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Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl and Drama Kids


Hey legal team? I'm not sure about the legality of posting the above photo. Like, I'm pretty sure I'm good quoting passages of the books I talk about, but in a graphic novel does that work? Anyway, get back to me, same billing rate as always: as much homemade tomato soup and grilled cheese as you can eat in one sitting.

(ironically this picture is gone because I got in trouble for using a photo without permission in another blog - fyi you can't get lawyers with tomato soup and grilled cheese)

Today I'm not even messing around. There at the top of this post is a picture from a comic book. Come at me. 2017 is the year I stop being embarrassed that I read comic books and The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Beats Up the Marvel Universe is why.

I just took the kids to Harry Potter bingo at the library, which was put on by the local high schools drama "guild." Now, I wasn't a cool guy in high school, and as a not-cool guy I tried to be very aware of who was below me in the social strata. This is not a nice thing, but here's what I had come up with: drama kids, stage crew kids, cowboys, flag team, goths, and general outcasts (ostentatious nosepickers). At the time, AT THE TIME YOU GUYS, I thought I was ignored but I wasn't outright hated, and this was a salve for my debilitating awareness of my nobody status. Even later as an adult, someone would ask if I wanted to go to a haunted house, and I'd say listen, if I wanted a bunch of drama kids to make me uncomfortable I'd go back to high school.

Speaking of uncomfortable, here's a thing I've realized since. I was a no body in high school because I did no thing. While I was sitting with my small group of friends judging the overly dramatic theater kids or laughing when someone practicing with their flags dropped one, it was a luxury. By not trying anything and putting myself out there to be either revered or mocked, I saved myself the pain of being ridiculed but enjoyed none of the benefits of being a part of something. Is anonymity better than derision? At the moment, almost certainly. But there's a decent argument to be made that the reward on the other end of that gauntlet makes it worth it.

Anyway, back to Harry Potter Bingo Night. Here we had lots of high school kids dressed like teen wizards who are very dedicated to their character. They all spoke a little too loud, and with gestures that were a little too broad. Their jokes mostly fell very flat, though they were delivered with at least volume and confidence. They were sure having fun, though. And yes, my tendency at the very first was to make fun of them still. To be fair to me, that's my tendency all of the time. To be unfair to me: that's a bad tendency.

My son is drawn to drama -- it's his favorite class in 8th grade and his teacher just loves him -- and high school me would probably be horrified. Dad me is just glad he has something to be excited about. As an adult looking back at my teenage years I realize that trying to blend in, only extending myself far enough to tear down someone else whose only real sin is daring to try something scary, wasn't exactly commendable. I'm going to try to be self-compassionate to young Howie and recognize that it was a survival skill I developed that served a purpose then regardless of whether I now consider it effective. But I'm also going to try to drop it so that I can be proud of my son without reservations.

New policy: if you're having fun and/or generating value and you aren't hurting anybody or anything valuable or sentimentally important that doesn't belong to you aside from maybe you're talking a little too loud in a public space but there are other places I can sit where I don't have to hear it especially if I'm trying to read a book, I'm for it.

I just saw La La Land, and aside from being a non-stop effervescent delight from start to finish, it's had me thinking. Two things I've come up from since viewing that movie: Emma Stone is a national treasure, and I bet that Emma Stone has not always had that kind of confidence. In the movie she plays an aspiring actress/barista who doesn't know if she has what it takes. We watch her just kill it in auditions, then walk out into a hallway full of beautiful redheads who probably also killed it. How does she muster the confidence to get rejected over and over and still bring that kind of heat? The answer, I submit to you, is practice.

Check this out for a second. I've advanced it to the part I want you to watch but the whole thing is fun to watch. Anyway, have fun for just a moment of your life. Why not? Just enjoy this without being all up in your head for just a second of your life on this planet that seems to constantly want to keep you down.

Now. Think about that video had she brought even 80% of the commitment to that performance. Imagine if, while staring down that live crowd and knowing that millions were watching and millions more would watch on YouTube, she got self-conscience and gave us just a hint that she wasn't really serious about it because it's embarrassing to take anything seriously in this, the 21st century. In a generation where the only language seems to be irony, she just pours her entire self into a lip sync. It only works because we believe with all of our hearts that she is taking this stupid goofy thing that kids did for elementary school talent shows seriously.

