TMD's Creatively Named Blog
I have a very clear memory of being ten or eleven and watching Cartoon Network. I didn’t have cable growing up, so this was at a hotel or someone else’s place. I’d left Singapore and was in that whole growing-up-on-a-ship phase of my life.
Johnny Bravo was on, and for some reason or other the titular character had to learn some martial art or another. So he goes to a dojo, meets the guy, and asks him to teach him “the secrets of the East.”
This took me aback. That was their takeaway? Not, y’know, the whole modern metropolis thing or the food or anything; the old Asian guy teaching some martial art or another was their view of ‘The East’? Also, the heck is up with calling it ‘the East’?
I suppose it’s kind of special to be able to pinpoint your first conscious encounter with systemic racism (special in the way that it’s special you remember what class you failed in High School), but it is certainly something amusing to be aware of. Because, wouldn’t you know it, that is one of the prevailing images of East Asians in popular culture: the wise old master ready to teach you some oriental martial art.
And I suppose that’s one reason why I wasn’t bothered by Tilda Swinton being cast as The Ancient One in Doctor Strange. It’s not just because it adds another woman to male-heavy cast in a male-heavy franchise, but it’s because it moves away from a particular stereotype.
Now, would it have been great to have an Asian actor cast as The Ancient One? Sure. But I’m sick of Asians having to be in fir into a few prescribed roles (wise old master, funny foreigner, engineer/doctor/smart person). There are these places where stories tend to default to having an Asian character, not unlike how the default everyman is a white dude. The wise old master is so ingrained into the popular consciousness that one of the funnest turns in Batman Begins is that Ken Watanabe isn’t Ra’s al Ghul, but is actually Liam Neeson (uh, eleven year-old spoiler, I guess).
The problem at hand is only letting people be a certain thing. If the only time/only way we let an Asian character be of importance is by making them a wise old master/funny foreigner/smart person, it perpetuates the idea that that’s all they/we are. It’s the same thing as the whole all-Asians-are-martial-artists thing where that is the only thing worth knowing about Asian countries. It’s why I celebrate Crazy Ex-Girlfriend for making an Asian character idiot bro. There is definitely a discussion to be had here about people and roles, but, again, I’m plenty happy with Tilda Swinton in the role, especially because she does such a great job at it. And hey, how often do we get to see women be the wise old masters?
I’m not so sure I’d call it white-washing either. I’m not terribly familiar with Doctor Strange’s backstory in the comics, but there’s little about The Ancient One that seems Asian outside of the, y’know, old master on a mountain top. His race (or gender, for that matter) isn’t too tied to the material: this isn’t kung-fu or karate (s)he’s teaching, it’s magic. Not Chinese magic; magic magic. I understand the problematic nature of taking a character who’s a minority in the source material and making them white in the adaptation, but there’s also the excision of a particularly frustrating stereotype from a narrative at play here. It’s not a simple one-or-the-other predicament, it’s a nuanced, messy situation. One that requires dialogue, not dogma.
Besides, Doctor Strange does decent in diversity elsewhere, with Benedict Wong’s Wong being a particularly enjoyable one-note supporting character (and the source of some of the best gags). Plus, the other sorcerer-students and doctors in the background are noticeably diverse, and the movie is one of few to feature a villain with henchwomen. It doesn’t mean it’s enough, but a cast photo that looks like this is a step in the right direction.
Now, there is room for discussion here and for me to be wrong – there always is. I suppose I’m just happy to see a wise old master that, well, isn’t an Asian guy with a long beard.
Y'know, I had plenty of ideas about what this blog post was gonna be about. The casting choices in Dr. Strange verses Kubo and The Two Strings (with some Uncharted 4 thrown in) or maybe one about how Silk, a comic about an Asian woman with Spider-Man powers, is not a story about race but still tells a uniquely Asian story.
But then internet people had to be spoiled and cruel to Chelsea Cain because she dared write a feminist comic, to the point where she decided she’d rather leave Twitter than deal with that noise.
So this blog post is about those idiots.
