Posts Tagged ‘entertainment’

Evolved Hip Hop

Monday, July 18th, 2011

Recently I’ve been listening to The Rap Guide To Evolution (Revised) by Baba Brinkman. I know, I know, I would have preferred The Metal Guide To Evolution, but I guess I can make do with this for now (but seriously metal bands, get on that already). It’s interesting stuff, and it’s nice to listen to music where the lyrics actually align with my interests for a change (for the most part, anyway…). Here is my favourite passage, from “Worst Comes To Worst”:

In the South Pacific Islands, there’s certain animals that don’t
Experience fear, like Galapagos iguanas
They never had predators, so their adaptive responses
Evolved to be as calm as a pack of Dalai Llamas
So then, why do we have to live with violence
When this whole planet could be like a pacifistic island?
Do we need fear to escape invading aliens?
The only predators here are called Homo sapiens
And yeah, we can be dangerous, but we can also be
Motivated by affection and positive reciprocity
Stop the violence, right? We can all agree!
But violence comes from the fear of predators stalkin’ me
See, violence is never entirely senseless
Natural selection, that’s how you make sense of it
We just gotta identify what triggers a threat switch
And redesign society to disconnect it
And then instinct will take care of the rest of it
It’s a simple idea, but when it’s widely comprehended
Then I predict a world of aligned interests
Where the people are as peaceful as Galapagos finches.

Pretty sweet, huh? Another highlight is “Survival Of The Fittest”, in which he remixes the classic Mobb Deep song of the same name but puts the subject matter in more literal evolutionary terms (Brinkman explains his approach in this TED Talk, which features earlier versions of both that song and “Worst Comes To Worst”). The result is a fairly compelling examination of the evolutionary roots of violent behaviour and other crime amongst the lower socio-economic classes.

It’s not all good, though – much like Brinkman’s feminist sister (mentioned in “Creationist Cousins”), you know I’m going to take issue with some of the ev-psych gender theories he puts forward. To be fair he does a good job of explaining the theories, so it’s not his treatment I’m worried about, it’s the ideas themselves. But since I’m here suggesting that you go and listen to this stuff, I would like to balance it out with my own views. The thing is, these theories are often useful explanations of how the gender binary manifests in the context of a patriarchal dominance hierarchy (which is the kind of underlying scaffolding that has shaped our cultural evolution, although it manifests in many different ways) – but they usually don’t carry this qualifier; instead, they are put forward as explanations of the intrinsic nature of gender, which is another thing entirely. Admittedly I have noticed this trend as a result of reading popular accounts of research rather than the original research itself, but unless that research is being systematically misrepresented (which is not all that farfetched in discussions about gender), then it is based on a flawed assumption of bizarre inflexibility of gender and gender roles. Certainly, it is still important to understand our evolutionary past and the reproductive strategies which shaped it, because this gives us a better understanding of the ways in which our behaviour can be inadvertently manipulated or distorted – but tired old suggestions that women are “choosier” than men because they have to worry about babies just don’t make any sense in the age of contraception and birth control, and the idea that humans won’t rapidly adapt to this new environment is fairly naive, I think. It’s like assuming that people will instinctively avoid eating too much junk food because being overweight could put them at a disadvantage if they have to run away from a lion. We don’t live in that environment anymore, and more to the point, unnatural satiation of biological responses which evolved to deal with scarcity (and therefore compel people to take advantage of every opportunity) will always leave past strategies in the dust, even when the results aren’t optimal (or the case of sex, they are super-optimal and totally sweet).

I hate to go on about this, but it’s just really jarring when he puts forward lines like: “Especially women – on you the pressure is greater [to be sexually selective] / ‘Cause men will always do what it takes to get into your favour / That’s just in our nature“. If this was actually true then men would have been leading the feminist movement, not trailing petulently behind it, resisting every step. Besides, the pressure for women to be selective only exists because men create it! And there is nothing in our “nature” that forces men to be constantly pressuring women for sex in this fashion. Indeed, if men actually did want more sex then the ideal approach would be to relieve this pressure, so women could be more forthright in expressing their own desires without having to worry about a subsequent avalanche of propositions and general creeper-tude (not to mention judgment and slut-shaming). The result would be more sex for everybody, men and women alike. But of course, this approach would require cooperative foresight and, much more alarmingly, freedom for women to make their own choices and have those choices respected – so, you know, goodbye patriarchal dominance hierarchy. The fact that alleged male hypersexuality often results in less sex than may otherwise have been possible reveals its true nature: this behaviour is not about increasing mating opportunities, it is about maintaining control (ie. dominance) over women.

Incidentally, I’m certainly not suggesting that there is anything malicious in this regard about the views Brinkman is expressing or indeed the similar views held by quite a lot of men in our culture – and more importantly, the reasons why they hold these beliefs are irrelevant. We are discussing imitated behaviours that have been passed down from a far less enlightened time. Each generation picks up on them and puts forward their own justifications, but in the end it is behaviour, not belief, that we should concern ourselves with if we want to see positive changes on these issues. Belief is just the past tense of behaviour, and it is often next to meaningless, especially when it is being used to justify harmful behaviour.

