Category Archives: Myth

On the Archetypal Significance of TV Epics and Ridiculously Embarrassing Celebrity Crushes

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Epic

I inclined 

To lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin

Til Homer’s ghost came whispering to my mind,

He said: I made the Iliad from such

A local row. Gods make their own importance.

-Patrick Kavanagh

Outlander season 2 is complete, and boy has it been a season for the ages. As this new droughtlander begins, I’m left feeling and thinking all the things. Thoughts are swirling like a whirlpool in my mind, buzzing like the stones at Craigh na Dun, making it nearly impossible to compose an articulate review at all, not to mention doing anything other than to continue to re-feel (perhaps to reveal?) everything this series is.

I’ve watched and re-watched the finale several times, re-watched half of season 1, and read countless reviews. I’ve been comforted and amused by some of the thoughts of other viewers about the strengths and the weaknesses of the season, particularly this one by the legendary and hilarious Connie Verzak. I’ve been annoyed by the critics, particularly the misogynistic ones. And, I’ve been in intuitive feeler space – a lot.

There’s much I could say about the choices the team made this year – a lot I could engage with on the topic, but most of it has been said already, and I’m not inclined to do so. It’s splitting hairs at this point anyway, and for me, doing so is not the most interesting way to engage with great art. Instead, I’ll say this to all parties involved: BRAVO! This series originates from some incredibly complex source material. The fact that Ron D. Moore, Maril Davis and crew were able to make something so coherent, so exquisitely compelling translate to screen is a task of Herculean magnitude. I salute this entire group of artists for what they have accomplished.

Outlander fans are legion, and we are passionate because the work simply is that  compelling. If you read regularly, you’ll know that I’ve already written about jumping on the #teamfraser wagon when it comes to my sense of the presence of overwhelming archetypal images in Outlander. I firmly believe that it’s a positive depiction of an aphroditic, erotic bond between these characters, written from a feminist perspective, that fans respond to when it comes to this this series. Frankly, we’ve had dry times in our media when it comes to depictions of love in this way, and I will defend it to the end against anyone who claims it to be “just a bodice ripper,” “mommy porn,” or a “just series for women” for several reasons, not the least of which is that 1). it is a patently unfair assessment, 2). there wasn’t all that much in terms of “bodice ripping” in season 2 anyway, and 3). that this attitude suggests that even if it were such a thing that would somehow make the work less important.

Now that that’s said – whew, I feel better – I need to talk about the archetypal importance of Outlander as an epic. I need to talk about the revival of the epic tradition on television, because epic is vital to our psychological health and like so many other mythic modalities is often diminished by a culture that overwhelms us with imagery while simultaneously offering us little in terms of both emotionally effective and affective content. You see, this is transcendent storytelling folks, and it is, in fact, authentically epic, not just colloquially so.

Epic is, of course, a literary term. It is generally defined as a long poem, most often from the ancient oral traditions, that crosses an extended period of time and space and recounts the legendary deeds of a hero or group of heroes. Epics are meant to be grand, poetic, engaging, and all encompassing. They are meant to swallow you broken and return you whole. Sound familiar? Good. We’ll get to that in a moment.

First, I am compelled to confess something to you, dear reader. I have been gripped more deeply by this entire series than by anything else I’ve ever encountered (while that might be a no DUH, I still need to say it). And that’s saying a lot. In my years as a student and scholar of mythology, I’ve engaged many stories in myriad ways. Indeed, I have engaged this series and for over a year now. I’ve been living and breathing it. I just can’t seem to put the story down, and I don’t foresee that I will do so any time in the near future. I keep re-reading and re-watching. And every time I do, it takes my breath away. The first time I encountered the penultimate climax chapter in Dragonfly in Amber, from the moment Dougal walks in as Claire and Jamie plot to kill the Stuart Prince to the agonizing moment when Claire hurls herself against the stone, I completely disappeared into the story. It blew my mind, and when I put it down, I realized that I’d not been breathing. It was as though at that moment I too had traveled back through the stones with Claire, back to my life in 21st century Southern California. The reality of it was jarring, disorientating, and frankly, somewhat frightening. That had simply never happened to me before.

