Monday, October 26, 2009


I have debated for a long time about whether to discuss this television show, and this past Friday's ep has decided the course now. Though ideally, I tend to edit this blog through the filter of "what if my niece(s) ever read this?", and technically, this post will be innocuous in terms of wording, the particular piece of pop culture at hand is actually frankly disturbing, and at least references stuff I'd never recommend for family entertainment.

But ...

When its remarkably exploitive ads first appeared on Fox last year, "Dollhouse" gave me several fits of the screaming heebie jeebies. Then I found out it was a Joss Whedon product.

I don't happen to number among those people for whom "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" is a serious obsession, but I definitely was a fan, and I didn't even hate the notorious Season Six. I know enough about Whedon to appreciate his ensemble (this is a guy loyal to his acting troup and his crew, and I can dig that), to enjoy the dickens out of his smart humor, and to be able to give in to whatever adventure he's up for, even those which conventional wisdom dismisses as too-too, or not quite exactly right. I trust him, it's fair to say - to at least consider the implications of the naughty stuff he uses for television.

The extremely exploitive hook for the show - images of the sultry face and body of lead actress Eliza Dushku - is used to bring one into DH's "world" ... and then it is used all over again to DEAL with the implications of this exploitation (and to deal with the hook itself , for that matter; this show unabashedly uses its own tools to examine the way certain tools work on people, and it's not afraid to see that entertainment's workings on people aren't always pretty).

For those who don't know it, DH is a show about very very very pretty young people (unsurprisingly, largely female - but, surprisingly, including some significant male characters) who essentially sell their lives for a contracted period of time, to allow their consciousnesses to be uploaded and stored outside their bodies ... which then may be used for "engagements" of various kinds. As wish-fulfillment TV goes, it's pretty heady stuff.

The show never flinches both displaying and analyzing the inevitable aspects of pr*st*tution and sl*very this setup presents. It lays out in stunningly queasy detail the DH world, and the people (blank and otherwise) operating within it. Precautions are taken for the "actives" (their professional designation - only in slang/urban legend are these pretty young people referred to as "dolls") to protect their physical wellbeing at all times. A spa-like atmosphere of absolute physical luxury is maintained to house the actives when not on assignment, and every engagement is monitored on multiple levels. Clients and scenarios are screened, failsafes are prepared for both progress and outcomes of each deployment. Actives are even given military designations - Alpha, Echo, Sierra, November, Victor ...

As a world-building geek fantasy, it's entertainingly deployed itself. And the show never forgets its own role as an "active", sent out every week on assignment ... nor does it forget for whom. This show is not exclusively, but very particularly designed to "get" a certain kind of fanboy audience. The cast includes women who have become cultural bywords for a certain kind of guy, who are physically formidable specimens of feminine appeal, but who very specifically have a cache' with legions of Whedonites. I cast my comments specifically as male-oriented, not because Whedon products - and this show - is unaware of other kinds of attraction, but becuase DH knows, and knows well, its unique connection with this particular brand of male audience. It is arch beyond arch, and doesn't spare for one moment every drop of appeal it can wring out of its various levels of "cred" for this audience; all the while subverting the very magnets its using by pointing out what it is doing.

Season one Episode Six, famous in its own right for being the point where everything kicks into gear for the series, uses its very audience for its weekly guinea pig - positing a client, Patton Oswalt, who embodies much of what DH's, and Whedon's, target audience represents. He's a geek.

Keep in mind - I'm a geek-o-phile, here. I've dated this guy. More than once. I love him.

But I am aware of his un-self-aware prurience. I have used it myself on occasion, vamping to my own smaller audiences with my tongue only a little bit poking at my cheek.

And THIS is the part that speaks to another kind of wish-fulfillment, but one for another post. Stay tuned.

See what I did there? Exactly what DH does.

The great thing about this show is, it challenges the heck out of you to deal with your own tacit participation in the shocking kinds of exploitation on tap here, but it doesn't come up with pat answers, and it never resolves anything. No questions as complex as the gender and power dynamics at play here raise CAN be answered in a one-hour TV show - nor should they - nor is that even necessarily a problem, at least within the realm of watching DH.

The thing about DH is that it doesn't absolve itself any more than it does its audience, and when it deals with its own morality - and definitive lack of it - it is at its very best. This show challenges, but it also entertains like mad, and never MORE so than when it is pushing on its own bruises.

