bellatrys (bellatrys) wrote,

"I ask for so little--"

"--just let me rule you, and I will be your slave!"
Labyrinth (1986) as narrative and as metaphor - and lasting success, or,
Why DC was so extraordinarily stupid to engage Jodi Picoult to write Wonder Woman this past year

So I finally rewatched Labyrinth for the first time since I saw it in its theatrical release, and found it mostly as I recalled it, for good and bad, but I understand now both why I found it so disappointing, and why it has remained so popular, in a quiet but passionate audience of (mainly) younger women, even more passionately embraced than Princess Bride from what I can tell.

For the explanation of my own historical issues with it, it is necessary to revisit that time frame (tho' I would rather not, all in all) and what longtime readers may know and/or recall, which is that my mother was then in the throes of a long illness, which would eventually (after repeat misdiagnosis due to yes, sexism - hey, you're a woman who's had a lot of babies, of course your guts aren't going to work right any more!) be diagnosed too late as cancer, and I as the oldest had been increasingly (as I had all my life since age seven) taking care of the multitude of younger siblings and increasingly of all the housework, until within about a year I would (for a short time) be managing nearly everything, after my father put himself out of action with a stubbornness-exacerbated back injury. Haul wood from the woodpiile, drive kids to soccer, cook food for half-a-dozen or more almost every day, wash half-a-dozen loads of clothes, change diapers, do night feedings, mop the floors, and try to be cheerful and patient and comforting and giving all ways, all the time - and failing at it, of course, in ways I am still discovering as those siblings open up about that era - but always with the expectation that this was the bare minimum, this was my Christian and filial duty and nothing, nothing above-and-beyond, at all--

At the time of the film's release - it was one of a very few films I was allowed to go and see in the theatre when I was in high school, and it took some pushing to get even that much freedom - I hadn't taken over all the loco parentis duties, but I was doing a lot, and getting a lot of flak for not being cheerful and unselfish enough, and for being "moody" and "unambitious" as well; I was also (tho' I did not know it at the time) and had been for years, clinically depressed and an expert stealth cutter (no, I don't by a single stigmata story: I know far too well how easy it is to wound one's self with blade or pin or heat in plain sight by people watching one like a hawk for signs of sexual or drug activity, and never be caught) and was coping with sexual harassment at school - and the uselessness of my elders in re it - by (in addition to the self-harming use of pain-as-painkiller) by willful, skillful Dissociative and studying massive amounts of (mostly) early 20th-century history - via first-hand source materials speed-read in library archives.

It was, in fact, really damn hard for me to sympathize with Sarah, since what she was flipping out over was something that was a relaxing boon to me - my word, to be able to have five whole HOURS to one's self, with only a sleeping/fussing baby to attend? In which to read, without being attacked for being "lazy" or for neglecting some other chore (and there were always other chores) or (gasp!) watch a movie without being mocked for one's taste, or to just sit there on the sofa and pet the cat and imagine my own inner fantasies of female starpilots and adventuring paladins, or to just stare at the ceiling like a statue, reveling in the lack of hostile stimulation and doing my damnedest to avoid thinking about the fact the clock was ticking down till midnight when this blessed freedom would end...

So it being kind of like being asked as a millhand to get exercised over the plight of a wealthy aristocrat in a drawing-room comedy was the first, and biggest strike against Labyrinth; there was also the problem that it felt strongly derivative, as well, and not in the way of invoking and sharing resonances, but in the borrowed-and-rehashed sense, because I had for a number of years had a great familiarity with a certain, obscure and (of course) creepy little picture book by Maurice Sendak, Outside Over There (first published in 1981) in which an older sister left to mind her baby sibling while her father is off at sea and her mother is pining, does so but is lax in her duties and so the goblins steal her sister away to be a goblin's bride, and the older girl rushes off to rescue the tot (and eventually succeeds by her cleverness and courage) - does this sound in the least familiar?

It certainly sounded to me like unowned inspiration, and that combined with the jarring modernisms (no, Knight's Tale didn't really agree with me, either) and the endless (if timid) fart/poop jokes on top of the problematic parallels to my own contemporary reality and the to-me very unsympathetic heroine just made it a movie that I found a deep disappointment, on more levels than I could possibly analyze at the time: having since had some formal critical theory training since, and more study of medieval lit and Otherworld narratives as important in its own way as having discovered the DSM-IV almost ten years ago, and vice versa.

Labyrinth, thus, was for me a dim memory of a frustrating disappointment, more frustrating still because of the greater potential I saw in it (being a fan of Henson's Storyteller series as well as The Dark Crystal as well as owner of a great many quality illustrated fairy and folk tales, with ambitions of someday being the next Kinuko Craft or Trina Schart Hyman (alas) in those days) that was not met by the reality of the film. --Though not, to be sure, as great a disappointment as the grotesque animated version of MacDonald's The Princess and the Goblin of a few years back. (DON'T Netflix it, there is not enough Bleeprin in the world.) --Also, an occasional random snatch of "You Remind Me Of The Babe" interjecting itself into my mental tape track shuffle.)

