Madeleine Robins

April 8, 2015

Raising Feminists – The Fairy Tale Edition

Filed under: Uncategorized — madeleinerobins @ 11:59 AM

Cinderella-AndersonThis weekend my husband and I went to the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco’s Presidio. We’d been meaning to for a while, and though we missed the exhibit of Walt’s massive train set (my husband has a 7-year-old boy’s love for trains) the rest of the museum was pretty cool. Lots of tech stuff, lots of original art, lots of “making of” information and displays. Because my husband is a recording guy, he ate it up with a spoon. And because I’m a story guy, if you will, I ate it up with a spoon too.

And it reminded me of raising the kids. We have two daughters. And I told them approximately 2,763,421 bedtime stories (some nights I had to tell more than one), many of them based on fairy tales.

We had a lot of books of fairy tales–my extremely foxed, beat up copies of Andrew Lang’s Red, Blue, Yellow, and… Olive? Fairy Books; Hans Christian Andersen’s stories; individual picture books of Cinderella and Rapunzel, and the Twelve Dancing Princesses, and Rumplestiltskin, and… let my husband read No Fighting, No Biting for the 1476th time. I was the go-to parent for fairy tales. And we inherited from my sister-in-law a bunch of the books made from Disney fairy tale movies: Cinderella and Pinocchioand Sleeping Beauty and The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast.

The thing is, in reading Lang, or the Disney versions, I noticed each time that they are sometimes a little, um, regressive. What’s a mother to do?

I made a policy for myself, fairly early on, that if I was reading Cinderella I would not sugar-coat. I read the version where the sisters cut off body parts. Why? Because frequently this would lead to discussions about what body parts one might be willing to cut off in order to marry a prince. I suggested I might be willing to cut off my nose, but my older daughter nixed that. “What will hold your glasses up? And besides,” sternly: “You can’t marry a prince. You’re married to Daddy.” And my daughter announced that she was not going to cut off any body parts at all, thank you very much, prince or no prince. That’s the spirit, kid.

And we got into conversations about why the sisters were so desperate to marry the prince, and whether Cinderella was equally desperate–there’s almost nowhere you can’t go, discussion-wise, with a smart five-year-old girl who is trying to put off lights-out. This led to discussions about what Rumplestiltskin was planning to do with the baby he was taking in trade for all that gold he spun, and why the witch in Rapunzel wanted the baby rather than, say, a suitcase full of gold.* When we read The Twelve Dancing Princesses we noticed that in one version the hero takes the youngest princess to wife as his reward (while the illustrations in our edition made it clear the eldest was expecting to be the prize). “Of course,” my daughter noted. “The youngest one is the nice one. The older ones were mean.” Even in princesses, manners count.

With my younger daughter, many of the same questions arose. But because she is a very different person from her big sister, she was always most interested in whoever in the story had the hero role. She did not, she assured me, want to be a boy. She just wanted to be the boss of the adventure. So we read Mulan and Aladdin and The Lion King, and she would tell me what she would have done if she were there–depending on her mood, she would either enact bloody vengeance or explain things to the bad guys until they surrendered in self-defense. Younger girl was more interested in being part of the action than in being a princess.

And of course they watched all the movies. But because there’s a five year gap between the two girls, they didn’t necessarily watch them at the same time.  When older girl was about eleven, she wandered through the living room where her sister was watching Cinderella. “This is kinda a stupid story,” she announced to no one in particular. “He wants to marry her because she’s beautiful, and she wants to marry him because he’s a prince. What are they gonna talk about?”

And I, listening in from the kitchen, raised my hands to the heavens in a gesture of YES!

__________

* These discussions led to my writing Sold for Endless Rue, an historical novel mapped on the Rapunzel tale, because I really did wonder why the witch wanted the baby.