That's a really remarkable, dizzying thing. The dialogue, when it counts most - when a character attempts to assert any sort of moral superiority as they operate within this terrifying system - is at its absolute height. No scene is ever better than those depicting the man-kicks-dog dynamics of "what must be done" because of the constraints and inherent inhumanities of a system like DH's. And Friday's show abundantly illustrates this. And it was entertaining as h*ll to boot.

I've never in my life watched a show of DH's like for brutality, humor, sickening lurches, an ever-deeper and always entertaining ensemble, and absolute second-to-none entertainment. It makes me angry at times, but not *at* its production. It makes me roll my eyes happily, when it gets gleefully dippy - something it does extremely well, and effectively. It GETS me, hard, when it punches without pulling at all. I think I like it more personally than I ever did Buffy, and may even find it more entertaining to boot. I can't wait to see more.

Here's hoping the thousands of voices like mine will be heard.

Because Fox is looking at dumping the whole thing. Add this to the list of creative and challenging television one might never have thought could ever get made in this country, but did - and then tanked far too soon.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The F Word (some more)

It's odd - feminism hasn't been especially on my mind of late, but it does seem to keep cropping up this week. I had a very interesting conversation with someone yesterday, starting with some frustration with a person of my acquaintance who is under the impression he is the Smartest Man in the World. She asked me if he's chauvanistic, and I thought about it and said that basically, on an intellectual level, he thinks he believes in equality and education for women and girls. He often remarks on education particularly, in fact. I don't judge this to be a "display" tactic - a way to prove his cred on the subject of women - but I do think that there is a disconnect between what he intellectually thinks (or, as may be possible - aspires to believe) and the deeper current of expectations most of us are unable to examine.

This is a person whose behavior, when he's thinking about it, espouses much enlightenment - but whose real feelings occasionally seem to peek out from under the mask one is expected to wear.

I can't say I know anything about another person's mind, I know this. But I've known him now long enough that I think it's at least not an unreasonable thing to think. Other people do, quite flatly, find him a sexist and a nuiscance in this context at times. And I've seen him completely unaware of his own dismissal of women, at times. But I've also seen the genuineness of his excitement when he discusses the youngsters in his own family in the context of school. It may not be bone-deep, but it's real. I've seen his occasional self-deprecation, too.

We all suffer disparities between what we want ourselves to be and what we are; few people are capable of much honesty about it. I think this guy is probably a good one, but butting up against this frustrating divide is still incredibly frustrating sometimes.

There are times I really like this person, and times I want to brain him with a brickbat (and I don't even know what a brickbat is). It seems to be the way. People - can't live with 'em ... can't punch (most of) 'em in the neck and get away with it. *Sigh*

Anyway. Feminism. Good stuff that.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Feminist Chicks Dig Me

The title on this post refers to one of my favorite t-shirts ever. (Sense of humor ... ? Oh no, I've subverted convention ... Aiiieeee!!)

Having a discussion, once, with X on the topic of feminism, he said to me that by the definitions as I put them forth (and as Sarah Bunting did; starting our conversation), he definitely was one. But he would never apply the label to himself. So powerful is this taint, this shameful and regrettable association created by those who fear, that, he told me, even his ex wife would shun the title.

I've discussed this rejection, by women, of the title of feminist with many people over time, and it is overwhelming and a bit sad to me the frequency with which "I believe that, but I still won't call myself that" overmasters any adoption of a new way of thinking. The one shining example I have of another reaction comes with a conversation which was incredibly special to me. I brought on a convert.

She was a goth girl I knew online, a fierce friend, a wife and a mom, and a stauch proponent of traditional values - this isn't as unusual as you might think, for that subculture. Anyway, we got into a real discussion one time, about how feminists are all man-haters and the like - and I explained that my makeup-and-clothes-loving self happened to be a very real feminist. Then I gave her the Diane-version of Sars' essay above.

The gratifying response she had to what I had to say ... was to elatedly and excitedly take the label. It sounds silly, given the smallness of my importance overall, but I'm proud of that moment. I loved it when she told me she had self-identified in some context or other as a feminist, I loved that she bonded with me over this shared aspect of our beliefs, expectations.

I loved, to be sure (vanity), her respect for what I had to say. She was a great friend, and hearing her talk about feminism in the context of raising her fiercely beloved son, in the context of talking with her husband about it, really got to me.

