Saturday, August 22, 2015

Wet Hot American Summer and the Smart "Stupid" Movie

My sister loves Seinfeld.  I don't.  I don't get the brand of humor where people overreact to small incidents, usually incidents that aren't really that bothersome.  And yet, what does it say that I absolutely love movies that consist of people doing nothing but going crazy at small things?

It goes without saying (but I'll say it anyway) that humor is highly subjective.  Reasons one person finds certain situations funny can be a complete mystery to someone else.  I can't fully explain why I'm such easy prey for the smart "stupid" movie, but I'm going to try.

The smart "stupid" movie is usually part of the parody genre, which mocks movie trends and offers insights into the mindset of a specific era.  When done right, the smart "stupid" movie can leave you rolling on the floor with laughter, while also recognizing that the movie just gets it somehow.  When done wrong, the smart "stupid" movie is just... stupid.

It is a very thin line between smart "stupid" and genuinely stupid, and staying on the smart side of the line is very difficult.  Often, smart "stupid" movies will have at least some lapses into pure stupidity.  Whether those lapses taint the movie overall depends upon the individual viewer's tolerance.  If you understand what the movie is trying to do, and appreciate that it hits its mark more often than it misses, you will still enjoy it.  If you don't see the method behind the madness, if all you see is stupid, then you will likely hate it.  These genres tend to not have much in between.

Take Wet Hot American Summer.  When it premiered in 2001, it was widely derided as a failed attempt at parody and juvenile.  Roger Ebert went so far as to write a sarcastic review about it in the form of the classic song "Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah."  It did poorly at the box office and vanished quickly from theatres.

And yet... this movie quickly became a cult classic among intelligent people who would normally be quick to deride the mindlessness of mainstream movies and television.  Was it because so many smart comedians, like Amy Poehler and Jeanane Garofolo, were in it?  Was it because so many of the actors, like Paul Rudd, Bradley Cooper, and Elizabeth Banks, would go on to greater fame?  Was it because it captured a time of their lives in a way that no other movie truly did?  It could have been all of those reasons, and none of them.

Truth be told, even as a lover of the smart "stupid" movie, I find Wet Hot American Summer to be a bit of a puzzle.  Whereas I can easily laugh at Not Another Teen Movie because it parodies John Hughes and other high school romance movies, I don't have much of an impression of summer camp.  I went for a week when I was 11 and that was pretty much it.  So Wet Hot American Summer doesn't tap into any reservoir of feelings.

(From this point forward, spoilers follow.)  For anyone not familiar with the movie, the basic plot is that the year is 1981, it's the last day of an eight-week summer camp, and anything can and does happen.  That includes "Coop," one of the counselors, finally admitting his love of fellow counselor, Katie; two megalomaniac counselors holding a talent show; and camp director Beth finding unexpected romance with Henry, an astrophysicist, while at the same time a piece of Skylab is plummeting to earth and threatening to hit the camp.  You know, the usual.

As you likely guessed, Wet Hot American Summer isn't a clean plate where only one or two plot lines predominate; it is a stew.  An often weird stew, especially with any scene involving Gene, the camp cook and Vietnam vet with an affinity for refrigerators.

Gene.  Didn't really get him until the prequel series.
AV Club did an article on the cultural influences on the movie, some of which I recognize.  However, at times, rather than parody something specific, Wet Hot American Summer seems wacky and tasteless for the sake of being wacky and tasteless.  Like with Gene, or with Andy accidentally letting kids drown due to carelessness, then tossing the witnesses out into the wilderness.

Other times, even when I recognize the movie is parodying something, I'm not sure what it is.  Take, for instance, Victor's mad dash to get back to Abby Bernstein, leaving campers in danger on the white water rapids.  Or Beth and Neil's hysterical overreaction in the nurse's office as they try to locate Victor.

And sometimes, even when I know what Wet Hot American Summer is parodying, I'm not sure it always lands.  One example would be Gail's growing attraction to a young camper who gives her supportive advice over how to stand up to her ex husband.  It's a parody of any movie where the man or woman's best friend/colleague slowly rises from supporting role to the new love interest.  Here, the role is filled by a kid who's maybe 12 at most.  As it unfolds, the plot line is a cross between funny and skin crawling because it is so, so very wrong.

