No Award goes to the movies: Snowpiercer

Actually, half of No Award went to the pub, then we met up in a cocktail bar, then we went to the movies.  (Stephanie’s post is coming … soon.)

None of this pre-movie drinking was enough to make Snowpiercer live up to its hype.

The rest of this post contains spoilers, because it’s not so much a review as a reaction, and occasionally I just need to stand back and go, “Okay, really?  SERIOUSLY?”

Sometimes it seems like Tumblr fandom has very low standards.  Like thinking that Pacific Rim, a movie where a whole lot of people of colour die and a white dude has manpain, is a shining beacon of progressivism and representation.  See also: giving Team Welcome to Night Vale cookies for being nice to queer people.  Who hurt you, Tumblr?  Who let you think the bare minimum was good enough?

In this case, we know who taught that lesson: Hollywood.  But by accepting the framing of the original cut of Snowpiercer as original and inclusive and brilliant, we’re just continuing to let them write the narrative.

Snowpiercer is a movie about Chris Evans, white guy, leading a revolution inspired by his mentor, John Hurt, white guy, against Ed Harris, white guy.  Along the way, Octavia Spencer plays a Mother Who Loves Her Son and Kang-ho Song and Ah-sung Ko play Asian Supporting Characters With Useful Arbitrary Skills And A Subplot Of Their Own That Isn’t Really Explored In Depth.  And Tilda Swinton spends a third of the movie chewing the scenery, which is brilliant and delightful and kind of just highlights how by-the-numbers everything else is.  Except that it’s on a train, which is cool because trains are great.

This is a movie that pulls its punches.  The oppressed tail end passengers are fed on protein bars, black gelatinous strips that don’t remotely resemble the western food craved by Chris Evans and Jamie Bell.  When the revolutionaries reach the car where these protein bars are manufactured, we learn the HORRIFIC and TERRIBLE TRUTH about their origin:  they’re made from cockroaches.

Okay, that’s pretty gross, but between you and me, I was expecting to find out they were made from the children abducted from the tail section in the first act.  Given a choice between “starvation” and “cockroach jelly”, I’ll take the jelly any day.  Hell, cockroaches are a delicacy in some parts of the world.  So the montage of ignorant revolutionaries happily gorging themselves on protein bars while Chris Evans looks on in silent judgement is hardly warranted.  We don’t need you to be our food police, Scruffy Chris Evans Revolutionary Dude.

Now, try not to be too shocked when I tell you that the passengers in the forward section of the train aren’t eating cockroach jelly.  They’re eating sushi, fresh fruit and steak.  The train is a metaphor, you see, for class and oppression, which is why there are multiple speeches about people having pre-ordained places that they just have to accept.  If this is the cut that Harvey Weinstein thought too complex for the average American viewer, I’d hate to see the edited version.

As it happens, Chris Evans’s pre-ordained place is Revolutionary Leader and Future Train Leading Dude, as arranged between Ed Harris and John Hurt.  This is probably not intended as a metaphor for white patriarchy, but it works surprisingly well.  I can’t say I really cared, but that’s because Curtis the White Revolutionary Played By Chris Evans just isn’t very interesting.  And I can’t really blame Evans for that — he seems like a delightful human labrador, and very nice and all, but he’s not really a guy who can rise above a mediocre script.  And this script was thin as paper.

Not to mention lazy.  Security specialist/drug addict Namgoong Minsu is awoken from stasis to assist the revolution; a few scenes later, he tells his daughter, Yona, about a landmark he looks for “every year”.  Except the unstated number of years he was sleeping, I guess.  Yona, at 17, is too young to remember life before the train … except she can’t be exactly 17, because she too has been in stasis.  In a couple of scenes, Yona demonstrates clairvoyancy, which doesn’t seem to surprise or amaze anyone.  Later … nothing.  Towards the end, Ed Harris congratulates Curtis on being the first human being to travel from one end of the train to the other.  But earlier we saw his sidekick Claude, memorable for being a beautiful plump woman in a striking yellow coat, visit the tail end.  Now she’s there, in that very scene, at the front.  Are fat women not human beings?  No, it’s just this impossibly careless script.

The most shocking thing the movie does is kill off most of the characters and leave only Yona and Timmy, an adorable black child, alive.  Well done, I guess, but what is the point?  Yona has had no arc of her own; Timmy was barely in the movie.

I’m pretty bummed that I didn’t enjoy Snowpiercer more, because I was really looking forward to seeing it.  I’m tired of properties being hailed as incredibly original or progressive or even simply good, and then finding, no, they’re just mediocre.  I like big, dumb movies, and I enjoy finding the shreds of intelligence that exist within them — the opposite experience is just depressing.  Snowpiercer had some really great scenes, but I almost wish I’d walked out after Tilda Swinton died, so I could imagine a much better final third in place of what we actually got.

Tribe: One Heartbeat

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You can be forgiven for not knowing what that means. I’ve read the flyer and looked at the facebook page, and I still don’t know.

What I do know is that this is what the back of the flyer looks like:

tribe ugh

And that the front of the flyer says ‘connect feeling, share expression, awaken life.’ This event is apparently about community, but whose community? At between $55 to $80 for a ticket, with a WHITE AS clientele except for performers (and that one kissy face dude in the corner), I have my suspicions.

From the Trybooking page: WHO COMES: Everyone is invited! From children to grandparents! The main clientele is usually conscious people who want to celebrate their hearts openly in fun and play. And by defacing the heritages and cultures of other peoples, I guess. This event will apparently open with a sacred ceremony (sacred to whom? Cannot wait to see whose culture they indiscriminately mine to contribute to this feeling of transformation).

