Strong Female Characters (TM)

So in the last month, I feel like there’s been a resurgence of uproar about women in media and the mythological Strong Female Character (TM). Between Black Widow’s role in the most recent Avengers film to the horrid debacle that is Game of Thrones and Sansa’s character arc and the newly released Mad Max: Fury Road (which I have not yet seen), there’s been lots and lots of talk about what it means to be a Strong Female Character (TM) and how if a female character isn’t a Strong Female Character (TM), then she is some how weak, less valuable than her fellow characters, and deserves all sorts of awful things that happen to her.

And this is why I kind of think the whole concept of Strong Female Character (TM) is a bunch of bunk.

image from bloody-disgusting.com

When people talk about SFCs, they’re usually only using the word “strong” in the physical sense of the word. SFCs are physically strong and feisty and they’re good to have in a fight. Sometimes, SFCs are ultra-tomboys who eschew everything feminine. Other times, they’re more along the lines of Buffy (aka the Vampire Slayer), who enjoys traditionally feminine things like clothes and romance but who is also good in a fight.

On the surface, there’s nothing wrong with characters like this. Absolutely nothing wrong. There are women who don’t like traditionally feminine things. There are women who like to fight. There are women who are a mix of both. And it’s good and right to have representation of women like this in our media.

My problem is when we start acting like physical strength is the only way to make a female character strong and when we act like the presence or absence of physical strength (usually examined in conjunction with the presence or absence of traditionally feminine qualities or interests) is the sole deciding factor in whether a female character is “worthy” of our interest, if she’s “feminist enough,” or whether or not she deserves awful things happening to her.

image from comicvine.com

Take for example the backlash over Black Widow from Age of Ultron. In the film, she’s up to her usual ass-kicking but she also (1) had a love interest and (2) expressed some guilt/sadness/conflicting feelings over having been forcibly sterilized as a teenager, and large swaths of the internet lost their minds over this. Suddenly Black Widow was a weak woman. Suddenly she was just another woman who’s head was filled with notions of romance. I saw one criticism that accused her of infantalizing the Hulk so she could unleash all her long-buried maternal instincts upon him. While I will admit that the bulk of her screen time was seen in conjunction with the Hulk and the bulk of her character arc for this movie was a romantic one and that perhaps the movie could have struck a better balance in that regard, but at the same time, what on earth is wrong with a woman having romantic feelings for someone? What is wrong with her mourning the fact that the choice to have children or not was taken from her? (And let’s not forget that she had just relived the memory of being sterilized, so of course that’s wound is going to feel fresh all over again.)

I’m not saying that everyone has to love the way Black Widow’s character has developed, but it would be nice to not rake her over the coals because she’s a single character who cannot please everyone. (This is where the real problem is, by the way. If we had a better spread of female characters who embodied a wide range of interests and personalities and strengths and weaknesses, we wouldn’t spend weeks ripping apart a single character for not being everything we wanted. But that’s for another post.)

What I would love for people to start doing is to recognize that being strong doesn’t just mean being physically strong. As we work to make our media more inclusive, we need to remember that physical strength is not the only way to be strong. A few months ago, I stumbled across a post on tumblr that listed forty-two different kinds of strengths. FORTY-TWO! While some of those strengths were physical (endurance or dance/kinesthetics), none of the strengths on the list had anything to do with combat ability. Most of them were things like “having a keen eye” or “being self-aware” or “willing to be unpopular.” You know what else was on the list? Kindness. Sympathy. Elegance. Emotional intelligence. Style. All of those are things traditionally associated with femininity and none of them are things that are traditionally considered strengths—but adding these qualities to your characters will make them strong and interesting and well-rounded.

So let’s stop pretending that the ability to fight is the only way to measure strength and start recognizing the importance of other kinds of strength.

On Hooks and Promises

We hear the term hook thrown around a lot. Your story needs a good hook. No one will read past the first page if you don’t have a good hook. What’s your hook? And so on and so forth. But what exactly do we mean by this?

Hooks are, simply put, the interesting bit in the beginning of your story or your novel or your screenplay that…well, that hooks the reader into the story. I think, however, that we get used to talking about hooks in terms of “what’s the new exciting thing that will engage the reader” and less in terms of “what does this hook say about my story,” and the more I think about it, the more I think we need to be talking about that.

