Saturday, 19 April 2014

Q is for Quicksand Traps

In Fictionland, it's highly advisable to watch your step on any surface that looks remotely sandy. About 3% of all films made during the 1960s-- the peak of the trope-- show someone sinking in quicksand. The trope has lost its popularity somewhat, but still appears regularly in adventure films and TV series, including Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

Depending on where you live, quicksand is a rare but real danger. Furthermore, depictions of desert quicksand far from an obvious water source are not entirely implausible:  moving, aerated sand can have similar properties to liquid quicksand, as can large volumes of pouring grain. However, there are some key bits of misinformation that crop up in fiction which will do you no favours if you fall in. Here are the facts:
Now you can consider yourself one step closer to B-movie survival preparedness. 

Friday, 18 April 2014

P is for Prostitutes

Prostitution inhabits a strange space in the collective Anglo-Western psyche. There is the lure of sex on demand. At the same time, we express disgust at sex workers as 'soiled' women. Finally, a widely accepted upper-class feminist perspective is that sex workers are helpless, ignorant victims of the patriarchy who need to be rescued. These ideas get distilled in media representations to give us the Disposable Streetwalker. She's on drugs, has no education and no prospects, a sordid, tragic past. She usually ends up the victim of the Killer of the Week on detective stories, or is otherwise background to show how gross and seedy the setting is. This, fiction tells us, is what sex workers are. No exceptions.

Much has been written about how these ideas influence public policy, and also influence the behaviour of law enforcement and social workers who regularly interact with sex workers of various kinds; however, their perceptions are partially the result of direct experience. But the influence of fictional representations drives the perceptions of sex work among people who have never met anyone in the sex trade. The result is legions of internet feminists advocating policies to criminalise sex work and 'save' prostitutes and other sex workers, who are framed as desperate women with no prospects, about to be victims of crime.

Of course, some drug-addled streetwalkers exist, but they're not the only face of the world's oldest profession. Far more common are temporary strippers and escorts-- educated men and women who enter the industry to get through financial rough patches, and exit when their monetary needs have been met, no rescue required. There are also specialists who carve out lucrative fetish niches, people who find the work genuinely enjoyable, or people who simply find sex work to be the best of their job options and treat it with the indifference of the average office worker.

Obviously this isn't to say sex work isn't a physically and emotionally high-risk career. It's both. There are a good many people who are stuck doing this work due to a lack of options. But part of the problem is public perception fueled by fiction. If the public perception was expanded to humanise sex workers (instead of using them as stock 'Victim of the Week' or 'Kind Hooker') and show a diversity of experiences, this might guide a more nuanced discussion and better public policy for both people who desperately want to flee the sex trade and for those who actively choose to stay.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

O is for OCD Neat Freaks

About 1-2% of the general population has OCD, or about one in every five hundred people. Although the disorder is fairly uncommon, it's gained a higher profile in recent years, due to mental health activists, increased medical understanding of the illness, and portrayals in popular culture.

Those pop-cultural representations, however, are a mixed blessing. While characters with the disorder are not portrayed as villainous (as people with other psychiatric conditions often are), the incorrect portrayal of symptoms can cause a great deal of confusion both for people with the disorder and those who are trying to understand it. 

Fictionland's OCD inhabitants are unvarying in their symptoms. Every single one is obsessed with neatness, order, routine and cleanliness. In reality, only about a third of people with OCD have obsessions related to germs or cleanliness, and only ten percent have obsessions about symmetry or tidiness. In fact, up to a third of people with OCD are compulsive hoarders.

And contrary to popular culture, outward compulsions are not a defining feature of the disorder. Typically, they are just a mechanism for keeping the primary anxiety and obsession at bay. In fact, it's estimated that between half and two thirds of people with OCD have the 'purely obsessive' subtype, in which people do not act out any rituals. 

If you're curious about the disorder, the Wikipedia page is a good starting point to gather information. 

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

N is for Nostalgia Bias

'We need better, less offensive history!'
--Leslie Knope

Much like privileged writers of the 19th century romanticised the early days of colonialism and the native cultures they encountered, there is a pattern in the 21st century of romanticising upper and middle-class English and Euro-American life 18th and 19th centuries. This era is portrayed as a gentler, more civilised time, when men behaved like real gentlemen and everything was prettier and quieter and less banal.

The truth, of course, is much messier. Viewing a small slice of the past by studying the lives of a relatively privileged subsection of the population will yield a distinctly rose-tinted picture. Furthermore, limiting your study to materials produced from that group will mean you see their own idealised self-portrait. Through that filter, we miss what struggles and fractures within that society-- and every society has them.

