(If you've somehow managed to go this long without reading/watching Harry Potter and yet are still reading blog posts about them: there will be spoilers left, right, and center. You have been warned.)
I recently finished reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
to my son, smiling as he discovered all those moments that delighted me on my first visit to Hogwarts. (My favorite part was shortly after the Sorting, when he asked me, "Mama, is Snape a bad guy?" Ahh, my child, so much virtual ink has been spilled over this question . . .) We're reading them about every six months so he doesn't have to take in the heavier Order of the Phoenix
stuff until he's a bit older, but I didn't want to wait for three years to finish the series, so I promptly launched into my umpteenth reading.
And as always, J.K, you offer a master class in storytelling with these books. There's a simple reason why it's nigh impossible to start a Harry Potter book without inhaling it in one sitting: they're good.
Ridiculously, unbelievably good. I've mentally cited Harry Potter as the absolute best example of "yes, but/no, and
" ever since I first heard the term, and I'm only now getting a full grasp of how well Rowling juggles subplots to keep the pages turning. Just when I start getting a bit fatigued with one storyline and am thinking about quitting for the night, a subplot that really, really interests me will swoop into the foreground and glue me to the pages again. I clearly remember being all ready to put down Chamber of Secrets
at midnight when I turned the page and saw that I was finally
going to see what happened when they tried Polyjuice Potion this chapter . . . but I digress.
It wasn't until this reading, though, that I noticed how well Rowling handles emotional scenes. No, I'm not talking about Harry's chest monster or the CAPS LOCK OF RAGE; I'm talking about the moments where we make discoveries that cause our stomachs to drop somewhere to the region of our feet, whether it's the scene in Prisoner of Azkaban
where Harry overhears Sirius' back story or the scene in Goblet of Fire
where we find out that "Mad-Eye Moody" is a Death Eater. Rowling writes those scenes beautifully--and she does it by holding back on the description.
I've run into the phrase "If your characters cry and laugh, your readers won't." It always seemed a bit counter-intuitive to me, because while I understand that you don't want to be melodramatic, you also don't want your characters to be robots that never react realistically to the situations around them. To further muddy the waters, I've found that TV and movies actually work in the opposite way; I might sit in numb shock after a favorite character dies or a beloved ship gets torpedoed, but I rarely burst into big, cathartic sobs until someone onscreen does it first (I'm looking so hard at Anya's speech in "The Body
" right now). How are characters and readers supposed to cry together?Prisoner of Azkaban
might not let us cry together, but it certainly lets us stare together in numb horror. If you have a few minutes and a copy of the book, go back and reread chapter 10, "The Marauder's Map," when Harry learns that his parents chose Sirius to be their Secret-Keeper. I remember reading that chapter for the first time and feeling my heart pound faster and faster as we learned the "real" back story behind Sirius Black. Harry's heart must have been going at triple the speed of mine--but we never hear about it. All we get is this:
"Naturally," said Madam Rosmerta, with a small laugh. "Never saw one without the other, did you? The number of times I had them in here--ooh, they used to make me laugh. Quite the double act, Sirius Black and James Potter!"
Harry dropped his tankard with a loud clunk. Ron kicked him.
That's all. That's the only reaction we get from Harry in the entire scene. The next chapter opens with about two and a half pages of Harry struggling to process what he's heard, but during the scene itself, we get to experience the full emotional impact because we aren't filtering our reactions through Harry's.
The same goes for chapter 33 of Deathly Hallows, "The Prince's Tale"--Harry undoubtedly had many, many thoughts on what he was seeing in the Pensieve, but all we get is a single paragraph when he learns that he's destined to die at Voldemort's hand:
Harry seemed to be watching the two men from one end of a long tunnel, they were so far away from him, their voices echoing strangely in his ears.
And, again, that's it. We get about four pages of "I don't want to die" and "How could Dumbledore have betrayed me?" at the beginning of the next chapter, but for the moment itself, we're allowed to experience our own emotions. The next chapter is for Harry's feelings; the scene itself is for ours.
If you're a Potterphile and you're trying to keep your emotional scenes from getting melodramatic, don't let those chest monsters stop you from rereading Harry Potter as a source of how to do it right. There's a reason you're emotionally invested in these books--it's because Rowling knows how to make you feel emotion. And that's a darned useful skill for any writer to learn.
The movie Lights Out
opened two weekends ago, and my opinions on it have been something of a roller coaster. The trailers and the positive advanced buzz had me champing at the bit for a good horror movie; then the AV Club review came along and completely killed my interest in the movie. If you're OK being spoiled, you can go here
for the AV Club's somewhat spoilery review and here
for the Spoiler Space, which completely dissects the ableist implications of the ending. If you want to avoid spoilers, suffice it to say that the monster is a metaphor for depression, and the movie inadvertently affirms all the worst things that depressed people think about themselves.
Or, for those who are OK with spoilers but don't want to read the whole AV Club article (skip to the next paragraph to remain spoiler-free!): . . . the depressed woman whose friends and family are being attacked by the depression monster realizes that the monster will leave them alone if she's gone, so she kills herself. And according to some reviewers, this is played, not as a horrifying The Monster Wins ending, but as a victory. That's right, fellow depressed folks: our loved ones would be better off if we just killed ourselves.