Because while a hook is certainly grabbing and engaging and interesting, it also makes a lot of promises to your reader—promises that they’re going to expect you to uphold and fulfill. So let’s talk about the larger scope of hooks. Not the opening line or even the opening paragraph—but the opening scene (or scenes) that set the tone for your work and tells the reader exactly what they’re getting themselves into.

image from rebeccaberto.com

The bulk of my formal writing education was taught by people who write different sorts of books than I do. While I write fantasy and have had the privilege to learn at the feet of some of the great fantasy writers of our time, a lot of the writers I’ve looked up to in the recent years write action-packed fantasy, full of rule-based magic systems and grand adventures. I enjoy reading those books, of course, but I tend to write…quieter stories. Fantasy that is focused on clashing cultures and social structures and political strife—and while there’s still plenty of action and adventure that happens in my books, the climaxes of my stories are more likely to happen in a single room than on a grand battle front.

Neither of these types of stories are better than the other and there’s an audience for both, but the sort of hooks that work in big action-packed epic fantasy aren’t going to work as well for the sort of things I write—and it took me longer than it should have to realize that.

First of all, hooks don’t have to be action sequences. I realized that I kept trying to start off my books with explosions and chase scenes when my books weren’t really about explosions and chase scenes, and by trying to set my books up with those as opening scenes, I was making a promise to my readers that I had no intention of fulfilling. When a book opens with a fast-paced fight scene, that’s what the reader is going to expect throughout the rest of the story. Almost every episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer opens with a scene of Buffy taking out some big bad demon and that sets the tone for the rest of the episode. It says, “Hello, viewer, in this show, you are going to get cool fighting choreography and witty banter.” But if you take the opening scene of Buffy and attach it to, say, an episode of Gilmore Girls, the people who tuned in for the cool fighting choreography are going to be disappointed (though the people watching for witty banter will probably be pleased).

A hook needs to set the tone for what you’re writing. That’s its main job. Pride and Prejudice opens with the arrival of Mr. Bingley at Netherfield and Mrs. Bennett’s assertions that he will make a fine husband for one of her daughters. That hook promises romance and some fun commentary of class and social mores of the time. One of the first scenes in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix involves Harry and the Dursleys being swarmed with owls from everyone from Albus Dumbledore to the Ministry of Magic, all carrying conflicting messages, which makes the promise that while Voldemort is certainly a problem in that book, the Ministry of Magic is going to be an even bigger and more immediate problem. Captain America: The Winter Soldier opens with Captain America and Black Widow embarking on a mission for SHIELD. The scene makes the promise that this movie will have lots of cool fight scenes, that it will focus on Captain America and Black Widow and SHIELD, and that Captain America’s ability to trust the people he’s working with will be a major plot point.

Which brings me to the next point: your hook should do more than one thing. It does more than set the tone, it also introduces characters and plot points and setting—and The Avengers: Age of Ultron did a remarkable job of that. (Warnings for mild spoilers of AoU. I know it only came out over the weekend, but the opening did too good of a job to pass up.) The movie starts in media res as the Avengers storm a Hydra Research Facility in Sokovia, a country in Eastern Europe, where they hope to reclaim Loki’s Scepter. The whole gang is there, but the characters who seemed to get more screen time than the rest were Black Widow, the Hulk, and Hawkeye. Later, we’ll find out that each of these characters have personal issues that will become substantial plot points. (Which is especially nice because the other characters get entire movies to themselves to sort out their personal issues.) By focusing on those three characters in the beginning, the movie promises that these three will be big players throughout the rest of the film.

And that’s not all the intro did. It introduced us to Sokovia. Which happens to be where the final battle takes place, and which happens to be where Pietro and Wanda Maximoff are from—and oh yeah, Pietro and Wanda are also going to be big players in this film and they also get screen time in the opening fight scene. In the opening scene, we see Iron Man’s preoccupation with protecting innocent civilians through the use of his Iron Legion program and that particular preoccupation is what launches the whole story forward. The intro also focused on Loki’s Scepter, although at risk of unleashing major spoilers, I’m not going to tell you why this is important to the rest of the film. You’ll just have to take my word for it.

In the opening sequence, they set the tone for the movie (lots of action! Captain America and Iron Man bickering! More fighting!), they showed us which characters were going to be important (Hawkeye, Black Widow, the Hulk, Pietro and Wanda Maximoff), they introduced us to an important location (Sokovia!), and they hinted at important plot points (Loki’s Scepter, Iron Man’s Iron Legion program)—and all of that was done in about fifteen minutes of a movie that runs nearly two and a half hours long.

When you sit down to write or revise the beginning of your story, look at what parts of the story you’re focusing on and think ahead to what sort of promises those are making. If in your first draft, you opened with a light-hearted romance scene and then the book ends up being about a woman dealing with a mental illness…well, then you need to revise your hook. Readers who are hooked by the light-hearted romance might not be looking for a book about mental illness, and the people who do want that book might be turned off by the opening romance. As a writer, it’s your job to make sure the beginning of the book sets the tone and makes the sort of promises that are necessary to tell the story you want to tell.