And thus it remained until a couple of years and jobs ago, when it suddenly was revealed to me that despite the widespread media impression of it as a basically unknown and unloved film, one that had been disappointing for the studio as well, after the unexpected critical praise and cult status of Dark Crystal, it had a strong and dedicated and above all, young cult following - and they were all twenty-something girls, who had become rabid David Bowie fans, who could (and did) quote lines from the film and "do the voices" too, when appropriate, the way that most of my fellow Gen-Xers and the Gen-Yers of my acquaintance would break into either Star Wars, Holy Grail, or (belatedly) Princess Bride repertoire at the drop of a hat (or an unladen swallow.)

This piqued my curiosity - clearly there was something there, after all - but not enough for me to go buy a copy of Labyrinth or to try to figure it out. Of the three younger women in the office who were all votaries, one was a Sandman-collecting fellow geek whose SO was also hardcore fannish geek, one was a sort of demi-geek, a little bit into skiffy but mostly into horror, and the third was not fen at all that I ever discovered. They were just all old enough to have not only seen it but to have imprinted on it when it was released on video, and to have worn out their video tapes of it - that seemed to me to be the common factor.

As far as I was concerned, the explanation was simple (if a bit cynical): David Bowie in quasi-Regency Beau Brummel jacket and skin-tight pants with top-boots - enough to make the younger Bennett sisters swoon, and why should humanity have changed in essentials in a mere 180 years? I didn't believe that it had, myself. This explanation/dismissal was facilitated by the fact that "Mmmm, David Bowie! Leather! Mmmm!" tended to be all the explanation that these younger fangirls were able to give, themselves, mind you - I didn't have much to work with besides, besides my own unenthusiastic recollections of the film.

Then the first Tiffany Aching book came out and I had that sense of deja-vu again, only this time it wasn't so annoying: it felt like a proper remake of Labyrinth as best I recalled it, and one that didn't make me want to slap the heroine upside the head - either my present self, or the increasingly-noisy ghost of my teenage self. Tiffany was just selfish and put-upon enough AND Pratchett gave her the dignity of making mistakes, owning her mistakes and flaws, SOLVING her mistakes and also of having her character flaws NOT be just flaws, in the typical simplistic morality tale format so common to children's books, and waaaaay too many adult novels and films, too - the reason why "Heartwarming!" especially in conjunction with "Coming-of-Age Story" so often mean "Here, toss out the ipecac and replace it with this Afterschool Special!"

Tiffany isn't a spoiled child of wealth who gets to spend hours off by herself daydreaming (instead of having to do her daydreaming whilst changing the diapers, or rinsing the diapers out in the toilet, or hanging them out on the line, or checking out customers at her after-school-job which is her only refuge, mental and physical, from the separate hells of school and home) but a farm girl who has gotten the short straw of the big-poor-family situation and who has not yet seen Paree (or only through books) but wants something more from life, dammit! and at the same time still wants the Good Parts that there are in her current life, and some way to reconcile all this together with her sense of identity and self-worth and personal need to Make A Difference in the world ("you'll grow out of it," they told me, and I almost did - into an early suicide's grave) and the problem of reconciling the fact that someone needs to take care of the sticky ungrateful toddlers but nobody actually respects the people who take care of the sticky ungrateful (biting!) toddlers (women's work!) and - well, when I was that age I was starting to wring myself against the dull cage, and by the time I was fourteen I had (outwardly) reconciled myself to it being my Xtian duty as an XX person to live behind those bars, exchanging parents' rule and care of sticky siblings for either husband's rule and care of sticky offspring or abbess' rule and care of sticky orphans-always Unselfishly™, of course!

(Inwardly, I was fantasizing about possessing Big Bertha and the coordinates for range and height and altitude to shell everything from my house and its neighborhood to my school and its neighborhood and all between, or a Mark IV the size of a city block to lay waste to the world, starting with my hometown, or a Death Star. But I never let those fantasies out from behind my teeth, so nobody ever guessed that I wasn't the meek, demure, dutiful-if-rather-lazy Good Catholic Girl with nary a thought in my head besides being a Good Catholic Mother or maybe a sister in a teaching or charitable order. Oh, and on the fantastic side? Damn right I wanted the Deplorable Word, or even just the power to manipulate plate tectonics, even if I externalized all these unacceptable desires onto the villains and villainesses of my Dissociative escapes--)

The kicker in the Tiffany saga is the problem of choosing, when the choices are all good and bad in mixed ways, and there aren't any easy answers, except for to let someone/someones else make your choice for you and pretend you're choosing it freely and that it doesn't hurt - which was what I had been doing in my years of Good Catholic Anti-Feminist indoctrination (and yes, there is a certain bovine comfort in just cooking and cleaning and getting six kids out the door clothed and fed and not having to make any decisions harder than which brand of cheese is cheaper when bought in which quanitity, especially when a crumb of praise gets tossed your way by the Man of the House now and then, but it's a sad comedown for someone who wanted to be a Jedi Knight when she was seven...)

