Friday, May 30, 2014


Facebook is home to heroes. Veterans (preferably elderly, disabled, or female), dying children (preferably bald with oxygen tubes), or puppies rescued from a shelter (preferably still matted and broken). They don't do much but stare out at you with their big, imploring eyes, collecting millions of likes.
Really, is there a bearded general in the Middle East somewhere staring at a laptop? "Oh no, the Americans got 692,401 likes! Time to surrender!" Are there doctors who say, "Sorry, sweetie, we can't treat you for leukemia until your picture goes viral." Do animal shelters photograph each wounded puppy who limps in, post their photos, and kill off the ones with under 10,000 shares?
Liking a stranger's photo does not benefit them in any way. Of course people like knowing 692,401 people have seen their face. But they don't care if that photo receives 692,400 instead. What is the point of you, you special little human being you, showing your support?
It's a form of selfishness, really. We do it for our own benefit. Everyone likes that rush of satisfaction that comes from solving a problem. You, you special little human being you, probably haven't devoted the last decade of your life to curing cancer. But hit that thumbs up button for little Grace and her oxygen tank and you think you've made a difference in the world. Just like when you turn off the lights when you leave the room and stop global warming. Pat yourself on the back. Because no one else will.
Awhile back I read that people are more likely to say they'll "support" a candidate than "vote for" them when surveys ask. What's the difference, exactly? No one will vote for a candidate they don't support. While there are other ways to support a politician, like attending meetings and planting a sign on your lawn for the world to see, the main way to help them is by voting. But "vote" implies getting off your butt and dragging it down to the nearest polling booth. There's no way to do it in bed with bag of Doritos. Support can mean voting-but it can also simply mean caring.
Caring does nothing. Caring will not win a war, cure a disease, or give a bedraggled boxer a home. But we carry on with our button clicking, not really caring about these people after we scroll down for the rest of our news feed. That little action is delusion enough to believe we've made a difference.

Friday, May 23, 2014

The Three Worlds of Fiction

`1. Classics
These books were published 150 years ago. They're supposed to have great literary value
Examples: Pride and Prejudice, Oliver Twist, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Bought by: Mostly high school students using them for book reports
Authors: They're all dead. Good luck getting a reply to your fanmail.
Analysis: Since they're taught in classrooms, you can find hundreds of critical analysis essays. Oh, and the teaching guides. No need to look for themes or symbolism. It's already been found. Analysis mostly consists of theme and rhetorical strategies.

2. "Normal" books
Examples: Well, anything
Bought by: A decent number of people
Authors: Still alive. They promote their books through social media. They'll personally reply to email, tweets, and blog comments. When they release a new book you can probably win one in a giveaway. Only 23 other people entered, so you've got a good chance.
Analysis: You can find reviews in newspapers. Amateur critics, like book bloggers, post their rants online. Analysis mostly consists "Is this a good book or a bad book?" debates.

3. Fandom
These are the hugely popular books. The ones that stay on the New York Times Bestseller list for 62 weeks. The ones that turn into movies.
Examples:  Harry Potter, Hunger Games, Lord of the Rings
Bought by: Everyone. You can have a conversation about the characters and assume everyone in the room knows who you're talking about.
Authors: Usually still alive but too busy to talk to you. If you're lucky, you can meet them at a convention and get a quick autograph.
Analysis: More thorough than either of the other book types. Millions of people go online to argue about their interpretation of the books. Answer a simple question like "Who's the best character?" and you could get hate mail. Most of the analysis concerns plot, characters, foreshadowing, and world building (setting).

Normal books are supposed to be inferior to fandom builders because they don't have as many readers. Fandom books are supposed to be inferior to classics because they haven't survived the tests of time yet. And classics are supposed to be inferior to normal books because they're not "accessible" enough for the casual reader.
Can't we all just get along?
My personal favorite are the normal books, though I dabble in the others as well. I can't reference them in an essay or in casual conversation.
Each has their merit. Normal books make up most of the literature world. Fandoms rule the internet. As a result, people learn about them secondhand. I've only read 15 of the 28 books shown in that picture but I can give you a basic description of all of them. And classics? These all started out as normal, grew to fandom proportions, and then lived on through time.
There's room in the world for all types of book. Why argue about which one is the best?

