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Pop Culture – Page 2 – Life as an Extreme Sport
Life as an Extreme Sport

A Teacher Wouldn’t Be Fired for Being a Companion

Sex work, I have written, defines the people who do it like no other occupation. Associated with deviance, drug use, mental illness and disease, to be labelled a “prostitute” is to be cast as the lowest of the low. No matter the realities of our experiences, we are thought of as victims and as inherently damaged, either before or as a result of our profession. Worst of all, once a sex worker, always a whore.
-Melissa Petro, Jezebel

And that, right there, in a few simple sentences, sums up the point and power of Inara in the Firefly ‘verse. For all you may disagree with aspects of sex work represented, this comment (and the entire article) highlight just what it was Inara was supposed to flip around. Rather than be the lowest of the low – an attitude still embraced in some parts of the ‘verse and clearly exemplified in Mal – as a whole, Companions were on the top of the social class system a pyramid. (And, in fact, with Nandi, you get to see how Companions themselves maintain social and class structure.)

Inara was not a victim. She didn’t need rescuing, from her choices or her career. There was no societal stigma to her profession, and she certainly would not have been fired from a teaching position for having previously been a Companion.

Living in Shatner’s World

I grew up in an ecumenical household. There was no battle between the Stars – Star Wars, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica. As long as it was space opera, it was welcome, and this was the influence of my father. I don’t have any memories of this starting, because it always was.

What I do remember, however, is my first.

Oh, you typically hear of “the first” – genre-wise – with regards to Doctor Who; who was your first Doctor? And while I certainly have a first Doctor (Nine, thankyouverymuch), it doesn’t have the same hold on me as my first captain.

Oh captain, my captain – Captain Kirk.

Yes, Sir Patrick Stewart was wonderful as Captain Picard, and I suspect you can trace much, if not all, of my interest in philosophy and history and most importantly, ethics, to Captain Jean-Luc Picard and his thoughtful troubleshooting and conflict resolution. I will happily debate episodes, quote Darmok to you (and Jalad, at Tanagra), and discuss all the ways in which John de Lancie was a fantastic foil to Picard.

But it’s William Shatner that is my captain. Every afternoon, Dad would make sure he was home in time to watch Star Trek with me (in reruns, obviously). We watched Kung Fu, also, but it just wasn’t the same. There was something about Star Trek. Maybe it was because I had been raised on science fiction, Dad choosing to read me scifi novels instead of children’s books. Maybe it was because of NASA and the shuttle and the sense of the potential out there – space, that final frontier. Maybe it’s because as they’ve aged, William Shatner and my father have become similar, in posture and appearance and voice. Maybe it’s a little of it all, bound together with those afternoons watching the TV, rapt, with Dad.

It’s that ephemeral thing that makes something yours, and that fondness hasn’t faded over the years, even if I haven’t always followed Shatner’s career closely.

So it was with some apprehension I looked at the Philadelphia ticket sales for Shatner’s World, William Shatner’s one-man play. While I came of age after that particular incident that was so soundly mocked on SNL, I was a con-goer when I was young, and I’d heard the stories, and I was wary. I have these wonderful memories and an enduring warmth for Shatner; did I want to risk it on a play that might snuff that out and, for lack of less poetic a term, shatter illusions?

I did what any girl in my position would do: I called my father and asked him what he would do. Was it my only chance, he asked me. I confirmed that it was, and Dad held the beat for just long enough before asking, nicely, if maybe I was a little wrong in the head.

William Shatner. When would I ever have the chance again? Sure, he’s going to be here for a comics convention in May, but that’s crowded and… different. Perhaps it’s my con-going youth, but crowds of people paying large amounts of money for a signature and perhaps a photo is just not what a con should be, and not how meeting someone you admire should be. You can call me old-fashioned, I’ll do the yelling to get off my lawn.

So I shrugged and I bought a ticket. The play, after all, had been getting wonderful reviews – at worst, I would lose a few more of the illusions that I had clung to into adulthood. At this point, there aren’t too many left, so they’d be in good company if they did go away.

But oh, oh, they didn’t. I came out of the theatre more starry-eyed and head-in-clouds than before, and so did everyone else. I have never left a show where everyone is talking about the same thing: how amazingly profound what they just saw was, and yet, that’s exactly what happened.

