Friday, February 24, 2012

Tough but Tortured: Why Strong Female Characters Shouldn't Need Dark Pasts to Justify Their Power

A little more than a year ago, I picked up a copy of Whipping Girl, a collection of essays on gender identity and experience written by Julia Serano, a male-to-female transsexual whose unique experience of gender has allowed her a firsthand look at society’s prejudices from the position of a man and a woman. In a series of discussions on everything from the media industry’s sensationalized, inherently prejudiced depictions of transsexual people to the actual experience of life on both sides of the gender divide, Serano argues one overarching point: that it’s not women society devalues, but femininity.

I’d both loved and felt frustrated by the characters that tend to be blanket-labeled “strong female characters” for years, but it wasn’t until I read this book that I was able to really put a finger on why: the very thing that made me love them—the very thing that earned them that oh-so-difficult-for-a-lady-to-achieve status of the hero—also served to devalue my gender. Because all of these characters seemed to prove the point that there was only one way to be strong, and it was by embracing what society considers to be masculine characteristics: physical strength and an aggressive, impulsive personality. A bunch of a really fabulous bloggers have weighed in on this subject—mostly recently, S.E. Sinkhorn, whose post on how strong female characters devalue and even vilify the feminine I absolutely love. Bloggers have decried the unrealistic and objectifying nature of “waif-fu,” called for more fully realized female characters who can be valued and related to for their weaknesses, and pointed out the inherent male gaze in everything from these women’s poses to their costumes.

But aside from the fact that these characters, in their very existence, seem to prove that the only real strength out there is stereotypically masculine strength, and that it’s only acceptable in a woman if she’s also, you know, willing to submit to being a sex object (all of the above bloggers have proven this well) there’s one more thing that frustrates me about these types of characters. And that’s the frequency with which I see “powerful” and “damaged” go hand in hand in lady characters. Battlestar Galactica’s Kara Thrace takes the cylons and her shipmates to task with thrilling efficiency, but what makes her so unstoppable might be her blatant disregard for her own safety, which the show suggests is the result of her mother’s traumatic abuse and her father’s absence. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo's Lisbeth Salander is unapologetically and unstoppably out for herself, but she’s also on an unending rampage against the many men who have used and abused her. Firefly’s River Tam is a finely tuned killing machine, if you catch her on a good day, or at least one in which she’s not rocking in a corner or curled up naked in a womb-like cryo box.

I recognize that Kara’s brokenness humanizes her character and builds the foundation for what I actually find to be an incredibly resonant story of a struggle for faith and a journey towards peace. And while I have many problems with the so-called feminist trappings of the Millennium trilogy, I can understand the appeal for some women of a rape revenge story in which a woman seizes and uses the power that was originally denied to her by her attackers. As for River Tam, I… well, honestly, I’ve got nothing. Sorry. Does it help if I say I like Zoe and Inara a lot?

Don’t get me wrong. I believe that, male or female, most people come into their own strength through suffering. But where are the male characters who follow a pattern that matches those of the women? I can come up with only a handful, the most notable of which might be Batman, whose strength comes from a need to avenge his parents’ death: a tragedy, but arguably not a trauma on the scale of—or with the intense nature of personal attack and violation inherent in—rape or physical abuse.

So why does trauma seem to be a prerequisite that only women need to fulfill in order to be stereotypically strong?

Is it a subconscious need to rationalize what the reader or viewer might see as “bad behavior” for a woman? Is it an apologetic attempt by the writers to “declaw” feminist characters, making them less threatening to male viewers who might feel emasculated by their physical prowess or female viewers who might be uncomfortable with their self-assertiveness? Is it all a projection of male fantasies of a woman who is “one of the guys,” but still needs a man around to protect her or “fix” her? Can we just not understand why a woman might want to embody masculine characteristics if she wasn’t inherently screwed up?

I suspect it’s some combination of all of the above, in varying degrees given the particular film or book. And, needless to say, I’m not impressed. The particular brilliance of this trope as an anti-feminist tool is in the fact that it seems to answer the cries of feminists who ask for more flawed and fully explored characters, but at the same time it sends the message that women who seek power (the same power that men are portrayed as just naturally possessing) are unnatural, that they somehow need an excuse. Gee, where have we heard that before?

