Pretty, Useful

I’m sure you’ve seen that terrible Girls’ Life cover that did the rounds a little while ago. It was hard to miss – as many people commented, the boys who were targeted for its brother publication Boys’ Life were encouraged to explore their futures, while girls were encouraged to…be pretty and have nice hair.

There was a lot wrong with that cover. But a few days ago, a response to it began to circulate. I saw the post in a feminist group I’m part of, and it made many of us feel distinctly uncomfortable.

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On the surface, the ‘alternative cover’ looks great. A science fair winner as the cover girl, tips on healthy eating, volunteering and careers – what’s not to like? I’m sure it was completely well-meaning and came from a place of good intent. Unfortunately, it’s still problematic.

Firstly, there’s the fact that the cover on the right is suggesting that this form of girlhood is “better” than the other – that girls who volunteer and do AP classes are somehow worthier than girls who like fashion. There’s no mention of the fact that all girls are worthy because they’re, y’know, human – and there’s also no mention of the fact that girls can like makeup and hairstyles and get high grades and do good works. The implication seems to be that you can be like the (bad, made-up, inferior) girl on the left, or the (good, fresh-faced, superior) girl on the right – and that you’d better choose correctly. Which puts the blame on girls, not patriarchy, for the fact that teen girls aren’t taken seriously.

Secondly – the suggestions on the right really do seem like a hell of a lot of work, especially for an older child/young teen. Boys get to ‘explore their future’ in whatever way they want, but girls have to hyperfocus on AP classes and voluntary work that’s going to look good on their CVs? All work and no play makes Jill a tired and extremely pressured girl. (And why is there such a strong emphasis on volunteering for girls, when there’s no equivalent to this in the original Boys’ Life cover? ‘Cos girls have to learn early that they’re going to be doing a ton of emotional labour throughout their lives, I guess…)

And finally – I’m absolutely not arguing that volunteering, or getting good grades, or focusing on your future career, is a bad thing. Hell, I was that kid in school – still am, to some extent. But don’t all the things mentioned on the edited cover look “improving”, as a Jane Austen novel might put it? The fake article headers seem to scream “Hey girls, don’t be a decorative object – be a useful object!”, without realising that this still treats girls as objects. 

It is a wonderful thing to be kind, and generous, and help people. But there’s a big difference between that and simply being handy for others to have around. To paraphrase the famous quote, ‘pretty’ isn’t a tax that girls or women should have to pay in order to occupy the space marked ‘female’ – but ‘useful’ shouldn’t be, either. Girls deserve to occupy space, and be treated as worthy, because they’re humans – whether they like eyeliner, science, neither, or both.

If I were to improve the Girls’ Life cover, I would want to show girls that yes, it’s good to be focused and motivated – and that it’s also okay, and healthy, to do stuff that is just for you, and isn’t necessarily ‘improving’ or ‘good’. You need a certain amount of frivolity and goofing around in your life, or you just burn out (and miss out on a lot of self-discovery and moments of inspiration along the way. Some of the best ideas I’ve had have started off with me noodling around doing things that don’t seem important. I got an academic journal paper out of binge-watching Avengers films in my PJs). I’d want to show girls that you can like academic things and volunteering and make-up and celebrities and extreme sports and Netflix and anything else you want and that all of these ands are actually and/ors and that none of it has to define you unless you want it to. And I’d want to make it Teens’ Life so boys and NB kids can feel that way too.

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Fifteen Minutes

Since I’ve been freelancing (over a year now, yikes), I’ve noticed what I shall call the Freelancer’s Scale of Jobs to Concentration. The more jobs you have – both individual tasks and actual paid employment – the more guilty you feel for focusing on any one of them, because there’s a little voice in your head telling you that you should also be concentrating on all of the others.

I currently have what I have roughly estimated to be about a billion jobs to do, so at the moment I resemble this puppy, if it was weeping and hadn’t slept properly in about a month:

This has completely done a number on my writing. I used to be able to immerse myself in my made-up world and get lost in it. Now, I’m lucky if I manage fifteen minutes before I go into a spiral of “Oh God, why am I doing this when I really should be doing X, Y and Z?” (Of course, when I stop and do X, Y and Z, I feel guilty because I’m not writing).