March 25, 2015

Going It Alone

Filed under: Uncategorized — madeleinerobins @ 8:09 PM

SolitudeThere are all sorts of resources available for writers who want them: workshops, classes, beta readers, bars, books, peers, and people who just love to have you bounce ideas off them. They all have their virtues. Yet for some of us, it’s very hard to show what you’re working on to another person until you’re done and ready to send it off to be accepted, rejected, edited, published… Yes, I’m one of those people.

Not entirely. I discovered early-ish in my writing career, when I was making the leap from Regency romances to Science Fiction, that a writing workshop could be a really, really, really useful thing. I have been part of a number of them over the years. I went to the Clarion Writers Workshop when it was still in East Lansing, Michigan, and it was a life-changing experience. But when it comes to the other stuff it’s harder–it’s really hard–for me to let go and accept another person into my process. When I talk to writers who make full use of all those resources, I start to feel a little defensive. What’s wrong with me that I don’t have beta readers? There are a number of people who have offered and would, I’m sure, have a terrific effect on the work. and yet I have this weird reluctance, almost a skin-crawling aversion to the idea.

What’s up with that? (more…)

March 12, 2015

Balancing Act

Filed under: Craft,Uncategorized — madeleinerobins @ 2:28 PM
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Greguss_János_Sátoros_cigányokSo I’m writing this book, set in England in 1812. And somehow a group of the people sometimes referred to as Gypsies, or Travelers, or Tinkers, has appeared and is playing a role in the story. And the research, and the ramifications, and the competing needs to be accurate in both my depiction of these people, and my depiction of the attitudes of the society around them, is making me a little crazy.

Let me just say: I am one of those people who gets a little testy when I encounter historical fiction where the attitudes of the past are retconned to accommodate our current, more enlightened (we hope) viewpoints. Many of people in the Olden Days™ held views regarding women, people of color, people of classes other than their own, etc. which are downright abhorrent to the modern reader. Pretending this is not so, or softening those views so that they seem less awful, or attributing those views only to the Bad People, is false in a way that no amount of carefully researched set-dressing can disguise. As a writer I find the opportunity to put an awful comment in the mouth of an otherwise sympathetic character (one for whom the comment would be in character) to be almost irresistible. It’s what she would have said, given her upbringing and the mores of the society she lived in, so–say it, right?  Show how widespread the attitude was.

And yet. (more…)

January 14, 2015

Death and the Writer

Filed under: Uncategorized — madeleinerobins @ 8:21 AM
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Death and WriterI’ve been thinking about killing people.

In books. Killing characters, great and small.  First, why kill a character? Is it something as mechanical as “because the plot needed someone to die there?” Why kill a particular character, then? What does it do for the story? For the other characters in the story? Yeah, this is where I get a little woo-woo and fuzzy, because I’m a write-by-the-seat-of-my-pants kind of girl, and often I don’t know why I kill someone off until I finish the work. (more…)

January 1, 2015

For God’s Sake, Put on Some Clothes (mark II*)

Filed under: Marketing,Semiotics — madeleinerobins @ 4:28 PM

StathamNote: Your Mileage May Vary.

Last night my husband and I found ourselves watching The Transporter the way you do after a major holiday: flopped on the couch, too tired to move, watching The Thing That’s On because where’s the remote?). It’s a fun-dumb movie, lighter fare than I had expected, very violent but curiously… well, light. Almost sweet. The film was made in 2002, which means it’s now moving into the realm of Elder-Statesmovie, and its star, Jason Statham, looks curiously young and blind-puppyish. And he spends a lot of time with his shirt off.