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Introducing the Tuesday Muse

Mondays get all the bad-day credit, and I'm gonna go out a limb here and say they don't deserve it. On Mondays you're all rested from the weekend. You just did laundry like a grown-up (assuming you're not me) so you've got cute outfits to wear again and you look all nice. And everyone in the office is getting back into the swing of the week, so the emails don't start rolling in full force until after noon.

Tuesdays... now, Tuesdays are awful.

So to combat the general monotony of Tuesdays, the knowledge that you won't get another proper sleep for four more days, the general increase of worldsuck that comes with that first day of real emails-flying-in-at-an-alarming-rate work or nose-to-the-grindstone writing, I think it's time we all joined forces.

Every Tuesday, I'm going to share a little piece of something inspiring. Let's call it your Tuesday Muse. And perhaps, some Tuesdays, you'd like to join me and share your own inspiring stuff as well? And then you'll post your Tuesday Muses in the comments on Trac Changes so we can all see, yes? And eventually we'll all be so inspired that Tuesdays will be the best days, right? OF COURSE THEY WILL.

So here's your first Tuesday Muse:

New Tail by John Powell on Grooveshark

It's from John Powell's score for How to Train Your Dragon; I'm obsessed with the film's entire soundtrack, not to mention its scenic design. The fiddle just paints such wonderful pictures in my head.

Okay, one more:

The Downed Dragon by John Powell on Grooveshark

I'd love to hear what you envision while listening to either or both of these, should you feel so inclined! Do please share in comments.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Early Adopters of the Publishing Industry (Yes, I Mean You!)

Everybody has one of those friends: the one who’s dissatisfied with their operating system as soon as the manufacturer announces work on version 2.0 (and who'd scheduled their DVR to record that announcement a month in advance); the one who trades their perfectly good iPhone in the moment the newest model is released; the one who got their Google+ invite the day it went live. By the time you’d even heard of Pinterest, they had a thousand followers and over fifty carefully curated pinboards. And for all they seemed to know about what Steve Jobs was doing on a day-to-day basis, you wouldn’t be surprised if they’d actually spent time hiding in the bushes outside his mansion with a pair of binoculars.

The tech world refers to them as early adopters, and startups and megaliths alike count on them to serve as first customers, testers, and champions for new technologies and networks. If they don’t drive you crazy talking about the next big thing, chances are they’ll spot the trends before you do and serve as a gateway into those with staying power.

Except by the time you get there, they’ll already have moved on.

Most of us in publishing are on our second or third e-readers by now—or, more likely, struggling with the crumbling hard drives on our ancient first-edition devices as we try to avoid forking up any of our precious salaries for the latest version. So it’s easy to forget that 2011’s holiday season was the first one in which a significant number of Americans unwrapped packages containing a Nook, Kindle, or iPad. In other words, though those closest to the publishing and technology industries have long since grown used to e-reading technology—perhaps so much so that we’re beginning to get bored and look for a newer and better solution—2011 was the first year in which the average American, the casual reader, embraced it.

Take a second to expand the chart on the right and you'd see that early adopters make up only a small percentage of the ultimate consumer base for most trends. Most new trends tend to follow a pattern in which the early adopters move on from a trend before the majority discovers it. And for habitual early adopters, it’s easy to forget that the fact that being ahead of the curve means that more people than not are behind them—not just in taking an interest, but also in losing it. Blogs all over the net label the tendency “Early Adopters Syndrome,” and caution those who come first to a trend against losing sight of where the core audience for those gadgets sits in relation to a trend.

Wherever we stand in relation to technology (I still have what I affectionately call a “dumbphone” and I couldn’t explain FourSquare to you if I tried), it’s important to remember that those of us who follow the publishing industry—as employees or as adamant readers, writers, and bloggers—are all early adopters within our field. As employees we read the next big hits as submissions or as proposals for acquisition one to three years before they come through the editorial and production processes and actually hit the market. Writers have often critiqued, workshopped, or traded ideas for those projects even before the industry sees them. And bloggers see those trends take shape in early reading copies long before finished books hit shelves. For those of us as deeply entrenched in this community as you and I are, it can be easy to forget that while we’re all talking to each other about our early-adopted trends, whole different conversations are happening outside of the community.

