Anne Bean

I make delicious words. // I make words delicious.

Category: Musings (page 1 of 4)

Aw, Hell.

So Dante’s Inferno is big, and long, and I need a breath of fresh air, I dunno about any of you. I mean, we’re barely halfway through Fraud.

So I’m gonna distract us this week with Judeo-Christian afterlife imagery in popular culture, a.k.a. OMG SATAN LOL.

tumblr_mn35ho5Grn1rwkrdbo1_500The afterlife/punishment thing was not a new concept for the Christians of Dante’s day. In fact, the New Testament mentions “Tartarus” once and “Hades” about ten times, both of which often get translated to “Hell.” For those of you who don’t have the ancient gods 4-1-1, Hades is the ancient Greek god of the underworld, which was divided up into various sections where you were assigned based on your actions during life. Dante wasn’t coming up with anything particularly new there. In fact, the idea of Hell as a place where you are aware of what’s going on and are stuck there forever was tied in to the Jewish Hell, Gehenna, which comes up in the Torah and thus the Bible. Gehenna was specifically a place where the wicked were sent after death, and was based on a real place on earth.

Dante’s hell melded all those concepts with various thematic twists of his own (not to mention his enemies in hell and his patrons in heaven). The Divine Comedy, like all comedies, is a startlingly political work. That being said, Dante’s concept of Hell has profoundly influenced popular culture, down to little stuff we don’t think of. Here’s a few examples:

“There’s a special circle of hell for…”
“Seventh heaven”
“On Cloud Nine”
And so many more

Personally, I find the phrase “When Hell Freezes Over” pretty funny because the ninth circle in Dante’s hell is literally a lake of Satan’s frozen tears. Gosh.

 

Here are a couple of other notable works that have to do with hell:

Hironymous Bosch’s diptych, Paradise and Hell, 1510.

John Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost, 1667. This personifies Satan and demons in a concrete way that hadn’t properly been done before. Here’s a rad comparison of the structure of Dante’s and Milton’s hells.

…one, two, skip a few…

…and in the modern era, pop culture comics have had a field day with Satan and Hell imagery. There are far too many things to go into here, but a few of my favorites include:

Lucifer, the comics series by Mike Carey that’s technically a Sandman spinoff, but is amazing and glorious in its own right. Highly recommended.

Hellblazer, the epic comics series starring John Constantine, who stands between the forces of the afterlife and pretty much everything else. There was that truly mediocre movie with Keanu Reeves, who was a terrible John Constantine, and a forthcoming show that seems like it might actually be decent.

Blizzard’s Diablo series of videogames, not because I think it does anything particularly innovative with the mythology, but because it’s interesting to research where all the names of the demons came from in your actual mythology. For example: Nephilim. It’s a Jewish supernatural creature with the power of humans and angels. (And an analog for the heroic characters you play in the game.) Personally I want a Rabbinical wizard character who can raise Golems, but I realize that the hell-world of Diablo is, despite the common imagery, far removed from the various incarnations of Jewish and Christian hells.

And I have not played the “Dante’s Inferno” game, which involves a damsel-in-distress version of Beatrice instead of the reality of Beatrice, which was Dante being a creepy creeper and pining at some length over a married woman whom he then fantasized about in the Divine Comedy after writing a book-length poem about how much of an amazing goddess she was. Dante: a guy with boundary issues.

Also: this?! Yup. Dante for kiddos. Heck: Where the Bad Kids Go.

 

Next time: something approaching coherence

Spoilers: we’ll be headed back to Hell

We Are Darmok

Let me tell you about one of my favorite episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

2008-03-06-darmok1Picard and crew run into an alien race that they cannot understand, even with their fancy-schmancy shipboard translator. The translator is providing them with a literal translation into English, but hoo boy, the words don’t make any sense. This race of folks, the Talarians, seems to talk entirely in metaphor, or at least that’s what the crew decides. I think that it’s a little more complex than raw metaphor; the Talarian’s phrases are more like really complex cultural references. Here’s a video that details how the Talarian language might actually work, and suggests the limitations of a “universal translator”:

 

The plot of the episode “Darmok” involves the Talarian captain and Picard learning how to get along by isolating themselves on the nearby planet’s surface and fighting a big monster together, which is apparently a sort of high-stakes LARP of the Talarian tale of Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra. Meanwhile on the Enterprise, the rest of the crew figures out what the Talarians are on about and sort of how their language works. Counselor Troi is actually useful. It’s neat. In the end, the beast is defeated, Picard and the Talarian captain are bros (before the Talarian captain dies of battle damage, anyway), and everyone understands each other, sort of.

darmok and jalad

So what significance does this episode have in our world? Aside from the fact that you can usually prompt a Talarian quote-off if you post something like “Shaka, when the walls fell” on your social media, I think English is moving in leaps and bounds towards a Talarian style language. Maybe it’s hearing about a small child read “#1” as “hashtag one,” or maybe it’s the number of times I’ve literally said “Do you speak Internet?” to people when they seem to be confused by what I’m saying. But overall, I think that we increasingly rely on cultural references to communicate on a daily basis.

I’m not the first to think so, either. Here’s Kris Straub’s take:

chainsawdarmok

A hallmark of dystopian worlds is some sort of stilted or specific language. From the classic Newspeak in George Orwell’s 1984 (“doubleplusgood”) to Anthony Burgess’ droogspeak out of A Clockwork Orange to the funny adverbs of Scott Westerfield’s YA dystopia, Uglies, warped language is a key ingredient of a dark and terrible future. However, the dark and terrible futures seem to correlate with languages that have fewer words or concepts. The whole point of Newspeak is that it has less vocabulary, and therefore room for fewer not-government-sanctioned thoughts. I think one could argue either that the Talarians have a restrictive language or an advanced language. On the one hand, they only communicate in these story-chunks. On the other hand, they have a lot of stories; who’s to say that they don’t have an expanded literary palette compared to humans, Klingons, and Betazoids?

