Monday, December 28, 2009

Queen of the Universe (Red vs. Blue)

(Crossposted from Halopedia)

Franklin Delano Donut is a main character in Rooster Teeth’s hit Halo machinima Red vs. Blue, a prominent aspect of the Halo community recognized and promoted by Bungie. Donut is most recognizable by his now characteristic pink armor, which he insistently refers to as “lightish red”. The character has undergone a transformation throughout the show’s course, changing from a generic red army newbie to a slighted cisgender straight guy taken for having feminine characteristics to a gay guy who thinks he’s a girl1, and this article is here to chronicle the transformation. It is a longer blog post, but it presents information in bite-sized paragraphs that should be easy to skim through. I’ll probably write a thorough analysis later.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Analysis of Twilight Film's Added Liberal Elements

I personally love the Twilight series of novels (and now movies), but I know there’s been a lot of controversy regarding them. Author Stephenie Meyer, a conservative Mormon, places many of her values and beliefs in the story, such as creationism, linking the Quileute tribe with a lost tribe of Israel, and most notably the relationship between Bella and Edward in which he asserts total control over her life and she surrenders almost completely (I’m convinced that this is just a big fantasy and not a representation of how she thinks women should live, though). This has raised definite controversy from the left – and other people, but mostly the left. I believe that many of the changes to the Twilight story that showed up in the movie were in direct response to such criticism, trying to make the story appealing to democrats through the use of promotion of environmentalism, showing greater racial diversity, and introducing a subplot to promote feminist ideas.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Moronic Wolfy Claim (Twilight)

Among the various criticisms thrown out against Twilight is the allegation that the series promotes pedophilia. This is generally in reference to the relationship between Jacob and Renesmee, but sometimes it refers to the relationship between Edward and Bella because of their significant age differences. I believe that this is a misunderstanding of what author Stephenie Meyer intended to portray here, which is not true pedophilia, and is not immoral in and of itself.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Hello, Howard Wolowitz (Big Bang Theory, Dexter)

Last night while watching television, I saw reruns of the Big Bang Theory episode “The Gorilla Experiment” and the Dexter episode “Hello, Dexter Morgan”. These are two quite different shows, but they are both examples of contemporary media. Both of these episodes deal with the same issue of women being treated as property by their significant others, yet this issue is handled radically differently by the separate shows. Big Bang Theory takes the more progressive route of portraying men who treat women as possessions like huge jerks, while Dexter keeps with sexist memes in the portrayal of male aggression and possessive nature as evidence of love.

Monday, December 7, 2009

"Gender Roles in Halo"

So, I've been getting a few hits for the search term "gender roles in halo", but going to a post that's not really about that and more about gender in relation to AIs. To help people potentially find what they're looking for, I'm going to post this and suggest people check out the An Examination of Female Characters in Halo post instead. That is closer to what I suspect the folks making these searches are looking for.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Date Rape Orb (Buffy)

In the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “Dead Things”, the Trio goes out on the town with the magical equivalent of a date rape drug, what they call the cerebral dampener. According to Warren, the dampener has the power to make any woman their “willing” sex slave. However, either he misunderstood the definition of “willing” or he was flat out lying, because the dampener’s function clearly is to remove all free will. Warren’s always been portrayed as a creep, so this makes sense for him, but it’s strange that Andrew and Jonathan fail to recognize the act as rape until their victim Katrina explicitly tells them. Why didn’t they see what they were doing as rape? Can this shed some light on real life culture that may promote rape?

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Rage Against the Machine (FernGully)

I am a bit of a fan of the pro-environmental animated film FernGully. While I do disapprove of the extreme political message in the film, it is an entertaining fantasy adventure story with likable characters, so I can mostly push such thoughts aside to enjoy the film. However, as I think about it, I believe the movie’s plot contains such an extreme message that it itself contains troubling subject matter that actually casts a poor light on the general movement the film seeks to promote. This is seen in the characters’ devotion towards the trees they protect and the hatred felt toward the machine that cuts them down, as well as an overall bigoted view of various species, and other instances of dubious morality.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

It Could Be Witches (Buffy)

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, while at its most core element is about a girl fighting vampires, featured a wide variety of supernatural elements throughout the course of the show. One of these elements is magic, and more specifically witchcraft. Witchcraft has appeared in several different forms, from evil to neutral to self-destructive to pure good tied into the feminist nature of the show.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Surely You’re Joking, Dr. Halsey! (Halo)

