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Feminist/Gender Theory, Pop Culture, Visual Cultural Theory, Wicked Wiles

Wicked Wiles – Cinderella (1950)

Originally published on the Fanny Pack blog.

This article is the third in a series. You can read the introduction to Wicked Wiles here.


Cinderella wicked wiles disney fanny pack feminism gender

“A pretty plot for fairy tales, Sire. But in real life, oh, no. No, it was foredoomed to failure.”

Cinderella wicked wiles disney fanny pack feminism gender

Based on the fairy tale by Charles Perrault, Disney’s Cinderella (1950) is set in a ‘far away land long ago’ where a girl named Cinderella lives happily with her family. Sadly, this doesn’t last. Her mother dies and Cinderella’s father remarries a woman with two daughters, who turn out to be cold and cruel. Upon his death, they force Cinderella to become their maid. Meanwhile in the royal castle, the King – longing for grandchildren – plans a ball for his son the Prince to find him a suitable bride. Invitations are sent to every eligible lady in the land, and Cinderella begs her stepmother to let her go. With the help of her mice friends, Cinderella fashions a beautiful dress to wear, only to have her stepsisters tear it to shreds and her dreams of happiness destroyed.

Luckily, Cinderella’s laments are heard by her Fairy Godmother, who whips up a new dress, a pumpkin carriage, and some glass slippers that will last until midnight. Cinderella charms the Prince at the ball but is forced to run away prematurely as her curfew approaches leaving only a glass slipper behind. This forces the King to send out a search party to try the glass slipper on the foot of every woman in the land in the hopes of finding its mysterious owner.

cinderella wicked wiles fanny pack feminism gender

The film’s character are mostly female, consisting of:

  1. Cinderella
  2. Cinderella’s stepmother (Lady Tremaine)
  3. Anastasia (stepsister)
  4. Drusilla (stepsister)
  5. The Fairy Godmother
  6. An unnamed female narrator at the start of the film.

cinderella fanny pack feminism gender disney

Yes – Cinderella’s stepmother and her two daughters.

Jealous of Cinderella’s ‘charm and beauty’, her stepmother forces Cinders to become a servant. This also kind of makes financial sense as she presumably cannot afford to employ actual servants after squandering her late husband’s wealth – as the narrator reveals at the start. Just like Disney’s previous Princess film – Snow White – the jealousy of a bitter stepmother provides the only villainous motivation. The difference this time being that Cinderella’s stepmother is not an evil Sorceress. She’s just plain evil.

Anastasia and Drusilla are described as ‘vain and selfish’ by the narrator and are not forced to do any work around the house due to their mother’s favouritism. The stepsisters aren’t exactly ugly, but certainly plainer and ‘less feminine’ compared to Cinderella. During the fitting of the glass slipper scene, for example, the mislaid slipper barely covers either of their feet – implying both sisters lack the aspirational feminine trait of small and dainty feet, which by default Cinderella must have. This also follows the Disney tradition of personality dictating appearance.

cinderella step sisters disney fanny pack wicked wiles gender feminism

Anastasia & Drusilla.

In the case of the step-family, however, this rule seems unbalanced as their personalities really are worse than their looks. Upon receiving the invite to the ball, Cinderella’s stepmother agrees she can attend on the condition that Cinderella completes all of her chores and has a suitable dress. When Anastasia and Drusilla object she repeats her condition: ‘I said if.’ Obviously she has no intention of letting Cinderella attend, but clearly gets some sick pleasure out of dangling hope in front of her unfortunate stepdaughter so she can rip it away from her; a metaphor that turns out to be literal when she manipulates Anastasia and Drusilla into tearing Cinderella’s dress to shreds.

This glimmer of hope is both a fantastical and tangible thing for Cinderella as the narrator tells us that the kingdom is ‘tiny’ and she can see the castle in plain view from her bedroom window. Yet, I would go so far as to say that if you look a little closer than the film would want you to look, that glimmer of hope is a thematic thread for all of its characters, including the villains, and provides their real motivation.

cinderella disney wicked wiles gender feminism

The iconic Disney castle.

This realisation struck me when Anastasia and Drusilla complained to their mother that they had no new clothes to wear to the ball, and I remembered that narrator explained that the stepmother had married Cinderella’s father for his money – all of which she and her greedy daughters spent. The implication is that the stepmother is a ‘gold digger’ – yet another demonising female quality. Having sucked one source of income dry, she is now forced to set her sights on marrying a daughter off to the bachelor Prince in that oh-so-visible-castle-from-the-window to sustain the opulent lifestyle they have become accustomed to.

But let’s consider the social context of this: In the not-so-long-ago times when either a rich father or husband was the only means for a woman of status to survive, what other choice did the stepmother have? To Cinderella, the castle represents freedom from her oppressive stepmother, but to her stepmother the castle represents financial freedom in an oppressive society. And whilst she cannot be excused for it, perhaps her cruel treatment of Cinderella is a venting of frustration upon the remnant of a marriage she hoped would afford her security, and an added burden of an extra mouth to feed with money she has (stupidly) frittered away.

The motivational jealousy she feels at Cinderella’s ‘beauty and charm’ is because those natural qualities that Cinders has been gifted with mean she could easily find an affluent husband… if she is ever allowed out of the house.

cinderella disney wicked wiles gender feminism

From start to finish, all of the interactions between the film’s central female family members are irrefutably negative. As the maid, Cinderella is unquestionably submissive to her rude and demanding stepmother and stepsisters, with the exception of bravely asking her stepmother’s permission to go the ball.

cinderella step mother disney fanny pack wicked wiles gender feminism

YOU SHALL NOT GO TO THE BALL.

The only positive interaction Cinderella has between another female character is with the Fairy Godmother who is basically everyone’s ideal Grandma – lovely, huggable, and quirky. She comforts Cinders and works her magic to restore her self-confidence and get her to the ball. She even has the foresight to allow Cinderella to keep the remaining glass slipper after her magic fades, enabling Cinders to prove later on that she is the true owner of the shoes when her stepmother ‘accidentally’ smashes the other.

cinderella disney wicked wiles gender feminism disney

Cinderella is light on plot and high on filler, and by filler I mean lots of animals in clothes faffing around for too long (in my opinion). This makes answering this question tricky, but arguably it is the King who sets everything in motion to achieve his goal of having grandchildren, and the entire story revolves the ball.

The stepmother contributes only by blocking Cinderella’s opportunities to escape her control, and these are opportunities that are given to Cinderella rather than creating opportunities herself. The only time she asserts any kind of influence is when she asks to go the ball. In fact, Cinders is so lacking in drive that even after the ball when the magic wears off she shrugs her shoulders and trudges back home obediently instead of seizing her opportunity to run away for good.

cinderella disney wicked wiles fanny pack feminism gender

The male characters are:

  • Prince Charming
  • The King
  • The Duke (the King’s aide)
  • Various animals that live in Cinderella’s chateau

The King states that he has no interest in which woman the Prince picks as his bride; as long as she can provide him with grandchildren: ‘What’s love got to do with it? Just a boy meeting a girl under the right conditions.’ The Prince also has no interest in any of the women at the ball – stifling a yawn as they are all introduced to him. That is, until he spots Cinderella entering at the back of the ballroom.