Friday, May 16, 2014

How Damsel Theory is Harming Female Protagonists

Once upon a time, the word damsel simply meant girl. It comes from the French demoiselle, which you may recognize as similar to mademoiselle, meaning a girl or young woman. Damsel-in-distress, then, means a girl facing a plight. Damsel alone does not imply she'll be rescued. Damsel alone does not imply that a handsome knight on a noble steed will gallop to save her. Damsel alone does not imply she's incapable of solving her own problems.
However, damsel-in-distress is five syllables while damsel is simply one. So we shortened it. The word itself is antiquated. When did you last hear a girl referred to as a damsel-when she wasn't being criticized for weakness?
The most frequent targets of the word damsel-though by no means the only one-are fairy tales. This puzzles me. Few fairy tales are actually about a tower-stuck princess being saved by a knight in shining armor. Where did this stereotype come from?
I'm a bit of a fairy tale fanatic. My research has led me to discover the Aarne Thompson Uther system, a numerical way of classifying fairy tales. For example, Rumpelstiltskin is a type 500 tale. If you want to find other "Name of the Helper" stories you simply read down the list and look for the 500. The number for "The Maiden in the Tower" stories is 310. But there's only a tiny handful of them, especially compared to popular ones, like Rumpelstiltskin.
We like to think of the Grimms' version as the "official" source material. But the Brothers Grimm pulled their inspiration from all over. One of the most prominent influences for Rapunzel is the French story "Persinette". It was written by Charlotte Rose de la Force. A woman.
And she wasn't just any woman. Charlotte-Rose was the party girl of 17th century France. She had more than her fair share of lovers and defied social conventions by trying to elope with the much younger Charles de Briou. And by tried, I mean she snuck into his bedroom disguised as a dancing bear when the circus came to visit. It worked. Until their families forced them to annul it.
After that affair, Charlotte-Rose got into a little bit of trouble with the French king because she wrote some satirical poetry about him. That, and she might have had an affair with the Dauphin. Might have. They couldn't prove anything.
Charlotte-Rose was exiled to a convent for her crimes. Rather than shape up and live a life of purity, she wrote a few fairy tales. One of them was about a certain imprisoned maiden who rebelled against her mother's wishes and had an affair. Persinette was banished from the tower-not rescued-but eventually met up with her prince and raised a family with him.
Nowadays, we scorn Rapunzel for daring to sit around and await rescue. But in Charlotte-Rose's time it was obscenely radical. Provocative, even. It encouraged the notion that a woman's sexuality could be used as a weapon to defy social conventions. She had to publish it anonymously.
Persinette: Dreary Damsel or Radical Rule Breaker?
Sometimes, it's our perception of fairy tales that changes everything. Other times they simply get forgotten. That's the case with Molly Whuppie. You've heard of Jack, that greedy little farm boy who shimmied up a beanstalk, killed exactly one giant, and came home. In this Scottish fairy tale, a girl named Molly slaughters an entire family of giants. With her wits, not a lame ax and some help from gravity. She kills them a few at a time. While she's at it, she gets the king to promise her rewards, like his son's hand in marriage. She also gets her two sisters hitched to princes as well.
Molly is far from the only fairy tale heroine to slay her own monsters. Remember, it was Gretel, not Hansel, who shoved the witch into the oven. He was no prince. He was her brother and she simply wanted to save him.

I can't think of a single princess character in recent media who fits into the distressed damsel stereotype. We're actively aware of the stereotype now, and when princess characters do show up, it's to make fun of it. We mock so called damsels in film, books, and even music. Take Sara Bareilles' "Fairytale", which twists happily ever afters into falls from grace. The Cheetah Girls' "Cinderella", on the other hand, defies the fairy tale and sings about empowerment.

