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Thursday, November 25, 2010

Why Zuko is Really the Main Character in "Avatar"

I have a lot to say about Avatar: The Last Airbender. A children’s show with a lot of adult fans, Avatar dealt with mature themes in surprisingly nuanced ways, featured three-dimensional characters and an increasingly serialized plot structure, and generally did all of the things children’s shows, at least American ones, generally avoid on the assumption that kids are stupid. The show’s unprecedented success is testament to the fact that kids are, in fact, not that stupid, and don’t like to be treated like they are.
One level of complexity that Avatar was never afraid to explore was moral ambiguity, the blurring of the line between good guy and bad guy. Primarily, this was done through the character of Zuko, who starts out Aang’s nemesis and eventually becomes an important ally. Zuko, who appears in every episode, is every bit as much the protagonist of the story as Aang, if not more so, and the way in which the two characters serve as foils for one another is perhaps the most successful aspect of the show’s writing.
It is often said that a good way to find the main character in a work of fiction is to look for the character that changes the most. By that definition, Zuko is unquestionably the main character of Avatar. Over the course of the show’s three seasons, he goes from a somewhat sympathetic villain, to an aimless wanderer, then becomes a much less sympathetic villain before finally joining the heroes.
Zuko doesn’t just realize one day that he’s working for the wrong side – he has to go through a long emotional journey to get to that point. He has to learn that he is capable of thinking for himself and making his own decisions, he has to learn why his father and his country are in the wrong, and then he has to build up the courage to actually do something about it. By the end of the series, he is a completely different person.
Aang, in contrast, struggles to master all four elements and understand his place in the world. In the process, his character undergoes very little permanent change. Often he is given advice by some spirit advisor and ignores it in favor of the morals and values he has stood by since the beginning of the show – for example, the Guru in the Southern Air Temple tells him to let go of earthly connections, meaning his feelings for Katara, and he says no. Aang’s big victory at the end of the series, his refusal to kill Ozai, is again a result of him ignoring his spiritual advisors and sticking to his guns, maintaining the principal of pacifism he has held dear since the beginning of the show.
Ultimately, the most important message of Avatar is that it is our choices, not our destinies, which define us. For Zuko, this is demonstrated by a full two and a half seasons building to the moment where he must make the right choice. For Aang, it is the realization that just because everyone expects him to take the Firelord’s life, that doesn’t mean he has to go against his true nature and do it. And while “violence is not the answer” is a fine message to leave kids with, I think Zuko is ultimately a much better role-model for younger viewers. The message of his story is that no matter where you come from, who your parents were, or how many times you’ve screwed up in the past, it’s never too late to make the right decisions, and that you are ultimately the person who decides what the right thing to do is. And that’s a message a lot of kids need to hear.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Point-Counterpoint: Catharsis is Compromised with Saving the Game

Aristotle never played video games.
One aspect of video games which has evolved over the years is where and how one is allowed to save. From early games which had no concept of saving at all, to those which allow you to save at the beginning of every level, to games where it’s as simple as “Ctrl + S”, how you save has a really effect on game play. There’s also the question of how many save states one can maintain at any given time. As games become more plot-intensive, the question of how save-states affect the narrative becomes increasingly relevant.

A major advantage of interactive narrative is that your own actions can affect the outcome of the story. In many RPGs, decisions you make will have a lasting impact down the road. The ability to save right before you make such a decision, then come back to that point if it doesn’t work out, radically changes the nature of the narrative. Players can try out a particular course of action and, if it doesn’t work out the way they wanted to, try a different one. In other words, they don’t have to live with the long-term consequences of their actions.

Aristotle's Poetics, one of the first treatises on creating compelling works of fiction, wrote about an effect called catharsis. Catharsis refers to an emotional cleansing experienced by the audience when they’ve identified with the characters enough to experience their emotions vicariously. Aristotle considered this one of the ultimate aims of drama.
In a book or a movie, where the audience merely observes the protagonist, the successes and failures of that protagonist can still stir the emotions of the audience. In a video game, where the audience not only has the power to influence the decisions of the protagonist, but often must struggle with them to overcome obstacles, this effect should be all the more pronounced. Video games are well positioned to inspire a level of catharsis Aristotle could only dream of.

In many games, the ability to save all but nullifies this effect. Here is an example from a recent experience I had with the game Chrono Trigger which I think illustrates my point. There is a side quest where a character named Lucca gets an opportunity to go back in time and prevent the accident which crippled her mother. To access this quest, you clear out a desert of monsters, and then leave your robot buddy there for four hundred years to help replant a forest. After you do this there is a cutscene, then Lucca gets her chance to go back in time and save her mom.

You come out of the gate in her bedroom, and find her diary, which gives you the date and some background information. On the same floor is her parents’ room, where you find a note from her father to her mother telling her the password to shut down the machine – her mother’s name, Lara.
Brings tears to your eyes, doesn't it?
Then you head into the main room. Ten-year-old Lucca is sitting on the floor playing. Her mother’s skirt gets caught in the machine, and she cries for help as she is dragged into it. Young Lucca tries to stop it, but she doesn’t know the password. Older Lucca steps in, pushes her younger self out of the way, and –

Also fails to stop the machine. Despite the fact that I knew the password, I couldn’t figure out how to enter it before time ran out. Worse yet, I hadn’t saved in a long time. I thought about going back and redoing everything up until that point, but I decided it wasn’t worth it.

