Thursday, December 26, 2013

On Youth, Fascism, and Enlightenment

Subtext can be a tricky, subtle beast. I’ve looked back on my own fictional work and been surprised to find, say, what had been envisioned as a thunderous sci-fi romp wherein humankind was not top galactic dog also happened to look exceptionally critical of the UN if you squinted hard enough. I like the UN! So I understand how, in the push to bank some Harry Potter and Twilight bucks by making something similar, sloppily conceived YA serieses end up with themes and undertones not necessarily intended. Still, though a strange alchemy of themes, tropes, and archetypes, lots of these lesser YA series end up feeling, well, a bit fascist. Specifically, a peculiar, youthful sub-thought I’d call Nerd Fascism, a strange mixture of young alienation, entitlement, cliquiness, with archetypal monomyth elements of the special birth or hidden parentage blended in, creating something that can feel thematically distasteful—a sense that the work believes some people are born better than others. But, in the vastness of culture oriented toward the young, not all special births are equal, and some handle their themes better than others.

            Now, I hate that I have to add this disclaimer, but I guess I do: when I say “nerd fascism,” it’s not meant as alarmism over mummy-obsessed tween Blackshirts goose-stepping through our malls. That’s silly. It’s meant handy term that sums up a frequent teenage mindset, wherein a sense of superiority and a perceived lack of respect combine in an attitude that everyone else is unworthy because they don’t see how special the thinker is. Nearly always, it’s harmless and the thinker grows out of it. But, dismissively saying “they’re just stories” does not properly respect the pedagogical strength of stories and entertainment, particularly for the young.
What, exactly, do I mean? Check out the trailer below:

            The City of Bones trailer really drove home that this had become a thing—youth stories about how some people are born better than others.
            Not that I think that was the intention—the creators are just following how stories get told. The miraculous birth is a trope so common in world literature, it often gets listed as an element of monomythic structure as part of the hero’s Call to Adventure. While the heroes of Ancient Greece, products of dalliances between the gods and mortals, no doubt spring instantly to mind, the most famous modern example is Luke Skywalker discovering his heritage is not one of a chump navigator on a spice freighter, but of a Jedi Knight. Even more modernly, it can be summed up in one line delivered to the orphaned Harry Potter: “Yer a wizard, ‘Arry.” The hero’s special birth is a Call to Adventure that leads them to a fantastical, previously hidden world, and in the wake of Pottermania, it’s often literally fantastical and previously hidden. That’s a story that appeals to the escapist impulse in everyone.
            Beneath the beautiful comforting hunks and endless chaste love, Twilight seems to understand what appeals to teenagers even more deeply—the longing to be cool, or at least be recognized as such.
            Going back to the trailer, you can see both these works stapled together at work. And it feels very ugly. How? Well, beyond the hilarious and unintentional Son of Sam “guy killing demons only he can see in New York” vibe, it comes from the smugness and the cliquiness. There is an overt air of the heroine being not just Called to Adventure (like Harry), but brought into the group of the cool kids (like Bella), even punctuated by her old friend remarking, man, she sure does dress cool now that she’s wearing the uniform of her new clique. Of course, any fantasy worth its salt needs its distinctive terminology, code phrases fans can use to recognize their own. Harry Potter has its Muggles (a nonsense word for non-wizards that mostly applies to the Dahl-ish, venal Dursleys, but also to Hermione’s kind parents), so here we get the utterly dismissive “Mundanes” (which has an archaic meaning of non-spiritual, and a very not archaic meaning). So, the old friend gets shoulder checked by the heroine’s new gang, who he can’t see because he’s just so mundane. He wasn’t born as special as the cool kids.
            It’s not easy to be a teenager. That desire Bella had to be recognized, acknowledged, and validated is strong, and also boundless. And when you’re young, and don’t feel validated enough, you can start to ask Why? And easy conclusion is that all those people who don’t recognize your specialness because they’re stupid, or even lesser, unlike the few (likely your friends) who can see (you think) how special you are. Luckily, most teenagers quickly grow out thinking that way. But it doesn’t make it any less shocking to see the City of Bones trailer straightly and uncritically playing straight into that thinking.
