Tag Archives: LGBT

Chris Pratt, Religious Celebrities, And Why We Should Be Concerned

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In general, celebrities operate on an entirely different level of reality than non-celebrities. Their concept of normal is so skewed, so distorted, and so out of touch that it’s hard to relate to them. Just read up on the weird things Gwyneth Paltrow has said in recent years for proof of that.

Even if they are out of touch, it is possible for celebrities to be genuinely decent people and succeed in an industry known for horrendous corruption. Some celebrities do work that legitimately makes the world a better place. By most measures, Chris Pratt of “Parks and Recreation” and “Guardians of the Galaxy” fame is one of them.

I consider myself a fan of his. Mr. Pratt has done many things that have won him the respect and admiration of many. Just read the stories about him visited children’s hospitals and try not to like him. While he has undergone some unfortunate upheavals in recent years after his divorce from actress Anna Farris, he has generally managed himself well in the world of celebrity culture.

However, recent events surrounding Mr. Pratt may be cause for concern. While I doubt he’s heading towards the kind of celebrity meltdowns that have doomed others, I think there is reason to worry about the effects that continued fame, celebrity, and wealth will have on him. That’s because those effects may be compounded by another huge complication, namely that of organized religion.

While Mr. Pratt has not hidden the fact that he’s religious, it recently became an issue when Ellen Page, a noted LBGT activist, called him out for attending a church that has a history of anti-gay rhetoric. Now, as someone who has levied plenty of criticism about religion before, I generally support pointing out the injustices and absurdities of religion. In this case, I’m surprised by the backlash.

In general, Ms. Page was subject to significant attacks for her criticism. She was made out to be the bully here and she’s someone who was subject to deplorable treatment by the director who botched X3. In general, people are siding with Mr. Pratt, saying that Ms. Page was out of line for criticizing him for the church he attended.

Personally, I don’t think Ms. Page went about her criticism the right way. Given the horrendous attacks religious organizations have orchestrated against the LGBT community, I don’t blame her for being vocal. This incident, however, and the way Mr. Pratt responded to it leaves me concerned about the cumulative impact that celebrity and religion will have on him.

To understand the extent of those concerns, you need look no further than another famous Hollywood actor who was also respected, popular, and religious. That actor is Mel Gibson. Today, he’s more a joke and an internet meme. However, it wasn’t that long ago when he was Hollywood’s golden boy.

Like Mr. Pratt now, Mel Gibson a successful action star who could also do comedy and drama. For a time, he was the actor many women in and outside of Hollywood swooned over. I know because at one point, my mother admitted to having a major crush on him and having seen some of his old movies, I honestly can’t blame her.

While Mr. Gibson didn’t make a big deal of his religion for the most part, it did rear its influence when he went through his infamous meltdown in 2006. Even after he apologized for that incident, his streak of making anti-Semitic comments has become somewhat normal. As a result, his once-impeccable reputation is a distant memory.

That’s not a fate that anyone deserves, especially Mr. Pratt. Now, I would argue that he’s in a better position than Mr. Gibson was. The various stories surrounding him and the people who work with him paint him as someone who manages himself very well. I would be genuinely surprised if Mr. Pratt ever underwent a similar meltdown.

That said, there is still a distressing history of religion having a less-than-beneficial impact on celebrities. Whether it’s Kirk Cameron encouraging people to not use their critical thinking skills in the name of Christianity or Tom Cruise bashing psychiatry in the name of Scientology, religion can turn respectable celebrities into an embodiment of perverse religious dogma.

In certain circumstances, they can even help compound that dogma. Celebrities already wield more influence than most priests, mullahs, monks, or rabbis. Religious organizations have a strong incentive to cater to and hold onto celebrity adherents. That way when these celebrities say something about their religion, people are more inclined to listen.

Some celebrities do this willingly and freely. Others are guided towards it. It’s well-documented that Tom Cruise gets special treatment in the Church of Scientology. While we don’t know if Mr. Pratt’s church does something similar for him, they certainly have a reason to do whatever they need to do for him to maintain his support and his money, by default.

At the moment, Mr. Pratt’s church is not on the same level as Scientology or even the Catholic Church. By most measures, it’s a fairly standard conservative Christian church that holds positions that won’t surprise anyone who know anything about religiously-motivated morality. It still holds questionable beliefs and wields more influence than most local churches.

Depending on how Mr. Pratt manages that influence, he could either keep his religious affairs private or go down the path of someone like Kirk Cameron, celebrities whose excessive religiosity hinders their respectability. On top of that, it could lead to him starring in some exceedingly awful movies.

