3 Reasons you should read ‘Heartstopper’ by Alice Oseman

This week, I explain:

  • I am a complete romantic and can’t stop myself from reading love stories
  • Why this is such a good recommendation for LGBTQ+ and Allied teens
  • That British authors writing about schools and not including school uniforms irritates me
Book cover for Heartstopper

Heartstopper by Alice Oseman is a webcomic, available online here in a serialised version, or as a comic book in print from all good bookshops.

I will be talking about Heartstopper Volume 1.

What it’s about

Heartstopper is about Nick and Charlie, two teenage boys at an all-boys Grammar School.  They meet one day and become unlikely friends.

As the story progresses, they become closer and start to become more to each other than simply friends.

I first encountered this as a physical book, which I devoured, and I wanted more.  It was only once I’d read it that I discovered it was part of an on-going series and, not only that, the comic was available for free online.  You can tell I’m new to webcomics.

The stories told in the Heartstopper volumes are the back-story for Nick and Charlie who are characters in Alice Oseman’s debut novel, Solitaire (2014).  As I said, I didn’t know any of this when I picked up Volume 1 and read it, so you don’t need to know anything about the novel before you get to this.

3 Reasons you should read Heartstopper

There are many reasons why you should read Heartstopper but these are the ones I think are most important:

1. It’s about true love!

I have to admit, I’m a complete sucker for a romance, and this comic is about two boys who are starting to fall in love.

I’m basically already sold.

It’s cute and both boys are utterly adorable.  You fall in love with both of them and absolutely root for them all the way through.

Spoiler:

Heartstopper Volume 1 is about the two of them meeting and becoming friends, and struggling to commit to more, but the following volumes are about Nick and Charlie in a committed, loving relationship and the day-to-day trials and joys which that brings.  As a romantic at heart, I like the following volumes more (so far).

2. It’s realistic

It’s not some grand overarching plot about overthrowing dictators, Chosen Ones or building the greatest love of all time.  It’s about two normal, lovely, flawed people finding love together.

The comic focuses on random days, trips, events, and moments in their relationship and as they develop as people.  It shows how all the little things people do make up their life.

I particularly like that it’s realistic, even down to the school uniforms they wear.  It irritates me when British writers depict school pupils wearing non-uniform, like they’ve forgotten eleven years of scratchy collars, ties and constantly being told to tuck their shirt in from their own school days.

3. It covers some major themes in an accessible way

The most obvious themes to begin with are LGBTQ+ and the comic depicts a wide range of people with various sexualities. 

Oseman is outspoken about this on social media, and reinforces the idea of acceptance in her literary work.

I particularly like this because, although she clearly depicts the difficulties of being anything other than cis-gendered and heterosexual, she doesn’t dwell on those difficulties.  She balances them out with moments of joy, acceptance and positivity.

On the webcomic, there are trigger warnings for each instalment that requires them, in case you’re worried about encountering something you’d rather not.

If you’re looking for something to give to teens, this is one I would highly recommend.

Let me know what you think of Heartstopper Volume 1

If you’ve read it, let me know what you think.  And if you’ve read Solitaire, let me know how quickly I need to bump that up my To Be Read pile.

If you have any other, similar recommendations then get in touch – I’m always looking for more sweet, funny, positive stories!

Leave a comment below or follow me on Twitter @AlisonJanetBro1.

Check out more articles

I hope you give Heartstopper a go and love it as much as I did!

If you want to read more about positive LGBTQ+ representation in fiction, check out my review of Kings of the Wyld here.

Writing ‘he felt like he was meant to be there’

This week:

  • I get pedantic about what this phrase implies
  • I am not ok with lazy writing
  • I suggest ways this phrase can work really well
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Writing ‘he felt like he was meant to be there’ is one of those things that probably most people wouldn’t mind either way.

However, I have some thoughts on why using it needs to be considered carefully.

This is a sentence that I have seen a lot in fiction and I have come to have certain feelings towards it.

The sentence ‘he felt like he was meant to be there’ (or any similar variation) suggests several things, and unless the rest of the narrative delivers on those, it seems to me like a bit of a cheat.

Let me explain:

When it is used

This (in my experience) is used when a character makes a decision to take a certain path.  For instance, when they choose to go in a certain direction, or they go back somewhere once they’ve been told not to, or they decide to train to be a something-or-other and dedicate their life/time/career to it.

It tends to be used when the character does something that commits them to the rest of the plot.

Why it is used

It’s used to show that the character (assuming this is a tight third person POV) feels a sense of rightness after taking a certain path or entering a certain place.

It can be used to justify a character’s choice to go somewhere they shouldn’t because it felt right to them.

This is not in itself a problem.  Lot of people make decisions because of a gut feeling, and that is a legitimate thing to represent in your story.

My problem with it

My problem comes when it is used badly.

It can – not always, but often – be used as a lazy way for the author to justify sending their character down an unexpected path (either literal or figurative).

If a character goes against convention, or authority, or their own personal history to do something unexpected, the author can just add the phrase ‘he felt like he was meant to be there’ and that justifies it.  My problem with that is that it can undermine all of the character development or world-building that’s taken place so far by suddenly introducing this new aspect of Fate or gut feelings or instinct that wasn’t there before.

What it suggests

There are two main things that it suggests to me:

Either Fate is at work here, or the character relies heavily on their gut feeling or instinct.

1. Fate

If it suggests that Fate is at work and is nudging the character in a certain direction, then I definitely expect this sense of Fate to materialise again in the story.  If this is the only mention of it, then I don’t believe it.

If the character has never alluded to Fate (or some variation thereof) then this sense of rightness they are experiencing is out of the ordinary.

To use it appropriately, the character must have a belief in some force beyond their control or understanding (like Fate, or God – of whichever religion – or the power of the universe).  It should be a part of their identity and it would be a part of their experience.  That means it would be relevant throughout your story.

Or, if you’re writing a Fantasy story and you have an actual, undeniable force at work (like, for instance, the Greek gods) then that would also appear throughout your story.

