Monday, July 23, 2018

Film Criticism, The Last Jedi, and My Thoughts on Inclusivity as a Half-White, Half-Asian Woman

This happened a couple weeks ago. Some actress made some comments about wanting film critics to be more diverse, and the Internet went crazy. I usually read about movie news in order to avoid hearing about the culture wars that has ripped our country apart, but now even something as light and frivolous as movies has turned into a battleground for social critique. So here are of some thoughts about inclusivity, what it means to me, why representation doesn’t matter, and why, at the same time, it does.

But first, The Last Jedi.

Did you like the latest Star Wars movie? I did. I loved it so much, I saw it three times. I loved it so much, I dragged my friend, who hadn’t even seen The Force Awakens, to go see it with me. I loved the themes of the movie, which had to do with failure and recognizing the flaws of the past. I loved the way the director took risks and managed to surprise me—no easy feat.

My brother hated it. He said that Princess Leia’s “Mary Poppins” moment was the stupidest thing he’d ever seen. And this seems to be the nature of the film. People love it or hate it. Which is fine, because people have their opinions. What’s not fine is how the film seems to bring out trolls to the forefront.

There was an article that the film’s actress, Kelly Marie Tran was bullied off Instagram, because of people’s nasty comments, many of them racist. This is a sad development. Kelly Marie Tran is the first Asian American actresses to play a major character in Star Wars. Disney has made a consistent effort to bring diversity to their Star Wars universe, which unfortunately, even in this day and age, has caused backlash and controversy. I thought we were beyond that.

Anyway, a few weeks ago, I was spending a lazy Sunday skimming the entertainment news, when I happened upon this Los Angeles Times article called, “We need more diversity in film criticism, but 'Who is this movie for?' is the wrong question to ask.” Because I happen to read film reviews, I clicked on it.

The problem began at the Women in Film’s Crystal + Lucy Awards. Brie Larson, the actress who will be playing Captain Marvel in the upcoming MCU flick, said three things. First, most film critics are white men. This is a neutral fact. Second, there should be an effort to include more diverse voices. This is a fairly benign political view, which most people would probably agree with.

Third, movies are made for certain audiences and if you aren’t part of that audience, your voice doesn’t count. Or, as she put it, “I do not need a 40-year-old white dude to tell me what didn’t work for him about ‘A Wrinkle in Time.’ It wasn’t made for him.” This is where the controversy lies, and where Justin Chang, the writer of the article, takes offense.

Chang argues that movies should be for everyone, not just people who fall into broad, demographic categories. Part of the whole reason we watch movies (or read books or look at art) is to experience perspectives that are unlike your own. I agree. I’m all for inclusivity, but I dislike the “us versus them” mentality it’s been taking on lately. You don’t need to be part of a movie’s “target audience” to enjoy it or have a say.

So here I was nodding along, thinking Brie Larson perhaps should have re-phrased her remarks more diplomatically, when out of nowhere, the writer points out, “I ask these questions, incidentally, as a 35-year-old Chinese American dude and one of the 13.8% of “underrepresented men” […].”

I did a double take. The writer is Asian?

Like me?

Actually, I’m only half Japanese on my mother’s side. I’m also half white on my father’s side. This makes me half minority, half majority, half something else entirely. The thing is, while people talk about diversity in film, they usually aren’t talking about Asian Americans, so I’m used to that particular side of me being ignored.

I wonder if Justin Chang also feels that way. He writes, “Had I restricted myself to a slim diet of American cinema made for people who look like me, I doubt I could ever have fallen in love with the movies, let alone aspired to write about them for a living.” If movies are only made for the people who look like the characters, how could someone who hardly ever sees themselves portrayed enjoy the show?

The article goes on, but I found myself distracted by this uncomfortable feeling that, while I was happy enough reading the article not knowing who wrote it, as soon as I learned the ethnic identity of the author, I felt a sharp spike in interest. I could relate.

But why does it matter that the writer’s Asian? Should it matter at all?

It’s a question of representation, which is at the heart of this whole film criticism controversy. Why does it that matter that critics are one race or another, one gender or another? Or, for that matter, what does it matter if the main character of a film is black or white, male or female, gay or straight?

While pondering the dilemma, my thoughts swirled back to The Last Jedi.

