Sunday, May 29, 2011

What We Can Learn from Bridesmaids

You've come a long way, baby.

That was an advertising phrase made popular by Virginia Slims cigarettes back in the late 1960s.  Among the many freedoms women had won in the 20th century was the freedom to smoke cigarettes in public.

If bad breath, yellow teeth, and emphysema are good enough for men, then they were good enough for women.  Right?

Similarly, some people are expressing some doubts about new freedoms gained by women in Hollywood -- the right to make fart jokes and to liberally use George Carlin's seven dirty words.

In a feature article titled "Funny Like a Guy," The New Yorker talked about this trend in relation to the career of Anna Faris.  Her lead role in The House Bunny and her upcoming lead role in What's Your Number? apparently mark a shift in Hollywood's attitude about funny women.  They are being admitted to the Judd Apatow School of Scatology and Bromance.  They are being cast in roles that previously were reserved for Men Behaving Badly -- for instance, one could think of The House Bunny as a gender-reversal version of Revenge of the Nerds.

The article cited Bridesmaids, which is a hit at the box office now, and Bad Teacher, which is due out in June, as more evidence of the trend.  But some people have expressed doubt that letting women be as disgusting as men is true progress.

Funny is as funny does, and I do not care if the characters are men or women.  I do not care whether the jokes are naughty or nice, just so long as they are truly funny.  The trend I really would like to see continue from Bridesmaids is this: the death of the boring ingenue.

Kristen Wiig and Chris O'Dowd in Bridesmaids.
What struck me most about Bridesmaids -- written by Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo -- was the love interest.  He was funny and quirky in ways that complemented Wiig's leading role.  They were good together, and when I saw the film the audience laughed a good deal at the lines Wiig and Mumolo had written for him.

The same thing hardly ever happens for the female love interest in the male version of these films.  For example, Dinner for Schmucks.  By coincidence, I saw that film on DVD just a few days before seeing Bridesmaids, and also by coincidence, Chris O'Dowd is in that film, too, playing a blind swordsman.  But poor Stephanie Szostack plays the protagonist's girlfriend, a role that is far too typical of these type of bromances.

Stephanie Szostack
She says nothing insightful.  She says nothing funny.  Her actions, statements, and motivations drive no scenes.  Her purpose is to enter a scene, react, get insulted by misunderstanding what is happening, and then leave.  All the time her hair, skin, and clothes are fabulous.

The boring nature of her character is not Szostack's fault.  She worked with what she was given, which wasn't very much.

The problem is that the ingenue in bromances (and probably in Hollywood films in general) is never very interesting.  The only reason to win her back is that she is pretty and sweet and willing to forgive the protagonist's boyish pranks.  Rarely is any real chemistry depicted.  Rarely does she have funny lines or any quirkiness.  She is never as interesting as any of the protagonist's male friends.  The only thing the film seems to invest in her is a lot of soft lighting and teeth-whitener.

Her character is rather flat because she is merely a plot device.  She exists because Hollywood cinema requires her.  No one in the audience truly cares if the protagonist gets her back because no one in the audience cares about watching them on screen together.  The audience knows her only purpose is to provide the protagonist a motivation that will bring the story to a close after about 90 minutes -- if he didn't win her back and have reason to leave his goofy friends behind, the movie would never end.

By the way, I am not saying that women know better than men how to write the love interest's character. Two women wrote The House Bunny, and its love interest (played by Colin Hanks) is just as boring as Dinner for Schmucks'.

Chico, Groucho, Harpo, and Zeppo Marx
Zeppo Marx figured out this dead end decades ago.  He left acting after growing frustrated that his role in a Marx Brothers movie was limited to getting the pretty girl -- and he knew nobody went to a Marx Brothers movie to see the love story.  I think something similar can be said today.  Does anyone watch a bromance in order to discover how the protagonist wins back his girl? Is any suspense or surprise generated by that element of the plot?  No.

Like the appendix in the human body, the love interest is present in nearly all Hollywood films but serves no vital function.

A main point of the New Yorker article was that Hollywood seemed to be learning that women could be funny, especially in comedies that appealed to more than women.  The counter-argument is that women are learning that they can be accepted as funny only if they are, as the article title suggests, funny like a guy.  My hope is that Hollywood learns from Bridesmaids that a love interest can be worthy of love and interest.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Mything the Point

Some folks were upset when they learned that the U.S. Navy SEALs used "Geronimo" as the code word for Osama bin Laden during their successful raid against the Al Qaeda leader.  In "Geronimo?  Really?" I tried to describe some of the reasons that American Indians might have been disappointed in the SEALs vocabulary, even though they were glad the mission had been successful. 

