Friday, July 29, 2011

Not Like Those *Other* Christians...

It's all too easy to be both a feminist and a misogynist, especially in the early stages of your feminism. Recognizing that the world is rigged against people of the female persuasion, you refuse to play the role forced upon you by the very fact of your (assumed) femaleness. You cast aside make-up and dresses and pink and all other things coded “feminine” in our society. You do “masculine” things and hang out with masculine-type humans. Maybe you even start bad-mouthing women who wear make-up and dresses and pink, because the fact that they buy into these products means they are perpetuating their own oppression. Not like you, who have seen the fnords of cultural misogyny and know that masculine-coded things are Good and feminine-coded things are bad.


The real reason you are bad-mouthing those silly ladies and their silly skirts (and I speak from a place of painful personal experience) is that you desperately crave the approval of non-feminist men. The patriarchy has instilled in you the idea that Getting Men's Approval is the only way to validate your existence. It's like the patriarchy is a dream within a dream: once you recognize it for what it is, you think you've escaped it, but actually you've only peeled back one layer – you're still stuck in the dream. Actually, it's worse than that, because there's this whole kyriarchal onion of layer upon layer upon layer of assumptions and bigotry and -isms; but let's stick with this first layer for a sec.

So you've recognized that the kyriarchy's expectations of Woman are ridiculous, contradictory, labyrinthine, unfair, and impossible to meet. Good for you. Trouble is, you've responded just the way the kyriarchy wants you to respond: by rejecting Woman altogether. You're still buying into culturally-ingrained misogyny; you've just granted an exemption for yourself. You're out to prove to the misogynists that you're Not Like Those Other Women.

I think/hope I have at last reached a point where I don't reflexively do this, or if I do I catch and correct myself; but I've noticed myself doing the same thing in a different field: I keep wanting to prove to non-believers that I'm Not Like Those Other Christians.

I'm on a progressive message board, prefacing snarky comments about mainstream Christianity with, “Speaking as a believer...”. I'm telling new acquaintances that I'm about to start a master's in theology, and I immediately add that my school is very progressive and pro-QUILTBAG. I play down the Christian aspect of my identity and play up the Jewish side for the benefit of secular communities that tend to conceive Jewishness as a cultural rather than religious identity.

I'm no longer saying, “I'm a woman, but woman-haters should approve of me because I don't buy dresses and I don't wear make-up and I hate romantic comedies. I'm Not Like Those Other Women!” I'm saying, “I have faith, but secularists should approve of me because I believe in evolution and I'm pro-choice and I don't think I have a monopoly on spiritual truth. I'm Not Like Those Other Christians!”

Now, there's a very important distinction between these two kinds of disavowals. The feminine-coded things I'm disavowing are not inherently bad. Dresses and make-up and rom-coms are inherently value- and gender-neutral. They're not somehow intrinsically masculine or feminine or good or bad (though you could certainly make an argument for the intrinsic badness of most recent movies with Katherine Heigl in them) – they come to be seen as m/f based on arbitrary patriarchal prescriptions, and whether we designate them Good or Bad is our response to this coding.

Denying evolution, though? Denying womb-owners their bodily autonomy? Dismissing other faiths as inferior to yours? I'd argue that these are, in fact, inherently bad things. When I as a Christian disavow them, it's not equivalent to when I as a woman disavow value-neutral feminine-coded things. It's equivalent rather to being a man with a lot of misogynist male friends, hitting on women by telling them earnestly that I don't objectify and dehumanize them, I'm not a rape apologist, I don't blame women for provoking lust in men – in short, I'm Not Like Those Other Men.

But you know who overwhelmingly doesn't need to hear that this stuff is wrong, because they already know it? Women. And you know who does need to hear it? Misogynist men. “Pro-choice Christians exist!” is not a message non-believers particularly need to hear – it's one that anti-choice Christians need to hear, desperately and urgently.

I'm past insisting that I'm Not Like Those Other Women, but in this context I'm still insisting that I'm Not Like Those Other Men. The trouble with this defensive self-exceptionalism is that it doesn't challenge the status quo – it reinforces it.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

7 Reasons Why I Love "The Day The Earth Stood Still"

The Retro-Futurist Production Design

Okay, so it's not Metropolis (I LOVE YOU METROPOLIS MEET ME AT THE ALTAR AS SOON AS THEY LEGALIZE HUMAN/MOVIE MARRIAGE), but it's still got a pretty snazzy aesthetic. The smooth white uniformity of both the spaceship and the robot Gort prefigures Apple products by about 50 years.

The Amazingly Non-Annoying Movie Kid

Everyone hates kids in movies not aimed at kids. We all agree that Terminator 2: Judgment Day was marred only by the obnoxious brat and his even more obnoxious haircut. Movie kids, as a rule, fall into two equally unbearable categories: Whiny Brat and Smug Prodigy. Little Bobby Benson, though, sidesteps this rule. As a good-natured, obliging, happy kid, he's not at all whiny or bratty, and he's curious and inquisitive without being precocious or smug.

The ~Deeply Subtle~ Christian Allegory

Klaatu's first words to humankind are, “We have come to visit you in peace and with goodwill.” He assumes the name Carpenter (OH I SEE WHAT YOU DID THERE), teams up with a Jew, and suffers little children to come to him. He's distrusted, demonized, and eventually assassinated by the authorities. He gets resurrected and delivers a message to all humans that leaves the decision of how we act in our own hands, and then ascends to the heavens. Yes, it has all the subtlety and finesse of a chainsaw, but I saw E.T. a billionty times as a kid – I'm a sucker for a hamfisted Christ allegory.

