Sub Genres: Silkpunk

Here is the second installment of our series: ‘Sub Genres.’ This one was more of a pet find because I read an online article (that can be found here) where Ken Liu, an author, came up with this new genre for his book, The Grace of Kings. It appealed to me because of the idea of delving into a different view of the world brought upon by different cultures.

Grace of Kings

What is Silkpunk?

Silkpunk is similar to steampunk in that it is a reimagining of history using a futuristic viewpoint while maintaining the aesthetic and sensibilities of a time long past. Unlike steampunk, rather than focusing on the western world, silkpunk focuses on ancient China and their wealth of technologies and resources.

Steampunk vs. Silkpunk

So where steampunk focuses on corsets, steam, and mechanisms and gadgets of steel, silkpunk focuses more on organic materials such as silk and bamboo and biomechanics using technologies that were already understood and put into practical usage – like the use of kites in military applications. Rather than the mechanical, they focus more on the biomechanical using human/animal/nature powered rather than coal/steam.

steampunk

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Battle Royale: Culture, Writing, & Representation

TW: Brief mentions of suicide

A few posts back, I wrote about my difficulties in finding something to read with my current state of mind. That problem persists, sort of. New books are still gathering dust on the shelves. But I have found refuge in some of my old favorites. (I reread Richard Adams’ Watership Down at least once a year, and that’s a soothing one for anyone out there also trying to stay away from darker material.) Except, for some reason, in my foray into lighter fare, I have somehow stumbled back into Koushun Takami’s infamous Battle Royale.

Spoiler alert: The book is full of blood, murder, suicide, oppression, and tears.

I think, a few sleep-addled nights ago, I decided that this book would somehow be uplifting. What a reflection of the war of chemicals in my brain! Life is a battle; now, fight! This is not a train of thought I recommend for the general public, but — so far — it’s actually going surprisingly well.

I love this cover because of the gun design between the two students. But what a weird quote from Stephen King.

For those not in the know, Battle Royale is the first and only novel written by Takami, a Japanese author, in the late ‘90s. The book was both wildly popular and deeply controversial in both Japan and then America following its English translation and the book’s subsequent film. (Note: The movie only skims the surface of the book, but I know it’s most people’s intro to the pop culture context.) I read this in high school and it blew my mind. This is maybe my second reread since then and it is still an emotional minefield.

Since Suzanne Collin’s Hunger Game trilogy there have been a lot of references to Battle Royale as some people claim Collins ripped off Takami, citing myriad similarities between the books (or the films). Battle Royale follows 42 high school students participating in one of fifty yearly Programs designed by the government, supposedly for military experiments. The students are taken to a remote location, armed with menial supplies and grab-bag weapons, and told to kill each other until only one survivor remains.

To add fuel to the fear, each student is fitted with a collar that not only tracks their location but can be triggered to explode if they are caught in a forbidden zone (six new zones on the grid of the map they are given), if they try to remove the collar, or if they otherwise piss off the Program staff. If no one dies within 24 hours, everyone’s collars explode.

By now you should be wondering: “But, Cheri, this is the darkest shit ever. Why are you doing this to yourself? You just bared your soul to us and said you couldn’t handle the darkness anymore. You wanted prancing Austenesque fare with which to gallop off into the sun. Why the lies?”

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This is true, dear readers. I have been giving it a lot of thought and this fluke may be due to one of two things: 1) All these characters are struggling in different ways because they want to live. That’s a brilliant model for my brain to latch onto. Granted, some of the characters are of the more murderous mindset of wanting to live, but the main characters fight with idealism, morality, trying to understand their government, corruption, complacency, and what it means to be alive. The loftier philosophies all boil down to this one very primal emotion, which my brain apparently is open to processing.

It’s either that or, 2) I’ve also been thinking about this potential blog post concerning Takami’s writing and its connection to Chebk’s post on Cultural Views and my post on Culture + Writing.

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On Growing Up Okinawan-Japanese

Months into our blog later, Cheri and I talked it over and have belatedly decided to finally explain our blog name to our viewers. OkPotato stands for Okinawan Potato which is that purple potato that we have posted everywhere. Cheri and I are both half Okinawan and half Japanese and live in Hawaii where culture plays a big part in everyone’s life; it’s how we know who we are and how other people perceive us so it is a point of pride for us to claim that we have two very rich heritages to draw from.

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In Hawaii, we are very close to our cultural roots. We are the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of immigrants who were brought to Hawaii to harvest the many sugar plantations on the islands. Within the plantation, often those of the same country were grouped together in housing and in work groups, but eventually the workers found a way to co-exist (or just exist) in the mixing pot that is our isolated islands.

