Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Do You Belong to a Cult? Fandom and the American Monomyth

In my last article, I discussed the film Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter in light of John Shelton Lawrence and Robert Jewett’s theory of the American monomyth, as discussed in their book The Myth of the American Superhero. If you are unfamiliar with their theory, that article might be a good place to start. In this article, I would like to reflect on Lawrence and Jewett's discussion of implications of the American monomyth (for the entire entertainment industry, not only American) and the religious fervor that surrounds certain stories employing it.

Secularization of the Redemption Story

In stories featuring the American monomyth, the hero stands as a Christ figure. He is chosen, either by fate or by a guru-like figure. He controls powers beyond those of ordinary men. Through this anointing and superior ability, he is uniquely qualified to battle evil and redeem Eden’s people. Lawrence and Jewett write that the secularization of the Redeemer, “did not eliminate the need for redemption, as the Enlightenment had attempted to do, but rather displaces it with superhuman agencies” (44). This religious heritage encourages audiences to view the monomyth as possessing the same power religion levies. As a result, “fandom began to emerge as a new form of religious community” (Lawrence 47).

Fandom as Religion

“Religion is taking one’s stories seriously.” I cannot remember where I heard this, but it came to mind as I was reading The Myth of the American Superhero. Lawrence and Jewett wrote in 2002, relying heavily on the fandoms of Star Trek and Star Wars for their examples of this phenomenon, but we can see it everywhere today, as belonging to a fandom has gained popularity. They write of fandoms: “In content, mood, and motifs, this is indistinguishable from what is commonly called ‘religion’” (Lawrence 251).

Rituals

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Dressing up isn’t just for kids on Halloween anymore. Fans dress for conferences, where they buy merchandise and listen to the latest news about their passion and the people behind it. They dress up for parties and important release dates. They follow on social media their heroes’ real-life alter-egos (actors, directors, authors, etc.). Lawrence and Jewett associate these actions with “the Christian imitation ethic” and the “desire to be like one’s redeemer, to achieve union with him or her, or to gain self-identity by copying the redeemer’s appearance or actions” (258-259). These actions are very similar to religious rituals.

Discipleship and Religious Outpourings

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Over and over fans confess their “redemptive experiences” to one another online or to their heroes via email and letters. “My fandom changed my life.” A favorite story of the Harry Potter fandom involves the actress Evanna Lynch. While she was battling anorexia, she wrote to author J.K. Rowling, who promised her she could be in the movies if she beat her eating disorder. Lynch then went on to do so and play Luna Lovegood. Although the story has been repeatedly corrected (J.K. Rowling certainly encouraged Lynch, but attributing her with the actress’ redemption is exaggerating.), it persists among the faithful.

Similarly, lists of “my fandom taught me…” appear on the internet repeatedly, sometimes claiming superiority to other fandoms. Fans also write what Lawrence and Jewett dub “apocryphal literature,” but we know better as “Fan Fiction,” which “answer essentially theological questions, amplifying and illustrating the belief system” or depict the actions like those of “mystery religions” in which worshipers experience sex with their gods (Lawrence 256).

Dangerous Suspension of Disbelief

Few fans are likely to associate their passion for a story with a religious movement. Lawrence and Jewett admit, “The mocking rejoinder to this earnest question is, of course, that we should ‘lighten up’” (220). However, the content of our fandoms—both the original and fan-produced materials—“remain significantly indebted to the American monomyth—with all of its narcissistic, violent, and undemocratic tendencies” (Lawrence 264). One can add racist and sexist to this list.

I am loath to call for the renunciation of our fantasy affiliations, but I wish to second Lawrence and Jewett’s concerns: “These disturbing echoes indicate that, consciously or unconsciously, Americans are willing to relax and enthusiastically enjoy values contrary to those embodied in its religious and political institutions” (278). We must, as a culture, be more willing to subject our passions to critical examination to see how they affect our nation and our daily lives. I only request for more thought on the deeper values and underlying assumptions on which our stories rely. If, after such reflection, a need for abstinence from these stories becomes evident, then I hope we are strong enough to admit it and follow through.


Lawrence, John Shelton and Robert Jewett. The Myth of the American Superhero.Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002. Print.

All images used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license and do not indicate the endorsement of me or my work.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter: An American Monomyth

I recently watched the 2012 film adaptation of the book Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter written by Seth Grahame-Smith. Since I am currently reading The Myth of then American Superhero by John Shelton Lawrence and Robert Jewett (2002), I was sensitive to the correlations between their theory of the "American monomyth" and this film starring Benjamin Walker.

The American monomyth is a pattern of story telling in America that goes as far back as captivity narratives. The archetypal plot formula includes three key features which can be identified in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter: (1) an Eden-like community threatened, (2) an intruding and evil "other" group, and (3) a (super-) hero who restores the harmony state (Lawrence 22).