I have until the end of the month to finish this draft of Sigyn, and I was already panicking that the guilt wouldn’t let me get it done. (Amazingly, panicking about guilt is not a great motivator, and tends to make you lie on your bed stress-eating strawberry pencils instead of knuckling down and doing some work).

So I decided – well, if I can only write for fifteen minutes at a go…let’s just do that.

My current writing routine is to set my phone’s timer for fifteen minutes and just write, no matter how rubbish it might turn out to be. So far, it’s working pretty well. On good days, I shut off the alarm at the fifteen-minute mark and carry on writing. On bad days, I still get to the end of the fifteen minutes – and that’s usually around 300 words, and that’s better than no words at all.

I’m really hoping that some day soon, I’ll be able to get back into that frame of mind where I can write for hours and get lost in the story – because that, more than anything else, is what I love about writing. But until then, if I can only visit my world for fifteen minutes at a time…well, sometimes that’s enough.

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Rewriting history: how to blend historical fact with fantasy by S.J.A. Turney

picI’m delighted to be one of the stops on S.J.A. Turney’s blog tour for his latest ‘Tales of the Empire’ novel, InsurgencyRoman history has always intrigued me, and I’m looking forward to reading this fantasy twist. Here we have Simon’s blog post about the mingling of history and fantasy that he uses in his work:

 

 

 

 

Rewriting history: how to blend historical fact with fantasy by S.J.A. Turney

History is history, yes? Of course it is. We know all about Harold and the arrow (ow, my eye… my beautiful eye), about Henry VIII’s wives (divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived – and all off the top of my head) and about how Paul Revere rode with his warning about the British (“They’re coming and hell’s coming with them” – me misquoting and paraphrasing either the bible or Clint Eastwood there.) And fantasy is clearly fantasy, yes? Dragons called Ghaxiklyxxx and wizards with hook noses and glowing staves with a knob on the end, and magic swords that dance and hoot and barbarian heroes who really just want to be loved, right?

But what if fantasy isn’t so different to history? Because history is made of two things. There are two sources we use to gain historical knowledge. 1. Archaeology (“Look mum, I dug up a piece of a pot”) – the things that have been left in the ground from which we can draw conclusions and 2. Primary sources (“Carthago Delenda Est” – look it up, because it’s a fab quote) – things written by people at the time that have survived. What happens, then, when the history itself is fantastic? Archaeologically, what about the Nasca lines? How were they drawn from the ground? Was it a divine Etch-a-sketch? And ancient alien Spirograph? Literarily, what do we make of the emperor Maximinus Thrax? The Historia Augusta makes him ‘eight foot, six inches in height’. It’s the BTG (Big Thracian Giant) Do we believe this? Or is it fantasy?

And then let’s talk about fantasy instead of history. What constitutes fantasy? Monsters? Magic? Wizards and Elves? I remember watching a friend in my old Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) campaign trigger a fireball trap on a stair gate. I loved my D&D. Or is it purely the fact that it is not real? Because that is the very nature of fantasy: not real. Of course by such token Pirates of the Caribbean is fantasy, as is Star Wars, and even Die Hard. So we need perhaps to quantify. Fantasy is a tale that is not real, and is based in a world that is entirely (or at least mostly) fictional. And perhaps, just to seal the deal, we might add ‘and set in the past’, although Star Wars once again makes a mockery of that. So, Fantasy is clearly not straightforward either.

History is replete with the unexplained. As well as the Maximinus and Nasca things I mentioned above, we might consider the Roman dodecahedrons? The Antikythera mechanism? Pegasus? The story of Beowulf? The fate of the Marie Celeste? And Fantasy does not have to have dragons, elves and some dude with a magic bastard sword and a name like Erigos The Earless to be fantasy. It merely has to not be quite the real world.