As always, thank you for including brown people in your event. By paying us to be performers and then abusing our cultures and heritages.

Power, abuse, fandom

Warning: Contains discussion of sexual abuse, including that of children, in a variety of contexts.

Marion Zimmer Bradley enabled her husband to sexually abuse children, and molested her daughter.  Though the business with her husband was apparently common knowledge in some circles, it has only been brought into the open in the last few weeks, and the allegations from her daughter are recent.  Natalie Lurhs at Radish Reviews provides links to discussions, including depositions.

As Natalie — along with others — is saying, fandom needs to take a long look at its history and start addressing these issues.  But it’s not just us:  the fashion industry is still dealing/failing to deal with Terry Richardson; the Australian military has a long history of bastardisation, sexual assault and ongoing abuse in a variety of contexts; the Catholic and Anglican churches, the Orthodox Jewish community of Melbourne, the Salvation Army — secular or religious, celibate or promiscuous, straight or gay, all the identities that don’t fit neat binaries, there’s potential for abuse.  Humans arrange themselves into hierarchies, and then we defend our new status quo, and in doing so, create a space where crimes can be concealed.

In my day job, I’m a court transcriber.  All too often, I deal with child sexual assault.  The other week, I had to listen and type as a defence barrister argued that the sexual penetration of a child under 12 was not rape, because the child might have been “promiscuous”.  (I tend to type this stuff with some nice animal pictures on my second screen, or while doing some mindless internet shopping.)  Sickening stuff.

I can’t do anything about the legal system except produce accurate transcript and hope that it comes to the attention of someone who’s in a position to do more.  And try to vote for candidates who are interested in reform.  What I can do, as a fan and a con runner (people who are chairing Continuum 11: me), is try to make fandom and convention spaces safer.  This isn’t always easy, especially as I’m a relatively young con runner who isn’t part of the whisper network.  I have pretty good instincts about people, and access to fans with longer memories, but I worry that isn’t sufficient.

Continuum has a code of conduct which includes a harassment policy.  It’s revised annually, along with internal procedures for dealing with complaints, and the committee is made aware of it.  This year, we had copies of the code of conduct posted in the foyer and published in the con book.  We also make it clear that children’s programming is not childcare, and children must be accompanied by an adult at all times.  (And, in the kids room, adults must be accompanied by children.)  We welcome having children in our community, and we want them to be safe.

I think it’s good that the convention community is doing some soul searching and working to improve the safety of children.  But cons aren’t the whole of fandom, and the con-going community is by far outnumbered by fandom online.

Is the internet safe for kids?  AHAHAHAHA NO.  And I’m not here to tell people with real, actual children how to supervise them online.  I just have a cat, and I can assure you that he’s not allowed on the internet without an adult human present.

But here’s the thing: fans create fan work, and some of these artefacts are problematic in terms of their sexualised portrayal of children.

Now, drawing [insert underaged characters here] porn is not the same as recording the abuse of an actual flesh and blood child.  But in Australia, and some other jurisdictions, the law doesn’t draw a distinction.  This has been the source of much amusement on the internet, not to mention inconvenience to, say, academics doing studies of manga.  But there’s a reason:  it is not uncommon for abusers to groom their victims by exposing them to illustrations depicting characters from children’s media in sexual situations.  Back in the day, these were pretty crude sketches.  These days, abusers just hit Tumblr.

In 2007, LiveJournal suspended a whole mass of accounts based on keywords in profiles and interests.  This was a heavy-handed and largely pointless exercise — among the deleted were survivor communities and Nabokov reading groups — and it turned out that LJ had been moved to act by a sketchy and homophobic group that claimed to be targeting paedophiles.  LJ failed to communicate with its userbase, and this was basically the beginning of the end of its use as a fandom base of operations.

Aside from LJ’s singularly poor handling of the matter, Strikethrough — so called because suspended accounts had strikes through their names — triggered debate in fandom about the place of fanworks that portrayed underage sex.  A lot of it has been lost to time and friends lock, but among the voices were survivors who found catharsis in fictionalising their experiences.  But there were also red flags, like people saying, “Well, my writing attracts real paedophiles, and I’m nothing like that!” and arguing that it’s a myth that children cannot consent to sex.

The general consensus, in the end, was that the portrayal of underage sexuality was a legitimate fannish expression, and anyone who felt otherwise was a kink-shaming, sex negative prude.  And this has been on my mind in the past few weeks, because I read the Breendoggle documents, and that attitude, couched in the language of the 1960s, is exactly how Walter Breen got away with child abuse.

And no, most people writing or drawing underage sex in fandom aren’t paedophiles.  But if their work is being posted in public, it’s out there to facilitate child abuse.  And it’s easy to find, whether you want to or not.  (There’s a reason I don’t search Avatar character tags on Tumblr.)  It’s a myth that you can wander around the internet and just stumble across photographic child porn by accident, but fan art?  It’s everywhere.

(Spoilers: “But I’m just appreciating the aesthetics of the child porn!” is basically a police interview cliché.  It has its own bingo square.  Or would, if my colleagues and I were tasteless enough to make a child abuse bingo game.  Which we’re not.  Obviously.)

