Should we record an Own Goal or just Exterminate this from the record?

Right. I haven’t written anything here for a while and now I’m going to pick apart/rant about an article in the New Statesman (a publication I usually like) that annoyed me. Let’s get this over with.

This is the article comparing science-fantasy television programme Doctor Who to football (specifically soccer) in a manner that seems (to me) to assume a supercilious attitude towards both.

Was the person who wrote this deliberately trying to offend anyone with and interest in football, Doctor Who, or both?

First of all, the title “Why Doctor Who is football, but for geeks” suggests that geeks like Doctor Who (alienating people who self-identify as geeks but do not watch Doctor Who), that people who watch Doctor Who are geeks (alienating those who watch Doctor Who but do not self-identify as geeks), that football is not for geeks (alienating people who self-identify as geeks but watch football) and that people who watch football do not watch Doctor Who (alienating anyone who watches both).

Before we even get to the main article it also says “In the same way that complete strangers can bond instantly over the latest football news, Doctor Who gives geeks an easy solution to awkward silences in conversation”. What? Because no one could actually want to talk about either of these things? We just use them where there’d be an awkward silence otherwise? Are people who discuss football or Doctor Who just failing to think of anything else to say?

On Doctor Who, it says “The show isn’t ever going to be held up with the same critical acclaim as Breaking Bad, The Wire or whatever the hot new HBO production is – because that is not what Doctor Who is for. Doctor Who is football, but for geeks.”

Why wouldn’t it be held up with that? It’s a long-running programme with a biggish budget that can address any possible issue because the protagonists can go anywhere in time and space (whether those times and spaces exist or not) and Neil Gaiman (who sometimes gives the impression of unable to leave the house without collecting a literary award of some kind) wrote two episodes ( one won the 2012 Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form)). Maybe the series hasn’t been at HBO-level (whatever that means) but that doesn’t mean it can’t be in the future (future? get it? Time-travel).

Straight into the next paragraph, the writer appears to assume that no one who likes football could possibly be reading this:

“Now I know what you’re thinking: how dare I make such a comparison? After all – while everyone knows that all of human existence is futile, sport – especially football – is even more futile than that. Football is a game enjoyed by idiots – not cultured geeks like us, right?”

Who thinks that? Why would anyone think that?

“Now steady on there with your geeky arrogance and hear me out. Doctor Who provides the same social function for geeks that football does for normal people.”

What geeky arrogance? Your strawman’s geeky arrogance is not my geeky arrogance. Also, Doctor Who is not for normal people? Football is for normal people? What even are normal people? Can people not like two things? I think this why we can’t have nice things.

“Crucially, it fulfils a function as a social lubricant. It can be a brilliant ice breaker. Football is perfect for this: complete strangers will bond instantly over the latest football news.”

Hang on…. Wasn’t this a joke from the IT Crowd? Is this article just a joke? It doesn’t seem like a joke. It’s a very irresponsible joke if it is a joke.

“The same is true for Who: it is something fairly universally followed by geeks of all stripes thanks to its accessibility (it is free to air, and on telly on Saturday evenings).”

What’s a geek? How many stripes do they have? Why can’t they have a likes-football-stripe? Why do they like Doctor Who so much, anyway?

“Unlike politics, religion and other stuff that actually matters it is unlikely that the conversation will end with someone throwing a punch”

Because obviously Doctor Who has nothing to say on either topic [laughs sarcastically, points out that Daleks are more or less explicitly meant to be Nazi-analogues]. Also, these things are relevant to football, how do you think they decide where the World Cup will be held?

The article claims: “The only major aspect of football that I can’t explain in Doctor Who terms is the public health aspect. Part of the reason why the establishment puts up with many of the negative consequences of football (hooliganism, etc) is because ultimately there is a net positive for public health: the game’s popularity means that millions of people are getting more exercise by playing.”

Hooliganism isn’t a consequence of football, hooliganism is a consequence of hooligans who would probably hooliganize otherwise if denied that opportunity (correlation does not mean causation); likewise hooliganism is the action of a tiny segment of football fandom and thus more likely a consequence of the mass-appeal of football allowing some people who happen to be fans an outlet for anti-social behaviour than anything inherent in the game.

Doctor Who could be argued to have a public health aspect in that the themes and values expressed in the programme can influence fans to some extent which can be either good or bad (the Doctor is skeptical of authority-figures, ergo the programme subtly encourages a skepticism of authority-figures). Like any work of art, it can have many contradictory effects at once and people will read their own ideas into the work but the tone is usually optimistic and optimism is usually considered both psychologically healthy and contagious.

“Some of the kids who tune in on Saturday night could be at huge risk of heading down a dark path. They could only be a D20 roll away from some of the more dangerous geeky hobbies like D&D or LARPing.”

This one’s a joke, even I got that this is a joke. I really hope the rest is a joke.

I didn’t go through every paragraph. I know there’s a jocular, tongue in cheek aspect to the whole thing but it’s a denigrating belittling thing. An elitist, malicious humour without cheer. That’s what it seems to me to be. Just another attempt to divide people up into little groups by things as arbitrary as a sport and a television programme. It just strikes me as stupid and mean-spirited and I really didn’t like it.

