Rethinking Black Panther

I remember going to the theater to see Black Panther with a friend; both of us being African-American. There were people dressed in traditional African clothing and it was something truly beautiful. People were proud of being African or of African descent for the first time in a while. I was never so much a contrarian to think the movie was bad but there were parts that I found deeply problematic and unsettling. But with the pandemic, too much time to kill and my friend’s generous access to her family’s Disney+ account, I’ve rewatched Black Panther several times recently. This rewatch has been affected by a few things that have changed in the world and in my world since the movie’s original release in 2018; namely the death of lead actor Chadwick Boseman and the continued pressures of racism and racial violence in the U.S. So we’re gonna talk about it. 

Let’s start with a major gripe I had about the movie at first which was pan-Africanism and cultural appropriation. At first I was very bothered by the picking and choosing of various African motifs and clothes for Wakanda. You see various African cultures represented during the first trial scene and at first watch, that bothered me. Many of those cultures and traditions had nothing to do with each other but to show them off as all related and to a fictional land in Africa just bothered me as lazy costume design and story-telling. Not to say that the outfits weren’t executed with care: everyone looked great but it just sat wrong with me. On the third or so watch or so, I cared much less and was mostly just glad to see nice costumes. Now as far as the cultural appropriation goes; I still have an issue with it and it’s one that may shock some readers and is an instance hiding in plain sight. Hanuman is a real Hindu deity and while I do love M’Baku, his is using a god that is still worshiped by millions. Now, I don’t feel that strongly about the movie’s appropriation of Baast mostly because while she is worshiped by some pagans; the religion of the ancient Egyptians is not one still commonly practiced. The cultural appropriation still sits a little raw with me but I’m less willing to openly show displeasure about it: maybe I’m getting old. 

Next up has to do with one of the biggest changes in opinion I’ve had on the film and that has to do with Chadwick Boseman. Now, the first time I saw the movie and the other MCU films that had Black Panther in it; I was always a little put off by Boseman’s almost sleepy performance. To quote a conversation I had with a friend: “It looks like he’s delivering every line with his dick being cut off.” I was really concerned about the utter lack of charisma the King of Wakanda had and that stayed with me until late last year when the news hit. Chadwick Boseman passed away after a lengthy and secret battle with cancer; meaning that all the roles he did for the MCU, he was in treatment for and dealing with a serious medical condition. It put things in perspective for many who had looked at Boseman as someone who just never seemed to match the energy of the other big personalities in the room when playing T’Challa. Even if your canon version of the King of Wakanda was one of the more regal and stoic types, Boseman to many (myself included) just seemed particularly low-energy without the context of a man who was battling disease and mostly suffering in silence. When the news of his death reached the masses, I felt like an immediate jerk: I was determined to take back every mean thing I had ever said because death tends to make saints of men but upon watching Black Panther a few more times I’ve come to a more balanced conclusion. Yes, the performance is subdued in comparison but really, everyone is except for Shuri who…we’ll get to. It’s a mostly laid back movie despite the stakes and message of the film. In his own movie, Boseman’s more flat affectation as T’Challa makes sense and though it does still stand out in other movies where he may not match the charisma of RDJ or Chris Evans: it’s still a good performance. 

The battle in the climax of the film does nothing for me as it is still just CGI blobs fighting in dark CGI nothing-scape. Angela Bassett is literally wearing baskets on her head. Everyone’s accents are inconsistent and weird. Andy Serkis is…I suppose, happy to be a human being on camera? The movie has flaws still but upon many rewatches, I find it more and more enjoyable. We’re not done yet; we’re finally going to tackle who may replace Killmonger as “Character I Wish Would Fall into a Pit” the most: Shuri. 

At first, Shuri was a funny character to me. I liked how funny and charming she was and she acted as a good foil to T’Challa’s more traditional and subdued personality. I was okay with her and her memes and the nonsense technology Wakanda has with its let’s say loose use of vibranium but after watching the movie a few times again; Shuri began to wear on me the most. She just knows too much in the way that many characters that are not written that well are. She has an answer to everything, a solution to everything; she’s very much written like a Mary Sue insert character. Now, I get that canonically she’s meant to be very smart and there’s a way to show that. Shuri is no Tony Stark, there’s just something about her that makes her quickness to correct people irksome (it’s probably internalized misogyny). 

Now onto the character I had the most issue with on my first watch and still have issues with now: Killmonger. Killmonger is touted as one of the most complex, most right and best villains in the MCU and while yes, his motivations are, I suppose, better than Klaue’s or Ultron’s; I don’t think he’s all that right. Being black, I’ve seen his rhetoric. I’ve seen the class of ideals between peace and violence. Being the PR savvy person I am, I’ve always chosen peace. In my opinion, oftentimes, violence makes an entire group look bad and has rarely been a good way to get a point across. Exceptions exist for sure but on a whole I’ve never supported revolution that way. And Killmonger’s idea to just arm random black folk and hope that it will be a big enough show of force just turned my stomach. However, after seeing the horrific backslide we’ve made in the last few years when it comes to police brutality, racism, acts of violence and domestic terrorism: maybe he has a point. Maybe being nice isn’t getting us far. I still won’t ever advocate for violence on the scale he planned but after seeing so many unarmed black men die at the hands of the police who are meant to protect us: yeah, fuck up that Target. 

I’ve had plenty of time to think about the media I ingest and why I ingest it. I can’t and won’t deny the impact Black Panther had on society and for black people. It was empowering to see an Africa not in strife and to see black excellence. It was empowering to see people use the Wakandan salute in real life to greet each other as a show of respect. I personally wouldn’t mind calling more white people “colonizer” when they speak out of turn or barking at them like M’Baku does. If this movie gave black kids someone to look up to, aspire to be, admire; then I’m not here to harsh anyone’s yums. I’ve had time to let my opinions mellow and change as the times have changed and because of that I’m still happy to say: Wakanda Forever. 

