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minireview: Chris Adrian’s The Great Night

The Great Night
I pulled this book off the library shelf quite at random, and I am sincerely glad I did. Loosely based on Shakespeare’s Midsummer’s Night Dream, Chris Adrian’s The Great Night is a phantasmagoric, feverish tale of three heartbroken people who stumble into a San Francisco park and quickly become entangled in the sordid intrigues of the resident faerie population.

The plot moves forward by telling the same story from various perspectives, pieces falling quietly into place as we get to know each character. This is an engaging approach that gives the reader many “aha” moments, but I have to say that I grew somewhat weary of it by the end, as the plot crept along at the same ponderous pace when I personally would have prefered a brisker tempo for the conclusion.

The tone is simultaneously optimistic and jaded, relatable and yet abstract. What I found most interesting about The Great Night is that is essentially an exercise in shoehorning the cast and elements of a comedy into the framework of a tragic drama — no easy task. Adrian really gets inside the heads of his characters, gradually peeling back the whimsical layers to reveal an overwhelming, weighty sadness.

Speaking of characters: Puck. Oh goodness. Adrian’s interpretation of the chaotic trickster is easily the best thing about this book. Styled as the villain, Puck is essentially a cross between a boggart (à la Harry Potter) and Coyote from Gunnerkrigg Court. He may have been inspired by the kumiho, a malicious, shapeshifting fox of Korean mythology — but that is purely speculation on my part. Adrian’s Puck is both terrifying and piteous, and I found myself wishing Adrian would write a sequel (or a graphic novel) focussed on this character. The book gives us plenty of reasons to sympathize with Puck but does not stoop to any kind of patronizing redemption plot, which leaves the reader wanting to know more about him.

Overall, The Great Night is an excellent book — but is probably not to everyone’s taste. Shakespearian purists and those who prefer realism should stay away, but as I fit into neither category, this book was a delight for me, artfully executed and beautifully sad.

Some links

For those of you that don’t know, my main blog is called The Snarky Optimist, and you might want to check it out. My most recent post was about Shakespearian characters in an office environment.🙂

In the meantime, here are links to two other blogs I like:

No, Seriously, What About Teh Menz?

Overcoming Bias

Normally I share this kind of thing on Twitter but today I’m posting a fun little tidbit here: Tokyo Police Club did a fun thing in which they recorded ten covers (of songs recorded in the past ten years) in ten days. Below is a video for their version of Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone”.

Why buy the cow? My poor, shattered childhood dreams. Or not.

A response to Andrea Mrozek

 I’m not in the habit of writing responses to newspaper opinion pieces, generally – especially not in cases where I disagree so strongly with the author’s position as to suspect that they may merely be trolling. Take Margaret Wente, for example: I once wrote a response to her piece regarding gender trends in the blogosphere (on my main blog, The Snarky Optimist) but have since not bothered to take the bait, seeing as every time she publishes something, it seems designed purely to get a rise out of those Internet folk who fancy themselves progressively-minded.

The Ottawa Citizen, however, is my city newspaper. And although I am not a regular reader I did feel obliged to respond to Mrozek’s article after I came across it on Twitter, courtesy of the incomparable Nadine Thornhill. Part of the reason I have chosen to respond is because those who have objected in the comments section on the Citizen website disagree with Mrozek on very different grounds than I do myself; another part is the fact that I think Mrozek writes with ostensible sincerity and good intent. Her heart is hopefully in the right place, but her argument – perhaps inadvertently – supports toxic social practices.

I will start by saying that the phenomena Mrozek describes are real, and I am not attempting to dismiss the perspectives of anyone whose lived experience reflects the practices elucidated in Mrozek’s article. The commodity model for sex – and that is what we are talking about here, really – does exist in many people’s lives. But it is something that should be dug out and exposed for the problem it is, not advocated for.

So let’s begin. There are so many things wrong with this article that I hardly know where to start.

“Statistics show roughly 90 per cent of young people say they’d like to marry, but that fewer Canadians actually are.”

While I cannot be sure what age group Mrozek is referring to or what “statistics” this claim refers to, she bases her entire argument more or less on the idea that “young people” who express interest in marriage and who do not subsequently wed during their lifetimes are unhappy and unfulfilled.

The solution she proposes is basically that women should band together to withhold sex, which will convince more men to propose marriage. I think that is a horrible idea that contributes to sexist notions about relationships and sexuality – sexist notions that hurt both men and women, and contribute to a culture of materialism, deception, heartbreak and violence.

