Strong Female Protagonist

 

Allison Green and the mysterious professor
When you can punch out a giant robot but should you, and does it even make a difference? Click to visit the beginning of this exchange.

(This is first in a series on comics I read and cartoons I watch. From that list I pretty much chose this one at random. If you’re tired of superhero movies that concentrate on amped-up violence with some human-interest story tacked on, this series is for you.)

Allison Green is in her mother’s womb when the Earth is shrouded in bizarre storms. Not that thunderstorms are unusual, but that they cover most of the Earth’s surface. The strange phenomenon begins and ends, with little apparent damage. For just over a decade, it is only a scientific curiosity.

And then the cohort of children who were at a certain stage of gestation during the storm reached puberty, and things began to happen. Many were transformed into strange forms, or developed unusual abilities. A few could become invisible, or read minds, or communicate with animals. Allison became the most famous. She developed super-strength, and near invulnerability. She is literally a Strong Female Protagonist (SFP).

So far the story is pretty standard comic book fare, covered well by Marvel, DC, and a few other publishers. And those comics do a good job of speculating on the lives of super-powered individuals, provided they were quite rare. In the SFP world, though, thousands of individuals around the world are ‘dynomorphic’, having a modified gene and sometimes very different appearance or abilities.

SPF is a comic about making better use of power. There’s still plenty of villain punching, but how we use our power – superhero, individual nerd with a computer, or nation-state – is something we all have in common.

Allison’s power is pretty much that of 1950’s Superman. Pressed into service as a teenager by a government desperate for help with the dynomorphic crisis, she was essentially a child soldier, with all the baggage that implies. By the time she goes to college she has tossed aside the protection of her secret identity and has figured out that punching the bad guys is fraught with detours and opportunities for unforeseen consequence. She is also generalizing the lesson of watching her father slowly dying from cancer, that there’s only so much good you can do in the world with your fist. To make any real change, you have to do something much harder.

So, is SFP just the Marvel and DC universe with a lot more feminism? I have no doubt some readers will think so. But the shift in perspective is completely worth the trip. Because many “radical” ideas, are simply pointing out that the status quo we all accept as normal is a pretty radical departure from justice and basic humanity. The really difficult problem is how to get back there.

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  • Strong Female Protagonist starts here
  • Second in this series is Dumbing of Age
  • My parents told me that at about age four, I worked out that the pictures in the Sunday comics made up a story, and right then started to learn how to read. I don’t remember any of this of course, but comics have always had a special place in my heart. As an adult I found out they can carry quite serious content, which grew into a standing addiction to graphic novels and web comics.
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Does happiness require a note from your doctor?

Screen shot of abstract of gay gene article on Pub Med
Is it so hard to just treat people decently who are trying to be happy?

For years we’ve heard arguments that since GLBT people are born the way they are, they deserve equal rights.  And that’s fine, because most straight people believe they were born straight*. But on another level, what difference should it make?

When Thomas Jefferson said that the life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were “unalienable rights”, why would that not include consensual relationships?  Why would it not include personal image and identity? Take your time, I’ll wait.

It doesn’t matter if there’s a biological basis or not. I don’t care if gay people get up in the morning and take a special pill that makes them gay; they still deserve equal protection under the law. If a young person is miserable in their socially-assigned gender and happier in another gender or none at all, isn’t that the pursuit of happiness? You know, that “unalienable right”? We fought a war over the right of self-determination, and then another, even bigger war.

The concept applies here. If GLBT people make you queasy, that’s on you, not on them. Try to set your discomfort aside for a little while and just listen. Maybe try reading something written by them instead of stuff written about them by people trying to change them.

If your religion is telling you to make their lives worse, also read up on life in historic theocracies.

Isn’t common decency enough reason to just let other people be happy? Maybe even be happy for them? For that matter, why do we even need a reason to celebrate someone else’s joy? Who knows you might make some new friends, and find yourself in a better, happier world.

