I Survived Fifty Shades of Grey

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Greetings Readers!

Well, y’all, I finally bit the bullet and watched/read Fifty Shades. In fact, for you dear readers, I actually read the entire trilogy. Lest you think I’m the slowest reader on the round earth, I didn’t actually receive the books until after the 1st of April. Originally, I wanted to borrow them, not buy them, but alas that wasn’t meant to be. Now that I’m done, I’d like to share some of the thoughts I had while I read them. Expect an op ed piece below:

My Kingdom for a Better Editor!

For the love of Pete, could this poor woman have had a better editor? Please? Someone needed to tell her that it isn’t wise to write the exact same scene over and over across three books.  I feel that much of the well deserved technical criticism of these books could have been avoided if they had only had a better editor. There are some moments here that are actually well written…even some moments that are actually authentically arousing. If only…if only…

Mythiness

I stand by some of my original assessment of the story. There is a deep and dark presence of the imagery connected to Hades and Persephone in these books. We know that this was Twilight fan fiction originally, which means that Hades and Persephone were always destined to be there. Note* if you don’t remember Hades and Persephone, google or read my other blog about Fifty Shades.

The images are everywhere: Seattle as a place–the rain, the grey…so much of the time. The solitude of Christian’s apartment. The lack of color in the decor. The way Christian whisks her away there without really telling her what is going on. The thresholding of the entrance to his apartment in the depths of his garage. His broody-ness. His despair. His loneliness. His self-loathing. His unexpected outbursts. His attempt to control his environment. The fact that he, in essence, takes Anastasia (thought I’ll not argue she is raped in the traditional sense…although one could argue whether or not our contemporary definition of rape is really what the myth points to either). Anastasia is an archetypal image of innocence, virginity, and purity who willingly steps deep into the dark. What Anastasia is NOT, however is Bella Swan. She is NOT the archetype of submission. That is the point of the entire story. Every. Single. Time. Christian tries to drag her down to his underworld of pain. And Every. Single. Time. she remerges. Christian loves her for that. He is drawn to her for it. And frankly, she is just as drawn to him. She chooses to work through his pain with him. That’s Hades and Persephone. The dark descent into the underworld–transformation–and the reemergence into the renewal of spring.

Now, where I was WRONG in my original assessment is where I suggested that this is ONLY a Hades and Persephone story. I actually began to doubt my thoughts on that score almost immediately sitting in the movie theater. Now having seen and read it I must admit that there is plenty of the authentically erotic in it. Archetypes of love (Aphrodite/Eros) and the soul (Psyche) run rampant over the entire series. Despite the darkness in this story, there is much of color, lightness, sweetness, and joy. Keep in mind though, that a lot of it is what Jungians call shadow aspects of these things. So much of this series is about the pain of becoming. Everything in this series is about beginning to learn about the unknown and the kind of mess that comes from that. It’s about the healing that comes through delving into the ickiness. Yeah, it ain’t pretty, but life ain’t always pretty. No relationship is pretty all the time–which leads into my next point.

Christian Grey: Millennial Man

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After chewing and chewing on this for a long time, it finally occurred to me that the archetypal energy behind the piece…that archetype that has so many people riled up, is of the masculine, not the feminine. Anastasia may be girlish, kind of naive, and insecure, but she knows who she is. She is strong and stubborn, as well as loving and determined. Christian, on the other hand, is broken. And he has been broken by a system that preys on the disenfranchised–sexually, financially, and socially. As the child of a drug addicted prostitute with no father figure in his early life other than his mother’s violent pimps and as a teen who is sexually abused by his mother’s friend, he is essentially a traumatized man-child. He IS the archetypal masculine that has been damaged by the patriarchy. He represents the messiness that happens when a man–a character seen as a tool of the patriarchy–who has been victimized tries to balance compensatory measures against the need for love without shame or guilt.

Many have suggested that Christian is an abuser. I don’t believe that it is helpful to classify him in that way. Abusers are generally narcissistic, often sociopathic characters. Christian is not. It is the depth of his empathy that causes him to shut down in the first place. He feels too much. And he has no way to process what he feels. Much like his archetypal precursors–Mr. Darcy, the Beast, Edward Lewis–his bad behavior is connected to childhood wounding, not to the essential nature of his character. I’m not excusing his bad behavior (believe me, I am exceedingly supportive of abuse victims. Not only are my mother and my sister survivors of abuse, but I myself have been in two relationships that stepped over the line of abuse. On the flip side, my brother-in-law was also the victim of horrific abuse from his first wife. I have dear friends that I love deeply who have been empowered to escape abusive situations. There is no excuse for it, nor should there be. Everyone has a right to freedom, love, and safety, and we must fight to support them all.), but what I am suggesting is my feminist friends-in-arms might consider for a second that our archetypal images of masculinity might just be that darn broken. What should we do with these broken images? Should we throw them all out? How are we to heal if we give up on them? How can we expect them to be something other than what they are, because these images speak to the reality of what we are truly feeling and experiencing.

