Category Archives: Feminism

The Politics of Caring

I think I’m just going to go ahead and post this. I don’t think it’s the most well-written post; certainly it is more ramble-bloggy than structured-essay-y. But it IS a record of some of my current attempts to understand the politics of caring: why certain people try to get you to STOP caring, and why I still value it.

I recently watched some of the play-off games between the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers. I don’t know much about basketball, but even I could tell that the Warriors are playing a whole new level of ball game. The Cavs are very good, but they are very good at playing the basketball that I grew up watching: one where the teams switch off having possession of the ball, defense is usually 1-on-1, and the game is won based on which team can make the most shots. When the Warriors have possession of the ball, you can see how the traditional gameplay just doesn’t work in the same way against them. The Warriors are agile, super quick, and work together as a team to the get the ball to the net. They make it look like a choreographed dance. It makes any other team look slow and clunky in comparison; it makes the other team look forceful and forced. The Warriors dominated the post-season; no one was coming close. They’ll continue to dominate until other teams start to question and evolve the way they’re playing the game.

When I was talking with some girlfriends soon after the election of Trump, what we kept circling back to was this incomprehension of why certain people were voting for him. We understood the racists, we understood the rural poor who had become disenfrancished within this country, but we didn’t understand this other group, the group who didn’t seem to care that their actions would mean disastrous things for nearly everybody. They seemed to have privilege, and they seemed to not have any empathy for those who would be affected most by Trump’s policies, and they didn’t seem to grasp how those same policies would eventually also affect them. Did they not understand that you can’t burn down the other side without burning down the entire house?

This article by Dale Baren outlines the history of 4chan, and the evolution of the power of its users, to the point where they are now influencing our political arena. After reading it, I understood better. We thought seeing Trump in debates with the other candidates would help people see his incompetencies, his pettiness, his insensitivities (to put it all too too mildly). But we were also assuming that seeing these things would cause people to not vote for this man. We were playing by the rules of the game we were used to: we should as a country elect moral, competent, and smart people into office.

This was a whole new ballgame.

“Pepe [the frog] symbolizes embracing your loserdom, owning it. That is to say, it is what all the millions of forum-goers of 4chan met to commune about. It is, in other words, a value system, one reveling in deplorableness and being pridefully dispossessed. It is a culture of hopelessness, of knowing “the system is rigged”. But instead of fight the response is flight, knowing you’re trapped in your circumstances is cause to celebrate. For these young men, voting Trump is not a solution, but a new spiteful prank.

In other words, we can append a third category to the two classically understood division of Trump supporters:

  1. Generally older people who naively believe Trump will “make America great again”, that is to say, return it to its 1950s ideal evoked by both Trump and Clinton.
  2. The 1 percent, who know this promise is empty, but also know it will be beneficial to short term business interests.
  3. Younger members of the 99 percent, like Anon, who also know this promise is empty, but who support Trump as a defiant expression of despair.”

The scariest part is how this hopelessness, despair, and prankishness is affecting our current political discourse. Film Crit Hulk wrote about this in an article called “P.C. Culture vs. the Big Joke” which traces strains of our current political discourse to nihilism and a generation who (as someone tweeted) doesn’t understand the difference between skepticism and cynicism, having grown up on South Park and 4chan. The figure of the Joker from the recent The Dark Knight trilogies serves as an apt analogy for a swath of people who don’t play by the rules.

“There’s a reason The Dark Knight’s Joker struck such a cord with this populace and it wasn’t just his good performance, it was his mantra: ‘Why so serious?’ It was his ability to reign terror and tear apart hypocrisy. It was the sense power that comes with having such a freeing attitude toward the cares of society. The pure, bleak joy of nihilistic glee. And yes, the way this philosophy was expressed could be as terrifying as when the Joker did it. The lulz is an almost pathological need to undo your seriousness. To undo what you care about. To not make sense. There isn’t a side. There isn’t a belief. The only goal is to burn down your side. After all, ‘Some men just want to watch the world burn.'”

This is scary. They don’t play by the rules because they want to burn the whole game down.

“When I look at everyone. I’m asking ‘What do they want?’ And when looking at anti-PC culture as a whole, from the left-hating alt-right, to the trolls, to the knee-jerk comedian, the aligned message is clear, and whether they mean it or not, the effect of that want is the same:

“They want to tear down people who actually give a shit.

“It’s all part of the upside-down. They are fighting anyone who tries to be protective of marginalized groups and they’ll tell you that they’re the ones who are really marginalized. Fuck man, I will tell you it is easier to find ground in a conversation with an actual KKK member and I’m not kidding. They believe in something so morally wrong, but their goal isn’t to upend the notion of serious conversation itself. And so, with the anti-PC crowd, it becomes part of the reflexive game that goes ever on. We lose ourselves completely in wars of false equivalency, pedantic arguments on ‘logic’ that eschew morality completely.”

