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Posts Tagged ‘feminism’

[note: it occurs to me that, as with many stories taken from folklore, this is a bit of a NSFW post–for those not acronym-savvy, that means not so much that it is violent, which it is, but that some of the dismembered body parts involved are (in the normal course of events) used to make babies. So reader beware.]

inktober_10_31_16_the_grisly_box_by_callego-damzua7Happy Halloween! Now that the “Paganism Past” conference this last weekend is over, I’m relaxing today by, among other things, reading some non-Scandi folkloristic type stuff–right now Japanese Tales edited and translated by Royall Turner (who was apparently placed at the University of Oslo at one point, so it just goes to show that everything connects to Scandinavian Studies in the end). Appropriately enough today I hit the “Haunts” section of the book, and thought I would illustrate the short but grim story “The Grisly Box” for my last Inktober 2016 drawing.

Like most of the other texts in this volume, the story is from Heian-era Japan, so if I remember my Japanese history correctly (that one class in undergrad is a long time ago now…) this is prior to the Samurai, and instead the period of poetic aristocrats improvising on cherry blossoms in the court at Kyoto. Well OK, this story really has nothing to do with that. In “The Grisly Box” a bureaucrat who works for a regent is traveling home to see his family and comes across a woman on a bridge who gives him a box, which he is to 1) give to a woman on another bridge, whose name he does not need to know because she will be there, don’t worry, and 2) ABSOLUTELY NOT OPEN. Btw, his servants don’t see anyone and are wondering “What the hell is our master doing?” He takes the box, but forgets to stop at the other bridge so ends up taking the box home with him. His wife say “Well, Mr, that’s a nice box, where did you get that WHAT IS HER NAME” and, of course, because we can already tell we are in a story that is going to either stereotype women’s motives or turn them into absolute monsters, she opens it and inside there are EYEBALLS AND PENISES. (btw, spoiler alert). Then the husband is like “Oh heck, we better get this to the right person now” but when he gives it to the other bridge woman she says “hey you looked didn’t you” but he denies it, and some time later he dies. The end. I know, out of possible Japanese-themed stories I don’t know why they didn’t do this story instead of Kubo and the Two Strings…

Some comparative comments as a folklorist (OK, I am more a Scandinavianist than a Folklorist but whatever):

-Not uncommon in a patriarchal society to find female monsters/supernaturals coded as sexually threatening (male supernaturals can be as well, but they turn up in different sorts of stories), so this is not an especially surprising story to come across. The inclusion of a jealous wife highlights the theme as well, with whatever guilt we might impute to an unfaithful husband displaced onto the castrating, apparently voracious (what else do they need all those pricks for?) spooky women. I don’t have comparable castrating legends in mind at the moment from Scandi folklore (doesn’t mean they aren’t there, but my recall is not great at the moment), but we do find supernatural women coded as sexually threatening in many narratives, as with the Swedish skogsrå. The “point” of these stories (not that they were always intended explicitly as moral lessons) is not always consistent, which serves to remind us that each individual version of a legend comes from an individual, and so can be taken as part of a larger debate regarding, for example, gender norms, the status of the supernatural community, etc–but the threat in many of these stories is framed around the danger of leaving the human community, diminishing the reproductive and other capacities of that community, in favor of the supernaturals, who to some degree (not to say this is somehow the most primal or foundational meaning) stand in for competing communities in general. And of course, it inverts the usual run of things in a patriarchy–the woman becomes powerful, the man weak, perhaps simultaneously expressing patriarchal guilt (“if they treated us like we treat them…”) as well as justifying the status quo (“if we let them have power…”). But let’s also note that, again, there is no need to assume culture is monolithic, and what might seem subversive can nevertheless end up be a fairly prominent part of the cultural production–I’m thinking here of the fact that the Valkyries of Norse mythology in some instances (not all) get a fairly positive treatment while in others they seem tied to quite thoroughly patriarchal cautionary tales. Also, spooky, castrating women can be used in politically subversive ways rather than cautionary/kinky ways, and of course, subversive readings are always possible as well.