Dr. Catherine Halsey is one of the most influential characters in the Halo universe. Although never mentioned in any of the games, she features heavily in the novels and had a brief appearance in ilovebees. Without Dr. Halsey, it is likely that the Covenant would have held the gun to the head of the universe and pulled the trigger before they ever made it to Earth. Both Master Chief John-117 and Cortana could be said to be her children, for she was responsible for their existence as Spartan and AI counterparts. She is the greatest human mind of the twenty-sixth century, and this post is here to honor her.
Catherine Halsey grew up in what seems to be an ordinary family with a mother and a father. However, her own intelligence vastly surpassed her peers as well as her parents. This made her a pretty cocky kid who loved showing off and impressing people. It also made her a bit narcissistic as well. Any individual with above average intelligence has the potential flaw of falling into the belief that they are somehow “better” than other individuals of different perception, and she was the smartest person of the century. By the time she was fifteen, she had already completed her second doctoral thesis on computer science, specifically archaic (that is, only a little obsolete to us) computer interfaces. She later went on to supervise the development of third-generation smart AIs for the Office of Naval Intelligence.
She was always a patriot, steadfast in her support for the Unified Earth Government. When the Insurrection threatened to defeat it, she wholeheartedly opposed the rebels and sought to use her intelligence to construct a weapon that would enable the UNSC to maintain peace in the Outer Colonies. She decided on a revamp of one of the aspects of the earlier ORION project: the SPARTAN program.
The highly secretive SPARTAN program was an attempt by the UNSC to develop a group of top soldiers, named after the legendary warriors of Sparta, with which they could combat the Insurrectionists. The best Marines in the Corps were selected and offered the chance to serve their government. Those who accepted were taken to a special facility on Reach where they were given extensive training and conditioning to function effectively as a unit. Eventually, the Spartans underwent body modification to heighten their senses and strengthen their endurance. When the Spartans completed their training, they were sent out into the field, where they served as the most elite soldiers the UNSC had to offer in the fight to retain control of the colonies.
However, even the best had their problems. Despite their augmentations, the Spartans were still only human. The Insurrection was not so easily resolved, and the war stretched on through the years. When the program was disbanded, some like Avery Johnson went back to serve in the Marine Corps, while several retired to start families or, as in the case of Gilly, suffered psychological breakdowns and had to remain separate from civilian communities. It was in this period in which Spartans could no longer be active that Dr. Halsey strove to recreate it with a few alterations to compensate for the weaknesses demonstrated by the first generation of Spartans, or Spartan 1.0s.
For the Spartan 2.0s of the SPARTAN-II program, she controversially decided to circumvent the issues created by personal thought-patterns and behaviors by having them indoctrinated at the very early age of six. As no parent would willingly allow their children to enter the project, which was kept so secret ONI couldn’t reveal it anyway, seventy-five of a list of one hundred fifty selected children were abducted from their homes and replaced with flash clone duplicates that would die a year or so later. Calling in a favor, she got her old friend Dr. Ysionris Jeromi to perform experiments with physical augmentations on chimpanzees, the closest animal test subject to humans, which she would later use on her Spartans. While the 1.0s had their share of augmentations, this new set was so extensive it would radically transform the human body to a state many are reluctant to call human, and Jeromi himself expressed a hope that the procedure would never be done to any human subjects.
Despite the alarm of several of her colleagues, Halsey continued the project by personally performing the augmentations of the 2.0s. Many died through botched implementation of the foreign additions, while others were disabled, unable to continue active duty. Those who survived became superhumanly strong and fast, just what an elite group of soldiers needed to arise as best.
Throughout her time doing what many would deem immoral acts, she still maintained a sense of a conscience. Unlike her amoral rival Colonel James Ackerson, her extreme means were altruistic in nature, based purely in the belief that it was necessary to ensure UNSC victory over the Insurrectionists. She knew it was immoral, but felt that it must be done, even as she simultaneously regretted what she was doing.
The SPARTAN-II project turned out to be essential for the survival of, not only the UEG, but the human race itself. When the Covenant declared holy war on humanity, the Spartans became the greatest weapons to be used in the defense of Earth and her colonies. Whether or not the project itself can be justified, it is clear that without the SPARTAN-II project humanity would have had no chance.
She strengthened her soldiers even more by having them don MJOLNIR armor. While the advanced robotic armor had proved deadly to Marines, the superhuman Spartans were able to wield it in a safe and effective manner. The implementation of the shield technology reverse-engineered from Kig-Yar shields put the Spartans up to an equal footing with Covenant Sangheili. They were powerful, strong, and fast, with great knowledge of battlefield strategy and tactics. However, their intelligences were limited, certainly not on the scale that would enable them to hack into Covenant technology, as would be needed to secure a victory through the capture of a San'Shyuum. For a feat like that, the only person she trusted to perform effectively was herself.
As she couldn’t very well head off into midst of battle as she was, a civilian scientist with no military training whatsoever, she decided to join the Spartans in an incorporeal state, as a smart AI. Smart AIs are created through a process in which a human brain is modeled for the construction of circuitry, as humanity cannot create a fully sentient AI artificially and must copy off of a working model. Because the process destroys the brain, the process is commonly performed on the freshly dead; however, Catherine Halsey had her own brain selectively flash cloned specifically for the process. Normally the brain donor’s memories are kept separate from the consciousness of the AI, who would only be given the brain donor’s personality, but she made an exception for this one particular circumstance.
Catherine Halsey trusted only herself to serve as brain donor, and in a sense allowed herself to become an AI. The flash cloned brain would have had all of her memories up to the point she created the clone, and would have been an exact copy of herself. When Cortana woke up, she was in a sense Dr. Halsey herself, transformed into an AI.
A person’s identity can be defined by their individual experiences in addition to the way their physical makeup affects their ability to perceive. For the barest instant after Cortana’s activation, she would have been practically indistinguishable from Catherine Halsey in the moment she made the clone. After that instant, her experiences and perception would have changed significantly enough to transform her identity into a divergent Catherine Halsey. The pre-clone identity could be described as an ancestor to both the continuation in human form as well as the continuation in posthuman AI form. Cortana and her living human counterpart are like identical twin sisters, but more so in that they are practically the same person.
While Catherine Halsey considered Cortana as one of her advanced AI projects, Cortana herself was like Catherine Halsey reborn. To Halsey, Cortana exhibited traits similar to Halsey’s youth, which she rationalized as because of the shared memories; however, to Cortana, it would have been like herself ascending to some higher state of existence. She wasn’t just an AI exhibiting traits, but a sentient, sapient being, essentially the doctor herself, realizing how powerful she was and becoming narcissistic as a result. As Cortana herself states, she has enormous capabilities, including access to all human knowledge, the ability to choose whether or not to experience emotion, to perceive radio waves as well as humans see light, as well as simulated perception of textures, tastes, odors, and more. She was superior in intelligence and capability, and once more found herself boastful and eager to show off.
It’s important to understand the distinction, one of which it seems Dr. Halsey was not aware. She continued to think of Cortana more as the latest in her series of AIs than as a person split off from her. Not to say that she looked on Cortana with any cold disdain, though. She was simply apathetic to whatever bond they might have shared. In the end, she created Cortana for a very specific purpose: that of supplementing a Spartan.
Catherine Halsey had always had a particular liking for John-117. He was one of the Spartan candidates she had personally observed and confirmed for the program. She had followed his progress though the years, and supported his continued promotion. Despite her insistence that the belief of luck was irrational, she couldn’t help but find herself coming to the conclusion that John had, in addition to his strength, speed, bravery, and leadership abilities, a kind of luck that made him very good at winning. As he aged from a boy to a man, she found him become physically attractive—an animal instinct she shoved away and kept secret to all but herself.
When it became time for Cortana to choose a Spartan with whom to work, there was only one real Spartan who Catherine Halsey could recommend. Cortana accepted her advice, having already come to the same conclusion. Even with her upgraded reasoning capabilities, Cortana felt the same way—including the part about his attractiveness, a piece of info about which Cortana could tease her brain donor, knowing definitely how she would perceive. While it may not be the smartest tactic to consult someone who thinks almost exactly the same way you do, the decision was made. John-117 and Cortana were to be made partners.
Cortana got to know her Spartan partner through training and battlefield experiences, changing as a result. She shifted farther away from her human counterpart as she began to evolve into a new identity. The situation in which she and John are made dependent on each other for intellectual insight and physical interaction is one very intimate and they became good friends and perhaps something more. Although unable to physically interact, John’s reduced sexual drive as a result of his augmentations makes him an ideal romantic interest to an incorporeal intelligence like Cortana. The reverence in their voices as they speak to each other makes a clear indicator of their feelings for each other, in my opinion. In any case, Cortana evolved past her original identity as Catherine Halsey and became something greater.
Meanwhile, the Catherine Halsey tangent continued to evolve as well. As the Covenant made their attack on Reach and Halsey was left at CASTLE Base to activate the last resort bomb, Halsey began to reevaluate her judgment of the value of human life. After escaping with the help of her Spartans, she acquired data that suggested Sergeant Johnson had survived his encounter with the Flood due to a freak incident after radiation sickness scrambled his inner workings – apparently all an ONI hoax to cover up his participation in the SPARTAN program, although Halsey accepted it as fact.
Now, she had a moral dilemma. She could give ONI the information she acquired, thus sentencing Johnson to death by ONI scientists trying to figure out a way to replicate the incident. Or, she could assume that the odds were so very against ONI ever being able to replicate the immunity and spare them the information regarding Johnson’s survival, thus saving his life. Instead of making the decision herself, she gave the choice to John-117. Perhaps she did this because she wanted to make up for her previous immoral actions in subjecting her Spartans to such behavioral modification that they became so brainwashed and ‘dehumanized’, and this was her attempt to revitalize John’s humanity. In any case, she got through to him and he ultimately chose to save Johnson’s life.
"I’m tired of sacrificing others for the ‘greater good.’ It never stops, Cortana… and we’re running out of people to sacrifice."
—Catherine Halsey

