Monday, August 17, 2015

In Defense of the Participation Trophy

NFL player James Harrison recently made a splash with a bit of stunt-parenting in his public decision to take away the "participation trophies" his two children were given in a youth league. It was his insistence that the children earn any award they are given and that absent an actual victory the acceptance of a trophy for participation runs contrary to, as he hashtagged it, #HarrisonFamilyValues. You all know that your humble pixel-and-ink stained wretch is also a father, coincidentally of two children roughly the same age as Harrison's (his are, as we write this, six and eight. Mine are four and eight). This makes parenting one of those issues which resonates with me, and one to which I give a great deal of thought. My thought on this is that Harrison is twice wrong.



Stunt Parenting 
In my opener I referred to this as a bit of "stunt parenting"; my word for disciplinary choices made publicly and loudly as what almost becomes a kind of performance art. You've seen them before over the years; the woman who wrote the needlessly confrontational "contract" for her daughter's use of an iPhone. The redneck idiot who literally shot his daughter's laptop. The halfwit who dressed in a pair of micro-shorts to shame his daughter for what he saw as her poor choice of attire (thought I will concede the possibility that the latter really just wanted to show off the results of all those squats he did at the gym).  There aren't many people who do things like this, but the ones who do get enough attention that public shaming of our kids as punishment has become a bit of a mini-trend.

This is, to my mind, wrong. It make ones kids a prop in a social statement, involves them in a conversation which they didn't ask to join. If the very idea that a six-year-old e given a trophy that he didn't earn with a win is so anathema to Harrison then he has the option of writing a letter to the youth league in which his children play or even in talking to their coach. This is everyone's right as a parent, and given his status as a professional football player there's even a chance that they'd listen to Harrison. He also has the right to quietly take the trophies away from his six and eight-year old sons and tell them that he doesn't believe that they deserve them, and one should only get what one deserves. He'd be wrong to do so, but there's no manual for parenting; on some days it seems like a decades-long journey into all of the ways a human can be wrong about things. We all have to take things away from our children in the name of discipline, safety, or - in this case - values. There's no need for our children to have to be publicly seen losing something.

Everything Must Be Earned - with VICTORY!
I'm sure that some of you think I'm crazy (OK, more crazy than usual) and that the idea that trophies are for winning isn't such a bad one. Why do I disagree on the substance as well as the public nature of it? First, remember, the children are six and eight years old. These are young children just learning about sport and competition. One of the first things they need learn is to participate, to put in effort, to try. They need to learn to listen to the coach, to practice, to win and lose with grace. Rewarding a child for participation encourages the child to keep participating, to come back next season, to keep learning. One gets more of the behavior which one encourages. At such young ages, it is right and appropriate to encourage participation.

Yes, this will mean giving awards to some children who aren't winners. Who are those children? They might be the ones not fortunate enough to be chosen for a more talented team. They might be the ones who are a bit smaller, who are developing at a bit of a slower pace than their peers. They might be the ones whose parents work longer hours and don't have the time to throw a ball around the backyard with them. My point here is that "trophy only for the winner" leaves quite a few kids with the impression - and an accurate NFL player James Harrison recently made a splash with a bit of stunt-parenting in his public decision to take away the "participation trophies" his two children were given in a youth league. It was his insistence that the children earn any award they are given and that absent an actual victory the acceptance of a trophy for participation runs contrary to, as he hashtagged it, #HarrisonFamilyValues. You all know that your humble pixel-and-ink stained wretch is also a father, coincidentally of two children roughly the same age as Harrison's (his are, as we write this, six and eight. Mine are four and eight). This makes parenting one of those issues which resonates with me, and one to which I give a great deal of thought. My thought on this is that Harrison is twice wrong.

Stunt Parenting 
In my opener I referred to this as a bit of "stunt parenting"; my word for disciplinary choices made publicly and loudly as what almost becomes a kind of performance art. You've seen them before over the years; the woman who wrote the needlessly confrontational "contract" for her daughter's use of an iPhone. The redneck idiot who literally shot his daughter's laptop. The halfwit who dressed in a pair of micro-shorts to shame his daughter for what he saw as her poor choice of attire (thought I will concede the possibility that the latter really just wanted to show off the results of all those squats he did at the gym).  There aren't many people who do things like this, but the ones who do get enough attention that public shaming of our kids as punishment has become a bit of a mini-trend.