In Places It's Hilariously Dated

This isn't always to the film's credit: for a movie with such a progressive, let's-all-join-hands-and-sing-kumbaya message, it's remarkably light on people who aren't rich white American men (my favorite class of people in movies!). And how creepy is the scene where Klaatu gets into the elevator with Helen, knowing full well that the power's about to go out and she'll be trapped in the elevator with a man she doesn't trust? THE STUFF OF NIGHTMARES. Funnier are the more naïve signs of its times: the fact that Helen willingly leaves her son in the care of a strange man (after asking her boyfriend, “Do you think it's all right?”, to which my brain cannot possibly avoid adding “to leave the boy with Uncle Ernie...”); the doctors who complain that Klaatu's advanced medicine makes them feel like “third-rate witch doctors” and then light up cancer sticks inside the freaking hospital.

Claude Rains Almost Played Klaatu

As good as Michael Rennie is, I have a bit of a thing for Claude Rains, so I would have loved to see this happen. On the downside, it would have totally screwed up the first verse of “Science Fiction Double Feature”, which is the best song in Rocky Horror and if you disagree you are the Mayor of Wrongsville, the President of the Society for the Promotion of Wrongness, and the Supreme Leader of Wrongistan.

Klaatu Barada Nikto”

I used to have a hoodie with “Klaatu Barada Nikto” on the back, but then the K fell off, and I was like, “I can't walk around with 'laatu Barada Nikto' on my back, everyone will think I am a DORK” so I peeled off all the other letters and then I found the K and I was like dammit. I guess the moral of the story is, tidy your room, kids.

It's Basically Plan 9 From Outer Space Done Right

Plan 9 From Outer Space is one of my comfort movies, right alongside The Final Sacrifice on MST3K and any of the Disney pics from the early '90s. I love the shit out of that ridiculous frickin' movie and would quite happily watch it every day for the rest of my life. The Day The Earth Stood Still has more or less the same plot as Plan 9 – aliens, concerned that nuclear-age humanity is going to blow them all to kingdom come, descend to Earth in order to stop that from happening – but dispenses with the continuity errors, ill logic, and golden Ed Wood dialog. Which, okay, makes it sound like it's missing all the good stuff, but I promise you, this is a fantastic movie.

(Who is Keanu Reeves what remake I DON'T KNOW WHAT YOU ARE TALKING ABOUT)

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

God of Speculative Fiction

Christian fundamentalists, militant atheists, and some of the more irresponsible corners of the media like to paint Religion and Science as two discrete forces in a binary opposition. To scientists, this narrative asserts, faith is a mendacious force wilfully blinding people to the truths of scientific endeavor and the methods of rationality; while religious believers bury their hands in the sand of the like-minded community or seek to discredit the facts that would falsify their faith or at least render it unnecessary.

Needless to say, I despise binary oppositions with the white-hot hatred of a thousand suns, and this one is an especial desk-denter. I'll not insult my readers' critical thinking skills by explaining how you can totes believe in God and evolution at the same time!!eleventy (though if you've stumbled upon this blog, say in a Google search for “rob bell gay” [spoiler: he's not!], consider fine-tuning your reading comprehension skills before commenting, ta very much).

Christian writer Alister McGrath observes that university Christian groups are often populated primarily by science students, and my own experience bears this out. I think there's an argument to be made for the intellectual humility of scientists, as opposed to liberal arts students like myself who arrive at university convinced that, if we don't already know everything worth knowing, we certainly will after three/four/ten years of studying Latin/gender studies/ancient Sumerian. McGrath's explanation, though, is that “scientists are used to talking and thinking about reality in terms of models, in terms of partial and conceivable representations of reality, and thus have little difficulty in handling the same tools when speaking and thinking about God”.

The same, I believe, applies to speculative fiction fans. Whereas the practice of scientific inquiry endows a way of conceiving reality that can be transferred to thinking about meta-reality, sci-fi and fantasy provide images that we fanpeople can use as our models for conceiving God. (And, before you ask, I have indeed uttered the sentence, “Dammit, Jim, I'm a speculative fiction fan, not a scientist!”)

It's not just that fantasy's Big Three – the writers whose worlds even haters of fantasy are familiar with: Tolkien, Lewis, and Rowling – are all Christians whose culturally-ubiquitous works incorporate and recreate aspects of Christian mythology. It's that speculative fiction has a unique power to tap into our deepest longings, magic wands and talking animals and interstellar travel and time travel and epic quests and all the things that are OMG SO FREAKING AWESOME and I WANT TO GO TO THERE: things that transcend our everyday reality and echo back to our little earth-bound time-bound physics-bound lives some small taste of eternity. If you believe in the Christian story, with its great cosmic happy-ever-after, then it makes sense that you'll experience some profound yearnings for better, cooler, more miraculous worlds than our own.

For example:

Talking about God the Holy Spirit is difficult. This is the aspect of God that lives inside every believer. (If you thought the concept of the Trinity was a head-scratcher, consider that one of the persons of the Trinity is also a zillion persons. HEAD ASPLODE.) People just don't talk about the Holy Spirit as much as they talk about God the Creator and Jesus Christ, because it is one baffling concept. Here are some of the models I use for thinking about the Holy Spirit:

All images taken from nerddom; each one something every geek has longed desperately to have; each one partial and inadequate as a model, but taken together representing something of the power and awesomeness of literally having God living inside of you.

I think the parallels between fandom and Christianity are striking. How do we respond to Middle-Earth? Some with indifference; some with hostility; some with passionate love and longing. Some people are cautiously interested in the story itself, but grow to despise it on account of the intense nerditry of the fanbase. Some people are introduced to it by their friends, while others find it on their own. Some people are switched off by the story as presented in one medium, but love it in another. Some people think it is a load of crap and can't believe grown humans are wasting their time on a pointless fantasy world.

