Saturday, August 31, 2013

The Passing of a Bicycle God

Jesus. Christ. 

You guys, I may have actually seen Jesus today. 

It may not have been Jesus. It may have been one of the American Gods, a god of steel and stone and bicycle-tire rubber. Like, a pale shadow of the god across the sea in the old country, from a place of savages and dancing flames where they sacrifice three virgins to a monstrous bicycle idol by the light of the full moon. I don't know. But I really cannot say for certain that this cyclist is not that being.

He was not very impressive to look at. The bike he rode was pale pink, the paint cracked and flaking. The back of his seat, which was the only part of it I saw, was torn and had some stuffing coming out. From what I could tell of the handlebar cords, they were somewhat rusted over. The guy himself wasn't wearing a helmet, just a backwards gangster baseball cap and a black T-shirt with an orange messenger bag slung across his back. His legs were bronze and skinny, maybe as wide around as a large zucchini (singular: zucchin?), and without any real muscle visible to the eye when he was at rest. But when he was on the move, guys, holy fuck.

We were going down the Euclid Corridor, which leads from Cleveland proper into the Outer Rim territories, and goes from city to wasteland to medical palace to suburbs. It's maybe four and a half miles from the city center to the Cleveland Clinic, and this guy was just tearing up the road. I mean it. Chunks of concrete were flying into the road, hitting cars, pedestrians, things were exploding in his wake, as I live and breathe.

My bike has twenty-one gears. I was on gear 19 and he easily, easily, outpaced me. Just sped right on ahead as if I was standing still. Okay, I thought when I caught him at a light, I accept your challenge. Gear 20. And he whizzed right on by me again, without apparent effort. Fine, you fuck, Gear 21 it is. I'll pedal my absolute hardest and I will catch up to you, you bastard, see if I don't. And I kept up with him. Barely. I kept up with him for maybe a mile of stops and starts before he signaled right, sweat shining on his forehead in the sun, veered right and was lost to me.

Fine, I thought. I, sir, will remember you. I raised my hand in salute to his freakish biking ability and watched him recede into the heart of Cleveland Clinic. At this point, in my mind, he was still mortal, not yet godly. The divine light had yet to shine from his eyes and his hands. He was forgotten for all of two minutes, while I struggled up the hill on Cornell, to the little plateau at the intersection of Murray Hill... and there he was again. He'd gone the long way around, who knows how many blocks out of his way, and still made it to my intersection at *precisely the same time as I*.

I was impressed. But the true proof of his divinity lay directly before us. There is a hill, leading down into the heart of Little Italy, whose name has been forgotten by Time. No man can surmount this hill without paying a terrible price, for the old spirits of the hill are wroth at man's feeble attempts to conquer it. Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary never came to the base of Murray Hill, because they could not. It was beyond their power to achieve.

This deity in human flesh attacked the hill as though it were a huge, heaving monster and he the knight to slay it. He raced up the hill, and when I say raced, I mean that Lancelot of the House Steroid could not have caught him. I followed him, spitting obscenities and pedaling like a man possessed. I have never taken that hill at a gear higher than 17, but fuck it, I went to nineteen. I was puffing, wheezing, sweating, pushing as hard as I ever have, blazing up the hill compared to me on any other day, and watching this madman on a bike outrace me like it wasn't even a thing. The trees on the park side of the road were cracking and falling backwards, away from the road, as he went. Cars were being blown off the street. A murder of crows arose behind us and sent up a nightmarish chorus of their rackish caws. Thunder rolled in the sky, time slowed, reality bent, and still he kept on, guys, he kept pounding and grinding to the top of the hill. And then, my friends, do you know what he did?

He kept going.

Like it wasn't even a thing.

I was spent. I was done. I wasn't contemplating just laying down and dying as a thing I really, really wanted to do, but it was definitely one of the options I was obliged to consider. A three-legged, broke-dick dog could've beaten me home from the top of that hill. I was just out. And there goes King Bicycle on his raggedy pink machine, flying ahead like nothing alive until he was lost to view.

I know not what god or demon I followed home from work today, but of this I am certain: it was not of this natural, corporeal earth. No man can do the things I saw him do. It could have been Jesus, it could have been Loki, it could have been some nameless god from the nightmare wild before men had words to clothe it. I don't know. But it's here, in Cleveland, and that means no man is safe. Weep for your little cyclists, men and women. Weep for the cyclists of the world.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Agency and Feminism in Gladiator (And Other Stories)

I'd like to talk a little bit about agency. This, if you're a fan of the humanities, is likely one of your favorite words. If it isn't, then read on, and I'll see if I can put it into some kind of useful perspective.

Agency is the one who does. Agency is the ability of a person, a character, or a people to determine their own destiny. To deny a people agency is to relegate them to helpless victimhood. For example, to describe the Jews who died in the Holocaust, or the Native Americans who died in the Columbian Exchange, as simple victims is to deny their agency. The Jews fought back, ran away, broke through barbed wire, hid, led armed uprisings and, in some cases, acted as police for the Nazis and became some of the most vicious and brutal oppressors of their own people. But whatever they chose, they chose; they were not wholly at the mercy of the Nazis. Various tribes of Native Americans fought, made peace, allied with the U.S. and with its enemies, signed treaties, led an anti-white American religious awakening, formed political entities and unions and resisted American attempts to eject them from their land. Often unsuccessfully, yes, but they chose. They were not wholly at the mercy of their tormentors to the east.*^*

