Two roads diverge in a yellow wood:
Two roads diverge in a yellow wood:
An article on how Twilight-hate is part of the larger picture of teen girl hate in our society, something I’ve been aware of for a while now: “For many people, the fact that teenage girls like something — whether that something is Taylor Swift or One Direction or ‘Twilight’ — is a reason to write it off completely.”
When I first shared this article on social media, there was some discussion, as there usually is (because I’ve been part of discussions about this before, the past few years), about how our hatred of Twilight isn’t really or only about dissing teen girls, because the books really are problematic, because they provide such horrible models for teen girls of who they can aspire to be.
I used to share this concern. But after talking to actual Twilight readers, I’m convinced that teen girls read as critically or more critically than the rest of us, and that they’re no less aware of the problems with the books than any of us are aware of the problems with whatever fluffy, escapist stories we happen to enjoy. In fact, I’ve had some of my favorite thoughtful conversations about YA books and reading with Twilight readers.
The Twilight books still don’t hit my story buttons. I’ll never be part of their core audience. But then I began thinking about how Twilight is nowhere near the only fiction out there that provides poor role models for girls. One could argue that, more often than not, most stories out there–in books and in other media–still do that. Girls and women are so often either absent or victims in everything from children’s stories to adult ones. (Being a girl is also not-infrequently tossed off as a one-line joke in movies, because apparently nothing is funnier or more humiliating than a guy being mistaken for a girl, or finding himself in girl’s clothes.) One could argue that Bella, at least, gets what she wants at the end of her story, which even today isn’t true for the women in so many other stories we read and watch.
So after thinking about that, I began thinking about one of my favorite bits of escapism from when I was a teen, something that remains one of the things that still does hit my story buttons: the original Star Wars trilogy.
Star Wars had a huge influence on my writing. It helped ignite my love of fantasy and adventure stories. (I do consider it more fantasy and adventure than science fiction, though that’s a whole other discussion.) It helped turn me into a writer, because I spent hundreds and hundreds of hours writing hundreds of thousands of words of Star Wars fanfic. The Star Wars movies were huge for me. Huge.
The Star Wars movies provide horrible role models for being a woman.
Oh, sure, in the very first movie Leia is full of spunk and fire and no small amount of strategic planning. She’s also, as far as we know as of the original trilogy, one of only two women in the entire Star Wars universe, which is a tremendous problem in itself, especially when the other woman dies horribly in the opening scenes and is never really a character at aLL. But by the end of the trilogy, Leia has been drained of all real agency. In The Empire Strikes Back she’s reduced to primarily a love interest, and by Return of the Jedi her main active actions revolve around trying to rescue the man she loves. By the end of Jedi movie, Luke does all the heavy lifting, while Leia discovers and helps inspire the Ewoks to help out on the ground. And that ground battle doesn’t even really influence the course of events; it’s Luke and Vader’s battle with the Emperor that truly destroys the Empire, though not everyone knows it.
A point is even made, in Jedi, of the fact that Leia has the same powers as Luke–but she never gets to use them, not even a little bit. At the end of Jedi Luke has saved the galaxy, Leia falls into Han’s arms, and viewers cheer.
I cheered. Which is actually the point I’m trying to make. These movies, which also don’t provide strong role models for girls, were movies teen me loved beyond all reason. They’re movies adult me loves beyond all reason, too. Loves them even as I critique their flaws, which I’m fully aware of, and which include front and foremost their treatment of female characters. Teen me was just as aware, though she articulated it differently, by constantly adding female characters to the fic she wrote, and giving them agency.
Teen Twilight fans (and, yes, adult ones too) are capable of the same self-awareness. They’re as capable of enjoying problematic things as I am.
The difference is that, when I say I love Star Wars, very few people sneer and go “oh, lightsabers, seriously?” in that way that they so often sneer and go “oh, sparkly vampires, seriously?” Two problematic stories–two very different societal reactions.
