Like many people who only watch things when they come on Netflix, I finally saw Finding Dory
earlier this month. I haven't been this conflicted about a Pixar movie since I realized how much objectivism lurks beneath the surface of The Incredibles.
There's a lot to like about Finding Dory.
It's funny, it has some terrific set pieces, and the animation shows you exactly how far technology has come since Finding Nemo.
You could remove Marlin and Nemo from the movie entirely with minimal impact on the plot and themes, and there's a bit of retreading the original (when a human rescue team scooped Dory out of the water and Marlin screamed in horror, I actually groaned aloud), but it's not nearly as sequelly as it could have been. It has one of the best treatments of disability I've ever seen in a children's movie--some critics were grumpy about the fact that Destiny's near-sightedness and Hank's missing limb never played a plot role, but I thought it was the disability equivalent of the women in the background of The Force Awakens
. What's more, it made me cry harder than any other Pixar movie, Up
and Inside Out
And that's the problem.
People accuse Pixar of being emotionally manipulative on a pretty regular basis, and it's an accusation that usually falls flat with me. Art manipulates emotion, plain and simple. Some stories do it more skillfully than others, but all stories do it. Horror writers choose their words carefully to manipulate you into feeling fear. Romance writers choose their words carefully to manipulate you into twisting with anxiety when Guy and Girl hit a rough spot and sighing contentedly when they fall into each other's arms again. Pixar chooses its words and imagery carefully to manipulate you into sobbing like a hungry, colicky, wet-diapered baby with five teeth coming in at once. That's what they do.
But this time, the accusation hit home, because Finding Dory
didn't fully earn those tears. It took me a while to realize why at first, because taken by itself, the actual scene that made me sob my eyes out did
earn copious weeping. I can't say too much without spoiling the climax of the movie, but suffice it to say that Dory and some other characters shared a hard-earned and emotional victory that called back to well-seeded flashbacks from Dory's childhood; it was a part that even the generally dismissive Honest Trailer
credited with "Damn you, Pixar, even your B material makes me cry!"
The trouble, though, was that much of the emotional weight from that scene came from those flashbacks, and those
were an eye-opening illustration of the difference between a masterful tug at the heartstrings and the kind of "emotional manipulation" that gets described with an eye-roll or a sneer. Baby Dory is pure cuteness, all big eyes and adorable voice. Her parents are living avatars of love, support, and positivity. This clip
illustrates the sole emotional beat in their relationship.
Don't get me wrong--as a special needs mom myself, I am absolutely delighted to see a character with special needs whose parents not only give her unconditional love and emotional support, but also equip her with the tools and strategies she needs to live with her disability rather than quoting Hallmark platitudes that somehow miraculously repair her prefrontal cortex. But repeatedly hitting that one emotional beat is overly simplistic and false. There's only one fleeting instant where we get a sense of how frustrating it would be to have to teach Dory these things over and over and over and over and over
again, and that moment is more comic than anything else. Dory seems completely devoid of the anger and frustration that children feel about their own disabilities; her one moment of dejection is played more for "aww, widdle baby Dowwy is just da cutest!"
than anything else. Baby Dory and her parents barely come across as characters; they're little blue machines designed solely to make us sad when they're separated.
Compare that to any other tear-jerking Pixar character. I get something in my eye at the callback to "Daddy's got you, Nemo" every single time my kids watch Finding Nemo.
Riley's arc in Inside Out
is pretty much guaranteed to turn viewers into a sobbing mess. And the first ten minutes of Up
are, well, the first ten minutes of Up.
But none of these hinge on flat, one-note characters for their emotional punch the way that the Finding Dory
flashbacks do. Marlin is overprotective and neurotic and Nemo lashes out against him; that makes me cry more at "Daddy's got you," not less. Even before Riley became a moody tween, she felt like a real kid, not a living pair of puppy eyes. Carl and Ellie's relationship hits a dozen different emotional beats in under ten minutes.