The way this series affects me has become downright embarrassing. I recently attended a SAG-AFTRA (Screen Actor’s Guild/American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) event with my husband’s niece. She’s an actress and as a member of SAG-AFTRA, she received a notification email that there was going to be an evening with Caitriona Balfe. She immediately thought of me and got tickets. I was elated. I was compelled. I HAD to go.

This isn’t like me. I love stories and I’ve always been a film and TV buff, but I’m not usually quite THIS much of a fangirl. I live in an industry town. Santa Barbara has been a Hollywood ally/destination for as long Hollywood has existed. In fact, some of the earliest silent films were produced right here. It’s part of our culture in the same way it is in LA. I paraphrase what the late great Robin Williams once said about LA: it’s a place where the guy playing basketball next to you at the gym who looks like George Clooney actually IS George Clooney. Santa Barbarans are used to having celebrities around, and they don’t tend to faze us. I’ve been here for over 20 years and have gotten used to seeing people whose work in the entertainment community I admire. I thought I’d be fine. I believed I was unshakeable. I knew I would be excited, but I thought it would be an event like others I’d been to with celebrities. Super cool. I wanted to hear what she had to say. That’s it.

I decided to head down a day early to spend the night with my BFF, an amazing artist who lives in downtown LA’s The Brewery artist collective, and whom I had been desperately trying to convert to the fandom. She and I decided to make it an Outlander day. We drove to the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills to check out the exhibit they had running there and drool over the costumes. We wandered out for some coffee and we waited until it was time for me to meet up with my niece for the event. As we sat and talked, my friend began to recount her own recent experience at a SAG-AFTRA event. She mentioned that at the event she had attended, that several other cast members also showed. I found myself hoping that that wouldn’t be the case. As much as I love Sam Heughan as an actor and respect his work as an altruist, I intuited (correctly, as it turned out) that seeing him in person would be an experience I would not, at this juncture, be able to gracefully navigate.

Speaking of Sam, let’s just pause for a moment to say his name and breathe it in like a mantra.

Inhale Sam…

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Exhale Jamie…

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Alright. Feel better? Good. Knew you would. Me too. So. Much. Better. 😀

Nope. I was totally fine just seeing Caitriona. Somehow I just KNEW that seeing the two of them together would constellate energy for me would come dangerously close to frying my psychological circuits – i.e. I likely would have fainted.

I could feel the excitement and nervousness welling up inside, an experience that only continued to strengthen as I met with my niece and stood in line for the event. It was the oddest sensation I’ve ever experienced, something between nervous joy and complete panic. The event itself was great. They screened an episode for us (season 2, episode 7, Faith) and then Caitriona came out to talk to us. It is a wonderful interview, mostly things I’ve heard her speak to in the past, but somehow hearing it in a room full of actors made the quality of the craft come alive in a more meaningful way.

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And this camera view is pretty much where I was. I sat quietly and listened, engaged and excited, – all the nods – and I remained relatively calm. The interview ended, and she left the room. As we all shuffled out the door, my niece and I decided to head down the hall to use the restroom. We talked about our impressions as we quietly went about our business, washing hands, brushing hair, the usual things one wishes to do before heading on the road home from an event. Then we walked out into the narrow hallway, and I ran face to face with her walking toward me with a group of event coordinators.

You’d think for a super fan such as myself, this would be the moment I would jump into action and tell her how glorious I find her work to be, but it didn’t happen like that at all. I froze. I can’t explain it other than to say that I felt an energetic glow coming off her the moment I saw her. I gasped (audibly) and didn’t move. She walked by and said hello to my niece and me with a smile, as she continued on her way down the hall. I was completely taken back by my reaction, and I also knew that it was both mythic and archetypal.

I was aware, completely and in that moment that my reaction had absolutely nothing to do with her on a physical level. As fabulous as she is, she was simply fulfilling a role that artists have fulfilled across time – that is to offer herself up as a channel and to be a catalyst for that transformational power that has traditionally been known as the mythic gods, what we often call archetypal images/energies in story.

