Why secret identities make me see red

(Note: there are some vague spoilers for Daredevil and other titles in the MCU. I don’t get into too many specifics, but you have been warned.)

I was watching the most recent season of Daredevil, and something struck me as off. It was surprising– I really enjoyed the first season, and I thought it was well done. But by the second season finale, I was getting agitated. There were a couple of issues, but the biggest one was that it struck a personal pet peeve of mine: he still has a secret identity.

 

I’m picking on the super hero genre, but the unnecessary secret is a huge trope all over the place. Vampires are forbidden from breaking the masquerade, and wizards can’t expose magic to muggles. There’s inevitably a long, drawn out sequence where the mundane person is suddenly exposed to this secret world that they never knew existed, and is forced to re-evaluate their relationship with the ones they love.

But… why?

It wouldn’t bother me nearly so much if there was an actual solid reason for something to be kept secret, but that’s rarely the case. Often, it feels like a plot device to either create artificial drama, or as a plot coupon to explain why a hero/villain can go around killing masses of people without consequences, or to explain why only the designated hero could possibly stop the designated villain rather than the police or the army. (It has often been pointed out how quickly a gun could have taken out Voldemort, even if not all his horcruxes.)

The MCU has actually been pretty good about this for the most part, and it shows in the kind of plots that the characters are suddenly intertwined with. Being unmasked means that heroes suddenly have to face the consequences of their actions. Iron Man and Captain America have both been harangued by the US government about who owns their superpowered identities. Jessica Jones and Frank Castle have both been taken to court for, you know, killing people. These are new and interesting plots that you don’t see very often in the super hero movie/show genre (I won’t get into the comics, since there is literally a comic about the people who clean up after superheroes. Just because a thing isn’t mainstream doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist).

So this isn’t me calling out all secret worlds ever. Just the ones that don’t make sense. Particularly when they intersect with relationships.

Love in a time of secrets

You already know the old song and dance. “I can’t tell Aunt May that I’m Spiderman! Her heart can’t take it, and she will surely die!” “I can’t tell Lowis Lane that I’m Superman, because then she’ll be targeted by my enemies!”

Cue lots of lying and cover-ups, awkward misunderstandings and hurt feelings. Cue the loved ones of the super hero inevitably being kidnapped by all manner of villains anyway, and generally being put into more danger by their ignorance, often while trying to find out more about the hero or the secret identity. Cue them feeling lost and useless while the hero misses out on much-needed help that this person easily could have provided.

Perhaps most irritating to me, it almost always feels like rampant misogyny. Because even though platonic best friends sometimes get caught with the short side of the secret identity stick, that role usually falls on their wife or girlfriend (or in Peter Parker’s case, his aunt). Even if another man is kept out of the loop, they’re often clued in earlier and with a whole lot less drama than their female counterparts. (Because of this, I’ll be using ‘he’ for the hero and ‘she’ for the loved one from this point forward, even though either person can be any gender).

Hero knows best

Sometimes the hero’s loved one is told to just leave town, usually without explanation. She’s expected to obey without question, despite the hero’s erratic behavior. It doesn’t matter that she’s been shown to be reasonably intelligent before now; she doesn’t actually understand the situation, so she should just do as he says and trust that he knows better than she does.

It’s not just in isolated incidents of danger, though.

“She can’t know, or she’ll be in danger” assumes that it’s his right to decide whether or not she pursues danger or avoids it. If she doesn’t want to be involved in his life, it’s within her rights to leave. If she wants to risk the danger of associating with the hero, then it’s within her rights to stick around.

Consequently, the hero spends an irritating amount of the plot chasing after his loved one and saving her from obvious danger, as if she was a toddler playing blind man’s bluff in a knife factory. And there’s a reason for that: Taking away their right to know takes away their ability to make an informed decision. The entire premise of the secret identity reduces her agency to that of a child.

Good secrets

That isn’t to say that there can’t be secrets for good reasons. There are plenty of LGBT+ individuals who have to keep secret identities every day, because telling the other person could have grave consequences, especially in one of the many countries where those identities are criminalized. “If she finds out, she’ll be in danger” is very different from “If she finds out, she’ll try to kill me” or “she might not want to kill me, but she may tell someone who will.”

The biggest difference in this case is that the hero (the person keeping the secret) is trying to protect themselves, not the person they’re lying to. And consequently, they’re not infantilizing the other person by making decisions on their behalf. And that makes all the difference.

Feeling the strain

“It does not do to dwell in dreams and forget to live.”

–Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

It’s been a rough summer for me. I recently started grad school, and between that, blogging, and the annual Spec Fic Marathon, I’ve ended up getting cloistered inside my office. I’ve gone weeks without seeing anybody besides my husband, and rarely left the house for anything but food and grocery shopping. Sometimes, Boxy got hit hard by work assignments, I’d go a couple of days without seeing him for more than a few minutes, too.

This isn’t healthy.

No matter what your venture, be it writing, school, starting a small business, what have you, isolation isn’t good for it. No matter how much you study theories and abstractions, there is so much to be learned and gained from simply going out and living life. Every time we interact with another human being, we’re picking up new variables, new insights, new perspectives.

And over the last month and a half, I’ve been neglecting to pick those up.

I’ll still be blogging daily until the end of July, but after that point I’ll be slowing down.

Search Term Bingo!

