Harrison Ford didn't seem particularly invested in his acting in this film. The first five minutes of his appearance on screen are great, but they quickly fade into the realization that Ford isn't giving the character the oomph he needs to make the emotional scenes land. As a result, his moments with Leia and Kylo Ren really fall flat. So from both a storytelling standpoint and an acting one, I think the biggest problem with the film is Han Solo - his arc makes our heroes irrelevant and fails to achieve the emotional punch it was going for, all while slowing down the pace and tension of the rest of the film. A lot less Han would have gone a lot longer way.

Similarly, Leia's appearances fell far short of what we were promised, though in her case I'm less inclined to blame the actress and more inclined to blame the script. Despite being set up as the General in charge of the Resistance, we never get to see Leia in this capacity. Instead, every scene where we actually see Leia for a significant amount of time is actually about the men in her life and her emotional relationships. 

Either she's reconnecting with Han or insisting they search for Luke or lamenting the loss of her son. Leia doesn't get any badass command moments, which is a problem when we've set her up as a woman who buried her grief with duty. You can't just say that and not show it. 

Then, of course, there's Kylo Ren, who just fails to hit the bar for a compelling bad guy. There are a lot of ways that Ren (Adam Driver) falls short of our hopes and wishes as a villain, but I would argue that the real problem with his character is the narrative's choice to keep his parentage a secret twist for later in the movie. While the twist is shocking and well done, what it does is leave you wondering for the rest of the movie what the hell is this guy's problem. Because we don't know what Leia and Han are so sad about and also what Ren's damage is, we aren't able to get particularly emotionally invested in either issue. The revelation is later in the movie than it ought to be. 

I would also argue that a large part of the problem with Ren's "scariness" is his hair. Yes, that's a weird statement, but hear me out. When Ren first takes off his helmet and reveals that he isn't a twisted husk of a thing hiding behind his breathing assistance, the big thing that strikes you is how clean he looks. While Ren is being set up as a man on the brink of a full psychotic break, his hair is shiny and fluffy and way the hell nicer than mine is most of the time. What this does is visually signify that Ren, though unstable, is at least capable of taking care of himself and conditioning, which means he can't be that badly off.

As a result, his later emotional turmoil feels hollow. We have no real visual signifiers that Ren is conflicted and about to go off the deep end. While you could argue that using hygiene as an indicator of mental health is discriminatory and wrong, I think it's important to have some identification early in the movie about Ren's emotional turmoil. His hair is the most logical place to show that. Imagine if he'd taken off his helmet and underneath he was sweaty and gross, hair all chopped up or all matted and snarled. Much scarier, right?

But this is side-dressing. The real point I'm making here is that while Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a good movie, it didn't seem to trust itself to make a movie worth watching without hammering on our nostalgia strings. It feels like this film set up all the pieces it needed in order to tell an epic adventure and then just chickened out at the last minute and let the grownups take over. As a result, the film feels loose and badly plotted. Not a lot happens and the stakes are either pitifully low or so high as to be hard to emotionally fathom. 

We don't need bigger and scarier weapons for the bad guys and more wisecracking humans to take them down, we need emotional sincerity and a plot that actually commits. If you're going to tell a story about two middle-aged parents trying to rescue their son, do it. If you're telling a coming of age epic about two lost orphans learning how to be heroes, then tell that story. But don't try to do both and do neither by accident.

So is this Star Wars movie good? Sure. But it could have been better, and I sincerely hope that the next one will be.

*Yes, I still have the pictures, and, yes, they are painfully adorable.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Merry Christmas - I Hope You Like Your Gifs!

Whether you celebrate Christmas or not, I hope that today you are safe, warm, and full of delicious food. We'll be back on Monday to talk Star Wars: The Force Awakens, but in the mean time, Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

RECAP: Outlander 1x14 - The Singing Sassenach's Drag Revue

[This was going to go up yesterday, but then I got busy watching Star Wars: The Force Awakens and it didn't. So enjoy your Christmas Eve article and I will be back on Monday with some Star Wars goodness.]

Oh my gosh, chickadees. We made it. I have finally tracked down a copy of Outlander's fourteenth episode. I'm so happy. Or, at the very least, relieved. Because while I have been looking for this episode literally since October, I wasn't exactly beating the door down to watch it. It's not the happiest of stories.

