Movie Trope Pet Peeves

Recently, novelist and screenwriter Andrew Klavan got himself into some trouble. He was reviewing Netflix’s The Witcher, and he commented that he dislikes movies that show a woman who is able to go toe to toe with men in a medieval sword brawl, without the help of magic. It’s unrealistic, he says. Might as well have made that character a man.

Well. Many people did not like this. Some challenged Klavan to a sword fight (he’s almost 70 years old). He even got at least one actual death threat.

Let’s see if I can also get myself cancelled. Here is a list of some of my movie pet peeves. And because there are exceptions to everything, I will also list exceptions.

  • Two women in an extended, knock-down, drag-out fight. This just feels icky and porn-y. Exceptions: the brief catfight scene in Sense and Sensibility, and Mrs. Weasley taking out Bellatrix LeStrange. Note that neither of these exceptions is actually a brawl.
  • A woman in an extended brawl with a man. I don’t care which one of them is the villain. This can only go one of two ways: either the woman unrealistically wins, or we get to watch a man beat up a woman (yay!). Exception: Antonio Banderas and Katherine Zeta-Jones’s sword duel in the stables in Zorro. Again, not really a brawl.
  • When the chase scene or fight scene completely smashes a room or building full of breakable, priceless artifacts. I realize it would be unrealistic to have a chase scene in such a setting and have nothing get broken, but it often seems as if directors delight in destruction. They’re smashing our culture with their philosophy, and in scenes like this they’re symbolically smashing our culture, represented by art or cakes or whatever, just because they can. Exception: Jackie Chan makes amazing use of props in his chase and fight scenes.
  • When someone is trying to maintain some kind of deception for the duration of the entire movie. I’m not talking about spy movies where you don’t know who’s who and that’s the point. I mean usually comedies where the high jinks flow from the MC trying to hide something from his wife, or from his daughter, or from her parents, or from an entire town. This just stresses me out. Exception: Breaking Bad, where the point of the series is to show a good man’s moral disintegration.
  • Now, a pet peeve of everyone around me: the fact that I can’t watch a movie without having to analyze the damn thing!
This is how a woman fights evil

What are your movie pet peeves? Do you hate any of the same things I hate? Share in the comments below.

So. This book.

A Lady’s Guide to Selling Out, by Sally Franson, 2018. I read the Center Point Large Print version.

From the jacket:

Casey Pendergast is losing her way. Once a book-loving English major, Casey lands a job at a top ad agency that highly values her ability to tell a good story. Her best friend thinks she’s a sellout, but Casey tells herself she’s just paying the bills – and she can’t help that she has champagne taste.

When her hard-to-please boss assigns her to a top-secret campaign that pairs literary authors with corporations hungry for upmarket cachet, Casey is both excited and skeptical. But as she crisscrosses America, wooing her former idols, she’s shocked at how quickly they compromise their integrity …

When she falls in love with one of her authors, Casey can no longer ignore her own nagging doubts about the human cost of her success. By the time the year’s biggest book festival rolls around in Las Vegas, it will take every ounce of Casey’s moxie to undo the damage – and, hopefully, save her own soul.

How could I not pick up a book that has the former English major main character falling in love with an author? And since Casey was going to “the year’s biggest book festival,” I also hoped this book might teach me something about the industry.

It didn’t.

I enjoyed it, it was a page turner, but in retrospect, most of the colorful characters – including the evil corporations, the evil advertising exec, and even the quirky authors – were kind of … stereotype-y? Also, the book kept smacking me in the face with its politics. It was pretty subtly done, but I guess, as author and an avid reader, I could see the strings moving.

The Good

First, the good part. Casey herself is not stereotype-y. The author had to write a character who was sympathetic, but unaware enough to participate, for most of the book, in activities that – in the world of the book – are considered “selling out.” So Casey is complex. She’s smart and analytical, has mommy and daddy issues (the mommy issues drive her career path), and does a great job documenting her own self-deception.

She is also, though socially vivacious, an empath and an introvert:

Before I met [my writer friend Susan], I’d spent my whole life feeling a few clicks on the dial away from everyone I knew. Not that you could tell necessarily – I was popular and all that growing up, lots of friends, guys buzzing around like big horseflies – but there was this static in the air when I was around other people. Sometimes I’d even cancel plans, feigning illness, in order to stay home and read novels and fiddle with the antenna in my brain, trying to get a clear signal. Sometimes I’d go days, weeks, without it, the dull hissing unceasing. The static only seemed to stop, or my brain could only tune in to the world properly, when I was taking walks or reading novels. In other words, when I was alone.

