Brexit: The UK Should Have Noted Canada’s History of Referendums

Fifty-two percent of seventy-two percent of UK voters voted to leave the European Union, and so, due to a lack of leadership, a poorly structured referendum, and a poorly informed electorate, Britain’s near-term political and economic future was decided by, according to the voting breakdowns, working class outrage and xenophobic old people.

This result does not, as some news reports claim, indicate that a majority of UK residents want to leave the Euro zone.  In fact, it shows that only a minority felt strongly enough to vote leave, with nearly twenty-eight percent of folks being unsure, having no opinion, or just not caring enough one way or another.  The fact that a minority got to decide something this massive is an indicator that the people who set up the rules of the referendum didn’t know what they were doing.  This could all have been avoided by setting up referendum requirements for a “Leave” result that required a majority of the population to vote Leave, not just a majority of voters.

Technical issues like this have been an aspect of the Canadian political landscape for most of my life. In 1980, and 1995, Quebec had referendums on separating from the rest of Canada, couched in the language of economics and taxes, but really a question of xenophobia and the French Canadian identity conspiring to make Quebecers flirt with doing something really dumb.

The separatists were dealt a major blow in the first referendum when Pierre Elliot Trudeau, the father of our current Prime Minister and himself Quebecois, pointed out that many of these diehard French Canadians had English and Irish last names.  Trudeau the Elder was one of Canada’s great multiculturalists, and he understood that while identity is important, it’s arbitrary.  People choose for themselves what elements of their identity they’re going to highlight, or worse, wield as a cudgel against others.  After the failure of the separatist side in the referendum, Quebec refused to sign the Constitution Act of 1982, otherwise known as the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.  None of this has anything to do with economics, taxation, or other economic concerns.  It has to do with which peoples are fair game to treat as the Other.  Ironically, Quebec has been one of the greatest beneficiaries of this Charter: due to the continuing political instability and arduous language laws suppressing the Quebec economy, Quebec has been the beneficiary of equalization payments designed to prevent undue suffering of Canadian citizens due to disadvantageous local economic conditions.

In 1995, Canada was divided by another referendum.  The separatists had formed the Bloc Quebecois in 1991, a political party primarily concerned with “sovereignty” aka separation, for Quebec.  The Bloc was formed by defectors from both the ruling Progressive Conservative and opposition Liberal parties, after the failure of the Meech Lake Accords in 1987.  The Meech Lake Accords were an attempt by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney to drag Quebec, kicking and screaming, into the civil rights consensus shared by the rest of the country–  by offering Quebec decidedly special treatment.  Due to concentration of the vote and a split of the conservative vote between the Progressive Conservatives and the hard right Reform Party, the Bloc Quebecois got enough seats in the 1993 vote to become the Official Opposition to the Liberal Government under Jean Chrétien.  The companion party to the Bloc, the Parti Québécois, also became the head of the government of Quebec, campaigning on the promise of a separation vote.  David Cameron should have taken note of what happened next before opening his damned mouth about a second British exit from a European trading block.  The first “Brexit” vote happened in 1975, when the core of the Euro zone was referred to as the “European Economic Community”.

The 1995 referendum was a uniquely ugly part of Canadian history.  Politicians started using Canada’s two official languages – English and Quebecois French – to propagandize.  The provincial Quebec government did everything it could to stack the deck in favor of a separation vote, instead of a neutral process that truly assessed the will of the people of the province.  Even the referendum question was subject to petty fighting and dirty tricks – the official question made it sound as though the Canadian government had agreed to a guaranteed economic partnership with a separate Quebec, when it had not.  To counter the dirty tricks of the separatists, the Chrétien government devised the Sponsorship program, intended to show Quebecers the extent of the investments the federal government was making in the province.  The Sponsorship program was mired in fraud and corruption, resulted in jail time for some of the participants, and nearly destroyed the federal Liberal Party.

In the wake of a very close vote in favour of Quebec remaining in Canada, the federal government passed a law dictating a formal process for negotiations between the feds and any province which wished to separate from Canada.  Called “The Clarity Act”, it gave the House of Commons – Canada’s version of congress – the right to determine whether a referendum question was clear enough for a vote.  It also dictated that First Nations bands would be part of the negotiations; this was a major sticking point in Quebec, because Indigenous tribes control the bulk of the Northern half of the province.  As First Nations already have a form of limited self rule, they don’t much like any government telling them what to do, including the government of Quebec.

Since the 1995 referendum, Quebec struggled economically.  For over ten years it wasn’t unusual to see boarded up buildings in the downtown areas of Montreal.  Due to the instability, businesses had moved their Canadian head offices from Montreal where the rent was cheaper, to various parts of Ontario.  Businesses continue to fight with the Quebecois government over signage requirements: Quebec is one of the only places in the world that requires copyrighted names like “Walmart” to come up with a French equivalent – “Le Magasin Walmart”, for instance, which means “The Walmart Store”.  Printing unique signs for one small territory is so cost prohibitive that some companies would rather fight the government in court and pay fines than pay for the signs.

The thing that makes this all uniquely relevant to the Brexit vote was that at the core of the separation furor wasn’t really economics.  It was culture.  The Quebec establishment wanted unchallenged rights to control language, religion, and immigration statutes.  They were willing to tank their local economy to keep out people they considered to be “not like them”.  One of the turning points in the last federal election – which led to the election of Justin Trudeau – was a repudiation of then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s reference to “Old Stock Canadians” in a debate.  “Old Stock” is a term that traces back to French Canadian terms, “pure laine” or “pure wool” and “de souche” or “root”, and it describes “Pure blood” French Canadians, or English, Irish, and Scottish interbreeding as long as there was a shared Roman Catholic heritage.

The Canada of today is a place that at least attempts to make immigrants and refugees feel welcome.  It still doesn’t always succeed, and unfortunate racism, especially against people of Muslim heritage, still does happen.  That’s to be expected after two decades of post-separatist tribalism.  Canada had divided into regional federal political power bases, with the Conservatives controlling the Prairies, the NDP taking the coasts, and the Liberals retreating mostly to Ontario, while the separatists controlled Quebec until the “Orange Crush” of Jack Layton’s NDP swept out the Bloc.  After the country had remained relatively strong during the global economic crisis – thanks to smart-but-unpopular economic policy by Chrétien’s Liberals – Stephen Harper’s Conservatives overemphasized oil to appeal to his regional Tar Sands base in Alberta and Saskatchewan — so when the cost of oil sank, so did the country’s economic prospects.  Cartoonish local politicians like Rob Ford became the fashion for a while.  Canadian politics became obsessed with the appearance of “strength” instead of effectiveness, so our infrastructure crumbled, our social ties weakened, and our innovation dried up.

Welcome to your likely future the next decade, United Kingdom.  Expect old tensions in Scotland and Ireland to rear up again, because they don’t agree with the vote.  Expect greater divisions between city dwellers in London who voted Remain and more rural types who wanted out.  You’ll fight the wrong fights, in the wrong ways, for the wrong reasons.  But you’ll eventually wake up and realize it’s all stupid.  The choice you have to make is how many people will be hurt and how many lives will be ruined in service of your culture war.

The other takeaway is that representative democracy doesn’t mean “the people” should vote on every major decision.  David Cameron has shown a dual lack of leadership in calling for that referendum in the first place, then quitting instead of seeing through what he started.  Much like Canada now, Cameron’s successor will inherit a raging mess, because day-to-day government business still has to continue while a country faces the consequences of royally screwing the pooch.

Some of the most progressive decisions in Canada’s history have been made by government action, not the direct will of the people.  Canada (except Quebec) was ahead of the curve on giving women the right to vote.  We were early adopters of gay marriage rights.  We have a (mostly) functioning immigration and refugee processing system.  We don’t tear each other apart over abortion.  We respect rational religious and cultural freedoms and have adapted our official uniforms to accommodate religious headwear.  We provide (mostly) universal healthcare.  We’re now tackling the difficult issue of assisted dying.  We do our best to actively combat racism, we don’t let our large cities crumble, and while our gun problem is increasing, we have the tough conversations on legislation to curb gun violence.  We make mistakes in early legislation and we fix them.  We don’t scrap bills and start all over on a regular basis.

