Almost Adults follows two best friends, Mackenzie and Cassidy, during their last years of college as they grow up and grow apart. Mackenzie comes out as a lesbian while Cassidy navigates her way to independence after ending a serious relationship with her boyfriend. Natasha Negovanlis and Elise Bauman of Carmilla fame star as the main characters, so naturally I had to watch it as soon as it came on Netflix.
I did like this movie. I thought it was funny and I enjoyed the story of two friends accepting that their lives are taking different paths because that’s real–that’s what happens in your last years of college. It’s nice to see Negovanlis’s humorous side since Carmilla is such a broody gay vampire, and her acting chemistry with Bauman is worth the watch in and of itself. Since they played lovers in Carmilla, it’s great to see them pull off best friends in this film.
But given that Almost Adults is about two college kids who are still immature in many ways, there are some aspects of the writing that miffed me or made me roll my eyes.
The film often uses people with disabilities as the butt of a joke, particularly those with mental disabilities. While it shows how ignorant, dense, and selfish the main characters are (especially Mackenzie), it comes across as crass whereas the intention seems to be humor. The same can be said for the possible transphobia in the story Mackenzie tells about her ex-boyfriend. On the surface, it’s intended to be a roast of his genitalia and nothing more (though it again points to Mackenzie’s childishness and is fitting for a character in a film called AlmostAdults), but some of her language is easily coded as transphobic, particularly the whole “it was totally an innie; it was practically a vagina” thing.
There’s also the dig Mackenzie makes at herself for being pathetic because she’s a 22-year-old “virgin,” not only discounting the experiences she had with her ex, but also perpetuating the harmful notion that it’s pathetic to not be sexually experienced by your 20s. This attitude is rampant in queer media and in some queer communities, but I don’t think it does anyone any good. It only feeds people’s insecurities and makes sex a bigger deal than it has to be.
Levi, the stereotypical gay best friend, pressures Mackenzie to come out to Cassidy. Pressuring someone to come out is inappropriate as is shaming them for not coming out. There’s no timeline for this and no one says you have to come out to everyone all at once, which is what Levi seems to want for Mackenzie. At least Mackenzie later stands up to Cassidy for giving her the same bull.
Speaking of coming out, Mackenzie’s disappointment that her parents didn’t make a fuss over her being gay is a bit strange. Sometimes, it seems like she’s being sarcastic, but other times she seems genuinely disappointed that her parents are supportive, like she was mentally gearing up for a big a fight or a dramatic rejection. At least the audience gets cathartic relief from Levi rolling his eyes in the background. Mackenzie’s reaction is perhaps the most revealing of her character: she thrives on some level of tension or drama in her life, and perhaps she believes that her coming out isn’t legit unless she faces rejection from her parents, which is a pretty messed-up way to think, but it again points to her immaturity.
All of these moments of selfishness and immaturity, though, do fit with the point that Mackenzie and Cassidy are almost adults. Of course they’re still childish, selfish, and petty. They have to grow up and get used to their changing relationship.
This film holds up The L Word as its basis for what it “should” be like to be a queer woman given the numerous references to the show (many of which I thought were funny) to the actual plotting and characterization. Even though I enjoyed The L Word (a lot back when I watched it), I wish we could stop using it as the pinnacle on which all other wlw media is based. I get it–it’s a classic and it has its place in LGBTQ media history, but as a result it tends to become definitive for the way real queer women live their lives and what they can expect from relationships. One of the reasons why I enjoyed Carmilla so much was that it doesn’t have this air of “this is how you’re supposed to be a lesbian and this is what your relationships will be like.”
Speaking of Carmilla, the fact that I like Negovanlis and Bauman so much as actresses is one of the reasons why I enjoyed this movie as much as I did. They do have great acting chemistry and I’ll probably watch anything they’re cast for in the future because I’m interested in seeing the different roles they can play. While their characters in Almost Adults aren’t carbon copies of Laura and Carmilla, Mackenzie and Cassidy are pretty similar. Both Mackenzie and Laura have a dorky naivety to them, while Cassidy and Carmilla have this tendency to run away from things (Cass breaking up with Matthew because he proposed, Carmilla for centuries trying not to get attached to the girls her mother has her take). I really hope these ladies don’t get typecast.
So while Almost Adults does, in some senses, depart from typical queer narratives of dramatic coming out stories and equally dramatic relationships, focusing instead on a friendship story, it doesn’t do much to dispel some of the harmful rhetoric of the wider world. Even though I liked the movie and genuinely laughed out loud at many scenes, I think it perpetuates some notions that many wish would just go away.
As I prepared for the sermon I preached at my church several weeks ago, this notion of loving the enemy stayed fresh in my mind and I joked with the youth group that I’d preach about Steven Universe (some of the kids are fans). Both this series and My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic have told us redemptive stories of seemingly unlovable characters which, in my view, express the gospel’s call to radical hospitality.
A million years ago, when I was still in college, I wrote a blog post analyzing Princess Celestia and Princess Luna’s relationship in season 1’s pilot episodes, and how the reconciliation between the two sisters aligns to the classical Christian narrative of redemption and salvation. In this case “redemption and salvation” mean that Luna is healed of Nightmare Moon and is welcomed back into community with Celestia and Equestria at large (although she barely gets any character development after this).
Since season 1, there have been several other character arcs where an evil or unlovable character has not merely been defeated, but welcomed into the friendship of the Mane Six. Discord, Sunset Shimmer, Starlight Glimmer, (The Great and Powerful) Trixie–all of these former antagonists, to some degree or another, get a chance at reformation and are permanently changed after experiencing friendship when no one else would give it. Some characters, like Sunset and Starlight, undergo a more dramatic change than others, but the end result is still that there is room at the table, whether that’s the literal table of Twlight’s court or the figurative table of community.
