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7 posts from October 2010

October 31, 2010

Why Isn't College Dramatic?

During the summer TV slump, I watched all three seasons of Veronica Mars again. Yes, the first season was great, the second was good, and the third was heeeeeeinous. Still. What puzzled me was why the third season was so bad. I mean there's the fact that they moved to a different network, and that they were forced to cut the stories shorter, so there was no season-long arc. The shorter stories turned the show's premise into schlock: high-concept detective TV. Like Hart to Hart.

But what was really the problem with season three was that the show suddenly focused on (young) adult female sexuality, and it totally went to pieces. (SPOILERS FOLLOW.) In the first two seasons, Veronica was a nerd male fantasy: hot, smart, smart-ass, ass-kickin', and not at all scary with the sexual confidence 'n' stuff. She was a raped virgin. It was okay for white-hat-wearin' girls on this show to be virgins, or at least not sexually active.

But when she gets to college, it would look weird (i.e. non-normative) for her (and everybody else) to not be sexually active. And that's where the fantasy falls apart. Because for a hot chick who's that kickass to be sexually active, she has to be great in bed, too. And then she's suddenly beyond the nerd-boy's reach, not to mention scary. It's a dilemma, because for her to not be good in bed would kill the fantasy as well.

So suddenly the show has all of these weird sexual politics in it. The first story is about a serial campus rapist who shaves his victims' heads, just to make the power dynamic of a rape more visual. (Of course, it was completely ridiculous, b/c instead of actually shaving the actors' heads, they made them wear totally fake-looking fuzz-head wigs.) It's as if (showrunner) Rob Thomas had to balance out Veronica's suddenly active sexuality with a classic punishment for female sexuality.

Then he introduces what is apparently the only on-campus feminist group (at a private college? in California?) protesting the rapes (as if women who weren't outspoken feminists wouldn't be protesting serial rapes too: welcome to the 21st century you creep) who are a bunch of lying, cheating, conniving -- not to mention humorless -- bitches. He actually opposes da feminists to the lampoonists, two nerdy/misogynist guys who write a bad humor mag. As if the third wave of the most successful social justice movement of the last century -- which represents half of humanity, by the way -- was as trifling as a misogynist college humor mag. The "feminists" actually fake one of the rapes to make a point, an incredibly irresponsible thing to do in fiction in a culture that still blames rape victims and tries to scare them away from the very organizations that are there to help them. Gee, Rob, threatened much?

The second long story is a completely noirish story about the murder of a wealthy college dean, and the affair his young, beautiful wife is having with the hot, young professor. The wife isn't even an attempt at realism. Her hair is done forties-style, she dresses forties-style, and she has no personality, besides breathiness and lipstick. We, of course, never get to see her even kissing the hot young prof, although we do get to see him naked in a hotel room with her. (Why do we only get to see men in states of undress in this show? Could it be a fear of female sexuality?) And, of course, the hot-to-trot young wife is a femme fatale: she turns out to be the one who killed her husband and set up her lover to take the fall.

There's another story about a nerdy college boy whose friends hire a prostitute to take his virginity. He falls in love with her and hires Veronica to track her down, but then gets turned off to her when he realizes that her being a stripper and a prostitute isn't just an abstract concept: men are going to remember her and treat her accordingly. The show seems to think his hypocrisy is only natural, and rewards him for dumping his prosty girlfriend by giving him Veronica's best friend as a new girlfriend.

The problem here is clear: the male creator of the show didn't (doesn't?) understand adult female sexuality, and college is -- for people who go to college -- often or usually the place where sexuality blossoms and becomes adult. To write/create effective, realistic stories about girls becoming sexually active women, you have to understand how this happens.

Rape, usually date rape, is far too often a part of this. But the weird roofie-then-shave-head rape of Veronica Mars is most definitely not the usual way campus date rape happens. (Rob Thomas loves the roofie, by the way -- Veronica was roofied and raped in the first episode of the entire series. But far more often, the intoxicant of choice is simple booze.) And even -- or especially -- when rape doesn't happen, consensual sex in college is a very complicated mishmash of negotiation, persuasion, emotional blackmail, self-consciousness, wish-fulfillment, awkwardness, weird body issues, desperation, and, always always, desire. And that's just the women.

Because the cameras cut away the moment the bodies start getting horizontal, the real substance of a sexual liaison between very young adults is also cut away. There's a weird commitment, in this and all other shows, to making all consensual sex satisfying for both parties. (The first time in the series that we see Veronica in the afterglow, she's complimenting her 18-year-old boyfriend Logan on his sexual prowess by saying he could monetize it. That's not problematic at all.) Thus the weird, exciting, awkward, embarrassing, and above all, loooong sexual learning curve we go through throughout our twenties is compressed into a single encounter, and a whole new generation of late teens is subjected to a sexual inferiority complex.