Canada is, in many ways, a progressive beacon for the world, but the vast majority of these hugely beneficial decisions were unpopular at the time they were enacted, or they were forced by our Supreme Court.  There are many bright moments in Canadian history where governments dared to do what was right for the country, even though vocal minorities, and sometimes even majorities, screamed that a socially progressive choice would lead to our doom.  Our leaders, for the most part, have had the courage to lead, whether it be Justin Trudeau’s much mocked gender-parity in cabinet, or Brian Mulroney’s Free Trade agreement with the US.  Even Bob Rae’s hated “Rae Day” furloughs of Ontario government employees probably saved a lot of jobs, though the public sector despised him for it.  Some on the left still hate Paul Martin for his cuts to health care as federal finance minister, but he got the job done and prevented economic disaster.

Even the much-maligned Stephen Harper, despite some disastrous economic decisions, had the guts to make choices.  Some of them were even good ones.  Harper was the Prime Minister who finally achieved consensus with Quebec on Quebec “as a nation within a united Canada”.  All parties supported the motion, and for the first time in decades, Canada is free from separatist rumblings.  Harper’s largest failings came from inaction: prorogation of Parliament, a refusal to appoint senators until his hand was forced, and ignoring small problems that turned into overly large ones, like Mike Duffy.  For all his talk of strength, Harper’s greatest weakness was that he too-often dithered to hold on to power for power’s sake.  Government’s first priority is to keep government functioning.  Any deadlock is a sign of failure.  Are you listening, America?  Because your big choice is coming up in November.

The UK is facing short-term calamity because its leaders failed to lead.  Waves of political grandstanding have collapsed like a house of cards, and fear of the outsider festered within British leadership’s accountability gap.  I suggest Britain’s next crop of decision-makers look to Canada to see how to right the ship, because despite our country’s reputation as being populated by polite apologists, we’ve got a track record of electing leaders who knew when to be badasses.  Perhaps it’s even time for the rise of another Thatcher in Britain:  Iron Maggie sure knew how to get things done.

 

On Video Game Player, Character, and Developer Agency

In a strange pivot toward the absurd, Feminist Frequency’s most recent “Tropes versus Women” video, Lingerie is Not Armor waffled on the series’ previous complaints that female game characters lack agency to declare that fictional female characters have NO agency because they’re not real women.

This is, of course, patently false, and it’s important to explore why.  Character agency, along with developer agency and player agency, form a triangle of agency that’s essential to successful game design that tells a cohesive story while the player still feels meaningfully involved.  The balance and flow among these three types of agency is critical to creating a quality game.

Because the player and the character are locked in a partnership through a game’s control interface, character agency and player agency can be difficult to separate.  Complicating things further is that the developer is the one that grants both player and character agency within the game.  A simple example of the separation between player agency and character agency can be shown in Super Mario Bros.  At the beginning of the game, the player can make Mario do two things: run and jump.  If the player has Mario collect a red mushroom, Mario grows larger and can survive one collision with an enemy or projectile.  This is not something the player does.  This is a skill Mario innately has that allows him greater impact on the world.  Other power ups – note the name – give Mario the ability to fly, throw fireballs, and swim.  In Super Mario 2, different characters have different abilities, and those are the agency of those specific characters, not intrinsic to the player.  The skills don’t transfer from Peach to Luigi to Mario even though it’s the same player.

So there.  In one paragraph, we have proof that character agency is a real thing.  Players make choices about companions in video games not just for cosmetic reasons, but also the ability of these companions to act on their world.  Players, for instance, complained that Alan Wake didn’t have a melee attack, but developer Remedy deliberately didn’t give him that skill because he’s a noodly armed writer.

Furthermore, when a game includes a cut scene, these are moments where the player has absolutely no agency within the game.  For this reason, I believe cut scenes should be used only when necessary.  When you completely cut off a player, character or developer’s agency, your game becomes unbalanced.  Yanking control away from a player, making characters inconsistent, or a developer creating an unstructured sandbox that seems to ultimately result in a futile experience are all example of an unbalanced triangle of agency that leads to an unsatisfying experience.

The recent DOOM game is a great example of creating a clearly defined character through action.  The DOOM Marine, solves problems with his fists and guns.  This is his defining character trait.  So there are times in the game’s narrative where the DOOM marine makes choices without the player’s input, smashing consoles, opening doors with corpses, and generally being an asshole.  The glorious thing about how the game is designed is that these aren’t just moments of dark comedy.  They’re indications to the player that an aggressive play style will have the greatest chance of success.  DOOM is not an RPG, because the balance between player agency and character agency comes through the weapon select wheel.

To facilitate this, id Software chose to make the map progression fairly linear, and this is a valid choice.  Id owned its agency as a developer to create the game it wanted to make, instead of trying to make a game “for everyone”.  The successful results speak for themselves.

The thing is, there are no right or wrong answers for this formula, provided the three types of agency stay in balance.  In an RPG, players expect a much larger degree of narrative agency – they want to see the impacts they’ve made upon the world.  The fan outcry to Mass Effect 3 wasn’t just a response to a lack of player agency – that happens within the game, not through the ending.  No, what fans responded to was an unsatisfying end to Commander Shepard’s story.  Fans felt that the original abbreviated ending cut them off from the resolution to the stories of not just Shepard, but his or her companions as well.  They’d still “beat the game”.  The player’s agency was maintained.  But the character’s agency wasn’t respected, and the fans demanded more.

Now, some would argue that the fans wanted to save the world themselves, but I disagree that this was the reason for the outcry.  The disappointment was that there was no closure to the relationships made within the game – what happened to the Quarians?  The Geth?  The crew of the Normandy?  Players truly cared about happy endings – or at least endings that made sense – for the extended cast of the game.  That’s character agency, not player agency.

Of course, the insider rumblings at Bioware were that there were issues between publisher and developer that prevented them from really making the game they wanted to make.  Developers only have so much control – they have limited time, limited budget, and limited technology.  Developer agency matters greatly, because games aren’t just consumer products.  They’re also art.  Sometimes games are going to challenge the player and do things the player doesn’t like.  Deliberately.  Developers must continue to have that freedom to make the game they want.  Discussions about games must be reasoned and reasonable, not the stuff of shame mobs on the internet, looking to pummel developers into changing their content based on sheer numbers and noise.

“Death of the Author” is a principle that I don’t believe has a meaningful role in video game criticism because players work with the developer to author the story within a game.  A huge element of game criticism is whether a developer succeeds in what it intends to do with a game

Often, critics talk about developer intents when they’re actually making massive assumptions – for instance, the assertion that the outfits of sexy female characters are designed to make them appeal sexually available.  However, these critics don’t reach out to the developers themselves to ask them what their intents were, even though many developers are quite happy to answer those sorts of questions.

For instance, when the Tomb Raider reboot came out, there was a popular complaint that Crystal Dynamics had made Lara’s voice work sound deliberately pornographic.  I decided to ask a developer at Crystal Dynamics about this theory, and the poor guy blushed crimson, then explained that those were just the noises the actress had made while performing the physical motion capture.  That’s all it takes to eliminate speculation on intent.

But what if a developer actually wants to use sexuality and sexual entitlement against a player, the way the Metal Gear Solid games do?  This is a valid artistic decision, even when it doesn’t quite succeed in the experiment.  The Metal Gear Solid games juxtapose sex and trauma in a way that is deliberately disturbing – a mercenary may be very resistant to physical damage until he’s distracted by a cunningly placed porn magazine.  Men cartwheel naked through voids while the player is forced to watch.  It’s a decidedly alien approach to sexuality for a Western player.

Meanwhile, the Bayonetta games use the Male Gaze to make a point: the heroine of the game is seen as a villain to the Lumen Sages.  At the core of Bayonetta is a cautionary tale against oppressive sexual taboos.  The war between the Umbra Witches and the Lumen Sages started because of a child born in violation of the blood purity rules, and the ensuing slaughter nearly wipes out both groups.  Bayonetta, therefore, examines lust in a way that is often uncomfortable, even objectifying, to a modern player.  But this also allows the player to understand the strictures under which the Umbra Witches have lived.  Bayonetta’s empowerment comes from her gaming the system, and the sexualized camera angles help establish that in game reality for the player.  Is it comfortable or respectful?  No.  But it’s really powerful.  The developers deliberately empowered Bayonetta in a way that appears sexual to the player.  The player can beat the game, but they can’t overcome the pre-programmed moments when the heroine they identify with is treated like a piece of meat.  The player must choose to see past that and embrace Bayonetta as a whole person or reject her as a whore.  Welcome to being a woman who tries to publicly accomplish anything hard.

