Category Archives: sex in media

Why “F Is For Family” Is The Perfect Satire Of The American Dream

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What would you say about a man who constantly yells, curses like a sailor on crack, and constantly threatens to put his kids through a wall? On the surface, it sounds like this guy has some serious anger issues. You would probably suspect there’s something wrong with him and that he needs help from a competent therapist.

Then, after you find out that man’s name is Frank Murphy from the animated show, “F is for Family,” you quickly realize that even the best therapist in the world couldn’t do squat for this man. His anger, cursing, and threats of intentional property damage are entirely understandable. In fact, he would need a therapist if he didn’t exhibit some level of anger.

That’s because Frank Murphy, along with every other major theme in “F is for Family,” is the personification of the disillusion of the American Dream. Take everything you think you know about what it means to work hard, get ahead, and achieve your goals in life. Then, kick it in the gut, spit on it, and throw it through a brick wall. That’s Frank Murphy’s life. That’s what “F is for Family” is all about.

I only recently discovered this show while browsing Netflix and I’m glad I did. “F is for Family” is one of those shows that takes an overdone concept, like a dysfunctional cartoon family, and injects it with some overdue nuance. This isn’t a show about a bumbling dad, a nagging mom, or mischievous kids. The issues and themes in “F is for Family” feel genuinely relevant to the current state of the world.

For a show that takes place in the 1970s, that’s quite an accomplishment. At the same time, it makes sense for this show to take place during that particular time period in America because that’s when the hopes, dreams, and optimism of the post-World War II economic boom began to falter. They just faltered a lot faster for Frank Murphy and his family.

In many respects, Frank’s short-tempered persona is a byproduct of that decline. Throughout the show, it’s clear that Frank underwent a significant transformation. He wasn’t always this rage-filled working stiff who jumps at any chance to cuss out anyone in close proximity. He was once an upbeat, optimistic man who reflected the spirit of his time and his country. This is even reflected in the show’s opening theme.

He starts off as an idealistic youth. Born in 1931, he enters adulthood just as his country returns victorious from World War II. Like others before him, he serves his country after getting drafted in the Korean War. He returns home somewhat scarred, but still optimistic about his future. In 1958, he has dreams of flying airplanes and marrying Sue, a young woman in college at the time.

By all accounts, Frank plays by the rules. He works hard and carries out his duty as well as anyone can expect. He’s not some thick-headed dope like Homer Simpson or Peter Griffin. He’s also not some misanthropic underachiever like Al Bundy. He can speak in complete sentences, form coherent thoughts, and demonstrate an average level of competence.

He is, for the most part, an appropriate representation of a working class man trying to provide for his family. The problem, and the frequent source of his anger, is that his efforts often go unrewarded and unappreciated. In some cases, he gets completely screwed over, both by forces beyond his control and by unexpected consequences from his behavior.

In the first season, he works hard and sucks up to his asshole boss, Lance Dunbarton, to get a promotion at the airport he works at as a baggage handler. He even manages to avert a strike on Christmas Eve. Rather than get rewarded for this effort, he gets fired.

In the second season, he gets a chance to return to work, but the way he confronts his former supervisor, Bob Pogo, ends up making his situation worse.

Along the way, Frank also attempts to deal with the constant dysfunction of his family, which includes a rebellious teenage son, a wimpy pre-teen son who gets bullied at every turn, and a young daughter who refuses to conform to traditional gender norms. On top of all that, his wife is dissatisfied with just being a housewife and her efforts to achieve her own dreams cause plenty of marital strife.

At every level, Frank Murphy’s life is not the at all consistent with what the American dream had promised. Instead of the white picket fence with a content wife and well-behaved kids, his life is a constantly-devolving mess. No matter how hard he works or how much he plays by the rules, nothing seems to improve. Things only ever get more frustrating. After only a few episodes, it’s easy to understand why Frank is so angry.

To some extent, Frank Murphy is a fitting personification of Murphy’s Law. That’s not to say that everything goes wrong for him all the time, but through three eventful seasons, his attempts to improve his lot in life never works out. For every step forward he takes, he suffers a major setback.

He finally gets his job back at the airport where he hopes to pursue his dream as a pilot. Then, he gets his wife pregnant and they have to put their dreams on hold again.

He tries to improve things with Sue by taking his wife out for a romantic evening on their anniversary, but ends up getting into a major fight that makes everything worse.

Even his family isn’t immune to this regressive trap. While Frank struggles to find a stable job, Sue attempts to enter the working world, only to have her dreams crushed when the company she works for steals her invention. On top of that, she works in an office where she’s constantly belittled, harassed, and demeaned by co-workers whose conduct makes Don Draper look like a hippie.

His rebellious son also has dreams of becoming a rock star, but ends up getting kicked out of his band after a breakdown involving his drug-loving neighbor’s busty girlfriend. In season 3, he tries to reinvent himself and he tries to find a sense of belonging with a new group of friends. The end result is him getting arrested and spending a night in jail.

His youngest son, Bill Murphy, learns these harsh lessons even earlier than his father. He also tries to work hard and play by the rules. He tries to stand up for himself and confront the bully who torments him. Like his father, though, he ends up making things worse. I won’t get too deep into spoilers, but I will note that there’s some heavy arson and awkward boners involved.

Even his brainy daughter, Maureen, isn’t immune from it. Being a young girl in the early 1970s, her dreams are limited. Even when she aims low, like winning a ring toss contest on kids show, it still fails and through no fault of her own. Like her parents and brothers, the world seems determined to deny her any semblance of success.

If the essence of satire is to offer scathing criticism of a particular social construct, as those who edit Wikipedia imply, then “F is for Family” is a direct attack on the ideals and assumptions we associate with the American Dream. It never gets overly-nihilistic like “Rick and Morty” or “Bojack Horseman.” With every episode and sub-plot, it chips away at the foundation on which that dream is built.

It’s established throughout the show Frank and Sue were both in a position to achieve that dream. They were on a promising path with Sue being in college and Frank wanting to become a pilot. Even when they faced a major obstacle, namely Sue getting pregnant, they tried to do the right thing. They sacrificed for each other and their family.

That’s NOT red paint.

