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Profiles In Noble Masculinity: Joel From “The Last Of Us”

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For the past few years, it has become a popular pasttime to label certain elements of popular culture as toxic or “problematic.” Take any character, song, plot, role, or trope from any brand of media. Apply an excessive amount of scrutiny, distorting it as much as necessary along the way. In the end, some people will find a way to make it offensive.

It’s through that process that shows like “Seinfeld” can be called racist. Movies like “Crocodile Dundee” can be called culturally insensitive. Movies like “Big” can be called creepy. Even classic video games like “Mario” and “Zelda” can be considered sexist. Scrutinize it enough and everything becomes racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, and culturally insensitive.

I find that whole process to be an exercise in trolling that does more to spark outrage than it does meaningful discussion. It’s the same process that created the idea of “toxic masculinity,” a concept I’ve gone out of my way to deconstruct on more than one occasion.

I don’t want to bemoan all the flaws and frustrations that occur when regressive attitudes mix with regressive agendas. There’s enough debate, discussion, and outright shouting going on in that field as it stands. Instead, I want to shift the tone of the conversation by going to the opposite end of the spectrum.

By that, I mean I’m going to do the opposite of highlighting something that some may find “problematic.” Instead, I’m going to cite something that I think is inherently positive from which we can learn. In fact, I’m going to try and coin a new phrase that’s more uplifting than some of the other buzzwords used by the regressive crowd.

I call it “noble masculinity.” It’s the idea that there are noble, admirable traits in male characters that are worth celebrating in the context of a larger story. Having talked so much about toxic masculinity and why I think it’s such a flawed concept, I feel it’s only fitting that I attempt to counter it with something more positive.

I know it’s popular to criticize and complain about male behaviors these days and, as a man, I don’t deny that we can do some foolish things. However, men are also capable of incredible acts of virtue. Those traits deserve more attention, if only to remind everyone that men can be more than outrage fodder.

There are a lot fictional male characters from movies, TV shows, video games, and comics that I could cite who embody positive masculine traits. Characters like Superman, John McClane, and even James Bond come to mind, although I’m sure there are some who would disagree with the last one.

However, in this initial exercise of exploring noble masculinity, I want to cite a lesser-known male character from popular, critically acclaimed video game that some have called the most riveting, emotionally resonant story-driven epic of the console generation. That game is called “The Last of Us” and the source of the noble masculinity comes from Joel, the grizzled, yet vulnerable male protagonist of the story.

For those who haven’t played “The Last of Us” or just don’t play video games in general, Joel may initially come off as a mix of old cowboy tropes and John McClane rip-offs. However, by following his story, he reveals a level of depth that includes instances of noble masculinity that men and women alike can appreciate.

Joel’s story is not built on prophecies, superhuman abilities, or dumb luck. As a character and a person, Joel is largely defined by a grit that’s uniquely masculine in many ways. At the beginning of the game, he’s not looking to become part of some larger struggle. He’s just a single dad, trying to make a living and provide for his daughter, Sarah. In world full of dim-witted father figures, it’s pretty refreshing.

Then, within the first 10 minutes of the game, Joel suffers the greatest loss any parent can endure. He tries to protect his daughter from first stages of a full-blown apocalypse, but ultimately fails. He ends up watching his daughter die in his arms. It’s a very emotional moment, one in which Joel’s pain is palpable.

That defining moment establishes Joel as a man who fights to protect those he loves, but is all too human and very much at the mercy of forces beyond his control. There’s only so much that he do when the world around him is falling apart. No amount of anger, lament, or sorrow can change that. He, as a man and a survivor of this apocalypse, has to find a way to cope.

While his coping skills aren’t perfect, as evidenced in many powerful scenes throughout the game, Joel’s grief helps drive him. It also lays the foundation for the emotional development he undergoes after he meets Ellie, his young female co-protagonist who becomes a critical part of the gameplay and the story.

I could probably write another article about Ellie and why she’s one of the most compelling female characters in modern video games, but in the context of noble masculinity, she’s very much a catalyst for Joel’s emotional journey. Her own story is remarkable, but her influence on Joel is where she really shines.

It’s not a case of a knight rescuing a princess or a female character trying too hard to be an equal to her male compatriots. In fact, Joel’s first impression of Ellie isn’t a good one. She comes off as an irritable brat with a bad attitude. Essentially, she’s the kind of immature teenager that guys like Joel go out of their way to avoid.

However, their stories soon become intertwined. They end up having to work together, rely on each other, and fight for one another in order to survive a post-apocalyptic world that has been destroyed by zombies, toxic fungus, and military-enforced curfews. Before long, they establish a bond that brings out the best and worst of both characters.

For Joel, the best is reflected in those same paternal instincts that caused him so much pain and sorrow at the beginning. He comes to see Ellie as a surrogate daughter, of sorts. At times, he resists that and even gets upset when the idea is thrown in his face. In the end, though, he doesn’t avoid it.

As a result, Joel’s story embodies more than the love a father has for his child. It also reveals how willing a man is to form a bond with a total stranger, who is not even that nice to him in the beginning, and tries to protect them with that same paternal dedication. It doesn’t happen all at once. He even resists it at times. He still embraces it and all the tribulations that come with it.

That, more than anything, is the most important element of noble masculinity that Joel embodies. He’s not Superman, nor does he pretend to be. He’s also very aware of his own shortcomings, saying at one point that he trusts others more than he trusts himself. Most men are reluctant to acknowledge such insecurity, let alone reveal it. Joel doesn’t hide from it. If anything, he channels it.

It’s something that resonates with Ellie too. Throughout the game, she has opportunities to cut ties with him and go along with someone who might be better-equipped to help her. However, she choses to stay with Joel. Just as he comes to see her as a daughter, she comes to see him as a father.

The fact that he and Ellie go through this journey in the midst of an ongoing apocalypse makes their bond that much more powerful. It also requires that Joel push himself harder and confront the limitations that kept him from saving his daughter. Being a father made for great sorrow in the past, but it also made him stronger and more determined in the future.

That’s not to say that Joel doesn’t have his low points. There are moments where Joel does not come off as noble. Some even argue that his decisions towards the end of the game undermines his nobility. I would argue that it actually reinforces it.