Dory and her parents may be a refreshingly positive depiction of a special needs family, but they're a flat one. She's not quite "The Littlest Cancer Patient,"
but she's close. No matter how hard I cried at the climax of the movie, part of me was angry because I knew I'd been played.
I have yet to intentionally write a tear-jerker, but if I do, I'm going to remember Finding Dory
as an example of how to almost, but not quite, do it right. And then I'll do my darnedest to make sure that the tears come from complex and well-realized characters like Nemo, Marlin, and Adult Dory, not cutesy plot devices like Baby Dory.
Warning: this post contains climactic spoilers for the Black Mirror episode "White Bear." The new season of Black Mirror came to Netflix last week, and I've been working through it in the small, bite-sized chunks that I need in order to keep it from breaking my brain. I didn't start watching Black Mirror until last winter--I heard about the Christmas special's brilliant concept that you could actually block irritating acquaintances from your life the way you block them from your Facebook feed, and I had to watch it--but now I'm hooked on its brilliant, satirical, technophobic brand of horror.
As I was reading over some commentaries on previous episodes to prepare myself for the new season, though, I noticed a theme developing: the question of whether this show, so dark that it regularly crosses the line into misanthropy, is too
bleak. This question seems to come out particularly around the episode "White Bear" and, to a lesser extent, "National Anthem." Both episodes involve seemingly the entire human race participating in heinously voyeuristic behavior, with nary a dissenter in sight. It's unrealistic, some viewers complain in review comboxes and the Fridge Logic section of TV Tropes
. It's grimdark for grimdarkness' sake. Someone, somewhere, would refuse to put up with this.
I have a pretty rosy view of human nature, and I actually agree that someone would refuse to put up with this--in real life. In a show like Black Mirror,
though, including those people would be a disastrous choice.
Before I go any farther, I need to reiterate my spoiler warning. These viewers' complaints revolve specifically around the climax
of "White Bear," which involves a gut punch of a plot twist. If you have any interest at all in the show, go watch "White Bear" before you read this. It's an anthology show; it won't matter that you haven't seen any other episodes.
OK, have we lost everyone concerned about spoilers? Great. Let's continue.
"White Bear" starts off straightforwardly enough, with amnesiac Victoria (I'm screening Twilight Zone
episodes for my six-year-old, and I don't know where horror anthologies would be without amnesia) awakening in the middle of a post-apocalyptic hellscape. A strange symbol has turned most of the people in the world into zombies incapable of doing anything but standing around and snapping pictures with their cell phones; the tiny contingent remaining are either taking advantage of the chaos to wreak as much havoc as possible or struggling to survive. Victoria, getting occasional flashes of memory about a man who must be her partner and a little girl who must be her daughter, is led through a harrowing ordeal with another survivor to reach a place called "White Bear" where they'll be able to undo the damage the symbol has caused.
It's a bog-standard apocalypse with some heavy-handed commentary about those narcissistic jackasses who take selfies while the world burns, right? Except it isn't. When they finally reach White Bear, Victoria is greeted by a jeering studio audience. Baxter, a man who previously tied her up and threatened to torture her with a drill, informs her that she and her fiancé weren't actually that little girl's parents; they kidnapped the girl, and her fiancé tortured her to death while Victoria filmed the entire thing. The name "White Bear" comes from the little girl's white teddy bear, which the media immediately jumped on as a symbol of her purity and innocence. Victoria's fiancé killed himself before sentencing, but Victoria was sentenced to suffer the same fate they inflicted on the little girl: every night she would have her memory wiped to make her confused and helpless, and every day she would be subjected to horrible torment while people smiled and took pictures. In the most chilling detail of all, while everyone who has an actual speaking role in this spectacle is an employee of the justice system, the milling crowd of cellphone wielders is made up of tourists who have come for a fun day of participating in Victoria's personal hell. After all, the coldblooded murdering bitch deserves it, right?
Over the end credits, we see scenes of Victoria's sentence from the other characters' point of view. After an establishing shot of a sign that says "White Bear Justice Park," we're greeted by Baxter telling a room full of tourists the rules of the park: no talking, keep your distance, and above all, enjoy yourself! Among the tourists are a few families with smiling children, ready for a fun day of cruel and unusual punishment.
