Monday, March 26, 2012
Ah, the friend zone! Is there a worse place for a guy (or girl) to be?
So let me explain what’s happening. A few weeks ago the phrase “friend-zoned” had its five minutes of glory on the interwebs, which caused quite a few people to weigh in on it. Incidentally, I had recently finished reading a book which had a male character rather brutally taking his friendship with a girl to the next level… by marrying her without her knowledge or consent. I ranted quite a bit in that review, but it got me thinking about the whole idea of male-female friendship and how it is portrayed in YA.
A clarification: friend-zoning someone is when a person (usually female) notices that a friend of theirs (usually male) has the hots for them, but isn’t interested in a romantic relationship. The first person proceeds to ask the second person if it is possible to remain friends – hence the name.
You’ll actually find that, on closer examination, there is quite a lot of friend-zoning going on in YA novels. Almost always, one side of the popular love triangle is friendzoned, Jacob from Twilight being the obvious example. Jacob and Bella are a pretty good example of the stereotyping that’s going on: We have a guy who is sweet, supportive and respectful, who is led around by a girl who is obviously in love with someone else, but who for some reason still gets chummy with them. You can say pretty much the same for any Twilight knock-off out there.
And, you can’t pick up a Cassandra Clare book without expecting a love triangle (sometimes, even two, if you’re lucky). In The Infernal Devices, that trope is handled well, but then again, she is writing about Victorian times – girls just didn’t have that much space to operate in for them to have a friendzone. Simon from The Mortal Instruments, however, is an entirely different kettle of fish.
Poor Simon actually got pretty far in his advances to Clary, even got to be her boyfriend at a point, but in the end, he has to dump her because she’s in love with her brother. In a way, Simon has a lot of guts to actually walk away, but he still supports Clary in the vein hope that she would realize her feelings for him. Which is kind of painful to read, not because of the obvious train wreck that is to come, but because it is played straight.
See, the problem with the connotations of the words “friend zone” is the implication that girls doing it are cockteases. In fact, a GR friend of mine offered me this very insightful quote: “Calling a girl a “slut” is shaming her for saying yes. Calling her a “friend-zoner” is shaming her for saying no.”
Girls can’t win. It’s a fact.
If you want more proof, look no further than the king of the friend-zoned, John Green, whose books seem to feature a wide cast of quirky, loner boys and girls who are totally in love with their best friends or their manic pixie dream girls, but are always unappreciated. While Green is not discriminating about what gender the friend-zoned person belongs to, he does seem kinder to his male characters than his female ones. His Margots and Alaskas are exciting and sparkly and deeply disturbed, but they are, at their core, selfish bitches. And the discovery of their motivation doesn’t really make them more sympathetic. The same problems pop up in “The Fault in Our Stars”, a novel I find deeply problematic in its portrayals, but if I got started on that one, we’d be here the whole night.
What really bothers me is that the books I read rarely portray the person who is doing the friend-zoning in a positive light. No, correction. It doesn’t portray girls doing the friend-zoning in a positive light. The argument runs somewhere along the lines of: “If women complain there are no more nice guys, it’s because they friend-zone them.”
But here’s the thing: if someone is friends with a girl just because he (or she) wants to get into her pants, then they’re not being a nice person. They’re not even a good friend. Because sometimes people don’t want romantic relationships. And disrespecting their wishes, or not taking them seriously enough, is kind of insulting.
I mean, look at the Hunger Games. There is so much in those books that people can talk about: the satire of a consumer society and reality TV, the political commentary, the portrayal of war, the blurring of the lines between good and evil. What’s the main talking point though? Are you Team Peeta or Team Gale? (Cassandra Clare, incidentally, made a pretty hilarious statement on that bit.)
People tend to be kinder to Katniss, since there is so much shit happening in her life, but there is still discussion about her playing two boys against one another. Personally, I don’t even think love was important to the Hunger Games trilogy – yes, Katniss has feelings for Peeta and Gale, but they’re not strictly romantic. There’s a lot of stuff mixed in there – doubt, mistrust, old memories and new, life experience, grudges, ideologies… The Hunger Games, to me, is a lot more about the loss of childhood innocence and the painful act of healing, than it is about who Katniss ends up with.
Which is why I think that the portrayal of her relationship with Gale is probably the best “friendzone” I have read in books. There are good reasons for them to be friends, and good reasons why Katniss keeps him away. The books don’t try to prettify that aspect of their relationship – you do see how difficult it is for her to deal with the changes in it, how she tries to hold onto it and fails, and ultimately, her realization that there is a point of no return.
