criticism

The Eggs At The Buffet

If you’ve been paying attention to comics culture lately, you will have noticed two furors breaking out over the last 72 hours.

For those who tune into this blog and notice that, aside from occasional jokes, etc, I usually use this blog to comment on furore of one kind or another (and yes, it has turned out that way), that’s a function of having a professional space to review and comment, and this, personal space which has become increasingly used for venting.

Sorry, but them’s, as they say, the breaks.

Anyway, the recent problems can be pretty easily summarised:

1) A known comics professional said he was tired of a “vocal minority” being appeased in the form of costume redesigns for female characters; and

2) A variant cover to Batgirl was released referencing her sexual assault at the hands of the Joker in The Killing Joke, was objected to, and was withdrawn by its artist and the company, amid cries that the artist and the company were “capitulating to [eugh] SJWs”.

I’m not going to comment on the merits of either position in detail, but to be clear on a few dot points:

  • The creators of the “example” costume redesigns listed have come out and said they were come up with by the professionals for their own reasons – in some cases, clearly, those reasons were to combat sexist costuming, but that’s not precisely the same as pressure; and
  • The variant cover in question did not reflect or comment upon the issue inside, was against the wishes of the core creative team who were pushing for a particular direction, and was, to say the least very problematic.

That being said, I don’t want to talk too much about the specifics: there have been better thought-pieces. I want to talk about the tone of the objections, which are the same objections that form the backbone of the GamerGate crisis facing gaming, and a proliferation of other sexist complaints. To boil it down in a nutshell, the myth is this:

“Minorities are taking X away from us!”

It’s not often phrased precisely that way, but it comes close enough ever time to be clear. The objection to giving people what they’re looking for (like, say, representation), is that, by the objector’s argument, that means a missed opportunity to give something more to the objector.

This fundamentally misunderstands the nature of any commercial enterprise as it exists in the modern world AND fundamentally misunderstands the culture of privilege surrounding white, heterosexual, cisgender males between 18 – 45, the most powerful and wealthiest demographic.

I’m going to dig into this using one of my favourite metaphors: food.

The Objector sees himself (and lets not lie, statistically, it’s VERY likely to be himself), as a paying customer at a buffet. It’s not all you can eat, he needs to pay for each item/trip, but he’s not under any time pressure and can be at the buffet as long as he wants.

Our guy refuses to eat eggs. He claims sometimes claims to be allergic, or to object to the practices of the egg industry, but this is cover for the fact that eggs aren’t to his taste. We know this, because he’s been known to eat cake containing a little bit of egg, even when he knows it’s there, because he likes the cake so much. He won’t eat eggs on their own though, because he doesn’t like them. They’re not “for” him.

People often talk about the benefits of eggs, how good they are for you, but because he doesn’t like them, he tries to find all kinds of reasons why eggs are pernicious (I know about the actual problems too much egg consumption might cause, this is a metaphor, folks [yolks? haha] {these asides are why things like this don’t make it to the other blog}), but ultimately it’s because he doesn’t like how eggs taste, make him feel, and he’d rather eat the other things that the buffet has to offer.

Every time the buffet adds a plate of eggs, the Objector objects. Because he’s looking at that part of the buffet at any given moment – all he sees is that there are more eggs, and that the eggs are “filling” a spot at the buffet where something he likes could go.

But here’s the trick: NOTHING has been subtracted. There has only been the addition of a plate to the buffet. The portion to which he has access hasn’t diminished at all. It’s only the percentage which caters to his tastes – and his alone – which has been altered.

This is often referred to as “the slice of the pie”, but I don’t want to mix my food metaphors (eggs and pie?! Is this a quiche?!), so let’s keep calling it a percentage. This is the key point where the category error creeps in, and it’s the thinking that underlines all these problems.

“Wait a minute!” cries the Objector, turning to camera and breaking the Fourth Wall. “If my percentage has decreased, then what I actually get has decreased, because surely there are only so many plates that can be served at the buffet!”

Well, here’s the thing, Objector. The beauty (and the monstrosity) of capitalism is that the producers of product want all the money. Products are sold to us at inflated prices for many reasons, but one of these reasons is so that in addition to a profit, there are funds available to source the ingredients for the meals at the buffet and the staff to prepare them. In other words, as long as the buffet is making money from a product, they will find a way to make more of the product. That’s called expansion, and although there are a bunch of market forces which pressure it one way or another, it remains a fundamental truth. If there is demand, and the product is profitable, the maker of that product will make more of it to service the demand. For our hypothetical buffet, they buy more tables so they can keep selling more of the food being bought. And bigger kitchens. Eventually a bigger building. Then a chain of buildings across the land. And so on, and so on.

A little simplistic, but until such time as how capitalism works fundamentally changes, or we consume everything, the company will keep pumping out the buffet in order to make more money. That’s what companies do.

So far, so good, right? Pretty easy to establish that the Objector can eat whatever he likes, and ignore eggs, and people can still get their eggs and he can have his fill.

There’s two riders to this, though, that need to be addressed:

1) The buffet needs to be prepared ahead of time. Not in the grand scheme of things, of course, because the buffet is eternal and you have unlimited time to eat it (I mentioned that before), but because the meals have preparation time, and the restaurant needs to gauge, moment by moment, what the demand for a certain item will be before they start preparing it. Are people coming in for hearty winter soups? Do they just want a brownie and a cup of coffee? Hard to tell, because the restaurant needs to forecast for trends, which means that sometimes products go away uneaten, and, to that degree, prep-time is used up which could’ve been (hypothetically) used to make something else the Objector would eat.

But guess what? This issue is self-correctingCompanies don’t want to lose money incorrectly forecasting products no-one will buy! That’s against their whole “get all the money” ethos. All they need is a few dishes of chicken feet to go uneaten (I straight up love chicken feet, by the by, but they can be an acquired taste) and they’ll stop serving it. That’s what “vote with your dollar” means.

Here’s what that means (and this is a big one): There’s no point in crying about how the industry or company has “changed” or “betrayed” you, because it hasn’t changed at all. It wants what it has always wanted – the maximum number of people to buy its products, so it can get all the money. The company has changed nothing.

The customer base has changed. Then, the company responds to that customer base – the same way it has always done – and the customer base changes further. That’s not the company turning its back on you, that’s the world passing you by.

And that’s scary. It is. No-one likes the creeping fear that their perspective is becoming obsolete. But since, Objector, you often pride yourself on “objectivity” or “rationality” you should put your money where your mouth is and realise that your fear of no-longer being a tastemaker isn’t the company’s fault, or the artist’s fault, or even the world’s fault. It’s a natural thing, as inevitable as the seasons, to a degree. The world changes, and tastes change with it. To quote the Wisdom of the Ancient (Grandpa Simpson): “I used to be ‘with it’, but now what I’m ‘with’ isn’t it, and what’s ‘it’ seems weird and scary to me. It’ll happen to you.”

