Should Characters be Likeable?

Earlier in the week I reviewed Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion. It was one of those novels that I couldn’t help but feel had waited for me until it knew that it was the right time, that I was in the right head space. That I needed it.

But the truth is, the book had me riled before I even started reading. In his introductory essay, Something About Maria, David Thompson spends some time dwelling on the question of Maria, the protagonist of Play It As It Lays, and her likeability.

Even with no knowledge of her at that point, I could only engage with the debate in the form of some serious side eye.

Are we REALLY still talking about this?

FYI, this blog post is about gender equality in being shitty.

Let me explain myself.

When a male character acts like an asshole, but as the protagonist of the story we are drawn to him anyway, he is called an anti-hero. A Don Draper. Logan from Veronica Mars. Every male lead in every detective show ever. He’s awful, but sexy. Shitty, but funny. We want nothing more than to bury our heads inside of his chest in the hope we might find some answers in the heart beating there.

(But we never will. But we’ll never stop).

What we DON’T do is spend endless hours, think pieces, youtube videos (youtube comment sections) talking about whether he’s ‘likeable’.

Nah, only female characters get that treatment. Female characters like Maria.

Because, as a female lead character, she breaks the rules. She isn’t concerned with whether or not the reader ‘likes’ her. She isn’t quirky and relatable.

We don’t use anti-hero so much when talking about women. We have other words: Bitch. Crazy. Slut.

An anti-hero can be all these things. But in a female character? Rather than a study of human character we find it kind of… icky.

Alida Nugent talks about this a lot in her essays on feminism, You Don’t Have To Like Me. She writes that:

‘As women, we place a lot of stock into being liked. We are supposed to be liked, to be agreeable, to be demure. We aren’t supposed to be disruptive. Saying you’re a feminist means you want more. Women and Oliver Twist should never want more! It’s not ladylike (or orphanlike). We are supposed to be happy. Say yes. Nod Along.’

We aren’t supposed to be disruptive. I think that’s the central problem. When we encounter these women, these unlikeable women, something feels wrong.

Rather than engage, we turn away in the hope such action will put those women back in their boxes.

It won’t.

The truth is this: female characters don’t have to be likeable. They don’t owe that to you.

Women can be cute and smart and funny and dark and damaged and terrible. They can contain as many multitudes as a man.

And we should read about all of them.

So can we PLEASE stop discussing whether or not female characters are likeable? There are so many more interesting questions.

 

 

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When do you read?

I used to read almost every morning before starting my day. Back when I was student I would roll out of bed around 9am most days, stumble downstairs for a cup of tea before sinking back into bed with a book.

It was the best.

These days, it’s not like that.

I work full time now – usually between 35 and 50 hours a week. Long mornings spent in bed with a book are a thing of the past. They have been replaced with long hours taking food to hostile strangers.

Reading became something that I had to make time for.

I find it frustrating in 90% of people when they say ‘I don’t have time to read!

What most people actually mean by that is: I don’t make time to read.

And there are a bunch of valid reasons for not making time. Maybe your days are mentally taxing. Maybe you have a whole bunch of kids. Maybe you’re just tired.

I totally get that.

But, for people like me, the zero-hour contract, employment law need-not-apply, brain melting 12 hour restaurant shift type people… books are important. You need that reminder that the world is bigger than the walls you work inside of.

So, those mornings in bed being a thing of the past, where do you read?

For me, most reading takes place on or waiting for public transport. I used to not like reading on the train, because I am very easily distracted/annoyed by other people’s conversation and not really into listening to music when I read. But, I realised, if I added up all the time I spend sitting on trains I would probably cry, so I may as well use that time doing something important.

To me, that something important is reading, obviously.

Despite my best efforts, I totally fail at not getting drawn into listening to/laughing at/being disgusted by large groups of football men/teenagers/suit wearing, Apple computer owning types. I had to get over the not listening to music thing. It turns out I can read to Lorde much better than I can middle aged men bitching about their wives.

Who knew.

Adulthood, I have learned, is a lot about choosing what’s important to you.

Right now, reading is important. When I pick up a book, I’m looking for something. I’ve recently realised that there are pieces of it scattered everywhere, through YA and through literary books. Fragments of it are hiding in poetry and essays.

