Writing off Jennifer Weiner

I don’t know how it’s possible, but after reading this New Yorker profile “Written Off” by Rebecca Mead, I love Jennifer Weiner more than I did before reading it, although it’s widely being described as “a take-down” piece. The profile starts out fine, but about half-way through, the paragraph that starts “Weiner has also taken literary inspiration from her mother…” is the point where the whole thing just skates off the rails (Mead’s suggestion that Weiner’s lesbian characters are somehow anti-gay is bogus, small and unworthy of that publication) and Mead begins just coloring on the walls rather than finishing her work. I’m not sure whether I respect Mead’s audacity more for just saying “aw fuck it, I’m writing myself into a corner” in the middle of an article for The New Yorker, or The New Yorker’s for publishing it without fixing it, or apparently, even realizing it needs to be fixed.

This paragraph is so funny I had to get up and go to the bathroom and pee before I could finish:

A novel that tells of the coming of age of a young woman can command as much respect from the literary establishment as any other story. In 2013, Rachel Kushner was nominated for a National Book Award for her hard-edged exploration of this theme, “The Flamethrowers,” and the previous year Sheila Heti won accolades for her book “How Should a Person Be?,” even though it included both shopping and fucking. The novel, and the critical consensus around what is valued in a novel, has never excluded the emotional lives of women as proper subject matter. It could be argued that the exploration of the emotional lives of women has been the novel’s prime subject. Some of the most admired novels in the canon center on a plain, marginalized girl who achieves happiness through the discovery of romantic love and a realization of her worth. “My bride is here,” Mr. Rochester tells Jane Eyre, “because my equal is here, and my likeness.”

Emphasis very much mine. I can’t even with the Jane Eyre in a discussion of women in contemporary literature.

The thing that is almost entirely missing from this article is any detailed analysis of Jennifer Weiner’s case for re-thinking what is and what should be considered “literary merit.” Her critique is a serious (and valid) one, and not to be dismissed, but Mead attempts to ignore it almost completely, falling back on George Eliot’s 1856 essay to bolster the blinders she keeps, while ignoring the very points she lightly quotes about Weiner’s thoughts early on in the piece.

A loose paraphrasing of Weiner’s ideas:

  • that the two great contemporary literary themes “white men doing great things or failing in the attempt” and “oppressed peoples struggling against a harsh society” leave some serious gaps of examination of human experience
  • that white middle-class modern women’s life experiences (one of those missing pieces) are not just fluff (shopping and fucking? really?), and to dismiss them as such is fundamentally sexist
  • that regular, ordinary people really do, actually, often achieve happy endings, and this is valid literary subject matter
  • that literature doesn’t have to be painful to have great affect on us
  • and that taking comfort in things that are uplifting can actually lift us up, and that has value

If you change the lens on the microscope by which you analyze writing, both commercial and literary, with many of these ideas in mind, you realize quickly that contemporary literary criticism leaves a lot of worthy writing behind, especially the writing of women.

Mead dissects and dismisses several of Weiner’s books in this piece by refusing to think of them in this proposed new context, instead shoving them under the traditional lens of “The Old-Tymey Rules of What is Good Literature” while willfully ignoring that more and more women are successfully challenging the notion that these long accepted “Rules” have some serious bias in the way of both sexism and snobbishness. That Mead has to reach as far back as George Eliot and Charlotte Brontë to make her case in discussing a contemporary author and her place in contemporary literature says a great deal about how weak her case is.

I can’t imagine how Mead interviewed Weiner, read large sections of the woman’s twitter account, and listened to her speak about women, commercial fiction and the place of both in contemporary literature and yet got Weiner’s voice so very wrong. The woman is not exactly smoke and mirrors; there isn’t a facade there. Weiner’s pretty straight-forward, and it’s impossible to follow her on twitter for any length of time and not come to think of her as self-reflective and open. I can’t imagine how Mead spoke to her and didn’t come away seeing her as genuine, but she didn’t.

Mead also bolsters a wide-spread belief that “Jennifer Weiner has two audiences. One consists of the devoted consumers of her books, which have sold more than four and a half million copies…. Her other audience is made up of writers, editors, and critics.” Even Weiner apparently believes that to be true, and I guess she would know her own audience(s), but I find it hard to believe those two audiences are entirely separate. I definitely bridge that gap.

In the end, Mead decides that Weiner is just whining; that her work doesn’t deserve critical recognition, not because it’s viewed through a sexist and snobbish literary lens, but because of:

the perfunctory quality of some descriptive passages, or of the brittle mean-spiritedness that colors some character sketches. (Readers looking for fairness and kindness will not always find those attributes displayed by Weiner’s fictional creations.)

