Archive for December, 2010

Aang vs. Heimdal vs. Racism

Monday, December 20th, 2010

Friday night I was talking to a friend, and the conversation turned to a link I had posted about the racial casting controversy in the new Thor movie; briefly summarized, one of the Norse gods in the upcoming movie is played by Idris Elba, a black actor, and there are some very racist people getting very humorously upset about it. My friend agreed that these people were obviously morons, but then he raised a profoundly fascinating question: isn’t this casting issue with Thor more or less the same as last year’s casting issue with The Last Airbender? In both cases, a character who originated as one race was being portrayed by an actor of a different race, and yet in one instance we’re all cool with it and in another instance it sparks a worldwide argument. Why the difference? At the risk of making everyone on the Internet hate me, I’m going to take a look at that question today. So: why is it okay to wish Aang was asian, and not okay to wish Heimdal was white?

1. Spokesperson Association
Let’s get the obvious point out of the way first: the principles behind an issue can get very confused, or downright glossed over, when the people presenting that issue are obviously idiots. This is the same problem Wikileaks is facing right now: it’s hard to focus on the “freedom of the press” issue when the man spearheading the whole thing is under arrest for rape. Julian Assange’s rape charges have nothing to do with whether or not Wikileaks is good or bad, but the two topics get inevitably tangled, and the conversation becomes hard to continue. In the same way, the fact that the people protesting the Thor casting are a recognized hate group makes their actual message incredibly easy to mock. Boiled down to its roots, though, the message is more or less the same as the one from The Last Airbender: “we disagree with your decision to cast this character with an actor of a different race.” If the complaints are essentially the same, does that imply that the complaint itself is not inherently racist, even if one of the complaining groups is? I believe that there are many other issues at play here, but this is our necessary starting point, and we need to keep it in mind.

2. The Best Actor for the Job
Both movie studios have defended their casting by saying that the actor(s) chosen were the best people for the job, regardless of race; if we can’t separate the role from the race then WE are the racist ones, and we need to get over it and embrace the multicultural future. Now obviously we can’t judge Idris Elba’s performance as Heimdal until the movie comes out next summer, but it’s easy (by which I mean excruciatingly painful) to look back at The Last Airbender and see that the white actors in asian roles were obviously not the best people for the job: their performances were flat, lifeless, and almost universally derided as the worst part of one of the year’s worst movies. The question is, does terrible acting prove the complainers’ point? The casting decisions were clearly wrong, but being wrong because of talent doesn’t necessarily mean they were wrong because of race. If we say that a bad performance proves that they should have hired asian actors, we’re also saying–by the same logic–that a good performance would have meant they were right to hire white actors, and somehow I don’t think the people complaining about the casting would agree with that point. Put the best non-asian actor ever born in the role of Aang, and it wouldn’t change the fact that Aang was not played by an asian; very few, if any, of the arguments against the casting were based on talent, as evidenced by the fact that the arguments started long before anyone had ever seen the performances. By the same token, if Idris Elba turns out to be the best Heimdal ever, the group opposing him is not going to smile sheepishly and say “well okay then, you got us, he was great and we take it all back.” I think we have to say, for the purposes of our discussion here, that talent is beside the point: this is about race and nothing else.

3. Cultural Context
The article I linked to earlier, mocking the anti-Thor group, bases much of its mockery on the idea that since Thor never actually existed (a bold claim to make about a religious deity, by the way, but that’s a topic for another day), complaining about his race is ridiculous from the start. Okay, we can grant you that point if you want, but it applies just as strongly to The Last Airbender. Here’s the first paragraph of that essay, word for word, with only the races and character information replaced:

Did you know that the totally made-up-by-cartoonists characters of The Last Airbender were all asian? Literally none of them were white. We didn’t know that, but thanks to the prodigious efforts of the [people complaining about it], the truth has been revealed: Aang, the last airbender, was asian and Zach Tyler, the American actor hired to portray Aang in The Last Airbender, is white! WHITE! More on this scandalous development after the jump!

Somehow it’s funny when they’re talking about the anti-Thor guys, but put the same arguments into this context and they kind of come off as jerks. Why is that? It reminds me of 30 Rock, when Jack was dating a Puerto Rican and they couldn’t figure out how to refer to her race; she kept saying “just call me Puerto Rican,” but the white characters couldn’t do it because they felt racist just saying the words. We’ve become incredibly sensitive in American culture to any kind of discussion of race–so sensitive that Barack Obama had to hold a special conference during the last election just to say “it’s okay, I’m black, you can talk about it.” Race is such a huge issue, and so ripe for misinterpretation and offense, that we almost don’t dare to touch it. The most insightful voice in the modern racism discussion was Dave Chappelle, who skewered every side of the issue on his TV show, and even he gave up after two seasons because he reached a point where he felt people were laughing at him, not with him.

Part of the problem with discussions of race is that white people in America still outnumber every other group by a huge margin, which colors (if you’ll excuse the term) every other aspect of the conversation. A group complaining that an asian acting job went to a white actor is seen as a scrappy little minority standing up for their rights, but a group complaining that a white acting job went to a black actor is seen as an oppressive majority trying to reduce the rights of others. Is this disparity in the races the thing that makes us accept the Last Airbender complaints and laugh at the Thor complaints?