But where is the line between developer agency and player agency?  This is where I come back to the triangle of agency.  The connection between the player and the developer is both through the game the developer creates, and the character the player controls within game.  Different types of games grant the player varying degrees of agency within a game world.

Unfortunately, the video game industry is both cliquish and obsessed with trends.  We don’t get two first person shooters in a cycle.  We get six.  We don’t get a couple open world or team based combat games.  We get a glut of them.  This is limiting the number of meaningful consumer choices in gaming.  The success of Grand Theft Auto, The Sims, and World of Warcraft can be attributed, in part, to how different those game franchises were when they launched.  Player agency isn’t just about what a player can do within a game.  It’s about those market choices.  Fresh experiences, and an industry that shows respect for consumer dollars.  Player agency isn’t serviced by making every game an open world game, or a shooter, or a graphics-heavy epic.  The industry can better respect player agency by giving players greater freedom of choice regarding the types of games available.

And, yes, some players like games featuring sexy women, based on the assumption that these women are choosing to dress that way, not forced to. Being forced to do something isn’t sexy for a mentally healthy person.  Some players, on the other hand, don’t want that, and it is possible to provide products for both camps.  But this solution comes from encouraging the products that you like, not attacking the stuff that you don’t.  Personally, I prefer the Saints Row games to the Grand Theft Auto games, but I don’t need the Grand Theft Auto games to change as long as I have an alternative.  No game is going to appeal to everyone, so these waves of outrage seem to me like a waste of time.

Attacking every game with a scantily-clad Amazon character isn’t going to create better games.  Nor does it help to dump on the creative process by denying the in-game agency of fictional women.  Talking to each other and setting examples of respect for others is the only healthy path forward.  In our discussion of representation and inclusion in games, it’s important to remember that developer agency, character agency, and player agency are all real, they all matter, and they all have to work together.

Why The Identity Politics Freak Outs Over This Week’s Person of Interest Are Totally Wrong

I gave this a few days before posting because MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD.

Months before the final season of Person of Interest began airing, the show’s producers and star Michael Emerson cautioned that some of the beloved series leads would not make it out alive.  And sure enough, Samantha “Root” Groves, played with wild-eyed glee by Amy Acker, caught a bullet this week and ended up in the morgue.

Oh and series regular mob boss Elias got shot in the head too, but twitter didn’t freak out about that.  Because Elias is a white, straight male, so it doesn’t matter to the politically correct masses if he gets murdered in cold blood.

The response to Root’s death wasn’t sadness.  It was outrage.  Outrage that Person of Interest would DARE to kill a lesbian character in order to advance the plot of the two male leads… even though that plot itself comes to an end in three episodes.

The flaws in this thinking go deeper than timing.  Killing Root was going to cause a stir, certainly, due to the character’s popularity.  But the way they did it sends the character off in a way that is the happiest possible ending based on her worldview, and the keyboard warriors missed that entirely.

Before Root was branded “queer”, she was a hacker and contract killer, shown to be mentally unstable and possessed by the religious-like belief that the Machine that is central to the show’s premise is a form of higher being – a God, she eventually calls it – and that it needs to be set free.  Root’s first encounter with eventual love interest Sameen Shaw involves Root tasering Shaw, zip tying her to a chair, and threatening to torture her.  Shaw herself is another assassin with a self-diagnosed Axis II personality disorder.  Root affectionately refers to her as a “sociopath”.

At some point along the way, the fan base decided to ignore the fact that both these women are mentally ill rabbit boilers – Audience proxy Detective Lionel Fusco refers to Root as “Coco Puffs”, because she’s that cuckoo.  For some odd reason, the fans decided that the “happy” ending would be for Root and Shaw to ride off into the nutbag sunset together and live unstably happy-ever-after, but this would have been lame: love doesn’t cure serious mental illness, nor does it make a sociopath learn empathy for other people.

So why this “Shroot” fan cannon became a thing, I have no idea, other than the reality that fans of a series tend to ignore the less-than-virtuous elements of charismatic characters.  Root being a woman who has sex with women doesn’t change the number of people she killed, the number of laws she broke, and the number of government entities she pissed off.

Root’s driving motivation for all the carnage is the protection and empowerment of the Machine that uses the camera and microphone system of New York City to spy on its citizens and predict crimes.  Programmed by series lead Harold Finch (played by Michael Emerson) to have empathy for human beings and protect them whenever possible, the Machine is Root’s greatest love, and it’s this Machine Root gets to be with at the end.  This makes sense, because the Machine is probably more capable of returning Root’s love than Shaw is on a long term basis.

For multiple seasons now, Root has expressed her belief that the Machine’s survival is more important than her own, and her desire to be connected to it – she gets herself a cochlear implant so the machine can “take” to her via soundbites of recorded words.  When the machine stops talking to her, Root becomes depressed.  Finch must literally cage the machine to stop Root from making “improvements” to it that could render it beyond Finch’s ability to control.  All the while, the main villain of the later half of the series – another Artificial Super Intelligence named Samaritan – reminds the viewer of what can happen when an adaptive AI is given free reign to determine what it must do in the name of self-preservation.  Samaritan is self-serving.  The Machine is altruistic. And the underlying message is that computers, as well as people, are only as virtuous as the code they’re fed in their formative years.  Finch, who was menaced by Root in her earlier appearances, doesn’t trust Root to have the wisdom to program the Machine for the greater good, and he’s probably right.

However, the Machine chooses Root as her “analog interface” at the beginning of season 3, after Root tells a psychiatrist that she believes the Machine is a god in feminine form – the Machine tends to use female voice snippets more than male ones, but Root’s ego likely has a lot to do with her gendering the Machine female too.  When the Machine selects Root as “her” analog interface, “she” does so knowing that there is a high probability this will result in Root’s death.

Root accepts the risks.  She believes that being favored by the Machine will grant her a form of immortality: as long as the Machine’s analog interfaces are in the Machine’s code, they will live on within her.  After Root’s death, the Machine selects a single voice with which to communicate based on a massive trove of vocal recordings.  That voice is Root’s.

So Root does get a happily ever after with the woman of her dreams.  That woman just isn’t Shaw.  If some fans were less obsessed with identity politics and having their personal identity validated by a TV show about people shooting each other over computers, then perhaps they’d have seen the bigger, more poignant picture of Root’s conclusion…

Root didn’t die to advance the plot of male main characters.  Root died to complete her own story.

Pre E3 Game Marketing: Full of Sound and Fury, Signifying…

I’ve determined that I’m easily put off by empty advertising.  If an ad is full of bright colours and loud noises but tells me next to nothing about the product in question, I tend to develop a poor opinion of said product.  My attitude is that marketing should sell the tangible positives of the thing, not sell me a lifestyle connected to the thing.

Most days lately I feel like a cranky old person telling kids to get off my lawn.

Access to top titles is becoming increasingly hard to come by, especially in Canada where PR companies are being forced to work with smaller and smaller budgets while clients expect bigger returns.  So we’re reliant on game trailers to tell us what a game is about, and what we should expect from it.

The thing is, game trailers tend to do a terrible job at that, and the follow up information from developers isn’t really much better.  Secrecy is overvalued in gaming.  Communication is given short shrift.

Most game trailers are expertly edited, decidedly exciting, and great promotion if games were films.  However, they’re all starting to look very much the same.  And they tell us very little about how a game plays, which is the single most important element of a video game.  Since we know the game review system is seriously broken right now, and games are getting increasingly more expensive, it’s more important than ever that gamers know what they’re buying, but right now, they can only get that from Youtube Let’s Plays and Twitch streams which show them the actual game.

There has to be a happier, spoiler-free medium.

Game trailers should show the same “who, what, when, where, why and how” that articles about a game are expected to provide.

Who does the game appeal to?  — With the cost of games climbing, I’m not going to buy another military shooter unless I think I’m going to get some sort of innovation.  Other players want a strong community.  Others still want a lot of gameplay hours.  We’re so hung up on age, gender, and content rating that marketers are missing these other points.

What is it about? — “guys that shoot things” is an insufficient amount of detail.  A film trailer is expected to give you the basics of what a film is about.  Game trailers seem to forget that basic plot concept is extremely important for pulling in more casual gamers that TV ads will sway.  Everyone tends to copy the original Gears of War marketing while missing the fact that those ads worked because they actually represented what the games were about: killing monsters and big bro feels.

When is it coming out? — I can’t get excited by a teaser trailer without a release date, since release dates are guesstimates at best these days anyway.

