Saturday, April 18, 2015

the reader's bias, or the protagonist bias, in genre work--some rambling thoughts on Legend of Korra, Batman, and ideals about power and wealth

Wenatchee has vented a few times about the problematic things in the now-over Legend of Korra
While Avatar: The Last Airbender, remains an amazing series, it's sequel was a disappointing incoherent mess with a few promising elements.  That Korra was basically a Tom Cruise character, think Maverick with ovaries, was difficult to miss.  She could have been likable if she had some character growth but most of her "growth" was handed to her by scripts that more often than not essentially rewarded her for her vices and punished or humiliated those who confronted her about them.

And for some strata of viewers of the show Korra was loved, while some of those folks hated Toph from the original series.  But Toph could be said to have been Korra if Korra wasn't the avatar, couldn't she?  What made Toph annoying that didn't make Korra even more annoying?  Not being the avatar? 

Sometimes it seems there's this bias in which the protagonist is viewed as the hero regardless of the character defects of the protagonist. We've had anti-heroes around for quite some time now, but the idea that Korra could be admired while Toph disdained when the two women could be described as having similar character defects is something I'm not sure I'm going to belabor here.

Instead I'm going to pivot a bit, there are many folks who didn't like Christopher Nolan's Batman films and who wanted Batman to do more detective work.  I've cooled in my enthusiasm for Batman comics for financial reasons but also because lately it seems that in contrast to Paul Dini's take on Batman or Nolan's take on Batman there's this propensity in genre writing to compose a character who is, by default, interpreted as a reader surrogate.  Batman isn't expected to truly be a character who would say or do things (or not say and not do things) that you or I wouldn't think of doing--Batman is expected to reward the reader for being the reader.  Jeph Loeb went the other way in Dark Victory of trying to be smarter than to have an obvious puzzle solution but it came at the expense of the ludicrous point that Sophia Falcone wasn't dead from her fall in the previous story arc.  Sometimes the dumbest thing you can do in genre is try to prove you're smarter than your audience.  Jeph Loeb's been faltering at that for a while now. :(  More and more Wenatchee believes that The Long Halloween was only as fun as it was because Archie Goodwin was a truly amazing editor, not because Jeph Loeb wrote a particularly brilliant story.

The expectation that we must root for the protagonist simply because gets at part of what made Marc Webb's rebooted Spider-Man franchise so exasperating by film 2.  All the good-will generated in that reboot was squandered and generally in the most idiotic ways possible, no huge surprise considering the second film was scripted by the guys who gave us Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.  We're supposed to root for Shia just because he's the protagonist?  Not happening.  By extension, I'm not going to root for Korra simply because she's the avatar if the writers concoct a needless origin myth for the avatar cycle that shows the first avatar to have been a somewhat dim-witted sometime con artist punk whose reckless action separates Vaatu and Raava and necessitates the avatar cycle as an endless compensating effort toward an apparently irreversible idiotic mistake.  It turns out the first avatar was the one who UN-balanced the world. 

This sort of boring origin myth introduced a problem that has never been resolved in the series and won't be.  The imbalance created by Avatar Wan didn't get resolved by way of an avatar refining the discipline and skill and power to re-unite the facets of light and dark, which is what would have happened in an actually Eastern film (like the gloriously weird and brilliant Satoshi Kon film Paprika).  We didn't see Korra using the spirit-controlling tools Unalaq taught her to, say, subdue the spirit of darkness and then reconnect it to the spirit of light.  Nope, this was Maverick with ovaries.   Instead of retaining the delicate balance of Eastern and Western sensibilities and aesthetics that made Avatar: The Last Airbender so brilliant, the Legend of Korra devolved swiftly into the stockest characters, the most cliché turns of plot, and a pedestrian outworking of a badly conceived though competently executed origin myth.  The stage by the end of Book 2 was set for Zaheer to correctly point out that killing the avatar in the avatar state and ending the avatar cycle would be what would RESTORE balance to the world.  But because Korra's the protagonist ... Korra's insisted upon as the hero.  Korra doesn't win by restoring balance through much of the series, she wins by relying on the nearly limitless brute force she has at her disposal.  In the end of Book 3 this doesn't quite work out and it is left to the new air nomads, inspired by Tenzin's daughter, to defeat the new rogue airbender Zaheer. 

