Aladdin & Orientalism

Like many people, I don’t always respond in the best way when my favorite childhood stories are called out as problematic. So, even though I’d heard the Disney film Aladdin described as “Orientalist” many times, until learning about the concept of Orientalism in a more in-depth manner, I refused to believe it. “So what if Aladdin over-romanticizes the medieval Middle East?” I thought. “Disney movies romanticize whatever place they’re set in, that’s kind of the point. It’s fantasy. Plenty of their films romanticize medieval Europe.” However, after watching Edward Said’s talk and reading the summary and excerpts of his writing, I now realize how wrong I was. Orientalism is about so much more than just romanticizing a region of the world (although that is part of it), and Aladdin is guilty of many of its worst aspects. 

*By the way, I’m talking about the 1992 animated version of Aladdin in this post, not the 2019 live-action version. I’ve never seen the live-action version, though I have heard it’s problematic in plenty of the same as well as in new ways.*

According to “An Introduction to Edward Said, Orientalism, and Postcolonial Literary Studies” by Professor Amardeep Singh, “The stereotypes assigned to Oriental cultures and ‘Orientals’ as individuals are pretty specific: Orientals are despotic and clannish. They are despotic when placed in positions of power, and sly and obsequious when in subservient positions. Orientals, so the stereotype goes, are impossible to trust. They are capable of sophisticated abstractions, but not of concrete, practical organization or rigorous, detail-oriented analysis. Their men are sexually incontinent, while their women are locked up behind bars.” Unfortunately, many of the characters of Aladdin fit these stereotypes to a tee.

Take the movie’s villain, Jafar. Jafar is certainly “despotic” and power-obsessed in his position of power as the vizier. However, he also is “sly and obsequious” when he tries to win the favor of the king, the only person in the kingdom with more power than him, and is “sexually incontinent” when he tries to force Princess Jasmine to marry him and makes some really gross advances on her. 

Speaking of Princess Jasmine, if Aladdin was believed to be an accurate depiction of the Arab world, it would be true that “their women are locked up behind bars.” Jasmine, the only female character in the film, is imprisoned in the gilded cage of her palace by her father, who is also trying to force her into an arranged marriage (supposedly, her bedroom was actually designed to evoke the look of a birdcage). Showing that Middle Eastern cultures oppress women is another flavor of orientalism, another way to paint them as “backwards” compared to a “progressive” West that values women’s rights. Jasmine’s father himself is childlike in disposition and an incompetent ruler, infantilizing him in a way often done to people of color (especially those who live in places that White people want to colonize) to show how they cannot take care of themselves without White rulers. As Said said, Orientalism and imperialism rest on the idea that, “you’re not just robbing the people of their ivory and slaves and so on. You are improving them in some way.” Jasmine’s father, the sultan (as well as the psychopathic Jafar for that matter), is meant to depict how badly “Orientals” rule themselves when left to their own devices and why they therefore need to be colonized. 

Central to Orientalism is its purpose–to justify the subjugation and exploitation of African and Asian peoples for Western profit. As Said wrote, “Orientalism, therefore, is not an airy European fantasy about the Orient, but a created body of theory and practice in which, for many generations, there has been a considerable material investment.” Aladdin, as a piece of Orientalist media, is no exception to this goal. I found a couple very interesting articles suggesting that Aladdin vilifies Middle Eastern culture by making the goals that the “good guys” strive for (for example, marriage for love rather than royal duty in Jasmine’s case) correspond with what Western culture values as well as giving them a more White/Western-associated appearance and manner of speaking than the “bad guys” have (for example, the Genie makes jokes about American pop culture). By doing these things, especially the former, it sets up Western ideals as superior and therefore provides a justification for why the United States should try to enforce these ideals in the Middle East and on Arab and Muslim people in general. This served as fuel for the fire of American Islamophobia that had its roots in the early 20th century and was not becoming any less vicious in the years leading up to and following Aladdin’s 1992 release. The effects of anti-Muslim and anti-Arab sentiment in the United States are very real, and have shaped everything from foreign policy to immigration policy to the daily lives of Arabs and Muslims living in the United States. Whether intentionally or not, media such as Aladdin continues to perpetuate Orientalism and therefore shapes how the West sees itself as superior to the East. 

A Bird’s-Eye View

The personal is political.