Obviously taken by her looks, he rushes over to meet her, and the pair spends the night walking and talking through the castle gardens. We never get to hear what they are saying (other than a weird telepathic duet) until Cinderella suddenly tells him she must leave as her curfew approaches. This is also the last we really see or hear of the Prince, as it is the Duke who is tasked with searching the Kingdom for the mysterious maiden that the Prince stupidly failed to get the name of his new crush despite all those hours of implied conversation.

cinderella step sisters disney fanny pack wicked wiles gender feminism

“I have absolutely no character!”

I mentioned earlier that the castle represents hope, and this is also true of the Prince. He is a sadly tokenistic character – known only as ‘Charming’ – serving purely as wish fulfilment for the female characters; therefore a surprisingly weak male presence despite his narrative importance.

cinderella disney wicked wiles fanny pack gender feminism

Just like Snow White before her, Cinderella’s skills are enforcedly domestically based. Unlike Snow White, Cinderella – although born into wealth – has to marry to attain Princess status and we don’t get to see what kind of Princess she becomes. (Although, if the King got his way, she’d most likely be spending most it popping out kids and little else.) Otherwise, she possesses natural beauty and charm, kindness, and the ability to communicate with animals – typical of a Disney Princess.

fanny pack cinderella disney wicked wiles gender feminism

Unfortunately under my criteria it’s another negative Disney Princess film in terms of gender representation. Here’s why:

  • Cinderella barely influences the plot.
  • Negative interactions between nearly all female characters.
  • Cinderella is given the opportunity to follow her dreams but only to satiate the King’s need for grandchildren. He doesn’t care who she is, he just wants a woman – any woman – to marry his son and produce heirs.
  • The film missed opportunities to give depth to the stepmother and stepsisters’ jealousy – some kind of social context might have made it more balanced and more interesting.

Overall Message:

Positive –

  • The animals help Cinderella because she helps them, which shows that if you are nice to others they will return this kindness.
  • There is also a positive message about working hard and being rewarded, except Cinderella’s opportunities happen mainly by chance.

Negative –

  • Unfounded jealousy is the only motivation for female villainy.
  • Marriage is your only chance at happiness/means to financially support yourself, with no option to become self-sufficient.
  • The film is critical of women who marry for money alone, yet offers no context/solution to this problem.
  • Male characters are depicted negatively – either talking about women as baby-making machines, or treated as nameless and voiceless tokens.

Next in the Wicked Wiles series: Sleeping Beauty!


@SpannerX23 on Twitter.

By night, Hannah is a geeky feminist blogger, but by day she is a freelance artist who specialises in unconventional and unique illustrations. Check out her website here to see her portfolio.

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wicked wiles princess disney cinderella gender feminism representation analysis
Feminist/Gender Theory, Pop Culture, Visual Cultural Theory

WICKED WILES: Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs (1937)

This article is part of a series. You can read the introduction to ‘Wicked Wiles’ here or on the Fanny Pack blog where it was originally published here.

Wicked Wiles Disney Princess Blog Analysis Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs Gender Politics Feminism Pop Culture

Original Film Poster from 1937

Grumpy: ‘She’s a female! And all females is poison! They’re full of wicked wiles!’

Bashful: ‘What are wicked wiles?’

Grumpy: ‘I don’t know, but I’m against ’em.’

Synopsis

Based on a German fairy tale first published in 1812 by the Brothers Grimm, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) tells the story of an Evil Queen who becomes envious of the beauty of her stepdaughter – the Princess known as ‘Snow White’. In an attempt to blemish Snow White’s beauty, the Queen demotes her to a servant status, only to have her magic mirror tell her that the Princess is still ‘the fairest of them all’ even with rags and a mop. Furious, the Queen orders a huntsman to murder Snow White in the woods, but luckily for the Princess the huntsman chickens out, and – after fleeing into the woods – she takes refuge in the house of seven dwarves.

The Queen soon discovers that the Princess is still alive and, disguised as an old woman, tricks her into eating a poisoned apple sending her into a deep sleep that can only be broken with ‘true love’s kiss.’

Wicked Wiles Disney Princess Analysis Pop Culture Gender Politics Fanny Pack iwantedwings Feminism

Just two: Snow White and the Evil Queen.

2 Is the villian female, and if so, what are her motivations?

Yes – The Evil Queen. Her motivation is jealousy of Snow White.

The Queen, through fear and magical prowess is by far the most powerful character, yet this power is undermined by her petty fears and ultimately leads to her demise. Snow White seems disinterested in her birthright, therefore the only threat she poses to the Queen is apparently a superficial one. This is also undermines the Queen’s strength as a female character: after all, why would such a formidable Sorceress be so enraged by someone so non-threatening?

Not only this, but unlike future Disney villains, the Evil Queen is not at all unattractive; making her psychosis completely unfounded in reality. It could be that her envy of Snow White’s looks is actually a fear of ageing, and the face she sees in the mirror confirming her fears is that of her inner voice whispering to her that her best days are over – that ‘true’ femininity is for the young. The Queen’s ‘old crone’ disguise adopted to trick Snow White is perhaps reflective of what she really thinks she looks like to others.

Reading the Queen’s ‘evil’ as psychosis certainly makes the Queen more sympathetic, but the film clearly doesn’t want these conceivable sympathies to be obvious to its audience. After all, evil is literally in her name.

3 How do the female characters interact with each other?

The title sequence implies a previous interaction in the form of text from a book. The book tells us that the Queen has demoted Snow White to a scullery maid as punishment for her beauty in the hopes this will detract from her looks.

No further interactions between the film’s only female characters are seen on screen until the Queen transforms into an old woman and tricks Snow White into eating the poison apple. This means that every interaction the pair have – both on and off screen – is profoundly negative. But, as the Queen and Snow White are the heroine and villain, negative interactions are indicative of this dynamic.

However, the film also offers a conceptual contrast between its protagonist and antagonist, which is revealed in the circumstances of the Queen’s death. The death is signalled long before it actually happens by the appearance of a pair of vultures, which turn up as she arrives at the dwarves’ house. They follow her until she is hit by a bolt of lightening when fleeing from the dwarves on a cliff, and as she falls, slowly descend to claim their meal. This death at the hands of nature – not man – puts the Queen even more at odds with Snow White, who can communicate with animals and spends most of the film living in the woods. The Queen, on the other hand, uses her magic to defy nature, and is punished for it.

4 Who drives the plot?

Despite being the titular character, it is the Evil Queen, not Snow White, who drives the plot.

5 How do the male characters treat the female ones?

The male characters are: The Prince, the Mirror(?), the Huntsman, and the dwarves.

The Prince shows up early in the film and instantly serenades Snow White despite her lowly appearance, implying that her natural beauty shines through the scruffy clothes the Queen has forced her to wear. Even though he is her equal in status and appearance, and the object of her fantasies, the Prince is absent from the film until the very end when he awakens her with ‘love’s true kiss.’

The face in the mirror – a mysterious, disembodied entity – appears with a male face and voice, and actively encourages the Queen’s obsession with beauty. If the mirror is reflective of the Queen’s inner voice, the fact that this voice is male is incredibly telling. Rather than see herself through her own eyes, she perceives and personifies superficial flaws through the eyes she seems to find the most scrutinising – the male gaze, which is driving her to murderous insanity.

