I was never a member of The Baby-Sitters Club

I’ve had The Baby-Sitters Club books on my mind recently. It might be because Roxane Gay wrote about the Sweet Valley High books in a few of the essays in her book Bad Feminist. I never got into Sweet Valley High, and I didn’t feel a strong need to identify with either twin (I probably would have picked Elizabeth), but for a few years, I really cared about which Baby-Sitters Club member I was.

I sometimes felt like Kristy, even though I didn’t play sports and I didn’t have a short temper and I don’t think I was bossy. I dressed kind of like her (although several of my classmates wore jeans, turtlenecks, and sweatshirts in grade three or whatever) and I sometimes felt more comfortable hanging out with boys than with other girls because boys weren’t socialized to tear each other apart.

I also sometimes felt like Mary Anne, because I had a lot invested in being well-behaved and I was kind of shy. But then I had a friend who I knew (or thought?) would always be better behaved than I was, and who was also very much into The Baby-Sitters Club, so I felt weird claiming the Mary Anne identity when it fit this other person so much better. But I guess we sometimes shared it.

I couldn’t be Claudia, because I was a good student and I got along well with my family and my fashion sense wasn’t as creative as hers. Or at least I thought it wasn’t. I actually did dress kind of weird.

I saw myself in Stacey a little bit. I was from a big city like she was, but that didn’t set me apart from anyone at school because we all lived in downtown Toronto. I wore a lot of black like she did, but I don’t think that ever made me look sophisticated, possibly because I was eight.

I definitely wasn’t California hippie tofu-loving Dawn, but maybe I’ve become more like her in recent years.

I didn’t think much about whether I would be a Jessi or a Mallory, and I wonder now if they were a bit low on personality. Their Wikipedia descriptions are on the short side. I think Jessi’s main traits were that fact that she was a ballerina (I danced too, but in Baby-Sitters Club land that meant you needed to always want to dance, which was not a thing in my world) and the fact that people were racist to her family (possibly to remind the reader that she was the black one). And Mallory just always seemed miserable with her huge family and not liking the way she looked, and that really wasn’t me at all.

And I stopped reading before I really got to know the other characters. But that’s probably enough about the characters (and me). My question now is, why do people need to do this? Why do we need to pick one character in a crowd to identify with? Because maybe some people don’t do this, but I know I’m not the only one who does, and I did it with other books and TV shows and movies, not just The Baby-Sitters Club. But it’s weird, because I’ve never met anyone whose personality actually matches up with a fictional character’s. And when someone in my life does remind me of a character it’s always in an unexpected and kind of weird way, not in a way that makes them an exact copy of that character. I mean, fictional characters are either too simple and archetypical to feel authentically like any real person, or so complex and rounded out that the likelihood of an actual person having their exact combination of personality traits and life experiences is way small.

I guess there’s something comforting about finding someone I can identify with and seeing how they interact with (and are loved and accepted by) people who are different from them, but since none of my friend groups ever really feels like the same mixture of people that I read about in The Baby-Sitters Club (or met in any other story), that identification often ends up feeling a bit hollow.

Also, I really wonder if it’s a coincidence that the two characters I identified with most were the two who had the same hair and eye colour as me. It probably isn’t, which just reinforces the fact that articles like this one (it says that the pendulum has now swung to far in the direction of diverse casts of television shows) are a load of crap. When I was a kid, I had enough white girl characters to pick from that I could sometimes narrow them down based on hair and eye colour, and maybe even height and body type, and still make choices based on personality. Diverse casts are important so that people can see characters that look like them AND act like them in multiple situations and at multiple stages in their lives, and it’s also important so that privileged white girls like me don’t think that the only characters that can really be like them are the ones who look like them.

(Also, Janet Mock and her Smart Ass Pop Culture Feminist Clique tore that article apart last week over here, and you should totally watch that video because her show is awesome.)


Missing in London

Some of the trees in London have really big leaves, and they cover the sidewalk because it’s fall (autumn too) and I step on them on my way to and from work every day. But they don’t crunch because the air here has too much moisture, I guess, so it feels a bit like biting into stale potato chips (crisps, not fries). I didn’t think I would miss the feeling of leaves crunching under my feet, and I don’t know if I would miss it so much if the sidewalks didn’t have such beautiful orange and yellow leaf carpets, but every step feels just a little unsatisfying and it makes me think that things are just inherently better in Toronto.

