Retroactive Continuity: Devilman Crybaby E8 “I Must Know Myself”

Content warning: Discussion of transphobia, TERFs, and abusive parents

There are two ways you can go with the revelation that devils are people.

Last week (as of this writing), Lisa Littman, an assistant professor at Brown University, published a methodologically questionable* paper on “rapid onset gender dysphoria,” essentially a transphobic claim that kids are “catching the trans” the same way homophobes in the 90s claimed that kids were “catching the gay”. The “theory” originates with transphobic parents of trans children convincing themselves that their children’s dysphoria does not arise from actually being trans, but is rather a kind of “social contagion” caused by exposure to media that positively portrays trans people and friendship with other trans children.

Of course, as a working scientist at a reasonably prestigious institution, Littman presumably knows what a methodologically sound study looks like. She is an excellent example of what I know as Fred Clark’s Law, named for the blogger behind Slacktivist, a community in which I used to be quite active. The law can be phrased as such: “sufficiently advanced malice is indistinguishable from incompetence, and vice versa.” In other words, Littman’s hatred of trans people is so great that she conducted a worthless study and her worthless study led her to write a paper that will be used to hurt trans people.

She, of course, will insist that this is an unfair characterization. She doesn’t hate trans people at all, her defenders will declare. Perhaps she even has trans friends. She’s just trying to protect the children.

But she isn’t. She’s protecting the children’s parents, from the realization that their children are a thing they hate. (“But more than 80 percent of study respondents say trans people should have the same rights as everyone else!” Yeah, but what does that mean? Does it include a right to transition? To have one’s gender identity recognized and affirmed? I doubt it, because they don’t see the privilege in having their own gender recognized without debate.)

Look at her choice of language: “social contagion.” Being trans is declared a contagious disease, caused by seeing trans people accepted or associating with them as friends. I am a disease, apparently.

Well, and in a sense I am. I am absolutely in favor of destroying cisheteronormative, white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal kyriarchy. I am actively trying, every day, to get other people to also favor destroying the kyriarchy. The eventual goal is, from the perspective of Littman and her ilk, outright apocalypse: a world in which it is an obvious, mainstream idea that a parent who doesn’t accept their child’s self-declared gender identity is engaging in abuse.

The kyriarchy, however, is the grandest of grand narratives, the super-superstructure that supports all of our cultural superstructures, the meta-metanarrative. It is everywhere, and that makes it so easy to build our own narratives on top of it; for example, by incorporating its transphobia into an otherwise feminist narrative. It infiltrates everywhere, but not as a contagion; it is more like a pollutant, present in the groundwater of ideas before we even grow them.

But as a grand narrative, it shares the weakness of all grand narratives: it cannot abide alternatives. It insists that it is the only way, and so the presence of another way damages it. It tries to defend itself, to use the Dan Turpins and Maggie Sawyers and Lisa Littmans to attack the new narratives. (“Trans people should have the same rights as everyone else!”)

We who don’t fit in, who don’t follow the rules, who chafe at authority and question society; we are what they call “contagion”. We gather, we share our stories, we present alternative ways of being, and in so doing, shake the very foundations of society, because this society’s foundations are so rotted and so narrow that any alternatives at all are anathema to it.

We are monsters, here to destroy society. We who are dissatisfied with society, are devils.

And of course Littman is just a recent example of personal import to me. People like her are fighting to prevent a world in which I could have realized my gender and come out as a child, saving me decades of unnecessary suffering; but to them my suffering is necessary, to preserve their cisnormative narrative. Other people fight, in other ways, to ensure the continuation of the suffering the kyriarchy engenders; some because they derive value from that suffering, but most because they value the comfortable stability of grand narrative more than the well-being of people unlike themselves.

