Tumblr Rants & New Years

| Monday, December 31, 2012
Today's Tune: Auld Lang Syne

LAST DAY OF 2012, YOU GUYS. IT'S HERE. I don't have a big post planned for today, so I thought I'd take the opportunity to extend a huge thank you to all of my followers, new and old, for hanging around and commenting and generally being an absolute delight. There's such a variety of spunk and brilliance and optimism in my comments, and it never fails to make me smile. This has been a strange and eventful year for me in its own way, and I look forward to seeing what 2013 has in store.

In case you missed it this weekend, I got annoyed with rants in the YA Lit tags on Tumblr, so I wrote a rant of my own, which got reblogged by the likes of Sarah Rees Brennan and Maureen Johnson and Malinda Lo and Nova Ren Suma and many, many other people. Which made me feel both pleased and absolutely terrified. If you're in the mood to see me pick apart flimsy arguments and get snarky, give it a read.

I'm going to be spending the evening sipping some sparkling wine with my love and probably watching Mumford & Sons and talking about how much our lives have changed and stayed the same this year. I wish all of you a wonderful new year and all of the joy to be had in 2013.

Kisses.


Tamora Pierce, Love, Adventure, and Sex

| Friday, December 28, 2012
Today's Tune: Shameless

Mark Oshiro has been reading Tamora Pierce books over on his Mark Reads blog, and he just started The Immortals quartet. Guys. You guys. I loved those books as a teen. Somehow, I DON'T KNOW WHY, they were the only Tamora Pierce books I read back then. How could this be! They were favorites! I supposed I'd always meant to read the Song of the Lioness quartet, but I never did. Luckily, I remedied this when I read them along with Mark.

The first thing that struck me: wow, Pierce's writing style really improved between her first series and her next. Not surprisingly, as that seems to be a running theme with writers. Not that her style wasn't good (it was), it was just less polished; less experienced. That tends to happen with firsts!

Second thing I noticed: oh my goodness, this (now considered YA) book series from the 80's has more sex positivity in its little finger than 75% of the YA I read now has in its entirety.

That is not to say that there's no sexuality or sex positivity in today's YA -- far from it. Just a few posts ago I wrote about Kristin Cashore's work, which was another refreshing exploration of sexuality and reproductive choice in speculative YA without making it about morality. And there is more and more YA released every day that treats sex in a nuanced, frank, realistic way. The books are out there. This makes me happy.

Even so, as I was reading Alanna's story (which, to its credit, was originally written as one long "adult" novel), I couldn't help but feel the absence of relationships where sex and reproduction are dealt with head on, with no mincing around what a special and precious "gift" virginity is, and allowed several characters to take on multiple lovers with no tragedy or horrible jealous slapfights or implication that they couldn't love each one differently and deeply. The protagonist sleeps with at least three different dudes before she decides to be with one of them. None of her lovers are shown to be mistakes or something she regrets. They're men she cares about, but ultimately two just aren't the right match for her in the long term.

It seems so often we come up against characters that clearly want to be sexual, but a plot device crops up that makes it dangerous to have sex. So, it's not that these characters are making the conscious choice to abstain. It's that they want to boink, but the world will end if they do. Or they'll kill someone. Or themselves. Or their head will explode or something, I don't know. It's a very weird take on abstinence, especially when cut with the idea of "remaining pure." The Book Lantern recently featured a post that touched on this, which I rather enjoyed. It's extraordinarily conflicted. All this buildup, this seething mass of we want to BUT WE CAN'T but it's so hard to resist BUT NO EVERYONE WILL DIE but oh my god you're so hot BUT NO! This ties directly in to the romantic idea that this is their one great love. And hey, some people do have one great love. Many have several.

I'm not opposed to setting some sexual tension on a low simmer that eventually becomes a rolling boil. I'm kind of a sucker for it, actually. Neither am I opposed to abstinence if the abstinence is an actual choice and not something conveniently forced on our protagonist. If at any point in the story a character says they don't want to have sex, aren't ready for sex, or flat-out aren't interested in sex at all, I am fully behind that. It's when sexuality is something dangerous and to be feared because terrible things will happen that I get my hackles up. Such plot elements say nothing about sexual agency or choice. It's the equivalent of "don't do it or you'll get an STD and DIE." If characters choose to remain abstinent for any reason, that is fine. I just want to know it's their conscious decision for their personal and sexual health, not because they literally can't have sex with the person they want to have sex with because meteors will destroy Earth if they do.

While reading Tamora Pierce, one other thing stuck out to me: the concept that a female protagonist with romantic entanglements can want and choose both adventure/independence and love/family. And I'm talking about adventure beyond "BEING WITH YOU FOREVER AND LOVING YOU AND YOUR ROCK-HARD ABS IS THE ONLY ADVENTURE I'LL EVER NEED, BABY!" It's incredibly important to me personally that women retain their own personalities and desires beyond defining themselves as "girlfriend/wife of so-and-so." The adventures don't always have to be epic and sprawling, but for all the talk of "finding your other half," we never cease to be whole people with our own interests and dreams. I want to see those. I want girls to know they can be in relationships (or not) and still do their own thing, and I want them to find partners that support that. And hey, if a woman literally only wants to be a wife and mother and do nothing else, then she should get to do that. I just want the option for something else to be there if she needs it.

This is mostly me extrapolating on a lot of ideas that have been floating around my brain lately. As I mentioned, there are most definitely options out there in YA-land featuring sex-positive portrayals and characters who balance love, adventure, and sex. But, in my opinion, there can never be enough. MORE PLEASE.

What say you, readers? 

