Ladies, Please

We live in a time where the world is more aware than ever that there are more people in it besides white males over 21 who own land.

There is a high demand for more diverse representation in our media: diversity in race, culture, religion, sexual orientation, etc. There are so many voices that need to be heard, and there is no question that we will suffer as a society until equality for all people is achieved.

However, before we can truly begin to grasp all the ways people differ, I think the world needs to fully embrace the fact that there is more than one gender on the planet. One-half of the population still needs to be represented.

I’m talking about you, ladies. About us and our representation.

Rather than complain about all the ways that people are doing it wrong, I would like to focus on the people who are doing it right. My heroes in the entertainment industry.

First up, of course, is the wonderful Joss Whedon, a brilliant mind in the film industry. Joss is responsible for giving us shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dollhouse, and Firefly. Joss isn’t afraid to have a female play the leading role in his shows. And in shows where he doesn’t have a female lead, he ensures that his cast is full of female characters. Female characters who don’t all have the same personality. Look at Inara, Kaylee, River, and Zoe. Vastly different characters—all with important roles to play. None of these girls are present to merely be a love interest. Zoe is the one always helping Mal make sure their deals go down smoothly. Kaylee keeps the ship running. Inara uses her contacts and influence to save the crew from more than one tight spot. And River, well, can anyone forget the badass role she plays at the end of Serenity?

Right now, Marvel owns Joss’s brain. He had perhaps the most influential roles to play in The Avengers as both the screenwriter and director. While it’s sad that Black Widow is the only female character in the avengers gang, Joss could only draw from an already set cast in the Marvel comics. But he does pull in Agent Maria Hill as part of the movies, giving us another fantastic female addition to the movie. Where Joss does have a lot of leeway is with Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. He is responsible for helping write the show. All those fantastic female characters—May, Skye, Simmons—are no doubt his doing. Distinct, important, and awesome. Each and every one of them.

Next up is Shonda Rhimes, who is responsible for giving us fantastic shows like Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice, Scandal, and the newly aired How to Get Away with Murder. Not only does Shonda give us fantastic female characters, she also loves to give us wonderfully diverse characters. Her shows always feature PoC and frequently have LGBTQ characters. How many lawyer shows and medical dramas are out there? SO MANY. Yet Shonda’s shows stand out among others in their genres. Her characters develop beautifully, and the plot arcs are to die for. These shows should not be missed.

Julie Plec, most known for The Vampire Diaries and The Originals, is responsible for my favorite show on television (TVD). This show has the best series arc I’ve ever seen. And talk about a wonderful female cast of characters. Nina Dobrev does a wonderful job playing doppelgangers Elena and Katherine. Their personalities are as different as fire and ice. Elena is the sweet, small town girl while Katherine is the manipulative, only-cares-about-herself type. These two characters alone demonstrate the diversity of female personalities—even when the characters look exactly the same! Then we add Caroline to the mix. Detail-oriented, snarky girl with attitude. Everything is just full of awesome.

Aside from these wonderful TV show producers, there are other people doing exciting things in the industry. I have to give a quick shout out to Peter Jackson for adding a female character to The Hobbit movies that was not present in the book. I gave him a single-person round of applause as soon as I found out. And (*spoilers* for the third hobbit movie are ahead) I just love that part in the The Battle of the Five Armies where the women decide to go out and fight alongside their men. It’s moving and heartwarming in a way that makes you want to cheer on all women. My only complaint about Peter’s addition of Tauriel was that her purpose ultimately came down to being a love interest. She’s distraught after Kili dies, and there’s no mention of what happens to her afterward. If you’re going to create a new character and get us invested in her, the least you can do is let us know what happens to her after the battle.

I also appreciate the show Elementary and its attempt to promote female characters. The show is a modernized, Americanized story of Sherlock Holmes. They decide to change things up by making Watson a girl. I love it. I’m all for remakes and reinterpretations. I only wish they’d taken the time to make Watson’s character more interesting. As it is, she’s really boring. Not much of a personality there. There is no excuse for poor characterization for male or female characters. But it’s especially poor taste to think that having a token woman in a story otherwise filled with men makes her distinct.

Lastly, I would like to recognize Stephenie Meyer. She’s a brilliant mind in the storytelling industry. There’s no denying that she’s influenced teens across the world through her writing. And now she’s focusing her efforts in movie production. Her company, Fickle Fish Films, is providing vast opportunities for females in production, so that more female voices can be heard in Hollywood. And they’re focusing on adapting books for the big screen. How cool is that?

