Retroactive Continuity: She-ra and the Princesses of Power S1E7-8

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In past entries on She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, I’ve largely focused on the other princesses, in large part because that’s what the episodes focused on. In “In the Shadows of Mystacor” and “Princess Prom,” however, the focus of the show returns to its main character, Adora. Specifically, these two episodes address the fact that she and Catra grew up being abused by their adoptive mother Shadow Weaver, and examine the impact that abuse has had on them.

The focus of “Shadows of Mystacor” is Adora’s (and, to a lesser extent, Catra’s) fear of Shadow Weaver. In this, she is contrasted very effectively against both Angella and Castaspella. The former doesn’t actually appear in the episode, but she is evoked by Glimmer’s response to Adora describing how, in addition to providing for basic physical needs, Shadow Weaver taught her tactics and combat: “Right, Mom stuff.” Like Shadow Weaver, Angella is stern, demanding, and prepares her daughter for a life of violence and leadership–but she worries about her daughter’s well-being, and her responses to rule-breaking are typically parental, such as punishing her daughter with grounding. Castaspella, meanwhile, is not a parental figure for Glimmer, but she is quite passive-aggressive (which is a form of manipulation), and habitually ignores Glimmer’s words and preferences.

Angella expects a great deal of her daughter and is trying to prepare her; Castespella is self-centered and unpleasant. Neither, however, is abusive, and thereby contrast just how much worse Shadow Weaver is. For example, Glimmer clearly doesn’t want to spend time with Castaspella, because she finds it uncomfortable–but we’ve seen that when Shadow Weaver lashes out angrily in Catra’s presence, Catra recoils in outright fear. In “Shadows of Mystacor” we see why, as Shadow Weaver’s proxies work to frighten Adora so she has difficulty sleeping, then show themselves only when no one else is around, so that the others think Adora is imagining things. This simultaneously isolates her and makes her doubt her own perceptions, two standard abuser tactics, designed to make her more dependent and therefore more controllable.

This is, perhaps, the most crucial, defining feature of the abuser, regardless of the type of relationship within which the abuse is occurring: the desire for nonconsensual control, the imposition of the abuser’s will on their victim. What’s clever here is its contrast with non-abusive ways in which someone who feels a need for control can express that need. In the case of Angella, her desire for safety for her daughter leads to her to try to control her daughter’s behavior through punishments, which is fairly typical–and necessary–for parenting a child. Castaspella’s desire control seems to be more about her own easily wounded feelings, and a lot less healthy, but she also isn’t very good at exerting that control, and merely self-centered rather than actually malicious. Shadow Weaver, by contrast, when she finally realizes that she cannot control Adora, attempts to kill her, just as she will later in the series with Catra. Her “children” have no value to her as people in themselves, only as objects that she can use.

“Princess Prom” shows us the consequences of Adora and Catra’s upbringing. First, Adora is badly stunted in her social development, which is not at all uncommon for sufferers of complex PTSD, which in turn is common in survivors of child abuse. Admittedly, I don’t care for parties either, especially not this kind of party, but Adora actually seems to enjoy the concept, but is intimidated by it. Her decision to treat the party as a military campaign is telling: it terrifies her, because it is a social situation with a large number of arbitrary rules in which she has no power, a recreation of her time in the Horde, and so she deals with it by reverting to the behavior and relying on the skills that were rewarded in her time in the Horde.

Catra has been damaged in a subtly different way than Adora, however: where Adora fled, Catra has decided to seek the same kind of control herself, to move up in the Horde so that she can become biggest bully on the block. She doesn’t want to be free of Shadow Weaver, but rather to replace her, and in essence become her. The fight on the rooftop epitomizes that: literally, Adora might be referring to getting out of their precarious position dangling off the side of a tower when she says “I can get us out of this,” but Catra’s reply of “Oh, Adora, I don’t want you to!” is about much more than that.

Already here it is clear that Catra felt hurt and abandoned when Adora left, and now she intends to make sure no one can ever hurt or abandon her again. We will see more of this when the show finally does an episode focused on her.


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Vlog Reviews: Steven Universe: S5E25-8, Dirty Pair: The Flight 005 Conspiracy, Lego Movie 2

Once again, I failed to post videos last week so doing it this week. I don’t know what’s wrong with me either. Anyway, have THREE videos:

Commissioned by BJ:

Commissioned by Aleph Null:

And a bonus video:

 

ETA: Sorry, original title had next week’s SU video. Fixed now.

Reminder that Patreon backers can request commissions, see these videos 4-5 weeks early, AND see Near-Apocalypse articles four MONTHS early! 

You have to trust (Old Wounds)

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It’s October 3, 1998. Monica tops the charts with “The First Night”; Aerosmith, Bare Naked Ladies, Jennifer Paige, and Edwin McCain round out this spectacularly 90s top 5. At the box office, Antz debuts at number one and What Dreams May Come at number two. Rush Hour and A Night at the Roxbury are at third and fourth, marking the first chart we’ve come across where I’ve actually seen all of the top four movies.