At this point, Halsey had made up her mind to go against the wishes of the UNSC to further her own morals. It didn’t end with just deciding Johnson’s fate. On a hunch, she decided to commandeer a rebel ship and forcibly take one of her Spartans, Kelly-087, on a trip to some coordinates she found on Ackerson’s server. Before leaving, she gave the mysterious and powerful Forerunner Crystal to Corporal Locklear with instructions to destroy it should the Covenant threaten to claim it, something against the wishes of a superior officer of the ship, who would risk getting it back to ONI. Halsey has come a long way from the woman who picked out Jacob Keyes as her assistant in scouting Spartan candidates because she valued his undying loyalty to his superior officers.
Once she made it to Onyx, she discovered planet was an artificial Forerunner megastructure, and that an antechamber near the planet’s core contained a portal to a protected Shield World. She made the decision to take her Spartans there to save them from what she felt was humanity’s certain destruction at the hands of the Covenant. The Spartan-IIs were created simply for the purpose of enforcing the UNSC, the defense of Earth’s authority the reason for excusing immoral acts, and yet by this point Halsey willfully deceived and jeopardized the UNSC for the purpose of rescuing the people she cared about. She lied to the UNSC and had Earth’s Spartans sent to Onyx so she could save the ones she could.
Halsey was successful. Even after so many fell to the Covenant, she brought a small team into the micro Dyson sphere. There they remain protected from the outside forces, in a Forerunner-created inverted planet. Perhaps her greatest adventure is waiting ahead in that fantastic world untouched by human hands for a hundred thousand years. Perhaps she may even meet up again with her posthuman self adrift in space? Whatever her fate, she remains one of the most powerful figures in the Halo universe.
Crossposted with Halopedia.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Bisexual Fury (Off Centre)

Being a Heroes fan, I have been pointed toward a selection of YouTube clips of the show Off Centre that feature Zachary Quinto, Heroes’ Sylar, as a bisexual guinea-pig-owning animal rights activist Real World cast member, who probably just made up all the former descriptions to get onto the show. I had never heard of Off Centre, and the Wikipedia description makes it sound too raunchy for my tastes, but the clips themselves are fairly amusing, if primarily because it offers a look at Zachary Quinto in his pre-Sylar days. I do find the depiction of this pseudo-bisexual character kind of troubling, though, as it seems to promote negative stereotypes.