In any other narrative, their responsible behavior would be rewarded. By the standards of the American Dream, they did the right thing. They got married and tried to provide for their family. However, despite those sacrifices, they’re repeatedly denied their dreams. At the end of the day, doing the right thing and playing by the rules just doesn’t cut it.

Frank watches as his obese, slob of a boss screws him over on Christmas Eve. Sue watches as the company that made her so miserable steals her idea and profits from it. Their kids watch as the world around them rewards and punishes those who don’t deserve it. The only ones who ever seem to benefit are those strong enough to skirt the rules or well-connected enough to bend them.

In that context, it’s fitting that “F is for Family” takes place in the 1970s. That marked the end of the post-World War II economic boom and the beginning of major economic decline from which working class people never recovered. The well-paying, blue-collar jobs that once allowed a man like Frank Murphy to support his family are long gone thanks to the rise of automation and globalization.

While the show never dives too deep into the complexities of this decline, it provides a great deal of crude tongue-in-cheek humor that reveals just how flawed the American Dream had become at that point. There are not-too-subtle jokes about women, minorities, family life, politics, and the media that highlight just how flawed the system is. Frank Murphy is just the guy who gets screwed more than most.

In the end, though, that’s what makes “F is for Family” the ultimate satire for the idealized narrative we associate with the American Dream. It shows that this notion that a hard-working, self-sacrificing working man who plays by the rules will achieve his dream is nothing more than a bad fairy tale. Frank does everything society expects a working class man to do and rewards him with jack squat.

Given everything he endures, from abandoning his dreams of becoming a pilot so he could provide for a family that rarely shows him any gratitude, I’ll rephrase the question I asked earlier. What would you say about a man like Frank Murphy, who played by the rules and bought into the American Dream, only to see it screw him over at every turn? Can you really blame him for being so angry?

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When Fighting For Equality Is Counterproductive

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Have you ever met someone who is just inherently better at something than you? No matter how hard you practice, you just can’t reach their level. They’re still better. It’s an unfortunate fact of life that we all have to learn at some point, but I worry that some people are trying to put that lesson off while others are trying to outright subvert it.

In general, the intent is noble. The world is full of horrendous inequality. There’s wealth inequality, gender inequality, and even inequality in representation within superhero comics. While we have done a lot in the century to reduce inequality, there’s still plenty of room for improvement.

For the most part, people support those efforts. You won’t find many people who aren’t enjoying a fat inheritance that will say outright they want less equality. Segregation, rigid caste systems, and the dehumanization of minorities is largely frowned upon for reasons I hope I don’t have to recount.

Seeking a more equal and just world is a perfectly respectable endeavor. For the most part, I support those efforts. I believe we should work towards a more egalitarian society where the rights and dignity of individuals are protected and respected. Even though we have laws in place, as well as principles espoused at an international level, we could do a better job at enforcing them.

With all that said, there’s still one burning question that I feel is worth answering. It relates directly to the first question I asked earlier and the harsh lesson it teaches us.

How much equality is actually possible?

It’s one of those questions that’s impossible to answer, but evokes many heated debates, regardless of politics or affiliation. Whether it’s economic issues or gender issues, these debates often devolve into one side calling the other a fascist or a bully. Every now and then, there’s some meaningful discourse and even a few novel ideas. In the era of outrage culture, though, this seems to be getting increasingly rare.

We’re at a point where even the slightest hint of inequality is deemed untenable.

Are there too few female superheroes in comic books? That’s not equal!

Are there too few people of color being cast in major move roles? That’s not equal!

Are there too few minorities in Forbes list of 100 richest people? That’s not equal!

Are there too few women in fields of science, medicine, and technology? That’s not equal!

Are there too few dating options for people who are disabled or obese? That’s not equal!

Are there too many beautiful women who only hook up with assholes? That’s not equal!

Are there too many handsome men who only date supermodels? That’s not equal!

I could list dozens of other situations that are grossly unequal. I purposefully omitted big ones like the gender wage gap and racial disparity in criminal arrests because these are cases that best highlight the logistics of promoting equality versus the ideals surrounding equality.

By law, it’s illegal to pay someone less because of their gender and has been since 1963. The courts have also historically ruled that it’s illegal to selectively enforce laws on the basis of race. These precedents are decades old and on the books for any lawyer to enforce. Why is there still so much inequality?

There are many reasons for that and I’m not smart enough to make sense of all of them. However, I think the mechanisms that continue to drive inequality can be best summed up by a terrible Jennifer Aniston movie from 2006 called “The Break-Up.” Yes, I know that sounds ridiculously random. I promise there’s a reason behind it and it relates to the underlying concept of equality.

In that movie, a couple is going through some nasty conflicts that are only mildly amusing at best. However, the most revealing quote from the movie, which also happens to be most relevant to this topic, is when Jennifer Aniston’s character tells her significant other this.

“I want you to WANT to do the dishes.”

It is, without question, an absurd statement that makes an unreasonable demand on someone she claims to love. It nicely sums up the entire conflict of the movie and effectively spoils the ending. These two are not in a functional relationship. In fact, if they had actually stayed together at the end, it would have been unhealthy for both of them.

That’s not because the relationship was unequal. It’s because both Jennifer Aniston’s character and Vince Vaughn’s character had very different ideas of what was “fair.” I put fair in quotes because it was an empty concept in this context. They didn’t just want equality in terms of roles, responsibilities, and privileges. They wanted equality of outcome and consequences.

That’s not just an unreasonable expectation. It’s a catalyst for outrage. It’s one thing to fight for legal equal protection, but fighting for equal outcomes and consequences is a losing battle. You’re better off trying to divert Niagara Falls by spitting at it. On top of that, it sets people up for disappointment and outrage.

The all-female remake of “Ghostbusters” was never going to make as much money or be as beloved as the original.

The push for less sexy video game characters was never going to improve gender relations in the gaming community.

Attempts to replace Iron Man with a 15-year-old black girl from Chicago was never going last for very long.

All these outcomes were fairly predictable, but still generated incredible outrage with people crying discrimination, racism, sexism, and every other kind of insult in keeping with Godwin’s Law. As a result, those still fighting for what they see as “fair” have to step up their game and push harder. That often means becoming more extreme in rhetoric, emotions, and tactics.

