FINALS ARE OVER!
Oh Frack. There’s nothing I can do to change my grades.
Oh God. I think I’m going to throw up.
Okay. Deep breaths. Deep breaths. It’s okay. Even if this semester goes down the tubes and my life plans are irrevocably destroyed, I can be a great bum
Yes. That is my plan B, and I shall stick to it.
Sadly, my time of stress is not yet completely over, since I have to come up with a brilliant honors essay proposal and an equally brilliant honors application in the next five days. So the blog posting will continue to be sporadic as I desperately try to learn everything about Feminist Science Fiction in the ’70s and ’80s, and then try to condense that knowledge into a 250 word proposal.
Also – again, if you’ve sent me an email in the past few weeks, I can almost PROMISE I haven’t gotten it (unless you know my real name and thus my main email address). But I will go back to that mailbox soon, and answer emails. (assuming I haven’t become a bum in the meantime).
And without further ado, I give you my review of Shame… and the only blog post of mine my mother has promised to read. Exciting! It’s also the last of my pre-written blog posts (yes, I stored some up for the finals madness), so…I’m actually going to have to write two/three posts a week now, instead of just editing them and putting them up.
I’ve been on a bit of a Michael Fassbender kick lately. I saw him for the first time this summer in X-Men: First Class, where he played Magneto. Because of his kick-ass acting of an equally kick-ass character (Nazi-hunter! Tortured soul! Wearer of Awesome Turtlenecks!) I immediately developed a (small) obsession.
Now, this obsession might not have made that much of a difference to my movie-watching routine, since I almost never go see movies during the academic semester. But after I went to see A Dangerous Method with my friends, one of them copied my example and fell into a mad obsession with Fassbender.
I’m sorry, I got distracted. What?
Oh, yes. My friend, me, and Fassbender.
Given our mutual obsessions, we’re probably going to work our way through Fassbender’s entire back catalogue – which is fine by me. I’m looking forwards to re-watching X-Men – that should yield a good week’s worth of blog posts – and possibly seeing Hunger for the first time (hunger strikes being a fabulous way of boosting one’s post-essay depression). And we’re deeply disappointed that we won’t be in the same city when Prometheus comes out.
But, of course, Shame is still playing in Montreal. So as a reward for surviving our papers, my friend J. and I headed to the theater, planning to giggle wildly (I make no pretense to maturity).
I’m pretty sure everyone in the western hemisphere has heard the basic plot of Shame, but I will repeat it once more. Brandon (Fassbender) is a thirty-something New Yorker suffering from sex addiction. His life is thrown off-kilter when his sister Sissy (Carrie Mulligan) moves in with him. Not surprisingly, Sissy’s presence prevents Brandon from relieving his addiction the usual ways – prostitutes, hook-ups, masturbation, sex-video-chat (is that what those things are called?) etc – and also brings up buried emotions.
Now, the reason everyone has heard of Shame is simple: it involves full frontal male nudity (hence why I was preparing for some highly mature giggling). There’s an interesting discussion to be had about why full frontal male nudity causes everyone to drop their tea tray, slap an NC-17 onto a movie and talk about an actor’s “bravery,” while the plethora of naked women in Hollywood barely merit a movie an R mention. I’m not going to have that conversation now, due to space constraints. But still. Interesting discussion. As one of my favorite professors would says “think about that.”
(I will note that none of the women who went full-frontal in Shame got a “bravery” stamp of approval)
There was no false advertising about Shame. The movie indeed contains a lot of nudity. A LOT of nudity. The first time we see Brandon, he’s walking around his apartment, naked. In flashbacks, we see him with a woman – a prostitute – undressing. Later on, we see Sissy when she’s in the shower – Brandon thinks she’s a thief, and breaks down the door of the bathroom. Most of Brandon’s conquests (paid or unpaid) are shown with their clothes of, as is Brandon himself.
What’s striking about nudity in Shame is that it’s not artificial. In most movies, sex scenes involve lots of clever angles and artful cuts so that the audience can see tantalizing bits, but the film can retain a PG-13 rating. The actors are usually airbrushed to the point where you couldn’t find their real skin cells without a forensics team.
But not here. Like I said, two of the major moments of nudity take place outside of a sex scene – Brandon walking around his apartment, and Sissy yelling at Brandon for scaring her. All the actors look like real human beings – there is no special lighting or posing. The nudity, in other words, doesn’t seem like a performance. Unlike the self-conscious nude actors of Hollywood, these characters don’t seem aware of being watched.
It’s fascinating because, for all the sexualization of popular culture, this sort of unstaged nudity and un-artificial sex is still shocking. We’re cultural prudes: it’s okay to show sex, but only if the people are perfect. Only if they’re performing according to a pre-approved script. Which is why even the naked women in Shame are shocking – we’re so used to the artificialized Hollywood nudity that these “natural” naked women look completely alien.
The result is that the viewers feel like voyeurs. It’s quite discomfiting. The director, Steve McQueen, plays up the audience discomfort. In the one vaguely “romantic” sex scene, the camera is perched at an odd angle vis Brandon and Marianne’s bodies, putting the audience in a bizarre viewing position. For three to four minutes of foreplay, the camera never moves. The camera never cuts. We become slowly aware that the actors, Fassbender and Nicole Behari, actually performed the entirety of the scene in one take. It wasn’t “okay, kiss, now cut,” then “now you lie down, now cut!” They actually made out for a good four minutes. Once again, I was struck by the difference between this scene, and our typical Hollywood fare, where sex scenes are designed to seduce and tantalize the audience. The lack of artificiality makes us feel uncomfortably like intruders. Like voyeurs. We cannot enjoy it.
Beyond the nudity, Shame is more a character study than an action-driven movie. It does have a core plot, but it doesn’t have a great deal of forward motion. Brandon moves through his life. We see him jogging, working, going out with colleagues, taking the metro, picking up women, reading porn. His sister shows up to disturb his preciously-guarded peace, and he spirals out of control, but even this loss of control is low-key. Shame is a quiet movie in more ways than one. It’s telling that two of the movie’s climactic scenes – Brandon’s attempt to seduce a work-colleague, and his discovery of his sister at the end – are lacking in any kind of soundtrack; one of those scenes doesn’t have sound at all.
Character-driven movies like this one are successful based on two things: how interesting the character(s) are, and how good the acting is. Fortunately, Brandon is a complex, convoluted, knotty sort of character; he’s fascinating to watch. The movie works in large part because of the contrast between the subject matter – sex – and the person. Brandon is no happy-go-lucky party animal hosting orgy after orgy in his house. He is quiet, sad, pained. He seems to take no pleasure from sex. He just does it. There’s a fantastic scene right at the start when he makes eye contact with a woman in the subway. There’s a mutual attraction there, but while she smiles coyly, he is grave and sorrowful.
Similarly, in Brandon’s many late night jogs, he passes through space at a painful, glorious speed (seriously – Michael Fassbender’s got a career as a marathoner if this movie star thing doesn’t work out) – but he never engages with the city around him. Life, the city, sex – they’re just things to be gotten through. A duty he cannot avoid. Brandon is a man trapped in his own body, imprisoned by desires he neither wants nor receives any pleasure for.
Why is Brandon this way? He’s an interesting man, quietly likeable, a valued worker at his company – no one would suspect him of being a sex addict. In fact, even when his boss finds out Brandon’s hard drive is filled with porn, he doesn’t think Brandon had anything to do with it. What pushed Brandon into this life? Why can’t he survive without it? The movie (wisely) refuses to tell us. We are never given an explanation for why Brandon is the way he is. We get little insight into Brandon’s bizarre relationship with his sister. Nor does the movie offer any kind of commentary on Brandon’s actions, moral or otherwise. This lack of a moral imperative makes Shame one of the most even-handed portrayals of addiction I’ve ever seen. There is no judgment. There is no moralizing. Brandon’s addiction to sex is neither bad nor good. His decisions are neither praised nor punished. They simply are.
I should talk about Michael Fassbender’s acting. I should, but I’m afraid if I do, I’ll start ranting about the Academy’s complete lack of taste. How in the name of the Patron Saint of Justice and Truth did Fassbender NOT get an Oscar nomination for Shame? For that matter, why didn’t Fassbender WIN an Oscar for Shame?
Yes, he’s that good.
I’m not interested in calling Fassbender “brave” for the nude scenes, or for picking such a controversial character. I don’t think bravery should be rewarded in and of itself. Casey Abrams’ attempt to cover “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on American Idol was brave, but it didn’t make his performance any better (*shudder*). Fassbender need not rely on bravery to get him accolades – nude scenes or no nude scenes, he gave one of the, if not the, best performances of the year. He was in-fracking-credible.
Because Shame has so little explanation of Brandon’s addiction, the weight of the movie rests on Fassbender’s shoulders. He must make us care about a character that we do not, and by necessity cannot, understand. It takes a truly fantastic actor to make you feel for them when you are completely estranged from what they’re feeling. To make you care about a character that’s so alien to your experience.
There’s a scene where Brandon listens to his sister sing at a restaurant in New York. The camera closes in on his face, which is set in his typical impassive mask. The camera lingers. Slowly, his face shifts. His breath shifts minutely. A tear runs down his face. We do not know why Brandon reacts this way to the song. We should not care. But Fassbender makes us feel it nonetheless. He makes us care about Brandon. He makes us want him to conquer his addiction.
On another note, I thought Fassbender should get an oscar just for the way he fits in clothes – is there anything that looks bad on this guy? Seriously.
Sadly, the academy, as usual, does not listen to me. I don’t understand why – I shout loud enough for them to hear me!
One of the things I most enjoyed about Shame was its deconstruction of romantic comedy tropes. We are given several classic “meet-cute” scenarios. Brandon flirts with the girl in the subway. He goes out to a bar with his colleagues, and ends up attracting the woman his boss is trying to pick up. He tries to break his cycle of self-destruction by going out with a vivacious work-colleague. But the movie refuses to fall into the narrative of romance. This is no redemption tale – Brandon cannot be saved by a beautiful woman. Instead, all the encounters are tinged with desperation. Everything that could be romantic is exposed as nothing more than a routine exchange, a coming-together of disconnected people trying to feel something. Somehow, I think Shame’s portrayal of the dating (or hookup) scene is more accurate than usual romantic comedy fare.
Interestingly, most of the women Brandon tries to pick up with are “taken” in some way – they’re in other relationships, they’re prostitutes – and are thus not possible relationship partners. When the relationship could be something more – when it could actually be a moment of connection, or intimacy – Brandon backs away, terrified.
Speaking of “savior” women, I was pleased as punch to see that the one woman Brandon does try to date was African-American. I realize that this is not a big deal. Correction – it SHOULD not be a big deal. But it is. We get so few interracial relationships in mainstream movies that I had a big “Oh god” moment when I saw Brandon’s dinner partner, Marianne, played by the lovely Nicole Beharie. Here we have an African American woman portrayed as an attractive, intelligent, desirable life-partner – she’s probably the sanest character in the entire movie. Nor is Behari’s race a plot device so that the movie can talk about the Very Important Subject of Interracial Dating. It’s such an exceptional state of affairs that I just have to give Steve McQueen a round of applause. Bravo, sir. And to the rest of Hollywood: take note. Learn. Follow McQueen’s lead. Make it so that well-rounded characters of color are so common in American movies that I never, ever have to comment on them again.
Beharie also does a great job – she’s only in the movie for fifteen minutes or so, and she was playing a relatively understated character, but she did such interesting things that I still remember her two months later. Honestly, I remember her character more than I remember Carey Mulligan’s character (who has much more screen time). I’m keeping an eye on her work – I hope we see a lot more from her.
I’m not the only one who has noticed Marianne as an exceptional character. Steve McQueen, the director of Shame, was very aware of Marianne’s status as a black woman in a Hollywood movie (McQueen himself is black, although he’s not African American). In an interview with Elvis Mitchell, McQueen says that when he wanted to cast Beharie as Marianne: “What was interesting was there was all kinds of objections about this, of saying, “Oh, that wouldn’t happen there. That wouldn’t exist.” I said, “What, I don’t exist?” It was a very odd thing, having these conversations about having a love interest that was a Black woman with Brandon (…) But then, what also fascinates me is you have a lot of white American filmmakers who never cast a Black person in their movies and they made quite a few movies. How can you avoid that? That’s kind of weird. It’s like walking around with blindfolds on. How can you make movies in this country–and consistently make movies–and not cast Black characters in the main leads?”
I defer the rest of the discussion of race in Shame to Racialicious, which has a very interesting review of the film, and of Brandon’s relationship to Marianne – I fully purloined their link to McQueen’s interview with Mitchell: http://www.racialicious.com/2011/12/14/shame-the-interracial-relationship-the-casting-the-homophobia/
But while we’re on the subject of things the movie gets right with regard to representation, I should also mention what the movie gets wrong: homosexuality. I was actually pleasantly surprised that Brandon had a homosexual encounter in the film, and I will admit, I didn’t see it as problematic until I started reading the blogs. At the time, I thought it would have been worse NOT to have a homosexual encounter at all, in that it makes no sense for someone with a sex addiction to view male partners as any better or worse than female partners (since it has nothing to do with attraction or romance). If the movie hadn’t had the gay club scene, I would be complaining that “sure, it’s fine to have a sex addict paying for prostitutes, but we can’t possibly have a gay scene, because that’s just PERVERTED.” It would reinforce the idea that homosexuality is a particularly depraved sort of sexuality. Even sex addicts don’t have sex with people of the same gender. Putting the gay scene in, I thought, made gayness as normal an option in the sexual landscape as anything else the movie portrayed.
BUT, as many have pointed out, the gay scene does come when Brandon is at his absolute worse – which makes it possible to read homosexuality as the most perverted of sexual pleasures (right above threesomes). In the absence of another gay encounter when Brandon is not at “rock bottom,” the movie makes homosexuality “the film’s shorthand for “sexual depravity”” (to quote Andrea (AJ) Plaid, who wrote the racialicious article above). So I’m glad the gay scene is there, I think it could have been handled much, much better. If Brandon ahd had a gay encounter BEFORE he’d hit “rock bottom,” for example, this wouldn’t be problematic.
Despite the problematic portrayal of homosexuality, however, Shame is a fantastic movie. It’s sometimes painful to watch, but it’s well worth a trip to your theater. And not just because of how good Fassbender looks in clothes (and out).
I’m kind of hoping I see a bad movie soon, because these laudatory reviews are getting a bit boring. Maybe I should go watch The Help again, I’m sure that would yield a rant that lasts longer than one of Brandon’s jogging marathons.
I feel quite guilty about my sporadic posting on the blog. But in my defense, it’s finals season at my University… and I’m not getting a lot of sleep. I might as well admit that until finals are over (April 30th), posting is going to continue to be sporadic. If anyone is following the blog, my apologies – I promise, it will get better after the 30th.
Other signs that its finals season?
- Yesterday I misspelled the word “misspelling” AND the word “typo”
- I have over 450 unread emails (by the way, if you’ve sent me an email in the past two weeks, there’s a good chance I haven’t gotten it. Sorry!)
- After my American Literature final, I ate three bags of carrots in a row. Don’t ask me why. I don’t know why.
- I am slowly regaining feeling in my right hand after the aforementioned American Lit final. My reaction to the numbness is particularly worrying: “well, at least this way my hand won’t hurt during the NEXT final.”
- I used up an entire pack of pens in less than a week.
