The Paperback Rack at the Big Star

Every writer has a touching story about their favorite bookstore or library as a child, the place where they discovered the ineffable delights of literature. I can go on at great length about my love for Miss Daisy at the Chester County Library or my swoon of ecstasy the first time I walked into the original strip mall location of The Bookworm in Rock Hill or my nostalgia for The Intimate Bookshop at the chichi-poopoo mall in Charlotte. But if I’m honest, the repository of fiction that influenced me most strongly in the years I was becoming the writer I am was the paperback rack at the Big Star grocery store. It was right inside the doors, just past the buggies, across from the produce section, and I hit it up every single week. And if I didn’t hit it up myself, my sweet mama hit it up for me. She’d be on her way out the door, and I would emerge from my headphones full of Alice Cooper or the Bay City Rollers and holler, “Mama, find me something to reeeeeeead!!!!” And bless her precious soul, she always did.

So I read the top of the paperback bestseller charts, about six months behind, for the entirety of my adolescence. (A book had to be a pretty safe sales bet to make it all the way to the Big Star.) And y’all, those books were awesome. I grieve deeply for the variety and insanity of the Big Star book rack. It taught me story, crowd-pleasing, popular story, the stuff that’s kept us author types in business since we were buying our place at the fire with our fresh new take on Beowulf. I read some great literary novels–back then, literary novels came out in pulpy paperback all the time. But it’s the genre fiction, the “trashy novels” I devoured like popcorn that really branded themselves on my brain. I can see their influence now in every book I write.

salems lotSalem’s Lot by Stephen King: I still stand in awe at Mama’s perception in picking this out for me. This was the first King book I ever read and my first contemporary, grown-up horror book, and it came to me at the bottom of a bag full of frozen fish sticks and tater tots when I was about 13. I stayed up all night reading it, loved every single syllable of it. As soon as I finished it the first time, I flipped back to the beginning and started reading it again. If I had to pick one writer who has influenced my style and my focus and my beliefs about writing as an art and a job the most, King would be it. And that all started with this book. There’s an element of horror in almost everything I write, no matter how sweet or romantic it might be, and that came from here, too. And oh yeah, vampires … mine evolved to be very, very different (thanks, Anne Rice and Frank Langella!), but Uncle Stevie also introduced me to vampires. My bestselling book series so far has been about vampires, and I’ve got a WIP going about them right this very now.

lonesome doveLonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry: This is one of those literary novels I was talking about–I mean, it won the Pulitzer Prize–but it’s also a gloriously pulpy, down and dirty western. I’ve blogged before about how I grew up watching western movies with my dad and how that influenced my writing. But with all appropriate apologies to Zane Grey and Louis L’amour, this is the first western novel I ever read that really spoke to me. For one thing, the women are just as layered and interesting and just as important to the story as the men–there’s a lot of the actual lonesome dove, Lorena Wood, in Daisy, the protagonist of my own weird western stories. McMurtry’s book and its sequels and outgrowths gave me a clearer, more realistic picture of the real world behind the western myth, and I hope that comes through in my work.

laceLace by Shirley Conran: Holy Moses on the Nile, y’all, have you read this book? Forget Judith Krantz; forget Danielle Steele. This is the ultimate trashy women’s novel, the ultimate guilty pleasure, the ultimate lurid potboiler. I plowed through it in less than a day, exclaiming in delighted shock at regular intervals, and when I finished, I gave it to Mama who did the same. She gave it to one of my aunts, who gave it to one of her friends, and so on and so on and so on. The premise is Einstein-level genius: a beautiful and notorious movie star invites four fabulously wealthy and successful women from four very different worlds to tea and says, “All right. Which one of you bitches is my mother?” And of course we find out that these four women were all roommates at boarding school, and we flashback to each one’s story in turn to discover the answer to the question. And every plot twist is more outrageous and deliciously awful than the one before it. American Starlet and its upcoming sequels are very much my hopefully-fresh take on this kind of book. They are my Lace; any time I get stuck on my plotting, I think, “what would Shirley do?” and go as wild and wooly as my imagination will allow. I can only pray I am doing her legacy justice.

