Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Reminder: Girls Need Characters Too

In case you had forgotten over the past five years of increasingly focused coverage, the female populace in entertainment is still not only inordinately small, but more often than not skewed towards the spectrum of the vapid, pointless love interest or the sexy, pointless femme fatale, with little room in between. I think it's pretty common knowledge by now that it's an issue, and I'm not really saying anything too shocking or unique.

I did, however, want to bring up an example of why girls need good characters too, and how it's actually something that matters.

So I'm leaving The Avengers a couple of weeks ago, and it was awesome, but that's beside the point. Point is, I'm walking behind this family. A mother, a son, and a young girl about eight or nine. The family is chatting about the movie, and at one point the girl turns to her mother with a big smile on her face and goes:

"Do you know who the best Avenger is?"

"Who?" says the mom.

Now recall this is a movie with a technological genius flying around in superweapon, a super-soldier with an indestructible shield, a green behemoth that cannot be killed, and Samuel L. Jackson.

"Black Widow," says the girl. "She's awesome."


I thought I'd share this because it speaks to the methods of idenitifiability, of connection between people and characters. Black Widow is not, objectively, the most "awesome" of the Avengers. Not in the typical way. She has no powers other than a quick wit and martial arts. But this girl identified with her above all the others in the movie. Why? Because Black Widow is a woman, and more importantly, a strong, independent, competent and confident woman.

This is a pseudo-follow up to my previous post about the importance of good YA lit, but like I said in the post, we forget how a world looks to a child, how hard it is to handle the complexity of the world they're thrust into. An adult saying a character was her favorite just because she's a woman might come under some criticism in the adult world of political correctness and fairness above all else, even common sense. But to a child? A child is going to see someone like them. Who looks like them, talks like them acts like them. And they are going to identify with them. It's why people who don't understand why young black children need from black role models miss the point entirely. It's not that young black kids can't see a white person as a role model. It's just that, from the viewpoint of a child, an older black person is simply going to have more in common with them. Remember: children have not yet grown the ability to interpret complexity that you and I have. Such a facet of their lives must be nourished--and the only way to nourish it is the have a foundation to build upon. A young girl identifying with Black Widow can learn about bravery, courage, intelligence, wit, and even that it's okay to be afraid.

But that fear can't hold you back.

 And from that foundation can a deeper understanding of the complexity and intricacies of the world be built. We all have to start somewhere, and children are more apt to start off with someone with which they can readily identify.

So in case everyone's forgotten over the past couple of days: this push to get more female main characters and minority main characters is not just a bunch of PC bellyaching. It matters. Because kids are in a wild world of insanity, and they need something to grasp onto. And the easiest thing to grasp onto is someone like them.

Until next time,

Mr. E

Oh, and:


Monday, May 14, 2012

The Legend of Korra, and the Most Important Element of YA Entertainment

So let’s talk about kids for a minute.

Kids are a bit of a conundrum for me. While I cannot say I don’t out-and-out like kids, fact of the matter is that many kids bring with them a certain level of, oh, chaos and volume, and those are two things that I can’t stand. I’m a quiet person. Kids are loud, especially in groups, and in that regard, I’m not the hugest fan of the stress kids bring along.

But I cannot say I don’t like kids—and by kids, I mean ages 7-12 (arbitrary I know, but go with me here), because for every moment they are loud and obnoxious, there are other moments where they are downright profound, and you catch glimpses of their intrinsic humanity, uncorrupted by the cynical influence of adulthood.

Likewise, I’m a fan of teenagers, age 13-17 or thereabouts. Now, teenagers can be just as obnoxious, and oftentimes even more self-centered and arrogant than their younger counterparts. But I’m a fan anyway, because I understand. I remember high school and middle school. It’s a rough road, for pretty much every kid. Maybe not rough in a physical way, or a poverty-stricken fight-to-survive way, but in a psychological way. And make no mistake, the psychological burdens on our children and teenagers are immense, and in some ways more complex than any in the world. And we ignore them to our detriment. Meaning that there’s a lot of detriment going around. Because honestly, few people take children and young adults very seriously.

At best, from a broader cultural standpoint, they’re regarded as “mature for their age” or “outstanding academically” or a “great athlete” or any number of superficial things that disregard their deeper self worth. This is, of course, preferable to the worst position on this spectrum, that is, they’re just a loud, obnoxious burden and the sooner we get them out of the house the better.

