White is the new Green

It’s election season in Australia. It feels like certain parties have been campaigning since the last election, but no, that happy time is actually upon us for real.  And what a campaign it’s been.  The highlight for me has been watching the Wikileaks Party collapse into a completely predictable morass of hypocrisy, but really, if it’s a minor party — or a major one, come to that — acting like amateurs you’re after, this is the election campaign for you.

Because it’s impossible to waste your vote in Australia, I’ve always given my first preference to the Greens, on the grounds that a big enough far-left presence will facilitate (or, you know, force) compromise in the major parties. But I’ve otherwise considered myself an ALP supporter.

Exciting fact: nothing will have me throwing my wholehearted support behind the Greens like instituting a horrible refugee policy that involves shipping asylum seekers to Papua New Guinea and ensuring there is no possibility of their ever stepping foot in Australia.

This is shitty both to asylum seekers, and to the people of Papua New Guinea, who already deal with corrupt government, corporations trying to exploit their mineral wealth, high levels of violence, a complex system of land ownership that restricts it to members of kinship groups, and more.

(Let’s be real, though, a lot of PNG’s problems stem from that time it was Australia’s colony. Like, our actual colony. We gave it up in, what, ’74, ’75? Very shortly before my birth. So it’s really cute that now Australia is both exploiting it and using its dysfunction as scare tactic.)

I was quite angry about that, so I read the policies of every single party that had posted them, and decided I liked the Greens best. (Digression: The Palmer United Party’s policies were weirdly preoccupied with stopping Japan from buying up Australia’s mineral wealth. But Japan is not Australia’s biggest export market for minerals. That would be … seriously, you mixed up China and Japan in your policies?)

In fact, ABC’s Vote Compass tells me I’m just a degree to the right of the Greens, so why I have I been an ALP supporter all these years? (Well, because I’m a big fan of supporting workers’ rights, and that’s not really a huge priority for the Greens. On the other hand, in fact — as opposed to rhetoric — it’s not a massive priority for Labor anymore either.)

In the spirit of actually doing something, I spent Saturday morning putting fliers in letterboxes, and there’s a sign in our front yard, and I’m handing out how to vote cards on election day. (Problems of the newly gluten-intolerant: I planned my whole election day around accessibility to sausage sizzles — but now I can’t eat bread or cheap sausage!)

The candidate poster for the electorate of Wills.
The candidate poster for the electorate of Wills.

So that’s all very nice, and I take heart from the media’s obsession with the Greens being a spent force and the major parties’ simultaneous obsession with dissuading people from voting for them. At any cost, ie, they’re even preferencing each other.

Accordingly, the Greens member for the electorate of Melbourne (as opposed to the city of Melbourne), Adam Bandt, the party’s only member of the House of Representatives, is spending a whole lot of money on advertising. More, in fact, than the ALP candidate, so that’s nice?

Only, I keep looking at the ads. They’re your standard sort of happy, aspirational advertising. A slogan and attractive, slim white people–

Oh, hang on a minute.

I’ve seen a fair amount of Greens billboards around the inner suburbs.  With one exception — a poster criticising university funding cuts, featuring two women, one white, one South Asian — all feature white people.

(I should say, I haven’t seen every single Greens poster.  I had hoped to find the material for the Melbourne campaign online, but it doesn’t seem to be around.)

This billboard stands at the corner of Lygon and Elgin Streets.
This billboard stands at the corner of Lygon and Elgin Streets.

And Melbourne is a very diverse electorate! Crikey, in 2012, noted that just over 40% of residents are non-English speakers (I wonder if that is no English at all, or English as a second language?), and that the area has “substantial Chinese, Vietnamese and Korean populations”. The inner city contains several universities and a lot of student housing, so some of those people are going to be international students rather than voting citizens. But I have no idea how big or small that proportion is going to be.

(And given the amount of people on student visas who go on to become permanent residents and later citizens, it makes sense to represent that demographic as well.  I don’t actually have numbers here, mind, I’m just going from experience, ie, I transcribe a lot of immigration cases involving students who wish to stay.)

Basically, it is really dodgy that the Greens campaign is so white. It would be dodgy even in an electorate that wasn’t incredibly diverse, but as it is, it just seems like a really terrible oversight.

Curious, I went along to the Greens website. The rotating advertising on the front page features two white children; a turtle; a group of eight white people and one Indigenous man; white protesters against refugee policy, photographed from the back; and one woman of colour, wearing a hijab, presumably representing asylum seekers.

A young Asian woman, wearing heavy eye make-up, a blank expression and a blue hijab.  Captaion: OUR PLAN SAVES LIVES - A new, humane approach to asylum seekers.
The most prominent person of colour on the Greens website.

This picture is quite interesting. The face of asylum seekers, in the eyes of the Greens, is a young, attractive woman, wearing make-up, presenting a passive face to the viewer. She’s both object and fantasy figure.

There is another face of asylum seekers in the media.

A slim, fair-skinned Iranian woman cries into her hands. Her face is blurred out.
This picture was released by the Department of Immigration as a symbol of its successful policies. Yeah.

This is a picture of an Iranian asylum seeker learning that she will not be resettled in Australia. It was posted by the Immigration Department as propaganda for the new “PNG solution”. Because this is a country where we’re expected to see a picture of a distraught person in need and feel satisfaction.

Unlike the Greens’ picture, she’s not passive. She’s dressed functionally, in western clothes. She’s not posing. She is an object and a fantasy figure, but an unwitting one, conscripted into the role and used for propaganda.

In the interests of fairness, I should point out that the cover of the Greens’ policy platform features two people of colour in amongst the white faces. And I’m sure it’s just coincidence that the black woman’s face is cut off. I mean, lots of faces are cut off, but hers more than anyone else. Pure accident, I’m sure. No subtext here.

Now, here’s the thing. If the Greens are going to thrive as Australia’s third major political party, they need to have a wider appeal than their current “educated, middle-class inner-urban” type of demographic. Outside of that group, there’s a perception that the Greens will throw working class and blue collar workers under the bus if it means they can save a koala. That’s a problem they need to start addressing, both through policy and through presentation.

What they should also be addressing, perhaps, is the way they have positioned themselves as white saviours in the refugee debate. As Stephanie linked the other day, “immigrants against immigration” is a peculiar aspect of the current debate, but it’s not the whole of the story. Not all Greens supporters are white, and not all refugee advocates are white. And the overlap between those two groups, I would say, is not inconsiderable. The use of mostly white models in their advertising creates an ugly subtext, one that cheapens their message. I like the Greens, but they’ve dropped the ball here. They can do better.


an immigration narrative or three

I saw Elysium on the weekend. It’s not very subtle. It’s so not very subtle that I’m not even going to talk about its blatant immigration narrative, its poverty porn of brown people and brown spaces and deserts, its third world despair as represented by Matt Damon (MATT DAMON).

(My short review: Gosh, there were some interesting ideas presented! Completely wasted, totally pointless, Jodie Foster chewing on the scenery and despite it being the only believable white future I’ve ever seen it was boring and kind of offensive.)

