When Does a Fantasy Become Harmful?

Although I love video games and although I love Greek mythology, the God of War series never really crossed my path until recently. Now, I still haven’t played it, so I can’t say anything about the quality of the game or the plot or anything like that. All that I’ve seen is one scene, but as this scene wasn’t overly complicated or difficult to interpret, I feel fairly confident discussing at least it.

In God of War 3, your protagonist Kratos – a Spartan demigod with more muscles than Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime – enters into Aphrodite’s chambers (Aphrodite, for those of you who aren’t aware, being the Greek goddess of love and sexuality). He finds her almost naked, laying in a bed with her handmaidens and having some sexy-fun-time with them (because lesbians). Upon seeing Kratos, Aphrodite banishes her sexy handmaidens to the other side of the room so that she can have a conversation with him, during which she is lounging out on the bed, rolling around, and very clearly trying to seduce Kratos (because boobs). After the conversation is over, the player then has the option to give into Aphrodite’s seduction. If the player does this, we see Kratos descend upon the bed, before the camera pans off of them and onto Aphrodite’s handmaidens across the room, who then proceed to watch the bed and swoon and sigh over Kratos’s supposedly exceptional lovemaking, making comments about how jealous they are of their mistress while simultaneously groping each other.

Now, the critiques of this scene are obvious. It is both objectifying to women and fetishizing bisexual women. But that being said, I can already hear the defence against this critique: that it isn’t supposed to be taken at face value. It’s all a fantasy, intended to make Kratos look like the manliest manly man that ever lived, not only exceptional at fighting and looking awesome, but also at pleasing the ladies.

And trust me, I get that argument. I love fantasies in the media. In fact, some of my favourite story lines are power fantasies, intended to make the viewer feel like they are strong and capable by making you relate to the all-powerful, impossibly strong hero. Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, these are all power fantasies.

But at the same time, they are different from what we see happening in the scene from God of War 3.

The thing about Spider-Man that makes him and his story arch very different from this scene is, well, content. Spider-Man is awesome because he fights crime, he has super powers, he looks like an average teenager but is actually secretly awesome. And at the same time, Spider-Man is awesome in a way that most young people know isn’t real. When it comes to things like superheroes, parents tend to be quick to remind their kids that, yes, Spider-Man is awesome, but in real life, people don’t have super powers and they don’t fight crime in quite the same way. When it comes to discussions of sexuality, parents don’t tend to be quite so quick to talk to their children.

When I saw this scene from God of War 3, the first thing that it reminded me of was… well, pornography. Not because it foregrounded sexuality, but because of how unrealistically it depicted sexuality. Let’s all just agree: Aphrodite did not act like a real woman would. Neither does she or Kratos look the way that the average man or woman does; they are both idealized versions of what society thinks their gender should look like. And nobody in the history of the universe has made comments like the ones that the handmaidens made about Kratos’s lovemaking. This is all fake, and it is fake with the intention of pandering to the man and his ego, while most pornography is similarly made with a male viewer in mind.

And for many children in the western world, pornography is their introduction to sexuality. According to a report made by the BBC in 2016, 53% of children aged eleven to sixteen have seen pornography online, and of these children, 53% of boys and 39% of girls saw it as a realistic depiction of sex. And, look – I’m not trying to shame you if you watch pornography, all that I am saying is that pornography is not only unrealistic, it is centred around catering to a male gaze and a male ego. Like this scene from God of War 3, it is a fantasy, but when no one is talking to young people about this topic or offering them an alternative way of looking at it, it becomes easier to accept it as truth.

To put it in perspective, it would sort of be like if every single movie made for young boys was Spider-Man, and every single young boy knew that super powers existed, but they weren’t allowed to see it or talk about or hear about it ever; after a while, they’d start to question why they don’t have web-swinging powers, and why some girls look and act differently from Mary Jane.

But let’s talk about another issue that this scene discusses; female bisexuality. Like sex, bisexuality isn’t really talked about or represented in our media. The only bisexual characters that I can think of off the top of my head in mainstream media is Maureen Johnson from Rent and Piper Chapman from Orange is the New Black (both of whom are despicable human beings, but anyway…). In fact, probably the greatest representation of female bisexuality is, again, in pornography, meaning that you are more likely to see bisexual women having sex in our media than you are to see them going about their day or doing their jobs or anything like that.

