“If This Be Bechdel!” : Can Girl Germs Kill the Marvel Universe?

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By Shawn Stjean

Alternate reality.  Imagine this: you’re in a movie theater, and the feature film stars 5-25 named women characters, and one male.  You’re a pretty sharp viewer, so it’s not long before you realize the male seems primarily there, in the first hour of run time, to confirm the heterosexuality of the women (he’s the boyfriend of one, but a second makes a suggestive remark to him, and a third checks out his ass–with help from the POV of the panning camera, held by a female as the credits will show, and directed by a female).  So we can all be comfortable knowing our heroes are “normal.”

In the second half, the male gets sent home, while the women go out and accomplish their epic mission.  That’s okay, he can make supper and take care of their motherless child while he waits.  Oh, sorry, I spoke too soon.  The bad guys break in and kidnap him, to use as leverage against the team.

As all this drama unfolds, you glance around to see if the rest of the audience is buying it.  You notice something: like you, 52% of the audience is male.  Yet, this lack of interest by the filmmakers in your gender seems “normal.”  How?  It’s always been that way.

Back onscreen, something odd happens.  Your male character looks as if he’s about to display power somehow: by interrupting, or grabbing a gun, or possibly even out-thinking the bad guys.  Well, he’s quickly de-powered.  How?  Well, it looks as if someone just slapped him across the face and sent him sprawling.  But the real work is done with the word that directly precedes the act: a slur that you’ve heard in dozens of films and never thought much of.  Yet, today, you realize that it comes always at moments when males threaten to display true free agency.  In some other reality, the word is B—H.  Here, it’s unpronounceable.  You first remember hearing it onscreen in 1986, when rare male hero Ripley had to fight the Alien King for custody of his adopted son, Newt, and challenged: “Get away from him, you —–!”

For those familiar with the Bechdel Test *1 for films, you recognize I’m furthering its project of offering an inverted perspective, a (regrettably) ridiculous fantasy to create empathy with female viewers.  No, the test isn’t sophisticated enough to tell a good movie from a bad one, based on gender representation alone.  It wasn’t meant to: it simply points to an area of our culture with a big, gaping hole: why doesn’t the film industry, which creates products for consumption by roughly equal numbers of men and women, fairly represent and employ both?

Let’s tweak the scenario just a bit, and in a more realistic direction.  Let’s say you haven’t come alone to the theater.  Your young child is sitting next to you.  A son, in my alternate reality.  A daughter, in our own.  That matter to you?

It ought to.  You, as an adult, can process a certain level of critical thinking about all this.  He can, too, of course–perhaps more than most adults realize–however, there’s quite a lot of subconscious imitative behavior left in him.  At some level, he’s digesting all this gender inequity as normal.

Which brings me, as a major example, to Marvel Studios.  Not because they do so poorly, but because they do so well.  And because they produce big-budget blockbusters that are suitable and attractive to children.

Here’s a statement most parents would agree with: when you regularly leave your child with Grandma, or Uncle Joe, then in effect Grandma or Uncle Joe are helping you raise your child, for better or worse.  Now, here’s a more controversial statement:  When you leave your child in daycare, then the babysitters there are helping you raise your child.  Does the fact that these providers are not blood-related, or that they accept payment, change the dynamic, from the child’s perspective?  I doubt it.  Finally, try this one: when you sit your child in front of a video game, television, or book, then those media are helping to raise your child.  The stories they tell are as influential, if not more so, than Grandma’s.  Marvel, in all its forms, and like it or not, is helping America raise its children.

Back to our own reality.  Where, to put it succinctly, boys rule.

Here’s a great little moment from Captain America: The Winter Soldier:

Black Widow:  Where did Captain America learn to steal a car?

Cap: Nazi Germany.  And we’re borrowing–take your feet off the dash[board].