YA and Adult Epic Fantasy: What’s the difference?

So I recently moved across the country and in the process of getting to know people, I’ve often been asked what sort of books I read or what my favorite books are—you know, the normal questions avid readers get when getting to know new people. I have no problem rattling off recent favorite titles and I’m not ashamed to tell people that I read a lot of YA fantasy these days.

But having this conversation so often in such a short span of time has got me thinking: what exactly is the difference between a YA fantasy novel and an adult fantasy novel? Why have the people I talked to been so accepting of my adult fantasy tastes but always give me odd looks when I tell them about my favorite YA fantasies?

Now, I’ve taken classes on YA literature and as a connoisseur of YA books, I know all sorts answers to these questions. Adults who read YA are immature or suffering from a Peter Pan complex. YA and adult books are perceived as being fundamentally different. The age of the protagonists. The length of the book. The pacing. The themes.

But so much of that is flexible. Plenty of adult fantasy novels feature teenage protagonists. Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn books come to mind, as Vin is only sixteen in those books. Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicle might also fit into that category, because even though the story is framed by adult Kvothe, it’s primarily about young adult Kvothe. Karen Memory, the adult steampunk novel I’m currently reading, is about a teenage girl, but it’s still considered an adult novel.

But, you say, there’s still length and pacing and thematic elements to consider while determining the difference between adult and young adult, and I will grant you all those things. Sanderson and Rothfuss and George R.R. Martin—all staples of the adult fantasy market these days—have long books that sometimes feel like they’re plodding along and Martin’s work certainly has dark enough thematic elements that I’d think twice about handing it to my teenage sister. (Though to be fair, I’d think twice about handing it to any of my sisters, but different strokes for different folks and all that. I just don’t think that those books would appeal to any of my family members.)

Pacing and themes and length, however, also don’t solely determine what’s YA and what’s adult. Since Sanderson broke into the YA scene with The Rithmatist and Steelheart, both released in 2013, I’ve noticed that Mistborn has been rebranded as a YA book. It’s on the shelves as a new YA release at my local Barnes and Noble. I don’t have a problem with this, mind you. I think Mistborn, along with a lot of other adult fantasy novels, hold a lot of appeal for teenagers. In fact, as a teenager, I read far more adult fantasy novels than I do now. I think we should encourage cross-over books like this. We should encourage people to explore young adult and adult books equally.

YA cover art for Mistborn sampaints.com

I think my problem comes when we sort of brush of YA books as “lesser” or when we don’t treat YA epic fantasies with the same respect we treat adult epic fantasies. This is nothing new, of course. Every couple of months, there’s some think piece about how adults should be ashamed of reading YA and then there’s a barrage of rebuttals extolling the virtues of young adult literature. I’ve even written one of those rebuttals. This is a conversation I’m used to having, but I think it’s one that we need to keep having. Because when I talk to new people and we start talking about books and start recommending titles to each other, I am always braced for the sneering and snubbing of my favorite YA fantasy titles, even when they’re as deep and well-developed and nuanced as adult fantasy novels.

Take, for instance, Robin LaFevers His Fair Assassin books. I read the first book, Grave Mercy, not long after it came out because Tricia and Megan recommended it to me, telling me that it was a book about assassin nuns. How could I resist? And I fell in love with these books. If you’re looking for a medieval fantasy and you haven’t read those books, go now. Stop reading this post and go buy the first book. You’ll thank me. These books are filled with depth and character and political intrigue and clashing religions. The world building in these books is spot on and the research LaFevers has done to make these books accurate to the time period is exhausting. Each book has an afterward in which she talks about the historical context—what she’s changed for her own uses and what she kept the same—and she even talks about historically accurate language. I believe at one point she apologizes using the word saboteur because the word hadn’t been invented in the time period the book takes place. This woman knows her stuff and I am in awe of her.

image from girlslife.com

And if you think YA fantasy novels can’t be as dark or “edgy” as their adult counterparts, let me introduce you to Dark Triumph, the second book in the series. Dark Triumph is the sort of book I hand to people with a warning. It involves abusive family relationships, incestuous relationships, the violent murder of a newborn in front of the baby’s mother, and the effects growing up in that environment has on mental health and personal identity. This book doesn’t pull its punches. The threat of rape and violence against women—which George R.R. Martin insists that he includes for “historical accuracy”—is very much present in this book, but unlike in Martin’s books, women rise and triumph over this misogyny. Sybella, the protagonist of Dark Triumph, begins a journey of healing and recovery and self-discovery in that book and despite all the dark, horrible things that take place between the cover of that book, it ends on a note of hope.

