Sunday, April 26, 2015

Avengers Assemblage: Fidelity in the Marvel Universe

Avengers Assemblage:  Fidelity in the Marvel Universe
Shawn Domgaard
Southern Utah University

“You think you’re the only superhero in the world Mr. Stark?  You’ve become part of a bigger universe…you just don’t know it yet.” –Nick Fury
Avengers Assemblage:  Fidelity in the Marvel Universe
            In 2012 a variety of people dressed up in different costumes or street clothes, lined up at theaters across the globe.  A movie was showing that had been alluded to in five previous movies, including Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America:  The First Avenger in scenes that followed the ending credits.  The Avengers changed the way cinema is made and consumed, and has many movie makers trying to imitate or latch onto this new model.  After the best all time record for an opening weekend it went on to break another record as the highest grossing film of all time with 1.5 billion dollars worldwide (Lee, 2015).  Since people tend to vote for a movie’s popularity with their money, this movie fully imbedded into the popular culture through its own democratic economy, making it one of the leading artifacts today as a narrative of mass appeal. 
            The idea is simple enough, and has been going on for some time now, just not in movies.  It’s the idea of an expanded universe of characters sharing story arcs in a fictional setting, yet still holding on to the capability of acting as autonomous characters in self-sustaining narratives.  This happens many times with young adult books or comic books as a continuation of a serial narrative.  Authors can create and take away characters without too much gravitas, testing them out on audiences before giving them a solo series.  From the standpoint of a business model, it works well economically, taking away the risk from a potential flop by allowing the character to gain traction through already proven characters and stories.  It seems an obvious trope to transition into movies, but often they are left to a linear structure of sequels or prequels with not much in the way of branches.
            Since comic books were ideal model, it makes sense that the structure follows suit through superhero adaptations.  The company Marvel was bought by Disney in 2009, which has proven to be a strategic and beneficial move by both companies, leading into one of the most successful franchises ever (Goldman, 2009).  With Disney pushing the newly purchased superheroes into international theaters, the narratives needed a broader appeal.  In the mid-20th Century, superheroes like Superman and Captain America acted as patriotic and moral ideals.  Although still true in some aspects, Wanzo (2009) states that some of the more modern “superhero narratives explicitly challenge what counts as good citizenship by addressing the regulatory discourses informing virtuousness in the United States” (p. 93).  The moral dilemmas and exaggerated nature of superheroes as characters make for interesting artifacts in and of themselves, but it is within the narrative structure built around comic book characters that seems to have brought the fresh sense of popularity.  The Avengers use this unique narrative structure through an interdependency and assembling of multiple characters weaving in and out of timelines and story arcs, along with a reliance on adaptation and a committed audiences.
            Gérard Genette (1983) began his seminal work on narratology with his book Narrative Discourse, and began a commentary within academia on the merits of studying narrative through a theoretical perspective.  Todorov (1977) built off of Genette’s work, and proposed a systematic scholarly method or “grammar” for studying narratives.  Genette did not ever intend for his work to be applied in criticism, moreover, he desired his work to act as a springboard for discussing narrative, but with too many assumptions for it to ever act as a systematic approach (Stock, 2013).  Ricoeur (1988) attempted to broaden the theory of narratology:  “What is ultimately at stake in the case of the structural identity of the narrative function as well as in that of the truth claim of every narrative work, is the temporal character of human experience” (p. 3).  His open approach to narrative leaves the subject open for a more focused application.  Stock (2013) posits that a traditional approach to narrative, seeing it only as a subject of literary studies, is too constricting.  Bal and Van Boheemen (2009) explain how such a narrow view may disrupt the future of the field, that narrative analyses are need in history, cultural analysis, and film studies more than ever.  Browning and Morris (2012) argue that although there are many camps in narratology, the field may still have room to grow, but it requires scholars to define narrative differently, still allowing ambiguity to reign over the field of narratology.
Walter Fisher (1984) has expanded the work on narrative analysis further, bringing a rhetorical perspective to his studies.  He believes we are all inherently, “homo-narrans” or storytellers by nature.  He speculated that we all view our lives in lieu of narrative form and function; that everything from identity to death is understood through a “narrative paradigm.”  This paradigm comes in contrast to the pervading idea of a rational paradigm brought about by Aristotle.  According to Fisher, “rationality is determined by narrative probability and narrative fidelity,” or in other words, a story must be coherent and must be relevant to an audience (Littlejohn & Foss, 2011, p. 145).
            In determining what a narrative is, he then lays out what a narrative does.  In his later works, Fisher (1989) rationalizes that each decision and action are within the context of ongoing stories, a way to assess and interpret human communication.  Fisher (1985) also states that “any construct is only as good as it can be applied and provide convincing and useful understanding of actual texts, of real experience” (p. 347).  Although he wished for this application, he never provided a systematic method which could be applied directly to an artifact.  He did provide a foundation for narrative analysis to be built from.
            Several authors have attempted to create their own applied methods, including Vanderford, Smith, and Harris (1992).  They state that although Fisher has written how narratives transmit values, there is no clear cut way of identifying those values.  They go further and create what they call a VIND model (Value Identification in Narrative Discourse), in order to identify what values a narrative employs in order to improve fidelity.  This model also builds off of Burke’s (1969) version of fidelity called ‘consubstantiality’ where audiences “identify with” the narrative they are partaking in.  This shared identity has been proven to make narratives compelling, and offer thematic evidence as to why values are also shared within narratives (Hollihan & Riley, 1987).
Robert Rowland (2009) has also offered alternative methods of analyzing narrative.  Rowland wanted to create a systematic approach to narrative analysis which focused on form identification, functional analysis, and linking the two together.  These still are based on characters, setting, plot, and theme, but they offer a more flexible way of analyzing and criticizing the persuasive nature of narrative.  This allows for an evaluation of how well the narrative acts rhetorically.  Along with his colleague Robert Strain (1994), Rowland has stated that narrative acts in a way that resolves social conflict and is by its very nature persuasive.