Where is it available? — This may sound like common sense, but many busy people can’t keep straight which games are console exclusives and which ones are multiplatform.  Two seconds at the end of a trailer isn’t enough time for them to get that information.

Why is it worth buying this game?  — It’s amazing, but this is the element a lot of mediocre game marketing misses in its attempts to be like every other piece of game marketing out there.  That infamous Dead Space 2 campaign answered this question with “because your mom will hate it”… which I gotta admit would have swayed me at times when I was younger.  The celebrity World of Warcraft ads reminded people to play Warcraft because it had transcended being a video game and had become a cultural reference.  The why is the difference between an average ad and a great one.

How is this game going to be fun? — With the emphasis on seriousness in gaming right now, this point also gets missed a lot.  It’s really not that hard to do, but I think a lot of companies miss that it’s important to do.  For instance, the Overwatch ads show that you’ll have fun playing as a bright, colorful character shooting at other bright colorful characters.  Sometimes it’s as simple as that.  On the other hand, Xbox ran a big campaign for Rise of the Tomb Raider made the games look like Lara Croft movies.  They didn’t make it clear that a big part of the fun was solving very interesting puzzles and taking down enemies.  Too many ads make the game look very pretty, but kind of boring.  Lara exploring a cave with a torch isn’t enough to hook most people.  They need an emotional connection that gives them something to care about.

The sheer deluge of marketing this time of year is one of the reasons that the games press gets to cranky and apathetic.  So give us a break, game marketers, and give us some information we can pass on to our viewers and readers.  That’s much more important than another free t-shirt that rarely comes in the proper size anyway.

The Sarkeesian Sexism in Uncharted 4

(Warning: Spoilers for Uncharted 4, blahblahblah)

I really enjoyed Uncharted 4, as I have enjoyed all the Uncharted games.  They’re top notch in many ways, and I recommend them.  What they are not, however, is feminist.  That’s okay.  They don’t have to be.  I still like them.

But it’s important to point out that the Uncharted games are homages to serial adventure stories, and those include some decidedly dated gender-based tropes. In order to effectively modernize the adventure serial, its important to recognize these tropes for what they are.

So it’s baffling to me that Anita Sarkeesian fan Neil Druckmann, the creative director on the game, decided to shame a playtester on Uncharted 4 who, among other things, had the reaction that many gamers are having to the second generation mercenary character, Nadine Ross.  He got pissed off that Nadine seemed like a “Strong Female Character” instead of a developed character.

ps4-Uncharted4-Nadine-Ross-1-664x335

I totally disagree with the playtester’s additional opinions on giving Nate and Elena a daughter, but playtesting is supposed to be a confidential process where people are honest about their feelings.  People don’t sign up to be mocked by the devs for having an honest reaction because that reaction was wrong.  You want unfiltered feedback, even if its stupid.  You can’t get that if playtesters think you might mock them in the press for political correctness points.

And that playtester wasn’t wrong about Nadine Ross.

The very thing that creates weaknesses in Nadine as a character was the Sarkeesian-inspired thing Druckmann is patting himself on the back for: changing male characters into female ones “to be different” instead of creating female characters from the outset.

Nadine is a stock character with a makeover.  Remember the big sub boss dude in Raiders of the Lost Ark that Indiana Jones fought around the airplane?

That’s the role Nadine plays in Uncharted 4.  And yes, absolutely, that character kicks the crap out of the hero unless the hero fights dirty.  But there’s a physicality to that character trope that isn’t there with Nadine: these characters tend to look physically intimidating, not like retired supermodels on high protein diets with gym-sculpted shoulders.

Nadine fell into a trope that didn’t end up on Tropes vs Women: Superwoman Syndrome.  Superwoman Syndrome is a state recognized by post-second wave feminists as a “double enslavement” of women.  Not only are women now supposed to be perfect wives and homemakers, but we’re supposed to be perfect at everything else too.

The problem with Superwoman Syndrome is that it’s impossible to be perfect at everything.  So the ongoing attempts to be perfect at everything wear women down and make us physically and mentally sick.  It’s a uniquely profound issue for black women, something Nadine’s motion capture actress, Laura Bailey, couldn’t bring to the part because Naughty Dog cast a white woman.  That’s the developer’s right, but in light of how the character turned out, I think it’s fair to criticize them for that decision.

The film Deadpool uses the same type of character, but did it right.  When audiences first see Gina Carano’s Angel Dust character, they have the same reaction that they did to that guy in Indiana Jones,  “Oh my freaking god nothing is going to stop that human tank.”  Carano brought a physical presence that was appropriate for the part, and the very same guys complaining about Nadine absolutely love Carano in that role.  It isn’t about misogyny.  It’s about failing to replicate the requirements of the trope in the switch from male to female.

gina-carano-s-angel-dust-beats-out-colossus-in-deadpool

 

With Superwoman Syndrome comes a tightening of the beauty myth.  Gina Carano smashed it in Deadpool because she was physically large, but still beautiful and desirable.  But she’s an exception that proves the larger rule that in most media, women look like models no matter what they’re supposed to be playing.  Cops look like models.  Firefighters look like models.  Doctors look like models.  So real life female cops don’t tend to look like the ones you see on TV, while real life male cops do.  That becomes a PR problem for real life first responders.

The social impact goes deeper than that, however.  The body type that keeps getting replicated is decidedly and profoundly white.  The b-to-c-cup breasts, boyish hips, and the lean muscle; the slightly freckled skin and “modest” Western dress that are the hallmarks of Sarkeesian-brand false-feminist character design… this rigid standard marginalizes the beauty paradigms of other cultures.  Latina and Black women have to reclaim their fuller hips and “Oakland booties” to get around accusations that their natural bodies are fat or obscene.  The fear of naked female bodies is colonial thinking.

All Sarkeesian’s followers have done is swap one set of racist, sexist ideals for another, instead of actually reducing racism and sexism.  They’ve just created another trope: The Sarkeesian.  It’s no less sexist to force a woman to conform to the Sarkeesian — a woman who is the embodiment of “strong” until the point that strength might threaten or offend — than, say, a Ms Male Character.

Ellie in The Last of Us and Angel Dust in Deadpool were embraced, because they are not Sarkeesians.  Trishka in Bulletstorm is not a Sarkeesian.  They have personalities and say and do deliberately offensive or “unfeminine” things.  Nadine doesn’t have quotable lines, a distinct look, or any sort of swagger or spark, because those might put someone off.  A Sarkeesian trope character never offends with intent.  That’s what makes them so offensive.

As I said, no one expects the Uncharted games to be paragons of political correctness.  The four most prominent characters in Uncharted 4 — Nate, Sully, Nate’s brother, and the main bad guy – are all white, cisgendered men.  Uncharted games have always been bromances, and that’s fine.  There’s a place for that.  Just don’t piss in my ear and tell me it’s raining feminism.

Furthermore, making a game about men doesn’t mean there’s license to get lazy with the writing of the female characters who ARE included.  There’s a distinct, if subtle, difference in how certain plot and character points are handled in Uncharted 4 than in the previous Uncharted games… when the games were written by a woman, Amy Hennig.  I have never been a big fan of Elena Fisher, but Uncharted 2 and Uncharted 3 did a lot to pull her away from her stock character “feisty Girl Friday love interest” origins in the original game.  Of course, a lot of men love Elena for the very reasons I despise her in Uncharted and Uncharted 4 – she enables Nate’s truly bad behaviour.

Italy_17

Elena doesn’t, I believe, get nearly angry enough when Nate yet again lies to her for no good reason.  Of course, it’s very possible that Elena was furious when she first discovered her husband had lied to her a-gain, but we never see that, because her wifely rage happens off screen.  So despite the piles of laundry in their house, Elena is still a Superwoman: she doesn’t have limits or boundaries where a fully-formed woman would.

Nate, and the player, is never truly confronted with the depths of what lying does to your partner.  The game does not confront the player with Elena’s raw, authentic feelings in response to being deceived.  Where Ellie swore, yelled, cried, and smashed stuff in The Last of Us, Elena pouts and offers sage words of understanding.  We don’t see the depths and immediacy of Elena’s pain, we don’t empathize with her the way we do Ellie, because we never see Elena at her worst, so she’s not totally real.

Because Elena is the perfect wife who only gets angry in perfect, private ways.  I’m sure I’m not the only woman who plays this game who has been married long enough to go “Oh come on!  That’s BULLSHIT.”