4. Role Models
Most mainstream heroes, either in cartoons or movies or comicbooks or whatever, are white, which means that asian kids (for example) can’t look at most of them and see themselves reflected. One of Chris Rock’s stand-up acts included a sequence where he joked that he wanted Obama to become the president just so he could stop telling his children “you can do anything you want.” White parents, he said, never have to say that to their kids because it’s obvious–white kids grow up knowing that they can do anything they want, but black kids always have to be reminded. Having a black president changes that because it gives black kids an obvious role model; it foundationally changes the way they perceive the world and their own role in it. Aang, in many ways, served a similar purpose for Asian-American kids–it allowed them to see, often for the very first time, a version of themselves that was not a sidekick or a villain but the hero. I believe very strongly that this is a important, and that casting Aang as a white kid took something vital away from every asian kid who loved the show; I honestly don’t think most white people can understand just how important that is, because we have never not been the heroes of our own mythology. Following this logic, is it okay to change Heimdal’s race to something non-white because white kids don’t need him as a role model? Following that logic further, are we obligated to multiculturalize our movies to help create new role models? Donald Glover has been running an ongoing campaign to get himself an audition as Spider-man for the upcoming reboot movies, despite the fact that he is black and Spider-man has always been white. I love Glover; I think he’s one of the funniest actors on TV, and I think he’d be fantastic as Spider-man, and I know many people agree. What does that say about our discussion here? Are we more accepting of non-white actors in traditionally white roles because white culture is simply so dominant that we don’t feel threatened by the change? A white Aang is a big loss for the asian community, but a black Spider-man is a new twist on an old idea; it’s the same thing happening in both cases, but we perceive it in two different ways because of the overall racial context. On the other hand, is this just a form of affirmative action? On the other other hand, does that make it good or bad? It may be that the people complaining about the Heimdal casting are the ones who DO feel threatened by change, but whether they’re threatened by the loss of a white role model or the rise of a black one is not for me to say.

5. The End Game
What is our goal, racially, as a society? Do you long for the world of TV commercials, where demographically identical people of many different races all hang out together, seemingly blind to color? Do you want a world where all the races have mixed so thoroughly we can’t tell them apart? Do you want a world where the races keep themselves to themselves, living in the same country but never really interacting–separate but equal? Do you want the world hypothesized in the anti-Thor boycott campaign, where even black people complain about Idris Elba as Heimdal because the races should never, ever mix under any circumstances? There are some people who want the races to be separated not just culturally but geographically, making racial identity synonymous with national identity (and, in many cases, religious identity), but I like to imagine that most of us aren’t nearly that extreme. I honestly don’t think most Americans really know what they want in the long term, and I worry that many of the things we do want are impossible. We want the races to intermingle, free and friendly without any barriers, but at the same time we want to preserve our cultural identities–I don’t know if those are both possible at the same time. We want our children to play with all the other kids at recess, innocently blind to color, but very few of us, statistically, are prepared for that color-blindness to extend into dating and marriage. We talk boldly of equality, and yet the election of a black president has divided our country more thoroughly than anything in decades.

Why is it okay to wish Aang was asian, and not okay to wish Heimdal was white? I have no idea, but I wish I did. It’s a question at the heart of what it means to be an American.

Mr. Monster is a Goodreads 2010 Nominee!

Friday, December 10th, 2010

I love lists. Not just any lists, but rankings–I love the idea that you can sit down and apply an objective classification system to a completely subjective medium. Most people can’t even name their top ten favorite movies, let alone put them in order, because questions like “Did I like Howard’s End more or less than Scott Pilgrim vs. the World?” are impossible to answer–and yet the act of answering it, of forcing yourself to decide if thing A is better or worse than thing B, is fascinating. I recently read a Rolling Stone special issue about the hundred greatest Beatles songs, in order, and it was awesome and ridiculous and controversial and newsworthy and wrong and right, all at the same time.

The trouble with most “best of” lists is that they’re really just “my favorites from among the options I’m familiar with,” which just ends up cutting really good material out of the running because whoever put the list together missed something good. On the Travel Channel they have a show called Food Paradise, where they go all around the US and pick out, for example, the ten best burger places. Granted, all of these burger places are great, but it’s almost guaranteed that everyone watching the show will think of one or more burger places even better that didn’t make it on the list; the list is not “the ten best burger places ever,” it’s “the ten best burger places our producers were familiar with.” And while I trust the producers of a food show to be familiar with some really good burger places, there’s no way they can possibly be familiar with all of them.

Awards are the same way. Do the Hugo nominees, for example, really represent the best possible candidates for the best science fiction, or does it represent the best of the most visible science fiction as filtered by a particular group with particular tastes? Does the Stoker award really cover the full gamut of the year’s horror, or does it just cover that portion of the horror market that a subset of readers happened to read? In both cases the winners are still excellent books, worthy of the awards and the praise that comes with them, because the voters tend to be widely-read experts in their fields, but other worthy contenders are inevitably left out.

