Monday, October 20, 2014

Fridging, Manpain, and the Cis-White-Dude Hero: Lazy Storytelling in Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Poor Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

When the show debuted last year, they had the so-called perfect team setup: the world-weary, yet secretly soft-touch upperclassmen, Coulson and May; the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and brilliant (and British!) scientists, Simmons and Fitz; the idealistic, be the change you want to see in the world newcomer, Skye; and the hyper-masculine, stoic yet tragic, cis-white-dude hero, Ward.

You just can’t lose with that many character boxes checked, right?

But something happened on the way to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. becoming a network hit. The cis-white-dude hero fell flat. Oh, sure, he had his defenders in fandom—many of whom continued to support him even after the writers switched gears and made him the villain his character was far more suited to be (Captain America: The Winter Soldier says “you’re welcome,” by the way)—but for a lot of people he never completely clicked.

By contrast, Agent Antoine Triplett (affectionately referred to as Trip), who was brought in mid-season as an affable foil to Ward’s taciturn loner, was an almost immediate hit whose popularity only increased as the season progressed and plot twists revealed the true natures of Ward, his mentor Garrett, and Agent Victoria Hand (may she rest in peace). Initially treated with suspicion by some members of the team, including Coulson, Trip repeatedly proved himself to be loyal, dependable, and a complete and total badass. He turned out to be so popular, in fact, that Marvel is rumored to have given him a role of as-yet-undetermined significance in their upcoming film Age of Ultron (1).

You’d think that B.J. Britt, the actor who portrays Agent Trip, would have been a shoe-in to join the regular cast of the show in season two. (During a Q&A hosted by Comic Book Resources before the season two premiere, in fact, more than one person asked about the possibility of Britt joining the show as a regular cast member (2).) But it wasn’t him. Instead, the new member of the regular cast was an English actor named Nick Blood who had been brought in to portray Lance Hunter.

It’s not necessarily curious that the writers of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. would bring in Hunter—he’s an established character in the 616 universe with ties to S.H.I.E.L.D.—but it is curious that they would bring him in as a regular, and obviously with every intention of sliding him into the hero role that was vacated by Ward, when they already have someone—an awesome someone, a someone who is adored by the fans—waiting to take that role.

Think about it.

Agent Trip is, as has been noted, loyal, dependable, and a badass. He’s witty, he’s warm, he’s an adorable tech geek, and he’s a freaking legacy. His grandfather was a Howling Commando, for Stan Lee’s sake. He should be the guy. But he’s not the guy. Lance Hunter is.

There’s an elephant in the room, people: Antoine Triplett is an African-American character.

Lance Hunter is a British mercenary with a heart of gold; he’s a man with a checkered past who just needs someone to believe in him. He’s a cis-white-dude, and he’s ready to be a hero. And, more importantly, the cis-white-dudes who traditionally run everything in the entertainment industry are ready for him to be the hero. They aren’t ready, in any way, shape, or form, for Antoine Triplett to be the hero.

There’s so much wrong with this that it’s hard to believe it gets worse.

But it does.

The casting news about the introduction of Lance Hunter was made during the Marvel Television panel at this year’s San Diego Comic Con. At the same time, another piece of casting news was made: legendary fantasy icon Lucy Lawless would play the role of Isabelle Hartley—another, albeit extremely minor, character taken from the pages of the comics (3). This news was very well received by just about everyone, and Marvel quite quickly set about the task of fanning the flames of viewer excitement—releasing a first look at Lawless as Hartley in late August (4) and a spate of interviews with her teasing her character in the week leading up to the season premiere (5).

Imagine everyone’s surprise, then, when Isabelle Hartley debuted in episode one and promptly died a rather horrible death (6).

At first, I wasn’t sure what had happened. “So is Lucy Lawless going to come back to life with superpowers?” I asked my roommate, who was watching the premiere with me. “Are we going to have, like, a zombie Lucy Lawless who’s kind of like zombie John Cho on Sleepy Hollow?”

The way Lawless’ character had died made such a scenario barely possible, “But still,” I thought to myself. “Stranger things have happened. This is a comic book, after all.”

In that moment, even such a flimsy origin story was preferable to the alternative: that Isabelle Hartley had been fridged (7) in order to advance the storyline of her male counterpart, Lance Hunter—the cis-white-dude ready to be a hero and in desperate need of a sympathetic backstory to grease the wheels of fan acceptance.

As episode two premiered, however, and Hunter went on his crusade to ensure a proper burial for “Izzy” and do the right thing by her and her surviving relatives, the grim reality of what the writers of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. had done began to sink in.

They fridged a female character, played by a prominent and beloved actress (whose death was therefore guaranteed to elicit an emotional response on the part of the viewers), for the sole purpose of providing their new cis-white-dude hero with a conveniently tragic backstory (8).

Lance Hunter might be a mercenary son-of-a-bitch, but deep down all he really cares about is doing the right thing—because deep down he’s got a heart of gold and he was deeply, deeply hurt by the death of his friend. And Coulson can see it. Coulson—the everyman stand-in for the Marvel fandom—is ready to give Hunter the deep and meaningful speech about joining the team and making a difference. And Hunter is ready to hear it, because he’s the hero we’ve been waiting for. He’s the guy that made regular cast, the generic cis-white-dude hero that every show supposedly needs if it wants to succeed.

Don’t you just love him?

