Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Why Possible Time Travel Doesn't Create a Plot Hole in "Harry Potter"

Few books or films have been as thoroughly analyzed and obsessed over as the Harry Potter series, all the more so since the the generation that came of age with Harry also came of age with the internet. One objection frequently lobbed at the series involves the Time-Turners, devices introduced in the third book that allow witches and wizards to travel through time. These commentators claim that the existence of possible time travel in the series creates a massive plot hole and that Harry just needed to go back in time and stop Voldemort from rising to power in the first place. They're totally wrong. 

So why doesn't Harry just go back in time to defeat Voldemort?

Perhaps we should first understand why and how the time travel plot in Prisoner of Azkaban works. Harry and Hermione go back three hours in time and are thus able to save both Buckbeak and Sirius and they're only able to do it because of a few very, very specific reasons. First, they go back a short enough period of time that they are able to remember in detail their own movements, as well as the movements of the relatively few other persons involved. Second, this part of the story takes place in the outdoors where there are few people and thus fewer chances of them being seen and creating a paradox. Third, and most importantly, their tasks are hyper-specific - release Buckbeak after the official delegation has seen him, thus exonerating Hagrid of any wrong-doing, and release Sirius from his cell before the Dementors arrive to perform the dreaded Dementor's kiss. Thus, the risks of time travel are mitigated by intimate and detailed knowledge, a convenient and familiar location, and specific missions that are narrow in scope, if not in difficulty. Most importantly, the period of time is relatively quite small, only three hours.

Now let's say that Harry goes back in time to prevent Voldemort from creating the first Horcrux. It's revealed in Half-Blood Prince that as a student Tom Riddle created at least two Horcruxes while still a student - the Gaunt ring and the diary that played so significant a role in Chamber of Secrets - so Harry would have to travel fifty years back in time. This already creates exceptional difficulties. How can Harry have specific enough knowledge to accomplish his aim? He must know exactly where Riddle was when he made the first Horcrux, and at exactly what time, while somehow ensuring that he remains unseen. Not to mention, Voldemort, even at sixteen, would have been a formidable opponent, fully capable of murder.

If Harry were to be killed, obviously that would be bad for Harry, but more seriously, it creates a paradox - Harry would then die decades before he was born. But far more frightening possibilities arise as far as paradoxes are concerned if Harry is successful. The further back in time one goes, the more complex the results of the changes one makes in the past. If Voldemort never rises to power, the implications could be far-reaching and unexpectedly negative. As we learn in Deathly Hallows, Harry's mother Lily begins her stint at Hogwarts as Snape's best friend. The rift between them is caused by a number of factors, but prominent among them is Lily's disgust with Snape's affiliation with the Death Eaters and his increasing infatuation with prejudicial ideas about blood status. But if Voldemort was prevented from rising to power, the Death Eaters would never have existed. If the friendship between Lily and Snape remains unbroken, it seems fairly unlikely that Lily would have given James Potter the time of day, given his cruel treatment of her best friend. And if Lily and James never get together, Harry would never have been born and it would not be possible for him to go back in time and defeat Voldemort - paradox.

Even aside from the increased difficulties and high possibilities of creating paradoxes that would literally destroy the time traveler, it is not clear that Time-Turners can be used to travel forward in time. We only ever see or hear about witches and wizards traveling backwards and then living through the period until they arrive at the present in which they traveled back. Thus, beyond the pragmatic difficulties of the task, and barring the unknown possibility of traveling forward in time, Harry would then have to live for fifty years, staying strictly out of sight for fear of interfering with the fabric of time and creating more and more paradoxes. 

Even Voldemort, evil as he is and with no regard for others, doesn't want to mess with time. His Death Eaters infiltrate the Department of Mysteries and one might wonder why Voldemort doesn't order them to steal a Time-Turner, especially since they are right there for the taking. Voldermort certainly has his regrets - he might want to go back and attack the Potters in a different way, thereby denying Harry the protection of his mother, or perhaps he might want to go back and steal the philosopher's stone before Hagrid removes it from Gringotts. There are dozens of moments that Voldemort could conceivably want to change in order to consolidate his own power more definitively and earlier.

But he doesn't even try. That's because Voldemort is no dummy. Hermione describes to Harry the terrible things that happen when wizards encounter their past or future selves and those concerns are not inconsequential: "Loads of [wizards] ended up killing their past or future selves by mistake!" But even beyond that danger, even small, seemingly inconsequential changes can have momentous implications that are all but impossible to predict. The risks are of such a magnitude and the difficulties so extreme that to chance time travel would be foolhardy at best, insane at worst. Whether one would wish to use time travel for good or for evil, its practical use is progressively nullified the further back one travels. Therefore, possible time travel does not create a plot hole in Harry Potter.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Who (and What) Has a Soul in the Harry Potter Universe?

The fact that wizards and witches have souls is fundamental to the Harry Potter series as a whole; in fact, the story hinges on this fact, since Harry's primary task is destroy all of Voldemort's Horcruxes, that is the preserved pieces of his damaged soul, in order to ultimately defeat him. However, the issue of who or what, aside from wizards and witches, has a soul is a fairly open one.

