Saturday, January 3, 2015

The Ending of The Legend of Korra (and some Korrasami love)

So The Legend of Korra ended after four seasons. And what a way to go out! I might as well start off with the ending:
Yes, it made a lot of people very happy. Me included! But let us hold off on talking about the best couple of all time for a bit and talk a bit more generally about the show, where it started, and where it ended.

To be honest, I had extremely mixed feelings about the first three seasons of Korra. I loved most of the characters, I found the style amazing, and I found the story ideas and conflicts more interesting than those of, say, The Last Airbender. However, season after season I was disappointed, because I didn't think the show did all these amazing characters and ideas justice. The politics and philosophies of the struggles the characters were involved in were often glossed over and not brought to any kind of satisfying conclusion (not even in terms of "this will be difficult and we'll keep working on it"), and characters consistently seemed to fail to learn from what obviously was intended to be learning opportunities. The former made the characters and conflict a bit shallow and the progression of the world unsatisfying, while the latter made some of the characters who were supposed to be wise seem downright stupid.

Some of this is just a matter of expectation - is it possible to make a Nickelodeon show which has a heavy dose of domestic politics and difficult questions how we approach issues in society? I hoped it would be, but it seems that they weren't quite willing to take that step. The Last Airbender's overarching narrative was about the fight against a megalomaniac nationalist tyrant and focused on a band of travellers going from place to place, and that makes writing for it much simpler than when you stay in the same place and have the villains be motivated by domestic politics and being the ones "fighting the power". This becomes particularly clear when you get to the fourth season and the villain is... a megalomaniac nationalist tyrant. The core conflict is a bit more black and white (though Avatar has thankfully never completely dehumanized their villains (not counting the faceless goons)) and in that setting, the characters become a lot better at handling the conflict and by virtue of that become more likeable. It's just so much easier to be a pure good guy when you're fighting an evil bad guy with a doomsday weapon.

In addition to that, season 4 of Korra was the season where Korra actually learned her lessons, and the fact that she does makes the previous seasons better - it's much more enjoyable watching someone who has difficulty learning but who you know will get there in the end than watching someone who will never learn. She is also surrounded by people who by virtue of the more simplistic nature of the conflict look a lot better than they had in previous seasons. Tenzin and Lin, for instance, often came off as rather stupid in the first three seasons. It would have been OK if they had had life philosophies that didn't quite work with who Korra was as a person or how Republic City was progressing, but often they instead just seemed bone-headed. The earlier seasons also sort of wasted appearances by people like Iroh, who (as I recall) said all the right things, but then had Korra not internalizing those lessons at all. Which would have been fine (learning is difficult), but I, at least, needed to see some awareness that lessons had not been learned.

I think a large part of what I like with the final season is the fact that the writers acknowledged a lot of the problems I'd had leading up to it. They did talk about the effect of past events, they did talk about how Korra in the earlier seasons hadn't quite "won", as much as she had just beaten the bad guy, and how learning who to be as the Avatar had been very difficult for her. Add to that a simpler but more satisfying conflict, far fewer instances of me wondering what the hell the characters were thinking, and a more satisfying return character appearance with Toph, season four was great, and made the previous seasons greater in the process.

Am I forgetting something else that was important?
Oh right. That!
This is one of those situations where I've almost spent the entire run of the show talking to friends about how Korra and Asami would be awesome together. Their response has usually been "we don't watch the show, we don't know what you're talking about" but as usual, that hasn't stopped me. Asami starting out was a good character, she's cool and smart, and in some ways everything that Korra is not. She was the perfect romantic foil in her relationship with Mako, but instead of writing her as a villain, the writers thankfully wrote her as a good and reliable friend. The story was not "dastardly femme fatale stealing Korra's man" but rather "love can be difficult and friendship is precious". As the series progressed, so did Korra and Asami's friendship and their care and love for each other was obvious. That it then developed to romance felt good. Right. And well in line with where they are as characters. Mako had some great moments in the clip show, where he talked about how his relationships were the right thing when they happened but that their time had passed. This relationship feels like the right thing for Korra and Asami now, and I think they will both be good for each other.