He’s never been anything but kind and encouraging, but I suspect I drive my publisher batshit crazy with this stuff. Standard wisdom in the book writing business right now is pick a series and stick with it. Or if not a series, at least a genre. I try, y’all. I really, really do. And there are definite, discernible connections between all of my books. They all have strong relationship plots; they all feature smart people; most of them are pretty sexy, even–especially–if they have vampires. (Sorry, Uncle Steve.) But in the ways that make them easy to tag for the Amazon search engine, I’m afraid they’re all over the place. For better or worse, I write for that paperback rack. So I really hope y’all keep wanting to read it.

demon's kissbury me notamerican starlet

Hot Guys in Helmets

adam driver rolling stone

The cover of this week’s Rolling Stone

So because we’re total pop culture junkies and apparently sheep, the hubs and I have already subscribed to Disney +, and we’re watching The Mandalorian. And yes, we love it, and yes “Baby Yoda” is the cutest darned thing ever, and yes I think it’s a great addition to the Star Wars canon, and I can’t wait to see how it comes out. But as a romance novelist, I have another reason for liking it that has absolutely nothing to do with any reasonable consideration of story or production.

The Mandalorian is really hot.

Which is crazy, right? I mean, we’ve never seen his face. If his vows to his compatriots are to be believed, we aren’t ever GOING to see his face. Setting aside that this story has no room for any kind of romantic subplot and that sexuality is almost certainly a non-issue in the first place, why should a guy in full armor with his face completely covered make me want to start pricing helmets as a Christmas present for my husband? Consideration of this burning question made me start thinking about all the masked and helmeted heroes that have given me the vapors over the years. Some of them, like the Mandalorian, stay masked all the time. Others use the big reveal as a signpost to character or purpose; with faces bared, they become someone else. But in every instance, the mystery of the mask adds hugely to their love monkey appeal, whether they mean it to or not.

1 – The Other Star Wars Guy: Unlike my little sister, Alexandra Christian, I’m not really a Kylo Ren fangirl. He’s a little too damaged, a little too controlling, a little too brat-prince batshit crazy to work as an object of my vicarious desire. But I must admit, that big moment in The Force Awakens when Baby Vader takes off his mask and reveals the soulful eyes and misshapen beauty of Adam Driver hit me right where it was meant to. That’s the moment for Rey and for the audience when we start hoping he can be better. And how well his story works for us going forward depends very much on how effective that reveal continues to be every time he does it–you’ll notice that by the end of The Last Jedi, he’s barely ever wearing his mask at all. If we’d never seen him in the mask, if we didn’t have that contrast, he would be stripped of a whole lot of his seductive power. I’ll be very curious to see how the mask as fetish is played out in The Rise of Skywalker.

2 – The Stig: I had never heard of the TV show Top Gear until I married my husband. I don’t even drive. And yes, the lead host of the show’s heyday, Jeremy Clarkson, was an absolute horror show of white male privilege; his own co-hosts referred to him as “the orangutan.” But in every episode, their “tame racing driver,” The Stig (a joke about how all the best racing drivers seem to be Scandinavians named Stig) would test drive some incredibly exotic and impractical dream car around the track and set a best possible lap time. He never appeared without his helmet; the mystery of his identity was a running gag throughout the run of the show; they sold promotional teeshirts that read “I Am the Stig.” When the real live guy in the helmet, Ben Collins, finally outed himself in a book, he was fired from the show and pilloried forevermore by the rest of the presenters. Collins is a pretty nice-looking guy. But The Stig was Hot As F*ck. He never showed his face; he never even spoke. But he drove, better and faster and harder than any other human on the planet, all with perfect calm, perfect cool, perfect efficiency. And I think that was what did it for me, just watching this man perform at the absolute top of the game he had chosen without ever breaking a sweat. If I had seen his facial expressions changing, heard him talking about engines or describing the thrill, I don’t think I would have been nearly as affected. The mystery of the man inside this magnificent machine was what flipped my switch completely, and I doubt very much I was alone.

3 – The Dashing Rogues: These are the kind of guys Errol Flynn used to play, guys like The Scarlet Pimpernel and Antonio Banderas as Zorro and, more particularly, Cary Elwes as The Dread Pirate Westley in The Princess Bride. (I know, I know, the Dread Pirate Roberts was his secret identity; Westley was his real name.) Elwes was playing the Platonic ideal of this archetype for laughs, but it worked as more than just a joke because he looked and sounded amaaaaaaazing doing it. And he works the transformation; he fully embraces the power of the mask. When he leaves as the Farm Boy, he’s serious, determined, and blandly besotted–the male version of his beloved Buttercup. But when he returns in that black mask with that ridiculous little mustache, he’s snarky Superman. It isn’t just that he can out-fence, out-fight, and out-wit all comers. It’s that he takes such obvious delight in his powers. Hiding his identity frees him to embrace his inner bad guy even as he saves the girl. And it’s very, very sexy.

