Sympathy for the Devil–Why We Love to Hate this President

This is the last post I will write about President Trump. Of course, I promised that after the first post I wrote about the Donald. But like most people who love rubbernecking a trainwreck, I can’t look away. He’s so outrageously inhuman, so preposterously un-PC that it feels as if our nation’s collective unconscious has been cast in a reality show gone horribly wrong. I’m not alone. I listen to people make predictions, count the days to his coming impeachment.

Wake up, America. We need Donald Trump. The same we needed Tonya Harding. The same way we needed Rosie Ruiz. Do you remember her? She cheated at the Boston Marathon over thirty years ago. But even non-runners alive that day remember her name.

Could you tell me which President was in office on the day Rosie Ruiz “ran” Boston? You know from my posts I believe there’s a small, ugly part of each one of us that loves to hate this President–and that means there is a small part of each one of us who is egging him on. Before you adamantly deny this, please give me a chance to explain.

We need cheaters. They make us feel morally sound…they make us feel that our system–all those checks and balances our forefathers set in stone–really work.

Do you remember Jason Blair? He cut some corners on the way to the finish line. Do you remember Janet Cooke? She won a Pulitzer, until The Washington Post found out she made up the whole story. Fake news has been around for a lot longer than we are willing to believe. We need fake news because reality is sometimes too hard to accept.

And that’s the same reason we need fiction. Only fiction has changed. And we need to study it if we want to know what’s really going on.

If you know me, you know I write contemporary fiction. You know I’ve written a YA novel called Cease & Desist about a reality show gone horribly wrong. People love reality shows for one simple reason; we love to watch people in distress. We love to watch them cut corners and get caught. But when our beloved reality show gets transferred onto the all-too-real world stage, we get scared. We helplessly lash out at the bad guy.

Cease & Desist is a book about a bunch of young people who do some pretty terrible things while the whole world watches, and votes for a winner.

Donald Trump may be evil. But he’s one of us. He may be a cheater. But so are many of those we trusted to report the truth. Do you want to know how this unreal reality show is going to end?

Keep watching.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Celluloid Glass Ceiling: How Patty Jenkins Became Our New Super Heroine

Last weekend, Warner’s Wonder Woman broke a box office record. It’s the first film directed by a woman to crack $100 million at the box office. It also revealed a long suppressed, dirty secret of Hollywood; the celluloid boardroom is just as sexist a the rest of corporate America. And it took a film about a strong woman directed by a strong woman to show us that.

Last year, only 7% of the 250 highest-grossing films were directed by women, according to the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University. That number has fallen 2% over the past two decades. Even though women consistently take home directing prizes in prestigious festivals like Sundance for art-house films, they’re largely boxed out of the most lucrative genres.

I don’t think Patty was raised by Amazons or wears body armor (except maybe in the boardroom) but she had to overcome a lot of obstacles to make this film happen, including replacing another director (Michelle Maclaren) to make the first major superheroine movie in over a decade. The last attempts were Catwoman and Elektra: both films were directed by men, got poor reviews, flopped at the box office and convinced studios for several years that female superhero movies just “don’t work.”

Ironically, Patty nailed it by not shying away from Wonder Woman’s (played by Gal Gadot) fragile, “more feminine” side. The film opens with our young heroine, Diana, true to the legend as a girl being raised by women on a remote Greek island. The notion of a young, fearless girl being trained by strong-willed mother figures is a powerful, irresistible trope that has long languished in Hollywood’s overtly sexist “princess mentality.” The notion that a superhero can only recognize her superpower from a male dominated myth, is refreshingly obliterated by the first ten minutes of the film.

When the young Diana finds herself in the middle of World War I, confused and fragile, I marveled at how far we’ve come from the TV cartoon icon of the 1970’s. Diana doesn’t look tough and voluptuous the way Lynda Carter did; she looks tough, and lost. By avoiding all the distracting modern gadgets that fuel modern superhero movies, and placing it in a backdrop of history’s most bloody and pointless war, we see a real woman, who must use more wits than magic to overcome a fear many women have: that their power and drive will undermine a real, romantic relationship.

The casting of Godot was brilliant and is true to form for Jenkins as she’s adept at turning incredibly beautiful women into real human beings (She directed Monster, starring Charlize Theron). Godot isn’t really beautiful until she gets knocked down and punched in the face. Then she becomes the kind of woman who baffles and enthralls her love interest.

For her achievement, Sally Jenkins stands alone, but I don’t think this film could’ve gotten a green light were it not for our begrudging acceptance that gender roles are complex, too complex for your typical “Blockbuster.”

Hollywood, despite all it’s liberal progress needs to realize that sex and gender are still worlds apart and exploring this divide will make future “superhero movies” into films about real women who realize their extraordinary power comes from within.

Our Bold New Virtual World.

When we read something outlandish in a novel, we think that could never happen in real life, and we break that willing suspension of disbelief that makes reading fiction so enjoyable. When we witness a horrible event in real life, we doubt our senses, and a part of our brain tries to convince us that what we’re seeing isn’t entirely “real.” Scientists say this is the way the brain protects itself from the enormity of horrible events. The soldiers who were the first to discover concentration camps at the end of World War II felt this. Many people who watched the first plane hit the World Trade Center, felt the same way.