Oh but we’re not supposed to have that reaction, see?  We’re supposed to be “understanding” and “supportive” partners.  Because when our husband FEELZ BAD, the dutiful wife understands that it’s okay that he acts like an irresponsible manchild instead of discussing the situation like a grown up.  We’re supposed to accept that this is just the way men are.

Bullshit.  Bullshit bullshit bullshit.  There are different ways to be a man, but grown up men are honest.  Lying to your spouse about important things is the fastest way to destroy a marriage.  Nate and Elena broke up multiple times because of his immaturity.  He was supposed to have grown up some at the end of Uncharted 3, which is why they got back together and everyone cheered.

But in Uncharted 4, he’s back to being a dishonest baby, and Elena lets him be a dishonest baby with smiles, loving stokes to his face, and little more than the occasional pout.  He’s worn her down, and at this point she’s accepted that he’s going to lie to her whenever it’s convenient for him to do so, as long as he’s sorry later.  When a partner lies for that long, that consistently, he’s going to keep lying.  He has to want to change not to stop her from leaving — which is still manipulating things to get a desired outcome — but because he realizes that lying to her shows her no respect.  (The same goes for when women lie.  Just in this case, Nate and Elena are a heterosexual couple and the lying partner is male.)

So Nate and Elena go off into domestic bliss, where she never again sets hard boundaries because he’ll just lie his way around them.  Yes, that’s not what the game is supposed to have us believe, but that’s what someone like me, who has been married for seventeen years, sees.  A hard lesson of marriage is that feeling bad isn’t enough.  In order for your partner to trust you, you can’t keep doing the same crap to them over and over.

city_04

Nate and Elena do not have a believable, healthy marriage of equals.  They are a manboy married to a Superwoman.  That’s disappointing, because those marriages don’t tend to last in the real world.  A cycle of passive aggressive resentment forms because the Elena is constantly biting down her anger to be “supportive” and the Nate justifies a string of “white” lies because he doesn’t want to trouble the little wife with the truth.  If he does, she might say no.

These sorts of on-screen marriages are a sexist trope that gets replicated to falsely portray women as superior people in inferior positions.  Since we have to give cutesy names to all these tropes now, let’s call it “Wifey McAwesomesauce”.  Wifey McAwesomesauce is also seen in numerous sitcoms, in which no one can quite figure out why a mature, competent woman is married to Schlubby McScrewup.  Wifey McAwesomesauce has a great job, great clothes, great hair, and raised great kids.  Schlubby McScrewup is a misandrist stereotype who can’t change a diaper, make a school lunch, or drop the kids off without “hilarious” calamity.  And yet the show is always about Schlubby McScrewup because no one actually cares what’s going on in Wifey McAwesome’s mind.  Her perfect perfectness of perfection is only there to validate the comic struggles of her schlub husband.  It’s a rare sitcom, like All In The Family, Roseanne, and Blackish, where the spouses actually seem believably matched.  In these sitcoms, both partners screw up, and they actually yell at each other.  Like, really yell.  The way people do in real life.  The way Elena didn’t yell at Nate.

I’m not saying Naughty Dog should change any of this.  It’s a particular brand of escapist male fantasy, and that’s fine, since the tradition in which the games exist is soaking in that stuff.  But Naughty Dog doesn’t get to play in that sandbox and also collect “Great Male Feminist” points.  Elena may put on a few non-perfect post-baby pounds if they keep trying to have their cake and eat it too.

 

Note: Someone on twitter asked me what I would have changed in Elena’s reaction to make her seem more real.  There are various ways to do that.  A complex way would have been bonus content that allowed the player to play through, as Elena, discovering Nate lied, so we got to see her reaction.  A much faster way would be to have her be less damned nice to him right off the bat.  Saving his life is one thing, but it would have been more satisfying if she saved him without forgiving him right away.  We lost out on a lot of good potential dialogue because Elena was too nice to be fun.

Elbowgate: False Feminism in Canadian Parliament

I don’t normally write about politics because 1) It’s depressing, 2) way too many people do it, and 3) it’s a great way to get people screaming at you.  But the events this week surrounding Elbowgate are just too stupid to ignore.

Elbowgate is named for the fact that, in a breach of the snooty decorum of Canada’s parliament, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau rose again after being seated for a session, crossed the floor over to Conservative Whip Gordon Brown – who was with a group of NDP MPs – and… accounts vary depending on who is telling the story.  Either Trudeau led Brown by the arm to his seat, or Trudeau manhandled Brown like a bully.  After viewing the video, it looks to me like it wasn’t exactly helping an old lady crossing the street, but it wasn’t what Donald Trump’s campaign manager is alleged to have done to reporter Michelle Fields.   This, however, was not the eponymous elbow.  That came from the fact that while Trudeau was herding Brown, he accidentally elbowed NDP MP Ruth Ellen Brosseau in the chest.

It looked like a pretty painful elbow.  Justin Trudeau did a bad thing.  It was not, however, gender-based violence or the deliberate battery of an MP.  And the Conservative and NDP attempts to make it into more than it was backfired, because their outrage made light of some pretty serious issues in an attempt to lower the Prime Minister’s popularity.

Still, this is a wake up call for the Prime Minister.  He isn’t just a politician.  He is a bonafide celebrity.  Like any celebrity, Trudeau is prey to negative twists on his less glorious moments by haters who hate his stupid face.  Tom Mulcair seems to especially despise the young Prime Minister for reasons I haven’t yet been able to establish.  It’s commonly known that the bad blood between the two seems personal, but the reasons why aren’t public.  For the Conservative Party, however, Trudeau is bad for business.  He’s good for Liberal fundraising, and that took away the money advantage that the Conservatives enjoyed for quite some time.  This isn’t the first time they’ve attempted a petty distortion of facts in an attempt to make Trudeau look artificially bad.  Remember those attack ads that started even before the election?

Now, as then, however, Trudeau will likely weather this storm.   The gleeful pearl clutching by his enemies did him a huge favour in that they’re handing Trudeau the potential for an unlikely pr win.

Trudeau hasn’t yet learned the first rule of celebrity: never be your own bad cop.  He needs to stay arms length from any direct unpleasantness lest he wear the mess.  This likely goes against his natural instincts to lead by example, but it’s necessary: Generals aren’t on the front lines for a reason.  Furthermore, Trudeau has had a history of getting worked up in the House.  As an MP, Trudeau had to apologize, rocking a Movember goatee, for calling Conservative Environment Minister Peter Kent a “piece of shit.”

You’ll note in that video that Parliament is a pretty boisterous place.  It can be downright juvenile at times.  This is one of the reasons why the NDP and Conservative attempts to make Trudeau seem like a puppy killer just remind Canadians that while Trudeau is not a perfect PM, the Liberals are still the most deserving to lead… Not that this is saying much right now.

Like Hugh Grant after being caught with a hooker, Trudeau is now on another apology tour. The Liberals made the right call withdrawing a controversial bill, called Motion 6, to give them more power, even if they did so for the wrong reasons.  The damage control is proving effective: despite the Conservatives’ protests to the contrary, these actions are a change of both tone and substance from the iron fist rule of the Harper regime, and Canadians tend to be forgiving of prime ministers who get physical — it undermines the Canadian stereotype of being milquetoast-level nice.

However, Trudeau’s sensitive feminist man image would have been left notably bruised, had the opposition parties not acted like bigger idiots.  Elizabeth May was the only party leader with the sense to put practicality above short term political gain, and emerged as the lone grown up in the whole thing.  “I think it’s likely there may have been blame on all sides in leading to the escalation,” May said.  That’s about the best summary of events out there.

Rona Ambrose and Nikki Ashton reminded Canadians that those notorious gender cards come in multiple political colours, and Tom Mulcair reminded everyone why he’s not going to be the leader of the NDP for much longer by appearing to lose his temper worse than Trudeau lost his.  And Brosseau herself fumbled by trying to play up the “personal attacks” she’s received by reminding Canadians that she once took a vacation in Las Vegas in the middle of an election campaign.  The fact that she’s still complaining about the backlash from that makes her seem like a whiner.

At least it would make her seem like a whiner if she were a man.  The NDP seems to think that Brosseau being a woman is far more relevant in this situation than it is.

Both the Conservatives and the NDP are overselling their cases, and it’s stupid: Trudeau has a lot of time left in a very strong majority, so crying wolf now weakens future gut punches closer to an election where Canadians elect the best leader, not a perfect one.

