Welcome to Night Vale, created by Joseph Fink, marks its second anniversary episode on the 15th, and if you aren’t a fan yet, now could be the time.
The free podcast is presented as community radio broadcasts from Night Vale, a fictional town somewhere in the south-western United States. In each episode we find out about the town’s surreal, paranormal events through the sonorous reporting of Cecil, our host. Angels, monsters, municipal corruption, aliens – this show has it all!
WTNV parodies Horror, Dystopian and Weird fiction. The eldritch events of the town are piled on so thick it’s ridiculous, and if you are anything like me you will laugh out loud several times in each half-hour episode. It’s not all light-hearted though; some moments are genuinely chilling. Nor is it shallow: you may find yourself getting more deeply invested in the characters than you expected.
Night Vale has an extremely dedicated following, which is especially impressive when you consider that podcasts don’t tend to attract active fandoms in the same way that visual and text media do. Apart from being generally well written and awesome, I think that WTNV has taken hold in certain circles for two main reasons.
First, the show actually gives us a pretty narrow view of Night Vale. We hear everything through the radio host, who is vague and sometimes unreliable. It’s rare for us to hear directly from another character; most of the dialogue and character interaction is paraphrased by Cecil rather than broadcast. So, although Cecil gives us plenty, what we know about the town and its inhabitants actually amounts to very little in the big picture.
The silver lining lack of detail gives fans an incredible opportunity to speculate about the town and consume the show creatively. People can discuss, write fan fiction, create fan art and cosplay and have huge creative license. We are free to add our own worldbuilding and characterization because there is so much left to the imagination. Cecil himself is never meaningfully described so his appearance in fandom varies wildly. There are Cecils of all races, hair colours, sizes and wardrobes floating around the internet, although there is a trend to depict him wearing purple clothing and tentacle-like tattoos, sometimes with a third eye on his forehead, none of which is backed up by canon. Before it was strongly implied that he was human, people were even drawing him as a blob-monster. People have the freedom to make the characters whatever they want.
The second reason, related to the first, is that the show’s lack of detail is also very inclusive. Although many characters get more description than Cecil, race is almost always left ambiguous. The handful of characters that do get descriptions that hint at their ethnicity, it’s usually implied that they aren’t white, and many central characters are implied to be people of colour. Although racially ambiguous characters are often whitewashed in Night Vale fan art and fan fiction, there’s a strong push for diversity in the fandom too.
Sexuality, too, is left ambiguous. One of the central themes is Cecil’s same-sex attraction to newcomer Carlos, but the fact that this is a same sex attraction is never remarked upon. Labels for sexual orientation are never applied; despite multiple characters being implied to belong to the LGBTQ community I can’t recall any word from that acronym ever being used on the show. Cecil tends to be presumed gay by fans, but even that is technically unconfirmed. The show has many central, strong female characters. In a town with bizarre and draconian laws banning or regulating writing utensils, books and public descriptions of the moon, and inexplicable mountain-denial, there is a distinct absence of the irrational looming social horrors of the real world. No homophobia. Nor misogyny. The only character who overtly displays racial insensitivity is constantly ridiculed for it. Those characters who seem to be Queer or POCs are not defined by their queerness or their race. Those of us who belong to those groups in real life are kept engaged by WTNV because we can see ourselves without having to search through a sea of white, cis-het male faces only to settle for clichéd plot-puppets, and that’s a rare and beautiful thing.
Unlike the genre it satirizes, Welcome to Night Vale ultimately does not project horror or despair, but hope, community and love. Despite living under constant threat from the organisations, monsters and paranormal events that saturated the town, the inhabitants of Night Vale are proud, and they remain strong in the face of danger every day. Speaking characters often lapse into philosophical tangents on the nature of time, existence, knowledge and belief. You will not come away from night vale with the hollowed out feeling that relentlessly depressing horror fiction can leave you with.
I hope you give Welcome to Night Vale a try. If you love it, I encourage you to donate. I would recommend listening from the beginning; although many episodes stand alone in the beginning they start setting up some very complex arcs before long. If you like to laugh and sob, if you like chills and warm fuzzy feelings and suspense and absurdness and diversity and monsters and darkness and angels and being a part of a truly dedicated community of fans, you can listen to Welcome to Night Vale here. I hope that, like me, the first time Cecil’s resonant voice welcomes you to his town, you decide to stay for good.
We’ve had a guest writer write about Welcome to Night Vale before, so for yet another recommendation, check out our previous article on the topic!)
I’m not sure how many of you will have heard of this webcomic by Jenn Manley Lee. I never had until my friend lent me the published, real-paper version of the first volume (the author is currently part way through the second volume of a planned three). It can be read at www.dicebox.net
The reader follows the journey of two friends, Molly and Griffen, who travel together in a let’s-see-what-happens kind of way, paying their way by working on ships or in factories. Griffen is witty, obnoxious and self-destructive. Molly is strong, pragmatic and optimistic.