But being in a community isn’t as simple as accepting the invitation and living happily ever after. Learning how to be a friend is a continuous process, and even the Princess of Friendship herself still has a thing or two to learn, given her severe distrust of Starlight and Trixie’s friendship. Discord struggles with unhealthy, possessive behavior over Fluttershy. Sunset, both in Equestria Girls and the main series, has to overcome her guilt and the stigma of her past. All of these problems surface because being accepted into a community itself is not perfection. It’s an agreement to grow with others, and from what we’ve seen so far in six seasons of My Little Pony, there is nothing that anyone can do among the Mane Six that would permanently oust them from friendship.
This notion of integrating the “unlovable” into a community goes hand in hand with loving the enemy, although in My Little Pony and Steven Universe, it takes a more literal meaning. As I said in my sermon, loving the enemy doesn’t mean that what the enemy does or did is okay. Even though Discord and Starlight Glimmer experience the friendship of the Mane Six, neither that friendship nor their turning points in which they realize the error of their ways sanctifies their past or future actions. Discord gets a stern talking-to when his jealousy of Tree Hugger at the Grand Galloping Gala makes him violent and possessive. Starlight Glimmer continues to make mistakes and sometimes slip back into her old ways as she learns more about friendship. Even though these characters still make mistakes, and their pasts are not entirely brushed to the side, they are still much better off having experienced friendship from those who were once their enemies. If radical friendship had not been extended to them, where would they be? Discord would still be a threat to Equestria and Starlight Glimmer would still be out messing with ancient spells that alter reality. And both characters would still be incredibly lonely.
Steven Universe is perhaps even more intentional with this recurring narrative of love and redemption for enemies. Whereas Twilight Sparkle and the Mane Six seem to attempt friendship as a last resort, Steven reaches a point of embracing and understanding those he conflicts with much sooner. Peridot and Blue Diamond are two notable examples. It takes a while with Peridot, but once Steven decides to open himself up to Peridot and extend his friendship, both the Crystal Gems and the audience begin to change their perception of Peridot. This Homeworld gem who was once the primary enemy is now invited into the family, and the result is that Peridot switches her loyalties to protect Earth rather than destroy it. Equally important is that she now has a community in which she can grow and develop gifts that she didn’t know she had (e.g. the gem equivalent of metal bending). This is because she’s welcomed into a group that lets her break out of the mold she was created for. Is the transition easy? Absolutely not. I’ve written previously about the initial tensions among Peridot and Garnet as Peridot’s Homeworld ideas are challenged at every turn. Currently, Peridot is still figuring out her place within this new dynamic.
Blue Diamond, I’m predicting, will be another such redemption tale, although the consequences will be much more dramatic given that she’s a matriarch and holds formidable power. She is one of the pillars of Homeworld’s society and hierarchical structure, so any change she undergoes that affects the way she rules will undermine what seemed so fix and may very well cause a war.
Yet we’ve also seen in recent episodes that Steven’s tendency to accept former enemies backfires. In “Room for Ruby,” Navey (Navy?) takes advantage of Steven’s kindness, exposing it as naivety to reclaim her ship. Such is the risk of radically and unquestioningly inviting enemies into the community. Situations like these may make us want to keep others at a distance. It’s a constant tension between hospitality and self protection.
Steven also seems to be learning that inviting people (or gems) into the Crystal Gen family does not necessarily mean they’ll genuinely change. Ronaldo doesn’t change. Navey/Navy doesn’t change. Who’s to say that the next gem Steven reaches out to will change or accept the invitation to join his community? Will he become more guarded or still unashamedly attempt to create a welcoming space all around him?
All of these are challenges, dreams, and realities the Church faces and will continue to face. But no matter the outcome, the call is still the same, though that doesn’t make it easy.
One of the several activities that has kept me busy over the last few months is the kung fu and tai chi classes I’ve been taking. Martial arts is currently my only form of exercise; I train hard and feel physically healthier than I have been my whole life.
I had many reasons for deciding to study martial arts, but one of the subtler ones was to improve my writing. Fight scenes and training montages are some of my weak points. I’d get to these sections in my stories and simply not have the language to describe the action I saw in my head nor the experience to write how my characters felt during these encounters. Although I’m still a beginning student, here are three writing lessons I’ve taken away from my training so far.
1. A character with little to no athletic background, training, or prowess will likely not have the endurance or technique to last through a long fight.
This one’s pretty obvious, but I really came to appreciate it and experience it for myself during my first couple months of training when merely doing our warm-up exercises left me exhausted and heaving for air. Adrenaline may give your completely untrained character a temporary boost of power, but that doesn’t mean they’ll suddenly know where to aim on their opponent’s body.
I’m in much better shape now than I was when I first started training and even though my endurance has improved, sparring is the one thing that zaps me of all my energy and leaves me just as winded as warm-ups used to. If your character goes on a journey from untrained everywoman to awesome warrior, do understand that they will probably pass out or come close to it if they train super hard and it really would take constant, daily training for them to get in shape and be proficient with their fists or weapons in a plot with a time crunch.
2. A character going from novice to expert fighter in a relatively short amount of time is pretty unrealistic.
Yeah, it’s a common plot device: such and such magic/fighting technique takes years to master, but there are only six months until The Bad Guy Does Things™. So, the unlikely hero spends their free time training between other plot problems as the big confrontation gets closer and by the time the battle comes, they’re a total badass. Sure, it sounds cool, but it’s pretty hard to believe.