And perhaps that is the real difference between adult fantasy and young adult fantasy. No matter how dark the journey contained in a young adult book, they almost always tend to end on a note of triumph and hope. Good wins over evil. People—both good and bad—get what they deserve in the end. No matter how close the world came to ending, balance is always restored.

This isn’t to say that adult fantasy novels all end in tragedy, but I think perhaps adult fantasy novels tend to sacrifice some optimism in exchange for “realism” or “accuracy.” And maybe other readers will think that, as an adult, I need to open my eyes and be aware of the “real world” and develop cynicism to wear as a shield, but I think I’ll stick with YA optimism, thank you very much.

The other big difference I keep coming back to between YA fantasy and adult fantasy, though, is the gender of the protagonist (and often the gender of the writer as well). I have made no effort to hide my undying love for Tamora Pierce’s YA fantasy novels, but I have never once found an adult fantasy novel with such well done female characters. I’m sure those books are out there and some of my favorite lady authors write adult fantasy featuring complex lady characters, but I don’t think I’ve ever found an adult fantasy where girls and women are the heroes of the story full stop. (If you, dear reader, have any recommendations for adult fantasy novels were ladies are the focal point, I’d love to hear it!) In most of the adult books I’ve read, the protagonist has been a man, but usually with a kick-ass woman at his side to help him complete his journey. But it’s his journey, not hers.

In YA, we have dozens and dozens of books that are about girls’ journeys. The works of Tamora Pierce and Robin LaFevers and Rae Carson and Sarah J Maas are all about the paths and journeys of girls and women. The focal character is someone like me and I like that. I like it a lot. I like seeing girls framed as heroes. I like seeing girls saving the day and falling in love at the end. I like seeing girls work with other girls to build a better future for themselves. In Rae Carson’s Fire and Thorns series, I literally got shivers when I read about Elisa and Alodia and Cosme meeting together as leaders of their countries because I had never read a story where not one but three positions of world power were held by girls.

I’ve spent a lot of my time reading books about boys and men going off on grand adventures and while I’ve enjoyed those stories, they don’t resonate with me the way stories about girls and women do—and that’s not something I’m ashamed of.

Agent Carter

When I first heard rumblings about the ABC show Agent Carter, I told myself I wasn’t going to watch it. From the limited previews I’d seen, the show seemed too violent for my tastes and I figured that this show would be another case of media over-masculinizing a female character to make her “strong.” But after the first two episodes aired, I started seeing gif sets and screen shots on tumblr that indicated that maybe my assumptions about the show was wrong.

So I gave it a chance.

And it turned out I was soooo wrong. Agent Carter is not the perfect show and it’s not without issues (most notably the complete lack of POC in the show), but in terms of female representation and “strong female characters,” this show is doing a lot of things right.

Female Friendships

Probably my favorite character in the show is Angie Martinelli. She’s a waitress at a diner that Peggy Carter frequents and she’s the character who ties Peggy to the “normal” world—the world without super soldiers and spies. From the moment she opens her mouth, Angie is fun and she’s witty and she’s friendly. She reaches out to Peggy, who (as far as Angie knows) is just another working woman, and they become friends.

image from marvelcinematicuniverse.wikia.com

And it’s beautiful.

In so many shows, women are pitted against each other. They have to compete for the much-vaunted male attention. They’re not allowed to be friends, not allowed to be supportive of each other, because…well, I don’t know why. Maybe because it’d hurt the male protagonists feelings to have someone not prioritize him all the time? Who knows. But in Agent Carter, Angie and Peggy are allowed to be friends. When Angie gets harassed by entitled men at the diner, Peggy comes to her defense. When Peggy has had an awful day at work, she’s able to go to Angie for sympathy. They support each other. Their relationship isn’t defined by some man that they have in common—if anything, their relationship is cemented because of men in general and their need to stand together against a sexist society.

Peggy doesn’t bring out the old tropes that we all know—and hate—so well. She doesn’t try to buddy up to the boys because she’s “not like other girls.” She doesn’t eschew traditionally feminine things. She doesn’t dumb herself down or butch herself up to get men’s attention or respect. Instead, she makes friends with Angie and the girls she lives with and genuinely cares about them. She embraces feminine interests because she knows her enemies will underestimate her because of them. When Peggy pushes Angie away to protect her in episode two, Angie gets annoyed but she also forgives Peggy when she apologizes and extends a hand of friendship by the end of the episode. Both of these women are treated as people instead of side-characters for men to flirt with.

