Bad Girls in the New Age of Wonder Woman

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The little girl was mean. She enjoyed being mean. She cussed. She picked fights. She bossed adults around. She was everything a girl is not supposed to be. Girls are supposed to be sugar and spice and everything nice, but this child? Zero grams sugar. Absolutely nothing nice. Spice factor? 100% cayenne pepper.

I’m talking about none other than The Great Gilly Hopkins, eponymous protagonist of Katherine Paterson’s 1978 novel. Gilly, or Galadriel, is the meanest foster kid around. Nobody messes with her because her sassy armor is impenetrable…that is, until she arrives in Thompson Park. When Gilly realizes the kind townsfolk are disintegrating her defenses, she hatches a plan that inadvertently sabotages her chance for happiness.

The film adaptation premiered in 2015, with a cast including Kathy Bates and Glenn Close.

For those who don’t know, Katherine Paterson writes award-winning, heartfelt books with the same ease required to open a can of tuna. Newberry’s, National Book Awards, and plenty of others gild her accolades. Paterson has been on my reading shelf ever since I was old enough to read a chapter book all by myself. Her ability to capture the sincerity of adolescence without any saccharine dazzled me then and now. I still marvel at her finesse rendering the real world and everyday life. I envy this skill the same way I greened at the math nerds at school who whipped through the quadratic equation.

But in Gilly, Paterson accomplishes something far greater and much more complex than verisimilitude. She crafts a sympathetic, compelling, and very likable female protagonist who is also mean; who misbehaves and shoves back; and who revels in her own wickedness.

I can’t count the times I have seen these characters get bashed around in critique groups. Trying to be helpful, writers advise the author to…keep the girl’s spunk, but go easy on her cruelty. Or…I’d like her more if she wasn’t so mean. Or…have you considered making your main character a boy?

Make her a boy? What — are girls not allowed to be mean or aggressive or spiteful?

“Little Girl” by William Adolphe Bouguereau. Image CC.

Actually, they’re not. At least according to lots of reporting on social science research:

For Women Leaders, Likability and Success Hardly Go Hand-in-Hand
The Social Science Behind “Bossiness”
The Price Women Leaders Pay for Assertiveness–and How to Minimize It
What Does Social Science Say About How a Woman President Might Lead?

Time and again, the research shows that men are rewarded for being bossy, assertive, aggressive, etc. even to the point of being jerkbags. But women who exhibit similar behavior are relegated to the bitch-bin.

And at the risk of enraging just about every woman on the planet who spent $10 or more to see Wonder Woman — 2017 blockbuster film starring mostly women and directed by a woman — Diana, Princess of Themyscira, Daughter of Hippolyta, AKA Diana Prince, fully perpetuates the good girl stereotype.

Yes, she has amazing physical strength and can seriously kick some Axis Power butt. But she is also completely, entirely, holistically good. In every interview and behind-the-scenes profile I have seen, both Gal Gadot (who plays Diana) and director Patty Jenkins rave about the character’s quintessential goodness. This suggests the thematic intent to portray a good woman with mighty powers. But I take this a step further and attest that the only reason Diana can be so powerful is because she is also so good. The two traits are diametrically and proportionately linked. In other words, were she less like Captain America and more like Deadpool, moviegoers would not like her even half as much.

Contemporary society does not punish Diana for her powers. They do not relegate her to the Island of Ms-Fit Bossypantsuits because she is a good girl.

Which wraps back to Gilly, who is entirely likable despite spending most of the book being entirely rotten. A real brat. She blows bubble-gum bombs in adult’s faces. She savors violent fantasies. She bullies other children. She hate crimes her teacher. She steals. She lies.

So the real question is how in the hell (to quote Gilly) does Paterson achieve this? How does she trick our societal radar? And is her technique one that other writers can master for their own works?

I absolutely believe the technique is transferable! (Alas, the same cannot be said for the rest of Paterson’s prowess.) Essentially, give the bad protagonist (AKA anti-hero) a vulnerability. A weakness. A gap in the armor. Director Tim Miller puts this to brilliant use in the opening sequences of Deadpool.