Since things like reality, facts, and basic human nature often get lost in extremes, it makes sense that we have such radical segments of the political and social spectrum. I believe most of them genuinely believe they’re fighting for greater equality and greater fairness, as they see it. A few are probably just genuine assholes looking for excuses to be bigger assholes, but they’re the minority.

To some extent, I can appreciate the intent and effort of those fighting for more equality. The world is still imperfect and humanity, as a whole, is exceedingly imperfect. Our collective history is riddled with injustices and atrocities of staggering proportions. We should strive to be better, as individuals and as a civilization. A part of that effort pursuing a society of equal rights, privileges, and responsibilities.

At the same time, some levels of inequality are unavoidable. Sometimes, it’s due to simple demographics. Sometimes, it’s due to the basic laws of biodiversity or sexual dimorphism. Sometimes, there are individuals that are just inherently better at you than something. I could practice basketball every hour of every day for the rest of my life. I’ll still never be as good as LeBron James.

That kind of equality is just not possible in the real world. Until we all become shape-shifting cyborgs, we can only be equal to a certain extent. Many sincere people disagree on where that extent is and where it should apply.

However, there’s a real danger in trying to achieve the impossible and getting upset whenever it’s not achieved. It doesn’t just suck up energy, ideas, and resources from other meaningful endeavors. It fosters hostility towards others and their ideas. In the same way Jennifer Aniston’s character couldn’t make her boyfriend want to do the dishes, we can’t make someone else want our idea of equality.

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Why Idris Elba’s Advice To Men On The Anti-Harassment Movement Is Flawed

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These are tenuous times for gender relations. Between the rise of the anti-harassment movement and the revelation of egregious crimes committed by once-respected celebrities, society is undergoing to significant upheaval in how we approach sex, relationships, and harassment.

Some claim this upheaval is overdue and I don’t disagree. There is a well-documented history of powerful people getting away with egregious behavior. In general, it’s a good thing when society seeks justice and accountability for everyone, regardless of gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, etc.

With that good, however, often comes obstacles that need to be navigated carefully and flawed human beings have a mixed history in those efforts to say the least. We’ve already seen some of that in how some have responded to the anti-harassment movement. Some are going so far as to avoid women entirely to minimize the risk. This is an extreme reaction, but one in keeping with the law of proportional backlash.

It has been frustrating for those who genuinely seek to improve gender relations. It has also made for easy sources of outrage with one side calling the other misogynist, patriarchal bigots and the other calling them regressive, whiny leftists. There’s a lot of room for arguments and plenty of opportunities for shouting, especially in the age of social media.

 

It’s still a relevant question for people caught up in the current state of gender politics, avoiding accusations of sexual misconduct and maintaining amicable relations among the genders. Crimes should be prosecuted and punished. Good people, whether they’re men, women, or something in between, should be free to engage with one another without fear of getting caught up in fervor.

Recently, the reigning sexiest man alive, Idris Elba, offered an easy solution to all those arguing about the current state of gender relations that many have rallied around. In an interview with Vanity Fair, he had this to say to those worried about navigating the anti-harassment movement.

“It’s only difficult if you’re a man with something to hide.”

It’s a simple, logical, almost mundane piece of advice. Many loudly cheered it as a welcome change of pace from the more complicated responses given by Matt Damon and Henry Cavill. When you’re the sexiest man alive and a top choice for the next James Bond, it’s easy to offer a simple solution that carries significant weight.

Now, I have a lot of respect for Mr. Elba. He’s a great actor and, by all accounts, one of Hollywood’s most likable personalities. In a perfect world, his words would not be controversial and require no further scrutiny. Sadly, we don’t live in that world.

I won’t go so far as to say that Mr. Elba is dead wrong. I won’t say he’s more than half-right, either. More than anything else, his comments are incomplete. They’re coming from a famous celebrity who also happens to be a tall, dark, handsome man whose success often leads to a considerable detachment from reality, as often happens in Hollywood.

If Mr. Elba had just said that men who have something to hide will probably face more difficulty than others, then he would be spot on. Whether you’re a famous celebrity or some ordinary person living their lives, having nothing to hide makes you far less likely to be on the wrong end of a sexual assault accusation.

In the era of smart phones, social media, and hacked emails, it’s considerably harder for anyone to hide their misconduct, sexual or otherwise. If anything, celebrities and powerful politicians are the only ones with the resources to hide their misdeeds and even that isn’t always enough. For non-celebrities, though, the resources are far more limited and this is where the merit of Mr. Elba’s words comes up short.

There are many ways to break down why simply having nothing to hide is not the most effective strategy for navigating the current landscape of gender politics. To best illustrate why it’s so shallow, though, we need only know the story of Brian Banks.

This guy’s story will upset/move you. You have been warned.

If you’re not familiar with that name, then chances are Mr. Elba isn’t either. His story is a tragedy with a bittersweet ending. Back in 2002, he was a promising a promising football player from Long Beach, California who had already committed to playing college football at USC.

Then, a classmate of his accused him of raping her in a stairway. Rather than face the possibility of 41 years to life in prison, Banks accepted a plea deal that included five years in prison, five years of probation, and having to register as a sex offender. By every measure, his life and his once-promising future was over. On top of it all, Banks was completely innocent.

That’s not just what a court eventually ruled. The accuser actually confessed that she made it up, adding that it was part of an effort with her mother to sue the school for money. It’s every bit as deplorable as it sounds. By the time this came out, though, it was 2012. He still served five years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit and lost out on his once promising football career.

Brian Banks followed Mr. Elba’s advice to the letter. He had nothing to hide. That still wasn’t enough, though. His life was still derailed and had the accuser not confessed, he probably wouldn’t have been able to rebuild his life to the extent that he has.

It’s easy for someone like Mr. Elba to give that advice and just as easy for him to practice it. As I noted before, he’s rich, successful, handsome, and respected. If someone tried to falsely accuse him of sexual misconduct, he wouldn’t have a hard time fighting it. Beyond his reputation as the sexiest man alive, he has access to the best legal defense that obscene wealth can buy.

