feminism, feminist theory, gender, media, television, women

Masculinity in Crisis and the Monstrous Feminine in “Rick and Morty”

Animations not just for kids anymore, as wacky, sci-fi, Back to the Future reimagining Rick and Morty no doubt reveals. The shows been heralded for it’s twisted humour, clever plots and surprising pathos, but is it really as “transgressive” as it seems?

[Spoilers ahoy!]

 

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While certainly unusual and definitely curious, Rick and Morty are not entirely transgressive; certainly and definitely not in their more gendered characterizations of Beth and Jerry.

The first two seasons build on the common trope of troubled couples and toxic relations which are emblematic of sitcom marriages. It’s a problematic representation of (cartoon) marriage, where the primary caregivers – the wives and mothers – are not only expected to expend their emotional labour extremely frequently and often without clear value or return, but will overlook problematic treatment, internalize frustration at ludicrous situations, and still, somehow, maintain the relationship largely alone. Think of Marge and Homer, or Peter and Louis Griffin; sitcom, cartoon marriages where troublesome issues are (often far too easily!) solved (and notably, never in divorce or permanent separation) Rick and Morty attempted something different and potentially transgressive through the characters of Beth and Jerry.

Beth and Jerry have quite a lot in common with their aforementioned animated archetypes. Like Marge and Homer, they are high school sweethearts who marry for the sake of an unborn child; like Peter and Louis, they are married young and without their parents’ support; and all 3 couples have what can easily be described of as toxic and often unfulfilling heteronormative relationships. The difference with Rick and Morty is that this toxicity isn’t simply a withheld secret either; many characters openly assess and challenge Beth and Jerry’s relationship and marriage. As far back as Season One, even their own daughter challenges their reasons for being/remaining together:

Summer:
Yeah, thank you guys so much. It's a real treat to be raised by parents that force 
themselves to be together instead of being happy. ("Rixty Minutes")

.

This much becomes very clear when Beth and Jerry, attending an other-wordly marriage counselling resort, discover how they subconsciously view one another. The physical manifestations which emerge in this moment are anything but transgressive, rather, they reaffirm normative gendered tropes excessively coded via televised/film media: the monstrous feminine figure and masculinity in crisis.

Resignifying Beth’s character as, literally, an Alien monster (who drapes masculine figures over her like pelts) interlocks with contemporary understandings of women – specifically, of vocal and challenging women – as abject, monstrous and horrifying. Furthermore, her monster-self is destructive and devious – plotting the creation of an army and physically attacking the other couples and therapists. Not only is the monstrous feminine represented as horrifying to behold, she is threatening in her behaviour towards this (albeit alien) establishment. She actively destructs the key unit in the family structure – the married couples present at the resort – and the very hierarchy which support them – the resort itself – thereby assuming the danger behind the monstrous woman and the need for her to be controlled and maintained.

Jerry’s re-characterisation is alike to Beth’s only in it’s own abjectness. Worm-like, passive and easily shaken, Jerry exemplifies the conception of “masculinity in crisis” as a pathetic, easily subjected and emotional figure. He is easily swayed by the demands of the Beth-Monster and is later easily dominated and controlled by Jerry-in-human-form once confronted.

What becomes evident from these interactions between Monster and Crisis in this instance is the threat which dominating women pose over hierarchical systems, and that effeminized, traditionally demasculinised men – like Jerry-in-human-and-worm-form – are threatened by this very take over. Once again, I feel that I have to point to Beth-Monsters wearing of Jerry-the-Worm/Crisis like a dead (and unfortunate!) accessory. From this point, we are struck with the narrative need to reaffirm traditional masculine processes and representations in order to save the marriage unit and its supportive hierarchies. The very image of macho-masculinity which heroically comes to human-Beth and -Jerry’s aid is very much the atypical representation of heteromasculinity. Although, perhaps as significantly, it is a notably imagined representation – it is Beth’s subconsciousness which ultimately produces this imagining.

I think there is definite value in challenging the use of the word progressive or transgressive in relation to Rick and Morty; despite it’s interesting narratives and occasionally unusual narratives, the Season Three finale definitely did not live up to those monikers. For me, it was a cathartic relief to finally see a cartoon marriage break up. To witness Beth relinquish that tenuous grasp on a problematic and unfulfilling relationship – and to express this herself, throughout the third season, with both grief and joy, sorrow and celebration.

Beth and Jerry’s season long separation established Beth not only as a struggling mother or unfulfilled wife, but also as a person in herself who had experienced lost time and regret as a result of her relationship and marriage – one who could change that at her own will, and who had the autonomy and agency to do so. Beth – unlike other cartoon sitcom mother-wives – differentiates herself from the animated pack in doing so.

My relief was short lived, though, when the season ended with Beth and Jerry’s underwhelming and atypical reunion.