4 – The Superheroes: Some superheroes take the idea of a dual identity way beyond Clark Kent’s glasses, guys like Batman and Ironman and my favorite lover of the bunch, Deadpool. Unlike Ironman and Batman, whose disguises are weapons in themselves, Deadpool is hiding a deformity. The mask is his beauty look; underneath he’s the monster. It’s a very Byronic, Phantom of the Opera-kind of character, except that he’s also a total smartass. He hides from his beloved because he fears her rejection, and when he takes off the mask, it’s funny (I dearly love the Hugh Jackman mask gag), but it’s hugely romantic, too, the ultimate display of vulnerability. Batman scores points every time he shows his true face to one of his many love interests; Ironman hides from no one, but the moment Pepper discovers the suit is a big step in their relationship. But for me, Deadpool takes the prize.

5 – My Favorite: Anybody who knows me at all knows I dearly adore me some Russell Crowe. I don’t care how old or fat he gets or what kind of role he might be playing, just watching him makes my heart go pitty-pat. And I can tell you exactly the moment that unbreakable bond was forged:

Holy moley mooley moo. When Gladiator came out, my gal pals and I spent much time and breath exclaiming over that helmet. My story, “The Dragon,” in Eat the Peach, functions quite nicely as Maximus fan fiction, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. But why does that moment make such a difference? What is the deal with the helmet?

When Max puts on the helmet, it’s to hide his face from the Emperor and kick ass. He proves himself a killing machine without equal and a leader of men. Max in the helmet is the ultimate war machine in the same way Deadpool is the ultimate assassin and Stig is the ultimate driver. But when he takes it off, he reveals his fearsome broken soul. He is “the father of a murdered son; the husband of a murdered wife.” The helmet doesn’t just function practically as armor; it functions as a buffer between his anguish and the world. When he takes it off and reveals that anguish … well, all I can say is, it works a treat for me.

And I think the Mandalorian is a version of the same thing. We don’t see his face, but we do see his behavior. We see him fight and win; we see him fight and lose and keep trying. And we see him with The Child–his body language, his decisions. We see the tenderness behind the warrior. And because of the helmet, we can project onto that any face we choose. So yeah, not a romantic story. But a very romantic hero all the same.

 

 

 

 

No One Cares What I Think About the new Star Wars

And that’s hard for me to accept.

The last trailer for the final installment of what they’re calling “The Skywalker Saga” dropped this week during Monday Night Football. Have you seen it?

Yeah, me too. And I don’t really know how I feel about it.

I am very much a Star Wars over Star Trek girl. I will always choose the archetypal emotional fantasy over the big ideas political allegory. (And yes, Star Trek has great archetypes and Star Wars has its own politics, and no, I don’t want to talk about it.) The very first movie, which we knew as Star Wars, not Episode Anything, came out when I was 13 years old. I became best friends with the woman who is still my best friend because of a shared love of Star Wars. We watched it literally all day every day for weeks in the summer of 1977, the only two patrons most days at the Cinema Twin in our tiny, sci-fi resistant hometown. By the time I was a senior in high school and finding my first real nerd tribe, I could boast that I had seen it more than 100 times. The Empire Strikes Back was and is my absolute favorite of the series. Return of the Jedi was and is not, but I still loved it because it wrapped up my story, MY story, the Skywalker saga in which I was invested in a way that felt satisfying and complete. Even with the ewoks.

When The Phantom Menace came out, I was about to turn 35, an adult with a job and a home and responsibilities–I was already being paid to write fantasies of my own. I didn’t like the movie much at all, but it didn’t upset me. It hurt my feelings more that I didn’t care. The fact that I felt completely disconnected from it felt like another symptom of my mid-thirties malaise. “It’s for kids,” I thought, wincing at the pod race. “Maybe Star Wars always was.” I saw each of the second trilogy movies the week they came out, and I did more than my fair share of ranting and raving about Jarjar Binks and the infantalization of the Anakin/Padme relationship and any number of other details that pissed me right off. But it was abstract fury, lit-crit passion. They didn’t hurt my heart.

Then Disney bought Star Wars, and these new movies started coming out. I had hope going in; I really did. I was old enough by then that I had made peace with not being that nerdy teen-ager any more. I was a nerdy middle-aged woman, and I was okay with that. I owned the first six movies on DVD and watched most of them pretty regularly. (I think my copy of The Phantom Menace has been out of the box precisely once, when we showed it to my niece for the first time.) The people making the new movies had made other stuff I liked, and I was very enthused at the idea of a few more central characters who weren’t white guys.

