Beauty and the Beast (2017): It's the Beast (Not Belle)

Like in Jane Eyre, the male protagonist wears great coats.
The Beast makes this movie. Not Belle, unfortunately. Not this version anyway.

Casting Emma Watson as Belle is rather like casting Joan Fontaine as Jane Eyre--she doesn't exude waif-like dreaminess. She exudes the kind of levelheaded commonsense that can handle Ron Weasley, a large manor house, and possibly the role of prime minister. (Keep in mind that Joan Fontaine could be perfectly cast--check out Rebecca.)

Levelheaded commonsense is not a bad characteristic for Belle to have; it simply doesn't fit the original Disney lyrics nor the 2017 movie's casting.

Which is a pity since the casting is otherwise excellent.

Luke Evans and Josh Gad as Gaston and LeFou are well-cast, well-acted, and hilarious. Luke Evans' Gaston doesn't initially come across as boorish so much as down-to-earth, perceptive, and even fun to hang out with. Why wouldn't this Belle be interested? If the village is as boring as she claims, he is the most interesting thing around.

Of course, his descent into villainy underscores the theme: as Gaston loses any remnants of good behavior, the Beast gains in good behavior (Jean Cocteau's solution of having the same actor play both Beast and Gaston/Avenant is thematically ideal--but way too confusing a visual for a Disney movie: this is the studio that split the wolf/prince roles in Into the Woods).

The voice casting is perfect: Thank you, Ewan McGregor! In fact, as in the animated version, the song "Be Our Guest" is a magnificent old-time musical number headed by strong singers who are willing to be total hams when required.

And Dan Stevens as the Beast is excellent. As in any good Beauty & the Beast version, we come to adore him. Dan Stevens not only has a great voice (even without the Beast "filter"), the makeup/CGI gives his face the same surprising mobility of the animated Beast. The added bonus here is that his prince self is recognizable as the Beast. (But yeah, it's still not the same--I get a kick out of Belle's line: "Have you ever thought about growing a beard?")

In fact . . . we get to know the Beast too well. Dan Stevens' interpretation of the Beast fits the original version and the personality of the original Belle. He is erudite, dry-witted, a romantic at heart, history-minded, interested in architecture, given to big-hearted gestures. 

Belle 2017 is . . . I have no idea. I guess she reads, but she doesn't seem to do it very often (and she behaves as if she is reading to escape her boring life, not because it mesmerizes her--real readers read to breath).

They don't fit.

Again, a practical, down-to-earth Belle would make an entertaining possibility--she and the Beast could discuss the stock market, debate Hayek and Keynes, ponder the Black Swan effect.

That's not what this movie was trying to do.

Perhaps the solution is to go back to animation: Moana produces a pragmatic dreamer as the utterly likable female protagonist (Auli'i Cravalho as Moana)--while Dwayne Johnson as Maui makes a carefree, rollicking Beast (who should never change).

Of course, there are few things in life that top a ship of coconut pirates. Seriously. Not anything really can top that. 

R is for Raskin

Ellen Raskin wrote the Newbery Award Winner, The Westing Game. The Westing Game is a great book and one that carries a special place in my heart.

As a youngster, I had difficulty reading on my own. The Westing Game was the second book I ever read to myself (the first was about a cat) where I got so lost in the narrative, I forgot about whether or not I was reading slowly.

That was the beginning of the beginning: the ability to read in lines at the post office, at the DMV, during traffic jams . . . and also during math class, while working as a receptionist, during church . . .

Again, The Westing Game is a great book. However, it isn't necessarily the most memorable Ellen Raskin book for me. I quite like two of her lesser known works:  
  • The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel) 
  • The Tattooed Potato and Other Clues.
The latter is an art-related mystery with Encyclopedia Brown-like anecdotes (can you guess the answer to this problem?) threaded through with gentle pathos. Her female and male protagonists are similar to Turtle and hmmm-hmmm from The Westing Game (I'm not going to give him away!).

Great illustration from The Mysterious
Disappearance by the author
The Westing Game has been made into a television movie, Get a Clue! (which grasps the idea and sells a lesson but misses the complicated human relationships, the irony, and the essential characters of Turtle and hmmm-hmmm). The Tattooed Potato should be made into a television series.

The New Determinism: Genetics in Popular Culture

It is troubling, though not entirely surprising, to realize that not only was Thomas Jefferson less than willing to practice what he preached--an end to slavery--but that a fundamental part of his being believed that slavery was justified: that by their nature, blacks were inferior to whites. Less progressive. Less able to nobly advance.

And one shouldn't forget the long-held belief in English society that servants were  inherently inferior to their masters. When Pamela by Samuel Richardson reached Twilight-acclaim among its readers, its detractors hurried to point out that Pamela, bride of the squire, had been--gasp, gasp--a servant! Was it really possible, asked the detractors, for servants to have the sense of self ascribed by Richardson to his creation? Weren't servants . . . well . . . little better than cattle? Capable of speech certainly. But not capable of extensive thought.
The above examples have their roots in environmental determinism, the belief that a "character of a entire peoples is decisively determined by their geographical location." The link to slavery or servitude is that (1) due to their environment, such a people are conquerable; (2) once they are conquered, they "acquire a slavish personality unfit for life in freedom" and can never change back. Hence environment and lineage are linked, reflecting the underlying assumption that "the essence of a person is almost exclusively determined by his ancestry and far less or not at all by his own deeds and choices in life" (Isaac).

What astonishes me is not that these theories have fallen out of style--as well they should. What astonishes me is how rapidly human beings have switched the same rhetoric to the discussion of genetics.

Writers like Steven Pinker and Judith Rich Harris arguably needed to make the general populace aware of the impact of genetics and, more basically, the wiring of the human brain.  In Blank Slate, Pinker argues against the idea that humans are born into the world as empty globs of clay--which parents, environment, and culture then mold into people. He uses the acquisition of language as the obvious flaw in the blank-slate theory: children are born with the ability to acquire language. They are not taught how to acquire it.