When the world is already in the middle of an apocalypse and people are willing to sacrifice innocence for what they think is the greater good, then that’s when traits of noble masculinity become most critical. That’s when a father’s willingness to protect his child should be at its strongest.

That dedication still comes at a price. With a sequel in “The Last Of Us Part II” already in the works, it’s likely that Joel will continue to pay a price for his choices, however noble they might be. The fact that he still makes those choices and is willing to accept the risks reflects the challenges and strength that come with masculine drive.

Joel is probably not the greatest example of noble masculinity in all of fiction, but I would argue that his is the most relatable. He’s not perfect, nor does he pretend to be. He doesn’t have any capabilities that are impossible for other men to achieve. He’s a man who was utterly destroyed when he lost his daughter, but didn’t run from the chance to be a father again and to a total stranger, no less.

Flaws and shortcomings aside, I still contend that the noble masculinity that Joel shows throughout “The Last of Us” are far greater than any of the “toxic” traits that others may cite. In playing the game, it’s hard not to empathize with him or his journey, especially if you’re a parent. In appreciating his strengths, though, it shows that there is room for a brand of masculinity that anyone of any gender can admire.

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Tomb Raider Review: A Moderate Leap, But Major Progress

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Earlier this year, I expressed a sincere hope that the new “Tomb Raider” movie would finally do something that no other video game movie had managed to do. I hoped that it would be to video game movies what the original “X-men” was to modern superhero movies. I’d even hoped that Lara Croft could be to video game characters what “Wonder Woman” was to female superheroes.

That last one might have been hoping for too much, but I don’t think I’m alone in wanting to see Hollywood get at least one movie based on a video game really right. Between the lackluster “Resident Evil” movies and the god-awful “Super Mario Bros,” the genre is overdue for a hit.

I get that there are challenges associated with making a movie out of a video game. However, Lara Croft and “Tomb Raider” is in a better position than most. It’s a franchise that has an iconic character who has built a strong fanbase over the course of two decades. The fact that she’s a strong, sexy female character at a time when the appetite for such characters is greater than ever works even more to her benefit.

While Lara Croft’s sex appeal has been controversial in recent years, she’s still a great character whose games already have a very cinematic feel. Having played her 2013 game multiple times, I can attest to the strength of that narrative. It has all the necessary elements that translate well to a movie.

This movie, being a franchise that has already attempted twice with Angelina Jolie in the early 2000s to mixed success, seems to make a better effort than most to succeed where so many have fail. This version of “Tomb Raider” works hard to tell a real, serious story on par with that of any other successful action franchise. It tries to do this while still incorporating elements of the game into the narrative.

It’s ambitious and sincere. It also helps that it cast Alicia Vikander, an Oscar-winning actress whose brilliance and sex appeal in “Ex Machina” made her well-suited to the role. Criticisms of her having the necessary boobs for the role aside, Ms. Vikander can act and be sexy in her own right. It’s only a matter of whether she can channel that talent into making “Tomb Raider” succeed where so many others have failed.

Well, having seen the movie on its opening weekend, I’d like to offer my assessment on this matter. While I’ll always be haunted, to some extent, by terrible video game movies like “Super Mario Bros,” I went in feel genuinely hopeful for this movie. I was also bracing myself, knowing as well as anyone the history of video game movies.

With that mentality going into the theater, I eagerly gave “Tomb Raider” and Alicia Vikander the benefit of the doubt. By the time I came out of the theater, I was able to come to a simple conclusion, albeit one with a few caveats.

Yes, this is a good movie, but it’s not a game-changer.

It’s true. “Tomb Raider” is an genuinely good video game movie. I honestly didn’t think I would ever be able to say that with a straight face in my lifetime, but I can and it’s worth saying again. This is a good movie.

By that, I mean the movie has a concise, well-crafted story from start to finish. The movie establishes who Lara Croft is, what she’s dealing with, and what kind of person she is. The plot isn’t too messy. The effects aren’t too cheesy. The acting is actually good and not just from Ms. Vikander. Everyone in this movie seems to make a real, honest effort.

Like the 2013 video game, the movie follows a young, inexperienced Lara Croft who has yet to become the sexy badass that went onto inspire so much lurid fan art. However, by the end of the movie, you can already see traces of that sexy badass growing within her. As a character, she grows and evolves over the course of the movie. Watching her grow and seeing her struggle at times is genuinely compelling.

The story and the details surrounding it are tight and well-organized. At no point in the movie is there a scene that feels random, contrived, or forced. The events that unfold happen organically, from Lara getting arrested early in the movie to unlocking the secrets to an ancient tomb on the hidden island of Yamatai. Nothing ever just happens. There’s a rhyme and rhythm to the story.

It’s a story that is not bland or predictable, even to those who played the 2013 game multiple times, like I did. The movie downplays some of the more mystical elements of Lara Croft’s mythos, but still incorporates plenty of the over-the-top machinations that Tomb Raider and “Indiana Jones” fans alike can appreciate.

However, it’s that effort to make the movie feel less fanciful that, in my opinion, keeps it from being the kind of game-changing movie that “X-men” and “Wonder Woman” were. While “Tomb Raider” qualifies as a good movie, it doesn’t do enough to be a truly great movie.

This movie, in many respects, plays it safe. While it puts Lara through plenty of tough situations, things never get too dire for her. She’s allowed to suffer and endure wounds, but only to a point. Others, including her father as played by Dominic West, arguably endure a whole lot more.

Safe or not, it’s understandable that the movie wouldn’t try to do too much all at once. Movies that do that tend to get messy, as many recent Michael Bay films can attest. I think “Tomb Raider” did the right thing, playing it safe and keeping things simple. It left some of its potential on the table, but did plenty to leave much of that potential available for future sequels.

That’s somewhat of a gamble, though. Too many movies, these days, are made solely with sequels in mind and sometimes that assumes too much. Anyone who saw “Green Lantern” or “The Mummy” can attest to that. At least with “Tomb Raider,” the ending and the revelations it offers actually leave you feeling excited for a sequel.

That’s a gamble that may or may not pay off. I’m aware that this movie did not exactly set the box office on fire, especially in a market still dominated by “Black Panther.” However, it did manage to pull in some decent numbers overseas and that might give this movie the fuel it needs to become a full-fledged franchise.

