Read, Watch, and Think Happy Thoughts

I’ll be honest, I totally forgot I had this post coming up until I got a notification on my phone last Thursday. As you can imagine, it was the last thing on my mind, but I knew I still had to write something.

Anything.

On the podcast this week, Kristin and I decided we’d just talk about stuff we’re geeking out about to keep it upbeat and positive for the listeners. That seemed like the right, and important thing to do. It ended up being a pretty cathartic experience, so I decided I’d do something similar for this post. In the spirit of positivity and happy thoughts, here’s a little list of some fun and lighthearted books and TV shows that might help take your mind off what’s going on in the world.

heroine-complexHeroine Complex by Sarah Kuhn

You probably think it’d be cool if your best friend was a superhero. And if you could be her sidekick, that would be pretty rad too, right? Maybe not so much.

Heroine Complex is the story of Evie Tanaka, personal assistant to her very demanding and very superpowered friend Aveda Jupiter. Evie is always playing second fiddle to Aveda, forced to cover for her antics and clean up her messes. But when Aveda is injured in combat, Evie is forced to stand in for her superfriend. And guess what? Evie had powers of her own!

This is a super (lol) fun and smart romp that highlights the important bonds of both friendship and family, even when trying to deal with burgeoning superpowers and battling demons from another dimension (demon cupcakes even!)

genrenautsGenrenauts by Michael R. Underwood

If you asked me what my favorite “type” of SFF or comic story is, I’d be hard pressed not to pick “Adventures Through the Multiverse”! Comics have done this a bunch of times, but I don’t see it as much in prose. Genrenauts does it, and in a spectacularly fun fashion.

The story follows floundering stand up comedian Leah Tang, who is given the opportunity to travel the multiverse to fix unraveling stories. Each world the Genrenauts attempt to save represents a different genre trope – western, sword and sorcery, romance – while at the same time turning those genre conventions on their heads.

The stories are lighthearted and adventurous – Leah is a snarky but loveable main character and her surrounding cast is full of diverse and engaging personalities.

steven-universeSteven Universe

I wrote a post about how wonderful Steven Universe a couple months ago on the Scribes, so I’ll keep this one short. While that post was mostly about how the lessons of SU can be applied to writing, it also gives you a good idea about the major themes of the show and how incredibly positive it is.

Steven Universe is one of the most heartfelt and inclusive shows I’ve ever seen. It eschews the bleakness and coldness of the real world for a warm, pastel-colored vision of place governed by the love of friendship and family.

 

 

 

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Azumanga Daioh

Okay this last pick is a bit of an oldie, but if there’s one piece of media I’d describe as “comfort food”, it’s Azumanga Daioh.

This anime is a simple slice of life comedy about a group of Japanese high school girls and their teachers. There’s no huge overarching plot, not big stakes that must be resolved, just a glimpse into the everyday lives of a quirky group of students and teachers.

It’s a low key and charming series, that can also be uproariously funny at times as well. Wrap yourself in this show like a warm blanket and let the worries of the world melt away.

Also there’s a cat who may or may not be Bill Clinton.

So friends, care to share some of other positive and uplifting media are you’re enjoying right now?

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Evangelion and Shards of Identity

asuka
I’ll talk about Evangelion. I promise.

 

We see the word identity a lot these days. “Self identity.” “Cultural identity.” “Identity politics.” “I identify as…” It’s part of the human condition to constantly question who we are as individuals, as a society, as creatures who live linearly but exist non-dimensionally.

Any one of us can name a number of roles and characteristics that define us for ourselves and others: male, female, agender, parent, person of color, spoonie, bisexual, candlestick maker, superhero, whatever. Each of us is some amalgamation of descriptors that can only start to sum up the who and what of the stuff between our ears. And as intersectionality becomes a more widely recognized and emphasized facet of politics and personality, our society is coming to realize that each of us is more than our nationality, sexuality, or vocation.

asuka head tiltBut in spite of that recognition, most of us have one particular piece of identity that encapsulates the core of our being, something about ourselves we elevate and hold sacred. Maybe it’s mother or woman or lawyer or artist. American culture prioritizes the career: when strangers ask us about ourselves, we say things like, “Oh, I’m a web programmer.” It’s not what we do, it’s who we are, even if, facing our maker, that’s not the only standard by which we would wish to be judged or defined.

