Sunday, May 2, 2021

Christ is Risen!

Though You went down into the tomb, O Immortal One, yet You brought down the dominion of Hades; and You rose as the victor, O Christ our God; and You called out "Rejoice" to the Myrrh-bearing women, and gave peace to Your Apostles, O Lord who to the fallen grant resurrection. — Kontakion of Pascha

Friday, April 9, 2021

How to Write Strong Women Characters Pt. 2

The Magnificat

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior. For He has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant; for behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed. For He who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is His name. And His mercy is on those who fear Him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with His arm; He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich He has sent away empty. He has helped His servant Israel, in remembrance of His mercy, as He spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his seed forever. —Luke 1:47-55
In my last post, I gave a recent positive example of strong women characters; however, these women were playing roles normally filled by men — professional wrestlers. I do not want to take anything away from women who want to excel in those types of rolls; however, it is indicative of our current culture that the best positive example of strong women I could find is were women are exhibiting masculine strength. As a consequence, I am inclined to go back to the greatest story of all time to find the archetype of feminine strength: the Virgin Mary and the Mother of our God. I lift her up not only because of her prophecy from the Gospel of St. Luke — every generation will call me blessed — but because Orthodox Christianity sees her as the best of humanity. In our churches, she sits at the right hand of Christ on the iconostasis and we sing of her almost every day:
Greater in honor than the Cherubim, and in glory greater beyond compare than the Seraphim; you without corruption gave birth to God the Word, and are truly Theotokos. You do we magnify.
No other saint has more hymns sung in their honor than the Virgin Mary, who has been given the title Theotokos — the Mother of God.

Of course, from the perspective of modern feminism, we run into a problem with the virtues that this archetype champions — Chastity and Motherhood. I mention feminism specifically because phrases such as "because it's time" and "young white men have been pandered to" find their source in that philosophy. In addition, our current cultural landscape celebrates, in the name of feminism, the antithesis of Chastity and Motherhood — Promiscuity and Abortion — as virtues.

Couched in the language of empowerment, we have been told that women armed with birth control can stand on equal footing with men in their ability to have sex without consequence and with that most extreme form of birth control options, abortion, can pursue careers over families. This is shouted to the rooftops despite growing evidence that women are less and less happy the further away from the Archetype of the Virgin Mary and Mother of God we get.

Allow me a moment to critically examine what our modern culture calls "empowerment." Promiscuity is never risk-free. There is no type of birth-control that is 100% effective outside of abstinence. Additionally, multiple partners increases the chance of disease. Regardless of all the medical advances we have made, women are still taking the greater risk when engaged in promiscuous behavior.

This risk becomes even greater when coupled with the denigration of men. We have an entire generation of young men that have been told that they are the source of evil in the world, that their natural behavior towards women is hateful, and have been accused of rape for engaging in consensual sex. In other words, we have a culture that expects women to have a lot of sex and for men to behave badly. We live in an upside down world where men are interested in long-term monogamous relationships and women are interested in multiple partners. Given this reality, the type of man who would willingly participate in the promiscuity of women is not the type of man a women is safe to be promiscuous with.

As much as conservatives balk at the existence of rape culture, the #metoo movement has clearly demonstrated that a rape culture does exist in the very institutions that promote the idea: Hollywood, the Media, and other forms of Entertainment. For decades, men who see women as mere objects to use for their own desires have been able to maintain their positions of power by selling us the feminist ideal of female empowerment.

In contrast, Chastity actually empowers women to manipulate the behavior of men. It is quite simple: you want a piece of this? then live up to what I want in a man and commit to being that man for the rest of your life.

Our current culture celebrates abortion as a positive experience. All of the troubles and sacrifices necessary to see a pregnancy through are gone in an instant. What the brochure and abortion clinics across the country fail to mention is that there are consequences. Killing your own child in the womb can and does have long term physical and mental repercussions. Once done, it can never be taken back.

While Motherhood does, in fact, require sacrifice and a radical shift in life priorities, it also is a source of feminine power. Nothing motivates like trying to do your best for your children. Everyone knows not to mess with a mother bear, the same can be said of a mother trying to protect her children. In addition, throughout the ages, women have had access to political power through their children. The term Queen Mother exists for a reason. Let me give an example from Church history:

In the Orthodox Church, we celebrate Sts. Irene and Theodora as critical players in the defeat of Iconoclasm. Both acted as regents for their sons. Both sons were children when they were crowned Emperor. Both women were married to Iconoclasts. Both lovingly bided their time knowing that they would be able to effect change through their children.

While it is true that women can (and even should) excel in professions normally dominated by men (as can men excel in professions normally dominated by women), these are exceptions. While female characters that succeed through masculine characteristics can and do work, the number of good stories that can be told are limited. This can be seen in the failures of modern cinema to shoehorn women into normally masculine roles.

