Martyr syndrome

It occurs to me that I have severe martyr syndrome.

I am always describing my situation in a helpless “well, this is just how it is” way, tinged with sadness.

What is the purpose of doing this? Do I want people to feel sorry for me? Why? What do I want them to do once they feel sorry for me? It’s not like they can fix things. Do I just want sympathy? Do I want attention? Do I want my “victim” feelings validated?

If I am a victim of anything, it’s my own choices. I am not an actual martyr.

If I want things, I need to fight for them. More than just saying “It would be nice if…” and then giving up immediately when I hit any sort of resistance.

I seem to be so afraid to commit to things that I accept any excuse. “Oh, I can’t do X because so-and-so doesn’t want to. I will adjust to what they want instead.” Anything that I “lose” by doing this is my own fault.

I am not sure what to do about this realization.

A little more on Fifty Shades

As I’m hearing more and more about Fifty Shades of Grey—again, I have no plans to actually read or watch it—I’m becoming more and more unhappy with my waffling in the previous post. The movie sounds horrible; not only do we lack the apparently comedic effect of Ana’s narration, but Ana also is never actually shown having an orgasm. I mean, what is even the point then?

The more I think about what I said about Fifty Shades of Grey, the more I realize that my own perspective was clouding my analysis. I wasn’t imagining the perspective of someone who is naturally submissive.

You see, I do not have a submissive personality in the slightest.

As an introvert who has suffered from social anxiety, I have behaved in ways that could be called submissive many times. But it makes me chafe. I like being in control. Years and years ago, when Sean and I were first dating, we were in a play-by-post RPG together. I was the GM, meaning I should have been in charge, but Sean, who also has a strong personality, and who had been playing in and occasionally running the game far longer than I had, argued hotly against a story decision I had made. I ended up changing the story to please him, and this lost me one of my favorite players.

I have despised having made that decision ever since. It was my game, my decision, and I rolled over. I didn’t want to fight with Sean, so I just did what he wanted.

(Thankfully, I eventually learned that this is not the way to behave in a relationship, and I have been much happier since figuring out how to actually have discussions. Sean has too; my unwillingness to fight for my position had been a source of frustration for him.)

I don’t want to mischaracterize submission here. Being submissive doesn’t mean you’re weak or that you don’t stand up for yourself. It just means you are relinquishing control willingly. You’re demonstrating absolute trust in another person. This is something that is extremely difficult for me to do. I’ve tried it, and I’m very bad at it. When I wrote my original post about Fifty Shades, I wasn’t coming from that perspective at all.

Now, I’m reconsidering. If you crave a dominant to take care of you, if you’re actively looking for someone to make decisions, you might miss the warning signs of abuse. Stories that paint abuse as romantic make it harder to see the difference between a loving, trusting relationship and a relationship in which one person abuses the other.

I would never want to abuse a partner. If I were the dominant in a BDSM relationship, my purpose—the thing that would make me enjoy it—would be pleasing my partner. I would never want them to be afraid of me or to feel like they couldn’t say no. I would be so thankful that they were willing to indulge my controlling nature. I would want to reward them with whatever treatment they desired.

Sex can be wonderful, but it’s so vital to actually communicate. You have to tell the other person what you like, and ask them what they like. Ask for what you want. Or demand it, if your partner likes submitting to your demands. Every relationship is different. But you should never feel afraid. You should feel safe, and happy, and excited. You should be enjoying yourself.

Making yourself vulnerable to a person who loves you is absolutely romantic. Having an abuser take advantage of your vulnerability is not.

Fifty Shades of Controversy

NSFW. Trigger warnings: abuse, rape.

It was intriguing to watch the various reactions to Fifty Shades of Grey play out online as the movie’s release date approached. I’ve seen many discussions breaking down how the story is a grossly inaccurate portrayal of BDSM. People are worried that 1) this will reflect poorly on people who engage in BDSM safely and with proper consent; and 2) people will hurt themselves and others. In my opinion, these are very valid concerns. On the other hand, I’ve also seen it pointed out that fantasy is just that: fantasy. Just because someone reads or watches a story about something doesn’t mean they want to try that something in real life. If that was the case, we would have a lot more serial killers. I think this viewpoint has merit as well.

Portrayals of BDSM in popular culture have been strange. I obviously have not consumed all media, and I often feel that my pop culture knowledge is inadequate, so keep that in mind…but Fifty Shades is the only high-profile example I can think of where the main characters engage in what is supposed to be BDSM. I can’t remember there being a mass-market motion picture advertised all over the place like this. And usually when I see BDSM in a TV show—often a police procedural or medical drama—it is engaged in by a suspect, victim, or patient. The main characters may raise their eyebrows, or even discuss how it’s perfectly fine, but they never seem to go so far as to dabble themselves.

While looking for examples of portrayals of BDSM in media, I read through this Wikipedia page, and it gives me the impression that two different things are being treated as if they are the same, when they obviously aren’t. The first thing is abuse: domination and punishment of someone who has not consented. The second thing is play in which all parties have agreed to certain rules and situations and which will stop at any time if any of the participants wishes it to.

