Friday, January 29, 2016

Strong Female Character Friday: Madalena (Galavant)

Chickadees, in all the excitement of the Undies and this other project I'm working on that shall remain nameless and Jessica Jones and Agent Carter and all that goodness, it comes to my attention that I have been remiss in my duties to you all. I forgot to tell you that Galavant is back!

Admittedly not for very long - eight out of the ten episodes in this season have already aired and are available on Hulu, while the final two episodes air on Sunday - but still. There's a little time left before this show disappears back into the swirling vortex of being probably cancelled, and while it's still around I think we ought to take a moment and look at the woman who must be the single most surprising character in the whole show: Madalena.

Madalena, first introduced as your standard damsel in distress, very quickly subverts her role by being, well, not at all in distress. Furthermore, as the seasons go by, Madalena is quickly turning into a compelling and hilarious portrait of a woman who is both ahead of her time and simultaneously behind it. 

As the woman responsible now for like three different wars and a character who intentionally betrays our assumptions about her, Madalena is interesting and culturally relevant. She's the answer to all the Disney princesses wrapped up in a gorgeous dress and a killer singing voice. But, even better, she's kind of a super feminist character. When you get to know her, that is.

Before we get too far, though, here's what Galavant is about. I feel safe assuming that most of you probably aren't caught up on the show - it flies very very far under the radar.

Galavant, now in its second season on ABC, is a half-hour comedy musical parody of life in the middle ages. Yeah, that's a mouthful, but the premise works better than you might think. Basically, it's a musical sendup of the tropes we're used to seeing in standard fantasy fiction: think Spamalot/Monty Python and the Holy Grail or Robin Hood: Men in Tights. That kind of deal, but with more singing.

The show's first episode starts off very standard, with the narrator singing to us about a "great hero known as Galavant" (Joshua Sasse) who has a lady love, Madalena (Mallory Jansen). They're all over each other until one day the evil King Richard (Timothy Omundson) sees Madalena, wants her, and kidnaps her to be his bride. It's up to Galavant to storm the castle, stop the wedding, and save the day! All standard fantasy stuff so far, right? Well, the subversion comes when Galavant appears just in time to stop the wedding, only for Madalena to turn him down. She's not in love with the King or anything, she's just more interested in being rich and a queen than she is in "getting fat and pregnant and growing my own food" with Galavant.

Please bear in mind, this happens literally five minutes into the first episode. We then skip a year into the future to find that not only is Madalena not regretting her choice, she's actually a more despotic ruler than Richard ever was. She's terrified her husband into submission, refused to consummate the marriage but is totally banging the court jester, and convinced their nation to invade neighboring Valencia so she can her hands on a priceless jewel.

That's right, Madalena isn't the damsel in distress in this story, she's the dragon.

The plot of the season actually comes when Galavant (who spent the year after getting dumped falling slowly into a keg of beer) decides to help the noble Princess Isabella of Valencia (Karen David) reclaim her country and kick out Richard and Madalena. 

Except actually Isabella is under secret orders from King Richard to bring Galavant there so he can kill him, and it's all very convoluted but very fun.

Anyway, the season actually ends (spoilers for something a year old) with Madalena deposing her husband in order to marry his brother, a more ruthless warlord, then stabbing him in the back and seizing the country for herself, promoting Richard's brutal bodyguard, Gareth (Vinnie Jones), to her co-ruler. The second season is about Gareth and Madalena figuring out how to rule together while slowly falling into the funniest and most awkward love that two psychopaths can have for each other.

Make no mistake, by the way, because Madalena really is a terrifying character in the best possible way. Not only does she go from being a kidnapping victim and unwilling bride to one of the most powerful people in all the land in the space of about a year, she does it while turning the tables on a man who has every power to have her executed and while emotionally destroying him and usurping his regime. I mean, when she banishes Richard no one goes with him, not even Gareth - that's how good she is. Or, bad, as the case may be.

What's even funnier is that none of the other characters really seem to get comfortable with how evil Madalena actually is. Galavant and Richard, despite both knowing full well how awful she can be, have a really hard time accepting that Madalena doesn't care about them at all and doesn't need them to save her. She doesn't need anyone to save her. She lands on her feet.

The reason Madalena is so fun and interesting is exactly this: Madalena never needs rescuing because in all reality, she's the scariest person in every room. She might not have the brute strength needed to kill everyone, but she has the emotional manipulation required to get someone else to do it for her. She's vicious and mean and cunning and paranoid and narcissistic and generally a really ugly person inside, which is why I like her.

I mean that very seriously. I like Madalena precisely because she has very few if any redeeming qualities. I like her because there's something so refreshing in a female character who is originally set up to be sweet and nice and wonderful but who turns out to be, well, a bitch. And not a bitch in a sexy way, just a horrible human being. We're in a culture where the idea that women can be awful without the story being sexist still feels transgressive. And yet Galavant manages to pull off making its biggest villain out of the woman we all thought was the hero's one true love.

Oh, and I should also mention that I really like how unabashedly sexual Madalena is. One of the big running jokes of the first season is how King Richard thinks that Madalena has taken a vow of chastity and that's why he can't have sex with her, when in reality she is screwing everyone else. She just doesn't like him. After this finally comes out and Richard is sad and moping about it, Madalena doesn't let it slow her down. She just stops hiding what she's doing.

Again, there's something so satisfying in a female character who breaks all the rules we have for women in these kinds of stories. In our normal stories, Madalena should be sad or miserable or regret leaving Galavant, but she doesn't. In a normal story, Madalena would be punished for all the crap she pulled. Here she just keeps getting more and more power. In a normal story we're told that Madalena is a cautionary tale and that something horrible happened to make her the way she is. Here the closest thing she has to a tragic backstory is growing up poor and being made fun of this one time.

In other words, I like Madalena because she's everything we're told female characters aren't supposed to be. She isn't nice or kind or good or secretly sentimental. She doesn't feel bad about that either. Madalena has gone through her entire life believing that emotions are for the weak - at one point she tells Galavant that she loves him "as much as someone like me can love anyone." 

So, like, not a lot. When she eventually falls for Gareth, a lot of the humor comes from how confused both of them are about how to go about being romantic with another person they don't want to destroy.

But most of the humor comes from subverting the idea that a pretty young woman in a fantasy story must obviously be the damsel in distress. She must clearly not be in control of her life and she must be in need of rescuing by some big macho hero guy. The whole first season of Galavant is built on this concept. Galavant only agrees to help Isabella because she tells him that Madalena wants him back. The idea that his damsel is distressed is the only thing powerful enough to get Galavant out of his funk.

