Thursday, May 30, 2013

Fun with The Google

Okay. So, I know that it's hilariously egotistical to Google myself. (It's like asking the internet to validate your existence, isn't it?) But I also know that I'm not the only one.

Anyway, I Googled my name earlier today, which is something I do, I dunno, about once a month. The first few results have been the same for years - this blog, my LinkedIn page, my Twitter account, my Rate MyProfessors reviews, my page - but something new seems to pop up every time, and it's usually good. Or, at least, kinda cool. ("Cool" might be relative.  It might just be inconsequential and/or nerdy.) Here are some of the more interesting results:

1. A couple of my essays been referenced in some books. Only one really engages with an argument that I've made: Marc Singer's Grant Morrison: Combining the Worlds of Contemporary Comics. I'm quoted/referenced a bunch of times in the chapter about Grant Morrison's New X-Men. One of my interpretations of a group of villains called the U-Men is referred to as "appallingly literal." (He actually likes the interpretation - though Singer offers a convincing read of his own, and one that I think he and I would find equally appalling - but I thought it would be funnier if I pulled that quote out of context.)

2.  My stuff pops up in some recently defended theses. (The first of those theses includes a reference to my queer-reading of the "gay" sidekick concept. I'm mentioning it because I think it's super-cool and should be referenced more. All the time, even. By you. In whatever you're doing at this exact moment.)

3. My "gay" sidekick paper is required reading in a "Masculinity in American Popular Culture" course at the University of Nevada, Reno. That's pretty cool.

4. I also found a single peer-reviewed essay that references me, again, in a footnote. Which isn't all that surprising, given how notoriously slow the peer-review process can be. (What is surprising, though, is that it misrepresents my X-Men paper, oddly reducing it to an essay about mutants-as-racial-metaphor. Huh.)

5. Google Image Search is pretty boring. There are a bunch of pictures of me - almost all of them pictures that I photoshopped specifically for my social media accounts - and the things I've posted. The weirdest it gets is when the X-Men Micro Heroes that I designed waaay back (10 years ago? 15?) pop up.

6. My Klout score is currently 54. Which is absurdly high, when I look at some of the people that are also in the mid-50s. (It rose more than 10 points in one day, in the last week, probably owing to how many retweets I'm getting for all the Rob Ford crack smoking shenanigans.)

7. A bunch of small things: my letter to the former chair of the TTC (Toronto Transit Commission), another to Roger Ebert, one to the Toronto Star, and a reference on Wikipedia to a comic book review that I wrote. The lattermost actually prompted a discussion on the Talk page of the entry, long since closed, of whether I was an "expert" on the subject or just a fan. It was decided that, yes, I'm an expert. (And, yes, I've totally used the line 'Wikipedia says I'm an expert on comics'. And, no, I'm not being entirely ironic when I do so.)

The funniest of this grab-bag of responses to stuff that I wrote is from Fire Joe Morgan, a delightful but defunct website whose mission was to embarrass sports writers and commentators who rely on clichés and myths for their analysis. I wrote a letter to a sports writer at The Toronto Star, who printed it and mocked my use of statistics. FJM took offense, complimented me for my reasoning, and chewed-out the sports writer. The money quote: "Neil probably got a 5 on his AP Physics exam. Then he majored in electrical engineering at McGill, married a nice French-Canadian girl named Ghyslaine, and settled down in Toronto." The weird thing? I was doing a PhD in Social and Political Thought when this column was written; five years later, I'm teaching, among other things, in an Electrical Engineering course at U of T. Huh.

8. A link to my sports blog, which I both opened and shut down last year. It was supposed to be a collective thing, but the other guys who hoped to be involved could never find the time.

9. An email interview with Bryan Lee O'Malley of Scott Pilgrim fame, way back in 2004 when the series was still brand new. He was oddly unpleasant - refused to answer a couple questions without explanation, used an unmistakably snarky tone. Very strange experience.

10. I've been re-tweeted by a few media sources, like Toronto's The Grid, Metro, and the Huffington Post. All of them only came to my attention because someone else saw them and directed me to them, so, for all I know, there could be more out there.

11. Further down the list of Google results is something that I'd never seen before, which is a summary of my X-Men paper in an English grad student's annotated bibliography of X-Men criticism. It's actually a really long, detailed summary, noting that my argument is very atypical but that the "thorough article is supported by an equally thorough bibliography". Keen!

12. One of a few discussions of All-Star Superman where my blog about Lex Luthor and Leo Quintum (ie. they are the same person) is referenced. I'm guessing that they're hard to find because discussion forums don't follow any kind of consistent reference/citation format. Funny story: A friend of mine was teaching this book in an English class at the University of Toronto, and a student told him that he had to check out the authoritative take on the series. Which was, bizarrely, my blog.