It’s part of the nature of the internet that we can’t control what happens to something after it’s posted — especially with groups that are determined to be as antisocial as possible, and yes, I’m thinking of last week’s Legend of Korra “livestream” that had rape porn in the ad breaks.  But I think it’s worth coming back to this issue again and reconsidering it in light of recent revelations and current knowledge about the way child abusers operate.  We need to consider our current status quo and the opportunities it creates for abuse.  Otherwise, in another twenty years, we’re just going to have more of these terrible revelations.

the bata shoe museum and the centering of the western experience

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I’m in North America at the moment, having a grand old time, visiting museums and eating at vegan restaurants and buying more things than I should. Last week I visited the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, which has a lot of shoes, and some interesting curation notes, including the one notation about Australia, which I have in part transcribed for you. Only in part because my photo didn’t really turn out, but you get the gist:

Among the indigenous people of Central Australia a Kurdaicha is a respected elder … the spiritual power to execute a transgressor. With this ability, the Kurdaicha is able to … with a pointing stick and secretly send some of the energy to the transgressor that will kill. The shoes the Kurdaitcha wears are … constructed out of emu feathers and kangaroo hair.

The museum was fun, but it was all like this. A complete disrespect of indigenous people, and non-European histories.

Deerskin slippers made by Wendat women in Canada impressed visitors at the Universal Exhibition in 1855. These deerskin vamps are decorated with very fine moose hair in a floral pattern appealing to the Western market.

Some questions one might ask:

  • Central Australia is pretty big and filled with a number of peoples. Is there any one peoples in particular this tradition belongs to?
  • How did you get these shoes, museum? Did some coloniser steal them?
  • I’m so glad the slippers impressed visitors! WHY ARE WE CENTRING THE WESTERN EXPERIENCE?
  • How did you get these slippers?

I love museums so much. But other problems this museum had: outdated names for indigenous Canadian nations and peoples, and a general lack of specificity around a number of cultures and countries. This is hardly a unique problem; it’s just disappointing. The colonial gaze is prioritised, and the voices of those whose lands we’ve stolen are smushed together and silenced. Great. Good job.

**

Other things at the museum: the family behind me who looked at the lotus flower shoes and said “Are these for a child? These must be for a child” despite the notes on bound feet right there; learning about crinoline fire death; the chestnut crushing clog; and the smuggler’s clog, that looks like it’s stepping in the reverse direction.

literature and identity at the early words

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Today I woke up early to go spend some time at the Emerging Writers Festival. I was on the Early Words: Literature and Identity.  The Early Words is a series of panels that have been running at 08:30 this EWF, with breakfast (not vegan) and chats.

I was on this session with the awesome Rosalind McFarlane and Laurie May, both of whom were excellent. I have to mention that Laurie May performed a piece of hers from a few years ago, that she wrote in response to Andrew Bolt and the too white to be aboriginal shit, and she was very disparaging about having written better stuff since then but this piece was amazing. Laurie is at Voices on the Attack in Melbourne on 10 June, and I am going. ARE YOU?

So anyway, this morning’s session was on identity. And this is sort of what I said.

The thing about identity is that it’s in everything. The most objective, well-researched, totally boring article is still, somewhere in there, about identity. And I LOVE IDENTITY. It means understanding oneself, what one knows and what one reinterprets. It’s a constant questioning of a person and their surroundings and their history and their influences.

I’m especially interested in concepts of the other and the normalisation of otherness as identity. That’s about taking someone’s identity and turning it into a point of reference, especially a point of difference.  It’s why I love travelogues and hate them at the same time, because it’s always about one person’s self discovery adventure facilitated by exotic, zen brown people who live life to their fullest because they’re not trapped by the bits and pieces of modern culture. (It’s why I hate hashtag first world problems, by the way. It’s othering and dehumanising and I can get better internet speeds in some developing countries than I can in Australia).EWF artist button 250x250 (1)

But it’s not just about non-fiction; it’s about fiction too. It’s especially prevalent in western fiction, and double especially in science fiction and fantasy.  In SFF, identity can clearly be seen in protagonists and villains; in alien cultures and final frontiers. Novels and films are fictional, but they can still be racist, sexist, hurtful – they’re part of the world, too.

A big element of writing for me is a reflection of the world I see and a reflection of the writing I read; but its also about how I see my world reflected in writing. Everything a person writes fits into their identity somewhere, no matter what that writing is.

Let’s use Tolkien as an example. He never, presumably, lived in a world with hobbits and elves and Gandalf and giant eagles that he could ask favours from. But he was a linguist, And his writing is filled with linguistic experiments and language games and, of course, languages he developed for the hell of it with internally consistent rules. And his Uruk-hai were black and brutal and ugly; and his elves were white and beautiful and ethereal and good. Because he was a product of his times (This is my code for ‘dude was racist’).

And to use a more recent example, Maleficent came out just last month. And passing by on the internet (the Tumblrs) I saw a comment asking what a black man was doing in that movie. It’s true, black people weren’t invented back then. But the real question is, when were dragons invented? (I recommend all people to ask this question of the media they consume)

My identity is pretty firmly embedded in my writing. Even the things that, on the surface, have little to do with my identity still have them in there a little bit. And to help example that, I’m now going to read from a thing I wrote in 2011. It was published in 2012 in an anthology called Steampunked 2: More Lesbian Steampunk Fiction. Now, I’m not an airship captain slash pirate, like the love interest in this story. And I’m certainly not a clerk at the top of the Komtar where airships lash themselves in an alternate universe Malaysia before the race riots. And yet – well. We’ll get to the end and maybe you’ll see what I mean.

[I read the opening of that story. I was shaking even though I wasn't shaking for the rest of it]

After we all rambled for a bit we split off and each picked a table to chat with. An interesting thing that came out of this discussion for me was how we all defaulted into talking about cultural and ethnic identities. One of the things we had floated before the panel was talking about queer identities. So in my table discussion we had a chat about gender and sexuality, the role of gender binaries in constructing our identities, and then I segued a little bit into what I’m hoping will get explored in this weekend’s triptych of gender and sexuality panels. I think it’s interesting the way we can construct these excellent intricate worlds in SFF and yet still fall back on the same gender binary, or the same assumptions around sexuality. And what does it say that that’s where we stop? How does this representation limit our own identity and the identity constructions of others?