That was a jaw-dropping statement for me; that same statement could be could be made about sections of work from many contemporary male “literary giants” including Roth, Franzen, Eugenides, Chabon, David Foster Wallace, men who clearly receive great critical recognition, some of it deserved and sometimes not so much.

Mead goes out of her way at the end of the piece to tie Weiner back into her place as “chick lit” by describing in detail the women who come to have their books signed, and how they measure her books against what Mead clearly considers the irrelevant minutia of their own lives, an ending I found as lazy as most of the article.

Continue ReadingWriting off Jennifer Weiner

My DC Comics Pull List Purge

The only comment that DC Comics has made so far about the epic fuck-up that they have made with Batwoman and refusing to allow her to be married [Batwoman writers leave DC Comics over ban on same-sex marriage] is this:

“As acknowledged by the creators involved, the editorial differences with the writers of BATWOMAN had nothing to do with the sexual orientation of the character.”

This has been their statement to many media outlets, and is, apparently, in reference to this tweet by J.H. Williams:

Annnnnd here’s why that is complete and utter bullshit on the part of DC

Like it or not, comics are not immune to the political realities of the real world we live in. Comics don’t exist in a vacuum; they speak to us as readers because they have some significance to our everyday realities. Otherwise, why bother to introduce a gay character into a comic book at all? The point of course, is that we want to identify with the heroes of comics – that we want to related to them and imagine being them. For gay people, seeing a character like Kate Kane existing, carrying out her job and also balancing the realities of romantic relationships is appealing because it touches on our real lives. She has to go through some of the same difficulties and triumphs that we do in order to keep our attention.

And like it or not, same-sex marriage is a huge, emotionally-complex thing that we as LGBT people are dealing with. It has relevance to gay characters in comic books as much as it does to us in the real world. There’s just no way to side-step that issue with any gay character right now. And because of that, there is simply no way that you can separate the subject of Batwoman’s romantic relationship from her sexual orientation.

Because the character’s sexual orientation and romantic life are on the table as subject matter for the comic book, allowing or disallowing her to marry is inextricably bound to the current global climate on the subject of same-sex marriages. And banning her from getting married has a very different connotation than it does for heterosexual characters. There’s no way that doesn’t resonate with real people being banned from getting married and amplify the issue to all readers, no matter whether DC wants it to do so or not.

As Williams said, specifically for this character – “but it still should not be a story to be avoided, but embraced fully.” If you are going to have gay characters in comic books, marriage HAS to be addressed. There’s no way this subject CAN’T come up.

Two days have passed since this news hit the press. Comic Book Resources is running a poll – Will You Be Interested In “Batwoman” Once J.H. Williams & W. Haden Blackman Exit the Series? The current results stand at 83.6% – No. 16.4% – Yes.

Batwoman Rain

Given that there are 6,697 news articles on this issue currently out there on the web, almost all with some completely damning version of a headline like “Batwoman Writers Quit as DC Comics Prohibits Lesbian Marriage” I would have expected a much more complete and thoughtful response on the part of the company at damage control. But… apparently not. I’m not inclined to give the company any more time to craft a satisfactory response, given that they have been wrangling over the issue with Batwoman’s authors for quite some time on the issue, and they didn’t seem to be prepared with any sort of complete or statement about their position.

I can’t imagine they didn’t realize what a massive mistake this would appear to be, and yet… no real acknowledgement of their LGBT readers at all other than a terse statement.

My pull list from my local comics shop yesterday was this:

  • Ame Comi Girls
  • Batgirl (I’m so sorry to do this, Gail Simone)
  • Batwoman
  • Birds of Prey
  • Captain Marvel
  • Fearless Defenders
  • Katana
  • The Movement (Again, really sorry, Gail)
  • Red Sonja
  • Supergirl
  • World’s Finest (Power Girl & Huntress)
  • X-Men Now
  • Young Avengers Now

And my pull list as of this afternoon, when I dropped in to change things around:

  • Batwoman (until issue 26, the last Williams/Blackman book)
  • Captain Marvel
  • Fearless Defenders
  • FF (the fantastic four spin-off by Matt Fraction)
  • Hawkeye
  • Red Sonja (I had to keep at least one Gail Simone thing)
  • X-Men Now
  • Young Avengers Now

There are some other independent books that I’ll probably add in, too. I’ve been meaning to investigate other publishers, and now I’l have time for that.