In either of those instances, I expect this to materialise in your character’s thoughts, actions and speech long before it was used to justify a major choice.

2. Instinct

If it implies that the character relies on their instincts, then that that needs to be something they do throughout the story (or be a part of their character arc that they learn to trust/not trust their feelings).

As with Fate, this needs to be consistent and it needs to appear before the critical moment.  There is no point in just shoving in a ‘sense of being in the right place’ when the character has always been rational and analytical before.  The sudden change will jar the reader and we will lose confidence in them as a narrator or protagonist.

When it works

The use of ‘he felt like he was meant to be there’ can be really effective if used properly.

When it is foreshadowed or set up properly in the character development, it can be a really useful tool for the writer to exploit, and an interesting aspect of world-building (the pull of Fate) or character (their belief system or self-reliance).

In conclusion

I am definitely not saying don’t use this.

I just hope that you use it effectively.

Tell me your thoughts (if you feel like you were meant to comment)

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this interesting little phrase.  Leave a comment in the section below to let me know what you think or find me on Twitter @AlisonJanetBro1.  Say hello and let me know when you’ve come across this phrase.

Get more writing advice

I love going into the nitty-gritty of writing so check out these posts if you want to learn more about the craft of writing.

How to write your first chapter if you’re overwhelmed

Six reasons to listen to writing podcasts

Why your English Teacher didn’t want you to write ‘said’

Writing female secondary characters and why it’s important

Importantly, keep reading and keep writing.

Why Haven’t I Watched Thelma and Louise (1991) Before?

This week, I discover:

  • Thelma and Louise really is a classic
  • Films can be funny and tragic
  • Old films can be shockingly relevant today

Review of Thelma and Louise (1991), starring Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon, written by Callie Khouri and directed by Ridley Scott.

I am not going to go into huge detail in this review – there are dozens of other reviews out there of Thelma and Louise and I don’t want to just repeat things.

However, I did want to write about it a little.

You see, I have been putting off watching this film because it was a classic and I wasn’t in the mood for something serious.

Anyone who has seen the film will be laughing at me now.  And, really, I should know better.

Yes, it’s hilarious.

I wanted to write a quick review to say how absolutely amazing the film Thelma and Louise is!

Why it’s amazing:

It’s (sadly) remained extremely relevant

It’s surprisingly relevant to today.  Almost thirty years on, the themes of modern women struggling to be independent, have sexual freedom, have control over their own bodies and survive in a system which is stacked against them all suddenly feel very timely.

It’s hilarious

I laughed aloud so much when watching this.  It’s lucky I was at home and nobody minded.  To be fair, they were laughing too.

Some of the humour is situational, some of it is the deadpan delivery of great lines and some of it comes from the contrast of the extreme, over-the-top reaction to things that, two days before, these two normal women would have put up with (I am thinking specifically of the scene in the gas station).

It’s beautifully shot

This one might speak for itself.  It is, after all, directed by Ridley Scott.

The scene where they drive through the mountains is so beautifully lit that I had to go back and watch it again.

Why you should watch it:

This is a 90’s study in modern feminism

Like I said, it’s sadly still a study in modern feminism.

It’s a classic

It’s a classic film because it’s so beautifully written, directed and acted.  It’s important and entertaining in equal measure.

You finally understand the significance of those famous scenes

We’ve all seen clips of it or heard about the dramatic ending, but nothing replaces the experience of actually watching the whole thing for yourself.  You’ll get to experience the emotional journey that makes that famous end scene so poignant.

Tell me what you think about Thelma and Louise

If you’ve seen the film, let me know what you think.  Obviously this is only a very short review and I assume that, if you want to know more, you can search for one of the many, many other reviews available.  But I’m really interested to know if there is anything I’ve missed out.

Tell me why you love it!

Leave a comment below or follow me on Twitter @AlisonJanetBro1.  Say hello and let’s chat about Thelma and Louise.

See you next week

I hope you’ll come back and read next week’s post, which will be about that little ol’ phrase ‘he felt like he was meant to be there’.

How to Write your First Chapter if you are Overwhelmed

This week:

  • We go in late, out early
  • I completely skip my opening line
  • I’m a simple soul and like simple stories
Photo by Retha Ferguson on Pexels.com

A lot of people are too overwhelmed by the task ahead to even start writing their book.

There are several reasons why people get overwhelmed about writing, and I’ve suffered from a few of them:

  1. You know where you want to go in your story but not how to start it
  2. You can’t think of the best opening line to hook your reader
  3. Your story is complex and you don’t know which part to begin with

The good news is, there are ways you can combat these problems.

You know where you want to go in your story but not how to start it

Start writing the earliest thing you’ve planned. 

Don’t build up to it.  It’s the most interesting idea you have, so open with it. 

You don’t need to slog through a hundred pages of build-up, you don’t need to give the life history of every character and you don’t need to set the scene by showing exactly how the world works in minute detail (that will naturally come out during the course of the novel).

In order to start writing your story, I would suggest sticking by the old adage: in late, out early.

Dive in right before the action.

Either you’ll end up writing more than you thought as you come up with new ideas, or you’ll have a firm base for building on.

If you’re a discovery writer (or pantser), your characters will find interesting ways to deal with the situation that will lead down a new path. 

If you’re an outliner (or plotter) you’ll be able to review the scenes you’ve written and decide who your main characters will be, what their ambitions are, what promises you’ve made the reader and what the tone of this book is going to be.

You can’t think of the best opening line to hook your reader

The best advice I can give for this is: don’t write your opening line.

I know you have to write an opening line, but it doesn’t have to be the one.

When you’ve written your story, developed your characters, discovered your world, then you can go back and write a really killer opening line that sums up your book and lets the reader know exactly what they’re in for.

Muse on it as you write and jot down any ideas you have. 

Don’t worry if your amazing opening-line idea doesn’t fit your opening chapter, either, because you can go back and change that, too.

