Pop Queens and Shakespeare

Pop Queens and Shakespeare

Right now, I’m listening to the jams of Taylor Swift. I happen to love pop music mixed in there with my rock and my punk and classical, and I know more than one adult who will admit to throwing on “Shake it Off” when they need a boost. Hell, I once stood at the bottom of a friend’s driveway while our kids made loops on their bikes around our cul-de-sac, and belted out the entire song into the muggy South Carolina morning, and it was a moment of stay-at-home mom glory.

This has been my daughter’s favorite song since she was three, and I can’t argue with it.

As I sang to my daughter in the car last night:

“There are people who don’t like Spider-man, but that doesn’t make them bad. There are people who don’t like ice-cream, but that doesn’t make them bad. There are people who don’t like Taylor Swift, but that doesn’t make them bad.”

Last week when Taylor dropped the single “You Need to Calm Down” (wow, I hope I’m not sounding too out of touch with that sentence) I scrolled through Facebook (as one does) and came across a post that stopped me in my tracks. It basically said that the poster usually finds that pop has little to say, but this particular song was good.

I re-read the post a few times, and just felt really disappointed. The poster wasn’t just anyone – it was one of the people on my feed who usually has a lot of really insightful things to say. And I absolutely understand the reputation that pop music has – that it’s empty-headed nonsense, and only teen girls bother with this stuff, but also, we need to be really, really careful of the things we are willing to dismiss as nonsense. If something is hugely popular, there’s usually a valid reason for it. And I’d be inclined to think pop was some kind of trend that is only speaking to a small segment of the population, but pop music has been big for decades.

In 2018, 20 percent of music sales were pop, which was topped only by hip-hop/rap coming in at 21.7 percent. The third most popular category was rock at 14 percent. That’s a big gap between the second and third place music categories. Half of people under the age of 34 call pop their favorite music, with even more people who are younger making the claim.

Meanwhile, in my experience, pop gets derided by “serious” people in a way few other music genres do. And (you had to know I was going here, right?) pop is the only music genre where women artists dominate.

Now, does it matter if some people look down their noses at a clearly popular genre, when the public at large is definitely embracing it? Basically, who cares what the academic discussion is, as long as the stuff sells. There’s a similar issue in the world of romance novels. Sales in that genre are incredible, even if critical opinion is terrible.

But again, we’re talking about a genre dominated by female authors. And instead of taking a hard academic look at why these things that predominantly women are making have to say about our culture, it’s dismissed as trash. (Unless, of course, you’re a dude named Nicholas Sparks, then there are movie deals on the table. Anyway! Moving along!)

So yeah, it’s been my thinking for a while now that pop probably isn’t so frivolous as it’s made out to be, at times. That Taylor Swift’s social justice song maybe isn’t such an aberration. That maybe this music is saying something important all the time, and we just aren’t listening.

Let’s take a look at another song by Swift, and dig a little deeper. It’s one that I keep coming back to, called “Out of the Woods”. If you’ve never heard it, go take a listen, and come back.

It’s Taylor Swift and – wolves. Look, music videos are weird, we all know that.

Okay, with me yet? Good. (See what I did there? If not, go listen again!) It seems really simple, right? One would be tempted to say that a song that repeats “are we out of the woods yet, are we in the clear yet?” over and over as a chorus is maybe downright empty-headed. And this is absolutely a feature of pop music that turns a lot of people off, but there are reasons this is happening, which I really don’t want to devote a ton of space to (we still have to talk Shakespeare) but you can read about it here. And you’ll notice that all genres of music have this repetition happening, even if it’s not in the lyrics.

So let’s crack open the verses.

Looking at it now
It all seems so simple
We were lying on your couch
I remember
You took a Polaroid of us
Then discovered (then discovered)
The rest of the world was black and white
But we were in screaming color

Super simple, right? But also, in eight lines, we are getting this incredible, simple image that describes the magic in the early phase of a relationship. It’s specific and evocative and powerful. And it might be easy to say, “Oh, another song about relationships, do we really need one of those, there are already a million”. But I kind of feel like that’s the overarching sociological point. Feelings are so often the realm of women. And as a group, it’s the work of women to examine emotions and relationships and the ties between us. It’s a major argument of the feminist movement for me that men are losing out in our current social structure, because they’re so often discouraged from delving deeply into these emotional spheres where women are encouraged. And of course some of this might be biological (it’s sort of impossible to know, since we can’t raise babies in a gender-neutral vacuum, from an ethical perspective) but it’s important to note that a lot of scientific articles these days speculate, and the community is turning it’s attention to, the idea that women and girls are diagnosed with autism less, not because there’s less autism among women and girls, but because it’s less obvious when people in those groups are having more trouble in social situations, because their baseline is higher than men and boys in the first place. Perhaps girls with autism are being brushed off as being “boyish” when they are, in fact, struggling with decidedly different wiring.

Back to “Out of the Woods”. Taylor Swift performed this song at the GRAMMY museum, and in her introduction, she described it as being about a relationship that was fragile. In which there were a lot of break-ups and chaos and questions of how long things would last. But it was a relationship as beautiful as it was delicate, and she wanted to express the beauty of all that difficulty and chaos in a song.

To which I say, when was the last time you ended a relationship, and were able to sit down and write a song about the beautiful things in that relationship, even though it had plenty of pain within it, and create sense and clarity and relatability in that song? Because hell, I sure haven’t. I’ve certainly tried to write essays about my divorce, which I initiated almost two years ago, and I still haven’t written anything about it that isn’t angry or a little vindictive.

This is enormous emotional work, for someone to sit down, examine a relationship for all its best parts, see the beauty in them, and then make something that is strikingly beautiful of that. This song is incredibly simple, which I think is deceptive. And this kind of refinement of those kinds of feelings is anything but frivolous. This work is valuable, but easy to overlook because these kinds of bonds between people are universal. We all love somebody, and it’s invariably complicated. But being able to express something that we all know succinctly and with power is as difficult as it is important. And when pop music is at its best, this is what it’s doing.

