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If you link me that much you will stick around March 6, 2015

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, films, linkpost, short stories, television.
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I have so many links for you this week! My Twitter feed has been very generous in sharing its fabulous internet finds, and I’ve gathered the best of them to post here.

First up, have a couple of short stories. ‘Translatio Corporis’ by Kat Howard and ‘The Monkey House’ by Tade Thompson absolutely rocked my world. They’re published in Uncanny Magazine and Omenana respectively.

I went on a massive Twitter rant about failures of imagination in historical fantasy novels set in medieval Britain and Ireland, so I found this post on ‘Celtic fantasy’ by Liz Bourke to be very welcome and timely.

Likewise this post by Kate Elliott on writing women characters touched on a lot of things that matter to me in storytelling.

Joanne Harris makes some good points about the economics of literary festivals.

This post by Renay is very perceptive on self-rejection, anthology-curation and the difficulties in amplifying the voices of others.

I found the conversation taking place at the #WritingNewZA hashtag on South African literature really interesting.

Tricia Sullivan writes about the pitfalls of being a mother who writes. (I would say that this potentially applies to primary caregivers of any gender, but there are particularly gendered elements of the problems she’s outlining that lead me to think her emphasis on mothers specifically is correct in this instance.)

Here is a Storify of tweets by Aliette de Bodard about the fallacy of devoting your entire life to writing.

I grew up on Sara Douglass’s books, and while they’re far from perfect, she herself was a really important figure in the history of fantasy literature in Australia. Here, Australian fantasy author Fiona McIntosh remembers her.

I’ve found Abigail Nussbaum’s recent Hugo recommendation posts useful. Here’s the short fiction one, and here’s the one on publishing and fan categories.

I want to see this film!

I’m thoroughly enjoying watching Ana discover the Dark Is Rising sequence over at The Book Smugglers.

This is a good summation of what made Parks and Recreation so great, over The Mary Sue.

Finally, have an Old English text about the wonders of books.

The sun is shining and the sky is clear here in Cambridge. It looks like this weekend is going to be excellent for me, and I hope it is the same for you.

A long way down November 13, 2014

Posted by dolorosa12 in blogging, reviews, television.
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This post will contain spoilers for Season 1 of The Fall. It will also involve discussion of misogyny, rape culture, sexualised violence and murder.

The first episode of Season 2 of The Fall will air tonight. The release of the new season has prompted a flurry of discussion of the same elements certain critics disliked in the first season: the show’s perceived sexism and voyeuristic attitude to gendered violence. While I understand where such criticism is coming from, I think it is misguided.

The Fall is the story of the hunt for a serial killer in Belfast who targets victims of one demographic: attractive, young, single professional women. It’s an unusual show in that we know who the killer is from the first episode, following him as he goes about his daily life as husband, father and grievance counsellor, and as he goes about his hidden life as a misogynistic, unspeakably cruel killer. As such, the focus and point of view of the show is split evenly between that of Paul, the killer, and Stella, the police officer leading the investigation into his crimes. It is this focus on Paul and insight into his mind that has led, in part, to condemnations of the show for misogyny. The other problem is that in making Paul a viewpoint character, his murders are shot through his eyes, and so the audience sees the women he kills as he sees them: helpless dolls whose murdered bodies are his to handle (the way he bathes and lays out his victims’ bodies in their own beds — in which he has killed them — is one of the most horrifying aspects of the show).

That being said, I think it’s very clear that the show is condemning such actions. We are not voyeurs gazing on the dead women: we are voyeurs gazing in horror at the workings of Paul’s mind.

The show’s broader context supports such a reading. This is due in great part to the character of Stella, who repeatedly condemns Paul’s actions as the work of a misogynist, who is herself a sexually independent woman, and who calls out the wider culture as supporting the extremes of Paul’s actions in refusing to condemn smaller, more everyday forms of misogyny. The writer has also stated in interviews his insistence on portraying Paul’s victims before he murders them, so that the viewers can see them as human beings with jobs, friendships and familial and other connections. This acts as a sort of direct refutation of Paul’s perception of them.