Developmentalists (advocates of nurture over nature) challenged (and still challenge) the impact of genetics/biology. At their most extreme, developmentalists in the 1950s and 1960s traced mental illnesses like autism and schizophrenia to parental behavior, specifically the "refrigerator mother." These arguments are no longer common currency, but the dependence on environment/nurture explanations remains.

As Harris illustrates in No Two Alike: "Many [developmentalists] had spent their entire professional lives doing research designed to show how parents mold their children's personalities. Not whether parents mold their children's personalities but how they do it. That parents have this power was something the developmentalists simply took for granted."

Harris goes on rather wryly, "Developmentalists are still plentiful but...over time they have become more modest in their claims and less strident in their denunciations."

It has taken literal decades for the role of genetics to be appreciated within mainstream and popular culture.

And yet the moment it became accepted . . .

About blacks, Jefferson argued:
They seem to require less sleep. A black, after hard labour through the day, will be induced by the slightest amusements to sit up till midnight, or later, though knowing he must be out with the first dawn of the morning. They are at least as brave, and more adventuresome. But this may perhaps proceed from a want of forethought, which prevents their seeing a danger till it be present. When present, they do not go through it with more coolness or steadiness than the whites . . . In general, their existence appears to participate more of sensation than reflection. To this must be ascribed their disposition to sleep when . . . unemployed in labour. An animal whose body is at rest, and who does not reflect, must be disposed to sleep of course. Comparing them by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination, it appears to me, that in memory they are equal to the whites; in reason much inferior, as I think one could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid; and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous.
If this makes your skin crawl, it should. What amazes me is when people who would turn from Jefferson's declarations in disgust spout something like the following:
That boy requires less sleep. Have you met his family? His father is exactly the same. It must be in the genes. After a hard day's labor, he will be induced by the slightest amusements to sit up till midnight despite knowing he must be up at dawn. His brothers are just like him; they are also brave and adventuresome, so that must run in the family too. But this may be due to a want of forethought, which all the family has, and which prevents their seeing a danger till it's happened. When in danger, they do not exhibit the same coolness or steadiness as that other family down the block, but of course, that other family obviously has better genes. The first family isn't half as intelligent since they are disposed to sleep when unemployed like animals at rest. Regarding memory, reason, and imagination, in memory they are equal to that family down the block; in reason much inferior, as I doubt any one of them is capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid (no getting into Harvard for them!); and in imagination, they are dull, tasteless, and weird--but oh well, that's the genes they were born with.
Perhaps the reader would like to argue that because Jefferson's statement if about an entire race and
Henri-Baptiste Gregoire, the priest who disagreed
with Jefferson. As Ferling points out, "Many of
Jefferson's contemporaries...more zealously opposed
slavery . . .  [others] concluded that the perceived
character and habits of blacks were attributable to
the malicious environment of slavery, not to race"
(my emphasis).
the second statement is (only) about an entire family, the argument about the family is not rooted in determinism. Except Jefferson was perfectly willing to propound his argument despite his treatise being refuted by a French priest with a broader knowledge of the world than Jefferson. In other words, Jefferson was perfectly willingly to create a racial or geographical deterministic argument based on very little knowledge. How is that better than people with only a rough understanding of genetics--which is most of us-- declaring that they know why a person or a family are the way that they are?

In Culture Map, Erin Meyer tries to elucidate the differences between various cultures' management styles. Hers is a pragmatic and necessary exploration of environmental, cultural, and (perhaps) genetic differences. But Erin Meyer is not telling us why these differences exist. Although she makes a cursory and self-deprecating attempt in the forward, she admits that it is futile. She honestly doesn't know why. She honestly doesn't know how environment, culture, genetics--and hey, remember free will?!--come together. And she doesn't pretend to know what will happen in the future. She is not declaring that "this is so because . . . and hence will remain so." She is arguing, "This is so, so how does one deal with it?"

In other words: there is a tremendous difference between pointing out genetic puzzles and giving those puzzles meaning.

Deterministic rhetoric focuses on meaning. And the rhetoric surrounding that meaning is often dogmatic, self-sustaining, and relentless in its search for so-called related outcomes. (In No Two Alike, Judith Rich Harris points out with devastating specificity the problem with pinpointing actual correlations, not merely perceived correlations, within the social sciences.)

In response to all this determinism, yet another generation has to battle for the philosophy of free will and the individuality of the human soul. (Haven't we done this already?)

As a proponent of free will, I consider the meaning of deterministic rhetoric to be the following: determinism is a powerful lingual coping mechanism. And many people choose it as a way to cope. After all, even Locke didn't intend tabula rasa to become an excuse for Freud--it was suppose to free people, not lock them into pre-determined roles. And yet that's how it got used.

Whatever comfort it brings to the individual, determinism is not and never will be good science.
  • Ferling, John. Setting the World Ablaze: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and the American Revolution. Oxford University Press, 2000.
  • Isaac, Benjamin. The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity.  Princeton University Press, 2004.
  • Harris, Judith Rich. No Two Alike: Human Nature and Human Individuality. W.W. Norton & Company, 2006.

Etymological Fun

Not a real Victorian card. (I hope that is obvious.)
I recently researched "belated" as in "belated birthday." I discovered that the term was not commonly used before the 20th century.

It did exist before the 20th century. In the 17th century, it meant "overtaken by darkness" which makes any such birthday sound like a post-apocalyptic event.

On the assumption that even the Victorians must have sent birthday cards late, I did some research.

1950s card.
And . . . as far as I could tell--no, they didn't.

The craze for "oops, I forgot" cards seems to have taken off in the 1950s, which dovetails with the increased use of the word "belated."

Real Victorian card
So I guess the Victorians figured a person was lucky to get a card, no matter when it arrived.

Wonder Woman (2017): Kate's Review

I liked it.

Here's why:

First, the cast is excellent. The names are not top-billing; they are top-tier. Across the board, the acting is solid.

