Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The Pop Tart's 3 Things From 2012

When the thought struck me that I ought to do an end-of-the-year list, I dismissed it at first. I don't really see much point in compiling a "Best of" list (or a "Worst of" list, for that matter), since film, television, books, and pretty much every other medium through which we partake of pop culture are not things with true objective scales by which to measure them. What's a good film or book to me won't be to someone else, and that's fine--it's one of the things that makes life more interesting.

So, I present to you, in no particular order, Three Things in 2012 That I Thought Were Pretty Neat.

* Female-led Successes in Television and Film

I mentioned this in part in my post about Action Women. Film studio Lionsgate this year had two films make over $125 million, and, guess what--both of these films starred female leads (the films are, if you're wondering, The Hunger Games, starring Jennifer Lawrence, and Twilight:Breaking Dawn, Part 2, starring Kristen Stewart). Female led comedies like Pitch Perfect have opened doors for women to lead in movies outside of the typical RomComs. Those things would be great on their own, but let's look also at television: Lena Dunham's Girls has been making news, good and bad, all over the place; Tina Fey and Amy Poehler are set to host the Golden Globes later this month; Pixar gave us Brave, its first film with a female protagonist; we finally got to see Legend of Korra, the female-led sequel to Avatar: The Last Airbender. These are the sorts of things I can get behind.

*Ensemble Cast Shows

I don't think my love for NBC's Community is any secret, but Community alone isn't why I chose to include this topic.  Let's face it, a larger cast means there's more opportunity for more types of people to appear on television. Shows like Community, Warehouse 13, Alphas, Glee and others show us that casts don't have to include exclusively men or exclusively white people. There are plenty of ensemble-cast shows that are guilty of only showing us more white people, and some of these shows are better at providing the viewer with a diverse cast than others, but the aforementioned shows have seen critical success, if not necessarily commercial success. Which is a step in the right direction, certainly.

*Some Pretty Awesome Talks at TEDx Events

 I've talked about Anita Sarkeesian once or twice before. In case you were unaware, this woman found herself the target of some pretty intense abuse for asking people who were interested--just people who were interested, mind you--to support her attempt to create a series of videos on YouTube to show the types of tropes that female characters fall into in video games. At one of the TEDx events, she discussed her experience.

FOX and Friends anchor Brian Kilmeade said some pretty insulting things about how the female anchors at the conservative news station were hired (it's all in the linked article, but the short of it is he said they just tried to find Victoria's Secret models who were capable of speech). Maybe if he had heard Cameron Russell's TEDx talk about the power of image, he would realize that beautiful women can easily be smart women also.

These were a few of the things that caught my attention in 2012. Use the comments section to share some of yours.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Girl Books

When I'm not sharing observations about pop culture or doing my "real people job" (you know, the one that pays my bills), I write fiction.

I did National Novel Writing Month (Nanowrimo, to those familiar with it), and managed by miracle and sleep deprivation to pound out 50,000 words in a 30-day period. And some of those words were not-horrible.

Though I've been writing for most of my life, I'm an unpublished amateur. Which is fine; if I'm going to have any bit of work with my name on it floating out there, I'd want it to be a good as I could make it, so not having my work seen by anyone but me and a few friends suits me.

But I would, eventually, like to be published. I think most people who write on a regular basis (or even an irregular basis, really) want that.

Here's the problem: I'm a woman who likes to write modern Fantasy, and I don't necessarily write for a strictly female audience.

To say that my gender kills my chances to be published in the genre of my choice is an exaggeration, sure. But, according to an article on science news website io9, The Wall Street Journal reports that female writers of Fantasy and Science Fiction are encouraged to use male pseudonyms--or at least, gender-neutral pen names-- if the editors believe that their novel will appeal to boys.

