Wonder Woman

I saw Wonder Woman last night. After @jenningsaxfl voiced his disappointment, and @GKRaptorton said this was as expected, I rose to its defense. They asked for a review. Here it is, relatively spoiler-free, and short. By my standards.

 

I went into Wonder Woman expecting two things: feminism and cheap action thrills.

Given the superhero in question, and the current cultural climate, I expected Wonder Woman to be a story about girl power and the flaws inherent in mankind (males), who would of course have been ruining the world in the absence of sensible warrior-queen leadership. That’s not what I got at all.

This is not to say WW is not feminist in the sense of being something else. How could an Amazon heroine be anything but? It’s simply that the movie is just not that concerned with those themes. Instead, the differences between a woman-only and a male-dominated society is mostly played for laughs as Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor and Gal Gadot’s Diana get to know one another in the context of their two subsequent fish-out-of-water experiences. Even when she proved more capable in combat than any of the men in the “world of men,” it was not used to make a point about women being equally capable, but just like another super-powered human in a world of mere mortals.

So the first thing I began to notice was the degree to which it wasn’t feminist. The second was the way it played to my Mummy-loving heart.

A bit of context: I realize The Mummy is not the best film ever created, and it’s certainly not deep, but it’s easily one of my favorite. I’m a big fan of exploring strange worlds, of high adventure with a competent crew of odd individuals, played as much for self-deprecating humor as it is for the thrill of chase scenes and shootouts. I haven’t seen a lot that hits those notes and does it well since The Mummy. It’s kind of my gold standard for this sort of thing, I’d given up expecting something in the twenty-teens to give me that.

Wonder Woman did. Themyscira was a strange, interesting place. The architecture was very Greek, and the climate was very Mediterranean, which I suppose was to be expected, but it felt like somebody actually enjoyed creating that world. The Amazons have a weird semi-mythic, semi-scifi flair to their civilization, besides the weirdness of being women-only, that made it absolutely fascinating to try and figure out.

Then you throw in Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor. In many ways, he’s just the Chris Pine we’re used to. But Chris Pine is exactly the sort of heroic yet self-deprecatingly humorous presence that can capture something like what Brendan Fraser did in The Mummy. He goes through his fish-out-of-water tale, which I find to be pretty fresh. It doesn’t go for a lot of obvious jokes, and the ones it goes for are played pretty well.

Now Diana is really interesting to me. She’s got this thirst to see combat and to be a hero that I can very much relate to, having, y’know, been a kid once. What’s interesting is the way that’s played as maybe unhealthy, but more importantly, naïve. This kid does not understand what war is. She does not know what it means, what it costs, the ugliness of death and destruction, the darkness in humanity it exposes. She has never seen the darkness of humanity. She naively believes that all war can be ascribed to the influence of Ares, and that when he is killed, war will end. She believes mankind is basically good.

Now I don’t want to go into detail, but this is the heart of the movie. It’s not about girl power, though there are powerful girls. It’s not about dudes being sleezeballs. It’s about the darkness in humanity, the sin nature, and Diana’s coming to grips with its existence. It’s not played how you might expect—she doesn’t lose her ideals the moment she hears about dead civilians, or the first time she sees cowardly generals, or the first time she’s exposed to the horrors of WWI’s trench warfare and killing technology. Remember, she has Ares to blame for that. Or so she thinks.

But beyond the confrontation with what a Christian would call sin nature, there is the question of what to do about that. Wonder Woman has godlike powers, and the nature of the story allows her to do things for humanity no one else can. When she finally does realize what humans are, she has to decide what to do about it. That’s where this movie gets even more theological.

Now I’m going to back away from spoilers. I also got pretty deep into the themes of the movie, which really come out in the latter half, even if the groundwork is well-laid for it early on.

The first half consists of a lot more Mummy-style high adventure. London is as strange and foreign a world as Themyscira, and Diana has her own fish-out-of-water story to go through. There’s a ragtag band of scoundrels to be assembled, including a Scottish sniper with PTSD, an American Indian smuggler, and a lovable Middle-Eastern rogue who is the Lando of this feature, but with Benny from The Mummy’s hat. This movie’s got fights in alleys, sneaking into fancy German castles and scary German munitions factories, undercover dances at galas, aerial combat, ridiculous low-tier villains, a respectable boss, explosions, good fight choreography—it’s just a fantastic adventure.

But there’s one last element I want to mention, and that’s the romance. I kind of expected there to very pointedly not be one, because Diana’s a strong, independent woman who don’t need no man. That’s not what happened. Nor is there some sort of role reversal where instead of the girl always being the damsel, the guy is always being the damsel. Nor is she put off by his having her back in battle. She respects it and thanks him for it.

This is actually a love story, absent of any tortured gender politics that might have been inserted. There is some mild battle-of-the-sexes stuff, but it’s in the context of two people who fall in love in a very traditional way, with very traditional iconography. And it’s not shallow, either. There’s humor to cultural gap between them, but there’s also a lot of humanity to her soon-to-be-crushed idealism and his deeply scarred knowledge of the horrors of war and of human nature, but his willingness to keep fighting despite that. They have a common mission, not just in the literal movie sense, but in the sense of the kind of people they are. They are, dare I say it, helpers meet for each other. A complementary pair. And it’s moving, and tender, and also features mad suicidal dashes through no-man’s land. I like it.

So there you have it. This movie was far less political and far deeper than I expected. It was also a lively adventure in strange places with fun characters, theologically interesting, and rounded out with a dash of good old-fashioned romance. It is what Marvel wishes it could be, and what I never thought DC would become. Thanks to this movie, I am actually going to walk into Justice League with a smile on my face.

And if that doesn’t tell you something, I don’t know what will.

Sex and Gender, Extremes and Perversions

My brother is currently writing his senior thesis on biblical masculinity. This has proven a great excuse to think about a biblical understanding of gender generally, as if I really needed one. Homosexuality and transgenderism are the hot topics of the day, and even before that, American society has always had more than one model of masculinity and femininity in the running. And no wonder–our God-given sexual identity cuts to the heart of who we are individually, touching on every other aspect of our lives, often in the most surprising of ways. It’s a very important, very personal issue, one that bears a lot of thinking about and a lot of discussion.