To put this in terms of fictional characters, which is where we will be for most of this post, Tony Stark has agency and Pepper Potts does not.* Stark is a billionaire genius playboy inventor who, when he needs to make a major change in his life, designs an invincible crime-fighting suit and flies halfway around the globe to save helpless souls in Afghanistan. Potts is Tony's secretary. She is intelligent, beautiful, charming and indispensable to Tony, and she also has very few choices in the Iron Man movies about what she does, where she goes or the direction her life will take. She follows Tony. Yes, she occupies a different socioeconomic class than Tony, and thus has less choice over her life's direction; yes, she is a supporting character in a movie, and supporting characters are called that because they don't have a lot of agency. But that's what a character without agency looks like, and in a disturbing number of my favorite movies, women generally have far less agency than men.**

You've heard of gender-swapping, right?*** Where you take a work of fiction and swap the men for women, and vice versa? Well, I had the idea earlier today of keeping the genders the same, but changing which characters have agency. Male characters would be relegated to relatively submissive roles, when they had previously assumed dominant ones, and females would emerge from the shadows to dominate the plot.****

Take one of my favorite movies and one that I recently watched, Ridley Scott's highly decorated Gladiator. There is only one female character worth noting in that movie, and a minute ago, I honestly had to go to the Wikipedia page to look up her name. It's Lucilla (Connie Nielsen), by the way. She spends most of the movie "living in a prison of fear", with mad emperor and brother Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) constantly either trying to seduce her or threatening to harm her son. When exiled ex-general Maximus (Russell Crowe) returns to Rome as a gladiator, she brokers a meeting between him and a sympathetic senator, Gracchus (Derek Jacobi). Other than that, she doesn't do anything worth noting in the movie. The story is about Maximus, not her.

Look at the character of Lucilla, though. Look at the way she acts. When Commodus attempts to seduce her, pressing her down on a bed, her face is impassive, stony. She doesn't say anything. When she finally gets up and walks away, leaving him crumpled on the bed, it feels like a release from prison... but she has to walk back into prison sooner or later, every time she enters his presence in truth. When Commodus obliquely threatens her son and slowly, menacingly explains to Lucilla how her son will die if she doesn't reveal her part in the conspiracy against Commodus, she can only stand there and cry. She doesn't argue back, deny her part or anything similar. When Commodus grandly lays out his vision for the future, which includes marrying and raping Lucilla, she can only sit there and not utter a word. Even when she brings Gracchus and Maximus together to plot against Commodus, she barely says a thing after the introductions; the point is to bring the powerful men together, not for her to speak (even though she's the Emperor's sister and theoretically holds some power herself).

Lucilla completely lacks agency. She would never have worked against Commodus if Maximus had not returned from the dead and given her a champion. And although both Commodus and the former Emperor, Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) praise her ruthlessness and leadership ability, the praise is a hollow echo given her actual role in the film. All of her decisions are based off of Maximus's deeds or centered on fending off Commodus's advances; she has few emotions save for a desire to protect her son and some affection for Maximus, plus fear of her brother. She is not a mover and shaker; that is for the men.

Now consider what an agency-swapped version of Gladiator would look like, even if we left the story intact. Imagine Lucilla taking an active hand in government, arguing with Commodus about the best policies to pursue as Emperor. Imagine her as the center of the conspiracy against Commodus instead of merely its facilitator, reaching out to bring Gracchus and Maximus together and planning their moves against Commodus; imagine her standing up to Commodus, or even fighting him in the arena. (If that's too strong, perhaps assassinating him in one of the MANY OPPORTUNITIES SHE HAS TO DO SO--we see Commodus willingly drinking a sleeping potion that she mixes and hands to him, for example, and barely even asking what it is.) Imagine her taking charge, becoming a political force, the plot of the movie centered around her. That is agency.

I know I have a long way to go when it comes to both writing female characters and thinking about women's and gender studies (WGS) issues, but it seems to me like we have far fewer female characters with agency than we do male characters with agency, both in Gladiator and outside it. A comprehensive evaluation of everything in culture is beyond my abilies, but if anyone can point me towards media in which female characters have the kind of agency I'm looking for--actively driving the plot, not depending on male characters for everything--I would be very interested to see it.

*^*It didn't really fit anywhere in this post, but consider Avatar. That is a perfect example of a movie with an agency-less indigenous population. The Na'vi aren't entirely victims--they end up winning the war, after all--but they only fight back and win because Jake Sully organizes them and gets them to do so. Imagine a movie depicting a helpless, primitive, frightened tribe of Cherokee who is at the mercy of the U.S. Army until Daniel Boone swoops in and saves them, and how that would play in the current politically correct environment. For an encore lesson in how cultural values change over time, imagine the version of Avatar that would've been made 200-ish years ago, when Andrew Jackson was warring against the Seminoles in Florida and kicking the Cherokee out of Georgia. That Avatar would most likely have celebrated the virtues of white expansion and lionized Jackson fighting against the savages. Now one of the most ballyhooed movies of the 2000s depicts a native tribe successfully defeating white oppressors, with white leadership no less. Man, cultures change a lot over time.

*Disclaimer: I haven't seen Iron Man 3, so take this paragraph as applying to Iron Man 1, 2 and The Avengers only.

**For another example, consider Doctor Horrible's Sing-Along Blog and the character of Penny, who is powerless until Captain Hammer helps her open a new homeless shelter, and spends the movie being sought-after by two men. Imagine a movie where she actively played her suitors off against each other.

***This wasn't what I was looking for definition-wise, but it's really interesting, if a bit

****Yes, I get that not all movies feature men alone determining the action, and that to say so is as sexist as if it were actually a thing. It just occurred to me recently, though, that in The Prestige, Gladiator, Collateral and several others of my absolute favorite movies--which tend to be about guys, for guys--female characters are side characters while men drive the plot. That's where this post is coming from, and what this paragraph refers to. It doesn't mean they aren't fantastic movies that I love; it means, though, that they have hidden flaws in spite of that.