First the camera pulls back from an assortment of crayons and a little tape deck blasting music. Our anti-hero perches on the railing of an interstate overpass. He is drawing his own stick-figure comic doodles (of himself lopping the head of his arch nemesis) while his ankles pendulum. To top it all off, Deadpool is singing along to the tunes — specifically Salt n’ Pepa’s 1993 hip-hop hit “Shoop.”

Following a brief monologue (the kind usually reserved for villains), Deadpool goes on to commit some pretty heinous atrocities. Over the course of the entire movie, he proves to be something like a leotard-clad Gilly Hopkins: foul-mouthed, sadistic, sarcastic, even a tad soul-less on his revenge quest. But it doesn’t matter to viewers. They’ve already seen him be just a bit vulnerable with those crayons and outdated pop music. They’ve already seen his soft spot and said: Awwww!

Paterson introduces Gilly with a similar hint of vulnerability. When readers meet Gilly, she sits in the back of the social worker’s car, chewing a wad of pink bubble-gum. As the social worker lectures her, Gilly blows a gigantic bubble, which pops and sticks to her hair. The novel could have just as easily opened with Gilly in the car turning her tooth brush into a shank knife — an action that fully shows and supports Gilly’s bad girl nature — however, such a start would not have exposed her weakness. Like that gum, Gilly turns out to be full of hot air. Like that gum, she softens. And just like Deadpool, Gilly goes on to commit some pretty unforgivable acts, but readers are already on her side.

And to get them there, she did not have to be good. Only vulnerable. Only a bit soft. Neither are the same as “good.” Instead, Paterson enabled a female character to be simultaneously “bad” and sympathetic. She enabled readers to encounter a true human being, and in doing so, she gave them a taste of true humanity.

So what say you, writers? Shall we get to work? Shall we labor with love on our anti-hero protagonists, making them authentically flawed, not artificially good flavored? Let’s a make a world where writers bring a Deadpool character to critique and leave with the feedback…have you considered making your bad protagonist a girl? Better still, let’s make a world where girls and boys, men, women, and everyone between or beyond those gender categories can simply be what they are and nonetheless loved.

The Art of X-Ray Reading by Roy Peter Clark

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If your book club is boring, if you weary of your writing students saying only they did or did not like an assigned text, if you need better feedback from your critique group, then this book may help.

Clark, Roy Peter. The Art of X-Ray Reading: How the Secrets of 25 Great Works of Literature Will Improve Your Writing. New York: Little, Brown & Co, 2016. Print.

Genre: nonfiction, instructional literary critique

Summary: Using bearable dosages of 10-pages apiece, each chapter of Clark’s book teaches readers how put on x-ray goggles and see under the skin of some literary masterworks. Shirley Jackson, Earnest Hemingway, Rachel Carson. Fiction and nonfiction. Clark pinpoints a selection of techniques and illustrates how the writer deployed them, to what effect, why it matters, and how an emerging writer might adopt those techniques.

Critique: Compared to the reams of scathing or geeky lit critique I had read for both of my Master’s programs, Clark’s assessments of these masterworks are light. That is not to say his analyses were ineffective. On the contrary, about the time I’d be gearing up for some deconstruction of Foucaultian power paradigms or perhaps a feminist examination of symbolic liminal zones as they relate to Kristeva’s archetypes, Clark would wrap the chapter with a quick conclusion and list of applicable writing techniques or exercises. In other words, Clark can and will whet your appetite for rich literary analysis and then get the heck out of Dodge before you a.) get bored or b.) mount a counter argument (not because you want to but because the habit carved into your brain tissues after years of formal education).

I heartily recommend this book to book clubbers, the teachers of writing classes, and the leaders of critique groups. Wine drinkers, students, and novice writers alike can see what it is to pick apart text. To read as they have never done before. They can glean from Clark’s tutorials not just how to do that, but why. In mechanical terms, it’s like teaching someone how to first see a piston in the great tangled metal belly of an engine and then helping them comprehend how miraculous, how integral that little component is — not just in the smooth and powerful running of that motor, but also in the grand scheme of automobile history and human innovation.