One of the interesting distinctions that has come about in the wake of the LGBT movement is that between sex and gender. At one point, these two words were considered interchangeable, and for many people they still are. But each has acquired a more specialized definition: sex refers to one’s biology, and gender refers to one’s behavior. Some people maintain that the two are independent of one another, that one’s gender is either a choice, or determined by something other than the raw physical facts. “I’m really a woman,” says man with functioning man parts. One’s anatomy, say some, should not determine what bathroom one uses any more than one’s skin color should.

Objections to this come from a variety of places, and the alternatives offered do not always agree with one another. If males must be masculine, and females must be feminine, how does this work? What does masculinity and femininity look like? Where does it come from?

These are difficult questions to answer, and they’re not made any easier by the postmodernist’s favorite problem: diversity of cultural norms. Masculinity in Hong Kong, or in Tokyo, does not look exactly like masculinity among the San people, or in Beverly Hills, or rural Appalachia. A backwoods Pentecostal from Deep East Texas and a respectable Nigerian woman from Lagos may both think they are feminine, but may not recognize it in each other, or in that girl from Portland.

Those who assert that gendered behavior is more than a cultural reality, that it is tied to one’s biological sex, and that there is a moral component to this—a group among which I count myself—have various solutions to this conundrum. Some ignore or undersell the cultural diversity. Some just shrug it off as the effects of sin on societies the world over, content in the assumption that their understanding of how men and women should behave is the transcendent norm. Others assert that there are certain general trends in behavior, and certain unhealthy deviations, but that it really is difficult to determine precisely what these are. How is one to disentangle healthy human nature from its cultural expressions? Is such a thing even possible?

That project is difficult one, involving a lot of study. It’s easy for Christians to point to the Bible as a shortcut, the divine revelation which lays out right and wrong for us. In one sense, this is very true, but that doesn’t make it simple. Whether it’s a blue-jeans wearing redneck who just got back from work, or a respectable office worker in his suit who just came back to his 2.5 kids and wife in the burbs, we carry a lot of cultural baggage to our reading of the Bible. Half the population is male, and the other half is female, and we’ve spent our entire lives around them. We already have ideas about masculinity and femininity, and which Biblical passages stand out to us as relevant, and which interpretations of them make sense, will be heavily colored by that experience.

There is an added layer of complication when we begin citing accounts of facts as divine commands. Some evangelicals have a bad habit of interpreting bible stories as God’s examples for how we ought to live our lives, without stopping to ask whether they are intended to be interpreted that way. This can get very hairy, and very entertaining, as people try to hash out the truly biblical baptismal practice where no explicit command is given. There are also some downright ridiculous arguments for every conceivable mode of church governance based on vaguely worded statements of what New Testament churches did. None of these have the clarity and power of the Ten Commandments, a straightforward delivery of divine law, or of some of the commands of Jesus in the Gospels. We should keep this in mind when we address any topic, gender and sexuality included.

Some of my favorite discussions of masculinity and femininity come from people who take a look at the psychological and social impact of biology. How does the ability to get pregnant, having a body crafted to nurture new life, and having regular biological reminders of the fact, effect how women understand themselves? How does the disconnect between male experience of sexuality and male experience of reproduction effect how men view themselves? And how do each of these sets of facts impact how one sex/gender looks at the other?

I think this line of questioning is extraordinarily helpful. Chasing down that rabbit trail quickly reveals explanations for general trends in how men and women conduct themselves across cultures, and also sheds some light on the places where those cultures differ, and why. It also offers helpful suggestions as to why we are seeing this sudden trend of acceptance of LGBT culture in America. Some of the things that have long accompanied being a man or woman in America are being eroded by modern medical technology, among other things.

But as I was considering this the other day, another important distinction struck me. If one attaches moral implications to biological realities—a kind of natural law thinking—then a whole new set of questions come up. The fact is, technology does loosen the hold of biology on men and women. Some of this may be negative, but some is assuredly positive. The same hormone replacement therapy used by transgender individuals to more resemble the sex they identify as, is also used by people whose natural bodily functions, through disease, accident, or birth defect, have ceased. And this number is not as small as might be convenient for those of us with Luddite tendencies. Modern medical science has a real impact on gender and sexuality, and not all of it is what a Christian could, at face value, call bad.

Those grey areas, the twilight zone of these discussions, are not the only place that natural law arguments for gender norms encounter rough sailing. Say a young man growing up in the rural South went to an evangelical church every Sunday, attended a Christian school, listened incessantly to Focus on the Family, and filled his head with country music lyrics. Take another young man and raise him on Canon Press books, let him soak up courtship culture, expose him to John Piper and Mark Driscoll, and let him attend an ACCS school in the Northwest. In the grand scheme of world cultures, the two are not far apart, but ask them to point out feminism, or what headship means, and you’ll get answers that look nothing alike.

Obviously, this is an experiment I have conducted the entertaining way. Both of these individuals might agree that God has expectations regarding gender, might tie these expectations back to biological realities, and might generally agree that American culture is currently nuts on the issue. But that northwestern individual makes me very uncomfortable with his views on a woman’s place. I expect, based on experience and (I think) biblical precedent that a woman is fully capable of doing, and doing well, lots of things which that guy would say she should not do based on the fact that she is a woman. God has made men one way, and women another, and therefore women should not infringe upon masculine territory. His view of gender roles is far more ironclad than my own, in a very significant way, despite all the similarities we might have in common.

Should women initiate a relationship? Should she give a potential mate who is taking too long to pop the question a subtle hint, or leave such things to her father? Does her father have authority over her once she is old enough to provide for herself? Should a woman ever go out and provide for herself? Once married, should she take a job outside the home? Does the type of job matter? Should women be in the military at all, even in supporting roles? Is it acceptable or even desirable for a woman to be more intellectual, or even wiser than her husband? Should wives be willing to tell their husband they are wrong? How far is obedience commanded? Should marriage look more like a partnership, or like the relationship between a parent and a particularly competent child?

If you are not a woman reading this, imagine you are a woman reading this. See? This is where feminism comes from—two college guys sitting around debating the place of women. Maybe women should have a say in all this. But wait, isn’t this an issue of biblical interpretation? Are women allowed to talk about this stuff? I Timothy 2? See, it gets hairy quickly. Strong feelings are had.

