Dangerous Stereotypes: The Alpha Male

I’m going to tackle some stereotypes present in modern fiction that I think are dangerous when used irresponsibly.  Any entries part of this series will be labeled as “Dangerous Stereotypes.” You can read previous entries in this series, which discuss the Scientist and Bad Boy stereotypes.

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Every culture has certain expectations of how people are supposed to behave. Sometimes these social rules apply across the board, but others are gender-specific, and this is reflected in our media. While a lot of scrutiny is given to the short stick that women get instead of proper representation in books, films, and video games, less attention has been paid to the toxic masculinity that pervades so much modern media.

John Carter of Mars carrying Princess Dejah Thoris

When you picture the hero of a story, especially in science fiction or fantasy, what do you see? Chances are the kind of man that comes to mind is someone tall, physically fit or imposing, and who can win a fight with style, even if violence isn’t their first choice. Many are handsome, cocky, reckless, often abrasive, and tend to fill the leadership role with a sense of natural ease. They are almost always heterosexual playboys, exuding a charisma that draws women to their bed and encourages other men to either follow their lead or to become their competitor. Some prime examples of this archetype can be found in Captain Kirk from Star Trek, John Carter from the Barsoom novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs, any incarnation of James Bond, the half-demon Inuyasha from the manga by Rumiko Takahashi, and mythic idols like Thor and Robin Hood. Even heroes who start off shy, awkward, nerdy, or reluctant, like Harry Potter and Peter Parker, eventually become independent leaders and warriors thanks to their adventures. Expressions of emotion, empathy, or sensitivity are often shown as weaknesses to be hidden behind a wall of witty banter, arrogance, or stoicism. It is the stereotypical Alpha Male who always comes out on top.

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Not a Legend, Not a Flop – A Review of King Arthur

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Another film review from the Penn-Mar Literary Critics! Many thanks to Avellina for joining me on this venture into Arthurian legend.

Be advised that this entry contains spoilers!

I will not pretend that King Arthur: Legend of the Sword was a good movie. It was average at best, mediocre at worst. It managed to be better than Beowulf or Dracula Untold but did not reach the level of Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones. And yet, to my surprise, I rather enjoyed it.

King Arthur is a popcorn film, a Pacific Rim in the fantasy genre. It focuses on CGI action and glib character moments rather than the deeper tales of good and evil. It has the look of such epic films in many respects, (the production values are quite good) but lacks something vital that keeps it from true greatness. Well, actually, it lacks a lot of things. It’s filled with internal inconsistencies, plot holes the size of Miami, a magic system with no real rules, an over-emphasis on action that looks good rather than what makes sense, gratuitous CGI, inability to really distinguish between characters (especially the women), and a tragic, almost criminal under-use of Jude Law.
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Permutations of the Soul

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“Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.”

— Jedi Master Yoda, from The Empire Strikes Back

 

Souls permeate fantasy. You find them everywhere. In books like the Vlad Taltos series; in movies like Crimson Peak; in television shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer; in video games like Jade Empire; in anime like Soul Eater; and manga like Fullmetal Alchemist. Even if souls are not the focus of the story, it is almost always assumed that souls exist. In some universes, all living things have souls, while in others only sentient races have them. In a few, only humanity is granted this unique ability to transcend oblivion.

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Inspiration vs. Appropriation: Where is the Line?

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There’s a term that’s been popping up a lot lately in regards to story-telling which has caused a great deal of friction online: “cultural appropriation.”  The strict dictionary definition states that: “cultural appropriation is the adoption or use of elements from one culture by members of another culture.”  When you put it like that, it doesn’t sound so bad.  I mean, cultures all over the world have adopted from one another via trade or conquest since the dawn of human history.

But now this term is being seen and used in a completely negative fashion.  Worse, it seems to have no limits or boundaries.  It seems that one can come under fire for celebrating Cinco de Mayo if you’re not Hispanic, wearing Native American costumes (especially the admittedly tasteless and stereotypical Halloween versions) if you are not a Native American, or for wearing cornrows if you are not of African descent.

Those are fairly benign modern examples, although there are more disturbing ones.  Like the wearing of blackface, which was used to reinforce negative stereotypes about blacks to maintain segregation in post-Emancipation America, or Hollywood continuing to cast Caucasians into roles that really should be given to someone else.  (See the controversies over having Matt Damon save the Great Wall of China or casting Scarlett Johansson as the Japanese cyborg Motoko Kusanagi in the upcoming live-action version of Ghost in the Shell.)  So, obviously there is negative cultural appropriation that has happened in the past and continues to happen now.  But where do you draw the line between legitimate concerns and people making a mountain out of a mole hill?
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Breaking Ground

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I love the TV mini-series Frank Herbert’s Dune, and recently got to watch its bittersweet yet still enjoyable sequel, Children of Dune.  However, when I read the book version of Dune, I found it to be (pardon the pun) rather dry.  The world-building, the politics, the futuristic science of it… all of that was solid and interesting.  But I found that, as a story, it fell flat.  I didn’t really care much about the characters while reading the book, but the mini-series brought them to life.