I recently read a series of stories in which the characters engaged in BDSM. One of the characters wrote storylines that they all then acted out. In one ongoing storyline, the submissive characters were literal sex slaves of the dominant character. There was no consent involved whatsoever. But the characters who were acting out the storylines were all equals, and any of them could stop the play at any time. In other words, one of the characters pretended to own sex slaves, and two of the characters pretended to be sex slaves, but they were never actually those things. The stories spent a lot of time on after-care, as the dominant (or dominants, depending on the story) pampered the submissive(s) afterwards.

This meta-portrayal of BDSM really drove home to me the idea of fantasy. A person might, for example, have a rape fantasy. They might simply imagine it. They might read stories or watch pornography about it. They might go so far as to ask a partner to act out a situation with them. But they don’t actually want to rape someone, or to be raped.

In the case of Fifty Shades of Grey, there is no meta level. The person having the fantasy is the person reading or watching. The fantasy is the book or movie.

I imagine there will be varying levels of response to Fifty Shades of Grey. Some people will keep the fantasy in their heads for their own private amusement. Others might decide they want to try acting it out. In the latter case, I think it’s good that so much has been discussed about the book and film—people who are interested in BDSM have plenty of resources to draw upon.

Ultimately, I think it’s important to give people as much information as possible, and then let them make their own decisions. It’s dangerous to look at any work of art as a guideline for how to live. Art is an expression of emotion and thought and possibility. It’s a way to explore ideas. It asks questions; it doesn’t (and shouldn’t) provide answers. Answers are up to the person experiencing the art.

I’m more interested in making sure people have the tools they need to critically evaluate the world around them than I am in trying to “protect” people by banning certain stories or types of story.

I do hope people take advantage of all the information that’s out there. I hope all the discussion of Christian Grey as an abuser will help people recognize abusive relationships and avoid being abused. And I hope that as the film raises the profile of BDSM, people research it instead of making snap judgments. I really hope people stay smart and take care of themselves.

Beyond the realm of fantasy vs. reality, there is the fact that individual works don’t exist in a vacuum. The stories we surround ourselves with do have an impact on our perceptions. Men have been told through culture, pop and otherwise, that they are entitled to women’s bodies; women have been told that they are worthless without a man’s approval. These are issues that go well beyond one work, but Fifty Shades certainly does nothing to change the situation.

I’m nervous about the movie, honestly; this author says that while the book is easily understood as fantasy, the movie plays out just a little too real. I don’t want to see that. I’m actually pretty sensitive about abuse. I won’t be seeing the movie.

I don’t plan on ever reading Fifty Shades of Grey, either. Beyond my ambivalence about the story’s potential impacts, there’s the simple fact that I’m kind of picky about writing. I tend to get tripped up by wildly improper punctuation, poor word choice, bad sentence structure, and a lack of smooth narrative flow. The story has to be really good for me to get past that sort of thing. I enjoy rule-breaking when it is intentional, but not when it obviously isn’t. Based on the excerpts I’ve seen, I’m pretty sure I couldn’t force my way through the book. (I can’t read Dan Brown novels for the same reason. Hell, I had trouble with the last few Harry Potter books because of all the ellipses.)

Links:

Gender-swapped Welcome to Night Vale

Welcome to Night Vale logoI’ve long been fascinated by the idea of gender-swapping—taking a known story and flipping all the characters’ genders, changing as little else as possible, and seeing what happens. It’s an intriguing intellectual exercise. Does it change our perceptions of the characters? Of the story? Do we start to feel that the story is unrealistic? How and why? Ultimately I think it’s a great way to poke and prod at our own subconscious biases.

Welcome to Night Vale makes for a very interesting gender-swap subject because, unlike many mainstream stories, it is already so progressive. We’ve got a diverse cast of characters, with people of differing gender, sexual orientation, skin color, culture, ability, and more. What happens to this rich cast when we swap everyone’s gender? Anything?

Today I spent a few hours coming up with a list of gender-swapped Welcome to Night Vale character names. I believe names have meanings we learn intuitively but don’t necessarily recognize consciously; keeping that in mind, I tried to come up with names that gave me a similar feeling, or names that etymologically had the same or similar meanings. I did not mess with non-gendered characters like Alisha or the Glow Cloud.

In many cases, I didn’t feel that switching the genders made much of a difference. In others, it was harder to imagine gender as being irrelevant. For example, changing Michael Sandero into Michaela suddenly turns the Night Vale Scorpions into a women’s football team. This underscores the real-world “truth” that no one cares about women’s sports…apparently not even in Night Vale. (Let me know if I’m mistaken. I can’t remember an example of a women’s sports team in Night Vale, and a quick search of fan transcripts isn’t turning anything up.)

Here’s the list of gender-swapped characters, and my reactions to the swapping.

  • Cecile Gertrude Palmer
  • Carla the Scientist

So far, so good.

  • Steph Carlsberg
  • Cecile’s unnamed brother, married to Steph Carlsberg
  • Johnny, Cecile’s nephew (son of Cecile’s brother, stepson to Steph)

This is interesting, but not problematic. Johnny could be selling cookies (or something else) for cub/boy scouts. I don’t think anything in the story particularly requires these characters to be male or female.

  • Elle Harlan

I think “Elle” is a far prettier name than “Earl,” but it feels similar when spoken, which is why I picked it. In this gender-swap version I guess Elle would have to be a girl scout leader? And it is a little striking to have a female sous chef and a female executive chef at a premier restaurant. In western culture, as soon as a job becomes a prestigious profession, it suddenly seems to be dominated by men.

