(anti)Heroes of our time: Cyclops and Wolverine (a year-end post)

So, the year 2012 is ending. This is normally the kind of time when we review what was eventful about the year. To be honest, this year has seemed the same as last, and almost the same as 2010. The headlines seem often the same, either there’s a scandal about someone’s personal affairs which becomes political, or a political scandal that is personalised to specific individuals.

I’m a believer in the notion that our culture reflects our times. Often nostalgia for the year passing focusses on entertainment news or things that have happened in culture. At least in the UK, culturally we seem to live in two worlds. There is the discourse of aspiration and the reality of its improbability. Television shows offer fame and stardom, give us things we wish to aspire to: lovely food, great homes, interior decoration or the spiritual gin of a cheap thrill through comedy and music. I am just as guilty as anyone else in buying in to this irreverence. I am reminded of Robert K. Merton’s notion of strain theory in criminology: the idea that criminality and deviance directly relates to the dissonance between the ideals of what people are told to aspire to against its inherent difficulty due to current social times.

Perhaps one way to sum up the year for me, is through a Comicbook storyline and the way in which it has concluded. Marvel’s ‘Avengers Vs. X-Men’ (AvX) was a story about two teams of heroes who were forced to fight because of a difference of opinion. This difference of opinion was based on the significance of a very powerful supernatural force known as the Phoenix, which enters a physical body and imbues them with special powers. The Phoenix was destined for one particular character, Hope Summers, but as it happened, by an accident the Phoenix entered five different people who it was not supposed to.

(spoiler warnings)

Cyclops and Wolverine

The conclusion of this story was that one of the most archetypal characters representing the moral good has turned into a villain, namely, the X-Man, Cyclops/Scott Summers. Cyclops in his depiction in Marvel Comics has always been a morally upright citizen, the one who always holds the line of decency and has a commitment to the values of Xavier’s ideology of mutant equality.

Perhaps the most notable turn of events for me was the ‘transition’ from hero to villain of Cyclop’s character in the 5 issue short: AvX: Consequences. Cyclops, imbued with vast amounts of power had the ability to change the world, at first it looked like he was acting out of good. Many of Cyclops and the other Phoenix hosts moved to create a better world, some of their acts included things such as improving ecological conditions and solving the fundamental problem of the scarcity gap to end hunger and global energy needs. Quite a poignant use of superhero powers if such people ever lived in the real world. However the vast power of the Phoenix emphasised the nobility of their hosts, but eventually their darker sides were also emphasised, which eventually led to the moral corruption of the Phoenix five.

After the Phoenix ordeal, Cyclops is put in a prison. In a conversation with his former team-mate Wolverine, the latter says: you were always the man I wanted to be. Wolverine references Cyclops’ idealism and his commitment to moral good, incorruptible nature and his courage. Cyclops is, or was, as traditionally heroic as heroes get. Cyclops’ fall was notable in this regard. Eventually Cyclops’ is sprung out of prison and it looks like he has become part of a villainous ‘X-Men’ group including Magneto. One of the most notable acts of Cyclops when  he was empowered by the Phoenix force was that he killed his mentor, Charles Xavier, who is the most important character in the X-men series, since he founded the team.

After killing his mentor and murdering a prisoner out of vengeance, Cyclops realised he has changed and accepts this new moral character emerging from his actions. Summers leaves a note at the prison for Wolverine after he escapes, which says to the effect: I realise that I have to be the hero you once saw me to be, because that hero has now become you. Wolverine, as it has been acknowledged throughout comic law, and by himself, is hardly the most traditionally heroic. Wolverine has killed in cold blood, believes in a vigilante form of justice and embodies rage in many occaisions. Wolverine as an X-man, and a role model realises that his behaviour has implications for those who have looked up to him and this has made him more mindful of his behaviour.

I think that the transition of the hero mantle from Cyclops to Wolverine reflects a change in the cultural sensibilities of our time. Idealism seems no longer relevant, idealism seems sour in an age of austerity and hardship. Our heroes are often the reluctant ones. The heroes of our time are more like Aeneas: brooding, strained, unwilling, encumbered by duty. Charlie Brooker has written a piece a few days ago to this effect pointing out how James Bond and Batman, characters of two blockbuster films this year; are essentially the same character. That Cyclops has become a villain hit home to me the cultural sensibilities of today, and how different this decade was in relation to the last. The bubble has broken and we are in a wet spot. Anti-heroes are our heroes, and idealism is replaced by cynicism and regret.

