5 Fictional Characters That Should Be Studied In Schools
If I had my way, all school subjects would be taught through movies and TV shows. (Except for world history, which would be taught exclusively through Sabaton songs.) I wrote before that popular entertainment can educate us about, well ... anything, from complex math to Shakespeare's plays, and that's just the stuff it does on purpose. But movie and TV characters can also teach us important stuff totally by accident, and I think it's high time we started looking at them as serious learning tools, like so:
Fionna Should Be Regarded As A Modern Feminist Icon (Adventure Time)
One of my least favorite episodes of Futurama is the one where everyone switches genders. I can masturbate to a gender-bended Zoidberg as much as any normal guy, but my problem with the whole episode was that it was lazy. All the guys who became women immediately turned into walking cliches obsessed with shopping while the female-turned-male characters became macho jerks with the emotional depth of protein-shake containers, and NONE of it fit the characters' personalities.
But you might say: "It wouldn't make sense storytelling-wise to have an entire episode where folks switch genders and act exactly like themselves." To which I say: Yes it would. Adventure Time did it like four times, and each of those, incidentally, is the perfect example of how to do feminism right.
The secret to feminism? Bunny girls.
In a few "fan fiction" episodes, the show changes from the adventures of Finn and Jake to those of Fionna and Cake, where every character is a different gender. But it's essentially just a cosmetic change. Every character retains their original personality, especially Fionna, who just like Finn is brave, strong, and a bit of a dork.
None of that went away when her balls migrated inwards because, and this is important, your genitals don't have to dictate how you live your life. Except for Deathray-Dick Johnny but I like to think he's the exception that proves the rule. Always in our hearts, Deathray-Dick.
Also, please notice that Fionna and Cake don't suddenly go on "home-economical" adventures just because they hang boob.
Feminism started out as a fight for basic civil rights for women, then equal rights, and today, it's essentially about the freedom of choice, and Fionna is the perfect example of that.
She wears dresses. When she wants. She doesn't need a boyfriend now. But she's open to the idea in the future. She kicks ass. But the show doesn't call her a tomboy for that, nor does she make it a cornerstone of her whole personality. On its own, that wouldn't mean all that much. But because Fionna exists solely as the female version of a male character, her non-stereotypical characterization becomes a powerful feminist message, namely: You do you, no matter what's between your legs.
Replicants Are Actually A Great Metaphor For People With Autism (Blade Runner)
After my wife and I got married, I got licensed to work at her company so that we could spend more time together. Yup, I'm just such a romantic; and ladies, I'm singl- oh, wait, never mind. She worked as a caregiver for people with autism and mental disabilities, so for a time, that's what I did too.
Many of my clients were fairly disabled (of the non-savant variety) and, honestly, they just made me really sad. Not because I couldn't take them to a casino and Rain Man my way into early retirement, but because all I saw when I looked at them were people who'd never experience or understand the world fully. In a way, I saw people who weren't ... complete. But then I got to know them. Slowly, I understood that even those with severe disabilities had their own personalities, likes, dislikes, and were capable of complex emotions just like everyone else. That's also when I realized that movies almost NEVER get autism right. Except for Blade Runner. Check out the movie's opening scene:
In it, we see Leon Kowalski taking a test to determine if he's a Replicant -- a bioengineered, artificial human. Spoiler: He is. The test supervisor asks him to imagine seeing a tortoise in a desert, but Leon keeps interrupting him with additional questions: What desert is the guy talking about? Why is he there?
"Should I be worried about Sandworms?"
A few years back, out of curiosity, I actually conducted a similar autism test on one of the people I worked with. And just like Leon, they couldn't get through it without knowing all the details about a made-up scenario I was describing to them. See, for some people with autism, one of the biggest problems is sorting facts by importance, or just connecting them, like when Leon says that he doesn't know what a tortoise is, though he had heard of turtles.
This now reminds me of when my wife asked one of her clients to draw a salmon during art therapy, and they drew salmon sashimi. They knew perfectly well what a live salmon looked like, but didn't know that was what my wife meant.
Or they were just hungry.