Dicebox takes place on multiple planets and space ships. It reminds me quite a bit of the Firefly universe: everyone goes about their business pretty much the same way they do in real life, but in space. There don’t seem to be any aliens or androids around, just people, non-sentient machines, and some weird bugs. This means that the story is more character-driven than a lot of science fiction. Recurring themes are Griffen’s mysterious past and Molly’s disturbing nightmare visions. Molly spends a lot of time trying to keep Griffen out of trouble. There isn’t a lot of exposition, and that’s part of what keeps you reading: the working-out how who knows whom, why they act in certain ways toward each other. I found it pretty hard to follow at first; it’s the kind of fiction that makes you work a little harder. This also means it’s worth a second read; I was amazed how much I had missed the first time.
If there is one thing I love about Dicebox, it’s the way it deals with gender and sexuality. The Dicebox universe, or at least the parts that Griffen and Molly visit, is a utopic melting-pot of gender and sexuality representation. For starters, there’s a gender neutral pronoun that many of the characters go by, which every character seems to be familiar with: “peh”. It is used when you don’t know the person’s gender identity or when it isn’t relevant, but many characters seem to go exclusively by peh, and those that do tend to exhibit a mixture of masculine and feminine traits. Speaking as someone who has always struggled with gender, the inclusion of a third pronoun gave me a warm, fuzzy feeling of representation.
But “peh” isn’t used by every character who wouldn’t fit into our gender binary. Griffen goes by “she” despite looking so androgynous that I didn’t realise until quite a while into the first volume that she wasn’t a man. Though her sex is canonically female, the author of the series describes Griffen’s gender as “a little more elusive.” Likewise, there are people in the story who appear to be presenting as one gender or the other, yet still choose to use the gender-neutral. In the comic so far, there is no obvious conflict stemming from gender issues, and being Trans or non-binary doesn’t even seem to be noteworthy.
Given the nuances of sex and gender in Dicebox, it’s unsurprising that terms like “gay,” “lesbian”, “bisexual” and even “queer” seem to have been dropped from usage. Sexual preference is never noteworthy, it seems to be taken for granted a person will be attracted to whoever peh is attracted to. Griffen and Molly seem to be attracted mostly to males and females respectively, but it wouldn’t be right to label Griffen as straight or Molly as gay because of this. No character ever labels anyone’s sexual orientation in Dicebox, even their own. The sex scenes have the touching awkwardness and lack of grace that anyone who has had or seen real-life sex will instantly recognise, a welcome relief from the choreographed, over-romanticised, porn-like sex in a lot of fiction.
Ethnicity is dealt with in much the same way as sex. Despite the racially diverse setting, racism never comes up, with no instance of anyone even mentioning race or nationality. This doesn’t mean that cultures have been lost, however; the names, clothing, and architecture of Dicebox is a jumble of different aesthetics clearly based on those from cultures in the real world. Everyone seems to speak the same language; it’s unclear whether this language is actually English or just written as such for the benefit of us present-dwelling chumps.
The comic updates with one page a week. The art is higher quality than most published graphic novels, let alone webcomics. Unfortunately this brings me to a drawback of Dicebox: it doesn’t fit into a webcomic structure very well. No page is stand-alone; scenes and conversations last for many pages. I read the first volume printed and bound and loved it. Then I went online and read all of Volume Two that had been written, and even though I like it on paper better, it was great. But once I got up to the point where I had to wait a week for the next page, I found it frustrating. Even if the format doesn’t fit quite right, I’m glad that Dicebox is a webcomic, because I have a feeling that, though brilliant, it caters for a small enough niche that it might not have been published otherwise. If you can bear reading the pages week to week, good for you, but I prefer to check back every few months, and intend to buy the second volume on paper.
Dicebox gives us a world of rich, strong characters and realistic interaction, and not just that: It gave me what I had wanted to see for a long time: a story in which there are trans people, non-binary people, people of colour, queer and pansexual people everywhere, but none of these characters are defined by the single trait of being in that group. We are all sick of LGBT and POC characters whose entire story or motivation is their gender, sexuality, or race, and Dicebox represents a refreshing step away from that kind of half-hearted representation.
The Australian comic book industry is a small community, concentrated in Melbourne, straining at the seams with brave and original talent. On Australia Day this year, the good people at Sci-Fi and Squeam from Joy 94.9 FM - a Melbourne-based independent radio station catering to the gay and lesbian communities – did a two-part podcast about women in the Australian comics scene.
The podcast includes interviews with women in the industry, as well as broader discussions about sexism, the roles and experiences of women in the industry, and the challenge of finding a place for women within a male-dominated, male-oriented medium.