We don’t need to tolerate crappy behavior, but if we truly love and accept others we should certainly seek to understand it. In my humble opinion, Anastasia shows us that our images of the maiden are doing just fine. Childlike though she is, this maiden has grit. She will grow to be a powerful woman. But the masculine…the hero…he is the one in peril. Beyond the fact that he doesn’t even know who he is and how blessed he is, he is so shut down emotionally so out of touch with his heart that he doesn’t even have the ability to access his pain, that is until Anastasia leaves him. It is at that point that he recognizes that if he should be lucky enough to get her back, he has to learn to open up to his hurt, even if he is terrified that the pain has the potential to unravel him.

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Over and over again in the series, Christian steps forward to receive love from Ana. And each time he comes forward, eyes wide, head down awaiting the blow of rejection. I see this all around me; men who are starving for love, no sense of how to be and how to love. I am convinced that this makes Christian the archetypal millennial male. One of the most interesting things about him is that he senses his need for the healing that a union with the feminine can provide. He is driven to seek it out, and when he manages to find it, he is terrified by even the slightest possibility that he might have to let it go. So he does what men have done to compensate for lack of control in many myths over many years. He attempts to control everything. And as we are still in the messiness of the shadow of patriarchy, his wealth makes it seem that he pulls it off. But a close read reveals the opposite. Fear, trauma, and the belief that they are unlovable. That is what is unconscious in our archetypal masculine. Who is rebuilding positive images of men? Where do they go for healing? Where are the positive heroes? As singer Paula Cole once crooned, “where have all the cowboys gone?” Perhaps that is the point. Perhaps men are asking themselves a similar question. I’m not suggesting that we feminist women should step down and baby these broken men. What I am suggesting is that we stand up even higher and offer them a hand up with us, as only the divine feminine can–in compassion, kindness, and with a swift kick in the ass.

Oh, and one more thing: if you want to read an amazing dissertation on this topic, keep your eyes peeled for work by my friend Art Deilbert–Toward New Masculine Identities. His work analyzes Arthurian tradition, suggesting that men can find healing in the character of Perceval as what he calls a lunar hero (in contrast to the common solar hero)–a lunar hero being a man in touch with the messy, emotional underworld of nighttime consciousness. Just read it, if you can. It is genius…and he is so right.

http://www.pacifica.edu/about-pacifica/pacifica-graduate-institute-student-services/dissertation-oral-defenses/entry/toward-new-masculine-identities

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50 Shades of Shadow

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Heads up, dear readers. I will soon write a commentary of 50 Shades of Grey. I’ve been resisting it forever. I’ve been told over and over not to read it…that it would kill my brain cells…so I have. HOWEVER, it’s been bothering me. The worldwide phenomena that this series has become has been bothering me…what it is saying about humanity has been bothering me, and (finally) yesterday I figured out what it is mythically that is going on and that bugs me so much. So, rather than make you wait for however long it takes me to finally read the books, research the topic, and write, I thought I’d pass along the epiphany I had.

What caught my mind yesterday as the torrent of Jezebel, MoviePilot, and The Christian Left articles entered my view from left and right on Facebook is that in many ways, 50 Shades is simply a new iteration of the Beauty and the Beast motif. Boiled down to its most basic archetypal ingredients, Beauty and the Beast is about the beautiful aspects of feminine humanity coming to love and nurture what is dark, ugly and in shadow, particularly, what is shadow in the animalistic nature of humanity.

Some of the earliest versions of the motifs of the myths relate this to the archetypes of love (eros) and the soul (psyche), a perfect example of which would be Apuleius’ The Golden Ass, in which he gives the story of Eros and Psyche itself…a tale of love’s affair with the soul that eventually elevates humanity into the realm of the immortals.

Here’s the short version: Psyche is married to Eros as a sacrifice because her the idolatrous worship of her beauty has become an affront of Aphrodite. Psyche has no knowledge of who/what she married (as he always visits her in the dark of night), but finds her husband loving, attentive, and well, hot in bed. In their disbelief and jealously, her sisters convince her that she must find out. So, she visits his chamber at night with a lamp. As she gazes over him, marveling at his beauty, she drips oil out of her lamp onto his shoulder and burns him and his wings. Eros wakes immediately and flies home to Aphrodite, who nurses her wounds. Psyche is heartbroken. How can she return to her god of a husband, as she is only a human being? Aphrodite steps in for the sake of her son (who is also heartbroken), devising a series of labors for psyche (one of which includes a trip to visit Persephone in the underworld-the queen of death). Psyche completes them all and is elevated to Olympus…to immortal status–THIS is the story that Beauty and the Beast grows from. Archetypally, we are talking about the interplay of two central archetypes: love and soul. It is a story about how the relationship between the two develops.