Something seemed to happen between Book 1 and Book 2, which "seems" to have been that Korra went from being the daughter of some schlubby couple in the Southern water tribe to being a daughter of a tribal chieftain.  Thanks Disney princess syndrome?  There's an additional problem to that sort of element, it's that when you stop and think about it it makes Korra's sense of entitlement even more damning and unsympathetic. When Korra vents to Asami early in Book 3 about how she SHOULD be able to fix things because she's the avatar what's she appealing to?  Her status and power.  Sure, she feels responsible for having introduced problems she doesn't know how to fix but she caused those problems by making a gut decision on the basis of powers she was born with. 

This wouldn't be the first time somebody has brought up the matter of power as a divine right to rule

Korra's propensity to see her role as a divinely granted mandate seems to echo Azula's declaration that "real power, the divine right to rule, that's something you're born with."  Korra's practical ethos on the purpose and use of power had more in common with Princess Azula than with Aang.  If the writers of Korra attempted to soften this by "teaching" Korra through suffering the problem is that in the earlier series we were treated to this wonderful little horror story called "The Puppet Master", which showed that some people become hardened and more sadistic in the face of suffering, and learn new ways to manipulate and attack.  This was a compelling episode from the original series because it forced Katara to recognize that a capacity for evil and manipulation and blunt aggression was not simply the domain of the Fire Nation.  Worse yet, this kind of capacity for manipulation and outright control was latent inside of her water-bending skill.

The continual appeal of a character like, say, Batman or the appeal of a General Iroh within The Last Airbender could be this--we know perfectly well there will always be those with vast amounts of power and resources at their disposal.  The question is not WHETHER there will be powerful people but what ethos they will have about the use of that power.  In American pop mythology we could suggest that we know there's always going to be a "one percent" but that as a culture at least some of us would like that one percenter to be like Batman.  This is more notable in the last twenty and thirty years through Batman: the animated series and to a lesser extent in Nolan's Batman where the billionaire is not just fighting crazy criminals but also doing things in his "normal" business life to restore the financial infrastructure and labor market within Gotham. It's one of those things in the classic cartoon where if you blink you miss it but we're not going to get episodes where the business tycoons Bruce Wayne's looking to work with AREN'T ultimately financing criminal operations.  This IS a Batman cartoon, right?  :)  All the strictly above-board and legal things wouldn't make for a kids' show, after all. 

There were nods near the end of Korra that Korra's attitude toward her own power was abusive and controlling but even to the extent that these nods could be construed as a "success" it would be a concession that in terms of attitudes about power and the use of power that the real villain in the series was, to go by the ideals and statements of the original series, that the biggest antagonist in Legend of Korra was ultimately Korra.  Korra could not defeat the adversaries in the end of the series without realizing that in the long-run the greatest villainy she had to contend with was her own self-justifying and often unthinking use of power to get what she wanted for the world rather than working toward the world's benefit.

That doesn't make her a hero in any traditional sense, it makes her a Darth Vader figure who at the last minute decides the Dark Side's not the way.  Only with Korra she gets the trophy girlfriend at the end, it seems.

some more links for the weekend

Do smart people worry more?  Here's an old rumination on that.
Ecclesiastes 1:18
For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.

To keep the weekend on a scholastic note and stay briefly with Slate, turns out adjunct faculty can end up on assisted living programs.

I.e. your prof may be on food stamps while you're flipping burgers at a local fast food chain.  The libertarians may be wondering how any of this adds up to future economic prosperity for anybody.

In other realms, David Frum over at The Atlantic took issue with Garry Trudeau's proposal that satirists and journalists should "punch up" rather than "punch down" and that by extension, well, basically it looked to Frum like Trudeau was kinda saying the people killed over at Charlie Hebdo had been "pnnching down" on people who are part of marginalized minority groups.  Frum's objection to this approach is that we know in historical terms those who were on the down and out in one millennia can end up running everything in another.  Frum sums it up at one point this way:

On first reading, then, Trudeau is presenting us with a clear and executable moral theory:
1. Identify the bearer of privilege.
2. Hold the privilege-bearer responsible.
Trudeau famously put this theory into practice in his December 29, 2014 comic strip on Rolling Stone’s notorious coverage of the University of Virginia rape case. The strip—which accepted Rolling Stone’s inflammatory allegations as true—was published more than three weeks after Rolling Stone itself admitted that the story could not be supported. Trudeau’s editors explained that the timeline of publishing cartoons did not allow the strip to be corrected in light of the facts. Trudeau himself, however, offered a more robust defense. The facts of the case did not matter. What mattered was … exposing privilege:

In other words, Trudeau's satire doesn't have to be retracted because he wasn't making a point that depended in any way on whether or not Jackie was telling Rolling Stone the truth. 

