Inside Out – No emotions, only feelings

Inside Out seeks to hide its lack of originality behind clever ingenuity. It tells the story of a young girl through her ‘emotions’, except these are nothing more than instinctual reactions. Instead of depicting the different sides of one person, shaped by her environment, experiences, and people around her, the film reduces personhood to instinctual feelings: anger, sadness, joy, disgust, and fear.

There is no trace of complex emotions (love, hatred, compassion…) and little understanding of the connection between emotions and one’s identity, especially in relation to values. It results in an embarrassing materialistic portrayal of personhood with no personality. What happened to determination, honesty, and mischievousness (to name but a few)? Personality is somehow left to the instinctual feelings, like Joy, who is a bossy and superficial character.

I was hoping Anger would punch her up, but no such luck. Joy is the annoying protagonist. She is condescending to Sadness and confines her into a circle so that she won’t make the girl sad. That makes Joy rather manipulative and shallow. She finally gets that sadness has its uses, although there is no real understanding of suffering. Sadness is useful only because, when the girl is sad, her parents and friends come to the rescue. The only value is some sort of materialistic hedonism (being liked, being successful, having fun); no search for meaning. Inevitably, Riley, the young girl, is a stroppy, spoilt, and selfish teenager.

Inside Out reduces personhood to feelings and memories, with no reflection on how we develop through interactions, how we are with others, how we see ourselves, how we act. Leaving the discussion on the ‘social self’ aside, I shall only mention two theorists on emotions: Martha Nussbaum and Adam Smith.

Nussbaum updates stoicism for our age, where emotions are ‘evaluative judgements’. Emotions develop as we grow up, which means they have a history, they carry a narrative of who (we think) we are. Our experiences shape us. For instance, a child acquires a sense of fairness, which develops over time. Emotions are therefore (also) ‘moral’; they are moral judgements. Emotions reflect our ideas and beliefs about the world. Here’s a comprehensive and critical account of Nussbaum’s thesis by D. F. Cates.

In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith grounds human moral sense in “sympathy”, which is our projection of how other people feel (which is not necessarily how they actually feel). Feeling sympathy implies a moral approval on those feelings. For Smith morality requires rules (a la Kant) but also virtues, which the person develops through practice. So morality is not just about adhering to rules or deciding how best to act, but developing attitudes, such as prudence, self-command, and benevolence. Here’s an account of Smith’s theory.

Smith’s approach could easily be part of a film, because the virtuous character is developed through experiences, habits, and practices and the process is wrapped up in emotions. Inside Out doesn’t deliver, except when it puts aside its schmaltz and failed attempt at cleverness and allows itself to be ironic and funny.

Posted in America, consciousness, emotions, family, good & evil, individualism, Inside Out, love, morality, personhood, reason/rationality | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Las Brujas de Zugarramurdi/Witching & Bitching: masculinity and misogyny

I loved the first 20 minutes of this film. I loved its ironic and absurd humour, yet it turned quickly into a fudge with misogynistic undertones. The film puts gender relations at its core. Everything hinges on it: the characters, the story, the action, and the ‘morale’ of the story. Sadly, our writers (Álex de la Iglesias and Jorge Guerricaechevarría) are as much confused about gender as they are about good film-making. The film is weighted down by clumsy story-telling, little suspense, bad action, and thin characters. The film-makers mashed together a fairy tale, a horror, and a romantic comedy; all weaved together around gender. So, what is gender and what did they get wrong?

Gender:

There are two important elements of gender that concern this film: social norms and power.

  • Social norms are the conventions people follow in their social life and the expectations they have of how other people will behave and should behave. These are ‘internalised’ and vary, to an extent, from society to society. People internalise social norms through their individual background and experience, so we don’t all think or act in the same way. Social norms are not something out there in the sky, but in our heads and something we contribute in shaping. So, social norms shape our identity, but we also shape them.
  • Power rests on social norms. It is not just the ability or act of oppressing another. Power is always a relationship. For an interesting view on power, see Randall Collins (‘Paradoxes of Power’ and Conflict). To comment on this film, I’m thinking of power as just the differential in opportunities between men and women that leads to men being over-represented in positions of authorities (CEOs, boards, government cabinets…), having more money and property, and having far fewer responsibilities (childcare, housework…). See Cynthia Epstein on the ‘great divide’, and R. Connell on ‘hegemonic masculinity’.

