I voted YES, and I’m not happy about Indyref 2.0

It’s been a while since my last post, so apologies if you were hoping for a bookish post, but my thoughts on this are too long for Twitter😉

20 months ago, when Scots had the opportunity to decide whether or not we wanted to remain in the United Kingdom, I voted Yes. 2 days ago, when Brits had the chance to decide if we wanted to remain in the EU, I voted Remain. If you’ve been following the news, you’ll know I lost on both counts, but that the first one’s looking up for grabs again. And, honestly, that leaves me with dread.

It’s not that I don’t stand by how I voted in 2014. If anything, the stark contrast between how Scotland voted (62% Remain) compared to how England voted (53% Leave) only serves to underline the political disparities between the two countries that are at the root of my desire for independence.

It’s also not the case that I don’t agree with Nicola Sturgeon that all avenues for retaining Scotland’s membership in the EU should be explored, because I do. 20 months ago, one of the main reasons I heard from friends and colleagues for voting No was that they wanted to protect Scotland’s position in the EU, and 2 days ago Scots confirmed that desire. And, while I think other options, such as the “Reverse Greenland” situation suggested in this article, which would honour the votes in both referenda, should be explored first, I do also believe that the political landscape has changed enough that Scots’ view of their relationship with England and Europe has changed.

And it’s not that I am not angry at being lied to, because I so am. I’ve been angry for over a year, ever since David Cameron announced this EU referendum less than a year after using EU membership as a cornerstone of the Better Together campaign. I’m angry on behalf of all the No voters I know who voted not so much in favour of UK membership but in favour of EU membership, because we were lied to and now we’re stuck as part of a Union trying to throw itself back into the Dark Ages.

If it comes to a referendum, I will vote Yes once more, and once more hope and pray for victory, because I truly do believe that it is in the best interests of the Scottish people.

But I hope it doesn’t come to that.

For one thing, the EU and the UK face enough political and economic turmoil without adding to that, and I would prefer to wait for a referendum until we have a clearer idea of England’s and Europe’s futures. And I certainly don’t want people voting YES as a protest vote and then regretting it, as several Leave voters have already admitted to.

For another, there is still no guarantee that an independent Scotland would be permitted to join the EU; I considered it likely we would be grandfathered in back in 2014 (though others disagreed), but that was when we were leaving an established EU member state, not a former member state. Perhaps the EU would still welcome us with open arms, knowing our strong desire to remain and eager to find some stability for the thousands of EU citizens in Scotland. But perhaps not.

Alongside EU membership, there are other issues that were never wholly resolved in the 2014 referendum that are even more in question now. An independent Scotland may have been able to share the pound with rUK if both were in the EU, and may have been able to share an uncontrolled border, but those are both going to be off the table regardless of Scotland’s EU membership. So what currency will we use? The Euro is only an option if indeed we are allowed to remain in the EU. And what about the border? Where will people in Dumfries and Galloway go to buy their clothes if Carlisle is now across a passport-controlled border?

I have always, always wanted an independent Scotland to have a close, respectful relationship with England and the rest of the UK. While I think the political differences mean we simply cannot continue with the same political system we have had for over 300 years, that doesn’t change the fact that Scots live in England, English folk live in Scotland, Scottish children are born to English parents, and English children are born to Scottish parents, and after 300 years our countries are closely tied and I had hoped, when I voted Yes, for a relationship similar to Canada’s with the United States: the smaller, northern nation and its larger, southern neighbour sharing a peaceful, respectful border, with many aspects of shared culture and even shared sports leagues.

However, I think a vote to leave the UK in the wake of England and Wales voting to leave the EU would throw that into question, not only for the reasons I’ve outlined above but also because there’s a lot of anger up here right now, and I don’t want that anger to be a driving force in the creation of an independent Scotland.

And it’s going to get ugly. Because for all the No voters I’ve seen and heard saying they regret their choice, there are also many who are more British than European, who stand by their vote in 2014, who will not appreciate the uncertainty and debates happening all over again when they thought things were decided. If we thought insults against the English and accusations of cybernats being hurled around the Internet were bad last time, it will only get worse now, when our once-in-a-generation vote is repeated within the same generation.

Ultimately, I want Scots to choose independence because we believe it to be better than what we’ve had with the UK, not because the UK is circling the drain and we’re trying to get out.

Tropes I Love and Hate

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Tropes are funny things. At their most basic level, they’re narrative devices, and in genre fiction in particular tropes form a fundamental part of what makes a story an example of a particular genre. A science fiction novel isn’t a dystopia without a broken society or corrupt ruler. A fantasy novel isn’t a high fantasy without a chosen one or a world-threatening danger. A good example of this is Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha books. The original trilogy is undoubtedly high fantasy – secondary world, magic, a chosen one, a threat to the country and beyond – while Six of Crows is low fantasy; it’s still set in the magical secondary world, but it deals with the trials and adventures of a group of people within that world rather than the trials of the world.