Notes:

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  • No special reason I’m writing this now except it’s something I’ve said for years, and I just wanted to get it down in writing.
  • I’m not against trying to find out if there’s a genetic basis for GLBT orientation. It is a legitimate scientific question. But even if it is found, I can imagine several scenarios where, instead of defusing prejudice, it becomes the basis of discrimination. A change is needed in our attitude toward people whose happiness is different from our own.
  • *Or, not so very different. Straight guys, in particular, are socialized to never even entertain the possibility that they might not be 100% straight. This is more important than religion or patriotism or even Ford vs Chevvy.

New York Times goes to war against fake news

Carl Hulse chief Washington Correspondent for the NYT at Illinois State University
Carl Hulse, chief Washington Correspondent for the NYT, at Illinois State University

Today as part of the American Democracy Project at Illinois State University, I attended a talk by Carl Hulse, chief Washington correspondent of the New York Times. Among other topics he shared some things that the NYT is doing to ensure their reporting is as credible as possible, while combatting fake news.

The Times is providing links to source documents when practical. “You can argue with the story, but it’s a lot harder to argue with the source document. They have a Reader Center which allows readers to respond in a constructive way and even suggest new stories. They are revisiting stories later to examine if they turned out right or if not, what was right. They are making corrections more prominent and detailed. And they are taking part in the Media Trust Project, on media ethics.
Other tidbits from his talk included:
  • Trump refers to FOX as ‘my channel’
  • Mark Zuckerberg is taking a long look at what advertising Facebook sold during the 2016 campaign, and he is not happy
  • Seeing how WikiLeaks was manipulated, the NYT is taking a long look at the use of email leaks, and trying to develop better guidelines
  • Democrats need an economic message. They thought the Obama coalition was available to them, but it was only available to Obama. They are going to have to improve their connection.
  • The State Department is vital to maintaining world peace, and right now it is perilously understaffed.
  • 53% of white women voted for Trump.
  • Hulse is an Illinois State University alum. When he first started at the Times, he was “the mid Western guy”. He showed us a picture of his original Vidette press pass. “I’m not sure what that ever got me into,” he said. “But I loved going here.” He is in two Halls Of Fame on campus.

In Q&A, I asked if there was a popular movement to ferret out and tamp down fake news. He said he knew of some efforts, but no huge groundswell.

Just today, the NYT published a good article on How To Fight Fake News.

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Flat-out wrong

Photo credit: Second Nexus, click pic to read article “Flat Earth Society is not a joke; it’s real and it’s growing.”

Flat-Earth advocates say things like “we should be able to feel the Earth turning so fast”. But it isn’t turning fast; it’s turning at 0.00067 rotations per minute, which is barely perceptible. Watch the hour hand on a clock and realize the Earth is turning half that fast. The “speed” relates to the fact that the hour hand is nearly four thousand miles long and we’re sitting on the end of it. And all the physical objects in our frame of reference are in the same spot, riding along with us.

Suppose you’re a passenger in a car moving sixty miles an hour. You hold one hand 12 inches above the other and drop a coin. It falls for 250 milliseconds “straight” down into your other hand. But if you mapped the coin’s fall in reference to the _ground_, it would make a right triangle one foot high and 22 feet long. Instead of the 90-degree fall we perceived inside the car, the outside observer (who has x-ray vision and can see through the car door) perceives the coin falling at a long slope of just 2.6 degrees. This is seamless to us because it is the nature of reality.

The great advance of science has been to add analysis to multiple frames of reference – the microscopic, the relational, the cosmic, subatomic, deep time, bullet time and so on. Our senses evolved to keep us alive and for little else. We can get more out of reality by measuring it and thinking about it, performing experiments when possible to gauge the result. And then looking for falsification in other fields that impinge on the same phenomena.

Notes:

 

Kimball Reed Organ

This is the artifact I was photographing when the little butterfly landed next to me, posing. It’s an antique reed organ, discarded on the curb. Now, don’t feel bad for the instrument; it probably presided over a hundred years of weddings and baptisms and funerals and church services, surrounded all the while by people singing.

