I can’t think of the last time Adam Carolla seemed remotely culturally relevant, but you’d think that he’d have learned from Tracy Morgan’s stations of the cross after his anti-gay routine earlier this year that verbally bashing gay people is probably not going to get you much work or positive attention. Carolla, charmingly, said on a recent podcast: “What percentage is transgendered. Let’s say I’m a politician and I say “hey, transgendered folks. I don’t need your vote.”…What the fuck? When did we start giving a shit about these people? Then we gotta work it out…there’s all these variations, where it’s like I’m a pre-op…shut the fuck up…Gays, shut up. Just get married and please shut up. You’re ruining my life.” There’s nothing bold and surprising about saying transgendered people are irrelevant or that you wish they would go away. What is kind of shocking is the extent to which folks like this mistake their ignorance for daring—and to which they, collectively, seem incapable of learning that this is a strategy that is not going to miraculously work for them this time after not working for other folks many times before.
Perhaps this is just a game design thing, but I’m intrigued that a new game about the Iranian Revolution starts you out as a diplomatic translator coming into the country with Americans, an invading Iraqi army, or the Taliban, and later as a student protester who is opposed to the Islamic elements of the revolution, rather than letting you play as an Islamic revolutionary. I understand there’s a lot more game play you can get out trying to free American hostages than than you can out of defending an embassy. And that decision makes sense given that the man behind 1979, Navid Khonsari (a Grand Theft Auto director) and his family fled Iran for Canada. But I do think it’s interesting that we’re at a point where it’s more acceptable to have a character team up with Saddam Hussein’s troops than it is to have a character who fights on behalf of the Ayatollahs. Geopolitics are funny. And as a side note, I’d love a narrative game based on Persepolis where you have to figure out how much lipstick you can wear before the Guardians crack down on you.
Apparently, the Albemarle County School Board in Virginia has taken A Study in Scarlet, the first Sherlock Holmes novel, off its sixth-grade reading list (though older students can get access to it) on the grounds that the book is insufficiently respectful to Mormons, and if it’s the first thing children read about the faith, they’ll be left with an unfairly bad impression.
While lost of accusations of racism, sexism, or anti-religious bias that lead to book-banning are specious or un-subtle, this is a sensationalistic novel. There’s no question that Arthur Conan Doyle’s depiction of Mormonism in A Study in Scarlet, written in 1886, 42 years after Joseph Smith’s death but four years before the 1890 manifesto that disavowed plural marriage in the church, is sensationalist. The plot revolves heavily around a forced plural marriage and Mormon military units like the Danite bands. But A Study in Scarlet isn’t entirely unsympathetic to Mormon characters. The Latter-day Saints save John and Lucy Ferrier from death by dehydration. And Sherlock Holmes dogs the murderer of the two Mormon victims without regard to their religion. Non-Mormons and Mormons alike use mysterious symbols, campaigns of terror, and write things in blood on walls—touches like this are in keeping with the tastes of the age rather than any unique anti-Mormon bias. Readers are unlikely to mistake a novel where we meet one of the heroes beating a corpse with a riding crop for a definitive history of the faith, in the same way no one, even young readers, will mistake The Eagle of the Ninth as a definitive history of pagan religion.
And more importantly, even if the details are sensationalistic, it is true that plural marriage and defense of the faith by force are part of early Mormon history. There’s a difference between a right to have the fact that you believe treated with respect, and the right to have the history your faith presented only the terms that make you comfortable, no matter the actual facts. Children also have a right to learn critical thinking in school, and works that offend no one are unlikely to help them develop those skills. If the parent who complained about A Study in Scarlet had asked that it be taught as part of an interdisciplinary curriculum that points out where Conan Doyle exaggerated for dramatic effect while acknowledging the realities of early Mormon history, I might have been sympathetic. But given that the school’s responded by removing the book from the curriculum rather than placing it in context, I think it’s time to get the Baker Street Irregulars to buy a bunch of Sherlock Holmes books for Albemarle County schoolkids, just as the Vonnegut Museum did with Slaughterhouse Five after the book was banned in Missouri.
