Thursday, December 20, 2012

Some Improvements from 2012

In response to the YouTube sensation I profiled in "Boys like to Cook Too" McKenna Pope was invited to Hasbro where they listened to her pleas for gender-neutrality in Easy Bake Ovens, and have responded.
Hasbro invited McKenna and her family to its Pawtucket, R.I., headquarters to meet with its Easy-Bake team, and on Monday, they drove to Rhode Island from New Jersey. During the meeting, Hasbro executives showed off a prototype of their newest Easy-Bake: one that's black, silver and blue.
Hasbro has been working on the new color scheme and design for about 18 months, and decided to invite McKenna to see it and offer her thoughts, said John Frascotti, Hasbro's chief marketing officer.
McKenna said the company is doing everything she asked, including putting boys in the ads.
"I think that they really met most or even all of what I wanted them to do, and they really amazed me," she said, adding that Gavyn thought the new design was "awesome."
Having worked with Hasbro in the past, I'm not actually surprised, they always struck me as a fairly savvy bunch and were always responsive to questions of gender in the narrative work we developed together. They were sensible people who were largely concerned with gender representation and worked where they could to respond in my experience, but there's a large challenge ahead for toys, which has been painted into a pink and blue corner by years of narrow decisions and dictates from retail outlets about what sells where and how. But it is changing, and like so many things here at the end of 2012 we really just have to remain patiently vocal as change is implemented over time, one product at a time.

This Fast Company article asks some questions, the primary one being "Is it the toy industry's responsibility to change the way we look at gender?"
"If marketers continue to promote traditional gender-stereotyped toys, because we know that marketing is a part of socialization, it will continue to perpetuate stereotypes," said Carol Auster, professor of sociology at Franklin & Marshall College and co-author of a study on toy marketing.
Countered by Mattel's:
"We're really a consumer-driven company and we're an insight-driven company. We adapt to changing preferences," said Michael Shore, Mattel VP-global consumer insights. "There is no agenda as an angle, other than what our consumers want from our products and brands and how best to meet those needs."
A lot of these changes are generational, as Millenials and more explicitly tolerant generations take positions in the adult world,  many frustrations (like for example the over-pinkening of girls toys) will become less and less appealing. In response to Fast Company's question, my answer is

It is everyone's responsibility to do better and improve the world 
around them in any way they can at any time. 

This is true whether it's toys or movies, walking on the street or surfing the Internet. If you have the ability to make a change, even one as simple as the color of a toy or to give a hungry person food, apathy is sin in itself. If it costs you a minimal amount to make these changes, why wouldn't you? If you have the authority to do so but are using the perception of an unnamed "they who think this way" to excuse how you feel on principle, societal problems will never be changed.

If you can do a small thing to improve the state of the world, 
how is it NOT your responsibility to act?

In other improvements in the world at large, Europe has released a follow up to it's disastrous "Science, It's a Girl Thing."

Remember that? Not to say that it didn't interest a few girls, it certainly caused some profound outrage. But now they've tried again, with a LOT of input.

A bit focused on the imbalances with men still, which is a problem to some, it sometimes gets me even though there are plenty of facts to back those points up. But it was chosen from a contest to find a better outreach idea that stemmed from the kerfluffle. The top choices are here, you should check them out.

If you look here in the States, STEM is encouraging some pretty awesome initiatives, including STEM Mentoring, and Game Mentoring which I approve of most heartily. not to forget the 1.2 Million Dollars Google dropped on the Geena Davis Institute this month to futher their work on a strong balance of gender in characters in media. If I hadn't grown up in a household with a wildly impressive scientist for a mother, I have no idea where I'd be. 

Good news, there are more and more ways emerging to simplify the process of doing small, wonderful things to improve the state of gender stereotypes. Every time we point out or alter something that seems small, we're doing work that improves the situation for everyone.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Vanity Fair's Comedy Issue Features Gender Balanced Cover

From Jezebel:

"The January edition of Vanity Fair is the "first ever comedy issue," guest-edited by Judd Apatow. There are three different covers, featuring groups of comedians. Unlike the April 2009 issue of VF — "Comedy's New Legends" — there are actual women on these covers. In fact, the editors chose six men and six women to shoot."

Boys like to Cook Too.

 "When Pope saw her little brother, Gavyn, trying to cook a tortilla on top of a light bulb in a lamp, she decided he needed an oven of his own. ("I honestly do not know where he got that idea," she says of the lightbulb-cooking.) But the Easy-Bake, she says, is too cutesy. “Boys are not featured in packaging or promotional materials,” she says in her petition. “And the oven comes in gender-specific hues: purple and pink. I feel that this sends a clear message: women cook, men work ... I want my brother to know that it's not ‘wrong’ for him to want to be a chef.”"
More Here

Monday, December 3, 2012

Underrepresentation on Screens

Mother Jones  has created some helpful visualizations of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media's new report (PDF) detailing the stereotypes, barriers, and straight-up exploitation that still define how badly women and girls are treated on screen.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

A Devastating Account of what Women in Games have to Deal with in 2012

Over the past 24 hours or so, a number of women working in the game industry (and some male colleagues) have taken to Twitter to share their stories via the hashtag #1reasonwhy.