But let’s rewind for a moment and look at Mrozek’s basic idea: that if “young people” who express an interest in marriage are not growing up and getting married, we have a serious social issue that needs solving.

The fact of the matter is that not all childhood dreams are either realized or shattered – a great many of them are outgrown or replaced with other dreams as we grow older, mature, and begin to understand that happy lives need not be lived according to a particular formula and, indeed, that there are many different forks in the road. I have nothing against marriage, but I also believe that it is not an essential condition for happiness in all cases.

Mrozek’s formulaic approach to attaining marital bliss is not only grossly heteronormative, it is out of touch with reality.

Let’s say we ask some “young people” if they would one day like to visit Paris. This seems like a pleasant enough idea, so 90% of them reply in the affirmative. Fast-forward thirty years. According to Mrozek’s model, all those who have not visited Paris are somehow unfulfilled. Never mind those who visited Paris and had a terrible time. Never mind the guy who has chosen to visit Rome, Taipei, Antarctica and Moscow instead. Never mind those who decided that maybe visiting Paris doesn’t fit their lifestyle or needs anymore. Paris or bust!

I say this simply to illustrate that the idea on which Mrozek bases her identification of a problem (a problem that she proposes solving with the commodity model) is weak at best. Maybe some of those 90% of young people grow up and change their minds, or they do not find an appropriate partner, or it doesn’t suit their lifestyle, or they are polyamorous or asexual or they live in a country where they cannot legally marry the person they love. But let’s move on to the meat of her piece.

I was actually impressed by the sheer audacity with which Mrozek not only identified, but embraced and argued in favour of, a commodity model for sex. What she refers to as “the sexual economy” is a toxic social practice in which intercourse is a product that women posses (as what Mrozek calls “gatekeepers”) and that men must purchase, ideally by proposing marriage. The problem, as Mrozek sees it, is that women are underselling access to their bodies, and therefore devaluing sex, killing “romance” and ruining everyone’s chances at getting married.

Mrozek – who I am assuming identifies as a woman – herein reveals a certain amount of female privilege in occupying a “gatekeeper” position, but does not appear to realize that such practices hurt women, and they hurt men. And carry some pretty damned offensive implications about sexuality and the desirability of differently gendered partners.

“…men, on average, desire sex more than women and are less discriminating about how they fulfil their ‘demand’ for it. Women, on average, have sex for different reasons than men, ‘supplying’ it in exchange for, among other things, commitment, communication and closeness.”

Looking at sex in this way reflects not only an essentialist conception of gender and sex, but also the idea that sex is a thing (a product or service) as opposed to an activity in which two (or more) people can engage in with each other. Mrozek is not alone in ascribing to this theory: it exists and, sadly, it reflects the lived experience of many men and women.  

South Park basically summed up this model in the ninth episode of their thirteenth season:

“Kyle, every boy pays for kisses. Do you know what I am saying? If you’ve got a girl, and she kisses you, sooner or later you’re paying for it. You’ve gotta take her out to lunch, take her to a movie, and then spend time listenin’ to all her stupid problems. Look, look at Stan right there. [Kyle turns to see Stan, who’s listening to Wendy over at the merry-go-round] Why he’s gotta sit there and listen to her stupid motherfuckin’ problems just ‘cause she kisses him? If you ask me, that’s a lot more than the five dollars my company charges.” – Butters

But my point here is that the commodity model sucks, and we should be working against it rather than trying to prop it up. Women should not be expecting – or wanting – to exchange sex for drinks or wedding rings. It’s just a bad way to approach things.

If you think I am wrong, I recommend that you read “Towards a Performance Model of Sex” by Thomas Macaulay Miller. Thomas is a lawyer that blogs over at Yes Means Yes and is a great writer to investigate if you are interested in the problems with the commodity model, or issues of consent, or dynamics in BDSM relationships. Check it out.

In the meantime, let’s get back to Mrozek’s nonsense, shall we?

“For the price of sex to rise, women would have to band together in a cartel of sorts and support one another in waiting longer. This might bring about desired outcomes for many women, like commitment, or marriage or simply a return to courtship, a now anachronistic idea that a man might woo a woman over an extended period of time to prove himself. A Waiting Women’s Cartel might bring back the poetry and roses, so to speak. The current sex economy does not harm women who are happy to have a liberal sex life. It harms women who have higher standards to start with, because suddenly they are competing in a marketplace where the price of sex is decidedly lower than they would ever pay, and men are aware of this.” [Emphasis supplied.]