Again, the movie does have flaws. If you go into “Tomb Raider” looking for reasons to hate it, you’ll find them. If you think Ms. Vikander wasn’t sexy enough, you’ll find points in the movie to vindicate that. Conversely, if you think Ms. Vikander was too sexy and her portrayal in this movie is contributing to sexism and the objectification of women, you’ll find instances of that too.

If, however, you go in hoping for a good, coherent movie that tells a compelling, dramatic story, you’ll find that “Tomb Raider” delivers. In fact, I would argue that it delivers in ways no video game movie has ever managed before. It doesn’t do quite enough to be a new “Wonder Woman,” but it achieves far more than any previous video game movie has ever dared.

If I were to score this movie, I would give it a solid 8 out of 10 or a 7.5 out of 10 at the lowest. “Tomb Raider” has an opportunity to redefine a maligned movie genre and it succeeds. With other movies like “Rampage” coming out this year, the situation is ripe for a new generation of video game movies that aren’t terrible.

Whether your a fan of the games, a fan of action movies, or just looking for a great female character played by someone other than Gal Gadot and Scarlett Johansson, “Tomb Raider” will give you plenty to enjoy. It may still be a while before we can relegate movies like “Super Mario Bros” to the same dusty bin as “Batman and Robin,” but “Tomb Raider” offers a critical first step.

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A Better Way To Promote Diversity

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How do you encourage meaningful change in media, culture, and social attitudes? That’s a reasonable and relevant question to ask these days. It seems everyone is either trying to push for greater diversity or whining about the lack thereof. More often than not, however, those efforts aren’t mutually exclusive.

Even if nobody has a definitive answer to the question of how, that hasn’t stopped many from trying. There have been major diversity pushes in every form of media from video games to comics to movies to TV shows. Not all of them have been successful. In some cases, they backfired horribly and cost people money.

I don’t want to belabor the specifics of those failures, but I do think it’s worth pointing out that they also have the effect of angering and/or insulting the audience. For franchises that have a huge fan base, that can be pretty detrimental. Some franchises never recover.

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It certainly doesn’t help that there are those who push for diversity for all the wrong reasons. There’s a very vocal contingent of critics/professional trolls who go out of their way to bemoan the lack of diversity in a certain piece of media. Whether it’s a video game having too many people of the same race or a lack of strong female characters, these people will whine about it as loud as the internet will allow.

For the most part, I don’t think anyone should give much attention to such whining. We’ve all dealt with whiny children at some point in our lives. Most people learn, often the hard way, that arguing with them rarely works out. Most people just give up to stop the whining. I’ve pointed out before why this can lead to bigger problems down the line.

It quickly becomes a brutal cycle. The more attention you give to these whiny children, the more incentive they have to whine so they can get what they want. The same applies to these “critics” who keep whining about diversity. It’s not enough for them that “Black Panther” is doing so well with a diverse cast. Some will still whine that it had no LGBT characters.

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It’s inescapable. You simply cannot win against a whiny child. No matter how much you go out of your way for them, they’ll find another reason to whine and so long as they keep getting their way, they’ll keep doing it. In the long run, though, that’s still a terrible way to promote diversity.

Ideally, producers of media will pursue diversity because they want to appeal to a broader audience. They want to make money and money doesn’t care about race, religion, or genital configuration. However, when critics/trolls rely on whining to get their way, then those efforts become less about diversity and more about stopping the whining.

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I believe there is a better way to promote diversity and it does not involve any whining. It doesn’t require some radical rethinking of how we go about producing, consume, or discussing media. It doesn’t even require some major protest, a new law, or diversity quotas. It’s just a simple change in approach that anyone can do for free and without that much effort.

That change can be summed up in two words: positive reinforcement. If you’ve taken a basic psychology class at any point in your education, you already know what this means. Even if you haven’t taken any classes and just deal with a lot of annoying people/children/whiners, you probably know the idea.

Rather than complaining about what is so bad about something, positive reinforcements involve focusing on the good. Rather than whine about what isn’t there, you celebrate what is there. Most importantly, though, you turn that outrage once reserved for those bad things into apathy. Most forms of media can survive outrage. They cannot survive apathy.

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To illustrate this approach, consider the following scenario that tends to play out whenever someone criticizes a movie, TV show, video game, etc. for a lack of diversity.

“Just look at this terrible affront to women, minorities, and LGBTQ people! It’s so racist/sexist/homophobic/transphobic! It sends a terrible message and appeals to an audience that wants to cling to their regressive attitudes. It’s perpetuating a destructive, unhealthy mindset that directly impacts our culture. This affront should be censored, changed, or condemned endlessly until the world changes!”

Chances are, you’ve heard something like this over the past few years. Sometimes it involves a female character that doesn’t check the right boxes. Sometimes it involves a story that tries to check too many boxes. In any case, the whiners I mentioned earlier will find a reason to get upset about it. Moreover, they’ll demand some sort of change, coupled with condemnation over anyone who disagrees.

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That’s not going to promote diversity. If anything, that’s going to give people one too many reasons to resent pushes for diversity. Some media companies are already learning that the hard way, with Marvel being the most recent example. Ideally, you want someone to promote diversity because they want to and not because they’re afraid of a backlash.

With that in mind, here’s a second scenario that shows how positive reinforcement can further that effort.

“That thing some claim is racist/sexist/homophobic/transphobic? I don’t really care for that. Let me tell you about this other thing that I just think is amazing! I love it. It’s so much fun and it sends such a good message to men, women, and minorities of all kinds. I want more of this. I’m willing to pay for more of this. Please make more of this!”

It may come off as some peppy kid who is way too excited about something. Then again, wouldn’t you rather be around that kid instead of the one that whines to get what they want? When someone is happy and excited about something, it’s kind of infectious. It makes us want to share in that feeling.

Throw money into the mix and suddenly, the same producers that make all the media that regressive types whine about actually have a good incentive to promote diversity beyond just placating whiners. Instead of just avoiding controversy, they actually want to do diversity and do it right.

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The key is focusing on instances where it is done right. They are there. There have been plenty of examples of the media actually getting diversity right. They just don’t make the news because outrage is louder and garners more attention. Even so, excitement and praise can be just as loud.