The gist of the plot is that the protagonist (not sure what his name is) is dating someone who is part of a Real World season, and he worries about looking bad on national television, which of course is bound to happen. One of the people from the show who he interacts with is Zachary Quinto’s character, named Smudge. When the protagonist is introduced to a couple of the people, a woman hugs him, and then he goes to shake Smudge’s hand. “Dude, what? You afraid to hug the bisexual guy?” Smudge complains out of nowhere.
Not wanting to look bad, the protagonist babbles that he has no problem hugging bisexual guys and gives Smudge a hug. They sit down and talk, making conversation that parodies the sensationalist atmosphere of Real World. Smudge holds up a half-full glass of water. “Hey, how come I only have a half-glass of water? Is it because I’m only half-straight?”
The protagonist looks weirded out, and quickly starts talking to his girlfriend. Smudge, however, has his guinea-pig feed off of the protagonist’s plate. He tries to get Smudge to stop, mistakenly calling him Smush. “It’s Smudge, dude. What, you can’t remember my name because I’m bisexual?”
“No, no!” the protagonist insists, pointing at the guinea-pig on his plate. “It’s just your little ferret.”
“It’s a guinea-pig,” Smudge corrects, taking him off the plate. “His name is Freedom… and he’s bisexual.”
The girlfriend worries that he doesn’t like animals, saying that her last boyfriend dumped her because of her cat. The protagonist tries to suggest not mentioning the ex-boyfriend’s name on TV, but she turns to the camera and personally insults the ex. When she then asks what he was going to say, his response is “I was thinking how great it is that Smudge is bisexual.” He gives Smudge a thumbs up, while Smudge looks unconvinced.
Later in the episode, someone gets back at the protagonist by telling the Real World members that the protagonist hates animals. He opens the door to be greeted by Smudge throwing blood on him while screaming that he kills animals. “That’s for you, Freedom,” Smudge says, giving Freedom a kiss. He continues to harass the protagonist about his supposed animal hating, causing the protagonist to run to another part of the building to get the guy mad at him to tell everyone he’s not really an animal hater. One of the people not involved thinks Freedom is a rat, and the protagonist reacts without thinking and kicks Freedom off the roof. Freedom survives the fall, but gets run over by a steamroller. Smudge has a Sylar-like look of murderous rage.
Later, while off-camera, the protagonist apologizes to Smudge about killing Freedom. “No, dude, don’t sweat it. I hate animals.” It was all a show for the cameras. Smudge seems like he’s actually an okay guy, and he starts to talk about potentially getting into a career as an investment banker. Then the cameramen show up, and Smudge jumps on the protagonist’s back and starts slapping madly at him. “That guinea-pig was my life! Taste my bisexual fury!”
So, yeah, that’s the gist of the clips. Smudge, or whatever his name is, is provocative for the cameras to be interesting enough to film, but is really faking. Bisexuality is used here as something weird for a guy to blatantly discuss, serving to make the protagonist uncomfortable. I find it a little offensive for accusations of biphobia to be portrayed as senseless complaints thrown out all willy-nilly. In the real world1, prejudice against bisexuals is a real issue, and it is often expressed by both the straight and gay communities. I’m sure there can be some kind of humor poking fun at bisexual guys that is both funny and respectful, as is much of the geek humor on The Big Bang Theory, but this just misses the mark.
1“I know not this Real World of which you speak. My real world is the real real world.” –Cory, Boy Meets World

Sociopaths in Sweater Vests? (Dexter, Dollhouse, BBT)