-The eyes–well, it is an easy enough Freudian move to take the eye itself as a phallic symbol. Not that we need to take Freudian symbolism and apply it “willy”-nilly (did you see what I did there?)–but if this is a matter of supernatural women subverting the patriarchy, then this is a good complement to the theme of castration, as the “woman as seen, man as see-er” is an obvious binary opposition in patriarchal ideologies (btw, I wrote a dissertation on this… well, on related things).

-The fact that these women show up at bridges is a great example of the association of supernaturals with liminal space (though I confess I have no idea if these bridge women are common in Japanese folklore or not). By liminal I mean in-between. This is easiest to see in terms of geography, as these women are found at rivers, common markers of boundaries (I think also of the fact that liminal spaces are common in oral poetry, a point I picked up somewhere but can’t remember, and that many important moments in Norse mythology take place in in-between places, like a coastline), but it has a semantic dimension as well, meaning, involving the boundaries between things/concepts. Think “both/and” or “neither/nor”–fairies show up at twilight, when it is neither day nor night, people in Scandinavian folktales, at least, are at-risk during in-between times of their life (between birth and baptism, between childhood and adulthood, etc), and (again in scandi folklore, sorry, it is what I know) you find spirits associated with water mills, which are often geographically on the periphery, between the human community and the wilderness, and semantically in-between in that it is both/and neither/nor land/water (build above a stream as it must be). The bridge location is an obvious one for a supernatural, then–both/and neither/nor land/water (which, of course, is why the Billy Goats Gruff run into a troll at a bridge). Liminality in this sense is, of course, bound up in some very basic cognitive/linguistic faculties, and so it is no surprise that this seems to be a pretty universal aspect of folk narrative (and other narrative–though this is not to say that we can’t find supposed “universals” expressed very differently, or expressive of very different concerns, from culture to culture and person to person).

And to end, I can’t help but note how even at the academic level it can be easy for us to think “what! penises! this is ridiculous, no one believes something like this might happen!”, given that at this conference this past weekend my friend and colleague Merrill Kaplan, who does both Old Norse lit and Scandinavian folklore like myself (but more and better, if I may say so) gave a talk reinterpreting one of the words in a particularly odd tale about the conversion in Norway in which our intrepid missionary comes across a cult in which women cuddle a dismembered and preserved horse prick. Yup. In the very lively discussion that followed (wow, people had Opinions on this…) one of the throw-away comments implied that none of us took seriously the idea that there ever actually was a cult practice like this, since it was really just totally ridiculous. Merrill (and for the record, I’m quite convinced by her argument throughout, but can’t say I am super familiar with the philological issues) insisted we had to take the story seriously–not meaning we had to assume a cult actually did look like this once, but that, however much it was meant to ridicule pagans, the story must be taken as believable against the (admittedly biased) horizon of expectations of medieval Christian Icelanders when it comes to what paganism might look like. I do find myself agreeing that, in a more explicitly historical text like the one in question (Flateyjarbók), however much the intent is to mock, it will still build on what people are willing to see as a reasonable expectation. And you know, there is so much crazy stuff (sorry, not an emic perspective there) in world religion and mythology (can’t single out my own religion here either) that at some point you have to say a horse-penis-cuddling-cult is not necessarily out of the question… Nor are spooky women collecting eye balls and pricks, apparently, at least at the level of legend.

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Wolverine as a viking berserkr

Wolverine as a viking berserkr. The word “berserkr” could mean “bear-shirt” or “bare-shirt”–since many of the stories of berserkrs have their skin made invulnerable to iron, I’ve made him Bare here (even if slightly cutesy-chibi-style). He has a sword instead of his claws, but you know, if a Berserkr had claws, I think he would just use those. The all-but-berserkr Egill himself kills an enemy who is invulnerable to iron by biting out his throat. @_@ Note also that Wolvie’s shield has been gnawed upon here–berserks apparently had a reputation for biting their shields in a fearsome manner (a strategy that doesn’t go well for one bersekr who faced off against Grettir… but you will need to read that saga for yourself).