My Changing Relationship With Anime

After my post about Sarazanmai and an earlier post about my feelings about more modern anime titles, I’ve been feeling like I need to explain myself. Because while I admit and own being a bit of a harsh critic, one thing I am not is a contrarian. I try to have reasons that I don’t like something and just saying “it’s modern” is rarely an excuse for me. But after going over the tapes, I absolutely can see how people would assume that I just have a vendetta against modern anime. I sound bitter and old and sometimes I feel bitter and old. So let’s talk about it. Let’s talk about my relationship with anime. 

But before we talk about the present, we need to talk about the past. I first came into contact with anime at 6 with DragonBall. From there I stayed safe with a lot of the series that are anime but never really felt like anime to me just another cartoon but with different faces: mostly shows like Sailor Moon, CardCaptors, Pokemon and DragonBall/DragonBall Z. It wasn’t until I was 9 that I started really seeing anime as something different and that was mostly thanks to YuYu Hakusho. By 12 I had fully embraced glorious Nihon with series like InuYasha, Trigun, Case Closed and Cowboy Bebop and the rest is history. 

If you’ve been keeping track, I have been an anime fan for over 20 years. And a lot has changed in the world of anime and manga. But a lot has changed for me personally, as well. It’s telling that I fell in love with anime during one of the most trying times of my life: I had lost my father at 12, moved in my aunts, had emancipated myself and was doing my best to cope with grief and loss and my own changing identity and personality. And some of the series that mean the world to me like Fullmetal Alchemist and Death Note and Bleach hit me when I was in high school. I wasn’t much older than Edward Elric when he lost his mom so seeing someone like me process grief and use science and will and grit to overcome loss was intensely powerful. 

But in 20 years, my life has changed a lot. I did join the Tony Stark Club for Successfully Disastrous Orphans, I finished college, I moved away from my hometown and started a life on my own. I didn’t stop liking anime but I like to think I have matured in those years. 

Which leads us to where we are. I for sure do look like a harsh media critic and honestly, that probably started in 2010 with a little show called Attack on Titan. Now, keep in mind in 2010 I was 20 years old and had some of the best anime series ever made happen during the most formative times of my life. AoT to me was a lazy redux of series I already held near and dear to my heart but for many this was their first big bombastic shonen. For me it was a dumb series that thinks its very smart and the vitrolic fandom around it made me seriously question what I was doing as an anime fan. And those feelings have persisted now for nearly 10 years. New anime comes out, I feel very little about it. I feel worse about it because of hyperbolic fandom and it leaves me in an odd place. 

Before every major convention I usually do a cram session so I can be aware of what the kids are watching and having to cram in the top three of what’s popular only continued to sour me on modern anime. I think it was just my approach. I’m also a very stubborn little goblin. I don’t like being “told” what to do so my friends who have suggested series to me rarely are met with open and loving arms but mostly hissing and frustration. There’s only one series Carlos has suggested to me that I watch and that was Devilman Crybaby. I do tend to watch what is suggested to me but it’s typically pulling teeth and the faint memory of “being told what to do” lingers with me. Look at my feelings on Sarazanmai and Yuri On Ice: two shows that I like (hell, one that I like a lot) but that moment of being told what I would like and what I wouldn’t like…it just got under my skin. Maybe it goes back to the whole struggle of being biologically female and an anime fan that so much of it was spent being told what I would and wouldn’t like or having to prove my fandom. I’ve let that become an excuse and my unwillingness to try new things is bothersome. 

I struggle with a feeling of hollowness in newer shows. My Hero Academia is a perfect example of that for me. On paper there’s a lot that this show has going for it and going for me. But watching now, I mostly just don’t understand character motivations or why any of this matters. Why did All-Might make a kid eat his hair? Did they think fanfiction writers wouldn’t notice? Why is Bakugo so mad at Izuku? What crawled up Iida’s ass and died there? I have so many questions. But I didn’t want those questions answered and I abandoned ship around episode four. And the comment I kept going back to as I thought about My Hero Academia was that if this series hit me at the same time that Naruto did, I would be all over this. Not to say that older fans can’t be down for whatever All-Might is putting down but for me, it was just a little too much like a shonen series that I loved to make it truly special to me or worth further investigation. 

That hollowness I believe comes from the fact that as I mentioned, some of the best anime ever made were ones that came to me during a very formative parts of my life. Why would I watch a discount Naruto? I have Naruto. Why watch a knock-off Evangelion? I have Evangelion. And I’m intentionally being reductive because it’s easier to fit into the structure of this post but if I have to be nuanced, then yes, as a media critic a lot of more recent series do feel like rehashes of long-standing tropes and that’s a key point. These shows aren’t bad but they are using a formula that is now decades old and has been seen over and over again.

A lot of newer series suffer purely by the fact that I have seen an anime before. I have less patience now for a protagonist who doesn’t struggle and has no problems, for an antagonist who is tacked on for merchandise and a villain with a dumb plan. I’ve been doing this for decades, it takes more to impress me. Which is probably why my taste in anime has changed so much in the last few years. The series that have truly captured me have been ones that subvert my expectations. Space Dandy was a masterclass in meta humor and heart. Devilman Crybaby gave me a full on existential crisis that left me a babbling mess. Sarazanmai left me genuinely worried about three dumb boys and two dumb murder cops. 

So when a show like, let’s say Food Wars, hits a lot of shonen beats in a very linear fashion from loud main male to antagonist with muddy reasons to be an antagonist and a story line that is let’s be honest basic then you can see why I’m bored. 

It’s interesting to think that a lot of the series I still watch are either the classics or are slice of life or romance series now considering that I was such a shonen fan when I was younger. A lot of the newer boy’s love series (well, newer as in their new anime adaptations of manga I read when I was too young to read them) have been excellent and comedies like Pop Team Epic have been way more interesting to me than Fairy Tail ever could be. I’m old enough to catch some of the references and I’m mature enough to want to escape the misery that is my current routine and just watch two men be in love and eat cake or something together. 

