Category Archives: Opinion Piece

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Looking To Get Your Name Out There?

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“So You Agree? You Think You’re Really Pretty?”

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“So You Agree? You Think You’re Really Pretty?”

In 2015, 18-year-old blogger Gweneth Batemen conducted a personal experiment: when men on social media complemented her on her appearance she would acknowledge that what they said was true. The men would usually revoke the complement as if Batemen’s confirmation somehow voided the fact that she was physically attractive. Whether she was polite or snarky to the people in question, the replies were the same: the men would retract their compliment as if her being attractive was something they could and give or take away depending on whether they liked her response.

A lot of readers saw exactly what was going on: these guys were acting like they were the gatekeepers of Batemen’s beauty and validity. And why shouldn’t they? That’s how it works according to our culture. Young women are often conditioned to take whatever affirmation or validation they’re handed rather than building up their own. That’s why, in Mean Girls, it threw Regina George for such a loop when Cady Heron responded, “Thank you,” to a complement, resulting in the line, “So, you agree? You think you’re really pretty?” 

Mean Girls is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the phenomenon. Other movies, TV shows, songs, and yes, even books reinforce the idea that young women have to be perceived beautiful before they can see it in themselves, especially is the perceiver is a love interest.

We all know the cliché: a shy bookish girl sees herself as plain, unattractive and uninteresting no matter what anyone around her says. Then her potential boyfriend shows up and helps her see how beautiful and wonderful she really is, triggering a boost in confidence, which is usually followed by a makeover. It’s either that or the protagonist simply doesn’t care about her appearance at all.

There seems to be a shortage of healthy middle ground: female protagonists who actually see themselves as beautiful before prince charming shows up or learn it on their own through the course of the book. They’re definitely out there—Rose from Vampire Academy and Sophie from Howl’s Moving Castle come to mind—but I’d say they’re definitely a minority.

I understand that seeing yourself as beautiful can be hard. Growing up I was a chubby girl with frizzy hair, a crossed eye and thick bushy eyebrows, so trust me. I get it. It’s something a lot of girls and women struggle with, but what really sounds like it would have a more positive impact on readers: a girl who looks like them who has to be told she’s pretty by a boy who doesn’t exist, or a girl who looks like them and validates her features on her own as she kicks butt and saves the day?

Personally, I like the second better. I wish I had seen more stories like that growing up. It’s something to model yourself after instead of something to chase. We don’t just need characters that look like us, we need characters we want to imitate. I would rather imitate someone who sees herself as beautiful and worthy to be heard and seen, with or without a love interest, than someone who constantly needs it from an outside source. I’m not saying outside validation and compliments are bad, but they should be icing on the cake. We should strive for more than compliments. We should strive for confidence in ourselves and we should encourage others to do the same, even with characters if your craft so requires.

So, to all the writers out there, I encourage you to preform your own experiments. Write girls who love themselves. Write girls who learn to love and validate themselves through their own strength and the help of people other than their potential boyfriends. Give them flaws other than insecurity about their appearance and low self-esteem as you give them admirable strengths. Readers, pay attention to stories with these characters and share them with your friends. Encourage each other and encourage yourself because, whether your real-life prince shows up or not, at the end of the day we’re all we’ve really got.

All Mean Girls-related material copyrighted by Paramount Pictures. Image originally hosted on billboard.com

 

“Love Stinks”: A Cynic’s Look at the Romantic Genre

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“Love Stinks”: A Cynic’s Look at the Romantic Genre

Despite popular mockery and academic criticism, it continues to outsell every genre, including Classic Literature, year after year. In 2014 alone, Americans spent 1.08 billion dollars on these books and it has sparked some the most popular, and most hated, franchises in the last ten years with no signs of slowing down. I’m, of course, talking about Romance: A genre I have spent my entire adult life avoiding like the plague.

Mention Nicholas Sparks and my eyes nearly roll out of my head. Any talk of “50 Shades of Grey” makes me cringe. Bring up “You Before Me” and I just about have a hernia. Romance has always been a genre that earned my skepticism and annoyance, if not flat-out scorn, depending on the book. Its appeal just never made sense to me.

