Visiting the Precipice

Blog, meta

I just got back from a play in which a mother kills her child and then kills herself. I found the conclusion satisfying. It made sense for the character’s arc. But most of all I found the “perversion” of such acts deeply satisfying.

I enjoy the “fucked up shit”. There is a reason I surgically graphed myself to Hannibal, and why I love Hamlet and The Color Purple, amongst other fucked up works.

For me, it’s the pleasure of visiting the precipice: of peering over the edge, into the dark void of what it means to be human. It’s not about finding satisfaction in suffering or pain, but of seeing a glimpse of our humanity in extreme situations.

Some people don’t have the stomach for this material, and that’s fine. Others protest the “immorality” of these works, as if art is rigid and uncomplicated.

But art — good art — is fluid and dynamic. It makes you think, and see, and feel the world differently. And in these cases, it’s visiting that precipice and learning about who we are.

It’s Just the Hours He’s Been Keepin’

Blog, criticism, meta

It’s hard to pen criticism of a TV series which has had only one episode. Yet that is precisely what I will be doing with Prodigal Son.

On the surface it seems like a novel idea: a TV series about the son of a serial killer, who is a gifted yet haunted profiler.

The problems are many, however, beginning with the criminal misuse of Michael Sheen, who plays the father and was a serial killer. Sheen is a gifted actor. Take a peek at his work in Masters of Sex or Good Omens to understand what an acting juggernaut he is. In Prodigal Son he is reduced to shmarmy grinning to make him creepy.

The main character Malcolm is haunted . . . perhaps too haunted. The stereotype of the gifted yet haunted profiler is well documented by now, especially with Hannibal’s Will Graham. Malcolm is depicted taking at least half a dozen pills, suffering from night terrors, having trouble sleeping in general, potential suicidal ideation, amongst others. All of this coupled with his preoccupation with his father and murder in general. Yes, he’s haunted, but the show dove right into the deep end with Malcolm. It would have been more interesting to have Malcolm seem like he has everything together, and then, throughout the series, expose the cracks in his veritable armor as he grows closer to his father.

Next is the portrayal of “evil” via anti social personality disorder (formerly called psychopathy) and sociopathy. Evil is a nice cliche in this series: a glittering grin, a sweet looking man in a sweater, a thuggish bald white man. Evil has no name, no face. It’s just a hammy thing sent to do harm. In order to be effective, evil must have a name and a face. It must be multifaceted. It must speak with its own voice. To do otherwise is to do a disservice to victims, survivors, and to our essential humanity.

The world of the story is hammy too, screaming at you at the highest decibel. There is no subtly and it does not do any service to the plot.

Speaking of which: I think this is why Prodigal Son may be experiencing severe growing pains, and why the series, in a nutshell, is having trouble finding its footing. Fox is foolish enough to try and cram their novel idea into a humdrum police procedural. In doing so, they loose the originality and vitality of the series, and the chance to explore the characters.

I will keep watching it (I admittedly love psychological thrillers), but with reservations.

In Want of a Husband?

Blog, meta, review

I just finished watching Becoming Jane, and while I was glad to have done so, I found parts of the story hollow.

In some parts they teased us with a Pride and Prejudice Darcy/Bennett like budding romance between Jane Austen (Anne Hatheway) and the dashing Tom Lefroy (James McAvoy). When the characters finally surrender to their affections, the story becomes mired in heartbreak and heavy as a leaden ball. There is joy in the story, to be sure, but it is overcome with a sense of tragedy, of a relationship which never came to fruition. (Spoilers: Lefroy and Austen never marry, despite their best efforts.)

And therein lies the problem. Jane Austen lived to be forty-one, before falling ill one day and never fully recovering. But surely, between her youthful acquaintance with Lefroy and her latter years, she would have had joy in her life. She was a wildly successful author for her time, and had close relations with her family. Amongst many other happy things. Instead the film depicts the older Jane Austen as this austere woman, saddened by some long ago love.

The film-makers do Austen wrong in this. There were many ways to be a happy woman, and not all of them involved marriage, though it would have been difficult simply because of familial and social expectations. But the film-makers seem to forget that women did forge their own ways without men. Austen had a productive and probably happy life, regardless of her not marrying. This oversight helps mire the film in sorrow, and renders Austen into a one dimensional character, concerned mostly with Lefroy. I cannot count how many conversations focused on Lefroy, Lefroy, Lefroy . . . wasn’t the title of this film Becoming Jane?

Focusing so exhaustively on Lefroy diminishes the relationships Austen has with other characters, namely the female characters. I don’t think there was a single conversation between women in the film which was not about a man in some way, and 90 percent of those conversations were about Lefroy. I believe the film failed the Bechdel Test (Google it!) and as someone who enjoys Austen, both originals and adaptations, for the companionship women share between them, this vexes me. This is a poor representation of Jane Austen’s life if it can’t pass the Bechdel Test.

