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Author of queer, wry sci fi/fantasy books. On Amazon.
Editor of all fiction genres.

Monday, 10 February 2020

The Art of Destruction: Distressed Aesthetics

A belated happy new year, my dear followers!

So, I have a neat idea for a new series coming up. But after the holidays (which were pleasantly busy) and some interpersonal scuffling in January (which was not nearly as lovely, but came to an all-right enough resolution), my idea bank was absolutely flat broke.

A nice chat with friends has filled the bowl up, but while I work on those posts, here is something I stashed off to the side after a Facebook conversation last year.

I often reference fashion and clothing to help get in the right mindset for my writing projects. Whilst working on Poe's Outlaws (Book 4 of The Meaning Wars series; book 3, The Meaning Wars, is ready for beta-reading and edits now!) I indulged in my usual technique of sifting through Dolls Kill and Pinterest to look at various bits of outre, fun, futuristic fashion.

Of course, when working on Monsters and Fools and planning for After the Garden's sequels, I also like to look at post-apocalyptic and distressed clothing. I like distressed clothing anyway, but it tends to get a lot of flack.

On an episode of a podcast called Minion Death Cult, the hosts discussed some common reactions of tradespeople and Boomers to distressed and some faux-muddy jeans. (Not unsurprisingly, there were a lot of tired jokes about just selling people old, worn-out jeans from "real" tradesmen.) But not a lot of people understand how distressed clothing works, or why it's somehow different from their dad's old, grimy jeans and tattered denim jacket, so I'm going to break it down.

Note: all images in this article came from the Nordstrom website. Most or all are designed by PRPS.

PRPS Barracuda Straight Leg Jeans, Main, color, 490 PRPS Conductor Stripe Denim Jacket, Main, color, AUTO
PRPS Windsor Slim Fit Jeans, Main, color, AMBULANCE
PRPS Le Sabre Slim Fit Jeans, Main, color, FROST

I'm gonna take the unusual stance here of defending distressed jeans, because I've been studying and making distressed knit clothing and other types of distressed clothing for a bit. Why? Because I like post-apocalyptic fashion, and I think wrecked things are often beautiful.

You may be familiar with the term "wabi-sabi," which sometimes passes in and out of vogue for decorating trends. The term is comprised of two Japanese words - wabi, in a nutshell, refers to the beauty of simplicity; sabi, to the beauty of age and use. There's a bit more to it, but that's the quick explanation of these beautiful and imperfectly translatable terms. Wabi-sabi is usually used in reference to home decor, but it totally applies to clothing, too.

Anyway, getting on with the point - the thing about dirty jeans is that they're gonna leave dirt on wherever you sit. Fake dirt still captures the same look, the rather beautiful way the brown stains and fades into the tightly woven blue threads, but it won't leave big ol' scuffmarks on your leather car seats.

As for the distressing, the interesting and beautiful way that denim falls apart tends to happen in less sexy areas - the knees, the thighs, the crotch. Distressing clothes on purpose lets you get the look without impairing the wearability and structural integrity of the clothes. Sometimes that doesn't work at all, like with the cheaper distressed jeans that are all holes and have a high spandex content, but that's still the idea.

As far as how this relates to designing and making clothing, with knitwear (such as the awesome punk sweaters we all may love, or at least have seen before), it's important to know how the particular fibres and yarns work structurally. There's a reason why clothing made to be or look distressed looks so awesome and a lot of actually busted up clothing or "home-made" distressed stuff looks crappy. Knowing where and how to cut fabric in pre-made knits, how to style the runs, or how to make patterns with the runs and holes, is all very calculated. As I've learned myself, if you try to distress a finely-knit sweater, it'll look like crap; distressing needs a chunkier, thicker yarn to be really noticeable. And wet-blocking a ravelled sweater (stretching while wet) is very important - otherwise, the threads maintain their curled appearance, and don't become those straight lines that create contrast with the curving knitted stitches. It's also really important to actually tie off runs in a distressed sweater, or the whole thing will, in fact, unravel.

The advantage of knitting a sweater with a distressed look is that you can control this process. In effect, dropped stitches and yarn-overs create a sort of freeform lace look, and don't destroy the structural integrity of the sweater (which unravelling a pre-made sweater CAN do).