Michael

P.S. Happy New Year from the Noumenal Realm team 🙂

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The Hawkeye Initiative and the dictum of cultural challenge

Preamble

I’m writing about this issue because it reflects two things: my fandom for the Marvel Universe, and my enduring admiration throughout much of my life to the many great animated series, games, comic books and even Youtube re-dubs put out by Marvel. I used to be a big fan of the X-Men when I was younger, then was quite a fan of Iron Man and in recent years I’ve come to enjoy the Avengers through their cinematic entry and their recent comicbook tussle with the X-Men (five of which were powered by the Phoenix Force). It comes from this perspective that many people may find it difficult to criticise the things they love.

From about 10 days ago I saw a memetic emergence, in true Susan Blackmore style, a cultural idea was successful enough to be interesting to people that people would wish to replicate it, or reblog to be more specific. This memetic emergence came from (I understand from a trustworthy nerd source) a comparison between a comic book cover of Character Natasha Romanov/Black Widow replaced with the male character Clint Barton/Hawkeye. Many people found the interpretation so powerful that they made their own versions, some looking very low quality (but that’s not really the point) and others are more professional looking mark-ups, transposing ridiculous poses that women are depicted in on the covers of comics, to drawing men in such a fashion.

What Hawkeye Initiative shows
The Hawkeye Initiative, as it came to be known, began to collate a large number of variations on a theme. Not just Marvel comic book covers began to be copied, it became evident that this seemingly humourous transposition of a female character on a comic issue’s cover to a male one reflects the systematic objectification of women in comics. Compared to men, female characters are often in postures which would be difficult to maintain, perhaps physically impossible. The depiction of women often reflect idealised perceptions of what comic writers, artists and what they presume their audience would consider as an idealised female body. The costumes of women, when worn on men in such a way that the Hawkeye interpretations show, reflect the inherent disproportionate treatment of women as sexualised in some kind of enticement towards the audience.

For a long time I was aiming to write a piece on how unrealistic male comic characters are physically, however it seems that it is the case for both men and women characters.

What Hawkeye Initiative means
(image: Elizabeth ‘Betsy’ Braddock, or Psylocke action figure. I used to have one this very action figure when I was younger, and it was a very rare find)

The Hawkeye Initiative shows the institutional disadvantage of women in comic book culture. The comics represent many of the gendered values of ordinary society and while some comics can be progressive in political and social ways, gender is a bit of an Achilles’ heel. It should be said that while there is a progressive aspect to the subversion of gender roles embodied in the Hawkeye Initiative series of comic book re-interpretations, a number of people have pointed out the ways in which transgender people could also face the same kind of ridicule in that their bodies at birth may not conform to the percieved norms of how females are depicted in comic books and wider culture. By the way of subverting the posture of say Black Widow or Ms. Marvel and depict it a Hawkeye as point of comedy, it has been seen as a ridicule of those who do not fit the putative conception of a straightforward gender and sex isomorphism. This was brought up on the Tumblr blog and the moderator of the blog acknowledged this as problematic but no specific offense was intended to groups such as those individuals assigned female at birth.

The dictum of cultural challenge

From the Hawkeye Initiative has come talk of the ‘Hawkeye test’ in comics. This is in my view an example of culture as a form of critique, at its best. In many points throughout my blogging and even in my non-blog writings on aesthetics, I’ve spoken of something I’d call the Dictum of cultural challenge, this is the notion that culture insofar as it is worthwhile, should challenge the ills of the status quo. A corollorary of this principle would be: art that makes one see the world in a different way, gives one the potential to think of the world in a different way. Perception in this sense becomes politicised. By noticing the ways in which men are depicted in comic books as a neutralised and non-gendered stance, while women are highlighted as gendered when if their male counterparts are drawn in a similar way the latter looks unusual or (excuse the pun) comical, then there is an asymmetry of our imagination, an inequality of the ways in which we treat gender.
(Image: Nathaniel Essex/Mr. Sinister, what’s more noticable: the menacing nature, or his ‘Mr.’ prefix?)

(Image: Miss Sinister, I think its fair to say that the ‘Miss’ is more noticable than ‘Sinister’)

On balance

Here’s the thing. I still really like Marvel Comics, and I think there are interesting characters of all genders and none. The objectification of women puts off a large audience to very engaging stories and strong characters, such as Major Carol Danvers/Ms. Marvel who outranks Captain America, or Ororo Munroe/Storm, who not only faces the challenge of being a mutant in an homo sapien world, but during combat faces her claustrophobia in perilous situations. Thinking about the sexualisation of women also makes me rethink about other female comic characters, such as Vampirella or Witchblade. I wonder how much of the value or appeal of Vampirella would be there without the constant titillation and lecherous behaviour of the vampire men she opposes, or in the case of Witchblade, which of the alter-egos do we consider more challenging to the putative discourse on femininity. One thing is for sure, objectification in comics hurts the audience, the potential audience comics are losing and most of all, its culturally damaging to perpetuate what is essentially a status quo about gender perceptions about physical appearance.

