Saturday, March 28, 2015

Unpopular Opinion: Maybe Those Twilight Zone Wives Had a Point

Growing up, I loved watching the original Twilight Zone (1959-1964).  It was the perfect blend of creepy and thought-provoking, often portraying what happens when we take certain longings to their natural (or supernatural) conclusion.

For Twilight Zone junkies, the classic episodes are almost too numerous to count.  However, the best of them tended to tap into our deep-seated fears and yearnings.  These include "Walking Distance," "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street," "The Hitch-Hiker," and "A Stop at Willoughby."

Yet while Twilight Zone had that sort of universal appeal, it was hard to dismiss that its perspective was largely white, middle or upper-middle class, urban, and male.  The theme of an inordinate number of episodes was men longing to escape the constraints of their hectic modern lives, whether that involved escaping shrewish wives or modern urban life altogether.  The "ideal" world was one that likely never existed, where its inhabitants had all day to stroll leisurely through town squares, where there were always band concerts and cotton candy.  Even though the series sometimes poked fun at these longings, it returned to these locations often enough that it must have held real appeal to Rod Serling and the other writers.

As for the men who longed to go back, the audience was meant to sympathize with them.  Poor overworked, incredibly successful people, with your big houses and mixed drinks.  Though their yearnings are somewhat relatable, there is something incredibly passive and myopic about the way they view their circumstances.

Take Garth Williams in "A Stop at Willoughby."  He appears to be an ad executive along the lines of Ted Chaough or Ken Cosgrove: successful, but too sensitive for this world.  He works for a sadistic boss and could, we learn, leave at any time and take a significant amount of business with him.  Yet he stays on, drowning slowly from demands and expectations.  At home, when he complains about feeling trapped and about his fantasy of Willoughby, his wife, Jane, has little sympathy for him.  "It's my mistake, pal, my error, my miserable, tragic error to be married to a man whose big dream in life is to be Huckleberry Finn!"

Eventually Garth decides to get off his daily commuter train at the Willoughby stop, only for the viewer to learn that there was no stop, that Garth essentially committed suicide, and Willoughby was a funeral home.  The height of irony would be if the Willoughby fantasy world turned out to be a very creative ad campaign.

"Poor Garth," we think.  At least he's happier now, right?  The poor, sensitive man beaten into submission by a shrewish wife motif can be found in other episodes, including "Time Enough at Last" and "A World of His Own."  In the latter case, the shrewish wife was actually created by the man out of his imagination.

Back in the 1960s, it might have been expected for audiences to side with men like Garth, but it's a little unsettling that many people today take his victimhood at face value.  Yet when I go to places like IMDB and read the Twilight Zone forum during marathons, I see a variety of comments labeling his wife a miserable, cold bitch who didn't understand him and kept him down.

When I watch their (only) scene together, I see something different.  Garth's wife comes across as cold, yes, and unsympathetic.  But then, her husband has just told her that he wants to quit his job and go off an live in a fantasy world.  If you view circumstances from her perspective, her reactions make much more sense.  Imagine you have been married to this man for several years, even decades.  You have energy and ambition, but you live in a society that punishes you if you try to express it in any way other than through marriage.  So you do the socially acceptable thing: you marry a man whom you can guide to a greater position.  Maybe he appreciated your help at first.  After all, if he didn't want your help, he could have told you so at any time.

Over the years, he has started complaining more about his role and his job.  Yet rather than do something to change his situation, like leave his hated firm and go to one he might like better, he just stays and complains, and you have to listen.  At first you're sympathetic.  But the more he complains, but never actually changes, the more your sympathy wanes.  You might even be more understanding at this point if he quit and took a job as a teacher, or something, just as long as he was doing and not complaining.

In that one scene, Garth's wife asks him: "Did you wreck a career this afternoon?  Did you throw away a job?"  She then criticizes him for living in "a permanent self pity."  Yet when Garth says "I know where I'd like to be," for one moment, her voice changes.  "Where's that?" she asks.  She sounds genuinely interested, as if hoping he'll show some true motivation.  Only after he's described Willoughby do her voice and manner revert back to the previous cynicism.  Because while places like Wlloughby might be nice, they aren't real life, and dwelling on places like Willoughby suggests a resistance to dealing with real-world problems in any meaningful way.  Jane has probably heard this a lot, and she's sick and tired of it.  Wouldn't you be?

Similar to Jane, Gregory West's wife, Victoria, is critical of him and generally meant to come across as a harpy.  Her crimes: she takes obvious offense at her nebbish husband having a mistress, and at the possibility that she is a figment of his imagination.  The mistress, meanwhile, is all sweetness and support.  The audience is meant to snicker at Victoria's growing horror that she doesn't have any real self determination.  Her most independent act, throwing her character description into the fire, is the one that leads to her destruction.  That Gregory West would replace her with the worshipful, compliant mistress is supposed to be seen as a no brainer.  Essentially, we're supposed to view the person in complete control of the situation, Gregory West, as the victim who is finally "free" of his shrewish wife.