Sometimes tropes are inherently problematic, like the Magical Negro or Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and these should be avoided unless you’re doing a deconstruction or subversion, but for the most part, tropes are impartial building blocks for stories. Whether they’re good or bad in a particular story depends on the execution. Few readers I know express a particular interest in magical boarding schools, but Hogwarts is almost universally loved because of the way Rowling envisioned it.

That’s not to say readers don’t have tropes they like and tropes they dislike. Some readers are partial towards magical boarding schools, while others can’t stand them. And when it’s a trope you like, oftentimes even if the execution is fudged you’ll still enjoy the story. I know I tend to feel this way about chosen one narratives; while nothing compares to a nuanced exploration of unwanted responsibility or the influence of fate, I’ll take a whiny teenager and call it good.

Recently, however, I’ve noticed there’s one glaring exception to this for me: Romance tropes. For a long time, I thought I disliked a lot of these tropes, before reading a stellar example and realising that I actually quite like them, but with caveats. I don’t know if it’s because romance is so common across genres so I’m more likely to come across poor examples of these tropes, or if I’m just really picky, but I find with a lot of the romance tropes I love, I always qualify them with ‘good’, because there are a lot of times I don’t really enjoy them. So I like a good love triangle, a good hate-to-love, or a good forbidden romance, yet often when I see one being set up I mentally groan. Another bloated love triangle taking attention away from the corrupt government – or worse, a love triangle between the ‘nice guy’ and the ‘bad boy’ who disrespects the protagonist’s rights? Another nonsensical romance where I can’t work out why the characters end up in love – or why they hated each other in the first place? Another couple who put their desire for each other above their other obligations?

You could fill a book with my criticisms of these three tropes. At the same time, however, they’re some of my favourite romance tropes. I love it when a protagonist has two competing love interests, both of whom are good people and who represent very divergent paths for the protagonist to take, like Kiaran and Gavin in The Falconer. I love it when a romantic relationship forces characters to grow, turning them from people who were prejudiced against or unfair to one another to a loving couple, like Daniel and Eleanor in Something Strange & Deadly. And I love it when two characters are in love with each other but for very good reasons cannot be together, and they recognise this, like Emma and Julian in Lady Midnight.

It’s rare for me to come across an example of any of these romance tropes and be ambivalent about it. Either it will irritate me to no end and I’ll think the book would be better off without it, or it will be one of my favourite parts of the book. There’s very little in-between.

What about you? Are there particular tropes – or categories of tropes – that you both love and hate, but are never ambivalent about?

Fantasy Worlds and Reader Assumptions

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A few weeks ago I wrote about those times when there are just enough anachronisms or inaccuracies in a book’s worldbuilding to make it feel a little off. I was talking about a historical fantasy book in that case, but even in secondary worlds it’s jarring to have, say, people riding on horseback while shooting automatic weapons without an explanation for the low-tech transportation (or high-tech weaponry).

But what about those times when it’s not the worldbuilding that’s wrong, but our perceptions of it? I often find that if the book I’m reading features a pre-industrial, Western-esque society, I assume certain tropes and a certain mediaeval feel, particularly when there’s extensive use of bows and swords but no gunpowder in sight. For instance, when I first read the Throne of Glass prequels, I’d concluded in my mind from the first two novels that the series was set in a mediaeval fantasy world, and did a double-take when the book mentioned a beauty salon. I think I actually thought to myself, ‘They didn’t have those in the Middle Ages’ before I realised how incredibly ridiculous that was. After that, I noticed more and more instances in the series where the worldbuilding is far more reminiscent of the 18th- to early 19th-century – not surprisingly, the time period when fairytales like Cinderella were codified – than the Middle Ages.

To an extent, it’s normal to have particular expectations when reading a fantasy book. If the main character’s an orphan, for instance, you can pretty much guarantee they’re the long-lost princess or the child of the world’s saviour from twenty years past. Similarly, if people are fighting with swords and bows you can probably expect they won’t be pulling out a mobile phone to call an ambulance afterwards. However, there’s a difference between expectations and assumptions, and I find myself sometimes falling into the latter. The result is always the same. I feel jolted out of the world, then reconsider my assumptions and enjoy the book so much more now that I can really feel the world as the author’s created it. Obviously, it would be much better to skip the first step or two and just enjoy the book!

I’m curious, does anyone else do this? Or are you good at suspending your assumptions about the world?

The “Women’s vote” is sexist and has no place in the EU debate

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Last week on International Women’s Day, I read an article about two campaign groups, one for each side of the EU debate. The first thing I noticed* was the comment about how the debate has been ‘quite male dominated’. So far, so inoffensive. I think few would argue that representation is an important facet of democracy, after all, and surely in an important referendum the campaigns should represent British society, women included. And I have no problem with people setting up campaigns on either side to argue the EU helps or hinders women’s rights, any more than I have a problem with people setting up similar campaigns on the environment or technological innovation.