 

Happy Holidays 2012!

| Friday, December 21, 2012
Today's Tune: Zombie Christmas

It's that time of year again... time to sign off from the delightful lure of the Internet for several days while I enjoy the holidays with my family. I will be back to blogging next Wednesday.

Wishing everyone safety, happiness, and health this holiday season! I'll see you soon! Kisses!

 

Tropes, Girl Protagonists, and Mollycoddling

| Wednesday, December 19, 2012
Today's Tune: The First Snowflake

Over the past few weeks, I've been repeatedly stumbling onto comments and blog posts about a particular article -- an article I first noticed because it actually linked my Common Clichés series and I started getting a noticeable influx of traffic from the site. This article has inspired some criticism for a particular comment regarding female protagonists being a "trope" in YA fiction. Which strikes me as sort of ironic, given that I said something similar on my Paranormal Romance post, although I'd intended it a different way (and have since changed my mind even on that and gone back to edit it out).

My original comment implied that female protagonists were a "trope" in paranormal romances, and that it might be interesting to see some from a male point of view. However, what I actually meant was that I thought it would be beneficial for some male readers to see realistic portrayals of romantic teenage boys in recent literature without it being a big thing about masculinity. I also encourage GLBT portrayals in YA, so I thought some Queer male-narrated Paranormal might be a fresh change. I'd never intended to imply that we need more boy books because wah wah wah where are all the boy books, because we all know how I feel about that.

Even so, I realized that the way I'd worded it basically sounded very much like "girl protagonists are so cliché!" Which, ugh, no. But since I didn't feel I'd made the point clearly or that it was necessary to have something about girls potentially being clichés floating around, I took it out.

And yet... I can't deny that I used to exist in a mindstate where I was pretty concerned about boys not having boyish books to read. I partly attribute this to the fact that I'm a pretty intensely empathetic person, and I used to do this thing where I'd try to see everyone's point of view, no matter how extreme, in the same light and try to understand where they were coming from. I still do that, to a degree. So when people started going on and on about the lack of male representation in YA, I tried to see where they were coming from and said things like, "Well, yeah, of course teenage boys deserve good books, too." Which I look back on now like hahahaha since when have young white men not been represented in literature what was I thinking.

I also attribute this to the overwhelming pressure on ladies to use softened, coded language and disclaimers when talking about feminism. Ladies, you know what I'm talking about. Whenever we start talking about female inclusion or feminist struggles, some dude (or several dudes) pipes up to say, "Well, I'm not like that. I don't have it easy, either. Why do you have to be so mean and exclusive? [Secret translation: why are you being such a bitch?] I didn't do those things to you. Whatever. Have your little *girl's club*."

If you're like me, which I know many women are, you've been raised on a steady diet of "don't make people feel bad; always be polite and nice because no one likes a RAGING FEMINIST BITCH." Which is the only kind of feminist, I guess? So we learn to preempt such accusations of meanness and exclusivity with disclaimers like "I know not all men are like this! I love men!" or "It's really important to consider how this affects boys, too!" It's really not that surprising that this eventually blends into constant handwringing and trying to "include" boys and advocate for more male presence, because heaven forbid anyone think we're a horrible exclusive girl's club of man-hating feminist bitches. Or something.

Here's the saddest part: this IS about men and boys, too. It's about them because upholding stringent gender roles harm people who are not biological cisgendered males, and they encourage (mostly straight white) boys to continue to believe they are owed space everywhere, and any space that's taken up by someone who isn't them is an encroachment on something that should be rightfully theirs, which in turn creates feelings of anger and resentment. This is patriarchal masculinity at its finest, and it inspires pain for everyone involved: women because we always have to nod our heads and say "yes yes yes, of COURSE you matter, of course you do, you poor baby" lest we be branded misandrists, and men because they are not learning that it is okay to not have representation in every single space ever, and that's not going to hurt them and could in fact teach them a good deal about empathy.

It bothers me a lot that we keep asking the question "what about the boys?" When really we should be asking "what about everyone who isn't straight, white, and middle-to-upper-class?" You want to talk about lack of representation in YA? Let's talk about the people who are actually severely underrepresented, maybe.

Anyway, here's my point for those still tuned in: I can understand why this mindset exists and keeps coming up over, and over, and over again. I understand why many female writers keep saying "yes, absolutely, boys TOTALLY need more facetime in YA." I don't agree with it, but I understand it, and although I'll criticize it to my dying breath, I usually find it difficult to hate on. When your choices are "mollycoddle the dudes" or "be accused of exclusive bitchism," it's little surprise that many opt for the former. Which is to say nothing of potential internalized misogyny, but we'll skip over that for now.

I literally still have to stop myself from going back to pepper in reassurances that I'm not talking about NICE men. Because let's be real: actual nice men know who they are and what they're about, and they can handle criticism of patriarchy. Much like white people who take mortal offense to criticisms of whiteness, dudes who get really insecure whenever anyone's discussing the general concept of patriarchy are showing their stripes.

What do you think, my lovely readers? Even my lovely readers who are also dudes.


Adventure Time: Queer Relationships in Youth Media

| Monday, December 17, 2012
Image by vern-argh
Today's Tune: I'm Just Your Problem

As I've mentioned before, I'm a pretty big Adventure Time fan. I think it's a fabulous show for all its mixed humor that can be enjoyed across audiences both young and old, for the fact that it doesn't treat children like they're stupid, and for the sometimes surprisingly nuanced themes the show incorporates. Most people don't expect to get body-checked by themes like losing a loved one, loss of self, depression, pregnancy, or non-hetero sexualities when watching a cartoon aimed at ages 6-11, but they're most certainly there. And I cannot express to you how much I adore that this is a thing that happens.

