The Tigerlily False Equivalency Issue

In case you haven’t heard, Hollywood wants to remake everything. That isn’t new. And, in the view of big producers remaking old things as “gritty” and “x-treme!” new things, we have a new rendition of Peter Pan. Again. That hasn’t made much in the way of headlines, because A.) more people want to see Angelina Jolie in Meleficent and B.) Once Upon a Time already does “gritty”, YA-friendly retellings of Peter Pan et al, so who cares? Plus, I just think this market has kind of worn out its welcome. At first it was cool, what with our Nolan’s Batman trilogy, but now, now that we have “x-treme!” Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and “x-treme” live-action Disney cartoons, the genre of “it was old and now it’s new and grownup and filmed in HD” is not really that cool. People didn’t embrace Robocop and Total Recall, and I haven’t seen anyone getting terribly stoked about the new Peter Pan.

That being said, it did make headlines for casting a white woman as Princess Tigerlily.

Rooney Mara. Authentic.

Rooney Mara. Authentic.

So, here we go again, the endless battle of racial casting. The usual arguments are as follows: “But, it should be about the talent, not the race! It’s just casting who’s best!”

And then we get The Last Airbender and The Lone Ranger, and clearly, no, there is no way what we got is the best. Airbender is unwatchable, and Lone Ranger just has Depp being Jack Sparrow again. Clearly this is not a meritocracy. It’s more of a stuff-producers-and-board-rooms-thought-would-sell-best-ocracy. So, capitalism. And you thought Hollywood was progressive, ha!

But, actually, a lot of people have been defending this casting decision, including a weird, Buzzfeed-style article from NPR. Seriously, first NetGeo went all Swamp People on us, and now my beloved bastion of pretention has started emulating the stuff I look up when I want to see pictures of French bulldog puppies? What’s next, putting One Direction in a Tiny Desk Concert? You leave Tiny Desk Concerts alone, evil boy bands!

Anyway, for those of you who actually pay attention to NPR (all 9 of us…) and know about it from something other than what does the FOX say, you know it’s really not a leftist station. Unless you think BBC collaboration is grossly left wing for not saying Obama is a Nigerian terrorist Muslim atheist child molester, in which case you are insane. Most of NPR is devoted to classical and underground music, trivia, car talk, Prairie Home Companion, interviews with artists and writers, discussions about the history of the world’s greatest cheese (possibly the best episode of anything ever). It’s more likely to tell you about all the craft beers you can drink at a rally than to tell you to rally. Unless you’re rallying behind craft beer. Is it perhaps more likely to appeal to someone sipping a latte in an indie café while reading Bitch Magazine than FOX’s demographic? Yes, but that’s hardly the only audience that tunes in to NPR. Although, I admit that it suffers from excessive gentrification at times, it also gives voice to unknown folk, country, and blues singers from down home places who may never have otherwise had a platform. So, I don’t know that you can say there is an NPR crowd other than the fact that it doesn’t actively fight to exclude the latte-sipper-Bitch-reader-in-indie-café the way FOX does. If anything, what you can expect is a lot of art and culture, a fascinating crossection of Americana, lots and lots of classical and opera performances, car talk, and some generally smart, solid programming, so what the hell is with this buzzfeed crap? (Says the person who inserts excessive pictures into all her posts to casually attempt at driving up hits…)

I will use this picture over, and over, and over again, so help me...!

I will use this picture over, and over, and over again, so help me…!

Anyway, I think the argument is thus: If you’re upset about this, are you also going to be upset at casting minor comic characters as black when they were originally white? Are you upset that the newest Phantom is black? Or that stage show Aladdin is Filipino?

And, I get where they’re coming from to an extent. Tigerlily isn’t exactly an iconic Native American character. Her tribe isn’t real, and is in fact named after a really racist word (no really). And, it’s not like the Disney cartoon isn’t, you know, offensive.

Straight-up racist. Sorry, but I'm calling it.

Straight-up racist. Sorry, but I’m calling it.

There, I said it. It’s an offensive representation. I’m always shocked when someone comes up and says, “Oh, Beauty and the Beast is SOOOO offensive! There’s a fleeting image of a pastor in the crowd when Gaston was going to marry Belle, because who ever heard of pastors at weddings? Offensive! And the father isn’t portrayed as a god-like figure of pure amazaballs! That’s offensive stereotyping!!!!” and then says, “Oh, don’t be so hypersensitive about Peter Pan. They’re only gross stereotypes of an entire people. Stop being so Politically Correct.”

I’ve come to a conclusion about Political Correctness:

If it affects the person speaking, it’s not Political Correctness, it’s decency! It’s morals! It’s family values!

If it doesn’t affect the person speaking, it’s Political Correctness, tyranny, and Hitler!

Pictured here: A popular representation of political correctness.

Pictured here: A popular representation of political correctness.

What’s weird is that almost every time someone invokes the ol’ PC it has exactly jack to do with being PC. What’s the political bent here? Real PC talk is like refusing to discuss money in politics, calling rich people “job creators”, and other forms of politicized language. What we’re referring to is just manners. It’s just being decent toward someone else and not caricaturing them as something sub-human, which, if you’re going to do any Nazi comparisons, is way, way, way more apt. Nostalgia doesn’t exempt someone from being respectful. You can’t be like, “Oh, I thought it was funny to laugh at Stepin Fetchit as a kid. So, that must be totally okay, you PC Nazis!” That works about as well as saying, “Oh, I enjoyed staring at people in sideshows! Therefore The Elephant Man is a liberal Nazi Hitler PC movie for making me recognize the humanity of people I just wanna stare at and mock!”

How dare you tell me to care about someone other than myself and my gross entitlement complex? You PC Hitler!

How dare you tell me to care about someone other than myself and my gross entitlement complex? You PC Hitler!

Also, stop invoking Hitler, people.

There actually is a difference between casting a black Phantom or a black Nick Fury, and casting a white Native American or Asian character. And, here’s why. We do not have a shortage of white actors in roles. Most of our heroes, romantic leads, and overall casts are white. Even in good movies, like Her, we’ve apparently conceived a very white future. If you’re a white actor, you are only limited by the number of other white actors you’re competing against. It’s not like there are only a handful of decent roles for you, and the rest of the time you’ll be in some niche like Tyler Perry movies or direct to DVD fare, or low-budget arthouse selections that will pay you in pennies while the director sells organs to get a single theatrical release. And, the majority of our celebrity coverage is also of white Hollywood.

So, when a white role is given to an actor of a different ethnicity, it’s not taking away from a tiny pool of representation, and it’s not taking one of the few jobs an actor can get. It’s not like when Nick Fury became a black character that was the only role for white people. The entire Avengers ensemble is white!

Furthermore, there is history to consider. Who has told the stories? Whose voices get heard the loudest? In cases of Native American representation, they have been cast by white people in circuses and mock train robberies to play “savages”.They have been cast as antagonists for cowboy heroes. They have been cast as hippies for a yuppie earth-love analogue of bourgeois values. There is a long history of appropriating and defining their culture as whatever white people want it to be.

Historical 12 year old becomes sexy babe, for instance...

Historical 12 year old becomes sexy babe, for instance…

However, how often do we see Native American roles? Really. Ask yourself that. And, how often in roles when the race is incidental, like a rom-com heroine, a scientist, an action star, do we see Native actors just getting cast? Are you saying that Native American peoples just cannot act, that acting just isn’t a thing they can do? The fact is, when you give a Native Role to a white person, it’s not the same as casting a black Phantom. It’s not the same because there are hardly any Native Roles written, for anyone.

It’s also not the same because Phantom of the Opera is a stage show, so there are many, many chances for people to play the title role, in many productions. Plenty of white people have played the Phantom. Most. Pretty much all. This is only making the news because it’s the first time on Broadway, maybe ever, that he hasn’t been white. Also, stage shows don’t follow the same rules as movies. People bend gender, race, age, et cetera, all the time. While there is a lack of representation for particular groups, and I wish every talented actor could be cast fairly, it’s much more fluid than movies. You can cast a 47 year old woman as a teenaged boy in an opera. But, you can’t cast white people as Asian people in Cloud Atlas and have it not be incredibly uncomfortable and scary as hell. Film demands more verisimilitude.

Gah! The people of Innsmouth! Run away!

Gah! The people of Innsmouth! Run away!

And, again, the argument that Tigerlily isn’t a good role kind of doesn’t… work at all. What, you’re saying the source material and other adaptations are racist, so we have to be racist? I thought these were supposed to be reboots. Are we not rebooting the character, just keeping the stereotype? Why? Why do that? Why bother rebooting at all if you think the original should just be left alone? What is the point of that?

And, lastly, I think that producers don’t give audiences enough credit. They have really strict ideas about what audiences will and will not watch. They think that boys won’t follow the adventures of girls, and it was a cliché truism until The Hunger Games and everyone proved them wrong. Which, if you have ever encountered human beings outside of a very strict bubble, you already knew. Little boys have long been just fine with stories about girls, like Pippi Longstocking, which was a favorite when I worked in children’s libraries. A favorite of more boys than girls, actually.

Gee, I wonder why?

Gee, I wonder why?

 

People also think that America will only watch white people, so they do things like make the racially diverse Avatar the Last Airbender a white vs. Indian/Middle Eastern story.

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A once racially diverse cast becomes a film about white kids being menaced by evil, Middle Eastern men.

A once racially diverse cast becomes a film about white kids being menaced by evil, Middle Eastern men.

And, yes, I know that Zuko becomes good. But, that’s not really the point, especially since there won’t be any sequels to the movie. The point is, the show has many fans, and they love it, and they love the characters, and they don’t want to see a bunch of bad child-actors shoved into roles that that shouldn’t fill. Not only shouldn’t they fill the roles because they are bad actors, but also because these aren’t white roles. Part of what people love about the show is its world-building, and it is built on distinctly non-white culture. This is just what the show is. Casting white actors just feels like cultural appropriation. It also just looks silly.

Similarly, audiences didn’t love Jack Sparrow Tonto, and that movie was an enormous disaster.