But I had a bizarre emotional experience. I thought about ten-year-old Lucca, watching her mother being crippled by this machine and being utterly powerless to save her. Did she relive that moment over and over again in her dreams? And then, miraculously, ten years later she gets a chance to change things, and again fails, in spite of her increased scientific knowledge. But unlike if I was watching this in a movie or a TV show, I knew that if I, the player, had been a little faster I could have saved her that pain. In that moment, the game’s interactivity created a sense of empathy between me and Lucca that I don’t think any other medium could have achieved.

Had I remembered to save after fighting off the monsters in the desert, I would have just gone back and tried again until I’d saved Lucca’s mom. The emotional experience of identifying with Lucca in that moment would have been lost.

The Fire Emblem series of Tactical RPGs is well-known for its enormous casts of characters and the fact that they can die permanently. This is especially interesting because there are no faceless, disposable characters – everyone has a back story, at least briefly summarizing how the came to join your army, and many characters have dialogue which can only be seen if you take the time to have them talk to each other during a battle.
It looks so epic. Let it be epic.
The potential here for the creation of an interesting narrative is huge. Any Fire Emblem game could be an epic story full of heroic sacrifices and surviving characters experiencing loss. Like Chalkey’s Pokémon example, this wouldn’t necessarily be reflected in the cut-scenes and dialogue, but it would be the narrative created by the player. Each play-through would be a different story, depending on who went along on missions, who lived, and who died.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t generally happen. What happens is people play levels over and over again until they beat them without a single casualty. So from the perspective of the characters, the story will always be the same – Marth leads his army to victory, and miraculously no one dies. The game is robbed of the potential for a more engaging narrative.

Of course players have the option of playing the game however they like. If they choose to save after beating a level with heavy casualties, they might enrich the story at the expense of future game play. But imagine the sense of accomplishment when you manage to beat the game despite getting all your heavy-hitters killed. I think it would be a much more memorable play through than the one where you kept resetting obsessively until everyone made it.

Point-Counterpoint: Catharsis and Saving Can Mix in Video Games

Editor's Note: This piece, along with Nathan's piece above, are part of a point-counterpoint and are intended to be read together for a broad, open minded look at both sides of an issue. The ACP does not endorse either opinion as the preferred, ideal or right opinion and encourages gamers to think critically on their own.

8-bit Aristotle agrees.
Aristotle's Poetics has set the bar for literary standards for some time, and I wouldn't be an analytical gamer if I didn't challenge video games to meet these standards as well. With that in mind, I would like to defend the notion that games, even with redundant saving options, can still achieve catharsis. While abusing the save feature for gameplay perfection can prevent certain attachments to the games, it is important to remember that different kinds of video games achieve emotional drive and catharsis in different ways, keeping this still a possibility even in the age of trigger-happy game savers.

With most games being linear and one-ending based, the plot isn't necessarily influenced by when we save; saving regulates how fast we get there with our mistakes, but the authorial intended ending remains the same. Cut scenes occur after completing a certain percentage of the game, at which point control is once again taken away from the gamer. Here, the story can take unexpected and irreversible twists — and no amount of saving the game and resetting will undo these points, leaving the author's desired emotional effect potentially still intact. In some cases, this effect is heightened from multiple resets; a large effort just to reach a certain point that is then taken out of your control can work wonders.

Take Final Fantasy VII for example [Warning: spoilers for those who live under a rock are about to follow]. Saving and resetting was kind of second nature for my first playthrough of this game — I wanted every weapon and item, hoping to make my favorite characters the best they possibly could be. One of these characters happened to be Aeris Gainsborough, who, as most gamers know by now, is killed by Sephiroth at the end of the first disc. Aeris' departure from the group alone caused me the same distress that Cloud felt in game; I pined for my lost friend. I felt vulnerable without one of my best fighters supporting me when I was attacked. I worried about where she was.

Why did I only level you?
And when I finally found her again, just before she was impaled by my enemy's hand right before my eyes, I was enraged. I lost a friend that I deeply cared for, and I gained even more hatred for Sephiroth. Saving and resetting would take me to right before the cut scene took place, preventing me from ever undoing what happened. Granted, later playthroughs would have a diminished emotional effect as I knew what was coming, but the first cut is always the deepest. I felt about the same way when my dog died in Fable II.

Of course, sometimes knowing what is going to happen creates a whole different effect. In Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney, my first playthrough did not give me enough time or advance knowledge to know when I'd magically start playing as Phoenix Wright, the controlled character in the first three games and the main non-playable protagonist of Apollo Justice. As mentioned before, Apollo Justice's plot puts Phoenix in the spotlight with the story of how he lost his Attorney Badge after the Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney Trials and Tribulations, and after a certain point you once again play as Wright, and play through his final trial - the trial where he uses falsified evidence and is loses all credibility.

I tried to save you, Herr Wright. I did.
In my second playthrough of the game, knowing what was going to happen and knowing exactly when and where things were going to go wrong gave me a different feeling. As feeble as I knew it would be, I saved right before Wright's final trial began, and tried nearly every possible combination of outcomes, with the hopes that just one of them would prevent Wright from suffering his destined fate. I tried using every piece of evidence at every possible moment. I tried pressing the witnesses more. Heck, I even tried intentionally getting his client a guilty verdict before the point where the falsified evidence was presented. Even though I knew what was doomed to happen, my emotional attachment to Wright's struggles compelled me to exhaust all options this time around. Doing everything I possibly could to stop Wright's downfall and still watching it happen gives me a feeling of helplessness that rivals what Wright felt in-game.