I grew up immersed in the cultures of Okinawa and Japan (often perceived as being the same place, but I was raised with the definitive knowledge that these places are not the same; more on this later). The foods I ate were mainly Japanese because of my mother. Every year, there were village picnics for those who came from Okinawa where such gatherings are very important. We celebrated important birthdays according to the Japanese and Okinawan traditions. We also had spiritual celebrations, though no one believes in them explicitly, it’s more of a cultural event that was adhered to out of respect for our elders. Even the rules that we learned were influenced by traditional values and what our parents had thought.

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Guest Post: Gender in Science Fiction and Fantasy

Hello, all. My name is Sanjiv and I’m a member of the Banana Bunch. I’ve collaborated with Chebk on the Psych 101 posts you may have seen here. I am currently working towards my PhD in Clinical Psychology, where I focus on research and clinical work related to children, trauma, and evidence-based mental health services. Currently, most of my reading and writing occurs within academia, but, outside of my ivory tower, I enjoy science-fiction, fantasy, and early 20th century American literature.

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Last month Chebk and I attended a science fiction convention. Overall, I found it was an enjoyable experience, but I regretted attending one panel (Chebk actually tried to get me to leave the panel early instead of silently fuming in my seat). The topic was “Kick-ass Women in Science-Fiction and Fantasy.” From the panel description, it sounded like an interesting and relevant discussion. Instead, I found it to be an infuriating reminder that our society (and more distressingly, the authors and audience of fantasy and science-fiction) is far from gender equal.

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Mad Max: Fury Road & Good Representation…Sort Of

Per usual, I am late to the party (and we will continue this trend when I review Paula Hawkin’s The Girl on the Train later this month, so, fair warning). When the first trailer for Mad Max: Fury Road was making its rounds, I had zero interest apart from Charlize Theron making intense faces. My frame of reference for action movies is basically the genre’s triumvirate: car chases, violence, and misogyny.

Pacific Rim may have lifted my mood considerably, but I am tired of sitting through movies where women play damsels/window-dressing with a maximum of one line of dialogue for every thirty of the protagonist’s. I am sick of this representation being used as a frame of reference for how women are “meant” to be side characters, how women are supposed to act or look in real life (which: whoa), and how sexuality and women are so tightly intertwined as to be inseparable.

No, thank you.

And then it happened: Men’s Rights Activists group, Return of Kings, lost their shit and called for a boycott of Mad Max: Fury Road because it was a…feminist film?

MAD MAX: FURY ROAD - 2015 FILM STILL - CHARLIZE THERON as Furiosa and   Photo Credit: Jasin Boland  © 2015 WV FILMS IV LLC AND RATPAC-DUNE ENTERTAINMENT LLC - U.S., CANADA, BAHAMAS & BERMUDA  © 2015 VILLAGE ROADSHOW FILMS (BVI) LIMITED - ALL OTHER TERRITORIES

The internet went pretty crazy. The result? A lot of people came out of the woodwork and flocked to the film — including me. By now everyone has covered the feminist angle pretty thoroughly, and I thought I wasn’t going to try, but there’s still more to say. Yes, Charlize Theron’s Furiosa was the baddest of bad-asses. Yes, “we are not things” is one of the most powerful mantras declared repeatedly by a strong female cast in recent history, especially in such a male-dominated genre. Yes. Yes to all of this and more.

But, since OKP exists to discuss media representation, let’s really talk about the total representation in this film: feminism and gender, visibility of disabilities and a range of ages, racial diversity, and sexuality.

  1. Furiosa: The Real MVP.
    A lot of reviews for the movie like to frame the same argument of “though the movie bears Max’s name, the real main character is Furiosa (as played by Charlize Theron).” This has mostly rubbed me the wrong way because, while Furiosa is profoundly important to the plot and overall movie, she is still not the main character.

    The movie is bracketed around Max’s arc. We see parts of his backstory, while we see none of Furiosa’s, though we can piece together her background by what little she does share and her relationship with the Vuvalini. Still, Max moves a lot, if not most of the action and conflict on-screen, and he still provides the turning point in the movie by (SPOILER ALERT) suggesting Furiosa and the Wives turn back from their plan of action, i.e. riding out into the desert, away from Immortan Joe’s chase and “sanctuary.”

    I get that Furiosa is Mad Max’s equal, (their names are basically synonyms; also sometimes she is even shown to be his superior in certain traditionally masculine skills), but the movie is still Max’s, and I imagine this still has a lot to do with Hollywood being iffy on allowing a female protagonist to run the entire show. As Charlize Theron says:

    “I think it’s such a misconception that women don’t like the genre or that they don’t wanna go and see these movies. I just feel like women have been so misrepresented in these films. We’re like, ‘Why do we have to go and see the genre every single time with the girl on the back of the frame with a push-up bra.’ Why isn’t there a girl that’s standing on the same playfield with the guys? We don’t wanna be guys, but… in a post-apocalyptic world, we will survive!”

