Monday, January 28, 2013

The Shark Has Pretty Teeth, My Dear...

(Okay, so this post took me so long because I tried very, very hard not to merely make this a Loki appreciation/extreme-feels-had-by-a-fansquee post. Those elements are most definitely still at play here, but I've tried to keep my thoughts in order and not meander into a sobbing heap of jello).

As you might know, I've been endeavoring to write fanfiction recently. It's going well, I think, but I have a slight problem: the fic based on Thor/The Avengers is not so slowly taking over my life. Fortunately, it's great practice and an outlet for me to finally write that story about a girl who falls in love with a villain that I've been trying to write since I was fifteen. On the bad side... it's totally taking over my life.
However, I've been curious as to why I've been trying to write a story like this for so long. This could be taken as example of something pathologically being wrong to me and that maybe I need therapy. I would, of course, beg to differ (although, in all honesty, if you see my early writing, you would be concerned because it is just soooooo bad and therefore all my ideas are really watered down and insubstantial and... it's just bad, take my word for it). However, I'm not the only writer dealing with ideas like this. As I mentioned in this post, I feel myself slowly treading into a similar territory of Twilight and 50 Shades, although if you argue that Edward is not a "bad guy" either because he doesn't really do anything morally wrong (arguable) or because he's not dangerous and just a sparkly "vegetarian" vampire (also arguable), I'm not going to disagree. However, there is a trend for "bad boy" sort of characters and attractive villains. (And fun fact, upon Google image searching "bad boy characters," Robert Pattinson was the most common result. I wonder if he is aware of this.) This is not recent. In fact, there is one culprit I can pinpoint some of this on - and his name is William Shakespeare.

Probably due to the fact that I'm taking a Shakespeare class this semester, I'm seeing the Bard everywhere. But he kind of is everywhere. He invented a lot of the words we use, established plot elements and characters that appear again and again in fiction today, and joined in on creating a certain way of thinking about humanity and the human mind. And so the idea that his villains set precedents for later works isn't really that surprising.

Let's take Iago, perhaps my favorite villain and the one I'm most familiar with, from Othello. Iago, as you may know, is Othello's ensign and trusted friend (at the beginning of the play, at least). However, Iago hates Othello and plans to destroy him, which of course can only end in tears. Iago has a way with words and is known for his "honesty" - even though he twists words and ideas to do his bidding throughout the play. As Russ McDonald states, "It is Iago's talent for language and fiction - or lies - that permits him to realize those imagined circumstances. Iago takes the same attitude towards words that he takes to toward other people: they are merely instruments, vehicles that he uses on the road to vengeance" (McDonald 57).

Sound familiar to anyone?
(Okay, can we just take half a second to appreciate that this is Tom Hiddleston? Because, I mean, really... Movies, guys. They're amazing.) (Oh, it's a good thing I'm not an film critic or director or anything.)

Point is, Iago and Loki share a similar rhetorical strategy that makes them rather seductive (seduction, from its French root, literally means drawing aside or leading astray, which is essentially what villains aim to do). Of course, Shakespeare didn't make his characters romantic, but there is a sexual element to them. Iago is busy convincing Othello that his wife is sleeping with Cassio and Richard III (which I haven't read yet but will be reading this semester) apparently "tells Lady Anne that he has killed her husband and her father-in-law, and then he woos her in marriage anyway" (McDonald 56).  In McDonalds' words Shakespeare "does the unpredictable: he makes his villain a wit, a jokester, an actor. And Richard is such a memorable villain because his words are unforgettable" (McDonald 55).

(Also, on a tangential note, you should know this happened at one point:
Yes, that is Ewan McGregor as Iago and Tom Hiddleston as Cassio. That's 2 out of 3 of my all-time favorite actors in the same Shakespearean play. I can't decide if I'm elated this happened or tormented that it was an untaped stage performance. Both. Both is good.)
Where was I? Yes, witty villains. Not only are they smooth-talking seducers, they are funny. Even if their humor is morbid and disturbing, we're still entertained and thus perhaps a little more likely to empathize with them. I was thinking about this in terms of The Dark Knight's Joker. The Joker, at least in my opinion, is the most interesting part of The Dark Knight. Even though he's terrifying and twisted, I can't help but root him on a bit. Why? Because Batman has too much power in this film? Because it's easier to identify with a common man albeit criminal mastermind than a millionaire superhero? Because the Joker is just devious and there's something really fun about devious characters?
Fun. Fun is important. I remember the first time I saw Die Hard and didn't care about anything other than how totally awesome Alan Rickman was in it. (This blog post is turning into an excuse to use awesome pictures of my favorite actors, isn't it? Yes, yes it is). It's been a while since I've seen this movie, so correct me if I'm wrong, but Rickman's character is not a nice dude. I don't know if he does anything we'd generally describe as nice or kind or even remotely okay at all. However, he does stuff we'd never think about doing in our everyday lives. And is kickass and fun and evil. And also is conveniently played by the amazing Alan Rickman. Pretty much the same goes for Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, which I do not watch for Kevin Costner being the only character with an American accent in the film, but for Rickman as the conniving Sheriff of Nottingham. I think the first time I watched that film and fangirled over Alan Rickman was the moment I realized I actually liked boys (which is what I'd like to think this Kate Beaton comic is about).