And where does Shakespeare come in?

Well, we all probably learned at some point in school that William Shakespeare, playwright and poet, contributed some ludicrous number of words to the English language. Things like “addiction” and “bedazzled” and “eventful” and “uncomfortable” and the list goes on. He was, apparently, throwing new words out every other page.

That was, until we were able to start going through old letters with computers. It turns out that a lot of those words were being used in people’s writings before Shakespeare ever got them down on paper – we just didn’t have the time as a society to comb through everything ever written to figure it out. This article also points out that if all these plays, which were being performed in front of a very average public were full of new language, how the heck was anybody understanding what was being said? Of course a lot of these words had to have been in use at the time, or were at the most a twist on an existing word.

The real language innovators, according to this article, are the teenage girls. That’s right. When you roll your eyes at a young woman using vocal fry, or upspeak, you are rolling your eyes at a vocal tic that might just catch on, and that everyone is going to be using in ten years. As the article suggests:

Women are consistently responsible for about 90 percent of linguistic changes today, writes McCulloch. Why do women lead the way with language? Linguists aren’t really sure. Women may have greater social awareness, bigger social networks or even a neurobiological leg up. There are some clues to why men lag behind: A 2009 study estimated that when it comes to changing language patterns, men trail by about a generation.

Could some of this trailing be because of attitudes about traditionally women’s media, such as romance novels and pop? After all, if something is considered unintelligent or somehow of less value, what are the chances it’s going to be adopted by the people so dismissive of it. And it’s tempting to say, “shame on you boys, for dissing on cultural innovation,” but the truth is, this potential communication gap just makes me sad. It lessens us all, male and female and nonbinary when we aren’t sharing in one another’s worlds. When vocal fry evokes contempt, or when pop songs exploring really difficult feelings are classed as “having nothing to say”. It’s a terrible attitude, as much because it means that person is missing out on something vitally important, something that is speaking so much truth to half the population.

Look, I don’t think every Taylor Swift song is a work of genius. But I absolutely think that pop music is doing big, difficult, innovative work that’s going unexamined because, well, that’s frivolous teen girl stuff, after all. These are building blocks of our relationships with one another, and considering humans are incredibly social creatures, it’s vitally important. About half the population is doing this work, and talking about it. And the other half is maybe missing out on the lessons being unearthed*.

 So I say, go forth! Enjoy your pop and your romance novels and feel no shame. Know that your girly vocal quirks are cutting-edge. And if you’re on the other side of the fence wondering what the heck is going on, I say, hop over, give it a shot, and if you don’t think anything important is being said, maybe you need to listen more closely.

And listen to more Taylor Swift. Your heart could be better for it.

Twenty stitches in a hospital room
When you started crying baby, I did too
But when the sun came up I was looking at you
Remember when we couldn’t take the heat
I walked out, I said, I’m setting you free
But the monsters turned out to be just trees
When the sun came up you were looking at me

*There are guys who listen to pop. There are girls who examine their feelings as little as possible. I’m making generalities here based off statistics and observation, and so please don’t feel left out by this if it doesn’t describe you! The fact that these generalities and this gap exists is exactly why I write.

 

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To Girl Power, Or Not to Girl Power?

Earth’s mightiest – and most controversial – hero.

I’ve always been pretty easily riled up over gender inequality stuff. My first memories of it involve this vague sense that the princess movies I watched all the time were missing something. Why were there so many girls who wanted to marry a prince? What was up with all the dresses? Where were their weapons? Why didn’t they stand up to people? Why did they always end up getting married, instead of living their lives singing and riding horses and reading books? That seemed like the way to go, if you’d asked Very Small Megan.

Then there were the toy aisles, with their pointedly labeled “BOY” and “GIRL” sections. My beloved LEGO sets always landed in the “BOY” section, along with STAR WARS toys and microscopes. The LEGO sets contained almost no female figurines. The craft kits I also loved were over in the “GIRL” section, and damn it, everything that came inside was pink. I loathe pink.

It did not get much better as Small Megan became Big Megan, and I’m sure I’ve discussed my issues with the way female characters were presented in my beloved science-fiction and fantasy. Side characters, love interests, or bait for the male heroes. So on and so forth. I could rant about it all day, but I shan’t.

As the years progressed, and our culture shifted, and I grew up, I saw things change. STAR WARS got a female Jedi, a girl named Rey who could stand up for herself as well as she could swing a lightsaber. We had Katniss Everdeen, an imperfect but popular heroine who wouldn’t have seen the big screen at all during my childhood. We have Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel. It feels like things are progressing, like I’m finally seeing some of my childhood dreams fulfilled. Quite possibly the most exciting moment for me in a movie theater, ever, was the moment when Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber flew into Rey’s hand. I’d been waiting for a moment like that my entire life, and I knew it was important, but I’d had no idea how incredibly validating it would be when it actually happened.

At the same time – well, there’s the blowback, and in some ways things are getting muddied. Don’t you feel like you’re being pandered to, people ask when a whole group of lady heroes take on Thanos together in AVENGERS: ENDGAME? You can just feel the board meeting that brought this about, right? They want female butts in the seats – this market ignored for so long finally matters. Let’s give them their moment, too. And yes, I can see the heavy hand of greedy executives in what was otherwise a powerful moment. And part of me argues that we’ve had whole teams of male superheroes taking on these bad guys up to now, and no one questioned it. Why does a moment when a team of ladies stands up become controversial? Don’t we deserve this, no matter how intentional and structured it feels?

But then there’s that icky feeling that the only reason it happened is because it’s good for sales. Ugh.

