Monthly Archives: November 2016

But What About The Men???

I write a lot about women in fiction on this blog, to the point where I’ve had friends term it a feminist blog. But if you’ve ever wondered “jeez, Josh, you keep talking about women this and feminism that, what about the men!?”, well, this rant essay is for you.

One of the many things I like about (500) Days of Summer, is Tom. Not that he’s a particularly great guy or anything like that, but that with Tom we have a male protagonist who is allowed to be emotionally vulnerable. Misguided as he is, he’s afforded the latitude to be ecstatic and heartbroken with everything in the middle bearing shades of another. Put colloquially, Tom gets to feel the feels, and the movie doesn’t punish him for it.

See, fiction typically doesn’t give male characters emotional breadth. Think of just about any other romcom; sure, Matthew McConaughey and Patrick Dempsey get sad and have their epiphanies, but do the films explore those feelings to the extent that (500) Days of Summer does?

There’s a tendency in fiction (and it’s a tendency reflected from reality) for being emotional to be seen as feminine, and thus unsightly in a male character. There’s a a reason “man-up” is said to guys who are scared or weepy, and not when someone’s winning. After all, we all know real men don’t cry. There are of course the occasions for manly tears: sacrifice, like the titular soldier crying over what others sacrificed for him at the end of Saving Private Ryan; brotherhood, like Channing Tatum crying at his partner’s funeral in End of Watch; or good old dead loved ones, like Maximus’ breakdown in Gladiator. These are the moments when manly men, pushed over by grief and patriotic duty, cry manly tears. But heartbreak over a breakup? That usually gets us a scene like in That 70s Show, with Eric Foreman lying in bed after breaking up with Donna, his sorrow played for laughs. It’s funny because Eric’s not the manliest of men and here he is trying to enact a form of masculine sadness but is really just pathetic.

Compare that portrayal to (500) Days of Summer when we’re allowed to wallow with Tom while he deals with his breakup. We see the repeated dullness of Tom’s life and how life seems to have lost meaning. There are still some great gags, but we’re laughing with Tom out of commiseration, rather than laughing at him as we do Eric. The film’s commitment to exploring Tom’s feelings, oft accentuated by its stylized editing and use of voice over, means that we are firmly with him here. It’s not ‘manly’ – and it doesn’t have to be – but he’s far from pathetic.

It’s important here to clarify that unmanly tears do not mean emotional breadth. Cooper in Interstellar breaks down and weeps while going through the archived messages from his daughter, but it doesn’t affect him as a character. Cooper’s still gonna do what Cooper is gonna do: space stuff. Interstellar never explores his emotional state, he remains a stalwart explorer.

I cite as many examples as I can because it’s so prevalent else-wise. This is one of those things where the exception proves the rule.  Scott Pilgrim is such an offbeat romantic lead, what without his conviction and confidence and all that. Instead Scott Pilgrim vs The World devotes much of its runtime to dealing with Scott’s issues and baggage, affirming that those are important things, even if you’re a guy. But Scott Pilgrim is in many ways a deconstruction, as is (500) Days of Summer. These movies take the romantic comedy and play with it, in the process giving us male characters who are allowed to feel the feels. Starting to see how atypical this is?

Men, of course, feel (Duh). But it goes against typical societal norms to explore or display those feelings, especially if they’re really feel-y. Why? Cuz gender roles and the patriarchy cut both ways. The same force that prescribes women to be passive supporters also insists that men be unfeeling bastions. Aaaand yep, here’s my twist: this is actually another rant essay on feminism. The same criticism that asks “Hey, why can’t we let a woman be the everyman?” is the same one that says “Hey, why do men always have to be unfeeling?”. So yeah, let’s see more Tom Hansens in fiction, though preferably ones who are less awful humans. And that’s what’s about the men.

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An Asian American Superhero

I wasn’t sure how I felt about Silk when she first showed up in the Spider-Man comics, but it was when she got her own series – and a narrative no longer intrinsically tied to Peter Parker – that she really came into her own.

But on the on the one hand, yeah, another webslinging spider-themed hero? We’ve already got a lot with Peter Parker, Miles Morales, Gwen Stacy, and Miguel O’Hara in books of their own; do we need one more? The thing is, Silk brings with it – like each of the other spider books – a unique story and character.

Obviously, there’s Silk/Cindy Moon herself. One of the things that hooked me into the book is something somewhat shallow, but terribly important: Cindy is Korean-American. Yes, I know, I’m ranting about diversity again. But listen. There are precious few Asian superheroes, even less so with their own books. There will always be a thrill in getting to see someone who looks like you represented.

But Cindy’s Asian-ness isn’t just a lip service done through line art and surname, the story in Silk features distinctly Asian elements.

