The Transformative Power of Villainous Cartoons

From a  young age, I’ve loved a good villain. I’ve always been the type to secretly root for the bad guys. Villains seem so larger than life, so much better than the hero or heroine. Villains are more powerful, more driven, more ambitious, and yes, let’s face it, they have more sex appeal. As I grew up, I began to interrogate this larger-than-life appeal of the villain, and I realized the draw had to do as much with the villain’s transformative power as with my own personal likes and wants.

The power of the villain lies in his or her ability to morph our world beyond the norms we see everyday. Villains are transformative in that they exist outside the ordered world of the “good.” They challenge the status quo, they shake up the social order, they turn the binary definitions of good and bad on their heads by injecting just the right amount of chaos and destruction. They shake things up. They present us with fun-house versions of ourselves that show us what we could be like if we were just a little less compliant, a little (or sometimes a lot) less orderly, less “status quo.” That is their power. Villains turn the world on its head as they show us the power of our alternate selves, the selves we try to keep tightly leashed in a world that can be all too predictable and boring.

In other words, what we love in a villain says a lot about what we secretly desire for ourselves. There are plenty of villains who speak – loudly, at times – to my inner bad girl, and help me dream of ways to lose that status quo: Princess Azula of Avatar fame defies her family, and gendered societal norms, to attempt to become Empress, and a powerful Fire Bender in her own right. The Wicked Queen of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty does not fade quietly into old age, but rather uses her wiles to grab and hold an entire kingdom under her literal spell. Characters like these really grabbed my imagination, and helped me think of what kind of alternative models of power might be lurking just beyond the regular “good girls” who seem to populate kid’s cartoons. But none were as appealing as Prince Lotor, the gold standard of evil cartoon royalty.

Everyday after school, as a child of the late eighties, I would rush home, fix a snack, and have barely enough time to plop down in front of the TV, before the faraway planet called Arus beckoned me. This was the home of The Voltron Force, who fought the evil Drule Empire with the help of their robotic lions that transformed into a badass robot named- you guessed it- Voltron.

Voltron was remarkable for a number of reasons. It was one of the first introductions of anime-style cartoons to an American audience, and we kids loved it. The style of drawing was so much more serious-looking than the cutesy art of Pound Puppies or Care Bears. These were cartoons that looked like they were drawn for adults. Furthermore, the subject matter blew our elementary school aged minds. The themes – war, its aftermath, reconstruction, slavery, death, and violence – were far more serious than the other cartoons we usually engaged with. But the real reason I was so drawn to this particular cartoon had to do with the villain, the blue skinned and romantically obsessed crown prince of the Drule Empire, Prince Lotor.

He mesmerized me, from the top of his flowing white hair, to the tips of his sky-blue toes. He was just so edgy, for a girl of the 80’s. He kept a harem of slave girls at his beck and call, and one of the earliest episodes shows him lounging, a goblet of dark red wine at his fingertips, while his harem girls dance and twirl for his pleasure. He cares nothing for them, however, because he is determined to marry the Princess of Arus, who is a talented pilot of the Blue Lion, and a member of the Voltron Force. In other words, he’s an evil guy deeply in love with someone who is morally opposed to him, and this creates an interesting schism in his dark, dark soul.

Lotor tries everything to capture the princess and force her into marriage, from kidnapping to poisoning entire planets. Did this convince me of his evil? Why no, of course not. It just served to underscore how much more powerful the love of a good villain could be. While the Voltron Force saved people’s lives and played with their pet palace mice, Lotor was out scheming to crush entire planets to win the love of his princess. Long before Twilight made stalking chic, Lotor was hiding in coffins and hanging out with witches, to try and bring the princess over to his side. And he never quits trying to convert the moral center of the entire cartoon, the naive Princess Allura, into a more worldly, more hedonistic ruler of the Drule Empire. It seemed to me he was urging her to  be a stronger, more whole person, albeit with a side of evil thrown in.

But what’s a little evil, in comparison with an entire empire? Lotor’s attempts to convert a staunch good girl into someone more worldly and hedonistic struck a deep chord with this sheltered young Southern girl eager to see the world. Through him, I began to explore questions about what might happen if I took a path less traveled, and followed buried instincts rather than established expectations. Even though she ultimately rejected him, I like to think Lotor opened up the princess’s sheltered little world just a smidge, and by extension, for me. For that, he will always be my favorite villain.

