The Abolition of Harley Quinn

Like everyone else, I haven’t seen Birds of Prey, and I have no intention to. However, I have seen a few reviews of it, read about it, and have a fair idea of what the story is. And as someone who loves the DC universe, I have a thought or two.

See, as I gather it the premise of the film is that Harley Quinn has broken up with the Joker, and the film is about her proving that she can stand on her own without him, to the point where she blows up the Ace Chemical plant as a sign that their relationship is well and truly over. The film apparently is a ‘strongly feminist’ tale casting Harley in the role of the strong, emancipated woman who doesn’t need a man to define her.

Here’s the problem; Harley doesn’t fit that role at all.

I don’t know what genius thought that Harley Quinn of all characters would be suitable for a feminist parable. Probably they just saw ‘popular female comic-book character’ and didn’t even consider the idea that she might not work as a female empowerment figure. But of all the women in the DC universe, Harley is preeminently the one who absolutely does need a man to define her. It’s frankly what makes her interesting in the first place.

One of the few things I thought Suicide Squad got right was its image of Harley’s deepest desire, which turned out to be for a normal married life with the Joker. I think that’s spot-on. Fundamentally, Harley is the woman who has fallen in love with the wrong man: a man incapable of truly caring for her or anyone else. Ultimately, she wants nothing than to be with him, and to that end she’s sacrificed her whole life, her sanity, and her soul.

That’s, quite frankly, what makes her a compelling character and the reason why people remain invested in her: that she became a villain through love. The kind of abusive, obsessive, self-destructive love that is inexplicable to anyone on the outside. When Harley’s done right, you always feel sorry for her, even as you despise her for what she does, because the thing she is doing it all for – the love of the Joker – is so patently impossible. Horrible as she is, you can’t help hoping that one day she’ll wake up and leave the Joker for good.

The thing is, though, once that happens, her story is over. There’s nothing more to tell about her after the Joker is out of her life, any more than there would be anything to say about Romeo if he lived on past Juliet (when the Joker died for good in the DCAU, the writers wisely wrote her to have quietly disappeared). You could write a story of her in mourning or obsessed with revenge, as that would still be her in relation to the Joker. You might even, conceivably, write of her falling for another man (she is, to paraphrase Mr. Knightly’s appraisal on Harriet Smith, “the kind of woman who must be in love with someone”). But the idea of an independent Harley; a Harley Quinn who doesn’t want to be defined by the Joker or any other man, is simply nonsensical.

Which brings up another problem. As noted, the only reason people sympathize with Harley at all is because of her hopeless, tragic love for the Joker: because she is so passionately devoted to an illusion. It adds a degree of pathos to her villainy. Take that away, and she’s just another villain.

In short, to emancipate Harley from the Joker is to abolish her as a character. There’s simply nothing left of her to care about.

On another note regarding Birds of Prey, who on Earth decided to cast a Black actress as Black Canary, one of the quintessential blondes of the DC universe? Were they really so thick as to think that ‘Black’ had to refer to race? (Kind of extra bitter on that, since I liked Black Canary quite a bit in the DCAU; she was cool, a delightful study in contrasts, and her romance with Green Arrow was a lot of fun. Then Arrow thoroughly botched her, and now this. Seriously, why is it so hard to get her right? ‘Short, leggy blonde with a minor superpower is also one of the best martial artists alive’).

The point here is that in writing characters like this, it’s important to keep in mind who and what they are, and, equally important what their story is. Some characters can exist comfortably in multiple roles across multiple stories, but even then there are certain things that they must maintain. Godzilla can be either hero or villain, but he cannot be timid (even more than the awful design, this factor alone showed the creature in the 1998 film to not be Godzilla). James Bond can survive the loss of any supporting cast members, shifts in personality and tone, but he can never be anything but a British man.

It isn’t just that trying to do otherwise would show poor craftsmanship; it would raise the question of why? Why are you even writing this character if you don’t care enough to even try to get them right? It is, if I may put it so, offensive to muse: it shows that you think of the character as nothing more than a tool that you may do with as you like.