It's not really in me to be an activist. Laziness forbids - distraction, fear, inertia, safety ... I don't "make a difference" in the way that phrase is so frequently exhorted. I'm not a Strident Feminist.

This was just a conversation. This was just ... my own small legacy, from a family full of teachers, of an educational impulse. It wasn't proseletyzing nor insisting nor even persuading - it was just a reveal. "We all know what people say, but this is the reality of feminism." It was listening, and openmindedness.

The very essence of communication. I engendered a new way of thinking, I felt someone's responsiveness. That's a great feeling. I've never been more gratified in any exchange.

It feels so good to think *with* people, sometimes.

Feminism and Me

I am a part of arguably the first generation of women in the world who could expect to live, without enormous obstacles or resistance, on our own terms. This is impossible even for me to fully "understand" really. The implications are too much; you live your life, and context simply is what it is. Most of us can't really comprehend the larger picture.

Knowing it, however, is really the key to gratitude. And grateful for the MANY blessings I've been asea in all my life, I definitely strive to be.

(As to the main one - even greater than my social opportunities - my parents and family; another post, and probably many of them.)


Privilege ...

Born white and middle class in a prosperous and arrogant country, I had advantages from the word go. My family valued education, and I got a superior one, most probably. Even my public education was excellent, though of course at the time I resented it duly, as was the habit of the day. Heh.

But to be born a girl in 1968 was something special.

I witnessed some small effects and details of the revolution of feminism's Second Wave, but of course had no proper notion of it. The world of my childhood wasn't something I quantified; it was merely experienced. I didn't understand that my own position in it was by some standards sequestered; by others practically cutting-edge. I just sat in my bedroom looking at the red-and-white gingham curtains, reading books of MAD and B. C. comics, playing with Barbies, hiding from my brother - or getting under his feet.

I hadn't any expectation that school wasn't a place I should raise my hand and speak up in; something even many women of my own generation *were* socialized to (not) do. In class and at church too, I talked when I had an idea. My family is rife with teachers - and that is what one does in class, any class.

This is inestimably a revolutionary thing itself.

I had friends who were boys; the first real friend I can remember was a little boy across the street from me. The redheaded kid up the street. I had girls for friends, too - from church, from my dad's coworkers' kids - but we had to go *see* them. Those closest by, in my immobile, walking-distance youngest years, were boys from the neighborhood. The girls around there whom I got to be friends with (and "friends" with) actually came later.

Having co-ed friendships at very young ages is nothing unusual, but a young WOMAN having male friends becomes stranger, as history brings the sexes to a certain age, and her freedom with males is constricted or removed. I used to drive packs of my friends around; whole crews of us, with car keys and two dollars worth of gas (it didn't buy a LOT more then than it does now; but I remember that being a fairly typical amount for me to spend on entire fuel purchases more often than not!). Unimaginable freedom, simply handed to me.

Through history, women have been brought up, if not as outright chattel, then at least as vessels; the premium placed on procreation and legitimacy cannot be overestimated. The mothers of the world had to be guided into proper position (correct marriages; correct comportment), and sexual behavior was both a woman's most formidable asset AND the most dangerous weapon to be used against her. This isn't new; it isn't old - it just is: the fear of a child not "really" its father's. The biological imperative. One can judge it ... or not ... but doubt it, and you live outside reality.

I grew up with the understanding that sexual behavior was, simply, not an option. Period. My mom had been reared in a time and a place where teenage hormones led to early marriages, often; and she had held out to mature a little, to become a professional woman, to find a husband she was more than merely excited about, but who embodied certain aspirational qualities: he would be educated. He would be professional. He would be kind, and ready for a family. He would support a family.

I didn't learn until I was nearly forty exactly how powerful my mother's resolve, in finding my father, really was. How she endured years of being considered a bit mad - she was very different from her schoomates. How she was called an Old Maid.

How she was rewarded for having a goal, and doing what it took to reach that goal.

My mother had to put a special guard on her teenaged sexuality, because she saw - even before her schooling was over - both the results of extramarital relations, AND marital ones. She understood, in a rare way, both consequences and possibilities. I can't begin to express how deeply I have come to admire the values she held to so very tightly, having come to understand them as I have.

I admire the devil out of her.


So I grew up with fairly old-school values, and *enough* timidity to hew to what I was told. (Few people understand me now as timid, but deep down most loud people are so.) My upbringing was simultaneously unprecedented in history, yet steeped in certain traditions. My deepest tenet, the older I get, but for a long time now, is gratitude for my many blessings.

