Gone Girl: Trope Busting, Liars and the Feminism of Horrible People

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Note: this post is just about the movie version of Gone GirlI’ve yet to read the book, so any differences between the two versions or adaptation-related criticisms are totally lost on me.

Before finally seeing Gone Girl this past weekend, I had heard it described as every incarnation of “feminist” and “anti-feminist” under the sun. It was “feminist” because Strong Female Character. It was “feminist” because it showed how psychotic feminists want to treat men. It was “anti-feminist” because all the women in the movie are awful or because it made Nick sympathetic and Amy unsympathetic. It was “misogynistic” because it portrayed the kind of villainous female character that anti-feminists imagine most women to be. And on and on and on.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised that Gone Girl didn’t fit any of those descriptions. Gone Girl is not a “feminist story,” in the sense that Amy is a feminist character, although I think it does have some intriguing feminist angles hidden inside it. And it’s not an “anti-feminist” story, in a “women are lying psychopaths and we should all feel sorry for Nick” sort of way. It’s far too surprising and morally complicated for both of those readings.

It is, in essence, a story about a whole bunch of really horrible people, doing horrible things to one another. It eschews every narrative and character trope we know, and it uses those tropish expectations to outwit both the viewer and the characters themselves. No one fits into the simple boxes that we might like to place them in. If you read Amy as a representation of “women” as a whole, you’re missing the point, just as you’re missing the point if you see Nick as a victim, or, god forbid, Amy as a Strong Female Character.

Unless, of course, you’re reading Amy as a criticism of a Strong Female Character (TM). Because if Gone Girl has any message to convey about female characters or about people in general, it’s that none of them are as straightforward or as good as you would like to believe.

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The Sin Eater’s Daughter by Melinda Salisbury

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The Sin Eater’s Daughter is a fascinating book. The protagonist, Twylla, is the gods’ chosen, a girl who can survive poison and kill with a single touch. Isolated from everyone because of her powers, she executes the kingdom’s traitors on the gods’ behalf and is destined to marry the prince, despite her commoner status.

But Twylla is afraid of the cruel queen who dictates her every move, and she resents both her role as executioner and the way that everyone else fears her. When she begins to question first her safety under the queen’s rule and then her entire role as the gods’ chosen killer,

I can’t really discuss what I loved about this book without revealing massive spoilers. The story takes some exciting twists, and one plot development in particular provided a wonderful opportunity for some great character depth. The book in general is a fantastic exploration of questions of duty and self-sacrifice and personal responsibility, and although the evil queen is somewhat two-dimensional, Twylla and her mother are both fully realized and challenging characters. Their broken relationship, and each of their attitudes to fate and responsibility, are definitely the most powerful parts of the book.

One big downside was the romance. The main couple in The Sin Eater’s Daughter does have chemistry and some interesting moments, but overall I couldn’t buy into their Epic Love — and since their “we love one another but can’t be together” relationship is key to many parts of the plot, that was a bit of an issue.

Still, The Sin Eater’s Daughter is definitely worth reading, for the intriguing concept and unusual female protagonist alone. Romance aside, it provides something different and delicious to the YA fantasy genre, and anyone who would like a gripping and thought-provoking read should definitely give it a try.

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A Wicked Thing

My debut novel, A Wicked Thing, was released on Tuesday. And so I wanted to take a moment to talk about it.

A Wicked Thing is an after-the-end retelling of Sleeping Beauty, beginning at the moment when Aurora wakes up. Everyone she knew is dead, the entire world has changed while she slept, and her desperate kingdom has woven legends about how her goodness and her “true love’s kiss” will save them once she awakens. Before she has a moment to think, she’s made into a pawn of the current ruling family, all set to marry the hapless prince who awoke her, and she has to figure out who she can trust, what she must do, and what exactly what has happened while she slept.

It probably won’t surprise people that my protagonist Aurora is more of a “Sansa Stark” heroine than an Arya. A character who I think is strong and worthwhile and capable, but who doesn’t show it by fighting, and who takes time to find her feet. The novel is fairly introspective, exploring how Aurora can grow from a confused and naive princess into the woman she has the potential to be, and how she can survive the weight of expectations, of perfectionism, of not being allowed to be “selfish” in a life dictated by others.

