Sunday, May 24, 2015

Furiosa & Others

Mad Max: Fury Road is totally worth seeing, a film to capture the imagination. I'm not really a long time fan of the franchise. In fact I tried to watch the original and was surprised to find it almost set in regular regional Australia. I didn't expect it to be about a cop taking a vacation in a post apocalyptic world. It was late, I picked it up in the middle, and I was tired and I gave up.

I'd heard some buzz about Furiosa, artists in my news feed were doing fan arts and some female friends on face book making a lot of typed noise about how exciting a character she was. I was excited, trepidatious even to see a strong female character, and I guess my expectations were ratcheted up to expect something I'd never seen before, a breakthrough, a gamechanger, a new character - to evolve into an archetype. Because I have an intense personal... I couldn't say interest, being a man... but curiosity about the challenge of writing/creating the SFC.

'The strong female character' is problematic, and the history of cinema is littered with spectacular failures and near successes and it turns out to be for me at least, an activity that bends the mind into a pretzel. These failures I feel are succinctly parodied right here.

Mark Twain wrote 'they didn't know it was impossible, so they did it.' and it's possible that the stuff I've looked at when looking into gender is a case where more information confuses what I might have intuitively or naively got right before contemplating. What I'm saying is, that it's entirely possible and even probable that I am stupid.

Seeing the film last night though, what was the true revelation of Furiosa was the insight into the invisibility of my own privilege. Furiosa will be memorable to me as part of an ensemble of memorable characters in a memorable film.

I had the sense that she was nothing new. But I'm very often guilty of hype backlash, my confirmation bias looks to evidence to support the contrary. On my ride home trying to prove the nul hypothesis, I did find it hard to recall any of her precedents. Like literally coming up blank. This was what whacked me in the face, given that Furiosa is just a character that drives a truck and fires some guns.

It appeared a land grab, an ideological land grab. A real coup for what I have thought (perhaps more specifically to men trying to write female characters) was the best process I have come across. I wouldn't be able to track down the tumblr picture that was my source, but it's basically:

How to write good female characters:
1. Create an awesome character
2. Make them a woman

For me though, the admission I have to make is my own prejudice and biases and stereotypes I carry in my head about gender that makes this process the best I've found, for me. Which is to say, I use an augmented version 1 is really - write a man. Then step 2 is having done this, go and put an 's' in front of every 'he', change the 'his' to 'hers' etc. For me it's important because it prevents me from trying to write a female character, which if I do, I lose the authenticity. Stephan Donaldson once wrote about his 'The Gap' series that every character came from him, so was him and think this is generally true.

And it comes to my mind that the difficulty with which I could recall Furiosa's precedents is key. The technique above plays to my ease of recall for writing strong male characters - batman, daredevil, every samurai ever, superman, mad max, John McClane, John Rambo, Indiana Jones, every video game avatar just about ever. And that's just naming protagonists, and sticking to the more dated and narrower archetype, forgetting revolutions like Peter Parker - the first two dimensional hero and the many nuanced flavors of strong male characters. Villains can easily become antiheros etc.

This morning, Furiosa's precedents came in a wave. The perplexing thing is that one of the trailers before mad max was for the next terminator film, yet I couldn't think of Sarah Conner (her terminator 2 incarnation, rather than the original) which in turn points further back to James Cameron's other sequels in the form of Ripley in Aliens, and if you are talking a visual precedent for Furiosa, certainly Ripley in Alien 3. Then you have Tarantino's female characters, Jackie Brown came first, but Beatrice/The Bride in Kill Bill is perhaps more salient.

But of course, it depends. For me, there's a mind-pretzel bending fine line. And from my reading 'What does it mean to be a woman?' is a very hard question to answer. One I am particularly unqualified to answer, admittedly, because I don't even have access to the unintelligible subjective experience of being a woman. But being female, or gender across the spectrum is not reducible simply to the biology of sex. People do transition, do have fluid genders, do have gender identities that don't line up with their biological sex. Even biologically, sex is difficult to draw a line between. There's a whole spectrum, of which our professional sporting institutions and regulating bodies have been trying to answer definitively and scientifically for a long time.

The test of course is going to be - can other women identify with the character as a woman. If so, you have a female character. But when dealing with the hazy clouds of attributes in the Venn diagrams of 'masculinity' and 'femininity' the art comes in, (and I'm little practiced at it, and likely as such to be bad at it) in drawing attributes from the overlap the 'strong' sector if you will, and combining it with the less represented attributes in protagonists that make a for a 'female' character.

