Campaign for a permanent statue of Sir Terry Pratchett in Salisbury

There’s a petition online at the moment to try and get Salisbury Council to commit to erecting a permanent statue to Sir Terry Pratchett in the city he lived in for over twenty years.

Aside from the fact it’s also where I grew up and it would be awesome to have something like this in my home city, I think that someone as hugely influential and important to English Literature as Terry Pratchett needs a permanent memorial. Somewhere fans can visit. Somewhere people can pay their respects. Most iconic writers and poets throughout history have places such as these, such as their graves or plaques and statues placed somewhere symbolic. If anyone deserves to be included with this group, it’s Sir Terry Pratchett.

So if you’re a fan, or even if you’re not but still recognise his contribution to the field, please click the link and add your signature.

Why I’m glad there hasn’t been a Black Widow movie… yet

Before I get down to the main topic of this post I want to make one thing clear. I am going to discuss a topic related to gender inequality in cinema. While I have read and reread it before posting in an attempt to ensure that I haven’t said anything that means something other than I think it does, that doesn’t mean I won’t say something inadvertently stupid or offensive.

So, just to be clear, I am in no way intending to defend Marvel Studios’ obvious issues with gender equality. There is a whole ream of blog posts to be written on Marvel’s failure to address the cultural hangover of their 1960’s heritage. The fact that it will be an entire decade over the MCU’s existence (1) before they release a movie with a solo female lead is ridiculous, and the state the merchandising is in would be funny if it wasn’t so depressingly sad.

So please forgive me if I inadvertently say anything that sounds like I am defending them on this. That is not my intention.

In the “geek” community there is currently a lot of anger surrounding the way woman are being depicted in comics. Both in written and cinematic form it is obvious that gender balance issues still exist. As I stated above, I’m not going to attempt to go into too much detail about this, because (a) I know more intelligent people than me are putting it a lot better than I would, and (b) I’d inevitably say something that means something other than what I meant.

What I want to discuss today revolves around one of the more prominent focus points of this argument; that fact that in the Marvel Cinematic Universe there has yet to be a female lead solo movie, and that the most prominent female character in the series, Natasha Romanov, the Black Widow, has been repeatedly relegated to a supporting role

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But here’s the thing. I’m glad she hasn’t had her own movie, because without one she has become the most interesting character in the MCU.

I personally believe that Black Widow has had – possibly inadvertently – the best character development in the entire series. One thing Marvel has done well with their secondary characters in the MCU – and yes, at this point I wouldn’t call her secondary, but let us for now assume “secondary” means that they haven’t had their own movie – is develop them across multiple movies. I have always been a fan of reoccurring background characters. The ones who aren’t part of the main plot but appear throughout a series. It gives a story a sense of continuity. A feel that the world carries on while the heroes are busy doing their thing (2). Part of the reason the MCU came together so well was characters like Natasha Romanov, Nick Fury, Phil Coulson (3), and Maria Hill brought everything together. It wasn’t just the ‘Big Three’: Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor, each working with interchangeable, faceless extras. They were part of a world that existed independently from them.

And some secondary characters grow to be come more prominent. Not all, but Natasha was one that did, until she was one of the main characters in the first Avengers movie. And that slow development – spread out over time rather than dumped on us in one go – has allowed her a layer of mystery the others are lacking. The Big Three Avengers are clear cut characters. They may have layers and development, and the actors do a great job of making them three dimensional, but we always know who and what they are. There is no mystery to them. Romanov isn’t like that. She’s not a celebrity, soldier, or god. She’s a spy. An enigma. Her entire life has been about deception. Whatever the situation has needed, that’s who she has become. Her scenes with Bruce Banner in Age of Ultron were probably the first time the audience have seen her completely honest and bare. We’ve slowly learned snatches of her history, but no more than that.

Then there is the fact that she isn’t really a “super” hero. Rather than gaining her abilities through some accident of birth or genius, she will have spent a life time training to become who she is. She’s not a demigod. She doesn’t focus on her own problems and adventures over anything else. She’s not so powerful that it’s impossible for her not to be the centre of the world around her. She goes where she’s needed, doing what’s needed to do.

And that leads to the fact that she is one of only two Avengers with no powers (4). Damage or injury that the others would shake off without thinking would kill Romanov or Hawkeye. But she keeps up with them. She chooses to keep up with them. No one would think less of her for letting the actual “super” members of the team take them lead, and than follow to mop up after them. What sort of person is she that she doesn’t?