If you’re not familiar, popular author and awesome blogger Chuck Wendig does a little ditty known as Search Term Bingo. The deal is thus:

WordPress includes a feature where it tells us what search terms led people to our site. Some of them make perfect sense. Others, however, can get downright silly. So what Chuck does (and what I’ll be doing today) is post the latest search terms and add commentary. Some of these are variations on the same theme, so I’ll be combining them.

So without further ado, here we go:

BIOSHOCK INFINITE FORESHADOWING

Seriously, this is the single most searched-for thing that gets people here, in one way or another. Personally, I’m curious how many of you lovely readers are video game fans, and if you’d like more stuff in that particular direction. I’m also quite pleased with how good the writing has gotten in video games in recent years.

WHOSE LINE IS YOURE A WIZARD HARRY

That would be Rubeus Hagrid: a half-giant and animal lover from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels, who once delivered a baby on a motorcycle. True story, yo.

On that subject, someone asked for a TIELINE OF HARRY POTTER BOOKS

I don’t have a tieline, but here’s a picture of my husband’s tie-hangar. Three guesses who gave him the fish tie~

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USING SCRIVENER

I happen to use Scrivener a lot– it’s probably tied with Microsoft Word for my favorite word processing program. However, if you’re thinking about getting it, I recommend going for NaNoWriMo first: one of the prizes for winning is a heavy discount for the software.

BEATING DEPRESSION

I did write a post on warding off the return of depression, though this isn’t usually the stuff that works when you’re in the depths of it. At a time like that, sometimes you just need to find your corn.

THE HOBBIT ARCHETYPES QUESTION

Bilbo is the Reluctant Hero. Gandalf is the Wise Old Mentor who has to vanish in order for the Reluctant Hero to actually do any heroic stuff. I’ll actually be doing a post on the subject later on this month.

DIY COMMAR

Dammit, how’s you figure out I live in Indiana? Now I’ll never be able to warsh my car in peace!

HAMLET “SEEMS? I KNOW NOT SEEMS” WHAT ACT AND SCENE IS THIS FROM

Act 1, Scene 2. Now let me point you to my dear friend No Fear Shakespeare, who got me through entirely too much of my high school career.

STANDING ST FORK ON THE ROAD

Here you go. This is St. Fork, the made-up patron saint of tableware. He is standing on the road.

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LIFE GIVING ARCHETYPE

That’s usually a Mother archetype, also frequently associated with the moon and water, thanks to the monthly nature of moon phases, tides, and menstruation.

Didn’t think I’d actually say it, didja?

31 Day Blogging Challenge: The devil in the details

Last night, my cat George ran off into the house next to mine and wouldn’t come back, so I grabbed my flip-flops and umbrella, went over there, and got him. 

Boring, isn’t it?

Technically the above is a story, but it’s a skeleton. There’s nothing to grab onto. So let’s add some detail– or rather, let’s add the kind of detail that often gets sprinkled in by novice writers.

On Monday night, my cat George, who’s black and white with yellow eyes, ran into the abandoned house next to the duplex where I live. He wouldn’t come back when I called, so I grabbed my white flip-flops and my white-and-blue umbrella, went out into the rain, and got him off the porch of the creepy old house.

These are all technically details, but they don’t actually tell you anything. I’ve noticed all too often that writers get caught up with menial details and forgetting about significant ones. This story isn’t changed just because you know the color of my flip-flops or the color of George’s eyes. It doesn’t help you to know my shoe size or the day of the week.

When we talk about details, what we’re asking for are significant details: details that change the context, that add things to the story on multiple levels.

I could tell you how my feet slipped and slid in my flip-flops, and how even the umbrella didn’t do much against the thunderstorm.

I could tell you that it was two in the morning, when the bright paint-jobs of the inhabited houses lost their glamour and the dozens of ancient foreclosed-upon houses seemed to stretch out and open the maws of their boarded up front porches. Or how that night, when I peered at it through the rain on this particular night, I caught a glimmer of light that shouldn’t have been there.

I could tell you that a few weeks ago the scent of rotting meat had wafted over my porch, and upon investigating, a brave neighbor found the mangled body of some small animal in the tall grass– he could no longer tell if it had once been cat, dog or raccoon.

I could tell you that this particular house was frequently home to squatters, and news reports of face-eating “bath-salt zombies” played in my mind as I called in vain for my cat to return.

I could tell you that George is more loyal than most dogs I’ve known– that he follows me around the yard when I garden, and always comes when I call, even if I wander off– and he wouldn’t budge when I called out to him. I could tell you how I found him cowering on the edge of the front porch of the abandoned house, unwilling to venture back into the rain, but unwilling to go deeper inside. Or how, when I touched his damp fur, he stared up at me with big wide eyes and immediately slunk to safety against my ankles.

These are details that add context and mood. They’re less about what the event looked like, and more about how it feels.

Now, this doesn’t exclude describing a thing’s color scheme or the way it looks– but it does invite you to be more judicious about which aspects you choose to describe.

For example, JK Rowling makes a point of describing Harry Potter’s appearance: his mother’s bright green eyes, his father’s unruly black hair, scrawny from his time with the Dursleys, and a lightning-shaped scar from his encounter with Voldemort. Each of those details tells you more about them, and most of them become plot-relevant later on. In fact, most of the details in the Harry Potter series are relevant later on, even if it’s just to a minor character’s subplot.