But let’s go back to the scene from God of War 3, and let’s talk about the issue of desire here. Because, yes, Aphrodite starts out making out with her handmaidens, and yes, when Kratos is in bed with Aphrodite, the handmaidens are groping each other. But throughout all of this, the primary object of their desire is always Kratos, a man. Aphrodite sends her handmaidens away so that she can seduce Kratos instead. When the handmaidens are groping each other, their eyes are constantly on Kratos and they are going on about how hot he is. In fact, I am almost hesitant to describe them as bisexual, because outside of a few small sexual acts, they express nearly no desire for women; it always goes back to the man. And I have absolutely no doubt that the reason why the animators included these small sexual acts into the game was not because they wanted to represent Aphrodite as a strong, bisexual woman, but because they thought that it would be a nice treat for the presumed straight male player to see.

As I discussed before, this scene is harmful toward women in general because it perpetuates these unrealistic expectations that men have about how women should look and how they should behave sexually. But in some ways, it is almost more harmful toward bisexual women, because it perpetuates a very harmful stereotype that we all live with from the moment we come out of the closet: that we aren’t actually bisexual, we’re just trying to get attention from men.

This stereotype is one that hinges on dismissing the existence of bisexual women (and bisexual people in general). It portrays them, not as their own sexual orientation, but as promiscuous straight women – and as much as it is not okay to treat women differently depending on how many sexual partners they have had, it is an unfortunate fact in our society that that frequently happens, and it happens to bisexual women from the moment that we come out of the closet. Because of this stereotype, bisexual women are frequently dismissed, by straight men and lesbians alike, as ‘dirty’, a good, quick fuck but not actually worthy of love. Because of this stereotype, bisexual women are seen as ‘owing’ sex to men, because they obviously went to all the work of seducing them by being bisexual, and as a result, 61.1% of bisexual women are raped by an intimate partner, while 46% of bisexual women report being raped at any point in their lives, compared to 17% of straight women and 13% of lesbians. And don’t even get me started on the emotional side-effects of being consistently told, by both straight people and the LGBT community, that you aren’t enough, you’re too dirty, too promiscuous, to be accepted.

But, hey, maybe this stereotype would be less frequently relied upon if our media would just give us alternative representations of bisexuality.

So to sum this all up: when is a fantasy harmful? Well, my answer would be that a fantasy becomes harmful when it’s the only narrative we’re given. Sex is nothing like the way that it is represented in either pornography or God of War 3, but you wouldn’t exactly know that as an inexperienced young person who knows that sex exists but has never seen it for themselves, because the vast majority of our depictions of sex come through a heavy lens of fantasy, and a very male-oriented fantasy at that, resulting in some unhealthy ideas of what sex is and what women in sexual situations should be. And actual bisexual women are not lounging in their beds, making out with their handmaidens until a man shows up to sex them up properly, but if that’s the only image of bisexual women that we are given, then how are we ever going to know that?

So maybe my issue is less with God of War 3, which is nothing more than a stupid fantasy for young straight boys who like the idea of being a super powerful, super masculine lady-pleaser, and more with a society that doesn’t really give us much else than that. Where are my depictions of sex from a woman’s perspective? My bisexual women who don’t care if a man shows up or not, they’re perfectly satisfied with the woman they’ve got right here? If we had more of those, not only would this scene be much less harmful, it would be easier to recognize it as silly and unrealistic by comparison.

Harley Quinn and the Stigma We Have About Abuse Victims

The other day, I had a conversation with someone that went something like this:

Person: I really, really hate it when people say that they want a relationship like the Joker and Harley Quinn.

Me: Yeah, I do too.

Person: Don’t they realize that the Joker doesn’t actually like her because she’s stupid and useless?

Me: Well, it’s an abusive relationship.

Person: I never understood why people actually like Harley.

Me: Well, for me, the appeal of her character has always been in the fact that she is an abuse victim, but over time she learns to recognize that and grow into her own strength and independence.

Person: Except she never does grow.

Me: Well, that depends on the version of her that you’re looking at. I’m hopeful for the upcoming Gotham Sirens movie, though, because Poison Ivy’s in it and Harley’s always at her strongest when she’s with Poison Ivy.