I also think it's a relationship interesting for the world of Avatar. Asami is the epitome of a driven woman in an industrializing world, navigating a technology that's always changing and the political and social life of the world. Korra's talents talents mostly lie elsewhere and as the Avatar she represents the spiritual balance of the world. It's a relationship that makes sense for the world at that point in time - industrialization and progress will happen, and Korra and Asami together will be a force to make sure that it happens in a way that's environmentally sound and keeps the balance of the world. If there would ever be more The Legend of Korra I would like a season that would be a positive mirror image to Princess Mononoke where they deal with the environmental challenges of an expanding population and technological development.

On the whole, The Legend of Korra ended on such a great, positive note that I now feel good about the entire series. So often TV shows end in a way that feels like it came out of nowhere or that it feels like the writers ran out of interesting things to say well before the ending, but this show did it right.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Quick hit: rape and violence in Sweden is not increasing

For people who have heard that Sweden is breaking apart and rapes and violence are at RECORD HIGHS due to the immigrants: it's bullshit. This is the way rape and violence have developed in Sweden over the past couple of decades (note the time-scale, they vary a bit):
The upper line is for victims of "any violence" (16+ years of age), the lower for "assault" (16-79 years of age) (percent).

These lines are for "sexual crimes", upper line women, lower line men, and the total in the middle (percent).

Now some people may say "hey, that doesn't fit with this article I read!". Well, that's because you read a shit article. Any article that uses "reported crimes" for Swedish criminality is utter garbage. Why? Let's take a look at deadly violence - with deadly violence we can relatively easily show the real rate, since dead people are examined for cause of death. Here's a graph about deadly violence in Sweden:
Number of cases of deaths due to deadly violence in Sweden. Thick line according to reported crimes, lower two lines are cause of death-statistics from hospitals and the Swedish Crime Prevention Council.
Notice how murders have tripled according to reported crimes since 1990 while hospital statistics don't bear it out? That's because the police changed their system of reporting in 1990 and stopped removing duplicates, among other things. In general, crime statistics suck because a lot of it is based on trust of  the police and willingness to report, rather than the actual amount of crime. However, reporting about crime in a panicked fashion makes the media happy, so these are the graphs they use:
Amount of reported sexual crimes ("other sexual assault", rape, sexual abuse, indecent exposure).

Amount of reported assaults (lower lines against women and against children).
The graphs I showed in the beginning are according to crime victim surveys. These are by no means perfect, but the results are much less sensitive to the system used for police reports and willingness to report. They are a far better indicator than crime reports, which should never be used for that purpose.
Of course, if you want to argue that violence in Sweden should have decreased more since the 1980s when considering the lead theory, that's more of an interesting argument, but essentially, very little has changed over the past couple of decades in Sweden, crime-wise.
All data from here.
One extra thing, this is a graph over the number of people treated (per 500 000 people) in hospitals due to violence, with knife and gun violence in separate lines:

Monday, August 26, 2013

The Wonder Woman movie I want (and will never get)

Recently, the ignominous fates of various attempts to put Wonder Woman on screen have been discussed, such as the failed Wonder Woman tv show pilot and the Joss Whedon movie that never got off the ground. Since many other comic book adaptations are moving forward, many of which feature far less recognisable characters, this is rather disappointing to us Wonder Woman fans:

However, I have to admit that I don't expect to ever be really happy with a Wonder Woman movie. Because it really is pretty complicated compared to, say, Batman and Superman. Batman is by virtue of not having powers and being raised there tied to Gotham City, and his target is the rampant criminality and the direct harm it causes to the people of Gotham. That's what the movies have shown, and it's very much congruent with what we know of his past. Superman stands for (unironically) Truth, Justice, and the American Way, and was raised with good ol' American values on a farm in Kansas (luckily not modern day Kansas). His ties to Metropolis, the US, and his wish to be both a normal person and a superhero are easily understood and can be shown quite straightforwardly.

