The weather has been rather dreary in what little of this year has transpired, so it is almost logical that my first article of the year for this publication might be similarly pessimistic. I was invited specifically to write about my expectations for 2023, so I invite readers to prepare to be depressed over the next couple of pages.
In short, 2023 will probably be a continuation of 2022 in many ways. For example, the war between Ukraine and Russia will remain an orgy of bloodshed and hysterical moralising with no end in sight. Ergo, Western political actors will continue to exploit the war for global brownie points, weakening their militaries and frittering away their citizens’ taxes to keep the useful distraction to the burden of responsible governance the war has provided since last February. That said, the overwhelming worldwide focus on that war should stop some (but not all) flashpoints elsewhere from becoming all-out conflicts, notably in Taiwan, Kosovo and the Aegean Sea. Not all proxy sponsors are in the right places to give a space where armed conflict could occur, but it might end up a different story for the possibility of Turkish intervention into northern Syria and of Azerbaijan into Armenia.
Speaking of domestic politics, the picture is not much rosier. Yes, Rishi Sunak might fulfil his “promise” of falling inflation through simple laws of economics at the bottom of a cycle, but his inevitable attempt to take credit will undoubtedly ring hollow with the masses. One cannot read inflation like poll numbers, meaning the price rises are already embedded into economic reality alongside the below-inflation wage growth. Consequently, the strikes will rumble on for at least the first half of this year as the trade unions try to extract a victory from kicking a government when it is down. It has seemed to me that Mick Lynch and company want to re-enact the ‘Winter of Discontent’, but the reduced scale of unionised workers in proportion to the overall workforce will not make life as holistically dysfunctional from striking alone as it was during the mass strikes of the 1970s. I guess their ambitions, borne out by romanticised period role-playing, are at least typical of the present time. After all, similar fantasies which only the children of later Cold War politics are capable of conjuring drives the foreign policy situation I discussed earlier.
This is an excerpt from “Provenance”. To continue reading, visit The Mallard’s Shopify.
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The First Year of Joe Biden | Sarah StookBy themallard — 3 months ago
At just past 12PM on Wednesday, the 20th January 2021, Joe Biden was inaugurated as the 46th US President.
It’s been a year since Biden became President. A lot has happened to put it lightly. The COVID pandemic saw no signs of slowing down. Afghanistan fell back in the hands of the Taliban. Prices shot up. Legislation stumbled through Congress. It’s not been an easy ride for America’s oldest President.
What’s Year One been like for Biden?
● COVID Testing & Mandates
With 50 states, the United States was never going to have a streamlined response to the virus. When campaigning for the presidency, Biden criticised Trump’s blasé attitude to the pandemic and promised to be more serious about it.
Biden has taken a federal government approach to COVID or as much as he can in a decentralised system. The government has mandated masks on federal property and pushed for mandatory vaccines in as many areas as he can. Unfortunately for Biden, there has been pushback in several states on mandatory masking and vaccines.
Vaccines have been rolled out with relative success within the USA, though there has been a significant number of people who refuse the jab. Certain minority groups are concerned about the vaccine. Others are concerned about a vaccine that was introduced relatively quickly. Mandates are extremely controversial and it is yet to be seen if this strategy will work for Biden.
There has also been a huge problem with testing. Widespread, free testing at home has generally been unavailable in the US. It was only recently announced that rapid testing would be available to order from home, but these tests would take 7-12 days to ship. Yeah, people could have had it by then. This follows a u-turn after widely criticised comments from Jen Psaki, Biden’s Press Secretary. She said:
‘Should we just send one to every American? Then what happens if every American has one test? How much does that cost and what happens after that?’
Not the greatest idea.
● COVID Economics
Passing legislation has not been easy for Biden and many, mainly Democrats, have blamed two figures. They are Democratic Senators Kyrsten Sinema (Arizona) and Joe Manchin (West Virginia). Seen as conservative Democrats, the pair represent states that are usually red on a federal level. They dug their heels in when legislation got a little too spendthrift, mainly when it came to a raised minimum wage.
The full scope of the economic plan that was passed can be found here. Biden also passed executive orders on deferral of student loans and the extension of a memo on foreclosures and evictions.
Stimulus cheques are included in the aforementioned plan. The ceiling for these cheques is a yearly earning of $100K. Not everybody received these and they have also apparently stopped. A petition for $2K a month stimulus cheques has crossed three million signatures.