Early in my career, I sat in my fair share of acquisitions meetings thinking “Why are we even discussing vampires/steampunk/angels/love triangles? Isn’t everyone sick of these by now?” Even recently, when someone asked if I thought the dystopian trend was on its way out, I caught myself thinking “Well, duh.” And yet the fact that The Hunger Games is selling tens of thousands of copies each week, even two to three years after its paperback release, proves me wrong. In truth, with the Hunger Games movie just around the corner and hundreds of thousands of teens and adults who aren’t regular readers sharing the excitement, many would say the dystopian trend is just beginning.

It would be one thing if the publishers and readers and writers and bloggers most closely caught up in publishing were the industry’s only market, but they aren’t and in fact they can’t be. In order to sell enough books to justify the cost of doing business, publishers have to strive to reach the casual reader—the average consumer who comes to a trend on the heels of the early adopters. And just as, by deciding everyone else is as sick of scanning QR codes as they are, the early adopter can miss a valuable opportunity to use them just as their reach has become significant, we as publishers do ourselves a disservice if we move on from a trend before truly evaluating where it sits with the masses.

That’s not to say that every trend will achieve the mass popularity that vampires and dystopias are enjoying in the wake of the Twilight and Hunger Games franchises, or even to imply that every trend will reach the masses at all. And for the writers reading this, I certainly don’t wish to contradict the many wise industry members who have cautioned you against writing to the trends instead of writing the story you’re most inspired to tell. But even as we enjoy the benefits of the great community that surrounds the publishing, writing, and reading industries, let’s not forget to look outside of it as well. And let’s not miss the opportunity to give every reader what they want.

Who do you talk to most about books and trends you’re enjoying? What trends are you completely sick of, and which ones do you think have staying power? How do you keep in touch with trends outside of the book industry, even as you keep up with the latest in writing and reading?

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Future(s) of Publishing: On New Narrative Structures and the Digital Game-Changer

A few months ago I attended one of New York’s most celebrated and original shows in years: Sleep No More. A loose interpretation of Macbeth that pays homage, in tone and mise-en-scène, to Hitchcock’s films, Sleep No More had me on its premise alone.

However, what really sold me on the show’s genius—and what’s earning it rave reviews and a near-perpetually extended run in its New York City home—is the fact that Sleep No More is less a show than an experience. The set is a world in itself, an entire hotel gutted from the inside and transformed into a ballroom, a graveyard, a mental hospital, a bedroom, a museum, a forest, and more. Silent stewards in black stand sentry in these little worlds but do nothing to discourage guests from trying on gowns in a hospital ward or peeling back Lady Macduff’s bedcovers to reveal the dark stains of blood. The characters are plucked from Macbeth’s playbill but rendered nearly unrecognizable by their 1920’s apparel, their danced rather than spoken dialogue, and their deliberate refusal to separate out into “main” and “secondary” characters. Unconstrained by the conventions that are so integral to most theater as to go unnoticed—that the character with the most stage time is the main character, that any information not delivered onstage is irrelevant, and that all stories unfold in a linear fashion—each of Sleep No More’s characters cycle through their own haunting story, leaving it to the viewers and not the writers to choose how little or how much attention each merits. And if the viewers become the show’s scripters, so too do they become members of its cast, underscoring the show’s themes of guilt and madness by flocking to its characters, costumed in ghastly masks that transform them into the physical embodiments of the specters that haunt Macbeth and the horrors that plague his cohorts.

Sleep No More is not nearly the first piece of experiential theater ever produced, but I’d argue it’s one of the first and most important shows to make full use of an emergent narrative style: a storytelling structure in which the audience’s choices and actions determine the story that unfolds. While each of the characters in Sleep No More follows a script, the sequence of events from start to finish is wholly determined by the audience. Each viewer’s decisions about what characters to follow, what rooms to explore, and what information to ingest creates a new version of the narrative. And while the play’s producers are able to influence its overall emotional arc through external cues like music, set design, and choreography, there is practically no limit to the number of unique experiences that can emerge from the elements the audience pulls together.

