Archive | June, 2012

Strange Confusing Feelings Part 2

9 Jun

Read Part 1 first

The discussion which spans these two posts has been a bit like a Simpsons episode – start somewhere, end up in a very different place. So here I’ve come. To the reason why I wanted to write this set of blog posts in the first place. I have a lot of friends who are fervently against Cap presumably for the reasons I discussed in the previous post. But I think there’s more to Cap than this, therefore here are three reasons why I think Cap isn’t necessarily a clear-cut easy target poster-boy of American cultural imperialism.

1. The idea of American cultural imperialism is itself a shaky concept. Is every other nation, really that easily culturally conquered? Are they/we really that weak and passive? Are audiences really that impressionable and malleable? Remember: texts are polysemic.

And what is “American” culture? There’re a lot of Americans, a lot of individual experiences, belief systems, and backgrounds that go into making America. Does a nation have a single culture that they then organise and disseminate in an orderly and uncontested fashion? Governments can barely keep track of their paperwork, let alone organise a major cultural offensive… I mean, defensive…

Captain America may be draped in symbolism of the USA, but I think it’s safe to say the USA means different things to different people – the semiotics of the costume/character can and will be read in a number of different ways – as I’ve been saying, I read it several different ways that seem to be completely at odds with one another all at once.

This isn’t to say some discursive regimes don’t become more obvious or powerful at certain times. That certain groups, individuals, belief systems don’t ever become dominant – but they are always being contested, are always in a state of flux, are always needing to re-win consent to remain ascendant. Change might take a while, but it can and does happen. And maybe Cap can contribute to the effectiveness of challenges to the not-so-good parts of the mainstream because he is like a ready-made red, white and blue Muppety-Trojan horse.

2. I think Cap becomes the scape-goat for criticism of textual themes such as ‘great white hope’, ‘patriarchal dominance’, etc within The Avengers. However, The Avengers, Marvel, even the comic book industry in general are dripping with these themes. The superhuman “aggregator” in the Marvel universe is called S.H.I.E.L.D for goodness sake! Cap might have a shield – but a significant portion of superheroes in the Marvel universe work for and under one. DC isn’t much better, in fact, it’s probably more overtly Anglo-Christian in its ideological leanings; the DC equivalent of the Avengers is – let’s say it together – The JUSTICE League. The Justice League includes Superman who stands for – once more together – “Truth, justice and the American way!”

Cap is just one of a bazillion characters who reside in and are created by people who are a product of their cultural context. In the case of high-profile comic books, that context is dominated by discursive regimes where, unfortunately, white males are most privileged. See, here’s a really depressing set of graphs:

These inequalities are not going unnoticed – there’s a bunch of scrutiny taking place which is brilliant. And what’s more, I think comic-books – like any cultural product – can be used as a platform to discuss and negotiate necessary change, or even just to articulate cultural ambivalence. This brings me directly to my third point…

3. Captain America is a character that has clearly changed over time. He was a character created in the midst of a ridiculously devastating war. I can only imagine the importance a character such as Captain America played in helping to legitimise American involvement in WWII to the American population –  right, noble, brave, defenders of the weak . Think politics of plausibility again.

More recently however, Captain America has been used rather subversively. Between 2006-2007, Marvel comics had a company-wide story-arc called ‘Civil War’. In this series the superhuman community was divided as the American government tried to implement a compulsory registration system for all superhumans (this includes mutants – as in, the X-Men type) which would require them to make their private persona public and work officially for government/military bodies like S.H.I.E.L.D – much like soldiers or police officers are employed. Some superhumans were pro-registration (Tony Stark/Ironman was one of the proponents of the Act), while Captain America was leader of the anti-registration resistance movement. Anti-registrationers argued that the act was a violation of civil liberties. You can find a summary of the series here if you’re interested and don’t mind massive spoilers.

This storyline mirrors events taking place in America post 9/11, particularly the USA Patriot Act which, among other things, relaxed restrictions on the measures law enforcers’ could take to gather intelligence (detaining suspects for longer with less evidence etc). This is where Captain America becomes Muppet Man – sneaking in the thing that hasn’t been allowed (ie, subversive/challenging ideologies) in the guise of a recogniable ally you feel comfortable with. All the symbolism contained within Cap: of America as defenders of justice, defenders of truth, defenders of the weak, gets caught up a hardcore challenge to people’s taken-for-granted perceptions and definitions of patriotism.

What’s more, Cap ends up being assassinated on the steps of a court house after he is tried for criminal acts committed during his anti-registration efforts.

Death of America…

Subversive much!? And majorly political.

TL:DR. What I’m trying to say is, when I watch The Avengers, I don’t only see the problematic patriotic semiotics of the character. I’ve had the benefit of growing up with comic book geeks who entice me to read up on these storylines, to keep track of the wider transmedia narratives of (in this case) the Marvel universe. For me, the gentle, innocent, older brother-type Captain America in The Avengers movie is inextricably connected to the beacon-of-hope Captain America of the 1940s, and the Captain America who fought and died for civil liberties not all too long ago in the comics. He is representative of these themes just as much as he signifies ugly American self-righteousness. And that is why I think Captain America deserves a little more credit than he is given.