Oh well, I’d thought then, sucks for me I only get clarity by myself, everyone else seems to be getting on fine. Weirdo. Probably best to pretend the static doesn’t exist.

pp 14 – 15

The “static” is the way Casey can sense other people’s thoughts and emotions.

This is a terrific description of the inner life of an introvert/empath.

It’s also a good example of how, contrary to what you might expect, feeling other people’s feelings does not necessarily endow a person with good social skills. Quite the opposite. Sometimes it can be quite overwhelming, and the empath will withdraw, or will wildly act out the emotion that’s already flying around the room.

The Bad

A number of things bothered me about this novel. Let’s start with the reverse sexism:

In the aftermath of our efforts to hold these men responsible, we realized we didn’t possess the power to do that. We were just a couple of nobodies, a couple of ladies. Men were innocent until proven guilty. Women were crazy until they were believed.

page 352

Yeah, I don’t know any men who have been publicly shamed on the Internet … who have lost their jobs, been called names, received death threats, been unable to get their side of the story out there, or been unable to recover their reputation.

Sure, powerful people exploit less powerful people all the time. People unfairly get their reputations ruined all the time too. But this does not divide neatly along the lines of sex. Social power is so much more complex than that. Interestingly, the book seems to recognize this sometimes, except when it forgets itself and wants to beat us on the head with its Message.

Then there is the book’s incoherent attitude towards money. In trying to convince Casey to get authors to rep dying companies, her boss tells her cynically, “You’d be surprised what people are willing to do when you put enough money on the table.” And, for most of the authors, they agree to the deal realizing that they are being used, but wanting the money for a noble cause (taking care of an ailing mother, opening an animal shelter, etc.).

But then Casey goes to meet her literary hero, also the book’s villain, and hears him speak at a book festival:

Beyond the obvious problems of his sick wife’s medical bills, Julian didn’t appear to be motivated by money — a sure sign that he’d grown up with a fair amount of it.

page 310

So, we are selling out if we need some money and are willing to work for it … but not wanting to make money is also, it’s implied, a sign of culpable privilege. It sounds like we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t. Reminds me of that scene in Time Bandits where Robin Hood and his men are giving bags of gold to a line of poor people. As soon as anyone receives his gold, he takes a few steps crying out, “I’m rich!” … until the next Merry Man punches him in the face and takes the bag away again because, after all, he is now rich, and must be punished.

Speaking of the book festival, when Casey first arrives there,

The crowd at the fair was mixed in the way of gender, and about as mixed in skin color as, say, a gallon drum of vanilla ice cream.

page 294

Now, I have never been to the country’s biggest annual book fair (because it’s for actual, published authors). So maybe this racial critique is true. But it feels made-up.

At the one writer’s convention I attended, we had a mix of races, ages, both sexes. The keynote speaker was a woman of color. She got up and told us that when she got to grad school, she found out that all her favorite books from childhood (which included some of my favorites, such as the Chronicles of Narnia), “were racist.” She then showed us this hurtful graphic:

The stats themselves are disturbing, but so is the presentation. In this picture, the kid that looks most like one of my kids (the kid on right) is a horrible little narcissist, reading books for the sole purpose of seeing himself reflected in them. It’s assumed he identifies with any white character in any book, regardless of whether that character is, say, out in space or living 1000 years ago, as long as the character is white … but he can’t identify with a main character of color. Apparently this kid doesn’t want to read about anyone who isn’t racially like himself. Sounds exciting. I guess he is not making the literary choices that I made as a kid, which was to seek out books about Native American kids and passionately wish I could be one.

Meanwhile, the bunny rabbit is joyfully reading a book about himself. I can’t believe that I have to point this out, but … animals don’t read? So, obviously, animal characters are intended to be relatable all children? So, even if we are going to make a chart showing which races are represented in a given year in children’s books, animals should not be on there? Because they are not an interest group in competition with kids of color? But our keynote speaker thought they were. She noted with an eye roll that there were even “more animals” than black children in 2015 children’s books.

I don’t think the most important thing about a book is the color of its characters, readers, or author. Even so, I can understand why we might want more different colors and cultures in children’s books. A book is more than a mirror, but not less than one.