Most importantly, it’s one of the few shows to receive mainstream acclaim I’ve seen to include an explicit discussion of rape culture and the ways it enables murders like those of Paul’s victims to take place. Stella has several conversations with her (female) colleague Reed about the ways women and girls warn each other about male violence, and about the way that they must be constantly guarded against a culture that will try to blame them for their own abuse. Stella also shuts down a male colleague describing one of Paul’s victims as ‘innocent’. What if his next victim is a sex worker? she asks. She refuses to let any discussion of innocence or blame enter the narrative of the case.

There is one final, and most horrifying, example of the show’s condemnation of society misogyny. Paul’s pattern in his murders is to build up to them by initially sneaking into his victims’ empty houses and moving their belongings around in subtle ways in order to assert his control and unsettle them. His second victim notices that her belongings have been moved and calls the police. Rather than believing her, they try to deny her own experience and knowledge of her own space. There’s no sign of a break-in, they say. Could her things have been moved by her cat? She is sure that this is not the case, but their words put doubt in her mind, so that when they ask her if she could stay with her sister, she feels as if her fears were unfounded and decides to stay put. Of course, after the police leave, Paul sneaks back in and murders her in a way designed to cause maximum, drawn-out terror and trauma. In this way, although Paul is the one to actually kill the women, The Fall shows how damaging, misogynistic societal attitudes (particularly the refusal to believe women when they say they feel unsafe) contribute to and enable his murders.

In this way, The Fall, while heartbreaking, terrifying and harrowing to watch, is much less harmful than, say, the Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson, which purports to be a series condemning violence against women, but which actually engages in a great deal of victim blaming. While it is not enjoyable to watch women killed in situations of extreme psychological torment, it is satisfying for once to see the blame for their deaths put where it truly lies.

‘They’re bad men, but they’re OUR bad men’ May 10, 2014

Posted by dolorosa12 in meta, reviews, television.
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One of my maternal great-grandfathers was what people today would call a ‘colourful racing identity’. It sounds a lot more glamorous than it actually was. Although my grandmother has some interesting stories about family friends known only as ‘Slippers’ and ‘The Colonel’, and her father waking everyone up whenever he’d won big and flinging all the money on the bed, the reality was much more sordid and terrifying than those stories would suggest. In actual fact, my great-grandfather’s gambling habit meant that my grandmother had essentially left school at the age of eight. She was constantly sent to the door to tell bailiffs attempting to evict the family that her parents weren’t at home. One absolutely heartbreaking story she told me involved her mother giving away her new (and much-needed) coat to another child because that child didn’t have a mother and my great-grandmother felt sorry for her. Most chilling of all, the only reason my grandmother grew up in Sydney was because one night her father came home in an absolute panic, and they had to pack up the entire house and flee from Melbourne in order to escape some kind of gang-related threat to his life due to debts. My point is that the charming image conjured up by the words ‘colourful racing identity’ covers a multitude of horrors.

That is what makes Peaky Blinders, a miniseries set in the underworld of Birmingham in 1919, so refreshing. It provides a fictional account of the eponymous gang with their fingers in just about every criminal pie: race-fixing, protection money, gun-running, gambling. The Peaky Blinders (so named because they hide razor blades in their flat caps with which to slash and blind their victims) are mainly drawn from the Shelby family, a multi-generational gang whose stranglehold on the streets is due to a combination of competence, compromise and the ability to incite terror. The local police are corrupt, and prefer to let the Shelby family run things if it means stability and order. For the most part, the poor and dispossessed of Birmingham accept the devil’s bargain they have made with the Peaky Blinders, feeling that paying protection money and turning a blind eye to the gang’s criminal activities is an acceptable price to pay if it provides them with a degree of wealth and security.

That’s not to say there aren’t tensions. The young Shelby men have returned, traumatized, from the battlefields of World War I, only to find that the women – shrewd, tough-as-nails Aunt Polly, and angry, romantic Ada – have been running things just fine, if not better, on their own. Tommy Shelby, who views himself as the gang’s de facto leader, has to reconcile his own grand vision for the Peaky Blinders with the more limited, but safer, scope planned by his aunt.

At the same time, the gang relies on its ability to control the shifting network of alliances of the streets, contending with IRA cells, communist agitators attempting to unionize the factory workers, Traveller families who control the racetrack, Chinese textile workers who moonlight as opium den operators, and, one of my favourite characters, an itinerant fire-and-brimstone street-preacher played by Benjamin Zephaniah. It’s a complicated balancing act of carrot and stick, and when it works, it works because the various players have understood correctly the psychology, needs and fears of their opposite numbers. All sorts of connections and obligations come into play: most of the men were soldiers together, the Shelby family has blood ties to some of the Traveller families, as well as an Irish background that complicates their interactions with the IRA members, and Ada Shelby is secretly in love with the leading communist organizer.