            Now, many of these themes are prevalent in all sorts of stories—the City of Bones trailer just happens to be a rather shockingly bare and uncritical presentation of them that feels like a culmination of ugly undercurrents. It’s pretty plainly the result of thinking “Kids like action, being brought into magical clubs, and pretty boys, so we’ll just give them that,” without much thought given to why kids like those things and how they might get them. Maybe the full movie handles things better, but given its dire reviews, that seems unlikely. Also maybe it isn’t fair for me to rag on the movie after only seeing the trailer, but then again, I don’t think a multimillion dollar franchise-extension needs protecting from me. And I should emphasize, even though YA media commonly deals in these themes, that doesn’t mean they all suck. One, in particular, I think is great.         
            Harry Potter encourages reading, so, if asked, I’d ultimately concede it probably represents the best YA media has to offer, but in my heart, it’s the Avatar series, which is so beloved by a cross-generation spectrum, losing its name to James Cameron and being poorly adapted by M. Night Shyamalan didn’t diminish it. The two shows of the series, The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra, are polyglot, worldly animations, heavily influenced by western fantasy, wuxia, martial arts films, and the cartoons of Saturday morn. They show the influences of Greek myth, Native American tradition, Taoism, Buddhism, Shinto, Hinduism, and Zoroastrianism, and any given episode is as likely to pay homage to Sergio Leone or Hayao Miyazaki, as it is to parody the WWF or stage productions of Peter Pan, or (one of my favorites) feature a haiku rap battle.
            The Avatar-verse, lush and vibrant as it is, would seem a textbook example of problematic special birth at first glance. A key feature of its world are Benders—people who are able to manipulate one of the four classical elements, like sorcerers fused with martial artists (even though actual martial artists exist, too). Accordingly, the world is divided in four, each group of people associated with their element—Fire Nation, Earth Kingdoms, Water Tribes, and Air Nomads. And in the midst of all this, there is an even cooler and more special birth in the figure of the Avatar, who can control all four elements. He or she is, in effect, born the coolest.
            A few obvious things the shows have done complicate and stymie “Born Better” readings. Throughout the entirety of the first series, people were divided along cultural lines, with their particular brand of Bender as merely one aspect of that culture among many. Benders have a variety of roles they might fill within that culture. Oddly but notably, those roles didn’t necessarily include leadership—save for the Fire Nation royal family and the king of the relatively small city of Omashu, most of the world’s leaders are not their people’s Benders. The second series directly addresses the inequalities and resentments that arise when cultures start to blend and people find new groups to divide themselves into. It’s also never particularly clear why some people can bend (the creators obviously learned the lesson of Midiclorians)—many fans conclude there is a genetic component because that’s just how we think about things in this here modern day, but the show plays it more as a mystical, cultural upbringing thing rather than a genetic destiny. Again, while Bending is a comic book style power, it is also martial art.
            But most obviously, well, both shows made sure to have people who can’t bend in their main casts. Sokka, perhaps the first series’ most beloved character, can’t whip water about like his sister, but he’s an adept planner, cunning tactician, inventive strategist, and eventually (after an episode directly addressing his feelings of inadequacy) a skilled warrior, while Korra’s Asami comes off as a combination of Bruce Wayne and Amelia Earhart, and gets to duel her crazed father with a steampunk mech—it’s truly hard to think of what could be cooler than that. Non-benders also fill in important roles outside the main cast, as both key supporters and adversaries, some of them quite fearsome and dangerous. Point is, such people have value in this fantastical world, which is indicative of the generosity of spirit the series displays, a humanism that would never see vast swaths of people labeled “Mundane.”
             Those, however, are, while I don’t think it’s fair to call them tokenish, significant but token efforts. The series much more strongly undercuts Born Special than by just giving Sokka the fun jokes.