The easiest solution, aside from some insane in-world magic that gives your characters quick power-ups, is to have your characters partially or fully trained from the start. In Avatar: The Last Airbender, Aang only has about a year (maybe less) before Sozin’s comet arrives and the Fire Nation completes their conquest. In that time, he has to learn waterbending, earthbending, and firebending, plus master his other Avatar abilities. What makes Aang’s journey believable, and what makes him able to gain enough proficiency with the other three elements to face Fire Lord Ozai is that he’s already a master airbender. That gives him enough basic fitness, agility, and stances to work with as he learns the nuances of each style.
3. Just because a character can spin a staff doesn’t mean they understand how to apply techniques against a live opponent.
At my kung fu school, we learn empty-handed and weapon forms as well as sparring. As a beginning student, there’s a huge disconnect for me between what I learn in form and what I have to do in sparring. Part of that is because forms might exaggerate a few things to look nice, but another part is that it’s not yet second nature to get the practical application of the techniques I practice in form. The practical applications are there; they’re just not as apparent to me as a beginner (and that’s totally okay).
So if a lot of your character’s training involves them practicing forms or techniques solo, consider that a potential hangup for them would be this disconnect between form and practical application.
Studying martial arts is not only fun, but it’s also given me a lot of personal experience with how my characters might feel as they go through training. I can now think about what my body goes through on a typical day of training and recall details that I don’t think I would’ve considered otherwise like how the outside of my hand feels sore after spinning my wooden short staff a bunch of times or the 900 little things I need to pay attention to as I’m doing tai chi.
Just because we’re writers doesn’t mean we have to do everything our characters do or master everything they’re interested in, but I think gaining some personal experience can certainly help us improve.
So, I read an article a couple months ago about a lesbian that was out having dinner who overheard the people at the table next to her disparage and bemoan a nephew who had recently come out of the closet. They expelled the usual rhetoric–they were “disgusted” and vowed to “pray to Jesus for a cure.”
I have heard similar sentiments throughout my life. Many of them were not directed at me specifically, but some of them were. So I wonder how this woman at the restaurant felt–angry? Frustrated? Exhausted? Sad? Maybe all of those at once? Here again Jesus was being invoked as a tool to change a fearfully and wonderfully made nephew into something that jived with his family’s sensibilities. Yet this woman did not get into a fight with the family, nor did she merely post a rant about the experience on Facebook. Instead, she said she decided to actually act like the Jesus she grew up learning about. She paid for this family’s meal and wrote them a note that said, “Happy holidays from the very gay, very liberal table sitting next to you. Jesus made me this way. P.S. Be accepting of your family.”
In our Gospel lesson today from Matthew, Jesus talks about turning the other cheek and loving our enemies. These verses are often candy-coated, made safe for people to say in response to the marginalized standing up for their rights or responding to injustice in any way. They’re easy catch phrases and platitudes to pull out when someone makes us uncomfortable by calling us out. But in fact, these concepts of turning the other cheek and loving your enemy are very radical ideas. Marcus Borg wrote that, in Jesus’ society, any beating or striking was done with the right hand, so if a peasant was being beaten by a superior and then turned the other cheek, that superior was then challenged to hit the peasant as an equal. Likewise, Roman law gave soldiers permission to force civilians to carry their gear for one mile, but anything longer than one mile was considered abuse. Yet Jesus says to go the extra mile–to force the soldier, the agent of the State, to see the injustice in their request. Because to perform these offerings–these niceties–in an exaggerated way exposes oppressive hierarchies for what they are and calls the oppressors to reflect on their humanity and the humanity of the person they are oppressing.
Now, judgmental words over the dinner table are not quite as extreme as hitting someone or forcing them to carry your things, but the nature of the woman’s response is very much in keeping with the spirit in which Jesus speaks when he talks about turning the other cheek and loving the enemy. Loving the enemy does not mean that what the enemy does is acceptable. Turning the other cheek does not mean choosing to stay silent. What it does mean is exaggerating kindness and humility to expose evil for what it is.
This understanding of Jesus’ words in the gospel laid a foundation for the non-violent resistance of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights activists. Last month, Congressman John Lewis appeared on Christa Tippet’s On Being podcast titled “Love in Action.” He spoke about how a strong, faith-based foundation prepared him and other activists for arrests, police dogs, hoses, and other tools of state persecution. They trained in church halls, roleplaying every possible scenario. They practiced subtle tactics like always looking the other person in the eye no matter what they did to you and purposefully took to the streets in their nicest clothes. All of it was to compel the police officers, the politicians, the system at hand to come face to face with their own evil as they were forced to recognize the humanity in black people.
It is this foundation that Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians: “According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it.” Though Paul says he has laid a foundation, in another sense he is the one building upon Jesus’ foundation. Paul recognizes that he only built his foundation because of God and he also recognizes that the Corinthians, Ephesians, Philippians–all these new groups of Christians he writes to–are building on his own foundation.
This pattern repeats throughout history–Paul founds on the foundation of Christ, the Church founds on the foundations of Paul and Christ, ordinary people yearning for justice found on the foundations of Christ, Paul, and the Church. And what sort of building are we moving to build?
mewithoutYou is one of my favorite bands. They have a song called “Paper Hanger,” which is where I got the title for this sermon.
The last part of the song goes,
“Our lives are not our own.
Even the wind lay still.
Our essence was fire, and cold, and
Movement, movement oh,
If they ask you for the sign of the Father in you
Tell ‘em it’s movement, movement, movement, oh!