It kills me that my childhood favorites – Wonder Woman and Batgirl – are no longer in my comic book reading, and that the thing that pulled me back into comic books after I stopped reading in college was the DC New 52 reboot. They got me back into comics, and then turned around and kicked me out again. So – good job, DC at attracting women to your readership, only to alienate them again and push them on to better work.

Continue ReadingMy DC Comics Pull List Purge

Batwoman writers leave DC Comics over ban on same-sex marriage

J.H. Williams III and Haden Blackman — longtime writers of the Batwoman comic book — are leaving DC Comics over a dispute about editorial changes to their planned story lines, including being forbidden to show the main character marrying her same-sex partner. Cross-posted by the authors to both author sites:

Unfortunately, in recent months, DC has asked us to alter or completely discard many long-standing storylines in ways that we feel compromise the character and the series. We were told to ditch plans for Killer Croc’s origins; forced to drastically alter the original ending of our current arc, which would have defined Batwoman’s heroic future in bold new ways; and, most crushingly, prohibited from ever showing Kate and Maggie actually getting married. All of these editorial decisions came at the last minute, and always after a year or more of planning and plotting on our end.

In response to questions about the issue, J.H. Williams clarified:

Batwoman Kiss

DC Comics has had serious problems in the past with public disputes with authors over comic book story lines. In December of last year, the comic book company fired fan favorite Batgirl writer Gail Simone only to turn around and rehire her after an embarrassing public backlash. Simone didn’t delve too deeply into specifics, but did say that last-minute editorial decisions and push-back on treatment of a transgender character were involved.

Back in 2010, DC Comics also had difficulties with the previous Batwoman writer/creator Greg Rucka over editorial control of his work on Batwoman. Except for saying ‘he realized that he “needs to [tell] the stories he wants to tell again,” rather than getting complacent at DC,’ Rucka didn’t get specific about what the issues with DC were, but in retrospect it seems safe to speculate that Batwoman’s love life may have had something to do with it.

DC Comics has also been embroiled in controversy about same-sex marriage issues in the past after they hired famous homophobe and same-sex marriage opponent Orson Scott Card to write a single-issue of a Superman comic. Public backlash caused the book to eventually be put on permanent hold when no artist was willing to work on the book due to the publicity.

For DC Comics, this is a fuck-up of epic proportions. The blog DC Women Kicking Ass suggests that it’s not necessarily a problem with homophobia but an anti-marriage-in-general stance on the part of DC, since they’ve broken up Superman’s marriage to Lois Lane and some other prominent super-hero marriages. I’m not sure whether I believe or care if that’s the issue. Another set of tweets between authors Gail Simone and J.H. Williams support that theory:

Tentatively, my plans are to keep getting Batwoman through the end of Williams/Blackman’s story arc – issue 26 – but after that, I’m going to cancel it. Based on the news over the next few days about this, I’m probably also going to cancel – right away – every other DC title I’m currently getting. I’m not going to continue supporting a company that seems to have such a public problem with gender and sexuality issues. I have better places to spend my money – like Marvel and independent publishers.

UPDATE: the only official statement from DC Comics, so far:

They may wish that, but it isn’t the case. The fact is that one of the only same-sex marriages in comics was just banned; there’s no way it could be about anything other than sexual orientation. It has huge implications. It was, as I said above, a fuck-up of epic proportions.

Continue ReadingBatwoman writers leave DC Comics over ban on same-sex marriage

Supergirl First

The case for why DC should tackle a Supergirl movie before a Wonder Woman movie.

I wrote a little bit a few weeks ago about the importance of getting the Wonder Woman storyline right when she is written in comics, books, television and movies. If I had a huge ego, I’d say the folks at DC Comics read what I wrote, (I’m sure they didn’t!) because Diane Nelson, new President of DC Comics just came out with a statement about writing Wonder Woman for the big screen in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter on DC Comics movie strategy over the next several years.

Nelson: We have to get her right, we have to. She is such an icon for both genders and all ages and for people who love the original TV show and people who read the comics now. I think one of the biggest challenges at the company is getting that right on any size screen. The reasons why are probably pretty subjective: She doesn’t have the single, clear, compelling story that everyone knows and recognizes. There are lots of facets to Wonder Woman, and I think the key is, how do you get the right facet for that right medium? What you do in TV has to be different than what you do in features. She has been, since I started, one of the top three priorities for DC and for Warner Bros. We are still trying right now, but she’s tricky.

