literature

What Was I Scared Of?

“Well,

“I was walking in the night, and I saw nothing scary. / For I have never been afraid of anything. Not very. / Then, I was deep within the woods, when suddenly, I spied them: / I saw a pair of pale green pants, with nobody inside them.”

Thus begins one of Dr. Seuss’ not-so-well-known stories, found within the collection titled: The Sneetches and Other Stories.

The original Seuss illustration of the story’s climax, and…

…the 2019 Stage Movement class at Metro’s tableau imitation of Seuss’ drawing.

You’ll have heard of the eponymous Sneetches: birdlike creatures, some have bellies with stars and others have none upon thars. The Star-Belly Sneetches treat the Plain-Bellies horribly, and we hear they’ve done so for years. In the end (spoiler alert), after being bilked by a ruthless Fix-It-Up-Chappie, the Sneetches learn their lesson, and decide that “no kind of Sneetch is the best on the beaches.”

What Was I Scared Of? has a similar moral: in the end the narrator comes to a worldview-shattering realization that the pale green pants were “just as scared as I,” and declares, “I was just as strange to them / as they were strange to me.”

Learning to not only appreciate those different than us, but coexist with them, seems to be a common Seussian theme, across multiple Seuss stories. More importantly: that the differences we perceive in others, no matter how disturbing they may seem at first, are really, as the narrator of The Sneetches remarks, “…so small, / you might think such a thing wouldn’t matter at all.”

I haven’t performed this story since the reprise, in 2002, of the original production, put up by me and a small number of performers I dubbed Five Funny Faces (after a favorite class-closing game a beloved acting prof used to do with us), in 2000. In 2000, we performed at Nomad Theatre, and in ’02 we were recruited for the Seussentennial celebration, at the Boulder Public Library. This is after the previous school-grant production at the now-defunct Guild Theatre in east Boulder, a couple years before, which in turn came out of my directing project at CU Boulder the year before that: 3 By Seuss.

For all these past theatrical endeavors, I had adapted five Dr. Seuss stories for the stage, and when it became untenable to perform them myself &/or with my own peeps, I began to teach this Seussian production as the final exam for Stage Movement classes. It’s a good lesson in creating elaborate sets (and weird characters) with only physicality. It’s an effective cumulative lesson of all the things the Stage Movement students are supposed to have learned through the semester.

Plus, it’s fun.

And it’s good to remind all these young people about (getting off my lawn, and) Dr. Seuss’ moral lessons, too. Especially nowadays, when it seems power is all in making the other side look bad, or feel bad, or creating an Other Side in the first place, where there really shouldn’t be one. It’s a new type of commerce for the Internet era: the trade in outrage.

I’m dusting off my own Seussian chops to include What Was I Scared Of? as an act for the upcoming Blue Dime Cabaret. I’ve recruited two

Alan, Adam, and Prof. Jenn have never been afraid of anything. Not very…

young men from my most recent Stage Movement class to perform it with me. I’m including it for a few reasons, the main one of which is that the show’s theme is Back To School / Let’s Get Educated, which means I’m literally bringing a piece of the education I regularly provide, up onto the stage. With some of my actual students to whom I’ve provided same, no less.

Also, who didn’t read Dr. Seuss as a kid in school? We all did. At least, I should hope we did. So it fits.

It should be a huge amount of fun, and I’ve placed us last, so that the audience will leave with that warm fuzzy feeling you get at the end of the story, when the narrator meets the pants quite often in his regular world, smiling and saying “hi” instead of freaking out. It’s a lovely ending.

Hopefully after enjoying the show, the audience will “forg[e]t about stars, / and whether they have one, or not, upon thars.”

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The More You Holmes

From: Elementary ep. 7.8

Character Names / Title: Three Garridebs

Reference: the eponymous short canon story is about a crafty American who targets a man named Garrideb, getting him to leave his house to look for the third Garrideb, so the false Garrideb can fetch a valuable criminal tool hidden in the real Garrideb’s basement.

In this episode of Elementary, the Three Garridebs is what gamers call a Side Quest, but it does sound like the mystery Joan and Sherlock solve during the episode’s commercial breaks is pretty similar, at the very least.

Fun fact: the Three Garridebs also show up in BBC series Sherlock but the less said about the rococo and ridiculous fourth season of that show, the better. Ahem.