As I said, there’s two ways to go. If you have compassion, real compassion, radical compassion that values people wherever, however, whoever they are, you say “Devils are people, so we must make room for them. We must try to understand them. We must treat them, always and without fail, as people.”**

On the other hand, if you value society over people, if you are a hard-edged “rationalist” who rejects the infinite multiplicity and complexity of human experience, a traditionalist or authoritarian–if, in short, you are a Ryo or a conservative or a TERF–you say “Devils are people, so some people are devils. We need to kill them.”

Or, since real life is not usually a deliberately over-the-top horror anime, you use terms like “social contagion” or “illegal” instead of “devil,” and you leave the second sentence out while endorsing policies that ensure the suffering and death of the people you don’t like. It’s not any less transparent to the people you’re abjectifying, but it apparently makes it easier to sleep at night.

*Read “methodologically questionable” as a polite way of saying it’s bullshit. Julia Serrano covers a few of the most egregious of the many, many ways in which the paper’s methods fail any reasonable standards of rigorous science, and thereby creates a serious threat of harm to an extremely vulnerable population.

**Note: There are circumstances in which violence against people is justifiable. There are many more circumstances in which it is not. Laying out the details of which circumstances are which lies beyond the scope of this essay.

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Your other reason (The Demon Within)

It’s May 9, 1998. The top song is still Next with “Too Close”; Mariah Carey, Shania Twain, the Backstreet Boys, and Savage Garden also chart. At the box office, Deep Impact opens at number one; with Titanic and Les Miserables also in the top ten, apocalypse and revolution are clearly in the air.

Alas, not so in The New Batman Adventures, which airs a depressingly insipid introduction to Etrigan the Demon. There is seemingly much that could be done with an immortal Arthurian knight turned sorcerer who has a literal inner demon, especially paired up with someone like Batman, but the show chooses to do precisely nothing with this potential, keeping the two of them as separate as possible. Pairing him with and against two exemplars of youth–Robin the Boy Wonder and Klarion the Witch-Boy–likewise seems like a recipe for an interesting exploration of agelessness, but nothing comes of that, either. And, finally, an episode in which a man has to figure out how to fight evil despite being stripped of his inner demons, in a show about Batman of all people, seems rife with possibility–but again, nothing is done with this.

All these possibilities, all this magic, and the episode is instead just a series of action sequences in which Batman dodges Klarion’s and Etrigan’s attacks while Jason Blood sits in a room and mumbles vaguely magic-y words.

There is very little to say about this episode, so let’s focus on the title instead. We have, after all, been spending quite a lot of words lately on the topic of the monster without, the fear of the grotesque Other; let us therefore turn to the demon within, the grotesque Self–or, rather, the Self become grotesque Other.

There are bad things inside us, which must not be let out. This is literally, physically true: we contain viscera and blood, which are repulsive and cause bad things to happen to us if we let them out (or let the wrong things in). This is the underlying form of abjection: our instinctive disgust at the breaching of the inside the body/outside the body distinction. Indeed, it is the origin of the term; the abject is that which is neither subject nor object, but rather breaches the barrier between the two in a way that feels wrong, hence the ab– prefix.

Metaphorically, this self-abjection becomes the “inner demons”: the parts of ourselves that disgust us, prompting us to try to reject them, to treat them as an Other distinct from the Self. And just as, when we erect a circle of normality as the defining border of an Us, we uncritically mix the genuinely harmful or wrong with the merely different, so too when we abjectify a part of the self, we mix parts of us that perhaps should be kept inside with parts that could be rechanneled toward good ends and parts that are just straightforwardly good.

The demon within, in other words, could be a Man-Bat, animalistic and destructive–or it could be an Etrigan, evil in origin and yet turned to doing good.

Or, to turn personal for a moment, it could be a Jennifer.

I spent most of my life convinced there was something unutterably foul inside me. It felt like an ocean of old, fetid emotions, buried until they decayed into a rotted sludge of despair, self-loathing, and rage. And then, one day, in a flash of rainbow light provided by a friend, I saw it for what it really was: a part of me that was nearly the whole of me, that I’d been told to reject, told to be disgusted by, but was actually–once I dug it up and rinsed it off–beautiful.