One of my blessings has been choice.

Many people come to despise the word feminism, or feminists, because they've been successfully duped into thinking the belief comes down to a specific set of political principles. This is a pity and a shame - depriving not just "the movement" or an entire gender, if you look at things that way, but also the women who shy from the word because they're republicans, or religious, or afraid to be seen as strident, or just don't care but really dislike the label.

Feminism is choice. My mother made choices which in many lights appear to be old-fashioned (I've learned better, as noted), but she is the single most influential feminist in my life.

My dad was the second.

Neither one of them would, or would have, ever chosen the name "feminist" for themselves. But their teachings, to me and to my brother, were clearly laid out on the notions feminism really IS - not what it is depicted as being, by those who fear it so. That girls, ladies, women, students, dames, skirts, broads ... have rights. To live un-harassed. To live neither bought, nor sold. To be valued for more than the contents of their underclothing. To be smart, to be okay, to be HEARD. To be loved, whatever they are.

The point of feminism is not the right to have abortions, nor to hate men, refuse to marry, renounce the accoutrements of "femininity", nor even discuss the belief. The point is the RIGHT to follow one's own conscience - it is entirely possible to be a feminist and a pro-lifer. The point is the RIGHT to access to the world's advantages, and the tools to deal with the disadvantages. The right to be free of artificial disadvantages, born of nothing more than the absence of a Y-chromosome.

The point is choice - or, perhaps more incisively, autonomy.

I am part of the first generation or so of women, in the history of civilization, who can expect ... to live on my own terms.

What a magnificent thing that is to think.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Writing Life

This weekend was the James River Writers annual Conference; after five years, my best friend and I refer to this as "my" conference (hers comes in November, and is an academic gathering).

In 2004, my brother approached me - neither he nor I are natural joiners, but he has always been more willing to try, to put himself out there; and so, when he wanted to go to some conference, I thought, okay, sure. That first year, the education was so intense and the inspiration was so high, I began to write my novel within less than a month after attending.

In the four years since, I've found JRW generally, and the Conference specifically, to be an incredibly helpful resource, a socially enjoyable way to push outside myself a little bit, and a goose to my motivation every time. My confidence that I can - and WILL - be published is entirely due to JRW, and my understanding of how best to go about that seems almost to actually be getting me somewhere.

2009 was my fifth Conference. By now, I leave all the seminars and discussions involving the words "agent", "editor", and "publish" to what I quite amusingly think of as the newbies, and focus intently on those subjects which just *interest* me. Those with a focus toward selling yourself/your work I feel I got a lot out of during my first couple of years' attendance; they tend to be the biggest mobs, too - so I am happy to delve into more romantic particulars, or into more diverse areas of consideration.

And one thing the Conference did in a big way for 2009 is to diversify its focus. It has always included journalism and nonfiction writing, but this year we had a graphic artist and more poets and writers for youth audiences than I recall in the past as well. The people JRW attracts to participate are just the most stunning group of sophisticated, generous, lovely writers and professionals I can imagine - and the access the Conference provides is beyond belief. And, if this sort of thing matters, the star power is pretty intense as well. Never mind that these people have all been absolutely incredible, supportive, and simply interesting to hear from.

Some years have been better than others for me personally in terms of making contacts for my own work (historical fiction). But two years ago, I did get a bite on the work I have in the chute for after I complete my first novel.

This year, though, was the big one. I got a bite on my nearly-completed draft of "The Axe and the Vase" ... and a request for three chapters.

When one of the organizers' eyes widened, and he grinned and said, "She is tough!" ... well, if I hadn't already felt pretty d*mned good about not only getting in front of her, but getting somewhere *with* her, I certainly got bumped up a notch with that. Which was the intention, of course; did I mention the generosity of the real working writers, for us wannabes, at JRW ... ?

I told her I was within six months of having a presentable draft. I'm hoping I can make it more like three.

The oddest thing about this is, I paid a good deal of attention, in signing up for this agent meeting, to who the agents were, what this particular agent's focus areas are, and to corresponding what I have to sell with what she'd *like* to sell. Her interests appeared to me to align to my work better than anyone who has attended the Conference in the past; I was excited to see someone mentioning historical fiction at all, but she also notes a preference for ground not already covered, and her agency does foreign rights as well; something I think is almost necessary for A&V.