When it comes to queer themes in particular, this show has explored the possibility of homosexual relationships existing in the land of Ooo in very subtle ways, but ways that aren't denied. In a recent season of Adventure Time, there was an episode in which the character Marceline sings a song and (as she is wont to do) ends up slipping in lyrics implying deeper feelings than she typically lets on for the character Princess Bubblegum. You can view the scene and listen to the song here. Now, it's not obvious from the song itself that the implication is romantic feelings -- it could just as easily be about feeling like her sometimes-friend doesn't value her. However, there was a very clear indication on the part of a behind-the-scenes video that maybe there was more going on there.

In more recent episodes, the sexuality of the characters has been even more openly embraced, particularly with Finn's blossoming relationship with Fire Princess, Lady Rainicorn's pregnancy (Jake is the father), and a recent episode where Finn receives a bag full of mini-versions of all the characters and proceeds to toy in their relationships (as well as imply the Ice King and BeeMO, one male and one sexless, might make a good couple). In all of these relationships, the main focus is on like/love and companionship, rather than sexual desire. With the exception of implied sex between Jake and Lady, (YOU STAY AWAY FROM TIER 15!), the show's relationships remain largely in the realm of subtext, rather than actual text. Even so, it raises a lot of hackles.

Adults have a way of ascribing adult readings to things that children consume. On the topic of the queer subtext present in Adventure Time, not to mention other cartoons with ambiguously queer characters, many adults tend to freak out. The claims are that presenting non-hetero relationships as normal will somehow corrupt children or convince them to choose gayness or... something, I'm still not entirely sure what the arguments are. As pointed out in the op-ed I just linked, this projects the idea that who you're attracted to or fall in love with is only ever about sex. It strips relationships down to sexual contact and not much more, pursuing the idea that you can't expose a child to the concept of homosexuality without them immediately wanting to go out and have a bunch of homosexual sex because... reasons. Because apparently heterosexual people can be in love and want other things from their relationships, but homosexual couples are only interested in getting it on.

This is exactly why it's so important for these relationships to exist in media for children. Portrayals such as those in Adventure Time show us that not only are these types of relationships acceptable, they're not something that can be boiled down to dirty, filthy sex. They're complicated, and confusing, and caring, and full of feeling. They're about like, and love, and companionship. Sexual activity is only a very small part of attraction and relationships, and that goes for ALL relationships. We're perfectly fine with feeding children a steady stream of G-rated heterosexual love stories that don't involve sex, because it's universally understood that hetero love isn't just about sex. But flip that around to a non-hetero relationship, and suddenly it's SEX SEX SEX CORRUPTION AND SEX.

Many people don't like attributing sexuality to media for young people, because there's this idea that sexuality and attraction are the same thing as sex, as though sexual contact is the only possible expression of sexuality. This isn't accurate. Many people already know who they're attracted to at a very young age, and it has very little to do with sex at that point. It's about who you want to be around, hold hands with, laugh with, love with. These are healthy, happy relationships first and foremost, which may or may not eventually involve sexual activity in some form. Don't we want that for our youth?

What are your thoughts, readers?

  

Critique of Kristin Cashore's YA Fantasies

| Friday, December 14, 2012
Today's Tune: Barely Breathing

Now that the BITTERBLUE contest is over (congrats Anna!), I wanted to get back to discussing Cashore's novels. Overall, I found all three to be feminist-leaning and sex-positive, not to mention enjoyable in the same way I enjoyed Tamora Pierce as a teen. Okay, I still enjoy Tamora Pierce. You know what I mean. I'm saying that I liked them. I'm prefacing with this because this is going to be a criticism post, and I want to make it clear that I'm coming from a place of love, since I believe it's possible to really like something and still acknowledge that it's imperfect. Also, SPOILER WARNING for all of Cashore's books.

OKAY? Moving on!

I do have to give Kristin Cashore props for being incredibly classy about criticism of her work. We hear so many stories (which actually aren't THAT common, but make a big impression when they happen) of authors who can't handle criticism of their work AT ALL and throw tantrums or demand that everyone shut up and only say nice things. Cashore, on the other hand, got some flak over disability politics in her first book, GRACELING, and she took it like a champ. She didn't throw a fit or tell anyone that they just didn't get it. She listened, considered the criticism, educated herself about those points, and resolved to try to remedy her missteps in her later work. So she gets a shiny gold star from me for that, because everyone messes up, and if you're able to take criticism and grow from it instead of pouting about it, you're a winner in my book.

The topic of Po's disability and his "magical cure" were definitely points that I took issue with, and have been discussed at length by others who are likely much more qualified to talk about it than I am, so I'll leave it to them. Suffice to say there's kind of a theme in fantasy to "fix" people with a disability through magical means, or otherwise imply that they're not living as full of a life as an able-boded person. Which is crap.

I noticed that Cashore's writing style improved over the course of her novels, which really isn't unusual. GRACELING's prose felt dry and occasionally stilted to me, but I noticed this less and less in the companion novels. Katsa also lost me a bit toward the end of GRACELING when she got pretty epically overpowered and ran through a deadly blizzard with no real ill effects because her super power is survival or whatever you know how it went. It felt like too much to me. I like my protagonists to pay the price for dangerous choices because I'm a rubbing-hands-and-cackling villain that way.

FIRE actually ended up being my favorite of the three novels. While Katsa was very much portrayed as this kind of emotionally distant badass with very specific reproductive decisions, Fire was portrayed in a more traditionally feminine light while still being a badass who makes specific reproductive decisions. Like. I don't know if I can express to you guys how much I appreciate femininity not being treated like something stupid and boring, and being shared jointly with strength of character? I love it a lot. A L O T. Bitterblue shared this, as well. She was very much a "proper" royal lady, but she had her cleverness and awareness, which was fabulous.