  • Karen, radio host for Desert Bluffs

Creepy, creepy Karen.

  • Dan Cardinal
  • Terrell Flynn

Now this is interesting. Two of the show’s big heroes are now guys. Does it feel less heroic for the Intern Who Lived and the adolescent resistance leader to be male? I’m thinking of Cecil’s speech about Tamika, where he goes from calling her a “girl” to a “woman” to a “human being.” How would that speech have felt if it was “boy” to “man” to “human being”? Is it different? Is it necessary to point out that a male is a human being, or does it seem silly, as “male” and “human” have been synonymous for so long in western culture?

  • The woman we all believe to be the sheriff of Night Vale

Does being a woman make the sheriff less weird or imposing? (I don’t think so, actually.)

  • The Woman in the Tan Jacket

This reminds me of the Observers in Fringe. (The Observers really pissed me off, especially in the final season.) Like the Observers, the Man in the Tan Jacket is a strange visitor of default gender (male). When we think of a generic person, we think of a male, so making the visitor in the tan jacket female is very interesting to me. The show actually did something like this with the Woman from Italy, but of course, she hasn’t become a recurring character (yet?).

  • Lorne Mallard, StrexCorp executive

Given Kevin and Lauren’s interesting dynamic—Lauren was supposed to be Kevin’s boss, but he seemed to have some sort of power over her—I’d love to see this gender swap, and see Karen really creeping Lorne out.

  • (Former) Mayor Patterson Winchell
  • Intern Maurice
  • Jane Peters, you know, the farmer?

I don’t really have any comments on these three…swapping their genders doesn’t seem to do anything to the story.

  • Heidi McDaniels, literal five-headed dragon

I like this, if only because Hiram is such a fun character and it would be really neat to see a female version. I’m not seeing anything particularly gendered in his story though.

  • The Faceless Old Man Who Secretly Lives in Your Home

Somehow this is far creepier to me than a Faceless Old Woman. But it’s creepier because it feels sexual. I don’t get a sexual vibe from the Faceless Old Woman. I suppose western culture has primed me to expect predatory men.

  • Old Man Joe and the Angels, all called Erik

You know what’s funny here? I have no problem thinking of the Erikas as being male or female or genderless, but having them all named Erik makes me assume they are all male. I don’t think gender-swapping Josie is a huge deal, though. (“Joseph” would be the Desert Bluffs counterpart.)

  • Liddy Lenore, out on the edge of town

There may be different connotations to a woman who lives out on the edge of town versus a man who lives out on the edge of town, but in general, I don’t think there’s anything about Larry Leroy that demands maleness. (Also, I was really pleased when I chose “Lenore.”)

  • Morgan Wallaby, who was born as a grown woman’s detached hand

Ah. It would be interesting trying to characterize Morgan’s looks—in the show, Megan’s manly hand-hair is mentioned, but what would you say about a woman’s hand without falling into the trap so many children’s videogames do—putting a bow on it or something? A woman’s hand doesn’t naturally have an identifier like nail polish. And you wouldn’t expect a pre-pubescent boy to have manly hand-hair. In fact, a young boy’s hand might not look so different from a woman’s hand. So what would be the signifier? Maybe just that the hand looked older than a child’s hand?

  • Tammy Williams, owner of the Desert Flower Bowling Alley and Arcade Fun Complex
  • Tilly the barber

These are fun, but ultimately I don’t think they reveal any gendered stereotypes. They work pretty well swapped.

  • (The former) Martha Vanston

Aha. Now here is a problematic one. Marcus Vanston’s big thing is going around naked. There are extraordinarily different connotations when a woman does this. It would be fun to explore.

  • Naaz al-Mujaheed
  • Michaela Sandero and her father Florent
  • Malique Herrera

Here’s where we get the women’s football team.

  • Big Ricki, owner of Big Ricki’s Pizza
  • Lenny Hart, editor of the Night Vale Daily Journal
  • Mickey Nguyen, owner of Dark Owl Records
  • Sammy Sultan, president of Night Vale Community College, who happens to be a smooth, fist-sized river rock
  • Simon Rigadeau, a transient living in the recycling closet of the Earth Sciences building at NVCC

I’m not seeing any big issues with any of these swaps.

  • Rey, the voice of Night Vale’s numbers station WZZZ

Would making WZZZ’s voice male take away some of its “credibility” as a victim? Would he be less sympathetic to the audience, not being a “damsel in distress”? (I think WTNV’s audience is more sophisticated than that, but it is an interesting thought. Would we have a subconscious aversion to hearing a male voice in that kind of distress?)

That pretty much covers the major and notable characters. There are plenty of other characters, but they’re not as important to the storyline (again, yet). There are a couple of interesting things I thought of, though. Making Sylvia Wickersham into Silvio Wickersham kind of gives the character a Marcus Vanston vibe (rich person doing whatever they want). And what if we turn the “Shawns” from sales into “Shawnas”? Does that make what happened to them more stomach-turning?