An overview at Kotaku

How many female characters do you see?

The Geena Davis Institute on Gender Media Research is still out there working to ensure that a balanced representation of female and male characters are depicted in children's media.

"The more hours of television a girl watches, the fewer options she thinks she has in life. So, we're clearly not showing enough opportunities for girls, showing female characters doing and achieving things and being in leadership positions."

Monday, November 26, 2012

Swedish Toy Catalogs are the Best.

Swedish Toy Catalogs have been mixing up traditional gender roles in their imagery:
"With the new gender thinking, there is nothing that is right or wrong. It's not a boy or a girl thing, it's a toy for children," Top Toy director of sales Jan Nyberg told TT news agency.
Top Toy has produced catalogues in Denmark and Sweden for both Toys R Us and BR. Though the catalogues' page layouts are the same in both countries, the gender of the pictured kids is reversed in the Swedish edition. 
I know it would cost me way more than I can afford to buy all my Christmas toys from Sweden and send them here... but I'm tempted.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Doha Tribeca and TEDx Teusaquillo

Hey Everyone,

I'm hoping I'll get you all some meaty analysis and ranting this holiday season, but as you may well know I've been on a bit of a World Tour of talking about things. I just returned from the Doha Tribeca Film Festival where I spoke about Transmedia Storytelling and McCarren Park, and even more interestingly more than a dozen female directors and producers showed some really incredible work.


While there are more than enough things you should be looking at in there, especially this movie, I'm diving into my next presentation, my very own TEDx talk at TEDx Teusaquillo in Bogotá, Colombia on December 11.

The theme is Imaginadores and I'll be speaking about how imagination and creative collaboration have given me not only opportunities in the creative arts, but how those creative communities taught me how to be a functioning adult. I hope to be able to do the topic justice and am really excited about the incredible lineup of speakers who will be presenting with me on the day.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

How 'Twilight' Made the Movie Business Respect Girl Power

"It's actually remarkable what the 'Twilight' franchise was able to do for girl power," Jeff Bock, a box office analyst with Exhibitor Relations, told TheWrap. "Before this people didn't know if girls could carry a franchise like 'Star Wars' or 'Harry Potter.' It really did change the paradigm and perceptions about what people will go see."

Read the Full Story at The Wrap 

Friday, November 9, 2012

Sesame Street: Sonia Sotomayor and Abby Cadaby- Career

Jennifer Lawrence Cares How Little Girls See her Weight

“I’m never going to starve myself for a part… I don’t want little girls to be like, ‘Oh, I want to look like Katniss, so I’m going to skip dinner," she explained to the magazine. "That’s something I was really conscious of during training, when you’re trying to get your body to look exactly right. I was trying to get my body to look fit and strong- not thin and underfed.”

From the Huffington Post

Is the Answer to Gender Equality in Gaming Parenthood?

"The father of one little girl decided he'd change the gender of one of Nintendo's most iconic characters so he hacked The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker. While playing the 2003 Gamecube title with his daughter Maya, Mike Hoye had been reading the game's text to her, switching the pronouns to match her gender."

This article on Kotaku reminds me strongly of the article  "Why Can't I be a boy fairy?" that came out in 2010. Which covers some of the same ground. One of the most interesting things I find as my generation (and those near mine) mature is evolution of attitudes toward media over time. I'm part of the first group of people to grow up with video games, from arcade to Nintendo to consoles.

I'm a girl who enjoys playing those games but I'm a casual player and while I know my way around a multiplayer map, I know people who are way more hard core than I am, and people to whom I am an obsessed expert. For me, there is a level of trepidation that does come from the fact that even though women play in this space, keeps me from engaging in some ways. For instance I go anonymous in public multiplayer maps because I don't feel like even bothering with a whiff of harassment, even though I still chose female avatars when they're available.

The steps being taken, like the huge ones at Microsoft, to make the gaming environment more enjoyable for people of all genders are big, big steps. But they're coming at a time when the gaming industry is reaching maturity in a new way. There are generations of kids now who have never grown up in a world without Playstations and  XBoxs, and their parents are in my generation, now examining the games they love and the environments around those games with a very different, parental skew.

I've wondered for a while about the impact that having a daughter would have for many of my friends who might be described as trolls, or acquaintances who argue with me about gender identity in media. The simple fact is when you have a little person who is looking to you and wants to participate in the things that you love and you are responsible for what messages they are getting from that content. Every pronoun carries more weight. This is not to say parenthood is the ONLY way to gain different perspectives on content, but it is sure a powerful mindset shifter.

In the past, I've remarked that my own daughter thinks it's rad that I play video games, that I can vanquish monsters and the like. But every time she comments on the scary monsters, the robot potato game or the bad ninjas that Mommy is diligently slaughtering, it's a concern for me as a parent.  I want to be able to enjoy entertainments that I've always engaged in, but I'm thinking about them differently, and I take the games that she plays even more seriously.

