Pray for Louisiana. Help if You Can.

​https://youtu.be/UPCc35uUIqY

Louisiana is facing some of its worst flooding since hurricane Katrina. 13 are dead, and thousands are homeless

Though some are beginning to return to their homes,  the damage it’s widespread and profound. 

I don’t live in Louisiana any more,  but I have friends and family that do. They’re safe, but many more are not. 

If you can,  please donate. I’ve linked to a couple of reputable ones below.

Lutheran Church Charities

Red Cross of Louisiana

Audio-Visual Comfort Food

There is something comforting about going back to the old familiar.
Walking among the trees you climbed as a child
Holding a favorite childhood stuffed animal
Smelling a blanket or quilt your grandmother made
Tasting a favorite food from long ago

And so it is no wonder that so much of what we watch is old
Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows, Sherlock, Elementary
Ghostbusters, Ninja Turtles, and Superheroes by the score
Jane Austin remade, remixed, even reimagined with zombies
Ponies and Transformers and Jedi, oh my!

This is an appalling display of unoriginality
This is also what we want. It’s what I want.
I don’t want the stories I grew up with to lie in their graves
Even if some of them were so bad that’s all they deserve
Even if their remakes are nothing short of abysmal.
Would I rather have Zach Snyder’s Randian pukestorm,
Or have Superman be forgotten?
If those are my choices, I’d rather see the red S fly.
Even if I don’t bother seeing the movie
Of course, I’d rather the remake be good.

Jane Austen fans usually get their wish on that front
Not just quality film adaptations
But expansions and reimaginings
Austenland, Lost in Austen, Death Comes to Pemberly
Even Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
But their day is coming, too
Just wait til they unleash Michael Bay on the Austenverse
Then they’ll know how the rest of us feel:
Persuasion will be the name of the gun
Emma uses to blow up Mansfield Park
Okay, maybe Dannie’s right.
Maybe these are “horrific money-grabs”
A lot of them are definitely “weaksauce storytelling”
And maybe I’ll never see good versions of my childhood favorites
On the big screen.
But we 80’s kids can hope, can’t we?

 

Ruining My Childhood! Updating White Male “Franchises,” Part 3

Friday’s post about updating all-white, all-male franchises left one major, legitimate question unaddressed:

Why change existing franchises? Why not just make some new characters?

The answer is pretty simple:

These are the cornerstones of our popular culture, and right now they are all white or all male or both.

Think about it: Superman, The Avengers, James Bond, Doctor Who, Star Wars, and many others are white male territory. To be sure, there are exceptions, but they tend to either be niche products or come from the mind and estate of Gene Roddenberry (Star Trek, Andromeda, etc.).

Any new, diverse properties will be competing against these titans for a spot in the pop cultural pantheon.

And we’ve seen how that turns out for the “comic girls.” They’re seen as lesser, also-ran versions or sidekicks. As good as the new Supergirl tv series is, there’s no question that she’s a knock-off of Superman. And Batgirl is in many ways a sidekick character, at least in mass media (comics, alas, are no longer truly “mass” in the sense that tv and movies are).

And look at She-Hulk, as awesome a character as she is (civil rights lawyer, cosmopolitan fun-loving single woman, Avenger, Fantastic Four member, and fourth-wall breaker long before Deadpool was a twinkle in Deathstroke’s eye patch). She’s never seen on tv or movies, and on the rare occasion she ends up in so much as a cartoon, she gets demoted to a disgruntled “living greenscreen” stunt double.

But if the baton is passed in some way in a major mass media production, the popular culture is changed to better reflect the reality of the world it both represents and influences.

Star Wars: the Force Awakens added a new generation of leads: Rey, a woman, Poe, a Latino man, and Finn, a black man. It expanded the franchise, and certainly served as a refreshing counterpart to the tin-eared racism of the prequels.

For ensembles or teams like the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Avengers, this is easy. As the original (white, male) actors rotate off, bring a more diverse group of characters to the forefront. Marvel’s already starting to do this, with Black Panther and Captain Marvel movies already in various stages of pre-production, and with the addition of Scarlet Witch and Black Panther to the cast of Captain America: Civil War.

