Needed/Wanted

Why are you necessary?

Do you fulfill an important role in your workplace that means other people depend on you?  Do you have family members who rely on your income?  Maybe you volunteer in your community, and without the hours you put in, essential projects wouldn’t get done.  In social settings, are you the one who gets everyone talking, smoothing the way for good interactions?

English: An anxious person

English: An anxious person (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A friend of mine recently sent a link to an article on The Good Man Project that I thought was worth some consideration.  The writer, Noah Brand, suggests that while men grumble about the advance of feminism, there may be an essential explanation for where their anxiety comes from.  To Brand’s credit, he never says that this is a legitimate complaint against feminism; he only says that it might explain the motivation behind male resistance.  Brand’s hypothesis is that men feel anxious about the increase in female agency because men have a fundamental desire to feel needed because they don’t think they can be wanted.  Consequently, if men find themselves in a position where they are no long necessary, they despair of the fact that there’s nothing else that makes them valuable.

It’s a very honest piece of writing, and I think that Brand’s being sincere in his supposition, but I also think that it’s a flawed position.

Yes, men want to feel necessary.

So do women.

Yes, men are afraid that they are not genuinely wanted.

So are women.

Brand is describing an anxiety that everyone feels, and then he’s making the mistake of suggesting that it’s a special explanation for why half the human population fears the equal agency of the other half.

I see some parallels in this explanation to a common complementarian idea that men essentially want to be respected while women essentially want to be loved.  It’s a nice bit of rhetoric, but it’s reductionist in its understanding of human motivation (also, if you want to get cheeky, then just look up Elton John’s “I Want Love” and Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” for songs expressing the exact opposite of this idea).  Respect and love revolve around the same values as being needed and being wanted.

Brand further simplifies his point by defining being wanted as the specific case of having another person desire you within a romantic relationship.  He points to the eternal anxiety that single men feel, ignoring the fact that while it’s true a large portion of the population seeks intimacy with a romantic partner, there are plenty of people, men and women, who are content to be bachelors.  They find their validation through friendships and familial relationships; romance is not a necessary component of emotional fulfillment.

Conversely, the fear of being superfluous is a universal one.  Everyone worries that they will become expendable.  I would go so far as to say that the fundamental motivation of the feminist movement is to achieve a level of equal agency for everyone so that everyone is free to make themselves socially necessary in whatever way best suits their talents.

I don’t think male anxiety over feminism springs from a fear of losing one’s necessity; I think it’s simply a fear of losing power over people who you rightly shouldn’t be forcing to rely on you in the first place.

Yeah, I’m a Feminist

Okay, it’s been a couple weeks on Catchy Title Goes Here (if anyone has any suggestions for a better name, I would love to hear them; I’m horrible with titles) and the folks who have been regularly reading have probably picked up on something that I didn’t mention in my introductory post.

I’m a feminist.

Userpage icon for supporting gender equality.

My only regret with this picture is that the symbols are color coded. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of course, those of you who know me personally already knew that.

And since ‘feminist’ is one of those terms that’s loaded with tons of different meanings, I should explain what I mean when I say it.  Put simply, I think that men and women as groups are equal in capability and value.  The sexes are both equally rational and emotional on average, and any perceived sociological differences arise from our cultural upbringing instead of our inherent natures.  The only differences between the sexes that can be generally applied are biological ones, i.e. sex organs.  Concurrent with these beliefs, I believe that women, as half of the global human population, deserve equal opportunity, compensation, and representation within society.  A culture that promotes such equality would be a better one than what we have currently.

This hasn’t always been the case.  I went through a very anti-feminist phase starting late in college around the time that I became a Christian.  That’s not coincidental.  I live in the American South, and the type of Christianity that’s most prominent in these parts is a very socially conservative brand of evangelicalism.  Part of the package of beliefs that I initially picked up included the idea of spiritual differences between the sexes with an implicit hierarchy of leadership that places men above women.

According to the model as I received it, men are supposed to be active leaders and protectors who do the hard work and make the tough decisions.  Women should be passive and gracious, and their primary purview is within the home.  The two sexes fulfill different roles in the Church, and without both of them things break down.

