Vlog Review: Seven Deadly Sins S1E11

Commissioned vlog for Benny Blue. Reminder that Patreon backers can request commissions, see these videos (including Star vs. Evil, Steven Universe, Ducktales, commissioned episodes of other series, and panels I presented at various cons) 4-5 weeks early, AND see Near-Apocalypse articles four MONTHS early!

Your other reason (The Demon Within)

It’s May 9, 1998. The top song is still Next with “Too Close”; Mariah Carey, Shania Twain, the Backstreet Boys, and Savage Garden also chart. At the box office, Deep Impact opens at number one; with Titanic and Les Miserables also in the top ten, apocalypse and revolution are clearly in the air.

Alas, not so in The New Batman Adventures, which airs a depressingly insipid introduction to Etrigan the Demon. There is seemingly much that could be done with an immortal Arthurian knight turned sorcerer who has a literal inner demon, especially paired up with someone like Batman, but the show chooses to do precisely nothing with this potential, keeping the two of them as separate as possible. Pairing him with and against two exemplars of youth–Robin the Boy Wonder and Klarion the Witch-Boy–likewise seems like a recipe for an interesting exploration of agelessness, but nothing comes of that, either. And, finally, an episode in which a man has to figure out how to fight evil despite being stripped of his inner demons, in a show about Batman of all people, seems rife with possibility–but again, nothing is done with this.

All these possibilities, all this magic, and the episode is instead just a series of action sequences in which Batman dodges Klarion’s and Etrigan’s attacks while Jason Blood sits in a room and mumbles vaguely magic-y words.

There is very little to say about this episode, so let’s focus on the title instead. We have, after all, been spending quite a lot of words lately on the topic of the monster without, the fear of the grotesque Other; let us therefore turn to the demon within, the grotesque Self–or, rather, the Self become grotesque Other.

There are bad things inside us, which must not be let out. This is literally, physically true: we contain viscera and blood, which are repulsive and cause bad things to happen to us if we let them out (or let the wrong things in). This is the underlying form of abjection: our instinctive disgust at the breaching of the inside the body/outside the body distinction. Indeed, it is the origin of the term; the abject is that which is neither subject nor object, but rather breaches the barrier between the two in a way that feels wrong, hence the ab– prefix.

Metaphorically, this self-abjection becomes the “inner demons”: the parts of ourselves that disgust us, prompting us to try to reject them, to treat them as an Other distinct from the Self. And just as, when we erect a circle of normality as the defining border of an Us, we uncritically mix the genuinely harmful or wrong with the merely different, so too when we abjectify a part of the self, we mix parts of us that perhaps should be kept inside with parts that could be rechanneled toward good ends and parts that are just straightforwardly good.

The demon within, in other words, could be a Man-Bat, animalistic and destructive–or it could be an Etrigan, evil in origin and yet turned to doing good.

Or, to turn personal for a moment, it could be a Jennifer.

I spent most of my life convinced there was something unutterably foul inside me. It felt like an ocean of old, fetid emotions, buried until they decayed into a rotted sludge of despair, self-loathing, and rage. And then, one day, in a flash of rainbow light provided by a friend, I saw it for what it really was: a part of me that was nearly the whole of me, that I’d been told to reject, told to be disgusted by, but was actually–once I dug it up and rinsed it off–beautiful.

And monstrous. Because again, that is what the monstrous is–the projection outward of the demon within, the Other created by the process of abjectification. To be queer is to be monstrous–to be, to paraphrase El Sandifer, part of a wound torn in the vast space of human experience by the declaration that some things are normal, and all else is abnormal, and therefore unacceptable.

Simply by existing–happily, angrily, openly, and unapologetically–I force a confrontation with that wound, which is, like all wounds, grotesque. I am the monster that refuses to abjectify itself any longer. I am here to destroy the world.

Because “the world” is that circle of normality, both inside us and without. It is our shell; by breaking it, we birth ourselves. True apocalypse, true revolution, is simply to live honestly as one’s own best self, come what may.

I am a monster, and I am good.

And another word for “good monster” is…

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Vlog Review: Star vs Evil S2E16

Bonus episode! As long as the Patreon remains above $150/mo, I’ll post an two extra vlogs every month!
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Retroactive Continuity: Emara, Emirates Hero Eps 3-5

Commissioned post for Aleph Null.

Female heroes get mind-controlled a lot.

Oh, superheroes in general are prone to being mind-controlled. It’s a great way to turn a physically unimposing villain into a serious threat, by essentially giving them access to the hero’s powers in the form of the hero themselves. It’s an excuse to force a look at that eternal (and eternally obnoxious question) of superhero fandom, “Who would win?”

But (and I admit I have done no actual survey of this or seen statistics) it certainly seems like female heroes are particularly prone to being mind-controlled. Of course, it’s possible I just feel that way because I saw Episode 3 of Emara, Emirates Hero just a few days after Incredibles 2, which also features a woman most prominently out of multiple mind-controlled superheroes.