The opening line is a detail, and they can be tweaked in the edit rather than fretted over at the start.

Your story is complex and you don’t know which part to begin with

I have three tricks for starting a story that is too complex.

1. If you think it’s too complex, cut it down.

Instead of telling yourself that you have a massively complicated story, tell yourself that you have three fast-paced novels in a trilogy. 

Divide your story-lines according to character and theme, grouping ideas together in three sections to make three books.

Then you don’t have to be overwhelmed by a hugely difficult story, you can get on with the business of writing the first part.

You have the satisfaction of knowing that none of your ideas are going to waste – you’ll get to them later in the trilogy.

2. Choose one character and write their story, leaving the others out.

I have faced a story that I’ve developed and developed until it’s too complex for me to handle at the start.  I managed to start writing it by telling myself that, actually, I was only going to write about this character. 

Suddenly the overwhelming feeling vanished because I was focused on a single character with a single plot-line.  Obviously, other plot-lines were connected to them and I began to weave them into this character’s story but, because I was still only focused on one character, I felt much more confident in my ability to handle it.

This tip is more about your frame of mind than the actual story you’re writing.

You’ll probably find, by the end, that you’ve written a complex story with several plot-lines and different themes, but you thought it was simple while you were writing.

3. Pick your favourite part and start with that.

If you absolutely can’t cut anything out, then you have to write it all.  So you may as well write the bits you like best.

Choose the part you most want to write and do it.  Once you start, the story will flow and all the different elements you were afraid of juggling will fall into place.

You can always go back and write sections that need to come before that, or scenes that need to be slotted in.  You can do that.  You can write them and put them where they need to go but start with the scene you’re most excited about.

These tips make it sound easy, I know, and it’s not, but they are great for getting you started.

Let me know how you get on

I’d love to hear from you if you’ve used any of these tips to start writing.  You can follow me on Twitter @AlisonJanetBro1.  Let me know which ones worked for you and how your writing is going now!

If you have your own tips or tricks, please share them in the comments section below.  We like to spread the love.

See you next week

I hope you enjoyed this post.  Please come back and read next week’s.

Review of ‘Invisible Women: exposing data bias in a world designed for men’ (2019) by Caroline Criado-Perez

In this post, I will:

  • Show off my new-found knowledge of the gender data gap
  • Rail against the injustices in society
  • Recommend you read this excellent book

Why I’m interested in this

One of the things I am interested in is gender equality.

This book is incredibly insightful about the ways in which one gender has been promoted at the expense of others.

Some of these things are obvious, if you give them some thought, and others are things I never would have considered, which makes me exactly the kind of person this book was designed for.

What the book’s about

Invisible Women is about the gender data gap.

Essentially (and I’m not an expert, even after reading this book), we now live in a world of data.  And that data incorporates a hidden bias.  It generally leaves women out.  That means most of the data we have about ‘humanity’ is actually data on men.

Medicine which is developed and made available has been tested on men, not women. 

Technology like mobile phones and voice recognition software has been designed for men, not women. 

To give you an example of these: the modern smartphone is designed to fit an average male’s hand, which means that the average man can hold his phone in one hand.  However, the phone is too big for the average woman’s hand and so she has to hold it in two.  Your voice recognition software has been programmed to respond to your voice.  Well, actually it’s been programmed to respond to the male voice.  Women with higher-pitched voices won’t be able to get that same software to work.  I won’t even mention the problems with what queries that software can respond to – I’ll leave you to discover that when you read the book.

What’s scary is that Criado-Perez demonstrates that, as more and more data is being gathered, we are handing over control of the analysis of the data to computers and algorithms which have been programmed with an invisible bias.  That means that the things being designed, produced, funded and promoted from now on will already incorporate a gender bias, even without meaning to.

Why I liked it

This is an incredibly interesting topic, for many reasons:

1. It shows how the data gap has a real-life impact

It gives an insight into the way in which third-world countries still have overt gender inequality.  It describes some of the ineffective ways that people or companies have tried to overcome this and analyses why they failed.  Spoiler: it’s because they didn’t gather the right data before starting work.

2. It contrasts the gender roles of modern western countries

It shows how invisible bias still affects a large portion of first-world countries which claim to have gender equality.  It contrasts the gender roles that men and women are still expected to fulfil.

3. It explores what future impact the data gap will have

It begins an analysis of the way in which society is progressing now that we have the means and opportunity of collecting so much data.  Even if you’re not specifically interested in feminism or gender equality, this aspect of Invisible Women is fascinating because it considers what our future will look like when data analysis is done solely by computers.

4. It shows the range of gender inequality

It shows that gender inequality isn’t just about physical things (like whether there are adequate childcare facilities so mothers can go back to work) but the social and psychological things as well (why women are still the primary care-givers, why salary and childcare cost hinders women from getting back into full-time work and why men don’t generally take paternity leave).

Some problems with it

            1. There are lots of statistics.

This might sound obvious, since the entire book is about data (or, rather, the lack of it), but for a casual reader, it was rather statistic-heavy.

I managed to read it by focusing on the story elements rather than the numbers.  Criado-Perez is excellent at explaining what the numbers mean in terms of how the data affects women (and men, and society as a whole) and the numbers are there for reference if you want them.

I’m not sure that my approach was the best, but I glossed over the numbers and absorbed the meaning.

            2. The anecdotes, examples and data come from all over the place.

The other issue I had with this book was that it chopped and changed between countries.  One moment it was talking about a study from the UK, then a statistic from the USA and then a phenomenon in another country.

I understand why it does this: Criado-Perez is using the data that is available and, if the data comes from those countries, of course she will analyse it.  However, it does then jump around a lot and I never really got a sense of place, and couldn’t quite position the UK (where I live) in relative terms to the rest of the countries.

Of course, this criticism only goes to support Criada-Perez’s entire argument, which is that there is a lack of data on women.  There simply isn’t enough data in any one country for her to analyse.  She has to use what data she can gather from around the world.