Wonder Woman by K.Feigenbaum
Wonder Woman, however, is a warrior-philosopher from the hidden island Themyscira, who believes in truth, positive peace, and equality (among other things), while having no allegiance to any established country or creed in the "world of men". If you keep that origin (which I very much want them to do, if they ever create a movie), it's difficult to see how you're supposed to create the hooks to a specific location and specific people. I mean, why would someone who wants to bring peace to the world go to the US in the first place? And why would she approve of a world where the wealth of the world is concentrated in a just a few hands? Why would accept that trafficking victims are deported after being "rescued" or the structure of a society where trafficking is possible? Remember when Wonder Woman stopped The Flash from putting out a forest fire because forests need intermittent fires? How would she really react to the way the world's resources are being over-used?

This is not to say that she would necessarily have to have the same moral principles that I believe in, but rather that a character who has the power to take on entire countries, combined with strong beliefs and convictions, would be incredibly uncomfortable to all of us, and certainly to governments and  other superheroes who tacitly accept the status quo. It is also not to say that she'd have to go around righting wrongs left and right and create a utopia - after all, power alone can't create sustainable change, might does not make right, and the balance between negative peace (stability) and positive peace (justice) is not always a given. But I am saying that for a Wonder Woman who keeps the usual origin, if you ask the question "what would she do when she leaves Themyscira?" the answer wouldn't be easy, and I don't think it would be very comfortable. Nevertheless, it's the kind of movie I would like to see. And it's a movie that would never fit in with DC and WB's vision of a movie universe centered around the Justice League.

If we turn away from what I want for a moment, I do hope that whatever we do get won't follow the model of "Single Female Superhero" that the two latest TV series adaptations seemed to be, and that however Wonder Woman will be depicted, she will be a lot more alien in many ways in comparison to Superman and Batman.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Papers, Please is out, and it's art

Papers, Please (you can also download a free beta version here) is a computer game which succeeds where many others fail in creating art. There have been others, of course, such as the simple flash game dys4ia, as well as interesting narrative experiences such as The Path. A good and accessible source for interesting indie game development as well as the mainstream are Patrick Klepek's Worth Reading articles on Giant Bomb, for those who are interested.

What Papers, Please manages is to wrap a game mechanic that relates intimately to the real life experiences of many in a setting which is enjoyable to explore through the game. You are a border guard in a fictional Eastern Bloc country of the 1980s, having been assigned the position and every day having to deal with ever more complicated rules to control the people who want to get into Arstotzka (Glory to Arstotzka!). Throughout the game you are confronted with the life stories of prospective visitors and immigrants to Arstotzka as well as the political developments through the eyes of a border guard. As the breadwinner you have to keep your family fed, sheltered, and warm, else they will start getting sick and ultimately die. Though a totalitarian state with a Communist bent, food, heat, and shelter costs money, and you get paid for your labour for every person you process - if you process someone incorrectly (either letting the wrong person in or denying the wrong person) you first get a warning and don't get paid for them, and then you start racking up fines. As such, you are under time pressure to scrape together enough money for your family to live on, as well as follow the rules accurately, no matter how draconian. Of course, instead of reading this description, you could have just watched this video to see the gameplay.
The rules change as the rulers of Arstotzka react to fears of terrorist attacks, smuggling, and immigration with progressively harsher rules in regards to documentation, fingerprinting, body scanning, and whatever else can be thought up to make sure that only the "right" people enter your borders.

The game can be seen as many things; the art style and your job brings forth a vision of the dreary, grey drudgery and long lines of the Communist bloc countries, the progressively harsher rules and technologies can be seen as a send-up of TSA security paranoia, while your position as a border guard can (and should) serve to highlight the daily injustices inherent in border crossings (oh, you don't have the right documentation - well, that's a valid reason to send you to your death in your own country).