An audience member who works as a therapist talked about working with identities as a therapist. In particular she works with her clients to deconstruct the masks they construct for themselves, the good girl or the rebel, and images like that. I’ve never really considered my identity in this way, so this was great, too! To think about these elements of identity. I would posit that, although there are always Facebook memes and whatever where we identify our identities in this way (introvert, adventurer, and other coded words), we’re not truly ever asked to interrogate these sorts of our identities and where they come from.

Another audience member asked me about how a travelogue can truly be done right. TRAVELOGUES. I love them so much. For me, doing one right, exploring another culture and having a revaluation about oneself can only be “right” when it’s divorced from colonialism and embraces the identities of those with whom one is engaging. It’s the difference between your perfect white face cuddling with a small brown child, or the photo of an Asian man where half his head has been cut off, effectively controlling how the world sees him in a dehumanising way; and centring the experiences of others even as you construct your own. I’m not saying it’s easy and straightforward. It’s not. And as westerners, it’s not something we’re expected to challenge.

Two nights ago I had to do a colonialism check on some photos. The photo we picked was one of a woman and her bike, crossing the road with intent; she was centred in the photo, and the commentary wasn’t ridiculously condescending.

I took the opportunity to mention intersectionality, and was surprised at how many people didn’t know it. It’s an important concept in identity.

No Award at Continuum: Stephanie

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This whole No Award thing came about last year when Liz and I were on a panel about Social Justice 101 and people kept asking for links to not-USAmerican SJ things and we struggled to provide them. And here we are, almost a year later! What that means is, Continuum is upon us in just 11 sleeps, and I got my final list of panels ahead of the program’s release yesterday afternoon.

Check out the program and maybe come along! It can be a little exxy if you’re used to cons like Supanova, but it’s high quality and also you can come along on Friday night which is a gold coin donation and give it a go, if that’s your thing and you’re not sure. There’s programming from 3pm until midnight.

I’m proud that you can read that program (note: I didn’t have anything to do with this program) and see a lot of the things in there that I tried to help along last year in terms of program diversity, understanding, conversations and just being really obviously queer and brown.

Liz will be making her own post about her stuff shortly, but here is where you’ll be able to find me (when I’m not in the bar or loitering out by Purple Peanuts for delicious vegan food).

I am moderating Triptych:

I: Moving Beyond the Gender Binary

II: Othered Sexuality

III: Gender Stereotypes in Speculative Fiction

The plan with this series of panels has always been to really open up and discuss a lot of the issues behind the representation of gender and sexuality issues in SFF. They’re combined as a triptych (across the entire weekend – including the first one being held during the gold coin donation opening evening) in part as acknowledgement that these issues are complicated and linked together and difficult to put boundaries on or definitions around. In Moving Beyond the Gender Binary, we’re talking about the ways in which beyond the gender binary is represented, and the ways in which it’s not – aliens coded as male or female, concepts of no gender futures, reaffirmation of the gender binary within the text as the right way. Othered Sexuality is about the lack of real translation or investigation when presenting sexuality in fantasy and science fiction, and the ways in which they all ultimately boil down to looking the same as what we’ve got now. And also you know how I love talking about othering, and the role of assuming the other and that there is an other, and what that means for your fiction in the real world. Gender Stereotypes is looking at the ways in which stereotypes are reinforced or subverted, successfully and not.

I think this is going to be really interesting because often gender and sexuality in SFF is used as short-hand for a lot of things and it’s done really poorly. Current gender and sexuality on my mind is Game of Thrones (brown people are queer you guys), Avatar (I don’t even know why) and the sudden fandom thing about America for a Bisexual Captain. And also it involves a lot of different people! (I will be interested to find out how many of them are brown)

I’ve got two solo presentations. Realistic Climate Dystopias was basically the inspiration for my article at The Toast: A Look at Australia’s Climate Change Dystopia.  So it’ll be a lot like that, but less structured and at 11:00 am so I’ll probably be on my second coffee. Chinese Mythology is exactly what it sounds like, because I thought you all deserve to benefit from my thoughts and research on Dragon and his nine sons, the role of the Jade Emperor in creating culture, the mother of the earth, and the horrifying hells.

I will also be on Created Languages, Borrowed Languages, Stolen Languages, which you will not be surprised to learn was my idea.  Languages in SFF and fantasy are frequently used for denoting the other and the exotic but WHO IS THE OTHER YOU JERKS. Is it cultural appropriation? Who is the assumed audience? What does it mean to feel like one has the right to steal another’s culture through their language? Why is it always so racist? Am I going to get very angry? Of course I am. I have like five pages of notes already. Also Guest of Honour Ambelin Kwaymullina will be on this panel and she has already been sharing with us her thoughts especially in regard to indigenous languages and it has been EXCELLENT and crunchy and you will be super sad if you don’t get in on this. Language is really important, my quokkas.

I am listed on Readings Special Stream: Outside the Anglosphere, but I actually have a going away party to attend and shouldn’t have been scheduled then. The hope is that I’ll be doing that reading earlier.  The point of Outside the Anglosphere is not to read one’s own work but to highlight someone else’s, and that someone has to be, as the title suggests, outside the anglosphere.  I will actually be reading from (and, let’s face it, probably digressing upon) Cixin Liu’s article of a few weeks ago rather than a story.