Small Move, Big Change by Caroline Arnold

Did you set a resolution in January that has yet to pan out? Good news: you’re not alone. Great news: this book might help you get back on track.

Arnold, Caroline. Small Move, Big Change: Using Microresolutions to Transform Your Life Permanently. New York: Viking, 2014. Print.

Summary: Arnold unpacks a methodology for setting teeny-tiny goals with itsy-bitsy implementation plans. Given time (a few weeks), those bits and pieces accumulate and transform into the behemoth we all crave: change for the better.

Critique: According to Arnold, 88% of all Americans fail on their resolutions and goal-setting. Part of the problem roots in how we state our goals.

I want to get…(fill in the blank: a novel published, buff, more organized, etc.).

Or, I want to be…(again fill in: a writer, rich, tidy, etc).

In order to get or be anything, one must first do. So, to set an attainable goal, start by rewording it with what you can do.

The next trick requires an understanding of how the brain does things, which is primarily by habit. Habits, or auto-pilot behaviors, form because the brain prefers speed and efficiency. Technically, so do most of us. Do you really want to stop and think about how to tie your shoes or brush your teeth every.single.time as if it was the first time you ever tied your shoes or brushed your teeth? Who’s got time for that? Not you, says your brain, so the neurons carve out some deep, habitual grooves which lead to rapid-fire auto-actions. But if you want to be/get something new, you must develop new habits, which means you must fill in those deep grooves and carve new ones.

To work with the brain’s neuroplastic abilities — that is, its ability to constantly rewire — Arnold maps out cunning ways to introduce tiny behavioral changes, one or two at a time. And when she says tiny, she means TINY. Rather than tackle your diet by ransacking all the junk from your kitchen cabinets, simply identify one problem food or eating behavior and work with it.

Set a time for that new action to occur (every Wednesday at 9 o’clock, for example.) Allow that time to trigger the behavior so that, eventually, you do it without thinking. Thus, it becomes a habit. Or, pin the new behavior on to an already established habit (ex: I will always consult my *new* to-do list before I check email.) Dress your new behaviors in positive language. In other words, rather than obsesses over limits or restrictions (I CAN’T eat junk or candy), emphasize new permissions, privileges, and rewards (I CAN enjoy a healthy snack).

Writers who struggle to get in a bit of writing (especially on days when they actually have time for it but don’t seem to be able to make it happen) are sure to take away from this book many useful tips and tricks. Plus, it’s printed in a really big font, which means it is a quick read. Big font, small time, you might say.

“Lego” by Judit Klein.

Having read this book a couple of months ago, I can firmly attest that the processes seem to work. Breaking down my big, vaguely stated goals and working at them one action at a time was a bit like dumping out the Lego bin of my life’s dreams. But bit by bit, the pieces are fitting together and a strange new landscape…or, erm…a jet plane is beginning to take shape.

A Poetry Handbook by Mary Oliver

oliver_poetryhandbookMuch like a quark, this book is small yet packed with the powers to either grip or unravel the universe.

Oliver, Mary. A Poetry Handbook. New York: Harvest, 1994. Print.

Genre: nonfiction (craft book)

Summary: Winner of the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize, and all-around linguistic seductress Mary Oliver shares her insights on the nature and construct of poetry, language, and the communication that takes place beneath the words on the page.

Critique: Like her poetry, Oliver’s handbook is brief, to-the-point, and powerful. She gets right the to point and does not dilly-dally with a lot of rhetorical set-up or explanatory embellishments, as the typical poetry textbook or writing craft book might. Her examples are salient. The writing is unquestionably clear.

Writers equipped with this text will gain invaluable lessons including: the difference between a rock and stone as implied by their phonics rather than their geology; the Romeo and Juliet love affair that is the writing process, a drool-inducing analysis of Robert Frost’s poetry; the liquids and mutes of the English language and how they can combine effectively; and one of the clearest explanations I have ever found on poetic construction, from scansion to stresses, from meters to feet.

