Monday, October 12, 2009

Guest Post: Scott Andrews on Teen Superheroes

THERE ARE FEW GENRES more conducive to obsession than those of the teen-meets-love-and-danger variety. Here, Scott Andrews takes a look at the recent phenomenon of Teen Superheroes movies.

Andrews is an enrolled member of the Cherokee nation of Oklahoma and teaches American and American Indian literatures at California State University, Northridge. His reviews, essays, poems, and stories have appeared in a variety of journals including Arizona Quarterly, American Indian Culture and Research Journal, Studies in American Literatures and others.

Smells like Teen Superheroes

“New Moon” will be in theaters soon, and with it will come another wave of vampire-mania. Perhaps I should not write “another,” since the present wave has not subsided. In fact, it has swelled further, with EVEN MORE novel series and TV series about beautiful bloodsuckers.

It was a couple of years ago, while watching previews for “Twilight,” that I began to wonder about possible connections between this tidal wave of hemophiles and other trends in popular culture that appealed to young Americans. There seemed to be something swirling in the collective American ectoplasm that had coalesced into some critical mass.

First there was “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” published in the United States in 1998. The first X-Men film was released in 2000, though the comic book had been around for decades. “Twilight” was published in 2005, though Stephanie Meyers says the story came to her in 2003. “Heroes” arrived on NBC in 2006. “True Blood” on HBO in 2008, though it doesn’t clearly target a young audience. “The Vampire Diaries” on the CW this year.

The life of an American teen is often times filled with anxiety, emotional turmoil, and alienation. This is true whether one is wealthy or poor, male or female. This is true regardless of race. There is something about being a teenager that makes one feel apart from the crowd, unusual. While my generation (I am in my 40s) identified with our sense of being lovable but damaged goods -- for instance, the short-lived TV series designed to appeal to my generation’s sense of nostalgia, “Freaks and Geeks” – the current batch of teenagers and college-goers seem to find it more pleasurable to imagine themselves to be different because they are special.

Misunderstood rather than misbegotten. Gifted and powerful rather than awkward and fearful and acne-plagued.

They have taken the leap from the John Hughesian question “Why can’t I date a cheerleader?” to “Save the cheerleader, save the world.”

But I am not thinking of just wizards, mutants, and vampires. “American Idol” started rocking America’s world in 2002. “America’s Next Top Model” walked the runway in 2003. And before them, even before Harry Potter, came the grandfather of all Reality TV: “The Real World” on MTV in 1992. Young people, previously unknown, were instantly important and famous, though not necessarily talented. The emotional, social, and sexual problems of young people were no longer the subject of “After School Specials” – they were primetime, they were ratings hits. The American fascination with these young people was understood as a measure of their importance. Notoriety was understood as noteworthy.

For many decades, people were familiar with the “American Dream.” For the immigrant, this was the belief that one could come to the United States, work hard, and save money. Eventually one could obtain a comfortable lifestyle – and an even better lifestyle for one’s children. For a long time, the American Dream for the immigrant was similar to the American Dream for the citizen. You know, the dream of the happy family and the house with the white picket fence. Eventually the American Dream changed. You could say it got “super-sized.” It became the belief that if one worked hard, saved money, and took advantage of opportunities for investing or starting one’s own business, eventually one could obtain a more-than-comfortable lifestyle – one might even become rich. You know, that happy family and a house with the white picket fence, a deck in the backyard, a shiny Viking refrigerator, a sedan and an SUV in the garage, two Sea-Doos, and a time-share on the lake.

I think perhaps the American Dream has morphed again. I think it includes getting rich, but I think it has skipped the “work hard and save money” elements. In their place has been added “get famous” and “right now.” The work ethic of my parents that was based on delayed gratification became the credit-card fueled consumer culture of my generation that wanted instant gratification. And the generation that has been raised by my generation has gone a step further into instant great-ification.

The advent of instant celebrity status is thanks largely to the Internet and its inbred cousin, reality television. Think Tila Tequila. Think that strange kid singing “Chocolate Rain.” Perhaps we should thank Paris Hilton, the Queen of Instant and Talentless Celebrity Status, whose career was launched in 2003 with a sex video that was viral on the Internet and, later that year, with “The Simple Life.” She is the T-1000 to Puck’s T-1.

I see a wave of narratives about young people who discover they are not just dorky and weird – they are different with a difference. They have special powers! And they have them right now! Not after years of training but now! Even Harry shows up at Hogwarts with abilities other students do not possess. Instant wealth has been symbolically replaced: They can fly! They can stop time! They are indestructible! Their powers, like wealth, allow them to go places and do things that other people (normal or middle class) cannot. Or in a more mundane setting, there is no need for years of apprenticeship – get up on stage, you 20-year-old, and sing so Simon can make you famous tomorrow!

It is easy to think of these changes as the product of young people being spoiled by the relative wealth of their parents’ generation. I wonder, though, if it might speak also to a fear. Perhaps the world that lies ahead of these young people is so scary, so confusing, filled with so many choices as to be paralyzing, that imagining superpowers and immortality is reassuring.

I can totally relate.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

How The Sunrise Rock Cross Controversy is about Semiotics

WHY WOULD SOMEONE WANT to take down a cross that has stood as a symbol for American soldiers who have died during combat?