Anyways. Back to your regularly (or irregularly) scheduled blog content. Today, I’ve got a rant. Yes, a rant! I don’t think I’ve had a rant on here yet. Oh, sure, I got annoyed at the “Great Science Fiction Books for Girls”, and I had some negative comments about the Hugo Shortlist, but a real rant, with bitterness and snark and anger? Haven’t had one yet.
So yay for innovation?
[trigger warning for misogynistic language]
Last week Jessica Sanchez was voted out of American Idol. Fortunately, the judges exercised their power of veto and saved her from elimination. But it was the shock boot of the season: Jessica is widely regarded as the best vocalist left on the show, and everyone thought she was a frontrunner. She’s cute, she’s passionate, she sings brilliantly, the judges love her, the critics love her – she’s got it all. In fact, most commentators have seen Jessica as the Great Female Hope: the woman who might finally break the four straight seasons of men winning on idol.
With her almost-ouster hanging in the air, now seems like a good time to ask this question: What’s up with American Idol and the Ladies, huh?
I mean, seriously.
It’s been FOUR YEARS since a woman won. And last week, Jimmy Iovine, the producer and mentor for the contestants, said on the results show that this season will come down to a contest between Phillip Phillips and Colton Dixon.*** Well, there you go; might as well stop watching and take a nap now – we’ve got the results! Five straight years of men! Hurrah!
We should stop calling it Idol and start calling it “The White Male Idol… and the Supporting Ladies” (I’m not even going to touch on the racial aspect in this post, because that merits a rant of its own).
The woman problem isn’t even confined to the winners. If there were no gender bias on the show, we would expect some years to be dominated by men, some by women, and most to be roughly equal. But in the past five seasons, only two of the top ten singers had a rough gender parity (season seven and season eleven). By contrast, the top ten singers in seasons eight, nine and ten were mainly male – in fact, by the top eight of all three of those seasons, there were only two women left (vs. six men). Which means that for three out of the last five seasons, it was three times easier to get voted into the top eight if you came equipped with a Y chromosome.
And listen, this rant is not about individual voting decisions. If you prefer a male contestant in any given year, I have no problem with you. My feminist fervor does not extend to believing you should always, in all circumstance, support a woman over a man. Gun to head, I probably would have voted for Adam Lambert over Allison Iraheta in season 8. Gun to head, I would have voted for David Cook over Carly Smithson in season 7. If you prefer Colton Dixon to Jessica Sanchez, more power to you. I’m interested in examining the trend as a whole – not in castigating people for their personal contestant preferences. (As the great Haley Reinhart once said “It’s your opinion, and you’re entitled to it”)
Nor is this rant about how the streak of male winners – Scotty McCreery, Lee Dewyze, Kris Allen and David Cook – are terrible, terrible singers and shouldn’t have won. There are perfectly decent reasons those individual singers won; there are also perfectly decent reasons why individual female contestants were eliminated. But if we rack up all those individual choices and map them out over the space of the past four years, the message is pretty damn clear. Women have a much, much harder time on idol.
There are two reasons why Idol’s Woman Problem bothers me:
1. Female Talent isn’t as recognized as male talent
(the links, in order, are Season seven’s Carly Smithson (Jesus Christ Superstar), Season eight’s Allison Iraheta (Cry Baby, exit performance), Season Nine’s Katelyn Epperly (The Scientist), Siobhan Magnus (Paint it Black) and Crystal Bowersox (Up to the Mountain) and Season Ten’s Pia Toscano (I’ll Stand by You), Lauren Alaina (Anyways) and Haley Reinhart (House of the Rising Sun))
(links, in order, to Erika Van Pelt (Edge of Glory), Skylar Laine (Stay with Me), Jessica Sanchez (Love You I Do) and Elise Testone (Whole Lotta Love))
So why aren’t they getting the recognition they deserve? Why is it basically impossible for these women, no matter what they do, to win the show?
And listen, I realize I’m ranting about gender disparity on a reality show. But you know what? It does matter. Yes, anyone who gets onto the Idol stage has a great deal of exposure. But the longer you stay on the show, the more chance there is you’ll be successful. A tenth place finisher rarely gets a record deal, a fourth place finisher often does. And the winner, of course, gets a huge boost in both exposure and sales (not to mention a guaranteed record deal). So when women are continually shut out of those spots, it means that women have a much, much harder time making a career out of their singing by going through Idol than men do. Which, of course, plays into the greater societal problems women have in getting recognition (and equal pay) for their work.
Here’s the other thing: American Idol is watched by approximately 30 million viewers. A lot of those viewers are women. A lot of those viewers are young women. When over and over and over again women on Idol are unable to win, or even to crack the top four; when you have week after week after week of only women going home (Season 10! Good times); when singers like Jessica Sanchez, who do everything it’s possible to do, are still voted out seventh – young women get the message that no matter what you do, no matter how talented you are, there is a glass ceiling, and you can’t break it. Women can be on the stage, but remember, it really belongs to the men.
So, this is bad enough. But here’s the other reason Idol’s Woman Problem bothers me.
(by the way, I realize that a year ago, I’d never watched Idol, and now I can name the ten best female performers of the last five years in a single breath. There is a land called ‘obsessiva’ and I am it’s Queen).
2. The way people react.
I am not the only person to have remarked on Idol’s gender problem. It’s pretty much a universally known fact; you’d have to have your head buried in the sand to avoid it.
And people talk about it. And they try to figure out why women are voted out so early and so often. They too, wonder why women never win anymore. And no matter what, the answer always, always, always, ALWAYS ends up being (drumroll, please): TEENAGE GIRLS.
Yes, everyone. The collective wisdom has spoken. American Idol has been completely ruined because teenage girls only vote for cute boys, and refuse to vote for talent.
A collection of quotes, for our edification:
“American Idol is ruined because all these girls are voting for the same boyfriend – I mean singer.”
“And hopefully these teen girls don’t vote them out. Stop messing with people’s careers and lives!”
“Teenage girls of America. Look, there are a lot of places to see cute boys. Google is very useful – ” “You know what they can do? They can go get a boyfriend. Or a friend who is a boy who is cute.”
“Of course, they’re going to vote for the cute boys. I mean, come on!”
A female contestant, after getting eliminated: “Once [teenage girls] get a crush, we’re done.”
“These teen girls have no clue, are dumber than a box of rocks. They’re stupid, selfish and vote against the talented ones because they’re not white boys.”
All of these comments either come from well-known idol critics (including my favorite, Michael Slezak, who is usually SO GOOD with the feminism) or from message boards on well-reputed idol fan sites. I edited some of these comments for misogynistic language. Believe me when I say that these are some of the least insulting comments I’ve seen. There’s a whole lot worse out there, and most of it involves references to prostitution or female dogs.
Over and over again, the commentary turns into an attack on teenage girls. Teen girls ONLY vote for people based on attractiveness. Teenage girls ONLY vote for boys (come on!) And then it turns into: Teen girls are stupid. Teen Girls have no taste. Teen Girls suck. Teen Girls are ruining people’s lives. I hate Teen Girls.
Inevitably, these discussions turn into a giant excuse to talk about how much teenage girls suck.
This drives me NUTS. Just… NUTS.
The implication is that teenage girls can’t possibly have taste that is unrelated to their sexual attraction to contestants. They can’t like a male contestant because they like his music. It can only ever be about his cute looks. Oh, Culturally Disoriented, you and your cute beliefs that young women can make rational decisions! You’re so funny! And so ridiculous! (but then again, you do have lady bits, so the logic thing can’t come easily to you).
Yes, let us reiterate again that teenage girls always have terrible taste, and anything they like is terrible. Hey, remember Twilight!
And it bothers the hell out of me.
Listen, I’m not sure people are aware of this, but when you dismiss an entire gender’s taste level, intelligence and ability to make rational decisions? Where I’m from, we call that sexism.
Teenaged boys are allowed to like Jessica Alba and Transformers and the first three Star Wars movies. And even though we as a culture have decided that Jessica Alba is a bad actress and Transformers and Star Wars (the prequels) are terrible movies, we don’t insult teenage boys for liking them. When people point out the misogyny in comic books, or the ridiculous way women are drawn, the reaction isn’t “don’t the teenage boys who read this suck?” The reaction is “well, boys will be boys.”
I ask only for consistency. If “boys will be boys,” then girls should be allowed to like what they like without anyone shaming them for it. Girls should be allowed to like what they like without people questioning their intelligence or generosity. Girls should be allowed to like what they like without people calling them sluts.
I mean, for crying out loud, people.
Yes, let’s talk about the gender disparity on American Idol. Please. We need to do it. But let’s not try to solve the problem of female singers on idols by tearing down other women. Let’s not get into a game of “every teen girl sucks, except the teen girls on idol, who are so awesome they need to be protected from OTHER teenage girls.” (hello hypocrisy). Let’s stop taking the gender disparity on Idol as a giant excuse to talk about how much we hate teen girls, and how much teen girls are clearly always ruled by their hormones. It’s insulting. It’s misogynistic. And most importantly, it’s not true.
That’s the most infuriating thing about this whole discussion: no one actually knows whether or not the majority of voters are teenage girls, and no one knows who they’re voting for. There’s no data. There’s no concrete information. We’re just guessing. All of these allegations are unsubstantiated.
Frankly, I don’t buy the “teenage girls are ruining idol” explanation in the least. There are so many better reasons women don’t win idol. There are so many provable reasons women don’t win idol. But of course, to acknowledge those reasons would be to acknowledge that the show itself has a gender bias. And it’s so much easier to blame it on the girls.
So if teenage girls aren’t to blame for the gender disparity, who is?
The show itself.
I’ll start with the judges.
Judges are important on American Idol. Despite Nigel Lythgoe (the executive producer’s) claim that viewers aren’t sheep and will vote for whomever they want the contestants only get to sing for 90 seconds or so. And then the judges get to talk about it for at least as long, if not longer. You think that kind of power doesn’t matter?
Please. The people the judges like are almost always the last people standing. Last year’s Haley Reinhart was one of the few exceptions to the rule.
There are two “special” advantages the judges can give: opening up the top 24 (having an extra performer or two allowed to compete for America’s votes) – and the judge’s save, where they prevent a performer from being eliminated. The judges must be aware that there is a gender disparity – and yet they continually these “special” advantages onto male performers. This year, after selecting the top 24, the judges decided to choose an extra “surprise” contestant from the people who had already been eliminated. Of course, that person got an automatic boost because they were “saved” from elimination. It was a man.
…Yes, the perfect solution to the problem of women appearing in the top ten less is to add an extra guy. Well played, judges. Well played!
The Judge’s save, meanwhile, has been used three times. Until Jessica’s elimination, all the “saved” people were male. And even more importantly: none of the men who were saved were frontrunners. No offense to Matt Giraud, Casey Abrams and Michael Lynch, but when they were eliminated (and saved) almost no one thought they were going to win. They were really talented people who went home too soon. Simon Cowell even said to Matt as he was saving him that he didn’t think Matt could win. The people who got the save weren’t people like Adam Lambert or Scotty McCreery – male singers who had a shot at the title.
Jessica Sanchez, our sole female “saved” contestant, on the other hand is a frontrunner. Before her elimination, many pundits thought she would be the winner; almost everyone thought she’d make the top three. In other words, it wasn’t until a potential female victor was eliminated that the judges were willing to use their save on a woman. Until then, they were very happy to let women get eliminated, all while saving men who probably weren’t going to win.
Speaking of “saves.” Judge Jennifer Lopez has twice begged voters to vote for someone this season. Both times, they’ve been men (none of the other judges have actually asked the audience to vote for a specific contestant)
Outside of these special advantages, there are all kinds of invisible, informal advantages that the judges give male contestants. Now, I want to be clear: I don’t think either the production or the judges are doing this on purpose. I don’t think they all sit in a room and go “yes, this is the way we will prevent women from ever winning the crown, MUAHAHAHAHA.” But even if their intention is not to cause a disparity, the reality is that the show has created an uneven playing field for male and female contestants. How have they done it?
First, the Judges recognize male contestants more often. Two weeks ago on Idol, the judges gave an unprecedented FIVE standing ovations in the course of a single show. Every single male performer except one got a standing O, and the one who didn’t was mentioned over and over in the show as having “set the bar.” Only one female performer received a standing ovation, despite the fact that most critics thought performers like Skylar Laine or Jessica Sanchez (neither of whom received a standing ovation) performed better than Deandre Brackensick and Heejun Han (both of whom received one).
Second, women tend to be far more critiqued than men. In Seasons 7, 8, 10 and 11, the main person criticized by the judges was a woman: Carly Smithson and Syesha Mercado in season 7; Allison Iraheta in season 8; Haley Reinhart in season 10 and Hollie Cavanaugh in Season 11. And it’s not because the other performers are flawless either.
Look, if you’ve decided that you can’t possibly give constructive feedback to everyone and have to concentrate on one performer and one performer alone… could you at least choose a male punching-bag every once in a while? Variety: it’s the spice of life.
Moreover, the Judges – and the producers – all seem to have an idea that there’s only one template for a female singer: a cute, young, peppy, pop-balladeer. Men get lots of roles they can play successfully – grown-ass men like David Cook, young heartthrobs like Scotty McCreery; dark, edgy rockers like Adam Lambert; masterful musicians like Casey Abrams and Kris Allen.
Women are far more restricted. Many critics (and fans like me) believe the reason Haley Reinhart was torn to shreds on a weekly basis by the judges (despite her near-flawless performances) was because she was a blues-rock singer. Meanwhile, her competitor Lauren Alaina, a country-pop balladeer, was almost never criticized. Simon Cowell spent a good ten hours of Season 11 making fun of Siobhan Magnus for being “weird.” Allison Iraheta, a sixteen year old Rocker, received critiques from the judges for not having any “personality” and being too “dark.”
Iraheta who had a delightful sense of humor, once replied that it’s “not like I’m cutting myself.” These remarks are particularly ironic because Allison shared the stage with Adam Lambert – possibly the most provocative, darkest performer to come on the idol stage (I say with love – I’m a huge Lambert fan) – and who was never critiqued for his performance style.
A subset of this problem is the clothes issue: while I’ve never heard a man criticized for his fashion choices by a judge, many, many female contestants have had their style questioned. Allison Iraheta and Carly Smithson being the two who come to mind first – and they were, of course, women who didn’t dress like pop stars. They dressed like rockers.
(possibly because they WERE rockers)
As Michael Slezak once said, “Simon isn’t happy unless the women are Whitney Huston and singing “Against All Odds” in a pageant gown.”
Unfortunately, even though Simon Cowell has left American Idol, his attitude remains. There’s nothing inherently wrong with Whitney Huston. The problem is that while men will be praised by the judges for all kinds of performance styles, women will only be praised if they fit the One True Female template. Men have all kinds of roads to the title; women only have one. And it’s all kinds of ironic, because the women who dominate the pop-charts right now – Kei$ha, Lady Gaga, Adele – are not cute, peppy pop-balladeers.
(I should add: Lady Gaga’s fanbase is primarily young… and female. So the “teenage girls only like cute conventional boys” narrative? Not so much.)
Women also almost never get credit for “artistry.” Judges will tell contestants like James Durbin or Casey Abrams that they weren’t just singers, they were “artists.” Usually these praises come after a contestant has done something really interesting with their song, rearranging it or reworking it in order to prove that they’re not just singing Karaoke. Which is great, and they should be praised for doing something original. “You have the heart and soul of an artist,” Jennifer Lopez said to James Durbin last season. Randy once said to a male performer that he was proud to be judging “artists” as well as “pop stars.”Kara DiGuardi called Matt Giraurd a “true artist.”