It's an absolutely terrifying episode, both because it so masterfully changes from a grab-bag of horror movie clichés to something fresh and awful and because it forces us to examine our own voyeuristic and bloodthirsty tendencies. Whether because we'd secretly love to see criminals given this kind of treatment, or because we get a huge kick out of watching people suffer on reality TV, or because we enjoy getting our licks in on the social media witch hunt du jour, we've all smiled and whipped out our cell phones while some real-life Victoria suffers.
I've run into viewers critiquing it, though, not on the grounds that it's heavy-handed or predictable or what have you (everyone's mileage varies on issues like that), but on the grounds that it isn't realistic. C'mon, this clearly violates the United Nations Convention Against Torture bill. Amnesty International has to be going berserk over this stuff. When we see the external shot of White Bear Justice Park, where are the protesters? There has
to be someone protesting something this awful!
The easy answer to this is "just sit back and remember the MST3K mantra
," but the problem with this argument actually runs deeper than the idea of refusing to suspend your disbelief. The entire point of dark satires like Black Mirror
is to force us to examine how we're reflected by the show's world. Would we be there in the justice park? If we're quick to say "no," why don't we take a long, hard look at some times we've put that answer to the lie? The only characters we have to identify ourselves with are the ones who are participating in the mob. We're forced to look at that mob and see ourselves.
If, on the other hand, we saw a protester at White Bear Justice Park, we'd have an out.
We wouldn't have to look at the people smiling into their cell phones and see our own faces there; we could let out a sigh of relief, point, and say, "That's me. That's totally
me. Yeah, everybody else would be taking family vacations to White Bear Justice Park, but you know I'm so much purer than the common, vulgar, weak, licentious crowd, so I'd be protesting. I'm awesome like that." The show would no longer be the titular mirror, reflecting our ugliness back at us, but just another hammer to bash all the people we don't like while we sit back and marinate in our own smug self-righteousness.
No thanks. As I said, I do have a pretty rosy view of human nature. Black Mirror
reflects a much bleaker world than the one we actually live in. But it isn't the job of satirical horror to reflect the parts of the world that make us feel good about it--or that make us feel good about how much better we are than other people. Sometimes we all need something that inspires us and builds us up--but other times, we need to wonder which side of the cellphone camera we're on.
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.
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!
This time last week, I was all ready to do a business-as-usual post about writing, horror, and writing horror. Given how much horror we're all seeing just by turning on the news, though, I'm not in the mood to talk about Black Mirror
and you probably aren't, either. I'm still talking stories, but I'm doing a bit of a gear shift this week.
Partly in recognition of Pope Francis declaring 2016 a Jubilee Year of Mercy
, and partly just because they love a good themed film list, Arts & Faith and Image
magazine have come up with a list of the Top 25 Films on Mercy
. I haven't seen many of them--for every Spirited Away
that I've seen and loved, there's an Elephant Man
that I know I really should get around to watching and a Hadewijch
that I've never heard of. The list makes me want to hunt down these movies and watch them, though, because any list that features Joyeux Noel
and The Island
is A-OK in my book. (This particular The Island
is a 2006 Russian flick, not the one with Ewan MacGregor and Scarlett Johansson having clone adventures.)
The list is heavy on realistic fiction, older movies, and foreign films, and my husband and I were trying to come up with recent and/or spec-fic fare that explored the theme of mercy as thoroughly as these movies do. As we did, two themes emerged. One was that, by and large, Japanese media seems much more interested in solving problems through mercy, empathy, and compassion than we do--there are two Miyazaki films on A&F's 25-movie list, and we were able to rattle off several anime series with climaxes that hinge on mercy before we could think of a single Western counterpart (Trigun,
the series ending of Neon Genesis Evangelion, Madoka Magica,
and my all-time favorite anime Revolutionary Girl Utena,
to name a few). I don't know whether this says something damning about the lack of forgiveness in American culture compared to other countries or simply about the differences between what various cultures will and won't accept as a satisfying climax, but it's interesting.