I secretly feel like maybe if I read enough books, I’ll be able to gather those pieces into a coherent whole and then maybe I’ll know what to do next.

When I read, that’s what I’m making time for.

Maybe the question isn’t so much WHEN you make time for it as WHY.

When do YOU read, and why?

Twitter: Some feelings

I should be writing a proper post. I had a proper post planned – it was about Sherlock, and how none of the emotional moments in it worked for me because Steven Moffat just does not understand that you’ve got to put money into the emotional bank in order for those big moments to pay off. I probably still will write that post.

Instead, I want to write about something almost as contentious.

I want to write about Twitter. Specifically, Bookish Twitter and how these days I can stomach it less and less.

There are two important points to be made before I get into this. One of which is that I am a person with a lot of privileges: I’m an educated white cisgender lady. The other, is that at 24, I’m definitely at the older end of the spectrum of book bloggers. And I didn’t even realise what that meant until I started watching how 19-year-olds act on the internet.

All that said, I see a lot of young white girls online who have taken up the gauntlet for bookish diversity and allyship, and rather than expressing that by reviewing books, posting articles and using their own following to bring attention to marginalised voices, they seem to spend the vast majority of their time bullying other users.

And I don’t think bullying is too strong of a word. Time and again, I see tweets linking to the twitter, goodreads and other social media accounts of people who’ve written – sometimes, yes, legitimately bad – things, always with the headline of how TERRIBLE this internet stranger is and how NO ONE SHOULD FOLLOW THEM. The effect of this is, to my view, twofold:

First, it’s just straight up a shitty thing to do. It’s bullying. It doesn’t take into account any possibility of lost nuance, or even that perhaps one dumb tweet isn’t representative of a person’s heart. Also, if this past election in the US, and the whole Brexit disaster in my own country that preceded it have shown us anything, it’s that spewing hatred at each other is not the most effective means of getting a message across. Yes, some people are legitimately heinous and to be avoided, but a lot are just teenagers who don’t know any better (and, to be frank, aren’t going to learn from someone just telling them they suck).

Second, I just don’t know why people always make the choice to uplift the voice of the racist, homophobic, etc stranger on Twitter. Spreading hatred around really doesn’t help anybody long term.

Okay, now that’s over with, my main point: Being an ally involves more than attacking strangers on Twitter.  

Yes, it does mean having difficult conversations.

You know what is absolutely fucking terrible for difficult conversations? A website that only lets you think in 140 characters.

And, to be clear, the definition of a difficult conversation isn’t telling someone who wrote something insensitive about gender to go fuck themselves, or that they are stupid, or that no one should follow them on Twitter. A difficult conversation is what happens when a person is open, and willing to understand the opposing viewpoint enough to effectively challenge it.

I don’t see this. All I see on Twitter is people who would rather attack someone than actually talk to them.

All I see is people who would rather talk about ‘the marginalised’ than actually listen to them. It is deeply troubling to me that many of the most prominent voices in the bookish diversity conversation are white.

Listening is the other important part of being an ally. I found a really great article on Salon a while back that put it perfectly. The author writes: ‘Refrain from centring yourself in a movement that deserves your support but is not about you and about which you are not an authority.’ Or, as I would put it, bluntly, but from the kindest place in my heart: SHUT UP.

FINALLY: Keep in mind that everyone is still learning. Especially in this community, where a bunch of you are teens. Always be willing to question your assumptions, view your motivations critically and check your privileges, but also be mindful that to do so is hard, and we’re all in the (I am starting the think never ending?) process of figuring it out.

ACTUALLY FINALLY: watch this video. It’s such a valuable resource for anyone looking to communicate with people via Twitter, but the questions it presents are also helpful to ask yourself in daily life as well.

I have Mike McHargue’s four questions pinned to my desk top. I try to keep them in mind whenever I’m communicating with people on the internet.

ACTUALLY ACTUALLY FINALLY: Talking about this is scary, because you don’t want to accidentally say the wrong thing, or make a problem worse, or be insensitive. I get it. But I think it’s a discussion that needs to be had, because bookish Twitter has become a very toxic environment.

