The GOP Talks Like an Idiot: A Rant by a Writerly-type Person

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Thanks to @RaeBeta on Twitter for the illustration. (© Marvel)

The following is a cranky, somewhat pompous rant about language written by someone who is overly invested in the principles of clarity, usage, and style. You have been warned.

As pretty much everyone who knows me offline knows, I am a professional wordsmith. I work in publishing, which means that I’m around words every single day. I’m a sometimes freelance copyeditor, which means that I’m particular about how sentences are constructed and how words are used. I work with poets, which means that I am hyper-conscious about the meanings of words and the sounds of words and the connotations of words and how important each word is in crafting a meaningful, memorable statement. My bookshelf includes titles such as The Wordy Shipmates, A Brief History of the Printed Word, The Oxford Companion to the English Language, Verbivore’s Feast, and of course, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition.

I’m finicky about language is what I’m saying.

Which is why I am continuously irritated by the rhetoric of the Republican Party.

I’m not talking about their platform, believe it or not, although I’m not terribly fond of that either. No, I’m talking about their rhetoric (n.): the art of speaking or writing effectively.

It has been said of the new president that he has a fourth-grade vocabulary and that he talks like a clown. It has also been said that he is a master of classical rhetoric, i.e. appealing to an audience through emotional language over rational discourse, which is true, unfortunately, but I’m not going to get into that here, because I’m not actually talking about him (for once).

No, this is a rant about a different Republican spokesperson. It’s about a sentence that is so looping, so repetitive, so poorly constructed that it irritated me enough to write a 1700-word rant about it on Facebook and then copy it to my personal blog.

Again: you have been warned.

Just look at this stupid sentence:

“I think he knows that he’s got very thin ice he’s standing on legally,” said Susan Hutchinson, chairman of the Washington State Republican Party. “I’m not a lawyer but I have talked to lawyers today and they have all said this is a very thin argument legally.”

Just look at it! Let it seep into your brain. Let it smother your brain cells with it’s idiocy and strangle them of their oxygen. Let it ooze through your pores and burst through your skin like a bad case of acne. Let it wash over you. Consume you. Make your teeth itch.

“I think he knows that he’s got very thin ice he’s standing on legally. I’m not a lawyer but I have talked to lawyers today and they have all said this is a very thin argument legally.”

Dumb.

Dumb dumb dumb!

Now, before I go any further, I should give you the context of what she’s talking about. This is a quote from a Seattle Times article on U.S. District Judge James Robart’s ruling in favor of Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson, who sued to invalidate key provisions of Trump’s executive order on immigration and refugees traveling to the U.S. from seven predominantly Muslim countries. Hutchinson is accusing Ferguson of suing for political motives.

But that’s not the point. The point is that her sentence is stupid.

Let’s look at it one word at a time:

1. “I think”—weak writing. To quote another editor, phrases like “I think” and “In my opinion” a) delay the writer’s message, b) demonstrate insecurity, and c) tell the reader what she already knows. Better to start with “He knows…”

2. “he knows that…”—interpretation of motive. Unless she has spoken with the judge, there’s no way she could know what he “knows”—which itself is a poor word choice, but I’ll let it go for now. Better: “He’s got…”

3. “got”—nonstandard usage. “Got” is the past participle of “get” which means “to obtain.” Better: “He is on very…”

4. “very”—imprecise qualifier. To quote William Allen White: “Never use the word, ‘very.’ It is the weakest word in the English language; doesn’t mean anything. If you feel the urge of ‘very’ coming on, just write the word, ‘damn,’ in the place of ‘very.’ The editor will strike out the word, ‘damn,’ and you will have a good sentence.” Better: “He is on thin ice”

5. “thin ice”—dead metaphor. It’s a cliché phrase that has lost its meaning due to overuse. It’s also imprecise. Better: “He has [note shift of verb] poor standing legally.”

6. “legally”—technically correct, but the adverb placement is slightly unclear. Better: “He has poor legal standing.”

7. “I’m not a lawyer”—disqualification of authority. If you’re not a lawyer, then why should we believe what you say? Better: “He has poor legal standing. I have talked to lawyers…”

8. “I have talked to lawyers”—imprecise. Which lawyers? What branch of law do they practice? Constitutional lawyers? Divorce lawyers? Finance lawyers? Better: “I have spoken with several experts on constitutional law, including [name of lawyer], [name of lawyer], and [name of lawyer]…”

9. “and they have all said”—paraphrase. Better to give an exact quote. Since there is no quote provided, it’s better to cut the phrase.

10. “it”—ambiguous pronoun. What “it” is she referring to? The ruling? Trump’s executive order? Ferguson’s lawsuit? Be precise. Better: “I have spoken with several experts on constitutional law who agreed that Ferguson’s lawsuit…”

11. “a very thin argument”—see points 2 and 3.

12. “legally.”—repetition. You’ve said “legally” and “lawyer,” both of which are variations on “law,” four times. This is an effective rhetorical device for a speech (people remember repetitions), but it’s dishonest here. It’s also distracting. Better to cut the repetition.

To wit: “Ferguson’s lawsuit has poor legal standing. I have spoken with experts on constitutional law who agree that this suit is unconstitutional.”

This may sound silly and pedantic, but guess what? She’s making a statement about lawyers! Lawyers are some of the most pedantic people on the planet. They know that words matter and that every word in a ruling, a contract, or a statement must be precise. If it’s not precise, then another pedantic lawyer could easily find a loophole. That’s why the Terms of Services on your Facebook account (for example) are written in legalese: because Facebook does not want to be sued, and if they are sued, they want to win the case.

The legal field, like most career fields, uses language in a specific manner—jargon, you could say. (“Jargon” here referring to its second, more precise definition in Merriam-Websters, i.e. “the technical terminology or characteristic idiom of a special activity or group”). In other words, lawyers speak their own language. If you cannot speak their language, they will destroy your argument in the courtroom.

This doesn’t apply to just lawyers, by the way: farmers, engineers, manufacturers, academics, healthcare workers, bankers, stock brokers—every single career field has their own technical terms and their own way of speaking.

Now, I will be the first to admit that I do not always speak in the most refined manner. I tend to use colloquialisms and everyday vernacular both because it’s easier to articulate and because it’s easier to understand. Spoken language is, was, and always will have different rules than written English.

(English, by the way, is sometimes described as “a language with few rules and many exceptions.” Which is accurate. Which is how I justify writing in sentence fragments. Like this one. In short: I’m not making an argument that “she broke the rules.” I’m making an argument about style.)

I will also admit—readily—that I am guilty of many of the same “word crimes” as Hutchinson. I very much have a bad habit of overusing the word “very” and falling back on clichés (i.e. dead metaphors).

I also trend more toward descriptivism over prescriptivism these days, but again, that’s neither here nor there.

My point is that Hutchinson’s sentence is stupid. It’s also symptomatic of a larger problem: the dumbing down of our public language.