I’ve got one late-night I’ll be drunk panel: The Magical Hat of Mystery. This is in no way social justice related, though it could become so. We get drunk and answer questions pulled out of a hat and submitted before the panel begins. Other panelists are people I’ve been getting drunk with for over a decade, and when I yell at them they know I don’t mean it.

Mass Effect 3 and Australian border protection policy

Front Desk Log

Civilian processing ratios:
Adults, 60% sent to integration
Children, 85% sent to integration

Suitable candidates are being assigned temporary living areas in alphabetical order. Family units are being preserved for ease of processing.

B.

Last year, as Continuum drew nigh, I promised myself that when the convention was over, I’d give myself time to play Mass Effect.  Lots of my friends were into it, and it seemed like a pretty cool game.  Now, almost exactly a year later, I’ve completed my first play-through of Mass Effect 3.

It was an uncomfortable game.  Not just because I knew that the [infamously unsatisfying] end was nigh, and not just because the writing seemed less layered and interesting than the first two games.  (That’s not just my imagination, right?  There seemed to be a lot of points where your choices in previous games, like the identity of the human Councillor, was disregarded.  And there were less background conversations than there used to be, although I adored the two [female] soldiers standing guard outside the war room, bitching about the state of the universe.)

In ME3, the galaxy is at war.  The legendary Reapers are seeking to destroy all sentient life, and few places are safe.  And where there is war, there are refugees.  The game is full of displaced persons.  Those with particular skills are recruited to work on an anti-doomsday device, the worst-kept secret in the universe.  (“If your government happened to be working on a secret project…”)  The rest wind up in refugee camps, the most visible of which is a holding area in the Citadel docks.

The Citadel is the political and cultural centre of the galaxy, a millennia-old space station of immense power and beauty.  Through the trilogy, we meet its underprivileged, but not like this.  Over the course of ME3, the refugee camp grows increasingly crowded, its residents increasingly despairing.  Armed guards stand at the entrance.  Characters talk disapprovingly of the way the Citadel pretends the refugees, and the war, don’t exist.  The refugees themselves are humanised — if you can use that word for such a diverse group of species* — in various ways:  a girl waits for her parents to arrive; a human man with a French accent tries to make conversation with an alien who doesn’t want to talk.

The recurring idea here is that a society which mistreats refugees is inherently sick.  For an Australian, with our policy of locking refugees in concentration camps, which are increasingly being moved out of the country into whichever poverty-stricken nation can be persuaded to take them, this is stark stuff.  I had to take a break from the game for a couple of weeks, because it was getting politics in my escapism, and I was tired.

Late in the game, we visit the planet of Horizon, a human colony first established in Mass Effect 2.  There, it was a pleasant little planet targeted by the Collectors, aliens who are using human genetic material to create an abomination.  Now, it’s the home of Sanctuary, a haven for refugees.

We know from the start that there’s something very wrong about Sanctuary.  It appears to have been infiltrated by Cerberus, a terrorist organisation that’s pro-human the way Tony Abbott is pro-conservation.  On arrival, refugees are ordered to discard any communication devices.  (On arrival in Australia, asylum seekers who arrive by boat often have phones, satnavs and even their medicine confiscated and destroyed.)  Datapads indicate that refugees volunteered to man the reception area in exchange for the promise of better accommodation.  The facility is full of dead Cerberus soldiers, and dead Reapers.

As we progress through the compound, we learn two things:  the facility was run by Henry Lawson (voiced by Alan Dale), an Australian businessman obsessed with creating a genetic dynasty.  His “daughter” — actually a clone with a doubled X chromosome — Miranda was a team mate in Mass Effect 2, voiced by Yvonne Strahovski with the accent of a posh Sydney private school girl.  And Henry Lawson was working with Cerberus to continue the work of the Collectors, using human DNA to create monsters and, eventually, they hope, control the Reapers.

Miranda Lawson, CGI white human female, very pretty, wielding biotic powers in a pose that coincidentally draws attention to her vulva. Hey, at least she's fully dressed!

I love Miranda a whole lot, but let’s all take a moment to cringe at (a) her costume and (b) this pose.

Progress Update

Rejected subjects have proven useful for preliminary genetic testing. The death rate is 100% of course, but the data being gathered is critical to improving subsequent testing on viable subjects.

A society which mistreats refugees is inherently sick.  And isn’t it interesting that this false haven for refugees is run by an Australian?

Mass Effect 3 was released in 2012, well after Australia’s policy of mandatory detention for asylum seekers was entrenched.  I don’t know if the echoes here were intentional, but I somewhat doubt it — the franchise seems pretty apolitical in real life terms, and putting Henry Lawson in charge of the facility is just taking advantage of an existing yet heretofore unseen antagonist.  But it’s interesting, and a bit chilling.  They got politics in my escapism, and the effect is thoroughly disquieting.

*  “‘Human rights’.  The very term is racist.” – Azetbur, the original Klingon social justice warrior, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.

Your fabric is problematic

On Easter Saturday morning, I impulse purchased a sewing machine.  From Ikea.  Not only does Ikea sell sewing machines, but they’re cheap enough (AU$79) to be an impulse purchase.  Amazingly, it even seems to be a good machine — or at least, easily equal to the Singer machines I used in high school.  I understand that technology has marched on, and sewing machines now come with inbuilt computers and USB ports — why? I have no idea! Give me time, though.  I’ll figure this out — but this just goes forward and backwards in a variety of stitches.  It’s small, but solid, and the interior parts don’t look flimsy.

So now I am (re)learning to sew.  In the past, I’d mess up a pattern and decide on the spot that sewing clothing was not for me.  WELL, THOSE DAYS ARE GONE.  (I mean, I have a job, now, and if I stuff up, I can buy more fabric and try again.)  At this stage I’ve done a gathered skirt and a loose, drapey top.  Both are basically rectangles sewn together.  BABY STEPS.