James Bond replaces its lead actor every decade or so anyway. Give Idris Elba a turn and see how it goes. If you want someone younger, try  It can’t be worse than the last half of Pierce Brosnan’s run.

Doctor Who has the same situation, with the Doctor’s regenerations. It’s easy enough to cast a woman, and/or a person of color.It isn’t hard to do. Some franchises are already doing it. It just requires the will to make it happen. And maybe if enough of us ask, it will start to happen. It’s already starting. The momentum might be unstoppable. I surely hope it is.Or we could just watch another 10,000 shows about white male antiheroes. Blech.

Meat-Free Monday: Simpler Food

(Video warning: harsh language)

Well, one good thing about going vegan, is that I am immune from the worst of it: pink slime, McNuggets, whatever’s in hot dogs. I get a bit queasy thinking about how many of those I ate over the course of the last 40 years.

But I’m sure I’m still taking in a lot of frankenfood. I never knew that about orange juice.

So I’m working to make some gradual changes in a more “whole foodsy” direction.

  • Eating oatmeal for breakfast more often
  • (As opposed to peanut butter and bagels, or prepared cereals)
  • Topping my salads with homemade vinegar dressings, not pre-bottled one
  • Eating even more raw fruits and vegetables than I do now
  • Chilling and eating dates for dessert more often, instead of more processed options
  • Eventually getting a juicer and making my own juice

This will hopefully be better for me, both for long-term health and short-term digestion. My weight may even settle in a little lower, but I’m much more concerned with blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar, and so on.

Who Ya Gonna Call? Updating White Male “Franchises,” Part 1

 

A new Ghostbusters film opens today, and the reviews are pretty good over on Rotten Tomatoes, which only accepts reviews from people who have seen the movie.

As of yesterday, when it wasn’t available to see (aside from advance viewings for critics), it had thousands of 1 star reviews on IMDB from nerd-ragers who swore that it “ruined my childhood” … without ever seeing it …

How did it ruin their childhood? Well, the Ghostbusters are women this time around. They didn’t even re-gender the old characters. It’s just a reboot, with the same concept and general look/ideas/proton packs, with women as the ghostbusters.

I wish I could make money by bottling neckbeard bile and tears. I’d make a mint right about now.

I could bathe in it, but I’d end up dirtier than when I started. But seriously, I’m eating this up. The same whiners who tried to organize a boycott of The Force Awakens are pounding their keyboards about Ghostbusters for a few months, before they go back to slandering and death-threating Anita Sarkeesian.

But their man-child whining is all in vain. Their rage, though amplified by their keyboards, is impotent. The balance is already tipping. Ghostbusters is one more major property pushing it over the edge.

Why does this all matter? Representation.

People who aren’t white men need to see themselves in a wide variety of roles, roles with agency, roles that make things happen. Kids especially need to see people who look like them in a wide variety of non-stereotypical roles.

And they need to see them in major pop cultural properties, big ones like Star Wars, Ghostbusters, James Bond, and the various comic book movies, not just relegated to “chick flicks” or “the black sitcom.”

Oh, yeah, there’s one more reason I’d like to see more diversity in traditionally white franchises, and it’s totally selfish:

I’ve seen and read enough stories about able-bodied white male (usually violent) “heroes” to last me ten lifetimes. I’m bored. I need something fresh!

So if your Netflix list or DVR is haunted by the ghost of a monochromatic male franchise, who you gonna call?

(Yeah, I stuck with the original theme song. I tried, but I really can’t get behind the Fall Out Boy version).

Pray for Dallas and the Families of the Slain

This was a terrible, terrible tragedy.

We should pray for the families of all involved:

  • The offers who were killed
  • The officers who were wounded, and struggle to recover
  • The civilians who were shot
  • The family of the murderer, who by all appearances were ignorant of his terrible plans, and now have to wonder how the person they loved could do something like this
  • Pray for the whole city of Dallas, and for our nation. Pray for Baton Rouge and St. Paul, too.

Being a police officer is obviously a dangerous job. While some jobs (like logging and fishing) are more dangerous in terms of death and injury, police face the added psychological danger of active, malevolent violence.

It can’t be an easy job to do, and they all need our prayers.

Freestyle Friday: Writing Goals for July 2016

Since it’s “Freestyle Friday,” I’m going to take a break from the heavier topics I discussed in my last two posts.