Picard his hand outstretchedHere’s the real reason why I don’t think we’re gonna go full-on Talarian: the languages of our subcultures are too disparate to overtake more than little bits of the mother tongue. Tumblr fandom, for example, considers itself ubiquitous (at least secretly in the privacy of the users’ heads), but really not everyone knows what headcanon is, or an OTP, or shipping. The thing is, though, that there is this section of the world that understands what I’m saying when I say “My OTP is Kanye and Kanye.” I think the Enterprise’s so-called universal translator might have a hard time with that one.

So, I’m not going into full on doomsaying about the fate of our language and how all the kids these days don’t know how to use grammar, get off my lawn. Language changes over time. I’m not sure if we’re headed for full on Talarian referential free-for-all or what. All I know is that for every new cat meme, there is a passionate defender of the Oxford comma. People are writing articles on the linguistics of doge. The English language is not doomed. It’s just going through a rather entertaining metamorphosis, of which there have been many in its lifetime. I’d just be curious to see if we would have any idea what people are saying 75 years from now.

 

Homework: Figure out what percentage of your normal communication is actually a cultural reference. How Talarian is your every day speech? I double-dog-dare you.

 

Postcards from Eula

In the following, some of the dates and details may be inexact. Consider this account first and foremost a personal recollection from the inside of my own damn head. If my family is reading this, feel free to fill in the fiddly bits in the comments.

postcard circa 1911: "A Cheerful Christmas to You"

A few nights ago, a crash on my porch signaled the Postal Service’s delicate ministrations, and I opened the door to find a cardboard box marked “fragile” on my porch. It was from my aunt, my mother’s big sister. When my brother and I were kids, my aunt would be the one who gave us squirt guns and candy cigarettes, and other naughty-but-not-explicitly-bad things. So, I was curious to see what my aunt could have sent me now. “This is the strangest wedding gift anyone every got,” she said in her letter. It was a box of my great-great grandmother, Eula Stanbro’s things: post cards, “head of class” awards for spelling and reading from elementary school, Bible trading cards, old ads from magazines, and some needlework. My aunt described it all as “remnants of a short and rather colorless life but one filled with the optimism of the young.”

It’s funny looking at stuff from a century or more ago. Eula Stanbro was born in 1900 and died in 1921; the year on the postcards signifies about how old she was, which I cannot help but think about in terms of years left to live with such a brief life as hers.  Her postcards feel like a puzzle for me to unravel—I go through one piece at a time, trying to work out the people and places in her short life. She was an excellent reader and speller in grade school. She went to school at least through age 11, and most have excelled enough for a friend to ask her on one of the postcards if she was planning on teaching at the Prairieview School, the one-room schoolhouse where my granddaddy was educated, or at least educated at, and where he met my grandmother. He reputedly flirted with her in grad school by sticking a snake in front of her face as she was grinding a pencil.

My grandparents were married on December 25th, Christmas Day in the morning in the early 1940s while my grandfather was home from the Navy.  My grandmother was a court clerk, having been one of the first in her family to seek any kind of post-secondary education, since she went to a little bit of secretarial school. Anyway, legend has it that he asked her to marry him and she went down to the courthouse and wrote out her own marriage license. ‘Course legend also has it that they were married in the living room of the Methodist minister, despite them being Baptist—my mother thinks maybe he was available on Christmas Day. And my grandmother has reported directly that she wore a little blue Pendleton suit to her wedding—some of her fancy court clerk cloths. This came up because my mother sent her some pictures of my wedding, and warned her that I wasn’t gonna be in a white dress. Who knew I was actually mimicking my grandmother by getting married in a practical piece of nice, non-white clothing that I can use again.

Postcard: "Good luck to you this Christmas"Eula was married at age fifteen to a seventeen-year-old named Charlie Spears, a hillbilly of inconsistent behavior and ill repute that she apparently had a big crush on. I recall reading one of her letters a few years ago when a different cache of her things was unearthed. You can tell she was really in love.  I do not miss an era in which it was perfectly reasonable to marry your teenage sweetheart while you were still a teenager. It’s interesting trying to figure out Eula’s social life from her postcards. I only have a couple of dozen; some are from her, some are written to her. She corresponds with her grandmother a lot. I have things ranging from when she was in first grade to when she was a teenager. There doesn’t seem to be much from after 1917 or so.  There are vaguely flirty postcards from a man named Robert Bell. Who was he? Was he less of a loser than Charlie Spears? Did my great-grandmother have many suitors? How much of a choice did one even get to make in a place like Prairieview, New Mexico? West Texas and Southeast New Mexico are still bleak country—all short-grass prairie, but now with the Ogalala Aquifer mostly drained. Desperate people, clinging on like topsoil. I have a photo my mother sent me of the founding of Prairieview, New Mexico that I look at when I’m feeling sorry for myself and thinking things are hard: eight or so wagons. Some horses. Maybe a hundred people. No discernible topography to the landscape—no river, no mountains, just the flat dryness of the Llano Estacado.

founding of Prairieview pictureEula died when she was 21 years old, a few weeks after giving birth to my granddaddy, Charles Hickman Spears. She died because of a secondary infection that would have been easily treatable with a course of antibiotics. After Eula died, a motley assortment of relations took care of baby Charles. There was an uncle, who my granddaddy credited with his survival as a young child. There’s a dramatic story of his appendicitis as a little boy, barely older than a baby: he was ridden across West Texas in a horse-drawn cart with a burst appendix. Somehow, my granddaddy survived—he was always a fighter, and matched the dry harshness of the country with equal parts stubborn force of will and humor.  He used to tell a story about when his father was taking care of him (his father whirled in from wherever he’d been off cowboying and took Baby Charles when he was about 18 months old). His father would often leave him home alone for the day with a bottle of warm milk. Once his father forgot to poke a hold in the end of the bottle’s nipple before leaving for the day. When he came home that evening, Little Charles held up the bottle and proudly announced: “I bit the titty off!” That was my grandfather in a nutshell: fierce self-reliance, humorous vulgarity, and good nature in the face of harsh circumstances.

