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Revolutions, Revelations and Angelica Schuyler

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It’s hard to talk about Hamilton’s Angelica without thinking about Eponine, that other figure of unrequited love in a smash hit musical. But once you’ve noted that they both sing a song about the guy they don’t end up with, the similarities pretty much end. Eponine, for all her iconicness, is the prototypical waif. She sadly wanders the streets, dreaming of love from the guy who doesn’t love her back, before dying tragically in a futile attempt to help him.

Angelica is not having any of that nonsense. Her story isn’t so much one of unrequited love than one of regret. She chooses to step aside and introduce Alexander to Eliza, partly because she overthinks the situation and judges things wrong, and partly because she values her sister’s happiness over her own. Her song is one of agency, of decision making and complex emotions, rather than just wistful sadness.

Even the song titles show how different they are. Eponine is on her own, lamenting her helplessness. Angelica has created this situation herself, because of ambition and overthinking, because she can never be satisfied.

And, of course, there’s Angelica’s moment in The Reynolds Pamphlet: “I’m not here for you.” Yes, Eliza has a connection to Alexander, and yes, he’s important to her, but her priority is Eliza. She’s a Schuyler sister first and always.

But although Angelica is a fantastic reinvention of the Eponine trope, is this the best thing that Hamilton could have done with her character? The musical clearly presents Angelica as a strongminded badass with political opinions and a lot to say, but (understandably) her actions in the musical are mostly focussed around Alexander. But Angelica was also close to Jefferson and was a fabulous urbane influencer for most of her life. Like she hopes in The Schuyler Sisters, she befriended Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and Lafayette while in France, and even introduced Jefferson to the Federalist Papers. She was so politically-minded that she took the dangerous journey back to the US in 1789 to see Washington’s inauguration, and she took many political actions herself, including helping victims of the French Revolution, and writing to Washington for help when Lafayette was sent to an Austrian prison. Her letters to and from various revolutionary leaders are important documents about the period.

She was also something of a rebel, eloping with John Church in 1777 because her father didn’t approve of the marriage. This isn’t all to say that she was some modern-day feminist, misplanted in time, not least because there’s evidence that her husband was a slave-owner himself. But she is a fascinating figure, with a much bigger role to play in the story of the founding of America than as the sister in love with Alexander Hamilton.

To be honest, I kind of want a musical about her. A Hamilton sequel, maybe? Please, Lin-Manuel Miranda?

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Long May She Reign is out now!

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My new fantasy novel, Long May She Reign, is out in the world!

Here’s the official summary:

The Girl of Fire and Thorns meets The Queen of the Tearling in this thrilling fantasy standalone about one girl’s unexpected rise to power.

Freya was never meant to be queen. Twenty-third in line to the throne, she never dreamed of a life in the palace, and would much rather research in her laboratory than participate in the intrigues of the court. However, when an extravagant banquet turns deadly and the king and those closest to him are poisoned, Freya suddenly finds herself on the throne.

She may have escaped the massacre, but she is far from safe. The nobles don’t respect her, her councillors want to control her, and with the mystery of who killed the king still unsolved, she knows that a single mistake could cost her the kingdom—and her life.

Freya is determined to survive, and that means uncovering the murderers herself. Until then, she can’t trust anyone. Not her advisers. Not the king’s dashing and enigmatic illegitimate son. Not even her own father, who always wanted the best for her but also wanted more power for himself.

As Freya’s enemies close in and her loyalties are tested, she must decide if she is ready to rule and, if so, how far she is willing to go to keep the crown.

And here’s my less official summary. Long May She Reign is a murder mystery set in a fantasy world with a science nerd for a protagonist. It’s full of court drama and schemes, with Freya using her science skills and experiments to help her figure out how to survive this strange and dangerous new world. It’s also a story of best friends, of discovering the value of all different kinds of strength, of social anxiety and depression, of the flaws of thinking “not like other girls,” and, most importantly, of really cute fluffy cats.

If you’re interested in learning more about the book, I wrote a post on HarperStacks about the science of Long May She Reign, and I have a post going up on my personal blog later today about the weird mishmash of things that inspired the book, from phantasmagoria to The Great British Bakeoff.