It is easier to engage with someone in the actual KKK than to engage with someone in the anti-PC crowd because the former actually believes in something. Remember that thought because we’ll come back to it. But for now, this is the frustrating part because this is what makes is so hard to have logical, reasonable conversations; to rely on facts; to remain civil; to keep playing by the same rules of the game we have always played by.

Participating in arguments with people who are defiantly despairing, nihilist, and who want to tear down anyone who gives a shit…will eventually tear you down, as well.

It leads to frustration and feelings of futility and articles like this one in the Huffington Post, entitled “I Don’t Know How To Explain To You That You Should Care About Other People.”

“I don’t know how to convince someone how to experience the basic human emotion of empathy. I cannot have one more conversation with someone who is content to see millions of people suffer needlessly in exchange for a tax cut that statistically they’ll never see.

“I cannot have political debates with these people. Our disagreement is not merely political, but a fundamental divide on what it means to live in a society, how to be a good person, and why any of that matters.…I can’t debate someone into caring about what happens to their fellow human beings. The fact that such detached cruelty is so normalized in a certain party’s political discourse is at once infuriating and terrifying.”

It leads to giving up.

Which is precisely what those who play the game of “why do you care so much” / “why so serious” want.

Which is something I cannot abide by. While I understand the need to stop butting our heads up against the walls of a now-rigged game, the conclusion that we stop trying to help people see why they should care is something I can’t quite sit with. When we start to dehumanize this amalgam of YouTubers, gamers, harassers, trolls, basement dwellers as ‘losers’, and as we start giving up on them…then we will have become them.

Hell, I am one of them right now in that I am living in my boyfriend’s family’s basement. I understand how little it takes to start to feel powerless and purposeless. I understand how hard those feelings are, I understand how compelling escapism is, and I understand how searingly painful it is to care about something when it feels like you can’t do anything to change it. So I understand that not caring and disengaging are protective self-mechanisms that work. They are about self-preservation, but the question is who then is the self you are trying to preserve?

“Like adolescent boys, 4chan users were deeply sensitive and guarded. They disguised their own sensitivity (namely, their fear that they would be, ‘forever alone’) by extreme insensitivity. The rules, like everything else, were always half in jest. Everything had to be a done with at least a twinkle of winking irony. This was an escape route, a way of never having to admit to your peers that you were in fact expressing something from your heart, in other wordsthat you were indeed vulnerable. No matter what a user did or said, he could always say it was ‘for the lulz’.”

And hell, I am also one of them others right now because we keep having political arguments with my boyfriend’s dad, that keep ending up at the same dead ends. It’s a different strand of the conservative notion of meritocracy, but it’s eerily familiar: if I as an immigrant worked my butt off to pull myself up by my own bootstraps to get to where I am today, everyone else who is on welfare must be lazy. Poor people have no one to blame but themselves. Government is corrupt, nothing is going to change, you already have it so much better than when we were growing up poor, hungry, and dirty in the countryside, you are naïve to think you can change anything, so why bother making a fuss? Take care of your own, and leave it at that.

“Why do you care so much?”

Why so serious?

That is the argument that always crushes my spirit, that makes it impossible for me to continue engaging in the conversation. How do you defend why you care about something? How do you justify something that feels so self-evident to yourself?

It’s difficult because I think the root of the question of “why do you care so much” is actually “who do you think you are to care so much?” Caring about something presumes that you matter enough to 1) be in the arena to feel whatever you’re going to feel about what you care about, and 2) be able to do something or make a change about whatever you care about.

So it makes sense that those who are disenfranchised, who feel powerless, who have been told explicitly or implicitly that they don’t matter will also try to attack you in the same vein — to try and make you believe that you don’t matter. By attacking what you care about. By attacking the fact that you care at all.

Earnestness? Sincerity? Values? Empathy? Caring? Hope?

Those things make us vulnerable.

For my partner’s father, it was a mindset honed to survive the grueling realities of poverty, immigration, and hard work to scrape by. In a way, he has bought into the narrative that America handfeeds to its immigrant workforce: work hard and keep your head down, don’t get too big for your britches. Be invisible to be the model minority. Be grateful.