It might have been the only major instrument around for miles. And during its long existence, new instruments have been built, new KINDS of instruments have been built. Music has changed because people are alive and culture is alive and changing.

In the time this organ existed, two world wars and countless equally awful but smaller wars took place. Humans visited the moon. Video was invented and now everyone carries a video camera… incidental to other functions of the device.

I looked at the stop; “Vox Humana” and thought “That would be a cool name for a blog!” And… it is. For several blogs. I guess my blog will continue without a name for now.

Oh yeah… blogging was invented. I think about that when people face arguments and think others are curtailing their freedom of speech.

Anyway it didn’t seem right to give the instrument a sendoff without a moment’s appreciation and a few photos. You served us well, reed organ.

Vox Humana stop, detail.

NOTES:

National Geographic special issue on the Gender Revolution

National Geographic Gender Special Issue Covers

Back in the early 1960’s, I found out real quick that acting the least bit girly made me a big disappointment. And often, subject to violence. So I tried, and failed, to be as masculine as I was expected to be. Hold that thought, and I’ll circle back around to it in a minute. I want to talk about this magazine issue first.

Y’all saw the National Geographic gender issue, right? The one with a teenaged transgender girl on the cover? Or, if you bought it on the newsstand, with a group portrait representing several gender identities.*

From it’s founding in 1888, the National Geographic has always been about human culture, including an understanding of gender. If you read issues going back to the beginning, there is no shortage of photos and prose describing how other cultures handle the differences between men and women. This was just fine as long as it didn’t hold up too big of a mirror to us.

But in the January 2017 issue, they focused on changes in the Western understanding of sex and gender, pointedly comparing to other cultures around the world. And hoo-boy did that raise a ruckus. I mean, people wrote in, and they were not happy.** “Cancel my subscription!” they said. “Stick to geography!” they said. “You’re promoting child abuse!” they said.

Well, calm down, angry National Geographic readers. People keep finding different ways to be human. Go read your back issues – every subscriber has them – and you see this is nothing new. Maybe it’s the first time a whole issue has been devoted to it, is all.

The issue compares gender norms and variations all around the world. There’s a brutal article about manhood rituals. The issue examines the risks of nonconformity, and those of simply being female. There’s a glossary. And a whole bunch of 9-year-old kids speak about their experiences.

But most importantly, the issue grapples with gender as a social construct. That one takes a while to sink in: Your gender is an artifact of your culture. It means meeting a whole lot of social expectations. It is by no means set in stone. Or in your genes.

Being a man, or a woman, is a very different thing in different societies. For some, the distinction is not so sharp, or even necessarily binary. In other cultures, including our own, the line between Venus and Mars is marked by trench warfare. You are either male or female, and that is defined by what your doctor saw when you were born, and that’s it.

You know how men constantly accuse women of being hormonal and irrational? Our civilization is about to die from testosterone poisoning. Aggression is mistaken for ‘leadership’, and the ability to deny facts is some kind of strength. That binary, “man _or_ woman” with no variation, is killing our country and our planet. And it all starts when we are children.

Most of the anger at National Geographic seems to be generated by the issue’s portrayal of transgender kids. The gender binary would suggest that all kids are born either male or female, and that if a boy puts on a dress or paints his nails, his parents must have put him up to it.

In our culture, the opposite is true. For example: you can say “she’s a bit of a tomboy” about a girl, and for the most part people won’t think much about it. But if a boy is accused of being a bit girly, well… stand back. And, I’m speaking from experience here. As a kid I didn’t know there were non-toxic ways to be a boy; I just thought I was a failed boy. A disappointment to everyone. I’ll tell that story sometime, in another post.

Most distinguishing human characteristics fall on a spectrum. The train from “He’s all boy!” to “She’s such a girly-girl!” has a lot of stops along the way. And kids of “both” sexes are on it.

