Thursday, October 04, 2007

More Handbaskets

I'm riding in my car. Turn on the radio. Start punching through the buttons: ads, ads, ads, ads — ah, music. On the Oldies station, Diana Ross and The Supremes, calling out to me from 1968.
You think that I don't feel love
But what I feel for you is real love
In other's eyes I see reflected
A hurt, scorned, rejected

Love child, never meant to be
Love child, born in poverty
Love child, never meant to be
Love child, take a look at me

I started my life in an old, cold run down tenement slum
My father left, he never even married mom
I shared the guilt my mama knew
So afraid that others knew I had no name

This love we're contemplating
Is worth the pain of waiting
We'll only end up hating
The child we may be creating

Love child, never meant to be
Love child, (scorned by) society
Love child, always second best
Love child, different from the rest

Mm, baby (hold on, hold on, just a little bit)
Mm, baby (hold on, hold on, just a little bit)

I started school, in a worn, torn dress that somebody threw out
I knew the way it felt, to always live in doubt
To be without the simple things
So afraid my friends would see the guilt in me

Don't think that I don't need you
Don't think I don't wanna please you
No child of mine 'll be bearing
The name of shame I've been wearing

Love child, love child, never quite as good
Afraid, ashamed, misunderstood

But I'll always love you
I'll always love you
(repeat and fade)

Shame? How quaint. This is the 21st century. We don't have "shame" any more.

This essay keeps growing and spreading like an untidy fungus. Part of the problem is that there are no hard and fast boundary lines, only slippery slopes and intersecting interests. Another part is that I'm trying to backtrace the evolution of a meme, and following the path an idea takes through society is more akin to sleuthing out the vectors of an infection than anything linear or sensible. What is the author's moral obligation to his or her audience? I have argued on many occasions that it is solely "to deliver an intellectual or entertainment experience which justifies the reader's having purchased the book."

The older I get, the less adequate that argument seems. I'm beginning to believe that Claymore is on to something; that there is another, implicit, moral obligation: to do no harm.

Harm? Shirley, you jest. We're artists. These are just words. What possible harm could we ever do?

Years ago, I used to subscribe to a magazine called World Press Review. When I read one issue, I was simply staggered by irony, to the point where I wrote them a letter, which they subsequently published and which constitutes my only appearance in print in that magazine. What set me off was a large article in their culture section, extolling the "gritty and honest" glories of the then-new Narcocorrido music scene.

The slap-you-in-the-face irony was that in the same issue, they announced their annual awards for courage in journalism, and Editor of the Year went to a man who was ambushed, gravely wounded, and whose entire family was very nearly murdered by the same narcos whose exploits were celebrated in those oh-so-popular corridos.

What harm can words do? And what on Earth does this all have to do with the Bionic Woman?

Look. As writers, we all know what sells. Sex sells. Violence sells. Alternating sex and violence sells even better. And if you can combine simultaneous sex and violence, you've really got a highly marketable entertainment experience. If this wasn't true, you wouldn't see ads like this in Shotgun News.

Or this one, which comes from (Pronounced, I believe, as "I oink". If you really like her, they've got a calendar they'll sell you).

For you gamer types, encourages you to cross over from mere silicone to pure cartoonery.

My personal favorite is this one from LaRue Tactical, which appears under the headline, "Lethality Looks Like This." But then, I've always been a pushover for brunettes.

Slippery slopes. The older I get, the more clearly it seems to me that the totally empowered heroic action/adventure woman and the totally pneumatic pornoviolent sex-object babe are not polar opposites, but merely slightly different points along the same continuum of men's fantasies.

I try to backtrace the meme through pop culture, and keep ending up in 1977, with Princess Leia in the original Star Wars. (There may have been earlier specimens of the type, but I'm having trouble finding examples.) There's this defining moment, midway through the movie: the rescue attempt has gone awry; Leia, Luke, Han and Chewie are trapped in the Death Star's prison section with no exit; the guards are swarming in in ever-greater numbers — and Leia grabs a gun, blasts a hole in the sewer grate, shouts, "INTO THE GARBAGE CHUTE, FLYBOY!", and throws the gun back to whichever ineffective male she grabbed it from as she dives into the hole.

