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Not our story

Hi everyone, I’m back! Or, at the very least, I’m writing this post, after which I may well disappear again because life and grad school and fandom etc. etc.

Anyway, I’m writing this because the sermon at church today was really good, but contained an element that I’m not entirely comfortable with, and I wanted to say why in the closest to a public space that I have access to.

So, the good: the sermon was on Matthew 5:38-42, and how, when we look at the cultural context of those verses, Jesus is not telling his followers to let everyone walk all over them; instead, he is showing them ways to passive-aggressively, non-violently resist an oppressive system. Talking about this is not only important for Christians and our understanding of Jesus, but for the way we portray Jesus to the rest of the world. In my experience, people can’t help but respect and be interested in a passive-aggressive non-violent activist who turned water into really great wine, stood up for the oppressed, performed miracles, and occasionally flipped tables.*

Now, before I get to the thing I’m uncomfortable with, I want to make it clear that I do not mean this as any kind of attack on the pastor who wrote and preached this sermon. I happen to think that he’s a great guy who is smart and kind and also, in this instance, happened to neglect to check his privilege quite as thoroughly as would be ideal.

So, part of the sermon was a story about Jackie Robinson, the first African-American major league baseball player since segregation was institutionalized. It was a story about a conversation he had with a white person about what it would take for him to join the Brooklyn Dodgers, about how Robinson would need to have the courage to not strike back, literally or metaphorically, at the inevitable attacks he would face. The point of including the story was that it was an example of the teachings of Jesus that the sermon was about, and about how standing one’s ground while not striking back, even when doing so would be justified, takes at least as much courage as striking back does.

And I think it was the wrong story to use.

Because most of the people who attend my church are white, which means that Jackie Robinson’s story doesn’t belong to us.

I’ll explain.

Our society, historically and today, is set up to favor white people. This gives us white people what is called white privilege. As a result of this privilege, it’s impossible not to learn some really toxic attitudes as we grow up and live in this society. One of those attitudes is that all stories are ours to use as we like. But the truth is, some stories just don’t belong to us. Or at least, they don’t belong to us in the way we wish they did, because we want to put ourselves on the “right” side, when most, or even all, of the white people in those stories were very much on the wrong side.

If, in a nearly all-white context, we’re going to tell the story of Jackie Robinson, I think the only way to do that responsibly is to acknowledge that we are the cultural descendants and benefactors of the villains. Of the people who created the system that meant it was a big deal for a black man to play major league baseball, because it hadn’t been done in decades. Of the people who called him names and threatened and perpetrated verbal and physical violence against him. Painful as it is, that’s the part of the story that’s ours.

Now, there were white people who were on Jackie Robinson’s side, and that part of the story is ours, too. But that part of the story is also problematic, which brings me back to the way the story of Robinson’s conversation with the white man (I think he was maybe a Dodgers manager? I’m not sure, but he was in a position to offer Robinson a place on the team) was framed in the sermon. The white man challenged Robinson to have the courage to take the path of nonviolence that would be required for him to succeed as the first black major league baseball player since segregation was institutionalized, and this was compared to Jesus’ words to his listeners. This is a problem, because while Jesus was an oppressed person speaking to other oppressed people, the white man was in a position of power over Robinson, both because of his race and because of his position of power within the baseball world. The power dynamics in the two scenarios are completely different, but that wasn’t acknowledged in the sermon.

When we have privilege, we’re used to being the center of attention. We’re used to the story being about us. So when the story isn’t about us, we go looking for ourselves, and then find a way to make it about us anyway. We want to talk about the white people who opposed slavery and segregation, the men who supported votes for women, etc. And they had their part to play in those stories, but the stories are not about them.

The painful truth is that if we are male or white or straight or middle-class in this society, we’re at least as likely to be the person doing the striking as the person who is defiantly turning the other cheek. This makes us uncomfortable (or maybe that’s just me), so we tell stories that aren’t ours as if they were so that we can be on the right side of things.

The harder, but incredibly important, work that we who have privilege must do is to acknowledge where we really are in those stories, and to not just step down from our positions of power, but to step back, to acknowledge that these are not our stories because they are not about us. We need to listen to the voices of oppressed people, and even as we do our best to be on their side, we must, perhaps above all, keep them at the center of their own stories.

The story of Jackie Robinson is an important story, and we should tell it. But, if we are white, we must do so in a way that acknowledges that it is not our story, and we are not at the center of it.

If we have privilege, we need to be very careful about whose stories we tell, and the way in which we tell them.

Because sometimes, it’s just not our story.

*For those unfamiliar with some of the terminology in that post, “canon” is a term used by fans to refer to the definitive content of the thing of which they are fans. So, for example, on the TV show Supernatural, it is canon that all three of the main (male) characters have had romantic and/or sexual relationships with women. “Fanon” refers to a way of interpreting the canon that is popular among the fans, but is not necessarily in compliance with the canon. One of the most popular Supernatural fanons is that two of the aforementioned main characters are romantically and/or sexually attracted to each other. So, when people comment that “canon Jesus is better than fanon Jesus,” what they mean is that the way Jesus actually is in the bible, particularly once the cultural context of his teachings and actions is understood, is better and more appealing than the way many Christians portray or interpret Jesus’ teachings and actions.

