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.

How Mohsin Hamid used a 2nd Person narrator to build drama in The Reluctant Fundamentalist

A few years ago, I was at a party attended largely by Boston-area academics when two men got into an argument about whether there was any merit in using second-person point of view (really). The pro-second-person guy couldn’t come up with any examples to support his case, and soon everyone moved on to other topics of conversation. Mohsin Hamid’s 2007 novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist is the example that would have turned that argument in favor of second-person narration.

Hamid has said the novel owes its unusual narrative structure to Albert Camus’ 1956 novella The Fall; though not written with the intent of theatrical performance, both works are structured as second-person dramatic monologues delivered by the narrator to a silent ‘other’, and Hamid and Camus both make use of dramatic techniques to maintain narrative tension. Hamid’s narrator, the former financial analyst Changez, shares characteristics with Camus’ ex-lawyer Jean-Baptiste Clamence. Like Changez, Jean-Baptiste admits to having once “earned my living by carrying on a dialogue with people I scorned.” Both men, too, are in a kind of self-imposed exile; Jean Baptiste from his native France, Changez from the United States, where he once believed he would make a life for himself. Yet as satisfying as these parallels are, they are most significant in that both men are the type of man who is convinced of the value of his own story, the kind of man who invites a stranger for a drink in a cafe and proceeds to deliver a dramatic monologue designed to win the stranger’s empathy, if perhaps not his sympathy.

The promotional summary on the back of the 2008 paperback edition of The Reluctant Fundamentalist reads: “Invited to join him for tea, you learn his name and what led this immaculate speaker of immaculate English to seek you out.” This is slightly misleading — Changez does not really address the reader directly — but the dramatic monologue does have the effect of forcing the reader to take on the role of the ‘other’ to whom the monologue is addressed. “Ah, I see I have alarmed you,” Changez says in the novel’s opening lines. “Do not be frightened by my beard: I am a lover of America.” Immediately, we know something about the “you” who is addressed. Changez’s theatrical ‘other’ is a burly American man with “short-cropped” hair and an “expansive chest” who keeps reaching under his suit jacket to reach for — something. Though this may be drama, it is not improv, and Changez’s monologue eaves little room for the American to respond spontaneously. This is not to say that the American is impassive, but that we only ‘see’ him through Changez’s responses to him. Changez interprets and re-iterates the American’s words before responding to them: “Creepy, you say? What a delightfully American expression — one that I have not heard in many years!” In The Fall, Camus allows his readers the occasional hint at Jean-Baptiste’s interlocutor’s language in much the same way: “Fascinating?” Jean-Baptiste says. “There’s an adjective I haven’t heard in some time. Not since leaving Paris, in fact, years ago.” Through a few, carefully chosen glimpses of the ‘other’, Hamid and Camus create an impression of dialogue, but they also highlight how the linguistic differences between their narrator and unheard interlocutor.

In both The Reluctant Fundamentalist and The Fall, the dramatic monologue builds a world inhabited by characters with a multiplicity of voices — but accessible only through the voice of the narrator. The speaker describes other characters and even allows them to speak — but these other voices and characters are always presented through the speaker’s own voice. The structure of the dramatic monologue allows Hamid to showcase Changez’s voice — the hyper-articulate, sometimes idiosyncratic speech of an educated man who learned English as his second language. Changez, having rejected the ethos of post-9/11 America, no longer speaks like an American — and, he admits, he never really did. “I did something in Manila I had never done before: I attempted to act and speak, as much as my dignity would permit, more like an American,” Changez says. But when he describes how he was stopped by Homeland Security officials on his way back to the US, Changez disparages the immigration officer by describing her “mastery of English” as  “inferior to mine.” Changez occasionally slips into this slightly self-righteous arrogance — a tone Jean-Baptiste too takes on in The Fall — but it is an attitude that the structure of the dramatic monologue seems to demand.

When Changez acknowledges that the one-sidedness of his storytelling may be making his interlocutor uncomfortable, Hamid winks at the reader. The story is being told in this way for a reason, and we get to be in on it. “Possibly you find me crass for revealing such intimacies to you, a stranger? No?” Changez asks. The American across the table from him very well may, be we, the readers, don’t. Novelistic and theatrical works are meant to reveal intimacies. Even if we do not want to be made uncomfortable in our every day lives, many of us expect to be made uncomfortable when we read a great literary work or go to the theater.