“The refugee has to be less capable than the native, needier; he must stay in his place. That’s the only way gratitude will be accepted. Once he escapes control, he confirms his identity as the devil. All day I wondered, has this been true in my own experience? If so, then why all the reverence for the refugees who succeed against the odds, the heartwarming success stories? And that’s precisely it – one can go around in this circle forever, because it contains no internal logic. You’re not enough until you’re too much. You’re lazy until you’re a greedy interloper.”Dina Nayeri, “The Ungrateful Refugee”

For the anti-PC, 4chan crowd, it’s a new world where feminists present gender as cultural instead of pre-determined and gender identity as a spectrum instead of biological. (Sidenote: It’s actually a lot more complex than this; Laci Green has a video that examines why both feminists and anti’s have valid views on gender.)

“To the deplorables, whose central complaint is one of masculine frailty, pride, and failure — to deny their identities as men is to deny their complaint. They are a group who define themselves by their powerlessness, by being trapped into defeat. But if they are to accept the left’s viewpoint, they must accept that the problem at core of their being is all in their heads. That is to say, the left’s viewpoint of sexual-difference-as-illusion is exactly what they don’t want to hear — that they have cornered themselves into their mother’s basements.

“The irony here, of course, is the radical idea of sexual-difference-as-illusion is meant to solve the deplorables’ problem. It was created to liberate those who are oppressed by the concept of sexual difference by dispelling it as a cloud of pure ideas. But to these powerless men, it’s as if the left were addressing their issue by saying in an Orwellian manner, ‘There’s no such thing as your problem! Problem solved!’

“Here the notion of sexual-difference-as-illusion is not performing the work it was built to do, rather the opposite. Ironically, it works to convince alienated men that sex/gender has marked them as a unique sort of outsider/failures, who cannot be accepted even into the multicultural coalitions that define themselves by their capacity for acceptance. In this way, 4chan’s virulent hatred of gender-bending ‘safe spaces’, though not justified, makes at least a perverse sort of sense, one tangled in wounded masculine pride.”

Learning how to show up as yourself and engage with the discussion at hand through that vulnerability is hard work. (Which incidentally is what Brené Brown and Love Warrior and Buddhism and meditation sanghas and On Being and so many others — who get written off as hippies, who get written off as SJW pandering, whose work get dismissed as woo woo — have been writing about recently, and so many many others have been exploring for centuries.)

Remember when Film Crit Hulk pointed out that it’s probably easier to have a conversation with a Klan member because they actually believe in something?

There is a two-part Love + Radio episode with Daryl Davis, a black musician who initially interviewed KKK members in order to understand “How could someone hate me based on the color of my skin without even knowing who I am?” He eventually befriended a lot of his interviewees. Daryl Davis talks about the shift in some of the people he met. In their initial conversations, he would interview them and they would answer all his questions but never once ask Daryl what he thought about the issue.

“And as time progressed, then all of a sudden they would say, ‘Well, what do you think?’ Then I realized, ‘Oh my goodness, I have an opinion. I have some value. They wanna know what I think.’ That broke the ice – they’re open to hearing what I’m gonna say.”

We can’t hear the other side until we see the other person as a human being, until we acknowledge their humanity, that they are of value, that they matter, and that they are worth listening to. It’s a two-way street. Although, Daryl Davis proves that seemingly one-way streets can become two-way…with enough time, patience, open-heartedness, people can come around even if it doesn’t seem like they care what you have to say when you first engage with them.

I think we will eventually get there with my partner’s dad because I have to believe he cares about something on a deeper level past the talk of politics. He seems to lack empathy for groups of people who he persists in stereotyping based on his worldview, but he engages in the conversation, and he is willing to listen to opinions which are different than his. I like Daryl Davis’s advice about listening, asking questions, and giving others a platform to express their views honestly without fear of attack:

“Learn from them, because while you are actively learning about somebody else, at the same time you are passively teaching them about yourself.”

But what about the anti-PC 4chan crowds who don’t want to engage, whose goal is to “upend the notion of serious conversation itself”? How do you engage the Joker? How do you get someone to care?

I don’t know. That’s a wall I keep hitting when I think about all of this.

But even within the feminists vs. anti’s communities on YouTube, there are shifts happening. I really admire the work Laci Green, a prominent feminist YouTuber and sex educator who values intersectionality, sex positivity, and skepticism, has been doing recently to open the door to conversations with the anti-feminist YouTube community by having real-life, in-person, in-depth conversations with them. She has been receiving a ton of flack from the feminist social justice YouTube communities for “red-pilling” and being a sell-out and by “whitewashing years of abuse” by merely being in conversation with anti’s, as she has received a ton of real abuse, threats, and pile-on’s from the anti-feminists over the years.