“X” is for Xenolinguistics: Favorite Alien Languages

XIn many creation stories, language actually exists prior to the creation of the world. The gods often gift speech before life, and in the Book of Genesis, God uses his own speech to create light. Language is not only central to the human experience, many would argue it actually defines it. That’s why I’m so fascinated with so-called “alien” languages. What if we were lucky enough to actually make contact, how would we communicate? What would our language say about us and theirs about them? I’m not the only person to wonder these things, though. There’s a rich tradition in fiction of so-called “alien” or created languages. Maybe I’m stretching a bit, but I’m defining “alien” as any species other than our contemporary human one. This includes the Elves of Rivendell, and the various aliens of Star Trek. Here is a list of my favorite fictional languages:

Na’Vi from James Cameron’s Avatar

 

Say what you will about the shallow characterization and rampant infantilization of the natives in Jame’s Cameron’s Avatar movie. (Can you tell I’m not actually a fan?) The point is that, production-wise, Cameron poured an insane amount of money and time into developing an alternate universe for this movie. He not only scripted the Na’Vi language, he actually brought in a linguist to help him construct an entire alien lexicon. And it worked. There are Na’Vi enthusiasts right now who not only love to dress up and pretend to be blue psychic aliens, they have embraced the language as well. Supposedly similar to Earth romance languages, Na’Vi is rich and fluid.

Dothraki from Game of Thrones/ A Song of Ice and Fire

 

George R.R. Martin, in his A Song of Ice and Fire book series, created the nomadic horse-herding Dothraki culture. In the books, unfortunately, Martin didn’t really include many words of the Dothraki language, so there wasn’t much to go on when it came time to film the series. So for the HBO television series, experts were hired to turn those few words into a complete lexicon. Dothraki is terse and rough-sounding, often accompanying speech with gestures. Its roughness is a good reflection of the harsh desert from which these people were supposed to have come. (I’m also fond to the Valyrian language, but it isn’t spoken nearly as much.)

Klingon from Star Trek

 

Klingon is one of the most well-known fictional languages. It was created by a linguist to be the language of the warrior Klingon race on the television show Star Trek.  Several books have have been written about the language, and an organization known as the Klingon Language Institute has a quarterly journal dedicated to it. While Klingon does have its own alphabet, the language is usually converted into English. My first exposure to the Klingon language came at a young age, when I saw a Miss Klingon Beauty Pageant for the first time at a convention. While I didn’t understand the words to the song she was screeching, I was still hooked, and have been a Star Trek fan ever since.

Elvish: JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series

 

J.R.R. Tolkien was actually an Oxford linguist, long before he was ever a writer. Tolkien brought an incredibly deep pool of knowledge to language creation, as he had long been a scholar of early and middle English dialects. He began creating his Elvish languages before he started on any of his well-known works, such as The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. There are actually two forms of Elvish commonly learned by fans: Quenya, or high Elvish, and Sindarin, both based loosely on Finnish and Welsh, two languages Tolkien himself studied. And these can be subdivided into different dialects. In addition to the time and effort he put into creating the Elvish languages, he also crafted language for Orcs, Ents, Hobbits, and more. The Lord of the Rings series is probably the most linguistically complicated crated language in the modern world.

 

“N” is for New Orleans: Best of the City

NGumbo. Beignets. Fortunetelling. Jazz. It’s hard to put the affinity I feel for New Orleans into words. There’s no logical explanation for how much I love the place. I’m not from there, and neither is anyone from my family. I can’t even claim ancestry with any of the world powers that have held the city over time. I’m neither French, nor Spanish. And I’m definitely not Creole. So what does a mostly white girl like myself have in common with one of the American South’s greatest cultural meccas? I suspect because it has so much to offer, from music to cuisine to some of the spookiest stories in the world. We go there every chance we get. I even had my wedding in the Garden District. So I thought I’d do a round-up of some of the best New Orleans has to offer, spanning all the things I love about the city.

Best Sandwich: The Muffaletta at Maspero’s Cafe

Located at the edge of the tourist district, near the canal, Maspero’s offers traditional New Orleans fare for an excellent price. I love their French Onion Soup, and like to pare it with half a muffaletta, because I have yet to meet the person who can eat a whole one. It’s larger than a dinner plate, and comes stacked with meats and olives. It’s also a great way to prepare your stomach for all the alcohol you’re about to consume.

