The Worst Filing System Known To Humans

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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Love Me, I'm A Liberal: Arrow and Faux Leftism Pt. 2

Last week on Storming the Ivory Tower, the evil villain with a tragic backstory Penstroke the Terminator, having gathered a team of supervillains, was attempting to use the dread power of close reading and critical analysis to destroy Arrow. The show, not the character. Having explored the various ways in which the character Brother Blood serves as a representation of more radical leftism on the show to be attacked in favor of at best weak centrism and at worst pro-corporate, pro-1% ideological positions, Penstroke the Terminator now brings forth two more villains in order to demonstrate, once and for all, the failures of The Arrow Show!

Can anyone stop this madman?!

Stay tuned after these messages from our corporate masters!

It's worth taking a step back at this point, I think, and considering the basic stakes here. What exactly is the point of shedding such a harsh light on what is, ultimately, simply a TV show, and what exactly am I seeking to uncover?

Well, the latter question is fairly simple to answer. The basic problems with Arrow thematically (as opposed to aesthetically--that's a whole other conversation about cinematography and character design and color choice and so on that I don't really feel like getting into here) are pretty straightforward:

  • The morality of the show is Arrow-centric, meaning that what is good or bad is determined entirely by how Oliver Queen relates to it in a given moment (which in turn is often driven by drama rather than any kind of coherent sense of theme or continuity).
  • This means that the aims of other characters politically are ultimately subverted and must be bent around the massive gravity well that is Oliver Queen's moral center.
  • As a result, the show's sympathies are pulled towards the side of the rich and powerful--and, by implication, the straight, white, and male--and against the downtrodden and disadvantaged.
But who cares about this? So what if this is a hero-centric morality! This is a common trope in contemporary culture, and turning a hypercritical eye on one particular instance of it is pointless.

Leaving aside for the moment the question of whether or not that is as pointless and futile as it might seem, the stakes in this case are somewhat different simply because Arrow positions itself nominally on the side of the 99%, as an intelligent and even progressive show. Certainly it is positioned as an intellectually mature show.

This means that it deserves greater scrutiny. And this is true of comics as a whole, just as it is true of other junk media whose fans have demanded greater academic regard! With academic regard comes the brutality of critique and reinterpretation. If you wish to command respect, you must face the crucible of review and close reading. This is why the recent propensity among geeks toward anti-intellectualism, while still demanding a place of elevated status within culture, is so outrageous! They seek acclaim without consequence, an unassailable quantum state where they are weighty while being lauded and feather light when being critiqued.

Arrow, like comics, like video games, like cartoons, is Art as long as the academics praise it, and Just A Show as soon as academics start ripping apart its sexism, its regressive politics, its failures of imagination.

That last one, in particular, is worth talking about for a moment. What is a failure of imagination in the context of the development of a show like Arrow? Well, reimagining a backstory without considering the fundamental implications of a character is certainly a failure of imagination! It is easy to reimagine Brother Blood as a corrupt politician. It is more difficult to question whether that reimagining serves to reinforce the idea that democracy is untrustworthy, that the poor are easily directed sheep, that the 1% are the bearers of objective morality, and so on. 

Imagination in this context means the ability to look at a character like The Mandarin and question whether or not he fundamentally works in the present day and age. My dastardly Tumblr ally Allacharade does a good job of summarizing the basic reimagining that character received when transferred to the big screen:

[An earlier discussion of Marvel's Civil War event] is a nice segue into the other things I wanted to say, about taking liberties with the comic material for the good of the story, the message, and the times. There are a lot of fanboys who are angry about the way the Mandarin was handled in Iron Man 3, but I think it was a wonderful change. That is not how the comics go at all. But in 2013, a thoughtful movie about war and war profiteering doesn’t have an ethnic baddie launching terror attacks, it has a rich white man using the FEAR of such a baddie for profit.

By sidestepping the racist origins of the Mandarin as a fear of inscrutable oriental evil and transforming him into an ethnic pastiche constructed to drive the military-industrial complex, Marvel showed a will to reimagine that is far more significant than the modern propensity toward twiddled backstories. They questioned the core of the character, and what role that character serves in the world they are trying to build and the fundamental argument they are making about the corrupt nature of military capitalism, and they effectively tossed out a huge middle finger to fans for all the right reasons. Not that I'm inherently in favor of flipping off the fans! Individual choices may be good or bad. But this choice was made for solid reasons, it was done creatively and innovatively, and it positioned the film as fundamentally leftist in orientation (and deeply critical of the 1%, in that the events of the film are precipitated by both a corrupt power structure and by the individual cruelties of Tony Stark himself).