The limitation of my above simple two-step method, is that I throw out the female circle from my venn diagram, create any male character I like, and then just draw them as female, or in film, cast a woman etc.

At this point, I should point out in terms of equality between the sexes, there's a really simple question to answer, and that is: even if a protagonist is just the same archetype but a woman as all the male archetypes that came before, just by increasing the number and frequency with which female versions of male characters appear you are moving towards equality. Similarly, if female CEO's are no different in leadership style than male CEOs, you still want more female CEOs because it's about a greater distribution of the opportunity to be CEOs. That part's easy, at least to answer if not implement.

Being born into male privilege, and white male privilege at that, it would be misleading to say I particularly care about equality between the sexes. As a creator though, I am far more concerned with a character being good, and being memorable.

I saw this post in my feed: and if somebody finds the character important out there, and loves them etc. Then they are important.

For me though, my qualitative evaluation is that this character is bad. Badly conceived and poorly executed. She actually seems ham-fisted to me. Bad writing. Just as a super-hero she is what I would describe as 'over-powered' like Superman, who struggles to be interesting under the yoke of his world posing only one credible challenge to his physical robustness - kryptonite. Furthermore, being a double-minority or a two-for as executed here by being a gay latino, comes across as heavy handed something Det. Kima Greggs from 'The Wire' as a character did not.

I also find a failure that being gay latino has come at no threat to her ability to service fans, or compromise male gaze.

I can stand back and say that building up the cast of female comic book characters is across the board good. But this character I would rate as a poor concept, a crappy one, to join the ocean of crappy male characters that populate the comic universe. See Sturgeon's Law on the futility of finding crappy counter examples.

An argument could be made though, that to typecast lesbians in portrayal as being hairy legged, hairy armpitted butch characters of no appeal to sweaty mouth breathing overweight teenage boys is to stereotype lesbians, reducing their femininity and equivocating femininity with being weak. I don't think anybody actually makes this argument, and I wouldn't hold it up with what little I know about America. Going back to hark a vagrant's satire of strong female characters though, I don't think giving a character super strength and fighting ability offsets then putting them in a bikini top and hot pants.

There in lies the challenge, for me at least, whom cares more about aesthetics than equality between the sexes. The answer to the equality question as previously stated is easy, at least easy to conceive, it just needs doing.

Equality is the question 'are women missing out?', I think there is an unanswered question (possibly, it may have been answered and I'm too stupid to percieve) of 'Are we missing out?'

Is there such a thing as 'female comedy' or is it just comedy, and women have been excluded from it?

Is there such a thing as 'female leadership' (in the corporate sense) or is it just leadership, and women have been excluded from it?

I've heard enough about studies of culturally conditioned gender roles to believe women possess distinct advantages men do not, a specific one that comes to mind was a study of what makes for 'smart teams' and was told the result was a 1:1 correlation between how many women are on the team, the more women the smarter the team due to the higher number of people on a team adept at reading the emotions on other team members faces.

I feel that with Mad Max: Fury Road there is a scripting decision that could easily have removed the character of Furiosa entirely. You just needed an extra scene at the start where Max takes on Furiosa's motivation in the film and he could easily have played both roles as one character. It's a much easier exercise to imagine the film as less than it was, than take a film like Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo (same male archetype, same basic plot) or it's western adaptation A Fist Full of Dollars, and try and imagine adding a female co-lead version of the male archetype.

But for me there was a sense of redundancy in Mad Max, as Max and Furiosa were in essence the same character. I suspect most will feel the redundant of the two is Max, and my suspicion would be driven by most of the audience viewing the film as a reboot or new film, and overlook that this is Max's fourth appearance, and his function as protagonist is as tour guide to a new and strange world. A person who finds the cultures he comes across as strange as we do, and negotiates and navigates them as we would. As Terry Pratchett said of his character Rincewind, 'his job is to go around the world meeting much more interesting characters than he is'.

I am sure this post is by and large a mess. Largely because I am a mess of where and when I am interested/disinterested in female characters. The hype I experienced with Furiosa lead to expectations that here was a character that would tell me something new about what it meant to be a woman. In hindsight this was unrealistic and unlikely, Furiosa is a product of the imagination of George Miller, not Charlize Theron.

I am specifically interested in the challenge of the Strong Female Character, my intuition that Ripley, Sarah Conner, Tank Girl, Furiosa, Beatrice/The Bride, Jackie Brown etc fall on one side of a line that gets a tick and other SFCs like Katniss, Hermione, Charlie's Angels (perhaps because they are possessed by Charlie), The Black Widow fall on another side of the line that doesn't quite get that tick.