The trouble is, I’ve never heard a judge call a woman an artist. Or give her credit for song rearrangement. I’m sure it’s happened – it’s not like I’ve watched the show for that long. But again, as Michael Slezak said “somehow, it’s always easier for a guy with an acoustic guitar to get credit for song rearrangement than a girl.” Female contestants like Crystal Bowersox, Carly Smithson, Haley Reinhart, Katelyn Epperly, Allison Iraheta and Siobahn Magnus would make radical – and successful – changes to songs, and the judges would never praise them for it. And yes, this does matter: I don’t always know when a song has been rearranged, because I’m not always familiar with the original. So when the judges tell me Adam is a great song re-arranger, but never mention Allison’s endeavors, I assume Adam is a more well-rounded singer/artist than Allison.
While a man can be a great singer and a great artist, a woman on Idol can only be a great singer. It’s another weapon in their arsenal that men have, and women don’t.
Speaking of things men can do, but women can’t: women can’t make the judges emotional. I realize this sounds like the weirdest critique ever, but seeing a judge cry or lose it because of a performer makes a huge difference. After listening to ninety critiques, I always remember the ones where Jennifer Lopez started crying.
And when you think back, the people who have made the judges cry? Men. James Durbin. Chris Medina. Joshua Ledet. Adam Lambert. Michael Lynche. Lee Dewyze. Listen, I can’t necessarily yell at the judges for crying – it’s not a reaction they can control. But when the judges don’t cry, they’ll often say things like “this touched my soul” etc. And even then – even when no physiological reaction is needed – they usually say those things to men. Well, of course, Culturally Disoriented. Don’t be ridiculous. Men are artists. And they can affect you emotionally. But women? Women can be pretty, and perfect – but they can’t make you cry.
And, in a case of hitting someone when they’re down, women tend to get the “cold and emotionless” critique far more than men do.
Speaking of which, I’m going to turn back to the teen girls issue to talk about the “cuteness” factor. You know what group of people are really, really, REALLY obsessed with cute boys? (hint: it’s not teen girls).
It’s the Judges (and the Production).
Listen, maybe teen girls are voting for male contestants because of their looks. But the judges are practically begging them to do it. During critiques, they’ll pause to ask the audience: “Ladies, what do you think of this man?” Or Jennifer Lopez to Casey Abrams “I think you’re sexy!” Or Simon Cowell will tell Kris Allen that it was a mistake to reveal “the wife” too soon (because Kris should pretend to be an available heartthrob).
And this kind of critique happens all the time. The message? You should pay attention to these boys looks. They matter. (Sometimes they seem to matter more than the actual singing – I remember a Casey Abrams performance where all the judges could talk about was his “sexy” appearance).
During Top nine week of Season 11, Nigel Lythgoe (the executive producer) actually went into the audience and pushed a group of girls onstage to hug Scotty McCreery. The host, Ryan Seacrest, started calling Scotty “Scotty the Body” (urgh. God. No. Please. No. (he’s sixteen, you maniacs)). The judges and the production basically frame these men as sex objects.
(Seriously, judges/ producers. Don’t you have google? Don’t you have access to boyfriends or hot-friends-who-are-men? Why else would you constantly comment on the male performers looks, or turn them into sex objects?)
But they judges don’t do the same thing for female performers. Despite the fact that Haley Reinhart, Pia Toscano and Lauren Alaina were all attractive women, the judges never said to them “the boys at home are really going to eat that up.” (excuse my heteronormativity here). When Crystal Bowersox had a boyfriend, Simon Cowell didn’t tell her she should “hide” that information in order to seem available. Nigel Lythgoe doesn’t send a group of teen boys to hug Jessica Sanchez or Skylar Laine.
I know the judges call the women “beautiful.” But there’s a difference between calling someone “beautiful” and “sexy.” Sexy frames you as an object of desire. And desire… makes people vote. It reminds me of So You Think You Can Dance, where Cat Deeley introduces the contestants by saying “these are the girls… and here are your boys.” The “your” makes it more personal; as an audience member, you’re instantly more engaged. Comments like “ladies, what do you think of this man” have a similar effect.
Listen, I’m kind of grateful for the lack of sexual objectification, to be honest. I don’t want to see the judges framing sixteen year old Lauren Alaina, or sixteen year old Jessica Sanchez, as an object of lust. Steven Tyler’s already crossed the line a few times, and it was super-awkward. But I don’t want to see the judges framing sixteen year old Scotty McCreery as a sex object either (gaaaaaah). There’s got to be a happy medium. Maybe dial back the sexualization of the boys, and throw in a few remarks like “I’m sure all the boys appreciated that song, Jessica.”
Commentators are right on one count: sex sells. And when only men are framed as sex objects, when only men are “cute,” when only men are desirable – then men have a distinct advantage. And if you’re not going to give the “sexy” edit a rest for men, then girls should get it too. At least sexualize equally, damn it!
(*AHA. Last night Steven Tyler said that Elise’s singing struck a chord in every man’s heart. Clearly, he’s reading my mind.)
Here’s my point (which has been almost twenty paragraphs in the making – I prefer my rants long and bitter). Maybe people aren’t voting for the best singer anymore. But neither are the judges. Over and over, the judges emphasize that you should vote because of “artistry” and “emotional connection” and “hotness.” The standards have changed.
Perhaps this wouldn’t matter if women were praised for artistry, looks and emotions. But they’re not: only men are “hot” “artists” and “emotional.”
It’s no wonder women can’t win American Idol. They’re thrown into the ring with only one path to victory – cute pop-ballader – and no weapons. They must fight their way through judge critiques of their personality and clothing, and pray they won’t be a scapegoat that season. Their male competitors, meanwhile, get the weapons of “hotness” “artistry” “emotional connection” and “overpraising.” They get the “special advantages” of Judges saves and extra spots in the Top 24. And they have many, many paths to victory – from rock to pop to soul.
We live in a misogynistic society. It’s sad, but true. I’m not surprised that we see that misogyny manifest itself in the format of American Idol. I’m not surprised the judges favor men.
Like Elise Testone so appropriately sang: this is a man, man’s world…
I’m not, at the end of the day, even that surprised that people refuse to see the very real, provable reasons why women don’t win American Idol. Because to acknowledge those reasons would be to acknowledge that the show itself has problems with sexism.
And it’s so much easier to blame the teen girls.
Ironically, the people who have the biggest problem with women and Idol? The (non-female, non-teen) fans. The fans who, every time this issue is raised, go to the message boards and rant about the “stupid teen girls” and the “sluts” and the “bitches” who keep their favorites from winning. The fans who call teen girls whores, and accuse them of wanting boyfriends rather than voting for talent. The fans who say teen girls can’t have taste.
Those fans? Those fans have serious problems with women.
And so does the show.
But like I said: it’s so much easier to blame teen girls.
And so that we all remember that:
a) Teenage girls are awesome
b) Women on Idol are awesome
I give you teenager Allison Iraheta’s exit performance of Cry Baby
ETA: I wrote a followup a week before the Idol finale: And In Breaking News, American Idol is Still Sexist.
*** ETA: I wrote this post BEFORE the top eight results, when Colton Dixon was voted off the show. Colton’s exit means it’s the first time in who knows how long that there are more women on the show than men (hurrah!). It also means that Jessica Sanchez is safe for another week (hurrah!). I do think my commentary is still applicable – the Jessica Sanchez situation is one example of a much wider situation. It should also be noted that this means that all the contestants have been in the bottom 3 except Phillip Phillips (male) – and that no one who has appeared in the Bottom 3 before top 5 EXCEPT Fantasia Barino has gone on to win the show. Which… is a not-so-good sign for the women.
I do hope that the trend of women losing Idol is reversing course. And I hope there is a female winner this year – I prefer the women to the men this season, although I do love Joshua Ledet. And I was a Colton fan, I will admit, so I’m sad he was voted off.
A couple weeks ago, Flavor Wire came out with an article titled “Great Science Fiction Books for Girls.”
lots of girls and women love science fiction, and we are confident that many more could, if only they gave it a chance.* To help with the gender imbalance in this delightful, political, strange genre of speculative fiction, we’ve put together a list of 10 great science fiction books for girls and women — though we think anyone would enjoy them.
Now, as a female science fiction fan who always wants to see more female representation in the Sci-Fi field – and who is always looking for interesting books to read – I was cautiously excited about this article.
I shouldn’t have been.
I was with them for their first three picks, but when they pulled out The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi, I went “EXCUSE ME?”
And then it was just a comedy of errors. Horrible, horrible, horrible errors.
Who in the name of the Jane Austen, Emily Bronte and Virginia Woolf thought it was a good idea to put Strangers in a Strange Land on a list of books meant to appeal to women? The writer of the article even says: “ the female characters in this novel aren’t particularly inspiring.” Which, frankly, is pretty generous. Most of the female characters in the novel exist to worship the main (male) character, and one of them says this (inspiring) line: “Nine times out of ten, if a girl gets raped, it’s at least partly her own fault. The tenth time – well, all right.”
Yeah, that’s the kind of line that’ll get women to read science fiction.
I’m sure critics are popping up in the background to say: “But wait a minute! Strangers in a Strange Land is a classic of the science fiction field! Sure, it’s misogynistic, but it’s also a great read.”
And I would reply: “You are quite correct, my good sirs/madams. However, when one purports to be writing a list specifically to appeal TO WOMEN, it behooves one not assail those women with a giant dose of misogyny on their first read. It would be a little like trying to get African Americans to read more historical literature, and recommending they start with Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind. Nor does it behoove one to recommend Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl,*** a novel that, while not necessarily sexist, does include a great deal of carefully-described graphic rape scenes. While we’re at it: I loved Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, and when I was growing up it was a major science fiction gateway drug for me, but Card’s female characters have serious issues.”
***My favorite part of Flavorwire’s recommendation of The Windup Girl, for example, is when the writer makes it sound like Emiko (the titular wind-up girl) is the main character. She’s not. She’s the sideshow, the secondary plot. The protagonist is Anderson Lake.
In fact, I wasn’t particularly pleased with the list’s “feminist” picks either – although I have a huge personal attachment to both Joanna Russ’s The Female Man and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, neither of them are books I would recommend for a first time science fiction reader. They’re novels that take an unflinching look at gender disparity, sexism and tyranny… so both of them make for pretty harrowing reads. Great for falling in love with genre fiction!
Part of the fundamental problem with a list of books for girls – oh, wait. Actually. Question. Why is this list called “Great Science Fiction Books for Girls”? Because if it’s actually for girls – for teenagers and younger children – my brain is about to explode. Who would recommend The Female Man, Strangers in a Strange Land and The Windup Girl to young girls? I am choosing to believe that by “girls,” the author means women, because I can’t wrap my head around the idea that someone would recommend a book (The Windup Girl) with over twenty pages of rape scenes. (There are plenty of teenager girls who could handle The Windup Girl, but it isn’t something I would recommend universally – and certainly not without a fair warning). So if this is really a list for women, can we call them women? And not girls? There’s a difference. Thank you!
Pardon the tangent. So, the part of the fundamental problem with a list of books for girls, of course, is that not all women want to read the same things. There are lots of women who love hard science fiction, and there are many women who prefer “soft” science fiction. Some women prefer a character-driven story, others like stories that delve into the nitty-gritty mechanics of the science. Some enjoy futuristic dystopias, others space operas, some like a post-apocalpytic landscape, and others yet prefer a good time travel narrative. Some want to read about social justice issues and feminism, others would really rather not. And most women want to read different things on different days. We are not a monolith, either as a group or as individuals.
But I can safely bet that most women would like their fiction to include interesting female characters. Which is why it’s so disheartening that out of ten books flavorwire recommends, only four have a female lead. You would expect that a list that is supposed to cater to women, female characters would at least have equal representation.
At the very least, one would imagine that books recommended specifically to women would not contain female characters who are stereotypes. Sadly, most of the books on the list are known for their two dimensional female characterization. Again, not the way you’re going to get women to read science fiction. Look, I will put up with Orson Scott Card’s “all women ultimately belong in the kitchen” mindset, but I’m already a fan. You don’t have to convert me.
In retrospect, though, I should have seen that the list was going to be a disaster from a mile away.
Let me quote, once more: “lots of girls and women love science fiction, and we are confident that many more could, if only they gave it a chance”
Here’s the thing: yes, there are women who might like SF who aren’t “giving it a chance.” But there are a lot of very good reasons those women aren’t giving SF a chance. SF, after all, is a field that has traditionally had a lot of problems with women (and other minorities). Often, it’s not women who don’t give SF a chance – it’s SF that doesn’t give women a chance. Female characters are historically underrepresented in SF, as are female authors. Even when there are women in SF, they are often invisible. Female characters and authors are usually forgotten or ignored in favor of their male counterparts. The recent Strange Horizons study on gender in SF shows that even though women write almost half of the SF/F on the market, they’re still overwhelmingly under-reviewed by major outlets.
SF culture can also be quite hostile to women – I’ve witnessed blow-up fights about whether women belong in military SF, or whether women can truly “enjoy” hard SF. Famous female authors have to deal with death threats, rape threats, hate mail and misogynistic slurs at a rate that stuns their male counterparts. When Nicola Griffiths suggested one way to combat gender inequality in SF was to take the Russ pledge, certain sections of SF fandom practically called for her head.
A close friend of mine (M) asked me point blank last summer how I could read SF when there were so many problematic aspects to the genre. She had a point. After all, I don’t read comic books because even though I grew up loving superheroes, I cannot handle the misogyny present in mainstream comics. And I’ve had to train myself not to read comments on article about gender and genre online, because they inevitably devolve into rhethoric that makes me want to dig out my brain with spoon.
Many women don’t “give science fiction a chance” because they perceive the genre as being uninterested in women. They’re not completely wrong. And when Flavorwire publishes a list of books for women that’s a pastiche of classic SF texts with a few feminist works rather than an actual exploration of books women might enjoy… well, they’re just reinforcing the problem.
But I know SF is interested in women. I know that it has the potential to be a great genre for women. I think it’s the field with the most potential for deconstructing gender stereotypes. It can expand our understanding of gender and femininity. It’s the realm where everything is possible – faster than light travel, yes, but also gender equality, racial equality, the end of xenophobia, transphobia and homophobia.
SF is the mythology of the future. And the future belongs to women just as much as it belongs to men.
In light of the many, many issues in the flavorwire article, I’ve decided to put up an alternative list of “Great Books for Women” to get into Science Fiction. Lists are necessarily imperfect, especially when they’re as broad ranging as “Great Books for Women.” My list will necessarily be even more imperfect, since it only includes my point of view, and I have very specific likes and dislikes (I prefer my works with great characterization and social commentary).
Nevertheless, lists are useful. They’re filters. I rely on these kinds of lists – award lists, year-end-best lists, best-books-for-college-students-who-like-aliens lists etc. – to find books I’ll enjoy. If I were trying to get into science fiction, I might well try to find a list of suggestions. So all in all, I think it’s useful to provide alternatives to the flavorwire list (and I do mean alternatives. I imagine other people have created lists of their own; I hope others will as well. The more options, the better!)
