Wednesday, January 6, 2016

The cardinal law of cliche

This is a 38-panel comic I’ve worked on nonstop for the past two months, and finally finished a few days ago. Basically, I wanted to satirize the pop culture tropes of “Cool Girl” and “Manic Pixie Dream Girl”—while making it clear that I don’t think the stereotypes are true (there’s a joke in the strip about neither of them existing in the real world). I’ve also always liked the idea of two female characters battling it out for a reason completely unrelated to a man. In this scenario, they’re vying for their place in the plot. What I’ve noticed from movies and TV is that “Cool Girl” and “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” never seem to occupy the same story, because both of them are always presented as the character the male protagonist is supposed to end up with. As you can probably guess, it doesn’t pan out that way here.
Most of you are likely aware of what “Cool Girl” and “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” mean, but I have been asked about those tropes by a few people who are unfamiliar with them. So, for everyone’s reference: and . MPDG is known for being quirky, artistic, spontaneous, and playful in a childlike way. She tends to wear vintage-y clothes and have an indie vibe (think every character Zooey Deschanel ever plays). She bakes cupcakes and knits. She takes off on random road trips and force-feeds everyone sunshine. Cool Girl, on the other hand, is more of a tough girl who’s thought of as “one of the guys” (as silly as it is that such a quality means you’re thought of as a man). She’s constantly bragging that she’s “not like other girls.” Sort of like the Girl Next Door trope, except more high-adrenaline. A few friends who have seen the comic have asked if MPDG is supposed to be me, and the answer is no. Aside from the red hair, I don’t even think I look like her.
Also, several people have asked me who John Green and Nicholas Sparks are. They’re both real-life popular novelists. Nicholas Sparks writes saccharine stories that are basically extended Hallmark cards. John Green’s plots tend to be formulaic in a similar way, except his characters deliver the stories with witty, whimsical dialogue and while wearing scarves. (And this isn’t to mock him; I like John Green.)
I very well may continue this project. This could just be the first installment. The second might involve the characters struggling to form their own identities outside of the tropes they’re written into.

Toying with gender roles

Amused by the idea that dolls are "girl toys," and that action figures and puppets are somehow completely distinct from dolls and therefore acceptable for boys to play with.
It's not even as if they're distinguished by whether the doll is supposed to be masculine or feminine. There are action figures of women and dolls that are supposed to be boys. It also has nothing to do with the imaginary scenarios they're cast into. When I was little, my Barbies fought in a lot of time-travel wars and the Megazord hosted tea parties. (There was also a whole ongoing love triangle between a Barbie, the green Power Ranger, and Ariel, but that was another story.)
It's just weird how we create all these arbitrary barriers. Any toy that's modeled to look like a person is, for all practical purposes, a doll--and that's fine.

You don't have to listen.

One narrative that sounds pretty silly upon examination is, "You can't just delete anyone from your friends list who disagrees with you! Real life doesn't work like that." I understand the message; that it's impossible to avoid interacting with others who have a clashing worldview. That's true, but is rarely a person's actual goal.

We all know people we disagree with fundamentally on a variety of topics, and with whom we share virtually no values. Working, going to school with, and living among them is a necessary facet of belonging to human society. Learning how to talk to people we don't agree with is an important skill. But that doesn't mean we're obligated to listen to hateful, willfully ignorant, and destructive ideas in a setting where that's actually optional. I don't believe that every opinion that opposes mine is harmful, nor am I certain that I'm correct about everything. But I have blocked, deleted, and sometimes just unfollowed people for repeatedly posting malicious things. Opinions like "females are thots", "[X minority racial group] are disgusting," "Gay people deserve to be murdered," "Jews are greedy" and "Poor people are lazy moochers" are not nuanced, original ideas I've never previously been exposed to. They're so common that they're longstanding stereotypes. Saying you hate a group or that they should die/be severely punished for their existence is not an argument. Calling a group a name is not an argument; it's just a slur. Granted, that may also apply to calling certain ideologies bigoted—that saying they're bigoted isn't making an argument; just calling a name—and maybe I'm less likely to notice that because of my own biases. But when I say something is bigoted, I'm probably venting instead of trying to persuade others to agree, because it doesn't seem possible to persuade someone who's just shouting slurs. The slur-shouters honestly think they have a valid theory you need to hear, though, and that you're doing yourself a disservice by closing that channel. They also seem to think their ideas are unique and rebellious. Those who disagree are well aware that a more progressive stance is not unusual, and that it doesn't have to be unique to have value.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