I think I’ve only read Canadian books since I got here. I love the way Dionne Brand writes about Toronto, but I didn’t like the end of What We All Long For. The timing just worked out a little too well and wrapped some things up a little too nicely, which felt weird considering how much she left unanswered. The rest of the book was so good, though. It’s exactly the kind of story I like to read. Green Grass, Running Water is also a really good book. I wonder if I would have liked it ten years ago.

Sometimes you only see a part of something and it looks really beautiful and majestic.

All pretty and black and white.

All pretty and black and white.

Then you see the whole thing up close and realize it’s actually a weird mix of hilarious and creepy.

Woah, those feet!

Woah, those feet!

Dinosaurs still live here.

(There’s no metaphor up there, in case you tried to look for one.)

Sometimes birds have awesome names.

I spend a lot of time with people younger than me.

I spend a lot of time with people younger than me.

Actually, many things in London have great names. I’ve taken the tube to both Cockfosters and Tooting. And speaking of transit, I don’t always get a table on my morning (or evening) commute, but getting one sometimes is a huge improvement over getting one never.

I took this picture two and a half weeks ago. I don't approve of Christmas-themed coffee cups coming out that early.

I took this picture two and a half weeks ago. I don’t approve of Christmas-themed coffee cups coming out that early.

Transit here is infinitely better than transit back home. I hate having such a long commute but I don’t mind the scenery on the pretty trains I get to ride. And, while I would rather not wake up as early as I have to, I never wake up and wish I didn’t have to go to work. I miss my students in Canada but I also really like the ones I have here. I guess I picked the right job for me.

I’ve wanted a pet goat since I was 16. They’re friendly and funny and they have great butts.

No idea what that puddle is, though.

No idea what that puddle is, though.

Great smiles, too.

Kisses!

Kisses!

Don’t ever believe that elephants aren’t cool.

More kisses!

More kisses!

I’m a little annoyed that my finger got in the way of this picture, but it might have actually made the colours look more vibrant?

Splash!

Splash!


Racism still exists.

Little tiny Hunger Games spoilers in some of the pieces I’ve linked to.

Several months ago, I wrote a piece complaining about the whiteness of the cast of the Hunger Games movie. I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I’ve been paying attention to the response it’s gotten online, and this one thing has pissed me right off. Apparently some people really don’t like the fact that some sympathetic characters are black.

I don’t have much to say that hasn’t already been stated. A part of me is actually really surprised. I guess I sort of thought that that kind of overt racism was generally understood to be Not Okay, and that even if people had thoughts like that, they would at least refrain from posting them on the public internet. Maybe it’s better that they’ve stated them outright, because at least that way people can respond to them. Tim Wise spoke on the Melissa Harris-Perry show last Sunday about overt and covert racism in the context of the Trayvon Martin’s case (starting at around the 10:40 mark). I guess it’s good to get a reminder that racism still exists and we need to keep working to get rid of it.

But it’s still gross.

Also, one little thing I do want to add: Many people have responded to these racist comments by pointing out that Suzanne Collins describes Rue and Thresh as having dark skin in the book. This is obviously true, and maybe a good way to trip up people who claim to be huge fans of the books but don’t want those characters to be black. But that really isn’t the point, and it actually helps to show just how insidious whitewashing is in Hollywood. If Collins hadn’t specified the colour of their skin, would those racist comments be more justified? Obviously not. But white people have grown accustomed to seeing the characters that they identify with onscreen also look like them, so, unless otherwise specified, they assume by default that the characters they identify with onscreen should look like them. And, even when it is otherwise specified, it seems like some of them still make that assumption.