This is, to my mind, wrong. It make ones kids a prop in a social statement, involves them in a conversation which they didn't ask to join. If the very idea that a six-year-old e given a trophy that he didn't earn with a win is so anathema to Harrison then he has the option of writing a letter to the youth league in which his children play or even in talking to their coach. This is everyone's right as a parent, and given his status as a professional football player there's even a chance that they'd listen to Harrison. He also has the right to quietly take the trophies away from his six and eight-year old sons and tell them that he doesn't believe that they deserve them, and one should only get what one deserves. He'd be wrong to do so, but there's no manual for parenting; on some days it seems like a decades-long journey into all of the ways a human can be wrong about things. We all have to take things away from our children in the name of discipline, safety, or - in this case - values. There's no need for our children to have to be publicly seen losing something.

Everything Must Be Earned - with VICTORY!
I'm sure that some of you think I'm crazy (OK, more crazy than usual) and that the idea that trophies are for winning isn't such a bad one. Why do I disagree on the substance as well as the public nature of it? First, remember, the children are six and eight years old. These are young children just learning about sport and competition. One of the first things they need learn is to participate, to put in effort, to try. They need to learn to listen to the coach, to practice, to win and lose with grace. Rewarding a child for participation encourages the child to keep participating, to come back next season, to keep learning. Yes, this will mean giving awards to some children who aren't winners. Who are those children? They might be the ones not fortunate enough to be chosen for a more talented team. They might be the ones who are a bit smaller, who are developing at a bit of a slower pace than their peers. They might be the ones whose parents work longer hours and don't have the time to throw a ball around the backyard with them. My point here is that "trophy only for the winner" leaves quite a few kids with the impression - and an accurate impression at that - that the trophy and recognition are beyond their reach for factors over which they have no control. Absent the promise of reward there's less incentive to keep coming back and keep trying. Yes, some will - but some will feel dejected and grow resentful. Remember these are children under the age of ten about whom we're talking, including a six year old. That anybody would take a trophy away from a six year old with the words "you didn't earn that" is, to me, bizarre and cruel.

This leans towards the political for me because it plays into the libertarian fallacy that we live in a perfect meritocracy in which the winners are those with the drive and skills and effort who deserve to win. It ignores chance (the luck of the draw putting a slightly awkward kid on the same team as a few budding superstars), and privilege (the ability of some to afford equipment to practice at home, private lessons, or even extra time with the parents). It sends a poor message to those not getting a trophy that their effort is not appreciated, but it sends an equally poor message to the winners that they're better than the losers, and that they deserve more based on their being on a winning team.

There was a scene in George Martin's A Game of Thrones in which Jon Snow, a the bastard son of the powerful and honorable Eddard Stark, gets into an altercation with his fellow soldiers on the Night Watch. He easily bests one in a duel, and is asked by his commander if he thinks the men he beat had had lessons in swordplay, time to train and practice, and even a proper sword at an early age. Snow was shamed, and gained a measure of humility in his dealings with those from the lower classes. The idea that winning is everything worth rewarding is a complete reversal of this lesson.

But....that's not how the real world works!
The biggest argument I see against participation trophies is the idea that kids need to learn "how the real world works". Setting aside for the moment the question of whether or not taking a trophy away from a six-year-old is a reasonable way to teach such a lesson - or if such lessons need to be taught at all - I'd argue that for the majority of us this is NOT how the world works. The real world can be competitive, yes. But it can also be collaborative. Yes, in the workplace an employer will expect results but in my experience they will give those who show effort and a positive attitude more chances to learn to succeed. It's also my experience that those who do keep trying often do, in the end, contribute something of value.

I'll close with a true story. In September a few years back I was hired for my current position at the firm of Shen, Milsom and Wilke. IT was a good start for me in which I made some friends on our team, joined in the effort to complete various projects, and overall started learning the ropes of the consulting side of the AV business. In January, four months after I'd started, the department head called me into his office for my review. At the end he said that this is when year-end bonuses would be given out and that the department had done well enough that year to merit bonuses for the staff. When I told him that I understood that I'd only been there a few months but looked forward to helping earn a bonus the next year I was told that at present I was a member of the team, and as a member of the team would share in the bonus with everyone else. It was, arguably, a participation trophy in real life; I was the junior-most member of the staff and am sure that whatever success the department had it could have had without me. What it did was send a message that I belonged, was accepted, was valued. It gave me something to work towards earning the next year and the year after that, and is one of the many reasons that I don't take return the call if I'm approached by a recruiter or headhunter.