But the pushback she is getting from both sides’ extremes misunderstands what those who are engaging in this conversation are trying to do. Instead of respecting the longer timeframe that having respectful conversations and building relationships with other human beings with multidimensional points of view, the critics are reducing Laci Green and some of the other YouTubers with whom she’s been engaging (like anti-feminist Blaire White) to sides.

Laci Green has said that these conversations are about her own personal healing. One fifteen minute conversation can’t be a reconciliation between the feminists and the anti-feminists. It’s just a step in her reconciliation and potentially having some kind of new relationship with another YouTuber who has in the past caused her a lot of pain, pain from which she wants to heal.

The hardest thing is that when people try to be reasonable and have conversations, to really listen to each other (if you look for it, there are people trying to speak reasonably about complicated public events, while their comments sections remain testament to how stubbornly everyone else wants to draw them into these firestorms)…this moderate approach does not translate well to YouTube or Twitter, which are the battlegrounds that the 4chan crowd continue to use to pile on abuse and shut the conversation down in attempts to try to change the rules of the game.

The trust is long lost. Battlelines have been formed. And it’s hard to break out of that narrative. It’s hard to give anyone the benefit of the doubt when you’ve been burned by others who look and sound so similar to those who are extending olive branches.

There’s a parallel with what’s been going on in D.C. Look at how the Republican-majority legislature twisted the rules of procedure to obstruct and oppose Obama’s platforms for eight years. Should the Democrats learn from this playbook of methods and tactics? If they don’t, the country slides progressively right as Republican policies get pushed through during their terms in power and Democratic policies continue to be blocked during other times. But…

“The biggest danger, of course, is what all of this legislative warfare does to the democratic process. As both parties get deeper and deeper into the muck — and this is something on the minds of many Democrats — there will be growing concerns over how all this effects our ability to govern and responsibly resolve the great problems of the day.” (CNN)

How do we preserve the civility of the discourse, when there are hard conversations to be had across differences, when there are even other groups out there who are trying to subvert it all and burn/troll all of us who are trying to have any serious conversation?

I believe the answer is to continue to engage with any who are willing to show up in the arena with you, on an earnest level. To look for the humanity and go towards it.

So the conversations need to keep happening on a 1-to-1 level. And in-person. Similar to the years of conversations Daryl Davis had in living rooms with (now-former) Klan members. Relationships will evolve.

Over time.

It’s the long game.

Personhood

personhood in the united states[“Guide to Personhood in America” by Sarah Baker via Boing Boing

So I guess #SCOTUS is saying that women need to incorporate, if they want to have things like “rights” and “freedom”. — Wil Wheaton on Twitter June 30, 2014

Why does it feel like we’re going backwards???

The Supreme Court passed a ruling this week that Hobby Lobby as a for-profit, closely held company can refuse to cover contraception as part of their health insurance for employees because of religious objections to certain forms of birth control. And the rightwing defends it: “My religion trumps your ‘right’ to employer subsidized consequence free sex.” Seriously…because pregnancy is punishment for sex? Seriously…?

Where to even begin?? Here are 5 myths you can go ahead and debunk straightaway. Psst: Contraception is not abortion.

But really, this is pretty straightforward: Women have the right to affordable, accessible healthcare — and this includes the birth control of their choice. Because all people have this right. And women are people. Period.

This is setting scary, scary precedent.

The only silver lining? Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a fucking badass. (Read her dissent; hear/sing her dissent.)

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So follow RBG’s example, and go ahead with your bad self: Add your voice. Boycott Hobby Lobby. Donate to places that still provide accessible, affordable birth control and healthcare for women. Buy a Notorious RBG shirt. Vote vote vote! Run for office, even. And raise little girls and boys to respect people as people.

How we talk to girls

I’m always skeptical of advertising and marketing from big companies. It’s all too easy for them to co-opt activists’ messages to try to sell us something, and insidiously it might even make us all feel as if we’ve made more progress than we actually have towards some serious issues. (Think greenwashing.)

On the other hand, I’m aware that these ads reach huge audiences, and anything that increases representation of traditionally underrepresented groups is great — especially if done without fanfare. (Think Honey Maid’s Wholesome campaign and their reaction to the backlash.)

So even after watching with my skeptic’s hat on, I appreciate that the following two commercials provoke their audiences to question how we talk to and about girls.

Good reminders that our own words and messages to the girls in our lives are equally important as the messages they’re bombarded with in the media. And as the recent SCOTUS Hobby Lobby decision has made so painfully clear, representation matters.

Here’s a great post on the same topic of how to talk to little girls. Basically, try biting your tongue if our culture has trained you to compliment them on their dress/hair/cuteness. Instead, try asking them what they’re thinking, interested in, or reading. Hell, ask me those same things.