2) There’s a silver lining to this cloud, Objector: you’ve still got VASTLY more power than the egg buying public of the world and you’ve had a damn good run up to this point. People just like you are admitting that, hey, they like eggs just fine. Maybe even better than some of the things you like – but anti-egg purists are still a coveted, powerful demographic, well catered for. There’s NO SIGN of the customer base pushing you out entirely, or even (and this brings us around again) the dishes being served to you diminishing. This is all about percentages, remember? It’s pretty rare that a product is taken away from you. It’s just the people who are demanding eggs and are willing to pay for them are going to get them, sooner or later.

In fact, the restaurant has doubled down on trying to serve the foods you specifically like in the hope of getting attendance back to where it was in the old days – but that technique has failed. They’ve tried it a bunch of times, but you never ended up buying appreciably more food, because, after all, there was only so much you could hold in your stomach at any one time. And there’s all these people out there clamouring for eggs!

Hegemony means that the manifestation of eggs at the buffet is slow – because sometimes the manager of the restaurant decides that he really hates eggs too, and he won’t serve them no matter how much money he might make! But that manager will, eventually, get fired when the board gets wise to the money that they’re losing. You can also try and forestall the process by threatening not to eat at the buffet until they stop serving eggs, but you need to think about that one carefully, because:

1) You better mean it. The restaurant is recording what’s happening, remember, and if the money coming in from you doesn’t actually decrease, they’ll learn that those threats were empty. Every time you come in and buy a plate of non-egg foods, they’ll politely listen to your egg complaints, nod and tell you that they’re sorry you feel that way, and then go right on serving eggs. Because they are after all the money.

2) If you do mean it, and you go through with it, you better hope that the money coming in from eggs doesn’t outstrip the money lost from your walk away. Because, again, they’re after all the money, and if it turns out that they can make it by turning themselves into the International House of Eggs, they’re going to do it. They only DON’T do it now, because they think they’ll make money serving a variety. That’s nothing new.

So, if you’re really certain that only a “vocal minority” wants eggs, there’s an easy way to prove it: stop going to the buffet.

Unless the real minority is you, Objector, the person who hates other people having what they want so much that they’ll become extremely vocal about how egg lovers are ruining the industry.

But that would be ludicrous, right?

Right?

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The Critic As Artist Redux

The very sharp Matt Zoller Seitz wrote an excellent piece over at his blog discussing the need for film and television critics to write about the form of the media they review as much as the themes and emotional impact that the media conveys. Discuss the nuts and bolts of how things work, to an equal, if not greater extent, to the effect they ultimately achieve.

Matt is not wrong. And I should preface this little blog entry by stating that Matt has a Pulitzer Prize nomination and is internationally renowned, and I write for a professional blog with a relatively limited circulation and a relatively niche (though not as niche as it used to be) set of topics. I unequivocally state that Matt knows vastly more about the industry, and certainly more about criticism than me.

However, Zack Handlen, who writes for the AV Club, and whose work I have always enjoyed, posted on Twitter to the effect that in the wake of that sensible, and compellingly argued article he was concerned that absent the appropriate tools to discuss the form, he should not be working as a critic in the field. That got me thinking about what criticism means in the current cultural context, and what values it has outside the strictly educative aspects.

Whilst I agree with Matt that writing about form fulfills a vital function (and, indeed, in my own work I do spend a fair bit of time writing about form), I think that given it is not the only function of criticism to deconstruct the formal composition of the subject (a proposition with which I would hope Matt and most readers would agree) there are nevertheless vital and worthwhile functions served by the critic who does not discuss form, or discuss form significantly.

I’ve actually been thinking about this topic for a while now, and am thankful that this exchange spurred me to write it up. Matt’s post begins with Ted Gioia’s comments about music criticism becoming increasingly a form of autobiography. That the discussion tends to be of the critic’s reaction and what it says to them at the time as opposed to the technical aspects of the music. Whilst I think that there is a lot of essential truth to this argument, I think that the landscape of criticism has changed so much in the last decade that we need to embrace that altered structure as a new evolution of the form.

Like it or not, the internet has given literal effect to the old adage that everyone’s a critic. We have neologisms like blogosphere to describe the bevy of people who offer up criticism of the media they consume. Most of them, on a strict percentage basis, lack the traditional tools of criticism – knowledge of form and academic background in the field – but they are capable of assessing whether or not media spoke to them and are more than keen to offer up their opinion about it. Indeed, opinion has become the currency of the internet – approval and disapproval sound as blog entries, Reddit and forum threads and sharp vox pop soundbites on Twitter. At the same time, the internet’s unparalleled ability to provide the ready collection of data has given rise to the science (or pseudoscience) of critical aggregation. “74% of critics liked it!” “Metacritic average score of 8.4 out of 10”, etc, etc.

For many critics, this can (and I’m sure in some cases does) feel like a dilution of the critic’s function. Once everyone has a platform to express their opinion loudly, and once critical consensus becomes the dominant “tag” of critical approbation, the function of a well-reasoned, carefully structured review concentrating on the form can feel compromised. To an extent, it’s only natural that critics, particularly smart critics, want to “clean house” to fight back against this tide because they feel that a body of scholarship is being compromised.

I do agree that criticism is a key form of scholarship, and is extremely prevalent in understanding how works affect us, and accordingly how both media and the mind work. For the key consumer of criticism however, they are not necessarily looking for a deconstruction of the form: in some cases they will not understand the terms, and in many more cases they may not necessarily care. What the public generally wants to know is whether or not they are going to like a piece of media, not whether or not they should. This is the cause of the fundamental disconnect continually portrayed between audiences and critics, why people talk about pieces of work “not being for critics” or “critical darling” films being snoozefests for the general audience. It’s not (necessarily) because the general audience is dumber than the critics, nor that they simply do not have access to the tools, its that their interest on what is being presented to them focuses on particular areas, most usually their likelihood of enjoyment.

Likelihood of enjoyment, however, is difficult to quantify. As Matt points out, focusing on the formal aspects of the piece being criticised allows people to understand the ideas emotions that the creators of the piece are attempting to convey, and allows an interested party to make an assessment at their success in conveying them. But the first test in conveying ideas and emotions is, fundamentally, a personal one, because if ideas and emotions are conveyed via the piece, they’ll occur to the consumer of the piece by virtue of what the piece presents.