What works so well in Peaky Blinders is that the writers manage the tricky balancing act of showing the true horror of what the Shelby family (and their allies) do to maintain control, as well as the fact that they probably are the best option for the dispossessed people they terrorize. There is no glamour in what they do: Tommy Shelby can move from charming to chilling in an instant, and he is in no way a safe person to be around. There is a violence and brutality involved in people’s everyday lives, and survival requires that they walk past such violence with their eyes averted. Most people in the show lead such precarious existences that their every decision is based on a pragmatic sense of cost, benefit, compromise and danger. The streets of Birmingham may be controlled by bad men, but they are bad men from those very streets, and the choice to give them control is made by the very people who live beside them.

Stepping into the same river twice June 16, 2013

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, childhood, films, memories, meta, television.
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I am 28 years old. I have spent most of my adult life as a student. I only moved out of home five years ago, and I only moved out of sharehouses and student accommodation nine months ago. I have a long-term partner, but no children. All this is relevant.

I was thinking about stories, and how important age and circumstances are in determining meaning and how you react to them. There are some stories I can come back to time and time again, and get different things out of them every time. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is like that for me. I’ve been watching and rewatching it since I was twelve years old, and it means something different every single time. Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles is another story like that for me. Each time I rewatch it, I feel I’ve barely scratched its surface. It reveals its secrets so slowly. I’m somewhat afraid to reread His Dark Materials in case it stops being this kind of story to me. It meant so much to me, it gave so much to me that for it to stop meaning and giving would be unbearable.

There are other stories which I think gain something from being reread with adult eyes. The young-adult literature of Victor Kelleher falls into this category. I first read his work as an eleven-year-old, and continued revisiting it throughout my teenage years, but the true horror and weight of what he was saying doesn’t really hit home until you’ve reached adulthood and had some of your illusions shattered. There are other stories which mattered as much to me as Kelleher’s when I was a child and a teenager – the works of Gillian Rubinstein, Catherine Jinks’ Pagan Chronicles and John Marsden’s Tomorrow series – but for which rereading provokes only nostalgia and the restored memory of what it felt like to be fifteen, and burning with outrage, passionately emoting and dreaming fervently. The stories remain wonderful, but they offer me no new truths in adulthood, only a window into the child I used to be. This is of value, of course, but it’s not the same thing. The vast majority of works aimed at children and teenagers that I’ve enjoyed and read or watched in adulthood evoke much the same feelings.

I grew up watching the films of the Marx Brothers (I first watched Duck Soup in a cinema when I was three years old), and I always found them hilarious. What I didn’t notice until I was well into adulthood was the deep undercurrent of sadness and alienation running through them, and the tendency for Groucho, Chico and Harpo to make self-deprecating jokes, to make themselves figures of fun, to paint themselves as mercenary, petty criminals in order to get in first before someone else said the same things. There’s a defensiveness to all their quips, a brittle, knowing edge to all their humour that you only see when you’re older, and when you know more about the history of immigration to the US.

And then there are the texts for which meaning and enjoyment is, I think, contextual. I read Wuthering Heights as a fourteen-year-old and thought it was a tragic love story. I read it again at twenty-two, and thought it was a horror story, a Greek myth about gods and mortals. At eighteen, when I went through a phase of reading Russian literature in translation, Tolstoy moved me to rapturous tears, while Dostoevsky appalled and repelled me. Isobelle Carmody’s works can only truly be appreciated by teenagers. To an adult, they are dangerously naïve and lack any kind of nuance. At 28, my favourite book of Jane Austen’s is Persuasion, while at sixteen I would have said Pride and Prejudice. When I was fourteen, people told me I would cry my eyes out over the ending of Casablanca, but I was unmoved. My reaction? I hated Rick, swooned over Victor Laszlo (I was going through a bit of a thing for revolutionaries and resistance fighters) and couldn’t see what the fuss was about. If I am earnest now, I was a million times worse then. But I suspect, were I to watch the film again, my reaction might be very different. At fourteen, I read The Mill on the Floss and felt nothing. At twenty, I read Daniel Deronda and felt profoundly moved.