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In contrast to this stands the story of Hades and Persephone, one of a young girl, still in the maidenhood of her development who, while picking a flower one day–a narcissus flower, which is definitely significant as far as self reflection and refusal to move out of maidenhood goes–is dragged down into the underworld and forced (essentially by her father) to marry the Lord of Death, (and her uncle, BAH) Hades. Now, much has been made of the importance of Persephone’s development out of maidenhood, so there is some value to that. The union with Hades forces Persephone to go deeper into the realms of what Jungians would call the unconscious than she ever would on her own, and in fact, some might suggest that without being snatched by Hades, she’s not likely to ever had made the trip at all. Furthermore, there are some details in the myth that support the idea that at least part of Persephone is pleased with the results of her union with Hades. Some might suggest that this is what is going on with 50 Shades…but this is “Western” culture. We are at complete odds with our shadow (the dark, unknown aspects of our soul). And the unconscious aspects of our sexual shadow, particularly female sexuality which has been relegated to the darkest realm of shadow, is millennia long. It seems to me that what is actually going on here is a manifestation of the Jungian shadow in a way that is particularly and insidiously dangerous and difficult to see.

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Many moons ago, I had a class with Dr. Ginette Paris at PGI–seriously, if you don’t know her, google her and read her stuff. She’s faboo. I really can’t remember what class it was, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that she said something that stuck in my mind, and continues to make poignant suggestions to me from time to time. Ginette said (wait for it, and I’m paraphrasing…) that TRAGEDY IS A MISALIGNMENT OF ARCHETYPES AT AN INAPPROPRIATE TIME. For example, a story about motherhood can be tragic, if the woman giving birth is still in the maiden stage, completely uninterested in and unprepared for becoming a mother. Make sense?

Ok, so bear with me here. It occurred to me that this is exactly what is going on with 50 Shades. This story, in all of its badly written, mommy porn Twilight fan-fic-ness, is being presented to us as a story that taps the archetypes of love and the soul, when in reality, it is tapping (hehehe–sorry, I couldn’t resist the pun) the archetypes of maidenhood and death. Let me say that another way: 50 Shades of Grey sells itself to be a re-telling of the myth of Eros and Psyche, but what it is is the shadow aspects of the myth of Hades and Persephone. And that is what makes it so dangerous. It isn’t that the story itself is tragic on its own, but that the storyteller is giving us the wrong names for the archetypes, and in doing so, she evokes a different story than what the archetypes constellate. It’s not a love story people. There’s nothing authentic of the Aphroditic and Erotic here (Irish hottie Jamie Dornan notwithstanding). But it is sold as if there is. So there you go: my epiphany. Stay tuned readers. I’m on the case to prove this (and possibly write a journal article in the process). In the meantime, Happy Valentine’s Day y’all. Now go find some authentic erotic experience. It’s a good thing.

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The Disney Princesses: Women of Faith, Loving Kindness, and Community

“Where there is kindness, there is goodness. Where there is goodness, there is magic.” –Cinderella’s mother qtd in the forthcoming live action “Cinderella” film (2014)

Confession: I love fairy tales in general and Disney fairy tales in particular. My adoration of the Disney princesses is legendary within my social circle. My husband still claims that the fastest he has ever seen me run is after Belle in Fantasyland one night when I was searching for an autograph. I love them. And, I’m very protective of them.

There’s something that has been sticking in my craw for a while now–the general critique of the Disney princesses as antifeminist. It’s been bugging me for so long that I’ve spoken about it in public a couple of times. Some time back, I gave a talk about the Disney princesses and the Jungian anima complex at the Popular Culture’s Association. The thesis was/is that Disney princesses reflect for the Disney studio what Jung suggested was a male projection of femininity. And since the studio (not to mention the animators) has, like the rest of Hollywood, been largely male throughout its history…well, enough said.

Personally, I find Jung’s gendered language both limiting and obnoxious. I feel that in continuing to align these concepts with biological gender only, we in the depth psychological, mythological, literary, and film studies communities continue to reinforce the status quo of all kinds of gender inequality. I do however, agree with his concept of the anima–the idea that there is feminine archetypal energy in our psychological reality, as well as a myriad of feminine archetypal images, all neither entirely positive or negative. I just happen to think that biological gender assignment has nothing to do with how one experiences them per se.

In 2012, I gave a paper on Merida at a Film and Myth conference on Milwaukee. In it, I suggested that Brave was an American feminist response to the over-masculinized and over-militarized myths of American mythic Scotland. Again, the paper focused on the concept of the feminine as more than biological gender…the idea that there is something about inherently feminine qualities, feminine energy in relationship that is lacking and necessary in our culture.

Now, to the princesses in general. Much has been made of them in their presentation of body image, their insanely perfect hair, and their focus on romance and marriage. I’ve heard the princesses criticized as cogs in the marketing machines whose entire purpose is to create “bling girls” so distracted by stuff they want to acquire that they don’t think critically. While I agree that there is some truth in that, I’ll leave those discussions to friends who are inclined to have them. Instead, I’d like to talk about the kind of positive mytho-psychic impact the Disney princesses have. In order to do that, I suggest that we disentangle these archetypal images from gender, and see them as messages from the archetypal feminine.

Disney princesses are often criticized for being weak and without volition. How can that be true? In every Disney princess tale, the actions of the princesses bring healing to their community. Sometimes they bring it through fighting–Mulan and Merida–and sometimes they bring it through their ability to be a catalyst for change–Snow White, Cinderella, and Aurora. Again, why would one interpret them as weak and without volition? Is it because we see the stories where the princess herself is a catalyst as a sign of weakness? Is this assertion of weakness perhaps because we’ve learned to equate gentleness and kindness with powerlessness? Maybe?