● Non-COVID Economics
Biden has pushed towards left-wing economic policies. Some, like raising the minimum wage, have been put on the back burner in order to get other legislation passed.
Biden’s main economic legislation is the Build Back Better Act. Costing roughly $2.2 trillion, the bill includes money for climate change provisions, housing and Medicaid among others. It passed the Democratic-held House of Representatives with ease. Unfortunately, it’s in limbo in the Senate due to Joe Manchin. He has concerns about the bill and political climate. At the time of writing, discussions are undergoing.
Other economic plans have included the explanation of the welfare state, reducing unemployment and expanding help for parents and educators.
● Energy and the Environment
The Keystone XL Pipeline, an oil pipeline that travels through Canada and America, is controversial. Environmentalists oppose it, as do the Native Americans whose land it goes through. Barack Obama temporarily delayed it, Donald Trump continued the permit and finally, Biden revoked it. Many Dems generally approve of this, while Republicans and others worry that it robs Americans of their energy independence.
Planned legislation would spend $555 billion on combating climate change, a larger sum than what has been given to other issues.
Biden has also signed a number of environmental executive orders, including having the USA rejoin the Paris Agreement. He attended the COP26 summit in Glasgow, though he did seem to nod off a bit.
Other proposals include limiting leases for oil and gas on federal land and expanding offshore wind energy.
● Education and Childcare
The American Families Plan plans to boost child tax credits, make Pre-K free for all and make community college universal among other things. As this was part of the Build Back Better plan, it is yet to pass.
One campaign pledge was the forgiveness of student loan debt, something that many young Democrats pinned their hopes on. As it stands, this pledge has barely been delivered. Some have received student loan forgiveness, but not all are eligible.
A notable issue that has come up is that of CRT- Critical Race Theory. Simply put, it is a theory that presents history, law and other social areas through the lens of race. Proponents argue that it’s a legitimate theory, that racial history needs to be taught and that America’s systems are embedded with racism- either intentionally or not. Critics argue that it’s racist towards white and is indoctrinating young people.
Controversial in schools, it was something used in the Virginia Gubernatorial election. Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe was winning what should have been an easy race until he disparaged parents deciding what their children should be taught. Republican Glenn Youngkin ran with that and along with a good campaign, he won a race that should have been blue.
This is of course not necessarily Biden’s fault, it is symptomatic of his administration. Yes, the opposition party usually does better during midterms, but Virginia should have been blue. Even New Jersey came close to going Republican- perhaps if the GOP had put the effort in, they’d have taken it.
Quite easily Trump’s most criticised area- and that’s saying something- immigration is of huge importance to many Americans.
Biden immediately undid many of Trump’s policies- the ‘Muslim’ ban and building the wall being two of the first to go. Unfortunately, there was also the issue of unaccompanied minors. Upon hearing news that they would not be turned away, more children came across the border. Trump was criticised for ‘kids in cages,’ but Biden had even more children in detention centres.
There are also plans to soften immigration policy by offering a path to citizenship for illegals and making it easier for those who came to America as children to stay. Biden is yet to see those proposals come to any fruition.
Unfortunately for Biden, there were more bad optics in the form of a bridge in Texas. Around 15,000 migrants, mainly Haitians, crowded under a bridge in the city of Del Rio. Concerns were raised about conditions and the risk of COVID. Both sides were worried for different reasons. Eventually, the bridge was cleared.
Biden seems to want to push for a new immigration policy, but the makeup of the Senate means he most likely won’t get anything through. Democrats from border states also need to toe the line.
The US government had signed an agreement in 2020 that would see their troops pull out of Afghanistan. As that date approached, the Taliban started gaining new ground. It was expected that they would possibly have Afghanistan by the end of 2020, but it came much quicker than most people thought. As they approached Kabul, experts said that it would last for a few more months. The capital soon fell.
Government leaders fled and the Taliban immediately took over. The only place of exit was Kabul Airport. Foreign countries, including the US, were allowed to evacuate personnel.
The scenes, however, were shocking. Desperate Afghans fell to their deaths from high altitude, having held onto the planes as they flew into the air. Families stood in the baking heat in hopes of being allowed out. Parents attempted to pass their children onto servicemen in a last ditch attempt to get them out.