Also I’m sick with the death cold I picked up on the flight home from Singapore, which I still haven’t shaken, so today you’re getting links on immigration and immigration narratives. You love it, I know you do.

My favourite post about Elysium is I renounce my Elysium Citizenship by J Lamb. It is a super excellent post about privilege, representation, and boring boring narratives that seek to interrogate but merely reinforce.

Blomkamp offers this antiseptic, conformist Whiteness as the celestial haven all the darker nations covet; lush green grass tickles the bare toes of towheaded human gazelles who play and laugh and smile because their lives demand no other purpose. Watch as a statuesque beauty drops her theatrical red robe to lie upon what appears to be a personal tanning bed; you learn it’s actually a miracle machine that can cure cancer in seconds. Horror paralyzes. This manicured playground for Teutonic supermodels and corporate overlords gives life everlasting to a Whiteness so privileged it never need die. Earth’s cautionary tales spend the entire film gripped by a feral desperation to emigrate to this orbital nirvana; the entire movie posits a world where no person of color wants anything less than Elysian citizenship. Ask yourself how this morality play ends.
Many good liberal folk applauded this film, and considered Elysium a warning against American xenophobia and isolationism. We have so much, why can’t we share? But the Elysium immigration metaphor characterizes the darker nations as eternally broken, and always wanting.

Anyway, but that’s the USA! Australia has a totally different immigration narrative from that.

I exist because of immigration. Don’t many of us? I exist because of illegal immigration. I exist because my grandmother escaped the Chinese mainland, swam to Hong Kong as a child, and made her way on a boat to Malaysia. I don’t know anything more about that, because here’s one of the things about asylum seeking: when your circumstances are such that a seven year old child has to swim away from the only home she’s ever known, you tend to lose your grasp on your past and your family history. My family history starts in Malaysia, where my family worked and stressed and lived, and continues here to me (I wrote a thesis on illegal flows of migration in and around China in 2005, which is hilariously not the same). I can’t imagine a world where I would deny someone the chance to run away and start again, whatever the situation they’re having to leave; let alone when they’re a refugee from persecution.

Which is why this article at the Hoopla BLOWS MY MIND: Immigrants Against Immigration.

Candidate for the Eastern Melbourne seat of Chisholm, Liberal candidate and former Vietnamese refugee, John Nguyen (below) shares my mother’s sentiments. He came by boat, yet pledges to stop the boats.
Nguyen says his family came to Australia the “right way”, because they sought asylum in Malaysia which is the first country they arrived in.
They were later processed and brought to Australia. But now, Nguyen wants the integrity of our borders upheld.
This baffled me. I wanted to know more.
So I visited ethnic hubs across western Sydney approaching shopkeepers, mums and couples dining at cafes and simply asked: “Do you think we should end immigration and stop the boats?”


And for your reference: Asylum Seekers: Where Australia Stands.

Okay good. PS I would break up with my own parents if they felt we should limit asylum seekers, given how few we accept as it is.

Dance Academy and the (re)/(de)construction of Australian masculinities (part 2)

(Part 1)

This post is a lot shorter than the last one, because … well, it’s not that I don’t like Ethan and Ben, but they don’t set my world on fire.  They’re characters you can find in any media aimed at tweens.  And Ollie is a very new character, and I feel like I’m still getting a handle on him — we are in the first half of the first season, after all.

(This post features quite detailed spoilers for season three.)

Ethan Karamakov: he smells like Christmas, apparently

I’ve had some trouble writing the second half of this piece, because, well, I’m kind of dealing with two characters I don’t care for, and one I’m still getting to know.

Take Ethan, for example. Ethan is the older half-brother of Tara’s best friend Kat, and her first crush. He’s a third year, aged about seventeen; she’s a brand new fifteen year old first year with about as much common sense as a newborn lamb. I don’t hate Ethan (anymore), but I feel like he was a necessary evil — a rich, white counterpoint to Christian — and not a hugely interesting character.

Basically, when I watched the first season, I appointed myself President of the Go Away Ethan Karamakov Club. (For one thing, although actor Tim Pocock is actually quite good — if anyone actually saw Wolverine: Origins, he played a young Scott Summers, and was promptly named the Next Heath Ledger — he’s the least convincing teeenager in the cast. I presume it was difficult to find an actor who could also dance, but he looks about ten years older than everyone else. And he has an abnormally symmetrical face.)

Ethan Karamakov: handsome white guy with a quite impressive jaw.
Look at that face. It’s grotesque.

What made me grudgingly like Ethan in the second season was that he began sharing scenes with Abigail, who is scientifically proven to make everything better. She’s an overachieving, anxiety-ridden lifelong dancer who is slowly coming to terms with the fact that hard work isn’t going to overcome her lack of natural talent. She’s also incredibly blunt, and thinks being likeable is for lesser people.

Ethan has given up a place in the National Ballet Company to become a choreographer, and he approaches Abigail for his showcase piece. He wants someone who is intense and a little scary.

Okay, then. She’s interested.

I began to like Ethan, not so much for himself, but for the way he became a vehicle for Abigail to find new options. Together they become involved in musical theatre, and have a funny, sweet friendship that verges sometimes on romance. I wasn’t sorry when Ethan went to Barcelona to pursue his ambition, but I wasn’t counting down the minutes until he left, either.

The Self-Styled Benster

Ben Tickle, introduced in the second season, is a much more interesting character, even though I frequently find myself wanting to punch him in the face a bit. When he joined the cast — as a first year student promoted to second year because he was just that good — I was like, seriously, the last thing we needed was yet another white guy.

And I still feel that way, but in terms of portrayals of masculinity, Ben’s an interesting case. See, he feels he has a lot to prove, being the youngest in the group, and he starts out by putting on a display of braggadocio and masculinity. And not the positive kind of masculinity. He’s sexist, racist and homophobic. Kind of your standard stereotype of … you know.

A young, dark-haired white man captured mid-leap.
This is a guy who introduces himself as “The Benster”.

(This also leads to charming moments, like when Sammy explains that you shouldn’t use “gay” as a pejorative. I’m not usually one for didacticism in my entertainment, but Sammy is so earnest — having himself just started addressing his own sexuality — that it’s charming. And frankly, my teacher friends have to work really hard to get “gay” out of their students’ vocabularies, I feel like it really means something to have a bisexual character on kids TV explaining this.)

(Ben proves his basic likeability by apologising, and then baking rainbow cupcakes for Sammy and Christian. Because he thinks — well, at least there are cupcakes.)

Ben also gives us one of my favourite exchanges of dialogue. From memory:

Ben: Hey, Christian, do you do martial arts? There was this Asian guy at my old dance school who did martial arts. You remind me of him.
Christian: Are you saying we all look alike?
Ben: That’s pretty racist, dude.

Well, I laughed.

White teens practice ballet on the beach, the Sydney Harbour Bridge in the background.
This is my very favourite picture of Ben. No, not just because you can’t see his face.

Having been called out, humiliated and initially rejected by the group, Ben settles down and becomes, you know, a nice kid. It comes out that he suffered leukemia as a child, and doesn’t want anyone to know because he fears he’ll become an object of pity and special treatment. (Tara, who has her own problems with respecting boundaries, tells everyone. I love Tara a lot, but she makes a lot of mistakes in her journey.)

