IMR | Heartless | A Not So Simple Answer

I’m currently reading Marissa Meyer’s Heartless, a prequel to Alice In Wonderland that explains the history of the Queen of Hearts.

In the story, Catherine, the future Queen of Hearts, lives in a pseudo-Victorian kingdom, where women are limited in their abilities, opportunities, and prospects. Her parents expect her to maintain her reputation and the reputation of her household. This means accepting the proposal of a foolish King she despises and not pursuing her dream of starting her own bakery.

But Cath loves baking and the King’s joker, Jest. And ladies don’t open bakeries and marry court fools.

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I think most readers, myself included, thought the solution to Cath’s problem was easy. She marries the King to appease the country and her family, the King, who admires her baked goods allows her to open her own bakeshop, and she sneaks around with Jest on the side seeing as the King is about as smart as a bag of dreamed lemons.

I was actually hoping that this would be the plot, and the King turns out to not be as idiotic as he appears and discovers the affair, killing Jest for treason, leading to Catherine’s madness due to a broken heart. (Spoiler alert: it’s not actually what happens.)

But there are inherent problems with this proposed solution to Cath’s problems. Namely, it’s not fair to all of the parties involved. First, it’s not fair to Jest, who has genuinely fallen in love with the intended of his employer. Second, it’s not fair to Catherine, who has to break her morals in order to get what she wants. And third, it’s not fair to the King, who just wants a wife (granted, he’s picking her without letting her have any say in the matter).

Of these three, it’s the unfairness to Cath that strikes me, because all of her problems would be solved if she didn’t have to yield to convention and propriety. And maybe that’s why it’s so easy for modern readers to say, “Break convention, let’s go!”

Meanwhile, it’s an incredibly difficult decision for the protagonist.

What’s nice about these stock stories about women who have to break convention is that modern readers, particularly female ones, are quick to say its easy to break convention. We have the privilege and the fortune to do that.

But in reality, women have been and are still suppressed by what is supposed to be feminine, what is supposed to be proper. And I don’t think we should forget that.


I am behind in my NaBloPoMo postings, so in the next few days I will be posting two posts per day to keep up!

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The Bechdel Test Is Stupid

the short storyAdd this to the list of sentences I never thought I’d say: A cross dressing pirate and a sadistic queen made me reconsider one way we assess the gender diversity in fictional works.

the long storyI recently finished A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab, and I have to say, I’m quite impressed with the characters Lila and Astrid. They are strong, independent characters who just so happen to be women. And I love strong female characters.

And yet, I’m pretty sure A Darker Shade of Magic fails the Bechdel test.

The Bechdel test challenges the sexism in any fictional work and has three basic rules:

  1. There must be at least two female characters.
  2. They must meet and have a conversation.
  3. They must discuss something other than a man.

Lots of works pass rules one and two no problem. The tricky bit is rule three.

Take A Darker Shade of Magic, for instance. Lila and Astrid exist (check),  meet on two occassions, and converse at both (check).

But what do they converse about? The protagonist, a man named Kell.

The first time they converse, Astrid is possessing a body that is attacking Kell, and so Lila arrives to rescue him.

If that isn’t a gender role reversal I don’t know what is. A woman, a seemingly mundane woman, coming to the rescue of a powerful man, who is held hostage by a power-hungry and vicious woman.

And yet, because they talk about Kell, they fail the Bechdel test.

Which is why it’s so stupid.

The Bechdel test fails to assess the context of the conversation between the two women in question. What if the women are talking about gender inequality in the workplace? What if the women were talking about a male romantic interest five pages ago and now the conversation has moved on to food or shoes or hiking or literally anything that isn’t a male human? What if they are talking about a male fictional character (say, Cath talking to Wren about Simon Snow in Fangirl)? Can they never talk about men ever? How realistic is that?

I’d also like to gently remind users of the Bechdel test that men make up half of the population…they are bound to come up in conversation.

I think I’ve always had this problem with the Bechdel test, ever since I heard about it in this TED talk:

I like a lot of things in this TED talk, particularly the emphasis of gendered character archetypes. I like that he recognizes that the hero’s journey is often a violent process that celebrates the special-ness of the chosen one…who usually happens to be male.

But I think he makes a slip when he discusses rule 3. He say, “Do they talk about something other than the guy that they are both in love with?”

I don’t see where the Bechdel test specifies this. But I think we can come up with something more sophisticated than this. Because feminism, while being a simple request, is all about context. When we talk about feminism, we talk about equal opportunities regardless of gender. But those opportunities vary depending on what situation a person is in.