Before I go any further, I feel like I should mention that I don’t actually think love stinks. I think Jamie and Claire in “Outlander” are the ultimate power couple, I’m happy Katniss ended up with Peta at the end of “Mockingjay,” and the only “Walking Dead” characters I still care about are Glen and Maggie, but those relationships all take place within a bigger story. It’s when the whole catalyst for a book or movie is romance that I don’t understand and its huge popularity flat out baffles me. So, like any modern day free-time scholar, I hit up Google to see if I could find some answers.

The first and least believable hypothesis I came across is that the appeal of romance boils down to biology. At first glance, it makes sense. Our culture teaches that women are relational creatures who want stable marriages with men that would provide for their children, as opposed to men who are said to be visual and supposedly have to be dragged into such relationships, so it makes sense that books designed for women would focus on romantic relationships that lead to commitment. A study that appeared in the Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology in 2009 looked at 15,000 Harlequin romance novels and, just by the titles alone, concluded that women go to these novels because of the strong, financially secure heroes that could easily provide for and protect a family (“Friday Weird Science”). However, on a closer look, this idea falls apart.

For starters, the study itself doesn’t hold up. The words features in titles that feed into the marriage-and-baby hypothesis don’t actually show up that frequently. The most common word in this category, “Bride,” only showed up in 5.5% of the 15,000 titles. Other words such as “Baby,” “Marriage,” and “Husband,” showed up even less frequently. So, even though those were some of the most common words, I don’t think they were common enough to say these ideas are what draw women to romance. This also signals another issue with this hypothesis: there’s too much variety. The fact that there are so many subgenres signals that these books are written to appeal to multitudes of different women from different sub-cultural backgrounds. If the appeal was based on women’s biological need for marriage and children, there would be more consistency in the love interests’ personalities and backgrounds across the subgenres. Instead, each category speaks to different women’s taste and, to some extent, their desires and fantasies.

The second explanation, which I think holds more water, is that romance allows women to fantasize about what they desire from romantic partners, particularly when it comes to sex. This especially makes sense considering how expansive and, shall we say, creative the erotica genre is on Amazon has come to be. Not to mention the (rather unfortunate) overnight popularity of “50 Shades of Grey.” It’s no secret that our culture breaks into a moral panic whenever women, both famous celebrities and the girl next door, express any interest in anything remotely sexual (Ungar-Sargon). We, as a people, dislike the idea so much that we’ve created a whole slew of hateful names and terms for such women. So, why not retreat into the pages of a book to explore such desires free of any judgment?

There’s also the fact that there aren’t any real consequences with reading romantic fiction. Readers can run away with the hero, fall in love then shut the book or turn off their e-reader with no harm done. Many books are even written for such a purpose. A lot of romances feature heroines that are described in relatively little detail so that the reader can place herself in her shoes while, on the other hand, the hero is described in excruciating detail (Fisher). Stephanie Meyer has even said that’s why she wrote Bella as such a lifeless pawn I mean a blank slate. It allows the reader to put themselves in her shoes and escape to Forks, Washington for a while.

As much as I think this theory has an element of truth, I think its applicability is rather limited. As popular as erotic fiction has become, it’s only one subgenre of romantic fiction and, while sex may be a part of the others, it’s typically only a very small portion of a story that focuses on much bigger elements of a relationship and life in general. There’s also the fact that half of romance readers are already married (Rodale). You can’t seriously tell me that most of those women are desperately looking to escape the relationship they already have. So, there has to be more to explain romance’s appeal to so many women. There must be a reason there are so many diverse stories, character backgrounds, and love interests, despite most of them ending in “Happily Ever After.” Turns out, the answer was right in front of my face: these are hopeful stories about women.