This is where historical fantasy is born: in the blending of these two things. In the grey areas. Or maybe the grey/green if there are zombies too…

History is clearly strange enough. If you want to write history but make it solidly rooted in a historical era you merely have to take the flavour. Use the naming conventions – that’s a good start. I have Quintillian and Titus Tythianus and similar. They are so clearly Latin based that the reader immediately connotates this fantasy world with Rome. And when I use Samir and Ghassan? Well yes: Arabic, clearly. Take architecture and twist it your way. A triumphal arch is such a Roman thing, but have it carved by a blind monk called Boldas on an island only the dead can reach? Well that’s fantasy. Or is it Roman? Can it not be both?

If you want to use the real world history and write historical fiction, there’s plenty of source material out there for you. If you wish to write sword and sorcery fantasy, your imagination is all you need. If you seek a little of both – a fictional world of the unknown and the fantastic, but rooted in something familiar and rich – then here’s my suggestions:

  1. Pick your era. Not as easy as it sounds. If you want to do this well you need to have more than a passing knowledge of that era. And you need to be prepared to read books and research to flesh out your world with realism. Try to pick something where a little mystery and uncertainty already lies. That’ll help.
  2. If you’re not using the real world, you’ll need to build it. If you were a geeky, anorakky role-player like me in your formative years this should be a piece of cake. But you’ll need to create a map of your world and develop the states and nations and the peoples within it. Of course, because you are blending history with fantasy, you need only twist what exists. My Empire is almost the Roman world of the later empire. My Pelasia is geographically North Africa and culturally a mix between that and Persia. My Horse clans are a blend of Hun and Mongol. And they are all geographically placed in roughly the appropriate position on my map. Add your dragons if that floats your boat. Have your characters journey past the tomb of Borlox The Orc ranger, where Ghaxiklyxxx burned him to a cinder. Hey, it’s YOUR story. Who’s to say it didn’t happen?
  3. Now you know what era you’re using and you’ve planned your world, study that era and prepare to rip every aspect you can from one to the other. If it’s Roman, study the armour and recreate it. If it’s Crusade era, check out the military/religious orders, monasteries, illuminated script etc. You see where I’m going with this? You can add immense flavour of an era with just tiny details.
  4. Now you’re ready to come up with your plot. Can’t help you there, I’m afraid. You’ll have to go find your own muse for that. It could be your grandma’s garden gnome. Go pick it up and peer in its glassy eyes. Try fishing from its seat. You never know.

 

So really, that’s it. A blend of history and fantasy is simple, so long as you’re happy to put in the study or you know your stuff well already. Don’t forget that even what you consider to be high fantasy has its roots somewhere. David Eddings’ Sparhawk books are based on the history of the Templars, Hospitallers and Teutons. Tolkien tore apart Anglo-Saxon myth and put it back together again in a new form to build Middle Earth. Guy Gavriel Kay… well, he’s the master. Just go read his books and you’ll pick up something with every page, including how wonderful his writing is! Or you could read my Tales of the Empire series – because they’re cool. There are no monsters really, no magic, no gods and no wizards. But there’s action aplenty, and they’re fantasy nonetheless.

Profile Photo 1Simon Turney lives in rural North Yorkshire with his family. A lover of Roman history, he decided to combine writing and history with a new look at Caesar’s diaries, spawning the hugely popular Marius’ Mules and Tales of the Empire series. When he’s not writing, he spends time visiting classical architecture and ruins. Insurgency is his 18th novel, and is published by Canelo, priced at £3.99 as an ebook.

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My Five Fave Fictional Female Friendships

I’m a fan of lots of things (unbelievably unoriginal and absolutely awful alliteration, for example), but one of my favourite things in literature – and media in general – is a good depiction of female friendships.

There’s been a lot written recently about the subject of female friendships, and how absent they are in a lot of media. I’m currently watching series two Gotham, and none of the main female characters seem to have any friends at all (or any personality whatsoever, but that’s a subject for another blog). The same goes for Daredevil – does Karen do anything outside of her secretarial job/journalistic research? Does she meet up with anyone for coffee? Go to a yoga class? Skype with anyone, even?