I'm not particularly jazzed about getting her a hand-held gaming system like many of her friends because I'm not that enthused about her playing hours of fashion designer by default because that's what games are out there that aren't about slaughtering things. At the same time, the hunting sequences in Assassin's Creed 3 have led to some very important conversations about what eating animals means (in her words, "That's so Yucky" )

Video Games are part of my kids' environment, there's no getting around it, and I want to monitor carefully what it is that she's devoting her time to, as well as making sure that what I'm playing is appropriate for her to be seeing. For instance, we won't play war games or horror games when the kids are awake, and check in with the kids regularly to talk about the games we do play when they're around to see them.

It comes as no surprise to me that folks with the means to change games that they love in order to better engage their kids are doing so. While it might take parenthood to make many folks realize that the plethora of male-specific gender options are limiting I welcome the innovations that may come from it. It's exciting to see these new trends in the way gaming is evolving and while there will always be pockets of people who object to it, just as we find disagreements about gender and tolerance everywhere in human life... new perspectives, like those that parenthood brings, help us all make better art in the end.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Why Battlestar Galactica’s President Roslin Defies Political Stereotypes

"With the U.S. Presidential election approaching, I'd like to take a break from all the current political divisiveness to talk about my favorite president—Laura Roslin—and her fascinating ideological shifts throughout the long road to a planet called Earth."

From Tor.Com

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Significant Other: Gender Signifiers in Video Games

"Depictions of gender in video games generally don’t work. Actually in most of geek culture they suck – yeah, I’m looking at you comic book industry. Why? Because they create hostility between two parties who really don’t need to be at each other’s throats."

This interesting article, among others can be found at "how not to suck at game design"

Thursday, November 1, 2012

In Time for Halo 4, Zero Tolerance Policies Against Sexism in XBox Live

I am literally so excited about this I forgot to post about it here until LAST.

"Kiki Wolfkill, the Executive Producer of Halo 4 and haver of the most glorious name I’ve ever heard, has teamed up with Bonnie Ross, the head of Microsoft’s 343 Industries, to make video games more fun and accessible to women. You see, these two very powerful ladies are fed-up with the rampant sexism in the gaming world. So, because they’re total bosses, they’ve issued a zero tolerance policy for Xbox Live, meaning any sexist or discriminatory comments will earn you a lifetime ban from the network."

Slut-o-ween 2012: Over It Edition.

So, while I've done a yearly post about Slutoween and this year, thanks to Hurricane Sandy, the fact that I'm doing it on November 1 should be excusable; because in New Jersey Halloween is rescheduled to November 5 and the Halloween Parade in the East Village has become a week long re-enactment of Escape From New York (Lots of Snake Plisskin costumes this year downtown I'm sure)


This is a weird year for Halloween, and while there were many "binders full of women" out on the street last night, there were still a few news items that are worth mentioning in Slutoween news.

As we all know from the presidential debates, Big Bird was in the news this year, and was a popular costume for kids and adults alike. But let's be fair, there's only so much whorish Big Bird we can all stand, and Sesame Street has been paying attention to who is selling what and if what they are selling is WHAT?!?!?! and stood up not only the Obama Campaign for it's partisan political ad (the Children's Television Workshop is consistently non-partisan).

So Sesame Street sent out cease and desist letters to those who would profit from the sluttiest of unlicensed costumes.

So, while there were plenty of revealing costumes on the street this year, I think we're all paying more attention to more substantial things, like taking care of the East Coast and looking forward to rebuilding. It's great to celebrate making it through these huge events and I think Thanksgiving is going to be even more exiting this year as we'll all have many more things to be thankful for than usual.

And for this year's gallery, I'm going to share with you this link, to the most scandalous revealing costumes of the 1890s.
OMG she's young to be showing that much leg, and isn't the Maltese one a little racist?

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

4 Things The Hunger Games tells us about the War on Women- Good Magazine

"The romantic subplot of The Hunger Games can make it seem like a Twilight clone: a young woman torn between two men who are driven to protect her, yet can’t seem to help endangering her. But scratch the surface, and you’ll find that heroine Katniss is quite the opposite of pallid, passive, lovesick Bella, and she’s got a lot to teach us about the current culture wars."

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Why Every 80s Sitcom Decided to Kill off the Mom

"Sitcoms have always been zeitgeists of the era in which they were created, clumsily tackling important issues with jokes while simultaneously upholding the values of the time. The Mary Tyler Moore Show offered audiences an independent woman in the workplace after the rise of feminism in the late '60s, The Jeffersons presented an African-American family finally "getting a piece of the pie" by moving into a luxury apartment in Manhattan from a blue-collar neighborhood in Queens and Bewitched confirmed what a dangerous decision it was for us to stop burning witches.
But when sitcoms so accurately reflect the collective climate of the time period in which they are created, you have to wonder why, then, networks decided the 1980s were a good time to start killing off moms."

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Sofia the First: The Full Contoversy on Disney's Bi-Racial, Possibly Latina, TV Princess.

We do know she doesn't have a nose from the front. So she represents girls without noses at least?
So, Today in Identity Crises of Fictional Characters; Disney's Princess Sofia. Whose ethnicity has been causing quite the tumult in the entertainment blog-o-news-o-sphere.