What makes it art to me, though, is that the experience of the game is generalisable to a lot of bureaucratic positions today and highlights the moral quandary of the individuals put in those positions as well as a society based on that kind of logic. Every government employee whose job it is to review applications face it to some extent, as well as insurance adjusters, or something as simple as accepting warranty returns. On the one hand, you have a resource or service that people have a right to, and on the other hand you have people who are employed and are evaluated on their efficiency (where efficiency means getting people through the door as quickly as possible) and rules and forms that can overwhelm a lot of people who aren't experienced with working the system (or simply do not have the time to do so). Though people to a greater extent have a choice than the character you play in the game (labour lotteries not being that common), most people are cogs in the greater machine, and the refrain repeated by Jeff in the video linked above is just as valid in our society: hey man, I have to feed my family. Most of us don't live in totalitarian hell-holes relegated to class-8 housing, but we do live in societies where someone is tasked with rejecting insurance claims, sending people back to countries where they get killed, work in a justice system that is often unjust, force disabled people to look for jobs daily because there might be that one job where they can work while lying down, or be a prison guard. It's not like conscientious objector status exists at the unemployment office, and moral rectitude is not very often celebrated when it comes to promoting people.

Today even supposedly inefficient government jobs are ruled by NPM principles, by which most positions have to reach productivity goals defined by what is possible to measure, which often comes down to processing people as quickly as possible, just like the protagonist in Papers, Please. Did someone fill in a form incorrectly, not understand directions, need to visit some other office before coming to yours? Well, that's too bad, but it's not really your job and your productivity goals does not really mesh with explaining the form to a 70-year old. So you give them a pamphlet and send in the next person. Since it's everyone's personal responsibility to read up on the rules (readily available on the department webpage for everyone who can operate a computer), are you really to blame for shoving them out the door? In the game, if someone fleeing political persecution is lacking a stamp, is it really your fault for rejecting them? Sure, you might get a twinge of regret when you read about political dissidents being executed in the country you sent them back to, but you do have to feed your family. And you do have the ambition to get a better job. And rules are rules. And that's true whether you're a border guard in Arstotzka, a Swedish Migration Board employee, an insurance adjuster, or a DMV worker, even if the consequences differ significantly. The employees in the trenches have to do their job quickly, otherwise they get screwed, no matter if it fucks over the people who need some extra time to understand a form or whom the rules unfairly target.
That is the world that Papers, Please shows us. And hopefully it also makes us ask ourselves if that's the way it should work.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Oozing privilege awarely

This was written on an airplane and not really edited so no promises in regards to quality. Or, you know, sense.
While listening to Jaclyn Friedman's podcast Fucking While Feminist on the topic of Chloe Angyal's work on romantic comedies recently, I reacted a bit when Jaclyn and Chloe mentioned an attitude that writers of "smarter" rom-coms have: "we're smarter than this, but we're still going to do it". It's when writers clearly signal that they're aware of the tropes of the genre, or realise the problematic nature of what they write, and then use the fact that they have signalled that to do the same thing. It was something I recognised because it's one of the things I do a lot as someone who's progressive, believes in social justice, and importantly, is a white, straight, cisgendered man. It's also something I'm starting to get tired of.

An oft-quoted piece of wisdom from Kurt Vonnegut is that we should be careful with who we pretend to be, because that's actually who we are. In that light, the smart and ironically aware behaviour of progressive people in privileged positions (and people who don't define themselves as progressive but do consider themselves to be better than being racist, transphobic, sexist, or homophobic) is starting to bother me. Who are we pretending to be when we spend a second on establishing that "we all think racism is bad" and then spend a whole lot more time on jokes and conversation which would, were it said by "them", disgust us deep into our progressive souls.

