The Disappointing Dullness of “Sozin’s Comet”

Recently, after weeks of Netflix binging, my wife and I finished watching Avatar: The Last Airbender. I had never seen it before, and overall, yeah, pretty good show. And normally, I’d be able to just kind of leave it at that. But Avatar isn’t supposed to be a pretty good show. Avatar is supposed to be an amazing show. It’s a show that is still celebrated today as one of the great works of animated television. When Game of Thrones ended and everyone was mad about it, I saw a lot of people recommending Avatar as an antidote. And specifically, they were recommending it as an epic fantasy story that sticks the landing. As I was going through the show, I was having fun, sure – it’s a really cool world populated by some absolutely superb characters. But I wanted to get to the end, because the ending of a story tells you so much about the story as a whole, and because I had heard so much about the ending of this particular story.

And it turns out the ending of Avatar is…not great.

I can already hear the sounds of a thousand die-hard Avatar fans slapping their hands to their foreheads. Look, I don’t enjoy this any more than you do. I wanted to love this. And I’m definitely not doing this to take a dump on your nostalgia. But as an adult watching this show in 2020, I think the ending is a near-total failure on multiple levels, to the extent that I’m fascinated by all the different ways in which it doesn’t work. This isn’t just any bad ending – “Sozin’s Comet”, the final 90-minute episode of the series, relies heavily on deus ex machina, actively undermines the show’s themes and characters, and shows a shocking disregard for the idea of set-up and payoff. I’m not analyzing this because I want to make Avatar fans feel bad – I am an Avatar fan, and I felt really let down by this. And the show as a whole is good enough that it’s worth exploring what went wrong.

(Incidentally, I’m assuming that if you’re reading this, you’re already familiar with the show and the characters, so you’ll forgive me if I don’t attach an explanatory rider sentence to the first instance of every name or plot element, and just in case you’re skipping to the words in all caps, SPOILER WARNING FOR THE ENTIRELY OF AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER.)

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It’s Time for Progressives to Move On from Harry Potter

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Over the last several weeks, JK Rowling, billionaire author and creator of the Harry Potter franchise, has sparked a wave of controversy among her own fanbase. Progressive fans who had been paying attention were already aware of Rowling’s forays into transphobia (which had been carefully, though unconvincingly, spun by Rowling and her agent as accidental) but it’s now impossible to ignore after Rowling produced a manifesto that officially outed her as a voice of the so-called “gender critical” movement. Of course, there’s already a term to describe the type of person Rowling clearly is – TERF, an acronym for “trans-exclusionary radical feminist.” This is a person who sees herself as a progressive due to her feminist values and beliefs, but refuses to extend those values (or indeed, basic human respect) to trans women (or indeed, trans people in general). Despite her objections to the term, Rowling fits this description perfectly, and her insistence on couching her transphobia in the language of an abuse survivor trying to protect the rights of women gives her away.

It’s been pointed out that Rowling is hardly the first popular author to disappoint her progressive fanbase with beliefs that are both hurtful to marginalized communities and clearly inaccurate. Orson Scott Card, for example, author of the Ender series, has come up a lot in these conversations. People talk about “taking back” Harry Potter from its author, or continuing to celebrate the work while downplaying Rowling herself. But Harry Potter is no ordinary series, and Rowling is no ordinary problematic creator. There’s an entire generation (of which I am very much a part) that not only grew up with Harry Potter, but used Harry Potter to help them form their own system of values and beliefs. These are people who have made their Hogwarts house and the form of their Patronus into core pieces of their identity, people who will gladly credit the Potter franchise for shaping their progressivism. And unlike Card, who has never made a secret of his deep-seated homophobia, Rowling has embraced her position as a leading light of the left, using her platform to advocate for liberal political causes and, more prominently, against conservative ones. As a result, the language of Harry Potter has entered the political lexicon of progressives, particularly in the age of Donald Trump, who has been compared to the villainous Lord Voldemort endlessly for the last four years, even by Rowling herself.

So if you’re a progressive Potter fan, the transphobia hurts. It feels like a betrayal, not only by the person who crafted a story that was formative in your youth, but by someone who you thought was a high-profile ally in the fight against bigotry and ignorance. This isn’t just something you can explain away, a creator you can pretend doesn’t exist. The author of one of the most influential works in modern history has sorted herself into House TERF, and we have to look that in the face and deal with it. This is not the time to circle the wagons and defend Harry Potter because it’s important to us. This is the time to reassess something that has become an important part of who we are, to look at it again with fresh eyes, with an adult perspective, and determine if it can continue to be part of our identities as progressives. And I’m sorry to be the one to say this, but when I go back and look at Harry Potter, I see a lot of things that make me think it’s time to let the series go.

