In the meantime (Mean Seasons)

Hey all! I’m running a Kickstarter for My Little Po-Mo vol. 4, collecting all the as-yet-unbookified My Little Po-Mo entries, plus book exclusives! It’s stalled out a smidge under $300, and could really use some love/signal boosting!

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It’s April 25, 1998. The top song is “Too Close,” by Next; Montell Jordan, Madonna, and Shania Twain also chart. The top movie is The Big Hit, a comedy about assassins; Titanic has been dethroned but still hangs onto the box office at number four.

Speaking of Titanic, it picked up Best Picture and 10 other Oscars on March 23. In other news since Sub-Zero, a massacre in Algeria kills 52, all but 20 of them babies, on March 26. On April 10, the Good Friday agreement between the UK and Ireland was signed, establishing that both countries agreed that Northern Ireland was part of the UK, but also binding both countries to honor a referendum to return it to Ireland if a majority of people in both Northern Ireland and Ireland voted for it. And on the 23rd, a letter to Reuters announces the dissolution of the Red Army Faction, a leftist guerrilla group active in Germany for several decades.

On TV we have “Mean Seasons,” an episode that plays very differently for a 37-year-old woman than it did for a 16-year-old “boy.” Back then, I just couldn’t sympathize with Page Monroe’s motivations, couldn’t connect with what it might mean to spend your life being told your youth and looks are all that you have to offer the world, and how it might feel to be losing them.

It’s a little different now, to say the least. Early in my transition, I found myself mourning for the young woman I never got to be, the fact that by I time I finish second puberty, I’ll be forty–hardly old by any means, but not really fitting within any reasonable definition of “young” either. This episode speaks to me now in ways it didn’t when I watched it new–in ways it couldn’t have when it and I were new.

All art is collaborative, after all. Animation is nothing but blobs of color and sound until a viewer’s brain assigns meaning to those colors and sounds, recognizing them as characters and dialogue. This is not to downplay the work done by artists at all, but simply to acknowledge the role of the viewer: artists build the structure on which the viewer hangs meaning. The viewer is guided by the structure in deciding what to hang, but they still ultimately provide the meanings to be hung–and at sixteen, I just didn’t have the right meanings to hang on this episode. I couldn’t empathize, and I didn’t sympathize.

Young me isn’t entirely to blame (except in the sense that young me is always entirely to blame, because young me was a genuinely terrible person), as despite its sympathetic villain, this really isn’t structured as a sympathetic villain episode. In this sense it’s fitting as a follow-up to Sub-Zero, as that wintry movie aped the structure of a sympathetic villain episode but lacked pathos, while Calendar Girl brings us spring, summer, fall, and a genuine stab at pathos, but lacks the structure to bring it home. Specifically, it is not a tragedy: though Calendar Girl’s fate is tragic, she is not treated as the episode’s protagonist, and we do not witness her downfall or see her make the chain of choices that led her to villainy. (Admittedly, in most other sympathetic villain episodes we see that path only in flashback, but we do see it.)

As a sympathetic villain, the natural comparison for Calendar Girl is Baby Doll. Both are seeking revenge for the loss of a career in which they were successful on the basis of youth and appearance, but never taken seriously, and ultimately discarded easily. Both kidnap people with whom they once worked. And both are ultimately undone by the distraction of an image of themselves–Baby Doll in a funhouse mirror that shows her as the adult woman she was never treated as, and Calendar Girl in the burning projection of an image of the younger self she is desperately trying to recover.

But Baby Doll was given space to talk about how she felt–not just her anger but the happiness before it, the loss that underlies it. With Calendar Girl, we see only her current anger, and while that is palpable, it is up to the viewer to decide how to read that anger–whether to dismiss it is as overblown, like I did at sixteen, or to see it as a response to the profound injustice of an industry, and a world, that values women primarily as objects to be looked at.

At the end, when Page Monroe is revealed to have the standard Timm pinup face, Batgirl pronounces her beautiful, but Batman intones that she cannot see that anymore, that she sees “only the flaws.” This is implied to be the tragedy for which we should feel for her, but it was also Batman who called Monroe a “girl,” only to be reminded by Batgirl that the picture he was looking at was of a then-thirty-year-old woman. It is Batgirl who recognizes Monroe as she is, not Batman; she is beautiful, and the reason she sees “only the flaws” is because that’s all the fashion industry and Hollywood see. It is not some personal failing of Monroe that led her down this path, but the pressures of society and the beauty industry, the impossible standards she was forced to try to maintain.