There’s a blatant calculation at work in these narrative (and casting) choices that reveal a profound lack of respect for the audience’s intelligence. It’s very clear that the writers are essentially trying to get a Ward-type character right. Viewers seem to like British people so let’s make him British (9), and the straight-man archetype didn’t play well so let’s shoot for funny-man this time, and clearly he needs to be someone people can empathize with right out of the gate, so let’s show him being devastated by the sudden death of a character who is played by a beloved actress. Because even though the viewers know nothing of the Isabelle Hartley character, their love for the actress will transfer to her and, consequently, to her friend, and we’ll finally have our perfect team-up courtesy of some well-placed manpain (10).

And meanwhile, Antoine Triplett—the guy who by all rights should be the guy but isn’t—is left to badass his way around the show’s background scenery, being the dude you can always count on, a member of the recurring cast, probably waiting to make his Age of Ultron sacrifice play.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Lance Hunter will grow to be a character of real depth. Maybe Antoine Triplett will become a fixture of the show for seasons to come and make the regular cast roster in season three or four (if the show gets that far). Maybe the writers have plans that I can’t yet appreciate and will heartily approve when they finally do come to pass.

But the fact that Antoine Triplett has been passed over now is a problem. And the fact that Isabelle Hartley has been fridged in order to legitimize the character who has taken his place is also a problem.

And those problems will stay with the show until someone in charge steps up and works to solve them. Ball's in your court, Marvel. Let's see if you've got what it takes.

5) A Google search of the terms “Lucy Lawless” or “Lucy Lawless Agents of Shield” will return a large selection of these articles, which were posted mainly in the third week of September 2014.
8) The use of Isabelle Hartley as a mere plot point, and not as a full-fledged character, becomes even more problematic when you consider that the Hartley character is thought to have been modeled on a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent named Isabelle from the original comics, who was the girlfriend of canonically-LGBTQ character Victoria Hand—herself fridged near the end of AoS season one. This, combined with the casting of Lawless, who is most famous for her portrayal of lesbian character Xena in Xena: Warrior Princess, suggests that the creators have undercurrents of queerphobia running through their writing as well.
9) As an attempt to forestall any potential but-Lance-Hunter-IS-British-in-the-comics rebuttals, let me make it clear that when I say “let’s make him British,” the “him” I am referring to is “the Ward-type character” and not the character of Lance Hunter specifically.
10) As of right now, the perfect team-up is somewhat compromised by plot developments from the end of season one and the beginning of season two. (I would argue that it has been compromised in a potentially good way.) However, for the purposes of this essay I have omitted discussion of those developments because they are not directly relevant.

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Sunday, August 24, 2014

Fighting to Read

In his essay on the difficulties of reading in an age of constant connectivity (and how contemporary fiction may adapt itself to this environment), Tim Parks asserts that "every moment of serious reading has to be fought for, planned for" (1). I've found that especially true for myself this week, as I've joined a book club and embarked upon a reading of John Knowles' A Separate Peace—a book that I haven't read since high school (or junior high?)—an activity that quickly left me struggling to stay focused.

Parks highlights a couple examples of pre-1980s literary prose (by Faulkner and Dickens, respectively) to illustrate his point that such texts were written in eras when readers were free from the demands of smartphone and laptop, ringtone and notification, to fully immerse themselves in richly detailed prose that does not lend itself kindly to the habitual pauses that pepper a modern person's daily life. Much as I hate to admit it, Parks' argument resonates with my own experience of changing personal reading trends. Well do I remember the days before laptop and smartphone when I often lost myself in the pages of book after book, reading such pre-modern classics as Moby Dick, Heart of Darkness, Frankenstein, and Lorna Doone not because they were on the curriculum, but because I simply wanted to and I had plenty of unfettered time. I also distinctly remember a time post-laptop, but pre-smartphone, when I finally managed to finish Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities during an unexpected eight-hour delay at the Mexico City airport. That may well be the last time I read a classic until now (2), and I feel quite certain that I would never have finished without the benefit of that "inconvenient" delay.
In his conclusion, Parks speculates that the writing style of contemporary fiction will adapt itself to a reader whose consciousness is much more divided than that of the person reading "fifty or even thirty years ago." While this may be true, I am hopeful that my new reading endeavor will engender in me both a more disciplined reading practice and a willingness to let go of the lesser demands of daily life. After all, there was a time when I got by perfectly well without the pings and prods of up-to-date information. Surely, I can do so for the evening hour or so it takes me to keep up with my book club.

1) Tim Parks, "Reading: The Struggle," The New York Review of Books (June 10, 2014)
2) Actually, the amount of fiction I read in general has dropped quite shamefully since I began my graduate student program. I keep hoping to reverse that trend, but there always seems to be another article to read first. This is an issue the Parks doesn't really address in his article. His suggestion that pre-1980s prose is not calibrated toward a life that is constantly checking-in with the cloud is quite persuasive, but he has little say about how that constant checking-in has fast become a responsibility of modern life. We are not merely short-attention-spanned wastrels; we are actively expected (by family, friends, and colleagues) to put ourselves on hold to ensure near-constant availability, and that's a whole other problem entirely.

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Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Redemption in the Marvel Universe: Grant Ward and Bucky Barnes

The following essay was originally posted to my tumblr blog.

Warning: Here Be Spoilers.

In a recent interview, Jeph Loeb—the executive producer of the show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Head of Television for Marvel Entertainment—spoke about the possibility of a redemption arc for the AoS character Grant Ward.