Strange Confusing Feelings Part 1

9 Jun

I really wanted The Avengers to be good. I mean really.

Most of this was because I wanted Joss Whedon to come out shiny. I wanted audiences beyond his “cult” to experience the joy every Whedonite has felt many times before them. I wanted Marvel studios to be unequivocally validated in having picked the right guy for the job. I wanted the stupid-heads who cancelled Firefly to face-palm and hang their heads in shame and regret the day they alienated a genius worthy of their respect and broadcast space.

I’m a little ashamed that I deep-down wanted this movie to be a recognisable success by mainstream/institutional/official standards – I genuinely don’t believe official sanctioning makes anything any more valuable or culturally worthy, in fact, part of nerdom’s appeal as I’ve discussed before, is its doesn’t-give-a-fuckedness, that it actively and/or unselfconsciously eschews external/mainstream/official approval.  However, I found myself still wanting that approval, mainly so I could feel all “see, I told you!”-y[1] and partly because, let’s face it, there’s a feeling of security that comes with fitting with the majority/dominant[2].

It’s like the difference between listening to a song on your own personal listening-to-songs-device, and hearing it play on the radio. Somehow it’s always slightly more exciting when you hear it via a publically accessible forum. I mean, it’s not as though you lack access to the song, that its existence somehow hangs in the balance when you listen to it in your own private sphere; it’s not as though you need permission to listen to it or like it – you probably already do like it since you have a copy of your own that you play at your leisure in your own space – external validation be damned!

But I find when “my” song plays on the radio it somehow feels real-er. It’s definitive proof that other people know about it, that it’s actually a THING that EXISTS.

A thing that exists BEYOND ME.

And that’s a bit comforting.

So, even though I like being part of a not-so-small yet still niche-like fan group, I wanted this film to be good because this is how a lot of people would become aware of Joss Whedon and most importantly his stuff which has, quite frankly (and, admittedly, tritely), been a significant part of my life[3]. I wanted the external proof of the existence of the lump of creations I loved to be publicly and positively evidenced. Because of safety and what-not.

I was doing some serious internal bracing in the lead up to the film’s release. My Mum used to tell me that things are never as good or bad as you expect them to be, that expectation outweighs actuality. For example, the things you fear are often not as bad as you thought they would be when they actually happen, while on the flip-side, things you have been looking forward to generally  don’t meet your expectations either. In my experience this seems to be true, which is awesome when it comes to the bad stuff, but kinda sucky when it comes to good things[4]. I didn’t want my high hopes and expectations to ruin The Avengers.

The first time I saw The Avengers I was a bundle of vibrating squee.

It was *colours explode out of face* awesome!

And gosh does it feels good to see it Hulk-smash the box office. *cough* personalvalidation *ahem*.

But one of things that surprised me most was how much I liked Captain America. I have strange confusing feelings towards this character which are more than pretty-butt deep.

I am not alone in finding the muscly white man who leaps into situations wearing stars and stripes to literally shield people from danger ideologically unsettling.

Great white hope.

Patriarchal supremacy.

American hegemonic dominance.

*SPOILERS exist in this next section* Each of these highly problematic tropes was exemplified most clearly in the scene where the nefarious Loki multiples himself to surround a group of German civilians in Stuttgart (which is in Germany hence the Germans) and makes them all kneel before him. One lone old guy refuses to kneel (there are allusions to the ideology and tyranny of the Nazi regime here). Loki lifts his magic staff. He’s about to shoot the old guy. A shot of killer magic leaves Loki’s staff. It is aimed straight for the old guy. BUT Cap drops down in front of the old guy and shields them both with his vibranium be-starred shield!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! OMG!

This made me do two things: wince as though the culturally oppressive tropes cause physical pain, AND instinctively smile because the cool old guy isn’t dead. I actually got tingles. Damn you Cap. How does that even work!? How can I wince and cringe and hate the semiotics of that scene, while at the same time be affected with goose-bump inducing pleasure?

A lot of it probably has to do with the swelling music and bright colours. But I don’t think I’m *that* easily distracted. I can’t be that shallow can I?

Maybe I am. And/or maybe it’s because, like it or not, I have grown up in a culture that celebrates the idea that people shouldn’t be shot with magic. That people should actually be saved from being shot with magic. That if you have a frikkin’ huge impenetrable shield, you should use said shield to protect people. It’s living within the privilege circle again.

I know that the semiotics of Cap leaping around shielding people maintains the tropes I mentioned above (which have very real material and cultural implications). It ties into narratives which legitimise American cultural dominance by making it seem benign and essentially right.