Second-wave feminist slogan

In AP Literature Class, we’ve talked a lot about power, including massive power structures such as race, class, and gender. However, I know that for me, sometimes these concepts can become very abstract. I don’t always connect our talk of these issues with the real world, because in my everyday life, power structures have always just surrounded me, as seemingly natural as the air I breathe. I am desensitized to them, and I have no way of seeing the extent to which they actually shape my life. That is, until, every once in a while, a really good piece of literature makes me zoom out and gives me a bird’s eye view of life with which I am able to realize how much large-scale power structures do impact individual lives. In my opinion, The God of Small Things might do this the best of any book we’ve read this year. 

The God of Small Things deals not merely with power dynamics, but it makes clear their consequences in a very poignant way. By juxtaposing the characters’ personal power struggles with their power struggles on a systemic level, it shows how large-scale power structures can have deeply personal impacts. 

One quote that I believe shows this very strikingly is on page 101. It consists of Estha’s thoughts as he has just come back into the auditorium after being molested by the Orangedrink Lemondrink Man and is watching the Sound of Music. He wonders if one of the characters from the film, Baron von Trapp, would be able to love him and Rahel and be a father to them, and imagines that Baron von Trapp has the following questions that Estha and Rahel must answer before he can decide.

(a) Are they clean white children?

No. (But Sophie Mol is.)

(b) Do they blow spit bubbles?

Yes. (But Sophie Mol doesn’t.)

(c) Do they shiver their legs? Like clerks?

Yes. (But Sophie Mol doesn’t.)

(d) Have they, either or both, ever held strangers’ soo-soos?

N… Nyes. (But Sophie Mol hasn’t.)

“Then I’m sorry,” Baron von Clapp-Trapp said. “It’s out of the question. I cannot love them. I cannot be their Baba. Oh no.” 

To me, this quote is particularly heartbreaking because it highlights so many of Estha and Rahel’s vulnerabilities and insecurities due to both the state of their personal lives and their status in society. 

First of all, their desire for Baron von Trapp to be a father to them shows their yearning for a father figure in their lives because of the absence of their own father. While this is personal to them, it is also connected to the political because the reason their parents divorced was because their father was abusive, and the reason Ammu even got into a relationship with an abusive man in the first place was because she was desperate to escape from her own abusive father and was not allowed a college education because she was a girl, so she had few options other than marriage (38-39). Therefore, Estha and Rahel’s lack of a father, while it is very personal, is also connected to issues of women’s rights and feminism. Likewise, Baron von Trapp’s questions about whether Estha and Rahel blow spit bubbles and shiver their legs also shows how their relationship with Ammu can be tense because they sometimes remind her of their father (especially when they blow spit bubbles an shiver their legs) (80), and therefore how the effects of something as large as sexism can be felt even in a deeply personal sphere.

Another way Roy blends the personal and political nature of Estha and Rahel’s insecurities in this quote is the mention of all the ways Sophie Mol meets Baron von Trapp’s standards while Estha and Rahel don’t. Estha and Rahel are acutely aware of how much their family adores Sophie Mol, and this not only sparks in them children’s natural jealousy at another child seeming more loved by their family than they are (if any of you have little siblings, you might have felt this when they were born), but also a sense of inferiority based on a WHITE/person of color and WEST/east power dynamic. Estha and Rahel are cognizant of the fact that Sophie Mol is so beloved by their family not only because eight-year-olds are cute and it’s always fun to see a family member who you haven’t seen in a long time, but also because the fact that Sophie Mol is white-passing and British makes her somehow extra special and superior. Thus, once again, Roy shows how large-scale systems of power such as racism influence things as intimate as family dynamics and children’s’ self-esteem. 

But for me, the word that blends the deeply personal and the political the most strikingly is the word “clean.” 

(a) Are they clean white children?

No. (But Sophie Mol is.)


The idea of Estha and Rahel not being as “clean” as Sophie Mol and the white children in The Sound of Music is a really loaded concept in this passage in so many ways. On one level, it reflects racism, as people with darker skin have often been seen throughout history as less “clean” than people with lighter skin, particularly in the West and countries that have been subject to Western colonialism. However, it also relates to Estha’s experience of abuse, as it is not unusual for survivors of sexual abuse to feel they have been made “dirty” somehow by their abusers if they have not yet been able to come to terms with what happened to them. So, as Estha sits watching The Sound of Music, he feels doubly “dirty” both because of what happened to him on an individual level and because of what society tells him about who he is. To me, Roy’s multilayered use of the word “clean” and her repetition of it throughout the chapter is a perfect example of how the lines between personal struggles and political struggles can become very blurry for marginalized people and how each type of struggle can have an impact that is extremely profound.