I am fascinated by Sleep No More’s complex narrative structure, and I’ve been reflecting on it in the months since I saw the show, especially as I’ve watched publishers and writers experiment within the realm of e-publishing. You see, I don’t think it’s accidental that this innovation in theater has occurred alongside similarly monumental innovations in the way we experience written narratives. And I’d argue that while Sleep No More is a reaction to Shakespeare and to Hitchcock and a rebuttal of the rather ridiculous notion that some stories are more worthy of following than others, it is also an expression of the growing understanding, of writers and readers alike, that stories do not have to be linear.

This isn’t an entirely new concept for the storytelling world. In fact, video games have been embracing this idea for decades, with a range of titles from the Fable to The Sims adopting non-linear and even emergent narratives in order to customize user experience. It wasn’t hard for me to draw a link between Sleep No More, with its file folders full of mental profiles for the show’s characters and telltale blood stains, and the video game Fallout, in which the player pieces together the tragic histories of several different fallout structures by sifting through clues in the debris left behind.

It’s not that books haven’t dabbled in this before now. The Choose Your Own Adventure series of the 90’s gained immense popularity among young readers who devoured its customized plotlines and read each book multiple times to uncover new experiences and twist endings, and countless spin-offs of the idea followed. But at best (and I say this as a childhood fan who looks back very fondly on the series) these books were clunky, prone to spoilers revealed when the wrong page was flipped past or the too-present temptation to return to a previous page if the chapter one’s choices led to wasn’t satisfying. And with the exception of the occasional artistic use of the non-linear narrative form, like Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, this structure never gained widespread popularity in adult books.

The missing link is obvious: technology. The very physical form of a book enforces a linear narrative; page 3 must follow page 2 which must follow page 1, and so on. The end has to occur after the beginning because it lies deeper into the physical object—and short of breaking the unspoken rules of literacy (as Danielewski asks his reader to do in House of Leaves) we can’t escape that experience of one event following another in physical books. And just as removing the barriers of stage and seating from the audience’s experience of Sleep No More opened it up to an emergent story structure, so removing the paper-and-ink makeup of a book opens up written storytelling to non-linear and emergent experiences.

New ventures in the publishing industry are showing this realization. Coliloquy launched last month with the self-proclaimed intention of “taking advantage of new technology to reinvent the way authors and their audiences interact with reading and narrative.” To quote their press release:
By delivering titles as active content applications, rather than static publishing files, Coliloquy enables new kinds of engagement made possible by advances in electronic book distribution. Multiple “what if” story lines let authors and readers explore different permutations of character relationships. TV-like episodes can grow and change, based on reader choices, voting, and feedback. Fans can reread a key scene from a different character’s point-of-view or unlock new content.
Writers and publishers of more traditional fiction are recognizing similar opportunities for their own publishing programs, as the enhanced-e-book-turned-emergent-experience Chopsticks demonstrates. And while The Wall Street Journal pointed out in a recent article that interactive e-books and book apps have yet to prove themselves profitable, it nonetheless called the technological shift rocking the industry “what could be the most significant transformation of books and reading behavior since Gutenberg.”

Interestingly, one of the contributions of Gutenberg’s printing press to storytelling may have been the widespread adoption of linear narratives; Shakespeare’s sonnets weren’t bound into a numbered order until their first printed compilation after his death, and in the old bardic practice of storytelling from which the tales of Odysseus originated, a bard chose his next plot point from a collection of stories he’d memorized based on his audience’s whims. And now, in reading’s next major revolution, we could see a shift away from linear narratives once again.

That said, am I kissing plot structure as we know it goodbye? Are non-linear narratives and interactive reading experiences the future of publishing? I’d say no. And, well, yes.

Storytelling is an art older than written history, and it’s undergone more changes and existed in more forms than we can count. It will continue to exist in more forms and styles than we can predict. I truly believe that as long as there is reader demand for specific types of stories, be they linear or non-linear or interactive or emergent or anything in between, there will be people who continue to create and distribute those types of stories.

So no, I don’t think this is the future of publishing. I think it is a future of publishing. It is an exciting opportunity to explore something new, to meet demands that have begun to surface or that have existed for a long time and been satisfied in other ways, like video gaming and roleplaying. It’s a call to open our minds to the many different ways to tell a story, and an opportunity to experience and embrace the potential for literary quality in myriad types of media. And in that respect, I can’t wait to see the future of publishing play out, in digital and in printed form.