Posts Tagged ‘Aristotle’s Poetics’

Supernatural and the Meta Mirror

December 20, 2009

Supernatural is supported by its marked unreality: for Sam and Dean Winchester, hunting demons has become their normal lifestyle. To be sure, it has not come easily: aside from the exhaustive job they’ve taken on, they’ve also suffered a personal toll through losing their parents and being turned against one another time and again. (I’m trying to keep this mostly spoiler-free for those who want to follow the entire series’ arc, and because those developments are not the backbone of this essay.)

And yet, the series never loses its comedic touch or flair for parody, utilizing this self-referential style as the best tool with which to simultaneously force Sam and Dean to examine their odd lifestyle, as well as to acknowledge Supernatural’s vast fanbase. Three episodes in particular (from the first, third, and fifth seasons) attack the boys’ lifestyle through interactive pop-culture mainstays: an urban legends website; reality television; and a fan convention. In each instance, the Winchester brothers find themselves facing at least archetypes of themselves, if not actually themselves, prompting them to reevaluate the point of their ongoing struggle against evil.

Aristotle’s Poetics concerns itself with mimesis, or the mode of imitation that distinguishes poetry. Unlike in Aristotle’s examination of poetry (which contained varying forms that he nonetheless counted under the same umbrella term), my study of Supernatural includes three different media, as mentioned above: website, reality series, and fan convention. The objects (“men in action”) are in each case Sam and Dean; and finally, the manner, or narration, takes its form through people, “living and moving before us”. [1]

At first, the bonds between Sam and Dean and their imitators are shadowy at best: In 1×17 “Hell House”, they run into Ed Zeddmore and Harry Spengler in the eponymous haunted house. The latter are nerds laughably calling themselves “paranormal investigators”. Sam and Dean are initially too surprised to do anything but go along with the two, who puff up in self-righteousness about their tools and strategies in finding ghosts. In contrast to Sam and Dean’s fairly sparse gear (flashlights, salt, lighter, and guns), Zeddmore and Spengler are decked out in night-vision goggles and something approximating Ghostbusters‘ Proton Pack. (Fun fact: The characters’ surnames are taken from two Ghostbuster members!)

It turns out that there is a demon haunting the house — a tulpa, which comes to life through people’s imaginings — but the only reason it’s stayed alive is due to the Hell Hound’s Lair’s readership and their fervent beliefs in the demon accounts. It’s an apt metaphor for the viewers who keep a show, especially a quirky paranormal one like Supernatural, afloat. By the end of the episode, the boys burn down the house inhabited by the ghost, and Sam suffers a slight crisis:

“It kinda makes you wonder… of all the things we’ve hunted, how many existed just ’cause people believed in ’em?”

And yet, that anxiety is short-lived, as Sam and Dean accept (without the need to explicitly say so) that the demons they hunt are “real”. And while Zeddmore and Spengler in some ways imitate Sam and Dean, what we really see through them is the boys coming together against “themselves”: the episode’s subplot involved the Winchesters in a prank war, which concludes when each of them pulls a prank on the Hell Hound’s creators instead.

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Social Commentary in South Park

December 18, 2009

Social commentary in art relies on the imitation of reality—be it through comedic satire, dramatic realism, or somewhere in between. Thus, the nature of that imitation has a substantial effect on a work’s social commentary. In Poetics, Aristotle argues that a work’s “mode of imitation” is affected by its medium, its “objects” (the way the artist portrays humanity through characters), and its “manner” (the artist’s method of imitation). In the case of South Park, its medium is television, its “objects” are characters of lesser intelligence and moral fiber than most real people, and its “manner” is animation. These elements all contribute to an imitation of life that is exaggerated and simplified, which in turn makes the show’s social commentary fairly heavy-handed and simplistic.

Because South Park is an episodic television program, social issues are tackled in about twenty-three minutes. This leaves writers Trey Parker and Matt Stone with little room for nuance. Even if they wanted to, it would be difficult for them to reflect the true complexity of real-life social issues in such a short amount of time. In contrast, a serialized television program can explore in depth the many facets of multiple social issues, over the span of many episodes (the best case of this being, perhaps, HBO’s The Wire). The medium of television, and more specifically episodic television, contributes to the simplicity of South Park’s social commentary.

South Park’s social commentary is also affected by the way Parker and Stone portray humanity through fictional characters. According to Aristotle, in comedy, people are represented as “worse than they are.” This is certainly true in South Park, in which much of the humor is derived from the idiocy and moral bankruptcy of its characters. This can be seen well in the episode “Follow That Egg,” which comments on the gay marriage debate.

In this episode, the governor of Colorado is faced with a bill that would legalize gay marriage, and he must decide whether or not to veto it. Meanwhile, Mrs. Garrison, a formerly gay male schoolteacher who had a sex change, wants the governor to veto the bill, mostly because she doesn’t want her ex-boyfriend to marry his current boyfriend. Through these two characters, Parker and Stone portray opponents to gay marriage as ignorant and hypocritical.

The governor doesn’t see why gays shouldn’t be able to marry. He says, “What argument can I use to deny them their right to a family?” But, feeling pressure from both sides, he offers a compromise, in a speech in front of both proponents and opponents of the gay marriage bill. “You homosexuals will have all the same rights as married couples. But instead of referring to you as ‘married,’ you can be… ‘butt buddies.’” This is a thinly veiled critique of the concept of civil unions. Of course, no real politician would be so ignorant and out of touch to propose this compromise; the governor’s stupidity is exaggerated for the sake of humor. The effect of this portrayal is a heavy-handed critique of those who would deny gays the right to marry. There is very little subjectivity and nuance when Parker and Stone weigh in on this issue.