As a concluding note, let’s listen to Joss Whedon’s Equality Now speech. Because it’s full of awesome. (Start about two minutes in if you want to get to the good stuff right away.)

Weight-Loss Narratives and Why They Can Go Die in a Fire

I don’t really see much about fat* characters included in diversity discussions–and that’s understandable and totally cool with me when you consider that there are much larger (no pun intended) gaps in diverse representations in publishing such as race, sexual orientation, and disability. Excellent discussions for diversity in books can be found here, here, and here.

However, fat representation is something I can speak to from experience because I’m a fat woman and was a fat teenager and a fat child.

The topic is broad, and so it’s likely I’ll return to it again. For today, I’ll focus on weight loss narratives.

I HATE THEM.

Phew. Had to get that off my chest.

THEY CAN ALL BURN IN HELL.

Apparently I feel strongly about it.

It’s definitely a personal thing. Is there anything inherently wrong with a weight loss narrative? No. Is there something wrong with the fact that I could list dozens of books with fat heroines who have lost/are losing weight and can only think of a handful of stories with an is-fat-and-stays-fat main character? Yes. That’s where the problem lies.

It’s the prevalence of the weight loss narrative in fiction. It’s the fact that fat protagonists are seen as protagonists (rather than some kind of lazy anti-hero Homer Simpson) only if they’re virtuously trying to not be fat anymore. I call bullshit. Ideally, a human being should be no more defined by their fatness anymore than they are by their hair color.**

Image via Goodreads

Image via Goodreads

One of my all time favorite books is The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson. I adore this book. Princess Elisa, the main character, is a compulsive overeater with some major hang-ups about her role as the Chosen One. I will keep spoilers to a minimum, but over the course of the novel circumstances are such that Elisa, by no choice of her own, loses much of her excess weight. It’s realistic given what she goes through. The larger problem of her self-esteem and inadequacy issues are addressed realistically too, and as a result, in the next two books in the trilogy she has “overcome” her emotional eating and never gains back the weight.

Although I love this trilogy like a “drowning man loves air” there is a stubborn part of me that wonders how much more awesome it would have been had Elisa not lost all that weight–if she’d overcome obstacles and been a bad-ass queen and also a proud fat woman. I hate to say it, but to me that would have been even better. (Not to mention that as more research is conducted, weight loss is shown to be rarely long term, especially weight loss sustained by hard living, starvation conditions like those Elisa faces in the first book).

I’ll give another example, focusing more on romance. I planned to “hate-read” Breaking His Rules by Alison Packard the other week but to be honest I rather ended up liking it. The characters were introduced previously in the series, and I knew that the heroine, Melissa, had lost fifty pounds before her story starts.  Melissa’s weight loss is a main focus of the book, and the hero, Jake, is her personal trainer and helps facilitate all the weight loss. It feels a bit stupid to criticize a book that uses weight loss to bring the heroine and hero together and still enjoy it, but that is who I am, friends.

Just like I said about GoFaT (I just noticed that GoFaT says “Go Fat” and isn’t that so, so perfect), I’m not sure why Melissa needed to lose fifty pounds. Did you know that there are people who exercise and are fit and are also fat? You can go to the gym and eat reasonably healthy and still be fat.*** The story makes it clear that Jake was interested in Melissa even before she lost the weight–which is nice, but feels a bit like lip service. If he liked her anyway…why does she have to lose fifty pounds in order to get her Happily Ever After? I would have prefered the bolder choice: a fat woman who works out on the regular with her hottie gym-owning boyfriend and doesn’t care that her size is a double digit number. As is, the book makes it clear that Melissa is deserving of love, fat or not, but of course…she doesn’t get it until she’s lost the weight.

I could list more books with weight-loss narratives, but this post is already going to be too long.

Here’s a character I would love to see much more of:

A fat woman who isn’t hung up on her weight. Who treats her weight as a feature of her body, not a defining feature of her self and character. A fat woman who dates, is happy with herself, exercises and eats right or doesn’t, but doesn’t view weight loss as the measure of whether or not she’s succeeding in life. Realistically, few fat women who grow up with today’s media do so without developing a few complexes about their bodies (realistically, very few women fat or not who grow up with today’s media do so without developing a few complexes about their bodies). But this is why fiction is great. As authors we can write about characters who are different than ourselves! We can write about worlds and people we’d like to see. As much as I love reading about characters who are struggling with the things I struggle with (like the best TV show ever)  it’s just as much fun to read about a character who should have some of the same hang-ups I do but doesn’t.