After graduating I spent a couple of years working a cubicle job while building my life with my wife Rachael.  We got married about six months after college, and in our pre-marriage counseling we were advised to adhere to the model above as closely as we could in order to make our marriage fulfilling and Godly.

We quickly learned that the model didn’t work well for us.

I was supposed to be the “head” of the marriage, but I’m not an assertive person, and I realized quickly that I didn’t want to be the one responsible for making all the important decisions.  Rachael wasn’t happy with the idea that she was supposed to be responsible for maintaining the house when she was also working full-time.  I acted very much like a man-child during those first couple years, and after much fighting we eventually decided that the one head model just didn’t work for us.  We needed to be partners.

That’s not the end of the story.  I was still a long way from reaching full anti-feminist recovery.  I had to deal with the hurdles of being one of a handful of men in a cohort of women when I went to graduate school for my teaching degree.  I like to think of that period as my “men’s rights” phase, which is to say that I felt my privilege being impinged upon in my professional environment, and I resented it.  It was around this period that I read John Eldredge’s Wild At Heart, a book that was very popular in certain Christian circles a few years back.  I bought into the idea of innate masculinity, and it soured my attitude towards my schooling.  There was a great deal of dissonance between thinking that I had a uniquely adventurous spirit and sitting in a classroom learning how to be an educator, a career that oozed with the trappings of a feminine domain.

Fortunately for me, that phase didn’t last long as I watched Rachael deal with some issues in her job that led to us both becoming more interested in the problems that women face in the workplace.  It’s hard to hold on to anger about your own loss of privilege when you see up close what conditions are like for people who don’t have that privilege in the first place.

By the time I graduated and found a job (a long, grueling process that would be better left to a different story), I had pretty much reversed my anti-feminist stance.  Rachael did a lot to help with that, because she took an interest in it first, and we discussed it constantly.  We’d remodeled our marriage to be an equal partnership (my spending a year unemployed and responsible for the housework while Rachael worked full-time helped with that), and I gradually became amenable to the idea that women are not only men’s equals, but that the only discernible differences between the sexes as groups are biological ones.

This had some implications for my understanding of theology, and eventually I learned that the position that I’d grown into was a model known as egalitarianism, and the model I’d originally learned was called complementarianism.  Rachel Held Evans has a fantastic blog that highlights issues surrounding the tensions between these two theological models.

I think that brings everything up to date regarding my story of becoming a feminist.

Of course, being a feminist carries with it some difficulties, especially given my personal interests.  I’ve written before about problems with how women are portrayed in comics and video games, which, despite those problems, are, objectively, some of the best things.  I think about these issues a lot, because I think that our culture shapes and defines us in very subtle ways.  Our society does not have gender equity, and part of that is due to the fact that we portray ourselves as not needing it.  That’s a mistake and, within the subcultures that I associate myself with, something that leads to not only inequity, but implicit misogyny.  As a Christian I find myself unable to abide that inequity, and as a feminist I try to point out the problems that I see.

So yeah, I write about feminism a lot in context of my other topics.

What do you guys think?  Do you have any personal experiences with feminism that have shaped how you see the world?  What do you think of the feminist label in the first place?

So I Just Saw Man of Steel

I write a lot about movies and comics.  They’re, objectively, some of the best things.   So when something like Man of Steel comes along, I get pretty excited because I can talk about both of those things, plus some other stuff, all in the same post.

I have to say that when Man of Steel was first announced, I was skeptical.  Superman Returns, the previous Superman movie, was poorly executed (though, like every other time they’ve done Superman in live action for the last forty years, the casting of Big Blue was impeccable).  The first promotional photo, which featured Henry Cavill posing in front of a smashed bank vault in a costume that brimmed with subdued colors and a texture that looked a far cry from the standard blue tights, left me wondering if this film was going to have the right feel for Superman.  Hearing that Zack Snyder, whose films I can say I’m generally ambivalent towards, was directing left me nervous.  I loved 300, because it captured the spirit of an epic poem with the gross exaggeration of feats and the reveling in the physical prowess of impossibly perfect figures, but I felt apathetic towards Watchmen because Snyder had stayed too faithful to the book.  Regardless of the quality of those films, I also thought it was a far stretch to go from the grim and gritty material of Frank Miller and the unapologetically pessimistic work of Alan Moore to something so idealized as Superman.