As you may recall, when we last saw our intrepid Scottish heroes, Jamie had been taken by the English when ambushed in a mission for the Watch. This is bad because as we all remember, Jamie is riddled with outstanding warrants (some of them for murders he didn't commit). His arrest is likely to dump him into the hands of the evil Captain Jack Randall, so Claire needs to find him before that happens. Randall isn't likely to let him live.

Which brings us to how this episode starts: Claire, having just discovered that Jamie has been taken, is gearing up to go off and save his ass before Randall can get him. She's determined to save her husband, but even Claire has to admit that she has no idea how to do that. This isn't an area she's used to and Claire's not exactly an experienced tracker at the best of times. Ian, her brother-in-law and the sweetest person on this show, insists that he go with her. But Ian is injured (hurt in the same attack where Jamie was taken) and his prosthetic is missing. Ian is in no shape to go anywhere. 

Fortunately for Claire, there is still one other person who can help her look for Jamie: Jenny! Jamie's sister knows the area, is a skilled tracker, and generally a badass. She may have just given birth, but that doesn't seem like any reason why she ought to avoid sitting on a horse for like a day straight. Jenny and Claire hare off in search of Jamie, and I start fantasizing about a spinoff show where these two are efficient and badass cops in the modern day. 

Anyway, Jenny and Claire start off their search by going to the last place he was seen: the ambush. It's a pretty grisly scene, with bodies still strewn all across the forest floor, but Jenny is able to pick up enough of a trail to get them going again. Then we are treated to a montage of Jenny and Claire, eighteenth century detectives, riding across the moors.

There is a brief interlude where they stop riding for a bit so that Jenny can release some breast milk. Frankly, I really enjoy this scene, because it posits breastfeeding as something normal that happens all the time. Which it is. Breastmilk is a normal facet of life for some women, and I appreciate the show treating it as such. Claire and Jenny have a nice conversation about children while she pumps her breasts, but the quiet moment is interrupted when they hear a sound rustling in the woods behind them.

The sound is more than just some scout or random redcoat. It's a whole caravan of them, which means that somewhere in there is probably at least one person who knows what happened to Jamie. Jenny and Claire manage to separate one of the men from the others, drag him into a quiet part of the woods, and question him for information. By question, I should note, what I really mean is torture.

While Claire asks the questions, Jenny takes a hot iron to the man's feet - a gross and very effective means of torture. The man doesn't actually seem to know anything about Jamie or where he's been taken, but he does reveal that he's actually a courier. 

One of the messages in his bag does have word: Jamie has escaped and the message calls for reinforcements from Fort William to go searching for him. Claire and Jenny destroy the message, ensuring that Jamie will stay in the wind. But then there's the question of what to do with their prisoner. 

Jenny thinks they'd best kill the man. He knows too much and if released could go right back to his commanders and tell them that Jamie has escaped and might get help. But Claire balks at the idea of actually killing this man. She's a nurse, not a murderer, and she has no desire to change that. The two women are stuck at a standstill until, with a wet sound, they realize that the choice has been made for them. Murtagh is there and has already put the poor man out of his misery.

The women make camp with Murtagh as he advises them of his plans to help with the search for Jamie. It's a little awkward at first, with Jenny angry that she feels Claire is judging her and Claire conflicted about killing that prisoner. Still, they make up when Claire explains that she was more concerned about herself than Jenny. She was frightened by the realization that she would have killed the guard too.

This is some pretty heavy character development for Claire, really. She's finally starting to accustom herself to the brutality of the times she's in. It's debatable whether or not that's a good thing, but it is definitely a switch from her earlier high moral ground. She's just down there in the dirt with the rest of them now, and it's clear that Claire is coming to hate the English just as much as Jamie does.

In the morning, Jenny is off. She has a newborn to care for, after all, and she can't spend more than a few days away this early on. Claire understands. She and Murtagh will continue the search on their own, more hopefully now that Jamie has escaped and is probably roaming around the highlands. Before Jenny goes, though, Claire takes a moment to give her some prescient advice, embracing her newfound role as a prophet. She tells Jenny to plant potatoes, to sell off unfertile land, and to prepare the estate. A war is coming, and a famine. People will die by the thousands. Claire wants to make sure that Jenny and Ian are prepared. Jenny is confused by these instructions but agrees to them. Her sister-in-law might be a very strange person, but she's not been wrong yet.