It’s not like any of this is new. The conversation is just getting bigger, including more people. I used to feel pretty lonely giving my, “Girls totally are strong enough to swing a sword, and besides, when was the last time you kicked any Sith butt, buddy?” speech. These days at least I don’t stand alone, and there are some examples of female characters who manage to strike a chord, while also being powerful.

But the kind of story I really crave is rare.

Let’s go back.

So, a series often held up as being super girl-power during my high school years was the Lioness Quartet. It was a series by Tamora Pierce, about a girl who wanted to be a knight in a world where that was for boy’s only. She switches places with her brother when hr absentee father sends them off to school. Alanna’s brother becomes a mage, and she cross-dresses for the next few years, while hauling her drunken history teacher to his room after dinner, jousting, and falling in love with some extremely suspect characters. In so many ways, this story was immensely satisfying to me. A girl with a sword, becoming a knight, conquering what everyone in her world said couldn’t be conquered. There was romance, but it wasn’t the point. Alanna’s story was her own.

Look, we live in an age of amazing and gorgeous book covers right now. This was really good at the time.

But, the whole point of Alanna’s arc was still about fighting to be accepted as a warrior. She was a girl, girls weren’t allowed, but she was going to tear down all the signs that said so and teach the boys that yes, she was. And I won’t argue against it. That’s absolutely a story that I needed. In a lot of ways it reflected my reality. Mrs. Lightner, my first grade teacher, told me on no uncertain terms that nice girls like me did not play in the dirt. My high school band instructor made very clear that the female assistant band commanders were outranked by the boy assistant band commanders, regardless of ability. And those were just the big, flashing signs that said, “Girls don’t act like that!”. There were plenty of more subtle messages, and I was watching them, and yeah, they made me mad. And I needed that energy of those characters who were dealing with the same kinds of problems, and standing up to them.

But I also think these are, by their nature, narrow. When every single powerful lady in books and movies shows up to say, “Yes, I can!” then women are still being defined in a narrow way. We’ve added one more category, rather than the full spectrum of what women can and should be.

And as female characters become ever more present in genres where once they were rare, more of this is popping up. The most recent arc for Captain Marvel to hit comic stands was all about a dastardly and hugely misogynistic dude trying to find a lady worthy of being his bride. He trapped Captain Marvel in his little pocket universe, along with a bunch of other superhero women, and then pitted Captain Marvel against Rogue. I enjoyed the story, and the work that it was doing, which is very necessary. Captain Marvel and Rogue are two long-standing female characters with a very dodgy history. For them to confront some of their demons and reach common ground, breaking down some of those women vs. women story structures that were once so prevalent, isn’t something to sneer at. But at the same time, when the story is structured so narrowly, becoming about girls vs the system, we end up with a narrative that only displays female power in resistance to obstacles that are trying to hold it back simply because it’s female.

It’s a rematch that addresses the issues of women being pitted against one another by their culture. Kinda. Maybe. At least a little bit.

Like I said, we need that. But we need something else, too.

We need those stories – and these are all too rare – in which a female character is powerful, but her arc isn’t about her gender. We need worlds in which females are accepted for the entire spectrum of things that they can be, without question, and then they move through their stories without the need to prove themselves worthy as a lady-person. And for that matter, we need stories in which male characters are allowed to be everything they can be, too, without question or ridicule. It’s great to see the world as it is – even necessary. But it’s important to see the world as it could be, too.

Once upon a time, a farmboy on Tatooine was given his father’s lightsaber, and he embarked on a journey to save a princess. A hobbit inherited a ring, and it had to be destroyed, so he did it. Across the landscape If science fiction and fantasy, we have so many tales of the small becoming great. I think we will know that we have truly arrived when a girl can embark on an adventure without having to shout, Yes, We Can Do This, Too!

A Window on Jason Vorhees

Confession: until the last few weeks, I’m pretty sure the only slasher I watched was Psycho. Does that count? It’s considered the original, right? Also, Scream. Which isn’t really a slasher so much as a commentary on the slasher genre. So, I saw these two very specific bookends of this supremely popular genre, and absolutely nothing in between. This would be an appropriate occasion to use literally, because I really, actually, had never watched any of the well-known slashers, but the word has been drained of meaning and I’d just sound like I was being hyperbolic.

Until a few weeks ago, this would have just been a photo of a girl in a canoe on a gorgeous lake. NOT ANYMORE.

Anyway, my knowledge of the Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, and Halloween films was absolutely zero. Which is impressive, if you think about it, in a certain way. It’s sort of like having never seen a Star Wars film. Horror movies are standard teenager fare, and basically everyone my age has some familiarity with these movies, which becomes especially apparent during the month of October. I, however, had a hair-trigger on my mighty nightmare-production machine, and watching “Rescue, 911” was enough to set it off. My parents shooed me away from scary movies more out of a sense of self-preservation than any concern that I’d be warped by the violence. They never forgot all the times I woke them in the early morning hours, having slept not a bit, asking if they could please, please unplug the refrigerator, because it was a threat to our safety, don’t you guys get it, the wiring in this house is ancient and if we don’t take precautions we are doomed. By the way, there should be a safety ladder in your room, you’ll thank me later when the refrigerator you refuse to unplug catches fire.

So, when I became besties with the horror filmmaker Erik Kristopher Myers, it was only a matter of time before my anxiety levels and the effectiveness of all that therapy were tested. I was going to have to strap in and expand my horror film education. Otherwise, how could I identify that this one scene from Exorcist 3 inspired the timing of the jump scare at the end of Butterfly Kisses?

We’ll have movie marathons, he said. It will be fun, he said. Particularly the part where we dissect the movies afterwards, he said. He had me at “critical analysis”.

So, the past few weeks we’ve been chilling on his couch (a prop from his first film, ROULETTE, by the way. Fact: filmmakers are way cooler than authors.) while he recovered from surgery, and watched these slashers everyone seems to love or hate. We began with the idyllic Camp Crystal Lake, where the rompings of Camp counselors were about to be interrupted by a streak of horrifying murders.