The worst case scenario for Mr. Pratt would be something on the level of Mel Gibson, a meltdown that permanently taints his once-golden image as a likable pretty boy who visits children’s hospitals. I don’t think he deserves that. No celebrity deserves a downfall like that, but religion does tend to make that slope a little steeper.

I haven’t met Chris Pratt and I probably never will, but based on what is publicly known, he’s a good man who has done plenty to deserve our respect. Religion, for the most part, doesn’t change that. However, when taken to extremes, as some celebrities have shown, it can reveal just how corrosive certain dogma can be to otherwise decent people.

As Stephen Weinberg once said of religion, “With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.” Mr. Pratt is a good person and it would be nothing short of tragic if his sincerely held faith did something to undermine that. Even if you don’t agree with Ms. Page for calling him out, her concerns are still valid.

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Filed under Celebrities and Celebrity Culture, gender issues, human nature, LGBTQ, outrage culture, psychology, religion

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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Filed under censorship, Comic Books, Jack Fisher, Superheroes, gender issues, media issues, political correctness, sex in media, superhero comics, superhero movies, women's issues

The Distressing (But Relevant) Questions Raised In Uncanny X-men #1

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The most relevant stories are often the ones that ask the most difficult questions. The nature of those questions vary among places, people, cultures, and whatever happens to be pissing off a significant chunk of the population. Regardless of the circumstances, those questions are important and sometimes they come from unexpected places.

I wasn’t expecting such questions when I picked up “Uncanny X-men #1,” the latest relaunch in the most iconic X-men brand of all time. I was just glad to see Uncanny X-men return to prominence after an extended absence dating back to 2016. This first issue was over-sized and priced at $7.99, which is a lot for a single comic. I still feel like I got my money’s worth.

In addition to telling a great story that brought many prominent X-men characters to the forefront, “Uncanny X-men #1” did something unique in terms of how it established a conflict. For once, it didn’t involve killer robots, preventing a genocide, mutant terrorist, or alien space gods. Instead, it asked one profound question.

What if there was a way to preventing people from becoming mutants in the first place?

That may sound like a question that has come up in other X-men stories, but that’s only partially correct. This isn’t about curing mutants, a story that Joss Whedon brilliantly told during his run on Astonishing X-men and that “ X-men: The Last Stand” botched horribly. This is about inoculating children the same way we do for polio.

Specifically, a lab develops a vaccine that prevents the X-gene from expressing. Technically, they would still be mutants in that they would still have this gene. It just wouldn’t express itself. It would be akin to turning off the gene responsible for cystic fibrosis or sickle-cell anemia. It essentially treats mutation the same way we would treat any other genetic-based disease.

Naturally, the X-men and many other mutants don’t like this idea and not just because it’s akin to treating homosexuality as a mental illness. It reeks too much of genocide, something they’ve faced on more than one occasion. It would’ve been easy for “Uncanny X-men #1” to present it in that way, but that’s not how it plays out.

The all-star creative team of Ed Brisson, Kelly Thompson, Matthew Rosenberg, and Mahmud Asrar frame the issue in a very different way. Instead of some anti-mutant racist like Graydon Creed or William Stryker calling for mutant extermination, we get Senator Ashton Allen. He’s as generic a politician as can be in a superhero comic, but what he says and how he says is revealing.

Amidst a crowd of humans, mutants, and X-men, he talks about this mutant vaccine as a tool to alleviate suffering. He doesn’t rant about the dangers of evil mutants like Magneto or Apocalypse. He talks only about mutant children developing powers that could be dangerous to themselves or others. In that context, a vaccine might actually help them.

When you consider the mutant powers of characters like Rogue and Cyclops, who have mutant abilities that do real damage when uncontrolled, it seems entirely reasonable to make this vaccine available. Senator Allen never says anything about forcing it on kids or on mutants that already exist. He only ever emphasizes making it an option for concerned parents.

That’s distressing for the X-men because they don’t need to be omega-level psychics to imagine the implications. They can easily envision a concerned parent who doesn’t want their child to deal with the possibility that they may shoot lasers out of their eye one day. Any parent who cares for their child will want to mitigate the chances of them enduring such hardships.

In a world populated by mutant-hunting robots, parents already have plenty of incentive to use this vaccine. Given the damage that mutant-led conflicts often incur, the government has just as much incentive to make that vaccine available to everyone, free of charge and tax deductible. Governments less concerned with things like human rights could force it on children and that has some real-world parallels.

For mutants and the X-men, though, that means a permanent loss of their identity. Considering how mutants act as a metaphor for other oppressed minorities, this has implications for the real world, as well. I would even argue that the question will become increasingly relevant in the coming decades.

To appreciate just how relevant it could be, you need only look up the heartbreaking stories of parents who have disowned their children because they’re gay or transgender. In tragic some cases, people are driven to suicide. Even for those who aren’t parents, anything that might avert this kind of hardship is worth considering.

