Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder
Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2005 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.
Through San Francisco's public library, Leonard and I have fully subsidized access to many awesome films (especially classics) that our neighborhood video stores don't carry. I love reserving these great Billy Wilder or Ealing Studios films at my local library and watching them with Leonard on seven-day loan. What indie video store does a seven-day loan? None for free, anyway.
This week I saw Mulan and The Fortune Cookie with Leonard and I read Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Potter's Hermione, the eponymous Mulan, and the Ron Rich character (Luther Jackson) from Fortune Cookie all go above and beyond mere adequacy as sympathetic characters. They are the nicest or most competent or smartest or bravest or most altruistic characters in their stories. Should I fault the authors or credit the characters for these superlatives? Hermione has to compensate for being female and Muggle-born, Mulan for being female, Jackson for being black and for a moment of carelessness that leads to the film's main plot device. (I won't fault Wilder. Jackson's character is the most textured and less of a caricature than Mulan's or Hermione's. This makes sense since the film has the least Joseph Campbell-esque plot and character set of the three stories.)
As one blogger comments on a similar situation (a Muslim organization's condemnation of the London terror attacks):
I have to say that it's nice they're being nice. But you know? They don't have to be. They shouldn't have to be nice. It's just another stereotype, really, the opposite number from the Evil Fanatical Muslim Terrorist. How about we talk about your average everyday [sic] who's mediocre and not especially interesting? Who's ordinary and boring, it just so happens he goes to mosque instead of church, and who reads the Koran instead of the Bible. Just like, oh, millions of ordinary average other peole out there. Being noble is nice. But it's not compulsory. It's not necessary and it's not expected. ... [A person] should be able to do whatever the f*** he wants, be as much of a jerk as he wants, without it reflecting on his religion at all. It might reflect on him, but not on his religion.
What it undoubtedly reflects on, though, are the a**h***s who were mean to him because he's a Muslim.
In real life, I absolutely get the blogger's point (with all due reservations about the definition of "religion" and so on). But in fiction, I have to tease out where the story stops and the author begins -- whether the author is delibrately slanting the dataset. In The Fortune Cookie we have several male characters with significant screentime and all but one of them have some sympathetic aspects. The two females that show up the most have no good qualities at all. One is a conniving, betraying siren, and the other a hysterical pest. Did the story just work out best that way? Some women are sobbers or golddiggers, but no one can venture a ratio. Were the writers misogynists? Should I enjoy the movie as a whole and content myself with the cool nun who shows up for two minutes as a fairer representation of my sex?
We humans are pattern-making animals, as I think Elliot Aronson said, and that usually helps us, but it makes racism and sexism and all the other prejudices so much easier to form and so hard to lose! I want the art I see to upend my prejudices, to put me into that disequilibrium that leads to moral growth. That's why good satire hurts and edifies and illuminates.
Of course I overshot reason in my hopes for Harry Potter's plot. In mass transit and in human courtesy I want the studied reliability that civilization produces, but in storytelling I need something wild.
Which makes me wonder whether Billy Wilder was his real name.
Next up: Witness for the Prosecution. I'll report back.