Either way, seeing Emara controlled rankles, especially so early in her run. Her very existence challenges cultural boundaries and social norms, yet almost immediately she is forced under the control of what appears to be a man in a puppy mask made from a paper bag–another woman just doing what a man wants.

But in so doing, she becomes monstrous, sprouting gigantic robotic arms from her shoulder blades and rampaging unstoppably through the headquarters of whatever organization it is that Dhabian is working for. Controlled Emara, like controlled Ali a couple of episodes later, is a horrifying creature: grotesque, with her glowing eyes and massive extra arms belying her otherwise human frame, which dangles like an afterthought from her shoulders. Her behavior in this state is equally horrific, as she flings Dhabian around like a ragdoll and tears off his prosthetic limb.

Contrast “Little Girl Lost.” There, Superman’s controlling attitude toward Supergirl was depicted as natural, part of his parental (that is, patriarchal) role in Supergirl’s life. She rebelled against it, but that rebellion caused as much trouble as it solved: it is Supergirl’s fight against the new Intergang that causes Granny Goodness to summon the Female Furies who capture Superman, and Supergirl who destroys the comet-summoning device before it can be used to repel the comet. Much of the episode’s action–her heroism–consists of fixing her own mistakes, mistakes borne of not obeying Superman’s restrictions.

Here in Emara, however, the man controlling the woman is villainous, and the image of a woman controlled is monstrous. By her very nature as a superhero, Emara is extraordinary, which is to say she lies outside the circle of normativity. She is a violation of “the rules”–of who gets to be a superhero, and of what young brown girls can do. Yet she is not depicted as grotesque until she becomes obedient; the grotesque, in other words, exists not because of deviance but because of normalcy.

This reading is reinforced in Episode 5, when Emara fights controlled Ali, who has likewise transformed into a monster. She again transforms into the glowing-eyed, multi-armed “monster,” but now she is the monster that fights monsters, which as we have observed before, is the definition of a hero. It is a moment not of horror, like her previous transformation, but of excitement, an escalation of her valiant effort to save Dhabian.

The same form is horrifying or exciting, not because it becomes more or less “normal,” but according to whether it is a threat or an ally. The flipside of the grotesque is the exotic; we can fear the tentacle or fuck the tentacle. Fear the outsider or wish to learn about them. Shun the Other or embrace diversity.

But in Emara we see a third path: we can do both and neither. We can fear behaviors that are legitimately dangerous to us, and be excited (intellectually, emotionally, sexually, whatever) by behaviors that are surprising to us, without having to thereby judge the entirety of a person as “normal” or “deviant,” “grotesque” or “exotic.” We can simply recognize difference and accept it: Dhabian has fewer limbs than I do. Emara has more. That changes the worth of neither of them.

This is not to say that difference doesn’t matter. Ignoring for the moment that they are fictional characters, there are things I can do that Dhabian can’t without his prostheses, and things they let him do that I cannot. Emara is a Muslim woman raised in a culture very different from mine; that gives her a perspective I lack. But I can value the things that perspective lets her see that I cannot, while pointing out the things my perspective lets me see that she cannot, and all without declaring myself “normal” and her “Other”; I can see that we are different from each other, without needing to declare either of us (or anyone else) a normative baseline.

Remembering that Dhabian and Emara are fictional, we can also talk about them as representation. It is important for people who frequently feel Othered to see people like them depicted as a norm, yes, but it is also important for people who frequently see themselves as the norm to see someone they frequently Other depicted as a norm. To make people who feel Othered feel less so, and people who feel normal to feel less so, until both concepts dissolve entirety into a recognition that there are countless human communities, that everyone not only belongs somewhere but belongs multiplesomewheres, and yet no one belongs everywhere.

The name for this rejection of the singular normal/Other binary (and its implied singular community operating according to a singular narrative) in favor of a multiplicity is paralogy, and it raises a major challenge to the concept not just of the superhero, but the hero. Namely, if there aren’t actually any monsters, just different communities, what are heroes for?

The answer to that question is the answer to our main question, too: if we know what the new hero is for, than we can construct what that hero needs to be.

We will be coming back to this, many times, before we are through.

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Finally meeting cheerleaders (Little Girl Lost)

It’s May 2, 1998. The top song is Next with “Too Close”; Shania Twain, Montell Jordan, K-Ci & JoJo, and Madonna also chart. The top movie is He Got Game; City of Angels, Titanic, and Lost In Space are also in the top ten. According to my extensive research of the news for this period (skimming the Wikipedia page for “1998”), the only newsworthy event is the death of musician Hideto Matsumoto, a.k.a. hide.

As I said the last time we discussed Superman: The Animated Series, this episode, despite being ostensibly the end of the second season, “Little Girl Lost” functions more like a season premiere: after a few months without any STAS, we get the introduction of a new recurring character intertwined with a continuation of the Intergang/Apokolips story arc that ended its first phase with “Apokolips… NOW!”