Compare her sentence to the words of Abraham Lincoln’s—another Republican, albeit one from a bygone era—Second Inaugural Address:

Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.

Beautiful. I get chills every time I read that sentence. It’s elegant, it’s simple, it’s easy to understand (save perhaps for the word “deprecated,” which might send some folks to a dictionary, but since when has looking up an unfamiliar word been a bad thing?), and that last clause! “…and the war came.” The understatement to end all understatements!

I could also compare her statement to, oh, nearly anything spoken in a public address by President Obama, but that would be overkill. Grabbing the low-hanging fruit. Shooting fish in a barrel. Et cetra.

Note the clichés in the last paragraph. Note the sentence fragments. Note that it’s possible to write colloquially without tripping over oneself and repeating the same words over and over and over again.

And if I do repeat words (or start a sentence with a conjunction or commit some other bugaboo), I do so for emphasis—not because I’m too flustered to think of a better word.

Yeah, it’s the repetition that bugs me the most.

“he’s got very thin ice he’s standing on legally.”

“I’m not a lawyer but I have talked to lawyers today and they have all said this is a very thin argument legally.”

Sheesh.

In short: words matter, language matters, and public language should aim for a higher standard. Either the GOP is intentionally talking down to the public because they assume we’re all dumber than a fifth grader, or they are legitimately too simple-minded to construct a decent sentence. Either way, as someone who works with language for a living, my eardrums are being ripped from my skull, grated with a lemon zester, and sprinkled over year-old gazpacho.

Now that is how you construct a colorful metaphor.

And to the entire Republican Party I say: Buy a goddamn copy of Shrunk and White, you hacks.

Note: the author does not endorse Shrunk and White as the final authority on style and usage in the English language. It is just as biased and outdated as any style manual written by writerly-type persons. It is, however, a good place to start if one wants to learn the principles of good writing. See also: the works of Stephen Pinker.

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Bizarre Love Triangles

Warning: here be spoilers.

Let’s just get this out of the way: I hate love triangles. Hate ’em. Ask me for a list of my Top Ten Least Favorite Literary Tropes, and love triangles would easily be in the top five. They are overdone, over dramatic, and rarely executed well.

So, after watching yet another otherwise lovely movie with an unnecessary love triangle, instead of getting frustrated, I am challenging myself to make a list of eight love triangles in fiction that actually work for me.

My rules were simple: entries can be from any medium, but they had to be from stories that I enjoyed overall. The love triangle may or may not be at the center of said story, but either way, it had to have involved characters that I could relate to.

For each entry, I had to explain 1) the characters involved in the love triangle, 2) how it resolves, and 3) why this particular love triangle doesn’t make me want to gnash my teeth. Believe me, it’s not as easy as it looks.

So without further ado…

#8: Rick Hunter/Lynn Minmay/Lisa Hayes (Robotech)

The Triangle Explained: Rick is a fighter pilot (IN SPACE!) who falls for a pop star named Minmay. BUT WAIT! As the series goes on, First Officer/Resident Badass Lisa Hayes meets and eventually starts to fall for Rick. Angst (and space battles) ensues.

How it resolves: After their Lost in Space Battleship finally ends up back on Earth (don’t ask) and the planet is virtually wiped out in an all-out war against giant aliens (again: don’t ask), Rick stops being an idiot and realizes that Lisa Hayes is a badass. Minmay takes his decision surprisingly well.

Why it works for me: Admittedly, it has been a long time since I watched this series. It might not hold up as well as I think it does. From what I remember, though, Rick’s relationships with both Minmay and Lisa are developed gradually—dare I say organically?—over the course of the series. I remember these seemed like actual relationships that people involved in an intergalactic war might have.

Rick and Minmay meet under stressful conditions, cling to each other for support for a while, realize that their relationships isn’t working, and eventually they move on. By the time Lisa enters the picture (a few episodes later, admittedly), it’s pretty clear that the Good Ship Rickmay (Minrick?) isn’t holding a lot of water.

But again, it’s been years since I watched Robotech. My memories of the Macross Saga are fuzzy at best, which is why it’s so low on this list. All I know is that when Rick and Lisa (finally!) end up together, it was very much a “well, obviously” moment.

#7: Cloud/Tifa/Aerith (Final Fantasy VII)

The Triangle Explained: Cloud and Tifa are childhood friends (maybe). When they were kids, she made him promise to always look out for her. Then they grew up, he became a soldier/mercenary, and she learned how look out for her own damn self. Enter Aerith, the Mysterious Flower Girl™.

While working with Tifa to blow up a mako reactor (FFVII’s answer to an oil refinery), Cloud meets Aerith after the mission goes south. Aerith is sweet, compassionate, and she has some Mysterious Yet Important Connection to the Planet™. She flirts with Cloud, but it’s clear that his affections are not the most important thing on her mind.

Once Cloud and Aerith meet up with Tifa again, the plot commences, and the love triangle bit is pretty much shoved to the sidelines for a while. Aerith likes Cloud because he reminds her of her first boyfriend, Tifa likes Cloud because he’s an old childhood friend, and Cloud is obsessed with his old army buddy turned psychopath doesn’t seem all that interested in either party.

How it resolves: Aerith dies. It is sad.

Why it works for me: I’ll be honest, this one is borderline for me. The only reason it works is because 1) it’s not really about the relationships, and 2) irrespective of their feelings for Cloud, Aerith and Tifa are friends.

Over the course of the game, it becomes clear that whatever else the two women may feel for Cloud, they’re more concerned with him as a person. Cloud is a very broken individual. Though it’s not immediately obvious, he is suffering from serious psychological duress. He’s got issues. More than anything else, I would argue that Aerith’s flirting and Tifa’s reminiscing are their respective attempts to draw Cloud out of his shell—to get him to open up about his past and, for lack of a better description, to seek professional help.

In other words, these two women exist to further the development of the male hero. Which is a bit problematic. (Though at least Aerith and her Mysterious Connection to the Planet™ have significance to the overall plot.)

As I said, this triangle barely made the list. The real reason why it worked for me is that Tifa and Aerith don’t see each other as rivals. As soon as they meet, they immediately become friends. (They bond over their reaction to seeing Cloud in a dress. It is wonderful.) At no point does either of them pressure Cloud to make a choice. Playing through Final Fantasy VII, I got the feeling that if Aerith had lived, she and Tifa would have remained friends whether Cloud was in their lives or not.

In other words, female friendship saved Final Fantasy VII for me—at least as far as this list is concerned.

#6: A Midsummer Night’s Dream [pick three]

The Love Dodecahedron explained: Lysander loves Hermia, who is in love with Lysander yet betrothed to Demetrius, who used to date Helena, who is Hermia’s best friend and who is still in love with Demetrius, but then the fair folk get involved and it all goes to pot. Shenanigans ensue.

How it resolves: A triple wedding: Lysander & Hermia, Demetrius & Helena, and the Duke & the Queen. And there was much rejoicing.