Questioning  “reality” is an essential part of our education, I tell my students. The internet is far from truthful. Fake news is the latest example of a reality that many people have come to accept as part of the unreal world we live in. But the problem goes a lot deeper than most people think; young people have trouble determining what’s real because they were brought up on video games and reality TV that achieves verisimilitude with a seductive allure to the senses that few great novels can achieve, at least, for those who don’t make reading a habit. What happens when your sense of reality becomes so blurred with the virtual you stop questioning the real all together? What happens when RealityTV becomes interactive and you’re allowed to tell willing participants what you want them to do and say?

A lot happens, and none of it is good. Soon young people won’t just be temporarily duped by the unreal, they’ll be convinced it’s the way life works. Interactive, RealityTV will soon present programming that will allow people to vote for and recommend real sex and real violence.

Can’t we can put a stop to this? Not necessarily. Remember the only censor for live, streaming digital, broadcast is you, the viewer. You can turn the channel. You can write your congressman. Or what you see will appear so horrific that you’ll convince yourself that it can’t possibly be real.

There are laws against that sort of programming, aren’t there? Maybe, but tell that to a young person that’s been given an order to do something that could make them the Queen Bee or most popular boy to millions of viewers. Should we hold young people responsible for “following orders?” And some of those orders will probably be given by adults who are watching and want to see them “go all the way.” Remember, those people in the Milgram experiment were just “following orders.” So were the Nazis. In the coming months you’re going to see this sad reality come to pass. I’m writing to ask you to do two things when you witness the real and try to dismiss it as just a virtual photo-shopping of the perverse.

First. Don’t blame young people. Sure we’d like them to read more and question authority. But young people didn’t create these games. We did.

Second. This bold new world of interactive entertainment isn’t going to go away. There may be finger-pointing and hand-wringing by concerned adults at congressional hearings. But in the end, the only censors will be those of us with the courage turn the channel.

 

 

 

 

Trump l’oeil–What Happens When Dystopia Arrives Too Soon.

In my headline, I’ve borrowed the French idiom, trompe l’oeil–“something that misleads or tricks the senses”–to make a point about what we’re experiencing in America today. We love this notion of being “tricked” in painting and fiction, and maybe art’s greatest contribution is to fool our senses long enough to get us to believe something that can’t possibly be real. But what happens when reversals to our core principles such as equal rights, healthcare, and immigration happen so quickly that the righteous anger we feel when our freedom is threatened just isn’t enough?

We’re in a state of shock. The center cannot hold. Those values we thought were rock-solid are being destroyed and that makes us feel as if our reality has become, well, unreal. When are reality becomes unreal we turn to fiction, specifically dystopian fiction, because fiction is what we need to confront all those issues that are too difficult to take “in real life.” Sales of the classic dystopian novels–1984, Brave New World, and Fahrenheit 451, are on the rise.

Dystopian fiction is deeply, cathartically, satisfying. Don’t we all love to read about a world in distress? A world that’s really a wake-up call for all those things we need to avoid. It’s all fun and Hunger Games so long when we close the book we can return to our safe, not-too-troubled world.

What if we woke up and found the most unreal dystopia we could possibly imagine right at our door? (Remember dystopia is only dystopia so long as it stays in the future.)

What we’re feeling now isn’t just righteous anger, it’s fear.

Whenever I turn on the TV, it feels as if I’m watching a reality show that can’t be real. That would be a great compliment to a fiction writer who strives for verisimilitude. But it’s real. At least that’s what we have to keep reminding ourselves.

The YA novel I wrote, Cease & Desist, was supposed to be dystopian, but most of its far-fetched notions will be commonplace by the time you read it. Soon you’ll be able to watch young people have sex and harm each other on digital, interactive, WebTV. You’ll be able to vote on who’ll be the winner, the same way the mob chose the winner in the Roman Coliseum.

Do you think I’m making that up? Think again. The future is coming at us way too fast, and we’ve got to stop it before more people get hurt.

Sexual Assault and Young People

I teach middle school, not a place you think you’d find sexting, or sexual assault. In the beginning of the year I make a poster to lay out procedures (we teachers don’t like to call them rules) for acceptable behavior in my classroom. At the top I write RESPECT and then I get my students to help me make a list of what is considered acceptable behavior. It used to be pretty straightforward; treat others the way you wish to be treated golden rule type of things. But that was before the sexual assaults on campus, the accusations of groping and body shaming, and the constant sexting made it clear we live in a different world then most parents and teachers ever imagined. Is it me, or is the problem getting worse? I knew sexual assaults are a reality on high school and college campuses, but I teach middle school. Last year I caught a sixth grader sharing a pic of his privates with another student. Am I out of touch? Maybe. But one thing I know for sure, parents and teachers need more tools to deal with sexually active young people. Not just rules and consequences, but a framework we can use to handle what has become a national epidemic.

Parents need tools to talk to their kids about what constitutes a healthy sexual relationship. Young people who are being bombarded with conflicting messages about sex, don’t know where to turn for advice. I have a simple solution for how to begin a dialogue on sex, young people and relationships.

Fiction, stories about subjects that we are too afraid to talk about; because fiction, at its best shines a light on those dark secrets we are too afraid to discuss. In the coming months, I will be asking young people to suggest fictional stories they really loved and wish their parents would read. Parents in turn, will be giving me a list of books they wish they could share with their kids. We will share these books and their important themes in a safe and respectful forum.

Do you want to join a national dialogue on sex and young people? Then please give me your email below. We will be sharing stories by great authors. Stories about dark, unspeakable themes in YA literature. We will do this to shine a light on the all too truthful fears we have about sexual assault. Join the dialogue today. Write me a message and answer this question: what story would you most like to share with your parent or child?

I look forward to sharing your answers next week.