That is why I love the slow dawning realization on the audience and on the characters that this really isn't the case. We're so used to women's storylines being dictated by their relationships to the male characters that it's genuinely hard to recognize when one isn't but that's the case here. Hell, Madalena even sings an entire song to herself at one point about how she is the only person wonderful enough to keep up with her and how she's basically her own love interest. Madalena isn't here for your hero crap, she's got a country to usurp and treason to scheme.

Sure, there are ways in which Madalena's whole character could fit into tropes about the shrill, nagging, controlling wife, and I'm sure someone has already written a terrifying screed to that effect, but for my money she's one of the more refreshingly feminist characters to come along recently. 

She's not a good person, and that's great. Madalena being awful reminds us that women are people too - we can be just as horrible and bad and immoral as any man. Madalena is kind of the big bad in Galavant, and that the hero's ex girlfriend who he rode off to save becomes the woman he's desperately fleeing makes everything much more fun.

I hope you all tune in to watch Galavant on Sunday, if for no other reason than because I'd really like this show to be renewed, but I also want you to see this for yourself. Appreciate the wonder that is Madalena and the obvious fun that Mallory Jansen is having playing her. You won't be disappointed.

I love you.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

RECAP: Strange Empire 1x08 - Back Away Slowly, Kelly

Like any show of this type, some episodes of Strange Empire are more externally based than others. While last week and the couple of episodes before were more focused on looking at the events directly relating to our main characters, introducing very few new people and really just settling down and staring at the situations already there, this week's episode was a little different. This week, alongside the ongoing storylines, the plot was more "a stranger comes to town", with the bulk of the episode actually featuring three brand new characters.

Thematically speaking, this allowed the episode to act as sort of a break in between really intense plotlines. The story about Thomas' injury and worsening health is ramping down, as is the story about how John Slotter bought a mine with no coal in it, but the story about his continued lack of money and labor problems at the mine is ramping up. So we needed an episode to tie those two arcs of the season together, and to let us get some convenient character development and exposition through without also boring the audience to death.

Hence, this episode. As always, it would take way too long to just go through this chronologically, so let's talk major storylines. There were a couple this episode, so we'll start from the top and work our way down:

Like I said, the big plot this week is all about the stranger who comes to town, a nice young man named Jordan Young (Luke Camilleri) who flashes his cash around and proclaims himself too pure t be tempted by the sinning whores of Janestown. Well, technically just by Miss Logan, but we can infer. (It's also worth noting that the scene where he turns her down is adorable, not because of him but because of her wicked grin and impromptu offer to pretend to be the devil for him if he pays her more.)

Jordan Young is overtly religious and clearly planning on staying a while. Since he has a wad of cash burning a whole in his pocket, and since the other major storyline this episode is about how John and Isabelle need more money to get their mine up and running, everyone is very eager to make sure that Jordan Young sticks around and puts money into their burgeoning town.

If you think about it, there are strong economic reasons to keep this man around. The whole town runs on an enclave economy: all income comes because of the mine or the railroad. The mine produces coal, which pays the workers, who then buy whiskey and food and whores. So everyone's livelihood is dependent on this mine. Well, except for the Chinese laborers who are there to build the railroad, but we'll get to them again in a bit.

While Kat is off dealing with labor disputes (again, more on that later), Isabelle sets her sights on making sure that Mr. Young and his money stay in Janestown forever. Her plan? Getting Young to marry Kelly Loving, who you might recall from last episode is now, according to the times at least, "a woman". As in, she got her first period last week and is feeling kind of weird about herself right now. How weird? Well, she's wearing a dress all of a sudden, if that's any indication.

Oh, and before I get too much further I should mention that at the start of the episode Kat and her daughters come across two women in the woods. Lucy (Tanya Hubbard) and her daughter Martha (Laine MacNeil). After the women try to rob them - unsuccessfully because no one successfully robs Kat Loving - Kat brings them back to camp for food and shelter. Lucy isn't quite right in the head, and she's definitely an alcoholic, so it's fallen to the teenaged Martha to care for them in their situation. Okay, back to the main plot.

Mr. Young is clearly really into Kelly and Kelly is really into the idea of a wealthy attractive man being into her. What's skeevy here is that he's definitely in his thirties at least and that what he seems to like about Kelly is how young and inexperienced and innocent she is. Ew. So while Kat might absolutely be completely against the idea, she's busy and Isabelle has no such compunctions. She dresses Kelly up in one of her old gowns and shoves her off to go convince that nice man to stay a while. 

It works pretty damn well, with Mr. Young kissing Kelly and telling Isabelle that he'll stay and invest if and only if he gets to marry her. Good for Kelly, I guess? But not all is good and right in this already creepy situation. See, while Mr. Young was kissing Kelly the camera went to a wide angle to show us Martha watching him, and later scenes tell us that Martha is already involved with the good Mr. Young. More than that, he calls himself a prophet and claims to have been sent directly by God. Oh boy.

If you're smelling something foul here, you're absolutely right. Isabelle walks in on Martha and Mr. Young kissing one night, despite him having originally introduced her as his niece. And all of this does contradict Martha's previous statements about her and her mother having no one and her father being dead. Oh do I hope Mr. Young isn't her father. There's already enough ick here.

Kelly's too bowled over to care, though, so she happily agrees to sneak out and start planning her wedding. Sure it's only been a few days, but why wait? She gets all dolled up, dances with her future husband, and everything is fine except for how it really isn't. 

It all comes to a head at pretty much the exact same time. Just as Kat is coming home to find Robin there, crying about how her sister left her behind, Kelly is waiting for Mr. Young to come around when Martha comes in, clearly having just been, um, "rumpled". The truth comes out. Mr. Young is already married to Martha. And her mother. Ewwwwwww.

No, he isn't her father. Thank goodness. But it seems that after Martha's father died, Mr. Young pounced on the widow Lucy and her daughter, marrying them both. And then he proceeded to only really ever have sex with Martha, starting who knows how long ago, driving Lucy to drink and twisting Martha's mind around. A lot. It's why the scenes with Kelly are so uncomfortable even when you count in the different moral climate of the times: he is literally a pedophile trying to groom his next victim. There aren't enough barf buckets in the world for that one.

Isabelle might be willing to send Kelly off into marriage with a complete weirdo for money, but she won't marry the girl off to a pedophile. Even Isabelle has limits, as does John. When the full story finally comes out, with John and Isabelle and Kat conferring while Martha cries in the next room, it gets even worse. It seems Mr. Young shot Martha's father in front of them before he married them. Kat is fully ready and willing to execute him for that, but Martha is too far gone. She can't go up against him.