As Lisa Bloom says, “Here’s to changing the world, one little girl at a time.”

#YesAllWomen

The hashtag #YesAllWomen is trending on Twitter tonight in response to the shootings in Santa Barbara. (If you’re not on Twitter, here are two good recaps and starting points, though the live thread is worth spending some time with.)

#YesAllWomen is provoking and overwhelming. Powerful because it mirrors back my own experiences and thoughts in a way that makes us feel heard. Hopeful when I think about how many women (and men!) are finding the courage to share their own stories. Hopeful when I think about all the men (and women!) who are finally listening. Dismaying when I read the same defensive / dismissive / threatening replies that are par-for-the-course for feminism discourse on the internet. Heartening when I see the feed flood with 577 more new results every few minutes in the face of those naysayers. Heartbreaking that the stream mirrors back a world so deeply unjust and hurt and nonsensical and confused — and a world that doesn’t know what to do about the wrongness of it all.

Some of my truths that I’d add to the mix:

  • I modify my wardrobe based on whether I’m walking, busing, or driving to work — aka how much potential contact with strangers I might have along the way. #YesAllWomen
  • Getting home alone at night is always a struggle between “I want to be smart/safe” and “I’m afraid” and “I hate that I’m afraid” and “I’m strong enough, dammit” and “I wish I didn’t live in a world where I have to think about this” #YesAllWomen
  • Walking alone in the city — day or night — means constantly scanning, judging, re-routing based on who else is on the street around me. #YesAllWomen
  • Constant vigilance makes me shut down, armor up, seal in, hold breath. Which counters all the trust and openness and non-judgment and risktaking I fight so hard to cultivate in my life. #YesAllWomen
  • If I call someone out on their misogynistic joke, I’m a wet blanket. If I criticize media for perpetuating the status quo, I’m a hater. If I try to point out a double standard between men and women, I’m being too sensitive. #YesAllWomen
  • It gets tiring, so I start self-censoring my own voice, my own thoughts. #YesAllWomen

I want to honor the powerful emotions, but I also don’t want to get stuck there. As #YesAllWomen starts to open eyes, it’s an opportunity to channel guilt into empathy and insight into action. As Jessica Hagy says, “How do you go from tiny to massive? One bite at a time. How do you accomplish gigantic things? One action at a time.” Small (and hopefully fun) starting points below. All reminders to myself as well:

  • LISTEN. Really listen. Ask more questions, and then listen some more. These are women’s experiences. Try to listen without defensiveness, without doubt, without guilt. This conversation has been happening on the fringes, and #YesAllWomen is bringing a much-needed wider spotlight to it. Yes, we all (and I mean all genders) are complicit. That’s not okay, but it will be okay if we can start with listening and then move to empathy, open dialogue, and action.
  • SHARE. Spread the word, talk about #YesAllWomen, amplify the voices brave enough to speak up — especially with those of your friends who don’t normally think about this stuff, who feel uncomfortable talking about this stuff, who make natural allies, who will continue being defensive, who need to hear it from you.
  • LEARN.
  • BE A FEMINIST. Don’t be ashamed of the title. Proclaim your feminism proudly. Here are 50+ reasons to be a feminist. (Also, follow Laci Green and others like her across social media for examples of how to create change.)
  • QUESTION. Be aware. Be critical. Once you see the “Patriarchy Matrix,” you might not be able to look back. Women, geek girls, smart girls, female leaders have nothing to prove. Question your assumptions instead of questioning whether that person belongs.
  • SPEAK UP. Resist the Bystander Effect. Don’t let things slide just because someone is “joking.” Instead of distancing yourself from the issue by thinking “not all men,” say “don’t be that guy.” Practice empowering responses — for yourself and for others.
  • EDUCATE GIRLS. Empower female creators, female leaders, female politicians, female scientists, female entrepreneurs, female developers, female everythings.
  • RESPECT ALL PEOPLE AS PEOPLE. It really is that simple. And that complex.
    • How to talk to little girls. Ask them about what they’re reading instead of complimenting them on their dress. Even as grown-up’s: if I forget to compliment your new shirt or haircut or shoes, I still think you’re crazy-sexy-cool-beautiful, AND I’d rather hear your thoughts on politics, social justice, and what you’re reading because you’re intelligent-witty-amazing-thoughtful-kind-powerful.
    • Be a beacon of shining light, combatting the messages we hear from magazines-media-beauty-fashion-industry-marketing-machine. This letter from a father doctor to his young daughter is a wondrous example.

The most important thing that might emerge from #YesAllWomen are the small mindshifts that will start taking place. Awareness leads to reflection leads to attitude shifts leads to new habits leads to culture change. Pass it on.