It also ended up as quite an interrogation of fairy tale tropes. The main one, obviously, is the concept of “true love’s kiss,” that story of a fated love between complete strangers.  I started A Wicked Thing when Twilight was still the hottest thing in Young Adult fiction, and there was a whole slew of stories about love-at-first-sight that mattered beyond all things, and fated love where personal choice was never even a question. It frustrated me that a lot of books took such a fatalistic approach to YA romance, with the idea that once you like someone, you MUST be with them, no matter how bad things get or how much of a creepy stalker they become. And A Wicked Thing isn’t about stalker vampires, but it is about a girl who is told, by “fate,” that she has met her true love, and has to deal with the fact that she might not actually agree. How would the pressure of being told she must love a particular person affect her feelings? And would this idea of a fated love really be treated as something good, or would it be used by others for their own gain?

Some people have described A Wicked Thing as a “love triangle” book, or expected one to develop in the future, but from my perspective, that’s really not true. There are a few potential guys for Aurora — two princes and a commoner — and she considers each of them at some point in the novel. But they’re not competing for her affection. In the end, they’re competing for her as an asset, and although there is a little bit of romance, it’s definitely not the central focus.

In fact, the most important relationship from my perspective is the one between Aurora and Queen Iris, Aurora’s half-captor half-protector who is preparing Aurora for marriage to her son. Iris at first certainly seems like a horrible, controlling person, but she’s just as trapped as Aurora is, in her own way, and has learned what she believes is the best way to survive. She’s determined that Aurora will learn the same skills, and the dynamic between the two characters was definitely the most interesting to write. I was also particularly interested by the relationship between Aurora and the witch who cursed her — why would the witch curse her? What did she hope to achieve, and how does Aurora feel about it? — but that’s something I really don’t want to spoil.

Ultimately, A Wicked Thing is the story of a girl learning how to become a heroine in a world where she seems to have no options or chances to make decisions for herself.

I really hope that people enjoy it.

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Writing Feminist Fiction

It’s difficult to write truly feminist fiction.

It’s sucky, but I think it’s true. Pretty much every author has some subconscious sexism and racism, because those are the messages that society delivers to us as “truth,” over and over again. The difficulty of writing feminist fiction is in overcoming these subconscious thoughts when creating fictional worlds, and being aware of the implications of whatever we write. Not always an easy task.

Think of all the fantasy authors who have spoken eloquently about women in fantasy and the need for more female characters, but whose first books feature a severe lack of female characters, simply because that’s what fantasy novels do and the authors weren’t aware of that imbalance at the time. A lack of female characters can feel truthful in fantasy fiction, because that’s how fantasy fiction usually is.

Or the strange argument that a story can have orcs and dragons, but it can’t have anyone not-white, because that wouldn’t be historically accurate. When challenged, it feels ridiculous, but it can have a ring of truth to readers and writers who are used to fantasy’s whiteness, and similarly used to a historical narrative that omits people of color.

And it’s not just absence that reveals these subconscious biases. It’s narratives where protagonists are “not like other girls,” it’s love stories with a hint of “creepy stalker,” it’s authors describing skin color with food because that’s how other stories do it, and it’s plotlines that seem fine at first but have messages like “don’t get too big for your boots, girls,” or “girls need to be rescued” lurking underneath.

The difficulty of the issue drives some writers to avoid the topic altogether. When male writers say that they can’t write from a female perspective, I’m sure that some of them, at least, are concerned about making mistakes. Even conscientious writers can decide that it isn’t their place to write a character with a different race or gender or sexual orientation from them, that these characters are better left to writers with more authority on the subject.

I think there are two important things here: all writers are at risk of screwing up. And all writers should take that risk anyway. Because yes, our subconscious biases may seep into our work, leaving them open to criticism. And I’m sure it feels awful to have your work be accused of having problematic elements. But it isn’t an excuse not to try. Writers need to engage with these issues, and interrogate their own biases and their own work, in order to change the default narrative that promotes these subconscious biases in the first place.

Which brings me to my book, A Wicked Thing, which comes out tomorrow. I didn’t have any particular feminist point in mind when I wrote A Wicked Thing. I just wanted to tell the story in a way that felt honest and realistic to me. Since this is my truth, there are definitely feminist moments in there. Whether or not they’re successful will be up to readers.

But I thought a lot, as I was writing and since finalizing the manuscript, about whether the book lived up to my own standards of “feminist fiction.” It’s almost impossible to tell, from within my own head, whether the book missteps — which is, I think, part of the reason that so many stories contain problematic elements. I doubt that the Doctor Who writers meant for Kill the Moon to be a pro-life allegory, or for the Baker’s Wife in Into the Woods to be punished for adultery with instant death. But the author is dead, as they say, and stories take on a life of their own when they are consumed by others.