Masculinity in Crisis:

The film is based on the idea of men being intimidated by women’s success and self-confidence. They hate women because their masculinity is in crisis. It’s an idea of masculinity that consists in being the breadwinner and the sexual predator. It is also a masculinity that depends on women being weak, passive, and lacking in confidence. Unlike their women, the three male protagonists have no job or, at least, not a successful one. Although the film at the beginning tries to make fun of it, it ultimately asks the audience to sympathise with men feeling they don’t control the world anymore.

Following a hilarious jewellery robbery, two of the gang take a taxi and escape towards the Basque country. The two gang robbers, José (Hugo Silva) and Toni (Mario Casas), and the taxi driver (Pepón Nieto) bond around their misogynist paranoia. Being the ‘heroes’ of the film, we are supposed to like them and be on their side, but their grievances are however totally wrong. One cannot doubt that men still have power over women and that this is wrong. This should have been dealt differently.

The film should have made fun of the men and either confine them to defeat, or moved them to the realisation that there can be another masculinity. One where a ‘real man’ is the one who welcomes women as equals rather than running scared of them and hating them. Instead the ‘alternative’ that emerges is the homosexual relationship between the two police inspectors pursuing the robbers, who are just as inept as men and who replicate the traditional man-woman relationship, where the woman does everything, is neglected, and not respected. It’s funny, but it doesn’t work because it reiterates the unequal and oppressive marriage relationship without offering an alternative.

Witches and Misogyny

Women who do not comply with social norms and roles are generally portrayed as witches. Historically, women who did not adhere to social conventions were accused of witchcraft (see post). The gang ends up face to face with hundreds of women who are preparing a ritual to invoke the divine Goddess. The Goddess is represented with – what used to be known as – the ancient fertility Goddess, but was actually prehistoric porn. I’m sure the film-makers didn’t realise this, but it makes it rather unsavoury for those who do know! It is also a wasted opportunity. They could have used the Dark Goddess that channels women’s frustrations and thirst for revenge (see post on the Coven).

These witches, headed by Graciana (a great Carmen Maura), are the enemy; yet they simply refuse to play the neglected, betrayed, and used housewife or girlfriend looking after children and the house. Why should we hate them? Predictably, romance blossoms between José and Eva (Carolina Bang), daughter of Graciana, but only after Eva has renounced her ways and betrayed her family. In an almost funny and definitely uncomfortable scene, the two replay the trite scene of a woman complaining for being neglected while, in that particular situation, José just wanted to get out alive together with his male friends. It doesn’t work because, once again, the scene taps into a woman’s legitimate complaint that is made to appear irrational and extreme by the horror situation.

The film ends with the couples watching the child performing a magic trick with a horror touch. The men are in control and their masculinity is restored, although danger lurks behind them as the two witches laugh. The film-makers tried to make fun of male insecurities; yet they availed them and ended up with a misogynist film.

Posted in fairytales, fantasy/supernatural, femininity, gender, horror, masculinity, power, ritual, sexuality, social conventions, society, witchcraft, Witching & Bitching/Las Brujas de Zugarramurdi | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Ida – the aesthetics of fake religion

The cinematography is truly beautiful, the film is not. It’s an emotionally deprived intellectual exercise. The characters are barely sketched and not allowed to emerge. Nothing really happens and nothing is really said. The photography quickly becomes pretentious to the extent where the actors are too often in a corner of the frame or with their heads outside. The Oscar was clearly the result of the principle: ‘it’s boring, must be good’.

Ida is the story of Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), an orphan during World War II, who grows up in a convent. Unbeknown to her, Anna’s family was Jewish and her real name was Ida. Before she takes her vows, the mother superior gives her the address of her aunt, Wanda (Agata Kulesza), and tells her to go and see her. Wanda is a judge. She was in the communist resistance and sent many to death in the political trials after the war. The two women go on a road trip to find out what happened to Anna’s parents and where they are buried.  Wanda has gone through the horrors of the war and is now disillusioned and survives daily life by drinking and having sex with different men. Anna keeps silent.

Religion

Religion in the film feels rather artificial. It is the image non-religious people have of religion: the aesthetics of mysticism, the symbols of religious statues, pictures, and rosaries, and the unperturbed air of someone who is removed from reality. That is not lived religion, the one religious people experience and talk about it.

Anna has lived her life behind the safe walls of the convent. She has never made a choice and seems to be devoid of any reflections on it. After her road trip and an attempt at mimicking Wanda, she goes back to the convent. Her attempt at experiencing life (smoking, drinking, and sex) is again the image non-religious people have of monastic life. Abstinence from excessive drinking, sex, and romantic love is far from being the difficult part of monastic life. The real test lies in willing to love people you don’t like, making community with those you’d like to avoid. The convent in the film is portrayed as very quiet with the nuns never talking to one another. It’s trite and superficial, but it fits well the image people have of monastic life.

