Heroes, Ladies and La La Land

Some years ago, I wrote about what I called the ‘Loving Hero Paradox’, aka what happens when a fantasy hero/superhero needs to go off and save the day, and for this noble purpose, breaks up with an extremely understanding girlfriend. The girlfriend usually has no choice in the matter (after all, she’s not the focus of the story), and displays almost fantastical understanding and support for his decision, an attitude I myself have never seen someone display when broken up with out of the blue (and certainly not at the sort of venues the men usually choose to stage said break up, like, say, a funeral of a close friend or mentor). Maybe this is the girls’ superpower, in which case, I’d say they’ve gotten a pretty weird deal, both man- and power-wise.

ginny and harry

The whole point of the Loving Hero Paradox is that it’s created to make the heroes look, and feel, good. They are sacrificing something, you see. They are giving up the thing that makes them who they are, and distinguishes from the loveless villain. And they’re doing this so unselfishly, so bravely. Saving the world is more important than a romance, after all.

The thing is, the men never get punished for their love. Yes, there’s usually the fear that the dastardly villain will force them into a horrible choice—love or the world—but often, the hero wins both. Except for poor Spiderman, who lost the light of his life, and the Amazing Spiderman franchise which lost the wonderful Emma Stone.

Now, I’ve identified the parallel syndrome for women. Actually, someone else identified it centuries ago, I just did the lit student thing of finding his work and connecting the dots to more contemporary cultural products. I’m speaking of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s beautiful poem, The Lady of Shalott.

 I was introduced to the Lady in her tower in 2005, or thereabouts, an impressionable 11th grader, surrounded by fellow dying-to-be-artistic ladies in an all-girl literature class. This extremely imbalanced gender ratio meant that classes often turned into personal discussion territories, in a way that might have been hard if there were budding men about. We were all awkward adolescents after all, still figuring out love and hormones, no matter how we pretended otherwise with our dreamy fangirling over Sylvia Plath or Frieda Kahlo. Even the fact that we idolized these women, and men like Keats and Hughes, safely dead and gone, should tell you how not getting into formation we were. Beyonce would be yelling at us, if she had come across us then.

shalottThe story of Tennyson’s poem is tragic, and appealing in a way that is certain to make dreamy girls with artistic ambitions sigh longingly. A mysterious lady, placed in a tower on an island in a river, weaves beautiful tapestries day after day. A mirror is her only outlook on the world; she cannot look outside directly because a ‘curse’ rests upon her. What that curse is, we do not know, and neither does she, but in the way of women have been forced to do for so many centuries, she thinks it’s better not to tickle a sleeping dragon, and decides not to look.

Until Lancelot gallops by on his horse, singing a lusty song that goes like this:

 Tirra lira by the river

Sang Sir Lancelot

The stuff dreams are made of.

It’s too much for the Lady to resist, and when she dares to look outside, and feast her eyes upon his manly form, her tapestry floats out the window, and her mirror ‘cracks’ from ‘side to side’. ‘The curse is come upon me!’ she cries, and with great solemnity, she makes her way down the tower, into a boat, and floats to her death. When the boat reaches the banks of Camelot, and the citizens crowd about, wondering who she is, the oblivious Lancelot comes out to say ‘She has a lovely face’ and absently passes a blessing on her.

John_William_Waterhouse_The_Lady_of_Shalott

If she wants to be an artist, and create things of value, one of the readings of the poem seems to say, the Lady should stay locked away, and not dare to fall in love, let alone lust, with a passing knight. A sacrifice, yes, but one made without even knowing what exactly it was she was giving up, and not even sure what the consequences would be.

This is not a weird idea to us, even now. We’re fed the idea, from various sources, that to be a truly great artist, you have to suffer. You have to be unhappy, and what more romantic (or Romantic) unhappiness is there than the pain of unrequited or sacrificed love? And while it’s a choice that male heroes often get to make consciously (after enjoying love’s fruits for a while), women have the decision take out of their hands, with society—the unaware but slightly stunned citizens of Camelot, for instance—passing the sentence of ‘who is this’ and ‘what is here’ when they dare to step out of bounds.

Now to turn to the more contemporary manifestation of this syndrome: Damien Chazelle’s much awarded movie, La La Land.

la la Let me get this out of the way: I love La La Land. I know this is a horribly mainstream way to respond to a movie that has a lot of problems, but I have now watched it three times and I have loved it more with each viewing. I try not to let this cloud my judgment of the way in which it treats gender and art, and I think I’ve succeeded. Besides, if I can do it with Harry Potter, I can do it with anything. After all, Sebastian is no Sirius Black, is he?

Okay, before we do this, warning: there are spoilers for the movie ahead.