So when Mr. Young comes to collect his latest bride - at which point Kelly runs the hell away because she is actually a very sensible girl who had a good cry with her mother and is ready to go now - John Slotter is right there to confront him. He demands the money that Mr. Young promised, and when Young prevaricates, John just straight up shoots him dead and takes the money pouch out.

The inevitable revelation? Yeah, there wasn't any money after all. It was a couple of bills wrapped around a wad of worthless paper so that it looked like he had much more than he did. Of course. John doesn't feel bad for killing him, just angry the money isn't there, and Kat can't even bring herself to do something about the cold-blooded murder she witnessed. He definitely deserved it. It's a weird moment to be cheering John freaking Slotter, but for once he wasn't the worst person in the room.

Kat and Kelly offer Martha and Lucy a place to stay in camp, to keep them fed and sheltered and to let them rebuild their lives, but they leave anyway. Lucy is mentally too far gone - she still believes Mr. Young is alive and up ahead of them - and Martha seems unwilling to leave her mother and unwilling to fully confront what happened to her. So they go off into the woods on their own, probably to die. It's not a happy ending for much of anyone this week.

Obviously that's the main storyline, but there was other stuff happening too. Second we had all the plots about the mine and labor relations there. As evidenced by how desperate John and Isabelle were to get Mr. Young's money, there's not a lot of capital floating around Janestown right now. The engineers have found a new huge seam of coal in the mine and John is eager to dig it out, but he doesn't have the money to pay the men well or to buy good timbers for the mine construction.

This is a problem. Without good timbers, the mine is in desperate danger of collapse, potentially killing hundreds of men and definitely shutting down work. So while her daughter is being pimped out, Kat spends this episode trying to keep the peace and convince everyone not to go in the mine because it's definitely not safe. Franklyn Caze is, as always, at the center of things, but for once he's not the obvious good guy.

I mean, he's still Caze and he's still a much better guy than most everyone else on the show, but he seems more beat down and morally conflicted than usual. He's not even up to flirting with Mrs. Briggs, which is a sad day for her. No, Caze is willing to have his men work the mine, but only if they get double pay. Kat insists this is a terrible idea and that there's no way a man who can't afford real timber can afford to pay double. She's right, but no one appreciates her pointing that out. So the men go on strike and the mine is shut down.

John doesn't have a lot of options for labor. He's not about to ask the women, so there's only one other group of potential workers: the Chinese railroad laborers. Their leader is Ling, as we'd already established, and Ling and John don't really like each other. Their entire negotiation is one big power play. John has to go to Ling and Ling makes him wait for an answer. Then Ling demands more money. So John makes Ling wait for an answer. Then when John goes back - having shot Mr. Young and now aware that he has no other options - he has to bow to Ling's demands. Fun times.

The upshot, though, is that Ling gets a percentage of the mine's profits and John get's a month of free labor from the Chinese workers. This naturally pisses the white miners off, inciting a fight that everyone saw coming but no one seems able to stop. Kat sits on her horse and tries to break it up while a full on brawl envelops the mine. The most heartbreaking moment? When she spots her son Neil with the miners, still looking rebellious and angry.* 

The episode ends on that fight, and presumably this is going to be another couple episodes worth of story arc. But, like I said, there were a couple of other minor story points going on this week. So, really fast, here they are:

While Kelly is getting shoved at the creepy Mr. Young, Robin is off saying goodbye to Mary Colacutt. You may remember her as the young girl who was pregnant when she was sold to John and Isabelle and whose son they are now passing off as their own. Mary is being sent away, ostensibly to learn better manners and get an education and all that. We'll see if she comes back. Her son, needless to say, is staying here.

Isabelle might actually have become pregnant, despite her best efforts. The question, however, is whether this is John Slotter's child or Ling's, since she has had sex with both of them recently. Also Isabelle seems oddly okay with this information, which suggests it's not John's.

Rebecca got a very minor plotline this week - since she was so much of last week - mostly about her figuring out what to do now that Thomas is dead. 

John shows up and in a move of uncharacteristic kindness, offers her the use of one of the cribs to do her doctoring in. His explanation is simply that he expects her to put him back together when he gets hurt, which she can handle. He also gives her a couch and a dead body (Mr. Young's) so that she can learn more about medicine. I am deeply worried that John is developing an obsession with Rebecca. She is, after all, a virgin who was in a sham marriage and is now basically on her own. Then again, hopefully he'll keep his creepiness away - he did give her a gun after all.

Also with Rebecca this week is the counterpoint to last week's epic reveal about Morgan. Morgan has decided that it's time Rebecca knows the truth, though I'll admit to still being a little confused about the truth myself. Basically Morgan decides that show is better than tell, so when Rebecca wakes up in the middle of the night she comes out to find Morgan sitting on her couch, shirtless, with the breast-binder on the floor. Rebecca's answer: "It's not what I expected." Understatement, I'm sure.

Morgan is hurt, I think, that Rebecca isn't more immediate in her acceptance, but I think Rebecca will come around. She's not horrified by any means. I'm still not sure if Morgan is meant to be a lesbian hiding from society, trans*, or some variety of intersex, but I think it's safe to call her/them/him "gender nonconforming" for now. At any rate, Morgan walks off before the conversation can get much further than Rebecca's confusion and science babble, so we'll have to see where that goes.

That's roughly what happened in this week's episode. Unlike last week, it doesn't feel like we had a clear underlying theme this time. It was much more nebulous and more just about getting the plot and exposition across to set up the big scenes coming. If anything, though, this episode seemed to be about innocence and experience. On the one hand, you have the storylines explicitly about how innocent Kelly and Rebecca are, while on the other you have plots about devious people scheming and plotting and clashing with each other. It's a bit of a stretch, but I think that's the big thing.

The other thing we saw a lot of this week was power plays. You could say this episode was all about power, but that's generally true of any story. Still, there seemed to be more emphasis than usual on power dynamics. When John Slotter comes to speak with Rebecca each time (he comes three times), he is always shot from below, making him look huge, while she is shot from above, making her look small and big-eyed. The emphasis here is on how she is in a position of relative weakness and is very dependent on him.

Comparably, the lighting was very intentional when it came to shooting Kat and Caze. Even though they were both wearing hats, Caze's face was always in shadow and Kat's was always open to the light. The cinematography was great this week is what I'm saying.