Wolverine as Berserkr

[For the movie review, skip below–first one w/o spoilers, second with spoilers] One of my favorite comic book characters growing up was Wolverine. I suppose it was some combination of the grittiness, the fact that getting hurt didn’t matter to him, the mysterious backstory with his missing memory (always more to discover), and the simultaneous tragedy and wish-fulfillment of his immortality. There was also his “berserker” side–while potentially antithetical to his status as hero, his tendency to go crazy and lose himself in a fight was both scary and fascinating, his ability to be a hero itself founded on the fact that he had one foot on the side of the monsters. Wolverine’s character (like Punisher, Hulk, and others) is an exaggerated version of the type you find all over comic books and westerns (not just anti-heroes, though they are maybe the primary version…), someone who is too powerful/unusual/monstrous to really be part of society, but continually comes in to save it. Batman (who he “really” is, according to the program where I first heard about this) can’t exist normally alongside everyone else in Gotham, so he has to go around “disguised” as Bruce Wayne. The rogue gunman saves the small town, but he can’t settle down there–he has to keep moving on at the end of the movie. The two scholars who came up with this interpretation (sorry, can’t remember their names) thought that this was a symptom of a democratic society–we want the person who is bigger and better than us to save us from those others who are above and beyond the norm, but they don’t get to stick around (I suppose that implies a more general Western “Jantelagen-lite”). And given the proto-democratic nature of Icelandic society (and, well, the fact that Wolvie’s “berserker”-ness is taken from the Old Norse figure of the berserkr), well, imho we do see this sort of figure in the sagas as well (though if you are explicitly labelled a “berserkr” in the sagas, you are mostly likely just a plain old bad guy).

Some sketches for a possible Grettir comic...

Some sketches for a possible Grettir comic…

I’ve talked about this with reference to Grettis saga before, as he is the saga hero who most obviously seems to illustrate this phenomenon–he is fairly monstrous himself, never fitting in and always getting in trouble, thriving only when living away from humanity (or, interestingly enough, when under the guidance of a very understanding and strong leader whom he respects), fighting monsters or living among them. One (reductive) theme that we could draw from the saga is “it takes a monster to kill a monster”–but no one wants that monster to stick around after the battle (except maybe a certain widow near the end of the saga…). Among the “monsters” Grettir fights are berserks, representative (during the Christian period in which the sagas were written down–centuries after the events described) of the less reputable elements of the pagan past, scapegoats for the saga authors as they attempted to simultaneously recover and repudiate their pre-Christian heritage (a strategy made possible, or even thinkable, by the fact that they came to conceive of it as “heritage” at all–but that is a theory-heavy essay for another time).

IMG_2392Similar (a bit…) to Grettir, Wolverine’s character gets drawn into a berserkr rage which one the one hand allows him to beat all the monstrous baddies (OK, Grettir does not “go berserk”), but which also marks him as unsuitable for normal society. In fact, the battle between his “animal” self and his human self is the theme which prompted the comic book miniseries that the new movie is based on. A key chapter in this “bestial vs human” or “Wolverine vs Logan” struggle is the Weapon X story arc, which I recommend for the other Wolvie fans out there. Great artwork by Barry Windsor-Smith, and an interesting (if trippy and not entirely resolved) plot, way better than the one in the X-men and Wolverine: Origins movies.

What exactly the historical “roots” of the berserkr figure are is a contentious topic, but they are certainly fascinating characters as they show up in the sagas. I may return to the subject in more detail, but for now check out the extended caption to my picture at the start of this post for some details re: my representation of Wolvie as a berserkr (said pic is also up on my tumblr).