Late in the second season, Ben and Tara start going out. Ben has a massive crush on Tara; she seems to care about him, but mostly she has that problem common to teenage girls where she thinks she can’t be without a boyfriend. It doesn’t last, but Ben tells Tara at the beginning of season three that, “I still ship it.” Basically.


Well, joke’s on me, because Tara was interested, she was just making a concerted attempt to be boyfriend-less for third year. (Good try, Tara. When I eventually do my post on the girls of Dance Academy, I am going to talk about her SO MUCH. And also the way the fandom slut shames her, because no teenager ever had three boyfriends in three years, right?)

And maybe I was reacting against Ben because, well, I’m a product of a patriarchal society too, and maybe I wasn’t comfortable seeing a male character express his feelings so openly. (I am generally drawn to the stoic types, but these preferences don’t develop in a vacuum.) Ben really likes Tara, and he’s not offended when she wants to be “just friends”. He doesn’t go off to Reddit to complain about being friendzoned, he just goes, “Yep, well, I hope one day you change your mind,” and then gets on with trying to be a good friend.

We’re in the middle of season three right now, and I have no idea where Ben’s story is going to take him. But his arc so far has been interesting. He, Tara and Grace were picked up to fill positions in the Company, and he was selected by the principal dancer, Saskia Duncan, as a protege.

Now, Saskia also appeared in season two, and I could write a whole essay about her, but it basically comes down to this: Saskia Duncan is Dolores Umbridge in pointe shoes. She literally broke Tara’s back in season two. She is so friendly, and so reasonable, how could she possibly be a bully who targets younger dancers?

One thing I really loved about Saskia was how she was a villainess who wasn’t sexualised. And then she started mentoring Ben, and they were dancing together, and she was asking him out to dinner … and she still wasn’t sexualised.

I mean, she was coming across as a sexual character, but she wasn’t being exploited, either by the script or the camera. Her behaviour bordered on inappropriate, but she seemed sincere in her belief that Ben could be the Nureyev to her Fonteyn.

She also seemed pretty sincere in the way she was using Ben to humiliate her current partner and the other adult male dancers. Who seem, on the whole, to be an unpleasant lot in general, at least in the way they treat the three student dancers.

And when Ben realised that, he did something I’m really uncomfortable with: he dropped Saskia. I mean, literally. On stage. Twice.

But was it deliberate? I actually couldn’t tell. But the way he was watching her made it plain he was enjoying her humiliation as she ran off stage. And as much as I think Saskia is a terrible person who undermines and bullies people whom she regards as threats, it wasn’t exactly fun to watch a professional woman being humiliated by a schoolboy.

(Humiliation doesn’t even look like a word anymore! But I keep coming back to it, because it’s Saskia’s main weapon.)

At this point in the series, Ben and Tara are dating, and Ben is back in school, taking the lead role in the third year tour. As much as I think I’ve been unfair to him in the past, he’s still not a character for whom I have any great love. I save that for …

Ollie: not actually a chick magnet

Ollie is introduced in season two as Sammy’s tutor turned love interest, and with Sammy’s death, he has become a regular in the third season.

I mentioned in the first post that Ollie has an ego the size of Western Australia. A lot of his character development involves learning to temper that, and work in a team. (For starters, he’s now a regular because he’s repeating third year.)

For a while, I wondered if it was, you know, problematic that one of the few regular black characters on Australian TV is defined by his arrogance, and that the narrative needs to bring him down. Taken in isolation, I think that would be highly problematic. But in the context of the series, this is something nearly every character struggles with. (Even Tara, who simultaneously struggles with the need to be something other than a human doormat. People are complicated!)

A young black male ballet dancer, captured mid-leap.
Awkward fact: it’s kind of hard to find pictures of Ollie.

Ollie is coming to grips with the idea that maybe he won’t have a brilliant career in ballet, and maybe, as he says, “I’m just another middle class kid who can’t do fractions.” This struggle forms the foundation for his friendship with Abigail, Sammy’s other love interest, and brings him into conflict with Christian, who is so talented that he can miss half a term and still keep his place and his scholarship.

Ollie’s back-up plan is commercial dance, but he’s also dabbling in pop/hip hop. For which he adopts a heterosexual persona, because it’s hard enough to succeed in the Australian music industry when you’re black, let alone black and gay. “Everyone knows you’re not into girls,” says Abigail disdainfully, but Ollie just shrugs.

He’s not exactly going back into the closet, though, if there was ever a closet that could hold him. As of the most recent episode, he’s openly flirting with a young actor who’s taking the lead in a dance movie — YES, THERE IS A DANCE MOVIE WITHIN THE DANCE SHOW, IT IS AMAZING — and if this doesn’t end with him being “discovered” and going on to achieve fame and fortune, I’ll eat one of my many hats.

In conclusion

I don’t think the creators of Dance Academy set out to create great feminist television for tweens. But I do think they set out to create good television, and that means having a wide range of interesting characters. The mere fact of the dance school setting meant that the male characters would have to address concepts of masculinity in some way, and I think it’s been executed well.

The cast of Dance Academy: seven young, attractive dancers.
The season three cast. Left to right: Ollie, Kat, Abigail, Christian, Tara, Ben, Grace

My Island Homicide: a book review and writing someone else’s face

This is mostly a book review rather than a 101 on writing someone else’s face, so we’re going book review first, issues town second.

The Book: My Island Homicide by Catherine Titasey (2013, UQP)

[Mild spoilers to follow but nothing about the crime or anything]

My Island Homicide is the first novel by Catherine Titasey, not quite a crime novel set on Thursday Island in the Torres Strait, though I received it under the guise of being a crime novel. I would not describe it as a crime novel, though the crime is there and looms large: it’s more a slice of life, and it’s kind of fun.

There are not that many fiction books about the Torres Strait, and there are even fewer books that end happily (as it were); that have an Islander protagonist; that are this great slice of Torres Strait Life that I wanted to just keep on keeping on. I loved the minutiae in the book. I loved the Sissys getting more and more animals as Jack palmed them off. I loved everyone’s casual acceptance of maydh (a curse), and the mostly natural weaving in of the local Broken English, and I loved loved loved the protag’s mum coming home to Thursday Island and finding herself again.

And I wanted to love it as a book. But it reads weird. It was billed as a mystery (and it is), but it’s also a romance and it’s also a slice of life. On pg 138, almost halfway through the book, there’s suddenly a family mystery! At times it seems as if the pedestrian plodding of the story – not of the plot, but the pace of the book itself – is a reflection of life on Thursday Island, just going with the flow and letting it happen, but at other times it simply felt like uninspired pedestrian writing. I wish that the book had been able to settle into what it wanted to be, rather than hopping back and forth.

My Island Homicide talks about all sorts of issues, but only briefly. It mentions in passing the predominant local crimes (assault and theft) and their causes (alcohol, hunger). It makes a major plot point of the lack of education in the Torres Strait, and how easy it is to pretend like the white man is doing something when really he isn’t. It laughs away DV and assault, and it’s hard to tell when it’s poking fun with versus when it’s poking fun at the things that happen in island life. These are major issues in the Torres Strait and also incredibly damaging stereotypes when seen through non-TSI eyes, and I wish more had been done to flag this as not okay.