The real world is like that. Sometimes someone ends up on the winning team without having earned it. Sometimes one ends up on the losing team and deserved to win. What's important - what we need to encourage with praise and awards and even trophies - is showing up every day, putting in our best effort, and showing grace and class in both victory and defeat.

So if your kid shows up to the game, is focused at practice, and seems to care then by all means feed and encourage that effort with whatever means you can. Don't tell him by your actions that  just because he's a loser if he's not on the winning team.impression at that - that the trophy and recognition are beyond their reach for factors over which they have no control. Absent the promise of reward there's less incentive to keep coming back and keep trying. Yes, some will - but some will feel dejected and grow resentful. Remember these are children under the age of ten about whom we're talking, including a six year old. That anybody would take a trophy away from a six year old with the words "you didn't earn that" is, to me, bizarre and cruel. It also risks driving away those who can't see a path to victory for themselves, robbing them of the chance to grow into the sport and perhaps even later earn some wins.

This leans towards the political for me because it plays into the libertarian fallacy that we live in a perfect meritocracy in which the winners are those with the drive and skills and effort who deserve to win. It ignores chance (the luck of the draw putting a slightly awkward kid on the same team as a few budding superstars), and privilege (the ability of some to afford equipment to practice at home, private lessons, or even extra time with the parents). It sends a poor message to those not getting a trophy that their effort is not appreciated, but it sends an equally poor message to the winners that they're better than the losers, and that they deserve more based on their being on a winning team.


But....that's not how the real world works!
The biggest argument I see against participation trophies is the idea that kids need to learn "how the real world works". Setting aside for the moment the question of whether or not taking a trophy away from a six-year-old is a reasonable way to teach such a lesson - or if such lessons need to be taught at all - I'd argue that for the majority of us this is NOT how the world works. The real world can be competitive, yes. But it can also be collaborative. Yes, in the workplace an employer will expect results but in my experience they will give those who show effort and a positive attitude more chances to learn to succeed. It's also my experience that those who do keep trying often do, in the end, contribute something of value.

I'll close with a true story. In September a few years back I was hired for my current position at the firm of Shen, Milsom and Wilke. IT was a good start for me in which I made some friends on our team, joined in the effort to complete various projects, and overall started learning the ropes of the consulting side of the AV business. In January, four months after I'd started, the department head called me into his office for my review. At the end he said that this is when year-end bonuses would be given out and that the department had done well enough that year to merit bonuses for the staff. When I told him that I understood that I'd only been there a few months but looked forward to helping earn a bonus the next year I was told that at present I was a member of the team, and as a member of the team would share in the bonus with everyone else. It was, arguably, a participation trophy in real life; I was the junior-most member of the staff and am sure that whatever success the department had it could have had without me. What it did was send a message that I belonged, was accepted, was valued. It gave me something to work towards earning the next year and the year after that, and is one of the many reasons that I don't take return the call if I'm approached by a recruiter or headhunter.

The real world is like that. Sometimes someone ends up on the winning team without having earned it. Sometimes one ends up on the losing team and deserved to win. What's important - what we need to encourage with praise and awards and even trophies - is showing up every day, putting in our best effort, and showing grace and class in both victory and defeat.

So if your kid shows up to the game, is focused at practice, and seems to care then by all means feed and encourage that effort with whatever means you can. Don't tell him by your actions that  just because he's a loser if he's not on the winning team.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Flash Fiction - Lighting the Moon

A quick trifle for you today; just a snapshot of a ritual in a world different from ours. Read, ponder, think of how it would be different to live in a place in which the things we inexplicably see as shameful are instead celebrated.

Thanks for the prompt to Bliss Morgan who shared it from places unknown to me. 


"Candlelight and Moonlight"
by L Czhorat Suskin

The queen felt it again, the clenching in her insides as the second fortnight drew near. Clenching her teeth against the tightness in her belly, she walked to the forecourt, the stones cool against her bare feet. 

