I’ve always wanted to have some kind of artistic talent. When I was 15, I enrolled in art classes run by an extremely talented and patient man, who taught me sketching and oil painting. There was only so much he could do for me, though, and the end result was that I dropped the art classes at the end of the summer to focus on schoolwork.
Some dreams never die, though, and so I was really excited when I saw this video on the TEDTalks YouTube channel. It’s called “Why People Think They Can’t Draw” by Graham Shaw. In it, he advances an interesting premise: that anyone can learn to draw in a few easy steps.
When I watched the video I was a little skeptical, but I went ahead and gave it a shot. The style Shaw demonstrates here is very caricature-ish, but the technique does work. I made the whole gang, including the unnamed bald guy. Exhibit A:
So can anyone draw this way? Well, given my utter lack of talent, I’m going to go ahead and say yes. The downside is that it’s a bit limiting in terms of style – if this kind of design isn’t really your thing, you might not be very interested in pursuing it. Also, you’re only getting profiles of the characters you’re drawing. But the video did inspire me in one way: Shaw’s whole technique is based on making small elements that build on each other. That can’t be too hard, right?
That process produced Exhibit B:
This was a really fun experiment to do and I think it’s a great way to approach the creative process, whether you’re using that process to produce art or anything else where you’re not sure where to start or how to get the result you want. You’re not going to be producing Mona Lisa-style portraits, but you can create simple cartoons to use in your business or for your own personal amusement. With a little practice, I think Lizzy and I could become very good friends.
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If you have a Twitter account and a vague interest in movies, you’ve likely heard of the rising furor over recent casting choices in upcoming movies. Specifically, the casting of British actress Tilda Swinton as Asian character The Ancient One of the “Dr. Strange” comics, and the casting of Scarlett Johansson as the lead character in the movie version of the Japanese series “Ghost in the Shell” caused outrage over the whitewashing of Asian characters, culminating in the trending hashtag #whitewashedOUT.
Of course, Asian characters aren’t the only ones being whitewashed in pop culture. There’s a lot that has been written about race and representation in the media (some of it by me). The concept of representation is simple: people should see their world reflected back to them in what they consume. The process of representation, however, can sometimes be more complex, because we can have disagreements over what constitutes representation, particularly when it comes to changing the race or gender of already established characters. For the record, I am all for race and gender-bending – I actually wrote an article highlighting some great examples of it here. But there are times when race and gender-bending is appropriate and fun, and times when it is not.
One of the major criticisms of the movie adaptation of “Ghost in the Shell” is that the casting of Scarlett Johansson ignores the specifically Japanese context in which the story takes place. That’s not to say that you can’t adapt a story from one culture into another – you can, and that’s a great way to share cultures. But the key is that you adapt the whole story, recognizing that there are some aspects to the original that won’t translate or are not relevant in the receiving culture. A movie like that wouldn’t be “Ghost in the Shell,” it would be something else, something different, that’s inspired by “Ghost in the Shell.”
This is particularly important when we consider manga and anime works. Because of the way they’re drawn, a lot of Western audiences perceive anime characters as being white – they’re not. Anime and manga stories are created in a Japanese context and are often set in Japan. If you’re going to translate anime directly into another medium, you have to acknowledge the characters’ Japanese identity.
Where diversity is now
If you’re going to racebend a character, don’t do it to one that’s already underrepresented in mainstream media. Our goal should be to increase diversity, not decrease it.
Although there’s been some improvement in the representation of minorities, there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done, not just in numbers but in how these characters are presented as well. As this wonderfully detailed post by Nerds of Color demonstrates, major franchises sorely lack in representation of not just people of color, but also women and women of color specifically. What little representation there is often relies on harmful stereotypes and double standards for male and female characters.
This leads to another question – should you switch out one underrepresented group for another?
I’m going to go ahead and say no, and here’s why: a lot of Western culture tends to treat minority groups, especially those from similar cultures or close geographical areas, as though they’re the same and therefore interchangeable. Indian and Pakistani cultures are often conflated, Arab cultures are treated as one monolith, Asian people are seen as “looking the same,” and people deem it socially acceptable to say things like “I went to Africa.” Where in Africa? Apparently, that’s not a distinction that’s necessary to make.
Minorities are not interchangeable. You cannot, for example, replace an originally Arab character in a story with an Indian one and call that a win for diversity. When production companies do this, they’re basically saying, “Well, Indians and Arabs are basically the same.” Now think about it. If someone told you that Arabs and Indians are the same people, wouldn’t you consider that ignorant and racist?
I rest my case.
What purpose does race/gender-bending serve?
When we examine race and gender-bending in the media, we need to ask why it’s being done and to what end. I don’t include fan art in this because a lot of artists use these techniques to see themselves reflected in the works they love and admire, and I think that’s something we can all relate to. But when studios and production companies do this, I think we as an audience are entitled to ask questions.
1. How does race/gender-bending fit in the original story being presented? In a story like “Ghost in the Shell,” for example, we can see that it doesn’t fit very well at all. In others, it might work better.