So Claire and Murtagh go hunting for some Scottish lunkhead. There is, though, one problem with Jamie's escape: now that he's hiding from the redcoats, he is also effectively hiding from them. He can't go back to Lallybroch or Castle Leoch or any of the places Claire is actually familiar with. The safest thing for Jamie to do is to go deep in the highlands and hide, but that means there's little chance of Murtagh and Claire stumbling across him. What to do?

The solution, when it comes, is genius in its simplicity: Murtagh and Claire aren't going to look for Jamie, they're going to make Jamie come to them. By traveling throughout the highlands making as much noise and stir as they can, they hope to draw Jamie out and bring him home. Their first gambit - traveling slowly through the towns with Claire being publicized as a doctor - fails to work. Claire questions people as subtly as she can (pretending to read their palms and asking about tall, redheaded men), but no dice. So it's on to Plan B.

Plan B is not Claire's favorite plan.

Plan B involves Claire dressing up in men's clothing and singing a bawdy drinking song in every village they can find. She doesn't love it. It's humiliating and weird, but it works. Huge crowds come out to see the "Sassenach" sing about penises and old Scottish tropes, allowing Claire and Murtagh to more effectively search for Jamie.* But then trouble comes.

It seems that having an Englishwoman dressed as a boy singing a dirty song really is too good an idea to pass up, so when Claire and Jamie come to a new town they discover, to their dismay, that someone else has got there first and is doing the exact same thing. A man they happen to recognize from one of their earlier stops is there and has brought along a Scottish dancer, to mimic Murtagh (though there's a running joke that Murtagh is actually a terrible dancer and this guy is pretty good) and an Englishwoman dressed as a boy singing that stupid song. Claire is furious. With two different people singing this song - which happens to be a song Jamie knows really well from childhood - how will he know who to come to?

So Claire and Murtagh sit down with the imposters. The man in charge, who calls himself a "gypsy", insists that he has done nothing wrong. What he's doing is just good business. Claire demands they stop because she really needs that particular song to get through, but the gypsy isn't interested. Even when she pays him a lot of money and admits that she's doing this for love, he still doesn't seem all that likely to actually stop.

A disagreement over this issue is what forces Claire and Murtagh into their first real fight. Murtagh thinks that Claire should go back to Lallybroch and await news. Murtagh will shadow the imposters and wait for Jamie to make contact. But Claire refuses to go. It's not until they realize they've visited literally every town in Scotland that Claire finally breaks. If Jamie is still out there, they've had no word. It's then that she and Murtagh blow up at each other.

Basically, he calls her a spoiled child and she screams that he's clearly never loved anybody in his whole miserable life. Naturally that isn't true, and Murtagh tells the long sad story of the time he fell in love and the girl married someone else. As the story goes on, though, Claire realizes that parts of it are familiar, particularly the part where Murtagh mentions killing a boar to impress her and making bracelets out of the tusks. Claire has those bracelets; Jenny gave them to her. They belonged to Jenny and Jamie's mother.


I guess Murtagh really does know what it means to lose someone, and he insists that he sees Jamie as his own son because of it. Fair enough. Claire and Murtagh make up and even reconcile over the loss of the money. Claire finally gets to wear her own clothes again as they make their way back home.

They're not quite back yet when the gypsy stops them in a pub. He sits right down and makes himself heard even over Claire's indignant demands that he leave them alone. It seems that a message has come to his company, meant to be delivered to the singing Sassenach. He assumes that meant Claire, not his singer. The message tells Claire and Murtagh to go to some caves nearby, caves that Jamie has been known to visit. Claire and Murtagh are absolutely thrilled.

That is, they're thrilled until they get to the caves and discover it wasn't Jamie who sent that message. It was Dougal. Dougal MacKenzie, brought down to hiding in a cave like a common outlaw because he won't stop canvassing for the Jacobite cause. He sent for Claire and Murtagh to tell them their search is useless. Jamie was captured days ago while trying to make his way to them. He's been sent to Wentworth Prison and sentenced to death. Needless to say, Claire doesn't take the news well.

