Letting Different People Be Different

One of the many (many, many) things I love about Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is that the hunky guy Rebecca is pining for is an Asian guy (named Josh, but that parts not important right now). It’s incredibly refreshing — when was the last time you saw an Asian male as a romantic lead, let alone an object of sexual desire by a white woman in fiction? But that leads me to another one of the things I love about the show: it’s not a big deal. No one cares that Josh’s Asian. Even when Rebecca has Thanksgiving with him and his Filipino family, there’s none of that usual other-ing that happens when you see character entering into a space that’s foreign to them. That’s also great.

But part-and-parcel of Josh’s Asian-ness being a non-issue is that he gets to take on a character archetype Asians never get to have — he’s a bro! He’s an idiot. A lovable idiot, yes, but an idiot still. Why’s this matter? ‘cuz when you have an Asian guy in fiction, chances on he’s going to be the smart guy or the dork or, y’know, both. There’s a very specific space in fiction that Asian characters are allowed to inhabit, and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend throws that to the wind. It goes on: a middle-aged man is bisexual, the professional psychiatrist is a black woman, the underachieving stoner next door is a brown girl.

I saw The Magnificent Seven this week (#AsianCowboy) and though it’s a flawed movie, it’s still terrifically entertaining and, on another level, absolutely wonderful. The latter of which I’m blaming on how it handles its diverse cast. Race is hardly touched on in the film, which, y’know it doesn’t have to. But instead every member of the titular seven gets to be a rough-and-tumble jackass of a cowboy. Billy Rocks the #AsianCowboy goes toe-to-toe with the Mexican and Chris Pratt, while Red Harvest the Native American makes fun of their food. Every character gets to give as good as they get. There’s no token minority put on a pedestal, everyone has an edge.

Which applies to the action bits too; everyone gets to have their cool bits, with Billy Rocks winning a shootout and throwing knives while saving Ethan Hawke. He’s not the Asian journeyman on a mission, he’s a cowboy (with a knife speciality). Again, this is an Asian character in a role usually off-limits to people that look like him (or, well, me) getting to do things associated with the role that usually doesn’t happen. This doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with, say, Shanghai Noon, where Jackie Chan plays an Imperial Guard on a mission in the old west who’s more martial artist than cowboy. The problem comes when every single narrative about an Asian in that time period is that narrative. So getting to see an Asian character be the quintessential American cowboy — dude, that’s dope.

When Alan Yang won an Emmy for an episode of Master of None, he gave a great speech pointing out how despite there being the same number of Italian- and Asia-Americans in the US. the former group has some of the most celebrated stories in fiction, while Asians have, well, Long Duk Dong of Sixteen Candles. The narrative of Asian-ness is shockingly limited, despite how long they/we’ve been a part of Western culture. In other words: the roles Asians are allowed in fiction is usually one of a handful of archetypes. Diversity and inclusion means changing that, means letting Asians be the dumb bro or the badass cowboy, means letting the lead of a tv show about being in your 30’s be an Indian guy, it means letting you ragtag band of space rebels have Asian actors, it means making your superhero a first-generation Pakistani immigrant or a half-Asian kid. Let different people be a part of different narratives.

Of course, this is a selfish want — I wanna see more people who look like me in fiction doing everything. But then, don’t you wanna see more people who look like yourself in fiction?

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Do Spoilers Spoil?

Darth Vader has Luke Skywalker on the ropes, cornered, defenseless, and missing a hand. But rather than killing the Rebel, Vader offers for Luke to join him. Luke refuses. Undeterred, Vader throws doubt on those Luke trusts and utters one of the most famous lines in cinema:

“No, I am your father.”

It’s shattering, throwing everything Luke knows into disarray. But Luke doesn’t join Vader, choosing instead to cast himself into the abyss below.