The article quotes an editor at Penguin:
"It sometimes makes sense for a female author to use a pseudonym, particularly when the main characters are male, or when it's a genre with a strong appeal to men, like military science fiction, certain types of fantasy or gritty thrillers," says Penguin editor Anne Sowards, whose fantasy authors K.A. Stewart, Rob Thurman and K.J. Taylor are women. ...
"For a new author, we want to avoid anything that might cause a reader to put a book down and decide, 'not for me,' " Ms. Sowards says. "When we think a book will appeal to male readers, we want everything about the book to say that-the cover, the copy and, yes, the author's name."
This mindset, while certainly sad, isn't new. The Bronte sisters, Louisa May Alcott, and plenty of other women have used male names or vague initials to assure that their work reached its audience. And then there's S.E. Hinton, who used her initials to make sure that male readers weren't deterred from The Outsiders, her debut novel inspired by two gangs present in her school. And J.K. Rowling, who was told that her series of novels about a boy wizard wouldn't sell if the name Joanne was printed on the cover.

There's an overwhelming belief in the market that women and girls will read books by male authors, but boys and men won't read books by female authors (there's a similar opinion regarding race--people of color will read books about white people, but white people won't read books about people of color, but that's a whole other post--or six-- for a whole other day).

Why is that opinion so widely held?

I've said before, I think, that masculinity is more strictly enforced than femininity, and that's what this line of thinking probably goes back to. At some point, boys are taught--implicitly or explicitly-- that liking things like "girl books" is makes them girly.  Which, in American society, is something that it is most definitely not okay for a boy to be. After all, what could be more girly than a book written by a woman--especially if it's one told from a female perspective or one with a female as the main protagonist?

That's just my theory, of course, but I think it holds some weight.

I'll leave you with a quote from the Tumblr of Shannon Hale, author of Goose Girl and a number of other Young Adult and Young Adult Fantasy books. In this post, the author discusses why boys don't read "girl books." The post can be read in its entirety here.
Another staple in my signing line is the family. The mom and daughters get their books signed, and the mom confides in me, “My son reads your books on the sly” or “My son loves your books too but he’s embarrassed to admit it.” Why are they embarrassed? Because we’ve made them that way. We’ve told them in subtle ways that, in order to be a real boy, to be manly, they can’t like anything girls like.
Though sometimes those instructions aren’t subtle at all. Recently at a signing, a family had all my books. The mom had me sign one of them for each of her children. A 10-year-old boy lurked in the back. I’d signed some for all the daughters and there were more books, so I asked the boy, “Would you like me to sign one to you?” The mom said, “Yeah, Isaac, do you want her to put your name in a girl book?” and the sisters all giggled.
As you can imagine, Isaac said no.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Merry Christmas!

I'm not actually writing new content today, but I didn't want to get off-schedule again so soon after getting back on track.

Hopefully you're all safe and warm and happy today.

There'll be a new, content-filled post on Saturday, but, in the meantime, here are some clips from NBC's Community, which is one of the most diverse and creative shows on television (and it comes back on October 19th--which is happening on February 7th).

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Action Girl

I love a good action series. Sometimes I love a bad action series.

Even the most gentle among us wants to see a good ass-kicking now and then. Part of the draw, I think, is getting to see people like us--people that we can relate to--doing crazy, amazing things and taking charge. It's part of why characters like John McClane and Batman and Hercules are so lasting in pop culture as a whole and American pop culture, specifically.

There's no shortage of male action heroes. They're plentiful and varied--though, admittedly, over time many of them start looking the same (compare video game heroes--the same scarred, angry, bald white guy shows up over and over, but that's a post for another day). The female version of this character type, The Action Girl, while it's being seen more and more in various media, does not saturate the market in the same way.

There are a lot of reasons for this--maybe you remember Warner Brothers making waves in 2007 by saying they would no longer produce films with female leads? -- and this year, editor Frank Parlato, Jr. of the Niagara Falls Reporter made it pretty clear what he thinks of female-led movies when he was approached by a writer who had reviewed Snow White and the Huntsman and, in spite of the eyebrow-raising content of his response to the reviewer, it's depressingly not hard to image that there are plenty who share his views.