I want 2016 to be the year I got my act together.

  • I earned my Ph.D.
  • I’ve started getting my health back under control by eating a fully plant-based diet and exercising more (in the summer, that means swimming. I’ve got a plan for the fall, too).
  • I’ve started trying to unify my personal ethics with my actions, digging deeper, actually changing from the normal.
  • I’ve restarted this blog after a 3-year absence.
  • I’m going to make another go of my fiction writing.

Let me talk about the last two here. It’s not that I haven’t been writing fiction for the last couple of years, it’s that I haven’t been successfully writing fiction.

After writing a novel that I loved, one that did everything I wanted it to, one that I actually go back and read sometimes like somebody else wrote it … I found I couldn’t even come close to replicating it.

Lightning wouldn’t strike twice, and I spent two full years not knowing why or how.

But I’ve come to the conclusion that I just don’t have the skill to reproduce it yet. For those of you who play RPGs, I got a critical success mostly from the luck of the dice.

But now, I have a plan. For July, I want to:

    • Continue writing this blog five days a week, putting out material that is actually useful, that gives something of value to at least somebody every day.
    • Write 4 “

Story Spines

      .” In case you’re not familiar with them, they’re proto-outlines invented by Kenn Adams in 1991 and used extensively throughout the entertainment industry,

especially by Pixar

      .

For each story, I’ll then create the main character. That character will need to be relatable, with relatable motivations that will be powerful and engaging enough to push through the entire story.

A bit more about story spines: They’re designed to get to the heart of the story long before you write an extensive outline or start putting dialogue and description down.

Like a living creature, a story only has one spine. So four spines means (the start of) four stories. The story spines will actually be the easy part.

Creating a relatable main character with powerful enough motivations to drive the whole story, well, that’s the hard part.

And that’s why I’m going to do at least 4 story spines a month (maybe more) until I get it right, and then keep doing them (and analyzing them) until I figure out what causes me to fail and what causes me to succeed.

I’ll continue to read books and articles about writing, and work on technical aspects of my prose. But the bottom line is, if I can’t write a powerful enough central motivation and relatable enough lead character to drive the story to completion, nothing else matters.

So that’s the plan for July. I guess this means I’ll owe you a status report at the end of the month.

 

A Missed Opporunity: Transformers Prime and the Smurfette Principle

 

[Note: I’m a little short of time to get this post up. It’s been a long week. So I’ve looked into my archives and found something I wrote but never published a few years back when I finished watching Transformers: Prime. The series was very well made, but like I said about Voltron, it’s neck deep in the myth of redemptive violence. It also suffers from a significant gender imbalance, both of which seem to be epidemic in our popular culture].

Quick glossary if you’re not familiar with Transformers. Autobots are good guys. Decepticons are bad guys. Optimus Prime is the good guy leader, a sort of father figure to the rest of the Autobots. That and the 1-minute clip I showed above is all you need to know.

 

It’s no secret that I like cartoons. One that I enjoyed recently was Transformers: Prime, a CGI-animated series aimed at older elementary children. It had ongoing plotlines and darker elements that made it a poor fit for little kids, but Transformers: Rescue Bots has covered that age range admirably.

Now, I really enjoyed Transformers: Prime, even though it kind of ran on the Smurfette Principle:

  • one female Autobot, Arcee, out of a team of 5-8 (depending on the season) total Autobots
  • one female human “companion,” Miko, out of three
  • one recurring female adult character, Jack’s mother
  • one female Decepticon, Airachnid, out of a much larger cast of villains

Watch this if you’re not familiar with the Smurfette Principle:

 

The female characters were at least interesting.

  • Arcee was by-the-book and extremely competent, but haunted by the loss of two previous partners.
  • Miko was fearless, reckless, and brave in a way that seemed to fit her youth and personality.
  • Jack’s mother was a smart, competent nurse who was trying to raise a teenage son alone, and doing a good job of it.
  • Airachnid was diabolical, and smarter than most of the other Decepticons.

The truth is, the male characters were often less interesting than the female ones. And that leads me to the missed opportunity, arguably the most boring Autobot of all: Ultra Magnus.