Likewise, while there are certainly thinky gender critiques of both Star Wars out there, when I say I love Star Wars, few people immediately respond by saying, “Oh, but what kind of an example is it setting for our girls?” — even though the example Star Wars sets is not ultimately better than the example Twilight sets. Leia has more spunk than Bella, sure (though even that spunk is tempered by the end), but she doesn’t have more agency.
Of course we should talk to our daughters about the problematic messages and role models in Twilight. I’m not suggesting otherwise. But we should also talk to them about the problematic messages and role models in other stories–and be on the lookout for them ourselves–because Twilight is nowhere near unique in this regard.
But before then, first and foremost, when a teen girl says she loves a thing?
We owe her the same respect we owe anyone else, when they talk about the things they love.
Recently, in my search for diverse picture books and especially for books where my child could see other children who look like her in the illustrations, I came upon Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes. This beautifully written and illustrated book, for those who haven’t read it, introduces babies from around the world and of many races with the refrain:
And both of these babies—as everyone knows—had ten little fingers and ten little toes.
The strength of the writing and illustrations meant that it took two or three or maybe five readings (because no one reads any picture book only once to their child) for it to hit me that that well-crafted refrain … wasn’t actually true. That the very book I’d bought to help my child celebrate her diversity and the diversity of all children was not about all children.
Because somewhere out there–many somewheres out there–there’s a parent who saw this book that was trying to be about all babies and set it aside because it wasn’t about their baby. Maybe this parent’s perfect, beloved, amazing child was born with polydatyly, or with a limb difference–yet here’s this book about how perfect, beloved, amazing children all have one thing in common–that they aren’t anything like this parent’s child.
At first I thought I was overthinking things. And then I thought I wasn’t. Intersectionality is tricky. It’s easy to say that no one book can be about every child and move on, but really it’s so much more complicated than that.
And this post isn’t about this one (otherwise lovely) book, or about any other one book, though I fear it will be taken that way. It’s about how I then thought a little more deeply about what the stories I tell mean for my child, who I want to embrace diversity not only when it’s about who she is, but also when it’s about the wide world she lives in.
I tell my child hundreds of stories every day, and not all of them come out of books.
Shortly after we finished the second or third or fifth reading of Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes, my child handed me her stuffed bat, which had recently lost an eye. She pointed to the spot where the eye had once been, asking without words for an explanation.
I almost went for the obvious story–that yes, the toy was broken, and yes, I could fix it. Then I realized there was another, truer story I could choose instead.
“You’re right,” I told her matter-of-factly. “That bat has one eye. And you have two eyes.
“That’s because everybody’s different.”
This weekend is the next Tucson Festival of Books! After six years, it’s hard to believe this event hasn’t been part of Tucson forever.
I’ll be there this Sunday, signing with Mostly Books from 12-12:45 p.m. (booth #148), and then moderating Ally Carter and Sarah Mlynowski’s Twitter and Trailers: Using Social Media to Promote Your Book panel from 4:00-5:00 p.m. (Education Bldg., Room 333).
And both Saturday and Sunday I’ll be on the UA Mall of course, enjoying the Festival. Hope to see many of you there!
When it comes to picture books, not understanding the natural world inevitably leads to tragedy.
A cautionary tale about the dangers of relocating wildlife.
An old man removes an entire population of cats from their native ecosystem, only to discover he lacks the knowledge and resources to care for them on his own. When the cats grow hungry he offers them each a mouthful of grass, unaware that these obligate carnivores cannot subsist on such a diet. “What are you doing?” the old woman he lives with cries when she sees the cats, aware, as he is not, of how unsuited the creatures are for their new environment. Her fear proves well founded, as in their desperation for meat the poor felines ultimately resort to eating one another.
Only a single small kitten survives, young enough to live on the milk the man and woman are able to provide, but it faces an uncertain future as it grows “nice and plump” and nears adulthood.
