Calling All Superheroes

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“A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself”
― Joseph Campbell

CN: Nazis
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Having Your Status-Quo Cake & Eating It Too: On Alternate History Fails

“Sometimes an author is torn between the desire to present certain material and a guilty awareness that others will not approve. In an attempt to deflect criticism, he apologizes as he goes, pointing out that the minstrel show, strip club visit, or cheap, all-purpose servants in a Third World setting are terribly, terribly distasteful to him, and he disapproves as much as anyone– more! Meanwhile, he continues to wallow in those scenes, exposing what everyone instantly recognizes as the world of his fantasies.”

–Sandra Newman/Howard Mittlemark, How Not to Write a Novel

Last week, a kerfuffle broke out on the internet as Game of Thrones showrunners Benioff and Spellman announced their next project. It is to be an alternate history where the Confederacy won the Civil War, and people are understandably displeased.  This project seems to exhibit a storytelling behavior Newman and Mittlemark call ‘The Fig Leaf’, wherein the creators of a piece of media indulge in a reactionary setting, while still maintaining a degree of leftist cred due to their performative finger-wagging at said setting.

The creators of this nascent series argued that they were just trying to explore modern racism through their ‘what-if’ scenario, comparing their treatment of racism and colonialism to how the recent adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale tackles sexism, reproductive justice,  homophobia, and religious extremism. Clearly, my objection isn’t that entertainment shouldn’t address difficult subjects– as the existence of this blog indicates, I’m very much in support of using art to gain insight into complex problems. However, attempting to address difficult subject matter and botching the material can actually do more harm than good, and Confederate appears to have set itself up for failure on this front.

First and foremost, alternate history as a genre explores the significance of historical events by hypothesizing how different outcomes would radically change our world as we know it today.  By it’s nature, alternate history challenges our assumptions about the inevitability of the status quo and the shape of the world we live in today. (In contrast, dystopian future settings often extrapolate from modern problems to a degree, imagining a world where our current societal failings have spiraled catastrophically out of control. This is what differentiates Confederate from The Handmaid’s Tale).

Confederate‘s failure to deliver a challenge or a changed vision of the world is deeply entwined with the insulating effects of racial and class-based privilege. To see Confederate as providing some startlingly different version of history requires the audience to believe that racism is a long-dead evil that was killed by the American Civil War and that a modern American state that violently exploits and oppresses African-Americans is an alternate universe, rather than the daily reality of millions of people. Showing a currently powerful group oppressing a currently marginalized group– unless your story is about an upheaval of that social order– isn’t thought-provoking or even a decent ‘alternative’ history storyline. It’s just the status quo with fancy set decoration.

Second, alternate history scenarios that are just a repackaging of the status quo carry a disturbing subtext that groups who are currently the recipients of unfair treatment are perpetual victims in every reality.  It mirrors the ‘historical inevitability’ argument I often hear, in which someone attempts to justify some past or present horror by saying the war or genocide or other man-made disaster was ‘bound to happen that way’.

Packaging marginalized groups as victims, even in alternative history scenarios, is troubling in several ways. It re-enforces arguments that these groups have been subjugated because they are weak or in some way ‘inferior’, denying the forces of circumstance and happenstance that allowed particular groups to gain power at the expense of others. It also means there is no room to show success of members of marginalized groups except as an anomaly who ‘made it against the odds’.  This is particularly problematic when the people in question have a history and culture that extends far beyond a relatively brief period of oppression (for example, if you imagine the history of humans in Australia taking place over 24 hours, Europeans showed up five minutes ago).

Finally, these ‘alternate’ histories (or historical fiction/fantasy) are often a platform for what I call the ‘white sheep’ fantasy, wherein the creator of the story, a member of one or more powerful groups, imagines characters from that same group espousing relatively progressive values.  Using the characters, they act out the idea that they would have been ‘one of the good ones’– the ‘nice’ slave owner, the Victorian businessman who is kind to his workers, and so on (Newman and Mittlemark call this The Vegan Viking). This also frames oppression faced by other characters as the personal misconduct of a few bad apples, completely ignoring the actual circumstances and systems that created the problem in the first place.

If you want to write about the status quo, just write about the status quo; if you want to write a future where the worst of the status quo has taken over, write a dystopian story. But don’t pretend it’s ‘alternative history’ if you’re not going to show us something that is substantively, meaningfully alternative to the world we know today.