The Huntsman is ordered by the Queen to murder Snow White, which he appears to have no qualms about right up until the very moment he holds up his axe, at which point he falters, and through new found sympathy for the Princess, allows her to escape.

The dwarves are introduced to Snow White through their messy home, which she promptly cleans, implying that in the absence of a female presence up until that point, the dwarves were either unable or incapable of doing any domestic work.

Grumpy says when they see Snow White asleep: ‘All female’s are poison with their wicked wiles.’ Considering the only other woman in the story is an evil Queen, this assessment is not altogether unfair, and when Snow White mentions that the Queen wants to kill her, the dwarves react with fear and derision for her.

Grumpy remains vocally resistant throughout most of the film: ‘The wiles are working! Give ‘em an inch and they’ll walk all over yer.’ He also complains that she is feminising them simply by making them clean themselves, implying that she is invading their traditional masculine territory. Unfortunately for him, he is the only dissenter, as the other dwarves are happy to do as they are told in exchange for the benefits of Snow White’s housework and her entrancing looks and singing. In fact, the other dwarves mock him for resisting – forcing him to bathe and covering him in flowers to ‘feminise’ him.

Although their interactions portray men and women to be able to coexist equally and peacefully, it is clear this balance is upheld only by each gender complying with their traditional roles: men going out to work and women staying at home. The Queen – a powerful widowed woman – is non-compliant and filled with madness that will ultimately destroy her.

6 Does the princess have characteristics beyond her princess role?

Other than what will become quintessential Disney Princess qualities such as beauty, kindness, singing, and talking to animals, Snow White has forcible experience as domestic servant, which turns out to be handy in bartering shelter from the dwarves. Despite seeming largely powerless, Snow White’s ability to unknowingly charm every male character around her – even Grumpy – is almost a magical power. ‘The wiles are working!’ Grumpy proclaims, her ‘wiles’ being her ‘fairness.’ Just as the Queen bewitches people with her evil magic, Snow White can bewitch people with her ‘good magic.’ It is her natural qualities, rather than any learned ones, that enable her to survive beyond the castle walls.

Snow White’s sole aspiration is for her ‘prince to come,’ but seeing as her situation is so dire, this dream seems more about being taken away to a better life where she isn’t abused by her stepmother, rather than longing for one specific man, which could be why the Prince – despite a good singing voice – is so in distinctive. He doesn’t even have a proper name. Snow White, knowing she is unequipped to survive alone, dreams of freedom through marriage, which I’m sure rings true with a lot of women in the past whose only option to leave home was by finding a husband.

Film Classification Negative

Although the film’s two female characters are both central to the plot, as Snow White’s power lies solely in her idealised natural beauty and the Queen – despite possessing supreme magical power – is undermined by an unexplained fixation with this beauty, both are weak female role models overall.

Snow White does learn and possess skills beyond her Princess role, but does not develop as a character. Meanwhile the Queen only falls further and further into a maddening pressure to stay young and beautiful, and is ultimately punished for her insecurities.

The male characters are compassionate and – particularly the dwarves – comedic, but their main purpose is to provide a masculine edge to emphasise Snow White’s softer femininity – to conform to a narrow and traditional male/female dynamic for which the Queen is demonised for flouting. This positivity towards conformism is twinned by the subtextual Nature vs. Artificiality duel personified by Snow White and the Queen.

In summary, although Snow White is a story about escapism and fantasy; equally there is a fundamental message left for young girls and it seems a problematic one. Natural beauty is to be aspired to if you’re lucky enough to possess it but if you don’t have it, and try to pursue it, your vanity could lead to jealousy, jealousy to obsession, and finally dangerous madness.

Coming up next in the ‘Wicked Wiles’ series: Cinderella (1950)

Follow this blog and Fanny Pack for updates every month.

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Feminist/Gender Theory, Pop Culture, Visual Cultural Theory

Wicked Wiles – What Do Disney Princess Films Teach You About Being a Woman?

This article was first published on the Fanny Pack Blog. Read the original post here and follow Fanny Pack to read updates on this series before they are published here.

Introduction

Disney’s iconic Princess catalogue of fairy-tale inspired films began right from the company’s cinematic debut in 1939 with Snow White – the first ever animated feature-length film, and it’s first critical and commercial success.

74 years later, the runaway success of Disney’s latest addition to its signature genre – Frozen – has proven that the allure of being a Princess hasn’t lost its shimmer for the latest generation of Disney-weaned audiences. Despite being a very specific brand, Disney Princess’ official website summarizes its intentions quite broadly:

Wicked Wiles Disney Princess Analysis Gender Politics Fanny Pack iwantedwings

Nothing in this mission statement is purposefully negative or harmful, just as none of Disney’s films are. And yet, as open and expansive as it encourages young girls to be, there is also an inhibiting factor straight from the offset – this is a gender specific genre according to Disney, and as such, limiting to both genders. Little boys have apparently nothing to learn from watching them and are almost always stereotyped as the strong, courageous, adventurous men. Whilst little girls must seek guidance and inspiration from them in the form of ‘happily ever after,’ dreaming of a handsome prince, perfect wedding days or coming to the realization that almost every princess is white, with long blonde hair and blue eyes.

Laura Bates from the ‘Everyday Sexism’ book, talks about one of the “earliest manifestations of childhood sexism is in the almost surreal segregation of children’s toys” and this also transpires into the films. Laura acknowledges the “attempts to subvert the stereotypes in recent years with Tangled and Brave, showcasing strong female heroines rather than the typical ‘damsel in distress’… however they remain stubbornly problematic.”

Looking at theses films and toys in isolation, it may seem a little over the top. So what if girls like fashion, makeup and boys? But, as Laura Bates says, “the sheer saturation of tween culture with these characters and images creates a powerfully dictatorial consensus about who girls should be, what they should be interested in and how they should look.” The question is how is this influencing the way our daughters, sisters etc. see themselves, and how does it impact their future choices?

This being the case, just what do little girls learn about their gender from 74-years worth of Disney Princess films? And, is that lesson a positive, negative, or neutral one?

Over this series of blogs, I hope to discover the answers to these questions by watching each film in the Princess genre in chronological order of release and analyzing each one using my own criteria:

Wicked Wiles Disney Princess Analysis Pop Culture Gender Politics Fanny Pack iwantedwings Feminism Is the villian female, and if so, what are her motivations? 3 How do the female characters interact with each other? 4 Who drives the plot? 5 How do the male characters treat the female ones? 6 Does the princess have characteristics beyond her princess role?

At the end of each article, I will give the film a ‘Gender Representation Classification’ stamp – Positive, Negative, or Neutral – in a similar way that films are rated for age. It is important to add that my criteria has nothing to do with whether each film is cinematically ‘good’ – these questions are specific to whether each film has good gender politics; although I suspect there might be a point of correlation between the two. I should also add that I – like most – am a HUGE Disney fan, but I will be trying my absolute best to forget any preconceived opinions about each film before watching it so as it be as unbiased as possible.

The final note is the list itself. Now, there is an official Disney Princess roster that I will be using, but I have also made my own additions. This includes any animated or partly-animated Disney Studios film (including Disney/Pixar) that prominently features a female character (human or non-human) that is either a Princess; becomes a Princess; or of Princess status equivalence – i.e. Pocahontas is included as she is the daughter of the Chief of her tribe; Nala is included as she is part of the Pride’s royal family and [SPOILERS] becomes Simba’s wife.