Here are a few more names, just for fun:

  • Sullivan Thurgood, publicity director for the Night Vale Medical Board
  • Rhonda Singh
  • Former mayor Daniel DuBois
  • Dab, a sentient patch of haze
  • Dion Creighton, treasurer of the PTA and father to Joss
  • Emile Munton, director of the Night Vale Zoo
  • Francis Donaldson, the tall man with green eyes who manages the antiques mall
  • Leonora Burton, former host of Night Vale Community Radio
  • Joy Eisenberg, dinosaur expert
  • LaShawnda Mason, executive chef at Tourniquet (again, a gendered profession)
  • Marcel LeFleur, head of Night Vale’s tourism board
  • Vincenza LeFarge, head of vigilante squad Grab ‘Em and Sack ‘Em (kind of a gendered profession too, eh?)
  • Trent Hidge, staffer during Mayor Winchell’s tenure

What do you think? Does gender-swapping the characters of Welcome to Night Vale tell you anything about your conscious and subconscious thoughts and feelings? Has anyone else done anything with this idea?

(Many thanks to the Night Vale Wiki for its list of characters, and to Lia and aimlessglee for their episode transcripts, which I have imported into Evernote for reference.)

Edit:

It occurs to me belatedly that I didn’t consider the Apache Tracker. Actually, I thought of him pretty early on, realized that swap would be fairly complex, and put it off for later. And then forgot.

So, the Apache Tracker. I honestly don’t know enough about Native American culture to figure out whether or not “Apache Tracker” could be “properly” used for a female character. “Properly” is in quotes because of course the term “Apache Tracker” is purposefully misused for this guy. My issue is, I’m not sure if having a female Apache Tracker would add a completely different element that would change the story or the meaning of the character, in terms of what the words “Apache” and “tracker” mean.

I do think making the Apache Tracker female would add some intriguing nuance to the statement the character is making about cultural appropriation. “That white guy” is a fairly standard (dare I say it) strawman for racism, but “that white lady” has some additional connotations. Women aren’t privileged in the same way men are, but white women have privilege that people of color of any gender don’t. Feminism also doesn’t always have a great track record when it comes to people of color. The white male Apache Tracker gives me a generic, ignorant cultural appropriation vibe. A white female Apache Tracker, though? I start to have feelings of betrayal. As someone who straddles a line between privilege and oppression, someone who knows what misogyny feels like and yet has been treated the way human beings should be treated, she should know better. I find myself far angrier at her than I am at the canon Apache Tracker, who just sort of makes me shake my head and laugh ruefully.

My offline life

One benefit to streamlining the time I spend online, and specifically cutting back on social media, would be enriching the time I spend on other things. Lately I’ve been feeling that my life is somewhat empty. Work is great; it’s challenging and fun, and my coworkers are awesome. But what do I do other than work? Go home and either get online or watch TV (or, typically, get online while watching TV). My main activity beyond this is photography, which I love, and of course I want to keep doing that. But maybe I want to do more of it. And there are other things I want to do that I haven’t worked on in forever: writing, reading more long form pieces and books, studying Japanese.

I also want to feel more connected to Atlanta. We’ve lived here for three years, but after a burst of exploratory activities right after the move, we haven’t really done much to integrate ourselves into the community. We’ve settled into a routine of restaurants, and we have few to no other activities outside the home. (This is probably more important to me than it is to homebody Sean.)

There are two groups I have frequently thought about being active in: the Atlanta Web Design Group and the Japanese Language Meetup. Right now I am supposedly a member of these groups, but I never go to activities. I’m always “too tired” or “not in the mood”. I think this general lack of motivation is fed by the easy distraction of social media and TV. Sure, I could go to that event, but it’s so much more comfortable to just sit at home and scroll through feeds or marathon a show.

As an introvert, it is important for me to have down time away from others, and recharging after a workday is crucial. I’m not saying I think I should be cramming social activities into every day. But surely I could do something weekly or every couple of weeks…especially if that something will help me learn and grow in areas that are important to me.

In general, I feel that I should be contributing more and consuming less. These days I rarely cook. I do the bare minimum to keep the apartment clean. I have a box full of ticket stubs and brochures and memories that I keep telling myself I’m going to turn into scrapbooks. All I have to do to talk myself out of doing any of these things, when I even think of doing them in the first place, is simply distract myself with input: social media, TV, “news” articles that don’t really enrich me.

I have also always felt that I should be serving my community in some way. I donate to various causes, but it doesn’t feel like I’m really doing much. I want to be on the ground somewhere doing something that has a direct impact. Whenever I think about what that would be and how I would incorporate it into my life, I always convince myself that I don’t have the time. And indeed, if you look at my day, you will see that it is full. It’s just full of the wrong things, I think.

If I can figure out a way to stay connected online without devoting my entire day to it, and if I can stop automatically turning on the TV whenever free time opens up, I can start working on improving myself. Hopefully, that will lead to better friendships and more opportunities, and I’ll stop feeling unfulfilled in the non-work sphere.

My online life

For some time I’ve been pondering the changes that have crept into the time I spend online. Once, my blog was my home page. Whatever I was doing, whether I had an RSS reader open in another tab or I was watching an anime episode or I was chatting with someone, I’d go straight to my blog to put down my reactions.

These days I rarely post to my blog. Most of my reactions to what I read or watch or talk about go to the social media dumping ground, where they disappear forever.

My process of content discovery has changed, too. Where once I had many news and politics websites, blogs, and other interesting feeds ready and waiting for me in Bloglines, now I rarely read anything that isn’t linked on social media.