Diverse Media Roundup #2

Chewing Gum (TV series, adult)
This comedy stars Ghanan-British playwright and comedian Michaela Coel as Tracy, as she navigates her early twenties.

Song of the Sea (Animated film, all ages)
Based on Celtic mythology surrounding selkies, this movie combines kids-eye-view magical realism with lush watercolor-inspired art.

Okja (Live action film)
Korean television star Ahn Seo-Hyun leads a talented cast of Korean and American actors in this dystopian action-adventure movie about the ethics of factory farming.

The Girl With All the Gifts (Live action film, adult)
Based on a novel of the same name, this movie offers a new and intriguing take on the dystopian zombie flick. Newcomer Sennia Nanua delivers a riveting performance.

Dressed to Impress

Take a moment, and consider your clothes.

Whether you’re wearing a sari or sweatpants, a sealskin parka or a kimono or a surgical scrubs, your clothing choices are a product of your needs, environment, culture, and personal taste. For humans, clothes serve both a practical purpose– they keep us protected from cold, insects, sunburn, and so on– they are also are a vehicle for cultural and personal expression. Archaeological records indicate that even very early human societies embellished clothes that they wore for practical reasons, as well as adorning their bodies with jewelry, paint, or other decoration.

Many cultures also have different clothes for different occasions– wedding and funeral garb, and ceremonial clothing for clergy or other religious leaders are fairly common worldwide. People may also need to vary clothes throughout the year based on seasonal weather patterns or variation in work.

It’s also important to remember, particularly when you’re writing historical fiction, that although a disproportionate amount of our records concern people in wealthy, socially connected classes, their experiences do not represent the experiences of the majority of the population around them. This assumption that ‘what you see (on TV) is all there is‘ as far as historical research accounts for the large number of peasant women in Fantasyland and Historical Fictionland complaining about how difficult and uncomfortable it is to move in their clothing, without any thought to the fact farming women would wear something in which they could work.

If you’re creating a setting from scratch, here are some questions to kick off your worldbuilding process.

  • What materials are used for clothing in your setting?
    Are they using animal skins? Dyed plant fibers? Futuristic spray-on liquid?
  • What clothing-related technology exists in your setting?
    This covers everything from materials, processes (do they have unique weaving techniques or tools? A way of waterproofing cloth? etc), and details (do they have buttons? Zippers? Embroidery?) Is clothing individually tailored, self-made, or mass-produced?
  • How does it relate to the environment? 
    Does it need to protect people from sunburn? Insulate people against freezing wind or pouring rain? Is it seasonal?
  • Is it gendered?
    I’ve encountered the assumption in countless works of fantasy or historical fiction that trousers are ‘male’ clothing, and skirts are ‘female’ clothing. Setting aside the fact that not all societies have binary gender categories, the skirt/trouser dichotomy isn’t true. First of all, many societies have neither, or are absent in either skirts or trousers. Second, strictly gendered clothing is not prevalent in all societies, whether that’s the result of flexible gender expression, gender-neutral clothing styles, or both.
  • What information is signaled by the clothing? How is this information conveyed?
    This could be culture, community rank, profession, gender, familial affiliation, marital status, or any other information you can imagine. Information could be expressed as garment color, materials, garment type, and so on.
  • What types of personal adornment are popular? 
    Do any of the questions above apply? (For example, is a certain type of jewelry gendered, or a mark of special status?)

Death, Taxes, and Cultural Expression

Wayuu funeral jars.A few weeks ago, there was a bit of a kerfuffle on social media when a professor published this gratingly smug ‘open letter‘ suggesting that students who did not perform ‘real grief’  to her satisfaction was clearly lying.  While this letter was intended as satire, it does highlight an issue which rears its head regularly in our multicultural world: people grieve differently.

Setting aside the obvious fact that different individual humans process and express their feelings differently (after all, we have different neurotypes, personalities, life experiences, and so on), different cultures have different ideas about death and mourning, and what constitutes a ‘normal’ emotional response to tragedy.

If your story includes character death in any capacity, it’s worth doing some research or careful worldbuilding development on how people in your setting handle death and mourning.  Here are some questions to consider during your worldbuilding process:

  • What beliefs or beliefs about the afterlife, if any, exist in your setting?
  • Are there specific rituals associated with these beliefs, and what are they?
  • Who participates in these rituals, and what are their roles?
  • How do people feel about death in general? (Are they fearful, accepting, etc?) Does this vary based on how the person died?
  • Outside of funeral or mourning rituals, what is seen as a ‘proper’ or ‘expected’ expression of grief in your setting?