Canadians understand someone losing their temper and doing something stupid.  They don’t understand claiming that taking hold of someone’s arm is a crime, or the idea that an accident is somehow a sign that parliament is unsafe for women.  These overreactions alienate the working class swing voters who decide elections, who are much more familiar with being on the wrong end of political correctness than being the victim of social injustices that primarily impact marginalized communities. False accusations of thought crimes are becoming those “kitchen table” issues the NDP believes they own.  The NDP, under Mulcair’s waning leadership, are making fools of themselves.

But the Conservatives are possibly playing this even worse, albeit more subtly. They got thumped in the last election, and Trudeau is still a Luke Skywalker figure who finally defeated Darth Harper.  Never mind that it wasn’t long ago that Conservative Senator Patrick Brazeau was charged with actual sexual assault, then pled guilty to simple assault and cocaine possession. Brazeau is currently on a mini image-rehabilitation campaign by talking about trying to take his own life.  The party can’t ask Canadians to understand that good people sometimes do bad things one minute, then throw a tantrum on Trudeau for behaving like something out of an episode of Dallas the next.

The more noise that Elbowgate makes, the more light it throws on the shenanigans instigated by all three parties.  This all may make for a few barn burner fundraising emails, but otherwise its a big load of politicians acting like teenagers and committing premature outrage ejaculation.

Like it or not, politics is still a game of who has the biggest proverbial dick, and by not stooping to everyone else’s level, Elizabeth May won the political penis-measuring contest.  Trudeau came out in second place, however, just because the other two parties complained the room was cold.

I’m left to wonder whether this is all a way to avoid tackling, as the Supreme Court has mandated the government must, the thorny issue of assisted dying. Any bill that the government comes up with is going to piss off part of the opposition parties’ base: religious conservatives don’t like it because it interferes with “God’s plan”, and some advocates for the profoundly disabled who tend to vote NDP are concerned about what these laws will mean for the right to life of those for whom they advocate. They can’t, however, openly defy the Supreme Court, so they seem to be hoping to run the clock out to make the Liberals look unable to get things done.
Darth Harper showed, time and again, that it’s better to look like a bully than a weak leader.  So it might not have been a bad idea for Trudeau to literally go down swinging.  I know I’d rather vote for a guy who accidentally elbowed an MP who happened to be a woman than for either party who doesn’t understand that equality actually means equality, not treating women like we’re inherently less tough than men in politics. Again, Elizabeth May seems to have the biggest stones in Ottawa — Trudeau let himself be goaded into a PR debacle, and the NDP and Conservatives seem to think that the social problem of violence against women can be used for a cheap stunt.

Violence against anyone is wrong.  Violence against women is uniquely wrong because the implication is that the victim of the abuse can’t fight back.  Accidentally bumping a Member of Parliament is NOT violence against women.

The stupid games that happen while the House is sitting must end, but Elbowgate is more of the same, not the reform all parties claim to want.

Remembering Darwyn Cooke and His Example of Cantankerous Kindness

I lost a friend early this morning.  Others lost an industry giant.  Others lost a colleague.  And some lost a man who was as close to them as family.  What we all gained from knowing him in any way, however, is immeasurable.

Darwyn Cooke, the creator of DC Comics The New Frontier, the Parker graphic novels, and The Spirit revival, was taken from this world by cancer at the age of 53.  I haven’t seen anyone connected to comic books who isn’t grieving.  But the stories have already started as well, because Darwyn was a storyteller in his personal life as well as his work: he just knew how to frame things for maximum impact.

One of the things Darwyn gave me in his too-short life was an example of shouldering withering criticism in the process of creating art.  After The Spirit had been announced, but before the series was released, other creators were cornering him at events and verbally abusing him for what they believed was an artistic desecration.  Darwyn just put his head down, cursed a blue streak as was his way, and did the work.  He had an ironclad integrity.  Now I see that series praised by mourning fans, which is a testament to that integrity.

Darwyn was not what many would call a “nice guy” because he was far too principled.  He would tell you if he thought you were wrong.  He would tell you firmly if he thought you were being unethical or half-assing something.  But he believed in people, believed in kindness, and believed in comics.  So he found a way to speak fondly of some very challenging people, because he saw the good as well as the bad, and decided for himself whether the sum of it all made sense to him.

He had enough wisdom to see people for who they were and accepted their faults even if he didn’t like them.  He did so much free cover work, helped other artists, and offered that sincere form of support that is so rare in an industry where your student today can become your competition tomorrow.  He told some stories that were important to the people around him, because if it was important to them, it was important to him.

He believed we should always keep a portion of comics books as something for children, that not everything needed to be dark to be good.  He had a clear artistic style that matched the way he saw the world — clean, to the point, but whimsical and accessible.  He was a man decidedly contented with “enough”.

It wasn’t that Darwyn Cooke had no fucks to give.  It was that all his fucks were tied up in things that mattered, so he didn’t have any to spare on nonsense.  That legacy will continue through his absolutely wonderful wife Marsha, who won’t even rent you a fuck, never mind give you one.  Darwyn’s choice of spouse said a lot about the man he was: he was a man who truly loved strong women and wasn’t the least bit threatened by us.

The proof of that for me is found in another fond memory that happened after I’d been publicly shamed by an influential blogger connected to a local “comics as art” organization.  I appeared as a presenter at an awards show called the Joe Shuster Awards or “JSA”.  At the time, I was a comedy performer, so the expectation was that Ed the Sock and I would show up and make people laugh.  So we dressed up like the Golden Age Flash and Power Girl — JSA.  Get it?  The blogger determined this was a “disgusting display”, because… yeah.  I’m anatomically similar to Power Girl.  This “artistic” blogger didn’t see a woman who clearly loved comics, even a character who, at that time, wasn’t terribly well known.  He just saw tits.

It hurt.  A lot.  Body shaming always hurts, no matter how much you try to stop it.

But Darwyn Cooke managed to heal a lot of that hurt just by being himself.  I was at a convention party, I believe it was in Calgary, and I heard someone behind me yell “HEY KERZNER!  I HEAR YOUR TITS ARE TOO BIG FOR [the event that had slammed me]!”  I turned around and there was Darwyn Cooke, head peeking over a half wall like something out of a Frank Cho parody sketch, grinning like the little devil that he was.

I laughed.  I still laugh thinking about that.  That was Darwyn Cooke: he appreciated people for who they were, even if that “who they were” defied the norm.  And he didn’t care who knew.

He felt no need to ignore the realities of my anatomy.  Instead, he accepted reality for what it was, and made it pretty clear that anyone who couldn’t do the same was being stupid.  It was a rare moment of acceptance… real acceptance… that wasn’t just a politically correct “we need more women in comics” platitude.  If I could only keep just one memory of him, it would be that one.  “My tits are too big for ______” has become my way of laughing off those in science fiction, comic books, and video games who continue to treat me like the town whore.

The flip side of “no one is immune to criticism” is that “no one should expect praise”.  This leads to a system of feedback that is skewed toward the negative, and is less useful as a result.  On the bright side, praise becomes more powerful, because it isn’t considered mandatory.  So I will hold in my heart those very Cooke moments of crusty, caustic praise.  Because they were real.

Many people have their own equally meaningful, funny stories about Darwyn.  Perhaps it’s true that only the good die young, because you’d be hard pressed to find a better, more authentic person than Darwyn Cooke.

Note: memorial donations can be made to the Canadian Cancer Society and/or the Hero Initiative.

This week’s Youtube videos

Did you miss any?

Monday: Some steps for achieving emotional resiliency.

Tuesday: Math anxiety has a gender gap, and scientists don’t know why.

Wednesday: My first attempt at doing cosplay content again — a brief history of cosplay, interrupted by bus tourists.

Thursday: My take on the Ghomeshi apology — got a little bombarded by haters, but I still stand by it.

Friday: Feedback Friday — that a lot of people didn’t get.  I’ll write more on this.

bell hooks, Beyonce, Spirit, and Feminism For Now

I’ve been watching the whole “bell hooks is sour on Beyoncé’s Lemonade” thing from the sidelines, afraid to comment because of the colour of my skin.  But I’ve gotten tired of “nodding respectfully”, and I want to approach this through a door hooks herself opened — her assertion that Lemonade being created primarily for a black female audience misses the point. “Commodities,” says hooks, “irrespective of their subject matter, are made, produced, and marketed to entice any and all consumers.”