I kept being reminded of the comment Sir Alexander Dane (Alan Rickman) makes about Jason Nesmith (Tim Allen) in Galaxy Quest: “I see you’ve managed to get your shirt off.” Tim Allen on his best day is not in Statham’s league, shirtless-viewing-wise, but he clearly had been working out to put his best chest forward, as it were, and Galaxy Quest had a good time making fun of the Golly, I’m Virile trope that shirtlessness implies. (more…)

December 20, 2014

Words and Pictures

Filed under: Uncategorized — madeleinerobins @ 1:03 PM
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There are some illustrations that are so integral to my memory of books I read as a kid that to say the name of a book calls them immediately to mind.  Say “A Little Princess” and I think of Sara Crewe, pale little face framed by a cloud of dark hair, sitting disconsolate in her wretched attic, or a little more optimistically, of Sara, cracked bowl in hand, looking dreamily out over the London rooftops.  Both illustrations are from an edition of A Little Princess I did not own–we had it in my classroom in 4th grade.  I had the more prosaic Tasha Tudor edition at home (if the Tudor illustrations define your Sara Crewe, pardon my partiality) but for some reason these are the illustrations that hooked into my heart.  They are by Ethel Franklin Bett, and one of the things I love is that they capture Sara’s oddness–from the beginning of the book Frances Hodgson Burnett describes Sara as odd, “queer”, a serious little girl unlike the pink-and-white Victorian girls who populate her boarding school. (more…)

December 3, 2014

My Cyber-House

Filed under: Uncategorized — madeleinerobins @ 9:53 AM
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I have become, in what I hope is the nicest possible way, a bit of a martinet about tone and discourse in my living room.  I love good chewy discussions, but I try, regardless of my level of engagement (or frustration or incomprehension or general bogglement) not to name-call or make generalizations. And if I catch myself slipping, I try to reverse the trend.  Because I really, truly do believe (in part from watching my kids, who are passionately political, but really good listeners) that we’re not going to get anywhere in solving the problems that confront us as a society if all we do is stand on the sidelines lobbing spitballs.  It isn’t that I don’t find myself wanting a meme of Dan Ackroyd from the early days of SNL doing his Weekend Update routine: “Jane, you ignorant slut…”. But I don’t think it helps.

Did I say this is my cyber-living room I’m talking about? My presence on Facebook, my blogs, my Live Journal, etc?  Well, yeah, because I have yet to have a person in my physical space start calling me, or other guests, names.  Face to face most of the people I know well enough to invite inside know better.  On the internet, not so much.

These days, I tend to step in as early as possible, pounding my cane on the floor and calling for civility and no name-calling on my turf.  Just once I had a firefight break out in my cyber-space, and once was more than enough.

A few years ago, I posted enthusiastically on my Live Journal that I was going to a convention I particularly liked, and a friend of mine (since deceased) mentioned wistfully that he didn’t go to that con any more because it didn’t feel “safe”.  He knew that this was a ridiculous thing to say on the face of it: he was a middle-aged, middle-class, straight, white man, successful in his day job and as a writer. But he had also been embroiled, a year or so earlier than that, in the awful mess that was Racefail. The experience had had a lasting, and not happy, impact on him. and now (he was battling cancer and working to keep all his energy for that fight) he felt the convention was “unsafe” in the way that any place would, where old wounds might be opened on either side, at a time when he had no energy to cope with them.

When I left for the convention, there had been a few other comments, mostly from friends saying “Ooh, good, I’ll see you there!”  I didn’t check my email or Live Journal until the next morning, at which point there were something like 70+ responses, most of them in vehement, angry response to my friend’s comment.  And it was awful.  It was as if a friend at a party, overhearing another guest say something stupid, had opened the door to my house and invited all his friends in to set the dumb guy straight, and those friends had hailed other friends, and so on.*

I don’t disagree with some of the opinions expressed, but the tone, and the words used, and the way it escalated, was frightening.  I suspect that if any of those posters had been in my real-world living room, talking with the guy in the chemo cap, and could see his demeanor, they might have expressed the same things, but not in the same way, maybe out of respect for his frailty, maybe out of respect for someone else’s space, and maybe because they could see both more of his intent, and of the impact their words had on him, and on the people around them.

I asked the advice of a friend at the convention, who shook her head and said that the only way she could see to handle it was to shut the conversation down.  So I did.