One quote of Loeb's, in particular, caused something of a furor on tumblr:
The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) has done things that are far more heinous than anything Grant Ward has ever done as far as we know, and yet, at the end of the movie, you’re rooting for him to come back on the side of the angels. (1)
While not outraged by this statement, I am genuinely conflicted about it.

On the one hand, Grant Ward is a horrible person, who has chosen to do horrible things and who—as of the season 1 AoS finale—has demonstrated no sense of remorse for his actions. Thus, in my opinion, there is no redemption for Grant Ward as he currently exists.

On the other hand, however, redemption arcs are the bread-and-butter of comic book stories. Many, many people who are superheroes in comics today started off as supervillains or have gone through supervillain phases: Rogue, Emma Frost, Natasha Romanoff, Clint Barton, Magneto, Scarlett Witch. Alternatively, many superheroes have fallen into supervillainy and subsequently recovered (or not): Charles Xavier, Jean Grey, Bishop, Tony Stark (subject to dispute, I know, but in my opinion everyone on the side of the Superhuman Registration Act in Civil War counts as having a supervillain phase, and I particularly dislike 616 Tony Stark—deal with it).

What’s troubling to me about Loeb’s statement is not that it implies a possible redemption arc for Grant Ward, but that it seems to do so without an awareness of what makes a redemption arc plausible. People are rooting for Bucky Barnes not because they are capable of looking past the crimes he committed as the Winter Soldier but because they understand him to have been nearly as victimized by those actions as the people he killed were. His experience of years of torture and mindcontrol at the hands of HYDRA (in the MCU) constitutes a viable excuse for his actions. Simply put, he was not in control of himself when he committed those crimes—i.e. he is not culpable for those crimes.

However, while Bucky Barnes is clearly a victim, Grant Ward is clearly not (2). There are explanations for why he did the things he did, yes, but there are no excuses. (Recognizing the difference between an explanation and an excuse is, I feel, absolutely crucial to understanding a character like Grant Ward.) As a result of this, a majority of people are not rooting for Ward. They understand that he, unlike Bucky Barnes, is fully culpable for his actions. Now, I’m not saying that Ward cannot be redeemed, but redemption is an uphill battle. Even for someone like Bucky Barnes, who wasn’t in control of himself during his time as the Winter Soldier, it is a task that takes time and dedication. (And this is another major reason why people root so hard for Bucky; in the comics—and no doubt in the films—he took [will take] full responsibility for his actions as the Winter Soldier and actively, tirelessly worked to make things right.)

In all honesty, I could see a redemption arc for Grant Ward that played out over the course of several (later) seasons, but not one that happened immediately within the second season. But if he did go on to have a redemption arc, his culpability for his crimes would mean that he would not be starting in the same place that Bucky Barnes did/will.

There’s a lot of room to explore interesting themes with the character of Grant Ward and the characters who knew him and were betrayed by him. I think he has the potential to make a great ongoing villain—the sort of character audiences love to hate. The kind of villain whose past relationship with our heroes makes for a lot of high drama and emotional resonance and whose continued presence provides room for the exploration of themes of guilt, mistrust, and grief in the wake of betrayal (and attempted, or hoped-for, redemption) that comic books do so well.

But this quote by Jeph Loeb definitely makes me nervous. As it stands right now, Deathlok has more remorse for his actions than Grant Ward does, so if they’re thinking redemption arc for Ward then they’re going to have to be extremely careful about how they handle it. And rushing is absolutely not the way to go.

1) Vanessa Frith, "'Agents of Shield' Season 2 Spoilers: How Much Will Ward Feature [POLL]? Execs Discuss Skye & Ward's Relationship [VIDEO]," Enstars (July 18, 2014).
2) I realize that this is a potentially inflammatory statement. However, I stand by my assertion that Grant Ward is not a victim. He was at one time a victim of child abuse, but having suffered abuse does not absolve him of responsibility for his crimes. The stereotypical character who does bad things because bad things happened to them is an exceedingly sloppy narrative device that, in my opinion, perpetuates extremely damaging stereotypes about people who have been abused. Abuse cannot be framed as an excuse for acts of violence; to do so is to insinuate that anyone who has suffered abuse cannot help but enact a vicious circle of abuse. There must be a point where an abused person who goes on to abuse others ceases to be considered a victim and comes to be seen as a victimizer. You may still feel a sense of sympathy for them—an understanding of the context in which they do the things they do—but you cannot absolve them of their actions.

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Sunday, June 1, 2014

Whose Girl Is She? The Intensely Problematic Depiction of Mystique in 'X-Men: Days of Future Past'

Warning: Here Be Spoilers.

About a month before X-Men: Days of Future Past opened, I saw a gifset taken from this scene of the film, and I got very, very nervous. The clip appeared to show a Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnscherr (Magneto) who were at odds over a girl—Raven Darkholme (a.k.a. Mystique), retconned to be Xavier's foster sister as of X-Men: First Class—rather than at odds over an ideological difference of opinion. The philosophical difference of opinion that Xavier and Magneto have over how to achieve mutant prosperity is the cornerstone of the X-Men universe, and it is what has enabled the story of the X-Men and their foes to remain consistently compelling since their debut in the 1960s. The crux of the struggle between Xavier and Magneto (and the X-Men and their various foes) is that they essentially want to achieve the same goal, but they have radically different notions about how to do that. Where Xavier and his X-Men favor pacifism and outreach, Magneto and "villains" like Mystique and her Brotherhood of (Evil) Mutants favor vigilantism and revolution.