I had, at that moment, experienced what depth psychologist James Hillman calls being arrested by beauty. Not her beauty, per se, though she is truly a lovely woman filled with luminous energy, but arrested by the beauty of the epic her presence evokes and invokes in me. This is why I’d hoped she would be on her own that day, because truly, just experiencing her part of this energy was enough to render me speechless. Having him there might have killed me. 😉

Artists intuit this archetypal power. We know it intimately. It’s why we do what we do. When we do our  best work, we give ourselves over to it so that through our art, others can also experience the power of creativity we channel. That level of engagement can be dangerous. Marilyn Monroe is a classic example. She became so identified with the archetypal energy she channeled that it completely destroyed her. Vivian Leigh is another example of someone who worked so closely with the unconscious that it ultimately destroyed her sanity.  Forest Whitaker has spoken honestly about it, noting that it took several months of purification through meditative practices for him to be able to rid himself of Idi Amin after his Oscar winning role in The Last King of Scotland. Yes, that level engagement can be dangerous, but it can also be the most powerful form of communication we have.

In her work on epic and cosmos, literary critic Louise Cowan writes that “…epic poets have to open their imaginations to an arena of sufficient scope that the gods may enter.”[i] I certainly felt the presence of this kind of mythic energy at SAG-AFTRA that day, and I know I’m not alone. There are many, many readers that have been captivated and transformed by this series of books since the first book was published – about 25 years ago when the two principal stars and me were preteens – too young to be aware that this epic that would prove so significant.

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Humanity has had many epics about war, the conquering of the foe, and the hero’s journey back to wholeness. In fact, it is generally believed that the entire reason for the Greek epic tradition was to heal a people and process the trauma of war. And we seem to continue to be in that moment, as the 2016 Emmy award nominations this morning reveal a shocking 23 nominations for the war epic Game of Thrones, but no nominations for the principal actors of Outlander.

Although war is certainly central to Outlander as well, what I’m left with is a firm belief that Outlander’s significance as an epic lives in what it reveals about the archetypal expression of passion, devotion, and creation. Our dominant cultural consciousness, seems to miss that epic has the ability to return all kinds of images to wholeness. In doing so, it call upon the concepts of what Plato calls the forms and the ideals, a mode of philosophical expression that this series does extremely well. It presents us with an ideal form of what is possible when partners invest their whole beings to the creative potentialities of relationship, and it tracks that investment across time and space with consistently powerful, fully formed characters, both masculine and feminine. By returning this story to the 18th century – the genesis of the enlightenment, it re-creates the modern western world for us, or least it offers a possibility for us to do so.

This is the psychological efficacy of epic. It allows our imaginations to breathe as we take an extensive and immersive journey with characters that reflects who we are and where we’ve been as a species. Epics create and order the world in long form. They give that process of creation attention, and they allow us to witness it. Television is uniquely positioned to offer a globalized version of this ancient mythic genre. It is impossible to over state the significance of this medium in creating global cultural identity and in regards to its ability to shape our attitudes about gender and relationship.

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It is of vital significance that epics like Outlander, a story about the way two whole, creative beings come together to make a new world, continue to have a central role in the myth making medium of television because this story of creativity is the power of Eros. We must make room in this process for this and other culturally subversive perspectives. Perhaps it is the life giving, feminist aspect of the story that balances it and makes it threatening to its detractors. Cowan writes, “the epic assumes that the sacred marriage of the two equal and complementary powers is possible and that in that wedding the whole world is renewed.”[ii] As far as I’m concerned, this is made clearer in Outlander than in any other offering of our contemporary image based forum for myth.

Ultimately, Outlander shows that sustaining the erotic charge not only creates life; it is life. Maybe we, like Claire and Jamie, are living in the last days of something, in our own 20 years of exile – of patriarchal purgatory before we will be able to reconnect and rebuild our cosmos in a way that truly values “rare women” and “loves them well.” But after this forced exile will come a chance for reconnection, a chance to value, cherish, and satisfy our rare women, heal the wounds and soothe the scars of our men, and in the end as a part of that process transcend gender all together to create something new. That WOULD be epic, would it not?

[i] The Epic Cosmos, 11.

[ii] IBID, 22.

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Filed under Depth Psychology, Myth

The Beginning in the End. The End in the Beginning: Mad Men Drops Out and Sells Out. Spoilers Ahead!!!