Obsessions

Obsessions” is the debut single of singer-songwriter Marina Diamandis, formerly known by the stage name Marina and the Diamonds and currently known by the stage name MARINA. It also appears on her debut album, The Family Jewels. In the song, a speaker, who seems to suffer symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), compares the impact a toxic romantic partner has on her life to the impact her own disordered thoughts have on it. By keeping the line between the demands of the speaker’s partner and the demands of the speaker’s own obsessive thoughts ambiguous through various literary techniques such as shifting point of view and diction with multiple connotations, the song explores how an unstable mental state and an unstable romantic relationship can feed into each other. 

The song begins by setting the occasion: the speaker waking up in the morning after a night spent with a romantic partner. The singing is soft, slow, and deceptively gentle as the speaker describes the moment: “Sunday, wake up, give me a cigarette/Last night’s love affair is looking vulnerable in my bed/Silk sheet, blue dawn, Colgate, tongue warm.” However, it quickly slips into a much more rapid tempo as Diamandis drops the pitch of her voice significantly, as if to imitate a male one, and sings, “Won’t you quit your crying? I can’t sleep.” In this line, the point of view of the song seems to shift briefly to that of the original speaker’s male partner and the occasion seems to flash back to the previous night, as the original speaker is crying and her angry partner displays no sympathy. While some of the prior lyrics hinted at the issues to come later in the song, this line is the first one in which the audience realizes that the relationship in the song is one characterized by conflict and unhappiness. This becomes absolutely clear in the next line, which is back in Diamandis’ normal voice, the voice of the original and primary speaker: “One minute I’m a little sweetheart/And next minute you are an absolute creep.”

In the next verse (I’ll come back to the chorus later), with the toxic, hot-and-cold nature of the relationship established, the song begins to explore the mental instability of the speaker. With an increasingly frenzied pace and repetition of harsh consonant sounds, the song describes the speaker going to a grocery store and being unable to pick out a box of crackers because she is so paranoid that there might be something wrong with one of them:

Supermarket, oh what packet of crackers to pick?

They’re all the same, one brand, one name, but really they’re not

Look, look, just choose something quick

People are staring, time ticker-quicking

Skin is on fire; just choose something, something, something

In this verse, the panic of the speaker is conveyed through the repetition of harsh consonant sounds, especially the “k” sound (as in supermarket, packet, crackers, pick, look, quick, ticker-quicking, skin). These sounds heighten tension by being so abrupt, almost evoking through their sharp yet gutteral sound the noise of somebody choking, as if the speaker is struggling to breathe smoothly. Words are repeated as well (particularly “look” and “something”), intensifying the sense of the speaker being “stuck” and unable to move on enough to even find new words, let alone take action and choose a box of crackers. This verse poignantly conveys the extent to which the speaker is debilitated by irrational and anxious thoughts.

Once the audience is aware of the two main conflicts in the song, the unhealthy romantic relationship and the speaker’s unstable mental state, it becomes clear how these issues play into each other. One way in which the song demonstrates this is through multilayered diction. For example, there is a great deal of diction that connotes common symptoms of OCD, such as a fear of germs and contamination. This diction is often used in reference to the speaker’s romantic partner, giving the impression that the speaker’s partner is the source of many of her intrusive, unpleasant thoughts. In the first chorus, the speaker says, “I want to wipe out all the sad ideas/That come to me when I am holding you.” The word “wipe” connotes cleaning. Excessive cleaning can be a compulsion for some people with OCD, who may use it to ease negative, fearful thoughts about germs or disease that will not go away. However, the speaker in this song wishes to ease the negative thoughts that are a direct result of her relationship (they appear when, as she says, “I am holding you”–when she is physical contact with her partner). The speaker also uses diction that evokes bugs, germs and disease when referring to her partner, such as “creep,” “sick,” and “weak.” It is almost as if she obsessively fears her partner the way certain people with OCD might obsessively fear germs. 