From Entertainment Weekly:
Sofia (voiced by Modern Family‘s Ariel Winter) is born a commoner but steps into the royal life when her mother (Grey’s Anatomy‘s Sara Ramirez) marries King Roland II of Enchancia (Ultimate Spider-Man‘s Travis Willingham). Throughout the show and the movie, the young princess is adjusting to life with her new step-siblings and in her new school, Royal Prep. The TV movie features some familiar faces from Disney classics; Cinderella, Fauna, Flora, and Merryweather all make an appearance.

During a recent press tour of the Sofia the First production offices, one blogger pointed out that in concept art, Sofia’s mother, Miranda, the newly crowned queen of Enchancia, had a darker complexion than the other characters. “She is Latina,” executive producer Jamie Mitchell said of the character, acknowledging that this makes Sofia the first Latina princess to appear in a Disney animation project.

“We never actually call it out,” said Joe D’Ambrosia, vice president of Disney Junior original programming. “When we go into schools [to talk to young students about the show], what I find fascinating is that every girl thinks that they’re Sofia.”

Mitchell added, “It’s sort of a matter-of-fact situation rather than an overt thing.”
It’s also not as much of a clear-cut milestone as the introduction of Tiana to the Disney family. Tiana is African-American, and she lives in New Orleans, a real place. Sofia is half-Enchancian and half-Galdizian. The two kingdoms are in a world where a few real countries like France exist, but they’re still fictional, making words like Latina and Hispanic less clearly applicable.
So, a girl who is of a mixed fictional identity is having identity problems?  I'm sure that no modern young lady can relate to an ethnic and cultural identity crisis. That is as valid a character choice as a girl who is purely Latina, which is of course, a complex multicultural and fascinating starting point to begin with.

Mashable's coverage of the controversy is probably my favorite, in that like most Internet conversations you can find both sides of the argument somewhere and don't have to report just one side. 

Of course, the simplicity of describing a race to begin with is compounded by the races being described being in fictional kingdoms, but, once headlines come out, of course the outrage, points and counterpoints become more important than the content (and let's face it, no one has seen this story publicly to begin with, so comments and conjecture are what we have.)

From Fox News Latino:
When Disney first announced they were unveiling their first Latina princess named Sofia on November 18, Hispanic audiences immediately voiced their concerns.
While many celebrated the network’s attempt to create a Latina royal who does not bear a stereotypical dark complexion, many used social media to express their outrage toward the news. Some insisted Sofia looks “too white” to actually be Latina, while others were angry toward Disney’s decision not to emphasize Princess Sofia’s Hispanic roots.

Now, Disney is responding to the backlash.

Friday night, Senior Vice President of Original Programming for Disney Junior Worldwide Nancy Kanter, as well as Co-Executive Producer/Writer Craig Gerber, took to Princess Sofia’s Facebook profile to discuss the character’s controversial roots.

“Princess Sofia is a mixed-heritage princess in a fairy-tale world,” explained Gerber. “Her mother is originally from an enchanted kingdom inspired by Spain (Galdiz) and her birth father hailed from an enchanted kingdom inspired by Scandinavia. Sofia was born and raised in Enchancia, which is a make-believe ‘melting pot’ kingdom patterned on the British Isles. Sofia considers herself a normal Enchancian girl like any other. Her mixed heritage and blended family are a reflection of what many children today experience.”

Fox News Latino previously reported that the Disney team could have drawn inspiration from real-life Queen Sofia of Spain, who bears similar light features as Princess Sofia. There has been speculation that Disney princesses, like The Little Mermaid and Pocahontas, could have been influenced by real-life women.
 Of course, the headlines are reading "Princess Sofia is "NOT HISPANIC" Says Disney" and "Disney Backpedal? Mouse House Now Says New Princess Sofia Is Not Latina After Controversy Erupts"

Which is after a week or so of press finding ways to address the outrage that Sofia may be too light skinned, her hair too auburn, and of course, the fact that it's a slap in the face to Hispanics that she's a TV princess not a Film Princess.

"That decision doesn't bother Alex Nogales, President and CEO for the National Hispanic Media Coalition.

"That really doesn't matter," he told me. "The Latino community is in a place right where they need strong role models and doesn't matter whether it comes from film or TV."

What does anger him is the way that Disney is going about debuting Sofia. When asked directly, Disney officials have confirmed Sofia's ethnicity, but, according to Entertainment Weekly, the Disney team is purposely downplaying that fact in its marketing, an approach that offends Nogales.

What if we actually look at these quotes and take out the words that were actually said,  the controversy may reflect an interesting theme that actually comes up in the story that will be on screen. I'll certainly circle back to tell you all about that in November, what marketing materials I've found seem to imply that not only is Sofia from a mixed race family, she's actually becoming a princess for the first time because her mother married the king, so it's The Princess Diaries meet The Brady Bunch in a kingdom of highly diverse secondary characters ( I dare you to count the ethnic types in the trailer: I found 11 in the 90 second spot) and a greatest hits of other Disney Characters.