Watch a clip of the governor’s speech here.

The effect of South Park‘s negative depiction of humanity can also be seen in Mrs. Garrison’s role in the episode. Her reasons for campaigning against gay marriage are selfish, and hypocritical in their homophobia. When she says, “Marriage is a holy sacrament, between a man and a woman [pointing to herself with pride],” frequent viewers recognize the hypocrisy of this statement. She herself has undermined, and continues to undermine the conservative ideals of family values she claims to uphold, having once been a gay man, and now a transgendered woman. This is another critique of gay marriage opponents, highlighting the fact that they are sometimes hypocritical (take for instance conservative senator Larry Craig’s 2007 arrest for soliciting gay sex in an airport). The depiction of this hypocrisy is so exaggerated, though, that the social commentary is very heavy-handed and one-sided in favor of gay marriage.

Finally, South Park’s ‘manner’ of imitation—that is, animation—also greatly affects the nature of its social commentary. Because Stone and Parker are not limited by the laws of physics or the high cost of special effects, they can use visual imagery that exaggerates real-life situations to the point of absurdity. This too contributes to the heavy-handedness of their social commentary. This can be seen in the episode, “Goobacks,” which is a comment on the issue of immigration.

In this episode, people from an impoverished, dystopic future, symbolic of immigrants from developing nations, travel back in time en masse looking for work. They are racially ambiguous, and can’t speak English. The working-class residents of South Park resent them for supposedly taking their work. They repeatedly shout, “They took our jobs!” with a mumbling, provincial inflection, and brainstorm how to solve the problem. They decide to “turn gay,” so future generations will be prevented, and the time-traveling immigrants will cease to exist. Eventually, their plan turns into a massive gay orgy, made possible by animation.

From "Goobacks"

The image of the orgy is so absurd that the social commentary becomes very removed from reality. Parker and Stone exaggerate the men’s xenophobia so much that it is no longer an accurate representation of real life. There is no nuance in their dealing with the issue of immigration, only a clear-cut judgment: anti-immigration protesters have let their fear and hatred of immigrants reach ridiculous proportions.

Parker and Stone are of course aware that their absurd imagery and storytelling often distances their show far from reality, and that audiences have come to expect this from them. This can be seen in the episode “Trapped in the Closet,” which is a critique of Scientology. There is an extended animated sequence where a Scientologist explains the mythology behind the religion: an absurd story about an alien genocide that occurred 75 million years ago. Realizing that their audience might take this for a hyperbolic parody, Parker and Stone prominently superimpose the words, “This is what Scientologists actually believe,” over most of the scene.

You can watch that scene here.

South Park is an excelent example of how a work’s artistic qualities, including its medium, portrayal of humanity, and method of storytelling can affect its social commentary. Because a) it’s a television program, b) it portrays people as less intelligent and moral than they usually are, and c) it’s animated, South Park’s depiction of reality is very simplistic and exaggerated. This, in turn, makes the social commentary fairly heavy-handed and simplistic.

Aristotle on The Office (UK)

November 18, 2009

In the Poetics Aristotle writes, “Comedy is, as we have said, an imitation of characters of a lower type – not, however, in the full sense of the word bad, the ludicrous being merely a subdivision of the ugly. It consists in some defect or ugliness which is not painful or destructive. To take an obvious example, the comic mask is ugly and distorted, but does not imply pain.” In the same way, the characters of The Office (UK) are not bad, but rather their “ugliness” channels the comedic nature of the show. Office manager David Brent’s (Ricky Gervais) ugliness is ugliness of character; the fact that David Brent believes himself to be this amazing example of utopian management skills, but is actually neither a good manager nor a funny one, is the comedic premise of the show.

However, I think that one can say the comic mask of The Office is in its distortion of documentary and reality TV style. The Office is a scripted comedy, and yet within its diegetic universe the characters recognize and even address the cameras that are filming them. Also, and completely within the flow of the narrative, there are interviews/confessionals with the characters in which they vent or discuss situations in the office, usually beginning with a rephrasing of a question that was ostensibly asked by the film crew. I propose that this style – mockumentary – and its subsequent breakdown of the fourth wall between audience and cast, is what allows the viewer to enter into The Office’s diegetic universe and fully perceive its comedic value.

The value of The Office lies in its comedy rather than in displaying some form of utopian ideal. Christine Geraghty’s use of Dyer’s proposal that “entertainment functions by offering the image of ‘something better’ to escape into” (Soap Opera and Utopia, pg 2) does not mesh with The Office. Rather, it might be better to say that soap operas and certain other dramatic narratives function as a vehicle for the presentation of utopian ideals. But that comedy, as defined by Aristotle and seen in The Office does the opposite. The Office does not present a utopian ideal of office life. The audience doesn’t long to escape into life at the Slough, Berkshire office of the Wernham Hogg Paper Company but rather rejoices and laughs at the fact they don’t work there and will never have to. The meta-mimesis in The Office is what makes us reflexively appreciate our own, real working environments. Through imitation of all that can possibly go wrong in an office, including in that the filming of office life, The Office is endearing in its distopia-ness. However, the real reason we love it is because we don’t have to live it.