Then I saw The Force Awakens. (It’s very telling that I just had to look up its actual title.) And while I liked a whole lot of stuff about it, the overall effect kinda made me sick to my stomach. Because the whole premise was that the first saga, the original saga, MY saga, hadn’t mattered in the slightest. These characters that I loved were right back in the same soup they had been in when Episode IV started. Some of the names had changed; the universe was a lot more complicated; archetypes had given way to angst-ridden individuals that seemed layered to me in the way that characters on night-time soapies are layered. And I was just shattered. My husband (who’s 19 years younger than me and an avid gamer, cartoon watcher, and comic book nerd) loved them and tried to explain to me that they referenced and incorporated soooo much canon that I knew nothing about. Which did NOT make me feel better. I saw Force Awakens a couple of times, but it didn’t really stick with me. My one abiding memory from it is Han Solo dying for no good reason as far as I was concerned. I’ve seen The Last Jedi once in the theater and once on Blu-Ray, and though I am usually the girl who can remember the plot to every episode of every sitcom she ever watched while doing her nails and reading a magazine, I couldn’t begin to tell you much about happens in it. I remember Luke Skywalker drinking that blue milk and a lot of interpersonal astral projection that wouldn’t make sense in an episode of Legion, much less a Star Wars movie. Mostly the new trilogy so far has left me bitter and disinterested and cold. And that’s pretty much where I am watching this new trailer.

But …

But …

But …

It’s not for me.

That 13-year-old in 1977 believed that good was good and bad was bad and any notion of morality or truth being subjective was just the higher thinking of inscrutable, immaterial gurus bathed in mysterious light. Even the 13-year-olds of today know that isn’t so. (I know this to be true; my niece is 13.) Teenage me wanted a faceless villain in a mask that acted like a purely evil machine right up to his moment of redemption when being a good dad triumphed over all. I know now that neither villainy nor redemption work that way; those concepts just aren’t that clean. People younger than me, the people the  new movies were made for, have known that truth all along. The world they’ve always lived in has made it impossible for them not to know it. I might not want that truth in my story, but without it, their story can’t work.

And Star Wars is now their story. Not mine.

I want my sagas to end in absolute, permanent triumph. I want good to vanquish evil for all time. I want happily ever after. Not in every story, of course, but in my fantasy? Hell yes! But that kind of story doesn’t work for people who have come of age in the world we live in now even as a fantasy. For them, that kind of story is too . . . dare I say it? Disney. Hell, even Disney fairy stories don’t trust that arc any more–have you seen Maleficent? Or Brave? People my husband’s age and my niece’s age know, like Roland of Gilead (since we’re talking about sagas), that ka is a wheel. That nothing lasts forever, good or bad. That it’s the journey that’s important, not the destination. Kids these days know everything dies in a way I didn’t really learn until grad school. I hate that for them; I grieve for the innocence that was my privilege. But my grieving doesn’t bring it back, not for me and not for them.

So I will try to shut up and let people enjoy this new, inclusive, shadowy story where even the brightest light is edged in darkness. I’ll celebrate the diversity of the cast and try not to take the heavy-handed nostalgia beats too personally. I’ll cry for Leia and feel jerked around while I do it the same way I cried for Han and Luke. And the possibility is strong that I won’t love it. I might even hate it.

But that will be okay.

Bell, Book and Candle (1958)

bell-book-candle-black-backless-evening-gownThe Nightmare Before Christmas isn’t the only Christmas/Halloween crossover movie ever made. There’s also Bell, Book and Candle, a smart and surprisingly twisted romantic comedy starring Kim Novak and James Stewart. It opened on Christmas Day 1958 and takes place at Christmas–the climax happens at midnight on Christmas Eve. And while one big plot point gives me serious indigestion, it’s one of my absolute favorites.

Kim Novak is Gillian Holroyd, a witch who runs an art gallery in New York–this is one of those New York movies where all the people, sets, and costumes are gloriously glamorous. James Stewart is Shepherd Henderson, a publisher who lives in the apartment upstairs.  (We know he’s a classy guy because he’s got two last names.) Our girl Gillian isn’t looking for romance, far from it. She’s very happy living single with her familiar, a gorgeous Siamese cat named Pyewacket. Besides, any witch who falls in love for real risks losing all her powers. (That’s the part that makes my stomach gurgle just a bit.) She’s much too sensible and kind-hearted to vamp some poor sap with her supernatural charms (including but not limited to looking just Kim Novak) for the sake of a cheap thrill. But Shep’s just asking for it. First he annoys her Aunt Queenie, another witch played by Elsa Lancaster of Bride of Frankenstein fame. Then he has the audacity to be engaged to the bullying pill who tortured Gillian in college. How could any witch resist?

The whole “a witch can’t love and still do magic” thing sticks in my craw, of course, along with Gillian’s many lamentations about wanting to be “normal.” But watching Novak and Stewart banter and succumb is worth the allowances to be made. These are the same two who had steamed up the screen earlier that year as the doomed lovers in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, and it’s lovely to see them in something with laughs. And while the paranormal angle is a little watered-down by modern urban fantasy standards, it still has a pretty delicious bite, particularly for 1958.

