Why We Need Wonder Woman Now

A few weeks ago, the blogs and news outlets that follow this kind of story got their hands on some casting script pages and character descriptions for the CW’s developing Wonder Woman project. From these very sketchy documents and the network’s superhero history, it looks like they’re going the fairly traditional route with Diana’s origin: Already mostly grown, Diana is a visitor from the Amazon’s island Themyscira to America, with Steve Trevor acting as a kind of guide to what appears to Diana as a mostly alien culture.  Most heartening is the idea that this take on Wonder Woman seems to hem much closer to the eponymous and excellent 2009 animated film than the atrocity that was the David E. Kelley pilot.  So why do I think this approach to her origins is so important?  For the same reason it worked so well–and so unexpectedly and complicatedly politically–in the 2009 version.  When Diana’s outsiderness is emphasized, she can point out the ludicrousness of certain aspects of contemporary culture’s gender politics.  After encountering a woman who asks Steve to move a desk for her to get her pen, she says, “Remarkable, the advanced brainwashing that has been perpetuated on the females of your culture. Raised from birth to believe they’re not strong enough to compete with the boys, and then as adults, taught to trade on their very femininity.”  Themyscira is a place literally removed from patriarchal power, which allows Diana to see the effects of such all the more clearly when she comes to America. Even when she feels she must adhere to the culture to hide her identity, she does so mockingly.

This is the kind of Wonder Woman we need, a feminist and a warrior, a superhero and a woman trying to live in this world.  Moreover, this seems like the kind of superhero the CW might actually be able to deliver.  With Arrow working at similarly complicated but worthwhile approaches to class warfare, the path seems marked for a more political Wonder Woman.

As some have pointed out, Arrow sometimes suffers from its approach, with class warfare attributed to a nefarious cabal of evildoers and Oliver Queen’s propensity for killing off underlings undercutting the institutional nature of class disparities.  But this dichotomy between the stated morals of the hero and the actions that seem to perpetuate that which he or she is trying to battle is part of the base mythology of superheroes. Superman’s “truth, justice, and the American Way” can toe the line of fascism. Heroes and their nemeses are often designed as two sides of the same coin: Captain America and Red Skull share their patriotism; Thor and Loki are both gods; and Batman and the Joker both use the power of theatricality and fear.  For Wonder Woman, her main nemesis has most often been her visual representation.  She is a woman warrior who can look like this: 

But more often looks like this in her media incarnations:

The balance of Wonder Woman as a feminist subject and as an object of desire is one she must strike in order to succeed.  The Lynda Carter version of Wonder Woman reflected this difficult balance as it aired during the height of “jiggle television” that was also the height of second wave feminism. Objectification is part of the CW take on superheroes (one need only count the astounding number of minutes Ollie’s been shirtless on Arrow), but it’s often countered by fairly decent character development to make these heroes rounded, complex individuals instead of one-dimensional symbolic ciphers. By emphasizing Diana’s outsider perspective, she can have it both ways: commenting on the ridiculousness of a culture that makes a habit of reducing a woman who lifts cars to a mere object of the male gaze without disrupting the unfortunate television and comic book standards that make that gaze the norm.

Finally, and perhaps more importantly for the “Why” of my title is the fact that Wonder Woman can be doubly mythic, tapping into both wider allegorical mythical figures because of her connection to the Greek pantheon while also standing as a mythic feminist icon, representing its changing politics and cultural place.  Wonder Woman can fight war by fighting War (Ares) or fear by fighting Phobos, but she can also wage war against sexism because she has so often been held up as a demigod of feminism, striding across the world and its entertainment media as a warrior for the feminist cause. She, like all good myths, is a woman out of time who can thus be of any time.  As female lawmakers are thrown out of their own legislatures for saying “vagina,” and women’s healthcare hearings feature panels of all men, her time is once again now.

Operation: Publication a success.

This is part of why the blog has been far less active over the last few months.

Check out my article in Networking Knowledgehttp://ojs.meccsa.org.uk/index.php/netknow/article/view/271

Any feedback is appreciated.  Hopefully more such post to come.