Chef’s Table (hint: look under the table)

chefs-tableChef’s Table. Produced by David Gelb, Andrew Fried, et al. Boardwalk Pictures, City Room Creative, FINCH, 2015.

Genre: docuseries (cooking…and so much more)

Summary:The promoters and producers would have you believe that every episode of Chef’s Table profiles one of the world’s leading chefs for 45-55 minutes accompanied with pleasurably slow, sensuous, sumptuous shots of gourmet cuisine. And on the surface (dare I say, on the tabletop), that is entirely true. The other crucial aspect featured in every show exists under that surface and feeds a powerful extension of creation, much as nitrogen, roots, humus, and earthworms feed the organic bounty of the globe!

Critique: This show boasts a quiver of assets. Its tone is elegant, backed by sexy food montages soundtracked with classical music. Its cast of top chefs truly are geniuses and savants. Its topics are sophisticated at intelligent: ethical food supply, cultural restoration through food diplomacy, food as interpretive music, dance, even fairy tale! In short, this is not a show for folks who want to just “Netflix and chill.” It is too compelling to just be background ambiance.

nature-as-artist

“Nature as an artist-2” by zeeveez.

Also, I’d wager there are few amorous partners out there brash enough to compete with the sinful delectables served up on the show!

The core ingredient that really sizzles across every episode — and the reason why I am featuring it in the place of a recommended book — is its subtext. That which is happening under the tablecloth.

Writing students would do well to study how most of the episodes talk on the blatant surface about one thing, while showing, hinting at, suggesting, enlightening another message deeper down. Many budding writers have a hard time with subtext. They struggle to notice it, let alone reproduce it. But subtext is essential to good storytelling because it invites the reader (or viewer) to participate with the text, rather than passively witness.

In a quickndirty example of subtext, I always point to the glorious scene in The Incredibles (2004), when the AI monster ball is shredding through the city. Frozone is ready for action, opens the secret compartment where he keeps his super suit only to find it missing….


On the surface, the conversation that follows between Frozone and his wife is all about the suit’s location, but underneath that, this couple is really squabbling over the power dynamic of their relationship. Who’s the boss, or who wears the (super) pants? That element is made clear in the subtext, or in what is not being openly said. Frozone does NOT say: Honey, you are always undermining me. You never take my job as a super hero seriously.

Nonetheless, that is exactly what gets communicated to viewers who are actively piecing together these details.

So what is Chef’s Table putting in its subtext? The treacherous, arduous, daunting path of the artist or creator. The process by which one learns to trust in his or her own creative spark and allows it to burn wild. The armor one puts on to protect the feral soul from the slings and arrows of doubters and skeptics.

broken-window

“Soul” by Marcell Schwarz

It quietly illustrates how creators must apprentice to a master, copy technique until skills are perfected and ingrained, and finally break free from instruction in order to forge what is new, unique, and true to the self. And most importantly, the subtext illuminates how to attain resiliency — that seemingly magical ability to weather downturns, to grin and bear it, to turn failure into success.

((Now, after you’ve watched a few episodes, you may say, “Hey, these elements can’t be subtext because the chef’s are talking about them in their interview narratives.” I will concede that the chef’s are uttering these insights and truths; however, the directors have arranged these statements to take a backseat to the stunning food cotillions and the shimmering musical fanfares. Thus, the “message” of the show is embedded. It is arranged underneath its more primary elements. And, I further argue these themes are subtext because so many other reviews completely overlooked them and knocked the show for lacking anything deeper and being little more than foodie porn.))

Finally, I recommend this show not only to budding writers in need of a subtext booster shot, but also to writers and creators going through a moment of crisis with their work. Those who have suffered a dent in self-confidence and ability. I give you permission: take a night off to “Netflix and fulfill.” Trust me when I say you’ll hunger for more than food.