Michael

Reading Goffman (3): The Front and Back (or, ‘On our online presence’)

Reading Goffman’s Presentation of Self can be difficult, much of it is quite dry and abstract, and then you have little moments where he presents eccentric examples of his ontology which perfectly reflects the terminology he has constructed. The emergence of Social Media, and its effects on our presentation of self is a neat way of highlighting the nature of Goffman’s notion of the front and back, as well as the moral crisis of character presented by his division.

Goffman presents our behaviour as social agents in terms of a performance for an audience, and as away from said audience. The essence of the distinction between the front and the back relies upon this. This presumes the presence of an ‘in’ group and an ‘out’ group; for from another perspective, an audience and a performer. Goffman’s Presentation is said to have an obvious relevance for the service industry, as we can understand it in terms of social actors in roles where performance is essential. Upholding a standard of customer service, and the customer’s presumed ideal of servitude is enforced and often met. When it is not met it is presumed that a failure has occurred on the basis of what is presumed to be correct behaviour or service in terms of being treated as a customer, or sometimes, in what is expected of a customer.

The world today places a high emphasis on image, and a binding set of norms on what we presume of the appearance of a known person. In other words, a person may behave in certain ways which creates an expectation, and acting beyond these terms thus violates these expectations and our image of them. This image, this construction can be so damaging that it inhibits the range of possible behaviours of an agent, at least so in public, or among the relevant ‘audience’ where said agent is a performer.

Lately I’ve been thinking of how constructions such as the Facebook Profile or the Twitter account reflect Goffman’s Front. The Facebook Profile is almost ubiquitous around the world, across continents and across cultures. When one looks at Facebook profile, one looks at a carefully constructed image made by that person. When we create a Facebook profile, we do not create an image of ourselves ‘warts and all’, but one which fits what we consider to be our standard of acceptability.

The online profile is increasingly ubiquitous in the industrialised world. It is as commonplace as the suit is in any office. It is part of our inventory for social acceptability as say, a mobile telephone is or a pair of shoes. The online profile is the merging of the front with the back. Through one’s Tweets or Facebook updates, we communicate ourselves, but we also (at least often) write to be read. We expect to be recieved in our views or what we say.

Our Facebook status updates can be signifiers of social class and other tacit signs of character. People are increasingly aware of the importance of personality management in our online identities as it is to manage our personality and appearance in face-to-face social interactions. Our ‘Front’ in face to face interactions communicates features that are not our choice, such as disability or ethnicity, and are unfortunately adversely discriminated upon (and sometimes positively). Online profiles are distinctly different in that one can hide certain stigmatising features. Unless you knew me, you wouldn’t know my ethnic background, or know if say, I had a history with a speech impairment when I was younger. Disclosing these facts invariably changes my appearance to others when I present it to my front side.

Employers and recruiters in an increasingly difficult job market are forced to use background checks such as going through personal Facebook or Twitter profiles to gain a perspective on a person and if they are right for the roles they are being considered for. With the recent spate of arrests and furore over Tweets, it is becoming evident that what we tweet is important towards how we present our ‘Front’. I consider this a worry as normally Facebook status updates and Tweets are forms of self expression which communicates one’s inner world and thoughts. The online world has been considered in some ways an escape from our everyday ‘Front’. I could play World of Warcraft and be a Troll, where on real life one may have more pedestrian adventures by contrast to that Troll.

The worry present in Goffman’s ontology was that the Back stage was pushed further and further away as the Front becomes ubiquitous. If so much of our behaviour is presenting a Front, an image of acceptability, what becomes of our inner world? Let’s put that in more modern terms: we are ever cautious of what we have to say, whether that’s in person or online. The online world is beginning to be policed in terms of offence and trolling has been redefined as defamatory behaviour (without acknowledging there are non defamatory and harmless forms of trolling, if we used a broader sense of the term, like answering the door to a pizza delivery wearing a horse mask).

We are ever cautious of the appearance of our public profiles, and this affects the scope of our presentation. What we choose to share on Twitter or Facebook betrays of our political or otherwise ideological and ethical views, and the backstage has become our Front stage. Sometimes people choose to share aspects of their backstage behaviour on the likes of Twitter, such as their dissatisfaction with a customer or a those moments of solace, which is within their rights, but we should be aware that the medium does not affect the message anymore, complaining about a (say) customer or client in front of an audience is just as bad and damaging (to yourself or who you may represent) as being public about it.

What of the social media in relation to Goffman’s Front and Back? We could say that it allows for a melding of the front and back stages, or this melding pushes back further the space in which we can truly be backstage. I see this analysis as relevant towards the role of online anonymity.

Destre (this post established from conversation with Michael)