Then there's characters like Juno, the New Ms Marvel, the new incarnation of Barbara Gordon as Bat Girl, Spider Gwen etc. that while new and positive developments in their respective industries, are of no interest to me (being out of their target market demographics) and also don't really resonate as 'strong' being that they don't pose any competition to male privilege. They simply are starting to break up the monoculture of the women that populate a universe and medium that has almost exclusively tailored to a male audience and perspective.

I could write about Thor's recasting into a female character. There's something interesting in using an existing character with built up equity. But I won't, at least not here.

One thing I have to disclose or at least point out is that my list of the more successful SFC Ripley-Conner-Tank Girl-The Bride-Furiosa are my subjective judgements, opinion treated as fact. And what I note about that list is that every single one of those characters is the product of male creators. Dan O'Bannon/Ridley Scott, James Cameron, Jamie Hewlett, Quentin Tarantino and George Miller respectively.

This is both good and bad, on the plus side it establishes that men can step up and write good strong female characters, being capable of doing so, they should. It's also that if equality is going to be achieved or even approached you have to start with the male dominated industries we have. Progress can be made even while you have producers, editors, writers and directors still being predominantly male as a hangover. Women can go see a film concieved of, created and directed by a man and find a character they can identify with as an entry point to a profession and genre they may have otherwise felt excluded from. Over time this should lead to women creating female action heroes that join this archetypal roster.

The bad is that it detracts somewhat that a small collection of men are making these characters, begging the question that the experience of strength and power come more easily to somebody with the subjective experience of being male. One thing to breath easy on, is that representative bias is almost certainly the basis of this list. Sturgeon's law prevails, there are for each successful strong male character thousands of failed attempts. These men's ability to write strong female leads is most likely a bi-product of their ability to write good strong lead characters period, where most writers fail.

But in the meantime, Diablo Cody, Lena Dunham and G Willow Wilson are writing female leads that are breaking up the monotony (the easy question) but represent characters that pose no threat to male privilege (the hard question).

I have my own character and story in my head for a female lead, which is why I'm interested to see how characters like Furiosa turn out, and how they are recieved. I have aims and ambitions in mind for my own output and I will either succeed or fail. What I take away from Furiosa is that there are stories about women that men can tell. My objective is not equality, not explicitly, and while I'm interested in feminism and don't directly oppose equality between the sexes, I feel it would be misleading to identify as feminist, I am not one, and giving due credit to how much of my behavior is subconscious, would be unsurprised if I am in fact quite chauvinistic or misogynistic in effect, though it is never my intent.

In the very least I enjoy my privilege and as an individual would be reluctant to give it up, though I don't particularly care if every other man I knew lost theirs.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

True Dichotomy

I think it is true to the point of truism to say: you either press the advantage or lose it.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Our Dogs

The recent conclusion of my dogs life brought home to me many of the reasons to get a dog. Also much clarity on the nature of grief. Here then is a convoluted collection of my thoughts.

The Day After

The day after my dog died I had to go to the studio and work on my exhibition which was a week away. It was a beautiful day, there was nothing wrong with it except in the continuity of my life it happened to fall right next to the day I put my dog down. It rained sporadically and heavily that day (which I find beautiful) and in the studio the sound of rain is quite amplified by the roof provided which I really like.

Was the day tainted by a sense of loss? I don't know. I can say the week leading up to my dog's death was much harder than the week that followed it. The emotions can intrude upon any moment, before and after her death as the mind prospects or retrospects. Loss can also be bitter or sweet. 

Imagine though that you could take the ribbon of your emotional life and cut it up and rearrange it. You could chuck the grief of loss, of putting down a dog at the start and then have the uninterrupted joy of companionship over the course of it's life. Emotionally you wake up one day with no dog and no grief or sense of loss. You could also arbitrarily through your terrible weeks somewhere in the middle. Would you do it? Would you get it out of the way some time, like eating your vegetables before hitting the proteins?

Would you rather start a relationship with the bitterness of the breakup and then enjoy a comfortable couple of months, years etc before climaxing with puppy love and infatuation? Then to wake up somewhat nonchalant and indifferent?

The first thing is that the terrible feelings of loss are unavoidable, and I would not spare myself the suffering. What is more horrible to me though is the prospect of a relationship ceasing and waking up without suffering the next day because I'd pre-digested it. The time is right, the emotions are right. Grieving may be unpleasant, but I would not avoid it and it can be beautiful. It really only gets ugly when people fight it.

Turns out I was capable of functioning in the wake of my dog's passing. I wanted to. I drew a piece to honor her and my time together. If I had been unable to function I would have made that call also and not gone to the studio. But nothing was forced, nothing was repressed.