That said, this information could have been presented in a form that didn’t demonize the white kid or imply that kids only want to read about themselves. It could have been presented as a pie chart. Or the graphic could have had a variety of different children, gathered around, reading all the books that are there. That would have been more like real life. The animal books, if they were included at all, should have gone into each category. Also, there are tons of books with a multiracial cast. I’m not sure how this chart handled those, but I can guess.

As it is, the message I got from the keynote speech (not, thankfully, from the whole conference) was this:

“So that readers of color don’t feel left out, we need more books starring characters of color. [So far so good.] But it’s stupid when we have white writers writing about characters of color. [OK, possibly.] Wouldn’t it make more sense to have people write about their own culture?”

Yes, perhaps, with the caveat that writers usually write far beyond their own experience, and that this is in fact a critical part of the writing process and the reading adventure. Also, it’s a fallacy that no writer can really identify with any person who is not of their own tribe. Taking this logic to its conclusion, the only thing anyone can really write with honesty is autobiography. Say goodbye to fantasy, sci-fi, and historical fiction.

It was a weird feeling being walked through this logic. While I didn’t disagree with the intermediate steps, after doing the math, the unavoidable conclusion is that I am not allowed to write anything any more because I am the wrong color. There are already way too many characters “like me” out there, and I am not allowed to write about anyone who’s not “like me.” (Bwa ha ha … of course, little do they know how weird I am! There is no one like me in the world!)

So, yeah, my experience of a writer’s conference was emphatically not a tub of vanilla ice cream. More like a “Stop writing, white author.”

About Forgiveness

Ahem. Back to A Lady’s Guide.

Susan says forgiveness is just a philosophical construction anyway, a con put in place by those in power against those who have no power, so that the responsibility of coming to terms with bad shit keeps falling to the latter.

So instead I believe in forgiverness, which to me means waiting for these a**holes who f*cked me up to take some responsibility for their actions. And I, in order to make this practice copacetic, will have to in turn approach those with whom I grievously f*cked, bowing my head and admitting that I, too must take responsibility, and no, I don’t want their forgiveness; I’m just coming around to own up to what I did. If they forgive me, great. But that’s not the point.

page 406

What a strange mixture of insight and incoherence.

First, note the assumption that there are only two kinds of people in this world: those who “have power,” and those who don’t. That these categories never shift. That sin is never committed by those who have less power.

But the really odd thing is that this book, and even this passage, does seem to understand the need for forgiveness. Casey realizes that she has wronged other people. There are several relationships in the book where, indeed, she does need to be forgiven in order for the relationship to proceed.

I think at the bottom of this passage is a misunderstanding of what forgiveness means. Susan (and Casey) seem to think it means passing over wrongdoing, doing nothing about it, not calling the person to account. Offering forgiveness to those who have not repented. That is not what it means, at least not in Biblical categories.

Casey realizes that forgiveness without repentance won’t do, because in the very next paragraph she describes her own need to repent to those she has wronged (she calls it “taking responsibility.”) But then she adds, “I don’t want their forgiveness.” This might be true in the case of some people, who are enemies, whom, after repenting, she might have no desire to see again. But I can’t believe it’s true about her best friend, or about her love interest. The whole point of forgiveness is so that the relationship can continue. This is why it’s not just about power. Every person, powerful or not, has intimate relationships that they need to continue long-term. Every person wrongs people within those intimate relationships. Therefore, every relationship has to proceed on forgiveness if it’s not going to stall out.

And In Conclusion

So, I’m not quite sure how to land this plane. Lady’s Guide was a fine book, well-written, lots of insight about the little things plus some big lies about the bigger ones. I went back and forth between feeling that the book loved me (I’m a woman, an author, an introvert) and that it hated me (I’m white though not wealthy, a Christian, and a social conservative).

I guess the best way to sum it is up is that my reaction, on nearly every page, was,

“I see what you’re doing there.”

What’s a Neanderthal Got To Do, To Get Some Respect?

We have already established that Neanderthals intermarried with “modern humans.” This seems to suggest that they were, in fact, human. But apparently, the debate rages on.

This Smithsonian article about eagle talon jewelry poses the question,

“Did our extinct cousins engage in symbolic activities, like making art and decorating their bodies, that we’ve long believed were uniquely human?”

