It’s fall, the latter half of September, a time when I traditionally contemplate three interconnected things: what my goals are for the next year, how I’m surviving the dark Northwest winter, and what I’m doing for NaNoWriMo. For the first time in a few years, I’m working on an actual novel that I intend to do exciting things with–the past few Novembers I’ve either been in grad school, writing totally for-funsies novels that I don’t revise, or writing comic scripts. This November, I am planning to write a long-form fantasy fairy tale retelling of a fascinating Romanian fairy tale which is called, depending on the translation, “The Girl Who Pretended to Be a Boy” or “The Horse That Saved a Kingdom.” Both of these are plot points. I’m setting it in a fantasy version of 1500s Transylvania, and it should be a wild ride. Before NaNo, though, I am teaching two workshops through the Seattle area NaNoWriMo community to go over basic novel structure and let folks do some skill-sharing before November.
In the meantime, I’ve been working on a new short story, and you can hear me read it at the next installment of Seattle Fiction Federation! SFF is a great local reading series dedicated to fiction: there are four featured readers, plus an open mic. Whoever wins the open mic gets to feature at the next reading. If you’re in the Seattle area, come check it out!
Both are about the early days of computers. Halt and Catch Fire revolves around an independent computer company in the dawn of the PC era (1983), trying to make a portable computer that can compete with IBM. WIZZYWIG is about a notorious hacker in the early 90s phone phreak era. Both have beautiful attention to detail and are worth your time.
WIZZYWIG: Portrait of a Serial Hacker by Ed Piskor, Top Shelf, 2012.
WIZZYWIG (phonetic pronunciation of WYSIWYG: What You See Is What You Get) follows the hacks and run-ins with the law of Kevin J. Phenicle, a.k.a. “Boingthump,” a notorious hacker of phones and computers. Phenicle is a character who Piskor based on a synthesis of various real-life hackers, most notably Kevin Mitnik (“Condor”), who was on the run from the law for years, in prison for years, and now works in IT security. Mitnik was the hacker who was said to “be able to start a nuclear war by whistling into a pay phone,” a phrase which comes up in WIZZYWIG to describe Phenicle. Phenicle is an ever-shifting character: contrary to the title, what you see is never what you get with him in this story.
Reasons you should check it out:
This is a gorgeous book, physically satisfying to hold in your hands. Perhaps ironically, I would pick up the hardcover a hundred times before going digital on this book in particular.
The structure of the story is fascinating. The story is told in a patchwork fashion: it combines bits of linear plot with fake news broadcasts, vignettes that help build Phenicle’s character, retrospective interviews with hackers who knew him, lists of the people he used in his schemes, etc. In this way, the structure of the book mirrors a biopic or a documentary more than a feature film. I find it refreshing; it reads like a zine, but has more plot and character arc than a zine. This book showcases what comics can do that no other genre can.
There are many many nods to hacker culture and the history of 90s hacking/phreaking/social engineering. If that’s familiar territory, you’ll find it delightful. If it’s unfamiliar territory, you’ll find many interesting places to jump-start your own research.
Reasons you might want to pass it up:
If you are looking for a well-rounded, diverse comic, this is not it. This is a story about arrogant white guys. The most significant female character is Kevin’s grandma, and she never actually appears in the panels, but rather exists as a disembodied, floating voice. There are some women Kevin wants to have sex with or uses in his schemes. And a black guy beats him up in prison. That’s about it in terms of diversity. Actually, aside from his childhood friend, Winston, pretty much everyone
If you want a very linear story with clear plot points, the patchwork story structure might annoy you, I guess?!
Halt and Catch Fire, AMC, 2014
True confession: I only found this show because Kate Leth was talking on Twitter about how Lee Pace’s character is bisexual and it’s frigging nice to see some bisexual men represented on TV.
Even though I started watching the show for superficial reasons (who doesn’t want to see Lee Pace make out with a dude?!), there’s a lot to love in the show. Lee Pace plays Joe Macmillan, a highly ambitious salesman who swoops into a small Texas computer company and recruits Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy), a sad, alcoholic visionary whose last computer project failed. Joe convinces Gordon to help him to make a new machine with an OS designed by whiz kid college dropout Cameron Howe (Makenzie Davis). They’re helped at times by Gordon’s wife Donna (Kerry Bishé), who is a data recovery expert at Texas Instruments.
Reasons you might check it out:
The chemistry–sexual and otherwise–between the actors is fantastic. All of the characters are struggling with the balance between being creators and consumers–of computers and of each other. All of the characters could be shoved into single-story stereotype boxes, and yet they all somehow manage to evade cookie-cutter roles and are instead nuanced, interesting people.
