March 29, 2021

Sincerely, Your Autistic Child

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , at 7:07 pm by chavisory

Well, I’ve got a happy announcement about how I’ve been spending my time this pandemic, in addition to doing a little bit of hiking, and harassing our building management into fixing our apartment, while I wait for my industry to get back on its feet…

A few years ago, the organization I volunteered for, AWN, self-published our first anthology, What Every Autistic Girl Wishes Her Parents Knew, of seventeen essays by autistic people writing directly to parents about what we wanted them to know as people who had been autistic girls, particularly because at the time, so little information for parents from other autism organizations had much to say about the unique and specific experiences and needs of autistic girls.

Since that time, our name has changed to the Autistic Women & Nonbinary Network, and our mission and goals have expanded to more fully include people of all gender minorities and not just women and girls, and then last spring we learned that Beacon Press had chosen that book for republication. And so over the last eight months, my co-editors Sharon and Morénike and I have been hard at work with our team at Beacon on giving the book an expansion and update, including a new Letter from the Editors, chapters by six new contributors, new cover design, and perhaps most noticeably, a new title! We’re so happy about how it’s turned out, and that our little book will once again be available, just in time for Autism Acceptance Month this year, this time as Sincerely, Your Autistic Child: What People on the Autism Spectrum Wish Their Parents Knew About Growing Up, Acceptance, and Identity.

Pre-orders are open now, and it will be available everywhere including Bookshop.org, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, or from the Beacon Press website on March 31! We hope you’ll check it out or share it with the family of an autistic kid in your life!

February 28, 2021

I want to believe

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , at 1:30 pm by chavisory

[Image is of the brick wall of a pedestrian underpass tunnel, lit by warm sunlight, with a pair of shadows roughly forming an ‘X’ shape.]

On a warm day in the park when the snow had started melting, I caught this serendipitous arrangement of shadows on an afternoon walk in the Ravine.

There are so many things I want to believe these days.

February 10, 2021

Dear Performing Arts Community: We need to talk about Autism Speaks

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , at 1:02 pm by chavisory

Today I am proud to have a guest editorial up at OnStage Blog, about the bizarre phenomenon of support for Autism Speaks within the entertainment industry, why it needs to end, and its relationship to the catastrophe of Sia’s Music.

You can read it here!

February 2, 2021

Sorry, friend, no snacks today!

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , at 3:16 pm by chavisory

Image is of a fluffy grey-brown squirrel, cautiously edging towards me on the snow-covered handrail of a wooden bridge over a creek in Central Park.

January 21, 2021

Concluding “Reckoning of Joy”

Posted in Uncategorized at 1:51 pm by chavisory

A little over four years ago, I started a blog project called “Reckoning of Joy,” in order to keep track of whatever good in the world we could, as an antidote to the horror show that our news feeds and the world around us was quickly becoming, and to encourage and learn from each other about how good things happen even in bad times.

I was hugely inspired by Rebecca Solnit’s book Hope in the Dark, which I read in the week after the 2016 election. I had no idea how big or small of a project it might be, or how long it might last. I originally only planned to keep going until Trump was out of office, one way or another. Not without serious consideration, I decided to bring it to a close yesterday. I’m thankful for everyone who read, and everyone who contributed to the success of every single victory in this list.

“Reckoning of Joy” is the only blog project I’ve ever both started and ended, but I hope we all keep dreaming and organizing for bigger and better things.

January 11, 2021

The great and underused characters of the X-Files

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , at 5:10 pm by chavisory

Image is of two identical strawberry-blond young men in lab coats, who are actually alien-human hybrid clones.

[For anyone reading who might be working through the series for the first time, this post should be considered to contain significant spoilers for seasons 1-4, and minor ones for seasons 6 and 10.]

The more time I spend re-watching the X-Files, the more I come to believe that something I found intensely frustrating about it as a kid during the original run is, in fact, a huge strength of the show, which is that a great deal of story is actually taking place off-screen, or in ways that we’re just not being explicitly told. I think it’s easy to call it a lack of continuity, and many people do, but the older I get, the more appreciation I have for how much story it’s actually possible to perceive just out of our direct line of sight as viewers, and that the show makes you work for it a little bit.

Generally, I feel it’s a strength of the show’s narrative construction that it leaves you wanting more.

Nevertheless, there are a handful of characters who I continue to feel were under-used for what they were to the story, even if only marginally—for whom my frustration at what we didn’t get to see outweighs my enjoyment of that frustration.