There’s a lot of unquestioned behaviour and acts which seem less than ideal. A white person describes the abuse they’re suffering from a black person as ‘racist,’ with no looking at the fact that it’s not possible (due to the equation of privilege + power = racism). There was some super dodgy stuff going on around the young gentleman who was unable to talk (sometimes it was implied he had suffered brain damage, sometimes just that he couldn’t speak and refused to sign) in terms of attitudes.

The book keeps making jokes at the expense of Gen Y, followed by some vegan hate, which didn’t endear it to me. (At one point a member of Gen Y declares they don’t know what Twister the board game is, which, I call nope). This is obviously less critical than the class and social issues in the Torres Strait, but also totally not cool!

Thea’s mother thinks Thea’s under maydh, and though Thea is unsure she goes with it, being treated for the curse and in the end she recovers with two answers: a western medicine answer, and a maydh answer. I love this resolution. Of course there’s a western medicine answer, because western medicine is always trying to quantify non-western traditional methods and outcomes. But there’s a ‘traditional’ outcome and solution too, and we’re never told which one is right in the context of the text. It just is.

It was really nice to read a book set in the Thursday Islands, and to be reading a book that was trying so hard to do justice to the Torres Strait and to this part of Australia’s population and culture. But it wasn’t a great book, and I can’t whole-heartedly recommend it to you. It was fun and easy to read, but it took me about 100 pages before I was actually into it. If I was handed another book by this author I would consider reading it, and I would certainly support what she’s doing (writing about Torres Strait Islander communities) but I wouldn’t leap to read it. Three out of five jiaozi.

If you want to read the book, let me know, there’s a possibility this copy is mine.

People as Food

Milk chocolate. Almond. Burnt honey. Olive. Dark olive. Peanut brown. Nut brown.

I made a list of the ways brown people are described in My Island Homicide. I recoiled at that last one, particularly as it was the last sentence of the novel, used to described Thea’s (the POV character) baby. Note Thea describes herself as light brown. (Her mother is milk chocolate)

Hey you know what we are not? We are not a menu. We are not food items or items for export or exploitation or fetishisation, even after you give birth to us, much like many of these items were (or still are). Coffee and cocoa in particular, with their slave labour connotations and the indigenous exploitation inherent within, makes these comparisons, even when unintentional, totally on the dodgy side.

It is not a compliment to describe brown characters in food terms.

Working with (and Reading) Someone Else’s Culture

This blog post is not a cultural appropriation primer or anything like that, because I don’t have the time nor the patience, and also because many other people have done that work, though maybe not from an Australian point of view. So maybe that’ll come another day.

My Island Homicide is very firmly a book set in the Torres Strait. It is on Thursday Island and Horn Island and a couple of tiny dotted islands in between. Titasey is white; though she is married to a Torres Strait Islander with TSI children, and has lived on Thursday Island for 20 years.

The POV character is a half-Islander, half-Caucasian woman whose family moved away from the Torres Strait and now she’s come back, wanting to live her stereotypical idyllic island lifestyle and maybe along the way she’ll learn some things. This worked for the most part as a frame for explaining things about the culture to an assumed non-Torres Strait audience. Thea learning Broken English was woven with shame (at not knowing it) and embarrassment and also naturally into the text, in a way that didn’t throw me out and that was awesome. Things were explained where explanations worked, but the text didn’t assume the reader was completely lacking in knowledge (except, inexplicably, when it explains that Billabong is a surf company).

You can tell, when you’re reading My Island Homicide, that Titasey is an outsider but has worked to not be an outsider. She presents this culture that isn’t hers as respectfully as she can, and though I wish it’d been better written I really appreciated that.

Sunday morning links

Today was going to be the day I posted the second part of my Dance Academy piece, but I totally forgot I’d be in Queensland, visiting my family. Instead, have a couple of links:

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2010/02/wrex-in-effect-or-deep-space-and-the-negro-injun-krogan-problem/36200/ – a look at the portrayal of the Krogans in Mass Effect and historical and social parallels.

I link to this not just because it’s interesting, but because I have some thoughts about Krogans and Wrex that I’m saving until I finish, you know, the game.

The Innocence of Australians – last year, an intelligence think tank created a short story award for, basically, Australia’s security fears. This article dissects the results and implications.

Personally, I don’t think fiction is a good vehicle for exploring realistic security concerns, but I guess I’m the only one with an ongoing fear that the planet is going to be sucked into an unexpected black hole that parks itself next to the moon. IT COULD HAPPEN. Anyway, the anthology is as xenophobic as the premise is Orwellian.

Stop, and don’t come back – following on from our post the other week, a howl of outrage at the presence of booth babes at PAX Australia.

An Aside on Creating Safe Spaces

A few weeks ago I was the door bitch for A Night of Intrigue, a goth/alt/dark event. As you can imagine, explicit consent is a must in such an area, and hard to enforce. And much as it can be difficult to convey in a SFF convention space, it can be hard to remind everyone to be respectful and to ask permission and very importantly, especially in such a space, ‘nudity is not consent’ is critical.

I took on the role of gateway consent controller for the night, if I may call it that. We had signs up at the inner doorway (after paying and getting your tags and all the rest of it), and I gave the same spiel hundreds of times. We had a red tag for ‘PLEASE DO NOT TALK TO ME IF YOU DON’T KNOW ME,’ and a green tag for ‘hey, feel free to start a convo respectfully,’ or you could choose not to tag at all. And so many people were skeptical, why do you even need that? This is silly. Some people I had to explain it wasn’t a sex thing, but the traffic light was a good comparison. Some people made fun of people who were coming to a nightclub/social event and didn’t want to meet/hang with anyone new.

But there were a dozen or so people who ran towards that red armband and put it on so fast, and so obviously, so that their red stripe would be clear. And as Ju reminded me, when my voice was hoarse and it was after 1am and I was getting tired and frustrated at people rolling their eyes at me, every person who came through that door heard my spiel. So even if they thought the system was silly, they had all had the same thing personally delivered to them as they came to through the door: that we were looking for respect, and we expected it from everyone, and that we were gonna be enforcing that.

It’s not perfect; it’s hard to prevent bottleneck, and I felt at times that I was working against my own desire not to put anybody out. It’s not a system that works for everyone, but it’s a start, and I think having it personally delivered almost one on one helped.

(ps if you are interested, the next event is September 13 and you should totally come along)

Dance Academy and the (re)/(de)construction of Australian masculinities (part 1)

[Note the first: This essay got way out of hand.  I’m up to 3000 words, and I’ve only covered two characters.  Hence my breaking it up into parts.]

[Note the second: Sadly there are no resources for Dance Academy transcripts online, and those quote lists and gifsets that do exist are often inaccurate.  A lot of the fandom is based in non-Anglophone countries, and Australian accents tend to throw people.  So most of the dialogue in this post is more of a paraphrasing from memory.  I wanted to go through the episodes and get proper quotes myself, but I’m working with a sprained wrist here, and decided to save my transcription-fu for work.  Think of it as, uh, an extra layer of spoiler protection if you go on to watch the series.]

