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Archive for the ‘Entertainment’ Category

We All Own Gangnam Style

Copyright protection is not Gangnam Style.

The most liked video in YouTube’s history, “Gangnam Style” by South Korean pop star Psy, has been given away to the masses.*

First of all, yes, that is officially the most liked video on YouTube. What’s not to like? It’s catchy, funny, and weird, with an easy-to-do signature dance. It’s also endlessly remixable, which is exactly what Psy (real name Park Jae-Sang) was banking on when he waived his copyright on the song. It’s one thing to have a viral video. It’s another thing to give the Internet free reign to do whatever they want with it.

Let’s face it. This is the Internet we’re talking about. People were going to do whatever they want anyways. It just means that EMI or Warner Bros. or whoever won’t be scouring YouTube trying to stamp out offending videos. So no one needs to worry about this familiar sight:

The warning notice when a video's been removed by YouTube for a copyright violation: "This video contains contest from ___ and ___ , one or more of whom have blocked it in your country on copyright grounds. Sorry about that."

I don’t know if we’ve had a better example of “musician gets the Internet” since Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails tried out the “pay what you feel like” model. (NIN’s Trent Reznor also released the album The Slip under a Creative Commons license. That’s the same license as most of the content on Wikipedia. There are different forms, but in short, it’s permission to use the songs freely as long as you give an attribution to the original source.)

Psy’s decision takes it to the next level. Not because his waived copyright is radically different from NIN’s embrace of Creative Commons, but because this is a different sort of song. Both Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails proved that a band with a deeply ingrained, deeply loyal fanbase would pay because they valued the music. Psy proved that a one-hit wonder (as far as people in the U.S. are concerned that is; this is actually off his sixth album) can hit it big by giving it away for free.

At this point, it should become increasingly clear to people in the entertainment industry that clutching your song, movie, TV show, or whatever tightly to your chest and screaming “IT’S MINE! IT’S MINE!” isn’t going to get you anywhere. If people are enjoying the stuff you’re making, let them enjoy it any which way they want.

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*The Guardian seems to be the only source reporting that the copyright has been waived. Even if this is slightly exaggerated, it is clear that Psy is actively encouraging the type of user-generated remixes and tributes that most record labels would try to stamp out.

The Remake of Red Dawn Is the Opposite of a Zombie Movie

A still image from the upcoming film Red Dawn (2012)

Here’s a guaranteed recipe for angry comments: I’m going to review a movie that hasn’t been released yet. On your marks, enraged fans!

This fall, we’ll see a remake of the 1984 action movie Red Dawn, about a Soviet occupation of the U.S. Obviously, the Cold War is long over and nobody’s scared of ze Russians anymore, so the update will be recasting the invading force as North Koreans. Please see the chart below:

USSR population circa 1984: approximately 275 million

North Korean population 2012: approximately 24.5 million

You know, typically you want to make a sequel or remake more dramatic. This is a bigger letdown than following The Mighty Ducks 2, where the titular hockey team competes in the Junior Olympics, with The Mighty Ducks 3, where the team plays junior varsity for a prep school.

So why remake this movie in the first place? Screenwriter Carl Ellsworth explains:

“The tone is going to be very intense, very much keeping in mind the post-9/11 world that we’re in. As ‘Red Dawn’ scared the heck out of people in 1984, we feel that the world is kind of already filled with a lot of paranoia and unease, so why not scare the hell out of people again?”

So it’s a horror movie? Huh. I guess I can see the reasoning there. The original combined the fears of a Cold War U.S. with the power fantasy of average people standing up to an outside threat. So the remake taps into the post-9/11 fears of… uh… parachuting enemies troops clearly marked in military fatigues.

Mr. Ellsworth, you can’t just assume something is “post-9/11″ because you wrote it after 2001. And similarly, you can’t assume that something will be scary just because it was scary once. Context is everything. The fears of 2012 are not the same as the fears of 1984. You want this movie to work, you need to update it more than just changing the nationality of the bad dudes.