Updates

I know I’ve been away from the blog for a while. Finishing the first year of a PhD program while teaching two new courses will do that to a person. But I’m here to provide some links to some of the work I’ve been doing elsewhere.

On Antenna:

Mom Enough?: The Return of the Absentee Mother as Threat”
Looking at that TIME cover and the threat of returning/returned absentee mothers as potential threats on Alias, Grimm, and Revenge.

Recaps/Reactions to
The Academy Awards
The SAG Awards (Scorcese!)


My course syllabi (I taught History of Motion Pictures and History of American Television Genres last semester.)

I hope to get back to this blog this summer.

Once Upon A Time‘s Monomythic Fairy Tale

“I know the hero never believes at first. If he did, it wouldn’t be a very good story.”

Once Upon A Bad Photoshop Job

Diving back into this blog after a number of monumental changes in my life (new program, new city, new work), I’m going back to an old interest of mine: the durability of the monomyth. The monomyth, also known as the hero’s journey, was identified by Joseph Campbell as an underlying structure of the majority of Western folklore and myths. It follows the hero through the call to adventure, various trials, victory, and finally reintegration into society. I wrote my undergraduate thesis in part about the re-workings of this narrative structure in Jewish-American fiction, and part of my work on that project included looking at the variety of ways the hero’s journey structure has appeared in recent popular culture. The best example of this narrative is, of course, Star Wars. George Lucas directly attributes much of the film’s structure to Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces.  Star Wars succeeds–at least partially–because it wears its monomyth on its sleeve. While I appreciate the variety of cultural producers who have twisted and reworked the hero’s journey over the years, there’s value in the commitment to telling a familiar story well. Which brings me to Once Upon A Time.

Like, apparently, 12 million other American viewers, I tuned into Once Upon A Time‘s premiere two weeks ago. I was instantly enamored with the fairy-tales-in-our-world program, but I didn’t quite know why. I had thought I’d be constantly comparing the show to Bill Willingham’s brilliant comic series, Fables, and find it wanting, but while watching the pilot that thought rarely entered my mind. Perhaps it was the unbridled cheese, perhaps it was the fantasy, or perhaps it was the power of the Disney machine. I couldn’t pin the appeal down beyond it being a fun ride. Then I watched last Sunday’s episode in which the plot-device-in-child-form, Henry utters the quote that starts this post. He’s practically citing Campbell, referencing the Call to Adventure and more explicitly, the hero’s Refusal of the Call (here, only an initial refusal).

The (New) Hope

Once Upon A Time appears to be taking Campbell’s conception of the hero of myth and applying it to the world of fairy tales. In The Hero With A Thousand Faces Campbell writes:

The composite hero of the monomyth is a personage of exceptional gifts. . . . He and/or the world in which he finds himself suffers from a symbolical deficiency. In fairy tales this may be as slight as the lack of a certain golden ring, whereas in apocalyptic vision, the physical and spiritual life of the whole earth can be represented as fallen, or on the point of falling into ruin. Typically, the hero of the fairy tale achieves a domestic, microcosmic triumph, and the hero of myth a world-historical macrocosmic triumph. (37-8)

In Once Upon A Time, a story explicitly and wholly intent on fairy tales deficient in their own symbolic history, the fairy tale hero and the mythical hero are interestingly conflated. Emma Swann, the protagonist pictured above (with the StarWars-echoing designation of “The Hope”) is the child of Snow White and Prince Charming, destined to awake the town filled of fairy-tale figures from their ignorance of their own history. The macrocosm of the fairy-tale kingdom from where they came has been funneled into the microcosm of Storeybrook, Maine, the town Emma must save.  In her domestic achievement, she, supposedly, will save an entire world.  Her goal, in fact, is the reintegration of society itself (melding fairy-world and Storybrooke), and in doing so, reintegrating herself into the family she never knew she had (Snow White and Prince Charming).

