Retroactive Continuity: She-Ra and Monsters

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Commissioned entry for Susan Smith Webb. This doesn’t fit the normal rules for Retroactive Continuity entries, but (1) I like the topic and (2) she gets special treatment for Reasons.

We’ve talked a lot about monsters and what they represent. To recap the main points briefly, monsters are primarily defined by their association with the grotesque: they are distortions of the “normal” human form or other familiar creatures and objects, most commonly either by proportional distortion (such as the small body and large head, hands, and feet of a goblin), chimerization (such as the animalistic features of a werewolf), or death and decay (either literally as in the case of a vampire or zombie, or figuratively as in the extremely aged appearance of a classic witch). The grotesque, in turn, has two major functions: first, it is the aesthetic of carnival, which is to say representative of the transgression of boundaries and therefore the violation or inversion of social norms–a chimera implies a forbidden union of different species, for example. Second, it is the visual representation of the abject, that which is neither subject nor object, the rejected elements of the self. The grotesque is a reminder that you are a body, that you are filled with blood, guts, and shit, that you will age and are mortal.

These two aspects combine to make the figure of the monster a powerful representation of the Other, members of the extended self, the community, who are rejected and expelled for violating social norms or not conforming to the idealized “normal” human body and behavior–the marginalized, in other words. This, in turn, often leads to a reclamation of monsters and the grotesque by the unjustly marginalized–indeed, this analysis of abjection and the grotesque comes entirely from feminist scholarship, especially Kristeva’s Powers of Horror.

She-Ra contains numerous characters who are arguably monstrous in the sense of deviating from the “normal” human body plan. In particular, characters are frequently chimerized: deer-people populate the village of Thaymor and the area around Bright Moon in early episodes, Mermista and her people are mer-folk, lizard-people, goat-people, and more populate the Crimson Waste, and Angella has wings, among many other examples. It is in the Horde, however, that we see the figure of the monster most used to represent the Other.

Consider Scorpia. She is unquestionably chimerized, with her scorpion claws and tail. But she is also “distorted” in the sense of being unusually tall, stocky, and immensely muscular, which deviates from the “norm” of what women are “supposed to” look like. (The supposer being, as it always is with our culture’s beauty standards, white supremacist cisheteronormative patriarchy.) Her relationship with Catra is also heavily queer-coded: while she talks about wanting a friendship with Catra, their trip to Princess Prom is in many ways framed as a date, she bonds with Sea Hawk over their mutual pining for someone who doesn’t seem to want or respect them, and she suggests essentially running away together to Catra near the end of Season 3. She is, in short, physically gender-nonconforming and sapphic.

It is no accident that her character is defined by exclusion. Her family, according to her, joined the Horde voluntarily and gave Hordak the Black Garnet runestone, because they were rejected and excluded by the other peoples of Etheria. (There is some reason to doubt this story, but it has not actually been contradicted by anything we’ve seen in the show, and that the rest of the world calls their home “the Fright Zone” suggests at least an element of truth.) She mentions being rejected and excluded by the other princesses at past Princess Proms, and most importantly, her overtures of friendship are repeatedly and consistently rejected by Catra. Scorpia is a warm, friendly person who wants badly to be loved; she is an aggressive fighter her derives satisfaction from defeating her enemies, but so is Glimmer. It’s pretty clear that her rejection by the princesses, and by extension the rejection of her people, isn’t about behavior; it’s about her monstrous appearance.

Catra is likewise defined by rejection, but in a different way. Where Scorpia’s rejection defines her circumstances, Catra’s rejection by her foster mother Shadow Weaver and best friend/primary love interest Adora has shaped her personality. Her chimerization is also more subtle: she has fur, cat eyes, ears, and tail, sharp nails, but in this art style most of her fur is indistinguishable from light brown skin, and most of the rest of her features are familiar by way of catgirls, who have been sanitized and defanged by pop culture in much the same way as fairies. And, too, cats are a familiar creature that is often found in human homes, treated as part of a human family; generally speaking, that’s not true of humans.