An important thing to note here is that evolution, by its nature, is engaged in an eternal battle with entropy, which means that in order for evolved traits to be maintained over long periods of time, there must be a sustained source of “pressure” which will cause natural selection to favour these traits over and over again (for example, gazelles exist under constant threat of predation by cheetahs, so only the ones fast enough to elude these threats will be continuously selected as time goes on, and any mutations to the contrary will be swiftly weeded out. If cheetahs were suddenly removed from the environment and could therefore no longer act as selecting agents for fast gazelles, the gazelles’ subsequent evolutionary path would be drastically altered). An obvious example of what happens when this pressure goes away is cave-dwelling animals whose eyes have degenerated to the point of being no longer functional, because they are no longer a beneficial adaptation – indeed quite the opposite, they simply consume resources unnecessarily. The traditional human gender roles, even if they were necessary for our survival in the past, can now be seen in this same light. Once the sources of evolutionary pressure which shaped this dynamic are lifted – and not only has this already started to happen, but the change is gathering momentum – then gender will start to manifest in increasingly diverse and unexpected ways, and in principle there is no rational reason to see this as anything other than a good thing.

Aaaaanyway, I doubt we will resolve this argument anytime soon but it’s just something I find rather annoying, mainly because I personally don’t fit it with most of the stereotypes being traded here. I can understand why people who do possess these traits, and encounter them regularly amongst others, might latch on to these theories as a relatable explanation, though. I am reminded of Hitchens’s infamous Vanity Fair article from a few years back, in which he argued that men are funnier than women because humour is just a way for men to attract mates – an argument which on one hand is almost self-evidently wrong, but on the other hand, quite possibly matches up with a lot of Hitchens’s past experiences and observations. If he had mustered similar evidence and instead concluded that this was how people had been taught to behave, rather than suggesting that this was their inherent nature, then the article may well have been praised instead, at least by the feminist critics who quite rightly tore it to pieces afterwards.

Okay I’ve gotten way off track here, so let’s finish with this: even if like me you don’t agree with all of it (and I didn’t even touch on the potentially even more controversial subject of group selection, which I am somewhat more sympathetic towards, as is Brinkman), The Rap Guide To Evolution is certainly worth checking out, and it’s always nice to see people popularizing science and getting Darwin’s message out there. I can’t really speak authoritatively on how musically accomplished it is, considering I hardly ever listen to hip hop anymore, but it kept me entertained, at least.

And finally, speaking of music, I came across some strong evidence recently for one of the other theories that Brinkman deals with: the idea that music evolved through sexual selection. I think you will agree, it all adds up. ;)

Private Vice Leads To Public Virtue

Wednesday, July 13th, 2011

Recently I’ve been writing out plot summaries for some of the future story arcs in Comical Interlude, and I noticed that a lot of them were about the characters’ sex lives – and more to the point, these aren’t the sorts of stories that will still work if they conveniently fade to black just before a boob comes into view (though don’t worry, they will be proper, relatable stories, as opposed to the ridiculous Hollywood satire put forward in my latest comic). On one hand, I didn’t actually sit down and say, “okay, time to write some sex comics” – and indeed it is something which I’ve been kind of subconsciously avoiding for a while now, despite the fact that I have these stories I want to tell, because I don’t particularly want to be associated with the current porn culture. But on other other hand, sex is naturally a subject that is going to be of considerable interest to humans, and being a human myself, I don’t see any problem with that… in principle, at least. So, given this direction my work is now heading in, I thought it would be useful to work through some ideas about the depiction of sex in art and our cultural attitudes towards it.

A good place to start would be Justice Potter Stewart’s famous failure to define pornography:

“I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description ["hard-core pornography"]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.”

I’m sure there are a lot of things we could discuss about such a statement, but what catches my interest is what it reveals about the unspoken rules we live our lives by. We all possess an extensive catalogue of cultural values which have been instilled in us – largely through memetic behavioural imitation – as we have grown up, often without conscious realization of the process. The main reason we don’t notice what is happening is because usually, we are surrounded by people behaving in the exact same way, so this all seems perfectly normal according to our only available reference points. By the time we gain enough knowledge and experience to properly reflect on our behavourial patterns, we are usually well and truly enveloped within our cultural constructs, and deconstructing them becomes a rather daunting and complicated task indeed.