Why Do We Force Ourselves Through Books?

For the past few weeks, I have been trying to read On the Road, by Jack Kerouac. I do not like it. It’s racist, misogynist and… really boring. And yet every time I finish another book, I shame myself into picking it up again.

This book is one of the great examples of American literature. Smart people have said that it’s good. It’s one of those books that people turn to when they are looking for The Answers. It’s the kind of thing the popular kids on my literature degree (that I never got along with) thought was amazing.

So if I don’t like it, what does that say about me?

Please tell me that I’m not the only one to have found herself embroiled in the midst of a book-related shame spiral?

It’s not my first time – it’s not even my first time with this particular book. I tried to read it back when I was in high school and couldn’t get through it then, either.

It comes down to having been taught by society (and specifically, university education) that there is a difference between high and low art. High art is all about ideas and intellectualism whereas low art is pure entertainment. These distinctions – in addition to being pointless, because surely any decent book is a blend of both elements? – so far as I can tell anyway, don’t have much to do with the work itself so much as its readership.

It’s an unmistakably gendered thing. A man can write a book about a relationship and have it considered literary, but if a woman does the same thing, her work is reduced to ‘chick-lit’, shoved in the low stakes section of the shop for women readers only.

From when we’re first learning to read, we’re taught that while girls can certainly read books typically aimed toward boys, boys will never read ‘girl books’. In fact, as Caroline Paul, author of Gutsy Girls: Escapades for Your Life of Epic Adventure pointed out in her brilliant article for TED, we teach young boys that if books aren’t specifically about them, they are excluded from them altogether. Obviously, this is incredibly problematic.

This is so relevant to YA, of course, a grouping of books disproportionately written and read by women. As we all know, YA is subjected to an endless series of attacks, accused of mindlessness, pandering and irrelevance by people who think that its readers should instead be investing their money in a much more traditional ‘literary’ library.

It’s an attitude backed up by popular culture, where some of our favourite TV bookworms only read the classics. It happened, but it was rare to see Rory Gilmore reading anything that wasn’t written by a twentieth century white man.

This is where my need to read Jack Kerouac – and give myself severe book burnout trying – comes from. Sometimes (and I kind of hate myself for it) I feel like I can only be considered a ‘legitimate’ bookworm when I’ve got through the (essentially endless) list of books that the (probably imaginary) Smart People read. Despite the fact that I read ten times the amount of books the average person did last year (though, I have realised since I started this, WAY less than the average book blogger (I like TV OKAY?!)), I still feel somewhat inadequate because not enough of them were this thing that I have already decided (so called ‘high art’) is meaningless.

Sigh.

My feminist, YA loving brain is telling me to throw the damn book out the window, but my academically programmed brain (which is dealing with, let’s face it, a good deal of internalised misogyny – what else would make my want to read a book – a ‘respected’ piece of literature – in which women are totally reviled) is protesting.

It’s so stupid.

I believe in the importance of reading widely – from all genres, from authors all over the world, of all genders, sexualities, abilities, languages… I could do on.

But what I no longer believe in is reading racist misogynist assholes just because someone said they were high culture.

I think it’s time to strike On The Road from the TBR. I’d much rather read about brave women saving the world that ‘smart’ men abandoning them alone in the desert.

Some questions

What was the last book you had to force yourself through, and why did you do it?

What do you consider to be a ‘legitimate bookworm’?

Have you read and HATED any critically acclaimed, classic and respected books? I’d love to hear about them (I also couldn’t stand Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and The Unbearable Lightness of Being #sorrynotsorry).

And finally, have you experienced any of the feelings I just talked about? Or am I just a crazy insecure bookworm all by myself?

 

The Only Girl in the Gang

Discussing the representation of women in film will only get old when the situation gets better. With the recent release of Now You See Me 2, it’s obvious that we’ve still got a long way to go.

The Now You See Me franchise, like so many others – The Avengers, The Fantastic Four, etc – has a serious woman problem. Namely that they can only handle one of them at a time. The setup is familiar: a team is brought together through extraordinary circumstances: magic, crime fighting, revenge, etc. Three of them are men, one a woman. With a couple of notable exceptions, this is the format of the central team of every action movie ever.

