Writing From the Yin: how to make art when you have no energy

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The pressure to create in 2018 can be daunting. Art is more accessible than ever–and every creator’s skills must be diversified to match. We maintain websites, social media accounts, and blogs. Behind the scenes, we submit, query, and apply to industry gate-keepers. If we’re freelancers, we attract clients and strive to keep them. Creators not only need to build and polish a body of work, but also a public platform, network, and brand. 

Assert. Connect. Convince. Perfect. Compete. Achieve. Your productivity and gravitas, as much as your skill, can feel like your value as a creator. The story is this: you must exert a massive amount of passion and drive if you wish to succeed.

In Daoist philosophy, these facets might be called the Yang of making art in 2018. Yang is the active principle of the universe. It’s powerful, vital, and creative–and in this particular case, central to succeeding in creative fields. But when the Yang is not shared equally with the Yin, the passive principle, it’s imbalanced at best and nonfunctional at worst.

At the beginning of this year, I found myself with absolutely no energy. Call it burnout, or whatever you wish, but the bottom line was this: I couldn’t do the things I normally would advance myself as an artist. What’s more, my linear thinking was demolished–as well as any belief that there was a grand plan for me or that I was meant to be anything special.

Linearity is not only the key to communicating effectively online (and for crafting blog posts such as this one), but it’s also key for envisioning and completing the steps necessary to pursue a career. Most artists believe, on some level, that they can make it–that they have something to say that means something to the world. That they can attain a level of fame or success, whatever the definition. The belief in, and desire for, my own achievement has guided me through many challenges on my path. 

None of these drives are wrong. They can be incredibly healthy, in fact. They are the hope that lights the darkest nights in every creator’s life, allowing them to continue on when they otherwise would not. But these drives didn’t guide me anymore. I found them obliterated–by trauma, by exhaustion, by a deep and personal experience with death, disease, madness, and destruction. Without these drives, I couldn’t harness the energy I used to to get my work done. The Yang of art was out of my grasp, as though it had left me completely. 

Here’s the thing, though: I still felt, and feel, like an artist. It doesn’t mean quite the same thing to me as it did before, and I’m not motivated by quite the same drives. But it’s not gone. Instead, I had to find a new framework that would allow me to keep going, even as much of my perceptions and constructs about myself, my art, and the world had fallen apart.

I discovered the art of creating from the Yin. 

I don’t expect anyone to have had quite the same experiences as me, but I know I’m not the only person to feel what I feel, and that is the point of connection I’m looking to share. In an ideal world, every artist is able to balance their own personal Yin and Yang and reap the benefits of both in their creative practice (not that ideals can ever truly be achieved). But if you’ve ever felt tired, demotivated, burnt out, or completely brought down in your life and found it affecting your art, then this post shares some wisdom for you. 

Phase One: Integrate Rest and Creativity 

Yin is symbolized traditionally by darkness, shadow, coldness, mystery, and the moon–but its most defining element, and the most practical for this purpose, is passivity. Rest. Nondoing. When I found myself struggling to even get out of bed, passivity felt antithetical to making art. Action and nonaction, by nature of this very paradigm, are opposite forces, after all.

What I had to do was recontextualize activity and passivity. I had to, as best I could, obliterate the line between the two. Before then, self-care was something I most often did when I wasn’t working–something I would accomplish when I had time for it, or my important tasks were done. However, that delineation didn’t necessarily make me more productive. Instead, it often froze me. When your spirit demands rest but your mind desires work, what do you do but become stuck?

Now that rest has become a vital component of my life, it has also become vital for my art. It’s been the kind of change that can only be born out of necessity. 

Instead of self-care and creative work being like two opposite river banks, with a rush of deep water between, they have become more like a water cycle. Each state gives way to the other, as though on a circle instead of a line. I rest, so I make art. I make art, so I rest. More and more, they are one and the same activity. When I am at the most peace, my creative work calms and rejuvenates me much as sleep, reading, or yoga does. Ater all, both resting and making art are vital to my wellbeing, why should they be separate in my mind? 