Disney princesses are not shallow, vapid, helpless women who spend all day singing in the forest and looking for a prince. They are brave and tenacious. And none of them act alone. Animals, dragons, trees, good fairies, brothers, people enchanted into household objects, the world–all of the communities that surround the princess are helpers that one might miss if one was not paying attention or did not have the sensitivity to see them. These stories are not about conquering. They are about finding love and meaning in the world.

Let’s look at a list:

Snow White, Cinderella, Aurora–they reconnect with humans and animals, offering their creature friends safety, a human who sees them as sentient beings rather than commodities to be harnessed.

Ariel, Belle, Pocahontas, Mulan, Merida–among other things are literal saviors who are willing to fight and even die if necessary for those they love.

Rapunzel and Tiana–refuse to give up on their dreams.

Each of these characters sacrifice aspects of their own autonomy because they love, whether it is their kingdom, their families, their animal friends, their dreams, or a man. Why do we fear vulnerability so much? Is it because we fear the pain of it being unreciprocated? Perhaps. Perhaps we fear losing own power. Perhaps we criticize these characters in the wake of a culture of misogyny. Perhaps we are simply rebel against a media onslaught of imagery that lacks texture. Perhaps we simply resent what we perceive to be a lack of options for female characters. These are all fair. But these characters only become problematic to the extent that they are presented as the only option for female characters. And doesn’t this lack of options also happen to male characters as well?

True vulnerability is powerful. It can be a strength. Only through being willing to give up some of our control can we know what it is to love and connect with ourselves and others around us. Rather than to simply dismiss the Disney princesses (and remember I’m not suggesting we be uncritical of them), why not seek to also present them as a soft facet of feminine archetypal imagery? Why not make it ok for human beings to be vulnerable–period. If we think in these terms, perhaps we will begin to understand why these types of images are essential to humanity’s ability to love and empathize. Because truly, do we really want to risk missing the gentle beauty of goodness, kindness, and magic?

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America’s Utopian Dream or “Why I love Don Draper”

artwork by Dan Panisian

artwork by Dan Panisian

I started binge watching Mad Men a few weeks ago and just finished the 6th season. As stories have a tendency to do, this show pushed some buttons with me…which pushed MORE buttons with me…until saw a pattern emerging that I wanted to think through with y’all readers. The roots of things, or what my PGI professor Laura Grillo used to always call “what we are actually up to” come out in both our stories and our actions and those roots (for me) have been everywhere in the news this week.

What is it about Mad Men that tells us what we as Americans are actually up to? Two words: Don Draper. He speaks to us in the same way that Jay Gatsby does. Yes, this show is about an entire cast of amazingly archetypal characters working together in an advertising firm, but as many of the characters often say–this is Don’s world. We all just live in it. That is the point. Don Draper is an American everyman, living the American Dream. Or is he? Yeah, we can pretty much all agree that he is a jerk. He’s a functioning alcoholic. He is a capricious womanizer. He is a pathological liar and he is certainly a narcissist, if not a complete sociopath. He is generally not a nice guy, and he is certainly an anti-hero–something we’ve seen over an over again in American television storytelling of late from The Walking Dead to Breaking Bad to Dexter to Masters of Sex. Post-millenial story tellers have a fascination with the need to show multifaceted, flawed characters in a role of hero. Yeah, this has been going on for a while now.

What is it about Don Draper (besides the glory of Jon Hamm) that gets to the audience?

–His broken search for Utopia. America is an utopian experient gone awry…as they all do. We continue to work to perfect our union, but honestly, we know we never will…because it is not possible to ever perfect it. Consider this quote from President Ronald Reagan. “America is less of a place than an idea, and if it is an idea, and I believe that to be true, it is an idea that has been deep in the souls of Man.” From the stories of Atlantis to Rome, to the modern states of Israel and the US, humanity has searched for a way to bring the concept of utopia to their own lives. America, and the construct of “The American Dream” are based on utopian ideals and the search for peace, harmony and a life free of want and desire. Don is convinced that if he can just do more and acquire more, he will reach fulfillment. Sorry Don, it doesn’t work that way.

Like Gatsby before him, Don came from nothing. Even his name is manufactured. He has no identity of his own. He hates talking about himself, because when he does he has to admit that he is the child of a father just as broken as he is…the kind of man who would leave a 15 year old prostitute that was pregnant with his child alone to die…the kind of man who would starve his family because of his pride and die stone drunk in the rain kicked by a horse. And he is in pain. The pain of being shamed into believing that his desire for wholeness is shameful. That shame becomes fear, that fear becomes numbness, and that numbness becomes a life of ego satisfaction.

This story reflects our American one. None of us came to America because we were whole where we were. We immigrated to America because the past was painful. And wouldn’t so many of us love to forget that past and start over? Isn’t the desire for reinvention the impetus of American myth?