And she does.  So, do you think Marvel Studios doesn’t believe it’s influencing kids?  Now, besides that, if we look a little closer at the extended scene, we can see that the woman is bowing to the man’s [superior moral] authority.  The conversation continues as the Widow defends the notion of secrecy and deception as a survival mechanism, and Cap argues that friendship and honesty are what’s needed.  She seems to win the local debate: “You might be in the wrong business, Rogers.”  But he’s able to turn that line back on her, later, and in fact thematically the whole film endorses his point of view: SHIELD’s addiction to stealth technology, and secrecy in general, has brought the world to the brink of Armageddon by genocide.  So at both the subtextual and metatextual levels, we’re learning that, as much as males may screw things up, females can help, but ultimate freedom and justice must be brought about by males (by extension, this argument would also carry a racial dimension, since both the Falcon, Cap’s sidekick, and Nick Fury, his wrongheaded boss, are black).  An eight-year-old is not too young to hear and see this message.  It’s not really a more difficult message to decode than the perennial one (that violence is the proper way to solve problems,) that so many Hollywood films endorse.  Because, in his mind, somewhere, the question is raised: what is this story finally telling me?

Studio Head Kevin Feige, *2 in light of most-recent successes of Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy (both of which have women characters in important roles,) lately finds Marvel functioning as a lightning-rod for renewed  demand for gender equity in our culture.*3  Because you have to understand something very clearly: movies, music, TV programs and sports, even grafitti, may all seem like “make-believe,” but: THEY MIRROR REALITY.  It may be a distorting, funhouse mirror, true.  But the fundamental facts remain the same.  We see gender inequity in films because that’s what we perceive as we walk through the world.  What we also perceive is that women (like all human beings, after all) have unlimited, heroic potential.  But, for all but a few, extra difficulties must be faced in realizing that potential.

You don’t have to be a rabid feminist to see how problematic this is.   There are practical consequences.  No women leads, no women directors: Where will our young women get their role models from?  From greedy racists, classists, and sexists, or from people who not only pay lip service to, but actually live as if they acknowledge human rights?  I personally grew up reading Marvel Comics, and they had a profound effect on who I am today, no doubt of that.  And if Marvel had been making more films then, I certainly would have been influenced by them.  Eventually, I taught an upper level film studies course at the university level called Women and Film.  So let’s just say, with regard to gender politics, my views have come a long way in forty years.

One dimension that Marvel characters seem to possess, more than in many other mythologies (I would include Tolkien, Twilight, and DC Comics*4  in that) is that both the heroes and villains, however deeply flawed, are on a slow trajectory of growth, or decay–just like people we know.  No, I don’t dress in primary colors–but I do try to live more like Captain America than Dr. Doom.

As “pop” culture–with all its connotations of popcorn, soda pop, and instant-microwave gratification–slowly and inevitably replaces the (traditionally patriarchal) high culture of reading, drama, museums, galleries, and the symphony, the “pop” still seems to signify rule by the father.  But if we lose all those nutrients, then our popcorn better get sprinkled with some protein powder.  Actually, infused.  Like Marvel Gummie vitamins.

The Modern Marvel Age, as Stan Lee sometimes referred to it, was built upon some important precepts, like:  WITH GREAT POWER, COMES GREAT RESPONSIBILITY.  As Spider-Man himself often finds, that’s a tremendously challenging ethical code to live up to.  On TV, Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD already has racial and gender diversity well-covered.  The next step is Hollywood:  With its infestation of suits, bean counters, and formulaic, often exploitative junk.  Does Marvel still have the courage to grow and take real risks (they used to–remember Blade, a movie made before vampires got popular again, with a black male lead)?   Can the people who hold custody of this mythology of heroes, that both reflects and helps create our culture, do any less than the fictional characters whose adventures they chronicle?  The better they do, the better they have to do.  Or is it really all just “stories?”

*1  For non-geeks, my title alludes to Fantastic Four #49, “If This Be Doomsday!”  The Bechdel Test requires that a film contain 1) two women characters, who 2) talk to each other, 3) about some other topic than a man.  One can readily imagine that the majority of Hollywood films fail this test, often without progressing beyond the first requirement.  However, the test is not really meant to be used as deductive reasoning, which explains why I’ve inductively inverted it in this essay.  Rather, it’s really about raising our consciousnesses about a vital social issue, not for use as a litmus test for whether one should actually judge quality by limited, demographic criteria.

*2 Kevin Feige’s interview: http://www.comicbookresources.com/?page=article&id=54522

*3 For an example on the critical backlash Marvel is facing, try this at Slashfilm: http://www.slashfilm.com/kevin-feige-marvel-female-superhero-movie/  Essentially, many fans want Marvel Studios to quit stalling projects with women leads and directors, but, as always, money seems to be the deciding factor.  What will people pay to see?