What someone feels in experiencing any form of media is inherently a personal experience. A gifted writer can communicate it, they can encapsulate it, but like trying to describe a colour to someone else, you can never truly be sure you’re talking about the same thing. That’s where the emotive, and the autobiographical elements of criticism come to the fore. To an extent, you’re only ever telling the audience how you felt when you experienced something, and then explaining to them why you felt that way. Matt points out that the why of the matter comes, at least in part, from the technical process that causes the piece to function in the way that it does, but the why of the matter also comes from who the critic is and what elements of their personality inform their emotional responses.

There are a bevy of critics out there, and as both a putative (or at least attempted) critic and a consumer of criticism, I tend to find that my method for deriving the primary function of criticism to a consumer (which is, ultimately, an assessment of whether or not I should see/read/reevaluate a piece of media) comes down to the degree of trust I have in the critic. Sometimes that trust comes from the display of virtuosity, in the knowledge that they can see things in the particular piece that I may have missed or point out that these things deserve to be seen, but sometimes that trust comes from the openness of the reviewer, the understanding that they’re coming from a similar place to me, and that my emotional reactions, whilst never precisely the same, are likely to flow along the same channel.

What Matt proposes is an easy enough thing to accomplish (one tenth of a review given over to formal elements – and it’s worth noting that the discussion of formal elements doesn’t in fact require formal education – stating that silence surrounding the whispered word of an actor lends special emphasis to that pronouncement requires nothing more than the evidence of your senses), and he’s right that it is worthwhile and admirable for critics to try and educate the public about why things work the way they work and why this is information worth having.

But being that it’s not the only function, I think it’s problematic to try and classify other critics as part of the problem. We live in a mass, mass, mass media culture. I took the title for this post from an essay by Oscar Wilde which discusses the function of criticism against the background of the relatively new phenomenon of mass journalism and mass readership, but mass journalism and readership has now been replaced by mass authorship. The critic is no longer lecturing, even to a class of interested students, they’re engaged in a dialogue with people who are increasingly reluctant to be told that they have less right, or even less ability to communicate their emotions to the outside world. That behooves the critic to find their own voice, unique amongst the multitude, crying in the wilderness, and trust that discussion of formalism will have enough oomph to attract readers to learning out of aspects of their own interest, and that discussion of emotions and themes will likewise have enough to attract readers to spending some time in the head of that author.

Criticism belongs to the culture, and the culture has changed its shape. Criticism, and indeed, all art, are changing shape towards personalised demographics, people selecting how they want to receive information and on what subjects. The rate of media production, once in the context of media you include (as one must) blogs, websites for commentary, television, YouTube, films, books, e-books, magazines, zines, comic books, Tweets, games, etc, etc, etc vastly outstrips the time people have to consume it. People are (and always have been) selecting what information comes to them, but they are now much better equipped with the tools to do it. Like it or not, selection bias is going to come into play, and if people want a discussion of form, they’ll know, or easily be able to find out, where to get it.

The role of the critic is going only to become increasingly reputational and increasingly interpersonal because the only distinction the audience will be able to draw is whether or not they find the work of the critic compelling, and that means not just telling people what’s happening with media, but making an argument for why they should be listening to you. That means speaking to them in the language that matters to you, because the one thing that the world now has a surfeit of is people who are willing to offer their genuine opinion in a public space, even if that’s cloaked behind a fake name or online avatar.

That means, as a critic, your fundamental role is to be honest about yourself, not just in terms of your knowledge and qualifications, but also in terms of your emotions and preferences. If a critic is going to talk about form, they should let the audience know that up front, and if a critic is not going to talk about form they should let the audience know that too. They should be respectful of the priorities others emphasise in their criticism, and they should always be willing to point out that they’re skipping over something or that a differing analysis should be found elsewhere. I don’t think, however, that the genie can go back into the bottle, and that ‘critics’ can define themselves by reference to a particular school or a particular set of emphases within the critical sphere. It’s too late for that – the meaning of ‘critic’ has changed. It’s not a guild with exclusivity: anyone with a blog can describe themselves as a critic, and people will take that with a much greater degree of bona fide legitimacy than the offered up opinions of a random joe on the street corner, even if it’s the same random joe. The term ‘critic’ is becoming increasingly devoid of meaning, and more and more important will instead be the function of standing up and saying “This is who I am, and these are my views”.

This doesn’t mean that the intellectualism of discussion of media has changed. It just means that critics are forced to hear, and respond to, the other half of the conversation. The up-until-recently unexpressed voice that would read an article on film and declare “critics don’t know what they’re talking about – I liked the explosions”. There is still a place to make the argument that things are well executed and poorly executed and there is logic and educated standpoints to be taken on those issues and I’m glad Matt is out there doing so in his way. I’m also glad Zack’s out there doing it his way, and to an extent that I’m out there doing it my way. It’s not even a Darwinist view, because your opinions remain out there, even if someone else’s opinions are preferred. The critic still has the power to write about why something worked for them, and have it heard by those wanting to hear it. It’s the appeal to authority that’s gone for good.

All Of Time And Space Means All Of Time And Space

Ah, poor neglected blog. I have felt guilty for leaving you in the lurch, don’t get me wrong. Most other writerly types tend to manage to keep their own immediate kitchen garden in better order. Real job, plus real life, plus (many) other writing projects have kept me away from you, and most of my thoughts have found a more widely circulating venue over at Nerdspan.

I return to your delightful Saul Bass inspired format today, however, to talk (again) about Doctor Who. Whilst this could go up at Nerdspan, it already has a Doctor Who correspondent, besides, I wouldn’t necessarily suggest that my thoughts should represent the website, or even the considered opinion of m’colleague. Not that I’d think that either one of them, would disagree, just that these are my immediate thoughts on a topic and this blog has now become the place for nonsense pop culture parody songs my off-the-cuff, from-the-hip, mixed-metaphorical musings.

Peter Capaldi has been cast as the Twelfth (or possibly Thirteenth) Doctor today. I love the fact that I live in the world where this is a top headline on that most general audience of all programming slots, breakfast television. Capaldi’s probably most famous for Malcolm Tucker, though he’s got estimable genre chops – he was in the original adaptation of Neverwhere, and has been in Doctor Who (and Torchwood) before. He’s a noted and lauded actor, amazing at finding an authentic way to portray depths of emotion, including rage and despair, whilst possessed of a legendary comic timing and ability to say ridiculous things with a straight face. Above all things, he’s able to find the authenticity in outrageous as well as domestic characters, and these are all great traits for a Doctor Who actor to hold.

That being said…

Although I’m very glad they skewed older for this Doctor (something I’d been angling for for a while) I’m somewhat disappointed it was neither a woman nor a Person of Colour. My personal choice remained Chiwetel Ejiofor in a monocle, 1880s moustache and smoking jacket, but we can’t have everything (besides, he’s a film star now). Many talking heads have spent a good deal of time on this topic, and I don’t propose to do so today. This issue doesn’t affect how I rate Capaldi, as my remarks above hopefully indicate, I’m pretty bullish about the job I think he’ll do.

