How To Steal A Million (1966), starring Audrey Hepburn and Peter O’Toole, is a wonderful movie about romance, adventure, art, and authenticity. The jokes are well-timed and O’Toole and Hepburn play together so well on-screen it’s a sheer joy to watch. What I like the best about the film though (other than the self-referential jokes about Hepburn’s Givenchy clothes), is that it got me thinking about some really interesting arguments around the issue of authenticity in the art world.
For those of you who have yet to experience the joy and glamour that is How To Steal A Million, here’s a quick plot sum-up: Hepburn’s father, Bonnet, owns a world-class, rare and expensive art collection — that is entirely comprised of fakes that he or his grandfather forged. When he donates his grandfather’s supreme forgery of the Cellini Venus, the museum prepares to perform tests on it to determine its authenticty. In pops resourceful Hepburn, who hires O’Toole (whom she believes to be an art thief) to steal the Venus so that her family’s name is saved from falling into ill-repute in the art-world, because if the Venus were to be determined to be a fake, the Bonnet collection would become a disgrace. A regular comedy of errors with one of the most memorable romantic meetings I’ve ever watched on film.
Aside from that, what the film highlights is that the art world is obsessed with authenticity. I mean, obsessed. Owning an original Van Gogh bestows prestige because it is was touched by Van Gogh himself. It is the original, and everything that follows is just a copy, which cannot have the same prestige as the original. Okay, fair enough.
But here’s the catch: authenticity doesn’t, or shouldn’t, actually matter. In a large part, art has been regarded as a sacred practice, which is why the majority of art history focuses on religious paintings and works steeped in Roman Catholicism. It speaks to a time and a place that we cannot retrieve, while at the same time following Hegel’s idea that true aesthetics attempt to elucidate or evoke the an unattainable essence or quality. Art, in this vein, functions as a road to what we cannot ourselves grasp, and this is the motivating desire behind owning an authentic work of art: it’s a bridge to that artist. That, and it is profoundly vain (bragging rights, any one?)
Now, enter our contemporary society and the fact that we can create a seeming endless amount of copies and prints of any piece of art that ever existed. While this appears to be a sure way to deface the value of art, it actually brings with it complete democracy in criticism and creation. Art is no longer an elitist sacred object; it now belongs to everyone. It’s why we can study video games as art and talk about photography: once we get away from the notion of an art’s sacred aura (to use Benjamin’s word), the playing field becomes leveled. And this is a good thing.
Think about it: the aura of a work is one that we project ourselves anyways. Everyone in the film reacts to the Venus as if it is the real thing. They have the same feelings, feel the same awe. But this would be destroyed if it were found out to be a fake. Why? It still instills the same feelings, inspires the same awe. The only thing that has changed is the perception of the creation. Even knowing it’s a fake, we can still enjoy the craft, the skill, the emotions evoked. Why else do people enjoy having prints of famous paintings in their homes? My mom had many classic Monet prints around the house when I was growing up, and it was because she admired the image and the calm it made her feel.
Also, imitation is impressive. In all my practical studio art courses learning starts with imitation. Same with creative writing courses. And you know what? Forging a competent and believable imitation is a remarkable feat and one that requires an admirable amount of skill. To passably imitate a Van Gogh involves a level of skill, study, and knowledge that is extensive, calculated and rare. Don’t believe me? Think about the practice of restoration. Most of the notable classics have been touched up and restored, meaning another artist has been brought in and added their own element to the work. True authenticity is impossible and a goal we shouldn’t even be trying to achieve. Not anymore. What I love about art is that it can evoke a feeling, a thought, all to move the viewer, and this effect can happen even with prints and imitations. What about literature? We read copies, but that never changes our experience with the text and the sentiments behind it. So why is the visual different from the literary in this sense?
The desire to own authentic pieces comes off as a silly obsession in the film, too. When O’Toole offers to sell the Cellini Venus to Leland after it became public knowledge that it was stolen property, he asks: “Why do you want to own something you can’t ever display?” Leland, with what can only be described as hilariously exaggerated lust in his eyes, says that he wants it to take out and look at by himself, for his own pleasure and knowledge. It is portrayed as a covetous and foolish desire, a desire so profound that Leland calls off his engagement to Hepburn — all because of the idea of the aura of art. What’s notable with this example, too, is that the aura can be falsified: it doesn’t matter that it’s not really Cellini’s Venus, because Leland just has to be told it is to feel so deeply for it. Without any outstanding differences, what’s the damage?
