How Far Does Author Loyalty Carry Us?

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Warning: this post will contain spoilers for no fewer than two book series and three TV series, and will make reference to sexual violence in fiction.

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Last week, George R. R. Martin released a new excerpt from The Winds of Winter, simultaneously breaking the internet and all of our minds. The excerpt called, simply, “Mercy,” contains sentences like: “Mercy, I’m Mercy, and tonight I’ll be raped and murdered,” and “It would be just like Mercy to sleep through her own rape.”

The language of rape continues through the chapter: Mercy, the main character, has to hurry or she’ll miss her own rape, and there are repeated allusions to sexual acts with the character who seems to be her boss.

There are two twists. One (and this may be the biggest) is that Mercy is in fact Arya, our child-heroine. An intrepid (okay, frustrated) reader  who is upset by the first paragraphs will scan to the end and see this fact, compounding the upset: not only is this character an unwilling prostitute, but she’s also one of the few non-sexualized female characters in the series. When I saw this, I was devastated, and almost didn’t read the whole chapter.

Of course, you could argue that the other twist is more important: Mercy is an actress, and the rape she’s referring to is on-stage.

When I realized this, and realized that Martin knew that he was deliberately using inflammatory language, teasing us with a fictional act he’s constantly criticized for, I felt hurt. Relieved, but hurt.

He was trolling us, you see. Upsetting us deliberately, and then he took it away. He’s aware of the criticisms about his books, the accusations of constant rape and sexual violence, and he used our sensitivity against us to achieve a shocking reveal.

WTF?

I was almost more upset by that use of a real problem with his work than I was by the apparent sexualization of Arya. I’ve been reading Martin’s books since I was 14, since before I even really fully understood just how violent against women the books are and just how twisted this world’s view of sex is. I’ve struggled with my love for the books, feeling like I shouldn’t be able to read them, like I shouldn’t love them, because I now recognize just how troubling Martin’s treatment of women (and sex generally — this isn’t just about women) is.

The same thing happened in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, when main character Claire is raped (in a fair amount of realistic detail). I’d come to terms with the rape of Brianna, Claire’s daughter, but when it happened to Claire I was stunned. And hurt. And I felt almost as brutalized as our protagonist.

Why did this have to happen? In what way did Claire’s rape further her character development? We’ve been in Claire’s head for something like 20 years. I read Outlander when I was in SIXTH GRADE. What if I had read these later books then, and seen the two female main characters dealing with this problem? Would it have normalized sexual violence for me?

I realize that neither of these series are really intended for 12- and 14-year-olds, but adults become immune to the things they see in fiction as well. And it’s worse in some ways, because we have the capability of drawing our own lines and seeing where society has failed to draw lines for us. When we continue to read these books, to purchase them and enjoy them in spite of the sexual violence, are we becoming part of the problem?

When I watch a TV show, I will turn it off if there is any sort of sexual violence in the first few episodes. The new season of American Horror Story? Gone. Never finished. The Americans? Dead to me. But Buffy? Or Battlestar Galactica? I kept watching, because the sexual violence didn’t happen until I was already in love with the characters and invested in their stories, which in some ways makes it so much worse.

So how far does our loyalty take us? Should I give up on books I’ve been reading for most of my life? Should I wave away fictional characters I love, because their creators crossed a line? I really don’t know.

I do know that someday, when I’m published, I don’t want to put my readers in this position. I don’t want to create a dilemma for a woman who grew up on my books or normalize rape for a preteen girl. I may have undeserved loyalty for certain authors and series, but I also have loyalty to myself, my someday-readers, my characters, and, above all, my principles.

So I ask you: How far is too far? How do you react when sexual violence bubbles up in your favorite series? What’s the right answer here?

Guilty Pleasures

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*cough* This is a really old post that’s been in my drafts folder since January. I thought you guys might actually like to read it!

I spent most of today out with a friend and running errands, so I haven’t had time to write.

Translation: I didn’t get home till three and that felt too late to get any real work done, so I decided to do some less productive crafty work and watch old episodes of The Vampire Diaries. Episodes I’ve seen before. Episodes that aren’t particularly noteworthy except for the abundance of pretty people moping about who’s not sleeping with whom.

Yep. I’m a shameless lover of teen vampires. In fact, while I’m confessing things, I’ll admit that I’ve read Twilight. More than once. The Kindle was a godsend because it meant I no longer had to deal with my husband’s mockery when I wanted to read something really and truly awful—now I don’t have to face the shame of, say, the cover of Breaking Dawn staring at him from my nightstand, giving away my weakness. I read Twilight like some women read bodice-rippers, the ones with shiny, shirtless men on the covers: furtively, pop-eyed, and generally while hiding the evidence.