The ghosts in Harry Potter raise some interesting questions about the nature of the soul. In the wake of Sirius's death, Harry seeks out Nearly Headless Nick in the hopes that somehow the sympathetic ghost could help him understand what happens when someone dies. In the course of this conversation, a number of salient points emerge. Nick tells Harry: "Not everyone can come back as a ghost... only wizards." Since Nick has chosen to "leave an imprint of [himself] on earth, to walk palely where [his] living [self] once trod," all that he can tell Harry is that those who have died have "gone on."

If only wizards and witches can become ghosts, what are the implications for other sentient beings, magical or otherwise? Apparently, Muggles cannot become ghosts (good news for Harry, who might otherwise have to worry about a malevolent, if transparent, Uncle Vernon haunting his future). What about Squibs? Is magical ability a requirement to become a ghost? In that case, could house elves, centaurs, and goblins - all powerfully magical beings - become ghosts? What about giants, who do not appear to be able to perform magic, but are part of the magical world and are certainly sentient? What about animals, some of which, like acromantulas, can talk and have fully developed personalities, moral systems, and political loyalties?

One thing that makes me a little uncomfortable with the logic surrounding ghosts in Harry Potter is that it indicates that wizards are given an active choice at death that is denied, at the very least, all Muggles. The bigoted elitism of Voldermort's Death Eaters, represented in the statue "Magic Is Might" in which a wizard stands upon the miserable bodies of Muggles, is really just the nasty incarnation of an idea that permeates the whole Wizarding world. The wizard most sympathetic to Muggles, Mr. Weasley, sees them almost as children, admiring their "ingenious" inventions and regarding them with an indulgent fondness. This paternalistic attitude is somewhat validated by the fact that Muggles are in fact severely limited in Rowling's universe. The fact that Muggles cannot choose to become ghosts could indicate one of two things: 1) it could support the fact that magical ability is a requirement to become a ghost, or 2) it could indicate that Muggles have less agency upon their death and therefore are never granted a choice. The humanitarian view of Muggles is not unlike our humanitarian view of such intelligent animals as elephants, primates, and whales, their lack of magical ability paralleling animals' lack of speech.

The reason that I am so concerned with who and what can become a ghost is this: typically, ghosts are defined as a the corporeal form of a soul. If only wizards and witches can become ghosts and ghosts are in fact souls, it is rather problematic that Muggles cannot become ghosts. We know, however, from the books that Muggles do have souls because Dementors happily prey on wizards and Muggles alike, as we see in the fifth book, when Harry and Dudley are attacked. Thus, we know that, at least to a Dementor, the soul of a wizard and the soul of a Muggle are essentially the same. Since Squibs are essentially Muggles that had the misfortune of being born into a Wizarding family, they evidently also have souls as well, though their ability to become a ghost is questionable.

Non-human intelligent creatures pose other problems. House elves, goblins, and centaurs are as intelligent as human beings and while their magic, like that of wizards, must operate within certain bounds, one of the central lessons of the series is they are not lesser, but different, than their human magical peers. My assumption, particularly considering the character of Dobby, is that they also have souls.

The question becomes trickier as we turn to giants. Although giants have primitive linguistic ability and a set of social protocols, their level of intelligence is questionable, but intelligence and the soul are two entirely separate things. It seems reasonable to me to think that giants have souls, for the following reasons: 1) they are capable of interbreeding (how in heaven's name, I don't, and don't really want to, know) with human beings and their offspring - Hagrid and Madame Maxime being the examples - have magical abilities, 2) Grawp, Hagrid's half-brother, is able to develop bonds and loyalties, and even compassion, that are outside the assumed bounds of his giant nature. It's difficult to believe that a being with a soul and a being without could procreate together and it is clear that giant nature, bestial as it is, is capable of the development of those deeper emotional bonds with which the soul in Harry Potter is concerned; therefore, giants also have souls.

Far trickier is the case of animals. Magical animals in the series exist in several classes. There are those that can speak and exhibit intelligence equal to their human masters, like Aragog the acromantula. Perhaps, acromantulas belong among house elves, goblins, and centaurs, but I think there is a distinction. Whereas house elves, goblins, and centaurs have highly complex social structures, belief systems, and political perspectives, acromantulas seem to be bound to instinct in ways that the former are not. For instance, Aragog forbids his offspring from preying on Hagrid, but feels no remorse for allowing them to attempt to eat Harry, Ron, and Fang - three of the beings that Hagrid loves most in the world. Hagrid would almost certainly believe that Aragog, a beloved pet, has a soul, but I think this case remains an open question.

Then there are the many magical animals that act largely like regular animals. When Ron takes his rat to the Magical Menagerie for veterinary care, the witch who works there asks him, "What powers does he have?" Thus we know explicitly that, as in the case of humans, there are animals with magical abilities and those without. Hedwig is able to deliver mail without an address, Crookshanks can detect that Scabbers is not what he seems, and Fawkes can be called to protect those who are loyal to Dumbledore. Some animals, like owls, seem to share traits common to their species, while others, like cats, seem to have more individually defined powers. Emotionally, I want to believe that these beloved pets do have souls, but it's a tough call, not least of all because having a soul in Harry Potter carries with it a deep responsibility to not harm the integrity of that soul. Another issue is that animals can be conjured from or transfigured into inanimate objects. For instance, Fudge transfigures the Muggle prime minister's tea cup into a gerbil. This is not a temporary bit of magic, as the gerbil becomes the P.M.'s niece's pet. It seems entirely impossible within the framework of the story that a soul could be conjured from nothing and therefore the ability to practice magic in this fashion would seem to contradict the possibility that animals have souls. So, it is possible that animals have souls, but it seems more probable that magical animals are more likely to have them than ordinary, non-magical animals.