Nobody ever shows a sexual encounter that is just as awkward and unpleasant as it is exciting and pleasurable. Nobody ever shows the young woman's sexual arc getting cut off before climax again and again as she (very slowly) learns to articulate her desires, and her young man partner learns (very slowly) to satisfy her. Instead of a multi-episode story arc in which Veronica complains embarrassedly and irritatedly to Mac that she's not getting off, and she and Mac puzzle over what they want and how to get their boyfriends to do it, instead we get super hot single girls being roofied, raped, and shaved, while Veronica looks unsympathetic and has sweaty orgiastic rock in a penthouse suite with a mysteriously game 18-year-old.

I remember the spring before I graduated, I and my equally 22-year-old friend took a road trip to San Diego to stick our toes in the ocean. We met two boys on the beach, 18 and 16, the elder of whom was trying to school the younger in picking up girls. We had the usual "how old are you?" discussion, which, at 22, was already becoming not so usual anymore. The boy told us "I'm 18, and I fuck like an 18-year-old, too!" My friend and I laughed and tried to convince him that wasn't a good thing. But beneath our overeager superiority and condescension, there was a very immediate realism informed by the four years of college we'd just been through, and the constant sexual disappointment we'd both experienced, plus our fairly recent awakening to the fact that good sex took a lot of work from both parties.

The highschooler was a veteran of sudden gropes and makeout sessions at parties. He hadn't yet gone through the process we'd gone through, which complicated sex and made it much more interesting, but also more confusing. It was an interesting moment, in retrospect, and meant much more than we thought it did at the time.

*****

I could go on, but I think I've made my point about Veronica Mars (which also applies to Buffy): kickass, hot, young, girl-things aren't necessarily evidence of feminism in their male creators.

But all this got me to thinking about why it is that there aren't any compelling dramas about college life. College always ends up being a joke in popular culture. This came up for me a few years ago when I was a devotee of Yahoo! Answers (where people ask questions and anyone can try to answer them. I was there mainly for the book recommendations.) Someone asked for recommendations of novels about college life, and wondered why this didn't seem to be a genre, in the way that YA high school novels were. People had a hard time coming up with titles (as did I.) The only one that anyone could think of was The Secret History. (I also thought of Brideshead Revisited but I don't really consider that a college novel, since the college part was just a prelude to the midlife crisis part.)

I think part of it is that, similar to Rob Thomas and female sexuality in Veronica Mars, people see and understand the difference between adolescence and adulthood, but don't seem to be aware of, or able to articulate, the process of moving from one to the other. Of course, for the half of the U.S. population that doesn't go to college, the transition between high school graduate and working adult is technically immediate. There's no discrete period of years or distinct set experience that is considered the coming of age moment. That's a large part of why college is considered so important: it's a distinct coming-of-age process that set off from the rest of the world -- age segregated -- and that is opaque to anyone who's not in it.

This opacity is bizarre to me. Half of us go through it. Why is it so hard for us to understand what happened? My boss of four years has a daughter who was fifteen when I started working for her and who was nineteen and coming out of her first year of college when I stopped working for her. I remember the girl being very shy and self-conscious and unable to talk to grownups like me in high school. Then she disappeared for nine months and came back from her first year of college smart, confident, firm, and able to look me in the eye, shake my hand, and ask me adult questions about how I was and what I was doing. The transformation was dramatic.

I  remember my freshman year myself. A lot happened, and I came back physically as well as emotionally different. But if I tried right now to narrate the incidents and trends that led me to dress differently, stand up straight, and represent myself with confidence to hundreds of strangers (I canvassed for a PIRG that summer) it would sound trifling and inconsequential. (There was a couple I befriended with a Doberman puppy. There were desperate makeout sessions with a guy friend I wasn't attracted to in a baseball dugout. There was a high-school-best-friend breakup scene long distance on the phone. There were mosh pits and vomit and second-hand clothing stores. There were various physical and emotional transformations happening throughout my family that I was leaving behind. There were certain dreams and desires collapsing, and other ones aborning. Need I go on?)

Why is it that everything that happens in college seems humorous or unimportant, like first world problems? Even when you're talking about the kids who have to work full time during school, or who have to take care of ailing parents, or of their own kids, or deal with illness or disability or abusive relationships, etc. etc. Even then, while the problems aren't inconsequential, somehow they don't seem as serious in narrative as the same problems in teenagerhood or in adulthood.