It has taken me time to meld self-care and creative work, and I do not always do it perfectly. Perhaps you aren’t needing quite as much rest I do, or perhaps you are–either way, if you are just starting out, I suggest finding the most fundamental aspects of your self-care and try viewing them as keystones to your creative practice.

For you, it might be sleeping on a regular schedule. Or drinking enough water. Or eating three square meals every day. It might be meditating, or going for a walk, or just sitting outside for while. It might be seeing a therapist. Choose one or two to start and be as dedicated to them as you are pursuing your craft and career. Observe how your relationship to your art changes when rest becomes an integrated part of its practice. 

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Phase Two: Exchange Productivity with Experimentation

As you attempt to recontextualize rest, I suggest you also try to recontextualizing creativity. It’s easy to get pulled into the pressure of perfecting and advancing our main art forms. After all, our creative practices are the foundations we build our careers upon, and often our identities as well. That pressure can be a powerful motivator. It can push us to deepen our mastery, put ourselves out there, pursue new opportunities, and achieve our dreams.

But, when focusing on productivity becomes one-sided, or when the pressure from life or work becomes too high, the constant striving can lead to stagnation, repetition, exhaustion, and burnout. 

Instead of trying to change the way you feel about your main work, I suggest gently and open-heartedly experimenting with different forms of art, even for as little as 15 minutes or an hour each night. For me, this meant stepping away from my novel, short stories, and cultural criticism for a time. Instead, I allowed myself to be a novice and to explore. 

I gravitated toward oil pastel drawings, lyrical writing, and tabletop gaming. 

The art got me off the computer. It let me work with my hands, express myself, and allowed me to give up trying to fit everything into a structured, cohesive narrative. Poetry and lyrical writing allowed me to write, but without the pressure of polishing pieces to publish or impress. And, tabletop gaming allowed to me to tell a narrative story, but without doing it alone, without doing it perfectly, and without worrying about pleasing anyone but myself and my friends. This was perhaps the best of all, because it allowed me to laugh. 

They became my Yin artforms. All of them got me off the Internet. All of them got me to stop thinking linearly. All of them are restful and rejuvenating. And none of them directly advance my career. But you know what? They loosened up the tension and pressure around my professional artforms, and now that I’ve returned to novel and essay writing, I’m a better, freer, happier writer because of it. 

What your Yang art is and what your Yin art is might be different for you than it was for me. But the key is this: if it gets you out of your normal state of mind, relaxes you, helps you express yourself, abandons achievement, and encourages experimentation, it might be your Yin art. Practice it, and you may find yourself incorporating those principals into your professional work as well. 

Phase Three: Seek Community over the Individual 

The myth of the of the individual artist still reigns. And, in many ways, it’s true. No one will sit down and do your work but you. No one can share your wisdom but you. And no one will see what you make for the world if you don’t share it with them. In many ways, being an artist is a solitary and personal path.

The egoism of that path can be a wonderful tool, and we often harness it to pursue our dreams. Ego is how artists have an identity. Empowerment. Direction. But when individuality reigns alone, the pressure to assert yourself can become daunting, draining, and isolating. How can I conquer my dreams? How can I achieve perfection? How do I win the game of art? The answer to these questions is impossible, but if you find yourself asking them anyway, you may find peace in your Yin. 

The Yin of the artist is not individual. It does not assert. It does not strive. It’s passive. But that does not mean it does not act.

The Yin of art can look like so many things, but the simplest perhaps is reading. Reading allows you to connect with art in the most passive way possible: you must give in, rest, listen, think, and be silent for a moment, to read. It has long been heralded as the chief practice for a writer–save for writing, of course. The standard wisdom is that both equally important for writing craft. Equally vital. 

There’s no question as to why. If writing is the Yang, reading is its Yin. You must practice them in unison to grow. 