It’s a reference to the Gospel of Thomas, which is not in the biblical cannon. However, I think the sentiment holds true of the Church and what Jesus asks of us in turning the other cheek and loving the enemy. Movement and repose. Movement is walking that second mile with the soldier and making them uncomfortable. Repose is turning the other cheek, daring to be struck as an equal. Movement is marching from Selma to Montgomery to the ire and confusion of white America. Repose is paying for a meal in the face of homophobic rhetoric. And all of this is done with the hope that grace and liberation will replace fear and oppression.
Yet it’s hard to understand these concepts as a single unit. Movement and repose seem like opposites–one telling us to act and another telling us to keep it classy. Somehow, we should do both at once.
Our faith is full of such seemingly illogical ideas that we’re asked to hold as true–a person being dead and then alive, Jesus being both fully God and fully human, the kingdom of God being already here but not yet here, God being one and three, the least of these here on Earth being first in the kingdom of God, God the all-powerful creator and God the infant, God the servant.
So Jesus asks us to resist in a similarly illogical manner. Dare the oppressor to continue their persecution beyond what is permissible by law. Dare to love the enemy to present evil in stark relief, including our own evil. Because we go beyond the ways of this world when we refuse to play their divisive games, and we go beyond their ways when we refuse to accept the status quo as the perfection and abundance that God desires for our lives. When we hold illogical God things close to our hearts and let them compel us to movement, we transcend into an experience and an existence that the best metaphors fail to fully capture.
And no one said any of this was easy. I certainly don’t claim to perfectly wrap my head around it or act on it all the time. Perhaps this is why our Psalm reading comes from one of the longest Psalms, where the speaker constantly repeats the promise to keep God’s statutes and by the end is begging for deliverance in order to continue keeping those statutes. To me, it sounds like desperate bargaining–your statutes are great, God! They’re the best statutes! I totally keep them all the time, but I need your help because I also suck at keeping them! So deliver me, please! And I’ll keep keeping them! By the way, did I mention that these are great statutes?
None of what God asks of us is easy. Many times, it goes against our basic instincts. Secular progressive morality might have told that woman in the diner to interrupt the family’s meal, make a public embarrassment out of them. Pick that fight. Don’t let them stay comfortable. Paying for their meal isn’t the punishment they deserve.
Well, no, it’s not the punishment they deserve. It’s the grace they don’t deserve. That is the transformative power of the gospel. And sometimes when we extend that undeserved grace no matter how difficult it is and no matter how much we think we hate the other person, we too experience grace.
To reach that place spiritually, emotionally, and mentally requires an openness and humility to God to utterly transform us. So, I’ll end with another quote from another mewithoutYou song called “C-Minor.”
“Open wide my door, my door, my Lord
(open wide my door)
To whatever makes me love you more
(0pen wide my door)
While there’s still light to run towards
(open wide my door)”
This is an article I wrote that was originally published on The Ontological Geek.
Think pieces about the impending dominance of technology over every aspect of our lives abound on the Internet. Data, gadgets, online games, and social media are already integral parts of daily life. The consequences of blending the digital with the real are disastrous, according to some. Older generations lament Millennials’ supposed disconnect with each other and the outside world. What happened to getting things done the old-fashioned way? What about talking to people face-to-face and spending time with family? Then, my generation highlights the sense of community so many have felt through online friendships, access to knowledge that they wouldn’t have had otherwise, and the ability to have discourse about social issues that at times reaches the national level.
This back and forth could go on forever and in a multitude of iterations. “New technology and constant connectivity will replace and destroy the foundations we’ve had for centuries.” “No, it’ll help us overcome the very issues you passed down to us and make the world a better place.” At the end of the day, it seems like the argument encourages people to choose one side or the other. Reject the evolving Internet Age to save our humanity or save our humanity by virtually banding together with people from around the globe.
This tension serves as a backdrop to Mamoru Hosada’s 2009 anime film Summer Wars. What begins as a benign summer trip resulting from a hokey “pretend we’re dating when you meet my family” anime plot turns into a fight for life and death.
And it all begins on the Internet.
Welcome to OZ
In OZ, you can do anything––file your taxes, challenge a worthy opponent to a game of Koi Koi, shop, and work. Billions of people around the world, and the governments that keep their societies running, interact in OZ. They make business deals, form communities, and store their valuable data on the most secure digital network ever. It’s fun. It’s efficient. It’s the way of the future.
Kenji, a high school student, has a relatively unimportant summer job as a lackey maintaining OZ’s systems. He and his buddy type away in a cramped computer room as the long days pass. Then, everything changes when the Fire Nation attacks Natsuki, an upperclassman, needs someone to pretend to be her fiancé at her family reunion, especially since her great-grandmother Sakae is turning 90.
By a flip of a coin, Kenji becomes the lucky sap to accompany Natsuki. The two of them take a train and a few buses way out into the countryside to the Jinnouchi estate where the rest of Natsuki’s giant family gathers. The Jinnouchi family is proud of their family’s history and some members tout it more than others, passionately relaying the war stories of their samurai ancestors from hundreds of years ago (a few rounds of beer certainly help the words flow).
Nothing is amiss despite a few awkward situations. The Jinnouchi family seems nice enough and great-grandma Sakae? She’s sharp and loving and is the center of her family’s affections. She sees through Kenji’s timidness and accepts him.
On his first night at the Jinnouchi house, Kenji gets a strange email with a huge number code. Being the math nerd that he is, he spends all night figuring out the puzzle and then replies with the cracked code, thinking that it’s just another game from OZ.
Except he broke the Internet.
From here, Summer Wars take a satirical, touching, and dramatic look at the terrifying yet inevitable convergence of the real world and the virtual one. With OZ’s systems hacked and a vicious AI called “Love Machine” stealing accounts that grant access to sensitive city infrastructure, the film presents a sobering outlook on our reliance on technology. That which seems constant, stable, and eternal has vulnerabilities. All it takes is one error to compromise the entire system. We watch as Love Machine sucks up thousands of accounts, knocks over dominoes that represent city transportation systems, and shifts traffic patterns as if he’s completing a sliding puzzle. The venerable, indestructible OZ is his playground and everyone is lost without its support.