I will say there are two points that I want to make as far as newer anime goes and especially newer anime fandom. The death of discourse is a huge problem for me as I even try to navigate some of the newer series. I do my very best to have reasons to not like a thing and folks being garbage about valid criticism is a great way to turn passive malaise into full on hatred. Looking at you, Yuri on Ice. Second point is a lack of looking backwards. This may be a generalization but as I talk to newer fans there’s this shocking lack of knowledge of series that go past 2010. I understand that the shows I grew up with are old but to even walk into a comic book shop back in the day I had to be able to know and talk about series that were running before I was born. And as soon as I accepted that anime was my new lifestyle, I naturally wanted to look back. I saw Outlaw Star and the old 70s run of Lupin III and did my best to understand that anime was not something that started for me in the 1990s. A lot of the hyperbolic rhetoric around newer anime like this show is the first or this show is the only just fundamentally sticks in my craw. Nothing is original anymore and that’s perfectly fine but you aren’t going to tell me that a cartoon that was released this year is somehow treading new and uncharted waters. I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve been in a panel and I’ve mentioned a show like Cowboy Bebop or InuYasha only to be met with silence. I get it. These shows are old but dammit they’re like anime required reading, it’s just basic. I don’t make the rules I just enforce them and judge you for not following them. And you kids have the internet now. Back in my day (full old man rant time) we had to wait for that one friend whose parents were stationed in Japan to bring back DVDs or to just full on spend weeks trying to find a bootleg copy of stuff.

In hindsight, I do want to be more careful with how I talk about anime nowadays because even though a series may not be my cup of tea, it does not give me an excuse to be a garbage person to anyone for liking it. I can also be more open to trying new things and not being such a stick in the mud. There are shows that are on my list and that I want to try and I want to be open to. I want to be less stubborn and try the things my friends suggest to me: they wouldn’t suggest something to me that they think I wouldn’t like

What has been incredibly freeing is realizing that a lot of these shows aren’t for me. Not to say that age is everything. Toi in Sarazanmai is several years my junior but I absolutely could relate to his pain, nihilism and want to be close to someone because they are related even though they are trash. It’s a weak argument to assume I or anyone really would  just “outgrow”. If anything what I’ve noticed is that in any given series my gaze has merely shifted. In Fullmetal Alchemist I went from relating very much to Edward to now seeing a lot of Mustang’s perspective because I relate to be a tired old man surrounded by idiots but still has grand ideas of taking over the world despite the heavy burdens of mental illness and trauma. The episodes of My Hero Academia that I did watch I found myself not relating to Izuku but All-Might who is mostly jaded, exhausted but so badly wants to believe in the good inside people. 

My relationship with anime is complicated. The ones I love I will love forever even if I can now see flaws in their facades. The newer ones that people assume I’d like I tend to find a little lackluster and the newer ones that I have committed to have became part of my usual rotation. I love anime and probably will until I am no longer able but I admit it’s been harder and harder to say that I am an anime fan just because so few of the newer shows do it for me.  I do want to continue to challenge myself to try newer series and my goal recently has been to go over a few of those mid 2000s series that I completely skipped over as I was busy obsessing over like two shows at the time. I also want to start refining my language when it comes to critiquing and talking about anime.

Anime changed my life. I’m not being hyperbolic by saying that. Literally anime has changed and saved my life. It gave me some of the best friends in the world that mean everything to me. It taught me so much about myself and others. Anime gave me something to look forward to and discuss and study and explore. It helped give form to my feelings. Without anime I doubt I’d be writing much now. Without anime I wouldn’t cosplay. Without anime I would be an entirely different person. I’m proud to be an anime fan. I’m proud to be an older anime fan. So even though sometimes my relationship status feels more like “it’s complicated” the answer at the end of the day is still as it was two decades ago: “in a serious relationship”. 

What Sarazanmai Did Wrong…And Then Oh So Right

If you pitched me a show about three middle school boys being turned into kappas and having to do a lot of what is essentially weird butt stuff to make the plot advance and also there are two vouging murder cops and a ton of puns I would tell you to get out of my apartment and to leave me alone. I was encouraged to watch this show by a close friend (the same person who lovingly encouraged me to watch Yuri on Ice) and when I started the series, I admit, my mind and heart weren’t in it. I had gotten into a minor car accident, I had convention stress on my mind, my job was wearing on me and when I started up the anime I mostly felt full of salt, bitterness and anger at the absurdity of the first episode. I got two episodes in and gave up, mostly tired of puns, kappas and weird butt stuff. 

It was Carlos that got me to watch the series again at A-Kon because as I told him about the show, he noticed the same thing the person that recommended the show to me noticed, this checks off a ton of boxes for me in theory. 

But I’m getting ahead of myself. What is Sarazanmai about? Well, let’s go over the plot briefly. 3 boys: Katsuki, Toi, and Enta are cursed by a kappa named Keppi to become kappas and correct the world of evil zombies that have something to do with desire and exorcising those demons correctly (think about Bleach where only Soul Reapers can send spirits off to the Seireitei correctly and if something happens to that spirit or someone else tries to send them off they can become Hollows, monsters or something worse). It starts as a monster of the day sort of thing with some overarcing plot points (like the vouging murder cops) but the first half othe series is just monster of the week. 

I’ll probably spoil things because that’s who I am but this series takes a dive that I’ll talk about more soon but back to the timeline. Carlos and I ended up watching about three or four episodes in our hotel room with way less pressure on me and while I still thought the series was mostly dumb and absurd, I was able to have more fun and just sort of enjoy the ride. We stopped right as a major plot point began and Carlos chided me and said I’d probably finish the show on my own. 