2. What does race/gender-bending add to the character? A black Superman, for example, would make a lot of sense given the science and the fact that, being an alien, Superman doesn’t (or shouldn’t) have a particular ethnicity associated with him.
3. What are the motives of the production companies in charge of making these decisions? One of the main arguments for the casting of Scarlett Johansson and Tilda Swinton as Asian characters (and for whitewashing in general) is that these names bring in big bucks at the box office. We don’t need studios casting minority actors in an attempt to be edgy or to pacify “angry minority hordes.” Diversity should be reflective of the world around us – it’s that simple.
“I have spent much of my career focusing on the neuroscience of mental illness, but in recent decades I’ve also focused on what we might call the science of genius, trying to discern what combination of elements tends to produce particularly creative brains. What, in short, is the essence of creativity?”
“”I, am your father!” I stopped, and drew my breath, elated. I had said the words. I was overcome, like the Sith Lord, by what I could do. I, his mother, was the first one to expose what may be the greatest plot twist since Mr. Rochester’s wife turned up screaming in the attic. I was drunk with power, and my entire history as a sentient consumer of story flew through my head. It felt so good, I contemplated spoiling every other thing I knew.”
“Chickens, alive or oven-roasted, weren’t much a part of my childhood. My father — still haunted by the memory of Friday night dinners in Brooklyn, boiled chicken congealing on the plate while he refused to eat and his mother scolded — banned chicken in any form from our family table.”
Someone once told me I talk like I’m reading a story. They did not mean it as a compliment, but I took it as one.
I like stories and, if you have the right mindset, everything is a story. But not all stories are created equal. Some stories are created particularly unequal in that they are repetitive, obvious, relying on overused tropes and stifling stereotypes. They bore us. Am I really going to suffer through 200 pages of a love triangle so that the heroine can come to a revelatory realization about what true love means and what she was really looking for this whole time?
Well, I might.
As irritating as I often find love triangles to be (is there no other way to introduce conflict into a narrative? Any other way at all? I’ll take literally anything else), there are times when a well-written story can supersede the actual plot. As Ursula Guin writes,
“Romeo and Juliet is a story of the conflict between two families, and its plot involves the conflict of two individuals with those families. Is that all it involves? Isn’t Romeo and Juliet about something else, and isn’t it the something else that makes the otherwise trivial tale of a feud into a tragedy?”
Let’s take Romeo and Juliet for a moment (and I’ll admit now that many long years have passed since I read the story or saw that absolutely awful film rendition, which made the bizarre choice to take the most off-putting part of historical fiction…but that’s a post for another time. Back to the topic at hand.). It’s not a great plot, and especially after a few hundred years of work on the English novel it comes off as rather over-dramatic. The language is nice – for about the first five pages, and then you just want someone to tell you what in the world is going on. This is why we have Cliff Notes.
But as much as one might roll their eyes at Romeo and Juliet, there is still an aspect that endears itself to the reader. The intensity, the pace, the desperation of it all, you can’t help but feel heartbroken for this tale of doomed love, even if the whole thing was kind of silly to start with and could have been avoided if the two teens in question had been good kids who listened to their parents. Maybe that’s a part of it, too. The truth is that there are those times in your life where you believe so strongly that you’re right, where you’re so determined to prove that you’re right, you’ll do anything, no matter how unreasonable or extreme or downright insane it may be. And a lot of those times happen when you’re young and/or in love.
The multi-form approach
The medium can help too. Most songs, with the exception of those designed with twerking primarily in mind, are really just stories in lyric form. How many stories have I heard of doomed love in song form? A lot, and I love them. When Abdelhalim sings “Ana lak ‘ala tool, khaleek leya,” I sing along, even though I can’t sing to save my life, and my heart breaks for him, the poor desperate guy. I root for him so hard, and I’m so happy when it works out at the end of the approximately seven minutes.
Yes, I have very old-fashioned tastes.
The song, whose first line translates to, “I am yours forever, be mine,” is essentially the story of man whose love will not give him the time of day. He goes through life with a burdened heart, longing for a soft look, a kind smile, anything to demonstrate that she returns one iota of his feelings for her.
If this were a book, I would not have gotten past the blurb. If someone were telling me this story, my eyes would roll in their sockets so hard they would get stuck back there. Yet in song, somehow, I am so moved I feel an actual pain in my chest. It’s a combination of Abdelhalim’s beautiful voice and the elegant choice of words, I think, that causes this reaction, more so than if it had been just one or the other.
Emojis killed the writing star
For a more positive and amusing example of this phenomenon, check out the TEDTalk below. It tells a very simple, very obvious story, but it works because of the medium, which in this case happens to be emoticons. Watch and enjoy! But please keep in mind that most publishing houses do not accept novels in emoji form.
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There’s a particular feeling we associate with the word “creative,” a kind of ingeniousness, a sense of novelty, maybe even of extremism – to go where no man (or woman) has gone before. When I think of creativity I think of Van Gogh, cutting of his own ear and wallowing in this pit of suffering to make something that people would one day look at and say, “Wow!”