In other words, Batman makes the same mistake as he did when he called her a girl: he underestimates her. He sees someone whose vision is distorted, because the alternative is to see what she is looking at: not her face, but the standards against she is to be judged, and the people who chose to impose those standards. In that light, the GWB network event takes on new importance; while the visual and musical references to Star Trek suggest we are looking at UPN, a network which essentially built itself off and around Trek spinoffs, the lineup of shows focused on sexy, hip young people and aimed at teenagers is a direct stab at the WB, which in 1998 largely specialized in such content, such as Dawson’s Creek and Buffy the Vampire Slayer–and which also aired The New Batman Adventures as part of both its Saturday morning and primetime lineups.

Batman and The New Batman Adventures, in other words, are both complicit. They are a part of the cruel propagation of unrealistic standards of beauty, the obsession with youth, and the associated discarding of older women–where “older” can mean as young as thirty! Their complicity is visible in the moment Calendar Girl’s mask is pulled off: she’s just another Timm face, symmetrical, doe-eyed, and unlined. She appears no older than Batgirl or the young models posing in the fashion show at the episode’s beginning, and significantly younger than the woman in the audience who wants to buy the dresses they’ve modeled. Beauty, in other words, is once again being equated to youth, and the flaw that is all Calendar Girl can see is that she’s forty years old.

The seasons are mean indeed. They just refuse to stop passing. But meaner still is the season GWB was announcing–and it is those seasons, more than the passage of time, that are ultimately responsible for the tragedy of Page Monroe.


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Vlog Review: Seven Deadly Sins S1E10

This is not the second bonus vlog for this month, I posted that earlier. This is last week’s vlog, which I accidentally didn’t queue. Sorry!

Commissioned vlog for Benny Blue. Reminder that Patreon backers can request commissions, see these videos (including Star vs. Evil, Steven Universe, Ducktales, commissioned episodes of other series, and panels I presented at various cons) 4-5 weeks early, AND see Near-Apocalypse articles four MONTHS early!
 

He’ll come back (Batman and Mr. Freeze: Subzero)

Hey all! I’m running a Kickstarter for My Little Po-Mo vol. 4, collecting all the as-yet-unbookified My Little Po-Mo entries, plus book exclusives! It’s currently just shy of 30% complete, and only $60 from the next Achievement!

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It’s March 17, 1998. In the three weeks since “Growing Pains,” Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” had a brief stint topping the charts before being knocked down by Will Smith’s “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It.” Titanic is the top movie, as it has seemingly always been and seemingly will always be–as of March 1, it has become the first film to gross over a billion dollars.

In the news, NASA probes found liquid water under the ice crust of Europa, and enough water on the moon to potentially sustain a colony, on March 2 and 5 respectively. On Earth, news is rather slower–a general election in Denmark is about it.

That unfortunately sets the stage well for Batman & Mr. Freeze: Subzero, a meandering slog of a movie that is a massive letdown after both the general quality of Mr. Freeze episodes of the show, and the stellar prior Batman: The Animated Series movie, Mask of the Phantasm.

The problem is fairly simple, albeit one that will crop up repeatedly as we continue our journey: this movie is a throwback. It looks and feels like a too-long episode of BTAS, with a Dick Grayson Robin dating a Barbara Gordon that neither he nor Batman knows is Batgirl, a dark, noir-ish palette, and a Batman who lingers on the fringes and in the shadows of his own show.

None of these are bad traits in themselves–BTAS was and remains an excellent series! The problem is the baggage that comes with them. This is a sympathetic villain episode, as befits Mr. Freeze, star of the first such. It follows the now-familiar formula, presenting us with a tragic protagonist whose life is disrupted in ways outside his control, and who in desperation or fury turns to supervillainy as all other paths close to him. Victor Fries appears content to stay in his little Arctic family of himself, his wife, still literally fridged, silent and unmoving on her pedestal, his adopted Native son, and his pet polar bears (who are easily the movie’s best characters).

But, of course, a military submarine destroys that life, and of course he returns to supervillainy to try to save Nora. We’ve been down this road before, many times. But where “Heart of Ice” overflowed with genuine pathos, Subzero misses those registers, precisely because we’ve been here before. A sympathetic villain story is, by its nature, a character piece; it lives or dies by its success at depicting a tragic arc, as in “Heart of Ice” or “Baby-Doll.” But there is no arc in Subzero, only a plot. We already know what Fries is like when Nora is endangered, the lengths he will go to in order to save or protect her, and his willingness to live peacefully when she is safe. We are not watching his character change, nor is our understanding of his character changing, the two processes which we elide into the term “character development.” We are simply seeing him walk through the steps of familiar responses to familiar circumstances.