I’m reading Grant Morrisson’s Supergods (about which more to come when I finish) right now, so when one of you suggested I watch HBO’s new, and extremely good, documentary Superheroes, I knew I’d end up reading the two works against each other. “We live in the stories we tell ourselves,” Morisson writes. “In a secular, scientific rational culture lacking in any convincing spiritual leadership, superhero stories speak loudly and boldly to our greatest fears, deepest longings, and highest aspirations. They’re not afraid to be hopeful, not embarrassed to be optimistic, and utterly fearless in the dark.” Superheroes is about people who actually, not just imaginatively, live in the stories they tell themselves, who put on spandex and masks and head out to try to make their communities safer places.
Superheroes is admirably even-handed in assessing the motivations of the people who are featured in it. “I’ve grown up in a household of abuse, violence, I was bullied in school. I myself have been a victim of violent crime,” says Mr. Xtreme, the first hero we meet (the documentary calls them all by their chosen names. “I do this to protest things that are wrong with society.” But as we also find out, his mother thinks he’s been depressed since his grandmother told him he was so bad that his mother had gone away to get a replacement baby when she had his brother. Zimmer’s openly gay and fights without a mask because he’s worried about feeling closeted again. “It’s not so difficult to get into the mind of a criminal because I used to be a criminal. I sold drugs, I used to womanize, I was borderline alcoholic,” Lucid confesses. “Throughout my life, I’ve hurt enough people that I feel like I need to give back.” Insignis is also a recovering alcoholic, while Fool King grew up in a gang-infested neighborhood. Master Legend’s father was in the Ku Klux Klan, but he credits the Christian values his grandmother taught him with inspiring his superheroism.
And the documentary also draws a careful distinction between criticizing people for taking on superheroic identities, which it doesn’t do, and assessing their efficacy, which it’s clear-headed about. Robin Rosenberg, a clinical psychologist who has written extensively about the subject of superheroes, makes clear she doesn’t think there’s anything abnormal about taking on another identity. But a number of police veterans make clear how risky superhero work can be if heroes decide to confront violent criminals, as both Mr. Xtreme and Dark Guardian, who tries to drive drug dealers out of Washington Square Park at night, do fairly regularly, without involving the police. And the thing about being a superhero is that it’s hard to find crime even when you’re looking for it. Mr. Xtreme never runs into a groper he’s trying to hunt down in Chula Vista, though he does help lead an awareness campaign about the attacks. The New York Initiative never finds anyone even when they send out members alone, looking scantily dressed or vulnerable to try to provoke attacks they can stop, something that’s both
properly labeled entrapment in the movie and that carries with it tremendous risks.
And as much as some of the heroes say they’re anti-corruption, some of them are clearly looking for opportunities to get into some sort of trouble with a cause attached to it, like Lucid, who declares that “This is me acting out a need I feel…I’m just sick of the corruption I see everywhere I look, whether it’s your boss at work or the guy next door who’s been beating his wife for 20 years,” and who later is disappointed when one of their sting operations fails. And just because you’re acting out your fantasy doesn’t mean it’s actually getting you the life you want. Mr. Xtreme explains that he doesn’t have much of a social life because he doesn’t have time. Apocalypse Meow joins her husband in reaching out to the homeless as a superhero, but that doesn’t mean that everyone’s going to be so understanding. Being a superhero may be a fantasy you act out, but it’s not a private one, and it can implicate the health and wellbeing of other people if you’re not careful and thoughtful about it.
But there’s an element to the superheroes’ work that I think is presented as if it’s totally, unambiguously admirable, and suggests new possibilities for joyful and powerful activism and citizenship. And that’s superheroism as a kind of magical activism. Stan Lee talks about his early days of drawing comics when he knew a man who dressed up in a superhero costume and harassed deadbeat landlords with a megaphone until they turned poor people’s hot water back on, a tactic that was probably strange, but certainly got attention, and seems to have been reasonably effective. Master Leader may be a dude who hangs out in a van and has awkward social interactions with people at bars, but he also knows about a mission that’s badly in need of donated toys for kids for Christmas, who end up getting their presents from not just Santa Claus but superheroes. There’s a certain level of self-awareness who come to San Diego during Comic-Con not to go to panels but to hand out water and food to homeless people (and who put together kits for homeless people in their own communities at their own expense). If putting on a mask and a costume is what gets you to sit down and talk to someone destitute, there’s a value in that empathy however you get there. If being a superhero is what inspired Zimmer to take EMT classes and be in a position to provide emergency medical attention, that’s a net value to society.