Justice Stewart’s problem seems to be that when he encountered something outside his own cultural domain, he simply lacked the necessary self-awareness to properly define it as such (hence being forced to rely on intuition). This observation, I think, highlights the crucial distinction that separates porn from all other forms of art: namely, art is an expression of culture, while porn is a deliberate violation of it. Porn is not simply “depictions of sex”, because such things will sometimes also fall within the domain of art; rather, porn is depictions of sex which fall outside of the cultural values we attach to such material. Additionally, whilst it is of course common for art to challenge cultural norms, porn doesn’t even attempt to do this – it exists almost as an acceptable violation, and not one which is striving for higher ideals or that needs to be met with counterarguments, because everyone already knows that it is wrong, and indeed, that is usually considered part of the appeal. This is also why the term has become shorthand for certain other forms of entertainment – for example, excessively violent and sadistic movies being labelled “torture porn” – because it’s a way of expressing that this material violates the unspoken rules we normally live by, but at the same time, we are also acknowledging that it’s not a true violation, merely an imaginary one. And interestingly, this is true regardless of whether the speaker is using the term in a positive or negative context.

To understand how this strange situation came about, we need to remember that culture is an artificial construct that has essentially evolved on top of our pre-existing emotional and behavioural responses, and which manipulates those responses into different and highly complex patterns. The defining pattern in Western culture has been a variation on the common patriarchal dominance hierarchy seen throughout the world, influenced particularly by Christian theology and, more recently, democratic nationalism. Like any other culture, it is a highly imperfect system with various strengths and weaknesses, but people invariably play along with it because, as is the way with all dominance hierarchies, they feel they gain a net benefit from it, even if they’re not at the top of the tree (and they probably also comfort themselves with fantasies about climbing higher up that tree one day, too).

But one of the more curious aspects of this system is the extent to which it has repressed sexuality. From a modern context it seems absurd to imagine humans, of all species, adopting an anti-sex viewpoint, but you have to keep in mind that this system dates back to before reliable contraception and birth control, when even extremely brief, one-off encounters could carry considerable consequences, especially in a culture built around arranged marriages and such, where maintaining the family unit within fairly narrow confines was central to all aspects of life. This was exacerbated by the fact that the culture was modelled as a dominance hierarchy, meaning there was increased competition for mates, which equates to fewer mating opportunities for almost everyone except perhaps the alpha members of the group. Additionally, people at the top of social hierarchies often benefit from controlling the reproduction of those beneath them, so it’s in their interest to start interfering with the cultural values they dictate to the masses. Combine this with the fact that sex is one of our major sources of fear anyway (it’s the reason why we die, after all), and it’s not hard to imagine why people could get freaked out and start inventing all kinds of crazy rules to try and control it.

But a sexually repressed culture brings Problems. In particular, it leads to increased and unfocused aggression, because people are left with the subconscious feeling that something, some unseen force, is preventing them from fulfilling their biological imperatives, but because they don’t know what it is, that aggression generally just gets directed towards whoever happens to be around them (this is especially true for males, of course, because they compete through aggressive behaviour, whereas females have traditionally competed more indirectly through appearance-based sexual selection). Taken to extremes, this can result in the kind of problem that the Islamic dominance hierarchy model is currently dealing with: young, almost exclusively male suicide bombers who have been persuaded to their cause in part because they think they will get laid in the afterlife. When people have reached the point where they think their best chance at having sex is to kill themselves then it is perhaps time to start rethinking your cultural values. [Note: yes, obviously the situation is much more complicated than that; I don't have time to deconstruct the entire psychology of a suicide bomber here. My point is, sexual repression is certainly one of the factors that directs people towards such a path, and moreover it makes the whole process easier than it would have been if that element were not present.]

This is where porn comes to the rescue of the patriarchal cultural model. If you want to run a sexually repressed society then you are going to have to deal with the increasing pressure to rebel against this artificial repression that will be quietly building up in your populace. And of course, the perfect way to do that, whilst still keeping the original culture intact, is to construct an outlet outside of those cultural values, where people can seek refuge as needed and let off some steam before falling dutifully back in line. So this, then, is the strange truth about porn (and similar, seemingly-contradictory constructs surrounding sex): it is the moon to the patriarchy’s Earth, an orbiting satellite which stabilizes the main body and allows it to flourish where otherwise it would have failed.

[Note: in researching this blog post I have come across several articles citing this study (pdf link), which indicates a slightly higher percentage of porn subscribers in conservative states in the US compared to their more liberal counterparts - but on further reading it appears the correlation is not statistically significant. Unfortunately I haven't come across any other, more helpful statistics here - but at the very least, the Edelman study indicates that porn consumption doesn't vary all that much across a range of political and religious belief sets across America, which I suppose is what you'd expect of a unified culture that drinks from the same mass-media well, despite the variations within that culture. So, as much as I wanted for this to be the part of the post where I cited that study as another in a long line of religious hypocrisies, I guess I will have to hold off on that one. For now. Plus, they may not be consuming more porn than anyone else, but they're not exactly abstaining from it either, so I guess there's that.]