When Hollywood has occasionally rebooted material with black actors in what had been white roles, it’s also not a role contingent on race. The Karate Kid’s race is incidental. And, there’s nothing about being an orphan that makes Annie inherently white. But, Tigerlily and Tonto are specifically written as Native American characters. The Karate Kid and Annie are not played in white-face, and the characters are not representing some specific part of white history. They’re just kids, and kids are everywhere. Tigerlily and Tonto cannot be played as white, because the characters are Native American. It isn’t like having a black Karate Kid. It’d be like having a black John Smith, where race is in fact integral to what we are representing. Or, in terms of fiction, a black Snow White doesn’t work, for obvious reasons. If your character is written as inherently a specific race, then the actor doesn’t just make the role his or her own. The actor has to appropriate the race, and it is awkward. Depp didn’t play a role that had once been played by a Native actor. He played a role that is a Native character, and that is the difference between this and other race-bent reboots.

Tonto-depp

I don’t think that the meritocracy argument works, mostly because it isn’t a meritocracy. But, even if it was, it hinges on the idea that only a white actor would be best for the part. There are plenty of white actors who are very talented, and there are many roles for them, but to say that they also need the roles of other races is to imply that other races aren’t as talented. Yeah, Roony Mara is a great actress, and she may have done really well reading for Tigerlily, but does that mean that no one else could do as well in the role?

It isn’t as if Tonto or Tigerlily are especially great Native American roles. But, with so few Native Roles, and Hollywood’s disinclination to cast non-race-specific roles with diverse actors, there are only so many opportunities for work. This isn’t an issue of whether or not it’s okay for these stars to play race-bent roles, but whether or not other actors are able to get work at all.

My question is: did the filmmakers even try?

 

And this brings me to a recent pseudo-news, celebrity faux pas story about Heidi Klum, who recently dressed up like a historically inaccurate “sexy squaw” stereotype for a German reality show.

Also, this photo sucks. It's too posed and silly, and it looks like a bad instagram pic that should be captioned with lyrics to an Owl City song.

Also, this photo sucks. It’s too posed and silly, and it looks like a bad instagram pic that should be captioned with lyrics to an Owl City song.

Although I don’t think German reality TV ever needs to be news, any more than American reality TV or British reality TV or any reality TV, what interested me was the reaction. People were outraged, not over Klum’s “redface”, but over the fact that anyone considered it racist. People were quick to point out that, you see, Americans just don’t get that Germany has a tradition of seeing Native American people in this way.

Because we all know that if Germany has a traditional view of a particular race, it’s best to follow that view without question. I don’t remember a time that has ever been racist in the slightest…

However, this does bring up an interesting point. The argument isn’t whether or not the people represented care, but whether or not white America or white Germany are the best white people in this white person argument. The voice of the Native American people doesn’t matter.

This is regularly the argument behind race issues, that white liberals are just whining and other white people should do their thing. The only people whose possible offence is even questioned are white. The idea that someone from another race might actually have opinions about how they are represented is never questioned. Which, for the record, they do.

Another reaction I saw was that if people like Heidi Klum do not dress up as stereotypes of Native American culture, then the Native American peoples will only be represented by casinos. In other words, Native Americans don’t have a culture anymore. They’re just poor. And, white people now rightfully own all that is attractive about their culture and can appropriate it as such.

Because a long tradition of romanticizing Native Americans has never led to anything bad.

The fact is, Native American voices do exist. There are actors, artists, writers. If you are more familiar with a white woman in feathers than you are with Zitkala-Ša, Leslie Marmon Silko, Mary Brave Bird, and Sherman Alexie, then it’s not that Native American culture is missing but that you’re systematically ignoring it.

Ray Bradbury, one of my favorite people of all time and author of Fahrenheit 451, once said: “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.”

By not knowing these writers, or artists, or employing actors to represent their own people, you’re silencing the culture. It isn’t that casinos and silly modeling reality shows are all that are left for Native Americans. It’s hard to read, so let’s just watch Heidi Klum take sexy pictures for a reality show.

The greatest sin a person can commit these days is asking someone to care about something. The best way to bring on rage is to say, “Maybe you should eat something that doesn’t hurt the environment, or be more energy efficient, or not commoditize a person based on sexual appeal in order to sell beer, or not sexualize young girls, or not support exploitative businesses, or care about the representation of a people.” It doesn’t cause people to change oh-so-much to say that maybe Heidi Klum’s bad photoshoot was also pretty racist, or that maybe we should actually start casting Native American actors. But, even this small amount of change is enough to send people into a rage of tooth-gnashing and pants-wetting.

But, in the end, these aren’t abstracts that white liberals and white conservatives do or do not care about. These are issues about people, people who have their own voices and cares, and whose culture is very real.

It’s not that they don’t have a voice. It’s whether or not anyone is listening.

 

 

 

I Hate Dystopian Literature

That isn’t entirely true.There are quite a few dystopian novels I like, a lot. But, I don’t like contemporary dystopias. There, I said it. In fact, with very few exceptions, I don’t like the genre at all. But, with the new Hunger Games knockoff Divergent (quickly followed by two visually cloned dystopian films, The Giver and The Maze Runner), I don’t think it’s going away soon, at least in the movies Hollywood chooses to adapt. (Edit note: As far as publishers are concerned, though, it’s kind of yesterday…)

So, let’s first look back a little at the development of the modern and contemporary dystopian story and where we have this odd, new trend. Because, it is an odd trend. The Mean Girls and 16 Candles of today now feature evil governments and martyr protagonists taking the place of school dances and popular kids. It’s a sociologically interesting trend.

Our stories have gone from this:

Clueless

To this:

hunger games

In many ways, the first real, modern dystopia was We by Zamyatin, a Russian author whose dissenting work made him one of the most banned writers in the USSR.

we-us

We is a story about social philosophy. In the USSR, there were artistic and social movements from Russian Constructivism to Taylorism, which deemed that one could create a rational utopia through mathematical harmonies and collectivism. In the novel, the dystopian society thinks and communicates through numbers and mathematical formulas, all while living in a literal protective bubble. The main character, rather like in Orwell’s later work, 1984, briefly has a chance to change his life, through the influences of a woman and the discovery of the outside world. This is the basis for the entire novel. I would not go so far as to say this was a brilliant work of fiction. For one thing, the mathematical aspect of the novel is not entirely realized, since the author was not really a mathematician, and furthermore the technology and speech makes it very dated. There are also some troubling racial politics, as the dystopian society is racially integrated, but the narrator still, for some reason, has to constantly say negative things about the only black person he knows. Classy. And I can’t help but note that integration seems kind of tied to the negative aspects of the collectivist society. However, one cannot deny that this is really the kind, if not the quality, of dystopias that should be written. Zamyatin was writing against a powerful and corrupt government, and used the science fiction story to illustrate concerns he had with the world he lived in. He also risked a great deal to write this book, and it widely banned in his home country. That’s a key that most fans of dystopia forget. Almost all fans and writers take exactly 0 risks these days. I mean, The Hunger Games has a hilariously unironic Subway tie-in deal, so if anything screams that that dystopia isn’t coming true, it’s a Hunger Games meatball sub.

subway

What I am saying is that dystopia does not have its roots in stories about oh-so-special people who are special, and there’s some kind of baddy government or something, and the special people have a love triangle, and bang! Boom! Bang! Exciting!

Shatter-Me-HC-c

That really isn’t the history of dystopia. Also… I would not suggest reading that…

Other landmark dystopian classics followed. 1984, which I’m just going to assume almost everyone has read by now, is the quintessential dystopia.

poster_1984_lrg

It draws heavily from We, but creates a far more sophisticated world. Orwell’s understanding of language not only provides crisp prose, but also a world where language, as opposed to numbers, is the key. The twisting and distortion of language, through New Speak, is a huge element, almost as popular a concept as the iconic Big Brother Is Watching.

bnw

Another landmark text is Huxley’s Brave New World, which, for some reason, is faddish to pit against 1984. Stop me if you’ve heard this before: “Ahem, so, lyk, we thought we would be in 1984, but really we’re, lyk, in Brave New World, because of TV and stuff…”

Yeah…

(By the way, speaking as a non-TV owner, let’s stop bragging about how unplugged we are when we all, yes all of us, binge-watch shows on our computers. True Detective in one sitting, am I right? We aren’t superior to TV viewers. We’re just more efficient…)

It really pains me when literary criticism gets turned into this sort of nonsense. What, did Huxley only write one book? Did Orwell? Are they necessarily at odds? Are there only two dystopian novels worth talking about? What is with this insanity? To make the books an either-or decision, pitted against one another, and to simplify their messages to “1984 has tough gov’ment” and “Brave New World totes choses ur own captivity” is really to lose the value of each novel. Dystopias are, by necessity, abstracts of social concerns, and each address specific concerns within the context of a novel’s structure. Therefore, a concern in 1984, such as the loss of communication through increasingly politicized language, is not at odds with the bread-and-circuses deadening of the senses in Brave New World. Neither are either of these books at odds with the critique of collectivism and constructivism present in We. I have no idea why the so-called literary analysis of dystopia has become, “Pick one, and only one!” but it’s seriously counter-intuitive when discussing a genre that is entirely about different social critiques. It would be best to look at all angles, would it not?

Or can there be... only one?

Or can there be… only one?

And, it think that kind of, “Pick one angle! Only one!” reading is something that will come back and bite the genre in the butt. People really start arguing about is the baddy in a dystopia, as if one political side is full of heroes and the other is full of google-eyed monsters.

451

Another noteworthy book is actually from a very different writer than the previous three. This is Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. Bradbury is a different writer for a number of reasons. For one thing, where Huxley, Orwell, and Zamyatin were intellectuals, approaching abstracted theories through science fiction modes in a rather Dante-esque fashion, Bradbury was a self-taught writer. His sources came from observation, newspaper writing, and his imagination was formed by classic Hollywood genre pictures and pulp fiction. He was a man of dinosaurs, sideshows, spaceships, and his love of literature and the imagination came from his own pursuits and studies.

Here is a quote explaining why I love this man:

“I have never listened to anyone who criticized my taste in space travel, sideshows or gorillas. When this occurs, I pack up my dinosaurs and leave the room.”

Greatest mind ever? Oh, maybe… maybe…

He never went to college. He was not a major political figure. And, he remains one of the best writers of the era. Bradbury’s fiction is often, almost always, interested in imagination, and the way people approach and love books is a huge part of what inspired his work and what he feared in society. Good characters value books, imagination, robotic Poe-themed houses, movie animatronic model dinosaurs, and they value these things even more than life, at times. Imagination, for Bradbury, is something akin to keeping innocence in the world, and the loss of both wonder and fear is a sign of something deeply wrong with society. This theme is most obvious in his dystopia, but many readers forget that it appears in many of his works. In Graveyard for Lunatics, a character’s loss of his beloved movie models is the impetus for his loss of innocence, and the loss of innocence for many others. His love of his art, the creation of worlds, not unlike creating novels, is his connection to life and humanity. In The Marian Chronicles, characters fleeing government censorship build robotic monuments to Poe, and yet the human characters are also destroying the leftover culture of the Martians before them, replacing beautiful, ancient cities with hotdog stands.