If you’d like to check it out, you can find all the links here. And if you do pick it up, I hope you enjoy it. <3

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But it’s just a joke!

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Okay. Let’s talk about Pewdiepie and the “it’s just a joke” defense.

Quick intro, for the unaware. Pewdiepie is a gamer and the most popular creator on Youtube, with over 50 million subscribers. In recent years, he’s been curating a persona of Youtube’s Biggest Troll, and has been increasingly making “shock” jokes that are racist, sexist or otherwise offensive. Then, a couple of weeks ago, he made a video where he paid two men $5 on the freelance site Fiverr to film themselves holding up an incredibly anti-semitic sign (the link, like all the links in this post, is not to the video, but to a website unaffiliated with Pewdiepie). This was just one of a string of recent videos with anti-semitic language and Nazi imagery, which, of course, he claims were jokes. But it’s not been so funny to Disney, who cancelled their creative partnership with Pewdiepie in response on Monday night. Or, apparently, to Youtube themselves, who have now cancelled the second season of his premium Youtube Red show, Scare Pewdiepie, and revoked his place in their elite advertising program, Google Preferred.

Pewdiepie, of course, said that the Fiverr video was a statement on society — to show “that people on Fiverr would say anything for 5 dollars” — and that he does not support “any kind of hateful attitudes.” “I make videos for my audience. I think of the content that I create as entertainment, and not as a place for any serious political commentary. I know my audience understand that.”

But the most important part of his denial and apology, to me, was this final statement:

“As laughable as it is to believe that I might actually endorse these people, to anyone unsure on my standpoint regarding hate-based groups: No, I don’t support these people in any way.”

I, at least, believe him. Or I believe that he believes everything he’s saying, to the point that he never considered he would get serious backlash for this. Although Pewdiepie makes racist, sexist and anti-semitic jokes, I doubt they represent the beliefs of Felix Kjellberg, the real Swedish guy behind the channel. Everyone knows that Youtubers create personas, and although I’ve never liked Pewdiepie’s gaming content, I’ve seen Felix appear plenty of times in the daily vlogs of his girlfriend Marzia, and he comes off as a completely likeable, caring, normal guy. Obviously, that could be fake almost as easily as his Pewdiepie character, but it at least gives the impression that he’s a very different individual in real life from the one who plays games in front of a camera.

But even if that’s true, even if Felix Kjellberg is one of the nicest and kindest people you’re ever likely to meet, even if he means absolutely no harm… that doesn’t matter. His jokes are still harmful.

Felix claims that it is “laughable” that he could mean any of the hateful jokes he makes, and I think this disconnect in perspective is one of the main reasons that people use “but it’s a joke” as a defense. “It’s a joke” memesters see the world as a much nicer place than it is, where these jokes are counter-cultural, rather than maintaining systems of oppression. In their view, these hateful things are so extreme that no real person would actually believe them. The entire joke is based on that extremeness. And you have to be really oversensitive to take offense, because who in their right mind would actually mean these things? Clearly it’s a joke. It’s like an extreme form of deadpan sarcasm, relying on the mutual understanding that whatever is being said is shockingly outrageous and that the joker believes precisely the opposite.

And it falls apart because that mutually understanding does not exist when broadcasting to an audience of millions around the world.

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You Need To Watch Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

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I thought I was super late to the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend party, but turns out the ratings say otherwise, and since the finale of season two just aired and it’s all available to watch on Netflix…

Oh my god, you need to watch Crazy Ex Girlfriend.

Crazy Ex Girlfriend is laugh out loud funny, with great characters and heaps of diversity and originality. The colors are bright, the songs are catchy, and somehow, underneath that, it’s a serious treatment of mental illness with far better representation than you usually ever see.

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Not Loving La La Land

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La La Land  is the darling of Hollywood right now. It’s received the most Oscar nominations in history, tied with All About Eve and Titanic at 14, and it has good odds of sweeping many of the biggest awards. And as much as I want Lin Manuel Miranda to get his EGOT, even I couldn’t be unhappy with a victory for Audition as Best Song.

