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Monday, April 22, 2013

A review of a book that doesn't exist

Recently I read Sweethearts by Sara Zarr, for participation in my branch of the Forever YA book club. It was good and I'm looking forward to discussing it with my book club buds, but when I began reading it something about the setting made me wish it was a different book. See, the story is set in Utah, and the main character is not LDS. She mentions this specifically, since it sets her apart from her elementary school classmates, who are nearly all LDS. She's the object of bullying for various reasons--her weight and appearance, her friendship with another strange, bullied kid--and it's indicated that her bullies are Mormon children.

(via Zarr's website)

Ah! thought I. This is going to be really interesting, reading about life in Zion from the perspective of someone who isn't Mormon! Of course the book went in another direction, probably because writing that story would have forced the book into a very specific niche. But I'd like to read that story, very much. My own perspective is that of someone who encountered mild bullying because of being part of a peculiar people; I was the only LDS teen in my high school until junior year. I could never imagine what it was like to be surrounded by church peers, to go to seminary in your high school as a class rather than getting up at the crack of dawn and going to the chapel or to a member's house. And it never occurred to me to wonder what it was like for teens in Utah who weren't part of that community. In the past few years we've been getting memoirs and fiction written by Mormons and former Mormons (can we just call ourselves Formons?). Maybe at some point we will see a few stories written from the other side. Or maybe they already exist--are you aware of any, beyond the lifestyle pieces that pop up occasionally? Is there even a There there? Would you read a novel or short story or memoir about a stranger in the strange land of Utah?

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The house grew. It was not made.

Once upon a time there was a skinny arm of land wedged between a lake and a river, and upon a square of this land a man built a house. Five or so years later, after the man had died, the house passed to his oldest son's family, and so it went for some time. Children and cats in the yard, fishermen on the dock. 

(a cat long departed)

This is my family's home. Originally belonging to my grandparents, then to a set of aunt, uncle, and cousins. I spent my childhood and youth on the property, and I lived there the summer before college, after my parents sold the house I grew up in and moved north. The house had been for sale since my senior year, but with the market taking such a drastic downturn I didn't really think it could ever sell; it's a million-dollar property now, double waterfront, in an expensive area of my hometown. But it sold. Last week, in fact, to people who really only wanted the land, who plan to knock the house down and build something new. And so my grandmother packs up the remnant of strange oddities in the garage (my aunt and uncle are pack rats) and looks for a condo or a small house. It's very strange, unsettling and wrong, to think of going anywhere else on the island for a holiday dinner. It's selfish to think of myself, I suppose; it wasn't my house, didn't belong to my parents. But its sale and eventual destruction is the final tap of the hammer: now I truly can't go home. I can go to my aunts and uncles' houses, I can stay with DRSHEBLOGGO, but it's far too easy to envision a day when my town will be, finally, a tourist destination, when I will have to stay in a hotel if I want to visit old haunts. 

(Christmas 2010)

Not a nice feeling. But I am sneakily, guiltily glad that it took so long to sell. I'm glad I was able to bring my manfriend home and show off my history. I'm glad I had one last Christmas at home in 2012, with nearly all my family present. I'm glad my childhood had such firm roots, that there were treehouses and rambles and wooly damp forests for adventures. Many people don't have that and I was lucky. I am lucky. And I hope someday to be able to commit the house and its stories to print in the way that they deserve. 

Friday, April 05, 2013

Justify the malice, or, How many links can I fit into one post?

For awhile there I was distracted by Tegan and Sara and Leprous, but true love lasts a lifetime and my favorite power metal sneak feminists, Kamelot, are perfect for every season. Part of this is that Tumblr user thesiegeperilous is in the process of posting a series on the female gaze in heavy metal (one of which posts links to my own Kamelot superpost, oh my how I blushed!), and so I've been thinking about image, how groups in these genres portray themselves, and how they might consider their fanbase and fan expectations when creating those images. Though according to Deena Weinstein the male to female fan split is fairly even, the majority of metal performers are male and--as in most media--the product is largely aimed at male audiences...or rather, the default audience, which is assumed to be male. As Stephanie Green points out in her very good 2009 article on Strange Horizons, despite a significant presence female fans may often be marginalized or have their fandom policed (as I noted briefly a few months ago). If, as Green posits, "metal's themes center on untamed masculinity in all its forms," does a female gaze even exist within the music? Why would I refer to any metal band as feminist, even a sneaky brand? On the surface, Kamelot does not appear to meet the criteria: the major female characters in their songs have a tendency to die, and mainly male desires and character arcs are considered. However, two songs from very different eras present a more nuanced view into the band psyche--the "Elizabeth" trio and the four-part "Poetry for the Poisoned." Furthermore, the characterization of Ariel on The Black Halo can be read as, if not created for the female gaze, then an inversion of the male gaze. 

