Thursday, April 24, 2014

On Bronies and Responsibility

I came across this post recently on the subject of bronies, male fans of My Little Pony. This is my lack of Tumblr knowledge showing, but I find it hard to parse exactly who said what in that conversation, so I'll sum up the whole thing (and trigger warnings for sexual assault in a situation that involves the potential for that, though it doesn't happen):

The original poster is relating the events of a My Little Pony Convention, where she met an 11 year old girl full of MLP enthusiasm. The same girl came to her the next day, scared, because she was being stalked by an older male brony who was trying to get her alone in his hotel room. The poster and her friend rallied around the girl, hid her, and pushed the brony away for the rest of the convention. And she concludes that she's angry she is that this space for kids was being turned into something gross and sexual and entirely about the bronies involved. And she is absolutely right; that's absolutely gross and wrong.

The responses start there, mostly involving a debate over whether the poster should have gone to the police, and whether any good would have come out of that. The general consensus is that both the convention holders and the police would be very reluctant to take any action until something outright criminal occurs, which is incredibly depressing and probably accurate. What I wanted to emphasize, though, is the first sentence of the last paragraph: "I’m going to lay it on the line here: If you identify as a Brony and you do NOT call out this behavior when you see it, you are a piece of shit. ... You’re a dude who likes MLP? That’s awesome! I hope you get much joy of it. But if that joy comes at the harm and expense of little kids then fuck you. Seriously."

So in light of that, it's time to talk about what My Little Pony means to me, and what responsibilities that gives me.

First: I totally get the obvious objection, that the whole point here is that an unwanted group is taking a show affiliated with a fandom and warping it all to be about them, and by centering this discussion on what MLP means to me I'm doing the same thing. I can only ask that you hear me out; this post is about working through what the show means to me in order to build for myself how I can support it. With that proviso...

 A lot of the specifics here don't apply to me exactly. I *like* MLP, in the sense that I'll go out of my way to watch it, and there's a lot it does that I'm a big fan of, which I'll probably get into later. But I don't consider myself a brony, on the basis that the concept of brony has become so toxic to me that I want to go out of my way to avoid that label and because I'd never go to a convention for it, both because my level of fandom isn't quite that high and because I don't like going to conventions in general; whenever there's a situation where there's a large number of people I don't know and my own role in that group is undefined, unless I have a very compelling reason to attend, I'd rather stay home. My anxiety issues don't handle crowds well. (The difference, in case you were wondering, between that and a conference situation is that at a conference, my role is defined, especially if I'm giving a paper.)

And all of that is equivocating nonsense. The issue here isn't to measure exactly what kind of fan I am. The issue is whether I'm willing to stand against those who would warp MLP into something that comes at the extent and harm of an audience that can't defend itself. In the past, I've deliberately avoided the brony question because I didn't want to get involved; I thought if I avoided putting a clear label on my own interest on the show, I could get away with just enjoying the show on my own terms. Well, as I've said elsewhere online today, escapism is a political statement, and a choice in itself. Saying I'm just here to enjoy myself and not hurt anyone stops being enough when people who do want to hurt someone show up.  The tl;dr version of this post is that I want to be someone who would stand against the people described in that tumblr, and I want the writing of this post to be a first step towards that.

I think the sexualization of MLP characters is absolutely gross because it's alienating to an audience that shouldn't have to worry about that, and it's so antithetical to what the show is about. As for what it is about, that's not hard--it's right there in the show's subtitle, "Friendship is magic." It is a show about six friends with very different personalities and interests, and how they stay friends both in spite of and because of those differences. At its best, it stays true to those characters and those friendships above all else, and that's what I personally find appealing about it. That it does so with humor and long-term world building, that it's presenting these characters to young girls who are bombarded with media messages about how they should be competing in terms of looks and shunning those who are different, that, for the most part, it respects those fans and doesn't talk down to them---all of that is icing on the friendship cake, as far as I'm concerned. (That "talking down" point is a little iffy; in the early seasons especially the episodes tended to end with the lead character literally writing a letter that told what lesson she learned from the episode. But hey, it's miles ahead of the "The More You Know" GI Joe thing.)

