Some Love for The Get Down

In this era of Netflix, stories that wouldn’t have had much of a chance on TV 15 years ago now get their own spotlight and can spawn fandoms overnight. We’ve seen this with Orange is the New Black, House of Cards, Sense8, and Stranger Things. My question is: where’s the love for The Get Down?

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The Get Down takes place in the late ’70s during one of the worst periods for those living in the Bronx. Featuring a cast that is almost entirely black and/or latinx, The Get Down tells the story of the birth of hip-hop and rap in the age of disco despite the depraved conditions of neglected neighborhoods and the unsavory business people get into just to make enough money to pay for rent and food. It has a cheesy love story, a fantastic soundtrack, and hints of upturning the homophobia it has to portray given the time period.

Fans of Hamilton should find plenty to like in this series. Revolution and hip-hop and possibly bisexual characters? You’ve got that here. Supporters of diversity in fiction will find representation that is varied and dynamic. The show touches on racism, on finding a way out of poverty while still trying to maintain a sense of your roots, and on the blossoming of new art despite all the surrounding destruction. In their own respective ways, two of the main characters, Mylene and Zeke, turn to music to make something of themselves. For Mylene, it’s disco and she’s often chastised for all that “white singing.” For Zeke, it’s the emerging underground hip-hop scene, which conflicts with opportunities he receives to succeed in the white world.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the series for me is how Mylene ends up adding a disco flair to a worship song and that single goes from the sanctuary of a church to the sanctuary of a gay club, becoming an anthem for the gay community and solidifying Mylene’s single as a hit. And yes, gay clubs were and still are sanctuaries for many people. They had to be, especially when the church did not allow gay people in their own sanctuaries. Rare was the gay person who heard a message of liberation and freedom for them in a church sanctuary in the 1970s, yet The Get Down has that message reach them anyway. Although gayness only starts to come to the forefront near the end of the first season, I see and hope that the series will explore it more in depth. 1977 is not even ten years after Stonewall. If Dizzee and Thor get a story line that’s just as campy as Zeke and Mylene’s, while also confronting the realities of trying to exist as queer people in the 1970s, then that’ll be yet another untold story brought to life.

I also hope, but won’t necessarily hold my breath, that religion will get a more dynamic portrayal. Yes, the ultra-fundamentalist Christian pastor father narrative creates a lot of drama and tension, but I’m quite tired of that being the only type of Christianity I ever see in media (which is why I use progressive Christianity in my own writing). The show’s creators have some alternative religious narratives to choose from, such as the United Church of Christ’s growing acceptance of and compassion toward LGBT people in the 70s. Of course, as I’ve expressed several times in the past, the comfortable narrative to go with is the conservative one.

Even so, The Get Down is just a fantastic story. It’s a bit over-the-top at times, which is fine by me as an anime fan, but it totally deserves just as much love and fandom as so many other series have right now. Part of it is that the show was only released a month ago, but I do hope the love picks up some steam.

On Loving Rarity and Unlearning Internalized Misogyny

I fully realized/accepted during BronyCon 2016 that Rarity is my favorite pony.

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Technically, I more or less knew this last year and it should be obvious given that I spent a good five minutes talking about her in my 2015 panel. However, I still maintained that I didn’t really have a favorite pony.

At first, this choice seems a bit strange. After all, I’m not particularly feminine in my daily life nor do I aspire to be. I’m not a seamstress. I don’t care about the latest fashion trends. I don’t have a posh accent.

No, I’m nothing like Rarity unless perhaps we’re talking about generosity and loyalty to friends.

So how the hecky is she my favorite pony? Those who know me best would expect Applejack or Rainbow Dash or Twilight Sparkle to be my pick because I’m more like them than any of the others.

But for me, this turned out not to be about who I most identify with, but rather who is the hardest to love and who helps me unlearn internalized misogyny. The answer is Rarity.

According to survey results from the Brony Study team in 2014, Rarity is in last place as a fan favorite. I understand why. Her character design screams femme fatale and she certainly has her moments of being utterly insufferable.

I mean, I think she’s adorable and charming, but I digress.

Growing up, I dissociated myself from anything extremely feminine whenever I had the choice and whenever I wasn’t trying to be semi-attractive in a vain attempt to have my life follow the promises of compulsory heterosexuality. I thought Barbies were cool for a second, but most of the time I hated them and instead chose to play with Legos, Pokemon, dinosaurs, race cars, and stuffed animals. I created epics where any female characters who were like Rarity were villains, homewreckers, or stupid because that’s the message I internalized early on.

I hated girly things. Hated them. I knew that I wasn’t stupid or rude or bad, so I didn’t want to look like someone who was. When it came to the dichotomy between girl next door and femme fatale, I wanted to be on the protagonist’s side.

As I got older, I started adopting some aspects of traditional femininity because I chilled out a bit and because I really, truly believed that my life would become the youth group dream: meeting a nice, Christian man and having 2.5 kids raised in a strong, Christian home.

That dream unraveled in many ways, but stayed the same in some others. I’m not gonna get into that now. The point is that feminine expression became something that I just grew used to and accepted as something I just had to do eventually. A lot of it wasn’t so bad when I tried it.