Here is the list I will be writing about in the next few months. (in chronological order of release):

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
Princess: Snow White

Cinderella (1950)
Princess: Cinderella

Sleeping Beauty (1959)
Princess: Aurora

Robin Hood (1973)
Princess: Maid Marian

The Little Mermaid (1989)
Princess: Ariel

Beauty and the Beast (1991)
Princess: Belle

Aladdin (1992)
Princess: Jasmine

The Lion King (1994)
Princess: Nala

Pocahontas (1995)
Princess: Pocahontas

Mulan (1998)
Princess: Mulan

Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001)
Princess: Kida

Enchanted (2007)
Princess: Giselle

The Princess and the Frog (2009)
Princess: Tiana

Tangled (2010)
Princess: Rapunzel

Brave (2012)
Princess: Merida

Frozen (2013)
Princess’: Elsa & Ana

Coming up next in the ‘Wicked Wiles’ series: Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. 

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Feminist/Gender Theory, Pop Culture, Visual Cultural Theory

Selfies – “Electronic Masturbation?”

Written and posted for new blog, Fanny Pack, on 19th November 2014. Please head over there and follow them for more of the same Feminist articles written by myself and others!

Today’s technological advances have made it possible for us to make as many self-portraits as many times a day, hour, or even minute, in any place, and then exhibit them instantly for public exhibition and judgement on the Internet. For women, who have long been models on which to project fantasies of the ideal rather than the real, the significance of this has perhaps been undervalued. Gaining full control over the capturing and displaying of one’s own image today – especially in an image-obsessed digitalised culture – is no small achievement or freedom. Prior to this, the portrayal of the female form as a passive image rather than active participant has been an enduring cultural tradition. Instead of being directed, caught, degraded, positioned, posed, or manipulated by someone else with or without your own permission, the Selfie truly reclaims the autonomy to take a picture on your own terms and decide who your audience is.

“Electronic masturbation” – Karl Lagerfeld’s provocative dubbing of the Selfie – was clearly intended as a slur. After all, the solitary act of masturbation is for self-gratification only, and there is nothing more self-gratifying than a self-portrait, right? Of course it makes perfect sense that an icon of the fashion industry – an industry that makes it’s money telling us what to wear and how to look – would disapprove of a medium that undermines this power. Lagerfeld is right – the Selfie is “electronic masturbation” – and just what’s so wrong with a little self-gratification?

The backlash against Selfie ‘culture’ boils down to this:

We question why the taker of the portrait has chosen to take a flattering picture of themselves. We question why their self-gratification has to be acknowledged in a public forum. We question why women continue to present an image of themselves that they have been culturally conditioned to present – idealised, sexualised, and for the viewing pleasure of others.

If all women went against this idealism in their Selfies, would we applaud their honesty, though? In a culture we have constructed for ourselves that continually over-values physical appearance, why are we so irritated and surprised that the majority of women are still more comfortable covering their faces in layers of foundation and mascara, taking a self-portrait from a flattering angle, and then distorting it with an Instagram filter rather than share a brutally honest one and risk attracting negative judgement?

Lady Lilith, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Lady Lilith, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Idealising beauty is certainly damaging, but that doesn’t mean we should always demonise vanity. In every image we create or capture there is an automatic disconnect between the person and the portrait of the person. In a sense, we create an alter ego of ourselves in every one of these portraits. Every time we digitally adjust these portraits – even as little as a change in brightness – we are confirming that this alter ego not only exists, but that it is the ‘better’ version of us. This is not vanity, but wish-fulfillment. Yet, for women in particular, vanity is a dirty word. The cultural twinning of vanity and sin can be traced back to the artistic tradition of depicting women with mirrors in classical portraiture, which itself can be traced back to Biblical lore. This is vanity punishment; a concept that teaches us that a woman is supposed to be effortlessly and naturally beautiful for the pleasure of others, but not for her own pleasure. It has helped mold our definition of feminine beauty in art and pop culture as one idealised through the eyes of male heterosexuality, and conversely both elevating and condemning female vanity.

If we change our perception of vanity, then perhaps we can change the way we perceive Selfie culture – as wish-fulfillment, as self-gratification, self-definition, and ultimately self-empowerment. Take pride in your own unique image, beauty, and sexuality, and feel empowered by the autonomy to capture, share, and immortalise it. If digitalism has made us the photojournalists of our own lives, why should we feel ashamed in being a bit vain about it?

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Comics, Pop Culture, Superheroes, Visual Cultural Theory

Superman Returns & Man of Steel: Man vs. Myth

alex-ross-s

“Myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestation. Regions, philosophies, arts, the social forms of primitive and historic man, prime discoveries in science and technology, the very dreams that blister sleep, boil up from the basic magic ring of myth.”

–       Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces

A few years ago I got a book for my birthday from my parents about the life and work of the comic artist Alex Ross. It was called Mythology. They are both great art fans, so I presume they picked it because of the fine art quality of his illustrations, or perhaps because it had been favourably reviewed in whichever left-leaning broadsheet they were reading at the time. Whatever the reason, I remain eternally grateful that they made that probably random purchase as that biography came to fundamentally change not only my view on what comic art could or should be, but what the entire concept of superheroes means to pop culture and our society in general.

Through the eyes of a child, these characters and stories feel very much ‘of the moment.’ Incidental and individual. I used to travel back and fourth from my local library borrowing as many comics as I could. It didn’t matter who the character was, who the writer or artist was, which year it was from, which publisher it was, or even if they were age-appropriate or gender-targeted. It was just the love and curiosity of discovering a new world for the first time, but a world that I felt was somehow aimed at me alone. Mythology changed everything. Suddenly, the bold and zappy characters I loved from the DC, Marvel and Dark Horse universes had a weight behind them: a sense of history, a sense of evolution, a sense of myth. Like the fables and fairy tales of old, I discovered that these characters had been passed down through generations of storytellers charged with the task of keeping their legends alive and preserving their histories.

Alex-Ross-Art-11

 “A glorious place, a glorious age, I tell you! A very Neon Renaissance – And the myths that actually touched you at the time – not Hercules, Orpheus, Ulysses and Aeneas – but Superman, Captain Marvel, Batman.”

–       Tom Wolfe, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test

Although Ross has worked for nearly every publisher out there, Mythology focuses on his work for DC, whose characters sparked his initial love for the industry as a kid (same for me, too.) Whilst Marvel comics’ universe can be broadly characterised by modern, witty, street-wise and usually ‘accidental’ heroes, DC’s universe – as the only publisher with claim to the originals – is populated by characters of inherent myth, purpose, and God-like stature.

Superman, more than any other character in the DC or any other comic book universe, embodies these qualities. He is our modern-day Hercules. He is biblical, mythological, and iconic. He is the original, the most enduring, and without parallel. No surprise then that he is also Ross’ favourite. 

“I very much wanted to create the new standard by which Superman should be drawn […] Of course, that didn’t happen […] Superman should never reflect any fashionable trend or other affection of a specific era – hairstyle, speech patterns, etc. He is beyond that. He is out of time.”