Yet if Summer Wars presented a stark, black and white warning against the invasion of the Internet in our lives, it probably wouldn’t have won a bunch of film awards and nominations.
Juxtaposed to this futuristic powerhouse of OZ that nearly replaces the physical world is the very old and very tight-knit Jinnouchi family. Its members are all over Japanese society from fire and police departments to city management and technology. The legendary King Kazma (Kazuma is his real name), known in OZ communities as the best tournament fighter around is a Jinnouchi. Even the mastermind behind Love Machine, wayward Wabisuke, is a member of this prominent family.
In the face of this great enemy born of technology, Grandma Sakae resorts to dialing every connection she has on an old rotary phone. She spends hours encouraging her children, grandchildren, cousins, nieces, nephews, business partners, and old friends to not give up — to not let this enemy destroy society. To her, it’s all about good old-fashioned networking and relationship skills.
But this doesn’t mean rejecting the Internet or technology. After King Kazma’s first loss to Love Machine (no thanks to the young cousins who keep jumping all over Kazuma in real life), the Internet is abuzz with people leaking as much intel as they can gather about this AI. “The online world is huge,” Kazuma tells his family. “If people work together and share information, we should be able to stop him.”
We see this idyllic Internet collaboration all the time when hashtags turn into movements or intensive efforts to combat terrorist attacks. Action online can translate into real-world effects, for better or for worse. As Summer Wars progresses, things do get worse.
Just shy of her 90th birthday, Granny Sakae dies. One of her sons had been monitoring her health through OZ, but with the systems malfunctioning due to Love Machine’s antics, he never received any notification that something was wrong. This is the first of the film’s two direct attacks on our increasing dependence on technology. Entrusting Sakae’s health to the supposed infallibility of OZ without any backup ultimately led to her demise and the entire family is devastated.
Both Sakae and OZ are these bright, solid anchors. Sakae is the rock of the Jinnouchi family, the one who holds everyone together and is one of the main reasons this ancient family’s pride is still strong today. She represents long-standing traditions that provide a firm foundation for later generations. OZ provides that same security as well as a way forward into the future. When they both “die,” it strips away certainty and confidence.
The way out of this problem is to take the tradition and family pride that Sakae passed down through the generations and apply it to this brave new world. That ancient samurai battle that one of Natsuki’s half-drunk uncles raved about when she and Kenji first arrived is the very plan that the Jinnouchi family, led by Kazuma and his famous avatar, enact in OZ. Uncles and cousins pull together all of their resources, securing computers and a gigantic server that will give them enough power to lure Love Machine into their trap. That trap turns out to be a fortress of an ancient Japanese-style home, solidifying the point that understanding and using triumphs from the past can solve the problems we face today.
The second attack on our tendency to place all our eggs in one tech basket comes when Love Machine, who’s now stolen over four hundred million accounts, hacks into a satellite and sets its course to come crashing to earth in just two hours. With the targets set on nuclear facilities around the world — of course Love Machine wouldn’t reveal just one location — this Internet crisis now has very real and very deadly consequences.
Fighting Love Machine fails. Kazuma, with all the server power and fandom support in the world, cannot hold him down. It doesn’t help that one of Natsuki’s idiot cousins removed the blocks of ice from the room that was preventing the huge server from overheating.
However, this frustrating setback emphasizes just how intertwined the Internet is with the real world. They seamlessly cross over into each other, so confronting the crisis isn’t as simple as logging off or shutting the computer down. It’s also not as grand as using the most cutting-edge hardware or being an Internet and gaming expert.
When all hope is lost, Natsuki has only her flip phone and her expertise in Koi Koi, a matching game that Sakae taught to all of her children and grandchildren. Love Machine accepts her challenge to play in OZ’s casino area. The wager? Her and her family’s OZ accounts. What follows is perhaps the most exciting anime card game since Yu-Gi-Oh!
Koi Koi is a straightforward game once you get used to the hanafuda(flower cards) and understand how they all match up.
The goal is to collect certain sets of cards by forming matches between the cards in your hand and the cards in the middle of the table. The first player to complete a set can either stop the round and collect however many points that set is worth, or they can declare “koi koi” to keep playing and try to complete more sets.
The history of hanafuda involves the Yakuza, Nintendo, and people subverting Japan’s strict gambling laws a few centuries ago. Koi Koi is one of several games you can play with these cards and it’s popular enough to be referenced in anime. It makes a grand appearance in Summer Wars, but Naruto fans will recognize the set Ino-Shika-Cho (Boar-Deer-Butterfly).
The vibrant artwork on the cards has a classic Japanese look, which makes them an excellent choice to feature in Summer Wars. Hanafuda, and Koi Koi specifically, are linked to Sakae and this sense of tradition. Furthermore, the cards are a flagship for the underdogs. Several scenes in the film highlight the Jinnouchi’s resistance against the Tokugawa regime.
When the Tokugawa were in power, they placed strict bans against gambling and closed Japan to the Western world. Yet the cards brought over by Western travelers were still popular among the people. To get around the government’s restrictions, they changed the artwork on the cards, which eventually led to their current design. So, the Jinnouchi (based on the Sanada clan) were a part of Tokugawa resistance from the battlefield to the card table. The all-or-nothing contest between Natsuki and Love Machine in OZ shows how this traditional thing is not only relevant to the new, digital world, but vital. Natsuki’s OZ avatar adds to this vibe.