What about Peeves, another problematic case? Peeves is a poltergeist or a spirit of chaos, classed, like Dementors and boggarts, as a non-being. Presumably non-beings do not have souls, but in the case of Peeves, I wonder if they could. Peeves has emotional responses, such as fear of the Bloody Baron and respect towards the Weasley twins, that might indicate a somewhat more complicated nature. While Dementors and boggarts show not the slightest shred of humanity, acting always by their natures as a species, Peeves shows a certain degree of agency and decision-making that makes me doubt, just a bit, whether he may not be a creature with a soul.

The finer points of these issues can, obviously, be contested, though J. K. Rowling has resolved many issues through the years and may yet have something to say on this one. Meanwhile, it's fascinating to contemplate the implications of these metaphysical questions in the Harry Potter universe.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Book v. Movie Review: "The Last of the Mohicans"

The Last of the Mohicans, published in 1826 and set in 1757, is the most famous and critically acclaimed novel by James Fenimore Cooper. Cooper is no longer in vogue, but in his own time, he was widely considered a great American novelist and his work was praised by writers such as Victor Hugo and D. H. Lawrence. Cooper's status as the first major American novelist is somewhat complicated by the fact that his most famous books, the Leatherstocking novels, including The Last of the Mohicans and The Deerslayer, have many Native American characters, and, while his portrayals are arguably less racist than those of his contemporaries, they are still wildly dated and deeply uncomfortable for contemporary readers. The 1992 film adaptation directed by Michael Mann and starring Daniel Day-Lewis met with critical adulation upon its release. The three main Native American roles were played by actors of at least partial Native American descent, Russell Means (also an activist), Eric Schweig, and Wes Studi. The film panders to more superficially enlightened ideas about race, but despite significant alterations to the plot and characters fails in its pursuit of nuance.

To start with the novel: The story, which takes place in the thick of the French and Indian War, concerns the white scout Hawkeye and his Mohican companions, Chingachgook and Uncas, father and son and the last of their nation, who become the de facto protectors and guides of Cora and Alice, the beautiful daughters of Colonel Munro, under siege at Fort William Henry. A young officer, Duncan Heyward, and a naive, deeply religious, and rather ridiculous music teacher, David, are both white men accompanying the women on the perilous journey to their father. A treacherous enemy and leader of the Hurons, Magua, leads them astray, seeking revenge against Munro and lusting after Cora. The plot weaves together historical fact with fiction and superstition; Munro is based upon Colonel George Monro, tasked with the command of Fort William Henry, and the French commander, Montcalm, is also a historical personage, but the story is almost entirely a product of Cooper's imagination.

Certain aspects of the novel are stunningly ahead of their time. For example, Hawkeye stubbornly insists that the Christian heaven and the Indians' afterlife are one and the same, while the Christian God and the Great Spirit are the same deity. He clings to this belief, asserting that he can expect to meet Chingachgook and Uncas, the two human beings for whom he cares most in the world, even after their deaths. The other white characters are utterly scandalized by this, to them, blasphemous doctrine. Hawkeye is portrayed as a great hero, crafty, shrewd, and cunning - one of the earliest examples of the intrepid American frontiersman, a cruder John Smith - and thus the sheer transgressiveness of religious belief that equates with Christianity with Native American beliefs is striking and presented in a surprisingly positive light, particularly given that, although David's sincere and fervent religiosity receives a good deal of praise, his stringent Protestant views are implicitly criticized.

Cora is a remarkable female character for her time, extraordinarily courageous, and earning the respect and admiration of the men around her. Hawkeye tells her, "I would I had a thousand men, of brawny limbs and quick eyes, that feared death as little as you! I'd send them jabbering Frenchers back into their den again..." Unlike her wilting flower of a sister, Cora never cries, she is able to negotiate with men, and more than once she acts as the literal guardian of her incapable sister. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Cora's character is that she is not exactly white. Her Scottish father describes her mother, born in the West Indies, as "descended, remotely, from that unfortunate class who are so basely enslaved to administer to the wants of a luxurious people." That is, Cora has some black ancestry. Surprisingly, Munro comes close to expressing a sort of defensive pride in this fact and is deeply offended by the idea that a white man would find Cora unworthy of marriage. It is also Munro who dares to hope "that the time shall not be distant when we may assemble around [God's] throne without distinction of sex, or rank, or color." Holy Moses, that's some radical thinking right there.

I don't think that's Cooper's viewpoint however, as Hawkeye seems to be the favored voice for views on race, religion, and cross-cultural intercourse. The progressive views of Hawkeye, if such they can be termed, stem from his insistence on the different natures inherent to the two races. He is sympathetic to both whites and Indians, contemptuous of some qualities and praising others, but his ironclad belief in the insurmountable differences between the two cultures is uncomfortable in this day and age. For example, on scalping: "Twould have been a cruel and an unhuman act for a white-skin; but 'tis the gift and natur' of an Indian, and I suppose it should not be denied." There's an aspect of this that makes sense - cultural values vary and acts ought to be interpreted within their proper context - but, and it's a very big but, white culture is inevitably described as more intelligent, more moral, more rational, and more complex. Therein lies the problem. Hawkeye's views are more egalitarian, but hierarchies in which white men and white culture reign supreme are not at all rejected.

