The Ethics of Storytelling Part 2 (see Part 1, here)
We’ve all heard it before, the cry of the anti-critic. It seems like whenever we voice critiques of media, someone rallies the cry of “It’s just a TV show/book/film!” or “It’s just a story!” (usually followed by “Get over it!”). As if stories were irrelevant, meaningless things that exist merely to be consumed and the leftovers discarded as easily as day old McDonald’s french fries. ‘Just’ minimizes, dismisses, and derides. We’re silly to care, even sillier to pursue reasonable discussion and criticism. But there is nothing ‘just’ about stories.
As Kat Barrell pointed out in our interview, human beings have been telling stories since the beginning of time. Long before humans were driving cars or playing football or writing internet articles, they were telling each other stories. It’s in our blood and DNA. Storytellers and preservers of traditions were—and still are in other parts of the world—some of the most revered members of society. A tradition this ancient cannot be trivial.
But why do stories matter so much? For starters, stories are creative expressions both of self and culture. This is no small thing. We live in an increasingly mechanized society where people are treated as either bottomless pits of consumption or interchangeable parts in the machine of capitalism and industry. Creativity is not valued as highly anymore because aesthetics are frivolous in the world of the machine. So if nothing else, stories defy the pressure to measure life in terms of productivity and output potential. Stories are art, and therefore immanently human, but that’s not the end of the matter. They are also much more.
Stories as Mirrors of Ourselves
Stories are more than aesthetics, they’re also reflective. We see ourselves reflected in stories and understand ourselves better. No matter your race, gender, religion, or physical ability seeing yourself onscreen is a powerful experience, like the first time you see a wlw couple and think “That’s me!”. The overwhelming response to Alex Danvers’ storyline and the Sanvers ship on this season of Supergirl has been a powerful rush of self-identification and emotional attachment: “This is how it feels to have our stories told”.
Seeing ourselves in stories validates our experiences. The portrayal of characters with our skin color, sexual orientation, or religious background in different narrative roles (villain, protagonist, friend, mentor, love interest, etc), underscores our own humanity because humans themselves exist in every possible role. Humans are fat, thin, tall, short, whiney, awkward, gregarious, friendly, nefarious, and a whole host of other things. We’re all varying shades of grey with our motivations, so the more different characters we see that we can identify with, the more seen and acknowledged we feel. More human, less alone.
Seeing ourselves in a story generates new insight into our motivations, personality, and self. It can be positive, “That’s why I do the thing!” and negative, “Oh, right, that’s a problem I have too.” More, diverse characters mean more opportunities for self reflection and growth. It can also be a shorthand way to help other people understand you: “I’m 50/50 Luna and Hermione” or “I’m a Slytherin with a dash of Hufflepuff” or “I grew up with a dad like Petyr Baelish” (if you did, I’m so, so sorry).
By understanding ourselves, flaws and all, we learn to love ourselves more. It’s often easier to love someone else than ourselves, even someone with similar flaws. We’re our own worst enemies; sometimes the things we hate most about a character are personal flaws. So, the more stories we tell, the more options we have to love more characters which, if they remind us of ourselves, can help us see ourselves more kindly. I could talk about how my initial hatred of Sansa Stark was rooted in self-loathing and once I understood this, I turned into a true knight of the Sansa Defense Club. Or, I could tell you how much my absolute love for Luna Lovegood (and frustration at her sidelining) has helped me to enjoy the more scattered, random aspects of my personality. Stories can give us back ourselves.
Stories can open up new avenues for self-actualization. When diverse characters exist in varying occupational roles or exhibit alternative lifestyle choices, we start to think outside of social or familial expectation. Seeing a female scientist like Eliza Danvers encourages young girls to consider STEM fields. Boys with more feminine coded interests can take heart in Steven Universe’s love of dresses, hearts, glitter, and singing catchy pop songs in front of an entire city. Seeing trans and non-binary characters can help questioning young people understand how best to self-identify and know that exploring their gender is safe. Human beings in real life come in every flavor imaginable, so the more diversely stories represent their characters, the more it will look like real life. And the more stories look like real life, the happier, healthier, and understood people will feel. In other words, representation matters.
Stories as Windows into Other People
On the other side of this coin, stories allow us to understand other people better. Like the first time you see a black character talk about oppression or a trans character talk about transmisogyny. Suddenly, what your black or trans friend has been saying about their experiences suddenly clicks into place. The shorthand for conceptualizing ourselves to others works equally well the other direction. Although limiting, the boxes are still useful. There’s a reason why MBTI and other, similar personality tests stick around for example, or why the Harry Potter houses do. Stories offer categories into which we can sort and understand people. Just so long as we allow people to ‘break the mold’ and act other than our categories might permit, there’s no problem in using them as a touchstone for empathy.
And this isn’t just me talking either. Recent studies have proven that reading literary fiction improves children’s capacity for empathy.