With only two episodes aired so far, I can only speculate on the true influence of the monomythic structure on the show, but there certainly appears to be some intriguing affinities between the two.  Emma’s son, Henry, appears to be fulfilling dual roles as Caller to the hero and her supernatural guide (despite his key characteristic being that he is not in any fairy tales), telling her about her destiny and giving her the knowledge he believes she needs to fulfill her storybook role.  When Emma crossed the First Threshold by deciding to stay in Storybrooke, it is a moment of re-invigoration more than self-annihilation (marked by the town clock, symbol of the characters being stuck out of time, moving for the first time in memory).  The changes to the familiar structure are mild and necessary to keep the story fresh, but at its core, Once Upon A Time seems happy to embrace its fairy-tale hero’s journey.

Morality at Home and Morality at Work: Guilt and Repentance on The Good Wife

I admit to being a latecomer to The Good Wife.  I only began watching it a few weeks ago, succumbing to various recommendations, but I am all caught up and felt I had to write something about it. The Good Wife fills a space recently vacated by the original Law and Order by entertainingly and critically using “ripped from the headlines” episodic storytelling that is grounded in characters who exist in the tension between idealism and practicality.  But unlike Law and Order, The Good Wife revels in its melodramatic serial elements.  It recalls 19th century novels, particularly Austen and Dickens in a few ways: the constant presence of public scrutiny, the romantic tension between Alicia and Will (and especially the missed connection represented by the “lost” voicemail from the end of the first season, reminiscent of the miscommunications that undergird the romantic novels), and, perhaps most interestingly, the kind of semi-Victorian attention to guilt.  Guilt is not shame in this conceptualization, though they are linked.  I’m using guilt here to play not only on the legal elements of the show but also to confine the affect to the specific sphere of the Florrick family.  While Peter and Alicia might feel shame (or at least portray themselves in public as ashamed as required by the political machine) as a result of the press and public attention to Peter’s affair, guilt within the Florrick family is a little more slippery.

The reference to morality at home and morality at work in the title of this post is lifted from the second-season episode “Wrongful Termination.”  Michael J. Fox’s character, Louis Canning, an in-court antagonist to Alicia, describes her as feeling guilty about what she does in her job, particularly the moral compromises required of her as a high-powered lawyer.  He advocates moral compartmentalization while much of Alicia’s character arc over the two seasons occurs in the space between her (and others’) idea of herself as a moral person and the moral pragmatism required of her as both a lawyer and a politician’s wife.  And yet, as Suzanne Leonard wrote for Flow, Alicia is often afforded a degree of privacy that somewhat obscures the question of her morality.  She is shaped by the political world around her and is mostly reactive to it.  Attention to her morality (and her guilt) is elliptical.

Giving Angela Landsbury a run for her money in the category of playing hateful, manipulative, political matriarchs

Jackie Florrick: She may look harmless, but she can out-maneuver Eli Gold (while being less charming).

If Alicia does, as Canning claims, go home and feel guilty about her work, it seems in direct contrast to Peter and his mother, Jackie.  The show executes a fairly masterful work of sleight-of-hand in its jump from the initial press conference where Peter resigns from his post as State Attorney and admits to his adultery to six months later when Peter is in jail and Alicia has started her job.  It keeps the viewer from seeing his apologies, from seeing his expressions of guilt.  By the time the action of the series really begins, it’s six months later and any apologies seem rote instead of earnest.  Jackie tells Peter in “Boom,” “You are a good man. You want to blame yourself. But you apologized. You apologized again, and again. Anybody who wants another apology from you only wants you to be weak. So stop this. Stop this now. My son will not be made weak.”  It’s a moment that she is pitting herself against Alicia and her requirements and reminders of Peter’s guilt.

Apologies are easy; repentance is hard, and it’s repentance that Alicia seems to want.  Repentance requires acknowledgement of guilt from within then earnest attempts to atone; it requires humility and acknowledgement of one’s own weakness.  Jackie thinks only in terms of public scrutiny: Peter apologized publicly and went through the motions of a repentant politician, but–and this may be due to Chris Noth’s performance and intertextual persona–Peter never seemed all that guilty at home, particularly in his relationship with Alicia.  He accepted her requirements for his return home, including sleeping in separate rooms, but he often framed his self-reform in terms of never committing the same sin again.  This is a key element in religious repentance, yes, but it elides over the deeper issues in his personality and in their marriage that led to his affairs.  He goes through the steps of repentance, especially as mandated by Christianity, but I never got the sense that Peter feels guilty.  And Jackie serves as an absolving force, pushing Peter away from feelings of guilt and casting Alicia’s desire to see his guilt as completely ludicrous and cruel.  Jackie even sets herself against the possibility of Peter’s movement toward guilt and atonement when she tells the pastor from whom Peter seeks spiritual guidance, “You just say ‘God’ and you think you can make people feel bad about themselves. . . . You don’t know my son. This is a phase. You are a phase” (“Running”).  But I never saw Peter feeling bad about himself, in deference to neither God nor Alicia.

