Faith-Based Entertainment, by Elayne Riggs
White rabbits, and L’shana tova! My favorite season has finally arrived, and October is probably the best month in that season. There’s a delicious chill in the air, the leaves are already starting to turn, the Yanks have faded and the Mets have blown it (albeit on the last day this year, instead of crashing in the spectacular fashion of ’07), and I don’t much care because the new TV season is in full swing.
Not that I’m watching it much, mind you. I’ve become a not-ready-for-prime-time viewer. I spend about an hour to 90 minutes each weekday evening watching MSNBC (specifically Keith Olbermann then Rachel Maddow) on DVR delay, and the rest of the time trying in vain to catch up on my other DVR’ed programs. Between the food-themed reality shows, a few sci-fi trinkets, a smattering of sitcoms and the obligatory Stewart/Colbert one-two punch, when I finally do get up to date it’s already the weekend. I don’t even seem to have that much time any more for comics reading, considering I’ve been using my public transit commute more for light dozing than for funnybook perusal.
None of this is a complaint, it’s just an observation that, if there are any specific trends afoot, I may be slow to recognize them. But Robin thinks he’s spotted one that has me wondering if it’s not a part of a bigger shift in thinking about our entertainment.
“Ever notice,” he asked, “how many current TV shows and movies are obsessed with ‘seeing dead people’ and resurrection and the like? Lots of vampires cropping up as well.” Now, to be honest I’ve looked at the fall schedules and I’m not even sure it’s a trend. Piercing-the-veil encounters have been a staple of television for a long time, popping up in everything from The Twilight Zone to My Mother the Car. Flirting with death, sometimes literally (witness the current success of Stephanie Meyers’ Twilight series), is a classic wish-fulfillment trope. It seems to speak to a pretty deep need for reassurance. For instance, probably my favorite-ever Jim Valentino comic strip, done for some zine (which, alas, I’ve been unable to find for illustrative purposes, never having catalogued my old ‘80s zines) shortly after John Lennon was assassinated, features the ex-Beatle telling his wife that everything was fine, with the last panel showing Yoko suddenly sitting up in bed realizing it was a dream. As one of the millions of people who wished time travel were possible for the express purpose of saving Lennon from the shooting that took him from us, I still recall how that simple 3- or 4-panel sentiment moved me to tears, and chokes me up even now.
What we wouldn’t give for one more chance to speak with our departed loved ones! That burning desire moves some people to obsession, even if it’s just fictional in nature. We keep revisiting it. We keep wanting to believe we can somehow reconnect with those who’ve moved past this plane of existence. The desire to have faith in something greater than us, something tantalizingly beyond our reach but not beyond our imagination, fuels a heck of a lot of entertainment, both secular and religious. To heck with space, we all know what the real final frontier is.
Many of us will never stop believing that magical things are possible. A lot of people have been talking this past week about the failure of DC’s now-cancelled Minx imprint to catch on with either an audience or better bookstore distribution channels, and more than one has opined that the subject matter may be partly to blame. And because I vaguely remember being a geeky teenaged girl, I think back to my chosen entertainment at that age. I wasn’t caught up in slice-of-life tales. I wanted no part of painful reality, even fictionalized to show that Girls Like Me could be empowered. (And frankly, I didn’t see any Girls Like Me even in the Minx books. Not one fat girl protagonist that I can recall. Not one Jewish girl facing anti-Semitic WASPy bullies. Not one girl who had specific experiences with which I could identify. How could I want to be like any of them if I didn’t even start out with anything in common other than my femaleness?) If I were a teengirl today wanting to be inspired, none of the Minx line would do it. Even though I adored the premise of Good As Lily, it would have worked a lot differently for the same basic idea I’d had, which I referred to as Jill Times Two. Because it wouldn’t have been primarily about Jill’s ordinary life. It would have been about her extraordinary, almost magical abilities.
I didn’t really care for the name Minx, because it conveyed a sort of fake-marketing idea of sassiness rather than what I would have wanted to read when I was a teenaged girl. I wanted to read Magical Girl comics. I would loved to have seen an imprint called Magical Girl instead.
It just seems like you can’t go wrong with magical girls, a tried-and-true trope from fairy tales to Buffy to Sailor Moon to Amethyst. While we feminists love to give lip service to Doctor Barbie, I suspect the doll does rather better when portrayed as a princess. For many girls, particularly geeky ones who like to read, the audacity of hope and magic wands are just more fun than Very Special Episodes of After-School Specials. (It’s even more fun for politicians! If I hear our president remind us one more time of his lack of a magic wand, I’ll turn him into a newt. I’ll turn Newt into one too.)
As a kid, my favorite live-action TV shows were Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie. (I also liked The Munsters and The Addams Family, Star Trek and Time Tunnel, but none of those shows featured females in the lead role.) I read lots of fairy tales, then mythology, then young adult science fiction, which at the time was pretty much the trio of Heinlein, Bradbury and Asimov. Fortunately, LeGuin opened my eyes to the possibilities of female protagonists beyond Dorothy Gale, and female-written fantasy answered my cravings for literature with interesting heroines that went into a bit more depth than the average fairy tale. Most comics (which I didn’t start reading until I was well into adulthood) were great at fulfilling some power fantasies, but not so great at the female POV and pretty disappointing in that so many of them interpreted “power” as beating up on people rather than saving people. The best Magical Girl stories, for me, focused more on self-realization through personal quests rather than on violence.
And it’s interesting how many of these personal-quest stories involve not only magical objects but blurring the lines between the living and the dead. One of the many things that drew me to the Harry Potter saga was the ability of the characters to converse with long-dead wizards and witches by speaking either with ghosts or portraits; in fact, I was surprised that the final volume didn’t feature at least one scene of Harry conversing with a portrait of his mentor Dumbledore. The idea that living humans in need of personal growth or redemption can interact with and be aided by those long gone (A Christmas Carol) or by otherworldly beings who can grant them special powers (lots of stories going back to Greek mythology, Arabian tales and even the Bible) not only appeals to our vanity but calms our fears about death.
Yesterday and today not only mark the start of the Jewish (lunar) new year but the beginning of the 10-day period culminating in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement which represents Jews’ final chance to plead with G-d to inscribe them in the Book of Life, on the basis that they’ve been through this week of introspection and resolved to become better people. Many of us, both religious and less so, yearn to take that leap of faith that assures us that some form of life beyond our present circumstances is within our reach, perhaps with the help of supernatural intervention. We not only want to believe there’s Something else out there beyond our normal senses, but we want to believe in immortality as well. And after all, what better proof do we have of our potential immortality than these stories we leave each other which endure from generation to generation?
Elayne Riggs blogs at Pen-Elayne on the Web, wishes everyone a happy and healthy new year, and has asked G-d to inscribe her in the Book of Fame, as she wants to live forever, she wants to learn how to fly…