So that’s my two cents, but I’d love for the discussion to continue in comments. What examples can you think of in books, where one character is friendzoned? What did you think of it? Do you think it was a realistic portrayal or not?
Or, incidentally, would you like me to do a post on The Fault in Our Stars, or shall I let this one lie?
Thursday, March 22, 2012
I won’t bother too much with the content of the book (I'll cover this in my review when I get round to writing it) as many more qualified reviewers of romance and erotica have dissected the problematic misrepresentation of dominant-submissive relationships better than I could. Nor can I authoritatively tackle the legal issues surrounding this case. What I am is a fan, one who has participated in several various fandoms over the years. I strongly support the concept of fandom and all that it offers, having received so much from them in my lifetime, from passions to lifelong friends. Fandom tends to get a raw deal from the media, who are more likely to deliberately misrepresent, exaggerate or concentrate on the craziest element for a few cheap jokes rather than give it a full hearing. Granted, fandoms have their difficulties, but the very essence of what they are – a group of people sharing their passion and creativity through a number of varied means and discussions – forms the undeniable backbone of the entertainment industry. Fandoms are the key demographics, the profit margins publishers and studios are dying to get their hands on. During such times of economic uncertainty, you can’t really blame them for wanting to latch onto the fandom fever. Just check out the advertising for The Hunger Games movie to see what I mean. The industry will always try to cater to or exploit fandom, it’s what they do, and sometimes that can work out really well.
But my issue here is with fans exploiting fandom for personal gain. E.L. James exploited the Twilight fandom. She pretty much admits this.
Fan-fiction is one of the backbones of fandom. I am a huge supporter of fan-fiction, I’ve written it myself and I think it’s a great way for fans to share their love of characters and worlds while developing their own creative skills. Fan-fiction is for the fans, it’s there to be distributed and enjoyed freely, not for profit. However, for places like Omnific and The Writer’s Coffee Shop publishing house, fan-fiction is a business model. Here is a list of some of the many Twilight fan-fictions that have been published as original fiction. Some are self-published but a large portion of them were published through the aforementioned publishers, which sprung from the Twilight fandom. Many have argued that since these fan-fictions were so blatantly alternate universe set with very little in common with the original source material, they bypass copyright infringement and essentially existed as original works in the fandom, but that doesn’t change the fact that these authors began their work as fan-fiction, posted it as fan-fiction, received attention from it as fan-fiction and undoubtedly had it published based on its popularity as fan-fiction. I feel it is important to stress this because a remarkably large number of people seem to have no problem with this business model. I believe this has a lot to do with the mainstream media’s ignorance of fandom and its practices. Fan-fiction is not always warmly received by authors. Anne Rice, George R.R. Martin, Raymond Feist and Laurell K. Hamilton are several writers who hold explicitly anti-fan-fiction views, going so far as to blacklist their work from fanfiction.net. They hold onto their copyright fiercely, and after seeing what James is doing, I can’t blame them. Stephenie Meyer has said she supports fan-fiction, but what if she didn’t? What if she, her publishers or even Summit Entertainment pulled a lawsuit out for this? TWCS say they are covered by copyright law, having checked this with their lawyers, although I’d love to question these lawyers myself. They’ve skirted around the issue but it’s publicly known that these works started out as fan-fiction. One can read 50 Shades of Grey and easily compare the basic plot structure and characters to that of Twilight. The book went through practically no editing from fan-fiction to novel beyond name changing, so how original is it?
Think of the precedent this sets. If E.L. James and her publishers technically bypass copyright laws then would a fan-fiction of 50 Shades of Grey with the names changed pass the same test for publication? TWCS said it would stand up to the same copyright laws as 50 Shades, yet never replied to my query as to whether or not they’d consider publishing rejigged 50 Shades fan-fiction. Funny, yes? If one author is allowed to use characters from a copyrighted work, are others? Where does the line stop? The reason I am so annoyed at James and TWCS, not to forget Omnific, is because I believe this can only hurt fandom. 50 Shades is in the spotlight, it’s the biggest thing in publishing right now. If other authors catch wind of this, if they see work being published that originally started out as fan-fiction of their own work, the cease and desist letters will be sent out to fandoms, make no mistake about it. In the end, this is about money for these publishers as well as creative control. Authors don’t want to allow their content to be creatively diluted time and time again for someone else to profit from it. And fans don’t want to be exploited, like how James exploited the Twilight fandom. Say what you want about Twilight, and I have way too many times, but fans should have a place to come together and share their passion without worrying about being used as literary guinea pigs. James used fandom as a jumping point, she gathered a huge and extremely dedicated fan-base originating from Meyer’s creative output and used it for profit. Let’s not forget Amanda Hayward and TWCS’s role in all this. They knew exactly what they were doing, latching onto the fandom’s creative output to form the foundations of their own business. It may not technically be illegal but I still consider it ethically unsound.