https://i0.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/thumb/3/30/All_Star_Superman_Cover.jpg/250px-All_Star_Superman_Cover.jpg

If you want to read a quintessential Superman story, All-Star Superman is a pretty good place to start.  Cover of All-Star Superman #1. Art by Frank Quitely. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Before you can start talking about Superman, you have to throw in the caveat that he holds a very special place in superhero mythos.  He was the first modern superhero, and over the course of three quarters of a century, fans have come to a general consensus that Superman stands in a place above the cynicism that crept into comics in the ’80s and ’90s, set apart from the deconstructions that the genre has gone through, beloved because he’s antiquated, not in spite of it.

Attempts to revamp the character have been generally unsuccessful.  We don’t speak of the period when he traded in his cape for electricity powers.  At one point, yes, he did sport a mullet, but it was a poor fashion choice for everyone, and we eventually realized that that way lies madness.  Superman doesn’t need to be modernized, because he’s idealized.

So yeah, I heard Zack Snyder was going to direct, and I feared that he’d go in the wrong direction.  Pretty much right out the gate, I decided that I wasn’t going to expect anything from Man of Steel.  At one point when I was talking with some friends about this year’s blockbuster season, we discussed which movie was going to be an unexpected flop.  I said without reservation, Man of Steel.  Of course, then just before it was released I read that Warner Bros. had already greenlit a sequel before they had any opening weekend numbers to judge it on.  Well, maybe it wouldn’t be a flop.  I still doubted it would be a very good movie.

I’ll say it now: I was wrong.

I can say wholeheartedly that I thought this film did everything a Superman movie should do.  It made him seem larger than life in comparison to the humans that he’s saving.  It rejected out of hand the idea of genetic determinism in favor of optimistic possibility.  It had Clark struggling with his otherness while embracing his adopted home, and then somehow managing to find the balance between them.  It had Kevin Costner as a farmer in Kansas (let the Field of Dreams/Man of Steel mash-ups begin!).  It had bang-you-over-the-head-with-it-Superman-is-Jesus imagery.

Yeah, that’s not suggestive of anything.  Cover of All-Star Superman Trade Paper Back. Art by Frank Quitely. (Photo credit: mycomicshop.com)

Something should probably be said about that last one.  Man of Steel is rife with parallels between Superman and Christ.  He’s supposed to lead the world to a better way, but he has to wait until they’re ready.  He’s 33 when he begins his important work on Earth.  His adopted father drops out of the story before he becomes a man, and his actual father reappears to guide him towards his greater purpose.  He descends into the grave and then rises again to smash the world engine.

Okay, that last one’s not exactly a parallel.

The point is, this was not a subtle feature of the movie.  I’m actually not sure Snyder knows how to do subtle, but that’s beside the point.  Superman-as-Jesus has a long, rich history going all the way back to his creation.  Jerry Seigel and Joe Shuster wove into Superman’s mythos a plethora of messianic elements, ranging from his escape from the destruction of his people a la Moses to his alien name, Kal-El (which bears a strong resemblance to the Hebrew word for “voice of God”).  Of course, those are messianic characteristics in the Jewish tradition.  Later writers and artists incorporated more Christian elements into the character.  It makes sense, given the history, that there would be tons of Jesus references thrown into Man of Steel.

And I loved every single one!

Though I’m generally more of a Marvel Comics fan, I love what DC does with their flagship characters.  Where Marvel’s about people with cool powers trying to be normal, DC is all about people with cool powers being larger than life.  There’s a reason that the great pop culture icons of the superhero pantheon come primarily from DC.  Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, they’re supposed to be the absolute best imaginable.  Each one embodies a specific ideal to its fullest.  For Superman, that’s hope.

He’s the embodiment of all humanity’s hope, because he cares about them no matter what, and he wants to show them a better way, but he will never force it on them.  He just waits patiently for them to come around, winning through persuasion rather than power.

Okay, moving on.

General Zod (Terence Stamp, center), Ursa (Sar...