What's the verdict: Guilty or Not Guilty?

While Peter’s relationship with Pastor Isaiah folds into his political ambitions and maneuvering–it helps him shore up the black vote and provides a place for him to surreptitiously meet with political operatives during his house arrest–it is still a viable avenue toward atonement, especially with Alicia if it can help him to display guilt.  However, as the politics of his race for State Attorney heat up and the political benefits of the pastor fall by the wayside, Isaiah is essentially dismissed as spiritual advisor.  This occurs as Peter continues to cover-up an affair from his past that Alicia does not know about.  The cover-up and betrayal push Alicia over the edge, and she moves Peter out of the house.  Guilt would have Peter disclose all his past sins in order to seek atonement and Alicia’s forgiveness.  Such simultaneity is not coincidental, and I’m very interested to see how Peter is characterized next season regarding his affairs, his guilt, and his either continued or halted (and ostensibly completed) path of attempted redemption.  And I’m interested to see where Alicia’s morality goes and how her possible turning away from guilt could be liberating instead of morally isolating.  After the final betrayal, she is hardened but also perhaps more herself, and as she insists to Jackie, “I am this way.  Your son made me this way” (“In Sickness”).

Friday Feast: recipes from religious studies

[Edit: Well, this post seemed to actually turn people away from my blog.  Maybe someday I’ll do something with this project, but it’s unpopularity and my increasing tendency to travel on Fridays have led me to discontinue this proposed weekly posting.  No more Friday feasts unless actual food is involved.]

Welcome to the first “Friday Feast,” a bit of a departure from the regular topics I use this blog to explore.  There will be little to no television-related content in these posts, but it’s a fun little project I want to share.  Beginning today and continuing each Friday in May, I will be posting theoretical “recipes” from my religious studies cookbook.  These were originally the culmination of a graduate seminar in religious studies theory, methods, and history.  The cookbook traces many canonical thinkers and their theory or methods in religious studies.  This essentially represents the field’s intellectual history.  The recipes attempt to encapsulate some element of each thinker’s contribution to the field (when concepts are mixed with real food elements, there is an explanation), and the courses that I will focus on each week mark the general periodization of the field from the 15th century to the present (except for the “main course” which I reordered slightly to fit those thinkers I find foundational).  Each week I will also be posting without much commentary a menu grouping that seeks to make connections among the thinkers.

These postings will not take the place of television-related posts for this month, but I hope they will provide an interesting diversion each Friday

The How I Met Your Mother crew is excited about appetizers and hors d'oeuvres

Appetizers (15th-early 19th centuries)

Herbert of CherburyCommon Notions crudités
Ingredients:
There is a Supreme God.
This Sovereign Deity ought to be worshipped.
Worship means genuine piety and morality and not hypocritical displays.
Sins can be forgiven.
There will be rewards and punishments in an after life.

Directions:
1.Combine ingredients on a platter to present the common denominator of all religions.
2. For variation: There is no variation; this is the universal religious foundation.

David Hume-Hopes and Fears Bruscetta
This recipe serves 6-10 people as the scientifically based origin of religion.  For most accurate results, use hope, fear, and other sentiments with unknown origins and causal processes. Bread base must be all-natural because religion is natural and non-rational; best if recipe used is from a polytheistic religion, as that is the original form of religion according to Hume. DO NOT SERVE WITH DIESTIC APPETIZERS.

Ingredients:
6-7 tomatoes, chopped precisely in repeatable half-inch cubes
2 cloves garlic, chopped precisely
6-8 basil leaves, minced
1 Tbsp pure fear
1 Tsp essence of hope
other sentiments to taste
All-natural bread base, toasted.