Yesterday we had a Lord of the Rings marathon in my church’s basement. All three movies. Extended editions on blu ray. HD projector and good sized screen. Homemade but totally legit surround sound. Lots of snacks, and of course pizza for supper. If you’re not jealous, you should be.

As we gathered and got ready to start, I couldn’t help but think that this gathering was almost more like church, or at least the way I think church should be, than what we had done up in the sanctuary just a few hours previously.

We were all there to watch these movies, but for different reasons, with different levels of interest and difference previous experiences with the movies and the books. Some of us were only going to stay for part of it, some of us were going to play it by ear, and some of us were ALL IN. (Some of us, by which I mean me, thought we were ALL IN but then it was midnight and my body hated me and I decided I didn’t want to spend half of today sleeping, so I threw in the towel as Sam was rescuing Frodo from the tower of Cirith Ungol.) And that was all OK.

There were the younger middle schoolers, one of whom had read the books but none of whom had seen the movies, all sitting together, one of whom reacted to the glimpse of Gollum’s face in Moria by saying “Awww!” Another thought the cave troll looked like something from Star Wars.

There were the older middle schoolers who had seen the movies individually but never all in one day, ready for this rite of passage, one of whom made my day when I heard him say “Shit just got real” when Gandalf went all powerful wizard on Bilbo to get him to give up the Ring.

There were high schoolers and college students who laughed when Boromir said “One does not simply walk into Mordor” because they know about the meme that line inspired, and who whispered bits of dialogue back and forth to one another before they were said on screen.

There were adults of nearly all ages. Some of them sat in the back and made snarky jokes at one another, but quietly, so they wouldn’t bother people who don’t like to do that during movies. Except a few times they weren’t quiet, but it was for gems like, after Frodo’s line to Sam about pretending he was in a soft bed “with a lovely feather pillow” adding “And a certain laaaaady!”

Some were there because we love these movies and why WOULDN’T we watch them given the opportunity, some were there because they know so many people who love these movies and they want to finally try to understand what all the fuss is about, even though fantasy isn’t there thing, and of course everything in between.

Some people came well prepared with portable lounge chairs and pillows and blankets for the creation of nests on the floor, and some of us sat in the chairs provided and tried to stand up often enough that our bodies would forgive us. Probably most of us ate too much junk food. And I hope that all of us, in our own way, had a really good time.

In case it’s not as apparent to you as it is to me, this is like church, or how I think church should be, because: we were all welcome, despite our varying ages and levels of interests and experience with the thing we were ostensibly there to share. Those who knew a lot were willing to answer the questions of those who knew a little. (“I had to pee. What did I miss?” “Not much. They’re going to Edoras. Gandalf called his horse.” “OK, thanks.”) No one was judged for having to leave early, come late, or be in and out, or for not being able to come at all, because hey, life happens, and we don’t think that means you love the gathering any less. The people who like to be a bit irreverent were just as welcome as the people who prefer to mostly take things seriously, but there’s a surprising bit of overlap between the two (my pastor, a Tolkien fanatic, was disappointed when he realized he missed the chance to yell “Expelliarmus!” when Saruman takes Gandalf’s staff).

So thanks, friends. I don’t always have the best experiences in church, but I’m really grateful to belong to a church community that, if this makes any sense, does church outside of church. Because sometimes, that’s when church is at its churchiest.

 

Desolation of Smaug Rant

Remember last year when I was less than thrilled about The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, at least in terms of how it held up as an adaptation of Tolkien’s book. Well, as it turns out, I didn’t know a good thing when I had it.

This is my Desolation of Smaug rant. I’m not going to divide it into categories, I’m just going to proceed more or less chronologically through the plot and, well, mostly rant. I will of course mention the things that I liked, because that happened too. But mostly I was frustrated. To say the least. The reasons for these frustrations run the gamut from “yes I’m a massive Tolkien nerd and you have my permission to be amused that such-and-such bothered me” to “as an intelligent, aware fan of epic fantasy movies in general, HOW ABOUT YOU DON’T DO THAT” with dashes of feminism sprinkled throughout. Whee.

In case it wasn’t already clear, this is going to be brimming with spoilers, both for the movie and for the entire plot of the book, aka events yet to come. You have been warned.

Also, sarcasm. Lots and lots of sarcasm. If you’re wondering whether I’m being sarcastic, err on the side of you bet your butt I’m being sarcastic because that’s what I do when I’m frustrated. Anyway.

OK, let’s start with the Orcs. Running around in daylight like it’s no big deal. With no explanation whatsoever for this behavior. Which means it took less than five minutes for me to be really annoyed at this movie, so we were off to a SUPER GREAT START.

Next we meet Beorn. Mixed feelings here: on the one hand, he was properly terrifying, and his house was great, with all his animals living there and just hanging out. On the other hand, as with so much in these movies, they cut out all the lightheartedness of the Company’s interactions with him that were present in the book. I realize that they probably couldn’t have done the introduction from the book just like it was, because the pace would’ve been too slow, but would it have been too much to ask for them to at least match the TONE of the source material? (Hint: yes, apparently, asking these movies to even remotely resemble the lighthearted romp tone of the books is way too much to ask. AUGH.)