I remember my mother telling me, when I was a passionate armchair revolutionary in high school, that as an adult I would find repellent the Holocaust stories, tales about the Troubles in Northern Ireland and the Middle East conflict that I pored over as a teenager. I didn’t believe her, but she was right. I don’t want to look any more. I used to love uncompromising rebels, and now I prefer diplomats and passive resistance.

I don’t think all of this is down to age, in and of itself. Taste plays a role, as does environment, and the ethos of the age in which you grew up and which informed your tastes. My mother, for example, loves Charles Dickens and finds Zadie Smith contrived and emotionless. I find Dickens cloyingly sentimental, emotionally manipulative and hypocritical, while Zadie Smith evokes feelings of awe and floods of tears in me. I don’t think baby boomers will uniformly share her views, no more than I think Gen Y people will uniformly share mine, but I suspect our respective generations may have affected our tastes to some extent. (That said, my father loves Zadie Smith and was, indeed, the one to introduce me to her work.)

For as long as I can remember, my favourite Shakespeare play has been The Tempest. I suspect I see it with different eyes than the first time I encountered it as a twelve-year-old watching the Bell Shakespeare Company’s production. And I suspect it will mean something very different when I am an old woman. My point in all of this is that although it is possible to step in the same river twice, it is not possible to do so for every river. Some stories are static, and can mean only one thing at one particular age in one particular place. And some others are always changing, and go on and on forever.

Fridged daughters, wayward sons June 13, 2011

Posted by dolorosa12 in fandom, fangirl, reviews, television.
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I finally feel able to put down a few scattered thoughts about the latest season of Supernatural. [Naturally, these thoughts will be full of spoilers.] Before I do so, however, let’s get this out of the way: Supernatural has an appalling track record in matters of race and gender. Pretty much every female character and PoC on the show has been killed.* The treatment of Lisa in this season amounted to little more than depicting her as a vehicle for Dean’s moral development, and the way her story ended was disgraceful. Supernatural always has been the story of a bunch of straight, white men.** I recognise this, I know it’s wrong, and I wish it could be otherwise. With that said, I am now going to speak exclusively about what happened to these straight, white men in the show’s most recent season.

One of the reasons it’s taken me so long to write anything about Supernatural‘s latest season is that the reactions and rhetoric among different segments of the fandom have been particularly vitriolic and I wanted to let the dust settle and my thoughts collect themselves before saying anything myself. Broadly speaking, there have been two reactions to the season finale, representing two major groups within the fandom: fans of Castiel (who may or may not be Cas/Dean shippers) and those who view Castiel as a one-season character who diverts from the show’s true purpose, the story of the two brothers (who may or may not be Wincest fans).

Their reactions can be summed up thus: Castiel had no choice but to do what he did, Dean is a terrible and ungrateful person, because everything Cas did, he did out of love for Dean (and, to a lesser extent, Sam and Bobby), which is the attitude of the Cas fans, and that Cas did something unforgivable, Dean has been betrayed and now the show can return to its roots, which is the attitude of the anti-Cas faction.

I think both sides have a point. When I was reviewing Season 5, over on Livejournal, I made the point that, at its heart, Supernatural is a show about communication, with characters who for various reasons find communication extremely difficult:

The characters in Supernatural – the Winchester brothers, and an ever-changing group of others (I hesitate to call them ‘secondary characters’) – are misfits because they struggle with emotions and connections. They cannot deal with, process or express emotions, and they cannot form meaningful relationships – or rather, they struggle to articulate how much said meaningful relationships mean to them. Everything is so repressed and bottled up insides – feelings (of fear, of self-hatred, of rage, of despair) and words are internalised, never demonstrated or spoken. On watching it, I was struck by how, for the main characters (Dean in particular, but all of them have it to a certain extent), words seemed to be forced out with great effort as a sort of desperate, last resort. Unlike the characters of a Whedon show, who use words as weapons both defensive and offensive, the Winchesters and their gang are repeatedly tricked, deceived and manipulated by words, and as such, they don’t trust them.