The tragic tale of a good-hearted squirrel who lacks the skills to survive in the wild. Unable to tell the difference between a bear, a rabbit, a frog, and an owl, our hero’s lack of discernment proves fatal when he cheerfully accepts an owl’s invitation into her nest for “cookies.” The final details of the squirrel’s inevitable demise are, in a bold yet necessary move, left to the imagination of the reader.
“Uh oh,” indeed.
A heartbreakingly spare story about the heat death of the universe. One by one the things of the world are bid adieu. Beginning with small losses–clocks, socks, a young mouse who will never reach adulthood, the stakes rise relentlessly until the loss of the atmosphere, stars, and sound itself. In the end the illustrated moon shines on, a reminder of things lost, but the protagonist–and the reader–are left sleeping in the dark.
I’ll confess it took me a few (hundred) readings to fully understand this book, but aren’t the best works of literature like that?
So. There’s a trailer online for The Force Awakens, aka Star Wars episode VII. And I have thoughts.
(ETA: Here’s the first full trailer. The thoughts below are–more or less–nchanged by its release.)
Those thoughts begin in the summer of 1999, on the release date for The Phantom Menance, I was hiking through Capitol Reef National Park, miles from any movie theater. And at some point, staring out at a 360 degree panorama of some of the most stunning geology out there, I found myself thinking that I was missing something amazing, for all that I knew I was surrounded by things even more amazing that I’d consciously chosen over opening night of Star Wars Episode I. Still, I wondered if I’d made a mistake, choosing to go camping instead of waiting in line that week.
I hadn’t made a mistake. When I finally saw the movie a few days later, I knew that.
Still, I was an optimist. I saw both of the remaining prequels. The second time, I genuinely hoped I’d see something better. The third time … well, the third time, I saw the movie at a local drive in theater some days after release, mostly for the sake of completeness, but also “just in case” that something amazing might turn up after all.
Because the first three Star Wars movies, episodes IV through VI? Pretty much changed my life.
Teen me imprinted on The Empire Strikes Back hard, and from there there was no turning back. I practically memorized that movie. I practically memorized the novelization of that movie. I wrote hundreds of thousands of words of self-insertion Star Wars fanfiction. Han Solo became at once my hero and my crush object. I did wait in line for Return of the Jedi, and while by the end of the movie my teen self was just beginning to understand how that movie–and the trilogy–weren’t perfect, I did not regret it. At all.
For me, the first trilogy was always about characters, not special effects. In many ways, although I was a voracious reader, it was the screen-based Han, Leia, and Luke who occupied the space for me that for later readers would be occupied by Harry, Ron, and Hermione. I loved their interactions and interplay, I loved the whole good-boy/bad-boy vibe of Luke and Han, I loved Han and Leia’s romance, did I mention I especially loved Han? (Later, I would think about the problems of Leia’s becoming an increasingly non-character over the course of the trilogy, and my decreasing engagement with her. But I was young, and my understandings were still growing, and I was unsubtle in my expectations. Characters who were larger than life and cast in broad–if problematic–strokes were still what I was looking for.) I loved, too, the sense of epic struggle, and being able to straightforwardly hate Darth Vader with all his straightforward villainy. (The flip side of this being that I was never sold on his redemption … but that’s a subject for another post.)
When Leia told Han she loved him, I cheered.
Years later, when Amidala told Anakin she loved him, I looked at the friends I was with, and we all mouthed the same word: WHY? (Jedi mind tricks, we later decided. Only Jedi mind tricks could explain that romance.)
It wasn’t just that I was no longer my younger, less subtle self by the time the prequels came along, though a couple decades of idolizing and being shaped by the original trilogy did mean that any new movie would have struggled to live up to the originals.
But the prequel trilogy, it didn’t even come close. For me, the heart wasn’t there, the soul and the characters weren’t there, and if the effects were pretty, well, unlike many the effects had never been what drew me to the Star Wars universe. Like I said, I enjoyed the novelizations as much as the movies. I was looking for character, and I was looking for story, and I’d probably have found those somewhere else if I hadn’t found Star Wars when I did–would probably have happily obsessed over something else instead–but Star Wars came along first and filled that space for me.