Come to think of it, that sounds rather like one of the signs of addiction. The one where you lie about your problem. Also the one where you feel guilt and shame. And that other one, where you put time and effort into your habit.

I only know about those signs for research, of course. Totally.

I like literature, too, I’ll have you know. I reread Jane Austen’s complete works every year. A Farewell to Arms is one of two books that makes me cry. I am capable of exerting some self control and occasionally reading things that actually merit my love.

But, damn it, every now and then I just like to lose myself in a fluffy, high-stakes romance between two pretty (and often fanged) people. I also like dipping my fries in mustard. Whatchu gonna do, sue me?

I AM NOT ASHAMED.*

The fact is, I’m not alone. Twilight sold a flobbity-gillion copies. Margot Adler incorporated her obsession with vampire novels (including Twilight) into a series of academic lectures. How many people watch The Vampire Diaries? More than a few, judging by Twitter on Thursday nights.

Everyone has a few guilty pleasures. Maybe for you it’s not teen vampires. Maybe it’s wealthy teens who sleep around a lot. Maybe it’s those afternoon soap operas. (Do those still exist anymore?) Maybe it’s some terrible sitcom.

But you know… you can tell me.

This is a safe space. No one here will judge you.** C’mon. you know you want to share. What’s your guilty pleasure?

 

 

*Okay, I’m a little ashamed. Fine, a lot. That doesn’t stop me, though.

**Much

 

Mothers and Daughters

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If you’re reading this, you have a mother. It’s an indisputable fact. It’s also an indisputable fact that here in the United States, it’s Mother’s Day. Today is a day when we honor our mothers. We thank them for what they do and did for us, and we generally spoil them as they’re never spoiled for the rest of the year. Today’s the day to thank your mom for all she’s ever done for you.

It’s also an indisputable fact that I’m a daughter. (Yup. I am female. SHOCKING.) And I’m sure you won’t be surprised when I say that I invest a lot in fictional characters and their relationships. Because of this, my Mother’s Day tribute is a top 10 list of fictional mothers and daughters. Fiction, fantasy, classic, contemporary—here are some of my favorite daughter/mother pairings.

What others can you add to my list?

This list is worth reading, but lest you read something you regret, I warn you…

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10. Scarlett and Ellen O’Hara, Gone with the Wind

“It’s only natural to want to look young, and be young, when you are young.”

Poor Ellen. She’s setting a wee trend on this list: the long-suffering mother whose death forces her daughter into adulthood and maturity. Ellen is the mainstay of the O’Hara family. She keeps Gerald in check, she reins in Scarlett, she oversees the morals and health of the entire plantation. Her calm, steadfast presence is Scarlett’s rock, the safe space Scarlett longs for once the Civil War really gets going (read: impacts Scarlett herself). Although she dies, and Scarlett fails in her attempts, Ellen is Scarlett’s role model and unchanging idea of virtue. She is the daughter’s ideal of her mother.

9. Jaye and Karen Tyler, Wonderfalls

Karen Tyler, heart of the family. Sorta. Okay, maybe it’s the housekeeper. But still.

Sure, Jaye has a ‘sode, works in a tourist shop, hears/sees inanimate objects talk, and isn’t quite what hyper-successful Karen expects from her children. But Karen loves her all the same and, at Jaye’s request, grants her youngest child more words in Karen’s newest book’s bio page.

What I’m saying makes no sense? Yeah, that’s the joy of Wonderfalls. But whether or not you understand that reference, the Jaye/Karen dynamic is one of my favorites in contemporary television. They push and pull against each other, but they love each other all the same.

8. Paige and Max Connors, Heartbreakers

A typical day in conning. Yup, normal mother-daughter stuff.

I am a longtime devotee of Heartbreakers. I saw it in the theater in 2001, bought the DVD when it came out, and continue to love it wholeheartedly. (The John Lennon song from the wedding night scene—erm, one of them—was the song I walked down the aisle to!)

Paige and Max’s is about the weirdest relationship on this list. (See #6.) They compete, seduce and con men, and, well, lie generally. But when push comes to shove, Max puts Paige’s welfare above their conning success, and she encourages her daughter to come clean with the man of her dreams. If you haven’t seen this underrated flick, check it out.

7. Toula and Maria Portokalos

The horror of wedding-planning. The horror! THE HORROR!! … and the joy.

Well, she’s not your pretty, normally housewifely Greek woman. She wants a new life, works with computers, and fights against her heritage. But Toula loves her family, and the biggest conflict in her semi-unconventional life is her perceived need to choose between her family and desire to break with tradition.