Of course, the main male characters in popular series don’t tend to have tons of friends, either, but they do have a select few close buddies – while the women have no-one at all (which, I guess, is only to be expected, since their function in the story is often just to be an ambulatory sounding board/romantic option for the men in charge. Crappy character development, what’s that?)

But one area where female friendships flourish is children’s literature. Here are some of my favourite examples.

 

Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong, from Robin Stevens‘ Wells and Wong series

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I’ve written before about my adoration of the Wells and Wong series, and one of the reasons I love it so much is the friendship between the two main characters. While the plots are beautifully escapist (in one book there is literally a murder on the Orient Express, everyone!), Hazel and Daisy’s relationship is utterly believable, with the squabbles, misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and brilliant, electric rapport that make school friendships so special. Hazel and Daisy complement each other perfectly, with Daisy having the flashes of insight that blow their cases open, and Hazel providing the thoughtfulness and caution that actually gets the work done.

 

Evie, Amber and Lottie, from Holly Bourne‘s Spinster Club series

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The Spinster Club series follows three girls in their last years at secondary school, and their adventures in life, love, friendship, and feminism. Evie, Amber and Lottie form the Spinster Club, where they discuss feminist issues and campaign against gender inequality on both big and small scales. Although their feminism isn’t 100% perfect (Lottie’s lipstick “warpaint” in What’s a Girl Gotta Do carried a lot of connotations of cultural appropriation akin to the hipster headdress, for example), this can sometimes add to the realism – no-one does feminism right all the time, and the girls learn and grow from their mistakes. What makes the series wonderful is how thoroughly that the three girls have each others’ backs. Whether the Spinster Club is supporting Evie through difficult periods caused by her OCD, or discussing recently broken hearts, they’re always there for each other, providing cheesy snacks and much-needed hugs. The Spinster Club is a perfect illustration of how deep, fulfilling, and downright necessary female friendships can be.

 

Kamala and Nakia, from G. Willow Wilson‘s Ms Marvel

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Do I really need to add any explanation after this picture? While Kamala does fall into the usual superhero trap of “I will protect my loved ones by never telling them my superheroic identity!”, which threatens to damage her friendship with Nakia, the interactions between the two girls show exactly how much they mean to each other. Kamala and Nakia tease each other, squabble, and confide in each other (about everything except superheroics, anyway). Their friendship is honest and believable, and a perfect example of how, even in a world where teenagers can metamorphose and heal from gunshot wounds, realistic characters are key to making a good story.

Amal, Yasmeen and Leila, from Randa Abdel-Fattah‘s Does My Head Look Big In This?

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It’s been a long time since I read Does My Head Look Big In This? (the story follows Amal and her decision to start wearing the hijab “full-time”), but as well as the wit, well-paced story and important points on the hypocrisy of Islamophobia, one thing that sticks in my mind from the story is the friendship between Amal and her two best friends from her Islamic junior high school, Yasmeen and Leila. Once again, the friendship in this book is a fantastic example of ‘girls having each others’ backs’ – the three friends support each other at every turn, whether they’re helping Amal figure out hijab-friendly outfits, or getting Leila through some difficult times with her family (no details because, spoilers).

 

Etta and Bianca, from Hannah Moskowitz‘s Not Otherwise Specified

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Unlike the others in this list, Etta and Bianca’s friendship starts off as one of circumstance, more than choice – the two girls meet at an eating disorder support group, and initially, they couldn’t be more different. Etta is an older teen, black, bisexual, and on her way to recovery from her eating disorder; Bianca is very young, white, dealing with latent homophobia that she’s absorbed from her strictly religious family, and her anorexia has advanced to the point where it’s directly threatening her life. The two girls initially bond over their shared love of dance and music; they both want to go to stage school, and while Bianca supports Etta through her audition prep, Etta is there for Bianca during crisis points caused by her family and her medical condition. Their friendship, like the rest of the story, is beautifully drawn, and leaves you rooting for them both.

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We Need To Talk About Kevin

I’ve held off on doing a Ghostbusters blog, because I have a fairly unpopular opinion – I thought it was only kinda okay.

