Tag Archives: narratives

Normalizing The Different

It’s easy to dislike folks you don’t know. They’re different. They look weird. You have no horse in their race. They’re those people. The Unknowable Other.

But it’s hard to keep up this mindset, that of the Them, the Other, after you’ve met said other. When you take the time to recognize them as a person, put a face to that Other, it’s much harder to not like them. Suddenly, they become an Us, rather than Them.

Meeting people, however, is hard. Especially people outside our relatively well-defined social spheres. Small towns are small, countries have borders, there’s a limit to the people you see every day.

Enter literature. Books. Movies. Video games. Comics. Anything that tells a story.

Stories are about people of some sort. And there’s no reason they have to be about someone like you.

Take Ms. Marvel. It’s a superhero comic about Kamala Khan, a first generation Pakistani-American immigrant who fights bad guys. Amidst all the crime stopping, we get a peek into Kamala’s home life. She’s balancing high school, friends, family, and faith. She struggled with heartbreak, talks to her imam for advice, and breaks curfew. Her story is new, but at the same time familiar.

But then, when we see stories about her move to the US; and in her first day at school and get a snapshot of her first day of school; I see my own experiences as someone who moved to the US is given weight, acknowledged, and affirmed. It’s normal to be different, the book says. I’m not the only oddball, my weirdness is shared. It’s the story of someone moving to the US, maybe it’s your grandparents, maybe it’s you, maybe you were just the weird kid in high school. It may not have been your experience directly, but it’s translatable.

We live in a world of narratives, we interpret the world as a story. Normal is a narrative. Weird is a narrative. Us and Them is a narrative. When we have one narrative dominating – the ‘all-American hero’, who is coincidentally typically white, male, and straight is the default and the most normal – anything that deviates is by default outside of the norm. Kamala is Other. I, a biracial Asian-American immigrant am Other.

That is a narrative of import to me, of course. Which is not to discount stories about other people. Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing makes the African Diaspora immediately personal. It’s easy to learn about it from a textbook and think about it in dictionary terms, but when given a face, it becomes more than that. The concept, one that I have the privilege to not have to think about, becomes unavoidable as I read about people – persons with names – who went through this. I hear stories about the people who went through it, who have made their lives in the aftermath.

And so the narrative can change; now Those People who I only knew about in the abstract become individuals with their own stories; recognizably human

Stories are important. Stories let us explore other people’s experiences. Stories let us see each other as we see ourselves. Stories make the foreign recognizable. Stories take Them, and make them Us.

It’s hard to dislike people once you’ve met them, once you’ve walked a mile in their shoes. Good stories let us in to other people’s lives. Ms. Marvel offers a narrative where the Pakistani-American girl is just like everyone else, Homegoing gives a voice to people you hear about. Alongside all this, they lend weight to experiences, say that, hey, your experiences are valid. Your life is worthwhile.

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On Deconstruction, Reconstruction, and Also Batman

A deconstruction takes something apart. Shrek shows how weird fairy tales are by pitting the story from the point of view of an ogre. Suddenly the princess promising herself to whoever rescues her is especially bizarre, as is the idea of there always being a noble prince. The point of a deconstruction is usually to display how tropes and conventions in some narratives don’t work so well when held up to some more stringent logic.

In the same vein, the Batman we meet in at the start of The LEGO Batman Movie (and arguably The LEGO Movie) is a deconstruction of the Batman we got used to in Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy. He’s all about darkness and not having parents, singular focused on his mission, and, as we discover, quite a pain in the ass. In essence, we see this singularly focused Batman played out to an amusing end: he’s stuck in a perpetual adolescence and cares for no one but himself (and his desire to fight crime). Of course he’s not well-adjusted, he doesn’t have any friends and doesn’t see daylight. It’s this deconstruction that gives rise to the plot of The LEGO Batman Movie, which lets the movie rebuild Batman into a hero – and leader of the Bat-family.