So basically there IS a method to the madness in pre-distressed clothing, and knowing how to distress your clothing well and safely - whether it's for a stage production, Halloween, or fashion - takes more than sharp scissors and boredom!

PRPS Le Sabre Slim Fit Jeans, Main, color, WIND CHILL

PRPS 'Barracuda' Destroyed Straight Leg Jeans, Main, color, 490
Predictably, clothes like this inspire retorts like, "I could give you my old jeans covered in cow manure and farm dirt and motor oil for that price!" But that's the point - the "fake dirt" that so baffled the Washington Post and CNN, where reporters appeared unfamiliar with the concept of "p a i n t", will not rub off or dirty other surfaces. The pants don't contain the scent and sweat of another person's work, nor are they worn out and about to fall apart, as those pants probably are. (For example, the wear patterns and distressing and whiskering all appear on the thighs and calves of the jeans, rather than in the crotch, around the bottom cuffs, and etcetera.) 

It's not about pretending you work - it's about exploring the beauty of entropy and things that are lived-in. The way fabric dye fades, the soft whiskering of denim fabric, the delicate feathers of raw-edged cotton - all of these have their own beauty. Repairs can create a contrast from the original fabric or material as well, and it needn't be ugly. People familiar with "that weird gold thing," kintsuogi, may also know have seen it in cases where useful objects are repaired and the cracks are patched with gold leaf to highlight their beauty. 

Here's another example of finding beauty in marks and unexpected places. When I saw an advertisement for Canada Post that featured a very intriguing necklace, I tracked down the artist's work and had a look at her site.

However, to my surprise, most of her jewelry was either minimalist and geometric, or covered in dented and scratched textures, like this!

There is real value in appreciating things as we wear them out. If we are to shift to a less consumption-driven culture, which is necessary in the fight against climate change, we're gonna have to get used to not having things that look new all the time. Supplies and availability of items may be restricted. Repairing clothing and items instead of just throwing them out has also become pretty popular amongst Generation Z, many of whom are embracing thrifting and minimal-waste lifestyles.

But in addition to that, there's also a beauty in the broken or fraying, the imperfect, the less-than-new. Most of the time we spend with an item will be active. Jewelry gets scratches. Clothes rip. Colours fade. Paper tears. And all of those things expose new beauties and different aspects of the item, revealing its structure and design and suggesting or reminding us of experiences we've had.

After all, our possessions act as anchors for memories. There's a reason why in pre-industrial times, treasured items were passed down through generations or repaired over and over. Our things aren't just pretty diversions or useful parts of daily life - they're parts of our lives, woven or tangled with our memories.

Michelle Browne is a sci fi/fantasy writer and editor. She lives in Lethbridge, AB with her partner-in-crime and Max the cat. Her days revolve around freelance editing, knitting, jewelry, and learning too much. She is currently working on other people’s manuscripts, the next books in her series, and drinking as much tea as humanly possible.
Find her all over the internet: * OG Blog * Mailing list * Magpie Editing * Amazon * Medium * Twitter * Instagram * Facebook * Tumblr * Paypal.me * Ko-fi

Saturday, 30 November 2019

What Might Have Been

I've been super busy with work this month, neglecting my blog as a consequence, but I had so much to say about this that I couldn't help but pull up my chair and get writing about the book Lion’s Blood by Steven Barnes.

You can also find it on non-Amazon links via Goodreads, here.

Having just finished The Testaments by Margaret Atwood, another work of speculative fiction focusing on bigotry, rights issues, and ultimately, redemption and overcoming, I was thirsty for more. I wanted something delicious, magnificent, challenging — and well, just as enjoyable. (The Testaments was spectacular; I read it in a few days, something that’s exceptionally rare for me now. It’s no slender volume; even my cheap paperback had to resort to small print and thin margins to make the hundreds 

Having just finished The Testaments by Margaret Atwood, another work of speculative fiction focusing on bigotry, rights issues, and ultimately, redemption and overcoming, I was thirsty for more. I wanted something delicious, magnificent, challenging - and well, just as enjoyable. (The Testaments was spectacular; I read it in a few days, something that's exceptionally rare for me now. It's no slender volume; even my cheap paperback had to resort to small print and thin margins to make the hundreds of pages fit.