It soon transpired that Americans had given the Taliban a list of all those who were to be allowed into the airport. This, of course, wasn’t a great move, as the Taliban now knew of those who had assisted the West. Many of those who should have been evacuated weren’t.
Then a suicide bomb exploded in the crowd. Among the dead were thirteen American soldiers, many of whom weren’t even old enough to drink.
This widely dented Biden’s popularity on all fronts. Months later and the Taliban still have their tyrannical grip on the country. Many question what was the point of the two decades of occupation that led to Afghanistan metaphorically turning back the clock.
● China and Russia
Biden has continued the policy of sanctions and boycotts towards China. He has encouraged a boycott of the Beijing Olympics and has criticised China’s human rights violations. Despite talks with Xi Jinping, his Chinese counterpart, there has not been much leeway. Some imports are still banned and sanctions have come from both sides.
Unfortunately, Biden’s son Hunter seems to have some dealings with the Chinese. There have been investigations into this but they are yet to come up with anything close to criminal convictions.
Russia has proven a complication once again. They’ve started circling Ukraine. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken is about to start talks with his Russian counterparts but we do not know how this will go. The US has also been the subject of a number of attacks by Russian hackers. It is possible that Russian aggression will lead to the Americans
Joe Biden’s approval rating for his first year is 48.9%. This is the second-lowest since records began, only edging out Trump. As of writing, Biden is on a pretty measly 42%. His lowest so far was 36% in November. His current disapproval rating is 52.3%.
He’s broken 50% at least, something Trump himself struggled to do. Still, it’s clear Biden isn’t doing super well in his first year. Most worryingly for him, approval among Democrats is going down.
Relationship with Kamala Harris
Let’s put it bluntly. The VP isn’t super important. It sounds harsh, but they don’t really have any constitutional power besides overseeing the Senate. In modern times, they serve to balance the ticket, be it geographically, ideologically or something else.
Very few Presidents and Vice Presidents have actually been friends. In living memory, you can only really count Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale.
Biden and Harris may put on a front of friendship, but they’re likely more just colleagues. She has mainly been dispatched to greet foreign dignitaries- a job the president should really do- and handling the border.
Unfortunately, Harris has even worse approvals than Biden. Her all time low was 28% in November and her first year approvals were only 32%. They are certainly not ideological soulmates and do not seem to work very closely together. Harris was picked to be VP as Biden promised to have a woman on the ticket- and being an ethnic minority helped too. He has pledged that she will be his ticket mate in 2024.
Well, COVID is still a thing for a start. Biden needs to ensure a downturn in cases, though we must admit that’s not really in his control.
With prices rising, especially fuel costs, people are getting angry about the cost of living. That is an essential area that Biden needs to address. Nearly every voter will see this directly. Employment also needs to go up and inflation down.
There are more than a few people who think Biden will get another term, whether he chooses not to or will lose to the Republican ticket. There could be a rematch with Trump in 2024. It could be Florida Governor Ron DeSantis or somebody else entirely.
How would you rank Biden’s first year in office?
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The Death of the Young Conservative DreamBy Max Stevens — 2 months ago
All my life I have had a certain idea of Britain. A sense of patriotism that is derived from the instinct to defend and preserve one’s own home. But what happens if the prospect of owning your own home is merely a dream of generations gone by?
Last week I attended my third Conservative Party conference: I encountered many energetic and optimistic Young Conservatives (YCs) who shared my once glowing optimism. I also encountered many older, veteran Tory members who didn’t share that level of enthusiasm but rather stubbornness to defend the tired, mediocre and boring status-quo of conservatism. Dislike some aspects of Tory policy? Lib Dem Labour leftwaffe loony. Want more houses built? Not in my borough you’re not. Want a better Britain? Woke. This is not an environment in which young conservatives’ interests are welcomed.
The biggest barrier to any centre-right young person voting Tory is the lack of commitment to homeownership by the government and by local associations. This can be divided by examining the demand side and supply side aspects of this issue. On the demand side, the government has failed to lower net immigration to the ‘tens of thousands’ since 2017, inevitably resulting in more homes being occupied and thus shooting up house prices. On the supply side, the government consistently promises a bold target of housing that mysteriously fails to come to fruition. Why? Partially the threat of Lib Dems sucking up the core Tory vote of older, relatively wealthy voters on the local council level that run on the platform of NIMBYism. Also, however, a shared generational trait of stubbornness and disdain for the future generation, that cannot be denied. Some may be aware of a certain Vox Pop of a Somerset Conservative councillor by Times Radio urging young people to be ‘more realistic’ on homeownership. Help-to-Buy is not good enough: if the government is failing to meet housing targets, betraying their promise to cut immigration and local councillors/backbench MPs actively opposing housing development then what is there for the next generation to achieve in society and thus conserve?