This distinction between the two factions was admirably maintained in X-Men and X2: X-Men United, but it began to erode in X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men: First Class. I was naturally extremely worried by the possibility that the exploration of ideological contention between the main characters might have been abandoned in favor of a two-dimensional spat over a female character—a trope that is both sexist and boring. I began to fear that Days of Future Past was not going to be the triumphant return to the beloved X-Men films of the early 2000s that I was hoping for.

As it turned out, I was somewhat misled by the gifset I saw. Days of Future Past did not simply distill a complex debate down to a fight about a woman, and it would be a gross oversimplification to say so. In fact, Days of Future Past did something far, far worse. For in this film Mystique was not merely the thing that Xavier and Magneto fought over; she was the battleground on which they fought—a blank slate devoid of agency or identity, picked up and used and tossed aside when their need for her was gone. Mystique's entire character arc, if you can call it that, hinged on a struggle between identification with one or the other of two men, and at no point was there ever any indication that she might conceivably have been her own person, capable of making her own, well-informed decisions.

Mystique as she exists in the comic books, and in the first two X-Men films, is an extremely powerful character. She is grounded in deeply-held beliefs about her mission to secure mutant prosperity. She is comfortable in who she is as a person and a mutant. She rejects other people's labels about who she should be and how she should act. She is an unqualified badass.

We see this Mystique in X2, when she disagrees with Nightcrawler's suggestion that she use her powers to hide: "Why not stay in disguise all the time? Look like everyone else?" he asks. "Because we shouldn't have to," she replies. And we see this Mystique again in X-Men: The Last Stand, when she continues to help the cause of mutant prosperity even after she has been depowered—illustrating just how strongly her sense of self is grounded in the belief that her cause is just. In X-Men: First Class, however, this Mystique was erased in favor of a depiction of her as a sheltered, naive girl-next-door, whose acceptance of self hinges entirely on being sexually desired by a man. This marks the beginning of the transformation (completed in Days of Future Past) of Mystique from an autonomous character to subordinate tool.

In X-Men: Days of Future Past, the horrible dystopic future of a world ruled by Sentinels is precipitated by an assassination carried out by Mystique. So far, so good. (This is what caused the dystopic future in the original Claremont/Byrne story arc.) However, unlike in the original comic book, where Mystique's actions were part of a larger vigilante project that was underlined by a specific ideological belief, in the film Mystique is motivated primarily by a surplus of feminine emotion (read: hysteria) over the deaths of her friends. These paper-thin and stereotypical motivations are emblematic of the way in which the writing team of the prequels have pulled Mystique's fangs. She is no longer a powerful force in her own right; instead, she is an erratic, overly-emotive will-o-the-wisp, desperately in need of guidance because she cannot stay grounded without a force greater than herself upon which to orient herself. In other words, she has no real autonomy.

This lack of autonomy makes her the perfect tool for the primary male characters to fight over, and her representation in this manner is part and parcel of a larger problem of representation in superhero films in general. As Monika Bartyzel has noted:

"The female superhero problem isn't just one of reluctance and indifference — it's one of seriously skewed attitudes. The creative teams behind superhero franchises (and much of the media that report on them) simply don't treat female superheroes as superheroes. Instead, they're viewed as objects and used for male support." (1)

The objectification of Mystique in this film could not be more clear. It is the sole basis on which the dramatic tension is built, and it is visually and narrativistically reinforced throughout the course of the film. Mystique is manipulated, physically and mentally by both of the primary male characters at various points. Magneto moves her body (by means of a bullet embedded in her leg) with his power; Xavier freezes her body by seizing control of her mind. Both men do this to her, without her consent, for her own good, and in defiance of her stated desires. Yet even her stated desires are characterized in terms of her alliance to one or the other of these men. Her decision to assassinate or to not assassinate is framed purely in terms of whose girl she is. Is she Charles' girl? Or is she Erik's girl? After all, she certainly is not her own girl.

In the end, Mystique does not actually make a decision. She merely functions as a blank slate onto which the philosophies of the main male characters are projected.

And allow me to repeat that, so that it is clear. In X-Men: Days of Future Past, the desires and worldviews of the two main male characters are literally projected onto the blank-slate body of a woman who spends the majority of the film in a state of virtual nakedness. She is not a character in this film. She is an object to be used by her male counterparts, an object whose meaning and function are defined by them.

This is, in no uncertain terms, horrible. It is indicative of the deeply ingrained misogyny and male entitlement that characterize our society.

And it needs to be challenged in a major way.

1) Monika Bartyzel, "Girls on Film: The Superhero Genre's 'Giant Green Porn Star' Problem," The Week Magazine (May 23, 2014).

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Sunday, May 11, 2014

Pain, Personhood, and Parity: The Depiction of Bucky Barnes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe

This essay contains multiple spoilers for the ending of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. If you have not yet seen the film, please proceed at your own risk.

The day before I went to see Captain America: The Winter Soldier for the fifth time, I spent an afternoon in the park with one of my closest friends and her two-year-old son, Son'eu. As we wandered the pathways of the vast gardens of the Hama Rikyū Park, my friend and I took turns running herd on Son'eu—who at two is a bundle of seemingly unlimited energy and endlessly varied short-term interests. Over and over again, we chased him away from steep precipices, pulled him back from the water’s edge, and got him down from an assortment of dangerously high (for a two-year-old) places. We also spent a considerable amount of time picking up after him.