In spite of that, her mother, Maria, fights on her behalf. She argues with her husband, Toula’s father, for Toula’s independence. She welcomes Toula’s “normal” husband, Ian, and his family into their Greek clan with open arms. And she loves her daughter unendingly.

6. River Song and Amy Pond, Doctor Who

Daughter and mother, and…

Mother and daughter, and…

Mother and daughter? What?

Yup, weirdest relationship on this list. Conceived in the TARDIS, River has a time-head and some Timelord qualities. She’s taken away from Amy within moments of her birth, and transformed into a girl we never see again. THEN she becomes a teenager(ish?) and insinuates herself into Amy’s life as her best friend. AND THEN she becomes the fabulous River Song, badass, role model, wife of the Doctor, and… loving daughter? What?

Regardless of all that weirdness, they make it work. They love each other. And that’s what’s important.

5. Jo March, Meg, Amy, Beth, and Marmee, Little Women

There it is, right there: mother-daughter love.

This is the go-to gold standard of mother-daughter relationships. Marmee encourages and reprimands her daughters with tender kindness; she nurses their hurts, she tends their dreams, she waits out their wacky antics. My favorite portrayal of Marmee is 1994 film starring Winona Ryder and Susan Sarandon. While some may complain about Marmee’s almost-modern sensibilities, I love her for encouraging Jo to write and “find herself, and for holding revolutionary transcendentalist beliefs. She’s a remarkable character, and what every mother should hope to be.

4. Elizabeth, Jane, Mary, Kitty, Lydia, and Mrs. Bennet, Pride and Prejudice

Mrs. Bennet and the girls, always waiting on a man.

Whatever opinion you hold of her methods, you have to admit that Mrs. Bennet puts her daughter’s futures in a priority position. Plus, she’s hilarious. She’s ridiculous, outspoken, unenducated, and a little rude, but she’s still a delight, and a wonder of forward-thinking planning. Her first concern is for her daughters(‘ future wealth).

I once read an introduction to one of the many editions of Pride and Prejudice I have lying around that argued that Mrs. Bennet is a far better parent than ironic Mr. Bennet, who openly prefers clever Lizzie to all his other daughters. I’m not sure if that’s true, but I won’t deny Mrs. Bennet’s limitless concern for her children.

Plus, the woman had FIVE daughters. Give her a break.

3. Bridget and Pamela Jones, Bridget Jones’s Diary

Ah, mothers and their gherkins.

Poor Pamela. Bridget and her father have their “grown-up club of two,” always judging and laughing at mad old mummy. But when Pam has an affair, cheating on Bridget’s dad, she does tell her daughter about the, erm, remarkable new relationship. Bridget sides with her father, of course, but she doesn’t cut her mother out.

In the end, Pam wants Bridget’s support and approval. This relationship reminds us that, just occasionally, parents screw up, too. Mothers make relationship mistakes as often as daughters, do, and sometimes daughters have to hold their tongue and let their mothers live their own lives.

2. Cora and Mary Crawley (and Sybil and Edith), Downton Abbey

Nothing brings mother and daughter together like a dead body.

How many mothers would help their oldest daughters carry the body of their dead lovers back to their rightful bedrooms?

Unclear pronouns aside, Cora is a mother among mothers. Yes, she judges Mary. No, she never forgets the awkward moments of carrying Mary’s dead lover’s corpse back to his bed. But she, too, lives for her daughters’ welfare. Cora advocates for breaking the entail on Mary’s behalf, she lives and breathes Mary’s future prospects, and she hates the thought of Mary loving a man she doesn’t love.

She also fights for Edith’s best prospects, and she lives and dies with Sybil’s choices and misfortunes. Cora is, in short, a realistic mother. She is the unconditional, if hopeful, love a mother gives to her daughters.

1. Buffy and Joyce Summers, Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Loving and accepting, and letting it burn.

“Mommy?”

You knew, YOU KNEW, this one would be on this list. Come on. It’s me, after all.

Buffy and Joyce have just about the most realistic mother-daughter relationship of them all. Joyce has to accept Buffy’s, um, quirks (“Have you tried not being the Slayer?”), to watch her daughter fight every day and night for her life, and to let her daughter attempt to become a grown-up.

And in turn, teenage Buffy has to watch her mother have her own life. She accepts her father’s flaws and the mutual reasons for her parents’ divorce. She has to release some of the centrality she assumes she has in her mother’s life. And Joyce has to trust her daughter to oversee her (Joyce’s) death with grace and maturity.