Non-romantic Male-Female Relationships

The relationship between Jarvis and Peggy is also a breath of fresh air because Jarvis isn’t romantically interested in Peggy at all. He’s married—and happily prioritizes his relationship with his wife over anything that Howard Stark or Peggy need from him—and fills the role of a plucky sidekick (and reliable friend) quite well. Jarvis is different from the chauvinistic men that Peggy works with and different from Agent Sousa, the one co-worker of Peggy’s who isn’t a sexist pig. With Peggy and Sousa, there’s an element of romantic tension in their relationship, though not one that’s been developed at all, but Jarvis and Peggy don’t have any of that tension.

Their relationship is also fun because it subverts so much of the male-female co-worker relationships we’ve seen in the MCU. With Iron Man, we’ve got Tony and Pepper Pots (who, admittedly, do become romantic interests for each other). Tony was out playing the superhero, and Pepper stayed behind to do the low-key (and highly necessarily) desk work. In The Winter Soldier, Captain America and Black Widow work together as equals for most of the film. At times, Black Widow is even able to step in and save Steve Rogers (eg when they’re being tracked down in the mall) because she’s used to working stealthily and he’s not. In both cases, the women are allowed to shine in their respective ways and I don’t think anyone could argue that they’re not valuable characters in their movies, but they’re not the main characters either. The movie isn’t about them, it’s about Tony or Steve.

image from vignette1.wikia.nocookie.net

In Agent Carter, though, the show is about Peggy. It’s about her struggles at work, it’s about her trying to clear Howard Stark’s name, it’s about her trying to move on from Steve and WWII and build a life for herself. Her problems are front and center, not a male characters. She’s the title character. She doesn’t play second-fiddle to Jarvis and she proves over and over again that she’s more competent than the men she works with. She’s the hero in this show, and it’s nice to see Marvel developing a show around a woman and allowing her to shine.

It’s Not About Steve

When I told my husband about this show, his first question was, “So is it about her getting over Captain America?” and I was so happy to be able to say, “No.” Because while Peggy’s pain at having lost Steve Rogers is certainly a motivating factor for her actions—particularly when it comes to protecting people she cares about—the show is not about Peggy “getting over” Steve or learning to love again or any number of overdone plots for female characters.

At the end of the day, Steve barely factors into the show. There are references to Captain America here and there—my favorite being the radio show that served as a bookend for episode two—but Peggy is treated as a person who exists outside of Captain America. In the first Captain America movie, where we first meet Peggy Carter, she is largely there to be the romantic interest for Steve Rogers and Haley Atwell does a wonderful job in that role, but in Agent Carter, she gets to be so much more. She’s not someone’s love interest. She’s her own person, with hopes and dreams and strengths and witnesses and delightfully dry British wit. She’s out to prove herself to her boss and she’s out to clear Howard Stark’s name—because he’s a friend, an old war buddy and not because they’re romantic partners.

Now, I don’t mean to sound like I think any female character with a romance plotline isn’t being a “strong female character” because I don’t think that at all. Love and romance is an important part of many people’s lives and we shouldn’t shame women for taking an interest in their own love lives and the loves lives of their friends, but it seems to me that having a female character without any sort of romantic plot or subplot is pretty rare. This is part of having diverse representation. We can have women with romantic plotlines and women without romantic plotline, just like we have plenty of male characters with and without romantic plotlines. Peggy isn’t defined by her relationship to Steve. She defines herself.

image from people.com

And that’s something we need more of.

On Censorship

In 2012, as I was scrambling to finish up my undergaduate degree, I took a class on young adult literature (because who wouldn’t want to take a class on YA lit, right?). Most of my classmates were English education majors and planned on teaching English lit to middle school and high school students and as such we had a lot of discussions about the appropriateness of material for different age groups and acting as gatekeepers of books for young readers—and that eventually led to a discussion on censorship. It’s been more than two years since I was in that class, but in all that time, one sentiment from our censorship discussion has stuck with me:

The problem with standing against censorship is who you end up standing with.

I have no problem bashing censorship along with librarians and English teachers across the country. I had no problem telling all those silly parents who were trying to ban Harry Potter from their kids’ school libraries back in the Harry Potter heyday that they were being completely ridiculous. I have no problem proudly sharing my goal of one day writing a book that ends up on a banned list (what an honor it’d be to be in such illustrious company!).

But it’s not just librarians and English teachers and nice folks who have a problem with censorship. It’s also icky people like child pornographers and racists and bigots and the ilk that haunt MRA websites. It’s people who mean to cause harm with their words or people who deliberately spread misinformation to stir up mass hysteria.

And I can’t really say that I oppose censorship against things that I agree with while censoring things I find abhorrent. It’s kind of a double-standard and by fighting against censorship, I find myself fighting alongside people I’d rather never be associated with.

And that’s really uncomfortable.