People like Brain Banks don’t have that luxury. Exceedingly few individuals do. Banks plead guilty to a crime he didn’t commit because, without those resources, there was a real possibility that he would’ve gotten a much worse sentence. He’s actually fortunate that he managed to escape the fate he did. Others, however, weren’t so lucky.

Brian Banks’ story, alone, is tangible proof that Mr. Elba’s advice is incomplete. Sadly, there are other stories like this and some of them have far less pleasant outcomes. According to the Innocence Project, there are an estimated 20,000 innocent people serving prison sentences for crimes they did not commit. They too had nothing to hide, but were convicted anyways.

There’s men like Randolph Arledge, who served 29 years for a rape and murder that he did not commit. The evidence that convicted him was based entirely on informant testimony.

There’s also the story of Marvin Anderson, who had no criminal record when he was convicted of a brutal rape for which he served 20 years in prison.

There’s also the case of Ted Bradford, who spent 10 years in prison for a rape he did not commit. There wasn’t even any physical evidence tying him to the crime.

There’s the case of David Johns Bryson, who served 20 years for heinous crime involving kidnapping and rape. A combination of bad forensic science and misguided police tactics did him in.

These men are not celebrities. They’re not rich movie producers or well-connected politicians. They’re just ordinary men trying to live their lives. They had no more to hide than anyone else. That still wasn’t enough. In some cases, they were the victims of mistaken identity. In others, they were the targets of a vindictive accuser. In every case, their lives were irreparably damaged.

I still don’t doubt Mr. Elba’s sincerity. Even those who applaud his words probably don’t realize the flaws in his advice. Names like Brian Banks probably don’t ever cross their mind. Even if it did, Mr. Elba’s words present a clean, concise response to those who express concern about the larger impacts of the anti-harassment movement. For those looking for an easy recourse to a difficult problem, it has a lot of appeal.

That’s the biggest problem with simple solutions to complex problems. The narrative of the anti-harassment movement, or any social movement, cannot accommodate that much complexity. If it did, the narrative wouldn’t be as compelling. As I’ve noted before, the idea that there’s this brave movement of empowered women standing up to serial abusers has all the makings of a feel-good Hollywood story.

The reality, though, is far less ideal. Men like Brian Banks found that out the hard way. If the work of the Innocence Project is any indication, there are probably plenty more who never had anything to hide, but still got convicted. For them, Mr. Elba’s advice will only compound one kind of injustice with another.

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Kamala Khan Vs. America Chavez: How To Succeed (And Fail) With Female Superheroes

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It shouldn’t be that difficult or controversial to create compelling female superheroes. In a perfect world, it would be no different than creating quality male heroes. As long as they’re compelling, enjoyable, and foster great stories, that should be enough.

Sadly, we don’t live in a perfect world. You could even argue it has become even worse in recent years for female superheroes because they’ve become entwined with identity politics. It’s no longer sufficient for a female hero to just be likable and interesting. They have to take part in the never-ending whining contest that dominates outrage culture.

As a lifelong fan of superhero comics, this really frustrates me. I get that comics, like any medium, often reflect the issues of the time. That’s not new and comics have taken positions in those issues. Iconic stories have been crafted around them. The current situation with female superheroes, however, is less a reflection of the times and more a liability.

To illustrate this point, I’d like to single out two female superheroes, Kamala “Ms. Marvel” Khan and America “Miss America” Chavez. Both characters were created within the past 10 years. They’ve also been cited as prominent figures in the recent push for diversity within comics that has caused a lot of uproar or all the wrong reasons.

What sets them apart is that one character, Kamala Khan, has become a success story by most measures. Since her debut issue in February 2014, she has become popular and beloved. She has received and won numerous accolades and her graphic novels have made it onto the New York Times Best Sellers list. I consider myself a fan of hers. She’s one of my favorite female heroes.

On the other end of that spectrum is America Chavez. She debuted in 2011 and went onto have her own ongoing series. Unlike Kamala, though, her series received no accolades, sold poorly, and did nothing to endear her to fans of superhero comics. She has had opportunities to establish herself as a quality female hero. With few exceptions, she has failed at every turn.

These two characters represent a stark dichotomy in the current world of female superheroes. One provides a template for success. The other is a cautionary tale of how not to create a compelling female superhero in the current climate. It’s pretty striking how two characters created within a similar cultural environment can go in such wildly different directions. However, that difference also carries with it plenty of lessons.

To be fair to the medium I love, creating female superheroes today is very different compared to past decades. If Wonder Woman, Storm, Carol Danvers, or Supergirl were created today, they wouldn’t have the same impact. They came out at different times and under different circumstances. Those circumstances played a key role in how they became iconic.

Great female superheroes, and quality female characters in general, have traits that allow them to resonate in any era. However, the timing and influences have to be right for them to carve a place in popular culture. Kamala Khan and America Chavez dealt with similar circumstances when they debuted. That makes them a good case study in how female superheroes can succeed and fail.


Why Kamala Khan Succeeded

I still remember the day I read Ms. Marvel #1. I hadn’t been planning to buy it. I remember clearly that it was a light week, in terms of comics. I happened to have a few extra bucks to spend. I had heard that there was going to be a new Ms. Marvel. Having been a fan of Carol Danvers, I decided to check it out.

I’m glad I did because that one fateful issue made me a Kamala Kahn fan for years to come. The story it told struck all the right chords. It presented a character who felt real, genuine, and relatable. The fact that she was a girl, a Muslim, and the daughter of Pakistani immigrants was secondary. She still felt like a character that I could be friends with if she were real.

The reasons why Kamala was so endearing had little to do with how many diversity points she scored and everything to do with how the writer, G. Willow Wilson, went about developing her. She spent almost the entire first issue just revealing who Kamala was and what sort of life she had. We learn about her family, her friends, her hopes, her dreams, and even her favorite hobbies.

She quickly becomes more than just another teenage character. She’s a self-professed fangirl who writes fan fiction, plays MMO games, and loves gyros. Wilson approached developing Kamala the same way Stan Lee approached developing Peter Parker. She developed the personality before turning them into a superhero.