Yep that's... pretty wrong.
If Wet Hot American Summer has these issues, why do I still laugh?  For that matter, why would I find any movie with similar issues to be funny?  First, it's important to point out that many times, I don't find the jokes funny.  I don't care for Gene's refrigerator speech (although the talking can seems funnier in retrospect thanks to Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp).  Victor's antics get tiring, and there are even stretches of the movie that feel dull.         

What makes it click overall is that, when it works, it really works.  Part of it is due to the general absurdist tone the movie takes.  When that tone is put into the service of a truly crazy plot line, it works wonders.  For instance, in a different movie, the Skylab danger -- partially based on real life, partially based on sci-fi action movies -- might have been flaccid and overwrought.  However, here, every plot point and sudden plot twist is kicked up a notch in absurdity.  It's not just that the Skylab could land on the camp, but that it could land on the theatre right as the talent show is happening.  It's not just that Henry and his band of Goonies-like nerd kids can stop it with a homemade tracking device, it's that they can only stop it with a device made from doughnuts and a can of spam.

And then there is the pivotal moment of camper Steve's performance at the talent show.  Only in a movie as absurd as Wet Hot American Summer could a camper unveil superpowers and it would practically be considered an afterthought.  Of course Steve has the ability to create gusts of wind with his hands.  Gusts of wind that can only be observed inside the theatre, but somehow are enough to send the Skylab off course so that it crashes harmlessly into the ground.  In true parody style of films like Lucas, Steve, the friendless nerd kid, earns the appreciation of the talent show audience, leading to the slow clap.

The absurdist tone also lightens the effect of plots like the aforementioned Gail/camper romance that could otherwise be considered downright offensive.  Seeing Gail and the 12-year-old camper go off to get married in the end, few would view the situation realistically.  Instead, it could be read as the supportive friend role taken to extremes combined with Gail's desperation for true love.  Likewise, Andy essentially killing campers due to negligence invokes laughs because, again, it is an extreme situation meant to showcase Andy's narcissism, nothing more.  No one thinks that would actually happen.  Right?  Right??

The tone of Wet Hot American Summer is greatly assisted by the actors' performances.  No one does a diva theatre director/producer/choreographer better than Amy Poehler as Susie.  No one can make an asshole boyfriend quite as likable as Paul Rudd makes Andy.  Jeanane Garofolo brings a steady grounded quality to her performance as Beth, yet never in a way that detracts from the absurdity of the situation.  And few could be as straight-faced when delivering lines like "I've grown up a lot since before dinner when we last talked" as Michael Showalter's Coop.

Yet even so, why do I laugh?  Why do I find this funny and not the griping on Seinfeld?  Maybe because that's what most of Seinfeld is -- griping.  The characters spend a lot of time reacting like the world is going to end over very minor things, things that I often either do not notice or do not care about.  They gripe, complain, avoid.  While the tone of Seinfeld episodes can be absurd and silly, there is still this overlay of negativity that makes watching an episode tiring.  By contrast, movies like Wet Hot American Summer, or other parody movies that hit more than miss, like Not Another Teen Movie, have a very light, often whimsical tone.  Unlike the Seinfeld characters, the characters in these movies never take themselves too seriously, or if they do, the movie sends a clear message that they shouldn't.  That makes the plot, no matter how twisted or absurd, easier to digest.

George and Jerry griping about... something.
Furthermore, while Seinfeld is cleverly done, the gripes feel like the end result.  The show doesn't seem to aim for anything bigger.  Not that it should, but I like when movies or television shows, no matter what genre, aim to be more than just the next joke or the next plot point.  Wet Hot American Summer wants to make fun of 70's and 80's camp movies, comeback movies, romantic comedies, disaster movies, and movies where teenagers are played by 30-year olds.  It doesn't always succeed, but at least it succeeds more often than it fails.

And then there's the "get it" factor.  Except for Elaine, I don't really get the Seinfeld characters.  I don't relate to them.  While I don't necessarily relate to characters like Susie either, I get what they're about, what the movie seeks to parody with them.  I get Beth.  I get Coop.  Hell, I even get Gail to an extent.  I also get what Wet Hot American Summer is trying to do with its parody of the early 80's, and it often works.  There is just this unmistakable 80sness about everything, this sense that "yeah, that's probably what it would have been like, even without the falling Skylab."

And that is what matters most, what separates comedy that makes you laugh from comedy that leaves you cold.  You must get it on some level, even if you don't know why.