And monstrous. Because again, that is what the monstrous is–the projection outward of the demon within, the Other created by the process of abjectification. To be queer is to be monstrous–to be, to paraphrase El Sandifer, part of a wound torn in the vast space of human experience by the declaration that some things are normal, and all else is abnormal, and therefore unacceptable.

Simply by existing–happily, angrily, openly, and unapologetically–I force a confrontation with that wound, which is, like all wounds, grotesque. I am the monster that refuses to abjectify itself any longer. I am here to destroy the world.

Because “the world” is that circle of normality, both inside us and without. It is our shell; by breaking it, we birth ourselves. True apocalypse, true revolution, is simply to live honestly as one’s own best self, come what may.

I am a monster, and I am good.

And another word for “good monster” is…

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Retroactive Continuity: Emara, Emirates Hero Eps 3-5

Commissioned post for Aleph Null.

Female heroes get mind-controlled a lot.

Oh, superheroes in general are prone to being mind-controlled. It’s a great way to turn a physically unimposing villain into a serious threat, by essentially giving them access to the hero’s powers in the form of the hero themselves. It’s an excuse to force a look at that eternal (and eternally obnoxious question) of superhero fandom, “Who would win?”

But (and I admit I have done no actual survey of this or seen statistics) it certainly seems like female heroes are particularly prone to being mind-controlled. Of course, it’s possible I just feel that way because I saw Episode 3 of Emara, Emirates Hero just a few days after Incredibles 2, which also features a woman most prominently out of multiple mind-controlled superheroes.

Either way, seeing Emara controlled rankles, especially so early in her run. Her very existence challenges cultural boundaries and social norms, yet almost immediately she is forced under the control of what appears to be a man in a puppy mask made from a paper bag–another woman just doing what a man wants.

But in so doing, she becomes monstrous, sprouting gigantic robotic arms from her shoulder blades and rampaging unstoppably through the headquarters of whatever organization it is that Dhabian is working for. Controlled Emara, like controlled Ali a couple of episodes later, is a horrifying creature: grotesque, with her glowing eyes and massive extra arms belying her otherwise human frame, which dangles like an afterthought from her shoulders. Her behavior in this state is equally horrific, as she flings Dhabian around like a ragdoll and tears off his prosthetic limb.

Contrast “Little Girl Lost.” There, Superman’s controlling attitude toward Supergirl was depicted as natural, part of his parental (that is, patriarchal) role in Supergirl’s life. She rebelled against it, but that rebellion caused as much trouble as it solved: it is Supergirl’s fight against the new Intergang that causes Granny Goodness to summon the Female Furies who capture Superman, and Supergirl who destroys the comet-summoning device before it can be used to repel the comet. Much of the episode’s action–her heroism–consists of fixing her own mistakes, mistakes borne of not obeying Superman’s restrictions.

Here in Emara, however, the man controlling the woman is villainous, and the image of a woman controlled is monstrous. By her very nature as a superhero, Emara is extraordinary, which is to say she lies outside the circle of normativity. She is a violation of “the rules”–of who gets to be a superhero, and of what young brown girls can do. Yet she is not depicted as grotesque until she becomes obedient; the grotesque, in other words, exists not because of deviance but because of normalcy.

This reading is reinforced in Episode 5, when Emara fights controlled Ali, who has likewise transformed into a monster. She again transforms into the glowing-eyed, multi-armed “monster,” but now she is the monster that fights monsters, which as we have observed before, is the definition of a hero. It is a moment not of horror, like her previous transformation, but of excitement, an escalation of her valiant effort to save Dhabian.

The same form is horrifying or exciting, not because it becomes more or less “normal,” but according to whether it is a threat or an ally. The flipside of the grotesque is the exotic; we can fear the tentacle or fuck the tentacle. Fear the outsider or wish to learn about them. Shun the Other or embrace diversity.