*This article appears to be an updated version of the one I originally read, with greater emphasis on Priti Patel’s suffragette comments and Helen Pankhurst’s response. The article I originally read had a byline referencing Andrea Leadsom’s comment on how the campaign has been ‘quite male dominated’.

However, the way the campaigns discuss women’s votes is troubling. I’ll start with the Leave group, Women for Britain, because the comparison to the suffragettes really can’t be overlooked. After all, I’ve yet to see Nigel Farage force-fed on a hunger strike. Treating the EU as the same as patriarchal oppression is, frankly, insulting to the women who fought and died so Patel can make these claims.

Aside from the appropriation of the suffragettes’ struggles, however (which I really can’t say any better than Emmeline Pankhurst’s great-granddaughter herself in the article), there’s the fact that I’m simply left confused by Andrea Leadsom’s idea of what women care about:

She said women cared about issues such as the cost of living, the cost of the UK’s EU membership and future prospects for themselves and their children

As a female voter, I can tell you right now that absolutely none of those things on the list is a high priority for me. Cost of living? Well, sure, I’ve thought about it, but who hasn’t? Yes, it’s a greater issue for women, because of the gender pay gap and the fact women are more likely to be single parents, but to say all women care about it is a gross generalization.

The same goes for caring about the future for themselves and their children. I can guarantee you that most of the men I work with care more about the next generation’s prospects than I do. Why? Because they’re parents, and I’m not. The notion that ‘women care about … their children’ is the same kind of sexism that brought us that horrendous – and much parodied – ‘The woman who made up her mind’ video in our last referendum.

Likewise, I’ve certainly thought about future prospects but, again, so have the men I know. As for the cost of the UK’s EU membership, well, that one has literally never crossed my mind.

If Women for Britain has a problem with ascribing a universality to female-coded concerns, then the Remain campaign has a problem with assuming feminist issues are only of concern to female voters. To quote Nicky Morgan:

From safeguarding parental leave to tackling discrimination in the workplace and bringing an end to violence against women and girls, our EU membership is critical in helping protect and further the rights of women around Britain.

These are much more universal issues for women (even, arguably, shared parental leave, as it can help reduce employer discrimination against young women). But, again, I don’t understand why they’re ‘trying to target women voters’. Male voters, after all, have sisters, daughters, mothers, wives and girlfriends whom these issues personally affect, and in many ways these are all improvements that help men themselves, too. Ending discrimination in the workplace helps male business-owners who get the benefit of the best minds, not the best of half. Parental leave helps men who want to spend time with their children. Moreover, people don’t always vote just for what affects themselves and their loved ones, but for what they think is right. Plenty of men care about ending workplace discrimination because it’s the right thing to do. Treating these things as issues for female voters reinforces the sexist concept that things that affect women are of women’s concern only.

The most insidious part of all of this, however, is the implication that all those other issues that may affect how people vote in the referendum are ‘men’s issues’. The very idea of targetting campaigns to the women’s vote implies that there are certain issues women care about that men don’t care about, and that, for women, these issues supersede all those other issues men care about. As a voter, I care about the EU’s animal rights legislation, I care about its response to things like encryption and internet piracy, I care about measures it might implement to protect the environment, and I care about its treatment of refugees. None of these has anything to do with my gender.

Yes, it is absolutely worthwhile to campaign for or against the EU through the lens of women’s rights, but that should be a campaign that targets all voters who care about dismantling the patriarchy. Likewise, rather than trying to break into the ‘women’s vote’ because more women than men are undecided, perhaps campaigns should also consider if perhaps they’ve made women feel unwelcome; I remembe reading a piece in Private Eye a few years back about a British woman of South Asian descent who had left UKIP because of its sexism and racism (it might have been this woman, but I’m sure that sexism was mentioned in the Eye article, as well, and Nigel Farage responded by mansplaining what the party was really about). Both sides, however, would benefit from treating women not as a homogenous group, where they can win over 50% of the vote by touching on a few key buzzwords, but as a diverse group of millions of individuals whose priorities may or may not align with either the campaign’s priorities or those that society assumes women care about.

So, yes, by all means, consider how staying or leaving will affect women. Argue that staying gives us the protections of the ECHR or that leaving allows us greater freedom to enact laws that benefit women. But don’t pretend that by doing so you can secure the ‘women’s vote’. You can’t, because it doesn’t exist.

Equality in Worldbuilding

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One of the things I’ve always loved about fantasy is the way that it enables us to envision a world better than our own. When I was little these worlds were better because they had magic spells and invisibility cloaks, but as I’ve gotten older, while I still love the magic of fantasy, I also love the way secondary worlds aren’t bound by the same injustices and prejudices as our own. A heroine in a fantasy world can be judged on her skill, not her beauty, reminding the reader that we should treat the women in our lives similarly. If we cannot imagine an equal society, we cannot strive to create one in reality, but if we can imagine it in fiction, we’re one step closer towards it being a reality.