Zod made no demands that you KNEEL! in Man of Steel.  General Zod (Terence Stamp, center), Ursa (Sarah Douglas), and Non (Jack O’Halloran) in Superman II (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

All of this is not to say that Man of Steel was a perfect film.  There were definitely some missteps.  General Zod was a little strange, with his bizarrely flat affect.  Even when he was raging, I didn’t get a sense of any emotion from him.  I think the point of him is supposed to be the problem with the genetic caste system that Krypton builds its society on.  He was born to protect the interests of Krypton no matter what, and his inability to choose a different purpose makes it impossible for him to stop.  I think his flatness is supposed to be an indicator that he’s actually subhuman because he lacks free will.  Clark, by contrast, was intended from the start to choose his own purpose, and this allows him to be not only human, but superhuman.

Still, Zod was definitely not what I was expecting.

Though overall I thought the movie was rather positive in its feminist themes (Lois pretty much never ends up needing Clark to save her just because she’s a woman, though he does save her several times just because falling from great heights will kill any human, man or woman; throughout the film women are portrayed as operating in positions equal to men, especially in military settings), I have one nitpick.  I read a while back that the decision had been made to cast Jimmy Olsen as a woman.  At the time I thought it wasn’t a big deal.  Then I saw the character Jenny, who ends up in a classic damsel in distress situation during the film’s climax.  To be fair, the credits don’t list her last name as Olsen, so the gender swap may have been an idea that was scrapped for the end of the film.  But even if this isn’t supposed to be Jenny Olsen, why didn’t they have Jimmy in this situation instead?  A person trapped under rubble is harrowing no matter what, so why make it a woman at all instead of just nodding toward the fact that Superman’s pal gets into tight spots all the time?  It’s not like the character was important at any other point in the movie!

And that leads me to my biggest gripe, which is only a gripe because of how thematically well done I thought the movie was.  The final fight between Clark and Zod is an impressive piece of action cinema.  It’s truly spectacular.  But the whole time it was happening I couldn’t help thinking, “Why isn’t Clark trying to get Zod away from the city?  There are still people down there getting crushed by all their collateral damage!”  And it lost me.  Everything in this film was orchestrated to make me believe that Clark’s the kind of guy who cares about every person he meets, who will protect everyone that he can.  Then the final fight breaks out, and he makes absolutely no effort to get away from all the squishy humans.  It broke the illusion.  I think it’s the film’s largest flaw, hands down.

That’s not to say that it isn’t worth seeing.  I’m actually quite glad that I went to a theater for Man of Steel.  As far as Superman movies go, it’s probably the best we’re going to get.  And I’m okay with that.

Have you guys seen Man of Steel yet?  If so, what did you think of it?  Where might the series go in the sequel?

Drawing Superheroines

I wrote last week about one of the reasons that I love superheroes.  It was a little silly.  Some might point out that superhero comics tend to be a bit of a boys’ land, what with all the super muscular men performing extraordinary feats and the unrealistically drawn super women who somehow manage to show off all their assets at the same time while in the middle of a fight to the death.

And they’d be right about that.

The current Supergirl, Kara Zor-El. Variant co...

Supergirl. She’s 16 in this drawing. Art by Michael Turner. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For all my love of superheroes, I know that there’s a big problem with the way women are portrayed.  It’s really frustrating to read an otherwise fun story but be constantly distracted by how the female characters are drawn with their anatomies twisted like broken action figures.  This tumblr has some excellent examples of the problem that I’m talking about in regards to character poses.  Sometimes the costumes are poorly designed too.  I understand that superheroes are supposed to be iconic, and typically it’s easier to draw figures without a lot of extra baggage on top of the basic form, but there’s a difference between a female character wearing something functional for combat based on her power set and her wearing something skimpy because eye candy.

Occasionally I come across an artist who’s done some designs that I think are quite good.  Here’s a gallery where the guy decided that he wanted to experiment with changing up some iconic superheroines’ designs to incorporate less revealing clothing and see if they still looked like the heroines in question.  I think he did a fantastic job, and I wish more designs like these would filter into mainstream superhero comics.  I’m particularly impressed with his design for Psylocke, a character whose entire schtick is psychic ninja, since she’s typically drawn in more absurd costumes.  Check out this blog post for a visual comparison between her most famous costume and a recent official redesign that’s still attractive, but not, well, a thong bathing suit.