In this model, not only do women not enjoy sex for reasons similar to men, the bodies of men have no value. If sex is something that men purchase from women with commitment and wedding rings, then we are saying that physical intimacy with a man is devoid of pleasure and value, that women are prized for their bodies and men for their material wealth. We need to fight this because it hurts everybody. The worst part is that Mrozek seems to think that this way of looking at things is “actually empowering”.

Let’s begin by looking at how the commodity model is harmful and hurtful to men, beyond the repulsive, obvious fact that it means men are expected to shoulder the financial burden in all potentially sexual relationships.

1. It promotes body shame and low self-esteem in men.

If women possess sex and men must buy it, then men’s bodies have no value and their bodies are not sources of pleasure or objects of desire. Hugo Schwyzer, one of my favourite masculinity issues writers, has on several occasions written better than I ever could about this problem.

We raise boys to believe that their bodies are dirty and gross. The female nude is beautiful, we’re told by our culture, while the male nude is awkward. The penis is an object of fear and derision, disgust and ridicule. And while porn in its ubiquity teaches women that men are aroused by close-ups of female genitalia, men grow up with a sense that their penises are valued only for what they can do (stay hard and get the “job done”) and not for how sexy they look.

This cruel – and inaccurate – treatment of the male body can lead to toxic behaviour born out of the very understandable and human desire to be found attractive for reasons other than performance or status. In a piece related to the one quoted above, Schwyzer discusses how this shaming of men’s bodies and rejection of women’s capacity to be aroused for purely sexual reasons can contribute to infidelity and sexual violence. And it’s true.

Even many men who are wise in the world and in relationships, who know that their wives or girlfriends love them, do not know what it is to be admired for their bodies and their looks. They may know what it is to be relied upon, they may know what it is to bring another to ecstasy with their touch, but they don’t know what it is to be found not only aesthetically pleasing to the eye, but worthy of longing.

The very real hurt and rage that men often feel as a result of having no sense of their own attractiveness has very real and destructive consequences. It’s not women’s problem to solve; it’s not as if it’s women’s job to start stroking yet another aspect of the male ego.

The answer lies in creating a new vocabulary for desire, in empowering women as well as men to gaze, and in expanding our own sense of what is good and beautiful, aesthetically and erotically pleasing.”

2. It dismisses the emotional needs of men.

The commodity model asserts that women will exchange sex for financial gain, stability, and emotional fulfillment. It also dismisses the possibility that men can seek similar fulfillment or, if they do, that these are not needs that can be met in a sexual relationship. In the commodity model, men’s feelings are devalued along with their bodies. This reflects a very poor opinion of women (but we’ll get to that) and it reflects a weak, primitive opinion of men, essentially arguing that they engage in relationships in order to gain access to women’s bodies, and that all their needs matter less.

3. It rejects the man’s right to consent.

The idea that men invariably want sex and women are the gatekeepers plays into the idea that men are insatiable sexual creatures. It says that it should never be the man who wants to delay sex. Why are we so keen to tell young people to “wait until they are ready”, and yet turn around and assume readiness on the part of young men? The expectation is that if a man is not actively seeking to purchase sex, there is something wrong with him or there is something wrong with his sexual partner. It says that the woman gets to say when sex happens and the man is expected to be sitting there in slobbering anticipation of her agreement. It supports the idea that men cannot be sexually assaulted because they always want it, and is behind the often appalling treatment of men who choose to report sexual violence. The commodity model assumes consent on the part of the male and ascribes dysfunction (or homosexuality) in the case of its absence.

And that, my friends, is fucked right up. There are many more reasons why the commodity model is harmful to men, but we’ll leave it there for the moment and identify a few reasons that the model is harmful to women.

1. It shames the sexual desires of women.

In a system where women are the sexual gatekeepers who are expected to exchange sex for material gain or emotional fulfillment, women are told that they should seek sex for emotional reasons. It is abnormal or dirty to want sex for reasons that are purely sexual, or both sexual and emotional. Here’s the thing: most people, both men and women, desire sex for a combination of emotional, social, and physical reasons: the commodity model rejects the beauty of human complexity and nuance. It shames women for having sexual desires. Put plainly, ladies, according to the commodity model, if you want it before he does or if you want it more than he does, there is something wrong with you or there is something wrong with him. You are ugly and your sexual desires are dirty.