So it was with very mixed feelings that I first read The Wee Free Men, envying Tiffany and also wishing that dammit, why couldn't this book have been written twenty years ago, when I REALLY needed it??!? like Molly Grue shouting at the Unicorn - but there was also the formally-theoretically-trained critic chewing at it, and going "here are the points of congruence with Labyrinth (and other stories of similar affairs) and here are the inversions/subversions/variances, and what consequences do they have for the story, and for the ethos, respectively?

One thing being of course the change of antagonist from Goblin King to Fairy Queen - something which raises questions of Good Woman vs Bad Woman tropes in narrative, but which is not itself imo a necessarily bad or sexist thing (the "Apocalypse Queen" archetype is something I want to think about and then write some on later), and which is also echoed in Coraline - but which must inevitably change the dynamic of the character interplay, which is both erotic and as fans have remarked in comments, curiously non-sexualized - something paradoxical but real, and which deserves an entire essay of its own (how can David Bowie in skin-tight breeches leaving nothing to the imagination and menacing a pubescent heroine with untold horrors in a situation which has been described from the start as a love affair, nevertheless read as a non-sexual conflict? Curiouser and curiouser, is the word I believe--)

Briefly, when Janet/Tiffany/Coraline must face the Faerie Queen, it becomes a question of internal struggles over the definition of Womanliness - not a "catfight" as superficial analysis [sic] would have it - and it's interesting to me that in all three there is (unexplicitly in the older story, more overtly in the newer ones) the idea of a good sort of "Selfishness" and a simultaneous playing-off of the idea of the Good Girl being the one who just gives and obeys and never rebels, and this itself being a fatal trap that the Wise Daughter must see through on her Hero's Journey to Self-Knowledge and Virtue.

--Labyrinth pretty much fails the Bechdel Standard, alas - the only clearly female goblin is the one who both visually and narratively echoes the Wicked Queen's witch form in the Disney Snow White, and who serves the age-old role of the Temptress Who Tries To Lure The Hero Away From The Quest, and Sarah's stepmother is a brittle, smug, Stepford sort of whom it's hard to believe ever unbent enough to concieve and drop Toby, a lifeless caricature who hardly has any more presence than Sarah's dead, actress mother.

I have alluded to how I think that Labyrinth has a great deal in common with Tam Lin; but I want to now deal with that (briefly and haphazardly) in the wider context of narratives of people being taken by the fay both as adults and as child changelings (leaving aside for the moment, although a full treatment would require it, the question to which such stories reflect real societal excuses for SIDS and failure-to-thrive, and/or parallel alien abduction memes, as being beyond both the scope of this essay and my own current state of research) starting with "Childe Rowland" - one of my childhood favorites of Joseph Jacobs' collection of English fairy tales, right along of "Binnorie" - and also the source of a long tradition of fantastic obreffing (where do you think the whole Dark Tower thing came from, eh?)

One of the more disturbing things which crops up through the whole Celtic tradition of Otherworld visits is the Beheading Game, which may well reflect the documented and historic fact that our ancient ancestors in Britain and Brettony and Eire were headhunters: the most famous in lit being of course Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, but there are lots of them, and one which is played not as game but deadly earnest is found in "Childe Rowland," whose hero while going to rescue his sister from the Elf King's castle is advised by the Wise Old Guide figure - who in this story is Merlin himself - to decapitate anyone he speaks to, no matter what they say or how helpful they are, and this is never questioned ethically or explained. (Reminiscent of typical old-style dungeon games, a bit!)

"Well, my son," said the Warlock Merlin, "there are but two things, simple they may seem, but hard they are to do. One thing to do, and one thing not to do. And the thing to do is this: after you have entered the land of Fairy, whoever speaks to you, till you meet the Burd Ellen, you must out with your father’s brand and off with their head..."

But it is after (very traditionally) the elder two brothers have gone off on the Quest and never returned, for presumably having neglected to obey either this or the other crucial bit of advice:

"...And what you’ve not to do is this: bite no bit, and drink no drop, however hungry or thirsty you be; drink a drop, or bite a bit, while in Elfland you be and never will you see Middle Earth again."

