Exclusion As Default: Female Geeks

shattersnipe: malcontent & rainbows

A couple of years ago, while attending an SFF convention, I made the mistake of participating in a geek trivia contest. Normally, I love this sort of thing, even when I lose badly: I spent a not inconsiderable portion of my tweens and teens playing the original edition of Trivial Pursuit for fun, despite the fact that even the most “recent” events on the cards were all older than me by more than a decade. My parents used to beat me hollow, but I loved it, because I always felt like I learned something. So, understandably, I embarked on this particular quiz with a feeling of optimism. I didn’t care that it was billed as “ridiculously hard” – I just wanted to have a good time, and maybe learn some cool, obscure facts about the history of SFF. Instead, the whole thing quickly became the single worst experience I’ve ever had at…

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How Genre Television Can Help Diversify Media

Homogeneity is boring. 

In honor of Women’s History Month, #blackout, and the never-ending excellence that is Mindy Kaling’s TV show (season 4 please!), I wanted to explore not only the lack of diversity in traditional media forms, but also brainstorm a few ways to fix it. Right now, I am an avid television watcher, so we’re going to start there.

In the last 10 years or so, television has really found its high ground. The quality, depth, and artistry of shows has increased exponentially, and seems to have a much larger audience than film. Right now, I think television has eclipsed film in terms of the complexity and resonance of the stories it can tell.1 It hasn’t reached the same prestige as film yet, but as anyone who complained about Oscars snubs for the last three years would tell you, that has absolutely nothing to do with quality.

Much of this increase in quality can be tied to advances in technology, such as DVDs, that allowed fans of TV shows to go back and watch entire seasons of show in sequence at their own leisure. Shows that built worlds and characters dynamically over their runs were (and are) much more likely to attract this kind of fanbase. Television was suddenly dependent on continuity- a consistency in the small and big details that make up a fictional world throughout multiple stories. Episodes were no longer independent from one another. Stories were built to last over the course of an entire season.

Most of today’s best shows have two levels of story operating simultaneously. The first level, is the basic story arc for each episode: beginning, middle, end. This level has been present in every show since television became a storytelling medium. Even some reality TV shows or instructional shows use variants of this form: introduce challenge or task, tackle challenge or task, and then reveal the results of the struggle. TV on an episodic level is no different from the way human beings have told stories forever.

The second level is one unique to serialized storytelling: the development of plot or characters over the course of a season or series. Events or even full episodes form the framework for a story arc, which unlike stories told on the episodic level, do not have to flow continuously together. A key example is the Ying-Yang trio of episodes from the USA Network show Psych. Each of these episodes form a complete story alone: someone is murdered, the murderer leaves clues, the police investigate the clues, the murderer seems to have the upper hand, justice prevails. However, when examined together, these three episodes form another story arc: Shawn’s growth as a human being.  Shawn starts and ends a relationship, while further confirming that he truly values his best friend.

Television shows give enough space to allow characters to grow in complex and organic ways. It also can explore more characters than many other mediums. This presents a massive opportunity for representations of people uncommon in mainstream media. There are so many characters to cast, and so much time to develop them. Shows like New Girl, Community, The Mindy Project, Jane the Virgin, and the lovely Shonda Rhimes lineup are already taking advantage of the part of the human population that isn’t a white male (so, the rest of the population). But the most popular (and overdone) genre shows are not. The biggest offenders, in my opinion, are crime procedurals and sci-fi/fantasies, who have so little excuse for using a majority white cast that the long term lack of diversity on these shows is frustrating (Hello, NCIS, CSI, Criminal Minds, Once Upon a Time, and American Horror Story).

Moreover, many people believe that we won’t get true diversity until the race of an actor has absolutely nothing to do with their character. These people are of the opinion that racial identity bogs stories down (e.g., this review of 2014 from The A.V. Club). This is the biggest BS I have ever heard. The whole point of increasing diversity in media is to expand the stories and characters it can tell. Taking race out of a character’s identity is only relevant in some fantasy worlds where it has no effect on where that character comes from. Additionally, gender, age, orientation, and the bit that often gets left off: where a character is from, all enrich characters and stories. Here, I’m laying out a challenge to television writers and producers:

USE ALL OF THE PARTS OF THE BUFFALO. And by buffalo, I mean the incredibly diverse and beautiful country in which we live. All ages, races, genders, orientations, places of origin, etc.

In my next few blog posts, I’ll look at how writers use race when they’re feeling lazy, and how the various genres could use diversity to improve themselves immensely. Stay tuned!

P.S. Here’s a link to a study on diversity representation in Hollywood, for those who are interested.

This Week in Comic Book Television: Arrow, Flash, and Agents of Shield.

So, as a science fiction/fantasy fangirl, I’ve been following these three shows pretty loyally since they started. (Except for Arrow, which I found mid-season 1, but okay.) I know the storylines. I know the characters.