If the film had given light and life to other characters (ie, screen time), if it had shown women in each other’s company (no talk of a man in sight!), if it had given Austen more of a three dimensional character (at bit like Lefroy!) this film could have been stunning. Instead it it a betrayal of Austen’s life and work in some ways, and leaves you empty.

I understand it is supposed to have that effect, I just think the story could have been more, and more than focused on Lefroy to the point the story suffers.

I will, however, say this: I kind of don’t blame the film-makers for focusing so much on Lefroy. McAvoy is a charming, handsome man, and looks damn fine in those tailcoats of his. He is also a very good actor, of course. I think the entire cast was good, in fact, it was only the way the story was handled which “rubbed me wrong”.

A Slice of the Murdering Pie

Blog, meta, queer, short story, writing

I recently rediscovered a short story I had written a few years ago, featuring an absolutely wicked queer couple. It is the antithesis of what I usually write, which is quaint domestic character studies. And I thought the story was fantastic. A fun, murderous romp.

I remember writing it and believing “no-one will ever publish this because the gays are evil”. Now I am thinking of including it in a collection of short stories for a contest.

Why not?

I well know the “evil queer villain” trope, where the villain is coded as effeminate, or trans, or pick any flavor of queer. I am well aware of the negative representations of queer people. I fully understand and appreciate, therefore, the current social push to represent queer people more positively. It’s important to counteract hundreds of years awful representation.

But there must also be room to let queer people be . . . bad. Monstrous, even. We are as capable of murder and violence as anyone else, as unpopular as that “take” may be.

Queer people are well, human. The “evil queer” sought to paint us as inhuman. Because of this, when we are written, it is imperative to present us as complex human beings rather than simply “good” human beings. The former gives us our humanity, the latter just goes back to making us inhuman on some level. Even a positive representation must show parts of us that are unflattering, or which contradict some of the positive.

Similarly, when we write evil queers, they must be complex human beings. A murderer may show tenderness and express love even though they kill people. In this way, it becomes a subversion of the “evil queer” trope. Instead of distancing us from our humanity, it brings us closer to ourselves: those carnal, bloody desires which sometimes make our hearts caper.

I am not sure I succeeded in my own story. We’ll find out. Until then, I would actually like to see more well rounded queer villains get their slice of the murdering pie.

A Quibble

Blog, meta, queer

I am sick of not seeing trans men in fiction, but I am also sick of the lack of variety of trans men represented. We all must conform to the mold set by cisgender, heteronormative society: hate your cunt, hate your breasts, desire top (and possibly lower) surgery with all your might, take hormones. It also helps to be straight.

And I am sick of this very narrow perception of what it means to be a trans man. It has broadened since my college years, true, but where are the trans men who like their breasts? Who enjoy their cunts? Who do not desire surgery? Who don’t take hormones?

Don’t tell me these people are non-binary either, because it is perfectly possible to be a man with breasts. Breasts, a cunt, taking hormones, surgeries: none of these define whether or not you are male.

Realistically, as well, there are plenty of trans men who don’t fit the stereotypical mold. I have known more trans men outside of the mold than who adhered to it.

So please fiction writers: give me trans men with breasts, give me trans men with cunts, give me trans men who do not want surgery or hormones.

This was originally inspired by the suicide of Leelah Alcorn, and was originally posted to Tumblr. Sadly, this is a continuing issue in the trans community: that of parents abusing their trans children, psychologically and otherwise. Leelah, and others, are not isolated incidents. If they were, it would be as easy as saying these parents were simply bad parents — abusive and active inflicting harm on their children — and that it’s only a matter of bad parenting, or “bad families”, or individual situations and choices.

But it’s not.

It is not an isolated incident.

Blog, meta, real life

The Moral Responsibilities of the Reader

Blog, meta, writing

I previously wrote about censors and censorship, and the essential characteristics of the people who try to censor writers, be it the self proclaimed “social justice warriors” to the Evangelical parents who squawk loudly at the school board to have a book banned because it’s “inappropriate”. Today, I want to turn to the moral responsibilities of the reader.

So often responsibility is placed on the author to make a “tasteful” work, something that is somehow ennobling. Not all literature is about “ennobling” us or making us feel good. Some of it is about making us feel like crap, in point of fact. Have you ever read The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison? It is the most profoundly perverse and heartbreaking narrative I’ve ever encountered. It’s not supposed to be wholesome, but a sad commentary on race and gender.

While authors are constantly told to take responsibility for their work, I have never once heard someone ask a reader how they took responsibility for their reading and understanding of the piece. That is a curious, dangerous problem. We have a society of people whose tastes are catered to, who are not challenged, so that when they encounter a challenging piece, like The Bluest Eye, they are wholly unequipped to deal with beautiful, disturbing writing. They just want to feel good, not think.

But, nonetheless, readers have moral responsibilities. I say “moral” to emphasize the imperative to hold readers to a high standard of conduct — the same standard authors are often held to. If we hold our writers to high standards, it only stands to reason that we hold readers to the same rigorous standards.