After a rather fluffy and upbeat couple of posts last week, we’re going down into the dark today. Trigger warning for sexual assault and spoilers for James Treadwell’s Advent and Anarchy. Also I’m going to slightly spoil my own book, Mother of Creation, because I can and because I feel like I can’t have this conversation without thinking about how it applies to my own work. Please read my book anyway if you can, because I’d like my writing habit to someday become more lucrative.
Sexual assault is something that every woman experiences as an echo in her psyche, I think. It is so pervasive in our media and culture it is hard not to have that echo whispering at you from time to time, catching the edge of your attention. Many of my friends have experienced some type of sexual assault, sometimes violent. I carry their stories. I myself have been blessed enough to experience minor forms – the unwanted touches of older men, the catcalls and implicit threats, the pressure to say yes to intimacy and the uncomfortable knowledge that saying “no” was something being granted when it should have been something that was merely understood.
I remember vividly as a young woman being told by someone I loved and trusted very much that sometimes a man can’t stop, it wasn’t like it was for girls, so it was my obligation not to take it to that point. I carried this misinformation with me for years. It’s an insidious narrative, the idea that men have no choice in rape anymore than women do. That they are gripped by their overwhelming base urges. A rape is like a tree falling in a storm. It is like gravity.
Rape is the nature of man, this narrative says. You can’t blame him.
I encountered this idea very recently in the work of James Treadwell. I will hurry to say that the writing style of Treadwell is beautiful, the narrative pacing solid, the thematic content interesting. Yet I am not sure that I will finish the trilogy that this particular narrative occurred in, despite enjoying many other elements of the story, despite being solidly invested. The narrative arc in question, after all, occurred in the second book of this series, Anarchy. It had been some time since I read Advent, several years in fact, so any warning that this was the direction of the character, Marina’s, plot development had been forgotten. I remember enjoying Advent a great deal. It is, if you want to read it, probably a little bit like The Magicians, a grim approach to magic in the modern world.
Marina is the child of a siren and/or river nymph (the two mythological creatures appear to be confused in the text somewhat, not that they don’t have overlaps) and a human man. She is raised by that man, her father, in isolation. Her understanding of the world is hampered by the way that she is raised and by the fact that she is not entirely human and does not seem to think of things the way humans do. Most importantly, though, Marina is a child. She is fourteen, but seems to think more like a ten-year-old.
Early on in the book Anarchy, Marina is left alone by the men in her life, hidden for her own good, they say. It is established through reflections by other, male characters that she has inherited some supreme charisma or sexual attractiveness from her mother. Despite the fact that she is clearly an adolescent, and despite the fact that she clearly does not understand attraction or present herself in any way sexually, they are overwhelmingly attracted to her. She must therefore be kept shut away.
If you’re already getting skeeved out here, then you can join the club.
Most of the book, however, is not told from these other males’ perspectives. It is told from Marina’s, or from the perspectives of other women. Unsurprisingly, women do not seem to feel this same attraction – though the woman who appoints herself Marina’s guardian, Iseult, obviously senses that it is a possibility. The question of why this would be the case, or why, if Iseult does feel attraction towards Marina, she is able to resist it but men cannot, is never brought up. The most unfortunate part of Iseult and Marina’s interactions, however, is that it makes you feel that Marina might escape the fate the author has clearly planned for her.
She doesn’t, of course.
Why Treadwell felt the need to include the sexual assault of a child in his narrative, whether it contributed to the story, is not something I am interested in analyzing here. What does strike me so violently about Marina’s story, however, is not the rape itself, though that was traumatic enough. It is the way that it is described as natural and inevitable within the narrative. From the start, it is clear that men cannot be trusted with Marina. It takes a heroic effort for them not to assault her, in fact. This narrative so thoroughly parallels the worst and most entrenched ideas of rape culture that it is deeply destabilizing to read. It is even more destabilizing to question why a writer would include a rape in his narrative that was presented in such a way, especially of a child.
I myself have used sexual assault in my stories. I am not innocent of that. Liana’s rape was constructed as an inevitability in some ways as well. I would argue the inevitability was not, however, dependent on her nature, on human nature. Jei has a choice that is very clearly set in front of him. Yes, he is pressured and manipulated by his own power and position, among other things, but the choice always lies with him. It was important for me to explore the ways that power allows grievous crimes to become normalized. I sought to do that while making it clear that what had happened should not be normal. I can’t say whether or not I succeeded in this – I don’t have that distance from my own work.