For the reasons stated above, I enjoy smart "stupid" movies like Wet Hot American Summer, as well as its prequel, First Day of Camp.

That being said, it is one thing to like a movie or television show that pretends to be stupid, and another to like one that is plain stupid.  Many smart people avoid movies and shows that are flat-out dumb, but there is that small circle of shows that are dumb in such a specific way that they are actually kind of awesome.  I'll be taking a look at that in a future article.

The above images are used under the Fair Use Doctrine.             

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Through An Introvert's Lens: Inside Out

Beware of spoilers!

Inside Out, Pixar's latest release, tells a surprisingly complex story of what goes on inside one girl's mind as she confronts major changes in her life.  Yet it could also serve as a study of how extroverts routinely undervalue introverts, to everyone's peril.

The movie revolves around an 11-year old girl named Riley who has just moved from Minnesota with her parents to a run-down house in San Francisco (that probably cost $2 million *cough*).  Riley goes from perpetually happy-go-lucky to confused and withdrawn, in part due to the fact that her mental "control room" is in disarray.  That's because Joy, one of her five anthropomorphic emotions and the one who steers her reactions on a day-to-day basis, accidentally got sucked into Riley's long-term memory along with Sadness, leaving Fear, Anger, and Disgust to run the show.  Inside Out chronicles Joy and Sadness's attempts to return to the control room to save Riley from further struggle, and the ultimate acceptance that such struggles are a part of life.

When we first meet Joy, she is perpetually upbeat, almost manic.  She is always trying to make lemonade out of lemons, always wanting everything to stay in the same perfect, golden state, or to dwell on happy memories in the past.  Though well-meaning and fun, she is also domineering, rarely permitting other emotions to interfere, least of all Sadness.

Sadness is introduced as a sad-sack with impulse problems (she can't resist touching formerly happy memories and marking them permanently with sadness), a problem that Joy must solve.  Joy tries to do it by forbidding Sadness from providing input on Riley's first day at her new school (in an "upbeat" way, of course), only for Sadness to slip her bonds and interfere during a crucial moment.  This leads them both to getting sucked into Riley's longterm memory and... you'll have to see the movie to find out.

On one level, this is a movie about our (specifically Americans, though it could apply to varying degrees elsewhere) tendency to prize "happy, upbeat" behavior over inconvenient and messy "negative" feelings like sadness and confusion.  On another level, it could be argued that this is a movie that illustrates society's attitudes toward introverts, and demonstrates how much richer the world would be if introverted behavior were as welcome as extroverted.

That Joy is a stereotypical extrovert is without question.  Talkative, gaining energy through interaction with others, and little focused on her own interior state until she reaches a crucial nadir point in the story.  Sadness comes across as a stereotypical introvert -- or, more crucially, in the beginning, as an extrovert's view of an introvert.  As a refresher, introverts are typically:

  • reserved
  • interested in big ideas rather than small talk
  • need to be alone to replenish after socializing
  • think before they speak
  • prefer to observe rather than be the center of attention

Sadness appears to have many of these traits.  She doesn't say much, thinks it's important to "slow down and obsess over the weight of life's problems," and typically views things in a more circumspect manner (such as when Joy wants to take the shortcut to the Train of Thought).  

To the extroverted Joy, Sadness is such a downer.  Always turning up when you least want her to, whining about life's problems and so mopey that at times, she lies sprawled out on the floor, unwilling to move.  Sadness can't be removed altogether, but she can at least be minimized and ignored.

Yet as the movie progresses, Sadness's persona subtly softens, and we see more of her wisdom and empathy.  During one crucial scene, she comforts a character who has experienced a powerful loss.  By helping him come to terms, rather than ignore the loss and move onward, as Joy would have them do, Sadness helps him find peace.  

I have some quibbles with Inside Out.  Despite portraying Sadness as a necessary part of a healthy emotional life, the story belongs to the extroverted Joy, and largely portrays her journey toward acceptance.  Sadness, to the end, remains an "other" in Joy's story, rather than a complex character in her own right, passively submissive rather than active in her own story.  Moreover, the personification of Sadness being portrayed by an introverted character grates a little.  People are not always quiet and reflective when they are sad, or loud and proud when they are happy.  Introverted does not equal sad.  Then again, an extrovert might take issue with the portrayal of Joy as someone who denies all other emotions, but that's for another blog.

