I made the same mistake as thousands of students before me: I believed that since I loved to read and write, my only choice was majoring in English. I completed most of the required course load, but ended up in Medieval Studies instead when I realized that lit crit classes were not compatible with an appreciation of fart jokes. Although I never completed that English major, I learned that I had a dark and terrible gift: give me a story, and I can weave a cloth of bullshit analysis so thick that logic cannot penetrate it.
Tolkien begins his saga as all of human history began: in a pre-capitalist agrarian society called the Shire. The Shire is populated by Hobbits, who are comfortable and happy because they are not alienated from the means of production or burdened with industrial relationships.
But evil comes to the Shire in the form of the One Ring, a golden trinket that tempts all who see it with the promise of unlimited power. The Ring is capitalism; its presence corrupts the Shire and threatens to destroy this peaceful idyll. Our heroes must overcome this corruption by destroying it–but in order to do this, they must seek help.
Gandalf–clearly a stand-in for Marx–leads the fellowship first to the elves. These are the intelligentsia of Middle Earth; they know what must be done to destroy the power of capitalism, but are too comfortable with their current position and thus unwilling to participate in the necessary struggle. Instead of helping in the coming war, they wall themselves off from society. Legolas is the only member of the intelligentsia who realizes that the class war must be fought, not argued.
They wish to seek help from the dwarves, who are clearly the proletariat; they control the mining operations, but they see little profit from their labors. Whole societies have been wiped out by the quest for more gold–literally, “The dwarves delved too greedily and too deep” and unleashed the horrors of the Balrog, the ultimate form of capitalism (which is, of course, imperialism according to Lenin).
They also are also promised help by Boromir (who falls prey to greed because he still subscribes to the feudalistic class structure) and Aragorn (who is resistant to the power of the ring because even though he is heir to a throne, he has chosen to identify himself as a member of a fellowship of equals, thus engaging in class struggle).
The core of the Fellowship is made up of hobbits, who are presented as uniquely resistant to the power of capitalism because they have not been brainwashed by growing up in a capitalist society. As they progress across Middle Earth, they learn a series of lessons about the perils of avarice and the ultimate triumph of the masses (Saruman’s rise and fall, Denethor’s madness, Théoden’s trust of Wormtongue, and so on). Frodo is tempted by the promise of wealth and power, but with the help of Sam, he overcomes his greed and casts the ring into the fire, where it is consumed entirely.
The hobbits return to the Shire, but they have changed in their travels, and so has their homeland. With their new-found class consciousness, they eradicate the last remaining vestiges of capitalist corruption from the land. Merry, Pippin, and Sam settle down to their peaceful, productive post-revolution lives, but Frodo knows that his work is not done. He sails off for new territory, along with the enlightened dwarf (proletariat) and elf (intelligentsia) who have decided to work together at last–by taking the light of Communism into the West.
I admit it, I watch Downton Abbey. It’s totally a guilty pleasure, equal parts soap opera and fashion show (those dresses! those hats!). The most interesting thing that happened in one episode was some pigs getting dehydrated (thrilling conclusion: they got some water). One time a character got into a fight with a pantry and lost. I have watched literally hours of people being passive-aggressive to each other at dinner. I so enjoy hearing rich people complain about flower arrangements that I have watched these gripping episodes multiple times. Send help.
What I find so deliciously enjoyable about watching rich people whine about their lives of leisure is that Downton Abbey has a way of messing with your moral compass. You’ll be puttering along, wondering if Tom Branson is really going to be so bold as to bring scandal to the family by fraternizing with a house maid, and suddenly you realize that Tom is a human being with the right to bang whoever he wants to bang, and all this agonizing about proper fork placement and cufflink etiquette had momentarily distracted you from realizing how deeply fucked up the Granthams’ view of their fellow man really is.
Because the show tricks you into rooting for the aristocrats, who deserve love and sympathy because they are so terribly rich and beautiful, and the servants who accept their lot with stoicism, who deserve pity because terrible soap-opera things keep happening to them. The show’s villains below stairs aren’t greedy, they’re progressive. Everything they want is perfectly normal, and they deserve happiness just as much as anyone else in the house. When they resort to unethical behavior, it’s because the proper path to success and happiness has been cut off for reasons beyond their control.