Naturally, I’ve also been looking at a lot of online fabric stores.  (This is also because I like to have something pretty to look at while I’m transcribing stuff, and for some reason my employer has blocked Asos and Etsy.)  And I have learnt, to my complete lack of surprise, that a lot of fabric prints are … well, problematic.  Grotesquely racist is another frequently applicable term.

I’m not at all surprised by this because crafting communities, in general, are dominated by middle-aged, middle-class women who think golliwogs are hilarious.  I’m told that the golliwog thing is less widespread outside of
Australia, but the general ignorance remains.  So I’ve decided to do a series of posts about some of the particularly vexing fabrics that have crossed my path.

Fabric design depicting the Virgin of Guadalupe, a Mexican apparition of the Virgin Mary.

Personally I don’t see the appeal in wearing the Virgin Mary on a skirt, but that’s just me.

This is from Alexander Henry’s Folklorico collection, which is basically stereotypical Mexican iconography on fabric.  The whole collection is deserving of side-eye, but I’ve chosen to discuss the Virgin of Guadalupe because I actually know something about it.

BASICALLY, in 1531, the Virgin Mary appeared to an indigenous Mexican man, addressed him in his language, and told him to build a church on the site of her appearance.  There followed a series of miracles, culminating in the appearance of this image on the man’s cloak.

Now, this is notable because, while the Catholic church, like most major European institutions of the 16th century, was heavily into colonialism, this was the first time a significant religious figure had appeared to one of the colonised peoples, not to mention speaking in his own language.  And certain aspects of indigenous dress were incorporated into the miraculous image.  It’s kind of like Mary was saying, “Yup, we’re all united.”

…okay, or there is that longstanding tradition of Catholicism just absorbing the local culture wherever it went, and various pagan figures sneaking into the mainstream religion under cover of being totes Christian, honest.  (Suffice to say, a surprising number of Irish “saints” were actually local deities.)

Either way, this image represents a really complex mixture of colonialism, imperialism, cultural genocide and cultural exchange.  It is not, in my opinion, something to be made into a cushion cover or whatever.  (I should say, I am generally not okay with wearing or displaying the iconography of a religion you don’t practice.  When I was 15 I wore a silver Buddha pendant, because no one told me not to, but that was a long time ago, and I’m pretty embarrassed about it now.)

But there is one other good reason to think twice before you make that Guadalupe quilt.  The belt worn in the original image was worn by Mexican women when they were pregnant.  This is, therefore, one of the surprisingly few depictions of Mary as a pregnant woman.  And that means that the image has also been adopted by Catholic pro-life movements.

Now, my mum’s been a pro-life activist since before I was born, so I don’t automatically recoil from the concept.  But I also don’t plan to go around wearing a Virgin of Guadalupe sundress.  It’s a bit like the language of flowers — the message is only significant to a tiny number of people, but nevertheless, is it really a message you want to be sending?

birds of australia with hayley and michael: the masked lapwing/plover

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This month’s bird post is dedicated by me to Liz, because (spoilers) it’s all about hating birds, and I laughed. 

Hayley

When you are told as a child to keep away from a particular bird because it is aggressive and will attack you with the spurs on its wings if you get too close to it, that information tends to adhere itself to your mind like a pervasive horror story. An aggressive bird with SPURS on its WINGS. And they’re EVERYWHERE – parks, road verges, beaches. I distinctly remember them flocking to the local swimming pool that I swam at multiple times a week, stalking the grassy perimeters and peering malevolently at children with legs nicely suitable for stabbing (or so it seemed to me).

Creeping at Hayley's parental abode

Creeping at Hayley’s parental abode

The masked lapwing, commonly known as the plover and indeed I intend to continue referring to them as plovers as that is how I’ve always known them, and I’m sure Michael will have a lot of indignation to expend on those like me who insist on calling birds common names that are completely incorrect genus designations, WHATEVER MICHAEL SOMETIMES SCIENCE IS JUST TOO OBDURATELY WORDY TO BEAR, is a terror bird in my mind. They are also, as I’ve discovered in researching this piece, a somewhat misrepresented boogeyman of a bird.

It’s been quite anticlimactic to learn that plovers are actually for the most part very wary of humans, despite their mostly blasé attitudes towards living in close quarters with them. Their breeding habits causes them to make their nests on the ground in open spaces, hence why you will see them hanging out in parks, on golf courses, and airports, the latter of which where they become a bird strike risk due to their tenacity in refusing to budge from their nesting area. Plovers have, out of necessity, developed an impressive array of diversionary tactics in luring away potential predators from their nests and chicks, including loud distracting calls, pretending to have only one leg in order to appear as an easier target, and, of course, swooping and attacking with their bright yellow wing spurs.

Yet these violent attacks are generally only last resorts, and more often directed at birds like ravens, and carnivores like domestic cats and dogs. Humans, it seems, very rarely experience the worst of plover attacks, and as much as I googled ‘Australian man savaged by enraged plovers’ I couldn’t find anything worse than folks getting a scare. Plovers are master bluffers, it appears.

Indeed, the more I read about plovers, my fear receded into a feeling of intense pity. While they can survive in close quarters with human habitation, the stresses of ground nesting combined with the dangers of suburban living results in many plover pairs never breeding successfully. Their eggs, which blend into lawn scrub so well, are often trampled by unwary feet, or blasted into nothingness by lawn mowers. Their willingness to live among humans simultaneously protects them from traditional predators, yet opens up so many other threats.