The Wolverine: Movie Review (no spoilers… yet)

IMG_2391As a kid I had a copy of the final issue of the Japan-story arc miniseries (one of my more valuable comic books–I think the first appearance of Gambit was my most valuable one though), and I was always more emotionally invested in Logan’s relationship with Mariko, rather than with Jean (her relationship with Cyclops was always primary for me). The movie is fairly loosely based on the miniseries, but both are pretty enjoyable. Actually, I like the new Wolverine movie better than any of the other X-Men movies so far (though First Class was pretty cool too), even if I have some issues with both the movie and the original miniseries (but those will be discussed in the spoiler section). The movie does a pretty good job (for a comic book movie) digging into the potential in W’s character. OK, there is a lot of “let’s make him into a big white Hollywood tough guy hero” stuff, but considering how (painfully) inevitable that is, a pretty decent amount of legit story material came through. Actually, it is closer to the end of the movie that it kicks into “comic book mode”–in high gear. By the end it just felt a bit too ridiculous, but then you need to remind yourself that OK, it IS a comic book movie…

Don’t watch it if you haven’t seen the X-men movies at least (the first Wolverine movie would be good to watch too, though not essential), but reading the comic book miniseries (available in trade-paperback–click on the picture to go to Amazon) won’t make a difference–the stories are too different for spoilers. It’s fun to compare them, but comparison is not necessary. In any case, Frank Miller’s layouts are really great in the comic book (for that era, certainly), even if I sometimes feel like the quality of his art varies.

Further Notes on the Movie [SPOILER ALERT!!!]

OK, now on to some analysis/griping. This will involve spoilers. Also, these gripes are not meant to deter folks from watching the movie–I’ve seen it several times now, and still enjoy it.

Right before the movie was a preview for the new Keanu Reaves movie 47 Ronin, and I joked with my friends about it being another “white guy saves the exotic Other by dressing up like them” film (well, OK, he is supposed to be a “half breed” in the movie–still…). Then we went on to watch Wolverine, in which the white male lead is the only unambiguously “good guy” male character, the other two “good guys” were hot asian girls (who are allowed to be tough and competent, but only so long as the white lead still gets to save them), and Japanese men did things like try to kill their daughters, try to live forever by killing the white male lead (stealing what is rightfully his), get caught in their underwear with white strippers after trying to kill off their hot asian fiance (giving the white guy a reason to push around and ridicule an asian man), support the bad guy in the hope that the hot asian girl will like them again instead of the white guy, embed themselves in a mecha-suit (stereotypically Japanese, incidentally) and then get stripped out of it bit by bit by the muscular white hero, to reveal a tiny japanese man inside… I mean geez, this is like a textbook example of Western patriarchal representation of the Other (and, incidentally, appropriation of the “exotic powers” of the other–Wolvie gets to be a samurai, after all). It is… the same but different in the comic books, where Wolverine is still the white-guy hero (often the super tough but still good guy in the midst of the scum of Eastern crime syndicates), but is better integrated, fluent in Japanese, and with a presence in the area going back far enough (thanks to his long life) that he is presented as an adopted part of that world, on that world’s terms, rather than an interloper… but OK, I am maybe being overly generous in my interpretation there.

Now look, I’m not saying this is a conspiracy, that Hollywood is out to culturally beat-down minorities or anything like that–I assume this is all “coincidental”, a result of the need to limit the number of good guys, and the fact that we have two of the good guys being women. But it is ridiculous how standard this veneration/elevation of the white male against/via the ethnic Other STILL is. Does this mean we need to go out of our way to counter this sort of thing? DAMN RIGHT. I mean, look, you don’t get to just pretend all this isn’t part of the culture you were born into, white or otherwise–our ability to represent things is founded on a history of previous representations (to put it in more technical terms, human cultural/social being is inescapably and irreducibly intertextual), and we have to deal with the fact that this semiotic history IS complicit in some really shitty stuff. If you are going to be human, and in relationship with other humans, then yes, you have a duty to be responsibly human, competently engaging in a nuanced way with the Otherness of those next door to you as well as across the world (especially when those of us in the West so drastically affect the lives of of everyone else on a daily basis), and culturally competent when it comes to navigating these differences. And no, for my fellow white males, it does NOT mean a finger is being pointed at us trying to make us feel bad. All that is being asked is that you open your eyes and look beyond yourself. And OK, doesn’t mean that is always easy, but don’t make it personal when it isn’t. OK, will step off the rant-box…

