Sunday, July 29, 2012

Money Money Money - the place of wealth in YA.


I hate to start yet another book post with ’50 Shades of Grey’, especially since it’s ridiculously high sales numbers in the UK leave both the leader of the opposition and myself incredibly depressed, but since it’s ‘Twilight’ fan-fiction and ‘Twilight’ is YA, the loophole works in my favour.

The fantasy male is nothing new in any sort of fiction. It’s certainly nothing new in YA. The figure depicted throughout the seemingly countless paranormal romances that still dominate the market, much to my surprise, may vary in the details but each hero is essentially made from the same mould: ridiculously handsome, aloof to the point of being a jerk, varying degrees of mysterious and personality, and in possession of much wealth.
To go back to clichés, let’s take Edward Cullen as our first example, since ‘Twilight’ was the template for so many bestsellers of the past few years. While the series was never chock full of plot or true character crises, much is made of the perfect peace of the Cullen family’s life, and one of the things that keeps them living in this lifestyle is their wealth. They never ever have to worry about bills, debt or the troubles that accompany them. Money serves as a very convenient plot device as well, allowing the characters to jet off around the world without worrying about cost. Bella is lavished with gifts by Edward, including a car, without so much as a second thought, and while Bella shows discomfort with such extravagant displays, it’s evident to the reader that this is one of the key elements behind the perfect life she seeks with Edward. True love may be what they fight for (and I’ll leave my rant on the series’ romance elements for another day) but the Cullen clan’s wealth is the icing on the cake. She need never work if she doesn’t want to, nor does she need to provide for her family (insert joke about Jacob doing that for her here).

Of course, being fan-fiction, ’50 Shades of Grey’ places a much bigger emphasis on Christian/Edward’s mind-boggling wealth (a billionaire before 30? Are we sure the vampires are less realistic?) with its numerous over-the-top buying of gifts for Anastacia/Bella, helicopter flights and generally obnoxious displays of wealth. This isn’t limited to sparkle-motion: Damon from Alyson Noel’s Immortals series is incredibly wealthy and happy to let heroine Ever see it as he woos her. Melissa de la Cruz’s Blue Bloods series centres on vampire-angel socialites with money to spare. From ‘The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer’ to ‘The Goddess Test’ and countless other YAs I haven’t even begun to mention, money is unavoidable. Of course it is, this is the society we live in. I haven’t even started on the plethora of romance novels that feature billionaire Greeks with yachts who seduce the shy but beautiful maid into a life of decadence and 24 hour sex on silk sheets.
As someone who recently graduated from university and is trawling the employment market during some of the most difficult economic times my country has ever experienced (see my twitter feed for further anger relating to this), money is on my mind a lot, as it is for most people. In the realm of the romantic fantasy, it’s practically programmed into the formula for the happy ever after to include that level of financial security. Love may be all you need but weddings and mortgage payments don’t come as part of the deal.

It’s also an easy trope to fall back on in literary terms. Bella never would have been able to save Edward from the most convoluted and overdramatic suicide attempt ever conceived if the Cullens hadn’t had unlimited financial resources to jet halfway across the globe. A blank cheque is something of a ‘get out of jail free’ card for authors. It allows for big plot developments with relative ease in a way that was only previously dealt with through dismissals of magic. The ability to skip the more humdrum elements of real life, such as jobs and bills, is made all the easier and leaves more room for romantic staring matches.

I must admit that my own politics play into my asking this question. I’ve made no secret of my left leanings and my less than clean language choices in relation to my current government. Frankly, I’m a little sick of this worshipping of the rich, even more so in YA. When a significant portion of the mainstream bestselling YA market is dedicated not only to obsessive dedication to questionable romances, but to the deifying of wealth over respect, it raises many questions. I think for many authors it feels like a natural progression of the typical idea of perfection (which I also find staggeringly boring): rich, beautiful, mysterious, bouncy hair and utterly devoted to you. It’s also easier, as I have mentioned, on a plotting scale. It’s a natural progression from the age old tales of princes and princesses, which has seen a resurgence in the past couple of years thanks to the Will & Kate Royal Wedding. The fairy-tale sheen still calls for an unnatural focus on wealth.