And for one last point – and I know some people will disagree with me on this – I feel it’s important to recognise that she’s never been anyone’s sidekick. In Iron Man 2 she turns up as a spy, completely showing up everyone who underestimate her because they couldn’t see past her appearance. In Captain American: Winter Soldier Steve Rogers only succeeds because she is there at times to take the lead. She’s doing her job, which involves working with the others. She’s not working for them.

Remember, Black Widow was originally a bad guy. Assuming that they are keeping that back story – and I think that’s a safe assumption from what we’ve seen – she was a killer for the KGB. An assassin. She has red in her ledger. She was offered a second chance, and now does what she does now in an attempt to make up for her past actions. She doesn’t believe that she deserves to ever get to quit and live happily ever after.

As I said earlier, Black Widow is the most interesting character in the entire MCU.

It boils down to this: unlike with the other characters, as an audience we have had have to fill in the gaps in her story ourselves. We’ve had to use our imaginations to build up a picture of who she is from the little we’ve seen. With each appearance we see a little more, and build up our own personal interpretation of her backstory. It’s that interaction with the character that make her who she is. If we had been given a solo movie too soon, I don’t know if this would have been handled so well.

But I do have to say that this doesn’t let Marvel off the hook. I argue that her slow buildup made her a better character. That having her own film would have ruined this. However this is (a) no excuse for not introducing another female lead, and (b) no longer the case.

I can understand how the MCU ‘Phase 1’ was focused on the three main – male – heroes. They were the tentpoles of the franchise. I can forgive them that. But there was no excuse for not bringing one in for ‘Phase 2’. There is no excuse for waiting until the end of ‘Phase 3’ before we get Captain Marvel, or indeed develop Black Widow into her own story.

And now the mystique is established, Black Widow could easily slip fully formed into her own movie. We now have enough of an idea of her that we want to see more, not because we want a female lead movie on principle, but because the character calls for it. In the correct hands, with a writer and director who understand who to handle the character and don’t simply try to shoehorn her into an cut and paste action adventure, it could be amazing. It needs to be a spy thriller. Captain America: Winter Soldier showed Marvel that their fans can enjoy an action move tinted with political intrigue. A Black Widow movie with just be one step further along that road. It needs to answer some questions while leaving more open. Think of how Wolverine’s story was left at the end of Xmen 2. We knew more than we did, but there was so many more questions left unanswered. The answers we had were satisfying, but the character was still left with some mystery (5). The moment they simply decide to spell her out, the character would be ruined.

Actually, I don’t want her to have a movie. I want her to have a series, a la Agent Carter. And it should be on Netflix so it can be dark and gritty. Marvel have shown that can get the perfect mix of dark and fun with Daredevil. She needs story and character development, not just a series of fights and explosions.

The fan base is ready for it. There's a story to be told.

The fan base is ready for it. There’s a story to be told.

So come on, Marvel. All the elements are there. Time to make up for your lack of care with your female characters. Make it up to up with something awesome.

1 I mean since Iron Man. I’m not counting to two original Hulk movies because, well, who does?

2 Wedge Antillies is the best character in the original Star Wars trilogy. Why does not one else see this? Come on, he survives both Death Star runs!

3 Who should have stayed dead. People disagree. They are wrong. There will possibly be a future post on this.

4 I’m counting super genius and a metal suit that turns you into a superman as a “power” here. Go with it.

5 Xmen: The Last Stand and Xmen Origins: Wolverine DID NOT HAPPEN! Why do people labour under this delusion?

The selection of gender

How do you go about choosing a character’s gender? Is it the same as something like their name, height, or hair colour and a just a choice for the writer to make? Or it is more intrinsically linked with the nature of a particular story?

One of the many points of discussion that has sprung up in the current cultural debate about gender politics in society has been how there are so few “strong female characters” in our media. I’m not going to go into detail about the deeper issues here. There has been plenty written and discussed online already – to varying degrees of vitriol – but I want to address this particular issue that is unavoidably interwoven with any creative media. Like it or not we come from a traditionally patriarchal society, and thusly our storytelling traditions have been very much filtered through that ideology; men are the protagonists in life, with women at best secondary or at worst totally sidelined. As Joss Whedon famously pointed out, until we reach the point where strong female characters are no longer highlighted as different from the norm we will remain in an unbalanced media.