1. Eden

The first element of the monomyth is evident at the opening of the film, when the boy Lincoln witnesses a free-born black member of his community dragged off to be sent south as a slave. The "Eden" in this film begins as Lincoln's boy-hood community and grows into the whole United States. Citizens are law-abiding and cooperative; the only characters who are in favor of slavery are the vampires and a few nameless rich southerners with few lines. The majority are good people who know that slavery is wrong. They all believe, as Lincoln's mother declares, "Until every man is free, we are all slaves" (Abraham). Lawrence and Jewett write that, in the monomyth, "the majority's only failing is its impotence in the face of the evil of others" (23). In Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, citizens in general are not bad, only helpless against the power of the vampires, who use slavery to monopolize a racialized food source.

2. Intruding Evil

If the community within "Eden" is good, then any evil must consequently originate from without.Part of this element of the monomyth involves "projecting all evil outward upon others (or in today's literary and theological terminology, 'the other')" (Lawrence 27). In this film, the evil "other" group is made up of vampires.  We see in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter an attempt to place all blame for the moral wrongs of slavery onto this group.

An important part of this element of the monomyth is the failure of "the institutions designed to cope with such challenges," particularly democracy (Lawrence 22). In this film we see the voting public relegated to a "spectator democracy": they elect Lincoln to save them and clap at his speeches, but have no real contribution to the victory at the end (Lawrence 29). In fact, they are instead victims: debtors, slaves, and slaughtered soldiers. The government, until Lincoln becomes president, is unwilling or unable to confront slavery. It is also completely in the dark about vampires, and thus unequipped to deal with them. As a result, only a superhero can redeem the Eden and its people.

3. Superhero

Abraham Lincoln in this film fulfills many of the criteria for a monomythic superhero. In this context "superhero" connotes a man (occasionally a woman) who is more than human. Lincoln is not only smart and athletic, but he can also chop through a tree with one blow. Other criteria include having a secret identity, a self-less zeal for justice that legitimizes revenge, the delaying of sexual (female-relational) fulfillment, and a religious justification for his actions.

Lincoln is an idealistic loner with a secret identity. Only Henry Sturges, his guide and coach, knows that he is a vampire hunter. He admonishes Lincoln, " No distractions, no attachments. No friends or family" (Abraham). When Lincoln first arrives in Springfield, he avoids contact with others and hunts vampires at night. While revenge was his inciting motivation, his restraint "purifies" his desire for it. The audience feels his goal to avenge his mother is justified, and since he shows patience in achieving it, he is in the moral right. To protect others, specifically Mary Todd, he puts off a relationship with her. When she tries to kiss him, he pulls back. After he does marry her, he continues to keep his vampire hunting a secret.

I highly recommend this book!
Lincoln's mission as a hunter is also religiously sanctioned. Henry tells him, "When Judas betrayed Jesus his reward was 30 pieces of silver. At that moment those pieces became a symbol of betrayal in God, of evil. And silver became a curse upon the cursed" (Abraham). Thus, the hunting of vampires is blessed by God. This is a particularly important element of the monomyth, for audiences often feel that "without a superhuman agency of some sort, there is no true redemption" (Lawrence 243). In order for the peace of Eden to return, a superhero must intervene with religiously justified actions.

The American monomyth adopted by Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter argues that without Lincoln's motivating speeches, strong will, and resolution to fight the evil outsiders, the victory against slavery and vampires could not have been won.

Conclusion

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter follows the American monomyth archetype described by Lawrence and Jewett thirteen years ago. This archetype is not only a past plot formula, but Hollywood continues to use it for action films today, netting profits as audiences still accept and enjoy the pattern.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Dir. Timur Bekmambetov. Perf. Benjamin Walker. Twentieth Century Fox, 2012. Film.

Lawrence, John Shelton and Robert Jewett. The Myth of the American Superhero.Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002. Print.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Hamlet Review: The National Theatre Live Event Starring Benedict Cumberbatch

My dog-eared edition of Hamlet
On October 15th, I witnessed the record-setting telecast of The National Theatre's Hamlet directed by Lyndsey Turner and starring Benedict Cumberbatch. I have had the privilege of watching several professional performances of this particular play, so I was eager to see their interpretation. It was certainly worth the lines and four hours of theatre seats! I wanted to share some of the elements of this performance that I especially enjoyed.