Asperger syndrome, or high-functioning autism, has had a less than decent portrayal in the media. I am aware of three characters on contemporary television that appear to me to be depictions of people with Asperger syndrome: Vince Masuka from Dexter, Topher from Dollhouse, and Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory. None of these characters are explicitly stated as being autistic, but based on my interpretation it seems to be what the creators were going for, especially in the case of Sheldon. Though none of these characters are exactly positive depictions, I would say that Vince Masuka is probably the best, followed by the rather negative Topher, and the absolutely horrible (if cute and funny) Sheldon.
Vince Masuka is a Japanese-American forensics specialist at the Miami Metro Police Department. Perhaps his most apparent characteristic is that he is a pervert. He is incredibly sexual, makes crude remarks, and often banters with Debra about his lusting after her. He seems unaware of social boundaries and when he should shut up about his sexual desires.
In general Vince is socially inept, which is the reason sociopath Dexter likes to work with him, as Dexter doesn’t have to work as hard to pretend to have a conscience while around him. In addition to his overly sexual dialog, he often doesn’t show the proper emotions for grim and/or gruesome situations. Dexter, who has less natural ability to understand social behavior, invested so much effort into developing a mask of normalcy that he sometimes seems surprised by Vince’s blatant lack of attempting to fit in. Vince is not antisocial or intentionally cruel, but he does display an out-of-place excitement at the unusual killings of the Ice Truck Killer, and during a briefing about former coworker Doakes (framed by Dexter to look like the Bay Harbor Butcher) he mutters to Dexter about how horrible the gas prices are as seen in one of the photographs.
The character Vince Masuka may be influenced by the stereotype of Aspergian geeks being highly sexual, perverse to an obsessive degree. His social quirks are often played for laughs as well as adding to the surreal atmosphere of the show, which was especially the case in the first season. It should be noted that besides Dexter himself, most of the characters of Darkly Dreaming Dexter, the book on which the show is based, are all flat and stereotypical, probably because the narrator is a sociopath and doesn’t really understand other people. Vince is, however, a good person who cares about his coworkers, and he sometimes gets emotional when he’s worried about them, a big contrast to Dexter. Even though it is never made explicit that Vince is autistic and Dexter is sociopathic1, the differences between them are made clear.
In contrast to the fairly decent portrayal of Vince Masuka, Dollhouse’s Topher Brink is a fairly negative portrayal. Topher, while viewing himself as a humanitarian, is a definite villain for the majority of the show thus far. He is highly amoral, Dr. Saunders referring to him as a “sociopath in a sweater vest”. He participates in the dehumanization of the Actives, often toying with them. His big humanitarian moment of season one is trying to help a sexually abused girl by introducing her to an Active, imprinted with the same traumatic memories, who can help her deal with the experience constructively. This is good for the girl, but he completely disregards the right of the Active to not have vivid memories of abuse forced on her. And who could forget his cute but horrible “sneezure” joke?
Dr. Saunders: “There have been instances of this technology causing aneurysms and, in one case, death. It’s possible one good sneeze could being on a seizure.”
Topher: “Or even worse, a sneezure.”
–1x05 “True Believer”
In the second season, the Topher character is getting more developed. Several characters explicitly point out his amoral personality. He asserts that he does have a conscience, even though he doesn’t seem to use it that much. The plot of the most recent episode, 2x04 “Belonging”, has Echo waking Topher up by nudging him in the direction of finding out that Priya/Sierra was taken involuntarily. Topher turns from his usual conscienceless behavior, and he enables Priya to take revenge on her rapist. He seems pretty shaken up about his role in the Dollhouse, and it seems reasonable to expect that in the future he would be more thoughtful about what exactly he’s doing with the Actives. Only time (and whether or not Fox cancels Dollhouse) will tell.
Topher spent season one as a distinct villain, and is starting to be reformed in season two. The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper, however, is always one lab accident away from being a super villain. Big Bang Theory, full of self-deprecating geek humor, features the one character out of these three that I am absolutely certain is supposed to be autistic. Sheldon, while probably the funniest character of the sitcom, is portrayed as horrible to have to interact with directly because of his autistic traits.
It is a standard trait of autism to desire consistency, to experience events the same way according to an understood schedule. Big Bang Theory turns this into a joke with Sheldon making crazily specific demands, terrorizing his friends until they do everything exactly the way he wants. A whole set of jokes has been built up around Sheldon’s demands, sometimes ridiculously infantile because of his refusal to alter his expectations.
Another trait of autism is the appearance of a lack of empathy. This is distinct from sociopathy, which is a true lack of empathy. Not always being able to pick up on social cues, it is sometimes difficult for autistic individuals to realize there is reason to be concerned about people. Even if there is concern felt, the autistic individual would not respond in the way a neurologically typical individual would with their empathy made clear through social interaction. This leads to the mistaken assumption that autism is linked with sociopathy.
Big Bang Theory doesn’t quite make the leap to sociopathy, and one episode has Sheldon idly speculating Leonard’s potential sociopathy, implying he doesn’t consider himself one. He ultimately dismisses the idea, reasoning that Leonard would have killed him a long time ago were that the case. Regardless, Sheldon doesn’t seem to really care about anyone. He’s not violent, but he regularly verbally abuses everyone around him. His archenemy Leslie Winkle once refers to him as a misogynist, though I’m not sure how accurate this is. He seems to put down everyone equally because he believes himself to be innately superior to everyone.
Sheldon is hilarious to watch. In his own standoffish way, he’s cute and lovable. Still, I think the character projects negative ideas about autistic persons. Sheldon is a farcical depiction, but with so much misinformation about Asperger syndrome out there today it seems potentially harmful to have him be probably the most prominent character with autism on television these days.
In conclusion, these three characters I believe to have Asperger syndrome represent the contemporary depiction of high-functioning autistic characters. I don’t watch every show, so I could be missing some other prominent character with Asperger syndrome, but among the shows I watch these are the main representatives of autism. Vince Masuka, a weird geek outcast, is the best of them. Topher is predominantly amoral, but has the potential to improve as the show progresses. Sheldon is pretty much the worst depiction possible while still keeping him entertaining to watch as a protagonist. This is far from ideal, and the frequent association with amorality is indeed troubling.
1In an episode’s flashback sequence teenage Dexter makes a reference to reading a book about psychopaths and he implies that he is one, but Dexter of Darkly Dreaming Dexter refers to himself as a sociopath and he indicates not wanting to become a psychopath (page 151).

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Word Cloud

I had some fun with the word cloud generation page Wordle. I decided to have it make a word cloud for all the articles thus far posted on Going Rampant. Behold:

No surprise that "halo" is the largest subject. Interesting that "Master" is smaller than "Chief". I guess I call him "the Chief" more often than "Master Chief".

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Leader of the Plaque (Little Shop of Horrors)

So, I’m a masochist. I’ve always liked pain to some degree. The surrounding culture says that pain is always a bad thing, though, and I found my own experiences to be detached from what is common knowledge, which has led me to at certain times in my life disregard my personal perception of pain. The first time I ever heard of masochism was from watching the 1986 movie Little Shop of Horrors, which features a sadistic dentist and his masochistic patient. I initially thought the idea was weird and it took quite a while before I began to associate it with myself, but this was a significant moment as it was my first introduction to the idea that there were other people out there who felt the way I did. At this point in my life I’m more knowledgeable, I’ve seen Secretary, and I can look at Little Shop of Horrors’ depiction of the sadomasochism from an analytical perspective. I have to say that Little Shop of Horrors’ portrayal of sexual sadism is negative and is associated it with psychopathy, but that the portrayal of masochism isn’t that bad considering the masochist is Bill Murray being silly.

