Sunday, November 9, 2014

“It turned into a pig”: Who Cares If They're Only Kids!

Kids are horrible.

One lingering consequence, among many, of the damagingly retrograde social norms of the Victorian age has been an idealization and objectification of children. Drawing on sources as seemingly disparate as the scripture of the New Testament and Rosseau's notions of the blank slate and social contract, the Victorians reconceptualized childhood (some would say invented and defined it) as a time when human beings are inherently good and innocent, free from the poisonous influence of cynical adult society. What this does, of course, is only facilitate the oppression of children and the removal of their agency, because “The Children” in the monolithic general must be looked after, sheltered and protected. It's another manifestation of what Lee Edleman calls reproductive futurism, an oppressive ideology where one is shamed out of political agency out of respect for idealized future children.

This project itself is not immune to this reading. I've several times used the word “childlike wonder”, though not in ignorance of what I was saying, I might add, and I certainly do have a fixation on children's literature and people who place heavy emphasis on children's perspectives, such as Steven Spielberg and Hayao Miyazaki. But when I use phrases such as “childlike wonder”, I try to do so with the conceit that such a state of mind would really just be a variety of idealism and cosmic wonder that might come more easily to children than to distracted adults. And the very best children's literature, in my view, does the exact opposite of sheltering children and forcing them to remain apolitical: It listens to them and gives them an outlet to form their voices and positionalities, and in doing so it helps them grow into better people. That need for respect and dignity in narrative is not limited to children, even if it's the sort of thing that, for whatever reason, is thought of as strange to afford anyone but children.

Youth and maturity come in different forms and have many different meanings and contextual associations. As I've argued before, I'm of the opinion a perspective to strive for in life is a delicate mixture of the two elements: Youthful energy, spirit, drive and idealism with experience, maturity and wisdom. Star Trek: The Next Generation seems to be shaping up to be this sort of thing with the restless, yet worldly, sense of adventure that permeates the show's worldview. And this is what Kei and Yuri, our evergreen seishun heroines, stand for as well. But here also I'd like to draw a distinction between childlike and childish: This is what the girls are up against in this episode, and they make it perfectly clear their intent is to dispel any outdated myths about the intrinsic goodness of children. Obviously, Kei and Yuri would be against reproductive futurism: Their affinity with Missinie in Affair of Nolandia notwithstanding, kids have not been especially kind to the Lovely Angels over the years, and the implicit shaming that accompanies reproductive futurism is something that affects women in particular. Yuri even gets a scene here reiterating that she “hate[s] kids”, while Kei is almost shockingly derisive of them all throughout the episode, once even referring to their adversaries as “animals wearing the skins of children”.

Not that Kei and Yuri are out of line to make these statements, of course. These kids are properly awful, taking over a top-secret military installation in charge of developing a weapon with the suitably frightening moniker of “dimensional vibrator” that can supposedly destroy the universe (I wonder if this is where the writers for Godzilla vs. Megaguirus got the idea for the Dimension Tide cannon that shoots black holes) and starting a war just for kicks. They're utter psychopaths, freely and openly torturing any adult who tries to stop them and wantonly firing off guns left and right at anything that moves simply because its fun. Anyone who's experienced bullying, been through the Western educational Panopticon or really just socialized with people their own age while growing up can likely sympathize with the Angels' plight here.

Kids...OK, let's cut the pretense here, boys, are by nature selfish, and lack the experience living in social structures necessary to curtail their antisocial predilections. Thanks to being born into patriarchy, girls are far more tuned to the existence of oppressive social mores and power structures from a very young age, while boys grow up quite literally thinking they can get away with anything because they're entitled to everything. I tend to wonder if little boys are inherently destructive, if they possess an innate fascination with breaking things. If so, many of them never seem to grow out of it. Which is another thing this episode touches on, because it's just as much about supposedly “grown” men and the thoughtless risks they take as it is about little boys, because the same power structure enables and fosters selfish egotism and destructive attitudes in both of them.

There's a very clear and firm critique of a certain kind of militarism here: As much as the boys' brazen act is shown to be the result of childish foolishness, it's also shown to be very much in keeping with a disturbingly common sort of macho warmongering bravado. It's an old joke that the military is really just run by a bunch of overgrown boys and that military technology is just designed to explode things in the most lurid, spectacular and “badass” way imaginable, but there is some truth to that: The United States military, or at least the contemporary United States military, intentionally recruits teenage boys because that's the age group statistically most likely to act as rashly, aggressively and impulsively as possible and they make the best sort of ground troops in the modern army. Certainly, the dimensional vibrator is not the kind of thing someone would come up with in a sane or cogent mindset, and this is something Original Dirty Pair wants us to think about.

