Thursday, September 17, 2020

Why I'm Not Canceling Netflix

I watched the controversial movie Cuties so that you wouldn’t have to.

I went in prepared to tear this movie to shreds, and instead, discovered a beautiful, realistic tragedy that has been unfairly represented in the media. Here's my honest review of the "Cuties" movie:

I accepted Netflix’s challenge to watch the movie [before judging it], and I’m glad I did.  I concur entirely with Tessa Thompson’s opinion: it gutted me.  It’s a beautifully done movie about a sensitive topic.  It’s as tasteful as it can be, considering that the POINT is to make you, the viewer, squirm a little.  The discomfort of the movie speaks to a very real issue not often talked about: how girls grow into women, and how various influences (pop culture, traditional cultural expectations, and peer pressure) guide them.  My takeaway from the movie was that the single biggest problem with Amy’s coming-of-age was the utter lack of guidance.  It was the blind leading the blind; she took her cues from her friends, from online videos, from her own misinterpretation of the world around her.  At no point did her mother (or any other woman) in the movie sit her down and have a frank conversation with her.  She was unable to ask for questions or for advice.  She was isolated, and alone.

The beautiful tragedy of the controversy surrounding this movie is that, by boycotting it, by demanding that it be silenced, the cultural conversation it begs to have is being shut down.  Amy experienced what too many young girls do: a nosedive into an empty swimming pool, from childhood to womanhood, with the nuances of sexuality and maturity being closely guarded, shameful secrets that she is expected to figure out on her own.  The attempts to cancel the movie is, essentially, mirroring the very problem that the movie highlights: that by ignoring a problem or refusing to confront it, we allow it to grow worse.  Yet another case of life imitating art.

For more information about the #CancelNetflix controversy, as well as a play-by-play of my reactions while watching the film, check out my full article on the Cuties movies here.

Friday, September 4, 2020

Rest in Power, King: A Tribute to Chadwick Boseman

 [A/n: This post was written last weekend and supposed to be published on another site Wednesday, but as it is still not out and I feel this is timely, I am reproducing it here.]


"You are a good man with a good heart, and it is hard for a good man to be king." - T’Chaka to his son T’Challa, Black Panther, 2018.

When I saw Black Panther in 2018, I called it “one of the most important and relevant [superhero] films of our generation.”  In my opinion, that sentiment has only grown stronger.  Behind every great movie is a great actor to carry it, and Black Panther owes its success, in no small part, to Chadwick Boseman, who passed away last Friday from colon cancer, which he had been battling in private for four years.

In a statement to the press, Kevin Feige, president of Marvel Studios, described Boseman as a man who “radiated charisma and joy, and… created something truly indelible.”  Former President Barack Obama, quoted in People, said: “To be young, gifted, and Black; to use that power to give them heroes to look up to; to do it all while in pain – what a use of his years.”  Ryan Coogler, the director of Black Panther, described Boseman as "a caretaker, a leader, and a man of faith.".  (You can read his full, official statement here.)

"Always and Forever," by BossLogic

Chadwick Boseman starred in an incredible 15 film roles over the course of his career, seven of them following his cancer diagnosis in 2016.  In addition to starring in fictitious roles, he also took on the mantle of some of America’s influential Black citizens, from major-league baseball player Jackie Robison (42, 2008) to Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall (Marshall, 2017).  But perhaps one of his best-known and most-cherished roles was that of King T’challa, aka Black Panther.  The recurring role (Civil War, 2016; Black Panther, 2018; Avengers: Infinity War, 2018; Avengers: Endgame, 2019) left an impact on both the Marvel Cinematic Universe as well as on the sociopolitical impact of superhero films as a whole.

With a box office at $1.347 billion, Black Panther was the first of the Marvel movies to win an Academy Award (Best Costume Design, Best Original Score, and Best Production Design), as well as the first “superhero” film to get a nomination for Best Picture.  Its commercial success speaks to a deeper cultural impact.  The first Marvel movie to feature a predominantly Black cast, Black Panther offered a generation of Black children the superhero representation that had been lacking from the prior 17 MCU films.  It was a nuanced, emotionally impactful movie that did not shy away from racial topics but treated all of its characters (even the villains) with dignity and honor.  Boseman, as T’Challa, gave power and emotion to a performance that represented important political and social questions within the context of a fictional world, and in doing so, transcended the superhero genre into something more meaningful.  He brought depth and soul to his characters, and in turn, allowed his characters to speak to modern issues and real concerns about racial justice in modern America.

Boseman’s death, at the age of 43, came on August 28th, which is, fittingly enough, Jackie Robinson Day.

At the 2018 Howard University commencement speech, Boseman describes struggles in life as being “meant to shape you for your purpose,” and encouraged the graduating class to “press on with pride and press on with purpose.”  Remembered as curious,  kind, inspiring, and driven, Chadwick’s death leaves an absence in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that cannot (and perhaps should not) be filled.  Yet his legacy remains.  With regality and gravitas, Boseman’s performances left an impact that will survive him for generations to come.  He gave audiences of all colors something to aspire to and embodied his role as the King of Wakanda with the bearing of true royalty.  Graceful, inspirational, and humble, Boseman was not merely a fictional hero, but a cultural one.  He famously said he’d “rather have an action figure than a Golden Globe.”

Chadwick Boseman is survived by his wife, Taylor Simone Ledward, and his parents, Leroy and Carolyn Boseman.

His death has impacted countless fans.  To those fans, we offer this wisdom from King T’Challa himself: “In times of crisis, the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers. We must find a way to look after one another as if we were one single tribe.”

Yimbambe.  Wakanda Forever.


Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Review of Season 2 of Umbrella Academy

 I've made it pretty clear that I absolutely love the Netflix show "Umbrella Academy."  I had my expectations for season two set very high; every promo picture and teaser-trailer that came out got me even more excited, because it looked really good.

I was warned by many friends to temper my enthusiasm lest the second season fall short and I end up disappointed.  The truth was, my expectations were so high that such a let-down seemed inevitable.