***

Here’s one of Eula’s postcards that makes me wonder:

front of postcard, as described belowback of postcard, as described below

 

Postmark: Quanah, Texas, Sep 20 9PM

Picture: Potter County Court House, Amarillo, Texas.

Writing on back (translated as best I could):

“9-17-15 [could be ’18]

Dear girl: Honey I know you think I’ve treated you mean but I still love you & think of you sweet girls. I spent most of the Summer in Ft. Worth and Denton visiting. Had a splendid trip. What are you girls doing will you go off this Fall? I hope not. Susie entered the C.I.A. college of Denton Sept. 13—Hope she’ll do good in school. Wish you could go to the C.I.A. it’s a fine school. Ruth”

Addressed to: Miss Eula Stanbro, N Mex. Chaver Co.

Writing on front, over sky in picture:

“I will write you all a long letter soon—if you go off this Fall, write me so I know where to write you. I think of you all so often. Wish I could see you. I get homesick for New Mexico sometime. –Write–”

Distraction: Disney Tries The Snow Queen

…sort of.

So, I spoke a bit too soon about the Snow Queen. Disney has another Tangled-esque movie in the works called Frozen. Elsa from Disney's FrozenIt seems…loosely…based on Hans Christian Andersen’s story, in the same way that Disney’s Little Mermaid is based only loosely on the Andersen tale.

"La la laaa...I don't have a soul...and can only get one by marrying a man in a Christian ceremony...and also I die at the end..."

“La la laaa…I don’t have a soul…and can only get one by marrying a man in a Christian ceremony…and also I die at the end…”

So in Frozen, the main “princess” is a Rapunzel with slightly different CGI attributes named Anna, who lives in Scandinavia. (At least they kept that bit. Although some have wondered, why not use a native Lapp character?)

Rapunzel and Anna, looking almost identical

Different hair and eye color mean TOTALLY different character, riiight?

So Anna replaces Gerda in the story, and there is no real Kay equivalent. Anna goes off to rescue her sister Elsa from, like, herself, ’cause her sister IS the Snow Queen.

Elsa and Anna from Disney's FrozenNow, I’m all for sisters-rescuing-each-other tales. And I’m fine with ditching Gerda and Kay, for one because I think “Gerda” would be a hard sell as a Disney Princess name. But what about the weird and awesome supporting cast of the original tale? All dudes now. Yep. I’m not saying this will be the worst movie ever or anything, but it sure has been Disnified. And that means funny dude side-characters.

Yeah, the reindeer and the snowman are also male.

Yes, the reindeer and the snowman are also male.

One thing I didn’t properly think about until having a conversation with a friend about this movie was that in “The Snow Queen,” pretty much all of the supporting cast is women. Like, there’s one sort of incidental Prince, and the crow is male. But aside form that, there are: Gerda and Kay’s grandmother, the flower witch lady, all of her (female) flowers, the Princess, the crow’s girlfriend, the Little Robber Girl, the Finn woman, the Lapp woman, and the Snow Queen herself. That’s, with Gerda included, a whopping eight female characters, plus like five flowers. I don’t think there have been that many named, semi-significant female characters in a Disney movie like, ever. (Disney fans please geek-correct me here!) I mean, Disney cannot handle alive, non-evil mothers and several significant heroic females at the same time.

So, for four years I spent a LOT of time on a playground full of multi-racial, multi-ethnic kids from ages 3-6. And I had plenty of thoughts about how they played pretend. Of course there were subsets of kids who would play licensed-character games: superheroes, power rangers (occasionally, still a thing), Star Wars (sorry, everyone in my generation, but they play the prequels. I know. Shed a tear with me.), and of course, Princesses. And I think the way little girls play Princesses is deeply affected not just by the Disney aesthetic, but by its storytelling.

For one, there is no good role for boys in Princess games. They obviously can’t themselves be a Princess, and most of the Princes are so boring as to blend together into a generic mass of maleness. There are a few exceptions to the Boring Prince rule, (like what’s-his-face in Mulan. He’s cool, right? He does stuff.) but by and large there’s really no good boy roles unless a really dedicated boy wants to be the funny animal sidekick. I usually only saw that happen when a little boy REALLY wanted to play with some particular female friend or other. (“Ugh, okay, I guess you can be the dog.”) Otherwise, a boy would occasionally be co-opted as a villain for the sole purpose of chasing the girls around while they squealed.

For the most part, especially at age 4+, gender separated play is a thing. I don’t know how much it’s socially constructed (I, for one, did my part in starting gender-inclusive games of “superhero”, but that’s me) and how much it’s a biological imperative. I just know that little four and five-year-old girls love them some games of Princess. Here’s how it usually goes down: a ringleader or two will claim some of the best princesses for themselves and invite others to join in. The best princesses were usually sort of classic ones, to my surprise: Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, even Snow White. Sometimes you’d see a Rapunzel, a Belle, or a Tiana (the one black girl in class, yes, did like to play Tiana. So did kids of other colors and races). Because this isn’t the 80s, I didn’t hear much Little Mermaid and never once did I hear anyone mention Princess Jasmine. Probably 50% of my school was of Indian heritage, so that shows you about how well 80s “multicultural” Disney film worked. In general, the Princesses sort of went off on adventures together. It was either a “dresses/go to the ball” type adventure or a “walk around and talk and climb on stuff” adventure or sometimes a “let’s have this boy chase us” adventure. They rarely re-enacted actual scenes from the movies, in part because they were always dealing with characters from multiple movies. Princesses, to me, felt like a “girly” equivalent of Superheroes, but with more social jockeying for position. Very rarely in Disney movies are two women of equal status seen working together.

