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Thou Art This, That, and the Other

Jose Ortega y Gasset called the metaphor “the most fertile power possessed by mankind”.  He compared its potential to reshape the world to that of magic, a divine implement somehow handed down to mere humanity.  Indeed, one could argue that the metaphor is humanity; it combines two of our most unique qualities — language (the ability to transform the world into the word) and abstraction (the ability to see a thing as something other than what it is) — into one transformative capacity possessed by everyone.    Further, it is in fiction that metaphor finds its greatest purchase; and it is in the fiction of the unreal, in the genres of science fiction and fantasy, that the potential power of the metaphor is greatest.  Because they alone can create worlds in which anything is possible, because they are not beholden to the rules of actuality, they can construct scenarios in which the overarching metaphor gathers potency and applicability far beyond what it could achieve in a more realistic setting.

Which is why it’s so hard to figure out why so many works of popular genre fiction get their metaphors so profoundly wrong.

Since the beginning of the civil rights era, and the subsequent awakening of contemporary ideas about gay rights, feminism, anti-colonialism, and other liberation movements, many prominent genre movies, television shows, books, and comics have taken a turn, either implicitly or explicitly, of framing their narratives inside a metaphor about oppression, intolerance, and bigotry.  This is always admirable, and it’s well-suited to the material — or at least it should be.  The problem is that the metaphor is botched from the very beginning, as the demands of the genre for elements of the fantastic often subvert the purpose of the narrative, and what should be a story of liberation is turned into a story of liberty.

The primary offender here, much to my chagrin as I sunk so much of my youth and young manhood into sweating over it, is the collective story of the X-Men.  Stan Lee always had the notion of using the mutant as metaphor for persecuted minority; his soft-pedaling of the idea (which he and Jack Kirby initially conceived as an analogue for Judaism and its persecution) can be forgiven partly because he was always as much businessman as storyteller, and he knew that the bottom line wouldn’t countenance a heavy-handed cartoon treatment of the Holocaust.  He can be forgiven, too, because his audience at the time largely consisted of ten-year-olds.  Later writers, though, from Len Wein right up to Kieron Gillen, chose to carry on the metaphor, and even to make it more explicit, without ever seeming to grasp the problem inherent in the comparison.

And what problem is that?  It’s that the essence of anti-Semitism, as with all forms of bigotry and prejudice, is that it’s irrational.  It seeks to disguise its hatred and repulsion for marginalized minority groups, and to justify societal mistreatment of them, by cloaking itself in fear — fear of sinister powers and influences that, crucially, its objects do not actually possess.  The Jews of Hitler’s Germany, far from being a sinister cabal of all-powerful manipulators and schemers, were a largely powerless minority who were already suffering from marginalization and discrimination when the Nazi regime made things worse for them by confining them to prison camps and ghettos.   This is the eternal form in which bigotry cloaks itself:  the hand of the oppressor is turned on the oppressed by claiming that some helpless minority (Jews, blacks, Indians, gays) are actually a fearsome conspiracy who threaten to wreck society by controlling the banks, raping our women, burning our settlements, converting our children, etc.  They are the powerless, portrayed falsely as the powerful:  this is what makes racism a lie, and what makes discrimination irrational.  You know what would make anti-Semitism, for example, perfectly rational?  If Jews could shoot laser beams out of their eyes.

Hence the failure of the X-Men’s central metaphor.  Mutants only make sense as the target of hatred and prejudice if they possess no power.  Chasing your neighbor away because he’s a Jew is unreasoning bigotry; chasing your neighbor away because he can kill you with a thought actually makes a lot of sense.  Systemic discrimination against a small group of disenfranchised ghetto-dwellers is cruel and senseless; systemic discrimination against a bunch of people who can teleport and cause infernos of fire by waving their hands is quite practical.  (The conception of Magneto as a sort of Stern Gang Zionist becomes even more problematic as comics writers, forever pursuing the extremes, turned him into a reverse-Hitler who rivals Bender Rodriguez in his zeal to destroy all humans.)  As the characters progressed and times changed, the script got flipped and the central metaphor for mutants became “gays” instead of “Jews”, but it still failed to hold up on both practical (like Jews, most homosexuals cannot fly or control lava) and theoretical (since mutants are born different, with no choice, culture, or socialization involved, the metaphor would work better with, say, black people) grounds.