Turner Classic Movies is showing Bell, Book and Candle at 8 pm EDT on Thursday, October 3, 2019 (today if you’re reading this on posting day), and I highly recommend it. And if you want six versions of my own take on witchy girls in love, check out Eat the Peach: And Other Wicked Tales, available now from Falstaff Crush.

eat the peach

The Excellence You Swear You Cannot See

nicole's bookThe Romance Writers of America has released the names of the nominees for their yearly RITA Awards, and, you guessed it, they’re about as diverse as a glass of milk beside a plate of sugar cookies with white chocolate chips. So all of us writing and publishing types have taken to the Facebooks and beyond one more time to discuss the diversity problem. Even among those of us nice white cis straight folks who have stopped twitching every time we admit it exists, there’s a lot of panic, anger, and confusion when we start trying to decide what to do about it.

Like most of the RITA nominees, I’m a middle-aged straight cis white woman who writes books. In my current romance WIP, the heroine is Persian. In the Southern gothic I finished earlier this year, the protagonist is a Black woman. In the next book I’m scheduled to write, one of the main background characters is gay, and I’ve written multiple gay characters into books in the past, from medieval romances to urban fantasy. Having even this much diversity in my work does great stuff for me as an artist, assuming I do it right. It makes me step out of my comfort zone and enriches my narrative voice in everything I write; it broadens my market for the finished product.

For the cause of diversity in publishing, it does dickory do.

michael's bookEven if I do my research, get every detail as right as it’s possible to get it, my non-white, non-straight, non-cis characters are never going to be drawn with the same authority a writer who shares that identity could give them. And at the end of the day, my success with these books, artistic and otherwise, is success for yet another white straight cis writer. And don’t get me wrong; I am all about succeeding. Nobody is asking me or expecting me or wanting me or any other white straight cis writer to be otherwise, and I wouldn’t oblige them if they were. But if I honestly give a shit about creating a level playing field for all writers, I have to work beyond that, outside it. I have to get past my own fear of failure and focus that part of my energy on people who aren’t me and work that isn’t mine. I have to stop thinking like a writer and think like a reader instead. And as a reader, I have to actively seek out diverse voices. And when I find good reads from those voices, I have to make sure other readers know about them, too.

Every time an award-nominating body or a publisher or a whatever gets accused of lack of diversity in their choices, their first excuse is always, “We would have been diverse; we wanted to, really, really, but we just couldn’t find anything to read at the level we were looking for that wasn’t written by a white straight cis person!” That’s bullshit so blatant, it’s laughable on its face, but still, my purpose here is to be helpful. So in addition to the amazing work of already-famous people like N.K. Jemison, Michael Cunningham, and Colson Whitehead, let me recommend a kind of Whitman’s sampler of fiction from various genres written by amazing writers whose work I happen to know. As a reader, I would recommend any and all of them without reservation—this, my kittens, is the good stuff. If you want your own reading and publishing in general to be more diverse, this is a great way to start. Click on the links to buy. Read them, review them, tell your friends. Be part of the solution.

Sisters of the Wild Sage, a collection of weird western short stories by Nicole Kurtz, a Black woman. Nicole also writes horror, science fiction, and urban fantasy, and it’s all well worth your attention.

A Fall In Autumn, an amazing new science fiction novel by Michael Williams, a gay man. Futuristic noir, first in an on-going series.

Black Magic Women: Terrifying Tales by Scary Sisters, an anthology of horror short stories written by Black women. I have already gnawed the ears off everybody who will listen about how great these stories are, but if you haven’t read them yet, DO IT NOW.

Girl In the Gears: A truly fun steampunk adventure by E. Chris Garrison, a transgender woman. First in an on-going series.

And finally, dear ladies of the RWA RITA-nominating committee …

Passion and Ink: The latest bestselling contemporary romance by Naima Simone, a Black woman with multiple series on-going and a voracious readership of romance lovers of every ethnicity.

And so many others I could happily mention if I had the space. If you can’t find the best work in your favorite genre being written by writers who break the white, straight, cis mold, then I’m sorry; you’re just not trying. And if anybody has other recommendations for me, by all means, add them to the comments!

Don’t Mind Me, Y’all

Spoilers for Stranger Things Season One; Star Wars: The Last Jedi; and Game of Thrones. And Lord of the Rings if you still haven’t gotten around to seeing that one.