Confession 1: I was not expecting to gain a bit of enjoyment out of these films.

Confession 2: Holy shit, I have loved watching these films.

There’s something kind of pure about the first few Friday the 13th movies, an invisible energy broadcast by an independent film crew pulling something incredibly simple together with passion and popsicle sticks. The camera moves are simple, but challenging. The lighting is realistic, the setting lovely, the story unfolds with simple directness. The doomed teens are behaving exactly like a bunch of hormonal Camp counselors, rather than the overly stylized teens that seem to abound in more modern horror. Basically, watching the first Friday the 13th is like catching a breath of fresh air – which is a weird thing to say about a movie in which a bunch of kids are getting taken out one by one at the hands of a mystery serial killer, but true nonetheless.

The simplicity of the Friday concept also allows some really interesting things to come through that pretty clearly arise from the subconscious of the creators. In fact, if you watch the documentary for the first movie, the director confessed that Pam Vorhees’s vengeful rampage probably arises from his own feelings that his mother didn’t care about him much. She’s a maternal figure going way off the deep end to protect her child – an attractive image, perhaps, to someone whose own mother was absentee. Then of course there’s the oft-discussed morality tale embedded in all the Friday movies, which basically sends teens the message “have sex, do drugs, and you die!” I think it’s a little less obvious in the first two films, but gets more blatant (in a very self-conscious way) as you get into Number 5 or so.

Oh, but for me, it was the windows. Yes, people, the windows. It’s a thing. Don’t believe me? Then let’s go.

First, watch Friday the 13th again. The first one. Perhaps this is a budget thing, or a location thing, but once the lights go down on Camp Crystal Lake, the big glassy black portals to the outside become incredibly obvious. This Boy Scout Camp appears to be almost nothing but windows interrupting brief stretches of wooden wall. It gives the movie a distinctive look that will transport you right back to whatever summer camp your parents used to shuttle you off to, hoping you’d get fresh air and be out of their hair for a while. They are dark, and threatening, and so incredibly fragile.

But, windows aren’t meant to be passageways. After all, that’s what doors are for. No, a window is there to make the outside world visible, while still preventing anyone or anything from crossing the boundary. The outside stays in, the inside stays out. Sometimes windows even come to represent the boundaries that trap people in their worlds. Look at the Lady of Shallot, gazing out from her tower but unable to leave it. Madame Bovary, who gazes out of her little pocket universes at worlds she longs to touch, but cannot. And yes, it’s very often ladies who gaze out through clear glass on a world that remains unreachable. The windows, as much as they are for security, also keep you confined. And when those boundaries are broken, when windows are opened, letting people go where they should not, disaster often follows. Just ask Catherine and Heathcliff.

Friday the 13th’s first Final Girl, Alice, is pretty appropriate considering all these images of women viewing a world through windows. Alice is a little bit aloof from her fellow counselors. In fact, when first we meet her, she is simultaneously hard at work helping get the camp together, and uncertain about whether or not she will stay. She’s there with her fellow teens, and she goes along with the fun, but she’s not much of an instigator. She doesn’t roll her eyes or try to reign in the shenanigans. She watches, does what needs done, and seems to move with a graceful caution from moment to moment.

Alice. She’s scared, but like hell are you going to get her, Mr’s. Vorhees.

And then her friends start getting murdered, before she, too, becomes a target. Alice fights like hell, running, hiding, and even striking out at her attacker.

There’s a really interesting moment when she’s hiding in the camp kitchen, terrified. Slowly, she relaxes, believing that danger has passed her by. She backs towards a wall, a window behind her. We know what’s coming, but nonetheless we let our guard down. All is quiet.

Then the glass behind her shatters, and a figure comes hurtling through. Pam Vorhees, in defiance of the boundary that a window should be, has thrown one of Alice’s dead friends through what ought to have been a barrier. Death is coming for Alice. The world is coming for her whether she likes it or not. And Jason’s mother is going to get revenge, even if society objects. The window, this glass that ought to hold her back, means nothing in the face of her maternal rage.

It’s an incredibly striking moment, to me, and one that feels like it’s so much more than a chilling scare. Particularly when shortly after this, both women end up in a show-down outside, on the sandy shores of Crystal Lake. This should be the realm of Pam Vorhees – she, after all, has been living outside the lines for a long time. That window wasn’t the first she shattered. For Alice, this realm is all new. Her safe world was encroached on only moments ago. And yet, it’s Alice who wins. The young, single woman, who spent most of the movie watching, aloof, behind glass, who was forced out into the world by a crazed maternal figure, finds herself capable.

(The fact that she survives by destroying the maternal figure is probably a topic for another post entirely. You guys, Friday movies are complicated.)

This destruction of boundaries continues in the second iteration of Friday, at a similar time and in such a similar way that it becomes a striking repeated image. This time, the Final Girl is fan favorite Ginny. She’s done psychoanalysis of the mythic figure of Jason, a man who saw his mother murdered, who is also maybe a zombie? Upon finding herself in Jason’s shrine to his mother, she throws on Pam’s old sweater, and pretends to be Mrs. Vorhees. This desperate survival tactic works, giving Ginny an opening to put a machete deep into Jason’s shoulder.

This violation of Jason’s sense of the world does not go unpunished. Ginny and her boyfriend Paul flee from Jason’s shack, thinking that they’ve killed the murderer. Ginny welcomes back Muffin, the shi-tzu we all thought was eviscerated earlier in the movie. And this time, we’re pretty sure that Jason is dead. They’re totally safe.

There’s that little concern, though, about the fact that Ginny is backed against a window, which we know from past experience is not the safe place it seems to be.

Ginny has it all. Smarts, beauty, and the most perfect hair I’ve ever seen. Ever.