    Most if not all post-apocalyptic stories still follow male leads across media: TV’s The Walking Dead, Revolution; video games like Halo and The Last of Us; and books like The Road and I Am Legend. Furiosa is undoubtedly an important and amazing character — women helping women! — but I think it is overstepping to say she is the lead character. I’m convinced we will not be seeing her as anything other than a cameo in future installments of the franchise. Her story is not one we are meant to ultimately follow.

    In the end — (SPOILER ALERT) — Max saves Furiosa ultimately, which is enough of an almost damsel twist that I winced. I mean, he pretty much saves all the women, let’s be real. We then see Max ready to move on from The Citadel. Furiosa has reached the “end” of her redemption arc by saving the Wives and ridding the world of Immortan Joe, but we are clearly going to be following Max’s adventures from here on out. He, evidently, still has a story to tell and more people to “save.” (I can’t be the only one who wants an entire trilogy of Furiosa dealing with The Citadel and all the surrounding cities?)

    Furiosa’s role in MM:FR is an important transition point for film from here on out. Will others follow in director George Miller’s footsteps and allow women to carry actual action movies? Only time will tell.

    Speaking of Furiosa...
    Speaking of Furiosa…
  2. The Real MVP is Also Disabled

    One of the most amazing aspects of Furiosa’s representation, besides her being a badass feminist icon, is the fact that she is visibly physically disabled. There’s a great post from a woman born as a fetal amputee reacting to Furiosa here, which I think sums up the importance of this representation best.

    “Watch Furiosa load a shotgun. Watch Furiosa punch Max in the face, with her nubbins. Watch Furiosa drive a semi tractor trailer. Watch Furiosa fire a long shot, using Max’s shoulder to stabilize the gun barrel, as an alternative to using two hands! Watch Furiosa do anything you can do, but better, and with half the number of fingers.The effortless manner in which this film has presented a character’s disability is incredible. I literally could not ask for anything more. It’s ubiquitous. No big deal. Her body is never a plot point. It is simply allowed to be.”


    As mentioned before in OKP’s post on Writing Disabilities, just because a character is disabled does not mean that their entire story arch as to revolve around said disability. Furiosa’s representation of this knocks it out of the park.

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  3. But Why is Everyone White?

    Here’s where things get a little iffier. Now, I have a lot of feelings about both the Wives and Vuvalini, and a lot of these feelings involve hearts in my eyes and cars blowing up in fountains of pink and gold sparklers — in my soul. Still, it does not pain me to begrudge Miller and everyone involved for whitewashing pretty much the entire cast.

    As Nashwa Khan puts it in her article “MM:FR and the Glaring Whiteness of Post-Apocalyptic Films:”

    “Many have claimed the film put women ahead—but which women? Certainly not women who are very visibly racialized through curves and features. “Ethnically ambiguous” seems to be the only type of racialized woman who makes it to the end of the world. [Zoe] Kravitz and [Courtney] Eaton’s characters do survive the film, and having a person of color standing at the end makes Fury Road a rare unicorn within the post-apocalyptic genre. But that’s a very low bar.”

    This photo provided by Warner Bros. Pictures shows, from left, Abbey Lee as The Dag, Courtney Eaton as Cheedo the Fragile, Zoe Kravitz as Toast the Knowing, Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa and Riley Keough as Capable, in Warner Bros. Picturesí and Village Roadshow Picturesí action adventure film, ìMad Max:Fury Road," a Warner Bros. Pictures release. (Jasin Boland/Warner Bros. Pictures via AP) ORG XMIT: CAET486
    This photo provided by Warner Bros. Pictures shows, from left, Abbey Lee as The Dag, Courtney Eaton as Cheedo the Fragile, Zoe Kravitz as Toast the Knowing, Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa and Riley Keough as Capable.

    Even my very favorite character, The Valkyrie (played by Megan Gale, who is part-Maori), is pretty “ethnically ambiguous.” The crowds of poor workers in The Citadel are also whitewashed, to say nothing of the sickly-albino War Boys. Where Miller gets so many things right with Furiosa and the Wives’ characterizations as women, visually it is far too easy to criticize what is clearly a deliberate choice in casting in regards to race.