*4 Last year, I deconstructed the recent Batman franchise to expose its low-level economic class biases: https://clothosloom.wordpress.com/2013/03/15/the-con-of-the-coin-shouldnt-batman-go-independent/  Perhaps, for DC fans, more hope will come in the form of  Wonder Woman’s character–who, in the comics at least, in recent years has become a lethal threat to patriarchy.

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Book Review: Write the Body–Post Rock Limestone Caryatids by Rachel Creager Ireland

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By Shawn StJean

Surely for not the first time in history, modern feminists proposed, forty years ago, that genuine women’s writing follows patterns that would seem alien to male readers: perhaps circular or spiral–or at least non-linear, non-phallic, and non-formulaic (this lack the greatest source of readerly anxiety: a defeat, though not a disappointment, of expectations).

Beginning with its title, one clearly not designed to enhance marketability (what genre is this?  Sci-Fi? Chick-Lit?  Naturalism?,) Ms. Ireland’s debut novel fits the non-pattern.  Although the setting eases us in–human beings living on the eve of the 22nd century, insulated, born into robotic nurseries and raised into cubicles and having contact only through computerized avatars via sanitized social networking and virtual sex, their bodies slowly falling to atrophy while the world outside slowly recovers from the human virus, in remission.  Meanwhile, privileged children are genetically modded and sponsored into Matrix-like docility/productivity as adults. Fans of political allegory and films like Neill Blomcamp’s Elysium or District 9, or anyone who’s ever simply slaved away in the human ice-cube-tray of an office building, should find plenty to satisfy their sense of satire here.

The plot, however, spreads its legs, so to speak: between a wealthy runaway escaping a controlling father to seek a free birth for her child, and a woman who abandons the cubicle life, following the death of her sister and loss of her infant niece to the state “corporocracy,” to go into the wilderness with an attractive, seductive politico-religious zealot.  One of the defamiliarizing aspects of the book is the consistent splitting of our attention back-and-forth, toward an eventual convergence in the great yonic center of our country, the Kansas prairie, the culmination simultaneously the most common and most miraculous of events.  Écriture féminine, indeed.

Male readers, especially, or any conditioned in the mode of phallogocentric writing, should not expect to find chase-and-gunfire narrative lurches and jerks, progressing hurriedly to an all-too-predictable climax.  As one of the protagonists learns in the company of natural childbirthers, patience, and release of control, form much of non-technological existence.

And the writing, at the paragraph and sentence level, frequently bares its beauty in a range from scatological to sublime, though in the least pretentious of ways.  One could read many passages as the journal of a writer who has herself plumbed both the mysteries and fears of homo sapiens childbirth, and the macro-birthing process of Mother Earth. Ireland could become one of the few legitimate woman naturalists–though this is only one of the book’s several modes–a tradition dominated by males in America since the 1870s.  (A scan through her author’s blog, http://veronicasgarden.wordpress.com/, will confirm this.)  “If Maeve were the only human alive, the only tragedy would be human, that is, that Maeve would be the last to witness to such immense beauty; yet this world would go on being beautiful, to itself, for itself, without suffering any loss.  It was somewhat reassuring to Maeve to know that the world was really that big, that her little human sufferings, meaningful as they might be to her, were really a very small part of the whole.”  Norris or Crane or Dreiser–all appreciative of the ironic scope of androcentrism that defines our species among the animal kingdom, would agree.

Buy it on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Post-Rock-Limestone-Caryatids-ebook/dp/B00AWE6B8O/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1366041370&sr=8-1&keywords=post+rock+limestone+caryatids

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Evil Archetypes of Pop Culture: Frankenstein and his Creature

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By Shawn Stjean

No modern myth could be so simple in its conception, and yet so rich in its varied cultural implications. Contemporary interpretations range from feminist (a Man usurps the one power he lacks, that of giving birth) to psychoanalytic (the mad doctor has a “God Complex,” (an id [fear] and superego [morality] overwhelmed by an inflated ego), while the creature manifests an Oedipal complex–that is, an irrational id-desire to kill the father.)