Who I recommend reads Invisible Women

This is a book for both men and women.

With the statistics there in front of you, it’s difficult to shrug off the idea of gender inequality.  I’d recommend this to women because it’s likely you weren’t aware of how prevalent the data bias is, and I’d recommend it to men because you should understand how women are disadvantaged every day in small ways.

I would recommend this to anyone with an interest in social development and change.  It gives a very clear picture of how our modern society has ended up in this particular state.  Although the agenda is clear, it does also talk about how this lack of data (or lack of awareness) affects various elements of society, including city planning, social mobility and medicine.

I would highly recommend this to anyone interested in feminism or gender equality.  It demonstrates how simple things that we (as a society) take for granted are actually biased in favour of men, and particularly the men in power. 

It’s an incredibly important piece of work for the people who want to instigate successful change – men and women alike.  I say ‘instigate successful change’ because Criado-Perez proves, time and time again, that even the most well-meaning initiatives have failed to have a positive impact because they have not been properly thought through with reference to women and the data.

A warning

This is not an easy book to read.

It is a catalogue of inequality and bias against women, from every aspect of our lives.

Whilst these inequalities and injustices won’t surprise most women, seeing them listed in this way is difficult.

Women living in modern, western countries will find it sobering and upsetting to read about women living in poorer countries who have far fewer rights than we do.

However, I think it’s important that people are aware of these differences, rather than ignoring them because they are difficult to confront.

Let me know what you think

If you’ve read Invisible Women or are reading it now, let me know what you think!  I’d love to chat about it – it’s an incredibly dense piece of work and I’m still unpacking it.

Recommend similar books ad documentaries, please!  I’d love to learn more about this so if you have any good recommendations, pass them my way.

Either drop me a line in the comments section below or say hello on Twitter.  You can find me at @AlisonJanetBro1.

See you next week

I hope you’ll come back next week to read my latest blog post.

Women’s self-belief and beauty films: positives and negatives of ‘I Feel Pretty’ (2018) and ‘Isn’t It Romantic’ (2019)

This week, I give my thoughts on:

  • How great it is to have films about women finding the confidence to succeed
  • How addicted I am to these films
  • Why ‘loving yourself no matter what you look like’ is not the straight-forward message that it’s often presented as

Firstly, I want to make it clear that I love these films.

I am a total sucker for romance and comedy and films about empowered women, so these basically tick all my boxes.

What I want to do here is draw attention to a worrying trend.

This article contains spoilers for these films, so don’t read on until you’ve seen them (if, indeed, you plan on watching them).

What I mean by women’s self-belief and beauty films

There is a very particular type of film I am talking about here.  Later on, I will talk about other similar films and how they fall into different genres, but for the moment I want to talk about these.

They are often referred to as self-confidence films but I want to narrow that category down to something specific.

Firstly, I mean films aimed at women.  That immediately categorises them as Romance or RomCom.

Secondly, I mean films about women where the female protagonist gets more than 50% of the screen time.

Thirdly, I mean films in which the protagonist learns to believe in herself and love the way she looks, and thereby achieves everything she wanted to.  Particularly, those stories in which confidence was the key to her success all along.

There are definitely men’s self-belief films, too.  Yes Man (2008) starring Jim Carrey springs to mind but what was holding him back was not related to his looks.  Roxanne (1987) starring Steve Martin fulfils the brief but that is even older.  There is a trend of women’s self-belief and beauty films at the moment and I want to explore what that means.

If these are films that are meant for women, starring women, then I think it’s important to dig into exactly what we are going to get from them.  We are supposed to get an hour and a half of entertainment, a happy ending and a woman who learns that she can do anything she wants to if she has the confidence and determination to do it.  What we actually get is that hour and a half of entertainment, a happy ending (and this has changed from the getting-her-man of yesteryear to being successful in her career and getting her man), and an over-simplified take on the complexities of self-esteem, confidence, standards of beauty, gender roles and women in business.

The stories

Essentially, these stories are about a woman who is living a life of drudgery and cripplingly low self-esteem, feeling ugly and under-appreciated.  What happens in the film is that she goes through a major transformation and lives a ‘fairytale’ life in which she’s the woman who has it all.  Then, when she is bumped back to reality, she realises that she had the power all along to make her life a fairytale.  She takes all her newly-found confidence and applies it to real life, and ends up living her dream.

It’s a happy ending.  It’s a lovely thought.  I adore films that show women becoming confident and successful and living their best life.

These two films are the best example of this.

I Feel Pretty (2018) starring Amy Schumer

I was not at all convinced I would like this film, mostly because the trailer made it look like the joke of the film was that a chubby girl had the audacity to think she was pretty and we all get to laugh at her for it.  Happily, that was not the case.

The story is about a woman (Amy Schumer) who loves fashion and beauty but doesn’t feel confident enough to pursue her dream of working in that industry.  She ends up working in some kind of administrative role, in a tiny office away from the main building where all the models and executives work.  She feels ugly and has extremely low self-esteem.

Then she gets hit on the head.  It’s a classic movie transformation.  She wakes up believing that she is the most beautiful woman in the world and struts through life completely confident.  You can see why I was wary of it to begin with but, actually, I thought it was well done.  It is obviously over-the-top and a lot of the laughs come from the disproportional confidence that she shows compared to what the world thinks she should show.

She gets the job of her dreams, the man of her dreams and all the confidence she could wish for.  However, she changes with this new confidence and drops her loyal friends, stops being so fastidious in work and gets caught up in her own importance.

What this film does well is it shows how obsessed the main character was with beauty, and her friends call her on that obsession, saying there are more important things for her to focus on and she shouldn’t have let that one area dominate her whole self-perception.

Isn’t It Romantic (2019) starring Rebel Wilson

One of the reasons I enjoyed this film so much is that it was a chance for Rebel Wilson to really act!  And she can, despite the caricatures she usually plays.

In this film, the protagonist is under-appreciated at work and doesn’t think the man she has a secret crush on is interested in her.  She hates all things romantic, particularly Romance films, because she believes they perpetuate an unrealistic ideal.