Shatner’s World is a retrospective of William Shatner’s life. It’s a narrative, so while it starts with him as a young man, the stories are what link the show together, rather than strictly linear narration. Shatner’s. Famed. Delivery. is not on hand here, save for casual mocking – instead, it was more like listening to a good friend tell a story – a long, engrossing story that you don’t want to end. This play wasn’t polished; he stuttered and stammered, he got lost in his story, he slipped up and misspoke and corrected and laughed – or then again, maybe the play was just that polished, that these slip-ups that felt natural were worked in to feel natural.

That, right there, is the genius of the experience – while clearly being rehearsed, it felt not-rehearsed-at-all. And Shatner is fast on his feet; he had quippy remarks for the crowd, especially as they reacted to young and shirtless images of him, and the poor person handling the spotlight had a rough time of it when his (or her) aim was off, and Shatner started deviating from his story to give staging directions.

Or was that scripted, too? I couldn’t tell you.

Here’s the thing: I’ve been a fan for my entire life, so I know these stories. I know about his horses, I know about the tragic death of his beloved Nerine and how he found love again. I know the Star Trek saga inside and out, the rivalries and friendships. I know the jokes about him doing anything for money, about the CDs and Priceline and on and on…

And yet I sat, rapt. I was leaning forward on the edge of my (very nice, thank you again lovely usher who moved me to a plush box seat with generous leg room) seat, absorbed in everything Shatner said. And I wasn’t the only one. When I did pull my eyes off the stage to see how the crowd was reacting, rather than just hearing the sighs and laughter, it was hard to miss the fact that almost everyone else was leaning forward, too. Drawn in, and to, attention.

I don’t know that I expected to laugh, but I hoped, and I did – hard and often. What I didn’t expect was to tear up, which I also did at several points, and where I also know I wasn’t the only one, because you could hear the sniffles traveling through the crowd. And it wasn’t at the necessarily expected points, either – it was in moments like hearing his sorrow over his horse, his acceptance at being Captain Kirk, his pride at the house his kidney stone bought, in his first trip to NASA and his final recording for Discovery.

It was in the tender, and the funny – and he was able to turn a story from one to another in the span of a few steps across the sparse stage.

Shatner gets mocked a lot for saying yes – he’s known for doing almost anything put in front of him. But he explained this philosophy in his show, and it makes sense: it’s easy to say no. It’s easy to stay inside, away from the world, disengaged. But one of the hardest things you can do is say yes. Yes to opportunity, yes to life, yes to potentially making a fool of yourself, yes to wonder and awe – yes to love.

Is it Shatner’s World? It is while he’s on the stage, and I’m lucky enough that – even in such a culturally distant way, he’s so central to mine. So perhaps it’s not surprising that I think the ultimate answer to that question, is yes.

Batman, The Joker, & the Morality of Killing

So, the internet has been busy, the last few weeks, discussing ethics. And I’m going to continue avoiding discussion of what I’m sure everyone would love me to discuss, and instead wade into the other debate: should Batman just kill The Joker?

Tauriq Moosa, over at Big Think, argues yes, Batman should just kill The Joker. In short, by not killing The Joker, Batman is falling down in his job to protect Gotham; no matter what happens, The Joker escapes confinement and goes on another murderous spree, killing and harming more innocents in Gotham. If Batman is really trying to protect these people and maintain order, then his clear option – after all this time – is to humanely kill The Joker. Moosa points out that, given Batman is basically the greatest detective who ever lived (sorry Michael, the internet gives this to Bats, not Sherlock), it wouldn’t be difficult for him to make The Joker’s death look like an accident, if that were really necessary to maintain his public face of a non-lethal superhero.

Over at Scifi Mafia, Brandon Johnston declares that Moosa is wrong across several fronts:

  • Batman isn’t a superhero so that’s not a motive for his non-lethal stance
  • Batman isn’t image conscious
  • Batman’s non-lethal stance isn’t one based in morality

So, let’s get the “God is an editor” argument out of the way at first: Batman started out killing, and using guns. When he moved to his own comic, the editor at the time, Whitney Ellsworth, decreed no guns and no killing, and that held up for decades due to various pressures facing the comics industry as a whole. But remember, Batman started out as an antihero, Sam Spade-style detective, and that grain runs through his character to today.

Which brings me to Moosa’s throwaway about Batman being a superhero, and Johnston’s response that Batman is not a superhero. Here, Johnston is right: Batman is not a hero, super or otherwise. That’s always been the emphasis of difference between Superman and Batman: Superman is a hero, Batman is an antihero. By virtue of special powers (or being alien life-forms or gods), most heros in the comicverse as a whole are superheroes – they have super-human powers; the lack of (and instead reliance on science and his brain) has always been a key point of Batman.