Also, that scene’s a big honking spoiler. It upends everything we, as viewers, have been told thus far, paints Obi Wan as a liar, and Yoda one by omission. It also profoundly effects Luke and colors his motivations throughout all of the next movie. Big twist, big development, so, y’know, spoiler.

But do we call Han getting frozen in carbonite a spoiler too? I mean, he’s basically becoming mostly dead and that plot point necessitates the first act of Jedi and is partially responsible for the downbeat Emprie ends on. So why isn’t that the big spoiler? It’s not as catchy as the Vader quote, no, but isn’t it at least as big?

Which makes me wonder, why do we call spoilers spoilers? Now, I’m not talking about people who go around trying to find everything out about a movie before it happens. I mean more the idea that finding something out ruins a story for good.

‘cuz I knew a lot of of the big spoilers for Game of Thrones going in. I knew Ned died. I found out about Robb’s death by accident. A friend of mine unintentionally spoiled another couple deaths. But it didn’t make any of the moments any less dramatic. Or even less shocking, since the impact still hits in a big way. Because you’re not really watching Game of Thrones to see who dies, but rather for the how of it. “Ned dies” is uninteresting, but “Ned dies as a show of force by new king Joffrey to prove himself” has kick. The why and how of it is more interesting that the what. If you know Robb’s gonna die, you keep wondering what it is that’s gonna do him in at the end. And when it really comes, that’s the whammy.

Nothing really beats the impact of, say, Han’s death in The Force Awakens when you first see it not knowing it’s coming. But watching it again let’s you appreciate the finesse of it all the more. When you’re less concerned about having to pay attention to every what of the story, you look more for the bits of set up and pay off. But don’t just take my word for it, it’s an actual fact. It doesn’t ruin the story, so to speak. Instead it changes the approach of the narrative.

But for turns like that, even if we know that Vader is Luke’s father and Ned dies, the characters don’t. It’s a beautiful dose of dramatic irony that heightens the tension in its own way because you wanna see how they’ll react to it. How is Obi Wan gonna react to Qui Gon’s death? One of the reasons “I am your father” is such a magnificent twist is because of the effect it has on Luke as a character. Watching his response – throwing himself into the pits of Cloud City – is a thrill born out of character. The story still has a hold even if you know what’s coming.

See, that’s the thing: a good story doesn’t revolve around That Twist. Empire still works knowing that Vader is Luke’s father. You lack the shock, but it’s no less compelling; you still want to see how we get to that point. A good story shouldn’t rely on one plot point being the big twist. The Prestige still works when you know what’s coming because the process of reaching that reveal is so well done. Watching characters make the choices that takes them to the ending you know has an allure itself.

All this said, I don’t like being spoiled. I swore off the internet after the Lost finale aired so it wouldn’t be spoiled before I could watch it. But watching the series again, it is no less powerful because the catharsis works just as well. Fiction – good fiction – isn’t consumed to find things out; it’s to feel. If a spoiler really ruins the story completely, than it probably wasn’t that good a story in the first place.

If this feels inconclusive, it’s because I’m still thinking about it all. Did knowing that Charlie died in Lost affect how I watched the show? Did knowing Kreia was the villain affect the choices I made while playing Knights of The Old Republic II? There’re more rants here for other days.

That said. Don’t tell me how Rogue One ends.

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#AsianCowboy

I was vaguely aware of the casting for the new Magnificent Seven when it was first announced, but more so for the fact that it reminded me that I really needed to watch The Seven Samurai (which I still haven’t…)

Anyway, since then trailers for the new Magnificent Seven have been released and there’s been a little bit of buzz around it and reviews have been coming out. What’s most caught my attention — and what makes me really wanna see it — is actor Byung-hun Lee as one of the seven. Now, this is a Western. Set in the mythical Wild West. Y’know, Americana incarnate. But there’s an Asian cowboy.

Now, of course, this excites me. Like basically everyone I grew up aware of the mythos of the Wild West, with cowboys and train robberies and all that stuff. So it’s exciting to see someone who looks kinda like me (he’s Korean, I’m half-Chinese, I’ll take it) being apart of it is really cool.