I had very loose parameters in constructing this (eight book) list. I don’t believe that there are things women “like” more than men, not really. I do believe that the way to attract women (or anyone else) to a genre is to do the two things the flavorwire list failed to do:
1. Avoid offending them
2. Prove they have a place within that genre (as characters, authors etc.)
So I have only recommended works that contain no overt misogyny, and that have good female characters (although they don’t all have female leads). So without further ado, here is my eight-book list of “Great Books” of Science Fiction for women. These are not works meant solely for women. They’re not guaranteed to attract women. They’re the books I would recommend to someone who is just starting out in the genre, male, female or other. They’re also just damn awesome, and if you’re a genre fan, you’ll probably enjoy them (no matter your gender).
Please feel free to add suggestions for other books!
Eight Good Books For Women to Explore Science Fiction. Or For Men to Explore Science Fiction. Or for Science Fiction Fans looking For New Reads. Well, Okay, For Anyone Looking For A Decent Read.
1. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin
The novel centers on Genly Ai, a human ambassador to the planet of Winter (Gethen). Ai is supposed to convince the denizens of Winter to join the Ekumen – the intergalactic community.
The people of Winter are androgynes – neither male nor female, except for a few days near the end of the month, when they morph into either a man or a woman. The transformation depends on who they’re around at the time. To a certain degree, the androgynes are triple-gendered: male, female and neutral.
Genly Ai, a (male) human ambassador, has come to Winter (or Gethen) to convince its denizens to join the Ekumen – the intergalactic community. He is mildly horrified by the non-gendered nature of the citizens of Winter. The heart of the novel lies in the slow development of a friendship between Genly Ai and Estraven, the prime minister of Gethen.
This all sounds rather slow, but I assure you, it is not. Le Guin is a master of plot: the exploration of gender, the conflicts between alien species, the courtly intrigue, the massive character development – all of these elements combine to make The Left Hand of Darkness a novel that is both incredibly affecting and entertaining. And Le Guin’s prose is gorgeous – there are lines from the novel I still remember, two years later.
Flavorwire also recommended this one, actually, so point for them.
2. Cordelia’s Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold
I’m cheating here, because Cordelia’s Honor is actually two books: Shards of Honor and Barrayar. They’ve been combined into one volume, however, so… I feel less guilty. Plus, if you read one, you’ll want to read the other. Trust me.
Cordelia’s Honor are the first novel(s) in Bujold’s massively popular series, the Vorkosigan saga.The story centers around Cordelia Naismith, a captain in the Betan army. While exploring a new world, Cordelia’s force is attacked by the Barrayan army, leaving Cordelia stranded on the planet with Aral Vorkosigan, one of the most notorious citizens of Barrayar. He’s known as the “Butcher of Komarr.” Not a man you want to spend a lot of time alone with, in other words.
The two develop an unlikely alliance in their attempt to get off the planet – an alliance that, in an even more unlikely turn, transforms into a romance. Yet this is not a typical love plot. Both Cordelia and Aral are middle-aged; their life experiences have imbued them with maturity. They’re also both interesting characters in their own right. Cordelia is anti-militaristic, but she can – and will – out-maneuver anyone who gets in her way (with a weapon, if necessary). Aral was born and bred to the military, but he’s a veritable fount of honor, who is deeply conflicted about the legacy of his time in the army.They’re not just teenagers jumping into a romance due to hormones.
On top of their slowly-developing feelings, Cordelia and Aral have to deal with their conflicting planetary loyalties, a couple massive wars, mutineers, psychopathic politicians and incompetent soldiers. Cordelia is one of the most competent heroines I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading: it’s a true joy watching her solve problems.
3. Kindred and Wild Seed by Octavia Butler
I debated for a while on this one. Not that I don’t think Octavia Butler should be on the list – I just wasn’t sure whether to put Kindred or Wild Seed on there. They’re such superb novels that in the end, I gave up and put them both on. Kindred centers around Dana, a woman from San Francisco in the 1970s America who is dragged out of time and space to a plantation in Antebellum Maryland. She quickly discovers that her ancestors were slaves on the plantation, and realizes she must bring around the union of her great-great-great (something) grandparents in order to go home.
Wild Seed is about the conflict between two immortals – Doro, who can transfer his mind to any body, and Anyanwu, who can transform into any shape. Doro wants to create a new species of humans through selective breeding, and thinks Anyanwu is the perfect “wild seed” to use in his experimentation. The story is one of genetic engineering – but the genetic engineers are ones who modify DNA across vast spans of time through their own bodies and their children.
To a certain extent, both novels are about the same thing: how to survive in societies where power dynamics are completely against you. Dana has to act like a slave in order to stay alive in the American south; Anyanwu has to bend to Doro’s will in order to keep her family alive. Yet neither woman is a victim – Butler shows their resistance and intelligence in carving out spaces of freedom for themselves.
Butler’s one of the few SF authors who has gotten some critical attention (and deservedly so). She’s also the author Flavorwire readers most often named as “missing” from the 10 best books for women list. Again, I can see why. I’m sure her plots, as described above, seem simplistic, but they’re not. To a large extent, Butler’s genius comes from taking “traditional” SF plots and humanizing them. Yes, time travel is fun, but Butler makes it personal, and viscerally real. Yes, genetic engineering could get you a monster – but what’s the human toll of genetics in action? Those are Butler’s stories, and they’re gorgeous in their execution.
4. Air by Geoff Ryman
Oh, Air, how I do love thee.
Air takes place in a small village in the fictional Asian country of Karzistan. As the novel opens, a worldwide experiment with a new information technology called “Air” takes place. Air is like the internet – but in your head.
Since no one in the village has been warned about the experiment, chaos ensues. A few people die. In the aftermath, Chung Mae, the village’s leading fashion expert, decides that the village must prepare for the next advent of “air.” They cannot allow themselves to be destroyed or marginalized by the arrival of this new technology.
Few books do as good a job of exploring the consequences of technological change as Air does. True, much SF is about theorizing those consequences. Most books,however, do it from the perspective of white north americans or europeans, which is, when you think about it, rather incredible. If technology truly transforms the life of anyone, it is the most “marginalized, disadvantaged” people in society – and not always for the better.
All this sounds rather grim, but Ryman writes with a heightened sense of the comic and with joie-de-vivre which makes the novel a wonderfully joy0us experience. The characters, particularly Mae, are fantastic. The plot is smart, and includes all these well-drawn asides that make you feel like the three hundred pages of the book encompass the entire village. In a clever mimicry of the polyphonous structure of the internet itself, Air is a cacaphonous novel: there are many characters, and they all have something (or many things) to say.
5. China Mountain Zhang by Maureen McHugh
China Mountain Zhang takes place in the near future. China is the dominant world power; the United States has bowed to the inevitable, and become a communist bastion. A normal SF story would probably trace a plucky (white) hero’s fight against the Chinese hegemony. Here, the main character is Zhang Zhongshan, an ABC – American Born Chinese. His name translates as “China Mountain” – hence the title.
Zhang wants nothing more than to find a good career and a quiet life. But Zhang has two strikes against him. For one thing, he’s not really a full-blood Chinese: his mother was Brazilian. For another, he’s gay in a society where to be gay is punishable by death.
Zhang is talented and hard-working, and as a result, he receives many opportunities for advancement. His first boss wants to mentor him as his successor. He later manages to get a student visa to China – a chance most americans would kill for. But in all these instances, Zhang’s ability to succeed is complicated by his need to “pass” as Chinese and straight. Near the beginning of the novel, for example, Zhang’s boss Qian sets him up with his daughter, San-xiang. Zhang realizes that marrying San-Xiang would guarantee his success in the world, but refuses to let his lie go that far. He almost tells Qian that he is gay, realizes that execution is not a good way to go, and instead reveals his Brazilian heritage. Qian fires him.
One of my favorite aspects of McHughes work is her refusal to let her secondary characters remain two dimensional pictures in her novel’s landscape. The novel includes several long “asides” from Zhang’s story. She devotes an entire chapter (the novel is quite short, so a chapter is a significant length) to San-Xiang, the girl setup to marry Zhang, and San-Xiang’s decision to get plastic surgery. We also read about colonial life on Mars, and Angel, a “kite-flyer” in New York City with plenty of talent but terribly sub-par equipment.
China Mountain Zhang is a quiet, beautiful, affecting novel. Although it’s not about heroes, it tells stories of ordinary, everyday heroism, the kind we need to get out of bed and live our lives. Although it’s neither about wars and politics, McHugh infuses each of Zhang’s decisions and actions with significance, reminding us of the weightiness of “normal” life.
6. Doomsday Book by Connie Willis
I couldn’t possibly complete this list without some good, old-fashioned time travel. Especially by Connie Willis. If H.G. Wells is the father of Time Travel, Connie Willis is the President of the Science Fiction association. (By the way, I fully realize that Kindred involves Time Travel, but the time travel in Kindred involves absolutely no science (I still say it’s SF, but that’s another fight)).
In the future, scientists at the fictional Oxbridge University have perfected the technique of time travel. They use it to send academics back in time to do historical research. Such research is very carefully controlled: entire sections of history, including the middle ages, are deemed too dangerous or volatile to send people to.
Kivrin, a young medievalist, doesn’t care much about “dangerous” or “volatile.” She persuades her advisors to send her back to 1320 – twenty years before the arrival of the black plague to England. Her instructor, Professor James Dunworthy, thinks this a terrible idea (spoiler: he’s right), but he’s overruled by the department chair, who wants the fame that will come from such a pioneering effort. No one, after all, has ever gone this far back in time.
But soon after Kivrin is sent into the past, the time-travel machine’s technician collapses from a strange illness. Soon, the entire city shuts down as the disease spreads, leaving Kivriin stuck in the past, and the machine under quarantine. And then, whoops, poor Kivrin figures out that she’s not in 1320 after all. She’s in 1348 – right smack in the middle of the black plague. From there, the narrative switches back and forth between Kivrin’s efforts to survive the plague and save the village she’s been sent back to, and Professor Dunworthy’s attempts to save Kivrin while not dying himself.
I like H.G. Wells, don’t get me wrong, but if he and Willis got in a fight, I’d put my money down on Willis for the win. Wells explores the idea of time travel. Willis gives the idea consequence. We know Kivrin. We known Dunworthy. We come to know the members of the village – a formidable task, given the culture and time difference. When they are cut, we bleed. Her prose is gentle and remarkably restrained. Her characters are lovely. Her jokes are witty. But by the end of my eight-hour speed-read through Doomsday Book, I was an emotional wreck. It was like getting knocked out with a teddy-bear – I didn’t see it coming (it’s a teddy bear! Who suspects the teddy bear?)
The Doomsday Book also won a Nebula, a Hugo and a Locus. So, you know. Everyone loved it.
But if you’re going to read it, I recommend buying a lot of chocolate beforehand. And some tissues. I needed them.
7. Feed by Mira Grant
Okay, sure, zombie uprising. Scary. But what happens after? What happens if we survive? What happens to human society? Those are the questions Grant answers in Feed, which takes place some twenty years after the zombie apocalypse. Zombies are almost everywhere, but American society has reconstituted itself. Hey, we’re even conducting that most fundamental of American activities: a presidential election.
George and Sean Mason, a brother and sister duo, are two young, up-and-coming journalists / bloggers. They regularly confront the outside world – the zombied world – in order to inform (or entertain) the public. And they’ve been invited to cover the presidential campaign. It’s the opportunity of a lifetime.
Not surprisingly, everything goes to hell in a handbasket very quickly. Do not expect to go to sleep very often while reading this novel. I couldn’t put it down.
All zombie novels have some measure of social commentary, but I haven’t read a single one that does it as subversively as Feed does. On the flip side, NOT all zombie novels have the depth of characterization present in Feed. Grant makes you fall in love with characters, and then she throws them on the ground and jumps on them over and over again and makes you watch, and it’s horrible. And wonderful. George and Sean hold a special place in my heart – their sibling relationship is so strong, and so interesting. I’m not a fan of the zombie genre, as a general rule, but I absolutely love the Newsflesh series, and I’m awaiting the final novel with bated, terrified breath.
7. The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
The Sparrow is my all-time, bar-none, no-pretenders allowed favorite science fiction novel. Ever. In fact, I love it so much that it’s in my top three novels PERIOD. It’s the novel that convinced me that, no matter what my parents or teacher said, science fiction could be about Important Things (note the capitalization). It’s also a novel that fills me with near-religious awe every time I read it. Which is Saying Something, because I’m a pretty committed agnostic (again, note the capitalization).
Around the year 2020, humanity discovers that alien life exists, less than four light years away. And they’re broadcasting music. Music. The Jesuits decide they must send a mission.
The novel switches back and forth between two stories. The first story is that of the mission – the preparation for the trip, and the eventual arrival at Rakhat. The second story is that of Emilio Sandoz, 50 years in the future. He is the mission’s only survivor. Rumors of his behavior on Rakhath have turned him into a man reviled as a murderer and a whore. His fellow Jesuits are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt – if he talks. Emilio is not talking.
The Sparrow is a mystery of character. In the storyline of 2020, Sandoz is a devout, joyful man. As the mission moves closer and closer to Rakhat, he becomes so close to God that D.W. Yarborough, his immediate superior, uses the “S” word (saint) to describe him to the vatican “I see the potential for it (…) I tole ‘em I think we got ourselves a genuine big-time mystic on our hands. “Wedded to God and at certain moments in full communion with divine love” is how I put it” (231). Fifty years later, Sandoz (who is only 3 years older, thanks to the laws of relativity), is a bitter, self-destructive, ravaged, God-hating man. How did he change? What could possibly have happened to transform him this radically?
The Sparrow is also a mystery of religion. I usually shut down a bit when religion comes into novels – it’s often done in a way that alienates me. But I love The Sparrow because of, not in spite of, it’s religious core. It’s one of the best explorations of religion and religious faith I’ve ever read. It’s smart and merciless in its questions. And it’s unflinching in revealing the answers.
Another wonderful part of Russell’s novel is the team assembled to go to Rakhat. Unlike most first-contact stories, the team isn’t made up of military types, or “experts.” Instead, everyone is a Jesuit, or a civilian, chosen more for their connection to the initial discovery on Rakhat than their technical skill. Because they’re not wedded to military devotion or professionalism, the team becomes bonded as a family, rather than as a “unit.” Russell makes each member of the team a complex, crunchy character – entities so real that I’ve long ceased to think of them as characters, and started to see them as “people.” From Emilio’s best friend Anne to his superior D.W. Yarborough, to the woman Emilio loves, Sofia Mendez – I know them all. The characterization is superb.
It’s also a damn funny novel, in spite of the darkness of the storyline:
“There are days when I think that, underneath it all, God has got to be a cosmic comedian. Anne, the Good Lord decided to make D.W. Yarbrough a Catholic, a liberal, ugly and gay and a fair poet, and they had him born in Waco, Texas. Now I ask you, is that the work of a serious deity?”
So that’s my lovely, eight-book list of Great Works of SF for women. What have I missed? What else would you recommend?
First, I would like to apologize to everyone who reads this blog (aka: the CIA and my younger brother) because this post… is very late. For three weeks – three weeks! – I managed to stick to a carefully constructed schedule and put up a post every two or three days. But not this week. And I feel very guilty. In my defense, I had four papers due, so the prospect of writing a blog post – ANY blog post – made me want to curl up in a ball and cry.
But I shall stop being a narcissist now, and get to my March reading list!