“Literary fiction, by contrast, focuses more on the psychology of characters and their relationships…This genre prompts the reader to imagine the characters’ introspective dialogues. This psychological awareness carries over into the real world, which is full of complicated individuals whose inner lives are usually difficult to fathom.”—Julianne Chiaet, “Novel Finding: Reading Literary Fiction Improves Empathy”
It isn’t all that surprising when you think about it. Reading how other people think allows us to comprehend their thinking processes. We start to put ourselves in other character’s shoes, which bleeds over into ‘real’ life. Stories help us to understand people who are different from ourselves, which, again, hammers home the need for diversity in our storytelling. It doesn’t just help us understand ourselves, diverse stories and representation allow us to empathize with perspectives other than our own.
Stories as Windows into The World
“We need, in any case, to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity—from possessiveness.”—J. R. R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories”
Stories give us a window into not only people but also societies. Not all stories are real in the sense of ‘having actually happened’, but many unreal stories can be true. Stories reflect our lived experience and show us the world around us as we were meant to see it, and in that sense, are true. This, in turn, allows us to see both the flaws and the beauty of the world around us. We see something familiar in a new way, renewing our sense of awe and enjoyment. Pixar movies like Cars and the Toy Story series, for example, invite us to look at the world of inanimate objects differently. Finding Nemo singlehandedly changed how I hear the cry of seagulls.
Other stories mirror back the flaws of our society. Science fiction and fantasy at their best provide a way to talk about issues like racism and sexism from a more objective standpoint that does not immediately turn off those who need to hear the messages the most. I strongly believe that A Song of Ice and Fire’s vivid, sometimes overly graphic, depictions of sexism and misogyny are meant to force us to reflect on our society (your mileage may vary on how successful Martin is). Ender’s Game depicts the tragedy of narrow-minded xenophobia and jingoism in a way that ought to shock us out of complacency. Dystopian fiction like 1984 and Brave New World portrays the flaws of governmental extremes if left unchecked. In all of these stories, a fresh perspective opens up new perspectives and conversations on societal flaws we’ve habituated ourselves to.
Stories can also give us a glimpse into minority experiences in our society or even different societies altogether. Huckleberry Finn and Their Eyes Were Watching God provide very different windows into black life in the late 19th and early 20th century America. Similarly, Luke Cage allows black persons to tell their own stories about life in Harlem not filtered through typically white produced crime serials set in New York City. A Harlem that, though modern, is more accurate in its depiction of the racial make up of the neighborhood than J. K. Rowling’s Fantastic Beast and Where to Find Them.
Such stories remind those in positions of privilege that their version of history is not entirely accurate. That there are other versions of the stories they’ve been told and that their story is too limited to encompass the whole of life. At their best, other people’s stories allows us to realize that our story is incomplete or flawed.
Likewise, stories give voice to marginalized and hurting people, providing an avenue for them to not only tell but interpret their experiences. Victims of abuse write stories to process their trauma and help others in similar situations. Jessica Jones gives voice to women who have been raped. The upcoming Hidden Figures attacks the erasure of women of color from historical narratives. Every new Disney Princess movie featuring a woman of color allows more young girls of color to see themselves as beautiful, powerful, and worthy of being their own hero.
Thus, stories can both subvert or uphold the status quo. Too many stories from the majority perspective will minimize or silence minority voices. More stories from marginalized communities will challenge the dominant perspective. The underlying fear of increased minority representation stems from precisely this power to subvert the status quo. Because, at some level, even those who deny the meaningfulness of stories recognize that they have the power to shape reality in either edifying or destructive ways.
Stories as Windows into Alternate Realities
“Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it.”— J. R. R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories”
Escaping from real, lived pains and traumas through stories is not an invention of the modern era, but rather one of the essential features of stories since their inception. There is a longing in the midst of suffering for life to be better. Visiting a world in which there is hope, light, and joy during times of crisis reminds us that there is goodness in the world even if we aren’t currently experiencing it. Like the prisoner Tolkien speaks of, there is no harm in exploring a world fundamentally better than our own when we struggle. Stories ease suffering and we often carry the hope found there back into our ‘normal’ lives. We endure because of escape. How did Cinderella cope with her abusive stepmother? She visited the prince’s ball to dance the night away and forget her suffering for a while. That’s okay. Stories are made for that.
Similarly, stories allow us to reinterpret present reality in order to change it. Supergirl’s speech to National City in the S1 finale called on everyone to choose hope in order to break them free from Myriad’s hold on their lives. In the wake of this disappointing election season, many people (myself included) used her words to encourage ourselves to hope for a better future and stay strong. Her story had the power to strengthen our resolution in the present and start planning for the future. Stories show us how we can change our world for the better.
Stories also provide a way for us to reinterpret, reclaim, or defy our past or present experiences. Many comics began as reactions to war and/or grew out of minority experiences in America. Superman began his career as a symbol of Jewish power to fight the Nazi’s during WWII, Captain America as well. Lin Manuel-Miranda’s “Hamilton” reclaims American history for minorities and provides greater space to talk about the current contribution of minorities to American society. Alongside a whole host of female driven comic books, Supergirl is reclaiming comic book stories for women, especially LGBT women, and feminism.
Fanfiction most vividly encapsulates this purpose of stories. A recent study of fanfiction tropes highlights the popularity of fluff and happy endings, with major character death being one of the biggest no-nos. Fanfiction is frequently (though not always) the art of the disappointed, the hurt, the frustrated. We turn to it to change what we disliked about a story in so called ‘fix it fic’ and find solace in it when media makers kill off our favorite characters in brutal ways. We seek it out for happy endings instead of grimdark nihilism.