Person: Harley has a lady-boner for Poison Ivy.

Me: She does.

Now, I’m not going to say that Harley Quinn is always written as a perfect character; she isn’t. That’s just the nature of comic book characters, when you have so many different writers working with so many different ideas of what the character should be. You have your bad writers of Harley (in my opinion, these are the writers that never allow her to grow into her own strength and just depict her as the Joker’s hilarious punching bag) and then you have your good writers of Harley (in my opinion, the writers that actually allow her to grow and flourish).

But more than any opinion on Harley Quinn’s character, the conversation that I described above made me think about just how much of a misconception there is in our society about abuse victims, particularly about abuse victims who choose to stay with their abusers.

In the conversation that I described above, the person that I was talking to described Harley as being stupid and useless, and while she might occasionally act stupid, it has generally been agreed by many fans and writers alike that this is just that – an act, either for the sake of comedy (something that she has built her whole persona around) or to cater to the Joker’s ego (more on that later). Outside of her act, she is a registered psychiatrist with a PhD, whose backstory hinges on the fact that she was accomplished enough to work with some of Gotham’s most dangerous criminals. In the storyline that first developed Harley Quinn as a character, the “Mad Love” episode of Batman: the Animated Series, she not only successfully kidnaps and nearly kills Batman, but she does it better than the Joker could, proving that she is not useless, at least not as a villain. In some storylines, Harley is even established as having a genius level intellect.

So, really, the only reason that I can think for Harley being described as ‘stupid’ or ‘useless’ would be because she chooses to stay with the Joker.

And this is not the only time when an opinion like this has come up in terms of Harley Quinn’s character. When asked what the hardest part about playing Harley in the recent Suicide Squad movie, actress Margot Robbie said, “I just didn’t understand how she could be such a badass and then fall to pieces over some guy. I found that really frustrating. Fans seem to really love that about her, that she has this complete devotion to a guy that treats her badly.”

And, yes, the Joker treats her badly. Yes, Harley should leave him, and yes, it is an abusive relationship. But personally speaking, I don’t think that any of this reveals a flaw in the way that Harley Quinn is written (again, by certain writers), but rather, it reveals a flaw in the way that we think about abuse victims.

We think of abuse victims as wrong. We can’t understand how they can be hurt by someone so badly, and then choose to stay, to allow themselves to be hurt by them again. You hear this kind of language all the time, and about real women as well: “If that was me, I wouldn’t stay.” “I would never tolerate a man hitting me; I’d dump his ass in a second.” We assume that relationships are all black and white: that if one partner hits the other, then it’s a completely evil relationship that not only should but can very easily be ended in a heartbeat. So if an abuse victim chooses to stay with their partner, then they’re stupid and useless. They’re outside of our realm of understanding.

But it isn’t as simple as all that. I mean, it would be nice if it was; if abusers were all horned, grinning monsters that could be easily defeated by our heroine. Trust me, I wish the world was that simple.

But abusers have their ways of making their victims stay with them, and these ways are meant to be difficult to ignore; if they were easy, we wouldn’t have abuse victims. And one of these ways is by making their victim love them. Now, I’m not necessarily saying that abusers specifically lure their victims in with some sort of Dracula-like seduction, all with the intention of turning around and hurting them later; in fact, while I don’t feel like I know enough about the mind of an abuser to speak for all of them, I am fairly certain that many don’t even know that that’s what they’re doing. They just genuinely love their victim, in the mentally ill way that they do love.

Victims and abusers develop relationships. The victim grows to care for their abuser, to want to be there for them through anything. Maybe they don’t plan to be there for them through pain and abuse, perhaps they don’t see that coming, but they do still grow to love them.

And to return to my discussion of Harley Quinn as an abuse victim, this is a part of her relationship with the Joker that many writers have taken care to establish. In the previously mentioned “Mad Love” episode of Batman the Animated Series, she spends time talking to him and getting to know him. She begins to feel sorry for him because of a reported abusive childhood, and then she feels sorry for him because he continues to get beaten and abused by Batman. She begins to love him, and she even develops a desire to protect him along the way.