–       Alex Ross, Mythology

Superman

 With all this in mind, let’s turn to his cinematic appearances. I must confess first of all that I am a huge Christopher Reeves fan, and he will forever cast a very long and caped shadow over any actor having to follow in his red-booted footsteps. This is both impressive and unfortunate for subsequent films. Even if you are not fond of the original Superman films in the 1970s – 1980s that he starred in, I don’t think you can deny how brilliantly Reeves portrayed not only Supes, but also his alter ego Clark Kent. Bumbling, awkward, but deeply well meaning and sweet, Reeves pitched his performance as the Daily Planet reporter with superb comic timing. It also made his transformation into the man of steel that much more dramatic. Right down to the little greased curl of hair on his forehead and that glint in his blue eyes, he was completely believable. The first two of that series of films certainly capture the spirit of the comics faithfully whilst expanding their appeal out to the wider less comic-literate audience. They set the benchmark right from the start to which all superhero movies should strive to reach.

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Now let’s skip forward to 2006 and the release of Superman Returns. I have to say I felt negatively about this film before it had even been released. It took director Bryan Singer away from the X-Men movie franchise that I loved so much, and the result was an unforgivable mess of a finale to an otherwise great trilogy. However, when finally seeing the film, I understood why he had chosen to jump ship. Returns is bright, bold, and…apparently controversial. I have had countless arguments with friends and seen many, many angry reviews about it, and honestly, I don’t think I’ll ever understand why. I really love that film, and while everyone is of course welcome to hold his or her own opinion, I almost get a little tired of continually having to defend it. The hatred for it seems to be grounded in several things: one is that it pays homage to the original film series too much; another is the casting of Brandon Routh as Supes, but perhaps the biggest complaint is the love-triangle between Supes, Lois Lane, and Lois Lane’s husband Richard, as well as with their son. And by ‘their,’ I very much mean all three characters, as the film would have us ponder over.

As a fan of the original series (well, the first two at least…) I wasn’t bothered by the unmistakable nods that Singer gave to them. After all, there is a significant gap between 2006 and 1987 when Superman IV: The Quest for Peace was released (the less said about that one, the better) so I don’t think it was unreasonable to remind the audience of not only the history of the character, but also of his history as a pop cultural icon. In our postmodern landscape, self-referential stories are as much about depicting the context of a myth as they are about its content. As for the casting, I will begrudgingly agree that Routh is unfortunately too youthful-looking for the timeline that the film sets itself in. This is a film that is a sequel, not a reboot, as the premise is that Superman has returned to Earth after he left to search for rumoured remains of Krypton at the end of Quest for Peace. Therefore, this is the same Superman from the Reeves movie-verse. It is also true that Routh is eerily similar looking to Reeves…I mean, like, spookily similar. However, the themes of returning, of time passing, of change, and of maturity, calls for a slightly more weathered and older-looking Supes, which Routh’s pretty-boy face just doesn’t possess. That being said, this is merely a cosmetic weakness. I genuinely thought his performance as Supes was believable and empathetic whilst still retaining that inherent weight of otherworldly strength, wisdom, and conviction that we associate with the character. In fact, with the exception of Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane (ugh), the rest of the cast is also stellar – especially Kevin Spacey’s Lex Luthor, and Parker Posey as his comical sidekick with her sneering red lips and yappy fluffy puppies.

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That leaves us with the final controversial element: the plot. How can there be a Superman movie where Lois is married to another guy? How can Superman have a son? Again, I find myself referring back to Mythology:

“Writer Jerry Siegal and artist Joe Shuster’s creation was nothing less than the Golem of their time – an all powerful mythic being brought into our realm to solve our injustices, to defend the defenceless. In this sense, Ross takes the next logical step by rendering him in what appears to be actual flesh and blood […] The effect was like finally meeting someone you’d only ever heard about.”

–       Chip Kidd, Mythology

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In this quote, and in the plot of Returns, the interesting tension between myth and man is revealed, as well as the overarching rule in storytelling that a myth must always evolve or be re-examined to survive. How do we connect with a man who is essentially a God? By giving him human frailties. In flesh and blood Kal-El is an enhanced Kryptonian warrior, but in spirit and emotion, Clark Kent is a sensitive and loving human. He is an alien immigrant living the life of an American man, and as such, it makes sense that his cultural heritage and destiny conflict with his sense of adopted human purpose. His militaristic call of duty forces him to abandon his human life with Lois, and in the intervening years, like a war widow, she is forced to move on and continue with her own life – not unreasonable, really. Upon his return, Superman finds that his world is not as he left it. He has lost a companion, yet gained a son. I found this idea radical and refreshing and would have loved to see where Singer would have taken it should he have had the chance to helm a sequel. ‘The son becomes the father, and the father becomes the son,’ Routh as Superman whispers to his sleeping son, echoing the words of his birth father, Jor-El. This is very much the heart of the film: the preservation and transference of legacy.

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Whilst I have been speaking of the ‘weight’ of his myth, that is not to say that the world of Superman is a particularly ‘heavy’ one. On the contrary, Metropolis is a city of gleaming urban modernity from the 1930s, and Superman – who draws power from the sun – is a being of supreme lightness in every sense of the word: Both in his charming charisma and unwavering belief that humanity is a species capable of great and good deeds, and, physically, in his soaring and effortless movement through the clouds. In Superman Returns, through Singer’s signature vibrant palette, snappy dialogue, and tentative inter-character relationships, this lightness undeniably shines through.

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This leads me on to the comparatively darker tones of 2013’s Man of Steel. First of all – I enjoyed this film. Unlike Returns, this film was very much a reboot of Supes’ cinematic legacy, and I was certainly very excited for it before its release, especially knowing that Christopher Nolan would be heavily involved in its production. It’s almost a given that everyone is a Christopher Nolan fan. The man is a master of the cerebral blockbuster, which sadly cannot be said for his partner on Man of Steel, Zack Snyder. Certainly though, Snyder is a great stylist, and luckily their partnership on the film seemed to work well – Snyder’s lightening-fast and heavily-saturated visuals tempered by Nolan’s Arthouse sensibilities in storytelling and mood. Again, it does well in establishing the mythic qualities of him as a superhero and counterbalancing them with the relatable qualities of him as a real man.

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I recall the trailer – a young boy racing through the cornfields of Smallville with a red cape fluttering behind him. It was so subtle and so poignant that I distinctly remember a fluttering in my stomach akin to what I felt during that after-credits scene in Iron Man when Samuel L. Jackson uttered the words ‘Avengers Initiative.’ I also really loved the opening act set on Krypton – we have never been able to really spend a long time on his home planet in his cinematic outings, so this was a real treat for hardcore fans.

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The cast is also strong: Henry Cavill is powerful and convincing, yet weakened and emotional where he needs to be; Amy Adams (who I adore) makes a pretty good Lois Lane, and Russell Crowe and Kevin Costner are believable as Kal-El/Clark Kent’s fathers. Michael Shannon is perfect casting as General Zod: cold, imposing, and unforgiving, he wears that Kryptonian armour like he was born into it. (The only thing that lets him down is some occasionally clunky dialogue.) What I was surprised about in terms of the audience’s reception of this film was how uncontroversial everyone seemed to find it.