The idea that women should seek sex for emotional rather than physical reasons is what leads so many women to seek medical treatment for lower back pain when what they are actually experiencing is chronic vasocongestion (what we colloquially refer to as “blue balls” in men). It leads to slut-shaming, devalues sexual interaction with women who actively seek it (or what Mrozek calls women with lower standards or “liberal” sex lives) and contributes to an overvaluation of virginity. It sets up the expectation of unidirectional pursuit or pressure.

2. It rejects the capacity of women to provide emotional, social, and financial fulfillment to their society and to their partners.

In a world where the man provides material wealth and emotional stability in exchange for access to women’s bodies, women are essentially being taught that they are primarily valued for their bodies, and that in a relationship and in life their intelligence, their personality, their skills and interests are a secondary concern. It tells women that they only have value to men as long as they are sexually desirable, and that young women should therefore focus on developing their sexual desirability rather than their other skill sets or personal goals. It tells a woman that all she is expected – or even all that she is capable – of providing to her partner is the honour of opening her legs. And that is simple misogyny.

To conclude, I would like to say that many people may think “well, that’s just the way it is”. But I am of the opinion that if things are going to change, and if we are going to move towards a world where our sexual partners are people with whom we engage in a mutually enjoyable, collaborative activity as opposed to someone with whom we complete a transaction, then we need to challenge people who approach sexuality in this troubling, reductive way.

Let’s move away from metaphors involving free milk and buying cows, and start looking at sexual activities as diverse, complex, and as unique as the individuals that engage in them. It doesn’t matter what 90% of “young people” might muse about marriage — let’s focus on making those futures genuinely fulfilling, happy, and safe.

Alcest

Have some cold, melancholic black metal. You’re welcome.

LOLCAT MONDAY volume VI

cat

funny pictures

The Best Thing EVAR!

Have you seen the latest Bollywood-inspired music video from The Guild? OMG ROFLCOPTER! Click the image below.

And if you are wondering what The Guild is… You’ve been missing out! It is a web series about a group of gamers, starring the ever-lovely Miss Felicia Day. Check it out.

LOLCAT MONDAY volume V

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see more Lolcats and funny pictures

Here come the gender police! Oops, I mean the film critics.

The first two paragraphs of this post contain a short summary of my opinion on Inception, including very slight spoilers. Feel free to skip them if you have not seen the film.

This past weekend, I went to see Inception. I enjoyed it very much, and have recommended it to many of my friends. It is a science fiction action film that is not quite as mind-bending as Memento, which is all well and good because I don’t believe that was what Nolan was trying to accomplish. The film is both highly intelligent and a lot of fun – featuring a very ambitious use of nested narratives that raised even my literary little eyebrows. The cinematography was excellent, and Nolan sticks to his realistic methods and avoidance of non-essential CGI. Obviously the film features a lot of computer-generated special effects to accomplish the impossible, but where it could be done in real life, it was. Remember how they really flipped an 18-wheeler in The Dark Knight? One of my favourite scenes in Inception is when Joseph Gordon-Levitt has to navigate and fight in a hotel with shifting gravity. To film this, Nolan put him in a set that rotated 360 degrees, at eight revolutions per minute. And it looks super cool.

My only criticism would be that the core group of dreamwalkers (or psychonauts, whatever you want to call them) was perhaps too large – it made for little to no character development of the supporting cast members, which featured some wonderful actors. Don’t get me wrong; I think the majority of Leonardo DiCaprio’s work is brilliant and I very much enjoy seeing him in movies. Provided he isn’t haunted by a dead, mentally ill wife in his next film (as he is in Inception and Shutter Island), I will continue to happily pay to watch him on the silver screen. I’m still hoping the Akira rumours come to fruition. So that is my only real beef with the film: characters played by stupendous actors such as Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Cillian Murphy, Ken Watanabe, Tom Hardy and Ellen Page didn’t get enough expansion.

Speaking of Ellen Page, isn’t she great? Well, according to Salon film critic Andrew O’Hehir, she’s genderless. Um, what? Yeah.

I enjoy reading reviews that take a position very different than my own. In this case, O’Hehir thought Inception was a disappointment. His review is thoughtfully critical and well-written; I was cruising through happily until I hit the last two paragraphs. Apparently O’Hehir and I disagree on more than the quality of Nolan’s latest cinematic romp.