And of course, in one of his more spectacular stunts, Jason bursts through the glass. Whereas Pam Vorhees was the one who pulled Alice out of her safe-seeming world, this time it was Ginny who broke the boundary. She entered Jason’s home, and took on the mantle of his mother before trying to kill him. The death that breaks through the window, seeking her, should not have been unexpected. Once you’ve entered the world beyond the window, you can never go back.

Stories and Identity

Jedi or Sith? Or a little bit of both, maybe?

In college, one of my favorite professors opened one of my favorite writing classes by talking about how we use stories about ourselves as introductions to others. He told us one of his own stories, and talked about how it was riddled with inaccuracies, because human memory is softer than most of us like to admit, but how the main point was still that he told this tale all the time. It was part of a whole collection of tales that everyone who knew him had heard.

And the story was this: when he was very young, he went out hunting by himself. He managed to kill an elk, but was then left with a difficulty. He couldn’t get the animal where it needed to go by himself. So, he sat and waited until his parents could pick him up. And he spent hours there with the dead elk, in the cold and snow, waiting.

Even in class, my professor pointed out that his parents have no memory of this event. He himself couldn’t remember if his parents were already scheduled to pick him up at a certain time, or if he somehow managed to contact them. There’s some question as to whether or not this event transpired as it did, or even if it transpired at all. Still, the story is told, and is part of an identity. My professor goes around letting people know he’s the sort of person who would sit with a dead elk, experiencing the cold and the small pride and also the inconvenience of the task, even though he’s well aware it might contain inaccuracies – might even be invention. Of course, he tells people that part of the story, too, which in itself is designed to reveal something.

Some argue that they would never tell a story about something that they weren’t sure happened to them. But the truth is, memory is hazy, and gets warped over time – can even be warped in the act of recording. (Don’t believe me? Check out this podcast on memory glitches that afflict us all: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/revisionist-history/id1119389968?mt=2&i=1000413184954 )

So, if you accept that our memories can be a little dodgy, then the only conclusion is that all these stories we go around telling are so much nonsense. That we are all just lying to each other about who we are. That the stories don’t matter, and may as well stay inside our own heads gathering dust, thank you very much.

I say thee nay.

I say there are few things more important than the tales we tell about ourselves. To others. To the great echoing halls and the cramped dark caves of our own minds.

* * *

Have I mentioned the little stretch of time that I was in therapy? I did a nine-month stint of semi-intense cognitive-behavioral therapy after a series of major events in my life, and it’s where I learned something really, really important about stories.

I spent a lot of time recording my thoughts, identifying issues with them, and then practicing redirecting those thoughts in a more realistic way. Basically, every time my brain said, “Boo, you fail!”, I was holding up a finger, thumbing through some reference books, scribbling some charts in a journal, making some notes, and coming back (my mental self wears glasses, and she often pushes them up the bridge of her nose and looks through them haughtily. She did exactly that on such occasions as these) with, “In fact, I haven’t failed, and this is why according to my very sensible calculations!”

It was tedious work. And frustrating. Often painful. I had to let go of ideas about my identity that, even if they weren’t positive, I’d come to cherish, nonetheless.

But the process helped me get better. It helped me to become less angry, less anxious. It helped me find peace.

And it also saw the development of a new understanding and appreciation of what I do as a writer. An understanding of what stories mean, to each one of us.

See, we are all the protagonists. All those little thoughts that I was having to redirect were just single sentences in a larger narrative. And I know I certainly discovered just how quickly these stories unfolded. In my head, I could go from “I’m getting through the day” to, “I’m the worst mom in the world and I will never be a published author!” in about the time it took to blink. But it wasn’t a leap. No, it was a well-trod path from Okay Day to Worst Human, and it was practically a novel – even if slightly abridged. And I was really good at showing up at the end, full of self-loathing, wondering what the hell had happened – it took practice to catch the stories in the middle, and even more to catch them at that first incendiary thought.

But once I did, oh, that was the key to everything. Not just making the inside of my head a more pleasant place, but to understanding what stories do.

* * *

It was a while after I’d left therapy when the memory of my professor’s first-day lecture sidled up to my hard-won understanding of thoughts that shoot off into places we’d rather they not go. And those two things set off sparks.

We are all sort of walking around narrating our experience. And we can shape that experience by changing the way we think about it. And so basically, we are all constantly telling ourselves the story of who we are.

When we pick the stories that we tell to new friends, we aren’t misrepresenting ourselves – even if those stories contain factual inaccuracies – because the story is the fabric of who we are. That story we are telling others is one we’ve told to ourselves a thousand times. The message of it is far more important than the details. And those grooves of story, those worn tracks, those chains of thoughts –

– the words that become sentences that become paragraphs that become chapters that become novels –

– are who we are.

Did you ever wonder why those online quizzes about which Harry Potter or Game of Thrones character you are run through the Internet like wildfire? You might think they’re silly, but they aren’t. Who you identify with in you’re favorite novel is actually really critical to your self-image. This is serious business. (My marvel/potter/GoT trifecta, by the way, is Captain America/Dumbledore/Samwise. Just so ya know that this earnestness thing I have going on isn’t coming from nowhere.)

And where do our stories come from?

How do we know which ones to tell ourselves?

Well, by the stories all around us. In every history book, in every comic, every novel, every movie, every song, in every family yarn, in every parental lecture, we learn which kind of story is valuable and which is not. We learn what to aspire to. When Captain America refuses to compromise on his values, even if it means turning his back on the Avengers for a while, we learn that there’s a cultural value there that we should aspire to. When we are told fairy tales about an old woman knocking at the door with a poisonous apple, we are learning what our culture thinks we should fear. When someone on a podcast tells us a story about a serial killer, the framing of that instructs us what to value. Even in news articles, Saturday morning cartoons, and advertisements, we get narratives about who we should be and what we should value.