What we see in Summer Wars, then, isn’t a battle between traditions and technology in which one ultimately overcomes the other. Instead, both must come together to confront new challenges. Koi Koi may be an old game, but because OZ is the playing field and the stakes are so high, Kazuma’s ideal Internet community comes to light as millions of strangers from around the world offer Natsuki their accounts to bet. Even though Natsuki’s dominance in Koi Koi redeems all but two of the accounts, it’s not a total victory. Kenji and Wabisuke must step in on the math and programming side to change the crashing satellite’s trajectory while Kazuma must deal the final blow to Love Machine.
Such integration of tradition and tech may be the best solution to the inevitable failures of technology. Technology certainly causes the problems in Summer Wars, but it’s also part of the solution, working in tandem with the old things passed down through generations of the Jinnouchi family.
This is an article I wrote that was originally published on The Ontological Geek.
Steven Universe follows Steven and his caretakers Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl as they chill in Beach City, saving the world from monsters and aliens who want to destroy Earth. Steven’s guardians are “gems,” an all-female alien race from a planet called Homeworld, who not only wield their own magical weapons, but can also combine themselves through a process called fusion. Each new presentation of fusion in Steven Universe reveals yet another layer of this complex, intimate phenomenon that not even the gems who experience it seem to fully understand. Whatever language audiences or characters in the show use to explain fusion, a complete definition never quite materializes. We become much like Meno–giving examples of fusion (calling it love, intimacy, or power), but not fully grasping what fusion is in its entirety. Fusion can be consensual or forced, stable or unstable, beautiful or terrifying. Some fusions, like Stevonnie (a fusion between Steven and his friend Connie) and Garnet, break the perceived barriers of fusion. The former shows that fusion with organic material (humans) is possible and the latter introduced the notion of fusion between two different kinds of gems. Once it seems like fusion is completely understood, some new form of it appears as a reminder that it exists just beyond the bounds of logic.
On the surface, it’s easy to explain what happens when gems fuse. They dance to get in sync with each other and that energy lets them combine to form a new gem. Garnet and Pearl create Sardonyx. Pearl and Amethyst create Opal. Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl create Alexandrite (which they can’t keep stable for very long). There are five different fusion possibilities just within the main characters.
Fusions are more powerful than the individual gems themselves. This makes fusing ideal for battles or accomplishing great feats of strength. In this sense, fusing is practical and tactical. It’s done to achieve specific goals and nothing more. At least, that’s what some gems believe fusion should be.
The Homeworld gems — referring to the antagonists hailing from the planet where gems come from — have strict, well-defined classes among them and equally rigid ideas about fusion.
It can only occur between two or more of the same gem (e.g., Rubies can only fuse with other Rubies).
It should be done for the sake of excelling in battle.
These rules are so fundamental to Homeworld’s social structure that any deviance from them is considered offensive or even disgusting. In fact, until Ruby and Sapphire accidentally fused, most gems didn’t consider fusion between two different kinds of gems to be possible. This, among many other reasons, caused Ruby and Sapphire to defect from Homeworld. In the present, however, any judgement that Garnet experiences isn’t from the fact that she is two different gems that fused, but that she stays fused all the time. That first rule, however permanent it seemed in the past, has become obsolete. It’s the same with that memetic fourth rule. Jasper spouts it off as a solid fact and then coerces Lapis Lazuli into fusing just a few minutes later. Homeworld gems thought they knew everything there was to know about fusion, but it remains partially in this unknowable realm and that mystery about it occasionally breaks these notions that seem so strong.
Ruby and Sapphire’s decision to stay permanently fused is a metaphor for a committed and intimate relationship. They’re queer in both the literal and academic sense (the latter of which I have mixed feelings about given the tendency of some to claim any sort of minor “differentness” as “queering”). Gems are a female alien race, so there probably isn’t any concept of heterosexuality or homosexuality, but from a reader-response perspective, Ruby and Sapphire are one of many examples in Steven Universe of transgressing boundaries we find in the real world. Fusion overtly speaks to the audience as examples of healthy relationships (Garnet) and abusive ones (coerced fusions such as Jasper and Lapis Lazuli), allowing the series as a whole to safely explore multi-faceted, difficult, and taboo topics.
Analyzing Ruby and Sapphire just within their own universe, we see their relationship breaks a seemingly immutable law of fusion; however, they further disturb the status quo by remaining fused even when they’re not doing anything of perceived value. Peridot, who begins as an enemy and becomes an ally, makes this objection, as Garnet’s existence challenges her Homeworld-based understanding of fusion:
Garnet’s deliberate refusal to fit herself back into comfortable notions of fusion is a stark reminder that fusion stretches beyond any imposed limitations or understandings of what it’s supposed to be. For Peridot specifically, fusion is uncharted territory, and beneath her disgust for Garnet is a fear of the incomprehensible. What really happens when two gems fuse? Are Ruby and Sapphire still conscious, still present as Garnet, or do they cease to exist in some way? Will Peridot still be Peridot if she fuses with another gem?
Even Garnet, for as long as she’s been permanently fused, can only describe her state using figurative language that would make sense to Peridot or Steven or whoever she’s explaining herself to. Peridot only begins to understand Garnet when Garnet says that she’s “like Percy and Pierre,” Peridot’s #1 ship from a TV show she watches obsessively. But to get a little Socratic for a moment, Garnet is still only saying what she — what fusion — is like, not what it actually is. No metaphor can perfectly or completely capture the nature of fusion relationships.