In fairness to the people involved with Lights Out,
director David Sandberg has made it clear in interviews
that this wasn't the message he intended to send. Sandberg himself struggles with depression, and his original ending was far more nuanced. Test audiences hated it, though, so he changed it to the current ending and hoped that no one would read in the horrifically ableist implications. He's deliberately going to try to amend those problems in the sequel, and I hope that he succeeds--there have been some terrific horror movies, novels, and short stories dealing with the fact that depression can be as terrifying a monster as any ghost or vampire. Rather than spend this entire post griping about an unintentionally offensive movie I've never seen, I want to celebrate the media that have done it right.
The movie to which I've seen Lights Out
compared multiple times, and the hands-down best treatment of depression I've ever seen in horror, is The Babadook.
If you like horror even a little bit and haven't seen this movie, go see it; it's on Netflix. If you don't like horror, keep miles away from this one, because it's a nightmare factory. A widowed mother, Amelia, discovers that her emotionally disturbed son, Samuel, is "imagining" himself being stalked by a horrible monster called the Babadook. (Yeah, it's a horror movie, so I'm not even going to pretend that "imagining" doesn't get scare quotes.) He acts out so much because of his fear of the Babadook that he doesn't sleep, and neither does Amelia; what's more, none of the other moms in the neighborhood want weird little Samuel anywhere near their kids, so Amelia is getting increasingly isolated.
And then, the Babadook starts visiting her, too. And things get very interesting.
One huge advantage of The Babadook
is that the symbol is fluid. I read the Babadook as a symbol of clinical depression, because that's my personal Babadook. A far more common reading is that it symbolizes Amelia's grief for the loss of her husband and Samuel's grief for that of his father. I've seen it described as a symbol for the stresses of single motherhood, too, which is also a valid read. It means that the scenes of the Babadook terrorizing the family, while still setting up a direct pipeline into a depressed person's fears, are hard to spin out into negative generalizations about people who suffer from mental illness.
And then there's the ending. Skip the next paragraph if you don't want it spoiled. (If you want to go in completely unspoiled, be aware that I'm going to discuss the general tone of the ending, as well as whether or not the monster wins, throughout this post. The next paragraph is the only place where I'll go into specifics, however.)
Near the end of the movie, the Babadook actually possesses Amelia and tries to use her to kill Samuel, then herself. However, Samuel's love for her allows her to shake free of its possession. She drives it away--with an incredibly cathartic "If you ever come near my son again, I'll fucking kill you"--and it locks itself in the basement . . . where it stays. Forever. When we next see Amelia and Samuel, it's Samuel's birthday, and all seems idyllic, but Amelia has to go to the basement to feed the Babadook. It threatens her, but she calms it down and leaves it a bowl of earthworms to eat. When she goes back to Samuel, she says simply, "It was quiet today." The Babadook will never leave her, not completely, and it may escape someday again. But she knows it's there and is taking pains to keep it locked away . . . and if it does escape, she beat it before and may be able to beat it again.
For such a terrifying movie, the ending is downright empowering. It doesn't put an unrealistically happy face on depression, but depression doesn't win this round, either.
It's possible to do a good story where depression wins, but it has to be handled delicately, and Lisey's Story
by Stephen King knocks it out of the park. I wish Lisey's Story
were better known; I suspect it's not one of his more popular novels because it's more dark fantasy than horror, but it's one of his best, with dreamy lyrical language, a stunningly well-crafted Russian nesting doll of flashbacks, and an ending that doesn't involve explosions. When the novel opens, Lisey's husband, writer Scott Landon, has been dead for two years. As we travel through the aforementioned nesting doll of flashbacks, we learn that mental illness ran in Scott's family . . . and in proper Stephen King style, it tended to express itself in supernatural ways. The most relevant of those ways for the "depression monster" theme is the "long boy," a snakelike creature that stalked Scott for his entire life, appearing in reflections out of the corner of his eye, chewing obscenely at its food at the edges of his hearing, and trying to terrorize him to the point where he would finally give in and allow it to devour him.
The long boy, like the Babadook, works in part because it's a flexible metaphor. Lisey is depressed over her husband's death, but isn't stalked by the long boy. When we get flashbacks to other members of Scott's family, they have some pretty serious issues with mental health, but those issues don't include depression. When it comes to Scott himself, however, depression and the long boy are close to one and the same. He's a cutter. He has bouts of deep and almost unbreakable melancholy, though he tries to put on a smile that only Lisey can see is false. At one point, he even suggests that Lisey call the long boy to finish him off so she can be rid of him--not as a form of self-pity or emotional manipulation, but because he genuinely thinks it would be best for her. (The parallels to Lights Out
all but write themselves.) In a particularly haunting passage, Lisey is brooding over Scott's death and thinks that "if darkness had loved Scott, why then that was true love, wasn't it, for he had loved it as well; had danced with it across the ballroom of years until it had finally danced him away." The only things that keep the long boy at bay are Scott's writing and his wife. When their marriage is going smoothly and he's writing well, the reflections in the mirror and the horrible chewing sounds are at a minimum.