I mean this in all earnest: what is the harm? Yes, Leland is duped, but O’Toole doesn’t actually make him pay for it. All Leland has to do is break off his engagement with Hepburn, which he does all too willingly, showing he’s not even the right kind of husband for her, am I right? Leland gets to bask in the Venus’s aura, which is what he really wants. Literally everyone in the film is happy. But it’s essentially this basking that is proved to be foolish in the film, not the act of forgery itself. Bonnet is portrayed as quite comical also, but we feel sympathy for him: we don’t want him to be exposed, not really.
The movie concludes with O’Toole informing Bonnet that one of them is retiring: either O’Toole is no longer going to expose fakes or Bonnet is going to stop forging and committing fraud in the art world. The father indicates his obligation to quit forging, and contents himself to see his daughter happy and in love. For about three whole minutes. The movie ends with Bonnet receiving a visitor, with the music and the knowing looks exchanged between O’Toole and Hepburn indicating that Bonnet will never give up his tricks. O’Toole seemingly accepts this as he drives off with the love of his life, showing that his pursuit of true authenticity in the art world isn’t worth it to lose love. Because other than basking in the self-perceived aura of the work the idea of authenticity is one predicated on elitism and a false notion of connection between object and creator.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I love art galleries and getting to see a Dali painting in person at the Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow was definitely one of the highlights of my life as an art student. But that was because I was able to see the brush strokes and connect with the painting on a technical level. The emotions, thoughts, and reactions I had to Dali’s work was the same as when I saw his prints. In fact, I actually connect more with prints than I do with originals, because I’m always too caught up in the moment. I fall victim to my own perceptions of the connection with the artist, but I also realize that this all internal and based on my own desires, rather than being inherent to the painting.
Much to the chagrin of my film profs, I’ve always loved campy, over-the-top, plot-hole-riddled “versus” films. As you all know, I am a big fan of monsters, a love I’ve aligned with my feminist politics in gaming before. They’re also just incredible amounts of fun to watch and root for. So it’s only natural that watching monsters square off gladiator-style would win over my heart.
I come from a family with all older brothers, and have developed a mentality of constant competition. Not necessarily for bragging rights (but who doesn’t love those?), but also just for the sheer enjoyment of seeing who would emerge victorious. As a child, my one brother and I would attach all our Marvel action figures to our ceiling fan, then turn it on and take cover: just to see which one of our action figures would “win.” (Spoiler: it was always Thing. His hand grip was the exact same width as one of the fan blades, so when he hung on, it was for good. And if not, that was one heavy toy flying at ridiculous speeds possibly/probably right at your head.)
Versus movies appeal to this competitive/destructive part of my nature. I love lots of characters and monsters, and sometimes all I want to see is which one would emerge victorious if they were put head to head – anyone who has ever argued about the Superman versus Batman fight will know what I’m talking about. Yes, yes, all monsters have their own unique strengths and abilities, but until Godzilla, Mothra, Jason and Supergator become the next crime-fighting team, I want to see who will best the other in one on one combat (weapons are allowed, as well).
In that light, here are my favourite “versus” movies!
5) Freddy Versus Jason (2003)
These were both terrifying monstrous villains who had earned their respective places in the horror canon. I wouldn’t sleep or go camping for fear of being hunted and killed by vengeful and hellish monsters who needed the closest and easiest scapegoat to enact their mommy issues on. While I eventually grew up into a semi-functional human being no longer afraid of homicidal monsters, I couldn’t help feel a certain amount of satisfaction at the prospect of watching two nightmarish figures attempt to kill each other for a change. The basic premise is that Freddy is weakened, but still wants to cause murder-mayhem, so he summons up Jason. Jason, the bloodlusty creature that he is, kills too many people, taking Freddy’s victims (which understandably pisses Freddy off). Loose plot created in order these two to go at it? Check.
Who was I rooting for: Jason. I actually felt bad for Jason. He was a pawn in Freddy’s ill-conceived plan, and was just doing what he was good at: slaughtering the masses.
Who was the victor: Jason. Although Freddy’s playful wink at the end of the movie maybe suggests otherwise.
4) Dinocroc Versus Supergator (2010).
So, quite true to the B-movie creature features that are rampant nowadays (think Sandshark, Sharktopus), the story and acting of Dinocroc Versus Supergator is terrible. This isn’t a good film. It’s not even a particularly enjoyable film, considering it focuses more on the human’s melodrama/trying to survive than on the creatures. But that final showdown between Dinocroc and Supergator is great. For anybody who has ever argued with their friends about which animal is better, a crocodile or alligator, will feel thrilled and validated to watch Dinocroc and Supergator go at it Wrestlemania-style.