Did the Twilight Zone writers understand the irony that these poor put-upon men could actually change their situations any time they chose?  They had full legal rights.  There were no social or legal barriers to their entry into an occupation.  Even woeful Henry Bemis from "Time Enough at Last" had more to fear from his terrible eyesight than from his wife, who was more of a caricature than a true human being.  Meanwhile wives like Jane and Victoria are meant to be seen as controlling shrews for expressing any discontentment at all.  Never mind when they actually had a point.

To some extent, you could make these criticisms of a wide swath of Twilight Zone episodes.  Did Nan Adams really have to drive across three-fourths of the U.S. before it finally occurred to her to call home?  Couldn't someone have clocked that little brat, Anthony, over the head a lot sooner?  Still, the discontented urban upper-class male is such a prevailing theme throughout the series that I singled it out.  Again, it would probably bother me less if some of its more insulting aspects -- wives that aren't completely worshipful are shrews -- weren't still embraced by many people today.

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Sunday, March 22, 2015

Through An Introvert's Lens: Frozen

Yes, another article about Disney's Frozen.  At least it's relevant, given the recent premiere of the Frozen Fever short and the announcement that there will be a Frozen 2.

While Queen Elsa's character in Frozen has often been compared to a lesbian coming out of the closet, her embrace of her icy powers could be metaphorical in other ways.  One such way could be an introvert learning to embrace her true nature... or conversely, learning to become an extrovert.

Can Elsa's character arc be read either way?  To begin with, is Elsa an introvert?  Introverts are typically:

  • reserved
  • interested in big ideas rather than small talk
  • needs to be alone to replenish after socializing
  • thinks before he/she speaks
  • prefers to observe rather than be the center of attention

Some of this would definitely apply to Elsa both pre-Trauma (nearly killing her sister) and post-Trauma.  Even early innocent Elsa was more reserved than Anna, and she seemed more inclined to think about consequences than her sister.  Apart from that, we didn't see enough of pre-Trauma Elsa to extrapolate much else.

Post-Trauma Elsa is where it gets interesting.  She's so reserved, she rarely expresses her feelings.  She chooses her words very carefully.  Before she "lets it go," she needs to be alone to keep her powers under control, and afterward, she chooses to be alone in order to truly be herself.  I think it's safe to say that Elsa was and is an introvert.  The question is what message the movie is trying to convey about introversion.

Message No. 1: Be Yourself and Don't Hide Away

That seems to be the most straight-forward message from the movie.  Elsa should be allowed to show off her ice powers and have a relationship with her beloved sister Anna.  It seems to be the message the movie wants to convey.

And yet, what does it say that Elsa alone creates a spectacular ice castle, while Elsa in society seems content to merely create a public ice rink?  In fact, Elsa's happiest discovery in the movie seems to be that she can make the effects of her ice powers go away.

Message No. 2: Limit Your Unique Abilities to Be Socially Acceptable

Newly Fulfilled Elsa discovers that love can thaw ice, so through loving her sister, she frees her realm from perpetual winter.  It's certainly not a bad message, and Elsa learns that her ice powers don't control her.  Yet it never quite seems like she learns to control them.  Moreover, if Frozen Fever is anything to go by, Elsa's ice powers are still treated as a barrier to Elsa having a normal life.  Elsa plans a great birthday party for her sister and catches a cold, as people do, but her sneezes turn into party-wrecking gremlins.  Oops!

Message No. 3: You Gotta Join the Normals, Elsa!

It's significant that Elsa is not the main character of Frozen, but rather the extroverted Anna.  Like the rest of the realm, she just doesn't "get" what's up with Elsa, though in her case, there is an emotional component.  Yet the movie's journey is not about her learning to appreciate Elsa's uniqueness (to the movie's credit, she has no fear of Elsa's abilities), but rather Elsa coming down from the mountain and learning to socialize.  Elsa learns to loosen up and be with other people, and finds that her subjects still love her, at least as long as her ice powers are limited to snow flurries and ice rinks.

So is Frozen saying that the introverted Elsa should learn to be extroverted in order to be happy?  Is it saying she should keep the unique talents she cultivated bottled up in order to fit in?

Honestly, I'm not sure.

One way to sort out Frozen's attitude toward introverts is to look at how it treats another introvert, Kristoff.  Early on, Kristoff seems perfectly content to live out in the wilderness with his reindeer pal, with occasional visits to his friends the "love experts."  By the end of the movie, even though he enters a relationship with Anna, there's no sense that Kristoff has really changed.  I could see him still living on his own in the wilderness, swooping in on Arendelle now and then to date Anna.  I also don't get the sense that Anna expects him to be someone else.  Meanwhile, a more seemingly extroverted character, Hans, is the villain.

Overall, it's probably tough to draw specific conclusions about Frozen's attitude toward introversion.  Maybe the wisest conclusion is one that cuts down the middle: Frozen thinks it's okay to go off by yourself and "let it go," but too much alone time never suited anyone, and even the most introverted person needs connections to other people.  It's hard to argue with such sentiments, but it still raises the question of whether characters like Elsa give up too much in the process of forming connections.  I guess that's for Frozen 2 to answer.