We do learn that the long boy was directly responsible for Scott's death--in the end, depression won. This is, however, an unambiguous tragedy, and the entire novel is about Lisey working through the emotional wreckage it left behind. The story still manages to end on a bittersweet note by having the long boy's triumph take place in the past, leaving room for a happier ending in the present, but that triumph makes it a sadder story than The Babadook.
So much for stories that end on a hopeful note. How about full-bore downer endings? Ray Bradbury's short story "The Small Assassin" shows us a woman killed by the object of her depression and plays it for horror. A new mother, Alice, survives an incredibly difficult and dangerous labor that ends with a C-section. Her son is healthy . . . but she looks at him and doesn't feel love. Her health is fragile after childbirth, but every time she's on the brink of getting the restful, healing sleep she needs, the baby cries loudly and wakes her up, transforming her into more and more of a physical and mental wreck. Her child must be a monster, she decides, who's doing this deliberately because he wants her dead. She begs her husband never, ever to leave her alone with that horrible baby, because who knows what will happen?
If you've ever had issues with postpartum depression, this probably sounds familiar. "The Small Assassin" is far more a pulp story about an evil baby than a psychological exploration of PPD (complete with unintentionally goofy scenes of a newborn crawling around setting up instruments of murder), but it still takes the fears and insecurities of depressed mothers and makes them viciously true. The evil baby does kill Alice, and it's a horrifying The Monster Wins ending done right.
There are other terrific depression monsters--the Dementors are a good example of monsters that are unambiguously defeated, without any of the uncertainty or loss that we see with the Babadook and the long boy--who are handled deftly enough for depressed readers and viewers to cringe in recognition rather than in disgust. These three are my personal favorites, although in the case of The Babadook,
I know that part of it is that I'm a sucker for happy-for-now endings when the issues involved are this messy. Happy-for-now is generally the best ending those of us with depression can hope for, but when the alternative is "The Small Assassin" or Lights Out,
that ending is pretty damn good.
Every family has that point during the summer where its members are so buried in summer camps, conflicting vacation plans, and "oh crap that list of things I planned to do over the summer isn't getting any shorter" that everything else gets shoved to the back burner. For my family, it's this week. Thus, instead of 1200 words about feminism, theology, or writing theory, I present the Song of Ice and Fire
Drinking Game: Dunk and Egg Edition!
If you haven't read the Dunk and Egg novellas (which are now available in one book
), I highly recommend them. They're good for the Song of Ice and Fire
reader who's trying to decide whether to stick a toe into the Olympic swimming pool of ancillary materials, the Game of Thrones
watcher who's thinking about reading the books but doesn't have time for a thousand-page door stop, or the fantasy fan who has no exposure to either the show or the books, is curious about them, but is daunted by the length of both series. The AV Club listed the first Dunk and Egg novella, "The Hedge Knight," as a gateway to George R. R. Martin's work
because it nicely compresses the themes and tone of
Westeros into a bite-sized, pleasant piece (the novella collection clocks in at 368 pages for three novellas, and that's with illustrations at least every five pages and generously sized print.)
The novellas are also a lovely read for anyone who mostly enjoys Game of Thrones,
but wishes it weren't so darned Game of Thrones
all the time. They have complex situations and shades of grey, but also some genuinely heroic heroes and genuinely villainous villains--and the villains don't have to prove how bad they are by eating people's faces and raping every woman in sight. (In fact, I don't recall a single incident of, or even allusion to, sexual violence in any of the three novellas. The closest we get is a woman who's almost forced into an arranged marriage to a man she despises, but even that doesn't happen, and he doesn't spend the whole time leering about how much he's going to rock their wedding night.) Endings are invariably bittersweet, but not to the point where the protagonist is decapitated in front of a jeering crowd. And perhaps most importantly, for the first time since Storm of Swords,
Martin seems to be having fun
writing these. The last two Song of Ice and Fire
books felt like something Martin was dutifully crossing off his list of chores. Dunk and Egg never does.
And now, without further ado, the drinking game!
Take a drink every time. . .
. . . someone comments on Dunk's height.
. . . you recognize a house name from Song of Ice and Fire.
- If you actually recognize where you know the name from ("Hey, it's the Freys!") rather than just vaguely knowing they sound familiar from somewhere ("Oh, the Crakehalls. Right. Who are they again?"), drink twice.
- If you recognize a specific character from their being mentioned in Song of Ice and Fire, drink three times.
. . . Dunk threatens to give Egg a clout on the ear.
- If he actually gives him a clout on the ear, finish the bottle.
. . . any of the following phrases appears:
- "Dunk the lunk."
- "Thick as a castle wall." (Thus, if you get "Dunk the lunk, thick as a castle wall," drink twice.)
- "Tanselle Too-Tall they called her, but she was not too tall for me."