But this love is not the only method that abusers use to make their victims stay with them. There is a method of abuse known as gaslighting, where an abuser will gradually manipulate a person into questioning their own sanity, their own mind. They will use little tactics over time to make the victim wonder about their own competence, and they will eventually come to feel dependent on the abuser. For example, an abuser might say something insulting to their victim, and when their victim later confronts them about it, the abuser will deny ever having said it at all. This will effectively make the victim paranoid about whether or not they made it up in the first place, whether or not they can trust their own mind and memory. So later on, when their abuser is again cruel, they find themselves wondering if they were really cruel, or if they made it up in their own mind.

Abusers will tear down their victim’s self-esteem. They will make them feel as though they are stupid, they are worthless, they are ugly, they can’t do any better than them. A lot of this comes from the abuser’s fear that their victim will leave them, and so they need to make them realize just how much they actually need them, because they’re the only ones who really love them, or who really have their victim’s best interests at heart.

Again, this method is seen in the “Mad Love” episode of Batman: The Animated Series. Harley borrows one of the Joker’s plans for killing Batman, and not only that, but she improves on it so that the plan actually succeeds – something it didn’t do when the Joker tried it. When the Joker finds this out, rather than being happy for her and supporting her in all her cleverness and ability, he gets angry, tells her that she doesn’t know what she’s doing, that she ruined the whole plan. He then throws her out a window, and when Harley lands in a bloodied heap on the floor, she chokes out what are, in my opinion, some of the most heartbreaking lines in DC history: “My fault… I didn’t get the joke”.

Abusers will make their victims feel as though the abuse is somehow their fault – that they earned this by being stupid, by pushing the abuser’s limits.

So between the two methods that I’ve discussed, we should already see that there are two huge, glaring problems here: the victim knows the abuser, they love them, they don’t want to hurt them. They see them for a vulnerable, hurt person already, someone who will be broken to see their victim leave – and this is an image that the abuser will most certainly perpetuate, telling their victim again and again that, if they leave, they will never get over it, they might even kill themselves, or disappear forever. It’s really hard to condemn someone you love to that, especially if you actually believe that they will go through with it.

And then, on top of that, the victim already has a low self-esteem, something that they might have come into the relationship with already, but which most certainly hasn’t been helped by the abuser. They don’t think that they can live on their own. They think that they’re too stupid, too worthless. If it wasn’t for their abuser, then where would they be?

But sometimes, abuse victims do manage to work through all of this, and sometimes they do manage to leave their abuser. And sometimes, when they leave, they go back.

This is something that happens to Harley Quinn as well. It is a running theme throughout many of her narratives – her recognizing her abuse, starting to leave, and then being pulled back in. As I’ve talked about the “Mad Love” episode a few times already, I might as well continue with that, because this is a theme in that storyline as well. After the aforementioned throwing-Harley-out-a-window scene, we later see her in the hospital, bandaged up from head to toe with her arm in a sling. During this scene, we as the viewer hear her inner monologue about how she’s decided that she’s done with the Joker, that this was the last straw – she is not going to go back to him. She then takes note of a flower by her bedside with a note reading “get well soon – J”, and upon seeing it, she starts to swoon, and the viewer knows that she will be going back to the Joker after all.

And why? Because he made an attempt to reach out to her. He did what he could to show that he cared about her, that he wasn’t going to hold a grudge or end the relationship. And as long as he is still willing to try to make it work, she still wants to try as well.

In real life, different abusers will try different tactics to the same result. They might promise that things will be different. They might apologize profusely, say that that “wasn’t them”. They might deny that what they did was abuse and claim that the victim is being cruel and unfair. And especially if the abuser and the victim have children together, they might try to use them as a reason for why they should stay together, why they shouldn’t “give up” now.

And in many cases, the victim wants to believe the abuser because the victim does love them and want to help them, or they don’t want their children to have to live in a “broken home”, or they might still be afraid of what life without their abuser might look like, especially if they continue to see themselves in the way that their abuser has described them.

There are many, many reasons why an abuse victim would choose to stay with their abuser, and it is cruel and belittling to refer to them as ‘stupid’ or ‘useless’ for doing so.