Well, in part because it is a cross.

Yesterday, the Supreme Court heard an unusual case that pitted freedom of expression against freedom of (and from) religion. In the Mojave Desert, a large metal cross looms above a rock outcropping. The cross is not part of a church. It does not belong to a religious organization. It was erected by the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) to honor their fellow military men whose lives were lost during war. Now, some want to see the cross taken down, claiming that it privileges Christianity, when many soldiers were Jewish or Muslim or Buddhist or agnostic. And, since the cross stands on public land, there is a concern that it butts up against the Constitution's Establishment Clause--or what Thomas Jefferson called "the wall of separation between church and state."

At the crux (pardon the pun) of the argument is what the cross stands for.

Can a cross, for example, symbolize something more than Christianity? Or, more importantly, can a cross symbolize something that is not Christian? Is it even possible to see a cross and not associate it with religion? Judge Scalia argued in court that the cross is the default marker in the United States for the dead. Crosses in church might signify "Jesus" or "religion," but crosses on the side of the road, Scalia would say, signify "death" or "memorial."

Previous courts have held that the cross is a religious icon and breaks the law. In fact, it's been boarded up for two years now. The image of a boarded up cross raises its own issues, but the very notion that a cross could stand for many things but not one thing is a provocative notion.

Semiotics is the study of signs--what they mean, how we interpret them, and how they carry power and affect our lives. Every semiotic text has a signifier and a signified. The signifier is the object, the sign, the symbol; the signifier is what that symbol or sign means or stands for or evokes. In the United States, if we see a red octagonal sign with the markings S T O P on it, we know to stop moving. If we see an American flag, we don't think of Albania. In America, the signifer "flag" evokes many, many, signifiers.

In this case the signifier is the cross. What is at stake, though, and what remains the source of the lawsuit is what is being signified.

How can such a widely recognized and such a wholly sacred siginifier like a cross carry such different meanings? Well, in truth, loaded signifiers are the most likely to cause offense. Take the Confederate flag, for example. For some Southerners, the signifier of the flag signifies "heritage," "pride," "tradition," and "a way of life." For others, though, the very same object connotes "hatred," "slavery," and "racism."

The cross is no different. For Christians, it might signify "Jesus." For militant Muslims, the cross might carry connotations that are more about the West than about religion. The cross can also be a signifier for the Ku Klux Klan. And, if you are a vampire, the cross enjoys a whole different set of signifying powers--none of them good.

To be sure, Judge Scalia is correct that in the United States we tend to assume a cross in a graveyard signifies death. But, the setting of a cemetery helps you read the cross as a burial marker, not so much as a religious symbol. This is a good example of a signifier being contextual. A cross on fire in a front yard means one thing; a cross with a singular flame and a halo means something else. In the case of the Sunrise Rock Cross, there is no cemetery. There are no other markings to indicate that the space is a place of burial or mourning. It is public land and fairly vacant.

In this setting, a cross, in general, probably signifies a church is nearby or a Christian has simply erected a big cross on his land to show the world his level of religious commitment. The question is, does a big cross like this on public land with nothing else around it to signify "war dead," mean that the federal government is privileging Christianity and sanctioning one religion (and one religious symbol) over others.

The answer is yes.

Does that mean the cross should come down?

Well, that's complicated. And it shall, at this point, have to remain the subject of another post.

But, I'd love to hear what you have to say about this topic.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

My Favorite Recent Album: The Granville Hicks

LAST WEEK WHILE ENJOYING hip pizza in a hipster pizza joint in the hip Mission District of San Francisco, I overheard a table of hipsters talking about The Granville Hicks. "Have you seen the album cover?" one asked. "They look like retarded Avett Brothers."

With various densities of facial hair, The Granville Hicks, do, in fact, resemble the Avetts, though, it must be said, the Hicks seem slightly less evolved.

That's until you listen to the music.

The first cut on the new EP, "I Want to be a Marxist Cowboy," underscores the band's earnestness--both in terms of musicianship and political leanings.

If Toby Keith can link anti-Muslim sentiment with the triumphalism of American culture, then The Granville Hicks can link the blue collar working-class value system of the American cowboy with the philosophy of Karl Marx. There has long been a secret handshake between country music and capitalism, but with this new album, The Granville Hicks give the latter the finger.

Like many Merle Haggard or Conway Twitty songs, the Hicks interlace talking with singing. However, what distinguishes these tracks from classic talking songs like "Hello Darlin'," is the fact that the Hicks begin some of their songs with readings from Marx. Casual listeners might expect "Back in the Party Again" to be about tequila, but in fact, it's about Communist Party enrollment.

From a musical perspective, it's hard to figure out what all three of the Hicks do. With only one voice and one guitar on most of the tracks, it has lead some to speculate that the three members of the band rotate duties, so as to share, equally, in the labor and distribution of their musical goods.

Having dubbed their brand of music "Communist Country" and "Marxist Twang," the Hicks might swim in dangerous waters. Country music has pretty much staked out patriotism. Its lifeguards tend to let only certain kinds of swimmers in the pool, and our fear here at TWR is that they will let the Hicks drown.

Unless readers and listeners like you become the life vest the Hicks need.