However, Moosa is also right: because of his staunch and unwavering morality, over the years Batman has become a hero to the superheroes that inhabit the DCverse. But, given the overlapping ideas here, perhaps it would be better to say that Batman is quite often a role model for other heroes (super or otherwise) in the DCverse.

That brings us to image consciousness. Arguing that Batman isn’t image conscious is sort of strange, given that everything Batman did in creating his secret personae of the Batman is about image: what is scary, what will intimidate, what will bring fear into the heart of those who would dare commit crime in his city? Everything about Batman is about image, including his action and relation to the villains running through Gotham.

Let’s just let Batman explain this one for us,

Criminals are a superstitious and cowardly lot, so my disguise must be able to strike terror into their hearts. I must be a creature of the night, black, terrible…

Cue the drama as a bat crashes through the window. Some origin stories, such as Year One, add in a bleeding Bruce Wayne, or a history of being afraid of bats as a child, but one thing remains constant: a conscious effort at creating an intimidating and fearful image. And the question that has to be asked, then, is whether or not an avowed stance of non-lethality helps or harms Batman’s overall image. If it is known that Batman will never main or kill someone, it significantly detracts from the fear he inspires in others – what, after all, is the worst that will happen if you run into Batman? Bruises, some bones, maybe a spin through Arkham. Are these motivators strong enough to stop criminals? Maybe some – but clearly not The Joker.

Finally, Johnston argues that Batman isn’t motivated by morality. Well, how are we defining morality? Or, perhaps more specifically, what motivates Batman to go out nightly and protect Gotham from criminals? Well, I think we all know this: as a child, Bruce Wayne’s parents were mugged and killed in front of him, and this motivated him to a life of revenge against criminals – and justice.

While revenge is not something that we are ever going to strongly associate with morality, justice? A lot of different forms of ethical discourse focus specifically on justice, from the entire body of Rawlsian-influenced theory to natural law theory to principlism and more. Seriously, I’m certain you could fill an entire PhD of nothing but the different aspects justice has taken in ethical discourse since the invention of writing.

It’s a big thing.

So is Batman’s non-lethal stance based on his moral commitment to justice? I would argue yes, but also that this same moral commitment can and does indicate that he should kill The Joker.

First, and before continuing, it’s probably necessary to note that given all the various incarnations of Batman, it’s necessary to clarify which Batman I’m discussing. For the sake of not trying to go multiverse crazy, I’m sticking with the general portrayal of Batman we’ve seen since Frank Miller turned comics on their head with his The Dark Knight Returns and Year One.

The Batman that has emerged since then is clearly dedicated to justice and protecting Gotham. I would argue that, as a whole, this Batman operates under Rawls’ principles of justice, and is clearly utilizing a basic implementation of Rawls’ veil of ignorance to determine his actions. For those of you who did not slog through too much political philosophy, in general this idea says that all of our actions have to be determined from a place of ignorance about our position within society.

By blinding ourselves to our position, not knowing our place, class, social status, fortune (in wealth, assets, abilities, etc), or anything else about ourself, we are in theory supposed to consider all possibilities – that we might be born Bruce Wayne, with a silver spoon and tragic antihero past, we might be a space alien, or a reporter, or just a housewife in Kansas. Because we don’t know who we are, in theory the principles of justice that are chosen behind this veil of ignorance are going to benefit the most – that is, no one is going to decide that one person should have 99% of the wealth if there’s a good chance that they’ll be the 1%. We are much more likely to choose balance if we don’t know how we’ll benefit (this strong principle is reinforced by game theory research).

So in theory, you could say that Batman, not knowing if he would be Batman or The Joker, would make a decision from behind this veil of general non-lethalness, and I think that you can see that for the most part, this is the case. Batman is using his position to make balanced decisions in favour of a universal justice that pretty neatly follows Rawls’ principles of justice.

However. However. We know that post-comics code Batman actually isn’t as married to this non-lethal stance as people like to claim. For example, leading up to the infinite Crisis, “The Tower of Babel” story shows Batman’s so complete mistrust of the superheroes he associates with that he starts keeping files on how to kill each of them. Why would a man dedicated to non-lethal approaches have kill files, not to mention a kill satellite (Brother I)?

Because in Batman’s worldview, justice really is blind, and superheroes can cause as much, if not more, harm than good. When looking at things from that point of ignorance, I think it’s entirely likely that Batman would say that it would be better for the normal and ordinary citizens of the world if superheroes-gone-bad were killed, even if he might be one of those superheroes once his position is revealed. Batman’s stance on justice is so strong that the removal of the threat, that to give everyone the equal right to the most extensive basic liberties, which will benefit most the least advantaged person in society, justifies the death of the outliers threatening others – whether that outlier is a superhero, or a super villain.

