Reviews

Guardians of the Galaxy is Pretty Good But Could…

Some thoughts on Guardians of the Galaxy (both movies), and why they’re not as outside the box as they seem. Spoilers for the second movie to follow.

Heteronormativity is alive and well in the MCU, and very noticeably in the GoTG movies and their main couple, Gamora and Peter Quill. ~Feelings~ develop in the first movie for no discernible reason except that an attractive man and woman are within 20 feet of each other. This is, I suppose, a plausible, if now painfully overused reason that two people can be take an interest in each other; what bothers me more is the development of their relationship. We are shown these two characters caring about each other, nearly sacrificing their lives for each other – but with no buildup, no plausible reason why they are suddenly so important to each other – other than that they’re the only conventionally attractive heterosexual couple possible within the main characters. Quill is supposed to be something of a serial womanizer, and we see his interest in Gamora the moment he sees her. But why is she more to him than all the other women? Why, for that matter, does Gamora have feelings for him? Even if they care about each other, why isn’t it just platonic? Ironically, in following the heteronormative script, it’s not just LGBT characters and non-traditional relationships that lose out – heterosexual characters and relationships are also deprived of nuance by following the formula.

Then, in the second movie, there’s an “unspoken thing” and Gamora just needs to open up and here I am, watching, and wondering to myself who these characters are.  In the first movie, Gamora is shown to have an incredibly strong moral compass and sense of self. Unlike Nebula, who is very damaged, Gamora has an innocence about her. When she hears that Ronan is planning to wipe out an entire planet in the first movie, she rebels, no questions asked. She pleads with the other Guardians; Ronan is going to destroy Xandar, and he has to be stopped; to her, there is no other option. Gamora is passionate and caring, and to me, it makes no sense that she’s suddenly this wilting flower, denying any feelings for Quill. If anyone would have trouble with feelings, it would probably be Quill, the serial womanizer who forgets women’s names because that’s how little he cares about them. The consistency and depth of both characters gets undermined.

(As an aside re: heteronormativity – if you’re going to show a huge variety of planets and societies, maybe you might want to think about the fact that not all of them will have genders or sexualities like humans’. Why, oh why, is every planet filled with pretty girls with different colored body paint, and only marginally more variable men? Why would aliens have the same concept of gender as humans – or any concept at all? Why would straight be the default on all these planets? Just. Please.)

This is hardly the only part of the franchise that’s formulaic, just the part that irritates me the most. Ronan is also a very stereotypical and unintimidating villain – though they did a bit better with Ego in the second movie, even though the end fight was sort of dumb and all over the place. Even the main plot – Quill resolving his daddy issues – feels sort of weird, because there are all these other (arguably more important to the larger MCU plotline) plots going on that don’t get nearly enough screentime. Gamora and Nebula get a couple fights and then a weaksauce “I just wanted a sister” resolution that comes sort of out of nowhere and doesn’t address the major issues the two of them have. Mantis doesn’t get a plotline at all, unless you count being insulted by Drax, despite the fact that she suffered comparable trauma to Rocket and Yondu, and a plotline about her would have fit well into the overcoming your past/found family arcs. And because of her lack of development, her big moment where she fights back against Ego doesn’t feel big. Also, despite the fact that it passes the Bechdel test (yay, the bare minimum), every female character seen is thin and conventionally attractive, and all of them wear very similar form-fitting outfits – and in the first movie, Drax addresses Gamora as a whore for no perceptible reason except to get a laugh. Which is not only sexist, but makes zero sense because…it’s not like she’s known for being a femme fatale. She’s an assassin.

All of these problems (and more, but I can only rant so much before I get tired) spring, I think, from one major issue: the GoTG movies aren’t quite sure what kind of movies they are. They hover uncertainly between glitzy action movies, and dark, black comedy satires of superhero movies. This causes a bunch of problems. For one, there’s an attempt to give female characters more screentime and agency, but it never really follows through. (Forget about LGBT characters; we got our two minute moment in Beauty and the Beast and we better be grateful, dammit!) For another, it lowers the stakes, making the villains, especially Ronan, really ineffectual. It’s hard for Ronan killing a bunch of people to feel like a big event when all the characters (including the protagonists) cause a lot of fatalities that are played for laughs. A lot of the jokes feel out of place for the more serious, action movie plots – and the serious stuff often falls flat because it’s constantly undermined by the self-referential, self-mocking humor. But of course Disney can leave no demographic unmarketed-to, and so it remains a weird hodge-podge of genres and storylines.

But other than that stuff it was pretty good.

P.S. Marvel, please get some better posters. This is some Escher Girl nonsense:

Reviews

My Opinion on Thirteen Reasons Why is That I’m…

NOTE: This post contains discussion of suicide. If that is upsetting to you, this post might not be for you. Please proceed with caution.

