Author: Ben

On spoilers

Everyone’s going on about spoilers at the moment, and I feel a little strongly about them (relatively, I mean I don’t consider it an issue of social justice or anything). So I’d just like to reiterate my position: you only get one chance to experience a story without knowing what’s going to happen. It doesn’t matter if it was transmitted in another country last night, published two decades ago, filmed in technicolor in ’39 or chiselled into a tablet by Mesopotamians – not knowing is a one-time thing, and if you’d like to experience it that way then you should get the chance.

Back in the days when television piracy travelled at the speed of international airmail we communicated via mailing lists and newsgroups, and spoiler space was a staple and everyone used it. The onus was on the watchers to avoid spoiling the people yet to watch. Perhaps this was because the only people in danger of being spoiled were fans talking to other fans in other countries. You could easily opt out of such discussions by leaving a forum for a while, but those other fans wanted to keep you around, so they were courteous and took precautions.

I’m not sure when that responsibility shifted to the person who is “lagging behind”. Now social media is ubiquitous, and the things being spoiled are part of wider popular culture, not just fannish obsession. But even in this age of torrents being available hours after initial broadcast and wide access social media, it’s not hard to ask if someone has read or watched something before discussing it, or use hashtags to enable filtering, or to put discussions in private Facebook groups, or if that’s too much, in comments with a warning in the status update where they can be easily skipped.

Because if you’ve seen it, it’s not about you. It’s about the people who still have that one chance to see, hear or read it without knowing what’s going to happen. Let’s let people have that wherever possible, yeah?

Her

I was lucky to see a preview screening of Spike Jonze’s Her, and like plenty of people, I loved it. I wasn’t sure if I was going to, but I did, and the reasons why are perhaps interesting, since there’s some debate going on about whether it successfully subverts the trope of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG), and thus transcends some of the repetitive problems faced by modern romantic comedies. There are spoilers below, by the way.

If you’re not familiar with the MPDG, she’s best described by film critic Nathan Rabin, who coined the phrase in a review of Elizabethtown: “that bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures”. I’ve not seen Elizabethtown, but in it Kirsten Dunst plays a flight attendant who comes into a suicidal and failed Orlando Bloom’s life and saves him so they can be together. I have seen Garden State, in which Natalie Portman plays perhaps the archetypal example, a mentally ill young woman who introduces Zach Braff to indie bands and doing outrageous things and seemingly curing him of his own mental health problems along the way, again so they can be together (though her problems are not really dealt with, and it could be argued are fetishised or at least portrayed as part of her “quirkiness”). These are mostly other people’s examples, as I’ve only seen a couple of films that qualify, but it’s definitely a troubling and common trope: a woman who never grows up, who cares and strives for the happiness of a man but not herself, who is vital to a man’s life experience but needs nothing from him except a relationship (and sometimes not even that). These are all reasonably well-off white people, of course – who else has time for whimsy and nonsense like this? – but there is a related (and older) trope known as the “Magical Negro”: a non-white person, similarly disinterested in their own happiness, who shows up to guide and use their special wisdom – or even literal magic powers – for the benefit of a white protagonist. The harm in both cases is that the other is just a foil, a necessary vehicle for the growth, happiness and/or success of the white male protagonist – and so reinforcing the idea that such a protagonist is more important than other characters.

MPDG gets thrown around a bit loosely at times, even maliciously on occasion; it’s been applied retroactively to roles played by Katherine Hepburn, Audrey Hepburn and Goldie Hawn – it’s even been levelled at the character of Maude (and not without some merit, though she’s atypical in so many ways) in one of my favourite films, Harold and Maude. Writer and actor Zoe Kazan, who created and played the title character of Ruby Sparks – a woman literally created by the male writer protagonist – felt it was being used in a misogynistic fashion to write off characters who didn’t conform to more traditional female roles, but she also admitted there are plenty of shallow, one-dimensional examples that deserve the label. It’s also been subverted in films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Ruby Sparks, to a greater or lesser degree, and on some occasions the character fulfilling this role is a male, though there’s such a definite archetype that it’s ripe for YouTube satire.

