Thursday, 20 November 2014

"I am different too:" on Strange Empire and being lovable

To call media representation of autistic people a "mixed bag" is overstating the case slightly. We have occasionally been granted representations of autistic people shown in a positive light- though they're usually tinged with the narrative of tragic disability, a la Rain Man- but more often, we hear stories of how difficult autistic people are to deal with, how hard we are to love. On ABC's (late, lamented) "Selfie," John Cho's Henry scolds his co-worker for not dedicating herself to "solving the world's problems . . . like autism." The biggest news story currently concerning autistic people is of a mother who threw her six-year-old child off a bridge. She was described as "patient and loving" in dealing with her son. This is considered an anomaly. Autistic children learn quickly and often that we are not easy to love.

When the CBC's Strange Empire was announced, I immediately planned to watch it. It combined a multitude of fictional aspects that I'm drawn to- history, women and the ties between them, the building of communities, and the ways in which we view our own past. But what I didn't know until after I'd watched the pilot was that one of the three main characters- Rebecca Blithely, the medical protege- was actually written and played as an autistic woman. Once I'd been told, I couldn't believe that I hadn't seen it sooner. Rebecca's mannerisms, speech patterns, and general demeanour are all aspects of a life I am intimately familier with- my own. In the supplementary website The Curiosities of Rebecca Blithely, she describes feeling overwhelmed by the weight and texture of a necklace given to her by her husband; I have many memories of breaking down in tears because something in the texture of what I was wearing overwhelmed me. (At one point in my childhood, I recall having a meltdown because one of my boots felt tighter than the other; when asked what was wrong, all I could do was wail "it's uncomfortable!") When Rebecca speaks, she stops and starts, sometimes struggling for the correct words, often hushed by the husband who claims to love her by being told that she is being inappropriate. This is a bitterly familiar experience for people on the autism spectrum; being told we are too loud, too impassioned, too annoying. She wrestles with finding the right words, and with gauging the correct level of discourse for any given situation; again, something I am intimately familiar with. Rebecca Blithely and I share a story: of moving through a world not built for us, attempting to master a language that seems rife with traps and potholes that can easily be fallen into for the unwary.

Rebecca is brilliant, impassioned, and yet unhappily stifled. She is recently married to a fellow doctor, a man who doubles as her adoptive father- a dynamic that the show has not shied away from (although happily, they have refrained from introducing sexuality into the relationship.) She desires knowledge, endless knowledge, and finding herself suddenly stranded in a shanty town outside the constrictions of Victorian society, she is finally given the opportunity to explore. Up until this point, she explains in the pilot, her ability to practice medicine has been limited to papers published under her husband's name ("of course," she says; the suggestion that she be allowed to take credit for her own genius does not appear to have been posed to her) and a series of scientific conventions in which her husband/father put her on display as an abnormal prodigy. "They tell me my abilities derive from my head, which is too small, and my brain, which is overlarge and presses acutely against my skull," she explains. This zooification of an living human being may seem barbaric to viewers now, but it hasn't been so long since the mentally ill or otherwise neurodivergent were locked up in asylums and gawked at by spectators. And this legacy is part of Rebecca's story too: she began life being committed to Bedlam, where she spent her childhod prior to being adopted by Thomas Blithely and his wife. Rebecca's backstory puts on display all the ways in which the different have been dehumanized, denied autonomy, and treated as "less than." But her entrance into the world of Strange Empire means that a change is coming for her. There are no asylums on the frontier. There are no doctors anxious to measure her skull or poke and prod her to see how she'll react. Freed from the society she was born to, Rebecca is finally being given the opportunity to thrive.

And thrive she does- in Janestown, Rebecca comes into her own. She performs a ceasarian section, saving the life of both mother and child. She begins to explore the possibilities of electricity. She is frustrated when she cannot save a patient, but continually offered new opportunities to improve. But in some ways, Rebecca;s intellectual blossoming takes backseat- for me- to what happens to her socially. Rebecca Blithely, a lifelong outcast and freak show, is treated for the first time with unconditional love. In the pilot, when she talks to Kat Loving (a fascinating character in her own right, and due an essay of her own) she sometimes stumbles over her words and rambles without knowing when to cut herself off, but Kat never does it for her: she smiles, congratulates Rebecca on her accomplishments, and generally offers her respect and kindness. Later, in the third episode- after her husband has slapped and berated her for trying to save a patient- she confesses to Kat that she longs to learn more about the human body, and that she disdains the religion she was raised with. All through this scene, Rebecca's posture is tense, her voice clipped; undoubtedly she is expecting another slap, or at least a cold shoulder. But she recieves neither. Instead, Kat smiles at her, and asks her to go for a walk with her. Rebecca, neurodivergent and noticeably different as she is, is accepted unconditionally into Kat's family. And the example Kat sets is followed by others: in the scene after this, Kat's daughter Robin impulsively grabs Rebecca's hand and smiles at her. The step Kat has taken- without doubts, without fear- has started the ball rolling for everyone in Rebecca's social circle to treat her exactly as she should be treated: as a valuable member of the community, who deserves love and respect without reservation.