But it gets worse. Jamie's execution is scheduled within a day or so - they have very little time to do anything. Dougal isn't particularly interested in helping either. Instead, he gives Claire a proposal. He tells Claire that with Jamie dead there is no one left to save her from Jack Randall, and so she should marry him. Yup, that's right, Jamie's uncle starts creeping on his wife before Jamie is even dead. Gross.

Claire reacts much the same way, with horror and indignation. To be fair, Dougal does have some good points. The Frasers really can't protect her, and as much as she hates him, he is the only one who will keep her safe. Still, there's something fishy there. It takes Claire a minute, but she realizes that Dougal has an even grosser ulterior motive in this. He wants Lallybroch. He wants the Fraser lands that belong to Jamie and if he dies belong to her. That's why he told Jamie that Jenny had born Randall's child (not true) and kept him away for so long. Dougal MacKenzie is an asshole.

Obviously Claire isn't about to agree to his proposal. She is, however, willing to make a deal. Dougal has a group of men with him, men that she knows love Jamie. Claire gets to take the men and attempt to break Jamie out of prison. If she fails and Jamie dies, she'll marry Dougal. If not, she and Jamie get to live happily ever after. Dougal takes the deal.

Of course, it's another thing entirely to get a bunch of people with common sense to join a suicide mission of breaking into an English prison. Claire's rousing speech is met mostly with apologies and suggestions she, you know, take it down a notch. It's only when Willy, the youngest member of Dougal's crew, agrees to go that Angus and Rupert agree too. Sure, there's only five of them (counting Murtagh and Claire), but they'll make the best attempt they can.

And what a reversal there too. Remember back at the beginning how Claire was treated with so much disgust. Rupert and Angus shadowed her every move. They harassed her. On the road they treated her like an ignorant child. Things got better after she married Jamie and again after the awful "discipline" incident, but this is the first time we really see the men accept Claire as one of their own. Everyone has come a long way in this season. The relationships have seen such clear reversals. I love it.

Anyway, the episode ends on a hero shot of our five adventurers staring up at the massive walls of Wentworth Prison, clearly wondering what the hell they've gotten themselves into this time. 

Guess we'll find out next week!

Some final thoughts on this episode: This episode really solidifies Claire's emotional arc this season, as well as the arc of her romance with Jamie. She came into the season on a high moral horse. She's all righteous and sure of herself and convinced that her ways are better. And they definitely are better in a lot of places (like medicine, for example). 

But the season has weathered her. Claire has changed. It's pretty clear now that even if she wanted to go back, Claire wouldn't fit in 1945 anymore. It's very telling that when Dougal is laying out her options, not once does Claire seem to consider going home. She is a part of this time now. This is her home.

And then there's her romance arc. Up until this point, all of the big romantic gestures have been on Jamie's side. He was the one saving her all the time, getting her out of harm just in the nick of time. Whether it's British soldiers or witch-hunting locals, Jamie has been the one sacrificing for their relationship. This episode shows the turn of that. It's about Claire rescuing Jamie and doing the big romantic gestures right back for him. In a big way, this is the episode where we really see Claire choosing Jamie. Staying for him was a big deal, but so is dressing up in drag and doing a one-woman show across the highlands.

They've come a long way, is what I'm saying. And there's something really nice and progressive about watching a show where the final heroic acts of the season are done by the woman. She's the one who has to save him this time. It doesn't by any means make Jamie a weaker man; it just just means that this is a partnership of equals. And that's great.

*One of the funniest moments in the whole episode comes when Claire tries to convince Murtagh to jazz up his dancing act by singing "The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B". I was really hoping that was going to be the song they had Claire singing.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Think of the Children! Tuesday: 'Mercy Watson' and Nonsense

I know that I spend a lot of time on this blog, particularly in this column, talking about how certain things are problematic or frustrating or generally not as nice as you remember them being when you were a kid. I know that it would be very easy for this column to come across as negative or bitchy or super duper serious all the time. So with that in mind, I'd like to highlight today a series of books that are, well, the opposite of that. Sure, they don't have any real deep meaning that I can find, but they're fun. That's it. They're very fun books that make you feel all nice inside, and even I can appreciate that this is something worth having.