“I really treasure that anyone comes forward with a passion to public service,” says Chula Vista Councilman Rudy Ramirez of Mr. Xtreme’s campaign to bring attention to the groper who was attacking women in the city. If you want to be bigger than yourself in service of your community, and to imbue ideas about justice and collective responsibility with a certain kind of excitement and wonder, there’s something beautiful in that.
Some commenters have pointed out that entrapment is only entrapment if law enforcement does it. I apologize for the error, though I still feel some anxiety about these sorts of tactics.
This post contains spoilers through the Aug. 14 episode of True Blood.
One of the things I find increasingly irritating about True Blood is the way the show invokes social issues without actually reckoning with them in any meaningful way, shape, or form. When Hoyt and Jessica break up, he parrots his mother’s “God hates fangs” rhetoric, but with muted impact — though they’ve struggled with his feelings about her being a vampire, in this instance, she’s dumping him after having cheated on him with his best friend, rather than them breaking up because of internalized self-loathing. When Bill tells a newscaster that “Many vampires feel alone and confused, programmed to despise themselves,” there are direct parallels to the suicides of gay teenagers and the It Gets Better project, but it seems crass. There’s no real evidence that lots of vampires are killing themselves, and in this case, the death the vampires are trying to cover up isn’t a suicide at all.
Ditto with the class politics that are there for a minute when Bill meets up with Antonia, and after he calls her a lady as a gesture of respect, she declares, “I am no lady. I am peasant and proud of it.” There’s a really interesting story to be told about the way that vampires successfully insert themselves at the top of the class hierarchy: they’re not at the top of the magical heap (at least that’s what Marcus’s lecture to the pack tonight suggests), they’re at the top of the class heap in whatever era they’re living in. It would be interesting to see the show actually draw out some of those implications, the way power in both the visible and invisible world works to reinforce the hierarchies that exist in both, but there’s very little there.
And that political incoherence gets at something that’s really bothering me this season: the flashbacks. True Blood‘s cast is already enormous, and the flashbacks bring in a whole entire other case of character and set of contexts that we’re supposed to keep track of. And honestly, the portrayal of the ghostly woman turning Baby Mikey into a pyromaniac and taking advantage of Lafayette’s newly-discovered powers as a medium deeply bothers me. Until now, she’s been silent and enigmatic, a literal magical negro. And now that we’re getting her story, she’s speaking in faked dialect that would make critics of The Help apoplectic, saying things like the fact that her lover killed their child is “better for you because I am Negress.” These stories are busy, and they’re just tremendously trope-y, and I think they’re distracting from the good work that is happening, bit by bit, in these episodes.
And there is some. The idea that dating within the shifter community can disrupt some complicated power arrangements, especially if you end up dating a packmaster’s ex, who has a parole officer and some custody issues, is much more interesting than three-quarters of what happened in this episode. I really hope Tommy reaches some moral reckoning this season, because he’s irritating rather than really revealing, and an example of how cluttered Alan Ball’s let the show’s magic get, but I thought his appropriation of Maxine’s clothes was nicely shot. I’d be really curious to see the show spend a bit more time on the oil leases question. True Blood‘s most interesting when magic is telling us something about Southernness, not when it’s getting us the world’s stupidest Where The Wild Things Are transforming bedroom crossed with a porn studio.
Quick programming note: our Deadwood discussions are going to switch to Tuesdays and Thursdays so we don’t get recap-overloaded on Mondays and Fridays. Otherwise, the bridge is, as always for these posts, yours.
-The charter school lottery process is going to be part of the new Spider-Man comics.
-Is Gloria Steinem just a professional hater now? (Glad she can at least find it in herself to like Lady Gaga.)
-So glad Aziz Ansari rescued himself from business school with comedy.
-It’s not very nice of the Avengers to destroy Cleveland. Cleveland has enough problems!
-This is why ladies can’t have nice things.
There’s been a lot of discussion of a series of illustrations, some of which are reproduced here, that show what male superheroes would look like if they were posed like Wonder Woman is on the cover of the latest Justice League. I was particularly interested to see those images in conjunction with a new study that looks at 1,000 Rolling Stone covers and determines that the images of both men and women have become more sexual more frequently over the 43 years the magazine’s been published, but that over time, the number of sexualized and hypersexualized images of women has increased faster than the number of comparable images of men. I mention this because while I think reducing women to their sexuality is a problem, we’ve also got something of an equal opportunity problem here.