Then there's the perception that action films that star women can't succeed; people tend to back this up by citing films like Catwoman and Suckerpunch (which, if we're being honest here, are indeed lousy films, and both, incidentally, are great examples of Male Gaze in effect), and that's sort of like judging every Sean Connery film by League of Extraordinary Gentlemen--which is to say that it's unfair and only provides a narrow view of the subject,only looking at one not-so-great example, and it doesn't take into account things like the marketing the movies get, the writing, the star-power behind the film, and other factors in what makes a movie sell.

But sometimes, action movies that star women as the hero and not the victim in need of rescuing do get made. And they do sell.

Consider two of the twenty highest-grossing female-led action films: 1979's Alien starring Sigourney Weaver as Ripley and 2010's Salt starring Angelina Jolie as the title character. Ripley and Evelyn Salt are two very different and interesting characters that share an unusual trait: neither character was written for a woman.

When Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett wrote the early drafts of the script for Alien, the characters that comprised the crew were to be "unisex and all parts are interchangeable for men or women. Ripley's gender wasn't decided until Sigourney Weaver was cast in the role.

Gender is not a factor in Ripley's actions at all--even in scenes in which she's clad only in underwear and a t-shirt, Ripley's not played for sexuality. Issues of femininity never come up. The actions demanded by the situation are the beginning and end of Ripley's motivation.

And then there's Evelyn Salt.

As the story goes, Tom Cruise was approached to play the title role in Salt--Edwin W. Salt. Cruise, not wanting to play a role so similar to the one he played in the Mission: Impossible films, declined the part, and Edwin became Evelyn, a vehicle for Angeline Jolie, who had already seen some success with the Tomb Raider franchise. Rather than trying to rewrite the script with a female in mind, the minds behind the film changed the character's name and left almost everything else untouched. In fact, the only major change was removing the children that Edwin was written to have (which does give the message that a woman can be an action woman or a mom, but not both, and that's kind of crappy any way you look at it).

But a female action hero doesn't have to be portrayed with masculinity or without gender at all to be successful.

The top-earning female-led action film came out earlier this year, and set sales records for movies with a spring release.

The Hunger Games, the first movie in a trilogy based on the books by Suzanne Collins, was wildly successful. The second film in the series, Catching Fire, is already in production and looking towards a November 2013 release. Judging from the buzz about the movie online and the success of the book series, the second film will be just as popular. And this is with a female character that was written to be female. Katniss's gender, while never a focal point in the story, is not ignored. She dresses up (though, granted, it's not because she wants to), she thinks about boys--at least, when she's not focused on surviving, which isn't often, but her understanding of her more romantic emotions does play a part in her character development--she's a girl. She just happens to be a girl who can fight.

There are plenty of examples from other media--Buffy, Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel, the Abhorsen trilogy, Charmed, Warehouse 13, Lost Girl, and tons of female-led anime.

One of the most shining examples of strong, action women on television has been Avatar: The Last Airbender and it's follow-up/sister series, The Legend of Korra. Both of these series are among the most popular animated shows of all time, with fans of all ages and all genders. And these two shows have some of the greatest female characters on television.

 Okay, Pema may not actually fight much, but she's definitely a tough lady.

(And these are just the good guys.)

So, what's the secret, then? How can we get more characters like these?

It's in the writing, really, when all is said and done. In his essay "Why I Write 'Strong Female Characters,'" novelist and comic book writer Greg Rucka, says this about writing strong women:

Writers don't write Men or Women or Dogs or Salmon. Writers write characters, and at our best, if we do it well and with care and with thought, we invest in those characters a spark of life, a realism and nuance that makes them believable and relatable. We seek to craft characters who inspire empathy, characters our audience will care for, and as a result, will care about what happens to them, and thus will share the journey we have charted. A story, after all, is the character's journey. No character - no well-created character, at least - is defined by only one trait, by one aspect.
 That's why characters like Ripley, Katniss, Salt, Katara, Buffy, and so many others are so popular--it's the same reason why so many male characters are popular.

They're characters. They have flaws, passions, motives, and interests that make viewers and readers care about them.

So, how do you write a great female action character? It's like Greg Rucka says.