Of course, there are limits to free speech. There is legal and necessary censorship. Those child pornographers, for instance, are breaking the law because the creation of their content involves the abuse and exploitation of children. And there are all sorts of laws that protect against defamation and libel and sedition and hate speech and probably a lot more that I can’t remember because government and politics were never my strong suit. Those are all good things and I do think that those limitations to free speech are necessary and useful.

But in the day to day, things get a little murky and in light of recent events, I wonder if writers and content creators are self-censoring too much out of fear of offending or out of fear of extremist retribution.

On the one hand, I get this fear and this self-censorship completely. I’m a bit of a bleeding heart and I’d be devastated to learn that my words harmed or offended people—especially marginalized groups who have a hard enough time with decent representation as it is. I don’t want to hurt people, I don’t want to offend, I don’t want to cross-lines and step on toes—and sometimes I worry if that stops me from trying at all. Sometimes I worry that I can’t help diversify literature because it’s not my place to tell those stories, even though countless voices among the We Need Diverse Books campaign assure me and others like me that it’s better to try. It’s better to dig deep and research and revise and talk to diverse voices and incorporate feedback and revise again and still put my work out there, knowing full well that some people might be upset, that some people might disagree, but that fear isn’t a good enough reason not to try.

And on the other hand, I want to tell people to stop being so sensitive. I want to tell them that they don’t have to consume media that doesn’t fit their tastes. They can ignore it if it offends them. No one is making them read or watch or consume. But I also realize that makes me sound like a Class A Jerk and that especially where marginalized groups are concerned, creators need to be sensitive and aware of the negative and harmful stereotypes they might be perpetuating and they need to stop that. Nothing I write and share is exists in a vacuum and it’s my responsibility as a content creator not make the world worse.

At the end of the day, I think the content created with honesty and integrity will have the most impact and be the most memorable. Content based in hatred and harm will sink to the bottom and content that fosters dialog and positive change will surface over and over again, but we still have to slog through all the crap to get there. We still have to deal with the fact that there will always be extremists and there will always be bigots and there will always be jerks who enjoy harming other people—and we still have to deal with the fact that they are entitled to say their piece (and I’m entitled to think their piece is a load of crap and write up lengthy diatribes about how wrong they are).

I don’t know if this post really has a point. (Every one of my old English teachers would be horrified by the lack of point in this post.) I’m not even sure I really know what I’m trying to say. But in light of the recent tragedy in France, censorship and freedom of speech—especially in regards to content that people might find problematic—have been on my mind. No one should have to die for proclaiming what truths speak to them—no matter how irreverently it’s portrayed. No group—be it government or extremists on either end of the political spectrum—has the right to attempt to silence the voice of another group.

We all have voices. We all have stories and truths to tell. And I believe our voices and our stories are powerful things.

Let’s just try to use those voices responsibly.

The Devil’s in the Details

My husband and I recently started watching a show called The 100 on Netflix. The 100 is based on a book series of the same name by Kass Morgan and the first season aired on the CW last year. (Oddly enough, I heard absolutely nothing about this show until the last few months when it made its way to Netflix and, subsequently, made its way to tumblr fandoms.) Anyway, as far as entertaining and diverse media goes, I’d give The 100 a solid A. I’m only six or seven episodes into season one, but the cast features plenty of PoC and women as driving forces of the narrative instead of just background decoration, and that’s something I can always stand behind—especially when it’s entertaining too!

The-100-cast-season-one

image from primetime.unrealitytv.co.uk

 

The 100’s grade starts slipping a little, though, in the details of its storytelling. During the first three episodes, my husband and I had a rousing good time picking apart all the flaws in the plot and in the costuming and in the world building. To be fair, I’m married to the sort of person who spends the drive home every time we go see a movie picking apart every single detail about said movie that doesn’t make sense and he can be overly critical, but at the same time, I feel like he and I were making some good points—and these good points have shifted The 100 from “oh my gosh everyone go watch this show it’s amazing!!!” to “eh it’s a pretty good show and entertaining, but it could have been so much better.”

Let’s look at the costume design. The 100 is set 97 years after a nuclear fallout on Earth and the only surviving humans are the descendants of people who’d been living on twelve different space stations (now hodge-podged together into one). The only resources these people have are what already existed on those space stations at the time of Earth’s destruction. And yet everyone wears tailored-to-fit skinny jeans and I’m pretty sure that the teenage cast (the 100 juvenile delinquents sent to Earth to see if it’s survivable) were all outfitted with custom made leather jackets before they were booted out of the space station. (How else are we supposed to indicate that they’re delinquents if they’re not wearing leather?)

The show has nodded to the fact that the people on the space station to recycle and reuse a lot of clothes and shoes and supplies, but there hasn’t been a significant explanation of why those space stations had all that gear in the first place.