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Unlike the waves of animosity aimed towards the ‘secret son’ plot of Returns, the most controversial part of Man of Steel – the death of Zod – has not attracted any of the same kind of hatred that I expected it would. This is not the first time Superman has been forced to take a life in his character’s long history. However, it still shocked me to see it. After an epic and ridiculously destructive brawl, a quick and brutal snap of the General’s neck ended it all. Superman let out a cry of anguish and dismay at what he had done, and what he had had to endure. It haunted me for days after seeing it. Not because I am hyper squeamish or adverse to violence, but because I couldn’t work out how I felt about it. Or about Man of Steel in general. Was it totally brilliant or just had moments of brilliance? Was it the right direction for a reboot? Clearly, the decision to bring Nolan on to supervise proceedings was due to Warner Bros.’ trust in him to produce a great superhero film after the phenomenal success of his Dark Knight trilogy, and what made this trilogy so spectacular was his ability to rightly ground Gotham in gritty reality without losing the comic book larger-than-life punch of the characters. Stylistically, the Arthouse aesthetic he brought to the Batman films was something he was expected to bring the Man of Steel, and evidentially did.

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Personally, I see no problem with DC films to start being more stylistically linked as this enables the audience to connect the dots between different character’s universes better, as well as separate them from the colourful and witty Marvel style. It is almost as though the two are attempting to create differing auteur personas in their approach to on-screen adaptations, which makes sense from a marketing perspective. My only issue with this being done to Superman and Batman is specific to their characters as a duo.

I wrote a blog a while back entitled Comic Lore: Batman, Superman, and The Third Identity in which I discussed why these two opposite sides of the same superhero coin are both inextricably linked by their polar disparity. To summarise: whereas Batman is a being of darkness and unflinching realism, Superman is a being of light and romantic fantasy. Every single subsequent superhero ever created is an ancestor of one of them. In this respect, I feel that Nolan’s darker brushstrokes didn’t fit as well into the mythology of Superman as they way that they fit with the mythology of Batman. In recent years there has been a resurgence in all things gothic and existential, which – with the dark knight as my favourite superhero – I am a great fan of. However, there is an often-misplaced expectation that if something is ‘dark’ it must be automatically more mature and intellectually weightier than something comparably ‘light.’ Compared to Superman Returns, the action in Man of Steel is more brutal, the characters seem older and more grounded, and the style is faster and bleaker. The whole thing is heavier and grittier and the level of devastation to both Metropolis and Superman’s usually sunny disposition is far greater. The idea that Superman is forced to take a life to save the innocent is supposedly a more mature theme that what has come before. This is how Snyder and Nolan think that his myth must stay relevant in the current zeitgeist.

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But, although lighter in temperament and aesthetic, the theme of eternal struggle between myth and man and the wedge that this drives between Clark and Lois, as well as the painful estrangement from his son, should not be discounted as an equally mature and logical evolution of the Superman franchise and of his character. The love triangle dynamic of that film is realistically tense and complex, with no ethically right or wrong way to solve things. Lois’ heart is split both ways, and Clark must bitterly respect this as the noble personality he is. The glimmer of hope comes from the revelation that her son is also his. Even if they cannot be together romantically, they are bonded forever by this physical result of their past relationship. This subplot, to me, is incredibly adult and oddly domestic for what we expect from most superhero films. It is the interruption of modern life in an otherwise romantic and soaring myth. The neck-snapping moment from Man of Steel is still shocking and interesting, but it is just that: a moment.

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“I often wonder, Clark: Do you know what you are? You are the original myth. The one we’ll always believe. What would we ever do without you?”

–       Batman, The Trust, Chip Kidd & Alex Ross

Myth vs. man, the fact is, one cannot live without the other – Superman cannot live without Clark Kent. The myth of the God-like saviour collides with the myth of the American dream. This was one of the great successes of Reeves’ portrayal: he understood and embodied both the polarity and unity of Kal-El’s alter egos. Alex Ross also understands this. In his unique, hyperreal painterly style, we can see every wrinkle on Superman’s forehead, every fold in his cape, and count the lashes around his eyes, and yet, the sweeping dynamism of him in flight, the proud way he holds his head up, the clenching of his wrists as he bursts through metal, and the effortless strength he uses to rescue victims from beneath fallen buildings also shines through. We believe in him as a man and we believe in the myth and fantasy he exudes. If one is overplayed at the expense of the other, something crucial is lost. This is the balance that any live-action interpretation should strive to achieve, and I look forward with baited breath to the next instalment.

Thanks for reading! 🙂

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Pop Culture, Sci-Fi, Visual Cultural Theory

Godzilla vs. MUTO vs. Humanity: Who are the real monsters?

 SPOILERS AHEAD.

Ye have been warned.

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I love the Fantasy genre and I love the Sci-Fi genre.

But….Sci-Fi holds a special place in my heart. This isn’t because I think it is inherently better than Fantasy, it’s a personal opinion. A personal opinion that I think stems from the general but fundamental difference between them: Fantasy is usually rooted in the past – in pre-technological worlds than are either alternate or parallel to our own. Sci-Fi is rooted in the present or future with a heavy preoccupation on technology and the quasi-scientific grounding of the seemingly impossible. Both are fuelled by highly creative imaginations. But Sci-Fi, which endeavours to predict or forewarn the future, for reasons I can’t explain, captures my imagination far more, and lends itself to highly conceptual and deeply philosophical human quandaries far better than Fantasy seem to.

(Again, this is my opinion. I like The Lord of The Rings and I like The Matrix trilogy. It’s just my genre-bias makes me predisposed to like The Matrix a little bit more even though I concede that LOTR is a more solid film trilogy.)

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Godzilla is an icon of cinema in the same way that Marilyn Monroe and Mickey Mouse are. You don’t have to have seen any of the films that they appear in to recognise them instantly or know something of their origins. Unlike the latter two, Godzilla is seen also as a Sci-Fi icon. That being said, there are certainly touches of the Fantastical about him – the monstrous, ancient, and the mythic. Indeed, the films of his franchise are so old and loved that they have passed into pop cultural lore – the modern equivalent of myth and legend. Gareth Edwards’ latest reboot understands this, which is one the reasons I enjoyed it so much. The title sequence plays ingeniously with both the footage of the 1954 original version (Gojira) and the true events that it was inspired by – the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 as well as other subsequent nuclear weapons testing in the Pacific Ocean in the 1950s – and skews them with added SFX to present a ‘real’ covered-up version of events to provide the set-up for the new film.

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Despite this, upon discussing the 2014 version with someone recently I hesitated before describing it as Sci-Fi, which caused me to wonder why. On paper, it seems to tick all the right boxes – giant monsters fuelled by radiation, humanity’s impending destruction, questioning human arrogance etc., etc. However, on closer inspection it is not in fact very ‘high’ Sci-Fi – and I don’t mean that as a criticism. As I stated earlier, an almost self-defining rule of Sci-Fi is preponderance on technology – normally futuristic – but the raison d’être of this film seems to be the obliteration or redundancy of technology.

‘It’s going to send us back to the Stone Age!’ Bryan Cranston’s character shouts at us.

This seems to widen the story out from pure Sci-Fi into the broadly Fantastical, which is perhaps refreshing given that blockbusters still seem so rigidly intent on remaining ‘in genre’ these days.

The general plot centres on primordial forces that have been wrongly resurrected out of their own allotted time period and inadvertently (I’ll go into my use of that word later) threatening to destroy hundreds of years worth of careful and daring human technological progress in the blink of an eye…or the crash of a giant moth-leg. All of our current most powerful weaponry – which is nuclear based – is quite literally food for continued devastation. We are rendered powerless by the sheer size and brute force of these creatures. These are creatures which predate us, and it seems that the reverence and fear of the ancient – for all of our modern innovations – stills holds powerful sway over us, both for the version of us on-screen, and as members of the audience.