13. This is just weird. Waaay down in the search results - we're talking triple-digits - is my old ICQ account, which I'm sure I haven't used since the year 2000. ICQ still exists??

14. What I don't find is interesting, too. There used to be a critique of a comic book review that I wrote, like, 8 years ago - in fact, it was one of the top search results, at least for a little while. I thought it was an unfair critique - I was characterized as a mindless superhero fan - and wrote a response to it, which was never responded to. But that doesn't seem to exist, anymore. Disappointingly, I can't find any record of my old Geocities websites, and I had a whole lot of them in the mid-to-late 90s. They were hideous, but so was the entire internet.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

White male privilege in Star Trek: no single person's responsibility, but everyone's problem

I haven't seen Star Trek: Into Darkness - I plan to, eventually - but this article about Star Trek's failure to live up to its credo of diversity and tolerance (if not acceptance) makes some broader points that, I suspect, apply equally well to the new film. The money quote:
"The reality is that, at best, Star Trek is like a well-meaning but misguided friend who thinks that they are far more progressive than they actually are. Depending on the topic and franchise, Star Trek’s track record varies from 'mediocre but still better than most other shows of its era' to 'fucking hypocritical bullshit that makes me swear at the TV.'"

I wrote a short blog about this a few years ago, when I was commenting on both the remarkable racism - at least, in light of its purported progressive values - of The Next Generation and, yet, its oddly satisfying conclusion, where the producers argue that the progress narrative is deeply hypocritical and masks a root savagery that we'll never fully shake. (Deep Space Nine would pick this idea up and really run with it, positing that the more civilized the exterior appears, the more rotten it is at its core. Which, funny enough, seems to be exactly the argument that George R.R. Martin is putting forward with A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones.)

Actual shot from the most embarrassingly racist episode of TNG.

But the part of that article that I wanted to respond to, specifically, is where the author makes reference to the absence of gay characters and the explanations offered by current and former writers/producers Ronald D. Moore and J.J. Abrams. And we can add one from former show-runner Brannon Braga, too:

“The truth is it was not really a priority for any of us on the staff so it wasn’t really something that was strong on anybody’s radar.... Somebody has to decide that it’s important before you do it.” (Moore)

"I think it was, not so much a young man’s [issue], it was a syndicated family show, showing at six o’clock, you know, in Salt Lake City, so you had to deal with each separate affiliate rather than one network. And things like that. It was not a forward thinking decision. Knowing the players involved, knowing the decision makers, knowing it was that they felt reluctant about, you know, we’re not saying 'yes,' we’re not saying 'no,' we’re not just not going to touch that right now." (Braga)

"I just wouldn’t want the agenda to be-- whether it’s a heterosexual relationship or a homosexual relationship, to tell a story that was, that felt distracting from part of the purpose of the story is. ...this was not in the list of my priorities to try to figure out how to make this movie in the best possible way. But it will now be in the hopper. And it’s one of those things I’ll bring up with the writers next time we meet." (Abrams

So, each comment amounts to "we didn't really think about it", though with varying degrees of self-awareness and self-reflexivity. Braga seems to recognize, at least tacitly, that straight male privilege was preventing them from even considering it. Abrams, on the other hand, doesn't seem to realize how problematic it is to situate gay relationships as "distractions" when straight relationships wouldn't be similarly interrogated.

Anyway, this reminded me of the critiques of Girls and Game of Thrones, when each of those shows debuted. People complained (fairly) that Girls manages to almost completely whitewash one of the most racially-diverse cities in the world. People complained (fairly) that Game of Thrones reduces ethnic Others to almost comically barbaric stereotypes. These shows, the critics said, need to be more inclusive.

The defenders of these shows replied (again, fairly) that it is not their responsibility to be inclusive - they're telling a story, and telling it the best way they know how. And this is where I see the overlap with the Star Trek quotes above. Presumably, if someone were to push particularly hard - and I think you can actually see this if you read the full Abrams interview - they would fall into a sort of rhetoric of 'it's not my/our job to be everything to everyone', and making media for straight white dudes is a relatively easy sell. And, again, on an individual basis, they would be right.

The problem is, no one thinks it's their job to make a multicultural Girls, a racially-sensitive Game of Thrones, or a gay Star Trek character. Well, not "no one", but certainly very few people - and certainly not anyone with mainstream prominence. And while it may not be any single person's responsibility, it is our collective responsibility to ensure that real people see their lives reflected in real representations.