Ultimately, this just serves to highlight the exact same point that we regularly reach when deconstructing patriarchal culture: this whole thing is a really dumb idea that never would have happened if intelligent people actually sat down and designed the culture from scratch, as opposed to accidentally allowing it to evolve this way over several thousand years. But it also highlights the mistaken assumption people often make when trying to counteract this culture: that by supporting porn and promoting its ideals, we can start to break down the repressive parent culture. Clearly, when that parent culture is actively reliant on porn to sustain itself, this approach is not going to work out as people would like it to. This is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that, regardless of whether people are pro-porn or against it, very few will disagree on the actual use of the word “porn” to describe the material in question. Generally, these arguments are not about changing the overarching culture, they are about whether or not it is appropriate to have an externalized outlet for things that don’t fit within that culture. And indeed, for many people, the entire appeal of porn is that they see it as a place where they can break the rules they normally live by (which just raises the obvious question of why they choose to live by rules which are by their own definition unsustainable…). This is also why some of the few attempts to actively redefine porn as “erotica” or something similar and instill some cultural values in it have often failed to catch on (or at least, have certainly failed to achieve the popularity of regular porn), because people are inadvertently removing the very characteristics that attracted them to porn in the first place, whilst not taking it far enough to remove the need for those characteristics entirely.

As an aside, an interesting illustrative example of how arguments about porn are based on cultural values rather than measured evaluations of its actual content is a movie called The Good Old Naughty Days, which was released in 2002 after being edited together from a collection of old silent porn films from the early twentieth century. These films had originally been made to screen in French brothels, so obviously, at the time of their creation, they would not have been held in particularly high cultural esteem. But fast forward eighty years, and this same footage suddenly has enough “sociological” merit to be classified for a limited cinematic release in the freaking UK, of all places, despite containing not just explicit sex scenes but also some bestiality and stuff like that. And whilst there was an inevitable backlash from the usual religious types, there was also apparently enough interest for people to quite happily attend their local cinema just so they could watch such a film. The lesson here is that all you need is the thinnest of pretenses to allow people to tell themselves that they are watching the movie for any other reason than just because it’s porn, and suddenly it becomes a perfectly acceptable and reasonable idea. Or, essentially: it’s okay to watch porn for intellectual reasons, but it’s not okay to enjoy it. I think you will agree, this is a fairly transparent set of rationalizations by any standard – and it also recalls the cultural distinction between art and porn that I mentioned earlier. So long as the material is ostensibly not being put forward for the purpose of sexual gratification, it is clearly not serving any practical purpose at all, and therefore is much easier to define as “art” – whereas regular porn, which does serve a practical purpose, is barred from such standards. A barbeque pit is not art, but a broken barbeque pit beaten to an incomprehensible mess by Homer Simpson is.

So how do we go about fixing this problem, then?

Ironically enough, in my view, the best approach would be to start promoting depictions of sexuality in non-porn settings – sort of like the cinematic release of The Good Old Naughty Days, except with material that is designed to be unironically enjoyed, rather than being presented as some pretense at a history lesson. That way, you are not escaping the culture, you are actively confronting it, and forcing the audience to consciously reflect on their absorbed values. People will subsequently begin to criticize these ideas, of course – and that is when real progress can begin to happen. Improvement will only occur if we actively hold the material to a higher standard. In fact, I believe it should be held to the same standard we expect from any other form of art or storytelling, and the fact that the material is sexual in nature should neither cause us to automatically discount it, nor automatically accept it. More important questions, such as what sort of artistic merit it possesses, whether or not it is degrading, what sort of emotional depth it carries, etc, should instead come to the fore. In particular, the current porn standard of either completely context-free sex scenes or absurd and childish scenarios where people suddenly start having sex for no reason is the thing I would really like to see changed, because it stands in the way of a culture which could instead feature much more emotionally fulfilling kinds of entertainment, built around the same real, human stories we spend the rest of our time preoccupied with anyway. And sure, it is certainly possible to detach yourself in order to enjoy the kind of emotionally bankrupt porn that currently overwhelms the market, but it is not particularly… hedonistic.

This is the main way in which art can play a role in influencing the course of human development, incidentally: not by actively solving problems or swooping in to rapidly change people’s views through transcendent expression, but simply by disseminating new ideas and subtlely influencing people’s thoughts and beliefs (for better or worse, sadly). Art doesn’t end discussions; it starts them. And perhaps most importantly, it can entertain and reassure people who already agree with the ideas in question, so they can then go on to make more important strides in achieving these goals. Realistically speaking, a deeply ingrained problem like this is not going to go away overnight – it’s something that can only be changed over successive generations, as people grow up and readily adopt new behaviours and new ideas before the old patterns have a chance to take hold. This is how cultural evolution always works, of course, so if we wish to consciously influence its path then we need a realistic understanding of its mechanisms, and we need to be ready to play a much longer strategic game, because it doesn’t generally produce immediate results. Although another thing to keep in mind is that the pace of technological development illustrates perfectly how evolutionary processes can rapidly accelerate after they reach a certain tipping point, so that is definitely something to aim for, and it’s certainly a comforting thought if you wish to spend your time advocating something which may never eventuate within the course of your lifespan.