At midnight I was up with a bottle of wine, ready to watch the ten newest episodes when they dropped.  It was like New Year's Eve.  The energy was palpable; I probably hadn't felt such anticipation since Marvel's Civil War.

In case you are wondering how it turned out: expectations MET.  Expectations SURPASSED!  The second season was everything I had hoped for, and more.

And you can read my comprehensive review of it here. 

Saturday, August 1, 2020

A Surjikcal Approach to Style: A Conversation with Umbrella Academy Director Stephen Surjik

 Earlier this month I scored a HELL of an interview with one of the directors of the Umbrella Academy, two weeks before the release of season 2.  I have been working on getting this interview completed and posted on a larger website to be enjoyed by more people, hence my absence from my own blog.

You can read the interview here.  

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Ties That Bind: An Unlicensed Umbrella Academy Prequel

Welcome to July!  If  you are a regular follower of my blog, then you might have noticed that I took the month of June off.  After two years of weekly content, I felt that I deserved it.  Also, while I'm certainly well-aware that this blog isn't the most populous corner of the web, I felt that June should be reserved to amplify and elevate voices who needed it.  The world could wait for my Last of Us II review (coming soon).

Rest assured I was not doing nothing.  I was working on a personal project that was a year in the making.  (It would have/should have/could have taken 3 months, but I took a break in the middle to have a baby and get a journalism degree.)

I finally finished it, just in time for the show's season 2 premiere.  The unlicensed prequel for "Umbrella Academy."


It's a full-length novel that is canon-compliant with both the books and the comics.  As far as fan fiction goes, it's probably the best thing I've ever written.

It starts slow, build to a crescendo, and employs heavy foreshadowing.  Early reviews by fellow fans have described it as being "zany and sad," "hilarious and depressing as hell," and my favorite, "exquisite suffering."

Monday, June 1, 2020

A Brief Commentary on "A Few Bad Apples" and Police Brutality from Los Angeles

Today's post will be short, and sweet.  I have a lot to say, but other people who are better educated and more experienced than me have already said it, better than I have.

tl;dr 

This weekend, riots broke out due to the (unnecessary, tragic, and unjustifiable) death of George Floyd.  I live in Los Angeles, where:
  • Curfews as early as 4 and 6 p.m. have been used to disperse peaceful, lawful protests.
  • Journalists have been fired on.
  • The National Guard is patrolling downtown.
  • Sirens, flash-bangs, and helicopters are keeping us up all night.
Along with all the protesting, there's been some rioting and looting.  I am inclined to believe that these are all separate groups.  Looting is an opportunistic crime; protesting peacefully is a Constitutional right.  And rioting falls somewhere in between.  When the police are marching through the streets in para-military gear, they're beckoning war, and they're getting it. 

Some photos from this weekend:









And my personal favorite:


Rioting should be a last resort. But then, so should murder, and this whole mess started because the police murdered someone unnecessarily.

Our country was literally founded on destruction of property. I'm not advocating for it, but I'm not weeping any tears for the busted windows of my local Starbucks, either.


 "There is something that Governments care for far more than human life, and that is the security of property, and so it is through property that we shall strike the enemy."
- also Emmeline Pankhurst

Regardless of how you feel about the protesters, your average American mostly deals with cops while getting a traffic ticket, so of course they're not going to like cops.

I have had both good and bad experiences with cops. My best experience with a cop was an instance in which a cop casually and kindly told me to be extra careful because I was in line at a bagel shop holding my motorcycle helmet. My worst experience with a cop was the time my friend, a black man, was thrown to the ground, handcuffed, and had a gun pulled on him because he vaguely looked like another black man in the area who they were searching for. These experiences are obviously not the same; the "bad" cop experience tends to far outweigh the "good" cop experience.

Ultimately, cops are people, people are fallible. I know there are good cops out there. I wish there were more.  But so long as civilians are being needlessly murdered, the "there are good cops" argument drowns in the viscous weight of police brutality.  What is left is the question of how we overhaul a broken system, and how we prevent cops from murdering people, and bring to justice the ones who do.

More on this in a second.

But this post really isn't about "the good cops."  It's about the bad system that all cops are a part of, a system that attracts bad people disproportionately, and warps the minds and ethics of otherwise good people.  Let me explain:

Due to the intense stress of the job and the constant exposure to violence, a lot of cops end up emotionally very volatile. It is not a coincidence that cops have a higher-than-average likelihood of spousal abuse. I would argue that a position of authority tends to attract power-mad assholes, and also that positions of authority can corrupt normal people who would remain normal in another position. I am not justifying some of the awful things cops do, only explaining why they are more prevalent from a statistical standpoint. A job like that is bound to fuck with your head, and I doubt most cops are getting the kind of emotional and psychological support they need to handle it in a constructive manner.

So what's to be done?

Here are two ideas:

First of all, fucking body cams.  Cops need to be held accountable.

Second of all, mental health screening, licensing guidelines, and an end to court protections for police officers.

Third, serious defunding and demilitarization.

Here's a list of five demands from BLM:


What can you do right now?  Consider donating to one of many organizations dedicated to ending police brutality, or at least clicking around their page to learn just how deep this problem goes.

 
We need to return to the supposed mission of police: to "serve" and "protect."  Police should be peacekeepers, mediators, negotiators.  Not soldiers.

And until we overhaul the way the police act in this country, we need to retire the phrase "a few bad apples."

The full phrase is, of course, "a few bad apples ruins the whole bunch."  This is one of those literal phrases; if you have a single bad apple in a barrel, its production and release of ethylene will cause all of the apples around in to ripen and turn to mush far faster than is normal.  If it's a fungus, or a worm, or some other issues, it spreads.

As I've said, I don't believe all cops are bad.  But as I've said, I do think the system is bad.  And so long as we allow room for the "few bad apples," we can't really excuse any part of the system, including the "good" parts of it, which are complacent in the face of injustice.

HMMMMMM...