Given the complex causes of homosexuality, as well as the many factors behind transsexuality, it’s unlikely that there could ever be a vaccine to prevent it. The same can be said for conditions like Dwarfism. It’s not just genes, hormones, or radioactive spider bites that shape an individual’s persona. It’s a complex confluence of many things.

However, we are getting very close to a point where it’s possible to design children at the genetic level. Thanks to tools like CRISPR, it might even be possible one day to cut out entire traits from the human genome. That could, in theory, eradicate both cystic fibrosis and Dwarfism. More than a few people have expressed concern about that possibility.

Homosexuality and transsexuality are a bit different since there is no one gene or hormone that causes it, but most contemporary research suggests that genetics do play at least some role. Using similar technology, it might be possible for parents in the future to minimize or eliminate the chances of their children being homosexual or transsexual.

I imagine many in the LGBT community feel the same way about those efforts that the X-men felt about Senator Allen’s efforts in “Uncanny X-men #1.” Even if it only extends to giving parents this option for children and provides strict protections for those already born with these traits, it still treats who and what they are as a disease.

It’s dehumanizing and demeaning. More than one X-men in “Uncanny X-men #1” makes that abundantly clear. They don’t see being a mutant as a disease any more than homosexuality, transsexuality, or dwarfism. The fact that there’s now a way to prevent this makes for an existential crisis with some pretty heavy implications for the real and fictional world.

In the world of Marvel comics, a world without mutants has its own set of issues, the least of which would be the loss of a top-selling comic series. In the real world, though, the stakes are even higher. What would we, as a society, do if we suddenly had the tools to prevent homosexuality, transsexuality, and dwarfism in children before they’re even born?

I’ll even ask a more controversial question that’s sure to draw plenty of ire. What if those same tools could be used to modify the skin color, facial features, and overall appearance of our children? We already understand how genetics affects our appearance to some extent. What happens when we’re able to determine that for someone before they’re ever born?

These are objectively distressing questions. I’m glad “Uncanny X-men #1” dared to ask them. I doubt they’ll get debated or resolved completely in the proceeding issues, mostly because such resolutions are impossible in superhero comics. It still presents the X-men with a unique issue to confront and one that we will likely have to confront in the real world.

As is often the case with difficult questions, the answers are likely to anger some and distress many. Most people genuinely and sincerely want what’s best for their children. In the world of Marvel Comics, that could mean preventing them from gaining the kind of superpowers that makes them targets for Sentinels. In the real world, that could mean removing an entire class of people from the gene pool.

In issues like this, there are no heroes or villains. There are just difficult choices that we must make before someone else makes them for us.

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Filed under comic book reviews, futurism, gender issues, human nature, sexuality, superhero comics, Thought Experiment, X-men

How To Resolve The “Religious Freedom” Debate

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Every now and then, a tragic story comes along involving an innocent child who needlessly dies because their parents refused to give them medical treatment due to their religious doctrine. Whether you’re deeply religious or overtly atheist, these stories are heart-wrenching. The fact they occur is a travesty.

Just last year, a two-year-old girl died in Pennsylvania because that very reason. Consequently, her parents were charged with involuntary manslaughter and child endangerment. They were later convicted and subsequently lost custody of their other children.

Those are the least surprising details of the story. They aren’t the first parents to get charged with a crime for refusing to provide medical treatment to their children on religious grounds. According to a study by Pediatrics, 140 children died of treatable medical conditions from 1975 to 1995. You also don’t have to look far to find some pretty tragic stories of children needlessly suffering because of their parents’ inaction.

I bring up these distressing, disheartening facts because there’s one critical detail to stories like those of the girl in Pennsylvania. While the parents of that girl were convicted, the church they attended, the Faith Tabernacle, was not held liable. Never mind that the church’s tenants were what told them to pray harder rather than take their child to a hospital. They incurred no responsibility for that girl’s death.

They’re not the only church that holds those beliefs, either. According to ChildrensHealthCare.org, there are nearly two dozen churches whose tenants discourage or prohibit seeking medical treatment. Moreover, there are laws in certain parts of the United States that actually protect these organizations from liability. Much of it is done in the name of “religious freedom.”

That’s a term I’m sure most with access to a news feed have heard recently. In fact, they’re probably been hearing it a lot more frequently lately, albeit not in a way that links directly to dead children. The indirect link is still there and it’s the key to unlocking the controversy and the resolution to the issue.

Now, I put “religious freedom” in quotes because it’s another one of those vague terms that can be construed to mean anything to fit a particular situation. More often than not, it’s an excuse to argue for favorable or preferential treatment of an individual or group.

