Caring about Stories in a World Hemorrhaging Empathy

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So yes, giant nerd that I am, I am on a Facebook group for Supergirl fans, who have been celebrating the relationship between Alex Danvers and Maggie Sawyer (Sanvers), and one of the members wrote:

“Have you ever been (or are) in relationship where your partner isn’t into TV shows, fandoms, ships and all this stuff? My girlfriend isn’t in fandoms. In fact, she doesn’t get being a fan at all. And the whole concept of being interested in for example an actor and having emotions towards them (like being sad when an actor dies) is something she doesn’t get at all. I’m the exact opposite. I mean I wrote my last school paper in 12th grade about Star Trek and just yesterday I cried again when I thought about John Hurt.
“I don’t need my partner to watch my shows with me but sometimes I get very excited about things like when Alex did came out to Maggie. That was so wonderful and important and I told my girlfriend about it but she actually got kinda angry that I considered it important to tell her that some fictional characters are getting together or coming out. Later I tried to explain to her why I think Sanvers is so important but she wasn’t open to this. She thinks it’s ‘just’ a TV show so one shouldn’t be too invested even if it has a good message. So now I pretty much avoid mentioning this kind of topic or getting into fangirl mode when I’m around her. Although she did watch the pilot of Supergirl a while ago and she did like it a bit (until it became to much superhero stuff lol).”

So I replied, “Have you tried a representation matters argument, like the example of Whoopi Goldberg seeing Lt. Uhura for the first time? Or Martin Luther King Jr. calling up Nichelle Nichols (Uhura) to tell her that she couldn’t quite the show because of fans’ negativity because black people needed to see her representing? And don’t forget the Bury Your Gays trope. Sanvers matters.”

She said, “Yes I brought a few of these things up but she just doesn’t like the fact that something like TV show does have such an impact on people. She thinks people should concentrate and be influenced by ‘real’ people and the ‘real life’. I don’t like it in general if people start talking about living in the ‘real world’. My world is as real as theirs it’s just different. I’m rather be influenced by the ‘fictional’ messages of Star Trek or Supergirl than the narrow-minded opinions of my real neighbors or relatives. If a positive message comes in form of a book by a Pulitzer prize winner people accept it but comes the same message in the context of a TV show some people declare it as trivial or non existent.”

I agreed and pointed out that people always disrespect popular culture, but once Shakespeare was popular culture, and the messages of Macbeth, Hamlet, Romeo, etc. are valid. The stories we tell ourselves in today’s world are just as valid. Art of the people helps us process that real world that everyone is so fond of talking about.

Other people pointed out that part of the problem was her girlfriend’s seeming lack of respect, and I let them handle that part of the argument. My expertise is on the writing and story side. As I have written about feminism, post-modernism, fan (relation)shipping and other topics, including my list of Badass Women In Combat Gear™, a lot of these shows and the relationships on them give us strength for the hard times.

Another person pointed out: “I can relate to this, I really can. These shows, or ships, they’re more than just that. They’re an escape from our reality for a little while. We form an emotional bond with these characters because we relate to them on an emotional level. They become important to us and we become invested in them. Not many people outside of the fandom may get this but we’re lucky that the Internet exists so we can meet people anywhere in the world who can relate to us.”

Interestingly, JRR Tolkien wrote an essay on the importance of fantasy as escape, referring to the soldier POW’s responsibility to escape. He says, “Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisoned by the enemy, don’t we consider it his duty to escape?. . .If we value the freedom of mind and soul, if we’re partisans of liberty, then it’s our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can!”

And recently, Owen Gleiberman in Variety had this to say about Meryl Streep’s Oscars speech16388352_257861987968285_2005729941804739843_n: “Roger Ebert, in one of my favorite quotes about movies, called the cinema ‘a machine that generates empathy,’ and surely that’s the essence of it. To watch a good movie is to feel connected to the souls of the characters it’s about. That’s why a movie doesn’t need to be ‘political’ to be a moral experience. That act of connection — of empathy — realigns how we feel about the world. The people who work in Hollywood may be wealthy and lucky, but to suggest that they’re simply a colony of ‘narcissists’ is to radically bypass what they do. Empathy is their art, their business, their mission. That’s why, at their best, the movies they make show us a higher way of being.”

 

So this is just a mess of not entirely unconnected thoughts, but what do you all think? How do stories help us?