I also have to give a nod (and a slight frown) to the sexual positivity of Cashore's novels. I feel like this is one of the few YA series I've read (again, Tamora Pierce comes to mind) that allows for its characters to be sexual beings without making it about morality or purity or anything of that nature. Not only that, she incorporates birth control and reproductive choice. These are subjects I want to see broached MORE in YA, without making it an issue novel about Good Decisions. These topics can and should exist in speculative fiction. My one big qualm is Katsa's first sex scene in GRACELING, mainly because ugh I really hate the first time = blood and pain trope, guys. But, you know, I can get around it in favor of the larger themes of sexual freedom, health, choice, etc.

And speaking of sexual themes, this brings me to my one major sticking point with the books in this series: the rape. You guys. There is a lot of rape in these books. Granted most of it is implied and off-screen, but even so, there's a lot of it. The villains in the novels (both fathers of two of the protagonists) are portrayed as these sort of blanket-evil, born-sociopath dudes who really like raping women. Or making other people rape women through mind control, which is extra fun.

I think by now I've made it abundantly clear that I am incredibly picky about the depictions of rape in my fiction, and one of the tropes I have a really hard time with is this implication that rape is something that is done by obviously evil, sociopathic, mustache-twirling villains. See also: torture is never enough. It has to be rape. Especially if the woman needs to be "broken." Strong female character? Evil male character needs to knock her down several pegs through bodily violation, obviously. The whole thing just rubs me horribly the wrong way. And this is tough, because rape has most definitely been a tactic of abuse and control for as long as humans have been humans, so it's not necessarily unrealistic. Even so, I feel like "villain = rapist" is a trope too often leaned on to prove how really and truly eeeeevil they are, and also neglects to give credence to the fact that many rapists aren't obviously villainous.

I feel like it perhaps adds to the misrepresentation surrounding rape to portray rapists as 100% evil villains. I AM NOT SAYING RAPISTS SHOULD BE SYMPATHETIC. GOD, NO. But rapists can be, and usually are, normal people. Rape culture is extremely pervasive and extremely destructive. The culture itself is what lends otherwise "nice" and "normal" young men into situations where they rape a woman and don't even bat an eye about it because they don't think of it as rape. I don't know. I suppose I feel that girls and women often expect rapists to have obvious "I'm an evil creep" vibes, because the media tends to portray them that way. And then they're assaulted by a friend, or boyfriend, or neutral acquaintance, and it leads to all sorts of feelings of confusion and guilt because why didn't they know he was a bad man? Is he a bad man? Did they make a mistake? He seemed so nice!

Ahem. Yeah. I have problems with many, many, many rape portrayals in many, many, many novels. I accept that it's largely personal for me, but I also feel that we should examine the way we use sexual assault to further storylines. It's important to consider where we're putting the focus -- is it on OMG RAPE! SO HORRIBLE! or is it on the effect the assault has on the victim? Why are we choosing rape, specifically, rather than some other action used to set a character back? Is it entirely necessary to have a male character try to "break" or harm our female characters through sexual assault? Why?

I think sexual violence is an extremely important topic to explore, because it's still so very ingrained in the daily existence of so many people. I'll never be an advocate for a ban on rape in novels, or anything like that. SPEAK by Laurie Halse Anderson remains a book very close to my heart. I just think it's so important to ask ourselves why, why, why we need it to be a part of our novels.

And... those are my (mostly critical) feelings on Cashore's novels up to this point in time. Again, there are a lot of things I enjoyed about the novels, and overall I think they're wonderful books that I tend to recommend regularly (with some warnings where necessary). As always, I like to explore every part of everything I read.

If you've read Cashore's novels, what do you think? What worked and didn't work for you?

 

Guest Post: Avoiding Genre Stereotypes by Lydia Sharp

| Wednesday, December 12, 2012
I have a special post for you today, guys! The lovely Lydia Sharp, whose blog you should very well know, recently celebrated the release of her new novella, Twin Sense. She's touring around the blogosphere being all smart and stuff, and she's written up a nice guest post for us. Enjoy, and don't forget to check out her book/author info at the bottom of the post!

***

Avoiding Genre Stereotypes (but only if you want to)

by Lydia Sharp


Before I get started, here is my disclaimer. There is no answer to the issue I’m about to discuss. There is no right or wrong. Mine is just one opinion, and shouldn’t be taken as anything more than that.

The advice given to writers to avoid character stereotypes is given so often as to be a cliché itself. But what about avoiding genre stereotypes? What do I even mean by that?

Since my newest book is a rom-com, I’ll use that as an example. What standard elements do you expect to see in a romantic comedy? The first thing that pops into my head is a quirky female lead. And this female lead must choose between a new love interest and her old/current love interest (who is often made to be the obviously wrong choice), or between this new person and her career/family/friends/lifelong dream (which she will end up, somehow, miraculously, gaining both of them in the end anyway).

Is there anything wrong with this setup? Not inherently, no. It has a track record of success. And there is also nothing wrong with a reader, or a viewer in the case of films, expecting to see some version of the above scenarios when they pick up the newest rom-com release.

This is where it gets tricky, though, because certain genres have certain, valid expectations from their audience. But what if you’re like me and you like to change things up? What if you like taking a basic formula and putting your own twist on it? What if you are genuinely sick of seeing only hetero couples in romance? Because seriously. They dominate like whoa. Gay characters seem to only have a place in rom-coms as the flamboyant sidekick, or the sensitive male shoulder to cry on without risking sexual tension with the female lead.

Short answer, you trust your gut. You do what you want to do, while also understanding that it very likely won’t be popular. Once you accept that, your boundaries can freely expand.