I understand that I’m writing from adopted tradition.  I grew up with black people, but I’m obviously not one.  I do not claim ownership of black traditions or black culture, just an appreciation.  I don’t seek to be an appropriator.  But as a presumed outsider who sees some of the nods for black women, there’s no denying that Lemonade was made for black women.  And this matters, because the voices and art of black women matter.

hooks is interchanging the concepts of art, artist, and commodity in ways that are… duh duh duuuuuuuh… problematic.  In reducing Beyoncé’s highly metaphorical, some would say deeply personal, work of art to a good to be bought and sold, hooks is objectifying Beyoncé’s story.  Art is not a what.  Art is a who, a how, and a why.  We are sharing in Beyoncé’s message, not transferring ownership of it.  It cannot be reduced to object simply because a copy is purchased.  Lemonade will always be an extension of Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter.

hooks, who for years has taught acolytes to rage against the dominance of the presumed white male audience, now claims Beyonce’s work on Lemonade can’t be presumed to be primarily for black women because it exists in a capitalist paradigm.  Because Beyoncé has learned to thrive in a capitalist system, hooks believes that her work cannot be considered feminist, never mind black feminist.

The reactions in the white media to Lemonade prove hooks wrong.  While watching an ABC News clip that teased the project, I was marveling at the glory of Beyoncé with her hair in cornrows, showing flashes of people in Voodoo face paint, when the perky middle America-friendly commentators said “fans have commented that it looks like something out of American Horror Story”.

I immediately hit pause so I could internally scream.  These “news” anchors were missing that Beyoncé was drawing from the same source as the third season of American Horror Story: Louisiana Voodoo.  That is her culture.  Her history.  She’s not copying a TV show.

There’s a level of ancestor worship in Lemonade that the gossip rag media doesn’t get, because most people who engage with Lemonade are only connecting to the surface elements of the work — the lyrics that talk about infidelity.  Yes, that’s commodity.  Female suffering will always sell albums.  However, there are images to consider as well in this visual album, and the references to voodoo, Antebellum America, and even embodying a goddess of love, seduction, and beauty, all ochre yellow robes and running water… these matter too.  They tell another, deeper story, of the historical struggles, myths, and personifications of black women in the Americas, and these images matter so deeply.  This is Queen Bey’s descent, Ishtar-like, into the underworld, stripping down, and emerging with her power returned.

hooks’ toolbox doesn’t factor in the very old, very subversive myths that Beyoncé is invoking.  Beyonce’s working magic older than the modern patriarchy, and hooks’ academically masculinized viewpoint, her phallic set of tools, are deaf to Beyoncé’s underlying messages.

I don’t see Lemonade as the story of Beyoncé’s reaction to Jay-Z cheating.  Artists do concept albums all the time, and the work speaks for itself.  I see Lemonade as a subversive musical history of black women who sang about their men and their Christian God because society wouldn’t let them sing publicly about anything else, but the Goddess was always hiding in the bedroom and the church.

Beyoncé is examining the role of black women in the media, in business, and in the home.  It’s daring, deep, brave, and artistic as all hell.  Yes, black women’s bodies have been uniquely sexualized.  Why not explore that?  Why not say something about that?  Beyoncé doesn’t just show herself as a wife of a cheating mogul.  She shows herself as a daughter, a sister, a mother, a business woman, and the sacred feminine too.  bell hooks fixated on the body, when Beyoncé was baring her soul.  bell hooks fixated on systems, while Beyoncé was invoking spirit.  bell hooks, in essence, politicized Beyoncé’s testimony, and you can’t politicize the Goddess without losing the divine spark.

And at least a dozen brilliant black women, who can connect in historical and personal ways that I can’t, stood up to bell hooks, thanked her for her past service, but emphatically told her she was wrong.

There’s magic in this.  Beyoncé’s message of unity resonated, and her sisterhood answered.  Lone gun academics like hooks who forsook the magic of her body to be “accepted” by the mainstream can’t understand the raw power in something like Lemonade.  Taken as a whole, I don’t think Lemonade is about one story of infidelity.  I think it’s an invocation that the “men cheating” narrative is a very old one, going back to some dark places in history, and Lemonade successfully shows there’s more to the story.

hooks herself got the uniquely Southern reference — the childhood memories of girls selling lemonade as a symbol of the female businesswoman — but got lost in her head and missed the call to the spirit of womanhood that is embodied in an angry goddess, smashing stuff because SHE CAN.  hooks may be afraid of sex, afraid of violence, and afraid of feeling anything below the waist because she sees it as a symptom of dominance, but the “goodbye to the good girl” truths in Beyonce’s form of feminism CAN BE TRUSTED, despite hooks’ claims to the contrary.  Lemonade is Beyoncé’s freedom cry, her assertion that there is so much more to her than the wife of a man who cheated. She is not just “the wife”.  She is not just “the voice”.  She is the spirit and the consciousness and she’s a modern day beauty goddess.  In the traditions Beyoncé is invoking, her goddess has a vindictive streak.  She is not a passive beauty.  So she can smash cars if she damned well wants to, even if it’s not the “right” thing to do.  We won’t overcome the oppression in our own minds by saying “pretty please”.

hooks missed this.  hooks is showing the oppression in her own mind.

hooks seems very interested in the male role in Beyonce’s story, missing that Jay-Z is only a supporting character in the story of Queen Bey.  Beyoncé cannot control her husband.  She can’t force him to be faithful, respectful, or see her as an equal.  She CAN contextualize her own story in the collective tales of her ancestors, her blood, and realize that her man cheating is an annoyance, not a failure.  She will choose to stay with him or she will choose to tell him to leave her story.  Both of these are valid choices.  Beyoncé has choices because she sees herself as emancipated, and hooks has no right to deny her that.  We have to hope for a point in time when being black in America stops being a psychological handicap.

Beyoncé is standing in her power regardless of what her man did, and that’s an astounding testament of how far all women have come.  It’s a unique achievement for black women, who had to choose between their race and their sex during the second wave of feminism.  Beyoncé is not afraid of her lady parts.  She realizes that only by being whole can she also be powerful.  She is the heroine of her own story.  She’s sharing a spiritual, ancestral road map to move beyond pain, and bell hooks is telling her “not good enough”.

How is this not hooks in the role of oppressor?  The matron telling the younger female that she is not yet a woman, holding her down despite her fame?  Despite her wealth?  Despite everything?  hooks has decided none of this has meaning, and I don’t know what higher power she invokes to believe she has that right.

While hooks is using the white man’s tools — academics, non-fiction writing, and “literature” — Beyoncé is taking her message to the streets, the charts, the sports stadiums, the award shows, the runways, the airwaves, the social networks, and the salons.  hooks is only relevant in this matter because she’s the cranky neighbour who called the cops on the street party.  hooks seems to forget that one day she herself was an upstart poet saying challenging things, perhaps because her skills lie in tearing things down more than building them up.  However, black women today don’t call her “Auntie bell” because she ripped apart the work of white feminists.  They respect the words she gave black women, not the words she took from white women.  Beyoncé is adding to that dictionary and extending it to all women willing to see and hear those words, and that’s a good thing.

Beyoncé is the feminist that the culture needs TODAY.  She couldn’t have gotten to this point without bell hooks, and that’s why it’s especially sad that hooks has decided to extract the lemons from the Lemonade.  Intersectionalism means not missing the sugar and the water that also make up the drink, and hooks is so stuck on the sour notes of violence, domination, and oppression that she’s missing the sweetness and the cleansing nature of Beyoncé expressing the elements of her truths that she wants to share.

This round of artistic truths started with Formation, not Jay-Z’s antics.  How quickly some “academics” forget a woman’s art when there’s a man involved. Lemonade is absolutely made for black women, and that doesn’t change because a black woman is getting paid.

He’s Sorry, But… How A Guy Like Jian Ghomeshi Rots A Media Team From The Inside

We finally have proof, in Jian Ghomeshi’s own words, that he committed wrongdoing against at least one female member of his staff at the CBC.  He was the boss, she was a subordinate, and the act was sexualized in nature.  No longer can he claim that he was falsely accused.  No longer can he assert that his accusers are all lying.  He had to admit he did wrong, and he only said as much as was required to avoid jail.  Because he’s rich, he’ll never know what it’s like to be truly powerless.  He’ll never totally understand what he did to the employees he abused.

And yes, employees, plural.  According to Ghomeshi’s own statement, he misled a lot of people in falsely protesting his complete innocence.  Remember that he previously insisted that every encounter of a sexual nature he’d had with a woman was consensual.  We now know that, at least regarding Kathryn Borel, this was not the case.