Maybe it's that the coming of age that happens in college is always triumphal (unless it culminates in someone dropping out.) Graduating from college, in our society, is in effect sealing your membership in the educated classes. Even if you work at McDonald's for the rest of your life, you'll never be less than middle class (whatever that means these days.) And you don't have to work at McDonald's for the rest of your life. This is always viewed as an accomplishment, meritorious, a permanent safe passage.

There's also the fact that college life is protected. High schoolers are protected as well, but they're a part of "real life," being part of families of people "out in the real world" dealing with problems in all classes, races, sectors, neighborhoods. Teens are dramatically transforming people half in and half out of childhood, but part of the totality of society. College, however, even city colleges and community colleges in urban campuses, are still physically and psychologically set off from the rest of the world.

This awareness of the special protectedness of college life and the privilege it confers is probably an enormous part of why, in this supremely class-conscious society, we don't take college drama very seriously. Especially not the people who go through it. There's some sort of merit in acknowledging privilege not by straightforwardly acknowledging it, but by tearing oneself or one's own peers down for being privileged.

Hm.

I think what I just said above is true, but it doesn't feel like the whole story. Any ideas? Why isn't college fictionally dramatic?

October 30, 2010

Wimmin Leaders in TVland

Ego-googling, I came across this post by Courtney Stoker on Geek Feminism, about why so-called feminist geeks hate women characters on tv.

This tendency to dislike female character reminds me of another ”being one of the guys” strategy: I often meet women who tell me proudly, “I just don’t get along with women.* All of my best friends have been guys.” These women also often think that this fact actually makes them progressive (because nothing’s more radical than failing to create female-centric relationships!). And most of the women I’ve known who say this are geeks. It’s actually one of the reasons it took so long for me to become friends with geeks, because “I don’t get along with women” is dealbreaker for me.

Liz Henry pointed to my post on Voyager in comments and "Burn" responded that:

I watch a lot of crime/procedural shows and there’s frequently a similar dynamic going on with the women bosses. ... A brilliant but non-conformist and risk-taking team leader, some team members, and then the big boss, who represents the government/police/military/whatever hierarchy. Team Leader takes risks, team members are also frequently risk-takers, and the Big Boss warns them not to push the boundaries, but of course the Team Leader goes against orders, and is pretty much always correct in the end. Recently, I’ve seen a lot of women cast as the Big Boss/representative of the Bureaucracy.  Since the narrative sets up the maverick Team Leader as a hero, and the Team Leader is almost always male, it sets up the dynamic of the audience sympathizing with the team rather than the bureaucracy, which places more women (usually middle-aged) into this almost-guaranteed-to-be-unlikeable role of the fun-killer.

I've actually responded viscerally to this without noticing it consciously before, so I'm glad Burn pointed it out. This may be part of the reason I don't enjoy most police procedurals. But I have been watching some recent woman-centered procedurals and they, more than sf shows, have been pioneering strong, interesting, middle-aged women leads.

I'm thinking about Saving Grace (which just ended its run recently,) The Closer, and In Plain Sight. All three of these shows posit strong, troubled, often obnoxious women cops (in In Plain Sight she's a U.S. Marshal) who are advanced enough in their field to work independently or be team leaders, without being the "big boss." All of them are unconventional risk-takers, all have alienated the establishment in their field and gotten themselves into trouble, and all have found a place where they can be accepted by finding male allies -- both superiors and equals -- partly through their sexual appeal, and partly by finding men who are as unconventional and troubled as themselves.

All three are also very strongly emotional, and are impelled by their empathy with the victims they work with. However, they all distort their emotional responses, subsuming their emotions in their work, acting out in small tics and rituals (in The Closer it's her compulsive sweets-eating,) taking their troubles out on their (unrealistically) understanding lovers, and only showing their vulnerability at special moments, often only to crime victims. All of them are dealing with serious histories with male authority figures: father abandonment, priest sexual abuse, a series of bad relationships.

I love all of these characters, and even compared Grace in Saving Grace to Starbuck in the new Battlestar Galactica, and called it a new archetype, the "Starbuck". I think Mary from In Plain Sight might be a "Starbuck" too, but there are arguments against it. For one, she and her younger sister and her mother, all three share the damage, so elements of the Starbuck archetype are divided among the three of them. Mary doesn't really have Starbuck's (or Grace Hanadarko's) charm, but her mother and sister do have it, without having the strength or kickassness. I don't think Brenda Leigh Johnson is a Starbuck at all, either. She might be more interesting, since she uses "feminine weakness" to compromise others.