Disney did a great job of diversifying the cast. We have a female Jedi as the lead character, with an African American storm trooper, a Latino fighter pilot, and the first Asian American resistance fighter. And with all those many characters to “represent me,” the one I decided was my favorite, my reason for watching the movie so many times was…

Kylo Ren.

The white male character.

And anyone who knows me wouldn’t be surprised in the least. I have a habit of glomping onto villains and anti-heroes, especially if they have complicated backstories and hints of redemption. I also think that Kylo Ren is the closest to my personality. A dark version of my personality, but my personality, nonetheless.

I connect to characters on an individual basis—I think we all do. I don’t think white men like being told they are unable to relate to female characters or people of color. Nor do I want to be told I can only relate to half-Asian females.

So then why does it matter if the cast is diverse at all?

It matters to me because I feel invited. When you see a group of people—be it in a movie or in real life—and none of them look like you, the subtle message you get is, “You’re not wanted here. Stay away.” And sometimes I ignore that message—but sometimes I listen. I might have been a comic book nerd growing up, if, as a girl, I didn’t feel so awkward about entering a comic shop.

Oddly enough, what struck me the most about diversity in Star Wars: The Last Jedi was that, when I looked at the ranks of the First Order—not the main villains, just the extras sitting aboard the ship—I noticed women and Asian men. And a part of me silently went, “Hallelujah.”

It made me feel like women and minorities were normal. We could be good, we could be evil, we could be important, we could not be important—we could just be people who made choices and happened to fall wherever we fell. There was less pressure to “represent” anything. It also helped the white half of me which sort of resented that only white characters were allowed to be evil. It groups the white race as the “bad guys” all the time, which is unfair.

This The Last Jedi reasoning follows with film critics as well. I read a lot of movie reviews and the critics I respond to best are respectful and offer me insight. Some of the male critics I read are very perceptive about female thought processes. Some female critics I feel are wrong. But just because I care more about the individual, does not mean I want people of my gender and background excluded.

It’s not that their perception is so radically different. It’s just that every now and then, I like to be reminded that people who look like me exist, be they at the Los Angeles Times or in a galaxy far, far away.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Do YA Fantasy Romances Owe Fangirls a Hot Male Lead (And What Is That Anyway?)

I wrote a complaint about Beautiful Creatures and how it failed to appeal to my “inner teenage girl,” and one of my criticisms was that it didn’t have any “hot men” in it. But this complaint sort of made me uncomfortable, because: A. It seems shallow and B. Who’s to say Beautiful Creatures didn’t have a hot male lead? It’s not as if there is one type of “hot.” What appeals to one person does not appeal to the next.

Continuing the trend of bad paranormal romances, I also watched The Covenant on Netflix, which was an equally terrible story, but, as I was telling my friend Rita, if it got nothing else right, it knew to cast “hot” guys. I ended up feeling more affection for this bad movie, because at least it knew its audience and tried to cater to them.

But this got me thinking. If you’re reading or watching something in the YA fantasy romance genre, do you feel you’re owed a hot male lead to fangirl over? After all, a lot of the appeal of fantasy and romance and books and movies in general is to have something you desire but aren’t likely to get in real life, be it an adventure, superpowers, or a “hot” romantic prospect. If an adventure book doesn’t provide you with a good adventure, doesn’t it fail to deliver on its promise? If a romance doesn’t provide you with a hot lead, does it, too, fail to deliver the goods?

And is it really so wrong, if you’re a teen girl or a grown women, to have hot guys to fantasize over?

When I was growing up (in the 90s, if you must know), it seemed as though male desire was catered to far more often than female desire (speaking in heterosexual terms, of course). Yes, it was still Hollywood, and there were plenty of attractive guys to go around, but there were at least some ordinary guys who ended up with beautiful women. The reverse almost never happened. The only plain girls in sight existed as objects of ridicule or revulsion. Oh, you’re overweight? Don’t even think of making a pass at even an ordinary looking guy, lest they throw up in your face.

Sometimes you don’t want to have to deal with that. Sometimes you want to feel like a “plain” or “ordinary” girl can land a hot guy. Or at least, you can look at the hot guy’s pretty face and let the real world dissolve for a couple of hours.

The problem, at least for me, is that when “hot women” were added to movies solely to cater to male desire, women ended up being objectified. They were not flesh and blood characters, but bodies to look at. This icky trend began to affect the psyches of little girls. Me, personally, I decided I was never going to be hot, never going to be good enough to land any guy, let alone one I really liked, so I might as well just chuck romance out the window and focus on accomplishing something.