As Giles says, Joyce teaches Buffy everything she needs to know about living. And there’s nothing more we can ask from our mothers.

 

Pathos, Tears, and Recriminations

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These days, I don’t watch many new TV shows. Generally I wait till they’re on Netflix, then I watch ‘em in big batches. But I keep up with Downton Abbey and The Vampire Diaries…

Worse luck for me this winter.

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You’ve been warned.

If you’re plugged in at all, you at least know that Downton Abbey ended tragically, unforgivably. Just after all our hopes and dreams came true, everything fell apart.

First Matthew and Mary got married. Yay! We waited for more than two years, hoping and wishing and finally, all our dreams came true.

Then Sybil, arguably the nicest, sweetest character on the show, died in childbirth. Horribly.

Then Matthew, noblest and most honorable character on the show, died in the last few seconds of the finale. Again, kinda horribly. And just after his son was born, right at the height of his happiness.

(Downton Abbey, FYI, is not a good show for new parents.)

And then, just as I’m beginning to recover from the woes Downton Abbey inflicted on me, The Vampire Diaries pulled the rug out from under me.

We’ve watched Elena’s younger brother, Jeremy, grow from an angry, rebellious stoner to an angry, rebellious, courageous vampire hunter. He’s made mistakes, learned from them, and tried to set them right, and just as he was coming into his manhood and his potential as a character–

Crack. (That’s the sound of one of the many broken necks on The Vampire Diaries.)

Last night’s episode, called “Stand By Me,” showed the reactions of Elena, Matt, and Caroline to Jeremy’s death, and the episode completely destroyed me.

I lost a brother as a teenager, too, and this episode made real the grief we all feel when someone dies too young. Elena weeps for a life and a girl long gone, Matt weeps for the loss of his friend, and Caroline struggles to find the right way to hold herself and her friends together.

There’s no right way, of course. The answer is only to feel the pain and let time pass.

So why do we inflict the vicarious pain of grief on ourselves through fiction? Why do we relive it again and again—voluntarily—as show kill off characters we know and love?

Maybe it feels good to weep for ourselves when we don’t have to face the consequences of reality. Maybe it eases grief we’ve bottled for years. Maybe we just love to love, and fictional characters are easier to let go of when we must.

Maybe it’s as simple as Dan Stevens declining to renew his contract, and something must be done with the character.

I cried for Jeremy, Matthew, and Sybil. I cried, and will cry more, for Elena, Mary, and Tom. I’ll keep watching, and I’ll keep opening my heart to fictional characters.

Because we don’t give up. We keep watching and hoping and dreaming. We pin our hopes on imaginary characters, and we suffer when they fail. Maybe I’m a masochist, but I’ll be watching Season 4 of Downton Abbey.

Will you?

What’s the most you’ve cried for a piece of fiction? What show has broken your heart and had you begging for more?

Why Are Even Powerful Women Victims?

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As I watched Emmie Mear’s #SuperWomen Twitter chat roll by me last night, and a variety of contributors trying to contribute names to a list of Super Women in popular culture today, I had some trouble articulating why I’m not a fan of Olivia from Fringe. She’s possibly the most bland character on television today—her evil twin was far more appealing—but that’s not what really bothers me.

No, I hate that she’s still portrayed as a victim: even her apparent “superpowers” came about because some mad-scientists experimented on her when she was a kid. Sure, she’s the only one to survive sane, with her powers intact, but those powers were forced upon her and she’s not that keen on using them.

Her reluctance isn’t caution: it’s fear. These powers only exist because she was abused as a kid. I get that it makes her noble for even thinking about using the abilities,  but the fact is, the show-writers perpetuate the effects of the abuse by forcing the character to never overcome them.

And she’s not the only example of the woman who only receives her powers through abuse: look at River Tam from Firefly, the perennial super-assassin-girl. She’s a badass, but she can’t control her badassery. Her skills are the result of years of brainwashing. A brilliant, bright girl was forcibly changed into a weapon of mass (and self) destruction.

That’s not personal power, folks. That’s rape.

It’s unacceptable for women to receive their super powers only as a result of tinkering by outside forces, especially when those forces are portrayed as male. These shows are basically telling us that these women are only amazing because a man stepped in and made her that way, forcing her out of who she was and into a painful new role. These women are powerful, and I won’t deny that. I just can’t redeem the victim-role they’re forced to play.

The journey for these women is then to integrate that power into their lives—and frequently that requires the aid of a lover, brother, or father. Although I hate to besmirch the name, River Song from Doctor Who is an example of where the path of abusive power-giving leads. She’s awesome (and empowering in other ways), but she only came into her awesomeness because she was programmed by a “religious order or movement” to kill the Doctor.

