Thursday, October 7, 2010

Jackie Chan and the Science Fiction Romance Connection

For readers new to Jacqueline Lichtenberg’s current Failure of Imagination series at Alien Romances, she recapitulates in Failure of Imagination Part III: Education that

The overall general topic I've been tackling in these posts on is how to improve the general reader/viewer's opinion of the Romance Genre - particularly SFR and PNR.

As if that weren’t super enough, in Part III, she unveils this little gem:

So a writer must know what blinders her audience is wearing, blinders the audience is not aware exist. The writer must know the limits of the audience's imagination.

After reading the above, my mind started spinning all sorts of webs. I recommend you read the article in its entirety since it was in the back of my mind as I wrote this post. Ms. Lichtenberg explored the idea that Americans have developed blinders on their imaginations in the pursuit of other interests. She postulates that such blinders limit the sorts of entertainment that we might otherwise enjoy. At least, that’s how I interpreted it. Therefore, I have a few thoughts on the concept of audience “blinders” and would love to discuss them with you.

My perspective is from the audience/reader point of view. However, I’d like to illustrate my points in the form of a story..

In 1995, I attended the second annual Otakon in State College, PA. Otakon is a convention that focuses on “East Asian popular culture.” I was a big anime fan (still am) and looked forward to spending a few days there with my boyfriend (now husband) and a friend of ours.

My husband and our friend wanted to watch some of the martial arts films being shown at the convention. (This was before RUMBLE IN THE BRONX (1996) reignited American interest in Hong Kong films.) They were already fans of such fare as ULTRAMAN, KAMEN RIDER, and the Godzilla franchise.

I was not, however, a fan of teh chop socky. Or anything live action, regardless of whichever Eastern country gave it birth. Big irony, isn’t it, considering how much time and money I spent on my anime pursuits.

At the time of the convention, I knew about martial arts films, but the only thing I really knew about them were that they featured a lot of fights. Wall-to-wall fights, it seemed. Just the thought of watching an endless parade of fight scenes left me weary, and I remember being more than a little cranky at the prospect of a martial arts marathon.

“How could I possible relate to any of the characters?” I asked myself. Where were the heroines in these films? Did they even exist? What about romance? More importantly, would they have a plot, or were the plots merely a hook on which to hang a bunch of fights? Plus, I hadn’t heard any of them occurred in outer space settings. What was the point in even trying?

To put it bluntly, I had on a big honking pair of blinders.

My husband was really excited about seeing the films, so I acquiesced. So we watched a film. Then we watched a few more. And then something magical happened:

My blinders dropped away. How, you may be asking? Well, one film changed it all: DRUNKEN MASTER II (1994) starring Jackie Chan.

That day, literally overnight, I became a fan of martial arts films. I’ve given some thought as to why that happened:

*I was already a fan of Japanese animation, which is probably a big reason I even entered the room where the films were being showed.

*My first exposure was to a really good film. DRUNKEN MASTER II is regarded as one of the classics. But don’t take my word for it. TIME Magazine included DRUNKEN MASTER II in its top 100 films of all time.

*Since my initial exposure was to quality films, I learned that the good ones had great characters and a lot of depth, especially if one factored in the films’ cultural subtexts, which, as I later discovered through my own research, are legion.

*I learned about how stylized the fighting is in these films. The choreography and feats reminded me of ballet (which I had taken for ten years as a child—had that primed me in some way?). The point isn’t always who wins, but how the opponents fight.

*I learned that in martial arts films, women could fight just as well as the men.

*I saw the films with someone whose opinion I trusted. Apparently, my husband must have known on some level that I would enjoy the genre if I would just give it a try. Plus, his commentary while viewing them helped me interpret some of the elements that were new to me.

*I was part of a niche audience, and that factor made the overall experience a unique one. I felt privileged, like I was part of an elite group.

Take a quick peek at the Japanese trailer for DRUNKEN MASTER II:

So in light of Jacqueline Lichtenberg’s terminology, I had experienced a failure of the imagination when it came to martial arts films. Looking back, I think one of the biggest reasons I had on blinders was fear of an onslaught of mindless fight scenes. The superficial violence factor had overwhelmed me, so much so that I initially refused to discover if could even enjoy a single film.

I wanted to share this story because I see a connection with science fiction romance (and horror-based paranormal romance before its heyday). I think there’s a potentially larger audience for the subgenre, but could the reason we’re not seeing them surface yet be because of the blinders they are currently wearing?

When I reflect on my aversion to the superficial violence in martial arts films, I can’t help but wonder if some audiences feel the same way about the science in SFR. Or about the romance elements (SF fans, I’m looking at you).

I’ve read so many anecdotal comments by readers who say they initially resisted horror-based paranormal romance, but now they’re fans. I wonder how their blinders fell off?

While I agree that it’s great if authors “know the limits of the audience's imagination,” I would challenge readers to assess whether they are wearing blinders when it comes to a particular genre, and if the blinders are truly necessary. That said, I see a distinction between subjective taste and blinders. Audiences aren’t going to like everything, but as Jacqueline pointed out in her article, are we limiting ourselves without realizing it?

Using myself as an example again, there really weren’t any valid reasons for me to snub martial arts films. Given my love of anime, the fact that I did so made me a hypocrite. I was blind to a rich cinematic experience that was right in front of my nose, one that all of my other interests had been pointing to all of my life. All I can say is, thank goodness for Jackie Chan.

What are your thoughts on “blinders”? How can authors find out more about them? What can authors do in their stories to help readers remove unnecessary blinders?

Joyfully yours,