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Another interesting debate I found myself having with someone about the film was the overall message of it. Now, without seeing the original Japanese Gojira you might think of the franchise that it spawned as not taking itself all that seriously. And with titles like Godzilla vs. King King, Son of Godzilla and Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla I wouldn’t really blame you. As I mentioned earlier, the original was in fact an allegory for Japan to convey the terror of the traumatic and horrific nuclear weapons assault in 1945 without fear of censorship post-WWII. It is a surprisingly poignant and thought-provoking watch with very sympathetic and believable human characters at its centre, and I would highly recommend you watch it if you liked the 2014 reboot, which has clearly chosen respectfully to carry the essence of the original through into its own new storyline.

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Having said that, it is also careful not to ignore the other integral components of the franchise as a whole, which – however ridiculous – have become part of the monster’s enduring lore. Those components being all those bizarre and laughable sounding titles I mentioned. As much as fans of Godzilla love and respect the serious anti-nuclear message of his origins, we also really love seeing him beat the crap out of other monsters. In Gareth Edwards’ version, his monstrous nemeses take the form of a male and female MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Object). Fans will undoubtedly spot the resemblance between the MUTO and Mothra (or Kaiju) a recurring Godzilla foe who is basically a giant Moth from the Amazon. (Godzilla’s design, incidentally, is a combination of a Gorilla and a Lizard.) This is a both a strength and weakness of the film. I knew this version would be big and loud, and so I chose to see it on the most appropriate screen possible – at the BFI IMAX in London (boasted as the biggest in Europe, the slightly nervous announcer told the audience before the film started). It didn’t disappoint on either of these fronts. It was most certainly big and most certainly LOUD. So much so, that the one and only time I flinched (as the 3D did bugger all to do that, as usual) was when Godzilla first opened his mouth and let out that iconic battle cry.

With not one but three giant monsters on offer you would expect to be shrinking down in your cushioned cinema seat frequently. However, I have to say that even though I thoroughly enjoyed the film and was impressed by the look and feel of it, I never felt threatened. This is a significant weakness for a film that has one giant Lizard foot quite clearly placed in the apocalyptic genre of storytelling, and with large parts of Hawaii and San Francisco being spectacularly eradicated. Trying to determine the cause of this, my explanation came down to the simple fact that none of these creatures were specifically targeting humans for attack – they were targeting each other. The wanton chaos that ensued around them came from them merely stomping around and, well, being very big whilst doing it. The MUTO prey on nuclear weaponry, not the blood of the innocent, and Godzilla in turn preys on the MUTO. Humans are merely accidental casualties of their sparring.

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So what is the message of this reboot? Why does Godzilla target the MUTO? Who are the real monsters?

Godzilla began as a metaphor. Then he became a myth. Myths survive by their continual retelling and also their continual re-contextualising. Slowly, they are twisted and adapted to suit whichever zeitgeist they have been passed into. Today, the analogy of Godzilla I’ve heard seems to be that of a ‘tragic hero.’ He seems far more rooted in the myth of the lone Samurai warrior than atomic arms. There is certainly a sense of unsung nobility about him in the 2014 version that seems almost more human than the human characters themselves. It seems stupid to say it, but the real star of Godzilla is Godzilla himself. Towards the climax, this is brought out by paralleling his actions with those of the titular human character played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson. As he falls, so does Godzilla. As he battles, so does Godzilla. United by a common enemy. There is a lovely moment when they both seem to stare into one another’s eyes and an unspoken understanding of the other seems to form. In the climactic end to the battle, it is left open as to whether Godzilla purposefully saves Taylor-Johnson’s character and his mission or whether his intervention (and WHAT an intervention it is) is coincidental. Godzilla, for all his monstrous qualities, is extremely likeable. Perhaps it is his slightly chubby stature, his T-Rex-like arms, his lumbering movement, or his amazing RAWRRR, but he somehow emits a surprisingly empathetic personality. Like Frankenstein’s monster, he is a beast we can connect with. I suppose that seals him as a true Sci-Fi icon.

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If Godzilla is the hero of the story, then that surely make the MUTO the villain, right? Well, let’s examine their villainous credentials: They do look big and scary. Their insect-like appearance makes us predisposed to dislike them the way we are predisposed to dislike spiders and other creepy-crawlies. Their origins are that they lay dormant underground until our deep mining disturbed them. First a male, and then a much larger, female emerged. When we found that they could not be destroyed, we instead tried to contain one of them, feeding it nuclear energy until it let out an electromagnetic pulse (or EMP) wiping out all electronic devices within its radius, which enabled it to escape. It then began hunting first for nuclear devices to consume – in Russian submarines, for example – and then its female mate to reproduce with.

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Let’s recap: humans wake up two ancient hibernating animals who then fly off, eat stuff, and then have freaky bug sex. True, they cause a lot of inadvertent damage to human cities, but that’s the key word here – inadvertent. They are animals. They are nature. As an advanced species, we have for quite some time considered ourselves to be separate and even above the rest of the natural world. Our consciousnesses’ have long since outgrown our constricting flesh. In this separation, we increasingly see nature as either an enemy or an alien entity by default. We live artificially dependant lives. Yet as I mentioned earlier, the mystery of the natural and the ancient still inspires us with both fear and wonder. The MUTO are not villainous because they are out to kill us (intentionally, anyway); they are villainous simply for existing in our world.

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Ken Watanabe’s character – the scientist tasked with studying and destroying the MUTO – is instrumental in feeding us these ideas. At one point, he tells the military commander guy (I can’t remember his name…) that Godzilla is supposed to restore ‘balance’ and perhaps rather than fighting him or the MUTO, we should simply stand back and let them slug it out as they are intended to do so. There are multiple ways to read this as I was debating with the friend I previously mentioned. You could see the message being simply that humans shouldn’t meddle in nature and are being punished for doing so; a theme that runs right through Sci-Fi from Frankenstein and further back than that to the story of Prometheus, from which Frankenstein takes his subheading. My friend’s view was that the message was more complicated than that: we – humanity – are the implied imbalance to be re-balanced, and perhaps that Godzilla was targeting the wrong enemy. If the MUTO were here first, she argued, then they can’t be the imbalance. My own reading was that the imbalance had been caused by the MUTO surviving beyond their own time period – a time when the Earth was still radioactive, as Watanabe’s character explains. Cranston’s line about being ‘sent back to the Stone Age’ also echoes the idea of timelines being misaligned. The MUTO are also referred to as ‘parasites,’ which has inherent negativity, and also backs up the idea that they should no longer exist as the environment that sustained them no longer exists. Certainly, our creation of nuclear devices also contributes to the imbalance that has enabled them to continue to feed and breed. Godzilla seems to have magically awakened to fix our mistake.

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You could go so far as to argue that a comparably neutral force scooping up the world’s nukes might not be such a bad thing, too. It might have even been the answer to a lot of long-lying global political problems.