Saving does not stop catharsis altogether. What it does is eliminate the element of surprise, giving the player a second chance to play the game with increased knowledge and preparation. In some ways, this diminishes emotional effects of certain scenes, but it's never completely gone. With properly built up characters and a well written storyline, these things can still happen.

The Office is Deeper than Michael Scott (that's what she said)

When Michael Scott leaves The Office, there will still be a story to tell, or rather stories to finish telling. The writers definitely have a challenge ahead of them to end this show gracefully, especially since Michael Scott has technically “left” the office before (when he worked in the basement), but Steve Carell leaving the show is not the very end of it.

To the casual viewer, and definitely to a new viewer, it is a common mistake to believe that The Office is about Michael Scott. To a certain extent, it is, and he is definitely the largest personality on the show. However, the premise of the show goes a bit deeper than the tension between Michael and the rest of the office, or the rest of the world, for that matter. Michael is just one part of what is ultimately an ensemble cast. Michael Scott leaving certainly spells the end of the series, but only the beginning of the end, not the end in its entirety. As an ensemble show, The Office contains multiple plot lines that need to be resolved before the show can truly end, and while Michael’s is the most obvious, it remains one of many.

The development of the truly tragic situation Michael is in is a fairly common course for a story to take. It starts with a goofy bunch of situations, catching the audience’s attention with an amusing levity. Once the audience is hooked to the antics of the story, the implications of those antics in the world in which the story is set are carried out to their logical conclusions, often carrying the story to a more serious place.Last week, Jonah made some insightful points about Michael's journey through the series. What I do want to get into concerns the fact that Michael’s story isn’t the only story.

Jonah’s view of the show presents Michael as the protagonist. The common academic way of determining who the protagonist is in a show is who changes the most by the end. Over the course of seven seasons, many of the characters have gone through changes as they’ve achieved or failed to achieve their goals, and I would argue that the characters who have changed the most are Jim and Pam. In terms of tying up plot lines, the end truly began with Jim and Pam’s wedding, because they’ve essentially achieved their goals in terms of the story The Office is telling. They’ve become more tertiary in the current season. Another character who has really been given a chance to develop and change is Andy, especially between season three and four. He went through anger management to Angela to his current feelings for Erin, and we’ve really seen him become a person rather than a way for the writers to show us that maybe Dwight wasn’t so bad. Dwight has also been through a lot, and though his changes are considerably more subtle, he has a story, too.

What makes The Office work goes beyond the antics of Michael Scott. The show is about a paper company in Scranton, PA, but Michael by himself isn’t what makes it interesting. The tendency of mockumentary to present the mundane comes from a need to tell us the stories of people’s every day lives. Working at a paper company is boring, but it is what those people do, and they have an investment in their lives, whether they are aware of it or not. We care about what goes on in the office because they care about what goes on in the office. We find it funny because we find it relatable when Jim can’t stand Dwight, or when Oscar is the only sane person. We sympathize when Michael’s only healthy relationship gets destroyed by his boss, or when Andy and Erin misunderstand each other. The awkwardness of The Office is one of its primary draws, but it’s not the awkwardness itself that keeps us watching. The source of the awkwardness is what comes from the relatability of all the characters, not just their tension with Michael Scott.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

I Don't Want to Grow Up: Michael Scott, The Office, and Character Development

Let's play "Spot the Straight Man"! (Ok, not really fair with the moustaches.)