Which brings up another point: obviously, I am drawing a fairly fine distinction here, not to mention asking you to consider endpoints in the far future that aren’t all that immediately relevant to our own lives, so these ideas won’t be of much use to people who are simply looking to porn as a way of getting off and who don’t much care about the larger significance of their actions. If that is your view then you are free to live your life that way, of course, and no one can force you to change. To be honest I am surprised you are still reading at this point. But since you’re here, I would ask you to keep in mind that these things, so easily dismissed as irrelevant, have a way of coming back and biting you in the ass. If sexuality is constructed as something which exists outside of normal culture, then it becomes associated with other things that have been relegated to that same place, which is why porn has become largely synonymous with misogyny, racism, sexualized violence, and similar concepts. Because of the way our brains categorize ideas, grouping them together when they apparently have something in common, this is not the kind of association that can be drawn without consequence (as many of our current pop culture and porn tropes will all too readily attest). Ultimately, the choice to do nothing about this problem is essentially a choice to allow it to continue along its current evolutionary path, which, to the extent that we can foresee such things, does not appear to be a path with a happy ending.

On the other hand, if you do agree that this is an extraordinarily dumb situation and that we can clearly do better, then our primary goal – regardless of whether it is accomplished through art or other means – should be to try and integrate a healthy and robust understanding of sexuality into our shared cultural values, so people don’t feel like they have to escape from everyone else or break their own moral codes just to participate in an activity which is, after all, not only the very archetypal example of a “natural” behaviour, but one which brings considerable benefits, both socially and on a more personal level.

It is difficult to define exactly what a liberated sexual culture would look like, because the only convenient reference point we have is a history of failure (which in turn served to suppress or probably even wipe out a lot of wisdom which may have been garnered in more distant historical periods). Indeed, it is akin to ancient farmers at the dawn of the agricultural age attempting to extrapolate the limits of human technological development based only on their own nascent achievements: they would have absolutely no way of knowing that twelve thousand years of cultural evolution would produce the civilization we live in today. I would guess, however, that an idealized culture would have no need for an externalized concept called “porn”, because sex would be a common and unremarkable theme in all the regular artworks and entertainment, not only rendering the concept redundant, but replacing it with something which is much more holistically fulfilling anyway. And yeah, there has been some relaxing of attitudes towards sex in pop culture in recent decades, but the general climate is obviously still fairly farcical. We don’t go to the cinema to watch movies about sex, we just have romance movies, which occasionally feature a blurry pseudo-sexual montage (which isn’t to say that romance isn’t important; obviously, sex needs context to become emotionally meaningful. But that’s just part of the story, not all of it). And more to the point, we have action movies, we have horror movies, and generally speaking, we have a culture set up to venerate another concept entirely: violence. As you would expect of a sexually-repressed culture, this has become the popular surrogate obsession. A good litmus test for these values is children’s entertainment, because this is an area where people instinctively become much more careful about the ideas they are passing on to the next generation: and indeed, not only are fight scenes commonly depicted, but attempts to sanitize these depictions usually result in entirely unrealistic scenes where “bad guys” are dispatched bloodlessly by valiant heroes who suffer no negative consequences for their actions. Compare these tropes with the arguments commonly put forward to justify real-life violence; the similarities are striking (haha, yeah, as my twitter followers would note, I was quite annoyed by that particular article). Meanwhile, of course, you’re not even allowed to hint that sex exists, let alone suggest that it is a healthy and normal activity that you can look forward to when you get older, much like getting a driver’s licence or whatever. Oh, but don’t worry, you do get to kiss someone once you’ve defeated all the bad guys and gotten married – that is, providing you’re not gay, because that doesn’t exist either.

I guess basically what I’m saying is, a truly sexually liberated culture would presumably have much the same attitude towards sex that we do towards the allegedly “justified” violence that so dominates our present-day culture.

Bourne vs Bond

Monday, February 1st, 2010

So if I said I was going to write a blog entry about how the James Bond films are problematic from a feminist perspective, I guess most of you would be like, yeah, wow, way to tackle the tough subjects Tim – what are you going to blog about next? Tony Abbott? Seth MacFarlane? The Pope?? Well, you’re a sarcastic bunch, but I see your point. So, I’m not going to bother criticizing their portrayal of women or deal with other such blindingly obvious flaws, because if you need that stuff spelled out for you then you are clearly too deeply in denial to be helped anyway. Instead I’m going to write about the characterization of Bond himself, and the way it relates to the gender roles men are expected to perform in our society. There are some interesting parallels here which I noticed a while ago, and I’m not sure if they’re obvious to anyone else but I’ve never seen them mentioned before, so I thought it might at least be interesting to get them out in the open.