Then – that old chestnut – she is hit on the head and wakes in an idealised version of her own world.  Her apartment is better, her clothes are better, even her pet is better.  And she finds herself that coveted being: the protagonist in a RomCom.

As such, she stumbles upon a  ‘perfect’ man who is handsome and rich and charming, she is wooed, she is appreciated at work, and she is basically living the fairytale life.  Of course, the film likes to be a bit meta and, whilst all of this is happening, she has the sense that it isn’t right, that it’s too ideal.  And she’s right.  After trying to get back to her own reality by following the script of a RomCom (in the hopes of completing it and waking up at the end), she realises that she didn’t need to fall in love with a man to achieve her happily-ever-after, she needed to fall in love with herself.

With that knowledge, she wakes up again – this time in her own reality – and applies all that self-love to her real job and real relationships.  It is a charming film.

The problem

Both of these films are enjoyable and I applaud what they are doing: creating narratives in which women take responsibility for their own lives and build their confidence until they believe that they are worthy of the love and success they desire.

However, there is a cruel irony.

I believe it’s clear that both these films are designed to show that women who are insecure are holding themselves back by those very insecurities, when they don’t need to feel that way.  The irony is that, for a story which is supposed to empower women to feel confident just the way they are, by blaming the women’s lack of confidence for their less-than-perfect lives, they reinforce the idea that women are keeping themselves down and it’s our fault that we aren’t happier and more successful.

Both of these films also centre on the woman’s ideas of her own beauty.  They show a protagonist who doesn’t conform to the modern standard of beauty and it is that particularly which makes her feel so unloved and unworthy.  By giving the message that all these women needed to do in order to be successful was to believe in themselves and view themselves as beautiful, such films at once overlook the huge social pressure to look a certain way (and the very real repercussions if you don’t) and lay the blame of that lack of confidence firmly with the woman in question.  I am worried that the overall message women are going to take away from such films is that, if the woman had only believed in herself, she wouldn’t have been unhappy in the first place.  Shame on her.

Other similar, recent films

I want to point out some similar films in order to clarify just what type of film exactly I am talking about.  These films have a lot of cross-over with the women’s self-belief films but fall into a slightly different category.

On the surface, they might appear to be similar to the films I am talking about, where a woman needs to find her confidence to live her best life, but they are actually a different genre.

I have also included modern films rather than anything more than a couple of years old, otherwise The Princess Diaries would definitely be in there (mostly because I love it).

Tall Girl (2019) starring Ava Michelle and Dumplin’ (2018) starring Danielle Macdonald

I love both of these films.

They are coming-of-age stories.

With coming-of-age narratives, the protagonist is an incomplete person because they don’t quite know who they are and they must learn that over the course of the story.  Any changes that these protagonists go through is part of them finding their place in the world, working out who they are and having the confidence to live the way they choose.

Even though lack of confidence might be a factor in their story, it is not the main drive and so they can’t be classed as women’s self-belief films.

They’re worth watching, though.

Life of the Party (2018) starring Melissa McCarthy and Book Club (2018) starring Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen and Mary Steenburgen

These are more easily classed as women’s self-belief films but I hesitate to put them in the same category because, in these, it’s not only confidence that the women lack, it’s something else they need to find.

In Life of the Party, the protagonist is a middle-aged woman who didn’t complete her college degree because she married and got pregnant, so she gave it up to raise her child.  When her husband leaves her, she decides to go back to college and get her degree.  The main drive of the story is a woman going after what she wants.

I don’t class it as a woman’s self-belief film because it wasn’t lack of confidence that was holding her back (or not only that), it was life events and apathy.  However, there are huge cross-overs and it’s a surprisingly entertaining film with a good heart.

Book Club is different again.  It follows four women in a book club as they read Fifty Shades of Grey and begin to explore their sexuality and sex-drive, as well as re-defining their relationships and pursuing romantic fulfilment.

What makes this different is that the women aren’t necessarily held back by a lack of confidence, it’s perhaps an assumption that older women can’t do certain things and should behave in a certain way, and we get to watch these four women break those expectations.

It’s almost a coming-of-age story again.  It’s about people finding their place in the world, exploring who they are and what makes them happy, and deciding what they want to do going forward.

Both of these films have similar themes to self-belief films but their lack of confidence isn’t specifically related to their looks.

Conclusion

Women’s self-belief films are great.  The fact that our media is finally representing women and encouraging them to pursue their goals is positive.

Also, I like these films.  They are feel-good and I am here for them.

Women’s self-confidence and beauty films are more problematic.  When the thing holding the woman back is specifically her confidence in the way she looks, there are a huge number of social, cultural and personal factors at work.  Blithely skipping over these to claim that ‘just having confidence in the way she looks is enough to get her what she wants’ is verging on insulting.

Let me know any recommendations for self-belief (and beauty) films

I would love to watch more of these, so let me know any that you can think of.  I am particularly interested in modern ones as they reflect what our society is doing at the moment and what we are striving for.

Let me know what you think!  Do you think these films do more good than harm?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.  Leave a comment below or find me on Twitter @AlisonJanetBro1

See you next week

I hope you’ll come back and read next week’s post.

‘Woman warrior’ does not mean ‘strong female character’

This week, discover:

  • Why ‘strong female characters’ compete with men
  • Why women warriors can’t display emotion
  • Some of the best women warriors in fiction

I like reading fiction with powerful female characters.

There is a lot of confusion over what makes a ‘strong female character’ because the question actually has many strands.

  • Are female characters in a binary system?
  • Does ‘strong’ refer to physical strength or inner strength?
  • If the character is strong but the writing is weak, are they still a strong character?

In this article, I’m going to discuss the representation of ‘women warriors’ or ‘female fighters’.  That means I’m looking at physically strong characters and evaluating whether they are well-rounded or flat portrayals of women.