Why it works for me: fair folk shenanigans and the bard’s pointed wit.

#5: Rick/Ilsa/Lazlo (Casablanca)

The Love Triangle explained: “Of all the gin joints in all the towns, in all the world, she had to walk into mine.”

How it resolves: “We’ll always have Paris.”

Why it works for me: Look, if you have to ask that, you’ve obviously never seen Casablanca.

I will say, though, that the behind-the-scenes story of filming Casablanca is part of the reason why this love triangle works as well as it does. Can’t figure out which guy Ilsa will end up with until the end of the movie? That’s because the studio didn’t know which guy Ilsa would end up with until shortly before filming the end of the movie. Way to build suspense there, Classic Hollywood Studio System.

#4: Hikaru/Lantis/Eagle (Magic Knight Rayearth 2)

The Triangle Explained: Hikaru likes Lantis. Hikaru also likes Eagle. Lantis and Eagle both like Hikaru and each other are CLAMP friends have a History.

How it resolves: Implied polyandry.

Why it works for me: Because if any fictional romantic trio could make a ménage à trois work, it’s this one.

No, Hikaru, you’re in Cephiro, where belief in the heart becomes basis upon which to defy societal expectations! Also, in the panel immediately prior, Lantis straight up says that Cephiro doesn’t have marriage laws (Image © CLAMP/Dark Horse; Translation © Anita Sengupta)

Speaking of CLAMP friends…

#3: Watanuki/Himawari/Domeki (xxxHOLiC)

The Love Triangle Explained: In a rare subversion of the trope, Watanuki likes Himawari and assumes that Domeki likes her as well. He does not. Domeki likes Watanuki. Like, a lot. Like, an awful lot. For her part, Himawari doesn’t seem to see either guy as anything more than a close friend.

How it resolves: Watanuki inherits his boss’s wish-granting shop after vowing to remain there until the end of time she returns, Himawari moves away, and Domeki marries another character who also has a crush on Watanuki. No one is satisfied.

Why it works for me: The greatest thing about this love triangle is that it only exists in Watanuki’s head. He thinks of Domeki as his rival in love. Meanwhile, literally every single other character in the series is pushing Watanuki to spend time with Domeki (*wink wink nudge nudge*).

xxxholic-1
Reason #452 why Yûko is my favorite CLAMP character of all time (Image © CLAMP/Del Rey/Kodansha. Translation by William Flanagan) [Note for readers unfamiliar with manga: read panels from left to right]
As I’ve mentioned before, CLAMP is fond of the “true love knows no gender” trope. They’re also not above shameless fanservice for shonen-ai fans. For Watanuki and Domeki, though, the dynamic works. Watanuki’s primary character trait is that he doesn’t realize how much other people care about him. Domeki’s unrequited love is one part of that.

#2: Juri/Shiori/Ruka (Revolutionary Girl Utena)

Now we’re getting somewhere! (Image ©Be-Papas)

The Love Triangle Explained: Juri has a crippling, unhealthy crush on Shiori (note: it’s unhealthy because Juri is ashamed of her feelings, and also because Shiori is kind of a terrible person). After realizing this, Shiori enters into a relationship with Ruka (it’s implied that she does this at least in part to taunt Juri, whom Shiori despises [or possibly also has a secret crush on; this series is kind of vague on that point. On a lot of points, actually. It’s vague on most points.]). Ruka, meanwhile, is in love with Juri, whom he later assaults (it’s just a kiss, but still. Not cool, bro).

How it resolves: As with all things in Shoujo Kakumei Utena, it involves a symbolic duel atop a gravity-defying arena in the middle of a forbidden forest. Roses, cars, innuendos, and stock footage are involved. Oh, also Ruka dies off-screen and is never mentioned again.

Why it works for me: Like most of the relationships in Utena, this love triangle is fucked up. I mean that in a good way. Viewers aren’t supposed to feel good about this love triangle. They’re not supposed to think that ANY of these people should end up together. Juri’s obsession with Shiori is crippling her, Shiori’s vindictive relationship with Ruka ends up biting her, and Ruka becomes flat-out deplorable in his attempts to show Juri how much he cares about her.

And you know what? It works. The Juri/Shiori/Ruka Love Triangle is one piece of the amazing technicolor dreamcoat of adolescence, genre deconstruction, and dubious sexual relationships that is Revolutionary Girl Utena.

At its core, Utena is a show about subverting audience expectations. The fairy tale ending you dreamed of turns out to be based on a lie. The person you placed on a pedestal only wants to use you for their own satisfaction. The patriarchy will always ruin everything. Yet despite all of that, if you never lose your nobility and you learn to fight for the right reasons, maybe, just maybe, you will claim the power to revolutionize the world.

Someday, I’ll have to write a full post/essay about how I love this series so goddamn much. In the meantime, here are some spoileriffic links to others who have beaten me to the punch.

Now that that’s out of the way…

#1: Korra/Mako/Asami (The Legend of Korra)

The Love Triangle explained: Korra likes Mako. Mako likes Asami. Mako dates Asami, but then Korra kisses him. Mako breaks up with Asami, starts dating Korra, and—aaahh!

How it resolves: Korrasami is canon.

Why it works for me: This love triangle went from being one of my least favorite things about the series (I stopped watching after Season 1 in no small part because of The Love Triangle episode) to one of my favorite things. Neither girl ends up with the boy in the middle of the triangle—they end up together.

Whooo!!!

I’ve made no secret of my desire to have more well-rounded queer role models in popular media. Last December, Legend of Korra gave me the best Christmas present I could have asked for. Korra is the series’s protagonist. She is a person of color, she’s physically strong, and she’s a superhero. We’ve seen her struggles, her flaws, her fears, her achievements. We’ve seen her grow and change over time. Her friendship (and eventual romance) with Asami was a huge step forward for her character and for the show itself.

I could easily write a post about Korra’s transformation from rash, selfish teenager to wizened, empathetic adult. I could write about how Seasons 2–4 seemed to pointedly and satisfactorily address every single issue I had with the show’s first season. I could write about how even though the show wasn’t quite as strong as its successor in terms of overall narrative, it managed to surpass The Last Airbender as one of the most important animated serials on Western television.

For now, though, let’s just take a moment to revel in the fact that the two girls realized that after all that time they’d spent fighting over a man, what they really wanted was each other.

Now if only Betty and Veronica would get a clue (Image © Nickelodeon)

Honorable Mention: Arthur/Guenevere/Lancelot (Camelot)

Because if you’re going to have a love triangle, it may as well involve Richard Burton, Julie Andrews, and Robert Goulet.

Still Searching

Steinbeck is never quite able to bring himself to say that he was often disgusted by what he saw on his journey, but the reader is left with that impression. Indeed, one puts down this book aware only of how prophetic it really was, and how America continues to wrestle with the problems raised in its pages. –Jay Parini

My summer book this year was John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charlie In Search of America. I meandered through the memoir over several months, savoring a chapter or two before bed in between my own travels and tribulations.