And I’m a sucker for multinational teams so seeing the seven cowboys include Denzel Washington, a Mexican, and a Native American is really cool. That and it makes total sense.

Let’s set aside for a moment the fact that in ‘reality’ cowboys and cattle hands weren’t as white as we’d expect. It’s easy to take the Western as being historical (it’s like a period piece, but with guns and horses!), and historical pieces tend to be very white because not being white in places when/where most historical dramas take place isn’t always a good thing.

But this is fiction.

I think it’s easy to enter into the idea of something being ‘unrealistic’ and it ruining the story. If we’re willing to believe that Tom Cruise is the last samurai, why can’t we believe there was a ragtag multinational team of cowboys? The same rule of “why not?” that applies to science fiction or contemporary stories can also apply to stories that take place before. Sure it was surprising in Season One of Agent Carter to see a black man the owner of a club in 1940s America, but we bought it and the story didn’t suffer for it. Having Zoe Saldana as Anamaria in the first Pirates of The Caribbean worked. Sure, she didn’t get to do too much but she still was a fun character who should’ve shown up in the sequels. These are worlds of cowboys, spies, and pirates; why not throw in some diversity?

Granted, it gets trickier with more serious, more properly historical stories. It’s hard to tell a factual story about the American Revolution with a diverse cast. But, then again, that’s what Hamilton did, so, y’know, there’s that.

Really, it all comes down to telling different stories, and telling more. By including people usually underrepresented in these narratives, The Magnificent Seven is offering a space at the table to more people. Like how The Force Awakens and Rogue One change the criteria for who gets to be a hero in Star Wars, so does this, in however a small way, for westerns.

So, yeah, at the end of the day I’m gonna go see The Magnificent Seven. Because there’s an Asian cowboy.

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To Tell The Truth

How do you tell the truth? Saying “Alice and Bob broke up” may be what happened, but is it the truth of it all? Breakups are messy business; did Alice break up with Bob or Bob break up with Alice? Did Bob break up with Alice for Charlie? Suddenly there’s a narrative attached to the happening, which in turn colors our perception of what happened. It may be less accurate, but it could be closer to the truth. Maybe the truth is Bob feels like his heart’s been ripped out. But there’s gotta be a better way to say it.

Enter fiction. And writing in general, actually, since trying to capture that elusive truth is one of the things poetry does so well. When Matthew Dickman describes the act of a dance in “Slow Dance” as “The my body // is talking to your body slow dance” it’s decidedly not factual (bodies, um, don’t talk). Heck, it’s not even strictly grammatically correct. But, what it does do – along with the rest of the poem – is describe the truth of that dance “with really exquisite strangers.” Throughout “Slow Dance” Dickman invites you into a space where he paints a picture of all those thoughts and feelings that accompany dancing with someone. He’s crafting an experience for you to be a part of, letting you know how it feels to be there. The truth of it all.

It really is poetry’s modus operandi, that, sharing a truth. For all the silliness of Lewis Carrol’s “Jaberwocky,” it vividly places you where it was brillig; in “False Security,” Sir John Betjeman makes you feel like a child again, where going to someone else’s house at night is an adventurous quest in and of itself. It’s not enough to tell you what’s happening, it’s about telling you the truth of what happened.

But poetry does it through image-heavy words, how do you show it? Take a look at musical Fun Home, which I recently saw before it closed (thank you, Nathan). Towards the end the narrator, Alison Bechdel, expresses how she wants so badly to remember how things were doing a pivotal point in her youth, but how does memories fade quicker than she can remember them. The play illustrates it beautifully, with the furniture that’s made up the set of her home (where her memories have played out) receding into the stage as she chases after them just moments too late. Again, not ‘realistic,’ but heartbreakingly true. How better to communicate the realness of memories fading away? It works.