Instead of complaining about Rey being a Mary Sue in “Star Wars,” focus on how great Princess Leia was in the first trilogy or how great Ahsoka Tano is in “Star Wars: Clone Wars.”

Instead of complaining about Lara Croft being too sexy, focus on how great Samus Aran is in the Metriod games.

Instead of complaining about the lack of diversity on shows like “Seinfeld,” focus on how great the minority characters are in shows like “Fresh Off The Boat” or “House.”

It may not sound as vocal or satisfying as venting outrage about a flaw, but it sends the kind of message that others are more likely to want to get behind. Whereas positive feelings can have many benefits to yourself and those around you, venting outrage can be very unhealthy.

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In the long run, getting others to want to promote diversity is the best way to further it. Whining about it isn’t going to accomplish that. It’s just going to make others want to stop the whining. That may work for kids, but not functioning adults.

Movie producers, TV executives, comic book writers, and video game programmers alike are all still human at the end of the day. Human beings respond positively to positive feelings. Channel those feelings into promoting diversity and you won’t just get more of it. You’ll get people who are actually excited about producing it.

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When “Progress” Isn’t Really Progress

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After I graduated college, I got my first full-time job at a software company providing technical support. Out of respect for my former employer, I won’t name the company or the type of software it made. I’ll just say that, like all software, it sometimes malfunctioned and users got really upset.

For the most part, those seeking support were polite and reasonable. I enjoyed helping them. It made the job feel rewarding, despite the erratic hours and mediocre pay. However, there were certain customers who, for whatever reason, just weren’t satisfied complaining about the product. They basically went out of their way vent all their problems on whoever was unlucky enough to get their call.

At my office, we called these people “rubber wall users” because they weren’t just an impenetrable wall of whining. Any time you tried to throw something at them to fix their issue, it just bounced right back at you. While we tried to be professional, there was an unwritten rule that even my supervisor understood. You say whatever you have to say to get that person off the phone and on with their miserable lives.

I’m sharing that story because it’s a fitting metaphor for a phenomenon we’re seeing more and more of these days. I see it in movies, TV shows, video games, and even novels, which especially concerns me. It involves pressuring artists, producers, and developers to be more inclusive and diverse with their media. Then, when it finally happens, that’s labeled “progress.”

With respect to the sincerity of those efforts, as well as the memories of some of the angry customers I dealt with, I disagree.

I’ve talked about progress on this blog before, mostly within the context of just how much the human race has made over the past century. You won’t find many people who celebrate that progress as much as I do. By nearly every measure, we’re far more prosperous, tolerant, and well-behaved than we’ve ever been.

That said, there are certain kinds of progress that shouldn’t count as progress. They’re only progress in the same way that getting an unruly customer off the phone with some moniker of professionalism counted as progress at my old job. It’s not motivated by a sincere acceptance of diverse opinions. It’s just a way to stop the whining.

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For the past couple years, I’ve found myself wondering just how much of this false progress is being mislabeled. I’ve been seeing it in multiple mediums. Comic books, a medium for which I regularly express my love on this blog, is just one of them.

While I’ve avoided talking about such controversies, I have noticed the same trend that others have vocally criticized in other mediums. Major publishers, including Marvel, have been pushing for more diversity in their books, but their efforts haven’t always been well-received and the resulting “progress” isn’t necessarily cause for celebration.

Beyond the diversity push, Marvel even made an effort to de-sexualize their characters. While that’s only possible to some extent for overtly sexual characters like Emma Frost or DC’s Starfire, some of those efforts have had a noticeable effect on characters like Carol Danvers and Black Cat. It’s now much rarer to see female characters flaunt their sexuality.

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For some, that counts as progress. Specifically, for those who believe depictions of sexy female characters promotes misogyny and sexism, it counts as a victory. If it upsets the fans and robs an inherently visual medium of a unique form of beauty, then so be it. That’s the price of “progress.” If I could say that with more sarcasm, I would.

Again, I disagree. In fact, I would go so far as to say those efforts by Marvel backfired and not just because it cost their editor-in-chief his job. Marvel, like all media companies, is a business. Businesses need to please their customers. When certain customers are especially vocal, they have to listen to some extent, just as I had to listen to those customers.

It’s debatable how much those at Marvel actually bought into the “progress” that certain critics were asking for. I don’t doubt that some creators were sincere in their desire to improve diversity and expand the appeal of their comics. However, I also don’t doubt that a part of that effort was just to temper some of the whining by people who know how to be extra loud in the era of social media.

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While the impact on Marvel comics concerns me greatly, I noticed a much bigger effort late last year from an industry that has been prone to much louder criticisms. Specifically, it happened in one of my favorite video game franchises of all time, “Mass Effect.” Unlike what happened with Marvel, I’m not sure this beloved series will survive.

Prior to 2014, “Mass Effect” was the cream of the crop of video game franchises. It had a little of everything. There was action, drama, romance, exploration, insight, and yes, even a little sexiness. Characters like Miranda Lawson, Liara T’soni, Samara, EDI, and even the female protagonist, Shepard, had undeniable sex appeal.

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Then, in between the release of “Mass Effect 3” and the 2017 sequel, “Mass Effect: Andromeda,” a scandal broke out in the video game industry that involved everything from sexism to harassment to just how visible a character’s butt could be in a video game. I wish I were exaggerating, but it really happened and I don’t think the industry has fully recovered.

In the midst of that scandal, the demand for “progress” soared more than it did for most other mediums. Suddenly, the act of making a video game character too sexy was seen as contributing to a toxic culture of misogyny, sexism, and violence against women and minorities. It’s not like sex appeal had nothing to do with Lara Croft becoming so successful. Again, if I could say those words with more sarcasm, I would.

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Mass Effect: Andromeda” was developed in the eye of that storm. EA and Bioware couldn’t use the same approach they did with previous “Mass Effect” games. They had to be very careful with how they designed their characters, especially their female characters. One misplaced curve is all it would take to reignite a controversy that nobody wanted to deal with, given all the negative press the gaming industry had incurred.