But in Emara we see a third path: we can do both and neither. We can fear behaviors that are legitimately dangerous to us, and be excited (intellectually, emotionally, sexually, whatever) by behaviors that are surprising to us, without having to thereby judge the entirety of a person as “normal” or “deviant,” “grotesque” or “exotic.” We can simply recognize difference and accept it: Dhabian has fewer limbs than I do. Emara has more. That changes the worth of neither of them.

This is not to say that difference doesn’t matter. Ignoring for the moment that they are fictional characters, there are things I can do that Dhabian can’t without his prostheses, and things they let him do that I cannot. Emara is a Muslim woman raised in a culture very different from mine; that gives her a perspective I lack. But I can value the things that perspective lets her see that I cannot, while pointing out the things my perspective lets me see that she cannot, and all without declaring myself “normal” and her “Other”; I can see that we are different from each other, without needing to declare either of us (or anyone else) a normative baseline.

Remembering that Dhabian and Emara are fictional, we can also talk about them as representation. It is important for people who frequently feel Othered to see people like them depicted as a norm, yes, but it is also important for people who frequently see themselves as the norm to see someone they frequently Other depicted as a norm. To make people who feel Othered feel less so, and people who feel normal to feel less so, until both concepts dissolve entirety into a recognition that there are countless human communities, that everyone not only belongs somewhere but belongs multiplesomewheres, and yet no one belongs everywhere.

The name for this rejection of the singular normal/Other binary (and its implied singular community operating according to a singular narrative) in favor of a multiplicity is paralogy, and it raises a major challenge to the concept not just of the superhero, but the hero. Namely, if there aren’t actually any monsters, just different communities, what are heroes for?

The answer to that question is the answer to our main question, too: if we know what the new hero is for, than we can construct what that hero needs to be.

We will be coming back to this, many times, before we are through.

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Finally meeting cheerleaders (Little Girl Lost)

It’s May 2, 1998. The top song is Next with “Too Close”; Shania Twain, Montell Jordan, K-Ci & JoJo, and Madonna also chart. The top movie is He Got Game; City of Angels, Titanic, and Lost In Space are also in the top ten. According to my extensive research of the news for this period (skimming the Wikipedia page for “1998”), the only newsworthy event is the death of musician Hideto Matsumoto, a.k.a. hide.

As I said the last time we discussed Superman: The Animated Series, this episode, despite being ostensibly the end of the second season, “Little Girl Lost” functions more like a season premiere: after a few months without any STAS, we get the introduction of a new recurring character intertwined with a continuation of the Intergang/Apokolips story arc that ended its first phase with “Apokolips… NOW!”

Supergirl herself is the focus of this two-parter, however, much as Batgirl was introduced in a Batman: The Animated Series two-parter. Supergirl is peculiarly framed, however: she is introduced as a literal anti-fridging, both in the sense of a reveal that she is alive when all Kryptonians and Argosians (other than Superman and denizens of the Phantom Zone) are presumed dead, and in the sense that she has been frozen and must be thawed.

When next we see her, she is awash in warm sunlight, playfully zooming about the Kansas sky in a scene that at once calls back to and contrasts heavily with Superman’s first flight in “Last Son of Krypton.” Superman’s flight was depicted as a culmination of a series of increasingly prodigious leaps–a feat of strength, in other words. Supergirl, by contrast, is depicted as looping and curving through the air, playing with geese and water, while music swells–a display of innocent grace that resembles nothing so much as the buildup to a Disney princess about to sing her “I want” song.