After all the discussion, it might be a disappointment if the topic ISN'T any part of the narrative. Of course, that's always a part of the production/roll-out process. Unless you do a lot of work to understand your themes and messages, you won't necessarily know what will resonate most. Even if you have, audiences may surprise you. Ultimately, it's probably a blessing that a discussion of multi-ethnic families would come up relating to a TV show, there's actually a production opportunity to address it if the TV Movie turns into a full-fledged series. If something about the experimental narrative of the televised movie resonates it can be identified and added in a way that might take less response time than say, an internationally released film with a full twisting marketing layout.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Wonder Woman: We've come a long way, maybe?

The LA Times asks the question: How far have we come if we still need our female superheroes to look this good in a bustier?

"She may stand for peace and gender equality but she wears hot pants and a vaguely fetish-like metal bodice. She also has a magic lasso, bullet-proof bracelets and an invisible plane. And unlike most of her male counterparts, she is not broken, did not emerge from a place of darkness–whether you go with the original creation (from the clay outside her city) or the later one that anointed her the child of Hippolyta and Zeus, Wonder Woman was raised as an Amazon, fierce as she is beautiful. Even her tiara is multi-tasking–one moment drawing the eye to her flawless forehead, the next taking out a bad guy at his throat."

What do you think about Wonder Woman? Why don't we see her on screen in this new world of film heroes? Is it mysogeny or creativly laziness that has left so many reboots in development hell?

Friday, October 5, 2012

Bats for Lashes

The super-insightful Laura Sterritt who writes Transchordian a blog on music and multi-platform executions, interactivity and the way musicians are exploring interdiciplinary forms shared this interesting interview with Bats for Lashes:
"The way a lot of women are portrayed in the media is quite sexual and for the male gaze. For me, this is more about representing more of a multidimensional image that in it I could be powerful and strong, I could be quite vulnerable or quite sad or quite sexual or quite sensual or rescuing someone or [being] fed up with someone or having to carry someone. I feel like there's a lot of different aspects to me as a woman and I didn't want to just put forward a really one-dimensional thing that I think you get a lot of in the media."

Friday, August 31, 2012

Study: We Benefit From Seeing Strong Women on TV

"IMPLICATIONS: The researchers found strongest evidence of women responding positively to strong female characters, while instances of men responding negatively to such characters were much lower. They admit, "it is possible that some males find the presentation of strong females to be threatening to traditional gender-role stereotypes," and speculate that machismo culture may have contributed to this effect.

But in general, men responded more positively to shows with powerful women. The researchers suggest this may be because "depictions of women reawaken negative stereotypes that some men hold about women, whereas positive depictions challenge these stereotypes." Further research is certainly needed, but this study at least points to a new, potentially significant factor in the effects of sex and violence in the media."

The full study, "Positive Female Role-Models Eliminate Negative Effects of Sexually Violent Media," will be published in the Journal of Communication.

Friday, June 22, 2012

5 Reasons to Love Brave

So, Brave is out today. I saw it last week with my daughter because I'm cool like that. But my coolness is not the point here, Brave's coolness is in fact the point here. Lots of people are going to be talking about Brave, and already have started. Slate takes issue with Fiery Redhead Stereotypes, Jeff Gomez says in Bloomberg Businessweek that:
“This is not a feminist development... It’s a generational development. The people seeing these new movies find values more aspirational than gender.”
Unsurprisingly, I agree with Jeff, though Feminists and humans overall should be excited that there is FINALLY an animated film with a living mother in it and a female heroine and that it has been produced by the distribution Juggernaut that is Hollywood without taking away the joy that can come with those features.

The most important review comes from my daughter and her best friend (both 5); both agreed that it was quite scary, but also amazing, beautiful and that they loved it.

With all that in mind I'm going to try and write a few reasons I enjoyed the movie without using Spoilers or breaking into tears. Spoiler: This movie may very well bring you to tears, I cried, my daughter cried, we all cried, it was awesome.

1. A Highly Resonant Mother-Daughter Story
It is really hard to remember an animated feature where a mother actually plays an active role in the story. Heck, it's hard to remember a live-action feature where the mother isn't at least some sort of horrific harpy or a total non-entity.

If you can think off some offhand, throw them into the comments because I have been struggling to remember some.

The fact that Queen Elinor is as central to the story as Merida is refreshing and needed in the story landscape that kids are exposed to and both the mother and daughter came off as nuanced and honest, both flawed, both trying their best and both loving, caring creatures.

2. A Legend without a Messiah Complex

A problem I often find when people discuss legends is that, especially when writing them, the protagonist seems to fall into the position of "the most important person who has ever lived or will ever live in this story world." Merida is amazing, her story is great, but it fits into a tapestry of myth and legend larger than any one individual story and this is also fantastically refreshing.

This is not to say Merida isn't the hero of her own story, she is. Or that she doesn't profoundly change the world around her, she does. But she doesn't have to be a unique superhero to do it. Fate has conspired to give her her position and skills, but she's not the only person with any inner strength or power.

When secondary characters are off-screen, their lives continue. The world of Brave has a past, present and future and it is filled with interesting ideas just outside of view. As a personal point of order, I want to point out that some of the stories being explored in publishing are adaptations of the film, and some are other stories about Merida. These seem to be mostly baby steps in transmedia storytelling, but it is a start, and Brave has a lot more paths to explore.