The Native American characters are often described as savages and, frankly, I really, really never want to encounter the word "redskin" again, having had significantly more than my fill. The Hurons, allied to the French, come out the worst, but the Delawares and Mohicans come in for their fair share of racist language. The bloodthirstiness of the hostile tribes is emphasized above other qualities, and not just by the expected descriptions of scalping. Magua's men are described as barbarians who devour raw meat (there are some particular disgusting moments in a scene in which hungry Huron warriors wolf down a deer without cooking it), while in the most brutal scene, the massacre at Fort William Henry, the Indians "even kneeled to the earth, and drank freely, exultingly, hellishly, of the crimson tide" - they are literally bloodthirsty. The first act of brutality committed by an Indian in the massacre is still shocking today: "he dashed the head of the infant against a rock, and cast its quivering remains to [the mother's] very feet." It's worth noting that Cooper almost certainly knew his Bible and he is directly referencing Psalm 137, one of the most gruesome passages in the scriptures.

Historically speaking, these atrocities are grossly inaccurate. The massacre at the Fort did indeed take place, but the attacks were principally in pursuit of plunder and only a fraction of the number described by Cooper died, most of them the wounded British soldiers left behind. The bloodbath and the singularly brutal attack on the infant and mother are the author's inventions.

Even Uncas, of all the Native American characters the noblest, most capable, and most sympathetic from the beginning, is transformed for the better by his association with whites: his "eyes [...] had already lost their fierceness, and were beaming with a sympathy that elevated him far above the intelligence, and advanced him probably centuries before the practices of his nation." Uncas is the true hero of the story, and it's unbelievably frustrating that such a deeply honorable and heroic character should have nearly every laudatory description qualified with aspersions on his moral character, based purely on the color of his skin, as well as insistence that he's "simple." I find that far harder to accept than the racist descriptions of Magua, who functions as an unmitigated villain. If you haven't read the book, the following paragraph deals with the ending.


The actual outcome for Uncas and Cora is a subject of particular interest. From early on in the novel, it is evident that Uncas has fallen in love with Cora and though Cora's manner is far more circumspect, her feelings do seem unusually well-disposed towards him. Here's the spoiler: in the final battle between the Delaware led by Uncas and the Hurons led by Magua, both Cora and Uncas are slain. There's a reason for this. Cooper cannot permit even his great warrior to survive because he loves a white woman and the union between a Native American man and an unspoiled white woman (realistically speaking, it seems highly unlikely that Magua has actually restrained himself from raping her, but she is referred to as a maiden to the end) could not have been more taboo. The Delawares explicitly lament Uncas and Cora as a couple, fated to enter paradise together as though they were formally bonded. Hawkeye, the only white character who can understand the words of the lament, cynically doubts this, and the narrator expresses relief that Heyward and Munro are unable to understand words that would, undoubtedly, cause them shamed anguish and murderous rage. From my own twenty-first century perspective, I can understand the historical reasons why Cooper couldn't permit a happy marriage between Uncas and Cora writing in 1826, but it still leaves me quite disappointed. Had that marriage been possible, this deeply problematic book, in some ways progressive for its time, but undeniably racist, might have been great.


In the film, a number of significant alterations are made. David Gamut is excised entirely, an unsurprising decision given how silly he is. More importantly, a notable subplot, pandering to contemporary American politics, is inserted; it is overwhelmingly sympathetic towards the white colonists, who rebel against being pressed into the English army because they want to freely protect their families and homesteads. Their are no white homesteaders in the novel and the inclusion of this wholly invented storyline is a blatant attempt to shoehorn in pro-American independence rhetoric. The colonists are portrayed as pure innocents, friendly to Native Americans and devoted family men. This takes up time that would have been better spent on the protagonists, but it's also an absurdly utopian view of the colonization of the Americas.

The biggest alteration is the character of Hawkeye. In the novel, Hawkeye is a confirmed middle-aged bachelor whose principal aim is to roam the woods freely without settled ties. He does not risk his life for high principles. In the film, he is transformed into a young, handsome warrior, a leader of the white colonists and prepared for self-sacrifice should his loyalty be called upon. He becomes the romantic lead and the lover of Cora.

While in the novel, by far the most heroic and noble character is Uncas, that is, the last of the Mohicans, in the film Hawkeye is far and away the greatest hero. This is a major problem and at the root of why I find the film less progressive in its treatment of race than the original novel. From a trio of intrepid warriors, two Native American and one white, the film produces a white hero and his subordinate mates. Uncas and Chingachgook are reduced to Hawkeye's silent allies, hardly ever speaking and always deferring to his leadership - this is not so in the novel, in which Chingachgook as the eldest of the three is granted the most respect. SPOILER ALERT: In the film, Uncas never assumes his place as a great chief, victorious in war and valiant in battle. He dies at Magua's hand, and Magua dies at Chingachgook's hand, just as in the book, but in the film, these acts are in service to Hawkeye. There are the slightest, most circumspect hints at a romantic feeling between Uncas and Alice, but they are so extremely slight that the most radical part of the book - a possible interracial love affair - almost entirely disappears. I was really, really hoping that the filmmakers would have the guts to let Uncas and Cora have a full-blown Hollywood love scene, but, alas, Cora, no longer of mixed race heritage, is reserved for a white man. END SPOILERS.