We also recommend the regular Sci-Fi and Squeam podcast every Tuesday night from 10 to 11 for fun news and discussions about all things gay and geeky.
[Image from Hamlet by Nicki Greenberg, via SMH]
Imagine you are a different person.
Not just a different version of yourself, maybe smarter, or stronger, or with magic powers, but a different person entirely. A different gender, race, sexuality, religion. Imagine you grew up rich, or dirt poor. Imagine you are an Armenia teenager who helps his widower father run a stall at a fish market. Imagine you are your next door neighbour. Imagine you are China’s first transgender ballerina. Imagine you grew up consuming different media, fancying different people, being called by different pronouns.
Can you imagine the entire inner and outer life of a person whose experience is completely different from yours?
This is the exercise that writers are asked to undertake. Unless we choose to write very true to our own experiences, then we have to be able to get inside the heads of people who are different to us. Sometimes these characters need little more than a basic wire framework of experience and personality. However, central characters need to be more than just a cardboard cutout. They need life, and that life generally requires some note of authenticity.
There are some very basic tenants or characterisation that any not-completely-awful writer will know; things like not reducing a character to a single trait or quirk, not making them a stereotype, and ideally, not defining them entirely through their relationship to another character. It can be a little more difficult to write ‘authentic’ emotions, but this is where the writer employs both their own experience and their ability to empathise (fairly essential to the majority of quality writing). As long as the author has experienced a reasonably wide range of emotions – happiness, anger, embarrassment, grief – they should be able to project their emotions onto their characters.
There are some emotional experiences, however, that can be extremely difficult to write accurately if the author has never experienced them. Empathy can only extend so far when it comes to accurately representing experiences such as: being an adopted Asian child growing up in a white Australian family; depression, schizophrenia, or any other mental illness; the tension of being a woman walking alone at night or the constant feeling of being watched and judged that comes with being female; the body dysmorphia that many trans people experience; being a homosexual child trying to figure out their crushes and whether or not they are ‘normal’.
Even if these experiences do not occur within the story itself, they will affect the lives of the characters, their personalities and how they behave. Can a writer who has not had these experiences convincingly write a character who has inevitably had them as a part of their life?
It is not impossible for an author to write outside of their own emotional experiences. Many writers do it well. But it is far, far easier for a queer woman to write a straight male than it is for a straight male to write a queer woman. Why?
The stories of straight, white, cisgender men are everywhere.
Big beefy male action heroes, skinny male nerds, sensitive male musicians, wise, elderly male professors, unhinged male psychopaths, compelling male assholes, evil male villains, average joes, guys-next-door, male athletes, male politicians… the narrative landscape of our society is a veritable cock forest. Just about every possible model for ‘straight, white, cis dude’ has been done a hundred thousand times. Churning out a male character becomes almost second nature given just how often audiences are expected to identify with each and every one of them. That doesn’t mean they are bad characters, or that writing them is inherently lazy – rather that it is much easier to write a good male character with so many variations to build upon.
The dearth of other narratives means that writers must build much more on experiences that may be alien to them in order to create their characters. This requires a good deal of empathy and skill, and is often where many writers can tend to fall flat on their faces.
Because of the lack of wide variation in, say, female characters, writers who learn from those who’ve come before them can often end up regurgitating sexist tropes. Female characters can end up having their personalities revolve around the fact that they are female, i.e. they exhibit only traits associated with stereotypes of femininity (irrational moodiness, superficiality, mothering, etc.). While not always bad, these sorts of characters are usually pretty terrible and can bring down a narrative with otherwise well-written (male) characters. (The best way around this, of course, is to recognise the fact that women are multi-faceted people who can possess a variety of strengths and personalities and still be interesting, well-rounded people. Game of Thrones is an excellent example of a show which contains a wide range of unique, powerful women.)
An alternative to this can be to write a character with a neutral model. This is sometimes done in films and video games, and has been responsible for some excellent female characters (Ripley from the Alien films was written this way, and she frequently ranks highly on feminists’ lists of best female characters). However, there is a limit to the sorts of narratives these ‘neutral’ characters can inhabit; sometimes plots are about a character’s gender, or race, or sexuality, and while gender may be irrelevant in a sci-fi or dystopia, it probably makes a difference in stories about the American Civil War or a romantic dramedy set in a Catholic high school (these are also stories in which gender by necessity intersects with issues of race/sexuality/etc., other issues generally irrelevant to the narrative of the straight, white, cis dude). Gender and race are also usually fairly visible in ways other traits may not be. While no character should be defined by their sexuality or their gender identity or their faith, these issues shouldn’t be invisible; the “Dumbledore was gay all along” model is a fairly lazy method of representation and is unlikely to get your writing a tick from anyone other than well-meaning straight people.