The books in question are Kate DiCamillo's Mercy Watson books, a series of transitional books for early readers who are just about to start getting their feet wet with chapter books. The series follows the wacky adventures of Mercy Watson, who is a pig. Not like an anthropomorphized pig, either. Mercy Watson is just a straight up pig who lives with Mr. and Mrs. Watson and is their pride and joy. The Watsons treat Mercy as something in between a child and a pet, and they cater to her every whim. Usually these whims involve food.

The basic premise of each book is different but the plots usually work out in roughly the same way. The Watsons are living their weird little lives when Mercy gets into a little bit of trouble. The trouble snowballs into a big bit of trouble, pulling in neighbors and friends and sometimes police officers and firemen. Eventually the trouble is resolved. Mercy never really gets punished for her part in whatever happened (because she is a pig and therefore not considered morally responsible), but it's more that by the end of the book, everyone has made up with everyone else and they're all sat around the Watson's kitchen table eating hot buttered toast.

That's it. That's basically the entire series.

So on the surface, it doesn't even feel like this series is the kind of thing I would pay much attention to. I'll be completely honest and admit that my usual tastes in media, for children or otherwise, run more to the dramatic. I like stories with deep, overarching themes. I like stories that break your heart and reveal some inner truth about humanity. I like to have to sit in silence after watching or reading something so that the meaning can really sink in. But the thing is, I get that this is just me.

Most people do not particularly want that out of a media experience. And just because I prefer being punched in the face with existential angst when I read a book doesn't mean I can't appreciate books that manage to tell good stories without doing that. Which is why we're talking about Mercy Watson today. These books might be frivolous little confections of nothing, but they're really well made.

Look. I respect competence. No, there is no real deeper philosophical whatever in the Mercy Watson series, but they're still darn good books. The plots are engaging and fun to read. Kids adore them but they're not so annoying that you as an adult will want to gouge your own eyes out before reading it again. The situations are wacky but endearing. And the endings are always just heartfelt enough, without becoming overly sticky and sweet.

In other words, we're talking about Mercy Watson because these are books without a whole lot going on, but what they do have going on is going very well.

For starters, the characters in each book might be relatively thinly drawn, but they're still really interesting. Mr. and Mrs. Watson are hilarious in their over-earnest appreciation for everyone and everything, which makes readers want to find out more of what they do. They aren't some crazy couple who decided to just go off and adopt a pig - or, well, they are, but they're also absurdly nice. They're the kind of adults we all want to be. Whimsical but still capable of holding down a job and a house. Loving and fun, but still functional. And completely and totally immune to anyone else's opinion.

Mercy is a pig and therefore doesn't have much of a personality to speak of, but there is something very satisfying about reading her adventures. Because she is a pig, Mercy Watson also does not care what anyone else thinks of her. She is mostly concerned with eating buttery food and finding somewhere nice to sleep. I can relate to this.

As for the side characters, the Watson's world is populated with characters just as silly and absurd as they are. Their next door neighbors, for one, are a pair of elderly spinster sisters*, Babe and Eugenia. Babe is sweet and thinks that the nonsense going on next door is delightful, while Eugenia is constantly in throes of frustration that no one else seems bothered by the pig next door. 

Some of the fun of the books is in how Eugenia is only saying what a reasonable person would say in her situation - namely that the Watsons are insane and that adopting a pig is not a thing that people should do - but no one listens to her. So the books have that going for them too.

But mostly what the books have going for them is nonsense and whimsy. The plots are good, but they're pretty thin. In one book, Mercy goes trick or treating in a princess costume and hijinks ensue. In another one, Mercy comes downstairs in the middle of the night and catches a burglar in the kitchen by sitting on him. In still another, Mercy and Mr. Watson go for a drive and Mercy decides to sit on Mr. Watson's lap while he's at the steering wheel. There's nothing emotionally intense or involved, they're just nice.

To be perfectly honest, I didn't expect to like the Mercy Watson books. They're really not my usual thing. What won me over was how they never took themselves seriously. No, these books are fluff, but they know they're fluff. They're not pretending to be anything else, and I appreciate that.