At any rate, in my contemplation of the issue, and my consideration of past discussions, I realized the need for a crucial distinction. There is a big difference between saying someone is doing something which nature does not ordinarily allow them to do, and saying they are doing something which contradicts, twists, or denies their nature. Most men don’t run all that fast, yet Usain Bolt exists. Ordinary people can’t solve a Rubik’s cube in under sixty second, blindfolded. Yet these people exist, and I would hesitate to castigate them for it.

This distinction between acting contrary to one’s nature and being on the extreme end of it is an important one. One might argue from biology or from general observation of humans at work that some activities are far more normal for men and others for women. Yet I hesitate to say that this means women should not participate in activities ordinarily dominated by men, if they have the capability and the inclination.

That semi-imaginary northwesterner and I might both be on the conservative end of these issues, but, to cite a biblical example, he finds the prophetess Deborah a real inconvenience. Women are not supposed to be prophets. How can he explain this away? Maybe no men were doing their job at the time, so a woman had to? He likewise frowns disapprovingly at the apocryphal tale of Judith. I, on the other hand, think it’s pretty cool. Is it because I’m a sellout to radical egalitarianism? No, I just maintain a distinction he does not. Deborah and Judith may have been unusual, but they were not a perversion of femininity.

This places me in a position I am very comfortable with. I do not necessarily have as many pat answers as the self-proclaimed patriarchal crowd to the one side or the people who make gender entirely a social construct on the other. Their systems are much tighter than mine. But I can, on the one hand, embrace masculinity and femininity as beautiful things, as positive virtues, and, on the other hand, be perfectly content with the fact that a woman might be a much better scholar than me, a better leader, or play a much meaner game of volleyball. Especially the volleyball thing. I hate volleyball. You go girl, just leave me out of it.

This is certainly a perspective that includes serious expectations and even hard and fast rules, but it’s also a far more relaxed. Maintain this distinction, and you can take the people as they come, giving a little consideration to the fact that they are God’s servant, not yours, and there may be more than one way to be masculine or feminine, and there may be more going on than what you see at first blush. It allows you to—dare I say it—accept the fact of your own ignorance. And it’s charitable. I like that. It’s nice.

Also, what madman would want to get rid of Judith? Judith is freaking awesome.

Doctor Moreau Meets Queer Theory

What makes humans human? Is it only our physical attributes, our bipedal stature, the sparsity of hair, and opposable thumbs? Is it more subtle than that, something in our mental capacity and our behavior? Or does humanity have any real essence at all? If slowly all his attributes were traded for a beast’s, would there ever actually be a single moment when the human became inhuman? And what if that experiment was reversed, if a beast were given the attributes of a man?

A Monstrous Vision

The Island of Doctor Moreau is one of H. G. Wells’ science fiction classics, and one that treads close to the realm of horror. It features a biologist by the name of Edward Prendick who finds himself adrift after surviving a shipwreck in the year 1887. He is picked up by a passing boat, bound for a small island somewhere in the southwestern Pacific. Reaching the island, the captain of the vessel abandons him there with the cargo its inhabitant had requested—a shipment of animals.

Once there, Prendick realizes that the inhabitant of the island, one Doctor Moreau, fled more civilized regions for this abandoned place due to the controversial nature of his experiments. Prendick is not quite sure what these are, but from the abundance of animals and their tortured screams which endure for hours, he assumes it must include vivisection. Vivisection—surgical experimentation on live animals—was a very controversial topic at the time, and would continue to be for decades to come.

But it was not the cruelty of these live dissections that were the true horror of the island. As Prendick explores what will likely be his home for the better part of the next year, he comes across a group of people who vaguely remind him of pigs. Not long after, he is pursued by something bestial that, when seen in the open, is in the shape of a human, and is capable of standing upright. The next day, convinced Moreau is experimenting on humans, he flees into the forest. There he encounters an entire tribe of Beast Folk, resembling apes, dogs, goats, and things far more indescribable. They are led by a strange creature known as the Sayer of the Law, who chants out a series of rules which remind the Beast Folk how human beings ought to act.

Suddenly, Moreau bursts into the camp, and Prendick goes running. He is determined to kill himself rather than allow Moreau to experiment on him. The doctor manages to talk him down, and explains that the Beast Folk are all animals, not men. He has taken the surgical sciences and tried to push them to their limits, using every imaginable operation to transform animals into men. Nor is he only altering their outward form—he is educating them to the point where they seek to act human. This is the meaning of the Sayer of the Law.

While this is decidedly horrifying, it does ease Prendick’s fears for his own life. He settles back in with Moreau and his assistant, biding his time until a ship comes along that is willing to offer him passage back to the civilized world. Before this happens, however, a series of misfortunes rock the island.

First, one of the Beast Folk is found to be breaking the Law. Rather than allowing himself to be captured and further modified by Moreau, he forces the men and animals to hunt him in a wild chase across the island. Prendick kills him, but the men suspect he is not the only one breaking the Law. Soon another rebellious man-beast kills Moreau, and not long after his assistant is also murdered. The humans’ dwelling places also goes up in flames, leaving Prendick alone on the island with the Beast Folk.

As the months pass, he lives among them. Initially, many were very human in appearance and behavior. But slowly each one begins acting more and more bestial, and their bodies slowly lose their human appearance. Moreau’s experiments could alter them for a time, but could not change them for good.

At last Prendick finds a way back to the human world. He is thought mad by many, and he has no proof of the fantastic tale he tells. Accepting this, he tries to settle back into civilized society. Yet something seems wrong. His experience on the island has forever changed his perspective.

My trouble took the strangest form. I could not persuade myself that the men and women I met were not also another Beast People, animals half wrought into the outward image of human souls, and that they would presently begin to revert,—to show first this bestial mark and then that. But I have confided my case to a strangely able man,—a man who had known Moreau, and seemed half to credit my story; a mental specialist,—and he has helped me mightily, though I do not expect that the terror of that island will ever altogether leave me. At most times it lies far in the back of my mind, a mere distant cloud, a memory, and a faint distrust; but there are times when the little cloud spreads until it obscures the whole sky. Then I look about me at my fellow-men; and I go in fear. I see faces, keen and bright; others dull or dangerous; others, unsteady, insincere,—none that have the calm authority of a reasonable soul. I feel as though the animal was surging up through them; that presently the degradation of the Islanders will be played over again on a larger scale. I know this is an illusion; that these seeming men and women about me are indeed men and women,—men and women for ever, perfectly reasonable creatures, full of human desires and tender solicitude, emancipated from instinct and the slaves of no fantastic Law,—beings altogether different from the Beast Folk. Yet I shrink from them, from their curious glances, their inquiries and assistance, and long to be away from them and alone. For that reason I live near the broad free downland, and can escape thither when this shadow is over my soul; and very sweet is the empty downland then, under the wind-swept sky.