We’ve seen this story play out in myriad ways in American myth. So the question remains: what is it about “Mad Men” that makes it fresh? I feel that what makes it so fresh is its place smack dab in the beginning of the 1960s advertising. As television became an ever more important staple and society began to unravel around us, America began to witness growing power in media and advertising to create identity. If, as Don states, “Advertising is about love” (albeit manufactured love), this show gives us a mirror into something incredibly important to consider: 1). how America fell out of love with itself and 2). what it has replaced that love with.

Finally, why do I love Don? Compassion. Because I understand him. As an American mythologist with my own love/realistic relationship with utopia, I get his brokenness. I feel his nostaglia, his desire to return to something that never existed in the first place. I understand his bitter disappointment as he continues to fail at building something that can’t be built, and I root for him to find peace.

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Maleficent: Disney’s Era of Feminist Apologetics **Warning: Spoilers Ahead**

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Disney’s recent re-mythologizing of their classic fairy tale, Sleeping Beauty (1959), has much to commend it. It is beautiful to look at, the story is convincingly told, and, in my opinion, Angelina Jolie was just born to play this role.

Maleficent: What did I love about it? Mythically, that is…

Visuals: As I said, it was stunning. The costumes were lovely. It film’s aesthetic is a contemporary homage to the original Disney classic with its medieval look. I found the characters in the fairy land to be quite Jim Henson-y, which I love. It felt like a reunion of the cast of Labyrinth, and I totally want Aurora’s room in King Stefan’s castle.

Witch and Mother: I agree with the bloggers who have argued that this is a positive image of the witch and the mother. Maleficent is powerful, yet tender as a godmother to Aurora. I always love when they show the power of a mother’s love. In this version, Maleficent’s magical abilities are not the source of her evil, as is often the case in stories with witchy women. Her magic, until her violation that is, is shown as a gift that makes her protective, kind, connected, and strong.

Eco-Message: My first response to the film was: I get it…I get it…Mother Earth=good. Patriarchy=bad. Living in sustainability=good. Unchecked ambition and greed that leads to violence against the earth=bad. The eco-message is presented in connection to violation (some say rape) imagery. When King Stefan steals Maleficent’s wings, he violates her innocence. He drugs her while she is vulnerable in her love and protection of him. The trauma damages her ability to trust. It fills her with sadness and rage. I get that. As a metaphor for industry and ambition’s destructive relationship to the earth–perfect.

There are some things you just can’t take back: At one point during the story, Maleficent decides that she no longer wants Aurora to be cursed. When that happens she attempts to reverse the curse. But she can’t. There are some acts that cannot be redeemed…some choices that cannot be unmade. Good job Disney!

Love transforms/heals: I swear I’ve preached this so much that I’m blue in the face, but this is the central thrust of Disney’s cinematic myth. once again, they nail it.

Now about Disney and their contemporary Fairy Tales:

The archetypal nature of fairy tale is all over the screen. Really, it always has been with Disney. But this film in particular virtually screams von Franz, Campbell, and Jung, perhaps because it is, in fact, influenced by their work. In 2013, executive producer of Maleficent, Don Hahn, spoke about Jung’s concepts of the archetypes, of shadow and light at the D23 Expo. He talked about how archetypal energies move in the souls of people when they create and about how genuinely connecting with those energies and allowing them to transform your work is the path to true creativity.

I know. I was there. And I was floored. When asked, he admitted that although they are interested in Jungian theory, they are not experts in it. He also admitted that they do their best to explore it in their films.

During this meeting, it became clear that this newer crop of artists at Disney are deeply aware of the social, cultural, and psychological impact of their stories. They have read fairy tale theory. They are also concerned about their role in the production of their images. Furthermore, they are aware of the way they are criticized in the academy. They know that there are entire departments of feminist studies, fairy tale, sociology, and cultural anthropology scholars who are critical of their fairy tales. And, I can tell you with absolute certainty that they know that many find their older versions of Maleficent and Aurora mortally problematic. Personally, I don’t, because I understand that all characters are imperfect archetypal facets of their moment in time. I do, however, understand why people would, and I respect those perspectives.

Disney has been working to re-imagineer the embattled image of the Disney princess since their creation of Ariel in The Little Mermaid (1989). And they have been successful in many ways. Furthermore, their villains have become more textured, more understandable, less “pure evil.” But lately, I’ve been feeling like Disney has moved from character development into the field of apologetics–a field of philosophical theory that literally means “in defense of.” Simply put, this means that as they create their stories, they do so with conscious attempt to defend their myth, as if the older versions somehow require defending.

Here’s where it gets murky for me:

In their effort to redeem Maleficent and re-vision female relationships, I feel that they made one misstep.

THEY MISUNDERSTOOD AND MISUSED CONTEMPORARY FEMINISM BY GIVING US NO REAL POSITIVE IMAGES OF GENDER INCLUSIVITY.

If, in fact as I am pretty much sure they are, Disney is telling a story about how a true connection with the light aspects of the soul’s feminine energy/the anima (the archetypal maiden, Aurora) through love can be healing, that is great. Another story about women and daughters is great. A story about the redemption of one’s innocence…one’s ability to love and trust again in the face of trauma…GREAT! In their quest for the redemption of their feminist imagery, however, they gave us negative or underdeveloped images of males, and that bugs me.