Jesus and the ‘Kingdom of God’

The film paints a contrast between the two women: Anna is respected because she is a nun, while Wanda is seen as a whore. Wanda has little time for the hypocrisy of those who have profited from the death of Jews during the war. She is blunt and rebellious. She is a lot purer than Anna. At one point, a drunk Wanda tells Anna: “don’t throw away your life”. Anna goes back to the convent, but it is not out of commitment. It’s just the life she knows.

Wanda says that she is a “slut”, while Anna is a “saint”, but that Jesus loved people like her. That is what you often hear from Christians. Jesus was in the world and he is someone to follow and that means being with people at the margin of society. Committed Christians recognise the sovereignty of God. Their pursuit of the ethical life is inscribed within the framework of ‘building the Kingdom of God’: a kingdom of love, justice, and peace. That means one cannot simply follow one’s conscience or society’s mores. The recognition of the sovereignty of God has the effect of calling on Christians to change their priorities. The Christian life cannot be solely about a career and family, let alone the search of happiness in materiality; rather one’s happiness results from being part of God’s design.

Committed Christians often feel small and insignificant, but their lives have meaning when they can make that tiny contribution in realising God’s Kingdom. Aware of their inability to live up to such a high ideal, they are filled with a sense of inadequacy. They are not better people. They are only trying.

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Better Call Saul: Moral Agency and the American Dream

Better Call Saul goes back in time to reconstruct how Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) became Saul Goodman, the criminal lawyer (with a stress on criminal) of Breaking Bad. In Breaking Bad, Saul employs his cunning mind and wicked charm in the pursuit of money, but how did he get that way? Pre-Saul Jimmy is a good guy who has been dealt a bad hand. He tries to do his best and do the right thing, but, as he notes, ‘a good man can’t succeed.’ The series is an exploration of moral agency and the ideal and reality of the American Dream (see post on Breaking Bad).

Jimmy has a history of swindling and jail time, but he is driven and works hard to make something of himself. He gets a law degree through a correspondence course while working in the mail room. He works as a public defender and comes across a fraud perpetrated by a company running a nursing home against its own residents. Jimmy builds up the case, which calls for extra resources and staff. He takes it to his brother’s firm, but his brother Chuck does not believe in Jimmy and wants him out. Chuck thinks that Jimmy will always want to follow the easy route. He tells him that he lacks respect for the law and adduces as evidence the degree by correspondence.

Jimmy has been caring for Chuck, who has had a mental breakdown and has become a recluse suffering from extreme phobias. Jimmy has looked after Chuck selflessly for over a year and has built a case out of a sense of justice; yet he stands accused of lacking constancy, discipline, and commitment. Morality is here something that results from the development of one’s character through ethical practices, as Aristotle would have it. Chuck’s stance comes across as harsh and judgemental. Jimmy, betrayed by his brother and seemingly unable to succeed legitimately, will take the criminal path.

Maybe Chuck is right. Jimmy lacks the conviction that would keep him on the right path and when he doesn’t get his way by playing by the rules, he gets creative. He is cunning in his scams and publicity stunts. A great story-teller, he bends the facts and pushes the boundaries in order to get ahead. The series paints a great contrast between Jimmy’s colourful and theatrical persona and the quiet and rigorous parking guard, Mike. Mike does not compromise and demands the correct parking stickers from Jimmy.

Mike has a Kantian-stoic persona. He is rigorous, resolute, and intransigent, yet he is just as crooked as Jimmy. Mike is honourable and uncompromising. He is a ‘good criminal’. As he tells one of his clients: ‘there are good criminals and bad criminals, a good criminal keeps his word.’ Unlike Jimmy’s continuous wavering, Mike has a code that needs to be honoured regardless of the means. Outside the law, he metes revenge against the corrupted policemen who killed his son. Yet, much like Jimmy, Mike is a victim of a society where the ‘good man can’t succeed’. The ethical ideal of the American Dream of success through hard work is out of reach for both Mike and Jimmy. That’s how Jimmy becomes Saul.

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Stand by Me & Animal House – Liminality & Communitas

There are two films that best capture Victor Turner’s ‘liminality’ and ‘communitas’: Stand by Me and Animal House. They are not about tribes in remote parts of the world. They are about young kids growing up or refusing to grow up, in the Animal House case.