If we are truly interested in strong women and if we are truly interested in telling stories about strong women, I would propose that we embrace the archetype personified by the Virgin Mary. Tell stories where Chastity and Motherhood are not only embraced, but celebrated.

Thursday, April 8, 2021

How to Write Strong Women Characters

Following my last post, I wanted to give a positive example of good storytelling using female characters, since the comment section included a long discussion about turning Dr. Who into a woman. I wanted my example to be current, since my attempts at pointing out extremely well written women in sci-fi/fantasy that can be found prior to our current cultural malaise doesn’t seem to matter. Unfortunately, that meant going to a genre outside my bailiwick: professional wrestling.

There are several things in my life that I personally do not necessarily like and do not go out of my way to watch or participate in, but I do enjoy watching others who do love these things. For example, I love watching baseball fanatics geek out over baseball. I enjoy watching Trekkies being Trekkies. Ever since I became aware of professional wresting (I believe it was Cyndi Lauper’s music video for “The Goonies ‘r’ Good Enough”) I have enjoyed listening to people who wax poetic about the stories professional wrestlers portray inside and outside the ring.

Last month, the wrestling promotion AEW televised a non-sanctioned, lights-out match between the wrestlers Britt Baker D.M.D and Thunder Rosa. For those unfamiliar, that is a match where pretty much anything is allowed: chairs, tables, ladders, weapons, tacks, etc. It was a brutal affair that ended a rivalry that had gone on for several months.

Britt Baker is a home-grown wrestler for AEW. She has been the face of the women’s division since AEW started its Dynamite TV show on TNT. This has not always been a good thing. Initially, she was a bouncy, bubbly character that nobody really liked. So, she changed course and made a heel turn. This means she became one of the bad guys. It transformed her character and her career. Fans loved it.

At the same time, fans were also critical of the women’s division as a whole because it wasn’t producing the kind of stories and matches that the men’s division was (which are some of the best in pro wrestling today). In order to address this situation, AEW brought in Thunder Rosa, who came into the promotion with the express purpose of elevating the quality of women’s wrestling in AEW.

At the time, Thunder Rosa was the NWA Women’s Champion. In other words, she was not only an outsider, but an outsider who was under contract with another promotion. Her presence was a direct challenge to the entire women’s division of AEW and to Britt Baker in particular. Thus, these two were on a collision course.

The two clashed in several matches, interfered with each other when they weren’t wrestling each other and cost each other championships. The rivalry was white hot and when non-champion stories like this are told, the best ones culminate in extreme matches like the one televised last month.

One of the key things to understand about this match is that as a non-sanctioned, lights-out match it had to be the last match of the night. All of the “real” matches that counted for purposes of wins and losses were done. Due to this fact, it was the Main Event of the show. AEW promoted this. It promoted the extreme nature of the scheduled match. It heightened expectation due to its extreme nature and its position on the show. Not only did this match meet and exceed these expectations, but fans immediately started making the claim that this was one of the best matches in AEW history, let alone the best ever women’s match.

Incidentally, this was the first time a women's match had ever been the Main Event in AEW; however, this was not part of the story. Indeed, it was very important that it was not part of the story. Had this been promoted as the first women’s Main Event in AEW history, it would have irreparably damaged everything these two women had been doing over the months they were working together.

Britt Baker and Thunder Rosa pushed each other and themselves to their limits. They earned this spot through their wrestling, through their character work, and through their storytelling. Had they been just the first women’s Main Event in AEW history all of that hard work would have been rendered meaningless. They wouldn’t have earned the match because their work, their characters, and their storytelling, they would have been given the match because of an immutable characteristic they had no real control over: the fact that they are women.

When we, as a culture, promote anyone simply because of an immutable characteristic, we diminish and dehumanize them. Nothing that they personally accomplish means anything because we are promoting the idea that the only reason that have what they have is due to something they didn’t do or choose.

Had AEW screamed to the rafters that Britt Baker D.M.D vs Thunder Rosa was the first women’s Main Event, no one would have had the expectations that they had for this match. Necessarily, expectations would have been lowered because these women would not have earned the position they had due to their hard work. They would have been given the position simply because they are women. As a consequence, the fact that Britt Baker and Thunder Rosa exceeded these lowered exceptions wouldn’t have meant nearly as much. In fact, I don’t think the match would have been as great as it was because the pressure these two would have had to perform under would also have been much less.

Instead, AEW chose to let these two women be wrestlers instead of just women. They let these two characters shine rather than being just women. They expected these two women to excel at their art rather than settling on being just women. As a consequence, both are superstars beloved by wrestling fans and images from this match will be remembered in wrestling lore for generations to come.