(Apparently not being a narcissist involves talking about all the books I read. Obviously, what I really need to read is the dictionary. Hem.)
(Also: I will be a narcissist again at the end of my post. Apologies in Advance (And that’s Alliteration #1).
Yes, in fact, to my great surprise, in March, I read things! I don’t know how I did it, since I was dying of schoolwork, but… books were consumed! By me! Many of them for class!
Discussion of said books follows the giant list.
(note: any book that is starred and in italics is a book I liked enough to recommend).
1. Was by Geoff Ryman **
2. My New York Diary by Julie Doucet
3. Emma by Jane Austen **
4. God’s War by Kameron Hurley **
5. Deathless by Catherynne Valente **
6. Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins **
7. Jazz by Toni Morrison
8. Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord **
9. Palestine by Joe Sacco **
10. The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
11. Persuasion by Jane Austen**
12. Power and Majesty by Tansy Rayner Roberts **
As you can probably tell from the excessive italics/stars, March was a fantastic month for books. Which was good, because March was a terrible month for my life, so I needed good literature to keep my faith in humanity alive. Hell, even the books I didn’t like were interesting (I ended up writing an essay about My New York Diaries, which I didn’t enjoy at all, but which I admired quite a bit).
I obviously loved Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord, but I’m not going to talk about it again (because I wrote a giant review).
Unfortunately, The Marriage Plot was the low point of the month. I kept waiting for it to get better, because I Trusted Jeffrey Eugenides To Do Right By Me (he wrote Middlesex, a book I loved), but instead, it kept getting worse. Five days, I spent reading that book. Five Days. And the ending! Let’s not even talk about the ending. Well, actually, let’s (Spoiler Alert). Is it just me, or is it deeply problematic in terms of the gender politics? The woman has no agency in her romantic decisions. Her husband leaves her because that’s the Best Thing For Her. Her best friend decides not to marry her because that’s the Best Thing For Her. He does start a relationship with her, because that’s ALSO the Best Thing For Her. Her parents support the Best Friend because they think he’s the Best Thing for Their Daughter.
(Everyone is so considerate of this poor woman. It fills my heart with joy)
We don’t once hear what the poor woman wants for herself (note that she’s been a viewpoint character, so it’s not like she doesn’t have an opinion in the rest of the narrative). Does she want to n0t-marry her best friend who is now in a relationship with her? I don’t know! And no one seems to care!
What? The Ever-Loving? Frack?
I want to give Jeffrey Eugenides the benefit of the doubt, because I can’t believe the guy who wrote Middlesex was so tone-deaf. I want to believe that he was trying to put forwards these stereotypes in order to question them. I really want to believe that.
But instead, he managed to fail so spectacularly that the novel only ends up reinforcing misogynistic gender sterotypes. Or else he subverted them so subtly that even I didn’t notice, and since I’m pretty damn attuned to gender politics, he must have been VERY subtle.
Let’s move away from the Ugly, shall we? Because there was a hell of a lot of good. I greatly enjoyed Suzanne Collins’s Mockingjay – okay, that’s a lie. I didn’t enjoy Mockingjay at all – but it was not a novel made for enjoyment. Unless you enjoy being emotionally tortured. Which I do, sometimes (Deadline, I’m looking at you), but Mockingjay was not that kind of torture. Unlike most of the fans of the Hunger Games trilogy, I thought Mockingjay was a very good ending to the trilogy – and in fact, I think it’s the darkness of the final two books that elevate the trilogy, that make it more than a good YA series and propel it towards greatness. Mockingjay is brutally, unrelentingly honest. Which is not fun. But it is truthful. And I do so admire truthfulness.
I raved about God’s War by Kameron Hurley in my Hugo Nominations post, and two weeks later, I haven’t changed my mind. It’s a sensational novel, in every sense of the word (I’m really overdoing it with the alliteration, aren’t it? Sensational and sense? Really?) It was a deeply uncomfortable read, but again, that was the point. I usually don’t enjoy detective stories (I never managed to like Lauren Beukes’s novel Zoo City in spite of the fantastic worldbuilding, because it was too much about the mystery) but Hurley makes the detective work so much a part of the backstory and the worldbuilding and the character development that it worked. It didn’t feel like “mystery story set in Sci-Fi world”. Which is quite an achievement.
The book was also deservedly nominated for a Nebula for best novel.
I haven’t yet raved about Deathless by Catherynne Valente, but I shall take this opportunity to do so. Catherynne Valente is one of my favorite contemporary writers. You can tell she’s one of my favorite contemporary writers because, when I had the opportunity to meet her at WisCon, I ducked into a stairwell instead (The extent to which I admire an artist is directly related to the extent to which I will avoid meeting them). In my defense, it was a pretty awesome stairwell.
Catherynne Valente’s Deathless is a radical reworking of a Russian folktale about Koschei the deathless and his bride, Marya Morevna. I was not on-board with this plot. Stories about marriages tend to bore me – especially stories about unequal marriages, like the ones between a god-like figure and a human. Yes, yes, those unions can never work, blah-blah, unequal power dynamics, angst, hot boys, angst, blah, blah, etc. Why do we care so much? I don’t know about you, but I’ve just stopped caring at all.
Oh, but Valente will make you care. She made me care. She has an uncanny capacity for getting to the heart of what makes stereotypical stories so damn compelling, and then ripping those tropes apart and sewing them back together them until your mind reels with the wonder of what she’s constructed. By the end of the novel, I cared so much about Koschei and Marya’s marriage that I started to tear up. I can’t explain why. Valente’s work defies the kind of superlative criticism that is within my capacity to write.
I also feel guilty that I didn’t read Deathless in time to nominate it for the Hugos. At least I didn’t have to make a sophie’s choice over which novel to throw out to make room for it. Still.
My final read this month was Tansy Rayner Robert’s novel Power and Majesty. I am planning to write a full review sometime soon, so I won’t say too much. I will say that there was no novel this month that I enjoyed more – I’m having trouble remembering a novel this year that I enjoyed more, in point of fact. I kept smiling during the days I was reading it, and I couldn’t figure out why. I had a giant paper due. I was freaking out. Why the hell was I smiling?
And then I remembered that once the paper was in, I could go back to the world of Aufleur. And Velody. And the smiling made total sense.
Power and Majesty is urban fantasy, technically, although I think it shades into the epic. It takes place in a city with a quite a few similarities to ancient Rome (I have no doubt those similarities are a complete coincidence, especially since Rayner Roberts doesn’t know anything about Rome, what with her PhD in Roman History (Hem)). Velody and her friends have come to Aufleur to make their fortunes as dressmakers, ribbon-makers and flower-arrangers. Unbeknownst to them, they’re also about to get dragged into a world of magic, warfare and gratuitous nudity (which turns out not to be gratuitous at all).
The “random girl discovers she’s actually the key to the success of an epic war” narrative is pretty well-explored in the fantasy genre, but Rayner Roberts manages to make it fresh. I think a lot of her success is due to the contrasts in the story – it’s chugging along, light and frothy and fun, and suddenly you hit an intense, violently emotional moment. And those moments are never the ones I expected to be violently emotional. When Velody negotiates a pact with the people she’s supposed to be leading into battle, for example, it should feel cold and stark and political (particularly since all of those people want to kill her and drink her blood) but instead, it’s so intimate that you feel like a voyeur.
In any case, if you like urban fantasy – or epic fantasy – or hell, if you like fantasy, full stop – you should buy Power and Majesty. I’m so pleased to be able to buy it at all: Rayner Roberts is an Australian writer, and until a few weeks ago, her work was only available in Australia. Which was quite frustrating for me – I am a big fan of Galactic Suburbia (witness my freakout over their Hugo nomination) a podcast Rayner Roberts runs along with her friends Alisa and Alex (the alliteration never ends). Based on the strength of Rayner Roberts’s genre commentary, and the fact that I greatly enjoy urban fantasy, I was pretty sure I would love her fiction – but I couldn’t get my hands on it. So it is to my unending delight that there is now a kindle edition that you can purchase in Canada, the UK and the USA.
Jump. On. It. NOW. Like I said, it’s possibly the most enjoyable book I’ve read all year. Which is high praise – have you seen my booklists? It’s not like I’m not enjoying myself.
And in an attempt to prolong my enjoyment of the book, I will be writing a full review. Soon. After my finals. Okay, so… not soon. But soon. ish.
That’s the end of my (giant) Monthly update on my reading list. I do have some blog-related things to freak out about, so if you feel like indulging me, keep reading.
I will apologize AGAIN, because I need to be super-self-indulgent and talk about the fact that, as it turns out, people who aren’t the CIA and my younger brother have actually read this blog.
Apparently, if you write a post about a super-topical topic (the Hugo Awards! Also: “topical topic?” Why can’t I stop with the alliteration)
And you link to other people who have written about said super-topical topic (“said super topical topic” = double alliteration!)
THEN people will read what you wrote. Specifically: people who you wrote ABOUT in your super-topical post will read what you wrote. And then they’ll write to you and say nice things. Or they’ll link back to you.
All this leads to the events of this morning, when I checked my (blog-related) email in the middle of my class (I realize I am a bad person and going to the special circle of hell reserved for child molesters and people who talk at the theater).
And started grinning like an idiot.
You know, I am fully aware of the fact that it’s weird for me to be surprised because the POINT of blogging is for people to find your blog and read it. But it’s still a shock for me. And I don’t know how to deal with it. I literally keep checking my email to see if the email in question is still there (I’m convinced it’s a hallucination).
And then I keep trying to formulate a response. And fail.
As I mentioned, I usually duck into broom closets when my favorite authors come near me. What am I supposed to do when they read my blog? Or link back to me? Is there an internet broom closet? Or stairwell? (not that I’m unhappy to have gotten the email or the link. See: grinning like an idiot in the middle of class).
Anyways. This is the end of me being self-indulgent. Thank you for…indulging.
(someday, I will learn not to be a narcissist. Today is not this day).
Since I so often complain about the lack of race and gender diversity in literary awards, best-of lists, reviews etc… I will be examining my own reading habits for race and gender biases. I may add more biases as the year goes on. Because it’s interesting. And because I think I should live my life according to the principals I tell others to espouse. I mean, I don’t mind being a hypocrite, but if I can avoid it..
So. In March, I read 12 books.
3 by women
9 by men
2 by authors of color
10 by white authors
(This is the statistic that bothers me the most, honestly – I make a conscious effort to read more books by women, and I should be making a much bigger effort to read more books by people of color. I’m working on it.)
The Hugo Shortlist is out, gentlemen, gentlewomen and gentle-people-of-non-normative genders. And I have many, many strong emotions about the nominees. Remembering, of course, that I’m pretty damn passionate about the Hugo Awards, full stop. I am, after all, the girl who got dressed up to watch the Hugo livestreaming last year. So it should come as no surprise (not to repeat myself) that I have many, many strong emotions about the nominees.
I may (or may not) have screamed in (happy, happy) shock when I got to best fancast. I may (or may not) have hollered in appreciation when I saw how many times Ken Liu, Catherynne Valente and Seanan McGuire were nominated. I may (or may not) have rolled my eyes when I saw certain nominees. I may (or may not) have yelled at the computer for a good three minutes when I realized certain crucial works had not received nods.
But since my incoherent yelling has never helped anyone, let’s go through the nominees, shall we? I’m going to list each category, and post my thoughts. Warnings: All Caps will be used. Frequently. For reference (if you’re interested), here’s my original ballot.
- Among Others, Jo Walton (Tor)
- A Dance With Dragons, George R. R. Martin (Bantam Spectra)
- Deadline, Mira Grant (Orbit)
- Embassytown, China Miéville (Macmillan / Del Rey)
- Leviathan Wakes, James S. A. Corey (Orbit)
I can’t help feeling a disappointed at this shortlist, despite the fact that it contains three of my five picks. It’s just so… expected. I mean, I am pleased as punch to see Among Others, Deadline and Embassytown on there, don’t get me wrong! I’m ecstatic to see Mira Grant get another nod, because damn, that woman can write. And thank the voters that Among Others is on there – it’s a stupendous piece of work. But I have to admit, these five novels have a lot of in common with each other.
I like to think of it as a menu. Classic science fiction and fantasy is chocolate cake, and who doesn’t like chocolate cake? But at the same time… do we want five pieces of chocolate cake? Because that’s what this shortlist feels like. Leviathan Wakes, Embassytown and Among Others are all nostalgic novels, throwbacks to “classic” science fiction. Now, in reading Embassytown and Among Others, I thought both re-vamped the style of “classic” SF in really interesting ways… and yet. They might be chocolate cake with unexpected filling, but they’re still chocolate cake. A Dance with Dragons isn’t classic SF, but it’s classic Epic Fantasy. My impression – having read neither book, but having read a fair amount of reviews for both – is that A Dance with Dragons is the fantasy equivalent of a Leviathan Wakes. It’s comfort food – again, chocolate cake, albeit chocolate cake with swords rather than spaceships.
Deadline is the closest thing to a truly innovative novel here – it’s a postmodern zombie story that melds horror and SF. I don’t think there’s anything like Deadline on the market today. It stands on its own. I’m so glad the series is receiving continued recognition – it does all kinds of fascinating, provocative things with fear and science and family relations, things that take real guts and talent to pull off. The fact that it’s so popular speaks well, I think, of the tastes of the Speculative Fiction reading public. But it’s also an expected choice, in the sense that the first novel in the series, Feed, almost won the Hugo award last year. So Deadline isn’t chocolate cake, but it’s still chocolate. Chocolate mousse, maybe.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with chocolate cake (and mousse). But only chocolate cake? When we have an entire menu of options to choose from? It feels a bit restrictive. Where is the love for people who took real narrative risks and pulled them off? Where is the recognition for authors who whipped up a batch of peanut-butter-kiwi-upside-down-cake and managed to make it delicious despite the terrible name?
To me, the three most innovative novels of the year (that I read) were Catherynne Valente’s Deathless, N.K. Jemisin’s The Kingdom of the Gods and Kameron Hurley’s God’s War. I would have given up a slice of chocolate cake for some Raspberry Souffle (Valente), an Irish Coffee (Jemisin) or a big chunk of Baclava (Hurley). I think those culinary shocks are necessary to keep the genre fresh. Remember when Catherynne Valente’s Palimpsest landed on the Hugo ballot two years ago, and the community exploded with shock and horror? Where’s THAT reaction? I see a lot of people in the blogosphere who are disappointed, but there’s no real outrage. Give me some outrage.
(astute readers may note that I did not nominate Catherynne Valente’s Deathless, and so I shouldn’t complain about it not showing up on the Hugo Ballot. This is a perfectly valid point. However, I hadn’t read it by the deadline, and although I suspected I would love it with a passion, I couldn’t in all honesty nominate it without having finished it. I did love it).
The other thing that makes me call the list restrictive is the race and gender stuff. Because I am your humorless feminist social-justice crusader, and I must complain about these things. Unless I’m making a terrible mistake with Leviathan Wakes, all five novels are set in either North-America or a Western-derived landscape. Yes, Leviathan Wakes occurs in space, but it doesn’t seem to be God’s War or Firefly, which take place in a non-western outer-space. All the authors are white. Excluding A Dance with Dragons, which has no central protagonist (as far as I know), three of the four protagonists are white men. The heroine of Embassytown has no stated race (as I recall), but the default assumption is that she’s white. Not to beat a dead horse, but… I mean… speculative fiction is the literature of alienation (at least according to China Mielville. And me). And we can’t even alienate ourselves away from North American settings and heroes?
