Saturday, April 29, 2017

Red

When I think about Courtney Summers's All the Rage, two points spring to mind:

1) It's as visceral and unforgiving and brutal as everyone said it'd be--and for good reason; it handles the subject matters of rape, bullying, and victim blaming as unflinchingly as they need to be handled.

2) Romy Grey and her red lipstick and red nails.

The book kept coming back to point two, so I kept coming back to it with it. It was this little detail that formed her personality and a little narrative device that inherently had so many layers to it. The obvious is the use of her surname in contrast to a bold color like red, and what it means for her to not only return to it, but to find strength in it. The other is how we so often frame red in terms of themes--the color of anger, red lips the stereotypical color of a two-dimensional femme fatale, the color used to brand a "sinner" in The Scarlet Letter, the color of blood, the color most often associated with love,  the color of sacrifice and courage, etc, etc.

The fact that it's make-up and nail polish which feel like armor to Romy adds more dimensions to it--the lines of femininity and masculinity meshed and blurred.

I like color in books. I like it in movies too. My college professors and a good deal of fellow readers might find them a little gimmicky, but I have an affinity for them. Maybe because a great deal of superheroes have color associations.

Anyways--it was mostly because of Romy that I finally gave red nail polish a try.

I hated nail polish when I was little. I hated the smell of it and thought it looked tacky and ugly 100% of the time. It didn't matter if my eleven-year-old friends were applying it on each other or whether someone got it professionally done, fake or painted nails always looked repulsive to me. My mom conned me into getting my nails painted for my 8th grade formal, and I hated that salon more than I hated the dentist.

I don't know what eventually turned me into it. I think it was seeing the colors on Ren's hands. It made them a little more vibrant. While writing a particular rough chapter of one of my books, I told Ren I was thinking of painting my nails in an effort to encourage me to write. I thought, if I have something pretty to look at, I'll be more inclined to keep typing.

(Typing is my favorite part of writing. Love for my characters goes in second place).

She ended up agreeing. She said she found she was more productive with her hands when her nails were painted.

Of course I started with black polish, roughly $2.00 a bottle. My mom was horrified when she saw the end result. I'd fucked it up so badly--my hands were shaky and I didn't know how many layers to apply or how thick the consistency was supposed to be when you drew it out of the bottle. The color bled over the edges and tainted my fingers. I tried to use this cheap bottle of perfume I'd bought at CVS a year ago to rub out some of the stains (since I didn't have rubbing alcohol or nail polish remover)  but it barely helped. My mom ran to Walmart (despite my protest) and bought me top coat, q-tips, and nail polish remover. She told me if I was gonna wear black nail polish of all things, I might as well make it presentable.

I'm still not very good at it and it takes me an eternity. But I managed to come to red finally, and even if it now really bleeds over to my fingers, I like it. My hands don't look like my hands. They look like Romy's.

By pure chance, twenty minutes after I painted my nails red, thinking of Romy the whole time, I watched The Handmaid's Tale.

(Red, the color of the handmaids).

I've never read the book, though I have read other works by the great Margaret Atwood. I do think she's a great writer but I find it a little annoying that she so often rejected the label of science fiction for her work (although it's not quite as aggravating as the way Harlan Ellison and Terry Goodkins rejected sci-fi/fantasy). I can almost understand her, in the sense that I can imagine maybe she'd feel the need to make the distinction if she worried her work would be easily dismissed by critics, which they'd be far more prone to do when the writer is not only a woman but writing about deeply feminist issues.

I find it even more annoying that the lead actress behind the Hulu adaptation was a complete chicken shit about the label of "feminism." To a point where I feared any overt feminist themes would be seriously diluted because of it. It ended up taking my excitement for the adaption down a notch and I didn't jump to watch it the day it premiered.

Thankfully, that doesn't seem to be the case for these first three episodes.

 I was hesitant to give it a try without reading the book first, but over at the subreddit AskWomen, shortly after the premiere date someone asked what we all thought about the show. Most people said, "it hurts because it feels real."

Shorty after seeing it, I was talking with someone who said they could not stomach the series. They asked me, a little appalled, why I'd want to sit through something so horrible. And to be fair, people weren't lying: it did hurt. I held out as much as I could then ended up crying at the birthing scene of the second episode.

There's many reasons why I want to keep watching--I think it's well-made, the acting is good, the writing is great, I'm intrigued to see where the characters go and what happens to them, how they'll choose to act, what'll happen to this regime, etc. But I ended up saying, "because I think it's important."

I'm not of the opinion that a story can be saved by a good message. Execution matters more than anything else. But I will be drawn to a story if I get the sense it'll explore themes and ideas I find intriguing. If it does it well, then I've found something truly worthwhile.

When I was talking to this person, they brought up that it's just as valid for them not to want to watch The Handmaid's Tale so not to be subjected to such an overwhelming horrifying portrayal of rape as it is fair for someone not to want to watch Game of Thrones due to the violence.

And in theory I agreed--but then I remembered that this person does like Game of Thrones and has seen every available episode. And Game of Thrones has done something worse with the subject of rape. It's thrown it in there for cheap shock and cheap characterization, it's sometimes ignored or lessen the severity, a few times it's even fetishized an aspect or framing of it. (Which is arguably an issue with all of the writing as the series went on--death and violence are included so often and are so poorly set-up that they no longer carry an impact).

So how could one justify watching the subject be so thoroughly mishandled in Game of Thrones while being put-off by how visceral it's portrayed in Handmaid's Tale? (Which manages to be horrific without any nudity or physical violence).

And they said it's simply because it's not a focus-point of Game of Thrones. It's easier to stomach. It doesn't hurt.

It hurts when it's in The Handmaid's Tale. It hurts in All the Rage. Pretending it shouldn't is such a disservice to the people who have survived it.

But that's just a little too unpleasant for some of us, I guess.

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"Science and science fiction have done a kind of dance over the last century... The scientists make a finding. It inspires science fiction writers to write about it, and a host of young people read the science fiction and are excited, and inspired to become scientists...which they do, which then feeds again into another generation of science fiction and science..."
- Carl Sagan, in his message to future explorers of Mars.