Travels With Charlie is one of Steinbeck’s most popular books, so I’ll refrain from writing a detailed overview of his journey. Instead, I’ll say that on the whole, I thought it was a delightfully charming story of a writer and his dog on an Epic Road Trip across these United States at the turn of the 1960s.

Two things stuck with me about Steinbeck’s memoir: 1) Steinbeck seemed very much ill at ease with the growing conformity of American culture in the ’50s and ’60s; 2) that man sure did love his poodle.

John Steinbeck and his french poodle, Charlie
That man and his poodle (©Bettmann/CORBIS)

Towards the end of their journey, Steinbeck and Charlie arrive in the South. Steinbeck admits that he has not been looking forward to this leg of the trip: “I am not drawn to pain and violence,” he writes, acknowledging the bitter fight over desegregation, yet Steinbeck knows that he must see this pain and violence first hand if he is to find an answer to his guiding question of “what are Americans like” in the year 1960. Steinbeck continues: “And the South being a limb of the nation, its pain spreads out to all America.”

To a certain extent, this seems true of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, given how Selma and Montgomery lead to demonstrations across the country and eventually to the iconic March on Washington. Conventional wisdom holds that the South was the heart of racism in this country, and that ending segregation there would eventually lead to a land of equal opportunity.

Trouble is, racism was never just a Southern problem.

Given the headlines, it’s safe to say that race, racial prejudice, and racism remain hot-button topics in America in 2015. In the past year, Americans have felt the pain of the Heartland, of the North, of the South, of the Border States, of the Lone-Star State, and even the pain of the renowned progressive Pacific Northwest.

All of these headlines share the common threads pain, grief, and above all frustration. If you’ll forgive a generalization here, people of color are tired of living under institutional racism. They are tired of black men being six times more likely to be arrested than white non-Hispanic males. They are tired of 10% more black households than white households living below the poverty line. They are tired of living in the aftermath of nearly two centuries of laws and ordinances that unarguably discriminated against people of color.

Note that two of those hyperlink citations in that last paragraph were from official US federal statistics, namely the Bureau of Justice and the 2010 Census.

Now, this is a complicated sociological issue—one that I am hardly qualified to explain. I’ve tried to keep my personal biases out of this post as much as possible, sticking only to personal observation (“they are tired”) and hard statistics (anything with a number). We can debate the causes and solutions for these numbers until we’re blue in the face, but the fact remains that they’re there.

Fifty years past the heyday of the Civil Rights Movement, and we still do not live in a country where blacks and whites are treated as equal. If we did, those numbers would be roughly the same.

At this point, an unapologetic racist might bring up these numbers as evidence that black folks are inherently inferior to white folks. I don’t buy that for a second.

Neither did Steinbeck.

In Travels with Charlie, Steinbeck tells the story of the Coopers, a “Negro family” (remember, this was the 1960s—that word was acceptable then) that lived in his hometown of Salinas, California. Mr. Cooper ran a successful trucking business, and Mrs. Cooper was a mother hen of sorts for the neighborhood kids: “good for a piece of gingerbread anytime we wanted to put the hustle to her.” Their three kids were the pride of the town: the eldest son was a star athlete, the middle son was the smartest kid in his grade, and the youngest “was all smiles.”

“Beyond this giftedness,” Steinbeck writes, “the Cooper boys were my friends.”

Steinbeck goes on to say that if anyone had spoken to him with horror at the thought of a black man marrying a white woman, he, Steinbeck, would have laughed, because it seemed obvious to him that the Cooper boys were too close to his family to want to marry his sisters.

During his visit to the South, Steinbeck thinks back to the Coopers and his own experiences with race. He writes:

I realize now that there was something else about the Coopers that set them apart from other Negroes I have seen and met since. Because they were not hurt or insulted, they were not defensive or combative. Because their dignity was intact, they had no need to be overbearing, and because the Cooper boys had never heard that they were inferior, their minds could grow to their true limits.

That, I think, more than anything else, is critical. If you tell a child that s/he is “less than”—if you tell a girl that she’s “not smart enough” to become an engineer or a gay kid that he is
an abomination” or a non-gender-conforming child that zie is “a freak” or a young black man that he’s “a thug who will never succeed in life”—it is going to mess that kid up.

As reluctant as I am to buy into the whole “you can be anything you want to be when you grow up” mantra,* I think it’s something that kids need to hear.

We don’t need to tell kids that they’re “special.” We need to tell them that they’re normal.

We need to tell them that no matter what life throws at them, no matter how hard it gets or how much it sucks, they are strong enough to succeed.

Steinbeck’s story of the Coopers struck home for me, because it is very much a reflection of my own formative experiences with race.

As I’ve written before, I did not grow up in a part of the country that you might call “ethnically diverse.” When I was in junior high, there was exactly one black student in the entire school district,* and her name was Chelsea Watts.

Chelsea Watts was a badass. She was lightning smart, she was an all-state choir singer, she was a member of the National Honors Society, and she earned the title of Montana Junior Miss in 2003. She also starred in several high school theater productions, which I suppose isn’t that much of a compliment, but when I was twelve, the high school theater program seemed like Broadway.

She was pretty much my hero.

In my eyes, Chelsea Watts was normal. She was part of the same group of overachieving high school seniors that I one day hoped to join.

Of course, my family moved before that could happen, and then I became a teenage slacker, but that’s a story for another day.

Point is, in my mind, black folks were just as capable of excelling as white folks. It wasn’t until college that I started to recognize how that wasn’t always the case. Under all the statistics, woven into the fabric of all of the stories of hardship in America, I realized that society itself tells a story: white folks in general, white men in particular, are likely to succeed. They were born ready to win the American Dream. If they don’t, they are failures.

As for everyone else? Meh. They’ll accept what they can get. As for the few who manage to “break out” of the box society builds for them, well, we’ll treat them as exceptions–or better yet: as proof that the American Dream is available for everyone.

That story is old. It is tired. It no longer holds up under scrutiny.

It’s time for a new story.

We need institutions that defend the rights of every individual, regardless of the color of their skin. We need institutions that encourage every child to follow their passions, regardless hard it may be for them to get there.

We need more stories like Tiffany Aching, the young girl who decided to be a witch even though she was born to raise sheep and make cheese.*

But most of all, we need to keep searching. Every one of us needs to find our own answer to the question of “what Americans are like.” We need to change not only our institutions, but our actions, our biases, and above all else, our hearts.

And until then, until we can learn to extend compassion to every one of our neighbors, our search for “what Americans are like” will continue.

The other day, I saw a link to Mr. Roger’s final speech on my Twitter feed. Fred Rogers defined compassion for generations of American children, including me. In his show, he taught children not to be afraid of people who are different, and he encouraged children to believe in their dreams.

The world needs more people like Fred Rogers.

In a country so often divided by prejudice and pessimism, he gave all children a radical, counter-cultural message:

I like you just the way you are.