            According to the mythos of the series, the Avatar (who, we are reminded at the beginning of each episode, is the one person who can master all four elements) is something of a superhero Dali Lama—one soul, reincarnated, whose birth and life cycles through each group of people in the world, and is tasked with keeping balance between those groups, as well as mediating between the material world and the spirit world. Each incarnation of that soul is distinct, but retains a connection to all of its past lives and can, with practice and meditation, commune with them, or, when necessary, call upon the combined power of them all by achieving the Avatar State. The first show follows the jubilant and pacifist, though often immature and avoidant Aang (the titular Last Airbender), while the second concerns the bold and gifted, though often stubborn and tempestuous Korra (of the Water Tribe).
            There’s much to admire in this concept. It’s fun and evocative, almost instantly creates a resonant history, and sees clever use throughout the series—the Air Nomads divine who the Avatar is by the toys they choose, which are the same through all incarnations, which evokes the doljanchi ceremony, for example. As you might have gathered from some key words, the Avatar and attendant world are heavily influenced by eastern mysticism, with an emphasis on themes of balance, harmony, enlightenment, serenity, and most of all, responsibility. Being the Avatar comes with cool powers, but hefty physical and metaphysical duties, and the burden of the choices and failings of previous Avatars which, as a consequence of reincarnation, remain the current Avatar’s mess to clean up.
            Aang, ascetic and serene, was forced by chaotic circumstances to take his duties seriously, immediately and continually. Korra’s circumstances, however, a much different. She struggles more, and through those struggles undermines the Born Special narrative.
            According to series lore, the Avatar is not to be told who they are until their 16th birthday. Worsening political conditions compelled the Air Nomads to break this tradition and tell Aang early, but no one needed to tell Korra. She already knew, because as a toddler she was already able to manipulate water, earth, and fire, a remarkable display of power (Aang and previous Avatar Roku were completely surprised by the revelation of who they were). Obviously, this has long term ramifications on Korra’s sense of self, and the issues she faces. By the time we see her again at 17, having been trained in isolation her whole life, she’s extraordinarily talented and eager to fulfill her role, but she has a pretty big problem—while she excels at the physical (both fighting and healing), she has problems with the spiritual. She finds manipulating air (the most spiritual element, we’re told) difficult, and has never made contact with her past lives. At times in the first season, when she feels particularly frustrated or embarrassed, she calls herself a failure and, at least once, the worst Avatar ever, as she wonders what her problem is. It becomes apparent what the problem is—far from being unable to airbend or commune with her past lives, these things don’t come to her as easily as water, earth, and fire did. Korra isn’t a Show-Off, but she does like showing off her prowess (and the validation that brings), and like many a gifted youngster, would much rather do the things she’s good at, finds fun, and gets praised for than work on the things that are necessary, but require that work. While she may plan out a frustrating evening of meditating on mysterious visions, as recommended by her teacher Tenzin, Aang’s son, when her friends suggest they go tooling around the city fighting crime in an old-time roadster, she might just end up doing that instead. But when she’s left with no other alternative, she is able to overcome these difficulties, and by the end of the first season, she’s overcome them all to achieve her destiny, the promise of her Special Birth, as a fully-realized Avatar.
            Now, she just has to grapple with what that promise means.
            The cosmography of the Avatar world features a material world and a Spirit World, occupied by Shinto-esque spirits, who are sometimes able to cross over, and the Avatar is meant to act as a bridge between the two worlds (as if they didn’t have enough to do). As season 2 begins, the spirits are angry, and frequently attacking Korra’s people in the south. But, as noted, Korra does not excel at spiritual matters—a real problem. Luckily, Unalaq, her uncle and chieftain of the Northern Tribe, arrives, and he is very in tune with the spirits, even showing the skill to pacify rampaging spirits and purge them of their darkness. He can train Korra in the skills she needs, even though both her father Tonraq and Tenzin oppose his doing so (it may have helped if they’d talked to her directly, though).