As a result, the female characters in “Mass Effect: Andromeda” didn’t just dial down the sex appeal. In some cases, there was a concerted effort to make their female characters less attractive. This is best shown in the female model used for Sara Ryder, the main female protagonist. To say it didn’t translate to the game would be like saying drinking a gallon of bleach might make you a little queasy.

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Ryder wasn’t the only female character to have her looks tempered. Pretty much every female character, from the supporting cast to background characters, was designed with minimal sex appeal in mind. That’s not to say the game didn’t have some sexier moments, but compared to what other games attempted before that, it was pretty watered down.

That was just one of many problems that “Mass Effect: Andromeda” faced when it launched in March 2017. Now, games launching with bugs and glitches is nothing new. It’s standard practice for a game to get patched after launch. However, the extent of those bugs in “Mass Effect: Andromeda,” combined with unattractive characters, did not help the game’s reception.

I say that as someone who played the game and still loved it, for the most part. Since I love “Mass Effect” games so much, I found plenty of reasons to love “Mass Effect: Andromeda.” However, I found myself having to overlook more flaws than usual. I also found it hard to really admire the visual aspects of the game. Like comics, undermining that part of the experience can be pretty detrimental.

There were a lot of criticism levied against “Mass Effect: Andromeda.” Some are legitimate. Some are painfully valid. More than any other game, though, it was developed with the intent to promote a more diverse and inclusive product that appealed everyone and offended no one. As the sales and reception seem to indicate, though, even female gamers don’t like looking at unattractive characters.

As a result, nobody really hailed “Mass Effect: Andromeda” as progress. However, nobody staged a mass online protest claiming the game made its female characters too sexy and promoted toxic behaviors among its users. Some might count that as progress too. I am not one of them.

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In a sense, “Mass Effect: Andromeda” is a case study in a product where efforts towards progress just masked a desire to avoid outrage. Just avoiding outrage does not count as progress in any capacity. It just counts as a company trying to shield itself from bad publicity that might damaged its brand. Say what you will about corporate greed, but brand still matters to them, often more than money.

I don’t blame Bioware or EA at all for going that route, but simply avoiding outrage set the bar pretty low and it might have doomed “Mass Effect: Andromeda” before it ever had a chance. At the moment, the “Mass Effect” franchise is on indefinite hold because the response to “Mass Effect: Andromeda” was not what the developer had hoped.

Beyond the tragedy of damaging a beloved franchise, “Mass Effect: Andromeda” reflects a dangerous and potentially regressive sentiment in the industry. Rather than focus on pushing the envelope and doing something bold, artists and developers are more concerned with avoiding outrage. The actual quality of the final product can only ever be secondary, at most.

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There are a great many challenges facing the video game industry, as anyone who followed the news surrounding “Star Wars: Battlefront II” can attest. However, the precedent set by “Mass Effect: Andromeda” may very well be the most damaging.

Most agree that video games, like any other media, should work to appeal to a broad audience. However, as Marvel found out, forcing certain kinds of “progress” can have some pretty detrimental effects in the long run. It alienates consumers, frustrates developers, and limits the incentives to innovate and try new things.

At the end of the day, making female superheroes less sexy in comics and making characters in “Mass Effect” less attractive did nothing to reduce sexism, promote gender equality, or foster a more inclusive culture. All it really did was go out of its way to stop exceedingly vocal critics from whining.

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Bioware and EA didn’t suddenly become more enlightened about video games, female characters, and the impact of mass media. They simply took the path of least resistance, doing what would generate the least amount of outrage, at least in terms of sexist accusations. That’s not progress. That’s just frustration and, like my old job, very little good comes from it.

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Can “Tomb Raider” Succeed Like “Wonder Woman” (And Begin A Larger Trend)?

Tomb-Raider-Poster-Alicia-Vikander

It seems so long ago, but there was a time when movies based on superheroes were in the same sorry state as those based on video games. The fact I’m old enough to remember those days makes me feel way older than I want, but it’s still remarkable to consider at a time before big budget superhero movies like “The Avengers” and “Iron Man 3” grossed over a billion dollars.

That’s a huge shift from the mid to late 1990s, an era where such craptacular cinematic turds like “Batman and Robin” and “Super Mario Brothers” created the sentiment that those kinds of movies were box office poison. I’m sure some have yet to forgive Joel Shumacher and whoever thought casting Dennis Hopper as Bowser was a good idea.

That all changed, at least for superhero movies, when “X-men” hit theaters in 2000. Even with the stench of Shumacher’s failure lingering, that film proved that superhero movies can be both good and make a lot of money. As a result, the modern era of superhero movies was born.

While that has been great for the superhero movie genre, the video game genre didn’t fare as well. It’s not just because “Super Mario Brothers” was that bad, though. It’s more a matter of bad timing, bad execution, and movie studios just plain not knowing how to make a decent video game movie.

There have been attempts, including one “Doom” movie and fiveResident Evil” movies. None of them were the kind of hit that could kick-start an entire genre. Granted, Milla Jovovich made a respectable effort. Like the nipples on George Clooney’s Batman costume, though, it just didn’t take. As such, video game movies remain a punchline instead of a genre.

That may be about to change, though. Just this past week, a second trailer dropped for a movie that could do for video games what “X-men” did for superheroes. That movie is “Tomb Raider,” the same title of one of the most successful video game franchises of the past 20 years, which also happens to star one of the most famous, not to mention sexiest heroines of all time.

Unlike “Resident Evil” or “Super Mario Brothers,” Lara Croft is the kind of character who can work just as well in an action movie as she does a video game. Her being a digital sex symbol is just a nice bonus. The fact that Warner Brothers cast Alicia Vikander to play her role, an Oscar winning actress who did plenty to establish her sex appeal in “Ex Machina,” shows they’re really trying this time.

Just watch the trailer. Even for those who have never played a “Tomb Raider” game or cared much for Lara Croft can’t deny the potential. I still hesitate to say it, but this might just be a true video game movie that doesn’t suck.

I say that not just because of the trailer. Modern audience have learned since “Snakes on a Plane” that an awesome trailer rarely makes for an awesome movie. I’m daring to have confidence in this movie because it looks like it’s trying to capture the theme and spirit of the game without sacrificing the quality of the movie. For video game movies, that’s unprecedented.