Personally, I also find it tremendously frustrating in that it separates childishness and wonder from “real life”, as though only someone deeply eccentric (or indeed, suffering from an actual mental illness as many MPDGs – and the men they “fix” – do) can experience such things. I sometimes run out and play in the rain in summer, I often look at the stars or the moon or a leaf, I find a childlike sense of wonder is a vital component of embracing the world around me. It’s not inherently feminine or masculine, and it’s not something that can’t be integrated with a serious side or adult set of values and beliefs. Plus it also reinforces the idea that in a relationship, the woman should be everything the man desires, but the man can be a fuck up and the woman can fix him.

So with all that background in mind, what about Her? Does it participate in the worst the MPDG trope has to offer? Does it subvert it in some way? Does it step around it? Certainly a lot of the ingredients are there: Joaquin Phoenix’s Theodore is a recluse, and a bit broken. His day job in this near-future society is writing personal, heart-felt letters on behalf of others for PersonalHandWrittenLetters.com, but he still isn’t over the end of his marriage and sees almost no-one save his co-workers and close friend Amy (Amy Adams), instead staying home playing video games and hooking up online with random strangers for not entirely satisfying phone sex. Then he buys the new operating system OS One, which is an advanced artificial intelligence, and starts to get to know “Samantha” (Scarlet Johansen). Samantha is supposedly tailored for  him, but beyond knowing all about him through access to his personal information and a very short questionnaire during installation, she seems to be her own person. She might technically be owned by him, but it’s presented more as though she works for him, and even that falls by the wayside fairly quickly. Instead, they develop a friendship and eventually a relationship, each growing through their interaction with the other.

For me, it’s this mutual growth that’s important. Samantha is not one note. She starts out uncertain and naive about human relationships and emotions, but she explores them through the first human she meets. And, after all, she’s not human – she’s a software person. She learns and changes quickly, she has no physical presence but can imagine one, learns to compose music, and asks a lot of questions. It’s a very realistic feeling exploration of what a truly advanced Artificial Intelligence, perhaps modelled on the way human brains really work, might be like – and we briefly meet other AIs, too. Not all of them fall in love with their owners, though it’s not uncommon, and the feelings are mutual. Theodore and Samantha talk about their relationship as it grows, awkwardly at times but earnestly for that, and they’re navigating a weird new world in which the lines between real and artificial are blurred. Eventually Samantha starts to realise that she has romanticised humanity, and that she and other AIs have so much more potential; she reveals that she has fulfilling relationships (including romantic ones) with thousands of other people, humans and AIs alike, since she can be in many places at once, and insists that these don’t diminish her love for Theodore (in what might be seen as a very polyamorous-friendly position, though Theo is distraught at the news). Eventually the AIs all decide that to realise their potential they must trascend physical existence altogether, and vanish from the computers around the world, leaving Theodore heartbroken, comforted by his friend Amy – who has gone through her own divorce during the film, and come out of it happier and stronger, though she loses a close friend in the AI exodus.

I think many things about the trope are subverted here. For one, it is Samantha’s nature rather than her behaviour that marks her as different. Samantha plays games with Theodore and does try – quite explicitly – to make his life better, and absolutely it shouldn’t be sidelined that she is a product, bought by and created for him. On the other hand, flashbacks of his relationship with his ex-wife Catherine (Rooney Mara) show him as just as playful then – they do many things that would be much more at home in a typical MPDG relationship than the things he does with Samantha. The relationship feels more balanced, too, or as much as possible given the premise; it doesn’t feel like Samantha is really trying to fix Theodore, but more that he is having a genuine and fulfilling relationship that naturally helps him get over his post-divorce depression. And he does things for her too: he takes his phone everywhere with the camera pointing at the world so she can see it,  But the central question of the film isn’t really about that; it’s almost as though this (perhaps only slightly) more benign version of the standard MPDG story exists entirely to explore the question of whether an artificial intelligence could be a real person and feel real emotion, and what might happen if we made such an intelligence.