My issue relates to the manner in which some elements of the fandom have reacted to this news, not by bemoaning it for being less inclusive than it could have been, but rather by postulating that the casting of Capaldi will thankfully make the show less inclusive.

Specifically, a remark that appeared across ALL CORNERS OF THE INTERNET (which talk about Doctor Who, and therefore all the IMPORTANT corners of the internet) was that it was excellent that they’d hired an “unattractive old man” which would disappoint and scare off the “fangirls” who watched the show because they thought the Doctor was attractive.

I’m not exaggerating the issue here. People actively celebrated the idea that female viewers would be “scared off” Doctor who because they no longer could have a crush on him, and that this was a good thing.

To ANYONE who says anything remotely resembling:  “This’ll chase those icky girls away from the show! Stupid fangirls who don’t REALLY love Doctor Who” I say this to you: YOU ARE A BAD DOCTOR WHO FAN.

There’s been a lot in the geek related media about the idea of “fake geek girls”, girls who go to conventions, who don’t participate “properly”, who don’t have the requisite degree of “knowledge” to participate. The idea that there is some sort of “entry bar” to geek hobbies is as bogus as it is offensive, and has been actively attacked by the major voices in the subculture (and rightly so – I’ll hand this over to John Scalzi, who says it better than I ever could).

In many respects though, this is even more of a deplorable failure to grasp certain basic human principles than it is for the geek audience at large. Because (even though it’s wrong) there’s a bunch of geek properties which exclusively (or near exclusively) feature white men as viewpoint protagonists and in which women are portrayed as passive sexual objects. The means to save the planet/dimension/kingdom/universe is seen to rest solely and wholly in their capable, masculine, hard-man-making-hard-choices hands. It is, in fact, regrettably too much a part of geek subculture.

But at least there’s a negative feedback loop that comes into play there which makes some kind of internal sense. It’s deplorable, but it’s also understandable, and you can see where people have gotten off track. If you surround yourself exclusively with media that promotes this viewpoint, that gives an idea of a hierarchical threshold based on a culture of privilege, then it’s no wonder when that’s the idea you end up with in your head. The media we view creates our vision of the world.

But that’s the opposite message of Doctor Who. Trying to gate off Doctor Who, say that there’s an invalid way to watch it, means that you’ve MISSED THE POINT of the show to which you claim to be devoted. Doctor Who is all about inclusion. Craig Ferguson once called it the triumph of humour and intelligence over fear and cynicism. There’s nothing as clearly indicative of fear than to ask part of the audience to go away. Fear that the show will change away from what you want it to be. Fear that your voice won’t sound as loud, that you might end up on the outs of something you’re attached to. That’s the fear that drives the entire notion of “fake” geek girls, or “fake” geeks of any kind – the fear that something that you thought was yours might cease to be so.

That’s a stupid fear, particularly in this case, but even if it weren’t, that fear is less relevant and less important than the hard fact of how much women are excluded for the cultural dialogue, particularly in regards to genre properties. On a hierarchy of needs basis, I hate to break it to those of you who crow at the idea of less girls in the clubhouse, but your FEAR of the hypothetical is less bad than the ACTUAL oppression that subgroups that aren’t straight white males have to go through when it comes to the media, and genre media in particular. That’s why, as a member of the straight white male subgroup, I feel it’s important to make some points as clearly as I can, so it can be understood what we’ve got and why that fear should be, in line with the best of the Doctor’s principles, triumphed over.

In brief:

1) It seems AWFULLY reductionist to suggest that the female audience homogenously crushes on the Doctor. Women (shock!) like men, have all kinds of different tastes in terms of what they do and don’t find attractive, and many, many, many women watch the show for other reasons than to crush on the main character. Many of them were watching it before you were.

2) It takes all sorts to make a world. What’s attractive is a very personal thing.  There are likely to be viewers who want to/do crush on Capaldi, and I say more power to them! Vive la difference! For every young girl alienated, there’s going to be a mother watching Doctor Who with her kids who enjoys the slightly curmudgeonly steely thump of Capaldi. Not to mention the legion of other people who might just go for that type. Or go for any type. Matt Smith and David Tennnant, after all, aren’t exactly what I’d call Hollywood leading man types either, yet as evidenced by your own argument, they have a substantial female following.

3) But (in as far as you look to say I’m missing the point here), the objection isn’t (theoretically) to women who watch the show WITHOUT crushing on the main character – it’s about those who do. Well, firstly, I like to think that girls (or duly interested guys, let’s not forget them) who came to the show for the attractively affable goofballs who have filled the role of late DISCOVERED more to like about the show. That possibly despite a degree of attraction to the main character, the themes and message and suspense and adventure have managed to penetrate and lead them to like MORE about the show. Because, you know, women aren’t one-dimensional creatures who fail to respond to art, and this show that I like so very much has something to say which I anticipate people will respond to. Important, grand, universal themes that speak to more people than just me – even if people initially came to the show for aliens or time travel or because they thought an actor or actress was cute, that they might learn to love all the (other) great things about it.

4) If they didn’t though, and their reason for watching the show relates only to man-candy, so fucking what? That in no way invalidates their viewing experience. There is no valid way to enjoy or not enjoy a programme and unless they’re watching it in the same room as you and shrieking over the top of the dialogue every time the Doctor is on screen or furiously masturbating to the point that you have to leave the room HOW THEY DO OR DO NOT ENJOY THE SHOW HAS NO IMPACT ON YOU. If they’re posting on Tumblr, that’s their affair. If they’re wearing Doctor Who t-shirts in the high street, you know what that means? It means Doctor Who has more money, which means you have MORE DOCTOR WHO. Isn’t that a good thing? Have people forgotten the lean years when we only had a telemovie? Have people forgotten the rubber masks of yesteryears shoestring effects budget? The general audience is a good thing that determines the survival of the show.  Particularly, my American friends, Doctor Who is not a niche programme hidden on cable in the Motherland. It is THE staple of family programming, one of the most watched shows in the country. It plays primetime to everybody, and there’s a tradition of the family gathering around to watch it at Christmas. It’s designed to be watchable for the casual viewer, which includes teenage girls.