- "How many eyes does Bloodraven have? A thousand eyes, and one."
. . . you have to reread the paragraphs in The Hedge Knight laying out the current Targaryen family situation to get the brothers straight.
. . . Egg asks to use his boot.
- If he actually uses it, drink twice.
. . . the sexual politics between Dunk and Rohanne get creepy. (Or just save yourself time and drink every time they have a scene together.)
. . . John the Fiddler hits on Dunk.
. . . Egg calls Dunk on having a terrible idea in The Mystery Knight and is ignored.
. . . Egg is the one with a terrible idea.
What else should be on the list?
In my last post, I talked about how frustratingly difficult it is to find modern wide-release movies for adults that embrace mercy as a critical theme.
This week, I want to celebrate the positive, taking a look at a few relatively recent wide-release movies that get mercy right. I'm also going to expand the net to some favorite books and short stories, because . . . well, I'm a short story writer. It'd be silly not to talk about books on a writing blog.
Something I particularly appreciate is that in most of these stories, the recipient of mercy has genuinely done something horrid. Showing mercy and compassion to a dying, destitute Fantine is absolutely laudable, but it's much, much harder to show mercy to the kid who just blew up your entire planet.Captain America: Civil War (2016).
Since this one just came out, I don't want to say too much for fear of spoilers. Suffice it to say that a character embraces forgiveness over vengeance in a way that feels fully earned, without any of the weird macho "I forgive you and the horse you came in on" posturing of a lot of other movies. What's more, because we love both Cap and Iron Man, we genuinely want to see them reconciled rather than watching them pound each other to a bloody pulp. It's a lovely thing when a movie makes you wholeheartedly root for mercy rather than appealing to that nasty bloodthirsty part of your heart that just wants to see the bad guy die in a thousand horrific ways. Even if we think that either Cap or Iron Man is dangerously wrong, we can't help empathizing with them both.X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014).
On the one hand, I kind of wish this movie had embraced mercy for its own sake rather than taking the approach of "if we let Mystique assassinate this horrible person, the world will become a nightmarish dystopia." On the other hand, I get that a multi-million dollar summer blockbuster needs epic stakes, and "prevent the world from becoming a nightmarish dystopia" is easier to sell than "save Mystique's soul." Even taking the movie on its own terms, it's a far more interesting story to save the word by sparing the life of a truly odious human being than by rescuing a saintly Professor X type (or, heaven forbid, yet another story where they save the world by blowing up a doomsday device). It may not be all the way to loving your enemy and praying for those who persecute you, but it's darn close, and that's a rare thing.Les Miserables (2012). The list of merciful films that kicked off these blog posts
had the 1935 version of Les Miz,
but the musical is always going to have a special place in my heart, and this is, after all, about recent movies. (The 2012 adaptation is especially welcome in light of the 1998 abomination that ends with Valjean witnessing Javert's suicide and skipping away with a huge smile on his face.) The Bishop of Digne's mercy toward a Valjean who certainly didn't deserve it at that point, Valjean showing compassion and love to Fantine and Cosette rather than looking the other way, Valjean saving a stranger from imprisonment and condemnation at the expense of the life he's made for himself, an antagonist who is essentially the personification of justice without mercy--they all combine to make one of the most stirring testaments to mercy that I've ever seen.The Phantom of the Opera (2004).
At its heart, Phantom
is Gothic horror, and Gothic horror loves heroines whose mercy can get through to a monster. (See also Mina Harker; her redemption of Renfield is one of my favorite parts of the novel, and it sadly tends to get passed over in adaptation.) The Phantom doesn't let Christine and Raoul go because Raoul beats him in a duel or because Christine screams at him until he realizes that she will never love him, but because Christine shows him love and compassion for the first time in his life--and that makes him realize how wrong it is to imprison her.
Of course, one could point out that Gothic stories should have allowed women to kick butt as well as being merciful saints. This is absolutely true--but it's a two-way street, and I'd like to see more men being merciful saints in addition to kicking butt.
(Side bar: I'm going with the 2004 version because it meets the criterion of "wide-release movie," not because I'm trying to make a statement about whether it, the 2011 live version, or the original cast recording is better.)
I'm casting the net on merciful spec fic stories to include classics as well as recent fare, because otherwise this list is going to be embarrassingly short. Either mercy is rare as a major component in spec fic (which would surprise me, since literature can take more risks than wide-release movies can) or I've been reading the wrong books."The Other Foot" by Ray Bradbury.
Ray Bradbury's fiction runs the gamut from joy to whimsy to melancholia to horror, so it's no surprise that mercy works its way in there, too. His final novel, Farewell Summer,
had a reconciliation between the town's rambunctious trouble-making boys and the crotchety old man, but I unfortunately can't remember any details. Everything about the end of that story is eclipsed in my memory by the scene where the old man and the lead boy have heartfelt conversations with their penises (no, really).
But the theme of mercy comes through most starkly in "The Other Foot," one of the few beams of light in the almost oppressively dark anthology The Illustrated Man.