Overall, despite Inside Out falling prey to the same tendencies of much mainstream media -- giving the extroverted character the story, rather than making the introvert and extrovert co-equals -- it at least acknowledges that introverts have a powerful role to play, that their input is just as important as an extrovert's.      


Number of Introverts: One

Is the Introvert Prominent?: Yes

Is the Introvert Active?: Somewhat, though the action is largely dictated by the extrovert

How Do Other Characters Treat the Introvert?: Like an embarrassment that must be hidden, until they (or rather, Joy) learned to appreciate her unique qualities.

The above images were used under the Fair Use Doctrine.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Things That I Love: Video Game PlayThroughs

Have you ever wanted to play a video game, but didn't have the money or the time?  Thanks to the power of YouTube, you can see how that game is played, and then some.

I first stumbled upon video game playthroughs, or walkthroughs, when I was looking for video on the famous Super Mario Brothers "minus world."  If you've ever played the classic Super Mario Brothers, you may be aware that there are certain glitches in the game, and those savvy enough to exploit them can find themselves in, as they say, a whole new world:

In case that wasn't weird enough for you, here is minus world in the Japanese version:

But playthroughs aren't just for watching cool glitches in beloved classic video games.  They are also for watching entire video games and interactive stories.  For instance, when I was young, I beat Nintendo's classic game, Mike Tyson's Punch Out.  Years later, they came up with an updated version on Wii, which I don't own and don't know when I'll purchase.  But thanks to more dedicated players on YouTube, I can at least watch the game and imagine I'm still dexterous enough to beat it!

As for interactive stories, since the beginning of this year, I have been following the chapters of Telltale's Game of Thrones.  For a little background, Telltale Games is a gaming company that produces graphic adventure series, many in multiple chapters.  Game of Thrones Season One follows House Forrester, bannermen to House Glover and Stark family loyalists.  In the books, House Forrester is mentioned in passing, little more than a hill clan.  In the episodic series, which follows the show, House Forrester is a minor noble house with the motto: "Iron from Ice."  Through six chapters (four presently released), you follow the Stark-like Forresters as they try to bring their family back from near ruin.

So far, the series has been utterly absorbing.  Yet I would have been denied the experience if not for the generosity of YouTubers, thanks to the fact that my computer schematics were not advanced enough for the game (*never mind that when I purchased it, Telltale claimed it could run on Snow Leopard, grumble, grumble*).  Now that I've upgraded, I intend to play the game at long last, but it has been great fun watching various players' choices for each chapter.  Watching each episode is really like watching segments of a miniseries.  When all six episodes have aired, I will write a review of the whole.

So there you have it: a special mix of nostalgia and desire to explore new worlds (as well as, let's face it, a splash of laziness) is what makes video game playthroughs so enjoyable.  Off to look for yet another new one... after I do some grown up, responsible adult thingys first.  Grumble.

Special thanks to Chozoth, Legendary Super Mario, MrBLT, and IGN for their wonderful video contributions, without which I could not have wasted so much of my valuable time and enjoyed every minute.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Movie Musicals That Got It Wrong: Pitch Perfect 2

As I mentioned in my review, Pitch Perfect was not exactly trailblazing cinema.  Nearly everything it did have been done before, sometimes better, by other movies.  What Pitch Perfect had, however, was good chemistry between the characters, a relatively straight-forward plot, and energetic musical numbers.  None of which can be said for Pitch Perfect 2.

Pitch Perfect 2 is not horrible, mind you.  It's no Jersey Boys or Rock of Ages.  It's not even Annie 2014.  However, it turned what was sort of fresh and fun into strained and tedious, which is why it is on the Wrong List.

Plot Synopsis

The Barden Bellas are the reigning champions of a cappella singing in the United States.  After Fat Amy has a "wardrobe malfunction" during a televised performance for President Obama, the Bellas are ordered to disband.  However, leaders Beca and Chloe convince the national a capella organization to reinstate the group if they become the world champions of a cappella, something an American group has never done.  The Bellas quickly find their work cut out for them when they encounter the precise and ruthless German squad, Das Sound Machine.  Meanwhile, Beca finds her loyalty tested and her priorities stretched after she lands an internship at a recording studio.    

The Good

Still Some Chemistry.  
While the chemistry between the characters is usually not as effortless as in the first movie, it is still evident during key parts, such as the Bellas' bonding camping trip.  The campfire bonding scene was the first time I started to really enjoy the movie.