Gal Gadot is magnificent. She has more of the Lynda Carter look than any female superhero in the movies or the comics. She's beautiful but not so overwhelming, she seems unapproachable. And she has an extra dose of vulnerability, making her relatable as well as approachable. To me, surprisingly enough, the most heart-aching part of the movie is when she crosses No Man's Land alone. Maybe it's my increasing age (the theater included me, a younger woman, two younger women and their boyfriends, and about four older couples) but it tore at my heart to see her thinking she could fix the world and the town with this single noble act. Three-quarters of the way across the field, she kneels to take a barrage of bullets. She can handle it; she's a goddess; she's not going to die. And yet, she's so (temporarily) alone, I teared up.

Chris Pine is a more than decent Steve Trevor and not at all boring (Lyle Waggoner makes me so sleepy, my brain stops working). This Steve Trevor is self-effacing, passionate yet surprisingly non-argumentative. His passion doesn't stem from a need to force others to his view but from inward conviction. So he's confident in his masculinity without being condescending or demanding. (See below for comments on the ending.)

Most importantly, from a writer's point of view, there's an actual internal and external problem. The story-line is surprisingly tidy. Me, I don't think that frills are necessary. A decent arc is all a movie, novel, or short story needs.

Wonder Woman's internal arc is fairly mild, but it is established early on, built on throughout the movie, and paid-off exactly as required. The external problem is also paid-off (see below). There are no radical twists here, and there don't need to be. Tell me a story. Make it a good one. Don't try to make it something it isn't.

I admit to being initially a tad disappointed that the story was taking place in the past. But I got over that disappointment fairly quickly. And it prepared me for later outcomes.

The fight sequences are notable and fun to watch--very Matrix-y, and I thought the use of the lasso as both truth enforcer AND weapon was quite effective.

The movie resolves some of the issues Mike refers to in his critique. Since this is an origin story, Wonder Woman figuring out her motive--what do I care about and why?--becomes the plot. After the origin story is finished, of course, she will need to find additional and more concrete reasons.

Having a god be her main rival makes sense but does move the villainy way beyond someone even like the Joker. And in all honesty, I am the kind of person who likes to watch superheroes do things like rescue kittens out of trees and move people to safety when a dam breaks. However, Wonder Woman as pure goddess is a nice treat.

It's 2017! So Wonder Woman touting female power through a sexy costume is okay, and I appreciated that her look was part culture/part practicality/part comfort. I also appreciated the movie's initial point that although the Amazonians won on the beach, guns utterly change the equation when it comes to warfare (take that, stupid Ewoks!). Finally, the lasso as only capable of producing the truth so far as the villain understands it (see below) is a cool problem that I think should always have been part of the Wonder Woman package (it allows for some great conflicts).

I'm afraid that future romance and relatability may still be struggles for Wonder Woman. But this movie succeeded at providing (what I understand to be) the classic story without apology.

*Spoilers--I Mean It--I Give Away the Ending--You've Been Warned* 

(1) Steve Trevor

I sighed a bit when I realized that Steve Trevor was going to sacrifice himself. Elsewhere I've written about how death can be a writing cop-out. However, in this case, it was fairly inevitable. Supposing that Steve Trevor bailed from the airplane at the last minute? And was rescued by the Amazonians and nursed back to health? He might live as long as Steve Rogers' Peggy Carter--but there's no guarantee; Pine gives Trevor that Kirk-like joie de vivre even in his own death. The guy lives on the edge. He was always going to die young.

In fact, he was always going to die. No matter what. Diana is going to lose him. No matter what. That's part of her heartache. That's why ultimately, she and Superman become a couple. Their human lovers die. Death is what happens when a person isn't immortal.

So I accepted his death.

From Mike: And while his sacrifice could be seen as a bit cliché, and as the man making the sacrifice in place of the woman, I saw it as Steve doing what he did throughout the film: seeing what Diana was capable of, and letting her do it while handling the stuff he could do. Diana had a god to fight, so of course Steve is going to take out the plane. Obviously he couldn’t swap places with her. 

(2) David Thewlis as Ares actually took me by surprise. Keep in mind, I was surprised by the end of The Sixth Sense, so it doesn't take much. (I thought the writers were going to pull a real switcheroo and make Ares a woman, such as Dr. Poison.)

He is kind of a side-note. As Mike mentions, he doesn't have the clearest of motivations. However, I appreciated his Loki-like persona and arguments. The movie is not a philosophical one by any means. But his argument to Diana caps off both the external and internal conflicts. I was especially impressed that he makes his case while wrapped in the lasso: he believes what he is saying. The serpent always speaks in half-truths.

We don't hear Diana's inner rebuttal, but we've seen enough to understand why she rejects Ares. She truly enjoys people--their oddities, their funniness, their differences. She likes not only Steve Trevor but Etta Candy, Charlie, Sameer, The Chief, the townspeople, babies, the person she thinks Sir Patrick to be. She is honestly invested in their troubles and in their ordinary enjoyments. Rejecting Ares may be a no-brainer but it's a definite choice, and she makes it willingly.

As an origin story, I'm not sure that I'd place Wonder Woman with Christian Bale's Batman Begins. But it deserves to be placed within the origin-story pantheon.

Ha ha. A little Greek humor there at the end.

Wonder Woman (2017): Mike's Review

A couple (or maybe a few) years ago, I wrote an article for Kate about the Flaws of Wonder Woman as a character. And in many regards I still stand by the points I made. However, I feel that I was struggling to simply state the main problem: that Wonder Woman, as she existed, did not work, and would not work without a major overhaul of some sort. And my concern about that happening came down to two things:

1. After a major overhaul, would she still be Wonder Woman?  
2. Would the fans accept these changes?

And the answer to both, it seems, is a qualified yes. Wonder Woman has recently been changed quite a bit, and people largely seem to be enjoying it.

DC comics continuity has become famous for being something of a patchwork quilt draped over a moving target. The writers and the publishers are continually taking things apart, stitching them back together, and rearranging things in order to appease and attract both new audiences and longtime fans. As a result, DC continuity has seen at least five “reboots” in the last thirty years (Crisis on Multiple Earths, Zero Hour, Infinite Crisis, Flashpoint/New 52, and Rebirth). And in the years since my original post, Wonder Woman has been “overhauled” or “retconned” (a comic term here meaning retro-active continuity) at least three times…. Or two. Again, it’s how you measure it.