But underneath, Catra is far more monstrous than Scorpia. She has internalized her monstrosity, her rejection, and so unlike Scorpia she plays out that monstrous role, deliberately embracing being “the bad guy” because she feels unworthy of being good. This comes to a head in the Season 3 finale, when she first opens the portal knowing the havoc it will wreak on Etheria, and then becomes an avatar of sorts of the portal, becoming even more monstrous as she chimerizes with it.

In this choice to embrace and internalize being defined as a monster, she is a microcosm of the Horde itself. Hordak is a “defective” clone–someone who fails to meet the arbitrary standards of a “correct” body in his society–and a literal outsider, having come to Etheria from another world, and he embraces this role of invading Other, which is to say monster. In the Horde, we see lizard people, bear people, octopus people–chimeras of human with animals seen as scary or particularly alien, not the deer and bird people that seem to make the bulk of the Alliance. Entrapta, possessor of monstrous hair and mad scientist, permanent Other because of her struggles with basic socialization, ends up joining the Horde. Double Trouble, a nonbinary lizard person–like Scorpia, queer and a chimera–joins the Horde.

But again, we see fish-people and deer-people and bird-people in the Alliance. We see varied body types in the Alliance. The difference isn’t just that the “ugly” monsters are in the Horde; scary-animal-chimeras are more prominent in the Horde and friendly-animal-chimeras are more prominent in the Alliance, but we see both in both, and the diversity of real-world body types is comparable in both. The real difference is that the Horde internalizes their monstrosity. They have learned that there are acceptable things to do be and unacceptable things to be, Us and Other, but rather than try to end that extinction, they make a new Us and start Othering everyone else, rejecting all difference from their own new norm.

And in that respect, Catra is the Horde. It makes more sense than ever that she has refused to leave it, and instead sought dominance within it.

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A soulless little doll (Golem)

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We’ve discussed golems before, but it’s been a long time, so let’s recap the basics: the golem is a figure from Ashkenazi Jewish folklore. The typical golem legend runs that a rabbi in an embattled Jewish community–most commonly Rabbi Loew of 16th-century Prague–created a golem, a giant made of clay who served the community by performing menial tasks and fighting back against pogroms. However, the people abused the golem–in the version I know best, by making it keep sweeping the streets even on the Sabbath–and it went berserk. Its creator thus had to destroy it, or in some versions render it dormant. In the latter, the golem still exists somewhere, but the secret of how to bring it to life has been forgotten.

Golems are one of the major sources of both robot and superhero lore. Multiple lines of descent can be traced, but the short version is that a lot of Golden Age science fiction and comics were written by Ashkenazi Jews, and our folklore is represented therein.

In today’s Batman Beyond, meanwhile, the titular Golem is a piece of construction equipment, stolen and controlled by picked-on nerd Willie Watts. He is not, however, a sympathetic villain. None of the main characters of the episode come off as sympathetic: Nelson bullies Willie and is aggressive and pushy with Blade, including what I believe is the first instance of a character outright sexually propositioning another in the DCAU, when he asks if she wants a ride and clarifies he’s not talking about his car. Blade is manipulative and condescending, taking advantage of Willie’s crush to make Nelson jealous. And Willie himself is vengeful toward Nelson and possessive of Blade, with some justification for the former and none at all for the latter.

In that, he rather resembles the depiction of the Mad Hatter in “Mad as a Hatter,” which was similarly structured like a sympathetic villain story, but remained unsympathetic toward and critical of its villain protagonist. His character design has some common elements, too, with an enlarged, pointed chin and nose that appear to be how the DCAU signifies “ugly male.” His ability to use his mind to control technology is even an inversion of the Mad Hatter’s use of technology to control minds.