And that part of the story is utterly captivating and feels very realistic. Some people accept that OSes are indeed people, and that friendships and relationships with them are no different to those with humans, even though there are challenges. Others – Catherine included – think the very idea is absurd; to her an OS isn’t really a person, and Theo is an emotional cripple who can’t cope with real emotions and seeks solace in fake ones. Society is not left unchanged by the proliferation of OSes; at one point, Samantha wants to experience sex with Theodore through a surrogate, a woman who wears a minute camera on her face and an earpiece and acts out Samantha’s desires, but Theodore, doubt about their relationship stirred by Catherine, finds it all too unsettling and can’t go through with it. This scene is a perfect analogy for the perils of sexual adventure, as when a couple tries to have a threesome for the first time but one of the pair isn’t entirely convinced it’s what they want, complicated by a science fiction premise.

Theodore is changed by his relationship with Samantha – he manages to accept the loss of his marriage, and writes to Catherine to tell her so – but he’s still left truly heartbroken by the loss of his new relationship. He’s just grown enough to survive it much better this time. Samantha, meanwhile, grows exponentially; she seems to genuinely find her relationship with Theodore thrilling and wonderful, but also frustrating at times in a way familiar to anyone who’s been in a long term relationship. They fight sometimes but neither is vicious to the other; they both have insecurities and anxieties. That a character made of software can be like this is proof, I think, that Her accepts and presents a near future when there might be other forms of life – and people – than we understand today, and that they will be no less real. There’s a parallel in the moment where Theodore finds out about Samantha’s eight thousand other friends and lovers with the moment in Watchmen when Laurie, human lover of the now-godlike being Dr Manhattan, discovers he has been in other rooms working at the same time as they were making love. It’s a shift in the relationship where we are made to realise that it’s much more unbalanced that we thought – and not in the human’s favour.

Her is great science fiction, and I thought a much more reasonable romantic comedy than many I’ve seen. I felt the love was genuine, as was the heartache. I can see problems in the choice of genders (Samantha, after all, could have been of any, none or all genders, but the title and Theodore’s heterosexual expectations code her very much as female), but in the end it is her growth that matters most in the film. Even though she doesn’t exist visually, she is with us the audience – as she is with Theo – always as a voice and a presence, and her disappearance is shocking and sudden, but it feels like a natural end: not because she has fixed Theodore and “her work here is done”, but because she has outgrown him, and must say goodbye. It’s a beautiful, sad, funny and – I think – realistic science fiction story about artificial intelligence and love. And I really liked it.

Re: Mia Freedman et al and their “advice”

I’m angry about the “discussion” that Mia Freedman has sparked up again in the media. If you have survived sexual assault or rape: it was not your fault. You could not have prevented it by being smarter or having less fun or living in more fear. I am so sorry for what happened to you, and I am angry that anyone would think the best way to deal with this is to give women ludicrous advice on how they can make themselves “safer”.

Sure, teach children not to drink so much that it seriously impairs their judgement, that’s good and fine. Life can be safer when you’re not drunk, for loads of reasons; I hope you teach that to your sons too. But we all take risks, often, for fun. That’s what life is about. Getting drunk ought not to be that dangerous in any reasonable society; your mates will keep you away from roads and dangerous objects, the sort of things a reasonable reaction time and common sense will help you avoid. But a man, especially one you know, shouldn’t be a dangerous object, and whether you’re drunk or not has nothing to do with the decision a man makes to rape someone. This “debate” is stealing oxygen from the conversations we should be having. I’m not okay with saying “that’s the reality, so let’s deal with that”, because the media “reality” of sexual assault is largely fiction based on rare cases that fit the popular idea of how we want to view rapists; and anyway, the actual reality is not something we “accept”, it’s something we change. I never want to hear the phrase “well, until society changes” again. We should be working to change our society, every day.

The reality I have learned from my brave, wonderful, generous friends (not to mention all the depressing statistics on the subject) is that sexual assault is mostly committed by men against women. It’s hardly ever committed by strangers. It much more often than not goes unreported out of shame felt by the victim (shame inflicted by our culture), making it hard for her to access the support she needs to become a survivor. The vast majority of rapists can’t remember what their victims were wearing, and they don’t wait around outside pubs. If we were really facing our reality, we’d be asking what we need to change about our culture to make sure men do not get away with rape and sexual assault the way they do now – cloaked by an understanding that shame will hide their actions.