Readers: I just realized I never finished this blog….so here it is. Please forgive the lateness of the hour in posting this.

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Last night was Mad Men‘s series finale. It was a bittersweet ending to a show that revived the 1960s for viewers, many of whom didn’t live through it the first time around (myself included). Though admittedly I didn’t watch the first few years, last summer I got hooked on the drama and binged watched my way through the whole series in less than a month.

Full disclosure: As a Gen Xer who was born in the year of the Star Wars IV (seven years after the show ends), I don’t have actual experience of this era. I am fully aware that from this position of hindsight any analysis I do of Mad Men is colored the fact that I can not look at this era without also linking the 20 year period that would come after. In other words, I can’t talk about the 60s without thinking about the 70s and 80s.

From my little mythie/depth psychological perspective, I’ve always understood Mad Men as a metaphor rather than simple history. The fact that it taps into the metaphorical realm of archetypes accounts for its great popularity. As with all other great epics, it speaks both to the story itself and its larger contemporary culture. Mad Men provides us with one of the great American “everyman” anti-heros, Don Draper, who I’ve previously written about as a metaphor for American ambition.

Through his relentless search for meaning, Don becomes an metaphor for what Jungians call the ego–ego being the psychological structure that forms one’s identity. The ego is what allows the psyche to have a sense of self. It holds the identity together, and interestingly enough, it is often both fragile and unshakably strong.

So what happens to Don’s ego to ambition and utopianism in end of Mad Men? Though earnest in his search for enlightenment, the enlightenment itself becomes a commodity. What happens to Don at the end of one of America’s most poignant, world-shaking, and prolific decades? He goes on pilgrimage to Esalen Institute. He breaks open. He sees his truth through another’s. He cries. He practices transcendental meditation.  And then he has a epiphany. The series leaves us with an image of him meditating as it then crosses over into a Coca Cola commercial, perhaps THE most iconic one ever.

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“It’s the real thing. What the world wants today. It’s the real thing…”

Many have questioned whether the creators of the show mean to suggest that Don created this iconic advertisement after returning from his time at Esalen. In the end, however, it really doesn’t matter whether they suggest that or not. What they are getting at is that there is the paradox that lies inextricably within American mythology; within the American experience/experiment. It’s the paradox inherent in the metaphor–that just as the American ego achieves a small moment of epiphany, an enlightenment, it channels that moment into selling something. In this case, that something  happens to be a carcinogenic, sugary addictive substance.

I’m just gonna leave that thought there for you all to drink in. Until next time readers!

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Filed under Depth Psychology, Myth

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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Filed under Depth Psychology, Just Life, Movie Reviews, Myth

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

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“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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Filed under Depth Psychology, Disney/Pixar, Fairy Tales, Myth

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 are healed about our past. We immigrated to America because the past was painful. Or we were dragged here against our will and have endured unspeakable horrors and unmitigated oppression. 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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Disney and Mythology: Recycled Fairy Tale Motifs? Derivative Stories?

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Recently, I read a blog review of Frozen that claimed the film was cute, but lacking a bit in originality. This was not the first time that I’ve seen a reviewer talk about Disney fairy tales in this way. I’m not gonna lie. It kind of irritates me each time I see the argument. For some reason, people completely misunderstand creativity. Being creative does not mean being wholly original. As TS Eliot suggests in his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” the creative person enters into a conversation that has been ongoing since the advent of artistic expression. The entire reason to create art is for the soul to speak into that conversation. But Disney has done something besides create art for almost 100 years now. It has created a mythology, and mythology, though a vehicle for art, is not itself art.

Disney is Mythology?: Wait, Say What Now?!

First let’s define mythology. This word that the “parlance of our times” refers to as “fiction” or a “lie” comes from the Greek language. It is constructed of two terms: mythos (muthos) which simply means story and logos which means words, but can be further understood as language…the structural make up through which mythos is conveyed.