Who was I rooting for: Supergator. Here’s the reason I gave my roommate: he’s big, vicious, but he’s low to the ground (low-center of gravity, nothing’s knocking him over). And because Dinocroc looked too good/too much like the T-Rex from Jurassic Park. And nobody likes a show-off.
Who was the victor: Dinocroc, although technically the humans won by defeating both creatures. But when it came down to the ultimate mutated terrifying monstercreatures, Dinocroc did prove victorious over Supergator, by kicking him over and ripping his belly apart. It was gross and it broke my little heart. Turns out the low center of gravity wasn’t an advantage, after all.
3) Dracula Versus Frankenstein (1971)
So, first things first: yes I am talking about the film where Frankenstein’s Monster essentially looks like a mushy version of Leatherface. Now that that’s outta the way. In this film, Dracula is asking to be taken downa peg. He obtains (ie. steals) the Frankenstein Monster’s corpse so he can use it for his own evil purposes, and when the Frankenstein Monster decides he doesn’t want Dracula to kill the innocent woman (he’s standing up for her!) he decides to turn on his new boss. Apparently Freddy Vs. Jason couldn’t think of a plot good enough to justify their showdown, so they just stole the essential plot from this classic movie. But hey, whatever works, right?
Who was I rooting for: Frankenstein. Have we noticed a theme? I tend to go for the slower, larger, less-manipulative monster. The underdog monster, if you will. And because his finisher is a bear hug — that kills you.
Who was the victor: Seeing as how Dracula rips both of the Frankenstein Monster’s arms off and then continues to decapitate him (with his bare hands), Dracula appears to be the victor here. But like any good versus movie, both monsters are left decimated, and because of the Frankenstein Monster’s chasing Dracula away from the castle, Dracula can’t make it back inside before sun rise and he gets reduced to a pile of ash. At least Frankenstein’s Monster had to be disassembled to be defeated, unlike his foe who can’t stand a little vitamin D and some sunshine.
2) Alien Versus Predator (2004)
This is the face-off between two ultimate hunters. I feel like the reward for winning this battle should be: “Okay, so you get to destroy all humans now.” And it makes sense that Predator should win this one because it’s revealed that both humans and facehuggers are only here because the Predators have let us live this long. We are their version of reality TV, essentially. It is revealed that the facehuggers were only on Earth because the Predators needed something disposable and tough to train their young Predators against. And humans were the food to make the aliens all big and strong and scary. Yeah, Predators are the biggest jerks ever.
Who was I rooting for: Predator. Because… I have no justifiable reason. I should be on the Aliens’ side, because they were being bred essentially for horrific murder. I just really like Predator, guys.
Who was the victor: Predator. I’m not proud of this win, since the Predator that defeated the Alien Queen at the end did have the help of the surviving human, Alexa. And, as I’ve previously mentioned, the Predators are just giant assholes. So, it’s not a clean win and it sounds like it should be a disqualification to me, but what can you do?
1) Mothra Versus Godzilla (1964)
There was no other option but for Mothra Versus Godzilla to take first place. Godzilla, and his amazing series of fights against other great monsters began my love of all monsters and campy creature flicks. The political critique inherent in Godzilla flicks elevate these movies from just simply creature features, as well for me. And for monster battles, there really aren’t any done better.
When I first thought of writing this column, I was asked why I chose Godzilla fighting Mothra over Godzilla versus Mechagodzilla, and there are two reasons. One, the Mothra installment of the Godzilla franchise is easily the best. The movie is so weird and the most iconic example of the thrills and excitement of versus movies. Godzilla takes on Mothra and the humans, and does so exceptionally well. Two, what makes the Mothra fight so great to watch is the fact that Godzilla and Mothra are two entirely opposite entities. It’s the ultimate face-off because it’s a fight of two completely different abilities. Watching Godzilla fight a different version of himself is awesome, yes, but watching him square off against a creature entirely unlike himself is pure, unrelenting excitement because there is no telling who will get the upper hand and how. Both have advantages over the other, and it’s about watching them find and exploit their weaknesses. And, admittedly, Godzilla reigns King of the Versus Fights. If you want to experience the best of any monster-mania-match-ups you want to watch a Godzilla flick.