I wonder what little girls’ games would look like if there were Disney movies with women working together, mothers that weren’t evil, and/or princes that had more personality and importance to the story than being a quest object. Huh. Next time someone’s asking why people are so frustrated at film’s lack of female main character representation, tell them to imagine being a guy and having most of the film canon be Disney Princess films.

 

Thoughts? Have you seen kids play differently than me? Do you have memories of your own childhood? What do you think about Frozen? Tell us in the comments, dearie-o.

 

…Seriously, next time I’ll do my top five villains Disney REALLY doesn’t want. Sorry for the holdout.

Anything That Loves Orange

So, two pieces of media have recently come into my life and have been interacting in interesting ways:

The first is, as I mentioned last post, the new anthology of comics about non-binary sexuality from Northwest Press: Anything That Loves.

The second is the Netflix Originals show Orange is the New Black.

1

***

Anything That Loves is a collection of comics that explores the sexual territory that falls between black-and-white concepts of “gay” and “straight.” Some of the material in this is reprints of classics, like Erika Moen’s Queer, as well as brand spankin’ new content by the likes of Amy T. Falcone, Bill Roundy, and Roberta Gregory. (New content. Roberta Gregory. For the maybe one of my dedicated readers that got how cool that is, you’re welcome.)

Some of the issues that are addressed in Anything That Loves include:

  • A bisexual woman who’s androgynous in appearance (Leanne Franson)
  • A gay man who gets blowback from the gay community when he starts dating trans*men (Bill Roundy)
  • An adolescent boy whose only source of information on sexuality is Loveline… “You had sex with a man? Or a crush on one? You’re gay!”
  • A staunchly lesbian warrior who ends up in an unexpected situation (Leia Weathington)
  •  How women seem to be more “allowed” to have a fluid sexuality than men. (Kate Leth)

 

Overall, the book is a damn fascinating examination of bisexuality, queer sexuality, biphobia, and the myriad ways one can be a human with desires. The various comics specifically address discrimination and ick that come from the “straight” world as well as the “gay” (“lesbian” “queer” etc) world. Some people will connect with this book, or at least one piece in it, on a personal level. (I just want to high-five Leanne Franson, for example.) For those that might not connect with these comics regarding yourself, please read this for all the folks you know who may deal with not fitting into neat little boxes of policed sexuality. Also, read it so you can have critical feedback and discussion about portrayals of queer sexualities in the media. Like, for example, when watching Orange is the New Black.

 

Orange is the New Black I find a fairly satisfying combination of problematic and actually good. For those of you who haven’t seen it, it’s about a privileged white woman, Piper Chapman, who ends up serving a prison term in a low-security facility for being part of a drug deal ten years ago. Like a fashionable-suitcase-carrying-in-other-countries-with-hot-girlfriend type drug deal. The show is highly fictionalized version of a real privileged white woman’s memoir about her stay in the notoriously “cushy” low-security prison, Danbury, i.e. the prison where Martha Stewart went. There are plenty of differences between the show and reality, because it would be a crap show otherwise. One of them is the frequent women having relationships with, sex with, and/or crushes on women. Actual prisoner Piper Kerman says in her memoir, also entitled Orange is the New Black, that she was “struck by the fact that there did not seem to be any lesbian activity…A lot of the romantic relationships I observed were more like schoolgirl crushes, and it was rare for a couple to last more than a month or two.”

The show has many cringeworthy discussions of identity and orientation, especially given my mindset after reading Anything That Loves. Almost any time that Piper Chapman (or anyone else) talks about her past relationship with a woman, it’s through the lens of “lesbian.” “I was a lesbian,” she says. Which makes sense. But there’s a lot of discussion of Will She Revert To Her Lesbian Ways and “What, are you lesbian now?” This is at one disheartening and hilarious because it would seem that Chapman was never actually, to my understanding of the word, lesbian. She was always bisexual, it’s just that sometimes she was in a relationship with a woman and sometimes she was in a relationship with a man. And sometimes she was engaged to a man, in prison with her ex-girlfriend, and real awkward. Y’know. Like happens. It makes sense that the weirdo prison counselor would talk about “lesbian activity” as his anaethema, because he is a scumbag with a mail-order Ukrainian bride. It makes less sense that not one other character on the show seems to think of the word “lesbian” as a woman who exclusively has relationships with women. The de facto definition seems to be a woman who has sex with another woman. I fear that there is a large portion of the country who have only this much of an understanding of sexuality. (Actually I fear that there is a portion of the country that is more or less Pennsatucky.)

In any case, naive as this may be, I have a hard time understanding why bisexuality, or at the least relationships with a variety of gendered people, is so damn hard to grok.

(Of course, for every time I say “Come on now! It’s 2013!” something tends to slap me upside the head and remind me that some people are living decades ago.)

 

In conclusion, this was less of a review, and more a ramble about sexuality. That being said, absolutely go pick up a copy of Anything That Loves. It’s a monumental collection about an under-discussed topic, and well worth a read. And heck, watch Orange is the New Black. It’s pretty good, it’s got some problematic aspects that serve as chewy food for thought, and it’s got some supreme acting talent. Laura Prepon, a.k.a. Donna from That 70s Show, as a drug dealer! Michelle Hurst! Samira Wiley! Lots of amazing PoC actors that I haven’t seen much of before because damn the Hollywood machine! And…drum roll please…

KATE. FREAKIN. MULGREW.

That’s right. Janeway runs the kitchen and will totally cut you.

 

Ideas about nonbinary sexuality? Reactions to the show? Put ’em in the comments, y’all.

On Personal Oceans, and the Landscape of Childhood

IMG_0148

Waiting at the Burlington Airport, watching the jets go, reading.

At the Burlington International Airport, on the way home after getting my MFA, I impulsively bought Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane to read on the plane, never mind that I was going to go see him read at Town Hall in Seattle the very next day.