Stand by me tells the story of Gordie Lachance (Wil Wheaton) and his group of unconventional friends going on a journey to find the body of a missing boy. The kids are ‘other’, they do not abide by social norms. Gordie is very quiet, Chris (River Phoenix) comes from a family of alcoholics, Teddy (Corey Feldman), who has suffered violence from his father, is eccentric, and Vern (Jerry O’Connell) is fat and bullied for it. They don’t fit in society and are valued less for it, as Gordie’s father shows when he asks Gordie why he can’t have any (normal) friends, like his late brother. The group goes through various adventures in the woods. Like a traditional rite of passage, they leave the community, face adversity, which makes them mature but also unites them. That’s when liminality and communitas come in.

For Victor Turner, ritual is a process with different stages:

  • separation from everyday activities, relationships, and environment
  • Liminality
  • Reintegration

The ritual allows a moment of dispensation from the structure of society. Liminality is ‘anti-structure’, the moment when all hierarchies, statuses, and roles dissolve. In the liminal stage, the person does no longer engage in the activities that are part of his role in society (it’s mostly about men, this model for ritual doesn’t really fit women, as Bruce Lincoln and Caroline Bynum explained).

Liminality is “betwixt and between … likened to death, to being in the womb, to invisibility, to darkness, to bisexuality, to the wilderness, and to an eclipse of the sun or moon”. (Turner 1966: 95)

In that liminal moment, communitas arises. Communitas is a spontaneous community of equals. It is an undifferentiated “communion of equal individuals who submit together to the general authority of the ritual elders” (Turner 1966: 96). The liminal stage then gives way to structure. The person is reintegrated into society with his new identity and can fulfil his duties.

Turner had a romantic idea of communitas as a spontaneous assemble of equals. He saw that in hippy groups and the early stages of the Franciscan order (before it became an order). I doubt communitas actually exists for more than a moment, but here may be two instances. The first is from Stand by Me.

The second if from Animal House. What is striking in this scene is that, just like in Turner, the ritual candidates are all dressed in the same way, men and women, and they all follow the ritual instructions of the officiant, Otis Day.

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American Horror Story (Coven) 2 – Othering Voodoo, Race, & Rationality

As mentioned in my previous post on Coven, the series is set in a boarding school for witches in New Orleans, Louisiana. One of the witches is Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe), who is human voodoo doll. She can harm others by harming her own body. A rivalry between the coven and the entourage of voodoo priestess Marie Laveau (Angela Bassett) leads Queenie, feeling isolated in the coven of white witches, to join the voodoo community. A few deaths later, she re-joins the coven. The aspect of race and race relations is explored through Queenie’s isolation within the coven and reintegration into it, and by a very entertaining Kathy Bates, as Madame Delphine LaLaurie, a former cruel slave-owner brought back to life in contemporary New Orleans, who is ‘adjusting’ to the new reality.

Race and ‘Othering’

The setting of New Orleans speaks of the image Hollywood writers have of the south: charming, sensual, black, and primitive, in an imaginary contrast with the rational, modern, and urban north. Voodoo originates in Haiti and results from the melange between Christianity and local practices. In movies, voodoo is generally to be found in the south and is thus seen as black people’s magic, sensual and primitive (Skeleton Key, Angel HeartJessabelle). Never mind the fact that the biggest concentration of Haitians is in Miami and NYC. A classic anthropological study of voodoo religion is Karen McCarthy Brown’s Mama Lola, a Voodoo Priestess in Brooklyn. Alas, post-industrial NYC, symbol of modernity and urbanisation, doesn’t fit Hollywood’s image of irrational, sensual, and primitive magic.

This is an example of ‘othering’, a process of defining and legitimising one’s identity as superior to that of other groups. ‘Othering’ assumes that one’s identity is the ‘standard’, to which others are compared and found lacking. The ‘other’ can be seen as an ‘anomaly’ and/or threat within the group (Jew, homosexual), or be an outsider to the group. The insider other is the one who does not fit in the symbolic order of a society (see post on Trick ‘r Treat). The outsider other is not necessarily seen in disparaging terms, but through stereotypes and never on equal terms.

“Each society creates and recreates its ‘others’, for the process of identification involves the identities of these different ‘others’.” (McCrone, Sociology of Nationalism 1998: 118).