Who was I rooting for: Godzilla. Because moths are gross (and Godzillas are awesome). Doesn’t matter that Mothra was basically just protecting her unborn baby-mothras, I will always root for Godzilla. Because he can melt shit with his atomic breath. And he’s just cranky people keep bothering him and waking him up. Which I can relate to.
Who was the victor: Godzilla. Obviously.
Honourable mention: Now, I suppose I’m limiting myself by saying versus “movies.” I was enjoying the Marvel storyline A v X (because I do not like Captain America, and I really wanted to see Cyclops show him whose boss) and because it held the possibility for some great versus fights. My love of Thing was rewarded when he crushed Namor, but the story itself got really bad really fast (even for a “versus” premise).
Who was I rooting for: Thing.
Who was the victor: as true to my childhood experiences with the ceiling fan, the Thing always wins, because with Ben Grimm, it’s always clobberin’ time.
What are your favourite versus films? Or what are your most desired versus battles?
Contropussy, written by Emma Caulfield (Buffy’s own Anya) and Camilla Outzen Rantsen and with art by Christian Meesey, is a very weird and incredibly exciting read. Contropussy follows the life of a cat: a housecat called Sonnet by day and a femme fatale by the name of Contropussy at night. Make no mistake, Contropussy is a contemporary embodiment of the attitude of exploitation films and underground comix of the ‘60s and 70s. Double O, a dog and the main love interest of Contropussy, appears exactly like Booga, TG’s Kangaroo love interest, in the exploitation-style comic Tank Girl, and this homage brings to the forefront the controversy surrounding sexuality and sexual partners inherent in both comics. Because if Contropussy is sending any sort of political message, it’s about who can do what with their sexuality, nay-sayers be damned.
Contropussy is brazen in its talk of sexuality, as the first introduction to the titular heroine involves her monologue about masturbation, having a one-night stand with a stray cat, and reminiscing about her break up with her partner, Double O. True to any spy-thriller, the story itself focuses on Contropussy’s own adventure, mishaps, involving rescuing her friend from a cat brothel, international abductions, mind-control and the excitement and dangers of falling in love. Contropussy pushes the limits, in an often slightly-uncomfortable, maybe-don’t-read-this-book-in-a-café kinda way. While it does hold back on explicit depictions of sex, it makes no qualms about what Contropussy gets up to (or who she gets down with) on her late night prowls.
While Contropussy is very true to form in imitating the comix style of an unapologetic “what can I get away with?” mindstate it is taking place in 2013 and not 1970, and the cultural implications of the gender dynamics and overt sexuality are at the forefront. Indeed, in Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature Charlies Hatfield describes Robert Crumb’s “originality [as laying] in his use of such figures to express a vision at once self-regarding, almost solipsistic, yet socially aware, satirical, even politically astute.” Comix, in their refusal to be censored or limited, create the perfect avenue for political play.
While Contropussy can absolutely be enjoyed for the animal-centric sexploitation romp it is, it is also hitting at some poignant issues surrounding the depiction of female sexuality. There is no escaping the reverberations of inverting and playing with typical gender dynamics, especially when using the James Bond spy-thriller genre as a framing device. This is where the exploitation element comes in: Caulfield and Rantsen show Contropussy getting down and dirty constantly, consistently and unapologetically.
The punning name “Contropussy” is a clear homage to the most famous Bond Girl names, such as Pussygalore and Octopussy. She is the hero of this tale, oozing sex appeal and commanding respect, while Double O is relegated to the position of a (fairly one-note) sex object. Sadly, the Double O character doesn’t receive any in-depth characterization to flesh out this parody: throughout the narrative he remains the sex object, love interest and sometimes ally/sidekick for Contropussy. Despite this, towards the end of the graphic novel, Double O does provide one of the best laugh-out-loud situations when he attacks Todd Akin, who is spouting his infamous “legitimate rape” line, ultimately aligning Double O on the feminist side of the female sexuality debate. This isn’t a question of what men can do with their sexuality, because they haven’t faced the same shaming as women have. We admire James Bond, and slut-shame the Bond Girls. What Contropussy is wrangling with is inverting this to give the same level of respect to the feline and feminine version of Bond. It’s exploitation at its finest: show Contropussy doing what Bond does, unabashedly and rather awesomely.
In exploitation genres, the brazenness that Contropussy embodies is what works. For example, in the 1970’s exploitation movie TNT Jackson there is a great scene where the villain attempts to intimidate and torture TNT by threatening to burn her exposed breasts with a cigarette. The fact that the villain violently rips off her blouse shows this act is supposed to give him the power over her via controlling/threatening her sexuality. What follows is TNT handily defeating all the henchmen, wearing only panties. This scene is great and works so well in the exploitation genre because it shows TNT taking back the power that was being lorded over her: now she’s showing that she can take these goons on despite being stripped, robbing the attempt of using her sexuality against her of any of its power. You get both: exposed breasts for titillation, but also a scene latent with a feminist backbone.