            Unalaq, despite being what I identified as “the Avatar world version of people who believe in a War on Christmas,” is persuasive, with tangible abilities only he can provide, and he offers the one thing Korra wants more than Bella-style validation—progress, especially now, when she needs those abilities immediately. She splits with Tenzin, and, on Unalaq’s advice, travels to the South Pole to open a portal to the Spirit World. But it becomes clear Unalaq has a much larger scheme when they return to the Southern Tribe, and find it’s been occupied by Northern soldiers.
            Korra shifts her concern away from the spirits (who fortunately seem to have stopped their attacks—convenient, that) and the spiritual matters she still struggles with, to the physical (where she excels) concerns over the forced unification of the Water Tribes and their brewing civil war. She mediates between sides, tries to quell unrest, gets called a traitor for maintaining neutrality, fears her father is planning an insurrection, and stumps for civil rights. Pretty stressful. And while her own people pelt her with snowballs, she convinces Unalaq to relent on some harsh punitive actions (“I will respect the Avatar’s wishes,” he says), so it’s quite a shock to her when she finds evidence that Unalaq has been manipulating her.
            And he has been. The bigger gulf than Korra’s material aptitudes and her spiritual understanding is the one between her perception of what her Special Birth means and what it actually is. Unalaq stepped right into those gulfs, exploiting her inexperience both by creating a façade that conforms to what she imagines her role to be, and by simply recommending she do things with repercussions she does not yet grasp (things which she and she alone can accomplish, incidentally). She removes herself from his influence and sets out to rally support for the Southern Tribe, but finds the leadership of Republic City less than eager for military adventurism even though, as she keeps saying, she is the Avatar, which doesn’t necessarily mean they should do what she says (she definitely isn’t power tripping), but does mean her concerns should override theirs—an attitude that leads to a fight and a break with her beau Mako*. Korra isn’t a very trivial teenager, she’s quite serious and dedicated, but you might look at her throwing her title about, her zeal for throwing the elements around, and conclude she’s a bit too focused on how her Special Birth makes her cool.
            Those gulfs get terminal when she loses all memory and sense of herself following a spirit’s assault. Her past lives try to tell her she is the Avatar, but she replies with a multilayered “I don’t know what that is.” To find out, she goes all the way to back to her first life, a rather lovely literalized journey of self-discovery.
            We and Korra learn together that the first Avatar was named Wan, and there was absolutely nothing special about his birth. Living over ten thousand years previous, in a time when spirits wandered freely across the material world, consigning humans to huddle in remote and isolated cities built on the backs of protective beasts called lion-turtles, Wan was a starving thief and a squatter, living off stolen bread crusts he shares with the poor on the outskirts, while the ruling Chous live large. He doesn’t like living this way, but, as one of his friends says “You got to accept the world the way it is. Some people have power, and some don’t. And you don’t.”
            But Wan doesn’t. Accept, that is. Like Prometheus, Wan steals fire, though unlike that Titan, he uses it to lead a raid on the Chou’s pantry. When he refuses to use that fire to kill, he’s caught and banished into the wilderness. The spirits there are frightening, indifferent, or unhelpful, but when he shows some uncommon compassion, they accept him, and teach him how to use his fire properly (making Wan both the first Avatar and the first Bender). Eventually, he decides to search for other human cities, and on his travels, comes across two great spirits, entangled and fighting. Fearing their fight will cause too much damage, Wan intervenes—Raava, the light spirit, orders him to mind his own business, but Vaatu, the dark spirit, beseeches his help, as Raava has held him in her grip for the past ten thousand years. Ever the compassionate one, Wan splits the two.