Rowland’s (2009) model provides a systematic and flexible approach.  He says the best way to reach these ends “is to apply a critical approach that moves in a three-step process from the form of the narrative to the functions fulfilled by the particular story, and finally to an evaluation of how effectively the narrative functions persuasively with a given audience” (p. 126).  Still, with the disagreement between those who study narrative, it seems there is no clear form of analyzing an artifact.  This leaves the subject of narrative theory open to extension and interpretation.  One way to do this is through the inclusion of film theory, as it offers an approach to one of the most prevalent forms of narrative for the future.
            Fidelity in film theory often means something different than the relevance of a narrative to an audience, but rather its dedication to source text when adapted.  Kate Newell (2010) states:  
Often fidelity discourse is used to demonstrate the method by which an adaptation prioritizes aspects of a source text that may be downplayed by the source text itself.  It is not uncommon for adaptations studies to demonstrate that an adaptation is unfaithful in order to make the case that the infidelities enable the adaptation to articulate aspects of a text better than strict fidelity would (p. 91).
Both definitions of fidelity are closer than the differing disciplines may argue.  An adaptation may be “faithful” to its source text in the same way a narrative may be “faithful” to the human experience.  The rhetorical function of movies is in its fidelity to life and to previous narratives in audience’s memories.
            This argument draws from the question of mimesis, but with new structure:  Does art imitate other art to imitate life with a new twist?  The experience of narratives cannot be pinned down to direct adaptations of one source text, in the same way that life is not built from the influence of a single person.  So, narratives are “an assortment of antecedents and combining ideas, images, plot points, characters, motifs, and tropes from multiple books, stories, plays, poems, films, other works of art, and historical events” (Bishop, 2010, p. 269).  The Avengers is a great example of this type of narrative, with many different source texts while still acting as a narrative of its own.  This essay argues the rhetorical functions of adaptation narratives like The Avengers, come from the multiple source texts used to build the narrative.
            The rhetorical perspective of narrative analysis is not sufficient to assess such a complex structure without the aid of film theory.  Kyle Bishop (2010) sets up the adaptation theory of “assemblage” as a way of seeing multiple sources feeding a narrative artifact.  He states: 
In practice, all movies fall somewhere within a complex system of texts, a virtual web of narratives, characters, genres, and plots that intersect at key nodal points.  These points of intersection produce fundamentally intertextual movies; in other words, filmmakers draw upon multiple antecedents simultaneously to produce both “original” and “adapted” films (p. 263).
Although it is applied to movies both in the original film theory and in this essay, this process may be applied to all narratives in the future.  Assemblage narrative shows how popular culture artifacts are combined into new ways, which are manipulated into new creative functions.
(Knobel & Lankshear, 2008).  This combination of narratives into a new form brings enthymematic arguments through the intimation of its source material.  Narratives work well as a rhetorical showcase of moral, or behavioral examples rather than direct observations on human behavior (Chatman, 1990).  The Avengers act as an example of how these source materials work within the assemblage narrative structure to combine persuasive appeals from various texts and exhibit narrative enthymemes and mimesis.
One of the ways The Avengers maintains continuity throughout the expanded Marvel Universe is through two homodiagetic narrators:  Nick Fury and Phil Coulson.  By partaking in the story, they also act as characters, but their commentary on the superheroes pulls each of the stories and characters together.  They are featured as two of the first main characters shown in the film, and they are threaded throughout the Marvel Universe, appearing in many post-credit scenes and sometimes functioning as part of the plot in movies like Iron Man or Thor.  Phelan (1996) argues that part of the rhetorical value of narrative is in the repetition of tropes.  These two characters exemplify that uniting thread.
A reliance on tropes only begins with the narrators, for the source texts continue as the narrative style relies on the audience’s previous participation in the contributing narratives (e.g. Captain America, Iron Man, Thor), but more than only the obvious feeding-movies.  The rhetorical exchange may happen where each of these narratives intersect, bringing together each narrative as an individual, and assembling it into one great whole, with all of its narrative baggage intact.  The movie acts as an intersection to each film, but also an intersection to each of their predecessors.  Each character is based on their self-evident comic book counterpart, but those are varied and change through time, and within the comic book origins are found deeper source texts still.
            Captain America:  The First Avenger has the beginnings of The Avengers in the name of his own movie.  In the Marvel Universe, Captain America is considered one of the first super heroes, gaining his super power through science and technology, through his super soldier serum.  This is one unifying trope of the narratives, but differs with each character’s response to it. Captain America embodies the World War II era patriotism and home grown morality of the 50’s.  He fought a Hitler figure in his own film known as the Red Skull.  This is mirrored in The Avengers when Loki goes to Germany to retrieve a meteorite to complete his plans to dominate and rule over earth.  Captain America says:  “You know, the last time I was in Germany and saw a man standing above everybody else, we ended up disagreeing” (Whedon, 2012).  He represents America’s involvement in war, American soldiers, the American flag, and a savior figure, among other things.  His shield even represents a metaphor of protection and stories of fighting for freedom.
            Thor is a unique character in the team as his main power source comes from what is called “Asgardian Magic.”  Thor is the brother to Loki, and their relationship and narrative extend from his movie into The Avengers.  Even Odin is represented subtly by two Ravens flying in the scene where Thor takes Loki from the possession of Iron Man and Captain America.  This symbolism is noted in the comic books, but also in Norse mythology.  The blending of Norse myth and the comic sources, along with those new adaptations made in the movie as to make even the most dedicated fan lost in convolution.  Thor and Loki both speak in modernized old English causing Iron Man to call it “Shakespeare in the park,” showing yet another multi-faceted message within the larger narrative.
            Another character with multiple antecedent texts providing weight to his narrative is the Hulk.  The mention of the Hulk by that name is not mentioned in the film until approximately halfway through the movie.  He is always referred to as “the other guy” or “the monster.”  Yet, every fan of the character knew exactly who he was from the way he is treated in the movie, how they refer to his anger issues, and the possibility of mass destruction following him.  Ashley (2009) says the way a film uses language can change the meaning of the narrative, and give new meaning to terms in popular culture. 