It was this act of picking-up-after that stuck with me during my viewing of The Winter Soldier the following day. The behavior of the Winter Soldier character reminded me strongly of Son’eu; for Son’eu is at that stage in life when anytime he finishes with something (in the case of our most recent outing, a partially-drunk mango smoothie), he drops it on the ground and walks away. It does not matter if the thing in question has been finished; if he is finished with it, he drops it on the ground and walks away. And we pick up the pieces.

Throughout the film, the Winter Soldier displays this pattern of behavior. He drops every single weapon that comes into his hands, and it does not matter if the weapon itself retains its usefulness. It does not matter if the gun's clip is empty or still loaded with bullets; if the Winter Soldier is done with it, he drops it and moves on to something else. He picks up or pulls out a weapon, uses it for as long as it engages his attention, and tosses it aside in favor of something new. It is an exceptionally childlike action.

There has been a lot of commentary written about the Winter Soldier/Bucky Barnes (1) in the month since the film was released in the US, and much of it has characterized his actions as those of a dog or an animal, but I believe that what he really is is a child caught in the formative stages of personality development. A number of his exhibited behaviors suggest this: his habit of dropping things when he no longer needs or wants them—child; his tendency to become frustrated and erratic when something does not go as he expects—child; his kneejerk rejection of Steve Rogers' attempts to help him (even though deep down he senses that Steve is committed to, and working for, his best good)—child.

The Winter Soldier is a dangerous child having a lethal temper-tantrum all the way through this film. He is a two-year-old dropping half-empty mango smoothies on the ground when he is done with them. He is a little boy trying desperately not to cry.

Part One: Pain and Personhood
The emotionally regressed state of the Winter Soldier is understandable in light of how often he is implied to have undergone repeated mental conditioning. According to the original comics (and supported by the hints given in the film), the Winter Soldier was given a memory wipe to ensure compliance every single time his handlers woke him up out of cryo-sleep. He then spent a few days awake on a mission and was immediately put back to sleep after the completion of that mission. That sleep was presumably not restorative. After all, the cryo-stasis prevented his body from aging; it also therefore probably prevented his brain from doing the necessary mental repair-work that only happens while the body is in a true, deep sleep. When we consider that the Winter Soldier had his memory wiped before every mission, and that he had at least twenty-five missions that the intelligence community knew of, that is a serious, serious number of mental reconditioning procedures over a relatively short—from the Winter Soldier's perspective—period of time. It is little wonder then that his emotional baseline is that of a small child.

The artificially-induced childlike quality of the Winter Soldier's personality gives a whole new meaning to the micro-expressions of actor Sebastian Stan—particularly during the bank vault scene with Alexander Pierce (portrayed by screen-legend Robert Redford). The way the Winter Soldier zeroes in on Pierce after Pierce sits down in front of him is reminiscent of the way a child will focus on a teacher or parent during story hour, and the manner in which he presses his lips together after his second assertion that he knew Steve Rogers ("But I knew him!") recalls a child fighting back tears because he knows that if he wants to cry, Pierce will give him something to really cry about. However, the emotional state that has been produced in the Winter Soldier by the repeated experience of mental and physical pain goes far beyond regression to childhood and into the realm of near-personlessness.

In her book The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World, literary theorist Elaine Scarry argues that pain—both physical and mental—has the power to destroy the human capacity for speech (2). Humans scream, shriek, or shout rather than speak when they suffer severe bodily or emotional pain because that experience of pain has eradicated their ability to respond verbally. This description perfectly summarizes the situation of the Winter Soldier, who through his repeated mental conditioning is in a constant state of pain, and this aspect of the Winter Soldier's character is expressed in three different ways in the film: through his silence, through his use of (to an English-speaking audience) a foreign language, and through the presence of a specific musical cue in the film's score.

The Winter Soldier is a person whose identity has been obliterated by pain—a pain that has destroyed almost every last vestige of his personhood. It is for this reason that he almost never speaks. His lack of speech is emblematic of his lack of personhood, and this is reiterated a) by the fact that no one in the film—other than Alexander Pierce and Steve Rogers—speaks to him, and b) by the fact that he does not speak in English (his body's native tongue) to anyone in the film—other than Alexander Pierce and Steve Rogers. Furthermore, the Winter Soldier's lack of personhood—grounded in an intense internalized emotional pain—is symbolically expressed through Henry Jackman's brilliant "Winter Soldier Theme," which is primarily characterized by the reoccurring presence of a piercing, metallic scream—a scream that is positively visceral, expressive of a tremendous amount of pain, panic, and fear. Brutal and brutalizing, the theme impacts the listener on a palpable, instinctive, organic level, giving sonic form to the blank, numbness inside the Winter Soldier's mind.

This wordless wail—sometimes shrieking, sometimes droning—plays every time that the Winter Soldier is present on screen (3) and functions as an articulation of the Winter Soldier's status as a person whose self has been so fundamentally damaged by pain that he cannot and does not speak, or cannot and does not speak in a language that is not inherently othering. Thus, the moments when the Winter Soldier speaks in Bucky Barnes' native tongue—even when he speaks in anger—are those when the personality of Bucky Barnes is most present.