Okay, complaints done. On the other hand, there are no duds (again, I haven’t read A Dance With Dragons or Leviathan Wakes, so I may change my mind about this). This isn’t 2010, when The Windup Girl got a nod despite being a terrible sandwich of cultural appropriation with rape fantasies as the amuse-bouche (fortunately it didn’t win…oh, wait). I can appreciate a lack of duds. I just wish there was some pizzazz.
I’m reviewing the short fiction sections as a group, since I know far less about them:
- Countdown, Mira Grant (Orbit)
- “The Ice Owl”, Carolyn Ives Gilman (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction)
- “Kiss Me Twice”, Mary Robinette Kowal (Asimov’s)
- “The Man Who Bridged the Mist”, Kij Johnson (Asimov’s)
- “The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary”, Ken Liu (Panverse 3)
- Silently and Very Fast, Catherynne M. Valente (WSFA)
- “The Copenhagen Interpretation”, Paul Cornell (Asimov’s)
- “Fields of Gold”, Rachel Swirsky (Eclipse Four)
- “Ray of Light”, Brad R. Torgersen (Analog)
- “Six Months, Three Days”, Charlie Jane Anders (Tor.com)
- “What We Found”, Geoff Ryman (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction)
Best Short Story
- “The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees”, E. Lily Yu (Clarkesworld)
- “The Homecoming”, Mike Resnick (Asimov’s)
- “Movement”, Nancy Fulda (Asimov’s)
- “The Paper Menagerie”, Ken Liu (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction)
- “Shadow War of the Night Dragons: Book One: The Dead City: Prologue”, John Scalzi (Tor.com)
If you consult my Hugo ballot, you’ll note that I didn’t have a whole lot of nominations for the short fiction field. Mostly because it’s not my field of expertise. I’m working on it! That said, I’m ecstatic to see some of my favorite authors on the list. Ken Liu, my short-fiction crush of 2011, is on there twice. Catherynne Valente gets a nod for her first major work of science fiction, which – yes. I say Yes, and I add “Please, sir, can I have some more?” Science Fiction needs Catherynne Valente desperately (let us note that I haven’t read Silently and Very Fast, so I might…change my mind. But I doubt it). My favorite novella of 2011, “Kiss Me Twice” is also front and center (ah, Mary Robinette Kowal). And Geoff Ryman and Rachel Swirsky, two authors I adore, are both nominees.
If anything, I’m excited by all the incredible short fiction I’m going to get to read in the next months. I’m thrilled that I finally have a good excuse to read John Scalzi, whose non-fiction work I adore. And apparently, the short story he wrote was an elaborate April Fool’s Joke, so I know I’m going to love it. All of this quells my slight disappointment at not seeing Karen Joy Fowler’s fantastic “Younger Women” or Catherynne Valente’s “The Bread we Eat in Dreams” get a nod.
(There’s also a lesson here: the less I know about something, the less likely I am to complain about it).
Best Related Work
- The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, Third Edition, edited by John Clute, David Langford, Peter Nicholls, and Graham Sleight (Gollancz)
- Jar Jar Binks Must Die…and other Observations about Science Fiction Movies, Daniel M. Kimmel (Fantastic Books)
- The Steampunk Bible: An Illustrated Guide to the World of Imaginary Airships, Corsets and Goggles, Mad Scientists, and Strange Literature, Jeff VanderMeer and S. J. Chambers (Abrams Image)
- Wicked Girls (CD), Seanan McGuire
- Writing Excuses, Season 6 (podcast series), Brandon Sanderson, Dan Wells, Howard Tayler, Mary Robinette Kowal, and Jordan Sanderson
Best Graphic Story
- Digger, by Ursula Vernon (Sofawolf Press)
- Fables Vol 15: Rose Red, by Bill Willingham and Mark Buckingham (Vertigo)
- Locke & Key Volume 4: Keys To The Kingdom, written by Joe Hill, illustrated by Gabriel Rodriguez (IDW)
- Schlock Mercenary: Force Multiplication, written and illustrated by Howard Tayler, colors by Travis Walton (The Tayler Corporation)
- The Unwritten (Volume 4): Leviathan, created by Mike Carey and Peter Gross, written by Mike Carey, illustrated by Peter Gross (Vertigo)
Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form
- Captain America: The First Avenger, screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephan McFeely; directed by Joe Johnston (Marvel)
- Game of Thrones (Season 1), created by David Benioff and D. B. Weiss;
written by David Benioff, D. B. Weiss, Bryan Cogman, Jane Espenson, and George R. R. Martin; directed by Brian Kirk, Daniel Minahan, Tim van Patten, and Alan Taylor (HBO)
- Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, screenplay by Steve Kloves; directed by David Yates (Warner Bros.)
- Hugo, screenplay by John Logan; directed by Martin Scorsese (Paramount)
- Source Code, screenplay by Ben Ripley; directed by Duncan Jones (Vendome Pictures)
Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form
- Doctor Who, ”The Doctor’s Wife”, written by Neil Gaiman; directed by Richard Clark (BBC Wales)
- “The Drink Tank’s Hugo Acceptance Speech”, Christopher J Garcia and James Bacon (Renovation)
- Doctor Who, ”The Girl Who Waited”, written by Tom MacRae; directed by Nick Hurran (BBC Wales)
- Doctor Who, ”A Good Man Goes to War”, written by Steven Moffat; directed by Peter Hoar (BBC Wales)
- Community, ”Remedial Chaos Theory”, written by Dan Harmon and Chris McKenna; directed by Jeff Melman (NBC)
I know absolutely nothing about the Best Related Works and Best Graphic Story shortlists, but I’m, as ever, looking forwards to discovering them as I make my final selections. I can’t say I’m that excited about the Best Dramatic Presentation shortlists (either of them) although I think it’s fantastic that Game of Thrones got nominated as an entire series – I’m not sure that’s ever happened before. Given it’s popularity, I think it might give even Harry Potter a run for it’s money. I’m also quite happy to see that Community got a nomination, because I just started watching, and I absolutely love the series – even if it’s not “traditional” science fiction (well, it’s not science fiction at all. But that’s not the point).
I will pop up as feminist commenter 101 to point out that ALL the best Long form dramatic nominees (except Game of Thrones, which doesn’t have a central protagonist) have male heroes. And that none of them (again, excluding Game of Thrones) pass the Bechdel Test. Harry Potter does if you squint sideways, and count a conversation as a woman saying something to another woman for three seconds and receiving absolutely no reply. I don’t.
But I shall move on from the Bechdel test (sigh). Especially since next year, we’ll have Prometheus. There are women in the trailer for that movie. Hopefully they will talk to each other. Hopefully the movie will be nominated for a Hugo. Oh, and we’ll have The Hunger Games, which passes with flying colors. Which will also (hopefully) be nominated.
Although it is sad to see the continuing dominance of Doctor Who – not because Doctor Who is a bad show, don’t get me wrong – but because there are other great SciFi shows that deserve to be nominated. Fringe, anyone? Individual episodes of Game of Thrones? The British version of Being Human? Doctor Who is not the only player in the field, but you wouldn’t know that from the ballot. And especially when Fringe has been so consistently mind-blowing… and is a science fiction show about a woman… which would get me to shut up about gender equality for thirty seconds…
Oh, and as someone who watched The Hugos live last year, may I just say that Christopher Garcia’s Acceptance Speech absolutely deserves to be on the shortlist? Because it does. I might even vote for it.
- Apex Magazine, edited by Catherynne M. Valente, Lynne M. Thomas, and Jason Sizemore
- Interzone, edited by Andy Cox
- Lightspeed, edited by John Joseph Adams
- Locus, edited by Liza Groen Trombi, Kirsten Gong-Wong, et al.
- New York Review of Science Fiction, edited by David G. Hartwell, Kevin J. Maroney, Kris Dikeman, and Avram Grumer
- Banana Wings, edited by Claire Brialey and Mark Plummer
- The Drink Tank, edited by James Bacon and Christopher J Garcia
- File 770, edited by Mike Glyer
- Journey Planet, edited by James Bacon, Christopher J Garcia, et al.
- SF Signal, edited by John DeNardo
- The Coode Street Podcast, Jonathan Strahan & Gary K. Wolfe
- Galactic Suburbia Podcast, Alisa Krasnostein, Alex Pierce, and Tansy Rayner Roberts (presenters) and Andrew Finch (producer)
- SF Signal Podcast, John DeNardo and JP Frantz (presenters), Patrick Hester (producer)
- SF Squeecast, Lynne M. Thomas, Seanan McGuire, Paul Cornell, Elizabeth Bear, and Catherynne M. Valente
- StarShipSofa, Tony C. Smith
I don’t really have much to say about best Semi-prozine. I am shocked that Clarkesworld, which has won for the past two years, wasn’t even nominated, but I’m wondering if the magazine didn’t withdraw itself from consideration like Girl Genius did. Anyone know? Oh, and I’m ecstatic to see Catherynne Valente nominated for her work on Apex – she did a fantastic job, and it’s a much-needed magazine in our field.
I have absolutely nothing to say about fanzines – I’m not even going to wade into the “are blogs fanzines” debate, because I’m just not informed enough.
This is the moment we’ve all been waiting for.
GALACTIC SUBURBIA WAS NOMINATED FOR BEST FANCAST OH MY FREAKING GOD I CAN’T BELIEVE IT, GALACTIC SUBURBIA AAAAHAHAHAHAHAHA! YEs!
(congratulations to all the other nominees, by the way)
YES! GALACTIC SUBURBIA FOR THE WIN!
I actually let out a loud WHOOOP when I saw Galactic Suburbia on there. I hoped beyond all hope they would get a nomination, but because they’re a feminist Australian podcast, I didn’t think there was any way they would. The fact that they did – that they got this kind of recognition – makes me absolutely ecstatic. I hope the nomination brings them even more visibility; they deserve it. They bring us news and recommendations, but they do it with that little extra something – and with that feminist analysis – that makes me want to listen to them all day. They’re also just damn fun – you wouldn’t think three women analyzing gender issues in speculative fiction would be a barrel of laughs, but I laugh so hard when I listen to them. It’s smart, it’s funny, it’s addictive, it’s brilliant. Whenever I listen to other podcasts, I always end up thinking “I wonder what Tansy, Allysa and Alex would say about that?”
I’m so FREAKING HAPPY they got nominated. To me, it makes up for all the disappointments in all the other categories.
Yes, thank you very much. I will have that giant box of feminist cookies (Galactic Suburbia) and leave you to your cake. But as you can see above, they also have CAKE. So you should listen to it. For the Cookies. And the Cake.
(Yes, I am aware that I’m making no sense. I’m so pleased I can’t think straight)
Finishing up with the final categories:
Best Editor, Long Form
- Lou Anders
- Liz Gorinsky
- Anne Lesley Groell
- Patrick Nielsen Hayden
- Betsy Wollheim
It is beyond me why Dev Pillai and Jeremy Lassen didn’t score nominations for their fantastic work on the NK Jemisin trilogy and the God’s War trilogy respectively, but I will refrain from comment, since I don’t know much about their competitors. I am pleased to see Anne Lesley Groell and Liz Gorinsky get nods, however.
Best Editor, Short Form
- John Joseph Adams
- Neil Clarke
- Stanley Schmidt
- Jonathan Strahan
- Sheila Williams
Best Professional Artist
- Dan dos Santos
- Bob Eggleton
- Michael Komarck
- Stephan Martiniere
- John Picacio
No comment except… you know what’s coming… five men, no women? Wow.
Best Fan Artist
- Brad W. Foster
- Randall Munroe
- Spring Schoenhuth
- Maurine Starkey
- Steve Stiles
- Taral Wayne
And still, I say, no comment! Except that I hope to discover their work soon.
Best Fan Writer
- James Bacon
- Claire Brialey
- Christopher J. Garcia
- Jim C. Hines
- Steven H Silver
I only follow Jim C. Hines closely, but I’m pleased he got a nomination. His blog is fantastic. And hilarious. And he covers lots of feminist issues. If you want a great example of his work, try this one on book covers.
The John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer
- Mur Lafferty
- Stina Leicht
- Karen Lord
- Brad R. Torgersen
- E. Lily Yu
Really pleased to see Karen Lord on there, obviously, since I gave her first novel such a resounding YES MORE PLEASE of a review. And since I predicted she would show up on many genre award shortlists in the future. I do like to be proved right. I’m also glad to see E. Lily Yu on the list; I loved (and nominated) her short story The Anarchist Wasps and Cartographer Bees.
Again, I’m looking forward to discovering all of these authors’ works so I can vote for them properly.
So overall – well, I’m mixed. I’m ecstatic about some things – the multiple nominations for Catherynne Valente, Ken Liu and Seanan McGuire; the fact that Seanan McGuire broke the glass ceiling and became the first woman to ever be nominated FOUR TIMES (twice as her alter-ego, Mira Grant) for the Hugo; the nomination for GALACTIC SUBURBIA IS THE BEST THING EVER. I’m really excited over the prospect of discovering new fiction, art, essays etc. as I prepare to vote. But I am a bit disappointed that the shortlist for best novels feels so restrictive. It does seem like a step back from last year.
But there’s one thing I’m certain about. I cannot wait to be at the Hugo ceremonies. I’ll be the girl throwing herself under chairs rather than come within a ten foot radius of my favorite authors, many of whom have threatened to be there (famous people scare me). I’ll be the one freaking out because I just caught a glimpse of Catherynne Valente. I’ll be the one taking notes furiously. I’ll be the one clapping at people’s awesome fashion. I’ll be the one muffling screams when my favorites win. I may even be the one with an awesome younger brother (if I can find a way to bring him with me, he’s coming).
I can’t wait.
Other Reactions to the Hugos:
Comments on the Hugo Shortlist by Staffer’s Book Reviews
Hugo Nominations Out: What Will You Wear? by Tansy Rayner Roberts
And Catherynne Valente’s Perfectly Reasonable Reaction to getting Three Nominations
Also, an important post on gender and fanwriting from Rose Lemberg: Best Fan Writers Hugo – And Women Writers
I don’t have time to do a gender and race breakdown of the nominees right now, although I will be posting one once school gets out. In the meantime, James Nicholl has published a gender breakdown
Freud to Jung: “This log in your dream. I think you should entertain the possibility that the log represents the penis”
I’m a big fan of David Cronenberg. His criminally underrated A History of Violence and Eastern Promises are two of my favorite movies of the past five years. I’m also a big fan of Sigmund Freud, even if I do make fun of him quite a bit.
(It’s not my fault. So many inappropriate jokes, so little time).
However, although the movie A Dangerous Method promised to unite two things I liked – Freud and Cronenberg – I was more than a bit skeptical.
After all, for the past few years Cronenberg’s films have been saturated with violence. His movies are like a funeral director’s wet dream. What was he going to do with Freud and Freud’s great invention, the “talking cure”? Was Cronenberg going to have patients brawling in the corridors of Freud’s cramped apartment? Would Freud beat his critics with his cane? Was Carl Jung going to be a secret member of the mafia?
I was not convinced. I was even less convinced when I saw the trailer. “Oh no!” I groaned. “Not a love triangle. Please, not a love triangle. And why in the world is Keira Knightley’s russian accent so terrible? Don’t they have vocal coaches?”