And these days if someone comes into a discussion on my Facebook feed, or my LJ, or one of my blogs, I make every effort not to shut it down, because I want to hear what people have to say.  But I will remind people to keep the tone civil, not to name call (including not name-calling public figures–that sort of thing can escalate to a fist-fight real fast), and to think before they hit Send. My cyber-house, my cyber-rules.

 


*thinking of it now, it reminds me of my daughter’s 16th birthday party, which somehow got into the wild on Facebook. Kids showed up who did not know my daughter or anyone else at the party.  I caught a kid tagging the shed in the back yard.  One boy arrived so drunk that he pissed on my kitchen floor.  Stuff was broken.  And yet, when I shut the party down (at my daughter’s request) most of the kids said, as they filed out, “thank you for inviting me. I had a lovely time”.  They were not bad kids; they just didn’t think of themselves as being in a real house tenanted by real people, until I made it so by tossing them out.  (Okay, except for the kid with the spray paint.  Him I kicked out early, with extreme prejudice.)

November 19, 2014

Publishing Is Not a Monolith

Filed under: Uncategorized — madeleinerobins @ 10:11 AM

As I have done a lot lately, I spent the past weekend with my aunt and uncle, helping them with some household stuff. My uncle is an emeritus professor of anatomy at UCLA; my aunt ran the Chancellor’s Communication Service. Both have decades of involvement with the university, and both of them are much accomplished and smart cookies.

At one point, as we were eating lunch, I was discussing my current search for employment, and a couple of jobs in which I am interested. My uncle seemed puzzled, because most of the jobs I’m looking at play to strengths other than my writing–like herding cats and coming up with new ways to organize stuff. “But what about your major skill? What about writing?”

I allowed as how I cannot–or at least have not been able to yet–make enough money from writing to support my half of the household ship of state. And my uncle seemed very surprised. See, he published a book back in 1976 and he’s still getting royalties from it. It’s still a major contributor to their household income. To my uncle’s credit there was no tone of “so what the Hell is wrong with you,” but he was puzzled. (more…)

November 16, 2014

Fight Scenes: Time Dilation

Filed under: Craft,Writing — madeleinerobins @ 2:08 PM
Tags: , , , , ,

Sabre Fight from The Duellists

I saw Interstellar last week, a hugely ambitious, very heady film about…oh, kind of everything.  The future of the human race. Striving. Time. Love. Space. Loneliness. Duplicity. Ecology. Parenthood. It’s beautiful to look at (well, Christopher Nolan) and well acted, and curiously soggy in places when Nolan attempts to be genuinely affecting.  And the dialogue is mixed so low in places that I swear I missed some important plot points (when you’re married to a sound engineer you learn to notice these things). Overall I enjoyed it, but I don’t think it warrants the kind of ecstasy that greeted Inception (or even the Batman films).  I give Nolan points for trying, and it’s useful to know that even a smart smart person can make a film that is a mixed success.

But it got me thinking about time, and how time acts in certain circumstances.  Or rather, how we perceive time in certain circumstances. Which, of course led me to thinking about writing fight scenes.

No, stay with me.  There’s a link.  The photo above is from The Duellists, one of the most beautifully fight-choreographed movies ever. It’s about two soldiers in the Napoleonic Wars who, over a period of fifteen years, fight in an ongoing duel (using pretty much every form of weapon available to them).  It was Ridley Scott’s first film, and the choreography is by William Hobbs, who also did the choreography for the Zeffirelli Romeo and Juliet, and for Richard Lester’s Three Musketeers and Four Musketeers (and Ladyhawke and Shakespeare in Love, and… Hobbs is really good. If you’re interested in sword play at all, seek his work out). One of the things I love about Hobbs’s work is that he uses the setting.  If there’s mud, or uneven ground, it’s going to feature in the fight (that magnificent farce of a fight on the ice in Four Musketeers, for example).  And unlike a lot of fight choreographers and directors these days, Hobbs’s fights are generally measured enough, and shot with enough distance, that you can see who’s doing what to whom. One of my chiefest irritations, in watching scenes of choreographed violence, is when the camera gets right in there and you can’t parse the action. Drives me nuts.