And beyond the jeans and leather jackets, we’ve seen a couple of girls in their underwear and so we know that at least one of the girls wears a standard underwire bra—that apparently fits her like a dream even though that bra is 97 years old (or has been repurposed from 97 year old parts). I’m lucky if my bras last more than a year.

Now, I suppose a lot of this is probably nit-picking. It’s just costuming, right? Besides, skinny jeans and combat boots and leather jackets are part of the post-apocalyptic aesthetic and that sort of aesthetic is important when marketing a show so people know what they’re getting themselves into. Fine. Fair enough. I’ll give you that.

But what about this guy?

image from thetvaddict.com

image from thetvaddict.com

This guy is a grounder—the descendant of one of the humans who survived the nuclear fallout 97 years ago. Until the 100 showed up, he’d been living in a cave, but LOOK AT THAT T-SHIRT! I can perhaps buy that the clothes on the space station have held up better than they should because they haven’t been exposed to natural elements, but this guy has been living in a cave and I’m pretty sure I could find that exact shirt out at Hollister or something. That doesn’t suggest to me that the grounders have been living it rough the last 97 years.

Another thing about that character? He speaks and understands English. In the episode where he’s introduced, the showrunners make a little nod to the fact that he probably doesn’t understand English, but by the end of the episode, it becomes pretty clear that he does. And while 97 years isn’t enough time for language to completely shift—enough time for the space survivors and the grounders to be using wildly different dialects, perhaps, but not enough for them to be speaking completely different languages—I still have a hard time believing that the 100’s space pod, which essentially crash-landed in the middle of a forest in some unidentified part of the world, happened to land in the pocket of the world that still speaks English. The odds are unfathomable.

And from here, my problems with the details in the storytelling only get worse. In the first few episodes, several of the teenagers take a dip in a river. How did they learn to swim? I doubt their space station has a lap pool. Even if they do have enough water to fill a lap pool, I doubt they’d want that water being contaminated by people swimming in it.

And that time they had to save one of their buddies from a fever from an infected wound? As far as I can tell, they just went out to the same river and grabbed a handful of radioactive-red seaweed and…boiled it? And it saved him? Granted, I know nothing about herbal remedies, but doesn’t anyone else think that the flora on Earth would be so warped by radiation that you shouldn’t really trust it without testing it first?

And when some of the 100 drag home a wild monster-puma for everyone to eat, how do they know how to cook it? Have any of them ever eaten meat? Where did they get meat in space? And how do they know how to control fire so well? Considering the space station is running out of oxygen, I’d assume that fire would be a number one banned item in space considering how it feeds off oxygen.

On the subject of oxygen, what’s the deal with the space station government executing criminals by throwing them out of an airlock—along with an entire room full of oxygen? The method of execution does add some fun vernacular—the practice is called “floating” and leads to such phrases as “Oh, go float yourself”—but for a people concerned with conserving oxygen, it does not make an ounce of sense to launch your criminals into space through an airlock without vacuuming the oxygen out of the room in the first place! Especially since these people operate by a “one strike and you’re out” policy. How much oxygen have they wasted by booting people out of airlocks like that? How much of their current crisis could have been avoided if they’d figured out a better way to kill their criminals?

At the end of the day, all of these details are pretty extraneous. None of them are terribly important to the plot and none of them feel like gimmicks designed to prop the plot up (which is a worse crime, in my opinion). But the fact is that these extraneous details pull me out of the show and out of the story. As much as I enjoy the show, I can’t help but notice all these little things that don’t make sense and then I spend time complaining about it with my husband instead of paying attention to the show. The show is very good, but it’s not mind-blowing in the way it could have been…all because the attention to detail is a little lacking.

Content Warning Not Needed

So this showed up in my twitter feed last weekend:

And I have Thoughts.

But first, a story. Like Kiersten White, I graduated from BYU, which was a great school for me and provided me with a thorough education…but it also happens to be one of the least LGBT-friendly schools in the country. Casual homophobia is pretty common on campus, which is a real shame, but that’s not exactly what this story is about. This story is about the conversation I had with a girl in the dorm cafeteria my freshman year.

This particular girl was the friend of a casual acquaintance. I didn’t know her terribly well. In fact, I’m not even certain of her name at this point. (I can’t even remember if I’m thinking of the right girl or if this conversation happened between me and this girl’s friend, who happened to look remarkably similar in that weird way that best friends or dogs and their owners tend to look like each other.) Anyway, for the sake of simplicity, we’re going to call this girl Alice. As far as I knew, Alice was a nice enough person. Friendly, though perhaps a little overeager to give hugs. (That’s another story. Remind me and I’ll tell you one day.)