That was not, to my reading of Marina’s tale, the way her rape was written. That is not the way that rape is often presented in narratives in our culture. It bothers me fundamentally that this is the case – that even in trying to represent sexual assault in story, to understand it, we replicate narratives that normalize it.
I call out Treadwell because his work allowed me to see clearly what bothers me most about depictions of sexual assault. He’s not alone in this, and perhaps I should be critiqued equally. It’s been a long time since I first conceived of Mother of Creation, and I can’t say there aren’t things I would have done differently. But I do know that in the future, I hope to read and create stories where sexual assault is not normalized as an inevitability, where men are decent and where women are not blamed for the happenstance of their bodies. If we don’t start telling that kind of story, we can never hope to live in that kind of world.
So I watch a lot of anime, I’ve mentioned, though not as much as some people. I found this anime, which originally aired through 2006 to 2008, while looking for something that would feed my insatiable hunger for more Akatsuki no Yona (which is still up there on my top three along with Ouran High School Host Club and Serei no Moribito). The anime ran for two separate seasons, each 39 episodes. It’s near impossible to find anywhere now except for online streaming sites. Trust me, I looked, mostly because the last ten episodes or so on the streaming site I use were incorrectly labeled and out of order. At least one or two were missing entirely. There is no frustration like watching 60+ episodes of anime only to have the ending rendered incomprehensible by disorder. I was going to buy the last few episodes if I could find them anywhere, but they are exorbitantly expensive.
Anyway there may be some mild spoilers but I am trying to keep this review short so hopefully nothing that will destroy your enjoyment.
Saiunkoku Monogatari translates as “Tales of Saiunkoku” loosely. In this case Saiunkoku is a country with a pseudo-Chinese/Japanese imperial regime. I won’t go too much into the world-building, except to say that you should remember that cultural rules apply: great families rule, supporting the emperor; the emperor himself is from one of those great families; a family can disown you if you have dishonored it in some fashion (or just pissed off the wrong person); women can also carry their family names, and do if their family is more powerful.
All of that cultural baggage is what is simultaneously greatly interesting about this anime, and also its Achilles heel.
Saiunkoku Monogatari is an example of an anime that is trying to do too many things at once. I enjoyed it immensely and still feel that the writing was not 100% solid. You can see this very clearly early on in the first season. The main character, Kou Shuurei, is from an impoverished noble family – or at least so it appears at first. She lives alone with her father in what is essentially a crumbling urban estate. The action begins when she is approached by a pair of upper echelon court officials with a proposition – they will pay her a huge sum of money if she becomes the consort of the emperor. She is made to understand that the emperor actually has no carnal interest in women, so she agrees to the exchange.
This looks like it is setting us up for a love comedy and I was okay with that. Indeed, the first several episodes take that track. At some point, however, the story transitions pretty drastically. Shuurei somehow leaves the emperor’s household (the how of this is not really explained, but the inference is that no one knew it was her??) and decides to become an imperial official. Problem is that women aren’t allowed to take the exams to become officials.
In an abrupt about-face, suddenly the story becomes about women shattering the glass ceiling while surrounded by numerous attractive men. Say what? I am here for this type of story, so I was excited! If this had been the story from the beginning I would have enjoyed it immensely more, actually. That said, the emperor is still in love with Shuurei, which at times gets annoying, honestly.
Through Shuurei’s dramas and efforts, we come to learn a lot about the political system of Saiunkoku. One thing becomes pretty clear in the first season: Shuurei’s political situation is a lot more complicated than it seemed at first. Though it’s variously acknowledged, it seems that Shuurei is the princess of the Kou family, a very prestigious family. Her father was dishonored (I won’t spoil why, or how complicated that dishonor was) but her uncles fully intend her to be married to the next heir of the Kou family (or to become that heir). The Kou family rivals the emperor in influence. So remember that cultural baggage I mentioned earlier? Kou Shuurei, princess of the Kou family, cannot marry the emperor – it would leave her family without issue. At no point does either Shuurei or the emperor she serves/maybe loves acknowledge this particular complication. One must assume one or both of them, being intelligent and powerful young things, would realize this is a problem, but it never comes up. Instead the barrier to their love is shown to be Shuurei’s career aspirations. In fact, those aspirations are several times framed as the barrier to Shuurei’s happiness, especially in the second season.
I am, of course, highly annoyed with this.