When I lived in London the horror was well-nigh insupportable. I could not get away from men: their voices came through windows; locked doors were flimsy safeguards. I would go out into the streets to fight with my delusion, and prowling women would mew after me; furtive, craving men glance jealously at me; weary, pale workers go coughing by me with tired eyes and eager paces, like wounded deer dripping blood; old people, bent and dull, pass murmuring to themselves; and, all unheeding, a ragged tail of gibing children. Then I would turn aside into some chapel,—and even there, such was my disturbance, it seemed that the preacher gibbered “Big Thinks,” even as the Ape-man had done; or into some library, and there the intent faces over the books seemed but patient creatures waiting for prey. Particularly nauseous were the blank, expressionless faces of people in trains and omnibuses; they seemed no more my fellow-creatures than dead bodies would be, so that I did not dare to travel unless I was assured of being alone. And even it seemed that I too was not a reasonable creature, but only an animal tormented with some strange disorder in its brain which sent it to wander alone, like a sheep stricken with gid.

Plasticity

H. G. Wells’ monstrous vision has inspired no less than six film adaptations, some of them successful enough, and others as disastrous as Moreau’s experiments. Sequels and reimaginings have also been written, and more than one song features lyrics drawn from the Law and the events of the story more generally.

Despite its success in popular culture, Wells did not originally conceive of the idea as pure fiction. In 1895, he wrote an article titled “The Limits of Individual Plasticity,” in which he speculated that it might be entirely possible to totally alter an animal’s physical form through surgical and chemical means, to such an extent that it could no longer be recognized as whatever species it might belong to in a genetic sense. He mulled over this idea for some time. A year later, he published The Island of Doctor Moreau, reworking the gist of the article into the titular doctor’s explanation to Prendick of his doings on that island.

This radical notion stands close to the very heart of scientific materialism. Classical metaphysics—first explicitly described by Plato and Aristotle, and maintained by both Christian and Islamic philosophers—holds that everything in creation has a nature essential to it. A human is not human by virtue only of his outward form, but there is some nonphysical aspect of his being which makes him human and not a hairless ape. Modern empirical science is skeptical of such claims, finding little or no evidence for some spiritual, or at least nonphysical, essence that defines a species.

If the materialist reading of metaphysics is right, then Moreau’s experiments should, theoretically be possible. If all that separates man from beast is chemical composition and the arrangement of tissues, then sufficiently advanced technology and methods should be able to transform one into another. Of course, it may require a great deal of work to achieve such a thing, and then you’re stuck looking a ManBearPig and asking what you got out of it. But, if you really wanted to, there’s no reason you couldn’t do so.

This is not just idle philosophical speculation, either. The question of essentialism is actually a pressing social issue. The same metaphysics which says that man is separate from the animals, and the animals from each other, also suggests that men and women are different. Gender essentialism is the belief that there are fixed spiritual and behavioral characteristics tied to whether one is biologically male or female. This is usually taken to imply that certain gender roles are natural and others are not, and that certain expressions of sexuality are natural while others are not.

Consider that wide gulf that separates materialist metaphysics from classical metaphysics. In the eyes of someone who holds to essentialism generally, and gender essentialism in particular, LGBT behavior is unnatural in a very similar way to what Moreau does. Boundaries are being crossed that ought not be crossed, the very nature of a person is being denied or altered. Whatever the motivations or the character of the person engaging in the behavior, the behavior itself is inherently transgressive.

Now flip that. In the eyes of a materialist, gender and sexuality are plastic. They are shaped and molded by social expectations, which evolve over time. With advances in science and technology, even a person’s anatomical sex can be altered. If those boundaries of gender and sexuality are so ephemeral, if they are subject only to the limits of the human imagination, then it is the person who holds to classical metaphysics that is monstrous. They seek to impose on others restrictions that are not themselves natural, not themselves a fixed element in the physical or social fabric of the universe. Such views appear prejudiced and oppressive, something that ought to be opposed.

Of course, not every materialist supports the LGBT movement, and not every person from a tradition that holds to classical metaphysics opposes it. It would, however, be surprising if we did not see some correlation between those belief systems and the cultural stances they suggest. Our beliefs about the nature of reality do, in fact, impact our politics and lifestyle.

It be a mistake not to mention the place of feminism in this discussion. The places of men and women in society are very much impacted by your views on essentialism. While essentialism can lead to a wide variety of relationships between the sexes, it does open the door to what is generally characterized as a more conservative view on gender roles. A materialist metaphysics, however, tends to open the door to much more radically feminist views. Cultures whose mythologies are inspired by these two different worldviews can be expected to look very different.

The Future of Humanity

While the question of plasticity is relevant to Millennials caught in the midst of the twenty-first century’s marriage wars, Wells would probably have found another implication far more interesting. If mankind is potentially subject to this degree of chemical and surgical modification, might scientists take the evolution of the human race into their own hands? Might they modify men to make them stronger, faster, tougher, and smarter? Might we accelerate our own progress and leap forward into utopia of supermen, impervious to the threats that once dogged our race?

In Wells’ own time, medical science was nowhere near advanced enough to bring this about. Human individuals could not be modified to such a great extent, and such modifications certainly could not be made to pass on to children. But the human race was conceived of essentially plastic, able to be molded. So scientists across the world, often backed by forward-thinking governments, sought to sterilize the unfit and, in some cases, promote the propagation of healthier bloodlines. Atrocities committed for the sake of human evolutionary progress have since earned eugenics a bad name, and rightfully so, but at the time it was considered a very progressive, humanistic enterprise.

While the molding of humanity through forced sterilization, restrictive marriage laws, and mass murder are largely a thing of the past, not everyone has given up hope of transforming humanity with the aid of advanced science. Transhumanism is a movement that seeks to use our advancing understanding of human biology and genetics to transition the species from its current state into a “posthuman” future. This posthuman ideal is envisioned to have capabilities so far beyond that of modern homo sapiens, that it could not be mistaken for the same species. While gene therapy certainly forms an element of this movement’s ambitions, they also embrace technologies that will merely push individuals beyond merely human boundaries.