An all-black colony on Mars discovers that white settlers are coming, and the colonists are prepared to get revenge by instituting some reverse Jim Crow laws--until they discover that Earth has been destroyed in a nuclear holocaust and the lynching trees have burned to ash. There are racially problematic elements in this story, to be sure; as this essay
points out, there are issues with the feel-good white wish fulfillment stories of black people "transcending" the wrongs done to them and forgiving white people willy-nilly. But Bradbury has also written lesser-known stories that refuse to let white people off the hook. If you're interested in reading some of these stories, check out his realistic fiction anthology The Cat's Pajamas.
In addition a downright vicious revenge story about a white man who rapes and murders a black woman and draws the wrath of some local carnies, it features a story about a cold-hearted white man with no regard for the black housekeeper who essentially raised him; Bradbury admits in the anthology's introduction that this character represents his own worst fears about how he'd treat his housekeeper if he met her again. Taken in light of Bradbury's other stories, "The Other Foot" is a plea for mercy that he's not entirely certain any white person, including himself, deserves.Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card.
Up until the last chapter, Ender's Game
is a bizarre non-example. It's one of the only works I can think of in any medium that starts out by embracing empathy without compassion--Ender completely loves and understands his enemies so he can crush them into the dust. (Yes, he thinks killing the buggers is a game. That doesn't change what he does to Stilson and Bonso.) Like its opposite, the compassion without empathy that we see in "poverty porn,"
this has little to do with genuine mercy. In the end, however, we get to see Ender using his love and empathy to save lives rather than end them, and the buggers show mercy and forgiveness to him as well.
Although I'm talking about adult media here, I have to give an honorable mention to Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver.
YA books tend to bring in mercy as a major theme, in part because their target audience is in the process of learning that there are few card-carrying villains in the world. Before I Fall,
a cross between Mean Girls
and Groundhog Day,
is my favorite example of this. Popular, bitchy Sam Kingston enters a repeating time loop that causes her to reevaluate the way she treats her family, her teachers, and her peers. Too often, when we see the "mean kid learns not to be mean" character arc, it ends with the protagonist going from one kind of bully to another; instead of taunting and humiliating nerds, she taunts and humiliates her shallow former friends. Before I Fall
doesn't shy away from how unconscionably cruel Sam and her friends can be, but it also constantly reminds us that they're acting out on very real pain of their own. In fact, the loops that make her feel worst about herself are the ones where she lashes out at her catty best friend or jerk boyfriend in ways that would have been played as stand-up-and-cheer moments in lesser books. Sam's growth isn't complete until she learns to show mercy to all her peers, no matter how undeserving.
Am I forgetting any of your favorites? Let me know in the comments!
When I hear "epistolary," I think of college English lit classes. It's a dry, jargony term that we don't throw around much outside of that context, particularly since there aren't a whole lot of modern examples. The Screwtape Letters notwithstanding, the genre saw its heyday in the 18th century and has steadily been petering out since then. Gothic horror writers loved it, and any genre that counts Dracula as an exemplar is fine in my book, but really, you can only suspend so much disbelief at the idea of someone scribbling down intricate details with perfectly recaptured dialogue during tense moments. (I've heard that Henry Fielding's Shamela skewered the heck out of this all the way back in 1741.)
We have a few modern epistolary novels, sure. Some handle the format adroitly (Max Brooks' World War Z is a heartbreaking work of staggering genius); some hit the same stumbling blocks that caused epistolaries to fall out of favor in the first place (John Marks' Fangland has an awful lot of emails giving excruciating details of events that the recipient saw firsthand, including a reporter giving us her own physical description in her notes); some are having so much fun reveling in their gimmickry that you really can't tell whether they handle the basics well or not (Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves is delightful, but "gimmickry" is an accurate description). I'd absolutely love to see more novels in this genre, particularly as we return to more text-based forms of communication--a well-executed novel made up of blog posts, emails, and text messages could be incredibly cool, although there are probably a thousand poorly-executed ones languishing in slush piles.
But we're actually embarking on a new golden age for the epistolary; it's just using a different medium and a rebranded name. It's found footage. Instead of stringing together imaginary letters, journals, newspaper clippings, and diary entries, film editors are stringing together imaginary camera footage. Instead of the breathless final journals of a man hunted by an implacable THING, we get the harrowing video clips of a man stalked by the Slender Man.
It's not hard to see why found footage has exploded. It has all the advantages of the epistolary novel or short story--the extra layer of realism, the chance to play with a specific sense of rules and limitations--with few of the disadvantages. In an epistolary novel, part of you is rolling your eyes that Lucy Westenra pulled off this massive diary entry in the very moment that Dracula was coming for her for the last time, or that Dr. Frankenstein would quote lengthy conversations with the monster verbatim instead of saying "And then he asked me to make him a bride." With found footage, no one in the midst of the action is stopping to write it down or trying to remember details later; it all unfolds in real time in front of the camera. What's more, you generally know that the author of the letters and journals in an epistolary is going to survive--otherwise, who would write the journals? With found footage, you have no such assurances. The major limitation they share is the tendency toward "as you know, Bob" conversation, which is probably why the documentary format is so popular. No one cares if you exposit in a documentary
There are two things I'd like to see from both found footage and the handful of epistolary texts that are still kicking around. One, frankly, is quality. There's a lot of crappy found footage out there. There's also a lot of very good found footage out there. However, I don't think we've had a stone-cold classic film that does for found footage what Frankenstein and Dracula did for novels. I have no doubt that there's someone out there who can make an absolutely breathtaking found footage movie, but it hasn't happened yet. For contemporary epistolary novels, we do have one that I can think of--World War Z--but I'd love to see more. There's a lot of text floating around out there. There are stories unfolding every day in emails, in comboxes, in insane text message conversations. Let's play with them.