“The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially “escapist,” nor “fugitive.” In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”—J. R. R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories”
Tolkien writes specifically about fairy (or fantasy) stories, but it applies to other genres as well. Stories grant us a glimpse of the final defeat of evil. In our society, Dark™ and Gritty™ have become a catchphrase to mean “realistic”, as if the world is essentially dark, humorless, and depressing. Literary nihilism masquerading as realism. But stories remind us that joy, hope, love, and light are as real as sorrow and pain. Happy endings allow us to picture a world where evil is ultimately defeated by good, where love triumphs over hate, and joy over existential wallowing in angst.
The Power of Stories
Ask any parent why they do not allow their child to consume certain media and the answer will be something along the lines of “Children are sponges, and we have to be careful what they consume otherwise it will warp their brains.” (It’s an oversimplification, I know, but it usually boils down to this.) At some level, human beings recognize that stories have power to shape how children think, which can lead to censorship. Yet, we fail to apply this same concept to adults much of the time. Adults are above being changed or shaped by stories. Children are impressionable, not adults.
“I think this is an error; at best an error of false sentiment, and one that is therefore most often made by those who, for whatever private reason (such as childlessness), tend to think of children as a special kind of creature, almost a different race, rather than as normal, if immature, members of a particular family, and of the human family at large.”—J. R R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories”
It’s not true, as I hopefully have shown. Stories don’t just have power to shape children, though they do have that power. Stories shape how adults perceive reality and other people as well. Just look at how specific messaging (i.e., stories) shaped the election this past year. Or, look at how the overwhelming death of LGBT+ women on television was funneled into positive change and, hopefully, a change in how media portrays this vulnerable, marginalized group. Stories are not indifferent.
Stories have the power to shape perception and change reality for the better or for the worse. Seeing Sauron and Saruman defeated by the hobbits reminds us that we, too, can defeat the tyrants and manipulators in our lives. Stories can equally generate apathy, a sense of inevitability to evil. The acedia in our media merely reflects the apathy in our society toward those not in our immediate circle of concerns. The failure to change toxic structures becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. We don’t believe we can change things because our stories exude that message. Saying media is ‘just’ a story misunderstands of the power of storytelling.
We are not above stories; we are shaped by them. Rejecting the power and meaning of stories is tragically ironic in the original Greek sense. It’s rooted in hubris and denial: Oedipus not perceiving how his actions fulfilled the prophecy of the gods even as he sought to defy it; Cersei consumed with averting a story told by a woods witch and inadvertently conforming to it. Part of the irony of Martin’s repeated us of the phrase “words are wind” in A Song of Ice and Fire is that it’s a lie. Or at the very least a half-truth. Words are not wind. Words (and stories) have power.
The Responsibility of Storytellers
Stories matter because they have great power, and with power comes responsibility. How we tell stories matter as much as the stories themselves, and we need to discuss storytelling in terms of ethics. There is a healthy way and a destructive way to tell stories. We, as storytellers of all kinds, have a responsibility to tell stories that maximize the potential for stories to shape our society and ourselves in positive ways. It can involve iconoclasm or a call for revolution, as with dystopian fiction. Sometimes it means providing a vision of an alternate, better reality, as with science fiction, fantasy, or fanfic. Other times, it means shining a light onto trauma and the destructive ‘-isms’ of our society (sexism, racism, ablism, etc.). It can also mean telling your own story so that someone else can see themselves represented and know they’re not alone.
Storytellers have a responsibility to give voice and representation to the vulnerable and marginalized members of society, for that is how we understand others and ourselves better. I, as a white person, do not personally experience the systemic oppression of people of color. Stories can help me understand, empathize, and mobilize for change. Stories about LGBT+ women help me perceive myself better as well as remind me I’m not alone. In short, the more stories we tell, the more beautiful and nuanced our society will become.
Finally, we have a responsibility to tell stories in an ethical manner that does not harm our audiences or take advantage of them, especially vulnerable audiences. We have a responsibility not to exploit our readers or viewers, not to intentionally harm them for our own sadistic pleasure. Why? Because stories matter, and they can hurt as much as they can heal.
Why Stories Matter
As a category, ‘stories’ encompasses more than fictional narratives. History is story, religion is story, our own inner dialogues are stories. Ultimately, stories matter because human experience is story. It is no small thing to give someone themselves or generate empathy. It is no small thing to provide a new vision for the world to contrast the grim realities we face. Stories tell us who we are, who other people are, and our place in the world. And, how we perceive reality determines how we live our lives, what kind of people we want to be, and what kind of world we want to live in.
Images and Gifs courtesy of The CW, Disney/Pixar, Dreamworks, Cartoon Network, Hyperbole and a Half, and CBS.
Crazy Ex Girlfriend is Masterfully Deconstructing its Core
Here at The Fandomentals, it’s not hard to tell when we begin to fall in love with a show. You may recall the windfall of Black Sails articles surrounding its series finale, our rather overzealous coverage of Supergirl a year ago, or the way Steven Universe creeps into every podcast we record. We dig in and frenetically try to explain exactly the reasons why you should be so enthused as well.