When Kamala finally does get her powers, Wilson establishes a solid reason for why she’s a hero. Just getting powers isn’t enough. Unlike Peter Parker, however, she doesn’t need a loved one to die. Being a fan of superheroes and having decent parents puts her in a position to make that choice without anyone dying. That, alone, makes her worthy of admiration.

From that point forward, it’s easy to root for Kamala. She carries herself as someone you want to root for. She personifies how fans of superhero comics are inspired by their heroes. Her having a chance to be a hero like the ones she idolizes isn’t just endearing. It’s special. That’s why she succeeds and why it’s very likely we’ll see her enter the Marvel Cinematic Universe at some point.


Why America Chavez Failed

Take everything I just said about why Kamala Khan works and why she’s so lovable. Then, reverse it completely. That’s basically who America Chavez is and why she’s more a joke than a success.

On paper, America has a lot going for her. She’s not just another generic female hero. She’s Latina, she’s a lesbian, and she comes from a very different world, literally and figuratively. In terms of diversity points, she checks as many boxes as Kamala. She has her own unique style and she even uses a familiar moniker that has been successfully used by others.

Beyond those traits, however, there’s nothing about her character or her story that will get superhero fans cheering. She’s not relatable like Peter Parker or Kamala Khan. She’s from a place called Utopian Parallel, which is exactly as boring as it sounds. Her world was threatened with destruction, but her parents sacrificed themselves to save it. They’re the only respectable heroes in her story.

America, for reasons that are poorly told and poorly developed, decides to prove that she’s as good a hero as her parents. Her world is a utopia. It doesn’t need her. As a result, she just looks for a world that needs heroes and happens to choose one that has a massive glut of them. Already, her judgment is questionable.

If you’re expecting me to explain the depths of why she’s a hero and how she distinguishes herself, I’m sorry to disappoint. That’s the extent of her heroic journey. She doesn’t answer the hero’s call as much as she looks for an excuse. She doesn’t work her way into the world of heroism. She just throws herself into it and skips the part that makes it a meaningful story.

It certainly doesn’t help that she’s grossly overpowered in a way that makes every battle feel boring. Unlike other powerful characters, including Superman or Captain Marvel, there’s no real intrigue to her abilities. Whereas Kamala Khan and Peter Parker struggle, seeing their powers as burdens at times, America Chavez rarely strains herself. When she does, it feels forced and contrived.

On top of all that, America never comes off as a likable person. In nearly every scene she’s in, she carries herself with an in-your-face, screw-you, I’m-better-than-everyone attitude that isn’t the least bit endearing. She basically tries too hard to be a badass female hero, but forgets the part where heroes are actually supposed to be admirable.

It’s not enough to just punch a Nazi, which she does at one point. Being a hero means embodying ideals that go beyond gender politics. America Chavez’s story is so contrived, at times, that it feels like the most shameless kind of pandering. It’s why those who bemoan Marvel’s diversity push often cite America Chavez as the personification of everything wrong with that effort. Sadly, she gives them plenty to work with.


Lessons For The Future

I have high hopes for Ms. Marvel. I even hope that, at some point, America Chavez becomes a solid character. There’s plenty of room for new characters that resonate with everyone, regardless of gender, race, creed, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. It doesn’t have to come at the cost of established characters, either. Heroes can be anyone. That’s what makes them icons.

Now, I understand that there are plenty of people out there who don’t like Kamala. I don’t deny that she has her flaws and she’s had some pretty unflattering moments. I also understand that America Chavez has her share of fans who think I’m not being fair to her. I don’t claim that my take on her is definitive.

I singled these two characters out because I believe they embody the struggle facing female superheroes in the existing cultural climate. Like any creative endeavor, there is a right and wrong way to go about it. Kamala Khan and America Chavez provide important lessons on what to do and what to avoid. They include, but aren’t restricted to, the following.

Lesson #1: Build the character before the hero

Lesson #2: Appeal to everyone and not just a select few

Lesson #3: Make their struggle feel real and genuine

Lesson #4: Give the character a distinct and endearing voice

Lesson #5: Don’t just rely on punching Nazis

There are many other lessons to be learned from characters like Kamala Khan and America Chavez. Some of those lessons have to be learned the hard way, but they’re worth learning. More quality female superheroes can only help the genre, as a whole. Superheroes, by definition, are supposed to inspire others to be better. That inspiration need not be restricted to gender, race, or any other distinction.

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Five Overused Romantic Sub-Plots (And How To Fix Them)

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Being a self-professed romance fan, I know more about the intricacies of romantic sub-plots than most men would ever dare admit. I’ve consumed an absurd amount of romantic media over the years and I’ve noticed more than a few common themes, some more endearing than others.

However, by consuming so much romantic content, I’ve also seen certain themes get overused and badly mishandled. I could list countless instances promising romantic sub-plots collapsing because it fell into a narrative trap. Sometimes, it’s because of poor writing. Sometimes, it’s because the story has too many constraints. I’ve even cited a few famous cases that exhibit both.

Whatever the case, it’s not hard to screw up a romantic sub-plot. I’ve done that more than a few times with the stories I’ve written. Lately, though, there are certain types of sub-plots that have lost their luster. They’ve either been done too many times or haven’t innovated in way too long.

Overused or not, I believe there are elements of these sub-plots that are worth saving. They just need some refinement and polish. What follows is a list of five overdone romantic sub-plots, why they’ve become so bland, and how to fix them. I’ve covered some of these elements before. This is just the romance lover in me offering some tips for future romance stories.


Romantic Sub-Plot #1: Best Friends Turned Lovers

Why It’s Overdone

I think you can thank sitcoms like “Friends” and movies like “Clueless” for this sub-plot to fall out of favor. Personally, I blame Ross and Rachel for giving this theme a bad name. They took the whole friends-falling-in-love plot way too far. Towards the end, it was more annoying than compelling.

These days, this sub-plot isn’t as common as it used to be. I think a lot of romance fans were burned out on it in the 1990s and early 2000s. There’s only so many times a character can say in so many words “I didn’t realize that what I was looking for was right here in front of me” and sound genuine.

