Posted in extra credit

Alternative Facts Follow-Up

(Written by Martha S.)

I wanted to follow up our episode on news media with a short discussion of why I picked the topic to begin with. As I have said on the podcast many times, I’m a librarian, and specifically I am a teen services librarian. One of the foundations of my profession is providing access to, and helping people find, reliable information, a principle which is more important than ever these days and particularly for teens, who are far less likely to go beyond their curated social media feeds to find alternate or corroborative sources of information. Teaching information literacy is no longer optional for librarians, it is a necessity. Because of that, I thought it would be useful for us to look at how pop culture presents the news and journalism, and how we react to that.

This past Saturday, Melissa McCarthy returned to SNL to reprise her role as Sean Spicer. Her portrayal has been brilliant, I think it’s fair to say, and highlighted something about the way Spicer is dealing with his role as the disseminator of information for an administration that tells us nothing but lies: hostilely. Spicer, and our current White House, are our antagonists, and they are helping foster a culture of distrust and skepticism when it comes to the news. Our first reaction is to assume that he’s lying (because he is).

One of the things I thought was striking about all the homework we talked about in this episode was that the news sources in them are treated first and foremost as being trustworthy, and then only later shown not to be: CJ is a trustworthy source of information, which is how she gets away with sidelining stories that should be a bigger deal. The Daily Prophet can spread misinformation about Harry Potter because it has a reputation for telling the truth. No one questions Glass’ articles because the New Republic has a good reputation. When we find out those things aren’t true (in the case of The West Wing, we see this develop over the course of the episode), we are meant to feel betrayed. This isn’t how the news is supposed to work! And yet, it does, and recently, it does often and without shame.

Anyway, I don’t really have any more profound thoughts than that I’m sad that our news media culture has turned into one of distrust and hostility. I don’t think it’s new, clearly news has always been a cultivated experience for us so that the people in charge can control the way the population thinks and feels about things (which sounds WAY more 1984 than I thought it would, yikes). I hope some day we get back to a place where I can read a headline and not feel the urge to cross-check in on four other sites, if for no other reason than that I don’t have time for that every day.

Supplementary Materials

Lois Lane: Fallout
The first Lois Lane YA novel by Gwenda Bond, this series follows a teenage Lois as she investigates and exposes scandals for her high school newspaper. Clark Kent shows up only occasionally as a texting partner for Lois to bounce ideas off of, which is really the best use for Clark. I mentioned (awkwardly) in the episode that the relationship between journalism and superheroes is fascinating to me, and it’s fun to read about one of comics’ most famous journalists in her nascent teenage years.

Wag the Dog
A 1997 film directed by Barry Levinson that shows some truly epic misdirection from a president’s shenanigans (Dustin Hoffman invents a war in actual 1984 style to take attention away from a president’s sex scandal, and oh man do I wish that our president would actually be punished for a sex scandal to the magnitude that would necessitate a fake media war).

“Waiting on the World to Change” by John Mayer
Political music was something we didn’t really have a chance to touch on in the episode, and maybe that’s because it wasn’t totally germane to the conversation. Music, after all, doesn’t really get used as a delivery tool for news – it can’t be timely enough. The closest it gets, I think, is as a way for musicians to enter the news conversation; it’s commentary on the environment rather than an informative source itself. But I appreciate deeply the lyrics from this song (despite not being a huge fan of John Mayer), particularly the lines “And when you trust your television/ What you get is what you got/ But when they own the information/ they can bend it all they want.”

Posted in extra credit

Sacrifice Follow-Up: The Art of Intent

(Posted by Martha S.)

Let’s talk about intent.

Pete and I got into possibly our most pedantic argument yet in our sixth episode, where we realized we’d been thinking about “sacrifice” in two very different ways: as a function of the story (for Pete), and as a function of character intent (for me). I’ve been giving this a lot of thought and unfortunately for Pete, I’m going to have to double down on my position: I think sacrifice is something that a character does, not the plot.

Mirriam Webster is pretty non-partisan on the issue: the dictionary defines “sacrifice” as “something offered in sacrifice; destruction or surrender of something for the sake of something else; something given up or lost.” Phrased like that, you could look at the active agent as being the story or plot – giving something up (say, killing a character) in service to the story that is being told. However, I think intent is too important to ignore in this case, and I don’t think a story can be said to have intent. An author absolutely has intent. Characters have intent. Those things combined create your story, which in and of itself has no existence outside of those intents.