And that's the catch-22 - there's a collective obligation and need, here, but you can't force a J.J. Abrams or George R.R. Martin to be more inclusive, individually. (Well, maybe you can argue that Star Trek requires that the guy at the helm prove that it deserves its reputation. Maybe.) Yet, it's obvious that individual action - and accompanying monetary success - is the only thing that can lead to change among the wider entertainment industry. But while something needs to change, no one person is required to be the person who does it. So, no one does.

And that's why we just keep complaining.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

We still need to talk about nudity on Game of Thrones

Like a lot of other Game of Thrones actors, Oona Chaplin, who plays Talisa, the Queen in the North, has appeared naked on the show and, subsequently, been asked her opinion on it. (For the record, she's happy with it, provided that it's "beautiful" and "honours the female form.") But one of her most recent comments has earned some interesting responses. Says Chaplin,

“One of the girls in the show who got her kit off the most in the first couple of seasons now doesn’t at all because she said, ‘I want to be known for my acting not for my breasts.’” 

Now, while there's a lot of nudity in the show, the large majority of nudity is provided by background or very minor characters. So, there aren't a whole lot of options, and most people assume that she's referring to Emelia Clarke, who plays Daenerys. You might remember that she was constantly nude in the first season, and that she made the news more recently for her performance in Breakfast at Tiffany's, where her nude scene was interrupted by a flurry of flash photography. For better or worse, she's become known for her naked body.

But this blog isn't about any of that. Well, not directly, anyway. Instead, it's about the unsympathetic fan response to Clarke's purported annoyance/discomfort:

"Didn't the actress read the part before she signed on? There is alot of this stuff in the books.. get a grip and learn what you're doing before you jump in with both feet"

"Exactly what I was thinking, the books are full of references which then would need to be translated into the show in order to maintain the level of authenticity many fans desire. I'm tired of this whole 'nudity is bad and detracts from seriousness' debate."

"Didn't halley [sp] berry win an Oscar for a role she appeared nude in?"

Ugh. Obviously, I'm reproducing these comments because I think they're off-the-mark. Here are a few reasons why:
  • Unfortunately, Clarke - and I'm assuming that the anonymous comments do belong to her - is right, she is known for her breasts. So much so that it's a huge distraction, as it was in her Breakfast at Tiffany's performance, where a significant number of people valued her performance precisely because she would be naked. And probably did a lot to ruin the show for everyone else, too. (Though, as I understand it, it wasn't a particularly good staging to begin with...)

  • Further, GoT is just generally infamous for its excessive female nudity.  This is why SNL was able to make a hilariously on-point parody like this one, which claims that the show owes its success in equal parts to George R.R. Martin, writer of the books, and a 13 year-old named Adam Friedberg, whose only job is to add more boobs:

    I should add that, when I watch the show and breasts make an appearance, I immediately think of Adam Friedberg. So, there's another knock against too much nudity - as entertained and immersed in the story as I might otherwise be, I immediately think of Andy Samberg's impression of a 13 year-old.

  • Some fans seem to think that fidelity to the books is an absolute defense. If Daenerys was often nude in the books, then Clarke should accept that. Never mind that men are also often naked in the books, and yet we've only seen a few asses and no penises. Or that there's no rule stating that any TV adaptation needs to be perfectly faithful. (See: The Walking Dead, which departs in significant ways from the source material. Or don't, because most of those differences are awful ones.)

  • But most problematic, I think, is the implication that an actor can't re-assess the situation, take account of new information, reflect on her experience, and... change her mind. Clearly, she was comfortable with the nudity in the beginning. Now, seeing the unpredictable kind of notoriety that it's earned her, she's decided that she doesn't much like it. That actually strikes me as pretty reasonable.

[Correction: I originally attributed the quote at the top to Natalia Tena, who plays a different character on the show. This is because The Mary Sue made the same mistake, and I didn't bother to double-check the source. My bad.]

Thursday, May 16, 2013

The X-Men don't represent what you think they represent

I'm very late to the game with this one, but I wanted to get some thoughts down on paper. (Or on keyboard. On the screen. Online? Whichever.)

The X-Men, we've been told many times, are less a team of superhero than they are a metaphor. Their creator, Stan Lee, wanted a group of heroes that would engender fear for the simple fact that they are different. "People fear things that are different," writes Lee, and it's hard to think that Lee, a Jewish-American, wasn't thinking of Jews and Roma during the Holocaust.