Of course, it’s not fair to lay one’s focus solely on YA for this matter. Turn on your TV, pick up a newspaper or one of the countless magazines aimed at both men and women, listen to music or hit a letter on Google. We love things. Things we can covet, buy, sell and update for the newer model. It’s a capitalist system so of course this is what we do. I like to buy things, especially books and theatre tickets, but to have wealth inextricably tied to happiness is a sad but inevitable marker of our system. Want to be happy? Buy these shoes or those earrings, or even better, get your boyfriend to buy them for you. Nothing says equality in a relationship quite like the man having sole control over the expenses.

I’m not saying we need to tear down the system (yes, I am), or demand an influx of socialist based YA where the kick-ass smart girl dumps the vampire because he’s a tool of the conservative society that selfishly feeds on the lower classes, then goes to join CND and falls for a feminist union worker (actually yes, I want this very badly). However, maybe it is time that we take a step back a re-evaluate what our teenage media depicts as necessary tools for one’s happiness, and maybe find some new plot devices. Maybe when the economy picks up we’ll all decide to read and write about socialist vampires and Marxist love triangles. Too much to hope for?

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Minority Warriors

I wrote this post last year. I've decided to post it after much thought.

I've restrained from blogging on this topic, or even expressing it in public because I know (as usual) that my opinion is usually negative and non-favorable. However, after a series of rather interesting events, I've decided to do a rather lengthy write up. Be warned, this contains spoilers for various books, movies and television shows.

Earlier last year, I received an ARC for Across the Universe, by Beth Revis. I'm what you'd call a champion of racial diversity. I don't write for racialicious (a fabulous blog, by the way) and I wasn't a member of racebending or Aang Ain't White, even though I was an Avatar fan at their inception. I do, however, love to read books where being non-white is non-issue. Now, off the top of my head, I can't recall many books where this is the case. So, despite my many issues with Across the Universe, I'm a Beth Revis fan and I applaud her for going the non-standard route even if I despise whoever headed the decision in Razorbill to whitewash the cover. More on that here, here, and here.

A few months after reading Across the Universe, I came across ferretbrain. One of their writers, Daniel Hemmens, coined the term "minority warrior". He defines them as:
straight white men [who] attempt to speak on behalf of women, nonwhites, and homosexuals.
I don't have a problem with this -- when it's done correctly. And, frankly, I'm sick and tired of sitting back and saying nothing about the problems I have with portrayals of racial minorities in popular media at the risk of offending someone because they like a show/book/movie that's extremely popular and undesirable to dislike (unlike Twilight, or The Last Airbender).

Including a minority in your work does not make you progressive or politically correct. Just sticking one in there means nothing. It pisses me of when someone says that by including a black/asian/gay/hispanic, they're automatically not racist or homophobic. If that were the case, minstrel shows would still be shown around the clock.

In addition, defining someone by their sexuality or race or ethnicity is not a good thing. No one, and I mean no one is defined by being black/Asian/gay/Hispanic. It is not who you are. It is part of you are, but it is not your entire identity. Yet, for whatever reason, when these kind of characters (you know who they are) pop up, and they're solely defined by being black or Asian or gay with little to no other defining traits, they're put on pedestals and worshiped as being groundbreaking and/or given awards.

And it's not just in shows like Glee, which I abhor for a multitude of reasons, ranging from its poor writing, poor lip synching, and various soap opera cliches. Nope. Even my favorite white authors are unable to evolve from this one dimensional, "ultra hip" way of thinking. And I find it problematic.

Case #1: John Green

I love John Green's books. And I'm not just saying that. I've read Looking for Alaska several times. He's one of my favorite contemporary writers. But I've never been able to understand the way he presents his minorities.

From his three most popular books we have Takumi, Lara Buterskaya, Hassan, and Marcus "Radar" Lincoln. At first glance, there's nothing wrong with these names. But when everything adds up, it only leads me to the conclusion that these three were included to be "hip" and "diverse". Especially since (with the exception of Takumi in the second half of LfA) they aren't treated as anything but "other."

Let's look at the three main male characters in LfA. Miles "Pudge" Halter, Chip "Colonel" Martin, and Takumi Hikohito. First odd thing? Why doesn't Takumi have a nickname if he's been best friends with Chip and Alaska since ninth grade?

Second odd thing? We know that Chip has a girlfriend and that he could get another if he wanted. We know that Miles has a girlfriend and Alaska thinks he's cute enough to cheat on her boyfriend with. But we never discover anything about Takumi's romantic relationships outside of his crush on Alaska and that he may have at one point lost his virginity. But, considering the context of that conversation, I'm sure it was a joke.