Link to the original panel, May 14, 2011.
However, I also imagine some young people were puzzled about the controversy.  Names such as "Geronimo" do not resonate with them so deeply, neither as iconic hero nor as iconic enemy.  They have not been conditioned to the national mythology of "Cowboys and Indians."  This idea was depicted recently by Jeff Mallet's comic strip Frazz.

While it is never good to be ignorant of history, it can be good to abandon some of the old stories.  I think the "Cowboys and Indians" story is fading as one of the foundational myths for the United States.  Perhaps that is for the best.

What do I mean by "myth"?  Not stories about the soap opera on Mount Olympus.  I do not mean "a story that isn't true."  I mean "a story that is culturally powerful."  Whether it is true or false does not matter.  If enough people believe it is true, then it might as well be true.  If enough people identify with its characters or events, then it influences their behavior as individuals and as a group.

A myth gains its power through repetition and by evoking symbols that its audience values highly.  The power of these stories cannot be underestimated.  Nations depend upon them.  The stories shared by a population can be one of the primary connections holding the otherwise diverse people together.  A group of people who in actuality have very little in common can share a set of stories, and through this sharing they can think of themselves as similar to each other.  Two women from opposite ends of a nation can have different styles of clothing and dress, but if they grew up with the same story from childhood, they can share their identification with the story's protagonist.  This gives people who have never met an experience they have shared vicariously.

This is especially powerful if the story in question purports to be about a shared past, a history they have in common.  Richard Slotkin described it this way:  "Myth is the primary language of historical memory: a body of traditional stories that have, over time, been used to summarize the course of our collective history and to assign ideological meanings to that history."

Illegal immigrants landing at Plymouth Rock in 1620.
The story of "Cowboys and Indians" is set in the Old West (a product of American history that is largely constructed from our imaginations rather than fact), but it is truly an extension of older story: The Pilgrims arriving at Plymouth Rock.  It is the story of Europeans conquering the continent of North America.  It is the story of their defeating both the natural environment they found and the people who lived there. 

Like so many stories, this one had Good Guys and Bad Guys.  The Europeans/Cowboys were the Good Guys.  Nature/Indians were the Bad Guys.  The story did evolve, as the Indians often times were replaced with Bad Guys who were white -- bank robbers, cattle rustlers, etc.  American citizens were intended to identify with those Pilgrims and those Cowboys. 

On CBS from 1959 to 1965.
This Old West story was told obsessively, in novels, on the radio, in Hollywood films, and on television.  I grew up watching television series such as Rawhide, Bonanza, Gunsmoke -- and pre-Westerns such as Davy Crockett.  I grew up watching John Wayne in Western movies on television.  It was intended for the audience to identify with the bravery, honesty, loyalty and other good qualities of these heroes.  It was intended for the audience to not think about the people being displaced by them, the men, women, and children who had lived here for thousands of years.  Or if the audience did think of those people, American Indians were to be understood as deserving or welcoming this displacement.

Decades later, when I ask my students who has seen a Western, only a few hands are raised.  When I ask who has seen a John Wayne movie, even fewer hands go up.  Times have changed.  Those Westerns no longer form the backbone of the American mythological machinery.

I do not know what has replaced them.

One quality of national mythologies tends to be pastness.  These stories almost always involve some key moment in the nation's history.  But I do not know what moments in American history attract the collective imagination of the 18-24 population.  When I think of what stories these young people might hear and tell obsessively, the way I dreamed of being Davy Crockett -- I come up blank.

X-Men marks the spot?
The stories they seem the most attracted to involve not American history but American fantasy: superheroes and vampires.

One function of stories is to supply its audience with models and examples to be called upon later in life.  Stories provide us heroes and villains that we can use later for comparison to real-life situations.  When times get tough in the future, when today's 18-24 generation has been elected to Congress or is raising families or is otherwise calling the shots, will its members ask themselves: What would Spider-Man or Batman do?  Which one of the X-men is most like me and what would he/she have done in a situation like this?  In this dilemma, which would be the most useful: the qualities of a vampire or the qualities of a werewolf?