On this theme of holding a stake in society, young people want to see a vision resulting in them reaching personal milestones along the same trajectory as their parents. They want to choose life. They want to choose a career, choose a family, choose a starter home. These facets are the fundamentals to sustaining conservatism and thus the Conservative vote for generations to come.
To quote Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies’ Forgotten People speech ‘Now, what is the value of this middle class, so defined and described? First, it has a “stake in the country”. It has responsibility for homes – homes material, homes human, and homes spiritual.’ Look to those nostalgic Conservative election posters championing ‘New homes for a million folk last year’ from decades gone by. The solution is there: Homes for Britons and Make Every Briton a King. Combine populist messaging to deliver basic conservative policies and the Zoomer vote can be tapped into and thus sustain the long-held notion that people gradually become more conservative as they get older.
What is to be Done?
To view the Corbynite Momentum movement, despite however left-wing this organisation is, serves as a good example of how the youth can be energised and organised. Momentum serves as a hub for welcoming radical policy proposals that can be relatively easily pitched to MPs and thus become party policy. Let us not forget that the Monday Club essentially was a right-wing Momentum in the 1980s advocating for ‘radical’ policies such as curbing immigration, ‘cancelling’ left wing agitators such as Ken Livingstone and Gerry Adams, and condemning the European Economic Community. God forbid those things ever happened today.
The Conservatives have become too scared of radicalism in the present day. The conference agenda is tightly controlled and so is the Conservative Policy Forum and, too, the Young Conservatives organisation. Margaret Thatcher is consistently idolised at conference yet in a caricature manner, rather than understanding that it was her radicalism and commitment to the strong state and free economy that energised a generation of conservatives. Sadly, the Labour Party is much better at listening to its youth grassroots. Young Labour members feel more welcome, their ideas are welcomed by the party leadership, and they are energised. The CCHQ led organisation of the Young Conservatives’ only function in the present day is to connect YCs to campaigning opportunities and little beyond that. Treating YCs merely as free labour to campaign for policies which do not directly benefit them is not a sustainable strategy for future elections.
What is the alternative? Ignore the next generation of conservatives and the Tory Party will find its vote share steadily declining as years go on. Real wages have stagnated since the 2008 Financial Crisis and today’s average house prices are between 12 and 24 times the average workplace-based earnings in 23% of local authority areas. This gives today’s youth no reason to vote Conservative but rather to destroy the system (the free market) which has failed them. Recall that 42% of 18–24-year-olds voted Tory in 1979 and 1983. Today that number is less than 10%. My generation are not ‘woke’ en masse, my generation is more attracted to a bold, hopeful and alternative vision – as consistently hammered by the idolised Jeremy Corbyn. Look to Hungary and Poland, who have eliminated income tax for under 25s, and 26s in Poland respectively, and you will discover an attractive and successful environment for young conservatives to emerge from.
The conservative future is real and must be transmitted from the grassroots membership, moulded by the philosophy of conservatism itself. The Conservative Party must move beyond the repetitive ‘Same Old Labour’ attack lines and adapt by offering a principled and optimistic Conservative future if it wants to survive beyond the 2020s.
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Modern Feminists and the Anti-BildungsromanBy Dustin Lovell — 2 months ago
Over the recent decade, we have seen a certain type of storyline rise to popularity among critics. The plot usually follows a female character with some type of special power or circumstance who, by virtue of said power, is beset by some type of related conflict; sounds normal enough—this is the beginning of virtually every story.
However, in this case, the conflicts that develop around said heroines’ uniqueness do not always follow their growing or learning how to ethically or effectively use their power. Instead, it’s the opposite: their stories or the cultural interpretation thereof often involve the discovery, decision, or insistence that they do not have to grow or learn, but that it is society or the surrounding world that must adapt to and accept them. From Elsa, to Carol Danvers, to Rey (it cannot be stressed enough) Palpatine, some of the most lauded heroines in current media have followed this type of storyline—which, due to the the ways the characters interact with their settings and conflicts, involves several tropes of a common story type, the bildungsroman.