I think it was the perfect book to read on the way back from Goddard College, a place that felt a little bit like the coolest writer sleep-away camp ever and a little bit like a memory of times already past. The Ocean at the End of the Lane deals with memory, and landscape, and the terrors that childhood holds. The sense of childhood horror is well-stated in the book’s epigraph, a quote from Maurice Sendak in conversation with Art Spiegelman: “I remember my own childhood vividly…I knew terrible things. But I knew I mustn’t let adults know I knew. It would scare them.”

And the horrors that children know and adults try to blind themselves to is perhaps the emotional crux of this short and poignant novel. At his Town Hall talk, Gaiman explained some of the genesis of the book; he was missing his wife, Amanda Palmer, and wanted to write something for her. But she, apparently, doesn’t really like fantasy (I know, right?)…”but she likes me,” he said, “and she likes feelings. So I put some feelings in and toned down the supernatural a bit.” He also added a setting from his own Essex childhood; the picture on the back of a boy climbing on a house is a photo of Neil, Age Seven. (Although I skimmed the interior back flap too quickly and for a moment though they were describing the author photo, leaving me with the impression that NG had sprung fully formed from his mother’s forehead…) I find this novel differs from Gaiman’s other novels for adults because it has more feelings, quite frankly. He gets me right in the nostalgia. And no, my personal nostalgia does not revolve around the aftermath of a stranger’s suicide on a tiny rural English village, nor is it about a trio of maiden/mother/crone types who may or may not be an old farming family and/or supernatural entities from the dawn of time. But the sense of an adult going back and feeling intense nostalgia about childhood, both for the magic of being a child (literally, of course, here) and the terror of being a child. From a craft perspective, the first and last chapters do a brilliant job of lowering the reader into the world of the story through the layers of memory of the adult who is narrating about his childhood. This really is, as Gaiman asserts, a book for adults with a child narrator. I think it would be a fun read for a child or teen, but you wouldn’t really get the emotional punch until you were an adult, and especially an adult who had left home.

The poet David Wagoner introduced me to the lovely term psychotope, or the shape of the psyche. How hot is “hot.” How far is “far.” What “rain” looks like. And the narrator’s psychotope is clearly laid out in this novel: I could picture the mental map of this child’s world, the details of the dirt lane he lived on, the important places and things in his life. His logic, even when it seemed fantastic or illogical for the adults around him, is laid out clearly for the reader. And more importantly, I can remember when having a world map like that made sense. I found myself thinking about the five acres I grew up on in semi-rural Colorado and the intricate world of myth and magic I built for myself. (The fairies lived across the little stream in the meadow with the big Ponderosa pines, the Tolkein-style elves lived back in the mossier, darker woods, etc.) Inside my house was more a landscape of monsters, both mine and my brother’s. For him, Darth Vader lived in the basement shop behind the ominous wood-stove that provided most of our house’s winter heat. For me, the one spot just to the right of the hall that I always avoided because of an incredibly vivid dream wherein an invisible man picked me up off my feet by my collar and I just knew he was standing there day and night, biding his time. I had rituals about how fast I had to book it up the stairs (before the door to the garage, on its hissing automatic closer, closed with a final thump). I think everyone had at least one little ritual or piece of magical thinking in the landscape of their childhood home. I imagine many of them were much more terrifying than Darth Vader or the ubiquitous invisible man. I imagine for children with more real-world trauma in their lives daily, a great deal of ritual and magical thinking is put into trying to control the behavior of those adults or other children around them whose behavior cannot be controlled.

What Gaiman does so nicely in The Ocean at the End of the Lane is to take the magical thinking of childhood and conflate it elegantly with real magic. It’s a book about how hard it is to be seven. It’s also a book about family. It’s also a book with enough very real magic to feed the hungry child in all of us. You can check it out here or just go buy a copy. The hardback is really attractive. It’s got deckle edges, O Kindle users, which your Devices will not be able to accurately replicate. Just sayin’.

 

In the comments, please tell me a ritual or piece of magical thinking from your childhood. I’m also curious, for those of you that read it, what you thought of the book.

In Praise of Old Women

I went to Mikeatron’s grandma’s 100th birthday yesterday.

100th-birthday

It was quite the affair, as one would hope for a centennial. The family took over the top floor of a restaurant; at least two extended families were represented, and we had a three-hour meal filled with much chattering, pictures, love, and recognition. Mike’s grandma, as she herself admits with glee, is “hot shit.” (“Did you know he had a crazy grandma?” she asked me with a wicked grin.)  She sat in the middle of it all, chatting and smiling, wearing a sparkly black sweater, truly the matriarch of the clans. As the partner of the direct descendant, I got to sit at the table with her and her sons and grand-kids. It was an honor. Grandma Jean* is, at 100, very much spunky and witty and much more energetic than my mental picture of “100 years old”; she may be about four-and-a-half feet tall and walk with a (shiny golden) cane, but I’m pretty sure she out-partied me.

Ms. Genuina “Jeannie” Dipetrillo was born in 1913. She’s lived through both world wars, almost the entirety of the 20th century, and has seen immense technological changes in her time. She worked as a hair-dresser until she was 95, and she was politically active. One of the Rhode Island congressmen came to her party, gave her an official birthday certificate/card thing from Congress, and told stories about how she’d stood him up on a date once. Hot shit, indeed. (Mike leaned over to me and said, “Hey, I hear you like bad-ass women.”)

All of this hanging of with such an awesome old lady made me think about how much I appreciate elders, especially old women. “Old” is oftentimes used as a pejorative in our culture, which is kind of hilarious given that barring premature death, becoming old is all of our fate. For women, I appreciate that there’s some age where you are allowed to stop giving a shit. I mean that in the kindest and best way possible: Mike’s grandma has no shame. It’s awesome. I hope to earn the right to have no shame like that someday.