Lots of Singing!  The musical numbers may be overproduced, but it's hard not to get caught up in their energy, or to appreciate the harmonizing.  Good singing makes everything better.

Nothing Lasts Forever.  The movie deserves credit for actually acknowledging that high school (or, in this case, college) doesn't last forever, and people eventually move on to other things.  Or, if they don't, they really should (looking at you, Chloe).*  The cameo with Aubrey was welcome, though Aubrey's characterization seemed off.

Shared Sense of History.  The final song number with Bellas was was as touching and effective as hoped, though it would have been nice if the Bellas' long, proud history had been emphasized more in the movie.

Less Jesse.  The Treblemakers are in the movie, but much more marginalized, which means Jesse and his annoying cheesiness are kept to a blessed minimum.

Green Bay Packers Can Sing.  Their appearance in the film would have been a fun surprise had I not been spoiled.  Who knew that Clay Matthews could not only sing, but was a passable actor?  Which is more than I can say for Brett Favre back in the day.

The Bad

One Dimensional Baddies.  
Das Sound Machine had appealing characters like Kommissar (Birgitte Hjort Sorensen, who won rave reviews for a recent appearance on Game of Thrones), but the movie could never figure out what to do with them except have them twirl their invisible moustaches and laugh, "Hahahaha, stupid Americans!"  How much better would it have been if the German group had congratulated the Bellas at the end, or at least expressed sympathy that the Bellas faced extinction?  What if Das Sound Machine had its own personal stakes in the competition?  Instead, the group was a rampaging German stereotype (Emotions except for smug condescension bad!  Technology and dominance good!) which served no one in the end.

Questionable Stakes.  Why on earth were the two silly commentators from the first movie allowed to serve as representatives for the national a cappella organization?  Was it ever explained?  Because it makes no sense.  Nor does the set-up that the Bellas can only redeem themselves by winning the world championship.  If there is truly a stain on their reputation that won't wipe away, not even winning the world championship would change that.  Though it seems silly such an acclaimed a cappella group would face such punishment anyway for something that was clearly a mistake.  At worst, they might have to drop Fat Amy from the group, go on an apology tour, and face a penalty that would likely be temporary.   

Let's Do It Again.  Only Worse.  Remember in my review of Pitch Perfect, how I praised Fat Amy for not being "the endless teller and recipient of fat jokes"?  Yeah, well, that's gone.  In Pitch Perfect 2, Fat Amy's weight is constantly played for laughs, from the initial incident that gets the Bellas suspended to her sliding down the stairs at the end.  Her relationship with Bumper might have broken that mold, if it didn't seem so random and forced.  

The quirky, marginal characters are also still around, like Lilly, and have been joined by new quirky characters like Flo Fuentes, who constantly "jokes" about being deported to her home country.  The show numbers are still around, only less inspired.  And would they really be that allergic to original material in the a cappella world, or was that solely to make What's Her Name seem that much bolder for having an original song, whereas in real life, everyone would think she was a hack?

Good Girl, Bad Music.  Note that I hadn't mentioned the new girl until now.  Freshman Emily Junk managed to get into the Bellas through a loophole, even though they weren't allowed to admit new members.  She's cool because she writes her Own Material.  Material that happens to sound incredibly derivative, but still.  Emily failed to leave much of an impression on me during the movie, and I can't imagine her song would spur such an enthusiastic reception in real life.    


I only did this review because I reviewed the first Pitch Perfect, but this isn't nearly as good.  Nonetheless, it's not bad.  Don't waste your money seeing it in the theatre.  Wait until it comes out on TV.

* Other reviews claim that Chloe flunked two years in a row to remain in the Bellas, but I don't recall seeing that in the movie.  Isn't it possible she just decided to go to graduate school at Barden?

Movie Musicals That Got It Right: DreamgirlsLes MiserablesChicagoMamma Mia!Sweeney ToddMoulin RougeThe Sound of MusicPitch PerfectCabaret

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Update: Hello From Updateland!

I really don't intend to be so sparse with my blogging every month.  Really.  I've been mainly trying to catch up on writing my second novel (now over 200 pages!) and caught up in work.  Oh, and going gaga over the latest Game of Thrones episode, but I digress.