The latest popular genre series to pick up on this idea is True Blood, which pushes its vampires-as-queers allegory so hard, especially early in the series, that it’s almost painful.  This works on a purely cultural level, because the show absolutely reeks of over-the-top campy sexuality, but as a useful metaphor, it ranges from spectacularly incoherent to actively harmful.  To begin with, it runs into the same problem as the mutants-as-Jews metaphor insofar as straights would understandably fear gays if the latter group routinely controlled people’s minds, drained their blood, and murdered them.  There’s a reason that vampires hide from people, and there’s nothing irrational about being afraid of literal monsters.  Additionally, while we are shown the occasional figure of innocence or nobility, the vast majority of vampires we meet are authoritarian and cruel at best and murderously contemptuous of humanity at worst — a fact that has not escaped the notice of actual gay people, who apparently have a bit of trouble figuring out what kind of favor the show is doing them by comparing them to bloodthirsty, deviant, inhuman creatures.  Gay rights groups might not always stay on message, but as far as I know, none of their spokesmen has ever ripped a living person’s spine out on national television.

With True Blood, though, the hopeless muddle they make of their central metaphor can be chalked up to incompetence and bad writing; the show just isn’t smart enough to carry its conceit very far.  (In this sense, it’s not too different from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which seemed to be trying to make a point about the emotional turmoil of being a teenager, but did so in such a sociopathic context that digging too deeply into the metaphor would leave you stuck in what ends up being a Columbine scenario.)  Much less forgivable is Battlestar Galactica, an intelligent show that did itself credit by trying to explore complex ethical issues and how much we can alter our moral beliefs during wartime and still call ourselves decent human beings.  Few shows attempt such a feat, and it’s to the credit of Galactica‘s creators that they give it a pretty strong effort.  But the problem is, they shoot themselves in the foot with the show’s very premise.  In the pilot, we’re shown that the Cylons commit nuclear genocide against the humans, depopulating entire planets and murdering billions, seemingly unprovoked.  In order for the series’ big moral questions — how much civilian freedom can be allowed in war, whether torture is ever acceptable, to what ends we may we go to defeat the enemy, at what price we dehumanize our foes, etc. — to work, we have to start with an opponent who is not purely and unmitigatedly detestable.  War’s ironies only work when the enemy is close enough to us to make the game seem not worth the candle; it’s impossible to give any credence to the moral compunctions posed on the show when they involve an opponent that almost completely destroyed the human race a half-hour into the series.

Joss Whedon, as he often is, is a repeat offender in this category.  I touched briefly on Buffy above, and it also sported another major failure in its metaphorical narrative of betrayal and redemtion, namely, if it is clear — and it is — from characters like Angel and Spike that vampires, despite being portrayed as soulless demons, are capable of making moral choices and doing good, why is it permissible to wantonly murder them?  Firefly has at its heart a struggle of government oppression, individual freedom, and the fate of the rebel in a conformist society, but it is explored so shallowly and treated so incoherently that one is unsure whether to chalk it up to incompetence or laziness.  We never learn in any real detail what the rebellion was all about, leaving open the possibility that the Browncoats were ‘defending’ a particularly loathsome ‘freedom’, like the Confederacy during the American Civil War.  But this isn’t important to Whedon; he can’t even be bothered to clarify the nature of the Alliance, which at various times is portrayed as a sort of corporate fascist oligarchy, a totalitarian security state, and an entrenched aristocracy, which are all basically incompatible.

Now, certainly, I’m not arguing that sci-fi and fantasy is bad at this sort of thing.  If anything, it’s outstanding at it — at least in certain forms.  Literary sci-fi and fantasy is chockablock with dozens of examples of these sorts of metaphors being carried off extremely well; I hardly need even provide examples, so numerous are they.  The disparity may be attributable to the fact that novels give you plenty of space to open up the metaphor, let it breathe and settle naturally into your fictional setting, while film and television have entirely different demands in terms of time.  It’s not impossible in film or television, either, though it’s much more rare.  Blade Runner, I think, pulls the trick off nicely; while the replicants are slightly superior to humans, they don’t constitute any kind of existential threat (at least not in the context of the story), and the focus is kept entirely on the ethical issues:  what does it mean to be a human?  How can we justify enslaving and exploiting — even murdering — something that is just like us, even if we created it and it is ‘only’ a sophisticated machine?  Perhaps the best use of this metaphor was the pitch-black comedy of the movie version of Starship Troopers, which ran completely against the grain of its source by taking it at pure face value and allowing it enough rope to hang itself.  The depictions of a warmongering colonialist society are derived largely from letting the book speak; but the fact that so many sci-fi fans hated the movie version may contain a clue as to why so many such stories get it wrong, and why getting it right seems to hard to accomplish.  Claims that we are living in a golden age of thoughtful sci-fi and fantasy film and television notwithstanding, we aren’t liable to see the likes of these two again soon.



