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Stewart Hotston

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Captain Marvel has a problem

The problem is not with the film – which is an excellent entry into the series. The problem is with the standards it’s being held to.

Apparently she’s ‘not emotional enough’, ‘not vulnerable enough’, there’s not enough interiority, there’s not enough for us to know who she is as a person. These criticisms have come from both sides of the aisle and a surprising number of them have come from people who you’d think would take a moment to listen to how they sound when read out loud.

I’ve read that it’s no Black Panther, as if every film has to be that one (and let’s set aside the issues with that comparison for a moment – we’ll come back to it).

At the same time she’s ‘too powerful’, telling girls they can take on ‘200lb men’ and therefore has no dramatic tension.

My response to these criticisms can effectively be summed up as ‘sexist much?’

I did think about taking each of the, by turns, more or less subtle sexist tropes reviewers and commentators have rolled out to justify why this can’t possibly deserve a bunch of plaudits but hey, I’m going to have a rant instead.

Carol Danvers doesn’t need to impress you. She doesn’t need to prove herself. She’s a character with a military background who’s fought her way to being taken seriously by being disciplined, risk taking, self controlled, brilliant and defiant. She hasn’t done it by taking on your advice about being personable, vulnerable or seeking to please decision makers. One of the most insidious forms of control men use on women (and whites on non-whites) is to demand that not only do they do it better than their peers but that they have to be nice and never get angry while they do it. Don’t get angry when you’re treated bad, don’t object to dismissal, don’t vent when the mediocre are promoted ahead of you or when the very design of the system prefers others. The risk of being emotional (or at least showing how the system being stacked against you makes you feel) is always weaponised against you.

‘Ah,’ they say. ‘We were right to distrust you, you’re clearly not in control, you’re clearly a risk.’ And when you’re pleasing, they say ‘well they’re eager to please, they probably can’t stand up when they need to.’ The structure is to provide no route to winning trust because it was never going to be given in the first place.

Carol Danvers achieved being a fighter pilot despite that environment which the film makers deliver without being ‘on point’, without sticking in your face.

And what about Tony Stark? Or Thor? Overpowered much? Check. Brooding idiots much? Check. Refusing to be vulnerable? Check. Called out on it….oh, is that tumbleweed?

The double standards about Captain Marvel are everywhere (except for the wonderful Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo who review it as if it’s any other film). It’s dispiriting to see women demanding Carol Danvers display an emotional core they don’t ask of Bruce Banner or Steve Rogers. It’s less surprising but just as annoying to see men objecting to her power, to the fact she’s not epitomising some socially constructed feminine ideal (and if otherwise utterly brilliant Wonder Woman has a fault, apart from it’s unnecessary third act, it’s this – Gal Gadot’s body is as much the star of the film for the camera as is the character).

This film is political – it says women don’t need mens’ permission to be themselves, they don’t need society’s permission and they don’t need other womens’ permission either. They can be good, bad, strong or weak all by themselves.

Is Captain Marvel any good? For me? Yes, I think it’s up there with Thor Ragnarok. It’s not about men struggling to find their purpose, it’s not about bromancial conflict, it’s not about who’s got the bigger dick powers. She’s not a genius, she’s not a billionaire, she’s not a member of a royal family and nor is she destined for greatness. Like Captain America, she’s someone who fought hard for what was important to her, struggled with being accepted BECAUSE of what she wanted in life and overcame on her own terms. It is the best origin story since Captain America – the first avenger and in large part because it follows many of the same beats. However, it doesn’t need a love interest like Steve did and she isn’t actualised in finding a lover to give her meaning.

It’s also about imperialism and in that sense it’s a direct counter to Black Panther. One of my problems with Black Panther is that it’s basically the same old ‘a son ruling by divine right has a crisis but overcomes his enemy to establish that he is the right person to RULE EVERYONE ELSE AS A TYRANT.

Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse and now Captain Marvel have both demonstrated a new story – the everyperson overcoming because they are who they are and that’s like us (mostly). You may be the type of person who wants ‘the special’ to rule over us or prove they’re the right person to be in charge but me? I like democracy thanks and I like being able to think for myself and change the world around me. Hey, you probably dislike The Last Jedi for the same reasons – because a nobody changes the world and the maverick (man) bungles it every step along the way. If you are, please let me have your vote because you don’t really want it do you.

In terms of what the film says to my daughter Captain Marvel is better than Black Panther. In terms of what it says to my son, it’s better than Black Panther.

As a film? I think it’s really hard to compare them – they’re not the same thing. One is a large sprawling dynastic epic the other a small, almost parochial story about the right to be who we want to be. It’s like asking which of The Magnificent Seven and Ghostbusters is the better war movie.