And much like the princesses of the Disney Renaissance, Supergirl is a complicated cluster of competing creative impulses. She shares the same pinup Good Girl face and body as every young woman Bruce Timm designs, and this first flight of hers exemplifies that aesthetic: she is clearly being presented for the male gaze, barelegged, -armed, and midriffed as she arches her back and stretches out her limbs, but diegetically she is simply flying with no intent of appearing sexualized. She is an ingenue balanced carefully between sexuality and innocence, trying to appeal to and convey both at once. At the same time, she is immensely physically strong, on par with Superman himself, but subordinate to him, both in the sense that she is younger than him and in the sense that this is his show.

She is full of tensions: between appealing to the male gaze and avoiding the ire of censors, depicting a competent superhero with exciting adventures and preserving the fragile egos of male superhero fans, and most of all between her Madonna-like framing and her strength. After all, as Utena told us, “a girl who cannot become a princess is doomed to become a witch.”

Supergirl definitely cannot become a princess–her people and her world are gone, after all. This episode, however, expands very slightly from the Madonna-whore binary Utena explores, merging it with the “triple goddess” archetype to give us three different women: the Maiden, the Mother, and the Other–that last combining elements of Crone and whore, while the other two both take on different aspects of the Madonna, one being the Virgin and the other, well, the Mother.

The Mother gets the least time, as Lois briefly occupies the role early in Part One, acting as a parental guide-and-setter-of-limits on Jimmy, a deliberate parallel to Superman’s strict limitation of Kara. Kara, meanwhile, is a Maiden trying to break out of that inherently infantilizing role: as long as she remains at the Kents’, she can only play with her powers, never genuinely explore the potential she possesses. But Superman sees only the danger to her, fencing her into a cage–a sun-dappled cage full of rolling hills and wide blue skies, but a cage nonetheless.

The only one who recognizes Kara’s strength is the Other, Granny Goodness, a withered old hag possessed of great power, a servant of the devil (or Darkseid, which is close enough) who corrupts the young and turns them into less Crone-like, more whore-like Others themselves, the Female Furies. Unlike Granny, they are sexualized (especially Lashina) while at the same time retaining elements of the grotesque–Lashina’s mask, Mad Harriet’s catlike features, Stompa’s size–that clearly mark them as women who cross boundaries.

But so too is Supergirl. She says it herself, when Amy expresses awe and a little horror at the idea of weapons from another planet: “Hey, I’m from another planet. It happens.” She is inherently Other; as I said above, she cannot ever be a princess, and therefore must become a witch–or else break out of the narrow, confining narrative trap in which we place women. That, then, is another tension within her: between Other and other, between being an outsider that doesn’t challenge the way we construct “inside” and “outside,” or one that does.

None of this is actually resolved within the episode. Supergirl remains a point of enormous tension, never quite resolving one way or the other. She is too active, too resistant to Superman’s attempts to control her “for her own good,” to quite be a maiden, but too much the ingenue to be the Other. Yet she is too much of both those familiar archetypes to break free of archetypes altogether.

She is, in short, aptly named. In the episode, questioned on being Supergirl, she points at the logo on her chest and says “Super,” then simpers and says “girl.” She has so much potential to transcend the limitations placed on her, but ultimately is still trapped within limiting, sexist narratives of what a young woman can be and who she is for.

And yet she is able to remain. She strains against the narrative and it strains to contain her, but still it holds. A woman who is powerful and good, who defies the rules placed on her without being vilified, can exist within the confines of this world, without being reduced to a femme fatale like Poison Ivy was. The price, unfortunately, is that this world is strong enough to contain her without breaking: she is contained, and remains still mostly a Madonna-figure, without challenging that binary.

Somewhere, Harley is laughing.

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Retroactive Continuity: Devilman Crybaby Episode 7

Near Apocalpyse of '09 LogoCommissioned post for Shane DeNota-Hoffman

Transitional episodes are hard to write about.

This is true in general, I find. They’re liminal by definition, suspended between one thing and another, slippery and hard to pin down. It’s even harder when you don’t actually know what’s coming next–when it’s clear what the transition is from, but not what the work is transitioning to. Different possible outcomes could lend themselves to very different readings, and so it is necessary to approach the episode with, essentially, all of them at once.

