Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Rereading Harry Potter: 10 Questions I Have About The Magical World

Because I'm a dirty cheater, I'm rereading the Harry Potter series in order to meet my Goodreads Reading Challenge goal for this year. (Too lazy to hit the library for new books!) I reread the novels every year, but this is the first time I've really been reading with a critical eye. I sped through both Philosopher's Stone and Chamber of Secrets but I as a Muggle fan of this amazing work of fiction, I still have questions about the mechanics of this universe. Here is a greatly condensed version of my running tally of enquiries for the first two novels:

Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone

1. Why don't we don't hear about Sirius Black until book three? In this novel, we see Harry be introduced to his magical roots, and Hagrid has to hastily give him the story of what made him famous. He gets the Sparknotes version: Lord Voldemort, the greatest dark wizard of all time, killed his parents and tried to kill him when he was only an infant, and inexplicably, he could not. Dirty old Voldy was reduced to a shell of his former self, and Harry was left with his scar. This is Harry's origin story. But, shouldn't the fact that his parent's very best friend betrayed them factor into that some how? Doesn't that little bit of information have a profound effect on the mythology of this story?

2. What happens to wizards who get expelled? We know that Hagrid was expelled in his third year, and that Dumbledore allowed him to stay on as Gamekeeper, but how does a situation like this play out for other expelled wizards? Hagrid's wand is snapped and he is forbidden to perform magic. Does that include other forms of magic like potion making or divination? Since getting expelled is essentially like flunking out of school, are there adult remedial classes for wizards who never finished school? Or are they forbidden from magic forever and encouraged to join the muggle world like squibs?

3. How is there is no faster magical way to find information than the library? Throughout the novel, we see Hermione sprinting to the library to research information. I understand that the magical world has largely shunned technology, but there must be a magical shortcut that works as the equivalent to a search engine. Not even an "Accio books about Nicholas Flamel" spell? That seems strangely archaic. I just feel like "because magic" should be a reasonable explanation. Why isn't it?

4. How do muggles get to Diagon Alley? Do muggle-borns' parents get an extra letter with instructions on how to get access the wizarding world so they can buy their newly minted magical child's school supplies? How does that affect the International Statute of Wizarding Secrecy? Are they allowed to roam Diagon Alley during the term? Do their minds get wiped each year so that they can't go blabbing about their witch and wizard children?

5. How does this moving between portraits business work exactly? Is it limited to portraits in the same building? Or is it any portrait of the same person regardless of location? Since we find out later that the portraits can be used to deliver information, does that mean that all portraits of a particular person have all the knowledge of every other incarnation of that person? What happens when a new portrait is made? Can different portraits of the same person interact or does that rip a hole in the space-time continuum?

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Tropes vs Women: "Ruby Sparks" As The Manic Pixie Dream Girl

You may have heard that Nathan Rabin, the writer who coined the term "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" and named the trope apologized last week for doing so, saying:
"The trope of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a fundamentally sexist one, since it makes women seem less like autonomous, independent entities than appealing props to help mopey, sad white men self-actualize. Within that context, the phrase was useful precisely because, while still fairly flexible, it also benefited from a certain specificity."
Despite the fact that the piece itself comes across as being disingenuously self-aggrandizing, I actually both agree and disagree with Rabin's apology. While he's right that the term has been wrongfully expanded to encompass characters that only vaguely fit the bill, the term itself is perfectly suited to the purpose for which it was coined: to identify female characters who exist solely for the purpose of helping a male protagonist self-actualize. 

Rabin cites Zoe Kazan's (writer and star of the film Ruby Sparkscriticisms of the term as one of the reasons he is apologizing, but I don't agree with her take on the situation either. While she's spot on that writers rely on cultural props to signify personality rather than doing the work to flesh out their female characters, this is the very practice that the manic pixie dream girl trope is meant to critique. The term itself isn't meant to be shorthand for "quirky and cute." Though I see how it has morphed into that through usage, the term is meant to be an identifier, not an accusation. To me, Ruby Sparks is a movie about exposing the lie of the manic pixie dream girl. The film centers on a protagonist who literally manifests a woman in order to serve his ego,  and then gets bent out of shape when she dares to have an inner life of her own. The term "manic pixie dream girl" is a condemnation of the trope as a literary crutch, not the personalities that often get associated with the term.
I actually loved Ruby Sparks. It's a great movie that you should check out if you haven't seen it, but the message that I got from it (which, I guess wasn't want Kazan was trying to convey apparently...?) was that the movie was a direct dissection of the trope. Ruby is initially presented to the audience as a one-dimensional paper-thin character who gradually reveals herself to be a whole lot more, much to the chagrin of her writer boyfriend/creator who only wanted an MPDG to serve his emotional whims. When he realizes that she is beginning to develop a unique personality, he intentionally fucks with her to try to keep her from self actualization because he's afraid (and rightly so, the little shit) that she'll want more or better than him as she allows herself to become a whole person who exists outside his personal desires. 
The movie is actually pretty brilliant. But I saw the film as a way to pinpoint the fact that no matter how reductively you to try to frame them, women are more than backgrounds upon which men can work through their personal demons, and to highlight the specific kind of hipster/artist fantasy that leads to the creation of one dimensional female characters of this sort in the first place; essentially, to undermine the MPDG trope. I thought that came through loud and clear. To me, Ruby is  a manic pixie dream girl, but the wit of the film comes from demonstrating all the problems that would arise if women really were just the aimless supporting characters in the lives of their men.
At the end of it, I think "manic pixie dream girl" is a useful and instructive term that describes a sexist phenomenon, and excising it from our cultural lexicon is pointless. I do think that we need to be more nuanced about our application of the trope instead of simply using it to signify any character who happens to approach Zooey Deschanel's orbit.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

A Feminist Character ≠ A Character Who Is A Feminist: Examining Claire Underwood and Olivia Pope

The Ampersand
As far as I can tell, there's a stark difference between a "feminist character" and a "character who is a feminist." While there certainly can be overlap, there rarely even seems to be, and I can't understand why there seems to be so much confusion.

This post has been buzzing around my head since February's season two debut of Netflix's House of Cards, but somehow I haven't been able to properly articulate what I've wanted to say until today.

The House of Cards premiere generated a lot of discussion regarding Claire Underwood's "credentials" as a feminist, specifically in regard to a plot line wherein she gets revenge on (and supposedly justice from) the man who raped her in college, (now a decorated military man) by invoking him as the reason for her (several) abortions in a live television interview. In one fell swoop, Claire is able to forever demolish the reputation of her attacker, and deftly explains away her childless marriage in a way that secures sympathy for herself and her husband witin the political arena.

For this, Jezebel declared her a "feminist warrior anti-hero."

If you've actually watched the show, you know different.

While the desire to hail Claire's actions in that scenario as a kind of feminist triumph is completely understandable, (especially as it is the beginning of a longer story arc in which Claire attempts to tackle reforming the handling of sexual assault and reporting in the US military), it too conveniently forgets that earlier in the same season, Claire threatens to revoke a pregnant former employee's health care in a ploy to strong arm her into dropping a(n admittedly fraudulent) wrongful termination suit.

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