That, in and of itself, isn’t too remarkable. People are going to argue for favorable treatment with or without religion. Where “religious freedom” sets itself apart are the legal protections it seeks. Those parents of that dead little girl used religious freedom to justify their behavior.

That is, admittedly, an extreme example and one that rarely makes the news. These days, the most common manifestation of “religious freedom” controversies involve people using it to justify denying services to LGBT individuals, be it a marriage license or a wedding cake. It was also part of a major decision by Supreme Court involving a cake shop that refused service to a gay couple.

Those who champion “religious freedom” cheered the ruling and the precedent it set. This, along with the Hobby Lobby ruling in 2014, establishes that someone can use sincerely held religious beliefs to obtain exemptions from mandates prescribed by law. It seems the effort in securing this “freedom” is gaining momentum and winning battles in the courtroom.

Again, I put that word in quotes for a reason and one I hope will help craft an appropriate standard for what constitutes actual freedom and what constitutes contrived excuses. That is, in essence, what the “religious freedom” battles are seeking. They’re pursuing legally-protected excuses for their theology and its associated behaviors.

I can understand, to a limited extent, why there would need to be some legal protections for religious groups and not just for the purposes of anti-discrimination efforts. We need to have some resource for situations where someone is coerced into doing something that goes against their religion. Strapping someone to a chair and forcing them to eat shellfish will do unique distress to a Jewish person than it will for others.

That being said, it’s somewhat telling that the organizations fighting hardest for “religious freedom” also happen to be organizations that have preached hatred and misinformation on the LGBT community for years. Some of these organizations are designated as hate groups and their sentiment on LGBT issues is rarely subtle.

To them, the free exercise of their religion, as articulated in the first amendment, means the ability to treat certain people, notably LGBT individuals, a particular way. Some will even take it farther than that, seeking the right to craft their entire society around their theology, regardless of what secular law states.

It’s an effort not limited to one religion or denomination, either. There are other major religions with theology that goes beyond refusing service to LGBT individuals and crafting a society where their adherents are their primary authority. Therein lies the greatest flaw in the whole “religious freedom” debate.

When put into practice, the actual expression is less about the exercise of religion and more about the treatment of minorities. Those same Christian bakers may fight for their right to refuse service to a gay couple, but would they fight for the right of a Muslim cab driver to refuse customers with alochol? Well, when the courts ruled against that particular religious expression, there was no major outrage.

That’s the first and most critcial step to assessing the merits of “religious freedom” and the agendas behind them. If you reverse the majority/minority dynamics, is it applied equally? If the majority is the only one that benefits, then it’s not really freedom. It’s an overly elaborate excuse with religion as a cover.

There’s an even easier standard to use if majority/minority dynamics are too complex. This one goes back to the tragic stories about parents refusing life-saving medical treatment for their children. It can be articulated with a simple set of questions.

Could a form of religious expression/teaching be used to justify conduct that leads to the death of a child?

If yes, then it warrants no legal protections of any kind.

If no, then it constitutes free expression.

It’s a fairly simple standard, one that does not add a religious context to freedom and expression. There is freedom. There is expression. Sometimes it’s religious. Sometimes it’s not. Whether it’s just going to church on a Sunday or not eating certain foods, it’s just another form of freedom and freedom is a beautiful thing.

When it’s used to justify the deaths of children and discriminating against minorities, it’s not freedom. It’s just bullying looking for legal protection. I’m completely in favor of people practicing their religion as they see fit or no religion at all. However, there are standards for a civilized society and those standards cannot and should not accommodate excuses for dead children.

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Filed under Current Events, political correctness, Reasons and Excuses, religion

How Ellie From “The Last Of Us” Does LGBT Characters Right

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In the current state of popular culture, one of the most emotionally-charged words is “diversity.” It gets thrown around like a nuclear hot potato. Anyone who holds it too long gets burned and anyone who doesn’t hold it long enough gets attacked. Whether it’s the handling of female characters or representation of minorities, diversity is one of those buzzwords that creates the wrong kind of buzz.

That’s not to say that it’s always mishandled. From a pure business standpoint, it makes sense for media companies to pursue diversity because the world is becoming an increasingly diverse place. New markets and consumer bases are emerging as people gain greater access to media, thanks largely to global connectivity. Any competent business would want to appeal to the most customers possible.

Economics aside, injecting diversity into a movie, TV, comic book, or video game is fraught with challenges and potential backlash. Movies have felt it. Comic books have felt it. Video games have especially felt it, thanks to scandals that seem to get more frustrating with each passing year.

The number of failed attempts to promote diversity is vast and tends to bring out the worst in many people. The successes, though, often fly under the radar and generate way too little attention. Other than the success ofBlack Panther” and the occasional Supergirl comic, the cases of diversity done right are few and far between.