Also, by this point a trend had begun that would continue throughout the entire movie: MAJOR TIMELINE COMPRESSION. Now, I understand that in a movie you have to maintain a certain pace. I get that, I really do. But the thing is, it takes TIME to travel the distances the Company traveled ON FOOT. TOLKIEN KNEW WHAT HE WAS DOING AND I DON’T UNDERSTAND WHY THAT COULDN’T BE RESPECTED. Have characters reference that they’ve been doing such-and-such for days (or weeks). Do montages. Do ANYTHING EXCEPT WHAT YOU DID, which was pretend like all the events of the movie happened in a matter of days, when in the book it was weeks or possibly months (I don’t remember off the top of my head).

Before we head to Mirkwood with the Company, I’m going to address Gandalf’s side adventure in Dol Guldur. It wasn’t what I was expecting, in terms of building up to the siege, but I liked it. I liked the Necromancer as creepy black smoke. I liked that the glamors on the place were so powerful that Gandalf by himself was not enough to overcome them, thus setting up the need for a major Team Effort in the third movie. The Dol Guldur stuff wasn’t my favorite, but it wasn’t my least favorite either. I think my only major complaint is that there wasn’t enough Radagast. Because there is no such thing as too much Radagast.

But back to Bilbo and the Dwarves and Mirkwood. More time compression. Leaving out of things like the whole adventure with the river and having to lug Bomber around because he got knocked out by the bad-magic-water. But still decently scary, and they did their best to convey how suffocating it was to be in there, which is admittedly difficult with a purely a/v medium.

The spiders were pretty good. I would’ve said great, but I’ve read the book. And in the book the whole misadventure with the spiders is SO MUCH FUNNIER. AND I WANTED THE FUNNY. I WANTED BILBO SAVING THE DAY (no badass Elven help required) BY SASSING THE SPIDERS. I WANTED “ATTERCOP.” But once again, heaven FORBID that the movie put in things from the book that will lighten the tone.

But, on the bright side, here we meet Tauriel. Who is AWESOME. If I’m going to stick with my plan to discuss things as they happened, then my Tauriel analysis is going to have to happen piecemeal, but suffice it to say, I LIKE.

So, off to the Mirkwood Elves’ kingdom. I liked Thranduil, but I was really hoping for some dwarf-racist party dad action (stuff like this is why the Internet exists, just FYI), so that was disappointing. Also the lack of drunken, partying Mirkwood Elves, because I REALLY wanted to see that. But no. Elves must be VERY SERIOUS about ALL THE THINGS ALL THE TIME. *grumblegrumblegrumble*

Aaand we have the introduction of the romantic-ish subplot(s?). About which I have very mixed feelings.

The HOW ABOUT NO: Legolas having feelings for Tauriel. It’s completely unnecessary, although I do love that her behavior towards him throughout the movie shows that she really, truly, honestly doesn’t see him That Way, which is lovely: media does not have enough portrayals of non-romantic partnerships between the genders, so I like that this is sort of that.

The I’d Kind of Rather Not but after reading other people’s opinions on the Internet I guess my feelings are Decidedly Mixed: oh, yay, a female character who has a personality and agency and, and . . . oh. Oh, of course you gave us a female character and then also had to put in a romance plot to accompany her. Heaven forbid we have a significant female character without a romance. *headdesk* BUT, on the other hand (thanks to the above Internet people for this point), Tauriel is not DEFINED by the romantic subplots, and female characters who have romance but are not defined by it are also in short supply, so this is a good thing. Also, on the other other hand, this random Internet person makes the point that Tauriel’s words and actions are ambiguous at best: the dudes might be into her (and given her high level of awesomeness, can we really blame them?), but she is not into them. I mean, who has time for that when she needs to go save Middle Earth?

The I Can See Why Other People Are Into It But I’m Just Not: Tauriel and Kili. On the one hand, I like that it is one of the things that shows how she’s open-minded (I would REALLY like to know the backstory on how she got that way; I wonder if there’s fanfiction yet? who am I kidding, OF COURSE there’s already fanfiction the movie came out a week ago!). I like that SHE saves HIM multiple times, and that that is one of the things that he likes about her. On the other hand, I honestly feel like the whole reason this particular subplot exists is an attempt to make it that much more heartbreaking when Kili dies, as if we aren’t all going to be ugly-crying messes anyway. Like, given their backgrounds, it’s just hard for me to believe that they could overcome so much cultural prejudice so quickly; it just, to me, felt like something the writers forced on the characters, rather than something the characters showed the writers would of course happen (I know that that sentence at the very least makes sense to my fellow writers out there).