As we finally stumbled on more recent Western examples, though, we noticed something else: nearly all of the shows and movies whose climaxes hinged on mercy were originally intended for children. Whether they were cartoons with large adult audiences (both Last Airbender
series, Batman: The Animated Series
), family sci-fi adventures (Return of the Jedi),
or shows that were originally intended for children but deliberately broadened their audiences to include adults (Doctor Who),
none of them were exclusively adult stories.
On one level, that's great news--we want our children to learn mercy, and what better way than watching an avatar who learns that she can't punch her way out of every problem, or a Jedi who wins by throwing away his lightsaber and embracing love and forgiveness even against the advice of his masters? It's terrific that there are high-quality sources of children's entertainment that embrace mercy and compassion. But the trouble is when mercy is seen solely
as a province of children's entertainment. I can think of a handful of mainstream movies for teens and adults that embrace mercy over violence--Spider-Man 3
had its issues, but spitting in the face of forgiveness wasn't one of them--but in general, Hollywood loves its cathartic, climactic violence where our plucky heroes kill, maim, or humiliate "them." Mercy is kids' stuff. Adults know that sometimes we have to make the hard choices. And those hard choices always seem to involve getting a blank check to attack whoever is in the outgroup.
Of course, we generally don't want our heroes to be cold-blooded killers (although the revenge movie, in which the villains are so loathsome that it's totally OK for the hero to kill them and for us to cheer as he does, is an ugly exception; this sort of movie invites us to view everyone who's wronged us with as much mercy and forgiveness as Django or Bryan Mills, which is to say none at all). Hollywood likes to get around this by having the hero refuse to kill or torture his opponent, only to have the opponent die bloodily from the hero's inaction shortly afterward (see The Revenant, X2,
and Batman Begins)
. This kind of treatment isn't just a cheat that lets us get our titillation from the villain's comeuppance while keeping the hero's hands clean; it actually changes forgiveness into another weapon. The act of sparing the villain's life is rarely motivated by the hero seeing the villain as a human being like himself. Instead, it's an exercise of power and pride, as the hero makes it clear that he could kill the villain any time he wants but is choosing not to. (Compare any given "No! I'm not like you!" scene with Luke's loving refusal to kill his father, or Batman: the Animated Series'
vision of a Caped Crusader who genuinely cares about the welfare of his tragically broken rogues' gallery, to see the difference between genuine mercy and this kind of "I'll spare you and the horse you came in on" attitude.) This may teach us to avoid actively seeking revenge, but it doesn't teach us much in the way of forgiveness or empathy.Why?
Why do we think that our stories should outgrow mercy? It can't be because you can't tell a good story that will appeal to adults that doesn't end with a death-fest; Return of the Jedi
is generally regarded as the weakest of the original trilogy (my total disagreement with this is a whole other post), but not because it doesn't end with Luke striking Vader down with all his hate. Plenty of adults watched Avatar
and The Legend of Korra
and would have been totally satisfied with them if energy-bending had been introduced before the final episode,
and for anyone who was a kid in the early '90s, the definitive incarnation of Batman is one who was empathetic and merciful while still kicking villain butt.
One contributor is that it's hard to pull off a merciful ending that feels earned--but how much of that is a chicken-and-egg problem? As Steven Greydanus points out in his column on the 25 Films on Mercy list,
we're living in a particularly ugly and merciless age. We can't even empathize with and forgive someone who votes differently than we do, never mind a criminal mastermind who's trying to destroy the city. As we harden ourselves to the outgroup in our personal lives, it becomes more difficult to believe that our heroes will do any differently. This causes us to take in stories that are sorely lacking in mercy, which subtly directs our thinking away from mercy, which makes merciful stories even harder for us to accept as believable . . . and so on, and so on. What's more, it conditions audiences to expect violent endings to their entertainment, and conditions writers to assume that this is the way stories are supposed
to end. I'm as guilty of this as anyone--the beautiful, merciful finale of Revolutionary Girl Utena
may have felt contrived to me if it had happened in a Western series because I expect different endings from my American shows than from my anime.