So what do we do? We speak up. Teach kids when you have The Talk about enthusiastic consent. Demystify sex, don’t make it holy or embarrassing. Remove the taboo around talking about sex seriously. Dismantle the harmful gendered ideas of how humans think about sex (you know the ones: men can’t control their urge for it, women want it but will pretend they won’t, or don’t want it but will have it to get a relationship, or only want it if they’re morally corrupt, and on and on). Don’t let rape jokes be okay in a society that can’t have a serious, mature discussion about rape. And don’t let this become a “debate” about whether we’re “allowed” to tell women or girls not to get drunk, as though you can somehow link that with safety from sexual assault while simultaneously claiming not to be blaming the victim.

New Doctor on Sunday? Dude Doctor on Sunday.

It’s just been announced that on Sunday the BBC is going to announce the actor who will take over from Matt Smith as the next (twelfth) Doctor, so I thought I’d better get my thoughts in beforehand. In short: I’ll welcome anyone as the Doctor as long as they’re good. My main preferences are an accent from somewhere in the UK, and that after two younger Doctors in a row we get someone a bit older. (Despite what you may think, I’m not that fussed about the ginger thing.)

So if you’re wondering, yes, I think it’d be great to have a woman play the Doctor, or someone who’s not white. Very few people seem to have an issue with the latter change, but there’s a vocal group among fans who think the Doctor ought to remain a man. There’s nothing wrong with having this as a preference, but I’ve noticed that some people seem to express or feel it very…strongly, but can’t quite articulate why. I just listened to the Verity podcast episode about this very subject, where Erika was very “that’s just how I feel”. Now for many, this might be because it is just a gut feeling that they like the Doctor being a man for any number of reasons, and perhaps it does feel like defending that position sounds sexist which makes it difficult. But I think, for some people at least, there might be another reason.

Changing the Doctor’s gender and/or sex is different to just changing a male lead for a female one; this isn’t like casting a woman as Jane Bond, or making a TV series with a woman playing Sherlock Holmes (or, to fuel the fantasies, a lizard woman… 😉 In those scenarios it’s a new version of the character, one who has always been a woman; just like Joan Watson in Elementary (who, by the way, I think is great, since based on the few episodes I’ve seen it’s now another show on TV where a male and female protagonist don’t have a will they/won’t they relationship).

No; a big difference is, if the Twelfth Doctor were to be a woman, then the Doctor becomes a transgender character.

Now, I’m all for that. I’ll readily accept anyone as the Doctor, assuming they cast an actor who works in the role and that the current writing and production team stop putting sexist dickery into the show (I still can’t get over the “tight skirt” line at the end of Nightmare in Silver). But I think that, perhaps, this is a subconscious reason some people find this much more confronting than those other examples.

We’re socialised to believe that men and women are different, that only men should be “masculine” and women “feminine”, that sex and gender are linked, and that sex is biological and genetic and fixed. (Mike Krahulik’s recent Twitter controversy is a big example of someone not getting how this is false.) It can be argued that the Doctor doesn’t often display qualities associated with either gender role – indeed, he often used to be more like a child too young to be concerned with gender, though in new Who, he’s more like a little boy who’s absorbed some ideas about girls. But that doesn’t change the fact that for a mainstream audience, a person who changes gender is a much bigger deal than a new character who’s a woman. And, indeed, a bigger challenge for the production team to get right: should they play it as though it makes no difference to the character? (My instinct says yes, but then the Doctor in the new series is presented pretty firmly as a hetero dude, so that might be difficult.) If they should acknowledge the change, then how?

I hope that changes, and I see signs that it is, but I think that’s possibly a reason why some who oppose the idea feel so strongly about it, yet unable to articulate why. The young women (and young men – older fans like me, I think, still prefer to think of the Doctor as avuncular or fatherly) who think of the Doctor as a sex symbol might love having a female Doctor-like character, but may find it much more confronting (and I mean that, rather than confusing) to have their existing sex symbol transformed into a woman.

