The Mirror of Fiction

If you’ll indulge me, dear readers, I’d like to ramble a little bit about representation in fiction.

I’m not going to dive too deeply into an analysis of why representation is a good thing; that’s been done before and better by other people — and regardless, it should be intuitively understood that seeing yourself reflected in the culture you consume is validating, normalizing, comforting. That privilege has too long belonged mostly to young-to-middle-aged cis white men, and so any deviation from that “norm” (which is, in the context of the diversity of the real world, not normal at all) is to be celebrated.

I also don’t want to dwell on representation done badly, and all the harm that can do. I’ve argued about it too much recently, what with J.K. Rowling’s latest foray into Native American mythology.

What I want to do instead is to highlight a couple of books I’ve read recently that have done a good job of representing the sort of people who are traditionally ignored or elided in fiction — because the sense of relief when you can finally see yourself on the page, know that you aren’t alone in feeling the way you do or being the way you are, is immeasurable, and if I can help others to feel that, I should.

So with that said, three books read recently where I noted a particular attention to diversity in representation: Continue reading

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The Enthusiastic Yes

This is another one of those lessons you need to learn before being a grownup, but it applies to writing as much as it does to anything else, so I figured it was a good one to talk about.

Making Decisions and Setting Boundaries

There are lots of signs of maturity. I’ve talked about one of them — long-term thinking — already, but let’s take a look at a couple of others.

First, I want to consider decision making. Being an adult means making lots of decisions. Frankly, being a human means making lots of decisions: by the time I’ve had breakfast, I’ve decided whether or not to make my bed, what I’m going to wear that day, what food I will eat, what I need to pack in my bag, etc. etc. etc. But being an adult means making the sorts of decisions that are often harder, or have longer-term consequences, or affect others as well as yourself. (I really do want kids, but sometimes I think about the idea of being responsible for a child and wonder why anyone is ever brave enough to have one).

Another facet to adulthood is increased comfort with setting boundaries. As you come to know yourself better, you come to understand your limits better, and you (hopefully) become more confident about enforcing those limits and setting boundaries for yourself and others. (I’m still working on this one; had a couple mishaps this year. It’s a learning experience).

Say Yes to the Dress

Often, in the sorts of situations which call for decision-making or boundary-setting, you can reduce the problem to a series of yes or no questions. It’s simplistic, but it opens up certain avenues of discussion, so let’s try. Do I want cereal, yes or no? Do I want pancakes, yes or no? Or, consider this: do I want him to kiss me, yes or no? Am I comfortable going back to his place, yes or no?

And here you see an arena where this sort of discourse has become commonplace — the arena of sexual consent. But where a couple years ago your college consent workshop might have talked about “no means no”, recently a lot of the discussion has shifted focus toward “enthusiastic consent”.

Enthusiastic Consent

Now we’re starting to get to the heart of the issue. What is enthusiastic consent? It’s not a “maybe”, or an “okay”, or even a lukewarm “yes” — it’s a “hell yes”, an “absolutely”. I’ve got my own concerns about that as a foundation upon which to base all your decisions (when is a person ever actually totally sure about anything?) but I understand and appreciate what it’s aiming for.

In terms of sexual stuff, then, enthusiastic consent is not doing something because you think you “should”, or because you don’t mind, exactly. It’s doing something because you really, truly want to.

Applying the Model

But the reason I’m talking about this today isn’t (just) because I want to slip in a reminder to everyone that consent is important and your boundaries are valid. The thing is, while “enthusiastic consent” is pretty common in discussions of sex, I think that a slightly modified concept, the “enthusiastic yes”, can apply to lots of other situations in life.

Let’s start with the example of clothes shopping. How many times have you bought something because you mostly liked it, except for one or two things — or because it was cheap and you thought it wasn’t bad? I’m betting more than once — I certainly have. Follow up question: how often do you wear those pieces? Probably not often. (Or if you do, you don’t feel great wearing them).

But it is a waste of your money to buy something that you don’t love. You wear clothes every day; even in a country that has actual seasons (what is this permanent 40-60 degree nonsense, England?) you’ll end up wearing everything fairly frequently. So it’s in the best interests of your budget, your storage space and your mental health to buy fewer things, but make sure they’re things you love. 

Don’t just say yes to the dress. Wait for an enthusiastic yes.