First, Karma's "Elizabeth": nominally about the notorious Elizabeth Bathory, the song is, in Khan's words, about beauty, vanity, and growing old. Within this frame, the song can be interpreted as an examination of beauty standards for women in place since time immemorial, and how straining to meet kyriarchal expectations turns women against one another and against themselves. According to legend and as portrayed in the song, Bathory murdered young women in order to use their blood to preserve her own beauty and youth. Kamelot's rendition is somewhat more sympathetic; the lyrics show a woman full of pride, doubt, and fear, trapped by actions carried out in order to free herself from "the vicious hands of time." American culture dictates norms for women, from our appearance to our sexuality to how we raise our children, and typically these norms are narrow indeed, based around an ideal of fairness (where beauty is white), thinness (where health is unimportant), innocence (where malleability is prized above self-esteem), and availability (to the right men, at the right time). It's easy enough to see myself in Elizabeth, to imagine the demands placed on me carried to their logical extreme. How far are we willing to go to make ourselves desirable, in a culture where a woman's worth is measured by her desirability? Authorial intent is always a murky topic, but I read "Elizabeth" as a song created by someone who was in fact interested in concerns like these, who saw a need to ask what would drive a woman to murder repeatedly, with a specific end goal in mind. As a listener I am free to derive my own meaning from songs, and while I have no idea if any of the band members would take the label "feminist," the "Elizabeth" trio is significant to me through the lens of feminism.

Next, the Ariel question. During Epica, Ariel is presented as a typical masculine hero-on-a-quest: he's active, he has goals, he loves but he sets aside that love in favor of his journey, his lady is fridged for his emotional testing, etc. The Black Halo continues the quest, but Ariel's position has shifted slightly. Beginning with the Epica song "Descent of the Archangel" and continued in "March of Mephisto," "When the Lights Are Down," and "The Haunting," Ariel is acted upon, placed in a position normally occupied by women. Indeed, "March of Mephisto" specifically indicates that Ariel is being seduced--by multiple personages, no less, as his seduction is two-fold and carried out mentally by Mephisto and physically by Marguerite. Now, the plot breakdown of this album as posited on Wikipedia diverges somewhat from my interpretation; it emphasizes that Ariel seduces Marguerite under Mephisto's influence, but it is also indicated that Mephisto delivers Marguerite to Ariel (is that enough italicization?). So for me, Ariel's mental/spiritual assault by Mephisto in conjunction with Mephisto maneuvering Marguerite like a chess piece trumps Ariel's autonomy. In effect the positioning of Ariel gives listeners a two-pronged fantasy: those attracted to women (Marguerite) can imagine themselves being seduced by her, and those attracted to men (Ariel) can imagine themselves seducing him. Ultimately, though the songs and accompanying videos showcase very beautiful women--including the flawless Simone Simons, who really deserves her own post someday--which is normative of androcentric heavy metal, the main male character is not in the typical position of power-over. Lyrically the songs don't stroke Ariel's ego or glorify his relationships; rather they pin the blame for Helena's death and his own downfall squarely on Ariel. Tracks like "This Pain" reveal an awareness of how non-sanctioned sexual relationships affect women, both in the medieval period Ariel is supposed to be part of and in good old 2013. On the flipside, since Khan's voice and appearance are the vanguard of Kamelot, suggestive lyrics come straight from the horse's mouth; the teasing nature of "Descent of the Archangel," the romance of "Forever" and "Temples of Gold," and the lust behind "March of Mephisto" all have an attraction magnified by the fact that they are sung by a beautiful and charismatic performer. Similarly, the "you will kneel before me" line from "Veritas" capitalizes on Tommy Karevik's physical and sonic appeal.

Finally, Poetry for the Poisoned's title track. It's no secret that I am fond of this album, a release decried by many fans, and part of it is that I hear it as darkly reflective of Ariel's journey on Epica and The Black Halo; the main character on the title track is very similar to who Ariel would have become had he fully succumbed to Mephisto. Beyond this, the record features two unnamed female characters who differ greatly from Helena and Marguerite. Though "If Tomorrow Came" is my favorite song on the album--largely for featuring that singular woman--more interesting to interrogate is "Poetry for the Poisoned" itself. The spoken word bit at the end of Part I sets the theme up nicely, making quite clear that this song is about sex and sexual appetite, but Parts II and III turn the female voice into the subject and the male voice into--well, not quite an object, but into someone who is acted upon as he acts upon the woman. It is rare enough in Kamelot lyrics to see a woman acting out, and rarer still in metal lyrics generally to see one whose sexuality is not necessarily objectified or demonized. Not to say that this doesn't occur in "Poetry," but presenting a female character who glories in her sexuality and her physical power is a noble goal--particularly if she is not ultimately punished for it. And even beyond this, the song can be read as a revenge story, as it ends with the male character's death and "life in slow review" as he considers what's brought him to this place. Not only is the female character still alive at song's end, she's been empowered to strike back at someone who assaulted her and assumed she would provide satisfaction for him and nothing more. Of course there are less charitable interpretations of this song, but as a fan of so-called weaponized femininity, I like mine.

No band, actor, writer, or filmmaker is perfect; most of the time I have to analyze the media I'm consuming and see if there's enough There there to make it worth my while. It's entirely possible to be a fan of problematic things; it's why the gods blessed us with critical faculties. And while there is material in Kamelot's catalogue to take issue with, there's also enough thoughtful, unusual material that I feel confident that the band are aware of their non-straight-male fans and are interested in not alienating them, in creating narratives that don't always privilege prototypical male sexuality and that present cognizance of  female desire. 
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