You were amazing.
(This article was originally posted on Feminist Borg.)
You may have seen this comic that was floating around Tumblr a few months ago. I haven’t been able to locate the original source; if you know it, please comment and I’ll add it.
Lots of people have addressed the message already, so I’d like to talk, not about the text, but about the art. The medium is the message; what is this medium — a stick figure comic — saying?
Stick-figure comics have become popular in the webcomic era for two main reasons: First, they allow just about anyone to make a comic, regardless of their artistic talent, and second, their featureless appearance make them popular as “everyman” characters.
The stick figure, as commonly used, is indeed a generic character who could stand in for anyone. But it’s also a man. A generic figure with no visible characteristics is assumed to be male. In order to be interpreted as female, a character must be differentiated with some feature, most often long hair. Thus, in this comic, the female character has a ponytail, but the male character doesn’t have any special gender signifiers (say, a baseball cap or bow tie) because he doesn’t need them. The artist knows that a plain stick figure will be interpreted as male.
The “everyman” stick figure is also white. As demonstrated in this comic, the plain white circle head represents a Caucasian person; when the comic needs a non-white person, that person gets a different skin tone, but the white character remains plain white. The associations of plain white = Caucasian are so strong that color webcomics sometimes leave their characters’ skin white with gray shading.
Have a look at some other comics with stick-figure or simplified art and observe how gender and race are expressed.
In each of these comics, the character with the plain circle head is male, while the female character is invariably given some kind of hair. Many of them also give the man a plain stick or rectangle body, but give the woman a more defined body with breasts or a skirt. And several give the woman lipstick or eyelashes, just in case there was any ambiguity left.
Nonwhite characters are mostly left out of comics entirely, but when they do appear, it’s with a signifier such as skin color or hair. Meanwhile, there are several examples of color comics that leave the characters’ skin white. (Order of the Stick is the exception on both counts, giving its characters various hairstyles and skin tones.)
So the stick figure is a generic character, but it’s also part of of one specific demographic. It’s demonstrating the cultural idea that a “regular” person is a white man, and anyone of a different race or gender is an aberration. The gag-a-day comics, with the exceptions of XKCD and Doghouse Diaries, further reinforce this idea by using white-man stick figures for all their jokes except those that specifically require a female or nonwhite character.
Returning to the original comic, we can shed some light on the questions it poses. One generic white-male stick figure making a disparaging comment to another generic white-male stick figure doesn’t carry much of a connotation, nor does a female or nonwhite character making a mean remark to a generic white-male figure who is supposed to represent anyone. But if you first single someone out as different from “normal” people and then make a disparaging mark about zir: That definitely carries a connotation.
I’m not going to tell webcomic creators to stay away from stick figures, but it’s important to think about the message your character-design choices send. Even something that seems neutral, like a stick figure, can work to reinforce our culture’s harmful ideas about who is normal and who is abnormal.
Doad and I were lucky enough to see Janelle Monáe last night. If you aren’t already listening to Janelle Monáe (Cindi Mayweather, the ArchAndroid, Electric Lady #1, Android #57821, etc), you should be. Her series of concept albums about a fugitive android who falls in love with a human are easily the most creative thing happening in music today. I have assembled a miscellany of reactions presented here in no particular order.
I’m not shy with my criticism and I hate the word “perfect,” since I tend to believe that no work is perfect and that aiming for perfection cramps creativity and discourages experimentation, but this concert was perfect: Slick but not overproduced, technically competent but still full of heart, making every number, from the up-tempo hits to the mellow ballads, feel like the highlight of the show. Usually big, daring works that take risks also make a lot of mistakes and the works that avoid major mistakes are timid and spiritless. Janelle Monáe proves that you can have your cake and eat it too. Her discography is big and daring and yet it contains absolutely nothing I could label a mistake, nothing she experimented with but didn’t really work. Instead, her music is great on every possible level: Her gorgeous vocals, her infectious hooks, her always-meaningful lyrics, powerful themes, and intriguing story, and of course, her magnetic stage presence.
If you’ve spent much time on IMDB, Netflix, or any other site that lists ratings for media, you’ve noticed that, whatever scale they’re using, the average is never in the middle. It’s skewed noticeably to the right. Mediocre media often gets a 6 or 7 out of 10; even the worst trash rarely falls below a 2 or 3. Rotten Tomatoes, in an apparent attempt to compensate, sets their Fresh threshold at 60%.
Many people conclude that we’re suffering from rating inflation: We’re giving bad things okay reviews and okay things good reviews and everything ends up clustered at the top, thus making ratings meaningless. For instance, from Tevis Thompson’s masterpiece of obfuscatory writing:
The review scale is one of the most embarrassing aspects of the videogame community. Where else is an 8 the acceptable level at which to criticize a failure as colossal as BioShock Infinite? The score that won’t cause too many waves, since anything in the 7’s is average at best, and below that: no man’s land. Where else do you see these numbers? School, that’s where. There is perhaps no clearer admission that videogames have not escaped their adolescence than grading them on a high school curve.
This is an old problem, but one that even relatively new sites show no inclination to address. When Polygon launched last year and began putting out higher caliber feature stories, I had some hope that they might approach reviews differently as well. I read their review policy and saw a lot of fuss about updating reviews over time but nothing new when it came to the scale. Worse, the scale they put forward actually validated and reinforced our current low standards, only gussied up with professional language. 9’s “may not innovate or be overly ambitious but are masterfully executed.” 7’s are good but “have some big ‘buts’”. A 5 “indicates a bland, underwhelming game that’s functional but little else.” Not 5 as average, as commonplace, the middle instead of the bottom of the scale. (Their 2’s, 3’s, & 4’s list some silly trinity of ‘complete’ failures to justify their existence.)