But writing from the Yin doesn’t only have to be reading. Try seeing yourself in a support role. As a listener. An observer. A sharer of wisdom. A part of a creative collective. Offer to provide constructive criticism on a friend’s work. Or, better yet, listen and empathize with their pain, worries, and joys. They are likely struggling as much as you are, and in need of as much care as you. Consider taking on a collective project, be it a team painting, a co-authored story, or a D&D game. Decenter your own ego from your creative identity, and watch how it frees you, connects you, and inspires you in all of your work. 

Yin is like water, it flows and supports. In practicing it, you may find yourself supported in turn. You still need your Yang to thrive, but if you find yourself tired, imbalanced, or lost, sit down. Close the computer. Put down your pen. Open a window, and open a book. Breathe. This is a part of your craft, too. 

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Dropping the prestige: freeing yourself from the fear of unoriginality

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“Fear is the mind-killer,” says Frank Herbert in Dune, one of those masterpiece classics that has become so ubiquitous, it’s made its way into the psyches of all of us nerds who have ever so much  as cracked a high school library copy of the tome, with its ant-like rows of script, or braved the strange gothic desert in David Lynch’s cinematic take.

But that’s the thing about classics. They stick. They weave their way into the fiber of our collective consciousnesses—even if that “collection” is you and a couple of choice friends who also thought Charlie’s Angels (2000) was the best movie ever in 6th grade. (“Masterpiece,” and “classic” it turns out, are actually highly subjective terms, entirely dependent on audience, and not necessarily on college professors—in this case, an audience eleven-year-old girls.)  

No matter who is deciding, you have your masterpieces, and I have mine. And, more often than not, we share them together, if we don’t realize it or mean to, because that’s how classics work. They make up the great mine we delve for all our tropes—the patterns, cliches, and tools from which we craft our own creative work.

“Masterpiece,” is also a high standard to put on any burgeoning creator, be they a hobbyist or professional. Even if we don’t kid ourselves, even if we say, “Maybe I won’t make a masterpiece, but maybe I can make something just short,” our own inspirations set a looming standard. To make anything like a masterpiece, to do what any of the Greats did, whomever they may be to you, is to make something new. Something original. To take what has come before—and then to supersede it.

But to make something truly original, we as creators must somehow extract ourselves from those stories which have already permeated our being. No easy task. That’s scary. And fear is the… well, you know what it is.

Creativity and fear go hand-in-hand. You can’t have one without the other. To create, to show up in a space, be it submitting a story for publication or introducing your character in a D&D campaign, is to be vulnerable. It is to open ourselves up to rejection and ridicule, either from our friends and peers, or from the authorities and gatekeepers in our field. For those who trust their livelihoods or identities into their creative work, the stakes are even higher.

For most of us, that fear turns into paralysis. And paralysis is the death knell of a creative life. To create is to move—it is to tell, to show, to share. We must be doing to call ourselves Writer, Actor, Painter, Designer, Player. Fear is our paralysis, and paralysis is our kryptonite, for both ourselves and those we collaborate with.

In fact, fear is so common (every creator is scared shitless, don’t worry, you’re in good company) that there are countless ways to address it—from the fear of rejection, to the fear of judgement, to the fear of failure. And, in many ways, those fears are inevitable. They are necessary hurdles on the journey to create and to share, but they are ultimately subjects for a different post.

Here, I want to address one fear I don’t believe is necessary: the fear of doing what has been done before and of doing it badly. Of dealing only in tropes and cliches. The fear of creating only pale copies of the masterpieces that have permeated our collective psyche, made all the more mammoth by the fun-house mirrors of our minds, twisting and warping the stories we love through the rose-colored lenses of nostalgia and admiration.

The fear, in essence, of being unoriginal.

The standard advice to the horrible thought that you might be a hack no matter how hard you try is this: nothing is original, anyway. It’s all made up of composite parts. Just do your best with what you’ve got, as it’s all any creator can do. While this isn’t bad advice, I don’t quite think it’s the pivot that sticks.