I'm a character addict, in television and written fiction. I can enjoy a fiction with a good story and flat characters, but it doesn't stick with me. What makes something strong and abiding for me in fiction is strong characters. And I think what's really important about the way that women are portrayed in these shows isn't that the women are leads, or that they're strong and capable and kickass. It's rather that they're very particular characters, very individual and flawed and interesting.

Creating a new archetype isn't the same as  creating a new stereotype. Archetypes are more about place-holding in our imagination. They tell us that the individual we're seeing isn't anomaly, but rather is one individual among many in a similar situation, who has similar responses to that situation. Drawing a character from an archetype, or creating a new archetype, doesn't mean that your characters will become flat. Only if you flatten the character yourself will it become a stereotype. And what's happening with this new type of approaching-middle-age or middle-aged independent woman is that the shows are using them as maquettes to build very individual characters upon. Let's hope it lasts.

...

One more quick note: I think it's important to note that all three are blonde (as was Starbuck) and all bottle-blondes (including Starbuck.) There's something basic here about American beauty standards: I think presenting a non-blonde female lead in itself is fighting a small fight, and offering a sole female lead in a woman-centered fiction is probably enough fight for one show. I think the female leads have to be blonde. Look at the other female leads in woman-centered shows: Meredith Grey, Nurse Jackie, Hellcats, Secret Diary of a Call Girl, United States of Tara, the new one The Big C, etc. I think there are a few with brunettes, like Weeds, but not many. The ones that aren't (Cougartown, 30 Rock) are mainly comedies.

It's particularly interesting, about the bottle-blonde, because at least one of these isn't entirely white: Grace Hanadarko of Saving Grace is part ... you guessed it ... American Indian, although it's Choctaw (or Caddo?) in her case, not Cherokee. I haven't quite decided what to make of that yet; I'm trying to hold back sour commentary on the white American desire for mystical Indian ancestors to justify their existence here and wipe them clean of the racial sin of racism. But I ain't gonna go there.

October 26, 2010

Na No Wri Mo Pledge

Every year I try to do something alternative for NaNo and every year I fail. Part of the reason is that I'm still writing on the same nobble, so I can't do the actual NaNo project. But part is just laziness and unpreparedness.

This year I'm just going to pledge early and try to psyche myself up. I haven't written any short stories in a long time -- I think da nobble has dried me up somewhat -- so I'm hoping this will shake some things loose.

My pledge this year is to write a piece of instant fiction every day during November. "Instant Fiction" is my name for the piece I write on the spot, and post on the spot, inspired by an image or video I've found on the internet. I tried writing some instant fictions in July of '09 and they weren't very good, but it was kind of a fun process. So this year, in November, I'm going to write one every day.

I noticed, when writing "Abducted by Aliens!" which is mostly a collection of 40 100-word episodes, that as I got into it, I found it easier and easier to draft an episode and have it land close to 100 words the first time (the first several episodes were much longer and had to be edited down.) So I'm hoping that I'll settle into a particular length or shape as the month goes on and will sort of invent my own form -- for the month anyway.

That's all.

October 18, 2010

Reading Update: Hrm

Sharon Shinn Troubled Waters

Yeah, the book was fun, female-centered fantasy. Pretty smooth. But sitting here 24 hours after finishing it, I'm having trouble remembering details of it. Not a strong plot, not a lot at stake. Hrm.

In other news, looks like fall is finally here in the Bay Area and I've turned on my heater. Makes me want to snuggle into some knits and read.

October 16, 2010

Lo-cal Spam Kimchee Fried Rice

One of the bummerest things about being on a diet is not being able to eat lovely, greasy, spam kimchi fried rice: easy to make and oh so delicious.

Then I remembered that low-carb fried rice recipe I found online. The "rice" is actually grated cauliflower. So I winged it and came up with a satisfying (not the same, but still good) version.

First, you grate a head of cauliflower with the large holes in a cheese grater. That'll give you something with roughly the gauge and consistency of rice. Stir fry the cauliflower for a minute in hot oil (something healthy, like canola or safflower; or you can use sesame if you like the taste, but be warned that the taste will be a bit overwhelming.) Make sure it's coated with the oil. Then remove from the pan.

Drain and chop a half to a whole cup of kimchi. Cut a Wellshire brand Uncured Turkey Ham Steak into quarter-inch cubes. Stir fry these in your oil of choice until the kimchi is slightly dried (not dripping) and the "ham" cubes are lightly browned. Then add the "rice" and stir fry until hot. Don't cook too long or the "rice" will get overcooked.

You can also add chopped scallions to the "rice" at the beginning. And, of course, top the whole thing at the end with a fried egg or two. (For extra low-cal goodness, try keeping only one yolk but two whites.)