So quick recap, Cindy got bitten by the same spider that gave Peter Parker his powers, but due to some bad news involving spider-killing vampiric Inheritors (it makes sense in context), Cindy was locked alone in a bunker until the threat was over. Released early, Cindy is looking for her family who have disappeared during the years she was away.

Still with me? Now here’s the thing, the decision to lock Cindy away is not a malevolent one, in fact Silk does great work to ensure that while we know it’s a really sucky situation, it was one done out of love. As Cindy follows the trail of her parents, she finds that they never stopped trying to find a way to cure her and protect her from the Inheritors. When Cindy finally finds her parents – after traveling to the Negative Zone, teaming up with a dragon named David Wilcox, and discovering her mother is the badass, undead slaying Red Knight – it’s a happy, heartfelt reunion.

Never along the way does Cindy ever think that finding her parents isn’t worth it. She’s posed as a villain for Shield and takes a job at J. Jonah Jameson’s Fact Channel, all in an effort to discover what happened to her parents. The central theme of the arc, one espoused firmly by Cindy, is family first. It’s a story of unquestioning filial piety, one that is returned in kind by Cindy’s parents. Now, family loyalty is by no means a uniquely Asian thing, but Silk‘s emphasis on it allows the book to strike a wonderful narrative balance between an Eastern focus on community and the self-determinism more prevalent in Western narratives. Are you beginning to see why I keep harping on diversity being important?

That said, Cindy doesn’t live a merry angst-free life. Her time in the bunker did a number on her, and so Cindy seeks counseling. Her sessions often provide narration for her adventures as she confides in her therapist, which is a fun narrative tool in itself, but the portrayal of therapy as being something both normal and healthy stands out as special in comics. It’s not a sign of weakness, but rather a way for Cindy to work out anger issues and the newfound stress of getting used to a modern life (and being a superhero). It’s a profound addition that subtly destigmatizes getting help while allowing space in Cindy’s life to focus on her family without too much angst.

You know what’s coming next: This is why diversity in fiction is important. Sure, you could have had the looking-for-family narrative with anyone, but by attaching it to a Korean-American family you instill it with a little more weight and offer a representation of a different way of looking at the world. Silk is a wonderful book because it does all that and tells a plain good story while it’s at it.

Man, ain’t diversity grand?

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Of Stories and Hope

I’ve never been a huge fan of tragedies. Don’t get me wrong, I love stories like Othello, Whiplash, and Sicario; but those aren’t the ones I count my favorite stories.

I sometimes joke that I tell hopeful stories because if I want stories of injustice and despair, I can just read the news. I skim headlines and it’s not hard to see Othello and Chinatown being reenacted in current events. There is, of course, a greatness to using tragedy to comment on the human condition and all that. But sometimes, you need more. As a kid bullied at school for being different, I would find solace in fantastical worlds where, well, things were different.

Having just narrowly avoided a deadly encounter with a Nazgûl, Frodo sits amongst the ruins of Osgiliath devoid of hope; the Ring he seeks to destroy has been taking its toll; nothing makes sense anymore, let alone his quest. But Sam, his erstwhile gardener turned companion, rallies the hobbit: “It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered” (The Two Towers, 03:21). When things got bleak and everything seemed lost, the heroes pressed on no matter what. These stories were the ones of importance, “Those were the stories that stayed with you, that meant something, even if you were too small to understand why” (03:22).

That’s how I opened my rationale (a thesis of sorts wherein I describe the focus of my four years of study at NYU Gallatin). Which, if you read my blog, recounting a scene from The Lord of The Rings in the first paragraph of my thesis really shouldn’t surprise you. I then go on to yammer on for the next several pages about the importance of stories as a means to define identity and convey truths. And something that stories can convey like no other is hope. They’re where we get to watch good triumph over evil and see hope win. It’s the total catharsis that Aristotle talks about in Poetics, or the ultimate boon of John Campbell. It’s that win, that “we did it!”

So why do those moments work? Why is Frodo and Sam preserving – and eventually overcoming Sauron – so powerful?

We know things by their opposite. Joy means nothing if we don’t know despair. In fiction, the bleaker things seem, the greater the catharsis of victory will be. Heck, Sam says it right there in his monologue, “when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer.”  The plot of The Lord of The Rings is a literal journey into darkness, with Frodo and Sam trekking into Mordor while Aragorn and the others face off an overwhelming army. Things couldn’t really look bleaker. There’s a reason Luke Skywalker only destroys the Death Star when it’s about to blow up Yavin IV: it’s the bleakest moment. The Return of The Jedi illustrates it even better; Luke’s decision to throw away his lightsaber and turn down the dark side doesn’t come when Palpatine is taunting him, it comes after he attempted to attack the Emperor and went on to give into his anger during his fight against Darth Vader. Luke’s rejection of evil only comes after we’ve seen him travel down that path, making it all the more powerful.