Michael Scott is leaving The Office. The news reverberated through the Internet like an out-of-tune church bell. The Office without Michael? That’s like Gilmore Girls without Amy Sherman Paladino, or Scrubs without its entire cast. Steve Carell defines the American incarnation of The Office.
And yet, I know I wasn’t the only one who felt something like relief at the announcement. The Office is awkward T.V. at it’s best. It is and always has been a show during which I have to fight to not leave the room (a fight I don’t often win). And either Michael or Dwight is nearly always the cause of that awkwardness.
The Office celebrates a tension between reality and theater. The mockumentary form and the mundane setting of a paper company in Scranton, PA contextualizes the show in the realm of reality, despite its being scripted and fictional. They are, among other things, cues that tell us to think about the events in The Office as events that could happen in our offices.
Early episodes of the series exemplified this, centering on believable storylines like office prank wars or sexual harassment training, though, granted, the situations went further then would be likely in real life. But again, the reason such mundane situations get out of hand? Nine times out of ten, Michael Scott.
Michael is a ridiculous character, in the tradition of cartoonish characters across television history. He is very often a lovable buffoon – mangling the simplest of social and business interactions with his childishness and his inability – or unwillingness – to discern the appropriate. But what makes Michael an awkward character is that the world responds to him the way the world really would. They are not forgiving or understanding. They are not sucked into his wacky world. They are incredulous, offended, and occasionally in fear for their lives.
And, of course, Michael is the boss. Michael can’t be fired for acting like a child, he is the one who does the firing. So everyone in the office must put up with his antics, cannot confront him, and cannot tell him the words he desperately needs to hear: "Grow up."
Michael Scott with his maturity level peers.
I would argue, and this is hardly a new viewpoint, that it is the tension between Michael (and, to a lesser extent, Dwight) and the rest of the Office that drives 80% of the humor on the show. The tension between silly and serious, between the real world and the naïve, sometimes embarrassing, sometimes endearing world of Michael Scott.
Michael just wants to be loved. There is a fantastic scene where a video is unearthed of Michael as a child, talking about how when he grows up he wants to be everyone’s friend. He wants to be the best boss, not necessarily the best paper salesman (though he is, inexplicably, that as well). It would be interesting to see how Michael came to be regional manager of Dunder-Mifflin without being fired for some ridiculous, immature behavior.
Yet, incompetent people become bosses all the time, and that is part of why The Office, like Dilbert before it, resonates so well with the American worker. Who hasn’t been the subordinate of a buffoon?
The question remains: can The Office subsist without Michael Scott? If the whole premise is built on the tension between his character and all the other characters, what will happen to the office sans Michael? But before we get there, an equally pressing question: can Michael stay Michael Scott forever?
As funny as he is, as enjoyable as is antics may be, the longer the show goes on without Michael growing up, the more tragic it starts to feel. A recent episode provided us with a retrospect on Michael’s love life throughout the show, and it was sad, to see the relationships Michael had sabotaged (except his interaction with Jan, who managed to be, as always, even crazier than Michael). All Michael wants is a family. The Office is a substitute for what he can’t have, because he is not mature enough to be in adult relationship or to raise a child.
If the show is to end as anything other than a tragedy for Michael, the writers have to start providing a way for him to move toward his goals. Shows with satisfying endings work that way: they set up goals for their characters and stretch them out so that they are finally achieved only in the finale. But moving Michael to his goal would be just as drastic as writing him out of the show. For if Michael finds maturity, whither the premise?
It’s a pickle. The awkwardness of The Office and its humor are inextricably linked in the person of Michael Scott. As much as I’d liked to see the show without him, so I could sit through an episode without wanting to get up and leave the room until he stopped being so awkward, I know that I wouldn’t want to watch that show. It would be like a flat soda, it would be as boring as a show about a paper company in Pennsylvania.

Use of the Defamiliarization Technique in 'The Terminal'

Back when The Terminal was still a name that in the buzz of casual conversation, it got a mixed set of reviews. Many like the Chicago Tribune and New York Times, gave it high praise, in particular to Tom Hanks' contribution, while Wall Street Journal called it "the worst directed film [Steven] Spielberg has ever made." A few sources even alleged it was entirely based on the life of Mehran Karimi Nasseri, noting that Spielberg eventually bought the rights to his life story.

But, like it or not, The Terminal stands as an emotionally charged movie — far more than it would seem for a movie about a guy in an airport. But The Terminal takes an approach that is a staple of the literature world to make this happen: the defamiliarization effect. For those unfamiliar with defamiliarization, it's a technique that forces the audience to see the common concepts in an unconventional or strange way or perspective, like a story about racing from the perspective of a horse. The Terminal uses this not only as a classic tool for emotional drive but also a necessary theme of the movie.

Above center: Viktor Navorski struggles to get anyone to help him with the simplest of directions.
We have all seen people like the main character Viktor Navorski in airports. The foreigner that barely speaks a lick of English, typically disregarded as much more than a reason the line is taking longer than it should. We know nothing about this person and have little sympathy. Normally we don't think about them because they're in the way of some important place that we need to go. And airports are very time sensitive; we don't have the time to make bonds. We have a plane to catch.

So when the movie puts Navorski in the position of the protagonist, it is not something we're familiar with. Not only that, but the premise of the movie — that this man who barely speaks English or understands basic American social skills must somehow survive on his own with nothing at his disposal but what he can find in the airport. In the beginning of the movie, he has no friends and no American money. He has no way of getting anything he needs for escaping the JFK airport, let alone basic survival.

The mere thought of living in an airport alone is a way of thinking of airports most would rather not; living off Burger King and microwaveable dinner trays like Navorski is not exactly something most would enjoy. And most of us spend so little time in airports we don't really think about what it would be like to have to survive off what little is provided there. In this way, a very normal American transportation system is depicted as a cold, desperate place — one from which our usual quick and painless departure seems to be taken for granted. But Navorski remains optimistic (albeit also opportunistic), contrasting the harsh living standards of his new environment with a clueless but compassionate attitude. He not only looks out for himself, but reaches out and helps a few friends in the process. 

Navorski's optimism in and of itself is a defamiliarization, and it is this that makes him an endearing character. A normal person under these conditions would complain more. He would become bitter, angry at the inconvenience of it all and jaded from the mistreatment. He would feel trapped and terrified in not being able to properly communicate his problem to others (which does happen a few times). So to see someone subjected to these kinds of standards but still keep it together alone is something we don't see everyday, even in ourselves. And in this way, the story gives us hope — a role model, even. Yet, for a protagonist to exist in this kind of plot, he cannot be any other way. A character who breaks down and becomes jaded just wouldn't be worth writing about. No inspiration draws from it. Nope warm fuzzies come from reading about it. No lesson is learned. 

Through alienating the audience from its normal conceptions of airports and the kind of people you see there, The Terminal creates two things: a horrifying way to see a jungle in your layover location, and a beautiful way to imagine that stranger in front of you. But the real beauty of defamiliarization comes from the ability to do something all writers strive to do: to bring emotion and compassion to a perspective where we felt none previously.