Have you read the book or seen the movie version of The Object of My Affection by Stephen McCauley? It’s a good example of a romantic comedy that broke all the rules (published in the 80s, no less). So yes, it can be done and can even have a measure of success. But first you have to be confident in your decision to take a risk.

In Twin Sense, I kept some of those basic rom-com elements and changed some others. The lead is a quirky female, but she is also bisexual. Her current boyfriend is not an obviously bad choice, their personalities mesh quite well and he’s an overall good person. The new love interest is ~gasp!~ a girl. And they don’t go through a typical “I hate you, now I love you” arc, like the one used in You’ve Got Mail. This new LI is also not a bad choice--they start out as friends--hence the conflict of “who will she choose?” is actually a real internal struggle for the MC.

Although this story is labeled LGBT, there is no flamboyant gay boy sidekick. That stereotype makes me… ugh, I just can’t. So the main side characters I chose were 1) the womanizing straight boy (which is usually reserved for the love interest or the current bad-for-me guy), and 2) a very unsupportive, short-tempered “friend” (which is usually reserved for the girl who pushes her way between the MC and the LI--for no reason other than that she is just so much of a slutty bitch she can’t help herself).

Therefore the MC in Twin Sense does not have a realization chat during a girls’ night with her friend/s, like you often see in female-driven romance. In fact, her realization chat happens with her single-parent father--another genre twist. A parent who understands? Unheard of in YA!

Even with these character flips, the story still adheres to a standard romance structure. In that way, my hope is that it will appeal to people who like the genre but are looking for something different.

I do the same thing with all of my stories, not just rom-coms. The novel I’m querying (as well as the one I just started writing) has a very strong romantic thread that drives the plot, but… wait for it… wait for it… it is told from a singular MALE point of view. Not surprisingly, the number one comment I’ve received for this ms is that romance with a male narrator is a tough sell.

Did they say it is impossible, though? No. No, they did not.

I know it isn’t standard, so it will be tough to push into the market. Yet I wrote it anyway, and am still trying to sell it anyway. Because I believe certain story molds are successful for a reason, but I also believe there is room to reshape that mold.

What do YOU think?


***

Lydia Sharp is a novelist and short fiction author who grew up on the shores of Lake Erie. Then she got tired of finding sand in her clothes so she moved further inland, but she'll always call Ohio home. Laughing is her favorite pastime. Kissing is a close second.

Here is the blurb for her new novella, Twin Sense, which can be purchased from Amazon, B&N, and Musa Publishing:

two boys + two girls = one big mess

As girlfriends of the Taylor twins, Layna and Sherri have only been friends by association. But when Sherri breaks up with Keith (for real this time), and Kevin gives Layna a promise ring (whoa, what?), Layna's whole world spins off balance. She avoids Kevin's unwelcome pressure to commit by spending more time with Sherri.

Without the twins around, Layna and Sherri are tempted to go beyond friendship status. Then Keith tries to win Sherri back, and Kevin apologizes for rushing Layna. Now she's stuck inside a double-trouble love quadrangle that has her reaching for the consolation cheesecake. The only way to sort out this mess is to make an impossible choice—between the one she wants and the other one she wants—or she might end up with no one.

Find extras and the other links on her blog tour here!

 

How I Met Your Mother: Cuddly Sexism & Enjoying Problematic Media

| Monday, December 10, 2012

Edit: If you enjoy this post, you may also enjoy my other HIMYM post, which I wrote about one episode before I decided to give up the show for good.

HIMYM and Enjoying Problematic Media

A while back, I was writing a post about something-or-other and I mentioned that there's a lot of problematic media out there. Like, a lot. So much problematic media. So very much problematic media that if your goal was to completely erase media with any hint of problematic content from your consumption, you'd be left with a very slim list of "acceptable" media to watch. Which is incredibly horrible, but that's another post. Anyway, while I was discussing that topic, I brought up How I Met Your Mother, which is a show I watch and find generally entertaining and occasionally heartwarming, but which I recognize is also exceedingly, incredibly problematic.

Here are a few of my favorite examples of problematic storylines that work their way into the show:

- The "Nice Guy" Who Destroys Relationships in Search of "The One" Woman Who Will Complete Him (and Give Him Babies)

- Cool Ladies Are Bros You Can Have Sex With

- Career Women Are Secret Hot Messes

- Your Female Friends' Bodies Are Acceptable Bargaining Chips for Bets (It's Okay, They're Bros, They're Cool With It)

- Dudes Can Have Commitment Issues, but if a Lady Needs Space, MAN WHAT A LIFE-RUINING BITCH

- Dudes Can Be Obsessed With Marriage and Babies and it's Sweet, but Ladies Are SO CRAY-CRAY

- In Fact, Women Can Literally Have "Crazy Eyes"

- Women Are Also Fiscally Irresponsible Shopaholics

- Accomplished Women Are Threatening

- Pregnancy and Motherhood Make You Dumb and Horrible

- Manipulating, Intoxicating, and Lying to Women for Sex is Something to Ignore or Even Support (WINGMEN! LADIES WHO ARE ALSO WINGMEN!)

- If Women Are Stupid Enough to Fall for This Lie, They Basically Deserve to Be Used

- Basically Everything Barney Does Ever

- Being Forcibly Raised as a Gender Other Than the One You Identify As is HILARIOUS

- Gay Men Love Hitting on Straight Dudes!

- Female Bisexuality or Lesbianism is a Joke, or Something for Male Titillation

- Everyone in NEW YORK CITY is White, Except Sexual Conquests


And that's just a sampling.