You know what happens to kids who don’t fit their assigned gender identity? It depends on whether their family and friends accept them.

One of the parents in the magazine took their child to a doctor, and the doctor asked her: “Would you rather have a happy little girl, or a dead little boy?”

So I’m saying; by all means read the special issue of National Geographic. It probably isn’t perfect but it’s pretty damn good. Above all, if you have kids, just think about it, OK? Give yourself time to make sense out of it, and really listen to your kids.

NOTES:

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  • *Subscribers got the cover on the left. The cover on the right was put on the news stand edition. They forgot to include a CIS female, and then flubbed the answer when somebody asked them about it. Just once I’d like to see someone say; “We forgot! It probably means what you think it means, and we’re incredibly embarrassed about it!”
  • **Anybody else think some people protest a bit too much? Arguing in favor of our chains. Who knows what we might realize if we start thinking about it! Dangerous.

The performance of masculinity

SOG multitool ad
“Look Like A Guy, Feel Like THE MAN”
Swiss Army Knife
The original multitool

I carry a pocketknife with me everywhere , and always have. That’s something not a lot of men do anymore, but to me a pocketknife is simply an essential creative repair tool. I use this one, equipped with a small blade, can opener, couple screwdrivers and an awl, many times a day. So naturally when I found out SOG had made a new multitool I wanted to check it out.

Until I saw this ad, that is.

Don’t get me wrong; I love cleverly designed tools, and by cracky, I have the skillz to use them. But I am absolutely done with this ‘masculinity as anger and violence’ model. Its only value is as proof of the hard-won realization that gender is a social construct.

Let that soak in: how we understand being a man is a performance, a set of social expectations. And it’s mostly for the benefit of other men who might be watching. Men constantly insult other men by calling them women. This is so pervasive it is used in advertising; you can get your ‘Man Card’ reissued by owning a particular kind of assault rifle. And, apparently, if you carry this well-designed SOG tool.

The term for this performance is “Toxic Masculinity” and it means you have been raised with a very narrow range of permitted emotions. Or for that matter interests and careers.

Frozen in carbonite
What it feels like to me

This works out fine for men who are comfortable in the mold, but not everyone wants to get their whole lifetime supply of oxygen through a tiny opening in their emotional range.

Men are allowed to be ‘tough’ but not tender (which is funny, because NASA tests, not to mention history itself, demonstrated long ago that women are just as tough as men). Men are not allowed to cry but they can shout in anger. Manly sports must be violent, and children who decline to participate are shamed. No amount of personal damage is too high a price to pay for this cultural essential.

I was, in fact, a pretty effeminate boy, but that aspect of my personality was relentlessly punished. Today, decades later, I am stuck there, with wounds so habitually defended I have no idea how to uncover them or treat them.

Look around for a few days. Listen to other people talk, especially to children. Look at advertising. Look for the gentle boy on the playground and see how he’s treated. And spare a moment to appreciate people who break the rigid gender roles into which their assignment at birth had encased them. Think of them as pioneers, opening up a world where we could all breathe a little more easily.

NOTES:

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  • My ‘standard kit’ consists of eyeglasses, pen, index cards, watch, keys, minimalist wallet, Swiss Army knife, magnifying glass, and phone.
  • You’re darn right there are constricting counterparts in the social construct of being a woman. Start with women in STEM fields and politics. It’s a big topic.
  • The ad appeared in the July 2017 Wired magazine.
  • Terms for inadequately ‘masculine’ men: ‘pussy’, ‘mangina’, ‘little girl’, ‘girly-man’, ‘cuck’, and various constructs of lacking ‘balls’. And nearly infinite variations of all those.
  • Feminism and gender expression are too big to fit in one rant about a stupid ad. I’m creating a new category on my blog to write about it some more.
  • Just to be clear, pioneering is often dangerous. Non gender-conforming people are often discriminated against, shunned, assaulted and even killed.
  • You can find many articles claiming that gender is strictly or mostly biological, but sex and gender aren’t the same thing.