Such a reimagining should have been granted to Brother Blood, certainly.

And it should have been granted to the next villain in my team:

Doctor Ivo.

How Dare You Save The Human Race

Transhumanism is not one of the canonical virtues of leftism, unfortunately, but all of its values are compatible with the larger project of leftism. Both worldviews fundamentally are about seeking the betterment of humanity by pushing forward into the future and disrupting existing systems--economic, racial, sexual, or, in the case of transhumanism, biological. Many transhumanists are ultimately anti-death, as well, and most leftists I think largely fall into that camp, whether it be in the context of anti-militarization, a distrust of the death penalty, or an individual desire to not see loved ones suffer and be torn from the world through chance or malice. Anti-death transhumanism simply takes these individual battles against death from injustice, pointless war, need, senseless vengeance, &c., and extends that logic to the vagueries of biology and random chance. You are just as dead, after all, if you are struck by a drone or by lightening. If you are against one, why not be against the other?

People are anti-death at heart. Our entire body of art is built in part upon feeling moved and upset when a character that you like dies. Fanfiction writers and comic book nerds are particularly anti-death in orientation, often engaging in literary necromancy in order to resurrect those who died before their time.

Doctor Ivo is thus a man driven by the same urge as any lover of art, any lover of stories, any fanfiction writer. Ivo tells Black Canary at his first meeting with her that he intends to save the human race, and a serum capable of allowing for rapid regeneration certainly would go a long way to doing that! The mass distribution of such a drug in an equitable and fair way would do just as much, if not more, to the betterment of humanity as the implementation of universal healthcare.

So, positioning Ivo as unambiguously a madman is a move of remarkable stupidity. Oh, it's not that a transhumanist can never be a villain, but the fact that the only character with any interest in the conquest of death itself is a violent, sadistic monster with character behaviors and motivations so incoherently evil for the sake of evil that they would be laughed out of an average children's cartoon.

Doctor Ivo rages his way through the narrative of Arrow with no hint of internal logic or consistent drive. I'm actually somewhat stuck at this point in my essay because the more I consider Ivo the less sense he makes. He is painted in such vague terms that it's nearly impossible to make a guess at what he will do from moment to moment, and his interactions with other people seem to happen according to some sequence of events that the writers have worked out beforehand rather than any particular character drive. Why have him shoot his minions when they fail him? To show that he is a Very Bad Man, presumably. There seems to be no particular internal character drive that leads him to make that decision. Nor does the power dynamic with his minions make much sense. Are they hired hands or devotees? They seem more like hired hands, but then why do they follow his orders when he keeps taking pot shots at them? And why is it so important that Black Canary should be recruited and brainwashed by him? What purpose does that serve? Why is the whole ship full of slaves? Why is any of this the way it is? As soon as you actually think about Ivo and his ship for a few minutes the whole thing starts tumbling down.

There is no particular reason for Ivo to tell Black Canary that he is saving the world, when you get right down to it, other than to set up the portrayal of an anti-death transhumanist as unhinged and evil. One might argue that the point is to set up his reveal as a crafty liar, but why does that information need to come as a surprise? After all, he hangs around on a ship full of caged prisoners. We already know that he keeps the company of monsters. The only reason, from a narrative perspective, to play this as a reveal is to argue the same thing argued with Brother Blood: that fundamentally saviors are not to be trusted, unless they are Oliver Queen. Only he has the key to morality; everyone else is suspect.

Perhaps the justification is to set up Black Canary's brainwashing, though. Maybe. The brainwashing never goes anyplace interesting, though, as she flees with Ollie as soon as she gets the chance. The only point there seems to be to reintroduce her to the story at the precise moment where the writers need her to be, to set up what is perhaps the single most imbecilic, disgracefully sloppy narrative beat in the entire show.

For absolutely no reason whatsoever, Ivo, upon capturing Arrow, Canary, and Shado, the attractive girl who forms the corner for the depressingly heterosexual love wedge between Arrow and Slade Wilson, forces Arrow to choose which girl Ivo will shoot.


No fucking reason.