 

Postscript: In researching this essay, I learned that Chelsea Watts is now an actress living in New York. She even has her own website and IMDB page!

http://www.chelsea-watts.com/

http://www.imdb.com/name/nm4299825/

Way to go, Chelsea! I, for one, am looking forward to your next role.

~~~
*In a nutshell: my basic problem with this mantra on its own is that it ignores aptitude, access, socioeconomic status, and skill—all of which can, I think, be compensated for to some degree, but it takes a lot of hard work, determination, assistance, and luck.

Hence the concept of “privilege”—or, to put it in nerd-friendly language, some players get to start life on Easy Mode by default and their choices affect future difficulty levels. Others don’t have that option: they have to start life on Overkill Mode.
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* That I knew of. There may have been others, but I don’t remember.
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* Did you seriously expect me to miss an opportunity to give a shout-out to my favorite Discworld character on the day her final book was released in the United States?
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Murder in the City

When I was in college, I walked alone.

Okay, not really, but I did go for a walk just about every night. On my own. In the dark.

This wasn’t a big deal to me. The streets were well lit, for the most part, and it seemed safer walking at night in the suburbs than in the woods near my parents’ house. For one thing, I was far less likely to run into a mountain lion.

Others saw things differently.

One of my friends insisted that I send her a text after every time I visited her after dark, so that she’d know I walked back across campus alright. Every now and then, the adviser to our school’s LGBT group would encourage us to practice the buddy system. Once, a member of our group admitted that he didn’t feel safe walking around the city on his own.

I’ve written about queer issues before, which is weird, because I honestly don’t spend a lot of time thinking about my life through that lens. But every now and then, I’ll see something—or I’ll hear something—and it’ll resonate.

I’ll hear it, and I stop for a moment. I ponder.

And then I write.

 

Last month, Brandi Carlile released her fifth studio album, The Firewatcher’s Daughter. It is, not to put too fine a point on it, the best flarking album I’ve heard since 2012. There is not a single song on this album that I don’t like—and that’s sayin’ something.

Admittedly, I’m biased: Carlile’s style fits perfectly in the middle of the Venn diagram of my musical interests. It’s a little bit country,* a little bit rock ‘n’ roll, with soaring vocals, booming instruments, and lyrics you can sink your teeth in.

It’s pretty great.

I could easily do a track-by-track review of The Firewatcher’s Daughter, listing every single reason why you should be listening to this album. But I’m not gonna do that. For one thing, I don’t have the time.

But I do want to talk about one song.

At the very end of the album, after all the ups and downs, the head-boppin’ rockabilly sing-along tracks and the quieter, more introspective love songs, Carlile closes with a cover of the Avett Brothers’ “Murder in the City.”

This song hits me hard every time.

I can’t speak for other queer folk—as usual, I can only speak for myself—but man, oh, man, does this resonate.

I started this post with an anecdote about how I used to walk alone at night. I still do, sometimes, but not often. See, I’ve moved a few times since then. I don’t know my new neighborhood all that well.

When I walked alone at night in college, I’d be lying if I said I was afraid. Likewise, if I’m walking alone in the city, I may stop for a second to pull the rainbow bracelet off my wrist, but it’s not because of fear—not exactly.

See, there’s this little voice in the back of my mind, and every now and then, that little voice calls out, “Hey! Unknown territory. Better be careful.”

‘Cause something could happen.

I’m sure some of you have already figured out where this is going. If not, look down about a paragraph. You probably won’t be surprised.

In 1998, Matthew Shepard was murdered. He was found tied to a fence post, pistol-whipped, his brain stem crushed, his shoes missing. He died a few hours later.

Now, much has been written about Matthew Shepard. Time passes. Passion fades. Memories blur. Recent articles have questioned whether Matthew’s killers were truly motivated by hate, or whether they acted out of some other motive.

In a way, it doesn’t matter.

Regardless of why it happened, Matthew Shepard’s murder caused a wave of outrage, calls for tolerance, and debate about the safety of queer folk in America. Even ten years later, as I was slowly starting to peek out of the closet, the LGBT community continued to talk about Matthew Shepard.

“That could’ve been me,” I thought. That could still be me.

Now, settle down, kids, I’m gonna put on my lit major hat for a moment and pull out another familiar LGBT-themed story. Again, you probably know where this is going.

Told you. (Image © Focus Features, 2005)

The tragedy of Brokeback Mountain isn’t that Jack Twist dies. It’s not a Romeo & Juliet story—well, it is, actually, but not in the way that most people think. See, Romeo and Juliet didn’t die of the inexorable forces of society. They didn’t die because of fate. They died because of their choices.

Brokeback Mountain is a tragedy because its characters chose to end it that way.

Throughout the short story, Jack asks Ennis to start a new life with him. The two of them And every time, Ennis says no. When Ennis was young, he was told that if two men were to ever shack up together, they’d be beaten to death by a tire iron. For Ennis, being “a queer” can only end in death.

After years of unsatisfactory rendezvous and a falling out that both men knew was coming, Ennis gets the news that Jack Twist is dead. And the tragedy is, because he never took Jack up on that offer, because he let the two of them drift apart, Ennis will never know the truth of what happened to Jack.**

In Ennis’s mind, it was the tire iron.

 

I read Brokeback Mountain for the first time back in 2009, shortly before I came out. I knew I was gay, though I didn’t want to admit it, and this story helped me figure out why.

I was scared.

I got over it. Eventually. Most of the time.

I walk the city streets more or less without fear, but every now and then, that little voice in the back of my mind reminds me to be cautious. Because if it happened to Matthew Shepard and Jack Twist, if it’s happened to other queer and trans* folk in my area, there’s a tiny chance it could happen to me.

It’s an anxiety that I don’t think is shared by most straight, white, cisgendered folk—not straight white men, anyway, I’m guessing.

“If I get murdered in the city,” sings Carlile, and it’s an anxiety that feels real, even if it’s remote. It’s something we have to think about. We can’t control that little voice in the back of our minds.

For the most part, Carlile sings the song exactly as it was written.*** Except for one line:

Make sure my wife knows that I loved her
Make sure my daughter knows the same
And always remember there’s nothing worth sharing
Like the love that lets us share our name

Brandi Carlile is married. She has a wife. And they have a daughter. More than anything else, that’s the line that gets me. That’s the line that resonates.

Every time.

~~~
“Murder in the City” © The Avett Brothers, 2008. Ramseur Records. Video © Brandi Carlile, Oct. 8, 2014.

The Firewatcher’s Daughter © Brandi Carlile Band, 2015. ATO Records.

“Brokeback Mountain” in Close Range: Wyoming Stories © Annie Proulx, 1999. Scribner. Originally published in The New Yorker: Oct. 13, 1997.

NOTES:

*By “country,” I mean the ol’-timey Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Loretta Lynn brand of country, not that bro-country stuff comin’ out of Nashville these days.
**Proulx’s text, and to an extent Ang Lee’s movie as well, is purposefully ambiguous on this point. We, the readers, never know which version of Jack’s death is true.
***By a straight, white, cisgendered man, oddly enough.‡
‡As far as I know.