Incredibly, we are all walking around with our own library of tales that make us who we are. That have told us what it’s good to be. That have told us which actions are good and which actions are bad. We weave these narratives into our identities, and we make choices about which ones fit us. Are we going to glorify the rebel or the patriot? The wizard or the warrior? Are we going to fall in that uncomfortable place in between identities?

Does all this sound like we’re walking around faking it? Because we certainly aren’t, and I think that speaks to just how deeply narratives are woven into the human experience. These stories of fear and hope, justice and failure, needs and aspirations, are part of our fabric, both personally and culturally. It’s woven into us. Just try going through the day, or ten minutes, without seeing the events unspooling around you through the lens of your narrative. Even to be mindful, to view things neutrally and without judgement comes with all kinds of stories and baggage attached. I mean, we have feelings for a reason, right? Sometimes they’re supposed to color our perspective, so we know to stay away from dangerous situations.

I spend a lot of time examining the messages that movies and books and TV shows are sending out at us. I have always found it fascinating, and the messages about gender roles were particularly compelling for me, even as a little kid. And the more I understand about stories and how they build who we are, the more I feel compelled to pull them apart and ask what it is they’re telling us. Who is it we are supposed to be? What should we feel bad about? What should we consider accomplishments?

And these are really tricky questions. Spend about ten minutes as a stay-at-home mom, and you’ll get bombarded with an exhausting number of messages, many contradictory, about how simultaneously awesome and terrible you should feel about who you are and what you’re doing. Walk outside a Planned Parenthood and see competing narratives at work. Have a conversation with an ex, and really let it sink in, that feeling that you’re talking to someone who’s existing on a different planet.

Stories seem frivolous, and therein lies the danger. We take for granted the power they have over us. Over the way we talk, over what we give our attention to, over even our smallest behaviors. Narratives are in every thought that runs through our heads. They are how we understand the world.

Stories are everything.

MANEATERS

A few weeks ago I strolled into my local comic shop on a Wednesday afternoon, with my list of comics to pick up in my head. I’d stop by the Marvel section and grab the most recent War of the Realms and The Unstoppable Wasp. I’d glance over DC and wish that any of the titles appealed to me (I grew up a hardcore fan of Batman, and even dressed as Catwoman for Halloween in first grade). I’d flip through the bins of back issues, and maybe find a treasure or two. Then I’d check out Image, where my beloved series Die just wrapped, and I wasn’t expecting to find magic again.

And then I saw it. The most amazing comic cover I’ve ever laid eyes on.

I literally squealed with delight when I saw this, and read the title aloud to EVERYONE about four times.

The title made me laugh immediately, because “What’s Happening to Me And Can it Be Stopped” is apparently just the kind of phrase that amuses me. The bubble-gum pop young lady with the 40s housewife pose suggested there would be some snark within. The warning sticker “CAUTION: This Book Contains MENSTRUATION” sealed the deal. I stood on my tippy-toes and snatched down the book from the very top shelf.

I discovered that the entire book was, in fact, an artifact of the Maneaters world. A teen girl magazine, full of quizzes and games all about the dangers and the travails of menstruation, that went well above and beyond what we ladies usually deal with. There was a cheery tone shellacked over the hint of something much grimmer. I picked up Issue 8, was shattered to discover Issue 1 wasn’t on the shelf, and got Issue 2, instead. And the entire time, I exclaimed to everyone within earshot, “It’s a comic about girls getting their PERIODS, people!! This is genius!! How did I not know about this!!! Omg!!” Basically, I became a grown woman flipping out in a comic shop about an Image book that was all about blood. Fortunately, some of my friends think I’m charming like that.

It took several weeks to track down the entire run of Maneaters, during which time I picked up what I could from the few issues that I could glean from the shelves. Upon achieving a complete collection, I read through the entire arc twice.

It did not disappoint.

The premise of Maneaters is that Toxoplasmosis, that disease you get from cleaning a litter box, has morphed into Toxoplasmosis X, a nasty bug that lies basically dormant in most people. Not in menstruating girls, though. No, for them, sometimes Toxoplasmosis X causes a transformation into an enormous killer werepanther. Unsuspecting families are slaughtered. Young women wearing feminist t-shirts are placed in restraints.

And then, a solution: the government puts estrogen in tap water to prevent menstruation, and the werepanther problem is solved. Boys and girls go right back to leading their unevenly privileged lives. S.C.A.T. teams are there to take care of the anomalous attacks. It’s all good, now, right?

If you don’t find this page a complete delight, then I don’t know how to talk to you.

Except, of course, it’s not. And it’s with Maude, a child of divorce navigating teen-hood with her rebel friends, that the story really gets started.

And this book will deep-dive you into her world, one that parallels our own, yet twists it sideways. Imagine Trump’s famous “grab her by the pussy” comments in a world where women could potentially turn into panthers. Imagine boy’s and girl’s lounges at school, where those without a uterus kick back and drink Estro-pop, a hormone-free soda, or those with that supposedly troublesome organ plaster the walls with Hilary posters, respectively. Magazines that tell boys how to survive cat attacks. And parents pulling guns on their teen daughters to force them into cars to be tested for Toxoplasmosis X.

It’s our heroine Maude who is intent on bucking this system of girls’-only water fountains. One day, she marches into the boys’ lounge and buys a bottle of Estro-pop, a seemingly random act. But is it? This is a teen girl (a group that, in my personal experience, has deep-running emotions that they don’t yet have the language to express; a group that witnesses perhaps most clearly the juxtaposition of the trials of both childhood and adulthood, being right on the cusp of both) who has been fed her entire life on the mantra that we’re all safe now, because you, dear child, have accepted the constraints of the system we’ve built. Maude doesn’t have to think about it. It’s all around her. And like hell is she going to keep drinking the water.