The concept of rating inflation suggests that reviews were lower on average in the past, which I don’t think anyone has ever provided evidence for, but let’s assume that the inflation we’re talking about is compared to a theoretical “correct” rating, rather than a past rating. Even by this metric, there’s no real evidence that rating inflation exists. To see why, first we need to separate consumer ratings from critic ratings and look at the differences between them.
I’m defining consumer ratings as ratings given by general users on sites where the primary focus is media consumption. This includes sites like Netflix and Goodreads. Most of these sites allow you to write reviews, but user reviews aren’t the main focus and are usually less important to other users than the aggregate rating. These sites often have extremely high average ratings, with hardly anything dipping below a 3 out of 5. But what does the rating actually mean?
Nextflix spells it out for us: Hated it, didn’t like it, liked it, really liked it, loved it. These user ratings aren’t meant to be complex analyses; they’re only meant to describe how you felt about the movie. If you liked it, you should give it a three. If most people who watched it liked it, then it will have an average score of three. That’s a “true” rating.
So why does practically everything have a three or above, even things that were really bad? It has nothing to do with inaccurate ratings; instead, it’s due to inaccurate sampling. Movies are rated by people who have seen them. People usually see movies that interest them. If Transformers is rated 4/5, that doesn’t mean that the general population really liked it; it just means that people who watch Michael Bay movies really liked it. So when user ratings skew high, all that means is “People mostly like things they think they are going to like.” A truism, to be sure, but truisms are true. All attempts to correct the skew are less true.
I’ll define critic ratings as ratings given by professional movie critics, leaving out hobby critics like myself for the moment. Critic ratings don’t suffer from the sampling problem, because they review a wide variety of media, not just what they expect to like. However, ratings still tend to end up on the higher side of the spectrum–not so much with movies, but definitely with video games. Does this mean that video-game reviewers are a bunch of softies who don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings? Not at all. It depends on one’s philosophy of what the rating means.
Rating inflation generally implies that ratings ought to form a vague bell curve: If you’re rating from 1 to 5, 10% of films should get a 5, 10% should get a 1, and 40% should get a 3. But, as you know if you’ve ever taken a curved class, bell curves are subjective: No matter how well you did, you fail if everyone else did better than you. That’s not a very useful way to grade a class, because your grade doesn’t actually reflect whether or not you know the material, and it’s not a useful way to rate media, either.
Instead, media can and should be rated based on theoretically-objective criteria. Evaluate the story, characters, themes, writing, cinematography, gameplay, whichever criteria are applicable to that medium, and then give the work an overall rating based on all of those. At no point in the process do you need to compare the work to other works. Are the characters believable, relatable, and three-dimensional? Then the work is well-done in that respect, regardless of how well-written characters in other works may be.
Thus, while these ratings might still fall into a bell curve, they don’t need to. Maybe most stories have well-written characters. Maybe most stories have poorly-written characters. Either way, it would be misleading to present them as mostly in the middle if they aren’t.
So why do the ratings end up mostly at the high end of the spectrum? It makes sense if you think about it. Theatrically released movies, books published by large presses, primetime television, and video games from major studios all have a great deal of work put into them by competent professionals, so it stands to reason that most big-name media achieves a basic degree of competence. Complaints about bad things getting okay reviews often forget just how bad it’s possible to be. Boom mikes, spelling errors, game-breaking bugs: These are all major mistakes and they’re all usually absent from important media. So reviews skew high in acknowledgment of how much worse things could be, and they should skew high so that exceptionally bad works that do make those basic mistakes can correctly be rated lower than those that don’t.
Video game ratings show the most skew because video games are the medium that combines the most elements and, therefore, they have the most axes along which they can fail. The worst possible game would have to fail along every possible axis. Most games don’t–they usually succeed in at least one respect and therefore deserve higher ratings. Some games have terrible graphics but fascinating stories, bad writing but great gameplay, or clumsy interfaces but gorgeous visuals, and they all might deservedly fall in the 60%-75% range, despite their flaws.
The asymmetrical rating scheme isn’t just an alternative to the bell-curve scheme: It’s better. It portrays each individual work as good, okay, or bad based on its own merits, so the rating can help a reader decide if zie will like something. The bell-curve scheme forces most media into the okay category even if it’s really better or worse, so while it may appear less skewed, it’s not useful to actual readers.
It’s time to put to rest the idea of rating inflation. Ratings should reflect how good a work actually is, and that includes the possibility that most of it actually is pretty good.
Comic from XKCD.
So we’re five weeks in and by now we can all agree that Agents of SHIELD is okay. It’s not really bad, per se, but it feels very, very safe, and given the sheer volume of executive restrictions within which Joss Whedon has to work, it couldn’t really be otherwise. This show was designed to take absolutely no risks that might cause it to fail, and that’s what will guarantee that, in the grand scheme of things, it does fail. This is not going to be remembered for years to come or become anyone’s favorite show. The best it can do is pave the way for better Marvel shows in the future.
Agents of SHIELD has a fine premise and fan favorite Agent Coulson to hold it together; also, in contrast to the Avengers films, it actually has some women in the main cast, including the first woman of color we’ve seen in this universe*. So what is it actually doing wrong and how could it, theoretically, have been done better? Let’s have a look.