It was the time again. She savored the familiar ache in shoulderblades and back as she raised the white flag high above the castle. The flag that called the townfolk to join her, to help light the moon.

Word spreads quickly; one sharp-eyed young boy sees the flag and the town is filled with the sounds of running, of feet slapping cobblestones, of shutters thrown open. 

Everyone's long since built their lanterns, blood-orange-red stained paper stretched over a light wood frame. A bit of wire holds the candle which will burn it into the sky. When the sun sets we're already waiting outside - nearly all of us. Old women who no longer can hear the moon's call, young girls who've not yet heard it. Boys and men who feel nothing inside but believe with a deep certainty that this is right, that the time has come again to light the moon. 

In the squares, in the streets, in courtyards knots of people gather around their lanterns, a thousand thousand candleflames casting liquid-amber pools of light.

Why do we do this? Because it is always done. Because the moon needs to share our light. Because it is time.

As the sun sets we lift our candles skyward, for just one moment banishing the night. 

Every eye in the town gazes skyward as the lanterns ascend save those of the queen, who looks down upon the crowd, her eyes moist with tears and her belly still tight and in pain. The pain ebbed as the lanterns soared up, up, up, higher. Until the first kissed the silvery moon, candleflame scorching it deep red.

It was a good ritual, a thing well-done. The next day the Queen  lowered the white flag. The new flag she raised had been white, but was roughly stained the color of rust. The color they'd painted the moon. It was the flag of celebration, of a day to rejoice. It was a day of rest, until again the moon called for our light, our celebration, our love.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Loving Baseball as a Writer

Two greats of American literature
at a Red Sox game.
As we enter the last few weeks of the baseball season, I'd like to share my appreciation of the game with you as well as some thoughts of why baseball is, in many ways, the most literary of sports. With one hundred sixty-two games over a few short months, baseball is part of the rhythm of the summer, faceless voices on the radio painting a word-picture as background music to accompany yardwork, days at the beach, or just a Sunday drive. It can be more than that; like a great novel a baseball season rewards a bit of focus and attentiveness to detail. There's a richness and complexity which, as a teller of stories, I find quite appealing.

One bit of writing advice which stuck with me is that anything you include in a novel needs to serve at least two purposes, be that to advance the plot, help set a tone, develop characters, illuminate a relationship, give background information, or something else. If all one worries about is plot, then one ends up with a flat, single-dimensional book. What does this have to do with baseball? While a baseball game might be a story, the bigger story is the entire season with choices made day-by-day having ripple effects for weeks if not the entire summer. Picture a scene: my beloved Mets are trailing by one run in the sixth inning. It's late May, the bottom of the sixth inning  with the pitcher coming up to bat. Not a very dramatic moment, is it? Not bases loaded, 2 outs, bottom of the ninth in October. What I love about baseball is that the choice here matters, not just for today, but for tomorrow and the next tomorrow and, in a way, the whole season. What happens next?

Does the pitcher take his at bat, perhaps strike out? He'll have to pitch the next inning and, if the team is limiting his innings to prevent injury he might have to exit a late-season game earlier. In the shorter story of the single game, the opposing batters have all seen him a few times now and might have a better chance of getting a hit, especially as he is tiring.

Do we pinch-hit and go to a relief pitcher? Who? Carlos Torres again? He's been the most  consistent reliever, but he's pitched three times already this week. If we run him out there again today, will he be available tomorrow? is he a rubber-armed wonder, or will he eventually go from being our best reliever to an afterthought as over-work begins to renders him ineffective? (this arguably happened this year; Torres went from the first choice to something farther back as he was, quite likely, overworked over the first months of the season). If we pinch hit, who is it? Is there a bench player who needs another at bat or two to avoid getting a bit rusty, or have the part-time players given most of what they can?

It takes attentiveness to see how choosing a given player for a given role makes a difference long-term, but the connections are there for those who watch closely and attentively. Compare, say, a football game in which each week's game is in many ways an isolated event. The best players will play this week, the best players will play next week. There's far less managing a season and more managing a single game. A baseball season is serial; if you want to compare to a TV show it's a serial show in which a larger story builds over the course of a season - and beyond.