But a even bad trailer could not detract from the lure of Freud. I figured it would be a fun movie. It would get things very wrong, and my friends and I would laugh, and deconstruct it (as literature students are prone to do). And Viggo Mortenson would be awesome, even if he wasn’t carrying around a big sword. (insert immature joke about phallic symbols here).
Well, it was a fun movie, filled with lines about logs and penises. And Viggo Mortenson showed off his impeccable comic timing (someone hand him an Oscar).
But it wasn’t just a fun movie. In fact, A Dangerous Method was – much to my surprise – simply sublime.
What I forgotten in my cynicism is that David Cronenberg isn’t interested in violence for violence’s sake. You don’t make A History of Violence if you’re just interested in blowing things up. Instead, Cronenberg is interested in violence as a symptom of a wider human condition. Why do we keep at it? Is it inevitable? Or is it something more – a collective delusion? A ritual?
In A Dangerous Method, Cronenberg pans the camera back, opening the view. Instead of looking at violence as a symptom of the human condition, he focuses on the lives of the people who changed our view of the human condition forever. It’s the story of the people who, at the turn of the 20th century, mapped the landscape of the human mind.
The movie opens with Sabina Spielrien, a violent, hysterical young woman, being dragged into a mental asylum. From her first seconds onscreen, we’re placed in an uncomfortable position: there’s something about Spielrien – especially about her inhuman movements – that makes us both want to watch her with fascination and to pull back in disgust. Nothing has happened, and yet we’re thrown off balance. The movie continues much in this vein: every normal event is slightly skewed, underlain with a quiet tension that seems ready to snap at any moment.
Spielrien’s doctor, Carl Jung, believes he can help her using a method pioneered by a Viennese physician named Sigmund Freud – the now-famous “Talking Cure.” As Spielrien improves, Jung begins a correspondance with Freud to document his success. From there, the movie tracks the developing relationships between Jung, Freud and Spielrien.
A Dangerous Method is an immensely self-contained piece of work. It focuses on the interactions between these three people to the exclusion of almost everything else. With such a narrow frame, A Dangerous Method risks being overly simplistic. But because Spielrein, Freud and Jung are so fascinating, the story is one of delicate complexity.
Too often, movie narratives fall victim to the obvious plot. Most of my movie-related rants have to do with how cowardly scripts are these days – every time a story stumbles across somewhere original, it runs back towards the obvious like a kid running towards a platter of chocolate chip cookies. I was pleased to see, however, that in A Dangerous Method, there are no such chocolate chip cookie characters. Jung, Freud and Spielrien are fascinating because the writers weren’t afraid of making them challenging or unlikeable.
Though Jung comes across as a find, upstanding man, he’s infuriatingly blind to his own neuroses. He will throw the people he loves in front of buses if they get in his way. Hell, he sometimes just throws them in front of a bus because he’s not paying attention. It’s not malicious – it’s just natural for him to put himself first, always first. And if the universe doesn’t bend his way, he’ll make it bend. Not surprisingly, his privilege drives Freud – and others – up the wall. Jung probably describes himself best as “nothing but a philistine Swiss bourgeois – a complete coward.” Sadly Jung’s self-awareness doesn’t lead to any character growth – he knows he needs to change, but is unwilling to do it. And unlike Freud or Spielrien, Jung’s not someone who has had to struggle in life, which makes his ultimate cowardice all the more unforgivable.
Freud is a case study in quiet brilliance. Every word out of Viggo Mortenson’s mouth is ambiguous. His dialogue seems filled with flashes of insight or moments of compassion; yet every phrase he speaks can also be read as an insult. He always seems to be reveling in a private joke.
Despite his brilliance, or perhaps, because of it, Freud is constrained by his fear of the outside world. Freud has spent so long as the poor, besieged doctor in Vienna, his theories mocked and his practice threatened, that the slightest hint of insubordination terrifies him. If Freud and Jung are alike in anything, it’s in their isolation – they’re both so smart, so new, so cutting-edge, that no one has yet joined them on the frontier of the human mind. Their shared interests and mutual respect should make them the perfect partners, and for a large part of the movie, they are. Freud acts as Jung’s mentor; Jung, in turn, idolizes Freud.
But Freud and Jung are separated by privilege and pride. In a revelatory moment near the beginning of the film, Freud tells Jung he doesn’t want to venture outside the current theories of psychoanalysis because the practice is already stigmatized enough as is. Casually, Freud adds: “and, of course, it does not help that all of the patients and practitioners in Vienna are Jews.” Jung replies “I don’t see why it should matter,” to which Freud rejoins “That, if I may say so, is an exceedingly protestant remark.” Jung cannot set aside his privilege long enough to see the difficulties Freud confronts. Freud, meanwhile, pushes Jung away to protect himself: he cannot fight against the world and fight against his friends at the same time. And he cannot open up to Jung either – he’s spent so long fighting that the slightest appearance of vulnerability would destroy him.
I loved Freud and Jung. I came to the movie specifically to see their interaction, and it did not fail me.
But though I came for them, I walked out cheering – and a little teary-eyed – for the third wheel of the trio, Sabina Spielrien. Spielrein is no doubt the character audiences will be most unfamiliar with – the majority of people have at least heard of Jung and Freud. I worry her relative obscurity will make her difficult to identify with, which is a shame, because she’s absolutely sublime.
It’s so refreshing to see a female character like Spielrein in a (somewhat) mainstream movie. In movies, male characters are almost always allowed more complexity than their female counterparts – but not in A Dangerous Method. On paper, Spielrein was have been a disaster – a woman with serious mental health issues who sleeps with her (married) physician. When I walked into A Dangerous Method, indeed, I was convinced poor Keira Knightley would be stuck playing the femme-fatale who distracts the Great Men from their Great Work. Which is SUCH an annoying stereotype. But I was pleasantly surprised.
The writers avoid reducing Spielrein to a love interest. Treating a woman like a full human being, regardless of her romantic state, seems like an easy task. For some reason, however, it’s a task the majority of Hollywood movies fail to accomplish.
Though Jung “cures” her, Spielrein doesn’t suddenly become a gorgeous princess. There is no dreaded Hollywood makeover where the disturbing “crazy” girl becomes a stunning leading lady. It’s also nice to see a movie that doesn’t pretend mental illness just goes away after a few therapy sessions. Spielrein continues to struggle with her mental illness over the course of the film, fearing, among other things, that her “insanity” will prevent her from becoming a physician. She still speaks haltingly, shyly, and retains most of her uncomfortable physical tics from earlier in the film. It’s still hard to look at her sometimes – she’s not embodied in a normative way.
Spielrein is also strong-willed and unapologetic about her desires, sexual and otherwise. Nor does the movie “punish” Spielrein for her ambitions – too often, ambitious women – women who desire, women who dare to want – are, well, punished (and not in a kinky S&M way, although we do get some S&M action in A Dangerous Method). If anything, Spielrein’s willingness to articulate what she wants is her saving grace – unlike Freud or Jung, she’s not destroyed by her unspoken desires.
True, Spielrien does fall in love with Jung, her physician, but of the two, she’s the one who behaves with the most maturity. When he breaks up with her and lies about their relationship, she doesn’t cling, she doesn’t rant and rave, she doesn’t spend the rest of the movie trying to bring him down. Which is quite impressive, given that Jung has just thrown her under the bus by telling Freud that Spielrien is a delusional lunatic who made up the affair.
Instead, Spielrien forces him to admit the truth to Freud, deducing (correctly) that this will convince Freud to take her on as a patient.** She finishes her dissertation. She becomes a physician in her own right. She’s widely respected in her own field: at the end of the movie, Jung’s wife asks Spielrein to take a depressed Jung on as a patient. It’s a neat reversal of the initial premise.
Even better, Spielrein is not “saved” by her romantic relationship with Jung. Instead, she saves herself through the “talking cure” and her academic work in the psychological field. Moreover, Spielrein’s intellectual development and her contributions to the psychoanalytic field are just as important as Freud’s or Jung’s – I was surprised, for example, to discover that it was Spielrein, not Freud, who first theorized the death instinct. I greatly appreciated the fact that neither Jung nor Freud (or anyone else) ever said something like “but you’re a woman! Women shouldn’t be psychoanalyzing/writing about sex/ going to college.” Or even “Well, as a female physician, you may have some problems.” They treat her as an intellectual equal. They collaborate with her on different projects. Freud even respects her enough to suggest that she take on some of his patients.
** Again, I am pleased to note that Spielrien takes control of her own mental health. When she breaks up with her boyfriend/therapist, she immediately finds a new therapist. Not a boyfriend. Girl has her priorities straight.
Besides, Jung and Spielrein’s interactions are quite interesting to watch. As fellow psychoanalysts, they’re always dissecting their own behavior towards one another. When Spielrein kisses Jung for the first time, they (of course) have to analyze the moment for the next five minutes. You can almost see Jung taking down mental notes, thinking of all the papers he could derive from a single brush of the lips.
As actors, I thought Michael Fassbender (Jung), Viggo Mortenson (Freud) and Keira Knightley (Spielrien) were all out of their comfort zones, which makes their superb work in A Dangerous Method all the more impressive.
Knightley is near-unrecognizable in her role as Spielrien. Her accent is spot-on – I don’t know how they managed to make it sound so terrible in the trailer. From the beginning, she strips any impression we had of her as the “young romantic lead.” Her moments as a hysterical mental patient are so powerful that they’re difficult to watch: when her body crumples and tangles as she forces herself to confess her “vile corruption,” I could barely keep my eyes on the screen. After Spielrein begins recovering, Knightley wisely keeps her from ever becoming a femme fatale, instead imbuing her with a physical awkwardness and a halting, intense pattern of speech that manages to simultaneously convey the woman’s strangeness and her fierce intelligence.
Fassbender, meanwhile, gives emotional depth to Jung’s love for Spielrien, and his defiance of Freud. Without this much-needed layer of vulnerability, the audience would be unable to stop themselves from despising him as an insensitive coward. His looks don’t hurt – my friend said she thought she was swayed towards Jung’s side because of Fassbender’s, er… charming appearance. And the way he looked in early 20th century garb
(I would like to add that I agree. Turn-of-the-century clothes look great on Fassbender. Just sayin’).
Mortenson’s work as Freud… well, he’s just fantastic. As always. He’s the master of double-speak in this movie – I never knew what he meant when he said anything. Which was the point. Mortenson also infuses Freud with a great deal of authority – a difficult task, given that Freud spends most of the movie sitting in a chair. I wouldn’t want to be in the same room as Mortenson’s Freud, is all I’m saying. I’d probably start babbling like an idiot. Or walk into a wall. Or babble like an idiot while walking into a wall. Perhaps most impressively, Mortenson manages to suggest Freud’s self-consciousness without undercutting his imposing presence.
From the script, to the directing, to the acting A Dangerous Method is an incredible movie. It gets under your skin. It avoids the obvious. It zigged when I expected it to zag. It’s also just damn fun to watch.
I therefore have no idea how A Dangerous Method did not get nominated for twenty five thousand Oscars. I would have put it up for Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Picture, Best Actress and Best Support Actor. The only actor I wouldn’t have nominated was Fassbender – not because he’s any less inspiring than Knightley or Mortenson, but because Fassbender was going to get nominated for Shame anyways, and then he was going to win and –
Screw the academy, man.
Seriously. To my mind, Knightley and Mortenson shouldn’t just have been nominated – they should have been frontrunners. And so should the movie. The Help was nominated, and this wasn’t? If that’s not a sign that Hollywood isn’t interested in original stories, I don’t know what is.
Yet, even with the Academy’s Bad Attitude, I came out of the movie with joy in my heart. And not just because of the movie’s general awesomeness (although that accounted for much of my elation). I was also thrilled because my friend had just discovered Michael Fassbender.
“What else is he in?” asketh she.
Me: “X-men… uh, Jane Eyre… uh, Shame. That’s playing now, I think – ”
Her: “We’re going.”
Unfortunately, that means everyone who reads this blog* will be subject to another “what the hell is wrong with the Oscars” post quite shortly since, yes, I have now seen Shame. And it’s even more incomprehensible to me why Michael Fassbender wasn’t nominated for best Best Actor.
But I’ll be reviewing the movie! And I promise, it’ll be shorter!
Oh, that was a tangled web of lies. It won’t.
I’m also now holding out hopes for a sequel, where Freud analyzes the wonderful modernist poet H.D. Can I suggest Noomi Rapace as H.D.? Would that not be wonderful?
*And by “everyone who reads this blog,” I mean the lovely CIA agents whose job it is to monitor all internet activity. Hi guys! Thanks for protecting us from the forces of evil! (and darkness. I also appreciate your protection from the forces of darkness)
Quick Stats on the Movie:
Passes the Bechdel test: YES! Right near the end of the movie, when Spielrein and Emma Jung discuss Spielrein’s career and their children. The movie also takes a surprisingly long time to pass the reverse Bechdel – not until Freud and Jung meet do we have a male-male interaction. It’s another sign of how this movie isn’t just about the men, which is lovely.
Presence of non-white characters: Absolutely not. Argh. Then again, it is turn-of-the century Europe, so the lack of POC makes some sense. But… still.
“Always Wear Armor When Walking Through the Classics Department”: A Review of Tam Lin by Pamela DeanPosted: April 4, 2012
Hello everyone, and welcome back to your regularly scheduled blog posts – the ones where I try to review all that is Fantasy And Science Fiction before the beginning of the summer. Because that’s totally possible, especially now that my workload has lightened and I’ve only got three essays and two finals to work on!
But before I start to freak out, I’d like to remind everyone that the Hugo Nominations are coming out this weekend (OH GOD). I will be covering those sometime in the next few posts. I’ll also be posting some kind of rant about the Hunger Games/Trayvon Martin correlation, so watch out for that.
Book: Tam Lin
Author: Pamela Dean
Publisher: Firebird Fantasy
***Mild Spoilers for the Entire Book***
In my University, there’s a tunnel between our Arts Building and our Library of Incredible Inefficiency.*
* (I’m not a fan of the main library. But moving right along).
I love this tunnel. It’s a road out of time and space, made of sharp turns that make you quickly lose sight of where you were, and where you’re going. There’s a hint of the medieval about it – a bizarre gate right in the middle that reminds me of torture chambers and ancient sewer systems. But it’s not all medieval either: the copper piping and the violent fluorescent lights give a 19th century Science Fiction vibe. This tunnel would be a great set for a remake of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Or Thomas Lewis’s The Monk.
And sometimes there’s graffiti.
Over time, I’ve learned not to look at the graffiti. It only disappoints me. It does not match the atmosphere of the tunnel at all, but simply repeats the usual “My Life Sucks” and “LOL’s” that are found at every graffitied location in the school.
Yes, in fact, I judge the quality of graffiti. Is originality too much to ask for in our public defacement?
Absolutely not. Consider the case of Blackstock College, the setting of Pamela Dean’s cult fantasy novel, Tam Lin. Students aren’t writing LOL in those tunnels:
“First ten lines of the Iliad. That’s been there long and long. Somebody ought to touch it up.” (52)
When Janet and her newfound college friends find an Iliad quote in a tunnel on their first day of school, they start arguing over the best translation of the greek, and then exchange quotations for a few lines, before ending with an impromptu recitation of my (second) favorite Keats’ poem: “On Chapman’s Homer.”“His tone was rather sardonic; but it hardly mattered. Lost, thought Janet. He quotes Keats, too. Well, let’s enjoy it, then. She said, ‘Round many western islands have I been Which bards in fealty to Apollo Hold.”