 

 

Brief Thoughts on Pickwick

Recently I listened to The Pickwick Papers on my way to and from work/class. For those who don’t know, this was Charles Dickens’s first novel, which (if I recall correctly) he was assigned to after the original author backed out, and which was intended to accompany the illustrations of a then-famous satirist, who died almost immediately into the project. The result was that Dickens had his big break and made a name for himself with a rather formless, yet very entertaining work.

Chesterton, in his summary of the book, calls it the primordial, unformed matter of Dickens, and that really is a good way to describe it. It contains just about everything we think of when we think of Dickens, to the point where you can almost see future stories slipping in and out of the proceedings. You know how movies about authors always sprinkle little lines and incidents from their books throughout the script, as if to say “that’s where that came from”? Well, The Pickwick Papers is kind of like that. I can spot definite shadows of Nicholas Nickelby, Bleak House, Great Expectations, and David Copperfield at the very least (which is to say, of all the Dickens novels I’ve read), while one of the many short-stories peppered throughout is sort of an embryonic version of A Christmas Carol, in which a mean old sexton is whisked away by goblins on Christmas Eve to be taught a lesson in humanity.

The premise of the book is that Mr. Pickwick, a wealthy and prominent gentleman of fashionable (and ridiculous) scholarship decides to embark upon a journey to explore England and meet its people. In this, he is accompanied by his three friends; Mr. Winkle, the young would-be sportsman, around whom no man is safe and no bird in danger when he has a gun in his hand, Mr. Snodgrass, the young would-be poet whom no one can remember actually writing anything, and middle-aged Mr. Tupman, the old would-be romantic. They soon cross paths with the fast-talking, unscrupulous Mr. Jingle, and subsequently with the eloquent, street-smart cockney, Sam Weller, whom Mr. Pickwick employs as his manservant.

The first half or so of the book is mostly a series of more or less unconnected, humorous vignettes of the characters going from place to place, encountering the usual Dickensian menagerie of colorful caricatures, and often hearing a quaint short story or poem. They take up with a good-natured gentleman farmer named Mr. Wardell, who has a good-sized family that includes an elderly and selectively deaf mother, several lovely daughters, and a very fat servant boy who falls asleep any chance he gets. They witness a parliamentary election in a small town, where the rival newspapers attack each other and each other’s candidates with unstinting vitriol while assuring their readers that the fate of the nation depends upon whether there will or will not be an increase in the turnpike toll, and their readers believe them with gusto. Sam introduces his father, who drives a stagecoach and is married to a humorless woman taken up with a temperance society headed by an extremely drunk shepherd. And Mr. Pickwick quite innocently ends up in several compromising positions with a variety of women, including being locked in a closet in a girl’s boarding school.

All this is great fun, and Sam Weller, with his endless Wellerisms (“Hoping this will be a long acquaintance, as the gentleman said to the five-pound note”), is one of the crowning achievements of the book. He and Pickwick make for one of those striking pairs of upperclass innocence and lower-class shrewdness, though with much more affection and balance than is often met with. Imagine a Jeeves and Wooster where Jeeves legitimately respected Wooster, and Wooster had a fatherly concern for Jeeves. As Chesterton noted, Dickens understood in this case that, when pairing innocence and knowledge, innocence ought to rule over knowledge.

But what struck me most was the change that comes over the course of the story. It seems that once Dickens was allowed to try his wings, he gradually abandoned the satire of the early chapters. It remains a comedy, but Pickwick is no longer the butt of the joke. Instead, he adopts the role of straight-man, especially when one of the earlier humorous incidents comes back with unexpected consequences that eventually land him in debtor’s prison.

It’s there that Pickwick begins to show that, despite his ridiculousness, he is a genuinely great man, capable of real nobility, courage, and charity. At the same time, Sam shows the depths of devotion, and the other characters shed their farcical roles as Mr. Winkle and Mr. Snodgrass both become involved in love affairs that call for courage and honor (though amid plenty of humor, of course).

As I say, I find this transformation to be the most interesting and appealing thing about the book. Accidental or not, there is a strong impact in seeing the carefree humor of the early chapters give way to serious grief and misery, with accompanying moments of heroic virtue. I don’t believe Pickwick would be nearly so stirring a hero if he hadn’t begun the story as a buffoon, and I don’t think Sam would be half so delightful if his unflappable flippancy weren’t balanced by his fervent devotion to his master.