Review: The Hobbit

I finished reading The Hobbit over the weekend. I read slowly, and I started this book several weeks ago. I think it was around the beginning of October, but it might have been the end of September. So I feel proud of finishing it, especially when I was sure it would bore me. It didn’t, though. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

As I enjoyed it, however, I could not help but notice that it completely lacks a Smurfette. Not one. Part of me likes the fact that at least it didn’t turn into a love story, but the rest of me wishes that some of the dwarves were women, that some of the people (or Men, as Tolkein calls them) were women, that some of the Goblins and Wargs and Elves and Wizards were women. Smaug could have been a woman. The spiders could have been women. There is a woman spider in Lord of the Rings. I think she is one of four women in the entire trilogy. I can’t blame Tolkein completely for writing a story with no women in it. He’s a product of his time, in some ways, I guess. But it sucks. He should have written a few women in there.

As I get older and become more critical of the world around me, I find it easier to like things while I criticize them. I guess that’s the only option I have, since hating everything I see, not seeing anything at all, and ignoring the nagging criticisms I feel when I see sexist, racist, classist, ablist, homophobic, or otherwise bigoted things don’t feel like options at all. I can hate the fact that The Hobbit has no women in it while I love the story. I love how Gandalf leaves the dwarves and Bilbo to screw up so that Bilbo learns to step up and save everyone several times. I love how Bilbo feels like an impostor for using a ring to turn invisible, but then gets congratulated for being clever and resourceful for using the ring when he finds it. I love how Bilbo disregards direct orders and instructions, and everyone is better off for it. I love how conflicted Bilbo feels when he tricks Gollum and steals his ring, and how Gollum manages to come off as both despicable and sympathetic within one paragraph. I love how Beorn turns into a giant bear. I hate that the Goblins and the Wargs and Smaug are pure evil, with no motivation for their behaviour other than mischief or malice. I hate that we hear about the mothers of some of the characters we meet, but never once meet an actual woman. The things I hated didn’t take away from the things I loved, but I couldn’t ignore them. They were there, and I noticed them over and over and over again as I read.

There is a lot to learn from The Hobbit. There are lessons on friendship, on bravery, on greed, on compassion, even on good teaching practice (the way Gandalf behaves, mostly). But there are a few unintentional lessons too. Lessons like, don’t write a book with zero women. Lessons like, don’t write about pure evil. Thinking about those unintentional lessons that come from what I see as Tolkein’s mistakes doesn’t mean that I can’t enjoy the book. But it does mean that the next book I read will need to have several women in it who pass the Bechdel test several times, and will also need to have a slightly more nuanced take on the difference between good and evil. The world needs progress, and progress comes from pointing out problems and then fixing them. It doesn’t mean that the solution will be perfect. Progress never ends. But I think that if we want to move forward, we need to be able to critique things that we love.


Listen up, people who write suspenseful stories!

In the past week (I think; it might have been a little longer), I have been very disappointed by the payout in two suspenseful stories I was reading. They were both graphic novels, and I don’t think that has much to do with it, but actually now that I think about it, I remember that I was disappointed by the big reveal in another graphic novel I read a couple years ago. But anyway, I have some advice for you.

Don’t build up a secret identity/plot/piece of information/whatever very much. Having a secret and a bit of suspense around it is okay, but if you make it too big, my experience tells me that the reveal will suck for one of two reasons. The first is that it won’t be as spectacular as you made it out to be, and I’ll be annoyed that you manipulated me into feeling invested. The second is that you’ll make it such an intricate and spectacular identity/plot/piece of information/whatever that it will seem fairly ridiculous. Neither of those outcomes makes me a happy reader.

It’s possible for stories to keep me in suspense without pissing me off. (I’m not sure it’s possible for real people to do this, however.) A few examples of books that did this, that I can think of pretty easily, are the Harry Potter books, Game of Thrones (I’ve only read that one so I can’t comment on the rest of the series), the Hunger Games trilogy, and Jitterbug Perfume. Actually, I think I figured out at least part of the reveal of Jitterbug Perfume before the book revealed it, and I still wanted to keep reading to see what happened. I think the trick is to not have the entire story, or even most of it, revolving around a big secret. That’s probably the easiest way to make a story compelling, but it frustrates me and makes me think you might be lazy. So, writers of this kind of fiction, because I know you want me to like your work, please stop doing that.

Also, on a very related note, the Buffy the Vampire Slayer comics turned one of my favourite characters into a snore. I think there was something really special on the screen that just didn’t translate very well to written word and drawn image, but I’m disappointed.


The future looks pretty white.