However, the plot structure and underlying tone of the aspects emphasized as worthwhile by critics classify them as an attempt to form a new genre: a kind of anti-bildungsroman that, in line with the beliefs of the modern feminism that usually advocates said storyline type, actively seeks to subvert the assumptions of the individual’s (here, the individual woman’s) relationship with the broader social structure. The execution of this storyline ironically does the female characters—and stories with female leads generally—several disservices that run counter to the stated goals of those behind the stories.
The Bildungsroman: what it is and what it isn’t.
Just for a refresher, a bildungsroman—German for “education novel”—is a story that intertwines the character’s ethical, psychological, and spiritual growth with the resolution of the conflict. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is as much about Alice’s learning not to behave like all the examples of toxic femininity she encounters through the story as it is actually getting out of the rabbit hole. Harry Potter learns as much about how to be a responsible young adult as how to actually cast spells (with the when and why invariably outweighing the what). The bulk of Aang’s story in Avatar: The Last Airbender involves not his learning how to use his powers as the Avatar, but his learning not to be a childish idiot who sticks his foot in his mouth at every turn. And who can forget Uncle Ben’s injunction to Peter Parker (established by Spider-Man: No Way Home as a theme that transcends the multiverse) about power and responsibility? It’s become nearly as iconic a scene as a still novice Luke Skywalker running through Dagobah with Yoda on his back, with nary a trickle of Force to be discerned by the anticipating audience.
In each of these, the external conflict is resolved and made more complex and dramatic by the character’s resolving some type of inner conflict—usually involving the growth from maturity to immaturity, selfishness to sacrifice, idleness to responsibility, &c.
Now, not every story is or needs to be a bildungsroman. We don’t always need heroes that change or grow—sometimes we need the opposite! It’s no coincidence that Conan the Barbarian and Superman, both unique because of their unchangeability, came out of the flux of the 1930s, when the average Joe, Jane, Jimmy, or Jill might rather enjoy a character who stands in opposition to the instabilities and shiftings around them.
There are many other examples of changeless characters coming out of changing times. The Lord of the Rings—specifically, Aragorn—came out of Tolkien’s effort to preserve English virtues and history through the trauma of values that were the Great War and Modernism (though, granted, Aragorn did a lot of growing up before Frodo receives the Ring). Later in the twentieth century, James Bond stood like a modern Conan (the parallels between their stories and characters are many, despite the obvious differences) amidst the unease of the Cold War. Nor does it always need to be so dire as these: in the ‘90s, Forrest Gump’s charm often inhered in how his simplemindedness showed how the problems around him might really have simple answers (at least within the bounds of his film), and the Dude of mistakened Lebowski fame would not be His Dudeness if he grew through his misadventures.
I list these to head off any claims of my placing standards on the female characters discussed below that I won’t apply to male characters. This is also why, other than this sentence, I won’t use the oft-bandied phrase “Mary Sue;” besides simplifying the argument into mere stereotypes, the phrase, or its male counterpart Gary Stu, implies that strong or unchanging characters are always bad or always lack depth. They may very well be, but my interest is not to simply descry it but to find out why. I come at the topic and characters below with one goal: to encourage complex characters and stories that do what we need art to do—to concretize the values we need to experience at a given time in ways that are timeless. Sometimes that can best be achieved by characters that grow, sometimes not; usually we need iterations of both simultaneously—often in the same story.
But the stories I’m focusing on do assume the complexity of a bildungsroman framework; in each case, the female character is placed in a situation where she is expected by society (and, often, the audience) to grow and she either flatly refuses to do so, or she grows in ways counter to her respective canon. In fact, the characters often self-consciously push against and subvert the canonical expectations for growth in various ways.
Elsa: Letting Go of Past Story Structures
The phenomenon that was Frozen was hailed by many as a deconstruction of the archetypal Disney princess story. Its setup follows many tropes of said genre: a girl of unique birth locked away by parents to prevent a misuse of her powers. However, from there the movie breaks the tradition of stories as late as Rapunzel (2010), which, itself, broke several tropes while adhering to familiar formats. Parents? The uredeemed source of her abuse. Prince charming? Actually the villain. The protagonist’s powers? To be used without compunction after letting go (of expectations? Of the need for self-control? The unnamed antecedent of her song’s Dionysian “it” is as multifarious as the audience might wish).