"The Quick Answer goes like this:
Q: How do you write such strong/well-realized/positively portrayed women?
A: I don't. I write characters. Some of those characters are women."

Saturday, November 10, 2012

TV Moms, Part Six: Aunt Bee: Wholesome and Homecooked Mom-In-Effect

If there's one thing that can be learned from television, it's that there is more than one way to portray a family.

And sometimes, in these television families, the mother is absent.

Single dads aren't rare on TV. Phillip Drummond from Diff'rent Strokes, Russell Lawrence from Gidget, and even Full House's Danny Tanner and Arrested Development's Michael Bluth have been part of the television single-father tradition.

But one of the most famous TV single dads, who appeared on CBS from October of 1960 to April of 1968, was the sheriff of a a small town called Mayberry and still runs in syndication over fifty years after its cancellation.

Widower Andy Taylor and his son, Opie, though they had lost their wife and mother respectively, were not without a mother figure, even before the series began.

 The first episode of The Andy Griffith Show had Andy's housekeeper, Rose, moving out to get married and Opie being reluctant to accept a new mother figure into their house and his life.

And the woman that is brought in (brought back in, in Andy's case) into the Taylor boys' lives is Beatrice Taylor, or, as Mayberry and American came to know her, Aunt Bee.

Frances Bavier's Aunt Bee was the never-married sister of Andy's father. Though it's never explored very deeply in the series, it is stated flat out that Bee raised Andy and implied that she had raised a few other Taylors, also, though she never married or had children of her own (another tidbit that is never really explored in the show).

Aunt Bee is a very interesting character to me, especially when considered through the scope of her time and in the context of the modern audiences exposed to the show.

When The Andy Griffith Show first aired in the early sixties, the social stigma for unmarried women and the fact that the Feminist Movement of the 1960s was still in its infancy limited what they could do--working as housekeepers and in other "pink-collar" (or traditionally female) jobs such as teaching and nursing. And a woman never having been married was rare enough (check this pdf if you're interested in detailed 1960s marriage statistics). Even though Aunt Bee was established as an unmarried woman, her romantic life played a fairly large part in her storylines in the show. Though her actual life track is unusual for a woman on television in that time, Aunt Bee is very much like the other television mothers of her time--working inside the home and in the community by way of her church and being responsible for the care and upbringing of a child. The only differences Aunt Bee and mothers like June Cleaver are that Bee isn't married, and she didn't give birth to Opie.

There's something very encouraging, I think, in the fact that even in what was a considerably more conservative time, the idea that there are many different kinds of mothers-- Aunt Bee didn't physically carry or give birth to Opie, but there's no denying that she is a mother to Opie. Today, more people are considering adoption that in the 1960s, and it's interesting to me that, even fifty years ago, there was a postivie role model for people that are parents that didn't give birth themselves.

Though there are many ways in which Aunt Bee is relatable to modern audiences, there are, of course, things about the character that date her. While Bee lives with her nephew Andy during the series and, after Andy marries Helen Crump at the end of the series, with another widowed father, Sam Jones as part of the exposition for the spin-off series, Mayberry, R.F.D, in 2012, more single women are choosing to live alone than ever before. And, while Aunt Bee worked mostly in the home (though later in the series she did open a restaurant and record a cooking show), more women are working outside the home now than then, juggling work and parenthood.

Mayberry may have been a simpler time and place on the whole, and The Andy Griffith Show certainly portrayed more conservative values than many television shows today, it's interesting to see the modern thinking that got slipped into the narrative by way of Aunt Bee's unique representation of motherhood.

In the coming weeks, we'll start taking a look at single mothers and blended families with Brett Butler's Grace Under Fire and one of television's most famous mother, Florence Henderson's Carol Brady.

Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Video Follow-Up

I imagine everyone's busy voting today (or, at least, I hope everyone is), so instead of a content-heavy post, I'm just going to share this follow-up to the costumes discussion from my Halloween post.

You can also find a link to this video in the comments section of that post.