If this story of Childe Rowland seems oddly familiar to lit geeks, that's probably twofold: it's an awful lot like Sir Orfeo, which is in turn a westernized/modernized version of the Greek myth, given a happy ending just like Tam Lin.

Now, in Labyrinth we see both of these elements: the cankered peach which is the guised orb of dreams that entraps Sarah, and a Beheading Game which she must escape by beheading her adversaries first so they not behead her, for having innocently blundered into their circle. I'd forgotten that part, after twenty years, and this time round my scholar's instincts started twitching and I had to force myself to not hit the "pause" button and start grabbing my copies of Celtic myths off the shelf and start digging.

But I had also noticed this time thru that the screenplay was attributed to Terry Jones, and this time I had associations for it, because I had bought some of his kids' books like Erik the Viking and knew him for a Python writer, so much of the richer non-visual allusions were now explained (Brian Froud, of course, did the visuals, so the Venetian Carnival-as-designed-by-H.Bosch part was obvious.)

There's so much going on it would take a much longer article, or articles, to encompass, but one main thing I want to touch on is how Labyrinth both follows, and breaks, the much stronger and more common mythic tradition of such Quest narratives, which is the one about giving and receiving help to the chance-met by the way, especially the least likely. In the old Russian tales (and many other lands' too) the older, stronger, better-equipped brothers all fail as they set out to rescue the princesses from the dragon because they are arrogant and aren't polite to the old man gathering wood or the old woman at the well, don't help the fallen nestlings, the trapped ants, the starving wolf; Boots the youngest Prince, the Cinderella brother in all the traditions, is the one who shares his lunch with the old beggar, saves the birds, the bugs, the varmints of all kinds, out of decency, and is given in turn the unasked-for, unexpected gifts that are the only hope of winning through the dangers of the Quest.

In Labyrinth Sarah starts out arrogant as the Elder Brothers always are, and like them meets obstacles beyond her power to transcend; only when she begins to transcend her pride and "stoops" to listen, and to ask for help, first from a mere Worm, and then from Hoggle (who is, ironically, miscalled "Hogwart" once in the running gag) and then like Boots to stop on her Quest (despite deadlines) and rescue the monstrous beast who is being tormented, without being certain that it will not turn on her when freed, and then to be merciful and generous as well as clever, in dealing with her motley allies and, ultimately, friends.

Labyrinth, for me, failed, and fails still, as a bildungsroman - that is to say, there is an unevenness in the portrayal of the Heroine's Journey of Spiritual Growth which breaks both the moral promise of the bildungsroman genre (which is not a universal requirement, what is requisite in a Hero's Journey is not mandated in a slice-of-life, or a satire, but the reverse: there is room on the shelves for tales of redemption and The Talented Mr. Ripley) and also of the fairy-tale world, because typically, no matter how bizarre, quirky, surreal and backwards to the sunlit world the customs may be, still the rules of justice are adamant in Faerie. Pledges bind, promises are broken at peril, deeds must be balanced with deeds for good or ill.

And this is forgotten, or ignored, with Sarah's attempt to extort aid from Hoggle - and her justification of it as yet another example of Life's Essential Unfairness, in which she is achieving a powerup stage by being willing to stoop to the same excuse that the adults (both mortal and elfish) use against her. She should have simply held Hoggle to his word - and perhaps justified holding his treasures as guarantee of it, after catching him in betrayal after charging her in advance, and this attempt at showing her growing sophistication and lack of helplessness cheesed me off severely at the time, and grated on me no less now, after twenty-one years. (Thus, also, the fatal narrative flaw in the seventh HP book, imo, comes when Harry & Co. decide to cheat their goblin ally, for the sake of expediency and in full knowledge of their wrongdoing, and pay no fatal price for it in consequence.)

In retrospect and remembrance, I was so irredeemably annoyed by the time the climax rolled around, just waiting for it to be over and to get out of there, that I completely missed the grand resonances of the conclusion (weakened in the final moments, badly, to be sure) which I have used to entitle this essay, and which I transcribe here in full:

[Sarah has finally given up trying to solve the Escher stairs by mundane means and made her Leap of Faith down to where she last saw Toby, but when she lands - safely - he is not there, and as she looks around in bewilderment Jareth fades in from the dark, dressed in white raiment now, smiling confidently. Sarah immediately and without hesitation begins the necessary incantation.]

Sarah: "Give me the child--"

Jareth: [breaking in, conversational, warning]
--Sarah, beware: I have been generous, up until now, but I can be cruel.

Sarah: [departing from the script, incredulous] --Generous! What have you done that's generous?

Jareth: [intense] Everything--! Everything that you wanted I have done. You asked that the child be taken: I took him. You cowered before me: I was frightening. I have reordered Time; I have turned the world upside down, and I have done it all for you. --I am exhausted from living up to your expectations. Isn't that generous?