Bradbury, perhaps more than anyone else in the genre, placed a primacy on beauty, understanding that it is not simply the freedom to think of a particular ideology or moral, but also to enjoy and appreciate art that can be so very important. So, when he wrote Fahrenheit 451, the story doesn’t just focus on government restriction of thought. The characters burn books, but what replaces the books is given equal attention. The world left behind is not only misguided in thought, but also bereft of meaning. The characters have no real purpose to live and their actions of either violence or passion do not seem to matter. On the other hand, the good characters are willing to risk death and even die in order to maintain meaning.

f45109

Bradbury was quoted saying that one does not have to burn books. One only has to get people to stop reading them. I would add, one could replace great books with a sort of thoughtless page-consumption and get the job done just as well. The empty consumption of entertainment is as critiqued as the excision of literature.

images

I think that often when talking about dystopias, A Clockwork Orange gets left out. I think a lot of people do not remember that it is actually set in the future, and also a lot of people have a set image of dystopias as Evil Empire vs. The Little Guy. However, this need not be the case, and a true dystopia is merely one which uses political and ideological issues to illustrate a particularly bad future. I say “true dystopia” to differentiate between this and what are really post-apocalyptic stories like The Road or I Am Legend, which are more about survival after the disaster and may not even discuss ideology at all.

So, this is Post-apocalyptic, not dystopian.

So, this is Post-apocalyptic, not dystopian.

Clockwork Orange manages to provide a great deal of detail about the setting without ever telling the reader too much. It’s a corrupt future. Crime is rampant. And, there is a great social disorder, a bankruptcy of morality, a nebulous lack of purpose. The main character spends the first segment of the novel committing acts of violence and maintaining his primacy in his gang. Then, he goes through the infamous Ludovico Treatment and is unable to choose anything but goodness. The novel uses this contrast, a character who only chooses evil being forced to only choose good, to ask questions about free will and morality itself.

Clockwork'71

And, what I like about this novel, and why it is one of my favorite books of all time, is that it doesn’t make the evil some sort of empire. True, the evil empires in Orwell, Huxley, and Zamyatin do influence the main characters to do evil things, but the evil is clearly stemming from the fact that the characters are under a bad rule. That is the focus of the moral examination, and this is something I do not especially care for in large doses. In Clockwork Orange, Alex, the antihero and narrator, commits acts of horrific violence and depravity, and really just because he enjoys it.He has the same uncomfortable truth we see in The Dark Knight, in the portrayal of The Joker: there is something too human, too entertaining, too understandable in the enjoyment of evil, and that, not scary clown makeup or one false eyelash, is what makes these characters so frightening and so hard to ignore.

singinintherain

Alex takes pleasure in doing wrong, as though it is an art to him. This is illustrated in the way he also loves Beethoven, and how the Ludovico Treatment actually takes from him his ability to feel pleasure in Beethoven’s music. His freedom to do evil is also his freedom to choose beauty. This creates a complex character dilemma, where the reader both sympathizes with and abhors Alex as both demon and victim. And, the evil Alex does, which is truly chilling and disturbed, is not caused because there is a Big Bad Government, but because Alex chooses to be evil. In fact, when the government intervenes, through the morally terrifying treatment itself, it forces Alex to be good. Therein lies the paradox, as it were. Furthermore, if you read the version with the author’s original last chapter, added later on by publishers, you see that Alex’s only real, true cure for evil is boredom. Evil, in the end, becomes tedious, and the sociopathic main character has nothing left to live for.

And that is a very important message! That evil isn’t some exotic, different Other, totally outside of ourselves. It’s not monsters, scary-looking people, political opponents, people who look or live or worship differently than we do. Society has a strange way of othering and glorifying evil. Othering, by making evil something that is not us, even if it means believing conspiracy theories or propaganda. A good example is how every group calls every other group Hitler, and then compares itself to Holocaust victims.

–Also, don’t ever do that.

I cannot tell you how much I love this sort of dystopia, as opposed to the governmental big-bad. This is because instead of giving readers a venue through which they may feel put-upon or victimized, the book forces readers to question their own capacity for right and wrong.

First, a few other mentions in the realm of classic dystopia. One author whose name may not immediately jump to mind is Philip K. Dick. Many people outside of science fiction and online communities do not know this man’s name. And yet, we know his stories, because they have made up a great deal of our pop-culture landscape. Ever see movies like Blade Runner, Total Recall, A Scanner Darkly, and Minority Report? Yeah, these all came from one Mr. Dick, a strange writer who believed that aliens communicated with him. No, really.

001

Philip K. Dick’s views on science fiction are far more in line with Bradbury’s, if Bradbury thought his Martians were real and was a conspiracy theorist. Although Bradbury is by far the more popular writer in the mainstream, with literary circles fondly embracing him, Dick is actually more successful in Hollywood. And, yet, most people have no idea that these movies are based on books, let alone books by one author.

do-androids-dream-of-electric-sheep

Probably his most famous work is Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, from which we get the movie Blade Runner. The movie is a rather loose adaptation, but the story is simple. In the future, there are humanoid robots which do work for a civilization that has depleted its natural resources. They, however, are not supposed to be integrated into human society as real people. The line between humans tracking down robots, and robots themselves becomes increasingly blurred. Now, we have seen this before, most notably in the film Metropolis, and the animated remake of the same name.

The depressing as hell animated version...

The depressing as hell animated version…

At first blush, this seems like it may not even fit with the dystopian genre, and would instead be at the most a post-apocalyptic story. However, further reading shows that both the story and Blade Runner are in fact based on an ideological dystopia. Unlike Big Brother and other evil empires, this is about corporations. The story is about consumerism, and through the unbridled corporatism of the setting, humanity becomes commodity and the robotic product is indistinguishable from the human producer. Product and producer are one.

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You see this theme again in the sci-fi portion of Cloud Atlas.

Moving back to the evil empires, there is one more angle, that being the evil theocracy.

The-Handmaids-Tale-Englis-007

Margaret Atwood took the formula of 1984 and We and gave it a feminist bent when she wrote The Handmaid’s Tale. This is a story about a future where a dictatorial theocratic society has taken rule, and created a sort of Christian Taliban social policy of female oppression, regressive sexual politics, et cetera. It introduces another category of evil rule into the dystopian complex. In a genre where often the Stalinist themes pits evil empires against religion, Atwood looks at contemporary societal conflicts and creates a religious empire, like a cult that also runs the government.

For the last two landmark examples, I’ll cite two very different writers. One is Orson Scott Card, best known for book and subsequent series Ender’s Game –and also for his controversial politics. The other is Alan Moore, the man who brought the idea of literary graphic novels to the mainstream –and also known for his controversial politics. Card’s Ender series really does not initially seem very dystopian.

EndersGame

It’s futuristic, but the future is one of aliens and spaceships. However, it is what happens on earth, and the backdrop for his story, which is very dystopian and provides his criticism. Focusing on the first book, Ender’s Game is about a third child in a population-controlled future, the downtrodden hero, Ender. Ender is taken from his abusive sociopathic brother and saintly sister and placed in a space-school to learn how to defeat aliens by playing lots of cool video games. It’s actually somewhat better than that sounds. But, the dystopian aspects take the form of the government control itself. When is it okay to commit acts of violence and who may morally be used? Is what they do justifiable? The story also has a parallel plot about the brother and sister taking over the government through the use of what is basically a blog.

I’ll remove any ambiguity. I don’t think Card is a great writer. I think his prose style is basic and his ideas tend not to be very well… thought out. The blogging aspect requires a lot of suspension of disbelief, for one thing. For another, I do think that Card lets his characters get away with making morally indefensible choices based on the fact that they have no idea what they are doing. While that leads to some good questions about the nature of war, I feel like, from a story standpoint, he chose a very safe route for his character. Ender does not know about his major conflict, and so it isn’t a conflict for him. Instead, he has these Harry Potter conflicts of fitting in at special school and being a special boy, none of which is as interesting as the big conflict that the main character never knows is a conflict and therefore is never conflicted about.

Ender_s_Game_2713059b

It’s like having a story about dropping a nuclear bomb, but making the main character totally oblivious to what is happening. I think the moral could be sustained far more interestingly in a short story than a novel, which leaves us with pages and pages of a character playing strategy games that don’t feel very connected to the actual point of the story. Adventure, ho.

However, I would say that Card is one of the most influential writers in terms of where the genre is today. He gave us a magic boy character. Oh, sure, Ender is actually a genius, not magic, but the archetype is still there. And, more than anything else, this trait will influence the dystopian trends of today. Although the trends of today may just be miming Harry Potter, not Ender, so I don’t really know.

"Yer a special main character, female-Harry."

“Yer a special main character, female-Harry.”

Also, Card is kind of a bigot, but that’s extrinsic to the quality of his work. I just had to address that elephant in the room.

images (1)

Moore, on the other hand, is far to the left of conservative, Mormon Card. Moore is an anarchist who believes in wizardry. And, when I say anarchist, I neither mean rioter or dork-with-an-A-symbol-hoodie. I mean that Moore is philosophically in-line with Bakunin and Bookchin and Dorothy Day and the band Chumbawama. And, he uses his work to illustrate his politics and philosophy through the pop-art of graphic novels. Does it work? Hell’s yeah! I may like Clockwork Orange best of these novels, but Moore is the writer I have read the most. It’s not just that he managed to seamlessly melt literature and comicbooks into one glorious pop-art entity, like some superhero Warhol. It’s not just that he mixes pop-culture with philosophy. Oh, no, he’s also just kind of brilliant. That’s all. Just a great, great writer with smart, intellectual plots, and memorable characters.

WatchmenRorschach1229102

So, what’s so dystopian about Moore? Well, his most obvious and purest dystopia is V for Vendetta, but I would argue that The Watchmen is also a dystopian story. In V, the future is ruled by fascism, and the titular antihero works as a vigilante against the Nazi-esque government. This sounds straightforward, and in lesser hands (like, say, the makers of the V for Vendetta movie, which sucks), it could easily be pretty simplistic and stupid. However, Moore understands perhaps more than anyone else in his medium the idea of moral grays. V fights against a government that is undeniably evil. But, he does so through acts of terrorism, and he quite literally tortures an innocent.

