An Infinite Struggle

(or, My Love/Hate Relationship with BUGS)

As many living on the east coast are aware, we have just experienced a 17-year cicada swarm, the particular group of which is known as “Brood II.”  My own area saw a strong showing of the little beasties, though their numbers are well on the decline at this point.  This is a difficult time for me because, on the one hand, I can’t stand being in close proximity to bugs.  I see something flying at me or (heaven forbid) crawling on me, and I start screaming and flailing like a little girl.  All my sense and reason go out the window; the situation boils down to some nonsensical rambling paired with involuntary muscle spasms.  However, on the other hand, I find most bugs to be fascinating, even beautiful when I can observe and examine them without the threat of them crawling on me.  Also, this:

That video just about moves me to tears.  This man’s Kickstarter is still running, by the way, so, yeah – go fund that!  But the problem remains that even though I feel such compassion for this species, even though the raucous symphony of cicada-song echoing from the trees fills me with joy, even though I would never wish this docile insect any harm, when I see one bobbing toward me in their classic erratic, bumbling flight pattern, all I can feel is a crippling, inhibition-busting sense of revulsion and terror.  What is wrong with me?

As an artist and a writer, insects, arachnids, and other invertebrates are excellent sources of inspiration.  They represent beings that cohabitate in our environment, but go about their lives in very different ways.  Their bodies develop and function in a manner that’s foreign but functional, and sometimes unbelievable.  Their forms inspire artistic and industrial design, an influence can be seen in everything from construction equipment to the alien invaders of the next summer blockbuster.  Because of their capacity to be both beautiful and disgusting, they can also inspire creations with strong emotional impact, either positive or negative.

"So ... positive, right? Oh god don't squish me!"

“So … positive, right? Oh god, don’t squish me!”

Of course, it’s important to understand what it is about the bug that elicits the desired reaction.  Think about the xenomorphs from the Alien franchise.  They have insect-like qualities about them, and they are definitely frightening, so what insect elements achieve this effect?  Is it their exoskeleton?  Or their lack of facial features, with the exception of prominent jaws?  Their parasitic breeding habits?  Or maybe it’s an inversion of an insect trait – the fact that compared to normal bugs, they are enormous.

Sometimes you can get inspired by thinking about bugs in a different way.  One of the best insect documentaries I’ve ever seen was a French film called Microcosmos.  With no narration except for a brief introduction and denouement, it gave a fascinating up-close look at the lives of different bugs, including a snail-on-snail love scene so strangely romantic and beautiful that it called into question every perception I had about the slimy brutes.

Despite my physical discomfort with the various creepy-crawlies of the world, now that the hum of cicadas has faded and I no longer see them bobbing across the highway during my morning commute, I confess I’m going to miss them.  The experience was so fleeting, yet so impressive.  But life goes on: the young cicadas will hatch and burrow underground as the fireflies begin to flicker out for the warm summer nights, floating about with their warm, golden glow as the sun sinks into the horizon.  I can still handle fireflies.  Whatever strange bug aversion I have does not extend to them.  So whenever I can, I let them alight on my outstretched hands, and we share a brief moment of connection before they float back off into the dusk.  It’s a good way to start the summer.

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Strong Female Character: Round 2!

(or, The Visual Representation of the Warrior Woman)

Despite what I said about strong female characters being too focused on the warrior woman, I am here today to focus on … the warrior women!

Particularly their visual representation, because, you know …

Source: http://womenfighters.tumblr.com/post/43562502843/lady-armor-exposed

It is well known that tough ladies in any genre can suffer from a ridiculous visual representation.  Fantasy warriors get dolled up in metal bikinis, science fiction has a habit of churning out sexy alien lasses, superheroines fight evil in revealing, skintight apparel that would barely stay on while walking down the street, much less brawling with baddies, and even spies and detectives somehow find themselves in stiletto heels at most inconvenient times.  Historically, this is a result of men working in male-dominated industries marketing toward a male-dominated audience, and though the demographics are shifting, old habits die hard.  But there are plenty of places around the internet that go into depth on that score, so I’m not going to ramble on too much here.

One major complaint against some of the more outrageous designs is in terms of practicality.  Any lady cosplayer can tell you that things like heels, patent leather, corsets, and so on may look cool, but they can be a pain to wear and usually end up being very limiting to your mobility.  I can say from experience that even trying to tie your shoes while in a steel-boned corset can be a frustrating and laborious process (that is very fun to watch, apparently), and it’s impossible to run at full speed wearing pencil-thin 4″ heels.  And, needless to say, when it comes to stopping bullets or blades, steel or Kevlar does a much better job than Spandex or bare flesh.