3. A Magical World without Overbearing Explanation

You know who loves a thorough, in depth magical system in a fictional storyworld? Me. I would go out on a limb and say I am one of the people in the world MOST interested in how magical systems exist in story worlds and how they're executed and the minutia of their development and internal narratives. I literally will read thesises on these. But, when I'm watching a movie or reading a book or enjoying a story, sometimes it's more important to know that something is important because the characters do. Sometimes, often, you don't need to pause the plot to elaborate on the ethnographic impact of a specific mythical creature.

There are ways to look into those details later. For instance, Wil o' Wisps and Stone Circles have reams and reams and tomes and tomes of legends and analysis and fantastic stories you can read to learn about them. You can do that homework outside an 88 minute feature. Brave doesn't slow down the story to explain what it's doing, it lets the world exist and be explored without belaboring the point (which I just did), and the story is much more mysterious and exciting and thrilling for it. 

4. Secondary Characters who are Silly without being Stupid

Brave has a very clear protagonist, and a central storyline that revolves around two women.  Vital to their lives and the fantastic lushness of the story are the men in their lives and the characters around them from the wider world. The core family includes a wacky Dad, who genuinely cares about the ladies in his life but also seems realistically on both of their sides. The little brothers are 100% competent even though they have superhuman pastry-thieving skills and pull together in trouble, protecting and aiding those around them.

These characters are funny, they're playful and at times wacky. The characters from the wider world play on clear stereotypes, but unlike many secondary characters, the manage to all have some nuance and motivations and desires all their own. Beyond their silly exteriors they all manage to be able to make their own decisions and to have lives outside the immediate sphere of the main character.

While I am highly interested in some male perspectives on these characters, the reality is that these characters were well considered and came off as silly, but none of them did anything that came off as blatantly idiotic or even worse, out of character for plot's sake alone. 

5. Setting that advances the story without telling the story for you

While there is plenty of action in Brave, my daughter didn't crawl on my lap for support because of a violent battle. She got scared because the amazingly beautifully animated setting made excellent use of the moody mists and twilight. The mood set tones rather than overpowering the story with its grandeur. The land is one of myth and legend where it clearly looks like there's a magical creature in every glen, but also, a place where you can imagine camping and hiking and living.

The world is one that is realistic despite the stylised animation and the moods established prove that Pixar is still at the leading edge of visual storytelling above all others.

I loved Brave, I'm so excited that this story is in the world. I'm really looking forward to hearing what other people think of it and to argue with me on points that they disagree on. That said, I couldn't be more pleased that Merida and Queen Elinor were characters I got to share with my daughter while she's still young.

Monday, June 18, 2012

"It's a Metaphor," No, It's a Dead Horse: Thoughts on Grammar

Many times when hearing someone speak about the metaphors they are developing for their script or game or "thing" I feel myself pausing and asking myself... "are we really talking about metaphors here?"
Meet a Meaningless Metaphor

Metaphor as a word is overused. There are many devices that exist in the English language and metaphor is arguably the most powerful. (Eat it, exclamations!)


[met-uh-fawr, -fer] 
1. a figure of speech in which a term or phrase is applied to something to which it is not literally applicable in order to suggest a resemblance, as in “A mighty fortress is our God.” Compare mixed metaphor, simile
2. something used, or regarded as being used, to represent something else; emblem; symbol.
Metaphors are the big ticket items, the Lamborghinis of phrasing. Elegant, Sleek, desirable and sexy; That's right people, sexy grammar.

Pictured: Grammar
There's a lot of excellent talk on metaphors in Metaphor: A Practical Introduction and frankly, I don't have time to write an entire book right here, though I suppose that was the whole point of this blog once upon a time... 

Metaphors become the short form phrases that give greater meaning to those disjointed strung together words.  How do you get from sentences to metaphors? The greater expression of meaning relies on the references that are understood, in the metaphor above, we all have to know what a fortress is in order to understand it, but we live in cultures with many, many stories and reference points to understand "fortress" and its associated meaning even if you don't live near a castle.

When a cultural entity has boiled down over time and repetition enough to be immediately recognizable and meaningful without the context of its story "A White Knight," a "Red Herring," even the "fortress" above is a concrete metaphor. While in the early middle ages, a White Knight may have required a more complex explanation, most westerners get the symbol immediately as it has been distilled into our collective memory through a plethora of stories about chivalry and heroes.

A Frankenstein, is a metaphor grown from a narrative.
Other than the literal "use me in a sentence" metaphor, there's conceptual metaphor that describe a more abstract concept as target and a more concrete or physical concept as their source. "Love", "Idea", etc... these are much more complex and often ask us to defy a single sentence or fragment to explain them, these are ideas and concepts that are still emerging into cultural consciousness and while someday may be able to boil down to single phrases or words, these concepts are being developed through story.


1. a narrative, either true or fictitious, in prose or verse, designed to interest, amuse, or instruct the hearer or reader; tale.
Our most common definition of story discusses their instructive intention, whether we're attempting to convey an idea, experience or emotion, stories are the way humans communicate with one another these complex concepts.