The reason those images of superheroes posed like Wonder Woman are resonating is in part because they’re funny, they’re superheroes in drag. They help make clear why it’s ridiculous to have Wonder Woman running around fighting evil in a swimsuit — it can be hard to see things as ridiculous when they’re all you’ve ever seen, but when you see a reversal, like a pantsless Batman, it’s usefully jarring. But these images don’t accomplish their full purpose because they aren’t actually meant to be sexy. They don’t communicate to men what it’s like to see another man held up as an object of pure sexual desire for women’s consumption.
That’s one of the reasons I cracked up in the 2 Broke Girls extended trailer when Kat Dennings explains that she can’t resist her cheating newly-ex boyfriend because of “he had these muscle thingies [adjacent to his abs]…I don’t know what they’re called but they make smart girls stupid.” Or why Crazy Stupid Love is selling the joke where Emma Stone tells Ryan Gosling, “It’s like you’re Photoshopped!” when he takes off his shirt. There’s this idea that female desire doesn’t exist, or if it does, that it’s sort of laughable, which both of those examples thankfully reject, but as a result, we have fewer images of men that are just purely about being beautiful and covetable. Patrick Swayze’s incredibly desirable in Dirty Dancing, but the fact that there are so few images of men that are just available for the female gaze like that hugely magnifies the significance of his performance and his self-presentation in the movie.
I don’t want to live in a world where we remove all images of women that are desirable. I just want more of other kinds of images, and equal opportunity for women who like to sigh over dudes to have images to sigh over.
I would like nothing more than to stop feeling an obligation to watching Glee, which I think is the most overrated show on television. But apparently, one of the most popular scripted shows in the country is also about to become the only show on television about arts policy. Sue Sylvester is going to start her campaign for Congress as a hardcore anti-immigration reformer, but when that doesn’t garner her the support she expects, she starts campaigning on an arts education platform.
I don’t expect that this will be thoughtful, or anything: it’s not as if that’s any sort of logical, or even logically manipulative, political evolution. Ohio is actually fairly good on public support for the arts—the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies projects that the funding for the state’s arts agency will go up 15.3 percent next year.
But the show was best in its first season when there was a real struggle to keep the glee club alive because McKinley’s budget was so stressed because the efforts people made over it illustrated the extent to which the club was important to them. Will has only ever been an interesting character when he’s faced realistic struggles with money and his relationship with Terri, which is motivated more by money than the weird sexual tango he has with Emma, who he wants to get over her issues so he can sleep with her. Glee could have been a great show about the recession, an idea Ryan Murphy’s largely abandoned except for randomly having Sam’s family lose their home. I don’t expect that this development will rectify the enormous flaws the show’s developed over the last two years. But it shows some awareness of what made the show initially watchable and engaging.
This post contains spoilers through the Aug. 14 episode of Breaking Bad.
For an episode without a lot of dialogue, a lot happened in the world of Breaking Bad this week. I don’t know that this was my favorite episode this season — I go back and forth between “38 Snub” and “Bullet Points” — but it’s part of a trend of the show picking up momentum and filling in continuity and plausibility holes in a way I find really gratifying.
This week started with Walt in one kind of panic and ended with him in another. With Jesse missing, he careened down the street, telling Saul breathlessly “Every dollar. If you don’t hear from me in 24 hours, I want you to give her every last dollar. I don’t care if you have to stuff it trash bags, just make sure she gets everything.” But once the danger’s gone, and he and Skylar have celebrated their purchase of the car wash by sleeping together, an event that’s prompted by Walt’s phone message telling Skylar he loves her, it’s as if another kind of noose is tightening on him. Skylar tells Walter Jr., though not Walt, that he’ll be moving back in on Tuesday. She’s designed the narrative that they’re using to explain their sudden riches to Hank, Marie, and the world. It’s as if Skylar’s embrace of their charade is a little too enthusiastic. Walt may tell himself and Skylar that by cooking meth, he’s providing for his family, but I’m not sure he’s comfortable with his family taking on its old shape and its old dynamics. It’s not just Skylar who’s changed, it’s Walter Jr., who comes down for breakfast and asks him for coffee instead of orange juice. “I didn’t know you started drinking coffee,” Walt tells his son, who he’s been distant from since he started cooking. “I also started tying my own shoelaces too, all by myself,” Walter Jr. tells his dad. When Walt left his family to go off into the unknown and start cooking, he assumed everything would be the same. But now that he’s back, Walt may be providing for his family but he’s not in control of it.