Star Wars shaped me as a fantasy reader (you didn’t think those movies were really science fiction, did you?), and it shaped me as a fantasy writer.
So. There’s a trailer for a new trilogy online. And it sure looks pretty.
I don’t care about pretty. It looks like it has characters too, but I can’t tell much about them from the trailer. And it looks like it has the Millennium Falcon too, which of course makes me smile, but the Millennium Falcon is not, by itself, enough, not unless I knew I’ll care about whoever’s piloting it now.
And maybe I will. The trailer, it doesn’t give me enough to know either way. And while I know there are in-depth analyses of every last detail of that footage out there, I haven’t read them.
Because I’m not getting my heart broken again. I’m not waiting in line opening day or opening week or … probably ever … for this one. I’m not thinking of it as the start of–or a return to–something amazing this time.
Unless. If enough people who I respect and whose story buttons are similar to mine tell me it actually is amazing–and not just visually amazing or tech and battle scene amazing–I’ll … think about it. But this time around, you all can take the opening day/week/month/maybe-forever hit for me.
I’ll be here at home with a novelization of The Empire Strikes Back, and several hundred thousand words of fondly remembered fanfic.
CAPITOL CITY (PANEM) — Capitol University sophomore Jayden Sanderson studies a 3D simulation of a lush forest. He zooms in on a river that flows placidly through the trees. “There.” He points to a spot where the river’s bank broadens out. “It doesn’t look like much, but there’s just enough mud here for a Tribute to camouflage himself. The gamemakers didn’t count on that. The probabilities and projections always change once you add the human factor to a game. That’s the challenge.” The game design student smiles, making clear that as a hopeful future gamemaker, it’s a challenge he welcomes.
But as the Capitol gears up for the 100th annual Hunger Games, not all citizens share Sanderson’s enthusiasm. Many question whether, in this era of unprecedented prosperity for Panem, the games have outlived their usefulness.
“Sure, the Games held Panem together during a tumultuous period in our history,” says District 7 mayor Raymond Mason. “But I think it’s safe to say no one’s thinking of rebellion now.” He laughs as he gestures to the living room of his spacious townhouse, as if to prove his point. Such luxuries, a generation ago unthinkable for even the mayor of this once-impoverished lumber district, have become increasingly common among all District residents. “The Games have served their purpose. It’s time to move on.”
Hortensia Cooper, however, says Mason makes the mistake of assuming the Games’ benefits are purely political. “The economic benefits are undeniable,” insists Cooper, who serves as acting director of the Capitol Chamber of Commerce. “The prosperity we see today is a direct result of the Games, and stopping them now could propel us into a fiscal depression the likes of which we haven’t seen since the dark days of the rebellion.”
Quintillian Booth, chair of the nonprofit advocacy group Panem Remembers, counters that running the Games has a cost, too, one that can’t be measured purely in dollars and cents. “We must also consider the cost of 2,302 young lives lost since the Games began.” That’s 23 Tributes a year, plus an additional 24 for the 50th Quarter Quell. “And who can forget the 74th Games, which didn’t have a winner?” Booth asks.
It was after the 74th Games—the same Games Sanderson now studies in his classes—that this debate began. That was the year District 12 Tributes Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark shocked viewers by taking their own lives and leaving the Games without a victor. “Yeah,” Sanderson admits with an uneasy laugh. “The gamemakers didn’t count on those poison berries, either.”
“If you weren’t alive then, it’s hard to understand the horror of that moment,” says Madge Undersee, mayor of the coal-mining district Everdeen and Mellark hailed from. “When we realized what Katniss and Peeta had done, well, it changed the way we thought about the Games forever.”
