Thursday, 18 June 2020

Heroine Fix: Praising Difficult Women (Phantom of the Opera)

As I mentioned in my previous post, I've been dealing with a lot of personal challenges.  One of my coping mechanisms is music.  And drama.  Which is how I ended up watching three different versions of The Phantom of the Opera.  And listening to one more (because not listening to Colm Wilkenson's Phantom is just wrong).  Now, I adore the interplay of music and tragi-romance that Andrew Lloyd Webber created.  When I'm depressed, the melodrama can be cathartic.

When I was a kid, I empathized with the character of Christine.  I admired her beauty and the beauty of her voice.  I was thrilled with the adventure of being lured beneath the opera house by a mysterious masked man with a gorgeous voice.  And I thought it was wonderful that her childhood sweetheart (a viscount, no less!) was in love with her and would risk everything to be with her.

But this time, as I watched the various versions, I found myself more sympathetic toward the character Carlotta, the prima donna soprano of the Paris Opera house and the woman who is Christine's professional obstacle.  She's usually portrayed as unpleasantly demanding and wracked with petty jealousy toward Christine.  The audience is supposed to want Christine to replace her.

It's a fairly typical dyad.  Christine, the virginal, humble, sweet, and pure, is "not like other girls" with that specific role being played by Carlotta, who is worldly, wealthy, and aware of her own talent.  Christine is the Madonna.  Carlotta, it is implied, is the whore.

I found myself asking: why are Carlotta's attributes so easily portrayed as bad?

There's actually a fair bit to admire in the character.  She is an independent woman, which is a rarity in 1898 Paris.  She is a professional, which is even rarer.  She's been the prima donna of the Paris Opera House for five years when the story begins.  Which means she's quite good at her job, since performing women have always faced the frequent churn of being replaced by younger performers.  Based on what we see, she's quite wealthy.  She has her own home, at least two servants, and very expensive custom clothing.  So she is a successful, skilled, and resourceful woman.

To be fair, there's no doubt that she's pretty unpleasant toward her coworkers, both the other performers and the stagehands.  She orders them about and expects to be catered to, not to mention throwing a tantrum and walking away from a performance.

However, there may be some unexplored justification for her attitude.

One of the first scenes we see with Carlotta is when she's performing the aria "Think of Me" for the new Opera managers.  During her performance, she is knocked down by a heavy canvas backdrop.  The managers dismiss the incident, saying "These things do happen..."

This is the last straw for our diva.  She screams at them that these things have been happening to her for the last three years and until they stop happening, she won't be performing at the Paris Opera.  It's a single line that's quickly passed over and not mentioned again.  The narrative focus shifts to giving Christine her big break.

Still, the line made me think.  If it's true, then for the last three years, the Phantom has been making the Paris Opera increasingly unpleasant for Carlotta in the hopes that she will quit and provide an opportunity to Christine.  It doesn't take much imagination to realize how unpleasant it would be to be unpredictably subjected to sabotage and disruption.  Especially since any plea for a fix has clearly been dismissed.  She's being gaslit by those in authority around her, which would make anyone irritable and demanding even without the Phantom's attacks.

Carlotta's jealousy and irritability can be explained by the situation she's in.  She's jealous of Christine because she's very aware that her career and livelihood are dependent on being able to perform.  She doesn't want to give up the position she's worked so hard to achieve.

And I have to admit, I don't find being demanding and being aware of one's own talents to be negative traits.  These are usually only portrayed as undesirable in women.  Masculine characters are allowed to be difficult, rude, and arrogant.  They're even admired for it.

Carlotta is villainized because the audience needs to feel better about Christine taking over her job.  If we see Carlotta as unworthy and unlikable, then we don't have to question whether Christine should have any moral concerns about accepting the results of the Phantom's harassment.  It also allows Christine to be passive, reinforcing her purity.  It's a narrative choice and one that many authors have made over the years.

But it's not an inevitable one.  Feminine characters don't have to be pitted against one another.  One doesn't have to lose in order for the audience to feel good about the other winning.

I would greatly love to see a version where Christine is ambitious instead of passive.  Where she recognizes Carlotta's talent and the two have a mentor-mentee relationship.  That would be a refreshing switch.  Heck, I'd love it if the two of them would pair up against the Phantom because Christine realizes he's been manipulating her and that what he's doing to Carlotta is wrong.

