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What’s Good for the Goose…

Today’s word, boys and girls, is “hypocrisy.” It means not holding oneself consistently to a standard one presents as inviolate. In this case, I am talking about the hypocrisy inherent in the different forms of criticism I have received.

Let’s start with my very well established objection to violence. To be clear, I am not opposed to violence per se, as long as it is within a clear context. Rather, it is gratuitous violence, presented as entertainment, which I find objectionable. Further, it’s not violence as much as killing that upsets me greatly. The idea that the only way to solve a problem is to end a life. To execute your enemies. Life is precious, ephemeral, and once snuffed out, is gone forever. Have we such little respect for it?

We live in a violent world, true. The apologists for violent entertainment point that out as a justification. But do we really need to surround ourselves with fake death when there’s so much real death in the world? The answer, apparently, is yes, as book series like The Hunger Games, Divergent and The Maze Runner fly off the shelf and get made into blockbuster movies with “plots” that amount to very little more than, “Children get brutally killed.”

Less than a decade ago, teen fiction wasn’t so nihilistically savage. It was uplifting and inspiring, and we had no problem cheering Harry Potter’s brave and often humorous attempts to achieve the heroic status everyone told him was his destiny. But now we have youthful antiheroes being psychologically destroyed, and in many cases outright killed, by a system they never wanted to fight.  It’s the classic illustration of the laws of thermodynamics writ large: You can’t win, you can’t break even, you can’t quit the game. That’s life, kids. No matter what you do, it will crush you. What a bleak message to send to tomorrow’s visionaries. Anyone wonder why this generation is the most disaffected generation in modern history? And why they would try to salve their despair by turning to the very same violent media that engendered it?

What’s the appeal? Why does violence make so many people feel better? Stephen King, in the oft-anthologized “Why We Crave Horror,” suggests that deep down we’re all crazy, and violent horror is a release for these urges that, left unfed, will manifest in much more dangerous ways. I don’t buy it. For one thing, not everyone craves horror. For another, King is a writer; horror is his bread-and-butter, so he has a vested interest in defending, even promoting it. Similarly, comic book writer Gerard Jones has argued that “Violent Media is Good for Kids.” Obviously, he is defending his own work, and he argues the benefits for children who feel “powerless” to find refuge in violent fantasy. But why must fantasies of power automatically involve killing? It’s limited thinking to equate power with violence, and, as result, children internalize the idea that killing is a valid response to problems. This has been documented.

But let’s set objections aside and take the arguments at face value. Okay, violence isn’t harmful, it may even be beneficial. I am certainly able to grant that the vast majority of consumers of violent entertainment are not then driven to commit violence. But we cannot ignore the counter-argument to the apologists. The one that suggests that people with violent tendencies will be driven to act out violently by exposure to violent media. And those who do not have such tendencies, the argument continues, will nevertheless become desensitized. We do see this among children, who are well-documented as having less empathy than previous generations. As I have said before, violent media may well be a contributing factor in the rise in bullying. Children see violent confrontation as the norm. Because, frankly, it is the norm. Spend just five minutes perusing the television and movie listings.

And then there’s the escalation argument. We actually see this one playing out. The idea is that, once something has shocked us, triggered that emotional reflex King and others would argue needs to be exercised (exorcized?), it no longer has the power to shock. To get the same reaction, we need a bigger shock. Decades ago, Dracula was considered terrifying; modern audiences mostly find it laughable. The envelope keeps getting pushed: more graphic, more horrific. A story where people have to hunt each other to death? Eh, that’s old news. Make it children hunting each other. What happens when we become blasé to that? What happens when watching fake murder on the screen is no longer enough? Won’t we be driven to seek out the real thing to feed the demon?

No, say the apologists, and I grant they may well be right. I would like to believe that human rationality will win out. It’s just a movie. Fantasy is an escape, a release, but sane people know the difference. So, again, I shall accept the arguments, for the moment.

Okay, so what’s my point? And what does this have to do with hypocrisy? I have been told that my objection to the rise in gratuitous violence in teen fiction is an extremely insulting perspective. Arrogant, offensive, and sure to prevent me from ever getting published (it looks like they are right on that last one). This outrage comes from people who read, and write, violent teen fiction. They like it. They are offended at my implication that there’s something psychologically wrong with people who get off on that sort of thing. Some have posed the rhetorical question, suggesting that I want everything to turn into some sort of Pollyanna, sweetness-and-light utopia where everybody is happy and gets along and is never angry or hateful and there’s no violence. My response to the people saying that is very simple: “You mean you wouldn’t want that? You prefer a world full of death and hate and despair?” How incomprehensibly sad.