All right so the character of James Bond is supposed to represent a bunch of idealised male fantasies: he is a bad ass who can fight his way out of almost any situation, but at the same time is relatable and not so threateningly masculine that the audience can’t imagine themselves in his place; he is suave and takes control of social situations; he sleeps with lots of attractive women but doesn’t form any girly emotional attachments to them; he always has cool gadgets and fast cars to play with; and he undermines authority figures and generally does whatever he wants. Whilst these are all supposed to be desirable traits, most are also considered largely unacceptable and outdated these days, and the fact that he gets away with it just adds to his appeal (the only exception is the “gadgets and cars” one – it is only problematic in the sense that it is cast as a male pursuit when women are just as likely to be interested in it).

But whilst he may on the surface just seem to be a ridiculous, escapist caricature, when you take away the window dressing you see that he is actually a prototypical exemplar for male gender roles in Western society. He is a free agent, moving through the system at will, untethered by social obligations to authority figures. He always worries about his own needs first, and generally only cares about others when they serve some use to him. Of course, it’s difficult to be a lone wolf when you have intrinsic sexual urges forcing you to seek the companionship of others, but he gets around this by only ever using women for his own ends, and ensuring they never control him or dictate his actions. They are certainly never held to be on equal footing with him. He uses his wits and cunning to defeat numerically-superior enemies, which means that his lack of societal support is not a weakness but actually a strength, negating the main reason why humans form social groups in the first place. He possesses enough self-confidence and intelligence to ensure that he is competent in all situations without ever needing to seek the help of others. And of course, he is always at the top of the food chain.

This all works out fine in the fictional universe where such an absurd character is capable of existing. But take these same traits and teach them to men in real life, and you end up with all sorts of problems. And make no mistake, whilst a lot of these things are rarely spoken about in direct terms, the societal pressure to conform to these ideals is very real and very powerful.

I would say the main, overriding concern with all these different traits is for men to become self-contained units, who don’t rely on assistance from others. In this sense, “being a man” means having the ability to single-handedly deal with any situation that comes your way – and as a result, having to seek help to deal with your problems is seen as a sign of weakness. This is the most important concept to grasp when trying to break down the social constructs surrounding masculinity. If you’ve ever wondered, for example, why some men will complain about feeling oppressed and disadvantaged by some kind of imagined feminist conspiracy when they still possess so much male privilege, this is because, from their point of view, they have been completely isolated from society, and so just about everyone is judged to be a threat (and feminism becomes a convenient scapegoat to blame for their feelings of isolation). And actually, I think one of the few areas where women really do have an advantage over men is in the ability to build up support networks of friends and acquaintances, and to receive a much greater benefit from these networks. This may actually be a defensive measure to cope with a world where they exist with significantly less privilege than men, as this behaviour certainly has its roots in a much less egalitarian world than we live in today. Male friendships, on the other hand, tend to exist with certain unspoken barriers and lines which are never crossed, which in turn makes it much harder for men to rely on one another for support, especially when dealing with emotional problems (in fact the very idea of a man with an “emotional” problem is still very much subject to ridicule). And yeah, I’m sure there are numerous exceptions to this, especially these days, but these behaviours are still the norm for most men, and they are certainly a reflection of my own experiences. Conversely, women are obviously not immune to social isolation, either – in fact I am actually applying some of these traits to Swallowtail, which may help to explain some of her more tomboyish qualities, though I haven’t had much of a chance to deal with this stuff yet so you will have to wait and see how it unfolds. But you already know from the Cast page what her life was like as a teenager, and I’m sure there are more than a few women who can relate to such experiences.

In addition to this social isolation, we also have the idea that men are supposed to be in control and socially dominant. At the risk of veering off into some kind of never-ending metaphysical debate, I would just like to say that control is an illusion, and the desire for control is simply a product of people allowing fear to dictate their behaviour, especially in more extreme manifestations such as violence. The only reason we construct this behaviour as masculine is because men have traditionally been the ones in power and therefore in the best position to try and gain some kind of tenuous grasp on this elusive concept. But women have demonstrated in the past that given the opportunity, they will pursue it with equal enthusiasm.

Setting aside the more esoteric questions surrounding control, we still have a situation where socially isolated people are being taught to hold power over others, instead of developing more equal and reciprocal relationships. Do I even need to explain why this is a bad idea? Even if you are somehow able to rationalize away the most extreme manifestations of this distorted worldview, there is still a whole spectrum of different ways in which men try to wield power over women, from rape culture down to the more mundane and everyday types of misogyny which most women seem to have become depressingly familiar with, to the point that they rarely even bother trying to question it. You would be hard pressed to find a woman who hasn’t, at the very least, been harrassed or annoyed by some guy possessed of this bizarre and unfathomable mindset which apparently makes his entitlements more important than her clearly-uninterested reaction.