Jul. 13th, 2012 09:31 pm (UTC)

The problem I always had with X-Men in this regard is that if we take the mutants as the point of identification, dealing with the subjective experience real oppression is going to be unbearable for the reader, especially a naive or privileged one. That experience being that the self and people like the self are vulnerable to being harmed or killed, for no good reason, basically at random, and there's nothing anyone can do about it. The superpowers protect the fantasy of agency if not mastery. If you get in a jam, welp, you always have lasers to shoot out of your eyes. And it flatters the reader's idea of their own benevolence. "I could vaporize you with these lasers that shoot out of my eyes, but because I'm the better person, I decline." Powerlessness that forces you to be bad person and then doesn't even work reliably is the real grimdark; yet it so rarely appears in TV and film genre.

Battlestar comes the closest. I disagree that the Cylons were completely monstrous, even initially. We learn early on that they felt (to some extent) that they were acting to protect against their own annihilation. The show at its best uses the Cylons as a mirror, a memento of humankind's past ruthlessness when humans try to justify ruthlessness once again in the present. But I do think it ended up falling flat when certain Cylons turned out to be depicted as fanatically, or worse, constitutionally evil. And of course when it's all revealed to be God's will, the whole thing unravels.

In short, the political reality that a society organized to oppress you as an individual will be successful in doing so is too unpalatable for mainstream entertainment. Or something.
Jul. 16th, 2012 10:38 pm (UTC)
Powerlessness that forces you to be bad person and then doesn't even work reliably is the real grimdark; yet it so rarely appears in TV and film genre.

And when it does, it is almost always a female character who can't control their powers, causes chaos with their powers, and has the powers fail them at a critical moment. When the character is male, it's either played for laughs or the consequences are barely relevant.

(Related: WAS THERE a female character in Heroes who didn't have "lack of agency and control" as their superpower? I gave up relatively early, but I hadn't heard of any changes to the formula before the show got cancelled.)
Jul. 14th, 2012 03:06 pm (UTC)
The funny thing is, vampires have been an excellent and flexible metaphor for "deviant" sexuality and the dangers thereof ever since John Polidori made his syphilis-addled boss into the star of his vampire story. Vampirism as STD is, in fact, a hell of an apt metaphor. But then you get Anne Rice, who noticed that vampirism was all about weird sex, made the logical connections to the increasing acceptance of actual queer people, and fucked it all up.

I blame A.E. van Vogt and his book "Slan" for the "mutants with fantastical powers are SO persecuted and it's SO hard to be one" meme. This is the first book I'm aware of where being a mutant (telepath) was treated as a status which garnered unjust persecution, and "fans are Slans" has been a Thing since--an old-school rallying cry nerds who feel that they're persecuted not for actually having mutant powers, but for liking Star Trek.

Basing a comic around a central metaphor like queerness also makes it difficult to have intelligent fannish discourse about the implications of the actual events taking place in the comic. X-Men movie fandom is possibly the only place in the world where pointing out that keeping tabs of people who are capable of setting fire to an entire city by blinking might actually be a good idea will make people call you a self-hating queer.
Jul. 16th, 2012 10:48 pm (UTC)
We never learn in any real detail what the rebellion was all about, leaving open the possibility that the Browncoats were ‘defending’ a particularly loathsome ‘freedom’, like the Confederacy during the American Civil War. But this isn’t important to Whedon; he can’t even be bothered to clarify the nature of the Alliance, which at various times is portrayed as a sort of corporate fascist oligarchy, a totalitarian security state, and an entrenched aristocracy, which are all basically incompatible.

I think that's part of the point, even if Whedon never understood the point he was accidentally expressing: Joe Average Unreconstructed Confederate (eg Mal, Debbie Schlussel, Congressman Steve King) doesn't really understand what his enemy is or why it is his enemy or even who they are apart from "the enemy". All he knows is that they told him he couldn't keep doing whatever unacceptable shit he was doing, therefore they are evil in whatever way he chooses to paint them as at any given time.

In that light, the constant shifting of the nature of the Alliance can be move from "shitty writing" into "writing where the author had NO IDEA that he was so perfectly expressing a platonic ideal"


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Leonard Pierce is a freelance writer wandering around Texas with no sleep or sense of direction. If you give him money he will write something for you. If you are nice to him he may come to your house and get drunk.

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