As a fat woman, I’m sick of seeing fat person representation inextricably tied to the question of weight loss (having lost weight or wanting to).  As if that is my number one goal in life. It’s not. The fact is that there are scores of fat people satisfied with their lives, who achieve their goals, find happiness and love and success all while being fat. To me it’s a moot point whether or not they’re also trying to lose weight. That’s a side pursuit that actually has little bearing on their value as human beings or their success in other areas. So why don’t we see that in fiction?

Why not a character who represents these successful, funny, personable ladies?

Melissa-McCarthy3

Image via Plus Model Magazine

Item0_rendition_slideshowVertical_rebel-wilson

Image via pitch-perfect-wikia.com

Adele-Laughing-adele-31520116-600-598

Image via fanpop

I’d read the hell out of a romance about a Melissa McCarthy-like celebrity.

Or how about stories where we see young professional women succeeding all while being fat? Or because they’re fat?

Gabi Gregg of GabiFresh

Gabi Gregg of GabiFresh

Maybe a story about a waitress who does competitive weight lifting in her spare time:

Holly Mangold (image via the NYT)

Holly Mangold (image via the NYT)

And what if a story mentioned the protagonist’s size only in the way you’d also establish that the main character has blonde hair or is one of five children? Why does being fat have to take over the story?

Examples of stories that do this really well.

Image via Goodreads

Image via Goodreads

Eleanor’s weight is definitely mentioned. I’m sure Eleanor at one point thinks about losing weight, but I can’t remember because Eleanor has other things in her life that are much more worth worrying about than her size, like finding a way to get a toothbrush, or where the family’s next meal might come from, or how to get away from her awful stepfather. Being fat isn’t even remotely the most pressing worry she has. Bonus points for Park being head over heels for her.

Image via Wikipedia

Image via Wikipedia

Tracy Turnblad’s weight is the subject of torment by mean girl Amber and her mother Velma Von Tussle–but Tracy doesn’t care. She just wants to dance! And girl is good at it, too. Bonus points galore for having several fat characters (Tracy, Edna, Motormouth Maybelle), featuring a fat character excelling at a physical talent, and for giving the fat girl a love interest.

Notes:

*I am deliberately reclaiming “fat” as a descriptor, not a pejorative term. Thoughts on the “f” word are varied in the body acceptance community, but personally I’m fine with it as a descriptor.

**I choose to reference my fatness much more than my blondeness though, and that’s because my society tells me one is bad and the other is neutral good. Fat activism/fat acceptance/body diversity movements are necessary and good and I love them.

***This is a point made by the fat acceptance movement. I don’t feel the need to expound upon it here since it’s easily Googled.

 

 

Reviewing a Feminist Classic: The Last Unicorn

Despite a childhood spent reading, I had never heard of Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn until Pat Rothfuss mentioned it on his blog as his favorite book. PR goes so far as to imply that you can’t call yourself a fantasy reader if you haven’t read TLU (I’m sure he’s being tongue-in-cheek…or am I?)  Last Monday night I went with some work friends to see The Last Unicorn Screening Tour. It was an interesting experience to see such a classic on the big screen. I wish I had that opportunity more often.

last-unicorn

To be honest, I had no idea what to expect from the movie. I have never read the book, but I knew that the people who made the animated version of The Hobbit also made this film. I have very distinct memories of watching The Hobbit as a kid, and I remember thinking it was creepy and boring. The Last Unicorn was…interesting…if I’m being completely honest. I’d like to read the novel before I pass judgment on the story, but the film was so stylized as to be unrelatable at times. Something about the animation made it hard for your eyes to ever rest, and there were long stretches with no dialogue. The music sent my friends into fits of giggles that they had to stifle so as not to ruin anyone else’s theater experience (nostalgia counts for a lot, and I’m pretty sure most of the audience had grown up with the movie and loved it).

But yet, despite all that, I loved it. I walked out of the theater convinced that The Last Unicorn had more to say about loneliness than any lit fic I’ve ever read (that’s a huge theme of lit fic, right? The loneliness of modern man?). I think I could even call it a feminist text.

(1) The first line of the book reads, “The unicorn lived in a lilac wood, and she lived all alone.” [emphasis mine]

The event organizer and Peter S. Beagle mentioned in the Q&A preceding the movie that until this book, unicorns had always been depicted as male. But now, forty-odd years later, can you picture a unicorn that isn’t “girly”?