But yeah. Power. While John and Isabelle scheme and scramble to hold onto their power and Caze and Ling fight over the scraps, Kat wonders what if any powers she actually has. I mean, she's an elected official who only has as much power as is given her. What can she really do? And Kelly and Rebecca were both strongly reminded of how little power they have to protect themselves in the end. Kelly with her heart, but Rebecca with her very livelihood and safety. I can only assume that the show will address this more directly further down the line.

For now, though, let's all just be really glad that the storyline with Mr. Young didn't drag out into more weeks. I'm glad he's gone, interesting though he was. And I am, as always when I watch this show, ridiculously glad I live in the age of indoor plumbing and the right to own property. The past is horrible.

Miss Logan is the cutest cutie to ever cute.
*Neil is, presumably, still angry about the time that Kat had sex with Caleb Mecredi and then made her kids eat dinner with him. He thinks she's trying to replace her former probably dead husband Jeremiah. Also he resents that they haven't moved on to their ranching pasture to set up there. He doesn't like Janestown and he can't handle the concept of "we have no money" and "these people here need us." Neil is fine, but his mom is amazing and he really could have picked up some slack this week if he'd been paying attention to his sisters.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Think of the Children! Tuesday: 'The Lorax' Is Pretty Grim

I need to be clear here - I'm not talking about the version of The Lorax that came out a few years ago, the one with the computer animation, massive amounts of tie-in advertising, and Taylor Swift. No. We're not talking about that. Instead, I want to talk about the original version of The Lorax, both the book and the TV adaptation. Coming as they did so close together - the book was published in 1971 and the TV special aired in 1972 - I think it's safe to consider them both reflections of the same cohesive whole.

So. The Lorax. It's the sort of book and special that you tend to have warm fuzzy vague feelings about for years after seeing it, even if you'd be hard pressed to actually explain why. The story, such as it is, is almost short enough that I could copy and paste it into this space in lieu of an article, but here's a quick breakdown:

Written by Dr. Seuss aka Ted Geisel, The Lorax is a short story about the perils of consumerism, corporate greed, and capitalism as a whole. It's the story of how a once verdant and beautiful land was laid to waste by the Once-ler, a greedy creature who comes in and starts cutting down Truffala trees in order to make "thneeds", a thing that "everyone needs".

The story is told by the Once-ler himself, narrated from some point in the future when the beautiful valley no longer looks so beautiful and the Once-ler lives in a weird old shack at the edge of town. He's narrating the story to a nice little boy who has wandered by and wants to know what a Lorax is. Well, as the Once-ler explains, the Lorax appeared after he cut down his first Truffala tree and didn't disappear until the last tree was gone. Essentially, the Lorax is the voice of nature. He "speaks for the trees", and as the Once-ler continues his story it's not hard to see why the trees need representation.

After the Once-ler realizes that Truffala trees can be easily made into thneeds, he chops down tons of them and gets to work. The thneeds sell quickly and the Once-ler becomes rich. He brings his whole family out to work with him and they cut down more and more Truffala trees to turn them into thneeds. The thneeds are a huge hit. Everyone needs a thneed and the Once-ler is famous and rich.

But the cost to his environment is stark - with the Truffala trees going fast, the adorable animals who used to eat Truffala fruit are starving. The beautiful birds are getting poisoned by smog. The fish in the pond are gummed up with glop from the thneed factory and garbage from the town. Still the Once-ler keeps ignoring the Lorax and keeps cutting down the Truffala trees. It makes him rich and happy, and what does the Once-ler want him to do? Put all these nice people out of work and deprive everyone of thneeds? No way!

And then the last Truffala tree is cut down and suddenly there can be no more thneeds. The Truffalas are gone and so too is the Once-ler's business. It all dries up, everyone leaves but him, and it's just the Once-ler and the Lorax left. Until the Lorax grabs himself by the seat of his pants and lifts himself into the sky, leaving only a small patch of grass and the word "UNLESS" behind.

The little boy turns around to see that the patch of grass and the "UNLESS" are still there, and the Once-ler explains. Unless is a very important little word. "Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot," says the Once-ler to the boy, "Nothing is going to get better. It's not." And with that he gives the little boy the very last Truffala tree seed and exhorts him to plant it and grow a Truffala forest, in the hopes that maybe, just maybe, the Lorax and all his friends might come back someday. Awww.

Oh wait. Hang on. That's actually super depressing.

Yes, for all that this is the story which reportedly Dr. Seuss loved the most, The Lorax is grim even by 1970s children story standards. It depicts a world in which there is nothing preventing the wiping out of an entire ecosystem, a world with no governmental controls, a world where the only thing standing between the world and total ecological devastation is a sneezy little orange thing that annoys you into doing the right thing. It's horrifying if you think about it. It is also, tragically, kind of true.

Just looking at the news recently hits home the fact that the world from The Lorax isn't nearly far enough removed from our own. We already live in a country and a world the prizes corporate interests over individual citizens, let alone over nature. The sanctity of human life only seems to matter during elections, and even then it's only the sanctity of lives that we feel comfortable sanctifying.

I'm a big proponent of hope, and there's a part of me that wants to recoil away from The Lorax because of how incredibly hopeless and defeatist it feels. I mean, the story takes place after the terrible thing has already happened. You go through the narrative with a weighing sense of doom*, because you know for a fact that this is a story without a happy ending. I don't love that. I'm an optimist, or I try to be, and I want to believe that we can make it right. That there is a happy ending possible.

The challenge of loving The Lorax, then, is accepting that the bad thing has already happened and understanding the story's personal call to do something about it. I mean, if the bad has already come, all we can do is try to pick up the pieces and not make it worse, right?

On the flip side of things, what I love about The Lorax is how clear it makes the entire process. This story might be technically a screed about the dangers of corporate values when it comes to the environment, but it also works as a really solid indictment of consumerism as a whole. 

One of the main points of the story is how the Once-ler uses the Truffala trees to create a product, a thneed, and then convince everyone that they absolutely need one. I mean, clearly they don't. They have survived perfectly well all this time without thneeds. But upon discovering that thneed can be made, everyone needs a thneed.

I like this. I think it's a solid commentary on the way that we as consumers are so quick to need things we don't actually, well, need. But I think it's a better commentary on corporations. As much as I fully believe in personal accountability and in living a life that measures up to your values about fair trade and sustainability and all that, ultimately individuals have nowhere near the influence that corporations and governments have. Saying otherwise puts the blame where it doesn't belong.