I’m starting to feel like I’m part of a neverending content churn…that I skim, retweet or share with a blurb, and then move on without truly connecting to issues or to the people I am supposedly sharing with. There are exceptions; if I write a longer post about a link I’m sharing on Facebook, I will often receive replies, and sometimes even get into a good discussion. But this is not the norm. I spend so much time just keeping up with social media that I don’t typically write detailed blurbs these days.

I feel like something in me is atrophying.

A good friend of mine deactivated his Facebook account quite some time ago, telling me it was too much of a distraction. This is a person I’ve long admired for his self-motivation and achievements. On Facebook he would often post thought-provoking articles and discussions. When he first left, I wondered, “What will he do to fill all that time?” And then I realized how silly of a question that was. Of course, he would read and do real writing, not to mention be fully present in the moments of his life.

I would like to get back to a point where I read more thoughtfully and write more frequently. I’d like to feel more well-informed on news and political issues. I’d like to have my thoughts archived here, in my space, rather than on a third-party service that cares more about quantity than quality.

"I WANT TO BELIEVE" RSS shirt from Diesel Sweeties (not currently available)

“I WANT TO BELIEVE” RSS shirt from Diesel Sweeties (not currently available)

I’m not sure how to go about effecting the change, though. Despite my “I WANT TO BELIEVE” RSS t-shirt, it seems like the format is dying, at least in terms of reading web content. I’ve looked for a good Bloglines replacement a few times and never quite found what I wanted. It’s important to me that I be able to get to my feeds from multiple devices, since these days I do a lot of reading on my phone. I would want a reader that doesn’t show me content I’ve already read on another device. The last time I looked for a good iPhone app for RSS feeds, I was disappointed at the interface. My Windows 8 tablet/laptop hybrid, a Lenovo Yoga I call Tampopo, doesn’t have much in the way of reading and saving options. Its native news reader doesn’t export to Instapaper, which is what I’ve been using on my computer and phone to save articles to read later, and of course that news reader doesn’t let me choose RSS feeds. For that matter, I don’t know if the websites I want to read are even still publishing RSS feeds.

I’m also not sure about how to stop spending so much time on social media. I’ve taken social media hiatuses before. While the time away is refreshing, I always seem to get sucked back in. In the case of Facebook, it’s because that’s where the people I’ve been close to in my life are, and it’s a convenient way of keeping up with them and letting them know how I’m doing. I worry about losing touch with those people, and with people who don’t use Facebook. I rarely talk with the aforementioned friend who left. Were I to stop using Facebook, I would need to come up with some sort of system of staying in touch. Those of you who are naturally social probably find this amusing, but I am extraordinarily bad at maintaining relationships. I want to be a good friend, but it takes actively thinking about. Facebook has made it much easier. (Though perhaps that in and of itself is a problem: relationships by nature aren’t “easy”, so maybe there should be more of an effort on my part.)

With Twitter, it’s a little weirder. Despite having minimal followers, I feel like one of the cool kids there, and I am somehow afraid that if I stop using Twitter, I won’t be a real geek anymore. And to be fair, I have met several great people through Twitter, and I get a lot of interesting content about social issues, politics, and the web there. Even if I manage to find a good RSS reader and plenty of feeds, the people I follow on Twitter could still surprise me with content I wouldn’t normally see. It’s important to me not to live in a cultural bubble; I want to be challenged. Twitter and Facebook both expose me to ideas and opinions that don’t just go merrily along with my current world paradigm.

One time, I tried going through every single person in my Facebook friends list and hiding them all from my news feed. That way, when I logged in, there was nothing to read; I had to go to individual profile pages to see updates. After awhile I started adding a few people back, and then that felt unfair, so I re-added everyone.

I sort of wish that instead of a news feed, I had a dashboard of friends, and I could see previews of their last few posts beneath their profile pictures. I’d get more of a general overview of how a person is doing, and I could easily drill down from there. With a news feed, I really only see stuff from people who post a lot.

On Twitter, I’ve gone through mass unfollowings and followings to try and maximize my time there. I haven’t used any of the various follower tools and apps, though; I just use the web interface at my computer, Tweetbot on my phone, and the Twitter app on Tampopo. Due to app limitations, I do the bulk of my account maintenance–followings, unfollowings, etc.–at my computer. Maybe if I used a tool, I could make my Twitter usage more efficient; I don’t know.

Here are some thoughts, ideas, and goals based on what I’ve discussed above.

  1. I want to spend less time content-churning and more time learning.
  2. I want to stay in touch with friends and family, but maybe not bombard them with random links all the time. To that end, I need a place for link sharing and discussion.
  3. Perhaps I could use blog posts to share and discuss links. I could do roundups for short blurbs and long posts for detailed analysis, just like I used to.
  4. To maximize my input, I need to rework my current system of reading. I need to find a solution that lets me pull in content from provider feeds as well as content I save to read later. An export to Evernote function would be ideal for pieces I have read and want to keep for reference.
  5. I need to evaluate ways of spending less time on Facebook. Maybe cold turkey is the way to go. Maybe there’s a way I can just cut down on it, like limiting it to a certain time of day. Maybe I can filter my friends’ posts so that only certain types show (although I’m not sure this would be best).
  6. I also need to come up with a way of keeping in touch with people who are important to me, so that I’m not favoring people who post on Facebook.
  7. I need to figure out why I’m using Twitter, and whether those reasons are good enough to keep using it.