But despite these reasons, despite what rationalizations victims come up with at the time, they should not stay with their abusers. There are no reasons good enough to keep yourself in that sort of situation. If you find that you are in a situation similar to the one I have described, if you are being abused either physically, sexually, or emotionally (and the latter can hurt just as much as the two former – it is just as important to address here), then you need to get help. Try to talk to either a friend or family member if you can, but if you can’t, there are plenty of resources for you out there: if you are Canadian, here are a list of resources for victims of crime (including domestic abuse), and here are a list of resources if you live in the United States.

And, as I hinted at before, part of the reason why I love Harley Quinn’s character is because she discusses these issues so openly, in a way that not everyone is always comfortable with. Some people might say that she’s stupid and useless because she has a hard time leaving the Joker, but I say just the opposite: she is a necessary character in our media because she shows just how hard it is to leave an abusive scenario.

And more than that, especially in recent comic book or video game adaptions, she has managed to separate herself from her abusive past. In her comic book solo series (Harley Quinn #25, for those of you who are curious), Harley actually confronts the Joker and decides, once and for all, that she is absolutely done with him, that she will never have anything to do with him again. And in the recently released video game Injustice 2, Harley Quinn not only has her own gang and her own independence, but she actually reveals (through an encounter with Scarecrow, a villain who is capable of forcing people to experience their worst fears), that her greatest fear in life would be returning to the state that she was in when she was with the Joker. As time goes on, the writers of Harley Quinn are becoming more interested in developing her strength, helping her to overcome her insecurities and move passed being a victim of abuse. And that is such an important image for us to have in our media, because too often, victims of abuse feel as though they can’t stand on their own, as though they aren’t strong enough. And Harley Quinn is proof that you can do it – you can pull through, you can build yourself back up again, and you can look fabulous doing it too.

Why Wonder Woman is Important

If I had to choose between DC and Marvel (and many geeks do), I would probably choose DC. Don’t get me wrong, I love Marvel, and one of my favourite superheroes comes from Marvel (Nightcrawler from the X-Men, if you were curious), but I’ve always seen DC as just a little bit edgier, a little bit more willing to take risks. And not to mention, Harley Quinn and, for that matter, everything to do with Batman would probably have to be my favourite things from any superhero comic. So when DC began their own cinematic universe, I was downright dying to see it all come together.

But truth be told, their first three movies left me feeling disappointed. I personally considered Man of Steel to be an awful movie with absolutely no redeeming qualities. Batman Vs. Superman was a bit cheesier, and I loved the casting of Ben Affleck as Batman and Jeremy Irons as Alfred, but it was not a good movie by any stretch of the imagination. And although I loved Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn, I had some huge problems with the Suicide Squad movie, mostly because they romanticized the abusive relationship between Harley and the Joker.

I say all of this because, by the time that the release of the Wonder Woman movie became close enough to get excited about, I had begun to doubt that DC could put out a good movie. But nonetheless, I wanted to get excited. I really wanted this to be a good movie, because this was just such an important movie.

There have been superhero movies with female leads in the past. In 1984, the world saw the release of a Supergirl movie, in 2004 we had a Catwoman movie, and again in 2005, we had an Elektra film, but none of those films were critical successes, and more importantly, they were a vast minority, and both of those movies were released before Marvel’s great success with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As I write this, Marvel has released fifteen films, and not one of them have a female superhero as their lead. Their first superhero movie starring a female superhero, Captain Marvel, is set to be released in 2019, and it follows twenty films with male leads. Wonder Woman, on the other hand, is DC’s fourth film, following two films with male leads and one film that divides its attention between one male lead and one female lead.

Not only that, but this film is Wonder Woman’s first live action cinematic appearance. She has had a television series of her own, but she has not had a mainstream movie of her own until now, which is miserable when you consider her male counterparts within DC. Batman has starred in seven live action films, whereas Superman has starred in nine.

So why is it that we have received so many films with male superheroes and so few with female? Well, because studios have doubted for years that the typical movie-going audience will be interested in a superhero film starring a woman! For years, movie studios (including Marvel) have cited the previously mentioned flops of female superhero movies as a reason to avoid making more of them. So, yeah, it’s a pretty big deal that DC was willing to release a mainstream Wonder Woman film, especially so early into the game. And not only that, it’s a pretty big deal that they chose a woman, Patty Jenkins, to direct, because of the top 250 films released in 2016, only 7% of those were directed by women.