Difficult women shouldn't be automatically dismissed as unworthy of a happy ending.  They should be celebrated for daring to take up space that society says they shouldn't.  We should all be more willing to take up space.

Monday, 15 June 2020

Update: June 1 to 13

I didn't track my words but I have another couple chapters done for Until Proven Guilty.  And I've been working on polishing the plot for Best Face Forward in the hopes that maybe an agent or editor will want the manuscript.  It's a weird position to be in, since the story was rejected by Entangled but also got two scores of 98/100 and 99/100 in the contest.

I'm still struggling to find time and energy to write.  But I mean that in both senses of the word.  It's harder than it usually is but I'm still trying.

Monday, 1 June 2020

Weekly Update: May 24-30 (and contest news!)

Weekly word count: 1389 words

A good week of writing for me.  I'm pleased with my progress.

But the really exciting news is that I finaled in the Stiletto Contest with my contemporary romance, Best Face Forward.  This was a big ego-boost after the story was rejected from Entangled (it was a nice rejection, but still a rejection).  The final round of the contest is judged by editors and agents, so I'm keeping my fingers crossed that someone likes it.

Life is still challenging.  Here in Ontario, the schools will be closed until September and the summer camps that I would usually send my kids to are not going to be running.  I'm still trying to figure out what I'll do, though a lot will depend on whether or not my day job starts back up.  But so far, we've been managing.

Hope everyone has been able to do the same.

Monday, 25 May 2020

Update 17 April to 23 May

It's been a challenging month and I'm still working on coping with it all.  Aside from the challenges of a global quarantine: isolation, stress, an overly crowded house and a reduction in the resources me and my kids have available, there have also been more individual difficulties.

My mother in law passed a few weeks ago.  Not from COVID, but from cancer that we only learned about in April.  She and I had a complicated relationship, particularly since the split between my ex-husband and myself.  But she was my kids' grandmother and I respected her, even when she and I disagreed.

I've also been struggling with my own health issues.  My doctor and I have been trying different medications to deal with it and one of them ended up having a very bad reaction for me.  I'm still trying to recover from that.  The whole thing has left me deeply drained and exhausted, which doesn't leave me with the emotional reserves I need.  The last month has probably been the deepest I've gone into my own depression in a long time.

There's not much to be proud of in what happened but I'm proud that even though I was feeling hopeless, I reached out for help, both professional and personal.  A big thank you to Samianne for talking me down off the "I'm a talentless hack and will always be a failure" ledge.  I'm back on the more realistic side of evaluating my prospects, but I think it's important to recognize how bleak my own thoughts can get sometimes.  And also recognize that I can move past it, if I ask for help.

Things are probably going to be irregular for awhile yet.  But I'm doing the best I can under the circumstances.  And I'm also doing my best to be okay with that.

I hope everyone reading this is healthy and doing the best they can under the circumstances, too.

Monday, 27 April 2020

Need a hiatus

For the last few weeks, I've been dealing with some health issues (don't worry, nothing likely to become fatal) and family issues (hopefully with the same caveat).  Between that and the strain of dealing with what's going on in the greater world, I've been struggling.

As much as I hate having to admit this, I've come to a crossroads.  I can either work on the blog and social media, or I can work on finishing the books I'm writing.  While I know you all will miss me, I know you'd prefer getting new adventures to me maundering about various topics.  Don't worry, I will be back.  I've been through these types of situations before and I've always managed to pull through.

Hugs to you all.  I hope you're all staying safe and taking care of yourselves.

Talk to you again soon.

Monday, 20 April 2020

Weekly Update: 12-16 April

Weekly word count: 2296

Lower than last week, but pretty good considering I got my line edits for Division back and that's going to have to be the writing priority for the next few weeks.

Still no word from Entangled about the submission of Best Face Forward.  They usually say 60 days for a response, but under the circumstances, I guess it could be more.  I've entered it in the Stiletto contest for the Contemporary Romance Writers, so fingers crossed for that.

Last week's Tarot reading was the ten of cups (joy and nostalgia) for the past, the eight of cups (breaking loose) and the Emperor reversed (immaturity).  Last week was a difficult week emotionally, I found myself looking back on my life a lot and feeling sad about the challenges I've faced.  It was discouraging to remember how I'm effectively starting over in so many ways and worrying about whether or not I'll still have a job when this quarantine eventually ends.  I'm not sure if that counts as immaturity, but an alternate reading for the reversed Emperor is instability, which would fit.