But that sort of reductive response to my position is a gross oversimplification. There are people in my writers’ group who enjoy and write some of the most awful horror imaginable, and they are kind, gentle, compassionate people. They aren’t crazy, or dangerous. They would argue that violence is, ultimately, harmless entertainment, a visceral thrill that gets the blood pounding and pulls us out of the mundane of our lives for a brief moment. Fair enough.

That’s where we get to the hypocrisy. You see, at the same time as people have criticized my for my hatred of violence, for my belief that it can be harmful and at the very least it says something very depressing and disturbing about humanity, I have also been criticized for something else entirely: my attitude towards sexuality and nudity, and especially my assertion that the ideal female role-model is strong, smart…and sexually empowered.

I’ve discussed the changing role of sexual content in my book. It’s been added and removed enough times that my readers must be seasick by now. But the fact remains that the story I want to tell has sex. Teen sex. Underage sex. Let that sink in. My romantic leads are both sixteen years old. The girl is more sexually assertive, and far more experienced. She is from a culture where polyamory is the norm, and has had numerous sexual partners, of both genders, since her very early teens.

She is undamaged by her sexual life, and unapologetic. I present it as a perfectly acceptable way to be. I also have the boy, who is the one making the case for commitment and love and all those things. His case is compelling, and the girl realizes that there may well be something to it. It’s a dance between two equally valid perspectives.

Add to this another character, a thirteen-year-old girl in the process of discovering her sexual identity, and, while that doesn’t play out much in this book, there are two more books in mind. As far as I’m concerned, sooner or later she will have sex. Preferably sooner. Because I intend it to be a major positive turning point in her character arc, with profound story implications.

And then there’s all the nudity. People get naked with abandon. Often there is a symbolic element, particularly in the case of the thirteen-year-old. But I also have a ten-year-old girl who is unabashedly, innocently naked as often as possible. Let me point out that, while different readers have different favorites among my four main characters, all are universal in loving the ten-year-old. None see anything salacious in her nudity, but rather find it a natural part of her character and charm, and they objected vocally when I took it out at one point.

Whoa! Sexually active sixteen-year-olds, with multiple partners? A thirteen-year-old in the beginnings of a same-sex relationship very likely to turn sexual? A ten-year-old running around naked? That’s sick! What kind of perverted mind would come up with this sort of thing, let alone write it? It’s certainly not appropriate for teens, nor even adults. Child pornography, that’s what it is! I should be locked up, or at least put in a mental ward, and kept away from children!

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you hypocrisy. I am going to take up this issue in the next article, coming soon. In meantime, I ask that you re-read all the arguments above as to why stories involving horrific violence are not only not harmful, but may well be beneficial, including to children, because I intend to revisit every single one of them, and explain why my book, with all its sex and nudity, is at least as beneficial to teens as all these books full of death. See you soon.

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Make Love, Not Death

My young adult novel is sexy.  It features teens who have sex and enjoy it.  I sometimes have them in exotically sexy, revealing outfits, that is when they aren’t just plain naked.  And I present this as a good thing.

I’ve had my critics, those who tell me that this sort of thing is “sad,” that it’s “not appropriate” for YA, that it sends “the wrong message” to impressionable teens.  They can kiss my fully-clothed ass.

First, let’s be clear: I’m writing fantasy.  Okay, technically it’s science-fiction, but so far to the “soft” end of the sci-fi scale as to be more like science-fantasy (I may start calling it that).  Let me repeat, it’s fantasy.  Fantasy allows things reality does not.  That means I can have a character who can move things with her mind.  It means I can have another character who can influence people’s emotional states.  And it absolutely means I can have a character who is a polyamorous pansexual and wears amusingly revealing outfits yet never loses her self-esteem or is thought less of by anyone in the world of my story as a result.  Because her sexuality doesn’t define her; her fierce independence and strength does.