And for me, this set of choices is distinct from what my list would be simply of favorite secondary characters who I nonetheless think we saw the correct amount of (Skinner, Krycek, Mr. X, Chuck Burks), great characters who just got a raw deal (Melissa, Pendrell, or the Lone Gunmen), or whose total and conspicuous absence feels calculated to say something all its own (Charles Scully).

Of course any number of different and valid choices could have been made for any number of characters in a show with such a large cast of supporting characters as the X-Files, but these are the ones who, to me, feel more like underutilized opportunities for the story as a whole.

With that…

5. Agent Henderson, handwriting expert
One of the things that sticks out to me in re-watching season 1 is that even though he had already become known as “Spooky” Mulder and deemed himself “the FBI’s most unwanted,” Mulder actually used to have good working relationships with other agents. He didn’t start out as the social outcast of the Bureau. We see him at the very least have amiable relationships with Reggie Purdue, with the never seen but ever-appreciated Danny Valadeo, and that his leadership is respected in the situation room in “Lazarus” as the plan to recover Scully from Jack and Lila unfolds. And it makes Mulder and Scully’s growing sense of isolation as the show wears on even more striking and tragic, particularly in the wake of the deaths of Agents Purdue, Willis, and Jerry Lamana. We also learn in “Young at Heart” that Mulder felt responsible for the death of Agent Steve Wallenberg, though we don’t know how well-acquainted they actually were.

One of these early associations of Mulder’s is with a handwriting analyst, Agent Henderson, who he consults in “Young at Heart,” and from the playfulness and comfort of their banter and her clear pleasure at showing off to him, evidently not for the first time.

There was a Twitter discussion at one point of whether anyone thought Mulder and Henderson had a “thing,” and I don’t think that’s it, although they certainly had a rapport, and I think Henderson had a little bit of a crush on Mulder. I think they both found each other refreshingly brash.

I do understand the need to use the screen time available to establish Mulder and Scully’s relationship with each other. I do not understand resisting the temptation to give at least one more scene to the woman who spoke the line, “Ten minutes may be enough time for you, Mulder. Of course I wouldn’t know that from personal experience.”

4. Miller and Einstein
While I get that there was a lot to hate about “Babylon,” one of the things that I didn’t was the introduction of Agents Kyd Miller and Elizabeth Einstein. I hoped it would mark the start of a reversal of the process by which we saw Mulder and Scully’s world become more and more isolated, lonely, and devoid of support. By this point in the series, we’ve seen Mulder and Scully lose their relationships with basically everyone but Skinner, and their trust in him is on shaky ground. Mulder has lost his entire family. Scully has lost both her parents, her sister, one child to death and another to adoption, and seems to barely have a relationship with her surviving brothers or nephews. Deep Throat, the Lone Gunmen, and Pendrell are dead. Mulder’s alienated from Senator Matheson. Doggett and Reyes are nowhere to be seen at this point. We haven’t seen Scully have any ties of friendship to another woman in years. (We see that she has female colleagues at Our Lady of Sorrows in I Want to Believe, but it doesn’t seem like she has great relationships with them.) I so wanted to see them start to regain all they’ve lost, starting with restoring friendships or good professional relationships again.

I liked the way “Babylon” was structured as a geometric expansion of older episodes like “Field Trip,” “Folie a Deux,” or “How the Ghosts Stole Christmas,” the theses of which were that Mulder and Scully both actually need each other’s worldviews to survive, only this time it was all four of these people, deeply at odds with each other’s methods and beliefs, who had to accept that they all needed each other’s insights to succeed and ultimately to save others’ lives. We see Mulder and Scully, in deciding to ask the assistance of their younger opposites, kind of induct Miller and Einstein into the bond formed by seeking knowledge and putting trust in a point of view other than one’s own.

And notwithstanding that most of “My Struggle II” turned out to be Scully’s seizure-induced hallucination, I think one of the revelatory things about it was that she does actually like and trust Einstein, who initially doesn’t seem to have a lot of respect for her—that when she saw herself problem-solving her way to defeat of a global pandemic with someone, it was her.

I thought the characters had a lot of potential to grow deeper than the slightly comic doppleganger versions of Mulder and Scully they were introduced to us as, and I wanted Einstein especially to have some experience to lead her to a deeper understanding of why Scully has stayed with Mulder all these years (because obviously being in love with him wasn’t enough in the end) and the value of the X-Files.