When it comes to children's literature, it feels like a lot of what you get is taking itself very seriously. Some of that I like. When it's done well, I think that kids should definitely have the opportunity to read books and watch movies about really important, serious topics. But there is also room for the opposite. There is still room for silliness in children's media. It's worth having books like Mercy Watson that remind us all of the value of fun and nonsense.

So I approve of the Mercy Watson series. Sure, the books don't say anything deeper about the world we live in and society today, but that's really all right. Our problems will still be here when the book is over, but they might seem just a little bit more manageable.

*Or "sisters". It's unclear.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Masculinity Monday: The Muslim Men of 'Ms. Marvel'

Okay, let's start this off right: I am by no means an expert in Islam or in Islamic culture, Muslim culture, or even in Pakistani-American culture. I took one introduction to Islam course in college, which I enjoyed, but that by no means qualifies me to speak in any significant way about the topics to follow. What I am qualified to talk about is stories, and in this case, while I don't have much substantial to say about Islam, I can speak to the way that it is portrayed in comics. Ms. Marvel, to be particular.

So, with that out of the way, today I want to talk to you guys about representations of Muslim masculinity in the media. Mmm. That's guaranteed to be a fun one, huh?

The recent Ms. Marvel is a fantastic comic. In large part that's because of it's heroine - Kamala Khan, a nerdy, superhero obsessed teenager with a burning passion to help people. Kamala is kind of a mess, but she's a mess in all the right ways. She's reminiscent of an early Spiderman. A high school student who suddenly gains superpowers and can play in the big leagues but still has to be home by curfew. The one really big curveball in Kamala's story is that she's Muslim and therefore one of the very first Muslim superheroes.

Kamala's religious background isn't the sum total of her character, but it's not written out either. A daughter of Pakistani immigrants, Kamala was raised in a very religious household. Her family is pretty devout, and while Kamala herself is generally ambivalent about a lot of parts of her culture, she does seem to hold to her faith. It informs her work as a superhero and inspires her. I love that. I even wrote a whole other article about it a year ago.

What I didn't get to in that article is how the male characters in this comic are portrayed with relation to their faith. As much as Kamala is a big step forward for representation of Muslim women, the men in her life are big steps forward for representations of Muslim men. Seriously. Even better, there are four different major male Muslim characters in the Ms. Marvel comics (say that five times fast), which provides us with a wealth of different ideas of what it means to be a Muslim man in America today. And that's great.

The first and most obvious representation we get is Kamala's father. From the beginning we know a couple of things about Mr. Khan. First, we know that he is a rather strict, slightly overbearing father, but that this is more cultural than religious a lot of the time. Kamala's father - Jusuf Khan - is a banker, a conservative man, and generally pretty content with his lot in life. He wishes sometimes that his daughter were less of a nerd and more religious, and he wishes frequently that his son had more motivation in life and less religious. In other words, Jusuf Khan is a pretty normal dad. 

And that in and of itself is a new and different representation for a male Muslim character. The idea that there's nothing radical about Jusuf at all is and an of itself kind of radical. Granted, we only know Jusuf through his daughter's eyes. The whole story is told from Kamala's point of view, but even through the eyes of a rebellious teenage girl, Jusuf still comes out in a pretty good light.

For starters, he might be an over-protective father, but he clearly cares a lot for Kamala. Early on in the series, worried that Kamala is sneaking out at night and making questionable choices, Jusuf takes her aside and talks to her. Not yelling at her or anything, but explaining how much he and her mother love her. He tells her the story of her name, which means perfection, and reminds her of how desperately they wanted her as a daughter. She was a surprise, but a welcome one. In other words, Jusuf might be overbearing at times - he does ground Kamala in the very first episode - but he does it because he loves her.

His overbearing attitude is also something that makes him a more complex and therefore interesting representation of Muslim masculinity. See, like I said above, Jusuf isn't actually overly religious. So when he's concerned about his daughter and wants her to spend more time with the Muslim Student's Association, it's not because he's horrified that his daughter has gotten horrible "feminist" or "Western" ideas in her head. He's not some horrific stereotype of an oppressive Muslim tyrant. He's a worried dad with a teenage daughter who's basically sending her to youth group.

