Things I’ve been thinking about: Malls, Manor Houses, and Revolutionaries

I’m currently based in Hangzhou, China, and being in a new and unfamiliar city means that while I have much to discover, I have little to do–and a lot of time to spend reading. Here are three things that I’ve been thinking about this week:

Qiu Jin, The Woman Knight of Mirror Lake

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A few days ago I stumbled across a memorial to Qiu Jin near Hangzhou’s West Lake. I had briefly studied her in a college history class, and a quick online search reminded me of what a fascinating figure she is. Born in 1875, Jin was a Chinese feminist poet and revolutionary who left her husband in order to pursue her education in Japan, then returned to China to fight against the Manchu Qing dynasty (she was executed in 1907). I love these lines from her poem Capping Rhymes with Sir Ishii from Sun’s Root Land:

Ashamed, I have done nothing; not one victory to my name

I simply make my war horse sweat.

The image of accomplishing nothing except tiring out yourself and an animal who can’t understand the context for this exhaustion conveys a very specific sense of futility.

Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited

I finished reading Brideshead Revisited a few weeks ago, and I’m still not sure what to make of the way Evelyn Waugh writes about romance, sex, and sexuality. Most of the sex in the novel—and especially queer sex—is subtextual. Is this just a function of censorship in 1950s Britain, or is it a calculated choice? And if it’s intentional, then is Waugh being subversive by refusing to label sexuality, or does his characters’ refusal to talk about sex indicated how repressed and self-loathing most of them are (and does that tie in to his views on Catholicism)?

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I’ve also been thinking about similarities between Brideshead Revisited and Atonement: I think Atonement might be the better book, but it might not have been able to happen if Brideshead Revisted hadn’t been written first. Both center on a country house and a family, both have a writer/narrator looking back on the past, both use WWII to mark the end of an era and the destruction of a class system and way of life.

I haven’t yet seen any of the movie/tv adaptations, but it’s now vaguely on my to-watch list.

Joan Didion and Malls

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Luxury malls are everywhere in China (apparently many of them are actually closing down because the market has become over-saturated). But the experience of going to a mall here is very different than going to a mall in the US—and very, very different from going to a mall in my hometown in Oregon. The mall where I grew up was ugly, with outdated 1970s architecture and stale, stuffy air. When I was older, I learned it was also a hub for local sex trafficking (which explains why my mother wouldn’t allow me to go there alone in my early teens). But reading Joan Didion makes me think that visiting malls in China must be akin to the experience of visiting a brand new mall in California in 1975. It is easy to get lost in these malls. They are vast, filled with clothes and sweet shops and luminous white melamine surfaces. In On the Mall, She writes:

Ala Moana, The Esplanade, and Edgewater Plaza are the same place, which is precisely their role not only as equalizers but in the sedation of anxiety. In each of them one moves for a while in an aqueous suspension… ‘It’s a hard place to run in to for a pair of stockings,’ a friend complained to me recently of Ala Moana, and I knew that she was not yet ready to surrender her ego to the idea of the center.

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I loved Wonder Woman, but I wish it had been even better

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I am not a comic book buff or, very often, a fan of superhero movies, but I found myself enthralled by Wonder Woman. As many women have written in the past few weeks, there was something powerful about seeing Diana (Gal Godot) defending her home and then taking on injustice in the outside world. I do not often enjoy action movies, but I found the fight sequences exhilarating. Wonder Woman breaks new ground; I found it empowering and often smart. But it’s not perfect. Here are my thoughts on where the movie succeeds and where it falls short:

The film is at its most political in the London scenes, when it uses Diana’s confusion at the norms of 20th century Europe to highlight the absurdities of patriarchal society. Why do couples marry—and why do they stay married when they are no longer in love? Why do men—all of whom are far less skilled at combat than she—insist her that she is the one being protected? Why does her mere presence scandalize British lawmakers? Why will no one listen to her? Why must she fight so hard to prove herself? “I don’t understand,” she says, again and again, and we are reminded how nonsensical the rules of war, politics, and heteronormative, patriarchal society truly are.

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In one scene, Diana tries on a series of outfits in a London department store that are intended to help her blend in in 20th century Europe. One by one, she nixes the options that Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) and his secretary Etta (Lucy Davis) present to her: they are too uncomfortable and constricting. “What do your women wear to fight?” she asks, leaving Trevor to stumble over his words, uncertain how he can explain that, in this world, women don’t fight.