Sarah: [resuming the incantation as though he had not spoken] "...through dangers untold and hardships unnumbered, I have fought my way here to the Castle beyond the Goblin City and my will is as strong as yours, and my--"

Jareth: [urgent, no longer jeeringly confident] --Stop! Wait! Look, Sarah, look what I am offering: your dreams--

[holds forth a vision]

Sarah: [quiet but intense] "--and my kingdom as great--"

[she advances on him, and he retreats backwards before her]

Jareth: [pleading] I ask for so little: just let me rule you, and you can have everything that you want!

[pause - she turns away, her eyes wide, faltering]

Sarah: "--my kingdom as great--"

[he advances now, offering the orb of dreams]

Sarah: Damn! I can never remember that line--!

Jareth: [gentle entreating] Just fear me, love me, do as I say and I will be your slave!

[she looks up at him for a moment and then down again]

Sarah: [whispering, trying to recue her memory] " kingdom as great..." [fierce] "--my kingdom as great--"

[She looks up at him again as he watches her, waiting for her answer, and her eyes suddenly widen and she smiles]

Sarah: [wonderingly] "--you have no power over me!"

[Jareth grimaces and flings the orb up into the night, never looking away from her face, expression of mingled exasperation and admiration on his own, and as it falls back into his hand it pops like a soap bubble and his robes dissolve into the wings of the owl, and Sarah is standing in the entryway (!) of her own house.]

--Okay. I see what the heart of the glamour was, now.

Part II. Lesson One For Winning An Audience - Don't Pander

This will seem like a change of subject for a bit, perhaps, but as usual it isn't. The case of the wretched failure of Jodi Picoult's run on Wonder Woman has been held up here and there by fanboys around the fannish blogosphere as an example of why genre media producers shouldn't try to win a larger female audience, when in fact it is an example of why ignorant and clueless male chauvinists shouldn't try to market something they don't like themselves to women as if we were an undifferentiated lump!

Let me put it this way: I didn't recognize Picoult's name.

Let me repeat: I didn't recognize the name "Jodi Picoult," at all.

Now, superfically, that's but one data point, and can be dismissed. But I read a lot. I also read about the field, so I tend to know about authors who I haven't got round to, because we all here on LJ and elsewhere talk about books all the time, and in the circles I hang out in, it's mostly SFF that we read and hence rec. I am a woman who has owned more books than I have been able to count since I was eight years old. I am a woman who has been reading genre since I was five. I am not anomalous in this, either. I worked for three years in libraries and three years in bookstores, and I've been there at Last Call in Borders and Barnes & Nobles so often the past twelve years that that's one of the reasons they hired me for my stint at one of the Big Chain Bookstores. I have enough graphic novels on my shelf to make me wince when I total up the amount of money invested there, and even more in genre videos and my collection is PATHETIC compared to most of my flist, because of my pauperhood, it's NOTHING compared to what I would buy (let alone the tie-in media, I had a combo squee/conniption fit in Newbury Comics a few months ago when I found a sparkly plush 3-headed Ghidra that I couldn't afford or justify!)

In short, I'm one of the people that all the genre publishers ought to be trying to appeal to, or find out what appeals to me, because I'm the target audience for the stuff they sell. I just happen to come equipped with mammaries and a uterus and a whole bunch of social baggage loaded onto me since I was born, most of it starting at age 10 when my chest started itching like hell, and none of which I asked for but was given all the same by guys like those running Time-Warner etc and the craven female lackeys who enforce their status quo.

And "Jodi Picoult" rang no bells for me, good or bad - for all she was touted as this popular female author who was sure to bring in the ladies (and our $$$) to the Wonder Woman fold.

Because I don't read chick-lit.

I don't read ANY non-genre contemporary fiction, unless it comes highly recommended by someone I trust, and even then I've been scarred. I have no more interest in reading about whiny bourgie white girls from the suburbs of Middle America who have no interests in their heads other than catching a husband, than I did when I was fourteen (and compulsively reading everything I could find about the Great War and its lead-up and aftermath in hopes of making sense of the world today and escaping from my bleak, fluorescent-lit Village both) in the "Problem Novels" about whiny bourgie white girls from the suburbs who had no interests in their heads other than catching a boyfriend, pressed on me by classmates and elders because "these are girls' books, you will surely like them, since you like to read so much."

--No, I liked The Woman Who Rides Like A Man, even if it wigged me out at the time by talking so bluntly about menstruation/contraception - and swords; I liked Rosemary Sutcliffe; I liked Susan Cooper; I liked anything well-written with a Quest and better yet a Heroine on it, but those were hard to find together.