That’s why I think it’s fitting that one of the best cases of diversity comes from the world of video games, an industry that finds itself in a new controversy every other week. It’s even more fitting that it comes courtesy of “The Last of Us,” a franchise I’ve praised before in how it portrays masculinity in a refreshingly positive way.

Beyond just being an excellent game with amazing characters, it also provides a case study in how diversity can be done effectively. It doesn’t have to be forced. It doesn’t have to be preachy. It doesn’t even have to have a larger agenda. It can just be a bonus on top of a well-made product.

The character in question this time is Ellie, the co-protagonist to Joel in the first game and the main protagonist in the upcoming sequel. Her story is every bit as rich and compelling as Joel’s. Her history, her personality, and even the way she complements the gameplay helps make her distinct. She’s a major reason why this game is so enjoyable and why it sold so well.

She achieved all this as both a female and an LGBT character. It sounds like one of those combinations that has to be forced, but that’s not the case with Ellie. In fact, anyone who plays the entire story of the first game wouldn’t even know about Ellie’s sexuality because it was only revealed through a DLC , or downloadable content.

Even within that content, though, Ellie’s sexual orientation was not a big part of the story it told. It effectively filled in a time gap within the main game while also exploring more of Ellie’s backstory, but at no point did it make her sexuality a bigger issue than it needed to be. You could’ve removed that detail entirely and the story would still work, but it wouldn’t be quite as memorable.

More recently, during a preview of “The Last of Us Part II” at E3 2018, Ellie’s status as a homosexual woman was reaffirmed. Again, it wasn’t critical to making the moment work. The fact she’s attracted to other women doesn’t take anything away from the emotional weight of the scene. It does help enhance it, though.

Therein lies the key. What makes Ellie a great character has nothing to do with her sexuality. It’s not a defining aspect of her persona, nor should it be. It defines her no more than Joel’s heterosexuality defines him. It doesn’t have to be thrown in someone’s face as this huge, all-encompassing feature. It’s just a small part of a much greater whole that is Ellie.

There’s no effort to make her this LGBT icon, which has a tendency obscure a character when forced. Her status as LGBT isn’t belabored, either. She’s not important to the overall narrative in “The Last of Us” because she’s female and gay. She’s important because of factors independent of those traits.

That importance grows throughout the story, but not because of her gender or her sexuality. It’s what she does that helps establish her as an important character and a compelling one, at that. Her story complements Joel’s and the various other characters she encounters.

In the process, she also demonstrates a unique personality. She’s tough and stubborn, but she’s also impulsive and temperamental. Many of those qualities are entirely gender-neutral. Some stand out more because she’s a woman and that’s okay because a girl acting girly isn’t a big deal, which tends to get lost with other female characters.

It may seem so obvious, but the fact that diversity in media is such an issue shows just how difficult it is to pursue. Ellie succeeds because the diversity she represents is never primary to her character. It’s not even secondary, either. That’s not to say her gender and her sexuality are ignored, but it’s never elevated beyond a certain point.

Before any of those diversity-related issues come up, “The Last of Us” works to establish who Ellie is and why she’s important. That process of establishing a good, compelling character without her gender or sexuality being the focal point does a lot to get you to care about her story. It’s a process that can’t be rushed and the game does a masterful job in that respect.

The person Ellie is when you first encounter her early in the game is not the same person by the end. She’s someone who undergoes a lot of growth, encountering more than a few setbacks along the way. There are times she’s easy to root for. There are times when she comes off as an arrogant brat. Before you ever find out about her sexuality, you learn about her as a person.

By the time her sexuality finally comes up, Ellie is already so much more than the gender she’s attracted to. She’s a survivor, a fighter, and someone who has seen everyone she’s ever cared about die or leave her until Joel comes along. She also has a vital part to play in the ongoing apocalypse the world around her faces. All of this, once again, is not dependent on her gender or her sexuality.

I know I keep belaboring that, but it’s worth belaboring because that aspect of character development keeps getting glossed over. Other efforts at diverse characters often rush to the diversity without establishing why anyone should care about them. It’s why all-female remakes rarely resonate. It also leads to characters whose diversity is so blatant that it’s hard to take them seriously.

That’s not to say Ellie is a perfect example of diversity done right. She has her flaws, as does Joel. There are times when she’s too tough for her own good. She has a tendency to push peoples’ buttons for the wrong reasons. She also has questionable tastes in jokes. Even proponents of diversity can find flaws in her.