And every page was worth it. I've come away with many new insights, but it was also just a rich and pleasurable read. In terms of prose, it is window-like and not overly florid or purple, but there are many lush and detailed, evocative descriptions. Characters are rendered well, even those from many different factions and backgrounds - I can't even imagine how much research went into this, but I assume the answer is "all of it."

I think of important books, podcasts, documentaries, and articles as "vegetables," things which are important and vital for health, if sometimes less than pleasurable to ingest, but this book requires a new category: "fruit," things which are as delightful to partake in as they are enriching for the mind. The fact that I enjoy it might sound surprising, because, well...

"But it's about white slavery!" 

Yes. Yes it is. And not in the (rather disgusting and misleading) way that term is used currently to depict human trafficking, but in a correctly alternate-historical concept of chattel slavery. And it goes into detail about Irish culture, even using bits of Gaelic - which my own insufficient studies could only comprehend piecemeal, but I was still pleased and impressed by the attention and meticulousness of depicting a culture not ravaged by Christian conquests.

Now, I've read Octavia Butler's Kindred, and I'm glad I had that in my system first, because there was some horrifying brutality demonstrated towards the slaves that, as I unaware of such practices in detail, would have been very upsetting. It wasn't easy anyway, but with my admittedly less than perfect knowledge, it seems both accurate and maybe a tiny bit gentler than actual slavery and transportation was on Black people.

One of the biggest things about this book is that seeing white characters in a position of true subjugation - without the cultural dominance we enjoy and benefit from in this world and setting - made the struggles of Black folks so much clearer. As I read the narrative, and watched Aidan O'Dare's family and friends suffer in the holds of cargo ships and in the teff fields of New Bilalistan, my mind constantly superimposed the realities of our own world over it.

If you've ever wondered what it's like for Black people, this book answers some parts of that endless and nuanced question in so many painful ways.

"Was it hard to read?" 

Oddly enough, no. I'm far from a newcomer to Black fiction and Afrofuturism in general, and I've trained myself to focus on Black characters as protagonists, so that definitely helped - but it's also just a damned good book and an emotionally compelling read.

However, I think the biggest relief for me was that the story isn't gleeful in depicting white subjugation, because that would have been an easy (and disturbing) tactic. Rather, the perspectives espoused really made some things about our own history clearer to me, and gave me new insights and things to think about.

The White Savior Hiding in Black Stories 

Recently, the movie Harriet was released, and met with controversy because it followed a path that many books, movies, and narratives about slavery do: providing a significant role for a Good White Person (usually a man) and a Bad Black Man. In a movie about Harriet Tubman, that's particularly egriegous, but it speaks to that shadow-demon, white guilt, who begs and cajoles us white folks to think, "Well, I would have been 'One of the Good Ones..."

This thought is often a comfort to people watching or enjoying any sort of traditional narrative set in the antebellum South; the idea of being a "good master," and thereby enjoying both moral comfort and the expected privilege and wealth. White people don't usually fantasize about being a poor landholder or even a Union soldier; no, it's being a privileged person who stoops to help the downtrodden that we fetishize.

But Lion's Blood portrays Black characters in this role - as moral people of faith, who have ethical discussions and who are well-educated, just as white slave-owners perceived themselves to be - and it really busted a hole in that entire concept.

Here's the thing about the idea of "the good master" - one cannot truly live up to ideals of equality and ethics if one owns or enslaves people, or treats other humans as objects. (I'm not going to get into animal rights discussions here because that's another issue, but suffice to say the topic was also on my mind.) As much as Wakil Abu Ali and his sons Ali and Kai are admirable men, there is a missing stair in their ethics. Yes, they treated their slaves and servants mercifully a lot of the time, letting them keep their culture, keeping families together, and not enforcing their religion on them - but they still kept them as slaves.

Unfortunately, dominant culture trains us to handwave this. (By us, I mean everyone, but it's definitely easier to handwave for those of us born into whiteness.) We forgive the Good Master, because after all, it was just like that in those days, wasn't it? But if Aristotle and Marcus Aurelius could look at real, live enslaved people on their streets, then turn away and consider "enslavement of the mind" more important, because "some people are born to slavery," and if Neitzsche could hold the same idea, then perhaps we should not be chary of asking what the devil our ancestors were thinking. Slavery is bad, was bad, and was never justified, even when it was a cultural norm, and we need to stop excusing justifications of it based on contemporary normalization.