When I was watching The Covenant, I started to get disturbed by the gratuitous shots of the half-naked guys in the locker room, because I felt they were being objectified and I was being forced to take part in it and, therefore, the movie was turning me into a pervert. And I did not sign up for that.

I don’t want guys to feel that they are no more than their bodies or that they need to look a certain way to land a romantic prospect—any more than I want girls to feel that way. If you feel a hot guy is “owed” to you, have you then turned a person into a commodity? And while it’s one thing for a book wherein the guy doesn’t technically exist, what about for a movie or T.V. show, where you actually have a real life person you’re potentially objectifying?

Am I overthinking this?

Probably. I overthink a lot of stuff.

But the thing is, I am currently writing some YA fantasy novels that have romantic elements in them. So do I owe my readers a hot guy?

And if so, how do I know if I’ve written one or not?

In a panic, I called my friend Rita, who specializes in both reading and writing YA fantasy romance, and she assured me that, yes, my romantic leads were “hot”—even the one who spent most of the story as a raven—but for her, being hot was not primarily a physical thing. What she found “hot” were characters who are confident in what they’re able to do, who are proactive, and who are intelligent, trustworthy, and responsible.

This got me thinking about my own definition of “hot” and what I feel is owed to me when I buy a YA fantasy romance.

Myself, I appreciate good-looking guys as well as the next girl, but looks have never been enough. I judge the actors primarily on their acting—and if it doesn’t do it for me, their looks don’t matter. Likewise, I judge the characters by what they bring to the table. Do they feel real? Are they honorable? Intelligent? Imperfect, but willing to grow? Then I’m on board.

On the few occasions I read romance, I don’t feel I’m owed a hot lead, but rather a good love story. Am I rooting for the characters to end up together? Do I feel emotion as I watch their struggles and joys? Do the characters grow because of their relationship? Does the romance work nicely into the plot? Well, then, I’m happy.

Maybe that’s not everyone’s definition, but it work for me.

Do you agree? Disagree? Have your own definition of what’s “hot”? Please let me know in the comments below. (P.S. I know he comments section has issues, but I’m trying to address them.)

Monday, July 2, 2018

How Beautiful Creatures Tried to Improve on Twilight and Sucked the Fun Out of It

Beautiful Creatures
 I have a confession. I liked Twilight.

It was not a perfect book or movie, but what it did really, really well was appeal to my inner teenage girl—this creature that still resides deep within me, buried underneath all these intellectual thoughts and theories of stories, that just likes what she likes. The writer part may gnash my teeth at the poorly paced romance, but the teenage girl side loves the thought of a beautiful guy stopping a car with his bare hands to save me.

When the studios got their hands on Beautiful Creatures, they all but announced that they were hoping for the “next Twilight.” A $7.5 million opening weekend and $19 million domestic box office total made it clear they didn’t succeed. Thanks to Netflix, I finally got the chance to watch the movie and after the credits scrolled I was dumbstruck with confusion. “Who was this movie made for?” I asked myself out loud.

To me it seemed like the studio heads heard the very loud, mostly male complaints about the Twilight films and decided to correct them. “This film has something for both men and women,” they tried to say. Unfortunately, as far as I can see, it appeals to neither. The premise and genre of the movie was always going to be a tough sell to males, but the changes pretty much destroyed any fun the teenage girl side of me might have had.

(Here's the trailer for Beautiful Creatures, since very few people actually went to see the movie.) 

Whose Story Is It?

In Twilight, Edward (and later Jacob) is the one that the girls froth over, but the story belongs to Bella. Bella is boring. The actress is often criticized for being twitchy and wooden; the character is criticized for being a poor role model for girls. No one needs Bella.

But it is her story.

Ethan, the main character.
No matter how poorly constructed the character may be, it matters that the person in the center of this fantasy romance is female. The first name that scrolls in the movie is Kristen Stewart. The opening narration we hear comes from Bella’s mouth. Because most of the audience members are girls, she serves as their avatar. It is easy for us to step into her skin and feel what she feels. The teenage girl side of me vividly remembers what it's like to yearn after the cool, good-looking guy who seems so entirely out of your league.

In Beautiful Creatures, the main character is Ethan. Alden Ehrenreich is first billed, first to speak. And while I relate to him as far his ambitions go (wanting to get away from a small town), it is harder for me to put myself in his skin in the romantic department. His story is about chasing and later saving this beautiful but misunderstood girl. Although I can relate on an intellectual level, it does not strike any chords. Chasing and yearning are entirely different things.