It's important to me that I make clear that watching MLP is not a blip in my personal media history. As a kid, I read a lot of Babysitter Club books. When I got older, it was Judy Blume. And older than that, I spent a summer reading the works of Maeve Binchy. Usually, whenever I tell anyone that, I add that it was because I'd ran out of sci-fi and fantasy books in my local rural library. And that's a lie, or at the very least, a sin of omission, and one with a sexist core. It was something I said because I didn't want people to think I read "girly" books because I actually enjoyed them. (And, if we're going for total honesty, as a teenage hetero male, books about female desire was kind of a turn on.) For most of my childhood, I felt like reading itself was considered an un-masculine past time--I had wonderfully supportive teachers, but to my own peers, books--and any level of effort in school in general, beyond the bare minimum--were weird and uncool. And being caught with the latest Ann M. Martin was just going to make things worse for me.  That doesn't excuse not owning up to it in the past decade, though; my only excuse is that a childhood is a hard thing to put behind you, as my collections of dreams in any particular week could attest.

I've also been a fan of certain TV shows that unfold on similar lines: Gilmore Girls, Nashville,  Gossip Girl. I have a very, very high standard for rom-coms, but when I find one I like, I'll praise it for ages, like My Best Friend's Wedding or Fever Pitch (okay, high but eccentric standard). The first 30 minutes of Frozen rocked my world.  Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane was one of my favorite titles Marvel ever published. What all of these things have in common are, for me, the reason why I turned to those "girlie" books to get something that the YA sci-fi of Heinlein or Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy just weren't supplying for me: emotional depth. A large portion of Western fiction is centered around action, around characters who are trying to get something accomplished above all else. These other stories that attracted (and attract) me aren't about that, not primarily; they're more about just being. They're stories that recognize that people are filled with these strange, overwhelming impulses, and they focus more on how we can relate to those impulses and relate to others through them. And that mattered to me. It's not that the other stories don't do that--Dan Harmon's shows, Community, and Rick & Morty, are both examples of shows that tend more towards zany meta-narratives, but also keep a core of emotion to them. (His big complaint about rom-coms, incidentally, is basically the inverse of this, that they're all the emotion part with no discernible action.) But so much of Western masculinity seems to be tied up in hiding the fact that we're all dealing with this inner turmoil. Shows that are overtly about characters working their way through these emotions, trying to become better people in the process--all that matters to me.

Granted, it's not something I'd want to watch exclusively, or read exclusively; heart-wrenching can become over-wrenched, with too much exposure, and this type of story can lend itself to melodrama very quickly (I'm looking at you, The Notebook). But experiencing media where people openly struggle with their own inner depths appeals to me--and, this probably goes without saying, gives me impetus to express my own. Now, I'm not saying every episode of MLP is a deep journey into the inner psyches of magical horses. But it certainly isn't a show about a positive set of role models from young girls and turning them into sex fantasies. Rather, it is a show about how friends can explore who they want to be in the comfort of other friends. And I want to defend the right of those who aren't in a position to defend themselves to be able to do the same. I don't know if this post is a step towards that, but it is a step towards me realizing that I have a responsibility to do so.

Later Days. 

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Keep in mind, my marking time beard is also two and a half weeks old at this point.

It's been a very quiet month; it's that special time between terms, and I got most of my marking out of the way early in April, so I've been taking it fairly easy. I'll try to populate the site with a bit more "stuff" in the next few days.