I also know that if you’re not watching these, this Christmas is the time to catch up, before you miss all the awesomeness that is coming.

[Mind you major SPOILERS ahead for all three shows. So you’re warned.]

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Let’s start with the newbie, the Flash. Barry Allen’s Central City is the fun, quirky, less-jaded cousin to Starling City, and that’s fantastic, because too much dark depressing angst will kill your soul. Furthermore, it doesn’t feel the need to give up on some of those real human moments because it’s happy, and that’s even better.

The real kicker here: Dr. Wells. He purposefully chose Barry Allen. He seems handicapped, but can walk. He beat that one guy up, because reasons. He has the same yellow Flash suit as the so-called Reverse Flash. He also KNOWS THE FUTURE. This whole season has been one big Dr. Wells tease, and you should really get in on this so you can wait in anticipation for the reveal like the rest of us.

Switching networks to ABC, Agents of Shield has been telling us since day one that Skye’s real identity, i.e. her family, was important. So the Obelisk reveal, and meeting her father felt like a good solid pay-off. And then she got super powers. And Triplett died. It was heart-wrenching, almost as bad as watching Fitz and Simmons this season. (Where have the happy days gone, Mutant Enemy? Oh where?) But I will give that as much as I still secretly ship Skye and Ward, as much as I know he’s an evil psycho, there was something very satisfying in watching her shoot him. They might be even now, but I highly doubt he sees it that way. I cannot wait to see where he goes.

Last but not least, this week’s Arrow began by putting a timelock on the “Who killed Sarah?” mystery, something that will only benefit everyone in the long run.  The Thea reveal, much like the Skye reveal, felt natural and accounted for. But then the writers went crazy.

They stabbed Oliver Queen and pushed him off a cliff. In case anyone hasn’t noticed, he’s the Arrow. As in the name of the show. Which means they’re going to either have to come up with some crazy way to resurrect him, play out the rest of Arrow as a flashback (please no, as they are my least favorite bit of this show), or invent some ridiculous “it was all a dream” or “hallucinogens” theory. I’m hoping Thea saves his butt, but one never knows. I will reserve judgement on this plot device until I see its conclusion.

For a Science Fantasy Film, the Science in Guardians of the Galaxy Isn’t That Bad

I saw Guardians of the Galaxy Friday. I loved it so much that I went to go see it again today, because this movie is that awesome. The grandfather sitting three seats from me said, “This is the best film I’ve seen in years.” I’ll write a full review sometime late this week, but here’s one of my early impressions. 

Perhaps most importantly to the scientists among us, it only mildly ignores science, instead of throwing it around like things that get in the way of the Hulk. I would like to quickly reference three points (Mild spoilers ahead.) 

  1. Most of the ship battles take place in atmosphere, so the explosions and accompanying sound effects would actually happen. I can think of only one explosion in actual space, and that one was plot relevant, and set up some gorgeous visuals, so I’ll let it slide on grounds of film quality.
  2. People in space freeze almost immediately. This moment is also almost completely silent, because space is a vacuum. They might not freeze/die EXACTLY as quickly as they should, but alien biology seems a semi-plausible excuse, so we’re running with it. Okay? Okay.
  3. Someone humanoid but still alien is thrown in a giant vat of liquid. Upon being rescued from the liquid, the rescuers puncture his lung to remove the liquid, thus allowing him to breathe. Hmm, drowning victims usually have liquid in their lungs, removing liquid… wait, did this movie use something from actual science? What? 

Is everything in this movie compatible with the laws of our universe? No. Is a lot more of it than some supposedly realistic movies in science fiction? Yes. (For reference, see the Movie Sin Counter for Gravity, which features Neal DeGrasse Tyson informing you of space inaccuracies. Also, see my previous post on the subject.) 

So, in addition to being a really entertaining film, Guardians of the Galaxy is also a really smart film. (Although I knew that after the Maltese Falcon reference.) 

Dear Jim Steranko, Please Stop Reviewing Agents of S.H.E.I.L.D.

Yes, I know you created the incarnation that we all recognize today. You’re the reason Nick Fury is such a bad ass, etc.

I found your reviews while searching the internet for my Comic-con fix. At first I was excited. Then I read them.

I was disappointed, Jim. Because I was hoping you would do in-depth analysis of characters, pacing, plot, the importance or unimportance of staying true to the source material. I was hoping for your thoughts on villians, heroes, and the Rising Tide plot that fizzled out.

Instead, you whine, on and on, in post after post, how this show isn’t big enough for you. How real action heroes should be Nick Fury. How there should be all the big name superheros all the time. Why the show never explodes stuff enough.