But I don’t think I ever dealt with that internalized hatred against all things feminine.

Then along came My Little Pony, which my childhood self would never have touched with a ten foot pole. All it took was my roommate showing me the first episode of the pilot and I was hooked. This show had a story! It reminded me of Sailor Moon!

And it had a squad member who was extremely girly.

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However, I realized that Rarity carries herself differently than most characters like her. In fact, everything about Rarity is nuanced and it’s easy to miss those nuances if we dismiss her too quickly.

In the season 1 pilot, Rarity is confirmed as the element of generosity when she gives Steven Magnet her tail to replace the side of his mustache that had been torn off. At first glance, this seems like a pretty weak way to show generosity since it’s so grounded in fretting over outward appearance. However, I don’t think Rarity or Steven Magnet’s particularities about their appearance comes from being insecure or having self-esteem issues. Instead, I see their particularities as specific expressions of identities that they are quite comfortable with. Rarity knows who she is as an artist and an individual. Her fabulousness on the outside is an outpouring of the fabulousness on the inside. She gets upset when her mane isn’t coiffed because the outer self is not accurately representing the inner self.

How do we know that Rarity has such a strong sense of self and that the dresses and makeup are not impermanent ways of creating self-confidence where none exists?

Well, I think the answer is that Rarity is posh despite her family.

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Neither her parents nor Sweetie Belle are as flamboyant in their dress or mannerisms as Rarity is. The family isn’t at the top of Equestrian society nor do any of them show signs of wanting that life, so where did Rarity get it from? Perhaps she’s rebelling against an uncouth and mediocre upbringing. This could be why she and Applejack clash so much at first. Yet to distinguish oneself so much from one’s family suggests a powerful and secure sense of identity.

So I think Rarity very much knows who she is and she has very specific ways of declaring that to the world. This doesn’t mean that she never struggles with confidence issues–look at that whole Trenderhoof thing.

What’s refreshing about that episode, at least, is that the “desirable” version of femininity is the practical, worker type that Applejack exhibits. Many other times, when a girl in the TV show or movie is changing how she looks to impress a boy, she does so by becoming more traditionally feminine. Rarity tries (terribly) to become the opposite of herself for someone besides herself. That is among many reasons why her attempts are so laughably bad. Another is that her self as a fashionista is too strong to be contained. That inner fabulousness will always exert itself.

That inner fabulousness may also be why Rarity does things like choose the perfect hat for a stranger without being asked. On one level, it could be an intrusion (no one asked you, Rarity!). On another, it could be that Rarity perceives and inner fabulousness in everyone and constantly looks for ways to bring that out. Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes she gets too caught up in playing by the rules of Equestrian high society (or helping others to play by those rules) that she forgets to focus on inner fabulousness.

Maybe all of this only makes sense to me, but that’s okay. I’m still not that feminine in my gender expression and probably won’t be for a lot of reasons (unless it’s 100 degrees outside or I’m in a wedding party), but I love this idea of not being particularly feminine myself and yet loving a very feminine character. It compels me to reject the tendency to roll my eyes and dismiss those girly girls.

The Gospel of Bronycon

This past weekend, I attended my second Bronycon as a panelist. I reunited with my teammates from last year and we presented a panel called “Cutie Marks and Branding: The Importance of Social and Mythological Identity Formation Among Friends.” The turnout was great and we got overwhelmingly positive feedback on our presentation! One person even said ours was the best panel they’d been to at the con up to that point.

 

The panel covered the very, very broad topic of identity. Brian Newby began with providing basic definitions of identity and of “normal” vs. “deviant.” Bill Ellis then explored identity in a mythological sense, particularly with the heroes and villains of MLP. I grounded these ideas in cutie marks as an exploration of identity within the show itself (in other words, basically using a New Criticism approach) and then looked at what happens when we fans bring our own understandings of identity to the show as we watch it (i.e., Reader Response Criticism), specifically in the case of “Brotherhooves Social” and the discussions around it being helpful/harmful trans representation. I’ll add a link to the video recording once it’s available.

During the panel, Purple Tinker, who founded Bronycon, got word of the discussion and she started giving away pride flags at her booth in the vendor’s hall. Stay tuned for a guest post from her about this topic!

I did a couple last-minute things as I finalized my portion of the panel and the result is that I lowkey took y’all to church. First, I included this slide:

A Powerpoint slide says, "No matter who you are or where you are on life's journey, you are loved."

This is a slight modification of a common refrain in the United Church of Christ, which goes, “No matter you you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.”

I felt that this message was in line with all of the affirmations I heard throughout the weekend. “You are important. You matter. You have a community here. You are not alone.” All of these were spoken in the face of struggling with suicidal tendencies, recovering from addictions, healing from bullying, and so many other hurts.

The second way I lowkey took y’all to church was by leading the audience in singing a modified version of “This Little Light of Mine.” We sang “This Cutie Mark of Mine,” which makes perfect sense for the panel topic and the MLP fandom as a whole.

If only we had a Hammond! The closest we got was the neat Gothic choir music they played before the panel began (if it were up to me, I’d have gone with Kyrie Eleison).

However, I saw so many other examples of the gospel at work over the weekend and it honestly seems like another instance of God working with and through the least likely and least “qualified” communities.