5) It’s MASSIVELY hypocritical for genre audiences, who leap to defend Seven of Nine and Lara Croft and the Resident Evil movies and, of course, the always subtle art of most superhero comics to get bent out of shape about a degree of fan crushing – PARTICULARLY where unlike the examples I just mentioned, there’s little objectification of the subject of the crush in the presentation of the show. Funnily enough, the complaints regarding sexuality in the ACTUAL BROADCAST of the show relate to how the Companions have been presented. Particularly those companions whom Moffat himself has acknowledged are cast for a degree of sexiness, to appeal to the “Dads in the audience”. The big Doctor Who sexuality furores related to him kissing Rose, and to Amy saying she was hoping the Doctor would get her “sorted out” (wink). I must have missed the episodes where Doctor Who became innately sexualised to pander to the audience, what with all his shirtless battles with the Oil-People of Sigma-13 and the way he holds his sonic screwdriver suggestively whilst the wind blows back his hair. What people take from media is not what is put into the media, and, as in point 4 above, what people take from media has no impact on what you take from it. Any kind of rational look at the topic makes it clear that the objection isn’t to the presentation of sexuality in genre fiction, or even some degree of sexual appeal being determined to be in existence by the fans, it’s that the sexual appeal referred to is appealing to females, and that’s a problem for some people because they apparently believe that girls are icky.

Which brings me on to my final, and most important point:

6) Doctor Who is all about inclusion, okay? That is, in many respects, the entire POINT of the goddamn show, particularly in its revival. This is the same crap as when Russell T. Davies was accused of pushing a “gay agenda” by having gay people in his programming. Doctor Who attempts to present the entire universe in it, remember? ALL OF TIME AND SPACE. The universe is a place of infinite variety and wonder, admittedly with its dangers, but ultimately, a place where everyone has something to offer. The TARDIS stops, the Doctor walks through the police box door and encounters a new type of person, and what the Doctor is all about is FINDING THE WONDER in that new type of person.

That’s why Doctor Who is written to include kids and adults, men and women and straight people and gay people and everyone in between. People. Hell, the show includes talking trees and benevolent singing squidheads and a pansexual male model slowly turning into a giant hideous prosthetic head. All of time and space time includes everyone and everything in it, and if you don’t want to take a look around outside your insular little world and appreciate some of that goddamn variety, that makes you a BAD Doctor Who fan. You have MISSED the point.

Girls get to watch Doctor Who. Guys get to watch Doctor Who. Kids, and pets, and houseplants get to watch Doctor Who. Everyone gets to watch Doctor Who, in whatever way they like.

Warren Ellis, legendary British comic book writer  (who I understand to be a fan of the show)  designed some villains for his excellent comic series Planetary. They’re called the Four, and they’re basically the Fantastic Four written as villains.

Their credo is “We’re on the human adventure, and you don’t get to come.” That is the credo of the bastard. That is the credo of the bad guys.

The TARDIS is bigger on the inside. It’s got room for everybody, whether or not they’re like you, just as the adventure and excitement of the universe comes from the fact that not everyone is like you. Don’t be the bad guys, Doctor Who fans. Learn the message. Get with the programme.

We Are Who We Pretend To Be

This is a Doctor Who post. Those who aren’t into the show can look away now.

I’m not a Doctor Who authority. The internet is FULL of people who know more about the show than me. Part of being an Australian is that it’s been on television here for longer than I’ve been alive, broadcast to the public on a major free-to-air network. It doesn’t have the cultural ubiquity it does in Britain, but it’s always been part of the general background. NewWho hit big, but the show had never been out of circulation here, old episodes of the serials repeating effectively every day. Doctor Who was hard to miss.

That being said, I was never the biggest fan of the show, until the relaunch. Until you’re primed for certain elements of Doctor Who, the old series, particularly, can be difficult to engage with. The budget is non-existent. The scripts are often clunky. It’s a special kind of magic to learn to love it.

I didn’t really start to become invested in the show until ‘Dalek‘. This was a 9th Doctor episode, in which, post-Time War, the Doctor found out that a single representative of his greatest enemies had survived. The Doctor ran the gamut of emotions, from literally murderous rage to desperate, lonely begging, hoping either way to be afforded some form of closure to the Dalek feud, to a fresh start. He didn’t get it.

From that moment on, I was hooked. I’ve devoured every episode of the new series, and they gave me a fresh appreciation for classic Who, which I went back and looked at with a new perspective. I’ve written scads about Doctor Who around the place, including episode and arc analyses, companion pieces, reviews, etc, etc, etc. As I said, I can’t hold myself out to be a legitimate expert (that would be this guy), but I will say that, at least in as far as the new show goes, I’m involved enough to notice trends, and in as far as the old show goes, I know enough to make comparisons.

So, with that borne in mind, the trend about which I presently feel compelled to write has to do with the Doctor’s companions. In the mid-season resumption episode The Bells of St John, new companion Clara Oswald (introduced in the Christmas Special this year) came, effectively to travel along with the Doctor full time. During the course of that episode, due to the nefarious plans of the villains backfiring, Clara gained the powers of a superlative hacker. Not, it should be noted, merely someone who is good with computers, but someone capable of hacking on an equal playing field with the Doctor himself, someone capable of outwitting and to a certain extent at least out-hacking, an evil organisation devoted to the increasing and management of their computer skills. She had, in essence, gained a skill to such degree that, at least in a specialised field, she ceased to be the Doctor’s audience and became the Doctor’s peer. Indeed, she took over a task from him, and completed it with equal or greater efficiency. Once she had done that, I realised how much I didn’t want to see that upgrade go away.

When the series relaunched, the show decided that the Doctor’s companion needed to be the “everyman”, the figure who represented the present and who would translate the Doctor’s adventures into an appreciable context for the modern age. Thus was born Rose Tyler. And for the time, on the back of a decade’s absence, it was probably the right call to make. Part of Doctor Who’s magic is its broad spectrum family appeal – someone needed to represent the voice of the familiar in order to ensure, at least at first, that the show didn’t just reach out to the niche audience that followed genre shows. It succeeded, and NewWho is bigger than Ben Hur.

In that success, however, lay the seed of the failure. The proverbial worm i’ the bud was that Rose became so successful (she’s back shortly for the 50th Anniversary Special, for example) that her archetype came to overwhelm the companions that followed. Martha Jones and Donna Noble were both defined by their axis of Rose-ness, one attempting to fill that role, and the other explicitly attempting to reject it. Nevertheless, Rose’s shadow loomed large over the show as a whole – after all, the Doctor had (potentially) loved her.

I’m not one of the purist crowd who thinks that there is no circumstance in which the Doctor can fall for a human woman. I didn’t even mind it in the case of Rose, because part of the early elements of Doc 9 and Doc 10 were that the Doctor was incredibly lonely, and the last of his kind. It seemed reasonable enough that he’d fall for the girl who shared his adventures with him, at least in one instance. The issue was skirted, playfully, including providing the Doctor with some elements of the adventurer, hinting at non-human partners and some degree of sexual ambiguity. The Doctor could fall for Rose because she was part of a broader experience of 900 years, where sex and romance entered in and out of the equation in different ways.