The Hulk is an obvious take on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but more than that he derives from the older myth of the werewolf.  The morality message of anger bringing out the monster is distinct, but becomes blurred in The Avengers as controlled anger becomes not only productive but preferred by the other characters.  The Hulk is also based in Captain America’s character where Black Widow explains that Bruce Banner was attempting to create another super-soldier serum like Captain America’s with gamma radiation, but the experiment went wrong.  Such pseudo-scientific reasons for backstory keep the trope alive.
            Iron Man is an interesting character all around, but especially for his representation of the relationship between humanity and technology.  He is easily one of the best representations of a modern superhero, even though his origins are in the 60’s.  Iron Man is a superhero because of his ability to innovate, engineer, utilize technology, and keep up with technology.  This is manifest in the hundreds of different suits he has been shown wearing in different comics and with over forty versions in Iron Man 1, 2, and 3.  The suit of armor may be derived from medieval times and classic tales of King Arthur and his knights, but Hogan (2009) says the union of the suit and technology is what really make his character so special.  The technology in his chest is keeping him alive, holding many shrapnel pieces from entering his heart (Whedon, 2012).  His origin narrative illustrates how that came to be, but also leads to the other sense of duality that comes from his relationship to technology.  Tony Stark, the true identity of Iron Man, made his fortune as a billionaire by selling weapons.  In his live action movies, he is seen attempting to take back his technology from foreigners and terrorists, and use it only for the sake of good.  This narrative trope extends into The Avengers as Loki uses his newly renovated Stark Tower as a gathering point for the culmination of the Chitauri (the alien army under Loki’s control) attacking New York by supplementing the tower with the Tesseract (an unlimited energy source and major plot point for The Avengers; also another fabled item with multiple source texts explaining its existence).
            The culminating fight of The Avengers begins and ends at Stark Tower.  Being in New York City, with burning buildings, and tower on fire, and citizens looking to policeman, fireman, and heroes for help, the antecedent narrative of 9/11 is easily seen.  The invasion of an alien army recalls George Orwell’s War of the Worlds and the way the Hulk jumps from building to building fighting flying attackers alludes to old King Kong films.  The weaving of these narratives pulls together already-made rhetorically potent narratives.  The Avengers doesn’t spell out the logical connections, but rather acts as a constantly working enthymeme, allowing the audience to draw conclusions about each source as it continues forward.  Its use of assemblage narrative allows for a way of experiencing both fidelity to its source texts and fidelity to the human experience in a unique way. 
            Audiences are carriers of multiple narratives.  Those stories in popular culture act as a teacher for behavior, and can guide toward whatever argument the author or artist wants to portray.  In The Avengers, the arguments are far too complex to unpack here, because they are loaded with not only what Director and Writer Joss Whedon wanted to say, but also all those rhetorical artifacts packed into the source texts, those narratives that went before.  Assemblage narrative structure is worth studying in the future as an applied method for narrative analysis.  As scholars begin to analyze the multiple antecedents found in narratives, the rhetorical function of these artifacts will broaden and their value will be in their fidelity.

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Saturday, April 25, 2015

Missing the Mark

Music is everywhere in the world we live in.  It has a very special power of persuasion over the people (Kistler & Lee, 2010).  What sets it apart from other forms of popular culture is its prevalence in society.  It can even be found within other forms of popular culture we consume.  Music has an extremely powerful grasp over society.  We hear it in movies, TV shows, commercials, on the internet, even all over social media.  Music has an effect on all forms of popular culture, which makes it important that quality themes are being presented in the songs that we choose to consume as a society.
A major problem in current music is that misogynistic themes of objectifying and almost dehumanizing women are extremely common.  In the music we consume, there are many themes which contain strong messages in regards to gender and sexuality (Aubrey & Frisby, 2011).  It is almost impossible for someone to live their life without frequently hearing these strong messages.  Some would say that these themes in music have no effect on the people, but contrarily, music has strong effects on the minds of the people.  It has been found to have a significant effect on the way that youth see the other gender and sexuality (Jones, 1997).  This means that the music we are consuming is actually shaping the way that we see gender, and women, in particular, have taken the worst hit in music.
Probably the worst genres in presenting poor themes toward equality between men and women are hip-hop and R&B (Smith, 2005).  Especially egregious is the hip-hop genre, but negative messages can also be found in R&—which is incredibly popular in our society.  R&B songs are all over the billboard top 100.  This music can be heard everywhere and their messages are important to be studied because of the effect that they can have on the minds of all those who consume this music.
These themes of hegemony and degradation of women not only give men the idea that treating women poorly is alright, but it also puts the idea in women’s minds that being treated this way is acceptable. The fact that women are heavily viewed as sex objects in music shows that these themes are something to be dealt with (Sommers-Flanagan et. Al, 1993).  They cannot be ignored and should be addressed head on.
Approach and Method
Snellow’s (2013) chapter on feminist perspectives will be the lens with which that I will be examining the artifacts.  In regard to this analysis, the feminist perspective focuses on the oppression, degradation, and objectification of women.  I personally want to add that this lens will also be used to look at ways in which there are themes of inequality between the genders and overall ideas of hegemony.
Although this theme in music has been analyzed a lot, it still deserves further attention because there still are issues that need to be fixed.  A defining difference between this analysis and others done previously is found within its direct focus.  Much of the focus has been typically placed on blatantly misogynistic and degrading themes found in music.  A lot of time and effort has been spent analyzing music from the feminist perspective through examining the actual themes which the artists use in their music.  The effect these themes have on the people who consume this music has also been analyzed.  The focus of this analysis, however, will not be on which themes are present or on the fact that these themes are so blatantly apparent in music.  This analysis will examine ways in which these themes infiltrate music in unexpected ways.  R&B music will be the focus instead of hip-hop, because the presence of these themes in hip-hop is far too prevalent and obvious.