The GO TO YOUR ROOM AND THINK ABOUT WHAT YOU JUST DID: OK, so Kili looks like he’s going to be flirty with the badass female elf who saved his life and is now locking him in a jail cell. I wonder what he’s going to say, and how she’ll respond. . . oh. Oh no. No, I’m sure that wasn’t. . . Yes it was. That was a penis joke. A penis joke that fell into neither of the two acceptable categories of penis jokes, which are 1) a penis joke that, while still being a penis joke, simultaneously mocks the existence of penis jokes, a la Dr. Horrible’s Singalong Blog and 2) dick puns, a la season 7 of Supernatural, in which the main bad guy’s name was Dick Roman, and the writers had neither qualms nor shame in taking full advantage of that fact. *slams head repeatedly against wall asking WHY*

So, moving right along. Where was I? Oh, right, Mirkwood. So, in another instance of aforementioned Illogically Condensed Timeline, the Dwarves are imprisoned for several hours instead of several weeks, and it’s time to put them in barrels and escape. Whee!

Oh, look, Orcs who are not only out in daylight, but are apparently able to infiltrate an Elven stronghold. Right. HOW ABOUT NO.

Now, I’m pretty sure everything that happened with the barrels defies the laws of physics, but I’m more than willing to forgive it because it was just FUN. I mean, I was frustrated at first, but I reminded myself that they probably couldn’t get away with hiding the Dwarves from view like in the book, and then Thorin started being Extra Majestic, and then Bombur did the thing, and Legolas make sure to jump on as many Dwarven heads as he possibly could, and I was laughing and enjoying the fact that, FINALLY, there was a scene that was almost purely lighthearted and fun. So yes to the barrel shenanigans.

But ALL THE NOPE IN THE UNIVERSE TO THE MORGUL ARROW LIKE THERE IS NOTHING ABOUT THAT SITUATION THAT IS OK.

Peter Jackson and Co., lemme explain you a thing: the reason the Witch King’s blade was so dastardly was BECAUSE IT WAS WIELDED BY THE WITCH KING. I mean, it was still scary and evil even on its own, which is why they had to handle it carefully, but it could never have done what it did to Frodo if it had not been wielded by a Nazgûl. And even if it WAS the weapon itself, THE RINGWRAITHS DID NOT GO AROUND MAKING SPECIAL ARROWHEADS AND THEN PASSING THEM OUT TO RANDOM ORCS.

And then they have athelas growing in a part of Middle-Earth where (I’m pretty sure) it DOES NOT ACTUALLY GROW, not to mention Bofur somehow knowing what it was and that it could help when in fact the frelling HEALERS OF GONDOR DIDN’T KNOW.

In sum, this subplot turns me into a giant squid of anger because it is completely lacking in in-universe logic. One of the keys to successful speculative fiction is establishing the rules of your universe AND THEN FOLLOWING THEM. I SHOULD NOT HAVE TO EXPLAIN THIS TO THE PEOPLE WHO MADE LORD OF THE RINGS. WHAT. EVEN.

OK, so back with the plot, the Company escapes the Elves, and then we meet Bard. I LOVED Bard. I loved that they introduced him early, gave him a backstory and a personality. That was lovely. That is the kind of book-to-movie change that is 100% a good thing. All the awards. I also really liked the way they portrayed Laketown, even though that was also different from the book. I like that they emphasized how hard it is for the people to get by, between the Master being a selfish asshat and there just not being enough trade without Dale and the Mountain. Good stuff.

They also did a good job setting up the tensions that are going to lead to the Battle of Five Armies: Thorin wants the treasure because it’s his birthright, Thranduil wants some because. . . well, they didn’t actually explain that, and from the movie pretty much the only conclusion is that he likes bling (nevermind that pesky history between Elves and Dwarves or any of that business with the Nauglamir, which I’m pretty sure Thranduil was alive for; never mind that at all). The Master wants treasure because he’s a selfish, greedy, asshat, and the people of Laketown want commerce that will result from the treasure, because then they can feed their families and have nice things again.

By this point in the movie, I was so desperate to NOT hate stuff that I’m even kinda-sorta willing to give them a pass on the change to the way the Arkenstone is treated. I mean, we’re clearly going to end up where we need to with that, so I don’t mind (much, compared with the amount that I minded other stuff) that they gave it Dwarvish Cultural Significance in addition to the Personal Significance of Epic Proportions it had for Thorin. I mean, after all, it is the SHINIEST JEWEL THEY EVER SAW SHINE. I’m sorry, that was slightly uncalled for, but this rant has taken way longer than I meant it to (both in how long it is and in how long it’s taken me to write it), also it’s Friday, I’m tired, so the extra snark is apparently coming out to play. My blog, my rules.

Anyway.

Also on the list of tolerable changes: the Dwarves splitting up. That kinda-sorta happened in the book, and like I said, I really only had the energy to be angry at egregious sins (and one thing that you can mock me for which I will get to shortly) at this point, so whatever.

Naturally getting to the door had to be an Epic Race Against Time, and then be As Dramatic as Possible. It’s not like secret doors are already cool by themselves or anything. Personally I would have liked to see the Dwarves getting bored and trying to entertain themselves while they wait for Durin’s Day (like they had to in the book), but we’ve already seen how this movie feels about comic relief (something along the lines of: why be funny when we can have Daylight Orc Chase Scenes until the end of time?!).

So Bilbo goes in, and it’s not the one small tunnel that leads straight to where Smaug has made his Bed of ALL THE TREASURE like in the book; instead Bilbo has to, I don’t know, go exploring or something. Whatever. (Just kidding, more like WTF, but again, by this point I was/am so done that it was too much energy to be sufficiently, eloquently upset.)