Cyclops (comics)

Cyclops looks a little tightly wound. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of course a discussion of female characters and their appearance usually raises objections of, “Just because a character is drawn sexy doesn’t mean that she isn’t a strong character!”  Well, yeah, that’s a good point.  But costuming in superhero comics is a tricky thing.  An individual character’s look is supposed to be instantly recognizable and tell you about the character’s personality.  Superman wears a shield emblem on his chest because he’s a protector.  Cyclops‘s minimalist body suit with a full cowl and visor tell you that he’s reserved and needs to feel in control of a situation.  She-Hulk‘s leotard emphasizes her physique and telegraphs that she is comfortable in her body.  Rogue‘s various costumes always cover her body completely to emphasize that she can’t control her powers, which activate through skin-to-skin contact, though in recent years she’s gained control, and consequently begun experimenting with revealing more skin as a way of embracing her new-found confidence.

The point is that the design of a character needs to actually make sense according to that character.  I’ll be happy to go along with a heroine who wears sexy outfits because her characterization dictates that it makes sense for her to wear sexy outfits, but I’m going to roll my eyes every time I see a drawing of a character who doesn’t make her sexuality an overt part of her personality twisted in a pose that shows off her boobs and butt simultaneously while wearing a bikini and heels in the middle of a firefight.

So I Just Saw The Secret World of Arrietty

Remember when I said that Japanese culture is kind of sexist?  Well, that’s still true.  But Hayao Miyazaki doesn’t really fall in that category.

He kind of has a fascination with little girls.

English: Hayao Miyazaki at the 2009 San Diego ...

English: Hayao Miyazaki at the 2009 San Diego Comic-Con. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

No, not like that!

I mean he’s written and directed a number of internationally respected films over the course of his career, and in almost all of them he features a protagonist who is both young, and a girl.  They’re also some of the best written female characters I can think of in cinema.

Miyazaki says that he usually writes child protagonists because he thinks children are important as the inheritors of our world’s culture, and he enjoys exploring what the world looks like from their perspective.  The fact that they also tend to be female probably stems from Miyazaki’s generally progressive view of social issues.

So, Arrietty.  This film was not directed by Miyazaki, but he co-wrote and produced it, so his creative signature is hard to miss.  It’s a story about a little girl (literally) and her family who secretly live in the walls of an old house where they borrow what they need from the humans who live there.  It’s based on a children’s book from the ’50s called The Borrowers by Mary Norton.  Arrietty gets spotted by a young boy who’s staying with his aunt to recuperate before he has surgery, and this leads to problems for Arrietty’s family (borrowers aren’t supposed to be seen by humans).  It’s a relatively simple story, and it’s not told perfectly (the housekeeper Hara makes for an unusual villain with a poorly explained motivation), but it’s beautifully animated, and the score is quite good for the most part.

The Secret World of Arrietty

The Secret World of Arrietty (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Arrietty’s an energetic character who takes initiative in trying to figure out if contacting the boy Shawn is actually as harmful as her parents believe.  She’s continually curious about the world and helps the audience look at mundane things like an ordinary kitchen with wonder as she explores the house for the first time.

Her parents are rather standard types of the overly worried mother and the quiet but competent father, which I didn’t mind so much, though I found the choices for the American voice actors jarring in comparison.  Arrietty’s parents are Leslie Knope and Gob Bluth.  What?  This casting seems so far against type that I’m not sure what to make of it.

Well, actually I do know what to make of it.  See, Studio Ghibli, which produces Miyazaki’s films, has a partnership with Disney for their American localizations.  That’s not so bad, except that Disney expects to make money on these films, and they’ve gotten it in their head that the best way to get people on board with going to see an anime is to pack the dub with as many celebrity voice actors as possible.  Every localization that Disney’s handled has involved a cast full to the brim with names that American audiences will recognize, despite the fact that most of the time these actors don’t have a lot of experience doing voice work.  The end performances usually have varying levels of quality, but I’m willing to forgive that because the films are so excellent in every other aspect.

Also, having for all eternity a recording of Christian Bale saying this:

Sorry about the quality of the video, but it gets the point across.