The pressure to be original is too strong. We often seek, sometimes without meaning to, just the right combination of composite parts to affect novelty. Or we push our characters to greater and greater physical and emotional extremes, or send our plots twisting into corkscrews in the never-ending quest to spark shock-and-awe into what we imagine to be the most desensitized of audiences. And while this tactic isn’t wrong, either, it doesn’t get to the heart of the matter.

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What I want to suggest instead is an even more potent tonic for fear, and it has two parts, 1) Facing the fear head on, and 2) Trust.

First, try an exercise where you don’t simply attempt to outsmart the component tropes in your respective medium—especially Sci-Fi and Fantasy. In the effort to create something “new” out of genres defined by their tropes (or to supersede those tropes altogether) storytelling can become like a prestige act, with the creator hiding their work behind smokescreen after smokescreen, relying on increasingly crafty puzzles and tricks to invoke that elusive feeling of magic and discovery in the audience.

I invite you to instead consciously drop the prestige. Completely. This can be tough to do if you stay within your medium, though it’s certainly possible. So if you usually write original fantasy fiction, try fanfiction. Or try a genre you usually stay away from, one that is confined and well-mapped by its tropes: Urban Fantasy, Swords and Sorcery, Hard-boiled Detective, or Steampunk. Try DMing a tabletop game, and actually stick to the book (which is, incidentally, what I am doing and served as the inspiration for this post).   

In other words, get down and dirty with unoriginality. Really revel in it. Intentionally use it, or abuse it, as this exercise may feel like at first. Even if the stories you create are not something you end up taking directly into your professional/serious/main work, you’re cultivating an invaluable skill: creating without the fear of unoriginality. If you’ve already thrown all your cards in, what’s left to lose?

The resulting feeling can be liberating, even joyful. And incredibly creative. When you drop the prestige, you can focus on the parts of a story that excite the ephemeral tingle that has drawn you to every masterpiece you love, the thing that’s hard to quantify or describe: emotion, character, wonder, adventure, wisdom, truth, love—the adamantium core of fiction that words can’t do justice to, and which could never be adequately measured in a dust jacket summary, Wiki, or IMDB page.

Which leads me to number two: Trust.

Originality is not about clever twists, characters pushed to their brink, or a new and inventive applications of tropes. On some level, we all know this, and yet it’s tempting to do it anyway, because masterpieces so are elusive, and true originality is hard to pin down. So instead, I suggest you trust. Because if fear is the mind-killer, trust is its liberator.

Trust that whatever components you create with will be transformed through the alchemy of your being into something real. Something unique. Just as your masterpieces were transformed by contact with your consciousness on their way in, so are your stories on their way back out. When you trust—yourself, your story, your passions, your collaborators, your audience—you have the opportunity to make something truly authentic. And it’s authenticity, not a clever prestige, that is at the root of all originality.

To create authentically, you must be vulnerable, and to be vulnerable, you cannot fear. Instead, you must face you fear, let it pass over the through you, until it has gone, and only you remain. At least, I’m certain Frank Herbert said something like that.

 

A Modern Tragedy: Logan and the Legacy of Idealized Masculinity

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Promotional image for Logan (2017)

*Warning: this article contains spoilers. 

Last week, Logan took the pop culture mega-plex by storm by becoming the first R-rated, seriously toned superhero blockbuster. But Logan is not just an R-rated, seriously toned superhero blockbuster—it’s a superhero tragedy. And it does what tragedies have always done: warn us what happens when even our strongest heroes cannot change. Cannot find balance. Cannot heal. 

Tragedy, along with the heroic epic, is one of the oldest genres in Western storytelling. From Euripides to Shakespeare to Arthur Miller, the tragedy has been with us for millennia, evolving to suit the heroes of each generation. And while it might seem odd to pair the gruff, motorcycle riding, cigar smoking, damaged bad boy of X-Men with a prestigious literary genre, it actually couldn’t be more apt. Our tragic protagonists have always been men and women of great power, prestige, and ability. They have always been singular individuals, sometimes even aligned with gods. They have always been heroes.

