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.


2 Responses to “Strange Confusing Feelings Part 1”

  1. Annalise Friend June 18, 2012 at 7:05 pm #

    Raewyn, quite the analysis. I am sorry if my violent reaction to The Avengers was part of your confusion. It felt like a dying empire’s nostalgic hurrah in a way. Not that it’s completely dying. Also, you have a knack for dredging things out of my memory that, at the time, I knew there was something funky going on with, but I have since forgotten. As in, the muppets standing on top of each other and pretending to be a whole, giant muppet. Nice one.

    • woefully imprecise June 19, 2012 at 12:04 pm #

      Haha, you didn’t exacerbate any confused feelings (I am well adept at feeling confused on my own;-)) Glad I could trigger the Muppet Man memory – life is better with that memory:-)

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