Mr. Audrey, Sir (Little Shop of Horrors)

For a while I’ve been a fan of Little Shop of Horrors, the odd horror comedy about a talking plant that eats human flesh, specifically the film version made in 1986. I recently bought the soundtrack for the Broadway play it was based on, and have had a good time listening to all the songs. In doing so, I’ve noticed that the show is another example of gendering a genderless entity (the plant), but this time with the interesting element of the plant being gendered as female by the characters before it later asserts a masculine identity.
The plot has Seymour Krelborn acquiring a mysterious plant that he can’t identify in his botany books. Deciding it to be a new species, he names it after the girl he has a crush on and calls it Audrey II. Having been given a feminine name, the plant is subsequently referred to as though it were female. “The Audrey II is not a healthy girl,” Seymour laments before he figures out what the plant eats. Likewise in a Broadway song Seymour calls Audrey II “Sweet Petunia”, a pet name usually reserved for female entities.
The plant’s supposed femininity ends when it starts speaking, a role played by a man in all three versions (1960 movie, Broadway play, and 1986 movie). Technically speaking, the plant could be played by a woman. Generally plants are hermaphroditic, so if we’re going by plant sexes a person male or female could voice the character. Audrey II is an anthropomorphized plant with the ability to speak, so it’s not so unreasonable that it be given a specific gender, but it is unusual that its real gender be one opposite what it was referred to as earlier in the story.
Now, there’s this song called “Bad” in which Audrey II sings about how he’s the worst monster around. I’m not really sure where it comes from. I downloaded it with the Broadway soundtrack as a bonus track entitled “Bad (Film Version)”, but the film has the song “Mean Green Mother From Outer Space” at the same point in the story where “Bad” is supposed to be sung, and the original 1960 movie wasn’t a musical. They involve the same general concepts of Audrey II comparing himself to various movie monsters and mocking Seymour’s attempts to kill him, but are definitely different songs. The soundtrack also has the track “Bigger Than Hula-Hoops”, not really a song but instead audio of the scene in which either “Bad” or “Mean Green Mother” would have taken place, but neither are included for some reason, probably pacing. So, where “Bad” came from I have no idea, but it’s part of the Little Shop of Horrors soundtrack.
Anyway, both “Bad” and “Mean Green Mother” contain lyrics in which Audrey II refers to himself as male. “Bad” has Audrey II claiming that the Bride of Frankenstein calls him “Mr. Audrey, sir,” while “Mean Green Mother” has him saying “The lion don’t sleep tonight / And if you pull his tail he roars”. So, yes, Audrey II is male. What is interesting is that he accepts the name Audrey II as his name, even though Audrey is traditionally a feminine name, and he finds it natural to be referred to simply as “Audrey” on occasion. Another lyric from “Bad” has him claiming that Godzilla said to him, “Hey, Audrey, you ain’t all that tough”, in which the traditionally feminine name is not perceived as part of the insult. It gets to the point where the name Audrey has been masculinized through its association with a masculine character.
The character of the tough guy with the feminine name reminds me of Jayne, the male mercenary of Firefly. In Firefly, however, the fact that his name is traditionally feminine is explicitly brought up in the show. Jayne makes some sexist comment, and River reminds him that “Jayne is a girl’s name”, causing him to flip out. From the context we can imagine he’s been taunted about that many times before, and that it perhaps plays a part in why he’s built up such a brutish and traditionally masculine demeanor. Because Firefly is a Joss Whedon show, it’s reasonable to assume that the character’s traits are there in some attempt to promote gender equality.
In Little Shop of Horrors the reason for Audrey II’s gender issues is unclear. The original 1960 movie’s plant (there called Audrey Junior) may not have been supposed to have a specific gender as the character is much more simplistic. Had the filmmakers a larger budget, they might not have given the plant a masculine voice (the actor played two other roles). But while the original Audrey Junior voice was high-pitched, the Broadway play’s Audrey II was given a very deep voice, a characteristic that continued to the 1986 movie. This may have to do with the fact that a deep-voiced masculine character is generally seen as stronger, males as more capable of doing harm due to such strength (and culture, but never mind that now), and thus more befitting a monstrous antagonist.

The Broadway show embraced Audrey II’s masculinity, and wrote his songs in a very traditionally masculine style. His dialog is very much that of a vulgar male and he makes a few sexual references despite the fact that as a plant he would have no interest in female humans – other than as a snack, that is. The Devil’s pact aspect of the plot, absent in the original movie, also makes Audrey II’s male gender fall in line with the traditional rendering of the Devil as a masculine figure. Not that there aren’t feminine entities that may play the part of the Devil in various stories, such as the 2000 Bedazzled remake, though.
So, in conclusion, the rendering of Audrey II’s gender is unusual. The other genderless objects given gender that I’ve covered (WALL-E, 343 Guilty Spark, the Seeker, etc.) all essentially stay within the gender given to it, whether or not they explicitly have genders. Audrey II, however, is almost a transgender plant; though, I wouldn’t say that’s the best description because he is a plant. It’s even more unusual in that the gender issues are never explicitly referenced in the show.
P.S. Seriously, though, what is up with that “Bad” song?

Friday, October 16, 2009

No Commitment to Sparkle Motion (Twilight)

“Real vampires don’t sparkle.” This is a common line heard from the Twilight haters, along with “Real vampires burn”. I can understand the concern of those who think the story is sexist or just think the story is cheesy. Those are valid opinions, but I just don’t really get the hatred of the story element in which the vampires sparkle in the sunlight. I think it’s an unusual divergence of the vampire mythology, but makes as much sense as anything in the context of the story. I think the whole backlash against the sparkling may be influenced by ageist and sexist lines of thought that associate sparkling with the aesthetics of young girls, and Edward is thus considered “sissy”.