[Note the third: This post totally contains spoilers.]

It’s set at, you know, a dance academy

Dance Academy is an Australian TV series set at a prestigious ballet school in Sydney.  It’s aimed at tween girls and the export market.  All the cliches are there: loving footage of the Harbour Bridge and Opera House, the naive heroine, the goofy best friend, the mean girl.  The love triangle.  The dreamy love interest, the troubled bad boy and the sweet nerd.

The cast of Dance Academy: a posed photo of attractive dancers. All but one are white; five girls, four boys.
The season 2 cast of Dance Academy. Left to right: Abigail, Ethan, Ben, Tara, Sammy (seated), Christian, Grace, Kat.

What makes Dance Academy notable is the way its writers — who include such seasoned YA novelists as Melina Marchetta — subvert the cliches without straying too far from the (audience friendly) boundaries of the genre.  The mean girl learns to cope with failure.  The goofy best friend recognises her own self-sabotage.  The naive heroine faces reality.

What I find interesting about Dance Academy is its treatment of male characters.  This is, remember, a show aimed at young girls.  And while I don’t want to take media aimed at women and make it all about the men, I am always quite interested in the way men are portrayed in fiction aimed at teens.  There’s an element of “sauce for the gander” in the way Edward Cullen is blatantly a wish fulfilment fantasy, but that type of character is so two-dimensional it’s uncomfortable.  (Maybe I’d feel differently if it was my wishes being fulfilled?)  Dance Academy‘s male characters are familiar types, but they’re also thrust into a ballet school, an extremely feminine space, and the show deals with that in ways which are both subversive of stereotypes and problematic.

Problematic because, particularly in the half of the first season, much emphasis is placed on the masculinity and heterosexuality of the male ballet students.  The only queer male we see is a teacher, and he is replaced in the second season by a straight man of about the same age.  (This is for plot reasons — a student falsely accuses him of molesting her, a storyline which has issues for different reasons, but also organically from the student’s own background and behaviour — but it’s still a shame to lose a gay male role model.)

The male students are essentially defensive about their masculinity.  “They act like we’re not athletes,” complains Ethan when the school is forced to share space with a football team, and Christian is criticised for lacking the core strength to complete a move.  (I should note that the girls are also seen worrying about their strength and fitness, but in their cases it’s often coupled with concerns about weight.  That’s not a criticism of the series; it feels quite realistic, given the setting.)  

Half a dozen footballers (in ballet costumes) stand opposite the ballet students.  A male teacher stands in the middle.

A screenshot from “Best and Fairest”, with the football players in costume and the ballet dancers in civvies. Patrick, the gay teacher who appeared only in season 1, stands in the centre.

There are slow changes in the way the boys approach masculinity, though.  In the first few episodes, Sammy, the nice, nerdy friend-who-is-a-boy, is told that he has weak ankles, and that he needs to strengthen them by dancing in pointe shoes.  At first this is a source of much hilarity, and Sammy, who has already had his male identity undermined when a clerical error has him rooming with a girl, is quite put out.  But after a few weeks, the only person who finds it funny is an outsider, a non-dancer.  Everyone else knows that pointe work made Sammy a stronger, better dancer.  

Let me just talk about Sammy Leiberman for a while

Athletic white male captured mid-leap, against a dark background.
Publicity portrait of Tom Green as Sammy.

Sammy is an interesting character, and Tom Green’s performance was without doubt one of the highlights of the first two seasons.  Samuel Lieberman has an ambitious father who wants his son to follow him into medicine.  (“I know we don’t like to talk about it, but your grandfather was only a dermatologist.”)  He comes from a conservative Jewish family, has a close relationship with his Yiddish-speaking grandfather, and is acutely aware that he’s letting the family down by pursuing dance instead of his considerable academic potential.

He’s also aware that ballet is perceived as a “feminine” pursuit.  His little brother Ari — who’s into games and, from memory, martial arts — makes sure no one ever forgets it. Because what else are little brothers for, right?  But it’s awkward for Sammy, as he’s trying to persuade his father that he could have a future in ballet, and that it’s not just the easy (feminine) option.  

Sammy eventually comes to terms with the fact that he’s never going to be an alpha male, and over the course of two seasons, his father makes peace with his chosen profession.  But then there’s another wrinkle in his identity: his sexuality.

The episode with the rugby players ends with one of these manly young athletes asking Sammy out.  This in itself is amazing:  football plays a big part in Australian culture, and our various footy codes (we have, like, five) are all notably homophobic at every level.  There are no openly gay football players in Australia.  When I was younger, the sport(s) began to make a concerted push against the institutionalised racism that dominated football.  That work is still ongoing, but the culture of homophobia and misogyny also needs addressing.  To portray an openly gay footballer, even at the junior level, is a big deal for an Australian drama.  Let alone a series aimed at viewers in their early teens.

Sammy is taken aback by the invitation; he’s so befuddled he admits he’s not available.  And thus his secret relationship with Abigail becomes joyously public.  Happiness all around.  If you weren’t paying attention, you’d hardly notice Sammy’s words.  Not, “I’m straight,” but, “I’m taken.”

So it shouldn’t be such a shock that Sammy realises towards the end of the first season that (a) he’s also same-sex attracted, and (b) he’s attracted to Christian, his roommate and best mate.  (No one should ever be surprised when someone is attracted to Christian.  He’s basically a human magnet.)

What follows is a coming out story that’s both familiar and unusual.  Familiar, because “boy falls in love with boy and grapples with his sexuality” stories are a dime a dozen these days, and unusual because, miracle of miracles, Dance Academy acknowledges that bisexuality exists.

“I have these feelings for Christian, and I don’t know if these feelings mean I’m gay,” Sammy says, although the actual dialogue goes, “I have these muffins for mouse ears, and I don’t know if these muffins will make me a labrador,” because it’s easier to talk about scary issues via metaphor.  Sammy thinks he has to choose between losing his identity as a totally straight guy, and losing his best friend.  

This turns out to be a false choice, of course, because Sammy’s identity has always been more complex than mere sexuality, and because even though Christian doesn’t reciprocate his feelings, the honesty between them makes their friendship stronger.

Cut to the second half of season two, and Sammy’s being tutored by Ollie, a third-year student.  Their competitive relationship turns romantic, and Ollie, whose ego far exceeds his respect for boundaries, outs Sammy by telling everyone they’re dating.  

Tara’s reaction to Sammy’s coming out is to hug him and squeal, “I always wanted a gay friend!”  This is adorable, but also problematic, and framed as such:  Sammy responds awkwardly, “But … I’m not…”

Sammy spends the rest of the episode fighting two perceptions:  that he’s attracted to men only, and that being same-sex attracted makes him feminine.  The first perception is imposed externally, by his social circle.  The second is internal, a reflection of the society in which Sammy has been raised.  He himself doesn’t suggest there’s anything negative about being female or feminine, but he’s part of a culture that associates male homo or bisexuality with being effeminate.  Sammy has already come up against the stigma attached to male dancers; now he’s trying to reassert his identity in a society that wants to replace it with a stereotype.