The show is set in Dallas in 1983, and the 80s aesthetic is captured perfectly in the sets and costuming. It’s delightful. It’s a period piece, and a very well done one.
In terms of representation, Halt and Catch Fire beat the pants off of WIZZYWIG. In the first season, there are two significant female characters, Cameron and Donna. There are a few folks of color who show up, albeit none are main characters yet. Yes, Joe is bisexual.
Donna and Gordon’s relationship, in particular, is interesting and important. Donna is a working mother who ends up shouldering a disproportionate amount of the house and parent duties. Donna and Gordon have a tumultuous relationship, but at the same time believe really strongly in each other. Again, the characters are complex and fascinating.
2a. To overthrow (a nation, government, ruler, etc.); to bring down, depose, put an end to; to defeat, vanquish. Also: to overcome (an ostensibly more powerful force).
2c. To undermine without necessarily bringing down (an established authority, system, or institution); to attempt to achieve, esp. by covert action, the weakening or removal of (a government, political regime, etc.).
6.trans. orig. Literary Criticism. To challenge and undermine (a conventional idea, form, genre, etc.), esp. by using or presenting it in a new or unorthodox way.
-Oxford English Dictionary online, 3Aug15
Today I want to talk about subversive music videos. The heyday of the music video began in the 80s, with MTV as the primary distributor of these little nuggets of film. Some music videos were just performance showcases; some told a story. Pop songs now conjured video images in the heads of those who heard the song.
And in every age of music videos, there are videos that are controversial, that cause generations of adults gasp in horror and shield their children’s eyes. “Shock value” is a term often tossed around with these videos. “Sensationalism.” “Excess.” And today I want to look at some videos that have all of those things in one way or another, and analyze them against one other factor: subversiveness.
To be subversive, a video must present symbols in a way that challenges existing power structures. By “symbol” I don’t necessarily mean something overt like a burning cross–which is a symbol used in the videos I’m discussing today–rather, a symbol is any image that represents a larger category of images or tropes. A symbol might be a tree, a building, a cigarette, a sandwich, or something film-related like a close-up or an “ass shot”. i hear you cry “but if symbols can be anything, why are we even talking about them?” Because symbols measure subversion: a single thing like a tree can mean a thousand things in a thousand different contexts. Literary theory, kids, hold on to your symbolic hats, ’cause we’re about to talk about pop videos.
One thing to note: all of these videos involve personas, as in the singers acting out a role to tell a story in the video. While some of them are based on fact, like how Rihanna’s accountant really did screw her out of millions of dollars with bad financial advice, nonetheless the performances are not meant to represent the artists as much as the artists’ personas. I will refer to the artists by name, but know that in context of the videos I mean their persona for that video.
Madonna: Like a Prayer
The video opens with a flurry of images: Madonna running with sirens in the background, white men assaulting her in an alley, a burning cross, a black man being arrested, a church. Madonna runs off and hides in said church where she has a vision/moment/thought trip that comprises most of the video. In the church, she frees a Black Jesus statue from his special Catholic saint cage; he comes to life.
Then Madonna dances around with a black gospel choir and makes out with Black Jesus, inter-cut with scenes of her singing while crosses burn in the background. About halfway through the video we get the twist: we see the scene of her assault, but coherently this time: three white men assaulted her, the black man shooed them away but was arrested, presumably charged with her assault. Back to gospel choir and burning crosses.
In the end of the video, Madonna’s in the police station talking to the police, who let out the black guy who saved her.Finally, everyone who appeared in the video–muggers, cops, black man, Madonna, gospel choir–takes a theatrical bow and a red curtain lowers with the words “THE END.”
It’s easy to reduce this video to its most “shock value” signs, at least for the time of its release: “Like a Prayer” is the “making out with Black Jesus” video. Ironically, the figure played by Leon Robinson was supposed to be Saint Thomas, but hey, authorial intent often times means less than popular interpretation. The video is chock full of signs rich with cultural meaning: Jesus, the stigmata, weeping blood, burning crosses, the police. The power structures that all of this imagery is working towards dismantling could be the Catholic Church (the Vatican officially condemned the video, so…), or the police, or the systems of institutional racism and injustice in America. And particularly during its release, the imagery was provocative, especially since like most pop artists, Madonna had a following that included children and teens.