Having the West been constructed around modern scientific rationality, literate and urbanised culture, and industrial/post-industrial capitalism, the ‘other’ is often its mirror opposite: irrational, primitive, rural or close to nature. The ‘other’ is often racialised (see Stuart Hall’s ‘Spectacle of the Other’). Queenie is ‘other’ because she is black and her magic is voodoo, also portrayed as ‘other’, foreign magic. Yet, black people are segregated and discriminated against in contemporary America, so the Queenie’s sense of isolation in the white witches’ coven resonates with reality. Films and TV are not supposed to portray how things should be, but how they are and can be. I believe Queenie is not really ‘othered’ for being black; rather the series explores her identity and what it takes for a community to be inclusive. In addition, it is also interesting how voodoo gives Queenie an identity and culture that are missing in the others’ magic.

Rationality, Magic, and Voodoo

The other is seen as lacking a particularly narrow form of rationality (see posts on Sleepy Hollow and West Wing), the materialistic instrumental rationality of the nineteenth century. Early anthropology studied other cultures through the lens of the Western paradigm, thus misunderstanding them. For instance, Evans-Pritchard considered on magic among the Azande as flawed science. However, the conception of magic as a primitive form of science or confined to ‘imitative magic’, the control over nature, has been debunked. Magic “mystical action,” as Godfrey Lienhardt (1961: 331) calls it, “is not a substitute for practical or technical action, but a complement to it and preparation for it. … what the symbolic action is intended to control is primarily a set of mental and moral dispositions.”. It is a form of understanding that involves participation leading to a changed psychological state. It is sometimes called ‘participatory consciousness’.

Lienhardt showed how Dinka’s rituals were primarily social. They dramatised situations controlling experience of those events (1961: 335). For instance, in sacrifice the beast dies instead of human beings transforming a situation of death into a situation of life (1961: 338). Magic seeks a transformation in understanding: ‘the Zande’s belief in witchcraft does not exclude “empirical knowledge of cause and effect,” but it provides a social and cultural method of acting upon the world.’ (Tambiah 1990: 355)

At the core of Voodoo religion are relationships (see McCarthy Brown). Spirits are part of the ‘extended family’. This is reflected in the language of family/kinship used to refer to Priests and priestesses, who are called ‘papa’ and ‘maman’, while initiates are called ‘children of the house’. Voodoo parents provide protection to their children, which is often concrete help (food, help in finding work), with the temple providing a form of social welfare. Many of the rituals about healing relationships. The officiant, possessed by a spirit, speaks to individuals in the community and members of the community help interpreting the message. It is not so much about the supernatural and the control of nature, but the managing of fractured relationships among the living.

See my previous post on Coven on gender and the Dark Goddess.

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American Horror Story (Coven) – Witchcraft & the Dark Goddess

The Coven is the third installment of American Horror Story, the first being porn and film plagiarism, the second concentrating on the plagiarism. The third benefits from an injection of irony. It is set in a boarding school for witches in New Orleans, Louisiana. At the beginning, there are only three students coming to grips with their powers: Zoe (Taissa Farmiga), Madison (Emma Roberts), and Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe). Zoe causes brain haemorrhage in any man who has sex with her. Madison, once a child movie star, is now recovering from substance misuse and has telekinetic powers. Queenie, a black witch, can harm others by wounding herself. They are joined by Misty (Lily Rabe), who has the power of necromancy. The coven is headed by Fiona (Jessica Lange), mother of the headmistress, Cordelia (Sarah Paulson). A rivalry between the coven and the entourage of voodoo priestess Marie Laveau (Angela Bassett) leads  Queenie, feeling isolated in the coven of white witches, to join the voodoo community. A few deaths later, she re-joins the coven. The race motif is quite strong and dealt with in a not so superficial way, evincing melodrama, and delivering much needed irony with a great Gaby Sidibe, as Queenie, and a brilliant Kathy Bates, as racist Madame Delphine LaLaurie.

Gender

As mentioned in my post on witchcraft films, women have been associated with witchcraft in history and in film. Women who did not adhere to gender norms were accused of being witches. In the 1970s, feminists found in witchcraft/Neopaganism not only a way to express their spirituality, but also to pursue women’s empowerment around the worship of the Goddess. Starhawk is perhaps the most famous feminist Neopagan and author. Feminist witchcraft reclaimed in positive terms elements of the construction of witchcraft, such as the relationship between women and nature, leading to the emergence of ecofeminism. Today, male and female practitioners of witchcraft, Neopaganism, Neoshamanism forge their alternative identity vis-à-vis the dominant capitalist and materialistic culture of the 21st century (see Sabina Magliocco’s Witching Culture).

