Young, gifted, and about to be squashed (Obsession)

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OK, fixing this shit for real now. I am WEEKS behind on posts, so here’s what I’ll do:

  • Queue posts as soon as I post them on Patreon.
  • Post three NA09 entries a week until I’m 3 months behind the Patreon, which is where I should stay.
  • Post two sets of 3 videos a week until I’m 1 month behind the Patreon, which is where I should stay.

It’s November 15, 1998. Lauryn Hill tops the charts with “Doo Wop (That Thing)”; Divine, 98 Degrees, Monica, and Deborah Cox also chart. At the box office, the top movie is The Waterboy; I Still Know What You Did Last Summer and Meet Joe Black open at second and third, respectively. In the week since last episode, literally nothing has happened, or at least nothing I could find in my exhaustive research strategy of looking up “1998” on Wikipedia.

We’ve talked before about Superman and gaze theory, and particularly Superman weaponizing it against Lobo in the “The Main Man.” At the beginning of “Obsession,” however, we have Clark Kent and Jimmy Olson unapologetically employing that gaze while they gawk at models. The frame in this sequence centers the two men while models pass back and forth between them and the camera, their heads and limbs severed by the edge of the screen. Clark initially claims not to be looking at the models that way, but once the big-name model Darci comes out, he can’t take his eyes off her, as Jimmy points out.

Darci is, right from the start, objectified by everyone who sees her, but that objectification is not limited to her: the other models are likewise depicted as torsos upon which to hang swimwear. It’s no accident that, just as in “The Main Man,” this scene is almost immediately followed by robots getting their heads and limbs torn off, dismembered just as the camera dismembered the models. As far as the camera is concerned, they’re all just things, robots and women alike.

This is complicated, however, by Darci herself, a robot who spontaneously attained human emotion and free will. In contrast to the models, who are people reduced to things by the way they’re framed, Darci is framed as a thing ascended to personhood. The camera’s gaze is thereby equated to Toyman, who is the one trying to reduce Darci back into being a thing in his possession.

Specifically, he created her as a life-sized version of a doll very clearly based on Mattel’s Barbie, criticism of which had been much in the air around the time this episode would have been written–Aqua’s satirical song “Barbie Girl” peaked in the charts in September 1997, and in November the doll was redesigned to have less absurdly unrealistic proportions. In both cases, the doll is presented as an unrealistic model of human femininity–the redesign tacitly agrees with decades of criticism that Barbie is physically unrealistic, while the song uses Barbie as a frame to critique the idea of women as existing to fulfill male fantasies and desires.

Toyman, in other words, is being positioned in very much the same way that the Mad Hatter was in his origin episode, as someone who desires an entirely compliant woman because he cannot understand or cope with the idea that women are people with wants and needs of our own. He is, in short, an incel: a whiny manchild upset that real life isn’t all fun and games and immediate gratification, upset that others don’t cater to his every whim. Small wonder he builds a sex robot; men who hate women tend to love the idea, as it gives them a way to get their rocks off without having to care about another person, or for that matter acknowledge that a woman is another person and could be cared about.

Toyman views Darci’s escape, independence, and disdain for him as malfunctions, which recalls the bon mot that when men describe their exes as “crazy,” what they mean is “she had an emotion I didn’t want her to have.” He is convinced he can “fix” her, and indeed, having forgotten how the episode ends prior to rewatching it for this essay, her silence and stillness during the climax made me worried he had deleted her personality or “repaired” her emotions. Fortunately, that’s not the case: instead, she finds a loophole in her programmed inability to harm him, and takes down his helicopter, seemingly killing them both.

But this is where the episode’s uncertainty about her comes to a head. Throughout, the show has seemed unable to decide whether Darci is an out-of-control machine, a danger to the people around her, such as when she leaves Lana Lang to die in the fire Darci accidentally started; or if she’s a person trapped in a bad situation, as when she initially starts toward Lana, seemingly wanting to help her, before realizing she cannot make it past the burning chandelier. This ambiguity remains right through to the final scene, which reveals Darci survived and is leaving town with a very heavy case. This is good news, and yet the music seems to imply this is an ominous moment, leaving one to wonder what’s in the case–Toyman, perhaps?

But that’s the issue, isn’t it? Darci is at least an attempted murderer, and she’s made very clear that it was deliberate, commenting on how much she wants to hurt Toyman even though her programming prevents it. She is either an out-of-control robot, or an attempted murderer, and in either case has escaped from Superman and her creator alike. (At least as far as this episode, and Superman: The Animated Series, is concerned. We’ll address her return when we get to Static Shock.) In the eyes of the show, that apparently isn’t a happy ending; in the eyes of the show, Darci is morally ambiguous.

But then, the eyes of the show started the episode by slicing women’s heads and limbs off. We can hardly be surprised it thinks Darci is less than she is.

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