Oh, My Pop Culture Westboro: Fantastic Beasts and Magic as Metaphor Instead of Genuine Representation… Again

I enjoyed 2016’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them movie, though like Lady Geek Girl, I felt it had a lot of logical issues and problems with racial representation. The film didn’t have much in the way of religious or LGBTQ+ representation either… but it did have metaphors for them. Which—do we even have to say it anymore?—is not enough.

We’ve called out the Harry Potter series before for using magic and various conditions in the wizarding world as a metaphor for different kinds of oppression in the real world, such as lycanthropy as a metaphor for AIDs and discrimination against non-purebloods as a metaphor for racism. The problem with these metaphors is that readers might not make the connection to the real-world problem, so in order for them to really have impact, there should be examples of the real-world issue too. For instance, the series could have featured more prominent characters of color who experienced racism in the Muggle world in addition to discussions of blood “purity”. Instead we got a cast of all white protagonists, with characters of color getting very little development.

J. K. Rowling makes no secret of her support for social justice causes (just look at her Twitter feed!). In fact, she’s totally fine with headcanoning Hermione as Black and applauded the casting of Noma Dumezweni, a Black woman, as Hermione in the Cursed Child play, and racebending Hermione helps to relieve some issues about her Muggleborn blood status acting as a stand-in for discrimination rather than discussing any real-life discrimination. But real-life discrimination is still not discussed in canon. You would think that maybe Rowling would have listened graciously to some of these criticisms about hiding real-world issues behind metaphors that not everyone is going to get, and would have worked harder to avoid them in her next work. What is that next work? Fantastic Beasts. Did she listen? Nope. Instead the movie gave us a new metaphor to grapple with: obscurials as coded LGBTQ+ children repressed by overzealous religious families, in this case represented by the Second Salemers. And it isn’t pretty.

Spoilers for many aspects of Fantastic Beasts below the jump!

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Fandom Is Good for You: The Educational Implications of Fan Engagement

Now that this semester of grad school has ended, I finally have time to write a post! It just so happens to be our last post before our holiday break, too, which tells you a bit about the craziness of my schedule…. You see, I’m a PhD student studying Learning Sciences, which is all about researching how people learn and how we can use those findings to reform the educational system. Trying to balance my online fandom life with my grad school life has been an ongoing struggle, but surprisingly, one of the things I’ve learned in my program is that many researchers in and around this field study the educational implications of fandom. Well, now I’m here to cross over between my offline and online life by sharing some of that work with you, as well as some findings from my own research!

It may come as no surprise to you that fans learn a great deal from engaging in fandom, whether they’re writing fanfics, composing meta, creating fanart, making cosplays, or heck, even writing essays from a critical lens like on this blog! But fandom still tends to be viewed dismissively by mainstream culture, and even we fans sometimes devalue our engagement as a mere “hobby”. Modern learning theorists now acknowledge the importance of learning outside of school, and are calling for in-school learning to be more like the interest- and peer-driven realm of outside-of-school learning, including hobbies like fandom. There are so many ways that fan engagement is related to the kinds of subjects people learn in school and to skills that are generally useful in life. And better yet, it’s in a context that people really care about, rather than the decontextualized content conventionally presented in schools, which can seem random and unconnected to students’ lives.

So, this fandom thing you’re doing right now? It’s totally legitimate, important, and socially responsible. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise!

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Let Syng-sensei educate you!

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Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: Faith and the Romantic Child in The Little Prince

I had just recently read the original book version of The Little Prince when I watched the Netflix movie adaptation of it. The movie was gorgeous, and I think it did right by its source material. It managed to include a great deal from the book in beautiful stop-motion animation sequences that looked like folded, textured paper, while adding an additional plot that stayed true to the message of the original. But it drove home (perhaps too heavy-handedly) a few points that I had not fully grasped while reading the book: faith in the improbable and death and childhood innocence as two sides of the divine-encounter coin. This latter idea first became popular during the Romantic period (which peaked somewhere between 1800 and 1850), and has been with us in Western society ever since. Unlike some Romantic poems, though, and even arguably the book itself, the movie manages to convey these messages in a hopeful, uplifting manner.

Major spoilers for both the book and movie versions of The Little Prince below!

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A Likely Story: M.T. Anderson’s Dystopia Feed and the Tyranny of Corporate Consumerism

I really like dystopian fiction. Whether old classics like Brave New World or more recent YA blockbusters like the Hunger Games trilogy, I think it tends to provide piercing commentary on modern-day issues, no matter how far in the future the story is set. Their power comes not so much from accurate predictions about how our future will be, as from the scary ways that we can see these dystopian scenarios already playing out in the current world around us. For instance, if you apply Hunger Games to today’s world, you’d see that we in the developed world are the Capitol, the developing countries and poorer parts of our own countries from which we extract cheap goods and resources are the Districts, child labor is the Hunger Games, and of course, media manipulation is ever-present, keeping us complacent (and this is just one interpretation).