I think that may be one reason why The Empire Strikes Back stands as arguably the best Star Wars film. We end the movie with Han in carbonite, Luke missing a hand, and the revelation that Vader is Luke’s father. But then Luke gets a new hand, a reformed Lando flies off with Chewbacca to find Han, and we see Luke and Leia standing in the medical bay of a Nebulon-B Frigate that’s just one ship in the Rebel fleet. As bleak as an ending is, there’s hope. We know that this isn’t the end for them, we know they’ll keep going because they’re holding on to something.

I love stories. I really do. I love how they make Sam’s beautiful monologue in The Two Towers feel perfectly natural and earned. I love how these other worlds — because every piece of fiction, no matter how realistic, takes place in another world — show us things about our own. I yearn for stories imbued with hope because, against it all, that’s how I want to see the world: one where hope and love will triumph. There is a time and place for tragedy, but there are days when you need to be reminded that there is good in this world, and it’s worth fighting for.

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Wise Old Masters

I have a very clear memory of being ten or eleven and watching Cartoon Network. I didn’t have cable growing up, so this was at a hotel or someone else’s place. I’d left Singapore and was in that whole growing-up-on-a-ship phase of my life.

Anyway.

Johnny Bravo was on, and for some reason or other the titular character had to learn some martial art or another. So he goes to a dojo, meets the guy, and asks him to teach him “the secrets of the East.”

This took me aback. That was their takeaway? Not, y’know, the whole modern metropolis thing or the food or anything; the old Asian guy teaching some martial art or another was their view of ‘The East’? Also, the heck is up with calling it ‘the East’?

I suppose it’s kind of special to be able to pinpoint your first conscious encounter with systemic racism (special in the way that it’s special you remember what class you failed in High School), but it is certainly something amusing to be aware of. Because, wouldn’t you know it, that is one of the prevailing images of East Asians in popular culture: the wise old master ready to teach you some oriental martial art.

And I suppose that’s one reason why I wasn’t bothered by Tilda Swinton being cast as The Ancient One in Doctor Strange. It’s not just because it adds another woman to male-heavy cast in a male-heavy franchise, but it’s because it moves away from a particular stereotype.

Now, would it have been great to have an Asian actor cast as The Ancient One? Sure. But I’m sick of Asians having to fit into a few prescribed roles (wise old master, funny foreigner, engineer/doctor/smart person). There are these places where stories tend to default to having an Asian character, not unlike how the default everyman is a white dude. The wise old master is so ingrained into the popular consciousness that one of the funnest turns in Batman Begins is that Ken Watanabe isn’t Ra’s al Ghul, but is actually Liam Neeson (uh, eleven year-old spoiler, I guess).

The problem at hand is only letting people be a certain thing. If the only time/only way we let an Asian character be of importance is by making them a wise old master/funny foreigner/smart person, it perpetuates the idea that that’s all they/we are. It’s the same thing as the whole all-Asians-are-martial-artists thing where that is the only thing worth knowing about Asian countries. It’s why I celebrate Crazy Ex-Girlfriend for making an Asian character idiot bro. There is definitely a discussion to be had here about people and roles, but, again, I’m plenty happy with Tilda Swinton in the role, especially because she does such a great job at it. And hey, how often do we get to see women be the wise old masters?

I’m not so sure I’d call it white-washing either. I’m not terribly familiar with Doctor Strange’s backstory in the comics, but there’s little about The Ancient One that seems Asian outside of the, y’know, old master on a mountain top. His race (or gender, for that matter) isn’t too tied to the material: this isn’t kung-fu or karate (s)he’s teaching, it’s magic. Not Chinese magic; magic magic. I understand the problematic nature of taking a character who’s a minority in the source material and making them white in the adaptation, but there’s also the excision of a particularly frustrating stereotype from a narrative at play here. It’s not a simple one-or-the-other predicament, it’s a nuanced, messy situation. One that requires dialogue, not dogma.

Besides, Doctor Strange does decent in diversity elsewhere, with Benedict Wong’s Wong being a particularly enjoyable one-note supporting character (and the source of some of the best gags). Plus, the other sorcerer-students and doctors in the background are noticeably diverse, and the movie is one of few to feature a villain with henchwomen. It doesn’t mean it’s enough, but a cast photo that looks like this is a step in the right direction.

Now, there is room for discussion here and for me to be wrong – there always is. I suppose I’m just happy to see a wise old master that, well, isn’t an Asian guy with a long beard.

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