I realized last night I have blindly stumbled into a total asshole phase where I don’t like anything. I didn’t like the new Star Wars; I didn’t like Stranger Things Season One; I didn’t like the ending of the latest season of Game of Thrones (okay, I loved some things about it, but the overall place everybody was in when they left it made me sad and not in a wistful, angsty way but a frustrated, defeatist way). The last thing I really, really liked was Westworld. Here’s how bad it is, y’all – I’m re-reading the original William Goldman novel The Princess Bride, and all I can see is what I don’t like about it. And I adore that book; I have always adored that book. But now I find myself constantly thinking, “does Buttercup REALLY need to be THIS stupid for the adventure fantasy to work for him?” And I know it’s not the art; it’s me. I see the smart and sensitive people with the same tastes in story all around me loving this stuff; I see the looks of shocked incomprehension and, from the ones who actually give a crap what I think, disappointment on their faces when I say I don’t. And on the one hand, so what; it’s just TV and movies. But on the other, I feel myself losing that connection with people I love, and that IS important–and it makes me think that not liking this stuff is a symptom of something else.

One of the themes or plot points that has become really popular of late in science fiction and fantasy is a kind of existential defeatism played out against an enemy so powerful and so evil and so single-minded they can’t ever be vanquished, only managed for brief periods of blind joy and secret dread. I call it Borg Syndrome.

In Star Wars, even though we saw the big ewok barbecue at the end of Return of the Jedi and the fireworks over Coruscant, within the lifetime of the main characters, it all apparently went to shit–to paraphrase Don Henley, the rebels be rebels all over again; the First Order comes out of nowhere and takes control of everything and it’s like the big victory it took us three movies and almost a decade of avid movie-watching investment to achieve never happened at all. In Stranger Things, an evil lab under the auspices of the Department of Energy experiments on children, opens up a portal to another dimension and releases an apparently-mindless oogie-boogie without a face, and more children are tortured and devoured, and in the end, the good guys are just happy to have the one kid back and to hell with any accountability for the baddies who made it all happen because they’re just too powerful to be touched. The main evil scientist guy gets devoured, and that’s awesome, but the big machine rolls on–I know this; I’ve watched the first two episodes of Season Two. And in Game of Thrones, the king of the snow zombies has a zombie dragon that can take down the ultimate defenses of the good–wait, slightly-less-bad–guys in less than a minute, rendering pretty much everything we’ve seen over the course of seven seasons moot in favor of Night of the Living Dead, Medieval Fantasy Edition.

What the genuine fuck, y’all? Have we gotten so cynical and so saturated with antidepressants that we can’t even conceive of a happy ending that isn’t a sick joke, even in our most escapist fantasy? Are we making art designed to reassure us that there’s really no reason to get off the couch because we can’t accomplish anything real or lasting anyway? Am I just a wackadoo old person who’s ready to subsist on reruns of The Waltons on MeTV because I can’t handle the hard stuff any more?

I don’t think so. I keep thinking back to the end of Lord of the Rings. Frodo, with massive amounts of help from everybody else, saved Middle Earth from the darkness, but in the end, he was too broken, too damaged to live in the world he had saved. He had taken too much darkness inside to ever really purge it. So he sailed off into the west, and I bawled my eyes out, but it made sense to me; I loved it. Because his sacrifice mattered to the big picture–the rest of Middle Earth was saved for generations to come. (Yes, evil always comes back, but maybe not next week?) And broken as he was, he had a place to go. He had the self-awareness to know the rotten way he felt was not the necessary norm of hobbit psychology and the faith to know there was something left inside him that could still be healed in the west. Tolkien was a Christian and so am I, and I know that’s a big part of why that story feels right to me, and no, I don’t expect everybody else to buy in.

But I don’t see an atheistic adherence to reason and knowledge in the new fantasy or a celebration of the human spirit; far from it. Knowledge is deeply suspect or discounted or laughed at or ignored–evil scientists are evil; burn the Jedi texts and laugh; Samwell Tarly is a comic figure cleaning bedpans while the real heroes kill things and sleep with their relatives. And people, generally speaking, are either evil shitheels or stupid but nice. And the goals of the nice people are either assumed to be hopeless–like in Star Wars and part of Game of Thrones–or extend no further than their own nuclear family–like in Stranger Things and the other part of Game of Thrones. Our heroes are now either Sisyphus or Forrest Gump.

But again, maybe it’s just me. I’m not being cute when I say that; I’m absolutely serious. Maybe the one who’s having a hard time believing in the light these days is me; maybe the one who sees herself and her fellow humans as either evil or stupid is me. And if that’s the case, I’m sorry; please feel free to ignore me. I promise I’ll be better soon.

PS: Westworld rocks, and one reason is, the people being exploited ARE smart and DO make a change to their world, even though they are literally programmed into a Sisyphean loop. No wonder I loved it so much.