The typical ‘woman warrior’

Times are changing.  More female characters are being written (just… written at all) and, as female characters appear on the page and the screens, they are depicting a range of qualities, personalities and skills.

However, there is a long way to go.

A huge number of ‘strong female characters’ are badly-drawn caricatures.  An author has tried to demonstrate their character’s strength by making her a warrior, making her tough, making her manly…

In order to be ‘strong’ they mimic men.  But, because they are female, they must be more manly than the men in order to compete.

That means they exhibit all the clichéd macho characteristics such as practicality, physical strength, aggression, ambition, fighting skill and distance from their emotions.  And they have to display these things all the time and to a high degree otherwise people might forget that she’s really a warrior at all.

After all, a large, physically strong man instantly looks like a warrior, even without saying or doing anything.  A woman doesn’t look like a warrior and so she must demonstrate that in every action (movement, decision and speech) or people (other characters and readers) might forget it.

If you want to write a female character who exhibits these masculine traits, go ahead, that’s not a problem.  I’m just pointing out some of the pitfalls that you need to consider in order to avoid flat female characters.

A lack of depth

Often, male characters (particularly in action stories, thrillers, Fantasy and Sci-Fi) will be immersed in a culture of hyper-masculinity.  They will be soldiers or spies or knights or space-pilots.  They will present hyper-masculine traits.  However, it’s rare to find a (well-written) male character like this which doesn’t have some depth.  The author will have created a well-rounded character with a past and an ambition that goes beyond their job, and they will allow that other aspect of the character to break through into the story.  It humanises the character.

With a comparable female character who displays the same hyper-masculine traits, there is often no depth.  If she has a back-story, it is almost guaranteed to be driven by a man.  How many of the soldier women in fiction eventually reveal that they became soldiers (or pilots, or whatever) because of their father and/or brother?  How many of the women characters who throw themselves into their careers are doing it because they were spurned in love?  A chilling number.

The problem is that, if one of these hyper-masculine female characters reveals any softness in exactly the same way the male characters do (like caring for their parents or looking after a child or rescuing a puppy – all the usual things), they aren’t humanised, they are feminised.  Instantly, any softness in their nature isn’t because they are human, it is because they are female.

In a male character – especially one in a typically masculine role – any compassion, empathy or humility is something to be admired, something that adds depth to his character.  In a female character in the same masculine role, any compassion, empathy or humility she displays is expected.  It’s not seen as adding a layer of emotion and experience to her character, it’s seen as the woman finally reverting to type.

That’s why so many authors have fallen into the trap of not allowing their ‘female warriors’ to display these emotions, because they want to maintain her status as a warrior and not as a woman.  It’s still often the case that ‘woman’ and ‘warrior’ are considered distinct things.

Great female fighters in fiction

These are some of the best female fighters I can think of off the top of my head.  Like I said, there are more and more great female characters being written and even great women warriors.

These three female fighters are iconic:

Buffy from Buffy the Vampire Slayer (TV)

Buffy is interesting because she remains extremely feminine.  She didn’t have to spend a lifetime building up her strength and learning to be macho; her physical strength is simply part of her and therefore only one aspect of her personality.

Ellen Ripley from Alien (film)

I read somewhere that Ripley was written as a male character.  That might explain why she is a believable, well-rounded character who doesn’t constantly have to prove herself an equal to men.  She is capable and decisive and authoritative in the face of danger.

Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games (book and film)

Katniss was a hero for a generation of young adults.  She was clever and prickly and determined and ruthless, but she also did most of what she did out of love.  In the book particularly (I suppose the film had to cut some things out), Katniss walks the line between fitting a more feminine role to get sponsorship from the Capitol audience and using the survival skills she’s developed to make it through the Games.

Recommended reads

Try reading these three Fantasy novels for a female fighter who is a well-rounded character, too:

Celaena Sardothien in Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas

Rin in The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

Bloody Rose in Bloody Rose by Nicholas Eames

Let me know who your favourite women warriors in fiction are

I’m always looking for new books to read, especially Fantasy books and especially books with great female characters in, so let me know what you’ve been reading.

You can follow me on Twitter @AlisonJanetBro1.  Say hello and give me your recommendations.

See you next week

I hope you’ll come back and read next week’s post.

Is this a film for women? Review of the film Like A Boss (2020)

I give my thoughts on:

  • Films in which women actually speak to other women
  • Films in which women aren’t just chasing men
  • How apparently feminist films can undermine their own message

This review contains spoilers.

A woman’s film?

Yes, I am going to be looking at this as a film aimed at women.  I want to evaluate the sort of films that are supposed to interest women and be made for women.

I say made for women because this film was not made by women.

It stars three women: Tiffany Haddish, Rose Byrne and Salma Hayek.

However, the screenplay was written by Sam Pitman and Adam Cole-Kelly.  It was directed by Miguel Arteta.

Women on screen

I have just discovered that, even in rom-coms (which are aimed at women) where the lead character is a woman, an average of 58% of the dialogue is spoken by men.  It was therefore a pleasant surprise to watch a film where that is definitely not the case.  In Like A Boss, most of the named characters are women and they talk largely to each other.  Yay.

This is one of the few films I have seen in which the leading characters are women and they’re not spending their time worrying about whether they do or don’t have a boyfriend.  It was refreshing.

That’s not to say it’s a perfect film.  It’s not.  By a long way.

The premise of the film

To give a quick overview:

Mia and Mel have been best friends all their lives and even live together.  They run a cosmetics company together but Mia is the creative force behind it and Mel is trying to run the business side without stepping on Mia’s toes.  The company is in debt and Mel persuades Mia to go into partnership with ruthless cosmetics mogul, Claire Luna.  Despite the warnings signs, both women sign the contract and then have to fight to keep hold of both their principles, their business and their friendship when Luna sets out to swindle them.  You can imagine how it ends.

Review of Like A Boss

I’ve given it a lot of thought and I’ve come up with some of the best qualities of the film and some of the things that I felt didn’t work.