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H/T to Robin who brought #YesAllWomen to my attention and who also blogged about it here.

“Human Sexuality is Complicated”


[via Kate Leth]

This video by Hank Green is so good! Seriously, a lot of pre-conceptions we have about people, the boxes we try to put ourselves in, and the hate that exists in our world stems from this one basic misunderstanding: that your biological sex + gender + sexual orientation are all linked together. When in fact, one piece of the puzzle does not necessarily dictate the other arenas. The video does a fantabulous job explaining the concept — complete with sexy infographics.

Here are some other related links & stories I’ve come across recently:

  • Ending Rape Illiteracy: The need for our culture & media’s definitions and portrayals of rape to change. Rape is rape…seems silly that there is debate about this, but our perceptions of violence against women are often too fuzzy.
  • Free to Be You and Me: 40 years ago, a bunch of feminists got together to release an album challenging the notions that boys and girls couldn’t be whatever they wanted to be when they grew up. Is it still relevant? You bet your bottom dollar.
  • Rookie Mag, or even better yet, Ira Glass’s “best of” highlights of why you should know about Rookie: Tavi Gevinson didn’t think the things being made for the girls her age were reflecting her experiences, so she made her own with healthy doses of art, humor, and feminism. Oh, Rookie, where were you when I was a teenager?
  • Perks of Being a Killjoy: A good discussion and advice about how to speak up when someone says something that you take offense to. (from Rookie!)

Rookie has a great series called “Ask a Grown Person”, including this gem from BJ Novak:

Fandom, Criticism, Korra, Brave

Being Fan and Critic

In my post about Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency, I forgot to mention an important idea her series is based on–that she is an avid fan and can simultaneously enjoy and critique the media we consume in our pop culture.

Artist Jayd “Chira” Ait-Kaci, who posted this lucid rant about the epic storytelling potential and subsequent mindnumbing shortcomings of Legend of Korra, re-iterates:

“I enjoyed Korra quite a lot and that’s why it hurt to see so much potential wasted. Heck, I dedicated the first half of the essay about everything good it had going for it and was doing right. Making a critique =/= hating! I often criticize everything I consume, especially if I love it.” ~Chira

And Film Crit Hulk, who writes in ALL CAPS AND HULK SPEAK (which I can sometimes get over and sometimes not) actually writes really nuanced critiques and explorations of what elements make some films work or not work–precisely because he has made it a point to go beyond judging whether a movie has “worth” in a black-and-white sense and instead talks in depth about storytelling, film as medium, and what our fandom says about our changing culture.

“BEING SO FOCUSED ON DESIGNATING MOVIES AS AWESOME OR SUX, PREVENTS US FROM HAVING THE BEST POSSIBLE CONVERSATIONS.” ~Film Crit Hulk

Of course, Film Crit Hulk had some help coming to this philosophy from none other than Quentin Tarantino, the most consummate fanboy ever (which Hulk details in this post).

QT: “Never, under any circumstances, hate a movie. It won’t help you and it’s a waste of time.”

HULK: [STARTING TO EXPLAIN REASONS WHY HULK HATE MOVIE].

QT: “You’re not getting me. There’s plenty of reasons to not to like a movie. But if you hate them? Meaning if let them bother you? Then they’ll do nothing but bother you. Who wants to be bothered? There’s so many better things to do with movies. It’s like my fucking Top Gun rant, okay? Bad things can be so much more interesting than just bad.

HULK: BUT WHAT ABOUT LIKE THE FREAKIN’ BOMBS, CAUSE-

QT: Even the bombs, man, heck, especially the bombs man. And I mean if you want to do this for a fucking living and you’re absolutely serious, then never hate a movie. You can learn so much about the craft from bad movies. I man you can’t like fucking look at Kurosawa and be all [PUTS ON VOICE THAT THAT SOUNDS ODDLY LIKE PETER GRAVES FOR SOME REASON] “Oooh just do what Kurosawa did. You know, it’s easy!” Fuck no! Bad movies teach you what not to do and what to correct in your process and that’s way more helpful. You know how many feet of film I burned on this thing [MEANING KILL BILL] when I was trying to be like something else that was great? Like fucking Pole Fighter, like what you said? No, all the best stuff came out of me just trying to avoid mistakes…And fuck man, hating movies closes you off to stuff that seems like whatever you hate. Or stuff by the same guy. And who knows? That other stuff could be awesome. Some of my favorite filmmakers made bad movies. It won’t help you. It just won’t. It stops your development right in its tracks, okay? I mean like everything and I ain’t trying to get you to be like fucking me or anything. I’m just saying I think it’s better for you. And it makes me way, way happier. Never hate a movie. They’re gifts. Every fucking one of em.”