In general, the beauty of how Ms. Marvel deals with Kamala's religion in general and particularly with her father is in how it completely normalizes it. Because the story gives us an inside view of a Muslim family, we're forced to see these people as human beings, not stereotypes. So no one is a radical, no one is screaming "Death to America!" Kamala's family is a bunch of statistically average Muslim Americans. Normal people. And with that comes the understanding that the problems they face are completely normal problems.

I mean, the problems Jusuf faces? Extremely universal. His daughter is getting interested in boys and he doesn't necessarily approve of the boys she likes. Said daughter has also started sneaking around and might be drinking. Like any protective father, he immediately grounds her and then tries to figure out how to surround her with good influences. Normal, right? And then there's his son, a brilliant young man in his twenties who won't move out of the house and get a job. Jusuf supports his son because he loves him, but he also constantly needles Aamir about getting a job.

Like I said, normal problems.

Speaking of Kamala's brother Aamir, let's move on to him and another really interesting nuanced portrayal of Muslim masculinity. The beauty of this comic, I'll say again, is that it gives us a bunch of really different representations of what it means to be a Muslim American man in today's culture. Jusuf is one, but Aamir is also a good representation and a very different person.

Where Jusuf is religious but also very comfortably secular, Aamir is devoted to his faith in a way that the rest of the family finds kind of weird. Like your super-religious cousin who went to a retreat over the summer a few years ago and has spent every holiday since then trying to convince you to come along.* You know he means well. He clearly believes very strongly and sincerely. You don't have to believe just as much as he does to appreciate his faith. But it still might not make much sense to everyone else.

Aamir takes his faith very seriously. He doesn't work and he's not in school anymore. He spends his days studying the Qu'ran and listening to lectures at the mosque. But for all that he fits a lot of our stereotypes about young, overly intense Muslim men, there are many more ways that Aamir doesn't fit our stereotypes.

For one thing, Aamir is no radical. Instead of fitting with the white American stereotype that all young Muslim men are radicalized by their religion, Aamir is pretty ambivalent to politics. While he does try to influence his family members to be more religious, we don't even see him being particularly pushy with his faith in public. He mostly keeps to himself. If anything, his constant study of the Qu'ran has made Aamir less likely to push his ideas on others because he firmly believes that everyone needs to make their own way to Allah on their own. So there's that.

But probably the more surprising thing in Aamir's portrayal is how the comic presents him with regards to women's rights. While early in Ms. Marvel Kamala does get in a little spat with her mosque over their seemingly outdated gender roles and rules, Aamir himself turns out to be very, well, good about gender stuff. Like when Kamala's almost-boyfriend tries to imply that because Kamala snuck out with him one time she's to blame for everything else that happened**, Aamir immediately defends his sister. He refuses to believe that Kamala's actions make her automatically at fault because she's a girl, and while that should not be a surprising opinion for a character to have, it is a refreshing one.

Perhaps the most interesting part of Aamir's characterization, though, comes in the later comics when he is dosed with the same terrigen mist that gave Kamala her superpowers. Aamir is given a giant dose of the mist and when he wakes up he does indeed have superpowers. But, and this is the important thing, Aamir doesn't care.

Like, he's not devastated or enraged that he now has superpowers, but he's not excited either. As Aamir himself says, "I liked myself the way I was."

That's a pretty cool statement, especially for a young Muslim man to make in American-made media. In this little moment, Aamir is making a couple of things clear. First, he's showing us that he doesn't care about power. He doesn't need superpowers to feel good about himself and having them does nothing for his self-esteem. Second, though, he's also showing that he didn't view himself as deficient in any way before he was dosed. Aamir likes himself and there was nothing about himself he wanted to change.

That is freaking radical and amazing. See, here's a representation of a young Muslim man, openly religious, kind of conservative, but who doesn't feel ashamed of any of this. He doesn't apologize for his religion. He doesn't pretend it makes him less of an interesting and worthwhile person. Aamir likes himself exactly as he is, and that's the most powerful statement he could make.

Seriously, Aamir for the win.