I probably shouldn’t be surprised, since I sometimes watch movies and tv shows, and since I frequently read things on the internet that talk about how frustrating and annoying it is that movies and tv shows star mostly white people, but for some reason, I expected something different from Hunger Games.

I came across a link to a search for the main cast of the Hunger Games movie. Most of the cast are people I haven’t heard of (either because they aren’t very famous or I haven’t been paying attention; probably a combination of the two) and I have no opinion on how well any of the cast will play the characters. But I’m annoyed that I clicked through twelve of the eighteen main actors before coming across someone who isn’t white.

Apparently Suzanne Collins is on board with at least the actor playing Katniss, so I guess she fits the idea that Collins has in her head of what that character should look like, but that actually doesn’t matter much to me. It bugs me a bit that Katniss describes herself as being sort of dark and is being played by a pretty fair blonde woman, but I think I could deal with that if there was a little more diversity in the cast. The main problem that I have is that this movie takes place in North America at some unspecified point in the future (probably not too far away but not too close either), and does not at all represent the diversity that is already very present in North America today. It might make some sense if most of the people in the Capitol were white, since the society is already oppressive and it isn’t much of a stretch to think they might discriminate along racial lines. But that’s not even the case. Cinna, Katniss’s stylist, is played by Lenny Kravitz.

Like I said, I shouldn’t be surprised by this, but seeing the Hunger Games cast be a group of mostly white people bugged me more than seeing other mostly white casts. I think there are two main reasons for this. The first is that depicting a futuristic North America as a mostly white country implies that white North Americans are the only North Americans that really belong here. Sure, we may live on an ethnically diverse continent right now, but in this dystopian future, it’s plausible that the Hunger Game tributes from all but one of the districts will be white. I’m not sure where all the people of colour will go, but I guess they’ll leave before the Capitol starts holding the Hunger Games, since they’ll have a pretty tough time leaving after.

The second reason it bugs me more than other mostly white casts has to do with the oppression that is such an important part of the story. It’s not that I can’t fathom white people ever being oppressed. I know that white women and white gay people and white trans people and white poor people and white people with disabilities and many other white people are oppressed all over the continent, often by other white people, for being women or gay or trans or poor or having a disability. However, making a story about oppression into a story about mostly white people who are oppressed seems to erase the many many many nonwhite people who are oppressed regularly for not being white. There’s something that doesn’t sit well with me about an oppression narrative being appropriated by a group that often benefits from the oppression of so many other people.

So, once again, this shouldn’t be surprise me, and it actually doesn’t, really. But, as I read through the Hunger Games series, I was hoping that, when the movies of these books were inevitably made, they would show a little more diversity than most Hollywood movies. And it’s always a little disappointing when your hopes don’t come true.


Review: Hunger Games trilogy

I just finished reading Mockingjay, the final book in the Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins. It’s been a few months since I read the first book, so this won’t be a complete and detailed review, but most of the thoughts and reactions I had to all of the books are still pretty fresh in my brain. Warning: there will probably be a few minor spoilers.

The series takes place in the country Panem, which used to be North America before North Americans destroyed it, or something. Panem consists of twelve districts, all of which are oppressed to varying degrees and in different ways by the Capitol. Every year, the Capitol makes each district send two teenagers, one boy and one girl, to fight to the death in the Hunger Games, which are televised all over Panem and required watching for all citizens.

Katniss, the protagonist, is a very well written character. She feels like an actual person with some qualities that are really amazing and some that are downright frustrating. She hunts well, she takes care of her mother and her little sister, she thinks up shrewd strategies to beat people who are stronger than her, and she fights and fights and fights to stick to her morals, even when she knows she has to kill people for the Capitol’s entertainment. On the other hand, she often acts without thinking, she has a hard time talking about, and sometimes facing, her emotions, she has a short temper, and she can be self-centred and ignore the cause she is working for when people piss her off.