The Gift

Bess was old, she lived 50% longer than her breeds life expectancy. She was my second dog and I always thought of her as 'the new dog' even though the longer she lived the greater the proportion of my life she had shared. In fact my new dog had been with me almost half my life. Even so dogs life spans are such that barring a tragedy I should survive my next two or three dogs. 

I think it's a Louis C K bit, I'm not sure but he says the deal of marriage is that you don't die alone. Or rather that one of you doesn't die alone. 

It seems obvious that one half of that deal gets it better than the other. Most people's preference I presume is to die in the company of their loved ones. Particularly their most loved one. 

The worst of my grief was a feeling of apathy towards my own continued existence. An indifference to the reality that I would go on to live a new era without Bess. Being that I recognised the feeling it posed no danger, so please don't worry, indifference is very different to depression or suicidal thoughts. It was much as I feel when I go to a party and contemplate the effort required to talk to strangers and make new acquaintances. A process I will drag my feet through because the rewards are there.

I made two promises to myself, that Bess would feel loved every day and that she would die in my arms. These promises are much easier to keep with a dog than with a person. I managed to keep them, and the last week of her life were stressful because of the thought of dropping the ball so close to the end. It would have been devastating. 

Dogs instinctively may actually want to go away quietly and die, but the opportunity their short lifespans provide all of us, is the ability to experience giving someone company as they die and being left alone in the wake of it. It is good to realise you have the fortitude to be the one who lives on alone. And that you can give this precious gift to somebody else where they by definition are incapable of returning your kindness. As you love a dog, you can become capable of truly loving someone.

Fuck Reunions

If there was an afterlife, an eternal existence, I would admittedly probably prefer to be walking my dogs through some infinite parkland with no real awareness that the walk ever ended. That would be nice, that I could handle for all eternity. But fuck it, the afterlife is a ridiculous concept, and by 'ridiculous' I mean 'worthy of ridicule'.

The great thing about a dog is that their ability to pull you into the present moment. I miss my dog, but I have many, many years experience of walking her on a daily basis. And as per the Lana Del Rey lyrics in the last post 'heaven is a place on earth with you' this I think is the truth of walking a dog. If you can bring yourself to be present for it.

The human desire for the infinite, unending afterlife I think is a sickness in the Zen Buddhist sense, so too with abundance. The desire is a desire to calm the anxiety that we are underachieving, the paradox is that in the presence of abundance we are far more likely to underachieve than in scarcity. Infact just juxtaposing the concepts of abundance and underachievement make the previous statement sound like a truism.

There is no need for my and my dogs souls to unite in some afterlife, we achieved the pinnacle of our companionship while alive, and dogs are masters of doing this. Your best opportunity to do so is with a dog. I have it, it's done. Only dementia can take it away, and I am of the opinion that the tragedy of dementia is that I would already have lost the self that holds such experiences.

Like running a marathon or staging an exhibition, I may have the desire to do so again but what is immutable is the fact that I've done these things. The opportunity has not been missed as afforded by my life. I need no second (and infinite) chances to get things right, furthermore, having had the moments walking my dog or even just waking her with a patting session in the morning, or preparing her dinner (or making her pancakes) I was, long before I started my current meditation regime, able to be present and appreciate these moments. Even during years where my mind was a tumultuous place of stress.

The afterlife can only diminish the value of my actual life, and the lives we share with our pets and everyone else for that matter. Economics may not get much right, but it gets scarcity and value right.

Civilization and its Contents

There are only two things I've done in my life where I'm confident I've done well. One is tutoring a refugee and the other is pet ownership. Say what you will about the pitfalls of human civilization, a well cared for dog though is an achievement. Much as I believe life can only be truly enjoyed when you accept your own mortality, to lesser conviction I believe the human race is on the whole probably mortal.

Sustainability movements, like exercise for an individual may be a good idea, but they are no fountains of youth. I don't see particular value in beating up on ourselves from all the mistakes we have made from being a short-sighted ignorant collective. As 'You Are Now Less Dumb' points out, if any member of modern society were able to be transported back into the middle ages, our ability to recreate the modern world would be negligible to laughable. Civilization is a collective effort, and even a leading physicist, biochemist or electrical engineer would be able to make little progress alone.

On an individual basis, we are mostly passengers that on occassion contribute some minute increment of progress to the whole. One thing all of us can do though, is take care of a pet.

We may be plagued by anxieties, fucked up by our parents, under severe economic strain and questioning our place in the universe. But a dog can have a good life, and we can give it to them. And we should. And feel proud of that achievement.