What insults me the most is your constant haranguing of Clark Gregg as Agent Coulsen. He’s not believable as an action hero. Why? You mention the suit and tie, but seem totally down with Ward’s use of it in later episodes. Maybe it’s because you feel Gregg doesn’t have enough presence to play the leader of a S.H.E.I.L.D. team. You want someone who looks like an action hero. Like every other show on television, action movie, or comic ever made.

Yeah, I hate to tell you this, but the reason I, and probably some other people, watch this show is because it’s NOT The Avengers, or any of those other generic shoot, bang films that are as ubiquitous in Hollywood. I don’t want to watch a show starring Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury. I don’t want to watch a show starring Sean Connery-era Bond clones. That’s really boring.

We already have a bunch of superhero stories told the same way about the same things… but wait… that’s because somebody decided comics should be written for twelve-year-old boys by men who were mentally twelve-year-old boys. Hence, my confusion with your Nick Fury obsession. While I am impressed by the acting chops of Mr. Jackson, the whole point of Fury is to just be intimidating, and one can only watch that for so long. (It’s why the Paton documentary is so painful.)

Thus, Agent Coulsen should act like a real man, and Skye should stop being adorable- although from what I’ve seen, Skye manages to pull some genuine feeling out of every nerdy guy’s favorite stereotype: the hot street smart hacker. (See also: Fitz’s Skye crush.) Furthermore, every time this show attempts to reach out beyond flat beat-em-up stereotypes, you blame it for being too sensitive.

Have you ever seen anything else by Josh Whedon? Like ever? Buffy, Firefly… at some point those shows are all about their characters and their emotions. The First was the scariest bad guy in the Buffyverse not because of its physical heft (not that it really had any), but rather by the way it could worm itself into people’s heads. That shit was scary.

In summary, if you’re going to harp on why Agents of Shield isn’t a one-dimensional, trite piece of action television fluff, you really should not be reviewing it. Yes, a show about people fighting powered people may never be Dostoyevsky, but that doesn’t stop it from being well written, or expanding beyond the tiny space people tend to put comics and science fiction in. You wrote comics for a long time. Don’t limit your own genre.

Thanks,

scienceandstories

[P.S. Can you really not understand what Fitz and Simmons are saying? Seriously? Maybe that’s why I like their dialogue so much, as a person who understands science. Because it’s actually a little scientific, instead of the bull people generally invent for this kind of thing.]

[P.P.S. Yes, you are sexist for saying that the show about emotions was written by women, which you seem to imply makes it awful. On the other hand, basically all of your reviews stink to high heaven of misogyny, so no surprises there.]

Summer Binge in Review: Veronica Mars, The Guild, Once Upon a Time, & Royal Pains

Ah, summertime. Beaches, barbecues, and binge watching. As per my usual summer fate, I got addicted to multiple shows this year. There’s a month left folks! So if you’re looking for something to watch, look no further. I’ve got you covered.

1. Veronica Mars (Amazon Prime has it for free.) 

Last summer, I happened upon Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a show people had been telling me to watch for years. After Buffy, everyone tells you to watch this show, starring Kristen Bell as the titular Veronica.

You really should watch Veronica Mars. It is, without question, one of the most intricately plotted shows I have ever seen, and the unraveling of the mystery in season one is flawless. Kristen Bell looks like a life-sized Tinkerbell, but that does not stop her from being one of the toughest, wiliest, and complex detectives that television has to offer. Her relationship with her father is sweet and sour in a way that an actual teenager’s would be. Most importantly, Veronica Mars gives you reasons to really dislike most of the characters- including Veronica- and then swings back around to show you that people are not always the thing they did last week. It reminds people that what people say about other people is never the full story.

Season one is the best, but season two builds up some serious momentum at the end. Three lost its touch, which is probably why this show got canceled. I really recommend the film, especially after the sudden halt that is the end of season three. The movie, set ten years later with a grown-up cast, really recaptures the feeling of season one and puts Veronica on the right track.

In summary: If you haven’t seen this show, watch it immediately. Please.

The Guild (Netflix) 

I accidentally found this show while browsing Netflix due to extreme boredom. I then proceeded to pull an all-nighter marathoning it. With the queen of all geeks, Felica Day, as the lead gamer girl, this show is as dorky as it gets.

Despite being extremely nerdy, I really loved this show. I am not a gamer at all, but I connected with these outcasts and their quests to survive outside of the internet. Also, this show gave me a crush on Will Whedon.

In summary: If you like geeky things, or outcast stories, The Guild is for you.

Once Upon a Time: (Netflix through season 2)

This show surprised me. I had been avoiding it for as long as possible, for as a fan of Buffy and Doctor Who, I was wary of ABC Family fantasy fare. Once Upon a Time actually can handle the dark without too much melodrama (generally). While I was underwhelmed by the scenes in the Enchanted Forest, the shenanigans in Storybrook were enough to keep me hooked. (Also, Hook was enough to pull me through all of season three, even considering it was far better written than the previous two.) I really love Emma and her skeptism and logical in the face of a LOT of magic and general silliness. Also, the dwarfs here are way cooler than they ever could be in the actual Snow White.