HIMYM is a show that's guilty of something I like to think of as "cuddly sexism," or sexism that's softened and portrayed as okay because the 1) the perpetrators are actually really nice guys who don't really mean it except for when they're using and losing one-off conquests, and 2) it's brushed off or perpetuated by the female characters themselves, so it's clearly not THAT sexist. Since this show is a comedy, sexist acts and comments are portrayed as humorous, and therefore automatically something to not take seriously. We're told time and again that the male characters are good husbands, good boyfriends, good friends, good dads. So obviously when they do or say something grossly sexist, it's okay because JUST JOKES, GUYS (except for when it isn't). If the female characters are giving them a pass, so should you!

This sort of thing can get really upsetting to watch, because it's making light of something that a lot of people (myself included) actually deal with in real life, and in real life, it's not funny. It's not amusing to have a man buy you drinks with the intent of getting you drunk and taking advantage of you because to him, you're just a thing to put his penis in. It's not entertaining to have your sexuality questioned or used as an excuse to ask for -- or demand -- a threesome, as though it's a performance for someone else's enjoyment. It's not cute to be repeatedly looked over for promotions or opportunities because you're assumed to be less ambitious, less intelligent, or on the "mommy track." In fact, it sucks when society and your guy friends and other women are all telling you, directly or indirectly, that you need to stop being so damn female and start acting like a BRO, you silly bobble-headed screechy GIRL.

Every once in a while, the writers also like to throw a little "reverse sexism" into the mix, like the recent episode entitled "Twelve Horny Women" (really), where twelve women are serving on a jury and are easily swayed by the attractive male attorney showing off his butt, or pecs, or biceps. But see, this isn't sexism at all because the ladies are objectifying the DUDE, see! It's in no way implying that women are always turned on and easily manipulated by a hot dude's ass! This has nothing to do with women being too silly, stupid, sexually confused, or needy to serve on something as important as a JURY!

Ahem. Yeah. So, the show is problematic.

And now I'm sure you're thinking, "Wow. Why do you even watch this show at all?"

I do have to admit, the recent seasons have worn my patience pretty thin, especially after the way they treated the character Lily throughout her pregnancy. Even so, I was brought into the show because much of the humor really is funny, the chemistry of the cast is generally spot-on, and there are some wonderfully heartwarming (and heart-wrenching) moments of friendship and love.

This is where we get to the other point of this post: enjoying problematic media.

Everyone has their own levels of tolerance for their media intake. There's a balance; a point where the problematic elements outweigh any benefit of entertainment you get from watching the show. Some things may be particularly triggering or angry-making, and they alone are enough to give a quick "nope" stamp. Other shows may straddle a line between really progressive, quality entertainment speckled with some aggravatingly problematic stuff. Legend of Korra was one of these for me. There was so much about that show that I truly enjoyed, but there was some really crappy junk going on there, too.

I'm an analytical viewer. I can't consume a piece of media without viewing it critically and noting problematic themes. Some may argue that this means that I can't enjoy anything ever because I can't just "let it go," but I find the opposite to be true. It's very important to me to be able to recognize harmful social stigmas so I can consciously combat them. Just because I realize it's there doesn't mean that I can't also notice and appreciate the things my entertainment gets right.

That's ultimately where enjoyment of problematic media rests. Too often, people house themselves in a nice little fandom bubble where any naysaying whatsoever is met with choruses of HOW DARE YOU and YOU'RE JUST JEALOUS and LA LA LA LA LA. This is an attitude that equates even the slightest criticism with "I hate this and I hate you for liking it and neither it nor you should exist." It's as though it's impossible for certain fans to understand that you can like something, REALLY REALLY REALLY like something, and still recognize that it's not perfect and some of the themes it expresses are pretty messed up.

There isn't much (or any) perfect media out there. It all has its issues, and it's fine to enjoy it despite those issues. But it's also important to be able to recognize and acknowledge those issues so that you're checking yourself on becoming complacent in perpetuating similar crap. You can understand the flaws in something and still think that something is worth your attention and adoration.

Find the problems, acknowledge the problems, and help make your media and your fandoms better, all while continuing to enjoy your favorite things.

How do you find that balance, guys?

The Idea That Beauty Equals Goodness

| Friday, December 7, 2012
Today's Tune: Hopeless Wanderer

Only a few days left to snag this lovely signed copy of BITTERBLUE by Kristin Cashore. Get it while it's hot. Or something. (Also, had to disable anonymous comments, sorry. The spam was out of control.)

There's this insidious thing that happens in novels and on television, and I started to notice it as a teenager. It didn't always happen, some books were better about it than others, but it seemed like far too many had a dynamic that made me uncomfortable even before I realized what was eating at me so much. After reading a lot of books and a lot of essays of analysis about those books, I finally realized what bothered me.

It's the correlation of physical beauty with goodness, and physical unattractiveness with evil. Of course, I'm referring to a very specific sort of "beauty." More on that in a moment.

Many people have discussed this topic at length, and I encourage you to read up more about it after you're done with this post. This is a topic that I feel very strongly about bringing to the forefront and making people think about. It's one of those things that's easy to let slide and not examine very closely, and that's what makes it so dangerous. We are constantly being fed this idea of what beauty is, and that it's our ultimate goal to achieve this sort of beauty, and if no one ever talks about it and refutes it, those ideas remain unchallenged in our mind. This is an especially dangerous issue for young people, because this is what they're being fed while they're still formulating their own personalities and ideals.

I know you guys know what I'm talking about. How many times have we read an MG or YA book and found that all the "good" characters are described as physically attractive, while the antagonistic or "bad" characters are unattractive? And it's not just "pretty" or "ugly," either. It's a very specific kind of pretty or ugly.