Although aspects of tragedies, and the heroes at their centers, have altered over time to match the eras in which they find themselves, the basic tenets of the form remain the same: the tragic hero finds themselves in a bleak situation full of human folly and impossible odds, but no matter how dire the situation is outside, the hero meets their demise because of a fundamental failing within themselves. The hero is ultimately responsible for their own demise. This personal failing is referred to as the hero’s tragic flaw. Classically that flaw was often hubris, but could be anything from a character who craves power, who cannot feel compassion, or who is hellbent on revenge. And while the trait itself may vary, but the core function of that trait is the same—it’s one that stops the hero from changing, from healing, from growing. It’s a trait that prevents the hero from meeting the dire enemies who face them in a way that will not destroy them, and possibly everyone around them, too.

Another way to understand the basic ethos of a tragedy is this: the only true foundation of any story is change. A story must grow to survive. It must take us on a journey. It must move, or it will die. A tragic hero is a character who cannot change, no matter how extreme the external pressures mounted against them are, and no matter how many opportunities to change are provided to them. Their tragic flaw is paramount. It’s unalterable. And it eventually leads to their demise. Like stories themselves, the hero who cannot change dies.

Spoiler alert: Wolverine dies, as all tragic heroes do. And his tragic flaw is the same as it has been for heroes and heroines alike for as long as tragedy has been a genre.  

Across the ages, the flaws of tragic heroes, from a lack of empathy to a lust for power, have been almost singularly associated with the failings of idealized masculinity. And what I mean when I say masculinity is not as it refers to real, living people, but to the traits, goals, and positions of power that are associated with idealized masculinity in Western culture—traits greatly unaltered over the last few thousand years. The men in tragedies are Warriors. They are Fathers. They are Generals. They are Kings. Female tragic heroes are the same. These women are often seen as gender deviant, eschewing idealized female roles in favor of idealized masculine ones—Clytemnestra, Cleopatra, and Lady Macbeth are queens, but they rule like kings. They lead armies, they are political schemers, they wield axes, they commit violence, and they have sex with whomever they wish. Men or women, tragic heroes almost always embody the idealized masculine in all its glory, beauty, and power. But also in all its failings, and in all its destruction.

Logan is no different.

But Logan is an allegory of tragic masculinity appropriated for modern times, one that warns us, as tragedies have for millennia, what happens when the idealized masculine is unchecked and unbalanced by the idealized feminine. The ability to change for the better is the savior of all broken heroes, and Logan shows us what happens when that change is not possible.   

Along with Batman and Odysseus, Wolverine is an epitome of idealized masculinity in the heroic genre, out of balance by the absence of idealized feminine traits—and, again, what I mean by this is not “gender” as is it is reflected in and experienced by real people, but as a set of gendered ideals around which we build meaning within stories and mythologize our understanding of the world. Over the decades, X-men itself has often turned our understanding of traditional roles for heroes, men and women alike, on its head—how do we view villains who are victims of the Holocaust, of persecution, of violent abuse? How do we view heroes who are ex-drug addicts, who have within them the power to destroy the world, or who hate what they have become? X-men has always been unique in its depiction of nuanced superheros and villains, characters who walk the line between victim, abuser, and savior.  

But what ultimately happens to a hero like Wolverine, the character who, among all the X-men, is the most stubborn in his role as the virile male hero? This is the basic question the writers of Logan asked themselves. What is the end of the man who has been subjected to torture and violence, who is in turn a man who commits violence, who is incapable of vulnerability, who feels victimized by what care and love has has felt in his life? Can he find peace? Can he find healing? Is there a future for him?

Can he change?

Essentially, no.