The Iconoclast Effect, or how Lisa Simpson teaches us to kill our heroes

            We've all become disillusioned with a personal hero at some point, whether it was someone we knew or someone idolized by many. When I hear a news story exposing a beloved figure for corruption, I'm often hesitant to share it. Not because the truth is secondary to the ideals a person may represent—it's not—but because it's painful to see their admirers' respect shattered. I've never wanted to be a killjoy. There are times when I wonder if it's really worth posting about the less positive aspects of Pope Francis, seeing as he (or at least his public image) brings hope to so many LGBT Catholics. Or if linking to articles about Mother Theresa's exploitation of the poor is too demoralizing to people who are currently living in poverty and hold her dear as an icon. Or if talking about the fact that John Lennon beat his wife is discouraging to people who find solace in his beautiful, although hypocritical, pleas for peace. I wonder if the end justifies the means, when those who admire these public heroes don't actually promote corruption or bigotry. They admire those figures because they believe them to stand for compassion. But if a person supports someone who commits harmful acts or holds toxic beliefs, then are they inadvertently promoting that same negativity? That may be the case, especially if victims of their behavior are still alive and continue to be affected. This doesn't mean it's wrong to enjoy a person's work, as the work itself may transcend its creator. But it does mean it's best not to see the creator as noble or to excuse their behavior because of what they've made.
          This always makes me think of a Simpsons episode from 1996 called "Lisa the Iconoclast." In the storyline, Lisa discovers that a historical town hero named Jebediah Springfield was actually a fraud. The whole town has revered him for a century, to the point of having a local holiday and parade in his name. Lisa tries to expose the truth about Jebediah with limited success. She writes an essay which is met with dismay from her teacher. She makes flyers to hang up on the Kwik-E-Mart windows, but Apu panics and forbids her to display them. At the end, she's standing in front of the parade and prepared to make a public statement. She's about to announce to the town that Jebediah was a murderous pirate operating under a false identity. But at the last minute, Lisa changes her statement and tells them he was great. Afterwards, the head of the Springfield historical society asks her why she did it. Lisa answers that it was more important to keep the townspeople happy than to expose Jebediah for who he was, because his legend inspires them and provides a sense of community.
           This ending bothered me a great deal as a child. I didn't see it as upholding a loftier goal, but as backing down on her principles. Springfield hero-worshipped a mass murderer and lived in ignorance. What could be more important than the truth?
           In hindsight, I see this episode as a lot more ethically complex. None of the people who had been robbed or otherwise wronged by Jebediah Springfield were still alive, and neither was anyone who would have been aware of his crimes. Placing the flyers on display in the Kwik-E-Mart would have likely jeopardized Apu's safety—not only because of the message, but because he was an Indian immigrant living in Springfield. Their region was insular and strongly focused on town pride. He was already seen as an outlier, so granting a platform for criticism of Springfield's beloved founder would have further reinforced that status. He would have gone from an outcast to a pariah. Lisa herself would have caused outrage, but most of it would have been directed at her parents. After all, her character is only eight years old. Everyone sees a young child's opinions as a direct reflection of their parents'.
            So, in Lisa's situation, I understand why she reached the conclusion she did and decided it was not a cause worth pursuing. The ending still leaves me unsatisfied, though. It feels like an injustice, both to Lisa's diligent efforts and to Jebediah's victims, to see her bury that fiery righteousness in order to appease the majority.
           In my imagination, there's an alternate world in which the Simpsons universe is real and the characters aren't suspended in time. Lisa grows up and publishes her research, which has not gone to waste. She doesn't have to announce it in front of an idealistic crowd, but it's there for those who want to find it. That's the ending I want to believe.
           And, in the end, that leads me to my conclusion about exposing flawed cultural icons. I think it's generally the ethical thing to do, but with caution and sensitivity and respect for the faith their admirers hold in their ideals. It may be difficult to find that balance, but it's worth striving for. It means knocking over a house of cards, but leaving the deck stacked for a more stable foundation.