1. a story or account of events, experiences, or the like, whether true or fictitious.
2. a book, literary work, etc., containing such a story.3. the art, technique, or process of narrating
Narratives imply an even greater level of construction, that they are crafted carefully to convey stories with a clear intentionality.

We often talk about narratives as being metaphors as well. Grammatically, they aren't really, but narratives are the building blocks of metaphors yet to be fully formed. Metaphors are conglomeration of mutually understood meaning, and the way that cultures define meaning are through shared mythologies. These stories are the articulations of emergent conceptual metaphors, they make use of existing concrete and conceptual metaphors to get their points across. Parts of them may be metaphoric, but a well-built narrative usually has layers of meaning and theme and message that may encompass a variety of these points to build a conversation in the mind of the audience that may, someday, through the work of many storytellers, distill into one or several culturally poignant metaphors.

So, why am I harping? Storytellers in many industries hem and haw about metaphors all the time, but building a story made entirely of metaphors is like building a house made entirely of L-joints, you could, but let's take a step back and see if that's the most efficient way to make our point? When looking at our creations, we should probably take a hard look and determine whether or not we want an individual narrative to be the most elaborately potent thematic tour-de-force ever conceived because I want to be clear: not every story needs Superman in it.

Sometimes one is too many Supermans.
Metaphors are the Superman of Grammatical Phrases, which of course means they're very powerful. They communicate meaning very quickly and complex meaning very efficiently. There are however other things out there that convey meaning, like for instance:

The LITERAL MEANING of words. 

When people confuse metaphor with the actual meaning of the words they are saying it's begun to drive me a bit bonkers, and it's time we all sat and had a talk about it. 

Sometimes when people say they're using metaphors, they are not. People all over the place are saying that metaphors are being applied when they are not. Let's all take a moment to stop and address this.

A clear example of where this peeves me personally are in places like Character names. Let's pick on Twilight – because that's always fun and easy – Bella Swan. Over the top character names that are trying to give simple cheats to the audience with low-hanging fruit metaphors and literal descriptors has gotten quite old. Let's make up a few: Derrek Oilman, Rebecca Goodheart, Harrison Moustachio,  Larry Abouttogetshotbythevillain. I read and watch A LOT of scripts and new work, and these names rarely come off at the level of cleverness that the author may think they do.

In some cases, even the first one I've pulled out, Ms. Bella Swan, they employ simple metaphor. Bella; which just straight up means beautiful, but in another language; and Swan, which I'll give you is symbolic and ripe with associations are constructed to tell you exactly what to expect from the character. Whether you make her clumsy to humanize her or not, the expectation that she is a graceful, beautiful snowflake put on this Earth to make others around her gape in slack-jawed awe is there and it's followed through in the book. But what's the point of character development when we already know how this will end? SPOILER: she becomes a vampire and stops being clumsy and everyone thinks she's the prettiest and the most graceful, etc... etc...

So, simple metaphors and literal character traits. I'm saying that Bella Swan's name is sorta a metaphor but maybe not really because it's not asking us to consider new information about the character or her situation, it's just literal shorthand that she's the bestest and we should all know that. Same goes with action heroes and things, Robin Larceny or Pussy Galore or Karen Forewe lack a degree of subtlety and are much more literal than metaphoric in their use in narratives.

An excellent book that I suggest all authors read is Metaphor: A Practical Introduction, by  , while my 12 year old self is inwardly cringing that I'm recommending a book on grammar, my grown-up self cannot express enough the need for higher level grammatical and semantic understanding in constructing complex narratives.

If Metaphors are the Lamborghinis of Grammar, I'm going to suggest that literal and simple metaphoric naming are the $500 used cars of Grammar: Cheap, get you from A to B, but are just as likely to blow up in your face as move you forward. 

So, if complex conceptual metaphors are the smooth, high performance machines a narrative is the highway your sports car will travel down. You can either make an interstate highway that carries a lot of traffic, or a beautiful scenic roadway with curves built for speed. 
Not all roads should be the Pacific Coast Highway though.
All these meaningful bits of language are extremely potent and useful, but there is a very important reality that is the Rabid, Raging Supermoon-Addled Lycanthrope of my pet peeves in recent weeks. 
Characters are not metaphors themselves, they are avatars.


  1. A manifestation of a deity in bodily form on earth.
  2. An incarnation, embodiment, or manifestation of a person or idea
Characters in a narrative are representations of meaningful concepts, but they themselves are a specific sort of meaningful concept, one where the audience member is engaging with them as constructed human beings, rather than simply symbols.

While you can have a meaningful story in 6 words or less, for the most part narratives involve characters who are established for longer periods of time and ask the audience to engage with them as though they were representing real people, at least during the time they are experiencing the story. So, William Wallace in Braveheart is not a metaphor he is an Avatar of a variety of meaningful concepts: rebellion, freedom from tyranny, love, ferocity, etc.... His story is metaphorical– less an accurate recounting of exact facts than a request to the audience to experience a story that establishes or communicates a mood.

In films and novels, there are epic amounts of criticism about the way characters represent ideas, the way they embody metaphoric and even universal themes, and a lot of rigor can be put into the academic study of this type of avatar.