In part, it’s a social shorthand, a code for our place in society. When I say, “I’m a writer who moonlights as a web marketer,” I’m saying: “I’m a self-identified artistic person who works with technology as a way to supplement my income—oh, and you can likely guess that because I work in a non-essential field with a computer, you can assume that I have at least a few pennies to rub together, I’m educated, and this is probably a path I chose rather than one that was forced on me.”

Whether or not the conclusions you then draw about me based on your own experience and identity are correct is a different issue.

Self-applied taglines like this are useful, of course, but when I do it often, what I choose to publicly emphasize can begin to be reflected in my own internal hierarchy of identity. What should be a core identity, a hub around which my personal constellation of self rotates, instead becomes a gravitational identity, without which none of my secondary identifying articles can be sustained. And if that personal star of self categorization changes or, worse, implodes, I’m left with nothing but a collection of unrelated, rudderless characteristics with no basis and no direction.

Fellow Scribe Brian O’Conor and I have been rewatching Neon Genesis Evangelion for our podcast, The Young Podawans, and during this rewatch, I’ve been intensely sympathizing with one of the show’s most unlikeable characters, Asuka Langley Soryu. She’s red-headed, loud, impatient, unkind, competitive, and, above all, reckless. But that’s not why I identify with her. Rather, I see myself in her internal conflict when she begins to lose her central identity.

After a really awful defeat, Asuka’s ability to pilot an Eva begins to fade and, as a result, Asuka begins to wonder what her purpose really is; if she can’t pilot an Eva, why does she even exist?

asuka love self

I may not be a mecha pilot, but I do know what it is to wonder who you are after a perceived failure at something to which your identity is pinned. I think most writers rely on the creative act to give them a place in the universe. It’s a career that requires so much input of self and such dedication over so many years, all other things can begin to seem secondary to its pursuit. And if you aren’t writing, or can’t write, who are you? What’s your point?

That road leads to clinical depression, and that’s why it’s so important to recognize the intersectionality that exists within you, without reference to cultural mores or your place in society. I may be a writer, but I’m also an artisan and a gamer and a geek and an animal lover and a pagan and so many more things that I could fill an encyclopedia simply with ME. My existence does not disintegrate when I take away once fragment of identity, even when it’s one of those core characteristics. Although my entire sense of self may shift to accommodate the new arrangement, I exist even beyond the most random collection of traits by which I may identify. Nothing can take that away.

asuka smile

It’s not always an easy thing to see. But Asuka’s crisis is one that so many of us face, and the heart-wrenching realism of her struggle to reclaim any sense of worth without her former identity is part of what makes Neon Genesis Evangelion such a powerful show. While it’s not, perhaps, the most uplifting demonstration of a battle with depression, it does illustrate that this struggle is one that exists outside the ephemeral web of political climate and social commentary.

The bottom line is this: Identity is not fixed. It’s never too late to question what makes you yourself. And if something changes or breaks, that does not change the central YOU that exists underneath the labels and social cues. Even if that internal sense of self is a work in progress, it’s not something that anyone or anything else can take away.

 

Five Reasons to Watch Puella Magi Madoka Magica

madoka 3

If you follow me on Twitter, you’ve probably noticed that I recently watched and was completely floored by an anime called Puella Magi Madoka Magica. It’s a well-known and highly, highly praised series in anime circles (to which I really don’t belong), but I came across it because Netflix thought I would like it.

Well, Netflix was right.

The plot centers around a young girl named Madoka and her friends—and what happens when a magical creature offers them one miraculous wish in exchange for signing up to become a witch-fighting magical girl. Sounds simple, but naturally it gets oh-so-complicated.