Rebecca's discovery of a loving home for herself is reflected all throughout the show: we are being presented with a narrative about social outcasts and misfits finding their place. This is made explicit in episode four, where the main storyline is largely concerned with racism against First Nations people. When Rebecca's husband gawks at a Native woman, suggesting that she does not feel pain as white people do- that she is somehow "different-" Rebecca quietly retorts, "I am different too." Seeing the way this woman, Nuttah, is treated, she draws the connection between the two- both have been classified as less than by the likes of Thomas Blithely, and both are worth more than the categorization he offers. Later, when Kat announces her intention to leave her adoptive white children behind for their own good, Rebecca insists that she not do it: "They will see your value," she pleads. The intrinsic value of women like Kat and Rebecca has not been recognized by the world they live in, but here- in Janestown, surrounded by other outcasts and misfits, they are being offered for the first time a chance for untempered acceptance. In the world we live in now- where the different are still treated with hostility and suspicion- is it important beyond the telling of it that we are able to turn on our televisions every Monday and see these women, hearing the statement the narrative is making loud and clear: they are different. And they are valuable.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Accuracy; or, why I'd never make it as a historian

When I was first trying to sell Sherwood Forest- back when it was in teleplay form- I got a response from one agent who apologetically explained to me that it's virtually impossible to sell period drama in the Canadian television market unless it's set in Canada; it's a byproduct of CanCon laws that require Canadian networks to either produce or re-broadcast content that reflects our national character. I can certainly understand the logic of this- we are, as a group, fiercely proud of ourselves and also fiercely opposed to becoming any more Americanized than we already are*. Just look at how we commemorate the War of 1812. And I would certainly love to see more Canadian period dramas on the air- why not a miniseries about the Winnipeg General Strike, or an anthology show about various landmark Canadian court cases? But I also can't help but feel like holding CanCon as the highest standard to which Canadian broadcasting can aspire to leaves us open to letting total crap stay on the air for far longer than it has any right to. See also: why Murdoch Mysteries has lasted for eight godforsaken seasons.

But there is value to be found in writing historical fiction that's set close to home, and that value is simple: if you're writing about your hometown circa 1799, you have all the primary materials you could ever need right at your fingertips. If I were writing a show about the occupants of Dundurn Castle, all I'd have to do is hop in the car and take a fifteen-minute drive to downtown Hamilton, where the tour guides at the castle could tell me absolutely everything I need to know. Furthermore, I could roam the halls (insofar as I'd be allowed to without a pass from the owners) getting a solid feel for everything my characters would have seen, touched, smelled, and tasted when the castle was first built back in 1835. There's a certain solidity in being able to experience this sort of thing firsthand- a knowledge that when you describe Sophia McNab's porcelain doll with its lacy dress, you know exactly what it looks like, because you held it in your hands not twenty-four hours ago. Not living in Nottingham- or, for that matter, in England- I can't claim the same sort of firsthand knowledge when writing Sherwood Forest.

To a certain extent, I think, it doesn't matter. Sherwood Forest is fiction, and simply by virtue of its premise- that someone named Robin of Locksley was married to a woman named Marian, ruled Nottingham in the 1180s, and left on the Third Crusade only to be quickly usurped by the Sheriff- it's alternate universe fiction. Someone named Robin may have ruled in Nottingham around that general time period, but if he did, I have no record of it. I don't really mind this. My general attitude towards historical fiction is that you can't reconstruct every minute detail, and attempting to do so detracts from the point of the whole endeavour, which is telling a good story. That's not to say that some historical fiction doesn't irritate me due to the liberties it takes (ask me about Phillipa Gregory sometime) but in general, storytelling takes precedent for me over whether or not the office of "sheriff" existed in 1193. (It did, but they were generally called "reeves," and they were elected by the peasants. In other words, if the real people of Nottingham had hated their sheriff, they could have thrown him out with impunity.)