Here's the quick and dirty recap: the last issue of writer Chelsea Cain’s (and artist Kate Niemczyk) wonderful Mockingbird series (which I love) features Mockingbird herself, Bobbi Morse, on its cover proudly sporting a t-shirt that reads "Ask Me About My Feminist Agenda." It's a great cover, adding a nice exclamation point to a book with an already decidedly feminist bent. Over the past week since the book's release, however, The Internet hasn't been too happy about it, and subsequently people on Twitter actively have been harassing her for it.
The sad truth is, this isn't new, neither for comics nor nerd culture at large. Marvel as a whole gets a lot of crud for them "pushing social justice down readers' throats" (that is, promoting diversity in their recent titles), and there was the horrible attacks on Leslie Jones for her role int he new Ghostbusters over the summer. Ultimately, it keeps coming down to the same thing: more people (especially women and minorities) want a more active, representative role in nerd culture and folks (especially straight white guys) don't wanna share.
And look, I get it.
I really do.
I'm a lifelong nerd, well before it became cool to be one. I got picked on in real life for reading Star Wars books (and reading in general), being good at schoolwork, and spending my weekends playing video games. Online forums were my social sphere. It's jarring to see a title and its hallmarks go from peripheral to mainstream. In recent years there’s been a steady merging of nerd culture into popular culture.
And I'll admit, I bristle at it sometimes; I get protective of these stories: they’re mine! These newcomers just getting into Star Wars and superheroes didn't have to deal with being weird; why do they get to choose to be called nerds? They're your toys and you don't like the neighbors coming over and making Darth Vader team up with the Power Rangers to fight the Decepticons. They’re our stories, we’ve claimed them as our own.
But they’re stories in contention are stories we like (hopefully) because they affected us deeply, why shouldn’t I want someone else to have that experience? Star Wars was for me a galaxy of possibility, where, y’know, things were great even if high school wasn’t. If making Rey and Finn the new face of the franchise opens the door for others to have that experience, I’m down. Mockingbird is a book where a woman can be the kickbutt scientist-super-spy without being objectified (and instead the men are!). This summer’s Ghostbusters let women see themselves as the funny unhinged ghost hunters, like how the original let you do the same, my proverbial straight, white, male straw man.
But when every story used to cater to you, my straw man, it seems like you’re being alienated from the fandoms you sustained when more and more stories don’t. When Ms. Marvel is a Muslim, Pakistani immigrant and Iron Man is a black woman, it’s weird, as a longtime fan, to not see yourself reflected as the main character. But the point is, no one group has a monopoly on wanting to connect with stories — not everyone feeling ostracized is a straight white guy. As someone who is an immigrant, it’s exciting to see elements of my own story pop up in a comic book like Ms. Marvel. There has to be space for stories for everyone.
We need diversity. And I love Marvel for pushing it (and, y’know, reflecting the real world).
What we don’t need is this bullying bs that crops up over and over again. White guys aren’t the center of the world anymore; creators like Chelsea Cain can take a character who’s always been a supporting player and spin her into a hero in her own, feminist right. The stories, all of them, never belonged exclusively to any particular person or group of people, they’ve been ours this whole time. It’s time to share.
I wish I could end this post here.
But there’s the fact that Chelsea Cain is targeted because she’s a woman writing in the comics industry, an industry whose fans will protest and harass at any provocation. There’s no ignoring the repulsive sexism at work here (and, in Leslie Jones’ case, the racism too). It’s abhorrent and disgusting; things shouldn’t be this way. Harassing and attacking a woman just because she enters into a sphere usually dominated by straight white guys is childish. It’s stupid. It’s mean.
I don’t rant about feminism as much as I used to (haven’t you heard? This is the year of diversity at Essays, Not Rants!), but this is why feminism is important. It’s ‘cuz of cowpoop like this.
When they announced the cover of Mockingbird #8 a few months ago, I quickly bought my own feminist agenda t-shirt (which I love). And my feminist agenda isn’t just putting more strong, well-written women in my stories and supporting others (and women) who do; it’s not putting up with this cyprinidae.
Unlike last time, this time I've got a detailed plan moving forward (I'm currently writing Page 4). The party finds an abandoned Old Republic military ship in the middle of nowhere. There's gonna be battle droids, droidekas, and a fight on foot against a vulture droid all while taking part in an old fashioned dungeon crawl through an Acclamator. Which, it turns out, due to a hyperdrive malfunction kinda time travelled!