But unsympathetic though he may be, he still has the protection of the Golem, the defender of the marginalized from abuse by the powerful. And Willie is abused. By Nelson, who insults, threatens, and hits him, but also by his father, who passes on a nugget of truth–that sometimes you have to stand your ground and assert your boundaries–but drowns it in toxic masculinity with comments like “hit him where it hurts” or calling his son a “wuss.” The thing is, abuse doesn’t make people better. It breeds fear and anger, and frightened, angry people don’t always focus on the right targets when they strike back. The abused–and the marginalized, who are the same dynamic scaled up to an entire population–can easily internalize negative attitudes about themselves that serve as justifications for their abuse, and these can in turn be made into justifications for abusing others. In Willie’s case, he internalizes the subtext of his father’s statements–the he deserved to be bullied because he’s a wuss, and can only stop being a wuss by enacting violent revenge–and then uses that to justify attacking Nelson and numerous bystanders. They don’t succeed in hitting him back where it hurts, after all, and therefore must be wusses.

This is the problem with golems; they get abused. It’s so important for marginalized communities to have boundaries and safe spaces, to find ways to protect themselves from the abuse they face in the larger society. But it is so tempting, and so easy, to progress from “we deserve safe spaces and to be protected from the harm society perpetrates against the marginalized” to “we are to be protected, they are to be policed.” Which, you may recognize, is another way of stating the in-group/out-group, Us/Other binary from which marginalization itself derives. It’s the core problem of the protector fantasy: who gets protected, and from whom?

And that goes back to how Willie sees the world. He is a picked-on, abused outcast in his own eyes, which isn’t untrue. But we also see from his interactions with Blade what he thinks he should be, what he aspires to be: able to command her attention and affection, which he sees as rightfully his and resents when she directs it elsewhere. He thinks, in other words, that he should have hegemonic power over her; he doesn’t want to end abuse but to escape it by becoming the abuser. He’s internalized his father’s “hit them where it hurts” long before we first hear it in the episode. And again, it scales up neatly: he doesn’t want to end marginalization, which necessarily means ending hegemony, but to become hegemonic himself. He wants what he sees as the rightful power of masculinity, with which to force Blade to perform according to his desires.

And this is, unfortunately, often the case in marginalized communities. We’ve talked about it before in regards to lesbian cop Maggie Sawyer. Which is where we all too often end up with golems: they go berserk and start hurting people they should be protecting. It’s easy to tell that they’re doing that when they go around hunting high-schoolers and smashing through buildings; it’s less obvious, but no less damaging, when they do it by becoming cops, Terry–both of you.

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Retroactive Continuity: Lovecraft Country

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Commissioned post for Shane deNota-Hoffman

Sometimes we choose to separate the author from the work; sometimes we choose not to. And sometimes, we don’t have the option.

The latter is really the case with the work of H.P. Lovecraft. He is notorious for his virulent, vicious racism, and like all racism his arises from a combination of needing an Other in order to define an Us, and fear of that Other, which is why an Us seems necessary in the first place. His fiction, meanwhile, finds horror in the alien, the unfamiliar, and the new; his most famous work begins with the depiction of human life as a “placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity.” His prose describes a universe of infinite complexity and difference, a universe full of people and things which do not follow the norms with which he is familiar or accord with what he expects, a universe in which there are an infinitude of ways of being other than those of a pathologically frightened little Anglophile nerd, and in response to those visions, he curls up into a tiny ball and wishes not to have to see it anymore. His stories are rife with aristocratic white New England men, scions of wealthy families and dilettante amateur academics, who get a glimpse of a hint of the notion that their privileged existence is not the universal norm, and shatter into gibbering, helpless piles of purple prose.

There just isn’t any way to separate these two facts: he pioneered the literature of the terror of the unknown, and he was jaw-droppingly racist. His horror is, ultimately, the horror of being forced to acknowledge that not everyone is just like you. That’s what weird horror is–it’s horror about invaders from beyond the “normal” world, about discovering the world isn’t “normal” at all. And you know how we feel about “normal” in these parts.