We all know that My Little Pony has a bad reputation specifically because of bronies. Sometimes, there’s this sense that no upstanding feminist would bother with the series or the fandom because there’s always a brony who’s misogynistic and/or creepy and the most feminists ought to do is point out the fact that he’s a brony to explain that he’s a misogynist.

I’m not dismissing criticisms of misogyny within the fandom or ignoring the problems folks have with giving more attention to the shock value/transgression of men liking ponies than to all the awesome female empowerment the show has to offer. In fact, this is why I talk about this series through my experience as a woman and focus more on what it does for girls/women. Plenty of folks talk about bronies redefining masculinity and while I have no problem with that discussion, I do feel like people often stop the conversation at what the show does for bronies and what bronies do for the show. And I get it. It’s not as weird for me to like My Little Pony because I’m a girl, hence why the whole girl empowerment aspect isn’t as sensational.

As with any fandom, there’s a lot of crap that makes people say, “why would you associate yourself with these people?” That’s a big reason why I typically don’t get deep into fandom drama. Yet as a Christian, I’m quite used to loving and being involved in something with a terrible reputation. Yes, there are unsavory aspects of the MLP fandom. Maybe some unsavory things happened to some people at Bronycon. I can’t dismiss that possibility, but this is what I saw:

I saw Tara Strong, who voiced your entire childhood, give a signed Derpy plushie to a girl who flew in all the way from Belgium and had been struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts due to bullying–to the point of needing professional help. Tara invited the girl and her sister on stage and told her she was beautiful, loved, cherished–all of these affirming things. When she handed over the Derpy plushie, she said she chose Derpy because Derpy isn’t perfect, but everyone loves her anyway.

I saw a young man crying while standing in line for the microphone at the bullying Q&A panel. Another young man standing in front of him held him for the longest time. A middle-aged woman rubbed his back. A Princess Celestia cosplayer rose from her seat to give him a hug.

I saw a panelist pause and try to gather himself while sharing his experiences with alcohol addiction and how My Little Pony approaches the topic of recovery.

I saw over $27,000 raised for charity.

I saw a teary-eyed vice con chair describe attendees who had gathered in the main lobby to prepare care packages for the homeless around the convention center. I’ve seen this happen at church conferences, but never fandom conventions.

I saw the last few minutes of an accessibility panel where people shared creative ideas on how to make even loud events like the rave party more accessible to attendees with noise sensitivities. I’m sure there were many other great ideas as well.

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I saw a Princess Celestia and a Princess Luna cosplayer read letters written to their characters over the course of the weekend. Some letters rehashed hilarious memes. Others told the saddest stories.

“Dear Princess Celestia and Princess Luna, my best friend died five years ago. I was at a pony convention when I found out. I still struggle with feeling alone.”

“Dear Princess Celestia and Princess Luna, this world is full of scary things. Cops killing people. People killing cops. I wish you could come to our world to teach us more about friendship. Signed, nobody important.”

To which the Princess Luna cosplayer emphatically replied, “You are very important. Every. single. one of you.”

For all of these reasons, I understand why so many people feel like the MLP community is their home and conventions like Bronycon their sanctuary. I know how freeing and healing it is to find that second family. I’ve found mine at my church, which makes me a rare case among people my age.

Even so, I strongly believe that all works like what I described above are God’s works. God is present through all things and meets us where we are. That includes people of little or no faith who also face constant misunderstandings about their views and yet have found a community in the MLP fandom.

What can the church learn from these happenings at Bronycon and vice versa? What would it look like for these two very different communities to work together? Joint service projects built into the con schedule that attendees could choose to sign up for?

It’s funny because while I was happy to be going to Bronycon this weekend, I was also bummed that I’d be missing church. Instead, God reiterated the theme of UCC General Synod 2015:

Grace in unexpected places.

On Narratives and Hate Crimes

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Whenever systemic sins rear their ugly heads and people die, there are narratives that spin around in our minds and on social media. The stories we tell ourselves, more often than not, perpetuate fear and otherization. In the case of the Pulse shooting, they also revive age-old narratives of death as divine justification. They create narratives of feigned support from people who, on a regular day, don’t care about LGBTQ+ people or actively work to exclude them from churches, jobs, bathrooms, and other spaces we occupy in modern life. The difference between narratives calling this a terrorist attack and those calling it a hate crime are already implicit. We can sense where the dividing line falls.

But the complete narrative is much more complicated than that, isn’t it? What happened at Pulse was both a terrorist attack and a hate crime. Regardless of who the perpetrator is, I consider all mass shootings terrorist attacks.

Yet we have our narratives at the ready to respond to the aftermath of anything. As a writer, I understand the power of words, of narratives. It’s one reason why I enjoy analyzing fiction so much and why so many people care about diverse representation in media.

Some people now, in telling their narratives, would want me to hate Muslims. These folks are often the same ones who advocate for bathroom laws and misquote Scripture at me, my friends, and my church family. Others, in telling their narratives, are placing the bulk of the motive for this incident on homophobia as expressed through the Christian right. As more details come in, it’s clearer that the shooter had sympathies for a distorted view of Islam.