I appreciate the story in The Lorax because it makes it clear that the real problem is this entire thneed industry. The problem isn't any single particular one of the people buying thneeds or even really the ones producing them. The problem is the existence of an industry that can only work by exploiting the environment.

Okay. I didn't mean to get all political on you. Let's back up and talk about how The Lorax works as a children's story.

Narratively speaking, I actually don't think that The Lorax is one of Seuss' better works. I mean, there are definitely more compelling stories in his canon. The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, Horton Hears a Who, and even The Cat in the Hat are all more narratively interesting than this. But I do find that it has staying power. The Lorax sticks in your head as a character and his words are memorable for all that they're ignored in the story itself. "I am the Lorax and I speak for the trees," is enough of a cultural touchstone that it needs no explanation when said out of context in a conversation. That's a pretty big deal.

So while The Lorax isn't Seuss' best work in terms of plot and characters, it still really grabs our attention, particularly as kids. I think a big part of this is in how the story takes big, complex concepts and boils them down using terms kids can understand, without ever condescending to the children or making the problems less complex

That's the part that really matters. The issues in The Lorax are still difficult to figure out and there's something valuable in the lack of a clear moral answer. Clearly the Once-ler's business is exploitative, but when he challenges the Lorax and asks where his employees should all find work, the Lorax admits he doesn't know. These are hard questions and the story doesn't pretend otherwise.

I think the ultimate value in this book (and the TV special) is in how it breaks down real issues in ways that kids can understand and take ownership of. The major point of the story is in how one person can be responsible for great destruction, but one person can be responsible for rebuilding too. So while the bulk of the story is pretty dang grim, the ending is uplifting. The ending is about hope.

Before we go, a quick aside on the 2012 remake: I haven't seen it, so I really shouldn't pass judgment, but I don't think I ever will both watching this film. A big part of that is the way it was marketed. See, if you're making an adaptation of a notoriously anti-corporate, anti-capitalist storybook/cartoon, maybe you shouldn't go all out on the corporate tie-ins? I think I lost it somewhere around when I saw an ad for an SUV that was a Lorax tie-in. Or the Dennys ad. They broke me. 

There is also something deeply unsettling in seeing a little story like this, which, again, is short enough to fit easily in a blog post, puffed up into a two hour movie. Especially a two hour computer animated movie where they pulled out all the stops. It just feels wrong.

All right. That's enough hipstering and whining about how things were better back in the good old days. The upshot of all of this? I think The Lorax, the original one, is a story that might bum us out but really really needs to be told. There are few comparable works that get across the same ideas with the same amount of "stickiness" or ability for us to remember them and process them as children.

Kids love The Lorax because of all the silly names and pretty pictures and the rhyme scheme, but the effects it can have on their perception of the world are a lot bigger than just liking the idea of Truffala trees. There's a lot of value in children's stories that challenge the status quo and urge us to change the world. So on that merit, I highly recommend The Lorax. It's dark and depressing and more than a little disheartening, but that's no reason not to show it to your kids. Frankly, I think that's exactly why we need to.

*Sort of like the sense of doom we all currently have about the third How to Train Your Dragon movie, which may or may not be about how dragons went extinct.

Monday, January 25, 2016

ANNOUNCEMENT: The 2015 Undies Are Coming!

from White God, nominated in Foreign Language
That's right, chickadees. Hold onto your britches because the 2015 Undies Awards are just around the corner.

Last year, burnt out and frustrated with how the Academy Awards and most major awards shows and critics seem to reward the same movies again year after year, we here at Kiss My Wonder Woman came up with a new tradition: the Undies Awards. An awards competition focused on only looking at films which, for whatever reason, were underappreciated by audiences, critics, or the awards shows. Starting with something like forty movies, we narrowed it down to twenty-five films in five categories. Then all of you got off your butts, picked a category, saw the movies and sent me your votes. It was awesome.

Those five winners then went head to head in the final round to determine what movie from 2014 qualified as the absolute best underappreciated film of the year. And now it's time to do it all again.

from Mistress America, Micro Budget
I mean, we probably would have done this again even if the Oscars had somehow magically managed to get their act together in the past year, but as the nominations have proven, the Undies are still as needed as ever. Not a single actor of color was nominated this year, and the best picture nominees left off some really obvious fan favorites. So we're here to fix all of that. Sure, the Undies isn't exactly as prestigious as the Oscars, and sure, technically the only award anyone wins is bragging rights, but we are democratic as hell and that's got to count for something.

As with last year, though, I need your help. I'm great, but if I am the only one watching these films and voting on them, then that's not a very democratic process. I need your help both to select the films we'll be viewing and to vote on them. Here's a quick run-down of how the process will work:

First! You send me a list of movies you think are the best underappreciated films of the year. The only qualifiers are that it had to come out in the US in 2015 and it cannot be a film nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Foreign Language, or Best Animated Feature at the Academy Awards.

Second! I will put out a finalized list of the five films in the five categories. You email me with the name of the category you want to vote in. The categories are: Big Budget (budget of over $80 million), Mid-Range (budget of $10-80 million), Micro Budget (budget under $10 million), Foreign Language, and Animated. You pick one and tell me which one you've picked.

Third! You watch all five movies in your category.

Fourth! You email me and tell me which one you think is "the best" - whatever "the best" means to you.

Fifth! I compile all of these votes and then post the winner from each category.

Sixth! You watch all the five winners and email me whichever one of those you think is "the best".

Seventh! I compile the votes and tell you which movie is - according to your votes - the best underappreciated movie of 2015!

Good? Good.

The Undies are a lot of fun for me, and I hope they're a lot of fun for you guys too. I think it's important to take a minute and recognize those movies that might not be mainstream enough or white enough or comfortable enough for Hollywood to appreciate but which made us all sit up and listen this past year. The Undies exist for a reason, and that reason is to highlight movies that deserve more time in the sun.

So, with no further ado, here are the preliminary lists for the nominees at this year's Undies Awards:

Jupiter Ascending, Big Budget
Big Budget:
Jupiter Ascending
Furious 7
Mockingjay Part 2
Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation
In the Heart of the Sea

Straight Outta Compton
Chi-Raq, Mid-Range
Crimson Peak
Woman in Gold
Far from the Madding Crowd

Micro Budget:
Beasts of No Nation
The End of the Tour
Movement and Location
The Keeping Room
Mistress America
Dum Laga Ke Haisha, Foreign Language
The Diary of a Teenage Girl

Foreign Language:
Goodnight Mommy
Dum Laga Ke Haisha
Naked Among Wolves
White God
The Tribe
Zero Motivation

Advantageous, Micro Budget
The Spongebob Movie
The Long Way North
Magic Mountain
Pirate's Passage
The Monkey King: Hero Is Back
The Good Dinosaur

Like I said above, if you have any suggestions we've neglected to mention here, please shoot us an email at or list them in the comments. Happy Undies everyone!