Cherophobia

I had a good friend in the dregs and just out of my college days, name of Christina. She was six foot one in bare feet, ectomorphic & slender, with a glorious shoulder length of densely curly, dark orange ginger hair. She had alabaster skin and a loudly raucous laugh. She never hesitated to ask questions or to demand you clarify if she didn’t understand something—an unabashedly curious woman, always. A few of my friends (including my then-fiancé and an old eccentric I knew from high school) were all roommates with her, all of us bunked in a lovely suburban bungalow with a finished garage which is where she lived. One of our several roommates, a fellow aerial dancer in the same company as me, had a pet python (or was it a boa constrictor?)—a big yards-long female serpent named Lucy (short for Lucifer). Christina would quite often, post-shower, in tank top and pj bottoms, pace the sidewalk just outside our house, chatting on the phone, Lucy draped over her shoulders and entwined in her arms, while her bright red hair dried. I’m convinced our neighbors must’ve thought she was Eve incarnate, or some kind of goddess. They weren’t completely wrong.

It was Christina and I, in our several jaunts to the Trident coffeeshop & bookstore, who coined the phrase “literati” to denote a social date that was focused on study (and intellectual and cultural criticism in conversation). Famously, it was us whose conclusion to Kant’s manifesto was, “shut up and paint” (she was an art history major, a couple years my junior, and so was concluding her studies even as I graduated, sword-fighted, trapezed, and wrote and read still). She was my co-producer for the wee theatre company I named Five Funny Faces after a beloved theatre prof’s regular class closing game, the first time we did the Dr. Seuss show, and it was she who taught me how to eat sushi as we counted the house takings post-show each night.

What’s my point in describing the amazing Christina, when the title of this post is a particular, not obviously related, vocabulary word? Well, this imposing, snake wrangling, ginger goddess, one who worked theatrical rigging as her job when I knew her, and who went on to be a rigger for Cirque du Soleil after she graduated, had one potent aversion; a distaste strong as her. A phobia, if you will.

She hates cherubs.

Now recall: she has an art history degree. So she knows her shit around sculpture and painting of all kinds that depict the many angelic denizens of the heavenly (Christian mostly) realm. She has no beef with angels, or warriorlike cherubim with their flaming swords…all that is fine. It’s the “fat winged babies” as she puts it, that she cannot stand.

It was such a stigma (not stigmata) to her that we would give her birthday cards with cute fat baby cherubs in them just to watch her squirm and retch. Good times.

I know that’s not what this vocab word actually means, but that’s what it made me think of, and though the real meaning of the word is a deep part of my regular life, I choose instead to celebrate the beautiful and extraordinary Christina, who has a major cherub phobia.

CODA: she is now married to a Canadian whom she met during her Cirque adventures, and lives in Canada with him on a houseboat.

I need to email her.

Tiamat the Destroyer

Tiamat is a dragon that’s from mythology so old she’s not really a dragon, but more of a slimy worm/reptile thing, very much like Grendel’s mother. A female, lizard-like, spawner of monsters. Her element is sludge and she will lick your ass, whether your name is Beowulf or Ahura Mazda. [edit: autocorrect changed “kick” to “lick” in that above sentence, and I have decided I will allow it.]

Of course, as anyone who knows anything about both things is well aware, when Gygax & crew constructed the elaborate role playing game known as Dungeons & Dragons in the ‘70s, t/he/y scooped up all kinds of creatures both to play as and to encounter, from ancient mythology and what I call Old Story. (And yes, of course Tolkien’s classic peoples of Elves, Dwarves, Men, and Halflings. And wizards. But where do you think the Good Don got them in the first place? Hm? Don’t @ me…)

Of course any game w dragons in the title needs must have plenty of them flying around in its world, and boy does it: Tiamat is one of the biggest baddies one can encounter in D&D. Her sex is the only thing she keeps from her ancient squidgy origins: a five headed dragon in the game, each of her heads is a different color and spews a different element, as though she’s five chromatic dragons in one. Which of course she is, kinda.

In popular play She Kills Monsters, Tiamat does indeed have five heads, but in this case it’s (SPOILERS: skip to the next paragraph if you don’t want SPOILERS) the embodiment of the five adventurers our protagonist has been journeying with.