Despite those flaws, there are many lessons that characters like Ellie and games like “The Last of Us” can teach when it comes to doing diversity and LGBT representation right. The most important can be boiled down to four basic components:

  • Don’t try and force diversity just to fill a quota
  • Develop the character before developing the diversity
  • Don’t make their status as a woman or LGBT their most defining trait
  • Have the character complement their supporting cast, regardless of their diversity status

There are probably many more lessons that I’m not qualified to teach, but I think characters like Ellie do plenty by just being memorable and endearing. She’s a great character within a great story. That wouldn’t change if she were straight, but her being a lesbian does help her stand out, albeit for all the right reasons.

It’s also worth noting that Ellie’s story is still ongoing. “The Last of Us Part II” is set to come out in 2019 and the next part of her story promises to get pretty dark. Whether she maintains the complexity and appeal of her current character remains to be seen, but she has a strong foundation to build on, which is key for any character, regardless of their sexual preferences.

Whether we like it or not, there’s a lot of animosity between both sides, there more diversity in future media because the world is a diverse place. It’s just a matter of going about it in a meaningful, compelling way. Ellie is an example of how an LGBT character can work and when done right, it works pretty damn well.

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Why Abstinence Only Sex Education Is Only Getting More Harmful

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There was once a time when it was possible, albeit cumbersome, for a parent to control the information and education their child received from the cradle up to and even a little bit beyond their high school graduation. Some even went further than that, attempting to control their children well into adulthood. I’m not saying that’s right or wrong. I’m not a parent yet so I’m not in a position to judge. I’m just saying it was possible.

A parent could, for the most part, prevent their children from watching certain TV shows, seeing certain movies, or reading certain books that contained information and messages that they didn’t want them consuming. Sure, every now and then one of their kids’ friends might sneak some “illicit” information past their guard, but they could still exert a fair amount of control over what and how their kids learned.

Without getting too deep into the logistics, it’s safe to say that those days are either over or numbered. In today’s world of ever-increased connectivity, along with cheap smartphones and easy internet access, kids are capable of accessing an unlimited wealth of information that no parent can hope to filter.

In many ways, that’s a good thing. Both the millennial generation and the emerging youth in Generation Z are the most educated cohort of people to have ever lived on this planet. Given that level of education, combined with access to so much information, why do some parents still believe they can keep their kids ignorant about sex?

I don’t deny that talking to children about sex is uncomfortable for parents, to say the least. It’s just as uncomfortable for the kids too. I still remember how awkward it was when my parents told me about sex. I still love and commend them for enduring that awkwardness because it made me more informed later in life. Other parents, however, insist on taking the opposite approach.

On April 23rd, 2018, there was a nationwide effort conducted by concerned parents who didn’t approve of how their children were being educated about sex. They called it “Sex Ed Sit Out” and it’s exactly what it sounds like. Rather than directly deal with the information their children are being taught, they seek to prevent their children from ever learning about it.

The fact they’re doing this in an era where any kid with a smartphone can look up detailed information about anatomy, sexuality, sexual orientation, and transgender issues is pretty telling. The fact this is being done with support of socially conservative, sex-negative organizations like the Family Research Council and the Liberty Counsel should also be a major red flag.

The effort, itself, was instigated by a North Carolina mother who called herself “The Activist Mommy.” She’s an extremely religious woman who espouses extremely regressive views on any form of sexuality that doesn’t fall in line with what popes, monks, mullahs, and rabbis deem moral. What set her off, though, was what she found out her kids had been learning in sex ed at their school.

It wasn’t just that they were teaching kids about contraception, safe sex practices, and the radical notion that sexual desires aren’t some disease that need to be cured or managed. It was also the idea that these programs had the audacity to inform children about LGBTQ issues relating to sexuality. It even had the gall to ask kids to think about and question how those issues effect them.

Assume that last paragraph was written with the utmost sarcasm, but that was a serious issue for these parents. This isn’t just about information that may or may not conflict with their preferred holy books. Some go so far as to call it “graphic, gender-bending, promiscuity-promoting sex education.”

They frequently throw around phrases like “the sexualization of our children” to get parents really uncomfortable. They treat such education as though they’re a how-to guide, complete with drills and a maintenance schedule. In reality, that’s not how the program works and anyone with an internet connection can verify that.

It’s still not enough for these parents, though. I don’t doubt they love their kids with all their hearts, but I think they’re seriously underestimating their ability to control both the inherent biology of children and the dangers of trying to preserve ignorance in an era where information is so easy to access.

It’s because of that same access that anyone can learn that abstinence only sex education programs don’t work. It doesn’t just bear out through data in peer-reviewed studies. Those programs even fail the basic tenets of common sense and logic. To prove this, just think of all the instances when not knowing about something made it not exist. Outside Freddy Kruger movies, that just doesn’t work in the real world.