To those on the outside, the intensity is often alienating. But to those within the fold, all things are given through the connection that we share based on our deepest longings and the magical world that, for brief moments at a time, promises to meet and surpass them.

(Have I ever ended a prayer to God, you ask, with the words “I leave it entirely in your hands”? I HEREBY INVOKE WHATEVER IS YOUR COUNTRY'S EQUIVALENT OF THE FIFTH AMENDMENT.)

Sunday, July 24, 2011

On Norway

My heart goes out to Norway at this time. All the people who lost their lives, all the people mourning loved ones, all the people whose world was rocked by this violent atrocity – may peace and comfort be with you all.

It's my prayer that we in the world can look to this horror and learn from it, so that some sliver of good can be forged from the hurt and death.

I hope other countries – particularly the US – will be moved to take seriously the threat of terrorism from fundamentalist Christianity.

I hope Islamophobes will be led to understand that Islam is no more an inherently violent religion than Christianity is, and that religiously-motivated acts of hate and murder are always the work of sick individuals twisting and distorting the name of Love.

I hope moderate and progressive Christians will feel compelled to speak up, condemning unequivocally the brutal distortion of our faith and all the inflammatory rhetoric that paves the way for actions like Breivik's.

I hope Europe will take to heart the terrible cost of far-right extremism, especially those parts of the continent that seem to have forgotten what happened last time it was allowed to gain a foothold in the West.

Come on, humankind. Let's try to do it right this time.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Fat Acceptance, Thin Privilege

Naturally I have nothing but respect for the hard-working medical health professionals who make our NHS the flawed yet wonderful institution it is; but I gotta say – sometimes, doctors are d-bags.

I think of the nurse whose sex-ed advice plowed over my somewhat embarrassed insistence that I do not sleep with men and have no intention of so doing; the doctor who prescribed me The Pill for my skin condition and a couple months later told me icily that I'd put on weight and should exercise more; a dozen forms and pamphlets that frame sexual activity exclusively as hetero P-in-V (“the only 100% sure way to prevent pregnancy is to abstain from sex entirely” – both heteronormative and profoundly unimaginative!).

Of course, for every story of indignity and humiliation suffered at the hands of healthcare professionals, I have one of excellent treatment – the doctor who so readily put me at ease when I shamefacedly reported my first yeast infection; the nurse who ran the metal speculum under the hot tap before bringing it anywhere near me (if there was never a furious second-wave feminist screed entitled Speculum, somebody missed a trick) – but the fact remains: doctors can be real assholes.

It's not always entirely their fault. They're the products of the med school system, which – like everything else in this sad, mad, wonderful world – is susceptible to humankind's penchant for Othering and oppression. I don't want to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but doctors don't always know best: how many Victorian women were diagnosed with “hysteria”, the complaint of being female in a very male-dominated society? How many housewives of the 1950s and 60s were psychoanalyzed with spurious mental illnesses just because they didn't find being a housewife entirely fulfilling? How many trans* and genderqueer individuals face hostility from the doctors they have to somehow convince of their gender identity? I don't think it's the words of a kook, therefore, to suggest that sometimes doctors talk total shite, especially about queer people, PWD, and fat people.

Fat Acceptance (FA) is probably the newest aspect of the social justice movement to me, and initially I looked on it with doubt. Hadn't I always been told that fat = bad? That fat ugly I was prepared to accept as jiving with basic feminist values, but medical health professionals are always reiterating that fat = unhealthy. There's the increased risk of heart failure; there's the late onset diabetes; there's the obesity epidemic, and my God won't somebody PLEASE think of the children?!

Actually, though... read FA websites. Learn that the correlation between size and health has never actually been proved to exist, and that you can be fat and healthy (or thin and unhealthy) at one and the same time. Realize that, even if there is or might be a correlation between an individual's size and eir health, it is not a moral issue and you have absolutely no right to be judging em for eir (horrible phrase) “lifestyle choices”. Think critically about the multi-bajillion-dollar diet industry, which operates on a cycle of convincing people that they should hate their bodies and spend all the money they can on the latest diet regimes that will not work because the idea that everyone can obtain any body shape they want through diet and exercise is A COMPLETE LIE, and that is a feature not a bug. Start to notice the fat-shaming in which our culture is engulfed, in constant pop-culture messages that fat equates to greedy or gluttonous or comic relief or unsexy or disgusting or immoral or just bad, bad, bad.

I've been reading and learning and realizing and thinking and noticing, and I think it's important for me to start talking about it because fat is a feminist issue: if you're a feminist, an activist, a social justice blogger, you cannot be all, “End discrimination now! Oh and go on a diet, porky.” We've all seen that attitude on supposedly feminist websites, often in the form of concern-trolling. Just cut it out. Being a feminist/SJer who castigates fat people is like being a feminist/SJer who says racist things. Not saying it doesn't happen; I'm saying it shouldn't happen, it makes no sense, and it needs to freakin'. Stop. Now.

I myself am not fat, and in this messed-up world of ours any minority cause gains credibility from privileged people talking about it. It's gross, but it's true. The white anti-racist, the male feminist, the straight queer activists – these are the people that get mainstream attention; and there goeth the thin fat activist.

When I first became aware of FA, I used to angst about my thin privilege. “People keep complimenting me on looking slender!” I would agonize. “o me misere, what shall I do? Give them a self-righteous lecture on how slimness is not a virtue, or just accept the intended compliment? BEING A THIN FAT ACTIVIST IS SO HARD!”