My aunt speaks of “aging on purpose,” and I think she’s on to something there. I celebrate those, young and old, who do not treat aging like a malady, or an inconvenience. As I continue to age, I want to celebrate the journey every day. I have a few friends who I plan to sit on the porch with when I am old, and cackle and talk and have a good time. (I also want to be like a family friend who hiked daily in her 80s.) There is a lot to be learned from the old women of this world. Eventually may I be one of them.

The poet Nikki Finney says that the world would be best ruled by a council of grandmothers. I’m inclined to agree.

 

*I happen to be familiar with another grandmother Jean; my father’s mother. Being her granddaughter, I never knew her as a younger woman. But she was a fantastic old lady who was filled with life and passion about a great deal of things: food, the natural world, birds, clams, mushrooms…

Why Women Need to Tell Stories

(Trigger and/or blasphemy warning: I talk about the Bible in this post.)

When I read the Grimm’s tales, I realized, “Huh. This is part of the seeds for the Truth is Beauty and Beauty is Truth trope.” In the tales, if there is a pretty daughter and an ugly (usually step-) daughter, then the pretty one will also be demure (i.e. quiet), kind, and loyal. The ugly daughter will be selfish, loud, and mean-spirited.

Disney's Cinderella stepmother and stepsisters.

They were framed by centuries of stories!

Let’s break that down a tad, shall we?

Here’s what these tales are weaving together:

  1. Kindness goes with beauty; meanness goes with ugliness.
  2. Silence goes with beauty; speech goes with ugliness.
  3. Kindness and silence are then correlated, as are speech and meanness.
  4. So, by extension: In order to be a loyal, true, and ultimately successful person, you must be silent, kind, and beautiful. If you are ugly, selfish, or loud, then you are the villain and will be punished.

There’s something going on that’s deeper than Truth is Beauty and Beauty is Truth going on here. There’s some dynamic with speech and silence that I hadn’t really noticed until I was reading Marina Warner’s From the Beast to the Blonde.

She points out the multiple instances in Medieval art and literature where women having a voice or speaking their mind is connected to them being somehow…not women. It’s not even that these images chastise women for speaking, it’s more of a symbolic correlation that in order to be properly female you have to be quiet and obedient. As Warner notes, “The figure of Obedience was traditionally represented by the iconic representation of Silence […] When the object of desire raised her voice, her desirability decreased; speaking implied unruliness, disobedience.”

Franciscan-Allegories--Allegory-of-Obedience-c-1330-large

Franciscan Allegory of Obedience, circa 1330. Silence is the central figure with their finger to their lips. To me, it looks like a female figure; crones get excitingly weird in Christian historical imagery.

In the New Testament, there are some frighteningly specific injunctions against women’s voices. Paul’s first epistle to Timothy (1 Tim 2:11-15) has this to say about women’s behavior in church:

Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.

Marina Warner points out that he’s saying women can be redeemed for the apparent sin of speaking or teaching by having babies. Ladies, if you’ve screwed up already by telling your stories, then no worries, just be fecund and pop out babies, and all will be forgiven. As long as you’re also modest. And if you should become a widow, it had better not be at a young age, because young widows’ “sensual desires alienate them from Christ, they want to marry, and so they incur condemnation for having violated their first pledge. Besides that, they learn to be idle, gadding about from house to house; and they are not merely idle, but also gossips and busybodies, saying what they should not say.” (1 Tim 5.11-13)(emphasis mine)

To give context, Paul does actually think younger widows should remarry and bear children. He goes on a great deal in his letter to Timothy about “real widows” as being deserving of support from society. As opposed to what kind of widow, I’m not sure. To Christian society at the time the Bible was written, women’s speech was terrifying, and any woman in a position to use her voice or tell her story was socially outcast. This included unmarried women, old women, and widows who took no other husband, all groups traditionally associated with witchcraft.

So, this is all ancient history, yes?

Aside from modern Christians who still insist on an all-male clergy, there’s still some societal level of discomfort with women’s voices. I’m not just talking about Christianity or trying to pidgeon-hole Christians. I’m talking widespread Western cultural fear of women’s voices (Gynologophobia?), especially if they’re saying something “feminist” or something that threatens traditional positions of power.

Consider the case of Anita Sarkeesian. A writer and vlogger at her website Feminist Frequency, Sarkeesian made a series of videos about film called “Tropes v Women,” where she explicated film tropes about women such as the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, the Straw Feminist, and the Mystical Pregnancy. She made a Kickstarter, asking for $6,000 to fund a similar series of videos exploring tropes about women in video games. Somehow, the internet exploded at this. Her social media was inundated with harassment including threats of death and rape; her Wikipedia site was hacked with pornographic images. Consequently, her Kickstarter raised over $150,000, which says that not everyone was against her. Just some really vocal people and a “cybermob” of trolls raising a constant noisy alarm were against her. Again, speech and silence do their weirdo power-tango.

In case it’s not abundantly clear, let me spell it out: The mere suggestion of a woman raising her voice to shed light on problematic aspects of a male-dominated arena was enough to cause rampant, gibbering panic and hatred. I have heard geeks of all genders try to downplay the whole debacle off as a silly one-off thing that got too much attention. I hear some voices crying out She Spews Only Lies! I hear some voices say, I Don’t Like Her “Brand” of Feminism Because It Attacks Things I Like. I hear a lot of whispers of But They’re Just Games.

Personally, I think her case serves as a coal-mine canary. The amount of trolling, internet hate, and intimidation Sarkeesian got corresponds only to how much poisonous gas, if I may extend the coal-mine metaphor, is in the surroundings. There are plenty of ways to deal with poisonous hot air. Some people like to light a match and watch it burn. Some people like to dig alternate pathways and let the gas seep off on its own. In any case, the more we keep digging here, the more things will clear up.

By the way, Sarkeesian did finally make her video about the Damsel in Distress, and it’s pretty good. It was a almost underwhelming, actually…I found myself thinking “THIS is what they were all afraid of?”