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The Big Time: An Introductory Exultation

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Image source: goodreads.com

Fun fact to kick things off: There were Hugo Awards given out in 1957, but strangely, the award categories that year departed from those of years past. The Hugo in 1957 was given only for Best U.S. Magazine, Best British Magazine, and Best Fan Magazine, meaning there was no Best Novel that year. Unlike 1954, however, since the Hugos did technically take place, there has been no retro Hugo awarded for 1957. So the bad news is that we have to just skip 1957 entirely.

The good news, though, is that we’re skipping over to 1958, and The Big Time. If you don’t know why that’s good news…well, allow me to explain.

So far in this series, we’ve explored:

Considering that thus far I had only encountered one great novel, and considering that one great novel was written by Robert Heinlein, I began my journey through Fritz Leiber’s The Big Time with, frankly, little confidence in its quality. Even though the next book will be James Blish’s A Case of Conscience, which I’ve already read and know to be outstanding, I wasn’t confident that we had officially reached Great Novel consistency all the way back in 1958. Surely there would still be some clunkers, and seeing as I had no earthly idea who Fritz Leiber was, The Big Time was probably one of them. Hey, at least it was short, right?

Cut to present day. I have now finished multiple readings of The Big Time and consider it among my favorite works of science fiction. I think it’s better than Double Star, which makes it the best book on the list to this point — though whether it can hold up against Blish after a re-read of A Case of Conscience remains to be seen. Still, I cannot express enough how much I love this novel. And my turnaround from “what’s this, never heard of it, probably sucks” to “I must recommend this to every single person in my life” is exactly why I started this project in the first place.

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Double Star: Heinlein and Humanism

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The last time I wrote about Double Star, I ended it with these words: “come back next time for some Martian culture shock, a bizarre presidential system, and a possible explanation for why everyone in this book uses British slang.”

I’m gonna be honest – that was like a year and a half ago, and I have no idea what I was planning to write. I mean, clearly I was planning something very specific, but as to what it actually was…yeah, no clue. Whatever it was, I got about a paragraph in and then hit a block, and then many, many many life things happened and I had to let this entire series drop for a while.  Fortunately, I’m now attempting to get back into it, and the first step in that process is to finish writing about this stupid 243-page novel, so please enjoy my final thoughts about the political ideas held by Double Star, as well as its author.

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And The Winner Of The 2019 Royal Rumble Is…Women’s Wrestling

2019 Royal Rumble winner Becky Lynch, aka “The Man.” Photo credit: http://www.cagesideseats.com

Disclaimer: This post discusses the progress of gender equality within WWE, a subject that is not not problematic and may require some anti-capitalist context to see the big picture. To get that context for yourself, please read my lengthy “capitalism is bad” preamble.

Introduction

For fans of women getting opportunities in the wrestling industry, and women’s wrestling in general, the last few years in WWE have kind of ruled. 2015 saw the rise of the Four Horsewomen of NXT, including one of the best matches in company history from Sasha Banks and Bayley, and their follow-up rematch in a historic Iron Woman contest. In 2016, the Divas Championship was replaced by the reborn Women’s Championship, which would have to become the Raw Women’s Championship after the latest brand split necessitated the creation of the Smackdown Women’s Championship (for those who don’t recall, the first time there was a brand split, the Women’s title was shared between the two brands). That Raw Women’s Championship was also the focus of an epic series of matches between Banks and Charlotte Flair, including Raw and PPV main events and culminating in the first women’s Hell in a Cell match. 2017 gave us the first women’s Money In The Bank, which was so problematic they did the match again and pretended the first one hadn’t happened, but it also gave us the first Mae Young Classic, which has now concluded its second iteration. Not only has the MYC provided numerous women on the independent scene a chance to shine on a larger stage and a potential pathway to an NXT contract, it has also featured a number of fantastic matches, most notably a contest between indy wrestling legends Meiko Satomura and Mercedes Martinez that was so good it briefly turned Michael Cole into a relatable human being who likes watching wrestling. And kicking off 2018 was the first-ever women’s Royal Rumble, a match so historic it got the main event spot for the show, and the evening ended not with some random dude pointing at the Wrestlemania sign, but with the on-screen debut of Ronda Rousey. Pointing at the Wrestlemania sign. So, you know, mostly great.