There are many reasons for this. Some of it is, of course, straightforward misogyny. The recent #GamerGate scandal has highlighted how much of that lingers around certain types of people. But as vocal as this segment can be it is not one that has an overtly active role in the real media. And yes, while I understand that many people have been seen to pander to this demographic I refuse to believe that entire industries have purposely developed around this kind of mindset.

No, the larger part of this issue has been blindness. Time and time against I have read interviews with men in the media who have told the same tale; unique to them but telling the same story where they were made to suddenly realise they had been perpetuating the gender divide without even realising it. They had never considered themselves as marginalising women. They were merely part of an established system that did so on such an ingrained level they could not see it for the trees.

This issue is an endemic one, but one that is slowly being swept aside. Mainly due to the actions of a few very strong and impressive role-models who have made a stand rather than allow themselves to work within a broken system, facing the far too often vitriolic nature of certain areas of “internet culture”. I honestly feel that today writers and media creators are far more aware of gender in their work than in any time in recent history. The issue is not going to fixed overnight, no social injustice ever is, but it has been set on the right path.

So, as a writer, how much do you need to worry about this? How much do you need to actively plan your work to help bridge the divide when it comes to female characters?

When I was nearing the end of The Serpent’s Eye I began to worry. I realised that I had written a book that hit all the traditional tropes of the old system without thinking; I had one single male protagonist, and all the female characters were viewed through the filter of his viewpoint. Did that mean I had written a bad story? Did it mean I was one of the many people perpetuating the gender imbalance through not paying attention?

No, I don’t think I was. Not everything needs to pass the Bechdel test. More things need to of course – in fact most things should – but the important question here was could I justify my choices for the good of the story?

And yes, I think I can. The story I had come up with involved somebody traveling aboard to deal with a serious of legal issues for a prominent family in the nineteenth century. Would there have been any female lawyers at that time? And if so would they be hired for such a job by an ancient and traditional noble family? For all the thousands of ways I could have created a female protagonist and worked them into the story, this would not have worked for the level of simple realism I wanted to achieve.

I know there are stories that can be told where the gender of the characters will not have one single effect on the plot. It is just that I believe these are as rare a chickens teeth.

The simple fact is, as much as we may not realise it, interpretation of gender plays a massive part in our lives. Everyday we are making thousands of snap judgements about the people we pass in the street based on age, appearance, clothing, attitude and hundreds of other tiny unnoticeable triggers. We don’t even notice we are doing it until we think about it. It is impossible to get to know someone without spending time learning who they are, and so our minds learn shortcuts based on what we can take in quickly so we can make a snap judgement of how they might act based on our previous experiences. These shortcuts are filtered and developed through the societal norms of a culture with thousands of years of momentum. We may try to be gender-blind, or colour-blind, or any kind of prejudice-blind, but it is simply not psychologically possible. It can take years to get to know someone personally, and until then, and even after, all our thoughts and interactions with them will be interpreted using the preconceived ideas that are simply so ingrained into who we are that we don’t realise they exist.

A good writer cannot simply spell out everything about a character, and so has to make use of their reader’s prejudices and assumptions to fill in the blanks. This is a tool that needs to be carefully used. Whether you want the reader to fill in the blanks in a character’s background, or to throw the reader by playing with their assumptions, the first stage is understanding how a reader will initially flesh out the character in their first scene.

These subconscious interpretations can have a profound effect on a story. The writer Brandon Sanderson has said how in earlier drafts of the first Mistborn novel the main character, Vin, was originally a boy. However he felt the tone of the story wasn’t sitting right but he couldn’t put his finger on why. Then he decided to change Vin to a girl and everything fell into place. The story needed a female protagonist, as the character dynamics simply were not working otherwise.

In Nice or Naughty – <shamelessplug> Available to read now in Dark Holidays, an anthology from Dark Skull Publications </shamelessplug> – the protagonist is a young girl with a little brother. Had I swapped the genders around it would not have altered the plot in any way, but the feel of the story and the reader’s relationship with the character would have changed significantly. Most people will have a very different preconception of a young girl’s attitudes towards her little brother than those of a young boy towards his little sister. You never meet the brother in person, he is only discussed, but that relationship is vital to the story and I can’t afford to bore the reader with a page and a half spent spelling out their relationship. Rather than do that I used what I feel will be the reader’s preconceptions and then subtly nudge them at the correct points to give the impression of the children’s relationship.