So Clone Troopers! Who were recently given Order 66! Which may make them less than happy with a certain almost-Jedi in the party!
What do they find on the ship? Proof of Palpatine's machinations to become Emperor by controlling both the Separatists and the Republic!
But wait, there's more! On the way out they run into an Emperor's Hand named... GERALD MARCION. With Death Troopers. Oh, and maybe an Imperial Officer or two who wants them dead.
I can't wait to see how these guys take the adventure off the rails.
Movie tickets here in New York short you around $15 a pop. Which is a lot for a movie, but we go anyway because, y'know, movies. So it's worth it, price of admission and all that for those two hours.
Conversely, your typical new video game costs $60 at base, ignoring deluxe editions, special editions, and inevitable DLC. Which makes it come up to around a lot; Star Wars Battlefront totals out $110 if you buy the bundle for all the expansions, which I haven't though I really enjoy the game and would appreciate the depth those expansions offer. $50 seems too steep, y'know?
The same goes for Destiny's newest expansion, Rise of Iron; it's a hearty forty quid and even though I've already bought all the other expansions, I'm not quite ready to invest more cash. I don't know if it's worth it.
Then I check my playtime in the game. I've invested over 210 hours into Destiny. Holy cyprinidae (I didn't check the number until just now). For how much I've paid, that's better than 2 hours for each dollar I've spent. Or, in perspective, $1,575 worth of movie tickets. By that metric, Destiny has so far proven almost $1,500 cheaper. So picking up Rise of Iron seems like a steal.
So that's it then; entertaining-hour per dollar is the way of measuring whether something is a good deal. Buy more games, go to the cinema less often. Easy.
But what about theatre?
Plays don't come cheap, Full-price tickets for Hamilton will short you around a $100 (roughly Battlefront+expansions, if you're keeping track) for a single viewing of a two-and-a-half hour musical. Discounted tickets to shows like Fun Home and Vietgone, plays I've raved about, are $30 a piece. If we go back to our entertaining-hour per dollar metric, then plays are crazy expensive, far more than a movie and definitely a video game.
That is, of course, if you take things at a mathematical face value.
Was Fun Home worth those thirty dollars? Oh man, yes. Seeing something live has a different aura than watching something on a screen. With a play, I figure you’re not paying your money for the story, but to have an experience. Hamilton tickets fetch such a high price because it’s such an experience to watch it live. Similarly, the wonder of watching Fun Home done in the round, with the stage playing the role it does and being in a room full of other people is part of the ticket. And my own experience of Vietgone wouldn’t be the same without a particularly great piece of live feedback from an elderly woman during the introduction.
The whole entertaining-hour per dollar metric really falls apart as soon as you realize that entertainment isn’t just a blanket term. Of the over two-hundred hours I’ve spent playing Destiny, I can point to the experience of spending six hours venturing into the Vault of Glass with a six-person fireteam of strangers online and beating Atheon as being a highlight worth my purchase. That was an experience, of retries, strategizing, and, eventually, victory. It’s hard to capture that lightning in a bottle again, and that might be why I”m holding off on Rise of Iron.
When I buy a game, I’m after an experience. I want to be thrilled by Uncharted 4 or haunted by The Last of Us; if I get that, the money was worth it. Same goes for the stage; I want to see something that I could only have seen on stage, something made special by how and where it’s done. I’ll shell out a hundred bucks on a LEGO set because I love the process of putting it together (with a record playing and a nice glass of whiskey).
It’s why when Rogue One tickets go on sale I’m spending the extra money to see it in IMAX 3D: I want the experience, I wanna be there. And at the end of the day, that’s what you’re really paying for.
Sometimes I wonder about the accessibility of this blog. Not literally, I mean “Essay Snot Rants dot net” is really easy to remember. I’m talking about the content here.
Sure, I talk about movies a lot. And a lot of the times those movies are blockbusters. You’ve got your discussions on why Rey is the best in The Force Awakens, your discussions on how Age of Ultron portrayed masculinity, and the close reading of an epic monologue from Pacific Rim. Popular movies being discussed deeply! But then you’ve got my oddly well thought-out in-depth analyses of dumb, underperforming movie from 2007. So it balances out, there.