My hero!
Or perhaps I am thinking of the wrong type of story.  Perhaps the story they have experienced the most often is told on a PlayStation or an Xbox.  What will their narrative templates be?  With whom do they identify most?  Mario?  Luigi?  The Master Chief from Halo?

I am not trying to be flippant about the issue.  I mean, I'm not trying to be ONLY flippant.  But when I wonder what stories this generation hears the most, thinks about the most, identifies with the most, I genuinely do not have much of an answer

Friday, May 6, 2011

What Price Gory?

The recent debate about whether or not to release the gruesome images of Osama bin Laden's bloody corpse raises two interesting questions that are especially important during wartime:

1. Who owns the dead?

2. What do the dead mean?

President Obama implied the answer to both questions when he announced the decision to not release the photographs: "That's not who we are. We don't trot this stuff out as trophies."

One of many t-shirts designs available.
In this case, the photographs of bin Laden's body are a sign of ownership, since one cannot trot out a trophy one does not own.  The photographs prove that he had been killed and that the United States had his body in its possession -- before sending it, Sopranos-style, to the bottom of the sea.  

And calling bin Laden a trophy suggests his meaning: His body is a sign of victory, a reward for a great effort.  As a trophy, the body (or the photographs that now stand in for it) can build the morale of the "home team."  It can build support for a continued war effort.  Alternatively, the trophy is a sign that the game is over and it is time to go home.  A trophy also can be used as sign of humiliation of the opponent, especially if it is displayed so that the enemy can see it.  .

Bin Laden's death means one contest is over, but another contest has begun: What will bin Laden's body mean now?  Although the United States took possession of him, it is not entirely free to determine what his body means.

Elaine Scarry thought a lot about what healthy, wounded, and dead bodies mean in wartime.  She wrote about this in her book The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World.  She wrote that the soldier's living body means what he claims it to.  It substantiates what he believes in.  He is willing to kill others for that cause.  He is willing to die for that cause.

But once he is wounded or killed, the meaning of his body is no longer his to determine.  Once he is wounded or killed, the opponents can now use him as evidence of their victory.  We have seen descriptions of famous battles that list the numbers of killed and wounded for each side.  In most cases, according to Scarry, the side that suffers the most killed and wounded is deemed the loser, so the winner claims those bodies like points scored in a game.

Before those soldiers were wounded or killed, they were the enemy and they substantiated nothing about their opponent's cause.  After the battle, the wounded or killed soldier can be claimed by both sides.  His own side can claim his sacrifice as ennobling its cause, but the opposition can claim his wounds as evidence of its victory.

Scarry called this the "fluidity of the injured body's referential direction" and the body's "referential instability"  (yes, it is a rather philosophical and academic book).

The "referential instability" of bin Laden's body is evident when we consider the reasons for and against releasing the photos.

The Americans might want to release photos of bin Laden's body to confirm his death to doubters.  Or they might want to release the photos to share the victory with those who had been seeking it for so long -- the sports equivalent would be the Green Bay Packers displaying the Super Bowl trophy during its homecoming parade.  But releasing the photos might make it easier for al-Qaeda members to claim his body means "martyrdom," and they could claim his body means "we should keep fighting to honor his sacrifice."  This would especially be true since bin Laden's body is apparently bloody and battered in the photographs; his wounds that can signify "victory" against a reviled enemy of the United States also can signify "injustice" committed against the revered leader of al-Qaeda.

The difficult nature of this contest was emphasized when the United States decided to drop his body into the ocean.  The military wanted no grave on land that could become a pilgrimage point for bin Laden's followers.

  +   +   +

Considering the question of "Who owns the dead?" brings me back to the Geronimo code word controversy.  That controversy involves many perspectives, inside and outside of Indian Country.  Some people feel that using "Geronimo" in the mission that killed bin Laden was evidence of persistent racism from the United States military and in society in general.  Others feel it was a compliment for the U.S. military to use the name of an enemy leader it once sought to kill.  Others feel it is the vestige of the American mythology of "Cowboys vs. Indians," of Civilization vs. Savagism.  Regardless, the simple fact that the U.S. military felt free to use the name showed an attitude of ownership.  The debate of the past few days shows how, 100 years after his death, Geronimo, as a defeated enemy of the United States, is marked by the "referential instability" that Scarry describes.