That's not to say, however, that I've dispersed with accuracy entirely- aspects of the series are taken straight from the Medieval Sourcebook. Shaima, for example, was inspired in part by the "Saracen sidekick" who's been appearing in Robin Hood adaptations since the eighties, but the factual basis for her comes from this bill of sale for a girl named "Aissa" (or at least, that's what her captors called her) in thirteenth-century France.&nbspMarseilles in 1248 is obviously a fair distance, geographically and liminally, from Nottingham in 1193, but that's where the "what if?" aspect of storytelling kicks in. What if the practice of bringing Saracen slaves back from the war started as early as the Third Crusade, if not earlier? What if one of these slaves was brought to England by someone who had been compelled in some way to do so against his moral judgement? And how would the slave- Shaima, Aissa, Nasir, Azeem, Djaq- feel about the whole deal?  I gave it some thought, and the answer I came up with was "rip-roaringly pissed off."

Unless they decided to express their feelings via impromptu narrative rap, I guess.

All that said, I'm not entirely lacking in first-hand experience when it comes to the setting of these stories. When I was eighteen, my parents- who'd been discussing a vacation to Britain for years- decided that visiting England would be my combined birthday/high school graduation present. We spent one week in London, and then took the train to Edinburgh, where my dad's extended family still lives. And of course, being in the midst of researching a Robin Hood story, I couldn't pass through the north of England without stopping at the epicentre of the whole legend.

The Trip to Jerusalem Inn (or as it's now called "Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem Inn") where Bess and her father live and work, is a real place. And if you believe the stories, it really did exist in 1193, having been built four years earlier in 1189. It gained its name because- so the story goes- Crusaders, including one Richard the Lionheart*, stopped there overnight on their way to Jerusalem. And it still stands today. Here's me standing in front of it:

And here's a side view that lets you see the whole building:

The building currently calling itself Ye Olde Trip To Jerusalem does not date from 1189, unfortunately- historians estimate that it's only about three hundred years old. But the inn is still proud of its heritage, as you can see when you go inside:

I also got to visit Nottingham Castle, where of course I took several dozen pictures:

Despite what you may think, that isn't the view from the ramparts. It's from the courtyard. Nottingham Castle sits on the top of a hill, so if you assume that the castle Marian, Cecily, Guy, and the Sheriff live in is the same as the one that still stands in Nottingham today, Marian could concievably stand in the courtyard and look down at whatever was happening in town that day. 

All that said- and illustrated- the Trip to Jerusalem Inn that appears in Sherwood Forest does not actually resemble the Ye Olde Trip that you see in the photos above. No, I based Bess and Thomas' Trip in a source closer to home. In the summer of 2011, I worked at Westfield Pioneer Village, which includes- among other things- the D'Aubigny Inn, built around 1820. It looks like this:

And the fictional Trip looks pretty similar. It has the same layout, too: when you come in, there's a set of stairs leading to the bedrooms and a door that leads into the main room, where you'd be served. From the main room, there's a small hallway that leads to the kitchen. That way, the main action of scenes set in the inn can take place in the main room, where the customers are, or the characters can duck back into the kitchen if they need to speak privately. Upstairs, there's one big room for guests (private rooms at inns and hotels are a relatively modern concept- back then everybody snoozed in a communal room) and two smaller ones, belonging to Bess and Thomas. Anyone feeling especially fussy about privacy- unlikely, but possible- can ask for a curtain to be drawn around their bed. And, if you're close friends with the owners (as we'll see in an upcoming installment) you might get to share their room. (If you're really, REALLY wealthy and want a more private room, I imagine you could offer Thomas a financial incentive to give up his room to you for the night. But who in Nottingham has that kind of money?)

So there you have it: a glimpse into my creative process, when it comes to historical accuracy. I've talked before about my approach to history and fiction- namely that, while it's good for authors to not propogate damaging myths about the past (COUGH COUGH PHILLIPA) I don't think slavish adherence to detail is necessary to speak greater truths about who your characters are and what they represent. As a historical fiction series, Sherwood Forest does deal with the realities of England in the twelfth century. If it didn't, there'd be no point in setting it there. But while I may stick closely to events and attitudes, I don't think a whole lot is lost by fudging the layout of the Trip to Jerusalem or muddying the chain of command as it existed in Nottingham at the time. If I didn't, there wouldn't be a story- and that would suck, wouldn't it?

(Don't answer that.)

*Unless you're Stephen Harper
*Richard the Lionheart actually sucked. Like, on a deep fundamental level as a human being, he was AWFUL. I saw a statue of him outside Westminster Abbey, and I took great pride in flipping him the bird*.
*I did the same thing to Oliver Cromwell. Britain, why do you keep building statues of these guys?

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Ed. note: I maintain that the rituals we go through after someone dies is for our benetfit, not theirs'. They've already passed on; maybe there is an afterlife and maybe there isn't, but death rituals are designed to comfort and support those who are left to carry on. I'm not naive enough to imagine that posting about my experiences with mental illness are going to right any cosmic balance in the world. I'm not even naive enough to imagine that the current conversation taking place about mental health and suicide is going to mark a shift in the way we deal with those who deal with mental illness; the story will fade away in the next news cycle, and the next time a high-profile person kills themselves, everyone will exclaim that they could never have seen it coming. So I'm not writing this because I think it's going to make a difference. I'm writing this for me.