The film is clearly pandering to white audiences who want to feel comfortable looking back upon American history. Racist terms are not used (I don't mind that), but a sort of polite racism determines the essential philosophy behind the film. White settlers are praised for their principles, pursuit of free enterprise, and devotion to family. They are portrayed as noble victims of Indian savagery and British tyranny. The white colonists are depicted as near-saints and anyone with even a marginally unbiased view of history should know that's wildly inaccurate historically and conveniently ignoring the land-snatching, enslavement of Native Americans and blacks, tit-for-tat revenge killing, and hosts of other nasty facts of colonial life. Far worse, "good" Native American characters embrace a fatalistic view in which their cultures will die because the white men "belong" on the frontiers and whites and Indians cannot coexist. Magua, the villain, in a sharp divergence from the book, aspires to copy the trading habits of the whites and become rich. In other words, "good" Native Americans are content to simply fade away, while the "bad" want to toss off their heritage and become white men - an attitude that Hawkeye describes as "twisted." Sorry folks, but this is no improvement on Cooper's out-and-proud racist attitudes. The film's ultimate stance on race protects at all costs white cultural centrality, pro-colonialist politics, and the marginalization of Native American cultures.

In the end, the novel is imperfectly constructed, though it moves at such a fast pace that one hardly notices, and the dialogue contains large quantities of eloquently expressed exposition. I would consider the book racist as a whole, though there are glimpses of more nuanced, humanist thinking, but at bottom The Last of the Mohicans has no unifying philosophy. It's an adventure novel intended to entertain, a fantasy with only tenuous ties to historical reality, and in that narrow sense it's a success. The film is at first glance less racist, but its racism is only wrapped up in socially acceptable trappings that contemporary viewers can easily find inoffensive. It is, like its source material, entertaining, its action scenes in particular suspenseful and well-choreographed. Ultimately, both are imperfect and frustratingly fanciful interpretations of early American history, deeply shaped by the prejudices, whether baldly stated or tacitly implied, of their respective eras.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

8 Westerns Every Feminist Should See

Women are generally thin on the ground in westerns and they usually fall into one of three character types. There are the "good" women, often blonde, who act as caregivers and create homes for the men around them; they are either mothers or virgins and always morally upright, angelically good, and often victims. Then there are the bad women. Whether explicitly or not, they are sexually available and are to be found in saloons and brothels, but they often have a heart of gold and rediscover their "true" virtuous womanhood when they fall in love with the right man. Third, there are the exotic women, that is, any female character who isn't white. They could be among the "bad" women, but are never found among the "good." Native American and Mexican women are usually without personality, sexual objects, bargaining chips, or silent servants; black women are nearly as rare as unicorns in these pictures. Sexual violence - though obviously not explicit in films made under the Hollywood Production Code - is ubiquitous and it is frequently at the root of escalating violence, whether the gun-wielding men are trying to prevent it from happening to their womenfolk or avenging them after it does. As is the case with so many film genres, westerns suffer from a dearth of female characters. Many have none at all, many have only one, and when there is more than one, there is usually the "good" one and the "bad" one.

The films in this list are not so much feminist as fascinating to watch from a feminist point of view. Though in recent years, filmmakers like Tommy Lee Jones and Kelly Reichardt have been making revisionist westerns with a female-centric if not feminist slant, the basic conventions of the genre - one that I really do enjoy - require a ton of overhauling to eliminate the misogyny (and racism - oh, lord, the racism) inherent in stories of white men shooting their way through moral quandaries. Reichardt's Meek's Cutoff, widely touted as a feminist western by critics, is visually stunning - the cinematography by Chris Blauvelt imbues the desolate landscapes with a luminous beauty - but the mind-numbingly slow pace of this existential non-story about a wagon train that gets hopelessly lost on its way to Oregon never quite works, though it might have if the characters had been better defined. Though it's one of the most frequently cited when talking about westerns and feminism, it's a film that's less about feminism and more about how Americans have lost their way. Frankly, I don't feel that I got very much out of it.

One aspect that is often regarded as feminist in western films is women shooting guns, but this is a fallacious assumption. Shooting is easily integrated into the misogynistic vision of femininity of westerns and even in the most deeply sexist films - Ride Lonesome comes to mind - the women might shoot guns. It doesn't make them more liberated, especially given that in most of these films, in the end they require rescuing anyway and their motivation for shooting in almost every case is a desperate bid to avoid rape. How women use guns is much more important than whether or not they do. Weapons use has become a standard ploy to make misogynistically depicted female characters seem less so and I'm not buying it.

Calamity Jane (1953)
Calamity Jane, by far my favorite Doris Day film, pits rough, tough, shooting and hollering Calamity Jane (Day) against citified, feminine would-be singer Katie Brown (Allyn McLerie). Both of them like a handsome lieutenant (Philip Carey), but Wild Bill Hickok (Howard Keel) isn't about to give up pursuing Katie. The film could easily have been deeply misogynistic, but, while it's certainly not feminist, it's surprisingly progressive. Calamity and Katie end up becoming best friends, a rare example of friendship between women that plays out as a genuine relationship with only a tenuous connection to their romantic competition, with the two of them even prioritizing their friendship over prospective marriages. Calamity's brief transformation into a traditionally beautiful woman in a bouffant pink dress doesn't last because she hates it - best of all, the film supports her in that and permits her natural character, totally unfeminine by traditional standards, to withstand even the perilous waters of romance. She even sings her big love song in pants. Calamity Jane isn't revolutionary, but it does have a heroine who gets into a full-out fistfight with Wild Bill Hickok, while singing "I Can Do Without You."