Beyond the apparent effort, though, there’s something else “Tomb Raider” has going for it. Thanks to the success of “Wonder Woman” last year, which I so happily documented, this movie is coming along at the best possible time.

It’s not just generic male heroes or John McClane rip-offs that appeal to audiences anymore. “Wonder Woman” proved that there is a market for female heroes. Not only was that movie critically praised. It made a lot of money, more than all five “Resident Evil” movies combined. Nobody can argue that female heroes don’t sell anymore. Wonder Woman proved they do and “Tomb Raider” can take it a step further.

I believe this because the Lara Croft that’s set to show up in this movie is not the same Lara Croft that once drew so much ire from whiny pop culture critics who think every attractive female character is just fodder for horny male gamers. This a different, more complex Lara Croft than the one that Angelina Jolie tried to bring to life in two previous “Tomb Raider” movies.

Now, I don’t want to dwell too much on those movies or the associated flaws with them. I’ll just say that, while I don’t consider those movies bad, they really were just generic action movies slapped with a “Tomb Raider” logo. Angelina Jolie certainly had the sex appeal, but it did little to make Lara Croft that interesting, which showed in the critical response and the box office for both movies.

The Lara Croft that Alicia Vikander is playing in this movie has more complexity and nuance to her. That version of Lara came to life in the 2013 “Tomb Raider” video game that rebooted her story. Having played that game multiple times and joined the chorus of its many critical praises, I can say with confidence that this trailer captured those critical elements from that game.

In the 2013 game, Lara doesn’t start out as the sexy, sassy archaeology enthusiast who loves to shoot guns and run around in hot pants. She’s an ambitious, but inexperienced young woman who is still growing into that persona and over the course of the game, she eventually develops into that character that so many video game fans know and love.

As other successful movies have shown, establishing growth in a character and making them someone we can root for goes a long way towards making a movie compelling. Part of what made “Wonder Woman” so great was that we got to see her grow into the beautiful female icon that so many cherish. The previous “Tomb Raider” movies, and most video game movies in general, barely tried.

Instead, most video game movies make the mistake of assuming the audience already knows the characters and just plops them into an action-heavy story with no purpose, heart, or major drama. If there is any drama, it’s usually forced or contrived. This version of “Tomb Raider” looks like it will take those same dramatic elements that made the 2013 game so compelling and translate them into the movie.

This version of “Tomb Raider” also has the benefit of coming out at a time when there’s a legitimate push for female-led movies. It’s very different from the Angelina Jolie era, whose movies came out a time when legendary flops like “Elektra” and “Catwoman” were setting back female heroes for a decade. Studios can’t get away with being that reckless with female characters anymore.

It’s for that reason that I have genuinely high hopes for this movie. It’s also because of the success of “Wonder Woman” that I believe there’s already an audience that’s eager to help “Tomb Raider” succeed.

Hollywood is already trying to capture that audience with movies like “Atomic Blond” and “Red Sparrow.” The recent announcement of a “Black Widow” movie being in development by Marvel Studios is only adding more momentum to the future of female heroes in movie.

Tomb Raider” succeeding will do even more than just build upon that momentum. It will establish that the success of “Wonder Woman” was not a fluke. It is possible to build a successful, lucrative franchise around more than one powerful woman. Lara Croft may not be an amazon warrior, but she has the potential to carve a place for herself in an increasingly competitive market.

Now, I don’t discount the potential that this movie could also fail. Like I said, video game movies have an abysmal track record, to say the least. That legacy is going to be difficult to overcome, but as “X-men” showed in 2000, it only takes one hit to start a trend. It’s a trend that I believe needs to happen for the good of the entire movie industry.

Even if you’re among the crowd who thinks the media is trying way too hard to push diversity in movies, video games, comics, and whatever other form of media is trying to turn a quick buck, it’s better for everyone that we have heroes who actually vary from time to time. There shouldn’t be that many similarities between John McClane, Luke Skywalker, and James Bond and every major movie icon of the past 50 years.

There is room for female heroes. There’s also room for movies based on video games. It’s not good for the industry, as a whole, if the only successful franchises come from Disney, Marvel, and the collective minds of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee. By succeeding, “Tomb Raider” will open the door for a broader array of movies and female character.

That added variety need not come at the expense of the established male characters that we all know and love. “Wonder Woman” didn’t have to knock Superman or Batman down a peg in order to succeed. She found a way to succeed on her own and the superhero movie genre is better because of it. Lara Croft is fully capable of succeeding as well and the video game movie genre will be better too.

I’ll be keeping a close eye on this movie. Like “Wonder Woman,” it’s success will have far-reaching implications beyond the movie itself. It has everything it needs to succeed, from quality source material to an Oscar-winning actress to a market that’s recently demonstrated that iconic female characters can make millions at the box office. It just needs to follow through.

It’s doubtful that “Tomb Raider” will succeed at the same level as “Wonder Woman,” but it doesn’t have to. It just needs to turn a profit and capture all the elements that make Lara Croft great. If it can achieve that, then the future for both video game movies and female heroes is brighter than ever. It may not make us forget “Super Mario Brothers,” but it’ll help us move forward.

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Teaching About Sex, Consent, And Relationships (Through Video Games)

Let’s face it. Most kids aren’t that eager to learn about the stuff that their teachers, parents, and school administrators want them to learn about. They’re not interested in knowing the skills that will make them healthy, productive, tax-paying consumers who will keep society running. They’re interested in the skills that will make them popular and/or get them laid.

The deficiencies of our education system are many and I’ve made no secret of my disdain for the experiences I had within that system. However, I don’t want to dwell too much on that this time. Talking about how much I hated high school is rarely that sexy.

Instead, I want to focus on something that most kids are eager to enjoy and how some people are using that to improve their understanding of sex, sexuality, and relationship. What could kids possibly excite kids that much to learn about something that they would rather not learn from the same gym teacher that makes them run laps in winter?

The answer is more obvious than you think. It’s video games. Admit it, that almost makes too much sense.

There’s no question that kids love playing video games more than learning about quadratic functions. According to a survey done by the MacArthur Foundation, approximately 97 percent of kids between the ages of 12 and 17 play video games. When it comes to statistics and surveys, you can’t get much more definitive without asking kids whether chocolate fudge tastes good.