Another, deeper issue is the very fact that we associate happy endings, including redemptive ones, with childhood. As we grow older, we realize that not all problems can be solved through communication, empathy, and forgiveness--a theme that's entirely true, and worth exploring in fiction. The trouble is when we convince ourselves that the only
kind of mature story is one that ends without any form of reconciliation. Find a movie that resolves peacefully even though death and violence are a possibility, and you'll find a hundred people scoffing at how maudlin and Pollyanna-ish the ending is. Like a guy who reads Watchmen
and decides that stories without rape, murder, and nihilism are immature, we may well have taken away the wrong lessons about what constitutes mature storytelling.
And that matters. Stories teach us how to think--we all have some group or another that we believe is underrepresented or unfairly stereotyped in fiction, and we all know that's damaging because it teaches people not to think well of that group. How damaging is it to have stories that show we can't be reconciled with an outgroup at all--planting the idea, subconsciously, that the people who believe the unfairly stereotyped group is the GLBT community and the people who believe the unfairly stereotyped group is fundamentalist Christians are never going to come to any sort of empathetic accord? If our stories teach us that a Batman for kids can put a hand on sobbing villain to comfort her
but a Batman for adults brands bad guys with a mark that'll get them killed in prison because some people aren't worth saving, or that Korra can learn how to solve her problems without violence but the Avengers are just going to keep on punching because, dammit, you just can't reason with some people . . . it's not hard to see how that's going to make our national problem with communicating with those who disagree with us even worse.
So let's take a few hours in one of the most horrible, merciless weeks of a horrible, merciless election season to enjoy some merciful stories, whether it's something from the A&F list or the last season of Avatar.
I don't know about you, but I'd rather be Kevin Conroy's Batman than Ben Affleck's any day of the week.
You know what's really annoying in spec fic stories? That protagonist who just refuses to see that something supernatural is going on. We're 120 pages into the novel, and everyone except the main character knows why people are showing symptoms of anemia with unusual injuries on their necks or that maybe there was something to Grandpa's crazy stories about fairies after all. A really skilled writer can turn this into horrifying dramatic irony as we sit at the edge of our seats, wondering if the protagonist is going to figure out what's going on before it's too late. More often than not, though, we end up just wanting to reach through the book, smack the protagonist upside the head, and scream, "GET ON WITH IT!"
At the same time, though, it's understandable that the protagonist of a spec fic story doesn't know that he or she is the protagonist of a spec fic story. In real life, most of us would giggle nervously and make a few jokes if there were an outbreak of Neck-Rupture Anemia in the neighborhood, but we probably wouldn't put up the crosses and garlic, and we certainly wouldn't go out hunting with stakes and mallets. How can we set up a mystery like this for our protagonist--"is it really a vampire, or am I crazy?"--that doesn't make the reader irritably point to the word "horror" on the back cover?
When you set up a problem like this, you're putting your character at a narrative fork in the road. The trouble is that in mediocre stories, one of the paths leads to an interesting, twisty ramble through an exotic forest and the other leads to a dead end. There needs to be a compelling alternative for what'll happen if Neck-Rupture Anemia really is just a disease or if Grandpa's fairy tales really were just an old man spinning yarns; that way, the reader will see that both paths actually go somewhere. How to go about doing this?
The first time I noticed a well-executed narrative fork in the road was the movie The History of Violence.
(I haven't read the graphic novel, but I've heard that it's completely different.) If you haven't seen it, you should; I won't spoil it here beyond laying out the basic premise. Viggo Mortensen plays Tom Stall, a restaurant owner and father of two in Indiana. When a pair of thugs try to rob his restaurant, most of the staff and customers freeze in terror, but Tom quickly kills them and is hailed as a local hero. It seems like a happy ending . . . until a mobster from Philadelphia rolls in, claiming that he saw Tom on the news and recognized him as his old mob buddy Joey Cusack. Tom and his wife vehemently deny this, but the mobster continues to stalk and threaten the Stall family, claiming he won't leave them alone until Tom (Joey?) returns to Philadelphia with him.