Things I liked about Like A Boss:

At no point did any of the women dwell on the fact that they did or didn’t have a partner.  If they had one, he was only mentioned in passing, and if they didn’t have one, it wasn’t important.

Working women were shown to have a home life and a circle of friends without showing that they were close to the edge because they couldn’t handle a family and a career.

Both female leads were sexually confident women and the film shows them engaging in liaisons without angsting over them.  It was simply a part of their lives and not something they obsessed about.

It had a positive message that it was trying to spread, both about changing the way marketing campaigns constantly tell women to cover their ‘flaws’ and about appreciating those who are there for you when you need them. 

It had some funny moments, usually when the two leads were talking to each other.

The villain – though very much a pantomime villain – was clever and driven, and made her choices consciously.  She was living the life she wanted and was doing it unapologetically.

Things I didn’t like about Like A Boss:

Even by the end, I wasn’t sure how the title reflects the film.  Is it because they want to be their own boss?  Is it because they take the evil Barbie-doll and her cosmetics company down like bosses?

The tone of the whole thing was incredibly uneven.  It could have been a really interesting character drama about friendship, the beauty industry and what it means to be an unmarried woman in your thirties.  It wasn’t, though, because it quite fancied being a pantomime but didn’t properly commit to it.

Despite its good intentions – trying to spread the message that make-up should accentuate women’s features and not just cover them up – it didn’t dig deep enough into that issue to really make much of a comment on it.  The scene in which the two women are directly contrasted to the two men, each putting make-up on a model, was telling.  It wasn’t funny.  It felt like it was trying to make a point about the male gaze and sexualising women, but women already know this, they live it.  And the plot didn’t challenge that as directly as it could have.  Those men were allowed to carry on doing what they were doing, supported by a population of women who bought into that patriarchal ideal.  That was very clear, too: it is women who are buying these things, so women are the problem.  I understand that it’s a complex issue about social values and ingrained sexism, but the film does rather undermine its own message by not really choosing a side.

I didn’t like the obligatory weed-smoking scene that seems to be in all modern American comedies.  It’s there to show that these two women haven’t ‘grown up’ like the rest of their friends, who are married with children.  However, by doing that, it undermines one of the film’s greatest assets.  It should have been a film which promoted the idea of unmarried women living happy, adult lives and being successful in various ways.  The childish hiding-out-in-the-bedroom-to-smoke-weed scene didn’t fit with the rest of the plot.

One of my biggest problems was the fact that I didn’t believe either of the leads were stupid enough to sign a contract without reading it.  Seriously.  They didn’t have any idea how this business venture was going to go.  They had no idea of what their role was or what their rights were.  You’d think they’d ask a lawyer or something, if they weren’t sure, before signing over their business.  Or, you know, ask any questions…

Apparently a substantial period of time passed during the course of the film.  There were no indicators of that.  As far as I’m concerned, this all happened in about a week and a half.

Let me know what you thought of Like A Boss

If you’ve seen Like A Boss, let me know what you think.  I’d be interested on your views, particularly about whether it was a positive film for women or not.

Contact me on Twitter @AlisonJanetBro1 and tell me your thoughts.

See you next week

Hope you’ll come back and read next week’s post.

Three Things I Did This Week

This week, I will:

  • Reveal my deep and abiding love of P.G. Wodehouse
  • Give you insight into my reading habits
  • Drive you wild with jealousy over the wool I bought
Jeeves and Wooster in Perfect Nonsense

Since I’m still new to this whole blogging thing, I thought I’d share more about myself so you know what you’re getting into.

Three things I did this week that I don’t always do

I thought I’d tell you about what I don’t normally do, rather than what I do normally do, because I assume you don’t really want to read about me putting the washing on or driving to work.

I went for dinner with the girls and saw a local show

I would love to say this was very glamorous but it wasn’t.  It was incredibly fun, though. 

A couple of friends and I went for dinner in town and caught up on each other’s news.  Then we went to see Jeeves and Wooster in Perfect Nonsense at the local theatre. 

Poster for the Barn Theatre’s Jeeves and Wooster

It was a dramatization of a few of P.G. Wodehouse’s stories with the premise that Bertie Wooster is staging a one-man show and, typically, it isn’t working out quite the way he wanted.  Luckily, Jeeves is on hand to save the day. 

It was incredibly funny.  Bertie plays himself and narrates the show, often getting carried away with the fun of it all and forgetting to act.  Jeeves and his fellow valet (who Jeeves has conscripted to help his hapless employer) play every other role.  They take their parts much more seriously, making quick costume changes and being everywhere at once.

One of the best things was the set.  Honestly.  One backdrop was brilliantly constructed to represent all the settings and the doorframe was wheeled around to represent every doorway they needed. Sound effects were provided with (almost) perfect timing.

If you want to see it, you can find where they’re touring here.

I actually read my bookclub book

It’s a running joke in my bookclub that I don’t read the books. 

That’s unfair some of the time and completely true at other times.  When I was a teacher, particularly, it was common for me to turn up to bookclub, and ask, “What is it we were reading this month?”  When asked whether I’d read it, I would be forced to say, “No, I read Matilda.”  I would like to point out that I wasn’t reading Matilda for fun, it was for work – you can’t teach it unless you’ve read it.  Of course, I had read Matilda before but 1) it wasn’t always Matilda that I read and 2) who doesn’t love a bit of Roald Dahl?

This month, however, I have read my bookclub book!  It’s Invisible Women: exposing data bias in a world designed for men by Caroline Criado-Perez and you’ll probably hear my thoughts on that soon.

To give you an idea, we ended up with a group of women angry and outraged at the (almost) invisible bias we struggle against day in and day out.  Every one of us had an anecdote to support almost every bias that had been talked about in the book.

I hate to perpetuate gender stereotypes but we did all have to have some chocolate to calm down.

I bought some new wool (exciting)

I had to nip into town this weekend to buy some more wool so I could finish my ongoing crochet project because I severely underestimated how much wool you get through when making what is essentially a very small blanket. 