But now I'm just scattering things all over the place, with Shakespeare and wit and villains just being... villainy. When it comes down to it, we're dealing with villains that are more than just cackling guys with mustaches and 2-D bad guys. And this has been going on for some time - it just occurred to me that religious leaders were really put out (that's putting it mildly) when John Milton wrote Paradise Lost and made Lucifer sound a hell of a lot more interesting than God and the angels. But the why is still really baffling: if for the most part we're people who are relatively compassionate, don't like violence, and might be what some people would call "morally sound," then why the hell are we so interested in bad guys? Why are they so cool and sexy?

I think it comes down to a few basic things: for one, they do things we'd never do ourselves. They perform acts we'd never dream of doing, except perhaps in our darkest moments or strongest revenge fantasies. They also lead us astray and seduce us in many ways; there is a strong tie between sex and villainy, but also skilled language and temptation. We may also sympathize with the villains portrayed to us because, especially in recent films, villains are given problems and obstacles we ourselves may face. As Alfred Hitchcock said, "In the old days villains had mustaches and kicked the dog. Audiences are smarter today. They don't want their villain to be thrown at them with green limelight on his face. They want an ordinary human being with failings." (See, this is why Hitchcock is a director and I'm not.)

I'd also like to take us back to Loki for a moment to draw in some feminist theory. Susan Bordo has some interesting words about tricksters/shape-shifters in her book Unbearable Weight, which she uses in conjunction with discussing cyborgs (which I've mentioned before on this blog). Using the influence of Donna Haraway, Bordo says,
The cyborg is not only culturally "polyvocal"; she (?) "speaks in tongues." Looked at with the aid of the imagery of the archetypal typology rather than science fiction, the postmodern body is the body of the mythological Trickster, the shape-shifter: "of indeterminate sex and changeable gender... who continually alters her/his body, creates and recreates a personality...[and] floats across time" from period to period, place to place (Bordo 227-228).
Loki, prince of lies and god of mischief, can do what we cannot - he change both minds (with his words) and change his own body. He is able to recreate himself while the rest of us are "trapped" in our  permanent forms. He, quite simply, does what he wants (ironic for a guy who tells us that freedom is life's greatest lie, right? Ah, no, Loki feels coming on, must avoid that tangent for now...) Bordo continues, "the Trickster and the cyborg invite us to 'take pleasure' in (as Haraway puts it) the 'confusion of boundaries' in the fragmentation and fraying of the edges of the self that have already taken place (Bordo 228)."

Am I saying that Loki helps us understand the confusion we feel about our own bodies and to enjoy the fact that being a human is really confusing? That being a human is sOOOooooo changeable?
Maybe. Loki doesn't shape-shift too much in the films, but he still adds that element of unpredictability, of chaos, of uncertainty that is refreshing perhaps for those who have banal, monotonous elements in their lives. But perhaps Loki also asks us to push our own boundaries, plays devil's advocate in asking us what we consider right and wrong, good and evil, and what society condones and dismisses. I've certainly been questioning my own moral compass while writing this fic, let me tell you...

That felt like a lot rambling. If you're still with me after all of this, congratulations! You get Mark Gatiss being maniacal and evil as a reward:

Mark Gatiss, you are my hero. I mean villain. I mean... never mind.

Also, on one quick final bit, if you are interested in Iago and having your moral compass utterly obliterated and everything you stood for in the world questioned, please read Nicole Galland's wonderful book I, Iago. It's a wonderful read, providing a whole rationale for Iago's actions, which is both wonderful and the worst thing ever. You'll never be able to see Othello the same way again, I assure you.

All citations from:

Susan Bordo. Unbearable Weight. University of California Press, 1993.

Russ McDonald. The Bedford Companion to Shakespeare, Second Edition. Bedford/St. Martin's, 2001. 

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