For me, though, the most interesting part of the whole Leon interview is that he keeps insisting that he understands what the supervisor wants, even when he looks confused. That's another thing I learned about my autistic clients: they all had this innate, human need to be understood. And speaking of humanity: In the world of Blade Runner, Replicants are feared because they supposedly lack empathy (which is what the test was trying to catch), essentially making them super-powered sociopaths. That's bull. Leon, for example, has a collection of photographs of his friends, and cares deeply for his fellow Replicants. What is that if not empathy?!
I bring this up because there are way too many folks asking if autistic people have empathy. Short answer: They do, and lots of it.
Now, I'm not actually saying that the Replicants are autistic -- because I'm not a goddamn demon -- but Leon and his kind are a great metaphor for how autistic people think and what they go through, like being accused of lacking compassion, or not being seen as fully human (like what I regretfully did). They may not think exactly like you, but they too can appreciate watching C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate.
Woody Teaches Us About The Beauty Of Nihilism (Toy Story 3)
Here's the poop: We are all shit. There is no god, nothing really matters, and the universe doesn't give a crap about you as a person. And before you freak out, no, I did not get my hands on your diary from when you were 14, the one with the Jack Skellington sticker on the front. That's just the insultingly basic gist of nihilism, a philosophical doctrine which, when put to music, would produce every Nine Inch Nails song ever.
It's not exactly the most uplifting worldview out there ... but it only seems that way if you haven't seen Toy Story 3.
"We are all but toys in the hands of an uncaring universe. This is our story ... Three."
At its heart, Toy Story 3 is about Woody's crisis of faith. As the toys' owner Andy gets ready for college, the toys come to the realization that their GOD no longer needs them. In their own words, their life was about "being there for Andy," but now that he's going away, what else is there? But Woody won't hear that, brothers and sisters! He FEELS Andy's love and OH it's so good. You got to BELIEVE that the attic, where the toys are headed, is a paradise full of adventure and Andy's love.
In the beginning, Woody is basically the Archbishop of Andyology.
"Little Bo Peep didn't believe, and the great Andy guided my hand in striking her down!"
But then, all the toys mistakenly end up at the Sunnyside Daycare where Woody's faith is tested by the tyrannical Lots-o'-Huggin' Bear, who repeatedly tells the toys that humans don't truly love them. And eventually, Woody realizes that ... shit, Lots-o is right. Humans grow out of toys and discard them like trash. It happened to Lots-o and his gang, and it was basically happening to Woody now. When he understood all that, Woody lost his religion. It's also when he became free.
If serving humans isn't all that toys can do, then toys are free to decide for themselves what their lives should be about. And without a hint of hesitation, Woody and his friends decide that if they can't be there for Andy, they will be there for each other, as a family, by THEIR choice.
"Family means never having to watch a boy go through puberty."
Lots-o, who was abandoned by his owner, is an asshole because he cannot get over being discarded. Woody and co. are equally sad to lose Andy, but they use their tragic human -- sorry, toy -- condition, as a glue that binds them. Even near the end when they think they're going to be burned alive, they join hands and take comfort in each other's company. Until other toys end up saving them.
That scene would have been completely ruined if it was a human who ended up coming to their help. The whole point of the movie is that the toys are here alone, united in their insignificance, and they have to look out for each other. No gods, no masters; just a bunch of sentient lifeforms creating their own meaning in a world that lacks it. It's the kind of positive spin on nihilism that'd bring a tear to Nietzsche's cold, dead eyes.
Miss Martian's Struggles Perfectly Mirror Some Of The Issues Faced By Transgender People (Young Justice)
For most of my life, I don't think I spent more than a few hours thinking about trans issues. While I was always sympathetic to the idea of your biology and personal identity not being in tune, I never processed the topic on any kind of deeply emotional level because, as Anti-Ariel would put it, it was never part of my world. That all started to change, as it does with most people, with Young Justice, an animated show about teenage superheroes.
First, a little background: In the YJ-verse, there are two kinds of Martians: white and green. Green Martians look basically like us, while White Martians are walking cures to Captain Kirk's libido.
"A challenge, is it?"