Directions:
1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees F
2. Combine tomatoes, garlic, and basil in a large bowl.  Soak in fears, hopes, and sentiments until completely infused and no longer discernible as separate from the tomatoes, garlic, and basil mixture.
3. Spread mix of sentimental tomatoes on the natural base.
4. Serve warm. Best with other attempts at scientific study of religion.

Friedrich Schleiermacher-Geful Three-Layer Pate 
This recipe best served to rationalists and intellectuals resistant to religion.  Shape pate in manner befitting its surroundings when served.

Ingredients:
3 medium onions, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 pound beef hearts (feeling), trimmed and chopped
1 pound lamb livers (God), trimmed and cubed
1 pound mixed cauliflower and zucchini (base), chopped
1 cup  affect, thirded
½ cup feeling, thirded
¾ cup Hegelian thought, thirded

Directions:
1. For each layer of consciousness in the pate (base, feeling, God):

  • a. Sautee one onion and one garlic until browned.
  • b. Add beef, lamb, or vegetables and cook through

2. Set each layer aside to cool.
3. Pulse each layer in food processor while contemplating the experience of the infinite and the feeling that you might experience from encountering it. (Note: this process will be subjective based on the affects and sentiments each cook will feel.)
4. Cook each layer with affect, feeling, and Hegelian thought.
5. Pour each cooked layer into lined mold in order of consciousness: base, feeling, God.
6. Chill at least 4 hours before serving to allow affect and feeling to infuse throughout.

Karl Marx-Vodka Tomatoes
To get the full effect of this opiate of the masses, use the strongest Russian vodka you can find and have it consecrated by a Russian Orthodox priest.  For best results, used tomatoes and basil grown in community garden.

Ingredients:
1 pound cherry tomatoes
1 bottle vodka
2 Tbsp fresh chopped basil
2 Tbsp Hegelian dialectic
3 Tsp Feurbachian projection, locus in society

Directions:
1. Blanche in water infused with Hegelian dialectic and Feuerbachian projection.  Peel tomatoes, maintaining influence of Hegel and Feuerbach.
2. Soak in vodka and basil until one taste would create the illusion of heaven at the price of material concerns.
3. Serve chilled and to the masses.

Variation for presentation: Serve over base of economic concerns and within the superstructure of social institutions.

Ludwig FeuerbachProjection Cheese Puffs
While traditional cheese puffs may call for the diner to resemble the form of the cheese puff, this recipe works best when cheese puffs are formed in the shape of humankind.  Great appetizer for an anthropological or a humanist menu.  Do not serve any puffs that fall flat as they will no longer resemble projection theories.

Ingredients:
2 Tbsp Hegelian essence of God/humanity, reversed
1 cup milk
4 tablespoons unsalted butter (1/2 stick)
1/4 teaspoon salt
Dash cayenne pepper
1 cup all-purpose flour
3 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 1/2 cups grated Swiss cheese (Emmenthaler or Gruyere)
Course salt

Directions:
1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
2. Bring milk, butter, salt, and cayenne to boil in saucepan.  Remove from heat and mix in flour, stirring vigorously.
3. Transfer to food processor, add eggs, paprika, and cheese. Pulse until well mixed.
4. Form into shape of human on lined baking sheet.  Sprinkle with salt.
5. Bake for about 30 minutes until nicely puffed, forming base and projection layer separated by the air of psychological need.

Structures and Patterns Menu
(Those thinkers who look for patterns in religions that reveal underlying cultural structures)

Appetizer: Herbert of Cherbury-Common Notions crudités
First Course: James Frazer-Practical Magic Onion Soup
Main Course: Max Weber-Ideal Types T-bone Steak
Dessert: Harvey Whitehouse-Doctrinal and Imagistic (black and white) Cookies