Both the eugenics of yesteryear and today’s transhumanism look on the plasticity of the materialist metaphysic as essentially good news. While these things may push us out of our comfort zone as a species, they also point the way to a more promising path for our evolutionary future.

For Wells, however, at the beginning evolutionary naturalism’s heyday, these ideas still were still new and unsettling, sweeping aside things mankind once held certain. Behind the plastic veil of human flesh, he did not see the dawning of a superhuman future, but the dumb and snarling face of a beast, dressed in the trappings and taught to mimic the behavior of civilized man. Perhaps all our high technology and sophisticated cultures are merely a façade. Perhaps, he suggests, they merely conceal the Beast Folk that lie within.

 

 

 

 Post Script

In the coming weeks, I hope to touch on the idea of evolutionary progress in another of Wells’ works, The Time Machine, and to take a brief glimpse at the Planet of the Apes franchise. However, this particular theme of humanity, civilization, and our relationship to the beasts is a powerful one, and I plan on returning to it in further posts on Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian age and the stories of Conan the Barbarian, as well as Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Stay tuned as the journey continues.

True Grit

Last night I watched the old John Wayne version of True Grit. Living among people who do not much appreciate John Wayne, westerns, or the sort of culture that does appreciate such things, it was somewhat refreshing. I think westerns can sometimes get tagged as a form of storytelling that doesn’t have much to it, and isn’t worth paying a lot of attention to. I disagree with that point of view, and this movie reminded me why.

True Grit is, partly, a coming of age story. Before diving into the story itself, I want to dwell on that a minute. The basic idea of coming of age stories is that of taking a sheltered individual—a child—and introducing them to the world, and watching them learn to cope with it. As such, coming of age stories are a good way to make a statement about what the world is like and what it takes to get along in it. Harry Potter dealt with good and evil, life and death, love and hate, the structure of power and authority, the nature of celebrity, disillusionment with one’s heroes, self-reflection, and becoming a hero one’s self. A whole worldview. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials saga deals with many of the same themes, as well as religion and science, reason, childhood, and changing the world. True Grit lacks the range of either, but it’s in the same genre, and it may help to watch the movie in that context.

A second thing to keep in mind while watching True Grit is the theme of dignity. Lately I’ve had several opportunities to discuss the concepts of human dignity and the nature of honor and shame with quite a few people. American culture in general does not tend to set a lot of store by those ideals, but movies like True Grit, and the sort of people that spawn such a culture, cannot be understood without them.

Simply put, the idea is that people should be treated with respect. There is an inherent dignity in being human, something grounded—if you ask a Christian—in the image of God. And when people enter into society, that idea of dignity, of honor, takes on a new depth. A man who keeps his word, who gets the job done, who does not turn away in the face of danger, such a man is honorable. On the other hand, a man who lies, cheats, steals, betrays, and who shows no respect for others is not himself honorable. While simple humanity is worthy of a certain level respect, honor can most definitely be won or lost.

True Grit starts with Mattie Ross’s father going into town to trade horses. He brings with him a man named Tom Chaney, whom Mattie does not trust. Mattie’s father fed Tom Chaney when he was hungry, put a roof over his head, and, it seems, has also given him a job. But while in town, Tom gets drunk, accuses someone of cheating at cards, and when Mr. Ross takes him out into the street, shoots his benefactor. After killing him, Tom Chaney steals his money and his horse and takes off for Indian Territory. A traitor has killed a good man.

At this point in the movie we know that Mattie is a short-haired, outspoken bookkeeper at the family farm, whose opinion her father always valued. She comes into town to retrieve his body, with no visible signs of anguish. She finds that the whole town, including the coroner she came to see, has gathered at the town square to watch a hanging. She goes to watch it with another hired hand, and learns that the judge is up there on the scaffold, watching the hanging out of “a sense of duty.” Mattie comments that we cannot know what is in a man’s heart. The hangman, we also learn, is a Yankee, and will not hang a Union veteran.

Early on, we are introduced to this picture of human justice. The town delights in a hanging. The judge says one thing, but something very different may be in his heart—he may take joy in the macabre event, rather than appear there out of a sense of duty. Even the hangman’s justice is not even, applied to men he fought against, but not those he favors. Society, in short, may get it right from time to time, but is subject to flaws and a certain delight in the pain of others. Do not trust soceity’s justice.

This idea is doubled down on as Mattie goes to the sheriff and sees the nonchalant approach he has taken to finding her father’s killer. Then we are introduced to Rooster Cogburn, a deputy US Marshall known for bringing more outlaws in dead than alive. We meet him in a court of law, and it certainly looks like his quick trigger-finger takes out men with less than just cause. But the judge does not seem to care. As Cogburn comments later, he was a good hanging judge. That is, until the lawyers came in and messed things up for everybody.

But Cogburn is the man Mattie wants. She has heard that he has grit, and she wants a man with grit. This fact does not change when she discovers he is drunk, filthy, malodorous, and perhaps a little prone to gambling.

Into this picture comes the slick-haired, fine-speaking, good-looking Texas Ranger, La Boeuf. Mattie does not think much of him, and we quickly learn that he is after Tom Chaney as well, though by another name and for another offense. La Boeuf tries to hire Cogburn out from under Mattie, but she will not hear it. She wants Tom Chaney hanged in Arkansas for her father’s murder, not in Texas for a dog and a no-name Senator.

Mark that. Mattie wants justice done for her father. He was a good man, and she loved him, so his killer must hang. But she doesn’t just want the killer to die any old place. This isn’t mere angry vengeance. In fact, Mattie seems rather calm about it. No, she wants the murderer taken in and brought before a court of law, and then she wants him hanged, for the crime of killing her father. It’s important that it be clear what he is being hanged for. Again, look at this through the lens of dignity or respect. Her father’s death deserves recognition as an evil act, and deserves justice. So Tom Chaney cannot hang in Texas, for some other crime.

Another big theme playing out in this story is that Mattie is a girl in a man’s world. Her short hair, her outspoken demeanor, and her habit of getting things done, all these mark her out as unfeminine. She is a woman who does not know her place. But she will not be treated with the lack of respect the world gives her. In reacquiring her father’s things, she deals with a horse-trader, gives him more than a little trouble, and ends up getting the better part of the deal. In doing so, she establishes herself, despite her youth and sex, as a force to be reckoned with in this world.