Looks like I’ve got a lot of thinking to do.

Creating female characters who are people

Over Thanksgiving, I watched a direct-to-video Disney movie called Super Buddies with my nephew Logan. The main characters are five puppies from the same litter, and in the movie they get temporary super powers from alien technology. It was a cute movie, but despite some obvious efforts to insert “girl power”, it largely falls into the same pattern of minimizing and oversimplifying female characters that we see in so many of our modern stories.

The pivotal characters in the movie are largely male. Four of the puppies are boys; just one is a girl. The kids who own the puppies are the same, and the girl kid owns the girl puppy. The top-billed kid, a boy named Bartleby, and his puppy Budderball are the two main characters.

There are a few incidental female farm animals: two horses, a group of hens and one cow. I only mention them because they talk, but they’re not particularly important. There’s a female TV reporter who gets a few minutes onscreen. And there’s one female alien named Jorala who makes brief appearances at the beginning and end. Otherwise, all the characters are male: Gramps (played by the fabulous John Ratzenberger), Bartleby, the candy shop owner, Sheriff Dan, the sheriff’s deputy dog Sniffer, comic writer/superhero Jack, Captain Canine, the bull who inspires Budderball, the “good” alien Megasis, the “bad” alien Drex, Drex’s assistant Monk-E, and plenty of incidental characters.

Other than the super powered girl puppy, none of the female characters is integral to the plot. Further, all the female characters are either defined by their relationships to male characters or simply by the fact that they are female. The female alien’s purpose is to be the love interest of the “good” alien. (Sure, she’s a princess, but you don’t see her making any decisions that impact the action.) The female puppy, Rosebud, and the female cows continually call each other “girlfriend” and talk about how girls can do anything they want. This may sound empowering on the surface, but ultimately the message it’s sending is that female characters have to prove they are worthwhile by talking about how worthwhile they are. No male character goes around talking about how boys can do anything they want.

While the boy puppies could be considered cheesy archetypes, each one has unique characteristics that define him beyond the fact that he is male. Budderball is the sports puppy; he’s into football. B-Dawg is the cool puppy who speaks in slang and and is into hip hop. Buddha is the spiritual puppy who loves yoga and meditation. Mudbud is the hippie; he’s relaxed and loves to roll around in mud. Meanwhile, Rosebud’s stereotype is “female”: she’s into fashion, she’s “feisty”, and she cares deeply for and is protective of her family. (Her owner is also into fashion. Is fashion the only interest girls can have?)

Rosebud is so defined by the fact that she is female (rather than actually having a personality, even a stereotypical one) that her character profile on Disney.com reads thus: “Rosebud’s mission in life is girl power. Never one to slow down, Rosebud loves that her Power Ring kicks it up a gazillion notches.” Note that her super power is related to the female stereotype of being “gabby”. She talks fast and a lot; her power is moving at super speed.

The most recent Tropes vs. Women in Video Games from Feminist Frequency, Ms. Male Character, discusses the phenomenon of characters being defined solely by their gender. I definitely recommend it; not only does it explain the issue well, but it includes some examples of how to avoid it when creating characters. I also recommend Parts 1 and 2 of Damsel in Distress for examples of female characters used solely as plot devices for male characters.

I’d like for girls and boys to have some female characters they could want to be like. When I was a kid, there were plenty of male characters I wanted to emulate: Donatello from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Marty from Back to the Future, Lance from Voltron, Cyclops from X-Men. I doubt many boys grew up wishing they could be April O’Neil, Marty’s girlfriend Jennifer or mom Lorraine, Princess Allura, or perpetual love interest Jean Grey. When I was younger especially, I often felt that the female characters were annoying and that people only kept them around because they had to, or because there was some appeal to them I didn’t understand. (As I got older, good female characters started popping up here and there, like Gosalyn in Darkwing Duck and Dot in ReBoot. Gosalyn was such a breath of fresh air after DuckTales’ Webby.)

Ultimately, I would like to see movies and TV shows have a 50/50 male/female split in cast. I’d like the female characters to be just as important to the plot as the male characters. I’d like the female characters to have personalities and interests that go beyond female stereotypes. Brooklyn Nine-Nine is a good example of how to do it right. I hope more shows and movies go down that path.

Effective feminist criticism

Often when people attempt a feminist critique of a story, they’ll focus on characteristics of the women in the story. For example, Pacific Rim‘s Mako Mori was criticized for not having much of a speaking role. This sort of criticism does no favors to feminism and actually perpetuates one of the worst aspects of patriarchy: the determination of who a woman is “supposed to be” by someone who isn’t that woman.

Just as we reject that all women must be submissive, passive, good with children, helpful to a fault, etc., we must also reject that all women must be anything. Some women are loudmouths. Some women are quiet. Some women are great with kids. Some women hate kids. Some women want to be lawyers. Some women want to be designers. Some women find nothing as fulfilling as being a homemaker. And men are the same. People have different beliefs, backgrounds, interests, and skills, and they make different decisions.