Best Haunted House:

Known around the world as the most haunted city in America, New Orleans has much to offer for those who seek a “real” spooky thrill. Although there are a ton of stately residences to choose from that are haunted, some of the most interesting places are hotels. My personal favorite is the Hotel Monteleone, located in the French Quarter. Guests have reported seeing the ghosts of former staff, and even other guests, and sometimes at night you can hear an old-time  jazz singer in some of the middle rooms. The spectres of children who died in a yellow fever epidemic have also been reported. But the architecture is gorgeous, and it has a rotating piano bar, so that’s an all around win for the living and the dead alike.

Best Cocktail:

Although the Hurricane is the signature drink of the city, I feel it comes in behind the classic mint julep as far as authenticity and taste. Made with crushed mint leaves, powdered sugar, and bourbon, it’s a traditional Southern sipping cocktail, best enjoyed on a front porch. They’re also quite good at the landmark bar Pat O’ Brien’s in the French Quarter, which is the birthplace of the Hurricane.

Best Cemetery:

St. Louis Cemetery #1 is located near the canal, and is one of the oldest cemeteries in New Orleans. Built below sea level, cemeteries in New Orleans had to be raised above ground. This gave rise to elaborate tombs and mausoleums rising from the ground and crowded in together until the graves resemble a massive city of the dead. The most famous resident of St. Louis #1 is the woman known as “The Voodoo Queen of New Orleans,” Marie Leveau. Even to this day, people flock to her tomb in order to leave small offerings in return for her blessing. Unfortunately, her grave became so famous as a tourist attraction, that visitors are strongly discouraged from visiting the cemeteries located inside the city alone. Make sure to go with a reputable tour group during the day, because if you’re alone, or it’s night, you may fall victim to the city’s criminal element.

Best Place to Get Your Fortune Told

Jackson Square is a happenin’ place. Located directly across from the World Famous Cafe Du Monde, it often features street musicians, performers, and even a fire eater once. There are small, eclectic shops that have everything from antique toys to elaborate Mardi Gras headdresses. There’s a beautiful cathedral and cobblestone streets that go back to the sixteenth century. But by far my favorite part of this vibrant area are the fortunetellers. There are usually half a dozen to choose from, and most read palms as well as cards. I love talking to them, because they see the underside of the city, and have the best stories. As to whether they actually seeing the future, I honestly can’t say. The stories stand out way more than the predictions.

Best Park:

City Park was the scene of some pretty massive destruction during Hurricane Katrina, but it rebounded into the loveliest bit of green in the Big Easy. There are statues and fountains, ponds, ducks to feed, and an amusement park for small children. Rolling green lawns are shaded by massive live oaks and magnolia trees. It’s a fantastic place to relax in the sun before hitting the Quarter. Best of all, it’s completely free and family-friendly.

Best Open-Air Market:

The French Market has fresh bulbs of garlic the size of my fist. They have amazing produce, local honeys and jams, french breads and pastries, and more. But they also have embroidered dresses and jewelry, and a host of other small pretty things that make excellent impulse purchases you’ll only regret later. It’s the perfect, low key late morning activity to indulge in after a night on the Quarter. (Or hell, it’s N’awlins. Make that afternoon.)

“M” is for Mental Illness: Depictions in Literature

MOur writing tends to reflect the world we live in, and nowhere is this more clear than in the way we depict people with mental illnesses. You can trace evolutions in culture by following the literature of the times. The Victorians, for example,  loved their asylums, where inmates were often treated as curiosities to be studied and experimented on. Have a madwoman in the family? The Victorian answer was to lock her in the attic, or imprison her in her own home. Fast forward through time into the mid twentieth century, and you find books that feature mad or vindictive nurses, mind bending experimental drugs, lobotomies, straight jackets, and so on.

But the later half of the twentieth century began to see improvement in both how mental illness was treated within the larger society, and they ways in which the illness is dealt with in fiction. For starters, memoirs gained in popularity, and this allowed writers to deal with their own illnesses in a confessional, first person style. Advances in diagnosis and treatment were happening, too, and a new sense of hope began to permeate the narrative surrounding what some call “invisible disabilities.” I’m fascinated by these different perspectives, and the ways in which they trace our history through the lens of literature. Here’s a list of the best in writings about madness, from the Victorians on down to today.