When Cogburn and La Boeuf do team up and go riding towards Indian Country, they are unimpressed by the young girl, and try to leave her behind. But when they convince someone to take her back to town, she punches the man across the face, rides off on her horse, and fords the river upstream of the ferry the two lawmen are using. She meets them on the other side, insists that she is coming, and they race off, presumable to outrun her.

The next part I find interesting. When she catches up with them, La Boeuf ambushes her, pins her on the ground, and begins spanking her with a switch ripped from a nearby bush. Spanking, particularly of women, seems to crop up a lot in these old John Wayne westerns. I have a feeling a nice, juicy essay could be written on that, but it would take more watching and thinking than I’ve done.

But what’s important to note in this context is that spanking is something you do to bad children. La Boeuf is treating Mattie as a misbehaving child. But when he mocks her struggling, she is quick to point out that she is not hurt by the whuppin, only angry, and her actions when he lets her go do line up with this story. But while he has her down and is spanking her, she shouts to Cogburn, asking if he’s going to sit by and watch as this man treats her in this undignified manner. Cogburn says he won’t, and tells La Boeuf to stop. La Boeuf refuses, and Cogburn says La Boeuf enjoying it too much. (Again with enjoying others’ pain.) Anyways, Cogburn points a gun at La Boeuf, and convinces him to let the girl go. So, on they ride, deeper into Indian Territory, away from civilization.

“Civilization.” That’s another thing to factor in. Mattie has proven that she can deal with rough men, that she can maintain her dignity in a world that wants to cheat or spank her. But she is civilized, and these men do not live in civilization. Once they get going, she is quick to ask whether they are going to stop for dinner. Cogburn laughs, and tells her that many a dinner will pass unnoticed before this journey is over. Mattie must adapt, and on they go.

I want to set dignity and civilization side by side for a minute. Americans historically have set a lot of store by hygiene, as well as education, and other marks of civilization. To Mattie, Cogburn’s stench and filthy habitations are undignified, unworthy of a civilized person. On the other hand, a man who forgoes dinner to get the job done, a man who will rough it in a hundred other ways until the mission is complete, such a man is worthy of respect. Civilization has a certain dignity to it, but there are circumstances where it means a lot more to bypass the norms of civilization.

The trio reaches a cabin and smoke out two outlaws hiding inside. One is suffering from a leg wound. Cogburn uses this as leverage to uncover the whereabouts of Lucky Ned Pepper, the man Tom Chaney is riding with. (Lucky Ned Pepper is a young Robert Duvall. I did not know Robert Duvalls could be young.) But the wounded man’s companion takes a knife to his friend, whom Cogburn quickly avenges with a shot of his revolver.

As the informant lies dying, he makes two interesting comments. First, referring to his murderer, he says, “He never played me false til he killed me.” He defends the honor of the man who killed him to two complete strangers. This man was his friend, and rode with him a long time, dealing honestly, and therefore honorably, with him. Second, he tells the trio about his circuit-riding Methodist preacher brother down in Austin. He asks them, after he has died, first to bury him, and then to sell his things and send the money down to his brother. These are both questions of dignity. A human body should not be left to rot in the open, and a man should do right by his kin, even if they did not get along well. Pay close attention to the treatment of bodies in this movie.

Besides these two things, the dying man tells Cogburn that Ned Pepper and his gang will return to this very cabin later on that night. Knowing he is dying, he chooses to do the right thing, and help the lawmen in their pursuit of justice. There is nothing that can be gained from that action, at least not this side of the grave. It’s just what a man ought to do. Of course, the criminal he is helping track down is a man he rode with, so take that however you will. But the theme of a dying man doing what is right with no thought for himself, in his last living moments—that theme will return.

They set a trap for Ned Pepper. As they wait, Cogburn tells Mattie all about his earlier life. He fought for the South in the War, with Quantrill. (Quantrill, and everybody in that area, had a bad reputation during the Civil War. Because the border states did not divide cleanly, it was more like a feud between gangs of outlaws than ordinary warfare, and the men who fought there gained the reputation of outlaws.) He also stole money from a bank, which he insists was not stealing, since he didn’t harm anybody, just a cutthroat corporation. Mattie begs to differ. Again, the definition of stealing is framed as a question of interpersonal relationships and honor, not simply the law. At any rate, after the War, Cogburn married and settled down in southern Illinois, but his wife left him and took his son, who never liked him much anyways. And so Cogburn went and became a lawman.

Pay attention to the way Cogburn talks about his wife. He clearly has a distaste for her, and learns from her a general distrust of women. But he talks about her as a force to be reckoned with, someone with a mind of her own, more than capable of making the decision to leave him, as foolish as he might think her reasons were. The world of the western, and this western in particular, may seem to dwell on “manly” virtues, but there is often found here a degree of agency and respect towards women that I find lacking in less apparently male-oriented genres. But maybe my love for the Mattie Rosses of the genre just blind me to its faults in that department.

Now, this paints Cogburn as a little more aimless and world-weary, a man who has a reason to drink like he does, and not much reason to act like a civilized man. Whatever “grit” he has, he earned it through hard times. And so, as civilized people—like bankers and lawyers—would have it, he’s not a man worthy of much respect. We’ll see whether that’s a good assessment by the end of the movie.

The trap does not go off as planned. Ned Pepper escapes, but Tom Chaney almost does not. One of the other outlaws turns back to save him, but gets wounded. Chaney shoves him off the horse, rides after the other outlaws, and never looks back. When Mattie points out this despicable way of acting, Cogburn comments that, “Looking back is a bad habit.” Doing the right thing is all well and good, he seems to say, but he is aware of the world in a way she is not. This is the sort of place where life can end in the blink of an eye, at the pull of the trigger. If you want to live, you may have to do things you otherwise wouldn’t. Maybe this doesn’t excuse Chaney, but it’s something to keep in mind.

The trio rides with all the dead bodies and the newly acquired horses to a little trading post, McAlester’s. They leave the bodies to be buried, with dignity, and Mattie reminds Cogburn to do the right thing by their informant. After a little badgering, the worn-out old man keeps his word, sells the dead man’s things, and has the money sent to that Methodist preacher down in Austin. Then Cogburn tries to convince Mattie to stay behind while he corners Ned Pepper, but again she refuses. So off they ride once more.