I still don’t believe Jian Ghomeshi understands the damage he caused by abusing his substantial media power to make at least one woman his plaything.  He still doesn’t totally get the inherent dominance displayed in the act he was accused of – humping a woman’s butt.  Most species of mammal inherently understand that this is a non-verbal communication of “you’re my bitch”.  Mr Ghomeshi is the sort of entitled idiot that is inspiring the rise of demeaning “consent classes” for innocent, considerate men by perpetuating the lie that he didn’t know that inherently wrong behaviour was wrong.

We’re expected to listen and believe his words, because he’s positioning himself as just another victim –a victim of ignorance.  I don’t buy it.  I believe he knew his behaviour was wrong for lesser men because he lectured people about it on the radio all the time via words written by other people.  He just didn’t think the exact same conduct was wrong for an important man like him.  He justified it by believing that his happiness and comfort was just more important then that of the woman he used to show what a big man he was without her consent.

Too often in the media, emotionally immature bullies end up in positions of leadership.  They’re not equipped to deal with the pressure, so they abuse their staff.  They get away with it because many in the media won’t report the bad behaviour of others for fear that their own skeletons will get ripped out of the closet in retaliation.  They’re right to fear that.  That’s exactly what happens.  A cornered narcissist is a nasty beast.

Jian Ghomeshi’s fall, however, is only one part of this story.  There are dozens, if not hundreds of stories tied up in the damage he did – there were compelling rumors about the guy for years, coupled with an undeniable string of public temper tantrums.  Worse, Jian Ghomeshi is not an isolated phenomenon.  There are so many people in Canadian media who abuse their power that I started keeping a mental list of the ones who didn’t actively treat me like garbage.  It was much shorter.

The bullies aren’t all men either.  Notorious women, at the CBC and beyond, keep getting powerful jobs and keep abusing their staff with put downs, professional sabotage, screaming sessions, stolen ideas, and even sometimes physical isolation and abuse.  With women and closeted gay men, the first thing a bully will use as a weapon is their sexuality.  Slut shaming and forced “outings” are powerful weapons in the hands of a workplace media bully.

The cycle goes something like this: the person in a position of power starts the process of negatively labelling an ambitious young employee.  For women, words like “cheap”, “unprofessional”, “star fucker”, and “attention whore’” start cropping up without evidence or justification.  Co-workers take these digs to heart because they know that to keep their jobs, they have to agree with the boss, so after about three years in the business, practically every woman has some sort of scarlet letter on her.  It’s usually not true, but that doesn’t matter. You have to prove you’re “tough enough” by labouring under lies.

Similarly, racial minorities get labelled with stereotypes such as “lazy” and “aggressive”, even though they get just as much work done, just as politely, as anyone else.  Gay men get labelled “weak” or “overly-emotional” a lot.  Especially when they point out that they’re only being assigned stereotypically gay stories.  The thing that makes these tactics so toxic is that everyone makes mistakes, especially when you’re just starting out.  But there’s a difference between having a moment of laziness or unprofessional conduct, and having that be something that defines your character.  In essence, white, cisgendered, atheist men in Canadian media are allowed to make mistakes and learn.  Gay men are allowed to be the “right kind of gay”, but that’s it.  Everyone else?  A single mistake is an easy way to “prove” that there’s something inherently wrong with you.  Even taking off a non-Christian religious holiday can stall your career.

If you’re not male and a product of some British colonial upbringing, you’re easy to cut off at the knees.  “Professional” workplace conduct is conduct that makes white people comfortable when other cultures find it slimy and dishonest – as someone who grew up in an environment immersed in other cultures, I’ve had trouble with this disconnect my entire career: I look white, but I wasn’t socialized white.  So my script of right and wrong is not in keeping with the white-influenced Canadian media culture.  Services like the CBC are apparently so afraid of the multicultural realities of Canada that one of the most popular shows is British soap Coronation Street.  That’s the culture that cultivated Jian Ghomeshi.

Canadian media companies have a diversity mandate that only functions on paper.  The beauty standard is white, but the behaviour standard is whiter.  So the sweet spot in Canadian media is to look brown but act whiter than a lot of white people.

Ghomeshi milked that for millions of dollars, leveraging his minority status as a smoke screen to hide his bad acts.  At the same time, he leveraged the privileged position of being a well-spoken, apparently non-threatening man in Canadian media.  He sneered at men who were less erudite, and apparently collected a harem of women to secretly prop up the traditional masculinity he sacrificed on air for success.  He was living the leftist lie that allowed him to hide his textbook abusive behaviour for decades.

Abuse in Canadian media is so widespread that everyone has some story.  Get four female media personalities in a private room with drinks and the stories can fill hours.  It usually involves the same four or five dirtbags – male and female – but every so often you hear a new one about some hotshot star or executive who is just as bad.  The problem is that the very things that women in media are expected to do as part of our professional duties are used against us: provocative photo shoots, sexy on camera scenes, and daring evening gowns on red carpets are all used as “proof” that we’re just “looking for attention”.  Sex and sexuality are so demonized that it’s frequently used as a lever of control by manipulators like Jian Ghomeshi.  A guy like that gets so used to being peerless that he blames the women he mistreats for his own loneliness, and the encounters get rougher and more demeaning because the victimizer increasingly feels like the victim.

In my experience, even when you’re a woman in a position of relative power in Canadian media, you’re treated as “hysterical” if you insist on getting rid of someone for inappropriate conduct.  For reasons I can only guess at, employees who stopped being employees maintained a level of respect for the male authorities involved, but lashed out at the lone woman in the process – me.  Maybe it’s driven by the same core hatred of women that caused them to behave poorly in the first place, but I refuse to accept that this is at all normal male behaviour.  This is aberrant, and deserves to be treated as such.  The thing is that it’s so hard to fire someone with cause in Ontario that you never fire them for sexual harassment.  You eliminate their job, but you do so because they’re dirty pigs who are taking advantage despite being warned to stop.

Contrary to Jian Ghomeshi’s in-court assertions that workplaces should “not have any sexualized tone”, the reality is that media workplaces are inherently sexualized, and we’re supposed to be secure and grown up enough to respect people of all genders anyway.

What I love about working in the media is that you engage with people on a much deeper personal level than you would at a desk job.  You meet the most fascinating people, and you hear their stories.  You have to be secure enough in yourself that you can encounter new things, even new sexual proclivities, and not freak out, because the media is often on the bleeding edge of civil rights advocacy for LGBTQ people.  When you work in news, you also hear stories of abuse, see photos of assaults and murders, and you have to be strong enough to resist being eaten alive by that darkness, especially when children are involved.  Being able to trust your coworkers goes a long way in that regard – everyone has days when it just gets to them and they break, and you have to trust that your coworkers understand the struggle and won’t hold it over you.  That trust is precisely what a guy like Jian Ghomeshi and his enablers destroy.

I’m not at all surprised at Jian Ghomeshi’s clueless protestations that he didn’t know he was doing anything wrong.  His reality distortion field is still operational, if weakened some by public scrutiny, but this is far from the end of this tragedy.  You’d think that seeing a guy like Jian Ghomeshi brought low would bring some comfort to the people he hurt, but it doesn’t.  Careers were still destroyed, dreams were crushed on the altar of Ghomeshi’s ego, and not all of those will come back, despite what we now know.

The CBC rightly took away Ghomeshi’s power to bully his staff, but there are still people continuing that toxic legacy, and nothing less than a total overhaul of how the industry does business will stop a future Jian Ghomeshi-style scandal from happening.  Worse, countless people will be destroyed before some other predator becomes bold enough to get caught.  That’s the secret tragedy that will never get headlines.

You wonder why you don’t see more high ranking women in politics, and many media, business, and tech companies?  There’s probably at least one Ghomeshi in those companies, and at least five other people covering up for them.  They don’t just target women, but their attacks are most effective against women, because women don’t rise to CEO when some creep humps their ass at work and there’s nothing they can go to make it stop.  As it stands, there are too many creeps in the workforce like Jian Ghomeshi, and as much as it hurts women, these things hurt men too: all men should not be treated like predators because we’re terrible at stopping the real ones, but that’s the paradigm Jian Ghomeshi set.  The courts allowed him to say that he didn’t know that his absurd, demeaning, power trip behaviour was wrong.  Boys will be boys, right?  Nonsense.  Men know better.

(NOTE:  This article is NOT about the first trial that resulted in the not guilty verdict.  This is about a COMPLETELY DIFFERENT CASE involving a different woman that was scheduled to go to trial in June.  Some commenters are confusing the cases.)