As for now, here's an update from my life. I was having lunch with a friend, and I wanted to do a little reading before she got there, so I was dressed in an instructor's suit (when I'm doing scholarly reading, I tend to do that. It helps the learning flow. No really, it does.). That means collared shirt, sweater, tan pants, and nice shoes. In short order during our lunch, I broke the fly to my pants when I went to the washroom; spilt soup on the sweater; and, when attempting to tie the shoe, pulled the shoelace in half, rendering one shoe laceless.  So I hobbled home, with one shoe that had no lace, a fly stuck at half mast, and a big stain on my shirt, clutching my copy of  Fred Botting's Limits of horror: Technology, bodies, Gothic. I looked like a hobo scholar.

Later Days.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Also, I'm not showering regularly. That's a playoffs thing, right?

In honor of the tradition in hockey where members of a team in the playoffs stop shaving, I've decided to do the same until I'm done all the marking for the course I'm teaching. That is all.

Later Days.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Friday Link Thinks: Go Rub a Monkey's Tummy with Your Head

All right, so the luster has gone off the Friday Quotations. So it goes. But let's try a new weekly feature out for a spin .Welcome to Friday Link Thinks, in which I choose five links that have come my way, and briefly talk about them. Yes, it's yet another "list of things" type post.

A bit of background: back way back, I realized that the largest collection of information on new online articles I had was what people were tweeting on my twitter feed. The downside, though, is that the people who tweet the most useful links also tend to be the people who tweet a few dozen times a day, and sorting through the riveting stories of how their breakfast is going and baffling in-jokes for what I actually wanted was becoming more a time-commitment than I was willing to make. So I counted my self quite lucky to stumble onto, an online ... service, I guess... which lets you plug your feeds into it, and strips those feeds for links. You could, for example, set it for facebook feeds and blog feeds, but I set it to my twitter. (Since it's a free service, I imagine that means it's mining all the data I submit to it. With Facebook, that brings up an interesting question--do I have a moral obligation not to provide the information my friends post? They're posting on Facebook, which means that some level of privacy is intended, and yet, they're already opening themselves up to Facebook data mining. But do I have any right to give that information to yet another party? Complicated.) And now, I have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to information. My bookmark pages are flooded, and so, I'm dealing with that flood a bit by posting some of them here. So without further ado, here's what's interesting yesterday (there's a day lag on creating the feed):

Gawker Bans Internet Slang by Andrew Beaujon. This piece grabbed my attention because, in the class I taught this term, the concept of internet linguistics, the words that we've created to communicate online, really got a lot of the students interested. And I've been on the look-out for articles with similar slants ever since. The issue here is obvious--by imposing strict grammar rules on the Gawker staff, editor Max Reed is drawing a firm line between his writers and the general internet public. Gawker-type sites get a lot of their readership from their projected persona, which is less a professional who keeps themselves separate, and more an enthused hobbyist of cool that the readership can relate to, so a memo like this is probably bad press, to say the least. It also points to the tension that exists between "proper" English and common netspeak.

The Guilt of Video-game Millionaires. by Simon Parkin. Obviously, the highest profile example of the indie "video-game millionaire" recently has been Dong Nguyen, the creator of Flappy Birds, which has been particularly interesting because he not only made a lot of money and ultimately removed the game from circulation, but also the subject of a lot of critiques that were basically centered around the idea that his game didn't deserve what it got, that it was derivative and deliberately addictive.  But I imagine Parkin would also be aware of this heartfelt post by Stanley Parable creator. Before I read this post, I'll admit I was a little callous to this issue; it feels a little "poor little rich boy." But Wreden does a great job in humanizing his position. All of this suggests that people are still very enthusiastic of the indie scene, but there's also a blowback against those some feel haven't "earned" their success. That the creators feel the same way maybe isn't surprising. As the original tweeter noted, one of the issues here is that they are all uneasy about attaching great monetary value to their labor. There's also a general awareness for some, I think, that their success is based a bit on luck, on their app trending at just the right moment. It must be a very uncomfortable position; if you're an established artist, you can rest on the idea that your skill has been affirmed. If you win the lottery, you can be grateful to whatever deity of choice that your chance came up. But the uncertainty under which held in your case--that must be very unsettling.