Like all worldbuilding, really understanding how your culture views death and mourning can open up all kinds of opportunities for both plot points and character development.  If you’re writing a culture from scratch, it might be worth taking an in-depth look at at real-life cultures that are similar to the cultures in your setting. Also remember that your setting should be internally cohesive, so make sure the beliefs and rituals in your setting make sense in the broader context of their fictional cultures. (If you’re writing about a real-life culture, past or present, then it’s research time– no internal consistency worries required. That said, be sure to vet your sources!).

 

Radical Optimists

Shortly after The Orange One became President of the United States, I saw a comment characterizing the opposition to Trump (a group which runs the gamut from George W Bush to actual anarchists) being a bunch of bored, privileged ‘Che Guvera wannabes’ who simply wanted an excuse to run around creating chaos. This characterization of revolutionaries or rebels as adventure–seeking first, ideologically driven second, pops up regularly in fiction, particularly in historical pieces or fantasy novels concerned with the overthrow of the Evil Empire. (The idea that people risked their lives and livelihoods on a lark is something that particularly bothered me about Waverly).

But this characterization falls apart when one looks at the actual events of history. As it turns out, the average rebel operative is less like this:

black-bloc-1and a whole lot more like this:

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Revolution is a risky, resource-consuming endeavor, so a critical mass of people are not going to jump in until the cost of the status quo exceeds the cost of change.

Revolution or resistance are also acts of profound optimism.  Committing oneself to radically changing the status quo , often at great risk, requires faith that your cause can prevail, even in the face of multiple setbacks.  If one or more of your characters is a true believer, you will need to show their joy and passion for their cause, as well as their grievances.  Let them stand for something as well as against something.

The other crucial piece of making your rebels realistic is to make the stakes personal. High political and philosophical  rhetoric makes for good speeches and propaganda, but people leap into risky endeavors because something personal is at stake. A destructive, dictatorial government that does their evil behind closed doors may inspire some outrage, but a government that snatches people’s basic rights or material security will have the masses in the streets.

One of the best ways to write characters living through a revolution is to turn to history.  Human being have been resisting corrupt and violent leaders all over the world throughout recorded history. Pick some historical examples that bear strong resemblances to your setting, and use them to help you sense-check your plot or come up with ideas.

On Letting Female Characters Be Complicated

When I hear the descriptor ‘strong female character’, I cringe a little. Not because I dislike female characters– on the contrary, I often deliberately seek out  or create stories with a distinctly female perspective– but because it has become a catchphrase that describes a particularly cringe-making type of character.

The cringe is what happens when someone creates a physically strong, daring female protagonist and declares that nuanced character development is unnecessary because their character is ‘strong’. This usually results in either a character who consciously and ostentatiously rejects* the performance of femininity** as beneath her, or who in spite of her physical prowess falls into a number of questionable tropes (for example, giving up adventuring to settle down with the first guy who looks at her twice). These characters also have a high percentage of Mary Sues.

The other problem, which is not really the fault of the writer, is that female characters often get freighted with an impossible pile of conflicting audience expectations. Everyone seems to have a vision of the Perfect Feminist Character, and no one character is going to be able to embody all of them. Furthermore, a character who is the Perfect Feminist Character cannot be remotely realistic, as all humans are imperfect,  complex,  and well, problematic.

So first of all, stop trying to please your entire potential audience when you write your female characters. That way lies Mary Sue infestations and writer’s block. Let your female characters be flawed and messy and endearing and do their gender expression in a way that makes sense for both the character and the setting. This works way better if you write in lots of female characters. Heck, write an all-female story about the first Mars expedition or Dark Ages Italian nuns or whatever gets you inspiration going (besides, there’s a zillion works of fiction with all-male or male-dominant casts– time for some equality!). Whilst this sounds obvious, there’s a lingering assumption that any book that is predominantly about female characters is ‘chick lit’ and by association not a ‘real’ member of its genre.

*A character who is a transgender man, a nonbinary/gender nonconforming person, or is butch as genuine self-expression rather than a way to crap on ‘traditional’ femininity? Now that’s awesome. If that’s the character you’re writing, please do carry on.

**Usually, this is a late-Medieval/early-modern European upper-class conception of what ‘traditional’ femininity looks like; however, there is an Orientalist version too that emphasizes the oppression of women in Eastern and Western Asian cultures.