That battle over, there is … his father.  Who is coming to terms with Sammy’s career, but how is this conservative, middle-class Jewish doctor going to cope with his son having a boyfriend?  

Sammy is a really lovely character who tries very hard to do the right thing, but when he stuffs up, wow, he stuffs up.  In fact, he asks Abigail to pretend to be his girlfriend, offending her and Ollie.  And when it’s all made up and everyone’s reconciled, his father doesn’t even care.  He glimpses Sammy and Ollie holding hands, and he smiles, introduces himself, and it’s just a really sweet, positive scene.

And that’s great, because shortly afterwards, Sammy dies.  

I have a lot of feelings about this.  Like, I tear up just thinking about it.  And the cliche of the gay or bisexual character dying is terrible, and should have been beneath the show.

On the other hand, I can see why they had to do it.  Tom Green was leaving — he has changed the spelling of his name to Thom, and can be seen in the lead role in Halo: Forward Unto Dawn and a major role in NBC’s Camp (along with about two-thirds of the Dance Academy cast — but Green is the one making the critics stand up and pay attention).  And Sammy was not a character you could simply write out.  His entire motivation was to be with his friends and dance.  It would have been drastically out of character for him to change his mind and, say, transfer to another ballet school.

What reconciles me, somewhat, is that Ollie has taken Sammy’s place as a regular.  Yes, we’ve replaced a bisexual character with a gay one, and I hate that, but at least the cast hasn’t become 100% heterosexual.  

Even better, though, we’re four episodes into the third season, and Sammy’s presence is still a big part of the show.  His friends are mourning him, examining his legacy and slowly adjusting to a world without him.  He’s gone, but not forgotten.  

Meanwhile, Christian

An athletic young Asian man captured mid-leap on a black background.
Jordan Rodrigues as Christian

Oh, Christian.  Christian, Christian, Christian.

He’s the Bad Boy Love Interest, the Troubled Young Man With A Past.  His mother is dead; his father left when he was young; partway through the first season he’s arrested for an armed robbery.  He’s trouble, but he’s a talented enough dancer that the school keeps giving him second chances.  He’s also the boyfriend Tara can’t quite let go of, although she’s doing a good job so far in season three.

I love him madly.

True confession: the entire reason I started watching Dance Academy was because of Christian.  I was in a cafe, and the series was playing on the TV behind the bar.  No sound, just attractive teens, dance montages, Sydney scenery, and actor Jordan Rodrigues.

Secondary true confession:  the reason Christian caught my eye was because he bears a passing resemblance to Zuko from Avatar: The Last Airbender, and despite my love for Dev Patel and his giant ears, I will never stop being bitter that The Last Airbender was a terrible, racist adaptation that didn’t have Jordan Rodrigues as Zuko.  

Oh yeah, the show’s primary love interest?  A young Asian-Australian.

Now, Australian TV is pretty damn white.  Some shows make a concerted effort to combat that, but they’re generally your gritty, adult dramas.  So while Dance Academy is very, very pale, it’s notable that not one but two prominent love interests are men of colour.  (But more on Ollie later.)

(The overwhelming whiteness of the school is probably an accurate reflection of a prestigious ballet school’s demographics, but should accuracy really be a priority here?  The first season featured an extra, a black girl who could occasionally be seen stretching in the backgrounds — while wearing pyjamas and Ugg boots in one episode — and the second and third seasons feature a clique of juniors led by a brilliantly prissy Asian dancer.  But these are far from prominent characters.)

(But I was talking about Christian.)

Now, Christian represents a whole bundle of cliches, not all of them positive.  It’s pretty dodgy, in my opinion, that the lone Asian cast member is the one who gets in trouble with the law.  (For context, Australia has cliches of gang violence associated with Asian youths.  For example, back in 2007, when I told a co-worker I was moving to Melbourne, he asked if I had felt there was a lack of Vietnamese gangs in my life.  I once mentioned my reservations about Christian’s criminal background to a fellow Australian who was unfamiliar with the series, and her response suggested she was picturing a character who was involved with organised crime.  I was a bit like, It’s ABC3, not Underbelly.)

Christian is also the only character representing the urban poor.  Tara’s family are strapped for cash, but they own a farm, and the rest of the cast are solidly middle class.  Upper middle-class, in some cases.  Christian’s a scholarship kid who grew up in Housing Commission Flats.  Public housing, in other words.  In fact, his class probably has more of an impact on his characterisation than his race, which no doubt stems from Australia’s general reluctance to discuss racial issues.  (‘Cos it’s racist, hey?)

Christian acts as an inter-class ambassador for his peers.  He introduces Ethan to street dancers, saving Ethan’s hip hop choreography assignment from the stigma of inauthenticity.  (I’d argue that there’s still a heavy dose of appropriation in the final product, but appropriation + research, in my opinion, is better than appropriation with no research at all.  It also reflects the show on a meta level — if you’re familiar with the nuances of Australian accents and inflection, most of the working class kids are quite obviously being played by products of the middle class drama school industry.)

Later, when Kat decides to mentor a talented, underprivileged dancer, it’s Christian who warns her that a working class kid is for life, not just for Christmas.  That is to say, she can’t just sweep in with all her privilege and play Lady Bountiful until she gets bored.  Kat’s eventual recognition of her privileges form a big part of her story, although it’s never heavy-handed, and Christian is the first person to call her out.  

Dealing with adults, though, Christian’s background is a liability rather than an asset.  The teachers and authority figures in his life sometimes seem confused by him: why can’t he just accept their help, and trust them and get along?  This is sometimes echoed by the fandom itself: why can’t he just get over it?  

Why, the unspoken litany goes, can’t he just be middle class?

(I am reminded of Legend of Korra fandom’s reaction to Mako, a similarly divisive brooding love interest.  Long before Mako finds himself caring for two girls at the same time, the fandom was complaining he was way too interested in money.  On account of how he was, you know, a former street kid turned professional athlete in an era where “professionals” are being exploited by the industry.  While I’m impressed by the way fandom for once turned on the problematic male rather than the female characters, the tide started turning for Mako when he started talking about money.)

(Classism and fandom: it’s just really interesting, okay?  And I’m quite new to the middle class, so I guess I see it more than others?)

This need for Christian to be a nice, middle class boy tends to be particularly strong when he’s called on to articulate his feelings.  There’s the masculine ideal of the taciturn working class bloke, of course, who only cries when his beer runs out.  But that doesn’t suit the school board and choreographers.  Several times, Christian has been asked to express his feelings verbally, as if these powerful adults want to really get their teeth into his psyche.  Since Christian expresses himself more through action and dance, this never ends well.  The voyeuristic interest in his emotions makes him defensive, as well it might.  “You’ve experienced more than your peers,” they seem to say.  “Let us live vicariously through you.  But let us also judge you.”

…I’m just saying, if there was a Dance Academy vampire AU, the school board would be bloodsuckers.

A young Asian man practices ballet, an older white man looking on from the background.
Christian in training.