And contrary to popular opinion at the time, I never grew up/out of it, never settled down to the white picket fence lifestyle, or the mindset that goes with it. I never had the resources to "follow my dreams" but I never stopped dreaming, even when living in my parents' basement working the night shift to pay off my student loans - and pulling an all-nighter to read Paula Volsky's Illusion, which I had bought rather than dinner the previous night, on the strength of Michael Whelan's steampunk interpretation of the ancien regime.

--Someday, I'll be able to afford to sew my Jedi cloak at last. Maybe even in the coming year (ever the optimist, I!)

And I had no mental associations with Jodi Picoult.

So giving them the benefit of the doubt, I assumed she must just be someone in SF I'd never heard of (because the field is vast and always has been, there was never a time you could keep up with it, not even in the mid-eighties when I was working in the library and hoarding the new SF that came in to be entered into the system in my locker so I could read all thru lunch break), that she must be someone newish, or out of print for a long time, because it never occurred to me that they'd hire someone to write a run of a comic who had no genre experience whatsoever, let alone no familiarity with the series and 'verse canon.

I mean, when LucasArts decided to follow up the success of Timothy Zahn's Heir to the Empire trilogy with the Extended Universe series of novels, who did they pick to lead off? Kathy Tyers, whose previous sf novels I'd read, and so bought Truce at Bakura which was recognizably a Tyers novel, full of angst and duty and some banter and races against time and romance and squicky internal parasites. And it was apparently a winning strategy, financially, because they kept on going with the EU, didn't they? Likewise, in the process of stocking the shelves in the Star Trek tie-in sections, I made my selections of the ones I wanted to read based on the authors I already knew - like Diane Duane and Barbara Hambly. Or - even tho' I'd never seen an ep of Lois & Clark (no TV) - I still read and enjoyed immensely the tie-in novel that came out...because it was written by C.J. Cherryh. (It was, of course, an interesting, slightly-angsty-but-not-bogging-down look at what it would be like, Being Superman, from inside.) There's a Diane Duane Spiderman novel on my bedstead right now - it's got MJ making command decisions re her career and doing research and reading Russian novels to take her mind off their troubles, rock ON!

So what did DC do to get the likes of me to give them money? They picked the equivalent of the scriptwriters of In Her Shoes* to tell the saga of the Amazon Princess in Man's World, and foisted the results off on us like discounted Gucci** bags, and wondered why we femfans didn't bite.

See, I finally figured out who Jodi Picoult was - and as it happens, she lives in my state oddly enough; eventually after much mulling I remembered having heard a thing on NHPR about the scandal of her writing a "problem novel" about a school shooting and it being controversial as well as inspired by a going-postal event (the event, I should say) in the north country, and having tuned it out because I was paying attention to traffic and had no interest in modern non-genre fic. (Sorry, but unless it's highly recced by trustworthy sources, I'll stick to non-fiction for this sort of thing.)

This didn't click until after I was at B&N a while back, when I still had a little bit of money and was feeling bold because I'd had what felt like a really good interview earlier that day, and scoped out all the new SF titles and the mystery titles and then wandered through the shelves to see what I'd missed in the older titles and after grabbing a couple few to check out (okay, eight or ten) and make a selection from, I went up to the coffee shop to stake out my table and grab some chai, and while standing in line next to the Godiva tower I saw the name "Jodi Picoult" on the book dump beside the chocolates and went "Hunh?"

I mean, they said Girls' Guide To Hunting & Fishing all over the cover design! (Yes, that's another of my psychic scars of bookish disappointment - it could have been such a Wodehousian hilarity with that concept, too.) They didn't say The Sunne in Splendour or Kristen Lavrensdatter or In the Company of Courtesans or The House of Niccolo or any of the other novels, late or soon, that could be called "chick-lit" if you were being very careless and sloppy with your distinctions***, but which have that basis of worldbuilding and historical resonances and complicated, densely-woven interpersonal relationships in a setting of danger and intrigue of which romance is just one facet--

In short, there was absolutely no earthly reason that a genre junkie like me would ever buy a Wonder Woman graphic novel based on the name of this author, any more than I would be interested in offers of knock-off Gucci (or is it Louis Vutton these days, or Prada?) as I got off the bus in NYC, heading for Forbidden Planet with my hard-earned denarii.

And I know that - among the subset not of All The Random Women Out There Wandering Through Bookstores At Any Given Moment but of the Venn intersection People Who Spend Lots Of Time/Money In Bookstores, People Who Have Been Known To Spend Lots Of Time/Money In Comic Book Stores, People Who Self-Identify As SF Fans, and Self-Identified SF Fans Who Are XX Not XY - I'm not really all that rara an avis. "What, you too!? --Who else do you read?" is the Cry Heard Round The World since the days of Usenet, along with the perennial baaaaah of "How come women don't like SF? I think it's because their brains are shaped funny--Hey! Stop hitting me!"