I agree there are some pretty high stakes in getting a Wonder Woman movie off the ground. Unfortunately due to the world we live in, a failed Wonder Woman movie would be seen as the inability to sell any female superhero. Batman can bomb and get more movies. Superman can choke and still get another reboot. But Wonder Woman wouldn’t get another shot if her movie failed, because no one would be willing to take a critical look at why the movie failed; they’d just chalk it up to “women’s stories don’t sell” even though that would almost certainly not be the problem.

I don’t think the story line of Wonder Woman is all that tricky, really. For one thing – start without an origin story. Just drop her into the action – In medias res, kicking butt and taking names. Then make small references to her origin story where it’s absolutely needed, and leave the rest up in the air. Let it be a mystery you fill in about movie 2 or 3. Wouldn’t that be a fresh take on a superhero movie? Start by showing, not telling, and from the point of view of the average person on the street, who wouldn’t know or care about what’s going on on Mount Olympus, but who does give a crap about what’s happening around them.

Stop talking about gods and goddesses (especially when they get them all wrong) and just have Wonder Woman work on some issue of global injustice, especially one that relates to women. Also drop the “female superheroes get female super villains” trope (which I REALLY need to devote a whole blog post to!) and have her fighting some patriarchal cultural problem with male bad guys. Because look at the reality of the world – 85% of the time, the bad guys are men.

Go back to “the Amazons are alive and they’re good guys” stories of the Lynda Carter Wonder Woman era, but wait to reference why she left the island and all that until future movies. Then go back to the “clay baby” origin story, and the Perez origin story in particular. Compelling story lines could be made with those elements, without rubbing anyone – most especially me and other feminists – the wrong way. And really, for Batman and Superman, it’s important to tell their origin stories, because they’re pretty big babies, full of angst and woe. Wonder Woman is strong and confident and capable and doesn’t need an emotionally unstable childhood to explain her frame of reference.

Nothing is tricky about all that. What’s tricky is that there are a bunch of men involved in DC Comics who really don’t want any of those story lines to happen, because they’re pretty sexist and can’t manage to reconcile good storytelling, what the public wants to see in a superhero movie, and what they need to uphold for the integrity of Wonder Woman as a cultural icon. That’s not a problem with Wonder Woman; that’s a failure of imagination with DC Comics staff. If I were a betting sort of girl, I’d bet that the Joss Whedon story that got canned was something along the lines of what I outlined above. (I am a betting sort of girl, BTW.)

I kind of agree that I’d rather not see them bomb with Wonder Woman. So I’ve been writing in every comments section I can find about what I think they should do – start with another female character. Specifically; start with Supergirl.

Supergirl by Chillyplasma
Supergirl by Chillyplasma

There are some good reasons for doing it that way:

  1. Supergirl already had a fairly successful movie that people like many years ago.
  2. They just had a very successful Superman movie come out recently.
  3. Supergirl is pretty straightforward, if they use the very popular Candor/Identity origin story. The advantage of that would also be Angry Supergirl, and nothing is better than Angry Supergirl. If you’re writing Angry Supergirl, she can be “Ripley in Aliens” badass, and she could tackle a lot of cool global issues story lines.
  4. Casting would be easy, because they answer is a really obvious one: Dianna Agron. She looks the part, and she does Angry Face really well. She’s also a competent actress that could carry a movie if she’s given a consistent and well-written role, unlike anything she was handed on Glee.
  5. I love Supergirl almost as much as I love Batgirl, and slightly more than I love Wonder Woman. And everyone should make me happy at all times.
  6. A good Supergirl movie would set the stage for Wonder Woman nicely. You could do something interesting like just have Wonder Woman show up at the end of the movie to invite Kara Zor-El to hang out at Paradise Island for awhile, setting up the “in medias res” story for Wonder Woman that I outlined above.

Dianna Agron

Who knows, maybe the powers at DC Comics are reading my blog and some of these ideas will wind up on screen. Probably not. But I can dream.

Continue ReadingSupergirl First

Wonder Woman as a feminist icon, and DC Comics’ moral obligation to do better

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Or – How DC Comics is wasting the best character they own and acting like 5-year-old idiots making jokes about Superman and Wonder Woman boning while they fly.

First, let’s start off by putting Wonder Woman in the right context.

Wonder Woman is the most important character that DC Comics owns. She’s bigger than Superman. She’s bigger than Batman. She’s bigger than the DC universe, and bigger than comic books themselves. Wonder Woman is the fictional, graphic novel equivalent of Susan B. Anthony. Or Martin Luther King, Jr. She’s a beloved feminist icon, symbolic of women in a way that no male superhero could ever be for men. Wonder Woman is the only superhero character that could, if she were written well, change the course of human history.

