A Personal Evolution in Fantasy

(or, What Happened When My Childhood Met the Works of Patricia C. Wrede)

Believe it or not, I spent the better part of my early childhood as an insufferably girly girl.  Everything I owned was pink.  There were unicorns and butterflies and rainbows everywhere.  My number one fantasy was to be a beautiful princess awaiting rescue by a handsome prince.  And when I played make-believe with my little sister, we usually played house.

Then, around maybe fourth or fifth grade, something began to change.  Suddenly, I was reading tales about princesses being rescued from fire-breathing dragons, and I was rooting for the dragons.  I began thinking it was awfully rude of those brash princes to just rush on in and slaughter an innocent dragon without asking the princess if it was really necessary.  What if the princess and the dragon had become friends?

And then I read the Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia C. Wrede, and I felt like a whole new world opened up in front of me.

dragons

For anyone who was not so fortunate as to encounter these books as a child, let me sum them up for you:  The story starts accounting the adventures of a dark-haired princess named Cimorene who, in a world where her pretty blond sistren are traditionally kidnapped by dragons so as to be rescued by princes, chooses to run away from home and become a dragon’s housekeeper.  She befriends a lady dragon named Kazul who eventually becomes the Dragon King (because in dragon society, the King may be male or female) and a witch named Morwen with a plethora of clever talking cats, among others, battles evil wizards with soapy wash water scented with lemon, wields swords and flying carpets, marries for love a man who respects her for her power and spirit, and goes off on a mission to save magic while pregnant with her first child.  The series addresses and delightfully satirizes nearly every fairy tale trope in existence, and in the character of Cimorene, you get a brilliant, willful, resourceful character who is absolutely true to herself.  She is both warrior and housekeeper, adventurer and mother, shrewd problem-solver and compassionate friend.  Kazul, likewise, is an icon of strength and perseverance, and Morwen a wise and steadfast individual who also knows how to be comfortable in her own skin.  These women became role models to me at a young age, and I think I’m a better person for it.

Since then, I’ve encountered numerous works that attempt to do similar things, satirizing and parodying old tropes, painting dragons in a positive light, presenting tomboy princesses who don’t do as they’re told, but for me, these books were the first, and still to this day among the best.  I was a voracious reader as a child, and I can’t remember most of the books I devoured, but these stories have lingered with me fondly.  They resonated with the desire in me to be a part of a world of magic where my role as a female wasn’t to be bandied about as a plot device or used as bait to lure magical creatures to their demise.  These books were the first to teach me that a woman can be a hero, can fight fear with understanding and compassion (or soapy water, as the case may be), can live the life she chooses no matter what popular opinion may say to the contrary.  These books will always hold a special place in my heart, and if I ever have children of my own, you can be sure I’ll read these books to them a hundred times … which probably means I should invest in some nicer copies.  My old paperbacks have certainly seen better days!

As an aspiring writer now, I have a renewed respect for many of my favorite works of fiction, and a devastatingly more critical eye.  It’s all too common to return to an old favorite and find its brilliance dimmed from what you remember.  I will never again be able to read these books with the kind of wide-eyed fascination and unconditional adoration I met them with as a child, but I can still learn from them and see what it was that made me love them in the first place, applying those lessons to my own storycraft.  Maybe one day I too will have written something that will find a nostalgic niche in some girl’s heart.  Until that day, for all that these books did to help me realize my potential, for all the times they made me laugh or read on with bated breath late into the night, and for all they did to open my eyes to what women in fantasy could be, I tip my hat most respectfully to Ms. Wrede.

Advertisements

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.

Story Time is Forever Awesome

(or, My One Saving Grace in My Inability to Interact with Small Children)

I’m at that age where my peers keep inexplicably producing offspring.  To be honest, I guess I’ve been at that age for a while, but my closest friends and family have had the good sense not to engage in reckless baby-making, at least until now.  In the past year, however, I’ve had one of my best friends give birth to a little baby boy, and I’ve discovered I’m going to be an auntie as well.  It seems I can’t let my discomfort with these little imps continue as it was.

Now, to be fair to my own ineptitude, I’m still no good with babies.  Try as I did, while handling my friend’s infant son, most of what passed through my head sounded like, Look at you.  All you can do is drool, flail, and nod off.  You’re like some kind of mutant slug creature that somehow inspires adoration instead of revulsion.  OH GOD I’M SCARED I’M GONNA BREAK YOU!  Here, back to your mommy before I do something wrong …  However, now that the boy has mastered things like eye contact, giggles, blowing raspberries, and basic motor skills, I’m feeling more optimistic.  You see, there’s one thing I think I could be awesome at.  I am super excited about the prospect of telling these children stories.

These days, something about the act of being read to personally makes me cringe, but when I was a child, it was about the best thing ever.  There wasn’t a huge selection of books my mother to read to me, especially since I was reading my own books pretty young, and I realized in retrospect that some of the stories she read got a lot of ad-libbing, but they were special nonetheless.  I’m almost ashamed to admit it, but one of my favorites was some generic 1960’s Western boy-and-his-horse tale that belonged to my mom called Fury and the White Mare by Albert G. Miller.  She would read me the whole thing with cowboy voices, and though I can’t recall most of the plot or characters, I do recall thinking it was pretty neat.