Here is a short opinion post. My opinion is: a couple of the common criticisms of the new Netflix show are incorrect and are the result of either a) an inability to see nuance or b) watching the show from like two rooms away while also maybe wearing sound canceling headphones. I don’t address them all because I tried and I got too mad, so instead here are some vague talkings-about of reasons why I really like this show (sadly not 13 reasons), starting with a quote from Jay Asher (author of the book the show is based on):

“Regarding the subject matter: A close relative of mine attempted suicide when she was the same age as Hannah. Thankfully (and luckily), she survived. Over the years, we discussed the events and emotions that led her to make that decision. But she could never talk about one specific circumstance without telling me what preceded it or what followed. That idea that everything affects everything, as Hannah says in the book, intrigued me.”

The snowball effect, Hannah calls it in the book. And I’ve seen posts calling the show’s approach to depression and feeling suicidal simplistic, which I find frankly bizarre, as the main conceit of the show is to demonstrate that everything is complicated and everything had repercussions that you cannot necessarily predict. Rather than one simple event driving Hannah to the point of ending her life, it is a series of interconnected events creating feedback loops that gain immense power over her life. It’s not one person calling her a slut; it’s a reputation that, given the society we live in, suggests to some people that Hannah might be someone they can take advantage of. Someone who will be “easy”, give them what they want. And after a while, it’s a vicious cycle, the rumors feeding people her way who are not interested in her as a person, only as an object – and the same people perpetuating the rumors when they don’t get what they want. She becomes an easy scapegoat – for Courtney, the crazy lesbian who wants a threesome, shielding Courtney from having to come out, for Justin, proof of his sexual prowess, for Marcus, a psycho drama queen who wouldn’t just be chill and let him fondle her under a table (like a cool girl would). And fighting back against that just makes more people think she’s weird or dramatic.

The effects of her suicide, and the tapes, are not minimized. And the effects aren’t always good. Leaving a suicide note is certainly a striking way to get your message out, but it’s also got some pretty major flaws. No chance to change what you said; no chance to hear the other sides of the story. And no chance, no chance to help the people you just dropped a bomb on. Did Hannah want Clay to stand at the edge of a cliff, thinking about jumping off? Did she want Alex to shoot himself in the head? Did she want Jessica to have to relive and relive her rape, knowing that so many uninvolved people now knew about it? Probably not. But those were all consequences of her actions. She, after talking about the choices people make, the effects they have, becomes a reason why Alex puts the gun to his head. Being depressed, suicidal, is a strange state of mind. You get self-centered. Everything is a personal affront. One of the strengths of Thirteen Reasons Why is that it shows this clearly: Hannah is a hard person to be friends with. She’s a lot of work, she freaks out all the time, she makes everything about her. Dealing with a person who is in a dark place is hard, and people in that state of mind are not always fair or just or good, and that is a necessary part of any conversation about mental illness. By killing herself, Hannah lost the opportunity to make it right with some people. Most importantly, she lost the opportunity to make it right for herself. She deserved that opportunity.

So many writers pull their punches, and I am unambiguously glad that the writers of this show did not. The scene showing Hannah killing herself is graphic, brutal, and upsetting. And necessary. Suicide should not be hidden behind a tasteful fade to black or pan to the side, but should be shown for what it is: violence. And no less violence for being inwardly rather than outwardly directed. Here, there is no mystery, no illusions. We, the viewers, watch Hannah die, alone and in pain. We watch her face, her eyes. Is she regretting it? Does she, in that moment, wish she could take it back? I remember hearing somewhere once that many people who have survived jumping off a bridge realize, halfway down, that all their problems are solvable. Did Hannah realize that, once she had made the fatal cuts? We don’t know, and will never know. But we have to consider it. We have to witness her pain, the effort of each breath as she dies. The camera doesn’t pull away when we want it to. That’s how it is in real life; there’s no fade to black when you slit your wrists or swallow pills. Without that scene, it would be more comfortable. But it would also be less true.

In the end, Dorothy Parker says it best:

Razors pain you;

Rivers are damp;

Acids stain you;

And drugs cause cramp.

Guns aren’t lawful;

Nooses give;

Gas smells awful;

You might as well live.

.

If you’re feeling suicidal or just need someone to talk to, help can be found here.

Fandom

how i learned to stop worrying and love the…

Fanfic is pretty similar to but also really fundamentally different from original fiction. It’s similar in that you’re writing about things using words, but the way you write about them is completely different because you’re using characters and a world that has already been established; you have to make your fanfic fit into that world, or be a plausible offshoot – or you should just write original fic. With original fiction, you’re starting with a blank page in every sense of the word, even though you can obviously draw inspiration and ideas and information from the world around you. And you’re also writing to a completely different audience; generally speaking, people who like the already created world and who want to read more.

“Oh, can I watch?” she said. And Dympna, who never got her hands dirty, could nevertheless name every cylinder and valve that was lying on the floor, and let Maddie have a go painting the new fabric (over the fuselage she’d kicked in) with a mess of plastic goo called “dope” which smelled like pickled onions. After an hour had gone by and Maddie was still there asking what all the parts of the plane were for and what they were called, the mechanics gave her a wire brush and let her help.