It would be wrong to say Elsa experiences no growth or argue her character lacks compelling internal conflicts. After going to live alone on her mountaintop (notably embodying several characteristics of the traditional ice queen villain), she does come down and remit her isolation upon learning that by embracing her powers she has caused an eternal winter in Arendelle. Furthermore, not all of the movie’s deconstructions are negative. While the ending of stories in a marriage signifies the restored balance and completion of comedy—and is much more than merely reducing the female to an ornament of the male and his restored power structure, as the format’s feminist critics allege—Frozen’s replacing the familiar eros-driven love story with one of phileo between sisters should be welcomed as an expansion of the virtues and values we enjoy being explored. However, from there we are faced by the irony that the same voices who push the “sisters > prince charming” dynamic often insist on seeing eros in any story featuring two male friends—an unfortunate sexist double standard…
My focus here on Frozen and the others is as much on the cultural response to the stories as the stories, themselves. The danger to Anna posed by her love-at-first-sight relationship with Prince Hans was not rectified by placing it against the authentic relationship with Kristoff; rather, the reversal of the form was turned retroactively onto all other Disney stories about love at first sight, which had the tone less of adding complexity that had never been established than of burning down the now malicious parts of what had. Finally, it was not a song about Elsa’s learning how to judiciously use her powers that every parent of kids of a certain age (or, let’s face it, young adults, too) had to listen to on repeat for the rest of 2013 and most of 2014. It was a song advocating the audience (especially girls) vicariously “Let it go!” along with Elsa. It was a kicking song, and I don’t begrudge any young girl for making her parents want to break a speaker because of it, but it did, thematically, set the ideological perspective and tone for latter heroines that would come after.
Rey Palpatine: A Victim of her Advocates
The next female character who declines to grow in ways prescribed by her lore is Rey Palpatine. Establishing Rey’s arc or lack thereof is difficult due to her appearing in three films with different directors with conflicting goals for her movies. The lack of unified vision, added to the retconning the trilogy exacted on the established Lucas canon and universe, makes it difficult to treat Rey’s plot either as a uniform whole or as a consistent intentional decision to buck expectations.
Nonetheless, against the backdrop of Luke’s growth under Yoda Rey’s development falls short. While Luke’s progression is drawn over two, if not all three, of the original movies, Rey is able to, for example, beat Kylo Ren the first time she touches a lightsaber. This could be possibly excused if, like Anakin, she were shown to have a high concentration of midichlorians and, thus, a more preternatural adeptness with the Force; however, such a reveal, set up by Abrams in The Force Awakens, was rejected by Rian Johnson in favor of making her a nobody in The Last Jedi (a more vicious crime against Star Wars lore than simply creating a new heroine backstory—or, really, refusing to—might necessarily entail). Abrams, then, had to pick up the pieces in The Rise of Skywalker to make what he could of Johnson’s arson. Central as it is, Rey’s disjointed arc is by no means the only problem with the new Star Wars trilogy.
Enough has been written and recorded about the canonical breaks between the original and the prequel trilogies and Rey’s that I don’t need to belabor the differences. Furthermore, many of Rey’s lacks can be explained, and possibly excused, by acknowledging the directorial conflicts of the trilogy. However, this does not excuse how Rey’s character was marketed: she was, we were often reminded, a female heroine, and that to reject her and all the incongruous elements of her story, even for the sake of preserving the larger Star Wars universe in good faith, was nothing less than sexist bigotry resulting from an irrational fear of strong women (which, strangely enough, had not reared its head in response to any of the other strong, complex females in the Star Wars universe).
The insistence among Rey’s defenders that she is a prime example of both a strong female character and a victim of unfair bigotry unfortunately sets the bar quite low for what is considered a good character—besides disregarding a devoted fanbase who were already invested in finding in the star of the revival trilogy as much depth as they could. Again, my focus is less on whether Rey consistently grows (if she does, it is disjointed due to director disagreements and rushed in a “tell rather than show” kind of way—a sin for character development of any genre). At issue here is the implied insistence that she should not have to grow—that standards of growth from a previous canon are at best an unfair standard and at worst a reactionary response from a threatened tradition of supposedly (but, as fans know, not really) male lore and predominantly male audience against a new heroine. That Rey’s greatness, thus, relied on the spectre of sexist pushback for its vitality and clout did not strike anyone as an issue to be worried about.