The other complaint is sexualization and objectification, another thing lady cosplayers know well.  Films and comic books are especially guilty of presenting gratuitous cleavage, near-nudity, and other sexualized representations of women, often when male characters are not treated the same way.  Often times, this is pandering to a male demographic, but sometimes it’s just a matter of taking a cool-looking design a step too far.

The problem in finding a solution is that there are so many factors to balance.  When I go to choose an outfit in the morning, I have to think of what the weather is like, where I’ll be going and what is considered appropriate for that environment, what will be most comfortable for the tasks I’m going to engage in, whether I’m in a mood to be pretty, or cute, or professional, or bad-ass – the list goes on.  Different ladies (and men too) have different motivations for the attire they choose each day, but there is always a thought process, even if it’s as simple as, “I’m not leaving the house today, so I’m not going to wear pants.”  The (often but not always male) artists and designers who give visual form to the many warrior women of fiction don’t usually seem to take the approach of thinking from the character’s point of view about what they might wear.  Rather, they take a purely aesthetic approach, designing based on what looks good to them, fits their overall style, and best complements (or exposes) the female form.  The aesthetics do matter, as evidenced when an artist who recently did a series of practical superheroine costume redesigns as an exercise got backlash for the designs being unattractive and frumpy, but they need to be tempered with a little sense.

I think the most important factor about the visual representation of a warrior woman (or any female character) is whether or not she would realistically approve of the attire.  If the character in question is some lusty, sexually-liberated femme fatale, then she’s probably going to want to show a little skin whenever possible, but if she’s a strong-willed peasant woman trying to defend her village from marauders, she’s probably going to want to get as much protection as she can using what’s available to her.  It is possible to have a character look amazing and still dress suitably to face her story’s conflict.  Women Fighters in Reasonable Armor does a great job of gathering images of practical and/or historically accurate armors as designed for or worn by women, and other resources for inspiration are endless.  An artists needs to think of the character’s personality, what kinds of resources she has, what her society considers appropriate and whether or not she would agree, who she fights, how she fights, whether or not she would dress in some kind of standard uniform or style, whether she is more stylish or more practical, and so on.  Readers and viewers of genre fiction are always willing to engage in some suspension of disbelief, so as long as you are faithful to the character, and you are being honest with yourself about being faithful to your character, you’re probably on the right track.

Strong Female Character: Round 1!

(or, How “Strong Female Character” Has Become Toss-Around Jargon)

I’ve noticed that some people tend to use the term “strong female character” as a kind of archetype, a generalizing label.  They use it the same way they would “the anti-hero” or “the charming sociopath,” character tropes we grab at to quickly and conveniently sum up a character.  The problem is, a strong female character isn’t strictly speaking a trope, or at least, she shouldn’t be.  Few people generalize a “strong male character,” focusing instead on what specific qualities of strength they exhibit, but many people seem content to group any females with physical, moral, or emotional strength into one category without taking the time to elaborate.

Now, I admit that when I hear a story or game or film features a “strong female character/lead,” I consider it a point in the story’s favor.  I like to see members of my gender sticking up for themselves and/or kicking serious ass.  However, you don’t really know what you’re getting into when your character is described so ambiguously.  There are many ways any character can exhibit strength.  Using a few random films as an example, you could say that Elizabeth Bennet from Pride & Prejudice, Hushpuppy from Beasts of the Southern Wild, and Beatrice Kiddo from Kill Bill Vol. I & II are all “strong,” albeit in vastly different ways.

In one sense, there’s no harm in specifying the existence of a “strong character” in a work of fiction.  You’re saying that there is someone in the story with enough depth and integrity to make you want to read about, watch, or play her.  Showing appreciation for these characters motivates the storytellers to create and develop these and other characters with complexity.  Yet in other regards, it causes problems.

For example, as it’s used with more regularity, people begin to misunderstand or misapply the term.  When someone mentions a “strong female character” anywhere outside of a romantic or comedic setting, more often than not they are referring to physical strength in the sense of a warrior woman or femme fatale.  Similarly, many storytellers will try to justify that they have strong female characters by simply making them formidable fighters.  Over time, this becomes almost the expectation.  But as I already mentioned, there are many ways for a character to exhibit strength and complexity.  She doesn’t need to be a skilled fighter to be considered strong or an equal to her male peers, but this trait is too often used as a crutch to support an otherwise flat or objectified character.  As this expectation grows, some admirable pacifists get overlooked as weak and domesticated while some archetypal, often sexualized Amazons get mistaken for strong-minded, empowered women.  It’s not always the case, certainly, but it does happen.

In the end, using the term “strong female character” to evaluate a story is like using Wikipedia to research for a paper: it’s a great starting point, but if you don’t go from there to look a little deeper, the end result won’t reflect positively on either party.