I still have it.  No joke.  This is my own copy.

I still have it. No joke. This is my own copy.

Of course, there were also the stories told on the spot, and sometimes those were even better.  Sometimes they were anecdotes of my parents’ own pasts, sometimes they were paraphrased stories and fairy tales, but no matter what the subject matter, hearing them told on the spot from memory somehow made them more real and intriguing.  Precious, too, because when I asked for the same story again, it was always slightly different.

That’s the part I’m most excited about.  Reading to children is certainly important, but I feel like there’s a lot to be gained by both the kids and the adults when passing along a story from memory.  Plus, the library becomes infinite!  I can share fairy tales, fables, and myths, personal experiences, plots of films and video games (or spin-offs based on those stories and characters), or I can ask the child to give me a few things he or she wants in their story and just make it up as I go along!  Sure, they may not always be the best, most technically competent stories around, but I have an audience who is basically willing to give me the benefit of the doubt, at least for a while.  So, could my desire to tell little children stories be in part a way to bolster my ego by winning the praise of someone who doesn’t have the experience to know whether or not my stories actually suck?  No.  Shame on you for thinking that.

I don’t know if I’ll ever be a mother myself, and I don’t pretend to know the first thing about parenting, but storytelling is something I know and love.  For now, I’m perfectly content with being “that lady who visits every now and then with all the cool stories” – here’s hoping that’s what I become!

In Defense of Girl Gamers

(or, Why Aisha Tyler May Be My Newest Hero)

I admit, I wasn’t always a gamer.  As a very young child with an all-pink bedroom and more stuffed unicorns than any sane person could imagine, I was told by society that video games were for boys.  Yet whenever I was visiting friends or cousins and the boys broke away to play their games, I always wanted to watch, even if it meant bailing on the dress-up sessions and playing house, earning me the momentary scorn of my female companions.  But I was a girl; the boys usually wouldn’t let me play, and no one got game systems for me for Christmases and birthdays.  Luckily, my sister went through a full-on tomboy stage during the SNES era, and through her constant begging, pleading, and demanding, we finally ended up with a system of our own.  That was when the obsession took hold in earnest.

I loved to play video games, and I was very good at many of them.  Unfortunately, I had almost no friends who played at the time and my sister’s interest wasn’t as ravenous as my own, so I had very little guidance in finding and playing the gems of that era.  It wasn’t until high school, when my circles of friends expanded and I started doing more research on my own, that I really became game savvy.  Though it affected how “current” my gaming experiences were by starting a trend of going back to play old games I’d missed at the time of their release, I was never entirely out of the loop.  By my senior year, I was even employed at a video game retailer, surrounded by games and news and experienced players and soaking up all the delicious video game exposure I could.

For the most part, my being female elicited positive or neutral reactions from people who learned I was a gamer.  My guy friends thought it was cool, some of my female friends were able to share their own closeted love of video games, and guys who saw me working at the game store would react with anything from indifference to ecstatic surprise.  There were a few detractors here and there, as I mentioned in my last article, but for the most part I felt like my supposedly rare identity as a girl gamer was considered a good thing.  Rather than being ostracized by other girls for liking non-girly things, as I moved from high school through college, I found myself surrounded by people who embraced my geekdom and thought positively about me because of it.  It felt wonderful.

Of course, there have always been people who rag on geeks in general; male or female, gamer or bookworm, sci-fi geek or fantasy buff.  That strange desire of human beings to tease and ostracize people with different looks, beliefs, interests, and so forth always crops up in one form or another.  In the eyes of a self-defined “normal,” there’s often no difference between a gamer who plays passionately as a part of their normal life and a hikikomori who locks themselves away with their games, replacing all normal social interaction with their fantasy worlds.  Gamers have to fight hard against the stigma that society has built up against them even as games have become more and more mainstream.

That is something I can accept, even if it is senseless and degrading.  The thing I have a harder time accepting is something I’ve only noticed in the last several years: the “hardcore” geeks and gamers turning against the rest.  I was guilty of this myself once, harboring resentment toward “casual” gamers for causing the proliferation of simple, gimmick-based games while grander projects and RPG opuses seemed to be languishing.  However, I soon learned that my reasons for disliking them were foolish.  A casual gamer could easily be introduced in stronger titles over time.  Little browser games and mobile apps can be like gateway drugs to more serious games, assuming we take all the negative connotations of that analogy and completely disregard them for the sake of me making a positive point.  As such, since I love games and want to share that love, there should be no reason why I would want to discourage or detest the playing of casual games just because they’re not to my taste.  If it shows someone, particularly someone who thinks negatively of video games in general, that games can be fun, where’s the harm in that?  Besides, with the money that some casual games make, their developers can afford to take on bigger projects and produce new, exciting, and more in-depth gaming experiences rather than Farmville and Bejeweled clones.