With Smaug, let’s do the good stuff first: BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH DO YOU HAVE THE VOICE OF GOD?!? I mean REALLY, sounding that magnificent is just NOT NICE. And all the non-sarcastic gold stars to Martin Freeman as well, because his acting was, as always, perfect. All the one-on-one interactions between Bilbo and Smaug were excellent. I wonder if that could have anything to do with it being one of the few scenes left relatively unchanged from book to movie. . .

And now I’m going to be a dork and complain about something that nobody else cares about: Smaug only had two legs instead of four, and also in what universe is that color “red-gold”? This one I checked the book on: Smaug DEFINITELY is supposed to have four legs and two wings, not two legs and then use his wings like legs when he needs to. And the color on him? COME ON. I’m going to swear now. Like, with the f-word. If you don’t want to read the f-word, skip ahead to the next paragraph and then go tattle to my mom that I have a potty-mouth. OK, here goes: FIRST YOU COMPLETELY FUCK UP THE STORY, AND THEN YOU DESTROY THE PICTURE OF SMAUG I’VE HAD IN MY HEAD SINCE I WAS LIKE 9. AFTER THE DISASTER THAT IS THE PLOT OF THIS MOVIE, WAS QUALITY VISUALS ON THE DRAGON REALLY TOO MUCH TO ASK FOR? (Apologies, sort of, to the visual effects team, because Smaug’s movement and stuff was really cool. But for the legs and the color I cannot forgive you. Sorry.)

Meanwhile, back in Laketown where several things that I was already pissed at were converging: quick, we have to heal Kili! (See earlier rant about Morgul weapons and athelas.) Oh no, Orcs are attacking! (See earlier earlier rant about Orcs, who are not known for their sneakiness, suddenly being able to infiltrate ALL THE PLACES.) The healing scene was ridiculous and melodramatic and just NO. Even so, there were a couple of good things to come out of it: 1) We see that, like any good commander, Tauriel knows the people she fights with, both those under her command and those, like Legolas, who are her superiors. Therefore, she knows Legolas can handle the remaining Orcs without her help and trusts that he will do so. She is compassionate and values the lives of others, not to mention recognizing that a live ally, even if a member of a species generally disliked by her species, is better than a dead one. Thus, she stays to heal Kili. (Obviously if you ship them then you can add other reasons for why she did so, but I don’t so I’m not.) 2) That one Dwarf’s line about it being a privilege to witness Elvish healing. This is cool because it shows that, at least when away from Thorin’s prejudicial influence, the Dwarves are also capable of overcoming their history and making new friends, or at least allies, and learning to respect the way other species do things. I like. But the weird stuff with the light, especially since Tauriel is a Silvan elf, was just melodramatic overkill. Ugh.

Oh, I almost forgot to rant about the Super Special Black Arrows and the EVEN MORE Super Special Dwarven Weapon From Which We Shoot Them. NOT EVERY EFFECTUAL WEAPON IN THIS WORLD IS SPECIAL. (Admittedly, most of them are, but NOT IN THIS CASE.) In the book, Bard used a REGULAR BOW. And yeah, OK, it was his super-special lucky arrow, and he does refer to it as his black arrow, and the narrator speculates that it MIGHT have been forged in the Mountain. But mostly it’s just Ordinary Bard with his Ordinary Bow and his Personal Lucky Arrow and his Slightly-Above-Average Courage. Also help from the thrush, which as it turns out he can understand. Still, you get my point.

And then, back at the Mountain. I’m sorry, did you expect me to believe that DWARVES, who have HISTORY both PERSONAL and AS A SPECIES with dragons, thought that MOLTEN GOLD was going to slow Smaug down for more than five seconds?! DID YOU?!? Not to mention all the ridiculousness of them being able to work the forge, all that gold just conveniently being there, THORIN SURFING DOWN A RIVER OF MOLTEN GOLD I’M SORRY HOW ABOUT NO.

And then, as Smaug takes off to raze Laketown to the ground, this monstrosity was FINALLY over and I could go outside and scream the frustrated scream of a disappointed fangirl who really, really WANTED to like this movie and just COULD NOT.

Is it ridiculous that even after all that I still have hope for the third movie, because BATTLE OF FIVE ARMIES, Y’ALL.

The End

Every summer my church has at least one outdoor service, usually preceded by some form of potluck breakfast. Often, instead of a sermon, a few members of the congregation share about some predetermined topic or other. I usually get a little bit sunburned. It’s a chance for us as a community to be a bit more informal with each other than we are on the average Sunday (though not by much–we’re really good at informality at my church, which is one of the reasons I’ve stayed), and I love it.

Today was that service, and one of the people who shared is a parent of two of my Sunday school students. Everyone who spoke was talking about ways they see/experience God. And one of the things this person shared was that his older daughter, who I have made an effort to develop a relationship with, often uses the phrase “Sarah Kelley says.” He went on to explain that I had instilled “a feminist rage” in her, but that I had paired that way of looking at the world with a love of Jesus.