And so I knew, when I created the society my WIP is set in, that it would feature equality between men and women, and I quickly realised that if men and women are equal, then relationships of any gender configuration are likewise equal, because so much of homophobia is rooted in patriarchal gender essentialism. I’ve done a lot of thinking about what such a gender-equal world would look like, such as how women would be addressed and where surnames come from (spoiler: not the father/husband).

The other day, it struck me quite suddenly that this world is not as equal as I believe. I use he/she pronouns for all my characters, who are all cisgender. Where, you may ask, are the transgender or non-binary characters? The sad, embarrassing fact is that it never occurred to me to write them. I panicked. Here I was, trying to represent a gender-equal society when thanks to my own ingrained biases I had overlooked a key aspect of gender equality. How could I fix this? I can’t pretend to have a gender-equal society without delving into the lives of transgender and non-binary people in this world, but clearly I have ingrained biases about gender identity, and my friends are all cisgender, so how can I possibly sensitively and respectfully write a transgender character?

The fact is I can’t, and quite frankly I shouldn’t try, because transgender readers deserve better than that; they deserve to see themselves represented fairly and respectfully in fantasy (and all genres) by writers who know what they’re talking about. Yes, I have a responsibility to learn about their experiences and challenges, but because it makes me a decent human being, not to prop up my own worldbuilding.

It was arrogant of me to presume I was even capable of writing a perfectly equal society, when I come from a place of so much privilege. Yes, I’m a woman, but I’m heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied, white and middle-class, and all of those privileges mean I have unexamined biases and am ignorant of my own ignorance.

I’ve been trying to create a perfectly equal world, but I am a product of this unequal society I live in and my own privileged background. There are a lot of social justice issues I simply don’t know enough about to sensitively portray people from these backgrounds in my writing. This doesn’t mean I shouldn’t learn – I unreservedly should – but it does mean I should think twice about my own worldbuilding. I’m not creating a perfectly equal world. I’m creating a world that’s more equal than the one we live in, and I hope that in fifty years’ time people will pick up my book and snark at how backwards people were in the early 21st century.

2016 Reading Goals March Update

Wow, can you believe we’re two months into 2016 already?

At the beginning of the year, I set myself a few reading goals for 2016. Now that we’re a sixth of the way through the year, it seems a good time to revisit them and see how I’m doing.

I’ve read 19 books so far this year, which according to Goodreads means I’m three books ahead of schedule. I’ve read five books by authors of colour, which is well over a sixth of my goal of 13 (though four of them were in a single quartet, so I’m not sure that ‘counts’, as it’s actually only two different writers), and three books from outside my comfort zone, which is again more or less on track.

If you’re interested, this is what I’ve read so far this year:

2016 reading goals 1-1

TruthwitchCurtsies & ConspiraciesBones & BreathThe Ladies of Grace Adieu 

2016 reading goals 1-2

Waistcoats & WeaponryManners & MutinyWinterspellFrozen Tides

2016 reading goals 1-3

A Book of Spirits and Thieves | Blank Canvas | Gates of Thread and Stone

2016 reading goals 1-4

A Spy in the House | The Body at the Tower | The Traitor in the Tunnel | Rivals in the City

2016 reading goals 1-5

Soulless | Changeless | Kingdom of Ashes | A Thousand Nights

When worldbuilding doesn’t feel quite “right”

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Worldbuilding can be a tricky thing to get right. There are so many things to take into consideration, from the details of the technology available to the social repercussions of cultural attitudes. It’s such a pervasive part of a story, however, that it can really make or break a book. Good worldbuilding draws you into the tale, creating a lush atmosphere that makes it impossible to put the book down. Bad worldbuilding makes the story confusing and hampers our ability to connect with the characters and the narrative. But what about those stories that fall somewhere in between, where the world is generally cohesive and well-considered, but some things just don’t feel quite right?

Obviously, if the worldbuilding in a book is just rubbish I’ll DNF that sucker and never look back. And sometimes it takes time to overcome my own preconceptions to settle into a secondary world (I was kind of thrown by the post-technological aspects of the world in Gates of Thread and Stone, for instance, but that was all on me for expecting a pre-industrial fantasyland).

Rather, what I’m talking about are engaging stories with well-developed characters, gripping plots, and an absorbing setting, but there are inconsistencies that mean the story doesn’t feel quite right. For instance, I’ve been reading Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series recently. It’s set in the same world as the Finishing School series, and I loved that quartet’s interpretation of Victorian England which, even though it had supernatural beings and dirigibles, still felt quintessentially Victorian, echoing the social mores and culture of the era.

The first book of the Parasol Protectorate series continues in this tradition, and in addition to a wonderful rendition of Victorian London features just about everything I love in a book – brilliant protagonist, snarky humour, clever plot – except Lord Maccon, a werewolf from the Highlands, occasionally slips into a kind of weird Scots-flavoured speech that made me cringe. Which makes no sense, because Scots is the language of the Lowlands, by the time Lord Maccon was even born it was only really spoken by the working classes, and, uh, he doesn’t sound like anyone I’ve ever heard in real life. Still, he mostly speaks English, so it didn’t bother me too much.