Now I don’t believe for a moment that, at this stage of my career, my work is going to have any affect in the greater debate on this issue, but also I don’t want to be seen as simply one more white male writer creating white male characters. What I do want is to create stories with a variety of characters and types, and this will sometimes mean developing a story about the character. Sometimes I will have to create male characters, if the story requires it, but at least I am aware that this is not the only option. I know that I need to develop stories to fit around female characters – and in the greater scheme of things also characters of different races and cultures – rather than let my stories grow around lazy writing. To make sure I push myself as a writer.

In the end my choice was not one of which gender I felt like writing, but which gender better fit the character and story.

Art Over the Artist (Update)

Back in March I posted a few comments about Orson Scott Card and the reaction to his proposed contribution to a Superman anthology. Due to Card’s strong opinions on and public campaigning against gay marriage. (His opinions on the matter are made clear here in this piece he wrote for the Mormon Times). There followed a very public backlash against these views being associated with Superman, and now an online campaign is building up steam to boycott the upcoming release of the movie adaptation of Card’s 1984 novel Ender’s Game.

This week Card released a statement through Entertainment Weekly about the situation. Here it is in full:

Ender’s Game is set more than a century in the future and has nothing to do with political issues that did not exist when the book was written in 1984.

With the recent Supreme Court ruling, the gay marriage issue becomes moot. The Full Faith and Credit clause of the Constitution will, sooner or later, give legal force in every state to any marriage contract recognized by any other state.

Now it will be interesting to see whether the victorious proponents of gay marriage will show tolerance toward those who disagreed with them when the issue was still in dispute.

Orson Scott Card

I’m torn by this, as there is a part of me wants to agree with him. As he says the book, and film, are not pieces promoting his opinions. His written work and his political and religious views are separate. Shouldn’t we be able to enjoy them? And I also feel I should be happy with his comment that essentially says “You won, I accept this, let’s move on.”

But if you read the whole article he wrote for the Mormon Times back in 2008 you see that this opinion cannot be his. Here is a direct quote from that article regarding any government that passes laws that equalise gay marriage:

I will act to destroy that government and bring it down, so it can be replaced with a government that will respect and support marriage, and help me raise my children in a society where they will expect to marry in their turn.

Does that sound like the opinion of someone who considers the matter “moot”? Have a read of that article. It is the perfect summation of how an intelligent person can look at facts through personal opinions and filter out a desired answer. It’s an exacting example of how homophobia, or any prejudice, can exists in an intelligent society.

I’m especially impressed by the last paragraph. You’ve always got to enjoy the old ‘If you’re so tolerant why are you judging me’ argument. It shows up the misguided viewpoint of people who can’t tell the difference between judging someone for promoting an unfounded and archaic opinion rather than something they are born as.

Card’s statement reeks of the studio and publishers PR Departments. While I understand and believe that a man can change his opinions, I’m going to need to see a lot more evidence than this. Especially as it’s in response to something that could lose the studios a lot of money. Any other time I might have been swayed, but this is all about lost ticket sales.

In my previous article I did not attempt to make a final decision whether we can enjoy Art despite the views or personality of the Artist. I said that it was always going to be something we must judge on a case by case basis. I was personally just not going to bother seeing the film adaptation of Ender’s Game. I might have, but I was leaning against it. But now having read this studio written, slightly bitter plea to forget about it, I find it’s actually pushed me towards a more hardline stance again Card’s work.

Where before I was mildly interested, now I find I do want there to be a successful boycott of this film. It’s not going to affect Card’s talent or success, and I doubt it will change his misguided and 50 years out of date views on homosexuality and marriage. But it will be a wonderfully grand statement that society as a whole does not condone the views that Card seeks to promote.

Art over the Artist

Earlier this year, DC comics announced that the acclaimed author Orson Scott Card was to be contributing a script for an upcoming Superman anthology. This is a simple, standard publicity move; DC gets the kudos of an award winning author writing for their publication, and Card gets a boost to the demographic that is likely to see the film adaptation of his novel Enders Game, due to come out this year. Everybody wins.

Unfortunately, it also turns out that as well as being a well respected writer, Orson Scott Card is a prominent activist against gay rights.

Soon after the announcement of his Superman story was made, fans across the world began to wax online wroth at the fact that Superman, that icon of Truth, Justice and the American Way, was being written by a man who claims that homosexual behaviour is inherently evil. He sits on the National Organisation of Marriage, a fundamental anti-gay group, and openly speaks out that homosexuality as a sin that should be battled rather than accepted. There have been calls to boycott the book, and DC as a whole. People are calling for retailers to refuse to stock it. While DC have not cancelled the story, stating that that the personal views of their writers are nothing to do with them, the artist who was assigned to the book has quit rather than be associated with this furore.