This is where Goodreads comes in. Every review site puts together a “best of” list, but Goodreads has a resource those sites don’t: a massive database of user ratings and site traffic that can calculate with much greater granularity the nebulous concepts of “popularity” and “approval.” This doesn’t make their lists “correct,” because that’s a meaningless term in a subjective medium like art, but it means that their lists are being compiled by hundreds of thousands of people instead of just one convention group, one editorial staff, or one lone reviewer. Yes, those hundreds of thousands of people are still self-selecting, and the results will still lean toward visibility over quality, but the huge sample size helps temper that a bit. If something gets nominated for a Goodreads award, it means that a lot of people read it, liked it, and said so without being asked, and that’s why it’s a huge honor for me to be nominated for the Goodreads 2010 Mystery and Thriller category.

Each category has 15 nominees, and I am completely humbled to be in the company of these 14 other authors: incredible thriller writers like Stieg Larson, James Patterson, Harlan Coben, and more. Seeing Mr. Monster on that page, nestled in among all that awesome, is a dream come true. Don’t even feel obligated to vote for me, just vote; you have to have a Goodreads membership, but honestly you should have one anyway, because the site is awesome and right up your alley.

While you’re there, you might consider voting for some other awesome books: Mira Grant’s Feed is in the science fiction category, Mike Mignola’s Hellboy: The Wild Hunt is in the graphic novel category, and Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings is in both the fantasy category and the Goodreads Author category. These are the ones I really loved, but vote your own choices, not mine; these and the all of the other authors would love your vote, and the more votes we get, the more awesome the awards become–a truly populist recognition, by and for the people (but without the “flavor of the month” effect that plagues the user rankings on sites like IMDB–book readers, it seems, are more staid in their ratings and more reasonable in their love for the hot new thing).

As a final note I have to say that of course A Day in the Life is the best Beatles song, and no right-thinking individual would ever say otherwise. Rolling Stone’s list was overall pretty good, perhaps surprisingly so, but I took issue with a couple of the top ten. And I really pity whoever had to make a meaningful ranking decision between, say, number 84 and number 85.

Outlining Project Z

Friday, December 3rd, 2010

If you follow me on Twitter, you’ve seen that I’ve been talking about my outline all week–and you’ve seen that it is several days behind schedule. I can’t tell you anything specific about the outline, but I can tell you about the process of creating it, and if we’re lucky it will be helpful to read about.

Project Z, it should be mentioned, is not the same Project Z that I’ve mentioned in previous posts; Nightbringer will be written eventually, but today is not that day.

Project Z is the first of a trilogy, and has a very cool story that sets up a number of mysteries for the rest of the series. The problem is, while I had some cool ideas, I wasn’t completely certain as to what those mysteries should be. Think about Battlestar: Galactica, the new one–they established a cool premise, presented some mysteries, and started every episode with the phrase “They have a plan.” Everything the bad guys did was cool, and weird, and hard to figure out, but the audience went along with it and tried to piece it all together, confident that there really was a plan and it really would all make sense…and then it didn’t. They hit a point in season three where it was horribly, blindingly obvious that they simply didn’t know what was going on or where the story was going. They did an excellent job, in my opinion, of bringing it all together in season four, patching up the holes and making it all make sense (well, most of it), but the glitches added up. With Project Z I want to tell a similarly twisty story (hitting, coincidentally, on some of the same themes), but I wanted to do it right, which meant I had to figure out beforehand what the plan really was. Before I could start the prose–before I could even start the outline, I had to figure out exactly what was going on, what the bad guys wanted, and how they intended to go about it. Like I say in my story structure presentation, I had to figure out the ending before I could begin the beginning.

So I did. I took a week, sketched out the villains, gave them all plans and methods, and made it all work. Even better, the plans are multi-layered enough that they can be confusing and filled with misdirection and still, in the end, make sense. Huzzah! But an ending does not an outline make, and there was still a lot of work to do.

I started working on the outline of the series, but decided it would be more fun to wing it a little–I knew what the bad guys were planning, so I could fill in those details as I went along. It would be more natural, and therefore more effective, to let the heroes guide the story as they saw fit. I dialed my scope down a bit and decided to just work on the first book outline.

My problem with the first book outline, as I had originally conceived it, was that it focused too heavily on revealing the mysteries. Ending with a discovery is a cool second act kind of thing–think Empire Strikes Back, which ends with the discovery that Vader is Luke’s father. That works really well, and makes you hungry for the third movie, but it would not have worked as the end of the first movie. The first act has to end with a choice and an action, not just a revelation, or it won’t feel satisfying. This gave me two choices: put the revelation later, like a second act whammy, or put it earlier and find something even bigger for book two. This choice is easy to make, and we’ve talked about it before on Writing Excuses: don’t hold back on the first book. Make it as awesome as possible, and then when that’s done find a way to make book two even more awesome. With that in mind I pushed my ending revelation forward, found a strong, active resolution for the main character, and plotted everything backward from there. The story works, the story’s cool, and it sets up a bunch of bigger, cooler stuff for books two and three.

Project Z is going to be awesome.