The Strazinski reboot that I mention in the previous article attempted to address many of my original points… and was met with hatred and scorn. Then Flashpoint/New 52 happened, and Wonder Woman found herself almost back to normal; but with a few twists, which were met with critical acclaim. Most of these changes were seen in the new movie, which despite my, uh, tangent, is what I’m supposed to be talking about. The film has succeeded in taking both new and old elements of Wonder Woman and fusing them in a way that works. And the current comic version of Diana is not far off from the one we see in the film.

Batman v. Superman
For a movie review, I understand I’m putting forth a lot of background information, but I want readers to understand that I went into this movie with two overriding concerns. The first was that Wonder Woman has traditionally been a difficult character to do well; the second was that despite Wonder Woman’s appearance being the best single moment of Batman v Superman, that film was overwhelmingly terrible. Man of Steel, while not nearly as terrible, still severely misinterpreted Superman and demonstrated the filmmakers' complete misunderstanding of what makes the character tick. And while Suicide Squad was fun, its lack of interior logic or believable motivations, combined with shoehorned world building, did little to reassure me that DC and WB knew what they were doing with their fledgling universe.

Wonder Woman is the savior that DC/WB has been searching for. While far from a perfect film, it avoids many of the pitfalls of previous DCEU films, and sidesteps or merely ignores so many of the things that made Wonder Woman so difficult a character to write.

As a film, WW avoids the dark and heavy tones of the previous DC films, and largely ditches their
Due to her background, it never occurs to Diana not to trust
Etta with her sword.
dark, gloomy and CGI-riddled aesthetics. The film is bright and colorful, genuinely happy and funny at times, and surprisingly moving. Aside from the villains, the characters are well-written and acted, and their motivations are pure and clear. Despite all of this, Wonder Woman’s true success is its treatment of Diana as a character and a hero, and the film’s decision to address the “girl power” aspect by nearly ignoring it altogether. Diana has no chip on her shoulder about being a repressed woman. She’s not out to prove herself to anyone, and frankly wouldn’t even understand why a man might question her abilities. The film uses Diana’s background as strength. She isn’t bothered by sexism, because for her it doesn’t exist. And she’s often able to show her worth before it has a chance to reach her.

That the film is able to do this while still taking place in a time period of reduced woman’s rights is even more extraordinary. I never felt that the film was trying to teach me that woman were equal to men, or preach to me about the evils of sexism. Instead, the film, much like Diana, seemed unaware that these were issues at all. They merely went about the business of telling the story of a hero, gender be damned.

With the introduction of Steve Trevor and his romance with Diana, I was worried about how things would proceed. Diana is essentially this statuesque Greek goddess who comes very close to embodying the male fantasy--a naive virgin eager to learn about the world from the first man she meets. I was a little afraid the movie makers would feel compelled to make Steve the assertive one in the relationship, making Diana submissive, and then try to show this in some sort of love scene.

Their relationship, however, is refreshingly even. They fall in love with each other for their own reasons. Traditional Steve was always kind of a jerk, I felt, kind of cocky. But this Steve is kind and always in awe of Diana. Their eventual love scene is handled with more class and respect than I've seen in a movie in ages (i.e., they don't show it).

I really enjoyed how the film handled Steve Trevor. While he tried to protect Diana at first, he ends up kind of chasing her around trying to talk her out of stuff.... Just to end up watching her do it and then backing her up unconditionally.

There is also an action scene at the midpoint of the movie, in which Diana first fully reveals herself as Wonder Woman, which is hands-down phenomenal. Not only was it everything I wanted from a Wonder Woman movie, it was everything I wanted from a Captain America movie. Wonder Woman’s theme music, an electric guitar and drum driven jungle rock riff, makes an impression as the best superhero theme in decades, and helps drive the action scenes expertly.

As I mentioned, however, the film isn’t perfect. The use and quality of CGI in the film is glaringly inconsistent. While at times it seems to blend beautifully, at others it is so obvious and poorly done it nearly pulled me out of the film. Diana’s powers and abilities, as well as Ares’, were equally inconsistent and ill-defined. While Diana’s new origin as a demi-god is from the comics, her powers of reflecting lightening, making a shock wave, and stopping bullets with some sort of invisible force field are all original to the film, and make little sense when thought about. And while Wonder Woman can fly in the comics, I left the film still unsure if she learned to fly or not. While these powers don’t necessarily bother me, the lack of any explanation does.

After my first viewing, I honestly considered the possibility that Wonder Woman may be the best superhero film I’d seen. However, after some thought I realized I was simply so relieved that the film was decent, and that the character was presented in a way truthful to the spirit of the source material, that I was giving the film a little more credit than it was probably due. In the end, Wonder Woman is a decent, and maybe even great superhero movie. And it may have been the shot in the arm the DC movie universe needed. But the film’s real success is found in its treatment of the main character not as an empowered woman but as a hero and, despite her origins, a human being.

Coming Next: Kate's Review

Guest Blogger: Mike Discusses 10 Fundamental Flaws of Wonder Woman

Re-post in preparation for a (mostly) positive review of the latest Wonder Woman movie (2017).

Not too long ago, Kate asked me to recommend some good Wonder Woman stories. As an avid comics fan, I can usually recommend dozens of different comics/graphic novels for either the hard core fan or the interested newcomer. Despite this, Kate caught me at a loss. Perhaps the most surprising thing about my inability to fulfill her request was that I was unaware of it! I believe my answer was "Oh, sure! Umm--" Right about then I realized I was in trouble.

I received a similar response from many comics fan friends. Not only were we unable to think of a defining WW run, none of us even realized it until we were asked. As we looked into the matter further, we found there is no defining WW story. For the most part, she just is, much like background noise in a phone call.