The final fight is described by the playwright as “the most incredible fight scene in history ever to be put on a stage.” No pressure. But my work on this show over at RRCC culminates not as much with my choreography, but with an immense, phenomenal animatronic behemoth conceived & constructed by the college’s robotics department. Only two and a half of the heads, plus two wings, were complete when I trekked down there yesterday afternoon but boy did it look spectacular nonetheless. I tweaked the choreography and guided the girl who’d be fighting the thing, reassuring her the while that her assessment was correct: the audience would be looking at it, not really at her very much at all. So in this case the most epic dragon battle supposed-to-be ever is more about the machinery than the dance, and that’s just fine. It’s all art. Gorgeous art, at that.

I had a slight tangent planned about Game of Thrones and my history of watching it, not watching it, wanting to read the books and not bothering, etc. in the wake of the beginning of the end apparently broadcasting Sunday night, but ehhhh. Boobs and dragons are both things I enjoy, but wars of the roses meets soft core porn I’m just not willing to waste my all too short mortality on. I’ll get the best fight scenes shared with me, put in my two gold pieces’ worth, and that’ll be plenty. And my nerd cred remains intact, thankyouverymuchindeed…

There are a few more potent (and older) dragons I’d rather revisit. LeGuin’s intimidating dragons of Earthsea, Tolkien’s Smaug, and of course The Pearl Poet’s Mom o’ Grendel. Whoever s/t/he/y was/ere.

🐲🐉

Ode to a Grecian Urn

One of the coolest things I saw at The Met whilst on vacation was also one of the first, in the first room I entered. It’s a vase (like an amphora? An urn? I don’t recall the term for the particular type) depicting Perseus’ decapitation of Medusa, and Pegasus emerging from the wound.

I mean, this is one of the most well known stories of all time. It’s been told and retold countless times; and even though you may not know the actual story of Perseus and Medusa, or the weird way Pegasus was born, you definitely know what a Pegasus is. You most likely also know very well that Medusa has snakes for hair and that her gaze’ll turn you to stone. There’s even a strong likelihood that you know (even if you didn’t remember the hero’s name) Perseus cut her head off by using his mirrored shield so he wouldn’t have to look directly at her, and that after her defeat he wielded her severed head as quite the effective weapon.

Like I was mentioning before about the window/mirror concept of stories, this is an example of how astonishing it is to look down a time tunnel so long: this vessel has that story depicted on it, clear as clay. And it’s, like, two thousand years old. And yet I can look at it and go, Oh yeah: that story. I know that story.

I have been a scholar of what I call by the collective noun Old Story for a very very long time. Most of my remembered life, in fact. In my teen years I discovered Joseph Campbell’s studies that came before mine, and his powerful works of synthesis (revolutionary for his time) excited me very much. Still does, actually, especially because I myself in my own works and studies thereon have expanded it beyond heterosexual masculinity in a way that honors Campbell’s work, doesn’t butcher it like so many feminists do whose scholarship isn’t as rigorous. But that’s a rant for another time. Don’t “at” me, c’mon: I’m a feminist myself. But just take two seconds to look up the actual etymology of the word “history” to understand why the current term “herstory” irks me so.

There are many reasons why I’m excited about the monomyth, and why it makes plenty of people uncomfortable. But it comes back to the way I always describe it, particularly to my writing students: we’re all skeletons underneath. Strip me of my clothes and flesh and do the same to the most different looking person to me, and stand our skeletons next to each other. Odds are you won’t see much of a difference, if any. Maybe one of us is a little taller, or if you know how to look at bones, you’ll notice our assigned sex might be different. But the differences are minuscule, really. Put our flesh and our skin and our hair and our clothing back on over them, and that’s where we’ll begin to show our differences. The base, though, the skeleton? Pretty much the same.

That’s what makes those old stories so potent, and (I would aver) is why we keep telling them, over and over. They’re our base and inner structure, our skeleton; they’re what keep us standing upright.

Did you know that there’s a version of Cinderella in every single culture on earth? Every one. No exception. Fun fact. And we haven’t stopped telling it.

Perseus and Medusa aren’t as pervasive, you say? So tell me: which of the My Little Ponies has wings? What was the main conflict in the second Harry Potter book? And isn’t there another YA series with Percy and a bunch of Greek gods?

The Greek gods are like the ultimate reality show, or soap opera whose drama never ends. And why should it? It’s what keeps us going. What keeps us standing.