Have you ever seen someone in really extreme pain?

I don't mean a skinned knee or a bumped funny bone- those hurt, but they're temporary. I mean broken bone, gutshot wound, got-mauled-by-a-bear pain. You know how they can't do anything but scream? Even if
they need to do something to help themself, even if there's another person in pain who's lying five feet away from them, there is nothing they can do but scream because the pain they're in is so massive and overwhelming that it overrides everything else going on in their brain. It's selfishness, but it's an understandable kind of selfishness: when what's happening to you is so all-encompassing and keeps you from doing anything to help yourself, you can't really be expected to help anyone else. It's not within your ability.

Mental illness is a lot like that.

Only when you're mentally ill, it's not socially acceptable to scream constantly because unless you can show someone your gaping head wound or broken limb, they're inclined to disbelieve that anything's wrong in the first place. Best-case scenario is usually: well okay, something's wrong, but you can walk it off! Eat better! Go out and enjoy yourself! Which is about as helpful as telling someone with a broken bone to get up and walk until their body knits itself back together. Ever heard of a bone that managed to repair itself while its owner was hopping around putting pressure on it? No! Because that's not how biology works! But somehow people expect to apply the same logic to a broken brain and get a magic "ta-da! fixed everything!" result. Because the real kicker is, we know how to fix a broken bone or gunshot wound or bear-mauling: stitch it up, slap some tape and plaster on it, wait a few months, and you're golden. We can't apply the same principle to the brain, because we just plain don't know that much about how the brain works. I toss back a Celexa pill every night because the contents are meant to make up for the seratonin my brain isn't producing that in turn somehow fills my mind with images that make me want to jump off a bridge. Why does decreased seratonin production do that? What causes the decreased production in the first place? We don't know! Nobody knows! But I keep taking those pills, because I'd rather not jump off a bridge.

Monday, 26 May 2014

One of the things I've been trying to do lately- I'd call it a New Year's resolution except that New Year's was almost six months ago and I spectacularily failed at keeping any kind of resolution for the first three months or so- is write a solid thousand words per day. (In my defence, I was directing a play for those first three months, which kept me pretty busy.) It's a habit I picked up while working on my novel (which is currently in the editing stages) and it helps me keep in that writerly mindset: as long as I'm plugging steadily away, I don't have the chance to get lazy or wander away from my projects. First I wrote another play; then I turned to an idea I've been tossing around for about a year now, aka the subject of this blog post.

Sherwood Forest is a story very near and dear to my heart- I've been working on it for almost seven years. It is, as you can probably guess from the title, a Robin Hood retelling. It started life as a TV show, but after pitching to all the agents I could find in Canada and getting turned down from all of them (there's no market for non-Canadian period drama in Canada, one informed me. CURSE YOU CANCON!) I shelved what I'd written and went on to work on other things. I sharpened my technique and worked in other mediums and wrote a whooooooooooole lotta fanfic. (I am not linking you to the fanfic, but you can probably find it without too much digging.) And during that time, the self-publishing market changed radically. What had previously been a hush-hush "it happens but we don't speak of it" option for writers had blossomed into a full-grown market. Thousands of people were self-publishing-and they were successful doing it. Moreover, self-publishing was no longer the hallmark of someone who didn't have the grit or drive to do it the old-fashioned way. It was a method of publishing that allowed writers to cater to the audiences they wanted. Self-publishers didn't have to worry about having their books de-gayed by an overcautious agent or publisher. Not only that, but self-published or "independent" authors could do all the experimenting with storytelling and format they wanted. They weren't constrained by the demands of the mainstream market. With that in mind, I looked at my beloved Sherwood Forest- still stored on my hard drive and backed upon USB- and started to think.

Nobody would want to read unproduced scripts; that much was obvious to me. But what about short stories? What if I took my scripts and used the plots and dialogue as a building block on which to build prose? It would never work as a novel; the story was too episodic, as befitted a TV show. But I could release them as short stories, maybe once a month, and have it function as a sort of text-based TV series. No need for a filming budget; no need for agents or producers. Just me and my words. Which- obviously writing doesn't work this way for everyone, and I still do plan on going the traditional publishing route with my novel- suited me perfectly.

So: Sherwood Forest! The first story, Homecoming, is being released on Smashwords on July 15th; it's available for pre-order now. Possibly when it's released and people have (hopefully) started reading, I'll do a Q&A post. Until then, happy reading!