But wait – am I really trying to pin all these problems on poor old James Bond? Surely, Tim, misogyny has been around for longer than these dumb ol’ films. Well, yes, obviously you are correct (and thanks for lightening up on the sarcasm this time). I’m not arguing that the Bond films are somehow the source of these issues – merely that they are a reflection of them. It’s like when people try to argue that violent entertainment causes violent behaviour; they’re just confused because they’re approaching the argument backwards. The culture of violence already exists – that’s why people are drawn to such entertainment in the first place. And it’s the same here: people find these films comforting because they are seeing their pre-existing beliefs reflected back at them. Which I guess means we should try and determine whether this type of entertainment is actually worth deconstructing and arguing against, or whether we should instead be going after the underlying issues at the heart of the problem.

Certainly, these issues would still remain even if we got rid of problematic fictional representations entirely, so in that sense it is very much a case of pruning away a few leaves while ignoring the rest of the weed. But the value in deconstructing fiction lies not in ending the problem, but understanding it. People tend to see fiction as a place where they can freely express their ideas without having to worry about the consequences, and so what we end up with is a rare window into people’s actual, uncensored beliefs. You can build up a much more honest and insightful picture of these beliefs by analysing popular entertainment than oftentimes you would get by actually asking people directly. This is not just because they are deliberately witholding their beliefs (though that does happen a lot, for fear of judgment and social consequences), but also because these beliefs can be things that they passively absorbed at an early age, without realising it, or understanding the implications. Hence, fiction provides a powerful tool for uncovering such flaws not only in others, but in yourself, as well.

Fiction, and indeed art in general, is like a mirror held up to society. And just like with real mirrors, people often don’t like what they see reflected back at them. So they try to dismiss it out of hand, saying it’s “just” a fantasy, it’s “just” escapism, there’s no real meaning to it. But meaning doesn’t go away simply because you want it to, or because it makes you uncomfortable. There are really only two choices here: you can either continue trying to ignore and deny it, or you can turn it to your advantage. And for an example of the sort of impact you can make if you choose the latter, let’s contrast the Bond films with the Bourne films, starring every guy’s secret man-crush, Matt Damon.

Something really quite remarkable happens when you view the first Bourne film through this lens. The story starts with Bourne waking up in a hostile situation with amnesia, thus setting off a quest to uncover his true identity. This mirrors the situation all men find themselves in, being born into a world with pre-existing expectations of them, and with little clue as to how and why things are the way they are. As Bourne learns more about himself, he has to struggle with the highly problematic nature of these expectations, and also with his past actions, which were performed without the new, more mature perspective he now has (for me, the most interesting aspect of this is that his amnesia effectively wiped the slate clean in terms of the justifications he used to reach his current position, putting him in the rather unique position of being able to judge his own actions without the inherent bias of years of cognitive dissonance). Again, amnesia aside, this mirrors the struggle which all men go through, one way or another, as they grow up and try to define themselves and their place in the world. And finally, at the end of the film, Bourne turns his back on his old way of life in favour of pursuing a relationship with a woman he has made a real, emotional connection with, which I think makes a pretty powerful statement about the genre as a whole. I’m quite curious as to how much of this was deliberate on the part of the writers and director – or if it is simply an unconscious representation of their own struggles, and the widening divergence between old school definitions of masculinity and the newer ideas which are now taking root in the wake of the rights movements.

Should we take it as a coincidence that just a few years after this movie was released, the Bond franchise was “rebooted”, so that it could be more in keeping with modern viewpoints? It really says a lot when even the people making the films had to admit that they were outdated and increasingly lacking in relevance. And yet even then, when you look at Casino Royale, and their efforts to try and justify the character of Bond and explain why he is the way he is, all we see is the story of a man who already possessed a lot of the stereotypically-masculine traits I discussed earlier, though many of them are not fully developed yet. The nature of his world and the reasoning behind it is not even put up for discussion; we are simply supposed to accept it as The Way Things Are. He subsequently falls in love with a woman, only to be betrayed by her, thus justifying his completed transformation into the Bond character of old.

Yes, that’s right – they blamed it on a woman. Just… fucking wow, man. If they really were trying to offer a response to the success of the Bourne movies, then they did not learn a goddamned thing. But then, that’s perfectly in keeping with the worldview they are trying to present, isn’t it.

Avatar: The Last Airbender

Wednesday, September 30th, 2009

This is a review of Avatar, one of my favourite TV shows, which I wrote in my liverjournal earlier this year. I’ve made a couple of modifications but it’s mostly the same. It seems like a good way to kick off this blog, since I’ve already referenced the show a couple of times in my comics.

Prior to watching the show, I’d been putting it off for ages because I thought the concept was ridiculous, even though my brother and sisters all liked it. And, well, obviously I wasn’t wrong about that – but at the same time, they’ve put together such an intelligent treatment of that concept that in the end it really doesn’t matter at all. In many ways, they have taken basic fantasy elements and turned them into an allegory that is truly representative of reality, instead of just using them as an excuse construct a simplified worldview (which is the usual fantasy modus operandi, in my view). And what’s even more remarkable is that this is a children’s show; normally the natural provence of lazy writing. I am struggling to think of any precedent it could be compared to.