Picture_10_-_EVEY_1

He is chaotic anarchy personified, the first wild blasts against the armor of a dictatorship. The evil empire of the story is also more interesting than the parody of the Bush administration in the movie, although one would be crazy not to realize that it is also a parody of the Thatcher administration. But, more than any specific leadership, the rule is one of fascistic abstraction: limited communication, 1984 style Big Brother, curfews, control of the populace, Nazi-like concentration camps, theocratic corruption, censorship, control of the media. V’s fight can be seen as both a necessary attack on evil, and also a morally ambiguous action of someone who commits atrocity because he has no army. Interestingly, the same may be said for many people called terrorists today, which leads to some very interesting questions about who we root for. Do we root for V’s actions, which can be legitimate terrorism, if we see the trappings of Hitler on the enemy? Furthermore, how much of V’s vendetta is personal, based on his own experience in a concentration camp? The end, with Evey Hammond donning the iconic mask, says that anarchy, as an ideal, will go on, but in the hands of the gentler, the post-revolution proletarian rule.

ideasdonotdie

The Watchmen is also a dystopia, if one doesn’t become too fixated on the superhero aspect. The story parallels actual history, and asks how much freedom are we, as a society, willing to give up for protection. And, after we have protection, who protects us from the protectors. Who watches the Watchmen? That is the central theme of the story, and one which, in a world of government spying and other miscarriages of justice, feels all the more apt.

watchmen_02-1280

 

So, if you can’t tell, I really, really, really love these graphic novels….

Also, Ayn Rand wrote Anthem. So, honourable mention, even if it is by Rand. It’s actually not bad. Like, at all. Even if you hate Rand, it’s a pretty decent retread of the ideas in We. It’s not extremely influential, but it’s a decent, little book.

So, my purpose of outlining these books is to note that dystopia has a rather varied past. Which really begs a very important question: why do they so often sound exactly the same now?

Pretties

And why, if I love many of these novels, do I kind of dislike the genre as a whole?

Well, first of all, I am going to posit that we, as a reading populace, have sort of forgotten what dystopia means. I don’t just mean writers passing off vague apocalypses as dystopia, just to create an easy baddy for our preternaturally sexy protagonist. I mean that as readers we have forgotten how to read a dystopia. For one thing, dystopias are not prophesy.

Pictured here: Not dystopia.

Pictured here: Not dystopia.

They are not predicting the future. They are, instead, focusing on a problem in the era of the author and discussing it through science fiction as a sort of metaphor or analogy. 1984 is analogous to problems in the USSR, for instance. Fahrenheit 451 illustrates the problem with losing books and great thought. But, even beyond this, many issues in dystopian classics are not about a particular power, but about individual problems, problems which readers may even find within themselves. Have we stopped reading great works? How do we judge the actions of others? How to we value freedom? What would we do?

"Which boy do you choose?" isn't actually a dystopian issue.

“Which boy do you choose?” isn’t actually a dystopian issue.

And, I think that the personal aspect of dystopia, the part which makes Alex such a compelling and frightening character in Clockwork Orange, this is the part that has been excised from reading. Instead, dystopia has become the biggest nail-biting, pants-wetting act of hysteria since people realized they could call all their enemies Hitler.

Stop me if you’ve heard this, “So, lyk, my political opposition is like Big Brother! Or, the people I disagree with are like Brave New World! Also, The Hunger Games is going to happen!”

Yeah… isn’t that all-too-familiar? How often to we hear horribly lame excuses like this, “I wanna say [insert extreme racial slur] without ever being questioned ever! Because people might question me or not want to hire me, that’s New Speak! Political Correctness is New Speak! I am entitled to be hired, even if my rampant racism makes me the very opposite of a team player!”

Yeah, yeah, yeah. You’re on the brink of being shot as a First Amendment hero for your brave use of the n-word. Nevermind that even Westboro ding-dong-the-witch-is-dead Baptist has been legally protected as free speech, this status affirmed in 2011, so that the most hateful of speech is legal in the US. Nevermind that you’re not entitled to, say, getting paid piles of cash to say whatever you want to a major TV audience (*cough* Duck Dynasty, you’re not constitutionally entitled to a reality show *cough*). Nevermind all that. Some New Speak law is comin’ ‘round the bend, yo!

JLC in closet

Furthermore, what is interesting is how vague dystopias have become and how both sides gleefully use dystopia to say not, “Hey, let’s talk about our problems!” but “OMG, that’s exactly what my political opposition will do!!!! Run for the hills whilst pissing yourself dramatically!”

Perhaps there is no greater example of this trend than the way in which people read The Hunger Games. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that The Hunger Games became this popular. It capitalizes on two extremely popular tropes: a magic boy (or, in this case, extremely talented girl) archetype, and the love triangle of teen angst. It’s the natural offspring of Harry Potter and Twilight, two of the biggest publishing trends of the entire history of print. (Wrap your mind around that for a while…)

What many people seem to forget while thinking about which HP character they would want to date and which Hogwarts house they’d like to be in, is that Harry Potter is actually pretty political. The story may be about a magical boy who does magical things in a charmingly magic place (and, I’m not making too much fun, because I actually do like this series). Harry Potter is also about an evil ruler with a racist agenda, classist and racist issues in the wizarding world, the problem of media control, and even government corruption. For a story that started out with a wee orphan boy learning that he is magic and getting a fluffy owl friend, it ends with a huge bloodbath surrounding an anti-racism resistance of young people forming basically vigilante bands.

Thank, JKR… That was… exactly how I wanted to end my kiddie reads session. With horrific slaughter and attempted genocide. Happy reading, kids!

The magical world of Harry Potter. Book 7: Harry and the Harsh Reality of War... Happy reading.

The magical world of Harry Potter. Book 7: Harry and the Harsh Reality of War… Happy reading.

But, again, this kind of ending, and the maturing of the HP audience, mixed with their sudden interest in love triangles and escapist romance, made for the perfect meld for The Hunger Games. We were, as a world, apparently okay with seeing massive child-murder, and were also a little excessively jacked about the young vigilante groups. And political revolution in general.

Feel the magic.

Feel the magic.

The political climate has been one of resistance and revolution. Even the conservatives have adopted revolutionary rhetoric. And, we, as a society, were getting really comfortable with being doomsdayers. Religious apocalypses, ecological doom, even facebook all had write-ups about how doomed we were in our doomy doom. And, with a pre-existing template called Battle Royale (which is just better, sorry), it’s really not shocking that the story of a talented main character girl in a dark, scary world of evil would have a love triangle while kicking ass. That’s like the least shocking trend ever.

What is shocking is our lack of sophisticated reading. Both the left and right have had this weird argument about whose enemies are more like the dictatorship in this teen adventure series. What is even worse is how happy these people apparently are in seeing themselves as, well, the victims.

And, here’s where things get stupid. Well, stupid-er. Because we’re already arguing whether or not the right or left are the big baddies in a children’s book series, which is already pretty dumb. But, apparently, some people are actually arguing that The Hunger Games, a teen love-triangle story based on a pre-existing Japanese novel about media violence, is actually going to happen.

The_Scream

And this is really where I start to have a problem with dystopia, as a whole. I am not the first person to point out that our society’s obsession with dystopia is actually pretty narcissistic. Oh, our problems today are just so much worse than ever, ever before? And, really, when confronted with this, many people have told me, Yes. They do believe this. Furthermore, they believe we are either in a secret, unknown dystopia now, or about to go into one, and then they scream about Hitler, because reading history, like reading legislation, is less fun than screaming. Yep, today we’re worse off than the victims of slavery,the Holocaust, the Gulags, the Cultural Revolution, and the Black Plague –combined. Not because we’re suffering. Most of these people are very comfortably situated in a privileged class, because those who aren’t don’t have time to argue about dystopia. No, because something bad is going to happen. In the future.

Troll-2-Fly-575x318

The trouble with dystopia as a trend is that it really isn’t doing justice to these authors in context, or doing justice to the books themselves, or being literary at all. Dystopia, especially dystopia that allows one to insert themselves as the hero and their political opposition as the enemy, is escapism. We are imagining our own martyrdom and delighting in it.

" You've got life on backwards, come here let me flip it, there see, now your past is behind you. What's say you climb down off the cross use the wood to build a bridge and get over it." Christipher Titus

” You’ve got life on backwards, come here let me flip it, there see, now your past is behind you. What’s say you climb down off the cross use the wood to build a bridge and get over it.” Christopher Titus

We aren’t escaping from reality to enjoy a magical adventure with Harry and buddies, or even a silly romance with sexy vampire boys. We’re escaping to imagine ourselves as heroic martyrs in a world of extreme violence, and to imagine our suffering at the hands of people whose politics we don’t agree with.

 

The main character is me, the hot boy is my crush, and the bad guys are anyone who didn't vote for my candidate.

The main character is me, the hot boy is my crush, and the bad guys are anyone who didn’t vote for my candidate.

 

Okay, so that kind of freaks me out.

I don’t really blame the authors, anymore than I blame Burgess and Kubrick for copycat Clockwork Orange crimes, or think that American Psycho is the reason we have spree killings. I think that Collins wanted to write a smart story about the media, and, in fact, the games themselves were inspired by reality shows like American Idol, not by any legislative policy. No, I blame our poor readership, obsessed with escapism, obsessed with characters whose skin they can fill, and unable or unwilling to read more intellectual texts which may put history and culture into some kind of context. It may sound harsh, but I think we read very poorly.

And, I think that this obsession with dystopia has fostered a breeding ground for serious paranoia. Remember how I said I would get back to Card’s politics? Well, he may write fiction, but he also thinks about the possibility of a “satirical” (but totally possible, and Obama is evil) future, where youth police the streets and we live in a dystopia. And, the fact is, when your rationale comes from a reading body that mostly consists of teen books and stories about doom, and not much fact-checking or study, there is no dystopian possibility that seems too insane or remote.

Whaaaat? It could happen!

Whaaaat? It could happen!

I’m sorry if I’m coming down hard here, but there is a reason. Here’s the thing, if you believe your enemy is evil, is going to make kids fight to the death on TV, is Hitler, is the devil, then you are justified in your mind to do whatever you want to this enemy. After all, you’re a hero. You’re preventing Nazi-1984-Hunger Games-Voldemort! So what if that person is totally innocent NOW. This is NOW. Now is just before the dystopia. In the future, that person will be guilty, so any pre-emptive strike is justified.