The big question left unresolved at the end of this episode is, of course, the nature of the giant demon-destroying ball of light that covers a significant chunk of the planet. The strong implication is that it is divine in origin, given the repeated references to Revelation and the cuts between the effects of the light and the preacher talking about the destruction of Sodom. But what does “divine” mean here?

The most straightforward, obvious answer is that the divine is the opposite of the demonic. The light is thus an indicator that a new player has entered the game, a force in opposition to the demons and, it seems, better able to deal with them than humans. But what is the opposite of the demonic?

For Ryo, who sees the demons as purely and entirely evil, it would follow that the opposite is something purely and entirely good, a traditional view of the divine in keeping with the episode’s heavy Christian references. So why, then, does he panic when the light appears? One possibility is simply that it’s one more way in which things are going out of control–he is already disturbed by humanity reacting even more violently than he predicted and thereby being more vulnerable to the demons, plus Akira has just walked out on him with the intent of gathering more devilmen. Now this light appears, and Ryo begins to realize that he has been playing with forces far beyond his understanding, forces that may have apocalyptic results.

Alternatively, Ryo has justified his own callous disregard for the lives lost and people killed in his war as a necessity. He lives in a gray and black world, in which the only way to fight evil is to be nearly (but in his mind at least, not quite) as bad as that evil. To learn that there is an opposite force to the demons, a literal light in the world, is shattering–not least because by comparison, he really doesn’t look much lighter than the demons at all. He is panicking, in short, out of fear that he will have to stand judgment for what he’s done.

But these possibilities are about Ryo’s view of what’s happening. We already know he’s wrong in one major respect: demons aren’t inherently evil. We’ve seen demons act out of love, and there are at least four devilmen known to the audience: Akira, Miko, Koda, and now Taro. If demons aren’t inherently evil, their opposite isn’t inherently good; the divine here could quite easily be a force of repression and conformity just as the demons are a force of transgression and indulgence. Given Christianity’s long history–especially from the perspective of a non-Christian culture that successfully resisted attempts to colonize and Christianize it–of supporting repression and enforcing conformity, that would be just as in keeping with the episode’s Biblical references.

That reading also contextualizes this episode’s reminder that Akira is living in a Christian household, a relative rarity in Japan. This same household’s three children are, from oldest to youngest, the Devilman, the survivor of brief possession by a slime demon that took advantage of her relative innocence and budding sexuality, and another devilman that just ate someone’s dog. Despite millennia of effort, you can’t actually moralize away transgressive desires.

The beginning of the episode lends credence to this reading. The rappers compare panicked humans starting riots, roving street gangs that attack anyone suspected of being a demon, and tanks rolling through the streets to the threat posed by the demons, and conclude there really isn’t that much difference. Humans are who we are, and the more tightly we draw the boundaries of normative life, the more transgressive desire there is to repress. But desire, in itself, is neutral. Transgression, in itself, is neutral–doing wrong is wrong by definition, not because it breaks some rule. Breaking the same rule in different circumstances might be right!

In turn, this would imply that the most natural alignment is of humans and demons against the divine, and of course that in turn would make the person trying to gather the devilmen a vitally important bridge between the two groups. Akira as the link once again centers his strongest trait, compassion, and positions it in opposition to an authoritarian divinity. And indeed, compassion does make a far better guide to moral behavior than any ruleset ever could.

But in the end, all of this is still in the air. There are still three episodes to go, and they could dramatically alter how any of this reads. For now, we must remain open to that possibility, and not become too rigidly attached to one interpretation/ruleset/narrative ourselves.

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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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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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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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Retroactive Continuity: Devilman Crybaby Episode 6

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There is something worse than demons.