Prior to Clara Oswald, Doctor Eleven’s (who in many ways is my favourite Doctor, partly because of the excellent acting of Matt Smith, and partly because of Moffat’s writing chops, which, when on form, are second to none) primary relationship was with Amy Pond, the companion from his first appearance until the season break at the end of last year. Sexual tension between them was established, bandied about and became an issue, but ultimately it became a story about a girl’s imaginary friend, and how much that friend needed to be imagined about by someone. Fine, and in many places touching, as there’s a real value to that concept which has appeared in media from Peter Pan to Drop Dead Fred. It works, and is known to work.

But, like the need to sweep Rose up in magic to rescue him from PTSD, the need to have Amy believe in him effectively drove the Doctor to allow the companions to set the agenda. We’ve now seen the familiar refrain of the “bigger on the inside” introduction to the TARDIS, and from there the critical question: “where do you want to go, companion of the moment?”

The Doctor has been swept up in all kinds of adventures in visiting hither and yon, and each season of the new series so far has involved a meta-arc of some kind. Pausing for reflection though, we can see that a great deal of those meta-arcs (Rose and the Bad Wolf; Rose and the Doctor and the Parallel Universe; the Return of Rose As Warning To Donna and the Doctor; the Doctor Has No Companions, Oh No; What Is The Mystery Of Amy Pond?; and What Is The Mystery Of Amy Pond’s Child?) have all been driven by the Doctor’s specific interaction with those companions, their “special” status, and how he approaches them. The Doctor’s been heroic, and brave and noble in many circumstances, but at the same time…the Doctor doesn’t do much of anything for himself.

At first this seemed like part of an arc that would play out – that the Doctor’s adventures with his companions would bring him out of his self-imposed exile and funk and bring him back into involvement in the world. I’m still waiting for that to happen. If the most recent Christmas special is to be believed, it’s only getting worse. Really, only Professor Yana and the Prime Master has been an arc of that magnitude – about the Doctor and his enemies, but also about what the Doctor wants and needs to do.

The Doctor’s “audience of companions” have come to form the moral and practical axis of the show, and I think that has begun to represent a problem. As we move into a new arc of the show, we’re again confronted with a mystery involving his companion that the Doctor is driven to solve. You can make a chicken-and-egg argument that she becomes a companion because of his desire to solve the mystery, but that’s ultimately artificial, as the writer’s chose to fundamentally make the adventure about her and her nature.

I think that’s a problem, because it robs the Doctor of some of his appeal and drive, and converts him somewhat into a guy performing for people who are, effectively, part girlfriends and part science projects. Doesn’t the Doctor have anything better to do with his time? Doesn’t the Doctor want things for himself?

This isn’t a dig at any of the companions specifically, but I think that the skill levels (and agendas) of the companions come into it. The more the Doctor travels with someone who is effectively a peer, the more his decisions are subject to challenge, and the more tension can be derived from what he’s doing. Television has in many ways come to realise that its great strength lies in the appeal of competing agendas, but right now, all the Doctor does is prestidigitation for funsies. It’s starting to make him feel a bit small.

To some extent both River Song and Jack Harkness have played counter to this type, because they’ve all been established as playing at somewhere close to the Doctor’s level. If they were the Justice League, they might not be Superman, but they’d certainly fall into Batman and Wonder Woman’s slots, and they’d form the backbone of an argument that (1) the Doctor might not always be right, and (2) the Doctor might need to account for what he’s doing. There have been some great scenes which respond to this challenge, but although they theoretically fall into the category of companions, none of them have formed a permanent part of the basic ensemble of the show the way that core members of the cast have done since the relaunch. Adam, the companion who wasn’t, also falls into this lens, because he offered an alternative way to behave in the context of the wonder and power of the Doctor’s adventures – one that was wrong, but was understandable. Adam had an opposing goal to the Doctor, and that required the Doctor to make decisions and stand for principles beyond dealing with what his companions wanted.

Companions like Zoe, Sara Kingdom, Leela, Adric, Romana (of course), Vislor Turlough, Kamelion and even K-9 offered something different. Different choices to be made and different agendas operating. Some of them even specifically bargained with the Doctor, had things they wanted that he could provide and in return had things they could provide to him. The present companions offer companionship, but don’t really offer much else except loyalty and a captive audience. This doesn’t, contrary to the shows stated ethos, make humans feel particularly “big” to me, it makes us feel small. The Doctor exalts the nobility of the average person, but in so doing promotes a philosophy that the best thing a person can be is a passive receptacle for the Doctor’s magic. Where are the scientists who are trying to out excel him? Where are the companions who say that they don’t just want to ride in the TARDIS, for want of a better metaphor, they want to drive? Once people start demanding things of the universe and the Doctor that he isn’t offering, he’ll need to take a position on what he does want based on the position that he doesn’t want. For a long time now, the Doctor’s primary tension with his companions has been how they’ll interact with him romantically, but it’s:

  • (a) not that interesting a question to begin with;
  • (b) robbed of tension because a will they / won’t they relationship can only function that way until the fiat clock determines that they either won’t or will; and
  • (c) already been asked and answered now several times.

That’s not to say that Bogey and Bacall/Nick and Nora Charles style spunky sass from sexy twenty-somethings isn’t challenging, but it’s a petty kind of challenge that’s why it’s usually played as amusing and fun, and secondly it’s a kind of challenge he’s been receiving in spades since 2005. Give him other things to contrast with and the Doctor will be shown not to be a granter of wishes, but an explorer and world-saver with an agenda of his own.

One of my favourite moments of the show has been in “A Good Man Goes To War” when the Doctor assembled a strike-team of his friends. Suddenly, the show wasn’t about a guy showing off the world to impress his latest squeeze, it was about a seasoned universal traveller, with eons of debts to call in and a ruthless willingness to do so in pursuit of something. Madam Vastra, Dorium, even Strax felt like they were adding something, that suddenly the Doctor knew he could do with assistance on a practical as well as moral level. The strike-team started in some senses to outshine the Doctor because of what they were doing. Why isn’t the Doctor an all-knowing savant information broker at the heart of the universe, exploring a new wonder each and every week because he’s driven to know about it? Why isn’t the Doctor actively taking on cases and fighting evil like a galactic Sherlock Holmes? He could do all these things and remain well within his current ouevre of time-and-space travelling superhero. Vastra and Dorium still care enough about the world to want things from it, but the Doctor seems now to have done it all and seen it all. Sure, he makes the appropriate noises when he sees, for example “Dinosaurs On A Spaceship“, but where is the drive to discover the unknown? Now all he seems to do is take people to places he’s already been, like a tour-guide. Easily the stand-out episode of last year, “The Doctor’s Wife” by Neil Gaiman, suddenly shuddered the Doctor out of his companion context. The companions were there, and important (the haunting mad Rory sequence was particularly effective), but the episode focused on the Doctor’s hope of finding another Time Lord, and then an encounter with someone completely knew and at the same time intimately familiar. He had something new that he wanted, for himself, and someone knew to challenge him in ways he had not been challenged before. Suddenly the Doctor had a defined personal motivation, and didn’t the script just crackle because of it?