This is one of the problems with attempting to evoke nostalgia, especially for something as recent as six years previously: not everything that once worked is necessarily completely repeatable. Surprise, suspense, and novelty are not the end-all-be-all of fiction, as a spoiler-obsessed pop culture seems to sometimes believe. That said, the emotional impact of a particular character arc can still wear out with repetition, as one becomes first familiar with, and then jaded to, it.

Oddly, the movie was not intended to evoke nostalgia; it was originally planned for a June 1997 release, a few months before the beginning of The New Batman Adventures. It was intended, in other words, as a farewell to BTAS before moving on: one last look at the old world from before Harley blew up Krypton, and then a couple of months later the first reveal of what Batman and Gotham look like in the new world. But due to the box-office and critical failure of Batman & Robin, which also heavily featured Batgirl and Mr. Freeze, this movie was pushed back nine months, and thus feels like a throwback.

But then, much in it might have felt like a throwback anyway: while it lacks a “whore” figure to match Batman & Robin‘s Poison Ivy, it still has the problem of Nora Fries as a fridged Madonna, a woman presented as ideal because she does not speak or act or think, because she exists in perpetual victimhood as an object of worship.

Batgirl’s presentation is little better. She gets to throw a few punches and attempt escape a couple of times, but she basically spends the movie as a damsel in distress. Gordon is once again creepily obsessed with her love life, as he was in “Shadow of the Bat,” the literal patriarchy encouraging Dick Grayson to pursue and claim her. Later, after Freeze snatches her away, Gordon tries and fails to find her; he is, after all, the fairy-tale king in this scenario, with Batman and Robin as the princes rushing out to the tower to save her.

Utena told us all about that scenario.

This is exactly the kind of thing that Harley broke the world to end–this treatment of women as either succubi or goddesses, as princesses held captive in their towers and offered by their fathers to worthy suitors, or else as wicked witches. And because Subzero was flung forward by the equally apocalyptic (at least for that particular sequence of live-action Batman movies) Batman & Robin, it ends up not a mediocre end to an ongoing series, but an actively irksome throwback to things we thought dead and gone.

This is the problem with nostalgia. It gives us works rooted in the past, and as a result very often carrying with them all the noxious and toxic reasons we left that past behind. Nostalgic works are fragments of a world before we changed it, of things as they were, and as a result, more often than not, they are poison.

But that’s familiar, isn’t it? A piece of a pre-apocalyptic world, flung forward by apocalypse, turned toxic by its journey. We’ve seen things like that before–we know what to call them.

Nostalgia is pop culture’s kryptonite.


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Retroactive Continuity: Emara: Emirates Hero Ep. 1-2

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Commissioned post for Aleph Null. I don’t think it’s ever come up here, but I have a long-standing fascination with infinite sets, so I think that’s a seriously awesome name.

Everyone needs a hero.

There is much to criticize about superheroes: they protect the status quo and prevent revolution, and revolutionary change is sorely needed. There is much to criticize about the broader category of heroes: they stand on the border between us and them, and in so doing reinforce that that border exists.

But they are not an unmixed curse. There is much of value to be found in the figure of the hero. They often exemplify virtues we consider worth emulating–Batman’s determination, Superman’s kindness, Wonder Woman’s feminism. Or, to use more traditional heroes, Odysseus’ cunning, Beowulf’s courage, Hua Mulan’s sense of duty. And, frankly, sometimes we need to feel protected.

To be aware of one’s own difference, to recognize that in the eyes of the dominant culture, one is a part of them, not us, is to be aware of a constant need for vigilance. To feel safe is to let go of that vigilance, and hence to be unsafe–but to feel unsafe at all times is traumatizing. (This is, of course, just restating the concept of dual consciousness that we discussed with Ms. Marvel.) The fantasy of a hero is a way to, briefly, at second hand, get a glimpse of what it might be like to be an us, to be protected, to be safe.

But if all the heroes are for that other us, the one that defined you as a them, that instead reinforces that you don’t get a hero, don’t get to be us–that you are always and forever a them. And so we get things like Emara: Emirates Hero, which creator Fatma Al Muhairi says was driven by her desire for a heroic character she could “culturally identify with.” Her and her team of mostly young, Arab creators have, in pursuit of that goal, created something delightful.