I’m not an anime expert by any means, but I gather that this show is a deconstruction of the magical girl genre. In that way, like Neon Genesis Evangelion, it succeeds because it’s both the culmination and a critique of the typical genre stories. The beauty of Madoka, though, is that it’s an artistic triumph, quite literally beautiful, and it stands on its own merits as an excellent piece of storytelling.

puella-magi-madoka-magica-anime-motorcycle-2

So here’s why you should watch:

1. The show revolves around the power of female friendship. So many shows center on romantic relationships, whether gay, straight, or something in between, that it’s easy to forget the most important relationships in our lives aren’t all about sex. While some might argue that Madoka contains romantic relationships, on its face, it’s really about female friendship: the depths of our hearts to which friendship can reach and the heights to which it can drive us to achieve.

2. It’s a masterwork of feminism without being about feminism. There are almost no male characters in this show. The magical girls aren’t special because they’re girls who are powerful. Rather, they’re special because of the sacrifices they make to protect the human race. Neither sex nor gender is an issue. To see a show like this beloved by a geeky audience is a huge triumph, particularly when women’s right to enjoy any kind of geekery, whether written works or visual, is constantly under threat. Plus, the juxtaposition of “girly” visuals and genre-elements with true darkness and despair is gloriously true to realities of human nature, let alone womanhood.

3. It’s visually stunning. I have never seen an anime as gorgeously and triumphantly experimental in its animation style. As the characters shift between worlds, the world literally shifts and becomes Other. Each witch has her own style of magic, and it’s hair-raising to see the differences between them. While the human world is beautifully drawn, the supernatural elements are phenomenal. (Sidebar: the music is also incredible.)

4. The plot twists will gut you. Any time a magical bargain is struck, there’s bound to be a price. In this case, the price is so heart-breaking that you’ll feel devastated halfway through the series—and that’s before you even get to the meat of the central story. Despite what may seem like a played-out premise, the story told here is not a simple one. Prepare yourself for heartbreak.

5. Every character is well-drawn, but Madoka and Homura could walk out of the screen. The two main characters have layers of depth that put both onions and parfaits to shame. The timid, girly-girl who initially wants power for its own sake, just so she can feel special, shows herself to have more true compassion than a Catholic saint. And the journey she takes to finally own her power traverses roads through fear and doubt most stories never touch.

And Homura? Well. You’ll just have to see.

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Anime and Me

For what feels like most of my life, people have wanted me to watch and like anime. First it was one of my best friends in elementary school with her abiding love of Sailor Moon. Then it was my first roommate in college, the one who was obsessed with… um… well, frankly, I didn’t care and can’t remember what particular shows she enjoyed. We didn’t get along, and I have less than fond memories of her slurping ramen noodles and donkey-laughing at whatever show she was watching… at three a.m.

This what I think of your ramen and your creepy schoolgirls: BLECH.

So I made it to adulthood without ever gaining a foothold on the genre*. The strange story lines, the bright colors and alien appearances, the focus on teens and children, the often unintelligible plots that just didn’t translate into English culture, let alone language—all of it turned me off. But when I met my husband, who likes anime and whose recommendations I have a harder time ignoring, I was systematically presented with a veritable universe of characters, stories, and artwork to try on for size. Drew knew I would find something to like in a category that contains more variety in stories and subject matters than most small-town public libraries, from historical fiction to sci-fi to middle-school drama.

After a few mishaps with giant robots and creepy schoolgirls, I set him a few guidelines, meeting at least two of the three following criteria:

1. The artwork needs to be pretty.

2. The cast needs to include strong female characters OR, at the least, the male characters can’t all be sexist a-holes.

3. A fantasy or fairy tale element is preferable, but not strictly necessary.

Mushisi: Gorgeous, fantastical, and non-sexist. Too bad it once made me hurl.