One of my other favourite moments of the show happened, effectively, entirely in my head. In “Daleks In Manhattan“, Dalek genetic engineering transformed Dalek Sec into a human-Dalek hybrid. The special effects were a little bodgy, but the critical elements of that story were that Dalek Sec realised that being a Dalek was probably not the best way to go, and strove to ally with and learn from the Doctor. I hoped against hope for the portion of the episode where that were possible, that Dalek Sec might get to be a companion. That in addition to the Doctor’s audience insert/manic pixie dream girl of the moment, there could be a character trying to create a moral compass out of whole cloth, who knew things the Doctor didn’t and who wanted some kind of journey beyond the excitement of a tourist destination. I didn’t get it.

I appreciate that this sounds like I don’t like the companions listed, which isn’t true, I’ve liked almost all of them in my way (I’m not too fond of Martha Jones), or that I think the show is on a steady decline, which I also don’t – at least not yet. I just think that the premise of the Doctor needing someone from the here and now to draw him out of his shell has grown a little stale. I don’t really want to experience the adventures of a guy who mopes in a box for decades until he decides he wants to date again. To draw a parallel with Moffat’s other show of the moment, Sherlock, Sherlock Holmes likes to mope and needs Watson to keep him off the cocaine bottle when he’s bored, but once the game is afoot, Sherlock wants to solve cases because Sherlock thinks cases are worth solving, and Watson can either follow along or get out of the way.

I think a change in the choice of the companions would be an easy way to change the trends in this dynamic. Who the Doctor chooses to travel with both reflects his state of mind and influences the kind of story the writers want to tell. There would, however, be other ways of doing it. What I want is an acknowledgement by the Doctor that it’s time to come out of his shell and start thinking about what HE wants out of life again. As he’s fond of saying, there’s the whole of time and space out there, somewhere there should be a place where he can be challenged, where he can face the unknown by design, not by coincidence, where he can pick a battle instead of a battle picking him. I hope future trips in the TARDIS can take us there.

Comic Book Gender Studies Course Goes Global

Professor Christy Blanch of Ball State University in the US is launching an online course, open to the public and free of charge, in gender studies and comic books.

The course description involves an examination of “how comic books can be used to explore questions of gender identity, stereotypes, and roles”.

I, sadly, may not have an opportunity to take part in this: I have a full-time job, another time consuming writing gig, plus various other projects – and live lectures may not fit the buttoned down timeframe in which I now live if they’re coming from Indiana.

What I can say, however, is that this was drawn to my attention through Mark Waid (read his pitch at http://markwaid.com/guest-posts/so-im-asking-for-your-help/) one of the leading lights in redefining comics for access to the public and trying to open the doors of an increasingly insular medium. He’s also going to be lectured for this thing along with Gail Simone, Brian K. Vaughan, Scott Snyder, Terry Moore and others.

If you know comics, I don’t need to describe to you these people and their work. They’re the very best. Additionally, thanks to the 21st Century (re,re,re,re,re,re) and the magic of social media I’ve had the opportunity to interact in a minor way with some of them and can tell you they’re as informed, articulate and warm as their work is brilliant. One of the first things I ever did in taking a more active role in social media was ask Gail Simone a question that I had been wondering about for years (in addition to Jen Van Meter and others) involving their use, as women writing superhero comics, of feminist theories of conflict resolution.

I didn’t notice it until I could draw the parallels, but ethic of care rather than ethic of justice principles seemed to guide Gail’s heroes in a close reading. They seemed to operate on a relational axis, motivated by understanding and individual moral choices. I think, often, that superheroes generally expound moral values by (literally) beating down those who hold opposing values. Adversarial system, all the way, making your arguments by defeating and beating down the other arguments. Whereas Gail’s heroes seem to concentrate less on the destruction of evil, and more on the promotion of individual personal good.

It’s certainly valid to say on paper that say, Superman inspires individual reformation, but in terms of show not tell we mainly see him taking down bad folks, or inspiring people secondhand (e.g. by his example), rather than by an active application of ethic of care principles.

Some casual examples:

  • Ryan Choi, the Atom, for example, aids a semi-supervillain with Alzheimers, lets Alien Invaders live in his apartment, despite frequent cries of “Death or Submission”; and, most importantly, defends Giganta, continues to date her, and gets her to skew towards going straight.
  • Wonder Woman comforts a weeping Captain Nazi, names her nameless traitorous enemy on their epic quest, redeems assailant gorillas into her closest allies, and well, in a hundred other ways demonstrates ethic of care principles. Indeed, Wonder Woman often articulates them.
  • Batgirl encounters a teenage car thief named Ricky, and after he’s severely injured in an arrest becomes a mentor/confidante/friend/possible romantic link. There’s none of Batman’s harsh remonstrances with Catwoman for engaging in a life of crime, but instead a tender study in relational ethics.

In noting this pattern, I couldn’t help but realise how neatly it mapped to Carol Gilligan’s “In A Different Voice” and the dispute resolution work of Carrie Menkel-Meadow. The meat of that theory is that women have a fundamentally different approach to conflict resolution than men, based not on a hierarchy of values, but on relational ethics.

Once I’d thought about that, I wanted to find out whether or not Gail had considered it, and whether or not other female comic book writers I knew were consciously or subconsciously operating in accordance with it’s terms. So I asked, and they answered me.

The ideas, which deal with gender essentialism, are pretty divisive. Given that the internet is “tone neutral”, it can often give rise to misunderstandings, particularly when you’re being digitally solicited by some random stranger. But not only did they take the time to answer me fully in a medium not really designed for long form responses, I could genuinely sense they cared about the question. (FYI, for those who did answer me, the answer appeared to be yes, it was both a conscious choice, and a reflection of subconscious inclinations in that direction anyway).

These were short conversations, but I still felt like I gained a real insight. I can’t imagine the value of a proper live-interview course to that effect. I urge you, if you’ve got any interest in this area, at least consider signing up. I still might try and find the time to do it, and if I don’t, I’ll be very envious of those who did.

Find out more by jumping on here: https://www.canvas.net/courses/gender-through-comic-books

Legend is about abstinence

Watched Legend tonight as there was an absentee from my regular Sunday night gaming group. Had not considered before, but fundamentally I think the movie is about (and works a lot more strongly when you consider it about) teen abstinence in American culture. It’s fundamentally a work on American socio-sexual mores and within that context it works properly.