Do you see what I was doing? I was taking the Cause I had so nobly appropriated, and making it all about me. It's a classic ally tactic: you see it in the white folks who go to womanist spaces to ask for advice on dealing with a coworker who uses racial slurs and it offends me and I feel I should speak up but I don't want to rock the boat and, oh, whatever shall I do? How can I ease my privileged-person conscience in a blaze of faux-deprecation that actually reinforces my privilege and how awesome it makes me feel?

Being an ally to any cause is full of pitfalls, but once you start to engage any deeper than the surface it's not hard at all. You just have to remember:

It's not about you. When in doubt, shut the fuck up.

Monday, July 18, 2011


(Warning: Expletives abound. I was extremely fucking angry when I wrote this.)

Hey, straight people, guess what?

Grow the fuck up.

I don't care how goddamn ignorant you are. I could not give less of a shit what you think. Don't ask me some fucking stupid shit question like “how come there's no straight pride parade?”, because you won't get an answer. I am fucking done with Gay 101, Feminism 101, How To Be The Greatest Fucking Ally In The World 101. Go join a fucking library. Go home and read Shakesville. Go teach yourself the basics of being a human being – don't expect me to do it for you. Either educate yourfuckingself, or accept that you're a disgusting fucking bigot.

Or maybe I will give you an answer. The answer is, “because fuck you, straight people”. You, with your fucking smug little smirks as you ask me why QUILTBAG excludes straight people, like you think you're the first fucking person on the planet to ask such a stupid fucking question. You, with your “no, I've never been called a pervert for holding hands with a girl, but I've been called names for other stuff, which is totally the same thing”. You, with your “it's okay for me to use 'gay' as a pejorative because I have gay friends, and they know I'm only joking!

Fuck. Off. Fuuuuuuuuck riiiiiiiight off.

It's gotten to the point where I let so much shit slide, because I don't want to have some really basic fucking kindergarten-level conversation about how actually, yes, being gay defines me in a way that being straight doesn't define you. I don't want to explain to your delicate straight-person brain that having a gay friend isn't a Get Out Of Bigotry Free card. I don't want to hold your goddamn hand and tiptoe your precious straight-person feet through the concept that maybe our taking pride in marginalized identities is a pushback against you straight people trying to make us ashamed. I let it slide, because there are so many times and places in my life where I can't get away with saying fuck you, straight people.

Well, this is my space, and I'm going to say it here for all the other times I don't get to say it.





Fucking fucking fuck you, fucking straight people.



Friday, July 15, 2011

I Read Harry Potter

In honor of the release of the final Harry Potter film, here's a piece I wrote in 2009 (pre-blog), when I finally read books six and seven (spoilers ho).

* * *

It is now well over a decade since the day my best friend, breathless with enthusiasm, told me about the brilliant book she’d just read. I listened, enchanted, as she described to me a tale of mystery and excitement, of danger and magic, of friendship and evil; of a boy, a little older than ourselves, who discovers that he is a wizard. She had the sequel with her, and I stayed up far into the night, devouring it feverishly, terrified and thrilled in equal measure. For my tenth birthday not long afterwards, I received my own copies of these first two books. When the third was released later that year, she sent me a copy of that too (in a hardback first edition that I really wish I’d held onto; they’re worth quite a lot these days). And when the fourth book came out, I got that one as well.

And somewhere in that couple of years, Harry Potter went stratospheric.

But as Harry’s star waxed, my interest was on the concomitant wane. It was partly growing up: at twelve, I was beginning to feel a little old for the children’s series I’d enjoyed so much at ten. It was partly the Hipster Code, which insists that something is only good as long as it’s underrated, and the minute it becomes popular it loses all merit. (Twelve years old, a massive prog rock fan, and already the makings of a hipster - my parents must have been so proud.) It was partly some less tangible sense that I was losing my best form of escapism to the intruding rest of the world. It was partly a precocious discernment of decline in quality.

As the world succumbed to Pottermania, I remained resolutely uninterested. I did read the fifth book, found it unimpressive and unmemorable, and never bothered with the last two - until 2009, when, with the horf-inducing hype dormant (if not dead), I felt compelled to read the entire series, if only to have an opinion on it. More than that, though, it was a chance to get closure on the magical, wonderful world that afforded me so much joy at the miserable fucking ages of ten and eleven. Which would prove the more accurate, my initial assessment of awesomesauce, or my later opinion that it was all suckacious?

Prior to the evaluative process, though, I offer you three little pieces of advice. Number one - don’t go the total immersion route; reading all seven books in a single week will screw with your mind worse than a good Confunding spell. Number two - the American editions are wildly inconsistent; in book one we find the jarring happenstance of these quintessentially British characters saying ‘Mom’, but by book seven even ‘trainers’ are being left intact. Number three - those totally essential Ginny/Hermione makeouts? Don’t hold your breath. (That’s what is for, amirite?)

If the sparklepire woman is the Keyser Söze of criminals against the English language, then J.K. is that dude down the road who never bothers scooping up his dog’s mess from the street. Yeah, it’s unpleasant, and it’s technically an offence, but the style police have extremely bigger pizzas to fry. Rowling’s writing is workmanlike at best, intrusively inept at worst. ‘CAPSLOCK SIGNIFIES MY FURY! FEEL THE UPPERCASE RAGE OF MY TEENAGE ANGST!’ shouted Harry angrily... - annoying tics, but on the whole ignorable (hot tip for writers: if you ever, ever find yourself following a speech signifier with the word ‘sarcastically’, it’s probably time to reconsider your chosen career). The trouble starts when she overreaches, trying to describe deaths, traumas, and complex emotions, which she just isn’t really capable of. Don’t get me wrong - I’m not one to think a book sinks or swims solely on the elegance of its writing style; heck, find me a bigger fan of David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus and I’ll find you a well-written sentence in that book; but there are certainly times when it matters. One is when both style and content are so clichéd, so jaw-droppingly clumsy, that you cannot conceive of how the book actually got published (hello again, sparklepires!). Another is when the simplicity of the style just can’t bear the weight of the things it has to convey.