So to recap, we have: an anime that is set in a world whose rules are not consistently followed; a love comedy that turns into a political drama with almost no warning and not a lot of reason; and a story that should be about women breaking the glass ceiling, and is, except when it’s about shaming women for those same actions, over and over, and threatening them with sexual assault (which happens several times towards the end of both seasons). Shuurei is the cute little housewife who happens to have ambition, and she is punished for it as often as she is rewarded.
I loved Saiunkoku Monogatari‘s emphasis on a woman’s competency, on thoughtful and ethical governing, and the parts of the world-building that were solid. I disliked the pandering to male characters who were consistently jerks, the narrowly avoided sexual assaults, and the general emotional pounding that Shuurei receives for literally everything she does. So I guess the parts that paralleled real life. I would have enjoyed better world-building. My favorite parts were the interactions she had with other powerful women who were kicking ass and taking names, one way or another, and the lessons that Shuurei learned from them.
Would I watch this anime again? Probably. I know there were things I missed – a lot, as I mentioned, was going on with this story. I also recommend it. But do be conscious of its shortcomings.
So I felt really, really upset after watching Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them this past week. Some people seem to have really liked it, which is baffling to me. I grew up on Harry Potter, like many in my generation, generally loved the books, and for me this movie was an uncomfortable, disconcerting experience – like hearing an old friend you hadn’t seen in years say something incredibly racist in casual conversation. It’s that moment where the world is slightly out of kilter because you’re in shock. Eventually that shock devolves into rage, at least for me. So if you continue to read this blog post, you will be on the rage side of the spectrum, because that is the head space that I wrote it in. A warning if this was a movie you enjoyed – you’re probably going to feel uncomfortable if you stick around. Honestly, that might be a good thing, but its your call. If you want a quick summary, since this is a long post, skip to the last few paragraphs.
First of all, full disclosure, I wasn’t planning on seeing this movie in theaters. I’m a huge Harry Potter fan, but I had a mixed response to the movies (I’m generally more of a book girl) and was pretty unimpressed with the Fantastic Beasts trailers as well as the early promotional stuff that went on at Pottermore. I went with my parents, who had zero problems with the movie, which is honestly unsurprising. And I have seen some lovely, positive reviews of this movie and some of the male characterization, so if you’re interested in hearing about the things the movie got right (few though they are) I welcome you to check out this article over on The Bustle.
There will, as always, be spoilers. If you haven’t seen the movie yet, bail out here. Also, my language is not nice, so buckle up.
If you’re still with me, I’ve broken this down into subheadings for easier digestion, and also because it is super long. Here, then, were my issues with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.
1) The beasts felt like an afterthought.
I liked Newt. I liked his Beasts. I would have been there for a story just about him and his Beasts and running from the law. I was not there for the evil wizard thing tacked onto the anti-magic fundamentalist child abusers. We have two competing plots in this movie, or maybe three, and I got whiplash. This may not hold true for other viewers (I’ve heard different things) but for me it felt forced. Basically I really enjoyed the first half of the movie, minus some awkward moments, and abjectly disliked the second half. That’s all I’m going to say on this point for now, but if you want some expansion I’ll get back to it in Item 4. So let’s move along to the more important bits.
2) I didn’t buy the characters.
There were four main characters in this movie that you were meant to care about, not including the poor kid who gets obliterated at the end after a lifetime of child abuse, and his really twisted, younger sister. They were, in no particular order: Newt, a head-in-the-clouds sort with a strong sense of justice and a potentially unhealthy attachment to animals which could possibly eat him; Jacob, the “No-Maj,” overweight, nice guy character who really likes pastries (by the way, my favorite character despite the fact that he was consistently used for comic relief, mostly because he was the only halfway decent person Newt encountered for the first half hour of the film); Queenie, the quintessential ditzy blonde who really turns out to be smart and loyal (second favorite character, and honestly I shipped her and Jacob so hard); and Tina. Tina, why did you ruin everything? Between you and Seraphina I lost all faith in this movie from the opening scenes.
I know that this is not the actress who played either character’s fault. They did the best with the script they were given, it is obvious. But let me just say that the kind of person who can continually talk over and dismiss her subordinates but then gets angry when that subordinate comes to her with vital information after the fact and punishes her for it, the type of gross incompetence that Seraphina as president of MCUSA displays – that was not believable for me for a woman, much less a woman of color, in such a powerful position in the 1920s – at least barring some very real world-building that would account for it, which I just didn’t see. And Tina. Goddess bless, Tina.