This emphasis on communication continues in Season 6. I was repeatedly struck by how easily all their problems would be resolved if the characters could’ve just spoken honestly to one another. Instead, they keep things from one another. They justify this by saying it’s for the other characters’ own good. And so Dean is kept in the dark about Sam’s resurrection because he has supposedly earned a picket-fence existence with Lisa as a reward for stopping the apocalypse and should be left in peace. Cas doesn’t tell the brothers about his deal with Crowley in order to spare their feelings, and he doesn’t let them have a great deal of knowledge about his conflict with Raphael, which is mostly kept off-screen. Dean tries to keep the true danger of reensoulment from Sam, and above all, no one speaks openly to one another.

Cas was backed into a corner, but not because of Dean’s ingratitude. He had spent the past two seasons enjoying a crash course in moral ambiguity at the side of the Winchesters, and yet is completely unable to comprehend why this most recent piece of moral ambiguity (making a deal with the devil, essentially) is intolerable to them. If he had given them greater access to the true horror of what he faced, he wouldn’t have fallen into this trap.

The Winchesters, and in more recent seasons, Castiel, are repeatedly shown that united they are invincible, divided they fall. I suspect that Bobby – the least damaged and only sensible main character on the show – knows this already, but, due to the whole communication problem, is unable to satisfactorily convey this to the others. Just as the Supernatural characters cannot talk, they cannot listen. They are slowly learning from their mistakes, but until the learn this one thing, I don’t see much in the way of sunshine and happiness for any of them.

* The exception is Becky, but since she’s a meta-character whose purpose is to reflect and interrogate the show’s fans, I wouldn’t read too much into this.
**And how interesting it might’ve been if Sam or Dean (or both) had been female. Instead of a show about two brothers, one dutiful, one rebellious, we could’ve had a dutiful sister, or a younger sister keen to escape the family and live out in the world. Oh well.

Elementals April 13, 2010

Posted by dolorosa12 in fangirl, reviews, television.
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If I were a different kind of person, I’d spend the first paragraph of this post justifying its existence. I’d say that I felt a little bit guilty for writing one thousand words about a Nickelodeon animated kids’ TV show, and that I clearly was a 10-year-old at heart, and that, hey, look, I’d written about things that were clearly not highbrow before.

Except I don’t feel guilty, I’m not a 10-year-old at heart and I don’t feel the need to justify writing about Avatar: The Last Airbender at all. I’m of the opinion that if something exercises my mind, it’s worthy of discussion. That being said, you’ve been warned. I’m writing about an animated kids’ TV series. Deal with it.

Spoilers ahead.

I first heard about Avatar via snarking communities on Livejournal and places like Fandom Secrets and Fandom Wank, and what I heard – mainly about vicious shipping wars – encouraged me to steer clear, and I forgot about the whole thing. But recently, a lot of people have been getting justifiably upset about the whitewashing of the cast in the upcoming live action movie supposedly based on the series. And when Hal Duncan talks, I prick up my ears and listen. I began to wonder what all the fuss was about, and in particular, if the TV series itself was the beacon of equality and diversity that everyone was depicting it as.

So I started watching. And was pleasantly surprised. In particular, I was surprised how much I enjoyed it.

Avatar is a series that draws heavily on various Asian and Pacific Rim indigenous cultures and religions, and is set in a fantasy world where the different peoples have the ability to manipulate (‘bend’) each of the four elements. The different cultures in the world – the Water Tribes, Fire Nation, Earth Kingdom and Air Nomads – have developed different bending styles that bear strong resemblance to different real-world martial arts. Within this world, the Avatar, a person with the power to control all four elements, is constantly reincarnated in order to maintain balance. However, 100 years before the series’ story begins, the Avatar goes missing and the Fire Nation begins a quest for world domination, wiping out the Air Nomads and progressively advancing on the other regions. 100 years later, two young Water Tribe children – wannabe warrior Sokka and his waterbender sister Katara, stumble upon the Avatar, who has been sealed up in a block of ice. He breaks free and is revealed to be a young airbender called Aang (the ‘last airbender’ of the title). The rest of the series deals with Aang’s journey to learn the other types of bending and restore balance to the world by defeating the Fire Lord. As the series progresses, the core trio of Sokka, Katara and Aang expands to accommodate a rag-tag, multi-ethnic group of resistance fighters, none of whom (wise mentors aside) appear to be over the age of 16.

The Gaang's all here.

(Image by SteamBoat-Ghost on DeviantArt.)