Fast forward to con being over and me crying hysterically on my sofa lamenting over my series son (look at the poster and guess which one is my son, you get a cookie if you’re right) and spirling into emotions I haven’t felt since Hitorijime My Hero as far as oh no, a Japanese cartoon has hit too close to home or honestly, like Avengers: Endgame in the scope of feeling that everything I love is wrong and dead and how do I cope? My children, oh no, how do I save them?

So after a few days, I’ve decided to write about this series. I have finally left Kappa Hell. So let’s talk about it.

Let’s go over what this show did wrong first and honestly, it was the absurdity. Now, I’m an anime fan. Hetalia is one of my favorite series, I can handle absurd. I can handle vocal tics, kero. I can handle puns even the otterly devastating ones and I can handle plot points that make zero sense like desire being held in the butt and having to carry around a box of something sacred to you. What I can’t handle is not feeling like any of that matters. Remember my issue with Food Wars? It’s similar. I had lots of questions after I entered Kappa Hell but upon first watch, I wanted none of them answered. I had no curiosity. I just wanted it to stop. Now, I’ll give a lot of weight to my mental state here. I was not in a good mood, frantic and emotional and I don’t like being pressured even lightly into anything. Spite is a powerful motivator and at that point I probably would have turned my nose up to ice cream or buttered sourdough rolls or even to a series I know I like. 

When I removed the pressure to like the series so I didn’t disappoint someone I care for deeply, I found that surface level it was still sort of absurd but in a way I was curious about.  I think having Carlos with me absolutely helped that because when we got to the two cops who were dancing and muttering quite a bit in the back of a police station, we rightfully had questions about that and came to the conclusion that the other cops just let these two have their little dancing moment and interrupt what was official police business. 

Next up is a small voice acting nitpick because each episode features a song about removing evil from zombies and usually it’s sung by Katsuki (who is pretty decent in the sub) but later on the series, Toi takes over and Enta does too and Carlos and I both joked that we found the one (the voice actor) who has the album coming out later. It’s adorably distracting but dissonant. 

I’ve always been up front in admitting that the series is beautiful and a lot of the designs benefited from looking a lot like things I already like, including tan blonde cop Rin Matsuoka (his name is Reo) and Kuji who looks like an adorable little school boy version of Jason Todd. The colors are bright, the sets are good, the music grew on me as I continued and the plot…well, this is Kappa Hell. Let’s talk about the plot. 

Remember how I said that the first part of the series feels like monster of the week sort of thing? Well, threads are still forming and they start to get pulled on around episode five and boy when those threads are tugged. Little things you’ve noticed start to make sense and honestly, the story became more than just a bunch of boys exorcising demons through weird puns and butt stuff but became about desire, want, needs, selfishness and bonds. 

Katsuki does some pretty strained and strange things to ease his guilt about what happened to his little brother. Enta full on sabotages things so he can have a reason to stay close to his crush, Katsuki. Toi has an unhealthy relationship with his mob boss older brother and is willing to do literal crimes to cover for his aniki. Blonde Matsuoka-kun cop, Reo, is actually deeply flawed and deeply in love with his partner, Mabu and Mabu is literally some kind of golem who was willing to give up his love for Reo so that he could stay alive in an attempt to stay by Reo’s side despite death having taken him prior. It all spirals quickly, sadness after sadness and it left me screaming and worried and unsure how to process emotions about these characters. I felt for Reo as he mourned the death of his beloved once more and related to his willingness to lash out in anger only to die and be reunited with Mabu at last. I felt for Toi who so badly wanted to be with his family after loss left him with few he could rely on and even if that meant doing things that were morally compromising to him. I related to Katsuki who ended up being quite selfish in trying to be selfless. It’s a surprisingly heartfelt series for a show about kappas, puns and butt stuff. 

When the tone of the show started to change and focus more on bonds and what we do to keep them is when it did something magical: it reminded me of a long-time lover. It reminded me of Gravitation. One of Yuki Eiri’s main themes in Gravitation is his connection to his sensei and his desire to remain connected to that horrible man and how that often butts up against what he wanted later on in the series which was a relationship with Shuichi. Gravitation is all about bonds and what we’re willing to do to keep them. Tohma is willing to lie and gaslight to keep Eiri. Shuichi is willing to be a victim to keep Yuki. Yuki is willing to be abused by Tohma so that he can keep one thing sacred and in turn he abuses Shuichi because that’s all he knows. Love sometimes is a selfish feeling and drives us to do not so romantic things. 

Towards the end of Sarazanmai, the plot centers more and more on the theme of connections and bonds and the fact that sometimes we do terrible things to keep those that we want close. Reo and Mabu’s arc together is such a great example of the horrible things we can do to each other just to feign what was once a great and healthy bond and just how toxic and corrupting grief can become. And that’s surprisingly thoughtful from a show that has a main plot point being a young boy who crossdresses as an idol girl to keep his little brother happy and seems to enjoy being in a dress a little too much. 

There’s one more point I’ll bring up and I think it encapsulates why the show made me so emotional but also managed to bring me back around and that’s consequences. For a dumb show about kids turning into kappas there’s a lot of violence, particularly gun violence (which is rare in Japan because, hey, effective gun laws work). The two cops use their guns to remove desire from deviants and thus turn them into monsters and Toi uses a gun because his aniki is yakuza and of course he does. Towards the end, Enta is shot and honestly, he gets very close to death and it’s not sugar-coated and I felt horrible for this kid who was just doing his best.  Toi is forced to kill his beloved aniki because he realizes that his brother is just not good for him and Reo is killed because he lashes out in anger after losing his beloved Mabu once more. Sure, this is still a show clearly aimed at younger audiences and most of it is sort of waved away by kappa magic but in the moment it felt so real and so grounded and so emotional that I cried more than I like admitting. 