Transgressive? Phffff…

 

 

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abuse, feminism, feminist, gender, media, misogyny, race, racism, strenght, Uncategorized

Give Us Le-ss Misogyny and Racism

The significant uptake and influence of fandoms over their respective show/movie/media can have amazing effects. Just look at Brooklyn 99 loyal fanbases efforts to see their favourite crime-fighting sitcom renewed, or, more recently, the #SaveShadowhunters hashtag which takes pride in (the need for more) LGBT+ representation. Just as fandoms can be wonderful and inclusive spaces, so too can they be vitriolic and destructive, as the recent case of Star Wars actress Kelly Marie Marie Tran.

Tran was apparently driven off the picture sharing network Instagram earlier this month owing to the needless and vile influx of abuse and harassment; her decision to virtually pack it in has led to many of her co-workers and fans lamentation, but that has not stopped Give Us Legends from claiming responsibility and claiming pride in what they have accomplished.

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It’s disconcerting and downright scary that someone would find the abuse of another person as “bloody glorious,” it more worrying that they call for further acts in the name of “forced diversity”

Digital violence is real; abuse does not happen in a vacuum, it has affects and influences the people involved. It is a common misconception to think it is easy to sign out and leave the comments behind; the reality is that this abuse has racial and misogynistic overtures which not only belittle Tran (and others, let’s not forget Leslie Jones’ abuse) but support and boaster such hegemonic structures.

What the user defines as “forced diversity” is a mechanism currently being heralded by far right political groups to reaffirm white male hegemony. These groups maintain that diversity politics and affirmative actions processes are in themselves somehow “racist.” These are groups which fail to account for an already unfair playing field; one which sees white as default, acceptable and welcomed while People of Colour are at worst the anti-thesis of their white counterpart, at best different. Reni Eddo-Lodge details this well in the recent book Why I’m not Longer Talking (To White People) About Race. To quote Eddo-Lodge at length, because she has both lived this reality and details it so succintly:

“Positive discrimination initiatives are often vehemently opposed. Descriptions of the work addressing the over-representation of whiteness inevitably reduce it to tokenism, nothing more than an insult to the good hard-working people who get their high-ranking jobs on merit alone. Whenever I do the panel-event circuit, meritocracy and quotas tend to be an issue that rests heavily on audiences’ minds. The main questions asked are: is it fair? Do quotas mean that women and people of colour are receiving special treatment, getting leg-ups others can’t access? Surely we should be judging candidates on merit alone? The underlying assumption to all opposition to positive discrimination is that it just isn’t fair play.
The insistence is on merit, insinuating that any current majority white leadership in any industry has got there through hard work and no outside help, as if whiteness isn’t its own leg-up, as if it doesn’t imply a familiarity that warms an interviewer to a candidate. When each of the sectors I mentioned earlier have such dire racial representation, you’d have to be fooling yourself if you really think that the homogeneous glut of middle-aged white men currently clogging the upper echelons of most professions got there purely through talent alone. We don’t live in a meritocracy, and to pretend that simple hard work will elevate all to success is an exercise in wilful ignorance. Opposing positive discrimination based on apprehensions about getting the best person for the job
means inadvertently revealing what you think talent looks like, and the kind of person in which you think talent resides. Because, if the current system worked correctly, and if hiring practices were successfully recruiting and promoting the right people for the right jobs in all circumstances, I seriously doubt that so many leadership positions would be occupied by white middle-aged men. Those who insist on fairness fail to recognise that the current state of play is far from fair.”

– Eddo-Lodge pg. 78-79*

Groups such as We Are Legends, which build a community based on anti-diversity, while they may maintain other ideals (in this case, magically re-glorifying the Star Wars through heterosexual, masculine and significantly, white representation), are primarily interested in maintaining patriarchal structures which only benefits them (often, heterosexual, masculine and significantly, white).

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These groups are afraid of the (often still decidedly token) female and PoC characters who are finally emerging on screen. Reactions to Daisy Ridley and John Boyega as protagonists on the Star Wars reboot depicts this enough; it would be no surprise to find them next targeting L3-37 for her representation of a humanitarian/(robotarian?) freedom fighter if she had a social media presence. (Here’s hoping her voice actor is left alone, given that she is the main delight for most the movie, and, you know, a human being?)

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Kelly Marie Tran’s Instagram account is still there, but it’s empty of posts, leaving her abusers no opportunity to abuse. Her account picture still stares out, her bio still reads “afraid but doing it anyway”. It exists now at once as both her own attempt at self-care and, perhaps, her space of protest.

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*I quote Eddi-Lodge at length and copyright that work to her; I feel that, in the discussion of “positive discrimination” and affirmative action policies, her work details both a truth and a reality of what PoC live and work daily.