"Good" characters aren't just generically pretty. They have clear skin. Flawless hair. Unnaturally gorgeous eyes. They're not just good-looking. They're perfect.

They're also usually white, able-bodied, healthy, and thin. They may have other signature features that code them as a very specific kind of "pretty:" the kind of pretty that allows no room for the slightest physical variant.

Now let's think of "bad" characters. How often to we read about the "skanky" girl who wears trashy clothes and too much makeup to distract from her horse teeth? Or the "catty" girl who's a little overweight? Or the evil aliens that are little more than shriveled slime creatures? The mad scientist who's confined to a wheelchair? The once-beautiful young man who was horribly disfigured, which reflects the blackness in his soul, or whatever? The one Black character in the whole book, who happens to be the turncoat who ruins everything?

This is not an accident. This is social conditioning at work. Most readers will notice that the main characters are pretty, but they may not notice that they're rarely anything other than the societal beauty "norm." It's not enough to check yourself on making all the good guys unnaturally attractive and all the bad guys creeps with lanky hair and bad breath. You also have to be mindful of whether you're constantly portraying beauty and goodness as something that is straight, white, able-bodied, and thin. Is this the only thing (or the major thing) that qualifies as "beautiful" in your world? Why?

It's not enough to have a token minority sidekick character who hangs out with the good guys. We need to break down this idea that only a specific sort of person is worthy of a starring role. And I know I'm treading on thin ice, since I'm a super-white lady and it's not as though I'm hurting for representations of myself in leading roles. Even so, it's important for all of us to seek to break down the reasons why we always reach for a certain kind of character when we're picking sides.

Having a diverse cast is a good thing. Portraying a variety of people can have an incredible impact on those who are desperate for some positive representation. As always, I don't suggest jumping in without research because someone told you that you should, but I do recommend sitting down with your work and considering why you made the choices you did, even if they were subconscious. We need to find it in us to allow for different sorts of people to share the spotlight, and do so without constant angst about their "imperfect" physicality. Not everyone wishes they were a skinny white girl with a "normal" body. They just wish that they could see someone more like themselves.

Food for thought. What do you think? Do you notice these sorts of patterns in the books you read?


YA Common Clichés Series: Issue Novels

| Wednesday, December 5, 2012
Today's Tune: Crystal Vases

If you haven't entered for a chance to win a signed copy of BITTERBLUE by Kristen Cashore, you should probably get on that.

This episode of Common Clichés is going to go a little differently than most of its predecessors. That's because this particular subsection of YA is pretty darn specific, so there isn't a huge amount of variation in the topics covered and general structure. Although, frankly, some writers seriously know how to rock an issue novel. They are by no means stagnant things with only so many variations. They can be full of metaphor and incredible prose and experimental storytelling. But there are some common ruts people fall into.

First, let's talk about what an issue/problem novel is. Many novels tackle difficult topics or have subplots dedicated to something you'd find in an issue novel. However, in order for a book to be an issue/problem novel, the primary storyline is about the protagonist dealing with and moving past (or being overcome by) the "problem." These books are about overcoming or being consumed by an issue that a lot of teens face on a daily basis, and the characters and story serve to dramatize the problem into story format. Because of this, a lot of issue novels walk the dangerous line of being preachy "lesson" books. Which brings us to our subjects.

Below are a few traps a writer might fall into while trying to tackle an issue novel.

Subject #6: The Issue Novel

Focusing too much on teaching teenagers the "right" way to act. Many wannabe issue novels end up devolving into this sort of horror show of LOOK WHAT YOUR LIFE WILL BECOME IF YOU MAKE BAD CHOICES. Of course, the "bad choices" are subjective and often steeped in a heavy sense of the author's personal morality. It's always important to remember to come at these issues from a teenager's point of view, not from your distant adult perch of Right and Wrong. If there's one thing young adults are good at, it's spotting when they're being lectured or condescended to. And they tend to tune out.

The protagonist is a goody two-shoes who's tempted by a "friend" to do something Not Good. When this happens, one of the two following scenarios occur: the main character makes some shady choices, hurts someone close to them, then snaps out of it, but not before the "friend" turns out to be a horrible person and an example of How Not To Be. Alternatively, the protagonist themselves becomes that particular life lesson, showing how even a "good" kid can become a horrible human being for making one bad decision.

If sexual abuse is involved, it gets far too intimate and male-gazey, rather than acting as a true representation of abuse and survival. It's very difficult to handle sexual assault well. When you read a sexual abuse scene, it's almost always easy to tell whether the author actually has the experience to draw on, or if they've worked closely with people who have. No two experiences are the same, but there are certain cues you learn to look for. When too much focus is placed on the act itself rather than the fallout, or the scene is set in a way that feels like watching a sex scene instead of a horrible act, it becomes clear that it's been handled badly. This is a touchy topic, because there's no right or wrong way for someone to deal with sexual assault, but there are certain things to absolutely NOT do because they don't ring true and they can be severely triggering.

Believing that the "issue" is enough to carry an entire book. Everybody's already played the deck straight, dudes. Issue novels are very difficult to find a place for because so many of them have already been done and there's little that's new or different about them. As with any other novel, you must have a functional STORY, and it must be fresh in some way. Whether that's voice, structure, approach, character, setting, or whatever, you need to push harder than "Girl falls tragically in love with dying boy." Okay. What else?

Cancer books. Many, many, many people have tackled The Cancer Book. YA Cancer Books can be especially difficult because the sufferer is often so young, with so much potential life yet ahead of them. It's hard to write such a book with the right amount of nuance, and it's nearly impossible to find an approach that hasn't already been done. It can be done, though. And well. You just have to find a way to say what's already been said in a different way, and try not to overdose on tragedy porn. Cancer is a real disease that affects real people. Don't steep it too heavily in theatrics, lest you belittle the experiences of those actually going through it.