Friday, January 22, 2016

Strong Female Character Friday: Olivia Dunham (Fringe)

I haven't been super subtle about my appreciation for the show Fringe on here. Having finished a rewatch of the entire thing (all five seasons) a few months ago, I've written articles on the awesomeness of Astrid and how she totally deserved more screentime and on how Peter and Walter Bishop's relationship redefines how we talk about masculinity and parenthood. But now the time has come to tackle the big one, to talk about the real hero of this show, the one, the only, Olivia Dunham!

If you think that intro was a little over-dramatic, then I have to say that you might not like Fringe as a show. While Peter gets a lot more time as the prophesied "chosen one", Olivia is the character who best fits the archetype of being "the hero". She's the one in law enforcement, she's the physically gifted badass, she's the one who develops super special powers that no one else in any universe can handle, she's the one that every bad guy is trying to get his hands on. Olivia Dunham is a full on mythical hero in a way that very few female characters get to be. And she gets all the horrible crap piled on that goes with it.

See, what makes Fringe really stand out as a show is how it subverts our gendered expectations for its main characters. Peter and Olivia are, from the very first episode, clearly our two main heroes, so we're expecting them to fall into simplistic tropes. Peter will be an ass-kicking renegade with no regard for the rules and Olivia will follow after him with a chagrined look and fix his messes, right? Well, sort of. I mean, that's not completely inaccurate, but it's also not actually accurate either. 

Peter is a renegade with a lot of extra-legal connections, that's for sure, but Olivia is a hell of a lot more than a wet-blanket with a gun. She is, much to the surprise of most of us watching the show when it came out, one of the most complex and fully realized female characters I have ever seen in film or television. Ever. And I hope you understand how big a statement that is for me to make. I mean, I've seen a lot of film and television.

Why is Olivia such a big deal? Well, first let me explain to you what the show is so that I can tell you how she fits into it.

Fringe - one of JJ Abrams' lesser known and better plotted works - is a sort of update of The X-Files. Not really, but basically. It follows the operations of "Fringe Division", an interdepartmental task force working with the FBI and Homeland Security to investigate fringe events. Fringe events are basically weird science. In the world of Fringe, science and technology have now reached the singularity, where science is advancing faster than human understanding, creating terrifying repercussions and creating the need for a task force just to keep track and try to stop more disasters.

Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv) is an FBI agent who accidentally helps found Fringe Division while trying to investigate the death of her partner and secret boyfriend. In looking into his mysterious and gross death, Olivia unearths the work of Dr. Walter Bishop (John Noble), a very literally mad scientist who might be able to figure out what's going on. 

Only, Walter is actually a mental patient who can only be released into the custody of a relative, and his only living relative, his son Peter (Joshua Jackson), hates him. So the pilot episode is about Olivia corralling two wayward geniuses into a lab underneath Harvard and making them work together to solve a mystery.

They solve the mystery so well that Olivia and her boys are turned into their own unit, Fringe Division, working under Agent Broyles (Lance Reddick). And along the way they pick up Agent Astrid Farnsworth (Jasika Nicole) to help Walter in the lab and keep them all from going nuts. The basic premise of the show for the first few seasons at least has these four working together to solve weird freaky science mysteries and save the world.

But the real story of the show, the one that gets going in season three and never calms back down again, is about Olivia Dunham and how she is the most special person in the whole wide world. I'm paraphrasing, but that's the gist. As early as the first season, we come to find out that Olivia's incredible talents for solving cases aren't her only unusual skills. She also has some level of telekinesis and it freaks her the hell out. As time goes on, we discover that Olivia gained these powers as a result of being a test subject in her childhood. Walter and his partner, William Bell (Leonard Nimoy - yup) experimented on her in an effort to create child psychic supersoldiers to fight in a war against our parallel universe.

Well I never said this wasn't a weird show.

Olivia's powers, introduced easily enough in the first season, continue to grow, eventually leading her to become the only person capable of jumping between universes by thinking about it. But they also force her to deal with the other "cortexiphan children", the other test subjects who have, to a one, been a lot worse at dealing with their traumatic pasts than she has.

And make no mistake, even without the being a childhood lab rat thing, Olivia has a harsh backstory. Her father died at a young age, so Olivia's mother remarried, only her new husband was physically abusive to little "Olive". Olivia grew up protecting her mother and sister from the abuse, only to eventually shoot her stepfather at the age of nine. 

Then when she was a teenager her mother died, leaving Olivia and her sister in the system and forcing Olivia to grow up even faster than she already had. It's no surprise that Olivia goes into law enforcement in the end, because she needs to feel some control over her life and surroundings and she's obsessed with protecting people.

If all of this sounds like the kind of backstory and character development you've heard before, well, it is. It's just that usually when we talk about the character with the epic powers and abilities, the tragic backstory, and the heroic calling to save people, we're talking about a man. Olivia has the sort of character sheet that is almost exclusively reserved for male characters. 

In addition to all of this, she's a no-nonsense FBI agent who doesn't really wear makeup or trade on her sexuality and keeps her nondescript hair in a ponytail. She has love interests, sure, but she's unfailingly professional and more than a little emotionally stunted. The people she loves keep dying on her. She's always second-guessing her own feelings and prefers cold reason to any intuitive sense. Oh, and did I mention that she's a genius with an eidetic memory?

Seriously, Olivia Dunham is a hero like only men usually get to be heroes. Damaged but sexy, learning to love again with her manic pixie dream guy, committed to protecting and serving the people around her. It's a complete subversion of the usual character we find on a show like this, and i love it so much.

Maybe I shouldn't. Maybe I should be more annoyed that Olivia and Peter are essentially just genderswaps of the usual character tropes. I mean, I don't usually like characters who can be described as "a dude in a dress" - as in, a conventionally written male character changed to female when the screenwriter changed said character's name in the script. I tend to want my female characters to own their femininity a bit more, to give credence to the fact that men and women are not, culturally at least, interchangeable. But, well, Olivia and Peter are great. I have trouble finding fault with this.