Looking at the video in 2015, a few things stand out to me. One: The race relations between police and young black men is more relevant than ever. In that respect, this video has not aged out of subversive use. Two: To some extent, this reads as a white justice fantasy, by which I meant that this is a story by and for white folks that features Madonna being accepted with open arms by the black community and then heroically saving a young black man with her whiteness. If Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained was a white vengeance fantasy, then “Like a Prayer” is a white justice fantasy. Three: the theater curtains and curtain call at the end of the video are important, drawing out the constructed, artificial nature of power structures represented in the video.
Lady Gaga: Telephone, ft. Beyoncé
Lady Gaga has been thrown in prison (possibly from killing her murderous boyfriend in the her last video, “Paparazzi”), and gets bailed out by Beyoncé.
The drive away in the Pussy Wagon from Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films, and go to a diner where Beyoncé poisons one guy (who she presumably has a bad history with) and Lady Gaga poisons everyone else in the diner including the dog.
There is then an All-American dance party.
Finally, Lady Gaga and Beyoncé escape with law enforcement in pursuit and drive off into the sunset.
Lady Gaga’s obsessions over the course of her career include both fame and monstrosity, thus her album “The Fame Monster,” where we can find this song. I chose this video because like the Rihanna video I’ll be discussing next, it features violent women. Like the Madonna video, “Telephone” sets itself up as another constructed medium: in this case, a film rather than a stage play. Much of what Lady Gaga makes is about the constructed nature of her own fame as well as celebrity culture.
So is this video provocative? Absolutely. There’s enough spikes, near-nudity, death, and nifty outfits to sink a very fabulous ship.
Is it subversive? Well, kind of, kind of not. While I find Lady Gaga’s overall commentary on fame, appearance, spectacle, and monstrosity intriguing and oftentimes subverting of its own celebrity structures, this video spends more time recreating structures than breaking them down.
Take the prison scene, for example. Mostly, it recreates the women-in-prison tropes of 70s exploitation films, just with an updated look: butch female wardens punishing Lady Gaga, catfights between prisoners, makeouts between prisoners, and a dance number in leather thongs. Bitch Planet this is not.
Take, also, the Quentin Tarantino references. In Kill Bill, the Pussy Wagon was driven by a rapist man, then stolen and co-opted by Uma Thurman’s character Beatrix Kiddo to wreak bloody vengeance on those what done her wrong. In “Telephone,” it’s presumably Beyoncé’s car. The other Tarantino reference is that Beyoncé’s name/nickname in the video is “Honey B,” a reference to Honey Bunny, one half of the diner holdup duo from Pulp Fiction. This foreshadows what the duo will do at the diner. They poison folks using service and sweetness (honey). The deaths of everyone except for Honey B’s awful man (played by Tyrese) are ultimately gratuitous, unlike the death Rihanna’s video. The brutality is unexpected and subverts the structure of women as automatically sweet, kind, and servile.
Ironically, the most subversive part of the video was the All-American Dance Scene at the end. Juxaposed with the brutal poisoning, its use of the American flag and an enthusiastic dance routine make it an ironic end to the story. This is the performance you’ve come to expect of us, the dancers seem to say. So were the murders just a part of that performance?
TL; DR: The meat dress was subversive. The women-in-prison was not. The murder-and-dance-away was kinda subversive.
Rihanna: Bitch Better Have My Money
(video is NSFW )
Rihanna’s 2015 video, “Bitch Better Have My Money,” or BBHMM for short, was met with Like-a-Prayer-esque shock and horror after it dropped.
The video opens with an image of a trunk with bloody legs sticking out of it. Then we see a white woman in sheer lingerie getting ready, kissing her husband, and leaving her house with an ornamental dog. This is inter-cut with Rihanna dragging a large trunk into an elevator that the white woman enters…ding, when the elevator opens at the bottom floor, it’s just Rihanna, the trunk, and the dog.
The video then goes through a series of tortures that Rihanna and her two flunkies are doing to the white woman: stripping her, hanging her upside down in a shed, Weekend With Bernie-ing her (knocking her out and pretending she’s conscious) in front of a cop, almost drowning her, and making her drink and smoke drugs. There are several shots of Rihanna on the phone.
Throughout, the lyrics:
Bitch better have my money!
Y’all should know me well enough
Bitch better have my money!
Please don’t call me on my bluff
Pay me what you owe me
Ballin’ bigger than LeBron
Bitch, give me your money
Who y’all think y’all frontin’ on?