This analysis was inspired by an article written by Amy-Chinn (2006) about the TV show Firefly.  This article had an effect on me because it illuminated a side of feminism I didn’t see before. This aspect of Feminism I hadn’t been previously aware of was how even with Firefly’s attempt to portray women in a good light, themes of hegemony and objectification of women were still prevalent.  I have been a Firefly fan for quite a long time now.  I had never before looked at how, even though Joss Whedon had tried to change the norms in society in a positive way when it comes to female roles, he was still trapping Inara within a restricted social role.  This idea of roles and hegemony are a big problem we see in popular culture. It is prevalent in our society, and Amy-Chinn (2006), in the text “Tis Pity She’s a Whore,” helped to show how dangerous these types of hidden themes can truly be to our society.
This article made me question whether or not these negative themes were unintentionally happening in music as well.  As previously pointed out, when looking at these themes in music, it is easy to direct your focus to hip-hop because of their obvious themes of objectification of women.  Looking at R&B, and not directly at hip-hop, will provide more insights into how these themes sneak their way into progressive songs. Two songs by the artist Miguel were chosen because of their popularity within their genre and my familiarity with the songs.  The songs chosen by Miguel are “Quickie” and “Adorn” which were found on Google play. In fact, the song, “Adorn” actually won the Grammy for best R&B song and was also nominated for best song.  In addition to the male perspective Miguel provides, a female perspective is added as well to illuminate just how powerfully these themes have taken control of the music we consume.  Beyoncé’s songs were chosen as artifacts because of her position as a powerful female in the music world, and her overall success in the music industry.  The songs by Beyoncé which were chosen to be analyzed were “Single Ladies” and “Irreplaceable” which were also found on google play.
In this analysis, popular artists who present examples of attempts to present women in a more positive, powerful light are taken too far in music will be the objects in focus.  Equality is the end goal, and some artists are overshooting the mark in their efforts.  I want to be sensitive to the fact that women have been severely objectified and treated poorly in the history of music.  However, I feel the answer to this situation is equality, and at times artists take their attempts to empower women too far by turning the tables and attacking men.  If others understand that equality is the goal, then there isn’t a reason to be supportive of this approach.  Once again, the ultimate effort of the analysis is to uncover issues where artists have attempted to present themes of equality and fairness, yet they still had negative themes within their lyrics.
Analysis of Artifacts
To start, I want to analyze a clearly misogynistic and objectifying song to be used as a baseline.  This will help to further understand how, like Whedon, a person can attempt to change themes later on in their career, yet still fall into the same trap that of portraying women in a negative light.  R&B/Pop singer Miguel put out a song called, “Quickie.”  Honestly, there are many other songs of his that I could have chosen, especially early in his career, but this song fits the mold without being extremely explicit.  This song is quite degrading music, which is exactly what almost all analyses about music from the feminist perspective focus on.  Listening to this song, one will hear about Miguel wanting to just “hook up” with a girl, with no regard for who she really is.  He was just looking to fill his desires, most often sexually, with no regard to who the woman is at all.
Even beginning with the title “Quickie,” one can deduce that this song puts the female in role as one whose only purpose is to fulfil sexual desires. The song is about personal desires that need to be filled without any sort of attachment.  He just wants to get pleasure and move on.  Even the music is very playful with its frequent, yet flowing starts and stops, and smooth relaxing beat. The chorus says it all, “I don’t wanna be loved, I don't wanna be loved, I just wanna quickie, No bite marks, no scratches, and no hickeys; If you can get with that, mami come get with me.” This gives us quite a clear view about what Miguel, and this culture, value in women in this song.  It is about the objectification of women to the point of degradation where they almost aren’t seen as humans any more.  Miguel talked about how, at the time of the song “Quickie,” he was writing music to become popular.  Whether or not these themes are what the people want to hear, the fact that artists believe that it will get them to the top is troubling.
Although songs with such obvious attacks at the value of women are everywhere in the music industry, they aren’t necessarily the focus of this analysis.  There are situations when artists believe that they are being very good to women, when in reality they are still reflecting negative themes. Going back to Miguel, later in this career he thought that he was being good to women, but he actually was still wrong.  Take his biggest hit, “Adorn” for example.  Miguel feel into the same trap that Whedon did when he was trying to portray women in a better light, yet he still digressed back into placing males above females.
The song “Adorn” shows a very different side of R&B, one that is around, but not put out to the public often.  This song reflects the traditional values one would think of in regards to love.  Miguel sings of how he wants his love to just adorn the one he is singing to.  He speaks of time in terms of “always” and “never,” showing that Miguel is thinking of long term relationships.   It is good that he is making progress, yet when looking closer at the lyrics much can be seen of how he still is showing women in a poor light.
Although he is intending to write a kind love song, the first line of the song falls back to the objectifying of women.  He says, “These lips can’t wait to taste your skin.”  The song is about loving your equal and making them feel valuable, but once again the objectification of women as something to fill a sexual desire is presented from the beginning.  This might not be Miguel’s intended meaning, but when almost all of his, and other songs in the genre, have this meaning, it’s hard for both men and women not to receive this poor message.
Another line in question is the line “these fists will always protect ya.” This could be taken as a sign that Miguel feels women fall into the role of the ones who need protection.  This line clearly reflects an issue that feminism has with ideas of hegemony.  The fact that pop culture places women into the category that they must be protected by men can really be harmful to their personal views of themselves and hinder women in the long run.
Many of the songs that may seem to present a positive image about women are still reflecting these negative themes.  The overall bringing down of women is so powerful that those ideas can break through into otherwise exceptional songs.  Looking at the very top of the music industry for an example, Beyoncé work has been examined. Beyoncé is one of the most powerful women in music, and is of the most powerful artists regardless of gender.  She has many songs which break the mold and show women as the powerful and valuable human beings they are.  If there are issues found in her songs, any artist is susceptible to having these issues arise in their lyrics.