Whatever the specifics, this incident brewed from and is processed through warped religious ideologies that hate LGBTQ+ people. These ideologies have narratives of their own that rest deeply in the heart.

Even in times of relative calm, we repeat and absorb narratives. We get so good at processing them that we can make any incident fit into the same categories. And one overarching narrative through all of this tells of a permanent divide between faith and queerness.

The cover picture for this post is a juxtaposition of two magazines I bought at the grocery store one week. The headlines and layout on the Time magazine article suggest that there are two opposing sides: the religious and the queer. You’re either on one or the other–a simple narrative through which to process and navigate the world.

Even among more accepting folks, this narrative appears in innocent ways. A while back, I was talking with a coworker about relationships and stuff and I mentioned how I’d only date a Christian (I have several reasons for this that I won’t get into at the moment). She, in jest, replied “Oh, haha, you like ’em pure?” It’s hilarious because let’s just say that my love life is still a dream of youth group ethics.

So I had to explain that I was serious, but what had happened in her head was that this narrative of queer or religious embedded itself in her mind. She apologized profusely. A member at my church often notes that he found more acceptance of his gayness in church than acceptance of his Christianity in the gay community. Parsing these two deep sources of identity simply does not reflect the whole picture.

The second magazine details the life and ministry of Jesus, and does a pretty good job of explaining how he radically challenged the society of his day. Jesus is also often rendered into a simple narrative–conservatives and progressives do this in their own ways.

What happens when we settle on our simple narratives? Whether they’re about Jesus or marginalized peoples or any of the -archies and -isms we deal with on a daily basis, we often find ourselves turning to the same stories. This trickles from and stems to the fiction we consume and create. It’s all connected. It’s why Orphan Black fans are so invested in what happens to Delphine. It’s why Steven Universe fans love Garnet. It’s why Korrasami rendered so many viewers to tears.

LGBTQ+ people particularly can never neatly fit into establishes narratives. It’s been the nature of the movement in tacit and metaphorical ways to highlight undefinable existence. There will always be someone whose narrative diverges.

May we strive continuously toward diverse narratives that challenge the stories we tell ourselves in fiction and reality.

Donation link in support of Pulse victims.

Showbread is Showdead: Raw Rock Kills One Last Time

During my college days and ever after, three bands have had a tremendous impact on my theology: Showbread, Thrice, and mewithoutYou. Thrice bowed out for a while, but came back with another album recently. mewithoutYou shows no signs of slowing down. But Showbread has bid us all a radically fond farewell, killing us one last time with raw rock (amen).

This post is coming six months after the album’s release, largely because I stopped paying attention to or looking for updates. These guys had a phenomenal run and their later work became ever more explicit about their Christian anarchy. This final album makes these views as plain as can be in some respects, particularly in the track “Raw Rock Theology.”

burn down their gods

defy their king

no flag, no idols

one king of kings

In their vision of anarchy, the kingdom (or kin-dom) of God replaces the hierarchies and powers of nations and “kings” of all types who currently run the world. Jesus reigns above all of these and his ways, when truly followed, provide a glimpse into an eschatological future where oppression, despair, and suffering are no more.

Showbread’s final album tears down everything and ends, as expected, with a soft song that calls us to “follow Jesus with your heart and love Him every way.” Most of their albums since No, Sir, Nihilism is Not Practical have done this. Showbread dares to say that the only just system is God’s love. All other structures are born of sin, corruption, and idolatry.

Showbread is also critical of Christianity’s coziness with American patriotism. “I’m Afraid That I’m Me” from Cancer has some of the most powerful imagery in their discography regarding this issue.

lately i have found frustration among the incongruence
a movement of peasants and pacifists drowning in patriotic affluence
i feel as though i should do something but i’m staggered by the ramifications
they’ve baptized the empire into the church and heralded its sanctification

And a bit later in the song.

“blessed are the meek” succumbs to “might makes right”
“turn the other cheek” succumbs to pre-emptive strike
“love your enemies” is fossilized beneath the frozen tundra
and “blessed are the poor in spirit” is devoured by “God bless America”

you file the children into the classrooms, make them stand and say an oath
and when we ask “should i love God or my country?”
you smile and tell us “both.”
we’ve hidden the God we claim we serve and driven him beneath the floorboards
but i can still hear this still, small voice
and i can’t take it anymore

Showbread’s music is unapologetically critical and disturbing. It challenges listeners, especially those of Christian faith, to truly examine what it is we believe about God, country, following Jesus, and navigating through a chaotic world. Some could very well come to different conclusions, but these songs at the very least awaken people from complacency and prompt debate, discussion, and reflection–active faith, rather than passive faith.

Each album since The Fear of God has personally challenged me, especially since my introduction to Showbread was their poignant concept album Anorexia/Nervosa. The lyrics are uncomfortable and depressing. It often takes me several plays to unpack and understand what, exactly, they’re saying and how I answer their challenges.

Rather than explain my beliefs in light of what they raise (I don’t think I could fully do so anyway), I’ll just share my favorite songs from each album.