I’m not really able to do enough justice to the complexity of the series plot in the above summary, but what I want to convey is that the series can be enjoyed on multiple levels. At its heart, it’s your basic coming-of-age adventure quest, all about idealistic young people with great responsibility and the power to save the world. At the same time, it explores notions of family and history and the importance of taking responsibility for that history. (Pretty much every main male character has daddy issues, to put it simply.) And the writers manage to throw in a nice little exploration of the ethics of power and the difficulties in maintaining moral clarity in an immoral world. It’s politically correct without ever being overtly preachy, and is remarkable as a children’s program that trusts in its audience’s intelligence by showing, not telling us its characters’ traits and development.

Just that would be enough, but it’s also visually beautiful. The detail and research that went into the landscapes and architecture for each culture is incredible. (I leave you with links to the Southern Water Tribe and Earth Kingdom wiki pages at the Avatar wiki, but if you don’t want to be spoiled, it’s probably best to just look at the pictures.)

But what really drew me into the series was the characters, and in particular that favourite trope of mine: you find and make your own family. It’s one of the reasons why Joss Whedon’s work resonates so strongly with me; it, like Avatar, is all about groups of misfits who stumble upon one another during times of great crisis and who, because of said crises, change one another’s lives for the better. I was watching the show with half my mind trying to determine what it would’ve been like to do so as a child, and I realised that I would have found it really empowering. The main characters in this series are all children or young teenagers, and they do incredibly courageous things. They’re always outnumbered, always outgunned and always thrown into situations of incredible danger – and there’s the added pressure of the survival of the whole world being dependent on their victory. As I watched, I kept thinking to myself, ‘Wow, that was seriously brave’. And it was the bravery of one character in particular that convinced me that this show was something special.

This surprised me somewhat. I went into the show expecting to be most interested in the Zuko (morally grey, disgraced son of the Fire Lord on a quest to regain his honour by capturing the Avatar) storyline (because I’m normally a fan of angsty morally ambiguous characters on a quest for redemption) and found myself a full-blown Sokka fangirl. But when I thought about it for a bit, I realised why.

I’ve never been able to decide which is my favourite Buffyverse character, but Xander is pretty high on the list. And Sokka is the Xander of the group. He’s the only one without special abilities. He’s got no bending power, he’s had no military or martial arts training, he’s frequently terrified. And yet he leaps into the fray behind Avatar Aang, earthbender Toph, his martial arts whiz girlfriend Suki and his waterbending sister Katara (among others) wielding nothing more than a boomerang and a club without a moment’s hesitation. Because he can’t rely on his strength or agility of body, he relies on his strength and agility of mind, coming up with most of the group’s plans and adapting quickly to any changes (while complaining sarcastically the whole way). Apart from one episode, not once does he express resentment that he doesn’t have the powers his friends have, and he lives in his ordinariness with the grace that Xander does in Buffy. I haven’t been in the best of moods recently, and I found Sokka’s brand of stoic, pessimistic bravery really inspiring.

Sokka working on a design for a hot air balloon.

What Avatar has shown me is that despite my own beliefs, I don’t always need dark, gritty stories about the morally ambiguous side of human nature. Sometimes, it’s enough to follow the adventures of a group of plucky, resourceful and courageous children and watch them save the world.

Character-building December 3, 2009

Posted by dolorosa12 in fangirl, television.
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As most of you know, I’m a shameless Joss Whedon fangirl. As far as I’m concerned, Whedon can do no wrong, and his name being attached to a particular project confirms for me that said project will be amazing. So far, I’ve never been disappointed.

There are three main reasons why I love Whedon’s work so much: the amazing stories he tells (and themes he conveys through these stories), the brilliant way with words he has, and the fantastic characters he creates. It’s this third thing I’d like to talk about here.

At this point I should probably note that ‘Whedon’s’ brilliance is not all down to Whedon: his own talents are supported and supplemented by the writing skills of an ever-growing group of collaborators, all of whom do so much to bring Whedon’s creations to life. When I say ‘Whedon’ in this post, I mean, by extension, ‘Whedon and his co-writers’.

