Camping It Up and Geeking It Out

I have found The Hobbit movies pretty entertaining so far. There’s no reason for the story to be stretched out over three movies, and they don’t attain the quality of the Lord of the Rings films, but I’ve enjoyed revisiting Middle Earth in the theatre.

There is one thing The Hobbit movies have uniquely contributed to my life.  And that is…

thranduil

Thranduil.

When I first saw him on screen, I involuntarily became possessed by the spirit of RuPaul and audibly declared in the theatre, “Get it, girl!!” It was instantly clear to me that this is his world and that everyone else only lives in it.

The screen representation of Thranduil is like a glorious hybrid of Pepper LaBeija and Cersei Lannister, or in other words, my cup of tea. The high camp stylization of Thranduil has not gone unnoticed by the geek community; just search #thranduil on Tumblr.

The celebration of his fabulousness is not an anomaly. Camp has always been present and adored by many in the world of sci-fi and fantasy.

The appeal of the camp aesthetic is hard to describe to those who “just don’t get it.” It’s not good, in the way that Citizen Kane or a similar work of artistic virtuosity is good. It’s not really “so bad it’s good” either, like The Room or other work that displays an utter failure of artistic ability. It’s something a little bit different.

In her essay “Notes on Camp,” Susan Sontag wrote that camp sees the world “not in terms of beauty, but in terms of the degree of artifice, of stylization.” It is “the love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.”

sunset_blvd_normadesmond1

Norma Desmond epitomizes artifice and exaggeration in Sunset Boulevard

Good examples of camp include Mommie Dearest, the oeuvre of John Waters, and the art of drag. They represent, in Sontag’s words, “the good taste of bad taste.” They are so excessive that they circle back around to being perversely beautiful. The camp-loving viewer isn’t ridiculing camp art; s/he is taking delight in their disregard for societally accepted definitions of good taste.

tumblr_l55884q0zH1qc93qfo1_400

Divine, star of many John Waters films, out-drags all drag queens in her excess and audacity.

One of the classics of camp is also a pillar of geek culture: Star Trek. Its colors are overly vibrant, embracing the new medium of color television with a drag queen’s unbridled enthusiasm. The dialogue is often delightfully overwrought, equaling anything ever uttered by Norma Desmond. And of course, it is crowned by performances from the king of camp acting, William Shatner.

kirk-uhoh-thumb-550x417-71985

The 1960s Batman TV show, with its unapologetically bad jokes and ubiquitous Bat-prefixes, is another great example of geek TV camp. But for my money, the best of geek camp comes not from television, but from comics. And the master of comics camp is Chris Claremont.

46384c_lg

The X-Men comics, especially of the Claremont era, are often described as superhero soap operas. Their stories hinge as much on love triangles and each character’s inner anguish as it does on superheroics.  94narm

Claremont is famous for his melodramatic narration, best showcased in the classic Dark Phoenix Saga.  dark-phoenix-1

As shown here, Claremont’s over-the-top dialogue is beautifully complemented by the art of John Byrne, which is romantic in form, overflowing with the energy of the melodramatic tone.

The campiness of the Dark Phoenix Saga hits its stride with the Hellfire Club, from Sebastian Shaw’s ginormous codpiece to the drag-queen realness of the fur and corset clad Emma Frost, the only character in existence who continued to sport white lipstick into the 21st century. And it’s delicious to see perennial good girl Jean Grey transformed into the BDSM-inspired Black Queen.

black-queen

In an age when comics, fantasy, and sci-fi are gaining increasing legitimacy and attaining high levels of artistic excellence, it is important not to scoff at our campy roots. Not only does camp speak to the decades-long connection between geek culture and queer culture (a historical link that is obscured by the mainstream stereotype that only straight white males like geeky stuff), but the camp sensibility is very closely tied to the geek sensibility. To again quote Susan Sontag, “There are other creative sensibilities besides the seriousness of high culture and of the high style of evaluating people. And one cheats oneself, as a human being, if one has respect only for the style of high culture.”

Geeks don’t need society’s permission to enjoy unique creative sensibilities — even those that exist outside of the boundary of “good taste.” We know the joys of giving into unbridled enthusiasm, no matter how silly it looks to those standing on the sidelines.  

tumblr_mhczmzW9pr1r25pnuo5_500

Advertisements

Diversity, Queerness, and the Muppets

I don’t think the Muppets could have been created anywhere but America. As bizarre as their universe is — where tiny little bunnies and 7-foot tall monsters and ordinary looking humans all coexist without comment — it is at the same time very familiar. Our country at its best is all about the intersecting and blending of different cultures and diverse people. The Muppets represent the ideal America: everyone getting along and working together no matter how different they are; thriving not in spite of, but because of their diversity.  