And, this is why I like dystopias like Clockwork Orange and sci-fi like Minority Report, and the works of Bradbury and Moore, better than other examples. I don’t like examples where evil is because of a big bad. Even if the stories have subtle dissensions from this, that’s clearly not what readers are getting. This is even worse, to me, when the evil is a specific group that isn’t actually doing this evil. Now, if your group is the Nazis, that makes sense. They did do these horrible things. But, if your group is liberals, conservatives, Christians, Jews, Muslims, gay people, feminists, et cetera, then you run a risk of paving the way for pre-emptive strikes against them. This is why I don’t even like Atwood, despite her acclaim, because I think it breeds bigotry against religious people who haven’t actually done the terrible things in the novel. And I don’t like Michael D. O’Brien’s Children of the Last Days series, because it specifically says that liberal media is covering up for an evil dystopia of left-wing, gay, feminist, Satanic, hippie, Gaia-worshipping Nazis (yeah… he has a lot of axes to grind, I guess…). It’s all based on “what if…?”. I don’t like “what if…?”.

In Burgess’s novel, Alex is our narrator, our guide, and we see the world through his eyes.

His scary, scary eyes...

His scary, scary eyes…

We sympathize with Alex, the raping, murdering, thug. We sympathize and this makes us question ourselves, morality, freedom, and the evil that we ourselves could do without choosing to do right. We all have a choice.

Dystopia too often becomes shorthand for lazy political accusations based more on personal feeling and emotional gut-reactions to people and parties we dislike, than it is used for helpful social critique.

We talk a lot about remembering history, almost always in reference to remembering that Hitler was a thing and so therefore Hitler is everyone the speaker dislikes. I say, remember all of history. There’s another scary, bloody era that we might want to recall: The Salem Witch Trials. And, this talk of dystopia and preemptive strikes has far more in common with that than with any heroic rebellion against any teen series baddy.

Witchcraft_at_Salem_Village

Remember, the people who killed witches and burned devils and werewolves were also afraid, and trying to protect themselves. But, in the end, they are the ones we remember as the monsters. So, the next time you want to call someone Hitler, ask yourself: Has this person started a genocide and invaded countries, bringing about a World War? If the answer is no, chances are good that this person isn’t Hitler, or a dystopian villain, or a witch.

paranorman

 

And chances are, the one you fear is just as scared of you as you are of him.

And in that dreadful place Those spooky, empty pants and I were standing face to face! I yelled for help. I screamed. I shrieked. I howled. I yowled. I cried, “OH, SAVE ME FROM THESE PALE GREEN PANTS WITH NOBODY INSIDE!” But then a strange thing happened. Why, those pants began to cry! Those pants began to tremble. They were just as scared as I! I never heard such whimpering And I began to see That I was just as strange to them As they were strange to me! So… I put my arm around their waist And sat right down beside them. I calmed them down. Poor empty pants With nobody inside them. And now, we meet quite often, Those empty pants and I, And we never shake or tremble, We both smile and we say…”Hi!” -Dr. Seuss

And in that dreadful place
Those spooky, empty pants and I
were standing face to face!
I yelled for help. I screamed. I shrieked.
I howled. I yowled. I cried,
“OH, SAVE ME FROM THESE PALE
GREEN PANTS WITH NOBODY INSIDE!”
But then a strange thing happened.
Why, those pants began to cry!
Those pants began to tremble.
They were just as scared as I!
I never heard such whimpering
And I began to see
That I was just as strange to them
As they were strange to me!
So…
I put my arm around their waist
And sat right down beside them.
I calmed them down.
Poor empty pants
With nobody inside them.
And now, we meet quite often,
Those empty pants and I,
And we never shake or tremble,
We both smile and we say…”Hi!”
-Dr. Seuss

Literati outrage of the day.

Outlit C

Defending(ish) Disney: Pocahontas

images For all the talk about the greatness of the Disney Renaissance, it peaked pretty early and receded after really only four major successes. I wish I could include The Rescuers Down Under, but apparently only about nine people saw that one. It really began its nosedive that would last until very recently with this movie, Pocahontas. I’m going to make a slight change to the format here. Usually, I’m defending the individual movies, but in this case… yeah, I agree with the criticism. Almost everyone, of all political stripes, dislikes this movie. And I have to agree, honestly. If you’re a part of the minority who likes this movie, good for you. I’m glad, because I think a lot of hard work went into making it. I wish I could like the movie for this reason, but, no, I really can’t. I think it’s actually …bad.

History.

History.

So, instead of defending a movie I don’t like, I’m going to try and understand where this movie came from and what the Disney company might be doing. Remember how I said that Aladdin really succeeds because it isn’t trying too hard? It did its own thing and it did it well. However, at this point, Disney had managed to achieve success after success, and with both a Best Picture nom and all the acclaim that The Lion King has, I think the company was under a lot of pressure. This was not just another movie, they were taking chances. They had taken a big chance with The Lion King, and it paid off. They had reached new levels of technical innovation in their animation. This was supposed to be the next step, their launch into a new level of greatness, their next Oscar nom, their next classic. So, what happened? I think one of the reasons why I hate how much I hate this movie is that the company really was trying new things. This isn’t just moving away from fantasy (kind of, sort of…), but it’s an issues movie. It’s tackling history and diversity and controversial subjects and… non-white characters! This may not seem like such a big deal, but Disney has always been pretty reticent to take a progressive racial stance. It’s not just some truly unfortunate past expressions, like a crow named Jim in Dumbo, or the “Indians” in Peter Pan.

And then there was this deleted scene from Fantasia, because this isn't horrible at all...

And then there was this deleted scene from Fantasia, because this isn’t horrible at all…

It’s that while Disney certainly has moments with really troubling racial depictions, as time went on the official stance became a very strong we-have-no-stance… stance, while at the same time teaching lessons about how it’s okay to be yourself, even if you’re different. It’s as if the company saw controversy and said, “Look, we make happy movies about singing, dancing mice. Don’t look at us. Nothing to see here.”

Consider this in contrast to what Don Bluth was doing before he Thumbelina-ed his way into sell-out obscurity. In American Tail, for example, he uses a kid-friendly format to discuss subjects as weighty as Anti-Semitism, immigration prejudice, political corruption, and exploitative labor.

It's never too early to start talking to your kids about the importance of just labor laws...

Because it’s never too early to start talking to your kids about the importance of just labor laws…

And, while Disney tiptoed up to actual issues in the past, what with Fox and the Hound being about two characters driven apart by societal expectations, their lesson was actually pretty subtle. Yeah, it’s really sad when Todd and Copper can’t be friends anymore, but the movie doesn’t really answer the question of whether or not this is wrong in the real, non-cartoon, non-talking-animal world. On the one hand, kudos for subtle messages and making kids think (as they fight back their tears…), but one cannot help but notice that the Disney company really did shy away from race as an issue at all. Considering that it took until Atlantis for the company to animate a major character who is also a black man, you get an idea of what Disney is comfortable with.

And, in some sense, Disney may have also understood its own company’s cultural limitations, because when they depict non-white cultures it’s usually kind of… awkward. Not always. Lilo and Nani are fantastic characters in what I will call a very underrated movie, and the cast of The Emperor’s New Groove is sort of progressive in that race is never an issue at all. How many all-Native American movies are there where the focus isn’t on race? Because, really, people, it’s not like everyone who isn’t white goes around thinking about how not-white they are all the time. “I woke in my not-white way, and then not-whited in a not-white fashion through my not-white thoughts and not-white life, which is totally defined by my not-whiteness…”

However, whenever the company tries to make bring their race relations to the forefront, it does come across as pretty messy and awkward, as well as trying way, way too hard to be inoffensive and bland.

Another risk that  the company took, and one which I think is actually far riskier than what turned into some very flaccid race relations, would be the artistic direction. Like I said before, The Lion King had really conquered any previous animation limitations from past productions. It’s big, beautiful, detailed, fast-moving, and the design is really interesting as it is actually based on a lot of life drawings. It’s Disney art building primarily on Disney art, as its own art form. In Pocahontas, however, they really decided to push the envelope. The characters look radically different from anything Disney had done before. The big-eyes and soft curves, these are replaced by far more realistic faces and a more adult look to the entire production. The landscapes are big and detailed, and the animation pushes the cinematography illusions and use of CGI further than any previous film. MSDPOCA EC004 And, honestly, I think that may contribute to a part of the problem. Disney’s last animated humans didn’t look like this. Audiences were given not only the promise of this historical epic dealing with some hefty race issues, but also this brand new, mature look. It’s a little jarring to go from something like Aladdin to this. tumblr_lzs4j7Y7e31r0bp3ao1_1280 I feel like all this rush to be greater and greater as a studio may have left some viewers behind. If it was just the new animation style with a fairytale story, I think the movie wouldn’t feel so disappointing. But when you tell a story that fails as hard as this one does, and tell it with animation as technologically brilliant and artistically interesting as this, then it just feels extra disappointing. After all, this was by no means the only white-guy-learns-about-land-from-native-other-archetype-story of the ’90s. But where something like Fern Gully gets off easier is that it’s a silly fairy story that looks like this:

Derp.

Derp.

Pocahontas was a real person, and these are much stronger issues, and the story tells itself with really terrible plot devices (magic trees, magic Babel Fish leaves, cute animal sidekicks, a super flamboyant villain, cheesy romance), and yet it still looks like it’s supposed to be a good movie: images (2) So, why does this story fail so hard? Well, part of it is that despite trying really hard to be so big and epic, the studio just would not relinquish that ’90s Disney formula. This basically forms the bulk of everyone’s problems with the movie, right or left. It’s super historically inaccurate. Meaning, it has basically nothing to do with history. At all. John Smith is turned into this long-haired Ken Doll, and the pre-pubescent Pocahontas becomes this Disney Princess who wants something “more” (this time it really is super vague) and doesn’t want to marry unless it’s for love, and there are cute animal sidekicks and big musical numbers and a big, fay villain. tumblr_ld734lZRCO1qdq3ajo1_500 If Disney had really believed, fully, in pushing this project all the way, instead of just trying too hard with their old formula, we could have had a really good movie. Instead, it just feels really jarring, like two genres that really shouldn’t be together. And, I feel like Pocahontas’s position as a princess is probably the reason why they chose this story at all and shoehorned in their ’90s formula. While historical accuracy is not necessary for a great movie, in this case the storytelling choices do not work. I don’t think anyone wanted to see an analogue for Native-Colonial race relations played out by a pug and a raccoon, or have the entirety of First Nations culture reduced to safe, non-threatening hippie ways. pocahontas-21 This “white man’s Indian” problem is really one of the major issues with this and many other depictions of First Nations peoples. When the culture began to move away from treating Native peoples like Saturday morning cartoon villains and caricatures, the result was unfortunately not to look at the actual peoples and understand them, or let them tell their own stories. To this day, it’s pretty unusual to find movies made by Native directors, or even casting Native actors. And, while I know Johnny Depp does have some mixed heritage, I’d like to point out that he was still a really safe, white choice for The Lone Ranger.