I’m not the greatest fan of Dickens. I’ve enjoyed all the stories I read (well, listened to mostly) from him, but for me he has several great flaws. His caricatures are often too broad and his social commentary too heavy handed (for instance, I thought Wackford Squeers’s school in Nicholas Nickelby was so obviously exaggerated that it defeated its purpose. Salem House from David Copperfield was far more effectively horrible for being more restrained). Not to mention that his tragic moments tend to be painfully maudlin. To my mind, Jane Austen ranks far higher in the pantheon of great British authors. That said, Dickens is undeniably one of the greats and I’d rank Pickwick as one of his best.

Do You Really Want It? – Catholic Match Post

My latest Catholic Match post is on the all-important question of “do you really want what you say you want?”

I think a lot of the things we claim to want are in this category.

We say we like the outdoors, or that we would like to travel, or that we want a relationship. We may even make some easy, halfhearted efforts in that direction, such as reading up on foreign places or making up a profile on CatholicMatch. But we go no further.

We never book a flight or work out a way to budget for the trip. We don’t make overtures to people we find or respond to those we receive. We play with the idea, but we never commit to it.

But to truly desire something is different. That is when you want the thing itself, for its own sake. We think of it often and give our time and attention to figuring out how to achieve it. We’re excited by every small step that leads us that much closer to its accomplishment.

This is when the wish goes beyond a pleasing fantasy to become a real motivating force. It becomes, as it were, incarnate in action.

For instance, a man who says he ‘would like’ to travel to Japan might spend time reading up on the country, or enjoy relics of Japanese culture, but he won’t go any further.

He ‘wants’ to go to Japan in the same sense that he ‘wants’ to be a millionaire; it is a pleasant fantasy that conceivably could happen at some point. But the man who truly desires to see the Land of the Rising Sun won’t just stop at speculation; he’ll figure out the cost of the trip and carefully budget for it, spend time every day learning the language, and book a flight months in advance so that he’s fully committed to the journey. His desire takes on form by driving him to real and ongoing effort to achieve it.

In other words, you may judge whether you really want something by what you do to acquire it, and what you really desire is shown by what you in fact do.

Now, if you will here stop and honestly ask yourself what your real actions say about your desires, most likely you will find that they are not at all what you would have thought or wanted them to be. Most of us will probably find that watching funny videos on YouTube or engaging in meaningless chatter on social media hold a higher priority with us than serving God or pursuing what we describe as our dreams.

Read the rest here.

A Couple of Christmas Thoughts

-Christ’s birth as a child, a baby, is the supreme sign of God’s good will toward men. This is what all those horrible passages of the Old Testament must be read in light of, along with all the horrible things that happen to us men in this world. It seems like God is cruel, or arbitrary, or indifferent…but then, He chose to be born among us as an infant, a peasant child. And then to suffer and die for our sake. This is the key, the capstone that must be fit into every conception of God and the world that we might form.

 

-We celebrate Christmas as the coming of Christ into the world, rather than the Annunciation, which is technically when He first took on flesh, for this reason. The great effect of Christmas upon the story of mankind is that it is the manifestation of Christ before the nations; the beginning of God’s bringing all mankind to Himself. Before this, humanity was left with vague visions, nagging, half-formed dreams of what God or the gods were like and what his purpose in this world was. They could claw their way to a half-formed image of Him by great effort and great wisdom, and they pursued holiness and righteousness according to such lights as they had. It was truly man’s search for God. The only exception were the Jews, who knew God and His Law, but were not a proselytizing people. They guarded their knowledge of God rather than spread it.

Thus, the nine months that Christ spent in Mary’s womb were, properly speaking, still part of that time of waiting and uncertainty, because He was still hidden away from the rest of mankind. It was the final stage of that time, when it’s end had in fact been assured, but not yet manifested. Christmas is that manifestation. Christmas is, as so properly marked in the calendar, the demarcation point between the old world and the new: the world where man was searching for God and the world where he had been found by Him.

