Category Archive 'Deconstruction'

27 Aug 2011

Subjugation Fantasy

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Emily Blunt plays Matt Damon’s Manic Pixie Dream Girl

Adam Serwer, blogging at the left-wing American Prospect, recently watched “The Adjustment Bureau” (2011). His reaction involves the deconstruction of a popular cinematic theme revealing the unattractive desire lying just behind the fantasy.

The female lead, played by Emily Blunt, is a variation on Nathan Rabin’s ” Manic Pixie Dream Girl,” concept, defined as a woman “exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” …

As the Onion writers later note, the key offensive quality of the MPDG is, like the Magic Negro, subservience: She exists to lead the male protagonist to happiness/catharsis.

    Like the Magical Negro, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype is largely defined by secondary status and lack of an inner life. She’s on hand to lift a gloomy male protagonist out of the doldrums, not to pursue her own happiness.

It’s prominence as a cinematic archetype, I think, stems from the fact that it’s the ultimate female fantasy of a particular kind of “nice guy” overrepresented among artsy men*. She’s on hand to “lift a gloomy male protagonist out of the doldrums” because male writers are often the gloomy male protagonists of their own internal dramas. …

My theory is that the MPDG is a fantasy molded from the clay of an infinite number of adolescent rejections from the women of their youth. Precisely because the relationship never reaches the stage of genuine intimacy, the MPDG remains a two-dimensional projection of the desires of a guy who is progressive enough in gender matters to want a woman who is “interesting,” but not one that has an internal life of her own beyond the superficial qualities that made her “cool” and “not like other girls” to begin with.

Key to the MPDG is that the concept reflects the gender-based hostility of the nice guy. She frequently suffers from a form of (mental) illness, because this both proves that she needs the nice guy and shows why he has such a hard time acquiring her. Even if she’s not sick in some way, she is defined by some kind of glaring emotional vulnerability that makes her, in an abstract sense, a damsel in distress who needs rescue. Under the circumstances, the nice guy’s qualities become as heroic as he imagines them to be. She often suffers cinematically, because she refuses — like the unattainable women of the nice guy’s imagination — to recognize just how good for her he is.

Just as with the Magic Negro, though, the insidiousness of the MPDG archetype lies in the way the creator assumes that their characters are progressive. These characters are in a superficial sense positive in that they’re usually protagonists or allies of the protagonist, but the purpose of this is merely to assuage guilt and provide the unparalleled sense of comfort that comes with the knowledge that everything is in its proper place.

I thought it was rather a pity that there does not seem much likelihood of Mr. Serwer deconstructing the whole array of pleasing political fantasies, minorities, victim groups, the poor, the environment, unions, that serve to feed the ego and power needs of the community of fashion intelligentsia.

16 Nov 2010

Transforming Loyalties at Princeton

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Walter Kirn, in his autobiographical Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever, describes the post-modern English major experience and explains the nature of the conversion process to full membership in the contemporary elite educated community of fashion.

[A] suffocating sensation often came over me whenever I opened Deconstruction and Criticism, a collection of essays by leading theory people that I spotted everywhere that year and knew to be one of the richest sources around for words that could turn a modest midterm essay into an A-plus tour de force Herę is a sentence (or what I took to be one because it ended with a period) from the contribution by the Frenchman Jacques Derrida, the volume’s most prestigious name: “He speaks his mother tongue as the language of the other and deprives himself of all reappropriation, all specularization in it.” On the same page I encountered the windpipe-blocking “heteronomous” and “invagination.” When I turned the page I came across— stuck in a footnote—”unreadability.”

That word I understood, of course.

But real understanding was rare with theory. It couldn’t be depended on at all. Boldness of execution was what scored points. With one of my professors, a snappy “heuristic” usually did the trick. With another, the charm was a casual “praxis.” Even when a poem or story fundamentally escaped me, I found that I could save face with terminology, as when I referred to T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land as “semiotically unstable.” By this I meant “hard.” All the theory words meant “hard” to me, from “hermeneutical” to “gestural.” Once in a while I’d look one up and see that it had a more specific meaning, but later—some-times only minutes later—the definition would catch a sort of breeze, float away like a dandelion seed, and the word would go back to meaning “hard.”