Does this send the “wrong” message?  That message being, “it’s okay to feel good about your body and your sexuality”?  How the hell is that message wrong?  Is it because it doesn’t happen in the real world?  That’s the whole point.  If you are going to say that I shouldn’t send that message in my book, that instead I should somehow tell teens to cover their bodies and suppress their sexuality, then you are contributing to the problem, not me.  You warn girls that they will be “cheap” if they dress a certain way, or do certain things.  You insist that others will call them “slut.”  And you are probably right; others will do that.  And they will do it because you taught them to, by making it clear that you agree sexually confident girls are “sluts.”  You contribute to the “slut shaming” by warning girls about it, but doing absolutely nothing to stop it.

Boy, sounds like I’m really mad, doesn’t it?  Yes, I am.  I’m outraged.  How dare anyone tell me that my book could “damage” readers?  What about the damage caused by the stuff that you like, all the bleak, violent stuff?  Oh, no, you say, that’s okay, because the world is violent and readers’ lives are full of despair so their reading should mirror that.  I see.  And what do you suppose is the result?  I’ll tell you.  I’ll tell you why I’m angry.  I’ll tell you why you don’t get to say one negative word about the sex and nudity in my book.

Because a twelve-year-old girl in Florida climbed to the top of an industrial platform, jumped off, and splattered her life across the concrete.

Why?  Because she was being mercilessly bullied.  Perhaps the bullying included the “slut shaming” that comes from a sexually repressive society.  I don’t know.  I do know there were multiple taunts that she should die, that she should kill herself.  Until she finally did.

People are now trying to blame social media, but mostly they are wringing their hands, wondering if there’s anything we can do about this rising epidemic of children killing themselves and each other.  Sure there is: take a look at the real messages we send, messages in violence-filled, yet “honored” YA fiction, books whose authors insist they are meeting some noble purpose when really they are just emulating the violent movies and games that all send the exact same, very clear message: lethal violence is a valid response to all problems.  The bad guys aren’t arrested, they are executed; others who present an obstacle aren’t incapacitated, they are murdered; innocent bystanders get caught in the crossfire yet are given nary a further thought.  And, as Colonel Stars and Stripes says in the execrable Kick-Ass 2, “We’re the good guys.”

As for the bullies, they read these books, see these movies, play these games, and get the even more profound message that every single one of them sends: people you don’t like should die.  That’s what the bullies in Florida thought.  And why wouldn’t they?  When their hero, Katniss, reacts to the first killing in The Hunger Games by coldly noting how stupid the young victim was to call attention to herself, not feeling the slightest trace of pity, that’s the lesson the readers who love her learn: some people deserve to die.

Where’s the outrage over that?  The silence is deafening.  Yeah, you try to blame Facebook and Twitter, but really you’re too busy blaming me because I’m writing a book that says teen sexuality can be a good thing.  When instead I guess I should be reserving that accolade for teen killing.

And the girl who jumped?  I wonder how many dark, violent books with downer endings she’d read?  Books that, in the guise of validating her feelings, simply contributed to the despair and hopelessness.  That’s the worst part.  These violent books might almost be okay if they ended with a sense of optimism, that things do get better.  But many of them don’t.  They end as bleak as they begin.  They tell readers that, in the end, nothing matters, that we’ll all going to die so who cares.

Not mine.  In my book, violence happens, but it’s tragic, and nobody deserves to die, not even the bullies.  Violence is something the characters desperately want to avoid.  Even the tough action girl, who would rather have sex with people than kill them.  My story is about love.  Love that keeps the characters strong and whole.  Love that inspires them to strive for a better world.  And, yes, love that motivates them to get naked and climb into bed (or some other convenient place) for the sole purpose of giving someone else a moment of joy.

What the hell is bad about that?

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Fancy Undress

Theiss Titillation Theory: The sexiness of an outfit is in direct proportion to the likelihood that the wearer will fall out of it.

In describing my young adult science fiction novel, I’ve started referring to it by an assortment of adjectives: epic, exciting, heartwarming, funny, sexy…

Yes, I said sexy.  Yes, a young adult novel.  With protagonists that range in age from sixteen down to ten.  (Okay, the sexy part does not apply to the ten-year-old).  But, as I have discussed before, there is sexual content, most of it implied, all of it positive.  Something else I want my novel to be is fun.  A contrast to all the dark, violent, nihilistic dystopian crap that’s out there.  And, to that end, sexy can indeed be fun.  In fact, when sexy isn’t fun, there’s a problem.

And how am I accomplishing this?  Well, I continue to look backwards for inspiration.  Once again I land on the classic Star Trek series.  I’ve already discussed the outstanding soundtrack music the series had, and also how much I am trying to emulate its essential philosophy of optimism regarding human potential.  But let’s make it the trifecta, and examine one more way I am proud to be influenced: manner of dress.