I believe, as Kate has suggested, that WW’s success really stems from the Lynda Carter television show. With a toned-down origin and clever acting, the character resonated with women of the time, enduring to this day. The resemblance of this character to the comics portrayal, however, is minimal. As she exists in the comics, WW has continually failed to be a character that fans can relate to and care about, despite having some very strong writers through the years.

Following are 10 reasons Wonder Woman in the comics has often proved inaccessible to a larger audience. Understand that these are the views of a thirty-something married man who has read comics most of his life and not a sexist teenager flipping through comics for skin and tight costumes.

Speaking of costumes . . .
Lynda Carter and Gal Gadot can pull
off the original costume. Many modern
graphic novels cover her up more.

1. Wonder Woman's costume is impractical.

I know many women protest it because they feel it’s sexist. Many men support it because it’s sexy. I, however, find it completely impractical. First, it’s a glorified swimsuit. While WW is super-powered, her costume should still be designed to provide some sort of protection and cover. If she’s going to bother with boots, surely she feels SOME leg covering is needed? The breastplate itself is metal. If a hero is going to bother with armor, surely she would wear it in more than one place?

Also, the color scheme makes no sense. While this has been explained a thousand different ways, the costume was originally designed to sell comics to patriotic comics fans. But story-wise, no matter HOW you explain it, there is no reason an Amazon warrior from Greek mythology would be wearing the stars and stripes. In addition, WW’s look is not even consistent with what the other Amazons wear in the comics. All of WW’s friends wear armor and Greek-inspired dress. Surely she would too?

2. Wonder Woman lacks an understandable motive.

Wonder Women is a Greek warrior molded from clay, given life by the gods of Greek myth, and raised on an island inhabited by nothing but women. While she has been known to have a private life in "the world of man," she divides most of her time between Themyscira and whatever Justice League headquarters are being used at the time. In other words, WW is completely cut off from mortal men and women and has no relationship or understanding of them. Why would she defend them or risk exposure of her people and the existence of the Greek gods when they have gone to such lengths to be hidden for so long? Especially for a race of beings that WW has every reason to believe is beneath her?

[Original Note from Kate: I think a series devoted to just this problem would be very interesting! Wonder Woman has to decide between isolationism/secrecy and humanity/exposure, between demi-god aristocracy and of-the-people mediocrity/meritocracy. However, it could end with her turning her back on her origins...

New Note from Kate: See upcoming preview.]

3. Wonder Woman lacks connection with humanity.

Likewise, with WW so cut off from humanity and all the cares and concerns of a mortal life, how are everyday fans expected to relate and connect to her? To be fair, some efforts have been made to give WW a secret identity and to involve her in the mortal world, but all these efforts reek of the "new girl in town" mentality and fail to really establish a connection between WW and humanity.

Lyle Waggoner: The most boring superhero's special-someone
in the history of superheroes' special-someones.
Wonder Women has a perfect physique, no need to work or pay the bills, and hangs out with arguably the most perfect and noble men on the planet. The closest thing to children she has is a sidekick (Wonder Girl) who operates almost completely independent of WW. As a reader, there is no "hook," nothing to make me care about the character or relate to her.

[Note from Kate: I argue that one reason Lois & Clark works is that the protagonist's human persona, Clark, is more real and important to him than his superhero persona. Diana Prince as Steve Trevor's lackey is simply a superhero in disguise.]

4. Wonder Woman lacks a good rival.

Wonder Women’s rogues gallery consists of Greek Gods and monsters, magic-powered villains, and totemic-powered individuals (like the Cheetah) who usually have no real reason to be robbing banks, meddling in politics, or really even trying to destroy the world. In fact, many of them share the same distance from humanity that WW herself has. Not only are none of them truly compelling, none of them provide a convincing or emotionally-fueled rivalry with WW.

5. Wonder Woman's combination of powers makes no sense.

Wonder Woman has super-strength, the enhanced senses of animals, nearly invulnerable skin, the ability to fly, and the Aphrodite-given gift of beauty (really). She also has a tiara that can be used as a boomerang-like throwing weapon, indestructible bracelets, and the lasso of truth.

I don’t even know where to start! WW being close to invulnerable would explain the skimpy costume…but if she doesn’t need armor, why does she need the bracelets? The lasso would seem to indicate that WW needs some trick to capture villains, yet she can’t leave them tied up with the lasso (it is gold, after all), and since she’s already beat them with her super strength before tying them up, why would she need a truth spell on men who already know she can kick their ass? I’m at a loss.

Not to mention, the tiara hardly seems like an accessory of someone trying to embody female empowerment.

[Note from Kate: There is a brand of feminism which touts girl-power: pinkness, Barbie, and make-up. However, WW doesn't really belong to this school of thought. Her rather odd creator was somewhat more fascinated with WW's dominatrix skills rather than her Barbie-like attributes. Still, making her a proponent of this brand of feminism would be a possible solution! If it was allowed, that is . . . see Mike's notes under 7 & 8 below.]

6. Wonder Woman’s role in the superhero community is redundant.

Black Widow: Successful Superheroine
She’s not as strong as Superman, Super Girl, or Power Girl, and while she can be a brilliant tactician, Batman still has her beat. Although she does have a connection to magic through the Greek Gods, this is easily rivaled by Captain Marvel (SHAZAM!) or Zatana. Even as the holder of the lasso of truth, questioning prisoners for information is far easier if you just have Martian Manhunter read the villain’s mind. Essentially WW is on the team because she’s been around for a LONG time. Even as the token female on the team, there are dozens of female characters better developed, more powerful, and easier to relate to for fans than WW.

7. Wonder Women is kept from the possibility of a romance.

Most graphic novels that don't pair Wonder Woman with
Steve Trevor pair her with the only man who can actually
literally handle a goddess: Superman.
Writing romantic relationships for Wonder Woman is so fraught with complications, the relationships often end up either jokes or controversy. I get annoyed by the idea that a strong female must either be gay or single. Yet, I also don’t believe that a woman MUST be in a relationship to define herself. However, Wonder Woman's untouchability (as both a hero and an icon) has so politically charged her love life, there is no possible relationship that would not end with fans marching on DC Comics’ headquarters. Consequently, WW is often without a romantic interest, robbing her of yet another thing that would provide depth and humanity to the character.