No, Sir, Nihilism is Not Practical (2004)

 

Age of Reptiles (2006)

Anorexia/Nervosa (2008)

These albums will always be my favorite of Showbread’s work and simply sharing the songs here doesn’t do them justice because there’s a story that you must read along with them. You’ll need to purchase physical copies to do that because I don’t think they come with lyric booklets on iTunes.

Anorexia was the first album I had ever listened to that made me cry.

The Fear of God (2009)

Who Can Know It? (2010)

Cancer (2012)

Showbread is Showdead (2016)

Never break. Never die.

Amen.

Queer Life and Death in Cartoons and TV Shows

The Internet has been abuzz lately regarding the “Bury Your Gays” trope, escalated by several popular TV shows killing off queer characters, particularly women, and adding to this larger idea that relationships between queer women are unstable at best and tragic at worst.

A lot of people are currently criticizing The 100 and Orphan Black for killing off major queer characters and making their partners suffer. I know nothing about The 100 except for what I’ve read about that one character’s death and how it’s angered many viewers. However, I will say that I was previously a bit interested in watching the show. Now, I probably won’t because I’m quite tired of queer female relationships–when they’re shown at all–being tragic, petty, or unstable. I’m not keen on getting into a show already knowing that that’s what’ll happen. I’m sure The 100 is phenomenal in many other ways, but this turn of events makes me hesitant. Orphan Black is a different story for me because I’ve been a fan of the show from the very beginning, so I didn’t know going into it that there would be queer representation at all nor did I know what would happen to Delphine at the end of season 3 (however, I don’t think she’s really dead). I’m invested in the story for many other reasons besides Cosima and Delphine, but I can completely understand why some people have dropped the show and others who maybe hadn’t seen it yet might not be interested anymore.

When I reflect on queer representation that I’ve come across, I find that there are more positive examples in cartoons (and maybe anime) than in live action TV shows or movies, especially mainstream ones. Part of this is certainly differences in the type of audience. Cartoons in the West are generally aimed at younger audiences and along with that comes particular ideas of what’s appropriate and not appropriate for kids. Queerness for a long time has been deemed “not appropriate,” hence why there are only a handful of recent cartoons that make queer relationships more explicit. On the flip side, tragic death, drugs, and excessive blood and violence are also generally deemed not appropriate for children’s media.

This could be why queerness, when it’s clearly presented in cartoons, is much more positive than it is in live action shows, including those that explore queerness in depth.

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I’m going to pick on The L Word, which for the longest time was touted as the quintessential lesbian show. Just about every queer woman under 40 has seen it or at least knows what it is. I watched the entire series several years ago and I enjoyed it, but all of the characters are so terrible to each other in their relationships. All of them. Every single one. They cheat on each other, they lie, they break promises, and some eventually set out to ruin others’ lives. All of this is the stuff of great drama, so The L Word is really just doing what its genre does best, but subsequent TV shows haven’t seemed to step away from this. Orange is the New Black is also pretty gay, but Alex and Piper, as cute as they are together, basically exhibit the same selfish toxicity that’s evident in The L Word. I had similar frustrations with the first season of Transparent. I generally liked the show, but hated every character except Ali and Maura. They’re all selfish, terrible people, including the token lesbian couple that comes into being through breaking up marriages.

I see almost the opposite in cartoons. I’ve discussed Korrasami at length on this blog and noted many ways in which they have a stable, supportive relationship. Marceline and Bubblegum from Adventure Time are also getting back to that level (though they have a lot to work through and Marceline is also the Angst Queen). Ruby and Sapphire from Steven Universe are a great example of a committed couple that works through their problems. Sure, they have conflict, but they would never cheat on each other or hurt each other in ways that I’ve seen queer women do in live action TV shows.

Of course, presenting cartoons as full of entirely positive queer representation and live action shows as full of entirely negative ones reduces the issue too much and is inaccurate. Carmilla mostly shows Hollstein as happy together, but even when they’re not, it’s not because Laura or Carmilla cheat or hurt each other on purpose. Their conflicts typically come from Laura’s hero complex and Carmilla’s survivalist instincts. On the other hand, most queerness I’ve seen in anime is subtle, stated but not explored much, or tragic (Kill la Kill and Revolutionary Girl Utena come to mind).

Why is any of this a problem? Isn’t drama and death just part of good storytelling? Of course it is, but we have to remember how influential media is. Someone who’s never met queer women before can watch all of these shows and come away with an ill-informed notion about how these relationships work in real life. I know so many people who live and love nothing like the women in The L Word or other shows (at the same time, I know people who relish in that exact sort of drama, which gets into a different issue of how much queer media affects our actual behavior).

Fiction is powerful. If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t be a writer. Therefore, it’s always a good exercise to examine these sorts of tropes and trends and ask if the story must always play out this way. I don’t believe it does. I think there are so many other ways to tell stories about queer relationships, but it’s easy to get stuck in the same patterns.

The Passion’s Surface-Level Treatment of Holy Week

 

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Over the past few months, NBC and Fox have experimented with airing live theater performances. First came The Wiz Live, then Grease, and now The Passion, a copy-paste of the Holy Week story into the 21st century.

The Passion narratives in the gospels recount Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem through all the well-known scenes of his last days–the Last Supper, the garden of Gethsemane, Judas’ betrayal, the trial by Pilate, Jesus’ death, and the Resurrection. It has all the elements of great drama and has been put to stage and film for almost as long as those mediums have existed.