So, for the first time in many years, I actually went to see an Oscar-nominated movie. A beloved musical should have been a guaranteed hit for me. But after seeing La La Land, I’m mostly just confused. Yes, Sebastian and Mia’s theme is gorgeous, and I absolutely love Audition, and the colors are amazing, but overall… La La Land is boring. It has a great concept, but the actual execution of the plot felt lacking. It’s as though the movie needed another editing run to bring the characters and their struggles into focus and allow it to meet its potential. As is, it felt like a bunch of musical set-pieces, and not much emotion in between.

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Dean for Gilmore Girls is (Not Quite) The Worst

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Since I maligned Jess a couple of weeks ago, it seems only fair to turn my attention to Rory’s other high school boyfriend, Dean.

And god, I hate to say it, because I’ve always hated Dean, but… I think he may be a better boyfriend and person in general than Jess. I know. That’s more of a statement of how awful Jess is than anything in praise of Dean, but it still feels wrong to say.

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Tropes, Intentions, and Critical Role

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Whenever writers get criticized for invoking troubling tropes in their stories, there’s one excuse that crops up more than any other: “this was where the story needed to go.” Yes, many other stories have shoved girlfriends in fridges or killed off the lesbian characters or had the black guy die first, but they weren’t thinking of that when they were writing this story. The story told them that this needed to happen, for the good of the narrative, and so that’s what happened.

It’s almost as though the writers have no say in where the story goes. The narrative takes over their brain, and any critical thinking ability or chance of reflecting on things vanishes. There’s no editing, no critical thought, just the all-powerful Story.

This has always struck me as complete nonsense, since no matter how “in the moment” a writer might be when creating a first draft, they have plenty of editing time afterwards to consider a story’s implications. But I’ve been thinking about it in more depth recently, inspired by my new favorite thing to recommend to people, whether they want to hear about it or not, Critical RoleCritical Role is half improv show, half radio play, built around the mechanics of Dungeons and Dragons. Not only is the story mostly improvised, but it happens in reaction to the randomness of dice rolls. Who lives, who dies, who tells their story… in the end, the dice decide. For once, the writers really don’t have total control.

And one moment sticks in my mind, from several months ago now. (Spoilers for episode 68, Cloak and Dagger). Once upon a time, a character called Vax struck a fanboy on the head, knocking him out, to show him how out of his league he was and warn him not to get messed up in the sort of stuff that the protagonists of Critical Role face. About 50 episodes later, that kid shows up again, allied with some of their enemies, and in the ensuing fight, he almost kills Vax’s girlfriend, Keyleth. She doesn’t die, but it’s close, and she only survives because the dice rolls come out in her favor.

It was a really interesting narrative moment for me, because it had great unplanned narrative symmetry, a consequence of Vax’s harsh actions coming back to bite him after so long. If it were planned, it would be compelling, but also troubling, as a female character was killed off for a male character’s story arc. Unplanned, it might actually represent that unseen pure case that writers often attempt to invoke, where “that’s just where the story wanted to go.”

The hypothetical has stuck in my head for months since the episode aired, precisely because I’m wondering how I would have reacted to this trope actually appearing by accident. Would it still have bugged me? Would the fact that she’s an independent character controlled by her own actress have changed how things felt? Intention isn’t magical, but to what extent does invoking a trope by accident excuse the troublesome implications? It didn’t happen, so it’s all hypothetical, and I won’t dig into it too deeply, because I think it’ll make my head explode with all its problems and contradictions.

But one thing I know is that, even if the story had come together completely randomly, it wouldn’t have stopped the idea that a female character dying to enhance a male character’s story is troubling. That the actors would have needed to handle things carefully, both during and afterwards, to ensure that Keyleth’s death had remained a key part of Keyleth’s story, and not been all about Vax’s mistakes and the consequences on him. And if pure random chance doesn’t completely override the context of troubling tropes, regular storytelling methods have no excuse.

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The Forest: Turning Cultural Insensitivity into an Artform

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I think most people know of The Forest for the same reasons I did. It stars Natalie Dormer of Game of Thrones fame, and it sparked controversy because of its use of Aokigahara Forest, a real place near Mount Fuji in Japan where many people commit suicide every year.

As a non-horror movie watcher anyway, it wasn’t even vaguely on my “to watch” radar. But then it showed up on Netflix, and my friend and I couldn’t decide on what to watch on a lazy Sunday afternoon, and Natalie Dormer was there, and, well. You know. I’ll probably watch less than ten movies this year, and now The Forest is one of them.