Probably the reason it works here where it never does anywhere else is because once we get past Olivia's basic character arctype, she's incredibly fully realized. I mean, Olivia feels like a person you could know. Everything in her life down to the reading material on her bedside table informs the kind of person she is. We spend five seasons in her life watching her go about her job and her personal relationships - sometimes making a complete mess out of all of them - and by the end we feel like we know Olivia Dunham. She is a person to us. She's real in a way very few characters ever are.

Like, I can name Olivia's immediate family and I know her childhood nickname and I know what food she likes and what she does after a long day. But it's also deeper than that. The show gives us this complicated woman and then shows her growing and changing into a person better able to handle the heroic call she's been given. Not only that, but we see her change into a woman capable of embracing love and choosing to be happy. That's a big deal, especially considering that all of this development is handled sensitively and without changing who Olivia fundamentally is.

I guess when you get down to it, Olivia is the kind of hero we actually want when we say "strong female characters". Yes, she's a physically and emotionally strong female character, but that's not really what I mean. I mean that Olivia is written for her story in a way that never apologizes for her gender but also never makes it a big deal. 

There's no sneering villain going, "But you're just a girl!" Everyone in this universe is perfectly capable of understanding how badass Olivia is and no one underestimates her for sexist reasons. At times they dislike her for sexist reasons - there's a season one storyline about her and Broyles conflicting because she investigated one of his friends for sexual assault - but even this is not so much about Olivia as it is about the other people in her life.

Olivia is strong in that she's strongly written. She has a moral code, a background, and skills that make her perfectly suited to the story she's in. She's the hero in this, not because she's the prettiest girl in the room but because she's the most qualified person. It doesn't hurt that she's literally magic, but it's also never the reason she's so cool. Olivia is cool because she knows her own value and she refuses to let anyone else define it. She's a strong female character because when I look at her I see a woman I could actually know, and even better, I see a woman I want to know.

JJ Abrams has done a lot of things that annoy me over the years - mostly his misinterpretations of Star Trek - but I can't hate the man because he did give us this show and this character. Fringe is seriously a show that ought to be a sci-fi classic by more people's estimations than just mine, and Olivia Dunham should go down in history as a ground-breaking subversion of tropes about women and heroism.

But maybe I'll just settle for more people watching this show and seeing how it doesn't have to be a zero sum game. We can have female characters who are just as mythic and heroic as the guys, without making the male characters any less. It's completely possible, and there's no excuse for saying it isn't. There's a lot more I could say, but I'll leave you there. We don't deserve Olivia Dunham but we have her anyway, and I'm grateful for that.

Also there's a retro-futuristic musical episode. Just saying. Watch the show.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

'Slaughterhouse-Five' and the King of Unreliable Narrators

Oh chickadees. For all that I love talking about the fiction of the here and now, sometimes it's worth taking a moment to look back on the classics of yesteryear. So today we're going to take a minute and talk about Slaughterhouse-Five, which, despite its amazingness doesn't get nearly the attention it deserves.

I might rail against the classics a lot, but sometimes even I have to admit that some classics are classic for a reason. That's the case with Slaughterhouse-Five. I first read the book when I was deep into my Vonnegut phase (because I am exactly that kind of pretentious nerd-child) and I loved it with the fervency expected of me, but upon reading it again just a few weeks ago, it's struck me how good this book actually is. I mean, occasional narrative over-focus on breasts aside, it's really good. Why don't we talk more about this book and how good it is?

It seems to me that a lot of the time Slaughterhouse-Five gets lost in the shift from "literary fiction" and "science fiction". A book that is technically neither and both of those things, it's hard to pinpoint exactly where it ought to fit, and so a lot of the time it ends up excluded from both categories, which is a crying shame. 

But I don't think that's the only reason why, for all of its instantaneous popularity and cultural cache, Slaughterhouse-Five hasn't really made the leap to "must-read" territory. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that the book isn't interested in telling a nice, easily digested war story. And I think that makes people uncomfortable.

The basic plot and premise of the book makes it sound as though Kurt Vonnegut were telling a straight-forward (ish) science fiction story, but the context refuses to make that comfortable for the reader. Ostensibly the story of a soldier named Billy Pilgrim going through World War II, experiencing both time travel and alien abductions, the novel is actually a semi-autobiographical deconstruction of PTSD and what it means to be truly in a war. So it's weird. It's weird and it's uncomfortable and we don't really know what to do with it.

The novel follows our hero, Billy Pilgrim, but makes no mistakes that Billy isn't much of a hero at all. Skipping all throughout Billy's life and timeline, the book never romanticizes him or raises him up as a role model to be emulated. When describing Billy during the war, Vonnegut makes sure to always emphasize how pitiful and sad Billy looks. When talking about his life afterwards, Vonnegut's language makes clear how much Billy is just coasting through life without dealing with the trauma he has lived through. In other words, it's not a sugar-coated story at all. Not in the way that some writers pride themselves on making characters disgusting or reprehensible either. Billy isn't gross or awful, he's just kind of sad.

Since the story itself is non-linear and unreliably narrated, the best I can do is give you a brief sketch of Billy's life. The timid child of a domineering father and an emotionally manipulative mother, Billy grows up to be a beanpole of a man who is drafted into WWII and arrives as a relief troop during winter towards the end of the war. Billy is never outfitted properly for the fight, or given a weapon or any real responsibility, so when he finds himself trapped behind enemy lines with a fellow soldier, it's all Billy can do not to die of hypothermia, let alone fight the enemy.

He and the other soldier, Roland Weary, are eventually captured by German troops and placed in train cars with the other American POWs where they are starved and deprived and frozen until they eventually reach their destination of a work camp outside Dresden. After being vaguely patched up by some British troops, the men, including Billy, are then shipped to Dresden proper, kept in an empty slaughterhouse, and used for cheap labor in a factory. They are still there when the Allies bomb the city of Dresden, and the POWs become some of the only survivors from that city, emerging from their bunker to see a place that looks like "the surface of the moon."

It's not long after this that the war ends and Billy Pilgrim is sent home. Though he at first has trouble readjusting to civilian life - at one point he checks himself into a mental hospital though he can't say precisely why - eventually Billy is able to finish his degree in optometry, marry a nice rich girl, and have a couple of kids. He and his wife love each other in the uncomplicated, not particularly romantic way of a lot of post-war marriages, and they grow old together reasonably happily.

After Billy is in a plane crash which fractures his skull and his wife dies while he's in the hospital, Billy comes home and is by all accounts different. He is obsessed with telling everyone in the world how he was abducted by aliens and the enlightened view of time that they have to share with Earth. Eventually his mania overwhelms his ability to care for himself or to continue his work, allowing his daughter to take him in and functionally infantilize him. Which means that, in a very real way, Billy Pilgrim's story ends up making one big loop.