In the news, Europol is established and “pro-market social conservative” John Howard becomes Prime Minister of Australia, so the catastrophic rightward shift in the political winds that started in the late 70s/early 80s is still ongoing.

Speaking of catastrophic shifts, we have the episode The New Batman Adventures has been building to all season, the reveal of how Dick Grayson parted ways from Batman and became Nightwing. That, however, is not the catastrophic shift most highlighted by this episode, as the reason is more or less what one would expect: Batman being controlling, Dick rebelling, Batgirl caught in the middle between her lover at the time and lover to be.

The far more interesting catastrophic shift is that in Batman’s behavior. Since that change was introduced alongside with the changes in his relationship to Nightwing, occurring somewhere in the gap between the end of Batman: The Animated Series and the beginning of TNBA, it was natural to assume that it coincided with the breakdown of their relationship. But it didn’t; if anything, it precipitated that breakdown. The Batman we see in “Old Wounds” (colored, admittedly, by the narration of the very much not impartial Nightwing) is the same as throughout TNBA: cold, distant, manipulative, and calculating. Batman was, of course, capable of being all these things as part of his “I am the night” persona, but privately he displayed warmth, playfulness, and humor. And he still does in TNBA, in his relationships with his family–but “professionally,” so to speak, he is now all Dark Knight, never Caped Crusader.

So, we have to ask, what happened? And a clear answer shows itself almost immediately: Superman happened.

This is true on multiple levels. Extradiegetically, Superman is warm, playful, and funny in Superman: The Animated Series, so to differentiate the characters, Batman is made colder, more stern and serious. Diegetically, the emergence of Superman is part of a general shift into a world where both the characters and the threats they face are more fantastic, more powerful, and more alien. Batman’s world has changed from one where, once he kicks the gun out of an enemy’s hands, all he has to deal with are punches, to one where his enemies’ punches can potentially flatten skyscrapers–and with no guarantee that he’ll be able to tell who can do it, given that Clark Kent of all people is the physically strongest person in the world by several orders of magnitude. He is, in short, scared, and he deals with that fear by distancing others and becoming more hostile and work-focused.

But we are most interested in neither of those levels, but rather in readings that pass between and beyond them. Superman’s arrival wasn’t just Superman; it was apocalypse, revolution, and reinvention. Harley blew up Krypton, and Krypton was the world. The New Batman Adventures isn’t set in Bruce Wayne’s world, but in Harleen Quinzel’s, a place at once lighter and more dangerous, stranger and more open.

And that has Batman scared, because a world that is open is a world less controlled. Though in the past he was warmer and kinder, he was always in control of himself and often of his environment. He was, in most of the senses that matter, Alfred’s son, but he was also always Alfred’s boss. He was Dick’s father, but he chose that role because he saw something of himself in the angry, grieving little boy. He craves control because of that terrible moment when his life was entirely outside his control, and he exerts control by maintaining law and order (read: authoritarian control) in “his” city. He and he alone sorts the city into its four-caste hierarchy: the general populace, weak and helpless; the criminals who prey on them; the police who enact violence against the criminals; and the Bat who hangs over them all.

That his coldness and distance is a response to feeling out of control is demonstrated by his relationship with Batgirl. Theirs is a relationship of power exchange, of control, and with her he is still warm, even teasing. Likewise with Tim, still young enough to be unable to do much without Batman’s approval, and Alfred, to whom he can directly give orders. The only one he can’t control anymore is Dick, and Bruce doesn’t know how to love someone he can’t control.

Which is not to say he doesn’t still love Dick. Of course he does! But love isn’t just a feeling, it’s a process and a relationship, and Bruce is very bad at it with people he can’t control. His only familial relationships are with children he “rescued” and adopted and an employee; his romantic relationships are all with “bad” women that he tries to make “good,” most obviously Catgirl and Talia al-Ghul, but that’s also the role Batgirl takes when she plays the BDSM “brat” in their relationship. The last time he loved someone he couldn’t control, she abandoned him to become the Phantasm; the last time before that, they were gunned down in an alley. Batman is his own protector fantasy, and so his great nightmare is of caring for someone that won’t let Batman protect them.

He simply does not know how to handle Dick slipping out of his control, and reacts poorly, which drives Dick further away. The choice not to tell Dick about Batgirl’s secret identity is a bad one, but it’s understandable in this context: it’s a point of leverage, a way of trying to bring Dick back under control by telling him that he’s replaceable, and to undermine his independence by knowing something crucial about his life that he doesn’t.