All of the conversations that the Winter Soldier has in the film are about self. When the Winter Soldier tells Alexander Pierce that he knew the man on the bridge, he is not just seeking to have a suspicion confirmed—he is asking Pierce to affirm his personhood. He is asking to be acknowledged as an identity—as a self. He is begging Pierce for this, and Pierce will not give it to him. Pierce will not affirm his personhood, as allowing the Winter Soldier personhood would directly conflict with HYDRA’s project of using him as a weapon. By contrast, Steve Rogers consistently affirms his personhood, referring to the Winter Soldier by name—as opposed to referring to him as an object or a pronoun—and speaking to him of specific shared past experience. It is this treatment of the Winter Soldier as a person, as Bucky Barnes, that directly contributes to his recovery of a sense of identity—both during the fight on the bridge and during the fight on the helicarrier. Over and above what the Winter Soldier feels for Steve Rogers is what Steve makes him feel about himself—namely, that he has a self that must be found.

In a film that is all about choice (4), the characterization of the Winter Soldier as a person made devoid of self through the infliction of pain drives home the idea that choice is not possible without identity. As a person lacking in personhood, the Winter Soldier cannot choose anything, and the moments when he attempts to do so constitute the heart and soul of the film—functioning as an emblem of the stolen choice that HYDRA plans to foist upon the world in its entirety through the implementation of Project Insight.

Part Two: Mirroring and Inversion
The droning iteration of the "Winter Soldier Theme"'s wordless wail can be heard at several key points in the film: during the introduction of the character when he attacks Nick Fury on the streets of Washington, D.C.; during the rooftop confrontation between him and Steve Rogers after Fury's "assassination"; during the bank vault scene when he sits in a stupor while recalling fragments of his past life; and—significantly—during Steve Rogers' apprehension by Brock Rumlow and the HYDRA S.T.R.I.K.E. team after Steve has realized for the first time that the Winter Soldier is Bucky Barnes. Here again, the music functions as a symbolic articulation of internalized pain that is now expanded to include the pain that Steve Rogers feels and which has become so extreme that he, too, is temporarily rendered speechless—an emotional state interpreted with beautiful subtlety by Chris Evans, who shines in this moment.

The parity between the internalized pain of the Winter Soldier and Steve Rogers is no accident. Indeed, it is one of the many examples of the ways in which their experiences mirror, or function as inversions of, one another. Obvious inverted parallels can be found in the manner in which both Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes have been transformed into super soldiers—one because of a willing sacrifice and the other because of a coerced participation—and in the way they each represent two sides of the same war-torn coin. While Steve Rogers stands as the shining ideal, Bucky Barnes skulks as the seedy, though pragmatic, reality—a reality taken to horrifyingly efficient extremes in the Winter Soldier—and this mirroring between the two characters was clear even in Captain America: The First Avenger.

The inverted parallels of Steve Rogers and the Winter Soldier/Bucky Barnes' experiences unfold across a vast expanse of time, serving as a frame for their interactions. Bucky’s exit from the narrative of The First Avenger begins during the mission to capture Zola, when he fails to deflect a power blast fired by a HYDRA operative with Steve's shield and is thrown from a compartment of the moving train where the mission is taking place. Not coincidentally, the Winter Soldier's entrance into the narrative of The Winter Soldier effectively begins when he, a HYDRA operative, fires a grenade whose impact Steve fails to deflect with his shield, thus resulting in his being thrown from the bridge where the assault is taking place (5). Though Steve cannot know it at the time, his mirrored reiteration of the fall of Bucky Barnes marks the starting point of a cyclical journey, in which Steve and the Winter Soldier will ultimately be forced to relive the circumstances of their past tragedy—the moment in time where one of them falls to their "death" while the other one watches, helplessly, until they cannot watch any longer.

The final confrontation of The Winter Soldier does not, however, merely culminate in an inverted parallel of Bucky and Steve's physical falls. It also culminates in an inverted reenactment of an even earlier, psychological fall—Steve’s descent into depression and loss over the death of his mother. It is highly significant that the memory that comes to Steve's mind in the moments before the assault on the helicarriers is the memory of Bucky's support of him through the death of his mother. It represents a time in his life when Steve was in a dark place—so dark and so alone that he did not want Bucky's help. But Bucky would not back down. Bucky was there for him even when he could not bring himself to reach out for the help that he desperately needed. This is what Steve meant when he remarked, in the S.T.R.I.K.E. team transport after confronting the Winter Soldier face to face for the first time, that even when he had nothing he had Bucky. He was thinking about that specific moment in time, and he was thinking about it because it was a defining moment in their friendship. Now the situation is reversed, and it is Bucky in the dark place—so dark and so alone that he does not want (or cannot accept) Steve's help, though he desperately needs it. And Steve cannot back down because this is another defining moment in their friendship.

Though the roles of Steve Rogers and the Winter Soldier/Bucky Barnes have been reversed—with Steve now reaching out to pull his friend up from the darkness of emotional isolation—in their final moments, as the remnants of the Insight helicarriers crash down around them, it is both men who act to save one another. The Winter Soldier does not understand it, but Bucky Barnes has always been the person who waded into the water to pull Steve Rogers out when he got in too deep, and he cannot do anything less in this moment. Recalled to his sense of self through Steve's consistent linguistic affirmation of his identity and faced with a set of circumstances that he has lived through before more than once, the Winter Soldier can at last choose to act upon the information he has been given—not because he has been ordered to, but because he himself wants to. It is his complementary act to save Steve—reflective of the same bravery that Steve has shown to him—that marks the first step on the path to the reclamation of his personhood and agency. Reunited with a sense of self, the Winter Soldier is at last free to act selflessly.