Without the ability to heal from his traumatized past, without the ability to care for and nurture the next generation, or the ability to find a way to exist in the world without re-creating the violence that created him, Wolverine’s only option is self-destruction. It’s an end that’s clear to viewers from the beginning as an aging, coughing, dying Wolverine struggles to care for an aging, seizuring, dying Professor X. We know this is a story that can only end in its own destruction. The writers merely have to take us there.

However, they give us the most positive self-destruction available to a character like Wolverine, one that allows him to die protecting the next generation of mutants, embodied in his spit-fire daughter, Laura. As a character whose life skills amount to little more than perpetrating the violence that forged him, protecting is really the only constructive avenue left for Wolverine. Instead, like the innocent women of tragedies past, Ophelia, Electra (the matricidal Greek daughter, not the super-heroine), and Cordelia, it’s Laura that’s meant to be the hope in this tragedy: the hope for possible change, for a possible future. The question is if Logan’s daughter really is the hopeful answer to his tragedy, or if she promises a continued future of destruction—like Shakespeare’s Ophelia and Cordelia do.  

To form an answer to this question, it’s crucial to understand the magnitude of the mess Laura is tasked with correcting. First, it’s Laura, not Wolverine, who kills Wolverine’s literal shadow-self, the hyper-violent X-24, a biologically created super-weapon modeled after Wolverine in his prime. X-24 is the ultimate embodiment of all that is imbalanced in the titular hero, divorced of any of the humanity remaining in the true Wolverine. X-24 kills without mercy, without thinking. He’s an animal, virile violence personified. He kills Professor X. He kills Wolverine. He almost kills Laura and what hope for the next generation she represents, too. But Wolverine doesn’t shoulder the responsibility of destroying his own shadow as one might expect. That burden falls on his young daughter.

It’s not just up to Laura to slay her father’s violent aspect, though. She’s meant to break a whole intergenerational legacy of violence, and the film doesn’t parse words about that. All these characters, Wolverine, Laura, and X-24, were created by a villainous line of fathers and sons who have been perpetrating violence against mutants for decades. To underscore this theme of lineage, Wolverine also refers to Professor X as his father. And so the line of violent abusers creates a line of traumatized heroes. Dysfunction begets dysfunction. But tragedies, from Oedipus to Hamlet, have always occurred in imagined worlds with violent patriarchies—worlds often bereft strong characters and mature leaders, either male or female, who embody the best of idealized feminine traits, or a balance between the two gendered halves.

For a long time, in the X-Men universe, Professor Xavier has been that figure, his compassion, strength, and leadership a beacon of order in an often cruel and chaotic world. But his degradation and inevitable demise in Logan launches Wolverine into the realm of uncertainty that all tragic heroes must face. And it’s a realm we already know he cannot survive. So like Ophelia, Cordelia, and Electra before her, it lands on the young Laura to be the link that breaks the chain of masculine violence. As the inevitable tragedy barrels to its conclusion, her father pleads to her, “Don’t be what they made you.” Traumatized as she is, Laura is his last hope for salvation, as she’s the last hope for all their kind. And her gender is no coincidence. In Logan’s world of men, Laura’s femininity is the one special element that is meant to bring balance and healing to the intergenerational cycle of male violence and victimhood that she has arisen from.

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But Laura is not the answer the narrative suggests, and by doing so, it removes the impact and agency from Wolverine’s tragic flailing.

Laura is painted as fierce, capable, and strong, but as a child, she cannot be expected to carry the emotional weight of generations of abuse. Burdening her with the responsibility of both carrying and healing her father’s trauma within her own life reveals the true tragedy of this story, and it’s that Logan is so broken that he cannot care ether for himself or his own daughter. He cannot guide her on a path of healing from the exact same trauma that broke him. When Wolverine tells her that he can’t take care of her because everyone he cares about ends up hurt, and she replies “Then I’ll be okay,” and walks away, we are meant to lament Wolverine’s limitations, but we are also meant to believe that Laura really will be alright without him. 

In essence, in Logan, an adult man is so incapable of embodying any idealized feminine traits (like nurturing, compassion, communication, or “care” as the film itself phrases it) that a female child is expected by the narrative to do it for him.