Contropussy achieves this same effect throughout the narrative. Caulfield offers Contropussy, a very sexualized character, who makes references and jokes about her preference for certain types of bondage, as a way to illustrate that sexual liberation is entirely different from sexual exploitation. Early on in the graphic novel, Contropussy saves her friends from a cat brothel (by defeating her arch-nemesis Evil Rabbit in a grindhouse-level-of-gross/in-your-face-kung-fu battle), showing that there is a difference between embodying sexuality and having that sexuality controlled, used and exploited (as further cemented through Double O’s attacking of Todd Akin for his “legitimate rape” comments). Contropussy is very smart and works the exploitation/homage to the comix scene incredibly well. Caulfield and Rantsen lets Contropussy run rampant, showing that overt sexuality isn’t shameful.
Beyond just the exploitation-style politics, Contropussy reads like an old-school film noir (another beloved genre the narrative is paying homage to while simultaneously inverting). For example, Contropussy describes a character who “walks across the street like a slow, slow drag off a cigarette after a really long day.” Contropussy parodies typical spy-thrillers like Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, offering a narrative that shifts the power from women in spy-thrillers as just fetishized sex object to the sexy main protagonist. By inverting typical dynamics found in spy genres, and by using the exploitation style of the underground comix scene, Contropussy is designed to shock and delight. And if the name itself isn’t a giveaway, there are plenty of shocks and boundaries being pushed. The use of animals works on an allergorical level, illustrating tensions found in the sexual relationships being exhibited, but it also provides shocks and laughs on a basic, literal level.
The stylized art is pitch-perfect for all of the intents of the narrative. Both realistic and exaggerated, Meesey’s art evokes the glamour of thriller movies, while presenting raw, unapologetic visuals at home in comix. Rather than offering a structured narrative that centres around one achievable goal, Contropussy reads episodically, due to its origins as webcomic, where we get scenes and stories that are bound together through the reader’s devotion to the characters, rather than a defining storyline. But this works, because it’s not necessarily the story that matters, but how Caulfield and Rantsen are inverting typical gender dynamics and paying homage to the genres that have paved the way for anti-censorship in comics and films.
As a die-hard Catwoman fan, I’ve never given Harley Quinn a fair shake. For starters, that voice. I like my villains sultry, dignified and more solemn than ridiculous, and for me, Harley was never any of these things. But then I started reading the Gotham City Sirens, and have been introduced to a side of Harley I never knew existed.
After reading Gotham City Sirens: Union, I went on to read a dedicated Harley trade: Preludes and Knock-Knock Jokes by Karl Kesel, Terry Dodson and Rachel Dodson. I had a hard time getting into it, at first. The art is a little more goofy than I typically like, and it was difficult for me to sympathize with Harley in the first story when she is just hopelessly devoted to the Joker, despite his attempt to kill her (watch He’s Just Not That Into You, girl!). But with the second and third story, where Harley works for Two-Face and then throws her bad-girls-only slumber party, I noticed there was something much deeper happening than just Harley being heartbroken, pissed off and trying to find new friends.
Preludes and Knock-Knock Jokes is about redefining Harley in a way that liberates her from being Joker’s gal Friday, but not totally reinventing her from the ground up. It is the working through of her change, complete with downfalls and triumphs. With each new story in the trade, we get a death and rebirth of Harley: she begins with a conception of herself (she is Joker’s gal, she is Two-Face’s right hand, she is one of the DC bad girls, et cetera), and by the end, this definition becomes shaken and Harley establishes a new status quo for herself — which will once again become shaken, then re-evaluated, and re-established.
It is a process of definition that is reminiscent of the carnivalesque, but which operates more fully in a realm of slapstick comedy. In Preludes and Knock-Knock Jokes we see Harley trying to define herself apart from Joker. The first narrative arc in the trade is about her still fighting for Joker’s respect– as he is trying to kill her, though. The conversations Joker has with his henchmen behind Harley’s back illustrate Joker’s view of her: he is in a position of power over her, as both her boss and lover, and looks down on her as less than his equal. She is the side-kick, the love interest, but during the events of Prelude and Knock-Knock Jokes, we see Harley stepping farther and farther away from this. Traditional structures of power are dissolved to become more inclusive. She proves herself time and time again of being able to hold her own with Joker and his henchmen. Harley can be seen as a serious villain if how we think of villains is being shaken up. This is done through humour (and if the name wasn’t a dead give away, Preludes is filled with great one-liners), to show that within these realms, what we know of power positions are social constructs, rather than innate ones.