The last Passion adaptation to gain widespread cultural attention was Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, so I was intrigued when I first saw the commercials for a new adaptation in this “live” format. Unfortunately, The Passion is a disjointed mess. There’s more MCing and interviewing than actual story. I found it difficult to be fully engrossed in the story when we kept cutting in and out of the narrative to Tyler Perry on stage and the person-on-the-street interviews. Both aspects, for me, disrupted the flow and suspension of disbelief. Sure, you can make the argument that the story is Holy Week in today’s world, meaning the news media would be all over it, but that aspect would’ve been more effective if these interviews actually expounded on what’s going on with Jesus and the disciples.

For example, they could’ve set it up so that the interviewer asked questions of the “multitudes” gathered in the city about the things that Jesus preached. You’d have some interviewees who heard the Sermon on the Mount and give their accounts of that. Obviously, it would have to be scripted and worked into the larger story, but such an approach could’ve made that interview part work better with the rest of the show.

What we do get of the story–scenes of Jesus with his apostles or the apostles alone–are little more than music videos of great singers doing great covers of popular songs. I laughed when Judas started singing “Bring Me to Life,” if only because Internet jokes about MySpace and the 2000s are never far from my mind. Other than that, the characters weren’t well-developed at all and I feel like if I didn’t already know the gospels, I wouldn’t have understood the characters. We never see Jesus preach before a crowd or do any of the things that pissed off the police enough to arrest him.

The musical selection is among many creative choices that I disagree with. I understand wanting to make a Christian story as appealing as possible to a mass audience, but I think making the soundtrack covers of songs, some with vaguely religious language, obscures the message more than amplifies it. It also adds more fuel to the whole “Jesus is my boyfriend” criticism of contemporary-styled Christianity given that many of the songs covered are love songs. The Imagine Dragons number between Judas and Jesus is one exception. I thought that was fitting because the song has lots of relevant imagery and making it a duet added a new meaning to it.

Just because I love me my hymns and organs doesn’t mean my issue with the music is a mere traditional vs. contemporary criticism. I just don’t think most of the songs the production team chose help to expound on what’s going on theologically or interpersonally. Sure, some numbers definitely flip the usual meaning of the song, especially when Peter covers Hoobastank (which certainly creates space for “Jesus is my boyfriend” headcannons). However, most of the time I thought the songs were a stretch or a distraction. Jesus “calling all angels” in the garden doesn’t make much sense to me because the garden scene is so focused on Jesus crying out to God, specifically, not angels. That song would’ve fit better coming from one of the disciples, probably after Jesus’ death.

In all honesty, I think the show would’ve been much, much better if they just did original music. Hymns done in the style of contemporary music also could’ve presented some theological ideas or reactions, but they could’ve been more alienating to an unchurched mass audience.

My other large criticism is the social commentary or lack thereof. Again, without the narrative context of why and how Jesus pissed off the authorities, viewers of The Passion entirely miss the political subversion that Jesus enacted. For example, Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey through a back gate was a direct affront to the Roman state and that level of understanding just isn’t present in this modern rendition of the story. The message of the Gospel is radical, both personally and systemically. The Passion seemed to play it safe, sticking to a very surface-level presentation focused on the personal aspect of Jesus, sin, and everything that happened during Holy Week.

Despite all my criticisms, The Passion obviously reached and blessed thousands of people. God speaks in many ways and just because this particular way didn’t jive with me doesn’t mean that it’s terrible from a presenting-the-basic-tenets-of-Christianity perspective. There are certainly people out there who can’t even begin to hear anything religious unless they perceive it as non-threatening. For such people, the musical decisions may make perfect sense and the lack of political overtones may have made the story easier to grasp. They’re a way to connect “safe” pop culture or individual experiences to something they see as unsafe, exclusive, or even abusive. So if this prompts people to contemplate God, then it’s done its job as an icon. And like every icon, its effectiveness is up for interpretation.

Her Story Explores Intersectionality in LGBTQ Communities

HerStory_Logo.gifThe beautiful thing about web series is that they’re short and easy to watch in one sitting. They’re also increasingly marking themselves as spaces where underrepresented stories are told. Such is the case with Her Story, which you can watch in about an hour.

Her Story is about trans women with actual trans actresses playing the parts. Violet and Paige navigate the complications of relationships old and new. Violet struggles with viewing herself as a real woman, especially since she also likes women. Paige struggles with finally meeting a man who seems to like her for everything that she is, something she hasn’t experienced in years.

In its short six episodes, Her Story explicitly addresses the problem of transphobia within queer communities. Lisa, a friend of Violet’s love interest Ali, is the straw TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist) who deliberately misgenders trans people and encourages outdated notions of queer womanhood among her group of friends with her comments (e.g. the idea of “gold star lesbian”). Ali comes to both Violet’s and Paige’s defense multiple times throughout the series, but her ignorance about trans issues is rooted in lack of exposure rather than hostility. And it’s perhaps that lack of exposure that’s easier for audiences to relate to. Lisa is rude and brash and clearly doesn’t care about fundamental respect and protection of other queer people (like not outing someone). She’s obviously the person you don’t want to be.

