What do Sad Puppies, Crocodile Dundee and cardboard puppets have in common?
No, it’s not a joke. All of the above have recently caused me to consider the evolution of stories.
Last night I attended a performance of Ramshackle Theatre’s Sci Fi Double Feature, an all-ages puppet show. I admit that when I first saw the advertisement, despite the awesome title, I didn’t leap out of my seat to order tickets. Puppets? Puppet shows are for kids.
But after interviewing two of the show’s co-creators for the weekly radio show I co-host and also receiving an invite to attend the show from my co-host, Anthony, I figured there are worse ways to spend a Saturday night. Turns out that was an excellent choice because the show was all kinds of hilarity and what those crazy Yukoners managed to create with cardboard, hot glue, magnets, and a video camera was nothing short of amazing.
Sitting in the audience, laughing shamelessly along with everyone else, a thought bubble popped into my head: “Where does story prejudice come from?” In other words, why, without knowing anything about this production, did I assume I would not enjoy the story told by the members of Ramshackle Theater simply because it was presented in the form of puppetry?
More on that later.
Let’s back up a few months.
One evening, after doing the usual scroll through Netflix to find something—ANYTHING—Prez and I had not seen or something we wanted to see again, we stumbled on Crocodile Dundee. Hey! That was a fun show and neither of us had seen in it ages, so what the heck?
Surprisingly, the movie mostly withstands the test of time. Mick Dundee is still lovable and his “fish out of water” trip to the big city provides plenty of lighthearted hilarity. But there were some moments where the story definitely showed its age. Most notably, where Mick encounters his first trans woman in a bar. As Mick and the woman are talking and flirting, the cabbie our hero has befriended pulls him aside to enlighten him. Mick, unbelieving, returns to the woman and grabs her crotch as the crowd bursts into laughter at his shock.
Where to even begin with this? There are so many levels of wrong in this scene and yet I’m sure I probably laughed at it in 1986. The fact that no one so much as raised an eyebrow at a man crotch-grabbing a complete stranger in this setting speaks volumes about societal attitudes in the eighties. If you’re scratching your head and wondering why there’s any problem with this scene, well, flip your paradigm. What if the cabbie had been wrong and the character had actually been a biological woman? Would it still be funny to watch a grown man grab a woman’s vagina in that setting? No? Well, then why is it funny to do it to a transgender or transvestite person? It’s not. Man, woman, trans, what Mick Dundee did in that scene is called sexual assault and there’s nothing humorous about it.
Did I, in a fit of anger, shut off the movie there and then?
No, I did not.
Let me tell you why.
Stories evolve. Stories shift with the social mores and politics of their time. Today’s scandalous suggestion that commoners could be equal to pure blood aristocracy—a right ordained by god himself!—is tomorrow’s fanciful musical about the power of true love. Do you recognize the story? It’s Cinderella.
Stories evolve because we evolve. Few people in the western world still believe that there is any difference between the blood that flows in the veins of commoners and the veins of royalty. In fact, most view “royalty” itself as a quaint holdover from times gone by. The story of a common woman marrying a prince is no longer shocking to us. We’ve seen it happen in real life. So the story morphs, via Disney, into a story of true love. But even that has worn thin as the roles of women have changed and the idea of being rescued by Prince Charming is now demeaning, if not downright silly.
In fact, a “Cinderella” story now encompasses a wide spectrum of stories that essentially all boil down to an unappreciated underdog achieving success against all odds.
We still watch or read Cinderella’s earlier incarnations, though. Like Crocodile Dundee, there are parts of the story that stand the test of time and parts that don’t but we recognize the latter and file them away as “historical differences”. Sometimes those historical differences are so ridiculous that serious stories evolve into comedies. Reefer Madness anyone?
Stories evolve because we evolve…except when we don’t.
For those of you who haven’t been following the Sad Puppies debacle (which is probably anyone not involved in the SFF world), let me sum it up for you thusly: A group of mostly conservative, white, male SFF authors feel that their genre (particularly science fiction) is being ruined by “Social Justice Warriors” and that the esteemed Hugo Awards have been hijacked by a crowd intent on spreading their leftist liberal agenda. There are a ton of authors, such as George RR Martin and Eric Flint, who have written intelligent commentary on this debacle and I don’t feel I can add anything of value, so please read their words for more insight.
There is one aspect of the Sad Puppies I am interested in, however, and that’s the assertion by many of their supporters that the sci-fi of old was better, purer, and more important than its modern day incarnation. Men in space ships, having adventures and solving problems with technology, that is “real” science fiction.
Anyone who waxes poetic about any kind of halcyon age makes me roll my eyes. And, when it comes to stories and storytelling, that kind of “Back in my day…” thinking is absurd. By such standards, Cinderella would forever and always be the story of a commoner marrying into royalty because the original was the “true” version regardless of social changes. In the 1600’s, the original story of Cinderella was subversive. In the 2000’s the original story of Cinderella is irrelevant.
I can and do still read and enjoy the “old time” science fiction stories, sexism and racism be damned, but my world has evolved and I expect stories written today to reflect those changes. If Crocodile Dundee was made today and the crotch grabbing scene was still included, I would boycott the movie and I would encourage everyone else to do likewise. There’s still room for stories of men in spaceships, having adventures and solving problems with technology but, given social changes, how could anyone complain that there is also room for science fiction stories of women and non-binary genders of all colours having adventures in all kinds of places?
We’ve evolved; our stories are evolving with us.
When I was a kid, I rarely saw myself in the roles I wanted to play. Princess Leia was great but why couldn’t there be a female Han Solo? I am thrilled that young girls now have a selection of female heroes that are not princesses in need of rescue.
When I started as a stunt person in 1993, I was warned by other stunt women that most of my gags would be scenes of domestic abuse and rape. For about the first five years, that was true. (For my very first stunt I doubled a character whose stalker ex-boyfriend tried to run her down with his car). That was the primary role for women in our culture’s stories: victim. With the arrival of the Dark Angel series, featuring a female superhero, that started to change. Today, stunt women can expect to be the hero, villain or savior as often as the victim.
Even some of the old fairytales have been given new life. In 1998, Drew Barrymore re-imagined Cinderella in Ever After and I’m willing to bet that her next appearance will be an even further departure from either the Brothers Grimm or Walt Disney.
Whether you like it or not, western society is moving toward seeing women, people of colour, LGBTQ people, and the disabled as equals to straight white men, and deserving of the same rights and respect. Considering that women alone make up over half the population, anyone who wants to move backward from here is going to face a lot of resistance.
It’s tempting to laugh at the irony of science fiction writers who pine and whine for the past but for the most part I feel sorry for them. You see, I understand where their ignorance comes from. It’s easy to get trapped by old thinking and prejudice.
Puppet shows are just for kids, right?
I still have not figured out where story prejudice come from but I acknowledge it exists in me. If I hadn’t chosen to shrug off my prejudice last night, I would have missed out on something wonderful…and a whole lot of snort laughing.
People usually don’t change in huge leaps but in small, incremental steps. Ramshackle Theater changed how I think of puppet shows; they opened my mind to new possibilities. For a writer of speculative fiction, that is pure gold.
The stories we tell ourselves are every bit as powerful as the stories we read or watch. If our internal stories fail to evolve, so do we.