Whedon is the only TV writer so far who creates real characters. I’ll say that again, so that you have time to let my words sink in: there is no other writer on television (except perhaps Amy Sherman-Palladino, the creator of Gilmore Girls, and in her case only some of the characters fulfil this criterion) whose characters seem like real people. That is to say, you could take any one of Whedon’s characters, from Buffy Summers to Zoe Washburne, from Winifred ‘Fred’ Burkle to Topher Brink, plonk him or her in our world and imagine how he or she would act in any given situation. This is not limited to the main characters: I can imagine pre-Season 6 Jonathan as a real person, just as I can imagine Anne Steele (‘Chanterelle’ from Buffy, later on Angel) wandering around real-world LA.

Of course, this characterisation works better on Whedon’s longer-running shows, Buffy and Angel, where Whedon had longer to develop characters and show them reacting and interacting in a wider range of situations, and it’s one of the reasons why Firefly‘s cancellation still hurts. It’s also one reason why Dollhouse was so much less welcoming and so much more ambitious than Whedon’s other shows: when half your characters change personality every episode, how are we to get to know them as people?

In any case, Whedon’s characters spoiled me for regular TV. Since Firefly ended (with a brief respite during which Dollhouse screened), I have found no television show that ever approached anything Whedon created in terms of characterisation. This is not for want of trying. I’ve tried Heroes (never again), Supernatural, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, the BBC’s Robin Hood, Being Human, Battlestar Galactica (which I gave up for reasons other than characterisation, but which still suffered this problem), Merlin, and, more recently, Glee. Of these, only Supernatural comes close to approaching Whedon’s talents of characterisation, and only in relation to Sam and Dean. No matter how many new characters are added, the show remains the Sam-and-Dean show, and while it is wonderful at developing the complex relationship of the brothers, it fails to demonstrate how the brothers relate to the outside world.

The other shows I’ve listed are even worse. They fail on so many ways. Some of them (Terminator, Merlin, Robin Hood and Being Human in particular – I wonder if it’s a failing of BBC shows in general?) lack any kind of character development. In Buffy, not one character begins a season in the same place that he or she ends up, and not one character in Season 1 is the same person they are in Season 7. After two seasons, Merlin is still resentful about hiding his magic, Arthur (and all the other main characters save Gaius) are still unaware of Merlin’s abilities and Uther is still bigoted and opposed to magic. Real people change. They change subtly or they change dramatically, but change they do. No person could experience the things that any character on any of these shows experiences and remain the same. (Robin Hood is a particularly egregious example of this: SPOILER ALERT at the end of Season 2, Marion, the love of Robin’s life, is killed. Season 3 sees Robin rageful and grieving for about half-an-hour, and then reverting back to his cheerful, anarchic ways. END SPOILER)

Many of the other shows fail because their writers do not realise that giving characters ‘quirks’ or ‘flaws’ does not make them real people. Heroes and, in particular, Glee are the worst culprits in this regard. Many critics and fans seem to think that Glee is edgy or groundbreaking because it features minority characters in major roles. But after watching the show, you realise that all of these ‘minorities’ have been reduced to their ‘minority-ness’: Mercedes is The Sassy Black Girl, Artie is The Saintly Disabled Boy, Kurt is The Camp Gay Guy (happiest singing show tunes and giving makeover advice) and Tina is The Shy Asian Girl. There is absolutely nothing else that defines or drives them. It’s insulting to think that these characters somehow put an end to whitewashing in popular culture. Take any one of them out of the Glee-verse and you’d be scratching your head to figure out how they’d behave. They’re about as complex and three-dimensional as pieces of cardboard.

A character’s believability lies in how long it would take to describe him or her. What I’ve said about the characters in Glee is all I’d be able to say to a person who asked ‘Who is Mercedes? What drives her? What kind of person is she?’ If someone asked me the same question about Willow Rosenberg, or Mayor Richard Wilkins III, or Mal Reynolds, or Shepherd Book, or Angel, or Rupert Giles, or Adele DeWitt, or even Victor (the Doll), you’d be here until the end of the week.

What most TV writers fail to grasp is that people are more than the sum of their parts (whether these parts be flaws, positive qualities, neuroses or cultural influences). A truly great television character is someone whose life you can imagine in scenes where he or she does not appear, or after the screen goes black. I might’ve been spoiled by Joss, and I might be castigating the writers of the shows I’ve discussed for not writing the shows that I want to see, but I refuse to believe that Joss Whedon and the small coterie of writers he’s gathered around him are the only ones capable of creating characters who are completely and utterly human.