I may now have the opposite problem but I’m assured there is no such thing as too much wool.

My new sparkly wool and lovingly crocheted squares

You can’t see it properly in this picture but I assure you the wool is sparkly!

Let me know what you’ve been up to

I love hearing from you so let me know what you’ve been doing this week.  If you’ve been buying wool and reading your bookclub book, share that great news in the comments section below (or share the other, possibly more interesting things you’ve been doing).

You can follow me on Twitter @AlisonJanetBro1.  Say hello and brag about your week.

See you next week

I hope you’ll come back and read next week’s post.

Stop Book-Shaming Children

This week:

  • I define book-shaming and why adults do it
  • Book-shamed children stop reading
  • Top ways to get children to move on with reading
Photo by Min An on Pexels.com

I have encountered book-shaming as a child, I have encountered it as an adult reader and as a teacher.

It makes me angry to see it, and this is the reason why:

What is book-shaming?

Book-shaming is when someone mocks, belittles or discourages another person from reading a particular book.

There are several reasons why people do this and not all of them are vindictive.

It largely depends on the type of relationship the two people have and why that person is book-shaming.

These are the situations in which I have encountered book-shaming:

  • As a child, when I wanted to read an old favourite but was told I was ‘too old’ for it
  • As a teen when I wanted to read a Children’s book and was told I was ‘too old’ for it
  • As an adult when I wanted to read a Children’s or Young Adult’s book and was told I was ‘too old’ for it
  • Any time I wanted to read genre fiction

Already you are sensing a theme.

There are other times when I have seen book-shaming.

I will discuss book-shaming adults based on their choice of book in another post.  This one is focusing on why people do it to children and what effect that has.

I’m also going to focus on adults book-shaming children, rather than other children doing it to their peers as this is very similar to the above.

Why people book-shame children

Most adults who book-shame are doing it because they care.

Certainly, I have never seen an adult book-shame a child because they want to be mean.

Most of the people I have seen doing this have been teachers, parents, aunts and uncles, etc.

What they have wanted to do is stop the child reading something ‘too young’ or ‘too easy’ because they wanted them to read something harder or older.

They want the child to get better at reading and better at English.  Reading is the single most effective way of doing that, but book-shaming isn’t the way to go about it.

What effect does book-shaming have?

I have seen this have several effects on children:

They stop reading.  If they can’t read what they want to read, they’re not interested and then you, as the adult, have to battle to get them to read something else.

They come to associate reading with shame and inadequacy and, unsurprisingly, they stop reading.  Why would they keep doing something that makes them feel that way?

In order to please you, they try reading a much harder book which they don’t properly understand and then they think they’re stupid because they can’t read ‘proper’ books and they stop reading.

Just to be clear: making someone feel that their choice of book is wrong doesn’t make them read something else, it just makes them stop reading that thing.

A little story for you

I was at a Year 7 Parents’ Evening, talking to the mother of a Year 7 boy, who was sat next to her.  When I’d finished talking about his work and asked if there was anything else she wanted to discuss, this mother leaned forward and said, “Yes.  I’m worried about his reading.  I just can’t get him to read.”

I was incredibly surprised and automatically turned to the pupil.  “But you read all the time!  I always see you with a book in your hand.”

The boy looked sheepish and said, “Yes Miss, but I only like books about dragons.”

My response, obviously, was to say, “I love books about dragons!  What’s your favourite?”

The point is, that his mother – who only had his best interests at heart – was worried that the books he was reading weren’t good enough.  Not only that, she was so convinced that they didn’t count, that she told me she ‘couldn’t get him to read’.

This boy was being told – whether directly or not – that the things he liked were wrong.  That’s uncomfortably close to him being told that his personality is wrong.  It’s also a classic prejudice about Fantasy but more on that another time.

I spent the rest of the year talking to him about dragons because I liked the way his face lit up when I did that.

Better ways to get a child to read more advanced things

Don’t tell a child that what they’re reading isn’t good enough or is the wrong choice.  You aren’t going to change their personality just by saying ‘don’t read that, read this’.

If you want a child to read something else, there are ways you can make that happen.

Give them options in addition to their own books

Instead of telling them not to read one thing, persuade them to read the next thing.  Let them keep the books they like, just give them something else as well.

Give them books you know they’ll like

The best way to get a child to read something else is to find out what it is they like and go from there.

Ask them what they like and try to find out what exactly it is that they like about it.  Is it an adventure, is it a mystery, do they like long books or short books, are they drawn to female protagonists, what kind of humour are they into?  Once you know what they like, you can start to find other books that have that thing in them.

Find something similar to what they’re reading and give them that.

If they like it, they’ll trust your judgement.  That’s important.  If they trust you’ll give them good books, they might be willing to try something they otherwise wouldn’t when you promise them (truthfully) that it’s good.

Let them see you enjoying that book

If they know you enjoy it, they know it’s a good book.

If you’re giving them a book you hate but think is going to be good for them, don’t.  You’re not giving them a dose of medicine.

There are so many good Middle Grade (MG) and Young Adult (YA) books out there – quality books with excellent writing, intriguing plots, big themes and inspiring characters – that you will be able to find something that pleases both of you.

Don’t force them to read it, inspire them to read it.

Talk to children about books

Actually talking to them about what they’re reading is a great way to encourage them to think about books in more detail and to find out what it is they like about the books they are reading.

One tip I talk about in my World Book Day post is asking them about books they used to read.

What was your favourite book?

Who was your favourite character?

This distances the question a little and gives them room to talk about the books they like without worrying that you don’t think it’s appropriate for them now. They can’t be told the book was too childish if they actually were a child when they read it.

Let me know what you do

If you’ve seen or experienced this, let me know.  What do you do to stop it?

If you have recommendations for quality MG or YA books, let me know in the comments section below or contact me on Twitter @AlisonJanetBro1.  I want to know your go-to recs.

See you next week when I’ll tell you a little bit more about me and 3 things I’m up to during the week.