“Chatelperronion artifacts, including stone tools and tiny beads, have been linked with Neanderthals in southwestern France and northern Spain.” It seems as if “tiny beads” would be trickier to make than eagle talon jewelry. Yet, the idea that Neanderthals engaged in “symbolic thinking” remains “extremely controversial.” It seems that there is a rather high bar that Neanderthal art will have to vault in order to convince their modern descendants that they were, in fact, people. Their art hasn’t passed that bar yet … at least, not among the tiny number of examples that the millennia have allowed to be preserved.

Bashing our Heads Against the Brick Wall of Reality

The headline was pure clickbait.

“A Viral Google Memo Alleges Retaliation Against A Pregnant Manager.”

At least, that was the headline back in August when I first noticed the article. The headline has since been changed to,

“A Leaked Google Memo Exposes the Fallacy of ‘Generous’ Parental Leave”

That’s a lot less clickbaity, but the first paragraph is still pretty damning for Google:

On Monday, Motherboard re-published a memo written by a Google employee with the title, “I’m Not Returning to Google After Maternity Leave, and Here is Why.” First posted on an internal message board, it details a now-departing employee’s allegations of pregnancy-related discrimination, harassment, and retaliation. The memo writer alleges that a manager made sexist and derogatory remarks about a coworker who might have been pregnant before retaliating following a related HR complaint. When the memo writer herself became pregnant, she says things got even worse.

op. cit.

Let’s find out what these sexist and derogatory things were. I am going to give you my take on this article, and you are welcome to click on the link, read it yourself, and draw you own conclusions.

 The writer of this latest viral memo … was a manager at Google when she says her own manager “started making inappropriate comments” about a member of her team, “including that the Googler was likely pregnant again and was overly emotional and hard to work with when pregnant.”

op. cit.

Hmm, the third party was “overly emotional and hard to work with when pregnant?” Does that sound like a thing that ever happens? Do you suppose it’s ever happened before? Oh, yes, it must have happened, to this very person, because the manager said the Googler was “likely pregnant again.”  So perhaps the manager is speaking from direct, even recent personal experience. And perhaps his or her words are, in some sense, true.

It is well known to all people with a brain that many women become emotional and forgetful when pregnant.  We also become easily fatigued. This could make us difficult to work with, especially in a high-pressure, fast-moving, competitive work environment.

This is not a slam on women. Pregnancy is a major life event. It drains the energy from your body, often makes you physically miserable, and messes with your hormones and, yes, your emotions something fierce. It is, in fact, a full-time job. It would be surprising if such a major physiological event weren’t.

 She continues, “My manager also discussed this person’s likely pregnancy-related mental health struggles and how it’s difficult because, ‘you can’t touch employees after they disclose such things.’” The author felt her manager was encouraging her “to manage the member of my staff off of the team.”

She says she then reached out to HR with a complaint and “almost immediately” found that her manager’s “demeanor towards me changed, and drastically.” The employee alleges “months of angry chats and emails, vetoed projects, her ignoring me during in-person encounters, and public shaming,” as well as the manager “sharing reputation-damaging remarks with other more senior Googlers” and “actively interviewing candidates to replace me.”

op.cit.

Wait a minute. Her? Her??? The evil, pregnancy-retaliating manager is a woman??? Don’t you think this might be relevant?  Yes, yes, I know that women can be sexist against other women too, but given what we’ve already heard, I can’t help but think there might be more going on here.  Like maybe this female manager wasn’t looking forward to having to manage an emotionally unstable employee, and now she finds out she’s got another direct report who is complaining to HR, calling her a sexist, over remarks she made in an unguarded moment. Remarks which, perhaps, she expected that another woman would understand.  Clearly, she was mistaken.

At this point, I no longer trust the author of the memo accurately to describe her manager’s behavior.

After complaining again to HR, the employee says she was told there was “no evidence of retaliation.” Then, she says she was encouraged, and agreed, to find a role on another team, but was told that she wouldn’t be able to manage her new team “until after returning from maternity leave for fear that my maternity leave might ​‘stress the team’ and ‘rock the boat.’”

op. cit.

Maternity leave might stress the team and rock the boat? You mean if the team manager had to leave for several months? Nah, that doesn’t sound at all likely.

As it turns out, that’s exactly what happened.