What’s interesting about La La Land is how it braids the Loving Hero and the Lady of Shalott into the same fabric, and lets their syndromes play out equally well. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) takes on the traditional hero role, even going so far as to say that jazz is ‘dying’ and that he wants to ‘save it’. He wants to do this singlehandedly, refusing to listen to people who might know better than him (ie, John Legend’s character, Keith). His plan for saving it? Open a club where only ‘the greats’ will be played, though how he’s going to get the money to do this without lowering his standards, or getting off his high horse, is a question he’s struggled with. Until Mia (Stone) waltzes into his life, and provides the impetus he needs to join up with a more popular, contemporary group called the Messengers, selling his soul in the process. He’s going dark to save the world.

mia and seb

For Mia, things are slightly different. Sebastian convinces her that what the world needs is her one-woman play, and when things take off for her, he tells her that she needs to go ‘do this’ unencumbered by anything else, including their relationship. She needs to Shalott herself, her tower being the movie deal she’s gotten, and refuse to look outside of it to see him singing tirra lira, or whatever the jazz equivalent is. Knowing Sebastian, it’s probably a brooding chord on the piano.

As they end things, they tell each other they will ‘always love’ one another, but this is it: this is the sacrifice. Love needs to go, for her art, for his savior mission. And tellingly, it’s him who tells her this; once again, man exercising Loving Hero muscle; once again, woman taking it, because he has a mission, and she has success to find.

It just bugs me that he had to be the one to tell her that they had to end it, especially since it was him who caused so much of the trouble in the first place (not turning up for her play? Honestly). Some things even Gosling’s attractiveness can’t make palatable, and this is one of them.

At the close, we have a picture of Mia’s success: she’s a famous actress, her face all over billboards, people staring at her in awe as she walks into the same coffee shop she once worked in. She’s even got a partner, and a cute little kid. She’s done well for herself.

Seb? He owns his jazz bar. It’s packed, which means the music is probably good (though Seb’s made it very clear on multiple occasions that people’s opinions are ‘pishikaka’ to him). He’s clearly better off than he was at the beginning. Does he have a love life? We don’t know, and we’re not supposed to care. The longing look he shares with Mia seems to indicate that those feelings are still there, for both of them, but hey, their sacrifice has paid off, so it’s all good, right?

That’s a matter of personal opinion. Me? I teeter between yes and no. For what it’s worth, I don’t see why Ladies and Loving Heroes have to exist in today’s world, but that’s just me with my newfangled notions. Also, I accede that yes, there is no pathos like lost love, and pathos is what makes a movie ‘profound’, even in the vague manner in which La La Land is profound. As long as people want that, Ladies will weave away tragically, Heroes will give up lovers bravely, and 15-year-sold readers will sigh at the beauty of it all, only wondering why more than a decade later.

aw

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

The Curious Case of Gwen Stacy

Caution: Massive spoilers for The Amazing Spiderman 2 movie ahead.

emma stoneI love my superhero movies. They are (usually) so formulaic, with those dependable bits like hero discovering his powers, hero going through some angst related to parents (this can come before or after the discovery of powers), hero falling in love with plucky, ‘independent’ woman, hero’s nemesis being born, hero’s nemesis pursuing whatever shady goal he has, hero confronting nemesis and being thrashed (this can go for two rounds), hero going through dark phase of self doubt until someone says something inadvertently wise and hard-hitting, and finally, hero defeating nemesis and peace reigning. All set to epic soundtracks, usually crafted by Hans Zimmer.

The latest instalment in Sony’s reboot of the Spiderman franchise, The Amazing Spiderman 2, follows this pattern.  It’s well-made, entertaining and has exactly the sort of humor and emotion that one can expect from a big-budget superhero movie. Spiderman has always been ‘lighter’ in tone than Batman (especially the latest avatar of Batman, Christopher Nolan’s s triplets), so you can expect less philosophical reflection on the state of man’s existence and more feel-good quips and homely spiels about bravery and hope that go well with the popcorn.

What’s different about Amazing Spiderman 2 (and AS 1 for that matter), is the hero’s ‘love interest’, Gwen Stacy. I know it’s unfair to compare Emma Stone’s sassy, smart, science-loving Stacy to Kirsten Dunst’s more ‘traditional’ girl-next-door Mary Jane Watson, but the differences between them, really, is where the former’s importance lies in superhero (comic and especially movie) canon. I, for one, fell hopelessly in love with Gwen in this instalment, and this post is going to function both as an obit and a love letter to her.