Whew…that was heavy and theoretical. Putting it more simply, a mythology is group of stories that belong to a tradition. There! That was simple and to the point. So, has Disney created a mythology? Yes they have. Each one of their stories have the hallmarks of the Disney tradition…they belong to Disney and to all of us who resonate with their message. Dude, I’m not going to bore you with all of the details of Joseph Campbell’s four functions of mythology, but Disney’s stories do in fact: 1). create awe; 2). order the cosmos or explain why things are the way the are; 3). create and promote social/behavioral norms; and 4). provide vehicles for rituals through which we travel from birth to death.

So, what is Disney’s myth? Many of you would argue that Disney’s central myth is capitalism…and you wouldn’t be wrong. Walt himself was very proud of his own capitalist leanings. But, this is hardly the end of their myth. Director, animator, and producer Don Hahn (The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast fame to name a few) told me himself at the 2011 D23 Expo in Anaheim that you can’t really take The Walt Disney Company as anything other than a capitalist entity that is out to make profit. However, and these are his words, “those of us who are artists working for the company intuit something deeper…something archetypal and meaningful.” Exactly, Disney is creating a mythology…a RECOGNIZABLE tradition through which their stories come to us.

And, if that is the case, then the argument that Disney’s fairy tales are full of derivative motifs and images becomes a shallow reading of them. I will give people the argument (if they really need it) that Disney fairy tale characters do have a similar look and that these films have similar and recognizable motifs in imagery and song . Yes they do. But if you focus on that, you miss a broader point. The reason that they share those things is that they are all part of an actual mythic tradition…and I believe that we have been living without consciousness of mythology for so long that we don’t understand what that means. Sadly, we often don’t recognize it when we see it. It means that motifs continue to return, kaleidoscopically, to further convey a tradition’s myths (Disney fairy tales) through a tradition’s ritual (going to the movies/parks).

The better question is not are Disney’s fairy tales derivative, but why do they continue to traverse the same mythic atmosphere? Well, frankly, that is a topic for another blog, so I’ll give it to you in a nice, neat package. They do it because their mythic role in our world is to tell a particular story in a particular way. What’s the story? The story is that magic does in fact exist, but that perhaps we do not call magic by its real name–LOVE. In short, the myth of Disney fairy tales is that love exists and that love transforms.

So focused is this message that Disney has created an entire “logos” for their “mythos.” And, though again this is a topic for another blog, I believe with all my heart that this myth is indispensable to humanity.

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Oz: The Great And Powerful and Re-Myth-ing the Origin Story

ImageApproximately ten months ago or so, my dear friend Bonnie and I spoke with some intuitives at our local mythie bookstore. One of the individuals with whom I spoke told me that he felt that I was in the middle of re-crafting my own origin stories. Of all the things we talked about that day that was the one thing that really stuck with me.

Origin stories? Genesis myths? Immediately, I asked a bunch of questions like: What does that mean? To exactly what kind of stories in my personal life might that speak? And, most importantly for this blog, how does this obsession with origin stories make its way into my personal myths? How are the myth-makers that I gravitate toward retelling their own origin stories?

Ever since this discussion, I am becoming more aware of the ways that I am drawn to people retelling their own genesis. I have become especially aware of the way that Disney has been in the process of doing so of late.

And why not? Speaking of our myths, noted philosopher, author and professor Sam Keen reminds us that “We need to reinvent them from time to time…The stories we tell of ourselves determine who we become, who we are, what we believe” (Your Mythic Journey qtd in Once and Future Myths: The Power of Ancient Stories in Our Lives, Phil Cousineau, 7). There is a reason that origin myths are meant to be reenacted cyclically.

Perhaps this insight is particularly poignant right now—at the beginning of this year’s Passover and Holy Week remembrances. We respect (at least ideologically) the ritualizing of the origin stories of the religious traditions of all Americans. Origin myths are meant to be a living part of the calendar, and so they are in their own ways in our secular culture as well. We celebrate Independence Day each year, Election Day every four years, President’s Day every year and so on.

Many of these have a basis in history, but what of our imaginal origin stories? What about the origin stories that come about as a natural outpouring of fantasy? I am convinced that these origin stories are also reinvented on a cyclical basis as well.

From the work of the D23 to the heightened presence of the archives to the re-mything of the “golden age” of Los Angeles at Disney California Adventure in Disneyland Resort to Diane Disney’s Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco to a renewed interest in Oswald and Mickey Mouse cartoons spurned on by the success of the first Epic Mickey game, a renewed interest in origin stories seems to be everywhere in Disney’s storytelling at present.