The most obvious weakness is the arc, or lack thereof. Villain of the Week shows just don’t cut it anymore, nor should they. There’s simply a limited amount of investment that can be built around characters and situations that were only introduced at the beginning of the episode and will be resolved by the end. Building a continuity while avoiding disrupting the continuity of any other Marvel property would be a major problem, but it’s absolutely necessary and would play to Whedon’s strengths. Who would want to watch a show where, every episode, they discover a MacGuffin and then launch it into the sun?
The show has the rudiments of an arc–most of the episodes end with some hint of how the person, organization, or plot object might reappear–but it’s a facade. Nothing important is really changing as a result of each episode. The stakes are not growing. Everything could instantly be wrapped up by introducing (and then defeating) a big boss who was behind everything for no particular reason. So the first way to improve the show would be to commit to a strong, meaningful arc.
The plotting is weak in the details, too. Far too many of the obstacles are overcome by “use computers to do something” or “apply science gadget.” You might not think there’s better or worse technobabble, but there is. Technobabble needs specificity (think Bond gadgets: the interest comes from how they will come in useful) and setup (so that it doesn’t come out of nowhere and create the feeling that anyone could produce anything as needed). Setting things up in one episode to be used in the next is helpful, so improving the arc dovetails with improvement in this area.
The themes are another problem. The Marvel films deserve credit for not taking a post-9/11 American-imperialist approach to SHIELD and portraying it as a government agency that’s always in the right no matter what it does because it’s fighting the bad guys (like, say, the Counter-Terrorism Unit of 24) SHIELD has its moments of ambiguity: The time when they steal all Jane Foster’s stuff and then act smugly righteous about it and the excellent scene where an argument breaks out after the Avengers discover that Coulson has been lying to them about SHIELD’s activities. Questions about SHIELD’s purpose and ethics get raised and not completely answered.
Those questions get raised now and then in Agents of SHIELD, too, but in a far more mealy-mouthed way. A character will pop up to rant about the evils of government surveillance, but the next moment the team will be happily jetting off to save someone who SHIELD’s surveillance has discovered kidnapped. People may discuss whether SHIELD is right or wrong, but it’s ultimately meaningless because SHIELD is always right. The show would benefit massively from some major blunders and failures that would demonstrate the dangers of SHIELD’s strong-arm approach.
The rest of the problems relate to the characters. It’s surprising that Whedon turned out such a weak cast, but no doubt there was a lot of executive meddling at work. The cast is mostly young, adorable, and bland, which is neither very realistic for an elite government agency nor very compelling to watch, and their blandness leaves very little room for development. Coulson is strong and his backstory is intriguing, but May’s arc feels forced and Fitzsimmons are eminently forgettable. But the biggest problems–and the most room for improvement–fall on Ward and Skye.
Ward is supposed to be the highly competent field agent with absolutely no interpersonal skills, but that’s a completely informed flaw. I can’t think of a single instance where he’s actually made a faux pas or had trouble interacting with someone. Instead, he makes woobie faces and stands around looking sympathetic while people tell him about their troubled pasts. A character who was actually abrasive and repellent, both to other characters and to the audience, would actually be more sympathetic, because we’d have a vested interest in seeing him develop.
And then there’s Skye. Skye falls into what I call “Snape syndrome.” Here’s the issue: Characters with ambiguous motivations are interesting. In a single movie, book, or TV episode, it works great to introduce a character who claims to be an ally but does questionable things and raises suspicion, until the end, when zir true motivations are revealed. But you can’t do this every episode with the same character. It’s tempting on the principle that what worked once will work again, but in order to keep a character acting ambiguously for the entire length of a series without ever doing something that provably puts zir on one side or the other, zie has to act more and more improbably, until finally the only possible explanation for zir behavior is that zie is actively attempting to look ambiguous to the audience**.
Now, it’s fine to make Skye ambiguous, but not at the expense of being a coherent character, and not by making that the only inter-team conflict that we ever get to see. Skye is introduced just fine with a couple of episodes where her motivations are a little dodgy, but the show would be better if she then lost the ambiguity and acted entirely like a good guy for the entire middle of the season. Then, at the end, she can double-cross the team and we might actually be surprised.
Overall, I’d say Agents of SHIELD is more in need of a number of small changes, rather than a big overhaul. Unfortunately, most of these changes couldn’t actually be made at this point (Ward couldn’t suddenly lose his social skills, for instance). Soon we’ll start seeing episodes that were filmed after the show began to air; I hope we’ll start seeing some changes based on viewer response, but if we do, they’ll have to be rather mild changes. Most likely, it will continue to be a pretty good show, and that will be all.
I’ll still watch it, though.
*The main cast is still awfully white (though less white than the Marvel cinematic universe), but Whedon seems to be attempting to balance this out by introducing guest characters of color in nearly every episode. Unfortunately, this means that they’re almost always villains. Oops.
**Additionally, it becomes necessary to raise the stakes in order to keep the audience invested and to prevent them from going “Oh, it’s just that person being kind of sketchy again.” So zie needs to do more and more terrible things, justified afterwards with more and more improbable explanations, until finally Snape has to kill Dumbledore.
You were amazing.