Thing is, The Dark Knight – and Batman Begins before it – aren’t quite deconstructions; at least not in the way it’s easy to assume they are. Yes, the movies do play out some of the complications of Bruce Wayne’s Batmanning: he has to go on the run, people try to copy him, Bruce Wayne ceases to be much of a person in favor of his alter-ego. And there is the whole darkness-no-parents vibe. Nonetheless, Batman is successful at what he does, and the films make the case that yes, a superhero does work. A dude dressing up as a bat to fight criminals is a patently ridiculous concept, but Christopher Nolan and his team reconstruct Batman into a character and vigilante that makes sense in a realistic center.

Take the scene in Batman Begins where Bruce and Alfred are putting together the Batsuit. They buy the components in bulk from different manufacturers, minimizing a paper trail. Even getting the Batmobile from Wayne Enterprises’ R&D department explains away where he gets those wonderful toys. As a reconstruction it acknowledges the flaws of the Batman narrative but works past them for a fuller, more shaded narrative. A true deconstruction would have played out the final climax with Two Face differently, perhaps having Batman refuse to take the fall or even having both of them be completely vilified. As it is, The Dark Knight lets Batman take his moniker and remain an idealized hero.

There are shades of deconstruction to The Dark Knight — take the Batman-inspired vigilante who gets himself killed — but it’s all in the service of ultimately reconstructing the idea – there needs to be a ‘superhero,’ so Batman will appear the villain so that Harvey Dent can be that person. So it’s easy to mistake the whole movie as an out-and-out Shrekian deconstruction.

Which is arguably what Zack Snyder and team did in Batman v Superman. While Man of Steel wavers, BvS tries its hardest to take apart both Batman and Superman – and superheroes in general. But it doesn’t do so for comedic effect (as in Kick-Ass) or to explore what we take for granted in the genre (see: Watchmen). Instead, it does… Well, nothing. It reads The Dark Knight as a deconstruction and attempts to imitate it, but since the former wasn’t really a deconstruction, the BvS is building with the blocks; it doesn’t take apart The Dark Knight (as LEGO’s Batman does), but tries to use Nolan’s film as a deconstruct-o-lens. The result is a lot of dimly lit scenes and people grunting and growling at each other about big ideas that don’t make much sense. We learn nothing new about Superman and Batman or the conventions that surround them that would warrant it being a deconstruction, nor does it recreate the mythos in a new way that would be a reconstruction. Rather it tells the story straight, just lathered in a murky layer of grit that can’t hide its (many) narrative flaws.

There is room for a solid deconstruction of Batman, Superman ,and superheroes in general – I mean Alan Moore did it in Watchmen thirty-odd years ago. Sometimes it seems there’s a race to take apart beloved genres, and sometimes it works like in Game of Thrones, but there’s room for both, again, Nolan’s The Dark Knight. The trick is to do it for a reason, and not just because you want your story to be about darkness and not having parents.

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Experiencing Life

I really really liked 2013’s Tomb Raider. I wasn’t much of a Tomb Raider fan prior; Lara tended to be a little too sexualized for my tastes. Too much like if Indiana Jones had T&A than, well, an adventure story. The reboot, though, was more interested in Lara as a character than her figure. Plus, y’know, I’m a sucker for survivalist story on an island with crazy fanatics. Gameplay was a lotta fun too. So yeah, I really liked the game.

Hence my disappointment when it was announced that the follow up, Rise of The Tomb Raider (…with a questionable name), was going to be exclusive to the Xbox One for its first year of release. A PlayStation man myself, this meant I couldn’t play it until, well, recently.

All this to say, I’m finally playing Rise of The Tomb Raider.

And I am short.

Okay, so, in real life, as someone who hovers somewhere between 6’1 and 6’2, I’m considered tall. Over the years since reaching this height, I’ve gotten used to being tall. I’m the same height as Nolan North, who plays Nathan Drake in Uncharted, so there’s nothing unusual to me as I see me-as-Drake standing next to other people. It’s, y’know, normal.