Although he tried to be better, Miguel still sent out messages of hegemony and male dominance.  The interesting thing about R&B  music is that it is not only the males doing this.  Nicki Minaj constantly refers to herself and other women by the negative term “bitch,” and her music videos are extremely sexual and objectify women—just as much as any male artist does in the industry.  However, even the women who are making the most progress in musical feminism are sending out poor themes.
At first glance Beyoncé’s major hit, “Single Ladies”, may sound very empowering to women.  However, even though it seems like it is putting women on an equal plane, there are many objectifying themes present.  The first place to start is by looking at the words chosen for the lyrics.  They say, “If you liked it, then you should have put a ring on it. Don't be mad once you see that he want it.”  The first issue taken with these lines is that she refers to herself, and her body, as “it.”  I’m not sure there is a much worse way of making women seem like an object then by referring to them as an “it.”  It could be seen that the “it” could be referring to her hand, but she continues to use it when talking about how another guy wants it.  This implies that she is speaking of herself and her body as a whole. 
This song is extremely popular and the chorus can be found in common conversations.  The idea that young women refer to themselves as an “it,” even in a small number of circumstances, is troubling.  It would be bad if a male were using such a pronoun, but it holds even more negative power when a woman so prominent in the minds of all such as Beyoncé is choosing these words.  Hegemony is so deeply engrained in our music that it slips into what would be positive lyrics.  It may just be semantics, yet someone in the position that Beyoncé is in should be more careful with word choice.
Another problem with these lines in the chorus are that she is not only an object, but one that is to be had by men.  Beyoncé is sending the message that men are the ones who ultimately decide what they want and who they are to marry.  “Don’t be mad once you see that he wants it” makes the claim to women that their value increases as more men are interested in them.  “If one man doesn’t like you just wait until more do, and he’ll like you again” is a horrible idea for women to believe.  Men also don’t need the idea that women are just objects to claim, and if you don’t like it just move on and claim another one.  This is not how one human being should view another human being.  The music that we listen to, however, is sending messages that it is normal to think this way.
Further on in the song Beyoncé sings, “What I deserve is a man that makes me then takes me and delivers me to a destiny.”  Though the tempo and music make it feel like the woman is in charge, Beyoncé is still talking about how women need a man to “make” her and “deliver her to a destiny” which she deserves.  No human being should need another human to “deliver” them to any destiny regardless of gender.  Especially important is that no human being can “make” another human.  It would be different if the verbs used were done “with” and not “for.”  That is what equality is all about, doing things together on an equal plane.  Yet, these lyrics about a man doing these things “for” a woman in a song that should be empowering toward women is very troubling.
It should be recognized that in the song there are many good lyrics as well, but the fact that the negatives still are sprinkled in shows just how powerfully the objectification and degradation of women is embedded into society.  It is almost scarier that the songs that should show society how valuable women are still have the negative themes in them.  It is almost easier to brush off blatantly horrible songs than ones that tease you with good, but still have bad themes sprinkled in them. In another example, Beyoncé has missed the mark for feminism, but she missed in a different way.  Look at her song “Irreplaceable” where she switches the roles of men and women.  In this song, the male in the song becomes the “lesser” gender.  The title suggests that men shouldn’t think that they are irreplaceable and that in fact, all men are “replaceable.” This isn’t the image that should be going into society about men either.  She even says “I could have another you in a minute, matter of fact he’ll be here in a minute.”  This shows that one man is not enough for a woman, and that loyalty isn’t important at all.  If the roles were switched, this would fit the blatantly wrong category.  The focus of feminism in music should not be to tear down men, but to bring up both genders together.
The interesting thing is that in both the Miguel song “Adorn” and the Beyoncé songs they are trying to make attempts to show women in a positive light through their music, however, they have missed the mark.  They still are sending out ideas of hegemony to the public by putting men in a dominating position of power and objectifying women, or they are not serving the idea of equality by turning the table and putting down men.  The power of these negative values in music is far too strong.
It is important to note that I feel the focus of feminism can go beyond equality of all, and into the degradation of men.  At times, I personally feel that many of the critical analyses done from the lens of the feminist perspective can feel like a bit of a “witch hunt.”  They are looking for any means to break anyone else down because of how long they have been forced down.  By no means am I condoning the awful themes towards women that plague pop culture; however, I do want it to be noted that I believe that equality is the goal, not the bringing down of anyone else to get there.  We don’t have to live in a world where equality is attempted by both sides dragging each other to equal lows.  In fact, there shouldn’t be sides at all.  I consider myself a feminist to the point where all people (especially women and homosexuals) are viewed just as valuable and strong as any other human being on the planet.  The problem is that our popular music does not show these ideas of equality toward women.
Beyoncé is used as the example here because of how progressive she really is.  Along with the examples presented, there are also other great examples of her themes fitting into those of equality and fairness.  However, if some of Beyoncé’s most famous songs can be riddled with themes objectifying and degrading women, then how easy would it be for any other artist, female or especially male, to share similar themes. 
Artists need to be more sensitive to the way that things are right now.  There are very negative themes toward women all over the music we hear daily.  Though many artists might be trying to be progressive and change the way we view women, they need to put a clear focus onto the themes that they are actually singing about.  Even areas which may be viewed as “not that bad” most likely will be taken in a highly negative way because of the norms in society.  Attempts should still continue to be made to promote the value of women, but more care should be taken not to slip up as we have seen in the examples given.
Equality is the goal.  As stated earlier, I think that true feminism promotes equality and is very much needed in popular culture.  I also think that the mistake of going too far and degrading men also needs more attention.  Unlike Miguel thought early in his career, singing with hegemony as a theme isn’t necessary to become popular.  There are plenty of equality songs in the top 100.  Take many of Beyoncé’s, Ed Sheeran’s, and many other artists songs for example.  If more artists took the time to write songs with their minds, rather than their pocketbooks in mind, then the norms in our music will slowly change.