So the question is, What on earth (or Krypton) were DC thinking? and the answer is unfortunately either a) They Weren't, or slightly less snarkily and longer, b) they were thinking like the reader who CS Lewis talks about in one of his articles on the writing process, who thought he had writing For The Kiddies all figured out. You may remember the essay and where it is, but I just recall the content off the top of my head; at any rate, this guy comes up to CSL and says to him something like, "I know why you have so much about home-cooked meals and people eating at parties in your Narnia books - it must be that this is where you'd have characters having sex in an adult novel, but of course you can't do that in a kids' book, so you thought 'what do the little blighters like? Oh, I know, kids love to eat!' so you put in passages about food instead, very clever!"

And Lewis says that this was kind of mind boggling, because the very idea of Extruded Literary Product was so alien to him, and he was just putting it in not as a cynical replacement for the Obligatory Sex Scene, but because he himself liked good food, enjoyed eating home-cooked meals and so forth, and so wrote it in.**** The idea that paint-by-numbers kidlit was something a) worth doing, b) workable, really, was so wrongheaded.

And that's what DC did: "What do the little blighters like? Oh, we know - shoes! and shopping! and choklits! That Bridget Jones thing did really well, and so does Sex in the City, after all. Agents! Find us a Bestselling Lady Novelist and have her write Wonder Woman going shoe-shopping and being a bumbling-waifish sort who has to get a Real Man to pump her gas for her, that'll bring the chicks in! Oh, hey, this one actually mentions comics and does some kind of comicky insert in her latest novel, even better!"

And for some incomprehensible reason this cunning strategy didn't get all the Venn Set of women like me, or the even-more-ideal demographic of XX-Bookbuyers who also religiously watched Lynda Carter on TV as young girls, or the potential and ideal demographic of the younger XX-bookbuying Manga Fans, either.

Now, Picoult may be a perfectly good writer, and her novels may be perfectly meaty and moving tales of contemporary life. But nothing on the fronts, the backs, or any promotional materials for them has ever done anything to make this former playground Lost In Space-LARPer want to pick them up and find out. As I said in my previous post on Wonder Woman, I am the target audience for the Big Two, and their challenge (which they have not cared to accept to date, except with the 1602 books) has been to make me an offer, or rather, promise to tell me a story, that I cannot refuse.

Labyrinth wasn't that story for me. But it was for a horde of other femfans, and if the PTB of the media had two brain cells to rub together between them, they'd be trying to figure out why (and also why there are so many female Sandman fans for all that series' problems, instead of just shrugging, flinging up their hands, and writing it off to the Mysteries of the Female Brain™) and also why Sabriel has such a cult following, so that they could reliably know what would make these successes more duplicatable, in so far as it's possible.

Pandering doesn't always mean Fail, btw. The Goosebumps, Babysitters' Club books, all those sorts of series - the American Girls and all the knock-offs of them - are all formulaic, just like the Nancy Drew books, and they have been notably successful among readers. Part of it's that people are just hungry for stuff to read that hits even some of their marks, the way if you're starving you'll eat stale saltine crackers dry, and wish there were more.

Part of it is that there is, regardless of formula, still something there no matter how it was ground out - much of what's considered "great art" today was anything but - classical statuary was mostly mass produced in marble factories, often prefab and sometimes with interchangeable heads etc. "Commercial" and "art" are not the absolute categories we are trained to think of them. But of course, the more the creators are simply going through the motions, filling in blanks in a book of Mad Libs, the more it's going to be just blah and glurgy, which is why the best and most lasting successes in book or film or music are always frustratingly sui generis - telling readers "It's the next Lord of the Rings!" or "the new Aerosmith!" doesn't make it so.

And trying to have it both ways - to have it duplicate whatever the je ne sais quois of some cult classic but at the same time to be bland enough to not threaten the squared-off corporate heads and to reassure MBAs in their triangulations - is usually a very good recipe for Fail.

So, for instance, there is a "manga" sequel out now to Labyrinth, which I haven't seen on shelves physically, but which had a beautiful cover art reminiscent of Amano's work (Gatchaman/Final Fantasy/Sandman) and some impressive sounding creator interviews, but which according to the reader reviews I've seen of it to date, is Made of Fail on two counts - the interior art doesn't match up to the exterior, not at all, so fans of Rumiko Takahashi et al are disappointed and not going to buy it just because it's "manga-esque"; and worse yet, apparently the author totally missed the appeal of the original story. Sarah and friends are off center stage, it's all about Jareth and Teen!Toby now.