But on the whole, on the whole, mind you, children and young adults are really sort of forgotten. Let me rephrase that: their souls are mostly forgotten.

We forget the complexities we experienced in our own childhoods and young adulthoods, the thoughts and feelings we had, how everything is bright and strange and how we clung to certain truths just to make some modicum of sense out of everything. We forget that, and so we look upon kids obsessions with entertainment—novels, books, sports—as something “cute” or “neat” or maybe “annoying,” and ignore the higher implications of such focus. How many parents scoffed at their children’s near-maniacal love of Dragonball Z in the late nineties?

As such, the nature of children’s and YA entertainment is in itself put by the wayside. Its’ certainly not taken as seriously as ADULT literature, and reading YA focused entertainment after the age of, oh, 20, is not looked upon as any sort of worth pursuit, Harry Potter and Twilight notwithstanding.

 How easy we disregard.

Because fact of the matter is, YA and children’s lit are some of the most important parts of any culture ever, period.

Really. Books have been around for four hundred years, writing for quite a while longer than that, but basically since the beginning of human consciousness old storytellers have told children stories through picture, or by the campfire in the caves of Lascaux. Stories for children, and for adults, with a purpose to structure the wild, insane world about them in ways that would have it make sense—to unveil an actuality, as it were.

Nowadays, the world is just as wild and complex, albeit in different ways; and we still need structuring and actualities to be unveiled in stories, or risk crippling damage to our children.

I mean, think about it for a minute: one day, child is going to become acquainted with the specter of Death. Total, overriding cessation of existence; can the child fully grasp these implications? Perhaps not (but then again, neither can most adults). One day, however, someone’s going to die: a father, a mother, an aunt, a grandparent. And the uninitiated child is going to react in one of two ways:

A total lack of comprehension resulting in psychological damage.
A complete understanding resulting in psychological damage.

See, children’s literature serves as more than just cutesy stories: it’s how we are introduced to the complexities of the world in a manner by which we can internalize them, understand them, come to terms with them before we are shown the stark realities of what the story in portraying. Which is the better way to introduce our kids to something like, say, genocide? Pictures of Dachau and Aushwitz, which they cannot truly comprehend or understand, or something like Avatar: The Last Airbender, which also deals with genocide, but in a more subtle, less harsh, more digestible way?

I think its words like that which make people belittle YA lit. “Easy.” “Simple.” “Digestible.” They see these words and think they are indicative of the soul of YA—oh, that’s just kid’s stuff. But that’s not really the heart of it. Far from it, actually. The difference between simplicity and complexity is a really fine one: kids can understand more than we give them credit for, and far more than we expect of them; but the essence of YA is a simplicity born from complexity. A simplicity that gives some insight to these crazy harsh lives we must lead.

Now allow me to plug for a moment Avatar: The Legend of Korra.

And yes, it is Avatar:  The Legend of Korra. I understand why the precursor was omitted. But work with me here.

Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante Dimartino really have a grasp of the YA/children’s market—the need for complexity, yet subtlety; the focus on relatable characters, good storylines, and a dash of spectacle to keep us begging for more. It’s been said plenty of times before, but let me enumerate it once again: Avatar: The Last Airbender is the perfect example of an apotheosis of YA/children’s entertainment. I didn’t say it was perfect, but everything YA/children’s entertainment needs to be, A:TLA is. Smart, funny, good characterization, good plot, complexity leading to simple truth, all that stuff. It could be heavy handed at times—The Painted Lady and the Great Divide are usually singled out as badly anvilicious episodes, but it was rare and even then, it had more of a point. (Note: Well, The Great Divide sort of supported lying as a justifiable form of mediation, but anyway. –E) 
Meaning The Legend of Korra had some pretty big shoes to fill upon its airdate.

How’s it doing so far? In my opinion, pretty damn well.

Bryke is not in an easy position here, by any means. To follow up something as beloved as A:TLA with something that even approaches the same level of quality is a tall order—and that’s not even including satisfying the inevitable nerd-fan rage when this attribute is perceived as lacking or that attribute isn’t “as good” as it was in A:TLA.