Take a look at Thomas, the slimy bastard you love to hate. He wants a career with a clear upwards trajectory based on competence. Instead, he’s stuck with an employer who bases his hiring decisions on who he happened to be buddies with in a war that happened when Thomas was a child. Bates sure is a nice dude, but Thomas is right: a man with a bum leg actually can’t perform all of the duties required of a valet. And who has to pick up the slack? The footmen. Yes, Thomas could have handled that situation better, but he’s cheating at a game that was rigged from the start.
Thomas wants to not die in a gruesome, and largely pointless, war. Totally reasonable behavior right there. World War I was a conflict of unprecedented scale and horror, and he sees battle sooner than anyone else in the series. When he comes back, all he wants is to have his own business instead of depending on the whims of a family who throw money away on stupid schemes and rely on favoritism when it comes to job offers and promotions. But once again everything blows up in his face, because he wants a taste of upwards mobility and thus by the rules of fucked up Downton logic he must be ground down for our amusement.
And of course, Thomas wants some romance in his life. But he’s gay, so the behavior that everyone else in the house gets rewarded for gets him a visit from the police. The characters who come out of that drama looking like heroes are the ones who are magnanimous enough to agree that maybe, just maybe, kissing a dude should not be a crime punishable by imprisonment and ruination. That’s a damn low bar to clear for heroism. Alfred never faces any consequences for calling the cops, Carson never gets his comeuppance for calling him foul, and Thomas has to get punched in the face to get a fleeting moment of positive attention from his coworkers.
Let’s take a look at the other characters who want just a tiny bit more than their lot and incur the wrath of Downton. Jimmy is the lazy whiner of the group, the foil to Almost Perfect Footman Alfred. Here are the worst of the faux pas that Jimmy has committed, to general condemnation:
He took a break and sat down in a nice chair.
He was told by his employer that he should take the day off to enjoy himself, and got peevish when his boss decided that he should work unpaid instead.
He takes care of his appearance, since his appearance is why he was hired in the first place.
He expected a long-term romantic relationship to involve a bit of heavy petting instead of chaste hand holding and movie viewing.
By Downton standards, he’s a cad. By normal human being standards, he’s a perfectly average dude.
Edna Braithwaite wants to do some social climbing. It’s not the most admirable quality, but given how hard it is for all the other characters in service to catch a break, can you really blame her for wanting to fuck her way to the top–or at least the comfortable middle?
Mrs. O’Brian wants to do the job she’s paid for, not to sub in for other maids’ jobs at random. She wants some job security, so she doesn’t have to worry any time she hears a scary rumor. When she’s bored with her work and sick of the social circle that’s been forced on her, she wants to be able to switch jobs without her employer taking it as a personal betrayal. Does she get any of those things? Nope. Was soap assassinating a fetus the correct response? Nope, but it’s the one thing she does that actually works out OK for her.
The show distracts you with dinner jackets and estate taxes and garden parties until you’ve forgotten that this is a story about people who perform pointless rituals for shitty pay to keep up appearances for a family who can destroy their lives at a whim. They aren’t allowed to leave the house without permission if they want to keep their jobs. They can’t have sex at all unless they’re properly wed, and they have to beg their boss’s permission to marry. Trying for a middle-class job gets them condemnation at best, and ruination at worst. If they slip up, they’ll be turned loose with no reference in a world where people of “low character” have to turn to crime or prostitution to survive. Those consequences aren’t just implied–this happens in the show to a maid who commits the grievous sin of hopping in bed with the wrong dude.
All the Granthams have to do is be gracious and maintain their massive fortune, and they can’t even pull that off most of the time. And they’re supposed to be the heroes? Fuck that. I’m rooting for the scheming social climbers. They know what’s up.
This has been a huge year for bromance on screen, especially for genre films and TV. Totally platonic love between two bros is so mainstream that studios are using it as a selling point for new shows. But even when the romantic overtones are totally unintentional, there’s a good chance that relationship will get more love from fans than the couple the writer originally intended to promote.
The reason, unfortunately, is pretty obvious: there just aren’t enough female characters on screen, and the few who do make it are all too often than not poorly written, relegated to background characters, killed off to maximize man-pain, or missing for huge chunks of the script. A lot of recent films have chosen to focus on a rocky friendship between two leads where the conflict isn’t based on romantic rivalry (a positive development overall, but one that pushes women even further out of the spotlight since those leads are almost always male). We’re also at a cultural crossroads where some fans want to see queer relationships, other fans refuse to see queer relationships, and studios need to avoid pissing anyone off since their profit margins are already slim on big budget sci fi and fantasy.