Kids might not be able to agree whether Superman could beat the Hulk, which he totally could, but they agree that video games are awesome. So if kids love video games so much, why not use that love to teach them valuable lessons about sex, relationships, and consent?

That’s not a rhetorical question. I’m not being facetious either. It’s not about the medium or whatever asinine controversies it may have. It’s about working with what kids already love and using that to help them in valuable ways. It’s not that radical a concept. Hit movies have been made about it.

When it comes to teaching kids about sex, though, I wouldn’t expect Edward James Olmos to star in a movie about that. That doesn’t mean the concept is entirely flawed. Teaching kids about sex is hard enough. Teaching them in a way they’ll remember and take seriously might be beyond the power of Hollywood.

That still doesn’t stop some from trying. In a story by Kimberly Lawson at Vice, an associate professor of medicine at Yale University has helped create a game called PlayForward: Elm City Stories. It’s a fairly straightforward, two-dimensional role playing game that is less about killing aliens or Nazis and more about guiding players through a narrative, showing how their decisions affect them along the way.

That’s not quite as radical as it sounds. Role-playing games represent a large chunk of the video game industry. Major game franchises like “Mass Effect” and “Final Fantasy” are built around the idea of having players make choices and face repercussions of those choices. Take away the aliens and the monsters, though, and you’ve got a solid basis for understanding real life choices.

PlayForward: Elm City Stories plays less like Dungeons & Dragons and more like the classic board game, Life. In it, you play as avatar in a fictional, but fairly realistic city where you have to navigate a variety of activities and make choices along the way.

Some of those activities involve who you your friends are. Some involve going to certain events and parties. Some even involve whether or not to make out with a cute girl. It may sound mundane, but like most RPGs, the appeal is diving into the world of the character and leading them through it. Here’s how Vice describes the experience.

Players have to make important, life-changing decisions, including whether or not they should go upstairs to make out with someone, if they should use a condom or not during sex, and whether they should accept pills found in someone’s grandmother’s medicine cabinet. At any point, they can fast-forward to the epilogue to see what their character’s life looks like at 30, based on the decisions they’ve made.

Through that experience, players learn about more than just saying no to the guy on the street corner offering a free hit of crack. They experience both the short-term and long-term impacts of their decisions. Given the notoriously short attention spans and limited foresight of kids, that kind of insight in indispensable when teaching them about sex and relationships.

It’s no “Super Mario Brothers,” but the lessons it conveys are more valuable than any princess. It puts the players in a position to choose the right and wrong path. It shows them just how right and wrong those paths can be in the long run for their character and themselves, by default.

Beyond just consequences, the game gives players a chance to explore situations involving intimacy, consent, and relationships. Their choices help forge the relationships they have throughout the game. To get a better outcome, they actually need a better understanding of intimacy and consent. The fact that gives them tools to apply those lessons in the real world just a pleasant side-effect.

In a sense, PlayForward: Elm City Stories is coming along at the perfect time. We live in a world where sexual harassment and sexual assault are heated issues. We, as a society, are not as willing to turn a blind eye to these sorts of indiscretions anymore.

Just punishing the Harvey Weinsteins of the world isn’t enough, though. We need to teach the emerging generation that there’s a time and a place to show a beautiful woman your genitals. Knowing those circumstances will be the difference between having a great sex life and being sued into oblivion.

Kids aren’t going to learn those skills through lectures, after school specials, and cute puppets. Some of the most effective learning methods involve active engagement with real activities that offer real rewards. In that sense, video games are the perfect medium for that kind of teaching.

While I doubt that PlayForward: Elm City Stories will win any game of the year awards, it sets an important precedent that is worth building upon. Saving princesses and shooting killer aliens is still fun, but learning about relationships, consent, and sex will take a player much further in life.

Kids, and people in general, learn best when they don’t know they’re learning something. Video games may still have a nasty reputation in some circles, but it offers opportunities to teach valuable skills that aren’t easy to teach, especially to hormonal teenagers. We should take advantage of those opportunities and hopefully, PlayForward: Elm City Stories is just the beginning.

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The Galbrush Paradox And The Challenge Of Female Characters

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Anyone who’s written anything longer than a haiku will tell you that one of the biggest challenges is coming up with great characters. Stan Lee may make it look easy, but it’s most definitely not. Without great characters, your story might as well be a sandwich without bread. It just can’t function.

I can certainly attest to the challenge of creating great characters. In the eight novels I’ve written, I’ve tried to put as much energy and nuance as possible. Whether it’s Ben Prescott in “Skin Deep” or Mary Ann Scott in “Passion Relapse,” I make a concerted effort to help them stand out for all the right reasons.

In doing so, I have noticed something that’s both distinct and frustrating. It’s something I think every writer, including the Stan Lees and J.K. Rowlings of the world, have noticed at some point. When it comes to creating great characters, there’s a lot of flexibility when it comes to male characters. With female characters, though, there are too many unwritten rules to keep track of.

It’s only gotten more frustrating in recent years because the demand for strong female characters has never been greater. The success of movies like “Wonder Woman” and “Mad Max: Fury Road,” as well as novels like “Harry Potter” and “Twilight,” have raised the bar. Make no mistake. There are a lot of incentives to create these characters.

I’ve talked about why characters like Wonder Woman matter now more than ever. However, there’s one caveat that I didn’t mention and for good reason. I think it’s an issue that the William Marstons and Stephanie Meyers of the world understood, albeit indirectly. When it comes to creating female characters, the margin for error is painfully small.

By that, I mean there are a lot of things you can do with a male character that you just can’t do with a female character. Even male minority characters have a lot more flexibility, in terms of what you can put them through. Every character that Samuel L. Jackson has ever played is proof of that.

With female characters, it’s a lot trickier. If you don’t believe me, think back to that disturbing thought experiment I pitched a while back that reversed the genders of certain famous scenes, thereby creating a much more disturbing result. With that in mind, try to craft a story about a flawed, vulnerable character that has the potential to be interesting.

Maybe the character is a former cop who suffered a terrible injury at the hands of a deranged criminal.

Maybe the character is someone who made a huge mistake with a former lover and is haunted by it.