Over the years, romance has gotten the bad rap for being about helpless damsels who constantly need to be saved, but the more I think about it, the more I think this is pretty unfair. There are plenty of helpless, useless, downright aggravating women in other genres, but their genres aren’t given nearly as hard of a time for it. Many people who read and write romance cite the popularity of terrible titles for the reputation, which, given just how truly terrible hot-button romance titles have been in recent years, I’m inclined to believe them. These authors and reads also talk about how most romance novels today feature working women, emphasize the importance of economic independence, and, in a world of hook-ups and dating apps, there are still good men worth waiting for (Bateman).  There’s also the fact that romance fiction reinforces the validity of women’s wants and needs in a time when something so basic and universal is politicized and sometimes even villainized (Crusie). If a woman wants to advance her career, she’s somehow neglecting her family. If she wants to focus on being a mother, she’s too dependent on her husband’s paycheck. If she wants marriage but doesn’t want kids, she’s selfish. If she has a checkered past, no matter the reason, she’s “broken” and unworthy of love. Romance, as a huge, diverse, and ever-changing genre, takes all of that, throws it to the wind and tells the reader that truly happy ending are possible, but in our increasingly cynical culture, that hope is seen as a bad thing.

One argument against romance that I’ve heard repeatedly, and that I even believed until doing this research, is that such hope is unrealistic. It’s much more believable for stories to end in some element of tragedy. However, life isn’t just made up of tragedy any more than it’s made up purely of happy endings. Well-written romance (and yes, by now, I’ve read a few for research’s sake) aren’t usually made up only of happy things, anyway. They tackle complicated real-world issues in the context of a developing romantic relationship and, more often than not, the protagonist and her lover triumph together over these issues the end. This results in a reoccurring theme that crosses sub-genre and audience distinctions alike: “We can be happy. Regardless of who we are or where we’ve been, we’re worthy of love, redemption, and personally fulfillment. Happy endings are real.”

That raises an interesting question: when did the idea of happy endings in the real world become something so unbelievable that reading about it became something to be mocked and scorned? That’s a question that will take more soul searching and research than I have left in this article to explore.

So, after all this reading, research, and thought, can I say I like romance? Absolutely not. I still prefer my books filled with magic, explosions, action, new worlds and concepts, and mystery. And the “You Before Me”-induced hernia is still a real possibility, let me assure you. However, I can see the appeal of the genre itself. It lets women explore sides of themselves and walks of life that are often either considered taboo or they have limited access to. A reader can pick up a romance novel and explore how love and courtship work on the other side of the world or in an Amish community, my grandmother’s personal favorite, or they can figure out what turns them on. More often, however, they can catch a glimpse of the world in a brighter, hopeful light. They can imagine endings where women, who might be very much like them, can find love, happiness, and fulfillment in a larger culture that’s constantly telling that such desires are unrealistic or impossible. It’s hope such as this that makes both the romance reader and writer worthy of admiration rather than scorn, even if their tastes might differ from our own.

I only got to really explore three reasons why women read romance, but I’m sure there must be more. Leave a comment below with the reasons you like or dislike romance, regardless of your gender. I’d love to see what you think!

Work Cited

Fisher, Maryanne Ph.D. “How Much Do Romance Novels Reflect Women’s Desires?” Psychology Today. 16 July 2010. Web. 01 July 2016.

Bateman, Freddie. “Why is the Romance Genre so Popular?” Linkedin. 15 May 2015. Web. 01 July 2016.

“Romance Reader Statistics.” Romance Writers of America. 2014. Web. 01 July 2016.

Rodale, Maya. “Who is the Romance Novel Reader?” The Huffington Post. 07 May 2016. Web. 02 July 2016.

Crusie, Jennifer. “Romancing Reality: The Power of Romance Fiction to Reinforce and Re-Envision the Real.” Paradoxa: Studies in World Literary Genres. Number 1-2, 1997: 81-83. Jennycruise.com. Web. 03 July 2016. 

Ungar-Sargon, Matya. “Can You Enjoy Romance Fiction and be a Feminist?” Aeon.co. 25 Sept 2015. Web. 03 July 2016.