Applying what appears to be Batman’s dedication to a very Rawlsian form of justice to the situation with The Joker, it becomes difficult to rationalize Batman’s lack of killing, because although as a whole non-lethal actions do offer the greatest benefit, in the specific scenario of The Joker and his effect on Gotham, it is of greatest advantage to remove him. Permanently.

This feeds into Batman as antihero, it protects Batman’s image as someone to fear, and it works seamlessly with Batman’s moral emphasis on justice at all costs.

In the end, Moosa’s argument is right: Batman should kill The Joker. The question as to why Batman does not is not answered by any of the responses Johnston offers; the best answer is probably given by The Joker himself: the Batman needs a Joker. Someone who gives him purpose.

(And yes, we could have a very interesting discussion about Batman’s choices, especially with regards to The Killing Joke, and how Batman might not necessarily be so dedicated to the principles of Rawls’ theory of justice, because of the “one bad day” hypothesis. But this is really long enough, and I think the point was made well enough for one day.)

Why I Don’t Like Twilight & You Shouldn’t Either

This started out as a blog comment response over on The Nerdy Bird’s blog regarding Twilight and if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. I was directed to this from Nerds in Babeland’s post defending sparkly vampires, which I flailed about and responded to on Twitter, after GeekGirlCon tweeted the link this morning.

Caught all that? It’s as convoluted as it sounds.

What it boils down to is this: as far as I’m concerned, Twilight tells girls that their only value is in what an older man thinks of them, and it primes these young girls to accept that abusive relationships are normal, romantic and desirable, when the reality is ever so very different.

I don’t have a problem with emotionally healthy and mature grown women enjoying Twilight as a guilty pleasure – a lot of people scoff at some of my guilty pleasure reading, which includes a paranormal romance series that many people have similar abuse concerns with (Kresley Cole’s Immortals After Dark – a concern I don’t share for consent reasons that are absent in Twilight, and I can go into in another post if people are really all that curious).

Regardless, what adults read? Is what adults read.

My concern is largely about the message that tweens and teens take away from the Twilight series. Obviously the biggest issue I have is the domestic violence one; everything – EVERYTHING – Edward does shows up as a red flag in DV handouts (something Dr. NerdLove addresses well in his recent Twilight post). And as I mentioned on Twitter, I know of too many young girls who wonder why their boyfriend isn’t as jealously protective as Edward is, or who justify the stalking and abuse because that’s what love is like, just look at Edward and Bella.

I genuinely believe that any teen girl seen reading these books needs to have an adult intervene and make sure she doesn’t have screwy ideas about what a relationship is, because too many girls are grasping on to it – and to be fair, this is precisely what The Nerdy Bird wonders: why are young girls taking that wrong message?

And naturally, being an opinionated soul, I have ideas. ๐Ÿ˜‰

I do think SMeyers got something very right with the book – she tapped into that feeling that I think the majority of teen girls have. That feeling of awkwardness as your body shifts and your gravity changes and you’re suddenly a klutz. The whole roil of hormones, the feeling like an outsider because of the hormones and sudden competition between female friends for the guys and seeing guys through that light of hormones and all the travails and trials that every single teen girl EVER goes through. Except, of course, the one teen girl you wanted to be like – the one with the perfect hair and clothes and everything else that you never were.

Well, in Twilight, that’s subverted – Bella ends up learning that she really is the perfect one that the pretty (vampire) girl wants to be because of her functional uterus and the worship of this perfect male god and on and on.

Which are all the reasons that adults like the books – the understanding and fond remembrance of being THAT girl (and thank god for growing out of it).

And Twilight isn’t the only series that has done this. I think we can probably look back at any time period and find That Series of Books that teen girls latched on to and loved, which probably had similar themes of the to-die-for (just not literally) older guy seeing the beauty and value and inherent goodness in the not-really-mousy girl who just needed to get contacts and change her hair. (It could be those of us from the late 80s and 90s had it in Brat Pack movies instead of books – in this I am not a good example, as I discovered Pride & Prejudice early, and then was busy reading fantasy and scifi novels in my teens, which whoa, want to talk about unhealthy relationships,…)

The difference with Twilight is that it’s the first time (as far as I know) the message has been combined with the ones that come along with the domestic violence flags.