In the tradition of great Sci-Fi, Godzilla asks ‘Who are the real monsters?’ and then turns a mirror slyly towards the audience. Human progress is continually scrutinised as arrogant, destructive, but always necessary in our constant pursuit to speed up evolution. For reasons that are never made clear, Godzilla fights – on this occasion – for us. A champion we did not nominate, or call upon, nor could we find a way to thank in the end. As much as nature threatens and baffles us, it seems to have our back too, whether we deserve it or not.

Thanks for reading! I hope you’ve also enjoyed the classic Godzilla posters I chose for this post 🙂 I love great movie poster art, and Godzilla has inspired some of the best.

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Comics, Manga, Pop Culture, Visual Cultural Theory

The Problem with Graphic Novels

 

I have loved comic books right from when I first learnt how to read. It started with Tintin and Asterix and Obelix as a child, which my mum introduced me to. I later discovered superheroes as a teenager – Batman and X-Men were (and still are) particular favourites. Not long after that I started to widen my reading list to include series’ like Hellblazer, Sandman, Lucifer, The Authority, Phonogram and Watchmen, as well as many popular manga titles like Death Note, Cardcaptor Sakura, Neon Genesis Evangelion, D-Gray Man, Black Butler and Ouran High School Host Club. So that’s me: nowhere near an expert, but very much an avid fan-girl.

There were of course more innocent times when I pondered things like, ‘Wait, is that guy Marvel or DC?’ And ‘So what is the difference between manga and anime?’ It’s all part of the learning curve. It was while reading the blurb of Watchmen (and very much still curving the learn) that I first remember coming across the term ‘graphic novel.’ It was used in a quote from Time magazine: “[Watchmen is] one of the greatest graphic novels of all time.” ‘Graphic novel?’ I wondered. ‘So this isn’t just regular comic I’m reading then…’ I mean, the word ‘novel’ as opposed to ‘book’ somehow sounds superior doesn’t it? Coupled with the sheer strength of Moore and Gibbon’s work I naively believed that the formula must be:

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As though ‘graphic novel’ was a higher title bestowed upon a higher quality of comic book. Like a knighthood or something. I also found out that Watchmen was the only comic book to have made Time’s 100 Greatest Novels of All Time list, which cemented all this further in my mind. ‘Wow!’ I thought, whilst probably brushing my hair into a frizzy hell. ‘This comic book is so good its ranked among real books!’

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Of course graphic novel is not any determining value for quality. What ‘graphic novel’ is actually defined as is merely collected issues of a continuing storyline of a particular character/team/franchise. It’s a volume, really. I don’t know why they didn’t use volume as the name for it in the first place as they do in Japan for manga collections. According to Wikipedia (because I’m a lazy researcher) the term first appeared in 1978, was thrown around a bit for similar titles to Watchmen,and eventually become popularised enough to be inducted as an official category in bookshops and publishing companies. I suppose the thinking was that as the stories became longer, each issue served as a chapter, and so to collect all of these chapters together meant that the volume resembled a regular book…but with pictures. So yes, the term makes sense. (Certainly in my mind, a graphic novel is a more fitting description for the format that most illustrated books take – particularly children’s books, in which image and word are separated rather than integrated.)

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I’m not certainly not against collecting issues of comics together – my comic book consumption these days is largely centred around waiting for collected volumes to be published as I simply do not have the time, space or money anymore for every individual issue of every millions of titles that apparently are necessary for every bloody character…*SHARP INTAKE OF BREATH* Long story short: I like volumes. (Manga titles are collected as ‘volumes’, FYI.) My problem is that the term has become so ubiquitous that comic book and graphic novel are used as interchangeable names now even when the technical definition is incorrect. In the same way I thought a graphic novel was a fancy word for a comic book as a kid, nowadays it is commonplace for people to use the former rather than the latter for one of two reasons:

  1. They genuinely think that the comic they have read is ‘too good’ to be classed ‘simply’ as a comic.
  2. They don’t want to admit they enjoy reading comic books.

The first point I think I’ve talked about already. If you are reading a collected volume of issues, then yes, you are technically reading a graphic novel and I’ll let you off. If not, there’s no excuse: It’s a comic book. If you enjoyed it then you enjoyed it because it was a well-written and well-drawn comic book.

The second point is what I call the Harry Potter factor. Do you remember when Harry Potter started to emerge as really big thing? Like a massive-all-consuming-religious-behemoth-of-literature thing? It was enjoyed by millions of children everywhere (myself included) but it was also enjoyed by millions of slightly ashamed adults. They were ashamed because they actually enjoyed reading a kid’s book on the train to work. So rather than these poor ashamed adults just removing the dust jackets, the publishing company came up with an alternative solution for them: they published new editions with fancy-schmancy ‘adult’ covers. I’m guessing this was also quite handy for the sales figures (as if they needed help…)

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This issue is to do with elevation. Usually when a product has to be ‘elevated’ it means that its original form is not deemed palatable enough for consumers beyond the product’s normal fan circle. So it has to be re-branded. You can also see this exemplified in the re-release of old films in 3D – same content; different jacket (and more money to be made). A more complex example is the elevation of graffiti to street art. Where graffiti or tagging is illegal, certain examples by certain artists – Banksy, for instance – are now protected and treasured by the communities of whose walls they adorn. Of course in the case of Banksy a conscious decision was made by the artist to elevate his own work by exhibiting it in gallery spaces and selling it, and in doing so I don’t think he intentionally meant to dilute the graffiti art genre away from subversive, transient and – most importantly – free pieces into the massively fashionable and collectable commodities that they have become. It’s hard to get on a bus these days without seeing some dude or lady-dude sporting the ‘Obey’ motif by Shepard Fairey on a beanie, for instance. Now, as a commercial artist I of course recognise and understand the need and want to make a living from doing what you love. However, donning my critics’ hat (which is covered with coffee stains and glitter in case you were wondering) I can’t help but see this tale of a rebellious medium being eaten up and then spat back out in glossier, commercialised packaging as an all too familiar and cautionary one.

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Comic books, however, were born into commercialism. They began life as satirical cartoon strips in newspapers and magazines, where they still survive today, and morphed into the form we know them in today through fantasy, sci-fi and Superheroe stories. (I am ignoring the history of manga here, which is far older and culturally rooted in classical Japanese art.) Comic books never had to worry about the whole ‘selling out’ thing. That’s the beauty of them in a way: crude, intelligent, arty, surreal or serious; as long as they found a fan base, big or small, they could survive. They had no formal rules of content or conduct really – aside from the obvious self-defining ‘must integrate pictures with text’ one. Comics are a true art form for the masses. Comics were born to be sold. In the same way that retro-fitted 3D doesn’t improve a film and a fancier dustcover doesn’t improve a Harry Potter book, calling a comic book a graphic novel doesn’t improve the comic book. If we make the mistake of assuming that a graphic novel is an elevated comic then we could make the mistake of thinking that a comic book is a downgraded graphic novel by default, in the same way we could assume that a black and white film is a downgraded colour film.

Let’s not forget either that comic books were once – and sort of still are – aimed at children and teenagers. The fact that these kids grew up and continued to enjoy them speaks for the strength of the storytelling in having universal and enduring appeal, not for the strength of the marketing campaign or the category it can be found under in a bookshop.

“[I write graphic novels not comics books?] Meant as a compliment I suppose. But all of a sudden I felt like someone who’d been informed that she wasn’t actually a hooker; that in fact she was a lady of the evening.” – Neil Gaiman, The Sandman Companion (1999)

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