I was floored. Not gonna lie, I was very pleased with myself about the “feminist rage” part, because one of the reasons I started teaching Sunday school was because I’m finding it so difficult to shake off the misogynistic, patriarchal messages about God and faith that I picked up as a kid, and I wanted to try and head those messages off at the pass for the kids, but especially the girls, at my church. So to hear that, in at least one case, I was succeeding in that, was very gratifying.

But what really got my attention was the “love of Jesus” part. Because friends, that’s where I struggle. I have questions and doubts and whenever it’s my turn to plan a Sunday school lesson, the hardest part for me is the Jesus/God part. I love researching historical and cultural context, making pop culture connections, sharing parts of my story, raising questions and (sometimes) getting the kids thinking and talking. But bringing it all back to what we can learn about God/Jesus is hard for me, and I often wonder whether I really did it at all.

Basically, I often feel like I’m faking it until I make it when I teach, because as sure as I am that there is something out there that can safely be called God/dess, as much as I love and try to live by the teachings of Jesus and know that most of my favorite people call themselves Christians, I often feel unsure of how much of orthodox Christian teaching about God and Jesus I actually, truly believe. And that scares me.

So to hear a parent, who is also a professor in the religious studies department at the local university, say that he believes that I combine my feminism (which I often wear louder and prouder than my Christianity, or at least that’s what it feels like to me) with a genuine love of Jesus and am passing that on to the kids I help teach is not just gratifying. It’s much-needed encouragement.

Maybe, in the midst of what feels like faking it, I’ve made it a lot more than I realized. Maybe my belief that, as much as we humans screw it up way too much of the time, Christianity and it’s message of love and grace is one of the best lenses through which to view the world that I’ve encountered is in fact coming through in my teaching just as much as my belief that women are just as human and just as made in the image of God as men, and deserve to be treated accordingly by both society and the church.

So thank you, parent of my student. Thank you for telling our entire congregation that feminist rage is a good thing, and thank you for telling me that I have faith. As weird as it might sound coming from a Sunday school teacher, that was something I really needed to hear.

I REALLY did not like “Lacey,” last night’s episode of ABC’s Once Upon a Time. This post is my attempt to articulate the main reasons for my distaste, and will include examining concepts of good and evil, calling out sexism, and good old fashioned observation of continuity issues.

So, let’s talk about Lacey, Belle’s curse personality, who, with a little help from Regina, asserted herself towards the beginning of the episode. For most of the episode, all we know about her is that she likes to hang out in a bar (which is supposedly sketchy and which has not appeared on the show before), drinks quite a bit, has fashion preferences that are different from Belle’s, and is very sexually confident around men. And apparently all this is horrifying to everyone who knows and loves Belle. Now, I’m not saying they don’t have a right to mourn the absence of the person they care about, but that isn’t what happens in the episode. The reaction goes beyond you’re-not-Belle-and-I-miss-her and into ugh-you-drunken-skank-your-existence-offends-me. Which is not OK.

Let me start with the big obvious ARE YOU KIDDING ME about the main characters’ reaction to Lacey: everyone from Rumplestiltskin to Granny judges Lacey’s wardrobe as too revealing. I don’t think they SAID the word “slutty,” but it was definitely implied. Let me show you why that is ridiculous, even if we assume (which I DON’T) that a “slutty” outfit is something upon which a woman should be judged.

OK, yes, her bra is showing. Big frickin’ deal. She’s wearing jeans with that top. Even if it WERE automatically a bad thing for a woman to wear revealing clothing (and that’s a whole separate post right there), this outfit hardly fits the bill. Plus, it actually shows LESS cleavage than Belle’s outfits from when she was still herself back in the Enchanted Forest.

Storybrooke Belle preferred  dresses/top-and-skirt combos that were usually sleeveless and often came up to her neck and went down to her knees.

My point in showing all this is that, sexist standards about women’s clothing aside, it makes very little sense for other characters to make assumptions about Lacey’s difference from Belle based purely on her wardrobe, because it really isn’t that much of a change.

On the other hand, when we consider the often subtle ways in which we are taught to judge one another based on clothing, perhaps a twisted sort of logic is detectable. Women very much get the short end of the stick in area. When men are judged by their clothing, the judgment usually relates to economics, occupation, status, interests. When women are judged by their clothing, the judgment usually relates to sex: how much do they have with whom, how sexually available and attractive they are at that moment.

This is what is at play, if somewhat incoherently, when the writers have other characters comment on Lacey’s “new” wardrobe. This, and the assumed connection between a woman’s sexual choices and her moral standing. Lacey’s behavior throughout the episode suggests that she is indeed seeking a sexual encounter, and the writers assume that both other characters and the viewers will, just from that information, know exactly what kind of person Lacey is, and how she is different from Belle.

This is one of the things that has really bothered me about season 2 of Once Upon a Time: the writers have been slowly but surely reducing the moral complexity of every single character, erasing the shades of grey, and thus making the plot and the characters both less interesting and less believable. This stands in stark contrast to season 1, in which every episode revealed more layers in various characters, showing us that the “good guys” were deeply flawed, and that even the baddest of the “bad guys” had a virtue or two tucked away, as well as a reason other than pure evil for nearly everything they did. This has not been the case for much of season 2.