Sunday, 25 May 2014

On fear

Warning: this post contains violent and sexist language.

A few weeks ago, I was standing on a sidewalk in Stratford, having just come out of a bookstore. A middle-aged man walked up to me, asked if he could have a minute, and when I said "yes," proceeded to scold me for "not looking where [I] was going" and nearly running into him. I have no idea if I did or not; I'd never seen him before in my life. All I knew was that I was on my own and a strange man had started berating me out of nowhere.

About five minutes later, after I got away, my phone chimed and I pulled it out to see what it was. It was an e-mail from someone I'd defriended on Livejournal and ignored his subsequent "but whyyyyyy?" messages. Apparently he hadn't gotten the message, because he was rhapsodizing about how great it would be if we lived near each other and could hang out. I deleted the e-mail.

Would either of these men have hurt me? I don't know. All I knew was that I was getting unwanted- in the first case, hostile- attention from strange men who were ignoring my boundaries. At what point can I assume that I'll be safe? And if I do and I'm wrong, how many people will blame me if I turn out to be wrong?

A few years ago, I came close to dating a man, but called it off when I discovered a series of disturbing internet posts he'd made before arriving at university. I'm not going to link to them because his real name is attached, but suffice to say they described graphic violence against women. After I turned him down he started to Facebook stalk me- whenever I posted something, there'd be a like or a comment from him within the space of five minutes. He was also wont to send me messages out of nowhere, congratulating me on being "cool" when I saw him in public. I unfriended him. Sure enough, within twelve hours, I had a message from him wanting to know why. I blocked him.

Dangerous? Maybe. Disrespectful of my boundaries? Absolutely. The history of violent rhetoric was there. The low-level creeping was there. If I'd let it pass and put up with the annoyance and discomfort, would he have lost interest and gone away? Or would he have escalated?

When I was in high school, a friend invited me over to his house to watch a movie. He had a TV in his bedroom, so we sat on the bed to watch it. Over the course of the next hour and a half, he repeatedly reached over and grabbed my backside, crotch, and breasts. I slapped his hands away. He did it again. I slapped them again. He kept going. His mother was upstairs, and I threatened to scream and bring her running downstairs- that stopped him for a few minutes. I didn't scream, though. I was too embarrassed. What could I say if she came downstairs? "Your son keeps groping me?" I could barely force the word "vagina" out of my mouth.

We were watching "The Fifth Element" that afternoon. To this day, I can't watch that movie without feeling queasy.

I took drama class in high school, and had a classmate who really didn't like me. His name was Jeff. I was assigned to work on a skit with him and one other boy (the one who groped me, but this was before that.) There was a scene in our skit where I was thrown to the ground and kicked. All staged, of course, but then Jeff started kicking me for real. I told him that if he did it during the actual presentation, I'd break character and yell at him to stop. "Do that," he said, "and I'll fucking kill you, bitch." He got more graphic than that: when I suggested wearing a nightgown as part of my costume, he responded "will anyone be able to see your pussy? If I saw your pussy, I'd kill myself." Then there was the time he asked me if I'd ever masturbated and told me I should "stick a carrot in your pussy."

One day, he passed me in the hall and muttered "see you in drama class, Laura" under his breath. I burst into tears and ran to a payphone, begging my mother to take me home. She pulled me out of that class. After I stopped going, we started getting hangup phone calls, from a number that listed on call display as "012345678." I still can't prove that Jeff was the one calling. All I know is that when I mentioned in front of his friend (the groper) that my mother had called the police about the phone calls, they instantly stopped.

That was high school. In middle school- I was eleven- I went to a friend's birthday party. We were walking home from the park, five girls from the age of eleven to thirteen, when a man pulled up on a bike. "oooh," he said, "five pretty ladies!" We all froze.

"Are you scared?" he asked. "Don't be scared of me." In retrospect, that was his mistake. Before, we'd been paralyzed because we knew there was something wrong with the situation, but we couldn't put a voice to it. As soon as he identified his behaviour as scary, it broke the spell. We all started screaming, and ran the rest of the way home. My friend's parents weren't there- just her sixteen-year-old sister, who laughed when she heard the story. "He was hitting on you!" she said. "Get used to it!"

It's been eleven years.

I'm still not used to it.

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Salem 101, part one

While watching Orphan Black the other night, the SyFy channel ran a promo for this new show, Salem. The basic premise: that the witches being hunted during the infamous Salem witch trials were, in fact, actual devil-worshippers (who, going by the trailers, ran around naked a lot.) Now when I heard the premise, I was annoyed- can we please not trivialize a real tragedy in which nineteen innocent people died?- but the promo was what really got my blood boiling. The tagline? "IT WASN'T PARANOIA. IT WAS REAL."