Similarly, metaphors cannot perfectly or completely capture mysteries of faith. So far, Steven Universe has not been particularly religious or spiritual. Perhaps the closest it comes to this is in Rose’s “death” and transformation into Steven. Fusion is not quite representative of any Western understandings of the Trinity. Fusion itself, or the mixing of two natures, actually goes against typical interpretations of the hypostatic union (the understanding of Christ’s nature as both fully God and fully human). However, what fusion and the Trinity do have in common is that they’re both mysterious unities.
Many Christian denominations believe in one God in three persons who are typically labeled “Father,” “Son,” and “Holy Spirit.” Of course, they can just as easily be labeled “Creator,” “Christ,” and “Spirit” or any similar titles because the goal is to express a relationship. The Bible itself doesn’t actually spell out any doctrine of the Trinity, but rather this doctrine was formulated through the work of early theologians in the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th centuries. Lesser known Christian denominations are nontrinitarian and this along with other doctrinal differences causes some to say that they aren’t really Christians. I’m not interested in delving into those arguments, but I will say that grasping the Trinity and articulating it well without describing a heresy (if you’re an orthodox Christian) is exceedingly difficult.
“Heresy” is a strong word with negative connotations of witch hunting and paranoia, but the term at its root basically refers to beliefs about the nature of Jesus, God, and Christian practice that have been rejected as falsehoods. For example, around 318 A.D., two dudes named Alexander and Arius had a huge disagreement about the role of Christ in relation to God. They both believed that God is perfect and therefore cannot change. Arius’s issue was that in order to truly say that God can’t change, then you can’t also say that Christ is divine the same way God is divine because incarnating and experiencing human life through Christ would change God’s nature. Since Arius held that God cannot change, he concluded that Christ isn’t fully divine, but instead is an exalted human. This means that Christ isn’t equal with God and is in fact subordinate to God.
Alexander disagreed with Arius and maintained that God and Christ were equal and of the same substance, even though this idea is hard to wrap our heads around and neatly fit within our human logic. This argument ultimately led to the Council of Nicea where all the church leaders gathered to figure out what they believed. Alexander’s view gained the most support. He ensured that the Nicene Creed –– which became the basis of Christian doctrine –– included language that disproved Arius’s views and stated that such views were heretical. In other words, Arianism was rejected as incorrect. The church leaders held that God and Christ don’t exist as a hierarchy and are made of the same “stuff,” so to speak, even though this declaration raises more questions than it answers. “The bishops gathered at Nicea recognized that they were willing to affirm mystery rather than allow heresy” (Olson & English, Pocket History of Theology, 32).
That’s exactly what the Trinity is: a mystery. Any explanation of it will fall short of fully capturing God as one-in-three-persons, just as any explanation of fusion will fall short of capturing everything it can mean and be.
To keep things simple, I’m going to present two broad interpretations of the Trinity: one from the Latin Orthodox Church (which became Catholicism, Protestantism, and most of the other forms of Christianity seen in the West) and one from the Eastern Orthodox Church. I’m drawing from a book called Christian Doctrine by Shirley Guthrie.
When Western Christianity talks about the Trinity, what we mean in spirit is a relationship of equals in which the standard descriptors — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — are metaphorical rather than strict indicators of gender and authority. So we intend, in our heart of hearts, to depict the Trinity like so:
What’s important here is that the persons of the Trinity are labeled on the lines of the triangle rather than the points. This depicts an equality between them where neither one appears to be above the other two. This is the reality of how many Christians experience the Trinity, but when we attempt to explain it, we end up presenting something like this:
Guthrie states, “When we Western monotheists say ‘God,’ we do not in practice think of three equal persons; we tend to think of one ‘top’ God, the Father, and two subordinate and somehow lesser divine beings, the Son and the Spirit.” In other words, we’re used to thinking about God as a hierarchy — like a boss of a huge corporation overseeing and directing two employees. Father, Son, and Spirit become strict identities (that are often gendered) with specific tasks. For example, we may say that the Father creates, the Son redeems, and the Spirit guides as if they are all completely separate from each other. However, all the persons of the Trinity are on the same level, acting as one expressed as three.
Depicting this with a triangle, as Western Christians tend to do, can make it difficult to see that egalitarian unity, and certainly some traditions may posit an all powerful male Father, a graceful and subordinate Son, and a guiding Holy Spirit (who perhaps is female).
Eastern Orthodoxy gives us another way to look at the Trinity with a term that immediately made me picture fusion when I learned it: perichoresis. Guthrie writes, “Peri (as in perimeter) means ‘around.’ Choresis means literally ‘dancing’ (as in choreography of a ballet). Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are like three dancers holding hands, dancing around together in harmonious, joyful freedom.”
Other than “Peri” also being Amethyst’s cute nickname for Peridot, this description is basically what gems do to fuse. The main difference is that the persons of the Trinity aren’t creating a brand new entity with their unity. Also, fusion tends to have romantic/sexual/intimate undertones whereas understandings of the Trinity don’t.
But at the end of the day, what’s most compelling about both fusion and the Trinity is not figuring out how, exactly, they work, but rather experiencing them in all their mystery. Upon meeting Stevonnie for the first time, Garnet says, “You are not two people. You are not one person. You are an experience.”
And near the end of the episode “Log Date 7152,” Peridot reflects on her experience of attempting to fuse with Garnet. “I have attempted a fusion with the fusion Garnet. I had hoped to gain a better understanding of fusion. Instead, I gained a better understanding of Garnet.”
The phenomena will always be a mystery, but the persons involved in the phenomena are knowable and it’s possible to experience them. Guthrie says, “The Trinity is a mystery to be confessed, not a mathematical problem to be solved.”
For some, that may not be good enough. Why believe in something you can’t fully explain? But for others, faith and experience aren’t always about explaining every facet of a mystery. Even when trying to explain the mystery is our starting point, we may find ourselves like Peridot who demands a complete explanation of a mystery and instead comes away with a better understanding of her fellow gem.