None of this makes any sense whatsoever. Ivo has what he came for, and at this point he has no reason to keep any of them alive. He can easily murder them all quickly, which is what the Ivo of the last few episodes would certainly have done! And yet, he plays this sadistic game because, by god, the writers want you to know that he is a Very Bad Man, and this, apparently, is the only way they can think to do it.

Of course, there is one more thing this moment accomplishes.

It allows the writers to brutally murder Shado so that Slade and Arrow can cry manly tears of rage over her and so that they can be motivated.

Basically, it allows them to discard a female character for the further development of a male character.

And that is why I have invited an unexpected character to my team of villains. When you get right down to it, the point of this exercise is to embrace the villains of the show as representations of the concepts of justice and progressive reform, or perhaps simply the will to imagine a different world. As such, a character that represents female strength and autonomy--ideas subtly but constantly called into question in the narrative of Arrow--is assuredly a villain, no matter her ostensible place on the "right" side.

Because such a woman would challenge the gravity well that is Oliver Queen by asserting an alternative to his masculine authority.

If Black Canary doesn't watch out, she'll be joining us before long.

On Manpain

If the moral compass of Arrow points constantly to Oliver Queen, the star by which Righteousness and Logic set sail is certainly the star of masculinity. The dick star. The show is remarkable for the countless little ways in which it makes a pretense of supporting female strength while actually instrumentalizing and objectifying women where ever possible.

Now, I want to distinguish between objectification and sexualization here, because while Black Canary is certainly sexy she is not sexualized, exactly.

Rather, she is objectified in that she is transformed into an object of male desire--not sexual desire but authoritarian desire. Like all the women on the show, she exists to put forth a show of strength that ultimately serves to reinforce male strength when inevitably she must be rescued and supported by Oliver Queen. She is only strong up to the point where the writers decide that we haven't seen enough of Arrow shooting shit, and at that precise moment her capability drops to zero.

Of course, this is a show where a man who can shoot tennis balls out of the air suddenly loses the ability to disable someone standing ten feet away without killing him, in one of this season's more remarkably moronic contrived dilemmas. The characters seem to fluctuate wildly in ability depending on what the writers have decided should happen.

But the female characters are not just selectively weak, they are also selectively incorrect. Remember that this show's morality centers entirely upon Oliver Queen! The women he surrounds himself with are wrong, even when all the logic of the show seems to suggest that they are right. Hell, even interactions between side characters usually result in the women being wrong. Does Oliver Queen's sister have reservations about emotionally reconnecting with her actual mass murder mother? Well, she'd feel better if she just listened to the men in her life! Does she have problems with her boyfriend going out and beating up thugs? Fuck her wishes, the heroic thing is to lie to her and hang around with some weird murderer behind her back! Does Ollie disagree with Black Canary's decision to keep herself secret from her family? That's gonna cause problems, you betcha! Might Ollie actually be kind of an idiot when it comes to running a business? Doesn't matter, because the woman who is trying to take over his company is bad! The exposition dump said so! She must be making the wrong decisions because Ollie doesn't like them.

These scenarios, as with the more overt hamstringing of Black Canary at key moments, serve to reassert male authority. The women in the show become instruments toward male empowerment. While some may be strong, in a sense, their strength ultimately serves to elevate not themselves but their male counterparts higher.

Shado is a particularly disgusting example of this, because she is shown as capable and powerful only up until the point where she must die to further Arrow's manpain. She is a pure object within the plot. She exists to be desired by the male characters, and then to die tragically to motivate them and give them something to brood over to make them seem deep. The fact that this lazy strategy, so derided in feminist comics criticism that it even has its own particular terminology ("fridging," derived from a male character's wife getting chopped up and stuffed in a fridge to give him a reason to go fight the bad guy) comes in the context of the endless heterosexual love triangles that the writers shove into every possible interaction on the show just makes the whole thing even more insultingly brainless.

In fact, let's take a moment to discuss the implications of the lazy love triangle bullshit shoehorned into every interaction in this show, because they are not pretty. Most of the female characters seem to make decisions driven primarily by romance. Why is Laurel Lance so upset about prosecuting Moira Queen? Because she has feelings for Oliver Queen. Why is Felicity Smoak so insistent that Barry Allen should be brought into the fold? Because she has feelings for him. And hey, maybe that's why she's helping Oliver, too!