Nothing about Emara, other than the nationality of the characters, is particularly novel. Visually, it references anime heavily, especially Cutie Honey–which it also references in the core concept of a transforming (apparent) robot girl–and the works of Hiroyuki Imaishi (Dead Leaves, Gurren Lagann, Kill la Kill) and Takafumi Hori (Little Witch Academia, that one episode of Steven Universe, that one episode of Adventure Time). Story-wise, at least in the first two episodes, it’s pretty typical superhero fare: Moza is a teenage girl raised by a single mother and a dead dad, she fights bank robbers, a mysterious conspiracy is after her, and she has a rival superhero who is working for the mysterious conspiracy but has doubts.

But novelty isn’t the point–this is no different from Ms. Marvel‘s similarities to early Spider-Man, a way to shortcut through setup by presenting the familiar, so that the series can quickly move on to the rest of its story. The point is to bring superheroics to Emirati girls, to give them a hero of their own to remind that they can be an us, and to remind the rest of us that they are part of us.

Representation, in short, matters. Dhebian, Emara’s rival, is another example–the rockets in his feet are a fun answer to Emara’s gun arms, but they also contrast with his use of a wheelchair in his “civilian” identity, Sultan. He is a disabled man who needs a wheelchair to get around normally–but as Dhebian, his superpower is mobility. This is one of those cases where the protector fantasy and the power fantasy blend together–it is a wish for the power to be the protector. A wish for power, not to impose one’s will on others, but to help them.

How, though, is this different from Maggie Sawyer and Dan Turpin? I castigated them as trying to cement their status as provisionally “normal” by enacting violence to preserve the circles of normalcy. By attacking “criminals,” isn’t Emara doing the same thing? The “normal people”/criminals binary used to justify retributive violence against people who commit crimes is as much a lie as any other “normal people”/Other binary; there are no criminals, only people who commit crimes.

Emara is not actually different from Sawyer and Turpin in that respect; the inherently problematic elements of “law enforcement” and “superhero” as concepts remain intact. But that’s the thing–why should only some people get imperfect and problematic representation? Why can’t Emirati girls get their power/protector fantasy, when white American boys have so many?

It’s not just that everyone needs heroes. It’s that everyone needs to be a hero, from time to time, within their own head. We need to feel, even if just for a moment, knowing that it’s not true, like we have the power to protect what’s important to us and to change things for the better.

Heroes fight monsters. And yes, all too often, monsters are defined by difference, but frequently they also represent harm. If heroes help define the border between normalcy and deviancy, perhaps a proliferation of “deviant” heroes is exactly what we need, to push that border out so far that it encompasses everyone. Perhaps when everyone is normal, no one will be, and we will at last be free of that binary, while our heroes protect us from the genuinely harmful rather than the merely different.

Either way, heroes belong at the margins. Doesn’t it make sense, then, for them to come from among the marginalized?

Bit by bit, we inch closer to understanding how to salvage what’s good within the figure of the superhero. Diversity and representation of the underrepresented are a part of the answer–but then, they’re part of the answer to most things.


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Vlog Review: My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea

Apologies. I apparently saved this as a draft instead of queueing it, which is why nothing got posted last Thursday. Oops!

Commissioned vlog for SA Hershman.

Reminder that Patreon backers can request commissions, see these videos (including Star vs. Evil, commissioned episodes of other series, and panels I presented at various cons) 4-5 weeks early, AND see Near-Apocalypse articles four MONTHS early!

My father murdered (Growing Pains)

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It’s February 28, 1998. The top song is Usher’s “Nice and Slow” again; Will Smith, Janet Jackson, Savage Garden, and LeAnn Rimes also chart. The top movie is still Titanic; the fantastic Dark Cityopens at number four.

In the news, the big story is the beginning Kosovo War, as the small Balkan polity rebels against the only-slightly-larger remnant of Yugoslavia, now known formally as Serbia and Montenegro, with the NATO treaty organization quickly intervening. Given that ethnic conflict in Serbia intervened in by major European powers is how World War I started, there is some tension among, say, academically inclined but inexperienced young people taking AP History at the time. Me and my classmates, for instance.

Speaking of me, I remember this being one of my favorite episodes, and I was very much looking forward to seeing it again. I’m apparently not alone: this is a well-loved episode. AV Club and Nerdist both reviewed it positively in their respective revisits to the series, and at time of writing it has an 8.6 fan rating on IMDB–“Heart of Ice,” by comparison, has only an 8.0 and “Baby-Doll” an incomprehensibly low 6.4. So clearly people who vote in IMDB fan rankings have no taste, but again, reviewers like it.

