Monday, November 8, 2010

It's Been a While, and Still Some Things Don't Ever Change

Long time, no see. America is drowning from a recent tea party (btw, totally symbolically boycotted tea on Election Day and got all of my caffeine from coffee, despite my preference for tea!), and in the world of fictional narratives, maybe nothing's different. Despite national turmoil.

Right now, I'm teaching a section of freshman comp in the Rutgers-Newark Writing Program, and we're moving into a unit on heroes. We've started with part of the introduction to Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which Campbell argues for what he calls the "monomyth": It's very Jungian, in that Campbell posits that there are archetypes that recur throughout cultures. And we've basically been dealing with the same kinds of stories. It's the context that's different, the names and faces and particular quirks of characters that are unique.

That seems to be a popular opinion in what I've been reading as of late. In A Short Story Writer's Companion, Tom Bailey argues that it's characters that make stories different and meaningful. This is not unlike Campbell's monomyth, which has been appropriated by modern tale tellers like George Lucas.

How'd I get on this tangent? The most recent update to Kate Beaton's webcomic Hark! A Vagrant! Beaton lampoons Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe in a series of strips that place Friday as the more intelligent, sophisticated of the two. The purpose behind Beaton's comic is to mock a recurring film archetype that she read about in the Bright Lights Film Journal, in which Frederick Zackel argues that we've been seeing Robinson Crusoe's master-slave/white-black dialectic played for years. And it's everywhere. Yet we've been overlooking it in to address other concerns. Zackel writes,
For instance, we all remember the brouhaha about whether the 1993 movie Rising Sun actually represented Japan-bashing. Yet none of us seemed to have noticed that the two male leads in that movie, Sean Connery and Wesley Snipes, were busy reenacting (or maybe "perpetuating" is a better word) one of the oldest fictional partnerships in our Western culture.
Englishman Connery played the part of Robinson Crusoe, while Snipes, a descendant of slaves, played his Man Friday. Not that those were their characters' names, of course. Not that either man realized what they were reenacting, either. Nor can either man be blamed for his part in perpetuating the myth.
First of all, I take offense to his referring to Sean Connery as an "Englishman," but his point is that Connery's and Snipes's characters are reenacting/perpetuating (his words) the Robinson Crusoe/Friday model. And it's not just Rising Sun; other movies, like Men in Black, have the older, wiser, patriarchal white male figure overseeing, guiding, and correcting a black counterpart (Tommy Lee Jones with Will Smith, for instance).

But seriously--Sean Connery is a Scot. Mr. Zackel is perpetuating his own stereotype--that Scots are happily English. But just as the rise of the Scottish parliament speaks towards Scotland's move toward freedom, so too should we try to craft into our fictions a move away from the Crusoe/Friday paradigm (first African American president, anybody?). Otherwise, nothing will ever change.


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