“Friday Weird Science: The Evolutionary Psychology of the Romance Novel.” Scienctopia.org. 21 Dec 2012. Web. 03 July 2016. 

Featured image from clipartpanda.com

Article originally featured on tabbyafae.com on July 28 2016.

She Looks Like Me–Reflections on Diversity

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ItMe

The picture to the left is me. My father is a fair-skinned black man and my mother is an EXTREMELY fair-skinned white woman, which is why I look the way I do. Due to my mixed heritage, I have a very complicated relationship with my unbelievably curly hair. When it grows, it doesn’t get long, it gets big.  And by big I mean huge. Like, routinely-loose-bobby-pins-in-it-I-am-not-kidding-that-actually-happens huge, which is why I wear it short.  It’s also why I get extremely excited when I meet other girls, primarily mixed and black girls, with hair like mine. I feel like it gives us an instant connection to build on and, if they wear their hair long, I can’t help but admire their patience. I’ve struck up long engaging conversation with total strangers just with complements about their hair, questions about products, and thoughts on styles.

I form a similar connection with fictional characters and other images in media. I can be walking through a book store, browsing the internet, or flip through TV channels and I will stop when I see a woman with crazy-curly hair and verbalize my excitement.

“Wow, I love her hair.”

“Cute curls.”

“Hey, she looks like me!”

It’s a very natural human response. Most of us feel a small internal spark when we realize we identify with others whether through interests, style of dress, hobbies, or for many minorities, something as simple as a shared skin tone.  It looks like more and more creators are recognizing this connection and implementing it by including more people of color in their works. Personally, I couldn’t be happier.

Others, it seems, see this as a problem. It feels like every other day there’s some enraged white gamer, movie-goer, or TV-viewer who complains about “token minorities” or “pandering” simply because a character doesn’t look like them. Heck, minor characters that die can’t even be a minority without sparking some sort of outrage. Remember Rue from “The Hunger Games?” Yeah, those angry tweets were fun to read.

It’s not like white characters are dwindling that much in America. Regardless of genre or medium, most stories today still feature white main characters that live in primarily white cultures. There are still thousands of well-written white characters for people to share that spark with—a spark white people in this country have so much of that they don’t even realize it’s there until someone else gets the chance to experience it. Then they write the character or story off and don’t give it a chance. This is often followed by some notion that the story is unbelievable because it doesn’t line up with their preconceived notions about the minority group in question, resulting in the loss of an opportunity to learn something new about their fellow human beings.

One of my favorite fictional characters is Korra from Avatar: The Legend of Korra. She’s confident, brave, self-assured, strong, and isn’t afraid to speak her mind when she sees that something isn’t right—all traits I aspire to have (I also aspire to have her muscles, but I digress). Alongside Korra’s strengths, I also love her flaws. Many talents come naturally to her, so she quickly gets frustrated when she’s not good at something right away.  Her desire to right wrongs sometimes leads her to act without thinking and she struggles to find her own identity in the face of other’s expectations and her own failures. These are all things I personally face from time to time, so it’s comforting and inspiring to see someone else overcome them, even if they are a fictional character with superpowers.

Like I mentioned before, I’m mixed and pass as white. In our world Korra would probably be considered Inuit, judging by the way her culture looks and operates in the show. We couldn’t look more different or come from more different cultures, but here’s the thing: our race doesn’t matter. Our joint experiences do. The differences between me and Korra only make me more interested in her. I love witnessing where she comes from, the culture that helped shape her, and the unique challenges it presents to her. Our differences provide me a chance to think a little differently and look at a new world with a sense of wonder. I also marvel at the fact that the creators of both The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra managed to integrate East Asian philosophes into kids’ shows flawlessly but again, I digress.