And it’s possible that this was actually envisioned for the conclusion of the season 12 Chris Carter has said he’d assumed he would get to write, but I would have loved to see the series end with a shot of Miller and Einstein taking over the X-files office to pick up from wherever Mulder and Scully finally decide to conclude their own journey.

3. Duane Barry
I admit that though I’ve been entranced and frustrated by this particular subplot of the myth-arc for years, I am somewhat torn in this choice. Because on the one hand, he was such a compelling character, but I think it would also have been very easy to err on the side of over-relying on him to tell myth-arc backstory. And because there’s incredible power in just how earthshattering his single appearance in the narrative was, how much it’s actually possible to infer given how very little we really learn about him, even in how reluctant Mulder is to even talk about him ever again.

He’s kind of a third rail of the mythology of the X-Files in that it’s very difficult to overestimate just how much of a linchpin he is to the subsequent narrative, and pretty much no one in the story wants to openly address that. Even the fandom alludes to it so seldom that sometimes I have a hard time telling whether it’s actually so obvious as to be considered not worth mentioning, or whether it was established a bit too underhandedly.

The conflict of the episode “Duane Barry” is framed largely around the question of whether he’s a reliable narrator of his own abduction experiences, with Kazdin assuming he is not and Mulder assuming he is (until Scully enters the scene with information about the nature of his prior brain injury). But the vastly more important piece of information he possesses, though he can barely speak coherently about it by that point, is the existence of a “secret corporation” in league with the military and alien conspiracy. Something Skinner, Mulder, and we the audience don’t learn is actually true until almost three years later (in “Redux II”).

I had also misremembered him speaking the line “There were men” in that same conversation with Mulder, but he actually says “There’s a man,” by which I have a hard time believing he doesn’t mean CSM.

And the show never really circles back around to have Mulder and Scully, or, I suspect, much of the audience, put those pieces together: that he knew, possibly before anyone, what was going on with Roush.

And that, I think it fairly safely follows, the approximate chances that his shooting was really an accident rather than a botched assassination attempt, are pretty close to zero.

And that would actually explain a lot about how the Syndicate and its cronies in the FBI deal with the problem Mulder presents, going to elaborate lengths to keep him contained, discouraged, and discredited rather than kill him outright.

Because the last time they tried to just have an inconvenient FBI agent murdered, it went really, really badly.

(And I know it’s a readily available explanation that CSM is reluctant to kill Mulder because he’s his son, but I really wonder how far that goes. He shot his son Jeffrey in the face himself the moment he was no longer expedient.)

The more I re-watch the series the more I want to know about Barry’s short and tragic FBI career and how he found out what he found out. He knew at least roughly who CSM was and the basic outline of the whole conspiracy long before anyone else puts it together, what happens to him as a result is a complete horror (in ways that we see echoes of in what happens to both Mulder and Scully over and over and over again throughout the rest of the series), and I think the show could’ve brought those threads full-circle and reconnected them to the mythology in a way that could’ve been far more cathartic.

2. Kurt Crawford
I’m conflicted about this choice, too, but slightly less.

I’ve always found it strange how little Kurt Crawford is remarked on given that he, or the clones choosing to bear his name, is one of the most eerie and pervasive presences throughout the whole first half of the original run of the show. We meet him only ever as an echo, having no information at all about who he was before, and yet in a way, we see him grow up, from the boys we first see floating in tanks in the “Erlenmeyer Flask” to the child versions being used as worker drones on the bee farm in “Herrenvolk,” to the adults we finally meet in “Memento Mori,” and then never see again.

What’s his back story? If it’s anything like Samantha’s, he could’ve been a family member of a Syndicate member, handed over to the alien colonists as a hostage, and yet we don’t see anyone fitting his description in the scene in “One Son” when we see that happen.

He could kind of be anyone.

And the clones of this person are engaged in one of the most stupidly brazen, morally courageous acts of subterfuge we see in the series, working to try to undermine the Project and find a way to save the dying women who have been its victims (and their mothers) from within its own labs.

How did they come together in their conviction to try this? Do the women of the Allentown MUFON group know who or what their contact Kurt Crawford really is? Did Betsy Hagopian? Or as a multiple abductee since her teen years (as Penny Northern tells us), did she possibly know his original? Did he know Samantha?

Is he still alive?