            Alas, Vaatu exploited Wan’s good intentions and lack of knowledge for his own ends (sounds familiar). He is the spirit of darkness, conflict, and chaos, while Raava is the spirit of light, peace, and order, and every ten thousand years, they have a duel. Now free, Vaatu can sow chaos and gain power while simultaneously weakening Raava before their fight. The two obviously evoke the Taoist notion of yin and yang (they even form the shape several times when they first appear), while their cosmic battle aligns them with the destructive Angra Mainyu and the benevolent Ahura Mazda of Zoroastrian tradition**. Hoping to rectify his mistake, Wan asks to help Raava in her fight, and the two journey the world, gathering the power of the elements, which Raava holds until Wan needs them, while meanwhile, Vaatu continues to foster conflict and discord between humans (who, seeing Wan’s example, have begun abandoning their protective lion-turtles) and spirits. Soon, Raava and Wan face Vaatu, but find they can only win by permanently bonding their souls together. When they do, Wan is able to defeat and then imprison Vaatu. He brokers peace between humans and spirits, and seals the portals between the material and Spirit Worlds, agreeing to serve as a bridge between the two. Now with free reign over the material world, however, humans soon turn to fighting with each other. Teaching humanity the ways of peace is his new mission, he announces over the Avatar Theme, a version of which has been heard at the start of each episode of the series, a signal of the adventures we the viewer are about to witness.
            But we don’t see any great adventures for Wan. When we see him next, he is old, broken, and dying alone, on a battlefield strewn with weapons the keen-eyed will notice are still in use ten-thousand years later***. With his last breath, he apologizes to Raava, now a part of his own soul, for his failure to bring lasting peace to mankind. Perhaps for the first time since they were united, she answers, promising they would be together for all of his lifetimes.
            Korra has always been shown to be a very kinesthetic, experiential learner, and these vivid visions give her exactly what she needs. She emerges as resolute as ever, but more certain and clear in her purpose. When she reunites with Tenzin, their relationship is suddenly reversed as he dejectedly castigates himself for his inability to train her in skills like Unalaq did, and she bolsters his confidence in his abilities as a mentor, which is a fun flip.
            She also finally understands Unalaq’s plan—he seeks to restore the balance that was broken when Wan imprisoned Vaatu. With the portals between the worlds unsealed, Vaatu can free himself, unite with Unalaq in the same way the Avatar is united with Raava. Religious fundamentalist (if a rather curiously Tao-influenced one) that he is, he doesn’t much care about all who will suffer as a result. What matters is that his idea of balance is restored, and, of course, that he in particular is the one to do it. Korra is prepared to stop him, and indeed, separately, neither Unalaq nor Vaatu are able to pose all that much of a challenge for her. They are able to unite, but even then, that only seems to bring them into Korra’s league—Unalaq may style himself “the Dark Avatar,” but he’s still only able to bend water, and while that is cool, it’s only 25% as cool as being able to bend all four elements. But joining with Vaatu has elevated Unalaq’s spirit abilities, so much that he is able to tear Raava from Korra and destroy the light spirit, painfully taking Korra’s connection to her past lives along with it. She has the very symbol of her Special Birth taken from her.
            Many of our modern heroes, in youth culture and big time blockbusters which, let’s face it, are basically kid’s movies with acceptable violence (there are more mature relationships in either Avatar cartoon than I’ve ever seen in a Marvel movie), come to a point in their story where their virtues beyond their extraordinary powers are extolled (indeed, Tenzin gives such a speech here). We are told or shown that those virtues are how those heroes achieve victory. Typically, they’re traits like bravery, cunning, or sacrifice—traits very common to heroes, which can make scenes that appeal to those traits feel a bit cheap and dull. Korra hardly lacks for any of those traits, but what makes her and the Avatar series unique is that she wins because she is wise.
As Unalaq prepares to instate his new regime upon the world, Tenzin takes Korra to the Tree of Time. In a clear allusion to the Buddha, Korra meditates in the tree, joins with her deepest self, communes with the cosmos, and gains the power to fight again, and the knowledge of how to win. She gains enlightenment.