DraculaDracula, by Bram Stoker

First published in 1897, Dracula is one of the first novels that recognizes mental illness as an actual illness, rather than something like demon possession or witchcraft. One of the side characters is Renfield, who is locked in an asylum after becoming one of Dracula’s first victims. Renfield is treated as a curiosity by the asylum keeper- as something less than human. But he’s a wonderfully creepy and colorful character. If you don’t quite feel like diving into the whole book, you can catch Tom Waits’ performance as him in the Coppola version of Dracula.

yellowThe Yellow Wallpaper, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Technically a long short story, there is nevertheless plenty of time to develop the theme of madness within its pages. This Victorian tale was so controversial, and supposedly so true to life, that it was repressed, and remained unpublished until the 1960s. The narrator is an unnamed woman who has been put on a “rest cure” by her doctors. This was an actual practice that forced women who were depressed or having other similar issues to be isolated from the rest of the world. They weren’t allowed mental stimulation of any kind, because thinking was considered dangerous to their health. The narrator in The Yellow Wallpaper eventually goes mad from this enforced isolation, and imagines herself trapped behind the hideous yellow wallpaper that covers her room. Eventually she goes completely mad, and can no longer even refer to herself as a person. Even though we don’t know her eventual fate, this is still a great example of Victorian attitudes to women.

nestOne Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, by Ken Kesey

This 1960s classic tells the story of McMurphy, a fun loving and brash free spirit who is put in a mental ward ruled by a mean, vindictive nurse. The novel quickly becomes an all out struggle between the two forces represented by Nurse Ratched and McMurphy- that of authority versus free will. This takes place in what were the beginnings of a modern mental hospital, where patients had (supposedly, anyway) some rights, and there was an attempt at modern medical diagnosis and practices. It’s a great glimpse into the attitudes towards the middle of the last century.

prozacProzac Nation, by Elizabeth Wurtzel

Published in the 1990s, this novel was one of the first to offer a no holds barred take on the very first anti-depressant, Prozac. This novel details the narrator’s troubled history, from suicide attempts to multiple hospitalizations,until drug therapy finally begins working for her. This book is an excellent portrait of what it meant to be alive, young, and depressed at the end of the last century, as we learn details of Wurtzel’s life and times. It’s not all doom and gloom, however, as Wurtzel possesses a wickedly sharp, and often mischievous sense of humor.

“H” is for “Holidays”: Bizarre Things to Celebrate This Spring

HSpring is the perfect time to get out and celebrate. The warmer weather, after months of being cooped up as victims of winter’s tyranny, makes us want to shed some clothes, and get outside. It’s the ideal season to eat fresh and locally grown things, to buy handcrafted items at fairs, and to generally let go a little. Festivals abound, some of them great, and some ridiculous, as the following list attests. If your area doesn’t offer enough to do this spring, here are some silly, and in most cases pretty obscure, reasons to celebrate the coming months:

 

April 11th: Eight Track Tape Day

Who remembers the eight track, with its hard plastic case that was bigger than a smartphone but held only one album, on its thin ribbon of black magnetic tape that broke so very easily? Truthfully, not me, except as an artifact unearthed in a thrift shop or relative’s junk pile. But eight tracks ruled the sixties and seventies, so much so that they have their own day of remembrance. Even though most of us can’t actually play an eight track tape anymore, and wouldn’t want to even if we could, we can still use this day to give a shout out to the old gold of yesteryear. Put on a Steely Dan album, and chill out.

April 27th: National Tell a Story Day

This is a day to celebrate storytelling in all its forms. This is also a favorite day with local libraries, when many have festivals and reading events. Check your local listings for an event near you. Full disclosure: This day is also celebrated in the United Kingdom, but on October 27th. This makes me wonder why these holidays are celebrated six months apart, in two different parts of the world. I bet there’s a story in there somewhere.