Learning from everything

I can totally see how bad storytelling can be a gift — IF you have BOTH love for the creators AND the language and skills and media literacy to critique what you’ve seen. There is a lot of movies and tv and culture that doesn’t ever cross my radar and which I’ll never get a chance to critique and learn from because I’ve already dismissed it. But this month, I’ve been thinking a lot about both Pixar’s Brave (notable that I feel I have to add the Pixar in front of that title) and Avatar: The Legend of Korra.

I loved Brave so much, I’ve been afraid to delve into criticism of its storytelling because I wanted to protect it somehow. And I’ve been so critical of Korra since the beginning of the season, that it’s curtailed some of the love I could have had for the series.

Both are also tangled in the messy world of fan expectations.

First, Korra

My feelings about Korra are much more straightforward than my feelings about Brave. Basically, I loved its predecessor The Last Airbender on so many levels (story, writing, art, strong characters, character development, humor, spiritual issues and conflict resolution done well, emotional resonance, et al.). And then Korra failed on the very foundational levels of story, writing, and character development. The whole series felt rushed, Korra never grew or learned from her challenges, and I didn’t buy a lot of the twists that the authors threw at us — mostly because I didn’t empathize with any of the main characters enough to go along for their rides. Though I did stick around for the whole season. The end of the finale frustrated me. If they had stopped 10 minutes earlier than they had, I could look forward to Korra’s journey and growth in the second season, but it was just so rushedly wrapped up so implausibly…arg, Chira explains in detail the potential and shortfalls so much better than I can, with spoiler alerts in place.) I do love these characters enough to feel indignant on their behalf when they aren’t given the chance to grow.

Brave (new stories, evolving expectations)

Now, Brave. Korra only had the expectations of one predecessor: The Last Airbender. Brave had the whole Pixar empire on her shoulders. Pixar has set us up to believe that each of their films will upend our expectations of storytelling in the best possible ways. Films like Wall-E, Finding Nemo, and Toy Story prove that Pixar never had to create conventional films that fit into any existing modes or genres. Furthermore, films like The Incredibles showed that the company could take existing tropes and throw them for a loop in a fulfilling way. When we go to a Pixar movie, we expect something completely new, something mindblowing, something revolutionary. Brave was the company’s first take on the traditional Disney “princess/fairytale” stories that we’ve seen. We expected fireworks.

We got neither completely revolutionary twist on the princess genre, nor did we get a blatant satire (think Shrek), nor did we get a traditional fairytale story. What we got instead was something in-between, which didn’t meet our expectations in any direction. Humans are pattern-seekers, and I think we had trouble grokking this film.

  • The main conflict was between two strong protagonists with good intentions and human flaws (Elinor and Merida), which I found rather refreshing. But we didn’t get a traditional fairytale with good guy and bad guy, although we sort of had a bad guy (Mordu) that didn’t really get any character development. And even my critique tended toward the under-development of Mordu because we want a bad guy we can love to hate.
  • There was background and set-up for something more epic to happen with the legend of the 4 clans, but the present-day clans were set up as foils and comic relief. We didn’t get an epic story with larger consequences. Instead we got a family story set among epic backdrops.
  • The tone was neither completely dark and grand (as writer/creator Brenda Chapman had intended) nor completely broad and light (as I think second director Mark Andrews tried to push it). A clear and extreme POV makes for stronger storytelling that’s easier for audiences to grasp than something half-way. The switchover in directors is something I’m curious about that I can’t really find answers to. It would be a different film if either director had a firm hand on it from start to finish.
  • Finally, IMHO, I don’t think we don’t know archetypically quite what to do with Merida or her mother Elinor precisely because they are fully-fleshed-out female characters with a range of strengths, weaknesses, and emotions. They don’t fit any of the archetypes we’re used to seeing in film, such as: helpless princess, ’empowered’ princess who still wants a prince, femme fatale, cold-hearted stepmother, wicked witch, or female-version of the macho archetype–a female lead who embodies many of the stoic emotional traits of the macho archetype and who resolves conflicts with force or violence in stereotypically male ways. (See FemFreq’s video about Hunger Games protagonist Katniss Everdeen for a fuller discussion about what it means to be a feminist character whose emotions actually contribute to her character’s strength instead of weakening her position.)
  • Merida and Elinor further have to resolve their conflict through emotional means, which makes them stronger and braver*. This also requires a different kind of climax & resolution scene than we are used to seeing in fairytale or other kids’ movies: usually fight or chase scene. Of course, Brave still staged Merida and Elinor’s conflict resolution during the middle of a fight scene. New story trying to fit old molds. (*One of the comments that most pissed me off was some guy’s Facebook post along the lines of: “I don’t know why they called the movie Brave.” Obviously, he has not yet been challenged with strong conflicting emotions in his life, or had to stick up for anyone in a difficult situation, or had to own up to any of his mistakes, or, or, or!)