Okay. So that's the rough timeline of things that happen in our world in Slaughterhouse-Five. But here's where the book gets tricky. See, the bulk of the story isn't just about Billy's experiences in the war and his life afterward, it's an exploration in unreliable narrators. What I didn't mention is that the story is bookended by two chapters written in the first person about Kurt Vonnegut meeting up with an old friend and going to Dresden to see what the city is like now. 

These chapters, combined with the occasional asides that Vonnegut slips into the story, remind us that part of this book is true. Probably. Kurt Vonnegut really was a prisoner of war in Dresden during the Dresden bombing. Certain aspects of the story seem to be taken very literally from Vonnegut's memory, particularly noted when he himself writes. "I know because I was there," and various other things to that effect.

What this means is that we as the audience are never really sure what in the book is based on Vonnegut's real experiences and what is made up. Even more, we don't know what of the story is meant to be taken literally and what is not. Even in the war, we find that Billy Pilgrim is "unstuck in time", swinging wildly in his mind between his birth and his death, constantly time-traveling to different moments and living in them. Since this happens most notably when Billy is in the war or reminded of it, it seems probable that Vonnegut is using these interludes as a literary device to show Billy Pilgrim's dissociative episodes brought about by the trauma.

But it's also not that easy. Vonnegut distinguishes between times when Billy is traveling through time and times when he's just remembering something and times when he's actually hallucinating. And that's without even getting into the stuff about how Billy is abducted by aliens in his forties and spends years in an alien "zoo" with a famous movie star who went missing, only to find himself miraculously placed back in his own house only minutes after he went missing.

The book is confusing is what I'm getting at. At no point in the story do we, the audience, know for sure what Vonnegut means for us to take literally, what is actually true historical fact, and what is pure nonsense made up for a metaphorical impact. We have no idea, because we're not supposed to have any idea. That's the entire point.

Slaughterhouse-Five is a book intentionally written to confuse - it flies in the face of war narratives that present easy answers, clear stories, and the idea that war is anything other than a traumatizing mess of images and sounds. Billy Pilgrim is a fascinating character precisely because he's so not what we expect from the protagonist of a novel about war. He's gawky and awkward and sad. He tries to give up and die multiple times. At no point in the book does he do something we might consider heroic or sacrificial. He just sort of is. All the time. 

The entire point of the book is buried in what a lot of people call the most confusing or "out of place part" - Billy's abduction by aliens from Tralfamadore. The aliens who kidnap Billy have a singular understanding of time that informs the entire rest of the book. Basically, Tralfamadorians see time as all happening concurrently. Every bad day is happening at the same time as every good day. They don't see time as linear but rather as flat. So for someone on Tralfamadore, your birth is happening at the same time as your death at the same time as your wedding at the same time as your skinned knee in second grade at the same time as your car crash in your seventies. It's all happening at once, rather than in a row.

So for Tralfamadorians, the future isn't something that might happen, it's more what will absolutely happen and what has always happened and what always has been happening. The future is set. It must be, because we can see it. Billy's time traveling, to them, makes perfect sense. Of course Billy can swing wildly through his own timeline. It's all going to happen no matter what Billy does. There are no choices that will alter the course of his life, so who cares if he knows how he will die?

What a lot of people fail to see in this "bizarre" interlude is why the attitude the Tralfamadorians extrapolate from this experience of time is so appealing to Billy Pilgrim, and to a lot of people who have been through a great trauma. The Tralfamadorians believe that since all of time is happening, will happen, and always has happened in a set pattern, the simplest thing to do is to look at the nice things and ignore the bad ones. 

It sounds laughably simple, but think about it. The alien abduction sideplot is in this book to remind us of how comforting it is to believe that there was nothing we could have done to prevent this and nothing we can do to change it now. It's there to say, "No use dwelling on things you can't change, might as well look at the sunshine and the flowers while you can."

It's funny how much I like this book, considering that I consider this life philosophy to be antithetical to my own. I mean, I'm the queen of the "Just because you can't save the world doesn't mean there's an excuse not to try," club. I'm a firm believer in fighting destiny and I love free will. But I get why Billy Pilgrim's flat time is so appealing. I get it. It absolves us of having to deal with trauma and it's a comfort when we've been hurt. We were always going to be hurt, so there's no use in going back over it and trying to figure out what went wrong. Just move on.

And, to a certain extent, I agree with this philosophy as it regards the past. I'm not overly interested in thinking about hypotheticals in the past. What if the Hindenburg hadn't happened and zeppelins were still okay? What if the Nazis had won WWII? What if Al Gore became president? Who cares?

I'm not interested in talking about how the past might have gone, but I am interested in talking about where the future will go. And to that means, I am invested in looking at why certain things happen in history, even if I really don't care about imagining scenarios where they didn't. 

What am I getting at? Well aside from really wishing that we spent more time talking about Slaughterhouse-Five in school - I think that if we're going to talk about post-war American fiction, this should be top of the list - I think this book is important as a reminder that the truth isn't always as clear cut as we want it to be. It's a reminder I have to give myself a lot of the time, but it basically all comes back to the sheer unreliability of the plot in this book and how that doesn't necessarily make it any less true.

Billy Pilgrim may or may not actually be time-traveling and hanging out with aliens in this book. We really don't know and we really aren't supposed to know. It's easy to come up with simple explanations that push it one way or another, but frankly, we're never going to have a real answer. There isn't one. Instead, we have to decide as an audience if the question even matters.

Does it matter whether or not Billy Pilgrim was actually traveling in time? Does it matter if Kurt Vonnegut really was in all the situations he says he was? Is the book any worse if we stop worrying what of it is true?

I like that Slaughterhouse-Five is so impenetrable. I love that we don't know what's true. But what I really appreciate is the idea that it doesn't actually matter to us whether Billy Pilgrim's story is true or not. It's not the important part. What's important is whether or not we get something out of it. And this is true of all fiction. It's not less valuable for being "not true", because fiction is about getting across emotional truths with words. So in a sense it is true and it isn't, and I like that.

In science fiction especially, I think we get too caught up sometimes in making sure that our stories are "realistic" and "could actually happen." That doesn't actually matter. The lack of accurate physics in Star Wars doesn't make it a less compelling story at all. We don't need objective truth for subjective truths to hit home. We just need to be willing to listen.

So thanks, Kurt Vonnegut, for writing a confusing little book about a sad little man. I think the best part is how much you would enjoy hearing it described that way.