On War Horse, Modernism, and the Beautiful Lies of Storytelling

[Ed. Note: I wrote the first draft of this essay in February, 2012, about a year before I started this blog. I am posting it today in commemoration of Armistice Day—one hundred years after the start of the Great War.]

On War Horse, Modernism, and the Beautiful Lies of Storytelling

I tell you it is the vilest baseness to use horses in the war.
—Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front

About a week ago, I went to see Stephen Spielberg’s War Horse with my mom (my mother is a bit of a horse nut—and I mean that in the most affectionate way). A few issues with the dialect coach aside, I thought it was a pretty good movie.

This post isn’t a review of War Horse, though. It’s not really about War Horse at all. This post is about storytelling: about the desire for a story to have a happy ending, in spite of the painful facts of reality.

[Spoilers for War Horse ahead!]

As its title suggests, War Horse is set during a period of war, specifically World War I. The movie tells the story of Joey, an unusually strong horse (both in body and personality) and Albert, the kindhearted farm boy who raises him. When the war breaks out, Joey is “drafted” as a cavalry horse in the British Army. Albert, who is too young to volunteer for duty at the start of the war, is forced to stay behind. Albert promises Joey that one day, no matter what happens, they will find each other again.

Albert and Joey
Image © DreamWorks Studios. Intended Fair Use (U.S. Copyright Act Section 107) for the purpose of non-commercial media criticism.

Thing is, Albert doesn’t realize that he, Joey, and their entire nation are about to be drawn into one of the bloodiest conflicts in recent history. [1]

The number of casualties from the First World War are insane—downright incomprehensible. According to BBC History, the British Army lost as many as 60,000 soldiers in the first day of the Battle of the Somme alone.

60,000 soldiers dead or wounded. That’s nearly twice as many people as the population of where I live. And that’s just for a single army. On a single day.

I spent a lot of time studying the World Wars in college, so I had a pretty good idea what would happen throughout the movie. As soon as a subtitle announced that Joey had reached France in 1914, I turned to my mom and whispered, “this can’t end well.”

Horses + machine guns + trench warfare = bad things happening.

The movie’s plot may be a work of fiction, but its scenes show a past that really did happen. The failed cavalry charge decimated by machine gun fire, the tired workhorses struggling to drag a cannon to the top of a hill, the trenches flooding with clouds of gas, the rain of bullets, the wastelands of mud and barbed wire…

Those were real.

A German trench occupied by British Soldiers during the Battle of the Somme, July 1916. Photograph Q 3990 from IWM collection no. 1900-13. Public Domain. Source: Wikimedia Commons

After the movie, I went home and turned on my CD player. I pulled an album off my shelf, one I’ve had for about a year now, and I slipped it out of its case. I pressed play.

Whatever else one might think of her music, PJ Harvey’s latest album does not shy away from the horrors of trench warfare. I think that one of the reasons Let England Shake topped so many ‘Greatest Albums of 2011’ charts last year is because of how raw, how unflinching it is in its imagery. “I’ve seen soldiers fall like lumps of meat,” Harvey sings in ‘The Words That Maketh Murder,’ echoing shell-shocked soldiers returning from the Western Front. Harvey’s lyrics are stark, even brutal. She wails like a siren, or a banshee calling the dying soldiers in her songs to their final rest.

One song in particular stood out to me after War Horse. The song, ‘On Battleship Hill,’ begins with Harvey singing in an eerie high pitch:

“The scent of Thyme carried on the wind
Stings my face into remembering
Cruel nature has won again
Cruel nature has won again

On Battleship Hills caved in trenches
A hateful feeling still lingers
Even now 80 years later
Cruel nature, cruel, cruel nature”

The song—and indeed the rest of Harvey’s album—reminds me of nothing so much as the modernist poetry written by soldiers who fought in the Great War. There’s a definite resonance between the lines above and the immortal words of John McCrae’s ‘In Flanders Field, 1915’:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

I’ll spare you the complete literary analysis, noting only that the two works use a similar meter (they can be sung to the same tune) and that they both touch on similar themes (contrasting nature with recollection of war).

Let England Shake, like War Horse, reminds me of the Modernists because each of them, in their own way, speaks to the legacies of World War I.

After the war, people in Europe wanted to forget the horror they’d experienced. With over 37 million dead,[2] everyone had lost someone. What’s more: the postwar world didn’t appear to be getting any better. In Germany, for instance, inflation caused prices to skyrocket, which helped trigger the hereto unprecedented financial disaster that was the Great Depression.

So people turned to art and to literature, to cabarets and to jazz—to distractions that would help them escape.

Thing is, memories of The Great War permeate the works of the Modernist period: from the recurring character of the ‘shell-shocked’ soldier to poetry evoking images of a wasteland; the war seeped its way onto every page. Even the artwork of the period suggests a damaged psyche, from Cubism’s eschewing of perspective to the ‘anti-art’ Dadaist movement, which drew its name from a meaningless word repeated like the sound of the drum: da-da, da-da, da-da…

Pain from the war was so fresh, so intense, it was inescapable.

Without context, all three of these movements—Modernist literature, Cubism, and Dadaism—seem totally bizarre to modern audiences. Yet once you remember that these works were created after the War…

 

“Cut with the Dada Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany,” Hannah Höch. 1919. Public Domain in the United States. Source: Wikipedia.

They make a certain sense in that light. It makes sense that Woolf would write about the anxieties of a ‘shell-shocked’ soldier in Mrs Dalloway, or that Yeats would write about “mere anarchy [being] loosed upon the world” in ‘The Second Coming.’ It makes sense that Remarque would open All Quiet on the Western Front—considered by many to be “the greatest war novel of all time”—with the following words:

“This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. I will simply tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war.”

A sense of loss, of uncertainty and doubt, surges through these works, like electricity through a wire.

Europe changed after the First World War. All of the ideals of Western Civilization— honor, valor, duty—seemed to pale in the wake of those fields filled with blood. The Second World War further cemented these changes, as the dangers of Nationalism, of extreme patriotism, were made all the more apparent. After the war, the old certainties didn’t seem to hold truth anymore. Happy endings seemed shallow, unreal.

“In Flanders Fields the poppies blow,” Tijl Vercaemer. 2007. Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

…and yet, in spite of all of this—in spite of all of my knowledge of the war and its number of casualties, in spite of my fondness for Modernist literature with its profound skepticism, even in spite of the hopelessness depicted on the screen, I still wanted War Horse to have a happy ending. I wanted the movie to tell me a beautiful lie: to show me that Arthur and Joey would survive, even as [spoiler!] their best friends were slaughtered (Because in war movies, it’s always the Plucky Best Friend™ who bites it, never the hero).