Through the magic of the internet, those of us who are serious and semi-serious fans can follow the team's minor league prospects. Two years ago, for example, the Mets traded Cy Young award winner R.A. Dickey for, amongst others, catcher Travis d'Arnaud and pitching prospect Noah Syndergaard. Syndergaard in particular became quite the story as he moved up the organization, perhaps struggled a bit, and took a whole year before arriving in the big leagues. When we first saw him it was the final act in a play that had opened two years prior, his name and fame preceding him. It was for this reason - and this story - that I attended Syndergaard's first home game at Citi Field.

Taking advantage of a quiet moment to learn the lost
art of scorekeeping
And, sometimes, we get a personal story. This year the Mets famously almost traded their starting second basement Wilmer Flores. When the deal was announced during a game, Flores was given a warm ovation by the crowd. Whether by the crowd response, the reality of being traded from the only team he ever knew, or some combination of the two, Flores was literally brought to tears on the field. The trade, as we now know, fell through. Flores got another standing ovation from the home crowd his next game and, in a moment too cliched for me to even consider putting it in actual fiction, drove in the game winning run in extra innings. It was a great moment much greater for those who've followed the whole story from Flores' initial signing at the age of 16 to his time in the minor leagues to his sometimes struggles to play various infield positions for the sake of the team. I find great joy in following stories like this for a bad team with unsuccessful seasons while carrying the hope that things will turn around and get better. When the team starts winning (as my beloved Mets are now) it feels that, as a fan, I've earned the joy in seeing their success by sticking with them for the years of struggle.


Finally, on a note of personal taste, baseball is a slow-paced game of pregnant pauses, anticipation, white-space framing the action. It's slow enough that one can think about and digest all of these small moments. It's a fandom which I often try to communicate, but with some difficulty; watching a single game can be a pleasant enough experience, but without the larger picture it is missing - at least to me - a measure of the richness which makes it special. 


Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Reading with the kids - Book Review of Akata Witch, by Nnnedi Okorofor

Stop me if you've heard this one before:

A young person ignorant of the secret world of magic and witchcraft which exists around us finds that they have great potential and is taken to a hidden place of magical schooling. Lessons are learned, friendships and alliances are formed with peers. There are moments of mistakes and hubris, but our protagonist eventually grows up somewhat and is forced to face a potent and malevolent foe with a surprising personal connection.

No, I'm not talking about Harry Potter. I'm talking about Nnedi Okorofor's YA novel Akata Witch, which takes the broad tropes of "learning magic" out of the familiar British, American, or faux-medieval settings to Nigeria. It's also a very smart and elegantly written book which, in various ways, answers some of the issues raised by other novels in this genre.

I came to this one because, of course, of Chloe's interest in fantasy fiction (those who follow here will know that she's my daughter, that we read the Narnia books together last year and the late Sir Terry's "Tiffany Aching" subseries of Discworld more recently). And no, I don't want her to read fantasy exclusively but I do see her developing a love and appreciation for it, and want to feed that with diverse voices.

Akata Witch is the  story of Sunny, a twelve-year old girl or African descent whose family has moved back to Africa from the United States. As an immigrant and an albino she is, in her way, doubly an outsider. Early on there's a portent of an apocalyptic future, a meeting with fellow gifted students who've already been initiated into the secret worlds of magic and, ultimately, a trip to the hidden parts of our world in which magical arts are taught and studied. In addition to the African setting which, quite honestly, is something of which I don't get enough in my reading, here are several  unique elements including a parallel magical economy based entirely on learning. It's also quite refreshing to see Sunny's magical education as a secret she needs to carry, with no convenient departure from the "mundane" world; she simply needs to learn to juggle actual school lessons, a home life, and secret meetings with powerful users of magic who might come to mentor her.

There is, of course, a threat in a mysterious ritual killer stalking children the same age as Sunny and her new companions. The relationship of the four members of what we learn is an "Owa coven" - a group put together by chance to meet some challenge - is one delightful part of the book. In too many of these stories such groups devolve into a "chosen one" and "spear carriers". In this case, it doesn't appear to be so. While Sunny is definitely our protagonist, the others make as many mistakes, solve as many challenges, and are portrayed as equals.