What is most interesting, though, is that the narrative itself waffles in this assertion. Laura survives. She kills her father’s shadow self with an adamantium bullet, freeing Wolverine from the responsibility of doing it himself, and then tearfully buries the father who only just found out he might be able to love her. But by the end of the story, it’s unclear if Laura really will be able to heal. It’s unclear if she really will be able to shoulder the emotional burdens that her father and his abusers left her with. As she walks off into the woods, we don’t actually know if she will be alright. But we do know that, whatever happens to her, her father will not be there to guide, protect, and love her. 

In that sense, Logan is a true tragedy in the vein of Hamlet and King Lear, in which Ophelia kills herself and Cordelia is hung. All the potential of the the daughter is worthless if the father—the epitome of the idealized masculine—cannot find balance within himself. A tragedy is a tragedy because the tragic hero cannot heal, cannot change, and no girl, no matter how promising, innocent, or brave, can save him. The healing and salvation of generations cannot fall on her shoulders alone, just as it could not fall on Cordelia and Ophelia’s. Only Logan could have saved himself. And only in saving himself could he have assured Laura’s salvation—and the salvation of all his kind as well. 

A girl needs her father intact, just as a society needs its men whole.

And therein lies the warning for our times. It’s the same warning that tragedies have given us for generations: that idealized masculine values, unchecked and unbalanced by idealized feminine values, leads to great power, but also to great destruction. The goal of a any tragedy is to explore the ultimate manifestation of some of these core values—not as true re-creations of individuals and society, but as amplified reflections of them. And Logan warns us, as tragedies always do, what happens when our heroic ideals are taken to their logical extreme. In the end, it’s only when our heroes can change and find balance within themselves that healing can truly be done—and tragedy truly avoided.

Consensual Violence in Assassin’s Creed (of all places)

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Maria in Assassin’s Creed (2016)

I walked into Assassin’s Creed expecting to, at some point, watch a lady in a hooded cloak kick some ass. Other than that my expectations were pretty low. The warnings by all the early reviews delivered in full: an ambitious but lackluster plot drags down the action and Fassbender’s (weirdly) serious acting. This is a script that is trying to do at least three different things at once and unfortunately failing at all of them. But I didn’t go there to be stunned by the screenwriting. I went there to enjoy action-style violence and maybe have some fun to boot.

And, surprisingly, I did.

There are many different ways a story can approach the tone of its violence. Violence can be anything from cartoonish to horrifying, sexy to squeamish, stylized to brutal. For a film based on a video game, one might expect the violence to fall somewhere in the sexy and stylized camp–enjoyable and exciting, with a sense of danger but no real ethical quandaries to explore.

What happens, though, when women are included in that type of violence?

As we become more conscious of gender in our media, this question has become more and more of a head-scratcher for creators, critics, and fans alike. Last year’s Deadpool (2016) phrased it for us all: “This is so confusing. Is it sexist to hit you? Is it more sexist to not hit you? I mean the line gets really blurry.” And perhaps nowhere does this line get more blurry than in titles like Deadpool or Assassin’s Creed, films where violence is not meant to be taken seriously, where it would usually be off-tone to explore the realistic impact of on-screen abuse, assault, and trauma. 

In many ways, these films are meant to be safe spaces for adults to enjoy violence. But how are we meant to include women, both as characters and as viewers, as equal participants in violence that is overall meant to be fun, sexy, stylized, and, ultimately, safe?

The keywords is safe.

The link between sex and violence, especially in film and video games, has already been well documented and discussed. And this conversation is perhaps most challenging in depictions of violence between men and women. One of the strongest reactions to M/F violence in media is its frequent similarity to depictions of assault, both physical and sexual —a link that can be disturbing for anyone to watch unfold on screen, especially when the tone or time constraints of a film are not designed to handle the implications of that type of content.