So celebrity actors I can forgive.  What’s become irksome with the last few localizations that Disney’s done is the inclusion of Disney’s in-house manufactured teen celebrities and their bubblegum pop songs getting stuck on the soundtrack.  Disney did it with Ponyo, and now they’ve done it with Arrietty.  The quality of the music on Ghibli productions is always outstanding, and shoehorning an overproduced pop song into the films is a shame.  At least they have the decency to put these songs in during the credits–oh wait, the credit sequences have been animated too, so I want to see them, but I have to listen to that irritating music while I watch–first world problems suck.

What’s your favorite Miyazaki film?  If you haven’t seen any Miyazaki, why not?

The Hero Always Wears Red

I mentioned way back in my first post that I’m a gamer.  My friends and family can attest to this.  I can remember many times growing up when I’d stay up all night playing one game or another obsessively.  Sometimes I even fell asleep while playing with the lights on only to wake up a couple hours later and go right on like nothing had happened.

I was a happy child.

I don’t do stuff like that anymore, because I’m an adult now and I have to maintain a regular sleep pattern so it’s not torture when I have to go back to work.  Also, there’s just a lot of other things that I enjoy doing with my time, like reading, writing, and hanging out with awesome friends, so I don’t play games as obsessively as I used to.

Nonetheless, I do still play games, and the one I’m currently playing through is a fun title called The Last Story.  I picked it up mostly because it was directed by the creator of the Final Fantasy role playing game series.  Overall, I have to say, I think it’s a fun, if standard, Japanese style RPG.

Now, Japan is an amazing place with some wonderful culture.  I admit I went through a phase in college where I wanted to immerse myself in everything Japanese.

It’s okay, I got better.

Hyperdimension Neptunia

Did I forget to mention that being kawaii is not mutually exclusive with being sexualized? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I still think that Japanese culture is pretty nifty, but one thing that I’ve picked up as I’ve gotten older is that Japanese culture is kind of really sexist.  Female characters are typically written and depicted with an emphasis on the Japanese concept of kawaiiKawaii roughly translates as “cuteness.”  It’s not an exclusively female trait in Japanese culture–men can be kawaii too–but it’s highly valued in female characters in certain parts of Japanese pop culture, especially in games.  The way this manifests is usually through the use of bright colors and infantilizing physical features in character designs, and character traits like being naive, passive, or inept.

Needless to say, as I’ve become more egalitarian in my views on the sexes, I’ve found these kinds of depictions of women more and more irritating.  Even more tasteful games than the one pictured above (I’ve steered clear of that series because it apparently goes heavy on the fanservice) still fall prey to weak depictions of female characters.

Now, coming back to The Last Story, I think that’s it’s a very well-executed game.  The mechanics are fun, and the story, while unoriginal, is engaging enough.  I just keep getting hung up on the fact that the female lead is so ridiculously passive!  She’s your typical trapped princess type, and the hero is busy doing all kinds of things to get permission from her overbearing uncle to marry her while she just hangs out in her room (you can visit her regularly throughout the story).  There was one scene where she tells him that he shouldn’t get caught up in politics because it’s not what he thinks it is, but otherwise she doesn’t do anything.  Her uncle, who’s clearly a villain, arranges for her to marry whoever he currently likes best in his court without any real deference to her personal feelings.  I know that technically she loves the hero (it’s a contractual obligation, you know), but even her betrothal to him is irksome because she doesn’t get a say in it.

That’s alright though, because the game has one feature that I’ve used gleefully from the start.  This particular game includes a mechanic where you can customize the appearance of your party’s equipment, including what pieces of armor are visible and what color their clothes are.  The female lead (I can’t bring myself to call her a heroine because she doesn’t do anything) joins your party wearing a typical frilly pink frock, while everyone else defaults to darker tones fitting for a mercenary band.  I balked when I saw what her default adventuring gear looked like.  So I changed it.  She now wears a tasteful blue and purple ensemble that’s designed for easy adventuring.  The hero, on the other hand, wears hot pink light red, and no one else is allowed to wear his colors because he will cut them if they infringe on his look.

I know that’s a cheap joke that still plays on complementarian ideas of masculinity and femininity, but the important thing to remember is that even while wearing pink light red the hero gets to be the hero.  The woman still just hangs out in her bedroom, waiting to go on that adventure she was promised.

Are you guys currently playing anything, and if so, what things do the games do well?  What bugs you about them?