How To Fix It

Simply put, this sub-plot needs to shake up the setting. Too many times, a story about friends becoming lovers is built around one friend having had feelings for the other over many years. That can be sweet when done right, but it’s way too easy to be done wrong. These days, it almost comes off as a long con or stalking.

To fix it, the emphasis needs to shift towards two characters undergoing major upheavals. Perhaps they go through a tragedy or trauma that changes the way they feel about other people. It can’t just be restricted to their friend/lover, either. This upheaval should affect their entire world and from there, they come together in a new way.

It has the potential to show two characters go through major growth as individuals, which eventually turns into growth as a couple. That kind of growth can work wonders for any romance and could offer something more meaningful than old friends hiding their feelings.


Romantic Sub-Plot #2: Love Triangles

Why It’s Overdone

I’ve already made my hatred of love triangles very clear. I’ve gone so far as to cite one from the X-men as the worst of all time. Beyond the comics, though, it’s not hard to see cases of this sub-plot done horribly wrong. Even contemporary romance like “Twilight” and “The Hunger Games” have made this troubled trope more insufferable.

Simply put, love triangles reduce everyone involved to prizes or plot devices. It’s next to impossible to make every character in a love triangle feel like a real character. It turns romantic development into a competition and in the long run, nobody wins and certain characters lose badly.

How To Fix It

I’m tempted to say that love triangles should be abandoned and killed with a 12-gauge shotgun, but I’m not a fan of throwing away romantic themes, no matter how much I despise them. For this particular theme, I think it needs more than just a fix. It needs a complete overhaul.

By that, it can’t just involve two people competing for someone else’s affection. That gets old fast. If there is going to be a love triangle, then it should actually take the time to show why someone is torn in the first place. It needs to be clear that someone genuinely loves more than one person and there’s a reason for that love.

This is also a sub-plot that may benefit from shifting taboos. Non-monogamy is becoming more mainstream and there aren’t many real romance stories about that idea that aren’t bad pornos. A love triangle has to stop being an either/or plot and become a why/how plot. There needs to be a concerted effort to ensure everyone involved gets some sort of emotional resolution that doesn’t involve someone getting screwed over.


Romantic Sub-Plot #3: Destined Lovers

Why It’s Overdone

If you’ve gone through any high school English class or are just familiar with certain literary traditions, you’ve probably seen this in all kinds of media. “Romeo and Juliet” is probably the most famous, but it still shows up frequently throughout romantic media. It’s prevalent in movies like “Titanic” and comics like “Superman.”

Don’t get me wrong. I have a soft spot for star-crossed lovers who are destined to fall in love, but it’s a very bland sub-plot. There’s no real sense of conflict. You know two characters are going to end up together and where’s the intrigue there?

How To Fix It

For this sub-plot, I think a simple shift in context would help. Most romance featuring destined lovers emphasis how they come together, despite the obstacles in front of them. I think it might be more compelling to explore why these characters are star-crossed to begin with. Is it just destiny or are there other forces at work?

There are a lot of factors that go into romance, even those of the non-destined variety. Why not explore the concept of destiny, as it relates to love? Why not dig a little deeper into the intricacies of how it unites people so completely? That wouldn’t just offer a meta-perspective of love, as a plot device. It would give us all an opportunity to reconsider what it means to be in love.


Romantic Sub-Plot #4: Love At First Sight

Why It’s Overdone

This sub-plot is very similar to the destined lovers trope. It’s often a pre-cursor to two people finding out they’re destined to be together. For many of the same reasons, it’s pretty bland and basic. One character sees another, some sappy music starts playing, and the love story is effectively laid out.

We see it happen very overtly in “Romeo and Juliet” and “Titanic.” We see it manifest in some form in most romantic comedies. A character just sees someone they find attractive and that becomes the catalyst for their love. It’s sweet, but not very deep and it has just become too predictable at this point. When two people fall in love at first sight, what other story is there to tell?

How To Fix It

This one can’t be fixed with the same methods as the destined lovers sub-plot. This is one of those plots that doesn’t have to be radically altered, but definitely needs fresh nuance. Finding that nuance means injecting more than just love into the mix when two characters first meet.

The first encounter between two characters is always pivotal. It helps set the tone for their relationship, romantic and otherwise. To make this sub-plot work in new ways, characters need to intrigue each other in new ways. It can’t be enough that they’re attractive. There has to be something else about them.

Maybe the character has a skill that someone has never seen before. Maybe the character causes someone to re-think a past assumption. Maybe it sends them on a new journey that their love interest can join. There are many opportunities here. There doesn’t have to just be one.


Romantic Sub-Plot #5: Sex Complicating Love

Why It’s Overdone

This one is probably the most overtly sexual romantic sub-plot that also happens to be the most predictable. Ironically, it’s “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me” that summed it up best. Things go from “Don’t worry, it won’t get weird” to “It got weird, didn’t it?” That’s every sex-complicating-love story in a nutshell.

This one also has the burden of being weighed down by long-standing sexual taboos. While it may seem like those taboos have faded in the 21st century, it’s still the slutty women and stud men who die first in slasher movies. Sex, even in a romance story, still comes off as something dirty that somehow undermines a romance.

Even though sexual attitudes have evolved a great deal, the idea that sex complicates/ruins a relationship hasn’t moved very far. It’s why sex tends to be an afterthought in modern romances. Sometimes, it’s ignored or assumed and that’s just a waste of quality sexual chemistry.

How To Fix It

As an aspiring erotica/romance writer, I’ve been working on that for years. While I can’t claim to have a definitive answer, I have surmised a few ideas turn sex from a complication to a catalyst. It doesn’t have to be overly titillating or pornographic, although that can work. It just has to supplement the romance rather than subvert it.

Sex in romance is often treated like an endgame. It’s marks the culmination rather than the progression of a relationship. I believe that’s a missed opportunity. In any romance, sex should function as a progression, of sorts. It takes the relationship to a new stage, one where new opportunities for emotional and personal growth emerge.

When two characters have sex, it can be more than just a chance to depict genitals and female breasts. It can be an exercise of intimacy where two characters strengthen their bond, rather than sully it. That gives greater meaning to the sexiness and nothing makes romance hotter than genuinely meaningful sex.