I don't say it's because Jake Forbes labors under the disadvantage of a Y-chromosome (see above re Tiffany, Coraline, Sabriel) - that is, it's neither necessary nor sufficient; but I am fairly certain that making it All About The Menz, and turning Sarah into a pallid mundane nonentity (as reported by multiple reader reviewers) and adding in some Stock Wicked Queens out of Fairy Tale Central Casting is not entirely unrelated to Mr. Forbes' inborn social status.

Grownup!Sarah going back into Otherwhere and contending with - or rescuing! - Jareth, could have been creepy, funny, romantic and challenging...if it was written by someone who demonstrably can write about the collision of the Hollow Hills and contemporary "civilization," like, oh, Josepha Sherman, or Mercedes Lackey, or Charles de Lint, or a lot of other authors who have written that sort of tale, not excluding either the wonder or the grotesquerie of the old fairy-AND-goblin tales.

And it would have had a chance of appealing to those who were caught, and held, by what there was in Labyrinth itself, and what more was implicit in it, too - some of whom went on and grew up to become avid anime and manga fangirls, and hence the exact pre-existing target audience for it. Instead the PTB chose to sweep it all aside, going "Okay, girls, but let's talk about ME instead!" (and then, as always, wonder why they're still single for all their wealth no one's biting.)

No, the nearest thing to a true sequel Labyrinth has - aside from the aforementioned Tiffany Aching books - is the bestselling and otherwise sui generis Jonathan Norrell and Mr. Strange by Susannah Clark. --For where, d'you think, have we seen that gentleman with the thistledown hair before? Or that capricious, whimsical, cruel or generous, etherial or grotesque by turns, realm of Faerie which he rules and shapes and is in turned ruled and shaped by our own imaginings and expectations as well as commands and demands, which we make at our own peril?

But alas, there is no true counterpart to Sarah in it, although the female characters are not quite mere cyphers; Labyrinth itself stands rather alone, because even Jane Eyre durst not face down the ruler of the realm, but must flee to preserve her soul and self, and wait for his doom to fall upon him in its own fullness of time, nor dares Amalthea to face down Haggard and beard him before sealing her fate - Sarah, like Young Skywalker, almost alone of film heroines that I know of, gets the Hero's Climax of walking into the enemy seat of power, striking the bell and biding the danger, smiting the shield on the gate and setting her lance against the Lord of the Dark Tower--

--to win the day against a Faerie Prince who is bound to answer to her expectations, who must be as monstrous as she anticipates, as handsome, as frustrating, as fearsome, and who can only tempt her with her own longings, only offer her fatal gifts of her own invention, and whose greatest danger is in embodying the promise of the Romance Trap: Prince Charming who is also the Demon Lover, controlling, abusive, remote, unavailable and thus infinitely pursuable and protean, subject to the fantastic invention of the feminine imagination, eternal Griselda, the promise of the Traditional Gender Role, of Bluebeard - submit to me, and I will really be your slave--

Where else has this story been told, to girls, before or since?

No, wait: Hiyao Miyazaki also told a story like this, upon a time, in Spirited Away, of a callow and feckless Heroine who must grow in order to save the boy she loves from mystical forces...but again, that was Dark Mother against Bright Daughter, wasn't it? The old story of Jack My Hedgehog/East of the Sun/Cupid & Psyche, in the end. No, the Refusal To Buy Of The Ancient Story of the Handsome Prince/Demon Lover who will sweep us off our feet and offer us every desire of our heart - so long as we obey him - is a potent incantation that only Labyrinth however imperfectly has dared to cast...

* The only way Hollywood will ever get me to voluntarily watch In Her Shoes all the way through - or Steel Magnolias, or pretty much anything described as a "chick flick" (I still have the soul-scars from being dragged to see The Wedding Planner) is if they pay me to MST3K it. It just ain't worth it, otherwise.

** Real conversation between Young!P@L circa 1985 and a classmate from the posh side of town:
"What's a goochie-bag and why would you want one?"
"Hahaha, that's a good one!"
"No, really, what IS a goochie-bag? It sounds kinda gross to me, why is it so great you got one cheap in NYC?" (I was saving up for a WWII canvas bag at the surplus store, myself.)
"You're so funny, [Redacted]!"
"Sigh - okay, BE that way!"

*** I mean, does anyone call Much Ado About Nothing "chick-lit"--?

**** That he was not unique in this, at least among fen may be seen by the number of posts and threads jokingly referred to as "foodporn" going back, again, to the earliest days of Usenet. Then again, when I worked at the bookstore I sold lots of cookbooks full of pretty pictures of food to people who were clearly never going to cook all the recipies in a single lifetime...
Tags: critical theory, film, labyrinth, literature, pop culture, sexism, sidhe, wonder woman

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  • Heisenberg's Bastard, Part V

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