Represent.

Represent.

The thing is, representation is almost always seen through a white lens, and when stereotypes moved from negative to positive it was still in a very white perspective. In order to side with Native peoples, the people had to be utterly angelic, and usually analogues for bourgeois hippie values. This is troublesome because it makes the First Nations Peoples unhuman, as if to say that the only way genocide and systematic oppression is wrong is if the oppressed are angels. Because if they had flaws like everyone else in the world, it’d be okay? That creates a very troubling undercurrent in this new, sugar-coated race relations paradigm, and one which we see today in many situations of violence, where, for examples, victims of crimes begin to be judged for their moral character rather than their legal rights.

"Okay, so we'll admit that it was wrong, just so long as we never find out any of you were anything less than perfect, little flower children, kay?"

“Okay, so we’ll admit that it was wrong, just so long as we never find out any of you were anything less than perfect, little flower children, kay?”

The story is also just not very challenging, focusing on a really vague notion of not cutting down sycamores and remembering that even rocks have spirits and names, or whatever. It’s not that interested in discussing race, and really sugar coats that issue.

I have heard some right-wing critics say that this is a lefitst, anti-white movie. I really could not disagree more. The movie reduces the entire conflict and all of the race relations therein to one, single, probably-gay bad guy (with pigtails) who just wants gold. The rest? Oh, well, there was a misunderstanding, but in the end everyone can just get along, because that’s totally what actually happened. It utterly exonerates colonialism by placing the blame on one rogue, gay stereotype of a leader and his love of gold and disrespect for trees.

1168229_1358089670560_full

Hell, John Smith literally takes a bullet for Powhatan in the end –you know, after he learns his valuable lesson about rolling around in nature and not wondering what it’s worth.

The real flaw of colonialism is just that they didn't do this enough... whatever "this" is... Forget oppression, they just needed more of... this in order to solve all conflicts for all time.

The real flaw of colonialism is just that they didn’t do this enough… whatever “this” is… Forget oppression, they just needed more of… this in order to solve all conflicts for all time.

The real lesson here: Trees be good, greed be bad. So, basically, proto-Avatar. It doesn’t challenge viewers at all, and keeps everything in this safe, artificially happy world that never existed.

Now, some people argue that Disney doesn’t need to make a more realistic movie because it’s for kids. Kids don’t need to know all the gritty, depressing details. I think that if this is the case then Disney really should have adapted something else. However, if you really look at that argument, consider what it means. “It’s for kids, therefore the first time they are likely to learn about this really important, historical issue! Let’s make sure it’s totally false, so as to forever color their interpretation of the events with lies!”

No. I don’t mean that we should necessarily show every drop of historical blood to our three-year-olds, but kids can handle the truth. And the truth did not involve magic tree spirits.

So, I’ve been pretty negative about this movie, and this is supposed to be an series about defending Disney. So, what is positive about the movie? Well, again, the animation is just really good. And, for those who do like this movie, I think that’s a part of the reason why. I think a lot of outdoorsy people enjoy it because it’s Disney really romanticizing nature. And, as far as art goes, American arts have a long history of this.

John Kensett, Mount Washington (part of the Hudson River School of painting)

John Kensett, Mount Washington (part of the Hudson River School of painting)

In fact, American Romanticism is really about nature. While Europe was looking at its cultural past, America, being young and without things like ruins and castles, looked instead to the land as both prize and heritage, a symbol for cultural values.

I think this is part of the reason why you have really pretty right-wing Americans who are still very passionate about the landscape and devoted to things like the National Parks system –which, by the way, is a really underrated green achievement.

While I think romanticism has a lot of flaws, not the least of which being its annoying habit of whitewashing everything and not noticing reality…

White Europe's romantic depiction of Native Americans. (The Entombment of Atala by Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson)

White Europe’s romantic depiction of Native Americans. (The Entombment of Atala by Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson)

…I do think that some of this romantic view of nature is good. The US really does do some great work in maintain wildlands. Living in the UK, a place where wildness is really quite limited, I really do appreciate the fact that the US has this tie to the land. It’s so ubiquitous that I think it often gets missed, especially by coastal, urban environmentalists who sometimes see the lack of eco-speak in rural areas as a sign of right-wing anti-earth ideology. And, this really isn’t always the case, even if some of these same people are not informed about, say, climate change or energy. Often times, the supposed “redneck” is actually living a very green life, especially when it comes to living off the land and having a cultural identity tied to it. After all, the guy hunting and fishing his own food, and living simply in the countryside, is more green than someone who drinks exotic coffees and eats imported “world foods” and goes on lots of expensive vacations.

I think this almost unspoken tie to nature, even among people who are verbally very anti-environmentalist, is part of what the movie gets right. It doesn’t get nature itself right, because Virginia looks nothing like this movie (the movie looks more like Alaksa, really). But, it gets the viewer’s emotions about wildlife right, the same ideas that fill Westerns with grand vistas and inspire states like Colorado to make propaganda videos like this.

So, despite its Captain Planet goofiness, it does understand something about how Americans view nature, even if it’s totally scientifically inaccurate.

MERICA!

MERICA!

And, I think that scenes of Pocahontas canoeing and running around the woods really appeal to outdoorsy people. That’s actually pretty accurate, what with its jubilant celebration of ultra-romanticised American landscapes. I think outdoorsy people really do feel this way and have this romantic love of beautiful places and outdoor adventures.

514432_1281620794809_full

Otherwise, I do think that this was an important step for Disney to take, even if it stumbled all over itself and ended up sending the company in a pretty sharp downward spiral. There really are more than just attractive white people in this world. And, pretending like race doesn’t exist is really taking a pretty bad stand in the entire situation. It’s not keeping out of politics to offer zero visibility to a group. Doing nothing is really very political, and actually expressing that, yes, these people exist, was kind of a big deal. It shouldn’t be, but it is.

Visibility is a major issue for media and society, in general. It’s why people want to see heroes and main characters who look like them. People who say that they want more female superheroes, or more multiracial movies, et cetera, are not saying that they cannot enjoy a movie with white leads or male leads. It’s saying that they want to be recognized as existing, too. Not seeing yourself, or only seeing yourself as the sidekick, comic relief, damsel, or even villain, is actually really damaging for how certain groups will perceive themselves. I would suggest reading Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye for more on that, especially the scene about white baby dolls.

It is important in a society to not marginalize a group by silencing them or rendering them invisible, or regulating them to strict roles. So, while Pocahontas is the safest, least-challenging depiction of a fairly fetishized character (let’s be real here)…

The "exotic babe who loves and saves the white man" isn't exactly the greatest depiction of a real, historical woman...

The “exotic babe who loves and saves the white man” isn’t exactly the greatest depiction of a real, historical woman…

…she at least exists. It’s also why I tend to forgive Aladdin’s race relations, because at least they are offering visibility to Middle Eastern peoples. (They also do it better because it’s make-believe, race is incidental to character types, and the characters are just better.) It might be pure fantasy, but in a world where Middle Eastern prejudice is pretty rampant, it’s a good way to give kids characters who are at least very universal and relatable.

This movie isn’t as successful as Aladdin because it falls in the category of trying both way too hard and not hard enough. It’s trying too hard with the Disney formula, but not hard enough with the actual story. However, at least the company is acknowledging that, yes, different races exist, and giving some recognition to this fact. It’s not much, it is whitewashed pretty badly, and it’s not a great film. But, at least there’s that. Also, trees.

Oh my gosh, trees, people!!!

Eywa, the early years...

Eywa, the early years…

Literature, Genre Fiction, and Loving the Bomb

I wanted to address some issues concerning “genre fiction”. In most book discussions, genre is a sort of nebulous figure. It can mean ideas of category, in such broad-sweeping terms as library collection labels (science fiction/fantasy, historical fiction, mystery, et cetera). It can be more subjective, however. For example, a lot of cross-genre stories have crept up where various YA fantasy elements have melded with other genres, like historical fiction or dystopia.

A historical fiction, young adult, science fiction, alternative universe, steampunk... I don't know...

A historical fiction, young adult, science fiction, alternative universe, steampunk… I don’t know…

Furthermore, readers in today’s media-saturated world often have very, very precise ideas as to what they want, often based more on a collection of tropes than on any clear idea of genre. Usually these can be picked out in a very TV Tropes sort of way: “I want a YA series with a Woobie Destroyer of Worlds anti-hero, who is also a Draco in Leather Pants character, who is in a love triangle with an All Work and No Play woman who is Conveniently an  Orphan, and a love rival Starving Artist who believes Ambition Is Evil…”

I think that this devotion to trope collection is often what prevents good literary discussion. When someone gives a very vague I -couldn’t-get-into-it excuse about a book, often it is because the person reads to fulfil a certain love of trope. With women, especially, I see a lot of readers who have a real romance for some blend of the Draco in Leather Pants and Woobies. For the uninitiated, these are TV Tropes terms for specific character types. The Draco in Leather Pants is basically what it sounds like, a hot badboy, like the 2004 version of The Phantom of the Opera or every love interest in every Cassandra Clare book ever.

Or Spike. Spike also works...

Or Spike. Spike also works…

The Woobie is a put-upon character that you feel sorry for and want to hug because nothing goes his way, which is often kind of a favorite for certain female audiences.

So, basically Angel, to continue a theme...

So, basically Angel, to continue a theme…

Audiences who really like to fix people, to be exact…

Woobie Destroyer of Worlds is when the woobie might, you know, destroy things. But not intentionally.

Frozen

Frozen

A lot of people really hate these tropes when applied to romance, saying that they encourage girls to get into bad relationships in order to “fix” someone. But, I’m not sure if that’s really fair. I think there is a sort of safety in living out the bad romance within the confines of fiction, and that appeals to people.

And some choose to express their fantasies in song...

And some choose to express their fantasies in song…

It’s also not just for women. Film Noir is laden with femme fatales, who could basically just be the female Draco in Leather Pants, and the idea of “taming” the wild woman isn’t too very different from fixing the bad boy, in my opinion.