An interesting aspect of the search for a more empowered identity for women is, at times, through the Dark Goddess, as Tanya Luhrmann found in her study. The seemingly negative image of the Dark Goddess of ugly asexuality and destruction allows women to feel angry and aggressive, which runs counter to social gender norms imposing passivity and docility on women. This is also predicated on the magic ‘principle’ of turning negatives into positives. Thus, in the worship of the Dark Goddess, the practitioner identifies with the rejected and unpleasant (spiders, menstrual blood, death) “to turn the symbol of the outcast into a source of strength” (2001: 131). The Dark Goddess becomes a source of creativity.  (which reminds me a little of Winnicott’s ‘hating appropriately’ in psychoanalysis). The TV series Coven centres the action on female witches, who are little bothered with social conventions. These are confident women who express their ‘talent’ by killing but also giving back life. I see a little bit of the Dark Goddess in coming to grips with – as Demetra George puts it – “what we do not like about ourselves, what we find threatening, shameful, and inadequate, as well as certain valued and positive qualities that we are pressured to repress and disown.” (Excerpt from Mysteries of the Dark Moon)

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Good Women, Bad Women, and Witches – Hocus Pocus, The Craft, Practical Magic

Hocus Pocus is fun. It is for children so the evil witches are more fun than scary. Yet, they follow the traditional cinematic construct of the evil witch as a bad woman, a woman who does not adhere to the accepted norms of female behaviour. The three colourful witches are outside the (legitimate) community physically and normatively. They live in the forest, away from the community, and harm the community. In line with the traditional image of the bad woman, they don’t like children. These entertaining witches (Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, Kathy Najimy) kidnap children and plan to kill them. They also bewitch the entire community with a brilliant show.

More seriously and troubling, the accusations of witchcraft in the seventeenth century were very much about asserting male authority on women. Young and old unmarried women, who were not under the authority of a man, were feared. Witches were the enemy within, those who threatened the social order, which rested very much on a tightly regulated female sexuality. As Louise Jackson has shown, the construction of the witch reflected the opposite to the ‘good wife’. The good wife was associated with feeding, caring for her children, healing and giving birth. Her mirror opposite, the witch, was accused of poisoning, infanticide, harming, and causing death. “Laws against infanticide were reinforced in an attack on young single mothers whose behaviour was seen as deviant and suspect.” (Jackson 1995: 71). In their confessions, women judged themselves against the social expectations of the ‘good wife and mother’ and ended up believing that they were witches, responsible for making/letting their child fall ill.

In films, bad witches, by and large, are still constructed as being devious and killing children. Even films that ‘embrace’ witchcraft reiterate the dichotomy between ‘good woman’ and ‘bad woman’ in opposing a good witch to a bad witch. The good witch is the one who adheres to a construction of femininity around beauty, harmony with nature, sensitivity, and controlled sexual desire. The bad witch is the ‘other’, the one who does not adhere to social norms. She is often an ugly hag or, if beautiful, her beauty is deceptive and sexually provocative. Moseley (2002) makes a strong argument for teenage witches’ films reasserting gender norms. She points at the “policing of difference and the construction and validation of hegemonic femininities” (Moseley 2002: 405), which is particularly true in The Craft and Practical Magic.

In The Craft, in accordance with the traditional construction of women as ‘close to nature’ (see Ortner 1974), ‘good witch’ Bonnie (Neve Campbell) is a ‘natural’ witch. She has inherited her witchcraft from her mother, she is feminine and conventionally good looking. Femininity and (good) magic are constructed as communion with nature. The ‘bad witch’ is Nancy (Fairuza Balk) who sports a punk gothic look, seeks power, and has an untamed sexual desire. Bonnie triumphs over Nancy castigating the unconventional ‘other’.

In Practical Magic, the dichotomy is embodied by good witch Sally (Sandra Bullock), who is associated with nature and domesticity. She is a good wife, married with children, whose magic of recipes, spells, and candles is but an extension of her kitchen duties. In contrast, her sister Gillian (Nicole Kidman) is a witch who has ‘gone astray’. She is independent, single, has no children, but plenty of sexual desire. She gets possessed and therefore punished for not being a good wife and mother, as every woman (or good witch) should be.

Contemporary expectations about good parenting and the pressure put on women are presented in a haunting and effective manner in The Babadook (see post). Women need to control their children, yet they also need to fulfil their every wish. More empowered witches can be found in The Witches of Eastwick & American Horror Story – Coven (see my post on Coven).

