Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Animorphs Revisited: #4 - The Message

In which Cassie's rad psychic powers lead the gang to their best morph yet, and thence to a super awesome new character, hooray and cheers cheers cheers.

I heart Cassie. I love all of these characters (except Jake, yawn snooze), and I relate to Ax and Tobias the most, but I have an especial soft spot for Cassie – partly because I was in love with her as a child, partly because she is so desperately, heart-wrenchingly concerned with acting morally in an impossible situation.

(Side note: It's really weird to return as an adult to childhood crushes. I happened to see a snippet of Billy Elliot the other day, and was reminded that when the movie came out I thought Billy extremely dreamy. Which was fine when I was eleven, but is a hard memory to process as a grown-ass man.)

Cassie is excellent at character analysis: “Marco is never happy unless he's complaining about something. Just like Rachel is never happy unless she has something to fight against. And Tobias is never happy, period. He thinks if he's ever happy, someone will just come along and take his happiness away.” Notice how she doesn't have one for Jake. (Hint: It's because he doesn't have a character.) She's also super intuitive of subtle ways to make people feel better, like when she notices Marco being uncharacteristically quiet and compliments his haircut in a kind but unshowy way. Cassie is absolutely the Hufflepuff of the group and I love her for it.

Clockwise from top left: Rachel, Marco, Tobias, Cassie. Not pictured: Jake (squib).
I'm not exactly Ms. Fashion. Mostly, if you want to know what I look like, picture a girl in overalls and leather work gloves, biting her lip as she concentrates on trying to force a pill down the throat of a badger. Jake once took a picture of me doing exactly that. He has it next to his computer in his room. Don't ask me why. I would be glad to give him a picture of me in a dress or something. Rachel could loan me the dress. But Jake says he likes the picture he has.
As you know, Bob, I am hardly a Cassie/Jake shipper – Cassie is the most lesbian lesbian that ever lesbianed, and Jake is the human equivalent of the World Watching Paint Dry Championships – but this is super freakin' cute. Cassie opines that “Marco is kind of cute, too, although he's not my type.” NEITHER. IS. JAKE. YOU. ARE. GAY.

Oh yeah, this is the part where I'm supposed to talk about the plot. So Cassie is having psychic dreams – we know they're psychic 'cause Tobias has them too – but it's not because she's ingested demon blood, but because she's the best at morphing, which makes her particularly attuned to Andalite telepathy. (I don't know, just go with it). The dreams lead her and the other Animorphs to a crashed Andalite ship deep in the ocean, but to get there they need a new morph: dolphins.

It's a long time since I was either eight years old or a girl, but once I was both, and this is never clearer to me than when I read about people morphing dolphins. I WANT TO MORPH A DOLPHIN, DAMMIT. 
I am man enough to admit that, around the time this book was published, I thought this was the greatest fucking thing on the planet. And also that, if someone gave one to me today, I would write all of my doctoral seminar notes in it.

They have hecka fun being dolphins, obvi, and even better, they rescue Ax. Ax is the younger brother of Elfangor, the Andalite prince who gave the kids their morphing powers on his deathbed, and Ax is the actual best. He's the source of some of the best comedy and poignancy in this whole frequently funny, often poignant series. According to Rachel, he's also cute. Rachel, you minx. Of course, we already knew she was into the interspecies romance thing (what will Hawkboy think if you leave him for a shape-shifting space centaur??).

Actually, I think Rachel's attraction to differently-bodied persons is consistent with her general attitude toward her human body now that she can morph. Compare Marco's opinion: “I used to want to get all pumped up. Then I morphed into a gorilla, and it was like, why bother lifting weights? I can just become a gorilla and bench press a truck.” Rachel, on the other hand: “Being a cat made me more interested in gymnastics. I mean, as a cat I was just so totally, totally in control and graceful. Ever since then I've been trying to use that feeling. When I'm on the balance beam I try and remember that cat confidence.” For Marco, morphing is something you use when you have to, kept separate from daily life. Rachel, however, is interested in consciously maintaining continuity between her morphed self and her human self, even on a bodily level. It makes sense that she's more open-minded about non-human bodies than the others.
So cute! [source]
One of Ax's functions throughout the series is to provide extraterrestrial exposition, and here he offers a cosmic perspective on the evil the gang is fighting: “Yeerks are killers of worlds. Murderers of all life. Hated and feared throughout the galaxy. They are a plague that spreads from world to world, leaving nothing but desolation and slavery and misery in their wake.” I guess all good fantasy includes some really chilling incarnation of pure evil.

(Though Taxxons still freak me out the most on a purely visceral level. Human words really can't describe how much I loathe Taxxons.)