8. Wonder Woman isn't allowed to change.
While DC Comics and most writers understand that Wonder Woman is flawed, the fans fight any suggestion of change. Changes need to be made, but die-hard fans become defensive at the slightest alteration and often lash out so strongly that any long term changes to the character are usually reversed within a year or less. In the last five years, Wonder Woman has been blind, worn a cape and a sword, become a secret agent in her free time, murdered a super-villain on live television, and lost her powers and role of Wonder Woman. Yet all of these plot points were soon reversed, bringing WW back to her traditional status quo.

9. Wonder Woman can never escape being Wonder Woman.

The idea of Wonder Woman proving herself to be just as good as men continually affects the quality of her books. The extent to which this issue is explored varies with the writer. However, if a writer chooses to tone down the issue, he or she draws attention to the fact, often with a line like "Oh, I don’t have to prove I’m as good as you guys. I’m worried about doing my job!" which is still a very verbal political statement about the argument! There’s no way to escape it; it’s tied to the character.

10. Ultimately, Wonder Woman's is a mass of contradictions.

She is a well-endowed, beautiful princess who runs around in a swimsuit (that barely fits her), yet the character [or some of her fans] resents the derogatory idea of being viewed as a sex symbol. She is an Amazonian Warrior that actively fights crime, sometimes with a sword, even going so far as to kill, yet she is on a mission of peace to humanity (a humanity that she has little to nothing to do with). She is a model of female empowerment in an industry where the majority of the customer base is men. She was sent to protect and care for man, yet she does not trust mankind and has little to no interaction with the everyday person. She is presented as an American Icon, wearing the red, white, and blue, yet she was raised in a religious and political culture bearing no resemblance to the American system or its religious roots as "one nation under God." Ultimately, Wonder Woman has no consistent or relevant reason for existing, no mission statement that guides the character.

While any of these reasons alone would signal trouble for a character, combined they form a picture of an outdated and poorly constructed character that is so far removed from its readers that no real bond of affection can be formed. There is, however, some good news.

Hope for Wonder Woman

In recent months, the Wonder Woman franchise has been handed to J. Michael Straczynski, the writer of Babylon 5 and the mind behind the recent comeback of Thor as well as a hugely successful Spiderman run that ran for several years. Whenever Starczynski is handed a project, his trademark is moving the character into the present, using classic and new elements to create something accessible to everyone. His Thor run is a perfect example of how well he can pull this off.

With Wonder Woman, he had A LOT of work to do. And while the public is still reeling from many of the changes, which are drastic, I can tell you the changes have addressed nearly every concern listed above. In the New Wonder Women series, time has been altered and Paradise Island has been destroyed. Diana (Wonder Woman) has been raised by refugees of the Amazon culture in the underbelly of New York. WW has become a street-wise warrior, searching to fulfill her destiny to save her people and defeat the evil that has changed her world.

My hope is that these changes will be long lasting, avoiding the normal cycle of changing things up and returning back to status quo. Wonder Woman needed some serious retooling, and it seems that it has finally happened. Here’s hoping it lasts.

Speaking of Music . . .

The use of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" to promote religious videos/messages has always puzzled me in the extreme.

Cohen's "Hallelujah" is the mirror image to the Song of Solomon and passages by Old Testament prophets who use romantic images to discuss religious themes. In "Hallelujah," Leonard Cohen uses religious iconography to discuss romantic love.  David and Samson are evoked as confused and uncertain lovers who are overwhelmed by their beloveds. The song is about heartbreak (which makes it particularly odd when played at weddings). Specifically, the song is about how heartbreak can echo the pain or disillusionment of spiritual doubt.

Spiritual doubt is evoked to make the point about love, not love to make the point about spiritual doubt.

It is a magnificent song and requires a powerhouse voice to deliver its meaning. K.D. Lang's rendition (see above) defies orientation, speaking as it does to men and women. And it gets the meaning right.

As for context: the song is about romance yet it has been applied to multiple settings from weddings (mentioned above) to Shrek, the Winter Olympics, an episode of Without a Trace, and an episode of Numb3rs, which last uses it entirely appropriately.

The episode from Numb3rs is "Provenance" about the provenance (history) of a painting that was looted by the Nazis. The song plays in the background when the original painting is restored to the Jewish family who went to court to retrieve it; the scene is well-acted by the magnificent Gena Rowlands. The song works because the music itself carries an underscoring of triumph, yet the painting, like the lyrics, represent heartbreak: Gena Rowlands' character lost her entire family to the Holocaust. The music, lyrics, and scene echo the loss of family and race rather than the loss of an intimate relationship, yet, in this case, it works.

The song is meant for popular culture--transcendence within secularism--not religious ceremonies.

MOST RECOGNIZED LYRICS (combination of 1984 and 1988 versions; nearly all versions are cut or combined):

I heard there was a secret chord
That David played and it pleased the Lord
But you don't really care for music, do you?
It goes like this: the fourth, the fifth
The minor fall and the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah

Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you
She tied you to her kitchen chair
She broke your throne and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah

Baby, I've been here before
I've seen this room and I've walked this floor
I used to live alone before I knew you
And I've seen your flag on the marble arch
But love is not a victory march
It's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah

There was a time when you let me know
What's really going on below
But now you never show that to me, do you?
But remember when I moved in you
And the holy dove was moving too
And every breath we drew was Hallelujah

Maybe there's a God above
All I've ever learned from love
Was how to shoot at someone who outdrew you
And it's not a cry that you hear at night
It's not somebody who's seen the light
It's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah

Into the Woods Disney-fied

Danielle Ferland and Robert Westenberg (1991)
I'm usually not the type of person who complains about how Disney changed a classic--how it simplified or cutesified or lightened up a fairy tale. Since I found Grimm tales utterly terrifying as a child (to the point of having nightmares), watching the non-terrifying version never bothered me in the least. You want a bunch of mice to sing a song while dancing around a pastel set? Go ahead!