Masked lapwings foolishly hanging on the roof

Masked lapwings foolishly hanging on the roof

There are a pair of plovers that habitually hang around the front lawn of the house next door to my parents’. On the recent Easter weekend I went out to watch them (safely, from a distance). Apparently a breeding pair, they pootled about up and down the lawn, long yellow legs betraying their close relation to wading birds, fossicking in the grass for insects and making very occasional calls to each other, but otherwise silent as sentinels. I thought about childhood monsters, and of needlessly demonised animals, and I felt desperately sad.

2 feathers.

Michael

Steph has started us off pretty gently with this series, serving up a couple of lovable icons (galah and emu) for Hayley and me to rave over. You’d think she’d ease us into more controversial waters gently, throwing up something inoffensive we could be a bit less hyperbolic about (I’m thinking one of the honeyeaters perhaps). But no, she’s gone and assigned us Australia’s worst bird, the avian equivalent of The Room or Plan 9 from Outer Space without the camp ironic value.

I’ll acknowledge that I may be slightly biased here. You see I’ve never forgiven the masked lapwing for ruining my shot at a glorious cricketing career. I moved to Caloundra as a 10 year old and signed up for the local cricket team immediately, so I could impress potential school chums with my sporting prowess. As the new kid I was quickly assigned to fine leg – a dull outfield position where you don’t see a lot of action. Unless you’re playing at Russell Barker Memorial Park, where the lapwings conveniently nest near the fine leg boundary and then spend their Saturday mornings bombarding whichever noob has been sent into their territory. Needless to say the opposition scored many a boundary down fine leg way as I ducked and weaved, failing to pay any attention at all to the game going on around me. My sporting reputation never recovered.

So yes, this is personal, but I think I can still make my case. The masked lapwing is an aggressive, violent bird – don’t buy into Hayley’s nonsense about them being more scared of you than you are of them – these birds have leg spurs and they’re not afraid to use them. Read the 241 comments on this thread and tell me they’re harmless. Read some of the tips here: “avoid making eye contact or staring directly at the birds,” and: “don’t run away in a panic as this could encourage them.” These are not nice animals. When they’re not wounding adults and terrifying children, masked lapwings like to try to take down passenger aircraft – they even have their own fact sheet on the Australian Transport Safety Bureau website. These birds want to kill you and your family.

Their awful shrieking call combined with their vicious spurred dive-bombing and frankly monstrous faces are enough to have me rank them pretty low on my personal countdown of Australian birds, but the point that takes them right to the bottom is their breathtaking stupidity. Masked Lapwing chicks can’t fly when they first hatch and have to stumble around foraging for food until they get their wings up to full power. So what do their parents do? Build their nests on traffic islands, in the middle of roundabouts or by a busy airport runway, that’s what. And when I say ‘build their nests’, I mean scrape a tiny divot in the ground and dump some eggs in it. No wonder many pairs never successfully breed. I was going to give them a feather or two for their ability to fake an injury to lure predators away from their nests, but why evolve such a complex skill when you could just develop the ability to make a nest somewhere other than the local dog park? Idiots.

(ed: I found a video of them swooping and making their vicious noise PURELY FOR ACADEMIC INTEREST)

The final tipping point is their common name. These birds *are not plovers*. They are closely related to plovers, but you can tell that they’re not actual plovers because plovers are awesome. Plovers migrate from Siberia to Australia, plovers are cute, plovers do not viciously attack young children who are merely trying to make friends in a new town by joining the local sporting team. The masked lapwing is terrible even for a lapwing, lacking the cool mohawk that gives its European cousin so much cred.

0 feathers.

Bird: Masked Lapwing

Michael: 0 feathers

Hayley: 2 pity feathers

 

My Sister Sif

‘Will Sarah stay with my grandmother?’

‘Sometimes,’ I said warily.

‘Mummy won’t talk about her.  Is she upset because Granny is a brown lady?’

‘Maybe.’

A sailor falls in love with a beautiful Islander woman.  The relationship breaks down over cultural differences; their children struggle to find a place in the world.

A sailor falls in love with a mermaid.  The relationship breaks down because he’s an alcoholic and she is crippled on land; their children struggle to find a place in the world.

Despite the mermaids, My Sister Sif is science fiction.  Published in 1991 and set in 2000, this is the story of Sif and Erika, the youngest children of the marriage between the sailor and the mermaid.  Sif, 17, is dreamy and gentle; Erika is a pushy 14 year old with a cynical streak as wide as the Pacific Ocean.

Following the death of their father, they’ve been living with their older sister Joanna in Sydney.  Joanna is a land-dweller through and through, determined to reject every aspect of her heritage, even their Scandinavian names.  (Erika is the only child with an Islander name — her family call her Riko, short for Rikoriko, but she identifies as Erika.)

Knowing that Sif will never adapt to life in Sydney, Erika schemes to send her home to the Pacific island of Rongo, and makes the trip herself a few weeks after.  But a stranger is coming to Rongo, too, a young American scientist who falls in love with Sif.  Erika hates him, but the real threat to her family is something far more abstract and dangerous.

When I first read My Sister Sif, I was twelve.  I’m pretty certain it was the very first genre book I read where the heroine was a person of colour.  I picked it up on a weekend with my family — my old copy was lurking on my brother’s bookshelf — and wondered if re-reading it now would destroy all my memories of a book I had loved.  The late Ruth Park was a white author, after all, and all the good intentions in the world can’t save you from accidental racism.