The first romantic relationship–Maleficent and Stefan–ends in violence and betrayal. The second romantic relationship–Aurora and Phillip–has no true power. Don’t get me wrong, I have no issue with the way Stefan was portrayed. The destructive nature of male violence (especially in light of the recent tragic events near my home here at UCSB) bears repeating.

Where I feel they fell short, however, is bringing Phillip into the picture. Because Phillip’s role in the earlier tale is SO central, his short changed presence in the film makes it feel like the take-away message of this film is “forget true love in a romantic relationship with a man. He’ll only betray you, violate you, or stand there like an ineffectual doofus while you languish in eternal slumber.”  That is wrong. Romantic relationships can be a source of deep connection between people. They can be beautiful. In my opinion, this film’s treatment of sexual love is just as damaging as the original, because it swings the pendulum too far in the opposite direction. It is not helpful to make the archetypal charming prince into a clown. He too has important archetypal energy that should be respected and explored. What we need is true connection between characters, not cardboard cut-outs used as place holders.

The one positive image of a male character is Maleficent’s crow slave Diaval. He is the conscience of the piece, but he is shown as subserviant…not at all the kind of gender equality and inclusivity that the current feminist milieu would like to cultivate.

Disney: if you want to do apologetics, that is fine. Give us your stories about women in relationship. Make those female characters powerful, tough, and smart as well as beautiful. Show us how beauty and love heal. Remind us that greed breeds violence. Those are all great things to tell us. But don’t give us shallow images of male characters like this new Prince Phillip. Because he isn’t what this story is about. And that is ok. Just leave him out completely. Cause if you DO decide to put him in, I’m going to demand that you develop him as more than a simple trope.

Lastly, in spite of all this, I still really enjoyed it. I give it a A for effort and a B+ for success.

EPILOGUE: My dear friend (and Disney scholar guru) Amy Davis made a point that is salient to the above. I wanted to share it. She read Phillip’s relationship with Aurora as too young to be considered “true love.” How could it be true love if they only just met. However, she said, his presence on stage at the end suggested that the relationship was yet to develop. I agree with that. And I’ll admit that I considered that possibility. Good point Dr. Davis! I guess I just wanted a bit more development in him to be able to truly call him a positive male image.

And one more last thing: Several people have written reviews about the film from a feminst perspective. As gender studies is an interest but not an obsession of mine, I will leave it to them to say these things. Check these out.

http://www.avclub.com/review/maleficent-only-half-commits-subverting-disney-fai-205174

http://theweek.com/article/index/262679/girls-on-film-maleficent-is-less-progressive-than-1959s-sleeping-beauty#axzz33zRe3w2C

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Filed under Depth Psychology, Disney/Pixar, Fairy Tales, Joseph Campbell

Angel: Joss Whedon Does Noir

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“Is there anything in this life but grief?” –Illyria 

“There’s love. There’s hope.” –Wesley   Angel Season 5 Shells

Until recently, I’d not really been a fan of the Whedonverse. Well, perhaps that’s not fair. It isn’t that I ever disliked Joss, but it is more that I just didn’t really watch Joss. I’d seen the movie Buffy The Vampire Slayer when it was released, but when Buffy TVS came around to TV, I was a sophomore in college. I like to call those the “dark years” of my pop culture fandom, as I was so busy reading and studying that I didn’t have time to watch his (or any) stuff, nor did I have consistent access to cable and that was before Netflix and Hulu.

I’ve also never been a huge fan of vampire stories. In fact, with the exception of The Lost Boys (1987), I have stayed entirely away from vampire mythology. My primal fear of vamps goes all the way back to a traumatic experience related to a neighbor in a Halloween costume when I was around four. As a young adult, I often had night terrors that featured a blond vampire without a face. This could explain my reticence to watch Buffy, and it certainly explains my long standing dislike of Spike as a character, though, I’ll admit, I’m kinda over that now.

By the time I saw Joss’ version of Much Ado About Nothing, I was convinced that all my friends were right. He is a genius. Recently, I was browsing my local DVD shop when I came across Buffy Season 1 for an incredibly cheap price. I figured “what the heck? All of my mythie friends swear by the amazingness of Joss’ vampire shows. Perhaps I should bite the bullet (pun intended) and finally watch it?” I brought it home to see if Bruce would like it. I figured that if he hated it, I could sell it back for about the same amount that I paid it, no harm no foul. It took about 2 minutes of the first episode for Bruce to fall in love with Buffy. And I can’t blame him. I love her too. She’s amazing and frankly, in spite of myself, I also love Angel. When my dear friend and Whedon guru, Nikki Fuller, invited me to the Whedon Studies Association conference commonly known as Slayage, I knew it meant one thing: time to catch up on the other shows, particularly Angel.