The first two stories show Harley going through the motions of previous power dynamics: she was Joker’s girl, now she’s not, so she tries to repeat the experience working for Two-Face. This fails, and leads to the turning point in Preludes: the bad girls of DC slumber party. These are voices that are normally on the back-burner, or relegated to a sidekick/love-interest position taking over to establish a new, if temporary, order. It is in this new space where all typical structures are levelled that Harley can test the new idea of herself as an independent woman: not as the Joker’s lover or as Two-Face’s number two, but as her own woman operating for her own desires. It’s not fully the carnivalesque, because it is focused on creating a new, lasting Harley, but if we use this lens, we can see how the slumber party story partially operates as the chaotic carnival realm where Harley’s whole world, and self-conception, is entirely shifted and shaken, allowing for her final death and rebirth.
Beyond that, so much of what happens during Preludes is mobilized through Harley’s own insistent humour. In the last story, we see Harley and her Quinntets attempting to rob Wayne Manor. At the same time as the Riddler and his henchmen are trying to discover the secret passage that has been rumoured to exist in the Manor. Oracle, unable to signal any of the usual Bat-family, sends out an SOS to anybody, and, true to the slapstick nature of Preludes, Big Barda comes to the rescue. The whole situation is constructed to make us laugh, with Harley and her henchmen squaring off against Riddler and his henchmen, and telling ridiculous one-liners and riddles.
But here’s the kicker: even Big Barda is getting in on the jokes, showing that despite the fact that Harley, her Quinntets, the Riddler, his lackeys and Barda are all working against each other, they’re also all fighting on the same terms. No one — whether a god, henchman or person with a body ramped up by Poison’s Ivy special concoction — is put in a more privileged position than any others. Harley only triumphs by working alongside Barda. It is a moment of inclusivity that allows for the terms of existing in this realm to be changed: Harley isn’t just the fool. Not any more. She’s become a major player on her own terms.
The point is to show that Harley can hold her own with any of the Bat-villains, but also that nobody in Gotham is exempt from becoming such a nefarious foe. The final story, with the showdown between Harley, the Riddler and Barda, shows that while these individuals are exceptional in their own infamous ways, they are also not entirely unique in Gotham. As Harley’s old professor says, “This is Gotham, after all — where even the Sisters of St. Jude’s carry concealed weapons.”
If we stretch the carnivalesque lens a little bit farther, it seems like this is the underlying sentiment behind Preludes and Knock-Knock Jokes: it’s not just Harley who can redefine herself, but anybody in Gotham is capable of rising up to the challenge. As we can see when Harley is being hauled off to her cell in Arkham Asylum in a flashback during Preludes, she shouts “ONE OF US,” rallying all the inmates to join in the chant.
And they do, and ultimately, this exposes the real fear of living in Gotham city. Not the villains or inmates of Arkham Asylum, but the fact that anybody can rise up and become an infamous Bat-villain. Gotham City is the site of the literal carnival, after all, where Dick was able to join the ranks of Gotham’s finest heroes. And for me, this is what we can see happening underneath all the drama and jokes of Preludes: Gotham City is the only place where such a process of redefinition for Harley — or anybody — can occur.
This post was originally published by me on Comics Should Be Good.
It’s no secret how much I love Fatale by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips. I’ve talked before about how Phillips’ art is one of my all-time favourites, because technique-wise it’s very good and creates the perfect atmosphere for a supernatural noir style narrative. But like any film noir, the story would be incomplete with the dazzling, mysterious and dangerous heroine. But Jo isn’t just the just the femme fatale; she also embodies a lot of what Barbara Creed discusses as the monstrous feminine, while at the same time reversing this typical association and marking the men in the narrative as abject and monstrous.
For Creed, the monstrous feminine is crucially linked by Freud to fears of castration and sexual difference: these female characters become so fearsome and disgustingly terrifying in the threat they represent to machismo. And Jo, the femme fatale who men fall head over heels for and ultimately ruin their lives for, represents this anxiety to the nines. She is beautiful, sexy, alluring, and leaves a wake of dead bodies in her path.