The good news is, I didn’t finish the book feeling horribly disappointed and disillusioned.  The bad news is, that’s partially because I don’t know much about Pacific Islanders, their culture or how they’re portrayed in the media.  Well, there’s Chris Lilley‘s Jonah (a delinquent Islander boy played by Lilley in brownface), but that’s about it.  Google brought me a variety of blog posts by New Zealanders, arguing that Pacific Islanders are frequently portrayed as violent, alcoholic and not too bright.  (Sad fact: even racist New Zealand media is more diverse than Australia’s — I’m thinking of the ad where a Maori kid prevents his Islander friend from driving drunk.)

This post is most reflective of Park’s portrayal of Islanders:

Pacific Islanders—particularly Polynesians—are portrayed as a simple people lacking in complexity, intellect, or ambition. Acting always as a group, Pacific characters can be seen running, fishing, eating, or playing with little or no differentiation between one individual and another.

That’s about it for My Sister Sif.  Aside from the mixed race Magnus sisters, the Islander we see most of is Mummy Ti, who, though not their biological parent, is effectively their mother.  Erika’s homecoming:

Soon I was in the small flowery shed behind the airstrip, and there was Sif, eyes sparkling in a brown face, and Mummy Ti, crowned with yellow hibiscus, and yelling with happiness.

Fat, floral and loud.  These traits conform to stereotypes, but they also mark Mummy Ti instantly as a safe person, in contrast to the slender, chilly Joanna.  Late in the book, Mummy Ti sets aside her cuddly persona to confront the girls’ mother, Matira, who wants to take Sif away:

Mummy Ti insisted on accompanying us.  I watched her dress, in the old style — the flowing flowery dress called a Mother Hubbard, her beautiful black hair down her back, and a crown of orange hibiscus flowers on her head.  She was majestic, like a Tahitian princess of ancient days.  Her face was fierce.  I knew she would fight Matira for Sif, if it came to that.  I remembered her words, that she would not allow bad things to happen to us.

Whatever was in her mind — pagan spells or Christian prayers — was powerful.  She said nothing, crouched on the sand above high tidemark, her eyes fixed upon Stig and our mother.  Just the look of her made me uneasy.  I was thankful it was not me she disliked.

Again, there is a strong element of stereotype, but reading this as a child, it was only the second time I had ever encountered a description of non-white majesty.

The first was in this very book, a few chapters earlier, and, of course, it’s Matira herself:

Just then our mother rose like a brown wraith out of the lagoon.  Though she was old, she was not old like a landwoman.  Her hair was a metre long, cloudy in the water like dark weed.  On her head was an ornament of blue staghorn coral.

…Always when her arms were around me I forgot that Matira had run off to live with her own people when I was four, leaving me to my father and Dockie to bring up.  There was enough seaperson in me to understand her homesickness.

Two powerful women, both mothers to the heroines.  What’s remarkable here is that Erika loves and empathises with both of them, even the selfish and imperious Matira.  Erika and Sif’s mother is criticised for her self-aborption, but she’s never demonised for it.

Nevertheless, the portrayal of the islanders as a whole is stereotypical and two dimensional.  The only (human) islander we see much of is Mummy Ti; the rest are an amorphous crowd who enjoy movies, sweet food and a good joke.  The other Rongo-dwelling humans with whom Erika interacts are Dockie, Mummy Ti’s alcoholic Scottish husband, and the local missionary, the Reverend Mr Spry.  Good characters, but very much white dudes.

There is, however, a second group of nonhuman islanders in the mix:  the menehune.  They have their origin in Hawaiian mythology, dwarf-like people who are skilled builders and craftsmen.  Like the mermaids, they aren’t magical fantasy people here, but an indigenous people dealing with colonisation, loss of culture and the destructive effects of climate change.  Erika’s best friend is a young menehune boy named Pig, who is attempting to embrace modern culture:

Pig wore jeans, which he had stolen from a clothes line down in the village.  The legs were too wide for his muscular limbs, so he had slit them up the seams.  The jeans now flapped around his legs like the cowboy chaps you see in ancient Western photographs.  Pig was unbearably arrogant about his jeans.  He was convinced they were magic and could turn him into a modern boy.  He was that rare creature, a menehune who wished to join the rest of the world.  So he caused great anxiety in his tribe.

Pig worries his father by wearing his hair in spikes, eating too much sugar and messing about with human stuff, and he’s closely allied with fellow-outsider Erika.  Erika, in turn, respects his culture while acknowledging, and worrying about, his differences.  The menehune are facing extinction — fewer and fewer girls are being born, and the changing climate is affecting their traditional homes.  This parallels Pig’s attempt to turn away from his heritage, without judging his personal choice.

Reading My Sister Sif as an adult, I found it problematic but still engaging and powerful.  As a kid, I found the environmental subplot tedious and heavy-handed; as an adult who is aware that the Pacific Islands will be the first to suffer the effects of climate change, I found it chilling.  Yet it ends on an ultimately hopeful note, even if my eyes were blurred by tears by the time I hit the final page.

One interesting feature:  the parallels between My Sister Sif and Ruth Park’s most famous novel, The Harp in the South.   Published in 1948, that was a controversial depiction of life among the urban poor of Sydney.  It, too, centred around two sisters, one shy and delicate and the other brash and too clever for her own good.  And it, too, featured a character of mixed race who has trouble finding his place in society.  In that case, the character is Charlie Rothe, a man of Aboriginal descent, a member of the Stolen Generation, who ultimately marries Roie, one of the heroines.  (It’s a portrayal with some fairly racist clunkers, as you’d expect from 1948, but also — a man of colour marries a heroine.  Actually, he marries both of them, Roie ultimately dying from poverty-related complications in childbirth.  In the ’40s and ’50s.  He was totally played by a white guy in the TV adaptations of the ’80s, so well done, Australia.)

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