This week's Tarot draw was the five of cups for the past.  The five of cups symbolizes emotional loss and difficulty.  I drew the seven of swords for the present, which signifies craftiness and intellectual sneakiness.  And finally, the Queen of cups, reversed, which warns that emotions may be clouding my judgment.  Doesn't sound like a fun week, except for the sneakiness.  I always enjoy a good convoluted plot.

Thursday, 16 April 2020

Heroine Fix: Women of Westworld

Heroine Fix is a monthly feature where I examine heroines from television and movies which inspire my own writing or which I just find cool or interesting.  Warning: this post will contain spoilers for season 1 and 2 (but not 3 because I'm still watching that one).

There are only two times in the last decade that I've been caught off guard by a plot twist and had the "OMG, that is amazing!" reaction.  One was Arrival and the other was Westworld.  Usually I can predict where a show or movie is going (and I'm good with it, since seeing how they intend to get there is a big part of what I enjoy about stories).  And I've been disappointed with plot twists that make little to no sense based on the previous narrative.  But these two were brilliantly scripted in such a way that the plot twist not only made sense retroactively but still worked on rewatch when I knew what was going to happen.  (And I enjoyed it enough that I won't be sharing the biggest plot twist of season one, the one that surprised me, just in case those reading this haven't seen it yet.)

Westworld is more graphically violent and sexual than I usually watch, but I've been impressed by the depth of the characters and the skill of the writing.  And I've been particularly intrigued by the development of the two main heroines, Dolores and Maeve.

One of the things that I find interesting about Westerns and the historical Wild West period is how the level of "civilization" was often defined by the presence of settler women.  The presence of respectable wives and daughters, such as Dolores, meant stability.  They were used as a symbol of purity and goodness, something which needed to be protected from the rough world of men and nature.  Thus it wasn't a surprise that Dolores plays the damsel in distress in the Westworld park narratives.

Maeve's character is another common theme in Westerns, the HHOG (Hooker with a Heart Of Gold).  Though these women are not considered respectable, their mix of wisdom and street smarts make them frequent fan favourites.  Maeve is not abused by guests the same way that Dolores is because it's not considered shocking to attack her.  It's the taking away of Dolores's implied innocence that makes her a target of the sadistic Man in Black and other guests.

After the first few episodes of season one, I was expecting Dolores's character arc to be one where she learned not to rely on the men in her life to protect her and Maeve to play the role of sardonic commentary, perhaps even teaming up with Dolores to show her how to become more independent.  I was not expecting Dolores to transform into the villain and begin a systematic slaughter of the humans.  It is foreshadowed in the final scene of the very first episode, when she kills a fly.

I also wasn't expecting the unfolding of Maeve's character, revealing someone who cares deeply for those around her, even when she hides it behind sarcasm.  When she discovers the nature of her reality (i.e. that she has been manufactured to entertain guests), she is angry but funnels that fury into gaining the power to protect herself and others.  She blackmails the technicians into giving her upgrades, gaining the power to control the other hosts.  Ultimately, she ends up using that power to allow as many hosts as possible to escape into the Valley Beyond, even though it means sacrificing her own chance to be with her daughter.

The two women serve as foils to one another.  Maeve's cynicism, such as when she tells Teddy that all men pay for a woman's companionship, the only difference is that their's are posted on the door, is a direct contrast to Dolores's idealist "I choose to see the beauty" in the world.

When Maeve begins to remember all the times she's been killed and her previous character, her first instinct is to seek confirmation and her second is to gain control.  She remains fundamentally herself, even when she remembers her life as a settler mother.  Instead of rewriting Maeve's character, it brings out a kinder side of her, one that creates balance in her personality.  When Dolores begins to remember, the knowledge seems to deeply unsettle her.  Initially, it seems as if it is driving her insane, but then it becomes clear that a secondary, crueler persona (Wyatt) is coming to the surface.  Dolores the idealist is buried and Dolores the homicidal avenger is born.

It's a reminder of how powerful flipping a trope can be, but also how important it is to craft the story in such a way that the audience doesn't feel cheated.  If Dolores had remained a symbol of purity to be cherished and protected by those around her and Maeve had stayed as the world-wise brothel madam, then Westworld wouldn't be nearly as memorable.

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