As we learned last time, women can and do appreciate attractive male characters in a sexual way, a fact that is not respected by male fans or male content creators. We’re at a cultural nadir for women’s issues in general and particularly in the media; for instance, the girl-power message seen in the 90′s and early 2000′s in movies (Mulan, Miss Congeniality, Bend it like Beckham) and especially music (Salt-n-Pepa, TLC) is pretty well moribund, so you’d expect that catering to female fans is also at a low, right?
Happily, you’d be wrong. In the past few years, I’ve noticed something almost entirely unprecedented appearing in film: Authentic female gaze.
Before I dive into the examples, let’s go over what gaze is and why it matters.
Gazing is the act of looking at something. Each of us has a gaze which we direct in our own unique way, lingering in detail on things (and people) that interest us while glancing over things (and people) that are unimportant to us. Naturally, sexual attraction is an important part of gaze: Most of us like looking at people we consider hot and our gaze will focus on them longer and in more detail. (Except not too long or it gets creepy. I mention this as a public service to certain people who apparently don’t know.)
In film, there is only one gaze: That of the camera. We’re all forced to look at the same thing. The cinematographer thus has the difficult job of directing the camera in a way that emulates the audience’s many gazes, focusing on the things that are most important to us in order to keep our interest. But different people are interested in different things, so the cinematographer must necessarily choose whose gaze to emulate the most closely, and by extension, what portion of the audience is the most important.
Since virtually all cinema is third-person, there’s a conceit that the camera’s gaze is “neutral,” not meant to represent the gaze of an actual person. Static camerawork supports this, as do crane shots and other shots where a person obviously couldn’t be present. But most camerawork doesn’t. Most of the time, cinematography is meant to pull us into the story by making us imagine that we’re really there. For instance, the ubiquitous action-scene shaky cam suggests that there’s a real person with a hand-held camera. But if the cinematographer is trying to put us in the scene, the question immediately arises: Who is zie trying to put in the scene?
Most of the time, the answer is men. That’s why this concept is often referred to as the “male gaze.” Most cinematographers are straight guys, and unless the movie is specifically a chick flick, filmmakers usually assume that their audience (or at least the important part of it) is straight and male, too. Thus, the gaze usually gives preference to conventionally-attractive women, the assumed targets of the audience’s gaze.
Cinematic gaze involves any or all of three elements:
Obviously, all these elements are applied far more often to female characters than male ones. A well-known example is the Avengers poster: While all the male characters are facing the audience, Black Widow stands contorted so that you can see both her boobs and her butt. Kevin Bolk’s hilarious gender pose swap shows how odd these poses look when applied to male characters.
Let’s make one thing clear: There’s nothing wrong with cinematic gaze, in and of itself. Attractive bods are one of the reasons we see movies and there is absolutely no reason we should downplay that motivation or feel odd about it. However, there are additional elements that make gaze harmful. Bullet points are serving me well, so I’ll keep with them:
All of which is to say that I’m heartened by the recent trend of movies that use, partially or primarily, a female gaze rather than a male one. The trend was codified not by a movie but by a commercial: The famous 2010 Old Spice commercial “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like.” Many advertisements pitch women’s products to men, touting why their lives will improve if their wives and girlfriends use these products, but this is a rare exception that instead explains to women why the men in their lives should use the product. “Look at your man, now back to me, now back at your man, now back to me,” says Isaiah Mustafa, directly acknowledging that, in this commercial, the women are doing the looking.
The incredible popularity of the Old Spice campaign demonstrated that the female gaze could attract an audience, and it began to show up in movies. Some are parodic, lampshading the fact that gaze is usually directed by men towards women and inverting it to amusing effect. For instance, in 2012′s Mirror Mirror, there’s a running gag where the prince’s clothes get stolen. Both the main female characters end up looking at him and the queen comments on how distracting his body is. Or consider this clip of Moto Moto from 2008′s Madagascar 2, which features all the classic elements of gaze: The tilt shot, the butt shot, the sexy music, the gazer.
But parodic examples can never truly indicate cultural change, because their humor hinges on the contrast between them and the culture as a whole. That’s why it’s significant that there are also non-parodic examples. In these cases, the moment itself may still be funny, but the film as a whole, and particularly the target of the gaze, is not: Unlike Moto Moto, you’re actually supposed to find these guys attractive. In this year’s Pacific Rim, there’s a scene where Mako checks out Raleigh through the peephole in her door. Raleigh is shown shirtless, with tattoo-like scars that accentuate his body. It’s clear where we’re supposed to be looking.
But I think the best example is 2011′s Thor. Of all the Avengers movies, this is the one that really seems aware that there are straight women in the audience. It’s got four named female characters, highly unusual for an action film, and there’s a lot of fanservice. Thor spends plenty of time shirtless, wrestles other guys in the mud, and stands in the rain grabbing a phallic symbol. I half expect him and the SHIELD agents to start yelling “Tastes great! Less filling!”
What makes Thor stand out as female gaze instead of just fanservice is Darcy. She’s the audience avatar–an unusual one, since they’re generally male main characters and she is neither. But she’s the ordinary-looking college student and the person who always says what the audience is thinking, pointing out the obvious and asking questions when something needs explanation. Thus, when she repeatedly comments on how hot Thor is, she’s acting as the gazer and speaking the audience’s mind. She even takes a picture of him, literally documenting the film from her own, female perspective.