Baby Jenn Analyzes Literature

Wanna read a paper I wrote back in grad school, when I was a newlywed, an MFA candidate, and a mere baby barely past my mid-20s?  Course you do.  This is a paper I wrote for a Postmodernist Fiction class: it’s an analysis of a fragment of Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, that was in that class’ textbook. I realize, after having read this paper almost 20 years later, that I never went on to read the whole book. I really want to now.  ~Jenn

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2-2-00              Thomas Pynchon—What’s in a Name?  

            First of all, it is difficult to write about a piece of literature when it is merely that, incomplete; a piece. I don’t have much light to shed on, say, what tips Oedipa off about the Trystero, or whether she discovers who is at the bottom of it. Or if there is a bottom to it (though I hear the book ends just before the title event—the crying of Lot 49—happens, so she never gets to see the dude behind W.A.S.T.E. or whatever). Someday perhaps I shall read the entire novel and write a much more scholarly and in-depth account of Pynchon’s dreamy, imagistic workings. For now, I will focus on two details that fascinated me in this excerpt from The Crying of Lot 49: Pynchon’s bizarre, symbol-laden names and acronyms.

Often throughout this piece, I’d come across what I thought was a well-known American acronym (heck, even I know what C.I.A. stands for), then Pynchon would turn around and give a completely new definition for each one. The acronyms he invents (W.A.S.T.E., D.E.A.T.H.) also resonate with several meanings. In fact, sometimes I think that Pynchon would be perfectly happy if we, as readers, came up with even more meanings, until the acronyms end up with as many symbolisms as words per letter. The turned-around acronyms made me more and more a part of a dream-world, not the modern San Francisco in which Pynchon has set his piece. To change what an acronym stands for normally put me as a reader into a different world, resembling the ‘real’ world, but different somehow. I became as confused as Alice when, in Wonderland, she keeps getting her poems all wrong, and can’t understand why everyone keeps giving her rational definitions for made-up words, or mishears her completely.[1] When Oedipa goes straight from a dream into a Mexican restaurant, I wasn’t sure if she was still dreaming, especially when she asks Jesus about the C.I.A., which stands “not for the agency you think, but for a clandestine Mexican outfit known as the Conjuracion de los Insurgentes Anarquistas…”[2]  Where am I? Here is an American government acronym that instead stands for an anarchist group. An anti-American group with a government name. Curiouser and curiouser.

The invented acronym W.A.S.T.E. also looks to be the opposite of its surface meaning: the U.S. Mail is supposedly not private, Oedipa learns. The government opens your mail, reads it, destroys what it finds threatening. So in order to really find out anything, in order to have any real communication, you must use a system called W.A.S.T.E., to insure your correspondence is not wasted. It’s as though these underground connections use their acronyms to put a blinder on anyone out there who isn’t really looking for it—no average joe would be able to tell W.A.S.T.E. from a garbage can, unless he were already in the know. Even for Oedipa, who is obsessed with this puzzle, it is difficult: when she finally finds the W.A.S.T.E. bin, “she had to look closely to see the periods between letters.”[3]  Sort of a protection from anyone that might harm the functions of these underground networks.

It’s funny, too, how more meanings get added onto Pynchon’s acronyms after several years have passed. For example, during Oedipa’s night of seeing postal horns wherever she goes, she sees an ad in a bathroom. It says AC-DC, “standing for Alameda Death Cult…”[4]  Of course, the ‘normal,’ or surface, meaning for this acronym refers to electrical current (a different sort of underground network), but I, being twenty-six, of course thought of the heavy metal group by that name. Since this novel came out in 1966 and the heavy metal band AC-DC came out in 1974(?),[5]  obviously Pynchon did not mean for us to think of anarchistic heavy metal music. But there it is, and it does become a reference, though involuntary: I mean, the group to whom Pynchon referred in the book is a quasi-satanic cult that rape and sacrifice one victim a month.[6]  Similar atrocities have been attached to any number of heavy metal bands, AC-DC being one of them, so it seems pretty well connected to the many-layered references Pynchon stacks onto each of his acronyms (or should I say anachronisms?). I don’t think Pynchon would mind my added reference to AC-DC the band: after all, each person, place, or thing he mentions has, in the words of Edward Mendelson, plenty of “emblematic resonances,”[7]  and in this case, the more resonant the better.