When Stories Make Us Stronger

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Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2004) started as a horror-comedy TV show to make fun all the angst we went through in high school. As it gained popularity, and the writers and showrunner Joss Whedon got into their groove, it turned into a popular culture phenomenon with lessons about loving teamwork, sharing power, and having the courage of one’s convictions. It was about female power, strength and leadership, and most of all the redemptive power of love, friendship and community.

So maybe it is no surprise that nineteen years after the episode “Amends” aired, I saw my friend on Facebook saying, “It strikes me that there’s a Buffy episode about today… the one where she has a soliloquy on the work never ending. I forget which.”

I responded, “Amends.” And posted the following quote:

Buffy: You’re weak. Everybody is. Everybody fails. Maybe this evil did bring you back, but if it did, it’s because it needs you. And that means that you can hurt it. Angel, you have the power to do real good, to make amends. …Strong is fighting! It’s hard, and it’s painful, and it’s every day. It’s what we have to do. And we can do it together.

My friend replied, “Shouldn’t this be your status today? And for all time?”

She’s not wrong. That quote comes from the middle of Season 3, when Angel, after having been turned evil, slayed by Buffy, sent to a demon dimension and then sent back by the Powers that Be, is trying to attempt suicide by sunlight, and Buffy tries to stop him. Then snow comes to Sunnydale, California’s Christmas morning and he doesn’t die, but rather continues to work for good.

The problem is, that this is a situation where she is fighting a friend to get him to fight for people’s safety. Previously, at the end of Season 2, when Angel was still evil and before Buffy had dredged up the guts to kill him and save the world, she is confronted by a neutral demon who is trying to help her. In a voice over, he says:

Whistler: Bottom line is even if you see ’em coming, you’re not ready for the big moments. No one asks for their life to change, not really. But it does. So, what, are we helpless? Puppets? No. The big moments are gonna come, can’t help that. It’s what you do afterwards that counts. That’s when you find out who you are.

That is where we are today, in the middle of a big moment, with a cascade of big moments ready to attempt to engulf us in the weeks and months to come. My friends—sad, terrified, ashamed of our brother and sister Americans who apparently hate us and want to strip us of our rights and safety—are trying today to take a ragged breath, wipe away their own tears and those of their friends and children, and get ready to take a stand. Count. Find out who we are.

So thank you, Joss Whedon. Your stories will help us to do it.

NaNoWriMo: When Procrastination Hits, and by Procrastination I Mean Life

So since November started, I have graded 38 second drafts, 38 first drafts and in the process of 38 quizzes. Also at MIT we moved from one building to another, which entailed packing and unpacking and rearranging and trouble-shooting. There was a party on Saturday, because God I needed that, and then right back into more grading, worrying about this election and trying to remember to eat at intervals.

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So, yes, for those of you who sounded surprised when I started my NaNoWriMo novel on the Fourth of July: this is why.

NaNoWriMo: Let the Fun Begin

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So today is the official beginning of the classic National Novel Writing Month, when everybody and their aunt tries to write 50,000 words (roughly 175 manuscript pages) of a novel in 30 days. It’s not easy, but it is far from impossible. It requires writing about 1665 words per day, which is about 6.5 double-spaced pages, which is within the realm of possibility even on a busy day, and sometimes, especially on a busy day.

This means a few things.

  1. You must be obsessive about your story, thinking about it constantly. Easy.
  2. Every time you have at least five minutes free, you need to sit down and write something: a conversation, a description of a setting or a person, an outline of a scene. Harder, mostly for you.
  3. You will probably write during meals, in line at the grocery store, on the train, etc. Harder, mostly for other people.

If all that sounds insane to you, you’re probably not a writer. Don’t feel bad. Probably there are lots of people out there, conventionally normal people, who can survive not writing about invisible people.

Probably.

The First Rule Of Hillary Club — Wine and Cheese (Doodles)

A few words from our pal Dina Honour. I am also a proud member of the group she describes, which at last look had 151,755 members, after beginning only a week from yesterday.

Recently I was added to a secret group. It’s a group of women (and men) who are #WithHer. And by with her, I mean with Hillary. But even more than that, they are with every HER that is part of the group. Members run the gamut between long time Hillary supporters (raising hand) to those who […]

via The First Rule Of Hillary Club — Wine and Cheese (Doodles)

Plan B

So, after writing about a hundred pages of a novel in the past three months, I am at a standstill. I’ve tried writing little bits, transitions, etc., but that did not get me very far, so I am instead now taking notes on the next story, which has characters and some action but no clear single plot, so it’s not exactly making me feel any better. Is it productive? Yes, potentially. Does it feel productive? Nope.