These are the things that make his possible back story so rich and yet so wide-open for speculation and interpretation that I’ve always been baffled that fanfic writers aren’t all over it. And while there’s a powerful, simple elegance in the arc of horrible snapshots of his story we were allowed to see, I also think that like one more scene of character arc or origin story for him could’ve turned this character from intriguing to beloved.

1. Poorboy
Not even a little conflicted about this.

The little blond boy who we meet in “The Unnatural,” both as a fan of Josh Exley and the Grays in the 1940’s, and as an errand boy for the former Officer Dales in the 1990’s, wearing the same old-fashioned clothes and snarking about Mulder being “a regular Rockefeller” in a strangely sophisticated manner, is strongly implied to be an alien shapeshifter himself.

This would make him at least one of if not the longest-surviving defector from the colonization project. What has he seen over the course of five decades spent evading detection as a little blond urchin this way? What does he know? While I think it was probably the right decision to leave this character’s history largely in a state of mystery, I also think he represents a lost opportunity to connect dots or deliver exposition. And I realize that since David Duchovny wrote this episode, this is a character who Chris Carter likely never envisioned carrying forward in any way. But we’ve got a character who’s a nearly complete blank slate, who’s just been…around…for 50 years or so, who could’ve been anywhere, doing anything for a lot of that time. Virtually any message that needed carrying, any one piece of information that needed to make its way from the 1940’s to the 1990’s or any points in between, between virtually any two other characters, could’ve been transmitted by Poorboy.

It’s uncommon for me to argue that a character needed to be more of a plot device, but Poorboy and what was implied about him represented an almost limitless opportunity to increase intrigue and connection between characters and disparate threads of the mythology, while also leaving us with even more questions.

December 30, 2020

Waterways

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , at 7:07 pm by chavisory

I went out on a final hike of the year yesterday, since it was supposed to be cold but clear. The inlet of Spuyten Duyvil Creek was mostly a frozen mud flat, but whether due to natural currents or use by water birds, some little rivulets remained free-flowing.

December 25, 2020

The beginning, not the end

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , at 5:12 pm by chavisory

In some ways I started saying it as an excuse. For why I didn’t want to take my tree down yet, or for cards or presents that were almost certainly not going to arrive in the mail by December 25. “Christmas lasts until January 6. It’s still Christmas until then.” As long as a card or a letter or package arrives before then? It’s not late! It’s still Christmas!

And it’s true, even though that’s not really how most of us celebrate or think about it anymore, but Christmas is a 12-day festival that lasts from December 25 to January 6, when Epiphany commemorates the arrival of the Magi to greet the baby Jesus (which I think most of us had explained at some point after being confused for a portion of our childhoods at the carol “The Twelve Days of Christmas”).

But over the past several years, in all honesty, learning to think about Christmas this way has actually helped me appreciate it more for what I think it’s supposed to be, rather than always being overwhelmed and exhausted leading up to it and then having it be over before I know it while I was too tired to truly enjoy it.

I wish that as a society, we’d bend back towards a 12-day celebration of Christmas.

It’s helped me not feel like Christmas is just one more project or production that I’m not going to have done in time, another endpoint or deadline, rather than a period of time in which I get to exist in the world differently. It takes a lot of emotional pressure off the day to be the perfect fulfillment of the Christmas season, to be everything possible to everyone. It makes it a lot harder to “ruin” Christmas, if Christmas isn’t just one day. It’s harder for the entire preceding month’s work to feel like a waste if Christmas isn’t over at the stroke of midnight on December 25, but only beginning, if the day didn’t go as planned. It helps make room for large, scattered, blended, and messier families. Between divorced parents, grandparents, step-family, and siblings who now have their own and their spouses’ and partners’ families, it is virtually impossible that I get to see everyone on either Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. But Christmas gatherings spread out over the days after the 25th don’t have to be considered late or of diminished importance. Usually I wind up having Christmas with my mother and siblings on the 28th or so, after whatever traveling we’ve all had to do to see family elsewhere.

…And I think it could really, really cut down on the temptation of retailers and radio stations to start playing Christmas music a few days after Halloween. There is going to be plenty of time to actually enjoy that music–during Christmas. There’d be no need to keep pushing the commencement of the Christmas season earlier and earlier into the year to make sure we wring every possible drop of enjoyment out of it, if we just took advantage of the holiday as it actually exists.

A longer celebration of Christmas says there will be time. To listen to all the damn Christmas music we want. To see everyone we need to see even if it can’t be all at once. To rest and enjoy everything we worked so hard for. It says things take as long as they take, and that’s okay. The doing is part of the celebration.