Until book 2, which takes us to his former pack in the Highlands. And suddenly those little inconsistencies become great honking questions. Why are they calling Lord Maccon ‘laird’ when he’s an earl? Why does Sidheag mix up ‘nae’ and ‘no’? Why is she using a word like ‘nae’ in the first place when she’s an English-educated Victorian noblewoman from the Highlands? Why does everyone assume characters eloping FROM the Highlands are going to Gretna Green rather than, you know, the nearest church? In the grand scheme of the story, they’re all pretty minor gripes, but they all kind of throw me out of the story a little bit.

If this were the first book in the series, or if I expected further books to be set in Scotland, it’d be enough to make me stop reading, even though I did, on the whole, enjoy the book. However, I adored the first book and the next book is set in London and Italy, so I’m hoping it just won’t be an issue for the rest of the series. Still, it makes the worldbuilding all feel a little bit sloppy, when such care has obviously been taken to integrate werewolves and crystalline valves into Victorian London.

What do you think? Does this kind of thing drive you batty, too? Or should I just get over myself and focus on all the things I DID love about the book?

Patriarchy and Scully’s motherhood arc on The X-Files

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The alien mythology of The X-Files is well-known for its convoluted plot threads, the result of the writers having only the vaguest of ideas about it themselves. While this openendedness allowed for the story to develop in ways it wouldn’t have otherwise, for instance in creating the popular Cigarette-Smoking Man, eventually the mythology began to crumble under its own weight as the writers piled mystery upon mystery in an attempt to keep it going; even when they sought to resolve some of the mysteries that had fuelled the story, however, as in the case of Samantha Mulder’s disappearance, the resolution fell flat from a plot perspective because it had been teased and hinted at so much that I don’t think there is any revelation that would have been satisfying.

What saves the episodes that resolve the Samantha arc from utterly failing is Mulder’s reaction to it all; his grief at the loss of his mother, his desperation to find the truth, and his relief at his sister’s soul being at peace. Of course, it’s easy to criticise the myth arc from the age of Netflix, but the idea of not resolving everything at the end of the episode was rather unusual back in 1993, and for all its faults, the saving grace for the myth arc of The X-Files is its emotional and thematic resonance. Indeed, throughout the series the alien mythology arc’s greatest strength is its impact on the main characters, whom we grow to love through their behaviour and interactions on the Monster-of-the-Week episodes. The specifics of where Scully’s cancer comes from are not important; what matters is that it’s killing her, and it was knowingly caused by the Syndicate. The aftermath of Scully’s abduction is one of the best parts of the myth arc because it’s so focussed on how the shadowy conspiracy affects her, not only in the physical harm it causes her but the way it has forced her to question everything she believes to be true.

This leads me to another aspect of the continuing harm caused by Scully’s abduction: her infertility. This is a part of the arc that I have more issues with, not only because I’m not quite clear on the logic of it (what on earth do they plan on doing with the literally hundreds of thousands of eggs from each woman?), but because I can’t help feeling like the show wouldn’t have done it had Scully not been a woman. For all that I find Scully to be one of the best examples of a female character on television whom the narrative treats as a character first and foremost, I can’t imagine the show doing a storyline like that of ‘Christmas Carol’/‘Emily’ centred around Mulder. The way the alien conspiracy uses Scully’s body to perpetuate their own ends is disturbingly reminiscent of the patriarchal use of women’s bodies as vessels to perpetuate male primogeniture. And perhaps that’s the point, that human women’s bodies are viewed by the conspiracy as no more their own than they are by the patriarchal society they live in. ‘Per Manum’ is an excellent example of how the people women trust with their reproductive care can betray them, and even the men closest to them, like Scully’s partner, Doggett, don’t believe the things they know to be true. Nevertheless, there’s something strangely gendered about basing an entire episode of the show around a female character’s desire, and lack of ability, to have children.

And yet I cried my eyes out watching it. Because sexist or not, what this episode is about is a woman who has seen her sister die and her own health deteriorate at the hands of a shadowy conspiracy, only to learn as she regains her health that they’ve taken something else from her, something she never had but always wanted. And it’s utterly heartbreaking to watch.

What stops this from feeling wholly like a sexist footnote is that we, the audience, already know that Scully wants to be a mother. It’s hinted at as early as the fifth episode, ‘Jersey Devil’, with her godson’s birthday party and her subsequent date with the father of one of the children in attendance, and confirmed in season 4’s ‘Home’, when she tells Mulder she would like to have children at some point. Moreover, rather than feeling like her desire to have children is tacked on because she’s a woman and it’s expected, it brings depth to her characterisation and reinforces how much she sacrifices for the X-Files; not only has she now physically lost the ability to have biological children, but, as the social worker in ‘Emily’ points out, the demands of her career – and the dangers of collaborating on Fox Mulder’s quest – mean that her continued dedication to her work on the X-Files mean she can’t provide a safe, loving home for a child herself, and she hardly has the time to find a partner to raise one with. By her continued choice to work with Mulder, then, Scully is also choosing to give up marriage and a family – but there’s a world of difference between choosing a career that leaves little time for others and having the opportunity to have a child stolen from her because of that career.