But then I’ve talked about comics like Mockingbird, which, alright, comics are kinda mainstream, but not as much as movies or tv, but probably more so than Don Quixote or trying to find the middle of the venn diagram between Borderlands 2 players and those who have read Jacques the Fatalist. And then last week I prattled on about an off-Broadway play that had just started previews in New York.
Now, that last one is where things get tricky. Most everything I talk about on this blog is readily available. Streaming services like Netflix or old-fashioned piracy makes movies and tv easily watchable; video games are sold everywhere, as are comics and books to an extent. But something like Vietgone is trickier; it’s a far more exclusive experience of a story. So if I wanna talk about it and how it uses language to personalize the immigrant experience, I gotta use more words to introduce the work and describe what I’m talking about before I can actually jump in to discussing why what I’m talking about is relevant.
Which kinda of begs the question: how important is it for stories to be accessible? And I don’t just mean plays here, I’m also thinking of video games.
Hear me out.
To watch a play there either has to be a recording of it available (of which there isn’t for, say, Fun-Home or Vietgone) or you have to be somewhere where it’s showing (like New York) and be able to afford the price of admission.
To play a video game there either has to be a recording of it available (which is, but then there’s a lot of gameplay you’re watching, not playing) or you have to have a system capable of playing that game (so, a PS4 for Uncharted 4) and, in addition, be able to beat said game.
But the inaccessibility of a story doesn’t necessarily make it less important. I’ve heard Ulysses jokingly referred to as the final boss of literature, but it’s also one of my favorite books for the beauty it lends to the everyday. It is a shame that I can’t refer to it as casually as I do Iron Man, but it doesn’t make the story any less worthwhile.
So am I making sense? Or is this just me prattling on about where stories get told? To be honest, I’m not entirely sure. There are so many stories out there, so many that I love but can’t share with someone due to importance of being there. Fun-Home closed on Broadway, so if you see it you won’t see the one I saw, and watching a video is different than being present. Similarly, a video playthrough of Uncharted 4 won't do justice to the experience of being able to explore Nathan Drake’s house.
Maybe this is related to what I wrote a couple weeks ago about how books are a conversation with the reader that creates a personal experience. Maybe it’s just about how stories are so related to who and where you are. I’ll never heard the stories your family told you the way they were told, but does that make them any less? Sure, that bedtime story isn’t The Princess Bride, and it’s nowhere near as accessible as that movie, but that doesn’t make it less important.
Because those stories matter and make sense to you, and I guess that’s enough.
Writer’s Note: Woah. This one turned out ramble-er than I expected. Might be because I’m tired from a six day work week and finishing up post on The Conduits (remember that?). In any case, this rant (definitely a rant), is getting the bloggish tag.
Language is weird. Conveying language is even harder. How do you make a story where the main characters are all speaking a different language, but gear it to an English-speaking audience? Do you give them vague accents or pull a Sean Connery and let Russian-in-English sound suspiciously like a Scottish brogue? Then what if the they interact with English speakers? How do you flip that sense of the other, where the person speaking the language you understand isn’t understood by the characters you’re following?
The play Vietgone, a story about Vietnamese immigrants to the US after the Fall of Saigon, merrily blazes its own path. In a delightfully post-modern fashion, Vietnamese is rendered in contemporary English. Main characters Quang and Tong interject ‘dude’ while speaking regular, American English — despite it supposed to be in Vietnamese. Because of this, we, as an audience, are firmly with them. We speak the same language, we understand them, we identify. There’s nothing stilted about it, it’s just people talking like people talk.
See, there’s this stereotype about Asians in and around the US is that they (we?) are so completely foreign, so other, that assimilation into normalcy isn’t really a thing — that the adjective in front of the noun is the more important word. It’s something that’s colored by the media in many ways, from Full Metal Jacket’s refrain of “me love you long time” to a certain recent piece by a major news show involving some idiot in Chinatown. When Vietgone positions its protagonists as speaking normal English, it empowers them to get to be normal. Quang and Tong aren’t presented as being other or foreign, instead they’re portrayed as normal as they would be had this story been about a bunch of white people moving somewhere else.