Then there’s shows like Crazy Ex Girlfriend, where I find myself unable to say anything at all, since it’s more or less perfect.
I know what I’m setting myself up for when I say this, because I’ve felt the let-down quite keenly many times before. That’s part of why I’ve been so hesitant to write anything at all. The other part is that I truly feel my explanations won’t do anything justice; watch it yourself and you’ll see what I mean.
Is Rebecca Bunch’s character the answer to my prayers for jewish women in media? Absolutely. Do we all need Paula Proctors in our life? You bet we do. Is this finally the bridge between musical theater, sitcoms, and dramatic TV? Without a doubt. Hell, it’s a show whose entire premise involves calling attention to the tropes and storytelling conventions we bemoan, and then digging in and flipping them on their heads. All of this I could easily write dissertation-length papers on, while feeling that none of it is adequately explaining what is so great here.
So it’s only now that Crazy Ex Girlfriend is tackling one of the most important issues in our society, and doing it with a remarkably skillful hand, that I’m forcing myself to write out my thoughts. Because honestly? It’s a shondeh if I don’t at least try to spread the love at this point.
As a warning, there will be spoilers for major plot beats through the most recent episode, 3×06 “Josh is Irrelevant.” Which sure, may be a weird way to convince people into watching something, but as I’ve articulated a few times…knowing what’s coming and what a show explores actually makes me more prone to dig into it. If you disagree, let me just leave you with this before you bow out: the “crazy” in the title of the show is exactly why I didn’t watch it for a couple of years. And boy was that a mistake, because it is so intentional, and exactly what’s being explored now in one of the most nuanced and validating ways possible.
Yup, showrunners Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna are tackling mental health navigation and stigmatization. In the most recent episode, Rebecca Bunch receives a formal diagnosis (and even sings a song about getting one), and it’s made clear that all two and a half seasons were leading to this moment—not because of the diagnosis as an end in itself, but as a means to equip our character with the tools and understanding that empower her to push for a healthier state of mind. It is a show about a mentally ill woman lacking in traditional heroic qualities (dare I say antihero?). Yet instead of reveling in her moral greyness and watching her “oh my god” dissent, we are encouraged to actively empathize with her, and root for her to find balance. Because at its core, this show takes on a more positive view of humanity. We’re all just…trying to do okay with what we have, even if our weaknesses and anxieties can manifest in ways that hurt ourselves and those around us.
If that sounds interesting to you, watch the show. But for real now, explicit spoilers from here on out.
Rebecca Bunch was always meant to be a challenging character to the viewer. She makes an impulsive decision in the pilot episode to move to West Covina and pursue an old flame. Convinced this will make her instantly a happier person, she gleefully dumps her medicine down her garbage disposal (we’re unsure specifically what she took, though we do know anti-anxieties were in the mix) while whistling a merry tune. It’s clear this isn’t the healthiest thing you can do and she’s romanticizing the situation (and hilariously, the location as well).
At the same time, it’s also made clear that Rebecca truly was in an unhappy state in New York City, and her methods of coping through heavy medication and excessive work only fed into that. By midway through the first season, Rebecca tries to seek out a therapist to get new drugs, only to be told that she might actually need to explore her issues.
Rebecca: Those are the meds I was on in New York.
Dr. Akopian: Oh, my God. How did your body react to all this medication? You must not have been able to feel a thing.
Rebecca: Exactly. Numb as they come. So scribble scribble on your pizzle pad.
Dr. Akopian: Rebecca, your doctor in New York is a quack. He gave you a Band-Aid, not a cure. My method would be to do some digging and figure out what’s really going on inside your mind. And then we can discuss the appropriate medications.
Rebecca: So that’s great, but I need to be better by Monday.
The driving story continues to be about Rebecca’s quest for her fairy tale romance—a narrative that lives in her mind but not reality. Each romcom trope is broken down, from “unlikely suitor she actually falls for” (he turns out to be a fucking mess and leaves to be able to deal with his own issues in a healthy manner), to “the perfect prince who was always meant to be” (they both approach the relationship merely wanting to be in a relationship, without actually having a stable grasp on what they both need/want in life), to even the “screw men, we’ll just have a fun girl group and that’s enough” (Josh has a new girlfriend they need to stalk!).
However, it is always in the forefront that Rebecca is actively spinning the happenings in her life to fit whatever story she wants, all while resisting the core of what’s at her unhappiness.
Paula: Just let both of them go.
Rebecca: I don’t know who I am without them. I know that’s pathetic. I know it’s pathetic, but it’s true. Who am I supposed to be now?
Paula: Honey, be yourself.
Rebecca: What?! Who? No! Ew. Ugh! Who wants to be that?!