And I think that is the basic problem the series encounters as it goes on. The books are at their best when they’re content to be a kind of Roald-Dahl-cum-Enid-Blyton for the PlayStation generation, and, while I understand and sympathize with Rowling’s desire to get darker and deeper as her characters aged, she’s just not a good enough writer to pull it off. To start with, there’s the cartoonish grotesquery of the ‘bad guy’ characters - notice that the Dursleys and most of the Slytherins are fat and ugly - but with characters introduced later in the series the good/evil divide gets more nuanced, and it jars. The attempt to insert ambiguity into Dumbledore’s past, for example, was particularly clumsy, and (I have to say) would have been way more effective if she’d made his feelings for Grindelwald explicit. I mean, how awesome would that have been? Can you imagine the shitstorm if there’d been overt homosexuality in the bestselling children’s book series of all time? At least she had to stones to out him in an interview, even if we all kind of knew already.

Another difficulty is that of the characters’ aging: how do you convey sixteen-year-olds’ thoughts and desires without alienating the eleven-year-olds that love the early books? With a lot of immature bitching about ‘snogging’, apparently. (Really? A bunch of sixteen-year-olds cooped up in a castle that’s full of secret rooms and hidden passageways, and all anyone gets up to is snogging?) The sixth book was by far my least favourite, seeing that NOTHING. FREAKIN’. HAPPENED. for 500 pages. In fact, both of the last two books suffered deeply from the contractual obligation for seven books, s-t-r-e-t-c-h-i-n-g the story out. As a result, the pacing got seriously screwy. (It reminded me strongly of Buffy season seven, which also felt contractually stretched out, and would have been a lot stronger if there’d been less of the bad British accents and Buffy giving pep talks, and way more of the Nathan Fillion.) I would’ve combined them into one book, jettisoning all that tedious who’s-snogging-whom business as well as the whole camping in the woods bit, thus leaving only the awesome parts from both books.

Because that’s the really frustrating thing: J.K. can actually write a damn fine battle scene when she’s not desperately scrabbling for ways to fill out a few months on the Potterverse timeline. Both the dramatic you-all-know-who-dies part at the end of book six and, especially, the climactic battle at Hogwarts in book seven are pretty freaking killer. Of course, then it gets undermined by a tediously talky ultimate smackdown with Voldemort, which follows an awfully predictable death and resurrection sequence. (HARRY : JESUS, GEDDIT??)

My overall feeling is that neither of my previous judgments was quite right. There is awesome in places, and there is suck in other places. I still think the earlier, less ambitious books work better, and I still think the ubiquitous popularity is OTT. I rather wish Rowling had given us a cool female fantasy protagonist (à la Philip Pullman’s Lyra), instead of just another male Mary Sue. Hermione and Ginny both rule, and shouldn’t have been stuck playing second fiddle to boring old Harry*. But I do understand people’s longing for magic to coexist with the mundane, and hell, better the kids read this than Twilight.

*They should’ve banded together to form a sort of detective team, like a magical Veronica Mars. With makeouts.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

7-Year-Old Me Writes: "The Comet"

In about fifteen minutes, a purple van with pink polka-dots and blue and yellow stripes showed up.

We all want to believe in free will, and yet it's an undeniable truth that our opinions, choices, and personalities are shaped by the circumstances of our childhood. My love and yearning for the USA, despite the bajillion things that are wrong with it, traces directly back to the formative childhood years I spent there, between the ages of 1 and 7.

The other day I was sorting through my high school work; today, I dug up my work from first grade. I spent six months in the first grade, in the academic year 1995-96, before my family took a sabbatical in the Netherlands where I rounded out my first-grade education with three months of home-schooling (prior to the summer '96 move to Kenya; I know, my childhood history is ridic confusing).

As much as I despise my 2004 self, that's how much I love my 1996 self. I found all my first-grade “daily news”, a brief diary item we had to write every day in class. Check out this entry from January 1996, entitled “Fifteen”:

“In fifteen days is my birthday! But I will enjoy my fourteen days left in my whole life to be six years old. I must not wish for the fifteenth of Febuary [sic] to come too quickly. I must enjoy them.”

That's pretty frickin' existential for a six-year-old.

Even better is the magnum opus – a story of almost 2000 words – dated April 4, 1996, about a penguin who wishes he could fly (wherever did I get such an original concept?) and seeks out a magic wish-granting flower, along the way winning a trophy in a running race, describing his favorite movie Gnome Elves, and encountering the fierce bunny-monster.

The story I want to share with you today, however, is a tenth the length and sadly lacking in bunny-monsters. I type it as written, dodgy punctuation in place and nothing edited or changed in any way. I'm not sure if my favorite part is the head-scratching speed of the comet's journey, the description of the museum's emergency response vehicle, or the little detail of the dressing gown. (I do; it's the dressing gown.)

The Comet

by Anna Rose (age 7)

Andrew Davidson looked out his window every night, and admired the tiny, far-away stars. He dreamed about planets that no-one's discovered, and things in far-away space. U.F.O.'s, E.T.'s, flying saucers, and all sorts. One night, he saw a bright, bright star shining just two million miles away. He ran downstairs and asked his father what it was. “It's a comet.” said his father. The next night, it was one million miles away. The next night, two thousand. The next, one thousand. And so on until early one fine Saturday, it crashed close to Andrew's house. It blew off the top of the house. Andrew yelled to his parents to call the National Museum. Mr. Davidson jumped up, threw his dressing gown on, and called the museum. “They'll be here as quick as they can.” he called. “Good.” said Andrew. In about fifteen minutes, a purple van with pink polka-dots and blue and yellow stripes showed up. Many people came out and heaved into the back of the van. They took it to the museum and put it on display. Now zillions come to see it every year. Maybe you will, too.