This got me thinking about how writers deal with a fan base that’s willing to accept, and sometimes actively looking for, a romantic relationship that can’t be acknowledged on screen.
I’d like to find some examples with women as well, but there just isn’t that much out there where two women have a relationship that’s central to the story and they aren’t 1) sisters or 2) competing over a man.
The Unintentional Bromance
The writer genuinely did not realize that they were creating a relationship between two men that was more interesting than the intended romance. Common culprits: male-heavy casts, ham-handed writing of female characters, poor chemistry between romantic leads, poor acting or directing in general. In older cases, the original author may have been recording contemporary attitudes towards friendship and relationships, and modern audiences are seeing a subtext that just wasn’t supposed to be there. In recent examples, it’s all too often the result of systemic sexism that reduces the number of interesting female characters or encourages directors to cast women for their looks and men for their acting ability.
Adaptations of classic literature, with a few exceptions
Star Trek (original)
The Intentional Bromance
This usually happens when a writer is adapting an old story, one written in a less tolerant age, for a modern audience. The writer and the audience both know that the relationship between two men was intended to be non-sexual by its original author, but the passage of time has changed social mores or a fandom of the two as a couple has developed. The new writer isn’t allowed or doesn’t want to make this couple canon, but is allowed to drop some sly references for fans.
For original properties, the writer doesn’t want to make a queer romance central to the story but is self-aware enough to acknowledge that a certain portion of the audience will see one anyway.
Star Trek: Into Darkness
Brian Singer’s X-Men
The Disputed Bromance
The writer did not intend to imply a relationship, but someone else involved with the process did. Since actors and directors have some agency in how they interpret a script, the final result intentionally doesn’t match up with the writer’s vision, or actors elaborate on their characters in interviews without getting permission from the writing team first. All too often, the original author doth protest too much when audiences just won’t shut up about the gay subtext.
Ender’s Game (General audience consensus is that the books are super gay, even though the author vehemently denies it. The filmmakers actually had to remove most of the overtly sexual content.)
I wanted to like Agents of SHIELD. I really did. I like Joss Whedon. I like goofy alien-artifact-of-the-week scifi. I like the campy self-awareness that Marvel has been bringing back to the superhero genre. So of course I was rooting for Big Budget AmericanTorchwood, and of course I’m disappointed.
Because something about SHIELD is off. It’s not just the script, which feels like it’s written by a committee of Joss Whedon fans who can’t quite get his style down. It’s not the acting, although a really great cast might shine despite the script (looking at you, Ms. unintelligible British accent). There’s just something about the presentation that is making me actively dislike SHIELD as an organization.
What the recent wildly successful Marvel movies understood was that superheroes are most loveable when they’re underdogs. Thor’s most memorable moments weren’t in the action scenes or the loooong Asgardian speeches, but in the fish out water comedy after he loses his power. Even after his de-wimpification, Captain America is one man in a goofy suit against a ruthless organization*. Spiderman is pretty much the poster child for down and out superheroes. The best X-Men movies balanced out the whiz-bang gadgets with scenes in which the protagonists go up against stronger, better-connected villains.
Yes, the Avengers does have more goofy gadgetry than it should, but the heroes’ characters are established in seedier surroundings, and the city-wrecking monsters are large enough that the threat feels real.
It’s not just that modern audience tend to root for the underdog, although that’s definitely a part of why this technique is so effective. When the audience knows the character is an underdog, that knowledge raises the stakes. It makes the fight seem harder, even if you know who’s going to win. The hero’s victory is all the more impressive because he’s playing with a handicap.
Getting this distinction down is especially important in a visual medium, where we don’t have access to a character’s internal monologue. The hero can’t just say “oh crap, that thing is more powerful than me and I’m scared.”** Compared to the antagonist, the hero needs to be physically smaller or weaker or technologically behind the times.
The Iron Man series is a perfect example of how the underdog can be done right or terribly wrong.
Tony Stark starts the series looking like he ought to be a villain in this story, not the hero: he’s rich, he’s powerful, he’s a total asshole. The director was smart enough to realize this, so as soon as this is set up Stark’s kidnapped and has a change of heart (literally!). The prototype Iron Man suit is built from scraps; it looks like a joke compared to the villains’ weapons, but it works—sort of.
