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The Lot of the XX

Cover of "Rob Roy"

Cover of Rob Roy

Last night I began watching Rob Roy. It’s one of those movies I’ve meant to watch for quite a long time and simply hadn’t gotten around to. One thing I noticed was that Jessica Lange‘s performance was superb. Another thing I noticed was that there seems to be a trend in the treatment of women in these hero-legend films.

Let me clarify. I don’t mean treatment in regards to people’s behavior toward them (though that is a by-product of what I mean). I mean the portrayal of them. Their roles. The words that come out of their mouths and the way the writers decide what is going to happen to them. I’ve noticed a couple specific common threads:

1. Family focus: Most of these hero-legends involve some real or perceived threat to the wider scope of the protagonist’s life. The woman is the one who says, “No, your priority is your family.” To which the hero says something about duty and honor yadda yadda, which leads directly into…

2. Sexual violence: Murron in Braveheart is nearly raped by a particularly disgusting English soldier. Mary in Rob Roy is raped pretty brutally by Archibald Cunningham. This is usually used as a plot device to push the hero into the Big Bad Conflict with the antagonist. Murron is killed for even trying to fight back, and Mary screams at Rob Roy’s friend when he says his honor requires him to tell Robert MacGregor, “If I can bear it happening, you can bear the silence!”

Historians doubt the veracity of these claims — whether or not Marion Wallace (renamed Murron for the film) or Mary MacGregor were raped — and to that I would say that I think many people would prefer to think of the past as having some honor, to hope that rape would not have been as commonplace as I think it must have been. They may have dubbed it “ravishment,” but if it’s as common as it is in a time where women can vote, work, and hold public office, I have no reason whatsoever to doubt that it would have been a much more normal occurrence in a time where women were thought to have little intelligence and hardly any rights over their person and livelihood.

3. Martyrs: The women in these hero-legends are often depicted as martyrs. The Princess in Braveheart is a good example — she’s forced to marry Edward the II against her will, and her little form of rebellion is to sleep with Wallace. Murron flat out dies, and Mary has to bear her rapist’s child — yet the men (who generally also die) are considered the heroes and go to their graves only to have history make legends out of them.

The women are made into bait, martyrs, or even stumbling blocks for the heroes. You tell me what is more heroic: leaving your home open to raiders with no protection or being violated and then choosing to bear it in silence to prevent additional violence and the destruction of everything you love. The problem is, the latter doesn’t make for a spectacular film in the Hollywood rite.

This isn’t to say I dislike William Wallace or the legend of Rob Roy MacGregor, only the portrayal of the women in the films about them. We all know that Hollywood takes license with stories that have any basis in history, and it’s that I take issue with.

I would like to see a film where the women are not beaten, raped, and made into martyrs when the heroes are portrayed almost equally in a negative light because of their utter selfishness that destroys their women in its blindness. William Wallace refused to wait to marry Murron against her family’s wishes (which were for the decent reason of wanting to make sure Murron wouldn’t be widowed at an early age due to the rising tension in Scotland), and his carefree amorous glances drew the English’s attention. Rob Roy refused to listen to his wife and protect his home, leaving it open and unguarded when Cunningham arrived to burn it down and violate his wife.

These are both rather poor decisions, but the women bear the retaliation for their folly.

And this is why, since we’re on the topic of Scotland and legends, that I cannot wait for the movie Brave.

Some brilliant person in the Pixar world got the idea (or optioned the rights from a Ray Ban shaded author who is forever too cool for school) to turn the entire above stereotype on its head. Young Merida gets to be the one who wants to change her lot in life — and in her ignorance sparks a curse and has to undo it herself. The formula of a hero not listening to family and thus endangering everyone, then having to fix it? This time Merida isn’t the bait or the martyr, she’s the hero.

Bravo, Pixar. Bravo.

What this post really means, what these stereotypes of women in period films really say, is that growing up I looked around to see female heroes in my movies and TV shows and books and found very few. It was only men being the ones to save the world. In the past twenty years, this has begun to change. Buffy opened the door to it, but it’s really the creators of art that have control over where it goes from here. Having Joss Whedon in charge of The Avengers made me happy — Black Widow was in all ways a superhero — but the Wonder Woman movie couldn’t even get off the ground. It tried, but it ended up flailing around like a little kid in a cape. What does that tell us?

It doesn’t tell us that there’s no story there — it says Hollywood doesn’t think it can sell a female superhero.

So here’s to all of us who write — it’s our duty to show young women female heroes who are complex, strong, and flawed. It’s our job to show them that women are more than martyrs, that our lives have value beyond how we handle sexual violence, and that our voices matter. If we keep writing it, eventually we’ll see it happen.

Let’s change the lot of the XX.

Check out the Brave trailer:


The Chisel and the Mountain

A couple weeks ago, I started the umpteenth rewrite of my first novel. The first several were mostly in vain — I began again and again with no real feedback to help me better the story, characters, or writing, and I ended up making small improvements without affecting the whole.

So I began again last month. Or I should say, “began.”

Oh, I’ve gotten about 5,000 words done. Some of it’s even good. I think. But I’ve been stalling. And I realized today that the reason I’ve been a proprietor of the good old Procrastinapods is that I feel like I’m tackling this:

Upper part of K2

With this:

Image of a steel woodworking chisel.

Tally ho! Image of a steel woodworking chisel. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And I thought to myself, “Self,” I thought, “That’s a damn fine mountain. I think it wants to eat you.”

And then I nodded sagely.

Writers aren’t alone in this dilemma. Not at all. There’s that pile o’ stuff that’s been growing and festering in your garage these ten years. There’s that heap of receipts you keep meaning to organize to itemize your deductions on this  next year’s taxes. There’s re-painting the house, or losing 20 pounds, or finally putting in that flower bed, or learning how to cook when you practically burn water…

…you get the point.