Like brrap, brrap, brrap
Louis 13 and it’s all on me, nigga you just bought a shot
Kamikaze if you think that you gon’ knock me off the top
Shit, your wife in the backseat of my brand new foreign car
Don’t act like you forgot, I call the shots, shots, shots
Like blah, brrap, brrap
Pay me what you owe me, don’t act like you forgot
The turn of the video happens at 4:50, when Rihanna and company return to the house of the rich woman. We meet the “bitch” that the song has been talking about: not the woman, not any woman, but rather the accountant, played by Mads Mikkelsen, who we learn has ruined Rihanna’s credit and stolen her money. We see him tied up, gagged. We see Rihanna selecting weapons that are labeled with different sins (“cheater,” “ruined my credit,” etc), inter-cut with re-plays of the scenes we saw before of Rihanna on the phone. This time, though, we see the flip side of the conversation: Rihanna’s been asking for her money, using the wife as collateral, but the man doesn’t care. He’s sleeping with sex workers, wasting cash, living a life of excess. To him, his wife is just as much of an object as Rihanna and gang have been treating her.
The final scene of the video goes back to the opening image: the trunk with the bloody legs. The camera turns and we see that the legs are not those of the wife, but of Rihanna, who is naked, covered in blood, lighting a cigar with money, and lying on the trunk full of cash. Presumably, the wife lives, and the accountant is dead.
The sheer violent imagery of the video shocked a lot of folks. Unlike Lady Gaga, from whom “Telephone” was an expected spectacle, Rihanna got blasted for such a tonal departure from some of her previous work. The violence in BBHMM was exaggerated and theatrical in the way that rap video violence is exaggerated and theatrical, but it had one less step of hyperbole and showmanship than “Telephone.” I think that’s why many folks condemned the video so strongly: it’s too violent/graphic, they said, meaning that it’s unironic violence that’s not being played for laughs coming from the hand of a black woman.
There’s been a lot of critical commentary on the video, including Karley Sciorentino’s thesis that the white woman and the white man represent the idea of whiteness more than actual people, and the idea put forth by HuffPo’s Barbara Sostaita that the video is a metaphor for reparations. My favorite commentary on the video’s scenes of violence towards a woman comes from the brilliant Mia McKenzie of Black Girl Dangerous: That a white woman (specifically) is turned into the object of a vengeance fantasy to help the survival of a black woman is putting White Feminists’ shorts in a knot. If it were the accountant’s brother, McKenzie points out, certain white women commentators would not feel so uncomfortable because, y’know, dang men, and we’re all in this together and stuff. The critical commentary surrounding the video is a part of the measure of its subversiveness, much like “Like a Prayer.”
I think this video does very clever things to subvert the following power structures: race, gender, rap video tropes, and the male gaze. Rihanna doing things that many men have done in many movies, music videos, and video games is subversive to begin with: why do we decry her but not other artists with similar content in their videos? Why is this terrible, but not Grand Theft Auto or Eminem’s “Kim”? Mads Mikkelsen, who plays Hannibal the cannibal on the NBC show Hannibal, is an interesting choice for the accountant. His presence seems to ask: Are you offended? If so, why this? Why now?
The nudity in the video is by and large non-sexual. The stripped white woman is not there to be sexy, she’s there to be meat, an object with which to earn money. Twice we see Rihanna nude or near-naked: once at the end, and once when she’s in a pool. There’s one sexualized shot of her butt in a thong swimsuit, but it’s only half the frame: the other half of the frame is the white woman being hidden from police, underneath a pool floatie.
Were you looking at her butt? Because then you are just as dumb as the cop, and as powerless as the woman under the water. Rihanna has the power in this situation.
A powerful black woman who is willing to act in a violent, monstrous capacity in order to ensure her own survival is a subversive image in the USA in 2015.
What did you think of these videos? Do you find them subversive, or not? What other pop videos do you find subversive? Tell us in the comments, preciousss.
Tickets $10 online, $14 at the door- http://bit.ly/ogoPogo
“Ogopogo is a variety lit. series spotlighting local poetry, prose, playwriting and more!
Feat. Jesse Minkert (Poetry), Robert P. Kaye (Prose), Anne Bean (Multimedia), and Daniel Tarker (Playwright)”
For the record, “Multimedia” means an exciting slide-show-with-essay, much like Stock Photo Hell: Live!
This event celebrates the release of Minor Arcana Press’ third anthology, Arcana: The Tarot Poetry Anthology. I designed this book and it’s a beaut, outside and in. It features art from Seattle artist Siolo Thomson’s Linestrider Tarot, and contains 78 poems inspired by the Tarot.
From 6-7PM, local Tarot readers will be reading cards (for $, but you love supporting local readers and these are quick/cheap readings), and from 7-9PM, various local poets will read their work from the anthology, and editor Marjorie Jensen will read her work and talk about the project.