Writing Christmas cards, I took a deep breath to remember, busier this year than it should be possible to be without a job, isn’t about getting them done and in the mail “on time.” It’s something I’m spending my time leading up to Christmas doing because I appreciate my friends and family, and am deciding to spend this time this way because I wanted to and enjoy doing it. If they get there after Christmas Day, someone still knows I’m thinking of them and wishing them well.

And I wonder even if those realities of modern life–that Christmas likely means travel to multiple family gatherings over several days (at least, not in a pandemic year), and snarled mail delivery, might start leading us to expand how we think about Christmas again. There’s too much to do in one day. And there’s actually no reason at all that we have to.

The Christmas story didn’t unfold in one day and the celebration of it doesn’t need to. Jesus said “I am come that they might have life, and have it more abundantly.”

We don’t have to accept a false scarcity of time during Christmas. Christmas Day is the beginning of Christmas, not the end of it.

This year especially, I’m finding it reassuring to consider Christmas a period of time set aside for a reason, to find joy and rest, and not as an event that I’m missing out on. Christmas this year is going to be quieter and lonelier than I wanted, but it will also still be these things. I’m having dinner with my neighbor from across the hall, watching the Muppet Christmas Carol and The Lion in Winter. It turned out to be impossible to buy candied fruit mix anywhere in NYC this month (which honestly feels like a fitting end to a year in which it was at various times impossible to buy milk, bread, flour, breakfast sausage, frozen pizza, pasta, hand soap, or toilet paper) to make my great-grandmother’s fruit bars, a Christmas tradition in my mother’s family, so instead I’m taking some time to experiment with making Nantucket cranberry cake, and a friend’s lemon cookie recipe. I’m not going to get to go to church, but reading, writing, and hiking.

My present from my mother didn’t get here in the mail in time for this morning, but it’s fine, because it’ll still be Christmas tomorrow.

For those of us who are separated from our families and friends this year, who aren’t having the Christmas we wish we were, I hope we can at least find it a time of rest and restoration, today and over the next eleven days, and a way to see it as the beginning of a return to better ones.

Image is of a small rock, which someone has painted with yellow and white stripes and the word “joy” in red and green letters, and left amid fallen leaves, on the rocks by our waterfall in Central Park.

November 30, 2020

Riverside, November

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , at 6:26 pm by chavisory

I was finally lured onto Instagram, despite not really wanting another social media platform, by a combination of the fact that it’s becoming ever more important in theaters’ publicity and marketing strategies (or at least it was before the shutdown, and I presume it will continue to be afterward) and some artists I really wanted to follow.

This is one of the first photos I was playing with filtering, from a recent evening walk in Riverside Park.

A squirrel and I nearly gave each other a mutual heart attack shortly before I snapped this picture, as I was leaning over this wall to take a breather just as he was coming up over the edge from the woods below.

October 22, 2020

The women are telling the truth: sexism and “The Princess Bride”

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , at 6:30 pm by chavisory

I did not get to watch the Princess Bride virtual reunion recently; I was elbows deep in a copy editing situation on the night of the event, but I followed along a little bit on Twitter, and much like any number of sporting events I was not listening to but could pretty much tell what was happening from the enthusiastic noise of my neighbors, I could basically tell where in the script we were by the state of Twitter at any given moment throughout the evening. Like most people my age, I’ve seen that movie so many times I can more or less recite it from memory with very little prompting.

Though I have encountered assertions of the movie’s sexism before, I have tended not to entertain them seriously, and was a bit taken aback when one appeared in the course of the event.

And while I can entertain the possibility that like other works I loved in childhood whose faults were brought to my attention later, it’s possible to be so familiar and so in love with the Princess Bride as to have become oblivious to its deeper problems. On reflection, though, in this case, I don’t believe it’s the case here. While there are a lot of criticisms of his movie I think we can fairly make in this day and age, that it is sexist is, I thought, a one-dimensional or at least insufficient assessment.

People love this movie the way they love it for more than the exceptionally quippy dialogue, after all. And they didn’t turn out in the numbers they did to watch a table read, over Zoom, for a state-level Democratic Party fundraiser, 33 years after it came out, for a movie that’s just irredeemably sexist.

But I decided to examine the issue closely, at the end of which, not only did I not conclude that the Princess Bride is a sexist movie, but I wound up loving it even more deeply in ways I had never quite articulated to myself.