Bayonetta: The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly Pt. 2


 Okay Bayonetta, you got me. That's not an angel. I'll just chill here till we get to the plot twist about the angels not actually being angels, but really being demons. Naw, it's cool; I'll just chill.
Wait, those are actually supposed to be angels!? Well, what the hell? That is one of the most disgusting things I've ever seen.

So, Let's talk about the mythos of Bayonetta for a moment. We're never quite sure whether the angels are good or not, or if there is even a bad guy for that matter. The game seems to try and flip the script by having the angels be the antagonists and in the end have the demonically powered witches save the world. Now, I'm not gonna lie. This really turns into an indecipherable mish-mash. The light and dark are both important, sages and witches, maintain universal balance, blah blah blah. I'm not gonna go into all the details, but by the end, it's not really clear who is bad and who is good, unless you wanna believe Bayonetta to be good by virtue of being the protagonist and everything she kills as being bad because, well, she killed it. In fact, the only person we seem meant to truly identify with as being bad is the only Lumen sage we see in the whole game, primarily becuase he acts like a total douchenozzle (note: douchenozzle follows the tried and true methods of creating insults by attaching "douche" to any other word. Try it out for hilarious results.)

"Douche-tastic" "Flamboyantly-douchy" "The Douche of the Town" I could do an entire Comedy Central Standup show of this stuff. I have notebooks full of this brilliance.
But, let's get to the meat of this article. What I'm interested in is not trying to make sense out of the morality of the Bayonetta universe, but rather try and understand why the angels, in their seemingly attempted humanity, come across as being grotesquely disfigured.

There are several important things to note about these angels. The first is that, since the Great War, humans have been aligned with the angels of Paradiso. The most prominent religion is that of Laguna, namely the religion which worships the angels of Paradiso and Jubileus the Creator. So, we see firstly that these angels are closely tied to the world of humans. Though the don't often cross over into the human world, we see that they do come to take souls to paradise, and have been seen by humans in the past.

The second important note is that the humans believe the forms they have seen these angels take to be a result of their true forms being incapable of being seen by humans. This is in keeping with older Judeo-Christian beliefs that seeing God would kill one, and likewise that angels in their appearances to humans were terrifying. So, when you gather information on the grand angels in Bayonetta, a similar theme seems to be that the humans believe the forms they see to not be the angels' true forms. Given that we see the angels in more than just the human realm from Bayonetta's point of view, it is safe to say that these somewhat horrifying forms are indeed the angels' true appearances.

Finally, it is important to note that these angels all are meant to represent virtues, with one possible exception.

Here we have the angel Joy representing the virtue of...invisible pole dancing?
I would argue that the grotesqueness of these angels is meant to show that when ideal virtues are paired with human fallibility, the result is a perversion of holy nature.  In fact, the demons summoned by the Umbra witches, which contain no pretenses towards any human form, come across as much less unsettling.  An uncanny valley exists wherein we see the beastly nature of the demons for what it is, as represented by towering monsters; but the angels represent an attempt at being human which has gone horribly wrong.  Sound a little far-fetched?  Well, let's take a look at a few things, shall we?

To be fair, ironically awesome Halloween costume.
First, especially among the more powerful angels, there is a theme of having human-like faces, often innocent cherubic faces specifically.  Here is where we get one of the greatest hints towards the larger symbolic meaning of these monstrosities.  There is a terrifying power in all of these angels, be it hulking and powerful bodies, titanic tentacles, twin dragon heads, gaping maws, etc.  All of these have a distinctly inhuman quality.  However, be it in a general human physique for the lower class angels, the aforementioned human faces for the more powerful angel, or the humurous car angel (which realistically is just a throwaway joke to have a racing level), there exists an attempted humanity in each.  Unlike the demons, who don't attempt to hide their bestial and violent nature, these angels seem to be wearing a mask.  The question is, is it a monster wearing  human mask, or a human wearing a monster costume?

To make my case, I'm going to refer to the angel Joy which I previously mentioned.  It is without a doubt the least off putting angel, actually looking quite attractive if you're into that sort of thing.  When we are first introduced to this angel, it is masking itself as Bayonetta.  After being caught it engages in a supermodel/stripper pose showdown with Bayonetta, and after its true form has been revealed, basically masturbates during the cutscene.  This angel, which supposedly represents Joy, clearly has a much closer connection to sexuality, something not often looked upon as a virtue among Judeo-Christian religions.  But in embodying a much more human trait, this angel loses the horrifying visage of many of the other angels.

So where do we go from here?  Well, basically, I am arguing that in trying to embody the virtues of fortitude, prudence, justice, etc. as uniquely human virtues, these angels are actually perverting human nature.  In doing so, their attempts at being human result in their altogether disturbing and entirely inhuman representation.  The only angel exempt from this is one which embodies a truly human virtue to the point of being a vice.  So, what are we to take away from this?  Basically, that trying to impose a set of idealistic, decidedly unattainable "virtues" can only end in failure and a perversion of the human self.  Hopefully, this two-parter has convinced you that even a game like Bayonetta, which seems to be only a mindless action game, has a lot to say, and deserves a much more serious analytical look.  If you are not convinced, here is some mindless action.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

A Rocky Start, Or, What Glee is Doing Wrong (Again)

I was terribly bothered by last week's episode of Glee.