Selling Candy to Babies by Richard Stanton, Polygon. In-app purchases are "as of December 2013, responsible for 92% of App Store revenue." That's insane. More importantly, that means it's in Apple's own interest NOT to crunch down on unfair or unethical IAP practices. It's not just a kids-game issue, obviously, but it's interesting to see an article focus on that side. Granted, it's a bit of "youth culture panic" when you look at an issue from that perspective, but kids games in general don't get enough attention in mainstream game press (both because children games are generally on app-related stuff, which gets less coverage--at least, in the places I look--and because the game industry in general is focused on an older market these days). Issues like games that are deliberately avoiding being categorized as children's games to avoid following IAP children's games rules but still clearly marketed towards children are clearly exploitative. From one children's developer invested in IAP: "If IAP isn't allowed for kids' products then the economics are such that very few developers will... be able to make amazing entertainment for kids on mobile devices. That's a very sad scenario for all concerned." Oh, go rub a monkey's tummy with your head. As if developers are suddenly going to give up on the children's market as a profit maker if IAPs are more strictly enforced. Another case where internet law is lagging behind what's needed. I can't remember exactly where, but I think I read recently that the F2P industry is financed largely by 0.01% of its players--I wonder if that's a sustainable model?

THIS ARTIST IS PLAYING ‘CIVILIZATION’ OUTSIDE OF THE WHITNEY EVERY DAY by Rhett Jones, Animal. I was recently reading Grant Tavinor's The Art of Videogames, and one of the things he discusses near the end of the book is the claim that the avant-garde has gone too far, that art has moved too far from mass appeal, or anything relateable. I push back against that theory, because I don't think art should have to be popular to justify its existence. But something like this... I'll admit, it sets my teeth on edge. Granted, the point is that context defines art; if Diego Leclery was playing Civilization at home instead of on the street outside of a museum, it wouldn't be art at all. But that point was made very nicely by Duchamp 97 years ago, and it's going to take more than that to impress me in the here and now. Jones essentially acknowledges as much with his use of Ricard, but... eh. In a lot of ways, I'd accept this more easily if it was framed as philosophy instead of art, although I realize that on a certain level, that's hairsplitting. And there is a point to be made about the nature of videogames and creation too--when Jones notes that Ricard criticized artists getting too rich too fast, it's hard not to think back to that earlier Parkin piece. Who decides what activity with games should be valued? At the same time, though, the article's opening really rubs me the wrong way: "Art is easy." Again, rub the monkey's tummy. If art is easy, you're doing it wrong.

Is the Oculus Rift sexist? (plus response to criticism). by dana boyd. boyd is making some very complicated claims about sex and technology here. Of course, there's a clear sense of striking while iron's hot--the obvious reason to publish this article now is that news of the Rift's sale to Facebook is very much in the public eye at the moment (and boyd's profile isn't too low either, given the recent release of her book "It's Complicated."). I'll admit, I haven't been paying attention to the Rift. There's a part of me that's not quite of the "if it ain't broke don't fix it" mindset, but it's certainly of the mindset that I don't want to do anything new until I've exhausted what I've already got. Which in media terms, translates into "why build something new when we're not using what we've got to its full potential?". Which is a silly way of looking at things, since we're never going to develop anything to its full potential, since "full potential" is an abstract ideal and we live in a real world. But if there's a device that works poorly with women on a physiological level that's getting a lot of attention, then, yeah, that's an issue that needs more attention in itself. And I'll wager Facebook is going to be very concerned if the big toy it just bought turns out to alienate a large percentage of its user base.

Well, that's a lot of words, so I'll call this an end, even though it is no longer Friday.

Later Days!

Monday, March 31, 2014

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Sundays of the Soul

Has it really been a whole week since the last post? Well, we're here now. Let's make the most of it.

I know several colleagues of mine who use Sunday either as a day for catching up on all the socializing they had to put to one side during the week, or to catch up on the writing they couldn't do because of all the other work that the week demanded. For me, the best approach is something more mellow; I like to use my Sundays to recharge the batteries, so to speak. Here, then, in best point form, is how I've spent the day thus far:
--woke up at 1ish. I am a lazy bones on the weekend.