*

While I’ve never felt much commonality with Buttercup, I’ve never really felt, either, that she’s useless or just “silently beautiful,” and I think that’s because closer examination reveals it not to be true.

In fact, she does, more than once, try to effect her own escape. She doesn’t succeed, but she doesn’t simply wait for rescue, either, and I think what many people mistake for her passivity or inaction is actually her judiciousness in awaiting opportunities in which she even has a chance. She takes those when she has them, and when she doesn’t think they’ll only result in injury to someone else she cares about: when she first tries to jump off the stern of Vizzini’s boat and swim to freedom while his back is turned, and when she takes advantage of the Dread Pirate Roberts’s distraction with the approach of the Prince’s search party to just shove him down a hill.

Yes, Buttercup spends a lot of the movie being carried around by men. But then, on reflection, so does Westley.

Image is of Westley being propped up on a castle rampart by Inigo and Fezzik, too weak to support himself because he’s been mostly dead all day.

It is often noted that the few prominent female characters in this movie inhabit certain stereotypes about female characters: The beautiful but largely decorative princess in need of rescuing, the shrill and demanding wife, and the old hag.

Admittedly, this is not Buttercup’s action story. She is not an adventurer or a swordswoman or a particularly ambitious person. But that she is not those things doesn’t make the character or the movie sexist, and to understand what Buttercup is in this story, I think it actually helps to compare her to everyone else in the ensemble.

The Princess Bride looks like a fairy tale you think you know. It has all the familiar characters: Prince and princess, pirate, giant, scheming trickster, swordsman, magician. It goes through many of the same motions. But it is not telling the same story.

And the characters of the Princess Bride inhabit familiar tropes, but they do not accept helplessness within those tropes. All of them are resourceful, all of them make use of the knowledge, and the power, that they have access to.

In some cases, that is not a lot. These are not the people most valued or empowered within their society. Nineteenth-century Florin is a beautiful country, but it is not a progressive one.

A friend mentioned resenting Buttercup getting the Penelope treatment, and while on one hand I think that’s a very fair thing to be annoyed by, on the other, I also think it’s kind of implicit in what the movie is doing. The story of Odysseus and Penelope is one of the resonances being played with in this one. We’re supposed to resent it. Westley, for all his good-heartedness, doesn’t seem to grasp in certain ways that Buttercup doesn’t have a choice in the position she’s in. None of what’s happening is her fault, and we should be annoyed for her when Westley questions her faithfulness because he doesn’t 1000% understand how little power she really has in the situation, how vulnerable a woman of humble birth is in his own society. It is annoying, but I think it’s more a statement about sexism than it is an expression of it, even though it’s not explicitly called out in this moment.

Buttercup occupies a constrained social role within the world of Florin and Guilder, but that is no more the movie’s stance about her than it is about any of the male protagonists, as I think we’ll see.

What all of the protagonists say in some way is “This story does not have to go the way somebody else already decided it has to go for us.”

I saw Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure for the first time recently (I was slightly too young for it when it first came out), having heard a friend say (interestingly enough, in a discussion of the depth of influence of Richard Matheson on American storytelling), that given the ludicrousness of the premise, it works because the funniest possible choice was made at every single opportunity. And the Princess Bride is now such an immensely familiar movie that I think it’s possible we’ve all lost sight of it—but it is the movie it is because at every single opportunity, somebody makes the most unexpected possible choice, which all turn out to carry vastly more power than the choice they were expected to make in the fairy tale we assume we’re in, and sometimes that the characters themselves assume they’re in.

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

“I didn’t have to miss.”

“We’ll never survive.
Nonsense. You’re only saying that because no one ever has.”

What does Buttercup ever do that’s useful? Well, if she doesn’t stop Westley from dying for her right when she does, there’s no rest of this story. The first truly powerful thing Buttercup does isn’t an act of physical prowess, but it’s utterly in line with the actions of the male protagonists in this way. She fundamentally alters how we all assume a story like this is supposed to go. Including Humperdinck and Westley, to the extent that her interjection “Will you promise not to hurt him?” into their first confrontation prompts them both to exclaim “What was that?!”

There isn’t a daring, romantic, against-all-odds sword fight right in this moment because Buttercup decides “You don’t die here like this.”

These characters always undermine how the story supposedly has to go for people like them, either because it’s what’s expected of them or because it’s what somebody more powerful decrees.