*grinds teeth*

I've been fascinated by the Salem trials for a long time, so much so that I own several books on the subject. Since I have the resources on hand, I've decided I should put together a sort of Salem primer, in case anyone who watched the show is curious about what actually went on. Because education is fun, and with shows like this flinging around information like monkeys flinging poop, SOMEONE has to.

Friday, 28 March 2014

An open letter to Bomb Girls

Let's talk about queerbaiting.

Googling the term, you'll find a lot of contradictory definitions and think pieces and Sherlock macros, so I'll just save you the time and lay out a quick definition here and now: queerbaiting is when a show (or book, or movie) heavily implies that a character is queer (gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender) but never fully commits to the process. It allows the writers to claim representation and queer-friendliness while never taking the potential audience-alienating step of actually including a queer character. It's plausible deniability. "Oh, I absolutely believe these characters love each other [long pause] as friends." Queer audience members can spend years hooked on a show, convinced that one of these days the show will actually fulfill its promise and give them a queer character. It never comes true. But what do the writers care? The ratings are going to stay up.

That brings me to Bomb Girls.

When Bomb Girls first premiered in January of 2012, I- and a lot of other people- were wildly excited, for a whole bunch of reasons. Chief among them was the heavy implication in the pilot episode that Betty (Ali Liebert) and Kate (Charlotte Hegele) were being set up as the show's primary romantic pairing. Just in that first episode, they danced together, Betty eyed Kate in the shower, Kate stroked another woman's legs, and Betty promised that "whatever you're running from, you're safe here now. I'll make sure." Between those hints and the fact that the showrunner, Michael MacLennan, had a history of working on queer-themed projects (Queer as Folk and Prom Queen: The Marc Hall Story being the most prominent) it seemed like good things were on the horizon. Of course, we had to wait awhile- the show was set in the 1940s, when homosexuality was still illegal in Canada. Added to that, Kate came from a fundamentalist Christian background and was struggling to find her way in the world. The characters needed time to reach a point where they would feel comfortable entering a relationship. That was okay. We could wait. (You get really good at waiting when you want queer characters on TV.)

That first season did some amazing things- I remember episode four, "Bringing Up Bombshell," especially for depicting how queerness was erased from history by propagandists and people intent on presenting a heteronormative view of the world. Kate's assurance to Betty that "you don't need everyone liking you- just the ones that matter" at the end of the episode seemed like yet more evidence that we were on to something. Even when the first season ended in disaster- Kate, re-discovered by her abusive father, panicked when Betty kissed her and fled- it didn't seem like all hope was lost. There were plenty of chances for the storyline to progress- the show had already been picked up for a second season. We could keep waiting.

And then season two happened. And we started to realize that things were going wrong.

First of all, while Betty's sexuality was undeniable at this point- she had, after all, made a very romantic move on her best friend- Kate's remained shrouded in ambiguity. Her attempts at dating male co-workers all ended in disaster, and she remained close to Betty, but it was never stated outright what she felt. She kept casting longing looks at her friend, but continued to pretend that the kiss had never happened. When Betty finally confronted her, at the midseason finale, she still refused to disclose what she felt about it. And when the show came back after the break, she faded even further into obscurity, emerging only to become engaged to a co-worker and find her missing mother. Meanwhile, Betty went on to briefly date a servicewoman, a romance which ended when her girlfriend was posted away from Toronto. Betty and Kate barely shared screentime anymore. Sure, when they did, the show kept on hinting, but what good were hints by this point? We'd survived two seasons on hints; surely by this point we'd earned more than that. The show evidently didn't think so, though, because when the second season ended, their relationship had still not been resolved in any way. Then came the news that the show had been cancelled. Then came the news that all was not lost- the network had agreed to air a two-hour movie to wrap up all the remaining plotlines. There was still hope! Sure Michael MacLennan tweeted that he'd left the production, citing creative differences, but- well, he'd been responsible for the mess that was season two. Maybe the new writers were going to fix things.

Spoiler alert: they did not fix anything.

The movie aired last night, to a resounding "wait, what?" from fans. Betty and Kate's storyline went completely unresolved, except for the fact that they moved in together- "until you meet the man of your dreams," Betty assured her friend. The majority of the runtime was taken up with a spy storyline that few of the viewers cared about. One character died, which presented a whole host of other issues (killing sexually active female characters is a long and ignoble tradition going back to the Hays Code) and we closed with no resolution and no satisfaction.

So: queerbaiting.