Despite a close run-in with our old friend V3, our intrepid heroes live to fight another day, thanks to the intervention of that most beloved of specfic dei ex, the (Space?) Whale. Cassie, who knows that every rock and tree and creature has a life, has a spirit, has a name, is profoundly spiritually moved by her encounter with Free Willy (90s reference!): “even though I don't really know what a soul is, I know this – if humans have them, then so do whales.” Well, I'm convinced.

Moral Quandaries
As our resident animal-lover slash overthinker, Cassie has qualms about morphing that the others haven't considered: “How is doing this any different than what the Yeerks do?” As Rachel points out, morphing's not identical to Yeerk infestation, but it's still controlling another creature, and Cassie is deeply uncomfortably with it. Her conscience is a crucial agitator in the dynamic of the group. These kids are fighting a war. They might be on the side of the angels, but what they are doing is horrible, and they all need Cassie's scruples to keep them aware of their humanity.

In some ways, Cassie has the hardest time of them all, because she has the deepest understanding of the terrible predicament they are in. Resistance as a whole is the moral course, but nearly every individual action goes against Cassie's conscience. Having to temporarily take up the leadership role for which she is in no way suited forces her to wonder, for the first time of many, whether she is a hypocrite.
“You could have been killed. It would have been my fault. This whole mission was my idea. Jake asked me if we should do it and I said yes.” …
“Oh, I get it. You don't like responsibility?”
I winced. Was that it? Was I afraid of taking responsibility? …
“If someone gets hurt. . . killed . . . just because I have these dreams - I can't make that kind of decision.”
“Yes, but can you decide to do nothing? That's a decision, too.”

 Marco, much like Neil Peart, is a smart cookie, and he pushes Cassie when she needs to be pushed. Whenever she is so torn up with moral decision-making that she risks total inaction, he speaks the uncomfortable truths she needs to hear. Well, she needs to hear them from the ruthless perspective of the war needing to be fought, but her goodness as a person will suffer severely. “I had lived my entire life without feeling hatred. It is a sickening feeling. It burns and burns, and sometimes you think it's a fire that will never go out.” MY HEART. Cassie is such a truly good person, and this war is destroying her.

Trans* Moments
In true 90s kid fashion, Tobias is learning to deal with his trauma through the use of humor.
<You know how it is. It's a hawk-eat-mouse world out there.>
I laughed, pleased to hear that Tobias was learning to be at peace with the fact that, at least for a while, he was as much a hawk as he was a boy.
Until Tobias' arc takes another interesting turn, in a number of books' time, he's likely to take a backseat in our analysis of trans* moments to a character even more unusual than he is. Ax is a true fish out of water, a young alien who knows next to nothing about Earth and humanity. He'll live in the woods most of the time, but whenever he needs to be out in public he morphs a human – a composite made up of DNA from all the Animorphs. I'm 85% sure it's canon that all of the Animorphs find human!Ax confusingly attractive (and it is 110% my headcanon), because he's a pretty boy who bears eerie ghosts of resemblance to all of them. “I chose to be-be-be-be-be male,” he says, stuttering over sounds that are fun to make with his unaccustomed mouth, “because I am male.” You and me both, Ax.

Hey, It's 1996! Pop Culture Reference Log
  • Marco's dreams are hilarious. “I've had weird dreams about falling from way up high and when I finally land I'm in Mister Rogers' Neighborhood talking to King Friday.” “I've had weird dreams about that woman on Baywatch.”
  • are we getting some kind of psychic message from the Little Mermaid?”
  • Psychic Friends

  • Well, as you know, we have six dolphins here. Joey, whom you've met, Ross, Monica, Chandler, Phoebe, and Rachel.” AHAHAHAHA.
  • “Didn't you ever see The Hunt for Red October? Great movie.”

Next time: Marco blesses us with his first full-length snarkfest, Ax loses his shit over Cinnabon, and we are dealt a soul-crushing revelation.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Animorphs Revisited: #3 - The Encounter

In which I dispense entirely with the usual format of these posts and instead develop the “hawk!Tobias as trans* metaphor” theme in detail. 
My name is Tobias. A freak of nature. One of a kind.
This book complicates the reading of hawk!Tobias as a trans* person, but in a way I find really personally resonant. I kind of wish I'd reread it back when I was first wrestling with the decision to transition, because I think there's a painful honesty here that would have meant a lot to me. In this children's book. About kids who turn into animals to fight brain-controlling alien slugs. No, really. Transitioning has, I think, made me a better and happier person, but it's painful and difficult: I truly believe it's the best decision I've ever made, but I still wish I didn't have to do it, and I don't like it and I wish it wasn't part of who I am. It's vastly more complicated than those simplistic, outmoded “trapped in the wrong body” narratives suggest. I can't help but have an ambivalent relationship with my transition. After all, on a purely logistical level, my life was easier when I was living as a woman. I didn't have to feel like I was disappointing and hurting everyone who loved me just by existing; I didn't have to stare down bartenders and airport security officials who can see the mismatch between my gender presentation and the name on my ID; I didn't have to despair over medical bills I can't afford (admittedly, that last wouldn't be a problem if I'd stayed in the UK). I have hated my transgender identity and I have hated my trans body. Even though being a man makes me feel fully alive in a way I couldn't have imagined before, I still have days when I wish I could return to the cocoon of denial and live a “normal” life.