I think that desire for happy endings—that wish to be told a beautiful lie, instead of the painful truth—is part of what makes us human. We know, on some level, that the world isn’t fair, that life oftentimes can be harsh and unsympathetic, and that most problems can’t be divided into black and to white. Still, we like to believe that The Good Guys will always win in the end.

We like to believe that a noble horse and his good-hearted farm boy will both survive the calamity of war and will one day find each other again.

Modernism tended to give up on that wishful thinking. Or maybe it attempted to avoid it all together. The Modernist texts I’ve read do not have happy endings. At best, a few of them manage cautious optimism; none of them have a Hollywood-style Happy Ending™. That’s why I like them: they’re a shot of much-needed reality for someone like me who expects everything to turn out all right in the end.

World War I, in my mind, is not a story with a happy ending. It is not a story of glory and honor: it is a tragedy of blood and pain and death (As the Modernists might say, even the word ‘tragedy’ seems inadequate).

Movies, on the other hand, are allowed to have a happy ending every now and then.

…especially ones that involve horses.

~~

1. Yes, something that happened almost a hundred years ago still counts as ‘recent’ history.
2. Source: Wikipedia. I’ve seen the figures for Total Number of Casualties in WWI range anywhere from 10 million to 65 million, depending on which official records you use. “Over 37 million” seems as good an estimate as any for the sake of this essay.

Vive la Reine (Part II): The Queendom of Falena

Five months later, I’m back to talking about gender and politics in Suikoden V. If you don’t want to read spoilers for a seven-year-old PS2 game, I suggest you skip this post.

Part II: Falena: On the border of Herland and Prussia

Map of Falena (Image © Konami. Intended Fair Use.)
Map of Falena
(Image © Konami. Intended Fair Use.)

In Part I of this series, I touched on the Suikoden series’ legacy of diverse, compelling, well-written female characters (…and Jilia Blight). This time I’ll shift focus a bit from representation of gender to the intersection of gender and politics.

In terms of JPRGs, the Suikoden series is a little different. It still has your classic elements of role-playing games: spells, swords, monsters, “action-packed” turn-based combat systems, ridiculously beautiful people; except it’s less interested in Epic Battles over The End of the World and more interested in, well, politics.*

Each game typically involves the following sequence of events: protagonist learns of a political/ideological conflict involving his home nation; protagonists finds himself involved in said conflict somewhat against his will; protagonist meets various, um, interesting characters who may or may not expand his view of the world; protagonist makes a decision, which results in him receiving a Rune of Great And Terrible Power™; protagonist builds an army, fights a war, and uses said Rune of Great And Terrible Power™ to bring peace to the land.

Suikoden V follows that formula to a T.

What makes these games memorable (and fun) is their attention to detail and setting. Each game is set in a different part of the same world, with an overlapping cast of characters and geopolitical factors. No two protagonists in the series fight the same battle: each game, each conflict is unique . The original Suikoden is a war of rebellion: peasants and noblemen rising up against an increasingly tyrannical emperor. Suikoden II starts out with a few border skirmishes between two long-warring nations, and then quickly dissolves into a war of subjugation. Suikoden III, well, it’s kind of a mess, but it generally deals with perspective: how the same conflict can be viewed in radically different ways depending on which side you’re on. As for Suikoden IV…um, it has pirates.

Suikoden V has a civil war: a war of ideologies.

Gotta Catch 'Em All™
 (Image © Konami. Intended Fair Use.)

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Suikoden V is set in the Queendom of Falena. Yes, “queendom,” as in “just like a kingdom, except ruled by a queen.” Falena is, as far as we know, the only queendom in the Suikoden world, which means that it’s ruler is always, without exception, a woman.

The interesting thing is, no one in Falena considers this matriarchy to be at all unusual. In fact, the people of Falena are downright proud of their system. NPCs (non-player characters) early on in the game speak of their queen with great respect and devotion, noting how just and wise Queen Arshtat is, especially in comparison with some of her ancestors. Given the ongoing discussion of women holding positions of leadership in America and elsewhere, the fact that no one in Falena questions Arshtat’s ability to lead because of her Delicate Lady Bits™ speaks volumes.

As head of state, the Queen of Falena holds great responsibility. The Queen’s duties include establishing diplomatic ties with foreign nations, overseeing domestic projects, and ensuring the nation’s prosperity. Along with her husband, who is both the Commander of the Queen’s Knights (the Royal Family’s personal guard) and leader of the nation’s military, the Queen is responsible for securing Falena’s borders from its hostile neighbors. Furthermore, the Queen holds the highest authority in the land: the final arbiter in all matters concerning Falena’s future.

The Sun Rune (Image © Konami. Intended Fair Use.)
The Sun Rune
(Image © Konami. Intended Fair Use.)

In addition to her duties as Falena’s head of state, the Queen of Falena holds a powerful symbolic role: she exists as a living symbol of Falena’s history. According to Falenan legend, the Queen is descended from a semi-divine figure who brought life to what had once been a barren wasteland. The legend goes: “Long, long ago, a beautiful woman descended from the heavens to [the holy land of] Lunas, together with the Sun Rune. She went on to become the very first Queen of Falena.” Using the power of the Sun Rune, the first Queen of Falena restored the fertility of the land, its soil and rivers, which had been ravaged by the scorching heat of the sun. Her descendants became Falena’s Royal Family, queenship passing from mother to eldest-born daughter with very few exceptions.**

The Sun Rune lies at the heart of Suikoden V. Only the rightful Queen of Falena may bear the Sun Rune, a national treasure, to be sure, yet also one of the 27 True Runes that govern the fate of the Suikoden world (see: “Rune of Great and Terrible Power™ above). As one of the 27 True Runes, the Sun Rune governs the dual aspects of the sun: the power to destroy and the power to heal. When used to destroy, the bearer of the Sun Rune creates a blast of intense heat and light, incinerating all in its path like the blazing sun of the desert. When used to heal, the Sun Rune creates a gentle glow, like the nurturing rays of the sun on a warm summer day.

(Image © Konami. Intended Fair Use.)
(Image © Konami. Intended Fair Use.)

As mentioned earlier, the civil war in Suikoden V is a war of ideologies. Even before the game begins, the Senate—Falena’s deliberative body—has split into two major factions. On one side, the Godwin Faction, lead by the head of the Godwin family, advocates that the Queen use the destructive power of the Sun Rune against Falena’s enemies, thus becoming a great global power. On the other side of the Senate, the more moderate Barows Faction (also lead by its titular noble family) aims for “domestic and foreign stability without the use of Runes.”

Runic powers aside, this conflict is not unique to the world of Suikoden. Do we focus in strengthening our military, expanding our power and influence on the global scale through force? Or do we build ties through diplomacy, prioritizing domestic spending, balancing the national budget, and focusing on economic prosperity at home. This conversation should sound familiar—not just to American or European or Japanese gamers but to all people everywhere.

In Part III: The political meets the personal

*Also the question of free will vs. destiny, but that’s a separate series of essays.
**Compare with the legend of Japan’s first emperor being a descendant of Amaterasu, the Shinto sun goddess.