Maneaters will grab you by the hand and urge you to keep up. Like some of the best narratives, it drops you into a world that accepts itself for what it is, and it’s going to feed you all the propaganda a teen in this world would be fed. All the while, a real life spins around Maude. Her parents are separated, and she’s not pleased. There are babysitters singing “A weema-weh, A-weema-weh, A-weema-weh” (you know, before breaking out into, “In the jungle, the mighty jungle, a lion sleeps tonight”). There are friends disappearing from the girls’ bathroom. There’s a sensitive cop dad and a steely mom who gives animals weird names. There are improperly labelled colored pencils on the window ledge.

And oh yeah, a fresh string of gruesome cat attacks.

This comic brings blood of all kinds.

The concept of young women on the cusp of adulthood being maligned and feared has the potential to seem very heavy indeed during our modern times. See A HANDMAID’S TALE, in which women are trapped in carefully delineated roles from which there’s no escape. But MANEATERS handles the topic with an eye-roll and a knowing wink. “Sure, we’re being oppressed, ladies. But you know what? It’s a great time to put on your Pussyhat and sneak into the boy’s lounge to buy some Estro-pop. Then we’ll be werepanthers and bite their heads off!” It’s a world gone askew, and it knows it.

You might be thinking right now that all of this makes this a comic for girls only, but you’d be wrong. There are mysteries here, and a slowly-unfolding world to explore. With every page, each character reveals that they are more than they seem. There are murder investigations along with tampon instructions. If you dare dive into a world that revolves around menstruation made dangerous, you will not be disappointed by the twists on this ride. And whether you’re male, female, or at any point on the spectrum, there’s something to be learned.

Also, there’s a team of panther-hunting corgis. You can’t ask for more.

Best of all, the story builds slowly. There are a lot of deep-dives into the world, and even by Issue 8, it feels like Maude’s adventure is just getting started, in the best way. The first wall in her world is toppling, and we see the seeds of a world remade, by the very girls it’s trying to keep caged. Whether or not their power lies in letting loose the panthers within, or controlling the cat, remains to be seen. Either way, I’m totally hooked, and you’ll see me at my comic shop next Wednesday getting Issue 9.

Female Characters Who Kill It 2: Lady Jane/Thor

Artwork by Russel Dauterman

I once had a lengthy and unproductive conversation with someone who took the stance that Jane Foster wielding Mjolnir was basically the worst thing to happen to humankind, and “Why can’t women just stick to their own superheroes? Why do you have to come steal all the guy ones?!” He then rattled off about two examples, I think Black Widow and Wonder Woman, and considered it settled that women should put down the hammer and stick to the lassos and whatever that move is Black Widow does where she grabs people’s heads between her thighs and flips them to the ground.

Well, I say thee nay, and the Jane Foster run on The Mighty Thor is one of my favorite arcs in comics. It is sweeping in its scope, being the place where the seeds for the War of the Realms were sown, as well as deeply intimate, exploring Jane Foster’s relationships with her friends and herself. Oh yeah, and she’s also kicking cancer’s ass.

If you aren’t familiar, here’s the summary: Thor Odinson looses his ability to wield Mjolnir, and is ashamed. But, as it should happen, Doctor Jane Foster is worthy to pick up the Uru and become the God of Thunder. This awesome news for the universe comes with a caveat for Jane – she has cancer, and wielding Mjolnir cancels out her treatments, meaning that she dies a little more every time she transforms into Thor. Meanwhile, the baddie Malekith is arranging The War of the Realms, which leads to all sorts of chaos. The Shi’ar get involved, a War Thor is born, the Mangog is summoned, and Sinder tries to burn it all to the ground before taking over Hel. And all these things call Jane Foster to pick up the hammer over and over again.

So why does it matter, that Jane Foster becomes Thor? Why does it matter that this particular character is a she for a little while, and not a he? Why does it matter that a human woman escapes her chemo treatments in order to fly the cosmos, Mjolnir in hand, shiny winged helmet on, blond hair flowing? Why Jane?

Because Thor is all about gods and men, and their relationships. Thor Odinson became unworthy of his hammer through the realization that the gods had forgotten their purpose, had forgotten their duty to mortals. No god, then, could wield Mjolnir. And while it might have been any human, man or woman, Jane Foster is uniquely suited to the role. She is a woman who for years has been on the periphery, watching Thor, dating Thor, getting swept up in Thor’s adventures. She was so often deprived of her ability to choose her own path. Odin himself declared her unworthy to be with Thor, and sent her back to Midgard. Loki tormented her. She lost great portions of her life to her association with the gods of Asgard.

So yes, there’s an enormous sense of reclaimed power in the Jane Foster/Thor character. She has cathartic moments of punching the same Odin who declared her an unsuitable match for his son through several planets. She gets to wield the thunderous power that she watched Odinson wield for so long. She gets to beat up on Loki, and frost giants, and narcissistic gods. She gets to face down Malekith, the dark elf who means to tear all the realms apart. And she savors every lightning-filled moment of it. It is the ultimate wish-fulfillment for a mortal who has spent so long watching superheroes save the worlds.

Artwork by Russel Dauterman

But there’s so much more here than that.

Jane Foster as Thor allows us to see this character in a fresh, impassioned way. She gleefully beats up on baddies, and shouts down the foolish gods of Asgard who are so enmeshed in their own dramas that they can’t see the ten realms are burning all around them. She fights for the little guy. And then she turns around and fights for those same gods who have so foolishly ignored the suffering of those they might have saved. She wields Mjolnir with just as much ferocity for the gods who have seemingly let down all of the realms when the Mangog comes knocking at the rainbow bridge. She demonstrates to the gods of Asgard what they truly ought to be.

And she also finds, so often, that Jane Foster is just as valuable and necessary as the Goddess of Thunder. As much as she loves bringing the storms and whacking armies with her hammer, it is the bonds she has as a mortal woman that so often save the day. Only Jane can talk down the War Thor, or wake up the All-Mother to the danger Malekith poses to the realms. This becomes a story of love between people, as well as a love of life. It is a story that would have been impossible to tell through Thor Odinson in this way. In the form of a woman who is dying of cancer, and must learn to fight for her own life as much as she fights for the lives of everyone in the realms.