But hey, from Biblical times until now, nothing is more frightening to the machinations of society than a woman’s voice. Here’s to the pretty heroine actually getting to speak her piece. Here’s to the ugly stepsister not being condemned to only sound and fury (signifying nothing, as the Bard reminds us).

***

I want to put a brief qualifier on here lest I seem to be hating on men or not acknowledging the even greater struggles of folks who fall outside of dualistic gender categories.

I think it is important for everyone to tell their stories: our stories are what makes us human, the vital connective tissue of our species. Only some of our species, however, has been systematically silenced. (And it’s not just women.) I want to keep prodding at why until some of that nasty patriarchal gas seeps off.

All The Single(-Dimensional) Ladies

Or, If You Liked Her Then You Shoula Put an Arc on Her

At the moment, I’m in the process of revising my upcoming anthology of retold fairy tales, tentatively titled Behind the Magic Mirror.

With each tale, I tried to peel back the known facts of the characters and situations, and write what seemed to be hidden stories that were jumping out at me when I read collections  of original tales. For one tale, a comic called “The Boy Who Went Forth to Learn About Fear and the Girl Who Knew Perfectly Well What It Was,” I did a fairly straight retelling of the Grimm Tale (The Boy Who Went Forth to Learn About Fear) on the left of the page, and the story of his wife-to-be, a.k.a. the Princess Prize, on the right.

Now, a year ago I thought I had a pretty good version of this story going on. And it was decent. I could give the script to self-respecting artists and they wouldn’t laugh at me or anything. But reading it a year later, I was shocked to find that I’d fallen in to the trap of making the female character basically reactive and passive. It’s shockingly easy! And if you’ve read any of my princess-related rants on this blog, you’ll know how much I dislike reactive, passive heroines. But lo, there I was, doing it.

First off, I fixed the problem: rather than waiting to be rescued while being “strong” and enduring the tortures of her family, the princess (unseen) goes about solving her own problems at the same time as the boy. Of course, her father still beats the crap out of her. But she saves her own ass anyway.

When I was done, though, I thought long and hard about why I keep accidentally writing passive heroines. What is it about the stories we’ve been told again and again that makes writing passive female characters so easy?

In film, when there are actually named female characters (*coughBechdeltestcough*) there are lots of stories where the female characters are static (which makes being active and having agency very difficult).

By “static,” I mean basically having the same characteristics of personality and action throughout the whole film; a static character might be strong or weak, good or bad, brilliant or idiotic, but in any case she won’t have any huge shifts during the film. A static character won’t go from good to bad or weak to strong.

Here’s some examples, so you can see what I mean:

  • Belle, from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Starts smart and sassy, finishes smart and sassy-ish. I mean, if anything she gets domesticated a bit, and of course she’s Found Love and all. But she doesn’t really have to undergo character change. Also, the film is Beast’s arc, not hers. Beast is dynamic: at the beginning of the film, he’s an irredeemable fuck-up with a spell that makes him look at beastly as he acts. At the end, he has become, literally and figuratively, a reasonable human being. The midpoint of the film is not Belle’s decision to leave the palace, ’cause she would have done that anyway. That didn’t represent a turning point for her. The true midpoint, Beast’s decision to follow her and thereby save her from the wolves in the forest, represented a turning point for him. He’s the dynamic character. She’s static.

*pant pant* Okay. I think I *might* be done ranting about Beauty and the Beast for a while. Maybe.

  • Bella Swan, and by proxy Anastasia Fuckwad of 50 Shades of Grey: “Since I’ve decided I am the only one who can save this troubled man by staying in this abusive relationship, I will literally jump off cliffs and/or put myself in harm’s way just to get his attention so that he knows I LURRRVE him and would totally literally die for him and stuff.” <–This is not “agency.”

    Bella with her mouth open, looking like a dumbass.

    Do I really need to say more?

  • Every Manic Pixie Dream Girl ever, including some of my favorites: Sam in Garden State, Clementine in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Ramona Flowers in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.

    four images of manic pixie dream girls from film

    Love ’em, hate ’em…your male protag can’t live a full life without ’em.

  • Trinity, The Matrix. Trinity is a good example of a “Strong Female Character” who starts out as a huge badass with no obvious flaws and ends up as a huge badass with no obvious flaws.

Or, just look at this
GIANT DAMN FLOWCHART OF ALL 2-DIMENSIONAL FEMALE CHARACTER ARCHETYPES.

On the flip side, here are some stories with dynamic female characters:

  • Brave: This movie actually has two (!) female characters with character arcs. Merida starts out as a bratty, overconfident girl who hates tradition, and learns how to function within her family without sacrificing her beliefs. Her mother starts out uptight and bent on a traditional marriage, and then relaxes and learns how to connect with and love her daughter for who she is.
  • Legally Blonde: Elle starts out as a SoCal sorority girl bent on romantic revenge. She ends up as a woman who believes in herself on her way to becoming a high-powered Harvard lawyer.

    Elle buying her laptop in Legally Blonde

    Look! It’s a moment of personal decision making! How dynamic!

  • Thelma and Louise: Thelma in particular starts out as a sheltered housewife and ends up on a crime spree, blowing up trucks with guns. Pretty major arc going on there.

    Thelma and Louise practicing shooting

    They started out all milquetoast. Really.

  • High Noon: If you haven’t watched this, do. It’s worth it. The wife character, who you expect to be as bland as most wives in Westerns, goes though major character shifts and becomes a vital figure in the climax of the movie.
  • Star Wars Episode IV-VI: Princess Leia has a character arc, you guys! She starts out as a  political activist who wants nothing to do with Jedi or that scruffy nerf herder. She ends up as a major player in action as well as politics who has loosened up enough and taken enough risks to find meaning in the Force, have a meaningful relationship with her long-lost, and find a romantic partner in Han. …
  • I suppose it’s arguable that Queen Amidala has a character arc. But it’s a pretty sucky arc. Correct me if I’m wrong here, ’cause I only watched the prequels once, but wouldn’t it go something like: Be badass politician. Fall in love with unstable Jedi. Lose all interest in doing anything other than moping around in pearled evening gowns and having babies. The end. Is that even a character arc? Shit, that’s more like a character nosedive, if you ask me. Whatever.