Anyway, because Alice was the friend of a casual acquaintance who was friends with my friends, sometimes she ended up sitting at my table in the dorm cafeteria. Not a big deal. I’m a bit territorial but I know how to share. On this particular day, my friends and I and Alice and her friends were talking about books, which is one of the few topics that I could talk for hours about. Specifically, we were talking about favorite books growing up and one of my friends mentioned Tamora Pierce.

Now let’s be clear here. I’m a rabid Tamora Pierce fangirl. I practically have her Tortall books memorized. I have read those books so many times that the words have etched themselves into my bones and there’s a pretty good chance that I learned a lot of my feminist ideology from Tamora Pierce’s books. Between the ages of 9 and 18, if I wasn’t reading a Harry Potter book, odds were I was reading a Tamora Pierce book.

So when my friend mentioned Tamora Pierce, I immediately launched into a speech about my undying love for her and her books and how fundamental they were in shaping me as a person.

Across the table, Alice said something along the lines of, “Oh, I really liked her books for a while, but in the Circle of Magic books there was some…content…that I wasn’t ready for and I had a lot of issues with it.”

After some prompting, she admitted she was referring to Daja, the series’ young lesbian protagonist, and Rosethorn and Lark, an adult same-gender couple in the series who helped take care of the books’ four protagonists.

Now, if you haven’t read these books, first please repent and go to your local bookstore or library and fix the problem immediately. If you don’t have the time, let me explain a few things. Daja’s sexuality isn’t really explored until The Will of the Empress, which is a stand alone that takes place after the series’ two quartets. I’ve only read The Will of the Empress once, as I’ve always preferred Pierce’s Tortall books, and looking back, I hardly remember anything about Daja’s relationship with her girlfriend in that book. Considering I was a sheltered young Mormon girl when I read that book, I’m pretty sure I would have remembered if there was any sort of graphic sexual content. As for Rosethorn and Lark, well, I didn’t realize they had a romantic and sexual relationship until years after I had read the book. As far as I was concerned, the two women were friends who lived in the same house and took care of young magical children together. The fact that they were in a relationship—even though it was apparently stated explicitly in The Will of the Empress—never even crossed my mind.

But apparently these two portrayals of same-gender relationships was enough to scar Alice. She wasn’t ready for same-gender relationships. Seeing them portrayed—arguably in a non-graphic way—was enough for her to have “issues” with the books.

I don’t blame Alice for that. Having been raised in a conservative household where even opposite-gender sex wasn’t talked about, I know what it’s like to have to make nice with topics that make you feel a little awkward. A lot of us have had to do some learning when it comes to dealing with LGBT+ people and relationships.

But the thing is, books like Tamora Pierce’s or Cassandra Clare’s or David Leviathan’s help with that learning process. For kids from conservative homes where anything other than heteronormative relationships are taboo, being able to access these characters and these conversations in books is absolutely vital. They’re even more vital for the LGBT+ kids who grow up in those conservative homes. If you don’t understand how powerful it is to see characters like yourself in the books you read when you don’t know anyone like yourself, go check out the We Need Diverse Books campaign.

Here’s the thing that still bothers me about that conversation six years ago: Alice seemed to think that the homosexual content of those books—as innocent and clean as the heterosexual content in those books—was somehow deserving of a warning or a higher content rating. Having LGBT characters made her code those books as something bad, as something not for young people.

Because there’s idea that gets tossed around that LGBT people and their relationships are inherently perverse or dirty. It’s what conservative people mean by “the gay lifestyle.” They are coding relationships that are no better or worse than opposite-gender relationships as being different, as being Other, as being bad and dangerous and not safe to talk about. These relationships are seen as being adult with a capital A and not appropriate for children.

Now take a moment and think what that means to an LGBT+ teen who doesn’t have access to community support. Instead of getting access to books and stories where they can see their own puppy love and first crushes—the sort of stories that flood the shelves for their straight friends—they get told that the kind of relationships they want are too Adult for them to read about, that there is something inherently dirty or shameful about their love lives.

Do we all see how wrong that is?

Content warnings have their place. I don’t like reading or watching things with lots of graphic violence—especially violence against women. Other people don’t like reading or watching things with lots of explicit sexual content. Some people need warnings about sexual violence in a book or portrayals of abusive relationships or even something as simple as foul language.

But books with LGBT+ characters who are living their lives and having adventures and not engaging in any of those things doesn’t need a content warning. The existence of LGBT people in relationships with each other is not something that people need to be shielded from.

So next time someone suggests that a book might not be appropriate for younger readers because it tells the stories of an LGBT+ person, ask them if they’d feel the same way if all the characters were straight. If the answer is no, then a content warning is not needed.