My biggest problem? Apparently, Takumi also played a part in letting Alaska go. Because he couldn't have been an innocent bystander. He had to be the last person to see her alive, therefore, shifting the blame (in the reader's eyes) from Miles and Chip to him.

And what is Lara's purpose? She's there to be Miles' girlfriend. That's it. And she loves sex. Granted, Alaska loves sex as well, but she doesn't do anything but kiss Miles. Besides, there's not enough space for a discussion on manic pixies in this post.

One instance of the minority without a romantic life, or the minority with an overblown sex life and not much else, wouldn't bother me. But then I read An Abundance of Katherines. And I was introduced to Hassan.

Hassan is a muslim. A fat, happy, friendly muslim. He cracks a lot of jokes and doesn't have a character arc outside of being that fat, happy best friend. When he does get a girlfriend, she cheats on him with TOC (the other Colin) in the woods. This is a plot device that revolves around the nerdy white male character who ends up getting a girlfriend from this entire chain of events.

Their names coupled with their obvious otherness and the fact that they get no sex, unlike the geeky white male characters, bother me. If it was in one book, fine. But two? It's a little bothersome.

And then there's Radar. What's the big joke surrounding him? His parents have a house full of black Santas. That's it. I have no idea why white people think "black" automatically makes something funny. But, apparently Will Gluck thinks so because:

Case #2: Easy A

Easily one of the best worst movies I've seen in a while, Easy A managed to piss me off by using "black" as a joke not once, but twice. I read the script for the movie. The adopted black boy bit was not in the version I read. Why is that funny? They adopted a black kid and this is a joke because... ?

And then, in the end of the movie, the gay white boy running off with the black dude was funny because... ? Can someone explain why this is humorous? And not even Barry Lyga is exempt.

Case #3: Boy Toy and The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl

Once again we have the "sex with a black dude is funny" joke. In two books that reference each other. Also, we have a dick joke referencing penis size. Yeah, not funny. But, whatever. Don't get me wrong, Cal isn't a bad character. But he's the super racial minority. Not only is he handsome, but he's into sports, has lots of sex, and he's also kind, smart, and hangs out with the geekiest kid in school. And, in case you forgot, he's BLACK. He's the friendly black kid who hangs out with the geeky white boy so you know the main character is hip and progressive.

Case #4: Glee

Where do I begin? We have the sassy fat black girl who never grows out of being the sassy fat black girl. Did I mention that she's sassy? And black? And fat? Because the show doesn't cease to remind you of this every five minutes. Ryan Murphy must think his audience is composed of amnesiacs who can't remember basic facts from one minute to the next.

Then we have the Asian girl and her Asian boyfriend and yes, they're Asian and Murphy doesn't cease to shove this down your throat time and time again. And, apparently, it's some kind of joke. Eh, I find it tiresome. He rips material from early 90's kid's shows that were trying very hard to be diverse, spins it as a joke, and plays the "well, it's only a joke and look -- here's a message to show that this is wrong before we do it again because it's satire".

What's an Asian F? An A-. How many times have I heard a joke like this? Does he even try to lampshade the trope? Eh, no. Southpark does a better job with its minorities. Yeah, you heard that right. Chef and Token are more progressive than the entire cast of Glee.
Apparently the mere fact of acknowledging them excuses them. It's not a stereotype if you know it's a stereotype, because then it's satire. You don't even have to subvert or challenge the stereotype in any way. As long as you know about it.

That's the power of knowledge.

Glee gives us a central cast consisting entirely of stereotypes, and does nothing to challenge them.
For more, read this.

I am sick of writers who define their characters by their race. I am sick of writers who leave a minority spot open so their white characters look like uber cool hipsters with black/Asian friends. I am sick of writers who combine all of their diversity points into one character while leaving the rest of the cast white and straight.

When I can pick your minority out amongst your cast of straight white characters, you have a problem. They're sticking out because you put them in there to be diverse. And it shows. It's awkward for me, a racial minority, to groan through your token moments. It reads that you must flash your little red light again and again to show that this character is different from your main white characters because, if it's that important, why is the rest of your cast (you know, 98% of it) white?


Note: I'm not claiming that any of the above writers are racist, or that you're racist for enjoying their material.