With the help of these guidelines, Drew introduced me to xxxHolic (pronounced simply, and oddly, “holic”) and Mushishi, both of which are fantasy, have a few strong female characters (though their portrayal isn’t always what I’d call the feminist ideal), and have a strong connection to Japanese myth and folklore, which I can dig. We watched xxxHolic from beginning to end, though main-character Watanuki’s shrieking hysteria nearly drove me away many times, and we made a good start on Mushishi, though an incident with an entire bottle of wine and an episode about an ear-worm monster ended badly and I haven’t *gulp* managed to return to the show yet.

Enter Revolutionary Girl Utena. We told our manga-loving friend Amy about my staunch indifference to most anime, and she told me I needed to watch Utena, because the show had taught her so much about feminism and had honestly changed her life. She thrust the DVDs into our hot little hands, and we gave it a whirl.

Utena: If you get it, please email me and explain. Seriously.

On its face, Utena sounded perfect for me. Female lead wants to be a prince (better translation: knight?) and sets out to rescue “Rose Bride” Anthy from what appears to be a secret society at their school. Sounds like it makes sense, right? Pretty straightforward girl-rescues-girl! Until girl seeks mystery prince, other girl betrays girl, secret society seeks heaven, other girl has incestuous relationship and her brother, other-other girl has incestuous relationship HER brother and, well, I have no idea. Remember what I said about unintelligible plots? This show is so incomprehensible, so opaque that even Drew eventually admitted defeat, and then only after arguing that it was all alchemical metaphor for, uh, something.

Whomp-whomp. Anime fail.

kitten fail

After that, er, mishap, we returned the DVDs to our friend, and nothing more was said about anime.

Then, last week, I came home from an errand and Drew said, “You know, I just tried an episode of anime you might actually like. It’s about otaku girls—you know, the uber-fans? Well, the main character is an otaku who loves jellyfish, and she lives with a bunch of other otaku girls. It’s sort of about how they feel like they can’t fit in, and I think you might actually identify with it!”

Hmm. When I type that out, it sounds kind of insulting, but it totally wasn’t. I swear.

Anyway, it sounded interesting, so we gave it a try and… *drumroll*… I loved it!

Princess Jellyfish tells the story of a group of otaku women who live in the lone holdout building in a neighborhood targeted for gentrification. The story actually manages to parallel the women’s feelings of awkwardness and isolation with their love for the “retro,” eccentric old building they inhabit, and their push-pull relationship with the outside world is crystallized in their reluctant friendship with a “Stylish” who has acceptance problems (and secrets) of his—I mean, “her”—own.

“It’s looking at me! Oh god! Go limp!”

And how did it do with my criteria?

Well, it’s not fantasy, and the artwork isn’t notably beautiful, so it actually rather failed. But it tells (to me) a real story about real women, and I absolutely identified with the characters. My little rules ended up getting me shows that alienated me for other reasons, and because I was so bound by my own expectations of anime as a category, I eliminated whole swathes of stories and refused to acknowledge entire groups of characters.

So floored by how much I actually liked Princess Jellyfish, I wandered into the manga section at my local bookstore recently, and the ENORMOUS selection there completely overwhelmed me. Serials about Greek gods? Check. Romances? Check. Sci-fi epics about assassin girls? Check. Fairy stories? Check. Stories about anything and everything that might possibly interest me, told with every technique from gorgeous pencil sketches to comic book-style drawings? Oh yeah.

In the end, I learned my lesson. Anime is absolutely not a well-defined term that means “silly, garish cartoons about girly superheroes and giant robots.” Rather, it’s a medium filled with rich worlds, diverse characters, and thought-provoking stories. Check it out: you won’t regret it.

Just be sure not to set yourself any silly rules… and remember that not every “Stylish” is what he—I mean, “she”—appears to be.

*Anime is more accurately called an art form or style than it is a genre, but it’s very often CALLED a genre by folks who don’t quite understand what it is—like yours truly, until very recently.