In Star Wars, as in most other movies made up to that point, the empowered woman's heroics lead immediately to a pratfall, as the ensemble lands waste-deep in sewage and promptly revert to men's heroics and the legendary "wet white gown" scene. But nine years later there is absolutely nothing comic about Lt. Ripley as she rampages through the alien hive in her wet t-shirt, with a flamethrower on one arm and a daughter (borrowed) on the other, doing what an entire platoon of heavily armed and presumably well-trained Marines could not: kicking ass and chewing gum, and she's all out of gum.

Freeze frame. Zoom in. Not on Ripley; on Newt. She's the key.

In at least one version of the story, Ripley left a daughter back on Earth when she first shipped out on the Nostromo, which was why she was unable to return to anything resembling a normal life. In the 75 years that Ripley spent in the freezer between Alien and Aliens, her daughter had become a grandmother, and some of Ripley's descendants have shipped out to that doomed colony on Arglebargle IV. But that bit of business never made it into the movie, so instead she acquired a surrogate daughter: Newt. And that was good enough.

At first I thought it was merely an amusing role-reversal: ineffective men, heroic women. It breathed new life into old cliches. Then for a while I thought it was simply a cynical attempt to sell adventure fiction to that ten-percent of the market which has slightly more discretionary income than most, as they only buy books to read them to their cats. For a few years there it seemed you couldn't turn around at a sci-fi con without bumping into some obese Zena wannabe and her submissive little tagalong Gabrielle.

After awhile, though, I began to realize that a redefinition of "normal" had taken place. In The Wrath of Khan (1982), we learned that Captain Kirk had a son, but the entire emotional load was reduced to a passive-aggressive whine. "I did what you wanted. I stayed away." Since then, in the novels, we've learned that James Bond had a long-lost son via Kissy Suzuki, the Japanese woman he married as part of his cover in You Only Live Twice. In Superman Returns, we learned that Supes knocked up Lois Lane and then decided to split the planet for a few years. Last week, on CSI: Miami, we learned that Horatio Caine has a son he never knew about. Soon, in the forthcoming Indiana Jones movie, we'll get to meet the son that Indy and Miriam had out of wedlock after the end of Raiders of The Lost Ark.

And last week, in the premiere of Bionic Woman, we learned that this totally empowered superheroine of the 21st century is a college dropout, a bartender, a single mother — no, wait, that would make her too old. Okay, she's a twenty-something single woman raising her smart-mouthed teenage sister, because their father is an alcoholic and long-gone. And she becomes a super-hero because she's so good in bed that a brilliant 39-year-old surgeon, the world's foremost expert in cybernetic prosthetics, falls totally in love with her, and can't bear to let her die from her injuries after a terrible car accident. (And then, conveniently, he gets killed a half-hour later.)

Ahah. A principle begins to reveal itself. The strong, empowered, heroic woman: she's sexy. She's independent. She's strong. She's totally in-control. It's her sexuality that makes her powerful. She doesn't need a man; he'd just get in the way. She doesn't want a long-term relationship; it would limit her options. If she gets pregnant, she'll deal with it herself. And she'll never demand child-support payments.

Like I said: men's fantasies. At times I marvel at how well we in The Patriarchal Conspiracy have done at conning women into buying into this idea and believing that it "empowers" them, even though we know that in the real world, the norming of unwed-motherhood is the single greatest cause of long-term poverty and misery. The more empowered women are, the more freedom men have to be irresponsible.
I started my life in an old, cold run down tenement slum
My father left, he never even married mom
I shared the guilt my mama knew
So afraid that others knew I had no name

Guilt? How quaint. But this is the 21st century, and we don't have "guilt" anymore. This is a good thing, right?

To be continued...