I can't help but wonder what everyone's complaining about. I loved the Disney Princess franchise as a child. But at the age of eight, I ditched my pretty pink princess backpack, a relic of my kindergarten days. I refused to go into third grade with a princess backpack. It wasn't until my teen years that I allowed myself to fall in love with the franchise again.
The same year my backpack went bye-bye, I discovered this book:
To Be A Princess tells the stories of twelve real princesses and their fates. It really opened my eyes. Until then, I always thought princesses were a fictional concept, like fairies and unicorns. Now I know better.
To me, princesses are poor unfortunate souls who got their heads chopped off like Marie Antoinette. Or shot in cellars like Anastasia Romanov. Or watch their countries get annexed like Ka'iulani. Or had their castles bombed by Nazis like the current queen Elizabeth. Their stories fascinated me as a child, but I certainly didn't want to be one.
The memory of those Disney heroines didn't hold me back. I didn't grow up believing I could count on a boy to rescue me. When I worried about my looks, I compared myself to women I knew in real life, not cartoon characters. I certainly never thought those fictional girls were the definition of femininity.
Maybe if I hadn't discovered this book, I would've grown up with a media-driven idea of what it meant to be a princess. I would've associated the word with tower-stuck females awaiting rescue. But I didn't. I can't see why so many modern women-and men-blame old cartoons and even older fairy tales for "damaging" young girls.
What worries me most is that we shove female characters into two categories: Team Damsel and Team Action Girl. When ABC released Once Upon A Time in Wonderland, a spin-off from Once Upon A Time, creator Edward Kitsis said this:
"We never wanted Alice to be a damsel in distress. We liked the idea that she is going to go back down that rabbit hole, sword in hand, to find her man."
And so she does. Alice, who gets about five minutes of on-screen combat training, easily takes out guards, soldiers, and monsters. Meanwhile, her boyfriend Cyrus sits in a cage for the better part of the series, not getting much character development.
In the original story, Alice is no damsel in distress. She's a seven year old tourist who wanders around a plotless, dreamlike landscape and has tea parties. She doesn't get rescued. She has no love interest. But she also doesn't wage war on anybody, so by modern definition, she's a damsel.
A male character can just be a compelling, well developed character. But a girl has to be a warrior. A male character can cry and it's emotional development. Girls crying is a sign of weakness. A male character can have a love interest and save the world. A girl tries that and we tell her to get her priorities straight.
Whenever I want my dad and brothers to watch a female lead movie with me, I have to assure them "It's not a chick flick". I have more luck if she's in an action role. "There's explosions and stuff-you'll like it, I promise!" You need bombs and bloodshed to convince anyone that a girl is more than a demoiselle.
I have to wonder. If damsels are few and far between in traditional fairy tales, if no one dares put a princess in a tower today, if media actively defies it, what are we complaining about? Where are these demoiselles who offend us with their femaleness and princessness?
I love "strong" heroines just as much as anyone else, but I worry when we begin to lump female characters into one of two archetypes: Strong Female Character and Damsel in Distress. Isn't there room in the middle? Can't we have whiny girls and funny girls and scary girls and constantly-betraying-the-rest-of-the-characters-yet-they-still-trust-her girls? When the only acceptable character type is an Action Girl, it's harder and harder to create a female protagonist anyone will enjoy.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Lewis Carroll Wasn't On Drugs

Everyone thinks they know the story of Alice in Wonderland. After all, it's been adapted to film, television, and stage several times. Novels retell it as if it were a fairy tale. Never mind that it's a full length novel with themes and subplots they can never do justice to. But few people have actually read the book. Those who have did so at such a young age that they can no longer recall more than a rabbit, a smiling cat, and something about playing cards.
I read it last year, researching the Lewis Carroll's origins as I went. Now I have to grit my teeth whenever people get things wrong.

See that title? Do you see it? Now look again. You've been saying it wrong your whole life. Oddly enough, the word adventures seems to get left out in retellings and adaptations. Another thing people don't know: there is no Mad Hatter.
"Wait, what?" Such an iconic character isn't included in the original Alice? Oh, he's there alright. But never once is he referred to as the Mad Hatter. His name is the Hatter, and Alice does accuse him of being mad, but that's not part of his identity.
I understand when people don't know this. What's a messed up name here and there? But there's one Alice "fact" I just can't accept.
Lewis Carroll was not on drugs. I haven't been able to find any evidence for that, and when people tell me he was, they heard it from a friend of a friend. You cannot write a book while high. Song lyrics? Yes, as the sixties have demonstrated. But books require critical thinking. Especially if that book is Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.
Yes, the novel has a hazy, dreamlike tone. Yes, Alice drinks strange substances that make her smaller. Yes, Alice nibbles mushrooms and gets higher, er, taller. Yes, one of those mushrooms is home to a hookah smoking caterpillar. But all those so-called drug references quiver in the face of the greatest power of all: math.
Carroll was also a mathematician. After reading Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Queen Victoria asked him to send her a copy of his next book. She got a math textbook in the mail. Carroll definitely knew how to troll his readers.
Shortly after Alice arrives in Wonderland, she notes that things like size and gravity don't function the same in this reality. Neither does her memory. When she attempts to recite poetry, a task any upper class Victorian schoolchild ought to be proficient in, it comes out wrong. More on that later. Next, she tries math.
"Let me see: four times five is twelve, and four times six is thirteen, and four times seven is—oh dear! I shall never get to twenty at that rate!"
We use a base ten system. That means we don't use double digits until after nine. The triples start after ten groups of ten have been filled up.
Here, Alice starts off with a base 18 system. The usual answer for 4 X 5 is 20. 18 is now the new 10. 10 + 2 = 12.
Next she moves up to a base of 21. 4 X 6 is 24 in our world. 21 is 10, 21 + 3 makes 24, so the answer is 13.
Following this pattern, Alice would now go to a base 24. 4 X 7 is normally 28. Do the math and she'd get 14. Do you see now why it will take her forever to reach 20?
Then there's his satire. Didn't I promise you I'd get to the poetry eventually? Before Alice's  adventures in Numberland, she attempts to recite a sappy educational poem called "Against Idleness and Mischief." Here's how it's supposed to start:
How doth the little busy Bee
   Improve each shining Hour,
And gather Honey all the day
   From every opening Flower!