This becomes the most obvious when she enters into a relationship with Josh, but is not magically happier about everything. Rebecca very nearly has a breakthrough with Dr. Akopian to this point, only to be interrupted by Josh’s wedding proposal. Then from there, we get a tale as old as time: Rebecca stops feeling magical feelings about Josh, freaks out and kisses her boss in an elevator, freaks out from that and pushes their wedding date up to two weeks from that day, and then after not sleeping and going in full bridezilla mode, gets left at the altar because Josh begins to feel that he doesn’t truly know Rebecca. We also learn that Rebecca had previously wanted to marry another man in her past (Robert, a former professor of hers), but upon being broken up with by him, burned down his apartment and then was committed to a psychiatric institution for a time.
This is where Season 3 picks up, and in truth, I was very nervous about the Robert reveal. “Oh, so she really is ‘crazy’? That’s the point?” No. the point is that Rebecca is a troubled character who hasn’t received the help she’s needed. She has characteristics we all can relate to, from her self-deprecating thoughts to her struggle to feel ‘normal,’ even if we wouldn’t have necessarily made the same choices she did.
Season 3 shows her in crisis mode. Instead of confronting her insecurities, she lashes out at her friends, and even returns home to stay with her mother for a bit, despite their history with Naomi’s selfish and often inappropriate or harmful behavior. However, when her mom sneaks her anti-anxieties (out of fear of Rebecca wanting to commit suicide), Rebecca feels as though she has no one she can count on anymore, especially since she thinks she alienated everyone else. At the end of 3×05, Rebecca tries to commit suicide on a plane by taking a bottle full of anti-anxiety meds one a time, before telling the flight attendant that she needs help.
Other media has tried to depict suicide before, but it is so often done in a way that’s meant to shock, or even (distressingly) in a way that almost romanticizes the behavior. Hell, Life is Strange actually makes a student’s suicide a playable level, where if you’re just observant enough, you can stop it (for points!). Crazy Ex Girlfriend walked the impossible line of depicting the suicide attempt in a realistic manner—it was easy to track Rebecca’s feeling of hopelessness and isolation—without any sort of glamorization. She was in a rough, unhealthy state, and the audience was encouraged to root for that to change.
Better yet, Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna made themselves available on Twitter immediately afterwards. That, in addition to a suicide helpline message which appeared on the screen following the episode, demonstrated that they were being as thoughtful as possible when approaching such a potentially triggering subject. It was difficult to watch, no question. But shying away from these topics doesn’t give equip us with the tools to handle them. We’ve praised Jessica Jones for starkly examining rape and rape apology; Crazy Ex Girlfriend is a show that should receive similar acclaim, particularly given how usual portrayals of suicide and mental health tend towards victim blaming.
Even that aspect was highlighted in the newest episode; Rebecca continually apologizes for the “hassle” she’s caused, and how bad she feels that everyone’s normal routine has been interrupted since like…her friends want to make sure she’s okay. It’s just so true-to-life. Too often our media has something *happen* to a character, and then it disappears an episode later. Rebecca’s deeply-felt self-loathing and general unworthiness isn’t gone just because her stomach was pumped, however. And that kind of consistency is important. Life doesn’t make narrative sense, so even though there’s a clear story that’s being told, it’s told in way that feels refreshingly familiar. Because it mirrors life.
Add to this the diagnosis. Rachel Bloom has talked openly about her own mental health numerous times. She also said this last week:
It’s clear this was written from a place of understanding, and with an attempt to be as validating and healing as possible. Rebecca sings a boisterous song about getting a diagnosis that will be her golden ticket to happiness (she’ll finally fit in somewhere), which amazingly captures the awareness of stigmatization alongside the often unreasonable weight people attached to their diagnoses. I just say this as a woman with OCD and general anxiety disorder, and I don’t want to speak for everyone ‘neurodivergent’, for lack of a better umbrella term. But in my opinion, the episode’s greatest strength was the way in which both of Rebecca’s doctors talked about her diagnosis. It’s not an identity, nor is it a fix; it’s a tool of understanding behavior, and one that can help guide treatment in a way that makes the most sense for her.
At the same time, Rebecca possesses the traits which define Borderline Personality Disorder. This was something I’ve said (mostly to Julia) for a long time, and something I’ve been scared for the show to tackle. I have intimate experience with this disorder, and without sugarcoating anything, some hurt as well. I have never seen proper depiction of it before this show, and I never in a million years thought it would actually be labeled, then fully described in a way that’s so accessible to an uninformed audience.
“A person with BPD is essentially a person that has difficulty regulating their emotions. Someone that lacks the protective emotional skin to feel comfortable in the world.”
It’s clear that Rebecca’s world is one that’s scary to be in. She never feels she fits, she has a terror of abandonment, and her impulsive actions that she does in order to control situations or feel accepted (be it breaking into Josh’s house to delete an embarrassing text, rushing to a wedding because she had a moment of doubt, or even sleeping with her ex’s dad because he was the only person being nice to her) have outcomes that usually result in more unhappiness. To be able to know that she’s not alone in this struggle is validating.