I tried to be analytical about everything I did. If I wrote a character as white, or male, I tried to challenge myself about why I made that choice, if it can be called a choice, and whether it could or should be different. I tried to write female characters who feel real to me, and I tried to think about how the story appeared when viewed in the context of other stories. Do my female characters end up being rescued by male characters too often? Are there unwanted implications about relationships, or about what a girl “should” be?

And before this interrogation of my own work, I made some mistakes. In earlier drafts, this fictional world was far more white than it should have been. Sometimes I had relied on a male character to make things happen when my protagonist should have been in control. It’s easy to slip into comfortable stereotypes and well-worn tropes when we’re not watching.

Even when tackling my own choices, I made some mistakes. I chose to make Aurora the stereotypical blonde fairy tale princess, reasoning that this stereotypical appearance was important to the story I was telling, and that meant that certain other characters also needed to be white, because genetics. This cost me a lot of potential diversity, justified by something that wasn’t really that important in the end.

Overall, though, I hope that I’ve been successful. But that’s not really the author’s place to decide. All we can do is try as hard as we can to change the default narrative, interrogate our work and its choices, and always strive to do better every time.

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The 100: Resurrection

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Give all the awards to Eliza Taylor.

In Resurrection, we saw the aftermath of Clarke’s decision to sacrifice a Grounder village to protect Bellamy and the other members of the 100 in Mount Weather. The result was an incredibly intense fight for survival, combined with the sorts of character moments and reflections on morality that The 100 has become so good at.

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BBC’s Wolf Hall

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Wolf Hall is the BBC’s new adaptation of Hillary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, chronicling the rise and fall of Henry VIII’s merchant-born advisor, Thomas Cromwell.

I’ll admit, at first, I didn’t want to watch this show. I am not a fan of Cromwell (to the extent that you can be “not a fan” of a real historical figure) and I was incredibly reluctant to watch something that seemed likely to paint him as a wonderful, sympathetic hero while villainising those he destroyed, like Anne Boleyn. And the show does make him into a compelling and sympathetic character, as it must to be even vaguely successful. But that doesn’t mean moral complexity is overlooked, and, after an initial adjustment period, I discovered that the show is actually incredibly fulfilling to watch.

Wolf Hall is a very male-centered show, especially in its first episode. In part, of course, this is because the story is focussed on Thomas Cromwell, and his political dealings are mostly with other men. But the show does also miss opportunities to explore its female characters and their motivations more deeply. Every one of them (minus a brief appearance from Catherine of Aragon and Mary Tudor) is considered in a somewhat sexual manner, even if they’re not sexualized as they are in shows like The Tudors, and clashes between Cromwell and Anne take a backseat compared to other tumultuous relationship, like the one between Cromwell and Thomas More.

But the show is incredibly historically accurate. The actors look remarkably like the historical figures’ portraits, and I noticed at least two instances where the show used real speeches, slightly updated for modern ears. Even common small inaccuracies, like Catherine of Aragon and Mary having dark hair instead of their actual red hair, are corrected. The show seems determined to be as faithful to known historical events as physically possible, and that’s admirable, and incredibly enjoyable to watch, at least from this Tudor history nerd’s perspective.

And although important female characters often take a back seat, their political influence isn’t downplayed. We see Catherine give a stirring speech in her own defence, and are told that she fought Scotland, giving an impression of a fierce, strong, capable queen that is often overlooked in retellings of “Catherine vs Anne Boleyn.” Similarly, Anne is incredibly ambitious here, but it is not just personal ambition to marry Henry. We learn that Anne has read heretical Protestant literature and has many of her own opinions about it, and although she and Cromwell are constantly at odds, we also see how their similar political leanings unite them and their goals. We even see a lot of Elizabeth Barton and her visions, and the huge influence she has, and this often overlooked but important figure is characterized with great strength of character and intelligence.

Unfortunately, these female characters are rarer in the show than they should be. Catherine and Mary barely appear, and Catherine and Anne do not, as far as I can recall, ever speak to one another, or even appear in a scene together. Anne is certainly ambitious and political, but her portrayal as the show goes on makes her start to seem irrational, without much exploration of how desperate her situation becomes and how that affects her. Perhaps most disappointingly, the show marks Anne’s sister-in-law, Jane Boleyn, as a vindictive traitor — a common narrative about these events, but one that isn’t really supported by evidence and would be so easy to subvert. If the show can bring a lot of depth and sympathy to a man like Thomas Cromwell, it can spare a few moments to explore what might compel Jane Boleyn to give evidence against her husband and his sister, beyond “well she was just a horrible person.” But the show takes the easy way out, which is disappointing considering the depth it brings to other difficult historical figures.