Pete’s definitions work fine as a guide to how sacrifice works inside of a narrative, but I’m not sure how useful that is if we’re talking about what a sacrifice means to a character or to that narrative.

Other supplementary materials we couldn’t quite squeeze in:

The Book of Life
A seriously beautiful fable set against the backdrop of the Day of the Dead. Not only does it feature an unwitting (not unwilling – for the distinction, see below) sacrifice, but it also manages to give us a lovely hero’s journey in the bargain. Manolo, our hero, gives up his life to be reunited with the woman he loves – only to find out he’s been tricked, she isn’t actually dead, and now he has to journey through the Land of the Dead to regain his life and save his village.

Constantine: Hellblazer
Oooh, John Constantine. The master of what I’m going to refer to as the “screwball sacrifice” – the sacrifice that looks serious on the surface, but underneath you find that he has given away nothing and taken everything (and then underneath THAT you realize he’s given up more than he perhaps banked on in the first place). In one of his key stories, “Dangerous Habits,” he sells his soul three times and somehow ends up cured of lung cancer; in “Critical Mass,” he separates the worst parts of his soul (and all the other stuff he doesn’t want to deal with) and sends them to hell in his stead. Not to mention all the times he’s put unwitting or unwilling sacrifices into play “for the greater good.”

The Wicker Man
Perhaps the one kind of sacrifice I am willing to admit is plot-driven rather than character driven is the unwilling sacrifice – the people who offer someone up for their own gains, without that victim’s consent. The Wicker Man (the 1973 masterpiece featuring Christopher Lee, not the hilariously misguided 2006 remake starring Nicholas Cage) is a prime example of this, with a whole group of people not only sacrificing the poor unwitting Sergeant Howie to ensure their own prosperity but also thoroughly misleading, confusing, and abusing him. They offer up something that is not theirs to give, but I think it qualifies as a sacrifice nonetheless.

A note about Disney films: almost the entire Disney oeuvre contains a sacrifice of some kind. Typically, it involves our female lead giving up something in order to save someone (Anna in Frozen, Pocahontas in Pocahontas, Jasmine in Aladdin), or to be with the man she loves (Ariel in The Little Mermaid, Belle in Beauty & the Beast, Tiana in The Princess & the Frog). The use of sacrifice for the main character to gain something they want seems to be a distinctly female trope; selfless sacrifice (or heroic sacrifice, for the sake of others), seems to be distinctly male – unless we’re talking about sacrifice for the sake of family, which again, is codified as very female.

I was going to try and rewrite that last paragraph to make more sense, but I think the point is actually salient, so instead I’m just going to add: in general, female characters seem expected to make personal sacrifices in order to preserve familial structures (I’m including marriage as well as sibling/parent family in this generalization), while male characters are expected to make physical sacrifices for the sake of heroism. Obviously, there are exceptions to everything and characters that do not fall in any of those neat categories (Mulan springs pretty immediately to mind, but then, her story is all about subversion of gender roles so she may be reinforcing my point anyway), but it seems to me to be pretty clear: women are expected to sacrifice for the things they want. Men are expected to sacrifice for the greater good.

In conclusion: bees.


Posted in extra credit

Sidekicks Follow-Up: Logan, the Tragedy of Carrie Kelly, and Other Ephemera We Forgot

(Post by Martha S.)

So if you listened to our fifth episode on heroes and sidekicks, you may have noticed that we all got a little riled up right at the end – en masse, right when we were out of time, we all remembered that we had not touched on the film Logan or Wolverine’s long string of cute girl sidekicks that he’s had throughout the history of the X-Men comics. I wanted to that a bit here, and also address some of our additional materials that didn’t make it into the episode, and also ruminate on the tragedy of Carrie Kelly (particularly in contrast to Wolverine’s many female sidekicks). Here we go!