Set

As with most Shakespeare plays, Hamlet can be done with extremely little in the way of set design. Other performances I have seen (including The Royal Shakespeare Company's production starring David Tennant in 2009) have been a tad drab. However, The National Theatre's set, designed by Es Devlin, was interesting. There were different levels and spaces on which to conduct scenes and the set pieces were used to great effect. At the end of Act III, all the doors were thrown open and debris blew onto the stage to emphasize Claudius' declaration that he would have Hamlet killed in England (Hamlet Act IV, Scene 3). When we returned from intermission, Coal had been piled up on the stage all over the set, facilitating outdoor scenes like Ophelia's burial and indoor scenes alike, while stressing the degrading mentality of all characters. The set supported the madness theme.

Direction

The stage directions Shakespeare provides are also minimal, so I was also very impressed with this production. Turner made two choices by which I was particularly pleased. First, all of the scenes ran into each other. There was no pause between them, even when one occurred in the same space as a large dining table had been required the scene before. Unneeded set pieces were moved off tastefully and cleverly while the actors continued. The constant movement cut down on the run time considerably. Second, Hamlet's soliloquies were delivered while the other actors suddenly slowed down. As a result, it seemed as if we witnessed Hamlet's mind wander while life continued about him, and he was only rarely on stage alone. It made these long speeches more pleasant and gave Hamlet the attribute of retreating from life rather than seeking isolation. It was an interesting distinction.

Acting

As I mentioned, I've seen several professional Hamlets, so I do, in fact, have rather little to say about Cumberbatch's performance. He was emotive and well-spoken. I have nothing bad to say about his interpretation of Hamlet. However, I was extremely impressed with Sian Brooke's Ophelia. The tragedy of her character was felt even before she went completely mad. Her abandoned suitcase of photographs and solitary barefoot climb up a pile of coal to her last exit, witnessed by Gertrude, made her death impactful instead of trite; Hamlet's distress at her death arose from lost love instead of mere guilt. Gertrude's own decline in the second half of the production mirrored Ophelia's and lent a complexity to her character as well.

Conclusion

Altogether I enjoyed this production and would highly recommend it when it becomes available on DVD/Bluray. Every element of the performance worked with the others to provide a succinct, theme-driven whole.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Cinderella: Beautiful Disappointment

This past weekend I watched the live action Disney Cinderella (2015). No one can deny that this is a beautiful film that highlights all of the technological leaps we have made since the animated version released in 1950. The new mice may not speak, but they make facial expressions and move in ways real mice cannot, while looking extremely believable. Unfortunately, other changes one expects in a live action adaptation of a fairy tale were sorely lacking. The characters were flat (perhaps even worse than the original animation), and the themes were ambiguous when not downright confusing.

Flat Characters

Flat characters are not uncommon in fairy tales, but usually when one is presented anew, the writers flesh out characters’ motivations and cares. In Ella Enchanted (2004 or Gail Carson Levine's book by the same title), Ella must obey every command she is given; in Ever After (1998), the prince doesn’t want to be king, and keeps running away from his responsibilities. This is not true of Disney’s new Cinderella. Good characters are good, and bad characters are bad.

A Kind Heroine

The prince is flat--no surprise there. But so is Cinderella. She is beautiful and kind. Her mother, on her death bed, instructs Ella that she must “have courage and be kind.” Ella is kind to everyone, but the definition of kind is unclear. She is naïve, and lets her step-mother manipulate her into becoming a servant, harbors no resentment, and flippantly forgives her step-mother all in the name of “kindness.” So, at first, being kind seems to result in unpleasant consequences, and is thus ill-advised. However, she is also kind to animals, which results in their kindness to her and which gains the attention of the prince. Thus, being kind may also result in delightful consequences.

Simple Themes Deny Truth

The first confusion of theme comes in Ella’s motivation for being kind: she is a kind person. Her mother’s instruction was not a correction of her previous behavior, but an encouragement for her to continue to be kind. Thus the story makes no statement about the virtues of kindness, but proposes a worldview in which good people are kind, bad people are cruel, and there is no common ground between them.

Secondly, Ella’s statement of forgiveness at the end of the film feels just as empty as her kindness. She forgives easily because she never really understood the hurt they tried to inflict upon her. She is still naïve. Obviously, I think forgiveness is important, and having it modeled in film is a good thing. However, her offering denied an important truth: that forgiveness is difficult. We don’t always want to forgive others even though we must. We see characters in films take revenge or mild retribution all the time and find it satisfying. However, Ella is kind, so she forgives. The flatness of her character allows us to conclude that we, being more nuanced individuals, are not required to give forgiveness to those who have hurt us. Her behavior is a result of who she is and not as a result of her belief in justice or righteousness, but we are called to act from such beliefs and thus become people who are kind.

Conclusion

However, these characters and themes may be sufficient in a children’s story. It was certainly beautiful, and many performances were well done. I was only hoping for more complexity, which would make this retelling memorable.