Unfortunately, we know, from research, that the things we see on TV or read subconsciously influences us and tells us this is “right.” The most common example is the so-called CSI effect, but it’s also been tracked in medicine. (People who watch medical shows like ER or Chicago Hope or even Scrubs believe that CPR is much more effective than it is. When asked how they know, they just know that they “learned it somewhere”.) So we in effect have an awful lot of girls getting the idea that these abuse-y, red flag, drama and control and danger relationships are normal, if not ideal (“he’s so protective because he loves me”). There isn’t popular media out there countering the *bad* ideas in Twilight, or giving alternate models of romance for girls to form their ideas – and ideals – on. In fact, I would argue that popular media aimed at this demographic reinforces that ideal – a pretty big change from the ideas teen girls were exposed to in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Or at least, that’s my brief (and yet still too long) blog response on the idea.

(There are other issues I’ll beat on with Twilight, too, like that the only role a woman has is the one the male wants for her, and motherhood. [Some, for example, might want to frame Darcy and Elizabeth’s romance as bordering on an abusive situation, but Lizzy’s life doesnt’ revolve around Darcy – she has her family, her own life, her own dreams and desires that extend beyond marrying. In fact, to the point of accepting she won’t marry, because it’s so important to her to stay her own person.] And that’s not even touching on the really creepy “imprinting why is no one concerned about the pedophilia implications here?” But that’s deviating WAY further than I should – although give me an ounce of encouragement and I’ll go there, too.)

TV Thursday: A Eureka Moment

Being a pop culture junkie has it’s ups and downs, and one of the downs is having to embrace a suspension of disbelief on shows in order for the premise to work. I won’t name names, but we all know of shows where if The Lead wasn’t there, life as the Characters in Peril know it would be over. Someone wouldn’t receive their life-saving surgery, someone would go to jail (or get away with murder), a dirty bomb would go off in LA (oh wait), or whatever. This is necessary because the premise of the show is that Lead Character is A Badass That the World Needs. (I’m sure there’s a TVTropes for this, but if I go into that website, I’ll lose the next few hours of productivity, and I don’t have time for that.)

And this is why Eureka is one of my favourite shows on TV. The ostensible lead of the show is Sheriff Jack Carter, a no-nonsense, applied theory sort of guy who tends to Save the Asses of the scientists in the military-industrial research town of Eureka, Oregon. Carter’s not a genius in the sense that the numerous scientists populate the town are, and he often serves as the stand-in for the audience, requiring that the complex science-y ideas that drive the plot be explained to him (and thus the viewer). But Carter often (frequently) saves the day because his outsider perspective as a non-scientist allows him to suggest “outside-the-box” solutions that the trained scientists are too knowledgeable to see – a scenario that anyone versed in interdisciplinary science knows is very true to life. (In fact, Bad Astronomy’s Phil Platt makes a very convincing argument for why Carter is a scientist in this Blastr post.)

The fact that Carter is both Not A Scientist and Saves the Day a Lot is something that is lampshaded at least once a season on Eureka, which in itself is refreshing – the show knows that the premise of the Everyman Hero is a bit worn. But Eureka has started to take it a step further: they actually have episodes where Carter is indisposed, because he’s getting a training certification or off to visit his daughter at her out-of-state college, and in these episodes? The world does not end. In fact, even though there’s threat of world-ending, and in the case of the Carter is indisposed because he’s being re-certified someone repeatedly suggests getting him, other characters are competent and able to deal with the problems in Eureka without Carter.

Which is a relief, because the town certainly existed before Carter – and managed not to blow itself up in that time.

Eureka is one of my favourite shows for a lot of reasons, including the fact that it celebrates science and the scientific method, and does so in a way that makes science fun, sexy, and desirable. In Eureka, being smart is the default, and the geeks are sexy and acknowledged as – and what’s not to love about that?

But more than appreciating the geek love and pro-science stance of the show, I love the fact that the writers realize that although Carter is an amazing character, there is literally an entire cast of smart, funny characters to work with – and while the audience may miss their clear stand-in without Carter, the city doesn’t need Carter to survive.

It’s rare to see a show so clearly acknowledge the elephant in the room that comes with having the premise of a show based on an outsider saving things, and to do so in such a graceful manner.

If you don’t watch Eureka, you’re really missing out. The second half of season four starts up on July 11th, and SyFy is running several marathons prior to that so you can catch up. Plus, the first three seasons are available on Netflix Streaming. Trust me, if you love science, have a sense of humour, and can appreciate not only geek jokes but self-awareness in writing, Eureka is a show you should be watching.