Number of Introverts: At least two.

Is the Introvert Prominent?: Yes.

Is the Introvert Active?: Yes.

How Do Other Characters Treat the Introvert?:  Pretty well, surprisingly.  Arendelle still accepts Elsa as their queen despite her unexplained absence for three years.  Once she returns from the mountain, they embrace her.  Anna treats Kristoff's introversion like a facet of his personality as opposed to something he should change. 

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Saturday, March 14, 2015

Downton Abbey: Assessing Series Five

I'd mentioned back in August that I was disinclined to blog recaps for Downton Abbey Series Five due to, well, a complete lack of interest.  After finally watching Series Five, I'd say my instincts were correct.  Series Five was a snooze for about the first two thirds, with only the final third making it a better series overall than Series Four.

Overall, these are my impressions of Series Five:

1.  Even the Show Realizes How Poorly Used Cora Is.  For four previous series, Cora was little more than a cushion on the sofa, zoned out and seldom interesting unless the script called for it.  In Series Five, the script did call for it quite often.  Not only did Cora receive the attentions of an elegant art collector, but she also got to remind the audience of her life before marriage, as the daughter of a Jewish millionaire.  Cora was interesting and insightful in a way that she was rarely called upon to be, and the scripts acknowledged that part of her previous misuse was due to Lord Grantham taking her for granted.  Will the more interesting Cora stick around for Series Six?  We can only hope.

2.  Edith Can Be Dumb (and Selfish).  Edith is probably my favorite of the Upstairs group, but Series Five highlighted her short-sightedness and taught us that, yes, she is Mary Crawley's sister.  It would have been fairly easy for her or Mr. Drewe to tell Mrs. Drewe the truth about Marigold, though Mrs. Drewe would have been daft not to suspect.  Then a lot of craziness and heartbreak could have been avoided.  But no, not only did Edith not give Mrs. Drewe the courtesy of knowing the truth, but she ultimately yanked Marigold from the woman who had been raising her the past year.  Yes, her reasoning made sense, but that didn't mean she wasn't also being selfish.

3.  Jewish History in Britain.  One of the more interesting story lines of Series Five was the Russian refugee/Jewish one, involving on the one hand, nobles fleeing Communist Russia (given their role in making villains of the Tsar and Tsarina, I can't say they didn't get what they deserved) and, on the other, Jewish Russian refugees who became extremely successful and assimilated (for the most part) into Russian society.  The Aldriges' complex standing in British society -- they want to be British, but also want to maintain their Jewish identity -- was touched upon all-too briefly.  It probably won't get much more screen time, sadly, since the actress who played Rose has left Downton Abbey for greener Hollywood pastures.  

4.  Sometimes People Can Leave Downton Abbey.  It's a long-running joke that characters with aspirations never get to fulfill them because that would mean Leaving the Abbey.  The joke is only partially based in fact -- previously, Gwen, O'Brien, and Alfred left Downton to fulfill their ambitions, as did Sybil in her own way.  However, characters who would be much better off away and have no reason to still be there, like Daisy or Edith or Thomas/Barrow, always seem to find reasons to stay.  And then there's Tom, always talking about going to America.  When is that ever going to happen?  Well, it finally did happen.  Tom left Downton for Boston at the end of the Christmas Special.  Even though he'll probably be back (if rumors are correct), it's nice that at least he'll have some time away to grow and become his own man.

5.  Older Women Can Be Interesting and Desirable!  Another good story line from Series Five was men being interested in the Dowager Countess and Isobel.  You got to see the former, in particular, as more than just a witticisms machine.  The latter story line with Lord Merton had an unsatisfying conclusion, if that was the conclusion.  Isobel's refusal to marry Lord Merton because it would come between him and his horrendous sons is right up there with Daisy's "Oh heck, maybe I'll just stay and study here a bit longer instead of going to London" as an Unjustified Excuse to Avoid Having a Character Leave Downton.  My guess is that Lord Merton will finally get through to his sons in the second-to-last episode and another wedding will be had.
6.  They Really Don't Know What to Do With the Bateses.  When is the last time we saw Anna smile?  When is the last time I liked John Bates?  I don't remember, but the answer to both is likely "Too long ago."  Far too many plots have been devoted to their guilt or innocence involving various crimes.  Show: if you can't find anything new to have them do together, it's time to break them up.

7.  Mary and Her Men Are Pointless.  So the tug of war between Blake and Gillingham was for nothing.  Lord Gillingham turned out to be a dud in bed, as well as penniless, and ended up going back to his fiance, Mabel Lane Fox.  Blake had no interest in Mary after Series Four and went off to Poland to... do something.  Now there's a new beau introduced in the Christmas Special, but I'm hoping the true end game will be Mary and Tom.  Yes, I said it.

Mary is just boring and unpleasant when she has no real pressures to face.  Though to the show's credit, it seems to understand that, as Violet, frequently the show's mouthpiece, more than once chastised Mary for her behavior.  It will be interesting to see what she does when she finds out about Marigold's true history... since she is the only one still in the dark.       

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