As writers, we are always told to “show, not tell,” but there’s almost too much showing going on in Dune that clogs the book with description.  And Dune isn’t the only one; plenty of other old-school speculative fiction works have this problem.  That made me ask: why?  Why do so many early science fiction and fantasy stories go heavy on description and world-building, but light on character development?

This is only a personal theory, but I think it may be because early science fiction and fantasy writers were trying to lay the ground work and describe things that had never been seen before.  They have to establish what their world looks like and how it operates in order for it to make sense, which leaves less space for characters.  Today, if you say “orc” or “Arrakis” or “Star Destroyer,” most people will have an idea about what those things look like.  There’s no need to go into great detail describing interstellar travel or how a stillsuit works because it’s already been established in our minds by years of cultural absorption through novels, comics, and film.  We have hundreds of examples of spaceships, aliens, and fantastical landscapes to mentally choose from.  It’s a kind of short hand that only requires writers to choose a few choice descriptions rather than verbally building every little detail from the ground up.

The framework is already in place, but that doesn’t mean that we writers should be lazy about our descriptions.  We must be vigilant and make sure our creations are original or put a new twist on an old theme rather than merely recycling.  We must reshape, embellish, and tweak to make it our own.  The next time you find yourself getting a little bored with the heavy descriptions of science or magic in a novel, check the publication date.  The descriptions you are so casually dismissing may have been the first of their kind.

"Dune Sandworm 3" by ollycb

“Dune Sandworm 3” by ollycb

 

Does Diversity Hold Back Space Exploration?

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DISCLAIMER:  This entry is only a thought exercise!  I am not proposing that one stance is better than the other, nor do I condone extreme positions either for or against the diversification or homogenization of any culture(s). 

Project Orion: one of the coolest ships that was never built. (Artwork by Adrian Mann)

Project Orion: one of the coolest ships that was never built. (Artwork by Adrian Mann)

I recently read an article about NASA testing equipment and programs that will theoretically carry humans to Mars.  Part of me was really happy about it, but at the same time, I was also disappointed because the federal space program is pretty much dead due to lack of funds.  NASA is getting just enough to play around with ideas and reinvent the wheel, but not enough to actually do anything substantial.  The private sector may yet succeed with companies like SpaceX, but the lack of interest in space exploration is so discouraging that I sometimes fear we’ll never reach beyond our planet before the next great extinction.

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2015: The Year in Review

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Okay, seriously, who keeps making off with all this time?  Feels like the year just got started and we’re already on the cusp of 2016!  (And from what I’ve heard, this sense of time distortion only gets worse… ugh.)

I am definitely in a better place at the end of 2015 than I was last year.  Many of my 2014 goals have been reached, and it feels like I’ve got a better handle on life in general, which is a massive relief!  I want to give a huge thank-you to all of my friends, readers, subscribers, and followers.  You make this all worth-while.

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2015 Summer Reading (and Writing) Program from Nerd in the Brain

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Hello all!

Sorry, I know I haven’t been keeping up with most of my online writing, but I promise it’s because I’ve been hard at work editing Ravens and Roses.  But I did want to share something fun that I’m doing at the same time:  the Summer Reading (and Writing) Program from Nerd in the Brain.

I only found out about this challenge a few days before it started, but I’ve been enjoying it.  There are 30 reading challenges, 10 writing challenges, and 10 “other” challenges.  I’ve been reading like a madwoman, since now I have added motivation to get through the pile of library books I’ve been hoarding for weeks.  The reading challenges are really easy to write a small summary for, but the writing challenges are (for me) a little harder to tackle.  I didn’t want to just write a little summary of something I wrote, but I also didn’t want to post the entire response to the challenge in that small space.  It could be done… I just didn’t want it to be inconvenient.

So I decided to post my writing responses here on The Cat’s Cradle, as well as a list of the books I read for the reading challenge.  I’ll post a summary and a link for Nerd in the Brain, so I won’t take up all that space, but folk can see what I did if they want to.  So check back throughout the summer to see the results of the challenge.

Here goes!

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Feminism in Fiction

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(click image for source)

(click image for source)

Feminism is not a dirty word.  (I actually read a book recently with that statement in the title, and I stand by it.)  A lot of people shy away from the term “feminist” because they think it means “insane man-hating career/sex obsessed woman (who may or may not be a lesbian.)”  Even I’m careful hen using this term, lest my meaning be misconstrued.  While such people do exist, they are the extreme end of the spectrum and have no bearing on what I consider feminism.  That is, that women should be treated politically, socially, and economically as equals to men.