Though of course, and again realistically, the show doesn’t make the BPD simple or straightforward. Rebecca immediately Googles BPD and hates what she reads: that treatment can be lifelong, that there’s no “cure”, and even that 10% of people with BPD do kill themselves. She pushes against this diagnosis, even telling Dr. Akopian that she was bullied by the other doctor into agreeing with him on it, until Akopian whips out the DSM and goes through the checklist to see if Rebecca matches the criteria. Every point applies, and the show brilliantly provides flashbacks as these are read off. Rebecca sinks into despair, calling herself “certifiably crazy,”
Like…yeah. This is it. This is what happens. I was watching, half wanting to cry because of how easy it is to feel for Rebecca in that moment, and half wanting to laugh because finally what I’ve seen and experienced (second-handedly)—what I’ve even questioned and doubted—is on my screen for the first time, ever. We talk a lot about why fiction and representation matters, yet it’s almost unthinkable that the diagnostic process has been rarely been shown on our screens. Certainly not in this much detail.
The episode does end on a hopeful note, with Rebecca saying that she doesn’t want to ever feel like she did on the plane again. She goes to a group therapy, and gets a book to read afterwards. It’s not the end, nor was it ever meant to be. But it’s the means of getting her to a healthy place, and in that process, we see a lot of our own realities, from the hilarious to the uncomfortable.
That’s the story that matters, and that’s the story that was always being told. We’re just finally at the place where the characters see it too.
Images courtesy of the CW
A Bride’s Story is the Women’s Story You Were Waiting For
A Bride’s Story is a manga by Kaoru Mori (also responsible for Emma). Started in 2008, the series is still running and counts 9 volumes. It takes place in 19th century central Asia and follows several characters in their daily lives. The story is mainly focused on women of the region, but there is also the point of view Henry Smith, an English researcher. Anything else notable? Oh, I just remembered: it is really good.
Talking about a really good manga series could be enough on its own. But you know what’s even better? It is focused on women and their lives. Different women, with different lives, their work, their achievements, their pains. And it is written in a total love of all women. A good manga series, written by a woman about women? What else could we be asking for?
The Story of A Bride’s Story:
I am starting to not like this choice of title very much. But anyway, the manga opens on Amir and Karluk’s wedding. Amir is twenty whereas her husband is twelve (don’t worry there is no weird sexual content between the two). It is not the only thing that separates them. Karluk comes from a mainly sedentary village. Amir’s tribe still has a pretty nomadic way of life. Both spouses are pretty different so the first chapters of the manga follow their adaptation to each other (and to her in-laws in the case of Amir). The presence of Smith also allows the point of view of an outsider into the family.
The story then expands to other members of the family, friends, and neighbors, as well as people Smith will meet during his travels. Yet the story isn’t all over the place. We follow their lives and emotional development. And when Kaoru Mori focuses on one character she takes the time to tell their story. Even if she has to leave aside other characters for some time. But this is not a problem, as it is crystal clear she loves all her characters and will do them justice in time.
A Bride’s Story is going to focus on every aspect of the characters’ lives. There is high drama(military attack of one family on another) but also daily life (learning how to sew, finding your vocation).
In short A Bride’s Story is a really good read. But it is not the only thing that draws you in the narrative.
Art so gorgeous it sucks you in the story:
Another strings to Kaoru Mori’s bow which help you being completely absorbed in her world is that…
Which, considering the time we spend speaking about craftsmanship, is important. Having a visual representation worthy of the script is only doing it justice. If you don’t want to travel to central Asia to discover their handicraft after reading A Bride’s Story you are a liar, and that’s all there is to it. The characters and the details are insanely comprehensive. But we are also given amazing and dynamic action scenes.
This incredible art and interesting story combine to give us a narrative uplifting women at every turn.
An Hymn to women’s lives:
A Bride’s Story focuses, as its name clearly spells out, on brides. Sometimes young brides, sometimes bride-to-be, sometimes widows, but always women facing married life. And no it is not reductive. During the 19th century, marriage was (and still is in some cultures) one of the main events of a woman’s life. It was a literal change of family, of environment, and the real beginning of her adult life. So focusing around this event is not reductive. Quite the contrary. It reminds us that, as long as she is a good person, every woman’s life is worth telling.
Kaoru Mori spends a lot of time on women’s daily activity. Sewing of course (if the manga doesn’t give you a mighty need to start sewing you are a liar), but also cooking, taking care of the herd etc. Everything is worth the author’s attention, and ours. Do you know why? Because it is important work done with care. And this ask for our interest and respect.
Another thing which is incredibly well done in A Bride’s Story is the relationship between this women. They are supportive of each other. There is a mother-in-law ready to sacrifice herself to save her daughter-in-law. When Amir learns that she should go back to her family to marry another man because all the brides they have sent are dead (killed by their husband) she is not only crying because she is terrified. She is crying because she knew both of this girls and is devastated by their death. And the person reassuring her and saying that she is « not going anywhere » is her husband’s grandmother.
There are as many positive women relationship in there as there is stars in the sky. And not always just filial relationship. But also mentorship, friendship and emh…
And the icing on the cake is that every single one of these women is different from the others.
No wrong way of being a woman:
Truly it is refreshing to read about women helping each other. It is even better when they are allowed to be different. Because let’s be real, often in fiction women are created to oppose each other. The “good” kind of woman opposing the “wrong” kind of women. Just look at The White Queen and The White Princess, in which motherhood is glorified and “good” women are rewarded with it whereas “bad” women, women having a “man’s” ambition, became sterile and loveless.