On Saturday 1/21/17, over half a million people gathered in Washington, DC for the Women’s March and hundreds of thousands more gathered in cities across the nation. Several members of my church family went to DC, making it known that whatever version of Christianity that is now in the White House is not in line with the promise of God’s love and justice for all people, all of whom are fearfully and wonderfully made.
I did not make it to the march, but I did go to a performance of Antigone in Ferguson in Baltimore. It was a collaboration between Theater of War productions, the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Choir, and local leaders.
Before the performance, the organizer explained the genesis of the show–how St. Louis embraced the production and claimed this 2,500-year-old play as something relevant that speaks to their experiences today. After all, Antigone is a young woman who wants justice and proper remembrances for her brother that died in war and was painted as an enemy of the State by the new, irrational king who decreed that the body should be left unburied to rot.
Antigone becomes the mothers, daughters, sisters, and all those left behind when a black person is killed by police. Police officers, as enforcers of the law, carry the power of the State behind them and that is one among many reasons why this particular injustice is so hurtful. Michael Brown’s body was unmoved for four hours after he was killed.
Ismene is that well-meaning person who is saddened by the death of her brother, but will follow the law and the decrees of the king, even if that means not giving her brother a proper burial. She urges Antigone to follow the law, but then later when Antigone is receiving her punishment, she wants to be put to death as well as if she had a part in Antigone’s actions. Ismene is the late ally–the one who stays back in the moment and then later wants recognition for something she had no part in. But also, she feels powerless as a woman to defy the law like Antigone does. She fears the consequences.
Creon is the new king who is impulsive and stubborn, making rash decisions and refusing to listen to reason. He is the State and it is his power, his agenda, and his system that results in all the death by the end of the play. He’s the one who makes the law that Antigone’s brother not be buried and that anyone who disobeys this law will be punished. He clings to law at the expense of his humanity and his own family, which he does not realize until it’s too late. Creon is the oppressor who benefits from the system he creates and cannot see the devastation it causes. It’s only when he finally reclaims his humanity and casts himself away from Thebes that the city is freed from his impulsive, irrational ruling (i.e., the system is dismantled).
The actors sat at a table on stage with a gospel choir behind them that sang the parts of the Chorus. They performed a dramatic reading of Antigone and afterward, four Baltimore community leaders took to the stage to share their immediate impressions of the performance as well as the work that they do for the city. Then, the floor was opened to a community discussion with the audience.
Some were police officers or justice department employees. Some were community advocates and organizers. Some were people of faith. Some were white people trying to navigate themselves through the discomfort that will always comes with these sorts of discussions–when white supremacy, racism, and white anxiety are named and analyzed.
One big difference that I have to note between these conversations in person and the ones on social media is the perceived tone. One of the many reasons why moving your feet is important, as John Lewis said at the Women’s March, is that you get a fuller picture of someone when you look in their face while hearing what they have to say and you hear their tone of voice. Too often, it seems like people are put off by discourse on social media because they’ll read a Twitter thread or Tumblr post by a black person (or any marginalized person) and hear in their head loud, screaming anger or even hatred. I’m certain that if the discussion were typed up word for word and posted on Tumblr or Facebook, some people would read an abrasive, hateful tone into it and may not even realize that that’s how they’re processing the information. That just has never been the tone I’ve heard when going to events like these in person. Passion and conviction? Absolutely. Frankness and sternness about naming realities and experiences that are sometimes uncomfortable to hear about? You bet. But never hatred.
So the feel of the evening was shared discomfort and that’s not a bad thing. It’s a necessary thing. The refrain that stood out to me the most was go into your own communities, your own spheres of influence, and effect the changes to the system because there’s already black community leadership in the cities that is working and getting things done. They are just unseen, unreported, and often face barriers in getting grant money that other non-profits have access to.
Sonja Sohn, an actress from The Wire played Antigone. She also talked about the documentary she’s directing, For the Love of Baltimore. She said that when she first had the idea to make a film shortly after the Baltimore Uprising, she approached a few directors and producers she knew, two of whom were white and all of whom were male. She figured that since they had better connections and more experience, she needed to have one of them direct it. Instead, they all said that she had to do it, that she was the only person who could. Sohn explained that this is the sort of support and empowerment that’s needed–not for men and white people to lead and execute on a black woman’s idea, but for them to be the voices that build up and support what that black woman creates.
It’s not white people’s task to go in and create new structures to save whatever struggling area outside of our community that we come across. Instead, we have to listen to and support the leaders that are already there doing work and do our own work in our own spaces–work, school, church, every community that’s a part of our own daily lives.
The community discussion largely centered on justice issues, but the performance itself contained some interesting theological themes. With a gospel choir playing the part of the Chorus, the Christianization of ancient Greek culture was more evident. The final song, performed after Creon exiles himself in the wake of his entire family committing suicide, declared, “I am covered by the blood of the Lamb.”
I found the juxtaposition strange at first–a praise song right after this man exiles himself as he’s laden with guilt for his actions? But that’s the classic dramatic narrative of salvation–hitting rock bottom and finally turning to God for redemption. Taken another way, it’s the Chorus of the city singing this song, so they’re praising God after having been liberated of this terrible leader. Yet who was the “lamb” that paved the way for Creon to reclaim his humanity? Antigone, her future husband, and Creon’s wife.
This begs the question, why do the oppressed have to die for the oppressors to realize the error of their ways? It’s a reality that this is what happens, but the outrage and concern for people should come while they’re still alive. The silver lining that fiction and art provides us at least lets us see this dynamic in action without a real person actually dying.