There's also real menace throughout, the threat of loss, and a few moments of rather graphic and brutal violence. None of it is gratuitous, and it does fill its role in raising the stakes considerably. The book is paced a tiny bit oddly in that the final confrontation and climax seems rushed, but the more I think about it the less it bothers me; most stories about vanquishing a monster are not really about said monster, but about coming of age and learning something about oneself. Of the growing and learning we get plenty, even if there probably could have been a little bit more time devoted to certain family stories and secrets.

Is it a worthwhile YA coming-of-age magic book? I'll go beyond that and simply say that it's a worthwhile book. The benefits of exploring variations within a genre and even a sub-genre are something extra.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Seamstress without A Needle - Review of Elizabeth Bear's Karen Memory

It's book recommendation time! This week we'll be talking about Steampunk which, for those who don't know, is a science fiction subgenre based on fantastic (and usually impossible) reimaginings of Victorian-era steam-driven technologies. At its worst, Steampunk falls into an obsession with Victorian and imaginary-victorian trappings - corsets and tophats, airships and brass monocles, the odd babbage engine. At its best, it uses these trappings to examine a point in history when old social orders were being overturned and, in the divide between rich and poor, look at today's world through a funhouse mirror. In fact, I'd say that the best science fiction is always a funhouse mirror through which we can view our own world.

Regular readers of this blog should know that I adore the writing of Elizabeth Bear; her work is always compelling with a great eye for character and for detail. I greatly envy her talent. Her Karen Memory is a "Wild West Steampunk" novel, taking place in the imaginary Alaska town of Cedar Rapids during a gold-rush in the late nineteenth century. Before we see any fancy steampunk trappings we meet our protagonist and narrator, "seamstress" Karen Memery:


Yes, she does what you think that she does, and it's handled as well as you'd expect; the work colors Memery's perception of men, but hasnt' twisted her into a misogynist. The work plays a significant role in the novel, both in terms of plot and theme, but it's never played for titillation. In fact, while the characters have plenty of sex (as they are working in a brothel) there are no explicit sex scenes. While there is empowerment in Memery and her peers earning a living and while they do have the good fortune of working at the Hotel Mon Cherie (the French is deliberately wrong),  the "good" brothel owned and run by a Madame Damnable - a  woman with an interesting past of her own -  it's not quite sugar-coated or sentimentalized. In fact, one important character refuses the chance at joining Madame Damnable's "sewing circle", even having few other choices. While she keeps a measure of her dignity, it remains clear that Memery's choice to earn a living on her back was no choice at all in reality; institutional sexism leaves few other choices for a young woman on her own.

The action begins with a girl rescued from a rival house of ill repute (this one of truly ill-repute, in which the girls were treated as literal slaves), brought to the Hotel Mon Cherie, triggering a major flare-up in the rivalry between Madame Damnable and her counterpart the odious Peter Bantle. Soon there's a Jack the Ripper style string of murderer persued by  a far-traveling US Marshall, literal rooftop chases, daring escapes and, yes, an airship. Wouldn't be a steampunk novel without one. There's not much sex but there IS a same-sex romance (oh, how I long for the day when such things are common enough that I can just say "romance". Alas, that day is  not today). This is not high-tea and top-hat style steampunk; the characters about whom we come to care are always on the peripheries: an (Asian) Indian woman saved from sex slavery by a Chinese-American freedom fighter of sorts (real-life sex-worker rights activists  would be glad to know that she has a perfectly healthy relationship with the voluntary seamstresses of Madame Damnables and does not equate all prostitution with slaver), an African-American marshall with his Native-American posseman. The latter character - Marhsall Bass Reeves - is based, according to the author's note, on an actual historical figure on whom the Lone Ranger myth was quite possibly based -- a myth which quite literally strips him of his actual skin.


For anyone who loves the wild west, who loves Steampunk, or simply loves a good tale Karen Memor is well-worth the reading. Very highly recommended. 

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Dragonslayers of V'khaim


It's Flash Fiction Tuesday.

This is a short, simple fable with dragons in it as well as a touch of wordplay. 




The Dragonslayers of V'khaim
by Leonard C Suskin

Far from the village of V'kaim, deep in the wood is a simple, rough hut of fallen trees, mud, under a ragged rooftop of still green branches laced with leaves. It's the kind of shelter put up quickly, slowly weatherproofed over the months, easily abandoned. It's been abandon many times, but the hermit has always fled.

