Three Things Thursday: Quizzes, Controversy, and Jane
Big Fat Quizzes
If you haven’t noticed, this week has been pretty terrible. On most fronts. And so perhaps it’s not surprising that I’ve spent most of the week going back to one of my pop culture comfort foods: the Big Fat Quiz of [the Year/Everything/Decade]. The Quiz is a comedy panel show in the form of a pub quiz hosted by Jimmy Carr, usually done at the end of the year. As with most such shows, it does tend to live and die based on its panelists—for my tastes, Richard Ayoade typically signals a good one, especially when he’s working against Noel Fielding. (Also, I just now discovered one that features my beloved Cat Deeley, so that’s a nice little bonus.)
I don’t have much to say about them, beyond that they’re typically good for a laugh even if you don’t follow British news and culture super closely, and right now, that’s nigh invaluable. Here’s one, to get you started—then you can let the YouTube rabbit hole take care of you from there. (Consider this your language warning, if that’s something that concerns you.)
Jane the Virgin
Listen, y’all. I keep trying to find a way to open this entry—to quantify the sheer joy that Jane the Virgin (and Jane herself!) brings to my life each time it airs an episode—and I keep coming up empty. It’s a high-wire balancing act of a show that seamlessly blends incredibly grounded emotional work with over-the-top telenovela antics, often in the same moment. It has a clear-eyed vision of its own purpose, too, which allows it to maintain a generosity of spirit even in the face of its more convoluted, ridiculous plotlines. (Two characters lived on a submarine for a while, and somehow that just…makes sense? I don’t know how the show pulls that off.) Three seasons in, Jane continues to be the show that makes me happiest each week, so let’s go to the gifs! (I’m going picture heavy on you now, cause you go a wall of text headed your way soon.)
The Villanueva Women
This show could just be about Jane, Xiomara, and Abuela sitting together on their porch swing—or their couch, or their kitchen table—as three generations of women working through the ways their differences in faith, politics, relationships, and behavior challenge one another, and it would absolutely be enough. These three women are the core of the show, and shots like the one above are a frequent and powerful reminder of that fact.
But the show is about more than that, too, and much of its admiration for and deconstruction of the telenovela genre comes through Rogelio de la Vega, telenovela star and Jane’s father. Jaime Camil is perfect as Rogelio, finding the core of pure humanity in the show’s most self-aggrandizing character.
The Latin Lover Narrator
Few shows with narrators truly merit them, and fewer actually use those narrators to interesting effect. But on Jane, the Latin Lover Narrator, as he is known, is as indispensible as the Villanuevas themselves. He shares the viewers’ excitement for unexpected turns of events, and jumps in with snark at the moments we need it most. In the most recent episode, the show uses the narration to call attention to how complicated the show’s plots have become: during his recap of the events of the season so far, he pauses for a “recap within the recap!” to keep everyone on track. More importantly, as in the gif above, the show employs the narrator and on-screen text to provide more direct political commentary than any of the characters are able to offer in the moment. The call for immigration reform is but one example of the show’s ethos, which lends it an intentional and invaluable relevance to today’s political climate.
Jane the Virgin, a quiet little CW show, attempts a more complicated bit of work each week than most of the “prestige” shows that end up on best-of lists at the end of the year. I called it a perfect show on Twitter this week, which is, yes, a bit of hyperbole. (It has some work to do with its LGBT characters, for instance.) But it is certainly my happiest show. And sometimes that’s more than enough.
Carve the Mark
Okay. Let’s do this.
Carve the Mark is Veronica Roth’s first novel since the conclusion of her immensely popular (and also immensely criticized, in the way these things work) Divergent series. On its own, this would have been enough to generate conversation surrounding the book—and the excitement many felt in the lead up to its release would suggest that it succeeded on that front. But the novel has also generated conversation of an entirely different sort: impassioned critiques and defenses of its attempts at representation.
In short form, the novel is a science-fiction story in which a young man named Akos is, along with his brother Eijeh, kidnapped and taken from his home. The brothers are “fated”—that is, all the worlds’ oracles see their futures as a fixed point in time—and thus valuable. Eventually, Akos is pressed into the service of Cyra, the sister of the cruel man who kidnapped him. Cyra, like everyone else in the story, has a “currentgift,” which is a particular talent that in some way reflects their inner selves. For Cyra, that means she is in constant pain—and that touching anyone causes them pain, as well. Anyone, that is, except for Akos, whose gift negates other currentgifts. You can see where that particular paring is headed, no?
The critiques of the novel have come in two major areas. The first is in its racial representation. Justina Ireland explained, upon reading a review copy of the book in December, that the book relied upon the troubling trope of the “dark-skinned aggressor” in its comparisons between worlds. The second has come from the language that surrounds the novel’s presentation of Cyra’s chronic pain: that it is a “currentgift” (emphasis on gift), and that it signals some inherent piece of her personality. Tess Sharpe and many others have spoken on Twitter about why this framework can be hurtful to those who live with chronic pain—notably in the way that it seems to suggest that Cyra’s pain is deserved, or her own fault.
I gave serious consideration to not reading the book, off of these critiques, but I chose to do so anyway. In part, I did so because responses to the representation within the book were far from unanimous—a number of thoughtful readers had different interpretations of the issues raised by the text, in a way that didn’t feel inherently reactionary. I also did so because, well, it’s my job. There are certainly books I’ve drawn a hard line about, but this one seemed to fall outside that category for me.