Monday, July 11, 2011

That's The Thing About Living In A Capitalist Kyriarchy

You have to participate.

Unless you're one of the lucky few with the ability and the spoons to opt out entirely (and probably even if you are; I've not visited any self-sufficient, totally egalitarian collectivist communes lately), you're not only psychologically tainted by the bullshit kyriarchal norms into which the culture has been indoctrinating you from the moment you left the womb/test-tube/mothership [delete as appropriate]; you also have to actively participate in oppressive systems. By which I mean, you need food and shelter and healthcare and entertainment; for which you need money; for which you need a job.

More and more, I'm convinced that capitalism as we know it is fundamentally not an okay system, and it's not just 'cause I'm lazy. (I am, but I have ideological objections too.) I'm still in the (probably lifelong) process of forming my exact political beliefs, so I'm not yet sure whether my objection is to capitalism as currently implemented – the “it's a good theory, but doesn't work in practice” line so often applied by left-leaning moderates to communism – or (hello, Karl) to the very theory and idea of capitalism itself. At this end, I suppose it doesn't matter terribly: either way, I'm compelled to participate in and contribute to a system I think is profoundly wrong.

What I want to do is establish a coherent ideology for myself, and seek ways to enact that ideology in the world. (Isn't that what we all want?) In order to do that, I'm going to grad school, which means I'm participating in and shoring up a classist and discriminatory system. (By “discriminatory”, of course, I don't mean the practice of discriminating between those with the aptitude for graduate study and those without; I mean the complex network of socioeconomic circumstances that contrive to deny aptitude its fulfilment.) In order to go to grad school, I need to save money, which is why I currently have a job.

Don't get me wrong: I quite like my job. I know, it weirds me out too, especially since my first experience working in the world of customer service was so completely disgusting – but that's a story for another day. My current job is pretty decent; but sometimes my ideals are clashing headlong with the requirements of my job.

I want to call out my 70-year-old coworker, of whom everyone – managers included – is a little afraid, when she's being racist. But I don't. I want to beg everyone that asks for a ticket to The Hangover Part II to reconsider this disastrous life choice and instead see a movie that isn't quite such a hatefully offensive piece of garbage. But I don't. I want to give servicemen and -women the same discount we give students, because having a student discount but no military discount strikes me as classist. But I don't. I need to keep this job, and I need a good reference when I leave, so I keep my mouth shut, I don't rock the boat, and I betray my beliefs so that I can continue to participate in a system that is also against my beliefs.

Is it craven? Undoubtedly. Is it pragmatic? Absolutely. It's compromise; it's jumping through hoops; it's a deal with the devil.

It's living in a capitalist kyriarchy. It's how it works.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Public Humiliation Time!: My First Movie Review

This week I've been sorting through all my junk. The plan is to go minimalist: everything unnecessary goes in the trash. I own a lot of unnecessary stuff, so this is proving a mammoth undertaking.

Embarrassingly, I've found a whole pile of inane scribblings – both schoolwork and personal creative writing – from my teenage years. The cheesy Tolkien rip-off that consumed my free time when I was 13... An awful, horrible letter I sent to the Guardian when I was 15... “Lines on the Resignation of David Blunkett (15/12/04)”... As I reread the forgotten writings, I can feel my extremities curling with humiliation like leaves of wilted lettuce.

I know that time travel will not be invented within my lifetime, because if it ever is the first thing I would do is travel back to 2004 and give my younger self a good hard slap to the face; and, sadly for my unbearably pretentious teenage self, this did not happen.

I'm afraid the most hideously embarrassing stuff went straight in the trash; but among the things I saved is the first full-length movie review I ever wrote. This was pre-blog and pre-Facebook, and thank you God I never had a Livejournal or anything like that, so I only have one, handwritten copy, which has never been seen by any eyes but mine. Because I am too lazy busy to create all-new content right now, I thought you might like to see how my writing style has or hasn't changed over the past seven years.

From probably around 2004, this is my review of the 1975 movie Tommy – unedited, unexpurgated, and with minimal editorializing. I hope it amuses you as much as it embarrasses me.

* * *

You've heard the stories... now confront the truth.

Hey, you know how when you hear that something is really, really bad, you find yourself feeling mild curiosity tempered with disbelief – as in, how could something really actually be that terrible, and you just have to check it out? Well, don't bother. Seriously. Tommy is every bit as bad as legend would have it, perhaps even more so. It redefines the term “godawful”. If you look up “egregious” in the OED, this film will be there. Repugnant, hideous, traumatic, belief-defying, gruesome, seizure-inducing are a few of the other adjectives that spring to mind... pass me a thesaurus, somebody... But then of course the film of the rock opera was never going to be quite a pleasurable undertaking.