The second women’s Rumble happened about a week ago, and I was lucky enough to be there in person. The year between the 2018 and 2019 Royal Rumble events has been packed with progress for women (despite it being painfully clear that main roster creative doesn’t know what to do with most of them and doesn’t particularly care) and while the inaugural women’s Rumble was ridiculously fun to watch, I think the 2019 Rumble as a whole is singularly indicative of how far WWE has come, and secretly one of the most important nights for gender equality in wrestling history.

With that in mind, by the power vested in me as a Person What Was In The Audience, I hereby present the following four awards to the 2019 Royal Rumble, each named for one of the people who did really good wrestling things back in 2015 and started this whole thing.

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Twin Tragic

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Brie and Nikki Bella, the Bella Twins. Photo credit: Wrestling JAT Wiki

Last weekend, there was a minor Twitter kerfuffle involving Paige (former WWE NXT and Divas champion, retired, and current general manager of WWE Smackdown Live), Carmella (former WWE Smackdown Women’s champion), and Steven Luke (contributing writer for wrestling website NoDQ.com). It’s the kind of thing I enjoy commenting on, because (a) it involves women’s wrestling, of which I am a fan, (b) it involves the history of women’s wrestling in WWE, of which I am knowledgeable, and (c), it involves a specific question that isn’t necessarily easy to answer: As WWE builds toward the crowning achievement of its revamped attitude toward women’s wrestling in the form of the all-woman Evolution show, is the company wrongly ignoring the female wrestlers who actually created the change, and focusing instead on the ones who, in the past, were part of the problem?

Here’s how the whole thing went down. On Saturday, September 22nd, NoDQ posted an article written by Steven Luke called “How the Divas are damaging the Evolution.” In the piece, Luke stated his opinion that the Evolution show was in danger of being ruined by an emphasis on female stars of the past. Specifically, he called for a renewed focus on the wrestlers who have defined the women’s division for the last two years, name-dropping Asuka, each of the Four Horsewomen, the IIconics, the Riott Squad, and Absolution. He decried the recent return of Brie and Nikki Bella – the faces of the division in the days before the so-called “Divas Revolution” who also happen to be crossover stars with their reality television shows Total Divas and Total Bellas – criticizing their recent in-ring work and saying they weren’t as “crisp” as wrestlers like Charlotte Flair and Becky Lynch. Luke also went so far as the criticize the involvement of wrestling legends Mickie James, Lita, and Trish Status on the Evolution card.

“The Bellas should be nowhere near this show,” Luke wrote. “Lita’s hundredth match with Mickie James should stay at the bottom of the card and no other members of the current division should be wasted against legends like Alexa Bliss is against Trish Stratus.”

Later that day, both Paige and Carmella responded to Luke’s commentary piece on Twitter. “You do realize both these ladies were the OG ladies to help kickstart the #givedivasachange trend?” Paige wrote, referring to the social media backlash against WWE’s poor presentation of women’s wrestling, brought on by a 2015 match that lasted a mere 30 seconds. “I know because I was part of it. They deserve to be a part of everything and more, they are the one of the leaders of the movement. Sometimes matches all won’t be ‘crisp.’”

She also wrote that “it happens with everyone. Crappy article. Not just for them but for the ‘divas’ you described that shouldn’t be a part of it, is an unfair statement. Without the divas, there wouldn’t be superstars. Thanks to all the ladies that paved the way before us.”

Carmella, who held the Smackdown women’s title earlier this year, also weighed in.

“This is an embarrassing article. Every single woman from the past and current roster have made women’s wrestling what it is. EVERYONE is deserving. Enough of the negativity around the ‘diva’ moniker.”

There is so much going on here. Does Luke really think that the Bella twins can be equated in any reasonable way with Trish Stratus and Lita? Does Paige really think the Bellas are “leaders of the movement,” or ever were? Should Evolution, a celebration of women’s wrestling, really be limited to current members of the roster instead of legends of the past? Is it fair to negatively compare the wrestling ability of Nikki and Brie to that of Flair and Lynch? Is there too much negativity surrounding the word “diva?” What are the actual contributions of the Bella twins and their generation of WWE divas to women’s wrestling, and would women’s wrestling have progressed to where it is today without them?