Would you eat an apple if it were occupying a bucket with another apple that was covered in fungus, worms, or black rot?  Of course not.  And if you managed an orchard that kept finding bad apples, over and over and over again, wouldn't you, at some point, consider taking action to prevent bad apples in the first place?

It's time to do what we do with bad apples: throw them out, because they are trash.


RESOURCES FOR RACIAL JUSTICE:

  • Riot Medicine:  For those who want to attend protests as field medics. The police, I've noticed, bring plenty of guns, batons, pepper spray, and shields, but inexplicably do not bring medics. Almost as if they don't care if protesters get hurt.
  • How To Be An Ally: An extensive list by Forbes of documentaries, social media accounts, non-profits, books, essays, websites, and other resources to help educate and guide those who want to fight for racial justice and egalitarianism.
  • Campaign Zero: Some research on how to limit police interventions, improve community interactions, and ensure accountability.
  • Black Lives Matter: Self-explanatory. 
  • NAACP Legal Defense Fund: A way to help out the protesters.
  • A list of local bail funds for protesters.

Monday, May 25, 2020

How The Incredibles II Could Have Been Incredible, Too

There are few things that my husband and I disagree on, but one of them that's been a firm sticking point for over a decade is our opinion of The Incredibles.  It's an animated superhero movie from 2004 by Pixar, and it won two Academy Awards.

And Andrew does not like it.

My initial reaction.

For those unfamiliar with the franchise, the premise is this: a family of people with superpowers are living incognito in a world that demands their normalcy.  A supervillain eventually emerges, forcing the whole family to fight him together and realize how incredibly wonderful their abilities are, and in the end, they embrace their gifts, which were previously sources of shame and conflict.

Here are some things I liked about the film.  I liked that it inhabited a proper world that was filled not merely with superheroes, but also regular people whose jobs were critical to their shtick.  (The best example being Edna Mode, a clothing designer specializing in "super suits.")  I liked the direction, and the acting.  I liked the surprisingly dark moments in a brightly animated film, and the jaw-dropping revelation (for me, at least) that the supervillain was none other than Mr. Incredible's biggest fan, who had been rejected as his "boy sidekick" decades earlier.

Most importantly, I think, the film resonated with me.  I knew how it felt to have gifts that were not nurtured properly.  (I had wilted in a strict private school in primary, where the small class sizes meant that there was no "gifted" track, because everyone was "gifted," in the sense that their parents had money to send them to a school that cared more for the neatness of of uniforms than whether or not their reading primers were hopelessly out of date.)

I understood the frustration of having certain exceptional abilities and then suffering through a public school classroom in high school with a bunch of people far below my level, and the annoyance of being in a world that seemed to cater to the lowest common denominator.  I felt the sting of injustice at the idea that remarkable people could "slip through the cracks," and due to circumstances outside of their control, would not be built up, but instead be forced to languish in unremarkability for the rest of their lives.

In short, I felt like a weird kid with malnourished potential, and The Incredibles offered me a message of hope.

So, when the sequel came out in 2018, 14 years later, of course I went to see it in theaters.


I left disappointed, bewildered... and a little more understanding of my husband's point of view.

Let's first talk about why my husband does not like the original movie, and where the original movie missteps.  The problem with The Incredibles, says Andy, is that it solves a problem that does not exist.  The idea that gifted people are being "held back" in a purposeful and malicious manner seems like a bizarre complaint, when you think about it.  The movie has been criticized by some as being libertarian Ayn Rand propaganda whose central conflict revolves madly around egalitarianism somehow being bad or at least politically incorrect.


I confess I didn't see it that way.  Not until the re-watch.  That's when I noticed the subtle, conservative undertones.  For example:
  • The thing that drives the superheroes into hiding is not, as I incorrectly remembered, the collateral damage of their superhero fights, nor the lack of accountability inherent to vigilantism.  It's actually a lawsuit.  And the resolution is not that any new laws are passed or the superheroes are held accountable at the end.  The public just sort of decides they're cool with superheroes acting with impunity because they're so special. 
"I am comfortable with returning to a status quo in which Mr. Incredible occasionally literally kills other people without any consequence."
  • The villain famously says that "When everyone is special, no one is."  Driven mad by rejection in his youth, the villain has devised a ton of technology so that he can be an "artificial" superhero.  This makes no sense because it's clear to me that Syndrome is special.  He's a fucking tech genius and his talents should have been nurtured.  The strange "stay-in-your-lane" message, that unremarkable people should not try to rise up, that being successful is predicated only on God-given gifts and is pre-determined, rubbed me the wrong way.  At no point does Mr. Incredible take any responsibility for his rejection of Syndrome, either.  Syndrome dies without ever being fully explored; he is not meant to be a sympathetic villain, which is a shame, because he truly could have been.
  • And, perhaps strangest of all, the aggressively gendered nuclear family, in which the men's powers are being strong and fast, and the women's are to be flexible, invisible, and protective.
After a decade, I had forgotten my annoyance with how Syndrome was treated.  The movie was, ostensibly, a movie about people being given room to grow and reach their full potential.  Yet Syndrome was painted with broad strokes as a bad guy for wanting to be a superhero and for "cheating" his way into the role.

I had also forgotten what I considered a big plot hole, or at least a gaping, unresolved conflict, which was that the superheroes were never made to regulate themselves.  In the end, the solution is simply that society decides that a benevolent dictatorship is fine, and superheroes can do whatever they like.  (The subject of accountability is explored beautifully in Captain America: Civil War.)

But after fourteen years, I was hopeful for a sequel that used the world-building of the first movie to springboard into a more complex narrative.  The audience, who were in junior high or high school when it was released, were now in their late 20s and early 30s.  We were ready for a story with more elusive messaging, with moral quandaries and challenging, complex issues that lacked simple solutions or answers.  Surely, after fourteen years, the directors and writers had matured alongside their audience, and so Incredibles II would mend any of the weaknesses of the first, the biggest of which was its ham-fistedness.

Ah, if only.