She overcomes that brainwashing, but only because the Doctor himself devises away to let her fulfill her mission, apparently killing him and satisfying her programming. All her well-laid plans to avoid the moment come to nothing, but the Doctor pulls her out of the fire and saves the day.

That’s really uncool when you think about it.

A strong woman’s journey should not require to overcome her abusive past. It should not require her to seek some man’s aid. It should not require her to integrate someone else’s idea of who she should be into her idea of who she is. Maybe she’s all the stronger for overcoming her past, but it’s still not okay to turn her into a victim. Perhaps making her overcome these challenges is more realistic—what woman doesn’t have to overcome some trauma and the perceptions of the world around her?—but the nice thing about television is that it allows us to move past what is and into what could be.

Buffy is awesome, and her power was inborn. Sure, she was “chosen,” but she had the latent powers there already. Part of her journey is to accept that these powers are a defining part of her, for better or worse.

I hate to be the lone nay-sayer, but I think the female superhero sub-genre has yet to reach its potential. We’re still a long way from giving women power without strings, and we viewers, readers, and writers, have the ability to change that. So let’s keep looking. Let’s keep fighting. We’ll have real Super Women across the board one of these days.

#SuperWomen

What do you think? Are you okay with this trope?

Who are some inherently super-powered women? How about:
Hermione from Harry Potter, who knows that nerdiness is awesome
Arwen from The Lord of the Rings films (who, sadly, chooses to give up her powers for a man, which could be a topic for another blog post!)
Daenerys Targaryen from A Song of Ice and Fire

Can you think of other powerful women victims? I can:
— Caroline Forbes on The Vampire Diaries received her powers from, well, a bite
— Seven of Nine on Star Trek: Voyager, kidnapped and turned into a borg as a kid
Sookie Stackhouse from True Blood, powerful but still vampire bait

The Battle of the Great Ambivalence

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Have you ever warred with your own apathy?

Apathetic cat feels… it doesn’t matter.

As some of you may remember, I’ve been trying to read The Wheel of Time and to watch Angel.

I haven’t really succeeded at either. I get excited in individual chapters or episodes, but somehow I reach a stopping point and never go back. It’s kind of getting to the point where I wonder why I’m even bothering.

It’s not the characters, because I like some of them… though definitely not all. And it’s not the plot, at least not entirely, because sometimes I enjoy it. But feeling like I should read or watch something just isn’t cutting it anymore.

What’s your breaking point? How little can you care before you just can’t carry on?

Worldbuilding Done Right

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Happy Wednesday, gang. Don’t forget you have the rest of the week to enter my little giveaway! Just link back to this blog and show me in the comments that you did, or sign up to receive email updates, and you’ll get entered to win a Kristin-made craft!

Secondly, be sure to check out my new post over on Spellbound Scribes, Casting from Hell, in which I discuss how sorry I feel for actors that would portray my characters. Those poor suckers would be crying all the way to the bank.

Thirdly, check out Liv Rancourt’s new post, Anita Blake, Christian Warrior?, sparked by a comment she left in Friday’s discussion of Religion in Urban Fantasy.

Phew, that’s a lot of business for one day. Now, back to regularly scheduled programming.

Does anyone else remember when Battlestar Galactica was the best sci-fi show EVER? (Oh, good heavens, no, not the original one—the new one that aired from 2003-2009.)

Alcoholic, cancer patient, daddy-issues, sociopath, hallucination, sleeper agent: now there’s a slice of humanity. Image via Battlestar Wiki.

In the early seasons, the characterization, the suspense, and the knowledge that no one was safe drove the show to unbelievable emotional heights, and then it jumped the shark and everything got weirdly religious and super-depressing.

Yep, that’s a teaser for an upcoming religion-and-sci-fi post.

But the main thing that made this show so engrossing was almost unnoticeable, even though it was visible in every single shot of the show: the worldbuilding. You can see it in the aesthetics (there are no square corners), the costumes (female pilots wear the same thing as male pilots), the language (“Frak!”). It’s everywhere, and it makes this world complete.

Take the episode, “Water,” one of the most tension-fraught television episodes I’ve ever watched. In the midst of the paranoia and worry over the future, Commander Adama and President Roslin stop to have a conversation about books.  They discuss A Murder on Picon, just one of the many examples of arts and literature in this universe, and both know the book—wildly different characters have common cultural ground.

And that’s how it should be done. Check it out: you won’t find better worldbuilding on television.

What are some other examples of stellar worldbuilding, readers? I love me a brave new world to watch or read.