Except.  There’s always an except.  At the same time that what I think of as the churning-metal school of fight choreography and filming irritates me, it does represent, much more than the full-screen shots, the furious insanity of physical crisis, the way that time breaks into two pathways.

Ever been in a car accident?  Time speeds up so fast that you can’t tell what’s going on.  It’s like being on the inside of a blender, watching as the world whirls around you.  At the same time, time slows to a crawl, and you find yourself thinking about what’s going on.  At least, that’s my experience, and it works for fight scenes and scenes of physical danger, too.  The best film representation I’ve seen of this is in the Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes films, where time shifts between the furious chaos of a fist fight and Holmes’s mathematical plotting out of how he’s going to bring his opponent down.  Two timelines, intimately intertwined.

Don’t believe it?  I’ve had it work in my own life.  Mumbledy years ago I was going to a friend’s house for dinner.  As I lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts at the time and it was November, it was dark.  As the friend I was going to visit was interested in costuming, and I had been given a beautiful, very sharp knife to wear with a costume, I had the knife in my pocket to show my friend.  So: dark street, me trotting along, when I am mugged.  Faster than I could realize what was happening, I was rolling on the asphalt of the street with my assailant, tussling per who was going home with my purse, while my mugger’s buddy was keeping a lookout and instructing his friend to “hurry up, man.”  The physical part of the confrontation probably took less than a minute, at the end of which he ran off with my bag.

During that maybe-60 seconds, as I was rolling around on the ground with this guy, I was also thinking. Clearly.  With a weird sort of cool rationality that I only seem to attain in a crisis:

  • I have a knife.
  • I could pull the knife.
  • I don’t want to kill this guy unless my life is at stake
  • I don’t think my life is at stake, just my purse
  • If I pull the knife and don’t use it, this guy might take it away from me
  • And he might not have my scruples about using it
  • Okay, then, no knife
  • Is there anything in my bag I cannot immediately replace?
  • Not really
  • Okay, then.  Let him take the bag

At which point I released my hold on the bag and he ran away.  Deeply shaken, but not hurt, I went to my friend’s house, called the cops, and had half an hour of shaking horrors.  But the moment I let go of my bag and the mugger ran away, time returned to its normal flow.

Writing a fight scene should include all of this stuff: the breathless chaos, the weirdly clear thinking, choreography that lets you, the writer, know where all the body parts of all the players are at any moment, without the characters necessarily being aware of it.  A fight is a physical event, and a mental event.  And sometimes, as the phrase goes, time stands still, even if your characters don’t.

October 15, 2014

Raising Feminists, the Movie Edition

Filed under: Uncategorized — madeleinerobins @ 8:45 AM

MV5BMTQ0Njk2MDQ4NF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNjg0NTA0OQ@@._V1_SY317_CR0,0,214,317_AL_I was going to write about my current obsessive hobby of beading, but then Seven Brides for Seven Brothers was on TV.  And I was appalled all over that I let my impressionable daughters watch it when they were small, and impressed that it didn’t seem to do them any lasting harm.

My family watches a lot of movies, and many of them are old musicals from the 40s and 50s.  Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is a 1954 MGM musical based on a short story by Stephen Vincent Benet called “The Sobbin’ Women.” Out in the pioneer northwest, a man decides he needs a wife, goes into town, finds one, marries her (she falls in love with him; what his feelings for her are is unclear), and brings her home to cook and clean for himself and his six half-civilized brothers.  Millie (the wife) civilizes the boys a bit, and eventually, after meeting some nice girls from town at a barn raising, the boys (led by big brother Adam, who read Plutarch’s “Rape of the Sabine Women”) go to town and kidnap the girls.  The townsfolk are prevented from rescuing their daughters until the pass clears (convenient avalanche), but Millie staunchly defends the girls’ virtue through the long winter that follows.  In the end, everyone winds up married.  The lesson about being kidnapped?  “They acted angry and annoyed, but secretly they was overjoyed…”

No, this is not a feminist movie. It’s pretty much rape-culture with music.