Robin rattled “But never did I breath its pure serene Til I heard Chapman speak loud and bold,” and began walking again. “We’ll miss dinner,” he added.
If the past paragraph or two bores you to death… this book is probably not for you. But if you’re the kind of person who goes through tunnels and buildings and matches them to the setting of your favorite novel; if you fall into friendships with people based on the books and movies they can quote in their sleep; if you long to find the free, passionate discussion that can only exist in a group of similarly obsessed people, the discussion where everyone trips over their words and jumps in on the ends of each others sentences –
Tam Lin is the book for you.
Janet, the main character of Tam Lin by Pamela Dean, is a new student at Blackstock college. Her Advisor keeps pushing her to be a classics major, but Janet hears (and notices) that All the Classics Majors are Crazy. Besides, she know she wants to be an english major, because “if the thing you liked best to do in the world was read, and somebody offered to pay you room and board and give you a liberal arts degree if you would just read for four years, wouldn’t you do it?”
(there is only one right answer to that question, and it starts with a “y”)
Tam Lin follows Janet and her friends’ four years at Blackstock. On top of all the academic drama and the intellectual, quote-heavy dialogue, there is, of course, a supernatural plot – but it’s so subtle and quiet, you won’t notice it until it hits you in the face. Pamela Dean interlaces the “realism” of the plot with moments of absurdity – for example, Janet and her roommate Molly wake up several times during the semester to find classic books of literary criticism (and when I say classic, I’m not talking Roland Barthes – I mean literary criticism written during the Victorian Era) just outside their window.
They’ve been told there’s a ghost; they have no other explanation for how such rare texts keep appearing. There’s also something strange going on with the classics students, who are all terrified of Professor Medeous, the department head. But all of these mysteries are kept just below the surface, and allowed to grow into full bloom near the end. It is with no particular sense of urgency that we and Janet discover the truth – and by then, Pamela Dean has led up to it so organically that the revelation seems just as realistic as anything else in the novel. Pamela Dean is so skilled with her subtle allusions that the Star Trek Enterprise could have landed in the middle of campus, and I wouldn’t have thought it out of the ordinary.
What makes this novel particularly appealing to me, to English literature lovers, and to nerds of all stripes is that the academic endeavor is the point of the story, not the backdrop. There are lots of movies, books and TV shows that are set in colleges or high schools, but there, the classroom is the setting, and the relationship drama (Gossip Girl), or the action story (Spiderman) is the focus. Here, the opposite is true: the characters are passionately, madly, lovingly enthralled by the work they do and their relationships (platonic or romantic) grow from their obsessions. Janet, for example, falls in “like” with Nick after hearing him recite Keats. Astute reader, meanwhile, note how much better a match she is for Thomas, who takes her to see Hamlet and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and The Persecution and Assassination of Jean Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis De Sade.**
(another reason I love Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin: I’ve been involved in productions of all three of those plays.)
Janet realizes Nick’s potential herself after watching a play “about two people named Thomas and Jennet (…) she knew perfectly well, that if examined with the eye of logic, these associations would unravel.” (408).
But in Tam Lin, as in life, the associations don’t unravel. Not really. Tam Lin never slips into the (popular) fallacy that art is somehow “detached” from everyday life, that it’s entertainment, that it doesn’t really matter. Instead, Tam Lin treats Janet’s forays into literature with as much seriousness as it does her forays into sex and relationships.
You shouldn’t worry, however, if you don’t have a strong English Literature background, or if you’re not interested in literature in the least. I’m an English Literature major, and I missed about ⅓ of the allusions in the novel. Doesn’t matter. Despite the specificity of Janet’s dialogue, it’s her passion – her nerdiness – that makes her so easy to like. The novel describes, without mockery, the passions and obsessions that end up shaping our lives, no matter how obscure or “unimportant” they are.
In this vein, one of my favorite scenes in the novel depicts a conversation between Janet and Nick, Janet’s first boyfriend at Blackstock College. Nick has a strong pedantic streak, which leads to a memorable argument where Janet tries to convince Nick that the only writer who resembles Shakespeare is Keats:
“Keat seems so much like whom?”
“Keats? That querulous, agonizing little emotion ridden pestilence beffudled liverer’s son?”
“All right,” said Janet. “All right.” What in the would could she recite? He knew the sonnet “On Chapman’ Homer”, most of the rest he probably would have labeled querelous.”Not “Ode to a Nightingale” which had illnesses and drugs in it (…) I’ll give you querulous, Janet though, and cleared her throat:
“This Living Hand, now warm and capable of earnest grasping would, if it were cold And in the icy silence of the tomb, So haunt,they days and chill thy dreaming nights That thou wouldst wish thine own heart dry of blood (…)”
“Nicks hands had fallen to his side. Janet, looking straight at him now that she had done remembering, and feeling a little smug, realized witha shock that he had turned rather pale. He pushed his glasses up his nose with a hand that shook. “That’s Measure for Measure,” he said, just audibly. “Or The Winter’s Tale. Or Troilus and Cressida. I always forget what gems are hidden in that dunghep. That’s not Keats, is it?” (…)
“Yes it is,” said Janet. To her fury, she sounded apologetic. “It was written in the margin of The Cap and Bell. His unfinished play.”
“I cry you mercy,” said Nick, getting up. “I’m unwell. No, it’s all right, don’t bother. I’ll call you later.” (116).
This is such a perfect scene. Of course an argument about Keats and Shakespeare is of critical importance. Of course one might need a bit of a lie down after realizing how much Keats does sound like Shakespeare. Of course such a fundamental shift in one’s worldview might take a few hours of bed-rest to get used to. It only makes sense.
Tam Lin understands the joy of finding people who share your language – the moment of recognition when you realize you don’t have to perform your life in a bizarrely constructed vernacular, but can slide into speech that reflects your thoughts.I’ve been lucky enough to be in a few groups like that – where we all speak the same language. Usually they involve theater, and only last a few weeks. Still, there’s something magical about them – about that intensity of communication. Who doesn’t want that?
Now, before you get the wrong idea, I should make something clear. Although I get quite sentimental writing about Tam Lin, and although Pamela Dean wrote it as a love letter to her college experiences, Tam Lin itself is not a sentimental novel. It’s clear and crisp and fast; there’s a sharpness to it that belies any sentimentality.
A big part of the reason Dean manages to prevent Tam Lin from sliding into an overwrought, overly indulgent novel is her brisk, no-nonsense prose. There’s a reason I’ve quoted the novel so thoroughly (and not just because I want to make some kind of obscure “meta” joke about allusion). Dean’s style is clear and concise and crisp. It pulls you along, demands your attention. No pausing, no stopping, make sure you turn the lights on as you go.
I knew I was in good hands when I got the description of Janet’s thrilling escape from her friends:
“Janet crawled along as fast as she could manage, bumping her head and cursing Nick Tooley and his children unto the nth generation, until she found a suitable hollow by catching her knee in it. She removed the knee, saying “shit, shit, shit,” under her breath because there was no time to think of anything creative, and scooped leaves and dry needles out of the hollow. She dumped Schiller into it unceremoniously, covered him over, limped on through the larch grove to the sidewalk, trudged down it to the bottom of the hill, and took off running in plain sight along the edge of the lake just as the chase came howling past the Fine Arts building.” (82)
Dean’s description is masterclass in efficiency, sly humor, and style. Let us all pause to consider how many more words most writers would take to say exactly the same thing (hell, let us all pause to consider how many CHAPTERS more I would take to say the same thing).
The other thing that makes the novel seem so grounded (and this is a supremely grounded novel) is it’s insights into the academic process. Especially if you are, or have ever been, in College.
For example, we have the (invisible, but at the same time completely obvious) fight between the Classics Department and the English Department. The whole thing starts to feel like two armies recruiting students to their cause. Every time Janet goes to consult her academic advisor, Melinda Wolfe, a classics professor, Wolfe tried to steer her into becoming a classics major. At one point, Wolfe goes “if you read science fiction, you’ll like Herodotus,” which made me howl with laughter. Because who hasn’t had a Professor be like “Come to the Biology/Latin/English/History/Dark Side Department. WE HAVE COOKIES/Herodotus/genetic experimentation/Shakespeare/Crazy Department Heads who Might Be Sleeping with Everyone.
Most Professors I know have been more subtle about it, but yeah, I’ve been there. And hey, I’m an English major because of two such pushy Professors. Not going to name names, but they know who they are (actually, they have no idea).
There’s also this brilliant moment from Janet’s father, an English Professor:
“Take it from me,” said her father. “It is possible to get a Ph.D in English while ignoring no less than three literary periods. You must have read something in all of them, so as to fling their names about, but you can be quite ignorance of at least three and still do very nicely.”
“Which three are you ignorant of?” said Janet.
“The moderns, the whole of the twelfth century and the jacobeans.”
Which just explains everything about every Professor I’ve take a class with, ever.
And that’s, maybe, what I loved most about Tam Lin. Every page felt like I was discovering a secret – a familiar secret. A secret I’d always known was there. It’s real life, but it’s real life with that extra-sharp twist of insight – real life with all the magical underpinnings revealed, from Professorial mysteries to the gossip between nerds. Tam Lin lets you in on the secrets. It’s a story that oozes with so much intelligence and acceptance and joy – joy of learning, joy of growing, joy of confusion – that it’s one of the few novels I actually made an effort to read slower. I didn’t want to leave its coy, secretive, joyous pages.
Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin is one of the rare speculative fiction novels I recommend without pause to my English Major Friends. Or to my non-Science Fiction reading friends. Trust me. You will like it. Even if you don’t like magic. Trust me. You should read it. Everyone should read it. If the above review has you interested, drop everything and read it. Trust me, it’s a thousand times better than anything I could describe. You will like it. A lot.
And it’s a rare novel that can get me to engage in some public defacement of my own. But in no small part thanks to Tam Lin, there’s now a Shakespeare quote plastered between some of the LOL graffiti on the walls of my favorite tunnel. From Richard III. Maybe it’ll start a tradition (but don’t tell anyone. Can you get expelled for graffiti? Oh God.)
Pamela Dean on Tam Lin:
“It all reminded me of college, where the fear of getting pregnant collaborated with the conviction that you weren’t nearly as smart as you’d thought you were, that you would never amount to anything, even if all the Professors thought you were a genius, and the world was going to hell so fast that you’d be lucky to have a B.A. to show the devil when it got there to produce a sub-clinical state of frenzy; where juggling your love life with anything else was almost but never quite completely impossible, where we all did any number of foolish and peculiar things while surrounded by and occasionally even absorbing the wisdom of the ages.” (460)
Blackstock College, by the way, is based on Pamela Dean’s real college (at least in appearance) – a small liberal arts college in Minnesota called Carleton College. I visited Carleton as a high-schooler (I was deciding where to apply for University) and I can attest to how gorgeous a campus it is. Even under the pouring rain, it was absolutely beautiful.
*** We do have some great graffiti in my college. Mostly in the girl’s bathrooms (can’t speak to the boy’s). The best one is “Books Before Boys Because Boys Bring Babies.” Indeed.
Other Reviews of Tam Lin by Pamela Dean:
Tansy Rayner Roberts: The Lady’s Not For Burning – it was Rayner Roberts’s love for Tam Lin on the podcast Galactic Suburbia that got me to pick up the book to begin with (I owe her a debt of gratitude for that one) and her written review is equally good.
Tor.com: College as A Magic Garden: Why Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin is a Book You’ll Either Love or Hate (Jo Walton). (I love Jo Walton)
This has been a very bizarre day with regards to my blog. I’ve been averaging 10-15 page hits a day – a perfectly reasonable number, given that I started posting two weeks ago. Then last night, the Internet discovered my post on Haley Reinhart, and my page hits exploded. I’m up to 212 right now. TWO HUNDRED AND TWELVE.
I’m a bit dizzied by the whole thing, but it’s absolutely lovely. Haley Reinhart fans – we are rabid! Uh, I meant dedicated!
I’m mostly just trying to enjoy the ride while it lasts – I know once the flood disappears, I’ll be back to my usual 10-15 hits a day. After all, this blog is mostly driven by literature and genre fiction/movies/TV – there won’t be much American Idol coverage. So the Haley phenomenon is my giant blip on the radar screen (and a wonderful blip it is). But in the spirit of challenging myself, I’ve decided that whatever record I set today will be used as a goal to strive towards for the rest of the year. (how I’ll ever get back up to 212 is beyond me, but it’s good motivation).
And if you’re a Haley Reinhart fan who found your way here – thank you so much for reading! I’m really grateful that the post is finding a wider audience, especially since I spent hours on that writeup, and I never thought anyone would read it!
Anyways, given the, er, bizarre circumstances, I’ve decided to have a day off from covering all things culture, and publish…
Something very, very, VERY vaguely related to American Idol. You see, since I’ve started following the show, I’ve discovered a medley of new songs, including Celine Dion’s “All by Myself” and Heart’s “Alone.” Somehow, those got caught up in the vortex that is my brain, and transformed into…
A love song to my migraines.
The tales I could tell about my migraines, dear friends, would make you clutch at your Excedrin bottles in sympathy.
Case in point:
Last week I knew I would be spending two long days on campus, with little access to food. Food is crucial to keeping me from getting migraines – if I skip a meal, my chances of getting a migraine are even greater than my changes of finding a crazy wife in a Victorian novel.
Of course, I’m in denial, so on day #1, I proceed to forget lunch, skip my snack, and avoid drinking fluids like the plague. By the time I get home, I haven’t eaten in twelve hours.
I make dinner, convinced that once sugar hits my bloodstream, the migraine will hit.
Nothing. My brain is clear and pain-free. I am most gratified.
Impressed, but not wanting to press my luck, the next day I am rigorous about my food-intake. I eat breakfast. I eat lunch. I eat a snack. I make sure I eat a decent dinner. I steal my friends’ food. I avoid carbohydrates (big migraine triggers for me). I even drink coffee, which is the equivalent of a pre-emptive strike against migraines.
By the time I get home, my head hurts so badly that I’ve got spots in front of my eyes. Every flash of light sends pain driving into my skull. I curl up in bed, and wait to die.
Well played, universe. Well played.
Since my brilliant strategies for managing my migraines no longer work, and since my migraine pills are now completely useless (the world hates me) – I have decided to resort to truly desperate measures.
I have written a song so terrible, so catastrophic, that it ought to scare off even the worst migraine. Unfortunately, my strident, off-key singing and terrifying lyrics may well make my migraines work, but I have nothing left to lose.
(with apologies to Hearts’ “Alone” and Celine Dione’s “All by Myself”)
“A Song to My Migraine”
“I feel the pounding of my blood against my temple
I’m lying here, the room’s pitch dark
I wonder if I can live without my right occipital lobe
No surgeons on my telephone
And the Tylenol works so very slow
I hope that I’ll end up, though, ALONE
Till now, I always got by on my own,
I never really cared until I met you
But now it chills me to the bone
Why won’t you leave me alone?
When I was young
My mind was free from pounding migraines
And taking Tylenol was just for fun
Those days are gone
All by myself
I wanna live…
All by MYSELF
Oh can’t you see – I want to be, I want you to be – Free (of migraines)
(Couldn’t resist the Haley Reinhart reference.)
**(By the way, for those of you who are here for the cultural coverage, I’ll be back with reviews of David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method and Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin later in the week)