Consider how popular zombies are at the moment (to steal my list from an earlier post:  The Walking Dead, World War Z, Zombieland, 28 Days LaterResident EvilPride and Prejudice and Zombies). Why are zombies so appealing, especially right now? As with all things zombie related, it’s best to ask Night of the Living Dead creator George Romero:

I also have always liked the “monster within” idea. I like the zombies being us. Zombies are the blue-collar monsters.

Every single zombie story has two defining features:

  1. The horde. A single zombie is rarely much of a threat. They’re (usually) slow and dumb. The typical threat comes from an incredible number of zombies. The heroes are always outnumbered. It’s them against the world.
  2. The transformation. At least one of the heroes will always be turned into a zombie. The only thing more important to the heroes than surviving is not becoming one of the zombies. And anyone can become a zombie.

Take a look at these two defining features. Then take a look at the sudden explosion of popularity of zombie movies. Then you can start to understand how well Romero’s “monster within” fits in with modern day fears. We’re not in a Cold War anymore. Our fears are no longer about a powerful, heavily armed “other.” Our “post-9/11″ fears are rooted in insidious threats. We’re afraid of the things we take for granted being turned against us. Jet planes were transformed into missiles: that’s the essence of post-9/11 fear. Being invaded isn’t in the national consciousness. Being corrupted is.

That’s what Red Dawn is: the anti-zombie movie. That and a surefire flop.

It’s Time To Stop Pretending Dumb Twitter Reactions Are News Stories

Olympic gymnastic Gabby Douglas holding her gold medal.

There was a very, very, very pointless news story last week regarding Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas’ hair. A handful of idiots took to Twitter to complain that her hair looked unkempt. Now any reasonable person reacts to this “story” by not reacting at all, because what an athlete’s hair looks like is about as important as what shoes a surgeon wears. In this case, a high and tight bun is standard operating procedure for gymnasts, so I really don’t know where the conversation came from in the first place.

Oh that’s right, it came from a handful of idiots. Turns out when you give everybody a voice through social media, idiots will say idiotic things.

What I don’t see is how that handful of easily ignored idiots got to dictate headlines. Tell me what’s wrong with the following real headlines:

“Controversy”? “Debate”? “Outrage”?

"You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

You all do realize that for a debate, you need a point and a counter-point. All we’ve got here is a counter-point. Nobody is actively arguing that Douglas’ overly practical hairstyle is unacceptable. But the press, blogs, and other commenters are keeping this one-sided conversation going anyways. It’s blossomed into a full-on “debate” but the only people having the debate are the ones still acting like there’s something that needs refuting.

Check out this lead from NBC’s Today Show website (the first link above):

Just before the scoreboard showed that Gabby Douglas had won the gold in individual gymnastics last week, her mom Natalie Hawkins had only one reaction: relief. It was relief that came after ten years of training, after her daughter said she dreamt of being an Olympian, and after she let her daughter move away from home at 14 to chase her dreams.

The relief didn’t last long, as Hawkins soon found herself defending her daughter’s hair, which had been swiftly criticized for being both “unkempt” and “embarrassing” very soon after Douglas made Olympic history.

“The relief didn’t last long”? Give me a break, Today Show. I seriously doubt Gabby or her family give any thought whatsoever to this “controversy” beyond when you and other media outlets bring it up. This all grew out of a handful of Twitter posts. Don’t you all know how easy it is to ignore a dumb Twitter post?

Creating a news story from Twitter stupidity is incredibly easy. You can do it yourself. Next time any sort of news or sports event happens, just search for keywords that could be linked to the most offensive possible interpretation. You are bound to be hit with big pile of ignorance and failed wit. That’s what one story did after the women’s soccer match between Japan and the U.S. I’m sure you can imagine what the keywords were for that.

Now, admittedly, we ran a story back in the spring about Twitter reactions, regarding The Hunger Games and the casting of actress Amandla Stenberg as the character Rue. Actually, it’s remained one of our most popular articles on the blog. But, as the writer of that article, I’d argue there’s a difference between stories that ask broader cultural questions — in that article’s case, people judging a film based on how it matches up to their own imagination, not to the descriptions in the book — and stories that simply point out dumb people saying dumb things.

