Jupiter Ascending did NOT fail because…

Jupiter Ascending Movie Cover

…of bad casting. Channing Tatum, Mila Kunis, and Sean Bean did a pretty great job considering some of the lines they had to say.

…of poor world building. The different worlds and species were not that bad. The idea of harvesting humans so that a select few could live forever was pretty interesting, if not entirely original. Most of the technology allowed you to suspend your disbelief.

…of the setting. The worlds were visually stunning. The spaceships were unique and interesting.

…it starred a female character. This is so important. Fantasy and Sci-fi shows featuring female leads CAN and WILL be successful, just as soon as the producers can get all the REAL issues taken care of.

And what were the real issues of the movie? Poor storytelling and characterization (I won’t even get into the HORRIBLE romance).

One of the biggest issues with the storytelling and characterization (and one that I see frequently when reading manuscripts) is a lack of proactivity from the main character. Main characters are supposed to DO things, not have things done to them. It’s okay to have an inciting incident that gets the character in the position she needs to be to start being proactive, but for this type of story, the main character needs to be proactive during the majority of the story.

Allow me to give an example of this. Let’s look at Katniss, a female lead who stars in an excellent book and excellent movie. Katniss has a very simple life. She lives under horrible circumstances in district 12, but does she sit around crying “Poor me”? No, she breaks the rules by going through the fence and hunting to provide food for her family. That, my friends, is proactivity. When it’s time for the reaping and Katniss’s sister is chosen to participate in the hunger games, does Katniss cry and bid her sister farewell? No, she freaking volunteers to take her place. Proactivity. In the games, does she just sit around and wait to die? No, she takes care of Peeta and thinks of a way to beat the system. Would you consider Katniss a victim of her circumstances? No, she’s a fighter and a survivor. She is a wonderful proactive character, and that is why she and her story are so fascinating.

So I’ll say it again, characters cannot sit around and simply have things done to them. They have to fight back. They have go out and do things. This makes them interesting.

Now, Jupiter Jones is not proactive. She has things done to her. She’s kidnapped…how many times during the movie? Four? She does what people tell her to do. Caine says stay. Caine says follow me. She has to go with the bad guys. She agrees to marry one of the bad guys, even though she’s sort of his reincarnated mother. Eew. Weird. Who thought that was a good plot element? Was anyone else reminded of the movie Thumbelina? Sure, I’ll marry the toad. Sure, I’ll marry the mole. What the heck?

The only times I can think of when Jupiter actually did something were when she agreed to go with the bad guys to save her family and then when she refused to sign over the rights to the earth to save her family. But that’s it. Two decisions. That’s what Jupiter’s character comes down to.

And THAT’S why Jupiter Ascending failed.

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.

Apparently THE HUNGER GAMES is for Girls and THE MAZE RUNNER is for Boys

(Don’t worry, there are no spoilers ahead! Also note that this post discusses the movies not the books.)

TMR Movie Pic

From New DVD Release Dates

THG Movie Pic

From New DVD Release Dates

Last week I was outraged by an article I’d read. This lovely bit of prose was titled “The Maze Runner Review: The Hunger Games for Boys” and can be found here (it’s very short for those of you who find long articles daunting—I do at times). The review reasons that The Maze Runner is a so-called boy movie because it’s “chock-full of male bonding, homemade weapons, robot battles, [and] even a tree fort.” (Oh boy, a tree fort, guys! Evidently boys are the only ones to have spent time playing in tree forts.) Basically this article infuriated me to the point where I knew that I had to see the movie immediately so that I could sufficiently address and, as I suspected, whole-heartedly disagree with its claims.

I could go into lengthy detail about how male bonding, homemade weapons, and robot battles are not inherently male, but I think a few short lines will suffice. Anyone who has read Sarah J. Maas’s Throne of Glass can attest to Celaena’s intelligent use of a homemade weapon made from hairpins and string. And let’s not forget the famous (and now super rich) Cassandra Clare, whose Clockwork Angel has many exciting battles with robots. And need I even give an example of a supposed girl book or movie that contains a bromance?