Season two marks Christian’s reunion with his absentee father.  The deadbeat Asian dad isn’t an archetype we see very often, although Reed Senior isn’t so much deadbeat as chronically irresponsible.  He lives on the northern coast of New South Wales — it’s never said, but Australians regard that region as the type where everyone is either a hippie stoner artist or a meth head — and handcrafts surfboards.  

The rebuilding of their relationship is a familiar story, executed without any remarkable characteristics.  I like Christian’s dad as a character, but he doesn’t excite me (and the actor is sadly prone to Aussie Soap Acting).  But it’s interesting that this real Aussie bloke demonstrates nothing but mild interest and a bit of pride in his son’s ballet career.  Anything else would be a retread of Sammy’s storyline, of course, but it’s a small subversion of the usual rural Australian male stereotype.  (By contrast, Christian bonds with Tara’s dad over cars.)

A conclusion … FOR NOW

One thing that I think Dance Academy does really well is its portrayal of adolescence as a time for learning one’s boundaries, not just sexually, but emotionally, even professionally.  For the boys, raised in a culture with fairly restrictive concepts of masculinity, this means developing an understanding of their identities as young men, and as young men entering a profession heavily dominated by women.  That’s not to say that the girls aren’t also negotiating with concepts of femininity and feminism, but those stories are often told in media aimed at tweens and teens.  

For me, it’s more remarkable that Dance Academy addresses issues of masculinity in so many ways, but rarely with a misogynistic subtext.  (I will have my Ben rant soon, I promise.)  The stories I’ve discussed above come in addition to, not at the expense of, the stories about the girls.  And, in the context of a series that’s primarily aimed at a female audience, their inclusion is interesting.  There’s a fine line between demonstrating that boys, too, struggle with the patriarchy, and giving their struggles precedence over those of women.  Dance Academy, I think, does unusually well in balancing the two.  

Next week!  Ethan, Ollie and Ben!

The Exotic Place as Other (and notes on cinder, by marissa meyer)

Futures and dystopias are frequently set in completely fabricated cities and worlds and planets, often but not always rising from the ashes of some war or climate catastrophe on Earth. There is extensive world-building and backgrounds established, and aside from the shared past of ‘Earth’ there is at times little else shared; Earth, and the issues of now translated into the text.

Frequently, though, those new dystopic futures are in New Something. New Beijing, New Singapore, New Istanbul. When they’re written in English and set in New Asian Something, I will bet you all the tea in my house that it is shorthand for an exotic distant (future) other; that the name of that place bears no actual relation to the plot or the world building other than something superficial like chopsticks, or the heat, and could have been set in New New York or New Londontown.

When you give the name of a place, you conjure connotations of that place, images and memories and ideas. When you name a place and there is nothing similar between the place you describe and the place you have named, what connotations exactly are you trying to conjure? In many cases, that image is other, and the exotic.

Exotic as Shorthand and the Place as Other

Exotic is a problematic term all on its own, particularly so when it’s applied to some culture you don’t know; in English-language Science Fiction, that’s almost always a place that isn’t a Western place. Tori Truslow wrote a great post in 2012. It’s got totally racist connotations, especially when we’re talking about beauty, particularly women; it separates us, and it others us. It’s frustrating when it’s applied to your food and your culture (as I wrote about five years ago). These are all different topics, but you see the connection: the exotic as other.

And the exotic in a text assumes an audience; but more importantly, it makes assumptions on who is not considered the audience.

In Australia, the term ‘exotic’ is used to refer to introduced species of plants and animals; primarily, English species. Roses are exotic; as are rabbits. I delight in this usage; particularly in my industry where this is the correct terminology.

The words ‘New Place’ are not required to create this artificial and lazy sense of place as other. Firefly, the Joss Whedon space western, is set 500 years in the future when the USA and China have combined to form one governing body and there’s nary an Asian city or country name in sight. There are swearwords in ear-twitching Mandarin, though, and comments about cooking bao and some kitschy East Asian set dressing. There’s no actual evidence of the alleged Chinese upper class, and despite claiming to be a fusion universe the show features no actual Asians (and indeed, described as Pan-Asian rather than the logical outcome of Pan-Chinese). It creates this great sense of place, of other, of how our dystopic future might turn out without resorting to green skies and triple moons…if you’re not sitting there, foaming at the mouth while someone appropriates your culture for its trappings and none of what it could actually contribute (say, actual Asians. And 100 kuai says terraforming was invented by an Asian scientist. Because have you met the Asian monolith?).

Dystopic future Los Angeles as represented in Blade Runner (you know what’s great about Blade Runner? Edward James Olmos) is like the perfect summing up of my point. It’s so perfect, I found some lecturer’s class notes on the internet that agree. This 2019 LA has lots of East Asian elements and non-English languages, and a whole lot of brown people, which reflected a (1980s but still relevant today!) fear of East Asian growth (Japan then, but China now) and an increase in white flight, which in Blade Runner are used as short hand for dystopia.

My disdain for The Wind-Up Girl remains strong, for many reasons, and in my original review I noted that (sorry, I’m totally quoting myself here):

there is really no point to setting the novel in Thailand. Thailand in this novel is othered just like many of the characters, and at most point it feels like any old made up exotic back drop. There’s very little about the setting that is really clearly a future Thailand, except from some mythology stuff. It could have been any old country, so why make it Thailand? Except I guess to make use of its sex trade issues WHY OH WHY. Some reviewers (okay, one commenter on one review) mentioned that it could be because Thailand is the only country that was never colonised by some white dude, which, okay, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s still totally The Other.

And as Jaymee points out in her review, there is not only no justification for this geographical choice, there is also no explanation for inexplicable changes in neighbouring geography, such as the xenophobic fundamentalism of Malaysia (called Malaya in the book) which is inconsistent with a nuanced understanding of Malaysia’s history and racial politics. This oversight highlights the other issue with the exotic as the other: a necessary understanding not only of that one city, but of all its other interactions in the world.

Hilariously, I discovered this review of The Wind-Up Girl (which includes a review for River of Gods, which is a book I really want to read to see how terribly it uses India as a dystopic future setting) which completely disagrees with me, on the grounds that a good future dystopia based on an existing city should be totally different due to science and technology and in fact let me quote from this review, because this bit I agree with:

The right way is to recognize the historical fact that no country reaches the tech frontier without undergoing serious social changes. The faint echoes of samurai and cowboys in the Panasonics and Googles of today are just that – faint echoes. Writers who realize this will try to preserve some element of the spirit of the old in the form of the (imagined) new, rather than trying to cut-and-paste.

True! I will buy this theory, or some of it. However I disagree that The Wind-Up Girl has done so, primarily because I ask this: who are you to make the decision that it is sufficiently echoey? The biggest problem with this theory is that we are writing in the today. As an author not from these cities (as every author I am talking about in this blog post is), can they ever truly be trusted to make these sorts of judgements on a city? Instead, they pick and choose and turn up a city that is never quite right, precisely because it could just as easily have been set anywhere and it has brought nothing to the story other than the exotic as dystopic and different, particularly as the stories are written today, in our actual current world politics. (Thanks once again for making Thailand a stereotype of poverty and sexual slavery, Paolo! It’s not like every Western produced text that features Thailand makes the same statement!)