The film’s attempt to make a point about the impractical nature of women’s clothing in early 20th century England is slightly undercut by its own costuming choices. Inexplicably, Diana and the Amazons wear boots with wedge-heels. Sure, wedges are more stable than stilettos, but they’re highly impractical for running, horseback riding, or rappelling from island cliffs. Likewise, the shoulder-baring, waist-nipping armor that the Amazons wear is slightly too similar to the corsets Diana scorns. Wedge-heels aside, I can see a case for costuming the women in outfits that echo the traditional (if sexed-up) iconography of wonder women past. The Amazons’ barely-there armor is reminiscent of how the Spartans supposedly trained in the nude and make their fearlessness that much more impressive. Who needs bulletproof vests? The Amazons’ righteousness, brilliance, and skill are their armor.

Whatever you think of Diana’s armor, it’s clear that Trevor is correct when he tells her outfit is inappropriate daywear for the streets of London. Yet when Diana emerges from the fitting room in a practical, loose-fitting gray suit, Trevor tells her that her looks are going to attract too much attention. Introducing a movie-makeover cliché, he suggests she put on some glasses. “Right,” Etta scoffs “Put on some specs and suddenly she’s not the most beautiful woman you’ve ever seen.” I loved this subtle call-out: glasses don’t make Gal Godot (or any woman) less attractive.

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Last week, Christina Cauterucci of Slate’s XX Factor blog wrote about her discomfort with the way Diana’s male sidekicks ogle her and crack jokes about her sex appeal, and argues that “whatever chance Wonder Woman had of being some kind of feminist antidote to the overabundance of superhero movies made by and for bros was blown by its prevailing occupation with the titular heroine’s sex appeal.” While I agree that the men of Wonder Woman engage in some unquestionably icky behavior, I read these moments differently. For me, the leering jokes of men the “right” side of the war actually emphasized what Diana is up against. She’s suddenly found herself in a world where sexism, injustice, and violence are normalized and to a certain degree perpetuated by even the men who claim to be fighting against injustice, and who she considers to be her friends. Trevor, the most virtuous of the men Diana meets, becomes her truest ally and then her lover, but he knows as well as we do that he is not worthy of her. The audience’s realization that even the “good guys” are not wholely good aligns with Diana’s realization that ending the war or restoring peace to the human world will not be as simple as killing a single general or even destroying the God of War.

The second half of Wonder Woman explores the idea that both good and evil are a part of human nature, and director Patty Jenkins was able to underline this theme by setting the film in the final days of World War I. A devastating, brutal conflict fought over the concerns of dying empires and geopolitical alliances, World War I has become an archetype for the meaninglessness and wastefulness of modern warfare. A World War II-era Wonder Woman could have joined the Allies in rightfully punching Nazis, but rather than construct a narrative that placed Diana on the virtuous side of a moral war, Jenkins sets Diana in the midst of a war where no one is in the right.

Given this intelligent setup, I was mystified that the movie’s Germans, when we finally meet them, take the form of Nazi-esque clichés. If Wonder Woman’s true enemy is war and humanity’s inherent flaws that lead them into violence and cruelty, why does she also need to fight against two human supervillains: the twisted Dr. Poison (Elena Anaya) and General Ludendorff (Danny Huston), who test mustard gas on prisoners and murder German officers committed to the armistice? While these characters act as an effective red herring (we, like Diana, never suspect that the god of war might be disguised as a mild-mannered British politician played by David Thewlis), their all-out wickedness weakens the argument that all humans have the propensity for both good and evil.

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We could have seen the devastation caused by poison gas without Dr. Poison’s torture experiments, and General Luttendorf need not be a supervillain—just a cruel man with a horrifying commitment to the ideas of total war. In making the Imperial Germans into the Huns of Allied propaganda, Wonder Woman missed an opportunity to subvert superhero movie tropes and created a more nuanced comment on the nature of war and violence.

Hippolyta shines in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

 

A Midsummer Night’s Dream was the first Shakespeare play I ever saw and the first Shakespeare play I ever read. When I was six, I attended a summer camp where I dressed up in a fairy costume and sang Titania’s lullaby. I’ve seen at least five productions of the play, but until last month, when I saw Shakespeare & Company’s Northeast Regional Tour of Shakespeare production of Midsummer, I had never paid much attention to Hippolyta. In act 1, scene 1, she usually stands to the side while Theseus explains the ancient law of Athens, and I wait for the action to pick up.