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Why Men Should Also Be Concerned About The Future Of Roe v. Wade

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These are tenuous times for abortion rights. Regardless of your gender, there’s no getting around the news. The overall trend in abortion access is not on the path of greater accessibility. If anything, it’s going in the opposite direction.

Regardless of which side you’re on in this exceedingly divisive issue, there’s no denying the legal reality. For the past 25 years, a woman’s ability to get an abortion has steadily eroded, thanks largely to the spread of TRAP Laws. These laws may not explicitly outlaw abortion, but they make getting one inconvenient at best and impossible at worst.

As I say in every piece I write about abortion, I don’t particularly enjoy talking about abortion. This is an issue that I feel I’m woefully unqualified to talk about because I’m not a woman and will never know what it’s like to be in such a difficult situation.

That said, there is an aspect about this topic that I feel needs to be addressed and it’s a part of the issue that impacts men. It takes two to make a baby, last I checked. Even though it’s objectively true that abortion affects women more directly, men do have a role and I feel that role will expand as abortion rights trend in a less-than-liberal direction.

As I write this, the United States Supreme Court is in the midst of a huge shake-up. After the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy, the justice system is poised to shift heavily to the right. That has caused plenty of concerns among those who worry about the status of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court case that legalized abortion nationwide in 1973.

At the moment, it still seems like a long-shot for this decision to be overturned. However, Supreme Court decisions have been overturned in the past. It happened with racial segregation. It happened with anti-sodomy laws. Legally speaking, there’s no reason why it couldn’t happen with abortion.

Now, that process is fraught with a long list of political, legal, and ethical complications, the least of which would be the long-term alienation of whatever political party favors it. However, I don’t want to harp too much on the politics here. Instead, I want to focus on the social component because that’s where the effects will be most directly felt.

Women, by far, will be the most directly impacted. There are still women alive today who can recount what life was like before Roe v. Wade. Their stories are becoming more relevant. For men, however, I don’t think those stories are as well-known and for good reason. Women had to endure bearing those unwanted children. At worst, men just found themselves on the wrong end of a shotgun wedding.

If Roe v. Wade were overturned, however, that wouldn’t be the only predicament most men faced. Beyond the abortion issue, 1973 was a very different place. In that world, it was possible for a man to just skip town, run out on a pregnant woman, and never interact with her again. While that man would have to be a callous, irresponsible asshole, it was possible and it did happen.

That sort of thing isn’t as easy to do today. Anyone who has seen a single episode of Maury Povich knows that. Between social media, improvements in paternity tests, and tougher child support laws, most of which came after 1973, it’s a lot harder for a man to escape parental obligations. It’s not impossible, but it’s not as easy as just skipping town.

In a world where women cannot easily end an unwanted pregnancy, there will be greater incentive to find these reckless men and hold them responsible. Where there’s an incentive, especially one that has the potential to become a lucrative legal racket, there will be people and businesses that emerge to fill that need.

How that manifests is hard to determine, but desperate people will find a way and you won’t find many more desperate than a woman dealing with a child she can neither afford nor care for. I know a sizable contingent of people, many of which are probably men, will blame the woman for being promiscuous. That still doesn’t change the basic equation of human reproduction.

Two people are involved. Those people, in a world where decisions about a pregnancy are pre-made by the law, are going to be in a tough situation. Regardless of whether a pregnancy was the result of an accident, a crime, or an extortion plot, there will be serious ramifications and not just in terms of legal fees.

The story of women enduring the rigors and hardship of an unwanted pregnancy are many. However, the story of men living in a world without Roe v. Wade and modern child support laws haven’t been told yet because the circumstances haven’t been in place. On the day Roe v. Wade gets overturned, those stories will begin and those are stories men don’t want told.

They’re not very sexy stories, to say the least. They have sexy moments, but extremely unsexy outcomes. Picture, if you can, the following scenario that may play out in a world without Roe v. Wade.

A young man with plenty of dreams has a one-night stand with a woman in a lone act of recklessness. The woman ends up pregnant. Since they live in a state where abortion is illegal, she has to have the child. The man has no idea for months until the woman tracks him down through the courts, forces him to take a paternity test, and confirms that he’s the father.

With no say in the matter, he’s legally liable for child support for the next 18 years. The woman, without any of his input, decides to keep the child instead of putting it up for adoption. The man resents the woman for making this decision without him, but begrudgingly goes along with it, if only to avoid the stigma.

Years go by and his life becomes more of a struggle. He can barely afford to support himself due to the child support payments. He and the mother of his child are constantly at each other’s throats, going through legal battles over how much support is needed and how much access he should have to his child.

Between the legal and financial struggles, both end up in poverty. Their child ends up in poverty too, growing up in a broken home. In a world where there are few choices for women and fewer choices for men, there are plenty others.

Does that sound like an appealing, functional society? Does it sound like one that benefits men, women, and children in any capacity? You don’t need to be a liberal, conservative, or a Supreme Court Justice to understand why such a society is undesirable.

Some of this isn’t even speculation. There have been societies that have outlawed abortion completely. Those societies didn’t prosper. They didn’t benefit men, women, or children. However, the lessons from those societies will probably not faze the anti-abortion crowd. I doubt they’ll give any judges or legislators pause as they push for more restrictions.

The impact of these laws will be felt first by the women. They still bear the children. They’ll still suffer the most negative effects at first. Those effects will quickly find their way to the men, as well. Unlike the men prior to 1973, they won’t be able to escape it.

As a man, there’s only so much I can bring to the table in the abortion debate. However, given the current laws surrounding child support, child rearing, and parental rights, there are more than a few issues that should give men cause for concern. Even if you’re a man and you consider yourself anti-abortion, there’s one inescapable truth. A world without Roe v. Wade is going to impact everyone.

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The Pathetic Life Of Alan Harper: A Prelude/Warning To Men?

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Sometimes, popular culture is uncanny at predicting the future. “Star Trek” famously predicted cell phones. “2001: A Space Odyssey” predicted tablet computers. Then, there’s “The Simpsons,” which has predicted so many things that it’s creepy. Some predictions, however, fly under the radar. Some aren’t even predictions as much as they are worst case scenarios.