Indeed, in a way the show had no real choice but to have the Syndicate violate Scully’s reproductive rights in some way, because such a major part of the myth arc is the Syndicate’s hybrid experimentation. To not examine the emotional consequences of this treatment of women would be to treat all the women involved as a mere plot point, where the narrative is using women’s bodies as tools as much as the Syndicate is. By having Scully deal with the consequences of this, then, the show acknowledges the deep emotional trauma the Syndicate are causing with their hybrid experimentation. Moreover, inasmuch as Scully’s infertility arc is carried forward by its emotional and thematic resonance, her pregnancy and motherhood have further issues that make this more difficult to fall back on.

The show’s attitude towards Scully changes after her pregnancy is revealed. Men like Skinner and Doggett – and even, to an extent, Mulder – who previously treated her as an equal now make decisions behind her back and keep her in the dark. When her life and her child’s are in danger, she’s taken away in the night, without being told where she’s going, without even bringing her gun. At one point Skinner assigns Krycek to protect her, because he’s the only person around, and apparently Scully can’t protect herself. If the intent was to show how utterly helpless Scully feels at being unable to run away, unable, even, to fire a gun (which is contraindicted in pregnancy, especially late pregnancy, though I’m unclear on whether that outweighs the risk of being attacked by super-powered alien replicants), then it fails, because there’s so much focus on the immediate danger and the physical risk that we don’t get a chance to see how incredibly terrifying it is for a woman with Scully’s skills, experience and personality to have to rely on men to protect her.

It’s as though women in the world of The X-Files can either be career-oriented, with masculine traits, or they can be family-oriented, with feminine traits. Indeed, throughout Season 8 Scully is more feminine than in earlier seasons, although this may not be related to her pregnancy; Doggett is much more masculine than the sensitive and intuitive Mulder, and in setting him up as the future protagonist the show seems to betray some of Scully’s existing development by giving her those characteristics. It’s done subtly enough that it can be argued it’s genuine character development, that 29-year-old Scully hid her emotions because she worked in a predominantly male environment, but 36-year-old Scully is past caring about that, and likewise she develops more paranormal intuition because it is rational to believe in the paranormal after everything she’s seen and experienced. Emotional resonance, however, hinges on having a connection to the characters as people, and if that’s the strength of the myth arc it’s undermined by changes to the character.

Arguably, this starts even earlier; this review of ‘Arcadia’ asserts that as Scully and Mulder’s relationship becomes more romantic the show seeks to heteronormalise it. It’s as though the series is saying that, yes, a woman can be rational and scientific, but at the expense of a sex life (as evidenced by ‘Never Again’), and in order to have a sexual relationship with a man a woman must become more ‘womanly’. It’s particularly unfortunate in that one of the strongest parts of Scully and Mulder’s relationship is that they are not stereotypes of their genders.

From a feminist perspective, a show like The X-Files with only two lead characters (with an equal gender split) comes up against two complementary but rather mutually exclusive critiques. On the one hand, there’s the reaction against the portrayal of feminine characteristics as inferior, but on the other there’s a desire to see women who embody stereotypically masculine traits, for the obvious reason that most women – and men – have some masculine and some feminine characteristics. The X-Files seems to model Scully in the latter mould, but neatly avoids the former issue by giving Mulder the more feminine side to some of Scully’s more masculine traits. By making the male protagonist sensitive and intuitive, the show legitimises these traits in a patriarchal context, and Mulder’s intuition is not lesser than Scully’s rationalism. Moreover, Scully is not ‘more masculine’ than Mulder; while she is the rational one in the duo, she’s also the more introspective one. Their dynamic works so well because both characters are well-developed, unique individuals.

And because Scully is such a well-rounded character, I have no issue believing that this reserved, rational, thoughtful, loyal woman might also want to be a mother, because we’ve seen that she has a close relationship with her family and her godson and we’ve seen that she has a nurturing streak. And in that context, I think her infertility storyline works very well on an emotional level, because it’s just one more way the Syndicate are destroying her life, and all because she refused to be the docile young woman who would participate in a cover-up that they wanted her to be; she refused to conform to feminine stereotypes, and as a result they took from her the chance to reach the holy grail of patriarchal womanhood: motherhood.