Benignity is evident in Cap’s weaponry of choice: a shield. Cap defends. That’s what a shield symbolises – defence. An attack has been made on YOU and you’re just protecting yourself and yours[5]. The fact that Cap is defending himself under the moniker “Captain America” in a costume that is basically a skin-tight American flag extends the symbolism  – America doesn’t attack people, it defends people (and sometimes it might, you know, throw its defensive shield at someone, and maybe shoot them. But totally in defence and everything).

Assumed access to and proponent of an essential rightness is a little more subtle in this story in relation to Cap. Personally, I find this to be the aspect that is potentially most problematic, because it’s almost invisible. It takes the shape of things (now, I’m about to make some MASSIVE generalised claims, so feel free to pick me up on them) that a huge portion of westerners believe and take for granted – Cap breaks up fights, he’s helpful, kind, selfless, brave, persevering. I like these attributes. I think they’re good. And I think the majority of people from Anglo-Christian, democratic, neo-liberal economic cultures like these attributes too. It’s interesting that even Chris Evans, the actor who portrays Cap, seems to find the overt patriotism of Captain America and everything this could stand for unsettling as well. But he, like me, like a lot of others I would assume, seems to justify the continued existence of the character based on the sort of attributes I’ve mentioned above[6].

In fact, Evans articulates this particularly interestingly in one of the interviews he did to promote the movie. He says Cap does the right thing because it’s the right thing to do.

While this is a nice sentiment, in practice it’s a really vague idea. How open for interpretation is it!? And who made America (remember, this is what Cap symbolises) the arbiter of what is right!? Even if you break it into those smaller attributes I opened with, they are still contentious: what constitutes a fight for one person might constitute a healthy dialogue/discussion/debate/necessary confrontation for another; what is deemed helpful for one person might be deemed patronising and infantalising by another; the same goes for kind, selfless, brave etc – definitions are a tricky business. Giving one person, one nation, one religion the power to decide definitions and impose – and when I say “impose”, I obviously mean “defend” – their definitions on everyone else is a tad scary, and maybe not so “right” after all.

Now, I’m aware of these unsettling features of the Cap character. But I still really like him. I like that he’s nice to people. I like that he continues to fight when he’s obviously shattered. I like that he is an intelligent strategist. I like that he’s a big ol’ nerd at heart. I LIKE Captain America. Really, I’m just lucky that the things he stands for are part of my naturalised belief system. And, at least for me, he gets away with the things I don’t like because he fits other conditions of plausible hero-ness – he might be patriotic, but he’s not bigoted; he might be authoritative, but he’s not arrogant; he might be physically jocky, but he’s a unassuming.

Cultural Materialist Alan Sinfield says that conditions of plausibility are crucial as they “govern our understandings of the world and how to live in it, thereby seeming to define the scope of feasible political change” (807). Cap gets away with the things I don’t like, because he shields it with the things I do. Maybe the best way to explain the idea of the politics of plausibility is the Muppets. You know how the Muppets would climb up on to each other, disguise themselves in a long coat, hat and sunglasses in order to get into places they wouldn’t normally be allowed into…? Yeah? Well that’s how the politics of plausibility work, they dress the bits that are meant to be exempt in things that are acceptable, and the exempted things are able to sneak into the place they haven’t been able to get in to.

This makes me think though, perhaps, an inversion of this scenario is applicable too. Perhaps modern Cap is getting away with more liberal behaviour/attitudes because he does it under the plausible conditions of glorious conservative American values of patriotism and confidence? Perhaps Cap gets to be the most subversive Avenger because his subversiveness gets to ride to coat-tails of this:

To be continued…

[1] Because being a fan of something that does well reflects positively on me as an individual, of course…

[2] Honestly, there’d probably be less of a gap between dominant/marginal (lessened sexism, racism and queer-o-phobia) if the privileges that came with the dominant didn’t feel so darn good.

[3] Taking a quick moment to indulge my Buffy feels. More than any other Joss creation, Buffy has infiltrated the deepest recesses of my Self. Not only has it provided me with a gazillion hours worth of pleasure, it has woven its way into my life outlook, it’s been a conduit to friendships, it’s been a comfort and anchor to sanity when my whole brain is going skjhfs ldigsv gslhigdflhj, it’s shaped my vocabulary, and provided me with a bunch of songs that are part of my default repertoire that unconsciously slip out all willy-nilly without me realising. It’s even one of the things that instigated my study of nerd identity almost 5 years ago. Basically, Buffy is special. Feeeeeels

[4] The last 5 years or so I’ve deliberately tried to bask in the feeling of anticipation as much as/more than the thing I’m anticipating. I practise this most at Christmas time – the weeks leading up to Christmas are MAGIC! I’ve found that anticipation of good things often exceeds the goodness of the good thing, so I actively try to enjoy the anticipation while it’s there… sense?

[5] Now, this is already a problematic assumption, because sometimes what is “yours” is not so clearly defined. When it comes to people, countries, political ideologies, etc ownership becomes particularly messy.