I wanted to give a taste of future posts.  As always, they will be a mixture of pop culture and personal likes and dislikes.  One big change: I am officially extending the Movie Musicals That Got It Right/Wrong to the classic movies.  Originally I was planning to wait until I had reviewed movies in the more recent past before moving on to the classics, but why would I sit through The Producers, Nine, and God knows how many iterations of High School Musical before I could review My Fair Lady, West Side Story, or The King and I (I said classics, not that they were all good classics).  So I'm going to switch back and forth, and I'm sure no one else cared one way or the other, but I'm just saying.

I also plan to do a write-up on Mad Men because, duh.

And then there are unpopular opinions and introverted opinions galore... as there ever were.  And at some point I intend to jump back on that Dickens train, yessir.

So here is to a more fruitful June, and hope you've read and enjoyed past blog posts!  

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Game of Thrones: Why Daenerys As Queen Is the End Game

Spoilers for anyone who has not read A Feast for Crows or A Dance With Dragons, or the released chapters of The Winds of Winter.

By now, viewers of Game of Thrones can see that the show's creators are beginning to shift the story toward its end game, toward the final Ice Zombie Apocalypse and One Who Wins the Iron Throne.  The outcome of most characters is highly uncertain.  Will Daenerys Targaryen fly her way back to the Throne on dragon wings?  Or will Jon Snow forge his way to the Iron Throne through a phalanx of ice zombies?  Or will it be stoic, meticulous Stannis Baratheon?  Or (f)Aegon?  Or Sansa Stark?  Maybe some combination of the above, like Jon and Daenerys, or even Jon and Sansa.*

Who do I think it will be?  Daenerys.

She seems like the obvious choice, which in the A Song of Ice and Fire universe usually means she is marked for death.  And I would not at all put it past Martin or the show's producers to kill her off before she sits on the Iron Throne.  Or, for that matter, after she sits on the Iron Throne, when we're lulled into thinking she's safe.  That said, there are a few reasons I think that she will make it all the way to the end.

The Second Dance With Dragons.  Even though Daenerys has been built up as the "savior" ruler, her path has not been easy.  And nothing underscores this more than the fact that (f)Aegon is being positioned to "save" Westeros in her place.  (f)Aegon, brought up to rule and to be a mighty warrior since birth, who takes Storm's End seemingly with ease, will be viewed as the "champion" and the true holder of the Throne.  By contrast, Daenerys will be chided as the one who is too late, too preoccupied with saving slaves in Essos.  Yet if the prophecies are true, Aegon is really fAegon, and Dany will need to wage a battle simply to get through him to the Throne.  Why go to such narrative trouble, making her really work and struggle to sit in that chair, and not have her be Queen in the end?

Targaryen House symbol next to the Blackfyre symbol.
Targaryen Lore Is Everywhere.  I didn't realize this until I reread the A Song of Ice and Fire series, but the references to Targaryen history are constant.  Aegon the Conqueror and the Targaryens' construction of the Red Keep.  The Targaryens' dragons, including the crypt of dragon heads.  The Blackfyre Rebellion.  The War of the Ninepenny Kings.  Tales about the fire at Summerhall.  While the series is filled with other histories, Targaryen lore is quite predominant for a dynasty that was supposedly disgraced beyond redemption.  And that's not even considering ancillary texts, such as the Tales of Dunk and Egg, or The Princess and the Queen, or The Rogue Prince, or The World of Ice and Fire.  It really gives the impression that Targaryens are the true rulers, and that Robert, Joffrey, and Tommen are just temporary seat warmers until their dynasty returns.  

Do Any of the Others Really Work?  We all have our sentimental favorites and our "surprise" victors, but let's think seriously on this.

Let's start with Jon.  Jon is the one probably most-frequently touted as the Dany alternative, due to his parallel coming of age storyline and possible Targaryen roots, but sit on the Iron Throne in King's Landing?  It would be highly ironic, given that as a man of the Watch, he is bound to the Wall.  His pledge to have no wife or family would work against starting a new dynasty.  Martin seems to like that sort of irony, but beyond that, could you really see Jon in King's Landing? Even a "winter is here," barren wasteland zombie-apocalypsed King's Landing?  After a while, the politics and intrigue would start up again, and Jon doesn't seem like the sort who can deal with it.  At least Daenerys has some experience with shadowy political intrigue in Meereen.  Jon seems like someone who would make an effective interim ruler before eventually retreating to his remote holdfast.