In music, and all of society, the goal is equality, but it’s being missed the majority of the time.  Even many of the good examples still have women being objectified and not being looked at in a valuable light that they deserve.  These instances when progressive themes are mostly there, but are riddled with negative ideas as well, are the most dangerous.  It shows society that women are good, but still not that good.  Like the popular quote “good is the enemy to great,” close will be the enemy of equal.

Orientalism in Mulan and Kung-Fu Panda

Today, the animation industry is huge. The DreamWorks Animation grossed $ 920 million through “Shrek 2” (Box Office Mojo, 2015), and the annual gross revenue of Disney in 2014 through the studio entertainment, such as film and animation, was $2,278 million (The Walt Disney, 2014). Also, merchandise based on animated films also makes up a substantial portion of children’s toys and clothes; for example, the very popular Disney Princess line is over a $4 billion industry (Orenstein, 2011). As the other example, “Frozen”, which is the highest-grossing animated film, was released in 2013, but Elsa and Anna are still the most famous character in the world. The New York Time magazine reported it had already sold three million “Frozen” dresses in North America, which is roughly the number of 4-year-old girls in North America (Appelbaum, 2014). Disney has sold “Disney-branded fruits and vegetables” at Wal-Mart and Target successfully (Berfield, 2013) and is now even marketing their merchandise to newborns in hospitals (Morran, 2011).
What do the reports and numbers mean? It means that unaccountable children and even the adults watch animated films, and the films have significant leverage to people. Critical theorist Henry Giroux said:
It became clear to me that the relevance of animated films exceeded the boundaries of entertainment. Needless to say, the significance of animated films operates on many registers, but one of the most persuasive is the role they play as the new “teaching machines” (1996, p.90).
In particularly, animated films “combine an ideology of enchantment and aura of innocence in narrating stories that help children understand whom they are, what societies are about” (Giroux, 1996, p.90), and the messages that were taught by animated films have been taken for granted by people for a long time.
Since the mid-1990s, the studies that criticize the messages, which are delivered via animated films, especially Disney, have emerged (Lacoix, 2004). There are especially many studies based on the perspectives of feminism and racism. England, Descartes, and Collier-Meek depicted traditional masculine and feminine characteristics in Disney films and suggested that the gender role of resent Disney princesses is changing in comparison to past characters (2011). Stephens also covered gender role, which was drawn in Disney movies (2014). In terms of racism in Disney animations, “Disney’s The Princess and the Frog: The Pride, the Pressure, and the Politics of Being a First” illustrated how Disney has delivered stereotyped message regarding racism (Lester, 2010).
However, the amount of the studies that are grounded in orientalist perspective is relatively small while there are substantial studies from the view of feminism or racism. Thus, this article will analyze what may be referred to in Said’s (1978) terminology as the orientalism in animated films regarding skewed images or description of Eastern culture.
One of the similar studies with this research was conducted by Xu and Tian. The researchers studied cultural deformations and reformulations in Mulan regarding English and Chinese (Xu & Tian, 2013). However, this study showed low relevance with Orientalism because the study focused on language more.
Meanwhile, Park and Jeong studied Orientalism and cultural hybridism through “Kung Fu Panda” (2011). This study showed the Orientalism effectively, but the subjects were Kung Fu Panda 1 and 2, so the results did not tell the meaningful differences between two films because the concept and features are significantly identical in the films.
 The other study, “Images of Animated Others: The Orientalization of Disney’s Cartoon Heroines from The Little Mermaid to The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (Lacroix, 2004) is most similar with this analysis in the way that study analyzed more than single animated from the Orientalist perspective. In the article, Celeste Lacroix analyzed orientalization in five Disney animated films posited how these representations of gender and cultural difference operate within Disney’s consumerist framework, which provides “dreams and products through forms of popular culture in which kids are willing to materially and emotionally invest”(Giroux, 1999, p.89).
Compared to the study by Lacroix and other existing studies, this study has three big differences. First, this study will focus on the overall aspects with regard to characters, story, and depiction of background, while the study by Lacorix and other researchers focused on language or appearance of characters (Lacroix, 2004). Second, the animated films as subjects are more contemporary. Lacroix’ study analyzed the animated films produced from the late 1980s to the early 1990s. This study will analyze “Mulan” and “Kung-Fu Panda”, which are released in 1998 and 2008. The samples can reflect the more resent changes between 1990s and 2000s. Lastly, the samples are both based on Eastern culture, especially China. Thus, we can see the differences clearly regarding how the movies are describing Eastern or Chinese culture from Orientalist perspective.
Thus, this study will provide effective comparative analysis with resent animated films. The purpose of this analysis is to find out the skewed images and descriptions of Eastern culture, especially Eastern Asia including China. Furthermore, how the description of Eastern culture is changed will be articulated via comparison between “Mulan” and “Kung-Fu Panda” in terms of positive and negative Orientalism and Japonism.
The concept of Orientalism was articulated by Edward Said in his book to show how a Western discourse on the Orient – Orientalism – has constructed a knowledge of the east and a body of power-knowledge relations articulated in the interests of the power of the West (1978). According to Said, the Orient was a European invention. Orientalism is the term he uses to describe the relationship between Europe and the Orient, in particular, the way the Orient has helped to define Europe or the West as its contrasting image, idea, personality, experience. Said also tries to show that European culture gained in strength and identity by setting itself off against the Orient as a sort of surrogate and even underground self (Storey, 2009). Defining the Orient is less an attempt to understand the East than to define the West; that is. Orientalism is part of the West's search for self-identity through “the other” (Kim, 2004). Following Said, this essay accepts Orientalism as a discourse and as a hierarchical system of representation.
Furthermore, Orient is an exotic utopia and a subject should be controlled at the same time in the discourse of Orientalism (Kim, 2004). Orient as an exotic utopia has the characteristics, which are mysteriousness, mildness, naiveté, and silence. On the contrary, Orient as a subject of control has the characteristics, which are oppression, ignorance, falling behind (Son Maeng, 2009) Son Maeng named former meaning “Positive Orientalism” and the latter meaning “Negative Orientalism” in the book, The other: Chinese women in Hollywood movies (2009). Emma Kowal also used these terms in Trapped in the gap: Doing good in indigenous Australia to explain the difference in the depiction of indigenous people in Australia (2015). In this analysis, the classification will be applied as one of the lenses.