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Indiana Jones & Empire Strikes Back – Belief

Religion, as argued in my post on the West Wing, is often assumed to be a person’s belief in a supernatural God. Yet anthropologists and sociologists of religion would wince at this statement. From a social scientific perspective, belief is not necessary to religion and what is meant by ‘belief’ depends on the context, the time, the place, and tradition. The popular idea of belief as a statement about the supernatural refers to a particular time in the European history of Christianity, which is mostly alien to other religious traditions and more and more irrelevant to Christianity too. This narrow and flawed understanding of belief is the result of a narrow conception of rationality (see my post on Sleepy Hollow), centred around a materialistic understanding of reality, which served modern science well, but also liberal and utilitarian ideas of society of the nineteenth century. In the post-Enlightenment milieu, religion was defined against the scientific model of knowledge and relegated to the realm of irrationality made palatable by a suffusion of ethics.

However, the history of ‘belief’ is a lot more interesting. Anthropologists for decades have been complaining that the term belief was a Christian concept and could not and should not be used in relation to other religions (see Wilfred Cantwell Smith, Rodney NeedhamTalal Asad). Yet, even Christian ‘belief’ has a history. As Malcolm Ruel argued, Christian belief started as trust, or confidence, just like the Greek word pistis and the Hebrew root ‘mn suggested. Trust denoted a relationship between people and the gods, a recognition that there was a higher authority, such as fate, over human affairs. Human beings were still very much at the mercy of nature and painfully aware that their luck could change quickly and they couldn’t plan for crops, let alone a surplus of food. They were not masters of nature; rather they sought to be in harmony with it, gods included. Belief denoted trust in a world order rather than any personally held convictions.

Belief was trust also in New Testament Greek; yet, at that time, it also began to be used to refer to ‘becoming a Christian’ and therefore to belonging to a specific community. It became the dividing line between Christian and non-Christian. The word went on to become belief in the teaching about Jesus and, in particular, in the resurrection. At this stage, belief was –what anthropologists call – ‘belief that’ (propositional), but also retained the element of ‘belief in’ (trust). ‘Belief that’ is a proposition about reality, such as ‘belief that Jesus Christ is God’, while ‘belief in’ is akin to believing in one’s friends. When we say that we believe in them, we are not stating that they exist, but that we have a particular relationship with them (Simmel 1912/1997: 166). Things took a different turn with the Council of Nicea, in 325CE, when the Church developed as a formal organisation in need of clear religious boundaries. From Nicea emerged a set of (propositional) beliefs that identify the ‘true Christian’. The ‘spirituals’ in the middle ages accentuated mysticism as well as anticipating the Reformation’s criticism of the institution of the Church. Luther was crucial, however, in making a belief as personal faith mainstream. For Luther, one needed to be possessed by faith, thus emphasising sincerity.

Belief as trust became at best secondary, yet it is much closer to what ‘ordinary’ religious people would recognise today, including Christians (see my thesis). The distinction between ‘belief that’ and ‘belief in’ (trust), far from being an obscure academic point, would make religion much easier to grasp for everybody. All you need is to watch Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and the Empire Strikes Back. In the Empire Strikes Back, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) is training under Yoda (Frank Oz ‘in green’). His spaceship is stuck in a swamp. Yoda tells him to lift it using the Force, trusting the Force. Luke retorts that it’s ‘impossible’. He can move a small stone, but a ship is another matter altogether. Yoda sighs and tells Luke to ‘unlearn what you’ve learned’. Luke says that he will try and Yoda famously says ‘Do or do not, there is no try’. More importantly he describes the Force as something that is all around us. It is a ‘divine’ that is very immanent, thus not at all a transcendent supernatural. Yoda lifts the spaceship. Shocked and awed Luke says: ‘I don’t believe it!’ to which Yoda replies: ‘That is why you failed.’

Indiana Jones doesn’t fail the test. At the end of the film, Indiana’s father (Sean Connery) is dying and it’s up to Indiana (Harrison Ford) to get to the Holy Grail and bring the life-saving cup to his father. Indiana faces a deep canyon, which he needs to cross to get to the Grail. His father’s notebook and travel guide to the Grail shows a Crusader crossing the canyon seemingly walking on air and the phrase “Only in the leap from the lion’s head will he prove his worth.” “It’s a leap of faith,” says Indiana. He takes a deep breath, shuts his eyes and places his hand on his heart. He takes a step into the void and yet does not fall. The material world appears to be the only reality. That requires a leap of faith into the unknown to trust that there might be other realities. These are not necessarily ‘supernatural’, but are simply what we believe to be true of being human, which cannot be reduced to atoms and particles and is best sung by myth. In Indiana Jones, faced with a deep plunge, Indiana, can’t help say that “it’s impossible.”  In both Indiana and Empire the hero is a mystic gaining a deeper or more nuanced understanding of reality, which does not stop with materiality. Like in any good old fashioned myth, the hero needs to go beyond appearances and the everyday sense of reality to open himself up to a different dimension to life; that dimension that we often sense in music, art, poetry and, of course, in movies.

