Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Half the Sons Are Actually Daughters

This may not be new information, but I've been marathoning The X-Files since the end of September. I have a lot to say about the show - I mean, of course I do, because I've spent over 100 hours on it in the last three months - and maybe there'll be a long and semi-ridiculous post about it to come. In the meantime, a three-parter I watched just before Christmas gave me some food for thought about storytelling.

The first two parts were balanced between Mulder and Scully pretty evenly, and were no nuttier than the show's usual fare, but the third part kinda lost me. It portrayed Mulder as a Christ figure. There are a lot of qualifying "not really" details for that comparison, but there's no denying that the comparison is there, and in my opinion its hubris is beyond the pale (especially since Duchovny co-wrote it for himself to act). One of the episode's most prominent motifs was that of fathers and sons. This theme has cropped up in the show from time to time, but never in a way that, er, alienated me so deftly.

There was so much weight on Mulder as son, Mulder as father - weight that I just didn't feel on my shoulders. A lifetime of training in the male gaze made me comprehend that this was going on, but none of it applied to me. I am neither a son nor a prospective father, and I never can be.

Maybe this fathers/sons thing was on my mind anyway because I watched the Star Wars trilogy again mid-December, as break and reward for finishing my horrible, horrible final paper for the Faulkner/Morrison class. One of the things that happens when you watch Star Wars is you think about fathers and sons; a decent amount of the emotional heft in Empire and Jedi depends upon the theme. Thankfully, there's enough broad-stroke hero's journey stuff and enough general entertainment going on in the films that you don't have to be male to let Star Wars sweep you up in its arms, but this time around I did really notice that some of that emotional heft was missing its target in me. What a father means to a son, what he signifies, is not very available to me.

source: PaulNRoll on DeviantArt

One of the short stories I read last semester was "Boys", by Rick Moody, which I found of interest for quite a lot of reasons. Among its endeavors, the story suggests that a boy does not, metaphorically, become a man until his father dies. I'm not in a position to agree or disagree with this assessment, because it arises wholly outside of my experience, but it's certainly a common one. I could write a lot about the process of going from girl to woman, but pretty much none of it, in my view, has to do with how alive a daughter's parents are.

I have complicated relationships with both of my parents, and art that relies on daughter themes often speaks to me in the way that I think Star Wars and this arc on The X-Files are meant to speak to sons. But it bothers me that daughter themes are often in art that's directed more specifically at women, or at small audiences, while son themes are so often in art with much wider intended audiences. The two sets of issues are just so different from one another.

My quick free-association reports that son themes are about replacement, mortality, and legacy, and daughter themes are about purity, possession, and similarity-anxiety. (Of note: I rattled off three nouns for sons immediately, just thinking about father/son art, but it took much longer to come up with daughter nouns.) (Also of note: in assembling this post I found this series by a German photographer, Julia Fullerton-Batten, who has communicated many of the weird, free-floating feelings I have around daughterhood through surreal posed pictures. The direct link is SFW, but the artist's website is not.) There's more to it than three words apiece, duh, but no matter how vaguely they are summarized, the relationships are distinct. They cannot be swapped out for each other in a story and maintain resonance.

I mean, does this happen with fathers and sons? And I want to talk about this. For hours

The point of all this is to note, politely, that father/son issues are not as universal as the writers of Star Wars and this arc of The X-Files and Paul Thomas Anderson and John Steinbeck and Cormac McCarthy and oh, my God, so many other writers and creators would apparently like to think. (In fact, I'd argue that they're approximately 49.2% as universal as those creators would apparently like to think.) And I would appreciate feeling a little more included in this kind of art, or at least a little less disconnected from its emotional texture.

I remember a big crop of mother/daughter books coming into print around 2012, and I was glad for it, but I think I'll be waiting a while before a Star Wars appears that's centered around Leia's journey to cope with her mother's absence. Those stories need writing. They need mainstreaming. So let's get on that, mmkay?

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