I spent the first half of this movie on the edge of my seat--because I had no idea what movie I was watching.
Was this the story of a Joey Cusack, a repentant mobster who
had escaped the criminal world and tried to make a new life, only to learn that violence and the past would always find him? Or was it the story of Tom Stall, an innocent man mistaken for a murderer, who commits a single, justifiable violent act and finds that it will lead to more violence and bloodshed, possibly transforming him into the killer he coincidentally resembles?
I would watch the heck out of other of those movies. Both are compelling stories--the fork in the road leads to two paths that each like a terrific hike, although in different ways. What's more, both are consistent with the tone and theme of the movie so far, which is clearly established as a dark film that studies both the allure and the destructive effects of violence. It isn't like we've been walking along a dark and eerie trail, and our two choices are either a similarly spooky path or a delightful sunlit ramble. I want to give David Cronenberg and Josh Olson a standing ovation for this one.
The 2015 UK horror movie The Hallow
has a similarly well-done narrative fork in the road. I won't spoil the ending, but I can't talk about it without getting into some third-act plot developments. It's on Netflix streaming and is quite decent; if you want to go in completely unspoiled, either watch it and come back in two hours or skip to the next paragraph. A couple and their baby are being terrorized by old-school evil fairies, and like any self-respecting old-school evil fairies, they have a history of stealing children and replacing them with changelings. The husband, Adam, is convinced that they've stolen and replaced baby Finn, and we know they had the opportunity to do so . . . but Adam got hit by a glamour earlier in the movie. His wife is positive that the baby is their own and that Adam is being influenced by the glamour. Are the fairies manipulating this poor sap into killing his real child, or into giving the real child to them in the mistaken belief that he's returning a changeling? Or is the glamour allowing him to see fae things for what they really are, turning him into a tragic Cassandra-like figure who can't make his wife see that she's clutching a viper to her bosom while abandoning their real child? Again, those are both spectacular stories, and they're both a solid tonal and thematic match for what we've seen before.
Either of these movies could have been one of those eye-rolling affairs where everyone knows what's coming except the characters. If the Philadelphia mobster hadn't been a direct threat to Tom Stall's family who could have lured him into more and more acts of justifiable violence, it would have been clear that Tom was Joey Cusack--otherwise, there's no story. If the mobster mistook him for something innocuous, like an honest citizen who'd seen his crimes and been placed in witness protection, it would have been clear that he was Tom Stall--there'd be no compelling reason for him not to come clean to his family about his identity, and again, no story. There are a hundred ways The Hallow
could have been a snoozefest as well--I won't get into details so we don't have another spoileriffic paragraph, but let's just say that it would have been a disaster to have that same setup at the beginning of the movie instead of in act three. I can't see any way that they could have maintained the mystery that long., and eventually it would have been clear which character was careening toward a dead end.
So if you have a situation where there may or may not be supernatural going on, or any other situation where the viewpoint character may or may not be right about the story's basic premise, it's critical to make sure that the story would be compelling and thematically consistent no matter what. Neck-Rupture Anemia that may be an illness or a vampire attack is boring; a series of deaths that could be caused by a vampire or a serial killer is cliche, but at least dramatically interesting. Fairies that may be real or may be an old man's ramblings are boring; fairies who may be real or may be his delusional interpretation of a sinister, fully human conspiracy are more interesting. (You could also get a really poignant story out of a narrator who's young enough to believe in fairies, pulling your reader back and forth over whether this is going to be a "hooray, Grandpa's fairies are real" story or an "and this is how I learned there are no such things as fairies" story, but this is where tone and theme are so important. A story like this is going to need a general tone of wistfulness and a hint of magic throughout, or it'll be clear that it either isn't going in the darker direction.)
Do you have any stories where you were at the edge of your seat, not knowing what story you were reading and watching? What about thoughts you've had for how to make these "it's obviously a vampire" stories more compelling?
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.