Star Trek’s costumes were predominantly designed by William Ware Theiss, a very imaginative designer who worked within the constraints of 1960s television by being creative.  He knew that a costume’s appeal wasn’t in what was shown, but rather what was almost shown.  Thus the Theiss Titillation Theory mentioned above.  Further, Theiss used his creativity to create costumes which were, at the time, astonishingly racy by revealing areas of the body not normally considered erogenous.  He showed plenty of skin, but in surprising, unusual ways.

I am somewhat influenced by this.  My story takes place in several exotic locations, all of which have one thing in common: a lack of fear of showing the human body.  This includes comfort with complete, body-positive nudity, which is something my main characters come to accept, and even embrace.  But there’s also clothing that is not designed for modesty, but rather beauty.  This applies to both sexes, but, I confess, my interest and attention lies more with female designs.

To that end, I would like to take this opportunity to show what are probably my five favorite Thiess designs from Star Trek.  There are many other marvelous ones, but these stand out for me.  Understand this is entirely subjective.  And, yes, it’s me appreciating the female form.  If you want to accuse me of sexism, go ahead, but if appreciating female beauty is a bad thing, then I don’t want to be good.

Please forgive the marginal quality of the images; the internet was of surprisingly little help in this very important research.  Frankly, nothing beats actually watching those great old episodes.

carolyn_palamasOkay, this is not a special favorite of mine, but I had to include it as being probably Theiss’ most famous creation, the one that perfectly embodies his philosophy.  To all accounts, the top part was held up only by sheer willpower (in reality a lot of tape was used).  But what a will it must have been to not be countered by the collective will of every male in the viewing audience.

StarTrek_2x04_MirrorMirror_0486-Ar2I know the “Mirror Universe” is evil and all that, but I can’t possibly have been the only person watching who really wished the regular uniforms looked like this.  Yes, Shatner is in the picture, but the presence of both Barbara Luna and Nichelle Nichols more than makes up for it.  And I’m actually glad he fills out the perspective, because, out of fairness, I am clothing my male lead in an outfit that a female friend assures me is hot.  And what I really don’t understand is why Shatner is looking in the direction he is.  Come on, Bill, they’re over there!

star-trek-babes-lois-jewell-as-slave-drusilla-in-bread-and-circuses2What’s that you say?  You have no idea who this is?  Rightly so.  This is a slave girl from the gladiator episode, who appears in all of one scene.  Near as I can tell, her only reason for being there is…well…to look like this.  I consider that to be a good enough reason.

droxine2Here’s a cerebral ice princess with a sadistic streak.  Inexplicably, Spock finds her fascinating.  Because of her superior intellect.  Uh huh…  “My mind is up here.”

id5w23hontjk2whi2I’m sorry the image is so poor for what is probably my all-time favorite costume.  It really doesn’t do justice to the fact that on one side there’s basically nothing there.  This is an additional rule of sexiness: the appeal of an outfit is increased by the assumption that she can’t possibly have anything on under it.

Now, the clothing I’ve come up with isn’t quite like this, but it’s plenty fun and unashamed.  Yes, I’m talking for the most part about teen characters.  You might be saying this sort of thing is inappropriate.  But what’s appropriate?  There are cultures, and even people here in the US, who would say that even a modest one-piece bathing suit is inappropriate, that anything less that head-to-toe covering is bad.  It’s all perspective.  My book is science fiction.  Which means, ultimately, fantasy.  And fantasy is a good thing, especially when it allows us to appreciate those things that society doesn’t allow us to appreciate for real.

And you know what?  It takes a lot of courage to dress like this.  A lot of body-confidence.  Given the number of women who can’t bear to even let their partners see their bodies, I say any woman (or man) who can say, “Yes, I have a body, and here it is,” is in a good place, psychologically.  That’s a major theme in my novel, as one character’s gradual acceptance of her own body (a struggle familiar to many teen girls) is a major part of her character arc, and symbolizes her working through and overcoming trauma.  Another character’s changing mode of dress indicates his willingness to embrace his true potential, rather than hide it.  And for another one, her unselfconscious nudity represents her utter, unaffected innocence and love of life.  If you think those are values that children should be shelded from, then  I weep for the future.  Because it probably won’t be designed by Bill Theiss.

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