I already owned Season 1 of Angel, figuring the same as with Buffy TVS…if I hated it, I’d just sell it back. But I didn’t hate it. The show gripped me on an even deeper level than Buffy TVS did and not just because David is a bright and shiny object (which, of course, he is). I wasn’t sure at first what it was that hooked me. The darkness of the show, the message of how we find redemption deeply resonates with me. Halfway through the first season, it occurred to me what is was I was being drawn to there. DUH! Angel is Joss Whedon’s television foray into one of my all time favorite film genres–film noir.

Noir is a genre that peaked between 1940 and 1960. In its purest form, it is a response to the oblivion of WWII and focuses on the dark underbelly of American life, though its roots in crime fiction go back to the great depression. It isn’t a coincidence that it showed up during the war as a kind of counter-cultural expression. I find that we often romanticise the greatest generation‘s era. The people living during that time–particularly the young ones–were asked to make outrageous sacrifices. They were and are our parents/grandparents/great-grandparents, and we often honor their lives by focusing on the amazingly selfless gifts they gave.

We forget, however, how dark that time actually was. People living during the war did not have a magic 8 ball that would tell them how the war would end. It was truly apocalytpic…much as it was in the 1960s…much as it has been in the early part of the 2000s. And culturally, there was no time for apocalypse. All American resources had to go into fighting the war. Films were war propaganda. The US Army even took up residence at the Disney Studio with Mickey Mouse. Every part of American life was dedicated to winning the war. So the darkness…the doubt…the insecurity…and the guilt of the nuclear age came out in film noir. The genre produced some amazing pieces of art. Sunset Boulevard, Mildred Pierce, Double Indemnity, Anatomy of a Murder, and Vertigo are just a few of my personal favorites.

Obviously, Angel is a TV show, not a movie. Nevertheless, it is full of classic noir motifs.

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Anti-Hero

The central character of a noir piece is generally called an anti-hero. As the name suggests, an anti-hero is a protagonist whose intentions may not be entirely pure. Like Angel, the anti-hero is perfectly suited for their job working through the seedy underbelly of America because they too have experienced corruption. They may be a recovering alcoholic/drug addict (like Eddie Valiant in Who Framed Roger Rabbit), particularly violent, or a social deviant. The noir anti-hero commonly works as a law man–a cop, a private investigator (Scotty in Vertigo)–also like Angel. Anti-heros seek redemption for the sins of their past, though often they refuse to admit it. Most commonly, they are one temptation away from being drawn back into the darkness themselves. As a vampire with a soul, Angel is the perfect anti-hero. His memories of his old demon days are still in tact, but the remorse he feels and the development of his authentically good heart  propel him on to do good in the world. As Joss said on the Special Features of Season 5 Disk 6, “Angel is an allegory for addiction” and “Redemption is something we work at every day.”

The Femme Fatale

The femme fatale is a noir archetype much like the anti-hero. She enters as a foil for him. She’s beautiful, alluring, and deadly. Dark sexuality is always present in the archetype of the femme fatale. She may seek out the help of the anti-hero, but in the end she may also be his undoing. A sexual female vamp is THE image of the femme fatale. We see examples of her in the characters of Darla (seasons 1 and 2), and Cordelia (season 4).

Darla is Angel’s sire (ewwwww Oedipus!!). This show shows us her past–her illness and how she was turned into a vampire. As a femme fatale, she is Angel’s weakness. Angel is unable to reject Darla even when he knows she is evil. He begs her to leave her ways behind, and she tempts him to return to evil. During season 2, he gives into his urges to be with her. When she returns pregnant, he becomes fiercely protective of her and his child even though evidence suggests that his child may be evil.

Cordelia, though generally not a femme fatale in the series, becomes one for a season of the series.  Cordy, as they call her, has a connection to Angel that goes back to his Buffy days. The two of them slowly fall in love over the course of the show. When she is herself, she is always shown as a positive relationship for Angel, but in season 4 she becomes possessed by a higher being who wants to use her body to be reborn. This being does tons of damage through Cordy, including becoming pregnant by Angel’s adolescent son and destroying any chance the two of them had to be together. This action itself almost destroys the Angelverse. She is Angel’s other weakness on the show (as Buffy makes very few appearances).

The Dark City

If there is one motif that is central to noir it is the dark city.  The city of Los Angeles is also iconic to the noir genre. Sure there are noir films that take place in New York, Chicago, San Fransisco and a few that are set in the countryside, but the City of Angels–and all the irony that implies–is the classic setting for these stories. Some have suggested that noir is LA and, at least in the golden age of film, when LA plays herself, she almost always plays noir. As psychologist James Hillman notes in his documentary Surfing LA, there is something Hades-like about the place, as though the lord of death himself may pop up at any time. The hills, the earthquakes, geothermal instability, the heat, the Santa Ana winds, the history of political/police corruption, the way it devours young women, and the wild, wild west mentality of the film industry are just a few of the things that make it such a dark image.The Percy Jackson series falls in line with this placing the entrance to Hades right off the Sunset strip. In the Angelverse, the presence of Wolfram and Hart (evil attorneys at law) opens up a channel to the evil powers that be. Wolfram and Hart are also very LA–powerful clients getting away (literally) with murder. The actual physicality of the city of Los Angeles is central to the show. Neighborhoods are discussed in such a way that those familiar with LA know exactly what those images imply, and furthermore, since Angel is a vampire, much of the work of the show must exist at night, adding a literal layer of darkness to the city.