Painting an entire era as the 'good old days' does a deep disservice to the people on whose backs the 'good' was built. Your genteel 19th century southerners or Regency Londoners probably owe their relatively luxurious lives to hundreds of Caribbean and American slaves. Your noble samurai rely on an army of serfs to do their bidding. But as a writer, you're also missing out on the chance to tell a far more interesting story. We've seen the romantic, sanitised version of the past hundreds of times. Studying the flaws in those societies lets you go deeper, tell a greater variety of stories, and ask your readers to think. All of which are much more fun than another discount Darcy.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

M is for Minor Flaw, Major Breakup

Fictional characters, especially on television or long book series, seem primed to break up with their significant other at the drop of a hat. While humans have been courting potential partners and quickly moving on from glaring mismatches for most of our evolutionary history, TV-Land levels of finicky dating criteria are a modern phenomenon.

The message shown in the media concerning the 'minor flaw breakup' is twofold. First, it suggests that trivial incompatibilities are utterly unsolvable. There is no effort to communicate and solve the problem together. We don't see one partner deciding to live with the minor irritation because their significant other is otherwise an excellent match for them. Which leads us to the second point: the image we are shown in fiction of 'true love' is one of complete compatibility. Being in love, these stories tell us, means never arguing (except over a Wacky Misunderstanding), never compromising, and never needing to talk to your partner about your needs, because a True Love will automatically know. Anything less than this absolute perfection means the person just isn't for you.

Real humans in real relationships do annoying things. Our partners do annoying things which we tolerate because we love them and understand that the annoyance is trivial and fleeting. If our characters are going to be genuine and believable, they have to have the same flaws, and be able to love and respect their partner as a human, not a cardboard cutout of the 'perfect' lover.

Monday, 14 April 2014

L is for 'Lesbian' Porn

'It was then that I made a startling discovery... Lesbians equal ratings.'
--Howard Stern

In real life, some ladies are interested in ladies.

In Fictionland, some ladies are interested in men, and some ladies are interested in titillating men by demonstrating an interest in other ladies.

Romantic relationships between women in fiction are overwhelmingly viewed through a straight male lens. It is not about the relationship, but about two women making out while the men ogle, either in-story or via the audience. An overwhelming majority of the women in these situations-- particularly on TV-- are shown to be definitively heterosexual and never show any romantic interest in women beyond a single kiss. The kiss itself is often shown to be a joke or 'just an experiment'.

The problem is that this perpetrates a larger perception that romance between women-- particularly bisexual women-- is somehow less than genuine, and that the primary focus of these relationships is girl-on-girl sex with the intent of attracting male attention. As any lesbian on an online dating site can attest, people are more than willing to act on these perceptions in real life.

We, as writers, can fix this by re-framing the way we write about female-female romance. Instead of fixating on the act of women making out or otherwise having sexytimes, think about what the relationship (or one-night stand, or affair) means to the characters. And it's okay to let your female characters be genuinely attracted to women, even if they're lower on the Kinsey Scale or don't usually act on that attraction, rather than assuming it's all about male spectators.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

K is for Killer Science Experiments

Depending on where you live, you've probably heard some degree of controversy about genetically modified organisms (GMOs), particularly food plants. While there is a great deal of nuance to the risks and benefits of genetically altered crops, the issue tends to be portrayed as 'ignorant Luddites vs progress' or as 'everyday people vs mad scientists'. And to judge by the internet, the 'genetic engineering = mad science' approach is gaining traction in the public consciousness.

Part of the reason, I think, is that science in Fictionland is a pretty lawless business. Government safety committees never investigate, no professional organisation sets standards, law enforcement is oblivious, and funding bodies are happy to toss money at even the most questionable projects. It also yields wild results in the blink of an eyes. There is rarely a purpose behind the experiments, beyond a vague lust for discovery and perhaps a convoluted corporate scheme that doesn't hold up to logic. With all these factors, it's easy to see how genetic engineering has gained a scary reputation in the public consciousness.

Although there are legitimate concerns about GMOs-- ranging from problems with crops which have already been released to more theoretical future issues-- there is a big gap between the free-for-all creation of strange and dangerous organisms portrayed in Fictionland and what goes on in real-life laboratories. Furthermore, even with problem organisms, there are some benefits derived from its production, or hoped-for benefits which prompted the experiment. A lot more stories can be built around these tensions-- how much risk is too much? do the benefits outweigh the problems?-- rather than recycling the threadbare mad science tropes.

If you're curious about the long history of 'genetic engineering' via selective breeding, I would recommend Sue Hubbel's entertaining and informative book, Shrinking the Cat. For an overview of modern genetic engineering and a number of specialty links, check out the Wikipedia page