There are numerous factors which have been brought together in order to achieve this. First is the strong grounding in Asian and Inuit philosophy and culture, which runs much deeper than the obvious superficialities, such as the anime-eqsue art style and the use of Chinese calligraphy. All of the fighting styles were drawn from real-life martial arts forms, before being exaggerated with magical powers. Architecture, fashion, and various other cultural idiosyncracies are woven in as well, along with Buddhist and Hindu philosophical influences. Even politics plays a part, with the dominant city of Ba Sing Se being a clear reference to communist China, whilst the Fire Nation’s war campaign draws numerous parallels with American imperialism, and indeed various other empires throughout history. All of these elements are drawn together to create an entirely believable world, complete with its own extensive history and distinct cultures. And to top it all off, the show doesn’t brag about the richness of its world, either. It just leaves you with the lingering feeling that there is far more going on beneath the surface, and that if you wanted, you could totally nerd it up and seek out more information than could possibly have been included in the show itself.

Another factor is the characterization. Maybe I just didn’t have particularly high expectations, with this being a children’s show and all, but I was really quite amazed at the depth given to even the minor characters, let alone the main ones. And not only do most of the characters go through interesting and believable development arcs, but they often deal with themes which are quite challenging and complicated. Whilst there is inevitably some simplification and lack of subtlety, this show is really at a level which is, again, far beyond what you’d normally see in children’s entertainment. Even better is the strong strain of progressive idealism which influences many of these arcs. Aside from the anti-war message kept up throughout the run of the series, Zuko’s search for redemption, and Aang’s anti-violence philosophy, there’s also plotlines which deal with sexism, racism and xenophobia, fascism and totalitarian governments, and various other issues. And then there’s the diverse range of characters, including various ethnicities, a blind girl, a dude in a wheelchair – there is even a transgender character! (Or at least, that was how I interpreted that scene, though they didn’t go as far as stating it outright. It was a definite statement of gender non-conformity at the very least, however.) I’m not going to say there weren’t problems, the foremost of which was undoubtedly Azula (hard to explain why without resorting to spoilers), but overall, it is really awesome to see kids being exposed to these sorts of influences, with a surprising lack of patronization to boot.

All of these character arcs are woven together into a properly well-written and engaging story. The show lasted for three seasons, and whilst only one season was commissioned to begin with, looking back I can only conclude that they had the entire thing planned out in advance, in some basic form at least. Often times I felt like some plotlines had been abandoned or somehow forgotten about, only for them to suddenly come back into play at a much later stage. Additionally, a second watch-through reveals numerous instances of sneaky foreshadowing, even early on. The story moves forward with a real sense of purpose, and there is an overall feeling of completedness which makes the experience quite satisfying to look back on. And the ending, whilst ultimately predictable, was still well done, with a single twist thrown in to complete the overall anti-violence message.

Perhaps one of the most important things, for me at least, was the way they handled the show’s central concept: the mystical “bending” powers which enabled the characters to shoot fireballs and waterjets and stuff like they were some kind of Pokémon. One of the main reasons why I’d avoided the show for so long was because at first glance, these powers just seemed like a superficial DragonBall Z rip-off. And whilst that was undoubtedly an obvious influence of the show, the powers are not just a gimmick, either. They are so deeply interwoven with the show’s real-life cultural and philosophical influences, and they are used in so many inventive ways, that it ends up being a concept that was really worth exploring. To use one of my favourite analogies, it’s like Joss Whedon deciding to make a spaghetti western set in outer space: you hear about it and think “what?” but then you watch it and just go “…oh.

As if the show needed anymore good points, it also looks amazing, and is funny as hell. Even though it was strong enough to get by without it, they added a plethora of jokes to break up the more serious sections. Some of them were overdone and kind of annoying, but to a large extent they really work, even though the target audience is far, far less mature than myself. Pssh, kids these days, am I right? At least I will have my revenge when the live-action Avatar movies are released, and the kids realise that their standards and expectations have been raised just in time for them to find out exactly what Hollywood does when it gets its cold, heartless claws around something you love.

Uh… basically what I’m saying is, I guess I kinda liked this show a little bit. I started watching it at a time when I was asking myself a lot of questions about the value of fiction and fantasy and the ways in which it is pursued, and Avatar really reminded me of the basic appeal of telling stories which are entertaining but also present a positive message and, I guess, encapsulate a worldview in a way that is difficult to replicate otherwise. That is the power and potential of fiction. I think anything I create in the future will owe a debt to Avatar for reminding me of this – and it’s certainly not a coincidence that I re-started my webcomic less than a month after first watching it.