So, I was a bit disturbed when I saw this scene in an issue of Uncanny Avengers. The character speaking in the panels below is Havok, one of the X-Men. He's never been a particularly vocal advocate for mutant rights - he was briefly involved with a mutant terrorist group, but that was revealed to be an undercover job - but that's probably beside the point. Here's the leader of the Avengers' Unity team - a joint X-Men/Avengers effort to improve the standing of the mutant community - effectively telling everyone that he advocates a post-mutant (or, I guess, mutation-blind) society. And it left me cold:

In a subsequent panel, a reporter asks Havok what they should call him if not "mutant". He replies "Alex."

Now, the problem is not that Havok's speech is unrealistic or unconvincing. Havok has never shown himself to be the most dedicated X-Man - he's quit a couple of times, and for the first couple decades of the comic he preferred to be completely uninvolved in mutant politics or superheroics - and it might be compelling to situate him as a conservative voice for a post-mutant America. The rhetoric is certainly familiar: he doesn't want people to see his powers, just as the post-race bunch pretend that they don't see race; he sees himself as the product of his choices, ignoring the systemic realities that restrict those choices, just as many conservatives do.

It might not be an ideology that I value, but it could make for a compelling read. How would mutants with a more progressive take on human-mutant politics react to the choice of Havok for such a prominent role? Would they perceive some agenda on the part of Captain America, who selected him? And what kind of mutant politics erases the "mutant" from its own politics? I imagine that Havok would face a lot of the same criticisms that were lobbed at Condoleeza Rice or Colin Powell when the post-race Bush Administration came to power.

Alas, Marvel and writer Rick Remender weren't planning on taking it in that direction. For them, Havok's rhetoric was not political or even controversial. Funny, the sorts of nonsense you can sell yourself when you're able to write about - and enjoy - oppression from a position of privilege.

Mind you, this isn't new. Marvel has always used the X-Men to encourage people of privilege to experience - and derive some enjoyment from - oppression at a distance, vicariously. But I've never seen them do this, at least not so explicitly. Marvel is using the X-Men to violently undermine the relevance and reality of identity politics, to reduce social categories, from which people derive their sense of self and worth, to dirty words and systems of social inequality to "choices".

That kind of thing is going to make people angry, especially the fans who have been told that the X-Men are a minority like they are. As Ladies Making Comics so aptly put it on Twitter, "Telling people whose rights have been trampled for decades 'But we're all people! Let's get along!': guaranteed to piss them off." Yep, them and everyone else who gets it.

But, wait! said Marvel and Remender. That's not happening at all, because the X-Men aren't actually a metaphor. They're just a fictional category of superheroes, and YOU are reading too much into it. Cue Remender's response to Ladies Making Comics: "Mutants come from all races and sexual orientation. It's not an apt analogy you're making." And fellow X-Men writer Jason Aaron: "It's not the story of what it means to be black or gay in today's society."

In a sense, Aaron is right - the X-Men don't tell us what it's like to black or gay, because the people writing the X-Men are almost always straight white guys who can only guess. But that doesn't mean that they don't pretend that they can. To claim otherwise, as Remender and Aaron (and I can only guess who else) do, is disingenuous, if not dishonest. (Indeed, Racialicious has a huge piece on this story, which includes other writers - and Remender himself - contradicting these comments from Remender and Aaron. You should probably read it.)

But don't take my word for it:
  • "What's fascinating about these two characters [Magneto and Professor X] is that they're really the Malcolm X and Martin Luther King of comic mythology." -Bryan Singer, director of X-Men, X2, and X-Men: Days of Future Past
  • “I know, speaking to Marvel Comics, that it’s not just gay people who identify with mutants – it’s other minorities, too, religious minorities, racial minorities” -Ian McKellan, Magneto in the X-Men films
  • "Every time I would hear one of these ideas, I would always ask myself, 'What's the point of being so specific? A gay mutant? An African American mutant? An HIV-positive mutant? Oxymorons, all of them.' To my mind, mutants are all those thing simultaneously. They're every oppressed minority and disenfranchised subculture, all rolled up into one metaphor." -Joe Casey, former Uncanny X-Men writer

When people are gushing about the property and it's inclusivity, they're quick on the draw to brag about how the comic was always meant to accommodate all these identifications and readings. It speaks to the real world, it allegorizes real people and situations.

But when people start to critique it? When they begin to disagree with the message that Marvel is selling, that it's effectively putting into the mouths of disempowered peoples? Then, the creators deny that it was ever supposed to reflect reality, that it was ever intended to be more than escapist fantasy.