Graecina Sand agrees the way we think about the Games has changed. “We’ve taken the lessons of the 74th Games very much to heart,” says this year’s Head Gamemaker, “and we’ve made quite a few changes since then. Those changes include relying solely on trained volunteer Tributes, nanobots that see to it the slain die instantly and without pain, and a ban on poisonous plant life. “We’ve moved well beyond the barbarism of our ancestors,” Sand says. “The Games today are quite humane, and taking part is a choice and a privilege, as anyone who watches the Tribute interviews can attest.” That watching those interviews is now optional is another, more recent, reform.
Yet Cooper insists, “Today’s Tributes have less choice than we’d like to believe. The sums paid to the families of those who enter the Tribute training pools is quite substantial. For young people whose families are struggling to put food on the table, there often isn’t any other choice. In the old days the process was at least somewhat democratic, but today’s Games target the Districts’ most vulnerable residents.”
Still, with recent Games budget increases and new scholarships focused on mentoring promising game design students from outside the Capitol, the Games don’t seem set to end any time soon. Recent legislation seeks to open participation to immigrants from beyond Panem’s borders as well.
“The Hunger Games are a defining part of who we are as a nation,” says President Coriolanus Snow, who like Undersee personally remembers the 74th Games. “They have a long and storied history that I see no need to apologize for. Indeed, it is an honor to be a part of it.”
Written after coming upon a fanvid with its own take on the 100th Hunger Games.
As many of you know, my first sale was to one of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover anthologies, and that sale gave me my first glimmer of hope that I could build a professional writing career. I recently had a story appear in a second Darkover anthology, produced by MZB’s estate, and I tremendously enjoyed returning to one of the places where my career began.
As some you also know, this week Marion Zimmer Bradley’s daughter revealed in public that her mother abused her.
I read and reread her daughter’s words this week. I read, too, portions of MZB’s own court deposition (from her husband’s trial, also for child abuse) that I hadn’t read before. Then yesterday I took a deep breath, and I added up the advances from my two Darkover sales, my Darkover royalties, and (at his request) my husband Larry Hammer’s payment for his sale to MZB’s magazine.
And then we made a donation to the anti-abuse charity RAINN for that amount. I’ll donate any future Darkover royalties, as well.
I remain proud of the Darkover stories I’ve written, and I respect the many fellow writers who also got their start on the pages of MZB’s anthologies and in her magazine. MZB played a huge role in many of our careers, and it’s not my intention to deny that, or to deny how deeply many readers were touched–and in some cases saved–by MZB’s work.
But I also can’t deny the harm caused by the flawed creator of that work. What I can do is see to it that my having written in her worlds goes towards fighting those same hurts and abuses in the places they’re happening now.
So that’s what I’m doing.
And I’m posting about it here–though this feels more like a personal decision than a public one–because silence about abuse creates the illusion of acceptance, and illusions gain power over time, and so sometimes, speaking aloud is more important than staying comfortable.
I realized that for me, this is a huge part of the appeal of, say, the Icelandic family sagas, which are often light on the magic (and vague about its nature), and which for lack of better terminology I’ve been describing as having the feel of Tolkien, with less magic and more lawsuits. Rymenhild talked about medieval myths and allegories on the livejournal post, which one could argue are either fantasy or a genre of their own. I’d add Beowulf to her list, once one adds the poetry of the Seamus Heaney translation. (Or, I’m guessing, the original old English.)
The contemporary examples that most readily come to mind for me are Deborah Noyes’ Plague in the Mirror (whose the timeslip is the only magical element) and Francesca Forrest’s Pen Pal (which feels magical yet doesn’t have anything that’s inarguable magic, though it does have things that arguably are).
Anyway, this all got me to thinking. Lots of folks talk about whether fantasy can achieve the same things realism can, with the spoken or unspoken assumption that a fantasy work is somehow more worthy or literary if it does.
But we don’t talk nearly so much about whether realism can achieve the things fantasy does, and reach for those heights. And whether it might be more worthy on some level if it does so, too.