A Fight

Shakespeare & Company’s touring production opened with a ritualized fight scene. Hippolyta and Theseus, played by Brittany Morgan and Jordan Jones, circled each other as the chorus beat out a rhythm with wooden sticks. As the chorus continued to drum, the two actors began a stylized fight, Morgan’s Hippolyta matching Jones’ Theseus blow for blow. When Theseus knocked the weapon out of Hippolyta’s hands, she leaped at him and he caught her around the waist. Then, as the lighting changed, their eyes met. The actors stepped apart, and, after a brief on-stage costume change, act 1 of Shakespeare’s play began.

I was riveted.

If you pick up a copy of Midsummer, you won’t find the stage direction a fight italicized at the top of act 1. But it’s also true that the opening of Shakespeare & Company’s production remained grounded in the text, dramatizing Theseus’ lines 16-17: “Hippolyta, I wooed thee with my sword, / And won thy love doing thee injuries.”

In Greek myth, the Amazonian Queen Hippolyta married the Greek Theseus after he defeated her in battle. Theseus’ opening speech to Hippolyta sexualizes violence in a way that often makes modern audiences uncomfortable — ‘I wooed thee with my sword?’ Is that phallic? What does it mean? — and so perhaps it’s not surprising that, in many, productions, actors glide past them. Yet these problematic lines are the first to hint at Hippolyta’s identity, and the next hint doesn’t come until Titania and Oberon’s quarrel in act 2, scene 1 when, in lines 70-71, Titania refers to Hippolyta as “… the bouncing Amazon, / Your buskined mistress and your warrior love.”

By opening the play with a slightly abstract representation of battle, the production chose to emphasize Hippolyta and Theseus’ history as adversaries in war and refused to minimize the more troubling aspects of their relationship.

What Say You, Hermia?

The Shakespeare & Company production ran about an hour and a half without intermission, a time limit that had necessitated significant cuts to the script. The alteration that stuck out to me the most, however, was not a cut line, but a reassigned one.

In every other version of Midsummer that I’ve seen or read, Hippolyta has only five lines in scene 1. Though she remains onstage until line 127, when Hermia and Lysander are left alone, Hippolyta doesn’t speak after Egeus, Demetrius, Hermia, and Lysander enter to plead their cases to Theseus.

In Shakespeare & Company’s production, when Egeus and the lovers entered, Theseus moved downstage to speak with them. Throughout lines 41-45, Hippolyta remained slightly upstage, listening to Egeus demand that Theseus grant him “…the ancient privilege of Athens; / As she is mine, I may dispose of her; / Which shall be either to this gentleman / Or to her death…”

At the end of Egeus’ speech, Morgan’s Hippolyta suddenly crossed downstage to Hermia and spoke line 46, Theseus’ line: “What say you, Hermia?”

Reassigning Theseus’ line to Hippolyta transforms a gesture of paternal goodwill into a female challenge to patriarchal power. Like the opening fight scene, the reassigned line gave Morgan’s Hippolyta greater agency than many productions grant her. It was a strong choice, and an effective one, but I have to question if it was appropriate to make a choice that so clearly goes against the text.

If altering the text were the only way to portray Hippolyta as an active character, then I would say that she isn’t intended to be active. However, as the opening fight scene and Morgan’s strong physicality throughout the show demonstrated, Hippolyta’s agency can be conveyed non-verbally without altering the text. Since this is the case, the reassigning the line is unnecessary. While the opening fight was not included in the text, it grew out of events referred to in the text. Reassigning Theseus’ line to Hippolyta is, in my eyes, not an outgrowth but a distortion of the text.

However, both of these unconventional choices prompted me to reexamine Hippolyta’s role in Midsummer. In the talk-back after the performance, Morgan explained that, in adding the opening fight scene, the company had hoped to give the audience a better understanding of who Hippolyta is and what role she serves throughout the play.

Remembering to Listen

I realized that I had previously thought of Hippolyta, when I thought of her at all, an unimportant character present only as Theseus’ wife and Titania’s human counterpart. Too often, in minimizing or failing to address the uncomfortable details of Theseus and Hippolyta’s courtship, productions ignore Hippolyta’s rich mythological history.

Shakespeare & Company’s presentation of Hippolyta made me rethink how I read Midsummer. I also realized just how easy it is, when watching or reading something familiar, to stop paying attention to it, and I’m very grateful to this production for reminding me to sit up and listen.