And that's probably the most infuriating part of this whole thing. It's not that they simply deny responsibility for or awareness of the metaphorical reading that everyone is familiar with, it's that they forsake it in one breath but accept any and all kudos in the next. Marvel wants to have it both ways, and they shouldn't get away with it. But they do.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

CBC Kids doesn't want white people, and it's not racist or even a big deal

So, Kids' CBC is looking for a new co-host for their morning programming. Presently, the morning show is hosted by Patty, a 40ish white woman, and Mamma Yamma, a yam-shaped puppet. So, I guess that means that Sid Bobb, an Aboriginal man whose on-air role has noticeably declined in the last few months, is moving on to something else.

For the record, I've consistently watched Kids' CBC - sometimes more frequently than other times - with my daughter for more than 3 years, now. Aside from some bizarrely interesting musical guest choices - Billy Bragg singing with a puppet-crab, for instance - it's a remarkably tame show, no different from any other morning show aimed at the kindergarten demographic. So, this shouldn't be big news. But it turns out that it is. (Again, it shouldn't be, but it is.) Because this is what a hiring agency posted for the CBC:

The contentious line is the last one in this screen cap - "any race except Caucasian". (That this is the only contentious line is a hilarious irony that exposes the ridiculousness of the 'controversy', but I'll get to that later.) Twitter erupted with rage over the exclusion of white men, and both the CBC and the casting company they hired apologized. The casting agency also amended the ad so that it no longer mentions race, and you can read more about the agency and CBC's responses here. You can also check the coverage of this story at the Huffington Post, where Marni Soupcoff makes a number of observations that I both agree and disagree with, but all of them are quite thoughtful.

But as for that rage... the ads elicited a predictably conservative reaction, but I think that it's probably fair to look at just one. A friend of mine tweeted that it was an example of "sickly racism" and added the familiar cliché, "how about hiring the BEST host, rather than one with certain skin pigmentation?" He also made a connection between these hiring practices and the spotty record of Affirmative Action in universities, posting this link to a story in The Atlantic.

To that, I say "bullshit". (Well, in the actual interaction I called it a "non sequitur". But, y'know, it's bullshit.) The story in The Atlantic is about admitting students who lack the preparation and skill to compete at top-tier schools; this story is about a children's morning show host. The story in The Atlantic mentions that academic "mismatch"* might be responsible for black students dropping out of engineering programs at more than twice the rate of white students; but this job is literally not rocket science.

Some of the Kids' CBC cast: Sid, Patty, Captain Claw,
Mamma Yamma, and Salmon. Not rocket scientists.

There are two main points that I want to make, one in response to my friends complaints, and another more broadly in support of the CBC's hiring directives.

One, there is no "BEST host" out there. No one is finishing in the top-percentile of the Standardized Hosting Test and being overlooked because he's white. And to the extent that the CBC should be looking for the "BEST host", it's worth considering the actual needs and objectives of the program. Reasonably, I think, Soupcoff points out that "we also have to remember that what we're talking about here is casting an entertainer in a dramatic enterprise, not staffing a position in the bureaucracy."And indeed, a letter from the CBC told the hiring agency that they wanted actors who reflect "Canada and its regions as well as the country's multicultural and multiracial nature", since the show is very much about showcasing various regions and people in the country. In that case, the "BEST host" might very well be one with a particular race or gender that is otherwise under-represented.

And this leads directly into my second point. Regardless of the CBC's responsibility to aspiring hosts, they have a much larger responsibility to the kids that watch Kids' CBC. Canada's multicultural and multiracial nature? It's the audience for this show. Those same non-white kids? They can look forward to years of TV and film programming filled with the faces of white men, with the stereotypes of their own race and ethnicity, or with the exclusion of their race and ethnicity altogether. Representation is power, and for non-white kids watching a morning show that's populated only with white people? Well, it follows that lack of representation is disempowering.

I mentioned, at the top, that there was an irony to all this outrage. And it has to do with the fact that all the anger is directed at the exclusion of white people. The thing is, they're not the only demographic groups that were denied the opportunity to apply. Let me spell it out, in case you missed it. This was the very first requirement listed:
  • Male between the ages of 23-35yrs

So, who else can't apply? Anyone under 23. Anyone over 35. And women. No women can apply. An entire gender has been barred from applying. And where's the outrage? Where are the cries of sexism? Why aren't the people who successfully lobbied CBC to consider white men also asking them to consider women of colour?

Unsurprisingly, those hypocrites are nowhere to be found.

[*According to the article, "mismatch" is the term for situations where the student simply doesn't have the proper educational background for their program. The reasoning is that we don't want mismatches because we're doing those "mismatched" students a disservice - we should, instead, nudge them toward easier programs. What the "mismatch" rhetoric fails to address, of course, is that systemic racism has a lot to do with the lack of preparation - the disservice is done well before they ever set foot in a university classroom.]