An effective feminist critique of a text, then, is not one that judges how “badass” or outspoken a female character is. Instead, it focuses on how the film portrays her life. Does she make choices? Are her choices realistically effective? She doesn’t have to be right or successful all the time. She does have to receive the same story treatment as a male character. Does she serve a purpose in the plot beyond furthering a male character’s story? Does she have her own story? Does her story make a difference in the world of the text? Is she essential, or could she be lifted right out? These are the questions to ask, not whether a female character fits some sort of template for the “modern woman”.

We are people, we are different, and we deserve to be portrayed in myriad ways. There is no catch-all character who can speak for “womankind”.

Getting off oil

backed-up interstate traffic

Traffic. September 22, 2012, Atlanta. Copyright Heather Meadows

Occasionally I ponder whether or not the US will ever get off oil as its primary source of transportation fuel. In other words, whether we will trade our gas-burning cars for other  modes of transportation, like trains and subways for longer distances and walking and cycling for shorter ones. Electric cars are perhaps a more realistic possibility, given the way our current infrastructure grossly favors cars. To switch to electric cars, we wouldn’t need to redesign roads or add rail; we’d just need to convert existing gas stations to electric substations.

I got to thinking about this today thanks to my Twitter friend Ara posting a link to an article about world gas prices, which includes this intriguing paragraph:

The world’s most expensive gas, according to the survey, can be found in Norway, where drivers pay $10.12 for a gallon of premium gas. While the country has significant oil reserves of its own, instead of using the money to subsidize vehicle fuel it goes to fund social spending such as free college education and national infrastructure.

This made me wonder if we could subsidize the shift away from oil by stepping down our subsidization of it. According to a study by the Environmental Law Institute, the US spent approximately $72 billion from 2002 to 2006 subsidizing fossil fuels. Unfortunately, this figure isn’t broken out by type, so we can assume some of this money went to coal as well. If the move was targeted toward reducing oil use, I can’t imagine ending coal subsidies at the same time. Any replacement transportation, whether it be trains or electric cars, would depend on electricity, which in this country is largely generated through burning coal. (Of course, burning coal, another fossil fuel, has many health, environmental, and non-renewable resource issues, and eventually we’ll have to get off coal as well.)

The upshot is, I’m not sure how much money we’d be able to free up for infrastructure change. And then there’s the question of how much that change would cost. Going completely to a rail-based system would be extraordinarily expensive; entire cities would have to be redesigned. Sprawl has spaced everything out so much that it’s rare for someone to be able to walk or cycle to their nearest grocery store, let alone to work. City planners would either have to come up with ways to link neighborhoods to shopping centers or to redistribute commodities along communal travel routes.

It’s hard to imagine how this would play out in rural areas, where people drive ten, 20 or 40 minutes just to get into town. Obviously there wouldn’t be a rail system to those people’s distant houses. In that situation, it doesn’t seem possible to completely replace cars with mass transit. A friend once showed me an overhead view of farming communities in South America in which homes are built around a cul-de-sac and their farms radiate out around them. While this model clusters rural residents together and makes communal transportation more feasible, it would require completely redistributing people’s land, and it would also require a huge cultural shift away from our current farm style of houses planted in the middle of their acreage.

Each city, town, incorporated area, and unincorporated area would have to come up with its own plan to reduce oil consumption. I can’t see this happening on a broad scale without a federal mandate–after all, individual states also subsidize oil–but then there would need to be federal oversight. I expect the same states that oppose national health mandates would oppose national transit mandates, so any such movement would take years just to get started.

Without more information, I can’t say whether or not this sort of thing will ever happen in the US. But I do hope our elected officials are at least thinking about it. I’d love to see us get off oil, for diplomatic as well as environmental reasons.

The ways we mourn

Boston skyline

Boston, summer 2004

Some of us lay our souls completely bare to everyone around us.

Some of us find comfort in helping–sharing information, searching for resources, offering a shoulder, donating.

Some of us stare mutely and refresh, refresh, refresh.

Some of us look for a reason, any sort of logic behind it all.

Some of us seek someone or something to blame.

Some of us lose hope.

Some of us find strength.

Some of us cry, alone, and push forward because it’s all we can do.

There are so many ways. But in the end, we all mourn.

Feminism and relatable characters

Today I started reading a review of Brave. It mentioned a little boy had no one to relate to in the film. Oh, boo hoo.

I haven’t seen the movie yet, so I stopped reading the review when it became evident that it contained copious spoilers. But I may as well have just stopped at that point. I mean come on. “No relatable boy characters” is the first thing that comes to mind?

And yet I’ve never seen this reviewer comment on any perceived lack of relatable female characters.

(This reviewer a writer I have enjoyed for many years, but he is occasionally sexist. Maybe unwittingly. I’m just baffled.)

Women have had to relate to male characters in stories pretty much since the beginning of storytelling. Do you really think we relate to the hot chick who is only in the film to give the guy someone to rescue? All the great adventure stories, traditionally, have had male heroes, and so we’ve just had to relate to those guys.

We have “women’s lit”, but that’s philosophy, us trying to figure out who the hell we are. It’s not entertainment.

There have been some excellent exceptions in recent decades, thanks to forward-thinking storytellers, but most movie heroes are still guys. Think about Marvel’s Avengers. Which team members got their own movies? (Granted, the superhero genre is flawed in general because it’s built on stories written decades ago about a bunch of white guys.)

Upshot: When someone who gets all the stories suddenly doesn’t have one story and starts complaining about it, I just have to laugh. Or cry.