The other lens for this analysis is “Japonism” which means the influence of Japanes art, fashion and aesthetics on Western culture used by Philippe Burty in La Renaissance litteraire et artistique in 1872 to show the impact of Japanese culture to Europe (Hwan, 2004). There are representative works that reflect Japanism at that time, such as “Japanese Women” by Claude Monet, “Japonaise au Bain” by James Tissot, and “Portrait of Jame Tissot” by Edgar Degas. As time goes by, Japonism has been developed with self-Orientalization of Japan itself, which is imposing Eastern mysteriousness intentionally to use Western perspective politically and economically (Goichi, 2004). Said argued the Western requires the Eastern transform and correction of Eastern culture, and the Orient becomes Orientalized as a result (1978). In response to the Said’s contention, Iwaboochi Goichi argued that Japan has Japanized itself to satisfy the Western interests and sold the Japanized Japan to the Western actively (2004). Consequently, the attitude took a critical role in increasing awareness of Japan in Western culture. (Hyun & Naoki, 2003)
However, there are problems in terms of Japonism, and the biggest problem is the stereotype that Japonism represents entire Orient, especially East Asia. For example, in “Cloud Atlas” by Wachowski, even though the background of the scene is Korea, the room looks like dadami that is Japanese traditional style, and is decorated with cherry blossom that is symbol of Japan (Song, 2015). Thus, this study will analyze how Japonism was applied to the films in describing Chinese culture.
Regarding the subjects, the films that will be analyzed are “Mulan” and “Kung-Fu Panda” as mentioned above. First, “Mulan” is a 1998 Animated film based on Chinese legend of Hua Mulan. The film is 36th animated film in the Walt Disney Animated Classics. “Mulan” was released during the Disney Renaissance and grossed $304 million, earning Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations (Box Office Mojo, 2015). Second, “Kung-Fu Panda” is a 2008 animated film produced by DreamWorks Animation and distributed by Paramount Pictures. The film grossed $632 million, earning Annie awards and nominations in Academy and Golden Globe (Box Office Mojo, 2015). The films were available in “”, a South Korean portal site provides movies and music, and it provided Korean subtitle, which was necessary for me as a Korean.
There are three reasons in selection of those movies. First, the films are considerably popular. If the content has no impact on public, the analysis about the content would be less useful. “Mulan” and “Kung-Fu Panda” both are successful and popular animated films considering the revenue and the award results so that the analysis of the films is valuable to conduct. Second, the films are relatively contemporary. “Mulan” and “Kung-Fu Panda” are released in 1998 and 2008, and “Kung-Fu Panda” is the latest animated film except “Kung-Fu Panda” 2. Hence, the analysis of the films can show the relatively current trend of Orientalism compared to the other animated films featuring Asia. Lastly, “Mulan” and “Kung-Fu Panda” are both based on Chinese culture. This aspect will help to show how two films represented the Chinese culture differently in terms of Orientalization.
In terms of characters and story, Mulan is depicted as an oppressed woman by demands of patriarchy and national situation. This depiction coincides with the stereotype for woman of Eastern. However, Mulan decides to fight in a war instead of her father, pretending a man and achieves self-realization fighting in the war. Basically, the entire story is a journey to find who she is. In this journey, Mulan is an active agent who is brave, independent, and smart. This description can be considered as breaking stereotypes, but the features of Mulan quite correspond to the typical American heroin (Kim, 2001). Thus, the change was nothing but injecting Western stereotype for American heroin instead of stereotype for Asian female.
This fact is significantly important considering the appearance of Mulan and Syan-Yu who is the antagonist of her from the view of colonial theory by Said. Mulan has prominent cheekbones, black hair, and the peaked black eyes, which are the representative features of Asian face that the Western people think. However, her lips are too thick as an Asian, and this may be derived from the ignorance about the Orient, being confused with Native Americans or Africans. She also has relatively bigger eyes than normal Asian women and the chin is pointed. In case of Syan-Yu, he had lower nose, higher cheekbones, more peaked and smaller eyes, and angular lower jar compared to Mulan. In other words, Syan-Yu has more apparent features of Asian face than Mulan who is a protagonist. Thus, the film standardized the characters using features of Orient and Western. While the Oriental features represented bad, irrational, and uncivilized characteristics, Western features represented good, rational, and civilized characteristics.
Therefore, Mulan represents the Western and Syan-Yu represents the Eastern culture. Based on this assumption, the victory of Mulan is justified against Syan-Yu who is uncivilized and irrational. This corresponds to Said’s argument, and the message justifying the domination of the Eastern by the Western is implied throughout the film.
Also, the reason of that Mulan could fight in war was her motivation was derived from the filial love, which is an important traditional value. Only after obeying the traditional rule of patriarchy and Confucianism, Mulan was allowed having a right to go forward to world. Thus, Mulan is still not completely free from the oppression of patriarchy and social rules.
Regarding the description of background and costumes, and structures, Mulan mostly tried to incarnate the traditions of China. Especially the depiction of the mountains reminds Chinese traditional paintings. However, there were skewed images based on Japonism in “Mulan”. For example, most characters wear kimono that is a traditional costume of Japan and Mulan wears kabuki make-up, a Japanese make-up style. Moreover, the hairstyle of the father of Mulan looks like a samurai of Japan and there are some scenes that have many cherry blossom trees as a background.
Next, “Kung-Fu Panda” is a story of that an ordinary Panda, “Po”, was chosen as a dragon warrior and save the world with other animals against Tai Lang. Compared to “Mulan”, there is not apparent patriarchy in “Kung-Fu Panda” because the characters are animals. Meanwhile, the fundamental idea of  “Kung-Fu Panda” strongly reflected Buddhism and Taoism, which are important parts of Chinese culture. For example, the dragon scroll, which symbolizes the great power, contains no letter, and the secret of the father of Po for noodles was also that there is no such thing. This corresponds with the idea of nothing () or Empty () of Buddhism and Taoism.