And I think that if I'd watched Disney's Into the Woods (2014) before I'd seen the off-Broadway and Broadway versions rather than the other way around, I likely would have enjoyed it.

Except I did see the Broadway versions first. I was puzzled when I heard that Disney was making a film. I was even more puzzled after I watched it. Well, not really--my reaction was "That's what I thought would happen. Why did they bother?"

Take, for instance, Little Red Riding Hood's song from Into the Woods (see below). If you think she's talking about sex . . . you would be right!

Well, she is and she isn't. She's talking about being swallowed by a wolf. And she's talking about all the stuff that people who write about fairy tales point out when they explain that they weren't originally written for children and that women wearing red cloaks might as well be yelling, "Hey, adolescence! Coming of age! Adulthood! Ever heard of it?!" 

Sondheim is about as Freudian as one can get outside of Freud and Camille Paglia, and Into the Woods doesn't stint on the psychology. The 1991 filmed Broadway version with Robert Westenberg as both prince and wolf, Bernadette Peters as the witch, Chip Zien as the Baker, and then 20-year-old Danielle Ferland as Little Red Riding Hood (she debuted the role at 16) is extremely frank about its Freudianism, but even the off-Broadway and immensely subtle version I saw on Halloween when I was 19 didn't hide its point.

Lilla Crawford (2014)
The point: life is a series of rites of passage that involve facing dark and enigmatic events--and facing them, to a degree, alone. Unless one is lucky. It isn't easy, and people get hurt. Sometimes, for instance, a young woman hits puberty, menstruates, and rejoices; sometimes a naive post-pubescent woman falls for a blathering idiot, gets pregnant, and loses her mind; sometimes a woman walks away from her safe life, commits adultery with a rogue, and literally loses her life. Sometimes a woman realizes she mistook romance for a relationship and walks away to start over with someone real.

And there's stuff in there about men. But I'm focusing on the women.

There's a cost to making hard choices. That's life. People have to "face the music" in all areas of their lives. No, they don't have to sing about it. But this is Broadway, so they will.

Unfortunately, regarding the first example, there's an immense difference between a 16-year-old, established Broadway performer singing Little Red Riding Hood's song in 1987/1991 and a 13-year-old singing it for a Disney film in 2014. The difference: the film pretended it wasn't about, well, anything really. The lyrics were sounds that a little girl sang after being rescued--sang to an adult, by the way, not to herself. It was explanatory and exculpatory, not self-reflective. Ultimately, the lyrics didn't actually MEAN anything.

The entire film was like this.

Okay, Meryl Streep was stunning. Otherwise . . .

I don't know what the word for "emasculation" is that would apply to everyone but that's what the Disney version did to Into the Woods. Tangled had more substance (and actually addresses the point).

I don't fault the studio by the way: in this climate where the pretense that teenagers are simply differently-shaped children has grown to bizarre proportions, a song about a young woman coming of age physically--especially sung by a practical prepubescent--would be outrageous and evoke instant "I am SO offended" responses.

I just don't see why Disney bothered.

Little Red Riding Hood's Song after Being Saved by the Hunter 

Mother said,
"Straight ahead,"
Not to delay
or be misled.
I should have heeded
Her advice...
But he seemed so nice.

And he showed me things
Many beautiful things,
That I hadn't thought to explore.
They were off my path,
So I never had dared.
I had been so careful,
I never had cared.
And he made me feel excited-
Well, excited and scared.

When he said, "Come in!"
With that sickening grin,
How could I know what was in store?
Once his teeth were bared,
Though, I really got scared-
Well, excited and scared-

But he drew me close
And he swallowed me down,
Down a dark slimy path
Where lie secrets that I never want to know,
And when everything familiar
Seemed to disappear forever,

At the end of the path
Was Granny once again.
So we wait in the dark
Until someone sets us free,
And we're brought into the light,
And we're back at the start.

And I know things now,
Many valuable things,
That I hadn't known before:
Do not put your faith
In a cape and a hood,
They will not protect you
The way that they should.
And take extra care with strangers,
Even flowers have their dangers.
And though scary is exciting,
Nice is different than good.

Now I know:
Don't be scared.
Granny is right,
Just be prepared.
Isn't it nice to know a lot!
And a little bit not...

Q is for Quiller-Couch and the Virtues and Problems of Beauty & the Beast

Arthur Quiller-Couch was a nineteenth-to-twentieth century British writer/collector of verse who belongs to the same tradition as Andrew Lang. He concentrated more on verse than folklore, yet he did create a number of fairy tale re-tellings, among them Beauty & the Beast.

Beauty & the Beast is unlike many other fairy tales since it was originally crafted as a literary piece in its own right. Although the history is too long to go into here, the original version was written by a woman for the French salons, seventeenth century bohemian get-togethers which focused on the arts.

Quiller-Couch's version lies somewhere between Marianna Mayer and Mercer Mayer's picture book (see dying Beast below) and Robin McKinley's more extended (and more altered) YA version.

Quiller-Couch attempts to address some of the ongoing issues, such as the sisters' jealousy. (McKinley disposes of this by having all the sisters gets along, a refreshing change; Disney, of course, disposed of it by making Beauty an only child.) Quiller-Couch's text provides motivations and thought processes. When Beauty accepts the family's new poverty with good grace, the sisters snarkily point out, "You have low tastes and were born to this kind of life." When Beauty's father returns with her rose and the story of the Beast, the sisters chastise Beauty for asking for the rose in the first place; didn't she know that pearls and dresses are easier to come by?

Quiller-Couch's Beauty is naturally--*sigh*--absolutely sweet and perfect, a problem that McKinley disposes of by making her a normal, bookish teen-going-on-twenty-year old, utterly relatable to the young fantasy lovers who read the book.