Seattle Fiction Federation is a neat reading series run that has two parts. In the first part, four features read (including me next time, hooray!). In the second part, there is an open mic where the audience votes on a “winner” to feature as part of the next SFF reading. I’ll post more details closer to the event.
In Frank Miller’s imagination, everyone loves the goddamn Batman.
Lately, I’ve found the best examples of both success and failure in writing outside one’s demographic in the world of comics. Successes include books like Trees by Warren Ellis, and Bitch Planet by Kelly Sue Deconnick. Failures include Strange Fruit, written by Mark Waid and drawn by J.G. Ballard. As J.A. Micheline points out on Women Write About Comics, the book fails because it falls back on tired, racist tropes. Micheline notes that when white characters say something racist, there is always someone there to contradict them or chide them for their racism, making it a magical fairy tale for white people. There is also a mute superman character, who is an alien, but looks like a black man, strong, silent, and animalistic. As Micheline says, there are real-world consequences to actual black humans when this type of trope persists: “This depiction of the superhuman black has led to dire consequences for a number of black youth in America, to name a few: Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice. White police feel so threatened by black men, fear their purported strength, aggression, and animalistic tendencies, that they believe themselves justified when gunning them down in cold blood.” Micheline’s suggestion that perhaps a story like this should involve one or more black creators seems awfully apt. You can read her plea to white comics creators to create responsibly at Comics Alliance.
The comic I want to talk about today, though, doesn’t even touch on race. It’s entirely about white people. Which is a relief, because it still manages to be once of the worst comics I have read, and I don’t even want to contemplate what Frank Miller would have done if he’d tried to include people of color in this…well, as my podcast-mates put it during our review, this dumpster-fire of a comic.
What am I talking about?
Why, All-Star Batman & Robin, the Boy Wonder, of course.
Pictured: All Star Batman & Robin, the Boy Wonder
This nine-ish issue series came out between 2005 and 2008. It’s written by Frank Miller, who was in the process of going from a creator of respected, if pulpy comics to a person who writes white supremacist America propaganda and other fringe, ridiculous projects. The tragedy of the series is that it’s drawn by Jim Lee, and the iconic comic artist does a fantastic job at bringing Miller’s bullshit script to life.
All Star Batman & Robin, the Boy Wonder is set in an alternate storyline to any of the main, canonical DC universes. Batman is young, and just now “adopting” (read: abducting and brainwashing) young Dick Grayson (Robin) after his parents are murdered. There are plenty of scenes with lots of first person internal monologue from a wide variety of characters.
But what this book is really about is Frank Miller imagining himself as the goddamn Batman.
The panel that launched a thousand memes.
In the imagination of Frank Miller, the goddamn Batman is an unrepentant asshole who revels in the most toxic masculinity possible: he hates grief and loves beating the crap out of people. He gets all the ladies because they also love watching him beat the crap out of people. He makes Dick Grayson camp out in the Batcave and eat rats because it’s going to help him become “strong”. He tells people to shut up a lot. Heroic!
But the goddamn Batman is not the only character that Miller boldly ventures to explore: we get internal monologue from Dick Grayson, Vicky Vale, Wonder Woman, Jimmy Olsen, Superman, Batgirl, Black Canary, and more. All of it makes one thing painfully clear: Frank Miller cannot conceive of what might be going on the inside of an adult woman’s mind.
Vicky Vale does not get any deeper than this. She is not portrayed as a woman, but as Miller’s anima.
If you wanted insight into Miller’s train of thought when writing the Vicky Vale scenes, fear not:
This is not about Vicky Vale. This is about the men looking at Vicky Vale’s ass. The male gaze, ladies and gentlemen!
But wait! Not all women are pointless sexpots. Some are straw feminists:
Goddess help him, I think Frank Miller thinks that feminists are constantly angry and only think about men and how awful men are.
This is Frank Miller trying his best to write a character who’s really different than he is. Unfortunately, he has only managed to write a weird shadow-self, a woman who rants about men and how incompetent men are and men and awful awful men, but then later makes out with Superman and shuts up for a while.
The goddamn Batman, then, becomes Frank Miller’s power fantasy. Women like Vicky Vale and Black Canary become his admirers; Wonder Woman becomes a foil that only serves to reinforce the role of dominant masculinity in the story. The goddamn Batman uses words like “retarded” and “shut up” to try and assert dominance over the other characters. It’s little wonder that one of the few characters who rang true to me was Jimmy Olsen, the horny teenager:
So what’s my point? Why am I showcasing the wretched failings of Frank Miller’s imagination?