As I read up on the story, it occurred to me to wonder how much we can, or should, avoid literature and art created by those who we fundamentally disagree with. I’m sure there are many people out there who have been fans of Card’s work for years and who had no idea he held these views. Now if they know them and find they disagree with them, should their opinion of his works be altered because of them?

How easy is it to separate the work from the author? Even if Card is an excellent writer, can we morally continue to support his work for its artistic merit if doing so implicitly supports someone who’s views we oppose.

As much as one controversial opinion can dominate the headlines, you cannot judge somebody by one aspect of their personality. Card has also been vocal in his support for renewable energy. If I boycotted him for an opinion I disagreed with, and encouraged others to do the same, would I not be belittling a different viewpoint that I actually agree with?

So how easy can it be to divorce the work from the artist? The Superman controversy came about because with an icon like that, many fans feel that he belongs to them, rather than a creator. Superman stands for something to them, and a certain group felt that giving that icon to someone they see as standing against those ideals was wrong. I’m sure that many people, like me, were completely unaware of Card’s views before this, and without the internet to spread such knowledge never would have.

So what is the line? I read and enjoy the work of many writers whilst knowing very little about their personal beliefs. Can we be expected to research these people before enjoying their work? Of course not. We’re never going to be able to know all the opinions of artists we admire. If you know about an artist’s opinions before you see what they create, it’s simpler to decide not to get invested. But if you discover these things afterward, at what point could or should you take a moral stance against them?

Is it down to how prominent they are with their opinions? Card actively preaches against homosexuality, rather than simply being against it. He is more prominent than most due to his celebrity, but I doubt that anyone who is not involved or directly following the debate on gay marriage was much aware of his work in this field. Occasionally a celebrity will cross this line themselves; such as actor and comedian Michael Richards whose career flatlined after a racist rant during a standup routine a few years ago, or born again folk singer Michelle Shocked who had her entire US tour cancelled out from under her just after verbally attacking homosexuality on stage in the middle of a show.

You could also argue that it is the sphere of influence that causes some to worry. Comics such as Superman are traditionally seen as aimed at younger readers. Are the original campaigners afraid that giving these young readers an interest in Card’s work might then lead them to look more into his views and be more likely to agree with them because they liked his it? For me, this veers too close to the “Comic Books Cause Violence” argument, that invalid debate stretching back all the way to the thirties. I doubt that Card’s Superman story would even have touched on his views on homosexuality, especially with DC’s current trend towards pro-gay story-lines. I believe that children young enough to be influenced in that way are still too young to associate stories with the authors in that way.

Now in the interests of openness, I have to say I have not yet read any of Mr. Card’s work. My opinion of him goes by reputation only. I know that many consider his works to be essential reading for lovers of Science Fiction, that he has written a number of award winning novels, and also books on the art of writing itself. To me he has simply been a name on that long mental list I have of writers that I should one day get around reading at some point.

And so for me? In this situation, not having any emotional connection to Card’s work, I can happily say that now I know of his opinions and work to promote them, I am happy to avoid both his writing and the upcoming movie adaptation. Can I say I will always avoid them? No, I don’t think I can, but I feel that I will endeavour to do so without paying any money that will eventually reach him. In a society such as ours, paying money for something is an indication that we give it worth, and I just don’t feel that I can morally do that.

But now I find myself wondering how many of the things I have paid to read, watch, play or otherwise enjoy has been complicit in supporting people whose opinions I massively oppose. If, for example, had I discovered that Brandon Sanderson held some beliefs that directly opposed my own on the day before the final Wheel of Time novel had come out, would I have been able to not go out and buy the book? No, I would not. My love of that series would have been too great, and I would have put the art above the artist without question.

Maybe, like so many other things in life, we’re all just happy not thinking about it, and live in happy ignorance until the internet make us. Maybe the line is simply the point of discovery and being forced to admit things to ourselves that we would rather ignore. Maybe we should enjoy the art and disregard the artist, ignoring them as people and simply acknowledging them as the name on the cover of our books.

But as with many things, the internet doesn’t really let us do that. Even ignoring the fact that artists must self promote to get their work out to the widest possible readership, the fact is that when something like the Superman/Card issue comes up, social media has lead to a state where it has the chance of expanding across the ‘net and into our newsfeeds in a way that was unthinkable twenty years ago. If you enjoy an artist’s work, be it book, film, music, television, anything, today it is almost impossible to ignore that artist.