In other words, if you want to make Dr. Who a woman “because it’s time” or “because young white men have been pandered to” you will fail. If, however, you write a story where a female Dr. Who or a female lead in the Dr. Who series makes sense in context of the show and its history and is given an opportunity to earn their spot in Dr. Who lore, you have a chance of telling one of the greatest Dr. Who stories in the series history.

So, stop writing stories “because it’s time” and start writing stories where characters earn everything that they have, like Britt Baker D.M.D and Thunder Rosa.

Friday, March 26, 2021

Why Star Wars, etc. Now S*cks

I was one of those kids who saw Star Wars (before it was dubbed A New Hope) in the theater. I was doomed to be a sci-fi/fantasy fan for the rest of my life. I began to buy comic books. I found Dr. Who on my local PBS. My mom brought home the Holmes Basic Box set. I tried reading the Lord of the Rings and found I could scratch my fantasy itch elsewhere. I even tolerated watching Star Trek with my Trekkie friends. Though for many years my entertainment dollar has rarely gone towards anything beyond RPGs and war games, I am still a fan at heart and hope that some day there is a franchise out there that I will find worthy of my time and my dollar.

Unfortunately, companies like WotC, Disney, WB, Paramount, etc. have all decided that I am toxic and whatever is the most recent flavor of -ist this week. I want Star Wars, Marvel, DC, and even Star Trek to be good; however, I don’t just think they won’t be anytime soon, I know they won’t be.

In the past, I have critiqued various movies and shows for abandoning the Divine in their story telling. God is the first storyteller. In the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament quoted by the writers of the New Testament and the oldest version of the OT we have today, the verb in the first sentence in Scripture (In the beginning God created) has the same root as poetry. This version of to create is only used when in association with God, and he creates (makes poetry) through speaking, “Let there be light.” Thus, just as all creation was doomed to decay and death by humanity turning its back on God, stories are doomed to meaningless drivel when the storyteller turns their back on the source of all stories.

While I still stand by this critique, there is another level of horrid storytelling that has been cropping up recently that I think needs to be addressed because it goes beyond turning its back on God and turns its back on the human person. Let me explain.

Reality can be broken up into two categories: the general and the particular. For example, I am using a computer in order to write this post. Some portion of those who are reading this post will also be using a computer to do so. While the term “computer” helpfully describes all of these devices, I am using a particular computer and the reader is using another particular computer. All computers = the general; my computer = the particular.

The crux of my critique depends on the fact the human beings always experience the particular and never experience the general. Whenever I encounter “computer” in my life, it is always a particular computer. The general “computer” is an immaterial concept that, although outside the particular experience of human beings, is nonetheless very real. The general allow us to make sense of the particular. Without the general, our empirical experience of the world would be a chaotic string of ever-changing data with no basis for interpretation or understanding.

From a Christian POV, this is how we experience and understand the Trinity. The general is God and the particular is the persons of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It is why Christ became a human being — so that we can intimately know God in the particular.

The reason story telling in the present is so awful is that the characters that occupy our stories are the general instead of the particular. Let me illustrate this my favorite literary inspiration for the Thief class — Bilbo Baggins. In JRR Tolkien’s works, Bilbo Baggins is important because he is a particular hobbit with individual quirks, strengths, weaknesses, and interests that qualify him to be the burglar that Gandalf chooses for the purpose of recovering what was lost to the dragon Smaug. If The Hobbit were written by today’s crop of storytellers, Gandalf would have chosen Bilbo because he is a hobbit and no other reason.

Characters today are largely just a collection of general categories based on immutable characteristics. While I acknowledge the reality of bigotry in the world — there is no question that bigotry exists and affects people on a regular basis — none of us have ever experienced “white,” “black,” or whatever category is fashionable in the present moment. We have, however, experienced particular human persons that have these immutable characteristics.

Herein is the insidious nature of the kind of storytelling we see in today’s popular culture, and why it is so awful. Characters are no longer human persons. They are no longer unique, irreplaceable, and valuable individuals. Characters are merely categories. As individual persons, they have no value because they can be replaced by another character from the same general category.

This type of storytelling can only produce uninteresting and valueless stories because the individual characters that occupy these stories have no intrinsic value in their particularity. As consumers, it becomes increasingly difficult to care about these stories because there is no particular to encounter — these stories deny us the very basic human experience of the particular that is our reality.

This also explains why it is so easy to label fans who demand the particular as toxic and -ists of various flavors. We are denying and criticizing the immutable characteristic — the general category — of the character. Since there is no particular and only the general, we must therefore be toxic and -ist.

All of this dehumanizes everybody. History has shown again and again that when we dehumanize the other, nothing good follows.