Even more loaded with symbolism, perhaps, are the names of Pynchon’s characters in this piece. Each one, when I first read it, made me laugh: a psychiatrist named Dr. Hilarius? A husband named Mucho Maas? Who’d work for a company named Yoyodyne? And Genghis Cohen??

For the sake of space, I won’t go into every name I saw, guffawed at, and mused over its many allusions. I’ll concentrate on a few that are more central to the story, whose layered meanings no doubt dictate to some extent the character’s actions in the whole story.  The first (and, to me, most obvious) of these unusual names is, of course, Oedipa Maas, our heroine.

Why “Oedipa?” What is her role, that she is named after a literary figure with so much age and analysis behind him already, not to mention his very own psychosis? Well, the first major similarity I can find between Oedipa and her namesake of old is that both are solvers of riddles. Oedipus solved the Riddle of the Sphinx, which is what gains him rule over Thebes. After this feat, and through Sophocles’ entire tragedy, Oedipus is the one who must know, he must know all, he must solve this problem, this riddle, of his heritage, even if it means his destruction.[8]  He methodically, detective-like, interviews each ‘conspirator’ who knows anything about his mysterious parentage until he finds an answer. When Jocasta, or the Chorus, warn him to stop looking for an answer and remain content, he refuses such comfortable options. He has to know. Oedipa, too, is on a mission to solve the mystery of this Trystero (that almost rhymes. Coincidence?). She interviews strangers, she looks everywhere she can find for clues. Unfortunately, in this fragment of the book, it’s hard to trace her entire journey from start to finish, but it does seem as though she won’t stop until she gets an answer, even if it means her destruction. Just as Oedipus is haunted by memories of the murdered Laius, and obsessed with his mission to discover Laius’ killer and his own origins, so Oedipa is searching, haunted by dreams and thoughts of death (the sailor’s imminent death comes to her as she helps him into bed[9]). She is “compelled by phantoms, puzzles,”[10] and is bent on an answer. The iconoclastic Pynchon, however, does not give us an answer, the way Sophocles does. As I mentioned, I haven’t actually read the entire book, but Mendelson refers to the book’s ending in his essay I cited earlier (see note 7): something big hinges on whoever buys Pierce Inverarity’s stamps (lot 49) at an auction after his death, Supposedly the person who buys them is deep in the know about Trystero and the W.A.S.T.E. organization—in short, Oedipa’s whole mystery will be solved if she can see who buys this item. However, the book ends just as “lot 49” is called. We, the readers, never get to see who buys it. We never know the solution to Oedipa’s mystery. We are, like her, in a perpetual state of limbo, of not knowing.

Is there anyone with an Oedipus Complex in this story? Well, there is a boy French-kissing his mother in an airport on page 11 of the textbook, which you can’t really ignore, not when the main character’s name is Oedipa, and her psychiatrist is a former Nazi whose penance is to become fanatically devoted to Freud’s teachings.[11] I’ll read the complete novel, and get back to you on that. Suffice to say, I think Oedipa’s name carries a lot of weight, not just in its humor, as both Poirier and Mendelson suggest in their analyses, but in Oedipa’s parallel role as detective, which she shares with her old namesake.

The other name worth talking about briefly is the name of the mysterious organization, Trystero. At first glance, it looks like a combination of two names: Tristan and Prospero. Tristan (of the old story of courtly love, Tristan and Isolde,) the original “star-crossed lover,” ends up in fatal love. He is all but referenced in the stranger’s speech about Trystero in the bar The Greek Way. The Innamorati, he explains, are a group of solitary individuals who are against falling in love—who will not, or won’t ever again, fall in love because it’s dangerous. It’s “the worst addiction of all.”[12] Actually, Tristan and Isolde, in the old story, fall in love after drinking a forbidden potion. Ah, love, that irresistible drug…[13]  It’s this strange isolation that yet is intricately connected by subversive means that fascinates Oedipa, and no doubt accounts partly for the “Tristan” in the name of her puzzle. Prospero is the old exiled sorcerer from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, he of the buried book and spirit messengers. No doubt Prospero is mashed in the mix here because of his subtle ways of communication: he uses inhuman servants, the beastly Caliban and fairy-like Ariel, to carry his messages. In the stranger’s story of Trystero’s founding executive, a messenger appears to the founding executive to deliver mail. He lopes, animal-like, and could almost be a Caliban: “…an aged bum with a knitted watch cap on his head, and a hook for a hand…”[14]

Each name in Pynchon’s piece has a myriad of literary references—almost to many to count or analyze. Mendelson thinks the name Trystero, among other things, refers to “the unseen…relationship of the tryst,[15]  while Poirier calls the novel a “tryst with America.”[16]  Both also refer to the implicit meaning of sadness in the name, a sadness of knowing too much, a sadness from being separated from the world, alienated by its many artificial systems.