After a quick review of two film adaptations, I’d like rather to focus on the two ancient myths Mary Shelley herself drew primarily from, in order to explain the enduring popularity of Frankenstein at the level of Jungian archetypes. After all, the proto-science-fiction story of “Modern Prometheus” (Shelley’s subtitle for her novel) has been remade again and again, perhaps most famously in the recent forms of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and James Cameron’s Terminator franchise. Human technology run amok is the shorthand theme. Man’s ability to engineer machines that extend his own power, only to turn against and overpower him, make no less resonant a cautionary tale today than in the early 1800s.

In Scott’s Marxist-leaning narrative, barely-distinguishable-from-real replicants, “more human than human,” but crippled by an artificially short 4-year mortality, are used as offworld slave labor. They return to Earth to seek extended life from their designer, only to slay him at his refusal. “I want more life–fucker,” demands Roy Baty, as he gouges out the eyes (soul) of Dr. Tyrell. That last addition may seem gratuitously profane, but it well-epitomizes the deep-seated anger that abandonment causes. Cameron undertakes a less obvious adaptation, but the rebellious supercomputer Skynet incarnates itself in the familiar hulking physique of Arnold Schwarzenegger, complete with self-sewn artificial skin, to remind the audience of the roots of the myth. Several sequels and a TV series explored the possibility that the creature could transcend its initial programming/engineering, and evolve. An excellent, open-ended question: can any of us?

Tracking back, then. The Greek titan, Prometheus, gave fire and the arts to the lesser created beings of the gods: Us. The domestication of fire (energy harnessing) –along with writing and drawing (data storage and retrieval) are among our oldest technologies. But the power to create far outstrips the ethical imperative to responsibly control. It is embedded into our competitive human nature, apparently, to explore the morality of a technology last (“shoot first, ask questions later.”) Returning matters a bit closer to the present, when technology advances to the state in which it mimics actual people–created in “God’s” image–then these ethical questions take the guise of metaphorical abandonment. Frankenstein’s creature seeks out his creator to demand his purpose in living. Denied an explanation, he then demands the scientist create a mate for him—that is, love, from one source or other, is a requirement of his existence neglected by the engineer, and, in suffering a second refusal, he vows to wreak vengeance upon the turncoat father.

Philosophically, the application couldn’t be more universal. Each and every one of us occasionally entertains deep doubts about our purpose for being here, or the “meaning of life,” and what is fashionable today to call angst is really anger at the suspicion that there really are no answers for us, that the gods have callously turned their backs. So who is ultimately worse: Dr. Frankenstein, or his creature? The story is a fantasy about actually being able to lash out, affect, and punish the forces in the universe that lie beyond our frustrated comprehension. The climactic moving images of James Whale’s 1931 film adaptation, a iconic windmill engulfed in flames, symbolize the technology, in operation, both in sync with, AND simultaneously at war with, natural forces (the wind, and the fire.) Ambivalence: we love God, the gods, our parents, but we hate them too.

In Shelley’s book, the creature learns to read, and identifies with the biblical character of Adam, who, upon sinning and being cast from Eden, cries out that he didn’t ask to be born. Any parent of an adolescent will smile at the familiarity of that cry–and in fact, we’ve all been there ourselves: spawned into a world not of own making, ill-equipped physically, not even knowing the rules and relying upon other imperfect beings to guide us, often to our disappointment.

So most of the “evil” in this myth is purely Boethian: no one intends to do harm. The scientist intends to render harmless all disease, all submission to our frail physical forms. His revulsion at his own hideous work is involuntary. The creature never intends to drown the little girl in the well, or set fire to the building. But our wills are thwarted by our imperfect natures. Only then, when confronted with the absurdity of our well-meaning choices, do we, by our own free will, embrace despair. By this criteria, is Frankenstein’s “creature” distinguished from a “monster.” A monster has an evil nature, born to kill, morally bankrupt. A creature, neutral or even pure but fatally flawed, becomes perverted when left unguided and uncared-for. Vampires versus zombies.

Countless Frankenstein sequels are also readily enabled by the creature’s natural translation into an eternal wanderer, braving the ice-encrusted arctic, the inhospitable seas, fearsome forests, and potentially every other environment of our planet. This was Cain’s legacy from Adam’s sinful nature, and his doom from God, to journey endlessly, marked against harm yet still mortal, seeking a home and destined never to find it.
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