Posted in belief, Empire Strikes Back, Enlightenment, faith, fantasy/supernatural, Georg Simmel, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, knowledge/epistemology, magic, Malcolm Ruel, myth, nature, reality, reason/rationality, religion, scifi | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Breaking Bad – The Puritan American Dream & the Family

Breaking Bad is one of those rare series that understands character development. The series is about Walter White (Bryan Cranston), a chemistry teacher, who discovers he has cancer and starts making top-notch meth. This is initially to cover his health costs and provide for his family, but he descends into his Mr Hyde’s persona rather quickly. What emerges is that Walt’s involvement in the production and wholesale of drugs is for his professional fulfillment. He was dropped from a corporate partnership, which profited greatly using his research. Walt is bitter about his lack of financial success, but also the possibility to fully express his scientific knowledge and talent. He’s stuck teaching teenagers instead of excelling as a chemist and making money out of it.

The American Dream, Protestant Ethic, and Authenticity

It goes straight to the heart of the American Dream, which is an amalgam of many things and always being refashioned; yet it still has Puritan roots. It reflects the Puritan utopian voluntary societies of the 17th century that sought to create a community where each one worked for a just society. Puritan suspicion of authority rejected the state, power from above, in favour of a grassroots society. The ideal society can only be accomplished if each individual gives expression to their unique God-given gifts. Each is called to ‘minister’ using their gifts, which gets secularised into succeeding using one’s own talents. With a tinge of Heidegger, American discourse has fused together rugged individualism, Protestant ethic, and the spirit of capitalism, to put it in Weberian terms, from which emerges an idea of authenticity.  In religious terms, authenticity is being true to oneself by expressing one’s God-given gifts. The coming of the Kingdom (God’s design) is dependent upon it. Religious authenticity is grounded in Christian ethics; this is not so for its secular counterpart. ‘Authenticity’, in a lot of the literature on business leadership and the one displayed in Breaking Bad, is all about charisma. In Breaking Bad, Walt is the charismatic talented leader who overcomes every obstacle to succeed in his business venture. Morally, he is a failure. The show attempts to redeem Walt through his family, which is the how American entertainment understands being morally good. You can hurt and kill hundreds as long as you can about your family (see my post on Once Upon a Time and Chef).

The Ethic of the Family

Walt White doesn’t care about God’s design or a better society. He only cares about himself. He doesn’t even care about his family. Walt is ‘redeemed’ in the show by securing enough (a lot of!) money for his son. This is no sign of altruism or moral judgement. The money he makes is stained with blood, something his wife understands. Skyler White (Anna Gunn),Walt’s wife, is perhaps the most complex character, although she only really gets going in the last two seasons, once she learns about Walt’s ‘business’. Many fans of the show have given expression to their true misogynistic selves by being abusive towards Skyler/Anna Gunn. The show should have legitimised Skyler’s moral position more, instead of descending into an entertaining Western and redeeming Walt. The other moral character is Hank Schrader (Dean Norris), Walt’s brother in law and FDA Agent. Once, he discovers the truth about Walt, the Western begins. Hank is a man, a man of the law, and a fighter. In turning into a western, Breaking Bad leaves behind complexity and moral dilemmas. It also makes Walt the hero rather than humiliating him.

In contrast, Skyler is a very human character and morally weak. As Walt develops his other Mr Hyde’s persona, she becomes estranged from him and has an affair. When she discovers what Walt has been up to, she launders his money, but she comes to her senses eventually. She is not corrupt as Walt because she is not as self-centred as he is. But she fades away and is not given the credit she deserves. The show redeems Walt through the mantle of courageous fighting against the law and through the family, the Holy Grail of American TV. His violence, greed and indifference towards the effect of his business is (almost) excused by having Walt dying like a Western hero and leaving money for his son.  Yes, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) is also a moral character. He grows out of his drug addiction and is horrified by the violence around the ‘trade’. How is his morality awaken? Fatherhood, of course.

(I might sound very critical, but I do love the show, especially Anna Gunn as Skyler)

Posted in America, American dream, authenticity, Breaking Bad, capitalism, Christianity, entertainment, family, good & evil, individualism, morality, Protestantism, Uncategorized, western | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment