Monthly Archives: February 2015

Live Long And Prosper

Although I planned to write something different today, I can’t stop thinking about the death of Leonard Nimoy. I’ve actually learned some new facts about him from this NYT piece. I’m usually reluctant to speak about the deaths of celebrities because I don’t actually know the person. But the character he played, as well as the movies he wrote and directed, played a huge role in my socialization and how I view the world today.

Many of my earliest memories include the crew of the original Starship Enterprise. My mother watched the show in the 1960s when it aired, and she recorded reruns on VHS in the 1980s and showed them to me. I was a young child, but I’m not even sure how old I actually was at the time. Mom stayed up late to record them. It was a treat to watch the shows. (In fact, she called me a few minutes ago to talk about Leonard Nimoy. I was happy to be able to share with her Nimoy’s last tweet.)

As a child, I loved the episodes with robots and Tribbles, as one might expect, but, even as a girl, I also appreciated the ones that developed the friendship between Spock, Kirk, and Bones. As I aged, I appreciated Spock more and more, and then, Leonard Nimoy, himself. There’s a danger of conflating a character with his (or her) actor. Leonard Nimoy was so much more than just one character on a TV show. Yet, for me, I’m feeling a loss right now that’s hard to articulate.

I feel the character of Spock is great example of a loving, masculine figure. The relationship between Spock and Kirk in the original series (and movies) looks more what a relationship between men should be like. Spock and Kirk were two people with considerably different philosophies and personalities, who taught each other and loved each other. Isn’t that what friendship between any two people should be like, including two men? Both men changed through interacting with one another. Furthermore, they both represented different aspects of masculinity and helped to bring more balance to the other. Spock embodies the traditional masculine roles of rationality and not showing much emotion, while Kirk embodies the dominant, brave, action-oriented side of masculinity.  Through their interactions, they both become less extreme, possibly displaying more traditionally feminine traits. I’d love to go back and watch some episodes to develop this idea further. This scene between them, right before Spock dies in “The Wrath of Khan,” is one of my all time favorite scenes. I don’t have the sense that these types of loving friendships are shown between men in our media today.  Even in the new Star Trek movies, I feel that there isn’t enough development of the loving nature of the relationship between Spock and Kirk. Nimoy played a huge role in shaping the character of Spock, and I’m grateful that I was able to grow up watching him. (And it appears from reading, that the character of Spock shaped him, too.)

I’m impressed by how the people who actually knew Nimoy as a person talk about him, and I think I may get a copy of his poetry to read as I didn’t know it existed before today. Leonard Nimoy’s last tweet is a treasure that we should always remember: “A life is like a garden. Perfect moments can be had, but not preserved, except in memory. LLAP.”

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Millennials and Code-switching in “Tainted Blood” by M. L. Brennan

[Lots of spoilers. Beware.]

Although I’ve started many urban fantasy series, I eventually cooled out on the genre and stopped reading in the middle of several series.  At a friend’s suggestion, I started reading M. L. Brennan’s Generation V series last year. This week, I had some spare time to read between snow days and illness so I tore through the third book, Tainted Blood. While the series covers some of the usual urban fantasy alliances and tensions between supernatural species, it also addresses conflict that arises between different generations of a family. Furthermore, this series is fun to read because the protagonist, Fortitude Scott, is a Millennial who must code switch.

As a sociologist, I have some reluctance towards using the concept of generations. The idea of commonality between a certain category of people that have experienced certain events (e.g., WWII, 9/11, etc.) can led to stereotyping and discrimination. Additionally, as the less powerful tend to get blamed by the more powerful, we wind up in situations where the younger generation get blamed for societal ills that they did not play a part in creating. (Blaming the younger generations always reminds of this somewhat problematic song, “Kids,” from the musical Bye Bye Birdie. Why is it that every generation of people is the laziest generation of trouble makers ever?)

For full disclosure, I’m only about two or four years older than the oldest Millennials depending on whether the cutoff is set at 1980 or 1982. I typically agree more with Millennials than Gen X. Too often, Millennials have been stereotyped and blamed  for having to adjust to the world that’s changed around them. This article by a Millennial discusses some of the problems inherent in this type of analysis. For a good overview of the Millennial cohort from the White House website, I’d suggest reading this document, 15 Economic Facts about Millenials, by The Council of Economic Advisors.  According to the report, the Millennial generation is: the largest generation, the most diverse (including many immigrants), the most educated cohort, etc. (If you don’t have a much time, I recommend just reading through the table of contents for the fifteen facts.) Like it or not, the concept of generations is a part of our cultural dialogue, and I’m pleased to see a heroic Millennial character in Brennan’s series.

Most of the urban fantasy series that I have read deal with the lives of Generation X, and they often remain strangely apolitical—failing to reference current events or tensions in human society. Generation V, on the other hand, is inherently about how the massive changes in the past few decades in the human world are impacting both the human and the supernatural world. Fortitude is still (mostly) human at the start of the series, but his vampiric family controls an enormous territory in the Northeastern part of the United States and part of Canada. The Scott family rules many other types of supernatural species and has many servants. Madeline Scott, his mother, raised Fortitude differently than her other, older children, allowing him to be raised by humans. However, when he finds out the truth about his vampiric family of origin, she has his adopted family killed and forces him to live with them at their mansion. Therefore, Fortitude identifies more with humans and is an American.

In some ways, I feel that Fortitude has to code-switch, meaning he moves back and forth between at least two cultures, although he prefers human culture. (For an entertaining discussion of code-switching, this NPR piece includes code-switching videos of President Obama, as well as Beyonce.)  Madeline Scott immigrated from the “Old World,” specifically England, in 1662. Therefore, while his adoptive parents were likely Baby boomer Americans, his biological mother comes from not only a different country but a different century.  When Fortitude interacts with his siblings, they also come from different eras. These generational differences are explored in the books.

M. L. Brennan does a great job discussing the plight of the Millennial generation. Although Fortitude is college educated he is chronically underemployed, working in the food service industry, as well as a dog walker. Although he could live the lavish lifestyle of the Scotts, he avoids it when he can. Generally, Fortitude rejects the U.S. cultural value of materialism, although earlier in the book, he accepts some expensive clothes from his brother. His family has been trying to get him to update his appearance and wear expensive clothes for some time. I was surprised, and a bit dismayed, that he accepted the clothes, although I understood the motivator in the book of reaching out to his grieving brother. The major tension in this book is that Fortitude will either have to entirely accept his family’s culture, including how to feed from (and eventually murder humans) and give up what made him belong to human society in the U.S., or he’d have to die. In the end, with the support of his friend (and love interest) Suzume, he realizes he can forge his own path. He can decide what works for him from both cultures.

Later in Tainted Blood, his beloved car is destroyed—apparently, a common metaphor in more than one of the urban fantasy series that I’ve read. This forces him to decide which path to take in terms of materialism. He decides to pay for a cheap Volkswagen Scirocco that is older than he is. In an unusual move, he invites his family to come with him to purchase the new car. They show up to purchase it in his mother’s Rolls-Royce. I love the commentary that Brennan drops into her books about current and past events, as well as generational differences:

Chivalry just looked at me mournfully. “Really, Fort. A German car?” Two world wars had left my brother with strong feelings about certain European countries.

Fortitude is from younger generation that wasn’t shaped by living during World War II. In fact, this scene amused me as I had a similar conversation between myself and an older family member about World War II when I was buying my Honda Civic, a Japanese car. When Fortitude buys the car and says good-bye to his family, his mother says, “‘My littlest baby. What a strange delight you are to us.’” Fortitude delights me as a reader because I’d argue that he is a feminist, accepts many types of diversity (like having a gay roommate, who happens to be a ghoul), and believes in collaborating and mediating instead of always using dominance and violence. He differs from his elder family members in this way. If you’re looking for an entertaining read, I’d highly recommend this series. I can’t wait to see how the series continues. It feels good to look forward to an urban fantasy series again.

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A critique of capitalism in “Jupiter Ascending”

[Jupiter sized spoilers ahead: Beware]

Last Friday, my spouse and I went to see Jupiter Ascending for Valentine’s Day. Due to its poor reception by critics and the public in the US, I hoped it’d be a fun “bad” movie. However, I found it to be a beautiful movie with an intriguing plot. This brief preview will give an overview of the movie. Abrasax Industries “seeded” the Earth one hundred thousand years prior, although people on Earth are unaware of this fact. The three Abrasax heirs inherit their wealth from their mother and are the villains in the movie. Each sibling corresponds with a particular problem relating to capitalism. (For a quick, cute overview of Karl Marx’s view of capitalism, communism, alienation, and utopia, you can view this short Super Mario Brothers 8-Bit Philosophy video.)

The protagonist from Earth is Jupiter Jones. Her mother immigrated  to the US while pregnant with Jupiter. Jupiter works as a maid with her family in Chicago and hates her work. She wants to buy a telescope and decides to go along with a plan to sell her eggs at a fertility clinic. This plan is developed by her cousin who intends to get more of the money from the transaction than Jupiter. It is obvious that Jupiter is being exploited by her cousin. At first, this appears to be a Cinderella-like tale where Jupiter will be able to leave her challenging life as a laborer behind.

On the other hand, the Abrasax family is a dynasty that owns planets (and their inhabitants) as property. When the head of the dynasty dies, her three children, Kalique, Balem, and Titus, begin plotting and fighting over their inheritances. This family seems similar to the power elite discussed by sociologist C.Wright Mills. If inheritance laws exist without controls, then more and more wealth will concentrate in the hands of a few.  Those few will eventually be like royalty, even if they do not technically have titles. The movie asks and attempts to answer the question, what if inheritance remained and laws didn’t keep the wealthy in check?

Balem will inherit the Earth unless the his mother’s genetic reincarnation appears. He sends assassins to murder the genetic reincarnation, which is revealed to be Jupiter. On the other hand, Kalique and Titus both want her alive to use her. Caine, whose DNA is a splice of human and wolf DNA, is an excellent tracker and is sent to track down Jupiter. He becomes a romantic interest. However, he also represents alienated labor.

As Jupiter finds herself drawn into the battle that she knows nothing about, she realizes that these siblings see no problem with owning a whole planet and harming its inhabitants. Furthermore, she discovers that the family harvests a youth serum, but it takes many lives, or rather human deaths, to create it. The first of the siblings she visits is Kalique. Similar to a fairy tale villain, Kalique, values her own eternal youth and beauty at the expense of others. In modern global capitalism, people extend their own life chances and beauty, while breaking the backs of others without access to the same goods and services. Kalique demonstrates this to Jupiter by entering a pool of water and emerging younger. The elixir is extremely valuable. It benefits Kalique to help Jupiter gain her title for Earth in that it decreases her brother’s wealth and power.  (In one of the part of the movie that I felt was the most humorous, Jupiter has to go through a long, bureaucratic process to gain her title. She notes that she’d never complain about the DMV again.)

Next, Jupiter winds up in the hands of Titus, who wants to steal the Earth (and its valuable elixir) from both his brother and Jupiter. Titus notes to Caine when alone that he, himself, is a liar. I think that this represents the fact that capitalism leads people to becoming unethical. When profits and power are the ultimate goals, it justifies all kinds of heinous actions. Titus, a hedonist, tricks Jupiter by saying that he wants to end the trade that will harm the Earth. He convinces her that by marrying him, she will be protecting Earth and its inhabitants. He sends Caine out the airlock but lies about it to Jupiter. Caine comes to rescue her just in time, which reminds me of the marriage scene in Princess bride. Titus is willing to lie and murder for gaining the means of production (e.g., the planet Earth.) Likely, he wants to keep fueling his grandiose, hedonistic lifestyle.

Finally, Jupiter ends up in the hands of Balem. Balem would rather harvest the Earth immediately than let Jupiter take ownership of his property. He kidnaps her family from Earth and offers her a choice.  If she signs her title over to him, he will spare her family. Furthermore, the Earth won’t be harmed while she lives. This is actually an excellent analysis of capitalism. Often, in modern capitalism, resources are plundered and the costs are placed on the next generation.  The capitalists and workers may not even lived to see the horrible consequences that have been deferred to later generations, including environmental consequences.  Therefore, Jupiter can choose to save those she loves, but she’d have to delay the suffering to billions of people in a later time period.  Jupiter, in the end, makes the right call in terms of saving all the people on the Earth, although it means sacrificing those she loves most. She realizes the importance of the lives on the Earth, not just the ones in her own in-group. While she was willing to make the sacrifice, she manages to fight Titus and escape with Caine’s help. Essentially, the ends of capitalism are not to benefit people. Instead, the goal is to maximize profits, which is what all three of the Abrasax siblings wanted, although they had different motivators.

In this movie, human beings aren’t just machinery, our lives and deaths literally become the commodity itself. We are the product. In the end, Jupiter owns the planet, but she does not exploit that fact.  She stands in solidarity with other humans; she continues her productive labor as a maid.  Her labor as a maid is valuable, and she appreciates returning to being part of the proletariat. This movie does not have a true Marxist utopia at the end.  Abraxas Industries and the family are still at large in the universe. And the people on earth excluding Jupiter and Caine have no idea that they are a part of a much larger system of oppression, similar to how many people do not realize how they are being exploited in global capitalism due to hegemonic ideology.  Eventually, we will be vulnerable again when Jupiter dies. Just like in “The Matrix” people have to wake up before they can start to save themselves.

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Fairy Tales and Feminist Themes in Neil Gaiman’s “The Sleeper and the Spindle”

[Kingdom shattering spoilers ahead. Beware.]

The queen felt something stirring in her heart. She remembered her stepmother, then. Her stepmother liked to be adored. Learning how to be strong, to feel her own emotions and not another’s, had been hard; but once you learned the trick of it, you did not forget. And she did not wish to rule continents (Gaiman 59).

The Sleeper and the Spindle, Neil Gaiman’s refreshing, modern take on fairy tales illustrates at least two massively important feminist messages: (1) women must first discover that their own emotions belong to them, and (2) women must learn to make choices based on their own feelings, not to please their families, lovers, or society. Before I discuss my thoughts on the importance of the book, I have to state how much I loved the process of experiencing the book. The translucent dust jacket is a work of art, in and of itself, etched with black roses and golden vines, which are relevant to the plot. The sleeping woman on the cover looks slightly out of focus, perhaps as if she is behind glass.  However, if you remove the jacket, she comes into focus. In fact, this mirrors what happens in the book since the sleeping “princess” is revealed to be the power hungry witch. The illustrator, Chris Riddell’s, attention to detail is amazing, and I reread the book to specifically appreciate the art. For example, I noticed the detail that the queen, the hero of the story, has a comforter on her bed with golden skulls. However, the reason I picked the book up in the first place was that I adore Neil Gaiman’s fairy tales from Stardust to Coraline to The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Fairy tales are important and relevant for society.

Due to the fact that I write fiction, I have read many of Gaiman’s thoughts on storytelling, including his thoughts on fairy tales. This piece he wrote for the Guardian on Stardust discusses a bit of the history of fairy tales: why they are loved, why they fell out of favor with adults, and their return.  I feel that Neil Gaiman’s works have, in concert with the works of others, led to a revival and renaissance of fairy tales, as discussed in this recent interview of Gaiman by Gaby Woods. I personally loved fairy tales well before reading Stardust. As a girl, I discovered a book at my grandmother’s house that included many fairy stories. I adored The Light Princess. Every time I visited my grandmother, all through my teens and twenties, I read the story. Now, the old, tattered green book is a part of my own collection.

I love fairy tales because they help us make sense of our world, our society, and the dangers (and magnificence) inherent in being alive. Potentially, they play a role in socializing and entertaining both children and adults. This means it’s imperative to have fairy tales written for and reflecting the age that we live in. We live in an uncertain age of anomie, or a breaking down of norms and stability. We’re dealing with globalization, changes in technology, greed, thirst for power, war, changing gender roles, and unobtainable beauty standards, just to name a few. Gaiman included this G.K. Chesterton quote in Coraline, “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”  We need to understand the dangers we face, the potential solutions to those dangers, and that we have the agency to make choices to help. In this time period and in the future, how should individuals act?  How should communities act? What are our responsibilities to ourselves and to one another? Fairy tales allow us to consider these questions.