We all have our K2 — some crazy people very literally — and if you’re anything like me, you take a gander at that steep-sided monster of a people-eating mountain and decide you’d much prefer a cuddle with your kitten.

I mean, I've made worse choices.

But imagine how you’ll feel after you conquer K2.

Whatever your mountain, here are some no-nonsense approaches to making it manageable.

Start with a small, attainable goal. Instead of saying, “I’m going to lose 20 pounds in April!” tell yourself that you’ll lose 1.5 pounds in the next two weeks by cutting 200 calories from your daily intake and committing to cardio exercise for the equivalent of ten minutes per day. When you look at the scale two weeks from now, you might even be surprised to be down 2 or 3 pounds.

Make small, sustainable changes. Maybe you can’t sit down and climb K2 in an afternoon. Assuming you’re human, you can’t. You’re not going to clean your garage in a day — but you can create a little grid of the space and tackle say, A1 today. Commit to tackling one square of your grid per week, and then in a couple months, voila!

Don’t beat yourself up. K2 will usually beat you up on your own behalf, so why would you team up with it? That mountain’s a monster. That pile of receipts is just armed and waiting to cover your hands with paper cuts and pour lemon juice on them. Don’t give it a chance. If you miss your threshold goals or skip a week, you can always add a few more receipts a day next week to catch up.

Something-something-marathon-not-sprint-something-something. There. A nice cliche to round it out. When you tackle K2, it will tackle you back and have your back flat on the mat if you run at it brandishing your chisel like William Wallace‘s claymore and screeching, “FREEEEEEEEEEEEEDOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOM!” Like any successful battle strategy, you need to realize that you’ve got the disadvantage. Circle around and slash at the flanks until the flanks are gone — a frontal assault will just look silly until you’ve weakened your mountain a little. And those usually don’t end well.

I’m firing up my chisel today — are you?

Mel Gibson as William Wallace wearing woad.

"And if he were here, he'd consume the English with fire from his eyes and bolts of lightning from his arse." Mel Gibson as William Wallace wearing woad. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Walking the Double Edged Sword

I got an email yesterday from the lovely blogger Kristin. She resides here, and you should check out what she has to say. Her question regarded how I juggle a full-time job (which often sends me into overtime) with writing fiction. Which made me think and ponder and consider, because it used to happen that I worked and didn’t write. And there was much gnashing of teeth.

I want this sword.

The way I look at it, when you’re not paying your bills by writing but have that insatiable chicken pox itch to commit words to paper (or screen), you step out onto a double edged sword.

On one side is a precipitous fall into financial ruin and despair, where your only good phone calls happen when it’s not a creditor who wants your soul in a jar, and where the old adage, “You can’t bleed a stone” becomes something you rattle off without thinking the second someone says the word money. Which can make things a little awkward. The other side of this sword may seem like less of a spiral into despair and ruination, and may even seem cushy and full of candy canes at first. But then you realize your soul is being sucked into a jar anyway because at the end of the day, you are so exhausted that you curl up with Ben and Jerry and double fist Red Velvet Cake and Cinnamon Buns whilst gorging on reality TV as your laptop gathers dust.

I love eating 4,000 calories in one sitting because it doesn't count when your soul's in a jar!

(The pic on the left is actually Clusterfluff ice cream, but pretend it’s Cinnamon Buns. PRETEND, I SAY!)

So what does one do when faced with this conundrum? You could go buy some more ice cream and glue your ass into a cubicle forever until your dreams turn to quarts of flaky dust, or you could quit your job and become the new poster child for starving artist-dom, but I think there can be a better way.

Jar O'Souls Has Yours!

Jobs are hard. They’re especially hard when you hate them. Such was the case for me a couple years ago. I thought teaching was what I should do, because everyone told me I should do it with my history degree. So I tried teaching special ed through a very selective alternative licensure program and didn’t write for a year. I loved my kids, but working 80 hours a week just didn’t do it for me. It’s also really hard to be a good teacher when your biological clock won’t let you sleep before 3 and when getting up early/your job/life causes massive amounts of anxiety that turn 3 into 6 and you have to just go to work and say screw sleep for another day.

Yeah, that didn’t work for me.

Then some crazy lady decided to T-bone my car, bust open the ligaments in my neck, and slam me into bed for six weeks. After some interesting physical therapy and some huge doctor bills and a lawyer (and a few instances of my left arm going numb and tingling), I decided going back to teach for another year plus grad school would be ill-advised. So I quit.

Now I use my $125,000 history degree to better serve people cocktails and beer. This has been a very, very good decision for me. I make enough money to pay my bills and go to my conference in January. And I write every day. Yep. Every day. My soul flits about my apartment and sometimes perches on my shoulder.

The point of all this is to say this: if you need a day job to pay the bills, find one that fulfills you and that you enjoy, or one that you can simply perform and then leave at work. That was what I needed. I needed a job that left me alone when I went home and didn’t come sneaking up behind me while I tried to sleep, whispering in my ear that nothing I could do would really make a difference to my kids.

So if you must work (which you probably must), it is possible to walk that sword. To pay your bills without losing your soul, and to write without collectors coming to steal it. It might take some time (took me four years) to find a way to do this, but it is possible. I don’t plan to work in the service industry forever, but for now it suits me, and sometimes it even gives me ideas. I see familiar faces every day at work, and that is something that rejuvenates me — our regulars are very kind and friendly, and they don’t really try to steal my soul. Well, Kevin might, but he’d probably give it back after playing with it for a while. He’s also the sort of valiant person who offered to fart on my tables if they gave me lip. So all in all, my work environment is pretty pleasant. And when I come home, I write.

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