Then there's Stannis.  We may like him in spite of ourselves, but would he make a good, long-lasting ruler?  No doubt he would be grimly just, and effective in his own way, but there would be little love or trust for him, especially once he breaks out the fires to cleanse the "unworthy."  Moreover, based on Dany's visions in the House of the Undying and Gendry being prominently set up as Robert's oldest male bastard, Stannis's story appears destined to end short of the Throne, as well as (sniff) his daughter Shireen's.

(f)Aegon?  Book readers would cause riots, unless he impresses much more than he did in A Dance With Dragons.  Given that he has yet to appear on the television series, it's likely that he is little more than an obstacle in Dany's path, maybe even a descendent of Daemon Blackfyre.

Sansa's brutal education at King's Landing and with Littlefinger could make her a Queen skilled at intrigue, yet also capable of commanding love and respect.  At the same time, she does so much of her work behind the scenes, I have trouble seeing her as a ruler in her own right.  More likely, she would be paired with someone else.  Serving as Jon's consort would be rather ironic, given how much Sansa disdained him in the first novel.  Yet I think she has another destiny, one that causes her to embrace her Northern roots, but at the same time be far wiser than her father.  The television show referring to her as "Lady Stark" seems to hint at that.

So that leaves Dany.  Sure, there are dozens of other characters who could take the Throne, from Arianne to Littlefinger to Rickon Stark.  However, that doesn't mean they are legitimate contenders, or that there wouldn't be serious problems with their claims.  Daenerys is the one who has the whole package: a large army, charisma, intelligence, and compassion.  Moreover, she really seems like she's working at being a ruler, a good ruler.  She has already made difficult decisions in Meereen that go against her personal happiness for the sake of the realm.  Dany seems like she would be up to the grueling task of ruling Westeros for years and years.  The people would embrace her (at least initially) because she would herald the return of a celebrated dynasty, yet be untouched by the nastiness that had plagued Westeros over the past decade.  By contrast, even if Jon is Rhaegar Targaryen's secret son, it would take a lot for many great families to accept "the bastard's" legitimacy.

Maybe Martin is just trolling us by spending so much time setting up Dany as the final ruler, only to smash her before the end.  Yet if so, he is asking a lot of his readers by making us plod through so many chapters about Meereen.  Martin has focused so much on Dany because she will be the eventual Queen of Westeros.  She has all of the necessary attributes.    

Oh, and she has dragons.  Duh.

* At least if the rumors are true and she is really his cousin.  It's no more icky than him marrying his "Aunt Dany."

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Saturday, April 25, 2015

Novel Update: The Unlikeable Female Protagonist

I gave my novel draft over to be critiqued by a professional editor, as I said I would do in my last update.  While she had a lot of positive things to say about the story and characters, she had one major criticism: she did not like my female protagonist.

I've gone into my novel and its characters in previous posts.  Suffice it to say, my character, Isabella, has a lot of issues.  She is young, angry, scared, and overwhelmed.  She responds by lashing out at those who don't deserve it, with some pretty terrible consequences.  As a result, she bears a life-long scar.  Though she reforms, by the end of the novel, her reformation is not complete.  And, to be perfectly honest, it will probably never be.

Isabella is not my first "challenging" female protagonist.  For a pilot script I wrote some years ago, my female protagonist was also angry.  She had just lost her job and ended a relationship.  She finally bonded with her teenage niece, only to learn that that niece had been lying to her about a very important part of her life.  Feeling betrayed, my protagonist ordered her niece out of her apartment.  In San Francisco.  At night.  Even though she was the only one in the city whom her niece knew.

While my script went on to win in competition, it divided those who critiqued it beforehand.  One critic felt that my female protagonist was too angry and hard, and impossible to empathize with.  This was despite the fact that my female protagonist felt remorse for her actions soon afterward, looked for her niece for the rest of the night, and made up with her niece later, with no lasting harm done.

I don't know why I'm drawn to unlikeable female characters.  Maybe I'm just projecting anger that I'm feeling inside.  Or maybe I'm acknowledging them as human beings, that people who have been through their experiences would be that angry, and that it's more dramatically interesting to let that anger show.

Regardless, as with the protagonist in my pilot, Isabella is a divisive character.  Some readers, while acknowledging that she is not the nicest person, like her and find her situation poignant.  Others want someone they can root for, and believe that her unlikeable behavior brings the story down.