As for the Americans? Vietgone, a comedy, renders English as a series of loud, disparate, American-y words, yielding ‘sentences’ along the lines of “Cheeseburger shotgun Nixon!” It’s legitimately hilarious, but it underscores how confused and away Quang and Tong are. They don’t understand the people around them — and neither do we. As for the American who does try to learn Vietnamese and speaks it poorly, he is depicted speaking a horribly mangled version of English, flipping the funny foreigner trope well on its head. By building a language barrier that puts the audience on the in with the non-English speaking cast, Vietgone creates a space where the white Americans are seen as the other, not the immigrant Vietnamese.
So? What’s the big deal about this?
I will yammer on and on and on about this, to the point where I think 2016 is Essays, Not Rants! Year of Diversity (2015 was the Year of Feminism), and that’s because it’s important. Vietgone tells a familiar story (two people fall in love!) with a familiar backdrop (the aftermath of the Vietnam War!) but from a completely different perspective (did you know about the refugees from Vietnam in the aftermath?). Not only does it work as the story of immigrants and refugees, but, by positioning these people as the main characters the play allows them to tell their stories. This is the aftermath of the Vietnam War as told by those who saw their country and homes fall. It’s a different story, but not one that feels the need to dwell overlong on how different and special it is. It’s, like all good stories, a story about people first. One where they get to tell it and we get to listen in.
When I was 13 I visited a slave castle in Takoradi, Ghana. Which is a weird sentence to type, but kinda standard given the whole grew-up-on-a-ship-thing. It was sobering, seeing something you’d read about in history in person. But at the same time, for me, something firmly in the past. What had happened there was firmly in the was.
Now, I recently finished Yaa Gyasi’s exceptional Homegoing. Early on, a slave castle on Africa’s coast plays an important role, setting-wise. Naturally, this conjured up my memories of that old castle. Books have a way of doing that, where the prose merges with the reader’s imagination to create a world in between. Written stores, more so than a more visual medium, rely on a dialogue between the reader and the text. Where film or tv show the viewer what something is, a writer can only describe it and hopes the reader meets them halfway. In a weird way, written stories are a lot like video games: both require the consumer to be an active participant. In video games, if you can’t beat that one boss, you won’t get to continue on with the story (as my years long quest as a child to find out how Mega Man X4 ended proves). Similarly, if you can’t parse a book’s prose, you won’t get through it. It’s very easy for Ulysses to not make sense, given how friggin’ dense it is. The impetus is on the reader to bring what they know to the table, and put the work in to help the writer create the effect.
So Homegoing progresses in a beautiful, heartbreaking fashion, creating a narrative from a series of generational short stories; each story complete in and of itself but stronger from what came before and strengthening what comes after. Gyasi’s prose flows like poetry, making West Africa and Harlem soar. As the book progresses, it catches up in time, eventually arriving in contemporary times. Asanteland is revealed (within the book) to be modern-day Ghana and the slave castle is located in, you guessed it, Takoradi.
I found myself wondering, as the pages ran out and I neared the end, was that castle the same one I’d been to twelve years ago? I finished the book and a quick google search revealed that, yeah, it was.
Remember what I said a couple paragraphs ago about written narratives being a dialogue? The thing about dialogues is that they go both ways. For all the information my memories bring to Yaa Gyasi’s words, her words bring their own set of information to my memories.
As such, the ending of the book had a unique effect on me. When I’d visited the slave castle, I’d known the history of the place, but I’d never realized it. Because I brought something — my own memories of the place — what I got out of the book was different than someone else. Likewise, someone who’s spent years studying the ramifications of the transatlantic slave trade would pick up on bits and subtext of the book I totally missed.
Maybe this is a reason why a favorite book feels a lot more personal than a favorite movie, because what you bring to the story deeply affects what you take out of it. The way you feel about The Catcher in The Rye is different if you read it for the first time in your teens or in your twenties, just as someone who sneaks through all of Metal Gear Solid 3 will have a very different experience from someone who just shoots their way through. But it’s books, and their heavy reliance on the reader’s imagination and foreknowledge, that really benefit from that give and take, that dialogue. What you get out of it is all dependent on what you bring going in.
grew up on a ship
studied Narrative (Re)Construction
at New York University
frequently found writing in a coffee shop, behind a camera, or mixing alcohol and video games
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