We’ll always have idiots. Let’s try to limit how often we give them a stage.

 

 

 

My Losing Battle Against Spoilers, Olympic Edition

North Korea faces South Korea in ping pong.

Source: Korea Herald

Airing the Olympics should be a no-brainer. It’s like having the Super Bowl. Film the game, air the game. Make sure not to show exposed breasts during your halftime show. As long as you remember these three things, you’ll get millions upon millions of viewers and no real backlash.

But NBC has decided to complicate step 2 by airing the Olympics on a tape delay for American audiences. While the world watches live, the US has to wait until the network-calculated peak viewing hours to watch their favorite sports. And when those hours come along, well, I hope you like swimming and gymnastics, because other than a tiny bit of volleyball, those are the only sports I’ve ever stumbled across just by turning on the TV.

There’s only one problem: the Internet exists. Which means people are used to getting information pretty much immediately. There’s a good reason that, even in an era of video on-demand and DVR, sports are one of the few things I make a point to watch live, whenever possible. When something real is going on, when the rest of the world is feeling the same tension you do, watching TV becomes a more social experience. That’s true even if you’re alone. Mid-game phone calls, posts, and tweets are routine, and a good way to get through tedious commercials.

This isn’t just true for sports. Well I’ve never really felt the same way about reality shows (because I don’t watch them) or pre-recorded comedy/drama shows (because those rarely feel “social” in the same way sports do), I can understand the appeal of taking the time to watch premieres live.

NBC has apparently completely lost sight of that basic appeal to the social nature of sports. And weirdly, I’m pretty sure they think they’ve done the opposite. No doubt the decision to not air things live went down like this:

NBC EXEC #1: “London is 5 hours away from the East coast, 8 hours away from the West. All the events are going to be happening while people are at work!”

NBC EXEC #2: “What if we just wait until everybody’s home from work, then air the games?”

NBC EXEC #3: “Brilliant! That way we can cherry-pick the events with huge audience potential that we already know have dramatic outcomes! Nothing but swimnastics from 5 to 11 pm!”

INTERN: “Why don’t we just air the events live during the day and then re-air the cherry-picked versions during primetime?”

NBC EXEC #1: “You’re fired.”

Rather than relying on the inherent appeal of live games, which naturally create the sort of “event” TV networks always want for their programming, NBC thought it could recreate the “event” in a more commercially viable time slot.

But, all criticism aside, the approach is bizarrely actually working. The opening ceremonies set a record-breaking 40.7 million viewers. While many are bristling at NBC’s hyping of pre-determined events, many more are willing to go along for the ride with the tightly controlled presentation. I myself have probably watched as much of the games as ever and watched a lot more of the “big” matches than I would otherwise.

Still, I miss randomly stumbling across some weird outlier game because that just happens to be on when I turn on TV.  That’s always been the greatest appeal of the Olympics for me: finding myself surprisingly engrossed by hammer throwing or race walking or badminton.

Apparently North and South Korea faced off in table tennis this past Monday. I had no idea. I would’ve loved to watch that. But by the time I found out that this match had happened, I also found out who won. That takes away a lot of the incentive to seek it out after the fact.

Are Our Fictional Futures Too Bleak?

Screen shot of Fallout 3

Author Neal Stephenson has decided that we all need to stop being so negative. He complains that modern science fiction — books, movies, etc. — is overstuffed with the apocalyptic and the dystopian. He thinks that what the world really needs is an optimistic vision of the future, one that can give the world’s inventors a little inspiration.

And, well, he’s not wrong. The Hunger Games made dystopian novels a hit among the young adult audience. Thanks to games like Fallout and movies like The Book of Eli (or even The Road Warrior, if you want to go further back), pop culture now has an established visual shorthand for a post-nuclear apocalypse. (See the picture above.) The most recent novels from Cormac McCarthy and Kazuo Ishiguro, The Road and Never Let Me Go,  took a more “literary” approach to apocalyptic and distopian fiction, respectively. And how many recent sci-fi stories involve the world falling apart because of  zombies (The Walking Dead, World War Z, Zombieland, 28 Days Later, Resident EvilPride and Prejudice and Zombies, just to name a few)?