Yum!

October 15, 2010

Reading Update: Future Feminists of America

Suzy McKee Charnas The Conqueror's Daughter

So I finally finished the Holdfast Chronicles, with Charnas' fourth novel in the series, The Conqueror's Daughter. In this installment, Sorrel, conqueror Alldera's daughter from her rape by either Eykar Bek or Servan d'Layo, is all grown up and still dissatisfied with her perceived abandonment by her blood mother. (Alldera had, of course, in the previous novel, taken all the formerly enslaved free fems and returned to Holdfast, conquering the place and enslaving all the men.) Of course Sorrel's favorite sharemother, Sheel, has also taken off to see what life is like in Holdfast, and stayed.

Sheel much to the anger of the free fems, had sent a pregnant Newfree back to the Riding women of the plains, intending the unborn child to be raised on the plains like Sorrel was. Instead, the child turns out to be a boy, who is rejected by the women, and then rejected by his age cohort as well. Sorrel, feeling a kinship with him, takes over his care and becomes his mother and, fearing for his life as he grows older, takes him back to Holdfast looking for a better life for him. She's also motivated by a desire to see her two mothers again, to resolve her issues, and, of course, by the fact that she can't clone herself the way the Riding Women can.

The book is both satisfying and unsatisfying. Satisfying because Charnas continues to complicate the situation she developed in the first three books, breaking all the certainties the characters so confidently professed in earlier periods, and creating a rich sense of reality in this world. Unsatisfying because a novel -- a fiction -- can only take so much complexity, before it devolves into the chaos of actual reality. Novels aren't supposed to reflect real reality. Novels are a tool to introduce a kind of order to life so that we can understand it. Narrative is an ordering device. If reality is ultimately chaotic and meaningless, our desire and purpose in life as human beings is to wrest order and meaning from it. That's why we write -- and read -- novels.

So novels have to create an illusion of a certain amount of life's chaos and randomness, as well as an illusion of the patterns and flow of life, to convince us that we are looking at a reasonable facsimile of reality. If there's no reality in the fiction, then the fiction has nothing to say about reality.

But this "realism" can go too far. It can cause the novel to lose cohesion and, more importantly, to lose meaning, and then the purpose of the novel is lost. Charnas succumbs to the temptation to mirror the reality of a small community of a few hundred, where everyone knows everyone, and everyone has an important role and voice. She has, simply, too many important and active characters in the novel to keep track of them. The stream forward of the novel isn't strong enough; the novel's energy becomes too dispersed among too many points of view and too many active figures. I realize that this is how things actually work in real life; and Charnas has expressed her disdain for the simplifying action of storytelling very clearly in the deceitful and manipulative character of the storyteller Daya. But it doesn't work in a story; stories have to simplify to have any power. And you can see that principle at work in her previous three novels, all of which had many fewer active characters than The Conqueror's Daughter.

But she does give us a relatively satisfying -- if a bit unrealistic -- climax, and a very satisfying what-happened-to-them roundup of all the major characters. And she had the smarts -- or the talent, Delany says that writers underestimate their talent and overestimate their intelligence -- to make the clone-y Riding Women literally ride off to the West and into legend, in favor of a new, and more just, female/male society.

This is a huge lesson to me, in da nobble, because I have a lot of characters. I've already started cutting out the medium-sized characters, combining supporting characters so that I don't have too many of them, and folding functions performed by supporting characters back into the main characters. The supporting characters need to fill out the world of people, add richness, and perform certain actions that move the story along. But if there are too many of them, they start to detract from all of this. And I'm learning that it's important to lay distinctly different emphasis on main, secondary, and background characters: not to skimp on characterization for lesser characters, but simply to give them less prominence, and less to do, so the reader's head isn't too cluttered with figures to follow the most important movements.

So, all talk of satisfying/unsatisfying aside, this series, the writing and the project overall, is just several cuts above most of what I usually read in terms of writing, thought, intelligence, vision, and ambition. My gratitude goes to the author for attempting -- and mostly achieving -- something more and better, and actually great. And for teaching me more important lessons, both negative and positive.

October 04, 2010

Migration and Identity

No, this isn't another race post.

You might have noticed a slight change in the look of the blog recently ;). The amazing Derek Chung is redesigning my online personality right now. When he's done, I will not only have a MUCH prettier blog (though my soul will remain as schmutzig as a pig's latrine), but I'll also have a whole website with stuff.

Feel free to express positive opinions about the lovely redesign. And also feel free to tell me if something is uncomfortable or doesn't work right.

That is all.

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