Which brings me to Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, because a lot of my thoughts and ramblings have been pointing towards that show lately. The show’s musical numbers are largely born out of a heightened emotional state, be it feeling excluded at a group hang or the stress of a parent coming to visit. These songs sometimes serve as a culmination of a sequence and let us into the singer’s mind. A striking example is the song “You Stupid Bitch,” wherein Rebecca finds herself at one of her lowest points — everything she’s been striving for has blown up in her face. So she sings this song rife with self-loathing, this incredibly harsh, unflinchingly brutal song — a song that she has the imaginary crowd join in on. Now, in the real world, people don’t get a musical number when their depression closes in on them. But, that feeling of despair with a crowd in your head singing your ills is absolutely true.

I talk a lot about how fiction’s all a lie. But it’s a lie that tells the truth. Because sometimes the lie of fiction tells the truth better than a factual account. Least that’s the best way to explain Bob’s really sad poetry about the breakup.

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Visible Diversity

So I recently started Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Finally, I should say; you’d think with a Marc Webb directed pilot I’d have watched it sooner. Anyway, once you get past the somewhat off-putting title (which, as the theme song says, is a sexist term and the situation is a lot more nuanced than that), Crazy Ex is a lotta fun. It’s a musical equal parts cynical and idealistic set in a relatively mundane setting where no matter how outlandish it gets, the character relations stay heartfelt. It’s great.

But that’s not what this post’s about.

Look in the backgrounds of a scene in Crazy Ex or the backup singers and dancers in a musical number. It looks unlike a lot of what you usually see on tv, and not just because of the singing and dancing. Crazy Ex has made an effort to fill its background with people of all colors. Not just one person-of-color in the background, but a variety of folks who you don’t usually get to see on tv (or in media in general). I mean, c’mon! When was the last time you got to see an Asian guy as part of a musical number! Where he wasn’t the token background person of color? Since there’s, y’know, a few other non-white people populating the scene?

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has been remarkable at filling out its cast – both main and bit players! — with people who aren’t white. The person protagonist Rachel obsesses over is an Asian guy named Josh (*cough*). The Major Client she has to land for her law firm is black, some of the peopler competing in the guac competition at the Taco Festival are Latino. And the people at that Taco Festival also run the racial spectrum.

Am I making a big deal about a small thing? Yes. Because it’s a small thing worth making a big deal about.

It’s easy, all so easy to fill out a scene with a bunch of white people peppered with the occasional sprig of diversity. But what Crazy Ex does that’s so cool is take that diversity and ratchet it up several notches, and then make those sprigs of diversity visible. You don’t have to squint to find your background minority.

Star Trek Beyond did something similar. Not only is the background crew of the Enterprise noticeably more diverse, but, once again, the featured people in the background aren’t all white. The crew members we see disappear into a cabin while making out are an Asian guy and a white woman (*cough*); the woman we follow as the bridge is evacuated is an Indian woman. Heck, the leader of the super high tech space station, Commodore Paris, is played by Shohrer Aghdashloo who was in The Expanse. She’s the person who tells Kirk, what to do, by the way; and that’s great.

And this is the part where I have to mention Rogue One. Because, again, diversity! Heroes! Chinese actors! A Middle Eastern actor is the pilot! Diego Luna! Forest Whitaker! But! But but but! It’s also the small stuff in the background. The Rebel troops we see in the trailer are racially diverse (and the LEGO AT-ST set coming out features a black guy as the generic rebel trooper). Again, these are small details that give the world a fuller feel.

And it’s friggin’ important. Because this is fiction, and fiction reflects reality, and reality is remarkably diverse. White-as-default isn’t gonna fly anymore. Yes, I have a personal investment in this because, growing up, I didn’t see a lot of heroes who looked like me. Over the years I’ve gotten used to turning on the tv or sitting down in a theatre and not expecting to see myself represented (or represented as anyone other than The Other). Yeah, I try and fix that in my own stuff, even if it’s just a student film.