Avatars mean different things to different narratives. If your story is a film, it may mean the character or it may mean the embodiment of a God. If you are playing a game, the Avatar also refers to the figure that the player manipulates throughout the game world. Here, Avatars and Characters become more synonymous, at least to those who spend their working days exclusively creating these elaborate works of experiential narrative.

Recently, the executive producer for the new Tomb Raider game was quoted as stating:
"When people play Lara, they don't really project themselves into the character," Rosenberg told me at E3 last week when I asked if it was difficult to develop for a female protagonist.
"They're more like 'I want to protect her.' There's this sort of dynamic of 'I'm going to this adventure with her and trying to protect her.'"
This is a statement that implies that Lara Croft, unlike other first and third person game avatars, doesn't act as a viewpoint for the gamer to experience the game world. This posit flies in the face of most video game criticism and studies that the player avatar becomes the vessel for the character projected. Now, most of the people who have piled onto these quotes, some of which have been denied by the Publisher, Square Enix and Developer, Crystal Dynamics

The largest problem with the above quote beyond the possible misattribution, and the implicit sexism, is a misunderstanding of the relationship between player and avatar in gaming. If Crystal Dynamics is making an attempt to innovated on the gameplay experience by asking the player to engage in a different way with this Lara Croft than in the past, kudos. But, regardless of the avatar's gender, the accepted wisdom in gaming is that the player DOES project themselves into the character of the avatar regardless of their gender. 

Do I, as a woman, identify less with Master Chief of Ezio Auditore because of the gender barrier between us? No, I do not believe so. The idea that because these men are handsome or sexually appealing (though none quite as showily as Lara Croft in any of her iterations) is something that would very rarely become subject to argument. So why do we then argue that men do not identify with a female avatar the same way?

Shame on you, undressing him with your eyes.
I would love to be a fly on the wall to see what studies or focus groups or assumptions went into the development of this experiment in avatar-building, but the next best thing will be seeing how audiences react. Will the gameplay be enjoyable or thoroughly lukewarm? What's it like if it's been built differently?

Regardless, it seems likely that the quotes, while potentially erroneous hit on an assumption that is all to commonly stated in different forms around gaming, and entry point characters in film, television and other media: that an entry point character will not affect the audience potently unless that character looks and feels exactly like them. 

This comes down to the idea that a story's meaning will not be effectively communicated unless the character that centrally articulates its messages relates to every single individual in the audience that encounters it. By this logic, every person who will be moved by Superman should be a male kryptonian orphan who grew up in Kansas.

Just like metaphors, there are different types of avatar, and the reason avatars exist is because concepts, like deities, incarnate in different ways at different times. The entire point is that a concept large enough to embody a conceptual metaphor (whether it is a god, or love, or heroism or even a famous legend like King Arthur) is going to be told from different perspectives for different people at different times. The metaphors require a plurality of stories to articulate them to cement them in human consciousness, so that they can be shared widely and ultimately instruct their audiences.

Limiting one's opinion of who or what "people" will be affected by the characterization of a character that necessarily is a vessel for the audience's point of view is limiting to the point of impeding the process of communicating the themes and ideas of your story. When the producer of Tomb Raider is quoted as saying that "people" don't identify with the avatar of Lara Croft, it means that they assume that women do not identify with the female protagonist, and that men do not identify with a female protagonist. It seems wrongheaded and insulting to both genders, especially given the wild historical success of the property. Whether or not it was actually stated, the concept is insulting and suggests to me that the Gamplay Avatar vs. Character Avatar dynamic is as confused as the literal and conceptual metaphor semantics in how narrative is approached.

Characters and Avatars are neither metaphors in their own right, or literal interpretations of concepts. They are constructions that are larger than them both, designed to impart a certain perspective on narrative incidents designed to build around a specific theme or message. Trying to reduce a character to a single metaphor or a single literal point leads to a very limited perspective and an even more limited viewpoint for an audience to see through. Sometimes this can be done well, sometimes a literally named character is amusing. But not as an afterthought and not unintentionally, the way to approach the tools you use to build a narrative and your expertise with them are essential to the strength of what you present.

Please don't try to install a screw with a hammer, 
it simply doesn't work right and we'll all be disappointed. 

Know what tools you're using and why. 

Most of these metaphor images I've used in this entry are from this blog whose entire goal is to create images of metaphors that don't mean anything as a social experiment.
This is excellent. Even as I was searching for things that AREN'T good examples of metaphors, I found myself making up stories about the connections between the things in the images. They don't translate well now, but who knows what they'll mean to someone in the future, or to someone in another country. They might even inspire a really good story.

I found them pretty funny and enjoyable in their own right, even though they are intentionally meaningless.

Now we've covered Concrete Metaphor, Conceptual Metaphor, Literal Meanings, Avatars as Vessels and in Gameplay, Entry Point Characters and Entirely Nonsensical Amusements. They all make up the beautiful tapestry of language both visual and verbal that humans use to communicate, and there are many more tools in metaphor and beyond that can be used to tell your story.

Let's all try to mean what we say and say what we mean accurately.

Just because it isn't really a metaphor doesn't make it not AWESOME.