*

In truth, I felt a new respect and empathy for Buttercup when I rewatched the movie most recently. (Unbelievably, I think I hadn’t actually seen it for at least 16 years, since that’s how long it’s been since I last had access to a VCR at home.)

I never really knew how to identify with Buttercup. I wasn’t pretty growing up. I’m not now. Nobody was ever going to cross an ocean for my beauty, or even for my love.

Humperdinck, of course, doesn’t love Buttercup, but it turns out he doesn’t even desire her for her beauty. He’s holding her up as a symbol to Florin’s populace before he sacrifices her to his own political whims as leverage to go to war with Guilder.

And she as an individual has so little power in the face of Count Rugen and Humperdinck’s machinations, but it still matters that she makes use of what she has. She can’t free herself from Humperdinck, she can’t free Westley from Rugen, but that she refuses to let Westley die for her in the first place buys time until all the other threads of the story can come together. In that moment on the other side of the Fire Swamp, she personifies not destroying what you hate, but saving what you love. Westley will ultimately make the same choice. When he could kill Humperdinck, he instead leaves him impotently, comically, tied to a chair. (And in another interesting parallel, it’s Buttercup who forestalls an actual duel between Westley and Humperdinck near the beginning of the movie, and Westley who does it at the end–once again because he’s in a situation in which he cannot succeed with superior violence.)

We, like Buttercup, in this moment, are being abused by a regime of utter self-absorption and capriciousness for its own wealth and glory, which enjoys using the American people as a symbol and excuse for its abuses of power, but cares nothing, in actuality, for our lives or well-being. And there is so little that she, individually, can do about it, but she still does it, even when it’s only to call Humperdinck out for being exactly what he is—and even though she has no hope of succeeding on her own, it still matters that she does. It matters that her stalling helps buy time for Westley to get into the castle. Even when Humperdinck severely abridges the formalities of their wedding ceremony to attempt to effect their marriage without her consent, it matters in the end that she didn’t just go along and say the words—that she didn’t consent. It matters that the combined effects of her stalling and the friends’ assault on the castle force Humperdinck to dispense with even the appearance of legitimacy of their marriage.

“You didn’t say it, you didn’t do it,” Westley notes, somewhat redeeming himself from his earlier suspicion of Buttercup’s loyalty. She and Humperdinck aren’t married; she’s legally free to abscond with Westley if she can get out of the castle with him. She couldn’t free herself by herself but it mattered until the last minute that she would not provide her assent to what was happening.

“Many people outside the loop think that it’s too late to do anything, which, as premature despair always does, excuses us for doing nothing. Though there are diverse opinions quite a lot of insiders think that what we do now matters tremendously, because the difference between the best and worst case scenarios is vast, and the future is not yet written,” writes Rebecca Solnit in Hope in the Dark about continuing to act against climate change even when it seems already too late to prevent or reverse it entirely, because the difference between the worst case scenario and a merely bad one can be vast, and the future is not known. That continued resistance in the face of probable failure increases the chances for success of an eleventh-hour effort, or at least mitigation of damage or destruction.

*

The villains in this movie are all fakers: Vizzini fancies himself the cleverest man alive; he is far from it, as it quickly turns out. Though we know he doesn’t really love her, even Humperdinck’s desire for Buttercup’s beauty isn’t real. While he convincingly portrays himself as an upstanding ruler, he’s actually planning to plunge his nation into war. Count Rugen, while genuinely probably the cruelest character, only turns out to be unflinching as long as he’s facing a child or an incapacitated man.

The heroes, on the other hand, all inhabit duality in that while all of them are extraordinary or even freakish in some way, they succeed, actually, when they make choices in line with their humanity, their conscience, their ordinariness. Westley/the Dread Pirate Roberts, with a reputation as one of the most feared and murderous pirates on the high seas, is also just fundamentally decent enough not to kill two henchmen who aren’t actually the people he has a gripe with in his pursuit of Vizzini and Buttercup, and they turn out to be his salvation.

The men in particular, Fezzik and Inigo, who would be the sidekicks in any other movie but to whom the bulk of action in this movie belongs, specifically undermine typical expectations of male heroes grounded in toxic masculinity. We love them for their vulnerabilities, their humor, kindness, sense of fairness, and open affection for each other much more than for their physical strength or skill with a sword or capacity for violence.

And what are the women in this scheme?