The hardest thing to do, when you’ve been hurt, is to allow yourself to be hurt again. To drop the barriers and let go control, to trust another person, depend on them, permit them the power to hurt you as you were hurt before. This is the pain that causes Batman to go down this darker path, one that will keep him isolated and dark, driving away everyone he cares about, right through to his bitter old age in Batman Beyond. He is wrong, and getting wronger, but through this episode we understand why, and can feel for him.

“Old Wounds,” from a synopsis alone, sounds like an origin story for Nightwing. Which of course it is–but he’s the hero of the story, and as is often the case in BTAS and TNBA, the hero is not the emotional center. As a result, this isn’t just an origin story, or even primarily an origin story. It’s something else, something that BTAS in particular always excelled at.

“Old Wounds” is a sympathetic villain story.


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Crisis on N Earths: Animosity vol. 1

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Commissioned post for Shane deNota-Hoffman. Thanks as always for backing, Shane!

And now a third take on animals attacking humans.

We’ve seen violent animals as the grotesque, a worrying violation of the social order that unsettles and disturbs us. We’ve seen violent animals as throwaway victims of human control, depicted as less grotesque because “only” their behavior, rather than their bodies, has been violated. Now we have animals as an oppressed underclass.

This is not the first time animals have been depicted as such. War with the Newts, by Karel Capek of R.U.R. fame, depicted the titular species of intelligent amphibians as victims of human colonization and exploitation, who then turned against and conquered the colonizers, only to repeat the cycle. Similarly, the animals in Animosity vol. 1, by Insexts writer Margeurite Bennett, are suddenly granted not only intelligence, but human intelligence and understanding–and more to the point, the animals we see (all of them American) seem to share a basically Western outlook. The result is, inevitably, violence, as humans and animals alike seek to draw lines against the Other.

Against this backdrop, the comic centers the close relationship of the bloodhound Sandor and the young human girl Jesse, whom he is determined to get across the country to her older brother in San Francisco, after (it is heavily implied) either killing her parents or persuading her that they’re dead in revenge for his abuse at the hands of her father. Jesse is a kind and giving child, and Sandor is fierce in his love for her, which (much like the relationship at the heart of Insexts) helps carry a comic that could otherwise be a bit didactic.

Which is a good thing, because the lessons here need badly to be learned. As is often the case with oppressed classes, animals outnumber humans massively, and once they attain consciousness of who they are and how they’ve been treated, humans have no chance of stopping them. Happily, the comic isn’t that focused on said treatment–this isn’t Grant Morrison writing yet another “animal rights” screed–but rather on how the survivors feel about it, and what they do with that anger. The comic is, in other words, less interested in the rather silly question “What if animals are people?” and much more interested in “What if animals became people?”

As Sandor describes and the negotiations in New York confirm, the animals mostly don’t actually care much about what happened beforethe Wake; what matters is that in the moment of acquiring consciousness, they became an oppressed class, and at the same moment realized their power and acted to end that oppression.

But, again, the consciousness they attained was a basically Western one rooted in the us-them divide. Animals became the new Other to humans, and humans the Other to animals. When Sandor acts to protect Jesse in the chaotic massacre the New York negotiations degenerate into, Oscar doesn’t see a member of his family protecting his daughter from a dangerous killer; he sees an animal killing a human, and reacts violently, treating Sandor as a threat rather than a protector.

Meanwhile, by defining themselves as an in-group, animals immediately begin othering each other. The mutinous members of the Animilitary justify themselves by demanding meat instead of substitutes, but the one who declares this is a koala, an entirely herbivorous species. Their rebellion is against Mimico, who is insufficiently revolutionary in their eyes, a difference which marks her as Other and therefore as an enemy in their eyes. It’s a pattern I’ve seen played out again and again in leftist and queer spaces, gatekeeping turned to Othering of those who don’t make the cut, turned to infighting that leaves all involved more vulnerable and less able to resist the real oppressor. The result is sadly predictable: the animals fight each other, and the humans fight them, and a scant few escape with Jesse and Sandor.

The arc closes out with a look at Jesse’s brother’s experience, which goes the other way: instead of degenerating into a chaotic free-for-all, the animal takeover in San Francisco was orderly and thorough, with humans like Adam who are “vouched for” by an animal–in his case, by a seal whose life he saved on the day of the Wake–essentially tagged and kept as prisoners. This is the War With the Newts outcome, the straightforward reversal of fortune, with the oppressor becoming the oppressed and vice versa.

Of course, those are always the arguments made against revolution: that it will lead to chaos worse than the current order, or that it will result in mere inversion and a new underclass. By using animals as a stand-in for all oppressed classes and marginalized identities, and realistically depicting the resulting problem that carnivores must choose between murder and starvation, the comic acknowledges that there is no perfect solution. Someone will always oppress someone else.

The question–the big one, the only political question really worth asking in the long run–is whether that oppression can be minimized and made temporary.


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