Is it just me, or is it getting a little tired?

Now You See Me 2 is a particularly frustrating example. In the first movie, The Four Horsemen, the famously befuddling, bank robbing magic act was comprised of Jessie Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Dave Franco and Isla Fisher. In the second movie, from which Fisher was reportedly absent due to her pregnancy, she was replaced by Lizzy Caplan. The writers attempted to get around this by acknowledging it, having Lulu, Caplan’s character joke that ‘I’m the new girl horseman!’, but the joke really only served to raise the obvious question. Why was there only one girl horseman in the first place?

now-you-see-me-2-gif

A lot of it comes down to the limited roles women are allowed to play. In Now You See Me, Henley’s (Fisher) primary function is as a love interest to Jessie Eisenberg’s inscrutable J. Daniel Atlas. The only other major female character in the entire movie, Alma (Melanie Laurent) plays a similar role to Mark Ruffalo’s Dylan Rhodes. In Now You See Me 2 – in which there are even fewer women with decent speaking roles – Lulu, Henley’s replacement quickly establishes herself as super into Dave Franco and makes sure to remind us of her attraction to him. Regularly. The only girl in the group is always cast as the love interest.

This particular role could not be more obvious than in the various Avengers movies, in which Scarlett Johansson’s character, Black Widow, has played the potential girlfriend of just about everybody. This demonstrates a pretty narrow view of women’s capabilities, and in the case of Black Widow, really serves to trivialise her character. Her co-stars even laugh about it in interviews. It strikes me that perhaps rather than slut shaming the character in the press, it might be nice to see Johansson and co. questioning why Black Widow is written that way in the first place.  Marvel has established a world in which it is possible for men to exist without love interests – Bucky Barnes and Sam Wilson are going through pretty major dry spells – but women cannot. Even in the more recent movies, with the introduction of Scarlet Witch, she stepped out of the shadow of her twin brother only to be paired with Paul Bettany’s creepy robot man, Vision.

the avengers gif.gif

But the tropes don’t stop there.

Not only is the woman an available love interest for sometimes multiple male characters, but she has to mother them too. I might be picking at a freshly healed scab, but it’s impossible not talk about Age of Ultron’s most cringe-worthy moment: the lullaby, when Black Widow is asked to turn the Hulk back into Bruce Banner. Of the entire team, apparently only she can accomplish this. Not Tony Stark, who the writers have gone to great pains to assure us – through both The Avengers and a scene at the end of Iron Man 3 – is knee-deep in a Banner bromance. No, talking down a hulk takes the sort of loving nurture of which Marvel level masculinity is apparently incapable. It was only ever going to be Black Widow’s job. The stereotype lives on and the audience are reminded that, despite all the fighting, she is still a woman after all. And what do women do? As Black Widow says later on in the movie ‘I’m always picking up after you boys.’

Like I said, cringe.

Gamora gets to play a similar role in Guardians of the Galaxy. She spends much of the movie berating playboy Peter Quill – who has mummy issues of course – for his irresponsible lifestyle and childish personality.  In one scene when the newly assembled team are making themselves at home on Quill’s space ship, Gamora informs him that the place is filthy. And then there’s a really lingering shot of her butt while she walks up the stairs. Mothering? Check. Sexy love interest? Check, check.

guardians-of-the-galaxy-gif

Ultimately, I think this is much of the reason behind why there is only ever one woman on the team. Why have more than one, when her role is so limited? The group only needs one mother, after all, and most audiences can’t be expected to care about multiple romances in the same story. The only way to ditch this trope and get together a team with some girl power is to expand our perceptions of what women can be and do. Ditch the skimpy outfits and the victimisation. Don’t cast them in the role of the sexy parent figure. If by some chance there is more than one woman in the movie, let them have a scene together. Perhaps rather than casting them as rivals, a la Gamora and her sister, Nebula, let them be a team as much as the guys are. Make a movie poster where the women are as active as the men, rather than posed and passive.