These negative perceptions raise several questions.  Are they due to my failure to write characters, or to my being too successful?  Are my characters uniquely problematic, or is it due to a larger societal prejudice against unlikeable female protagonists?

If the concern is that books starring unlikeable female protagonists won't sell, it should be put to rest.  Books with unlikeable female protagonists have sold a lot of copies.  A lot of copies.  For every Elizabeth Bennett, there is an Emma Woodhouse.  For every Jane Eyre, there is a Catherine Earnshaw.*  And then there is the grande dame of unlikeable female protagonists: Scarlett O'Hara.

Given Scarlett O'Hara's nature, why would anyone want to read about her for 1,000 pages?  It's not because she has a tragic backstory: although slightly distant from her mother, she is spoiled by both of her parents and wants for nothing at the beginning of Gone With the Wind.  She has strength and resiliency, but it's for her own survival, which by default helps other members of her family.  She loves just one person throughout, while hating or resenting everyone else, including her sisters and her children.  She causes the death or ruin of more than one good-hearted character.**  And finally, she yearns for a world that few people today would revere: one where slavery was reinstated and those "darkies" knew their place.

Yet people do read about her quite willingly, myself included.  For me, there's something about Scarlett that, even long after her antics have grown tiresome, feels satisfying and alive.  And maybe to some people, many people, that's enough.

Nonetheless, there does seem to be a larger societal prejudice against "unlikeable" women, not just in fiction, but in general.  With this prejudice comes, it seems, a basic dislike of complexity.  Many people would say that they like "strong" women.  Yet when "strong" is defined, the woman ends up sounding more like an archetype than a flesh-and-blood human being.  She should be confident.  She should be aware.  She should know what she wants.  She should take actions that express what she wants.  What she wants should be admirable and, most importantly, not the slightest bit inconvenient to others, unless those others come from a group that is obviously in the wrong and must be defeated.

Both real and fictional women who fail to meet all of the "strong" requirements get criticized for what they supposedly lack.  Hillary Clinton, Yoko Ono, Empress Alexandra of Russia... the list goes on and on.  Women who don't meet any of the requirements are not even worth considering.  If, by chance, a fictional female character does take unpopular actions while also being "strong," she saves herself only if she is fully aware of her wickedness, embraces it, and is willing to face the consequences.  "I don't care if she's a bitch, as long as she owns it," is a lament that I've read more than once about nasty female characters.  Yet how many real people, let alone fictional women, act in such a black-and-white manner?

While men and male characters face these expectations, it is not to the same extent as women and female characters.  Readers and viewers have also been exposed to a wider range of male characters over the centuries.  By contrast, in much of the mainstream media, complex female protagonists who display qualities other than "strong" and virtuous are still a rarity, but are gradually becoming more acceptable.

As for why many people shy away from characters who are not easy reads, who zig when you expect them to zag, who knows.  Essays have and will be written about readers' character preferences.  Maybe readers who dislike complicated characters believe that if they are making such an investment of time, they should know what they are getting.  I expressed in my Fingersmith review that I disliked Maud's change in Part Two.  Though that wasn't so much about her becoming more complicated as it was her becoming flatter and less interesting, at least in my view.  But I digress.

Where does that leave Isabella, my female protagonist?  In many ways, she displays "strong" qualities, such as having to make decisions on behalf of a large household, or making decisions that frighten her as she tries to learn who betrayed her mother.  At the same time, her most fateful decision is made without her knowing why she's made it until afterward.  We then learn that it was based in fear and insecurity.  While to some readers, it might be nothing more than a wrinkle in her character, to others, it could wreak of a serious betrayal.

As for whether I'll soften her at all, I haven't decided.  If there is one thing I've learned, everyone has opinions, and some are greatly divergent.  Even if I soften her character, someone will be dissatisfied, whether it's because she's still too "hard" or because she's too soft.  Right now, I like her the way she is -- unlikeable and all.        

* Granted, Cathy isn't exactly a protagonist so much as one main character in Wuthering Heights, but still, her complete awfulness hasn't discouraged new readers.   
** Her second husband, Frank Kennedy, died after attacking freedmen as part of a Ku Klux Klan raid, but the novel portrays it as a noble effort to avenge Scarlett, who had been threatened earlier.    

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