Turning specifically to Gaiman’s work, The Sleeper and the Spindle, he states in an interview, “‘You don’t need princes to save you…I don’t have a lot of patience for stories in which women are rescued by men.”  The main character, the queen, lived in one kingdom and was running her affairs of state, including getting married in a week. In the past, she had defeated her abusive stepmother. Her friends, the dwarves, traveled to the neighboring kingdom to get her a proper gift. While in the neighboring kingdom, they discover that a sleep spell is taking over and spreading. They return to their queen and inform her of the danger.  She decided to go investigate the situation herself due to her experience with sleep spells, temporarily putting off her marriage and placing her responsibilities in capable hands of her first minister. Eventually, she and the dwarves make it to the castle where the spell is emanating from, and they eventually get inside. They find a beautiful woman they believe is the bespelled princess.  However, this woman is actually a witch who had been stealing the life and dreams of the actual princess, who had become quite elderly.

Reading The Sleeper and the Spindle led me to reflect on gender roles. Often, girls are taught that their own emotions, especially of anger, are invalid. They are expected to be exactly what their caregivers need them to be. For children dealing with a narcissistic caregiver, it is an incredibly powerful moment to realize that your emotions are your own.  If you do not learn the lesson, then your entire life, your entire thread, will be co-opted and corrupted by someone else. The true danger that this fairy tale warns us of is giving away our power to make choices for our own lives.

The heroic queen woke up from a spell that her stepmother had placed on her at a young age prior to the beginning of this story.  Although she escaped her stepmother, she was still living life the way society expected her to—running a kingdom and getting married. This despite the fact that she didn’t seem to have major inclinations to do either thing. So many people get caught up in these traps: fulfilling cultural or parental expectations instead of venturing onto the new paths for themselves. In the end, the dwarf says to the queen:

“And your wedding will be late, but it will happen soon after your return, and the people will celebrate, and there will be joy unbounded through the kingdom…”

…There are choices, she thought, when she had sat long enough. There are always choices.

She made one…

…They walked to the east, all four of them, away from the sunset and the lands they knew, and into the night (66).

It is a difficult balance to strike between the needs we have as individual people and the needs of the community.  However, for young (and not so young) women, we need to learn the lesson that our lives belong to us: not to our parents, not to our teachers, and not to our lovers. This lesson is hard when you’ve been taught your whole life that being a woman requires giving to others all the time. The concept in sociology of supermom is relevant here. A “good” woman in the United States is supposed to be a perfect giver in all the arenas she participates including work, family, volunteer organizations, etc. These norms are slowly changing as women are starting, through hard work (and possibly therapy) to see that they deserve to be be a whole person, not just one who only fulfills others needs.

The queen had to learn how to feel her own emotions first.  Once she learned that lesson, she could then go on to realize that she could make her own choices based on how she felt. In Arlie Hochschild’s book, The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling, she posits that when we ignore our emotional systems for our workplaces that we can be harmed.  Our emotions are valuable: they allow us to know when we are being mistreated or when something is (or isn’t) right for us. If you are divorced from your emotional system for long enough, you can start to feel numb, alienated, and at distance from yourself, as if in a deep sleep, like the fairy tales often allude to.

The queen attempts to wake up the princess like men do with a kiss, but it turns out that the witch was actually the one sleeping.  She had cast a spell and stolen the youth of the princess via her dreams and sleep.  In the end, the princess, stabs the witch with the spindle that had been stealing the princess’ life force. I think this is a powerful metaphor. An older woman was stealing the life of a young person by stealing her dreams. And we need to be cautious to avoid becoming like the witch in this tale.  We shouldn’t seek power, beauty, and youth as the main goals of our lives. Again, Gaiman warns against craving, as I discuss in this previous post on Buddhism in The Ocean at the End of the Lane. One of the major dangers of our time is the craving for unobtainable things: youth, beauty, and power.

We need to be teaching young women that they own their emotions and that they are in control of their own lives. This doesn’t mean that women have no responsibility to community, quite the contrary. I get the sense that the queen was going adventuring to help other people. But she was going to help people on her own terms, not the one’s her society had forced on her.  She also gave up the chance to become the witch, to dominate the will of her society, just because of her title. We need to trail blaze new paths.

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