Okay, so we open with a shot of a guy standing before the setting sun; little war love story, tum-te-tum – nothing too offensive yet: incomprehensible, yes; ghastly, not yet. At least, until the singing starts. Remember the record? And remember how the music was, y'know, not very good, well, quite crap actually, but we suffered its existence because we knew it and were kind of fond of it in the way one grows fond of a genital wart*. Well, imagine that music, melodramatized in the extreme, mutilated to sound kitschy and “musical”, and then murdered by a bunch of severely annoying uber-celebs in dodgy costumes whose “acting” consists of impersonating a constipated beaver. Prety much the same can be said for the, and I use the word with caution, plot, which at best has more holes than a fishing net and at worst is total nonsense. I think – I think – they've tried to improve upon the original concept, by giving it an almost-structure, which goes something like this:

Kiddie Tommy is about five or six when his missing daddy turns up and is murdered by mummy and step-daddy. He witnesses the encounter and (on account of the persuasive powers of the two miscreants) is struck deaf, dumb, and blind. There follows a lot of dumb stuff, supposed I think to be insight into his mind, which would be kind of cool in a dumb sort of way if done with today's SFX, but, since it mainly involves moving bits of cardboard around in front of lightbulbs, just looks crap. Mummy takes him to a freaky healer dude, who fails to wreak miracles; step-daddy takes him to Tina Turner, who prances around like a demented drugged-up banshee (oh wait – she is one**), gives him acid, and sends him on a baaaaaad trip. This was the part at which I first completely lost the will to live, a feeling that was to recur regularly over the remaining 80 minutes (o gods!) – or rather to throb continuously throughout, like pus seeping from a gangrenous wound. Urrrrrrgh.

Neither faith nor drugs having accomplished anything, somebody seems to decide that a sever shock will do Tommy good. When Cousin Kevin pulverizes him, there is relief in the vicarious fulfilment of a fantasy that involves doing much the same to pretty much everyone involved in the making of this excrescence of a film. Parents do not learn from this episode the folly of leaving vulnerable Tommy with dodgy relatives and proceed to give kiddie-fiddler Uncle Ernie the go-ahead to do whatever he wants. Then somehow Tommy gets into a junkyard, only there are two Tommys, and he climbs a bunch of cars, and then one Tommy disappears, and then the cardboard and lightbulb from earlier reappear, and then he's standing on a car playing pinball, and oh don't do this to me my head hurts... And Elton John stumbles out of Santa's Grotto, picking up the old woman's shoes on the way to the film set, where he loses to Tommy at pinball. Someone might have told him he's meant to play pinball, not a piano. And then...

Oh god, I can't go on describing the events in detail, it's making me too bloody depressed. Suffice to say that most of the rest is just as scary, meaningless, and dreadful as what has gone before. This film is a grisly carbuncle, a putrid pustule, a fetid ulcer on the bottom of all mankind's most execrable experiments in cinema. I still can't believe I spent 110 minutes of my short lifespan – better spent watching paint dry – on this excruciating mess.

Or, as I've been trying to say all along: yes, it really is that bad.

*1999 me and 2011 me are united in contempt for 2004 me. Tommy the album is awesome. And, leaving aside the belabored nature of the simile (get used to that), what does me of any age know about genital warts??

**OUCH! What the fuck, 2004 me? What did Tina Turner ever do to you? Apart from be in a movie you hated?

Thursday, July 7, 2011

A Song Of "A Song Of Ice And Fire"

You know how I've written about Game of Thrones a couple times, and it's probably quite boring for people that haven't read the books or watched the show?

Well, I've finished book 3.5, A Storm of Swords 2: Blood and Gold, and I decided to do something nerdy, fanpersonish, and yet I hope accessible to non-fans: I recorded a song from the book. It's a folksong/hymn about the Seven Gods of Westeros, so it doesn't spoil any plot points - it just gives a little cultural and religious background to the series' setting.


Monday, July 4, 2011

A Love Letter To Shakesville

Dear Shakesville:

Thank you for being there.

Thank you for being the only truly safe space I've found on the internet. Some protest your comment policy as draconian, but I am profoundly grateful for a place online where I don't have to face down the exhausting hatefulness of humanity's internet commenting practices.

Thank you for your intersectionality. I love that you don't fall prey to the ghettoized activism and intersectionfail of so many other feminist and social justice websites.

Thank you for teaspoons. I love that you combine incisive pop-culture commentary with active ways for people to engage with politics and fight injustice.

Thank you for the Shaxicon. The rich, joyous idiosyncrasies of Shaker language have seeped into my meat-life; the funny looks and the laughter are distributed evenly.

Thank you for your general tone. I don't know how it is that you manage to write so urgently about horrible people doing horrible things and yet still leave me feeling optimistic, but you do.

Thank you, all Shakesville contributors. Thank you Deeky and Misty and Kate and Paul and everyone else who works so hard to make Shakesville the acecakes place it is.

Thank you, Liss. Thank you, and thank you, and thank you again. There will never be enough thank-yous. You are an awesome human being, and I think I could legitimately argue that you are the most important person on the internet. Your sense of humor, your passion, and your uncompromising dedication to justice make you a true inspiration.

I love you, Shakesville. Never change.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Top Five Films Of 2011 So Far

Allow me to don my Professor Trelawney specs and predict: posterity will judge 2011 to be a profoundly crappy year for movies (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Parts 2-9 notwithstanding).

Oh, there's a smattering of mildly interesting releases, both Hollywood and (mainly) not, but compared with the abundant high-quality output of the past few years – 2010's Monsters and Inception and Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World and Toy Story 3 and Of Gods and Men; 2009's A Serious Man and Up and District 9 and The Hurt Locker and Moon; 2008's Waltz With Bashir and Synecdoche New York and Wall-E and The Dark Knight and Let the Right One In; 2007's No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Persepolis and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days – compared with all that, 2011 is looking like a banner year for mediocrity.

Nonetheless, we're halfway through the year, and it is only right that I should scrutinize the mediocre-est cinema has to offer and present you with a list of the Top Five Films Of 2011 So Far.

A note on Black Swan: You'll notice I've left Black Swan off this list. That's because I don't know what to do with it. Its US release year was 2010, and by the time I compile my end-of-2011 list I'll be living in the US, so it won't feel right to include it; however, I didn't see it until January, so I don't feel I can legitimately retcon it into my end-of-2010 list. (I probably will, eventually, especially because I was only really happy with 9 of my top 10 of '010.) Of course, I think it's an absolute cracker of a film. Maybe Black Swan and True Grit can have their own little subcategory of my year-end top ten.