Carol Danvers: The Unrestrained Will
My final example of a heroine who rejects the complexity of growth prescribed by her own canon—and the one that does so most openly—is the adult version of Elsa, Marvel’s Carol Danvers. Begun in production as Elsa was gracing theaters, Captain Marvel (2019) added the element of the character’s rethinking her entire culture—of decolonizing her mind, as it were—to the formula, providing her further justification to eschew the self-control and prescribed growth of the traditional superhero story.
Danvers’s story begins with her training opposite Jude Law’s Yon-Rogg, who is preparing her to be a Kree warrior. It is against his mentoring admonitions to control her impulses and to use her head over her heart—and to become “the best version of yourself”—that the rest of her story takes place. Through the movie, she pieces together her disjointed memories to discover the Kree she is fighting for against the Skrull are actually the baddies, and that she is a human whose powers come from Kree technology she destroyed but which Yon-Rogg and the civilization’s Supreme Intelligence AI are trying to still utilize in her.
For the present I’ll ignore the fact that the movie reduces the 1970s “Kree-Skrull War” match between two bloodthirsty races in into a one-sided genocide of the Skrull by the Kree that resembles less the source material and more the modern revisionist simplifications of history into binaries between rapacious, patriarchal colonists and innocent, victimized indigenous. At issue here is that the heroine discovers, in a reverse-brainwashing sequence, that she has actually been misled (gaslit, brainwashed, Stockholm syndromed, all the common terms) by the Kree, and that her assumptions and even her own mind are complicit with the evils of the Kree. She must, thus, decolonize her worldview as she works out whence she got her powers—which, upon learning she gained them through an attempt to save the Skrull, could be used without any moral qualms about their being created by the antagonists.
Within the bounds of the movie, it’s a compelling conflict, and one which does necessitate Danvers’s rethinking and rejecting Yon-Rogg’s inducements to use her powers in what the Kree would say were the right ways (but which are, in reality, against her practical and ethical interests). However, it is not, technically a character arc: rather, it is an anti-arc. Released from the usual inducement to meet power with self-control, or to clearly delineate between her power and her self (with the former always needing to predominate), Danvers simply uses her powers.
This results in some great cinematics that, I’ll admit, meet the desire for a decent action movie with a satisfyingly insolent protagonist. However, Danvers nonetheless loses a major potential character arc.
Even in the final moment with Yon-Rogg, where, in rejecting his last-ditch effort to manipulate her into fighting as herself without her powers (i.e. on terms in which he knows he can beat her), she simply blows him away, thus showing that he’s right: that she cannot control her impulses.
She claims she has nothing to prove to him, but what about to herself? This is, after all, one of the classic canonical superhero conflicts—where the line between self and power falls, which can provoke further questions of what can ultimately be relied upon, or how to maintain one’s self despite the changes brought by power. What about conflicts regarding the dependability of her newfound way of seeing the world, a major question in a movie where the inability to trust reality (brainwashing Kree, shapeshifting Skrull, etc) is a common motif? No, once she gets woke to the Kree, Danvers never questions her new episteme. Why allow internal conflicts to burden her character with unnecessary complexity—especially when we can resolve all the movie’s external conflicts with unlimited girlboss power, smashing the patriarchy—err, the Kree—with their own tools, instead?
This lack of reflection on her powers is a major part of what makes Danvers’s character flatter than either Elsa’s or Rey’s. Both of them at least experience doubt regarding their powers and their relationship to them and their relative place in the world. However, as if stuck in Elsa’s famous song, Danvers’ climactic embracing of her powers keeps her in a third-act moment of what could have been a five-act growth arc.
There is also the unadmitted Superman paradox.
The Superman paradox arose when writers realized an all-powerful being could have no serious conflicts—and, therefore, no compelling story. His creators had to steadily introduce kryptonite to keep him interesting. Presumably her creators knew of this but didn’t think it would apply.
It can certainly be argued that incorporating both an awakening embrace of power and an overcoming of weakness to that power would be expecting too much—and trying to include two major conflicts in one movie. However, completely eschewing any real weakness (Danvers’ conflict involves her adopting and subsequently rejecting weaknesses she does not intrinsically have, which are accidental and, thus, ultimately unserious as conflicts) still sets a low bar of complexity when most superhero movies include some sort of chink in the hero’s armor for future exploration. Danvers’s embracing of her powers is so wholly untainted that, as cathartic for some as the final sequence may be (complete with her acquiring the ultimate symbol of freedom, flight), the seeds for future growth or reflection—the marks of a hero’s staying power—are, sadly, lacking.