Because it’s easy to see. And if we start out by looking and the goddamn Batman as an example of the limits of one person’s imagination when trying to write a variety of characters, then we can slowly expand our critical lens. It’s easy to see when Frank Miller writes women like sexy lamps, but it’s much harder to think about your own writing, and where you have blind spots. Did you just write a woman who has no thoughts or desires outside of the male main character? Are you basing your characters on media stereotypes of their demographics? Did you write a silent black superman wrapped in a Confederate flag?
We live in our own heads, and it’s hard to get outside of them sometimes. Showing your work to a wide variety of people and listening humbly and honestly to criticism is one way to expand your brain-horizons. Working with creators other than yourself, including those outside of your demographic, is another. You can also consider if you’re writing for an audience of people just like you (the men looking at Vicky Vale’s ass; the white folks who want to be soothed about racism), or if you’re writing for a diverse audience.
I didn’t post last week because I didn’t think to schedule a post in advance, and I was in the woods. I went backpacking with my Dad in the North Cascades, the Glacier Peak Wilderness.
There’s something really satisfying about getting out of cell phone range. Perhaps it’s that being disconnected from the Internet is such a rarity these days. I love the Internet, I love connection between people and the communities that can be built when the Internet’s not too busy being horrible to itself. But it’s still a hubbub of voices that, once in a while, should be silent.
It’s a lot like the stars, really, except opposite. In the front country, the stars are quiet. From Seattle on a good clear night, you can make out major constellations; everything else is blocked out by light pollution. In back country, in the North Cascades, the major constellations are almost drowned out by the volume of other stars. The full arc of the Milky Way becomes visible. Two of the nights I was out I got up in the middle of the night, to look at the stars. Both nights I saw a satellite moving in its measured way across the sky, a reminder of the connection to the rest of the world. I could look down the knife edge of the galaxy and think about what I was seeing, a giant cross section of the unimaginably enormous place that is in turn an unimaginably small place in the whole of the universe.
Anyway, all that’s to say that I enjoyed not having the Internet for five days. I didn’t miss social media at all. It’s the sort of thing that I use and enjoy, but it becomes a way of mentally treading water. A way to avoid doing anything, and yet still feeling productive.
Productivity is a funny thing. A corporate buzzword, is it a quantitative measure of the amount of work you do, or is it a qualitative matter of how much work you think you’ve done? Because those two don’t always match up, particularly as a freelancer. My tendency is to always feel like I’ve done little, even when I have accomplished much. An offshoot of impostor syndrome, perhaps? Thankfully, the same organizational tools that keep me doing anything are the ones that keep me honest–remind met that I have, in fact, been productive. While I don’t do eight hours of productive work per day (I usually do 4-6 hours, in all brutal honesty), I didn’t use all eight of the hours of my business day productively when I was an office assistant, either. A lot of my days were frittered away by little distractions. Now at least I can be honest about when I’m distracted and when I’m productive. At this point I use two systems to keep track of myself: a to-do list in the form of project management software called Asana (free! online! good!), and a spreadsheet to keep track of my time based on one Wendy Call introduced me to years ago. These are my spider-web strands that I catch time with.
The wilderness is very simple: much of your day is involved with meeting your basic needs and getting from one point on a topo map to another point on a topo map. Front country gets complicated. The stars go quiet and the buzz of to-do lists, projects, work, and social media start up again. But the lovely thing is, we’ve got both.
I was invited to a traditionally American BBQ party with lawn games and copious quantities of food and alcohol, but I didn’t go. I couldn’t bring myself to celebrate. What would I be celebrating? A colonial entity that split itself from its colonizer, only to go forth and terrorize, and I quote from the Declaration of Independence here, “the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages”?
In a week where black churches are burning in the South…
In a month when a white supremacist murdered nine people and when he was picked up by police the next day, was escorted to jail in a bulletproof vest…
In a month where the white supremacist cell surrounding said mass-murderer was not investigated…
In the year where more than any other year, I see history repeating itself (lynchings, race riots, landmark moments of civil disobedience)…
I couldn’t bring myself to celebrate. I found myself meditating on the failures of America rather than its successes. That might not be fair of me, but so be it. I couldn’t do blind patriotism, not ever, but especially not this year. I couldn’t even buy in to the type of ironic ‘MERICA! patriotism that says “I’m not really participating in my country but look, here’s Ronald Regan riding a Utahraptor firing a machine gun.”
Pretty much all of the ‘Merica imagery is this Chuck-Norris-y screaming hyper-masculinity, including violence, red meat, and/or predatory animals.