Quiller-Couch uses the device of the dream (used in some versions, not in others) whereby Beauty sees her human prince when she's asleep and believes him, at least initially, to be a captive of the Beast. The problem with this device is naturally the problem of fairy tale tropes. When the dream prince begs Beauty to rescue him by "not relying on appearance," you'd think she'd say, "By George! I bet the Beast is the prince in disguise!"

Hasn't she read any fairy tales and myths?

An interesting retelling would be if Beauty did tumble to the Beast's real identity early on but wasn't able to free him because she didn't really mean it.

Generally speaking, despite some problems (one more to go--see below), the tale flows well with few of the extreme oddities that attend tales like Hansel & Gretel (in which the parents must either be exonerated or villified) or Jack in the Beanstalk (why hasn't his mother sent him to live with some relatives by now?) or Puss in Boots (why doesn't Puss simply take over the kingdom himself?).

Beauty & the Beast was constructed as a written story and the bones of that original construction show. The father has a good reason to return to the city (to see if his fortunes have revived). Beauty has a good reason to take her father's place at the Beast's table (the Beast insists on certain terms being kept). The protagonists are allowed time to get to know each other. And few writers, or Disney, can pass up the opportunity to detail Beauty's entertainments in the Beast's castle--ranging from a library filled with all the books ever written to a window that looks out on the world, allowing Beauty to pass her time watching the equivalent of television (Quiller-Couch's interesting invention) to feeding the birds and having a snowball fight.

And the final scenes are well-crafted to deliver that moment of ultimate satisfaction--no, not the appearance of the prince but Beauty's rush to return to the castle and confess her love to the dying Beast.

And then he turns into the prince and everything falls apart.

This problem is so endemic to the story that writers continue to struggle with it. McKinley's Beauty is alarmed by the prince's appearance but then recognizes aspects of her Beast in the prince. Quiller-Couch relies on the assumption that any woman would prefer a prince to the Beast--it doesn't work. His Beauty has already argued with the dream prince about her preference for the Beast. The psychological problem of Beauty settling for dream boy instead of insisting on reality leads to serious doubts about the marriage's long-term success.
Somehow the transformation works better with
a snake. Anthropomorphizing a reptile is much
more difficult than a mammal.

And Disney uses the Beast, not the prince, in its parks' parades.

The astonishing aspect of Beauty & the Beast is that like all good description, show-don't-tell, it encourages the reader to fall in love with the Beast as much as Beauty does. In many ways, Tanith Lee's version--in which Beauty is so overwhelmed by the alien Beast's handsomeness that she returns home in stunning disbelief--is most accurate. She needs time to adjust. Eventually, she returns.

My review of Beauty & the Beast (2017) can be found here.

The Weird Trope of the Bucolic Paradise

Blame the Pre-Raphaelites for extolling a countryside
they knew was rapidly changing.
The weird trope of the bucolic paradise is that country living is more wholesome (moral) than city living.

It's weird because it is so utterly false.

Bucolic, insular, non-cosmopolitan milieus are far more likely to produce and indulge in grudge-bearing behavior than cosmopolitan, mobile milieus.

Salem Village is an excellent example of this. Salem Town was located on the water; it was trade-oriented and full of movement as well as the up and coming nouveau riche. Salem Village was agricultural, limited in space and filled to the brim with angry people, furious over various family spats and slights (mostly to do with money). Salem Village's fury turned into the Salem Witch Trials.

Likewise, in Medieval Europe, accusations of witchcraft--which happened far less than the lore of medievalism might lead one to believe--happened in batches. Such accusations almost always occurred in locations with locked-in, ongoing arguments and grudges.

Bourgeois business owners in high-trafficked areas don't have time to accuse their neighbors of being witches. Or the invested interest.

Sci-fi is more willing to admit the flaws in unified societies:
in the Star Trek: Voyager episode "The Disease", the
generational ship inevitably disbands.
The trope that country life is more wholesome (no one suggests that Heidi move to New York City) is a bizarre misreading of human nature. Shyamalan's The Village--though beautifully filmed--utterly fails to grasp this. Truth: that village would disband or self-implode within a generation, if not sooner. (The utopia Fruitlands with Alcott et al. lasted fewer months than the gestation of a human baby.)

Why such a gross misreading of basic human nature? The Industrial Revolution happened in part because people were sick to death of having to milk cows and count chickens. And yet many readings of history insist that people were somehow "forced" into the factories and/or urban environments (see Pre-Raphaelites). Sometimes, even the people themselves insisted on this.

Is it so difficult to admit, "Boy, I hate fresh air. I love nature . . . from the window of my car. I don't care where the beef comes from--so long as it shows up in the stores"?

When will humans embrace their urban-ity?

A Fife By Any Other Name . . .

Growing up in New York, not everyone I met knew how to spell "Woodbury." Here in New England, everybody knows how to spell "Woodbury"! In fact, I worked a few years at USM which is home to The Woodbury Campus Center. I had to inform people that no, unfortunately, I am NOT related to THOSE Woodburys.

Thinking back, I will always remember the young man at a high school track meet who half-seriously, half-jokingly, asked if I was a "Woodberry" or a "Strawberry" or a "Raspberry."

Names make for interesting fodder in life; therefore, they make for interesting fodder in sitcoms--after all, jokes aren't funny if people can't relate to them.

Two contrasting examples:

The classic is Wojciehowicz (Wojo) from Barney Miller. The ongoing joke is his insistence that "you spell it the way it sounds!" In one episode, he helps a woman give birth. When she decides to name her baby after him, he gives her "Wojciehowicz." She settles instead on "Stan," his first name.

The second classic example is a twist on the first and reminds me of an Isaac Asimov story.

Barney Fife from The Andy Griffith show, played by the marvelous Don Knotts, is often annoyed because newspapers (mis)spell his name as anything but Fife (the easiest name to spell in the world!):  Fice, Fike . . .

The Isaac Asimov futuristic story revolves around two brothers who are embarrassed by their odd name. Why can't they have a name like Wojciehowicz or Kowalski: you know, a typical, ordinary name? But no, they are burdened with that unusual name . . .