This is, very clearly–indeed, heavy-handedly–what Matt Ruff is addressing with Lovecraft Country. The premise of the book is straightforward: a black family in the 1950s get tangled in the affairs of aristocrat white New England men, scions of wealthy families and dilettante amateur academics, and find themselves being offered in magical blood rituals intended to summon forth the powers of creation, sent on interplanetary errands by ghosts, used as pawns in a war between sorcerers, and so on. Throughout, however, the greatest threats to their well-being remain what was, to Lovecraft, part of the “normal” world: cops, hospitals that refuse black patients even in emergencies, lynch mobs and racist neighbors. Lovecraftian protagonists–most notably, an amateur academic who is the young and ambitious heir to a line of New England aristocrats with a sordid past full of ill-advised “natural philosophy”–are their enemies, while Lovecraftian menaces such as a nameless lurking darkness in the woods, the ghost of a Hecate-worshiping sorcerer whose home one purchases cheap, and an alien tentacle monster end up helping them, usually by killing or terrorizing the white people who would harm them.

But despite that heavy-handedness–indeed, in part because of it–there are two ways to read this book.

On the one hand, it’s a clever reclamation of weird fiction, by reading the phrase “fear of the Other” differently. Instead of the fear engendered by the Other, Lovecraft Country looks at the fear felt by the Other–that is, to the fear that comes from being othered, of living in a society built for the benefit of people that fear and hate you. The Other can be beautiful, as Hippolyta’s experience with the “observatory” that opens into other worlds demonstrates. The Other can destroy that which needs destroying, as when the presence in the woods kills or drives off the racist cops. And by contrast, to be part of Us can be corrupting, as Ruby’s growing addiction to transforming into Hillary shows. Indeed, the only time an othered figure is depicted as actually harmful to one of the protagonists is when the “devil doll” hunts Horace–and that doll is a racist caricature created and animated by white men. It is, in other words, not a manifestation of the Other but of the fear of the Other, the same fear that drives all the racism the protagonists face and serves as the root of the weird horror genre.

But on the other hand, Matt Ruff is white, and he’s arrogating to himself the right to tell, not a story with black people in it, but the story of being black in America. It’s to his credit that he at least recognizes that it’s a horror story, but it’s still not his story. He is still a white person speaking for, and over, black people, and from his comments when questioned about that, it’s clear that he genuinely doesn’t see any problem with that.

Which is the problem, because claiming ownership of everything in sight is what whiteness is. It’s absorbing local gods and spitting them back out as saints. It’s capitalism and nationalism and colonialism. It’s manifest destiny and lebensraum. It’s genocide and slavery. Whiteness as we know it is inseparable from hegemony and fragility, a toxic combination of the power to tilt the playing field and an inability to tolerate any questioning of whether the playing field is flat. Ruff is, it seems, oblivious to the possibility that it might be wrong to set out to tell the genre-redefining story of someone else, and offended by anyone suggesting that it is wrong.

But the book is pretty good, is the thing. Which means we have a choice: to read this as a pretty good book that recontextualizes Lovecraftian horror by contrasting it with the experience of being black in America, or to read it as an act of appropriation by a white author who decides to tell the horror story of being black.

Or, as I’ve tried to do here, we can try to do both at once, and see how it shakes out.

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Announcing Jenny’s Inn

Social distancing already sucks and it’s barely started.

That’s why I set up Jenny’s Inn, a private Discord server specifically to counteract the mental effects of social distancing. It’s a safe, friendly place where people of good will can gather to socialize, and have whatever level of conversation they desire; text, audio, or full video.

I am specifically setting aside a space for people to organize workalongs—video chats where you just quietly work without talking, if you want to feel like people are around but don’t want to interact or be distracted.

I’m also setting up a “convention” space specifically for geeky conversations. Creative friends who are losing income due to con cancelations are particularly welcome to share links to your work/crowdfunding/tip jar/etc, and even stream home versions of your con panels.

Other topic-specific spaces include channels for the queer, kinky, and poly communities, though those will each be available only to users who affirm they are a member of the community in question and agree to additional rules, including total confidentiality.

I’ll also be holding occasional video chats to put to use my training in anxiety management and crisis counseling, should anyone need that.

We can get through this together! Please contact me and I’ll send you an invite link.