Subjectivity and the male gaze: in defense of that controversial scene in 13 Reasons Why

SPOILERS FOR 13 REASONS WHY ABOUND!

The controversies surrounding 13 Reasons Why have been numerous and well-enumerated; critics claim that the show glorifies teen suicide by presenting it as a suitable revenge for bullying, that portraying teen suicide at all (especially using attractive young actors) is irresponsible, and that Hannah’s rape scene is triggering for victims. But arguably the biggest point of contention is Hannah’s suicide scene, which is incredibly disturbing. It’s one thing to hear about a child slitting their wrists, it’s another thing altogether to see it happen in graphic detail.

But does the graphic nature of the scene automatically make it irresponsible? I’m not a mental health professional, so I can’t comment about whether the show is responsible about suicide on the whole. But in regards to this particular scene, I tend to agree with 13 Reasons Why writer (and suicide attempt survivor) Nic Sheff, who wrote in Vanity Fair that they included as much detail about the act of suicide as possible in order to shatter the “myth and mystique” surrounding suicide, and especially to “dispel the myth of the quiet drifting off.” For those who are worried that the show “glamorizes” suicide, if nothing else, that scene definitely showed viewers that there is nothing glamorous–or peaceful–about the act itself. Continue reading →

Everything new is old again

The Handmaid’s Tale, the novel written by Margaret Atwood, is a devastating and sui generis entry in the annals of dystopia, which stands alongside 1984 and Brave New World in the originality of its exploration of the psychology of a totalitarian society. The Handmaid’s Tale, the TV show being serialized on Hulu, is not.

The show so far is wonderfully acted, both from expected quarters (Elisabeth Moss) and… less-expected (Yvonne Strakovsky, Alexis Bledel). The direction is excellent, and the action is genuinely moving and traumatic. The third episode’s scene of a riot, filmed in slow motion, set to a vaporously slow cover of “Heart of Glass,” was truly haunting.

For all that, though, the show has lost the heart of what made the novel so brutal and revelatory.

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The Contradiction: Some Thoughts on Lilith’s Brood

Lilith’s Brood, a science fiction trilogy by Octavia Butler, tells a post- and pre-apocalyptic story, where a few humans survive a nuclear apocalypse only to face the end of their species in a very different way.

(Some spoilers after the cut, which I figure is probably OK since these books have been out in the world almost as long as I have.)

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The end of the world

Liu Cixin’s space-opera trilogy Remembrance of Earth’s Past revolutionized Chinese science-fiction, and creates a vision of the future as relevant and communicative as any in the history of the genre.

Liu’s avowed poetics for the work, at least as represented for English-speaking audiences, are given in an essay published in 2014, around when the first part of the the trilogy, The Three-Body Problem, was first translated. The essay concludes with his claim, “I wrote about the worst of all possible universes in Three Body out of hope that we can strive for the best of all possible Earths.”

The trilogy certainly takes a dark view of some of the ways humans relate to one another and to their world, but human nature is what Liu takes for granted: humans would act this way even in a Liebnitzian “best of all possible universes.” The “worst” universe Liu creates isn’t the human characters, it is the plot he embeds them in, which is so full of misfortunes that it borders on sadistic. Humans’ difficulties with one another and with their world are the subject that he wants to examine, and hopefully improve, if our actual universe turns out to be less awful than the fictional one he has drawn.

The center of the awfulness is the game-theoretic principle (invented by Liu) that gives the second book in the trilogy its title: Dark Forest Theory. Spoilers follow.

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For Earth Day, Read This Beautiful Icelandic Book

When Bjork blurbs a book using fully 8 exclamation points (“A true pioneer!!!!!!!!”), that’s probably all the motivation you need to read it. But I’m going to add my two cents: this Earth Day, you should read Oddny Eir’s slim, inventive feminist-environmentalist hybrid novel/journal/essay collection, Land of Love and Ruins.

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The best books we read in 2016

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Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence

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I’ll be honest: I expected to hate Sons and Lovers. I wanted to finally read D.H. Lawrence for the first time, but a 19th century novel about a young man who is emotionally stunted by his overbearing mother sounded far too pseudo-Freudian for my taste. But I was surprised to find that within the first fifty pages, all of the characters were meticulously drawn at a nearly Jamesian level of psychological nuance, and that the “overbearing mother” was the most sympathetic and fascinating character of the piece. Sons and Lovers is, ostensibly, the story of a young man’s coming-of-age, but really, it’s a story about the fallibility of family bonds, in which they are as fragile yet sticky as strands in a spider web.

Acquired: at a flea market in Iceland, where Sons and Lovers was the only Lawrence novel they had. Continue reading →