In this video, we see how people react to a (staged) argument between a parent and child--first a mom and son and then a mom and daughter--about costume choices. In both cases, the child wants to wear a costume that is "gender inappropriate."

For me, watching this video was pretty frustrating at first, but there was a nice turnaround in the end. Though I still wish that at least one person had been on the boy's side.

Thanks to Mandy for sending me the link to the video.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Wonderful World of Lucasfilm?

I had planned on continuing the TV Moms series today with a look at the title character in Grace Under Fire.

But then Disney bought Lucasfilm for 4 billion dollars. And it seemed like I ought to touch on that.

(You might want to watch for spoilers. In some of my examples, I'll talk about the ending of series. All of them are a few years old, but better safe, I suppose.)

I've heard all sorts of panicked ideas--reboots, Disney/Star Wars crossovers. Star Wars has both a huge and devoted fanbase, and it was, understandably, in a frenzy after the announcement--especially when the words "episode seven" began being tossed about. (And that is happening, by the way, in 2015--with an Episode VIII to follow two years later, and an Episode IX two years after that. And possibly more after that.)

To be honest, this whole thing is sort of a mixed bag for me. I'm not particularly worried that Disney will bastardize the Star Wars universe: a similar worry was voiced when Disney acquired Marvel, and that marriage has done a lot of good for Marvel in media outside comics--Avengers was hugely successful, Earth's Mightiest Heroes was pretty excellent as far as animated series go, and pretty soon there's going to be a S.H.E.I.L.D. television show on ABC. Disney's goal for the past several years has been to bring their level of popularity among boys to the same level as their popularity among girls. They're not going to mess it up by injecting glitter where it ought not be.

The issues that I have with Disney taking over Lucasfilm as a whole and Star Wars specifically are less about changes to the brand than they are about over saturation, I guess.

First of all, do you know how much stuff Disney owns? ESPN, ABC, Disney Theatrical, Marvel, Lucasfilm, Hyperion Books--they own a lot. A lot. There's nothing wrong with Disney having their hands in so many pies, I suppose, but it does make me uneasy. As with anything, when only one voice or one take on things gets heard, only half the story gets told. I'm a fan of a lot of Disney products, but they have specific areas in which they're strong, and there are lots of great stories that don't fit in to those categories. With Disney owning so many channels and so many production companies, it's harder for stories that Disney may not see a place for to get out there--television shows and movies that could be worthwhile might not get made.

The other issue I have that kind of goes along with this is that Disney is out for money. And, I know, every company is out to make money. I don't necessarily fault Disney for being focused on profit--it's certainly served them well for decades.

But Disney has a tendency to do something that really frustrates me as a storyteller.

As long as a franchise is pulling in profit, Disney will keep it going. They're not the only group to do this (Shrek, anyone?), but three Cinderella movies, a Monsters, Inc. prequel, and four Tinkerbell movies (not counting the two Peter Pan animated films) prove that Disney's pretty bad about continuing a story just for the money.

That might be a good policy for business--if Disney's any indicator, it works very well--but it's terrible for stories. This is a big problem in a lot of American media. It's how so many shows wind up lasting long past their prime and movies winding up with sequel after after sequel even after audiences have stopped caring. After a certain point, stories and characters are left with nothing to explore. While many Potter fans would love to see another Harry Potter book, Harry's fulfilled his destiny and there's no more to his story. An eighth season of The West Wing wouldn't have worked, and, as much as I was a fan of Aang, Sokka, Katara, Zuko, and Toph in Avatar: the Last Airbender, their story really ended with the defeat of the Fire Lord. When a story is done, it ought to be left alone.

I might be alone in this, but I feel like the core group of Star Wars characters--the Skywalkers, for instance--have told their stories in full.  We really don't need another movie about them. There are still other parts of that universe worth looking at, but  after a certain point, more Star Wars movies is really just using the brand for the sake of using the brand.

In the end, I don't think Disney's acquisition of Lucasfilm is necessarily bad. It's just an interesting turn of events and, like any combination of companies or franchises, it could really go either way. I guess we'll see with Episode VII in 2015.