How skilfully she builds her Cell!
   How neat she spreads the Wax!
And labours hard to store it well
   With the sweet food she makes.

Can we all say a collective laaaaaame? Here's what Alice says instead:

How doth the little crocodile
Improve his shining tail,
And pour the waters of the Nile
On every golden scale!

How cheerfully he seems to grin,
How neatly spreads his claws,
And welcomes little fishes in
With gently smiling jaws!
So instead of a clever, industrious little honey bee who spreads honey and joy and good morals, we have a scary crocodile who wants to kill you.
A few chapters later, Alice recounts her difficulties to the mushroom-sitting, hookah-smoking Caterpillar. He instructs her to recite "You Are Old, Father William".That's the first line of another sappy educational poem, The Old Man's Comforts and How He Gained Them. It starts like this:

"You are old, father William," the young man cried,
"The few locks which are left you are grey;
You are hale, father William, a hearty old man;
Now tell me the reason, I pray."

"In the days of my youth," father William replied,
"I remember'd that youth would fly fast,
And abus'd not my health and my vigour at first,
That I never might need them at last."
This is what Carroll came up with:

"You are old, Father William," the young man said,
"And your hair has become very white;
And yet you incessantly stand on your head—
Do you think, at your age, it is right?"

"In my youth," Father William replied to his son,
"I feared it might injure the brain;
But now that I'm perfectly sure I have none,
Why, I do it again and again."
File:Alice par John Tenniel 16.png
Father William proceeds to turn somersaults, balance an eel on the end of his nose, and, when he's finally annoyed with the young man's questions, threaten to kick him downstairs. When the Tim Burton movie came out, They Might Be Giants turned it into a song.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is significant for being one of the first children's books designed to tell a story, not spread teachy-preachy lessons. In addition to the poetry, Carroll spoofs expectations with a character called the Duchess, who usually gets left out of adaptations. She insists on finding a moral in absolutely everything.
"I can't tell you just now what the moral of that is, but I shall remember it in a bit."
"Perhaps it hasn't one," Alice ventured to remark.
"Tut, tut, child!" said the Duchess. "Everything's got a moral, if only you can find it."

Alice, the Duchess, and a random flamingo
But wait! You say, "What about all those drug references you mentioned earlier?" Alice's change in size is probably meant to represent division and multiplication. In Western culture, mushrooms were not used as drugs until 1955. It is unlikely that Carroll would know about their hallucinogenic properties. Hookah has been around far longer than that. The Moors invented it in the 16th century. What else did the Moors invent? Algebra!
Or maybe he just likes hookah.
Then there's the sequel, Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There, which is read less than the first one. Some popular elements of Alice adaptations (the unbirthday party, the Jabberwocky, Tweedledee and Tweedledum,) actually come from here. Cards were a motif in the first book. This time around, chess is the game. Alice meets the Red Queen, who impressed her with her ability to run at ridiculous speeds. This is a reference to the way queen pieces move in the game. Later on, she runs into the White Knight, a pathetic sort of fellow who can't stop falling off his horse. His clumsiness comes from the L-shaped way knights move. The Red King spends most of the book asleep as kings are the most useless piece in the game. Chess is a hard enough game to understand while in your right mind. Good luck writing about while loopy. Where did this rumor come from in the first place? My money's on Jefferson Airplane.
Thank you, sixties. Thanks a lot. Jefferson Airplane lived through that era when bands bothered to hide the drug references in their songs. Is White Rabbit an Alice song with hints about drugs, or a song about drugs with hints about Alice? Lots of things don't match up with the book. The White Knight never walks backwards. It's the Queen of Hearts, not the Red Queen, who says "Off with your head!" And Alice's transformations are caused by cake, drinks, and mushrooms, never pills. Lewis Carroll was known to experiment with opium from time to time, but not anymore than ordinary men did in those days. LSD wasn't invented yet. Even on the off chance that he did receive some inspiration from drug use, the book as a whole was a product of critical thinking. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is a witty, sarcastic take on Victorian children's literature. There's no way he could've written it while high. Grace Slick is entitled to her own psychedelic interpretation of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. But that doesn't mean we all have to see the story the same way, especially when such little of it matches up with facts.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