And it does have much to recommend it. It is emotionally affecting, highlights the Tim Drake Robin in a way nearly unique in the series, and is gorgeously animated under the direction of then-TMS animator Atsuko Tanaka (not to be confused with either the voice actress or late avant-garde artist of the same name), whose other work includes key animation on the Animaniacs and Batman Beyond movies, Princess Mononoke, Howl’s Moving Castle, and your name. Clayface flows and shifts in ways at once imaginative, grotesque, and oddly beautiful, and the camera work when he grabs Robin and holds him over the pit of generic bubbling green chemical is masterful, with a dynamism rarely seen in American animation of this period.

But–and you knew there had to be a but coming, didn’t you?–when it comes down to it, “Growing Pains” is entirely comprised of a fridging. Annie is depicted as a living, thinking, feeling person with agency of her own, but she is in peril from the moment she appears on screen to the moment she dies. (Which, itself, is a decidedly unsettling moment–given her depiction as Clayface’s “daughter,” the disturbingly sexual way she and Clayface gasp and arch at the moment their merger begins, and the fact that he essentially devours her, it is difficult to read as anything other than a depiction of incestuous vore.) Her agency is, in the end, employed only in self-sacrifice, to rescue Robin, and the focus of the episode is on his feelings about her: his desire to protect her, his curiosity about her, his potential romantic interest in her, and his quiet anger and sadness after she is gone.

In short, her sole purpose as a character is to be menaced and then die, as a vehicle for developing Robin’s character. She is a textbook woman in a refrigerator.

And, the question arises, “So what?” What, actually, is the problem with fridging?

To answer that, we must ask a fraught question: what is the moral responsibility of an artist in the process of creating art? Two extreme positions should be dismissed quickly: the first is that the depiction of an act is morally equivalent to the commission of that act. But this is clearly absurd: if I write the sentence “I shot the sheriff,” is that morally equivalent to shooting a sheriff? What sheriff have I shot? Similarly, we can dismiss the related, less extreme position that depiction of an act is less serious than commission of the act, but still shares its morality–that, in other words, writing “I shot the sheriff” isn’t as bad (or good, depending on how one feels about cops) as actually shooting a sheriff, but it’s still bad (or good). But again, that’s absurd; who have I hurt or helped by writing that sentence, in isolation?

The other extreme is equally absurd under examination. This position holds that, since events depicted in art are imaginary, they have no moral value–that there is no such thing as an immoral depiction. Again, this is prima facie absurd; while the event is depicted, the depiction itself exists in the real world. Both artist and audience are real, and the art has an effect on the audience, affecting audiences being what art does. It is there that the moral responsibility lies: since the art affects the audience, it has the capacity to both harm and heal the audience, and thus there are moral considerations in its creation and dissemination.

But this is where things get sticky. An act has a different impact when it is depicted in fiction as opposed to experienced directly–that’s why people don’t flee in mass panic from slasher films–and one of the ways in which that impact can differ is if similar acts are depicted frequently across multiple works. They can have a cumulative effect beyond that of any one instance, and this cumulative effect can reinforce or even create cultural narratives that have profound impact on our lives.

There is a reason we discussed Revolutionary Girl Utena near the end of the previous volume, and it’s not just because I love writing about Revolutionary Girl Utena. It has things to say about stories, and apocalypses, and influences that will extend throughout this project, right up to the very last chapter of the last volume. (Yes, I already know what that chapter will be about, and no, it’s not the Justice League Unlimited finale.) In Annie, we see exactly what Utena was talking about in the figure of the princess: the depiction of girls as helpless innocents in perpetual peril, there to be rescued by brave heroic princes like Robin. (Who, though he looks much younger due to differences in art style, appears to actually be about the same age as Utena herself.) It also explores the consequences of repeating that story over and over again, until young women believe that that is what they’re supposed to be, and men believe that is what women are supposed to be.

Therein lies the answer to “so what?” Fridging matters because fridgings are commonplace. Yes, male characters die too, but they are far more likely than women to die as the culmination of an arc of their own, as opposed to solely to advance the development of others. Men, in short, die because it is the natural end to their story; women die because they’re disposable ways to wring emotion out of men. That’s what widespread fridging says; it reinforces to both men and women that women are less-than, that they exist to support men, that their needs and agency can be set aside for the development of men.

Again: yes, Annie sacrifices herself, but that’s not the problem. The problem is that her suffering is secondary to his, as the suffering of women is almost always treated as secondary to the suffering of men. The episode isn’t about Annie, culminating in her heroic sacrifice; it’s about getting Robin to the point where he sadly, quietly says the word “Murder.”

Cut to black, roll credits.


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