Despite what you’re thinking, I’m not happy about all this female gaze just because I love looking at attractive guys. There have always been good-looking men in the movies. The unprecedented thing is how these characters are regarded by the camera, by other characters, and by the audience. Female viewers are finally getting recognition as a significant part of the audience of general-interest movies. Gaze is empowering. It’s about time we got a little of it.
My posts usually have boring titles, but this one ought to attract some attention. So: Sexiness. It’s one of the key ways that content creators attract (or pander to) a demographic. Where by “a demographic,” I of course mean “straight guys.” Like it or not, eye candy for straight men is a standard part of media, while eye candy for straight women is not. If you’ve hung around in fan circles much, you’re probably familiar with two arguments in support of this status quo: First, that the media in question (be it movies, video games, comics, sports, or what have you) is for (presumed straight) men and therefore they ought to get what they want, and second, that women aren’t into that sort of thing and so there’s no reason to include it, regardless of how many women are in the audience.
But, interestingly, there’s an opposing view of straight female fanservice that gets held by the same people at the same time.
Setting aside the obvious problems (Who didn’t like Black Widow? Loki isn’t even on there?), here we have the idea that fanservice is not only something that straight women like, but is in fact the only thing they like.
The conclusion is that, when straight men are attracted to something, that’s an important, immutable characteristic of the demographic that needs to be addressed, but when straight women are attracted to something, that very fact is proof that they’re frivolous and shallow and there’s no point in catering to them.
If there’s any defense to be made of the obvious contradiction between “girls only like the Avengers because of the hawt guys” and “girls aren’t visually aroused,” it would probably be that, for guys, it’s a sexual attraction, while for girls, it’s a romantic attraction. That is, men want to bang Black Widow, but women want to have a relationship with Captain America and probably cuddle or something. However, this is a) not true (see left), and b) a terrible explanation for why the former ought to be indulged and the latter ought to be ignored.
I think the real reason straight female attraction is dismissed out of hand is subtler: It’s the idea that it necessarily comes at the expense of appreciating the rest of the work. So women can’t like Captain America and also like the special effects–the former invalidates the latter. If this were true, it would at least be an understandable reason to dismiss those fans as frivolous (although surely one has the right to watch a movie purely for fanservice if one likes).
But why should it be true? It’s widely accepted that men can enjoy fanservice and also like the central aspects of the work. Nobody clamors for the removal of Bond girls on the grounds that they keep guys from properly appreciating submarine cars.
Here’s an even clearer example. This time, we can directly compare what men and women are expected (or allowed) to enjoy.
Notice that hot people are featured for both genders. But it’s assumed that men can like hot women and cutting-edge engineering and mayhem and the thrill of victory, while for women, hot guys eclipse every other aspect of the sport. Thus, women are silly and completely miss the whole point of Formula 1 and nobody should pay attention to them.
But in the men’s case, the hot people are truly gratuitous, added for no other purpose than to be checked out, as opposed to the women, who are at least checking out people who are an integral part of the sport. So one could just as easily argue that men are so obsessed with hot chicks that grid girls have to be added to an all-male sport or else men wouldn’t watch it, thus making men the absolute height of frivolity and the last demographic in the world that you should pander to, since you can make them watch anything as long as you line up some girls in short skirts at the end.
In reality, of course, both arguments are equally silly. Both men and women become fans of things for all kinds of reasons and none of them are right or wrong. I don’t think almost anyone gets really into something for no reason except the eye candy, but even if zie did, there would be nothing wrong with that and no reason to discount that demographic (instead, one ought to ask “What else is this person interested in? Can the eye candy be used to get zir interested in other aspects?).
This sort of reasoning does happen when men are the audience. But with women, instead, any level of assumed sexual attraction becomes an excuse to ignore them. If women aren’t into eye candy, then you might as well not worry about what they like, because they don’t actually care. But if women are into eye candy, then you might as well not worry about what they like, because they’re just being shallow. When, no matter the starting premises, the conclusion is always “cater only to straight guys,” you’re got to question the logic.
And the idea that anyone might want eye candy of their own gender doesn’t occur to anyone at all.
Captain America found here. The others found everywhere on the internet.
Dr. Seuss is unique.
The mid-20th century was a great time for picture books in general, especially rhyming books and those with minimal words; in addition to Seuss, we had P.D. Eastman, Ludwig Bemelmans, Eric Carle, Mike McClintock, Margaret Wise Brown, and many other great authors and illustrators. But Dr. Seuss stands out among them. What makes him so special?
Many factors; one of the reasons he’s so great is his ability to resonate in some way with just about everyone. There are two elements that I, personally, really connect with: Didacticism and surrealism.
Didacticism may be the holy grail of children’s literature. Parents, educators want picture books to be educational, but kids can spot edutainment (and, worse, moral education) a mile away and adamantly resist it. Dr. Seuss stands entirely apart from this conflict. His books do teach lessons, but we never felt like we were being educated. Returning to these books as an adult, I’m struck by the strength of the morals in stories that, as a kid, I just liked because they were fun: From a simple exhortation to try new things (Green Eggs and Ham) to pacifism (The Butter Battle Book), environmentalism (The Lorax), and the dangers of things like prejudice (The Sneetches) and even fascism (Yertle the Turtle).
Why did I love these books despite the morals? The answer is that I didn’t: There was no “despite” about it. These weren’t great books even though they taught lessons; these were great books written inextricably around their morals. I think the reason they are so appealing when other books with morals are not is the honesty of the message. Nothing here evokes focus groups determining the important issues that children’s books need to address (you know you got that vibe from, say, The Berenstain Bears); instead, every story feels like an honest communication from someone who really cared about this issue and wanted you to care, too.