Let’s talk about my son, Kuji Toi. If you guessed correctly, you can claim your cookie now. Toi has the best arc in the series because he has to come to terms with the fact that his relationship with his aniki is flawed and dangerous and what is beautiful is that he faces consequences. The last sequences of the series are Toi being sent off to prison for his crimes. He spends years there and we resume with him returning home older, more jaded and more alone as he had spent years away from his friends and family and likely had little to return to as now he was a criminal, or at least society hopes, a reformed one. He also has the most realistic feelings about connections in that he feels his life is at times just not worth the risk to his friends and his dive into melancholy and depression in the last episode just made me want to hug him if I wasn’t so concerned about the fact that he’d stab me over it. 

The series does end on a happy note with the friends all coming together once more and that optimism but that’s again a surprising amount of weight and thought for a show that was meant to be a bit of a throwaway as far as I was concerned. I felt for Toi and was glad he faced consequences for his actions because that’s one thing about anime, especially boy’s love, that I struggle with: a lack of consequences for bad things. Sure, Toi did kill his aniki over something valid and but he still did kill someone and seeing him face a consequence made it oh so worth it. 

Sarazanmai didn’t do much for me at first but as I continued on, I got emotionally invested in these characters and their lives and I ended up a babbling mess of emotions and worry about these boys who were just doing their best. I wanted to protect all of them. I wanted them to be okay. I wanted things to be okay. There’s a melancholic optimism to the show that I can relate to. We hope things are going to be okay but the series cops to the fact that we just don’t know. We can hope that the boys are going to be okay, but there’s no promise that things are going to be okay. The future is uncertain and that’s just fine. So long as we’re connected, even if we drift apart, the bonds that we formed never truly leave us. 

With a Flair for the Dramatic

I have loved villains in media since I was a very small hellspawn. Whether it was my attraction to Lord Sesshomaru in InuYasha or my undying allegiance to Prince Vegeta in DragonBall Z, villains have always done it for me. Narratively, they usually get the coolest powers, best lines, and most interesting motives even if they make zero sense. Like really, what was Master Naraku’s problem? He didn’t get to sleep with one priestess and that was enough to want to mess with literally everyone else he came in contact with? But why? Doesn’t matter, he was hot and had a cool design.  

But in the spirit of LGBTQIA+ Pride Month, I want to talk about something that others have covered but I wanted to put my own spin on as well. I want to talk about queer coding and villains. In fact, there’s a great Princess and the Scrivener video that I’ll link here that talks about this mostly with Disney villains and I’ll use a lot of similar points but really, there’s only so much queer theory to go around.

Here’s the basics: villains in Western media (I exclude Eastern for now but put a pin in this) are often times coded (portrayed using mostly visual and linguistic shorthand) as queer or effeminate to prove a point, that point being mostly how virile and masculine the protagonist is. Think about Scar in The Lion King or Governor Ratcliffe in Pocahontas. They’re both pretty aggressively queer-coded with all the glitter and flamboyance to highlight how masculine and strong the protagonists are. Ursula looks and sounds like an angry drag queen because she’s based off an angry drag queen and Frollo, despite very clearly lusting after a woman, is given very showy clothes and his attraction to Esmerelda can even be read as somewhat closeted.

And though the video I linked talks about this mostly in the negative…I know I’m just one queer out in the world but I’ve never had an issue with that. I love Disney villains as you can tell by my very enthusiastic Dr. Facilier cosplay. This is one of those places I don’t think queer coding is terrible as if the internet is to gauge, a lot of queer people found themselves in Disney villains.

Now, my realization that I maybe wasn’t quite cis or het may have come from anime but I can also super see the appeal and reason why someone who may be a little different, a little sparkly, a little more fashionable and way more sassy may attach more readily to villains and thus celebrate that.

So that pin I asked you to put in about Eastern media, let’s come back to that because here’s where we tie in East and West. The question is why code a villain or antagonist as queer. Is it just to show off how masc and strong your hero is? Well, yes and no. The root of the reason is the same as the root of many evils: misogyny. It’s easy to take down a villain that is by most writer’s standards a perversion of masculinity which is femininity. Think of Szayel Aporro Granz in Bleach. What is the point of making him such a queen? What does that do for us? Well, when we see him in comparison to the mostly morally strict and pure Uryu, he comes an easy villain to wish ill upon. Except for me, I love him and can’t wait to cosplay him. Many cultures view masculinity as the most strong and most capable, so making your villain queer, feminine or even downright trans in the case of some anime (looking at you again, Bleach) is a great way to create parallel and difference between the force you’re meant to be rooting for. So when Szayel has a sword thrust deep into him, a strange phallic sort of metaphor at the hands of another queer-coded character, you’re meant to be reminded of his perversion, deviance and girly nature and think that those things are bad.

Again, it’s about optics. I love his character and him being aggressively queer-coded doesn’t bother me as much as other characters in the same show do. Even one of my favorite series of all time does this with a villain most ignore and that’s Barry the Chopper in Fullmetal Alchemist, really, what’s the point of making him a crossdresser? Does it add anything? No. But I can tell you that I can still recite his lines in the same lyrical sing-song fashion that Jerry Jewell brought the character in the dub and it scared one of my friends very much to know I can do so.

I’ve spent a lot of words talking about the fact that I don’t think queer coding in villains is that bad but if you follow me over on Twitter then you must know what is to come.