    Why is this so important if the movie was so successful in so many other ways? Think of it this way: This movie has become so important to so many women because it is the first action movie in a long time to put women ahead with such respect despite the genre convetions — but consider that it would be even more revolutionary for women of color to be able to see themselves in such pivotal roles in such a mainstream movie, too.

  4. Age + Sexuality

    Lastly, let’s touch on two important factors that received important representation despite my concern over lack of racial diversity. The Vuvalini in the movie are a nomadic group of women, most of whom are unabashedly older than Hollywood usually showcases. They are shown as strong and capable, in the same vein as Furiosa. They are able to protect themselves and others, and do so with the ferocity equal to their male counterparts.

    VUVALINI.
    VUVALINI.

    The ageism in most visual media is usually pretty blatant. Older women are relegated to grandmothers or wise women/shamans, defined mostly by their compassion, wisdom, or fragility. It was more than amazing to see the Vuvalini fighting alongside Furiosa and Max, with all characters trading off on strengths and weaknesses.

    Older women in movies and TV seem to be especially rare for the same reason that young ingenues are a dime a dozen these days: sexuality.

    Sexuality is handled subtly in this film, especially because all the Wives are still pretty scantily clad after escaping Immortan Joe’s clutches, (they are “breeders” in his harem.) I was concerned by the initial shots of the Wives cleaning themselves with water and the close-ups on their body parts. But then something interesting happened: The second those chastity belts came off, the sexualization stopped.

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    The Wives’ purpose in The Citadel is purely related to sex and reproduction: they serve Immortan Joe’s pleasure and birth his sons. Free of his control they are free to be whole people. We see each woman showcase their capability throughout, as well as their weaknesses, forming a whole, complex picture of who they are and who they want to be, despite severe dialogue restrictions all-around. Bonus emphasis on the wraps and shawls all the Wives continue wearing throughout, as though they recognize that the costumes they are put in were purely Joe’s fault (male gaze).

    The lack of objectification and sexualization of these characters, and indeed all of the female characters in the movie, is largely why this movie has been hailed as feminist, and also why so many female audiences are in ecstasy over this representation. These women are their own people — not the standard Girlfriend in an Action Flick, not damsels, not Fridged Loved Ones,  not a backstory, not any one thing because real women aren’t—  and they proclaim it, strongly and constantly: WE ARE NOT THINGS.


Representation in Mad Max: Fury Road is definitely outside the norm for the genre and, indeed, for most mainstream Hollywood productions. While there are a buttload of positive aspects, it’s important to keep in mind that we discuss feminism in terms of inclusivity. While we praise the strong portrayal of women in terms of both gender and age, we need to recognize that race remains a crucial part of the movement and that one film does not a trend make.

While this post is one in a literal sea of reviews and discussion on the film, I’d like to think that those who continue to discuss and analyze representation will emphasize the audience that such representation can court and how we can continue to better diverse representation.

One step at a time, as they say. Or one car chase, really. But we can talk about that another day.

It’s OK to Like Problematic Media

TW: Some mentions of rape in media.

Much as OKPOTATO supports diversity in media, the truth is that there are a lot of books, TV shows, and movies that lack quality diverse representation…and we are here to remind you that it is okay to still like these things.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, as unemployment has led to a fair share of Netflix-watching. It’s no big secret that there is an unfortunate amount of movies and TV shows out there with white-washed casts, unexpectedly bigoted jokes or storylines, poorly written story arcs and/or dialogue for women and minorities, and, well, the list goes on.

The first thing to acknowledge is that there is no such thing as perfect representation. For all its racial diversity and celebration of female-centric stories, Orange is the New Black contributes to biphobia in its refusal to allow the very word “bisexual” to grace the lips of any of its characters, including main lead Piper Chapman who explains, time and again, that she likes both men and women. Fan-favorite Game of Thrones showcases superb acting amongst a large cast, but continues to degrade most of the women in the show with storylines that focus heavily on violence against women, including graphic depictions of rape (the latest of which has received incredible outcry among viewers.)

Game of Throne's Sansa Stark is at the center of the latest controversy regarding the show's depiction of its female characters.
Game of Throne’s Sansa Stark is at the center of the latest controversy regarding the show’s depiction of its female characters.

Of course, as a viewer, it is up to you to decide where you draw the line in the sand concerning what you will watch or not, based on what the show or movie can provide for you. For instance my latest show of choice, Fringe, is heavy on the kick-ass female protagonist storylines I love, as well as the science fiction freak-outs. However, I am ever aware of the egregious use of the show’s PoC characters — Jasika Nicole as Astrid and Lance Reddick as Broyles in particular (actually, let’s be real, they’re the only PoC characters in the main cast) — and the complete lack of any LGBTQAI characters, religious elements outside of Christian mythology, and its detached exploration of disabilities despite the ROBOTIC PROSTHETICS THAT ARE EVERYWHERE.