Go see this movie – it has amazing role models (and I don’t just mean for women). Go see it because it’s full of joy. Go see it because, frankly, I want to see more movies like this and I want to rub it in the faces of the giant man babies finding ever more spurious and tiny handed reasons to object to anyone other than them being portrayed as godlike.

Slavery

If you follow this blog even a little you’ll have read posts from me about racism, inequality and other related themes over the years. However, it’s in reading the three books I want to talk about here that have really challenged me over the last year.

WARNING – I use racial terms some of you may find uncomfortable or offensive. This is not meant as anything except a review of how these books have effected me but consider this your trigger warning.

The first of the three is Lincoln’s biography by Doris Kearns Goodwin. It’s a book that is epic in its scope and puts a number of subjects into sharp focus for me. The first of these is the cause of the civil war in the US. It’s clear it was about slavery, it’s also clear from this startling work that modern debates about ‘heritage’ mean slavers’ heritage of being able to claim that it’s ok to enslave non-whites because they’re sons of Ham, and it’s ok to treat them as worse than cattle (for what farmer would beat their cattle to death with regular abandon?). From Goodwin’s meticulous description of the events of the time, it’s very clear that the heritage argument is one for white people being at the centre of all and for everyone else to be disenfranchised.

Furthermore, I have very few heroes but Lincoln is one of them. A flawed man capable of change, of growth and, most importantly, seeing how to get what he wanted – even if that took years to achieve. A man capable of welding together people from all walks of life, of winning them over and of creating coalitions capable of achieving more than anyone thought possible. My heart aches over the possibilities lost in the aftermath of his murder.

It also highlights just how dangerous it was to be someone who was abolitionist. It wasn’t an opinion one had, it was, for those who were committed, a way of life that involved fighting, violence (both political and actual) and real danger. I suppose this isn’t different to most political movements – they’re founded on the recognition of incipient violence for a cause. This last point is one our political systems today suppress with every tool at their disposal because the possibility that we would be that politically conscious threatens the system most of us live within (and prosper from). It may feel that these people were the same as us but their lives appear, when you think through what they really faced, a distance from me that makes it an effort just to put myself in their shoes and imagine how they feel. Their concerns were different to ours, their perils alien and their fights distinct.

Although grounded in tales of individuals, the book delivers a grand political overview.

The work of fiction, The Underground Railroad, delivers the personal account to go with the political of Lincoln. Set before Lincoln (and indeed, mashing up several periods of time to tell its story) the novel follows the life of Cora, a typical black slave living in the south of the United States. Owned. Referred to as it because property doesn’t have the dignity of being recognised as human or gendered.

It is a brutal book – in that it doesn’t flinch from detailing actual events and treatments of slaves as they happened. It’s easy to watch films and see slaves treated as indentured workers but this isn’t how it was for much of US slavery’s existence. With a sickening post-hoc rationalisation, white slave owning culture was comfortable with lynching people (both white and black) for helping slaves escape, it was comfortable with torture and that torture was carried out by children, women and men. Children informed on abolitionist parents. Runaways were lynched (if they were lucky) or tortured to death in public if they were unlucky.

In a sign that everyone knows that slavery is iniquitous, blacks are killed for learning to read and a black library becomes a focal point for white violence because it’s too many ideas for a negro. The culture was one of ‘natural order’ where White people were in charge and any ‘negro’ who thought beyond being a slave was uppity, dangerous, asking for it. Freedmen were killed by ‘recovery patrols’ with impunity because they’re only one step away from being chattel.

One argument was that to deal with the fact that there were more slaves than whites – sterilising them would solve the problem over time – especially it would help if they decided to rise up and treat the whites like they’d treated the blacks.

There is no freedom from slavery – even freedmen know this, their dreams replete with memories of beatings, of those who were killed or abused by those whose power over them was utter and unaccountable. Being oppressed twists the mind, breaks the heart in a way that may be impossible to recover from. It raises questions of whether, decades after the end of segregation, the US can safely conclude that the legacy of slavery and the suppression of the ‘other’ has passed or whether it continues to influence the culture, say in laws passed during Jim Crow, in basic cultural tropes and in the application of funding, judgements and a myriad other handles that impinge on civic life.

The character in the book is deeply suspicious of all whites. That may be unfair, but let’s be real – a slave has good cause to hold this view – even when a small minority give their own lives to help them. It questions whether there is a ‘black’ culture and challenges its own main character as to whether there is a ‘white’ culture. There’s reference to Europeans, Whites, Irish and the like. All of which the main character rejects even as the author makes sure to make the distinction. It’s a masterful presentation of the issues in and around a story that is deeply focussed on the personal disaster of being a slave from birth.