In fact, there are only two major science fiction universes I can think of that are as positive as Stephenson wants. The first is Star Trek, which has already helped imagine the creation of things like cellphones, flat screens, and bluetooth headsets. The second is Mass Effect, a series of games that are basically the spiritual successor to Star Trek, in that they also imagine a future of more-or-less peaceful interaction between alien races, a UN-like central alliance between powers, and major technological leaps forward (not just in terms of warfare).

If there is a tendency for writers to always lean towards the bleak, I can understand it. After all, everybody loves a scrappy underdog hero. Since science fiction gives its writers the freedom to imagine any universe they want, why not imagine one where the odds are impossibly stacked against the hero? Make the hero face off against an oppressive autocratic government, overpowered alien invaders, swarms of the living dead, or a dying planet. You’ve immediately established the high stakes of this life-or-death universe. You can fill an entire movie or book just following the hero’s fight to survive. Then you can save toppling the government, driving back the aliens, curing the living dead, or rescuing the planet for the sequels.

But I do want to slightly qualify Stephenson’s complaint. I don’t think you necessarily need a bright and shiny vision of the future to help inspire. Inspiration can come from the darkness as well. While McCarthy’s The Road details the day-to-day struggles of a man and his son after an unnamed event has spoiled the planet forever, I actually found the whole thing much less of a downer than, say, Blood Meridian, McCarthy’s surreal and gory tale about bounty hunters on the Mexican border. That’s because The Road was primarily focused on the father-son relationship. That sliver of gentleness and hope, however slight, softened the rest of the story. It’s inspiring in its own way, even if it’s not imagining a bright future.

I think Stephenson’s real complaint isn’t so much the lack of optimism, but the lack of imagination. The problem with a glut of zombie stories isn’t that it’s depressing, it’s that it gets to be tiresome. The story can still be worthwhile if it tries to do something different. World War Z works because it takes a worldwide view, seeing how society (rather than a handful of survivors) responds, adjusts, and contains the outbreak. The book uses the idea of a specific genre as a springboard for bigger ideas. It creates a thought experiment and tries to reason out how society would work through it. Even if the book isn’t imagining futuristic advancements per se, it’s still imagining progress of a kind, theorizing how the world would react to a giant-scale viral outbreak.

That’s probably the most important role of science fiction — asking questions and imagining big. H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds had the “big” idea of a powerful and advanced army being wholly unprepared for Earth’s microbial invaders. Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot had the “big” idea of establishing a moral code for artificial intelligence. Philip K. Dick’s We Can Remember It For You Wholesale imagines technology that can implant memories, then, with a few clever plot twists, illustrates how impossible it could be to tell fiction from reality. I don’t know if I’d call any of these stories “optimistic,” but I think they still accomplish what Stephenson is asking for.

If that’s what he’s saying, then I’m on board 100%. I fully support allowing science fiction to be as open-ended and freely imaginative as it can be.

The Worst Cinematic Portrayals of College Life

This guest post was written by Crystal Hall over at thebestdegress.org. You can read the full version here.

Let’s start here: you were cooler than you think in college. Although movies often rest on the assumption that their viewers will suspend disbelief for a few hours and fall into their world, some films fare better at this than others. This is not to argue that movies should all be hyper-realistic — they’re pieces of art, and there’s real life for that. But there’s something to be said for the hyper-ridiculous setting. Enter: the universities portrayed in the movies. And because no one wants to be bored with a list of bad flicks, we’ve found instead the most ridiculous. While college life may be a time of wild partying, barely making it, and coming of age, these nine movies feature the most unrealistic (“the worst!”) cinematic portrayals of the subject. Sit back, relax, and thank your lucky stars that you didn’t get your degree in one of these nine worlds.