Take Rumplestiltskin, for example. In season 1 he was an unpredictable, complex character who, by the time we the audience meet him, had assumed the mask of a mad, giggling hobgoblin centuries ago. The mask fit him like a second skin, but it wasn’t who he was, not truly, not yet. He had done, and continued to do, terrible things, and repeatedly hardened himself against doubt and conscience. However, we were shown enough of his past to understand why he did what he did, how he came to be as he was, and to think to ourselves, “There but for the grace of God. . .” On the other hand, in “Lacey” and elsewhere in season 2, the manic giggling goblin is, abruptly, not a mask put on to disconcert others and amuse Rumplestiltskin, but who he is through-and-through. He has no virtue within himself, wanting Belle back not for her own sake, but for the goodness he thinks she will give him (another sexist trope that needs a post all its own). This is not the complicated what-will-you-do-next-you-bastard man who quickly became my favorite character in season 1. This is a flat villain who we know will fail in his latest endeavor to obtain goodness before he even begins.

Rumplestiltskin is not the only character who has been thus flattened by season 2’s increasingly black-and-white portrayal of morality and humanity. This brings me back to Lacey and Belle, and the final reason this episode annoyed the crap out of me. In season 1, it was clear that each character’s curse personality was very similar to their true self. The main difference was usually that some key virtue, which allowed them to keep their vices in check, was missing, as well as their memories and, often, most significant relationships. Thus, Mary Margaret is kind and gentle and deeply invested in cultivating virtue in herself and others, but she lacks Snow White’s self-confidence. Ruby is independent and free-spirited, but she lacks Red’s certainty that she belongs and is loved anyway. David wants everyone to be happy, but he lacks much of Charming’s courage and conviction. I’m sure you get the idea.

In light of this, Lacey’s personality makes no sense whatsoever. Belle is kind and compassionate, very intelligent, and has a quiet and nonviolent courage that means she will always stand up for what she believes to be right and interpose herself between others and harm, but she does not strike out with swords or other weapons. Because this show bases it’s characters off of the Disney princess versions, the part of Belle that is indispensable is her intelligence and love of books. This means the absent virtue for her curse personality, Lacey, should be either her kindness and compassion or her courage. If the former, Lacey would be a heartless academic type, perhaps a librarian who guards her books like a dragon its treasure and cares more for them than for people, always ready with a scathing remark whenever she encounters any intelligence lesser than her own. If the absent virtue were courage, on the other hand, she would basically be Mary from the part of It’s a Wonderful Life when George sees what the world was like without him. Painfully shy, friendless, withdrawn into the world of books, only venturing forth when absolutely necessary. Both of these would have been fitting curse personalities for Belle, and neither is what actually showed up when Lacey asserted herself.

Instead, we got the person I described in the second paragraph, who also, we find out at the end of the episode, is turned on by rage-fueled violence. It is at the point where Lacey stands watching eagerly, approving, while Rumplestiltskin viciously beats a man she had earlier been making out with, that it becomes clear that she is simply a plot device. Apparently, the writers decided that maintaining continuity, logic, and human decency did not matter; all that mattered was creating a situation in which Rumplestiltskin would both lose some of his little remaining incentive to behave well and gain someone who encouraged him to let his worse instincts have free rein. In other words, someone who would erase a few more shades of grey from the show.

And that’s why “Lacey” was a terrible episode.

Tasha

OK, so there’s a lot of controversial stuff going on this week. Social media can be a stressful place right now. So I’ve decided to keep the muddled thoughts I have about all that in my head (at least for now) and get back to writing about my pets, instead.

I’ve been struggling to write this one for a while now (read: avoiding it by either neglecting the blog or writing about other stuff, like the spirituality of Buffy or how much I wish my cat wouldn’t step on my boobs).

It’s struggle because the next pet on the docket is Tasha, who was my Childhood Dog. You know, the one that looms large in the American mythos: the dog that is best friend and teaches the child about responsibility and love and loyalty and simple pleasures and loss and grief. The dog that makes people cry in books and movies like Old Yeller and Where the Red Fern Grows.

That dog.

Which means that I am in great danger of prattling on and on because Tasha really was that important to me, and I want to do her justice. However, for the sake of you, my readers, and my own pride as a writer, I will do my best to be concise.

Tasha was a mutt: Border Collie and some sort of Spaniel and maybe some Lab and who knows what else. Medium sized, mostly black with a feathery white-tipped tail and white spots on her legs. She came to us at the age of six from a local family who was moving to a place where they could not have a dog. I was 9 or 10.

My brothers were never as fond of her as I was. For the first several years, her herding dog instincts meant that she would nip at their heels if they weren’t careful, though for some reason she never did this to me.

She slept in my room on a raggedly brown blanket that had come with her when we got her. Which meant that if she decided she needed to pee at 3 a.m., I got to take care of it. Or if it was summer, during which my windows were always open at night because we didn’t have air conditioning and that was the only way to cool the house down, and she heard noises of any kind from outside, it fell to me to try and quiet her barking. (She never did learn that barking at knocks on the door, the sounds of distant cat fights, fireworks, etc. really was NOT NECESSARY.) I think there were a few times that she, for whatever reason, got freaked out enough that she decided we should share my saggy little twin bed. I may have even let her get away with it.