Frum went on to point out that for people in Confederate states they saw themselves as the underdogs dealing with the unfair elements of Reconstruction and that this merited the kinds of reactions that came up in response to that.  Or, as Roy Baumeister pointed out in a section dealing with the dynamics of domestic violence, abusers tend to themselves as the victims of emotional and verbal and social aggression and resort to physical responses to, in their understanding, level the playing field.  We live in a world in which anyone who we think we're "punching up" to is going to feel like they're being "punched down" on. 

We live in the age in which there can be a thing as the haterbrag, for instance (something that gets noted over at Mockingbird this week):
... Weiner is a master of what I’ve taken to calling the haterbrag. Think of it as the humblebrag’s evil (but funner) stepsister, a bit of social media sleight-of-hand that turns an insult into an asset. When Weiner cast the “Weiner-ish” line out to her followers, she jiu-jitsued his scorn, presenting herself not as the victim of a withering putdown by the great American novelist of our era, but as the accessible everywoman who stands in opposition to a stuffy highbrow jerk. She’s not the only one who’s learned to manipulate a foil for fun and profit. Heather Armstrong, who writes funny, no-holds-barred dispatches about her family life on her blog Dooce, has distilled a decade of rude comments into her short, sweet Twitter bio: “I exploit my children for millions and millions and dollars on my mommyblog.” Bloomberg Politics reporter Dave Weigel takes the most foolish comments aired about him on Twitter and retweets them to his own audience of 150,000. A popular Jimmy Kimmel Live segment invites celebrities to read mean tweets about themselves on the air; somehow, the exercise always manages to confirm the hater’s insignificance and accentuate the celebrity’s easygoing cool.

For regulars reading Wenatchee The Hatchet you may have noticed that a narrative rolled out this year about Mark Driscoll is how times have been tough for him and the media and bloggers just would not let him be.  William Vanderbloemen seems to have gone so far as to have talked about "death by a thousand cuts" or a resignation in the face of a steady stream of criticism from popular bloggers.  But during Mark Driscoll's actual tenure as lead preaching and vision pastor at Mars Hill the best he could muster up with respect to bloggers (while, ironically, being one himself) tended to be breezy, dismissive contempt.  The notion that mere bloggers somehow ascended to some position of being able to "punch down" with respect to Driscoll is something that could only happen in the imaginations of the man's more devoted fans. 

Two years ago Rachel Held Evans was on about Driscoll and now it seems to be her turn to get puff piece coverage

Thanks to star-making as usual, it seems, Rachel Held Evans gets to pick up at a stage Mark Driscoll long ago left of.  To go by the continued use of the phrase "Pastor Mark" by select individuals and the promise of forthcoming content it would appear that even though Mark Driscoll voluntarily resigned from being any kind of pastor to anyone he's planning on some kind of return to the public sphere. 

In the age of the pastorpreneur we witnessed the passing of Robert Schuller and so doing witnessed an age in which the entrepreneurially motivated pastor can spend a lifetime laboring to develop a legacy that can't even live as long as he did in institutional/movement terms.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

links from here and there

"The Trouble with Unpublishing the News"

it may be hazardous to go the "free range kids" parenting route, depending on what state you live in.

If Mark Driscoll's time in the spotlight has passed, Rachel Held Evans gets to have puff pieces written about her now, too.

Evans can talk about how progressive Christians don't like to talk about sin and that may well be a point a moderately conservative evangelical Reformed type can agree with. :)  Still, she could field how she's responded to the controversy surrounding Tony Jones and his current wife and his ex-wife any time now.  And as Wenatchee The Hatchet has written in the past, if she wanted to have done something truly significant in confronting Driscoll she could have spent more of 2012 detailing the citation errors.  But she had a book to promote and it turned out that while progressives rehearsed canards it took a couple of evangelicals here and there to shine some light on what was going on over in Seattle.  Not that a couple of progressives didn't play some valuable roles, though.

For a rambling and affable dismantling of some of Evans' methods and conclusions ... this might be worth revisiting.

There ARE progressive Christian writers Wenatchee The Hatchet takes seriously. Evans just doesn't happen to be one of them.

Anyway ... links for your perusal.