Here's the (spoiler-y) thing, though. Those two characters? They are the exact same person: Miss Martian. In the episode "Image," we find out that all Martian races can shape-shift and read minds, which makes their appearance inconsequential and their sex parties EPIC. Miss Martian was born different, though. She was born White but she didn't like looking like an albino meth-head draugr. However, when she first saw Earth TV "something just clicked" and shape-shifting permanently into a more human form helped her "smile through a lonely childhood." It's pretty deep stuff for a cartoon that's mostly about Batman's conspiracy theories and super punching.
Eventually, this became the core of her entire identity, which we know because when a villainous telepath attacks her, we see that even inside her own mind, Miss Martian sees herself as lean, green, and anthropomorphic-een.
How about you mind your own fucking business, buddy?
At one time, the series' villains even blackmail Miss Martian by threatening to tell her teammates about her "real" self. She briefly goes along with it, too, because she thinks she will be called a monster and shunned by her friends, and that overwhelming fear of rejection -- which also threatens to undermine Miss Martian's idea of who she is -- is just too much for her.
Transgenderism was never on my mind that much, but superheroes were, and maybe that's why Miss Martian's personal struggles made the topic less, well, alien to me. Because it doesn't matter how perfect she looks on the outside. She will always live in fear of being judged based on her biology that just doesn't jive with her soul, all while being told that THAT is who she "really" is. It's just so unbelievably tragic. It's also how some transgender people live their lives.
But in a much more crapsack world where, sadly, capes never caught on.
And I know that today, the term "trans" can mean much more than just "being trapped in the wrong body," but for a crash course in Transgenderism 101, Young Justice's Miss Martian seems like a fantastic conversation starter.
Palpatine Uses Genuine Cult Indoctrination Tactics To Corrupt Anakin (Star Wars)
No one ever joins a cult. They join a religious movement, a "wellness" organization, or a book club that's also into creepy animal masks and ceremonial daggers. It's only when those groups trick you into joining and then make it near impossible to leave that you know you're dealing with a cult. That's of course just one tactic that cults use. For a detailed summary of how to get people to blindly follow you, check out everything Palpatine did in the Star Wars prequels.
Step one: Kickass black robes.
Many people have complained that Anakin's transformation into Darth Vader was one of the weakest parts of the new trilogy because, like the Invisible Man in a women's locker room, it seemingly came out of nowhere. But ... did it really?
In Episodes II and III, we see future-Emperor Palpatine buttering Anakin up like a turkey at the annual Thanksgiving Pervert Convention, telling him stuff like: "You don't need guidance, Anakin ... You are the greatest Jedi I ever saw. You can become more powerful than Master Yoda."
"Also, your haircut doesn't make you look like an asshole."
He was making Anakin feel good about himself at a time when he really needed to hear it. After all, he lost his mother not that long ago, and now he was having dreams about his secret wife dying. According to Diane Benscoter, an ex-"Moonie," targeting people when they are emotionally torn is a very common tactic for cults. Next is convincing them that reality is a lie.
During my favorite scene in the entire prequel trilogy, Palpatine tries to paint the Jedis as enemies of the republic and all of democracy. What's genius about it, though, is that he first appointed Anakin to the Jedi Council knowing that they would never make him a Master, preemptively souring him on the whole idea of organized Virgin Space Fencers. That's when he offered him an alternative: the Sith. Not for himself! No! He should join them for Padme and learn how to cure her Impending-death-itis, which the Sith totally can do, you know. (Editor's note: They cannot.) This way, Anakin would think that joining the Dark Side was somehow HIS idea, another common cult play.
Once he does, though, Suddenly-Not-Such-A-Pal-Patine IMMEDIATELY starts to scale down his promises. Earlier, he was all like: "Oh yeah, we Siths cure death all the time. I cured like ... five deaths on my way to work this morning," but now he changes his tune to: "Only one Sith ever cured death, but I think that if we work really hard, we might do it too."
"And if we can't, it's just because you didn't want it hard enough."
This leaves Anakin with no other choice than to follow Palpatine with the hopes that he'll deliver on his promise. After that, Annie is all ready to change his lightsaber color to Kool-Aid.
Cezary Jan Strusiewicz is a Cracked columnist, interviewer, and editor. Contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter.
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