You think she just woke up that way? I don't know her -- though Emma, if you end up reading this blog feel free to comment and also maybe ask Ryan Gosling to take me on a shopping trip like he does for Steve Carell in Crazy, Stupid, Love that would be nice -- but I bet not. My guess is that kind of confidence started out by faking it in front of some very jaded kids and adults in school plays. I did a little research and found that she was socially paralyzed by panic attacks as a kid which led to her being home-schooled. After she convinced her parents as a high school freshman to move to California so she could be an actress (in a Power-point presentation naturally), she went on to fail for a year at every audition while working at a dog treat bakery.

Here is my theory: you don't get that kind of confidence unless you practice. And you don't get that good without failing a lot first. Just like the amount of times you need to practice to get a musical piece just right, or to finish a rock climbing route that seemed impossible at first, or to really nail that Guitar Hero solo. You do something that your peers will mock out of your own awkwardness and failure but also out of jealousy that they didn't try it themselves, and when the meat grinder of social pressure has knocked out everyone else, you just keep on doing it. Even if there is a 37 year old dad in the audience silently judging you because maybe you're too loud.

This is a dad, mind you, that is reading a comic book about a girl dressed like a rodent. Doreen Green, AKA Squirrel Girl, is that girl. And eats nuts and kicks butts. She has partial squirrel blood which gives her the proportional strength and speed of a squirrel? Also she can talk to squirrels, obviously, and she commands an army of squirrels. Here's the thing about Squirrel Girl, though: she can't mind control squirrels, she can just talk to them. I can talk to other humans, but they don't do my bidding (yet). The reason the squirrels do stuff for her is because they love her, she loves them, and she's awesome.

Honestly the powers don't matter much, because she wins fights through talking, compromise, her sidekick squirrel Tippy Toe (who has the proportional strength and speed of a squirrel) and what she has learned as a second-year computer science student. This doesn't sound like much, but in the hands of SG, it is a potent combination. In The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Beats Up the Marvel Universe, we read a hilarious and actually pretty feasible argument for why she might be the toughest character in the universe.

If all you know about Marvel is from the movies, you'll do fine here. You don't need to know backstory or anything, just have fun. Get it at the library. Don't be embarrassed to be seen reading a graphic novel because of my new policy. My new policy is a little bit unwieldy at the moment so I don't want to repeat it because seriously, it's just up there 3 paragraphs, it's not going to kill you to backtrack.

After you've read it, let's talk about what our favorite jokes are. One of mine is the part with Ant-Man. Was that yours? Then let's talk about the themes. Doreen Green AKA Squirrel Girl, who eats nuts and kicks butts, is relentlessly optimistic. She, like Emma Stone (and unlike, say, your humble blogger), brims with confidence and loves unconditionally. We also learn through this story that she is deeply aware of the ills of the world and cares about them hard. This isn't the optimism that comes from hiding from the ugly things in the world, it is from staring them in the face and realizing that if you've defeated Thanos, Doctor Doom (twice), and Galactus, you've got this, too.

She's not embarrassed about who she is and if people aren't on board with her that's fine because she knows she's awesome. Here's a thought that I just stumbled on and want to sit on for a minute: what if it's impossible to mock others if you genuinely like yourself?

Here's how I'm going to end this post. It's a quote from the writer of Squirrel Girl, who is Ryan North. If you don't know Ryan North's Dinosaur Comics I think you should look them up because they are amazing and they are free. Anyway, Ryan North in this interview is self deprecating for a minute, but he pulls a real Squirrel Girl move and I keep thinking about it.
What I thought would be fun would be Squirrel Girl being this computer science student, working in STEM, because you don't see a lot of characters there, never mind female characters. Also, I studied computer science, so it's not too hard to write. [Laughs] I'm making it sound like I'm the laziest writer in the world. I do actually do good work! And it's hard! And I'm worth it!
You are worth it, Ryan North, and also Erica Henderson. More of that. More acknowledging that you're worth it and that sticking your neck out there to do something other than writing thinkpieces explaining why someone WHO IS ACTUALLY TRYING is "problematic." If the way you get your name recognized is by tearing down someone else and you're not still in high school that's not very Doreen of you. You'll never beat up the entire Marvel universe with that attitude.