Y’all, I don’t like BBC’s Sherlock. I don’t like Benedict Cumberbatch playing Sherlock, Martin Freeman is fine but the plot, the lack of plot and the aggressive queer coding of most of the characters rubbed me the wrong way to start. Episode one features many jabs at how gay Watson and Sherlock must be for each other and that was a bitter enough pill to swallow but then we meet Jim Moriarty. Oh Moriarty. What even is he? Why is he? What is he doing? Andrew, no. Please. Don’t do this. Not like this. Moriarty isn’t even queer coded because coding is meant to be at least a little subtle. He’s just the most. There’s an amazing Hbomberguy video that makes all of these points much better than I ever could but here is my problem with Moriarty’s queer coding while I’m willing to give it a soft pass in other places. What is gained by Moriarty being queer coded? Why do we need to know that he’s apparently slept with one of his bodyguards? Why does it matter that he’s dressed up in the crown jewels? Why do we care that he apparently has the biggest of possible hard-ons for Sherlock? Why? What does this add to the story? You can just have him be a villain. It feels like it’s pandering and that’s why Moriarty doesn’t get a pass from me. Nearly every other queer coded villain has a reason for it. Even if the reason is a crappy one like internalized misogyny but really if you made Moriarty less queer coded, does anything change? Does this make him interesting? Steve Moffat, do you think this is helping? I tend not to throw around the word queerbaiting a lot because I think it’s overused by fans who are just unhappy their ship didn’t sail but in this case queerbaiting Moriarty and coding so aggressively as a flashy queer man doesn’t do a damn thing for the narrative. It’s good for slash fic and even then to what end? Does Sherlock show any interest in Moriarty? No. He shows no interest in anyone, that’s the damn problem. What’s the point? Why are we doing anything? Is bear still driving?

Queer coded villains are frustrating. So much of it is rooted in old and toxic aspects of culture that prize traditional masculinity over flamboyance, style, fashion, good puns and excellent villain songs. And there are other examples where this fails. Think about all the fuss with LeFou being the first out gay for Disney in Beauty and the Beast(2017). What does making Gaston’s literal idiot sidekick gay do for the plot? A whole lotta nothing.  

I can see why some in the LGBTQIA+ family are more up in arms about queer coding and villains because at the end of the day, a lot of these characters die or face some horrible evil and that just isn’t fun. It isn’t fun watching a character you relate to face a horrible death and it does continue to perpetuate a lot of things about being queer that many do not like. Not all of us are sassy, mean, flashy and out to steal your girl/boy.

But for those of us who are all of those things and oh so much more…well, let’s just say that I do love my queer coded villains… most of the time.

The Summer that Hype Died


I have not felt hype for a movie, anime, comic or video game the same way for a while. I have not since 2016. And after three years of trying to sort out my bitter disappointment and blind hatred I wanted to sit down and talk about hype culture, social media, and why I have not been able to be properly excited for a while now.

Before we dive in head first, let me say one thing. Mentally, I’m okay. It isn’t that I can’t get excited about things in media anymore. There’s still small things that have gotten me excited: new movie trailers, new comic book runs, new video games; there have been things that have managed to get me on the edge of my seat but that feeling is now almost immediately tempered due to either a strange sense of ennui or a fear that the hype will die like it did in 2016.

Before we talk about the summer that killed my hype, we need to discuss what was going on in 2016.

In 2016, I found myself unemployed for an extended period of time. Politically, the world was a mess. I was deeply involved with an emotionally abusive partner and had been coping with a very toxic friendship that had gone on for years. I had a paramor that I adored but would have to deal with pining over from a great distance and I had very little going for me in other regards. I was depressed, I was down on myself and I was probably at one of my lowest points emotionally, physically and spiritually.

It was a mess politically, too, considering the rise of a certain Mango Mussolini and damn Nazis returning like that isn’t a big deal.

2016 was a mess and then a little anime popped up and ruined damn near everything. That’s right kids, we’re going to talk about ice-skating, the death of criticism and the hype train.

No, I am not yet tired of my tsundere relationship with Yuri on Ice.

This anime. Gosh darnit this anime. The long of short of the plot is that Yuri is an anxiety-ridden ice skater who falls in love with the incredibly Russian ice skater, Victor; has a rival who is Russian and also way too damn good also named Yuri but different because Russia and thus conflict and love and romance and an utter lack of tension.

The anime is fine. And my feelings on it have cooled but no, we’re back in 2016. Let’s talk indignation.

This show was recommended to me by a close friend and they were PUMPED about this. Hooked from the opening before anyone spoke a line. I remember getting told to watch the series in a few frantic messages. And I had strong feelings for this friend so I was happy to oblige. They assumed it would make me feel better considering that I had melted into my sofa since I was unemployed and had nothing else going for me. I was told how amazing this show was and how much I’d love it even though there was only one episode out so far. So I watched the show after listening to it be praised for several minutes by someone I trusted dearly. We sat on a call together so my reactions could be recorded and occasionally, I was asked if I was enjoying the show or if I liked a scene or character.

On a first initial viewing: it was fine. Immediately, it gave me serious Gravitation vibes, a series that I love and adore but have seen before. It was fine. There were absolutely things I liked: Victor seemed to be pulled from all of my pretty boy dreams, Russian Yuri is amazing and is everything I want out of a rival and Yuri is…well, he’s doing his best. At first glance, I liked the show but it was nothing to write home about. And when I expressed a cooler response that wasn’t emphatic love or intense hatred, I was greeted by something rather cold. I was not willing to join the hype train. It would be one thing if the show gained no greater impact but no, no, I was wrong.

Everyone was talking about this anime.

Now, you’ve heard me mention before how much I despise the death of discourse. I think anime, comic books, television shows and more get better by being able to have conversations about them. And when I expressed my opinions about the show, I was met with mostly vitriol. That turned mild ambivalence into full on hatred.

But it did something else important: it made me feel broken.

Mind you, dear reader, I have been on the edge of my seat watching movie trailers. I have left films trembling with excitement. I am not one that usually has level-headed responses to things. Now, that does not mean that I cannot analyze things critically, it just means that I am one who gets excited by things I like.

But Yuri on Ice didn’t do anything for me that other anime hadn’t done better. I was much happier watching Free! or Gravitation or reading a Fumi Yoshinaga novel. The anime was fine and that answer to the internet and to those close to me who knew of the show was not an acceptable answer.