The.Last.Unicorn.(Character).600.133534

I can’t adequately describe how much I love that. To take something that is by default male, and without fuss or pomp, make it a “her?” I wish I had been the one to do that. Not only to feminize the symbol, but to make her the subject of her own story. The hero of her own adventure. Before 1968, how often was that done? It’s hard to quantify, but TLU surely helped usher in a generation of fantasy writers who gave greater import to female characters and female narratives, treating them as humans (or unicorns!) worthy of their own stories rather than as accessories to a default male narrative.

(2) What is surely ahead of its time is the way the story complicates the myth of the “ideal” feminine being. The Unicorn (aka Amalthea) is beauty and grace incarnate. Her wood is constantly in the bloom of spring. Peace reigns among the animals who inhabit it.

But then, the careless words of two hunters lead the Unicorn to believe that she is the last unicorn on earth.

At this point in the movie, I was rolling my eyes. The Unicorn seems so overwhelmingly characterized by her “beauty” that it’s hard to see anything else about her. She reminded me of the sexualized fantasy women of games–women with too-large purple eyes and flowing white hair–which is exactly how the Unicorn looks.

But then, further down the road (literally, in context of the story), the Unicorn meets several men who want to capture her, and she is amazed that they can’t see she is a unicorn. To them, she is only an exceptional mare. The Unicorn realizes that men see what they want to see.

Both named female characters, Mommy Fortuna and Molly Grue, instantly see her for what she is. Because they see her for what she is, they can communicate with her (to be fair, so can the subpar magician Schmendrick who helps free her from Mommy Fortuna’s clutches). The recognition of her true nature gives the Unicorn a voice. This is the first time she actually communicates with other beings. The silencing of women’s voices is a huge theme in feminist lit.

(3) Being the hero of her own story helps the Unicorn become something new.

Eventually, the Unicorn and her compatriots fall into the hands of the villain, who they’re sure has hidden all the unicorns…somewhere. In order to save the Unicorn from the villainous Red Bull, Schmendrick the magician turns her into a human woman named Lady Amalthea. The longer Amalthea spends in human form, the more she forgets her life as a unicorn. The handsome prince courts her, and eventually they fall in love (I think? The movie didn’t do so great a job at showing this).

But when the final showdown comes and Amalthea must face the Red Bull again, she chooses to sacrifice her human life and her human love to set all the trapped unicorns free. Schmendrick helps transform her back into her true form, and she finds the strength to drive the Red Bull into the sea.

It’s poignant that when she is once again a Unicorn, she chooses to stay that way. This means leaving the prince behind and going back to her wood. But as she goes back, the narrator remarks that she is unique among unicorns in that she now knows both sorrow and regret. It’s those human emotions that make the Unicorn three-dimensional. The Unicorn isn’t a flat symbol of feminine beauty. She isn’t even hackneyed two-dimensional symbol of feminism (ie the victimized female). She is beautiful, but she has sacrificed. She has loved and given that up for something greater, and now she knows human emotion. Giving her human emotions makes her so much more relatable. Not only is she more relatable, but her arc is completed on her own–that is, there is no man by her side in the end. The story is wholly hers, though there are certainly influential side characters who help her. Don’t get me wrong. I love a good romance. But that is not part of this story, nor would it fit.

I’m sure many someones have done more in-depth critiques of this story. I’m sure there are problematic elements I’m overlooking. And there is also not one way to write a feminist story. My reading of the text (screenplay, in this case) is surely relying a bit too much on symbols and archetypes, but I thought The Last Unicorn did a great job exploring feminist themes.

How to Get Away with Murder and Bisexual Representation: You’re Doing It Wrong

How to Get Away with Murder is the diverse show we’ve all been waiting years for. Of the six principal cast members (Annalise and her five student interns/employees) only one of them fits into the “default character” mold of straight, white, and male—and so far, Asher, our resident token white boy, has gotten the least amount of screen time of all the principal characters (and is generally the least likable). By putting its diverse cast members front and center, HTGAWM proves that having a show populated with people of diverse races and sexual orientations on a mainstream television network can be just as successful as our typical, run-of-the-mill shows with predominantly straight and white cast members.

image from abc.go.com

As great as HTGAWM is in terms of representation, though, it totally dropped the ball in last week’s episode when it came to bisexual representation.

And I mean really dropped the ball.