As she mentioned Victoria Holt on her site, I opened with the explanation of my interest in histfic, which began with the chronic thieving of my mom's books when I was a kid. I cadged "My Enemy the Queen" and "House of a Thousand Lanterns", "Mary, Queen of Scots" and one about Marie Antoinette. I still have a few of these even to this day; eagerly thumbed, loved till their covers fell off and disappeared in the mid-eighties; inspiring and interesting and like crack for my youngish brainmeats. Mom's reading habits early informed mine - and I am so grateful!

So the agent and I waxed mutually enthused over Victoria/Jean Plaidy, and Norah Lofts (I just lent "The King's Pleasure" to a friend last week!), and I told her, well, one of the things you mention on your site, that you like a niche that covers new ground, is what got me off the Tudors and Plantagenets, and made the story I've come to so unique. I high-pointed my subject - a king of France, an early Catholic - and noted Oprah's November 2007 featuring of "Pillars of the Earth", which she also seemed to like. She asked me what I would work on next, and I had an answer; the female novel, to complement this first so-very-male one. She asked me whether I thought women would read such a male-oriented book, and I said the very fact that a woman chose such a subject should at least create some interest (I didn't highlight enough - but my query, when I send it, will - that the enduring relationship between my subject and his wife is a core thread of the book, and a fascinating one), and I was able also to touch on the many kinds of audience this story would appeal to - Roman, barbarian, and theological history buffs, Francophiles, those who've had the Tudors up to here ...

In short, I hit the buttons - I proved I'd paid some attention to whom I was speaking with in the first place (surprisingly, this doesn't appear to be habit for some writers), I spoke to her own specified points of interest ("the European rights are a strong possibility here"), I had a response to the "surprise" - yes, but what else have you got - question, and I expressed myself pretty well. I think confidence in a pitch is probably as important as it is in a job interview, and I certainly had that; she didn't have me nervous at all (and I was even able to display a bit of generosity, switching time slots with another Conference attendee, when they thought they couldn't find me and led the next person up to the agent).

And so, it was strange, when I got to the end of this winning and enjoyable conversation - and the agent smiled, said "that sounds great! I'm sold" and slid her card across the table at me, asking for three chapters when I am ready to present the whole manuscript.

I hadn't anticipated either success or failure; I realize, somewhat conceitedly, that I rather considered the things I had to say such a slam dunk that of course this must be the necessary outcome. So it is funny that the simultaneous response I had to "well, it is to be expected" she'd want to see my work itself, was "holy smokes, I can't believe this!"

My confidence in the work is complete. I've never doubted since starting it that it would sell.

What I didn't think about so much was how that process might be eased. One looks (if one is smart) at other books of similar nature. One thinks, "Harper Collins published Bernard Cornwell's gritty Arthurian series; my work would fit with that." One works out marketing points and a query letter, and thinks seriously (but not WHILE writing) about how to create an audience; who that audience might be.

The thing is, on the possibility that I could get an agent I would be so deliriously happy to have for my work (this is a pretty well informed interest on my part, too; not merely the desire for "an agent, any agent!") ... if it happened that I actually sent in my chapters, followed by the manuscript, and got an agent out of this process - the impossibility of how fortunate a piece of work that would be, and the incredible time-savings and work-savings it would represent, is a genuinely astonishing consideration.

I've got a foot in a door here, and that alone is an extremely large asset. It's not easy to get in front of an agent, never mind get that agent to pay attention to you. They WANT to say yes, to be sure.

But consider this - the job of an agent, no matter how much they want to find new authors to represent, is to say no. Constantly. Every single day. More than not. And that "more than not" is probably a factor of several hundred (at least) "no's" to one single "I'm interested."

I haven't sent a query letter here; I haven't sent out a dozen. I spoke directly with this woman, and sounded a chord. "That's great! I'm hooked." She *asked* me for chapters. It's up to me only to make them yes-able, as it were. She's open to me already; more than many authors can hope for in a day.

I have the chance here to get the door opened the rest of the way. This is an enormous opportunity, and possible advantage. I am grateful and vindicated and excited and happily blown-away.

I have worked for four years, almost exactly, on 385 pages of a historical novel on a subject not covered before in American publishing. I'm sellable. I'm ready.

I need to finish this thing. I kind of can't believe it, and am so thrilled at the same time.

Time to start kicking below the doorknob. And make my way in now.