But when me-as-Lara stands next to someone, sometimes I’m a head shorter. Which is unusual for me. Now, sure, I may be projecting a bit here – but that’s what fiction is, it’s a two-way street; you get what you put in. So me, I suddenly felt a little vulnerable, out there in the Siberian wilderness with the only people not shooting at me these probably-friendly men a bunch taller than me. Sure, I’m Lara Croft, a badass with a bow and guns, but, well, I’m smaller. And maybe this guy underestimates me? Which in turn makes me wonder how much height affects how we perceive and are perceived. Like I said, new experience.

It’s a small thing, and something I didn’t dwell on since there were deer to hunt and tombs to raid, but that’s a thing about video games, isn’t it? You get to live lives you normally don’t.

In video games, I’ve carved a path of vengeance to reclaim my throne (Dishonored 2), been the customs agent for an ersatz Soviet nation (Papers Please), defended Earth from genocidal aliens (Mass Effect and/or Halo), and woken up from a one night stand trying to put together what happened last night and figure out who I woke up next to (One Night Stand). Sure, the main characters of these games may have been people not named Josh, but I was the one doing the things. They are my experiences. It’s me doing all that.

Tom Bissel, in Extra Lives, declares that the big thing video games have given him are experiences, “not surrogate experiences, but actual experiences, many of which are as important to me as real memories” (182). For Bissel, he references Grand Theft Auto IV and all the weird crap he got up to between missions (eg: causing a traffic jam and then tossing a grenade into the gridlock). For me, I have memories – real memories – of saving the world a few times over, pulling of a sick getaway after assassinating one of my usurpers, and, yes, feeling short and vulnerable. Video games, like a good book, let you live another life (or an extra life). I get to experience a whole new life. It’s why I love those weird indie games; games like This War of Mine where I scrounged for survival in a war zone as part of a band of survivors or Passage where I walked through a life from birth to death.

And so that’s the thing about fiction; particularly novels and video games which require you to be an active participant in the narrative. You step into a new life and experience it from a point of view unlike your own; be it a little girl in Maycomb, Alabama or a treasure hunter gallivanting across the world. Read a book. Play a video game. Learn about being someone other than yourself.

Live another life.

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But For Different Reasons

I first saw (500) Days of Summer when I was eighteen. Fresh outta high school, I was one of five people in the theater. I loved it, and would go on to watch it in theaters two more times when I moved to Singapore a month later, and then again when I bought it on BluRay. I loved it for its emotional honesty, for the way the film depicted Tom’s thought process on screen. But like Tom’s own relationship with The Graduate, my own love of (500) Days of Summer was based on a bit of a misreading.

See, I, for a variety of reasons, identified with Tom more than I should have. I thought Summer in the wrong and pitied him for pursuing a woman who didn’t feel the same way as him. I have a totally different read on the movie now, seven years later, but let’s stay here for a moment.

I misread the movie (because the wonderful thing about fiction is its give and take), and I liked it a lot. But the reasons I liked it were, in my ways, a little off. It doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t have enjoyed it, just that what I brought to it and wanted from it (Tom and Summer should be together!), meant that what I got out of it was filtered through it (at least the devastation from Summer prompted Tom to get his crap together, and hey, there’s Autumn!). Thus my own catharsis through it is, well, different from how it works now.

Now, seven years later and hopefully a modicum wiser, I still love the movie. But, as you may have guessed from what I’ve already said, for very different reasons. Tom seems now less a hopeless romantic and more a selfish git who fancies himself one. He’s made sympathetic through the film’s storytelling, but Tom really isn’t a great guy. The takeaway from the film is instead a cautionary tale about expecting some sweeping love story to solve all your problems (it’s also a brilliant deconstruction of the manic pixie dream girl).

So yeah. I still love the movie, albeit for a few different reasons. Which is really a testament to the film itself, that it’s able to make a sympathetic character out of someone as glaringly flawed as Tom; enough that a glowing positive interpretation of him is honestly quite valid.

You’re just missing the point.