Our ancestors - mine very much included - may have "tamed" the land, and built impressive things, but they also subjugated, tormented, and slaughtered people. Admiration and humility in the face of that legacy have to go hand-in-hand. Some white folks retreat into the comforting fiction of white supremacy or the beguiling vagueness of denial, but cowardice begets no change. It damages the spirit and leaves others in amendable, preventable suffering. There are a lot of problems to fix that have resulted from the historical legacies of colonialism, but by God, let us at least admit they exist!

There is no “Good Master” as long as someone proclaims themselves an owner of other human beings. Perhaps they are less evil, but being less evil is not goodness.

However, this book was about a flipped history, a lavish tapestry of an alternate world. (Yes, there are airships, but they're not as big a deal as you'd think, so don't get hung up on them.) A lot more interesting stuff happens and awaits the reader. And yet, of course, that central preoccupation kept haunting my mind, as I can only assume it will dart into the minds of anyone who so much as glances at the back cover blurb.

Okay, but the white slavery thing though...is it wish fulfillment?

Short answer: thankfully, no.

Long answer: This question was on my mind from page one onward, but over all, the answer is "no." It would have been all too easy to use the setting to delve into other conflicts and never touch on slavery and liberation, but this is still a narrative about rights and liberation. The story's graceful back does not bend and stoop to lie in Vengeance's soft bed. In fact, it's a theme in the book - acting out of spite and vengeance does not feed the soul, and in fact, destroys the person who enacts it. It's like Dostoevsky, but actually readable. (Sorry, Feodor; I love ya, but reading your books is masochistic.)

Rather than depicting what most white people would expect and/or fear from such a story, he crafts a narrative of liberation shot through with beautiful philosophical threads and fellowship. This is true of most Black philosophers and cultural figures reflecting on enslavement and inequality in general; at worst, most Black people want to be left alone by whites. In all the time I've spent researching and interacting with Black people and people of colour online, I've seen exactly one (like, maybe two? Maybe?) person who actually felt that punishment and violent vengeance should truly be turned back on white folks. (And that person was extremely into Mao and a gross Democratic People's Republic of Korea apologist, so like, not exactly a credible opinion in the first place.)

Barnes' depictions of various characters both historical and invented is unflinchingly balanced. He's frank in depicting the utilitarian and daring cruelty of Shaka Zulu; the warrior is depicted with awe, but various military characters are clearly portrayed as troubled by their actions in war, and sometimes beset with what looked like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. War, even in an alternate history, is still hell.

As I read the book, my mind superimposed Black struggle narratives on the white characters, and vice versa, back and forth between the text and history, and in the end, there was judgement - but mostly mercy and comprehension. The ability of a Black author to see through white eyes and understand the tension of privilege and blind spots in what's normally portrayed as a heroic narrative (that of the Good Master) is very humbling. But it's significant that when the characters dream of a peaceful future, all they want is to drink coffee and watch their children to play together in peace.

And that - more so than even gory, superbly detailed battles, torture scenes, and the deaths of characters I liked - brought tears to my eyes.

Michelle Browne is a sci fi/fantasy writer and editor. She lives in Lethbridge, AB with her partner-in-crime and Max the cat. Her days revolve around freelance editing, knitting, jewelry, and learning too much. She is currently working on other people’s manuscripts, the next books in her series, and drinking as much tea as humanly possible.
Find her all over the internet: * OG Blog * Mailing list * Magpie Editing * Amazon * Medium * Twitter * Instagram * Facebook * Tumblr * Paypal.me * Ko-fi

Friday, 8 November 2019

Accidentally Progressive Misogynists

It's no secret that I'm a feminist, but I also grew up reading and adoring the words of Dead White Men, as they're often referred to now. Today, however, I want to focus my gaze on two peculiar bedfellows: Hemingway and H.P. Lovecraft.

When I first read Hemingway - for school, surprisingly enough; most other authors of "Great Literature," I sought out on my own - I was struck by the female protagonist's ferocious personality. In Matilda, Roald Dahl's main character comments to the kindly librarian that she "doesn't understand some of the things he says sometimes about men and women." That stuck with me, and when I got to Hemingway's books years later - For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms - I definitely expected them to be, well, more offensive.