An “Enthusiastic Yes” to Writing

And now we come to the real reason I’m writing a damn essay on concepts of consent. Here’s the thing: writing is hard. In some ways, it’s a miserable hobby — lots of work for potentially little reward (depends on what your end goal is, but if it’s publishing then good luck my friend), solitary, emotionally grueling, time consuming. In short, it’s not something to waste your time on if you only sort of like it.

No, writing is something you have to say an enthusiastic yes to. It’s just not worth it otherwise.

(As an aside: this might sound like it contradicts what I was saying earlier about being satisfied with doing things at a “lower” level, but it’s not. I’m not saying that you have to be aiming for pro status to call yourself a writer; I’m saying if you’re going to pursue writing at any level, do it because you love it, and love it enthusiastically).

In conclusion…

…your time is valuable. Your labor is valuable. You are valuable, and you should make choices that reflect that value. So hold out for a pair of jeans that fits in the butt and the leg (I’m still looking…), or you’ll end up with one more pair that you never take out of the closet.  Don’t date the boy that you sorta liked okay and don’t mind seeing — date the boy that you actively want to talk to and hang out with. Choose to spend your time on the things that make you happiest, instead of wasting your precious time on the things that don’t.

It’s a hard lesson to learn, and a harder lesson to implement, but the results are so, so worth it.

On Catfights and Cliches

I could have chosen to write this post a couple of different ways. I could have framed it as a feminist criticism of a certain tired trope, and drawn on my own writing as an example. In fact, that’s what I intended to do when I came up with the idea for this post.

But I just finished a week of non-stop, intense academic work, and then I went to the Dean’s Christmas party and broke the cardinal rule not to eat English pizza because I’d had too much wine and not enough sleep, and then I sat on a plane for eight hours, came home, and fell on my face.

I’m tired.

So instead I’m just going to talk a little bit about two of my characters, and why I made some of the choices I did in writing them and their relationship. Continue reading

We Are Not All Black Swans: Ballet in Popular Culture and the Media, Part 1: Introduction to the Issues

I just have so many feelings about this that I can barely be coherent, so I apologize in advance.

Ballet is one of my great passions – I’ve loved it for as long as I can remember. I loved it first for its beauty and its grace, its boundless energy and athleticism, its lyricism and its romanticism. And when I started to dance myself, I loved it for its discipline and demands, its perfection and its imperfection.

I love it for the indescribable combination of joy and fear that leaps up in me when I step out on stage. I love it for the incredible range of emotions that dancing or watching dance evokes in me.

I even love it for the blisters and blood and late nights and early mornings…most of the time.

And that is why I am so, so torn about the depiction of ballet in popular culture.

On the one hand, I am glad that there is interest, and exposure. Ballet has a -somewhat unfair- reputation of being “boring”, or “elitist” or “only for old people”. Perhaps not as much as opera, but the feeling is still there. In this day and age, where accessibility is emphasized above all else, where you can tweet a celebrity and the people on TV are “just like you”, the dancer is something of an anomaly.  The intense, long-term training, the separation of audience and stage, the price of the tickets (although this is changing) and at the most basic level the use of objects (pointe shoes) and movements (eg, turning out) that are completely foreign to the ‘normal’ experience, all conspire to put distance between the general public and the world of ballet.

So I’m glad that there is awareness of, and renewed interest in, ballet as an art form as a result of recent aspects of popular culture and media. And yet, at the same time, I wonder if these portrayals are doing more harm than good. There is a line between “any press is good press” and negative portrayals hurting the art form. I don’t think we’ve crossed it yet – hopefully – but we’re certainly headed in that direction.

It’s not that I’m advocating a universally positive view of ballet. It’s true that its nature lends itself to certain challenges. For example: ballet is an aesthetic art form in which the body of the dancer is the instrument – this necessitates a certain physique. You have to be athletic enough and strong enough to actually dance – and that’s hard work, people, it’s not just twirling around with your hands above your head – and you have to look pretty doing it. Of course, when taken to the extreme you have dancers – natural perfectionists – obsessing over their weight and appearance, possibly leading to eating disorders or depression or a myriad of other issues. And there are certain companies or directors who, intentionally or unintentionally, contribute to that sort of thing. Dance puts a lot of pressure on the dancer, and it’s hard.

So I’m not saying ballet is perfect.

But there seem to be an awful lot of people who associate ballet  or ballerina with anorexia, bulimia, eating disorders, conceited, snobby, elitist, girly, (and with it the eternal girly=less valuable/worse), gay, restrictive, socially stunted…

Why does the art form that makes my heart sing evoke such responses?