PPS: The Princess Bride is sexist as hell because William Goldman is a hellacious sexist. He’s also completely brilliant and so is his book.

 

The Princess Defense: A Kickass Statistical Analysis

The release and box office success of Wonder Woman has feminist debate on the lips of Geek Nation once again. I haven’t seen it yet, but count me among the fans. I love the idea of a kickass female leading the charge in a summer superhero flick, even if she has to have perfect hair and a one-piece maillot with boots and tiara ensemble to do it.

But here within the happy ranks celebrating the movie, a rallying cry has emerged that is starting to get on my nerves. “My princesses are now generals! Huzzah!” writes one blogger who gets shared around the web. “Princess Buttercup is finally redeemed as an Amazon!” writes another. (I’m paraphrasing the thesis of both, of course; they’re easy to find and very nicely written.) The idea seems to be that these princesses, Leia and Buttercup and by extension every other princess in every other movie prior to the Great Climbing from the Trench was a misogynistic embarrassment to feminists—or at least no more than the sloppy seconds we clung to because popular art, particularly science fiction and fantasy, offered us no one else.

When I called poppycock on this notion yesterday, I got a short course on representation in response—we have plenty of princesses and domestic goddesses, this woman explained, but we need more kickass warrior women. When I suggested that I had noticed a lot more women kicking people in the face in popular art lately than I had non-desperate housewives, intellectual professionals, or princesses who ruled by something other than the sword or dragon, she wrote back that she was specifically referencing blockbuster movies. She’s obviously smart and made her point well, so I decided to cast an analytical eye over the top 5 movies of 2017 so far by box office, the best definition I know of “blockbuster.” (This list came out at the end of last week, just before Wonder Woman’s big weekend, and FYI, even just from presales and previews and such, she came in at Number 11.) I asked the same series of questions about each, and here’s what I found:

  1. Beauty and the Beast

Most prominent female character(s): Belle, the central protagonist. It’s her story.

And she is? A scholarly dreamer and inventor who becomes a princess.

Is she kickass? Well, no, not really. She’s willing to rip up her iconic pretty princess dress to ride to the rescue of her Beast, and she picks up a stick and whacks a wolf or two. But I’d call her more brave and practical than I would kick-ass; she’s a lover and a reader, not a fighter, and she doesn’t seem to have any kind of psychological or identity crisis about being rescued.

Does she have sex? Not on screen, but a growl and a giggle at the end suggest that if not yet then really soon.

  1. Guardians of the Galaxy 2:

Most prominent female character: Gamora, one of the hero’s team of sidekicks and his love interest

And she is? A green-skinned alien hottie in a sexy leather outfit who flies spaceships and shoots people in the face.

Is she kickass? Oh hell yeah

Does she have sex? Oh hell no. In fact, the notion that she might is one of the big running jokes of the plot.

  1. Logan

Most prominent female character: Laura, a MacGuffin

And she is? Another in the long tradition of super special damaged daughter substitutes for heroes in contemporary science fiction, fantasy and horror (see also: Firefly, The Last of Us)

Is she kickass? It is the entirety of her character.

Does she have sex? What’s the matter with you, you sicko! Of course she doesn’t!

  1. The Fate of the Furious

Most prominent female character: Michelle Rodriguez is back as the kickass love interest, but most prominent is Cipher, the villainess

And she is? The Ball Buster

Is she kickass? Oh hell yeah

Does she have sex? She tries to seduce the hero ‘cause that’s what these girls do, but he ain’t having it.

  1. Lego Batman

Most prominent female character: There’s a Batgirl.

And she is? A second string sidekick

Is she kickass? As much as a Lego figure can be, yes.

Does she have sex? No. Did I mention she’s a Lego figure?

So of the five most popular movies of 2017 prior to the release of Wonder Woman, only one has a female as lead protagonist, but all of these women but one are, in fact, kickass. (We’ll get back to that sex thing and why it’s important in a minute.) But this probably isn’t a fair sample; it’s only the first week of the summer blockbuster season. So let’s look back at 2016:

  1. Rogue One

Most prominent female character: Jyn, the protagonist

And she is? A pilot and mercenary with family connections that make her the best and most motivated choice for what turns out to be a suicide mission for the Rebellion.

Is she kickass? Absolutely. She hesitates to get involved with the Rebellion, but she’s been living by her wits and her laser pistol her whole life.

Does she have sex? There’s just no time. There’s a slight suggestion that there might have someday been a romantic connection to her partner in the mission if they had survived, but they die as friends.