Unfortunately, not all characters can be as enlightened and, well, good as Aamir. Kamala's kind of almost-boyfriend, Kamran, is one of the other major representations of Muslim men in the comic, but unlike the first two, Kamran's not a nice guy. In a weird way this is helpful too, as it shows that we're not making a world where every Muslim is automatically good. That would be just as dehumanizing as a world in which every Muslim character is automatically bad, because in both cases they are presented as being somehow other than human. Humans make mistakes and we can be bad or good or some mush of the two. Most of us are a mush. So it's important that Ms. Marvel, in striving for better representation of Muslim American men, gives us a character who isn't a good guy after all. And that's Kamran.

Originally introduced as a love interest for Kamala, he quickly becomes better understood as her foil. Also a nerdy Pakistani-American who wants superpowers super bad, Kamran was dosed by the terrigen mist as well and became an Inhuman with cool powers. Unlike Kamala, however, he doesn't use his powers to help people. Kamran uses his powers to hurt people and force them to do what he wants. While Kamala is charmed by Kamran for a while, his true nature shines through soon enough and she's forced to fight him.

What makes Kamran really interesting is how, like Kamala, his religion informs his actions but doesn't account for all of them. Like her, he's not super religious but he is culturally aware. Unlike Kamala, Kamran doesn't see the moral lessons of Islam as being at all relevant to his superpowers. He's a bad guy. He's not a bad guy because he's a Muslim, he's a bad guy who happens to be Muslim as well. Also he's a super creepy kind of stalker, so in general not someone we want hanging around.

Again, the value of Kamran's character is that he subverts our expectations of what a "bad" Muslim looks like. According to what the media is always telling us, a "bad Muslim" should look more like Aamir. Outwardly religious, dressed in traditional clothes, always hanging out at the mosque. Kamran, meanwhile, looks like a "good Muslim". He's Westernized, has cool gadgets, likes pop culture, and seems pretty dang assimilated. In making Kamran the bad guy, Ms. Marvel is going against our stereotypes about young Muslim men, and that's awesome.

Finally, before we go I want to give a shoutout to the last major Muslim man who appears in Ms. Marvel. While not a particularly big part, and definitely not as big as these other ones, it's worth pointing out that Kamala's interactions with Sheikh Abdullah, the youth lecturer at her mosque, are some of the most interesting of the series.

Upon first meeting him, Sheikh Abdullah seems like your standard boring youth pastor type. He's lecturing them on how to be good people and blah blah blah while Kamala blatantly ignores him and sneaks out for a smoothie. But later on, Kamala comes back to the Sheikh and asks his advice. She's conflicted about how her superheroing is affecting her life, and she wants advice. It's a scene just like when Matt Murdock goes to his priest to talk about being Daredevil, and the story treats it as such.

Contrary to what we might expect, Sheikh Abdullah doesn't immediately tell Kamala that she needs to stop what she's doing and be a good little girl. Instead, he gives her real advice: do the right thing, even if it's hard and people don't appreciate you for it. Do the right thing anyway.

It's a small scene, but it has a big impact. This scene is really the catalyst for Kamala's decision to commit to her superheroing. It's a moment when realizes that her faith doesn't have to be in conflict with her actions. And it's a really freaking well written scene.

Look, if you take nothing else from this article, I hope you can at least see the value of Ms. Marvel's wealth of male characters. By presenting us with no less than four very different models of Muslim American masculinity, the comic avoids reinforcing stereotypes. There is room for all of these men to be fully realized and interesting characters. In the end, the only thing we really can conclude about Muslim masculinity is that it's very diverse, even in the same family.

Ultimately, I think that's the only conclusion we ought to come to.

It's easy to look at a culture you don't understand and try to pigeonhole all of them into a few neat stereotypes. But people defy categorization. The better you get to know a group of people, the harder it is to write them all off. By presenting their characters as a variety of very normal people in very normal situations, Ms. Marvel reminds us that the horror show we see on the news is only a fraction of the real story. The real story is that there are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world and they span just as much a range of good to bad to crazy as any other group of humans on this planet.

By showing us a range of Muslim masculinity, Ms. Marvel forces us to remember that Muslims are people, not just statistics on the news. I appreciate that.

I also really appreciate this scene.
*I don't have a cousin like this because I am this cousin.
**Not anything sexual, actual superpower stuff.