It's hard not to see the way Kate's storyline was handled as an extreme example of queerbaiting, and one I thought this show was better than. She's given an endless litany of side-glances and giggles meant to imply- what? That she's maybe, possibly interested in women, but will never openly express this interest in the narrative? After a certain point, "slow-burning romance" is no longer a defence. We didn't need to see Kate and Betty declaring eternal love for each other. We just needed to know that the love was more than pathetically, eternally one-sided. The tragically pining queer character is a stock one in Western literature- a way of writers to make their character sympathetic while still avoiding the controversy of a queer romance. But this is 2014. We may not be past homophobia, but queer couples exist on TV. One of the exists on ABC Family Another exists on Fox, the notoriously conservative network that also features Bill O'Reilly. Same-sex marriage has been legal in Canada since 2005. So what's this show's excuse for refusing to give Kate and Betty a happy ending? What reason do they have for toying with queer audience members for two seasons and a movie but dodging responsibility for Kate's sexuality at the last minute? What's their defence for leaving their only canonical queer character in a state of lifelong romantic limbo? 

I loved this show for a very long time, and I defended it- all through the cheesy plotlines and writing ups and downs- because I believed in what it promised. I was so sure we were finally going to get what we wanted. After all the waiting and watching and hoping, what we finally got feels like a slap across the face. It's a reminder that watching shows for queer characters and hoping that they get happy endings is more often than not an exercise in futility- hints are there to be grasped at, but at the end of the day, the writers can still retreat safely into their position of assumed heterosexuality. Why not? No one's going to call them on it.

So I'm calling them on it now. What's your excuse, Adrienne Mitchell? What's your explanation, Donald Martin? Michael MacLennan, why did you wait so long? I know you knew we were watching. Did you ever care? Or were we just a convenient ratings boost for you?

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Someone else's story

I went to see Philomena with my mother today. It was an excellent film, fully deserving of the praise it's received, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. But something about it stuck out for me, in a way that the filmmakers may or may not have intended- the question of who has the right to tell a story that isn't theirs.

For those not familiar with the film, Philomena is about a woman who was sent to a Magdalene asylum as a teenager in the 1950s, and subsequently forced to give her child up for adoption. Where the film picks up is fiftysome years later, when a journalist offers to cover the story of what happened to her and help her find her son. The story is undoubtedly hers'- it revolves around her life and her feelings- but it's primarily seen through the eyes of the reporter helping her. At one point, he explodes at the nuns who took Philomena's child, furious at their actions. She reprimands him, and when he responds "what happened was awful," she replies "Yes, but it happened to me. I'm the one who has to deal with it."

Obviously the story in the film (which is based on true events) is not a one-to-one analogy for people like me, who write fiction- all my characters came out of my head. But no character, fictional or biographical, comes without social and historical baggage. My current play, Sister Veronica, is about the Inquisition, queerness, and faith- none of the characters would do the things they do had I not been influenced by the existing history of all these things. Unless you're writing about an undiscoverd planet populated by an alien species that shares no morals, history, or social structure with humanity, your story is going to cross over with someone's real, lived experience. Maybe not directly- almost certainly there are no living survivors of the Inquisition- but thematically. The Inquisition no longer exists, but certainly queer people struggling with their faith do. Women who try to make a place for themselves in male-dominated religion do. And with these people existing, and potentially seeing my play, it raises the question of who has the right to tell a story so close to their hearts.

I read an article recently about Canadian playwright Colleen Murphy's "Pig Girl," a play about the serial killer Robert Pickton and the final days of one of his victims. The article's author praised the play for being an amazing, provocative experience, but raised the issue- also raised by audience members- of why white Colleen Murphy chose to write a play about violence against Aboriginal women and call it "Pig Girl."It was disrespectful, the audience argued, for Murphy to try and speak for women who have advocated in their own community- a community that is frequently overlooked in Canadian culture and politics. What right does she have to tell that story? What right does her entirely non-Aboriginal cast have to tell it? When does artistic freedom become artistic recklessness? Murphy, for her part, abjectly refused to answer any of these questions, citing her artistic vision as the reason the play was written. But just because you think of something doesn't mean you have to write it down. If we accept that art is powerful, then we also accept that it has the potential to cause harm, and we have to weigh that harm against the potential benefits. Not doing so is irresponsible.

Last year, I read a play called Leave of Absence by Lucia Frangione. It was the story of a young woman in a small, conservative town struggling with her sexuality as the adults around her tried to figure out what to do with her. I'm going to be honest with you: I found it abhorrent. Firstly because the young queer girl was not truly the focal point of the play- the main character was the priest who worked at her school and agonized over his duty to his parishoners versus his church. Secondly, because of the ending. Leave of Absence ends with the young lesbian, Blake, being brutally and graphically raped to death, after which a grieving priest packs up and leaves the school and all of Blake's (heterosexual) adult authorities wring their hands over what happened. It, like Pig Girl, is meant to be about the complacency of people who should have stepped in to help a victim. It, like Pig Girl, shows its "othered" character (racially othered in Murphy's play, sexually othered in Frangione's) being brutally murdered. It, like Pig Girl, hurt and offended the people it tried to represent by not fully grasping their viewpoint. It's brutally offensive, for precisely that reason. 