  1. Finding Dory

Most prominent female character: Dory, the protagonist

And she is: A sweet, goofy single gal fish with short term memory loss

Is she kickass? Not at all; it’s very much not that kind of movie

Does she spawn? No – she’s more of a spinster auntie

  1. Captain America: Civil War

Most prominent female characters: Black Widow and/or Scarlet Witch, two secondary plotlines with equal time in the background

And they are? Superheroes in sexy leather outfits, one for each side of the central, dude-centric conflict

Are they kickass? Again, that’s all they came for.

Do they have sex? Just a little mostly unspoken emo yearning. Black Widow trades longing looks and oblique dialogue with a sensitive guy who turns into a big green monster, and the red rubber consciousness that looks like Paul Bettany casts a lot of shy glances at the Scarlet Witch—but she’s also got that super special substitute daughter thing going on, so maybe that’s what his deal is. (Only a superhero movie would cast Paul Bettany as a character with no discernible penis.)

  1. The Secret Life of Pets

It’s a kid’s movie, and every character except the background mommy figure and a couple of plot devices in passing is male.

  1. The Jungle Book

It’s a kid’s movie, and every character except the background mommy figure and a couple of plot devices in passing is male.

So again, of the ones that bother to have female characters of any substance at all, only one isn’t kickass. Methinks we might be mis-defining the problem and losing sight of what makes Wonder Woman such a milestone. Wonder Woman isn’t awesome because she’s kickass in the battle sequences; you can’t swing a dead henchman without finding a woman who’s kickass in battle sequences in these movies. She’s awesome because it’s HER FREAKIN’ MOVIE. After making her do her time as the Amazon ex machina in Batman vs. Superman, DC has put her front and center in her own origin story, committing to the project enough to have a great script and great actors and the budget to carry it off. (We’ll leave the debate about how much or little they promoted it for another blog post.) And yes, that is amazing and groundbreaking, and I can’t wait to see it, and I’m so glad it’s doing so well.

But let’s circle back to Leia and Buttercup and sex. In their original incarnations as princesses, they’re pretty kickass. Buttercup isn’t riding off to battle, but she is strong-willed, loyal, staunch in her convictions, and more than willing to face off shrieking eels, shove her kidnapper down a cliff, and go nose to nose with the royal asshole forcing her into marriage—when the confrontation comes, he’s the one who blinks first. And Leia might still be wearing a grotesquely impractical white gown and going by the title “princess” in Episodes IV-VI, but she’s a senator/spy who can stand up under torture, outshoot any storm trooper, and, oh yeah, lead a rebellion against the most powerful empire in the galaxy. So what’s the big evolutionary change in them that is inspiring all these tears of joy at their new empowerment? What was wrong with them before that’s right with them now? Sex—or rather, the elimination of sex. Princess Leia and Princess Buttercup are both objects of desire for men in their story, and each of them reciprocates this attraction when they find their soul mate. They fall in love. But once Buttercup becomes an Amazon general, it’s a pretty safe bet even for someone like me who hasn’t seen the movie  yet that she hasn’t got much time or patience for mawwiage or even twue love. And General Organa has given up romance to such an extent that she doesn’t even kiss Han Solo good-bye as she sends him to his death. I’ve done an informal poll, and pretty much every cis woman and gay man I know would have at least kissed Han Solo good-bye as they sent him to his death. But a nice, platonic hug is all General Organa will muster.

I love all these kickass women; I wouldn’t part with a one. And celibacy is a perfectly acceptable lifestyle choice. (This isn’t about boys, by the way; if some of these women had girlfriends, you’d never hear a peep of dissent out of me. Nor do I think all of these movies need that romantic element, far from it. But the fact that literally the only one that does is the Disney fairy tale movie gives me pause.) But choosing not to take a mate isn’t inherently better or more noble, and it doesn’t equate to empowerment, female or otherwise. Yet this is the message that so many of these popular movies with their celibate beauties seem to be sending, and this particular reaction to the Wonder Woman phenomenon shows that it’s not just Joss Whedon who’s infected. Since the beginning of time, there have been misogynistic jerks who think a woman is always supposed to look sexy but never supposed to have sex. If she doesn’t look sexy, she’s a hag. But if she has sex, she’s a slut. The patriarchy has been using shame to police women’s sexuality since Lilith and Eve, and the women who buy into that patriarchal model have always been their best agents on the street. But as feminists, aren’t we supposed to be better than that? Do we really want to embrace the message that any woman who takes a lover is surrendering, defining herself by that relationship and therefore lesser in our eyes? I don’t think that’s what Wonder Woman means to say; I don’t think that’s what we want for one another. Nobody has to be a princess or dream of being a princess if they don’t want to, or a housewife, or a space pilot, or an Amazon. But nobody has the right to make any of us feel less like a woman if we do.