The other is more work that engages with technology. Documentaries are fun, but in an age of webcams we can do more interesting things. Unfriended was a spectacularly underrated movie; we can have an argument about whether the plot is just one more movie about a bunch of unpleasant teenagers getting killed in nasty ways, but the way it handled the Internet as Greek chorus was stellar. I've heard that The Lizzie Bennett Diaries does wonderful things with the idea of vlog epistolaries, but I'll admit I haven't seen it yet. The same goes for epistolary texts. There will always be journals, diaries, and mailed correspondence, and there have been some terrific contemporary works dealing with them, but I'd love to see more novels that specifically use the Internet. That's where text is happening nowadays.
Am I forgetting your favorite found footage movie or epistolary story? Is there something that you'd like to put forward as the found footage Dracula? Do you have burning thoughts about the epistolary or found footage genre? Let's have a dorky English major discussion!
In my previous post about the Bechdel test,
I mentioned that there was a fourth type of story that can be an acceptable Bechdel fail: a story where masculinity and/or the marginalization of women are critical themes. If your story is all about different definitions of what it means to be a man, most if not all women are only going to exist as foils for the male characters. A lot of crime novels by writers like George Pelekanos and Richard Price fall into this category; they're about criminals and the cops who chase them, but they're also about seeing who's biggest and all the different rulers you can use to get those measurements. Similarly, if your story is about the fact that women tend to be separated from other women or reduced to their relationships with men, you're going to demonstrate that by . . . separating your female characters from other women or only having them talk to each other about men. Several episodes of Mad Men
flunk the Bechdel test spectacularly, but it's clearly by design, to the point where more than one critic has described it as "TV's most feminist show."
I'm mostly going to be focusing on stories about masculinity here rather than stories about the marginalization of women. Chances are that if you're going out of your way to write a story about the marginalization of women, you're also going to go out of your way to write the women well. We'll get to that in a minute. I want to talk about the question of masculinity first, because things get incredibly
tricky there. For one thing, some writers claim to be about "definitions of what it means to be a man" when they're actually about "definitions of what it means to be a human being;" the male writer doesn't realize that the issues he thinks are specific to masculinity are actually pretty universal. Joseph Campbell is our most facepalm-inducing example here. When asked what a Heroine's Journey might look like to complement his Hero's Journey, he replied, "Women don't need to make the journey. In the whole mythological journey, the woman is there. All she has to do is realize she's the place people are trying to get to." So . . . personal and spiritual growth and struggle are unique to men, apparently.
This one of the more egregious examples of this mindset, but it isn't the only one. If you think your story is uniquely male, try talking about the themes with some of the women in your life. If they're nodding enthusiastically and sharing their own experiences, it isn't uniquely male. They've been there.
But some stories really do work better with men. Breaking Bad
is a good example here; it just wouldn't have the same punch without Walter White's sense of thwarted masculinity bouncing off Jesse's feelings of impotence and Hank's macho posturing. As mentioned, crime novels and shows like The Wire
fit here as well--criminal groups usually have a culture of toxic masculinity, and the cops can be held up either as a positive counterexample or a cynical mirror group that's nearly as toxic as the crooks. Also, the more we have stories like these that deconstruct traditional notions of what it means to be a man, the more we need stories to build up new visions of masculinity in their place. As male-dominated as stories tend to be, we still need
good stories about men and manliness if we're going to have examples of how to be a man who doesn't adhere to some strict macho role.
So let's say you're writing one of those stories, but you're worried that women are absent or underused. Are there any themes other than masculinity that the women can represent? This is one of the areas where Breaking Bad
drove me bananas, as much as I loved it. One of the crucial themes was masculinity, but another crucial theme was family, so the relationship between Skyler and Marie really should have been more important. The show flirted with this in early episodes but basically shoved their relationship (and most attempts at character development for Marie, for that matter) under a rug. The show frustratingly failed the Bechdel test more often than not. It didn't have to. Skyler couldn't act as a parallel to Walter on the theme of masculinity, but she could have acted much more strongly as a parallel or foil to him on the theme of family. (I'm curious about whether Anna Gunn would have gotten more or less hate mail in this alternate reality . . .)
