Posts Tagged ‘fantasy’

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 Whilst these are all supposed to be desirable traits, most are also considered largely unacceptable and outdated these days, and the fact that he gets away with it just adds to his appeal (the only exception is the “gadgets and cars” one – it is only problematic in the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.

Anti-violence post #1

Tuesday, January 19th, 2010

Some things in life are predictable: death, taxes, humorous non-sequitur third option. Others – like my update schedule – are less so. Sometimes you can see the car headlights moving inexorably towards you, and you try to get out of the way, only to realise the road has been covered with crazy glue, and your shoelaces have been tied together. Other times, they buy an electric car and switch off the headlights, and sneak up on you. Christ, I hate my neighbourhood.

Another thing that can be placed in the “predictable” category is the storyline of my comic. Well, large chunks of it, anyway – especially if you are already familiar with my political and social views and the way I like to express them in my work. I’m hoping to mix in a few surprises along the way, within that overall framework of inevitability, but I don’t think I’m really giving much away when I say that the main theme of the first half of the story will be the causes and consequences of violent behaviour. Since it’s a subject which will no doubt continually crop up as the story progresses, I’m going to jot down a few musings here, mostly to help keep my thoughts in order.

So, let’s start off with the basics. Violence is essentially a reaction against vulnerability, sought because it delivers feelings of safety and control – but ultimately, these feelings are just an illusion. You can see this across the board, from full scale warfare right down to one-on-one encounters. A telling example is the way governments use euphemisms like “security” to justify expanding their own power and hegemony, revealing that even large and powerful groups of people still function with the exact same deep-seated fear that drives all violent behaviour. Because what is security, exactly? The ability to gain so much control that you will never have to fear violent attack? Such a situation is patently impossible, yet it is the very thing that violence promises to deliver, and so people continue to fall for it. This psychology scales down with surprisingly little change, even to an individual level. The school bully, looking to control the other kids because he feels threatened by them. The guy who starts a bar fight with almost no provocation, because he is trying to compensate for feelings of powerlessness resulting from social isolation and emotional disconnection. The husband who has been taught all his life that emotions are effeminate and wrong, and thus ends up being so filled with fear when it comes to relationships that he tries to exert control by beating his wife. In fact, sex itself is, for a number of different reasons, one of the most vulnerable experiences in life, which is why some people will turn to violent behaviour to try and deal with it, either in reality or fantasy (the psychology is basically the same either way, despite how illogical and contradictory it seems from a more superficial perspective).

The consequences of violence are numerous and well-documented. History books are filled with innumerable accounts of lives that have been ruined through senseless and careless acts, and the media takes a certain macabre delight in delivering fresh tales of similar woe each day. It’s not exactly difficult to see that violence causes far more problems than it will ever solve. So why, then, do people keep returning to it? Why are they so unendingly inured to the obvious outcomes? There are numerous factors at play, but in the end, it all comes down to perception versus reality. The real problem here is that even though violence only delivers the illusion of safety and control, this illusion is the result of the brain equating mastery of its immediate surroundings with a more general and wide-reaching feeling of empowerment. It still feels very real, in the mind of the person committing these acts. And its absence is very noticeable. This is why violent behaviours, once learned, are amongst the hardest to let go of.

Human behaviour is driven primarily by fear, so anything which creates a feeling of safety is naturally going to be very attractive. Violence, however, actually decreases safety whilst making the user feel safer. It’s like buying a gun for protection: you might feel safer with a gun at your side, but in reality, a society full of people carrying guns is far less safe than a weaponless one. It’s easy to see how this works with something like a gun, which so obviously changes the balance of power, but this same psychology extends to all violent behaviour, to varying degrees. Because the feeling of safety increases whilst actual safety decreases, the result is an unending behavioural loop, driven by fear, in search of something which by definition can never exist.

Even when you recognise this reality, finding a way out is still extremely hard. To revisit the gun analogy: a society full of people carrying guns might be dangerous, but a society where everyone except you is armed is even worse, from your own perspective at least. Trying to go against this system means putting yourself in an even more vulnerable position – which, when you’ve formed behaviours around compensating for vulnerability through violence, is not only a truly daunting task, but it seems quite illogical if not outright stupid (I mean, get rid of your gun, when everyone else still has theirs? That’s crazy, right?). Fear can build up to such a level that abandoning violence can become seemingly unthinkable; so instead you run in the other direction, deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole, despite knowing full well that you’re moving further and further away from the only path out of this mess.

I believe it can be done, however – so long as people are actually willing to make that choice. And the more people who do, the easier it becomes, because people naturally feel less vulnerable in groups than they do alone. More importantly, though, the need to move on from violence is becoming increasingly urgent, as an examination of human development will reveal.

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