Supergirl herself is the focus of this two-parter, however, much as Batgirl was introduced in a Batman: The Animated Series two-parter. Supergirl is peculiarly framed, however: she is introduced as a literal anti-fridging, both in the sense of a reveal that she is alive when all Kryptonians and Argosians (other than Superman and denizens of the Phantom Zone) are presumed dead, and in the sense that she has been frozen and must be thawed.

When next we see her, she is awash in warm sunlight, playfully zooming about the Kansas sky in a scene that at once calls back to and contrasts heavily with Superman’s first flight in “Last Son of Krypton.” Superman’s flight was depicted as a culmination of a series of increasingly prodigious leaps–a feat of strength, in other words. Supergirl, by contrast, is depicted as looping and curving through the air, playing with geese and water, while music swells–a display of innocent grace that resembles nothing so much as the buildup to a Disney princess about to sing her “I want” song.

And much like the princesses of the Disney Renaissance, Supergirl is a complicated cluster of competing creative impulses. She shares the same pinup Good Girl face and body as every young woman Bruce Timm designs, and this first flight of hers exemplifies that aesthetic: she is clearly being presented for the male gaze, barelegged, -armed, and midriffed as she arches her back and stretches out her limbs, but diegetically she is simply flying with no intent of appearing sexualized. She is an ingenue balanced carefully between sexuality and innocence, trying to appeal to and convey both at once. At the same time, she is immensely physically strong, on par with Superman himself, but subordinate to him, both in the sense that she is younger than him and in the sense that this is his show.

She is full of tensions: between appealing to the male gaze and avoiding the ire of censors, depicting a competent superhero with exciting adventures and preserving the fragile egos of male superhero fans, and most of all between her Madonna-like framing and her strength. After all, as Utena told us, “a girl who cannot become a princess is doomed to become a witch.”

Supergirl definitely cannot become a princess–her people and her world are gone, after all. This episode, however, expands very slightly from the Madonna-whore binary Utena explores, merging it with the “triple goddess” archetype to give us three different women: the Maiden, the Mother, and the Other–that last combining elements of Crone and whore, while the other two both take on different aspects of the Madonna, one being the Virgin and the other, well, the Mother.

The Mother gets the least time, as Lois briefly occupies the role early in Part One, acting as a parental guide-and-setter-of-limits on Jimmy, a deliberate parallel to Superman’s strict limitation of Kara. Kara, meanwhile, is a Maiden trying to break out of that inherently infantilizing role: as long as she remains at the Kents’, she can only play with her powers, never genuinely explore the potential she possesses. But Superman sees only the danger to her, fencing her into a cage–a sun-dappled cage full of rolling hills and wide blue skies, but a cage nonetheless.

The only one who recognizes Kara’s strength is the Other, Granny Goodness, a withered old hag possessed of great power, a servant of the devil (or Darkseid, which is close enough) who corrupts the young and turns them into less Crone-like, more whore-like Others themselves, the Female Furies. Unlike Granny, they are sexualized (especially Lashina) while at the same time retaining elements of the grotesque–Lashina’s mask, Mad Harriet’s catlike features, Stompa’s size–that clearly mark them as women who cross boundaries.

But so too is Supergirl. She says it herself, when Amy expresses awe and a little horror at the idea of weapons from another planet: “Hey, I’m from another planet. It happens.” She is inherently Other; as I said above, she cannot ever be a princess, and therefore must become a witch–or else break out of the narrow, confining narrative trap in which we place women. That, then, is another tension within her: between Other and other, between being an outsider that doesn’t challenge the way we construct “inside” and “outside,” or one that does.

None of this is actually resolved within the episode. Supergirl remains a point of enormous tension, never quite resolving one way or the other. She is too active, too resistant to Superman’s attempts to control her “for her own good,” to quite be a maiden, but too much the ingenue to be the Other. Yet she is too much of both those familiar archetypes to break free of archetypes altogether.

She is, in short, aptly named. In the episode, questioned on being Supergirl, she points at the logo on her chest and says “Super,” then simpers and says “girl.” She has so much potential to transcend the limitations placed on her, but ultimately is still trapped within limiting, sexist narratives of what a young woman can be and who she is for.

And yet she is able to remain. She strains against the narrative and it strains to contain her, but still it holds. A woman who is powerful and good, who defies the rules placed on her without being vilified, can exist within the confines of this world, without being reduced to a femme fatale like Poison Ivy was. The price, unfortunately, is that this world is strong enough to contain her without breaking: she is contained, and remains still mostly a Madonna-figure, without challenging that binary.

Somewhere, Harley is laughing.

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Vlog Review: Ducktales S1E19-20

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Commissioned vlog for SA Hershman. Reminder that Patreon backers can see these videos up to 6 weeks early AND Near-Apocalypse articles three MONTHS early, commission videos and essays, and more!