The Rules of Attraction

The dark comedy Rules of Attraction is one of those movies that’s so stylized and oozing of manufactured cool, it’s almost too annoying to exist. But if you’re into popping Xanax, it could be kind of good — as was the Bret Easton Ellis novel on which it’s based. Although everyone loves a good dark comedy (and the book was certainly that), the apathetic, entitled, depressed, addicted, and oversexed characters in the film make college life seem like more of a high-school chore. Love triangle drama plus pseudo-poignant paragraphs of maudlin social analysis plus crazy parties with rapes and orgies equals college life to the Rules of Attraction crew. Not what we’d bet most folks remember from the glory years of their education.

Accepted

This funny movie has a lot of fans, and was an early vehicle for some of today’s top young stars, but there’s nothing about Accepted that does college on the real. The South Harmon Institute of Technology is a fake college created by Justin Long to appease his movie parents after being rejected from everywhere he applied. And on the first day of class, he learns that there’s a host of other people who were also accepted. A student-led fake college ensues. The film gets self-awareness points for the school being billed from the outset as a farce, but that doesn’t make an abandoned building that former high-schoolers inhabit and play around in all day any more of a realistic university setting.

The Skulls

The Skulls could take up three spots on this list, as the film spawned two(!) straight-to-DVD sequels. But we’ll spare you that to tell you this: if you’ve ever been in a secret society in college, you know that it’s less about political intrigue and more about making you binge drink ten times and wear some type of bedsheet as clothing before its members will let you in their club. Also highly dubious that any college secret society, no matter how powerful, runs mental hospitals and conspires with local police departments. And nobody wants to see Craig T. Nelson with a pencil thin mustache showing up to their secret meetings. Nobody wants to see that.

Click here for the rest of the list.


Neil Gaiman’s Brilliant Career Advice

Neil Gaiman’s commencement speech to the graduates of the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, embedded above, is, much like his books, charming, enjoyable, and full of lots of legitimately good insight. Listen to the whole thing if you’ve got the time, but if not, at least read the best part, transcribed below. (In the clip, the below quote begins at 14:06.)

You get work however you get work. But people keep working, in a freelance world — and more and more of today’s world is freelance — because their work is good, and because they’re easy to get along with, and because they deliver the work on time. And you don’t even need all three. Two out of three is fine. People will tolerate how unpleasant you are if your work is good and you deliver it on time. People will forgive the lateness of your work if it’s good and they like you. And you don’t have to be as good as everyone else if you’re on time and it’s always a pleasure to hear from you.

Taking Advantage of a Great Deal (Just Because It’s a Deal)

A coupon saying "Was 149.00... now 148.99"

There’s a story my fiancée likes to hold against me from when we were first dating. We went into a Blockbuster (which might date this story right off the bat) to pick out a movie. She badly needed to use the bathroom, but figured we’d be in and out of there in a second, and my apartment was right around the corner, so she didn’t say anything. I wandered into the “4 for $20” section, and started browsing for the next half hour. I found three movies I wanted, but for the fourth, I could only find movies I’d pay money to not have to see. Meanwhile, the woman I’d later decide to spend the rest of my life with was doing her best to be patient with my indecisiveness. She said, “Look, just get the three you want and throw away the fourth. It’s still a deal!” But I still kept hunting for a worthy fourth. Finding nothing, I eventually gave up, leaving empty-handed. My poor girlfriend’s bladder was put through that ordeal for nothing.

Did I need those movies? No. Did I really want to see them? Maybe a little. But I wasn’t considering buying 4 for $20 because those were the movies I most wanted to see. I was attracted to it just because it was a deal. On the simplest level, that was it. Four for the price of one, more or less. The idea of saving money appealed to me first. The idea of what the entertainment was appealed second.

That’s something I tend to notice more and more, especially with digital access to books, movies, and games. The easier (and therefore cheaper) it is to get something, the more likely I’ll buy it. There’s less and less entertainment I’ll really go out of my way for. The more I pay attention to where to get the best deals, the more likely I am to just choose something based on whether or not it’s a good deal.