In another strike against it, the show is not always easy to follow. I’m pretty obsessed with this time period, but sometimes I found myself wondering who that person was supposed to be again, or confused about where the narrative had jumped to. I imagine it’s not the friendliest exploration of this time period to anyone who hasn’t seen it all before. But it is sumptuous to watch.

Wolf Hall is gorgeously shot, with some brilliant acting and great lines, and it is the first show I’ve seen that manages to bring history to life, in the sense that it’s both incredibly accurate (at least, as accurate as anything can come based on a few documents 600 years later) and yet still compelling. It doesn’t reinterpret a few threads of history in order to make a dramatic TV show. It uses the medium of television give one possible version of that history.

And that, I think, is really worth watching. Just be warned that the female characters don’t always get the screen time and focus they might deserve.

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Suicide in Young Adult Fiction

Suicide stories are the new hot thing in young adult fiction.

A few titles on this topic have been released in the past — 13 Reasons Why being the most well-known — but a huge number of these books have been released in 2015 so far, including I Was Here, All the Bright Places, My Heart and Other Black Holes, Playlist for the Dead, When Reason Breaks, and The Last Time We Say Goodbye.

Individually, these books (at least, the ones I’ve read) are generally emotional and poetically written, winning accolades and movie deals. But as a group, these books reveal a few patterns that really need discussing. There’s no harm in a whole slew of books on depression and suicide if the subject is handled sensitively and realistically. But these books must be written very carefully, as they have the power either to help a reader in need, or to crush that reader further. And although individually these books are very good, as a group, they show trends that are somewhat worrying.

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My Heart and Other Black Holes by Jasmine Warga

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My Heart and Other Black Holes is actually the fourth YA novel I’ve read about suicide so far this year.

Seriously, the fourth one released since the start of January that I’ve read. I’m sure there are more I haven’t read. It’s a strange trend that I’m definitely going to be writing more about in depth soon. But My Heart and Other Black Holes was such a good book that I wanted to recommend it on its own. And since I’ve read so many similar books recently, a few things stood out about this one that make it worth reading.

  • It’s a “suicide book” that’s actually from the perspective of the suicidal teenager (rather than from the “person left behind,” a la 13 Reasons Why or I Was Here).
  • It explores the way that depression warps a person’s sense of reality and their relationships with others
  • -It presents talking to other people, counselling and other treatments as good things (which is surprisingly rare)
  • It has romance, but it’s not an “I will live so I can be with my love!” story
  • It doesn’t end with a “now everything will always be better” message, but just the idea that struggling on is worthwhile.

The novel’s hook is that it’s about a physics geek girl and a popular basketball-playing boy who make a suicide pact together, with the chapters counting down to the day that they agreed to die. The concept initially felt a bit melodramatic to me, although a quick google reveals that it’s horrifyingly real, but the characters were compelling, and the writing was incredibly readable and relatable. There’s something obviously uncomfortable about reading a book where the protagonists are encouraging one another to die, and deciding NOT to die is seen as “weak,” but the novel uses this to explore the way that guilt and depression can twist everything around, so I think that it’s worth that discomfort in the end.

From the summary, it’s pretty easy to predict where the romance will come, and that is definitely one of the most troubling and interesting parts of the book. Whether you think the book properly engages with the problems inherent in this will definitely affect how you feel about it, but I at least thought the novel engaged with its grey areas without promoting them as healthy or, conversely, becoming too after-school special.

My Heart and Other Black Holes hit all the emotional notes just right, and dealt well with all the difficult moral questions that the concept of suicide partners raises. Most importantly, it never allows for the cliched idea that “they met to die but ended up saving one another.” They have to save themselves.

It’s compelling, it’s heart breaking, it’s hopeful, and it avoids a lot of the pitfalls that often trip up similar books. If you’re looking for a serious contemporary to read, this should be high on your list.

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Big Hero 6

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Big Hero 6 was finally released in the UK last week, which means that I finally got to see it. And it was almost as good as the hype from America suggested it would be. Almost.

Because Big Hero 6 is a fun movie, and a sad movie, and a wonderfully animated movie, and even a fantastically diverse movie, but it is slightly lacking in narrative structure.

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