Beyond the typical castration-anxiety of femme fatales, the monstrous feminine is predicated on women in horror films typically being associated with the abject (which, according to Julia Kristeva, is that which threatens or disturbs the social order). As Creed explains, “the horror film abounds in images of abjection, foremost of which is the corpse, whole and mutilated, followed by an array of bodily wastes such as blood, vomit, saliva, sweat, tears, and putrefying flesh.” The abject is all that is necessarily to life, but which is excessive and disturbing of our sense of self: when we think of ourselves as subjects, we don’t consider the bodily wastes that are necessary for our health.
What I find the most interesting about Fatale is the reversal of signs of abjection: Jo is decidedly rather “clean” throughout the first ten issues of Fatale – she is never marked with the usual signs of abjection (bodily excretions), and close-ups on her mouth, face and body paint her as the object of male desire. Despite her own body remaining unmarked by signs of the abject, she is intimately associated with all signs of the abject throughout the narrative: she kills people and leaves them a mess of gore and blood. Significantly, it is the men she encounters who become marked with the signs of abjection.
The first scene of gore is a man’s brains exploding after Jo shoots him in the head. Until Hank meets her, the narrative is clean: there is the funeral, but no bleeding, decomposing bodies yet. Later on, Jo confronts the man who has been the biggest danger to date in the story, and she immediately marks him with signs of the abject: she calls him out on pissing himself, situating him as the object of abject, not herself. Aside from physical violence, there is the violence wrought by men’s desiring of her, as signalled in her lipstick smudge on Hank’s collar: it is a mark of feminine excess, specifically linked with sexuality, which creates the rift between Hank and his wife.
While Jo may not fully embody the monstrous feminine, her involvement in the lives of the men around her situation them as abject, and thus make them monstrous. Her position as the femme fatale creates a counterposition for the men in the story as monstrous. Creed talks about the monstrous feminine as being that which prevents the male from taking their presumed place in the Symbolic order (thus for Kristeva the mother is monstrous because she threatens to restrain the child and prevent them from entering the typical masculine order). Jo’s impact on the men in the narrative create this disruption: Hank, rather than being the hero cop and proud husband and father, descends into an obsessive life of near-madness and disrepute.
Creed goes on to explain that:
“In some horror films, the monstrous is produced at the border between human and inhuman, man and beast; in others the border is between the normal and the supernatural, good and evil; or the monstrous is produced at the border which separates those who take up their proper gender roles from those who do not and abnormal sexual desire.”
Jo’s violence sets her up at the border for the readers. She is human, but not. She is good, but evil. She is marked by the stereotypical signs of femininity, but she is more three-dimensional than just the femme fatale. Jo exists exclusively in this liminality, fluctuating between subject positions depending on the situation: she is good when she saves the day, but evil when she ruins people’s lives. She is the monstrous feminine in her representation of the castration anxiety, but she also marks men with the typical signs of abjection and the monstrous feminine.
The gender dynamics are in flux: she is damsel, she is heroic, and this is what I love about Fatale (other than the fact that it’s a Lovecraftian noir, of course). She is monstrous, and she makes others monstrous. She embodies castration anxiety, but she is also sexualized in a fairly stereotypical way. She is both the monster and the only hope for salvation, and that is the source of much of the terror of the narrative.
The other day I was playing Fallout 3, and in my zeal to kill as many guards as possible before escaping Vault 101, I switched to third person perspective. It was jarring, but I decided to give it a shot: it had been awhile since I’ve played any games in the third-person perspective, and thought I’d give it a try. This is when I realized something about myself as a gamer: I hate playing in third-person now.
Okay, well “hate” is a strong word. I greatly prefer playing in first-person for all my shooter game needs. Third-person feels…wrong, somehow. This is weird, right? I didn’t always feel this way. ….
For me, it comes down to character identification. I’ve written before on the importance of character selection for me as a feminist, but perspective is a different situation. In spectator theory and feminism, Laura Mulvey and Mary Anne Doanne both assert that female spectators have a troubled identification process with a character on screen, as they are often forced into either a “passive or masochistic position,” to quote Doanne from her article Film and Masquerade.
Read the full article and join in the discussion over at Medium Difficulty!
For my Master’s final paper I choose to focus on depictions of the masculine body as a machine and how these inevitably intersect with madness and violence, specifically with “anti-hero heroes,” like Michael Ondaatje’s Billy the Kid. Needless to say, the moment I put on Deus Ex: Human Revolution, listened to Adam Jensen’s gruffy Christian Bale-Batman voice and watched him die, and be reconstructed/brought back to life with mechanical prostheses, my curiousity was piqued.