Here’s the thing: The Forest is horrifically insensitive. Despite the troubling set-up, there are ways that it could have been at least arguably interesting. If it had been a purely psychological thriller, instead of a supernatural one, with well-developed characters, cultural understanding, and a sensitive approach to suicide, this might have been a decent movie. But by making the threat supernatural, The Forest managed to invoke “Japan is creepy and magical” tropes while also exploiting suicides and throwing aside any psychological insight or message for cheap and lazy scares.

The story is that American Sara has come to Japan in search of her missing twin sister, Jess. Jess has been suicidal before, and after a school trip to Aokigahara Forest, she has disappeared. Sara is determined to find her.

Despite Sara’s apparently admirable determination to help her sister, the actual story here is one of a white foreigner who dies because of her cultural insensitivity and her refusal to believe that the people who actually live in an area might know what they’re talking about. That kid is just crazy superstitious. And that woman. And the person who works in the park. And that other person who works in the park. And the people saying don’t leave the path. And the people saying don’t stay in the forest overnight. And, and, and. It’s an ever-escalating story of ‘are you serious, Sara??’ And perhaps there’s something in there, just as there might have been something in Sara’s relationship to Jess, and the subtle implication (or completely accidental message) that Jess doesn’t exist, and this is all a psychological thriller about her a girl who disassociated from her experiences after a traumatic event. You know, something at least a little bit interesting. Hints of potential. You get the feeling that maybe a Japanese movie with a psychological bent may have done something worthwhile here.

But the insensitivity on both a cultural and mental health level is off the charts. There is, of course, the innate insensitivity of taking a place where many, many people have died, and still die, and using it as a setting for a supernatural horror movie. The movie uses suicide as a jumpscare multiple times, and although hanging bodies is staple in horror movies, they carry a slightly different tone when they’re connected to real people who really died recently. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that, when Sara Googles the forest, the movie uses real photographs of the bodies of victims. Real deaths, real pain, to set the scene for cheap horror. That’s the kind of IMDB “fun fact” that would ruin even an otherwise pretty decent movie.

Then, of course, there’s the suggestion that people in the forest only kill themselves because evil spirits trick them into it. Could you have a decent movie where suicidal thoughts are metaphorically represented by dark spirits haunting a person? Sure. But this is not that movie. We’re told, from the very beginning, that the forest wants to kill people. It grabs onto sad people and lures them to death. It’s even strongly suggested that Jess was lured into the forest by the spirits, rather than her actually intending to be suicidal, despite her apparent past. The movie ends with Sara killing herself accidentally, because the ghosts play tricks on her mind and make her think she’s fighting off a demon, when she’s really just cutting herself.

The basic premise of The Forest is pretty unsalvageable, on a sensitivity level, but there are ways it could have been better. If they pushed the psychological angle, if they had explored the effect that Sara’s traumatic childhood experiences had on her more explicitly, if, if if. If the Japanese characters had more than bit parts. If it was a Japanese movie. If it was set somewhere fictional, for god’s sake. If it didn’t treat Japan as a foreign land of magic and creepiness.

If you’re going to tell a story about a difficult subject, do it right. Try to approach it from a place of sensitivity and understanding. The Forest is cultural appropriation and insensitivity of the worst kind, because it does it lazily, callously, throwing a bunch of elements together without the slightest nod towards the idea that any of it has any connection to real life. It’s not that The Forest tried to tell a sensitive story and messed up. It’s that The Forest didn’t care, and never cared.

I knew we should have watched Spiceworlinstead.

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Jess from Gilmore Girls is the Worst

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It’s true. When I watched Gilmore Girls as a teenager, I loved Jess. I just wanted him and Rory to live happily ever after. I guess he was cute, and he read a lot, and he could talk really passionately about books, and that was all I needed. Even when watching the Netflix revival, my inner teen squeed when Jess finally appeared on screen.

But I’ve just finished rewatching Season Three for the first time in years and years, and it’s official. Jess is the worst. Like, the actual, literal worst. What was teen!me thinking? How does he have such an important place in so many viewers’ hearts?

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