The plot of Incredibles II doubles down on the needless gendering of the world by positing a conflict in which Mrs. Incredible becomes the breadwinner.  Poor Mr. Incredible struggles to fix the kids their breakfast, help them with their homework, and deal with the baby, who fights a raccoon for no discernible reason whatsoever.


The first two acts are mostly dedicated to showing off how Thicc Mrs. Incredible is and how hapless and incompetant her husband is at raising the kids.  Y'know, 'cause he's a boy.

This scene really sums it up.

In the third act, finally, a conflict emerges that doesn't involve Mr. Incredible getting tangled in the blinds or burning toast in the microwave while Mrs. Incredible learns how to do the splits and eat a banana.  A man named Winston wants to help superheroes by giving them bodycams and recording their good deeds.  I think we're supposed to think he is the bad guy, but then he introduced his Evil-Looking Sister, who is immediately, clearly, and obviously the villain, "Screenslaver," who, like Syndrome, is a "regular" person whose "only" ability is that she is an insanely smart and technologically-savvy person with a chip on her shoulder about people with natural-born powers.

What were the takeaway messages of The Incredibles II?  Well...
  • Women are superior parents to men / men are hapless at raising their own children.  (Sexism!)
  • Bodycams are bad.  (No accountability!)
  • Screens/technology is bad.  (Remember, this is a movie whose main demographic was supposedly Millennials...)
  • Evil people look evil and you can determine who is evil by looking at them.
  • "Specialness" is pre-determined; your gifts are inherent and if you have worked for them, you're not truly talented, you're just uppity.
  • The same tired bullshit about superheroes being superior in every way to regular people - not only due to their powers, but morally, as well.
I left with a feeling of grief for the movie that could have been.  The Incredibles II wasn't merely bad because it missed its mark; it also ruined the first movie by confirming some uncomfortable truths about its messaging.

Fucking lazy joke.

I will tell you the movie I wanted to see, the one I envisioned.  The one I had hoped for when the lights in the theater went down and there was a special message from Samuel L. Jackson at the beginning telling me that this movie had taken 14 years because it was "worth waiting for."

It's a movie about accountability and accessibility, and it fits perfectly with the themes of family, of how different people are integrated vs. celebrated in our society.  And it's a more mature movie than Incredibles I, which was what the audience wanted (an audience including a lot of new parents struggling with questions of how "normal" to raise their child, whether it's more important to fit in socially or stand out at the risk of ridicule or shunning).

Sorta weird how everyone is defined by the mere existence of their powers and not how they choose to use them.
That would've been a great avenue to explore: the question of personal accountability.
Alas, once again, all the "Supers" are good and all the bad guys are jealous nerds.

Here's my pitch:

The movie is, in brief, a metaphor for disability.  The first movie establishes that some people are abnormal (i.e., they are superheroes) and that they struggle to fit in with society.  However, their powers are gifts, not inconveniences.

Enter the baby of the Incredibles family, Jack-Jack.  An infant with out-of-control and dangerous abilities (including teleportation, laser eyes, and the ability to transform into a weird monster-demon), Jack-Jack represents a huge liability.  Jack-Jack is different.  And not in a good way.  His is a power that weighs him down, and holds him back.

Instead of picking up where we left off, I would have liked the movie to have aged a little.  I would have liked it to be, oh, five or six years in the future.


Now we return to the conflict of the first movie.  Violet, the shy elder daughter, has integrated well into society.  A little bolder, she can control her powers, and she is in college, living a "normal" life and enjoying it.  Dash, the middle son, has embraced his powers and is thriving in junior high, where he is celebrated for his abilities and happily, openly demonstrates them.  The conflict faced by the parents is what to do about Jack-Jack.  Can they suppress his powers?  Help him learn to control them?  Should they hide them, knowing what a danger Jack-Jack poses to his classmates?

Violet insists that integration is the best possible outcome, while Dash counters that accommodation and "special treatment" is. 

A frustrated young boy, Jack-Jack struggles in a school that is helpless to accommodate him, eventually becoming frustrated to the point of being a villain and tearing the place to the ground.  His parents leap into the fray to subdue him, but what they bring isn't a big battle.  They lay down their masks and their suits, and they speak plainly to him: "We don't know how to help you.  But we won't abandon you.  We will advocate for you.  We will help you navigate this.  We're not heroes.  We're parents.  We've got you."

This isn't a movie with a clear-cut message, nor is it meant to be.  It's a conversation about disability, about what we, as a society, owe to the people who live on the outskirts, people whose differences are burdens, whose differences pose difficulties or even dangers.  Ultimately, if there's any message, it's that we should try to build up all people, but recognize that people are individuals with varied talents, and varied needs, and that "building up" will look different according to differing circumstances.

What's more, it's a message of love from parents to their children.  It's a message of advocacy, not for people who are "special" (gifted), but for people who are "special" (different).  It's a message that being "special" (gifted) does not make you correct or morally superior, and that parenting is a lot of confusing grey areas, even if you happen to be very talented, because your child might not be as you expected them to be.

Incredibles I was a movie for children and I had enjoyed it, as a child.  I went into Incredibles II as an adult, expecting an adult message, and what I got was not a film that had matured, but one that had stagnated.  Worse, the second tainted the first by doubling down on all the things I had disliked (but missed, or forgotten).  Seeing the first movie with adult eyes made me all too aware that it was not the movie I remembered and treasured.  The messages I had interpreted were not the movie's, but my own.


For a generation of people who grew the fuck up between Incredibles I and Incredibles II, a story about parental responsibility and a thoughtful discussion on disability would have been remarkable.  And frankly it's baffling how they didn't settle on that for the sequel because it was set up wonderfully at the end of the first movie.


Instead, we got a "what if the lady were the breadwinner?" story that felt like it belonged in the early '90s.  It was tone-deaf and tired, a weary repetition of the shitty messages of the first movie, but without the subtly or innocence that allowed me to enjoy the first.  It was a movie that glorified conservatism and upheld the status quo, that peddled in the same themes as the first: technology bad, nuclear heteronormative family good.  It was cut-and-dried, black-and-white, without anything truly thoughtful to say.