The fairy tale bits are a little grating, especially in season one, so after a while you can safely skip those without missing any major plot points. This also makes watching it much faster, so you can fly through the first two seasons. Season three you should probably watch fully until it gets to backstory, which you can then skip. Also, shout-out to the character who dies in season one. I liked you. Why did you leave for that stupid movie?

In summary: Entertaining and fluffy fare, Once Upon a Time is great for the casual binge watcher.

Royal Pains (through season 5 on Netflix): 

My brother told me to watch this show. As he’s going through a phase in his life where he’s unenthusiastic about everything, I decided to give it a try. And true to the motto of the USA network, fantastic characters abound. I really love them all, from the enigmatic Borris, to the rich kid with Hemophilia.

The first episode moves a little slow, but give it a chance to get to the Hamptons, and you’ll soon be deciding that Hank Lawson should be your primary care physician. This show gets bonus points for having the best pacing ever in a comedy. Ever.

In summary: Relax and let the doctors of Royal Pains cure your summertime sadness.

What Makes Fictional Science Palatable, and What Makes Actual Scientists Cringe

If you see someone in a cafe with vampirically pale skin, out of fashion T-shirt, and a volume from the Star Wars extended universe, you’re probably going to assume that person is a nerd. If you write for Hollywood, you are going to assume that person is a misunderstood computer science genius. If you do not do of these things, you might hypothesize that you’re seeing someone proficient with technology. The long line of people waiting for the Avengers premiere? Engineers. The Red Shirt you met at that fan convention has a day job researching solar flares. Accuracy of these assumptions aside, it isn’t too far a stretch to say that the people who like stories about science and technology generally tend to work in science and technology. I’m in engineering, and I happen to be a fan of Firefly, Superhero comics, and Bones. Many of my friends’ favorite genres are sci-fi.

However, we have all had that moment watching a show or reading a book, where the quality of science exhibited made us want to throw things and send the writers/creators/actors/everyone involved back to high school science. The most blatant disregard generally featured is explosions in space. Because there is no oxygen, or any other gases, outside of the atmosphere of planets, all of those glorious explosions in Star Wars are horribly wrong. There is no sound in space, so that BOOM? Not a real thing. I know, it’s sad. I wanted there to be large WOOOSHing noises every time I narrowly avoid grazing a TIE fighter in the Falcon. A parsec is a measure of distance equal to approximately 19.2 trillion miles, not of speed. And don’t get me started on the nuclear testing scene in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. (For more examples of the bad science in movies, see links below!) 

Even though these things make us weep and despair for the future of humanity, we line up again and again to see the latest and greatest that Hollywood has to offer us. We read things about time travel, nodding and smiling whenever someone tries to explains how they made it happen. We love it, even when it’s wrong. 

Why? I think it’s because science fiction does something that reality can’t generally do for engineers and scientists and others who are bound by physics and so forth: it says, “Screw rules, what if you built REALLY COOL stuff? What kind of awesomeness would happen?” 

People keep telling us that science and technology should save the world, give the scientists and technicians a bunch of problems complicated with socio-economic and people factors, and say, “Have fun, kids.” Rarely does anyone say, “Oh here, let us give you infinite resources to build whatever craziness you’ve got in your head.” Even more rarely: “Have the money, time, people, and other resources you need to solve this actual problem that really needs to be fixed.” 

Films give us a space where that is possible. We can fantasize about playing with the best and most interesting technology mankind can come up with. (As an aside, the hoveraircraft carrier in the Avengers isn’t completely impossible. We so need to make it happen.) That guy who wrote a petition to congress to build the USS Enterprise? Visionary. He took something from fiction and figured out what technology, funding, and time we would need to complete it. Furthermore, he even justified its building with real logic! (http://www.buildtheenterprise.org/

Stories make us more creative, and help us push the bounds of possibility. So even though the accuracy is off, the dreams are still there, inspiring scientists and engineers to build REALLY AWESOME stuff. 

I conclude with this graphic representation of the effect of science fiction on engineers: 

Bad Movie Science Links: 

http://io9.com/5952209/7-scientific-facts-that-will-ruin-movies-for-you

http://entertainment.howstuffworks.com/10-examples-of-horrible-movie-science.htm#page=1

http://www.popularmechanics.com/technology/digital/fact-vs-fiction/the-10-most-and-least-accurate-sci-fi-movies#slide-1

(^ this one also has accurate science films!) 

http://www.popsci.com/science/gallery/2012-12/sloppiest-sci-fi-movie-science-violations-2012?image=0&dom=PSC&loc=recent&lnk=1&con=previous