Unfortunately, some people aren’t learning similar lessons.  As geekdom and gaming have become more mainstream, there has been a lot of pushback from people who “were gamers before it was cool” or some such nonsense.  I see a constant struggle to establish “nerd cred” that not only alienates people with new-found or casual interest, but also reflects even more negatively on the people whose nerd cred is established, given the persisting stigma.  A strange cycle emerged where game publishers and similar organizations hire beautiful women to talk about and advertise their media in order to target a male audience, but in turn, real women and girls who love games, comics, and so on get labeled as fake and brushed aside.  Yes, there are some few women out there who capitalize on the trendiness of geekdom, but they do it for their jobs, to make money.  What reason does a girl have to claim she loves video games in her everyday existence except if she genuinely loves games?  Now, I love my gamer guys, but I can say from experience that those who tout their nerd cred as a sign of their soaring superiority are likely not as great a catch as they think they are.  A self-respecting girl or woman is not going to fake her interests just to get with them, and if she does, they should be respectful of the fact that she likes them so much that she wants to, heavens forbid, learn to share their interests.

It’s insulting and perplexing to me how this bias has developed.  How female gamers are subjected to derision and rage by their male peers rather than being accepted and loved for what they are.  It saddens me too, because even in a case where someone may not be as into or knowledgeable about something as you, there is so much potential for good times and bonding as you teach each other, good times you’ll never have if you just accuse the girl of being fake and move on to bask alone in your self-glory.

This is where Aisha Tyler comes in.  If you don’t know who she is, she’s a comedian, a gamer, a feminist, and an all-around awesome lady.  Last year, she was a host at E3, and for some strange reason, that earned her a lot of ridiculous hate.  Her response to this hatred, however, was brilliant.  This excerpt shows her point beautifully:

“I go to E3 each year because I love video games.
Because new titles still get me high.
Because I still love getting swag.
Love wearing my gamer pride on my sleeve.
People ask me what console I play.
Motherfucker, ALL of them.

I get invited to E3 because real gamers know I’m a gamer.
I don’t do it for the money.
I have plenty of money.
I don’t do it for the fame.
Fuck fame.
I do it because I love video games.

[…]
I don’t give a shit what you think about my gamerscore.
I don’t play to prove a point.
I don’t play to be the best.
I play because I love it.”

It all comes back to love, and we need more of it, both in the gaming community and the geekosphere as a whole.  We label ourselves as gamers because we love games, not because we crave status (at least, that’s true for most of us).  We are girl gamers, and we are here to stay, because we love games.

For one last affirmation of why Ms. Tyler is awesome, read this interview here where she discusses the post-E3 incident and sexual harassment in gaming.

Girls, keep gaming!  Keep talking about games, keep trying to get jobs making games, and keep trying to make games better!  I think it won’t be too long before we have brilliant female game developers standing alongside their male peers and making games so spectacular we could hardly imagine them now.  And remember when some  insecure hater out there tries to belittle or objectify you, you need only be true to yourself, nerd cred is meaningless, they are totally and unjustifiably in the wrong, and their judgments do not matter.  Stay strong, and do what you love.

On Love

(or, Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day?  No, for I Spent It Indoors Playing Video Games.)

It’s no secret that I enjoy my video games.  But for me, many games inspire something greater than enjoyment.  They inspire love.  Not a creepy kind of love, but the kind that is moved by beauty and virtues to admire from afar, like some sort of gaming Don Quixote.  There is something very special about the artistry and storytelling of games, and when done well, it’s completely moving!

I recently started playing Skyrim.  Yes, I know, that came out a while ago.  I’m almost constantly broke, so I almost never get a game when it comes out.  Needless to say, by the time I got my hands on this title and started playing it, people seemed to have formulated all the opinions they were going to form about it and slathered them all over the internet.  I came to expect something vast and epic, though perhaps lacking some emotional depth.  After a slow start and some fumbling with the controls (first-person can be my utter nemesis), I was on my way.  That first majestic vista you encounter after leaving the caves; that breathtaking view I’d heard so much about?  It didn’t do much for me, and at that point, I began to wonder if this game was simply overhyped to the point where I could never fully enjoy it.  I spent a couple game days running around on beginner errands, for some reason perpetually drowning in fog and rain, and I was almost ready to call it quits.  Then suddenly, one evening as I was walking into town, the sun set, the moons rose, the sky cleared until it was scintillatingly sharp and bright, and a magnificent aurora borealis struck out across the sky.  The scene took my breath away, and I just stood there for a moment, looking up.  It happened so suddenly and without warning, and somehow it conveyed to me all the depth and vastness of this world I was about to explore.  That was the moment I fell in love.

oooh … pretty …

It got me thinking about what moments like that made me fall in love with other games.  Was it the first time I stood before the Great Deku Tree in Ocarina of Time?  In Bastion, was it the first time I touched the ashen figure of an old friend and watched him crumble to dust?  Did Final Fantasy VII have me by the opening cutscene?  It was this and more, absolutely, but there is always that first moment.  Something beautiful or tragic or humbling takes you, and you lose yourself in the moment.  Maybe it’s something you want to explore, or something you want to protect.  Maybe it’s something you want to avenge.  Or, maybe it’s something you just want to sit and absorb into the recesses of your memory.  Whatever the scenario, games present it to you like no other media can, and that is why I love them.