 

May 6th: International Tuba Day

I personally love this holiday, and it caught my eye because we have a tuba player in the house. It’s a hard life, lugging a tuba around. The instrument weighs so much, carrying it is more like an endurance sport than a fine art. The holiday was founded by a disgruntled tuba student from Maryland named Joel Day in 1979. Day felt that tuba players got little respect or recognition, and so he founded the holiday to increase awareness. Unfortunately, since none of us have ever heard of this holiday, it seems as if Day failed in his mission. But let’s not let obscurity get in the way of enjoying an underappreciated, but nonetheless awesome, instrument. Go hug a tuba player today. If you can find one.

May 6th: No Diet Day

Now this is a day I can really rally behind. Who doesn’t want some version of a day where you can basically eat what you want? But this particular celebration is more about body positivity. No Diet Day hinges on the belief that we should accept ourselves and the bodies we have today, rather than potentially harming ourselves with drastic diets, pills, and surgeries. Founded by Mary Evans Young in 1992, the movement grew out of Young’s own struggles with anorexia, and years of harmful dieting. She went on to form the British support group Diet Breakers.

 

May 22: World Goth Day

Do you know a Goth? Is there someone in your life who loves gloominess, wears lots of black, and listens to mopey music? You should use this day to run up to them and hug them. Besides being sure to piss them off, this will show your solidarity for the Goths of the world. The founding of this holiday can be traced back to late 90s Great Britain, which is credited with having a thriving Goth scene at the time.

 

(F) Fictional Feasts

FMy favorite book feasts immediately sprang to mind when thinking about the letter F. Nothing quite engages the senses like a grand meal. I’ve often felt food was a good gauge of how descriptive a writer can be. It seems easier, somehow, to be descriptive when writing about, say, a rose. But food scenes have so many layers of nuance. There are the many senses involved, of course, like taste, sight, smell, and so on. But more importantly, food remains at the center of the human experience. The very best fictional feasts feed not only people’s literal appetites, but their desire for connection to other humans, as well.

What surprised me the most, while compiling this list, was that children’s books often contain the most vivid descriptions of food. From the chocolate centric Willy Wonka to the Great Hall at Hogwarts, children’s literature seemed to contain the most vivid passages related to food. Perhaps this answers the age old question of whether candy really did taste better when we were children. Four out of five passages are from the children’s or YA categories, and only poor Melville made it on to the list, for the adults. But then, he did devote an entire chapter to clam chowder.


charlieFrom Charlie and the Chocolate Factory:

“‘The waterfall is most important !’ Mr Wonka went on. ‘It mixes the chocolate! It churns it up! It pounds it and beats it! It makes it light and frothy! No other factory in the world mixes its chocolate by waterfall! But it’s the only way to do it properly! The only way! ‘

 

harryFrom Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone:

“Harry’s mouth fell open. The dishes in front of him were now piled with food. He had never seen so many things he liked to eat on one table: roast beef, roast chicken, pork chops and lamb chops, sausages, bacon and steak, boiled potatoes, roast potatoes, chips, Yorkshire pudding, peas, carrots, gravy, ketchup and, for some strange reason, mint humbugs.”

But let’s not forget about dessert. :

“When everyone had eaten as much as they could, the remains of the food faded from the plates, leaving them sparkling clean as before. A moment later the puddings appeared. Blocks of ice-cream in every flavour you could think of, apple pies, treacle tarts, chocolate éclairs and jam doughnuts, trifle, strawberries, jelly, rice pudding… As Harry helped himself to a treacle tart, the talk turned to their families.”

narniaFrom The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe:

“The Queen let another drop fall from her bottle on to the snow, and instantly there appeared a round box, tied with green silk ribbon, which, when opened, turned out to contain several pounds of the best Turkish Delight. Each piece was sweet and light to the very centre and Edmund had never tasted anything more delicious. He was quite warm now, and very comfortable.

While he was eating, the Queen kept asking him questions. At first Edmund tried to remember that it is rude to speak with one’s mouth full, but soon he forgot about this and thought only of trying to shovel down as much Turkish Delight as he could, and the more he ate the more he wanted to eat, and he never asked himself why the Queen should be so inquisitive.”

mobyFrom Moby Dick:

“But when that smoking chowder came in, the mystery was delightfully explained. Oh! sweet friends, hearken to me. It was made of small juicy clams, scarcely bigger than hazel nuts, mixed with pounded ship biscuits and salted pork cut up into little flakes! the whole enriched with butter, and plentifully seasoned with pepper and salt…..we dispatched it with great expedition.”