Well, in A Bride’s Story we have traditionally feminine women who are soft gentle and love sewing. We have unconventional women who like to hunt and ride but are still good at feminine tasks (but let’s be real Amir is an amazement in universe too) and others which are not. We also have what other media often depicts as “failing” women, but are just unsure of who they are.
In short, Kaoru Mori is standing on her mountain screaming “They are all my daughters and I love them all!”. And trust me ,it feels good to be, as a reader, welcomed into this story.
To the surprise of no one, I heartily recommend reading A Bride’s Story. As a first manga, if it is your first, it might be putting the bar a bit high for future dives into the medium. But there are worse problems to have. Just to add to all I’ve said above, we also have good and interesting siblings relationships (my passion), making this manga almost without fault. It is worth a try. It really is.
All images courtesy of Yen Press.
Wolfenstein: The New Colossus Excels Because It Knows Its History
Wolfenstein: The New Colossus is a phenomenal game. It has an inordinate amount to say about racism, anti semitism, the cycle of abuse, ableism, eugenics, homophobia, fat shaming, PTSD, war, violence, and just about everything else under the sun. And developer MachineGames does all of that with this wonderfully strange combination of hyper-meticulous tact, high production values, and auteur confidence. Of course, none of that would have been possible if the setting surrounding the narrative didn’t work, and holy shit does it ever.
The newest iterations of the Wolfenstein franchise take place in an alternate 1960—leading into ‘61 for the second game—where the Nazis won the war. 2014’s Wolfenstein: The New Order was a game framed around the “how” of the world. How did the Nazis win? How do they keep their conquered states in check? How have things changed in this reality? How do we stop them from gaining more power? How do we fight back against a near global, yet also interplanetary, regime?
Throughout the game, you come across newspaper clippings and records (The Beatles sort of still exist) that fill the gaps between 1946 and 1960. The result is a fully realized world that isn’t just a horrifying coat of paint over reality; it’s how things would have happened…with a few super-science-y liberties thrown in because why wouldn’t the Nazis a moon base or fire breathing robot dogs? And, of course, the greatest twist of all: the Nazis’ inexplicable sci-fi advancement, the whole reason they won the war, was built on the backs of stolen technology from a secret society of Jewish science wizards. There’s even a sequence where the protagonist, William Joseph “B.J.” Blazkowicz, breaks into a high security compound and finds ancient schematics written in Hebrew, which he knows how to read.
We also knew, in broad strokes, what had happened to the other parts of the world. America had surrendered completely after Manhattan was obliterated by an atomic bomb, mirroring the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Nazis had yet to conquer the vast majority of Africa, as organized resistance was proving far more effective than they were willing to recognize. London was kept in line by a skyscraper-sized robot called the London Monitor, which you get to blow up.
Wolfenstein: The New Order took place almost entirely in western Europe (with a brief sojourn to the moon, of course) and exploring how the one region of the world that was, at one time, actually conquered by the Nazis, ended up being just familiar enough to what it was back then to what it became in their alternate history. It’s this foundation, this deep uprooting and deconstruction of history, that allows its sequel, The New Colossus, to head straight into the United States. We were shown what was comfortably familiar to us, so it was time to show what was uncomfortably familiar.
An America subjugated and ruled by the Nazis.
Enemy Of The State Of Affairs
Wolfenstein: The New Colossus is a game about “why”. Why do we fight against oppression when society around us punishes those who do? Why do we push back against systemic hatred, even when it has no bearing on us? Why does a man like William Joseph “B.J.” Blazkowicz, the perfect aesthetic poster boy for Aryan supremacy, reject those who would treat him like a king?
Why has America submitted to Nazi rule? The short answer is: giant airship. The long answer? Well, that one’s not so complicated.
Relatively early in the game, you meet up with a New York City resistance cell lead by a black woman named Grace, a survivor of the Manhattan bombing. In fact, all but one of her members are black with the exception of her partner Super Spesh. Their character designs explicitly invoke imagery of the Black Panthers and the overall Black Power movement.
The first game had you run around helping the Kreisau Circle, the Berlin-based Nazi resistance group that eventually cut the head off the Nazi war machine and stopping them from developing new weapons. This cell was lead by Caroline Decker, a paraplegic veteran. But, in the opening of this game, Caroline is executed by the main antagonist, Frau Engel, leaving a gaping hole in leadership that Grace fits perfectly. Who better to represent a 1960s violent uprising of the oppressed than a black woman in America?
She even goes so far as to move into Caroline’s old cabin in their captured Super U-Boat. From the start of the narrative, Wolfenstein is showing us that America is very different from a conquered Europe. For one, the English language is being banned, hearkening back to that old adage of “If the Nazis won, we’d all be speaking German”.
The largest among the differences though is that, just as Grace says above, America never stopped fighting the Nazis. The military did, yes, and the vast majority of the white population, including a South-governed KKK, but the fact that there is a dedicated anti-gravity airship, the Ausmerzer, whose sole role is to travel the country and crush resistance factions for the past decade tells us in no uncertain terms that the hold the Nazis have over America isn’t as ironclad as they believe it to be.
Even if they are able to put on one hell of a show.