So I’ll go ahead and put my one possible criticism right out there: you can tell that Nick only ordered 12 episodes at the front. Now they bumped that up to 26 when they got over their obvious concussion and realized that “Doy! A follow-up to our landmark franchise might be really popular!” But in the beginning there was twelve, and thus were Bryke and the guys positioning themselves to make a 12 episode mini-series. As such, things are a bit rushed—relationships are shipped in a very quick manner, scenes can be a little forced—the ending to episode four (a really great episode, as it happens) was a little underwhelming to me personally, and you can tell that the writer’s were crunched for time and didn’t have space to “linger” or anything after Tenzin said his aphorism. Is this a true complaint? I don’t think so—it doesn’t affect the overall mood, tone, character or story of the series. What it does do, however, is fiddle with the narrative flow of things. Human brains have a certain instinct for patterns and beats, and when a show has to cram as much as possible into 22 minutes, most people will notice simply because there’s a certain dissonance in the “meter” of the narrative.

But that’s really a superficial issue, and a minor one at that, rest be assured at its core Korra (so far) has been everything I hoped for. Smart, funny, insightful, all those highfalutin words we use to make sure we impart that something is worth our while. And as such, it’s a prime example of the zenith YA entertainment can reach—it does the one thing that truly good YA entertainment must do. This is, it does not talk down to its audience.

People have this rampant misconception about children that they can’t grasp or understand certain concepts. This is a fallacy. Children can understand all these things. One only has to look at child soldiers throughout the world to know to what depths children can understand. What people mean when they say children can’t understand things is that they don’t grasp the complexities. Things are very stark for a child, partly due to having to cope with an insanity-inundated world. Being mean is “bad,” being nice is “good,” there’s very little room in between for a man being nice for manipulative selfish reasons, or being mean because his family has just died and he’s having a hard time coping; when a child faces these issues, it is up to the world to explain the nuance—and most children will grasp the nuance of something if told about it. Will they truly be aware of its complexities? Perhaps not. But that’s something that can only come from experience, and experience can only begin with the base understanding of the concept in question.

So arguably the biggest theme in the show so far is that of equality, and what it means. The non-benders of Republic City specifically are being oppressed by the more supernaturally endowed brethren, resulting in gangs of benders treating whole streets like they are Mafia braviosos, being then only people in high office, etc. This has given rise to an Equalist movement, led by mysterious figurehead Amon, who always wears a mask to cover his face. Amon’s (supposed) back story is that his family was killed by a roving firebending gang as a child, and his face was hideously burned—this justifies (in theory) his desire to see all benders removed from power…which he is able to do with a so-far unexplained technique where he takes a benders’ abilities away, akin to what Aang did to Firelord Ozai in the original series, although much less flashy.

Now here we have a lot of things going on: the rectitude of Amon’s mission, the fact that benders are oppressing the local populace and have complete dominance over Republic Cities government, the nature of equality and the means by which good intentions go horribly wrong. It adds a level of depth when you realize that Amon and the nonbenders do have a legitimate grievance against benders—and yet another level when you realize that Amon’s ultimate mission is not necessarily equality, but the rise of his own power.

As adults, we have context for this, and we can compare Amon’s mission in high philosophical discussions regarding its similarities to the French and Communists revolutions, the nature of power and the cyclical essence of all revolutions and governmental coups. But kids, unversed as they are in most of the intricacies of history, are looking at Amon’s mission in a vacuum—and yet they still are able to grasp the delicacies of Amon’s position. They may not be able to articulate what exactly they understand: it takes a more experienced context to do that. But most kids would someone understand that despite Amon’s call for equality, something’s not quite right about his message or his approach. From this, the child must needs work out from himself what, exactly the problem is, whether consciously or otherwise—and once he does, he comes to an understand, perhaps minor, but nevertheless very real—and from this a foundation of context is built, meaning when the child inevitably learns about the French Revolution, or sees the plight of certain African nations, he or she will not be as confused by it, because they have a basis for that worldly behavior having already been introduced in The Legend Of Korra.

Is that a little simplistic and hypothetical? Certainly; and it’s quite possible that some viewers of Korra would never catch the subtleties of what I just described. Yet I think most would: kids are smarter than we give them credit for, after all, and there is literally no doubt that the stories we are told as a child help us structure and connect the world we see as we grow.

Likewise, the worry about going over some child’s head is one that I think worries many creators of children’s/YA fiction, and I think it’s imperative that creators must temper their instinct to talk down or bowdlerize their works just because they are worried their audience won’t “get it.” But the child will understand. Some may have to ask their parents, some may not “get it” until a year later when it “clicks,” but the child will understand. They’re growing up after all, and if they can’t understand things such as subtlety and nuance at all as younger consumers, they’re going to be hard-pressed to grasp it when they get older.