I've always fled. And I've gotten away. They keep hunting me. The dragonhunters.  Because I did what they wouldn't.

I killed the dragon.

Why did I let you find me? Perhaps I'm weary. Perhaps I want to tell the story, the story the other dragon hunters won't tell.

I slew the dragon.


You know the history, I'm sure. A peaceful village, its name taken from its mystic healing springs. Pilgrims came far and wide for their healing miracles of the water cure, and miracles were delivered. They bathed in the mystic waters, they drank of them, chirurgeons infused them directly into veins.  The sick and desperate tend to be poor, but the odd desperate noble every now and then would  fill our coffers and walk away with a healthy body or, sometimes, a healthy bride. It was home, with an air of healing magic that kept us all healthy. It was a pleasant enough life, but for the Dragon Salemo. It demanded, as seems Dragonnish tradition, a tribute of twelve virgin girls each year. To you, I suppose, it still is home.

We paid, and we were safe. No armies dared attack us, pilgrims would come for healing, the earth was fertile.

The best and bravest of us would sometimes venture forth, to hunt the dragon. Full of bluster they'd leave, silently they'd return, never speaking on what they saw. They formed a brotherhood of sorts, shaking their silent heads sadly when a new youth would seek the Dragon, then welcoming him on his return to join them in silence. We didn't shun them exactly, but they shamed us with their failure. I sometimes gave them alms.

You know the history, so you know that I chose to take arms, to hunt the dragon, this scourge of our elsewise idyllic home. The story of how I got there is common enough; struggles with highwaymen, wild beasts, cunning traps left behind by the ancient mountainfolk. It matters not. What matters is that I arrived. Face to scaly face with Salemo, the Dragon of the North.

It hung its head sadly as I approached, armed with my dragonkilling spear and boiled leather shield. "Many have come. Follow, and understand. What I do, I do for love."

Deep into its mountain cave the dragon took me, deep in the mountain cave I saw her. The last year's sacrifice. She was bound, submerged to the waist in a deep underground stream, the water around her clouded with blood.

"The others wait their turn. It is a rare, Dragonnish magic I found, that their blood might infuse this spring - the same waters which give your town its fame - with purity and healing magic. It is a great secret. If you speak of it, I will withdraw my gift and my protections. Be silent, and all will continue as it has been. It is an offer I have made many a time, and no man has refused."

My spear penetrated his scaly skin with surprising ease. I wish I could say that I taunted him before he died, but I didn't speak until after his body stopped twitching.

"I am no man."

When I returned the last victim to the village, they knew. The silent, would-be dragonslayers. It was they who drove me out of town, to live hear in the trackless wilderness. Sometimes a woman or an old man who lost a daughter to the beast will leave me some dried meat or an old but serviceable tool. Sometimes an angry young man will hunt me, as I once hunted the dragon. This hut has been moved and rebuilt many a time.

Why did I let you find me? Because I saw something. A baby dragon. I know how it got here, and I know there are more.

If you listened to the story,  you'll know too. It's quite obvious. 
I'm sure that all of the hunters know, and I'm sure that they didn't care.


Now you know. You'll know to not trust the dragons, you'll know to hunt them.

You'll know that whatever it is they offer, it will not be worth it.

Monday, July 20, 2015

About that Slave Leia figure; When All Women are Pin-Ups.

Earlier  this month, a concerned parent complained to Hasbro that the easiest to find Princess Leia action figure was the "Slave Leia" costume from her brief imprisonment by Jabba the Hutt at the beginning of Episode VI. The complainant has been praise for caring about female depiction and empowerment, ridiculed for not understanding the source material, and ignored from various corners of the internet. Coincidentally, this kerfuffle comes on the occasion of my daughter's first watching of the films at the age of eight. Last night we watched the first film, A New Hope. (For the purpose of this discussion, there are a total of three Star Wars films, which were released in 1977, 1980, and 1983. This isn't prequel-bashing, but an acknowledgement that the "classic trilogy" has a place of cultural important and influence which the later ones do not share). It's worth looking at what Star Wars says about women, why "Slave Leia" is so problematic (as I believe that, to an extent, it is), and how things could be better.