But there was far more to Seuss than lessons. His books had a distinctive look that placed all of them, even the most accessible, unmistakably in a world not like our own. There was something strange about this world, something Other, something fascinating. And that’s my second point: Surrealism*.
The Seuss books that I liked the most weren’t the ones with plots and lessons, but the celebrations of pure imagination. One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish sounds like a simple counting/colors book, but it diverges almost immediately into strange creatures and situations: the Yink who drinks pink ink, a mouse cutting a telephone wire, the Zeds whose single hair grows so fast that it needs to be cut every day, and so much more. The phrases are so mellifluous and fascinating: “By the light of the moon, by the light of a star, they walked all night from near to far.” “You never yet met a pet, I bet, as wet as they let this wet pet get.” “My hat is old. My teeth are gold. I have a bird I like to hold. My shoe is off. My foot is cold.”
But my absolute favorite was Oh, the Thinks You Can Think! This one had no overarching story at all beyond the encouragement to think and imagine; each spread introduces a self-contained setting where something interesting is happening. Some are friendly, more are creepy, and all are intriguing. Here, too, those simple, rhythmic words stick in your head: “Think of light. Think of bright. Think of stairs in the night.”
This book had a profound effect on me and my imagination. Each picture provided a brief window into its own unique world operating by its own rules. It was impossible not to wonder about them. Is the Rink-Rinker-Fink a living creature? A fossil? A statue? Is it dangerous or benign? Why does its tooth need to be pulled? I found myself automatically creating context and longer stories into which these vignettes could fit. Most picture books were easy to understand, but Dr. Seuss challenged us. He gave us material that was open-ended, not neatly resolved.
When these two elements–didacticism and surrealism–converge, they work incredibly well together. The bizarre imagery makes the story memorable; the otherworldliness of the setting underlines the universality of the lesson. There are many stories about not being afraid of people who are different than you; only one includes a pair of sentient walking pants. And believe me, I remembered.
What do you remember the most about Dr. Seuss? What did he mean to you?
*I’m going against my own principle and using “surrealism” in the general sense, not the academically rigorous sense.
Chapter 1 was difficult for some people because of the suicide content, but happily, that’s behind us, hopefully never to be mentioned again. Andrew is Moving On:
Two weeks later Andrew was still in a shell but not quite the zombie he’d been. Throwing himself into work dulled the pain and at least the numbers and spreadsheets wouldn’t lie to him.
Apparently he’s never heard of lies, damned lies, and statistics. Anyway, he’s home for a family dinner with his mom, his dad, and his sister Tracy. Being a single female, Tracy of course has to embody every negative trait the author can think of:
She was in her second year of grad school but still lived at home, unlike Andrew who moved out of the house for good the summer after freshman year.
He knew his son was going through a rough time. They had talked about his breakup with Natalie and he couldn’t help but feel bad for him. Kids were a lot different today than when he grew up. They seemed to have so many choices and distractions these days. He hoped his son would follow in his footsteps. Being a certified public accountant wasn’t the most exciting career but it was steady and dependable.
Let’s talk about sentence length.
Words per sentence in this paragraph: 10, 17, 11, 11, 9, 16. The longest sentence is not even twice the length of the shortest. The result is a monotonous, unfocused passage with no sense of rhythm or fluency and no clues as to what we’re supposed to focus on. Compare that to a random passage from Dorothy Sayers’ Busman’s Holiday, since that’s what I happen to be reading:
“Well–” began Kirk; but, after all, what could he expect this short-sighted old gentleman to notice? Signs of a struggle? Fingerprints on a door? Foot marks on the path? Scarcely. Mr. Goodacre would possibly have noticed a full-sized corpse, if he had happened to trip over it, but probably nothing smaller.
16, 4, 4, 5, 1, 21. It starts with a mid-length “topic sentence,” then a series of small fragments to draw us on, and finally wraps up with a longer sentence. The result is a much more fluent, engaging passage. Then again, Dorothy Sayers actually knows how to write.
Doad: Yeah, this Andrew guy seems like a keeper. Anyhow, apparently being a CPA is the noble thing to do in life.
Me: The CPA thing is supposed to show what a beta his dad is, working a boring job to care for his family.
Since the western world unfairly privileges women, Andrew is buried under student loans because his parents chose not to pay for his tuition so that they could pay for Tracy instead:
A free ride? That’s what Tracy had: no job, no rent, no student loans, their parents were paying her way and for what? A feminist studies degree with plans to continue on for a Phd.. What was she ever going to do with that, teach school and write papers?
If I were going to point out every mistake like “feminist studies” and the fabled MRA double period, I’d be here for the rest of my life. Instead, have this:
And, of course, she has Lesbian Hair:
a short bob haircut with random colors of black, brown, pink and a shock of dark blue hanging to one side
Doad: I like her hair.
Me: Blue and pink at the same time? Feminists have much better taste.
Doad: Indeed. Unless she’d been dressing up as rainbow dash.
“It’s interesting how men react when a woman decides to move on. We were actually talking about this in my advanced gender studies class last week-,”
Doad: It’s funny that it says she watches it unfold like the discussion in the class said it would–I’m not sure if it’s intentional but the scene almost implies she’s right about his reaction.
Me: Yeah, there’s a whole thing with straw feminists (and straw characters in general)actually turning out to be right.