As far as women go, this movie feels like a mixed bag to me (I am not even going to get into the blonde man-hating lizard woman who pushes around asian men–that’s an article in itself), but I felt like there was some good stuff here. OK, I kinda fell in love with both of the female leads, so I guess I’m a bit biased–they are really appealing characters though, once you are given time to get to know them.

On the one hand, there is a lot of “damsel in distress” syndrome here–but that is on the part of the movie, not the female characters (mostly…and if we are allowed to actually differentiate there). Logan calls Mariko “princess” while lecturing her on her apparent naivete, but while that does get milked a bit, as we move on it becomes clear that she is more in the know than he. She is also revealed to be powerful in her own way–not just physically (she has a limited amount of martial arts, but is a champion knife thrower), but in ways that we are culturally inclined to define as ‘female’–how positive we might be re: that characterization may depend on what brand of feminism we espouse, but I did like the fact that she was powerful in a non-action-movie way, regal in some scenes, pragmatic in others, and nurturing in others (and yeah, would maybe be good to have more men playing similar roles).

Yukio’s character was interesting as well, and I appreciated that she was not just a tough-girl-emotionally-and-sexually-exploited-to-make-the-white-hero-look-good type, which is more the case in the comic book miniseries. That said, while she is set up as a tough badass, she is increasingly forced into a sort of damsel-role herself as the movie goes on. My main beef–at the start of the movie Logan sees Shingen fencing and says “He’s good”–Yukio responds “He’s alright” with a bit of a sneer. But when Shingen, nearly dead from poison, attacks Wolverine while he is incapacitated (busy doing heart-surgery on himself… and yeah, it goes heavily into extreme-comic-book mode from here on), Yukio is easily outmatched by him (HE IS ALMOST DEAD!!!), and visibly desperate. In her case, her concern for the male lead incapacitates her, while the male lead (here and in every Hollywood movie) is empowered by his concern for the female leads. OK, maybe that’s not a universal in this particular movie, as Mariko’s self-possession in the face of Logan’s apparent doom allows her to participate in the climatic battle (and free Logan up to fight again). But speaking of which, let me say that the female damsel killing her (grand-)father in favor of her lover (and generally siding against her nefarious family in favor of the male lead) is very Helgakviða Hundingsbana II, imho–I guess the daydreams of the patriarchy (or teen boys) don’t change much over the centuries. Oh, and let’s also note that Wolvie’s “Knight in Shining Armor” role and the personal narrative arcs of the two women are enabled by projecting paternalistic chauvinism onto the Japanese males–which may lead us to forget that the West has got its own gender issues (OK, not saying you don’t find that in Japan too–again, the issue is the fact that ALL the asian men in the movie are shoved into this role).

In the end (got a lot more to say, but should really finish this…), there is certainly a good bit of orientalizing going on here, but I admit that it is better than a lot of movies out there–and apart from some (legit) issues with the representation of women in the movie, the two female leads are pretty decent, and in my mind primarily sympathetic viewpoint characters (after a while) rather than exotic dolls. Let me know what you think!

ALSO: some more commentary on Orientalism in The Wolverine (I haven’t read them all). Huffpost, The Nerds of Color (1), The Nerds of Color (2), The Nerds of Color (3), The Toast, Shadowlocked.

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