Instead of looking at characters of color as a challenge or a threat, what if we looked at them as chances to show empathy towards people of color, who probably are happy to see more people like them in popular media, and a chance to learn about ourselves and the people around us? Or to learn about the society that has shaped the way we see each other? If people stopped making such vain and self-centered complains and focused on the stories in front of them, I think a lot of people would see that there aren’t as many differences between people as they thought, as cliché as that sounds. I also think people would realize that the differences between us are worth studying and understanding so that we can coexist better in this country. Again, cliché, but true.

So, if you routinely get upset when a character doesn’t look like you, stop. Take a breath. Let a person who does look like that character enjoy a connection you’ve probably enjoyed hundreds of times before. Then, give that character a chance. Let them teach you and take those lessons with you. Stories are some of the best lessons we have in regards to the human condition. Don’t waste such an opportunity.

If such things don’t bother you, call out people who complain. Question them. Make them think and reflect because, while stories are excellent lessons, sometimes we need teachers to get them across. I see no reason why it shouldn’t me and you.

Featured on tabbyafae.com on July 28, 2016

“I’m not like THAT”: Thoughts on the “Drive-By Gay Phenomenon”

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We interrupt the book reviews to bring you some personal opinions and food for thought.

No matter the medium, it seems like entertainment is playing a key role in society’s acceptance of LGBT+ people. It still has a long way to go, like the rest of the world, but one can’t deny that queer characters are showing up more frequently on our screens and in our books. From Cam and Mitch on Modern Family, to Cosima and Delphine on Orphan Black, to Alec and Magnus in The Mortal Instruments book series, and Sophia Burset on Orange is the New Black, it looks like many writers are starting to realize that it’s possible to write gay and trans characters well and that audiences want to watch and read their stories. However, there’s also a good amount of writers, including authors, that seem to think that simply mentioning gay and trans identities is enough to count as representation or make good comic relief.

“You met someone? She’s actually a woman, right?”

“I’m not, you know, like that. I’m into women.”

“Do you think Stacy and Marcy are, you know, a thing?”

I call this the “Drive-By Gay” phenomenon: suspicion is raised about a character’s sexuality or gender, but the character turns out to be straight and cis-gendered*, so the topic never comes up again.

On the one hand, I think I see what these writers are trying to do. Like everyone else, they’re becoming increasingly aware of the possibility that someone they meet, or a character they write, could be queer.  They’re trying to be sensitive to that possibility.

On the other hand, since so often these characters turn out to be exactly what we expect, straight and cis-gendered, presenting the possibility of a queer identity just ends up filling up a few lines on a page and amounting to nothing. The accusations don’t further the story or develop the characters. To me, these moments feel like the author is trying to appear open-minded without putting in the effort to actually include queer characters in their stories.

I’m not saying such questions aren’t believable. I’ve been part of plenty of hushed conversations where my friends and I wonder if someone we know is gay, but the difference is that there are times when our suspicions are confirmed. With the “Drive-By Gay” phenomenon, odds are the reader already knows that the character in question is straight or they have assumed so because, let’s face it, 99% of the characters we see are straight. Other characters might be just discovering this, but it’s not a revelation that alters the story at all or develops the characters.

So why do we do this? Is it just to be amusing? To put our characters in an awkward situation for the sake of a laugh? Or is it, as I hypothesized before, so we can look more open-minded and accepting in front of our readers? Our straight readers, I mean, because most queer readers who actually want to see queer characters are not impressed by the “Drive-By Gay” phenomenon.

I’m not here to tell anyone what stories to tell or what kind of characters to include. And before anyone flips out in the comments, I’m not saying to flood your stories with queer characters. Most writers are straight and most readers are straight. I get that. However, it would just be nice to have the “Is so-and-so gay?” question come up and the answer be “yes” every once in a while, if, for nothing else, the sake of variety. After all, having a character actually be gay or trans makes your writing look a lot more progressive than a bait-and-switch or a punchline.

What do you think about the “Drive-By Gay” phenomenon? Do you think writer do it just to be funny, or are they trying to look progressive? Does it actually work? Do you notice that the phenomenon shows up in certain genres than others, or have you never noticed it before? Leave a polite comment below and tell me what you think.