Beyond simply being ineffective and a waste of taxpayer money, taking that same abstinence approach to LGBTQ issues is potentially more damaging. It’s one thing to tell children that having a strong desire to be intimate with someone is immoral, dangerous, and may doom their soul to damnation. It’s quite another to instill the notion that they’re somehow damaged for not having gender-based attitudes consistent with 50s sitcoms.

Like it or not, human beings are complicated, diverse creatures with a wide range of desires, attitudes, and identities. The idea that something as inherently powerful as sex can fit into the narrow scope of a 50s sitcom requires a gross misunderstanding of the chaotic, unpredictable nature of sexuality and biology in general.

Granted, this sort of repressive ideology is nothing new. Religious organizations have been protesting sex education in public school for years, favoring abstinence instead of any information that might hint that sex could involve something other than just two married heterosexuals making babies that grow into devout church-going tax-payers.

However, the rhetoric from people like the Activist Mommy is getting louder as gender-driven conflicts enter the conversation on top of the sexual components. It’s more than enough to get parents worried, outraged, and even a little anxious about what their kids are learning.

Whatever their sentiments, sincere and well-meaning as they might be, the abstinence approach still doesn‘t work. It was already ineffective in the era before the internet, as evidenced by the rates of teen pregnancy over the past several decades. However, that same inefficacy may be more damaging now than it was two decades ago.

To understand how, think back to what I mentioned earlier about parents being able to control what their kids learned in the past. Outside extremely restrictive religious communities, that’s just not feasible anymore. Today, just as during any other time period in human history, kids are going to get curious and/or horny. Unlike past eras, though, it’s easier than ever find the information they’re looking for.

That’s not just dangerous to the extent those kids learn things their parents don’t want them to know. It’s dangerous in the sense that there’s a lot of misinformation on the internet, especially about sex. That doesn’t just extend to the unrealistic depictions and expectations in the average porno either. It’s disturbingly easy to find bias sources of information.

Even if that information is accurate, there’s still more damage to be done by abstinence. Once a kid learns that information, much to the dismay of their parent, it’s hard to unlearn it. At the same time, it may also reveal to the kid just how much their parents have been lying to them on issues of sex, gender, and their own bodies.

Now, I get that parents have to lie to their kids every now and then, but some lies are more destructive than others. If the lie is too big or egregious, then suddenly that kid has a valid reason not to trust their parents. First, they say sex you can get pregnant by hugging someone. Then, they expect you to believe them when they say driving after doing tequila shots at a party is dangerous?

As a general rule, if keeping a secret from your kid involves something that can’t easily be uncovered with a couple internet searches, then they’re going to find out eventually. It doesn’t matter how hard you try to protect your kid from this information. If it’s out there and they’re curious, they’ll find it. That’s just the nature of the age we live in.

A child may or may not be capable of understanding sexuality or gender issues at a particular age, but most agree that it’s healthy for a child to trust their parents. Most people, kids and adults alike, can forgive small lies. For bigger lies that can claim natural, healthy desires are a disease, though, those are much harder to overlook.

For the parents to participated in this sit out, I hope they come to understand that at some point. Their children, which I’m certain they love with all their heart, are going to learn about sex, gender, and everything in between at some point. When that point comes and it’s too late, then the damage might already be irreparable.

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Why Treating Sexuality As A Disease (Always) Fails

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It wasn’t too long ago that discussions about reparative therapy, also known as gay conversion therapy, became more a joke than a serious concept. Going back to Michele Bachman’s failed presidential bid in 2012, and all the assorted jokes about her husband, who ran a religion-based therapy center, I think it’s safe to say that this issue has run its course and for good reason.

There was once a time when attempting to change someone’s sexuality into whatever society deemed acceptable was a serious pursuit. Even Sigmund Freud contributed to that effort, going so far as to claim that homosexuality could be cured through hypnosis. Seeing as how hypnotists are more likely to work in Las Vegas stage shows instead of clinics, it should be obvious how wrong he was.

As it stands, reparative therapy is rejected and discouraged by nearly every legitimate psychological and therapeutic organization on the planet. There are still those who claim that’s just part of the larger gay agenda, but those claims don’t deserve to be taken seriously. Whenever that many organizations to agree that something is so ineffective and harmful, it’s usually a pretty clear sign that there’s something wrong with it.

For the rest of the population that doesn’t buy into homophobic conspiracy theories, the issue is resolved. While there’s still a lot we don’t understand about human sexuality, our current understanding offers a fairly concise conclusion. It’s not possible to completely change or radically reorient someone’s sexuality.