And just like in books, in life, context is everything.

A Delayed Book Hangover

the short storyI miss Percy Jackson.

Or rather, I miss the rush of following a series.

the long story
There’s a thrill when you’re reading a really good book. The rush of knowing that these characters are people you want to be your best friends and this plot is going to mean something to you.

This thrill is just extended when you read a good series. The anticipation of the next book, intensified if the next book is the finale.

Which brings me, once again, to Percy Jackson.

I have a confession to make: I didn’t grow up reading Harry Potter. I didn’t even grow up reading Percy Jackson, to be honest, though if I had read the books as they published, I would have been the same age as the Percy and Annabeth in some books.

Rather, I read both series while I was in high school. But between the two of them, the series that really hit home for me was Percy Jackson and the Olympians. I don’t know if it was because I’d seen the Harry Potter movies and already felt familiar with characters when I read the books, or if it’s because PJO fed into my obsession with mythology.

But I never had a proper book hangover over it. After I finished PJO, The Lost Hero had been published and I jumped headfirst into that series.

Recently, I’ve been missing that feeling of reading an excellent series for the first time. I miss reading about a protagonist and thinking, I want to get to know you. I miss reading a conflict and praying, I hope this ends well.

And I have discovered something: I am in constant danger of falling in love with stories.

I am in constant danger of finding a book that I won’t want to put down. I am in constant fear that I won’t find another story or set of characters that I will love as much as other books series I have loved before.

Maybe that’s why I’ve been in a slump? Maybe.

 

IMR | Oh My God, Harry, SHUT UP

the short story
That moment when you want to replace the name “Hermione” with “Harry” in the following gif:hermione shut up

the long story
I recently started Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality (a.k.a. HPMoR).

Now, you might be thinking, Wait, which book is that? I don’t remember waiting in line for that Harry Potter book.

That’s because it’s not. It’s fanfiction.

Ravenclawsam recommended me HPMoR and I have to say it’s pretty brilliant. The premise is this: Harry is willingly adopted by Petunia and her university professor husband when his parents died. As a result, Harry is brought up to be an intelligent eleven year old with a thorough knowledge of natural science and psychology when a letter arrives via owl inviting him to study at Hogwarts.

In simpler terms, this is Harry Potter if wizards acknowledged that science exists. If Harry Potter was Ender Wiggin. Or Sheldon Cooper.

What’s interesting is that of all the characters, only Harry is the one who is different from canon. This leads to unthinkable encounters where Harry befriends Draco Malfoy with promises of space travel, bullies Neville as a sort of positive conditioning, and dislikes Ron for his apparent stupidity. (Even though we all know that Ron is always right.)

Harry knows a lot of theories that I don’t, so it’s nice that there’s a brief explanation for them. But this introspective and inquisitive version of Harry is insufferable on one trait alone: He doesn’t know how to shut up.

And when I say “shut up”, I don’t mean just talking. He can’t stop thinking.

It doesn’t feel like infodumping, but certainly is more telling than showing. While it fits with Harry’s new characterization—it’s just plain annoying at times.

And it made me think: are we as storytellers limited by the voices we can use as narrators? Narration is a tricky thing–it must describe all the particulars without dialogue, but still keep the reader engaged. That means minimal infodumping, keeping the reader connected, being descriptive when describing people and setting and emotions.

Are we limiting ourselves in terms of storytelling because of these requirements? Is that why stories tend to sound the same?

And can Harry shut up, please?

Double Stacking Books?!

the short story

I rearranged my bookshelf.

the long story

There is one thing that I love and hate about being a book collector, and that is keeping my bookshelf organized. I have to do it every few months as I buy and donate books or its starts to get a little haphazard:

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It may not look like that much of a mess, and that’s because it isn’t. But If I let it go for a few more weeks, it’d be much more worse than this.

I share this shelf with my sister, so I have to find a way to fit this:

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Into this:IMAG0483.jpg

I promised my sister that I would restrict the books to the two rows, so technically that empty cube on the upper right doesn’t count.

It took a while, but I managed to do it:

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There’s something oddly therapeutic for me when I reorganize my shelves. I like sorting them and trying to figure out where to put them on the shelf. Plus, looking at the finished product just makes me happy.

I did have to cheat a little. You’ll notice that three of the shelves are “double stacked”–two rows on a shelf. The three double stacked are the classics, the Riordan shelf, and my sci-fi/high fantasy shelf:

The back rows are on top of boxes so I can still see their spines. (And if it covers the disappointment of the Heroes of Olympus series, well, that just works out well, doesn’t it?)