The Harvey Girls (1946)
Another musical, this film stars Judy Garland as a mail-order bride who takes one look at her husband-to-be and calls off the wedding, instead joining the group of newly arrived single women, including Virginia O'Brien and Cyd Charisse, come to work in the new Harvey House Restaurant. One of the rare westerns that can boast nearly as many female speaking roles as male, The Harvey Girls is at its core about a clash of values: the Harvey girls are resilient and virtuous, while the dance-hall girls, led by Angela Lansbury, are tough as nails and open for more than one kind of business. Men play major roles in pushing the action forward and the conflict is mirrored in a cat fight over a man between the "good" woman and the "bad" woman - as I said above, this is not a feminist movie - but it's refreshingly gynocentric. Plus, the songs, by Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer, are great fun.

High Noon (1952)
Filmed in almost perfect real time, High Noon is a strong contender for the best western of all time. Like so many such films, here we have the "good" woman - the blonde Grace Kelly - and the "bad" - Katy Jurado (an actual Mexican actress playing a Mexican woman!). Though Kelly plays a virginal Quaker and Jurado plays a savvy woman who has had more than a few lovers, the two ultimately become allies, though it's a relationship formed less of confidences than of moral courage. The film centers around Will Kane (Gary Cooper), a former marshal who has promised to put aside his gun to marry the Quaker Amy, but has to face one last gunfight when he discovers a killer he had captured earlier is on his way for his blood. His pleas for deputies go unheard, as friends skulk away and time runs out. There are a few aspects of this film that make it interesting from a feminist point of view. First of all, Will and Amy, though literally just married at the beginning of the film, are equal moral agents; he believes in violence that prevents further violence, while she condemns all violence, no matter the motivation. Second, while Will's journey is fixed from the beginning, it is Amy whose character develops and whose morality is tested and it is ultimately her decision that decides the fate of her husband. Third, marriage is portrayed as a genuine partnership in this film, a relationship between two independent moral agents. Kelly may play a blonde paragon of virtue, but even she has to struggle with the thorny tangles of violence, duty, love, and religious principle.

The Homesman (2014)
Co-writer-director Tommy Lee Jones's revisionist western was generally christened a feminist western - it's not, but it seems as though he gave it a try. Hilary Swank gives a satisfyingly thorny and challenging performance as Mary Bee Cuddy, a single woman who volunteers to chaperone three young women who have lost their minds (Miranda Otto, Grace Gummer, and Sonja Richter) back east where they can be cared for. She hires a moody old coot (Jones) to help her make the five weeks' long journey, during which they encounter hostile Pawnee, a disgustingly rapey lout, and the despoiled grave of a child. The film, however, goes wildly astray in the third act. MAJOR SPOILER ahead: About three quarters into the film, Mary Bee talks Briggs into sleeping with her and then hangs herself while he's asleep. The sex scene is refreshingly awkward and oddly sweet, and, most unusually, the primary subject is free consent on both sides, but the suicide doesn't make sense and seriously weakens the film. First of all, I don't believe this of Mary Bee's tough, yearning, forward-thinking character filled with plans and ambitions, not to mention a fervid evangelistic faith. Second of all, the incident shreds the film's pretensions to feminism by automatically making Briggs, a quintessential western misfit, the prime mover of the plot, not to mention the rescuer of the three madwomen, who remain silent and helpless to the end. The Homesman is a worthy attempt, but ultimately the filmmakers - all male - didn't have the guts to follow through and actually produce a truly feminist western.

Johnny Guitar (1954)
Nicholas Ray's Johnny Guitar is a bizarre western melodrama, with wacky jewel-toned Trucolor cinematography by Harry Stradling Sr. and an insane plot about a saloon-keeper named Vienna (Joan Crawford) and her bitter quarrel with a jealous local named Emma (Mercedes McCambridge). I can't say I so much like this movie as feel enjoyably baffled by its weirdness. The women in this film are both as violent as the men and as vulnerable to the sort of gruesome violent ends, like hanging, female characters rarely meet with in westerns of the period, while the final shootout is between the women, while the men stand by, one might almost say cowering. Though the reasons for the quarrel are convoluted, they are essentially fighting over a man, which is highly disappointing, though it's interesting to contemplate that if Vienna and Emma were played by men, the movie would be fairly routine. I can't quite decide whether this film really qualifies as feminist, since it breaks so many rules that it nearly creates a new genre - these women are out for blood, they pursue the men they want, they run businesses, they shoot people, and they really, really hate each other. And did I mention that Crawford waltzes around in a variety of boudoir-inspired balloons of tulle through all this?