Let me clarify upfront that I am not mapping “male/female” directly onto “hawk/human.” Rather, I am suggesting that Tobias' journey toward accepting and making the best of a body that does not adequately reflect who he is, or who he wants to be, can be read as loosely analogous to the process – which begins as you start to really question your gender, and may continue as transition – of learning to live fully in your trans* body, even though that body is not and may never be precisely the way you feel it should be.

Tobias is undergoing the fragmentation of identity that can sometimes happen during the early stages of transition, when you're struggling to reconcile your past self with the self you want to be. He talks about “the human in my head” and “the hawk in me,” refers to them in the third person, and seems to envision them as conflicting entities, neither of which is his true self. It distinctly reminds me of my pre-transition gender struggles, when I was beginning to accept that I couldn't be a woman, but felt as though I somehow hadn't earned the right to consider myself not a woman. It's incoherent, but it's emotionally truthful to my experience.

He has talked in the past about loving the hawk morph, and he certainly still recognizes the practical upsides: Flying, free entry to concerts and sports events, freedom from routine. “There were millions of things I could do as a bird that I couldn't do as a human.” On the other hand, “It's strange the things you miss when you lose your human body. Like showers. Like really sleeping, all the way, totally passed out. Or like knowing what time it is.” There are pros and cons to being both human and hawk, both trivially and in the broadest sense of one's self-conception; but Tobias will never be simply and unambiguously one or the other. In the same way, at this relatively early stage of transition I struggle to feel simply and unambiguously male, just as, before transition, I never felt simply or unambiguously female. (Of course, many trans people do feel their gender simply and unambiguously. I don't completely rule out the possibility that maybe one day I will too, but right now it's still an ongoing battle.) I am a person complicated by a knotty history of maleness and femaleness, which means that I do not fit the societal norm of either and I have had to wrestle with the expectations and experiences of both. Saying “I am and have always been a man trapped in a woman's body” would, I feel, elide the very real experiences that have formed my past and present self. (Though, again, that is how I personally feel. Other trans* people may and do feel differently.)

Just so, saying “Tobias is a boy trapped in the body of a hawk” is an oversimplification that elides the lived realities of what he is going through. And, since – unlike with medical gender transition – there really isn't anything he can do about it, it's not a narrative that helps him come to any useful sense of self-understanding. If he understands himself solely as a human trapped in the body of a hawk, all he can do is hate himself and be miserable. Indeed, he fairly explicitly attempts suicide in the text, at the lowest point of his struggle for self-actualization, but it is his friends who save him.

Friends – community, people who sympathize and are willing to listen, people who can ground you and support you – are, in my estimation, the single most crucial component of any major life event. If you're going through a big change, though, you will have a lot of complicated feelings about the friends you nonetheless rely on. That's okay. It's legitimate to feel those things, and you simply need to process and work through them. Tobias couldn't do without the other Animorphs, but he still feels both envy of their “normalcy” and resentment of their pity. It hurts to be around them, and yet they offer him the support and love he desperately needs. It's painfully relatable.

“I hated the way they all felt sorry for me.”
“I suddenly saw myself as they all must see me: as something frightening. A freak. An accident. A sickening, pitiable creature.”
“'Because what counts is what is in your head and in your heart,' [Rachel] said with sudden passion. 'A person isn't his body. A person isn't what's on the outside.'” (WHAT? NO, OF COURSE I'M NOT CRYING. SHUT UP. YOU'RE CRYING.)

Tobias' dysphoria tilts him toward the twin fears of (i) losing himself and (ii) being forced to be what his body seems to be. If you focus too much on the externals of who you are, do you not risk losing your internal sense of self? But if you deny those physical externals completely, do you not risk living only half a life?
I was Tobias. A human. A human being, not a bird! … I was human. I was a boy named Tobias. A boy with blond hair that was always a mess. A boy with human friends. Human interests.
But part of me kept saying, 'It's a lie. It's a lie. You are the hawk. The hawk is you. And Tobias is dead.'
I'm reminded of a point that Gayle Salamon makes in her essay “Transfeminism and the Future of Gender”: “Transition is framed as if it is akin to a death or as if the post-transition subject will, with hir emergence, enact the death of the pretransition subject.” Salamon rightly critiques this framing for its image of violence committed against the self, when in reality transition is a radical act of self-love and a healing of the psyche rather than the fragmentation thereof. And yet it is an image I have, I admit, found myself using sometimes. Horrible thoughts and terrible feelings are part and parcel of the agonies of self-discovery.
Suddenly I desperately didn't want to be there. I felt an awful, gaping black hole open up all around me. I was sick. Sick with the feeling of being trapped. Trapped. Forever! I looked at my talons. They would never be feet again. I looked at my wing. It would never be an arm. It would never again end in a hand. I would never touch. I would never touch anything . . . anyone . . . again.
Tobias swings to both extremes before being able to find a way to reconcile the different parts of himself. He tries succumbing to the worst, most hopeless agonies of irremediable dysphoria, and he tries denying his inner human entirely and living solely as a hawk. Neither option suffices to fulfill him as a truly actualized self. His redemption lies in his recognition of the analogy of his situation with that of the Yeerk-infested humans, trapped and powerless in bodies they can't escape, and his pledge to strive for their freedom. He may not ever gain freedom for himself, but he can sure as hell fight for the freedom of others.