On a more serious note

WARNING: This post is not for the kids. Also, spoilerish things ahead. Also, a bit of a rant.

Many things are circling around in my head right now, and I’m not going to be able to sleep unless I try to work them out a little.

I just finished Deerskin, by Robin McKinley. There are many things to be said about this book. I found the prose to be a bit…architectural?…and sometimes hard to follow, but with its own kind of beauty that grew on me as I kept reading.

And then.

Much of the story is about Lissar’s recovery from the experience of being raped by her father. I repeat that, because it’s important: the book is not about rape, it’s about survival and recovery and the way she moves forward after that trauma.

Parts of it are brutal, and parts of it are moving…when she reclaimed her body, which she had previously been unable to even look at, which felt alien to her – I had chills. When she confronted her father towards the end, I cried.

And between this, and a recent post over on Tami’s blog about female characters, and the episode of criminal minds I watched today, and conversations which have been happening at school about this subject, I’ve been thinking about things.

I have fortunately never been sexually assaulted, or had anyone attempt to assault me, or really anything of that nature. And, although there are problems with the idea that women have to take precautions to avoid rape, I do take care to behave certain ways (don’t go out alone late at night, don’t get drunk at parties, etc. etc. Not that I go to parties anyway, but still).

And yet, there are moments.

I’ve been walking down the sidewalk, not even that late, but it’s dark outside, and there’s a man walking in the other direction. Doesn’t matter if he’s black, or white, or polka dotted. Sometimes, I just feel this stab of fear. It feels like something is constricting my chest, and my heart beats faster, and I have a feeling that I had barely put into words. It’s not that I think this other guy *is* going to attack me, it’s just that I have the sudden realization that he *could*.

That I could suddenly find myself in the situation where something is being done to my body that I didn’t choose, that I have no control over.

I mean, I’m not particularly strong, but I do know some self-defense. It doesn’t matter, I still get this feeling. And I get it sometimes when guys say things to me on the street, like “Hey guapa”, or “Smile, gorgeous”. I’ve gotten real compliments, from women and men, and they’re different from these. These are aggressive. And they give me that same feeling.

And I hate having that feeling. I really really really HATE that we live in a world in which rape is such a pervasive part of the culture that I sometimes feel afraid of random guys on the street, most of whom are perfectly nice I’m sure (obviously not the catcalling guys here, but for instance the random guys I walk by at night).

So this brings me to Criminal Minds. The cold open of this episode had a woman outside of a nightclub, talking on her cellphone. She hangs up. This guys starts coming down the alley, wearing a dark hoodie. He looks a bit menacing. The woman starts to feel uncomfortable. The guy reaches into his pocket…but just pulls out a cigarette. He’s still walking towards her. She starts to freak out. The tension is building, until the door opens and a waitress comes out and it turns out the guy is her boyfriend and he was coming to meet her. Then once she’s relaxed she turns around and sees a body among the trash in the alley.

Basically, we’ve (we meaning the TV audience) seen so many of these shows at this point that they feel like they have to trick us to make it “different” or “interesting”. We know, since we’re watching a show about serial killers, that there will be dead bodies, so our assumption is that the guy in the hoodie is going to attack the woman in the alley. And she thinks so too.

That fear that I have – that apparently, if it’s on primetime television, many women have – is used as a CASUAL PLOT DEVICE. It’s a throwaway. This woman is totally insignificant to the overall narrative of the episode. Her fear is just there to fake out the audience, to keep us on our toes in the fourteenth season or whatever. (Okay, fifth or sixth or seventh, but the point remains).

That scares me too, that it’s not a big deal and just gets thrown into the episode like it doesn’t matter. That yes, OF COURSE the guy coming down the alley is a rapist/murderer. That’s portrayed as the default assumption. And it is a crime show, so yes you’re expecting a rapist/murderer to appear at any moment, but still, it bothers me.

Anyway, to bring this rant back to Deerskin.

It’s a beautiful book. Aside from certain quibbles I have with it, which I am more than willing to forgive for the sake of other things. The rape is handled very well, and the story of Lissar’s recovery is gorgeous. I’ve read a couple reviews that find fault with the romance; I thought it was well done. The ending was typically abstract and…sensory, I guess…which is typical for McKinley, but it actually worked better for this book than it has for others. The father is a truly frightening figure, although I actually find the mother to be completely terrifying and nightmare-inducing and the two of them give me goosebumps, but it works.

I’m glad this book exists. It’s made me think about a lot of things. I don’t think I’ll be able to read it again for a while, but I will eventually.