01

Created at around the same time, the Muppets give off the same utopian sense of optimism that the original Star Trek series does. But the Muppets are even more effective because they are not quite as consciously political. On Star Trek, we’re occasionally hit over the head with the idea: “If we can stop all  this war and prejudice nonsense, we can all get along — Soviets, Americans, aliens, everybody.” It’s heartfelt, but a little ham-fisted.

But with the Muppets, we’re asked to accept without question the idea that a bear and a frog are friends. And we do. And that’s awesome. At the heart of this quirky little puppet show is the idea that difference isn’t a barrier to love.

f013b2c8d8d47b9cf31299f602a294bd55026f3e

Which points towards the fact that the sensibility of the Muppets is more than just multiracial and multicultural — it’s queer. I do not use the term to mean (necessarily) gay — to be queer is to subvert heteronormative behavioral expectations, whatever your gender or sexual orientation. And the Muppets do that all the time.

Take the off-beat relationship between Gonzo and his girlfriend Camilla the chicken. Or the familial structure of the Muppets — living together in a big community house, in a family that is structured by mutual affection and shared values rather than genetic ties. Most obviously, take Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy — they are one of pop culture’s most recognizable couples, and yet they subvert gendered expectations at practically every level.

miss-piggy-4--z

Against gender stereotypes, Piggy usually pursues Kermit. She is outspoken, physically imposing, and independent; he is soft-spoken, gentle, and community-minded. They manage to embody hetero norms while simultaneously contradicting them.

I may be accused of reading too deeply into children’s entertainment, but I think the fact that this subversive diversity is present in children’s entertainment is what makes it so significant.  While so much of children’s media is conventional in its gender and sexual politics, the Muppets provide an alternative glimpse into a positive, family-friendly portrayal of queerness.  

SSSeason23Cast

The first television show that many of us ever saw was Sesame Street. From this incarnation of the Muppets we learned not just numbers and letters, but the multiplicity of forms that family can take — families on Sesame Street are multiracial, inclusive of people with disability, bilingual, headed by women, families of choice — all forms of family that subvert patriarchal norms.

Of course, in the utopian communities portrayed in the world of the Muppets, we see America through rose-colored glasses. This is satirized in the musical Avenue Q, where Muppet-like characters have to face the problems embedded in the real world — racism, unemployment, homophobia. It points out that our world isn’t quite as nice as what Sesame Street prepares us to expect.

AvenueQ_400x300

However, Henson’s creations are not meant to reflect society’s realities — they are meant to reflect our aspirations. As Henson himself said, “I’ve always tried to present a positive view of the world in my work. It’s so much easier to be negative and cynical and predict doom for the world than it is to try and figure out how to make things better. We have an obligation to do the latter.”

And so even as we live in a country where people of color are still systematically oppressed, where religious minorities are persecuted, and where queer people are murdered, our hopes are raised by the dream of a better world. We attempt to form communities that go against the grain and create spaces where we can be our full selves. In these “queer” spaces, we are liberated from society’s expectations.

untitled

As even the ever-optimistic Kermit points out, it’s not easy being green — to be “other” because of our skin color or gender or sexuality. But when we learn that our difference is what makes us beautiful — individually and in community — we realize that “it’s all we wanna be.”

Friday Feature: Erika Moen

Long before I started spending my babysitting money on graphic novels, I became acquainted with sequential art through the wonderfully egalitarian medium of the webcomic.   As a teenager cultivating my taste for bizarre humor, I loved webcomics like Cat and Girl, Scary Go Round, Dinosaur Comics,  and  Wigu.

In college my comic book money ran out again, and I found myself in search of a webcomic that could fill the void in my life.  I was lucky enough to discover a webcomic jewel, Bucko, by Jeff Parker and Erika Moen.  It’s the tale of a hapless Portlander who finds himself solving a crime with the help of Etsy crafters, a Suicide Girl, and a gang of Juggalos.  If you’re not sold on that description, our tastes obviously diverge considerably.  

When I finished Bucko, I needed more, so I went back to Erika Moen’s first webcomic, DAR: A Super Girly Top Secret Comic Diary.  DAR is the opposite of Bucko; a sincere picture of a young woman’s journey through life.  Funny, heartfelt, and honest, it stands up with the work of Ariel Schrag and Alison Bechdel in the tradition of queer women’s autobiographical comics.  Since Moen wrote and drew DAR over the course of several years, the reader gets to see her artistic style evolve and mature, mirroring Moen’s own personal growth.

Moen’s current project is as unique and innovative as her work has been in the past: Oh Joy Sex Toy (nsfw) is a sex-positive, feminist webcomic that discusses sex toys, queer-friendly porn, pole dancing, safe sex, birth control, and a whole array of  interesting sexuality-based topics. Moen’s illustrated characters are diverse in body type, gender, race, and sexuality, so unlike mainstream sex ed and erotica, Oh Joy Sex Toy truly reflects the rich diversity of  human sexual experience.  It’s fun and educational for adults of all genders, and fills the important role of providing easy-to-understand, shame-free information about sexual health.  