 Feminist Heroines: A Rejection of Complex Females
None of this is to deny that Elsa’s, Rey’s, or Danvers’s movies are entertaining and have devoted, good-faith fanbases. As with the unchanging heroes I mention above, people can and should enjoy what they like and feel they need. However, this leads to my qualms with the idea of a character type that shouldn’t have to grow in expected or sympathetic ways. Among other things, I fear the contention that traditional complexity and character growth are arbitrary impositions meant to reject characters because of their femaleness will result in less complexity in female characters, as well as create, in a self-fulfilling prophecy, an antipathy or apathy among audiences towards new female characters—not because they are female, but because they are simple.
However, so long as a certain brand of feminist critics assume that all efforts to mold a female character according to a broader ethical framework are, really, a patriarchal attempt to keep women down, we will continue to get simplistic stories and morals thereof like these. This should not surprise us. The same critics who hold to this implicitly Marxist reading of traditional story structures interpret Pride and Prejudice as an anti-woman novel because it suggests some of Elizabeth Bennet’s problems can only be fixed by personal reflection and reformation—i.e. because the novel is in part a bildungsroman—despite her embodying most of the same traits of their stated favorite heroines (even those discussed above!). If that is how such critics interpret a thoroughly complex character arc, we should not hold out hope for better from them or from studios working to satisfy them as an audience.
So, what should we do? For one, we should flatly deny the accusations that disliking an individual character equates antagonism or bigotry against an entire category; besides employing an irrefutable denial of moral legitimacy, it tries to shoehorn a Marxist reading that sees individuals as merely instances of their group or class. In trying to save characters from simplicity, we should also fight the simplification of critique.
When stories or characters come out that do, indeed, participate in complexity in some way, we should promote them. This may mean being open to new reworkings of stories (on that note, I had originally included The Legend of Korra above, but on further reflection and research of perspectives, I decided the Avatar Korra does grow in ways consistent with the precedents of the Avatar universe that I had not considered before). While above I critiqued the characters for breaking from their canons, it can be equally damaging for story to never stretch what has already been. The best stories will, in my view, resurrect familiar elements of their canons while showing that new arcs are still possible therein. So, we should vote with our pounds, dollars, and online engagements to show at least the less ideology-driven studios that complexity of story matters to audiences more than character identity politics.
A converse of this is to reject stories built around transgressive or socially deconstructive elements, and to educate ourselves on why such things do not and should not be privileged as equally valid views or stories (being anti-stories) in the marketplace of ideas—especially when those who promote them would not and are not extending the same toleration to the rest of us.
Finally, as we at The Mallard have advocated and tried to put into practice, we should create the things we want to see. If nothing else, this will help us understand how to interpret the other art we consume. Complexity is difficult, and accomplishing it subtly and succinctly is even moreso. It might discredit me as a writer to put it in print, but I had to cut 250+ pages of my novel Sacred Shadows and Latent Light, most of which was backstory and characterization. Necessary for fleshing out my characters for myself, but not inherently necessary for developing the book’s conflict. The experience paradoxically made me more sympathetic but also less yielding when it comes to character depth. I hope I’ve shown both above in my treatment of characters who have, in theory (certainly in budget), better writers than I behind them.
[One aspect of Captain Marvel that is only peripherally related to Danvers’s relationship with her powers, but which nonetheless aligns with the eschewing of usual self-control progression, is her treatment of the minor male characters in the film. Danvers has the perfect excuse to treat new people with suspicion, and, perhaps excepting Stan Lee on the bus, she enjoys it—from ____ to committing theft grand auto. Of course, the trope of an apparent alien not conforming to local property laws goes as far back as Thor (and, of course, farther), but the undertone here is that the theft is justified in response to the man admittedly creepily asking Danvers for a smile. She later shows that her default to rudeness is not a casualty of her untrusting circumstances: she responds to someone as unthreatening as Tom Holland’s Peter Parker in Avengers: Endgame in as insolent a manner as she does to the characters in her movie—an indecency for which I have not been able to forgive her.]
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