Much has been made of the fact that Bucky Barnes is one of the few people to recognize the greatness in Steve Rogers before his transformation into Captain America. Much has also been made of the fact that, in The First Avenger, Bucky demonstrably feels conflicted about that transformation. Less noted, however, is how Bucky's sense of conflict and resentment—and the way he dealt with those feelings—reveals the kind of person he truly is. The narrative motif of the man who can recognize greatness in another but not attain it himself, and who is therefore corrupted by his resentment, is a classic trope. It appears in such literary masterpieces as Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo, Melville's Billy Budd, and Schaefer's Amadeus. However, the story of Bucky Barnes is one of a man who recognizes a greatness he cannot himself achieve and is not corrupted by that recognition. Unlike the villains of the above-mentioned tales, Bucky Barnes comes to terms with the situation, choosing friendship over envy—and heroism over villainy—something that suggests a greatness within Bucky Barnes that Bucky himself is not aware of. But Steve Rogers, of course, is. Just as Bucky is one of the few people to recognize Steve's greatness; Steve is one of the few people to recognize Bucky's. Both of them know each other better than they know themselves, and it is that parallel knowledge that ultimately saves them both.

In our last glimpse of the Winter Soldier, in the final post-credits scene, he both does and does not look different. He wears civilian clothing, having no doubt dropped his old uniform somewhere, but he remains cloaked in a mantle of silence. He is still caught in the throes of his experience of pain as he stares—dumbfounded—at an museum exhibit about the life of Bucky Barnes. As he stares, the musical motif of the mechanical scream builds once more into a high-pitched frenzy, shrieking out in a final burst of dissonant noise that signals to the audience that—in spite of the fact that the Winter Soldier ultimately decided to save Steve Rogers' life—Bucky Barnes has not yet recovered from his mental conditioning, and the Winter Soldier is at a loss as to what to do as a result. The Winter Soldier has dropped everything on the ground and walked away, and it is up to Bucky Barnes—and those who love him—to pick up the pieces.

1) For the purposes of this essay, I will distinguish sharply between the Winter Soldier and Bucky Barnes—for while it is true that the Winter Soldier is Bucky Barnes, Bucky Barnes is not the Winter Soldier, and this dichotomy lies at the heart of the characters’ emotional struggle.
2) Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985).
3) It does not, however, play when Bucky Barnes is present and attempting to manifest.
4) The theme of choice is so central to the storyline that composer Henry Jackman created a motif to symbolize the moments when a character faces a choice and orchestrated the motif differently depending on the emotional tenor of the situation surrounding the choice. It can be heard during "Fallen," "Taking a Stand," "Natasha," "Time to Suit Up," and—most strikingly—"The End of the Line," when the Winter Soldier makes the choice to pull Steve Rogers out of the Potomac River and thus save his life.
5) I consider the bridge battle sequence to be the effective entrance of the Winter Soldier into the narrative of the film. Though he appears briefly in scenes prior to this one, and though he has previously been discussed in the abstract by other characters, he does not—in my opinion—have a concrete, effective role until this point.

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Saturday, March 22, 2014

Fear and Loving in Labyrinth: Text, Subtext, and Headcanon

When I was a little girl, my favorite movie of all time was Labyrinth.

I can still remember the anticipation with which I went to see it in a theater for the first time, after having pondered the implications of the trailer for weeks of a summer vacation when I was seven. I can still remember the multiple afterschool afternoons I spent watching it—speaking along with the lines, singing along with the songs—and pretending I was a character in the story, on my own quest to save a lost sibling. I can still remember how early my own personal headcanon of the film's subtext had taken over my perception of the story.

A snapshot of a conversation between my mother and I. I am perhaps nine years old:
Mom: I will simply never understand why Sarah doesn't take the Goblin King's offer. 'Fear me, love me, do as I say, and I will be your slave'? No problem!

Me: But, Mommy, it's all a glamour. It's just a trick. He doesn't mean it!
In my headcanon, every single creature that Sarah encounters in the labyrinth was once a human being. The creatures she meets within the pathways are girls (or boys) who got lost in the maze and failed to meet the deadline; those she meets in the caverns (the helping hands) and tunnels (the seeing stones) are girls (or boys) who fell into the oubliettes and were forgotten; the firies she meets in the forest are girls (or boys) who got distracted by something off the path and lost track of time. Over ages they have evolved, grown stunted and twisted and strange—their physical forms reflective of their internal bitterness and despair, their memories of their past lives eroded until nothing is left but a vague remembrance and a volatile sense of resentment. The junk ladies are those who chose material possessions over their duty to find their family member, and now they carry the burden of that sin on their backs and seek to entice others to fall from grace as they have done. The ballroom beauties are those who reached the final confrontation and accepted Jareth's terms of surrender, never realizing it was their surrender rather than his. And the goblins... the goblins are the lost children—a dozen, a hundred, a thousand or more—whose loved ones could not or would not save them.

For me, this vision of the world adds a deliciously horrific flavor to the story—taking it effortlessly from fairy tale to dark fairy tale. But such a horrific re-imagining of the world need not negate the pathos of my mother's preferred headcanon, which positions Jareth as a tragic figure.