Hemingway's women are often scrappy, tough, and give as good as they get - and frankly, the men in his stories are often a pretty ragged, sorry, rather troubled lot. A femme fatale dame may be seen as death walking on a long set of legs, but the fact that she even poses a threat to Man and the Natural Order implies something very interesting about this so-called and imagined "rightness." But let's stick a pin in that discussion of "rightness" and quickly mention my other target: Lovecraft.

A Spooky, Lonely, Racist Old Man 

Now, it may surprise my gentle (or not particularly gentle) readers that I still have an abiding fondness for Lovecraft's work. The man himself was a lonely, sad fellow who had so many compulsions and fears that he barely functioned. His phobias - or at least, things he wrote about as being frightful - included dogs, cats, rats, cellars, cold rooms, the ocean, cephalopods, fungus, weird colours, Black people, Native Americans, other Brown people, Jewish people, Mixed people, non-Christian religions, women, mixed neighbourhoods, the dark, mirrors, and of course, madness, ruin, and mutation.

When talking about Lovecraft, some people (like his esteemed but regressive and unmannerly biographer Joshi) try to skirt around the ugly stuff, or downplay it - as in a rather awkward conversation I once had with a publisher in a significant Lovecraftian fiction house that shall remain unnamed. The woman insisted that Lovecraft had married a Jewish woman and therefore could not hate the Jews, and that for the time period, he wasn't that racist...

The counterpoints to this are painfully easy to make, but suffice to say that readers who are not convinced that Lovecraft and Hemingway are assuaging their own fears of other's perceptions and hiding from rather easily-proven points. Both are racist and somewhat misogynistic; both were also rather good writers. We must accept both premises rather than trying to justify or negate one or the other. The world does not always accept easy and comfortable categorization into "good" and "evil" or "bad."

Now, of course, as a white woman, I have a certain amount of societal cushioning that just makes it easier to endure and set aside certain things. And yet, there is a core to these two authors' works that calls me back, even when they surround or allude to rather detestable ideas.

In addition to a sort of mystique and fear around "The Other," whether speaking of women, non-white people, or combinations thereof, there is also a peculiar and almost beautiful longing.

There is something ineluctable about both Lovecraft and Hemingway that compels me deeply. It's the same tendency one can find in, surprisingly enough, such hated halls as the Incel (involuntarily celibate) forums of the latter day. They feel absolutely helpless before what they believe to be the absolutely monumental power of The Feminine, or The Threat of Non-Whiteness, or Pagan Decadence, or Homosexual Weakness. They constantly hint at or state outright that they are fighting these "fallen" influences - as though that's a fight they're constantly losing internally. One is reminded of the erotic angel-wrestling scenes alluded to in Angels of America, when Joe, the Mormon man with a bad case of sexual repression, discusses his gay longings.

The failure fetish

The thing with Hemingway, and often with Lovecraft, is that their stories are often about white men failing. Sometimes their characters die in moral triumph, but they die nonetheless. It's as though they want to fail, or as though the only way to escape the moral question altogether is with death. The striving and inevitable failure is almost compulsive, a kind of "l'apell du vide" (call of the void) where they have an ineluctable longing and tendency towards that which they claim to abhor.

Both men are fascinated with "the Other" even as much as they often abhor The Other's differences. Whether it's femininity, breaking the binary, or things "too horrid to name" (presumably gay stuff and BDSM, one supposes), Lovecraft kept coming back to the strangeness, especially genderless beings. The essential normalization of white, cisgender male masculinity - a completely artificial depiction of it, one might add, which is ahistorical and entirely synthetic, despite the way modern-day "Red pill" types and Republicans fetishize it - is rampant. And yet it is also tremendously fragile, in a way that echoes Christian morality. Even the slightest pleasure is a window through which evil can peer, or whisper, or tempt one from righteousness. And yet, are these evils not rather banal? If one's life and moral uprightness can be destroyed by an incautious application of glitter, is it not a rather sad, hollow life?

Extremely mediocre art by Michelle Browne.