What is patriotism, exactly? Loyalty to a government? I don’t think so. That’s pretty much the opposite of what the Declaration of Independence states. Many of the anti-government groups active in the US right now are called Patriot Groups. Is patriotism more about supporting and loving your country or threatening your government if you don’t like their choices?
For the record, I have felt truly, properly patriotic twice:
1. Age sixteen, watching a parade down the Mall in London. Yes, this was patriotism towards Britain, a country I am not a citizen of. (…and a country that’s been the source of much incredibly destructive imperialism worldwide. I can somehow deal with the cognitive dissonance of being an Anglophile better than the cognitive dissonance of the fourth of July, though, so…??)
2. Age twenty-two, the AmeriCorps launch ceremony at Fischer Pavilion, reciting the AmeriCorps pledge*. National Service in general gave me more faith in this country than anything else I’ve seen or experienced. I wish those who work tirelessly to improve the basic welfare of some of the most vulnerable populations in this country received the kind of recognition and attention that those who do military service get. But that is another tale for another time.
I did find a couple of things to be glad of this month, in regards to my country:
1. The Supreme Court legalized marriage for all.
2. Bree Newsome enacted this century’s iconic civil disobedience by climbing the flagpole at the South Carolina courthouse and taking down the Confederate Battle Flag.
3. The USA won the World Cup of women’s soccer, with a frigging incredible hat trick (three goals in sixteen minutes) performed by Carli Lloyd and a couple of very solid saves by goalie Hope Solo. It was an incredible game, and for once I could be surrounded by people chanting U-S-A, U-S-A and not be creeped out.
So I suppose the essence of patriotism, or at least of my support for my country, comes when I see Americans doing great things to support and represent other Americans.
*It’s pretty good, for reals:
I will get things done for America – to make our people safer, smarter, and healthier.
I will bring Americans together to strengthen our communities.
Faced with apathy, I will take action.
Faced with conflict, I will seek common ground.
Faced with adversity, I will persevere.
I will carry this commitment with me this year and beyond.
I am an AmeriCorps member, and I will get things done.
In honor of Pride weekend, let’s talk about some awesome queer literature!
Specifically, I wanted to highlight a few works that have positive depictions of transgender characters, as the “T” is often neglected in “LGBT” publicity. In particular, trans women tend to get the short straw in the real world and in media, so today I’ll focus on some works with positive portrayals of trans women.
Positive depictions of trans women in media are unfortunately in short supply. Biologist, author, and activist Julia Serano describes the two stereotypes that trans women are often thrust into in film and media (the terms are hers):
The “deceptive” transsexual: a sex object until the moment when *gasp* she is revealed as trans, which in works that feature this stereotype usually means horror and revulsion because she’s “really a man.” Examples Serano notes: Dil in The Crying Game; Lois Einhorn/Ray Finkel in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective
The “pathetic” transsexual: a character who could never be a sex object because she appears masculine or doesn’t “pass” as female. (Note: real trans folks do not “pass” as their actual sex. They may have spent years passing as the sex they were assigned at birth, though.) Examples from Serano: Roberta Muldoon in The World According to Garp; Bunny Breckenridge in Ed Wood; Bernadette in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.
Julia Serrano says,
While characters based on both models are presented as having a vested interest in achieving an ultrafeminine appearance, they differ in their abilities to pull it off. Because the “deceivers” successfully pass as women, they generally act as unexpected plot twists, or play the role of sexual predators who fool innocent straight guys into falling for other “men.”
The intense contradiction between the “pathetic” character’s gender identity and her physical appearance is often played for laughs.
In Rachel Pollack‘s run writing the weirdo DC alt-superhero team Doom Patrol, she introduced the character Kate Godwin, a.k.a. Coagula, a trans woman with the power to dissolve matter. Pollack’s writing is strongly influenced by classic and the occult–Kate’s powers are related to alchemy, and there is a storyline that references Tiresias, Oedipus’ adviser who became female for seven years. Kate is an unapologetic badass who has some great conversations with her fellow teammates, including a particularly salient conversation about what gender is with a male-identified robot. Tragically, Pollack’s run on Doom Patrol has not been collected into trades, but issues are decently easy to find. Check out a thorough run-down of the series over at The Toast.
Written by Warren Ellis, Trees is a strange dystopian tale of earth after the most underwhelming alien invasion ever. All over the world, giant alien structures called “Trees” have landed, and stretch from the ground to the atmosphere. They seem to do nothing, except occasionally emit toxic waste. Nobody knows what they are. The storyline of Trees follows many groups and characters, covering both very personal stories and grand political machinations. One storyline in particular is about a Tree in China and the a liberal city/huge art colony of Shu that’s accreted around it. A newcomer to town, Chenglei, a young man who befriends Zhen, a transgender woman and artist who lives in the colony. Zhen is an interesting, three-dimensional character whose friendship and possibly romance with Chenglei is endearing to follow. Trees is ongoing; it’s got a dozen or so issues out and one trade paperback.