For example, Amazon offers 100 albums for a $5 each, and rotates which albums are available every month. Every month I find myself checking it out. Steam routinely offers huge discounts on downloadable computer games, sometimes as much as 50 or 75 percent. In both cases, I’m not going to buy something I’m not interested in, but I’m more likely to look closely at something that’s discounted, and more likely to make an impulse buy before the sale ends.

Companies like Groupon or LivingSocial work on the same idea. Nobody goes to those sites with a specific purchase in mind. They go so that those sites can suggest some sort of restaurant, activity, or outing. While browsing their deals, people usually aren’t thinking, “I sure hope I find a coupon for Ethiopian food.” People are thinking, “Wow! 50% off lunch at that Ethiopian place. Maybe I should get around to trying that out.”

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this approach to entertainment, but sometimes I wonder if I am bogging myself down in the cheap and convenient, at the expense of the stuff I really want to read, watch, play, or do. My list of books I own and still need to read is massive and it tends to grow faster than I can shrink it. But it would be much smaller, and probably of a much higher quality, if I had to pay more for each book I bought. For example, I picked up Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell, Jr., the other day because, first, it was on sale for 99 cents, and second, because it was the basis for one of my favorite horror movies, The Thing. I honestly don’t have any overwhelming desire to read it, but it seemed like something I’d enjoy having if I ever needed a new book in a pinch. I didn’t buy it because I wanted to read it immediately. I bought it to take advantage of some time down the road (kind of like a Groupon).

I’m still willing to drop everything when something I really want comes along. I didn’t skip out on The Avengers just because I had unwatched movies on my DVR, for example. When the latest George R. R. Martin book came out last year, I had no problem putting aside my current book to read that.

But every once in awhile, convenience starts to feel like a chore. I’ve got an unused Living Social coupon for wine tasting burning a hole in my pocket as I try to figure out some way to work it into my schedule. I’ve got a couple indie games that I picked up on Steam that I still haven’t gotten around to playing for more than an hour. And books? Definitely my biggest weakness in terms of both impulse buys and not knowing when I’m going to work it into my schedule.

Anyways, I’ve got to wrap this post up before it sounds like I’m really complaining about a world full of cheap and accessible entertainment. It’s just that sometimes I need to check myself before I get too caught up in a low price. It’s got to be rough for the truly impulsive.

Maurice Sendak and the Importance of Being Scared

Source: Artgalleyartist.com

Maurice Sendak, author and illustrator of Where the Wild Things Are, In the Night Kitchen, and a bunch of other books that likely played an important role in your childhood, passed away yesterday at the age of 83.

Sendak’s public persona had a bit of resurgence in his 80s. Last year, he released a new book, Bumble-Ardy, and gave this absolutely hilarious two-part interview on The Colbert Report. In 2009, when the Spike Jonze-directed film version of Where the Wild Things Are was released, a Newsweek reporter asked Sendak what he would tell parents who thought the film adaptation was too scary. Sendak told these theoretical parents to go to hell. (Here’s the interview. The whole thing is worth reading.)

Sendak has long been a proponent of the idea that children are much more capable of handling complex and dark themes then they get credit for. When he won a Caldecott in 1964, his speech defended the importance of encouraging fantasy among children — “that imagined world where disturbing emotional situations are solved to their satisfaction.” Sendak’s intent was never to traumatize children, just to create a story where fears, repressions, and insecurities feel just as authentic as the real world but are made manageable in the restraints of fiction.

That’s a viewpoint I’ve always appreciated, even as I generally see the world tilt in the opposite direction. I grew up in the early ‘90s, so one of my favorite cartoons (and still one of all-time my favorite shows) is Batman: The Animated Series. One of the amazing things about that show, watching it today, is seeing how the show was able to fit within the network’s strict standards for kids’ shows while never holding back on very mature themes. For example, you won’t see a drop of blood, but you will see Bruce Wayne have a nightmare about his parents’ death. In one episode, Batman arrives too late to a police shootout that ends with Commissioner Gordon being badly wounded. Gordon is placed in intensive care and Batman returns to his hideout, where he smashes computers, overturns desks, and breaks equipment. He throws a tantrum, basically. And then he guiltily sulks for the rest of the episode. As a kid, I didn’t just see the hero always do the right thing (he’s back to his crime-fighting ways by the end), but I got to see him feel universal emotions like guilt, regret, frustration, and inadequacy. Those feelings aren’t just universal: they appear almost as soon as we begin to understand the world around us.