One such scenario played out in “Two and a Half Men,” a show more famous for its off-screen drama than its on-screen antics. Granted, those antics were fairly crude. Most episodes revolved around dirty jokes, sexual innuendo, and glorified hedonism. In today’s social climate, this show would trigger mass protests with every episode.

That didn’t stop it from being funny. I consider myself a fan of the show. However, this is one of those shows that could never be made today, even with an emotionally-stable Charlie Sheen. Its brand of comedy just wouldn’t work in an era where sexy Halloween costumes are considered controversial.

However, the message “Two and a Half Men” conveyed goes beyond its brand of humor and the actors who made it controversial. It’s a message that probably wasn’t intended when the show first aired, but one that manifested with time. That message centers around the only male character to make it through every season alive and unaltered, Alan Harper.

As a character, Alan is the catalyst for the whole show. It begins with him getting kicked out of his house by his wife, forcing him to live with his brother, Charlie. It serves as the foundation for the antics that follow. However, in light of recent trends in feminism, Alan Harper has become more of a concept than a character.

Simply put, Alan Harper is the perfect embodiment of a defeated, emasculated man. He’s a step below the stereotypical beta male. He’s the masculine equivalent of rock bottom. Even the entire cast of “The Big Bang Theory” or Al Bundy from “Married With Children” would feel sorry for him.

You don’t need to watch every episode of every season to see how this plays out. The show rarely goes more than a few minutes without highlighting how pathetic Alan is. The denigration goes beyond his ex-wife kicking him out of his house, divorcing him, and hitting him with egregious alimony payments.

Alan Harper, at his core, is a man dependent on everyone around him for affirmation, but is incapable or unwilling to earn it. His womanizing brother, Charlie Harper, often describes him as a parasitic leech who feeds on the pity of others to survive. In terms if how he conducts himself throughout the show, that’s pretty accurate.

Everything Alan does, from trying to make a living to pursuing romance, is done from a position of dependence. He depends on his brother for a place to live. He depends on his ex-wife to see his son, Jake. He depends on all the women he encounters for love, sex, and affection. He never has any leverage, always working from a position of weakness.

This earns him sympathy, but he’s no lovable loser. In addition to being dependent and weak, he’s also neurotic, selfish, and lazy. He rarely puts much effort into improving his lot in life. He never stands up for himself, rarely accepts responsibility for his mistakes, and endures failure without ever learning from it.

This is especially true in the later seasons of the show after Charlie Sheen was fired. Instead of having to leech off his brother, Alan managed to leech off a total stranger in Walden Schmidt. He makes every possible excuse to keep living in his brother’s house, never pay for anything, and avoid any semblance of personal growth.

Even if you pity Alan Harper, there’s little reason to respect him. Whenever he has a chance to make choices that can change that, he either makes the wrong decision or avoids it entirely. He’s not just a perpetual victim of a vindictive ex-wife, a hedonistic brother, and an idiot son. He actually clings to his victimhood, as though it were part of his identity.

It was fodder for comedy when “Two and a Half Men” was still on the air. Now, it’s a serious issue that affects men and women alike. That’s because leveraging victimhood has become less a comedy trope and more an ideological tactic.

The current discourse, especially when it comes to gender, is often built around who victimizes who. A big part of the anti-harassment movement is driven by the idea that women have been victims for years, suffering in silence under the thumb of misogynistic men. There are more than a few situations like that in “Two and a Half Men.”

Men are just as guilty of using that tactic too, albeit not to the extent of Alan Harper. Men have cited the lack of attention people give Terry Crews or Corey Feldman whenever they talk about issues like sexual abuse. They’ll point out the ways in which women get preferential treatment in our society, some of which actually plays out in “Two and a Half Men.”

There’s no question that harassment and inequality are problems, but just being a victim can’t be the end of the conversation. Alan Harper is, in essence, the personification of what happens when we don’t attempt to further that conversation. It impacts everybody, but it’s especially relevant for men.

Alan reflects a worst-case-scenario. In the overall gender dynamic, he draws every bad card and makes every wrong move. He marries a woman who hates him and exerts immense control over his life. He has a callous, egocentric mother who gives him no affection, guidance, or support. The entire world takes advantage of him and he does nothing to stop it.

To make matters worse, there’s very little Alan can do to stop it. Even if he stands up for himself, he has no support because he’s so dependent on other people. If he gets kicked out of the house, he has nowhere to go. If he makes any money, someone else ends up getting it, often his ex-wife or an ex-girlfriend. He’s not just pathetic in how he handles it. He’s utterly trapped.

This is the kind of nightmare scenario that men genuinely worry about. Many women may laugh it off, but men aren’t blind to the bigger picture. If Alan Harper were gay or transsexual, then he would have organizations that support him. There are many groups that work hard to help disadvantaged members in the LGBT community.

There are also plenty of organizations that help women as well. If Alan were a woman who had been kicked out of his house by a vindictive husband, then there’s no way that the comedy in “Two and a Half Men” would’ve worked. It’s not funny to see a poor woman get thrown out on the streets and denied custody of her child. When it happens to a man like Alan, though, it’s hilarious.

That’s where the humor in “Two and a Half Men” becomes distressingly serious. A character like Alan Harper lends himself to ridicule, but his situation is no laughing matter. He’s the pinnacle of a defeated man. Society does nothing to help him and everything to mock him. If he weren’t a man, it would be a tragedy. Instead, it’s a comedy.

For men, that’s a scary thought. On top of that, his situation can manifest in the real world, minus the laugh track. It is possible for a man to lose his home, his kid, and his money thanks to a vindictive wife. It is possible for a man to be so utterly helpless that he has to depend on everyone’s pity to survive.

The fact that it’s possible, but still funny in the context of a sitcom, gives men more pause today than it did when “Two and a Half Men” was still on the air. Men’s lives are being ruined by a society that does not give them the benefit of the doubt. Any debate that tries to take the side of men tends to get labeled as misogynistic.

We can either take those concerns seriously or create a society where men may end up like Alan Harper, laughably pathetic and utterly destitute. “Two and a Half Men” was still a funny show. However, the core of its comedy has serious implications and that are worth taking seriously, now more than ever.

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