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Believe In Something: A Progressive Football Fan’s Manifesto

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Philadelphia Eagles players, including social justice bad-ass Malcolm Jenkins, raise their fists in solidarity during the national anthem at Soldier Field in Chicago. Photo source: CBS Sports

If you’re a progressive (if you’re anyone, really) there is a multitude of extremely justifiable reasons to not support the NFL. There’s the inherently violent nature of the game of football and the league’s refusal to properly acknowledge concerns about concussions and CTE. There’s the corrupt commissioner and the odious owners who punish smoking marijuana more strictly than domestic abuse. There’s literally everything about the team that plays in the District of Colombia. There’s the brain damage, the suicides, the homophobic bullying, the misogynistic treatment of cheerleaders, the well-established racism, the shameless commercialism, the military partnerships, the appropriation of taxpayer dollars to pay for new stadiums just so a team can relocate to a bigger market, anyway. There’s Ray Rice, Greg Hardy, Aaron Hernandez, Josh Brown, Darren Sharper, Michael Vick, Richie Incognito, LeSean McCoy, and Jameis Winston, just to name a few of the most problematic people in the recent history of the sport. And of course, there’s the national anthem, the league apparently bending to the will of Donald Trump and his white supremacist followers, and the blatant blackballing of Colin Kaepernick for his activism, which seems to be the reason that most of the football fans I know have finally had enough.

The 2018 NFL season begins tonight, and I can’t blame you even a little bit if you won’t be watching. If the numerous crimes of this league are morally abhorrent to you, if spending your Sundays doing anything other than watching football makes you feel better as a person, you won’t get any judgment from me. The NFL has given you more than enough reason to boycott, more than enough reason to tune out.

Here’s why I’m not.

Continue reading “Believe In Something: A Progressive Football Fan’s Manifesto”

Three Years Later

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The historic, record-shattering Broken Earth Trilogy. Photo credit: http://www.arstechnica.com

I don’t have a whole lot to say about the 2018 Hugo Awards (yet), because I haven’t done all my research on it and also because I’m still trying to figure out how to finish writing about a book that won the Hugo in 1956, so I hope you didn’t come here hoping for takes on the hot new sci-fi of 2018. However, this whole blog thing or whatever it is I’m doing was born at WorldCon and stemmed directly from the 2015 Hugo Awards and the Sad/Rabid Puppies controversy, so I feel the need to at least briefly comment on the very cool, very historic stuff that went down in San Jose last night.

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NXT: 4 Evolutions – The End Is The Beginning Is The End (2017-2018)

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The Velveteen Dream faces off with Richochet prior to their Takeover match. Photo credit: GiveMeSport.com

Tomorrow, NXT will put on its fourth Takeover event in Brooklyn, and if it meets the expectations for Takeover shows being set thus far in 2018, it’s going to be something special. It’s also the perfect opportunity for me to elucidate something I’ve been working on for years now, a kind of Unified Theory of NXT, which views the show’s history since the dawn of the WWE Network as a cyclical phenomenon currently in the middle of its fourth stage. Yes, that is how much I love this wrestling show.

This is the fourth in a four-part series being released weekly between now and NXT Takeover: Brooklyn IV. Part 4 is, just so you know, really fucking long compared to the other three, and that’s because a whole lot of stuff has happened in the past year that needs to be properly parsed in order to come to a true understanding of the history of NXT. In this final installment, I discuss how the NXT roster shook out during a year of transition, and the eight wrestlers who returned the male singles division to the top – only this time, with a couple of twists that speak to the full evolution of this spectacular wrestling promotion.

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NXT: 4 Evolutions – The Tag Team Takeover (2016-17)

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The Revival vs. DIY in Toroto. Photo credit: Cagesideseats.com

In two weeks, NXT will put on its fourth Takeover event in Brooklyn, and if it meets the expectations for Takeover shows being set thus far in 2018, it’s going to be something special. It’s also the perfect opportunity for me to elucidate something I’ve been working on for years now, a kind of Unified Theory of NXT, which views the show’s history since the dawn of the WWE Network as a cyclical phenomenon currently in the middle of its fourth stage. Yes, that is how much I love this wrestling show.

This is the third in a four-part series being released weekly between now and NXT Takeover: Brooklyn IV. Part 3 focuses on the NXT tag team division, and how a tossed-together group of jobbers and misfits turned a perennial afterthought into the best and most important part of the show, kept their era going longer than either the main event kings of 2014 or the revolutionary women of 2015, and even took a massive hand in shaping the future that was to come.

Continue reading “NXT: 4 Evolutions – The Tag Team Takeover (2016-17)”