Questionable Content is a long-running webcomic written and drawn by Jeph Jacques. The characters in the comic are quite diverse, in particular with a wide range of sexualities represented. There is an asexual character, several gay and lesbian and bi characters, and Claire, a trans woman who is currently dating Marten, the (cisgendered) protagonist of the strip. Claire is a library intern trying to figure out her adult life, a common quest of the characters in the strip. Her relationship with Marten is pretty darn adorable. Here’s Jeph Jacques talking about Questionable Content and Claire.
Manic Pixie Nightmare Girls by Jessica Udischas is a slice-of-life comic strip that tackles moments of transmisogyny, cissexism, and struggle experienced by the protagonist, Jesska Nightmare, and her friends. While the strips are, by and large, about the often depressing reflections of the realities of being trans, they are nonetheless injected with wry humor and wit. Trans women and anyone who’s ever worked as a barista will find this strip particularly cathartic.
Unlike the film examples listed up top, the trans characters in these examples are played by actual trans women actresses. Gosh.
Sense8 is a Netflix original show written by J. Michael Strazynski (Babylon 5) and the Wachowskis (The Matrix). The show traces eight people who have become psychically linked despite living all over the world. It’s the same kind of “high-concept” science fiction as Trees, and although the plot moves slowly and it doesn’t explain a lot, it’s right up my alley. For one, I appreciate it because the eight people who are getting de facto superpowers exist all over the world and not Mostly America. (coughHeroescough) For two, I appreciate the character Nomi (played by Jamie Clayton), a trans woman and ex-hacker living in San Fransisco with her girlfriend (played by Freema Agyeman). There are some pretty hair-raising scenes involving her being trapped in a hospital, but she is not stuck being a damsel in distress by any means. Two words: psychic hacking.
So I’m not usually one for romantic comedies, but this is a pretty darn adorable romantic comedy, suggested to me by Alyson over at Persephone Magazine. Boy Meets Girl is the tale of Rikky (Michelle Hendley), aspiring fashion designer and young trans woman living in the South. Rikky becomes friends with the new girl in town, or rather, the girl who’s back from prep school and lives with her rich family and Skypes with her military fiance. As they begin to strike up a romance, Rikky’s best friend from childhood, Robby (Michael Welch) becomes increasingly nervous for her sake… I won’t spoil the film for you, but suffice it to say that it’s got just the right amount of classic romance ingredients and doesn’t fall into cliche nor into cheesiness. Boy Meets Girl is also available on Netflix.
I have not been reading a ton of fiction these days, but I thought this short story was worth mentioning.
This is a short story in the Magic: The Gathering universe. You don’t need to know anything about the universe to read the story, which is about a warrior named Alesha undergoing a trial of combat, kicking ass, and taking names. Well, name. Her name: Alesha, Who Smiles at Death. Check it out!
On Wednesday, June 17, I will be a feature in The Very Last Breadline, the final installment of the Breadline series of literary readings. The event will be held at Vermillion gallery/bar in Seattle. The featured artists are myself, Shae Savoy (poet extraordinaire), Amy Glynn, Steve Barker, and Trenton Thornley. There will also be copies of the four-year retrospective Breadline Anthology, hot off the presses and designed by yours truly. (Yes, I am a book designer, go look.)
What shall I be reading at Breadline? O blog followers, it’s time for Stock Photo Hell: Live! I’ll be distilling and abridging the whole of Stock Photo Hell, a just the best/weirdest/most awful/most confusing bits version.
On the Solstice, June 21st, I will be part of a large-scale art and poetry exhibition in Tukwila, by Seattle’s only river, the Duwamish. The Duwamish is a highly polluted urban river that nonetheless has a vital ecosystem surrounding it.
From the site:
Tukwila Revealed is an epic exploratory walk along the southern reaches of the Duwamish, centered on the Allentown neighborhood of Tukwila. Through art, science, and historical inquiry, Tukwila Revealed aims to explore ecological, social, developmental, and literary elements of the Duwamish River. This event, held on the 2015 Summer Solstice, is open to all. Stay for the entire duration or join in at any point along the route.
I will be hanging out with some trees, offering tree meditations. Participants will be offered an opportunity to sit against, lay down under, hug, or otherwise commune with a tree while listening to a guided meditation.
If you’re in the Seattle area, come check out these awesome events!