You may think Game of Thrones has a high body count (among it’s almost exclusively white cast) but this is worse because it’s not just murder, it’s the complete massacre of agency through repeated abuse followed, eventually, but the death of the body.

If the thought of slavery doesn’t make you sick you’ve either not understood it or there’s something wrong with you. It’s really that simple.

And so we come to the last of the three – The Sellout. This is a vicious, acid burning satire about living as a black person in the modern US. It’s about a black man who ends up owning a slave (who volunteers to become his slave) and the world they both live in that can find space for this relationship to arise and then how it responds to it.

It is harsh, whipcrack smart and extremely funny but it presents a society which I realised that although I’ve seen representations of elsewhere, is one I don’t know and one I don’t experience. It was more alien to me than both Lincoln and the life shown in The Underground Railroad. Which was a shock – that something contemporary was so much more alien than I expected.

Both novels are hard reads in their own way. I know plenty of people who will not read them because they present difficult subjects and all they want from their fiction is ‘escapism’. I lament the intellectual torpor of these peers of mine and I worry that their apathy is half of why the issues discussed in these books persisted for so long in the first place. Fiction like this should be essential reading because it can awaken the heart, it can shake us out of our comfortable self-indulgence. For people who claim to be ‘good’ or ‘moral’, fiction like this should demand their attention because it reminds us all that we’re really not very far away from such horrendous times. Moreso than any non-fiction, because fiction makes it personal and thrusts it into your face and asks you for your empathy.  Sorry – this is my ‘why fiction is so important’ rant.

I recommend all three books. They’ve each served to awaken my political sensibilities more than much of the news on the same subjects in the last year (although the two have worked together I’m sure). I’d start with The Underground Railroad because it’s the most personal, the most accessible.

In the end, slavery and its legacy is still very much alive for most of us both directly (for isntance, find a stone built house in Bath or Bristol not made possible by  the slave trade) or indirectly (US culture is so heavy with its legacy it’s impossible to list all the ways their language, tropes and stereotypes code slavery into the mainstream consciousness). This triplet of books opens a door into this discussion.

As a writer – these books have challenged me to present worlds and stories that take the lives of all those involved in these kinds of relationships more seriously. It’s a frightening task that I know I’m not up to.

 

Zero K review

Don DeLillo is a Big American Writer. A gorilla in the jungle of authors feted by critics and publishers alike. This book appears, at first, like it might be science fiction – it’s about cryogenics, end of the world politics and billionaires hiding away their wealth so that they can have it when they wake up. Except these things are really nothing more than surface details. The story follows an estranged son whose step mother is dying, who is going to be frozen so that she can be awoken when technology is advanced enough for her to be healed.

The son has a father, a billionaire who he’s never forgiven for leaving his biological mother. He has daddy issues. But then the father has existential issues of his own.

The themes are deeply wrought throughout the text: the death of babyboomers who thought mortality was a thing they’d never have to contend with if they only worked hard enough; the pain of children whose parents have everything, whose standard of living can only fall by comparison; the alienation of the rest of the world who has watched the West’s prosperity pass them by. Except it’s also about how one would chose anywhere other than the West for the emergence of the future, about how our identity is, in the end, in what we are, the space we fill, the people we live among. And finally, but far from least, the idea that art is what makes life worth living, what gives it meaning and that without it, we should be bereft and ready to pass on the the next world.

I don’t know if the book succeeds in addressing these issues, but it does lay them out and ask the reader questions of their own about what it is that makes us, us and whether we find meaning in the lives we lead. I enjoyed it but more as an exercise in thinking through the ideas contained within than in the journey of the characters themselves.

Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu

Imagine if we found a way of letting the rest of the galaxy know we were there? Imagine it was a mistake, that it happened at a period of time in which your culture was undergoing violent upheaval. Imagine if you hated everything about the world in which you were forced to endure.

This is the premise of Cixin Liu’s opening book in the Three Body Problem trilogy.

It’s fascinating to see a story of this type told from a non-western point of view. It’s also fascinating to see it develop according to good science as well as exploring the issues of such a situation without resorting to cheap gimmicks or requiring the characters to have melodramatic awakenings or background ‘issues’. There’s no sense of the maverick detective with personal issues cliche here.

It’s a tremendous book and I’d heartily recommend it – it’s real companion is the recent movie – Arrival – which talks through some of the same issues but from a completely different starting point.

In terms of downsides, there is a reasonable amount of plot discussion and sometimes a little more internal monologue could have been used to help the reader understand what was going on but these are small quibbles.

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