We find newspaper clippings within the game describing resistance cells crushed by the Ausmerzer, and there’s even a moment during a trip to Roswell where you’re recognized (you’re the Reich’s most wanted, after all) by a local resident who, in a terrified act of defiance, whispers that he believes in what you’re doing when just seconds prior he was selling newspaper propaganda with glee.
The cap to this, however, is the final scene of the final mission of the game where you ambush Frau Engel’s live appearance on a talk show. You sneak through the bleachers and into the rafters, noting that every single person in the audience is a cardboard cutout. The show may be being broadcasted to every living room in the world, but it stands to reason that if people aren’t going to the live show…they’re not buying into the lies.
America is being crushed under the heel of the Nazis, yes, but it has yet to be crushed. Good people are still out there in the world, but they’ve forgotten how to resist. Those who were already filled with hate jumped on board, the minority, while everyone else is either putting their head in the sand or just trying to survive.
On the other side of the table, though, is how white America perceives the Nazis. I’ve already mentioned that the KKK controls the south, but it goes a whole lot deeper than that. Slavery has been legalized once more, and auctions are the talk of the town. We find out that, in true Nazi form, they rounded up the country’s degenerates—Jews, queer folk and people of color—and either purged them or sent them off to die in New Orleans…which is now a massive ghetto, Escape from New York style.
And if you “named names”, you were rewarded with what those same people left behind. Land rights, mansions, savings; everything they owned was either seized by the state or given as a gift to those who betrayed their friends and neighbors. This is not something we discover on a broad scale; it’s personal to B.J.
He visits his childhood home after nuking Area 52 (it wasn’t aliens, just ancient Jewish Techno Wizard secrets) and finds his abusive father, Rip, waiting for him, having heard he was in the area and assumed he’d come around. Rip, as we learned from flashbacks, was physically and emotionally abusive to both his son and his wife Zofia, a Jewish Polish immigrant. That, and he was a hardcore White Supremacist, having only married Zofia because he believed her father would be a business asset. He bemoans that no one knows what it is like to suffer as he does, thinking that everyone is trying to steal everything from the White Man.
In short, he represents everything that B.J. has spent his entire adult life fighting against.
When asked what happened to his mother, Rip admits that he sold her out to the Nazis and they took her away. The confrontation ends with B.J. killing his father after he presses a shotgun to his son’s forehead, but through their entire conversation he’d been on the phone with the Nazis. He’d sold out his son, too.
That’s the state of the world in Wolfenstein, and in The New Colossus you blow it the fuck up.
Terror-Billy Goes America All Over Everybody’s Ass
While the game’s marketing may have been pointing towards a parallel with the American Revolution as for how the country ousts the Nazis, I posit that the historical context is far more evocative of our 1960s.
Grace’s existence and design are already evidence of this, but it’s the rest of the resistance that makes this all the more clear. The second big group you recruit, aptly enough from the New Orleans ghetto itself, is lead by a man named Horton. He organizes a group of communists, socialists and anarchists who you’d think wouldn’t fit in with Grace and her people. These are the people that dodged the draft, even if they did push the concept of equal rights earlier than most. Horton even flat out cites their attempted push for a civil rights movement in an argument with B.J.
Of course, there’s a key difference between refusing to fight on foreign soil in a war that benefits the military industrial complex and what’s happening to them now. Horton’s group draws upon sentiment from both the end of the Great War and the counterculture movements of the 1960s.
Again, many of them were draft dodging pacifists, but that goes right out the window when it comes to Nazis. It’s one thing to refuse to fight a foreign enemy on foreign lands when victory would have only spread what you’re rebelling against. It’s quite another to sit by and accept fascism in the very country that allowed, though not always encouraged, you to believe what you saw in your heart as just.
It’s at the end of the game, however, in the ending cinematic, that this entire idea solidifies. That this historical context isn’t an accident, and the frankly unbelievable amount of homework MachineGames must have done paid off in spades. Mere moments after B.J. kills Frau Engel on live television, Grace and Horton speak directly into the cameras and ignite a violent revolution. The Kreisau Circle may be organized like a guerilla military operation, but the American people aren’t. They don’t need to be.
It’s an angry, raw, improvised and imperfect call to arms, but that’s what makes it perfect. Violent uprisings don’t start with eloquence or deep debating over the justification to fight against those who oppress you. They start with whatever you’ve got on hand. The Civil Rights movement, the Stonewall Riots and the general counterculture protests that dominated the 60s are clear influences on Wolfenstein’s depiction of “retaking America”. Seriously, if it didn’t sink in already, they blast a heavy metal cover of Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” over the end credits coupled with imagery of violent rioting and uprisings across the nation.
Wolfenstein does not attempt to hold a mirror to our world today, even if it does so inadvertently. It tries to make us look back, so that we remember how to keep moving forward. It’s message is clear because it knows what it’s talking about, no matter how over-the-top the presentation:
Equality is not a debate; it’s a right. Those without it won’t stop until they have it, because for them it’s literally “Fight, or Die”. So the best thing you can do, if you’ve already got it, is to pick them up with you. And if you don’t? If you keep trying to push others down? It’s gonna get bloody, just like it always does, and chances are it won’t be them who’s dying.
Images courtesy of MachineGames
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