Now I had some basic problems with the episode, like how rushed it felt. It assumed a familiarity with what goes on in Rocky Horror, and then skipped over the scenes that would have given background. This was a Will & Emma episode, and the music was so much background noise -- fine, whatever. I love Will and Emma best. Flawed as that plotline was, I would have liked a lot more of it, and a lot less transphobic bullshit.

(An aside. When I say trans community, this is a shortened way of saying "the transgendered community" which refers to any individual whose gender (or gender presentation) does not match their biological sex, and can include transvestites, transsexuals, and other gender-variant individuals. The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a celebration of all this, but most importantly it was, and remains, a place to go to find people who will welcome you. Also, I am not a part of the trans community, but I did a lot of research on trans issues before writing this.)

And apparently, I did a lot more research than the Glee writers. Which is too bad, because this could have been a really daring episode. But they took the easy way out, because it's still okay to dismiss the trans community. Glee is a show that is about show choir, football, cheerleaders, insane adults, and over-dramatic kids; but more importantly, this is a show for "people on the fringes who had no place left to go but were searching for some place, any place, that they felt like they belonged." (Will, regarding Rocky Horror.) This is where we go because we have something inside us that makes outcast — we're gay or we're disabled or we stutter, or we're pregnant, or about to become a father at 16, or incredibly annoying, or incredibly dim, or bisexual, or tired of being what everyone wants us to be — and all we want to do is just sing, and belong to a group that will take us back, week after week.

But not this week.

Now, it's never stated that a trans individual doesn't deserve the same consideration that a gay or religious one does, but it's there. In any other episode, assumptions are challenged, and everyone learns and grows from it. In this episode, there were three excellent, and totally ignored, moments to at least begin to acknowledge that there was something going on.

Thing They Did: Kurt is offered the part of Frank-N-Furter - well, not offered. Told. He has a reaction that is both reasonable and offensive. Now, his voice is totally wrong for Frank; his reaction to the suggestion is more knee-jerk than that really warrants. The writers (and the actor) made it sound as if what he objected to was playing a sexual deviant because that is gross.

Thing They Should Have Done: Taken one minute to have Kurt explain that the reason he was offended was because lumping all sexual/gender minorities together is massively, hugely ignorant. A gay man is not a transvestite is not a transman, but Will implies they are all the same by ignoring Kurt's range and dropping Frank on him. They had a responsibility to bring that out in the open, but did not.

Thing They Did: "[My parents] are just not cool with me dressing up like a tranny." Now I really hope I don't have to explain why the word tranny is offensive, but it's such an offensive word that many transgender blogs write it as tr*nny. I don't fault the writers for putting the line in Mike's mouth; teenagers are stupid, and we've heard stuff like this before. The bad moment comes when the camera pans over to Will and Emma, neither of whom say a word. In fact, both of them imply agreement through body language.

Thing They Should Have Done: Called him out. It was a break in Emma's character for her to say nothing. She's always willing to step up to the plate and explain why something is unacceptable. It doesn't matter if no one on the show is part of the trans community; hate speech is hate speech. This is about when I started wondering if the writers were at all aware of their audience, which I know (both anecdotally and statistically) includes trans people.

And then this happened.

Thing They Did: "I'm just a sweet transvestite from sensational Transylvania." This is when my partner turned off the TV. Here is what the song actually says. "Sweet Transvestite" marks Frank's first appearance, and is possibly the most iconic song in the entire production... and that line is the most iconic line in it. It would have been less offensive to remove the whole song, because what taking out the word transsexual does is mark it as wrong, shameful, and offensive, especially when Will and others repeatedly talk about how much he needed to cut to make it "acceptable." It's acceptable to be transvestite - after, all that's just a fancy word for a crossdresser, which we can make fun of, and is fine, as Carl puts it, in the bedroom - but we can't introduce transsexual. It's too risqué -- ! And yet they kept "Creature of the Night" in, which contains the line "I'll oil you up and rub you down." Also Emma rips off Will's shirt. What is being said here is this: it's fine to be highly sexualized and basically cheat on your boyfriend, but it's not okay to be transsexual.

Thing They Should Have Done: Kept the line in. Or removed the whole song. Because it's not like the rest of the lyrics aren't highly loaded too.

I don't think the writers of Glee intended "The Rocky Horror Glee Show" to be transphobic. That's ascribing a maliciousness that I do not believe exists. They did fail to consider the consequences of their words, and ignorance is not an excuse for offensive speech or behavior. It's a writer's job to be fair to his characters, and to consider potential reactions; it's not like information about transgender people is hard to get. But regardless of what the authors intended, the moment that episode aired, it became the viewer's to interpret.

And to queer viewers it doesn't matter if it wasn't on purpose; it hurts just as much to hear a slur used casually as it does purposefully. It perpetuates the idea that some lives are shameful, that gender is set, that those of us who are different should make sure that difference never comes to light. It lets people live the unexamined life, leaves their preconceptions unchallenged. When Kurt does not stand up, when Emma does not stand up, when Will does not stand up and say "This is wrong, and I will not tolerate it" -- well, why should we? Why should we bother to try to look past what is on the surface, and just sing together, if they won't?

"I'm thinking you're going to have to edit the whole thing out if you're going to get Sue and Figgens to sign off on it," said Emma. And I'm thinking that's what should have done.