Because the kicker is that the boys' “war games” are simply a manifestation of the capriciousness and lack of human compassion exhibited by the military itself, and this episode in truth pushes Dirty Pair properly close to Paul Schneider territory. Actually, it does him one better, because while Schneider did a lot of hand-wringing about boys playing war (most notably in “The Squire of Gothos”), he never managed to deliver a cohesive critique of militarism besides vague antiwar generalizations. Dirty Pair rises to the challenge, and gives one of the most mature, nuanced and gravely serious explorations of the motif I've ever seen. This episode is a veritable generator of memorable quotes, and one of the best is Kei's grim declaration that “only children make a game out of war”, a sentiment that cuts in both direction. It hits the boys, obviously, but it's also aimed at the military, who leap at the chance to roll out all their platoon squads and all their most heavily armed vehicles to use lethal force against a bunch of kids. Indeed, the episode's subtitle is “Wargamers face the firing squad”, which isn't just a metaphor for rounding up the out of control kids or condeming those who play war, it's literally a thing that happens in the episode's climax.

Kei and Yuri's response, after they get over the initial exasperation at being sent after a bunch of children and the ensuing abject shock and horror at what the military intends to do to them, is to, once again in Kei's words, “show” everyone “how to fight”: Kei and Yuri aren't just shamans here, they're warrior shamans, and this means they represent values of honour, respect and dignity. They bring a reverence and ceremony to combat, which is something everyone else in the story lacks, and they bring this all back to the story's fine-crafted feminism by equating hedonistic militarism with an abandonment of manhood. Kei openly challenges the leader of the boys to face her in honest combat if he thinks he's a man (an act she's perfectly willing to make a heroic sacrifice if need be, as the boy naturally gets himself a power loader so he can unfairly outmatch her), and then chastises anyone who “doesn't listen when a woman puts her body on the line” for being less than men. Yes, Dirty Pair is now saying patriarchy degrades the concept of masculinity.

There are so many ways this could have gone wrong, and the narrative explicitly does not fall prey to any of them. Kei and Yuri do not prescribe an ideal template for what a man should be, that's not their job, but they do point out that the culture and power systems that exist now are inherently toxic, hypocritical and dishonourable and must not stand any longer. I mean, if there was any doubt about this series' feminist street cred, this ought to put any of that to rest at last, shouldn't it? And what's even better is the label the girls give themselves: They explicitly refer to each other as Oneesan, which means older sister, but is an extremely formal, honourific term used to convey a considerable amount of respect. The Lovely Angels identifying as older siblings is both an extremely important symbolic shift for the series but also one that's particularly meaningful to me: Of course, they couldn't be parental figures-They're too disconnected and restless to be that, and the episode even calls attention this by having them angered that the boys' parents aren't taking responsibility for their children and hoisting the problem onto them. I don't know how many of you grew up with younger siblings, but this is a sentiment that hit rather close to home for me.

But the fact older sisters are manifestly not mothers has an even deeper resonance: Older sisters like Kei and Yuri are a firm rejection of heterenormativity and reproductive futurism: They're grown women whose lives are their own and are not defined by domesticity, nor are they authority figures like parents are (also note how the boys throw out the most horrific, unfiltered misogynistic bile at Kei and Yuri all throughout the episode. Like I said, boys are horrid, and very few of them grow out of it). But older sisters can also be an inspiration and a role model to their younger siblings, being old enough to have experience and wisdom they don't, but not old enough such that it would preclude kids from being able to relate to them. The Cool Big Sis archetypes is an important and powerful one, and as an older sibling myself, the responsibility we have has always been something I've been cognizant of. Even when I was an only child, I had older sibling figures I looked up to and deeply admired and who had a profound impact on shaping the person I grew up to become. Because this is something I've always been aware of, I view elder siblings as being in the best position to demonstrate ideals of material social progress.

Which is, of course, what Kei and Yuri are, and what they do. They're everyone's Cool Big Sisters, and that's just another manifestation of the divine Glorified Body ideal states they represent. And this is why perhaps their most revolutionary and revealing act here is to simply walk away. They show the boys, the military, Gooley and everyone else how one can posses a warrior spirit and solve conflicts nonviolently, but they make it very clear the world of patriarchal militarism and heteronormative reproductive futurism is manifestly not one they wish to be a part of. Would that we all shared their freedom to fly away. They warp off saddened at how the boys' dysfunctional childhood will scar them for life and how they'll go on to run the planet themselves someday, thus starting the destructive cycle anew. As Kei tells Yuri at the denouement, and as Yuri echoes back to her in the episode's closing moments while a gentle rendition of “Aki kara no Summertime” plays them both out, “Compared to those boys, you're lucky to be with a caring person like me”.

1 comment:

  1. Hey Josh, great essay again and I did love this episode and it's themes of challenging the child-boy led militaristic structures.

    I'm an older sibling myself, with a younger brother and sister, and I would agree that I felt an ongoing sense of responsibility. I have to admit that I've not taken it on in a too serious way, as I aimed to remain as creative, fun and real and as vibrant as possible with regards to my path through life. I suppose really then not letting go of the childlike sense of wonder that you describe above. That's always been important to me.

    As far as "Kids are horrible" goes - my partner works at a nursery, and some of the stories about the behaviour of the children and what they attempt to do to each other that she comes home with are pretty outrageous - and that does not always refer to those of an early years age, but to the adult staff! She has had some awful experiences in nurseries where she was actually bullied by senior staff in front of children - so no wonder we see the inherited behaviour such as happens in this story.