The apparent part that shows Orientalism is Kung Fu. This film shows the fantasy about Kung Fu like other existing movies, such as “Kill Bill” and “Forbidden Kingdom”. Especially, “Kung Fu Panda” is using “The Five arts of Shaolin”, which is a martial art, which represents five animals, including tiger, snake, crane, leopard, and dragon (Reid, 2008). These animals coincide with the characters of the film except dragon, which was supplemented with monkey. The fantasy toward Kung Fu was maximized with the curiosity about using chopsticks. In the film, chopsticks were proposed as a training tool. From the Asian perspective, it does not make sense because if looks like using a fork for training for martial art.
Furthermore, the film has substantial mysterious characteristics. First, the color of eyes of Panda is green instead of black. It reflects the mysterious Orient that is perceived by the Western. Also, Oowgway, the grand master that is a turtle, is the character that reflects mysterious image of Taoist hermit with miraculous power. Especially when Oowgway died, the leaf of peach goes into night sky between the stars. This depiction is describing the Chinese classic description of “Woo-Hwa- Deong-Sun”, which means getting wings and going to heaven as a Taoist hermit.
Additionally, the description of the background and buildings mostly represent Chinese culture correctly. However, the eaves of the building are rolled up and the edge of the roof is painted in gold. It looks like the traditional houses in Western Asia, such as Saudi Arabia or Turkey, and this is the generalization of Asian culture based on ignorance. On the other hand, the pattern of window and the door is Japanese style.
 In terms of Orientalism in the films, “Mulan” in 1998 tried to break Orientalism via changing the representation of Asian female character. However, the change was superficial and it was nothing but injecting Western stereotype for American heroin instead of stereotype of Asian female. Thus, the goal of breaking Orientalism based on the Oriental culture was not achieved.
On the contrary, “Kung Fu Panda” in 2008 showed more understanding about Chinese culture in depth. Descriptions of Existing films about China were mostly limited to the representative symbols from the Western perspective, such as the concepts of Kung Fu or Great Wall. “Kung Fu Panda” covered Kung Fu as a main theme but also tried to show more than those symbolized concepts, such as the Oriental ideas of Taoism and Buddhism. Additionally, the name of the mentor is “Shifu”, and the word means a “master” in Chinese. Also, the name of grand master who is a turtle was “Oogway”, and it means a “turtle” in Chinese. This may be intended to give mysterious impression to the Western people who do not understand Chinese. Consequently, the film focused not only on showing fancy Kung Fu actions, but also on language of China with deeper understanding about the culture.
In terms of the negative and positive Orientalism, basically the films are produced based on positive Orientalism, especially exotic and mysterious images. However, in “Mulan”, Oriental features of appearance were considered beautiful partially, but the features essentially implied negative meanings, such as evil, uncivilized, irrational characteristics, when they were contrasted with the Western features. Meanwhile, “Kung Fu Panda” focused on positive images of the Orient regarding Asian ideas, Kung Fu, and the background of movie.
            There were skewed images in both films. The eyes of Panda were green in “Kung Fu Panda”. In “Memoirs of a Geisha”, the eye color of the main character is also blue in the poster (Song, 2015). Changing the colors of eyes is a method to show mysterious image about the Orient in this cases. However, in case of Syan-Yu, an antagonist of Mulan, the eye color was yellow to show the evil and abnormal characteristics. Furthermore, the skewed images based on Japonism exist in both films. As mentioned above, the costumes, makeup style, and hairstyle of “Mulan” are Japanese style such as Kimono, Kabuki and Samurai style, and there were many backgrounds with cherry blossom. On the other hand, Japonism was shown in style of architectures in “Kung Fu Panda” rather than the characters.
Consequently, the representations about the Orient, especially China, were improved in “Kung Fu Panda” in 2008 compared to “Mulan” in 1998. First, Mulan showed more stereotypes about oppressed Asian female regarding patriarchy. On the contrary, the female characters in “Kung Fu Panda”, Tigress and Viper, were drawn as smart, strong, and diligent worriers.
Second, there was more positive Orientalism in “Kung Fu Panda”. In “Mulan”, basically the tribe of Han represents the Western, and the tribe of Hun represents the Eastern. Through the contrast between Han and Hun, a discourse and as a hierarchical system of representation was delivered. On the other hand, the Kung Fu Panda described the Oriental culture more desirable. Various Chinese cultures were introduced from food to medical skill, such as Mahjong, noodles, Acupuncture, and Chinese instrumental pipe.
Third, the skewed images based on Japonism were more direct in “Mulan”. While the Japanese images were related with the background in “Kung Fu Panda”, the images were more closely related with characters, and the images constituted a part of character. It may mean that the understanding about each country in the Orient is improved in 2008 than 1998.
From this analysis, it was possible to compare two animated films that cover Eastern culture. Even though the results cannot be generalized as a general tendency in animated film regarding Orientalism, this analysis of the Orientalization in animated films showed the meaningful changes between texts. From this study, I hope there will be more studies about the animated films from the view of Orientalism. Also, until now the studies have been apt to focus on Disney’s animated films. Yet, now it is necessary to analyze the animated films of not only Disney, but also the other companies, such as DreamWorks or Pixar. According to the research about the highest grossing animated films, there are more than seven other companies in the list of 50 films except The Walt Disney, and the films grossed average $500 million each (Box Office Mojo, 2015). As the animation industry progresses, it is required to give more attention to the animated films and the study subject should be extended widely including more animated films.
Lastly, if there is a wish regarding this topic, it is more films about the Orient. In fact, “Mulan” and “Kung Fu Panda” were the two movies about Eastern Asia, and there were no other films since 2008 except “Kung Fu Panda” 2. It should be encouraged to make more films about diverse cultures, and the public attention will be connected to the correct images of the Orient based on future studies.

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