You may still find yourself in a situation where men are ruling the roost and flunking the Bechdel test because of your story's themes. There are plenty of examples of this happening--The Godfather
and all those crime novels come to mind, although The Wire
doesn't thanks to Kima and her girlfriend. (And possibly Ronnie. Do Ronnie and Kima ever have a conversation that isn't about a man?) Unfortunately, I can't get into a lot of detail on these kinds of stories because I don't enjoy them very much. Men don't tend to read Jane Austen even though she's a great novelist, and if they do read her, they don't tend to enjoy her as much as women do. I wonder if I'm the only woman who secretly thinks The Godfather
is hella overrated because it's too darn butch for me. If you're writing something aggressively masculine, you risk alienating half your potential audience. That's fine--everyone knows you shouldn't write something with the sales figures in mind--but please know it going in, because I'm tired of the conventional wisdom that everyone enjoys boy stories.
Ahem. Anyway. As I was saying, if you're absolutely in a situation where the men are ruling the roost because of your story's themes, though, your best bet is to go out of your way to make sure your women are interesting characters with agency.
Of course, you should make sure that all of your characters are interesting--no one sits down at their desk delighted at the thought of writing a really boring character today--but if you have an engaging female character from the start, you'll gain a lot of trust and traction with your women readers. The Wire
gets a lot of flak for its female characters, but to my mind it does this right; I may not typically enjoy macho stories, but I'm one of those annoying Baltimoreans who will talk your ear off about The Wire.
Kima's an obvious reason why--I don't know if I would have had as much initial buy-in with the show if Kima hadn't been such a fantastic character, with a personal life and strengths and flaws just like all the men--but even minor characters who really do exist solely as foils for the men tend to pull this off beautifully. Our Barksdale gang Mother of the Year winners Brianna Barksdale and De'Londa Brice mainly exist to show some of the poisonous ways that family affects gang life, but you can understand how each one sees herself as the heroine of her own story--and Brianna in particular is as nuanced and interesting as any of the male criminals. Perhaps best of all, when a first season episode gives us a fairly typical scene of how disposable women are in gang life--a stripper, Keesha, overdoses at a party and her body is thrown in the Dumpster--it goes in a completely different direction than these scenes usually do. Rather than being used as a cheap shock moment, or something that kicks off a man's soul-searching journey of self-discovery, it leads to another woman's
soul-searching journey of self-discovery as gang girlfriend Shardene realizes that Keesha's fate could have been her own. She ends up taking actions that critically change the course of the first season because, like Brianna and De'Londa, Shardene is the heroine of her own story.
So is everyone, including your female characters. Even if your story is a necessary Bechdel fail, the best way to keep it from being sexist is to treat them that way. Your sole female character may only be onscreen for twenty pages of a three hundred page novel, but if you know exactly who she is, why she's there, and what she thinks about the events going on around her, you'll be
Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go rewatch The Wire.
Recently, I read a post by a certain cantankerous conservative writer who had discovered the Bechdel test
for the first time. I don't know if he genuinely misunderstood the purpose of the Bechdel test or was just drumming up outrage, but his basic reaction was what you'd expect: "The SJWs want to stop you from reading Melville and Shakespeare because they don't pass a feminist purity test!"
Yes, that's ridiculous. We know that isn't what the Bechdel test is about. The trouble is that sometimes, it's hard to grok what the Bechdel test is
about, at least in a way that makes it useful for writers. As others have pointed out, the test is more useful to analyze patterns of female presence in media than to assess whether a specific piece is feminist or sexist (this essay
does a nice job of laying out that argument). This is handy for critics, but as writers, we are
trying to figure out whether specific works are feminist or sexist--specifically our own. As someone who's actively trying to build more diversity into her work, I can understand why even well-meaning male writers sometimes scratch their heads over whether it's OK for their works to fail the Bechdel test, since Gravity
and Saving Private Ryan
do it and are fine (yes, some people complain about Saving Private Ryan,
but they're trolls). While 90% of Bechdel fails are straight-up lazy (why was the galaxy far, far away swimming in testosterone until this past December, and why do Skyler and Marie have so little to talk about other than their husbands?), some are fine or even downright necessary. Which ones?
For my money, acceptable Bechdel fails fall into two major categories:
- False negatives--works that technically fail the Bechdel test, but whose awesome female characters have very, very good reasons for not talking to each other (or whose single awesome female character has a good reason for not talking to other women). Gravity is probably the most frequently cited example here, but my personal favorite is "The Yellow Wallpaper." When an influential feminist work is a Bechdel fail, you know that it was never meant as a one-size-fits-all litmus test.
- Stories that are male-dominated by necessity. Saving Private Ryan is a good example here; it would be pretty darn hard to sneak women into a movie about a platoon of men in World War II.
I'm going to talk about false negatives in a later post because I love that kind of hair-splitting insanity, but that's more of an intellectual game than a useful discussion. Here, I'm interested in talking about male-dominated stories. I can think of four kinds of male-dominated stories that make for perfectly acceptable Bechdel fails. One of them--stories in which masculinity and/or the marginalization of women are major themes--has so many caveats that it's going to be the subject of Part Two. I'm detailing the other three below. Each one has circumstances in which it becomes increasingly difficult to justify the failure, and each also connects directly to a similar but more woman-focused story that we don't see enough.Adaptations.