Fantasy and science fiction are wonderful because you can break so many stereotypes.  With a lot of realistic fiction, especially in historical fiction, there are certain limitations, certain expectations and roles that people play that can be difficult to change without losing a sense of authenticity.  But science fiction is usually set far into the future, often on other planets.  Fantasy deals in alternate realities and fairy tales.  The potential to explore and turn traditional gender/racial/economic/sexual roles upside down is all around!  And I’m sorry to say that a lot of writers who deal in science fiction and fantasy don’t take advantage of that potential.

Since a lot of fantasy is set in medieval look-alike worlds, we tend to get medieval values.  Women are passive objects to be won while men do all the fighting, rescuing, political maneuvering, and pretty much anything else interesting.  Science fiction often has male military leaders, male soldiers, male explorers…  Women are very often not present at all, or, if they are, they get regulated to sexual roles or are presented in a very wooden or unrealistic manner.

Obviously this isn’t the case for every fantasy or science fiction story.  And I should point out that while there is nothing inherently wrong with having characters fill traditional gender roles, that shouldn’t be the only role that they can play.  (And that goes for men as well as women.)  Older science fiction and fantasy often get a pass from me because the social mores of the time necessarily colors the way the plot and characters are presented.  But even in modern stories, I rarely see the envelop pushed.

We can be so much more than this.

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#BlogHop – Favorite Genre

This is the fourth installment of the #BlogHop for #Writers hosted by Ruth Snyder!  This week’s topic is “My Favorite Genre.”

I posted about my favorite genre way back in 2011, and honestly, not much has changed.  Fantasy remains my favorite, hands down.  I do read science fiction, nonfiction, some YA and realistic fiction, but fantasy is my realm. I’m not especially picky about which subset of fantasy it is either.  Urban, swords-and-sorcery, traditional epic, dark, paranormal romance, remade fairy tales, or any combination of the above…I enjoy them all.

The first book I remember reading was D’Aulair’s Book of Greek Myths when I was four.  I also remember my Dad reading books of fairy tales from the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson, most of which are rather dark fare for children.  But with fairy tales, no matter how gruesome things get, the hero (or heroine) always beats the odds.  Evil-doers are punished and the good are rewarded.  There is a direct relationship between ones actions and the consequences that appeals to my sense of justice, and tends to carry over into the rest of fantasy.

Modern fantasy has gotten much darker, perhaps even too dark at times.  But the stories and authors that I love the most never lost that sense of fair play and wonder that captivated me as a child.  Mercedes Lackey, C.S. Friedman, Barbara Hambly, Jim Butcher, Simon R. Green, Elizabeth Haydon, and R.A. Salvatore all explore different aspects and takes on traditional fantasy mores that help enrich the genre.  Some find fantasy too repetitive or stifling (I’ve certainly found a lot of teen paranormal romances to be that way), but I enjoy the comfort of what is familiar and delight in seeing how authors will take that familiarity and stand it on its head.  For example, you can find dragons in many different fantasy novels.  But being a dragon is about the only thing that they have in common:

In The Halfblood Chronicles by Mercedes Lackey and Andre Norton, dragons are a fully sentient race capable of shapeshifting and molding rock, but have emotions, desires, and speech very similar to their human counterparts.  They think, feel, love, and hate much like we do.

In The Winterlands Quartet by Barbara Hambly, dragons are deeply alien beings, tied to the music of their names, unique in coloring with thought processes very unlike our own.  Their love of gold is not from the perceived monetary value, but from the music inherent in its essence that soothes them.

In The Symphony of Ages series by Elizabeth Haydon, dragons are one of the Firstborn Races, born of the Earth, immortal and elemental.  There are relatively few of them and they usually remain hiding deep within the earth.  One did change into the form of a human and gave birth to half-human, half-dragon children before returning to her own form and her own lair.  They are not as human as Lackey’s dragons but not as alien as Hambly’s.

The dragons of Anne McCaffrey’s Pern novels aren’t actually natural creatures at all, but genetically engineered from an indigenous species known as fire-lizards to help combat the deadly parasitic Thread that falls from a nearby planet every few decades.  They are more intelligent than horses or dogs, but are dependent on the psychic link with their riders.  The origin of the dragons and the lack of magic makes Pern more part of science fiction than fantasy…but it still has dragons and shows another way that the traditionally magical beasts can be used.

Just with these few examples, you can see the wonderful ideas that can spring out of what appears to be an old stereotype on the surface.  And I think that’s part of why I love fantasy so much and have continued favoring it for over two decades:  it offers a fresh new way of looking at the familiar and finding the wonder within.