So in light this widely-accepted conclusion, any subsequent efforts to radically alter someone’s sexuality through archaic tactics that involve shame, guilt, and pseudo-spiritual bunk should be just as asinine. The keyword there is it should be. Even though reparative therapy is roundly condemned, the spirit of that therapy continues, albeit with a different target.

This time, the targets aren’t homosexuals or some other sexual minority. Instead, the scope is bigger and more extensive than even defunct anti-gay ministries could ever hope to achieve. It’s taking aim at sexuality, as a whole, particularly that of men. While it doesn’t have an official title, the tactics are distressingly similar.

I’m reluctant to put a label on it because I’d rather not throw around blanket terms for an issue this vast. Much of it stems from those opposing everything associated with “toxic masculinity,” a term I’ve already condemned.

From sex scandals to advertising to representations in major movies, the obstacle is the same. A particular brand of male sexuality that caters to straight men seeking the company of beautiful women for basic, shallow reasons isn’t just falling out of favor. It’s seen as corrupt, part of some grand patriarchal conspiracy.

It’s so corrupt that some, such as Joss Whedon, describe it like a disease. Men who simply have these desires are somehow flawed and need to either be educated or scorned. It’s not quite at the level that homosexuals endured in the past, but the common themes are still there.

It’s hard to pinpoint where it began. Some might point to the Harvey Weinstein scandal as the catalyst that turned the public against the whims of horny men, but I think it goes back further than that, even past the 2016 Presidential Election. The concept of criticizing men’s preference to admire beautiful women isn’t new. The extent of that criticism, however, is unprecedented and still growing.

Regardless of how it began, either through vocal critics of breast depictions in video games or protesting sexy advertising, it’s a major movement now. It has popular hashtags and the backing of powerful media outlets. If you’re a straight man who enjoys admiring beautiful women, then congratulations. You’re the source of all the problems in our current sexual landscape.

Given the intensity of the rhetoric in the movement, it’s not just about protesting the injustices perpetrated by men in positions of power who freely exploited that power. It’s attacking certain manifestations of sexuality as a whole, deeming them “problematic” to the point where it’s practically pathologized. That’s how we end up with asinine terms like “toxic masculinity.”

It’s for that reason that the parallels between the long-debunked ideas of reparative therapy and ongoing condemnations of male sexuality are all the more disturbing. Stories about LGBT youth who survived reparative therapy, and not all of them do, tend to tell similar stories. The so-called therapy they get usually involves the following:

  • Excessive condemnation and shaming of certain desires
  • Attributing certain sexual desires with negative connotations
  • Demanding frequent confessions of guilt for past misdeeds, real or imagined
  • Demanding complete dissociation from a previous lifestyle
  • Attributing desires and feelings to disease or an unhealthy state of being
  • Attacking or subverting someone’s identity in an effort to re-shape it
  • Conditioning someone to associate natural feelings with negative sentiments

To anyone who has been keeping track of how men have been criticized for their attitudes towards some of the recent sexual misconduct scandals, these methods should sound painfully familiar. It’s also worth noting that these are methods that the American Psychological Association deems harmful and even dangerous.

Now, I want to be careful with my rhetoric here because I don’t want to imply that straight men who enjoy looking at beautiful women in bikinis are suffering to the same extent LGBT people suffered in these faux-therapeutic settings. That’s not the point I’m trying to make here. I’m just trying to highlight the extent to which the approaches are similar, even if they’re not the same.

It’s one thing to punish actual misconduct. It’s quite another to attack the underlying desires of an entire group. Men looking at beautiful women is now a symptom of objectification, patriarchy, and misogyny. Conversely, women looking at beautiful men is a major Hollywood movie starting Channing Tatum. See the difference?

That difference matters because treating those attitudes as diseases is every bit as misguided as treating homosexuality or transgenderism as a disease. It would be akin to referring to all homosexuality as “toxic sexuality” instead of a simple variation among the vast spectrum that is human sexuality.

That’s not to say there aren’t issues with certain attitudes men have towards sexuality. There are plenty of issues about women’s attitudes as well. However, the fact that the current culture, empowered by social media and selective biases, treats those attitudes the same way reparative therapy treats homosexuality is both revealing and distressing.

The negative impacts of those methods are well-documented, both in terms of harm and ineffectiveness. Relentlessly shaming people for their sexuality, be they straight men or gay women, is pretty damaging. It doesn’t take a licensed therapist to know that conditioning someone to hate their own desires will seriously affect their mental health.

There are many lessons to learn from the failures of reparative therapy. For one, it revealed just how powerful sexual and romantic desire can be in a person. It can also reflect how lonely it can be when those feelings are deemed defective, toxic, or deviant by a society, at large. Countless LGBT individuals have suffered because of these misguided efforts. More will suffer if those lessons aren’t heeded.

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