People wanted to claim this was the first, the best, the only and for me, an old anime fan, it just wasn’t. If I wanted to watch a show about a plain-looking kid with anxiety try and court an attractive Russian lamp, I’d write fanfiction. And while I’m happy to embrace the argument of old boy’s love being especially problematic, that does not erase its existence. Sure, Gravitation in hindsight is very problematic but if you want to talk about setting the tone for most idol animes to begin with, you have to look at Shuichi Shindou.

I felt like something bad had happened to me. Like something in my brain broke. And as I rewatched the show over and over again to try and find what in Kami-sama’s name I was missing, it only plunged me further into depression. This show was supposed to clear my acne, cure my depression, give me life and all it did was make me hate ice skating, anime and myself.

What followed was a summer that made me feel like I was defective in some way even though there was one anime that managed to make me feel everything I was apparently supposed to feel watching YoI. It was Hitorijime My Hero. But folks didn’t seem to want to talk about that one so I was left to deal with my love of the series in relative silence. And that was just fine by me.

In the fall of that year, a game I wanted to play more than anything came out: Pokemon Moon. Longtime readers will remember my very strong feelings about that game and the franchise but it was something that me and the squad were all looking forward to. And considering that some of us were down and out, the prospect of going on an adventure together was very alluring. But the game was a huge disappointment. It was too easy, the new mechanics made me angry, the story entirely lacked bite and while I adored Rowlet the rest of the game just left me wanting.

At least that time I felt a little less broken because others had expressed similar feelings to mine. But by the end of the fall, I felt hollow. I felt like something terrible had happened. That being down on my luck ruined something in me, had taken something from me, had broken me.

Fortunately, my tormented ended towards the end of the year but the lasting effects of The Summer of 2016 still linger. Now when asked about what I’m watching, what I’m reading or what I’m into I tend to give very stunted answers. I’m not willing to be vulnerable with those in that way that I don’t trust or know. Close friends get to hear me gush about movies I like or characters I’m fond of but in more normal conversation, you’re likely to hear a very blunt “It’s fine.” from me.

That summer was a pain, and thinking about it and reliving for the sake of this blog post exhausted me. But I wanted to talk about the summer that broke my mind, my heart and my expectations. Remember, you can love something and not think it’s perfect and there’s no reason to be cruel to someone who does not see things your way. At the end of the day, human connection is why I fell into fandom: not arguing falsely over an anime that had a more disappointing season two than Wolf’s Rain.

The Media Life, Unexamined

“There is no sin except stupidity.”  ― Oscar Wilde, The Critic as Artist.pngIt started with a rather backhanded comment about movies after what was a days long dive into why I come off so ambivalent about everything in the office. I was commenting on the rape allegory in Maleficent and an acquaintance said proudly:

“I didn’t read that subtext.”

Subtext. SUBTEXT?

I was outraged. I flat out replied “I had a bloody nose from how aggressively that movie punched me in the face with it.” and it led to a conversation that when I think about it, still brings bile up my throat.

I want to talk about being critical and the epidemic (yes, epidemic) of non-critical thinking when it comes to media.

I’ve had run ins with folks more than once about how I feel about movies, television and more. I normally say “It’s fine.” as a shield. It’s an insurance policy that means “I do not actually want to talk about this movie because any conversation about it more than just ‘pew pew pew action, hot actress’ will fall apart faster than a Kardashian marriage and I’m not here for that.”

I’m fortunate enough to be surrounded by brilliant and critical people in my life. When we leave movies, we discuss agendas, biases, hidden messages and more. We also talk canon and how this piece lives up to its name ( Because every movie now is just based on something. Originality, be damned.). So I come off as intensely ambivalent to the untrained eye. And that is just not true. I have wildly strong opinions and the receipts to back them up. If I say:

Avengers: Age of Ultron is a farce because of the way it neuters Ultron’s storyline for the sake of a decades’ old grudge against Hank Pym as a character.

I know what the hell I am talking about. And back in my day of being a fan (when the buffalo roamed), being critical was a major asset. We broke down plot and story and motivations. And that never meant I didn’t enjoy something. The things I love the most, I am the most critical of.

Which brings us to the oh so common phrase of: “Just turn off your brain.”

I’m going to say the strongest statement ever on this blog in 5 years…turning off your brain is how we got Trump as president. Turning off your brain is how we have 5, yes 5, Transformers movies. Turning off your brain is why we have the casual racism, sexism and homophobia in film  to this very day because no one, no one has the audacity or courage to challenge their media and demand more.

I’m an English major, writer and longtime fan. It is my job to be critical of everything I see. I spent conservatively 4 years learning how to train my brain to be aware of what the things I consume are trying to tell me. Comics have always been political and people who say they shouldn’t be or aren’t are wrong and I hate them. Media has always been political, everything is political. Everything, every choice, every aspect of what we do, buy and see is trying to sell you something, even if it’s just an idea. And turning off your brain means you don’t see that and thus you are likely to fall victim to vapid thinking that is damaging to you as a person (i.e. internalized sexism and casual racism) and thus existence as a whole. Critiquing media has given us better representation (most of the time) and forced us to look at the status quo of our current media landscape and demand better.

The people who know me, know my heart and soul know that I am enthusiastic and passionate about media. I have strong opinions and I love what I love and hate what I hate. But in this modern media and culture landscape only emphatic zeal is accepted and nuance goes to die, I must look horribly negative. To an uncritical mind, I must seem like I hate everything. And vice versa, I don’t understand how you can “turn off your brain” and not be critical. I don’t think of it as a stretch to consider a movie what it is, a piece of art. We don’t shame people who critique art pieces. But for some reason, I’m a bad person for demanding more out of my movies. I’m a curmudgeon for wanting complex storytelling. Oh, the hobgoblin I am. How dare I want something from a film or a television series. Shame on me. Shame the non-believer.

Here is where I’ll pause for folks saying:

“Well, if you over-analyze a movie/television show/anime/comic book/manga, you ruin it.”