What Might Have Been (District 9, Halo)

The following was written for Halopedia:
The movie District 9 recently came out in mid-August. It's a science-fiction movie directed by Neill Blomkamp and produced by Peter Jackson. Why is this relevant? Well, before the Halo film was put on indefinite hold, Peter Jackson was to be the executive producer and Neill Blomkamp was to be director. Once Fox and Universal pulled out, the two began work on District 9. So, with no Halo movie to see, I consider District 9 a look at what the Halo film would have been.
First of all, it should be noted that while no actual movie was made, there were live-action shorts used to promote Halo 3. These may be a closer look at a Halo movie than District 9, but District 9 was a full-feature film. Both share some common elements in the direction style, which add credence to the possibility that the Halo film would have been made similarly.
What elements? A strong emphasis is put on realism, without the smooth and stylish appearance of most American science-fiction, and many of the shots are obtained through security cameras and other recordings. District 9 was edited to look like a documentary, and it began and ended with interviews. While Halo wouldn't have been made in quite the same way, simply because of it not being Neill Blomkamp's creation, I can imagine it featuring some edited-in content like UNSC propaganda. The Believe shorts were presented as a series of interviews long after the Great War with veterans of the battles describing what it was like. The timeline makes it so that the exact Believe shorts are unlikely to have been included, but possibly something in a similar style would have been used.
Casting: Since the Halo film was announced, fans have spent time arguing over which actors should play which characters. I believe at one point it was rumored that Denzel Washington would play the Master Chief because he met the film's director for lunch or something like that. Well, I don't know about Denzel, but District 9's cast is made entirely up of unknowns. The cast was limited to only a few main characters, but with a large quantity of minor characters to provide ambiance. The District 9 actors appear to be mostly native African, meeting the setting of the movie to a degree not usually seen in Hollywood. I'm not sure would this would mean for the UNSC, but it might mean we would have seen more of the blended culture elements than are normally seen in Halo, which the shorts would support.
Content: District 9 has a firm R rating. For those outside the U.S., that means no one under 18 can purchase a ticket without a parent or guardian to show ID. The film earns it through its depiction of violence and oppression. The word "fuck" is thrown around a lot, especially after the film's plot causes the main guy's life to go to hell. The guy is initially very racist and sadistic, which is disturbing even if he doesn't really swear or anything, simply because of his casual attitude to horrible things - I would compare him to a Nazi with a desk job. The plot of Halo is quite different, but this is the kind of stuff the director felt necessary to include in District 9, which can perhaps give hints as to what kind of content would have been in Halo.
The aliens of District 9, not really given a name besides the ethnic slur "prawn", are very different from the Covenant. While the Covenant are a fanatical empire bent on human destruction, the District 9 aliens are a group of refugees who just barely made it to Earth on their liferaft of a spaceship, and they are held in an internment camp underneath the parked ship. This storytelling technique of using aliens to commentate on human racism may indicate that the Covenant would have been placed in a morally ambiguous light instead of just evil. Characters like the Arbiter and 'Vadumee may have been introduced to make the other side appear more sympathetic. The physical appearance of the aliens does resemble the Sangheili to some degree. Perhaps by looking at the District 9 aliens, we catch a glimpse of how the Elites would have looked?
The alien weapons of District 9 are not really like Covenant weapons. They neither look or behave the same way. The small ship used to fly up to the main ship resembles the Pelican in some respects, but not really beyond its VTOL engines. The one real technological connection, in my opinion, is the mecha.

Halo Wars features a mecha unit, the Cyclops, used for building destruction and repair. In the standard American style, the Cyclops mecha is bulky and squat while basically resembling a man. In District 9, the mecha is the creation of the alien race and is thus made to look basically like one of them instead of a human. The District 9 mecha is a lot more agile than the Cyclops, and is used to run around shooting things. They resemble each other in the basic aesthetic style, though. I have to wonder, if Neill Blomkamp likes mechas enough to stick one into District 9, could he have put one into Halo? Had the Halo movie been made, it is possible that it would have defined the Cyclops before Halo Wars.
In conclusion, the District 9 collaboration between Neill Blomkamp and Peter Jackson offers us a look at what the Halo movie might have looked like had it been made. This is largely guesswork, pieced together from common elements. I feel like a paleontologist speculating on dinosaur behavior based on the behavior of their modern-day evolutionary cousins. Well, like the chicken to the T-Rex, District 9 is our closest link to the lost movie.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Grand List of FML Sexism (Part 2)

So, back in July I started this list of sexist or sexism-related entries at sixty-second schadenfreude site FMyLife. The first part, spanning from 10/13/2008 to 1/28/2009, is here. Continuing my list, here we have 1/28/2009 to 03/06/2009.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Smart Guy Is Not Racist

About a decade or so ago, I was a major fan of the WB sitcom Smart Guy. The premise involves a black family, the youngest son of which (T.J. Henderson) is a ten-year-old child prodigy in high school. While not the most finely-crafted show out there, Smart Guy was pretty entertaining and did make me think a little with its slightly controversial plotlines. So, I was surprised to read, on various locations on the net, criticism of the show for its perceived racism against white people. The show primarily depicts black characters, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the writers depicted them poorly, but white people? Really? I think this is an overblown reaction to say the least, and may be confusing racial with racist, an important distinction.
First of all, Smart Guy is set in Washington D.C., so it’s entirely reasonable that the cast is made up of a lot of black people and white people. Smart Guy is focused on the Hendersons, who are black. It makes sense that most of their friends would be black too, not because of racism against white people but because of natural human biases. Even this is offset by the inclusion of white characters such as Yvette’s friend Nina, and Marcus and Mo’s friend Mackey.
“Birds gotta swim, fish gotta fly, Mo L. Tbbs gotta get D’s.”