Because this is not what Glee was supposed to be about.

The Rocky Horror Glee Show Part II: Being it, and owning up to it, where "it" is a "douchenozzle"

Originally I had intended to discuss the unique nature of the audience-performer contract in the Rocky Horror Picture Show, and how Glee maintained that in an interesting way. However, after some long discussions and doing the research I should have done before my first post, I can no longer really write about that as it relates to Glee, because it is really one of the only things Glee did right by Rocky Horror, or at least not before I make amends for my first post. That will make more sense when I actually write that bit, more on it later.

Glee's use of  Rocky was as under-researched as I was in my first post, but it was based in a popular understanding of the show. They did it because it's Halloween, not because they wanted to forward the understanding of queer culture. While their lack of research isn't really defensible, it does explain the inconsistency from the "fag" issue brought up in an earlier episode. Their "neutering" of the show isn't an attack on queer culture, it's a misunderstanding of what the narrative of Rocky Horror is actually meant to be, because the modern tradition of the Rocky Horror event is mostly just a party, and many sing along and have a ball at the show without fully understanding the text. In the previously linked article, Alex Blaze says the show is known primarily for transvestitism, but I'm not sure if it's really primarily known for that. The confusing and occasionally arousing narrative of the Rocky Horror Picture Show does contain meaningful subtext, but the general populace often doesn't see it.

Glee's message at the end isn't transphobic, because in the context of the show, Rocky Horror doesn't represent anything queer, it represents sexuality in general, and the problem in the show is exposing students to that level of sexuality, rather than exposing them to transsexuality or transvestitism. Is this a problem? Yes. Could Glee have handled the whole thing on a better-researched and less ignorant level? Definitely. If they did, would the end result of the episode be aired on public television? Doubtful, but that doesn't make it right. Whether or not Will Schuester did an appropriate adaptation, the Rocky Horror Picture Show still wouldn't be an appropriate production to put on for a high school audience, but for reasons different to the ones presented in Sue and Schuester's little speeches.

Those little speeches as they stand represent the show’s apparent ignorance of the meaning in Rocky Horror. This ignorance most likely comes from one of two places. The first is that they were simply as unaware as I was about the meaning of the show, the network went with a not entirely uncommon contemporary understanding of the show as sexuality for its own sake. The second place is a purposeful extension of censorship, considering that the audience demographic contains children. If the first, they made the same mistake I did, and if the second, they should have just not done Rocky Horror, instead of changing or over-simplifying what Rocky Horror was about. After reading a couple other articles, I really doubt it's the second one.

So why, if the message of Rocky Horror is more complex than they presented it, would it still be a mistake to present it to high school students? Well, partly, sadly, because of the status quo, because of parents who would pull their kids out of the show. The more important part is that the audience at a high school show isn't there to respond to the messages in the art, they're there to be entertained and support their friends/kids. People don't go home from a high school show with a better understanding of some aspect of the human experience, they go home proud that their friend/kid sounded good and/or looked good and/or remembered all their lines. In my high school theater experience, any deeper messages a show might contain are possibly discussed by the director and the kids, and maybe some students who had to see the show for one of their classes. For the most part, however, the message is a small, if not smallest, part of the high school theater experience.

The message of Rocky Horror, or, rather, the package it comes in, is not something the majority high school students are really fully prepared for. To be honest, it's not something even a lot of adults are prepared for, because of how extreme an attack it is on societal norms. However, an adult response to the attack can be thought out, an adult has more potential to take that attack on their expectations and come out with a new understanding. A kid isn't necessarily going to see the context of the show and be able to take it all in as anything more than what Schuester mistakenly explained the show to be. I do not mean to generalize, because some kids are really insightful. So yes, an individual high school kid could get it, but a high school audience would most likely not see past the sexuality. Honestly, most people who even claim to be familiar with the show don't really see past the sexuality of it.

So the truth is Glee was not ready to use Rocky Horror for source material, because they either did not truly understand the meaning of the source material. Glee didn't have any more capacity to take on Rocky Horror than any given high school. And, by the same token, I was not ready to take on the response to this episode. For that, I apologize. I did not uphold the standards of the Analytical Couch Potato. I initially wanted to write about an entirely different aspect of the show, but instead I took a stance on something I knew nothing about, and I didn't even try to know anything about it, and I am truly sorry. It was a knee-jerk, ignorant straight-guy reaction coming from a guy who thought he had a leg to stand on because he had some gay friends. I will make an effort to stick to what I know, from here on out, and if I don't know about it, I'll make an effort to know, instead of just thinking my instinct has any credibility. I hold myself accountable for my mistakes, and I am glad that this blog could serve as a dialog. Please, forgive my arrogance and ignorance.

Bayonetta: The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly Pt. 1

bayonetta_03.jpg Bayonetta image by hellsingqueen

Bayonetta. Oh lord Bayonetta. Okay, let's get this out of the way. Someone bashing you over the head with a sand filled blow-up doll while screaming "SEX!" would be more subtle than Bayonetta is. This game seems determined to remind the player continuously throughout this game that the main character is in fact a woman with an ample chest and rump by having her flaunt her body to the point of near nudity at every possible opportunity. She pole-dances (as an attack, and also purely for the gamer's entertainment), sucks on lollipops for health, throws her hips all over the damn place...this game seems completely focused on throwing her sexuality in our faces. Her most powerful attacks necessitate her losing her clothes, of course taking enough time to pose alluringly before a giant demon eats whatever enemy you are currently fighting. Her glasses scream sexy librarian, her hair based clothes (am I the only one who wondered if they got really itchy after a while?) perfectly mimic leather, and the belts and gloves round it out by appealing to the...whatever demographic is attracted to people that dance at City Club.