But, I am still over-the-moon about this show. I’m halfway through Season 3 of 5 and still enthralled by the mix of humor, detective procedural, and crazy weird science.

Some people don’t like to engage with their media in this way, and I get that, you’re there to be entertained. But these shows and movies do not exist in black holes. What you see on screen is going to affect the way people — including yourself — think, act, and react to various diversity in real life. There’s a reason that depictions of any stereotypes, racial to gender-based, have been perpetuated for so long. Audiences internalize and reiterate what they feel has been normalized: “That blonde joke got a laugh? I’ll say it to get a laugh, too.”

Life imitating art. Art imitating life.
Life imitating art. Art imitating life.

But what are you, as a viewer, to do when I just told you that no perfect media representation exists?

The best thing you can do is acknowledge the problematic elements of these TV shows/movies. While Pitch Perfect 2 dominated the box office this past weekend, showcasing a practically all-female cast, it also was filled with racist and strangely sexist jokes. Praise the things that work — great girl power message — and acknowledge the things that don’t. You don’t have to grab the pitchforks and condemn these things if you don’t want to, but don’t try to cover up these shortcomings either. Namely, don’t deny that these problematic elements exist.

The great thing about media lately is that so many people are eager to discuss the stories they watch and read and engage with. Twitter feeds still go crazy over every new episode of every show on network television. Mainstream news keep up-to-date with the latest controversies and storylines of a pretty damn wide array of movies, video games, music albums, and TV shows. And the even greater thing about all this is that people are catching on to the impact media representation has on its very diverse audiences.

Viewers are no longer willing to accept mediocrity and the occasional crumb thrown their way. They are calling for responsibility from writers, producers, networks, and production companies for not only diverse representation but quality diverse representation.

The main cast of Pitch Perfect 2.Great female representation.
The main cast of Pitch Perfect 2.
Great female representation.

Something even more amazing? It seems that some media is rising to the challenge.

Mad Max: Fury Road has been making major waves lately as viewers have become aware that, despite the title and the trailer’s focus on the eponymous hero, the real focus of the movie is none other than a band of empowered women, led by Charlize Theron’s Furiosa. To add fuel to the fire, it was revealed that Vagina Monologues writer Eve Ensler was one of the movie’s major consultants. She helped the cast understand the perspective, history and current issues surrounding violence against women:

“I read the script and was blown away. One out of three women on the planet will be raped or beaten in her lifetime—it’s a central issue of our time, and that violence against women relates to racial and economic injustice. This movie takes those issues head-on. I think George Miller is a feminist, and he made a feminist action film. It was really amazing of him to know that he needed a woman to come in who had experience with this.”

While the quality of this feminist representation is being debated (“Actually, Mad Max: Fury Road Isn’t That Feminist”), the wide discussion over the now infamous Men’s Rights Activists’ call to boycott what they view as “feminist propaganda” is a good start for a wider discussion on problematic media and the problematic media that we can like while acknowledging it as problematic.

Have a different view on the topic of liking problematic media? Let us know in the comments! Chebk will be back on Thursday with a new post!

OKPotato April Book Giveaway!

Hey, readers. For the month of April we will be giving away two of the books we’ll also be reviewing later this month:

2The Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard (Feb. 2015)

The poverty stricken Reds are commoners, living under the rule of the Silvers, elite warriors with god-like powers. To Mare Barrow, a 17-year-old Red girl from The Stilts, it looks like nothing will ever change. Mare finds herself working in the Silver Palace, at the centre of those she hates the most. She quickly discovers that, despite her red blood, she possesses a deadly power of her own. One that threatens to destroy Silver control. But power is a dangerous game. And in this world divided by blood, who will win?

(Chebk will be reviewing this title.)

None of the Above by I.W. Gregorio (April 2015)

A groundbreaking story about a teenage girl who discovers she was born intersex . . . and what happens when her secret is revealed to the entire school. Incredibly compelling and sensitively told, None of the Above is a thought-provoking novel that explores what it means to be a boy, a girl, or something in between.

(Cheri will be reviewing this title.)


HOW TO ENTER:

Leave a comment on this post with either book title or “either”  and you will automatically be entered in the giveaway drawing pool. We will be using a random generator to decide winners for both books. You must be willing to give us your mailing address to receive your prize. (Unfortunately we are shipping only to people in the United States.) The winners will be announced April 30, 2015.

(NOTE: Winners from February are not eligible to re-enter to win the following giveaway. You may re-enter in the giveaway after this.)

Good luck, everyone, and happy reading!