The hidden longing

There is something incredibly empathetic hidden at the core of these works. The "terrible, unknowable" urge compels them to investigate the forbidden - and to understand things beyond their own world of experience. Similarly, in the Warhammer 40K novels and setting books, trying to understand the Chaos Gods or Xeno forces such as the Tau or Eldar can result in being "tainted" - in effect, empathy is both one of the Empire of Man's greatest weapons and greatest weaknesses.

But this longing is always the undoing of characters - when they dare come too close to the things that tempt them, whether those be horrifying powers, immigrant women whose children are going missing, or gods who walk as Black Men (as in Dreams in the Witch-House), all that is "good" and "noble" in these men is destroyed.

It's always because of family influences or heritage or interests, or then their experiences, but even unwillingly, the characters develop empathy and get closer to the cosmic horrors. The guy was racist, but part of him knew, I think, just how wrong he was. Not something he could face down.

In the later years of his life, Lovecraft started to write with more empathy and kindness about the otherworldly cosmic forces and aliens his characters ran into. Ernest Hemingway, who died of depression, met a fate that thousands of men fall prey to each year. One man died of poverty and isolation; the other, of unresolved mental health issues.

That unwilling empathy in these lauded dead white males is often lurking there, and it's so sad that they and other racists effectively cut themselves off from others' human experiences.

And perhaps, that's the greatest lesson - to conform to these artificial standards of masculinity is the real doom. Where a world of wonder and discovery awaits, the real horror comes from living within a prison - and thinking it's the only way and most correct way to live. And that ironic fate is not one I'd wish on anybody, especially now that people have a chance at living differently.

Michelle Browne is a sci fi/fantasy writer and editor. She lives in Lethbridge, AB with her partner-in-crime and Max the cat. Her days revolve around freelance editing, knitting, jewelry, and learning too much. She is currently working on other people’s manuscripts, the next books in her series, and drinking as much tea as humanly possible.

Find her all over the internet: * OG Blog * Mailing list * Magpie Editing * Amazon * Medium * Twitter * Instagram * Facebook * Tumblr * Paypal.me * Ko-fi

Tuesday, 29 October 2019

What Even are Jokes?

Millennials - and now, Gen Z - have some weird coping mechanisms.

On a late-night browse through Twitter - which, honestly, tends to stir many ideas - I was reading one-liners and social justice observations while Bad Romance, a podcast about ill-conceived romantic comedies, played in the background. As one of the posts, Jourdain, plaintively asked her boyfriend, "why are you like this," I laughed. It's a favorite memetic joke of mine, and a standard in our household, often repeated when something has gone awry.

Similarly, other simple, despairing cries have become a form of humour - such as the one that inspired the title of this post.

Why are you like this? 

A few years ago, it was Generation Y, the Millennials, who were supposed to Save Us All. Whether we do or not, however, it's impossible to deny that Generation Y - most of us barely in our 20s or 30s - are already exhausted.

Fatalistic, often beset by mental health issues, physical health issues, a history of trauma, societal marginalizations, poverty, or often, a combination of these, Millennials have turned to three coping mechanisms - weed, the internet, and each other. Perhaps it's an uncanny combination of all three that's led to a weird comedic renaissance.

Of course, sweeping and broad generalizations have their limits, but suffice to say that I'm talking about concepts that cross and touch on cultural elements from the queer community, the online community of people of colour, the disabled community and autistic community, and other overlapping groups - yes, including straight, cisgender, heterosexual, and white people. Many of us, as I've said, have various struggles right now, but the common language of memes and comedy often unites us.

For the lols

Comedy tends to fall in broad political groups. Those of us on the left try to eschew jokes that play on "punching down" and enforce marginalizing power structures. In search of comedy that doesn't reflect the regressive ethos of the 90s, our era of origin, a strain of Dadaist absurdism has formed the DNA of our comedy.

Millennial jokes and humour really give me pause. There are intricate rules of grammar, both visual and verbal, that must be obeyed for punchlines to land, but it's also easy to form new jokes using or playing on these rules. References to Tide Pods or moral panics of the day, InTenTiOnAlLy PoR oR iNcOmpRehEnSiBle WrItIng, a focus on poor judgement calls, and mental and physical health symptoms all characterize popular topics. GIFS and images - sometimes macros, sometimes on their own - work either as stand-alone punchlines or visual completions of verbal jokes. Some GIFS and images have taken on their own significance, often completely disconnected from the image's original context. Michael Jackson eating popcorn from a scene in the "Thriller" music video indicates an enjoyment of drama ensuing in a conversation thread. Kermit the Frog sipping a cup of Lipton tea indicates a sassy judgement.