So this movie needed to be good. It needed to be, because if it wasn’t, the future of female-led superhero movies was in jeopardy.

So how was it, really?

Well, I am proud to confess that, upon seeing it, not only is it the first legitimately good movie released in DC’s extended universe, but it gave no disappointments. Truly, it is the sort of movie that future superhero movies will try to emulate, and I couldn’t be happier.

In some ways, Wonder Woman captured a side of superhero story lines that I have always loved, and that is the idea that all people, good and bad alike, are worth saving. Wonder Woman explores the idea of empathy, who deserves it and who doesn’t, and a lot of the focus of the film relies on the strength of emotion and of love – two ideals that, interestingly enough, have been labelled feminine and, in a lot of ways, have been excluded from other superhero movies.

And I’m not saying that love is completely excluded from other superhero movies. Many of them feature love stories, and although it isn’t part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, The Amazing Spiderman 2 dealt with a superhero’s reaction to the loss of his love. But Wonder Woman deals with this differently. For Wonder Woman, love is her strength. She quite literally gains strength through her love for her significant other, her love for her friends, and, even more interestingly, her love for human kind en masse, including her own villains. In Wonder Woman, love and emotions are her asset, not a weakness. Not something that makes her silly and illogical. It makes her walk across a battle field and face fire from enemy troops, and it makes her win the battle in the end. And although I won’t say that this is an aspect that would not be represented in a superhero movie made by and starring men, I will say that this is an aspect that is unique to this film.

And it is so important that this aspect is available in Wonder Woman, because love and emotions have been labelled as ‘feminine’ for years, and more than that, they have been labelled as inferior. Emotions are seen as illogical, but Wonder Woman argues against that. Wonder Woman states that, yes, she is a woman, and yes, she is emotional and loving, but that is her strength. That is what helps her protect people, what helps her defeat her villains. That is what makes her amazing.

And there is so much more that I can say about this film. As I said, this is very much a movie about empathy, and it shows empathy towards everyone – toward people of colour who have faced discrimination or historical genocide, toward people who were born in the wrong time and place and are just trying to do the right thing, toward people who have given up trying to do the right thing and have turned instead toward hurting others. Wonder Woman is a loving and wonderful film that I cannot recommend enough. And even though it took a long time for the DC extended universe to put out a great film, I am so glad that when they did, it was this one.

Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere Review

Neil Gaiman has been a writer that I’ve had my eye on for a long time now. I’ve read a few of his works – American Gods, Coraline, Stardust, some of his more well-known novels. But an extensive reading list given to me over the past four years at university has kept me from scouring through his entire book list, the way I’ve been wanting to. Well, for better or worse, I’m free to read what I want now, and one of the first things on my reading list was Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere.

I went into the novel fairly blind as to what I was getting into, and I came out of it with a very slight obsession. The story follows Richard Mayhew, a fairly average Londoner whose whole life changes when he stumbles upon an injured woman on the street. Soon, he finds that he is unable (literally) to return to his normal life, and he is thrust into the magical world known as London Below, where the forgotten find their place.

My first impression of the novel when I was reading through it was that it felt very much like a movie. People would make comments like “well, at least we got out of that okay” just before they found out the opposite. The characters felt very much like tropes, rather than real people (Richard is the trope of the everyman, the Marquis de Carabas is the trope of the helper with questionable intentions, Door is the trope of the innocent but quirky girl just outside of society so she doesn’t understand it all that well). And there was a short period of time where that sort of took me out of the story, until a cursory Google search of the novel informed me that… well, the novel was released alongside a BBC-released television movie, which explained a lot of the pacing. Once I realized that, I was able to forgive it a little bit, and once I was able to forgive it, I quickly found myself falling in love with it.