Me: I’m just amused that the gender-studies class is talking about what men do when women dump them.
Doad: You know when you get a bunch of women together they just discuss guys.
Me: Aside from the obvious “absolutely no clue what women do in their stupid womany classes,” it actually brings us back to the Red Pill aspect. These guys are proud that they’re getting away from those terrible women, but then they spend all their time obsessing over them, as seen in this book. So they imagine that feminists are the converse: Women who hate men but also spend all their time obsessing over them.
“Charles!” Joan used the same tone with him as she used with her son.
A henpecked husband, naturally.
“It’s not true, Dad,” Andrew stammered. “I didn’t hit her! I love Natalie! She cheated with all these guys and I tried everything, I did everything I’m supposed to do and she just broke my heart… and… I don’t know what to do!”
Okay, now Patton’s making it too easy.
“Oh hi Mark!”
That’s not actually the next line (but it should be). He and his dad leave those awful wimminz and have a little male bonding time, laced with empty platitudes:
They sat for a few minutes in silence. “Now you are smart and you’re a good guy and you’re tough, Andrew, even if you don’t feel very tough right now. It’s just like riding a bike, you fall off a hundred times but you get back up and keep trying, you don’t quit riding the bike.”
Will Andrew learn from his experiences and build healthier relationships in the future? Or will a skeevy con man convince him that there’s a set of secret tricks he can learn that will make him able to effortlessly manipulate women and everyone else around him? Find out next time! I’m sure you’re on the edge of your seat.
I’m probably not the only one who reacted to the news of Joss Whedon’s Much Ado about Nothing with “Wait, didn’t we just have a version of Much Ado?” Then we all recalibrated our internal clocks and realized that Kenneth Branagh’s iconic adaptation came out a full twenty years ago. That’s still a short time as adaptations of classics go–a full 39 years elapsed between Redford’s and DiCaprio’s Great Gatsbys, for instance–but enough to reasonably conclude that we’re ready for a new one. And whoever said “That’s way too much Shakespearean comedy?”
Admittedly, the other comedies have been neglected, the late comedies like The Twelfth Night and The Tempest almost criminally so. But Much Ado is simply a great play. Its plot stands on its own without needing to be propped up with fairy mischief or identical twins separated at birth and its wit and banter is some of the best Shakespeare ever wrote. Both adaptations are capably made by skilful directors, but how do they stack up against each other? Let’s have a look.
Look and Feel
Although they have the same script, the films feel so different that it’s almost hard to compare them. Branagh’s is set in a vague, but rich and beautiful, Olden Times, filled with vibrant colors and pastoral themes; Whedon’s contemporary setting gains a timeless air from its black-and-white cinematography and gorgeous smooth-jazz soundtrack.
Right off the bat, Whedon has a handicap. Historical movies get the benefit of the doubt that whatever happens in that setting makes sense within that context, but the modern setting immediately raises questions. What is Don Pedro the prince of? What’s this war they’re talking about? And, most importantly, why does everyone care so much about Hero’s virginity? It’s difficult to create sympathy for a modern-day father who wishes his daughter were dead because she cheated on her fiancé. Still, Whedon’s adaptation powers through these problems primarily on the strength of the cast, which we’ll get to later.
Both films are set in Mediterranean-style villas; Branagh uses the set to enhance the pastoral element, placing as many scenes as possible in the sunshine-soaked outdoors. Whedon’s set, which he navigates with clear competence, is so classy-looking that you’ll be asking “Where is that?” within five minutes. And then you’ll be jealous because it’s his actual house.
While both versions have plenty of delightfully funny moments, Whedon’s noir aesthetic has a notably more serious feel. Compare their trailers: Branagh’s emphasizes fun and joie de vivre, while Whedon’s almost looks like a drama.
I don’t think this is necessarily a point against Whedon. Compared to, say, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which is fluffy fun from beginning to end, Much Ado actually has a quite dark fourth act. Yes, it’s all based on a misunderstanding, allowing it to be neatly cleared up in the end, but the tensions it reveals between the characters are real and well worth exploring. Playing up the serious aspects of the gender dynamics also helps mitigate the moral dissonance issue.
How you feel about Whedon in general is going to influence what you think of his casting, but in general, both casts are quite strong, approaching the material with ease and a lot of heart. (To keep the casts straight, I’ll be mentioning the Branagh actor first, followed by the Whedon actor.)
We’ve got two silly Benedicks, Branagh’s taking the chatterbox route and Alexis Denisof’s focusing more on slapstick. Doad doesn’t think Branagh is earnest enough to pull it off, but I find Denisof’s clowning a little excessive. But then, I’m not much of a slapstick fan.
While Benedick rightfully gets the spotlight, I’m struck by how much the play hinges on a good Claudio. His material is so much more challenging. There’s the potential for him to come across as a massive dick during the first wedding scene if it’s played too angrily; the actor has to inject a huge amount of emotion into his lines to come across as a heartbroken man who wishes above everything that he didn’t have to say what he’s saying; in the fifth act, he must equally strongly demonstrate how overjoyed he is that the charges against Hero aren’t true. The solution to the morality problem is to render it irrelevant: When Hero confesses “And, surely as I live, I am a maid,” the point shouldn’t be her actual virginity, but rather the importance ascribed to it by both her and Claudio. Robert Sean Leonard and Fran Kranz both handle this task well, but Fran Kranz has the edge. Dollhouse fans will see a little Epitaph One/Two Topher in the captivating way he throws himself headlong into the emotions of each scene.