Disney’s relationship with the Oz books dates back to the early days of Disney feature film animation. As early as the 1930’s, Walt Disney sought to acquire the rights to re-mythologize Baum’s books in film. Perhaps, as a Midwesterner (a Missourian/Kansas City-man) himself, Walt Disney felt particularly drawn (pun intended) to the Kansas landscape of Dorothy Gale and her family.

By 1954, he had acquired the rights to eleven of the books. By 1958, he had acquired the rights to all twelve of the books, but he was never quite ready to work them into film. Time, tide and technology never quite crossed for Walt and Oz.

In 1985, Disney released Return to Oz, which, although it became a bit of a cult classic among Gen X and Y’ers, has little else to recommend it. Now, all these years later, in 2013, The Walt Disney Company has finally decided to release a feature film version of an Oz story—Oz: The Great and Powerful.

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Why? This film is itself an effort to re-mythologize the genesis and importance of the film industry itself and Disney’s role in it (as well, perhaps, as Disney’s favorite medium within film, animation/computers and technology ala Pixar).

Let’s look at it:

This film is what is known as a prequel. It tells the story of how the “wizard” makes his way to Oz. Loosely inspired by Frank L. Baum’s book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, as well as the iconic 1939 classic film The Wizard of Oz (originally released by Samuel Goldwyn, then bought by MGM, and now owned by Warner Bros.) this film draws on an iconic well of imagery—the black and white opening sequence, the tornado, an eye-popping candy-colored technologically wondrous Oz, the soft muted pastel pink of Glinda (The Good Witch of the South), Theodora (The Wicked Witch of the West)—her green skin and her black witchy garb complete with hat, flying primates, the look of the Emerald City and the Yellow Brick Road.

It tells the story of how the “wizard” (James Franco) makes his way to Oz and is unwittingly used by one bad witch (Evanora of the East, Rachel Weisz) to turn another witch wicked (Theodora of the West–Mila Kunis) before becoming using his abilities to become the savior of Oz. The “wizard,” aided by Glinda (the Good of the South–Michelle Williams) , is convinced to mobilize the people of Oz, and fights back against the wicked witches.

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There is, however, one problem—the wizard is not actually a wizard, in the conventional definition of the word. He is a charlatan and a con man. More importantly, he is an illusionist. He is a carnival performer, a kind of inspiration for the late great Johnny Carson’s “Carnac the Magnificent.” Oz is what is known as the archetypal trickster. As such, he is a master at sleight of hand, shapeshfting, lies, and illusions.

This trickster, however, really isn’t that clever. His illusions are easy to see through. It is clear that he yearns for greatness, but it is just as clear that that greatness eludes him. While on his journey through the land that bears his name, he begins to realize that, as Glinda says, he may not be the wizard they were expecting, but he is the wizard that has appeared. His affection for the people of Oz leads him to use his skill as an illusionist to convince the witches of the power he does not actually have. And, it works. In the end, the wizard defeats the witches through sheer illusion and sleight of hand. He fuses his hermetic abilities with the Tinkers’ (Imagineers perhaps?) ability to use technology. He creates a living, breathing illusion.

So, what does this have to do with Disney, the film industry, and origin myths? Simply put, this film suggests that like “the wizard,” filmmakers are both con artists and wizards. As myth-ie tricksters, filmmakers shepherd their audiences through to experiences that turn tin cans into walking, talking allies, convince them that they are in imminent danger from mechanical sharks, to create magical portals to mythic worlds using digital pixels, and simply entrance them will spectacle, color and delight.

Oz: The Great And Powerful is an origin myth crafted specifically to remind the audience of the importance of imagination, illusion, and storytelling. It makes sense that Disney chose to tell it through one of the most iconic and replete mythic systems ever to be touched by the film industry. It is intended to remind the audience why the kinds of things Disney is always up to (putting on a show, telling a story, ritualizing magical locales, and entertaining through illusionist sleight of hand) are powerful and central to psychic health. In that way, this film (for all its shortcomings…of which there are many…) works.

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