Then, she writes, she was diagnosed with “a pregnancy-related condition that was life-threatening” to both her and her baby, and which would require an early maternity leave and bedrest. She relayed this to her new manager, who then allegedly told her that “she had just listened to an NPR segment that debunked the benefits of bedrest” and shared a personal story about how she had personally ignored her doctor’s bedrest order while pregnant herself. “My manager then emphasized in this same meeting that a management role was no longer guaranteed upon my return from maternity leave, and that she supported my interviewing for other roles at Google,” she writes.

When she later wrote her manager announcing that she was “experiencing concerning symptoms” and would likely be starting her leave, she says she received back “an angry email letting me know I wasn’t meeting the expectations of someone at my level, nor meeting the expectations of a manager.” 

op. cit.

OK. It’s time for some reality here.  Maybe, just maybe, the childbearing years do not mix well with building a high-powered, team-managing career at Google.  Maybe this is the elephant in the room that is being ignored by everyone in this story, heroes and villains alike.

Obviously it is not good to discourage a pregnant woman with a life-threatening condition from going on bedrest when her doctor has recommended it. Nor is it good to tell someone else how to care for their own health problems based on your own personal experience.  What could be causing all this bad, arguably sexist (though I prefer the term anti-pregnancy) behavior from another woman?

Maybe it’s the cultural expectation that prenancy is not a big deal and should not in any way affect a woman’s ability to “meet the expectations of a manager.” Which, of course, it is and it does.

This is a subset of the bigger problem of wanting to pretend that men and women are exactly the same and should behave and been seen as exactly the same at all times. Or, rather than being a subset, this is more like the real road test of that idea. Can women behave and perform exactly the same as men … even when pregnant? Even when on bedrest?  And if they can’t, does this make them inferior? And if you say they can’t, does this make you anti-woman?

One Google employee who dared to say “men and women are not the same” was James Damore. Adding insult to injury, he is now used in this article as an example of sexist attitudes within Google. 

Then-engineer James Damore wrote a memo arguing against the company’s diversity efforts on the scientifically inaccurate grounds that women are less competent in the field of technology than men.

op. cit.

The only part of that sentence that is accurate is the phrase “then-engineer.” That’s because Damore lost his job for writing the infamous memo. But the way the article quotes him is extremely misleading. He did not “argue against the company’s diversity efforts.” He suggested that there might be a natural limit to the number of women Google was able to recruit and retain. He didn’t say that “women are less competent in the field of tech,” at least not that all women are. He said that, in general, women tend to be less drawn to that field.  This is not “scientifically inaccurate.”  It’s extremely well-documented. As Jordan Peterson has pointed out, in countries where people are allowed the maximum freedom to choose their careers, women tend to gravitate toward the helping professions and men tend to gravitate toward the hard sciences. 

What is scientifically inaccurate is the idea that women and men are exactly the same in mind and body, that pregnancy is a minor exception to this sacred truth, and that in the service of “equality,” pregnancy should at all costs be minimized, ignored, and if possible avoided altogether.

Certainly, goes the reigning orthodoxy, pregnancy shouldn’t be a big deal, shouldn’t change a woman’s work performance or lifestyle in any major way.  And if it does, somebody is due for some blame. Usually it’s the pregnant or newborn-having career woman, who “needs to figure out how to balance work and family” (translation: how to care for an infant without any help and without anyone else ever having to see or hear about the infant).  Occasionally, as in this article, the person who gets blamed is the woman’s manager, who dares to point out that her childbearing might have some impact on what she’s able to do at work.

People are flawed and sinful, and often, when we are blamed for something, it is at least partially justified. Not in this case. In this case, people are being blamed for not being able to enact a completely false picture of reality.  

Expecting women to combine their child-bearing years with their prime career-building years is unfair to everybody. As we see in this article, it puts managers, co-workers, and teams in a bad position. It also, of course, puts the young moms in a bad position, guaranteeing them a bad experience at work and robbing them of the ability to focus on their bodies and their babies during those childbearing years.

I’m not trying to guilt anybody here. Some young moms need to work so the family can get by. I get that. But we need to stop insisting that this arrangement is desirable for everyone … no big deal … easy … possible without something having to give, something having to suffer. Until we stop pretending, we’ll continue demonizing people (like the poor manager in the story above) rather than question the flawed doctrine.  That attitude, and not James Damore, is the real sexism.

Recommended reading: Maxed Out by Katrina Alcorn