Does the reader get all this from a casual reading of the story? Yes and no. Yes, in that I don’t think it’s possible to read this work casually—its density lies to a large extent on Pynchon’s names and acronyms, and one can’t read any of these names without having some kind of allusion, some cultural or literary reference, come up. But I don’t think it’s all that obvious. The layers under each name, each acronym, requires at least a double-take to catch every pun, every significance. Certainly such a dream-like work should have as many internal references as a person’s dreams do: alluding to everything we intake, and processing it as story, or myth.  Pynchon, himself an isolate messenger, has left us a trail of symbol, of code, to follow. The journey down the rabbit-hole is not easy (as Alice will tell you), but going there expands the mind.

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[1] Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and Through the Looking Glass. I refer to the Caterpillar, Mad Hatter, and Mock Turtle scenes in which Alice is commanded to recite a poem out of a Victorian child’s book. Each time she recites, not the poem in question, but a madcap story in verse almost as odd as the one she is in herself. Also, Humpty Dumpty’s help in explaining to her the “Jabberwocky” poem will stick in the mind of any word-lover. Finally, I can’t help remembering the scene with the Red King, in which he keeps feeling faint and is fed ham sandwiches; when the ham sandwiches run out, he is given hay. After eating the hay, he sighs with relief and declares,

“There’s nothing like eating hay when you’re faint.”…

“I should think throwing cold water over you would be better,” Alice suggested: “—or some sal volatile.”

“I didn’t say there was nothing better,” the King replied. “I said there was nothing like it.”    

[2] Geyh, Lebron, Levy, ed. Postmodern American Fiction, p.9

[3] ibid., p.15

[4] ibid., p.11

[5] Jason Mallott told me that bit of info.  Ask him if I’m wrong.

[6] That textbook again, p.11 again

[7] Edward Mendelson, “The Sacred, the Profane, and The Crying of Lot 49,” from Pynchon—a Collection of Critical Essays,  p. 12

[8] My copy of the plays is in a volume called Sophocles I, in which are all three plays in the Oedipus cycle: Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone. Any and all references to the Greek Oedipus is from this book. I’m not sure how to cite it (there doesn’t seem to be an editor), but it was published in 1954 by the University of Chicago Press, if that helps.

[9] Yup, that textbook again, p.14

[10] Richard Poirier, “Embattled Underground,” The New York Times Book Review, 1966. Online. p.1

[11] So says Mendelson, p. 125

[12] the textbook, p.6

[13] I am a professional storyteller, and learned this old tale orally. I have no actual print source for Tristan and Iseult, just the “web” of oral folklore. Though it is often in Arthurian books, or books of medieval literature, if you’re interested.

[14] That Darn Textbook, p.7

[15] Mendelson, p.141

[16] Poirier, p.6

The More You Holmes

From: 2.1, Elementary 6.19

Title: “The Geek Interpreter”

Reference: in BBC Sherlock, The Geek Interpreter is one of a quick chain of plays on words from canon mysteries that we see breeze by in an illustration of Sherlock’s busy-ness. In this case, it’s a group of young comic book fans that notice the comics are coming true.

In Elementary’s most recent ep of this same title, we watch a brilliant mathematician interpret some data under duress, and her lovelorn PhD advisor hire Holmes & Watson to find her and her kidnappers.

Both shows use this title as a nod to original canon story “The Greek Interpreter,” one of the most chilling and (in my educated and well-read opinion) underrated stories in the canon. Though the ending is pretty anticlimactic–good on the Grenada series for making that right.

Problematic Toxic Masculinity Tropes

If you’ve followed my Problematic Badass Female Tropes series (over at Writers’ HQ, kids), you’ll recall that the central argument to all those discussions was that those tropes restrict and weaken strong (read: badass) female characters. The bait and switch problems of each PBFT was the dangling of the “badass” in front of us to distract us, while assuming that the character’s strength is enough to make us not notice nor care about the inherent misogynistic structures she has been constructed with.

