Friday, November 28, 2008

Mary Sues Me for Violating Bechdel's Law

I'm writing a screenplay. (Actually, no I'm not, but just play along, okay? the magician says as he reveals the trick before the show.)
Mary is a cheerful, athletic woman with only one dream: to play football in the NFL.

She's buff and energetic, but at a distinct disadvantage against some of the huge testosterone factories they breed for the game. Still, she wants to try, wants to give it her all, wants to live the dream.

First she must fight the system that prevents women from playing on men's sporting teams right out of the gate; overcoming that she must deal with the prejudices and sexism from managers, coaches and fellow players. Most of all, for her own dream, she must not only withstand all this but also go out there and play a badass game of football, proving to herself and everyone else that even if she isn't the best, she can be a valuable addition to a team.

Scores the winning touchdown, gains grudging admiration, roll credits.

Whattya think? Could be, from a feminist perpective, powerful and uplifting, hm? And heck, maybe it could attract some non-feminists with the prospect of a sweaty woman hitting the showers. Or maybe the yaoi enthusiasts, if the showers are co-ed.

Anyway. If you're not fond of football (heaven knows I'm not), just plug Mary in to some other male-dominated profession. First woman surgeon, if you want a historical piece, maybe?

No, maybe it's not an entirely original plot, though I've only heard of it in kid/teen/young adult fare, the girl who wants to play sports as an equal with the guys, at least as far as the rougher sports go. (If you have heard of some "woman joins the NFL" movie, feel free to mention it.)

The only problem with this premise, from a feminist standpoint, is that it doesn't live up to Bechdel's Rule. Or rather, it could, but doing so would be incidental to the purpose of the story. After all, the focus is on Mary and the people she finds in the NFL, which one assumes will be a mostly male group. So right there, it's quite possible that the very first part of the rule is broken: At Least Two Women. You could shoehorn Mary's friends or members of her family in there, or introduce some woman character in the managerial staff as a foil, but that has nothing to do with the main plot, it's just window dressing.

The other parts of the rule, Who Talk To Each Other About Something Besides a Man, would likewise be superfluous to advancing the story, and particularly difficult, if Mary's trying to unload her frustrations over male behavior during her quest.

There's been quite a bit of citing Bechdel's Rule over time, but it's worth keeping in mind that many rules such as this one have their flaws, and it's probably not a good idea to treat them as absolutes. (Hint: do you call it Bechdel's Rule, or Bechdel's Law?) Not only does one have to reject Mary's story if you strictly adhere to the rule, but how does it work in a practical sense? In the original strip, the rule is presented as the only conditions under which a movie is watched: how do you know beforehand whether the movie complies with the rule? Do you send in people with lesser standards to vet the movie for you? Or does it all boil down to some sort of binary pass/fail judgment after the fact?

You know what it reminds me of? There's a stereotype about men and women watching movies that's common enough that it crops up in commercials and popular media a lot these days. You know the one, where a couple has gone to see some movie the woman is really interested in, and the movie turns out to be some overwrought "chick flick" with drama and romance and tears (for bonus points, make it a foreign art film), while the guy is bored out of his mind, wishing he was watching something with a greater quantity of naked breasts and explosions.

It's actually a form of prejudice, taken at face value. Certainly if you're determined to only watch movies that live up to a predetermined set of guidelines so that you're never ever annoyed by your entertainment choices, hey, that's your call. But in the end, Bechdel's Rule serves only the concern of feminism or female empathy with female characters, it says nothing about the quality of the story itself.

In a similar vein, I'm getting pretty tired of hearing "Mary Sue" being used by people critiquing various media.

Look, there's only a few instances where I think that phrase is an appropriate way to critique something: One, if you're discussing fan-based works, and two, if you're a submissions editor.

The term, after all, originated in fanfic and fans who submitted ideas to the owners of popular franchises. "Mary Sue was so perfect and wonderful that both Spock and Kirk fell in love with her and argued about who would escort her to the Starfleet Cotillion", or whatever. Fans who wanted to bend existing characters to their will, make them submit to whatever fetishes they harbor, by providing an extraordinary foil as a catalyst.

Which may be interesting to the fanfic writer and whoever shares their particular kink, but is usually pointless and boring to everyone else. Not to mention that Paramount (or whoever owns whichever franchise is being fanfic'ed) isn't likely to embrace these creations. The label does have its uses.

But lately I'm seeing "Mary Sue" applied to a very wide variety of things, many of which are sanctioned by the owners of whatever franchise is being used, or even fully original works made by a single creator. And the variety of offenses qualifying as "Mary Sue" has expanded as well, to encompass not only that which plays to fannish wish-fulfillment but characters that simply display a lot of extraordinary qualities.

And that's silly. It's doubly silly when applied to superheroes, which are by definition extraordinary. And like Bechdel's Rule, the standards are too often applied as a prejudicial checklist with little regard for the quality of a story.

After all, Superman is the quintessential example of the Mary Sue character, nearly unbeatable for much of his fictional career, with token achilles' heels to offset the fact that he can move planets. But the things that some would call him a "Mary Sue" over do not prevent writers from making interesting stories with the character, even if it is a bit more difficult and challenging to provide meaningful conflict.

And if "armchair psychiatry" is considered a faux pas, then the charges of "Mary Sue" that imply the author is inserting their own self into a story must rely on the critic sinking deep into that overstuffed La-Z-Boy; how can one know these things unless the author confesses?

What I would like to impress upon anyone who bothers to read this far is that personal dislike is not, in and of itself, effective critique. I suspect too many lean on rules and labels, not as general guidelines, but as crutches to avoid the hard work of serious thought regarding the substance of what they read or watch.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Yaoi Told You So


Neil Gaiman comments on the recent obscenity case from Iowa, and it turns out there's not only lolicon involved, but yaoi as well.

Remember me telling you that this case could have broader implications than "ew, he's a perv that likes little girls"?

Well now it does.

I will be really interested to see how yaoi fans choke down this conflict between having their own fetish on trial for obscenity with any distaste they feel for lolicon material.