My Favorite Historical Things

It's impossible to prioritize, so here it goes, in no particular order.
1. The Salem Witch Trials

1691, Salem Town, Massachusetts. A band of girls begin exhibiting strange symptoms. In modern times, they would've been shipped off to a psychologist, given a diagnosis, then shipped off to a psychiatrist, given some pills. But here it's the work of the Devil.
Over the next few months, the Afflicted Girls, as they were called, accused hundreds of people of cursing them. Nineteen were hanged and one poor fellow was pressed to death. But if you ask me, the real victims were the girls. They had to live with the guilt for the rest of their lives, which for the most part were spent in the same small town. They never even had an answer for why they did what they did. Mass hysteria? Tourette's? Just peer pressure? Modern historians are still throwing guesses. Sometimes it's just easier to blame it all on the Devil.
Plus, I have a personal connection here. I recently discovered my great great great great great great great great great great  great great aunt, Susannah Martin, was hanged for witchcraft. That's doesn't stop me from pitying the Afflicted more than the Accused.

2. The Titanic

Who doesn't love this? There's so much contrast. The wealth and glamour of the upper deck passengers, the huddled masses down in steerage. The ridiculous amount of money spent outfitting the ship with things like cigarette holders. Meanwhile, there are nowhere near enough lifeboats for the passengers. Why has the Titanic gone down in history? Name one other famous shipwreck. Heck, name one famous ship.
The Titanic didn't bring America into war like the Lusitania or the U.S. Maine. It wasn't a vessel of discovery like the Santa Maria or the Beagle. It didn't do anything but chug halfway across the Atlantic and die.
There's something haunting about tragedy. The shipwreck could've easily been prevented, and that, combined with the contrast of wealth and poverty, has given inspiration to countless books, plays, and movies.
Sometimes, you don't have to impact the world to be remembered. You just have to leave a legacy.
3. The Romanov Assassinations
Moving clockwise: Tatiana, Olga, Tsar Nicholas II, Anastasia, Alexei, Tsarina Alexandra, and Maria
Their family may have owned a sixth of the globe, but the Romanov sisters never had a room of their own. Olga roomed with Tatiana and Anastasia with Maria. They made their own beds every morning. Still, they were raised in a bubble. The Romanovs lived a life of luxury while Russia teetered on the brink of revolution. Eventually all seven of them were assassinated, along with some of their servants. Their bodies weren't found until many decades later, and when they were, not all of them were together. The Romanov's killers buried Alexei and one of his sisters separately to help hide their crime. Scientists disagree over whether the missing girl was Anastasia or Maria. In 2007, the missing bodies were recovered, though we still don't know which sister was separated. One thing's for certain: the only member of the Romanov family who survived was Joy, Alexei's spaniel.
4. The Industrial Era

Battlefields and assassination sites get preserved for future generations of third graders to visit on field trips. But the untragic side of history, the mills and factories, they just get abandoned and crumble. The Industrial Revolution was really the tipping point of human history. Life was no longer measured by the rising and setting of the sun. Clocks made everything precise. Instead of waking up "at dawn", you had to get to work by 5:00 A.M. You could travel by rail instead of wagon, which led to the invention of time zones.
And again, we see the contrast beneath the rich and the poor. The silk dresses and satin underwear of the rich was made by shoeless children working for two dollars a week.
Plus, it's also when we got the Newsies.

5. World War I

They called it The War to End All Wars. But today, we mostly look at it as a precursor to World War II. This is the first modern war. We started off on horseback and by the end we were dropping bombs from airplanes. It changed the way we think of fighting itself but no one ever talks about it. The National Mall doesn't even have a memorial for the 116,516 who gave their lives.