This entire time Cogburn and La Boeuf have been bantering back and forth, mocking one another over this and that. Generally, Cogburn has the upper hand on this foppish, big-mouthed Texan riding his tiny horse. But finally Cogburn loses his dignity as he drinks himself to the point of falling off his own horse, and he declares that they will make camp there and attack Pepper the next day. Rebuked by La Boeuf and Mattie, he puts away his flask and sobers up.

The next morning Cogburn is ornery towards his companions, risking a fire La Boeuf would not, and berating Mattie for wanting to wash the sleep off. La Boeuf urges him to cool it, and tells Mattie there is a river downhill, through the trees. She heads that way, trips, and spills down the slope and onto the riverbank, where Tom Chaney is standing, alone, watering the horses.

Here there is a confrontation of wills. Chaney does not take the little “bookkeeper” seriously. Indeed, watching that little girl handle her father’s massive hand-cannon, it’s hard for the audience to, either. But he runs his big mouth too long, acts a little too stubborn, and she plugs him in the short ribs. At the sound of that shot, Cogburn and La Boeuf come running, but not before Ned Pepper and the gang show up and whisk Mattie and their wounded companion away.

Here is the low point of the story, where all seems lost. Ned Pepper shouts out a treaty with Cogburn, agreeing to let Mattie live, and leave her and Chaney behind, if Cogburn and La Boeuf ride off and mislead a band of marshalls that Cogburn claims are heading that way. When it appears Cogburn has agreed, Mattie loses her cool, insulting him and declaring that he has no grit. Over the course of the movie, his dignity before this civilized girl has been continually called into question, but she trusted his abilities on the frontier. And now, when it counted most, he failed her.

It is worth pausing for a moment to note how quickly Ned Pepper comes to respect Mattie. He is a ruthless outlaw, and not too intelligent, but when she speaks to him, he answers. He talks to her like an equal, not like a child. Earlier we saw Cogburn and La Boeuf treat her with this same level of respect, but she had to earn it. Keep in mind, this is the world of the western, the world of John Wayne and the man’s man. But Mattie Ross is worthy of respect, the movie wants us to believe, and this is a world that will treat her with respect, so long as she stands up and acts worthy of it.

Ned Pepper and the gang leave the hideout, which means Mattie is alone with an armed Tom Chaney. He has been left with orders not to harm her, but it quickly becomes apparent that he has no intention of following those orders. So once more she pretends to cooperate, then catches her captor off-guard, this time with a ladle full of boiling water. There is a brief scuffle, and it looks like Mattie is going to be overpowered, but La Boeuf returns just in time. He steers Chaney at gunpoint to safer spot, and creeps up with Mattie to the top of a nearby rock to watch Cogburn confront Ned Pepper’s gang in the valley below.

From this point forward, keep the themes of honor and grit in mind. Mattie doubts drunk, old Rooster Cogburn, but he returned to save her. And now he stares down four armed outlaws across a plain with no one at his back. He offers to let two of them go, and to let the other two, whom he does want, come quietly. They refuse, pointing out the odds. He waves off the odds. Then they make a bad mistake. They call Rooster Cogburn a one-eyed fat man.

“FILL YOUR HANDS YOU SONOFABITCH!” he shouts, and the battle is on. Rooster charges across that plain, and the four outlaws draw their guns and rush him. Fire is exchanged, Rooster comes out unscathed, several outlaws attempt to flee, and then Rooster’s horse is shot such that it pins his leg to the ground, trapping him. But just as Ned Pepper creeps up from behind to take him out while he’s still unarmed, La Boeuf take a long shot from the promontory and kills the outlaw. (The new version gave this one-on-four charge much more emphasis, even accentuating Cogburn’s mention of a previous such encounter in an earlier conversation with Mattie.)

Meanwhile, Tom Chaney has picked up a rock. He creeps up behind La Boeuf and cracks him on the head with it, knocking him out cold. Then Mattie shoots Chaney with her father’s hand cannon again, and the recoil sends her flying back into a deep, dark snake pit with bones at the bottom. Mattie finds her arm broken, and within easy reach of a rattlesnake. (This was the most spine-tingingly terrifying part of the movie.) Chaney crawls to the edge of the pit, bearing Mattie’s father’s gun, which she had dropped, and mocks her as she grows more and more terrified. Then a gunshot rings out, and Chaney drops dead. Cogburn has come to the rescue.

He rappels down into the snake pit, but on the way, Mattie provokes a rattlesnake into biting her. (I have no idea why she decided to hit the thing with a branch. There was no surer way to make it angry.) Cogburn blows its head off and prepares to help Mattie climb back out. Mattie makes him take her father’s gun from Tom Chaney’s corpse, which has fallen into the snake pit. After that, she tries to convince him to take back a gold piece that Chaney has, which also belonged to her father, and is filled with both worth and meaning. He has no patience for this. Her life is not worth this gold piece, even if there is some significance attached to it.

Looking up, he comments that it’s a pity La Boeuf was dead. His presence would make this climb a lot easier. La Boeuf pokes his bloody head over the mouth of the cave and announces that he is not dead yet. The wounded Texas Ranger mounts a horse and gives the rope a tug, pulling Mattie and Cogburn to freedom. But when they reach La Boeuf, they find him dead in the saddle. “Texican,” Rooster comments, “Saved my neck twice. Once after he was dead.” Once again, a dying man does the right thing with his last breath. He’s not long for this world, but he’ll do right by the people in it.

This seems to shatter Mattie. Cogburn puts her on her favorite horse, one that she had bought earlier after tormenting that poor horse-trader. She tells him they can’t leave, they need to bury La Boeuf. Cogburn insists that her snakebite is more important. Yes, the dead should be treated with dignity, but the life of the living is worth more. He mounts up behind her, and she says he can’t do that, her horse won’t take it. He replies that this is the only horse they have. Then they ride hard.

Eventually, the horse begins to flag. Mattie tells him to ride slower, he’s killing it. Instead, he rides harder, until the horse dies under them. That horse was not worth Mattie’s life. Then he picks the wounded girl up and carries her. He will exhaust himself to save that girl’s life. He goes until they reach Ned Pepper and his gang down by a riverside. He does not stop to collect them, and the reward that will follow, but holds them at gunpoint until he can steal their carriage and put Mattie in it. Their capture is not worth Mattie’s life. Then he drives off as fast as he can, back to McAlester’s.