--Did a bit of creative writing--833 words, to be precise--and man, it's been a long time since I've tried any of that. The page is essentially a bit of dialogue between one of the main characters of my Twin Powers series, probably from the third book. In true crazy person writing style, as I may have mentioned before, I wrote a novel in 2007, and, unable to find any publisher or agent willing to read it, occasionally plot out sequels to it in my head. I figured it was about time I got some of that out of my head onto paper. We'll see if anything ever comes of it.

--Went for a run. I've been jogging since... let's see... started University in 2001. Started jogging after my third year of university--that's 2004, then. That makes nine years in total, which means pretty much the only things in my life I've done more constantly is the schooling itself and vegetarianism. Of late, though, it's been more thinking about jogging than actually jogging, and sadly, it's starting to show. My lungs have gotten much worse since 2004, which limits my top speeds considerably, and my sags have sags. But the weather may finally be on an upswing, so there may be more jogging in the near future.

--read the first six or so essays in the essay collection "What Is a Superhero?", edited by Robin S. Rosenberg and Peter Coogan. It's a strange book, in that the essays are very, very short. There's essentially time to establish the basic case, a bit of context, then that essay's over, and it's time for the next one. So far, the ideas that seem the most interesting to me is Clare Pitkethly's essay looking at the superhero as an articulation of difference, and Alex Boney's claim that the originary, 1930s superheroes speak to the same modernist anxieties that the modernist writers addressed.

--watched an episode of Banshee. I'm not sure if it's because I wasn't paying attention, or the show's getting sloppier, but a plot twist at the end (it's episode six of season two) really confused me. Banshee's always been a weird show. It bends over backwards to convince you that the protagonist is a Very Sympathetic Character, by always making him right in pretty much every situation, even as the town's sheriff/master criminal. I think a Shield approach would have been more effective, where your sympathies aren't always 100% with Vic. Then again, it is a show that depicts more breasts than an episode of Game of Thrones, so there are a lot of problems going on here beyond just an unlikeable by virtue of being too likeable protagonist.

It's a good, low-key day, in other words. Just what I needed, after the onslaught of guest speakers and teaching. Why, tomorrow, I may even feel revitalized enough to work on the dissertation.

Later Days.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Academics writing fiction: yea or nay?

I feel like taking a blog day--a day where I just write a bunch of posts, and feel like I achieved something creatively. Or something. At this point of the day, it's probably going to turn into just one post, so I'll shout out the idea for the others and hope I get back to them some day: A series of Book Triads to catch up on my book review backlog! A description of what I thought about Uncharted! A post on modular story telling in Dragon Age, vs. the more linear JRPG!

To get to this post,  I've noticed that when I get really into a book, my writing actually takes on a bit of the author's style; I start thinking of weird puns when I'm reading Spider Robinson, and really depressing fantasy situations when I read Stephen Donaldson, for example. Back when I was doing creative writing on a regular basis, that bothered me--how much of what I was writing was my own ideas, and how much was just me aping someone else's style. I imagine I go so far as to start thinking in that writing style, just a bit. In that sense, the whole thing can be explained away in terms of technics and epiphylogenesis, that we are changed by the tools we're using, and books are just another possible tool through which that change occurs. You could even push that idea further, and argue that

The reason I bring all that up is that I certainly feel as if, for the moment, I'm writing not another author's voice, but in a character's voice, the lead of Jo Walton's "Among Others"--very reserved, formal, and matter-of-fact, but with a clear passion for what she's (I'm?) talking about. I was certain going into the book that Walton was an academic sci/fi fantasy writer, and I had a whole section lined up where I'd discuss the role of the academic who writes fiction on the side, which it turns out is not the case at all. Well, I'm going to do that anyway, since that's what I want to talk about today. It's been in my mind for a while, going at least as far back to a recent announcement that a professor in my English department, has released her own fantasy book, The Stone Boatmen, by Sarah Tolmie. I haven't read it yet, to be honest, but from what I know about Tolmie's work, it'll certainly be a book full of ideas worth reading.