Between Bucko, DAR, and Oh Joy Sex Toy, you’re bound to find a comic by Erika Moen that you love – and they’re all available free of charge through her website, www.erikamoen.com.  It’s great to know that when I can’t afford to keep up with all 15 X-Men titles, there’s still a whole world of comic joy out there for me to discover, being created by people with delightfully unique perspectives.

X-Folk are Everyfolk, or, “Why God Needs the X-Men”

One of the magnificent things about comics is that they’re free to explore and challenge our preconceptions in unexpected ways. Often we don’t even know we’re being challenged.

Since their creation in 1963, the mutant super group “the X-Men,” have represented nearly every marginalized group in society. Racial discrimination, religious discrimination, and discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation are all seen in the gutters of X-Men books.

The last X-Men movie, “X-Men First Class,” did an exceptional job of drawing parallels between the growing mutant community and the victims of Nazi Germany’s concentration camps. In this context, we learn a lot about Magneto’s past and his motivation for becoming the “villain” we know in the other X-films.

Magneto in God Loves, Man Kills

Several of his memorable lines point toward the Nazis’ treatment of the Jews.

As Charles Xavier is thinking of using the Cerebro device to find other mutants, Erik (the future Magneto) asks,

Can we [help them]? Identification, that’s how it starts. And ends with being rounded up, experimented on and eliminated.

As Erik suspends a barrage of missiles pointed at the the ships that had fired them at the mutants on shore, it’s Charles who speaks up:

Charles: Erik, you said yourself we’re the better men. This is the time to prove it. There are thousands of men on those ships. Good, honest, innocent men! They’re just following orders.

Erik: I’ve been at the mercy of men just following orders. Never again.

This is one of the most explicit allegories to real life prejudice that we find in X-stories. It’s worth noting that Katherine “Kitty” Pryde (aka Shadowcat), “The most Jewish superhero that has ever lived …” (according to a current writer of the X-Men) is the de facto leader of the primary X-Men team. For a bit more about Kitty’s Jewish identity, check this out.

Just about every marginalized group can sympathize with the X-folk and their struggles, but recently the adventures of the X-Men have been most akin to those in the modern LGBT community.

LGBT youth (and adults) are subjected to a gamut of social challenges that hetero-normative youth are not. They are much more likely to face bullying, physical and emotional violence, and suicide attempts than are their straight peers.

They are forced to the margins of a society that doesn’t understand them, hates them, or fears them.

The mutants of the X-Men face physical violence quite often. “Sentinel” (giant, mutant-hunting robots) attacks are a commonplace reality for mutantkind, and there are often efforts to “cure” mutants to normalize and integrate them into human society.

They exist on the margins of a society that doesn’t understand them, hates them, or fears them.

On a fairly regular basis, the X-Folk fight against a suspicious government that fears their difference, but one story in particular highlights another source of prejudicial fear: Religion.

A 1982 Marvel Graphic Novel, X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills, tells the story of the mutants’ encounter with Rev. William Stryker and his “Stryker Crusade” against mutants. Stryker himself primarily uses rhetoric and sermons to literally demonize mutants. He insists that they are spawns of the devil.

The Stryker Crusade, on the other hand, has much more direct methods. The comic actually opens with two crusaders murdering two mutant children and leaving their bodies hanging from a playground swing-set, adorned with a plaque that reads “MUTIES” (a slur for mutants). Much of the comic centers on the X-Men team trying to outmaneuver the crusaders who are hunting them while Charles Xavier tries to change the public opinion of mutants.

It’s grim enough to see this kind of violence in the fictional realms of comic books, but let’s not forget that there are real people that suffer violence just as horrific as that in God Loves, Man Kills. Russia’s recent anti-gay law has effectively sanctioned violence against LGBT people in Russia, but let’s not believe that America is exactly immune to homophobic violence. On the religious front, some of the rhetoric that Stryker uses is literally identical to some that is used in some real churches today to stir up hate for LGBT people.

For me, as 21st century justice-minded Christian, I’m deeply offended when religious texts and rhetoric are used to diminish the humanity of others. For this reason, and others, I believe we need the X-Men.  It may not look like much, but what the X-Men do is offer an entertaining way to invest in justice.

When we see the clearly good people of Xavier’s team hunted down because of some basic part of their identity over which they had no control, we need only turn our heads before we see clearly good people in real life harassed and battered over an aspect of themselves over which they had no control and with which there is nothing wrong.

Even if you’re not particularly religious, some part of this should ring true to you. All of us who participate in the primary Western culture have seen it. Whether motivated by religious duty or some other pull toward justice, we all must do what we can to ensure that people whether alike us or not, are not marginalized based on an “accident of birth.”

I’ll leave you with this impassioned speech by Kitty Pryde:

Check out X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills to see what happens next!