I really wanted to love the reboot of Ghostbusters, especially because of the ridiculous and sexist backlash against *shock horror* A FILM HAVING FOUR WOMEN LEADS. There were some things about the film I liked a lot – the action sequences, the scary bits, and, of course, Holtzmann.

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World’s most obvious choice of GIF? Yes, and I don’t even care

But – and I’ll get this part out of the way before I go into the main point of this post – a lot of this film just wasn’t for me. I found the dialogue very clunky – in many scenes, the strategy for writing seemed to go as follows:

  1. One-liner joke
  2. Several other lines pointing to the joke, in case some members of the audience didn’t realise it was a joke
  3. Filler until the next one-liner

The example of this that really leaped out at me was Kristen Wiig’s discussion with Charles Dance, early on in the film, where he tells her something along the lines of “I was disappointed to see that one of your letters of recommendation was from Princeton, I would’ve hoped you could’ve got somewhere more high-profile”, to which KW replied “More high-profile than Princeton?”…as if to make sure that the audience really realises that he has unnecessarily high standards, because Princeton is actually a really good uni, you guys! For me, a line following a joke needs to either extend that joke (she could have replied with a dry “Okay, next time I’ll try to get one from Jesus”), or just move on. If your joke needs explaining, it’s not working as a joke; if your joke is working, trust that the audience will get it. I found a lot of the dialogue did this, and it put me on edge the whole way through the film. Dialogue needs to either further the plot or develop the characters, or, ideally, both; I felt that a lot of the dialogue in Ghostbusters didn’t do either.

But – and I want to stress this – this is a problem that would have existed even if every single person cast in the reboot had been a man. Ghostbusters‘ problems as a film are not to do with the fact that it has a cast of women, and it makes me facepalm like Picard to think that this even needs saying in 2016.

While we’re on sexism and Ghostbusters, though, I want to make a few points on the apparent ‘reverse sexism’ in the film – the treatment of Chris Hemsworth’s character, adorable useless secretary Kevin.

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I saw this image doing the rounds on social media, about the ways that Ghostbusters defies many of the trite old tropes around women in films:

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I was discussing this image with my boyfriend in a coffee shop one morning (because I live in coffee shops, and if he wants to spend any time with me, he has to partly live there too), and he pointed out that despite all the whining from dudebros about Kevin being “clueless eye candy”, he still passes a genderflipped version of the Sexy Lamp Test. Without spoiling the plot for the ten people who still haven’t seen Ghostbusters, you could not remove Kevin from Ghostbusters without significant changes to the story. He’s important to the plot, and he’s got a personality (adorkable) and a life outside his supporting role to the four main characters (as we see in his explanations about his ambitions and his dog).

WESTWOOD, CA - JULY 27:  Actor Chris Hemsworth arrives at the Los Angeles Premiere "Vacation" at Regency Village Theatre on July 27, 2015 in Westwood, California.  (Photo by Jon Kopaloff/FilmMagic)

Chris Hemsworth – officially Not A Sexy Lamp

This means that a woman-led action film, which has a male character who is a parody of the way women are so often depicted in male-led action films, STILL TREATS THAT MALE CHARACTER A DAMN SIGHT BETTER THAN HIS EARLIER FEMALE COUNTERPARTS WERE TREATED. But, y’know, feminism is totally man-hating, right?

There were a lot of flaws in Ghostbusters (see Janessa E Robinson’s article about the portrayal of Patty), but the representation of Kevin wasn’t one of them. He wasn’t a serious character in the least – but he was a character, and that’s more than a lot of women in film and TV get (looking at you, series 2 of Gotham).

I can’t think of a pithy ending to this post, so instead, here’s a picture of Hemsworth and McCarthy (and doesn’t that sound like a duo of detectives?) goofing around:

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Enjoy!

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Pool of Blood

It’s been a little while since I had a bit of a snarky feminist rage on this blog. Apparently the universe thought I was overdue, because the other day, I saw this:

The idea of restricting the movements of women – and the trans men and NB people who also menstruate – because some people (who are generally cis men) are afraid of periods isn’t new, but it’s not a discussion I’d expect to be having in 2016. Just kidding, it totally is, because people keep proving time and time again that they cannot deal with body parts and bodily functions that 51% of the world’s population experience.