Let’s talk about Tina.
We are meant to believe that Newt is sort of incompetent with people and that he has been harmed by that before but that he generally gets out of things by being a somewhat shifty and yet strangely earnest person. Okay, I have some issues with that, but I will buy it. Socially awkward people abound and when you get to know them they are generally pretty cool. That’s what we’re going with and I get it.
Tina was also supposed to be that socially awkward character I think, in sharp contrast to the glowing Queenie, her sister who was also a Legimens. We can imagine that this social awkwardness is what makes people dislike her so much (enough for her coworkers to murder her viciously without question???? WHAT WAS THAT SCENE?) but I don’t buy that someone who had been a successful Auror and screws up once is such a damn idiot. Like, I get that she is socially awkward and has bad timing. Okay. But there is socially-awkward-and-has-bad-timing and then there is “holy shit what is wrong with you.” You march a guy into a convention of your Magical Congress (I assume that was what that was, it was not explicitly stated) inside a courtroom which is obviously only used for such grandiose meetings and other similar high-faluting activities, and just start running off at the mouth without even having the situational awareness to realize a meeting is in session? Running off at the mouth when you know there is an open investigation regarding murders in the city committed by some kind of creature? And then you have the nerve to be surprised when you get your friend arrested, his animals probably exterminated? You don’t survive as an Auror without being aware of your surroundings, no matter how good you are with spells and how strong your sense of justice. Socially awkward only takes me so far, and it did not take me to the realm of Tina. I didn’t believe in her at all until about the last half of the movie, and at that point I was just along for the ride (see above). Which brings me to…
3) Everyone in the government was a dick. (#Sorrynotsorry)
Why would you even want to live in America? This is apparently the question J.K. Rowling asked herself throughout writing this movie.
The staff of MCUSA is a bunch of sociopaths apparently, with possibly more money/power than sense. We’ve seen that theme in other Harry Potter movies, so its not surprising. What is surprising is that I can see absolutely no reason for the government officials to act the way they do if they have even a shred of self-preservation, especially (as mentioned above) Seraphina. So given all that it is very confusing to me that Tina has any loyalty to them at all. (You thought we were going to stop bashing Tina, didn’t you?)
I get the draconian laws about obliviating everyone everywhere because of the apparently heightened tension between discovery by the non-magical community and the witching community. One presumes that this is exacerbated by the emerging technologies of cameras and shit. Though apparently an obliviate charm can work on the paper (talk about a deus ex machina at the end of this movie, I can’t…ick. That was Into Darkness level.)
The government of non-magical USA is also full of dicks apparently, as evidenced by senator what’s-his-bottom, son of the newspaper tycoon who looked like he was going to have a bigger part and then….didn’t. I was actually okay with him dying because who is that much of a shit to a kid? I get he was supposed to be a spoiled rich boy or something but is no one nice in this damn city?? Can’t anyone catch a break? Especially the poor orphans?
4) Can we stop with the Salem witch trials?
Speaking of orphans, I have some REAL problems with this whole story arc. First of all, did anyone else feel like they were watching two movies, neither of which was really developed into anything? Because I really liked the “gather all the escaped animals and fall in love” plot, and I get that we had to have Grindelwald in there doing his fascist racial superiority gag as Voldemort 2.0, but we did NOT need those poor kids in this movie.
I had some strong emotional reactions to this plot arc because:
a) I was raised as a Wiccan/Neo-Pagan which is probably why I bonded to Harry Potter so thoroughly in the first place and watching that little girl chanting about all the ways to hang me or kill me for my religious beliefs was a little much. I get that it is just a movie, you can tell me I was too serious or that it was supposed to be unsettling, but as far as I can tell it didn’t advance the plot or really build the world and I would have preferred to spend that time elsewhere for my psychological health and enjoyment of the damn film.
b) I also happen to be a woman who thinks and generally likes my unmarried lifestyle as a working lady on birth control already living with her S.O. despite the lack of marriage thing, so depictions of religious extremism make me uncomfortable especially when handled poorly. This was handled poorly, since I never got a real reason for why any of these people would even connect the idea of witches/wizards with modern day, licentious, 1920s New York, where I imagine there were much bigger fish to fry historically (more on that later).