The thing is, though, I don’t find the literal scenario of a power-hungry dictator forcing children to fight each other to the death for the entertainment of elites to be very likely to ever happen, at least not in the United States. And the more likely I find a dystopian story to be, the scarier and more poignant I find its message.

There is one dystopian YA novel that is becoming a more and more accurate prediction of our future every day. And that’s because the “bad guy” is not a reductio ad absurdum oppressive government regime, but something I find even scarier: corporate control.

Before checking out the rest of the post below, I beg you to go read M.T. Anderson’s Feed, not just because I’m going to spoil it, but because it should seriously be required reading for, well, everyone. Finished? Shaken? Good. Let’s go.

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Magical Mondays: Time Loops and Cheating Death in the Miss Peregrine Trilogy

When I first saw the trailer for the Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children movie coming out later this year, I wasn’t super interested until Miss Peregrine literally turned into a peregrine falcon. Falcons are one of my favorite birds! So I decided to seek out the books to find out what this series is all about before the movie comes out.

All in all, I was quite impressed with the books. If you’re trying to tell a story about British kids with magic powers that’s wildly different from Harry Potter, then this is the way to do it. Author Ransom Riggs not only found ingenious ways to incorporate the “peculiar” old photographs he found into the story (e.g., the photo of the floating girl on the cover inspired a character whose peculiar ability is to float), but he also used them to inspire a quite original take on how “magical” (called “peculiar” in this trilogy) folks can hide within plain sight in the world of “normals”: time loops. But while I loved the time loops, they allowed characters to essentially live forever, which could be a huge problem.

While I’m pleased with how things panned out for the main characters at the end of the trilogy with regards to time loops, I don’t think Riggs fully explored the insidious implications of the time loop mechanism he set up. Immortality is a dangerous thing, and while there are rules governing it in the series and those who try to get around the rules are punished, the system itself is never adequately questioned. This ends up undermining the trilogy’s otherwise brilliant worldbuilding.

Spoilers for the Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children trilogy below!

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A Noble Obsession

Sometime as I was reading the Song of Ice and Fire books a few years ago, just when Game of Thrones was getting popular and more and more fans were starting to fight over who they thought would be the best person to end up on the Iron Throne, I started wondering, “Wait a minute. We live in a supposedly democratic, meritocratic society these days that (at least nominally) no longer believes in hereditary rule. Why are we so invested in seeing an autocratic, hereditary tyrant installed on a throne, to lord it over our favorite fictional continent? Shouldn’t we be rooting for the Seven Kingdoms to become a democracy instead?” (I’m on Team Dany, by the way!)

And have you ever thought about how weird it is that, in Sailor Moon, we’re supposed to be happy that Usagi and Mamoru end up as Neo-Queen Serenity and King Endymion, absolute rulers of the entire freaking Earth for over a thousand years? The narrative presents this as a positive thing because they’re such just and peaceful rulers, and those who question Neo-Queen Serenity’s rule are presented as the villains.

This should be absolutely terrifying. Just sayin'.

This should be absolutely terrifying. Just sayin’.

As I began thinking about this further, I realized that a lot of our modern media is still in the habit of over-valuing noble blood. It makes sense that old fairy tales feature lots of royalty, secret royalty, and marrying into royalty, because back then, that was the best possible situation people could imagine for themselves. But why does this obsession still exist today when kings and queens with real power (for the most part) are not prominent anymore? You also may be wondering, what’s the harm of featuring noble-born characters? I would argue that they reinforce the false idea of privileged birth translating to inherent “special-ness,” as well as ignore the stories of those born into less privilege.

Let’s examine this in several examples below the jump!

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Web Crush Wednesdays: The Setup Wizard

web crush wednesdaysWhen I was a child, like many of you, I was obsessed with Harry Potter. But unlike many of you, the fanfics I entertained in my mind (though I didn’t yet know they were called that) were not about the canonical characters, but all about an American Muggle-born witch OC who looked up her magical “symptoms” online and ended up finding the “Worldwide Wizarding Web”. Even back then, when I was as young as a first-year, I thought it was ridiculous that the wizarding world hadn’t yet entered the 21st century at all, and I decided to rectify the situation.

Well, imagine my satisfaction when, fifteen years later, Hogwarts finally “hopped aboard the Information Technology train” and hired an IT staff to deal with the Wizarding Web and all the Muggle-borns and half-bloods who refused to give up their smartphones when they went off to school! The Setup Wizard is a fan blog that posts daily updates on these IT adventures at Hogwarts, and oh my gosh, it is so much fun.

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