As such, it’s okay for things to go over a child’s head. You know how many jokes in Spongebob Squarepants (and yes, Spongebob used to be a good show for about five years) I understand better now as an adult than I did as a kid? Did not entirely grasping these jokes as a child influence my enjoyment of Spongebob (you know, but when it was good?). No! I laughed anyway, even if I didn’t totally get it.

Plus, let’s not forget the fact that concepts “going over our heads” and our strive to learn and understand them is, of course, a key factor in challenging our intellectual capacity and maturing as connected adults with keen understanding of how language works. Worrying that a child might not get something in a book or show is like worrying a child might not understand long division: they might not, at first, but introducing it to them and then their working to master it is an exercise in building layers of nuance and means of understanding complicated issues. If we are afraid to introduce things that go over a child’s head now, how on Earth are they supposed to ever get the things that go over their head in the future? And when a YA creator is freed from the worry of “getting it,” they will automatically not talk down to their audience, and that, in turn, will create a complexity to bleeds into all facets of the work. Case in point, characterization.

All things must have good characters; it’s what builds empathy, connection and emotional resonance. Often, people doing YA-related entertainment fall prey to the trap of bland characterization, which is related as always to fear of their demographic not “getting it.” But what makes good characterization so important for YA specifically?

Connection, at its heart, and comprehension, at its soul.

Remember those “over-their-head” issues I mentioned above? The best way to limit those as much as possible is to create a common ground with the audience.

For example, in A:TLA there’s a wonderful episode called “The Guru,” where Aang is learning to open all his chakras (spiritual centers in the body, clogged with the gunk of life) and therefore be able to control the Avatar State; this involves a lot of introspection and soul-searching, and it’s quite frankly one of the best episodes of television I have ever seen—and it’s basically a clip show.

There’s a scene when Aang attempts to open the chakra in his heart, which deals with love and can become blocked by grief. Opening his soul up, Aang is sort of—oh, transported-in-mindscape, let’s call it—to a green cloudy vision where, slowly but surely, all the dead people of his annihilated civilization rise from the mist. It is truly heartbreaking television, and its impact is bound up in the audience’s relation to and care for Aang as a character. Like I said, one of the subtle undertones of A:TLA is genocide, probably one of the heaviest topics a child must be introduced to—and while a child may not grasp the horrors of such an action from A;TLA, because of Aang’s depth, and because of the child’s emotional connection with him as a character, they can at least share in some of the understanding of what Aang is experiencing: the powerful loss that he feels in the knowledge of his people’s demise. Thus, the child is introduced to the horror of genocide in the gentlest, most compassionate way possible, and through it, comes to understanding the specter of such an action just a bit more than before, so that when said child reads about the Holocaust and hears transcripts of Jewish survivors, there is a foundation to rest upon and an easier connection to be made.

 Same with Korra. It’s too early to judge how Korra will ultimately do in this regard, but it’s already garnering attention simply because it has a female heroine at the forefront of its narrative—which is not an unheard of thing, but still oddly rare for 2012. As it is, at the moment the writer’s have made Korra into a tough, self-assured, and, yes, arrogant young girl—and because of the latter, her character receives a huge leap in depth in episode four, where she is met with an enemy she cannot defeat by force alone, and is rendered powerless.  Now we must remember that Korra has never before met any real opposition. She been a prodigy all her life, she’s been raised isolated from the larger world, she’s used to people telling her how important she is. And so the entire episode is about her feeling, for the first time, true terror at facing Amon and, at the same time, trying to hide that terror behind a false front of nonchalance. It is only after her battle with Amon where she is basically curb-stomped that she finally gives in and admits her fears and confusion accompanied by a few well deserved tears.  So in the first four episodes Korra has grown from a reckless and overly-confident braggadocio to someone who realizes her limitations—quite an important way to engage with the show’s target demographic, especially one as underserved as young females.
So far, TLOK has done everything a YA show needs to, and I’m excited to see where it goes into the future. Anyone looking for a premier example on how high YA can reach, and how high YA should reach, need look no further than what Bryke has created over the past six years as a veritable how-to on quality YA entertainment.

Until next time,

Mr. E