The sad thing about this all is that James and Hayward won. They’re wealthy and well known from this, although James has been uncharacteristically shy since the Vintage deal announcement, and once again fandom is screwed over by the wider powers that be. James has a seven figure book deal and a possible movie in the works. I know many people don’t have an issue with what James has done but I can’t support these actions, not at the expense of fandom and the ability to freely creatively express one’s love for another’s work. Call it as original as you want but when it walks like fan-fiction and talks like fan-fiction under the banner of fan-fiction, you don’t get to call it an original work when the dollar signs start flashing in your eyes.
Saturday, March 17, 2012
*audience gasps, squeals, or groans respectively*
Yeah. While my experience with it wasn’t entirely like that of others, it was a well-written book and it raised some interesting discussions, and most notably (for me), the question on what is heroism and what constitutes as a heroic action. Which got me thinking about ladies in YA – specifically, it made me wonder what makes a lady heroic. So I asked around GR, twitter and tumblr and got some very thought-provoking answers.
Please note – this is not a post about my feelings on TFIOS or Hazel because in order to do that, I would have to spoil the book for you (as, unfortunately, it’s one of those reads where the major spoilers are also the major centers of conversation).
There always seems to be a debate about female characters (in all media, but YA fiction especially) and what is the best way to portray them. One might say that it’s a subjective thing, as one person’s garbage is another’s gold mine, but there isn’t that much drama when discussing male characters (unless those characters were written by ladies). It seems like men get to have all the variation they want, while women must balance on the precarious point between extremes in order to be considered a realistic character.
We like to make fun of the perfect and perfectly clumsy girls that always get the hero (and several other boys), and we certainly don’t consider them very heroic since they never need to change, evolve, or take initiative throughout the novels, in spite of the fact that they’re technically at the centre of the action (we need no examples of that).
On the other hand, however, there are books like Graceling and Wildefire, with strong MC’s who kick a lot of butt and assert their independence from men… but they also look down on more passive female characters, who are more relaxed about their views on love. And while I liked both Katsa and Ashline, women are not all the same and being independent is not the same as acting masculine.
A really good example I got, when doing my research, was Deryn Sharp from Scott Westerfield’s Leviathan trilogy, a young girl who dresses up as a boy to sign up in the Royal Navy, in an Alternate Universe World War I Britain. True, cross-dressing narratives aren’t exactly new, but I loved Deryn from the get-go, because I could easily identify with her frustration at having unconventional interests at a time when gender roles were really strict, and her strong desire to pursue them. Moreover, nothing comes free to her – she works for everything, and her victories are well deserved.
Another really awesome lady is Penryn from Susan Ee’s Angelfall, a story about a girl trying to survive in a post-Apocalyptic world and her journey to save her sister from the angels that kidnapped her. Penryn is very similar to Katsa, in that she fights a lot and has survival skills above those of a regular Jane. She’s also very calculating, measuring the consequences of her actions and thinking ahead, rather than rushing blindly in battle (for the most part). But the thing about Penryn (and Deryn too) is that while she puts on a tough girl act, she’s also very insecure and very scared, and that makes her rare moments of vulnerability all the more genuine and sincere. In fact, those are the times that are most memorable to me.
I also asked the Interwebs why they thought their MC of choice was heroic, and the most common answer was that she carried her own story. That she existed apart from the hero, and that rings very true in both Deryn and Penryn’s cases. While both of them have their respective love interests, their romance is a subplot, one that doesn’t outshine the actual events of the novel. If you want more proof, I will only say that Sophie from “Howl’s Moving Castle” by Dianna Wynne Jones was a popular choice, and she spends the majority of the novel as an old woman.
I feel, in the end, that what really makes a heroine is not about the expectations of gender and how she meets them/defies them, but how she stands as her own character and if her arc is a satisfactory one. It’s not about acting like a man or saving the day in spite of being feminine – it’s about facing the challenges thrown in front of you and learning from them, and staying true to yourself. That, to me, is the marker of a true heroine.