All of the prominent women in this story—Buttercup, Valerie, the old hag—are the truth-tellers. And moreover, they tell the truth about who the other characters are.

Buttercup doesn’t hesitate to name the Dread Pirate Roberts for who he is when she realizes, though he’s known as one of the most dangerous and deadly pirates of the seas. Once she realizes that Humperdinck has lied to her about looking for Westley, she calls him out unsparingly for the exactly the cowardly slimeball he is. She doesn’t even realize she’s probably saving her own life here; she has no real reason to think she’s in mortal personal danger from Humperdinck himself, as opposed to him just being a possessive, entitled coward (indeed, she’s very openly planning her suicide). For all she knows, it would be safer to remain beautifully quiet. She doesn’t.

Valerie gets Westley’s life saved by refusing to tolerate Max’s dissembling and avoidance of the situation at hand and by telling the truth about what Humperdinck did to Max.

The old hag of Buttercup’s dream (or “the Ancient Booer,” as she’s credited) is a more difficult case. She isn’t real, for one. She doesn’t turn out to be a powerful fairy, evil queen, or trickster goddess as in other familiar incarnations of such a character in other tales. She’s Buttercup’s nightmare, and she isn’t actually right. She is what Buttercup fears about her true character and her motivations.

But what she does accurately is call out the ugliness and corruption underneath a seemingly beautiful public façade. She’s not right about Buttercup but she’s honest. And Buttercup does go to the Prince, tell the truth about her feelings for Westley, and try to call off the wedding, if not for which she never would’ve detected Humperdinck’s lie about having returned Westley to his ship, or having sent the four fastest ships in his armada to retrieve him.

The women are all telling the truth about who other characters are and about the corruption of a situation that no one else is willing to acknowledge or deal with. It is such a consistent pattern that while the spoken thesis statement of the movie is “Death cannot stop true love,” the unspoken one could virtually be “The women are telling the truth.”

And I am forced to think about Christine Blassey Ford, Stormy Daniels, Hillary Clinton, and Elizabeth Warren, whose testimony mattered when they told the truth about the character of a man, even when they couldn’t stop what was happening from happening anyway. Although in at least one case it did:

And if “The women are telling the goddamned truth” isn’t a sufficient message for a progressive movie in the 21st century, it seems to be one we could still stand to learn.

*

I also feel the need to return to an issue I noted before, in considering the alleged ableism of The Shape of Water: The character espousing the views often attributed in criticism to the movie is in fact the villain. Strickland, who devalues Elisa because of her disability, femaleness, lack of beauty, and poverty, who sees her and the Amphibian Man as monstrosities who don’t belong to this world—is the bad guy.

Prince Humperdinck, likewise, is the bad guy in this movie. His views are the ones that we are supposed to challenge, not accept. And he is the one who believes that Buttercup is nothing but a pretty but passive and empty-headed girl who won’t raise a finger in her own defense. We’re not supposed to.

Humperdinck also discounts the possibility that she’s important enough to anyone else that they might come after her and spoil his plans. After all, there’s not that much special about her aside from her beauty.

That’s part of the point. Again, all of these characters are coveted by someone else because of how they’re extraordinary. They become important to each other in the ways that they aren’t, and not merely as a means to an end.

And Westley loves Buttercup, and that’s enough that he would go to the ends of the earth to rescue her.

*

I didn’t realize initially just how appropriate and timely the choice of a reading of the Princess Bride specifically was to this present political situation, as opposed to just being fun, nostalgic, and also guaranteed to draw an outpouring of enthusiasm and support from people of a certain age who otherwise are not the most enthralled with the Democratic Party or Joe Biden as a candidate. But it’s the story of a very imperfect collection of faulted people coming together to defeat a cruel and petty despot because of their willingness to help each other reach an intertwined set of goals.

“It is what it is because you are who you are,” Joe Biden told Donald Trump in this past week’s first presidential debate, as is the sham and failure of Humperdinck’s rule because of who he is, and in a sublime and subversively beautiful way, the happy ending of the Princess Bride is what it is because its central characters are exactly who they are.

The stubborn and the stupid can work the weirdest miracles if we just don’t think too much.

And while in many ways it is not a particularly groundbreaking or innovative story as far as its portrayal of women, but neither does it consider them inferior or helpless, rather than central to the conscience and thesis of the film, and so, in my estimation, anyway, I have a hard time considering it fundamentally sexist.

And on that note, given the season, I’ll just leave you with this sentiment.

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