The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)
One of the greatest westerns of all time and still a sorely-needed plea against violent vigilantism, this film is a ground-breaking study of the American character  - and Americans don't come out looking pretty. The reason that I recommend it specifically to watch from a feminist point of view is Jane Darwell, best known for her roles as Ma Joad and the Bird Woman (from Mary Poppins). The film concerns an unauthorized posse that captures three men they accuse of murder and cattle rustling and debates whether to hang them on the spot or take them into custody and let the law handle it. Out for blood, the mob is opposed by Gil Carter (Henry Fonda), as well as a notably black reverend played by a notably uncredited Leigh Whipper. Here's why Darwell is so important: she plays Ma Grier, a flinty frontierwoman and one of the most vocal champions of hanging their quarry. She expresses disdain for the law and a ruthless appetite for revenge; she's racist and nasty. In other words, she's a despicable character. But, as a woman, that's extraordinary. She isn't a "good" woman obviously, but neither does she belong in the usual "bad" woman category because her badness is entirely divided from her sexual purity or lack thereof. Her moral status is un-moored from her identity as a woman and that makes her character pioneering, if not totally unique.

Stagecoach (1939)
As in so many westerns, in Stagecoach, there is a "good" woman - the married and heavily pregnant Lucy (Louise Platt) - and the "bad" - a prostitute forced to flee a morality league, Dallas (Claire Trevor). They are two of the passengers on a stagecoach en route through perilous Apache lands. As great as it is, Stagecoach set more conventions in stone than it flouted, but what draws me back to this film is the bond between the two women. Initially, Lucy is horrified and disgusted to find herself in the vicinity of a prostitute, rebuffing her friendly advances and preferring to scorn her as an inferior. The tides turn when Lucy goes into labor and the only person capable of helping her is Dallas, thus forging a needed, but in the end tender and understanding friendship between the women. Although Dallas is a fallen woman, she's by far the most capable of the motley travelers, the warmest, the kindest, the least prejudiced, and the least violent. By the end of the film, she's earned the respect of both Lucy and at least a few of the men in the coach, including of course her lover the Ringo Kid (John Wayne). Ultimately, of all the films on this list, this is the least subversive, but the elements are there for the right screenwriter and director to remake this into a genuinely feminist (and hopefully less racist) film.

True Grit (2010)
True Grit is a legitimately feminist western and it's frankly one of my favorite films of this decade so far. The Coen brothers' film stars Jeff Bridges, who was never better, as mean, wily Rooster Cogburn, Matt Damon as a puffed-up Texas Ranger, and Hailee Steinfeld, in her debut, as fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross, on a mission to avenge her father's murder and see his killer (Josh Brolin) hang or shoot him herself. Mattie is brutally honest and quick with a cutting insult, a keen negotiator, and doggedly determined. The men around Mattie don't come to think of her as a surrogate daughter, or the mother hen of the outfit, and despite some historically realistic and decidedly icky sexual comments, she never becomes an object of lust. These tough as nails frontiersmen are compelled to respect her, ultimately accepting her as a peer in their quest to apprehend a murderer, each for their own reasons. Her use of guns is also noteworthy. While most female characters in westerns use guns exclusively as protection against rape, Mattie uses a gun the same way that male characters use guns: as a form of defense, yes, but also as a tool, as a bluff, and as a means of killing her enemy. This is a pretty damn near perfect movie and for feminist western fans, it's the holy grail. 

Sunday, July 5, 2015

What We Can Learn From the "Competent Children" of Literature

I've been rereading E. Nesbit's The Story of the Amulet, the third book in her Psammead trilogy (for those of you have who sadly missed out on these books as kids, a Psammead is a sand fairy, capable of granting wishes), and returning to it as an adult I've been thinking a lot about "competent children." This is a phrase I've heard numerous times in numerous contexts; Laura Miller in her book The Magician's Book ascribes it to writer and critic Colin Greenland, but I can't trace the source. In any case, competent children are the adventurous protagonists of children's literature, especially British children's literature. Competent children are level-headed, sensible, forward thinking, and good problem-solvers. They are determined, brave, capable of learning from their experiences, and, most importantly, open-minded - magic doesn't oppress or terrify them. The salient quality of competent children that tends to make adults, especially parents, uncomfortable is that, in order to be competent, adult caregivers have to be eliminated or rendered irrelevant. As Laura Miller writes, "The presence of Mother and Father guaranteed that children were stuck being children." From a child's perspective, no matter how safe or loved she may feel in the care of her parents, this experimental imaginary independence enacts, in the most secure and un-frightening way, the much-anticipated advent into adulthood.

Many girls in these books become surrogate mothers within their sibling or friend groups. In Nesbit's trilogy, Anthea in particular takes on a maternal role, insisting that her siblings eat properly and remember their manners; in The Story of the Amulet she takes on a similar role with an adult boarder, a student of antiquities who helps them read the writing on the amulet, by reminding him to eat his dinner and take better care of himself. Anthea is reminiscent of Wendy, from Peter Pan, who even more explicitly playacts this maternal role, actually being called Mother by Peter and the Lost Boys, and carrying out housewifely tasks, such as sewing pockets, cooking, and dosing out medicine. To a lesser extent, Susan Pevensie, from The Chronicles of Narnia, is also a maternal sibling, urging her brothers and sister to wear galoshes in the wet weather, but Susan's maternal behavior eventually morphs into an overly eager grasping at adulthood, which ultimately bars her from Narnia. When she transitions from playing at a maternal role to actually inhabiting it and becoming as skeptical as a grown-up, her ability to recognize Aslan becomes clouded and eventually she is estranged entirely.