Only one thing bugs me about the way that Katniss is written, and I think I might be able to excuse it. Peeta, and other characters, talk about how great Katniss is, but are rarely able to articulate why. I absolutely hate it when a book (or a movie, or a television show, or a comic) keeps telling you that a character is special, but gives you no way to come to this conclusion on your own. If I need to be told how great the character is, maybe the character isn’t that great. I never felt that Katniss didn’t deserve to have a story about her – seriously some of the stuff she does really did amaze me – but I noticed at least one time in each book that I was being told that Katniss had some special quality that couldn’t be explained but that made everyone love her. I have less of a problem with this in Hunger Games than I have in other stories, because the trilogy is told from Katniss’s perspective, and it makes sense that she can’t see everything in herself that others see in her. But I also don’t think that having Peeta talk about how special she is added anything to the story. She stands up against the Capitol in a way that no one else does, and lives, and that gives people a reason to look up to her. That should be enough. Saying that she just has some magical quality that can’t be explained kind of cheapens her actions. I’ll forgive it, because some of her actions were pretty awesome, but it bugs me.

I didn’t mind the love triangle, and in fact, I think it would be strange if a story about sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds didn’t make any mention of romantic or sexual attraction. It makes sense that Katniss would struggle between which boy she wants to be with, Peeta or Gale, even when she’s also dealing with President Snow probably wanting her dead and most of the citizens of Panem looking to her as the face of the rebellion. Her struggle of trying to figure out what she wants without hurting either of the boys is human and a little bit heartbreaking. However, the fact that she does make a choice in the end is a little ridiculous. I don’t think it’s impossible to fall in love at age seventeen and stay in love with that person forever, but I also don’t think that choosing to be with someone at age seventeen needs to be happy-together-forever story. I would have liked the story a lot more if it had ended before the silly epilogue with Katniss talking about her children, or even before the end of the last chapter with Katniss picking her guy. Katniss had to pretend she was in love as a strategy to save her life, and possibly the lives of everyone in her family and maybe even her district, and showing her struggle with that strategy while still trying to keep herself happy again was painful but poignant story telling. Having her then live happily ever after with the guy she picks at the end of the rebellion not only sends an unrealistic message to teenage (and maybe adult) readers, it feels inauthentic and contrived. That’s not something that I’m willing to ignore or forgive, but since it isn’t the main focus of the trilogy, I’ll move on to the things about the books that I thought were really great.

One thing I love about futuristic literature is the freedom it has from many of our social norms. No one makes a big deal out of the fact that Katniss is a girl who hunts or that Peeta is a boy who paints because he learned to frost cakes in his father’s bakery. In the Hunger Games arena, Katniss saves Peeta’s skin several times, and he never seems uncomfortable with this or needs to assert his strength and masculinity. At the same time, Peeta’s artistic skills, his ability to collaborate, and his way of using language to rally people around a cause are also celebrated. Instead of valuing Katniss’s (traditionally masculine) skills over Peeta’s (traditionally feminine) ones, these novels quite nicely show that we need different people with diverse skills that complement each other.

I also love how futuristic or science fiction stories can exaggerate aspects of our culture to critique them. People in the Capitol frequently alter their appearance; they change the colour of their skin or their hair, they get tattoos but then have them removed and get new ones, and they have things like whiskers or fangs surgically attached to their faces. They aren’t considered freaks or even strange by the standards of the Capitol, but Katniss is appalled by the effort that these people put into their appearance when she and others in her district are struggling just to survive. It isn’t an indictment of people who spend money or effort on their appearance, actually, Cinna uses his position as a stylist to blatantly subvert the Capitol’s power, but it does show a pretty serious contrast between what is important for the haves and what is important for the have-nots.

The best way I can describe these novels is to say that they are gripping. I wouldn’t call them great literature. The story itself is derivative of many post-apocalyptic novels and movies (the move Battle Royal immediately comes to my mind whenever I describe the premise) and the writing can at times be a little obvious and heavy-handed. But I was caught up in the story from the beginning of The Hunger Games to end of Mockingjay. I felt personally invested in all of Katniss’s schemes and emotionally involved in all of her struggles. When someone betrayed her, I felt betrayed. When someone trapped her, my heart jumped into my throat and then dropped to my stomach. When she did something stupid, a big part of me wanted to reach out and stop her but another big part of me just marveled at the amount of courage it took for her to make a huge mistake. The trilogy isn’t perfect by any means, but it’s a great piece of young adult fiction that treats its readers like smart people who deserve a story that both challenges and thrills them.