The situation is bleak, but I have hope. If it is a movie studio’s job to entertain, then in serving up the same tired stereotypes over and over again, they are failing. Maybe Now You See Me 3 – which is, somewhat unbelievably, a thing – will see the return of Henley, and she and Lulu will share some screen time. Perhaps despite its traditional set up, Marvel’s next Netflix collaboration, The Defenders – made up of three men and Jessica Jones, sigh – will find a way to turn the trope on its head. They’ve done it before with Karen Page’s subversion of the innocent girl stereotype, and the fight against the patriarchy that got us addicted to Jessica Jones in the first place.

It’s time for a change. And the think pieces and Twitter arguments aren’t going to end until we get it.

How NOT to be a Dick on the Internet

That there are nasty fights happening in the bookish community is something I have only recently become aware of. The more bloggers I follow on Twitter, the more negativity I have started to see and all I have to say is this: can’t we all just be a bit nicer to each other?

To be fair, it is hard to do. I read a really interesting article over at Wired recently that cited studies indicating that we actually respond better to information conveyed in a way that’s… kind of mean. We associate negativity with intellect, and tend to believe that the person leaving the meanest comment might also be the smartest.

Isn’t that just the dumbest thing ever?

I think perhaps it is time we reprogrammed our minds. I have found some aids to help us do so.

This video is about mental hygiene and ‘thought germs’. CGP discusses the various ways that our thoughts are manipulated by our emotions – particularly anger – and how that may make us a little hasty in clicking the share button…  often before checking any of the information we’re sharing is fair or accurate. It’s about how we separate into our own online rage circles, losing the possibility of discussion to mutual disgust.

I am constantly guilty of this. I can only hope that being aware of it is the first step in altering that particular behaviour.

A lot of the arguments in the bookish community take place over on Twitter. Without the benefit of context and facial expressions, it’s very easy to read a tweet and be hurt by it even if that was never its intention. It’s also very easy to get involved in an argument without a proper understanding what it’s even about in the first place. This video challenges us to ask ourselves the following four questions before posting anything:

Am I speaking honestly but without hostility?

Am I speaking out for someone or against someone?

What do I get out of this thing that I am going to say? (try not being motivated by your own gain but by the gain of those who you could be benefitting)

How much of this is driven by my social identity?

These things are hard. Just last week I wrote a post rebuking an anti-YA article I thought was dumb with absolutely no regard for any of this stuff. On the other hand, this morning, I saw a bookish tweet I felt was overly aggressive, but rather than arguing or shaming the person, I simply unfollowed them and moved on with my day.

We get to decide what our community looks like. Think before you type. It’s hard, but work on it. I know I am.

YA: My Dangerous Fantasy

Over the past few days an article has been making the rounds on Twitter called Why young-adult fiction is a dangerous fantasy, by Joe Nutt. I recommend it if you’re in the mood for the thoughts of a superior, belligerent gentleman who thinks glancing at the YA section of the bookshop is the same thing as having actually read any.

My first thoughts (for, despite my love of YA, my brain has not entirely melted, as Mr Nutt’s assertion), are these:

  1. Don’t try and piss people off. It doesn’t persuade anybody of anything. All this article provides is – presumably – a short moment of catharsis for all those YA haters and an even shorter moment of irritation for everyone else.
  2. Berating people with intellectual elitism really only serves to push them further away from whatever it is you’re promoting. I at least, will now forever associate Voltaire with an angry man on the internet taking pot shots at his imaginary intellectual inferiors.

What Nutt’s argument boils down to is the separation of so called ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture. ‘High’ culture, for anyone who doesn’t know, are the few ‘cultural products’ considered to be good enough for what was traditionally speaking the aristocracy or intelligentsia. ‘Low’ culture, on the other hand, was for the rest of us. The disgusting masses.

Did you know you were part of a disgusting mass? Because according to guys like Nutt, you totally are.

I learned to appreciate artistic snobbery when I arrived at university and found that YA hate was the new sport (we were literature students and for some bashing The Perks of Being A Wallflower and that kid ‘whining’ about his childhood sexual abuse was the closest to exercise they got). I tried on cultural superiority for a little while but my heart was never truly in it.