The main thing I remember about the first few years with Tasha is the summers. The backyard: getting her to run and jump into the wading pool with us, throwing frisbees for her to chase and sometimes, on the rare occasion they were thrown well, catch them in the air. Just being outside together in the nice weather with no responsibilities. A girl and a dog and sometimes brothers and parents too. Camping: she loved the water, so we would take her to the creeks with us and she had at least as much fun as we did. There are few things as joyous as a dog bred for water plunging in with all her native enthusiasm, lunging at prey conjured by her doggy imagination.

Tasha loved walks, and she was a true Oregonian: rain or shine, hell or high water, walks were events to be rejoiced over. She knew where the baggies we took with us were kept, and any time she saw either my mom or I retrieving one, or for that matter even putting our shoes on, there was leaping and prancing and much rejoicing.

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I went through phases where a “walk” was sort of a loose definition of what we did: bike, roller blades, scooter, I used them all at one point or another. Actually, some of the worst skinned knees I ever had (and believe me, I’ve had a LOT in my time; hazard of a dead-end street, a penchant for going out on something wheeled in order to get alone time, and being really clumsy) were a result of my variations on the traditional walk. This one time, I was on one of those metal scooters that used to be the height of cool, and Tasha was running beside me. Then I hit a little rock with my front wheel and went down, but between my momentum and hers, I actually skidded on the concrete a little bit. Good times.

There also may have been a few occasions on which I took a book with me and read while walking. I admit nothing. Oh, who am I kidding, I’m immensely proud of my ability to combine two of my favorite things, my dog and reading. Don’t worry, I looked up whenever we crossed the street.

Tasha was one of those dogs who liked to, shall we say, venture out on her own when she could get away with it. This was more of a pain than an actual concern, because she never failed to come back on her own after an hour or two, though naturally my mom would drive out to try and retrieve her as quickly as possible whenever she was discovered missing.

She was with me through all the hazards of being a middle schooler near the bottom of the social ladder, always herself: belly rubs and walks and food and blankets left on the floor for her to co-opt were, for her, all the ingredients of the good life. My mom once told me that as Tasha got older, she would mostly sleep during the day, but as soon as I got home she perked right up. Tasha was the one I could count on to be glad to see me, always, and I needed that. A lot.

I entered high school, and though my social life improved somewhat, my canine companion was still a major source of emotional stability. Tasha had a lot of grey mixed with the black of her fur, and her hearing and eyesight were far from what they used to be. Yet, me putting my shoes on or getting a baggie was still cause for leaping and great joy.

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And then it was her time. She was old and worn out and her quality of life was such that keeping her around would have been for our sakes, not hers. It was the spring of my sophomore year of high school.

I took her for one final walk. My mom and I loaded her into the minivan and went to the vet. Needle in Tasha’s leg. And there she was, my beautiful, wonderful dog, a body on the table, tongue sticking out in an unintentional final act of comedy and cheeriness.

Tasha’s death was the first that truly impacted me, because it was the first of a being about whom I deeply and personally cared. My whole world was shattered and I was trying to figure out how to put it back together, and everyone else was just going on with their lives. My brother went on leaving his black sweatshirt on the floor around the house, so that every time I saw it out of the corner of my eye I thought, just for an instant before I remembered she was gone, that it was my girl.

I don’t have a neat way to wrap this post up. Tasha, though far from perfect, was a wonderful dog who lived a long full life and died peacefully. In my grief I came to terms with one of my first unorthodox beliefs: animals go to heaven, and I look forward to seeing my Tasha again some day. I grieved not just the loss of her as an individual, but also the Absence of a Dog, which made my parents realize what I already knew about myself: I am, and probably always will be, a person who does not feel right with the world without a dog.

It just has to be said

An open letter to my pets:

Dear Pippin and Penelope,

Let me start by saying that I love you both dearly, and I’m glad that one of the ways you show that you care for me too is by snuggling with me. And it may not even be your fault that you didn’t know what I am about to tell you, because it’s kind of a human thing and maybe your previous owners were more tolerant or less sensitive than I am.

However.

The time has come to make something clear: my boobs are not stepping stones, ladders, foot cushions, or any other thing remotely resembling something on which you should place your paw and then proceed to apply all your weight.

By all means, continue to step on my bladder, my hip bones, my stomach, my ribs, my sternum, and all those other places I didn’t even know could be sensitive until you worked your magic and brought all your weight to bear on them in the concentrated area occupied by a single paw. I’m used to that; the cats of childhood did that for years before I ever met you two.

But using my boobs as stepping stones to my face is where I really have to draw the line.

Because it HURTS, critters mine.

And surely my face will be just as accessible if you keep your paws and all that pressure they bring to bear just a little lower. My boobs do not take up that much of my torso, there are lots of other places for your paws. Please, for the love of mercy, use those.

I love you both, but believe it or not, my boobs do not exist for your benefit.

Your ever-loving owner/snugglebuddy/foodslave,
Sarah

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