First, re-watching Episode IV with my daughter was overall a wonderful experience. The acting is, of course, abysmal as is much of the dialog, the plot is fairly predictable and the villains range from cartoonishly pure-evil (Darth Vader and Grand Moff Tarkin) to cartoonishly stupid (the Stormtroopers). That said, the film has a distinctive look,  some great (for its time) action sequences, and is great fun overall. Getting to the topic of the depiction of women, one can't help but smile at Princess Leia, especially in the moment where she takes control of her rescue after Han and Luke have gotten themselves cornered. Throughout the movie she's depicted as strong, dignified, and honorable. Given this portrayal of overall strength, why is it a problem for her to be very briefly stripped of her clothes and dignity only to turn around and literally use her chains to strangle her captor? Two reasons.

First, and most importantly, is that anything which happens to Leia happens to all women. Why? Because Leia is very nearly the only named female character in the trilogy (yes, there's Luke's Aunt Beru who gets perhaps four minutes of screen time and about six lines of dialog. We barely get to know her and barely remember her when the final credits roll). This gives her depiction a gravity which isn't there for male characters. Han Solo appears selfish and arrogant? He's counterbalanced by the naive, good-hearted simple farmboy. Lando Calrissian acts cowardly and dishonest? Not, as they say on Twitter, all men; there are plenty who are honest and honorable. Han Solo is taken prisoner, frozen in carbonite? Another man is there to lead the rescue effort. Princess Leia is captured by Stormtroopers, captured by Jabba the Hutt, forced to wear a metal bikini? That's every single woman we know in the Star Wars universe. Watching Episode IV, I noticed that the background characters don't even  include women - and that's a shame. Why not have some female soldiers fighting alongside the men in the Rebellion? Why are there no female officers on the Death Star? The more women present, the less representation becomes a statement on women in general and the more it becomes about the single character.

How female fans depict to Leia
More Leia cosplay
The second issue is that the Slave Leia costume is blatant sexualization which teaches girls that participation includes showing off female bodies. Take these Google Image Search results for "Princess Leia Cosplay"; I took the very first images which came up and see that, of the first dozen, ten are the "slave" outfit. Yes, women are within their rights to show off their bodies if they want and no, I don't consider such displays shameful.  What it DOES remind us is that messages - even unintended ones -  echo and that sex, as they say, sells. Throughout the films, we see Leia as a warrior, a leader, and a hero in her own right. We see her defiantly stand up to her captors, including the imposing and intimidating Darth Vader. We see her in battle, blaster in hand. We see her dressed in long white robes, in cold-weather gear, in jungle camoflauge. And, for a few minutes of one film, we see her in a metal bikini. Sexual displays of female bodies get so much attention in our society that the one glimpse of her body takes a disproportionate share of our consciousness, and is elevated to an iconic status which, to be fair, the source material does not deserve. As I said, Leia is a hero and a strong character whose focus is NOT her sexuality.

How female fans depict Hermione Granger.
Note that she is wearing clothes. 
When we sexualize the only female character in a franchise, we encourage sexual engagement from fans and send a message that fandom is about sex. When we only have one female character, that character represents ALL women. Compare, for the sake of discussion, the Harry Potter books and films. While the main character is a boy, we have multiple important women and girls (Professor McGonagall, Hermione Granger, Luna Lovegood and, arguably the most important villain of the series, Dolores Umbridge). This means that Luna's flightiness tells us that Luna is flighty, not that girls are flighty. 

It's also noteworthy that, even as characters mature and fall into relationships, neither Rowling nor the various filmakers involved "sexed up" any of the female characters. If you look at cosplay of Hermione Granger, for example, you'll see the same kind of dress-up as Harry Potter cosplay; representations of the character as they are. The Potter characters aren't sexless by any means; one could argue that the Harry Potter books are a more adult-oriented work than Star Wars, certainly with a more interesting a varied take on romance. That they could do this without turning all females into pinups is a good thing.

So yes, while I understand that it's part of canon and that many fans have affection for it, the Slave-Leia depiction is a big negative in portrayal of women and in giving them a broad welcome into fandom. We need to do better. 


Agree? Disagree? Let me know. Watch this space for more flash fiction later this week, and check out my AV-related posts over on rAVepubs.