It is, in fact, remarkably easy to see Jareth as a tragic figure (even in the horror context). David Bowie, being the fine actor that he is, played the role completely straightforwardly and imbued Jareth with a deep-seated sense of loneliness in his private moments. His observation of Sarah's struggles in the Escher room, in particular, is rife with barely restrained longing, a longing that can be read as a desire for her to want to save him as much as she clearly wants to save her brother.

I've read analyses of the film that attribute this longing to an initially thwarted romance between the Goblin King and human girl named Sarah. (There's a brilliant one here.) However, I prefer to slot Jareth's longing for salvation at Sarah's hands into my own personal headcanon.

Because imagine how tedious and bereft his existence must have become; all those girls and boys, all those little children. And here he is after who knows how many eons of decadent malevolence—a sad little king of a sad little world. He wants to escape it as much as any of his subjects do, and he can't. Not without help. So when he asks Sarah to fear and love him, to give in to him so that he can be her slave, I don't think that is hyperbole. I think that he truly does think—he hopes, he prays—that she is the one who can save him.

But, of course, she isn't. Because in order to save him, she would have to sacrifice a fundamental element of her own integrity. And she cannot do that and keep herself. The circumstances of the world he created, of the ground rules he set, place them in completely untenable positions vis-à-vis one another.

The person who could save Jareth, wouldn't. And the person who would save him, couldn't. For Jareth, it's one of the oldest (and saddest) stories in the book: We make our own hells.

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Monday, November 5, 2012

The Japanese Aesthetics of Hipsterism

In her essay on Japanese aesthetics, Yuriko Saito argues that the marked appreciation for the asymmetrical, the unfinished, and the damaged stems from philosophical attitudes that deal with the process of coming to terms with the unpalatable realities of life—specifically its impermanence and general messiness. (1) Essentially, the Japanese preference for the care-worn and the subtly decaying is part and parcel of an acceptance of the fluidity and intransigence that characterize life on earth. Though this is all well and good, Saito fails to fully explore one of the most interesting aspects of this phenomenon: the trend toward the deliberate production of well-worn and damaged objects that originated at least in the Heian period (794-1185) and became fairly common from the fifteenth century on.

Saito notes the trend, but for the most part attributes it to a general preference for contrast that is intertwined with the philosophical currents previously mentioned. The tea master Murata Shukô (1423-1502) is said to have reframed an elegant hanging scroll that was given to him by the shogun using rustic materials; another tea master deliberately destroyed one of the handles of a perfectly symmetrical vase; another was ridiculed for repeatedly destroying the perfection of highly-prized objects. (2) In each of these cases, Saito argues that these acts bespeak a specific philosophical stance and furthermore that they are only valuable acts because the objects are capable of being perfect, but are not:
It is important to note that this aesthetic celebration of the imperfect and the insufficient presupposes not only the yearning for but also the attainability of the optimum condition, understood as a shiny mirror, a gorgeous and properly framed scroll, a meticulously maintained garden, and a perfectly formed vase. A cloudy mirror Sei Shônagon appreciates is not a cheap or defective product; it was shiny once. A wild garden exalted by her did not result from the owner not being able to afford maintaining it; rather, it was a calculated neglect (emphasis added). Falling cherry blossoms are aesthetically superior to those in full bloom precisely because they had previously achieved the stage of full blossom. Chipped and cracked tea wares could be repaired. The impoverished looking scroll does not imply an inability to choose opulent materials; it is a production of conscious design. Similarly, a flower vase missing one handle is not a result of failed creation. (3)
But it is precisely this deliberate intervention into the aesthetic forms of various objects, which picked up speed in the Momoyama and Edo periods (1576-1868), that is the crux of the matter. In the seventeenth century, for example, the tendency to prize objects that had been accidentally broken and then repaired was transformed into an affluent fad where objects were deliberately broken and repaired using gold and silver rivulets along the cracks. (400 years later a number of these admittedly exquisite objects found their way into an exhibition at the Freer and Sackler galleries in DC—Moonlight and Clouds: Silver and Gold in the Arts of Japan.) What had once been an aesthetic grounded in simplicity became evidential of a considerable level of affluence.

And for me that is the really interesting process. Because, it is a process that happens all the time all over the place. Hell, we see it right now in dieting fads and hipster culture—the ironic appreciation of something that is suboptimal, which ultimately transforms into a major marker of wealth, power, and influence. The ancient, medieval, and early-modern Japanese had what I would consider to be a fairly clear-cut hipster culture. It was so clear-cut that it even came under the same kind of scrutiny that hipster culture comes under today. In the eighteenth century, the Confucian scholar Dazai Shundai (1680-1747) called the wealthy tea ceremony practitioners out for aping the culture of impoverished, arguing that while the rich might find it amusing to copy the poor, the poor would never find it amusing because their condition was not something that they merely dabbled in. (4) In many ways, though not in all ways, the tea ceremony (and many other arts that stemmed from the same aesthetic roots) was an ironic enjoyment of something that the partakers would never have enjoyed in its original context. In other words, it was "hipster."

And for reasons I cannot explain (but probably because I am something of a hipster myself), it delights me no end to discover that hipster culture has—in a weird way—always been around.

1) Saito, Yuriko. "The Japanese Aesthetics of Imperfection and Insufficiency." The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 55, no. 4 (Autumn 1997): 377-385.
2) Ibid., 378.
3) Ibid., 380.
4) Quoted in ibid., 381

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