There was nothing new here.  There was nothing original here.

Worse of all... there was simply nothing special.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Targeted Advertising

If you're on Facebook (and don't lie, you totally are; how else would you get Aunt Karen's hilarious minion memes?) then by now you have experienced targeted advertisement.

Targeted advertising varies widely.  Sometimes, it's "customized" items that include a little tip of the hat to something "unique" to you.  For example, a tapestry with your last name, or a t-shirt that includes your birthdate and mental health issues.


Other times, it's simply based off of your demographic.  If you're in a certain age group, for example, you're going to get targeted for certain products.  Boomer?  Ad for a New York Times subscription.  Millennial?  Ad for a "hilariously offensive" card game that's just a knock-off of Cards Against Humanity.

And then, sometimes, it's based on your search history.  Visiting Etsy to search for felted bluebirds might result in ads with the very same felted bluebirds you were looking at earlier, which always gives me an uncanny sense of déjà vu.

Targeted advertising is something that has long been predicted by shows like Futurama, and is usually presented as a problematic facet of the modern-day dystopia.


But I have a unique and unpopular opinion: I like clowns.

Wait, no.  I meant to say, I like targeted advertising.

When it's done right, anyway.

The lazy customization of t-shirts has been long ridiculed as transparently ridiculous.  No one gives a shit if you were born in March, keep skipping doses on your Valium, and once saw a zebra in real life at the Cincinnati zoo.  The text is always far too wordy and trying a little too desperately to come across as badass.  There are two categories of "targeted tees:" the ones marketed to men ("I have anger issues!") and the ones marketed to women ("I belong to my man, who has anger issues!").  Both are terrible and I suspect they are only ever purchased as gifts for people who are difficult to buy gifts for, probably due to their anger issues or mental illness.  (The shirts always mention these.)

 Girl, run.

Recently I've begun seeing books and mugs and other products besides t-shirts that are lazily customized.  Since bringing home a baby, Facebook has desperately been trying to get me to purchase a book "guaranteed" to make me cry.  The book is about how much I love my son and it allows me to customize the characters to look like me and my son.  Here, targeted advertising has failed once again, because my son and I already look like generic cartoon characters.  He looks like a normal, standard baby, and I look like a slightly older normal, standard baby.  Checkmake, dumb book.

I helped inspire both bitmoji and the gay 1993 Ken doll.

The second kind of targeted advertising also frustrates me, not so much before it pigeon-holes people by demographic, but because it is terrible at doing so.  It is clear to me that advertising algorithms don't know what the hell to do with us early '80s Millennials.  A few of the things I've been marketed recently include an item called "Note Box," which is a $50 box of paper, a game called "Drink or Dare," an 8-sided productivity die, and something called "Doodly."

The problem with all these ads is this: they're filling a hole that doesn't exist.  You can write your loved ones a nice note on nice stationary without spending $50 on a box.  You can play Truth or Dare while drinking without needing to buy a bunch of printed cards.  You can assign a task to a number and roll a die without needing a special die.  You can probably even doodle without "Doodly."  These items are all so unnecessary and stupid that I can't help but feel like I'm on an unaired episode of Shark Tank every time I log onto Facebook and see a 2-for-1 deal on nose puppies.

But then there's the third kind of advertising, which is based on a user's search history.  Here's the thing.

I love this kind of targeted advertisement.

If I searched for something to purchase, I must have wanted it, and sometimes, suggestions based off of my search history hit the mark perfectly.  I remember after I got engaged, Facebook briefly began pitching me ideas for where to have my wedding registry.  But when I failed to engage with or click any of the Bloomingdale's links, it realized that wasn't for me, and went back to asking me if I'd like to rent an industrial pressure-washer, purchase a bulk order or yarmulkes, or follow a page of nihilist memes.

The issue of targeted ads isn't really whether or not targeted ads are good or not, but whether or not we, the users, are going to take responsibility for our own self-control.  Of course I'd like to rent an industrial pressure-washer.  This is a spot-on (or rather, a spot-off) suggestion for me.

 God, it's so satisfying.

I like the ad and I move on, aware that renting an industrial pressure-washer is the sort of luxury I might reserve for my birthday, and that I can entertain the fantasy of renting an industrial pressure-washer without actually throwing my money after one.

Ultimately, I believe this is the real reason people hate targeted advertising.  Some of it is so bad it's good.


Some of it, however, is so good that it's tempting.  And people really hate that, not because they hate the products, but because those ads are highlighting a hard truth about their own ability to be swayed by advertising.

I've heard plenty of people complain about targeted ads, not because the ad was wrong, but because it was too right.  People wanted to buy the products pictured and felt that the ads were making it difficult to resist spending their money on items they hadn't previously even known they wanted.

I remember the first time I saw dog figurines dressed up as the Avengers, or a shirt that said "I like turtles and red wine and donating blood and think Jeremy Renner is under-rated and once mistook Dan Akroyd for Bill Murray."  I was like, yes!  I get excited, seeing the ad space on my Facebook populated with Iron Man tchotchkes.  And so help me, after some red wine and blood donations, I am tempted to buy the tchotchkes.

The solution is not, however, to claim targeted ads themselves are wrong.  The solution is to hold ourselves accountable for good money management and exercising self-control when we spend on non-essential items.  The solution is to recognize that we live in an overly materialistic society that's really, really good at trying to persuade us to buy mass-produced crap, but that ultimately, it's up to us whether or not we want to spend our money, and that we can appreciate something without owning it.

Your cats can't read.
If they could, they would probably advise you not to buy this.

The only reason people hate targeted advertising is because it reveals an ugly truth about ourselves: that we're basic bitches who likes turtles and red wine and Jeremy Renner, and that not only are we predictable, but we lack self-discipline.

"But wait," you say.  "What about privacy?"