Moving on to the ladies, I keep thinking that there must be a way to play Hero without being a doormat, but neither actress attempts this. As for Beatrice, were you wondering if Joss Whedon was going to find a broken bird with a tragic past? He doesn’t. But he does draw attention to the fact that Beatrice and Benedick were in a previous relationship. This is a single passage in the play:
Beatrice: Indeed, my lord, he lent it [his heart] me awhile; and I gave him use for it, a double heart for his single one; marry, once before he won it of me with false dice, therefore your Grace may well say I have lost it.
This line is easily missed in Branagh’s version, but Whedon supplements it with a couple of short flashbacks. Knowing that Beatrice and Benedick were previously involved and that it apparently ended badly suggests a bitter undertone to their constant bantering.
If there’s one role where Branagh’s adaptation has the advantage, it has to be Don Pedro. This underappreciated role ties the whole story together and Denzel Washington radiates affability. Reed Diamond has great screen presence, but doesn’t fall into the easygoing role quite as naturally.
The comedians are Branagh’s first major stumble. The malaprop-prone Dogberry, as written, is already silly bordering on lame, so adaptations should properly mitigate that silliness; Michael Keaton instead magnifies it. Many of his scenes are more puzzling than funny. In contrast, Nathan Fillion, playing Dogberry with a Captain Hammer-like self-importance, threatens to steal the show. But then, given his popularity, he’d steal it no matter what he did.
This brings us to the part of Branagh’s film we all wish we could just forget: Don John. Being a comedy, Much Ado‘s villain is almost cursory. “Think not on him till tomorrow,” Benedick famously orders, underlining that comedic theme: Evil is defeated when it’s rendered impotent and irrelevant. The role can easily be pulled off by a moderately competent actor. But neither film goes this route.
Keanu Reeves is terrible. Unbelievably terrible. The man fails to muster a single facial expression in the entire film and manages to avoid infusing any emotion into his lines even when he’s yelling (which is an accomplishment itself). He kills every scene he’s in and only manages to avoid killing the film outright by being in mercifully few.
I wasn’t expecting much out of Sean Maher’s Don John simply because I didn’t think there was much to do with it, but Maher proved me wrong. No yelling for him: He delivers each line in quiet measured tones full of the intensity of a caged animal. Suddenly, instead of Reeves’ guy who messes with people for no apparent reason, we have a failed conspirator stewing in his own defeat, full of barely-contained anger that he’s ready to unleash against anyone and anything that he perceives as an enemy. This is a villain you actually want to watch. He also gets the best visual joke in the movie.
Script and Direction
The script differences are small, but interesting. Both films run about the same time. Branagh seems aware of his version’s weaknesses and pares down the parts of Dogberry and especially Don John, bolstering the latter’s scenes with music and even stupid lightning in an attempt to evoke the right emotional tone. Instead he focuses on the simply enjoyable parts, like the pageant. Whedon zeroes in on the drama, such as Beatrice and Benedick’s troubled past and Don John’s situation as a captive of Don Pedro. We get the full exchange where Don John tells the prince and Claudio that Hero is cheating, while Branagh quickly cuts away to the scene at the window. Whedon also gives Dogberry plenty of well-deserved screen time.
A difficulty every Shakespeare director, especially film director, must address is how to begin the dialog. While Shakespeare’s writing is great, it’s unfamiliar to the modern ear, so jumping straight into it can be jarring (although the viewer will forget in five minutes). Here Branagh’s adaptation wins handily: The opening recitation of “Sigh No More” slides the viewer neatly into an Elizabethan mindset. Whedon, on the other hand, crashes straight into this problem. That said, his sung version of “Sigh No More” is better and more smoothly integrated. (I’m happy that both versions included songs, usually the first thing to get the ax.)
Whedon deserves props for resisting a temptation that doesn’t apply to Branagh’s version: The temptation to cut and paste to add new material that will make his movie fit his setting better. So nobody takes drugs or refers to guns as “swords” (although a flashlight gets referred to as a “lantern”), there’s no weird focus on bicycles or gramophones, and there aren’t any long sequences where nobody can talk because the scene has nothing to do with the actual play.
Some Whedon fans were reticent about him adapting an existing script, since that gives him no chance to use his trademark dialog. What about this adaptation is Whedony? Naturally, the cast of two alumni from Firefly, three from Dollhouse, two from Buffy, and one from The Avengers. The actors used to meet up and do Shakespeare readings at Whedon’s house*. When one of them came up with something he liked, he would work it into the show, until he finally decided that they ought to just film some Shakespeare. So, in a way, this is the most Whedony work you’ll ever see.
Both of these adaptations were labors of love: Branagh devoting his entire career to Shakespeare and Whedon wanting to make something out of the fun he and his actors have on their own. Inevitably, this results in subjectivity: You’re going to prefer the director who feels more like you do about Shakespeare. Happily, both of them not only like Shakespeare but understand him, so both adaptations are successful.
There’s a lot of interesting nuance to be explored, but in the end, I have to conclude what I would have said at the beginning: Whedon’s version is better because it doesn’t have Keanu Reeves.
*While the image of a cast of talented friends relaxing with some Shakespeare is, I think, appealing to almost anyone, it resonates with me for completely sentimental readings. My college friends used to do Shakespeare readings during the summer. Doad and I fell in love somewhere between Troilus and Cressida and The Tempest.