Why would it be a problem for someone to swim while having their period? Sure, if you see a woman paddling around in the pool with a wide red mist fanning out behind her, you might want to get the lifeguard – but I’ve been a swimmer for my entire life, and I’ve never seen anything like that. That may be because these days, we have these nifty things called tampons, which mean you can swim without having to freebleed.

Okay, so if seeing blood isn’t the issue, is it bacteria? Well, if that’s your problem, I hate to break it to you, but if you use a public pool you are already swimming in all of the bacteria that hasn’t been killed off by the chlorine. And menstrual blood isn’t the only potential source of bacteria you’re going to encounter when you swim.

If you’re swimming in a pool frequented by children, then, I’m afraid, you’re swimming in pee. “But urine is sterile!” you cry – nope, sorry. And it’s not just urine – all that water washing around people’s junk is going to dissipate some genital-dwelling bacteria across the rest of the pool. If you’re going to ban people who are menstruating, it’d be logical to also ban anyone who’s peed that day – so, everyone.

Moving away from that end of the body – it’s not just urine you have to worry about. Every single swimmer in that pool is sharing their saliva. It’s near impossible to swim without getting a little water in your mouth and spitting it back out – a public pool is basically an enormous puddle of backwash. Should we ban dribbling in the pool? The only way to do it would be to force everyone to awkwardly hold their heads out of the water the entire time – which would certainly make the Olympics a lot slower.

But all this is a moot point. Remember that chlorine I mentioned? Well, it won’t kill every last bacterium in the pool – but it’ll get rid of most of them. If you’re swimming in a well-maintained pool, you’re going to be pretty safe, even if every swimmer with a uterus is trying to exercise away their cramps.

Obviously, there are some body products that should never end up in the pool: vomit, since it’s a fairly major symptom of severe illness; faeces, because the bacteria found in those is seriously dangerous to human health; and semen, because you really shouldn’t be doing that in public. But there’s absolutely nothing unhealthy, unhygienic, or anti-social about swimming on your period. Trying to limit people’s movements because of a benign and natural bodily process, though? Now that’s gross.

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Writers’ Guides to Dating

As I was walking past a charity shop on my way to the gym the other day (*virtuous face* *probably smeared with chocolate*), I noticed this book in the window display:

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I remember hearing a little bit about this book when it came out, but I hadn’t thought about it since. I love Jane Austen’s novels, and it seemed inevitable that someone would apply her narratives to real-life dating situations – but, as I looked in the shop window, I started wondering how a Jane Austen approach to dating would actually work.

I narrowed it down to the following steps:

  1. Be clever and a little awkward.
  2. Have a mother who is a complete embarrassment.
  3. Meet a man who is equally clever and awkward, ideally at a ball.
  4. Have a misunderstanding that involves the pair of you talking around your feelings and making acerbic comments at each other for a long period of time.
  5. Go on a trip with some elderly spinsters.
  6. Come back, have a proper conversation with your prickly paramour, and get married.*

I’m sure there’s more in this book than that, but it got me thinking – what dating advice can we glean from other famous authors?

 

Terry Pratchett’s Guide to Dating

  1. Find a spiky and practical woman, or a well-meaning but vaguely wet man, depending on your preference.
  2. Reluctantly become involved with an unpleasant situation – a murder, corporate corruption, or the end of the world.
  3. Fall grudgingly in love.

 

George Orwell’s Guide to Dating

  1. Pick a potential romantic partner based on the fact that they wear a belt.
  2. Find a creepy and suspicious character to host your romantic getaways. Be shocked when he betrays you.
  3. Remember that love conquers everything. Except rats. Rats conquer love.

 

Agatha Christie’s Guide to Dating

  1. Fall in love with an attractive stranger.
  2. Hand them over to the police, because they’re probably the killer.

 

George R. R. Martin’s Guide to Dating

  1. Have a sibling.

 

 

 

Yes, I know this is basically just Pride and Prejudice, not all Jane Austen. I have read her other books, honest.

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