Can’t get rid of us that easily (Little Big Head Man)

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It’s November 21, 1998. The top song is “Doo Wop (That Thing) by Lauryn Hill; 98 Degrees, Barenaked Ladies, and Faith Hill also chart. The Rugrats Movie and Enemy of the State open at numbers 1 and 2 in the box office, respectively.

Two days ago, the House Judiciary Committee initiated impeachment hearings against Bill Clinton; yesterday, the first component of the International Space Station launched; today, The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time releases in Japan. It’ll be out in the U.S. the day after tomorrow, and ultimately accomplish the feat of being really quite good and massively overrated at the same time.

I’ve been absent for a while, in multiple senses. First, I took a lengthy and much-needed break from this series in the couple of months between writing the last entry and this one. Second, I-as-I-was-at-the-time-of-broadcast have not made an appearance in quite some time. There’s a simple reason for that: I wasn’t doing too well.

In late 1998, I am badly underweight and somewhat malnourished due to physical illness. I am also deeply depressed and failing at some critical courses that mean I will not be getting the special diploma issued to graduates of my elitist pressure-cooker high school, but merely the “higher” of the two diplomas issued in my county. I’m pretty messed up about that, and turning inward more than ever. I feel helpless and alone, and repulsed by the wrongness of my distorted, failing, grotesque body. (It’s still nearly twenty years until I figure out that’s gender dysphoria.)

We’ve talked about the grotesque before, and we have two clear examples in this episode, Bizarro and Mr. Mxyzptlk are both distorted human forms, Bizarro a troll-like twisting of Superman, while Mr. Mxyzptlk, with his tiny body and disproportionately large feet, hands, and head, is more like a classical homunculus. It is perhaps inevitable that they would be teamed, not because there is actually any commonality between them, but because we lump the grotesque together; all Other is treated as homogenously Other, while the relatively far more homogenous extended Self is treated as multifaceted and complex.

That said, the two do have something in common besides being Other, however: neither considers themselves an Other. This is for very different reasons, however. Mr. Mxyzptlk, for all his misbehavior, is a normative member of fifth-dimensional society. His life in his own realm is depicted as resembling that of a typical comics character–beautiful redheaded love interest, nice home without clear indicator of how he affords it, in a culture enough like ours to have recognizable trials. In other words, he is part of a culture that maintains a “normal”/Other distinction–the existence of courts alone demonstrates that–but thinks of himself as “normal” and humans as Other.

Bizarro, meanwhile, crudely imitates the typical superhero life, “patrolling” his stone model city and pretending to save its citizens (failing as often as not, not that he lets it stop him). He is not part of a society at all, but thinks he is successfully mimicking, and therefore part of, normative Metropolis society. Note that in his play, he rescues his “citizens” from a natural disaster, a rolling boulder, not a criminal–there is no indication that he recognizes that such a thing as an Other exists!

Until, that is, Mr. Mxyzptlk reveals it to him. It’s a horrifying moment, when you first realize that you’re different and other people hate you for it. It’s like drowning, shrinking, being swallowed into the earth, a moment of overwhelming shame that never entirely ends. Suddenly, you have to see yourself not as the subject of your life, the “I” who experiences and acts, but an object perceived and judged by others. It hurts, and it isn’t fair, and it unsurprisingly produces a great deal of anger.

What we have here is a clearly drawn bridge between the grotesque, the state of being both Self and Other, both person and body, and double consciousness, the state of being both subject and object. That liminal space between is one we know well at this point: abjection. Kristelva’s and duBois’ concepts, arrived at independently from being subject to sexism and racism, are facets of the same phenomenon. Which of course we knew: they’re both experiences of being marginalized, and so broadly similar in their psychological effects, though obviously the details differ.

I don’t remember watching this episode in the late 90s. Honestly, I don’t remember much of being late-90s me at all. But I remember the constant awareness of difference, the awareness that everyone who looked at me saw something broken, wrong, repulsive. Watching it now, I feel for Bizarro, and I hate the conclusion of this episode. I hate that it pairs him and Mxyzptlk, because it ultimately buys into the normal/Other binary and puts Superman on the normal side, Bizarro and Mxyzptlk on the Other side. They’re not alike at all; Mxyzptlk is malicious and cruel, and should be depowered and separated from the rest of us for that reason, not because he’s “strange”; Bizarro, meanwhile, only ever causes problems through misunderstanding. He needs teaching, not isolation!

But Superman isn’t like Bizarro. Superman is the normal/Other binary, its defender and enforcer, and in his stories, the purpose of the grotesque is to illustrate where that boundary lies and thereby reinforce it. No, he doesn’t actually laugh at Bizarro the way Mxyzptlk claimed; nonetheless, he buys into the same narrative that depicts Bizarro as something to be laughed at. And I can’t just let that go, because that narrative also says someone like me–physically and mentally chronically ill, gay, trans–is more like Bizarro than I am Superman. It says that we’re more like Mxyzptlk, a villain, than we are like Superman or the people he defends. It says, in short, that we’re the villains.

Is it any wonder that they’re our power fantasies?

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