Wonder Woman comics, written well, could affect the lives of women and little girls around the world. Wonder Woman’s stories could influence how people think about girls and education. About rape as a tool of war. About female genital mutilation. About honor killings. About sex trafficking and sexual slavery. About women and girls as leaders. About female scientists and athletes and artists and astronauts. Wonder Woman has the power to inform our way of thinking, to shine a spotlight on the bleakness that is the existence of 80% of the female population on the planet. This is a dangerous and often miserable world to live in for 51% of the human beings on this planet. Wonder Woman has the power to transform that.

Wonder Woman

The power of the written word to move nations, to topple dictatorships, to change lives, has been proven over and over in history, even up to and include the present day. Written well, Wonder Woman comics could put a thumbprint on human history, to the effect that 200 years from now, she would be a point of discussion in our history books – the one and only comic book character that could possibly achieve that. Superman could never fly off the page that way. Batman couldn’t climb up and out of comics and into history like that. We know about male power. We know about men’s ability to manipulate, control and dominate through force; Superman and Batman have nothing new to show us. Those things are already real in the world today.

We don’t know about what women can achieve, given open opportunities and the power to make our own destinies. We may have *some* idea of that here in the United States, and in Europe. But so many of the women in our world live without any hope of opportunity. Wonder Woman is the only comic book character that has the power to transcend the medium, any medium, and take up a place in our thoughts as a symbol of the possibilities of women.

So what is this nonsense about flying and boning?

Well, Wonder Woman is finally getting a second comic book. This happens with “big” characters – Superman has multiple comics, as does Batman. Flash has also had more than one comic book. Wonder Woman has long been considered one of the “Big Three” of DC Comics, so it’s fitting that she finally gets a second book.

Except that her “second book” is not really hers – she’s taking second billing with Superman. And it’s a romance book. And they’re a couple. And the writers of the book are on twitter, making jokes about how fun it will be to write about the two of them having sex while they fly around.

Yeah. Lots of important work to do, but lets write ridiculous stories about super-powered sex. Because of course. That’s the first thing I would do, if I knew how to fly. I would screw, up in the clouds.

Never mind rescuing women from rape in the Congo. Never mind building schools for girls in the middle east and Africa. Never mind preventing girls being sold into sexual slavery in Thailand. Or building an underground railroad for lesbian and gay people to get out of Uganda before they’re slaughtered wholesale. Or, for everyone’s sake, kicking Vladamir Putin in the nads.

No, lets screw in the air! Yay! What better things could superheroes possible do?

I’m completely mystified by what DC Comics thinks they are doing with this character. It’s like they don’t even understand what they own. They’re like five-year-olds playing with a mack truck. They have the ability to do so much good, and yet they’re completely oblivious to what they hold in their hands.

Continue ReadingWonder Woman as a feminist icon, and DC Comics’ moral obligation to do better

Favorite Quotes – Mario Savio

There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop! And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it — that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!

— Mario Savio

Mario Savio

Continue ReadingFavorite Quotes – Mario Savio

Wikipedia Is Quietly Moving Women Off Their American Novelist Page

From Jezebel: Wikipedia Is Quietly Moving Women Off Their American Novelist Page

If you go to Wikipedia’s page for American Novelists, you might notice something strange: Of the first 100 authors listed, only a small handful of them are women. You could potentially blame this on the fact that there simply are more famous male authors than there are female (a-whole-nother can of worms), but the real reasoning is much more intentional. Wikipedia editors have slowly been moving female authors to a subcategory called American Women Novelists so that the original list isn’t at risk of “becoming too large.” Bad luck, ladies. They need to make room and someone has to go first. Why shouldn’t it be unimportant literary folk like Harper Lee, Harriet Beecher Stowe or Louisa May Alcott?

Novelist Amanda Filipacchi was the one who — very recently — first cottoned on to what Wikipedia was doing. The edits, she noticed, have been happening gradually and mostly alphabetically by last name though in a few special cases the editors jumped ahead because they just couldn’t wait for R and T to get Ayn Rand and Donna Tartt off the list. Filipacchi herself was one of the authors to get booted to the subcategory.

More reporting on this:

Wikipedia’s Sexism Toward Female Novelists [New York Times]

“American women novelists” segregated by Wikipedia [Salon]

Continue ReadingWikipedia Is Quietly Moving Women Off Their American Novelist Page