            Unalaq and Vaatu believe they have won. Raava is destroyed. Coming from the chatty school of villainy as they do, they love mentioning it. But Korra understands the universe better than they. Dark and light might be distinct, but they are also two halves of the same whole, and while either may be hard to find, they are always present. Neither can be destroyed utterly. Each is born from the other. Because she understands this, understands the workings of the universe better than her adversaries, she is able to pull Raava free, and subdue and purge Unalaq with the very technique he taught her to win her trust.
            More than strength, intellect, resolve, honor, or valor, in the moral world of the series, wisdom is the greatest virtue. The most important statement a character can make is “I understand.” Understanding of others, of the world, of the cosmos, and of the self are of the utmost value. In the end, Korra literally ascends to the heavens with Raava, to reclaim her Special Birth, and gain a new, much more profound understanding of her role. When she descends, the other characters rush to her, amazed by what she has accomplished. The three most prominent, Bolin, Mako, and Tenzin, represent the three types of validation Korra covets the most—adoration of the people, romantic love, and mentorly praise. But rather than let them tell her how cool she is for a while, she immediately goes to her cousins, Unalaq’s twin children, and apologizes for her inability to save their father along with the rest of the world. Eska and Desna are weird, home-schooled quasi-autistics who don’t particularly think Korra needs to apologize, but that she did is a sign that she understands the gravity of her Special Birth, and not simply how cool it is.
          Tenzin tells Korra again and again there is much more to her role than she realizes. Because, the series makes clear, being the Avatar, despite having the most power of all, isn't particularly cool. It's difficult, unrelenting, confusing, and frequently unfair, and not in the standard pop-epic sense that fights can be hard. This is what elevates the series far above purely trivial power fantasy escapism. The escalating power of villains and the thrill of their defeat are not the biggest concerns of an Avatar. Aang struggled to reconcile his cherished ethics and pacifism with the possibility that the universe and his role within it will demand he violate them. Korra found herself caught in situations filled with adversaries only too happy to exploit her inexperience with duties she hasn't even had the chance to properly acquaint herself with. Neither was particularly challenged by power, and it's through depth in world-building, characterization, and philosophy that these conflicts are possible. Because they are, the series avoids the troubling theme I found all over that Mortal Instruments trailer.
           If you dig deep enough into the series lore, you find Avatar Kuruk, the last Avatar born in the Water Tribe before Korra. Also incredibly gifted, his powers made him arrogant, and the era of stability and peace he lived in allowed him to neglect his responsibilities. Instead, he wandered both worlds, seeking out worthy opponents to fight and pretty girls to impress. But he would inevitably pay for his hubris when an angry, insulted spirit inflicted a terrible punishment on him. He would advise later Avatars to not make his mistakes, to think of others, be a proactive force for balance, and take their duties seriously, as he had demonstrated the consequences of letting your specialness get the better of you.

* A common refrain during this particular phase in the fandom was that Korra was being a brat, or something similar. I don’t think this is a particularly fair characterization. While she was a bit out of line with Mako, she was more than justified in being angry with Tenzin and her father, who both pretty profoundly betrayed her trust.
** As I said, Raava (a very beautiful name, incidentally) and Vaatu are very yin and yang, but in a lot of ways Raava and Wan are as well—female and male, immortal and mortal, judgment (at first, Raava has a very low opinion of humans) and compassion, etc.
*** As dynamic and immaculately choreographed as fights can be in this series, it frequently takes the attitude that they should have been avoided, and thus are faintly tragic. There is no finer example of this than the first show’s climactic duel between antagonist-turned-ally Zuko and his sister Azula. Over two seasons, Azula was consistently cruel, murderous, and dangerous. No less a figure than Iroh, the wisest character of the series, and often its moral center, had stated that she “needs to be taken down,” and she eventually becomes dangerously paranoid, possibly even psychotic. And yet the fight with Zuko, thrilling and spectacular as it is, feels sorrowful and mournful. Azula quickly becomes too piteous for her eventual defeat to provide much in the way of catharsis.

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