Mjolnir, Blackface, and The Manic Pixie Dream Girl – Literacy with Writing

Steve Rogers: But if you put the hammer in an elevator?

Tony Stark: It’ll still go up.

Steve Rogers: Elevator’s not worthy.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

Fiction is not non-fiction, fact, history, or anything of the sort. Fiction is fabrication. Perhaps it’s indicative of our growing inability as a society to tell fact from opinion, but many audience members seem to have, erm, lost the plot.

I love that scene from Age of Ultron because while comedic in-universe it also has the meta element of poking fun at at fandoms that get way too serious about the details of the universe. Call back to an earlier point in the film where the conversation first starts:

Tony Stark: It’s biometrics, right? Like a security code? “Whoever is carrying Thor’s fingerprints” is, I think, the literal translation.

They are, of course, playing with one another, but the point here is the extent to which one might argue the physics of Mjolnir in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (or the way Peter Parker observes that Captain America’s shield also does not obey the laws of physics).

The point here is literal literacy, like scientific literacy but with writing. I do not mean in the sense that one is able to read and write in a particular language. You’re reading this, right? Like science though, words and concepts have meanings specific to that field and one should understand them within that context. If I have a theory about something, I really just mean that I have an idea. If science has a theory, they are pretty damn certain about it based on current knowledge.

I know this sounds a bit elitist. I am not trying to suggest that art consists of a special language that only the privileged few understand and one must abide by specific rules in order to achieve art.

What I am saying is that as the observer you have a critically appreciative role to perform. You regard the work with a critical eye for your own approval. Artistic appreciation requires an understanding of the elements and their composition though, and I find that lacking in a general sense. People evaluate things on the most literal of levels which, first, means they are not deriving the full benefit of the piece and, second, are making inappropriate criticisms of the piece.

Today I want to focus a few particular examples of this, such as blackface and the manic pixie dream girl trope. This is not an examination of the trope on its own merit but within the context of, well, understanding context in writing.

For the unaware, the manic pixie dream girl is a superficial character. She, and it is important to examine the she element of this, has no sort of inner character or depth. She is perfection in the eyes of the main character, and she exists solely to further his journey as a character.

Now, we must preface the conversation further by saying that while I am about to defend uses of the manic pixie dream girl that is not to say that the trope is above reproach. Like anything else, context matters. Blackface, for example, is something to avoid. However, it is also a thing and its ironic use in projects like Tropic Thunder is appropriate by the very meta inappropriateness of its use.

Blackface is wrong 100% of the time, and that is precisely why it works in Tropic Thunder. The conclusion to take from its use in the film is not, “If Robert Downey, Jr. can wear blackface then so can I.” The context here is that Downey’s character, Kirk Lazarus, is the sort of oblivious “artist” who crosses the line.

Even the procedure itself is farcical. Lazarus could simply wear blackface but instead underwent a controversial surgery to darken his skin. It’s not just blackface, it’s also a white actor taking a black role. Add to this the fact that the rest of the white cast fail to acknowledge how inappropriate this is, beyond the general awareness that Lazarus is too “method” with his acting. Only Alpa, the sole black cast member, calls out Lazarus for both the blackface and taking a black actor’s role. Incidentally, he mentions Lazarus’ Australian background while doing it and prompting backlash from him for playing up Australian stereotypes.

Birth of a Nation is racist. Song of the South is racist. There are countless examples of racist use of blackface in television and film. Tropic Thunder is not racist – it makes a farce of these other examples and points out how ridiculous and harmful it is.

Blazing Saddles, despite (because of) a cast of mostly explicit racists is not a racist film. The overt racism is an indictment of typical racism, and Brooks’ awareness to incorporate modern elements like Count Basie and the entire sequences on Hollywood lots reminds the audience, “We are not poking fun at some distant, racist West. We are (to borrow Gene Wilder’s phrasing) smashing contemporary racism in the face.”

Monty Python functions the same way. The target of Monty Python projects is not the citizens of the film – medieval England, ancient Rome. They are targeting modern society through those stories.

Let’s switch gears. Consider a preeminent example of the manic pixie dream girl trope: any of several characters portrayed by Zooey Deschanel. I would say that some of those depictions warrant critical review, but two examples are above it.

First, Zooey Deschanel herself, the person/actor, is not a manic pixie dream girl. She is a human with a full life, personality, ideas, and concerns like anyway else. It’s harmful and wrong to label her as a vapid stock character. It denies most of who she is as a human being – and this is the harm of the manic pixie dream girl trope. It has real world consequence when the functionally illiterate are unable to draw the line between reality and fiction.

Second, we have Zooey Deschanel’s character, Summer, in (500) Days of Summer. Some have criticised this character as a manic pixie dream girl and I would agree – with the label but not the criticism. To complain that Summer is a manic pixie dream girl is to misunderstand the main point of the film. She is a manic pixie dream girl to Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Tom and guides his character development through the film.

But that development comes at the expense of Tom learning that she is not a manic pixie dream girl. She is far more complex than the perfect idea in his mind, and what he attributes as her failings throughout the second act are really his failings to see that. The film even throws this right in the audiences face in the third act when it depicts a single scene as Tom’s expectations versus what really happened side by side. We see the version (expectation) where Summer is just an object in Tom’s life and the version (reality) where Summer has her own life.

No, the film does not expressly build out the details of her complexity because that is not the point.

This right here is what is so frustrating to observe from audiences as an aspiring writer. People focus on details that do not matter while ignoring crucial details that do.

Let’s go back to the simplest example provided here: Mjolnir. What do we know about how Mjolnir functions? Only those who are worthy of ruling Asgard may wield it and it can be summoned by those worthy. Even the latter part there serves an important character element: worthiness.

The whole of the first Thor movie is Thor stripped of his worthiness and working to regain it. We see other characters (Hulk, Quicksilver, Hawkeye, Iron Man with War Machine) all fail to budge the hammer. We see Vision and Captain America wield it – this tells us something important about those characters. We see Thor take a swing at Thanos and the purple Titan stops Thor by grabbing his hand rather than Mjolnir, a narrative statement that Thanos is not worthy.

What the conversations in Age of Ultron show us are the peripheral conversations people have that do not matter. How does Mjolnir curve in the air? Is Thor able to control its direction with is mind? Who cares? It serves zero narrative purpose to know that information, so the writers do not share that information. It is a waste of words. Mjolnir’s behaviour beyond “anyone who is worthy may wield it” is scenery.

People like to complain about absences, inconsistencies, and out-of-context uses in these sorts of details, and it misses the fact that fiction is not reality. The point of these works is not to document history. The point is to tell a story.

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