This new series will look at seven Problematic Toxic Masculinity tropes, and its central argument differs somewhat from that of the PBFTs, though of course the two sets of problematic tropes are intricately and innately connected. This series centers around the inherent assumption that males are strong and dominant. Where the PBFTs focus on the bait and switch of the strong female that’s in fact not strong but subservient to males, the PTMTs focus on the false labels of strength in male characters, as well as the narrow, restrictive, and damaging definition of what it means to be a strong man.

Both sets of tropes do similar things; both are examples of problems of gender and power. We will learn as we go through the male counterparts to the PBFTs that both sets of Problematic Tropes affect how media and entertainment express characters of all genders, and that all these problematic trope characters have a negative impact on the real people that consume and admire them.

But first, what does this trendy phrase Toxic Masculinity actually mean? Lately, in the continued wake of the #metoo movement, the phrase Toxic Masculinity is being bandied about by feminists of all stripes, mainly as a way to shut down conversations. I want to start conversations by writing about these tropes, not shut them down, so real quick let me give you, dear intelligent readers, my working definition of what Toxic Masculinity means (at least as far as these discussions go).

In a nutshell: Toxic Masculinity is the harmful view (ingrained in our patriarchal and heteronormative society) that if a man does not dominate, he is not a man. Domination of all things (from one’s own emotions to other people) is the key poison that puts the Toxic in Toxic Masculinity. Also remember: just like the Problematic Badass Female Tropes were, the Problematic Toxic Masculinity Tropes are not examples of what real men in the real world are actually like, but rather are problematic expressions of masculinity in the forms of characters in popular culture, art, and entertainment, and as such are influential to those who consume and attempt to emulate them. I want to point out the problems in these characters so that we can be aware of what the tropes are doing to us even as we continue to enjoy our media.

I will be writing full blog posts discussing these seven tropes, just like I did with the PBFTs, but first (as indeed I did with the PBFTs), here’s the bare basics in a rundown of what you can expect from these new magnificent seven:

1. Go Big or Go Home

As a man, the only choice you have for beauty is to be big and muscular. Thin, short, “feminine” or small men aren’t men, and certainly aren’t desirable. Where women are told by culture to lose more and more weight, diminishing themselves to invisibility, men are told they are nothing unless they take up more and more space, and are physically strong to boot.

2. Grow a Pair (or, Stoicism Ain’t Just For Hellenistics Anymore)

Pop Culture Detective’s excellent video article, “The Case Against the Jedi Order” describes this harmful trope well. Basically, boys are taught at very young ages to man up, grow a pair, boys don’t cry, etc. which means by the time they become men, they are not able to express emotions healthily, or even at all. The Jedi are a prime example of this, as is every Shane that breezes into town, kicks the bad guys’ collective ass, and moves on. The coolest male characters are ones that show no emotion whatsoever, and certainly don’t form deep emotional connections with other humans. Which leads me to:

3. Bond, James Bond

The misogyny and classism of the gentleman’s gentleman will be explored here, with our good friend 007 at the helm of our examples.

4. The Tale Of The Nerd and the Neckbeard

Nerds are sub-males. That’s the gist of this problematic trope. Brain bigger than your biceps? Well you certainly won’t get the girl. And the extreme of this trope is the seed from which incels sprout.

5. Sassy Gay Friend (with his polar opposite companion, the Terrifying Leather Daddy)

This pair of gay male stereotypes are two sides of the same problematic coin. Both sides of this trope speak to the deep seated fear ingrained in men of being seen as feminine, and as we have said in our definition of Toxic Masculinity, a man who does not dominate is not a real man.

6. Violence is Normal

Not only is violence a normal behavior trained in boys since early childhood, it’s encouraged and even necessary in most social situations depicted by culture. Violent domination is the most commonly seen form of domination in our entertainment and arts, in the form of Problematic Masculine characters taking their strength and power by force.

7. Mr. Mom

LOL, men can’t be good parents! The awful trope of the bumbling dad, nothing more than another child for moms to manage, is the trope on this list that angers me personally the most. Look for some heartfelt angry rants in this article, readers.

Well that’s the basic idea! What do you think? Look for this series to start up on Writers’ HQ after the PBFTs are all done. And leave ideas you have in the comments; I may want to include some of them as I get more in depth with these tropes during the writing process.