The need to finesse my ignorance through such trickery-” honorable trickery to my mind, but not to other minds, perhaps—left me feeling hollow and vaguely haunted. Seeking security in numbers, I sought out the company of other frauds. We recognized one another instantly. We toted around books by Roland Barthes, Hans-Georg Gadamer, and Walter Benjamin. We spoke of “playfulness” and “textuality” and concluded before we’d read even a hundredth of it that the Western canon was “illegitimate,” a veiled expression of powerful group interests that it was our duty to subvert. In our rush to adopt the latest attitudes and please the younger and hipper of our instructors—the ones who drank with us at the Nassau Street bars and played the Clash on the tape decks of their Toyotas as their hands crept up our pants and skirts—we skipped straight from ignorance to revisionism, deconstructing a body of literary knowledge that we’d never constructed in the first place.
For true believers, the goal of theory seemed to be the lifting of a great weight from the shoulders of civilization. This weight was the illusion that it was civilized. The weight had been set there by a rangę of perpetrators—members of certain favored races, males, property owners, the church, the literate, natives of the northern hemisphere—who, when taken together, it seemed to me, represented a considerable portion of everyone who had ever lived. Then again, of course I’d think that way. Of course I’d be cynical. I was one of them.

So why didn’t I feel like one of them, particularly just then? why did I, a member of the classes that had supposedly placed e weight on others and was now attempting to redress this crime, feel so crushingly weighed down myself?

I wasn’t one of theory’s true believers. I was a confused young opportunist trying to turn his confusion to his advantage by sucking up to scholars of confusion. The literary works they prized —the ones best suited to their project of refining and hallowing confusion—were, quite naturally, knotty and oblique The poems of Wallace Stevens, for example. My classmates and I found them maddeningly elusive, like collections of backward answers to hidden riddles, but luckily we could say “recursive” by then. We could say “incommensurable.” Both words meant “hard.”

I grew to suspect that certain professors were on to us, and I wondered if they, too, were fakes. In classroom discussions, and even when grading essays, they seemed to favor us over the hard workers, whose patient, sedentary study habits, and sense that confusion was something to be avoided rather than celebrated, appeared unsuited to the new attitude of antic postmodernism that I had mastered almost without effort. To thinkers of this school, great literature was an incoherent con, and I—a born con man who knew little about great literature—had every reason to agree with them. In the land of nonreadability, the nonreader was king, it seemed. Long live the king.

This lucky convergence of academic fashion and my illiteracy emboldened me socially. It convinced me I had a place at Princeton after all. I hadn’t chosen it, exactly, but I’d be foolish not to occupy it. Otherwise I’d be alone.

Finally, without reservations or regrets, I settled into the ranks of Princeton’s Joy Division—my name for the crowd of moody avant-gardists who hung around the smaller campus theaters discussing, enjoying, and dramatizing confusion. One of their productions, which I assisted with, required the audience to contemplate a stage decorated with nothing but potted plants. Plants and Waiters, it was called. My friends and I stood snickering in the wings making bets on how long it would take people to leave. They, the “waiters,” proved true to form. They fidgeted but they didn’t flee. Hilarious.

And, for me, profoundly enlightening. Who knew that serious art could be like this? Who would have guessed that the essence of high culture would turn out to be teasing the poor saps that still believed in it? Certainly no one back in Minnesota. Well, the joke was on them, and I was in on it. I could never go back there now. It bothered me that I’d ever even lived there, knowing that people here on the great coast (people like me— the new, emerging me) had been laughing at us all along. But what troubled me more was the dawning realization that had I not reached Princeton, I might never have discovered this; I might have stayed a rube forever. This idea transformed my basic loyalties. I decided that it was time to leave behind the sort of folks whom I’d been raised around and stand—for better or for worse—with the characters who’d clued me in.


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