 

 

Everyman Hate Speech

This post went up a little while ago, but preoccupations in real life caused me to miss it. I go into some of the problems I see with the whole ‘hate speech’ concept (there’s a lot more to be said, regarding speech laws and freedom of speech and all that, but I decided to focus on this one aspect for now. I might do a follow-up essay later):

Another key problem may be illustrated merely by noting that there is a particular demographic that receives an enormous amount of hatred and vitriolic language directed against it, that historically has been a frequent victim of violence both large scale and individual, and yet which no one, to my knowledge, has ever suggested protecting under hate speech laws. Of course I’m speaking of the Rich.

The issue isn’t that we much protect the Rich. The issue is that the hate speech concept explicitly only applies to those certain forms of hatred, which its advocates, for reasons best known to themselves, have fixated on. Thus, it is not vitriol or inciting speech as such that they object to, but only speech that targets their particular values.

I bring up the case of the Rich to demonstrate that this uneven application is inherent in the very definition that its adherents give to hate speech. Any fair and even application of such a concept would have to include economic status, social position, and political beliefs among protected categories.

This would, of course, exacerbate the inherently contradictory nature of the idea to the level of insanity, while effectively rendering all discourse illegal. Hatred can be felt and expressed along any line of human experience, meaning that, assuming an even application of this principle, every topic imaginable would be a potential source of hate speech, and since the qualification of ‘attack’ is not given, any speech that one person happens to find offensive or difficult or painful could be regarded as such an attack.

Under such a situation, it would of necessity be left to the judge or the lawyers to decide in each individual case, meaning that a hate speech law, by its nature, calls for the censoring of speech at the discretion of a particular official. Again, this not only permits, but demands the imposition of a particular worldview, not by any official act, but by the arbitrary rule of particular judges.  

Note that all this is so even while merely considering the given definition in the abstract and assuming a relatively fair and even application, which nothing in recent history should lead us to expect.

Read the rest here.

Thoughts on ‘Midway’

The other night I got out to see ‘Midway,’ wanting to catch while it was still in theaters. I must say, despite the overuse of CGI and some melodramatic touches, I was very impressed.

The film is of a type that was never very common and is almost non-existent now; a simple and straightforward depiction of historical events. The filmmakers don’t impose any kind of agenda or artificial drama on the story, they just tell what happened more or less the way it did happen and allow that to be enough.

The closest film I can think of would be to Tora, Tora, Tora!, which took basically the same straightforward (and scrupulously fair) approach to the events of Pearl Harbor. A Night to Remember, which took a similar approach to the sinking of the Titanic is another notable example of this particular mini-genre.

Basically, from what I can gather from more historically-literate people, almost everything that happens in this film actually happened. The main characters were all real people. The events and many of the incidents really happened, from aircraft from the Enterprise running smack into the middle of the Pearl Harbor attack to the American bomber trying (unsuccessfully) to ram the Japanese carrier as it goes down in flames.

Even more impressively, the filmmakers allow the characters to speak and act as men and women of their own time and place. There’s no effort to impose a feminist or racially conscious agenda on the events, or to make the characters more ‘modern.’ The Americans have the rough-hewn, devil-may-care, can-do attitude of men who grew up in the Depression. The women are warm and supportive, domestically-focused, but proud of their men. The Japanese have a rigid dignity and class structure bound by intense discipline and sense of honor (though the brutality of the Japanese military is also fairly shown, without any effort to explain the apparent contradiction).

The interesting thing is that, by simply showing these things, the film allows them to be intensely admirable in their own way. When a captured American pilot spits a final defiance in the Japanese face before being executed, it’s a stirring image of American courage. Later, two Japanese officers calmly decide to remain on their ship as its scuttled, after commending the men for their courage and taking responsibility for the defeat on themselves, and it’s a striking and fine instance of distinctly Japanese courage (earlier, Admiral Nagumo, whom we have seen criticized for his very real blunders and whom the film mostly presents as fairly incompetent, has to be convinced to leave his burning flagship under the idea that the remaining men need his leadership. Again, the film makes an effort to be scrupulously fair, not only to the two sides but to individuals on either side).