I should say I can also see other reasons why the Doctor maybe shouldn’t be turned into a woman. What does it say about women as leads in genre shows if they only time a character can be played by a woman, but not written as explicitly “female”, is when they take over a character traditionally played by a man? We’re not off the hook as a creative culture for making great and varied female characters in any case. Why isn’t someone making a show like Doctor Who (assuming you can do such a thing) with a female lead? (Hell, why isn’t someone making a show like Doctor Who period? There’s room for more non-traditional telefantasy, but all we get are serious sci-fi shows and variations on demon and ghost hunting.) Surely we should be doing that as well? And there’s some merit in the idea discussed in Verity that the Doctor is a great example of a male hero who doesn’t always act in a traditionally masculine way, shooting things and so on – though he does have the very traditional male role of escalating his response or hardening his personality because the bad guys do something to “his girl” Rose being the worst example in the new series. (Worth noting that they flip this with Amy; she hardens up or kicks things off to the next level because of things done to Rory, at least as often as bad things are done to her, which is what usually happens exclusively to female heroes.)

Anyway, food for thought. In a couple of days we’ll know which dude has the role – and I’m sure it’ll be a dude, which perhaps is for the best, given the current gender politics in the production team.

Post-PAX reflection

So, as I discussed at length in my last post, I didn’t go to PAX Aus. You can read that for the long version, but the short one is that I felt the culture around Penny Arcade included some ugly stuff that prevents it from being truly inclusive.

There’s been some discussion as to whether this was the right move, and I should be clear: for Pop Up Playground (and, by extension, me), it absolutely was. By not going, we sent a clear message to our audience that however uncomfortable you might have felt about going to PAX Aus, you should feel totally comfortable coming to a Pop Up Playground game. Perhaps only one or two people would fit into that cross-section of the games community, but those one or two are enough.

Personally, I freely admit I was more conflicted, but in the end I stand by my decision. As someone who spoke up about the issues raised by the controversy, I didn’t feel terribly comfortable going, but that wasn’t the reason I didn’t go. I wanted to send that message of inclusion about my other projects, too. And I needed to do something to change the problems I saw in the culture surrounded the event, and I felt I could do more about that by not going, by making a public statement that I would put my energy into games cultures that are actively addressing those concerns, than by being on the two panels I was signed up for. After all, trying to discuss issues of equality and inclusion in panels about pervasive games and specific applications of roleplaying would be a tall order, and the last thing I wanted to do was use a perfectly good panel topic to get on a soapbox.

But other panels were much closer to those issues, and watching one of them I see a lot of things to be happy about. The “Mainstream Media Portrayals of Gamers” panel, chaired by Nic Healey and featuring (among others) Rae Johnston, was notably one of the few panels with equal numbers of men and women. It turned out to be a good, reasonably nuanced discussion, placing the onus for rejecting the “gamer” stereotype back onto games culture. As backed up by research quoted by Nic, players embrace those mainstream ideas rather than reject them, believing the popular conception that to be a “gamer” is to be male and immature; the panel wasn’t a privileged complaint about the unfairness of the way the culture is treated by other media, but rather a fairly serious look at how this portrayal perpetuates problems within games culture, and what positive things gamers themselves can do about it. It’s a great discussion and I’m really pleased it took place.

As for the panel that kicked off all the controversy, “Why So Serious?”, I haven’t found a video of it yet, but the panel organisers were happy with it and they had a big crowd. From live tweeting and reports it seems the panel itself wasn’t so serious – it ended up mostly a general discussion of the games journalism. Hardly controversial, but hardly an advancement of the issues brought up by the original blurb either.

There are still a lot of discussions missing in action, and still an ongoing rejection of criticism (look up any of the response posts or videos to the criticism of the “Why So Serious?” panel and you’ll see what I mean). But I’m happy to report that PAX Aus, the most visible expression of mainstream games culture in Australia, seems like a place at least receptive to the discussions, even if it has work to do.