The Big Sleep, one of the greatest movies of all time.

The Big Sleep, one of the greatest movies of all time.

However, there is definitely a subset of the population who really fetishize the tropes, intentionally seeking out books not for quality or enlightenment, but because they want to fall in love with angsty bad boys who would be good if only they had wub, sweet wub.

12751687

The romantic, angsty, dangerous love interest is named… Patch. That is hilarious…

This sets off my outrage.

Male readers often gravitate toward another wish-fulfilment fantasy, often with Chosen One narratives where a character is special and gets to have adventures and love and awesomeness because he’s just special. Eragon is a particularly dreadful example of self-indulgent wish-fulfilment writing.

All the literary credibility of a fanfic you could be reading online for free!

All the literary credibility of a fanfic you could be reading online for free! (And, yes, I know that women read this trope, as well.)

I believe I mentioned a meme in a previous post, about how one reads to escape life, and I said how this is really a very irresponsible way to live. I think that a lot of these Chosen One narratives create a reading environment where literature is not about humanity or raising up ideas and culture, but rather abandoning reality like the children in the Ray Bradbury Story, “The Veldt”.

The problem with collecting tropes is that it often makes it very hard to talk about literature as literature. A lot of people really promote the idea of obsessing over a trope as a positive thing, like it is part and parcel of the reading experience. While it’s not wrong to really like particular tropes, a collection of tropes does not actually make a story. It’s how the piece is used. For example, dystopian tropes can be used well, or they can be…

200px-Modellandcover

There have to be better ways of talking about literature. What does the author address? What about the writing style? What are the questions the author is asking or answering? How does the author enter into the dialogue of art itself? A trope can exist in a really great piece of writing, and also in some abysmal pile of shit. It has no quality requirements. Again, see the picture above. No quality requirements.

Trope collecting is more about filling a certain emotional need, such as loneliness or boredom, and has very little to do with literature. And, sure everyone has emotional needs. Sometimes everyone needs a quick escape, a way to de-stress.

I get mine from watching terrible, old horror movies, like Attack of the Killer Shrews.

I get mine from watching terrible, old horror movies, like Attack of the Killer Shrews.

The problem isn’t from these books. It’s totally fine to read easy books, or even terrible books. It’s no worse than watching TV or watching really bad horror movies about giant rodents. There is, however, a problem in only reading these books, from only being able to read these books, or from refusing to read anything else. No Draco in Leather Pants in As I Lay Dying? I guess it’s a bad book, then… Not as good as Clockwork Urban Angel Vampire Romance of Doom and Fate 7, which is clearly the real masterpiece.

"I never wanted to date any of these characters! What a hipster piece of trash!"

“I never wanted to date any of these characters! What a hipster piece of trash!”

The idea of “genre fiction” is another misuse of the word “genre”. What does that even mean? I understand that literature is supposed to transcend genre, and there is this Sontag-fuelled argument about genre not being necessary to quality. However, I think that the popular notions about genre have really corrupted these ideas.

The problem is, I do agree with this: There is no good or bad genre. There are simply good and bad works of art.

Good vampire novel...

Good vampire novel…

Cornball crap.

Cornball crap.

Good science fiction series.

Good science fiction series.

Hilariously bad John Travolta alien.

Hilariously bad John Travolta alien.

However, many people interpret that to mean: There is no literary fiction. There are simply entertaining and boring… whatever that means.

Art.

Art.

The trouble is that genre fiction has come to mean not “fiction that fits within a particular genre rather well” (something which is actually less clear than anyone seems to think), but it’s own thing. Genre fiction has become a blanket term for popular literature that usually has a low reading level, lots of action, snappy dialogue, and mass appeal. Very often, these books aren’t even strict, one-genre reads, like a YA fantasy historical romance, and are more defined by the tropes than by genre at all. Why do you think cross-genre selections of YA reads are devoted to love triangles? Because that trope, not any one genre, is popular.

Dystopia love triangle...

Dystopia love triangle…

Vampire and werewolf love triangle...

Vampire and werewolf love triangle…

Urban fantasy love triangle...

Urban fantasy love triangle…

Sort of like Modelland love triangle...

Sort of like Modelland love triangle…

Twilight with angels love triangle...

Twilight-with-angels love triangle…

Furthermore, good has been replaced by “entertaining”, which in turn often means “it has my favorite tropes and I am in love”. Entertaining doesn’t necessarily have a lot to do with quality. Jangling keys in front of a baby can entertain that baby, but would probably not work on your boss.

I am wildly entertained by The Screaming Skull...

I am wildly entertained by The Screaming Skull…

I think those who study pop-culture can definitely discuss something’s popularity and mass appeal in semi-objective terms, such as why The Avengers was generally beloved while Man of Steal is so divisive. But, it doesn’t automatically mean that one’s personal entertainment is a sign of goodness. Again, Screaming Skull. And, often entertainment comes with the ability to access the media.

If one cannot understand Shakespearian English, for example, one cannot be entertained by his plays, even though they are filled with exciting plot devices and timeless characters. And the funny part is that many works of literature actually do have the tropes that people love. If readers gave the books a chance, and put forth the effort to get through the pages, they might discover that…

Heathcliff is a Draco in Leather Pants...

Heathcliff is a Draco in Leather Pants…

Frankenstein's monster is a Woobie Destroyer of Worlds...

Frankenstein’s monster is a Woobie Destroyer of Worlds…

You don’t actually have to get rid of your favorite tropes. They exist everywhere.

Most art, and that includes literature, is concerned with addressing humanity in some sense, in asking questions, in answering questions, and it participates in a dialogue with other artists, eras, cultures, as well as politics and social issues which concern the author and the audience. This isn’t boring. If this is boring, then life is boring. However, it isn’t as easy to consume as the fast-food reads that pack bestseller lists, and that makes some readers think it is boring. It’s not boring. It’s just asking the reader to do something. If we do not bring anything to the table or do any work while reading, what are we but consumers?

We're all monkeys!  (12 Monkeys)

We’re all monkeys!
(12 Monkeys)

And, again, not everything will interest every reader ever. That’s okay. That’s normal. But, never, ever being interested in anything that isn’t about sexy spies, explosions, chosen boys, woobies, angsty love, and more woobies, that’s just being obstinate. There’s a large portion of the population which is happy to laud privileged, well-to-do, educated people for being able to read basic stories in their native language by the time they are adults. I think this should happen by around age seven. No, no prize for you, college-educated person who only reads Twilight. If you were a child, maybe. Probably I would suggest that you read something else, however.

This isn’t to slight children’s and YA books. I’d praise educated adults for reading The Phantom TollboothSounder, Holes, Tuck Everlasting, Paper Towns, The Giver, The Book Thief, The Westing Game, Coraline, A Wrinkle In Time, A Cricket In Times Square, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Little Women, Alice In Wonderland, The Hobbit, Skellig, The Book of Three, House of the Scorpion, The Fledgling, The Neverending Story…

I will use this picture over, and over, and over again, so help me...!

I will use this picture over, and over, and over again, so help me…!

 I don’t think that quality is determined by age group. However, I won’t praise them for their ability to read, or for actually deciding to read –only for picking some damn good kids’ books. And, I certainly wouldn’t extend that praise to someone reading yet another Twilight knockoff, or ghost-written, mass-produced grocery store novel, or a dystopian version of America’s Next Top Model… gah! That book…

Read it if you want to, but don’t expect the world to bow before your ability to be literate by age 26.

Didn't Disney teach you anything? You get a medal when you save your country from unrealistically muscular invaders!

Summer Reading Contest Winner, 2013. She read three books, so we gave her China.

There are kids in refuge camps who are learning to read in incredibly hard conditions. College-educated, well-to-do adults, especially those currently in college, and especially those in college and not working, should not be praised for doing what they should already know how to do.  That is what college students should be doing already. It’s a unique environment where you can spend years learning as much as you like, with professionals there to help you along the way. Anything less is just ungrateful squandering of a great privilege. When one considers the sacrifices people have made for education, from enslaved people teaching themselves, to bravely fighting for education rights for all races, to women trying to get the right to education  throughout history, to the struggles of the poor to even attain higher education, to the journey of integrating people with special education needs, it seems a little silly to praise people for just taking advantage of being in an educational environment. That’s like praising someone for eating food while at a table full of food.

Eating: not always a really good idea.  (Pan's Labyrinth)

Eating: not always a really good idea.
(Pan’s Labyrinth)

Now, none of this is to criticize fandoms. These can be very good, fun, supportive groups which address great ideas, and there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s something really refreshing about people who get excited about the things they love. It’s like this awesome John Green quote:

“…because nerds like us are allowed to be unironically enthusiastic about stuff… Nerds are allowed to love stuff, like jump-up-and-down-in-the-chair-can’t-control-yourself love it. Hank, when people call people nerds, mostly what they’re saying is ‘you like stuff.’ Which is just not a good insult at all. Like, ‘you are too enthusiastic about the miracle of human consciousness’.”

And, surely it’s better than squandering higher education by being a generally useless person for four years.

Undergraduates or characters from a movie by the director of Trash Humpers? It's so hard to tell...  (Spring Breakers)

Undergraduates or characters from a movie by the director of Trash Humpers? It’s so hard to tell…
(Spring Breakers)

However, it’s not a problem of fandoms or really liking something. That is usually really positive. The problem is with being indiscriminate and not taking advantage of education. The problem is in conflating the ability to read for entertainment with being literary. Congratulations on your ability to amuse yourself, but don’t expect a medal.

Actually, the world of literature really can learn from the world of what people call “genre fiction”. That is, literature needs to learn to be more nerdy. We need to teach people to learn to love literature, and love it in that enthusiastic, omg-I-am-so-excited, wonderful way. Because, yes, it’s not about the genre. Books of any genre can be great literary works. But, the focus should be on the “great literary works” part. And the focus of teaching should be about WHY these are great. I think a lot of the reason for anti-literature reading habits come from educators who just failed at making literary works interesting. They created a gap between popular “genre” fiction and literature, and one which really shouldn’t exist. Very often, students are left in a sea of jargon, just trying to figure out what literary even means. This makes people forget all the literature that is exciting, beautiful, smart, fun, and interesting, that makes life more illuminated rather than offering a way to ignore life for a while.

So, stop worrying and learn to love the… literati-inclined, high-brow masterpieces.

strange09

Outlit C

How to Lose Credibility Online (pt. 5)

Decide that anyone who disagrees with you, in any way, must be an idiot.