Let's be honest with ourselves for a moment about how much we truly value our privacy if we are putting our full legal names and birthdates on Facebook.  Facebook is free to use, which means you're not the customer: you're the product.  Your existence on Facebook is, ironically, a sort of targeted ad to the people buying the ad space.

"Are there guys born in March with anger issues?" ask the advertisers.  "Are there guys named Greg who are born in March and are off their meds again?  'Cause I wanna sell those guys a shirt."


If you want to protect your privacy, then filling out those "fun" surveys that ask you questions like your pet's first name or your high school mascot are a hell of a lot more dangerous than targeted ads.  If you want to protect your privacy, stop creating "free" Pinterest accounts that tell the site exactly what sort of things you like and how they should market to you.  If you want to protect your privacy, stop making "free" selfie avatars that tell Facebook what your demographic information is, and stop tagging it with your social security number.

If your targeted advertising is a little too perfect, then you probably only have yourself to blame.  You can get mad about it, or you can work to fix it.

Ultimately, it's not the Internet's job to protect your privacy any more than it's the Internet's job to avoid offering you tempting ads.  The Internet isn't a malicious person, but a series of algorithms, and you can hardly blame the Facebook messenger for trying to sell you a Kim Kardashian Slytherin scarf after you took a "free" quiz titled "Which Kardashian and Harry Potter House are you?"

This is a real product.

If you can't control your actions, and take responsibility for your own spending habits and data protection, you really have no business being on the Internet at all.  Sites that target ads aren't stealing your information; they're using information that you willingly provided, and it's not their fault that you lack the restraint not to click on the ad.

I like having a Facebook page populated by ads for items I enjoy looking at.  I don't buy them, because I don't need them.  I like Amazon's recommendations for me, because they're often correct.  But ultimately, my decision to type in my credit card number is up to me.  Targeted ads are a sort of buffet of consumerism, and it's not the buffet's fault if you're going to eat three plates' worth of crab ragnoons and mini-quiches.

When you stop thinking of targeted ads as a "trick" and instead start thinking of yourself as a person with self-control who simply doesn't need the stuff Facebook tells you that you need, targeted ads can be a source of amusement, and/or readily ignored.

All that being said, if you do happen to be the type of person who is easily persuaded to part with your money and doesn't mind targeted advertising or rampant out-of-control consumerism, have I got a shirt for you!

Thursday, May 14, 2020

World-Building in Skyrim: The Best Plotline

When my son was born, I got a PS4.  I didn't need it or anything.  It turned out to be a big brain move, because we got slammed with a pandemic a month later.  After being in quarantine for months, I have managed to complete 21 side quests, 204 miscellaneous objectives, and earn about 2 million gold.  I've had over 1800 critical hits and over 1400 sneak attacks.

I have not actually gone up to High Hrothgar despite being summoned there by the Greybeards two years ago, but that's fine.  It's the main quest but, y'know, like, it's a long way up the mountain and I've got other shit to do, like find all 24 stones to rebuild the Crown of Barenziah for the Riften Thieves' Guild.  No, it's not especially critical, especially since the crown was dismantled centuries ago and no one knows where any of the stones are, but that's not important, okay?  I want to clear my quest log and I don't have time for fulfilling any prophecies at the moment.

Me: *plays video games to avoid my responsibilities*
My character: *does side quests to avoid her responsibilities*

Skyrim's popularity is due in no small part to its ridiculous dedication to detail.  Not just the visuals, but the story-boarding and the world-building.

Today I'd like to talk about what I believe is the most compelling plot-line in Skyrim, and why.  It's the Forsworn Conspiracy, and it's honestly amazing.

"We are the people who must pillage our own land. Burn our own ground. We are the scrounge of the Nords. The axe that falls in darkness. The scream before the gods claim your soul. We are the true sons and daughters of the Reach."

To begin, I'd like to give a broad overview of the plot of Skyrim, as I would to my mother.  Basically, Skyrim is the sixth installment of a series of games called "The Elder Scrolls."  It's set in a fantasy world called Tamriel (Tamriel is a continent on the planet Nirn), which is further divided into nine provinces.  The northern-most province of Tamriel is Skyrim.


The central plot of the game is not especially important here.  Basically, dragons (which no one has seen in a long time) have returned to Skyrim, and you are one of the only people capable of fighting them.  Whatever.  Like I said, I'm not inclined to do the main quest.  I'm sure the dragon thing will sort itself out eventually.


Instead, I'd like to focus on the history of Markarth, a city in the very far west of Skyrim.

It's in The Reach, between High Rock and Hammerfell.

But before we do that, we need to talk about the "civil war" quest-line, one of the central plots of the game, second only to the whole dragon thing.

Remember how "Tamriel" is made up of nine provinces?  Several of those provinces are ruled by an Emperor, and the Emperor appoints High Kings to each of the provinces.  For quite some time, Skyrim has been ruled by an Imperial High King.  Imperials are one of ten playable races, and they are the snobs of Skyrim.  (According to the Elder Scrolls Wiki: "Natives of the cosmopolitan province of Cyrodiil, the Imperials are some of the most well-educated, wealthy and well-spoken of the races in Tamriel.")

The province of Skyrim, however, is home to a race of people called the Nords.  They are basically Norse, and they have a rich culture and history that they feel is getting squashed under the thumb of literal imperialism.  Pun clearly intended.

During the game, you can choose to either team up with Ulfric Stormcloak, the Nord rebel leader who believes that "Skyrim belongs to the Nords," and sits in the ancient capital city of Windhelm, or the Imperial Legion, which resides in the port city of Solitude, which has a more eclectic culture due to its trade with other provinces and is the least Nord-like city.

Where, you ask, does Markarth factor into all this?

   
Well, the game story takes place during the Fourth Era of Tamriel history.  But Markarth has been around since the Merethic era, when it was actually a Dwarven city called Nchuand-Zel.  Abandoned near the end of the First Era, it was later re-populated.  