Of course, there are many more. Ironic and sarcastic references to educational or edutainment television such as "The More You Know", to childhood favorite cartoons, and even anonymous photographs of strangers' cats can all serve as side-splitting punchlines. References to creative media that cross over with popular aphorisms from Twitter and Tumblr, and sometimes Reddit and Facebook, bleed in and out of fashion. Decontextualizing them for a moment, it's almost baffling or bewildering. Given that much of the humour is highly context-based or simply absurdist, some of it "pure" or "wholesome" (i.e. relying on positive, sweet, or heartwarming experiences) and some of it utterly fatalistic, it can be hard to understand how all of the jokes work, or even why they're important.

A brief history of suicide jokes

But very noticeable is the prevalence of jokes about death, suicide, and existentialism. Multiple media outlets have been horrified and fascinated and wagged their fingers at us for this type of humour. 

However, these jokes were also very common during and just after the Great Depression - as demonstrated in a plethora of classic cartoons. 

I think there's a sort of nihilistic argument that at least suicide restores a sense of control, and in a world where the climate crisis' impact is more visible than ever, where chronic mental health problems are an epidemic, and where access to medical care or time off for sickness is rarer and harder to get than it has been in decades (well, stable in its awfulness in some cases), maybe people feel like suicide is the one way to take things back. Maybe it's a way to make the very real possibility of succumbing to depression or other illnesses a bit less scary - whistling in the dark, as some writers used to call it. Absurdist things also tend to play into this. If we can't ignore our demons, perhaps we can befriend them.

Is it okay?

Honestly, I was stumped about what all of this means. Why do Millennials turn to humour like this to survive? What does it provide for us? My partner had a wry insight into the vital role comedy is playing in our survival. "Humour at times like this is an important act of balancing that allows us to reject the horrible situation we live with, while still existing in it. We have been told to accept what we have to pay bills and get by, but this balancing act allows us to not accept it, but live with and cope with it," he pointed out.

It also serves the role of a shibboleth, a passcode or phrase of recognition. Users of Tumblr, Twitter, and even Facebook become fluent in both memes from within their communities and outside them. For instance, members of politically conservative tribes (in the ethno-cultural sense of the word "tribe") are extremely fond of the Minions from the "Despicable Me" series, to the extent that Minions have developed their own independent associations.

On the other hand, certain phrases, such as a "good good [adjective or noun] boy" to describe a creature, object, or person of which the speaker approves, evolved out of the My Brother, My Brother, and Me podcast, but has a simple structure that makes it easy to replicate. Even without the original context of the show, the structure of the phrase has an inherent appeal and comedic elegance that gives it broad applicability to a variety of situations.

It's not as bad as it looks

Honestly? Any coping mechanism can be bad for one if it's used in place of self-improvement, but it's impossible to miss the sweeping waves of therapist jokes that have also taken over the internet. And maybe that's a good sign.

The key is to turn our jokes and fears into action. I'm not finished feeling shocked by how effective direct local action is compared to arguing on the internet. Using online connections to build local friendships and develop solidarity both far and nearby is really important, and for those who can't afford therapy, the support of friends really helps recovery. 

Michelle Browne is a sci fi/fantasy writer and editor. She lives in Lethbridge, AB with her partner-in-crime and Max the cat. Her days revolve around freelance editing, knitting, jewelry, and learning too much. She is currently working on other people’s manuscripts, the next books in her series, and drinking as much tea as humanly possible.
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Friday, 11 October 2019

Upsetting People is Not Revolutionary

Well, The Joker just hit theatres, and honestly, I'm not sure whether I'm going to see it.
Art by Michelle Browne.

Quite a few cultural critics I admire and respect have panned it, still others have said it was boring and unambitious - and frankly, it's no secret that I'm not the biggest fan of comics, for a variety of reasons. I'm curious, sure, but based on what I've heard from various podcasts and Youtube shows, as well as friends' chatter and Twitter, it's basically a dumbed-down Taxi Driver or Fight Club, without realising that those movies were critical of the main character's perception of the world.