Maybe the character is someone who found themselves in a vulnerable state, had a few too many drinks, and had a messy one-night stand with a total stranger.

These are all fairly standard setups for typical characters. Think about those characters for a second. Chances are the character that comes to mind is a man. That’s not too surprising. That doesn’t make you a terrible sexist who deserves to lick the mud off the shoes of every radical feminist form now until the end of time. By and large, most of the iconic characters in popular culture are male.

Now, try to imagine that same character as a female. Chances are your reaction will be different. Even if it isn’t, there’s a good chance you’ll be more reluctant to develop this character because you know the kind of responses you’ll get from certain people.

Remember that cop who suffered a terrible injury? Well, if that cop is a female, then you’re a horrible misogynistic monster because you subjected that woman to violence and we can’t tolerate that.

Remember that character who made a huge mistake with a former lover? Well, if that character is a female, you’re also a horrible, misogynistic monster because you utterly failed the Bechdal Test by defining her through a relationship with a man.

Remember that character who was vulnerable and had a one-night stand? Well, guess what? You’re also a horrible, misogynistic monster because you overtly sexualized the female character in a way that propagates the idea that women are sexual objects to be used by men.

Are you seeing the pattern here? Are you getting that twinge of pain in your palms while you grind your teeth? Don’t worry. You’re not having a stroke. That’s normal. It also gives you a taste of just how hard/frustrating it is to create good female characters without making it an agenda.

That agenda didn’t used to be that big a deal. Then, in recent years, with the rise of third-wave feminism and social media scandals that have made people hyper-sensitive to sexism, the challenge got that much harder.

That’s not to say there isn’t some merit behind the sentiment. There are only so many Disney Princesses and horny vixens in “James Bond” movies before the narrative gets old, predictable, and outright insulting. Even I think Super Mario has had to rescue Princess Peach way too many times.

The problem is that when people try to create characters that aren’t princesses or Joss Whedon characters, they run into a wall, of sorts. They quickly find that creating those characters is a minefield, one where a single misstep can get you labeled a racist, misogynist, homophobe at a time when a single misworded tweet can ruin your life.

It’s such a frustrating challenge that someone gave it a name. It’s called the Galbrush Paradox and it emerged during the infamous GamerGate scandal in 2014. I won’t get into the particulars of that shit storm, if only because every discussion about that topic tends to lower people’s IQ by at least a dozen points. I’ll just focus on what the Galbrush Paradox is, as defined by its creators.

Do you know why there’s so many white male characters in video games? Especially leads? Because no one cares about them. A white male can be a lecherous drunk. A woman can’t or it’s sexist. Sexualizing women and what all. A white male can be a mentally disturbed soldier who’s mind is unraveling as he walks through the hell of the modern battlefield. A woman can’t or you’re victimizing women and saying they’re all crazy.

Consider Guybrush Threepwood, start of the Monkey Island series. He’s weak, socially awkward, cowardly, kind of a nerd and generally the last person you’d think of to even cabin boy on a pirate ship, let alone captain one. He is abused, verbally and physically, mistreated, shunned, hated and generally made to feel unwanted.

Now let’s say Guybrush was a girl. We’ll call her Galbrush. Galbrush is weak, socially awkward, cowardly, kind of a nerd and generally the last person you’d think of to even cabin boy on a pirate ship, let alone captain one. She is abused, verbally and physically, mistreated, shunned, hated and generally made to feel unwanted.

Now, you might notice that I’ve given the exact same description to both of these characters. But here’s where things deviate. While no one cares if Guybrush takes a pounding for being, for lack of a better term, less than ideal pirate, Galbrush will be presumed to be discriminated against because of her gender. In fact, every hardship she will endure, though exactly the same as the hardships Guybrush endured, will be considered misogyny, rather than someone being ill suited to their desired calling.

And that ending. She goes through ALL that trouble to help, let’s call him Eli Marley, escape the evil clutches of the ghost piratess Le Chuck, it turns out he didn’t even need her help and she even screwed up his plan to thwart Le Chuck. Why, it’d be a slap in the face to every woman who’s ever picked up a controller. Not only is the protagonist inept, but apparently women make lousy villains too!

And that’s why Guybrush exists and Galbrush doesn’t. Men can be comically inept halfwits. Women can’t. Men can be flawed, tragic human beings. Women can’t. And why? Because every single female character reflects all women everywhere.

It’s a fairly new concept, but a relevant one. We’ve already seen it play out in a number of ways in recent years. The best example is probably Rey from “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”

If you’ve done any digging whatsoever into “Star Wars” beyond seeing the movie and listening to arguments about whether Han shot first, then you’ve probably seen some of the criticisms about her. She’s what some call a “Mary Sue.”

A Mary Sue is a byproduct of the Galbrush Paradox in that she’s a character who’s too perfect. While this character can be a man, it most often takes the shape of a female character who’s so skilled, so beautiful, so perfect that it’s hard to make her interesting.

Rey faced this issue, and for good reason. Throughout “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” she was perfect at everything she did. She flew the Millennium Falcon, wielded a light sabre, and used the Force as though she’d been doing it all her life. Everything that happened to her just happened so easily. She was never allowed to struggle, suffer, or slip up too much like Finn or Poe Dameron.

I can even understand why. If she had been tortured like Poe or lied like Finn, there would be mass protests and hashtags. A very vocal contingent of fans and professional whiners with nothing better to do would’ve condemned Rey as an affront to women everywhere. Her flaws would’ve been taken as huge insults against an entire gender. If she were a man, though, nobody would’ve batted an eye.

It’s tragic, in a sense, because it shackles characters and stories. It creates self-imposed limits that don’t need to be there. It’s true that there is real sexism in the world. There’s even plenty in movies, especially slasher movies. However, nitpicking every little detail of a female character to ensure sufficient purity, so to speak, is counterproductive. All it does is discourage people from even trying to create these characters in the first place.

That’s not good for either gender because it is possible to create great female characters. From Furiosa in “Mad Max: Fury Road” to Sarah Conner in “Terminator” to Ripley in “Alien,” there are plenty of great female characters that go onto become iconic in their own right. That’s why it’s so important to avoid the pitfalls of the Galbrush Paradox, otherwise we’ll be doomed to a future of Mary Sues.

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