Logan is a wonderful movie, and a lot of the reason for that is the relationship between Logan and Laura, the tiny homicidal X-23 character. (X-23, if you’re not familiar, is a female clone of Wolverine that shows up first in the TV show X-Men: Evolution and then later on in a handful of X titles.) Laura is a feral, powerful, tragic little girl who is more comfortable decapitating bad guys than obeying rules. She needs the gruff, militaristic hand of Logan in order to pull back from the edge, and it turns out he needs someone to protect and defend. I’m not sure that Laura quite makes the leap from “escort quest” to sidekick, although others may disagree – but the fact remains that Wolverine has a history of mentoring younger women who then grow up and get their own solo books or at least get to be the principal at mutant academy.

Over the course of his history, Wolverine has mentored Kitty Pryde, Jubilee, Armor, and X-23 (and Rogue in the original Bryan Singer films), and even has one fantastic comic issue with Kamala Khan. His take-no-bullshit attitude seems to do well with angsty teenagers, who bounce off of his tough exterior and come out stronger on the other end (while he gradually softens). It is a relationship I consistently enjoy reading about, especially when you contrast it with…

Carrie Kelly.

Oh, Carrie. The one bright spot in the (unpopular opinion) dreary and drudging The Dark Knight Returns, no Robin has been treated as unfairly by creators as Carrie (although Jason Todd may disagree). In TDKR, she’s fun, spunky, bright and humorous, even when she is totally and age inappropriately saving Bruce’s butt. I love HER and hate the way she’s handled in the book – she’s thirteen, has no connection to Bruce other than an idolizing fascination, and basically gets stolen from her apathetic family to help run his brigand of Batboys in The Dark Knight Strikes Again. She also gets a horrible costume change and dramatically declares her love for Batman when she appears to be dying, a love Mark Millar contends is paternal in nature (I think the text strongly disagrees with this assertion).

There is also the case of Batgirl, who can arguably be counted amongst Batman’s various sidekicks, and who while having a very successful solo comic career has also been forced into the “actually I’m in love with you” sex vehicle character (this jumped the shark in the horrible animated rendition of The Killing Joke released last year).

So why the difference? Batman and Wolverine are both serious, world-weary men with a penchant for attracting young people. Why do Wolverine’s female protegees get to go on to bigger, better and more independent (and less lovesick) endeavors? I don’t really have an answer for you, except that historically Marvel treats their female characters better than DC. Please feel free to discuss below.

Other supplementary materials we wanted to make note of:

Captain America: The First Avenger. Notable for its bait-and-switch narrative: Steve begins the sidekick to suave, handsome, tall Bucky Barnes, before being embiggened and taking on the leadership role after he’s Captain America-ified. I love this flip of the trope because Bucky could get all gross and emasculated, and he totally doesn’t. His bromance with Steve is there to the end of the line, and he’s not only happy to follow Steve, but proud to do so.

Grayson, vol. 1: Agents of Spyral by Tom King and Tim Seeley. The short-lived spy drama that Dick Grayson occupied for a while in between Nightwing books. Shows the versatility of his character, and also lots of great action and good use of Helena Bertinelli.

The First Heretic by Aaron Dembski-Bowden. If you’re not familiar with the sprawling mythos of the Warhammer: 40K universe, let me sum up quickly: for a while there were hulking supersoldiers who defended a galactic empire from hideous, beyond-our-comprehension forces and gross aliens. The most important of these turned traitor, gutted the empire, and now everyone lives in a really shitty universe where there’s an equal possibility of being eaten by aliens or disemboweled by a demon. The First Heretic tells the EXTREMELY compelling origin story of the guy who’s fault it was, and is a really cool example of someone who thinks he’s in charge very much not being so. His adviser, a perfect Bastard Understudy, feeds him BS until he’s compelled to unravel the very fabric of the empire of man. I highly recommend you check out the Horus Heresy series of novels.

The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness. A YA novel about all the OTHER characters in a YA story, and what they’re doing while the heroes are off saving the world. I mentioned it as my pop culture credentials back in one of our early episodes.

The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett. The beautiful thing about the titular Wee Free Men in the Tiffany Aching novels of the Discworld series is that not only are they totally dedicated to helping Tiffany as their patron witch, but they do so in a DELIGHTFULLY cheery and bloodthirsty manner.

Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkein. Everyone needs a Sam to their Frodo, amiright?