But.

It’s changing.

Star Trek Beyond firmly proved that Sulu wasn’t the only Asian on the Enterprise and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is inclusive as crap in who gets to be in its musical numbers and who gets to be  multi-faceted people on tv. And Rogue One, well, I’ve already ranted about that.

If this is the sign of fiction-to-come, I can’t wait.

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You Should Be Reading Mockingbird

There’s a lot to like about the new Mockingbird ongoing title from Marvel. For starters, it’s the next step in a really spiffy new direction Marvel’s been taking with their comics lately: diversity. In the past year-or-so, Marvel’s really stepped up their game with who’s in their comics. You’ve got Asian characters headlining their own series (Totally Awesome Hulk, and the fantastic-and-severely-under-appreciated Silk), and Spider-Man and Captain America are black. Spider-Woman and Spider-Gwen have their own books, along with Black Widow, Squirrel Girl, and Moon Girl. Then there’s the new-mainstays of Captain Marvel and Ms Marvel… Point is, Marvel’s got a pretty diverse character lineup for their books.

It also helps that that diversity extends behind the books too. Ms Marvel is written by G. Willow Wilson, herself a Muslim, and so is lent an extra couple layers of delightful texture. Ta-Nehisi Coates lends a special sense of identity not only to T’challa in Black Panther but to all of Wakanda, one that’s science-fictiony and fantastical, but doesn’t necessarily subscribe to a Western/white image of the future. It’s wonderfully different, and, in a word, dope. There are a few titles, Patsy Walker, AKA Hellcat! and Mockingbird being two, that have all-women creative teams working on them.

Which brings me to Mockingbird.

Like I said in the first sentence (before I got distracted by diversity), there’s a lot to like about the comic. First off, is the character of Mockingbird herself. The first issue is light on actual plot (rather, it tantalizes what’s to come) and instead focuses on setting up who exactly Bobbi Morse is. It helps that the comic is very much told from Bobbi’s point of view, with little boxes of narration peppering the action. From that, we’re afforded a window into Bobbi’s inner life and how she filters the world she sees through her identity. It doesn’t take long for us to get a handle on who she is: super-spy scientist who knows what she’s doing and has little patience for those who don’t.

Also, her background as a scientist affects her decisions and thought processes. She isn’t just a by-the-way scientist, it’s part of who she is. This is actually something Mockingbird does really well: Bobbi’s various identities (woman, scientist, spy, Hawkeye’s ex-wife) are all worked intrinsically into her. Bobbi feels fully formed and fully herself, a rounded character with a shaded personality that can go different ways. Which is really cool, guys!

That alone would make Mockingbird a perfectly enjoyable book, but it doesn’t stop there. As becomes steadily more and more obvious as the series progresses, Mockingbird had a decidedly feminist bent. Take issue two, which has Bobbi Morse going undercover in the London Hellfire Club to rescue Lance Hunter. Now, the Hellfire Club is the sorta place that necessitates a scantily-clad outfit to blend in. But, but but but, the art never ogles Bobbi, or makes her out to be anything except in a position of power, fishnets and spiked leather boots be damned. Lance, on the other hand, is distinctly made out to be both hopeless and an object of desire. Also: He’s wearing much less than she is. It’s this sort of wonderful subversion of what’s become accepted as normal in comic books that gives Mockingbird such a strong sense of voice and personality.  That Bobbi-saving-a-male-hero is something of a trope for the book at this point (in #4 she rescues a swimsuit-clad Hawkeye) is icing on the cake.