The alien conspirators use Scully’s body, and the bodies of thousands of other women, to further their own ends, clearly evoking the patriarchal underpinnings of American society. It’s actually suggested by Krycek that Scully’s pregnancy was deliberate, facilitated by the chip in her neck and, regardless of how much she wanted this child, her lack of consent in this matter should be an issue, and yet it doesn’t come up. And this is where my feelings about her infertility arc and her subsequent pregnancy and motherhood diverge sharply. Where her infertility was an indication of how the Syndicate stole her reproductive choices from her, the pregnancy is an equal violation, but by giving her something she wants the question of her consent and choice is irrelevant. The implication is that if a woman can’t have children it’s a tragedy; if she is unexpectedly pregnant, whatever the cause, it’s a miracle. Of course, it’s also heavily implied that the pregnancy was a result of a natural conception, with Mulder as the father (again, did they really take ALL her eggs?), but the fact remains that when confronted with the possibility that Scully was deliberately impregnated, the concern is over what the resultant child will be like, not the invasion of Scully’s body. In the ninth season her main arc appears to be finding out where her child came from, but out of concern for his wellbeing. This is natural, of course; she is a parent worrying for her son. However, her concerns about William overshadow the fact that the core of this investigation is the invasion of her own reproductive rights.

Scully’s struggle with infertility and her later pregnancy form a compelling character arc for a woman who can be stoic yet maternal, strong yet emotionally vulnerable, showing another facet of how Scully’s choice to remain with the X-Files and to uncover the truth has had a personal cost, and presenting us with a woman who, like most women, embodies both masculine and feminine traits. Yet it’s harmed by the show’s reluctance to fully engage with the misogyny evident in the alien conspiracy’s treatment of women’s bodies. Ultimately, I can’t quite silence the niggling feeling that it also shows that, no matter how independent and rational-thinking Scully may be, her deepest desires ultimately conform to those expected of women in a patriarchal society.

Romance and UST

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One of my least-favourite tropes is UST, or Unresolved Sexual Tension, which is pretty much what it says on the tin. Two characters have romantic feelings for each other but either don’t admit them to themselves or don’t act on them for various reasons. For years. It’s most egregious in non-serial or semi-serial TV drama, where the UST is often introduced in the very first episode and seems to form the core of the relationship between two characters for multiple seasons. When one character is clearly the protagonist, however, I tend to find that this leaves the other one feeling underdeveloped, as their relationship with the protagonist, and by extension overall character development, is defined by the sexual tension rather than anything else.

When the characters are both well-developed, however, I still find extended UST tiresome. By hinting at a potential romantic relationship yet never establishing one, the writers prevent the characters’ relationship from growing in either a platonic or romantic direction, and as a result stunt their overall growth. As a viewer, it feels like the writers are trying to keep options open, by creating the opportunity for a romance but not committing to it, but instead of giving the relationship momentum it stagnates it. Either beginning a relationship or nixing the possibility of one provides opportunities for the characters to develop, but the perpetual ‘Will They or Won’t They?’ keeps that from happening.

Of course, you need some level of UST in order for the fulfillment of the relationship to resonate with the audience. Two friends suddenly snogging leaves the audience wondering what happened and feeling like their behaviour was out of character. Where to draw the line between relationship buildup and incessant UST is naturally subjective, but ultimately what it boils down to is whether or not there’s progression. If the characters are gradually drawing closer together (or further apart), or overcoming issues that impede a relationship, then there’s satisfying development and character growth. It’s when each episode features a bit of flirting, maybe some held gazes, but ends with them in the same position as the last that I dislike it. If you could watch an episode from season 1 and an episode from season 5 and the characters treat each other in the same flirtatious manner, that’s what I’m talking about.

Castle and BeckettAn interesting example is Castle. At the start of the show, Beckett finds Castle irritating (though she secretly loves his books) and wishes she could get him out of her police station. They gradually become friends, but then spend a good season and a half pretty much defining this trope, before beginning a relationship at the end of season 4. I’ve only watched about as far as season 6, but in my opinion, their relationship, and the role it played in the overall story, improved from that point on. In a largely episodic show like Castle, a happy relationship can fade into the background, in much the same way that the characters’ platonic relationships simply are. Ironically, characters who are actually in a romantic relationship are, in the context of the narrative, much less defined by that relationship than characters stuck in endless UST, providing better opportunities for character growth.

Murdoch + JuliaThat’s not to say that characters can’t grow as a result of extended romantic tension. As of the seventh season of Murdoch Mysteries, William and Julia are finally engaged. However, their relationship has not been in a perpetual state of ‘Will They or Won’t They?’ up to this point; instead, there have been various barriers to their relationship that have forced each of them to reconsider their beliefs and what they want in life. In other words, their feelings for each other drive a substantial part of their character development, so that when they do get together they do so as people who have a real chance at happiness together, something that would not have been the case had they married five years earlier.

Romantic relationships have so much power to drive character development that it’s frustrating when they instead work to hold it back, which is exactly what happens when creators are reluctant to either commit to a romantic relationship or negate the possibility of one. In many cases, this seems to be an effort to keep options open, but perhaps even more frustrating is when the writers seem reluctant to even acknowledge the UST is there, as is the case with The X-Files.