The English academic turned writer fits with a larger category of critics who try their hands at whatever thing they are criticizing. It happens often enough that it's a bit of a trope, and it leads to the stereotype that the critic is someone who failed at the art, and so criticizes others. I know of plenty of people who started blogs on comic books, then went on to write their own; plenty of game journalists who went on to write videogames. In fact, regarding games in particular, there's an enormous pressure for academics to not just write about games but to make their own--I should know, because I usually feel like I'm under it, being ground away.

The trick behind academics writing fiction is that it's a shift in audience. It's hard to go from writing to a select, jargon-heavy, elite (and we have gone to great lengths to make ourselves appear elite) specialization to writing for the mass market. There's a push to be innovative, to craft something that reflects our theories and revitalizes the genre, and sometimes, the big ideas get in the way of the story at hand. The best example I can think of is a YA fantasy book that I can't remember the title of, but remember it was written by a professor of linguistics, and showed it too, as the syntax was very different from the usual subject-predicate that English abides by. It was a neat idea, but since the thoughts and action were written in more straight forward English, I found myself skipping past the dialogue, which almost never happens under my particular reading style.

There's plenty of examples of doing it right as well, of course.The obvious Canadian example is Margaret Atwood, who has made quite a name and reputation of herself writing a brand of Canadian lit theory as well as sci-fi and other genres.My favorite example is China Mieville, though his PhD is in political studies (specifically, International Relations, with a dissertation on Marxism and international law); his fantasy writing is chock full of ideas that aren't really found anywhere else in fantasy (especially when he started writing), but are still good fantasy stories. And of course, there's a whole branch of English studies devoted to teaching writing, to mass market and otherwise. We call it "creative writing." That's not quite what I'm talking about though--rather than people who have spent their lives training themselves and others to write for any audience, I'm thinking of the professor who spent their life studying something like gender in the romance fiction genre, then woke up one day and thought "you know, I could do that."

I wish I could think of more examples of what I'm talking about. I know Umberto Eco's "Foucault's Pendulum" is highly acclaimed, but I could never finish it; a parody of conspiracy theory thrillers turns into everything I hate about conspiracy theory thrillers very quickly, and I never had the time or patience to stick around and see if turned into anything else. I know Julia Kristeva has written detective fiction, and I occasionally search for a translated copy with a sort of fascinated terror. I know a lot of drama professors have written plays and star in other performances (I think it's much more of a requirement for them, and it might help my game-phobia to think of the pressure in game studies in the same light) and people like Tomson Highway have done a lot of great work in that regard, but that's again drifting from target.

The point I'm trying to make, and I'm less sure of now, since I don't really have a lot of evidence to back it up, is that fantasy and sci-fi academic authors have a bit of an easier time spinning out fiction that actually works as a story than other academic writers. I think it's because both genres are about the ideas over the characters a bit more than fiction traditionally tends to be, and lend themselves to weird expression in that regard. I also think that the traditional denigration of fantasy and sci-fi as lower forms of fiction work in their favor, in that there's less pressure to do something that's "high literature," and the respective writers feel more free to just tell a story of their liking.

Long time readers are free to call BS on that theory, given my own self-interest, that I've written my own fantasy novel that lingers on the digital shelf, to be revisited and starred at longingly once a year, then routinely rejected by agents and publishers alike without a reading. My own story isn't particularly academic or high concept fantasy--in fact, magic is barely involved at all, to the point where it's more a character study than anything else (much like Walton's book, come to think of it, albeit with a much more traditionally fantasy scope in turns of story progression). I like to think there's room, then, for the fantasy-based academic writer. In a way, the connection makes my relative failure in each seem somehow more acceptable.

My rationalizations are legion.

Later Days.