Often there is a reversal in the dynamics between adults and children. Grown-ups, faced with magic and uncanny experiences they can't rationally explain, must rely on the children, unfazed by these bizarre happenings, to get them out of trouble. The learned gentleman friend in The Story of the Amulet is so completely incapable of believing in magic that the children have to rescue him numerous times. In The Magician's Nephew, Uncle Andrew is totally undone by his encounter with Jadis and subsequent shocked observance of the creation of Narnia. Memorably, the newly sentient talking beasts believe him to be a tree and attempt to replant and water him.

Competent children above all approach any change in their circumstances by coming up with plans and making use of the resources they have. In Matilda, Dahl's child prodigy protagonist discovers her telekinetic powers and makes use of them to free herself, and her favorite grown-up, the sweet but rather mealy-mouthed Miss Honey, from the tyrannical adults that terrorize her and the other children around her, while in The BFG, Sophie is the brains in the operation, and a humanitarian and political thinker who captures the attention of the Queen of England, while the BFG follows her instructions. In Prince Caspian, the four Pevensie children, particularly suited to face adventures after their first foray into Narnia, pragmatically approach the challenges of surviving in the wilderness, cautiously exploring their surroundings, foraging for food and water, and building a fire. Dorothy in L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz and its many, many sequels and Alice in Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass both break free of the restraints of childhood by inhabiting their respective fantasy worlds; Dorothy shows considerable pluck, standing up to villains like the Wicked Witch of the West and the vain Princess Langwidere, who covets her head, while Alice's exploration of Wonderland is perhaps the purest example of an independent child journey, as it takes place, at least in my view, in her own psyche.

In My Father's Dragon by Ruth Stiles Gannett, Elmer Elevator runs away from home to Wild Island to foster a baby dragon; throughout his adventures, he shows a keen curiosity and a creative use of the objects he's brought with him, such as a comb, a toothbrush and toothpaste, and many-colored hair ribbons. Paul Gallico's Jennie is unusual in that its protagonist, a boy named Peter, is only able to acquire his independence and autonomy after being transformed into a cat; unlike many of his peers, his transformation into a competent child is facilitated by a more experienced character, another cat named Jennie. Even in Winnie-the-Pooh, Christopher Robin sheds his helplessness when he enters the Hundred-Acre Wood, becoming the protector and guide to the stuffed animal denizens of his imagined kingdom. Eeyore seeks him out when he's lost his tail, Rabbit runs to him when Pooh has become stuck in his doorway, and it is to his house that everyone retires in case of an emergency. 

One certainly can't write about the competent children of literature without mentioning Harry Potter. In Rowling's series, Harry, Ron, and Hermione are nearly always acting on their own as they battle Voldemort. The adults that recognize this need to prove themselves and act of their own free will, like Dumbledore, Sirius, and Hagrid, might offer a certain amount of help, but the three friends are largely exercising their own decision-making and their strongest allies are other children, particularly, Ginny, Fred and George, Neville, and Luna. While Harry, prior to attending Hogwarts, is totally without supportive caregivers, and Hermione becomes divided from her parents both by her magical ability and her paternal decision to alter their memories and get them out of danger, it is Ron, product of a loving, warm home, who struggles most to assert himself independently and face the trials of fighting Voldemort without adult guardianship. His happy familial situation becomes almost a handicap, while Harry and Hermione, already accustomed to depending on themselves and having few knowledgeable adults to guide them, tolerate much better the exigencies of their journey.

There are competent children outside of British and American literature as well. The brilliant German writer Michael Ende's protagonist Bastian in The Neverending Story embarks on a journey that is purely individualistic and creative, an act of literary experience that must exclude others in order to be lived. Even before his interaction with the talismanic book of the title, Bastian resists the interference of grown-ups, isolated within their adult worldview and unable to fathom what could be going on in the brain of a boy who at first glance seems utterly unremarkable. Carlo Collodi's The Adventures of Pinocchio also, to a certain extent, fits the bill, though the book's anarchic, willfully wicked protagonist has a complexity and a chaotic spirit not in keeping with the sensible level heads of British competent children.

Though it perhaps goes without saying, competent child protagonists take on outsize importance in our current social milieu, in which children are infantilized far beyond the span of years that constitute childhood. The children in these stories accomplish more than perhaps any real child could be expected to, but it's worth noting that in most cases their skills and know-how are acquired as they go along. Matilda doesn't just have telekinetic abilities; she's intellectually brilliant and a voracious reader, willing and able to seek whatever information she may require. The Pevensie children are not just the destined heirs to the Narnian throne; they grapple with moral choices and spiritual quandaries, and work together to solve practical problems both of large and small magnitude, from defeating a far superior army with little bloodshed to figuring out how to fish without a pole. Harry Potter is not only the Chosen One, the designated force of good against evil; he's also extraordinarily brave in the face of danger, would sacrifice anything to save the life of a friend, and is single-minded in his pursuits. Magical destinies can only be granted to real children through the medium of literature, as well as the other arts, but those skills and qualities that make these fictional children competent can only be acquired through independent living, whether through free creative play or within the confines of the child experiences of family, friendships, and school. What we as adults would do well to remember is that the best and brightest are never the most sheltered and coddled - they are the children that forge their own paths, solve their own problems, and found their own friendships.