Cogburn sees that Mattie is taken care of, then goes back to Arkansas, to the same old filthy back room he has been living in, to drink and play poker with Chen Lee and the cat. While there, Mattie’s lawyer comes to inform him that despite her grave illness, she still managed to conduct her affairs. She sends Cogburn payment for his services, with an additional sum as thanks for saving her life. Displaying her usual business acumen, she insists that he sign a receipt. Cogburn then asks the lawyer if he is a betting man, and bets all his money, and the cat, on Mattie’s recovery.

In the final scene, a restored Mattie and a sober Cogburn walk up a snow-laden hill to her father’s grave. She has done right by him at last. Now she points out to Cogburn the layout of this little family cemetery, where her mother will be buried, where her siblings and their families will buried, and where she will be buried. She tells Cogburn that she wants him to be buried next to her, where her husband and children should go. He does not have family, but over the course of the journey, he has become family to her. He accepts. Then she gives him her father’s gun, a touching gesture, honoring the old lawman. (That’s a lot of what honor/dignity/respect is about—who is in and who is out, who you associate with and who you don’t. And in the end, who’s family.)

Cogburn mounts his horse and prepares to leave, making a comment about how that horse could jump a high fence. Mattie quips that someone his age should not be riding fast, much less jumping fences. He laughs, tells her to visit this “fat old man,” and then spurs the horse downhill and over the fence.

True Grit paints a landscape where honor means something, but where the world is quick to rob you of your dignity and your life. The law is not as trustworthy as could be wished, and every scrap of justice has to be fought for. It’s a world of dark civilization and dangerous wilderness.

But in this world, a little girl is not confined by her age or sex to the margins of society. If she will behave worthy of respect, if she earns respect, then the world is forced to treat her with respect. The horse trader knows she is a force to be reckoned with, La Boeuf knows she has earned her spurs, Ned Pepper speaks to her in a way he does not speak to some of his fellow outlaws, and the grizzled old Rooster Cogburn would be honored to be laid to rest beside her. She starts out keeping the books, and ends keeping justice, and maintaining her own dignity in a world eager to take it from her.

But this is also a movie about grit, about that world that would rob things from you, and the sort of man it takes to confront it. Rooster Cogburn is an old, drunk has-been, quick to the trigger, and in imminent danger of prosecution. He’s fat, smelly, and one-eyed. But when the time comes for action, he’ll ride down four men on his own. He’ll do what’s right, and not what’s easy. He knows his priorities, and he’ll make the sacrifices necessary to get the job done, and to save his friend. In short, a man who endures hardship and indignity to do his duty, that’s a man with grit, and grit covers a multitude of faults.

This is the world painted by True Grit, the world Mattie Ross comes of age in. It’s not the same world, with the same concerns, as in Harry Potter or His Dark Materials. It’s older, rougher, more personal, and depending on where you call home, far more American, far more familiar. It does not display the range, and perhaps not the depth, of such long sagas, but in its short space, it communicates quite a lot. And that’s why I find it a world worth spending time in, a world worthy of study. It could certainly stand a lot more attention than I have given it here, and it’s far from the only western worth watching.

Stories About Womenfolk

So, I’m back in an ill-timed get-serious-about-storytelling phase, which resulted in me spending the entire afternoon reading Film Crit Hulk. Who is Film Crit Hulk, you ask? Why, only the awesomest green-skinned, musclebound blogger in the universe! He’s an anonymous individual in the movie business (dealing mostly with screenwriting, it would seem) who uses a hulk-sized, all-caps writing style to churn out essays on film, storytelling, and culture. Essays that are often longer than the senior theses at my college. And, he is so freaking good at it.*

At any rate, Film Crit Hulk is a feminist, and this impacts his views on the way we tell stories. Now, seeing as female individuals comprise about half of humanity, I really ought to have better-formed thoughts on this. However, I don’t (yet), so I’ll be largely holding my tongue. Except on this one thing.

See, Film Crit Hulk in his smashing article on The Hero’s Journey pointed out that storytellers these days don’t know how to deal with women. They tend to do one of two things: make them a fairy princess, an idol, a Madonna… or else they turn her into a temptress and a femme fatale. And if they want to pay lip service to the notion of gender equality, they just give her a gun– and let her maintain a side-character/love-interest status with very little actual characterization. Hulk then names off a few goddess myths which people interested in writing awesome women might want to check out, and encourages the reader in that general direction.

On one level, my first thought is “cool.” But on another, it makes me nervous. In the effort to go out and prove that women can be just as interesting characters as men, I’m worried about folks turning those women into men. If we want to make good, interesting, excellent female protagonists, we can’t just make them men in skirts. Because, honestly, Braveheart kind of has that market cornered.

I’m all for recognizing the fact that women are people (duh), and even awesome people (seriously, duh), right there in our storytelling. I don’t want a world where guys are the only protagonists and girls are all just the trophies the heroes get at the end.** Or femme fatales, because if the only powerful/independent women are also evil… well, let’s just say that people who tell stories like that make me want to go all smashy on things.

But if you’re a guy trying to avoid these problems and create a good female lead, you have to be careful. Guys don’t always understand other guys, and women are another thing entirely. Female people, you know. That’s a different language to think in. Yes, all people are just people, this is true; but people are complex, so seeing the world through someone else’s eyes is tricky business.

This is not to say it shouldn’t be done. No, I’m just saying it’s good to be cautious. I would rather see an overdone archetype done well, than someone try to think outside the box and end up making a dude in a girl’s body. Or worse–a flat, grey, characterless monstrosity. Because the way I see it, that does women even less justice. Actually, I find it kind of insulting. But what do I know? I’m not the one being insulted.

Anyhow, that’s my two cents. Thoughts welcome.

 

Footnotes

*I read a lot of his articles today. But if you want a good start towards storytelling 101, try his article on Three-Act Structure. It’s a nice taste for his style and some of the stuff he likes to talk about. Also just plain good. Warning to folks of a sensitive eye: Sometime Hulk swear.

** I really wish I had a link to that one scene in A Knight’s Tale where Adhemar and William are talking about “Trophies, horses, women.” Then again, no I don’t. Because this means you’ll just have to go and watch that whole movie just to find that one line. And that would make me happy.