Changez knows this, and so he tells his interlocutor what Hamid’s readers have already guessed: “Allow me to assure you that I do not always speak this openly; indeed, I almost never do. But tonight, as I think we both understand, is a night of some importance. Certainly I perceive it to be so — and yet if I am wrong, you will surely be justified in regarding me the most terrible boor!” Plays never take place on ordinary days; they are always set at the moment of crisis. Hamid has told The Guardian that, in addition to The Fall, he drew inspiration from the narrative framing of the classic western High Noon, “in which ‘the viewer is ‘living the film in the same time as its characters’. In imitation, the reading of his novel was to have the same duration as its action.” The plot of High Noon is propelled by the anticipation of a crisis: at twelve noon, a train carrying an old nemesis will arrive in town and Gary Cooper’s character must choose whether to fight for his life or stand by his commitment to pacifism. The Reluctant Fundamentalist, too is propelled by a sense of an approaching doom; but where High Noon reaches its shoot-out resolution, Hamid closes the book just before the big reveal. What is the “glint of metal” under the American’s suit jacket? A gun, or, as Changez politely suggests, “the holder of your business cards?” The tension is never resolved, and, as a result, we never know if Changez’s premonition is justified. Perhaps this night holds a terrible significance for one or both of the men. Then again, Changez may simply be the worst kind of boor.

Camus makes this kind of ending possible. In The Fall, Jean-Baptiste presents his own narrative as an explanation of his role as a “judge-penitent,” but he never quite manages to define what a “judge-penitent” is. “Are we not all alike,” he asks his interlocutor, in the novella’s closing paragraph, “constantly talking and to know one, forever up against the same questions although we know the answers in advance?” In The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Hamid, too, creates a sense that his characters already know the answers: “I have not, I suspect, entirely surprised you,” Changez tells the American. “Do you deny it? No? And that is of not inconsiderable interest to me, for we have not met before, and yet you seem to know at least something about me.” These lines read like foreshadowing, a hint to the reader that, if we wait patiently, the truth will be revealed. But in The Reluctant Fundamentalist, like The Fall, there is no ultimate revelation, only a quietly accumulation of suggestions. The theatrical principle of dramatic irony is inverted. Instead of a narrative in which the readers know more than the characters, the characters (both the speaker and the unheard other) conspire with the author to keep one another and the reader in the dark.

“You should not imagine that we Pakistanis are all potential terrorists, just as we should not imagine that you American are all undercover assassins,” Changez tells the American, but this is almost what the book fools us into imagining: that these two men, Changez and the American to whom he is speaking, are a potential terrorist (or a man perceived as a potential terrorist) and an undercover assassin. We don’t really know; and we also don’t know how much of what Changez has told us is true. In the novel’s opening lines, Changez reassures his interlocutor that he “loves America”, but he also describes how, watching the twin towers collapse in New York City, “my initial reaction was to be remarkably pleased.” He also tells us that his own reaction filled him with “a profound sense of perplexity.” Changez might be lying; he also might be honestly describing complex and confusing emotions. The dramatic monologue leaves room for both truths.

Perseverance, but little nuance, in Ernest Shackleton Loves Me

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Yesterday evening, I went to see Ernest Shackleton Loves Me, a new and inventive musical that has been nominated for Best New Musical for the 2017 Off Broadway Alliance Awards. I’ve included some initial thoughts in the paragraphs below, but I have much more to say about the production—I had a lot of fun watching the show and admired many aspects of it, but ultimately I felt that its thematic simplicity held it back.

Valerie Vigoda and Wade McCollum bring talent and spirit to Ernest Shackleton Loves Me, which bills itself as “an epic musical adventure.” Brought together by time travel, a mysterious refrigerator, and a dating site called Cupid’s Leftovers, polar explorer Ernest Shackleton (McCollum) and experimental composer and installation artist Kat (Vigoda) weather two antarctic winters and the cold indifference of the art world as Kat learns to face the uncertainties of parenthood head-on. Vigoda’s live looping performances and soaring electric violin are vivid, emotional, and technically impressive; McCollum transitions convincingly between the role of Ernest and a chorus of farcical supporting characters, gracefully balancing comedy with more poignant moments; the production’s use of multimedia—particularly projected historical footage from Shackleton’s real-life journey—succeeds in creating a sense of awe at the explorer’s against-all-odds story without overpowering the action onstage. 

Yet though I enjoyed myself immensely, I couldn’t help but wish that playwright Joe Pietro had pushed the plot and the characters further. In the ninety minutes we spend with Kat and Ernest, we don’t gain a nuanced understanding of what motivates them or how they gather the strength they need to do the seemingly impossible. In the opening song, we learn that Kat dreams of fame in the art world and fears she will be unable to support herself or her child as a single mother. Ernest is hungry for adventure and maintains a stoic, optimistic attitude in order to inspire his men. Full-fledged optimism, the two sing, is the answer to their problems. Yet while perseverance and optimism are inspiring, the show’s insistent focus on this one core theme feels a bit pat and one-note. Kat’s self-doubt upon finding herself a single mother is referenced throughout the show, but it remains oddly abstract and tangential to the central action of the plot. Similarly, Ernest only briefly expresses fear and doubt, and when he does, Kat simply tells him to “man up.” I would have preferred to see the couple discuss and explore their fears, giving the audience a sense of who their are behind their facades of bravery, and making their undaunted perseverance even more compelling.

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.