 

It’s not really a spoiler to say that at some point in the series, Optimus Prime is missing and/or injured and/or captured and/or just not available to lead them, and the Autobots are scrambling to regroup and find a way to be effective without their great leader. That pretty much happens in every Transformers series. It’s a tradition.

 

And during this time, a space ship lands, opens its hatch, and out steps Ultra Magnus. Arcee is immediately relieved (and actually shows some happiness, which is rare for her). She knows Ultra Magnus is a powerful soldier and Optimus Prime’s old second-in-command. He can provide the muscle and the leadership the Autobots need to regroup.

 

The only problem? He’s Lawful Stupid. He’s so by-the-books he makes Arcee look like a 1960’s hippie. He doesn’t value the “indigenous organisms” (humans), and he has trouble getting along with the former Wreckers (Autobot special forces: Bulkhead and Wheeljack, who really are indispensable at this point, and Miko, who’s become an honorary Wrecker). Over the next few episodes, he has to learn to bend a little, and the Wreckers (especially Wheeljack) have to learn to listen and work with the whole group.

 

It’s kind of a cliched and lukewarm side-plot that doesn’t really make a major splash in the storyline. Worse, it’s something we’ve all seen a dozen times before. That side plot felt like a rerun, and so did Ultra Magnus.

 

So what’s the missed opportunity? What small change could they have made that would have cascaded into something a little more complex and a little more new?

 

Instead of Ultra Magnus stepping off that spaceship, it should have been Elita One. And they should have used the same exo-armored, broad-shouldered look they used for Ultra Magnus. Just give her a more feminine face and more rounded (but similarly massive) torso, and have a woman do her voice.

 

You instantly add several more wrinkles to the old story of strict authority vs “gets stuff done rogue” that we haven’t seen so much before.

 

It would implicitly raise the question: “is Wheeljack really just against all authority, or does he have a problem taking orders from a woman?” Maybe you don’t even have anybody breathe a word about that on screen, but it still hangs in the air and gives the viewer another angle to think about. Now, given the way Wheeljack chafed against Optimus’ orders, I think the answer to that question would be “he’s got a problem with authority, male, female, or other,” but at least the question would be available to consider.

 

If Elita One is drawn more like Ultra Magnus, then it give an unspoken nod to people who don’t fit in traditional gender roles or lines. Arcee is clearly very feminine. She’s the smallest Autobot by far, and she has curves that look very much like a human woman’s. Ultra Magnus was one of the biggest Autobots (excluding giants like Omega Supreme or Metroplex), and he was clearly built for power. Making Elita One his size and built (but with enough feminine curves to visually convey “female”) would show more body diversity than most shows that have a main cast of ten women.

 

Arcee could look up to Elita One as a career icon, the first woman to hold a position of high command in the Autobot army, the person who inspired her to join the military in the first place. That could make the conflict a little more personal, and the stakes a little higher than just “Lawful Stupid vs. Chaotic Effective.” Now Wheeljack isn’t just bucking the chain of command, he’s personally insulting Arcee’s idol. That could also lead to some drama when Arcee realizes that Elita One isn’t perfect, and turns against her for a little while, until Arcee realizes that she’s idolized Elita One, instead of accepting her for who she is.

 

There you go: one simple change, one little twist, but it transforms (no pun intended) a cliched, lukewarm subplot into something unexpected and rarely explored. Nothing in the main plot has to change a bit, but the subplots and subtext become (ahem) more than meets the eye.

Theory Thursday: Moral Foundations

I’ve been reading and thinking about moral foundation theory, and it’s really been eye-opening. It helps to explain and understand the reasons people hold different political and social positions and beliefs.

I’ll be writing more about this in the weeks to come, but I thought I’d start with an overview.

The five primary moral foundations are

  1. Care (vs. Harm)
  2. Fairness/Reciprocity
  3. Authority
  4. In-Group Loyalty
  5. Purity

Typically, Liberals and Progressives focus on the first two. Conservatives favor all five, typically putting that last three (Authority, In-Group Loyalty, and Purity) above the first two (Care/Harm and Fairness/Reciprocity).

There’s a sixth one, Liberty, that is gaining traction. Libertarians value that above all others, though everyone values it to some degree.

Caring about Care/Harm and Fairness is obvious – we don’t want people to be hurt. We don’t want people to be cheated. And every side of the political fence cares about these two.