The Accidental Exotic is My Backyard

There is a flip side to this: the unintended Exotic. Elizabeth Knox suggests that non-USA/English in English writers may do this by accident or even consciously, where one’s normal is in fact the “audience”‘s exotic and different. This again makes assumptions about audiences, and asks what we can expect a reader to know and to understand. Famously Avatar: The Last Airbender was considered by some viewers to be entirely fantasy, including some elements taken directly from Japanese, Chinese and Korean myths and traditions. How much of this is because readers (and viewers) are used to the completely familiar, and the exotic as other?

New Beijing, Imagined (No, Seriously, Imagined) in Cinder, by Marissa Meyer (spoilers included)

Despite its capital of New Beijing, the Eastern Commonwealth is not a China. It can’t be, not with far-flung provinces such as Mumbai, an Emperor named Kaito, and kimonos as formal wear. The emperor eats with chopsticks at one point, and Cinder’s sisters are named Pearl and Peony, and family names before personal names. In the market is a sweet bun baker named Chang Sacha, which I guess could potentially be a pan-Chinese name. There is a moon calendar celebration.

Some reviews mentioned how Chinese it all sounded but it is so not Chinese sounding that I cannot even. It is not even very pan-Asian, which I wouldn’t forgive but would at least be something.

Pearl and Peony are Western stereotypes well before they’re actual Chinese names, especially in a text that’s Linh and Chang and Kaito. Their mother, Adri, makes no sense in this context as a name. Indeed their names even translated, with no naming schema, confuse rather than clarify. There is an Emperor, and with that Japanese name and the Changs and the Linhs (Vietnamese, by the way, if you’re wondering, and also usually a personal name) we’re moving solidly into pan-Asian territory.

The likelihood of China entering an alliance with Japan is as always slim to none for varied historical reasons; I would believe a China-Korea alliance before a China-Japan alliance, though the Singapore I’ll grant, especially if it were a one commonwealth two systems deal.

It’s a lot for me to say that it can’t be New Beijing because the names are broken, but it’s basically all we’re given. This New Beijing could be any North American city that I’ve seen on a tv screen (but surely even then the USA, with its history, is unlikely to accept a hereditary ruler so perhaps not even then). The chances of it being even pan Asian, let alone Chinese, are unlikely. There is nothing in Cinder that gives a sense of place, let alone a sense of a sprawling Chinese city. There is no ridiculous architecture, no noisy press, no constant flux. There is a cluster of apartments rising high into the sky, kids playing in corridors and in my head I imagined Chungking Mansion, the Hong Kong monstrosity, but that was more me than the text.

Awkwardly for me this New Beijing is in a far-flung renumbered distant future, so a defence of this book could be that Earth politics has changed so much that Emperor Kaito (Japanese) could indeed peacefully rule the Eastern Commonwealth of (unnamed) China and Singapore and Mumbai at least, living in New Beijing, and it’s all good.

But uh we live here, in the real politics of the world, and to imply that there is a Japanese ruler of a combined China and Singapore and India is there are no words, imagine me lying on the floor making choking noises as I bury my head in my arm and laugh and laugh and laugh.

The Book Smugglers in a review note that the story is set in New Beijing but really fails to capitalise on that and in addition the story goes out of its way to make Cinder first assumed European, and then Lunar (and we assume, caucasian) – what even is the point? they ask. The point is to use the city as shorthand for characterisation and move on, and this is why representation and research and every thing else is so important. We are not making a needlessly big deal! We are making an actual facts big deal.

Our dystopic future is very scientifically unlikely to be white, because of genetics, and science, and look white people are a minority already, you know? And climate change and the sun and recessive genes, and a lot of our scientific breakthroughs are coming out of Asia and Africa. Do you know how advanced Chinese alternative energy research is? And the fact that authors continue to write our dystopic future as white, or as white hero in a pretend brown world, simply proves the point that we’re used as a backdrop and there’s no actual real reflection of our dystopic future (or our current) in these texts.

(It’s funny how easy it is to misread a thing. Another review claimed that for the ‘sensitive readers’, there was nothing to worry about, unless you were offended by cyborgs. Oh sure, nothing, except the explicit medical trauma where Cinders is offered up for medical experimentation by her step mother, and then we are treated to pages and pages of her tied to a lab table, panicking, having her blood drawn by med robots, her protesting and saying she was not a volunteer, having a disembodied voice telling her too bad. Sure. Nothing to worry about for anyone.)

Imagined World Politics and Their Implications in 2013

New Beijing is in the Eastern Commonwealth, which is ruled by the hereditary ruler Emperor Kaito. An emperor of any Chinese-something alliance is unlikely, given China’s history with hereditary rulers and though the Emperor was such for nearly 2000 years, it will take much to move him back again. The Emperor lives in a palace in New Beijing, so we can assume that New Beijing is the capital of the Eastern Commonwealth. This book was published in 2012, so we can assume that New Beijing implies something about the original power of China moving into this commonwealth, particularly in light of page 28, at which point I gasped out loud: “Subjects had been carted in from provinces as far-reaching as Mumbai and Singapore.”

The provinces of Mumbai and Singapore. The author’s website implies that the ‘Eastern Commonwealth’ is basically Asia, and that there are other similar conglomerates (Africa, Europe and Australia, ruled by a Governor-General).

Speaking of Africa, one of the key components of Cinder is the deadly plague which found its first outbreak in a small village in the African Union. This is revealed to be a disease brought to Earth by refugee Lunars, who have fled to the African Union’s unpopulated areas. It’s problematic that ‘unpopulated Africa’ is the location selected for runaway Lunars (and not, say, unpopulated Europe or unpopulated North America), due to its implications of a continuing ’empty’ or backwards Africa.* It’s problematic that this feeds into the concept of dirty brown people.

In the previous section I talk about why implying the Japanese-China alliance or commonwealth or whatever is a completely ridiculous notion given our real world politics. This conglomeration of the Eastern Commonwealth which I cannot even take seriously because it then refers to the province of Singapore (as opposed to the country of Singapore, which surely is the point of a commonwealth) just continues to give rise to the idea of pan-Asianism, a particularly vexing problem when we are talking about the representation of Asian people in Western texts; that is, we are interchangeable.

My Face

I could really do without authors choosing to set stories in my exotic different cities and then choosing to make the city some random Western smush, with no real need to be set in that city and no real understanding of how my city works.

Please don’t misunderstand me, I’m not all up on my rant horse because she’s ruining my city or my feelings or whatever. But this is definitely a personal issue as well as an intellectual one. It assumes that a non-western audience is not your audience; it assumes unfamiliarity with the setting, because it’s a short-hand; it assumes that my city is short-hand for cool and exotic. And it is lazy and unnecessary and occasionally it makes me very angry.

*a footnote! I’m trying to avoid footnotes but this one is important and definitely a foot: I hate ‘#firstworldproblems’. you know what African countries have? commutes to work that are so short you can’t listen to a whole song, the movie you pirated being only available in poor quality so looking bad on your tv screen, and really expensive socks (all items I have taken from the hashtag right at this moment).