Skyrim is divided into nine "holds" (think of them as states), and each hold has a capital city and a Jarl (think of the Jarl as a governor).  Markarth is the capital city of the western-most hold of Skyrim, known as the Reach. But the Reach wasn't always part of Skyrim.  In fact, High King Olaf conquered the Reach sometime around 420-425 of the First Era.

"But wait," you ask, if you are not already bored with this weird little history lesson.  "Who did King Olaf conquer it from, if it was already abandoned by the Dwarves?"

Astute reader!  The Reach never belonged to the Nords.  It was populated by an eleventh race in Tamriel: the Reachmen.

   
The Reach is so far west that the humans there have a mixed ancestry with Skyrim (Nord ancestry) and High Rock (Breton ancestry).  Racially, they are probably closer to the Bretons than the Nords (though both the Reachmen and the Bretons will dispute this).

So King Olaf conquered Markarth and made it into another Nord city in the Nord province of Skyrim.  You can, I hope, appreciate the irony that the Nords are furious over Imperial rule despite having a history of imperialism themselves.

The city of Markarth remained a Nord city (with the Reachmen eking out a barren existence in the rocky highlands) until 4E 174, during which time there was a huge uprising (known colloquially as the "Forsworn Uprising") and they took control of the Reach.  They maintained it for exactly two years.

 A view of The Reach.

 Concept art of a Forsworn Briarheart.

 A view of how the Forsworn live in the highlands and mountains surrounding Markarth.

Then Ulfric Stormcloak (yes, that Ulfric Stormcloak, of the Nord separatist movement) marched in and helped the Jarl re-conquer Markarth.  There's some complicated religious bargaining that went on here that I won't get into, but the short version of the story is this: the Jarl of Markarth told Ulfric he could worship whoever he liked, which was in direct defiance of the terms of an agreement between the Empire and a neighboring Dominion.  The Dominion found out and demanded that Ulfric be arrested.  The Jarl turned on Ulfric and had him imprisoned.  This arrest was later called "The Markarth Incident" and it is considered one of the direct causes of the civil war.

Now that you've got a broad overview of the recent history of Markarth, let's jump into my favorite side quest: The Forsworn Conspiracy.

If you have read this far, you are a nerd who will smile at this joke.

The Reachmen branded themselves as the "Forsworn" after Ulfric threw them out of the city.  According to in-game books (Skyrim has 307 history and lore books that do nothing aside from world-building), Ulfric's conquering of the city was ruthless, and any Forsworn not captured and thrown into Cidhna Silver Mine was slaughtered, including civilians.

The quest opens when you enter the city.  Let's call your character "Dop," which is the name of my character.  (She was supposed to be called "Dope Kick Flipsies," but I accidentally pressed the "Done" button too early.) 

Dop walks into the city, and the first thing she sees is a tavern to the left, a used wares store to the right, and a couple of small market stalls.  If Dop is not paying attention, then she will fail to prevent what happens next: a man stabs one of the marketplace vendors while screaming that the Reach belongs to the Forsworn.

Dramatic re-enactment.

Fortunately, Dop has lightning-quick reflexes, and prevents the assassination.  The assassin is taken down by the town guards, leaving everyone in the marketplace Shook.  Before you even have a chance to recover from your rustled jimmies, a man named Eltrys slips a note into your pocket, saying, "Excuse me, I think you dropped this."

The note directs Dop to meet him at the Shrine of Talos without any further explanation, and when Dop tries to ask Eltrys about it, he wanders off hurriedly, whistling in a very obviously suspicious way.

Later, Dop meets Eltrys.  Eltrys is particularly Shook™ by the attack in the marketplace, because his father was killed by the Forsworn, and he believes there's a conspiracy afoot, led by the Forsworn.  He asks Dop to go gather evidence and blow this thing wide open.  A good place to start is Margret, the woman who was nearly assassinated.  Why her?  Another good person to investigate would be the assassin himself, naturally.


Dop heads off to find Margret's room at the local inn, and obtains her journal, which is sketchy as fuck and mentions that she is working for the Imperial General Tullius, who wants her to obtain the deed to Cidhna Mine. 

A bit about the Mine: it's owned by the Silver-Blood family, who own most of the city (including the inn, the treasury, and the mine itself) and are a powerhouse of wealthy fuckers who support Ulfric Stormcloak.  The Cidhna Silver Mine is used as a prison and is largely populated by the Forsworn who were captured by Ulfric when he recaptured the city.  The Silver-Bloods are Nords who support Ulfric, not only because he recaptured their city and their silver mining operation, but also because, y'know, Nords.

 A reminder at this point in the post that I recently procreated.

Margret recently got into a confrontation with Thonar Silver-Blood, the youngest brother of the family, demanding he turn over the mine to the Imperials, who will be able to guard it more safely than a "bunch of Stormcloak sympathizers."

Dop then goes to the assassin's old digs, where she finds a note signed by "N" directing him to go strike fear into the people of Markarth.

Upon leaving the assassin's room, Dop is confronted by a guard who attempts to intimidate her into quitting her "investigation."  She gets into a long, drawn-out fistfight with him.  After a thorough beating, she demands to know who sent him, and he reveals he was paid by Nepos the Nose, who is a wealthy "enforcer" of Thonar.  This must be "N!"

But first, let's check on Thonar, the Nord Silver-Blood.  He's hanging out in a back room of the treasury house.  Drop goes to ask him his side of the confrontation with Margret.  He tells her to go fuck herself; this is his city, he says, and Margret was a filthy Imperial agent who brought the assassination attempt upon herself.

Upon leaving to go fuck herself, another fight breaks out in front of Dop, and in the main room, Thonar's wife is murdered by two servants.  The two servants, it turns out, are undercover Forsworn agents.

 I laughed out loud at this and woke the baby.
Second reminder: I have procreated.

Horrified at the violence and the untimely, brutal death of his wife, Thonar is now more than happy to talk to Dop.