But! Mockingbird isn’t content to just subvert and usual and call it a day. It goes further. The third issue finds Bobbi acting as hostage negotiator to a sixth-grade girl with superpowers she doesn’t understand. It’s a neat little story in and of itself, but the conceit of scary superpowers is used as a cipher for not being understood as a girl growing up. Oh, it’s made perfectly clear within the text, what with Bobbi’s narration asking “How can we have a meaningful dialogue with adolescent girls when we live in a culture that still can’t talk about tampons?” and tv news tickers describing the powered girl as “hysterical” and an “attention-seeking tween.” Here’s a mainstream, Marvel comic book — a medium usually associated with young males — talking about and trying to understand what it’s like growing up as a girl. It’s delightful and validating in a way that you don’t usually see in comics. Or a lot of movies, for that matter.

I really like comics in general (I had one on my thesis/rationale at college!), both for pulpy fun and for some plain good storytelling. But every now and then something like Mockingbird comes along, which not only tells a great story but says something as well — and merges the two together effortlessly. It’s a fantastic series and, without question, my favorite book Marvel’s putting out right now.

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Zombieland: A Treatise on Life in a Post-Consumer Society

I mentioned it as a joke last week, but this week we’re going for it.

I’m so sorry.

Zombies have long been used as a means to comment on the perils of consumerism. Mindless hordes doing things without thinking for the few capable of independent thought to stand up against. Zombieland takes the conceit one step further, within the film self actualization is only possible in a world free of the shackles of traditional consumerism.

Much of the conflict in Zombieland takes place in the ruins of grocery stores, downtown areas, and, climatically, a theme park. The main characters too exist outside of the established economy; Columbus and Tallahassee loot and rob cars in the post-apocalyptic wasteland (the titular Zombieland) and before the outbreak Wichita and Little Rock were con artists, stealing rather than working jobs. But it’s now that they’re no longer part of a consumerist society that they are able to really come in to their own.

When Columbus and Tallahassee meet up with Wichita and Little Rock there is a great deal of distrust. Distrust that is primarily due to them fighting over guns and a car, of which there are not too many. Their strife is born of competition over limited resources — the backbone of a consumerist society. It’s because they’re holding on to one of the principle tenants of a pre-Zombieland world that they fight; as long as they live by the rules of consumerism they won’t be able to truly develop a friendship.

If one of the central themes of Zombieland is that people need other people — it is after all a movie where survivors come to realize they’re stronger together than separate — then that true friendship is only possible when they no longer subscribe to traditional views of consumerist culture. This is made clear when they finally do become friends. It’s not when they’re fighting a horde of zombies together, this is far from a battle-forged friendship. Rather, they only truly bond when they utterly destroy a gift shop together. Unlike many of the other locations visited by the survivors, this gift shop is in immaculate condition. All the gaudy trinkets and shiny rocks are still on the shelves, nothing’s out of place, even after Tallahassee dispatches of the lone zombie in the shop.

It’s in this place that Columbus first stands up to Tallahassee, a significant character moment as it shows him beginning to come into his own. Immediately after that character moment, however, he knocks something over by accident. Then another deliberately. The others join in and a montage of them destroying the stores contents ensues. It’s a blithely irreverent destruction of private property and also a rejection of the need for silly tchotchkes that have worth just because they’re supposed to. The act of destruction unites them and marks a shift for the characters bonding and sets them on the path to self-actualization.

According to Zombieland, it is in this post-consumer landscape that real relationships can thrive. Where before Columbus only knew his neighbor by her apartment number, now he has people he trusts — and he learns Wichita’s real name too. Wichita and Little Rock put aside their grifting ways and Tallahassee finds space in his vengeful anti-zombie agenda to care for other people. All they needed was to be free of the consumerism.

Writer’s Note:

There! Did it! It’s a little half-baked and there are some ideas that could be explored more (in the climax Wichita and Little Rock are stranded in an amusement park ride, trapped by their want for the vestige of consumerism that is Pacific Playland; Tallahassee wants a Twinkie which he only gets after he’s learned to be content with other people and not need something mass-produced), but, hey, this was more for fun/to prove a point than anything.

Also I’m so sick of the word ‘consumer.’ 

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