As an artist, I don't ever want to be Colleen Murphy or Lucia Frangione. I like to think I'm someone with a solid sense of self, but that sense stops at the point where I run the risk of hurting someone else. I'm smart enough to know I don't know everything. I'm also smart enough not to claim otherwise.

Everyone has a story. Not everybody has a right to someone else's.

Friday, 10 January 2014

Jesus take the wheel, and I'll take the stage

"In this strange, ingenious fashion, 
I allowed the hope to be mine 
that I still might see as human 
what I really conceived as divine."

-Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, "My Lady"

So a fair bit's been going on with me lately, writing-wise, and I have been terribly remiss in posting about it. In my defence, everything's been happening quickly, and it took awhile to sink in that it actually was happening. But now that I have a cast and crew (most notably a stage manager who is keeping my from losing my shit on a semi-regular basis) and the "drop dead date" for withdrawing was Thursday, now seems like a good a time as any to make the announcement: my play, The Testimony of Sister Veronica is going to premiere at the 2014 Upstart Theatre Festival.

I wrote Sister Veronica last March, as part of an eight-hour playwriting contest- twenty students, jammed into a single theatre, set to writing a one-act play over the space of eight hours. What I turned out was inspired by a whole bunch of themes rattling around in my head- love and faith, love versus duty, individual versus institution (specifically religious institution) and sexuality and prayer. Sister Veronica is based- extremely loosely- on the story of a woman named Benedetta Carlini, who I first read about in Judith Brown's book Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun In Renaissance Italy. Benedetta lived in an Italian convent in the early seventeenth century, and came to prominence when she claimed to have been visited by Jesus in her dreams. The Counter-Reformation, hearing this, came to investigate and found not only that Benedetta had faked her visions, she had done so while carrying on an affair with another nun at the convent, Sister Bartolomea. Unsurprisingly, things did not go well for Benedetta, and she was kept in solitary confinement until her death thirty-five years later. Her story was all but forgotten until Brown dug it up and turned it into a book, and her book remains the only scholarly resource I can find on the case. (There is a similar case on record, of two Spanish nuns who were executed when their relationship was discovered, but records on them are so frustratingly scarce, I don't even know their names.)

And that, of course, is the major problem- stories of women like Benedetta, Bartolomea, and those two unnamed women in Spain are so frustratingly clouded in historical indifference, no one knows about them unless they make it their business to know. I didn't know until I stumbled across Brown's book in a used bookstore. I firmly believe- though given these problems, I can't back this up with evidence- that there are thousands, probably millions of Benedettas littered throughout history who have been forgotten simply because no one bothered to write down their names. As such, my play is about women who may have been Benedettas- who lived lives in defiance of what they were supposed to, and who put up the biggest fight they could to be recognized by people to whom their existence was a challenge. Sister Veronica isn't a real person; neither is her lover, or her inquisitor, or the other members of her convent. But they are people who might have been- echoes of a past that we can never hear clearly.

My other aim in writing this play was to tie my characters' emotional and romantic lives to their faith. I'm not a practicing Christian in the conventional sense of the world (well, maybe the Unitarian sense) but I do pay close attention to issues of queerness in religion, and the ways in which love and faith come into conflict. Wherever else my religious loyalties lie, I do believe firmly that the experience of love is one that can't be divorced from belief. Love- whether it's romantic, platonic, familial, or even for your pets- is part of the experience of the universe. It's inexplicable, and it's incredibly powerful. It's certainly a force that's been venerated in the Christian church. And for romantic, sexual love between women to be deified the way I do in the play- well I can't make a statement as to how effective it is, as no one's seen it yet. But what I'm trying to communicate with it is that the love these women share elevates them, brings them closer to God. It's not demeaning or sinful, the way it's been painted. It makes them better people- better than the Inquisition putting them on trial in the name of God. It's spiritual. It's uplifting. It's holy.

The Testimony of Sister Veronica will be performed on February 6th, 8th, and 14th at Hagey Hall, University of Waterloo. If you want to see it, you can inquire at the box office starting on January 20th. In the next few weeks, I'll be posting additional publicity materials- rehearsal photos and a trailer. If you can make it out and afford the tickets ($10, regular price) then please do! I know I spent the past two paragraph rambling about esoterica, but the play is also a genuinely entertaining, engaging (I think) story that will hopefully give you something to chew on after you leave the theatre.