But why care about the other three? Order tends to decay unless effort is put into maintaining it. Just like houses and engines and our bodies. In times of chaos, everybody gets hurt. Thus, it makes sense to put some effort into maintaining order. Thus, Authority, In-Group Loyalty, and Purity.

Why do progressives reject these, then?

Because Authority is power. Not only does it corrupt, but it is sought by the most corrupt. Accepting authority with little or no questioning means signing your name to all its abuses. Voting to re-elect George W. Bush in 2004 meant giving your sanction to Guantanamo Bay, the Iraq War, and the Patriot Act. Voting to re-elect Barack Obama in 2012 meant giving your tacit approval to his ongoing an unaccountable uses of drone strikes on civilians in countries we weren’t even at war with, like Pakistan.

Because In-Group Loyalty inherently leads to the marginalization (or worse) of those who do not fit into the group, and the destruction of those who threaten the group. I suffered through enough bullying in K12 to never trust a clique, team, or identity fully, and what I went through was nothing compared to what some of my LGBT+ friends experienced. Nothing at all. This sort of mindset leads to people cheering and dancing in the street when a terrorist leader is killed. This sort of mindset leads to people covering for their fellow cops when an unarmed 12 year old is killed. This mindset is at the heart of racism and homophobia.

Because Purity usually means men controlling women’s lives and sexuality, blaming them for our lusts and our bad actions. Jesus said “if your eye offends you, pluck it out,” not “if your eye offends you, tell whoever you’re leering at to wear thicker clothes.” Purity drives male domination of women across the world.

There are benefits to the moral foundations of Authority, In-Group Loyalty, and Purity, but progressives look at the harm that has been done in their name to ethnic minorities, to women, to gender and sexual minorities, and the harm that is still being done, and figure we’d all be better off sticking to Care and Fairness.

But the question comes about: how do we then create a stable society, especially during a crisis?

It’s no wonder that progressive movements tend to have their greatest gains not during times of crisis, but during times of stability. This is especially true during times when the prosperity is not shared anywhere close to equally between groups: the Gilded Age, the Post WW2-Boom, the last thirty years. During times of crisis (WW2, immediately post-9/11/01) people take a more conservative (or even hardline) turn. This ebb and flow may be a natural part of society’s life cycle, but it’s important to keep an eye on it, to prevent it from giving rise to a violent mass movement (like the Nazis, Al Queda, or the Islamic State).

To learn more about Moral Foundation Theory:

Moral Foundations website

Moral Foundations on Wikipedia

Moral Foundations and Political Backgrounds Quizzes

Here is Johnathan Haidt’s TED talk about Moral Foundations in Politics.

 

 

 

Twelve-Word Tuesday: Voltron: Legendary Defender

Well crafted. Light-hearted. Hints of gender nonconformity. But still embraces redemptive violence.

I was an 80’s kid who always (skeptically) looks forward to modern updates and remakes of old childhood favorites … especially since the old cartoons often don’t hold up well (try watching old episodes of Transformers, GI Joe, or Thundercats without cringing).

A lot of the updates are quite good. But virtually all of them play into the myth of redemptive violence, with the exception of updates of “girl toy cartoons” (I hate myself for typing that sentence, but that’s how it was seen in the 1980’s) like the adorable My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, which I love to watch with my daughter.

Voltron: Legendary Defender is especially well done. The animation, music, voice work, characterization, and even dialogue are top-notch, and appropriate for children (though not for a 3-year old). The plot is serialized, and each episode leaves the viewer in suspense for the next. I have been thoroughly enjoying watching it myself.

The heroes’ success turns on teamwork and on realizing the importance of putting aside their own personal needs in order to protect society at large, which are good things.

Of course, protecting society at large mostly involves blowing up massive numbers of enemy ships, robots, and mecha. It’s the myth of redemptive violence all the way down.

I know it takes a little more thought to come up with non-violent plots, especially in a show with a violent predecessor, but the excellent Transformers Rescue Bots (and the aforementioned My Little Pony) proves it is possible to design action-packed kids cartoons, and even to draw off Gen-X nostalgia, without glorifying violence.

I just wish more people would do it.

(Voltron: Legendary Defender Season 1 is available on Netflix now).