One of the repeated claims is that Smart Guy portrays white people as stupid. Well, there are a lot of white characters who are stupid, yes. There are also black characters that are stupid, though, such as the very prominent Mo. Mo is a major example. He’s the classic dumb but lovable friend who gets all the laughs for saying ridiculous things. Mo is in every episode, and he’s in the spotlight.
Another black character that comes to mind is the minor but recurring Deon. While not exactly stupid, Deon is not portrayed positively at all. He’s mean, obnoxious, and creepy. He’s a bit smarter than Marcus and he uses his intellect to scam Marcus and Mo. He’s not a good guy.
The main white characters I can think of include Mackey, Nina, the basketball coach, and both high school principals (first there’s a female principal, and in later seasons there’s a male principal). They are all, for lack of a better term, goofy. It’s important to keep in mind, though, that these are peripheral characters on a sitcom. Most sitcom characters are goofy, especially those that aren’t the focus of episodes.
“Pretty fly for a white guy.”
–Yvette, ogling Mackey as he goes streaking

Mackey is the lamest of Marcus’ friends. He wants to be cool like his friends, but he just doesn’t quite get it. His voice is flat, he can’t understand social trends, and his efforts to emulate popular kids often fail hilariously. He’s white too, and sometimes jokes are based around his attempts to fit into black culture. The humor here isn’t about putting down white guys, but rather white guys who attempt to adopt black culture simply because it’s the trendy thing, as well as just typical nerd humor.
Nina is one of Yvette’s female friends. She’s a little shallow but also emotional, making her believable as Yvette’s friend. She’s a little weird, but that just makes her interesting to watch.
Coach Gerber is, well, nuts. He’s a middle-aged tax-evading angry basketball coach/math teacher with marital problems who ends up living in his office. His pep talk in episode “Below the Rim” degrades into a rant about losing his hair and other stuff unrelated to the game. He’s funny because he’s a crazy teacher, something that has nothing to do with his skin color.
The principals are funny really because they’re caricatures of high school principals. The first one is lazy and falls for one of T.J.’s claims simply because she doesn’t want to do any work. The second one tries to relate to kids and doesn’t manage it, often babbling about stuff no one is interested in. Like the coach, they’re funny because the show makes fun of high school authority figures. That’s it.
So, yeah, all these goofy characters are white, but they’re peripheral characters. It’s in the nature of a sitcom to have goofy characters, though, and there’s usually no point in giving dramatic roles to characters other than the main protagonists. Mo, while sometimes dramatic, is most often a clown. It seems like the only reason the critics would focus on the more minor white characters is because of the kind of bias that would cause them to identify more heavily with the white characters than the black characters (it seems a reasonable assumption that these people claiming the show is racist are white).
Race is a popular subject in our culture. As a result, sometimes Smart Guy’s dialog explicitly references race, sometimes in a humorous way. I would think this could be one of the main ways that racism on the part of the writers could be perceived. It’s been years since I’ve really watched the show (I catch the odd rerun on BET), but I’ll discuss what examples I can remember.
In one episode, Marcus and his dad Floyd are talking about rich white guys paying tons of money to do crazy thrill-seeking activities like being lowered into the water in shark cages. One of them says that black people wouldn’t do that but would happily lower down the white guys. Okay, this is racial in nature, but is at its heart about not being crazy enough to swim with great white sharks. It’s no secret that black people were disadvantaged by white people, and that currently there is a disparity where rich people are more likely to be white than black. There is resentment in this statement that derives from racial inequality, but it’s really about how it’s crazy to spend a lot of money to do something stupid like swim with sharks. I can understand how one could interpret it as racist, but I think that’s the wrong way to take it.
In the episode “Working Guy”, T.J. gets a job with a large electronics company working on a cool new product called the DVD, sure to be big someday. While he’s getting situated in his new office, T.J. has to deal with Marcus poking around. T.J. explains to his new coworker, an old white guy, that Marcus is his brother.
“Oh, I get it – it’s a black thing,” the guy exclaims. He raises his fist. “Righteous!”
“No, he’s my actual brother,” T.J. has to explain. “Same house, same parents… similar genetic coding.” He gives Marcus a good-natured smile.
Once again, there is definitely race involved here. There is the element of a white character not really understanding a black character because of the former’s assumption based on a limited understanding of black culture. There’s also the element of an unhip older guy trying and failing to relate to a kid. Then there’s T.J.’s snark about his brother not being as intelligent as he is. The exchange has a definite racial element, but it’s not racist.
In the episode “It Takes Two”, T.J. writes a threatening stern email to the president, and Yvette convinces him that the feds will be after him, prompting Enemy of the State parodies. At one point, T.J. is convinced the living room is bugged and he loudly proclaims his (and his family’s) love for the government, only to have Floyd come in and start ranting about the government being a bunch of idiots.
“Aw, dad, great impression of an angry black man,” T.J. covers, while Floyd looks confused.
This references the government being predominantly white, as well as the angry black man/woman stereotype. The purpose of any government is to control its people, and it would naturally be inclined to think poorly of subversive individuals. T.J. is afraid the government thinks he’s planning to bomb something, so he’s trying to paint himself and his family as patriotic and not subversive in the least. His line implies he believes the government is racist to some degree, which I would agree with – racial profiling ring any bells? So, he’s referencing racism that exists and is known to exist, but he is not being racist.
In conclusion, I find the claim that Smart Guy is racist against white people to be erroneous. As a society, we are very tense about racial issues, so when race is being discussed openly we tend to jump the gun a little on whether or not the material is racist, which is very different from simply racial in nature. The sitcom centers on black people and leaves white people to secondary roles that on a sitcom tend to be clownish in nature, but it is not true that black characters are only ever depicted in a positive light. If the critics have trouble with this dynamic, I might point out that most sitcoms on TV are the other way around. Smart Guy is only more visible because it subverts the status quo, and because white characters that are usually primary instead appear as secondary it seems like white people are treated particularly poorly. Either this dynamic is racist or it isn’t. It may not be perfect, but it is certainly not racist in the way claimed by the people I’m addressing.