The story feels very familiar. I was going to say predictable, but no, that isn’t quite the word – the word is very much ‘familiar’, because I feel like this is a story I not only heard before, but one that I grew up with, one that I loved. I haven’t felt that way about a story in a long time. The characters may be very simple, but they are very likeable in their simplicity. The Marquis de Carabas’ intelligent wit may just be a part of his trope, for example, but it is a wonderful part, and Neil Gaiman does write it so well. And if we’re talking about characters that I thoroughly enjoyed, Croup and Vandemar, the novel’s villains, are evil to an enjoyable extent, and gory and gruesome to the point of thrilling. I loved every moment that the novel turned to them. Furthermore, the magical world that Gaiman creates of London Below is a fascinating one, fleshed out just enough that you feel like this is a world that could (unbelievably) exist, while leaving just enough unexplained that I frequently found my imagination taking hold and creating explanations of its own.

I loved this novel. I loved this novel like I’ve loved a select few novels. I’m sorry to finish it, but I excitedly await Neil Gaiman’s promised sequel The Seven Sisters.

A Failure in The Education System

When I was in high school, I wouldn’t have defined myself as very good at school. I mean, I did alright. I passed all my classes, and I did so with mostly B’s and, depending on the course, C’s. But I wasn’t what you would call a perfect student, by any stretch of the imagination.

I dropped math the moment that I could, because it became abundantly clear to me that I was making absolutely no progress in it. My science teacher hated me, proven by the fact that she spoke to me as though I fit into the Dumb Blonde stereotype. And when I tried to continue studying French, my teacher gave me a look of surprise, as though she honestly didn’t understand why I even bothered anymore. And none of this would have bothered me quite so much as it did if it weren’t for the fact that I was friends with all of the smart kids in high school. The kids who were looking forward to careers in science. The kids who all the teachers both knew and loved. Once, one of my closest friends in high school told me that he loved math, and I was baffled as to how that was even possible.

“Because it’s structured,” he said. “It’s always the same. There’s always a right answer.”

“Then what’s the fun?” I wondered.

And as much as this might give the impression that I was terrible in school, I really wasn’t. I just haven’t focused on the right subjects yet. I got straight A’s all throughout four years of English, and high praises on all of my English projects because they were creative and ‘thought-provoking’. I loved photography, although everyone laughed when I told them and accused me of taking it because it was a ‘skip class’. And some of my absolutely favourite memories from high school took place in my drama class. These were my scenes; these were the places where I thrived. These were the places where I felt not only skilled, but intelligent.

From high school, I went on to university, taking on a major in English, and I don’t think that it’s dishonest to say that I thrived there. I did so well that one of my professors encouraged me to go on and pursue a graduate degree. But here’s the thing: I still can’t do even the most basic math. I can tell you all about the metaphors in the Great Gatsby, but I can’t tell you what 40% of anything is. I can list off the greatest and most influential science fiction writers, but the closest I ever came to failing a class was in astronomy. And that boy who told me that he loved math because there was always a right answer cannot write an essay about literature to save his life.

And there are some who will say that, between me and the boy, one of us has a set of skills that will come more in handy in life than the other. But personally, I think that both set of skills are necessary. That boy has the ability to do his taxes well, to calculate numbers quickly, and I have the ability to write stories and communicate ideas clearly. They are different skills, certainly, but they both have their place in the world. And they are both stem from very different types of intellect.

Everyone has a different sort of intellect – their own unique sort. You might be able to excel in gym, but you cannot write an essay. Maybe you are good with machinery, but you are terrible at music. It doesn’t matter – it is all amazing and it is all useful, in one way or another.

And the problem with our education system as it is set up right now is that students are expected to excel in very specific environments, when not everyone can. And this is especially difficult for students that are not particularly skilled in the areas that school encourages – math, science, gym, etc. Students who are more artistically inclined – the musicians, the painters, the artists, sort of fall to the side, neglected by a system that tells them that they are stupid because they cannot add or subtract or multiply. And sometimes, this message can get to kid’s heads, making them feel like they are stupid. It certainly did for me – I quickly grew to hate math and science because my teachers regularly made me feel like I couldn’t do anything, like I was limited somehow. It was the other subjects, the ones that I was good at, that proved them wrong. I wasn’t stupid because I couldn’t do what they asked – I was just skilled in other departments. And you are not stupid because you can’t do something specific. We all have our strengths and we all have our weaknesses, and the problem with the education system is that it expects all of us to be strong in the same departments. It does not provide opportunities for kids who are better in the arts to develop their abilities, and in that regard, it is the one that fails us, not the other way around.