 

Gosh. I think I’ve worn myself out. Please comment! Tell me good examples of either, disagree with my examples, give folks ideas of how to write dynamic characters, whatever!

A Ray of Hope…

Lest the last post be too disparaging about fairy tale ladies in iffy marriage situations, let me bring a seriously rad lady to your attention:

SHAHRAZAD, heroine of The Arabian Nights

illustration from the Edumund Dulac edition

So here’s the deal with The Arabian Nights: it’s one large frame story with several smaller frame stories grouped inside of it. Tales within tales within tales.

magic card

This is accurate.

In the outmost story, the Vizier’s daughter Shahrazad seeks to save her own life and the lives of all the city’s women by telling the king stories and thus staying her execution. The entirety of the Nights is Shahrazad’s slow, clever campaign to save her society from its murderous leader.

So here’s what I always somehow misunderstood: Shahrazad willingly enters her situation with the King. For some reason, I thought she was just next up on the chopping block, a victim of circumstances.

But no, Shahrazad wants to marry the King. She actually blackmails her father into letting her marry a murderer. This is the total opposite western Animal Husband tales where, as Bruno Bettleheim puts it, the heroine goes to a beastly husband “because of love for or obedience to her father.”

*cougheveryDisneyPrincesscough*

So why does Shahrazad put herself in such a deadly situation? Because she’s one smart cookie. And she has a plan.

The first description of her doesn’t go on about her beauty (the number one trait of all Perrault and Grimm princesses), but her intelligence: “[She] had read the books of literature, philosophy, and medicine. She knew poetry by hreat, had studied historial  reports, and was acquainted with the saying of men and the maxims of sages and kings. She was intelligent, knowledgeable, wise, and refined.”

"Damn it, all *I* got were these really heavy earrings and a pet tiger that didn't actually rip anyone's throat out."

Shahrazad knows exactly what she wants to do, and lays it all out for her sister: “Then I will begin to tell a story, and it will cause the king to stop his practice [of killing women], save myself, and deliver the people.” Even by Joseph Campbell’s standards, this is a large-scale, heroic goal.

Shahrazad chooses an incredibly clever setup for her time with King Shahrayar. Firstly, she brings her sister Dinarzad into the picture. Her plea to get Dinarzad in the bedroom is heartfelt and simple, “I have a sister, and I wish to bid good-bye before daybreak.” Of course Shahrayar sends for the sister, and at the opportune moment Dinarzad speaks the words for the first time that will become a refrain throughout the book: “Sister, if you are not sleepy, tell us one of your lovely little tales to while away the night…” Shahrazad asks permission, of course. But when the king agrees, he is entrapped.

illustration by Kay Neilsen

Shahrazad never gets quite all the way through a story on any given night, at least not without hinting at the next one. She never finishes the tale during the daytime, presumably because dawn is the time of her supposed execution. The king never demands her to finish except at night, when Dinarzad has again asked for a story. The king himself never asks for a story directly; Dinarzad becomes the innocent voice of the eager listener, and the catalyst of the storytelling. Shahrazad never pleads for her life with the King, she merely tells her sister what further amazing tales she has in store “if the king spares me and lets me live!” The King is never threatened or directly coerced, giving him the illusion of control. In fact, Shahrazad controls the stories, and thus the action, the whole time.

Within the stories themselves, there are a number of frame stories that bear a striking resemblance to Shahrazad’s situation. In one tale, three Dervishes must tell their tales or be executed by the fearsome mistress of a house in which they stayed. In another tale, a vizier named Ja’far must stay his execution by telling a strange story to his Caliph. In yet another, four characters plead for their lives to the King of China. There are several life-or-death situations.

Shahrazad unquestionably holds the most power in The Arabian Nights. She willingly throws herself into a deadly situation to save her people. She stops and starts the stories at will, aided by the soft, inoffensive voice of her sister. She succeeds at every heroic goal she set forth for herself. In the end, she wins the ultimate boon, saving not only of her life, but the lives of all the other women, and even the life of King Shahrayar. As translator Husain Haddawy notes, “Shahrazad cures Shahrayar of his hatred of women, teaches him to love, and by doing so saves her own life and wins a good man.” So, yeah, she got the guy in the end, but it was a kind of bonus effect after she saved the women of her culture from violent death.

Oddly, this does not all end in tears. (illus. Kay Neilsen)

By the way, if you want to pick up a copy and check it out, I highly recommend Husain Haddawy’s translation. It’s really readable and feels faithful to the source material. Also, he has a big honkin’ introduction about how Sir Richard Burton’s translations sucked….because Burton and others loved to Anglicize (and pontificate about) Eastern stories. It’s a proud Western tradition.

1001 nights vess

Snow White and the Sultan from Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall by Bill Willingham. The book in general is lovely and completely beautiful. But its frame story makes the actual character Shahrazad look all like she's a victim of circumstances following in Snow White's footsteps.

There are two volumes from Haddawy, The Arabian Nights and Arabian Nights II: Sinbad and Other Popular Stories. The second one has the more well-known stories (Aladdin, Sinbad, Ali Baba, etc), but the first one has the beginning frame story with Shahrazad, which is the best bit in my opinion. Click on the pic for an Amazon link:

Translated by Husain Haddawy from the 14th century manuscript edited by Muhsin Mahdi, published by Norton.

I highly recommend checking the tales out! They are approachable and worth experiencing firsthand. Besides, badass fairy tale ladies are a sight for sore eyes after the Grimms and Hans Christian Andersen.

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