Visibility Spectrum: Why it Matters

Pride /prīd/ n. 1. a feeling of deep pleasure or satisfaction deprived from one’s own achievements, or from qualities or possessions that are widely admired. 2. The consciousness of one’s own dignity. 3. A celebration of all things queer.

For me, June is a month of strawberries and rhubarb; it’s the month of my dad’s birthday, a month of travel, summer blockbusters, and sunshine. For the past two years I’ve spent the month of June at Holden Village: enjoying the scenery, the community; spending my days hiking, working, and eating way too much toast (it’s the fresh-baked bread, y’all). It’s a good month, June.

For the LGBT community, June is Pride Month: a time for outrageous parades and wild celebrations; a time to remember the Stonewall Riots and the sacrifices made by all those who fought to be recognized for all that they are.

I grew up in the late ’90s/early 2000s, when gay & lesbian visibility in the media was only just becoming a thing (let alone visibility for people who are bisexual or transgender, which we’re still working on today). I lived in small towns in the American West, where homosexuality was something that was Simply Not Talked About, especially in “polite company,” especially when there were children present. In other words, if I didn’t see it on Nickelodeon or read about it in books, it didn’t exist.

Imagine how confusing it was when junior high rolled around and I realized I wasn’t interested in the girls in my grade. At all. Now imagine how discombobulating it felt when I realized my heart was going “pitter-patter” every time I saw Mr. B—,  my eighth Grade History teacher.

For the first decade of my life (give or take a few years), I didn’t even know that gay was an option. Once puberty hit, the idea of two people of the same sex/gender having a relationship was so alien to my world, I basically responded by saying, ‘nope. Uh-uh. Not me. I’m just not gonna feel anything towards anybody—ever.”

Flash forward to college and my moving to the Seattle area. By that point my denial had shifted from “Whoo! Celibacy forever!” to “It’s okay for some people to be gay, but not me.” It wasn’t until my junior year when an unfortunate crush on a straight guy in my dorm forced me to accept that these feelings I had weren’t going to go away.

(At that point, being the nerd that I am, I read everything I possibly could about homosexuality, queer culture, LGBT rights in America and the world, famous historical figures who were probably queer, and the history of the LGBT equality movement before I came out to anyone. But that’s a story for another day.)

Going back to my childhood, I did eventually learn that gay was a thing, even though I refused to consider myself “that way.” At the same time, I did manage to find examples of same-sex couples and queer characters in the media. During those years of fierce denial, I paradoxically stumbled onto, even sought out stories that had gay and lesbian (and occasionally bisexual) characters in them. I remember watching episodes of Degrassi and Will & Grace as though they were contraband: my finger on the remote ready to change the channel at a moment’s notice.

Thing is, those weren’t the characters or the shows that stuck with me. I had about as much in common with Marco Del Rossi and Jack McFarland as I did Cordelia on Buffy the Vampire Slayer (which is to say I had nothing in common with them at all). Even Straight Gay Will Truman was too uptight, too neurotic for me to relate to.

I get the sense that, for most people (especially straight white people), finding fictional characters they can relate to is just sort of a given. There’s enough variety in the way that (white, heterosexual) men and women are portrayed in books, movies, and TV, even if you can’t relate to every character in every series, odds are good that you’ll find someone in something whom you can say “Oh! S/he’s like me!”

For folks in minority groups, it can be a lot harder.

This may be less of an issue in 2013 when there are Top 10 lists for queer characters on TV, in science-fiction/fantasy/comic books, et cetra, but back in the day, there wasn’t a lot of variety between “butch lesbian” and “camp gay”. For a shy, nerdy queer guy growing up in the boonies with exactly zero queer role models IRL, it’s a wonder I found any queer characters I could relate to at all.

Exhibit A: Michiru and Haruka, a.k.a. Sailors Neptune and Uranus from Sailor Moon
Exhibit A: Sailor Neptune and Sailor Uranus

This post started out as a list of the characters/same-sex couples who had the most impact on me growing up. It’s a short list, honestly: Tôya and Yukito from Cardcaptor Sakura: Sumeragi Subaru, the protagonist of Tokyo Babylon; Haruka and Michiru from Sailor Moon S (pictured above); Willow Rosenberg and Tara McLay from Buffy. Three of those four sets are from Japan; half of them are lesbians. Conclusion: until Jack Harkness came along, portrayals of dudes who like dudes in Western media sucked.*

The common thread among all the characters I listed in that last paragraph is that they are characters first and foremost, with wants and interests outside of their sexual orientation. Tôya is the main character’s overprotective, occasionally obnoxious older brother; Yukito is Tôya’s best friend/”most important person”: a nice guy with the world’s fastest metabolism. Subaru is a kind-hearted onmyoji (spirit medium) who ends up falling for a sociopath and (eventually) gets caught up in the prophesied end of the world.** Haruka and Michiru are soldiers; they spend more time discussing their duty than their relationship. Willow is a nerd, a computer genius, a powerful witch, not to mention Buffy’s best friend; Tara may be introduced as Willow’s love interest, but she’s shy, awkward, compassionate, and a darn good character in her own right. Contrast this with characters whose sole defining trait is “attracted to persons of the same sex.”

A few months ago I wrote a post about how one of the Suikoden series’s greatest strengths is the great diversity of its characters, particularly the women.*** This post is somewhat related to that.

Why does diversity matter in fiction? Why write series with more than one female character or include LGBT characters at all? Why do people get so upset about token black/Asian/”ethnic” characters—isn’t one character better than nothing?

Short answer: no. Tokenism is not enough.

We learn through stories. We engage with them, react to them, even change who we are because of them. We see aspects of ourselves in our favorite characters, and we want them to be happy because we want to be happy. As Matt LeMaire writes in his defense of gay comic book characters, “If it was all fantasy and had no resonance to our own cultural experiences, we wouldn’t read it, or care about it.” We remember the stories that resonate with our lives. More importantly, fiction can teach us how to empathize with those who are different than us—help us to see the things we all have in common.

Minority characters in fiction matter because they acknowledge that not every person is the same. Including multiple “minority” characters—a gay man from the rural South who is also a nerd, for instance, or a transgender black woman who is a concert pianist AND a superhero—acknowledges that not every person within a minority group is the same, either.

Growing up in the boondocks, I barely knew that gay people existed, let alone that there was a whole community of queer folk celebrating those feelings I kept hidden inside. Would I have come out sooner if I’d had more role models on TV and in books? Not necessarily. Who’s to say what might’ve been? Still, it would’ve been nice to have had a few more queer characters I could relate to.

Visibility matters. Diversity matters.

It’s a celebration of what makes me me and what makes you you.

–R

~~

*Disclaimer: I’ve never watched Queer as Folk.

**The relationship between Subaru and Seishirô: guaranteed to make you feel better about you and your ex.

***I do intend to finish that series on Suikoden V. Eventually.