Drugs are always bad and will always ruin your life. I'm not gonna lie, it's probably impossible to write an issue novel about drugs without, well, showing the negative side of drugs. But too often, writers reach too far and only show this sort of overblown seedy underbelly of "the drug life" that hedges on the unbelievable. It's difficult for a teen to take criticism of drug use seriously when they're bombarded with ridiculous scenes like people smoking a joint and then immediately leaping into severe heroin addiction. Balance, subtlety, and realism are key.

ALL OR NOTHING. Related to the above, it's really not realistic to take the all or nothing approach to a lot of issues. If you display something like, say, premarital sex as only ever resulting in terrible tragedy, pregnancy, STDs, and death, you're going to have a lot of eyerolls on your hands. It is okay to show that some things can be done responsibly, and it's abuse of those things that's the problem.

Eating disorders are only for vain girls or easily manipulated protagonists with low self-esteem. Oh my goodness, please be careful with eating disorders. Body image is a big, messy, painful subject for teenagers. You do not want to imply that the only reason someone would have an eating disorder is because of vanity. Social pressure, acceptance, body dysmorphia, need for control, and the dozens of other reasons people turn to EDs have nothing to do with superficiality. It is so. Much. More. Complicated.

Suicide is something only selfish people do. Stop. Stop right now. Turn around, go back to Start, and roll again. If you are someone who really believes that people end their lives because they're just too self-absorbed to think of anyone else, you need to check yourself pretty hard. And don't write a book about it. Go read up on the psychology behind suicidal tendencies and maybe, I don't know, read some essays by folks who have been suicidal. See also: self-harm is for attention-seekers. STOP.

Avoid using the issue novel to tell your personal autobiogaphy, or the biography of a friend without their permission. It seems a lot of people have this idea that they can use portions of their own life to write a book, change a few names, and consider it a complete story. They think: "Well, this really happened to me! It was very important in my life! It changed me! Surely it makes a good story!" And you guys, that stuff rarely makes a good story. That sounds horrible, because of course things like this are extremely personal, and when someone tells you that a random series of events doesn't make a good story, it feels like they're saying YOUR LIFE is not a good story. Which is why you should avoid using your life as a story guide. Furthermore, it's a bad idea to use a "friend" of yours and their life as fodder for your story without their knowledge. That's not yours to tell.


I think that's probably enough to go on for now. How do you feel about issue novels, guys? Anything else to add?

December Book Recs

| Monday, December 3, 2012
Today's Tune: January Wedding

Hello! Are you a Kristin Cashore fan? Then you should definitely go check out this post and comment to win a signed copy of BITTERBLUE.

Anyway. I've had a little more time than usual to read, so I recently read a pair of books that I'd like to recommend because I enjoyed them very much.

First, let's talk about THE UNNATURALISTS by Tiffany Trent.


I have a special place in my heart for YA Steampunk, given that I've written some of my own. On the surface, it seems like a pretty narrow genre, but in reality, there's quite a lot of variation to be had. It can range from very scientific in nature to very fantastical. Sometimes there's magic, sometimes not. It's typically set in London or another European setting, but there are a number of authors who are exploring colonialism and the effect of the British Empire in other areas of the world, and it's all fascinating. This particular book happens to be set in the alternate world of "New London" and blends steampunk technology with natural magic into this sort of paranormal-steampunk-fantasy hybrid. The world building is lovely, and the story moves along very well and may resonate with you if you're into natural world vs. industrialism sorts of storylines.

The narration style is something I don't think I've seen before -- alternating POV, with half the chapters in Vespa's first-person narration and the other half in third-person narration following Syrus (Vespa is our MC, Syrus is a pre-teen boy who's seeking her help). It takes some getting used to, but weirdly, it worked for me. The story can be a little hard to follow at times and the romantic subplot was just okay, but overall, I thought this was a wonderful book that will speak to steampunk and fantasy fans alike. Plus... POC main character AND POC on the cover!

I recommend.

And, of course: DAYS OF BLOOD AND STARLIGHT.


Oh, Laini Taylor, how do you brain. DoBaS is the sequel to her wonderful DAUGHTER OF SMOKE AND BONE, which came out last year. It's quite possibly one of the best sequels/middle-of-a-trilogy books I've read in... maybe ever. Where many such books suffer from "sagging middle" syndrome, or the feeling that they're just passing time until the big finale, this book manages to be so full of story and plot that it's practically bursting.

I had a few small qualms with DAUGHTER, primarily in the pacing and the last third of the novel. Overall, I found the book a gorgeous and unique read, and though I love Taylor's prose, the last third of DAUGHTER dragged a bit for me. Taylor has a habit of beginning to build a mystery, then dropping enough information to reveal the end of a plotline so you know what's coming, but then continuing to slowly feed you the plotline anyway even though you already know how it's going to end. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn't. In DAUGHTER, the last third didn't work for me because I'd already figured it out and there was another plotline I wanted to get back to, but I had to wait through a (very long) flashback in order to get to it.

In DAYS, I didn't have this issue. The same tactic is used, but I felt it was used more successfully. Taylor weaves so many subplots together so deftly that you barely notice she's doing it. We're introduced to new characters who are so fleshed out that you feel as though you've known them all along. The emotional crescendos are awe-inspiring and crushing, and the stakes are very real. All of this on top of Taylor's masterful, colorful prose. These books are a joy to read (when you're not gasping or tearing up. Oh, whatever, they're a joy even then.).

I highly recommend.

What have you read lately, my wonderful readers?




 

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