These are just a few of the noir motifs. Many others exist in the show: moral ambiguity, the presence of evil, betrayal by friends, and perhaps most notably, despair of a world fallen to corruption. But this is the Whedonverse, and in Joss’ world the important thing is not that we are broken, full of the need for redemption. Humanist that he is, for Joss what is important is that we keep striving for redemption even if we know we won’t find it (perhaps we may find it but never reach it). Unlike traditional noir pieces that are literally black and white completely devoid of humor, Joss’ world is full of hope–colorful characters such as the green-skinned, Pylea native lounge singing empath demon Lorne. The show finds humor in our existential debacle by injecting it with a certain amount of silliness. It’s full of those fun moments that make me say “Oh, Joss…you would…” but punctuated by those tragic moments that also make me say “CURSE YOU JOSS!!”

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Disney Parks and The Myth of Family Vacations

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The season finale of The Middle aired last week. It took the Heck family to Walt Disney World via a contest that Sue wins, though she thinks she is competing for a car. The trip begins as a nightmare. Frankie (mom) ushers in  the trip by failing to read the tickets, which apparently are for Disneyland Resort in Anaheim rather than Walt Disney World. Before long the family is on one long Murphy’s Law of a trip. All along the way, however, the staff at Walt Disney World goes out of their way to make their trip magical. They honor their tickets and upgrade them to a room that makes their original room look like a broom closet. Even so, the Heck family is unhappy. Every plan the family makes fails. Sue carries a binder around convinced that she has the plan for the entire trip. Everyone is grouchy. Everyone is hungry. No one is having a good time. No one gets on any rides.

The first day goes by quickly. They fall asleep in their epic room. The next day they wake up at 3pm, groggy and panicked because they have slept their entire day away. At the park, they bicker and rip themselves apart trying to do too much…trying to consume everything the parks have to offer. The family stands in front of the Partners statue–Walt and Mickey–right in front of the castle arguing. Frankie shouts at them. “What is wrong with us?” she shouts. “Every other family here can figure this out!” “Everyone else can get that ONE good picture for the Christmas card.” Finally Mike (father) tells them “you know why I wanted to go to Epcot? Because never in my life will I be able to afford to tak your mother to Paris. And just once, I wanted to take her to dinner in Paris.” Clearly, he knows it isn’t actually Paris, but he also clearly knows that animating an illusion of life is what Disney does best.

The parents take off to Epcot for dinner and the kids split…and then decide not to split. Before you know it, the kids throw their plans/fears/false annoyances with each other out of the park. Silly faces are made and pictures are willingly taken. In the end, the whole family reconnects for the fireworks. All of the annoyances are gone, and they the fireworks show in awe. Of course, as they drive home, the kids fight just as they always do, but they do so with wry smiles and as the parents give knowing looks from the front seat of the car.

As I watched this episode, I kept thinking about Disney Parks as an American pilgrimage. I questioned, as I always do, what Disney/ABC is on about in this episode. Yes, ABC is NOT Disney, but The Walt Disney Company owns it. This episode was the second episode by an ABC show that took place at one of the Resorts. In 2012, Modern Family did an episode in Disneyland, and one of the central themes of the episode was familial connection and the concept being present in the moment. This episode seemed to convey a similar theme.

The Heck family drives all the way from Indiana to go to WDW. They go to have that moment of connection. Even so, it is difficult for them.  I am with Frankie all the way, because when I visit Disneyland, I always notice families who seem disconnected, frantically trying to consume everything…annoyed that they are spending so much money and not getting everything out of the experience.

Some might suggest that is the shadow of Disney–consumption. And they would not be wrong. I would suggest, however, that consumption is actually the shadow of our culture, not just here in America, but as a global American legacy. Whether we are at Disney or at a ball game, at a park or at a museum, our need to consume often trumps our ability to experience the moment in which we are living. We live in constant fear that we will be unable to consume enough to balance what we believe is being taken from us. We cannot balance the amount of money we spend against the experience of the moment.

Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate the monetary cost of a trip to Disney. I appreciate that some families never get to go and some save for years just for one day at the park. But it isn’t just the trip to Disney. It is the commodification of family life in general. It seems as though we feel that “quality family time” must itself meet some sort of acquisition level in order to maintain its value. But the value of these experiences can only be truly measured by how much they make us feel…how they make us connect. That is the point of this episode. The Hecks win the trip, but they must become conscious of the gift of the trip. They must recognize it as a blessing, let go of plans and expectations, and allow the experience to move them. Once they do, they are able to appreciate its true value. They are able to have, as Joseph Campbell once said, “an experience of life rather than the meaning of life.”  It’s a message that goes to the heart of Disney, because it speaks to a tension in Disney’s myth: consumption vs. connection.

 

 

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Filed under Disney/Pixar, Disneyland, Just Life