As for the female characters, there’s a wonderful little vignette where Layton – the codebreaker in charge of determining where the Japanese will strike next, and who tried to warn about Pearl Harbor – comes home late and sets immediately to work at his desk. His wife snatches his glasses to try to make him rest for a while. He pleads for more effort, since he doesn’t want any more men to die because he didn’t work hard enough. She gives him his glasses back and says she’ll make him a sandwich. A sweet, and very human image of domesticity in warfare. Earlier Layton ruefully tells Nimitz that he “plans to spend the rest of his life making it up to her” once the war is over. This matter-of-fact depiction of the different priorities of men and women, where each regards the other with gratitude and affection rather than resentment and hostility, is almost unknown in contemporary fiction. It’s as though the film literally stepped out of the 1940s.

On the subject of raw courage, the film does more than most to show just how insanely dangerous carrier operations of the time were. Again and again we see aircraft malfunction, or crash, or fail to take off or land properly, not due to enemy action but simply because the technology was still in its infancy. Navy fliers, the film makes clear, had to be a little crazy and thoroughly accepting of the possibility of death (one character explains his unflappable courage with an anecdote of how his father survived working on the Empire State Building only to be killed by being hit by a car on his way to church, saying that you simply never know what’s going to get you). We see the futile attacks of the Torpedo Squadrons during the battle, which do absolutely no damage and result in the near-total destruction of both squadrons, but prove unexpectedly crucial by keeping the Japanese pilots busy while the dive bombers set up their runs. And, in what I found to be one of the more striking displays of courage, we see the already-battered bomber squadron, after returning to the Enterprise following their initial run on the Japanese carriers, realizing that they have to get up and go out again to finish the job. Because it’s their job.

We also see the high command, in the form of Admiral Chester A. Nimitz, who is tasked with finding a way to hold off and defeat the superior Japanese navy until American industry gets up to speed. He, and the codebreakers under Layton, are the ones who have to tell the sailors and pilots where to go, and if they get it wrong then more men will die and, as the film makes abundantly clear, the Japanese will be able to threaten Hawaii and the West Coast. The two halves of the military – the commanders and intelligence and the soldiers and sailors – have to have each other’s back if they’re to get anywhere, and the Battle of Midway is an example of them working in harmony to pull off a spectacular and much-needed victory, ultimately turning the tide of the war in the Pacific.

But again, we see both sides. There’s a striking sequence after Pearl Harbor where we cut back and forth between the American brass in Washington and the Japanese command in Tokyo, each discussing what to do next. Admiral Yamamoto is a major figure throughout (showing him listening to FDR’s “Date that will live in infamy” speech was a great touch, as was having him reading Grant’s memoirs). The reasons for the war on either side are presented, but the film shrewdly avoids making an actual judgment on them, focusing more on the events now that the war has begun than on making a historical statement about it.

As I say, my main problem with the film is the overabundance of CGI. While I applaud the film for its minutely accurate depictions of the ships and planes of the time, the whole thing is very, very obviously animated, which takes some of the impact off. They would have been better advised to use a blend of computer and model work (as Emmerich did to great effect in Independence Day) to give a more tactile and solid feel to the film.

There is also a slightly uncomfortable aspect in that the film is largely founded by the Chinese government. Though, as far as I could tell, this didn’t affect the story – which, again, is scrupulously fair and admirable in its depiction of both sides – apart from omitting any mention of Chiang Kai-shek in the scenes set in China, which, as the film covers so much ground, wouldn’t have been necessary anyway.

At times the battle scenes go so far as to feel over the top, almost like a video game. The opening Pearl Harbor sequence, for instance, has a young sailor trying to escape the burning Arizona by climbing across on a rope suspended over flaming waters while Zeros strafe him. Now, for all I know that might have happened, but it feels a little much. Everything being shot from the most dramatic possible angles also lends a sense of unreality and artificiality to the film.

But overall, I was very impressed with the movie, and subsequent consideration has only increased my admiration. Emmerich and his crew have made a true atavism in modern Hollywood; a historical drama that is actually fair and honest about historical events, that presents the men and women of a past age in their own idiom and allows them to speak for themselves rather than being made the mouthpiece for modern platitudes. It is a fitting and honest tribute to the heroism, courage, and skill of the men on both sides who fought one of the most important battles of the twentieth century, and that in itself is a fine thing indeed.