c) Graphic depictions of child abuse are not cool to me, especially on a movie that definitely will catch some kids in the audience. No one needs to see that or normalize it. Harry Potter as a franchise is of course built on the abused child being brought into a world of magic and emancipated. I’m good with that. This movie did not do that. This movie took a bunch of abused kids and punished those who helped them, and then murdered one of those children in cold blood. That’s pretty messed up.
d) I am so tired of this damn trope – like do you think this didn’t happen in the U.K./Europe? Is America supposed to be the only place where women were killed for looking at you wrong, because I can guarantee that that is not the case. We didn’t come by those ideas in vacuum – you only have to look to such episodes as the Inquisition to see that people in Europe have been killing each other for being or believing differently forever, and one particularly salacious episode in Salem is still somehow the defining moment in early American history. The Salem Witch Trials were not even slightly contemporary with 1920s New York City, and it just felt sad and tired to have that moment be the center of this story when there were so many more interesting things that Rowling could have tapped into given the setting she chose. Too much was obviously trying to be done with this movie, and it definitely suffered for it, especially since…
5) Where was this movie even?
Despite 1920s New York City being a hotbed of culture and inspiration, the setting of this movie was Not Great, and that was a fucking shame. I was left with about a thousand questions, including: Where do witches live? What do they do? How do they stay hidden? Are there different factions of witches (ethnically, religiously, racially)? Why were the black people singing in the speakeasy made into CGI goblins, whose fucking idea was that? And, most importantly, where were all of the OTHER black people who were definitely living in New York in the 1920s? Better minds than mine have asked these questions, and I’m going to delve into a bit of why the last was such a problem next week. But yeah, total face-plant on this part.
It is a reminder that even if we get some things right as creators, we will often get many things wrong, and that we must be careful in whom we trust to advise us in patching up our blind spots.
Okay, so, in closing, this movie was a clusterfuck. It was a visually appealing clusterfuck with lots of great graphics and CGI. I thought the beasts were cool for sure. Jacob’s character was best. Newt’s character was solid, and I really wish we had seen more of his reasons for being in New York. It seems unlikely that will happen, given the ending.
Despite those good things, this movie erases or ignores marginalized communities and the diverse setting of 1920s New York. It lacks grounding, relying on action and flashy graphics to distract from that. And it plays off of tired tropes. One of the reason that we all feared Voldemort so much was because he had taken something away from Harry, who we loved; and because he was so feared, because the setting of the wizarding world in the original books was so well developed as to make him fearful. All of that was missing here, and the magic of the wizarding world that made the first series so attractive for viewers was largely overshadowed by a grim reality that every character in this movie with the exception of Newt, Jacob, Queenie, and eventually Tina, was a terrible person who seemed to lack basic compassion. When wizards at large are rendered faceless murderers in wide-brimmed hats, you have to question if you are improving your world or not.
I hate that I had this reaction to this movie, because I am immensely grateful to J.K. Rowling for her previous works. It is not very reassuring to me that she had so much creative license with this movie and still managed to drive what could have been a wonderful film into the ground. It would have taken very little in terms of reaching out to marginalized communities to fix a lot of the problems listed above, though not all of them, and it would have made for a stronger movie. It is a reminder that even if we get some things right as creators, we will often get many things wrong, and that we must be careful in whom we trust to advise us in patching up our blind spots.
There will doubtless be plenty of people like my parents who were able to sail along on nostalgia and shiny explosions and bypass all of the stuff that I have talked about above. More power to you, I suppose. For the rest of us, I guess it’s time to go make a whiskey on the rocks and try to avoid contaminating our childhood memories with this unfortunate episode. Tune in next week for a meditation on 1920s New York inspired by a Spanish poet, just because.
This is for a couple of reasons, the principal of these being that I am white. Because of this, I want to take a moment to acknowledge that my reflections on the novella The Ballad of Black Tom are my own, and come from my whiteness, at least in part. We cannot extricate the parts of our identities, after all. That said, I am also a writer and a writer keenly interested in diverse representation and stories which get to the heart of oppression. The Ballad of Black Tom did both of these things baldly and without pulling any punches. I want to unpack that. And I want to lend my platform to this book, because it is a valuable read, perhaps most especially for white people.
All of that said, there will be spoilers. Stop here if you don’t want those, and scroll to the end for further reading recommendations if you must. You are warned.
If you want to read this book first and come back, I encourage it. It’s a novella, so it took me about three or four hours to chomp through at most. I read fast, but it’s not a terribly serious time commitment if you want to bookmark this page for later.
No, the time commitment is in how much you’ll find yourself thinking about it afterwards.