But Ali’s lack of exposure–or her unawareness of trans people’s existence at other points in her life–is a quieter issue, but an issue nonetheless. She assumes that she hasn’t known any trans people and therefore she didn’t need to know much about them. Meeting Violet, and then falling in love with her, teaches her (and the audience) a lot.

Race, though not at the forefront of the series, does come up toward the end of the season when Paige confronts Lisa. There are also hints of her struggles in dating life as both a black woman and a trans woman, which would explain why she’s been so closed off and is worried about revealing too much of herself to James. Thankfully for her, James doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.

Her Story has a lot of potential as it both addresses some trans 101 questions while showing how to taper transphobia. It’s certainly worth checking out.

Comparing Matriarchies: My Little Pony and Steven Universe

Both My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic and Steven Universe present matriarchal societies in which women fulfill the most powerful roles in their worlds. In My Little Pony, it’s the alicorn princesses. In Steven Universe, it’s the Great Diamond Authority. Yet both of these matriarchies show vastly different applications of power. Equestria’s matriarchy is more caring and collaborative while the Great Diamond Authority is strictly focused on colonialism and conquest.

Reasons why these two systems are so different vary. Some of it certainly has to do with the show creators’ intentions and the target audience for both series (Steven Universe, to me, seems aimed at slightly older children than My Little Pony). But a lot of it also has to do with the core ideals each society is built on.

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In My Little Pony, we’re largely made to view Princess Celestia’s rule as peaceful and just, especially as her court expands to Luna, Cadence, and Twilight Sparkle (who then forms a court of her own). The Elements of Harmony and the magic of friendship are the foundations on which everything else is built. In recent seasons, Twilight Sparkle especially has used her status as Princess of Friendship to reveal not just the power of friendship in general, but the power of redemptive friendship. In the Equestria that Twilight Sparkle now continues to shape through her position in this matriarchal hierarchy of alicorns, nothing that causes separation or despair is allowed to exist. If it does, it’s posited as antagonistic, or at least non-affiliated with Equestrian royalty.

This means that justice occurs through this system. Is it challenged at times? Absolutely. Are mistakes made? Of course. Is Princess Celestia a giant troll? Duh. But we don’t see oppression stemming from declarations made in Canterlot or from subtle notions that one race of pony is superior to the other two. Once Luna is free from Nightmare Moon, we don’t see an alicorn who wants to conquer. More recently, Twilight Sparkle’s actions both in the regular universe and in Equestria Girls extends an invitation to those who formerly tried to disrupt the foundation of harmony and friendship. Equestria’s royal matriarchy seems to adequately provide for the safety and well-being of its subjects. Ponies are allowed to live free, independent lives pursuing whatever occupations their cutie marks call them to. There aren’t many prominent examples of super strict class or gender expectations either.

In these ways, My Little Pony presents the opposite of real-life patriarchal structures that we’re more familiar with. It provides a hopeful answer to the question: what does a sociopolitical system not run by men look like? It’s peaceful, harmonious, and just.

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But Steven Universe gives us the opposite answer, or at least a criticism of the idea that simply placing women in authoritative roles typically held by men will necessarily create a more just society. Gems are an all-female alien race, so women naturally appear in every single role from ruler to techy to lackie. We’ve learned from the recent Steven Bomb (and other episodes too) that Homeworld has very strict and specific ideas about which gems are the most important and which are disposable or common. It’s not just that each gem has their own specific role. It’s that these roles seem hardwired in their very physical structures. Rubies are stout and headstrong because they’re made to protect. Peridots are tiny and have large heads partly because they’re adorable goobers, but also because they’re made to be technicians.

So it seems that gems are crafted to fit a particular role in the colonial and industrial Homeworld structure. It’s not 100% clear at this point if the Great Diamond Matriarchs are actually the creators of all gems, but it’s very clear that they run this well-oiled machine of a structure. This matriarchy is built on a foundation of supremacy and conquest. In our own world, we’ve seen these systems play out in the hands of men who had exclusive access to these powerful roles. Steven Universe is showing the same type of system, only with women filling those roles instead. It flips the script, but it also shows that it’s not enough to just change the gender of those in these roles. The meaning of those roles and the structure itself must also change.

Steven Universe gives us plenty of examples of this. Everything the Crystal Gems have done flies in the face of Homeworld’s values. They have left the structure and now defy it. Garnet is an anomaly not just because she’s a fusion, but because she’s a fusion of two different gems, which was unheard of until Ruby and Sapphire accidentally fused. Together, they redefine the purpose and implications of fusing.

Whereas My Little Pony posits that a system with clear hierarchies and traditional structures can be just if the ruling parties build their systems on foundations of redemption and harmony, Steven Universe suggests that justice can only be found outside of such systems. Homeworld structure cannot be redeemed or changed from the inside. Instead, gems must break away from it and dismantle it from the outside. Redemption and harmony are only possible outside of this system, as we’ve seen most recently with Peridot. In Steven Universe, a matriarchy that functions with the same roles we’ve seen in real-world patriarchies is just as harmful for its subjects, showing that keeping the system but swapping the genders isn’t enough of a step to enact actual change or justice.