Ultimately, the best way to write a character outside of our own experiences is to do a lot of research, and never presume to be able to tell the story of someone with different experiences to us better than someone who has had those experiences. If you think it’s too much effort to research what it’s like to be trans and think you do a better job all on your own (looking at you, Jeffrey Eugenides), then think about the amount of time you’ve spent researching the Middle Ages, or how planes work, or how to dispose of a body, or how to survive a gunshot wound, all for the sake of a throwaway line in a story you stuck in a drawer. If we can do all that to provide authentic details, then we can research a character at least well enough that we aren’t going to misrepresent and offend an entire group of people.
It may be impossible to write a character that isn’t you in a way that is truly convincing. That doesn’t make you a bad writer. Writers are also not necessarily obligated to write characters who aren’t straight, white, cisgender males. We don’t have to write anything we don’t want to write. But if we really want to try to be good writers, then we probably should.
While the spin-off show from Once Upon a Time hasn’t been getting the greatest reviews, I think there’s something to be said for the feminism in the last episode I watched. Yes, it’s been awhile since it aired, but I’m just catching up now! It’s been a busy year.
Let’s back-track for the non-Once Upon a Time watchers out there. Basically, the initial show involves fairytale characters who had been thrown back into the real world because of the evil queen’s nasty spell that she cast to punish Snow White because she hates her so. The show flicks back and forth through time and fairy tale worlds, weaving together all the Disney fairy tales rather cleverly. At first I was really disappointed that the show didn’t take more from original fairy tales instead of drawing on Disney’s bastardisation of them – then I realised the show is actually made by Disney.
And they did make Mulan bisexual, so hey, let’s leave that be for now.
Once Upon a Time in Wonderland was a sort-of spin-off. I say sort-of because we haven’t actually seen any characters from the original show here, not even any cameos or mentions of them (apart from a brief mention of the Mad Hatter, who appears in a few Once Upon a Time episodes). However, it uses the same sort of cannon – Alice has been to Wonderland, one of the many fairy realms. In fact, she’s been there twice, since the second time she wanted to come back with proof. Instead, she fell in love with a genie called Cyrus, who was being hunted by the Queen of Hearts and Jafar (yep, Aladdin’s Jafar from Agraba).
When Cyrus was captured, Alice returned to the real world without proof and was thrown into a mental institution. Where, of course, the white rabbit and the Knave of Hearts come and rescue her…back to Wonderland to rescue Cyrus.
There in itself, I’m pretty pleased. Yes, she’s a damsel that has had to be rescued, but she takes charge of the situation and flips it around to start a rescue mission of her own.
I’ll admit, the first few episodes didn’t really have me hooked – but I just watched the fourth episode (yes, I know I’m behind) and I’ve been mulling over the female characters here and I’m actually rather pleased.
It might become a bit more of a hefty article if I wrote EVERYTHING that I liked about the feminism in this show, so let me just explain what I think are the two most awesome bits, then you can comment if you agree/disagree/have a point to make about any of them:
Firstly, we have both a female and male villain – and, funnily enough, it is the male villain that is much more one-dimensional than the female villain. She’s not simply a woman scorned, she’s a woman who has done the scorning, and she shows frequent lapses in her evil-ness. The female villains in both this show AND the original show exhibit a much more multifaceted nature than most original Disney female villains. And a lot more motivation that simply, “I’m jealous of the prettier girl who’s going to end up killing me.” Jafar, on the other hand, is led by simple greed and revenge – which is still poor, but from the feminist lens, a refreshing take on the male villain.
Secondly, Alice is always saving men. She’s constantly saving the Knave of Hearts from sticky situations and is the clear leader of the pack. It’s her ‘quest’ and she leads the Knave around with strength and determination. She has every bit of the strength of the alpha male, without truly losing her femininity. She’s delivers a punch to the Queen of Hearts, and she hits like a girl, which is damn freaking hard!
I’m also really liking how they talk about whether Alice has become a woman or is still the little girl she used to be when she first visited Wonderland. That’s pretty awesome because they keep the vernacular feminine, while exhibiting that a woman can become tough and strong as she grows – without having to “grow balls” or “be a man” as the catch-phrases often go these days.
I’m impressed with the feminism in the show, and it’s one of the reasons I’m going to keep watching – because the visuals are definitely nothing to rave about and the story isn’t really grabbing me yet. Though genie Cyrus eye-candy is another reason to keep watching…
What do you think? Feminism in Once Upon a Time in Wonderland good or bad?
A rather amusing look at what the jungle of straight club hooking up would look like were the (stereotypical) roles of women and men to be reversed. It’s not a sausage fest, but “a taco fest in here” (that’s my favourite line).
This is just the first in the series from Yahoo Screen called The Flip Side. There’s so many there to watch!
What do our hetero readers think about the video? I think it’s kinda funny…I’d be amused to see some stereotype LGBT parodies that were like “What if gays were like Lesbians” etc. Someone read this and do it!