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!

Near Apocalpyse of '09 Logo
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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