Speaking of disappointing movies, I watched X-Men: First Class, and why do we still have token black guys who get predictably killed off?! Reminds me of how I immediately knew who that guy in Men in Black III was, because, well, he was black. Not to be too spoilery. Or pessimistic.

Self-disenfranchisement

I found this unposted musing in my Drafts. It was written on June 15, 2012.

Sometimes it feels like my entire generation subscribes to a feeling of self-loathing. We didn’t have to go through the hardships our parents did, the “logic” goes, so we feel that we grew up soft and incapable. We cripple ourselves by believing we can’t achieve, and we apply our disgust at ourselves to everyone else in our generation too. Oh, we don’t know how to work hard. Oh, soldiers today aren’t as heroic as the ones in Vietnam or World War II.  Oh, everybody wants a handout. We can be so hard on ourselves and others that we begin to hate ourselves and each other. We don’t respect each other because what do we know? We grew up having everything given to us by our parents.

When you look at the world this way, you’re being ageist and classist and rendering an entire generation inhuman. You stop thinking people have basic human rights because you don’t think they’ve earned them. This is a dangerous opinion, because human rights aren’t something that can be earned in the first place. They are the things every human being on the planet should have, regardless of when they were born or how they grew up. Our generation is willing to disenfranchise ourselves out of self-loathing. We’re not thinking about what this means for future generations.

Juggling social media sites

I’ve mentioned before the problems I’ve had with various social media sites. In an attempt to see if I could improve my experience, I started using Google Plus and ADN, but neither of those could replace Twitter or Facebook…so for the past few weeks I have been using four social media sites instead of two.

This is a huge time suck, and I’m not sure I’m really adding much value to my life.

I’ve mainly found Google Plus to be a decent place for news links, but I’m flummoxed by the lack of a “send to Instapaper” button. I despise having to open the link in Safari, copy it there, and then paste it into Instapaper. There are also occasionally some interesting discussions on Google Plus, but I don’t have enough people in my Circles for this to be a frequent occurrence.

ADN is a different animal. There are plenty of interesting people there, but a lot of the ones I’ve interacted with seem to have a lot more time to dedicate to ADN than I do. I tend to dip in and out; they’re there for longer blocks of time, holding up numerous conversation threads with sometimes dozens of people at once. ADN sort of feels like a microcosm of a party, where the extraverts are flitting around happily and I, the introvert, am observing, trying to interact, feeling overwhelmed, and ducking out early. I often feel like I’m missing everything, that I am not “cool” enough for ADN. Sometimes I attempt to broach what I consider to be important topics there, only to be either ignored entirely, or briefly engaged and then ignored. I guess I wouldn’t say that I have made any real friends on ADN. There are a few people I enjoy chatting with, to be sure, but for the most part it just feels really hard to interact on ADN.

I do try to keep in mind that it took me many years to get Twitter and Facebook curated such that I was comfortable with them. At first I would just follow anyone on Twitter who seemed interesting, but after awhile I would feel left out because these interesting people weren’t following me or talking to me. Eventually I learned to follow people who would actually interact with me, which made the experience much better. I also learned to temper my expectations, so I could follow bigger accounts and know that they have so much interaction to deal with, there’s no way they could respond to everything people said to them. I kept my following list as small as possible, so I wouldn’t feel like I was missing the party. I have a sort of balance on Twitter that gives me information and interaction. I have to remember how long it took me to get there.

Facebook is a different animal. I use it to keep track of actual friends: people from school, people from IRC, people from the AMRN, people from work, and family members. These are people I actually want to keep up with, not just random acquaintances. I use Facebook as the contact list for my personal life, essentially, which is why it is always distressing when someone decides to close their account, and why I have so much trouble with the idea of closing mine. The archivist in me loves that I can collect information about myself and my friends all in one place, and this built-in need usually wins out over my privacy concerns. I realize this is probably bad, but I don’t know what else to do. There is literally nothing else out there that can replicate what Facebook does for me.

I’m starting to wonder, though, if there isn’t a way I could try and quantify the benefits of the various social media platforms vs. the drawbacks. As I said, checking these four services takes time. What might I be doing with that time otherwise? Couldn’t I use my blog to chronicle my life, rather than depending on Facebook? Couldn’t I create an address book of the people I care about and contact them in other ways? Couldn’t I use RSS feeds to read news? Would these things save time? Would they free my mind for creative endeavors?

I have a few options for evaluating my social media use. I could stop completely for a given amount of time and see what happens. I could limit my use to a certain amount of time per day and see what happens. I could continue as normal, but track my time on social media the same way someone evaluating their diet would track food. That last would be the hardest to implement, but it might provide the best data.

Ultimately, I think social media has become habitual for me, a way of having something to do when I’m not sure what to do next. (Chores are also like this for me.) It may be distracting me from achieving goals, because working towards something is harder than taking a routine action. To achieve a goal you have to come up with a plan, and you have to break it up into steps, and you have to constantly figure out what the next step is. With habits, you just do it. No wonder habits are so hard to break. You feel like you’ve accomplished something, even if you haven’t.

Maybe instead of focusing on social media, I should focus on my goals. As I invest more time into achieving goals, the unimportant stuff will start to fall away naturally.

Regardless of how I change my social media habits, I do know this: things can’t stay the way they are now.