There are several reasons for this, the most obvious of which is that culture is fluid. What’s considered ‘low’ and ‘high’ changes all the time. It really just depends on whatever the masses are reading. The intelligentsia are the original hipsters that way. These days Charles Dickins might be considered on the higher end of the cultural scale but when he was alive and writing? Not so much. Everybody was reading that guy. His serialised writings were as eagerly awaited as a fresh batch of think pieces on Taylor Swift. Ultimately ‘high’ and ‘low’ are arbitrary labels attached to works by a minority group of academic elitists – they really aren’t for us in the masses to be concerned with.

In addition, art influences art influences art to infinity. No piece of art of writing or whatever is truly separate from what came before it. It’s connected to a history of ideas people have been passing around forever. In YA, it’s just packaged differently, in a way that is intended for the masses, and I think it’s this more than anything that pisses guys like Nutt off. There is this idea – entirely invented by academic elitists – that there is a realm of thought only accessible to certain, deep thinking members of humanity. That theories of personhood, existentialism, God, etc can only be addressed in an intellectual arena – never in, say, a Patrick Ness book about a kid who commits suicide and wakes up in an alternate universe, or a John Green novel about the damage the imaginary girl wreaks on the real one. As much as guys like Nutt berate us for our supposedly ‘low’ ways, I don’t think they want a truly accessible ‘high’ culture – then what would be left to feel superior about?

I’m not saying there is no value to ideas in their purest form – of course there is – but that doesn’t mean we should allow them to be disregarded because they don’t look like the work of an 18th century white man in a wig.

I also find frustrating the idea that the cultural touchstones of the so called ‘masses’, whether that be the Kardashians or sexy teenage vampires, are meaningless. The overwhelming and continued popularity of the vampire is a result of our youth-obsessed society. The world is designed for the young, so the desire for eternal youth is an obvious one. To read about a vampire is to face on some level that fact that what we have now we won’t have forever, impossible as it is to imagine. As for the Kardashians? Their long-lasting success can be attributed to the heart of the thing: they are a family. Family ties, in some form, is something we all share. This single humanising element ensures our continued investment in their whole thing. To reduce these phenomena to ‘people are just stupid’ is to be the thing you’re hating on in the first place – a supposedly ‘thoughtless’ member of society.

Anyway, I’m getting off track.

I take particular issue with Nutt’s glib and frankly nasty tone toward books he says are ‘nothing more than gossip fodder, the endless recycling of petty anxieties’. Those petty anxieties he has already outlined in his ‘book pitch’ at the introduction of this tirade. This part of the article made me the saddest. It is pretty much of a universal truth at this point that it is important for people – maybe even especially young people – to see their own lives reflected in art. It helps people to feel less alone, to get some hope back, even. Stories can show people possibilities they had never considered for themselves. On the other hand, fiction can also show people lives entirely different to their own. The cliché is real: books open worlds. Most importantly, they inspire empathy, which we really need to combat the daily vitriol of the internet. I call that important – not some ‘florid expansion’ of a clickbait headline.

Nutt goes on to argue that these ‘petty anxieties’ I mentioned earlier have prevented ‘several generations of teenagers from becoming literate adults’ (eye roll), but the worst victims are the boys, how have been pushed out of reading altogether (HARD eye roll). It’s an article about YA – a genre dominated by female writers – of course the lack of male readership was going to come up. I would argue that this – much like the whole high/low thing – comes down to marketing. A sexist world produces a sexist publishing industry, and it has always functioned on the assumption that although girls will happily read ‘boy books’, boys would never touch a title with a female lead character. Caroline Paul, author of Gutsy Girls: Escapades for Your Life of Epic Adventure, wrote a great article about this over at TED. She argues that:

‘We read to experience a panoply of perspectives. We read to learn of people and situations outside and beyond ourselves, so we can deepen our connection and understanding. We read to prepare for life. It follows, then, that we are raising our boys to dismiss other people’s experiences, and to see their needs and concerns as the center of things. We are raising our boys to lack empathy.’

So. The lack of male YA readers may not be a book issue so much as a societal one.

Where does all this leave us?

Pretty much exactly where we were before. We already knew YA fiction was varied and complicated and wonderful. Mostly because we’ve actually read some. Much like Nutt, the most I have provided is an admittedly slightly longer moment of catharsis, but for us YA lovers this time.

Ultimately it boils down to this: Don’t tell us what we ‘should’ like. We don’t react well.