I want to talk about the male body as a machine. It’s common, but it’s a metaphor that speaks volumes about stereotypes of masculinity, especially of the “hero.” The reconstruction Adam Jensen experiences is more like a tune-up that the Impala undergoes in Supernatural than Dr. Frankenstein creating his monster. The difference is that with the Impala and Jensen, both get recreated through mechanical, not biological, upgrades.
When I had originally wrote on masculinity and the machine metaphor, I discussed it specifically in relation to violence and madness: namely, that the heroes/anti-heroes typically depicted as embodied machines are both extremely violent and extremely insane, and that the machine metaphor was the bridge between. Being a frontier cowboy like Billy the Kid, meant creating a dissonance between self and the violence necessary to survive; it is the machine metaphor that encapsulates this, holding it like a nuclear reactor.
It’s also worth noting that when Malik tries to get the angsty-Jensen to open up about how it feels to be augmented, she admits to having some neural-augs, herself. Mailk’s augmentations are discreet, hidden: they are implanted in her brain, becoming fused into her body invisibly.
Jensen’s augmentations, on the other hand, replace his biological body, literalizing the machine metaphor. This is a trope specific to masculinity because masculinity has stereotypically being defined alongside notions of physicality and violence.
In The Collected Works of Billy the Kid by Ondaatje, the mechanical embodied masculinity was the answer: the frontier world Ondaatje created necessitated a machine-like response in order to survive. The mechanical embodied metaphor/representation of masculinity operates no differently. It’s a dissonance, a reconfiguring of self in terms of embodied subjectivity and violence. Non-augmented Jensen failed. But new, robot-arms Jensen will save the day, repeatedly. It’s the same narrative in Mass Effect 2: human bodies aren’t up to the gruesome job, so we create new, mechanical bodies that can not only do it, but that we can safely distance ourselves from, as well. More on ME2 in a minute, though.
So what does this mean for masculinity and gender studies? Christopher Forth, in Masculinity in the Modern West: Gender, Civilization, and the Body, discusses the Industrial Revolution as the real Crisis of Masculinity (never mind Fight Club), because with the advent of technology meant the eradication of dependence on a man’s supposed strength. Julien Offray de la Mettrie wrote Man A Machine in 1748, a pretty strong indication that this time period represented a shift in attitudes about bodies and their capabilities.
Simone De Beauvoir even talks about this as levelling the playing field between genders: with technology, it doesn’t matter which sex is stronger, because that bulldozer is stronger than everyone. Okay, so she didn’t say that exactly, but she did mention how technological advancements make moot the age-old argument of who is stronger, males or females. Now, I’m saying this is a good thing (unlike Guy Garcia who, in Decline of Men thinks this is the reason why America is faltering as a nation). The more we think about embodied subjectivity in non-gendered terms, the better. The dissonance created by the machine-metaphor exposes the construction and performativity of gender. As N. Katherine Hayles says, “The computer moulds the human even as the human builds the computer” in Virtual Bodies and Flickering Signifiers. As technology changes our conception of humans, it affects our understanding of gendered constructs.
Deus Ex: HR falls short of this, but it’s a good place to start thinking about it. DE:HR still largely stays within the confines of the masculine machine, especially when you compare Jensen and Malik’s augmentations. Malik’s augmentations don’t change her feelings of embodiment or subjectivity, but with Jensen we’re directed specifically to think about how they shape him. Malik is still separated from machines: she’s a pilot who controls her use of technology, whereas Jensen is conflated with technology.
The Mass Effect 2 example is an apt comparison here, because the character customization available is indicative of how studying represenations of femininity, masculinity and how the machine metaphor can operate to blur the gendered notion of strength and violence. DE:HR exposes the representation of masculinity as mechanized and violent, and ME2 allows for this to be taken further (sidnenote: I’m ignoring the release dates here, but just looking at how the similar narrative is operating in both).
If we’re thinking in these terms, then ME2 shows that mechanized metaphors for the body can expose a dependence on thinking of gender as a natural product of one’s sex. The reconstruction and augmentation Commander Sheperd undergoes is not tied to a specific gender. It is open. Technology recreates our conception of ourselves by recreating how we are represented.
This is why I enjoyed specializing in gender studies: studying representations of gender, both femininity and masculinity, work to expose these categories as artificial constructs, both with the capability to oppress and empower. We’re never going to escape representation. We are steeped in a visual culture, and representation operates as a bridge for understanding and assimilating information, for both good and ill.