I didn’t mean to write all this. It started out as just a few words of complaint to accompany my sharing the offending article on Facebook. But then I just kept writing. There are so many more important things I could be writing about but I wrote about this, which seems trivial but it’s all part of the same stupid, in-group/out-group, us-and-them nonsense that we can’t afford in a globalised society, even if it is just a joke. Nothing’s ever ‘just’ a joke, a joke needs context and this kind of joke perpetuates the tribalistic context it begins from. Despite that wink-wink, nudge-nudge maybe-they’re-not-so-different apparent thesis, it’s still trying proposing a dichotomy between football and Doctor Who and between “geeks” (whoever they are) and “normal people” (whoever they are). Rant over.

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Floodgates Opened by Pantigate

If you live outside Ireland, you may not have heard of a national scandal referred to as “Pantigate”. If you do live in Ireland, it’s a near-certainty that you have heard and/or read about it.
For those unfamiliar with the story, a performer and pub-owner named Rory O’Neill (aka Panti Bliss, hence the gate) was being interviewed on The Saturday Night Show (a popular light-entertainment chat-show) when he was asked for examples of contemporary prejudices facing members of the gay community (which includes O’Neill). After naming certain journalists (specifically John Waters and Breda O’Brien) and a conservative Catholic lobby group (namely, the Iona Institute), things kicked off.

O’Neill pointed out that “the problem is with the word ‘homophobic’, people imagine that if you say “Oh he’s a homophobe” that he’s a horrible monster who goes around beating up gays you know that’s not the way it is. Homophobia can be very subtle. I mean it’s like the way you know racism is very subtle. I would say that every single person in the world is racist to some extent because that’s how we order the world in our minds. We group people. You know it’s just how our minds work so that’s okay but you need to be aware of your tendency towards racism and work against it. And I don’t mind, I don’t care how you dress it up if you are arguing for whatever good reasons or you know whatever your impulses…”

The journalists in question and members of the Iona Institute disagree with the characterisation of their efforts as homophobic and threatened legal action, which led to a section of the interview being removed from RTÉ’s website (Raidió Teilifís Éireann or RTÉ is the national broadcaster of Ireland), though a transcript can be found here. Furthermore, RTÉ has paid out a large sum of money to the offended parties (id est, not Rory O’Neill/Panti Bliss). As might be expected, this has occasioned two separate but closely related debates on A: Freedom of speech and opinion in the mass media, and B: prejudice facing people of gender, sexual and romantic minorities (GRSM) in Ireland and abroad.

There has been an enormous amount of coverage in the Irish news-media and blogosphere (which I’m adding to) but I’d like to suggest this article on The Global Echo for a look at some of the fallout in the GRSM community  especially as it contains Panti’s excellent speech from the Abbey Theatre (by the way, I’m following The Global Echo’s convention with regard to this acronym, rather than going for LGBT et cetera).

I didn’t originally intend on writing anything about this myself, because it’s been so well-covered elsewhere but I found myself reading an article on An Tuairisceoir which questioned the use of the term homophobia in this case. I think that it’s a question worth answering, so I commented with my take on the issue, which, while essentially semantic, has had and continues to have a major effect on many people in Ireland and around the world.
Obviously, my comment is in the Irish language but I’ve translated it below, underneath the original wording as Gaeilge.

Original:
“An príomh-fhadhb atá ar phlé, dar liom, ná cé chomh láidir is a bhfuil an téarma “homafóibe”. Dar le Iona, Waters agus a leithéid, is dócha, tá an téarma ceangailte le iompar thar a bheith frith-homaighnéasach, foréigean oscailte nó mar sin, an taobh is antoiscí don speictream.

Ar an taobh eile, tá an téarma ceangailte le iompar ionsaíoch, nó iompar a dhéanann éascú ar ionsaithe i gcoinne siúd le gnéaschlaonadh homaighnéasach.
Níl sainmhíniú dlíthiúil ar homaifóibe agus mar sin de, tá ceist an chlúmhilleadh spleách ar léirmhíniú aonair.
Ní raibh RTÉ sách cróga an cheist a thógáil chun cúirte agus sainmhíniú dlíthiúil a chur air.
Tá’n nós agam féin aontú leis an comhluadar faoi ionsaí ó thaobh cén saghas iompar atá ionsaíoch.”

Translation:
“The prime-problem being discussed, in my opinion, is just how strong is the term “homophobia”. According to Iona, Waters and and the like, presumably, the term is tied to behaviour that is overtly anti-homosexual, open violence or so forth, the most extreme side of the spectrum.
On the other side, the term is tied to attack-like behaviour, or behaviour that eases attacks against  those with homosexual orientation.
There is no legal definition on homophobia and therefore, the question of defamation is dependent on individual interpretation.
RTÉ was not sufficiently courageous to take the question to court and put a legal definition on it.
I have the tendency myself to agree with the community under attack with regard to what kind of behaviour is attack-like.”

A note on the translation here: I haven’t quite translated word for word but I’ve gone a little closer than is conventional. The word “ionsaíoch” which I rendered as “attack-like” comes from the root ionsaí (attack) but would be more usually translated as hostile or aggressive. I don’t think either term is really strong enough in the context which is why I used attack-like (though it’s more than being just like an attack).

Homophobia’s not necessarily a great term from an etymological point of view (literally, it would mean something like “fear of sameness”, where xenophobia might be a better descriptor of what’s going on) but it is widely used and now we have a huge debate over what it means when it is used.
Here’s the thing, this argument over a word opens the floodgates for any number of other issues like journalistic freedom, freedom of speech, freedom of response, freedom of religious expression, and the limits on each of these. Beyond words however, this is about the freedom of people of gender, romantic and sexual minorities to exist safely in a world where many hate (misos) and fear (phobia) them.

Comments are welcome.


Is the Chairman a Woman?

Last month, the Republic of Ireland held a pair of referendums/referenda (Would you prefer a pseudo-Latin word with an English pluralisation or with a pseudo-Latin pluralisation?) on  whether to amend the constitution to abolish Seanad Éireann (Senate of Ireland) on the one hand and whether to establish a Court of Appeal and make other changes to the courts-system on the other. These were held on the 4th of October 2013 and when the dust cleared, it was revealed that voters had rejected the proposal to abolish the Seanad and accepted the proposal to establish a permanent, constitutionally-mandated Court of Appeal and make several other changes to the courts-system.

I voted to reject both proposals but that’s neither here nor there as this article isn’t about the Irish political system as such. This article is about the wording of the information booklet sent out by the Referendum Commission, specifically the difference between one particular sentence in the English and Irish versions of the booklet‘s explanation of the proposal regarding the Seanad and how that illuminates a wider linguistic issue in the Irish language and languages more generally. The content of the booklet is available online here.

It’s worth noting that the Republic of Ireland is an officially bilingual state with Irish as the primary official language (though, in practice, this primacy is all but ignored). In Bunreacht na hÉireann (Constitution of Ireland), the Irish version of the text takes precedence over the English in the case of a conflict. So, on to the statement in question!

The Irish version reads:
“Is é nó is í an Leas-Cheann Comhairle (Leas Cathaoirleach na Dála) a bheidh ar an gCoimisiún in ionad Chathaoirleach an tSeanaid.”

Whereas, the English version reads:
“The Presidential Commission will include the Leas-Cheann Comhairle (Deputy Chairman of the Dáil) instead of the Cathaoirleach of the Seanad.”

A more direct (and by direct, I mean word-for-word)  translation of the Irish would be something like “It is he or she, the Deputy-Head Counsel (Deputy Chairperson of the Dáil) that will be on the Commission instead of the Chairperson of the Senate.”

That’s just my translation and there are a few things to bear in mind about it.
Firstly, I don’t think that direct translations are necessarily the way to go in something like this; obviously, clarity of information rather than semantic pedantry is the purpose of an information booklet.
Secondly, there’s no ‘it’ in Irish, there is only ‘he’ (é) or ‘she’ (í); I translated Irish “Is” as English “It is” to adhere as closely as possible to English syntax where ‘is’ rarely (if ever) appears at the beginning of a sentence unless the sentence is a question.
Thirdly, I translated “Cheann Comhairle” directly as “Head Counsel” but the title is Irish and is usually not translated even in English-language discourse (like the actual English version above my translation).
Fourthly, I translated “Cathaoirleach” as chairperson whereas the actual English version uses “Chairman”. Cathaoir translates as chair, the seat, while cathaoirleach adds a suffix that indicates someone or something that is of the preceding word, so Chair (as in person chairing), chairman (sex/gender-neutral usage of man), chairperson (which I used) or even chair-dweller would all be reasonable translation.  A good approximation might be ‘chairling’ (like yearling) but that’s a neologism coined by me just now, not a recognised term (maybe it’ll catch on after this article).

My more direct translation aside, there are a few differences in the information actually conveyed in the statements. For one thing, the Irish is content to refer to “an gCoimisiúin” (the Commission), as the Presidential commission is referred to in a previous sentence, while the English clarifies that it is “the Presidential Commission” that is being spoken of. Much more interesting (to me) is that the English version chose to construct the sentence in such a way as to avoid saying ‘he or she’ anywhere in the sentence while the Irish made the possibility of a he or a she explicit.

The Irish version could have been: “Beidh an Leas-Cheann Comhairle (Leas Cathaoirleach na Dála) ar an gCoimisiún in ionad Chathaoirleach an tSeanaid” (The Deputy-Head Counsel will be on the commission instead of the Chairperson of the Seanad). This is my own wording here again, where opening with “Beidh” (which approximates as ‘will be’) makes “he or she” unnecessary.

The most likely explanation for the difference in construction is probably separate people working on each version of the text or even the same person choosing to construct the sentence in whatever way seemed most natural rather than focusing on parity between texts. I suppose it’s possible to make something of the use of “Chairman” rather than Chairperson combined with a lack of “he or she” in the English version and claim an assumption that the Chairperson would be male but I mention that only because I thought of it, not because I think it’s likely.

Anyway, as I mentioned earlier, Irish has no ‘it’; all nouns have a gender and are referred to with ‘é’ or ‘í’ (‘he’ or ‘she’), and change in different grammatical contexts depending on what gender they are.

Along with masculine and feminine, there was once a neuter gender in Irish (as there still is in German) but no longer; most nouns are masculine but some are feminine. There’s little rhyme or reason to which nouns get which gender either. Cathaoirleach (chairperson), which can be a man or a woman, is masculine. Comhairle (council/counsel), which can also be a man or a woman, is feminine. Cailín (girl), which is female by definition, is masculine.

Gender is a fundamental feature of the Irish language in a way that is not remotely equivalent with English. Gender in English is largely restricted to ‘he’ for male, ‘she’ for female, ‘it’ for anything else (unless you’re being metaphorical, as in “she’s a cruel mistress” in referring to the sea) and gender-specific words like ‘actress’ (which seem to be on the way out anyway).

Old English once had masculine, feminine and neuter but there was a gradual move away from gendered morphology and Modern English has little more than the fossils I mentioned above. Irish as I mentioned has discarded the neuter and most words are masculine so it would be natural to assume that the feminine gender will eventually disappear from Irish grammar except in the case of ‘é’ and ‘í’ (perhaps even them too), thus making the masculine no longer masculine but universal (the universalization of masculinity may be taking place in other languages like Hebrew too).

One complication to any such change in Irish is An Caighdeán Oifigiúil na Gaeilge (The Official Standard of Irish) which could either hasten or slow the process considerably due to the fact sway this has in all official Irish-language communication (Irish is a minority language and official communications therefore hold an influence over the language that can’t be easily subverted).

What does everyone else think? Is this interesting? Is it important? Have I missed anything? Have I got anything wrong? Can you add to the conversation?


What a Piece of Wording is Man!

What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason!
How infinite in faculty! In form and moving how
express and admirable! In action how like an Angel!
In apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world!
The paragon of animals! And yet to me, what is
this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me;
no, nor Woman neither; though by your smiling you seem to say so.

The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (Act 2, Scene II), William Shakespeare

In the passage above, Hamlet plays on the double meaning of Man as a term for any human being regardless of sex/gender identity on the one hand and Man as a sex/gender identity distinct from Woman on the other. So in the first sense, every woman is a man, as every man is a man, but in the second sense a woman is not a man as a man is a man.

When I use the word ‘man’, I usually mean a human being with anatomical features that distinguish them as a male of the species. Masculinity is thus caused by the balance of steroids in the body: more androgens and less oestrogens making the person male rather than female, and the balance of steroids influenced by chromosomes (XY for male, XX for female), along with other, epigenetic, factors.

Not everyone will necessarily mean this when using the word ‘man’, however. Some use the word to refer to a (somewhat nebulous, in my opinion) gender identity; others will use the word to refer to the human race as a whole; often all three senses would be used by the same speaker but in different contexts (or even together, as Hamlet did).

J. R. R. Tolkien used the capitalised ‘Man/Men’ for humans in general but ‘man/men’ and ‘woman/women’ (without capitalisation) for human individuals with an identifiable sex/gender. Thus in The Silmarillion, Haleth the woman demonstrates the valour of Men to Carathir the (male) Elf. In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien plays a similar game to Shakespeare’s Hamlet above (yet maybe more like Macduff’s revelation in Macbeth) when Éowyn (a woman) faces the Witch-king of Angmar (“not by the hand of man will he fall” according to Glorfindel). The reasons why these puns of species and sex or gender are possible in Modern English are what I’m writing about in this article.

Modern English ‘man’ is derived from Old English mann, which meant a human person with no distinction made between male or female and could also be used as an indefinite pronoun, equivalent to the Modern English ‘one’, as in “One wonders how many people are actually going to read this”. Man is still used this way in Modern German, while mann in Modern German means male human but the related word Mensch means human regardless of sex/gender. The sex/gender connotations did not show up until about a thousand years ago, when Old English was being replaced by Middle English (with the aforementioned French influence). That’s not to say that there were no sex/gender distinctions in Old English, there were; in fact, there wer.

An adult male human in Old English was a wer (cognate to Latin vir, as in Modern English ‘virile’, and to Old Irish fer which became Modern Irish fear meaning an adult male human) and an adult female human was a wif (Modern English wife). Now wer has more or less disappeared except for words like werewolf (literally man-wolf, a modernised spelling for Old English werwulf) and wergild (literally man-gold, blood money owed for a dead man), the latter of which is more or less limited to so-called fantasy fiction or academia. The original sense of wif survives in ‘fishwife’, the phrase “Old wives’ tales” and in the ritual language of a marriage ceremony “I now pronounce you man and wife” (the terms husband and wife are not equivalent, in this sense).

The sense of ‘man’ as a human person, regardless of sex/gender identity survives in mankind, manslaughter, chessmen (which include the Queen) et cetera but eventually ‘man’ replaced wer far more completely than any word managed to replace wif. The meaning, if not the entire pronunciation of wif survives in the Modern English word ‘woman’, which comes from late Old English wimman (wifmann or wife-man, female human).

So ‘man’, left to its own devices (not undergoing any major phonetic changes) develops into a word for a male human unless wif is added to make a word for female human, which is practically the opposite of what happens in human embryonic development where the embryo, left to its own devices becomes a female human unless the SRY gene (usually located on the Y chromosome) is added to make a male. Obviously this is a gross oversimplification of biological sex-differentiation and there are exceptions when androgen insensitivity syndrome is present or if the SRY gene is defective or whatever. Anyway, ‘man’ plus wif is woman; embryo plus SRY is male.

So, that’s biological sex with genes and chromosomes, and oestrogens and androgens, and gonads et cetera. Then there’s gender with uh…. Whatever gender is…… Something about who gets to wear dresses?

Gender as applied to human beings is a strange thing. The terminological differentiation between gender and biological sex did not exist before 1955 when it was introduced by the sexologist John Money. Before Money (the man, not the currency), gender was used almost exclusively to describe grammatical categories. He used the word ‘gender’ as distinct from sex to describe societal roles as distinct from biological realities.

Money’s usage did not become widespread until the 1970s and seems to have undergone a shift in understanding since then. I recently had to fill out a form where I was asked whether my gender was male or female but was not asked about my biological sex. It seems that ‘gender’ is now used for biological sex as well as societal roles, ignoring the distinction that it was originally called on to make.

The Modern English sense of gender described above also seems to be creeping into other languages. German, which has traditionally used Geschlecht for biological sex and for the social norms which become attached, has now begun to use the English word Gender to describe the societal concept.

Whereas French, apparently taking its cue from English has used the word genre (to which the English word ‘gender’ is cognate). Of course, English in the meantime has decided to use the French word to describe types of art. So, science-fiction is a literary genre and therefore science-fiction is a gender of literature (but not a biological sex of literature).

English ‘gender’ and French genre are both derived from Old French gendre, which was borrowed into Middle English along with many, many, many other French words around the time of the Norman conquest of English. The Old French word meant ‘type’ or ‘kind’ and came from Latin genus which means ‘type’ or ‘kind’. Genus (apart from its use in biology) is also the root of words like ‘generation’ and ‘genocide’.

So gender has nothing to do with men but everything to do with men and women (if you see what I mean). Also, all women are men, all men are women with an SRY gene, and mankind is not necessarily a gendered term but womankind certainly is. However, referring to women as men can be controversial. You can probably do so in sentences like “Hey man, what’s up?” (where ‘man’ is interchangeable with ‘dude’), though if in doubt as to how offended your female friend might be if you call her a man, you may want to say “Hey woman what’s up?” (where ‘woman’ is interchangeable with ‘dudette’ or more likely ‘dude’ because ‘dudette’ is a rarely used word).

Any thoughts?


A Manly Bookshelf?

Not too long ago, I was up in my attic where some of my books are bestowed; owing to a lack of space (I have a lot of books). While there, I found my copy of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, the whereabouts of which, I’d been wondering about for a while. That, however, was accidental. My true purpose was to take a look at the state of my bookshelves, from a gendered point of view.

This is not something I usually pay any attention to. I rarely consider the author’s identity unless the author is one whose works I have already read or one who I was deliberately keeping an eye out for. I base my choices on the description of the book’s premise that is usually provided in the blurb. The sex/gender identity of the author is not something that I consider, nor is the sex/gender identity of the protagonist. Regardless, I had a pretty good idea of what I would observe; most likely, so do you. Before revealing my findings however, I will digress to provide some cultural context to my bookshelf perusal.

Apparently, the primary audience for fiction is women. This is, of course, a generalisation. Mark Twain is said to have said “All generalisations are false” and I hold that quotation in high esteem. Nevertheless, it seems to be a fact that statistically (yeah, yeah, “lies, damn lies and statistics”) women read more fiction than men.

Now within fiction-readers there are apparently more gender differences between readers of different kinds of stories. Science-fiction is usually considered a primarily male domain and that vague, amorphous thing called fantasy (or at least some of its more prominent sub-types) is only a little less male-dominated. So goes conventional wisdom, backed up by a few numbers and a lot of conversation in the media.

Perhaps ironically (depending on your own expectations), there is apparently a lack of female writers in fiction. Of those that do exist, many are labelled as part of that vaguely-defined yet much-maligned genre known as chick-lit. Now, chick-lit is more of a marketing strategy than anything else and so there may well be many great books receiving less attention than they deserve because they are packaged as chick-lit. The question is, what are the rest up to and why do we see so few of them on award-lists and best-seller charts?

The other question is, now that we’re over 400 words into the article, am I finally going to reveal what I was doing? Spoiler: Yes.

Discounting my non-fiction books, my graphic novels and my short-story collections and looking exclusively at my prose-fiction novels, I divided them into two categories (author and protagonist) and ‘awarded’ points based on the gender of each. I was not scientifically rigorous with the process, as the idea was to get a look at state of the forest, not to make sure I detailed each leaf on every tree.

To give some insight into how I did this, the Harry Potter series got 1 Female Author Point and 1 Male Protagonist Point (there’s not really any argument to be made that anyone other than Harry is the main character, even though I’d probably prefer Hermione’s point of view) while Dostoyevsky (1 Male Author Point) donated 8 Male Protagonist Points because I have several different books of his that all have a male protagonist (or are dominated by male protagonists).

Final results:

Male author: 55
Female Author: 9

Male authors on my bookshelves outnumber female authors approximately 6 to 1.

Male protagonist: 85
Female Protagonist: 38

Male protagonists only outnumber female protagonists a little more than 2 to 1.

Well, obviously feminism won’t be flying any flags over my reading material. It is possible that I am subconsciously choosing male over female despite my lack of conscious consideration. I do not think that this is what’s going on, however. I am an eclectic reader who will read practically any kind of book but science-fiction and fantasy are the two genres I gravitate towards most. As I mentioned earlier, they tend to be male-dominated in readership and fiction authorship in general seems to be male-dominated. I don’t know why this is so; I think it’s probably related to more general patriarchal structures but I’m baffled as to why this is so entrenched in what is a relatively recent phenomenon (the novel as we know it today is a very recent medium, historically speaking) and one where the differences between the sexes are practically invisible.

So, should I run out and buy a load of female-authored books just to make up for the disparity? No, I don’t think so. What books I have by any author, be they male or female (or intersex if I have any) are there regardless of such considerations; they’re there because they are good.

I’m not going to be more sexist in order to be less sexist. (Does that even make sense?)

So, should I ignore the difference entirely except maybe for hoping it goes away of its own accord? No, I don’t think so. I’m well aware of the problems caused by under-representation of women and the effects of a partially-devolved patriarchal society. If I’m not part of the solution et cetera.

The least I can do is raise awareness of the problem. Hence this blog post. Consider your awareness raised. You’re welcome. Another thing I can do is raise awareness of what you may be missing if you concentrate your reading on one sex/gender identity.

In that spirit, I’ll finish by recommending a book from each of the four categories.

Book with a Male author: The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

I only finished reading this recently. I loooooooved it; it’s fantastic. It’s an account of delirious events in Moscow when the Devil decides to visit, and it’s a love story, and it’s about a novel about Pontius Pilate, and it’s a satire of Soviet Russia. It is both brilliantly bizarre and bizarrely brilliant.

Book with a Female author: The Casual Vacancy by J. K. Rowling

This is a very cleverly constructed book, where every tiny detail of the lives of the multiple protagonists add up to the ending, like a finely tuned machine. It’s about the horrific effects people can have on other people when they don’t really see them as real people. This book is really, really good; the magic is in the writing.

Book with a Male protagonist: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

This is one of my favourite books: Child of the Gothic, first cousin to science-fiction, the premise needs no introduction. You know what it’s about, right? You might not know how eloquently the monster speaks, you might not know what the Irishman says when Victor washes up on the shores of the Emerald Isle, you might not know what a joy it is to read. If you don’t, you might like to find out.

Book with a Female protagonist: Sabriel by Garth Nix

I’ve had my copy of this for a long time and I’ve reread it over and over again. Crossing the Wall of George Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is nothing to crossing the wall into the Old Kingdom. But Sabriel does so anyway; she has to find her father, who is missing after being attacked by a powerful sorcerer of the Greater Dead. It’s difficult to say more without giving the plot away but it does contain magical bells and a talking cat-that’s-not-a-cat. Suffice it to say that this is a brilliant book and worth the reading.

Comments are welcome.


A Rose by Any Other Colour would Smell as Sweet

Would a rose by any other colour smell as sweet? I am aware that there are roses of various (etymologically defiant) colours, as I’m sure Shakespeare was aware that there are other names for roses. I don’t actually know if the pigments affect the smell but it’s probably too pedantic of me to analyse my own metaphor like that so I’m going to move on to the real subject of this post once this paragraph ends.

While trawling through the murky waters of the internet, you may have dredged up some of what I intend to talk about. If you haven’t, then brace yourself for some of what I’m going to fish from the abysmal depths of cyberspace and dissect in the cold light of day. Also, I’m probably going to freeze the extended submarine metaphor now because it may become distracting deeper in the blog-post.

Anyway, Marc Webb’s Amazing Spider-Man 2 is set to swing onto screens somewhat soonishly (2014, according to the interwebs) and the sequel to that is apparently going to weave Mary Jane Watson into the story (she was originally set to be in 2 but is now being saved for 3, seemingly). MJ is to be played by Shailene Woodley, a casting decision which has drawn various creepy crawlies out of whatever dark places they inhabit to spew out the kind of venom for which the internet is infamous.

Principally, the primitive rhetoric is proposing that the actress chosen is not sufficiently attractive to play Peter Parker’s most iconic love-interest. Also, the language employed is not nearly as diplomatically worded as I’ve put it there. Rather than retyping any of the nonsense here or even linking directly to it, I’ll point you to an article in the New Statesman “Comics fans react with disgust at photos of a woman on her way to work” (available online) and to the satirical “Making Shailene Woodley Hot Enough To Play MJ In TASM 2” on comicbookmovie.com.

Now,  the lack of accounting for taste in physical features aside, the argument could be made that Mary Jane Watson is usually written as a supermodel/actress/entrepreneur, the first of which is (or will be, probably, if the films go in that direction) her primary career and practically requires that she fall into the category of conventionally attractive. It’s not a very strong argument and is more or less completely scuppered if she turns out not to be portrayed as a model in the film. However, the real reason this argument doesn’t have a leg to stand on (never mind the requisite eight legs) is that focusing on Mary Jane’s physical appearance or her professional career is wrong in the first instance, because neither of those things are substantial to her character.

MJ hasn’t managed to stick around for so long (she made her first full appearance in 1966) because she’s an attractive redhead, after all Marvel Comics is hardly short of attractive redheads. She has enjoyed and continues to enjoy her extraordinary popularity because of her personality, her actions, the content of her character, and the strength of her relationship to Peter Parker/Spider-Man.

Way back before Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man film came out (it was released in 2002), I remember reading an interview with Kirsten Dunst  where she claimed that she’d be wearing a red wig in order to avoid upsetting fans. This struck me as slightly odd more than a decade ago (I didn’t think that Tobey Maguire looked much like Peter so I didn’t get why MJ’s hair colour was a big deal) but really annoys me now, in retrospect.

On watching Raimi’s film, I found that despite the wig, Mary Jane Watson was barely recognisable (and becomes less so as the trilogy went on). Kirsten Dunst played a soft-spoken and demure damsel-in-distress who bore little or no resemblance to any version of MJ I’d seen elsewhere.

Would it be preferable to have a film where the characters bore more of a resemblance to the characters as drawn? I suppose so, but I’d rather have a blonde character who does act like MJ than a red-head who does not.

Another case of infidelity in hair colour adaptation is Selina Kyle (Catwoman) in Batman: The Animated Series. Catwoman in the source material has black hair while the Animated Series portrays her as blonde instead of black-haired. It didn’t matter though because she was still a costumed, cat-themed thief, skilled in martial arts and nursing a crush on Batman. She was substantially the same, despite a cosmetic difference.

Yet another example is the live-action film The Dark Knight directed by Christopher Nolan. Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight was not white of skin and green of hair as was the character in the source material. The interpretation of the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s adaptation was a monster in make-up, explicitly unlike the chemical-bleached Clown Prince of Crime from the comics. But Heath Ledger’s Joker was lauded, considered a brilliant portrayal of Batman’s archenemy, only a step below Mark Hamill’s as the greatest adaptation of the Joker off the printed page.

Why? Because Heath Ledger played the Joker as exactly the kind of demonic absurdist that the Joker is; a liar, a tempter, a corrupter, a murderer and a challenge to all established order, whether  moral, legal, epistemological or aesthetic. Next to this, the decision to feature dye and make-up, not permanent colour was but a footnote, a blip, a notion worthy of a large neon sign saying “NOBODY CARES”.

To tie all these disparate strands together: My point is that the vulgar, hateful, sexist, misogynistic discussion on whether someone is too ‘ugly’ to play a part is not just ethically wrong but it is also artistically wrong. Graphic novels are visual and static; all you get are motionless pictures and written words.

Cinema (while arguably a form of sequential art itself) is different; the magic is in the motion of the picture and in the juxtaposed sounds; the characters get to move and speak. Different Medium= Different Emphases. Even if that were not so, to focus on a character’s physical features rather than what they do is bad characterization and bad story-telling.

Nowadays we have the power to comment on whatsoever we like, whether upcoming film or up-and-coming actress and we can do so anonymously. However, we all know what comes with “great power”, right?

Post Script: This is only the second post but so far 100% of posts on this blog (all two of them) have been about cinematic adaptations of characters from ‘graphic novels’ (‘sequential art’ is a good technical term for the medium but it’s not in general use, while the more common ‘comics’ seems inappropriate for stories which are not meant to be comical). The next post will break this budding pattern (do patterns bud? Sure, why not?), I promise.


This is Not a Man of Steel Review (Contains Spoilers)

This is not a Man of Steel review. Not in the usual sense, anyway. This isn’t about the film as a work of art or a piece of cinema. This is about the interpretation of the Superman mythos in Man of Steel and why so many people don’t seem to like it. Superman has a publishing history stretching back to 1938 and has been reinvented and reinterpreted many, many, many, many, Supermany times since then in various media. This Man of Steel directed by Zack Snyder is just the latest cinematic iteration.

Whenever a new version of a familiar thing appears, we compare the new to the old. It’s how we humans understand the world. The sun lit the sky today? (Wow!) Did it do that yesterday? (Yes.) All is as it should be.

When something new arrives, we have several options. We can decide that it’s better (Superman doesn’t wear underpants on the outside anymore, I like him so much better now); we can decide that it’s worse (I can’t see Superman’s underpants anymore. I don’t want to live on this planet anymore!); we can even decide that it’s not important (Y’know what? I don’t care where Superman wears his underpants as long as he has a cape).

Now, if you’re a fan of Superman, then you probably like Superman for certain reasons. Certain features of Superman are important to your understanding and enjoyment of Superman-related material. When those features are absent or subverted then it can play havoc with your understanding of reality. This is why every film about an established character (whether it’s Beowulf or Sherlock Holmes or Clark Kent) causes uproar in the associated fandoms. It’s also why people who think that marriage should be between a man and a woman are outraged by same-sex marriage, why conservative libertarians are so against communists redistributing wealth through a powerful central government and why enthusiastic cosmopolitans are so shocked by casual racism. You may think those issues are all very separate from each other and (especially) from adapting Superman to film. You may be right. But your brain categorizes them all under ‘How the world should be’ and freaks you out when reality doesn’t line up with how you think it should be.

The Uncanny Valley is a related (or maybe identical) idea, usually mentioned in relation to robotics. Basically, the more human something non-human appears makes people happier and happier until it reaches a certain level of looks-human-but-somehow-off and then people are revolted and afraid, until it passes out of the valley and into acceptably human in appearance. My point is that if it looks like Superman but doesn’t act the way you think Superman should act, it can make you revolted and afraid.

Me? I loved this Man of Steel. I spent much of my cinematic experience smiling.  It is the closest thing to ‘My’ Superman that I have yet seen in live-action film. Of course, therein lies the problem.

My Superman isn’t the same as everyone else’s. It doesn’t seem to be the same as Mark Waid’s Superman. Mark Waid is one of the foremost experts on Superman; his love of the character is famous and he’s written the Man of Steel’s adventures on more than a few occasions (his work almost certainly influenced Snyder’s film, by the way). According to his blog, the film under discussion broke his heart. See his opinion here: http://thrillbent.com/blog/man-of-steel-since-you-asked/

Many fans share his view-point. They could not see his Superman and it was traumatic. I saw mine and it was wonderful.

What’s the difference between me and all the commentators who were revolted by Man of Steel? I can’t really answer that definitively. Everyone has a different idea of what Kal-El should be. Besides “All generalisations are false, including this one.” I’m going to speculate anyway.
Age difference may be a factor. The more irate sections of fandom seem to be about 10 to 20 years older than I am and seeing Superman: The Movie (1978) was a major, if not the major foundation of their understanding of what Superman should be. I am a child of the 90s and my first contact with the Last Son of Krypton was in Superman: The Animated Series, a much darker and more serious interpretation of the original superhero. Why was the kids’ show darker and more serious than the adults’ film, you ask? Because Bruce Timm and company are awesome, that’s why!

That’s a very simplistic answer and there is no way it comes ever close to the whole truth. There are also plenty of people my age or younger who didn’t like Man of Steel. It’s something to consider though because early experience is usually considered key to later comprehension. Anyway, psychobabble is over; on to the film!

Here are the 4 most frequently cited problems with Man of Steel within fandom, based on my reading.

  1. Too Much Krypton
  2. The Assassination of Jonathan Kent
  3. Superman Lets Too Many People Die
  4. The Death of Zod

Too Much Krypton

His planet’s dead, he was brought up on Earth, who cares who his father is anyway? Fandom says that Krypton’s not really important to Clark Kent (he doesn’t go around calling himself Kal-El).  I agree. He is the Last Son of Krypton but that has little importance to the character beyond a pseudoscientific explanation for his powers and a reason for his immigration status.

However, I think the prominence of Krypton in Man of Steel is appropriate because Clark Kent is not the only Kryptonian running around. If Zod is the villain, then Kryptonian culture is hugely important because Zod is Kryptonian militant nationalism and Krypton is his motivation. The more we see of Krypton, the better we understand Zod; what he’s lost, what he hopes to regain.

As to people who complain that Jor-El gets too much screen-time in the beginning, in what is meant to be a story of his son? All I can say is that I don’t mind. I like the sense of epic scale that comes with a story that crosses times and places and generations. The Silmarillion (constructed from the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien) is one of my favourite books and it’s a story that spans thousands of years with dozens of main characters and hundreds of minor ones.

The Assassination of Jonathan Kent

This refers both to the alleged character-assassination of Clark’s adoptive father and his eventual death.

Superman is usually held to have gained his moral compass from his adoptive parents in Kansas so when Jonathan Kent tells young Clark that “maybe” he should have let all the children die on the bus struck many people as deeply and profoundly wrong. Telling Clark to ignore people in danger could be seen as bordering on child abuse, if nothing else but worse than that, this is the man who was meant to be telling Superman about Truth and Justice doing more or less the opposite.

The “maybe” is a “maybe” and it didn’t bother me much because it was only a “maybe”, one option among many. Additionally, the whole question of where he got his moral compass from seems less important to me. While a parents’ behaviour is important to a child’s formation, they’re never the only influence; especially in this globalised world with so much other information available through various media, especially-especially when the child in question can hear what’s going on in the next state. I never really found Clark’s parents all that important to Superman, maybe that says more about me than it does anyone else.

The scene where Jonathan Kent is killed by a tornado because he tells Clark not to save him has come under fire because fans say that Clark should have saved him anyway. Yeah, I totally agree here. Clark should have saved his father and hang the consequences. This was something that revolted me during the film; happily the film was long enough and enough other things happened not to ruin my experience but I thought this was stupid and immoral.

Superman Lets Too Many People Die

“One death is a tragedy, one thousand deaths is a statistic” –Josef Stalin (The name Stalin comes from the Russian word for steel, making this moustachioed despot a Man of Steel himself).

Basically, fans say that Superman should have saved more people from falling rubble and the like, or tried harder to remove the invaders from where people could be hurt. That he didn’t do these things makes him incompetent or uncaring.

Let’s be clear, a lot of people must have died while the big machine was remaking the Earth and while Superman fought Zod. Here’s one estimate: http://www.buzzfeed.com/jordanzakarin/man-of-steel-destruction-death-analysis

I don’t buy it.
Imagine you have lived your entire life in a world made of cardboard where everyone but you moved at a snail’s pace. You’ve never been in anything like a fight and if you were it’d be over pretty quickly because you can kill these slow, virtually blind and deaf, cardboard people just by looking at them (but you never have, because you’re cool like that).

Then, one day, someone else arrives. They are made not of cardboard but of steel, they move faster than a jet and they are punching you repeatedly in the face. This is the situation Clark is in. It is reasonable to me that he was not in a frame of mind conducive to the calculation of casualties on his first adventure. Anyway, he did try to take Zod away from Metropolis (and into space) but Zod knocked him down again.

Any vision of Earth where beings with the power to crack a continent in half could throw each other around without civilians being caught in the crossfire would be suspiciously perfect and as anyone who has read Infinite Crisis will know “A perfect Earth doesn’t need a Superman.”

The Death of Zod

More specifically, the murder of General Zod by the Superman, Clark Kent. So, Zod’s goal is to commit suicide by Superman and kill a lot of puny humans in the process? Goal achieved: Zod wins. But why did Superman let him win? Superman does not kill. Superheroes don’t kill in general (Screw you Wolverine!) and Superman is probably the hero who exemplifies this more than any other in DC comics (except Batman).

But Superman kills Zod! This might have shocked me more if Batman (who adheres to the no-kill rule even more strongly than Superman) had not killed someone in every single one of Christopher Nolan’s films. Regardless, I did revolt. I saw it coming and I spent the few minutes leading up to Zod’s death thinking “No, no, no, no, no” but then they saved it. Superman broke down, he cried, he screamed, he was filled with horror and remorse at what he had done. I was mollified, I bought it. I could accept Superman killing in extremity, in the last defence of life, other options seemingly exhausted if he was horrified by his actions.

As long as he did it without celebration or callousness, as long as he did it with dismay instead of a stupid one-liner (Every time I watch Batman Begins: “I won’t kill you but that doesn’t mean I have to save you” says Batman, “Yes, you do”, I feel like screaming), as long as Superman understands it to be an utter violation of his being, I can buy it. As long as it doesn’t happen again in sequels, I can believe it.

Conclusion
Yeah, so I liked Man of Steel; what did everyone else think? Comments welcome.