It’s the same uncomfortable feeling one might get when watching a smiling Joker lean over a brainwashed Harley Quinn with torture implements in Suicide Squad (2016). Aren’t we all supposed to be having fun with the violence this type of movie? Is watching Harley Quinn get tortured by her abusive boyfriend or by a bulky prison guard fun? And if it’s not, does Suicide Squad really handle the implications of M/F violence with the nuance and empathy it deserves?

Assassin’s Creed handles this problem with surprising simplicity, and the linchpin of its success lies in consent. Without fail, almost all the women in the film give clear consent to the violence they are participating in—consent that helps relieve the blurred line between including female characters in action-movie style violence, and subjecting them to outright assault.  

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Sophie in Assassin’s Creed (2016)

The first scene that comes to mind is one where Cal grabs Sophia by the throat and pushes her against a wall. It’s a classic move that immediately suggests both assault and sexualization of the female character. However, as soon as Cal begins his attack, Sophia announces calmly and confidently to her personal guards that she is handling the situation and does not need assistance. Cal also doesn’t escalate the attack beyond what Sophia announces she can handle, nor does he appear to actually be hurting her. With a retinue of beefy armed men waiting at Sophia’s command, the two continue to talk until the situation de-escalates. It’s a moment that is tense, but surprisingly sexy. And consensual.

And I felt myself let out a breath of relief.

The key to this scene lies not only in Sophia’s agreement, but in her clear sense of control over the encounter. She is an equal to Cal, yet the scene still does what it’s meant to do: amp up the sexuality and tension in their relationship through power dynamics and violence. But it does so without sacrificing Sophie’s agency. 

Maria, Cal’s assassin ancestor’s partner-in-crime, also gets involved in violence, though the much more standard action-film variety. She is scaling walls, drop-kicking inquisitors, and slicing bad guys with knives. A female character actively participating in matched combat is how consent and violence is usually understood in this type of film, and usually that works just fine. However, Maria is not always an active agent in the violence she encounters, steering the film into blurry territory once again.  

But the filmmakers manage to maintain the drama when Maria is set to be burned at the stake, or held with a knife to her throat (you’ll notice the excess of ladies’ throats being the a center-point of the violence, and the sexuality of that should not be lost on you). However, Maria repeatedly, verbally, and without prompting affirms that she will willingly give her life in the name of the creed–and whatever confusing, amorphous subplot that creed seems to apply to. Before Maria is finally killed in a hostage standoff, she reminds Cal of her commitment to the creed once again, and even after she is presumed dead, she pokes to life one more time to command her partner-in-assassinating to get the hell out.

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Cal and Maria about to be burned at the stake in Assassin’s Creed (2016)

This throws the distressed damsel trope into, well, distress. The filmmakers have still given us a Dramatic Moment that gives the stoic hero Someone to Lose and Something to Feel, but Maria’s repeated consent preserves her agency in a way that prevents her from becoming a complete victim in the classic senses of the role.

A parallel can be seen in Cal’s mother, whose dead body in the prologue leaves her as little more than a refrigerated woman plot-point for most of the film– or a woman whose death provides the hero motivation or character development. But the eventual reveal that Cal’s mother ended her own life in the name of the Creed, twists the narrative of victim-hood a second time–much in the way that Maria’s characterization does.   

So Assassin’s Creed, of all things, a movie that makes a painful series of narrative blunders, surprisingly  finds a way to include women in violence without removing their agency. Subjecting women to violence is never going to be absent from action films whose main target audience continues to be men, despite the near equal proliferation of female action-movie viewers—the connection between violence and sex is too strong, and and the trope of women as the hero’s emotional core is too ingrained. Damsels in distress aren’t going anywhere soon.

What films can do is find ways to include female characters in ways that don’t sacrifice their agency and matches the tone of the rest of the violence in the film. By finding simple ways to incorporate consent, creators can take steps toward action films that cater to a broader range of fantasies for both male and female viewers. Assassin’s Creed certainly found a way to make it work for me.