Geronimo's "referential instability" is evident by his presence (far right) on this t-shirt that has been popular for about as long as the United States had been hunting bin Laden.  At the same time Geronimo's name was used as a code word in a long-awaited and very successful strike against terrorism, his image is used to appropriate and mock the familiar language of American national security and history.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Geronimo? Really?

No wonder Osama bin Laden was hard to find -- he was hiding in Vietnam.

In 1968.

Graphic novel by Don Lomax
During the Vietnam War, soldiers from the United States referred to areas controlled by the Viet Cong or the North Vietnamese Army as "Indian Country."  The fighting itself was called "playing Cowboys and Indians."

Imagine if you were an American Indian serving in the U.S. military in Vietnam.  Playing this "game" meant you were fighting yourself.

In one sense, "Cowboys and Indians" was an extension of the games the soldiers had played in their youth back home.  Those games were played in imitation of the Western movies those boys had watched in theaters and on television.  Those Westerns were a continuation of one of the fundamental stories in American culture: the encounter between the Europeans and the American Indians.  In its most simplistic terms, this encounter was (mis)understood as a battle between Civilization (the Europeans) and Savagism (the Indians).

I thought we had moved beyond that this simplistic myth.  But I was wrong.

I write that because Osama bin Laden's code name for his assassination mission was "Geronimo."  Navy SEAL Team Six seemed to be playing Cowboys and Indians in the Pakistani resort town of Abbottobad.  Their target was named after the famous Apache leader/warrior who is rivaled by only Crazy Horse and Pocahontas as the most famous Indian in United States history.

Or their mission, and not their target, was named "Geronimo."  The White House has told conflicting stories.

Regardless, the Internet in Indian Country has been busy with folks registering their surprise, dismay, or anger with the mission's vocabulary.  You can see some of the reactions here, here, and here.  Also, my friend Debbie Reese, who blogs about American Indians and children's literature, has written about it (here).

Fortunately, the staff director for the Senate Indian Affairs committee has voiced objections to using Geronimo's name in this way.
Sikorsky Black Hawk

There is a long history of the U.S. military using American Indian names to identify many things.  For instance, the helicopters used to transport soldiers into bin Laden's compound were Black Hawks, named after a Sauk and Fox leader who fought against the United States in 1832.  Imagine the irony if the United States had sent in its most famous attack helicopters -- the Apache -- to kill "Geronimo."

I understand the inclination to
Boeing Apache
call Osama bin Laden "Geronimo." Like Geronimo, he was involved in armed resistance against the U.S. military.  Like Geronimo, he frustrated the U.S. military with his abilities to evade capture.  Like Geronimo, he had become a daunting adversary.

But unlike Osama bin Laden, Geronimo was not famous for killing thousands of civilians.  Unlike Osama bin Laden, Geronimo was a member of a community that is now part of the United States.  Unlike Osama bin Laden, Geronimo may have descendants who are now serving in the U.S. military.

So Apache people are puzzled when one of their historical and cultural heroes is chosen as the namesake for a reviled enemy.  And American Indians are puzzled when they see that the "Cowboys and Indians" narrative is still alive in American culture -- especially in President Obama's White house. 

Back in November, 2009, Obama told a gathering of American Indian leaders: "I know what it means to feel ignored and forgotten, and what it means to struggle.... So you will not be forgotten as long as I'm in this White House."

Many American Indians feel forgotten when such a code name is used.  I am sure whoever came up with the code name was not thinking of its implications in this regard.  That person was being swept up in a narrative older and bigger than himself.  But not thinking about its implications shows to what degree American Indians are absent in the national consciousness and conscience.  American Indians feel forgotten when they find themselves represented as savages again.  As "the bad guys" again.  As the target again.

From TPapi's Photostream on
The list of possible code names is endless, which makes the choice of "Geronimo" so telling.  Osama bin Laden could have been The Rabbit or The Fox, since he was so hard to catch or so crafty.  Personally, I like The Mole, because pursuing him could have been compared to playing Whack-a-Mole at the arcade. 

He could have been called Tickle-Me Elmo, for all I care.  The point is moot now, since he is dead. 

But next time, the U.S. military should remember that American Indians are American citizens and have been for a long time.  "Cowboys and Indians" is a game for the past.  Let's not play it anymore.

Note: Since this was originally posted, we have learned that the Navy SEALs may have used a "stealth" helicopter in the attack, rather than a Black Hawk.  Also, President Obama, in an interview on 60 Minutes, stated that "Geronimo" was the code name for bin Laden; not the code name for the whole mission.