Irony is a powerful tool and can provide a needed and welcome outlet for the oppressed, but when used by supposed allies speaking from a position of privilege, it can instead work to distance ourselves from injustices, because accepting the reality of those injustices, and our participation in them, would be extremely uncomfortable. One example that comes to mind is one of my favourite online hangouts, Broken Forum, which is a forum that skews politically to the left and have strong ideals when it comes to social justice issues. On that forum there is a thread called "Insert your hilarious examples of white privilege here" - we all "know" that white privilege is bad, and we all frown mightily at the people who exhibit it and use that thread to name such people... except that the thread itself, given that it's overwhelmingly frequented by white people, speaks of white privilege itself. After all, white privilege is, at its core, not something that's fun - it forms the basis of the treatment of people of colour in a lot of western countries, and works against reforms that would create a juster society. It's a huge part in the recent tragedy of the death of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of his killer and puts the real lives of people of colour at risk from both state and common people. The author and participants of the thread naturally mean well (we always do, after all) and see white privilege as something both bad and sad , but I would argue that it's only our distance to the negative effects of white privilege that allows us to talk about it in terms of hilarity.

It's the reason I can read an odious place like freerepublic and laugh at how over-the-top and weird the people are - I very rarely feel targeted by the threats, hate, and slurs they dish out every second. This doesn't mean I'm a person with a healthy distance to the world, it means I'm immune from the direct negative effects, and that is a privilege that very few people, on the whole, have. If we don't respect that, and try to avoid creating a culture around us that only makes people who share our privilege comfortable, we'll never be able to have a constructive conversations about oppression and how to resolve such issues together.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Yay! Same-sex marriage! Now let's get rid of marriage

Time to start being against marriage again! Obviously as an issue of equal rights, I'm for expanding marriage to cover same-sex couples, but marriage has never been something that I actually like. As a recognition of gay couples it's been great to see the tide shift, but as an article on Slate recently wrote, it has gone together with a greater appreciation for marriage among everyone. Which is a great pity, because no matter what everyone else thinks, I do want to destroy marriage.

Ok, so if a couple or other constellation of people want to make a promise to each other and refer to it as a marriage, that's great for them and I certainly hope no one would stop them. But what I do want is for the state to stop privileging marriages as the legally recognised relationship above all others. As the same-sex marriage debate has made clear, there are several rights and privileges exclusive to being married, and above all else, it's the easiest way of clarifying your relationship in a way that will be legally recognised. Which is great for the people who see close, monogamous, long-term relationships as the way they want to live their lives (and actually end up doing so; best laid plans don't always work out), but leaves the rest of us in a bit of a bind. I'm not going to list the myriad of ways that people might prefer their relationships that don't fit the narrow definition expected by legal marriage, as they should be obvious to most. Start with polyamory or shorter term relationships and work from there, if you want to.

It's a well-known phenomenon (at least in Sweden) that when couples have children they get married if they weren't before. Why? Because of security - it's a way to make sure that they have the benefits that married couples do and make clear the relationship in case of death or other forms of upheaval. To be in a clear situation in regards to the law, your potential children, and to your partner(s) is important to most everyone, though. Keeping marriage (and common-law marriage and limited cohabitation laws) as the main way to organise that, you disadvantage a lot of people who don't want to order their lives according to those principles.

So what I want is for the state to offer a simple way for people to organise their lives with others, whether it's based on a romantic connection, platonic, friend, or family relationship, so that you have an easy and widely accepted way to make clear your wishes in regards to property, medical decisions, and any of the other situations that come up when people share their lives. It should be as simple as possible to do and to change (though obviously we must allow that people have reasonable expectations once you've started sharing property, not to mention what happens when children are involved). Won't be easy to implement, but it's way past time to open up more possibilities for letting people organise their lives together with others.

Some people prefer getting the state out of people's relationships entirely and don't see a need for registries of that sort, but most people don't have the resources to spend researching legal arrangements that can help in relationships, and that's why I think the state can be helpful in providing a shorthand for that kind of thing.