As a kid, it’s always incredibly frustrating when you can actively see the world trying to coddle you, even if you don’t want it. When I was very young, all playgrounds were wood and metal. By the time I was around 8, they all started to turn plastic. In many places, they even replaced the wood chips on the ground with a spongy and springy floor. As an 8-year old, I hated it. I couldn’t put it in words then, but I was simply angry that the world was removing the manageable danger of cuts, bruises, and splinters.

Even as adults, we still crave manageable danger. It’s the reason we go rock climbing and river rafting. It’s the reason we travel to other countries without knowing the language. And it’s the reason we seek out fiction that will give us an emotional reaction — whether it’s a scary movie, a heartbreaking book, or a TV show that gets laughs from uncomfortable and unexpected situations.

Sendak understood that, and built a career around that. While just about every publication has released their own posthumous tribute focusing on his “it’s OK to be scared” mentality, many of them seem to overlook just how gently he handled real emotions. After all, Where the Wild Things Are ends with Max returning home to eat his mother’s still-hot soup. Despite the wildness of Max’s adventures, in the end, his mother’s love wins out. An exciting story and a comforting conclusion — that’s a good formula for any story, not just one for kids.

So rest in peace, Maurice Sendak. You will be missed.

Racism, The Hunger Games, and Bad Reading Comprehension

Rue from the Hunger Games

Source: AceShowBiz.com

I’m sure by now many of you have already heard about the Tumblr page “Hunger Games Tweets.” It’s a collection of tweets by people griping about the casting of a character named Rue. You see, the film cast 13-year old actress Amandla Stenberg (see above). The tweeters targeted by the Tumblr page bemoaned the fact that the film version of Rue just had to be black. Which is confusing, because in the book she is black, in no uncertain terms. She’s described as having “dark brown skin and eyes,” and later, when the reader is introduced to another character named Thresh, we’re told that he “has the same dark skin as Rue.”

Plenty of whatever the online equivalent of ink is has been spent on this story — what it says about race in America, connecting it to Trayvon Martin’s tragic murder, etc. — but I want to focus a little bit more on what the Tumblr creator’s intent was. His blog has said, essentially, that the main problem is not poor reading comprehension. Rather, it’s that readers naturally assume that Rue, a portrait of doe-eyed innocence, must have pale white skin.

For the sake of this column, we’re going to ignore the insane, aggressively racist tweets. That bigoted nonsense isn’t worth anyone’s time. The more interesting ones are subtler. A number of the tweets say that Rue “should have” looked like some other literary characters, like Harry Potter’s Luna Lovegood or The Lovely BonesSusie Salmon. Notice the theme? Characters who represent sweetness, naiveté, and innocence (or innocent victimhood) are automatically assigned long blonde hair, big blue eyes, and very pale skin.

If you deconstruct this story even further, it asks interesting questions about how we read and how we imagine. When we’re not prompted with details, how do we fill in the blanks? If a story just begins in media res, with no description of the narrator, what do you assume he or she looks like? Do you picture yourself? Do you picture an “average” person? What does “average” mean? Is it, as this Destructoid article pointed out while criticizing modern video games, a middle-aged white man with brown hair and stubble? Or do just keep you mind blank about the specifics until some details can paint a fuller picture?

I’m not suggesting that defaulting to a white male protagonist is racist and sexist. But I do think it’s worth reflecting upon where our mental casting assumptions come from. It’s the classic chicken-or-the-egg question. Are fictional characters assigned certain racial archetypes because that’s what the audience assumes, or does the audience assume certain racial archetypes because that’s what their fictional characters have always looked like?

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