In “Smile, or Go to Jail” (last Thursday’s episode), we finally got to meet Michaela’s fiance, Aiden. It turns out that Aiden and Connor already have a history with each other and way back during Connor’s New Hampshire boarding school days, he was busy hooking up with all the hot boys—including Aiden. When Michaela figures out that Connor isn’t just trying to get under her skin with off-handed remarks about how hot her fiance is but has, in fact, seen Aiden naked and slept with him, Michaela looses it.

Now in all fairness—not that I am feeling particularly generous toward Michaela after her rampant biphobia—she and Aiden had told each other about their exes and previous relationships and Aiden had neglected to mention Connor. In that respect, I think she is right to be angry and annoyed with him. But she doesn’t seem particularly angry that Aiden has kept a past relationship from her. She seems upset that he kept a relationship with another guy a secret from her. Her reaction is rooted in the fact that Aiden’s sexual history includes men. If it turned out that Aiden and Laurel had had a relationship as teenagers, I sincerely doubt that Michaela would have reacted in the same way.

The episode posits two—and only two—options for Aiden’s sexuality. He can either be 100% straight or 100% gay, and Michaela treats Aiden’s single instance of sleeping with a man as proof that he must be completely and irrevocably gay. (Which, let us remember, is par for the course for bisexual men. Whereas bisexual women are usually assumed to be straight and pursuing relationships with women as a way to garner male attention, bisexual men are almost always assumed to be gay and too afraid to come out of the closet.) I waited and waited for someone in the show to whisper that mystical word bisexual as an explanation for Aiden’s past, but it never happened.

Now let me be frank, not all people who have relationships with people of multiple genders are, or identify as, bisexual (or pansexual or any of the other words the English language has to describe people who experience attraction to a multitude of gender identities). It is entirely possible for a “horny kid” (as Aiden describes his teenage self) to have same-gender relationships and not be homosexual or bisexual. Plenty of people experiment or question and explore their sexual identity—and that’s probably the case with Aiden. He IDs as a straight man who once had sex with another teenage boy. And that’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with that.

What is a problem is not even mentioning the word bisexual. What is a problem is acting like someone who has been in relationships with people of different genders is incapable of being loyal and faithful to just one person. What is a problem is implying that any man who has ever had a sexual relationship with another man must be gay. What is a problem is an extremely progressive and inclusive show perpetuating biphobia and bisexual erasure.

For those of you who don’t want to fall into this trap in your own storytelling endeavors, here are a few things you can do.

(1) Use the word bisexual. I cannot emphasize how important this one is, so say it with me. Bi-sex-u-al. It’s not a dirty word, despite what media’s extreme avoidance of the word would make you think. The end confrontation between Michaela and Aiden would have been SO MUCH BETTER had either one of them mentioned the possibility that Aiden could be bisexual—even if he’s not. Instead of having Michaela demand over and over again to know if he’s gay, she very easily could have said, “Are you gay? Are you bi? What’s going on here?” Her reaction, I think, still would have felt a little extreme, but bisexual people everywhere would have breathed a little sigh of relief because someone actually acknowledged they exist. (Despite common misconception, bisexual people are not mythical creatures like unicorns.)

(2) Be aware of negative and damaging stereotypes that affect bisexual people—and avoid them. These stereotypes include the assumption that bisexuality is a phase instead of a long-lasting orientation, the assumption that bisexual people are greedy or confused or are cheaters, and the assumption that bi women are doing it for attention and that bi men are afraid to come out of the closet. You might not think that playing on these stereotypes is harmful, but when you consider that bisexual women experience a higher rate of intimate partner violence [X] and that bisexual people of any gender report higher rates of anxiety and depression than monosexual people (ie people who are only attracted to one gender)[X], you begin to see the damage we’re doing by perpetuating those stereotypes.

(3) Treat bisexuality as a valid option for your characters instead of favoring characters who are “just going through a phase” or are “just” experimenting. Instead of making Aiden “straight but with an exception,” he very easily could have been written as a bisexual man and his argument with Michaela at the end could have had just as much emotional impact. Instead of denying that he was gay and writing off his relationship with Connor as “a stupid thing that happened,” he could have talked about his fear of coming out to her because of the assumption that bisexual people are greedy cheaters and he still could have ended the argument with an assurance that he loves her. Just because he has the potential to love men and women doesn’t mean he’s incapable of being loyal to one partner. Choosing to make your characters bisexual and experience the lasting potential to be attracted to people of more than one gender does wonders for bisexual people who long to see themselves in the media they consumer. Let’s remember that “straight with an exception” or “gay with an exception” is not edgy nor is it a convenient recipe for angst. It’s erasing bisexuality and depriving those who identify that way of much needed media representation.