Jane Foster faces death in every form. She faces death within a disease-wracked mortal body, death in war, death by gods, death by monster, and death through self-neglect. She is a human given the power of gods, and oh, does she use it. But oh, does it cost her.

I think particularly of the arc in which the Shi’ar gods challenge her, to prove that she is as worthy of worship as they are. They kidnap her from Asgardia, drag her to their doorstep, and then proceed to inflict catastrophes and disasters on their own people in order to inspire their awe and worship. Again and again, Thor throws the competition, out of compassion for the Shi’ar people, who, after all, are innocent bystanders in this contest. It’s an interesting demonstration of the times we live in, that so much of what Thor stands against is dehumanization. The Shi’ar gods in their glowing white bird masks might as well be the unfeeling corporations crushing citizenry beneath their heels purely for their own benefit. And Thor wins their challenge by rallying the gods of Asgard to her side, but not before cradling children dying of plague, or watching monsters rip through crowds. There’s as much emotional burden here as there are hammer blows.

Jane Foster is the Thor we all want saving us. She is the Thor we all want to be. She is the Thor the gods love, and hate, and rally behind. She is the Thor the ten realms need, and the Thor they so often don’t deserve. But she’s the sort of hero who makes those around her worthier, because she reminds them all of why they fight. Of why they yearn to fly. Of what it means to hold enormous power. She does more than just charge into battle. She leads others into it.

And in the end, she puts down Mjolnir (in truly dramatic Thor-like fashion) and does the most difficult thing of all.

She saves herself.

Artwork by Russel Dauterman

Female Characters Who Kill It: Dana Scully

With the publication of my novel The Altered Wake fast approaching (so fast! October, people) I’m going to tell you a little bit about where I come from as a writer. One of the things that led me to pick up my pen, open a notebook (I prefer Mead Five Star for novels, leather-bound notebooks for my daily scribbles) was this thing that made me teeth-gnashing levels of angry as a kid. I’ve long been interested in science fiction, fantasy, and all the stuff you’d find over in the super geeky corner of the world. I used to race home to watch Batman: The Animated Series, and dressed as Catwoman for Halloween. I rented Star Wars from the movie rental store every time it was my turn to pick a movie. At the school library, I was devouring any books on mythology that I could get my hands on. My high school years are almost entirely defined by the release of Lord of the Rings. I will even confess, here and now, that I might have written novel-length Harry Potter fan-fiction.

I was decidedly not cool, but I didn’t care, because I was having the time of my life.

Oh yeah, except this one thing that really bugged me. A lot.

The serious dearth of lady characters.

So, I decided at about the age of twelve, that I was going to write the kinds of stories I wanted to see – stories with women in driving lead roles – with my own pen. I had already been scribbling in notebooks for years, and it seemed the natural thing to do. And I didn’t really question whether or not I could. All I knew was that it needed to be done, and it didn’t look like anyone else was about to take care of it.

The world, now, is different, of course. Now there’s Katniss, and Rey, and Jane Foster was even Thor for a while. But I’m still restless for more.

But, rather than belabor the point that more is better, I want to point out those female characters that have stood out to me over the years as rich and wonderful people. Women who rose above cliche, who were more than just love interests and side characters. I already wrote about Princess Leia here, and why she is one of my favorites. Now, I’m going to talk about Agent Dana Scully, from the X-Files.

“But wait!” I might hear a particularly discerning person shout. “She’s Mulder’s love interest!”

And yes, she was definitely written in the first few episodes of the show as girlfriend material and foil, but it didn’t take long for Dana to establish herself as a character in her own right, for which I think we have Gillian Anderson to thank.

By the time X-Files had really established its rhythm, Dana had become a force to be reckoned with. She challenged Mulder at every turn, stood up to authority when she needed to, and she pulled out her gun and flashlight on all kinds of horrifying creatures.

There’s this scene lodged in my memory that exemplifies the character, from the first X-Files movie. While Mulder is in the basement of a bank trying to disarm a bomb, Scully is running through the lobby trying to get everyone out. She looks at a hesitant security guard, and shouts, “Don’t think! Just pick up the phone and make it happen!” It’s a moment that will have you racing to comply, even if you’re sitting on the other side of a screen. It’s a moment of someone getting the job done, gender be damned, and it’s something that is still a rarity in media.

That moment, to me, exemplifies what makes Scully such a force to be reckoned with. She didn’t question her ability. She never stopped to convince anyone that women were just as capable as men. She just attacked whatever challenge was in front of her, and took care of shit. It’s what made her a full and complete character, rather than a sidekick or a love interest.

Scully, and her no-nonsense, get-the-job-done approach to a life full of alien landing investigations, were a huge inspiration when I wrote my main character, Cameron Kardell. Even in a world with an ever-growing cast of women in major roles, we still don’t often see someone who is so self-assured in her own abilities that she doesn’t give it a second thought. And that was always Dana Scully. She was so certain of her place in the world that she never entertained the possibility or the implication that she might need to move over, get out of the way, or give up. She was loyal to Mulder, even when he seemed crazy; she confronted him with logic and science, even though she cared about him; and she stared cold death at anyone who dared to suggest that she had stepped out of line.

So, yes, for all the flaws in the world of alien abductions and monsters-of-the-week, Dana Scully is a hero, whether she’s pulling a gun on Mulder, performing late-night autopsies on the victims of vampirism, or letting people know she will have none of their nonsense. Here’s to Scully, and the trails she blazed.

For a bunch of lovely Scully moments, check out this article at Bustle.

And for more women who get the job done (while making it look cool), take a look at The Altered Wake in October!