Investigating Criminal Intent: Law and Order Outlier

Before Law and Order: Criminal Intent moved from NBC to USA Network in 2007, I had written off the variation, choosing instead Law and Order: Special Victim’s Unit as my version of choice.  I took notice of Criminal Intent as it shifted to cable, interested in seeing if it would change at all to fit the USA Network original programming brand.  With the abundance of Law and Order: CI reruns that still pervade cable’s daytime schedules, it was (and still is) surprisingly easy to get sucked into Groren and Eames’s investigations. However, as Criminal Intent prepares to return to USA for its tenth and final season this Sunday with the ballyhooed return of the original detective partnership of Goren and Eames, I find myself drawn to the show as an outlier of the Law and Order franchise.  It’s more “Law” than “Order,” going so far as to strike the lone Assistant District Attorney character after the fifth season to focus solely on the investigations and the (alternating) detective teams.  The removal of the courtroom element imbues the detectives with an almost preternatural ability to get confessions from their suspects, aligning the lead detectives, particularly Det. Bobby Goren, with exceptional (male) investigator brethren like Columbo, Sherlock Holmes, or Adrian Monk.

Columbo informs Law and Order: Criminal Intent‘s format and characterization.  The initial “twist” on the Law and Order formula that Criminal Intent advertised was the focus on the criminal in the opening scenes.  Early episodes hewed closer to the inverted detective story that Columbo popularized on television, some going as far as showing the criminal committing the murder, providing all the information the viewer needed to establish dramatic irony (see: season one, episode five, “Jones”).  The format connection between Columbo and Criminal Intent is “common knowledge” enough to be present in LO:CI‘s IMDb trivia page.  Most later episodes show only a few scenes establishing the victim and general circumstances of the murder, keeping the culprit hidden to maintain the tension of a “whodunit” narrative.

A byproduct of this later obfuscation of the murderer is that the skills of the investigating detectives appear heightened, making deductive and inductive leaps based solely on their skills and the information shared by viewer and detective.  This appears most often and explicitly regarding Det. Goren, a character who others repeatedly discuss as a genius.  Jeff Goldblum’s Det. Nichols similarly gained the mantle of “genius” during his tenure as a CI lead detective but less emphatically than Goren and more as code for “successful eccentric.”  The other alternating lead detective, Logan, was an import from the original Law and Order series and was characterized more as a stubborn but street-smart bruiser.  Goren’s shadow fell over both detectives because of his “genius” and ability to wrench confessions from his suspects.  Goren’s cerebral approach to detective work and D’Onofrio‘s performance of his awkward and lean-prone physicality also recall Columbo, particularly Peter Falk‘s portrayal of the eponymous detective as bumbling and physically askance. (Goran’s proclivity for leaning has even garnered a fan-made music video montage to “Lean Back.”)  Goren even occasionally drops the famous “Just one more thing . . .” Columbo catchphrase when questioning his suspects.

I have thus far only discussed the male detectives; this is because only the male detectives are positioned as the lead detectives (and thus lead characters) on Criminal Intent.  Though the characterization of the female detectives is strong–particularly with Eames’s multidimensionality–they are almost always primarily characterized in relation to their male partners.  Logan, Nichols, and Goren often take the active role in the investigation with their female partner forced into a reactive role.  Gender dynamics in the Law and Order franchise is deserving of much more attention than I can give here.  I point out this focus on male lead detectives and their exceptional skills to highlight the perhaps closer connection Criminal Intent has with that mode of detective storytelling than the bi-valent Law and Order formula.  Goren’s antecedents include Sherlock Holmes, Columbo, and Adrian Monk.  I have argued previously that this exceptional individual take on Law and Order helps Criminal Intent fit with USA Network’s brand, a brand based explicitly on characters and heavily influenced by Monk‘s success.  None of these detectives face the scrutiny of the courts within their narratives; their confessions only have to imply that they would lead to legal conviction.  This format allows for the detectives to be exceptional without facing the realism of paperwork, technicalities, and courtroom arguments.

Though Law and Order: Special Victims Unit also focuses on the detectives, their partnerships are part of a team unit that also includes a clear connection to the legal system though their prominent ADA characters.  Criminal Intent has been allowed to be an outlier to the formula–doing away with “Order” and focusing on an exceptional individual male detective– in part because it has been a network-outlier since its 2007 move from NBC and actually fits nicely into USA Network’s brand identity.