Mulder and Scully’s friendship in this series was intended to be wholly platonic, which I think is absolutely wonderful. God knows there are far too few strong male-female friendships on television (especially those where the characters have never once had a romantic relationship with one another), not to mention the scarcity of female characters who are, as Scully is, allowed to exist without trying to define them in relation to a male character. And I think Carter’s dedication to this is both why it takes so long for the show to admit Mulder and Scully’s feelings for each other and why, when it does, it keeps their relationship in the background.

Mulder and ScullyHowever, the attempt to downplay their UST actually makes it more prominent; there’s just enough to suggest that something’s going on, but without the satisfaction of seeing the resolution of it, and, as a result of that lack of resolution, something that wasn’t even meant to be a part of the show takes on an importance greater than it needs to have because it’s kept simmering under the surface. At once, their relationship is defined by their attraction to each other and the show’s refusal to allow that attraction to change anything. We neither see them come into conflict over their feelings nor watch their relationship fade into the background like Castle’s and Beckett’s (in essence, the romantic version of the platonic friendship that was envisioned).

I’ve focussed on TV shows here because in my experience TV is the medium where this trope tends to crop up. There may be UST between two characters in the first 2.5 books of a trilogy, but there’s an expectation of some kind of resolution of it by the third book; whether they get together, drift apart, or confess their love only for one of them to die, it’s unlikely the author will leave the relationship hanging. In a TV show, on the other hand, the writers never know in advance how much time there will be to tell their story, and so they’re more likely to draw out the possibility of a resolution much longer than makes sense for the characters.

Moreover, in an episodic programme the UST between the characters may be the primary source of drama that runs longer than a single episode, and writers are often reluctant to abandon that for fear of changing something that keeps the audience invested, meaning it carries on far longer than it necessarily needs to. However, I would argue that drawing the romantic tension out too long eventually causes the audience to no longer care because it seems unlikely they’ll ever get together anyway. Besides, this trope tends to appear in shows that aren’t primarily about the relationship; whether Castle and Beckett or Murdoch and Julia or Mulder and Scully are colleagues, friends, friends with UST, or lovers is secondary to the fact that each pair works together to fight crime.

On the whole, I adore romantic subplots. Whether the relationship is one to root for or not, they often showcase a different facet of a character’s personality and can be effective drivers for character development. Like any subplot, however, there needs to be progress towards some sense of resolution in order for it to serve that purpose and to be something that it’s worth becoming emotionally invested in. Unresolved sexual tension, by its very definition, falls short of resolution, meaning that if it goes on for too long it becomes less emotionally resonant and, in some cases, downright irritating.

This blog in 2016

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I’ve been off work the past couple of weeks and it’s given me time to think about where I want this blog to go in the next year or so. I’ve been blogging (admittedly intermittently) for a while now, and although my blog has always been centred around books, I’ve done memes, reviews, discussion posts, writing updates, and more. Over the past year I’ve really had a chance to work out the kind of posts I like doing, and I’ve come to a couple of conclusions.

One, I love writing recommendations. I’m not really a fan of writing neutral or negative reviews, but I adore telling people to read books I love (I’m not bossy, I’m enthusiastic!). However, I find that at my reading pace one rec a week is about my limit, and I do that on Wednesdays at Coven Book Club. As a result, I don’t foresee many book reviews or recommendations coming up on this blog.

I also love to write discussion posts. This might be my background as a literature student, or maybe just a conceited desire to spread my opinions, but I do enjoy sharing thoughts about a particular aspect of a book or a specific character archetype or theme. I like delving deep and formulating an argument about the feminist implications of this character or what makes that character a compelling villain. I also enjoy broader discussions about fandom and genre. At the same time, my interest in this has never been exclusively bookish; I enjoy deconstructing TV shows and movies just as much as novels. In the coming year, I anticipate quite a few discussion posts about books as well as other fiction. Because this is ostensibly a book blog, I’d like to keep the balance skewed towards books, but with plenty of opportunity for discussion of Scully’s circus-tent pantsuits*.

As you’ve probably worked out by now, I’m not very good at keeping to a self-imposed blog schedule. This is particularly true with discussion posts, as it can take me a while to properly distill my thoughts and I sometimes think I’ll have a post ready by a given date only to feel like it’s not quite right. However, I would like to aim for some consistency in posting this year, so instead of aiming to post once or thrice a week or something like that, I’m aiming for 25 discussion posts this year, at least 15 of which will be bookish in nature. To help keep me on track, I’m signing up for the Book Blog Discussion Challenge hosted by Feed Your Fiction Addiction and It Starts At Midnight. My goal of 15 bookish posts puts me in the “Creative Conversationalist” category.

The other posts you’ll likely see on this blog in the next year are writing updates. These will probably be rather intermittent or in bursts, as I don’t often have much to say about my writing. Some of these will probably trend towards the discussion end of things, while others will be shameless navel-gazing.

So, that’s what you can expect on The Prattle of Hastings in 2016. Posts around once a fortnight, mostly discussions about books and other fiction, and some writing updates.

*Okay, I’d rather talk about how she’s an awesome woman**

**But they’re pretty damn ugly.