I also have pretty strong opinions about marriage as an institution in general (antiquated, hetero-normative, unrealistic, patriarchal mess that it is), but I will leave that for another post. This one is simply trying to say: let people live the lives they want.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Gay athletes and the cult of masculinity

Jason Collins came out today. The reason that this is noteworthy is that he is the first active male athlete in a major American sports league to come out as gay. Despite the progress that has been made in the past years and all the qualifiers in the last sentence showing how few barriers there are left, he will undoubtedly catch a lot of crap for being a male homosexual athlete, whether from fans or on the court or in locker rooms. I wish him all the best and that he'll get the support he deserves from fans, friends, the league, and his teammates.
However, I want to take this moment to talk a bit about sexism, femininity, and masculinity. The reason why coming out as a man in the world of professional sports is so rare is of course that there are certain gendered expectations in society: the stereotype is still to an extent that there's something wrong with gay men, that they are not quite masculine enough. Straight-up homophobia is definitely part of the equation, but to quote a New York Times article from a couple of weeks ago about female star athlete Brittney Griner coming out:
“We talk a lot in the L.G.B.T. community about how sexism is a big part of what contributes to homophobia,” said Anna Aagenes, the executive director of GO! Athletes, a national network of L.G.B.T. athletes. “It’s disheartening when there are so many great role model female athletes out that we’re so focused on waiting for a male pro athlete to come out in one of the four major sports.”
Vice versa, lesbians have often been considered "wrong" as women, and since achieving in the sporting world is not intrinsically tied to our notions of femininity, it's one reason why it's easier to come out as a female athlete (not that that means it's easy, of course), apart from the sexism inherent in the fact that less people pay attention to women's athletics.
The idea of masculinity and male homosexuality is a rather large topic to tackle in a short blog post, but let's just say that whether in the form of masculinity-eschewing or hypermasculine behaviour, the stereotypes of gay men that are common have been at odds with those masculinities thought appopriate for the sporting world. One is threatening by saying that men can be feminine, or at least not follow traditional standards of masculinity, and the other projects a kind of threatening male sexuality directed at other men. Both are anathema to the toxic notions of masculinity that still rule the day, exemplified in many ways in sports culture, which say that men should be strong physically and emotionally, have the capacity for violence, independent, competitive, and not cry, not show human weakness, not be victims, and not be vulnerable. To make sure athletes conform, the worst insults imaginable are often used in sports against those behaving wrongly: girl, lady, and fag.

A hope I have is that the discussion about homosexuality in men's sports that will result from Jason Collins coming out will also focus a lot on these pernicious notions of masculinity and the odious sexism that go hand in hand with it, and that the culture surrounding sports can be very negative and reinforce gender norms that are incredibly harmful (even though athletics, all other things being equal, is a good thing), both on the court and in the supporter culture (where predominantly European examples of hooliganism are the most obvious, but it's certainly not limited to those). What I suspect and fear, however, is that this will not be the starting point of a much-needed discussion about toxic masculinity and sexism, but will rather be a step in colonizing gay culture with the self-same ideals of toxic masculinity and thus establish them even further in the norm.
As J. Bryan Lowder points out, Jason Collins' coming-out article is also a display of anxiously defending his normative masculinity:
At least one of the answers, of course, is the homophobic nature of his industry, and, unfortunately, that is a state of affairs he never criticizes directly beyond promising to set “hard picks” against individuals who trash-talk him. If anything, Collins takes pains to appease the players, coaches and fans who make up the sports-masculinity complex that will determine whether his career continues, and unwittingly, insults some of his new friends in the process. To start, Collins makes the classic maneuver of exempting himself from the dreaded gay “LABEL” (I’m never sure what that means) and then spends multiple paragraphs telling us how butch and eager to foul he is. At this point, I’m waiting for it, and Collins delivers: “I go against the gay stereotype, which is why I think a lot of players will be shocked: That guy is gay?”
 I'm appy Jason Collins is coming out; it's an important step far too long in the making, but the way he (and a lot of commentators) needs to stress that "I'm just like you, in fact, I'm more like you than you are!" makes me think that the door that's opening will be quite narrow. In other words, it will be ok to be gay, as long as you're performing the same old athletic hypermasculinity, and that's a smaller step than I would prefer to see, and I fear that the stronger message will be for gay men to act more according to masculine norms that we should all work to tear down.