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These notes are drawn from the Director’s Cut, but on reflection of this it may be entirely possible that the theatrical cut’s ’80’s synth-pop soundtrack (Tangerine Dream!) would fit the oeuvre even better. Consider:

The film opens with the thoughts of the Lord of Darkness, a resonant, mellifluous, voice who claims that to rule forever, he must destroy the unicorns of the forest, and that ‘innocence’ is the key. Unicorns, it must be remembered, are the archetypal mythological representation of virginity. Throughout the film, the Lord of Darkness is reflected both as a character (discussed later) and a theme, the dark desires that “rule the night” and “work in dreams”.

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We then immediately cut to two teenagers. Lily is an archetypal “good-girl”, a princess, dressed in white, singing sweetly. The first time we see her though, it is established that she is mischievous and prone to the pursuit of pleasure (she plays a prank on a maternal figure where she dirties sheets of all things) and relatively speaking, a lover of the physical senses (as she half-borrows half-steals food from a laden table). She is welcomed into an archetypal family home (note no king or palace is ever seen), where her mother figure discusses with her developing adolescence, and the need to find a responsible sweetheart.

We then cut to Jack. A scruffy, wild, man-boy (in no pants!), shown to have a sensitive soul as he communes with the forest creatures. He is unsophisticated, almost childlike, but he also has a kind of rough-spun “woodland (street) smarts”. Your prototypical vision of the average teen.

The pair are quickly established to be young lovers, engaged in a flirtatious game of cat and mouse. But today is a special day. Jack has something he wants to show Lily – something very special that requires that she trust him. She follows him further into the forest, where Jack offers to share with her something special and unique. He takes her to observe the unicorns.

Lily is captivated. Excited. Despite Jack’s decision to take her there, he is quickly overcome with concern and remorse. This was something sacred, and though he meant to share it with Lily, he understands that it isn’t right. Lily has no such compunction. She, over his protests, needs to go further. She goes all the way, and touches the unicorn. The beast reacts with fury, and she suffers a moment of fear and pain, but then she is happy. She has touched the beast.

Then it dies. The Lord of Darkness’ minions (freakish, hideous goblins) kill the unicorn. Symbolically, her innocence, her virginity is lost. She and Jack are parted, and the land itself changes, becoming a world of darkness and winter. The Lord of Darkness is rampant.

Lily attempts to return to the familial homestead we first saw her encounter, but the family is now frozen away from her. The consequences are too great. She is pursued by the ecstatic goblins, who despoil the house around her and from which she attempts to hide in the domestic environment with no success. The physical embodiment of her sins shadow her.

Jack awakes elsewhere and encounters his friends. Like Jack, they are man-children, Puck-ish figures caught in a perpetual adolescence (Gump is played by a pre-adolescent boy with an artificially deepened voice, the others are wizened gnomes with the childlike behaviours of children). They ask Jack about the apparent change to him and the world. Jack, embarrassed, attempts to demur but with no success. Gump, the defacto leader of Jack’s peer group, susses out what has occurred. Jack has “killed the unicorn” with Lily. Jack protests that he meant no harm by doing so, and that it was the work of a moment’s mistaken impulse. Gump informs him that despite all of this, what’s done is done.

Innocence, once lost, can never be regained. The land is cursed. Lily is spirited away by her “goblins” to the castle of the Lord of Darkness. The film is not subtle about either her transformation or his role as the personification of lust. An abstract dance sequence causes Lily,  despite her fear, to become lost in a hollow ecstasy, and her white dress is transformed into a black gown, open to the waist, matched by black lipstick and dominatrix hair. Seeing her like this, the Lord of Darkness comes forth, filled with desire.

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Darkness says that Lily’s sin of “slaying the unicorn” makes them a match. That Lily wanted the loss of her innocence, and now that the Lord of Darkness is here, they can be together. Lily is told by him to forget Jack, and to be his “forever”. They will kill the second unicorn of the pair. Darkness, as much as he is a totemic stand-in for lust, also functions as the purveyor of that in the teenage world. He is an older man, dangerous, demanding that Lily “join with him” and further despoil her innocence. He speaks initially calmly, seductively, but then flies into a temper when Lily refuses to comply. (He’s also possessed of a MASSIVE set of horns in a metaphor that would make Freud drop his cigar).

Lily feigns a desire to slaughter the other unicorn, in a manner more debased than her initial accidental involvement of the killing. Our hero, Jack, now armed with shining golden weapons of purity, follows her into the Lord of Darkness’ domain to bring her out and return the land to normal. 

What are the challenges Jack faces along the way? A hideous, predatory, older hag attempts to literally consume him, until via flattery he is able to distract her and make an escape, and a young, innocent seeming female fairy demands his romantic attentions in return for his life, by turns attempting to distract him from, and to assume the guise and role of Lily in attempt to gain from him what she desires. Both of these women, the crone and the coquette, are presented as challenges that Jack must resist to avoid being swayed from his path of “redemption”.

Jack makes his way through the Lord of Darkness’ keep, until he finds Lily and Darkness seemingly about to kill the second unicorn. Jack’s friend Gump advises him to “kill Lily, and forget her”, that the unicorn, innocence, is more important. In a pretty rampant bit of Garden of Eden paralleling, Jack is explicitly told that his purity is important, and that Lily has clearly lost her purity forever.

Despite this, Jack declares that he trusts Lily, and his faith is rewarded when she turns her back on the Lord of Darkness and tries to help the unicorn be free of him. Jack fights the Lord of Darkness, and with the help of his friends turns the purifying light of day on him, weakening him. Even as Jack moves to slay him, the Lord of Darkness torments the hero that the Lord of Darkness is inside everyone, and can never truly be banished. That Jack and Darkness are brothers “under the skin”. The Lord of Darkness then falls away into eternal night.

Despite the absence of Darkness himself, Lily remains under her spell. Her innocence is not cured simply by the removal of the seducer figure. She is still presented as “cursed”. Jack is only able to help Lily with the presentation of a ring that she earlier produced in the film and labelled as representative of her marrying. Jack finds the ring and puts it on her finger, symbolically wedding the pair.

Only through this wedding can the sin of the “killing of the unicorn” be undone. The land returns to it’s innocent presentation of a flowery spring morning. Lily, once again in a white dress, and Jack set out to face the future.

You can’t make this stuff up. I can’t imagine that it’s accidental. I say this as someone who likes Legend (in a flawed kind of way), and doesn’t agree with pre-marital abstinence as representative of purity, or that sex opens the gateway to the horny devil of irresponsible carnal lusts. That being said, I can see it as being the exact kind of message that an ’80’s fantasy film intended to have, and looking at it in that light I was surprised at how on the nose it was, and how unusual it was for a fantasy film of the era to have an explicitly “socially conscious” message. Check it out again if you care to, and see if you agree.