The laziness of this love-triangle-driven writing certainly is not unique to the female characters--after all, you can't have manpain without some emotional drive--but paired with the continuous attempts by the writers to make the female characters wrong about things it all comes out looking rather malicious, like a particular attitude about female intelligence. It's most egregious, certainly, in the case of Felicity, who could easily be driven by purely professional decisions when it comes to Barry Allen, but is arbitrarily paired with him in the sloppiest, most rushed way imaginable. I'd say that was a clever reference to the fact that Allen is The Flash if it didn't come across as such completely shitty writing.

It's a point of continuous outrage with me that so many people, the writers included, think that this is a sign of maturity. That throwing in love triangles everywhere they can is a sign of emotional development rather than an adolescent preoccupation with soap opera histrionics. They cannot possibly conceive of a world without jealousy, without spite, and, barring Black Canary's ex girlfriend, sex without penises going in vaginas. Everything is full of jealous possessiveness, drenched in heteronormativity, and predicated on an understanding that ultimately the male characters hold all the answers. And this is being treated by critics as a mature and well written narrative! This says much to me of the fundamental bankruptcy of critical journalism aimed at television today. Critics, paid critics, seem largely to be fans of television with no understanding of the deeper level mechanics of message and theme... or even an understanding of relationships and decisions not driven by a need to own a particular lover! It's a bleak and miserable world these critics, and these characters, inhabit, and I am deeply thankful that it bears no resemblance to the kind of romantic and sexual life I live.

Perhaps what the characters of Arrow really need is indoctrination into a queer polyamorous feminist politics.

God knows I've screamed at Oliver and Blood to just fucking kiss already so many times I'm positively hoarse...

We Want The World And We Want It Now

I could certainly continue along a similar line here and crucify Arrow for its highly questionable racial politics, or analyze in greater detail the crushingly dull heterosexuality of the characters, but I think this should serve to explain my basic complaint with the show, and the reasons that have led me to take the side not of the hero but of the villains of this narrative.

Ultimately, it is a show without a progressive imagination. It is a show terrified of actual economic reform, terrified of female power and female intelligence removed from the context of romance, terrified of of medical technology capable of saving countless lives, terrified of holding the 1% to the fire for their crimes against humanity--within the show and without!

If you can find a belief that leftists hold, this show is there on the sidelines calling, "Hey, let's not be too hasty here! Let's not go too far!" It is a show pretending to empower women while systematically stripping them of agency and authority. A show pretending to take the side of the poor while deeply sympathizing with the rich. A show pretending to recoil from death while treating its defeat as mad and actual mass murderers as misunderstood and blameless protagonists. A show pretending to care about the powerless while happily dragging them to the gibbet as soon as they make a move to rectify the wrongs done to them.

It is effectively the show version of Phil Ochs's classic song, "Love Me, I'm A Liberal":

Once I was young and impulsive
I wore every conceivable pin
Even went to the socialist meetings
Learned all the old union hymns
But I've grown older and wiser
And that's why I'm turning you in
So love me, love me, love me, I'm a liberal

The fact of the matter is that we leftists are already villains in the context of this show. By embracing that status, we perform a radical act of reversal, drawing perverse strength from the reinterpretation of the master narrative so comfortable to lily-livered centrists. In the end, we are destined to be turned in to the authorities, both in fiction and in real life. There is no sense, then, in trying to please the authors of the narrative.

Rather, it is far better to take on the mantle of the villain and use it as a source of strength. And that is what I ask now: that you join us in supervillainy. Do not wait to be put here by the rear guard who cheers from the back while taking down your name as insurance against the counterrevolution. Rather, choose of your own free will.

Choose the dark side.

And in choosing, choose the side that truly does want to save the human race.

And sing death, death, devil, devil, devil, devil, evil, evil evil, evil songs! Hell you know that's how I get along! Follow for updates, random thoughts, artwork, and news about articles. As always, you can e-mail me at Circle me on Google+ at you liked this piece please share it on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Reddit, Equestria Daily, Xanga, MySpace, or whathaveyou, and leave some thoughts in the comments below.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Sam, great essay!
    I'm kind of glad now that I stopped watching the series after 2 (I think) episodes. It hits too many of my pet peeves. I don't think I could have taken a crazy villain whose evil ambition was stopping death.

    What immediately turned me off the series, was the complete disregard for the bodyguards of the bad guy. They are just mooks and therefore not worth anything. How could Arrow know that they were bad guys too? They could have just been newly hired. But I guess it's guilt by association.
    Maybe the series later revisited this, but I would have expected some kind of acknowledgment, that just killing those dudes might have been a pretty evil act, immediately.


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