A note on the list: It skews obscure and foreign. Sorry and all, but I've not yet seen the big releases I'm hoping to love (Bridesmaids, out of laziness; Super 8, out of the whole not-released-in-the-UK-almost-until-I'm-leaving business).

Top Five Films Of 2011 So Far

5. Source Code [dir. Duncan Jones]

In which Jake Gyllenhaal repeatedly lives out the last eight minutes of a stranger's life in an attempt to prevent a terrorist attack – Precogs On A Train, if you will. The only American film on the list, I know it disappointed a lot of people who were hoping for a second Moon, but I thought it was great. I mean, I love Moon as much as the next Silent Running fan, but it was nice to see Jones tackle something a bit bigger and explodier with the same thoughtfulness (even if the premise doesn't really make sense – just go with it; the ending's great). I officially declare Duncan Jones to be a Very Good Director, and if he delivers a third film on a par with his first two I shall upgrade him to Auteur.

4. The Borrower Arrietty (Kari-gurashi no Arietti) [dir. Hiromasa Yonebayashi]

A new Studio Ghibli film is always something to celebrate, especially one based on a classic novel from my childhood. (Side note: did you know it's pronounced “Jibbly”? I literally just found that out yesterday, after like eight years of calling it “Studio Gibbly”. Live and learn.) This one is charming and delightful as ever, though not quite as good as the lovely Ponyo – largely because of the human boy Sho, who is quite as irritating in this film as he was in the book. I saw the subtitled version, and, though I know it's an anime purist's no-no, I'm very much looking forward to the American dub, 'cause AMY POEHLER. (Side note two: ask me about my post-colonialist interpretation of this movie!)

3. Julia's Eyes (Los ojos de Julia) [dir. Guillem Morales]

This first feature film from director Guillem Morales was advertised on the back of star Belén Rueda's previous film The Orphanage (El orfanato). That movie (produced, like this one, by the wonderful Guillermo del Toro, who LET HIM MAKE AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS ALREADY, HOLLYWOOD!!) gave me the serious heebie-jeebies, so I anticipated many a sleepless night from this new offering – and I was not disappoint. This story of twin sisters, a degenerative eye condition, and a creepy stalker ramps up the fear factor in a sequence that makes the night-vision-goggles scene from The Silence Of The Lambs look like something out of Ponyo.

2. Tomboy [dir. Céline Sciamma]

I have no reference points for this movie, so perhaps you won't either, but it's a truly charming French film by a writer-director I'm not familiar with. Skinny prepubescent Laure has short hair, a flat chest, and, like, the most soulful face you've ever seen on a kid actor; when her family moves to a new neighborhood, she presents herself as a boy named Mikael, ushering in a glorious summer of fun with her newfound gang of friends, especially BFF (and potential romantic interest) Lisa. It's never clear whether Laure is trans*, genderqueer, or just the most precocious and adorable little babydyke you ever saw, but little Zoé Héran brings real depth and nuance to the role. Even if you're not interested in queer stories (in which case, why are you reading this blog?), you should watch this film to see the most delightful and naturalistic portrayal of childhood on film since the opening scene of Spike Jonze's Where The Wild Things Are.

1. Attack The Block [dir. Joe Cornish]

My favorite film of the year so far, no question at all. This story of urban yoofs fending off an alien invasion from their South London council estate is an absolutely brilliant sci-fi adventure (brimming with easter eggs for the eagle-eyed sci-fi fan: the titular block is called Wyndham Tower, and it's situated on Ballard Lane) with a reasonably subtle side serving of sociopolitical commentary. Pay no attention to Mark Kermode in this instance (you should jolly well listen to me and The Incredible Suit instead): it's plenty funny and plenty scary, and I think it has a real shot at retaining its number one spot in my end-of-year top ten list.

Well, that was fun! Given a list of movies I feel passionate about – a list that includes only one straight white male protagonist, a class of people about whom I never want to see another movie as long as I live – I am starting to feel relatively optimistic about 2011, and we can't have that. To balance out the warm fuzzies, let's throw in a couple of mid-year GCG Pop Culture Awards.

Benjamin Button Award for Most Painfully Boring Movie I Have Ever Seen In My Life

Blue Valentine. Okay, I'm cheating by including it (see note on Black Swan, above), but I feel moved to share with the world just how much I hated this movie. I went in expecting a searingly honest relationship drama; I came out a ghost to the power of three, because it was so excruciatingly dull I died three times over in the course of watching it. Oh God, it was so boring. It was so tedious, it made Benjamin Button look like Die Hard. It was so long, it made Berlin Alexanderplatz seem like Le Voyage dans la lune. It perpetrated such agonizing torture on my soul that I'm afraid I fought back using my only weapon: atrocious cinema etiquette. I texted a friend, I groaned aloud, I got out a book of Sudoku and started solving them by the light of the screen. And I am generally a person with a very high boredom threshold (and impeccable cinema manners), but this... oy.

Sex and the City 2 Award for Most Loathsome Piece Of Garbage In Cinemas 2011

The Hangover Part II. I've only seen about five minutes of this dungheap whilst doing screenchecks at work, but that five minutes served up a demonic smorgasbord of homophobia, transphobia, racism, xenophobia, and good old-fashioned misogyny. I think – I hope – I'm safe in awarding this prize for the year as a whole, because I can't imagine we'll see a more disgusting pile of kyriarchal poop on the big screen in the next six months. (If we do, I'm turning Amish.)