If you're riffing on source material that doesn't prominently feature women, your adaptation might not, either. A short story riffing on Hamlet
from Claudius' point of view is probably going to treat Gertrude and Ophelia as separately as the actual play does.But . . .
the more you depart from the source material, the less justifiable this becomes. A straightforward riff on Hamlet
is one thing; Hamlet IIIIIIIIN SPAAAAAAAACE!
is another. If you're dramatically changing the setting, plot, or theme of the work you're adapting, you can probably stand to gender-flip a few characters. The same is true of adding subplots. 1 and 2 Samuel don't pass the Bechdel Test, but both Kings
and Of Kings and Prophets
do because the writers added subplots for the women as well as the men. If the work has both male and female characters and you're only interested in fleshing out the men, ask yourself why.My wish list . . .
Really, the "but" paragraph covers this one. I'd love to see more adaptations of the classics that engage the women, particularly if it's an adaptation written by someone who actually has a decent grasp of both the source material and the way women talk to each other. It would also be terrific to see more interesting gender flips. If no one ever gender-flipped characters in adaptations, we wouldn't have Kara Thrace. I don't want to live in that world.Stories with setting limitations.
I mentioned Saving Private Ryan
above. Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption
is another good example. Sometimes your story is set in a time and place that only features men.But . . .
this only goes as far as the historical accuracy of your story. A realistic story about a group of World War II soldiers trying to find another and bring him home? That's a completely justifiable Bechdel fail. A story where the soldiers are fighting clockwork Nazis? Less so. When the only historical fact you're setting in stone is the race and gender of the people who are likely to be involved, you're on shaky ground. My wish list . . .
The obvious answer here is more stories about women's equivalents to these male settings (wouldn't it be great to have an Orange is the New Black
set in a women's prison for every Shawshank Redemption
set in a men's prison?). What I'd love even more, though, would be more stories about what the women were doing while the men were off at war during these historical periods. Why have we not had a series about the women getting their Rosie the Riveter on during World War II? Why is it that I can't think of a single movie about what the women were doing during World War II except A League of Their Own?
For that matter, what about all the women during the Middle Ages who had to handle their households during the Crusades? The idea of a woman as the head of the home had real teeth eight hundred years ago.Stories with a small cast or narrow character focus.
Short stories are a good example here. If you're writing a very short story about two brothers, you might not have any other characters at all. Similarly, some novellas, TV episodes, or short movies barely have a single conversation that doesn't involve the protagonist; if the protagonist is a man, it's going to be a Bechdel fail.But . . .
if there are only a few characters, can any of them be women? There are some ways that the relationship between brothers is different from the relationship between sisters or a brother and sister. If your story focuses heavily on those things, it's going to be about brothers and fail the Bechdel test, and that's OK. If it doesn't, consider gender-flipping a brother.My wish list . . .
Again, this is pretty well covered under "but." It would be terrific if the default for small-focus stories wasn't "a couple of men" or "a few men and maybe one woman." The Shining
is one of my favorite books, and it certainly has a small cast, but there's no reason Dick Hallorann couldn't have been a woman. There's not a specific reason for him to be a woman, but then, there's not a specific reason for him to be a man, either, so why not gender-flip him? When in doubt, why default to men?
And that's what the Bechdel test is all about, Charlie Brown.
With the new season of Game of Thrones upon us, I thought I'd dust off the drinking game I made the last time I reread the books. Spoiler-free.
Take a drink every time . . .
. . . a new character is named.
. . . a named character dies.
--If it's the significant other of a viewpoint character, drink twice.
--If they come back from the dead, as a wight or otherwise, drink twice.
--If it's a viewpoint character, finish the bottle. (Prologue viewpoint characters don't count. That's just a given.)
. . . a new incestuous couple is mentioned.
. . . there's a sex scene.
--If it involves Dany or Cersei, drink twice.
--If the phrase "she was sopping wet down there" appears, drink twice.
--If it gives you a hint as to one of GRRM's fetishes (like lesbianism or lactation) drink twice.
. . . a nipple is pinched, tweaked or twisted.
--If it actually happens in a sex scene, drink twice.
. . . a course in a feast is lovingly described.
--If the course is lemon cakes, ribs in a crust of garlic and herbs, mashed turnips with butter, cheese and olives, lamprey pie or a Dornish red, drink twice.
. . . one of the following phrases is uttered:
--"Abominations born of incest."
--"It is known."
--"You know nothing, Jon Snow."
--"Winter is coming."
--"I want to see/make him/the bad man fly."
--"The night is dark and full of terrors."
--"Sweet sister"/"Sweet brother."
. . . Arya picks up a new pseudonym.
. . . we're reminded that a long summer means a long winter.
. . . Cersei incorrectly thinks of something as exactly what her father would do.
. . . the direwolves howl. And howl. And howl some more.
. . . ravens deliver information at the speed of Twitter.
. . . you want to punch Bran, Catelyn or Arianne in the face.
Did I miss anything?