I think these points show a lot of growing pains as we try to evolve storytelling tropes that conform to more conventional gender roles and character arcs. My greater frustration with Brave wasn’t with the movie itself because I loved the film wholeheartedly — but with the popular and critical reception to the movie. The reviews seem rather harsh to me (and others), since the film is still very strong. But a lot of the reviews I’ve seen are along the lines of: Really good but not exceptional, not up to the level of Pixar. And I’ve been most upset by  comments from men such as:

  • It’s not as emotionally resonant for me because it’s about a mother-daughter relationship.
  • What I learned from the movie is that little girls can do anything they want and don’t have to conform to society’s expectations of them.

I seethe because these reactions are so gender-limited. Why can’t men identify with a female lead? Why can’t little boys learn as much from this film as little girls? I’ve learned plenty from leads who happen to be male, and I’ve emotionally resonated with plenty of father-daughter relationships and mentor-mentee relationships between two males in movies because oh, wait…that’s all there is to see — we’re surrounded by male relationships portrayed on film, so of course I’ve learned how to take human lessons from them without having to stop and think, “oh wait, that was about a boy and his grandfather…not applicable to me…”

This is the point where my friends start to role their eyes, when I start talking about how maybe men are less able to empathize with female characters because they don’t have as much practice. Which is an overgeneralization, and I probably am foaming at the mouth a little at this point…

Number’s Game

…but NO, this IS the point. It’s a number’s game! Merida is the first and only primary female lead in all 15 Pixar films (nearly 25 year history of filmmaking). Naturally, all my feminist expectations of her to be a strong character who has a strong enough story to carry her and hold her own among all the other male leads are also on her shoulders. And my expectations of the audience and the reviews of her are tangled in my hope that she does well for the sake of all future female leads. Which is of course, unfair to Brave, Merida, Pixar, and every single artist on the film. But that doesn’t reprieve the creators, artists, producers, and execs from creating the change that needs to happen in the industry.

There won’t be as much weight on a single movie to explode all our assumptions and expectations about “princesses” when we reach a point where there are as many diverse female leads, and as many diverse female-centered films as there are diverse male leads, and as many diverse male-centered films. If half of Pixar’s repertoire were predicatably and naturally female-centered, I wouldn’t have to worry about the reception of one film. There’s plenty of room for great or even mediocre films among their exceptional films, without the reason for not-exceptionalness mired in gender in my brain (if not the larger cultural mind) just because we struggle to fit new stories into old patterns our culture is accustomed to.

My greatest hopes were (and still are) on Pixar because, as mentioned earlier, they’ve established a reputation of creating new stories by breaking old patterns that our culture can adopt. Let’s hope they keep making female-centered stories with female leads as part of their repertoire. (See how silly that there is even doubt here? That we may have to see another 7–10 male-driven films before another female lead? And that most people would think nothing of it?)

Adapting to New Stories

Speaking of patterns…I was re-listening to the “Musical Language” episode of RadioLab yesterday, and the section called “Sound As Touch” talks about how our neurons react positively or negatively to consonant vs. dissonant sounds. People actually rioted during the premier of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” because their neurons failed to  find patterns for the completely newly dissonant sounds that were so relentless in the music; their neurons released excessive dopamine and caused craziness in the listeners. But a year later, new audiences had adapted, grown used to, and evolved to learn how to listen to these new kinds of sounds. Stravinsky was carried out on the shoulders of the audience, “Rite of Spring” was used in a Disney film (dinosaurs and evolution scene of Fantasia).

Maybe it’s the same for finding patterns and places for new types of female characters. Our storytelling will evolve as we have more female presence in the film industry (both on and behind the scenes) and place more importance on telling female-centered stories as part of the wide and diverse range of stories we are able to tell. And audiences will evolve in their ability to empathize from a wide range of viewpoints and in their ability to relate to more nuanced and more deeply developed characters that don’t quite fit any archetypes or molds.

(I can’t even find a happy picture of Merida and Elinor together, and half of the images that come up in GoogleImages search are of dolls. Sigh.)

Why? Because stories.

Actually, I should end on this note. To those who think “what’s the big deal, it’s just a show, or just a movie, or just entertainment”…

“The Universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” ~Muriel Rukeyser

Stories are important, they’re how we make sense of the world, and they do affect our culture.