Sure, it’s why I stopped watching CinemaSins. If you do nitpick on stupid things, you will ruin a movie. I have zero questions about how Captain America and squad got from Scotland to Wakana in zero time at all in Infinity War; I do, however, have questions about how Black Widow can take down Proxima Midnight because I have read at least one comic book in my life. I’ve never been one to over-analyze and it’s never done just to be “that person” (which is only included because I had someone accuse of being a contrarian). If I don’t like something, it’s for a reason. I always give something a chance. And again, having one negative thing to say about a thing doesn’t mean I don’t like it. I rip to shreds the things I love because I have to. I am obligated to as a consumer of media. And if something influences me, I have to be doubly critical of that thing because it then becomes baggage that I carry with me everywhere I go. I carry the media I take consume in a little bag with me and that bag leeches out bias into the things I write, I say and I do. I internalized misogyny for years because of the media I was ingesting. I accepted the casual racism in movies in everything I did. I dealt with how religion is depicted in media. And I don’t ever want to go back to not being aware of the messages being forced down my throat. 

All of this is exhausting. I miss conversation. I miss discourse. I miss and  do welcome thoughtful conversation.

 

The Burden of Knowledge

“Burdens are for shoulders strong enough to carry them.”   ― Margaret Mitchell  Gone with the Wind.png

It was after discussing Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: The Crimes of Grindelwald with a few mutuals that I realized something: I was the only one in the room bothered by a few things that the trailer brought up and made me even more angry than usual at Jo Rowling.

This post is going to be a little self-indulgent and may even come off as a little narcissistic but I want to talk about critical conversations about media when you’re the only person in the room concerned about it.

I’ll preface this by saying I am a well-intending idiot. I’m proud of my education but when it comes to the people I choose to spend my time with, I am the dumb one. Amber can talk circles around me in a dialogue, I am nothing as far as trivia goes in comparison to Victoria and Carlos.

I’m proud of my education and proud of my level of intellect but I am far from remarkable as far as I see it.

That being said, I’m also willing to cope to the remarkable amount of privilege that I have with my ability to be pedantic about comic books.

All of that aside, let’s get back to the topic.

My issues with Jo Rowling’s recent romp are numerous and the most recent trailer only pushed me over the edge with disappointment for Good Ol’ Auntie Jo. Choosing to make Nagini an Asian woman now held in animagus and bondage is vile and a perpetuation of the submissive Asian trope on a Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 level and continuing to allow Johnny Depp to be in anything is a vile cash-grab. Additionally, the continual teasing of “finally getting a gay Dumbledore” have proven to be mostly a queer-baiting PR stunt. I had plenty of new reasons to be disappointed with this movie on top of the foundation of reasons I had to be disappointed with this movie.

And when pressed about my issues and explaining that I was tired of the mystical Native American trope and a world where it’s the 1920s and racism isn’t real but discrimination against non-magic users is a thing, I realized something. I was the only person who seemed to care about these issues.

I was the only person in the room that seemed concerned about perpetuating damaging stereotypes and authentic representation.

And that bothered me.

Time and time again I’ve been told that I’m too critical of media. That I should just turn off my brain.

Let’s kill that in its crib immediately.

I am an English major, literary student, research scholar, writer, reader and more.

My brain is hard-wired to be critical of the messages I see via the media I consume.

Turning off my brain is not something I think I’m capable of. I was even dissecting casual movies like The Hitman’s Bodyguard because yes there was stuff to dissect in that raging garbage fire of a movie.

Keep in mind, I am a huge nerd. Well, not huge. I’m a very petite nerd. I have YEARS of canon knowledge and trivia. I am also an avid reader who tries to fill the void of existential dread with books and literary criticism. I know my references. And I’m passionate about knowledge and learning more.

And considering that literally every piece of media is trying to push an agenda, it’s vitally important to be aware of what comics, movies, television and more are trying to sell you.

Besides, being critical is sort of my thing. Never in a contrarian sort of way but being more “aware” and “critical” of the media around if has helped me carve out a niche that I’m quite proud of.

Let’s take a moment to remember that being critical doesn’t mean hating everything. Which brings us to the other part of the uncomfortable conversation I had:

Well, do you like anything?

Dear reader, I love many things. That doesn’t mean that anything is perfect. I love John Constantine as a character but he is a tire fire and I am empathetic to anyone who wants to punch him in the neck. I love most comic books but I also absolutely understand that the Marvel movies are just a scheme to funnel cash into Disney’s gaping monopoly. I tear apart the things I love because that’s what a critical reader and viewer does. Nothing is perfect, everything has flaws, everything has an agenda.

And there are times I can be highly critical of a piece of media while still mostly enjoying it. Deadpool 2 is a mostly forgettable superhero sequel with huge problems like another shocking instance of Girlfriend in the Fridge but for the most part, I really laughed during that film.

There are other times, however, where a story’s issues are too distracting like with Black Panther where I was so overcome with disgust at the misuse of words and verbage actual militant African-Americans used that I struggle to get through the second half of the film without a stomach ache.  

And again, I’m surrounded by folks who echo similar feelings to mine. We may not all share the same opinions but Amber and I left Black Panther and talked about race relations for literally about an hour. I walk out of a movie and immediately have a call with Carlos. I get to talk with the other writers of FanGirl Nation and chat about tropes and more. I am surrounded by brilliant human beings who are just as critical, if not more so, than I am and I am a better person for it.

I do sometimes wish I could “turn off my brain” and come down and talk about a movie for just what it is. Increasingly, critical reading and watching is a rarity, kept in niche communities. I do wish I could talk about feminism in movies more and political themes in pop culture more but many just want to “turn off their brains” and enjoy their media.

I sometimes wish I wasn’t aware of how grossly sexist, racist, transphobic, homophobic and harmful popular media can be.

But I am.

And with that heavy burden I will continue to call those things out for as long as I am able.