And then there's the violence. Hideki Kamiya took every bit of over-the-top violence in the Devil May Cry games turned it up to 11. Something is always being shot in the face, beaten to death, cut in half, or blown up. And while that sounds like a fair description of a Devli May Cry game, it's a little different here. Firstly, there is blood. "But Justin, some Devil May Cry enemies bleed, like the puppets!" True, but the blood was never
I had to include this.  Yes, these are rocket launcher tonfa.
done in such a way as to be a spectacle in itself. In Devil May Cry, it made sense as the game was almost equal parts horror and action. Devil May Cry 3 & 4 had sand and dark...stuff respectively as the focus became that over-the-top action style. Here, the blood becomes a central element of the action. Unlike Devil May Cry where devil gauge allowed you to unleash unholy hell upon your enemies, here building up magic often results in a torture attack such as a guillotine, an iron maiden, crushing hands, a smashing tombstone, a spiked wheel (?), a horse of some kind with a ribbed back (only used on the clearly female angel, to throw some more sex in there), among others.  In their defeat, bosses are greeted by a horrendous death, typically by being devoured and, if they are particularly important bosses, having their mangled bodies dragged to hell.

I forgot about that time she pulled a freakin' chainsaw out of hammer space to cut the enemy in half!
Now, there are many who have suggested that this game's depiction of gore and sex is sexist, immature, and appealing to the lowest common denominator of gamers, however doing so denies the game and Hideki of the proper credit they are due.  There are two levels at which this game deserves a closer analysis.  One is that of the meaning behind the game's excess.  The second is of the parallels the game attempts to draw between sex and violence.
Let's begin with the matter of excess.  Devil May Cry was itself concerned with an excess, but of a different kind.  There, the game primarily analyzed excesses of character.  By exaggerating it's characters traits, it served as reflection of some of our own defining features.  Confidence, over-confidence, human frailty, revenge, corruption, lust for power, and the search for meaning for one's life all made appearances.  Was this intentional?  Perhaps not.  The same could be said for any  piece which is primarily concerned with entrancing the consumer through action such as the prototypical action movie.  But intentional or not, reducing character's down to simple, defining characteristics allows for an interesting reflection of basic human motivations.  So, here in Bayonetta we have excess in a different way.  Her overt sexuality is presented not as something she works to achieve, but as a simple character trait.  We often are so concerned with how we are perceived by others and how we can project the kind of image we desire, that we forget that we aren't some 
Sorry, was this turning you on?  I just really like lollipops.
kind of tabula rasa, able to recreate ourselves over and over.  We all have a sexual dimension, and part of the attraction to Bayonetta is how she tacitly accepts that part of her, to the point of what seems like shamelessness.  She is bound neither by social constraints on how she is permitted express her sexuality nor by her need to fulfill others' expectations of her sexuality.  To see her as a sexist portrayal of feminine sexuality is to ignore that she is not trying to fulfill a male expectation.  Feminism is about trying to achieve a freedom from the controlling and molding effects of the powerful, traditionally the white male.  Here, that influence doesn't even exist for Bayonetta.

Now, about the matter of violence.  Roughly following the previously mentioned reasons for the importance
"softened us up for a bit of the old, ultraviolence"
of indulging in excess, I would argue that the over-the-top violence a fulfillment of our desires says something quite interesting about ourselves.  In much the same way that No More Heroes' violence is meant to serve as a commentary on our wanting to engage and indulge in this ultra-violence, Bayonetta to serves as a reminded of our culture's obsession with more graphic and more realistic depictions of violence by simultaneously giving us a level of graphical realism and over-the-top fantasy.
The second level of analysis, the claim that there is a connection between sex and violence, requires some qualifiers.  Firstly, I am not taking the position that sex is equivalent to violence, or that the act of sex (specifically penetration) is akin to some sort of male attack directed toward the female like one stabbing another with a knife.  Also, this is a two way street.  If sex has an element of violence, then violence has an element of sex in it, though sex =/= violence.  
Firstly, I would draw on a psych experiment done by Duton & Aron in 1974.  Basically, the experiment showed that the body cannot distinguish between the kinds of physiological arousal caused by fear, tension, and the "fight of flight" response (a key element of violent behavior) and that of sexual attraction (Sex is in the word, so I'm gonna assume you get that is is a key element.).  Secondly, I want to draw attention to that both sex and violence involve a excessively physical intrusion upon another.  Note that this intrusion can be consensual or not, and that it is an intrusion on both the male and female side.  Thirdly, the prevalence of a roughness to sex.  As emotions and passion rise, the inclination to a more rough aspect to the act increases.  So in Bayonetta, I would argue that these parallels between sex and violence are brought to the forefront and made salient to the gamer.

I figured this time I would analyze the visual representation of a game as opposed to the narrative, and hopefully you enjoyed it.  Tune in next time for Pt. 2, where we'll be looking at the the connection between humanity, ugliness, and angels.