Why watch it?  It’s pretty, the music is pleasant (although the lyrics are just passable:”Can’t make no vows to a herd of cows…”) and the stars work hard.  Mostly, it has spectacular, athletic, muscular dancing.  The barn raising dance, in particular, is just…wow.  You briefly forget all about the political incorrectness of the surroundings and just gape in awe.

My daughters loved Seven Brides.  It also led to interesting conversations. Oh, we had interesting conversations about all sorts of movies, which often led to what I call “Well, dear,” explanations.  As in: “Mama, why are all those men in turbans so angry with Shirley Temple’s grandfather?” “Well, dear, the British occupation of India…” A movie like Seven Brides required several conversations, which led to more “Well, dear” moments (“No, honey, girls couldn’t vote in America until 1919.” “But that’s not fair!!!” “No, sweetie, it wasn’t.”).  The fact that the hero of Seven Brides is apparently a sociopath who doesn’t understand why his behavior is reprehensible until he has a daughter of his own, led to its own subset of conversations, as did the fact that the brothers start out regarding Millie as a food-making, clothes-washing robot.  (“Well, what are they doing?”)

Many of the films I loved and watched uncritically when I was a kid now reveal their age and the deep wells of misogyny of the time.  When my older daughter was about eleven, Adam’s Rib, one of the great Tracy-Hepburn comedies of the 40s, was on.  “Ooh, let’s watch.  It’s fun.”  It is fun, but it’s also blisteringly anti-feminist, and treats the heroine’s job (she’s a lawyer) with a kind of “isn’t that cute” contempt that is mind-boggling.  The plot revolves around a couple, both lawyers, who are on opposite sides in a case, with Hepburn defending a woman (Judy Holliday) who discovers that her husband has a mistress, and tries to kill them.  (The fact that Holliday and the “other woman”, Jean Hagen, are playing essentially the same character, is part of the joke.)  The jokes are classist as well as sexist…the more I talk about it, the more appalling it looms in my memory.  And yet.  The movie works because the cast–all of them, Tracy, Hepburn, Tom Ewell, Hagen, David Wayne, and Holliday–are so amazingly good.  With lousy actors it would be a dreary, humiliating mess.

Julie watched it and turned to me with dismay.  “Do all those men realize they’re condescending to Katharine Hepburn?”  We had discussions.  We did agree that while the movie made fun of Hepburn’s character’s passion and intelligence in the cause of her client, it also made it clear that what drew Tracy to her in the first place is that same passion and intelligence.  The movie also makes great hay of Tracy behaving like a manipulative creep–although it suggests that he’s using women’s tricks to get what he wants.

This led to watching more Tracy-Hepburn movies: Pat and MikeWoman of the YearDesk Set.  In all of them, Hepburn’s character is a working woman: an athlete, a reporter, the head of a TV network’s research division.  And in all of them, in the end, the path to romance keeps coming up against career, pretty much to the detriment of career.  Until she gets her priorities straight, of course.  After each film the discussions flew thick and fast, and led to Julie at one point holding up White Christmas, of all things, as a better movie on feminist terms, because no one thinks for a moment that there’s anything “cute” or out of line about the two sisters in the show having jobs.  Except that the jobs are as two halves of a sister singing act, I pointed out.  If one of them had been a brain surgeon or a politician I doubt the people around them would have been so understanding.

There are no right answers to how to handle old material.  I will still watch Seven Brides, and Adam’s Rib, and White Christmas, and the rest, and enjoy what I find to enjoy in them.  And I’m glad I showed them to the girls; I kind of think that seeing the films encouraged the discussions that led to both of them becoming feminists (and they are, boy howdy).  Another mother might have refused to give them shelf space; as I said: no right answers.

But honestly, how does anyone get away with condescending to Katharine Hepburn?

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