Of course, there's also the problem that the director, Todd Phillips, talked about "triggering people" dismissively in some interviews, and both he and Warner Brothers seem to want to have it both ways - to upset people, to flirt with inciting violence, and to insist that it's just art, which cannot be censored (and that criticism is the same as censorship...which it isn't, by the way.) Phillips also complains about "woke culture" with the sort of embittered smugness that generally demarcates other failing comedians - such as Dave Chappelle, Louis C.K, Jerry Seinfeld, and other men who have mistaken their own prestige for talent.

Joaquin Phoenix, the twee, breathy method acting star, also seems to have made the same mistake. "I wasn't comfortable while making the film," he insisted. But while I really loved his acting and the movie Her in general, I can't help rolling my eyes at this take.

Upsetting people is not art

There's this idea in art and cultural commentary, and particularly in the zeitgeist, that because art is supposed to evoke emotion, evoking emotion constitutes art in and of itself. Quite frankly, stepping in a dog turd and breaking one's ankle also elicits emotion, but it generally isn't considered an artistic performance. Now, if said event is filmed and uploaded to Youtube, is it art then? Academics and Smart Internet People are ready and waiting to explain both how it is, and isn't art.

The thing is, the Joker movie isn't an unfortunate or hilarious accident. Great effort went into it, as well as a hefty budget and substantial promotional energy. This isn't some accidental, daring indie darling coming out of nowhere. It is very much commerce in the trappings of art. Now, can that still be art? Sure. But let's call a card a card, shall we?

Art qua art? Try Art qua money. 

This movie has an agenda...and above else, that's making money. The controversy over it - which, as much as I hate it, I am writing about and therefore contributing to - basically functions as a marketing push.

Rather, we should express how terribly bored we are about the whole thing, and we shouldn't fund the damned enterprise. Go see it in the cheap seats, or undertake alternative measures to see it, if you absolutely must. Or, do what I sometimes do when I want to hear about content but not suffer through it, and read, watch, or listen to a bunch of different thinkpieces about it.

But honestly, there's nothing more to say about this virulent, nasty, boring movie. What I'd rather talk about is the central premise - that upsetting people is somehow artistically virtuous.

Good art makes people think too

There's sort of a corollary to the whole "If people are upset, they'll think!" argument, and that is that happiness is an opiod, something that dulls the senses. That's as absurd as it is untrue. First of all, happiness and contentment are not the enemy, and in a world such as ours, rife with inequality, we ought not treat them as such cheap currency. They're rare, and they ought to be treasured. That's not to say that we should lull ourselves into thinking everything is all right - but that's not what happiness is about.

Rather, happiness comes from change, achievement, new experiences, and appreciating what we have. And good art - say, the book series beginning with A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle - will certainly do this. Yes, those books make me happy, but they also fill me with wonder and admiration. Art that makes us happy also makes us connected to others, and might even encourage us to make art ourselves, try to be good at something, or try something new.

A friend of mine is really into Lois Bujold's Vorkosagian series, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Robin Hobb's Assassin's Apprentice trilogy. Some of those books are hard on the heart, sure, but nobody who's advocating for happy art is saying it needs to be, say, forced positivity art or pablum. And, sure, all these writers are ladies - but that doesn't mean men can't (or don't!) write nurturing, empathetic books with characters who are more than angry, lost boys. Not to mention that the most recent Hugo and other fantasy and writing awards are really showing a wonderful sea change - Mary Robinette Kowal, for instance, or The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet or Space Opera being fine examples. As far as empathetic male writers, I must always recommend Zig Zag Claybourne's The Brothers Jetstream, Ari Marmell's Mick Oberon series, or Chuck Wendig's writing. 

And yeah, we do need to give empathy and kindness to these lost boys who relate to these movies - but the way to do that isn't to enable their bad habits. It's to give them a better world, access to therapy and medication if needed, and fight toxic mental habits. That's what the rest of us have to do - but the good news is? It works.

Michelle Browne is a sci fi/fantasy writer and editor. She lives in Lethbridge, AB with her partner-in-crime and Max the cat. Her days revolve around freelance editing, knitting, jewelry, and learning too much. She is currently working on other people's manuscripts, the next books in her series, and drinking as much tea as humanly possible.

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