Maddie said she always felt very safe, after that, flying in Dympna’s Puss Moth, because she had helped to put its engine back together herself.

Code Name Verity, Elizabeth Wein

Writing starts with reading. We learn by example, by reading something and thinking, hey, I could do that – this is why a lot of new writers end up writing really derivative stuff at first; they’re trying to imitate something great they read. Some new writers go straight to fanfiction, which is why there’s a lot of wish-fulfillment-y self-insert fanfiction out there to go along with all the wish-fulfillment-y self-insert original fiction. Early efforts at fanfiction are often pretty simple too. This is the kind of stuff that goes viral to be mocked around the internet – an authorial self-insert goes to Hogwarts and ends up with everyone falling in love with her, etc. Simple=/= bad, by the way – I think this kind of fanfic can be great fun and well-written, and even if it’s not what I personally want to read, someone had a lot of fun writing it, which is good – but that’s a topic for another time. At some point, the new writer starts having more and new ideas of their own, and the rest is history.

Anyway, most fanfiction goes a bit deeper than the stereotypical Mary Sue fic and starts deconstructing the canon world. Even modern day alternate universes, the “what if the characters of Harry Potter were teenagers who worked in a coffee shop”-type stories are doing this – they ask things like: what character traits are intrinsic? What are a result of circumstances? How would things be different or the same with these characters in different circumstances? These are (some of the) questions that I think most fanfiction attempts to answer, whether or not the particular fic does it well. Essentially, it’s literary analysis but way more fun. By writing fanfiction, you can take apart a story, a world, a character, and put them back together. Maybe even put them back together better! This helps with writing in a few ways. First, you learn why authors decide to write things in the way they do, and second, you learn why you write things in the way you do. You learn from where you disagree with the authors, where you think the writing is weak, what you would do differently.

You can learn all this from original fiction too, but I myself think that if you’re going to learn how to build something, first you should learn to take apart a functional model and see how it works. As much as I hate the “training wheels”-style metaphors for fanfiction, I do think that in this way it can be like a sandbox; you get to mess around at will and get better at writing while writing stories about Hermione being awesome.

Fan fiction is a way of the culture repairing the damage done in a system where contemporary myths are owned by corporations instead of by the folk.

Henry Jenkins

Just kidding, that’s not actually what he said, it’s a misattribution. Anyway, someone said it, and I completely agree. There’s a view of stories, books, etc., these days – that they belong to someone who owns the rights, to Disney, to the writer themselves. Legally, that’s entirely true, and also plagiarism is bad. But on another level it’s just completely off base of the point of telling stories. Stories change, get retold, misinterpreted, and are rewritten all the time. As they should be; a story is a living thing, like language. And as with language, the only unchanging stories are dead ones.

One tends to think of it as written by total fanboys and fangirls as a kind of worshipful act, but a lot of times you’ll read these stories and it’ll be like ‘What if Star Trek had an openly gay character on the bridge?’ And of course the point is that they don’t, and they wouldn’t, because they don’t have the balls, or they are beholden to their advertisers, or whatever. There’s a powerful critique, almost punk-like anger, being expressed there—which I find fascinating and interesting and cool.”

Lev Grossman

It’s not all about my new age-y feelings on what a story means; fanfiction is also a way of challenging the dominant culture, a culture that prioritizes the narratives of white, cisgender, heterosexual men above all others. Is fandom activism? No. But it can overlap with activism. It can challenge assumptions and start a dialogue. And a lot of people get very upset about people writing straight characters in gay relationships, imagining characters as a different race than their canon one, writing about if a cisgender character were actually trans. There’s a feeling of “get your icky hands off my characters” about this kind of distress, like those of us who belong to marginalized groups should just be happy with what we get. And fanfiction challenges that. And it challenges the “image” of characters like, for example, Captain Kirk as a straight man. Fanfiction asks: what if this man, who is brave, and strong, and smart, and a cultural icon, was actually gay? What if gay characters didn’t just get assigned to the role of sassy friends, villains, and women who get killed before their time? And what if straight men could identify with and admire a gay character without the world ending?

Fanfiction is fulfilling a fundamental need that people have: to see themselves in media, as whole people, and maybe even with a happy ending or two.

No writing is wasted. Did you know that sourdough from San Francisco is leavened partly by a bacteria called lactobacillus sanfrancisensis? It is native to the soil there, and does not do well elsewhere. But any kitchen can become an ecosystem. If you bake a lot, your kitchen will become a happy home to wild yeasts, and all your bread will taste better. Even a failed loaf is not wasted. Likewise, cheese makers wash the dairy floor with whey. Tomato gardeners compost with rotten tomatoes. No writing is wasted: the words you can’t put in your book can wash the floor, live in the soil, lurk around in the air. They will make the next words better.

Erin Bow

Ending on a happier note than my eternal rage about every lesbian character ever getting brutally killed off, writing is good! Writing more can only help you get better, so keep doing it. And maybe check out fandom, if you have the time. You might find something you like.