The Forsworn, he says, are his "puppets."  He has their king, Madanach, locked away in the his silver mine.  After the Forsworn Uprising, he stayed the king's execution and has been using the influence of the Forsworn king to control the city.  The feral Forsworn who surround the city have been taking orders from their king within the mine. and he's made a deal with them: so long as he keeps their imprisoned king alive, he and his family and their mining operation are safe.

The assassination of his wife was a terrible betrayal; after the uprising, he personally stayed Madanach's execution, and has been using the captured king to manipulate the Forsworn to work for him and suppress any competitors while controlling the city.  Thonar genuinely seems Shook™ that the king who has been imprisoned under him for years would be plotting a rebellion against him specifically, since up until now, Thonor has been a very good slave owner / forced labor camp benefactor.  Plus, Thonor is a Nord and Madanach is a Reachman, and they've been battling over the city since the First Era.  (Thonor may be rich, but he's also apparently a bit dim.)

This is all big news to Dop.  Thonar's control of the Reach seems to be ill-gotten, and it appears that Eltrys's father was likely assassinated by the Forsworn at Thonar's direction.  (Remember Eltrys?  The guy who sent Dop on this wild investigation quest in the first place?)

Dop rushes back to meet Eltrys to tell him about all this, but when Dop reaches their meeting-place, she finds Eltrys dead and three city guards waiting to arrest her for his murder.  The guards toss Dop into Cidhna Silver Mine, which is like the Alcatraz of Skyrim.

The next part of the quest is ironically titled "No One Escapes from Cidhna Mine," and you can complete it within like, thirty minutes.


In this delightful little quest, you trade "skooma" (heroin), obtain shivs, and ultimately break out of the prison using an escape route that Madanach has been Shawshank Redemptioning for years.

You have the option to kill Madanach, escape by yourself, and go back to Thonar to tell him you dealt with his little Forsworn problem (and avenged his wife).  If Dop does this, her name is cleared and you get a little ring from the Silver-Blood family in thanks.

But the much more interesting option is to talk to Madanach, who asks you to prove loyalty by shivving another inmate (the one who gave you the shiv on the condition that you don't shiv him with it), and then join he and the other Forsworn through the escape tunnel.  Emerging into the city, you and the rest of the Forsworn confront Thonar and his corrupt city guards, and a massive battle breaks out, leaving many of the city guards, and Thonar Silver-Blood, dead.

Now here's the craziest part of this whole mess.  I'll admit that I skipped part of the story.  The part that literally made me gasp and go "what the fuck" the first time I played Skyrim.  The part that prompted me to write this insanely long and cringey fanboy post, the part that made me reload the game and call my husband over to watch, the part that just blew me away.

Before you get framed for Eltrys's murder, you can go investigate Nepos, the right-hand man of the wealthy Nord Thonar Silver-Blood.  Nepos is an old man who lives in a big, nice house.  He is visibly wealthy and has two very protective servants watching over him.

When you confront him, it is revealed that he's not a Nord, or a Breton.  He's a fucking Forsworn.


He says that he's been "playing the game" for 20 years, passing as a Nord, working for Thonar, and sending young men to be worked to death in the mines, all while taking messages from the Forsworn king and carrying out his orders.  To avoid suspicion, he throws Forsworn into the mines when they are captured, but he also relays messages between Madanach and the free Forsworn in the hills.  It was Nepos who organized the assassination of Thonar's wife.

Upon leaving Nepos, Dop is attacked by the two "servants," who were also not Nords at all.  They, too, were Forsworn agents.  According to Nepos, Markarth and the Reach belong to the Forsworn, not the Nords.  He escaped Ulfric's recapture of the city twenty years ago, has been living as a Nord under Thonar, and has sent countless numbers of prisoners to their death in a Nord mine, presumably to maintain his cover and wait for a second uprising, but also, let's face it, in a total betrayal of his people, as Nepos has been living comfortably in a big house in Markarth, cooperating with Thonar and carrying out Madanach's orders only so long as they don't jeopardize his own safety.

 Look at this Nord-passing piece of privileged shit.

I find Nepos to be, hands-down, one of the most evil characters in the game because he's such a two-timing, back-stabbing, prideless little weasel.  There are certainly those who would argue that he is not, but from my perspective, his double-agent status, his 20 years in hiding, his denial of his race, his survival and prosperity following the holocaust of his people (in living memory!), and the throne he's built upon the hundreds of  fellow Reachmen he's sent into the mine is abhorrent.

And the most interesting thing is, unless you know the backstory, the lore of the Reach and the Nords and the Imperials and Ulfric Stormcloak and the Silver-Blood family, this plotline borders on nonsensical.  You can read all of the dialogue and still not entirely understand the insane politics and multi-generational alliances at play here.  The quest is built on the assumption that you've read "The Bear of Markarth," an account of Ulfric Stormcloak's recapture, and "The Madmen of the Reach," an anthropological treaty on the Reachmen written by an Imperial.  Neither book gives you any skill points in the game.  They are purely there for immersion and you might not have even come across them by the time you make it to Markarth.

 This is one of the things that make the game so addictive.

Call me crazy, but I love it when games have their own mythologies like this.  During this quest, sometimes people will casually say things like, "If the Aldmeri Dominion hadn't banned Talos worship in the White-Gold Concordat, then the Markarth Incident wouldn't have ever happened.  Don't get me wrong, I'm glad the Great War was ended, but I'm not shedding any tears for Titus Mede II."  And it gives the world a richness that makes the game great but is rarely acknowledged.

People love Skyrim.  The sheer volume of its contents is incredible.  But the amount of content and playable quests would mean nothing without a fully realized world to back it up.  The backdrop of the world - the history and religion and culture and racial tension and city records and anthropological tales - all comes together in a symphony of detail, a convergence of attention, a lovingly crafted creation of an alternative reality that is easy to get lost in.  This is the highest possible achievement of game-play.  This is the apex of immersion.  It's quests like this that really and truly make it meaningful when you strip Dop down to her underwear, have her whip out an electric crossbow, and shoot an NPC farmer's only chicken, sending it ricocheting down a mountainside.