Now, the point of any piece of fiction can be argued ad nauseam, and (500) Days of Summer itself remains open to a variety of opinions as to what is its point exactly, but to stop an understanding of the film at it being ‘just’ a love story with a downbeat ending. There’s more to it than that, and an arguably more complete catharsis can be found when you realize that it’s Tom’s willingness to fix himself and find happiness outside of a relationship that helps him get his life back on track. Or is it — since the button with Autumn casts Tom’s development into a measure of question.

I find that this is something true of a lot of stories. Pacific Rim is plenty enjoyable for getting to watch giant robots and giant monsters beat the crap outta each other, but its commentary takes it to another layer, just like how Godzilla is all the more enriching in light of the stances it takes on nuclear weapons or the environment (depending on if it’s the original Gojira or Gareth Edwards’ recent outing). There aren’t really ‘wrong’ ways of loving a story,* there are just different reasons for it. I figure part of really appreciating fiction is being willing to let your understanding and appreciation of a story evolve. Who knows, it may get even better.

*For simplicity’s sake, I’m ignoring flat-out misinterpretations like a white-supremacist/Aryan interpretation of The Lord of The Rings, something Tolkien himself decried. There’s a certain amount of latitude to finding meaning, but there’s also a point where sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Maybe that’s another rant for another day/

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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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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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Nothing’s In a Vacuum

San Diego Comic-Con brought with it a new teaser for Netflix and Marvel’s upcoming Luke Cage, featuring said hero beating up bad guys. Ordinarily, this would be cool enough, because, duh. But, before this ass-kicking takes place, we get a shot of Luke putting up the hood of his jacket. It’s a precise shot that focuses a lot of attention into the act: Luke doesn’t just wear his hood up, he deliberately puts it on before heading in.

Luke Cage is making a statement with this teaser: a big black man in a hoodie can be a hero.

Which, given, y’know, everything, is really wonderful.

“So what?” my theoretical straw man asks, “Maybe he just wants to hide his identity.” Which, fine, and sure, a domino mask would be cliché, but it’s still a conscious choice the creators made. And an important one.

Entertainment doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It reflects and comments on the world around it. Luke Cage is coming out in a world wherein being black and wearing a hoodie is grounds for distrust and villainization. For a myriad of reasons, popular perception paints a very negative picture.

And that’s why Luke Cage wearing a hoodie matters. It’s a counter narrative to the scary  black man, offering a decidedly different take on it. Sure, he’s still imposing, but he’s the good guy and the hero of this show, the hero. There’s this wonderful hint of antiestablishment about it, which is one of the things that’s got me excited for this show.

One of the other things being that Mike Colter is really hot.

But anyway.

Fiction, and the imagery it creates, exists beyond the work from which it originated. Like I said before, nothing is created in a vacuum anymore, especially not since the rise of Web 2.0 has democratized content generation and facilitated and even greater osmosis of pop (and ‘real’) culture. We are, in many ways, exposed to a lot of the same news and memes, though our takeaways and lenses may be wildly different. Fiction, then, sits in a place where it can comment on it.

Luke Cage is going to be Marvel’s first movie/tv property with an African-American lead (until Black Panther), so there’s a lot riding on it. One of those being the question of what exactly a show about a black character is. Based on the trailer, it seems that Luke Cage is fully aware of its position.

It might not, being a tv show by a major studio/storyteller, be able to take an overly explicit stance (something, by the way, which hasn’t stopped a few of Marvel’s comics from having particularly dope commentary*), but that doesn’t mean it can’t still play with our expectations, whether through imagery, music, or plot. I keep campaigning for different narratives, and it looks like that’s where this one’s headed.

I’m excited.

*Spider-Gwen Annual #1 has a black, female Captain America attacking Donald-Trump-as-MODOK. It’s amazing. Captain America: Sam Wilson has recently been dealing with aggressive, militarized police. In Mockingbird you come for the fun and humor, but stay for the biting feminist commentary (and also objectification of male characters).

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