Throughout Devilman Crybaby, I’ve talked about the demons as examples of the grotesque, of the distorted and violated human body as a representation of the violation of social norms. We have also seen that Akira’s compassion, his tears, are what give him control over the demon within him.

But with Koda, we see something else. We see, in his dream sequence, his demon equated to homosexual sex, threatening to emerge as he fucks his unnamed partner–but his sorrow over Junichi, the boy he loved who died violently at the hands of a demon (presumably at the same time Koda himself was possessed), preserves his humanity.

Ryo tells us that these feelings–caring, love, compassion–are nonexistent in demons, that they have emotions but no conscience, no capacity to care for others. But as we saw last episode, this is a lie: demons can have feelings for each other, even sacrifice themselves to help each other. The only person we see acting entirely without compassion is Ryo, who allows a stadium full of people to be slaughtered just so that he can get his message out to the world. This could be defended as a necessary sacrifice to prevent a greater threat, except for one key detail: Ryo shows no sign of caring at all. He is gleeful about the success of his plan, which demonstrates that whatever his motivation is, it is definitely not that he cares about demons’ potential victims.

That much is fairly obvious: the show has been increasingly framing Ryo in villainous terms throughout. More interesting is how this interacts with the idea of the grotesque as a violation of social norms, the equation of the demon with homosexual intercourse but the human with homoromantic love.

We live in a society based on norms–sets of rules that define the ranges of normal, acceptable behavior. Outside those norms lies people and behaviors which deviate from those norms, and which can hence be referred to as deviant. This relationship maps neatly onto the Us-Them or Self-Other divide: the norm is that which describes the idealized extended Self, the “best” version of the community within which an individual is socialized, while deviance is the defining trait of the Other. All forms of deviance, harmful and harmless, are thus projected onto the Other: for example, we assume the existence of “criminals” as a distinct type of person, that someone who commits one kind of deviant behavior (acting unlawfully) is automatically equivalent to someone who commits another kind (acting violently) and, further, that we normal people would never commit either kind of behavior. The same kind of blurring-together of the Other is at work in racists calling the cops on people of color engaging in perfectly innocuous behavior–one kind of deviance from the norm (of whiteness) is treated as equivalent to another deviation (criminality). Countless other examples abound.

Now look again at what Ryo has to say about demons: that they have no conscience, no non-violent emotions, no capacity for love or compassion. Yet we have already seen that is false, with Selene and her lover–and, for that matter, with Akira! He is not actually different from any of the other demons in any essential sense–like Koda and Miko, he is a human possessed by a demon, resulting in a fusion of both. Grotesquely, he straddles the boundary between Us and Them, normal and deviant. But it is the function of the grotesque to call into question that very boundary, to call attention to the fact that we created it ourselves, essentially arbitrarily.

Ryo’s contradicting belief, stridently stated, is that the people outside of the norm aren’t really people. They don’t feel like we do, don’t have compassion or love–they’re just monsters, according to Ryo, capable of nothing but violence. He points to their violence as proof that they are Other, and then the fact that they are Other to deny them any kind of humanity or any possibility of coexistence. Between Us and Them, he tells us, there can only be violent struggle; what’s more, They are everywhere, living among Us in secret, and must be rooted out by any means necessary, no matter the cost.

This is recognizably the call of the fascist. Substitute who you like for Them–Jews, communists, “illegal” immigrants–but it’s always the same. They are an existential threat to Us, subversive, violating our norms just by existing, and They must therefore be killed, or at least violently expelled. And if the cost of achieving that is the death of a great many of Us as well, so be it.

In this light, Akira saving Koda instead of killing him is his first step into revolutionary consciousness, into the awareness that he has more in common with the Other outside of the norms than he does with the people willing to use violence to maintain them. That the true struggle is not between human and demon, but between those who are able to coexist and those who refuse to try. Between those who straddle the boundaries and those insist on remaining inside. Between, in short, the grotesque and the normal.

Here’s hoping the grotesque win.

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