Gwen Stacy is a living, breathing negation of the Loving Hero Paradox. She looks it in the face and she seems to say, ‘to hell with it’. At the start of the movie, Gwen confronts a dithering Peter, who is going on about how he ‘cannot lose her’ and hence ‘cannot be with her’. She calls him out on the stupidity of that statement straight up, before going on to say that she’s had enough of it and is breaking up with him. ‘I am breaking up with you,’ she stresses, highlighting who’s taking the final call in this case.

And then of course she goes about her life, meeting her friends, applying to kickass Oxford scholarships, and generally ignoring poor lonely Peter, who skulks about in Spiderman gear spying on her. Finally, it is she who takes the decision to meet him ‘as friends’, she who calls him and says she’s gotten into Oxford and that’s she’s leaving (note: she does this on her way to the airport, stating that it’s ‘easier this way’, reversing the usual equation where it’s the boy who summarily cuts off the beloved with a phone call) and inciting him to come after her and state that he will ‘always follow wherever [she] goes’. It’s her career and location that is important, he stresses; there will always be crime to fight, no matter where in the world he is, so he is completely at her disposal. Amazing-Spider-Man-Peter-and-Gwen

All this is great, and a very refreshing change from the usual girlfriend in superhero movies, wherever the girlfriend does exist. Compare Gwen’s assertiveness, for instance, to Natalie Portman’s Jane in Thor (1 and 2). Jane is a brilliant physicist, doing cutting edge work in her field, very attractive and certainly not lacking in a support circle. Yet, she is the one who is left waiting for Thor to show up, who rails at him rather ineffectually for a while (in Thor: The Dark World) for not calling, and then needs to be rescued because the ‘ether’ has, rather conveniently, infected her mortal system. Jane then gets hauled around the Nine Realms whether or not she wants it, and forced to undergo various treatment attempts.

As far as I’m concerned, Gwen’s greatest moment (in a series of great moments) is when she cuts herself free of the webbing binding her to a car (this after Pete’s declaration about ‘following’ her everywhere) and turns up to help him fight Electro. ‘This is my choice, mine!’ she declares and then proceeds to be as indispensable and instrumental to the villain’s destruction as her boyfriend. After all, it’s she who finally releases the electric charge  that gets rid of him.

And then, after all this rubbing in of her awesomeness and general ability to fend for herself and make her own decisions, Gwen…dies.

Anyone who’s familiar with the comics knows the fate that awaits her. Editors at Marvel remarked that they had ‘killed Gwen because [they] didn’t know what to do with her’ any more. She was too close to Peter, too much of a dependable source of support. The only way in which the relationship could progress was for the couple to get married, and that didn’t sit well with anyone in the publishing house. Marriage, they felt, would be a betrayal of ‘everything Spiderman was about’, dissing the notion of ‘personal tragedy’ that forms the motivation for Peter’s whole superhero gig. Of course, in the comics, there is the added detail that Gwen doesn’t know Peter’s secret identity, and marriage (and greater closeness) would entail divulging this to her, again something the bigwigs at Marvel didn’t want happening.

gwen 2What does this say, really? Here we have a girl who’s willing to take risks, to stand up for herself and not just be the passive following girlfriend, and she gets axed because there doesn’t seem to be a future for the man. Not  Gwen, but Peter. Who cares if Gwen wanted to go to Oxford and be a famous molecular biologist; what matters is that Peter needs more tragedy to fuel his Spiderman-self and the only way we can have that happen is by killing her off.

Considering that the comic is called ‘Spiderman’ and not ‘Gwen Stacy’, this might be expected. But I can’t shake off the feeling that, coming after all Gwen’s insistence and desire to be a part of Peter’s Spiderman-life, her death is more than a little disturbing. Does it add credence to Captain Stacy and Peter’s agreement to ‘leave her out of it’? Does it somehow insinuate that the men were right after all, that they knew better how to police and direct her life than she herself did?

By giving her a degree of agency and then killing her almost as a direct result of her own choices (after all, if she hadn’t cut herself free and come to his aid, Gwen wouldn’t have been around the electricity grid for the Green Goblin to kidnap), the makers and writers of Spiderman seem to be saying that yes, you can defy the Loving Hero Paradox, but only at a great price. You can ‘become hope’, as Gwen says memorably in her valedictorian speech, but only for someone else, and at a great cost. After all, it’s so poetic  when a beautiful, independent woman becomes the fuelling memory for a male superhero and the core of his angst; so much neater than if she lived, went on to do great things in her chosen field and (heaven forbid) married said hero and ‘forced’ him into dreaded suburban domesticity.

Whatever, Peter Parker. I hope you make Gwen’s ‘sacrifice’ worth it in the next movie. I won’t count on it, though. She was and is my favourite part of the rebooted franchise (in fact, the entire franchise) after all.