Whatever, you’re saying, just talk about the book. Well, you’re kind of bossy today, but fine. I can take a hint. Here’s my hot take: this book exists entirely in the middle ground.
I have no interest in defending the novel from either of the above claims, because it is, inarguably, guilty of them. The Shotet people, who kidnap Akos, live in a culture dictated by violence. They have legal fights to the death in public arenas, and the “mark” of the title is a reference to the cuts that they carve into their arms after taking a life. Their ruler, Cyra’s brother Ryzek, is a vicious man who has many opponents tortured and killed, and their annual cultural ritual is centered on scavenging from the trash and debris of another planet. The pieces of the harmful trope, then, are all there.
But I also understand those who are willing to grant the text more leeway in this area. The arena fights aren’t given much nuance, but many of the other pieces of Cyra’s culture are. This begins, in part, by giving only Cyra’s chapters a first-person point of view, compared to the third-person of Akos’s chapters—while we are introduced to Akos first, I would argue that this at least suggests that we are meant to identify more closely with Cyra. Later, we learn that the marks aren’t only about murder or kills, but are about loss more broadly, and that Ryzek might be a cruel, terrible man, but he still has to find ways to distance himself from the act of killing. The scavenging, in particular, is treated with respect: for Cyra, at least, it is a ritual about renewal and embracing what has been left behind.* None of this inherently overwrites the problems, but there is the possibility, at least, for nuance here.
*Which is not to suggest that it is entirely peaceful; violence occurs on these scavenging trips, but its context is too muddied for me to have a solid read on it.
The same tension exists in the depiction of Cyra’s currentgift. The cultural and scientific knowledge surrounding currentgifts says that one’s currentgift is dictated by one’s inner self, and we see many characters for whom this appears to be true: Akos’s father, for instance, has a hair-trigger temper, and his gift thus can be used to break and repair things, while his sister, Cisi, has a personality that helps people relax, which is reflected in her currentgift. And, as noted above, the very phrasing of “currentgift” suggests on its own that the result is meant to be viewed as a positive. If Cyra’s currentgift is pain, then, it would indicate that it comes from her own emotional struggles, and that there is a positive outcome to be gained from it.
The book’s relationship to this interpretation is an uneasy one. While I do not think the text intends to support such a perspective, I think it falls into a trap similar to that of its racial representation. It presents the argument it wishes to make, but may not succeed in actually making it. Cyra’s mother is quick to push back against the notion that Cyra wants to be in pain, in an early scene where they consult a doctor, and Cyra regularly rejects the notion that her pain is a gift. And we do see small examples of the ways in which currentgifts are not solely gifts—as the quote that opens this section shows, each one carries a drawback with it, as well.
And yet. (More specific spoilers in the next paragraph.)
The doctor Cyra and her mother consult early in the book tells her, “Cyra, the gift comes from you. If you change, the gift will, too” (55). And while this is the moment her mother storms out of his office in anger, the book eventually proves him right. Later, in a moment of crisis, Cyra has the following realization: “The gift,” I said, “is the strength the curse has given me.” The new answer was like a blooming hushflower, petals unfurling. “I can bear it. I can bear pain. I can bear anything” (311). In this scene, Cyra realizes that her pain has made her strong, which she situates as a true gift.** Moreover, this is when her gift changes. While she still has pain across the rest of the book, she gains a new control over it. She realizes that Akos does not “deserve” pain, and so she takes it into herself, because she can bear it—or, from a more cynical perspective, because she finally realizes that she does deserve it. But either way, the doctor is right. She changed, so her gift changed. By building the arc in a way that validates the doctor’s claims, it undermines the novel’s attempts to complicate the representation of chronic pain that’s at work here.
**The origin of her gift—as a defense against her brother’s cruelty—is also a factor in this transformation, but I don’t think it’s enough to dismantle the other issues.
I would also argue that this inability to completely stick the landing can be found across the book. Another piece of the book that I found concerning came from the power dynamics between Cyra and Akos while they fall in love. He is a prisoner—effectively a forced laborer—throughout most of the novel, and while he does express some resistance to the notion of caring for Cyra, the fact that they are not on equal footing is only lightly explored. Certainly, the argument can be made that Cyra is trapped, too, but they are certainly not trapped in the same way. The book wants to recognize the problems inherent to this, then, but not enough to foreground it.*** It is—again—stuck in the middle ground. The second book in the series has the opportunity to help elevate out of this middling space by actually unpacking all of these issues…if, and only if, the text displays a committed attempt to do so.
***This gap became especially notable to me in the wake of my rereading of The Winner’s trilogy. A similarly uncomfortable power dynamic exists at first in that series—but it is meant to make us uncomfortable, and becomes a significant thematic element in developing the primary relationship.
Overall, then, I’d argue that the book comes down to good intentions, poorly executed. I cannot freely argue in favor of the book’s virtues, but I also recognize that there are many readers who might find value in Carve the Mark’s attempts to engage with these subjects. But this kind of work, in which the problems are significant but have the potential to be dismissed, only makes it more important, not less, to listen to those such as Justina Ireland as they work through the consequences of the kinds of representation the book offers. Especially given that Carve the Mark is the start of what is all-but-guaranteed to be a massive commercial success—and therefore might have ramifications for YA literature in the years to come.
Bonus Round: What I Read This Week
Carve the Mark by Veronica Roth
The Valiant by Lesley Livingston