Chasing is seen as better. It is more proactive and masculine. Yearning, waiting, sitting still and feeling—these are all undesirable. They’re too feminine. Yet that is why it appeals to the teenage girl side of me. That part of me knows what it feels like to hope to be noticed. That part of me wants to sit and feel, not leap up and run.

Bella got this side of me. Ethan didn’t.

Female Desire

Of course, there is a girl in Beautiful Creatures. Her name is Lena, and if I wanted someone to sit and do nothing, well, she should be it. In a reversal of the Twilight novels/ movies, it is the girl who has the magic, the money, and the angst. In theory, I should be able to relate to her or at least enjoy being the one with all the cool stuff, right?

Lena waits to become good or evil.
No. Lena is boring.

She’s worse than Bella.

Say what you will about Bella, she knew what she wanted and she took action to get it. And this, when you think about it, is the essence of characterization. To want something so badly, you’ll take any risk to get it.

Lena didn’t really want anything.

She claimed to love Ethan, but loving and wanting are two different things. Ethan’s persistence and her loneliness wore her down until they were a couple—but she certainly didn’t care about keeping him. In the movie, she gave him amnesia to push him out of her life, arguably to keep him out of danger. Once the danger was past, however, she did nothing to bring him back in. Her love for him may have been strong, but her desire was non-existent.

To clarify a previous point: when my inner teenage girl wants to sit around and feel, she: A. wants to feel!!! and B. eventually she wants the character to do something about it.

In the Twilight series, the relationship of Bella and Edward was criticized because, let’s face it, they were co-dependent and acted like idiots, especially in New Moon, which I personally hated. But they both wanted each other, they had passion, and that gave the story a soapy, but fun feel. You can’t have that if one character doesn’t want anything. Love is not the same. Love is a warm blanket. Desire is a roller coaster.

Where are the Hot Men at?

Speaking of desire, you know what is a really, really cheap way of getting my inner teenage girl’s attention. Throw in a hot guy. That will at least perk me up, even while the intellectual side of me blushes in shame at such lowly behavior.

Here’s the problem: I don’t find Ethan hot.

It’s not that Alden Ehrenreich is unattractive or a bad actor or anything like that. He gives the character a lively charm. In real life, the character would be very good boyfriend material. Ethan is nice, cheerful, and relatable.

Which is sort of the problem.

Relatable is not the same as hot.

Relatable is feeling awkward as you find yourself unexpectedly sitting at a fancy dinner in your dirty sweats. Hot is being so gorgeous everyone stops to stare as you enter the cafeteria. Relatable is reading the banned books at the library. Hot is being able to compose and play songs on the piano. Relatable is fearing that you’ll end up stuck in a small town your whole life. Hot is fearing that you’ll accidentally murder the love of your life in a moment of temptation.

Relatable is normal. Hot is exaggerated.

I like exaggerated.

It’s all subjective, of course. Honestly, despite the fact that Edward is “hot,” I never felt any need to gush over him, because the character is rather shallow. But the teenage girl part of me is also shallow and likes shiny things. She likes the idea of Edward, and that’s enough.

Heck, it doesn’t even have to be the main character who's“hot.” Twilight had a large cast of attractive males, so that if you didn’t like Edward, you could glomp onto any of them. However, Beautiful Creatures only really offered my inner teen girl Ethan, and she was not interested in him.

This guy had some potential, if they'd stuck him in for more than 30 seconds.
What Does This Matter?

The thing is, when I watch movies, it is usually as an adult woman, who also happens to be a fantasy writer. Fundamentally, I want a good story. Even as a teenage girl, I wanted a good story, and I didn’t really care if the main character was a guy or whether or not he was “hot.” I gritted my teeth at portrayals of lovesick teenage girls and soapy romances.

Beautiful Creatures did not tell a good story.

The world-building was jarring, the characters were unremarkable, the pacing was slow, the exposition was oh-so-confusing, the plot was illogical, and the Southern accents were terrible. Ultimately, it wasn’t good, and it wasn’t even fun.

Maybe it would have been fun if it had some of those guilty pleasures attached to it.

But trying to make it less “guilt” sucked the pleasure right out.

* * *

Do you agree? What makes something a guilty pleasure? Reply in the comments.