This is why many feminist theories don’t suggest that replacing patriarchies with matriarchies is the ultimate goal. Those that do may be presenting a utopia of sorts, and while systems run by women certainly could be different than those run by men, there’s no guarantee that they would be the solution to oppression, especially if the power dynamics remain the same.

If there were to be a totally just matriarchy, it might be more like what we see in My Little Pony where all have access to the fundamental power on which the system runs (friendship in this case). Lack of friendship, no space for diversity, and no room for redemption or harmony are the things that threaten this system. When they creep in, we start seeing familiar things like classism (e.g., conflicts between unicorns, earth ponies, and pegasi). Equestria and its systems were more or less established to dismantle those threats rather than embrace them for the purpose of expanding territory or conquering other nations.

So, these two matriarchies give us different implications of women being system-builders, system-runners, and even system-breakers. As both series continue, we might see some more nuances–for example, other gems with high status might start questioning the system or ruling powers in Equestria might continue to become decentralized. Either way, both shows convey interesting explorations of feminine power and agency.

Fanfiction As a Writing Tool

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Most of you know by now that I’m generally a fan of fandom. I do all sort of analyses and I discussed some of the positive things that fandom (specifically fanart and fanfiction) can provide for people in this panel I was on last year.

Fanfiction and fanart allow for exploration of narratives that the cannon stories might not necessarily cover (for good or for ill). A portion of this involves non-cis, non-het, and non-white narratives.

Fanfiction particularly has been a part of my life ever since I started writing when I was somewhere between 5-7 years old (yes, I’m one of those), only I didn’t know it was called fanfiction. All I knew was that I liked The Magic School Bus and The Land Before Time, so I decided to write a story about both. Actually, they work pretty well in a crossover. Later on, I wrote about ThunderCats and then started dipping into original stories, most of which was “friend fiction” (no, not the kind that Tina Belcher writes). I also made up my own Sailor Moon OC and gave her a background story and everything.

Fanfiction is an excellent example of reader-response criticism–filling in the gaps that the author leaves, but it’s also productive in that the person writing a fanfic is creating something in response to consuming rather than merely consuming. About a decade or so ago, writing fanfiction was sort of a dirty little secret and those who write professionally/for a living rarely mentioned it. Today, many authors still place healthy boundaries between themselves and fanfiction, whether it’s fanfiction of their own work or fanfiction that they write. Others are more open about it and even use their real names (or the same pen name) for both fanfiction and their published work.

There are lots of good reasons for setting boundaries with fanfiction, some of them are legal and some of them are personal. However, I think it’s just a reality that more and more writers of my generation and generations to come will get their start in fanfiction. As time passes, it won’t seem like such a weird thing to do.

So what I want to talk about today is understanding fanfiction as a writing tool that helps us develop and tone our craft. Embracing fanfiction as a means of practice might help change the perception of fanfiction among folks in the more professional spheres of writing.

For the record, I do not in any way advocate selling fanfiction unless the work being fic’d is in the public domain OR all of the proper rights have been acquired (this is why we get novel adaptations and spin-offs of movie franchises after all). Additionally, some authors and other creators have clearly expressed that they don’t want people writing fanfiction of their work. A bummer (and frankly an outdated viewpoint to me), but that should be respected. There are literally thousands of other fictional universes to choose from anyway.

Fanfiction Gives You a Template

When you write fanfics, you’re playing in someone else’s world, a world with previously-established characters and rules. Thing like the magic system, the government, and the environment are already figured out. If you post your fanfic online, most of the people reading it will already know those details, so you don’t necessarily have to spend a lot of time explaining them.

For example, if I’m writing a Harry Potter fanfic, I don’t need to include a long paragraph describing what Hogwarts is and how to get there unless it makes sense for the POV I’m using (like if it’s Harry during his first year and he’s still getting used to the magical world). This allows me to focus more on plot and how these established characters react to this new story I’m telling.

Depending on which universe you choose, fanfiction can give you a wide range of character types and personalities to work with, which is excellent practice for any types you have trouble with. If you’re not good at writing original mean characters, writing a fanfic about a mean character that you know can help you get a feel for it. If you’re not good at writing fight scenes with the magic and mechanics of your original world, writing one in a previously-established world can help you with flow and pace.

To be clear, writing fanfiction isn’t laziness. Just because someone writes fanfiction doesn’t mean they’re not creative enough to write original stories or that they should just take their fanfiction and make it original instead because that’s more worthwhile. Though some authors have found some success with scrubbing the bar codes and publishing an original book, that’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about using fanfiction as an exercise in the same way that you might respond to a writing prompt or spend five minutes describing a setting or any other craft exercises you might do.

I started doing Screenshot Sundays on my Tumblr. It’s a simple exercise where you take a screenshot of any movie, TV show, anime, cartoon, or game and write what’s happening in that exact moment. This can include describing the setting and/or getting inside a character’s head.

You can make them short like mine or extend them into longer pieces if you want. The point is to just practice writing and that practice can be more fun with fictional characters that you already like.

If we’re going to spend time consuming stories, we can make it worthwhile by doing something creative in response. It’s a more active way of tying our leisure hobbies with developing our craft.

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