In discussing the highly technically nature of some of Inception’s dialogue, O’Hehir refers to Ellen Page’s character Ariadne as a “genderless geek-girl”. He then goes on to contrast her character with that of Marion Cotillard, who he refers to as “one of the foxiest actresses alive”. On the one hand, we have “a smoldering temptress who embodies all the female, erotic energy absent from this universe”, and on the other hand, we have Page’s “prim androgyne”.

Those of you who have not seen Inception may be wondering what makes Page appear so androgynous in the film. Well, I am wondering the same thing. So let’s discuss it a bit. Page’s character is studying architecture at a university in France, and is recruited to be part of DiCaprio’s team. She spends the film in variations of two looks: the casual student look (slacks or jeans, brown heeled boots, loose top and a jacket or sweater, with her hair down in tousled curls) and the professional look (pale grey dress suit, fancy blouse, sensible black pumps, with her hair in a tight bun). It’s worth noting that her hair was styled this way in order to keep things organized during the zero-gravity scenes.  She also briefly dons arctic-camouflaged military-style snow gear.

So is it her clothing that makes O’Hehir consider Page androgynous? Tying a woman’s hair up and putting her in professional or functional attire erases her gender? It is a little more complicated than that, it seems. I think the key here is the contrast O’Hehir establishes with Cotillard’s character. I thought it was very astute of O’Hehir to point out that Cotillard’s character embodies the old femme fatale stereotype, which showcases expressions of female sexuality as threatening, even dangerous. This is a sexist trend you see in films all the time: a woman is overtly sexual on her own terms, not controlled by a man, so said woman is dangerous and/or insane. I was going to start listing other films that do this, but it would be a very long list. The moral of the story is: watch out for sex weapons, boys. So props to O’Hehir for pointing out that Inception creates a sexual female character, and then locks her up because she’s scary… but then oh nooo she’s invading our minds with her sexy powers ahhhhh!

But unfortunately, in making this very good observation, O’Hehir also reveals the root of his gender policing of Ellen Page. Basically, O’Hehir’s framework runs something like the following. Marion Cotillard: fits his definition of attractive, wears revealing clothing, is sexually expressive, is defined as a wife, spends her time pursuing a man… is female. Ellen Page: perhaps does not fit his definition of attractive, wears non-revealing clothing, does not express sexual desire, is defined as an architect, spends her time working… is androgynous.

Basically, it seems to say that because Page’s character remains professional, ties her hair up and is not sexually affiliated with anyone, she is less feminine – genderless, in fact. Even if Page’s character had actively subverted typical notions of masculinity and femininity, it would not make her without gender. Gender is not an Option A or Option B kind of game. Unless someone self-identifies as non-gendered, it is offensive to label them as such. Besides, I have to wonder if O’Hehir makes the same observation about any of the male characters? After all, they dress according to the situation and – with the exception of DiCaprio’s tormented character – do not express themselves romantically or sexually, and remain on task throughout the film, minus one minor flirtation by Gordon-Levitt’s character. Professionalism? Androgyny!

Oh no wait, I forgot. Dressing functionally and staying on task are masculine things. Wearing your hair in a manageable style is a masculine thing. If you are a woman who does these things, you are not really a woman, because without reference to your sexual capacity you might as well be genderless. Right?

Wrong, Mr. O’Hehir, very wrong. Now, I have no problem with androgyny in fashion, film, and everyday life. As any genderqueer individual proves, there is beauty in ambiguity. But I do have a problem with conflating androgynous with not conventionally feminine or not sexual enough. Tilda Swinton as the angel Gabriel in Constantine? That was perhaps androgyny: casting a female to play a male role, binding her chest, emphasizing gender and sexual ambiguity. Very well done, I might add, and totally hot. I love Tilda Swinton. Ellen Page as genderless? Not so much.

I have blogged before (at The Snarky Optimist) about how dumb and potentially harmful it is to clump people into a gender binary. It is offensive to all individuals across the gender spectrum, whether you are male, female, transgender, genderqueer, or whatever.

In my mind, O’Hehir spoiled an otherwise great review by arguing that if you are not sexy, you’re not female. And that is more disappointing than he considers Inception.

LOLCAT MONDAY volume IV

funny pictures of cats with captions

And some lolbunnies, because this one made me giggle:

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see more Lolcats and funny pictures

LOLCAT MONDAY volume III

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