The intent: A purer conviction of beliefs.

The reality: Okay, if you can’t see why this is problematic, then there’s not much we can do. But, this happens all the time, and usually in regard to the lower-end “thinkers” involved in religious/anti-religious arguments. Here is where you get your sixteen-year-old atheist and your barely-internet-aware theist hashing it out in the comments section of a youtube video about cats. It’s embarrassing enough BEFORE  they start handing out idiot trophies –on one end to Aquinas, Augustine, O’Connor, every religious scientist ever, Tolkien, Chesterton, and Lewis, and on the other side to Nietzsche, Sartre, Camus, Lucretius, and Stephen Hawking.
The fact is, we are small creatures on this planet, and the likelihood any of us will discover the fullness of truth in an infinite universe is fairly low. There are many different methodologies to use in the pursuit of truth, and guess what? You may not agree with all of them. In fact, you may be convinced that some are dead wrong. But, does that make the promoters idiots? Maybe, but maybe not. A better question is, could you even tell the difference?
Most people today have no critical reading skills at all, and cannot A.) meet a writer on his or her own terms and follow the writer’s paradigm in order to discuss the ideas posited in a rational way, or B.) even find a central argument at all.

And, let’s be honest, none of the internet evangelists/anti-evangelists has ever read any of the authors they are attacking (and probably few of those they promote). After all, reading is… hard. Meh, off to post 400,000 memes to “prove” how superior I am to the world!  Oh, and “like” some pages! That’s a surefire way to make me intelligent. Looks at meh brillantish brainzes, biotches.

Pure. Unadulterated. Outrage.

-C.

What Makes It Good? (pt. 3)

First, I would like to apologize for the delay in posting and not finishing the October series. Personal life seems to have gotten in the way. I intend on updating the horror discussion, however. But, for now, I’ll post the third section on criticism.

I think that, before pressing further into the subject of what makes something “good”, I’d like to address one of the troubles I mentioned from before. I really have a hard time feeling very charitable towards those who limit beauty to an era, a style, some pet-love. But, the question remains, is there a right or wrong in art?

I think my previous blog post probably makes it clear that I am by no means a relativist. I believe it was Richard Dawkins who pointed out that a relativist will abandon his ideas when, say, boarding a plane. Some things are just better than others, and a well constructed plane is superior to one that will blow up in mid air. There are real, measurable truths, and I have enough faith to believe that we can reason to them –such as the truth of existence, matter, individual thought, mathematical truths, and general a priori knowledge. I think that fluffy, wishy-washy –ism is fairly out of vogue, anyway. So, no, I’m not a relativist. And, as far as art goes, I do not believe anything is art. But…

BUT…

I do believe anything can be art.

These statements are syntactically different, and that difference is important. I’ll try to do my best to deconstruct them. The first premise is Anything Is Art. If something “is” something else, then the “is” can be thought of like a little equal sign, like in a math equation:

Anything = Art

Of course, the word anything means just that: any sort of thing. If you see a thing, it is a part of this “anything”. Your baseball, your aunt’s doily collection, your uncle’s spittoon, your father’s favorite brown loafers, your mother’s gardening gloves, Labradors, Super Mario Brothers, every Michael Bay movie, that picture of a dog your wannabe-artists friend drew, gibbons, Precious Moments figurines, the statue of David, the pyramids, The Great Wall of China, absolute zero, microbiology textbooks, The Mona Lisa, David Lynch’s house, Donald Trump’s hairpiece, a lost and forgotten sock, your cat’s hairballs, giant squids… these are all part of the “anything” category. If we accept the above premise as correct, we have to say that anything, anything at all, is art.

But, what is art? If you mean an artificial thing then we still have a problem, because Labradors, squids, gibbons, and possibly even absolute zero would not count, and so obviously “anything” cannot be art. If that were the case, you could enter your goat in The Louvre. While goats are charming in many ways, and may be beautiful and entertaining, I don’t think it is categorically the same as a painting.

So, should we say anything that is made by humans, that is any artifact, is art?

All artificial things = art?

But, then we still have a problem. Even those who do not understand art will probably agree that a bandage, a Barbie, and a Botticelli are not categorically equal.

What we have here is called equivocation. This is a logical flaw that happens when a word has two different meanings, and those meanings are mixed up. It’s like mixing up honey, the sticky, sweet stuff, and honey, the slang for sweetheart. This could result in a problem, because eating your sweetheart on toast is generally not smiled upon in most societies.

Art as artifact, as in something that does not occur in nature is not the same thing as art as a work of art intended to be art.

Artifact ≠ Art

However, in the category of art, there is a hierarchy. What this is, of course, is where people have arguments. But, the fact that there are discrepancies does not mean that anything anyone wants to be art may be art. Chefs may argue about the value of a certain spice or a particular procedure. But, they aren’t going to serve your microwavable breakfast burrito as high cuisine. They know what goes into making food. They don’t care that you like microwavable breakfast burritos. That may make them feel a little sad, actually.

I do not know why, but there are many people who insist that the only way to know anything about art is to not know anything about art. And no, they are not reciting a Zen koan. What they mean is this: if one is not educated in what goes into art, how to read a piece, the technical and procedural aspects, one can appreciate what it says more purely. Their souls are untainted by all that educational nonsense involving reading and study and discipline like that. It’s a very romantic idea, that one can only view art tabula rasa, and suddenly be projected into enlightenment. Knowing nothing, one can suddenly see with clarity and before you can say abracadabra, they have reached art nirvana.

‘Round these parts, we call that bullshit.

First of all, this objection to art would only work in a case of absolute, infantile purity. One would have to have no experience at all to come in with this state. Just because you do not knowing anything about art, does not mean that a person is not coming in with biases and experience. This would completely ruin a real blank-slate experience. In fact, those arguing for this position usually have strong biases. They may think that all art people are poseurs, all art critics are snobs who hate humans, and all art that isn’t strictly representational is blasphemy (with a capital S in the inevitable Scream). Usually, they make some claim that all non-representational art is anti-spiritual (despite this being empirically untrue). They come with many biases already in place, and so are not experiencing the art on its own terms, allowing it to speak to the person in the way that they advocate. They may see themselves as pure souls, but it’s simply untrue. The more self-insistent they are upon this subject the less it is so. How can you really be having a pure, tabula rasa experience if you are consciously thinking of yourself as this pure character, and therefore bringing a bias from the start? It’s absurd. The only way this would work is if a person had no contact with the outside world, and no idea that there even is art at all, and suddenly ended up in a museum. My guess, however, is that this person would just feel overwhelmed and confused, and would still not have this art-nirvana experience.

So, after fully establishing that these viewers are not doing what they think they are doing, there is a second problem. Why in art would it be preferable to know less about the subject in order to understand it? If you cannot speak a language, you cannot appreciate it more for your lack of understanding. If you have never studied cooking, you cannot appreciate the variations in taste, texture, contrast, et cetera, as you would if you were a chef or a food critic. If you have never studied music, you simply cannot appreciate the complexities of a composition in the same way that a musician would. This is obvious, and yet people constantly assume that their lack of education in (predominantly studio) art gives them an advantage. This goes back to their whole purity issue, but one has to question why this is the case. If you cannot speak a language, wouldn’t you trust a translator? You certainly wouldn’t attack a translator for spoiling your pure experience with a language you do not understand. I think that anyone noticing this exchange would see the observer as somewhat of an idiot, and also very rude. And yet people act this way in galleries and toward artists all the time. The artist could be enthusiastic at the beauty she is seeing, and excitedly trying and show this world to another. But, shouting clichés at the artist or art lover is supposedly the purer response.

The fact remains that, like it or not, art is an actual discipline that requires study, work, and more work. Like science, language, philosophy or anything else, one simply cannot have a reasonable opinion without knowing something of art itself. And, to understand art, one needs to ask questions. What do we know about the design? What do we know about color theory? What was the historical context? What was the school of thought? What is the psychological impact? What was the philosophical background? What is the science behind the colors and composition? Where was it made? How was it made? What is art for? And who the hell is this artist guy, anyway?

You cannot burst into a gallery and suddenly know everything about art any more than they can burst into a science colloquium with the background of one college survey class and debate quantum physics. While art is not an empirical science, it does have a discipline.

This brings me back to the purpose of this tangent. Yes, there is discrepancy in art. However, these arguments are not about whether or not anything abstract is from Satan’s bowels. The discrepancies are about relatively small points, individual artists and their worth. And to make these arguments, one has to study art. This means reading.

Art is not elitist. It just requires some work, just like anything else. The point is, anyone can enjoy art if they decide to study. The discipline is open to all. There are public libraries everywhere, as well as the internet. Someone who does not understand Japanese and will not study Japanese may enjoy the sound of some words, but will never be able to deconstruct Basho in the original text. It won’t happen.

So, how can one understand what makes art good art? And how does this apply to literature, movies, music, and so on? Well, that’s the issue. But, the answer is probably lurking in some good books.

-C.

The Worst Summary that I’ve Ever Read

It comes from the Harper Collins Children’s Books editon of Be More Chill – published on July 5, 2004 – by Ned Vizzini.This is one boy’s exploration of what it takes to be “cool”, how to get a girl and what (not) to do when you’ve got one. What do you do if you’re not cool? If girls are just an impossible (wet) dream? Simple. Take a pill containing a supercomputer that travels to your brain and tells you how to be cool – all the time! In the voice of your choice! Then, it’s goodbye porn and geekdom, and hello hot chicks, parties and a whole new perspective on life. Meet Jeremy, the guy with a heart, who exchanges the xxxx in his hand for a squip in his head.

Strike 1: “…how to get a girl and what (not) to do when you’ve got one.” When you’ve GOT one? Going by this phrase, I don’t know if a girl is a kind of slave or an accessory.

Strike 2: “If girls are just an impossible (wet) dream?” Girls aren’t human beings. They’re just THINGS that exist solely to cause arousal in boys. Everyone knows that!

Strike 3: This is the least offensive item, but it kills the entire summary – “…who exchanges the xxxx in his hand…” Normally, when a word is x-ed out, that means it’s a curse word or something else that is considered too vulgar to be written. Is this word supposed to be “shit”? Is “shit” being used as a synonym for “crap”? If so, what kind of crap is meant? Honestly, I have no idea. Considering, though, that the character looks up porn online, I’m very afraid that this mystery word is meant to be “dick”.

This summary is sexist, insulting, perverted, and truly stupid. Please, everyone, throw rotten tomatoes at it.

– Circuit B