So Stark builds a better suit, and after he irons out the kinks we’re treated to a gleeful demonstration of how powerful he is. But then—and this is the important bit—the villain gets an even more powerful suit, and the climax is our hero getting slapped around by a larger and stronger villain. He wins with a trick because strength, even super-powered strength, is not enough to save him.
Iron Man 2
Iron Man 2: 2 Iron Men This Time is… not very good. Most of that is the truly appalling dialogue*** and the confusing plot, but part of it is the fact that they forgot to make the hero the underdog. The villain is… some old guy in a junkyard-chic harness with a pretty legitimate grievance against Stark Industries. There’s an evil businessman who’s sort of working with Mr. Angry Gramps, but he’s not physically imposing and he doesn’t have anything like a private security force of his own. There’s the US Army, sort of, but even when they steal Tony Stark’s stuff the filmmakers were reluctant to show our hero punching a tank.
Yes, there’s an army of large robots with big guns, but they’re just hanging out in a warehouse until late in the movie, when it’s too late to feel a last-minute surge of affection for the heroes who can’t beat up an old man even though they have access to billions of dollars’ worth of offensive technology.
Iron Man 3
This movie realized where Iron Man 2 went wrong and corrected it with a vengeance. Tony has just returned from discovering that the world is one soured bromance away from being overrun with impossibly huge aliens. Worse, he’s learned that as superheroes go, he’s not even that impressive. The suit, for him, isn’t an offensive weapon any more; it’s the only way he can protect himself.
So of course it’s taken away from him. It breaks down, leaving him stranded far away from his fancy gadgets. He has to resort to improvised weapons, just like in the first movie. At one point, he only has part of his suit available, and has to jet around awkwardly with the majority of his body exposed.
When the movie makers can’t think up a convincing reason to threaten Iron Man, they find someone smaller and weaker to imperil instead: Penny, the president, that unexpectedly endearing kid. The danger feels real, because we can tell at a glance that Tony is vulnerable and his enemies aren’t. And the enemies in this movie are genuinely threatening. They’re walking bombs, capable of dishing out massive amounts of damage, and anyone can become one of them.
So that’s where Agents of SHIELD is going wrong. It’s using the tropes of the underdog, but it doesn’t know why it’s using them, so those moments don’t mean anything. Why is there only enough money in the budget for two scientists? Were a few more grad students going to break the bank, Agent “I just renovated this private plane” Coulson? Why did you have to resort to hiring a hacker who lives in a van? Speaking of which, why does this hacker have expensive hair-styling tools, makeup, and an endless supply of designer clothes in said van? Could you not afford to upgrade to a more mentally stable assassin? Why is the team so small and inexperienced, when they’re playing with such expensive toys?
Yes, the enemy is a mean guy with lots of money and fancy gadgets, but SHIELD has even more money and fancier gadgets, so he’s really the underdog in this situation. Nick Fury mentions how expensive the plane was, but it’s played off as a joke; it’s not like SHIELD doesn’t have the money to fix it. The team has resources beyond our wildest dreams, and they still come awfully close to snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
In the right hands, this could be an interesting meditation on what it means to be powerful in a world where conflicts can’t be solved with money or machines. A capable writer could take the story in an interesting direction by robbing SHIELD of its funding or sending the team out without its usual arsenal. But right now it’s just rich, beautiful people wielding impossible technology. They say they’re weak, but they don’t show it, and so I don’t feel it.
* And the entire German army. Fighting Nazis in occupied territory pretty much guarantees underdog status for any hero.
** Well, he can, but that’s lazy writing and it won’t make the audience feel scared along with the hero.
*** “You look like two seals fighting over a grape,” said Don Cheadle wistfully, remembering that he got an Oscar for Hotel Rwanda
I will take advantage of any opportunity to run around in a nerdy costume. This year, I had the BRILLIANT (aka drunk) IDEA of doing genderbent Pacific Rim, because I already owned 90% of this costume and it’s hard to come up with Halloween costumes that are 1) warm, 2) cheap, and 3) hipster glasses-friendly.
Then I got some last minute tickets to Geek Girl Con and decided to throw on my Halloween costume, because impulsive decisions are how I roll. So now I have cosplayed! COOL PERSON ALERT.