In its own way, this decision enables him to reach a new, performative self-understanding: <I am a human, yes. But I am also a hawk. I'm a predator who kills for food. And I'm also a human being who. . . who grieves, over death.> “Human” and “hawk” are rough blueprints, not discrete prescriptive categories, and Tobias belongs to both insofar as he is and does them.
I am Tobias. A boy. A hawk. Some strange mix of the two. … Be happy for me, and for all who fly free.

Next time: Cassie goes all Sam Winchester on us, the gang acts out a real live Lisa Frank design, and we meet my most favorite character.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

We The Pharisees

The second dictionary definition for "Pharisee" is:
( lowercase ) a sanctimonious, self-righteous, or hypocritical person.
I've heard a lot of sermons in my time that seem to take that as the primary, if not only, definition. It's a lazy form of Gospel exegesis I've heard in both mainline and evangelical settings: the Pharisees are the Bad Guys, hating on Jesus because he challenges their legalistic, strictly-regimented worldview with his unprecendented message of ~love and grace~. Last week, the Pharisees were scandalized when Jesus broke their needlessly inflexible Sabbath rules, because he just loves so much more and understands God so much better than they do. This week, the Pharisees invited Jesus to dinner solely for the purposes of catching him out, because they're unnerved by his popularity as a demagogue and they're looking for any reason to come down on him like a ton of bricks.

This reading bugs the hell out of me.

For a start, the careless conflation of "Pharisee" (definition 1) with "pharisee" (definition 2) is emblematic of the thoughtless antisemitism that pervades contemporary Christianity. If you think that Jesus had a completely new message of a fuzzy-hugs-and-puppies God that radically contrasts with an angry-and-smiting "Old Testament" God, well, you're not very good at history, Hebrew Bible, or New Testament, and you're casually perpetuating deeply embedded anti-Judaism to boot.

This week in particular, note also that the notion that the dinner invitation was solely a trick to catch Jesus out – a "keep your enemies closer" maneuver – is only one possible reading, and not a very generous one. Luke 14:1 only says that the Pharisees "were watching [Jesus] closely." I have a lot of sympathy with that. If I were dining with Jesus, I would certainly be watching him closely, because – as most people, Christians and non-Christians alike, agree – he is a very interesting person.

Which brings me to my main point. It's kind of an obvious one, but it's not emphasized nearly enough in the church settings I've experienced (perhaps because we Christians tend to be wedded to our mostly-nonsensical persecution complex). It is this:

We are the Pharisees.

We – by which I mean myself and many of my friends: clergy, students of religion, Christian bloggers, pretty much anyone in the US who ascribes to and actively supports the faith that dominates the cultural and political landscape – shouldn't be finding our own faces in Jesus or his disciples or the people he heals when we read the Gospels. When we read stories of Jesus' encounters with religious authorities, we should recognize ourselves as the religious authorities, because we are. We are the ones with doctrine and dogma. We are the ones with strict rules about when and how things must be done (seriously, have you ever seen a congregation's reaction to even minor changes in liturgy? I myself am guilty of losing my shit because one Sunday someone I didn't know sat in my pew). We are the ones who preach the radical love of the Kingdom of God while continuing to participate in and perpetuate indefensibly corrupt and unjust systems. We are the hypocrites.

I think we're reading these stories all wrong. For far too long Christians have been identifying with Jesus and his followers, feeding our self-righteous persecution complex by imagining that our weekly churchgoing somehow challenges power structures and explodes exclusivist dogma. It's demonstrably the other way around.

Reading the Pharisees as ourselves offers a double-edged redemption. First, by sympathizing with the Pharisees, we can begin to redeem them from their ignominious history of being synonymous with cartoonish villainy in casually anti-Jewish Christian discourse. Second, by finding their flaws in ourselves, we can ourselves be censured by Jesus' critiques.

He's been telling us what we're doing wrong for nearly two thousand years. It's about time we listened.