So if the issue isn’t that girls can’t enjoy The Maze Runner is this review’s main point that boys can’t enjoy The Hunger Games? Why would boys show any interest in a story in which the characters have to survive in the wild, flee from deadly creatures, participate in bloody battles against their competitors, and win a game that will test their physical and mental prowess? I know many boys who have read, watched, and enjoyed The Hunger Games and many girls who have read, watched, and enjoyed The Maze Runner. Why then does this article feel the need to say that “The Maze Runner is the first dystopian teen movie in a while that offers boys a room of their own”? I dare you to find one showing of The Maze Runner in theaters that doesn’t have a single girl in the audience. Are boys so unwilling to share their movies? Or are they unwilling to be seen anywhere near a showing of The Hunger Games?

The movies have so many similarities. Both Thomas’s and Katniss’s inciting incidents involve selfless actions to protect someone else. Thomas rushes into the maze to help Minho and Alby stay alive, and Katniss volunteers to participate in the deadly Hunger Games to save the life of her sister. Both protagonists show extreme bravery, cunning, and a willingness to do what they believe is right despite how difficult the path ahead may be. They feel a need to protect those around them. Katniss quickly forms a bond with Rue while Thomas befriends Chuck, both the runts of the stories. Our heroes feel responsible for them and a deep need to protect them. Katniss makes it her mission to save Peeta and get him through the games, and Thomas makes it his goal to get everyone out of the maze and to freedom. Both characters have to resist a higher power that is trying to control their lives, and while this last example is a trope typically found within dystopia, the other examples cannot be attributed as such. So we can’t say that the movies have these similarities simply because they fall within the same genre.

Why then is one for boys while the other is for girls? Perhaps we need to look at the differences between the two movies to understand. Most obviously, we can say that The Hunger Games has a romantic subplot while The Maze Runner does not. Ah, that must mean that all stories with romances must be for girls. Clearly Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, and most super hero movies must be exclusively for female audiences. Or we could say that The Hunger Games is heavier on character conflict and development while The Maze Runner mostly relies on the mystery of the maze to drive its plot. Are mysteries for boys then while books with round characters are for girls? Perhaps it’s the painfully small female cast that makes The Maze Runner a boy book. Only two girls in the movie have speaking roles, and both play minor parts. In fact, Teresa really doesn’t even need to be in the story. Everything that she adds to the plot could easily have been accomplished by Thomas’s character. With the way Teresa’s character was handled in the movie, you’d think she was just randomly thrown in as an afterthought. “Sure, why not have a girl in the story? We don’t want to have too many though, boys might get the wrong idea and not understand the story is for them.”

As far as I can tell, the article’s only reasoning as to why The Maze Runner is a boy movie while The Hunger Games is a girl movie is that one has a female protagonist

SC_D11_02752

From Wikipedia

while the other has a male protagonist.

Thomas

From Kansas City

One was written by a woman

Suzanne Collins

From IMDB

while the other was written by a man.

James Dashner

From Mediabistro

One has an equal male to female ratio

THG Cast

From Stuffpoint

while the other is lacking in female characters.

TMR Cast

From Nuke the Fridge

I’m still waiting for the world to realize that we can have more than one female character in a story. Because women’s personalities are just as diverse as men’s. Being a woman does not make the character have a distinct personality, and we should stop crafting women in stories as though this were the case.

Why should we fear that girls and girl things in stories would dissuade boys from touching them? Girls can like boy things but boys can’t like girl things, is that it? Boys are mocked for liking things that are girly, and as a result, we as a society are treating feminine actions, ideas, and items as though they’re lesser than masculine things. That stories featuring girls are not as important as stories featuring boys. That it couldn’t possibly be worth a man’s time to observe a story in which a woman displays courage, skill, compassion, sympathy, or any other worthy quality. Because if it’s a woman exemplifying those traits instead of a man, then it can’t be as important or as entertaining. The problem isn’t that boys can’t enjoy girl stories, it’s that they’ll face social suicide if they were even to try.

Honestly, I find this truly disturbing. Is this article inadvertently claiming that girls won’t enjoy The Maze Runner? Or, worse yet, that boys should feel less manly and ashamed of watching and enjoying The Hunger Games?