Diction is not the only tool used to show the link between the speaker’s romantic relationship and her mental state. The song also uses imagery and contrast, particularly in the line, “Silk sheet, blue dawn, Colgate, tongue warm.“ In this line, the cool, clean feelings evoked by the beginning section (“silk sheet, blue dawn, Colgate”) contrasts with the squidgy tactile imagery evoked by “tongue warm.” It is as if the crisp cleanness of the beginning of the line is ruined by a messy, human aspect, as symbolized by an actual human body part. Interestingly, it is unclear whether the speaker is referring to the feeling of her own tongue or her partner’s (don’t worry, I’m not going to get too graphic here). It could be either her own issues or the presence of her partner that ruins her desired cleanness and perfection. 

This is not the only instance in which the speaker leaves it unclear which of her issues stem from her relationship and which are entirely her own. She also uses diction that connotes germs and illness when referring to her own thoughts without mentioning her partner, such as when she says, “I want to erase every nasty thought/That bugs me every day of every week.” In this line, she admits that her thoughts are “nasty” and “bug” her. These words connote contamination of sorts (germs are gross and “nasty” and can also be referred to as “bugs,” as in a “stomach bug”). However, the speaker does not specify what sort of “nasty” thoughts she is having, only that they bother her and she feels she cannot get away from them (as is made especially obvious by repetition of the word “every”). It is unclear whether or not these thoughts have anything to do with her partner. Likewise, it is unclear whether the speaker’s breakdown in the grocery store in the second verse has anything to do with pressure being put on her by her partner or simply her own issues, as it is ambiguous whether lines such as “Look, look, just choose something quick/People are staring…” are spoken by the primary speaker to herself or her partner to her. 

Another way the song uses ambiguity is the fact that the speaker leaves it unclear which party in the relationship–herself or her partner–is more troubled. In the first chorus, she says, “We’ve got obsessions/All you ever think about are sick ideas/Involving me, involving you.” By using the first person plural, the speaker shows that both herself and her partner suffer from upsetting, inescapable thoughts. When she says, “All you ever think about are sick ideas/Involving me, involving you,” she hints that her partner (“you”) may suffer symptoms of OCD as well, particularly constant intrusive thoughts with disturbing sexual or violent content. However, another way this line could be interpreted is the speaker is fearful that her partner will harm her in some way, an interpretation supported by when she calls him a “creep” earlier in the song. 

One final set of lines that heightens the ambiguity of the song is when the speaker says, “Can’t let your cold heart be free/When you act like you’ve got an OCD.” In this line, it is unclear whether she is talking to herself or to her partner, as both of them seem to have issues letting go of control and letting their hearts be “free.” However, it interests me that she says whoever she is speaking to acts “like they have an OCD,” suggesting they do not actually suffer from OCD, they merely act like they do. This could be interpreted to mean that the people in the song would be mentally healthy if not for the toxic relationship they are in. However, it is also true that there are a wide range of mental disorders and even non-disordered patterns of thinking that share some similarities to aspects of OCD, and the fact that the speaker and her partner have obsessive thoughts does not mean they have actual OCD. So they might have issues completely outside of the relationship as well, just not clinically diagnosed OCD. 

Overall, it is clear that the primary speaker in the song has mental health issues of her own, but it is also clear that her relationship is an unhappy one. The song keeps it purposefully ambiguous the extent to which the relationship is exacerbating her issues and the extent to which her poor mental health is harming her relationship. I believe this is on purpose, as these lines are not always so clear in real life either. Our relationships, if toxic, can hurt us, but our own personal issues can also contribute to the toxicity of those relationships.

A Musical Theater Nerd’s Guide to Beloved

*This post includes a spoiler for the musical Next to Normal. And also for Beloved, but my guess is that part won’t be a problem for the majority of this blog’s readers.*

I love musicals. So when Mr. Heidkamp suggested that we blog about an addition to the Beloved soundtrack, a couple of show tunes immediately popped into my head, even though the musicals they are from have pretty different stories from Beloved. I wanted to share them in hopes they make the soundtrack, so here goes:

  1. I’m Alive” from Next to Normal

While, in my personal opinion, the lyrics of this song fall somewhat short of Toni’s Morrison’s signature originality, I feel like it has to be part of the Beloved soundtrack because it is just so on the nose. It is sung by the son of the main character, who died as a baby and now returns to “haunt” the main character in the form of her hallucinating that she sees his teenage self. (I told you it was on the nose!) Like Beloved, Next to Normal explores a mother’s grief at losing a child and how it contributes to mental illness in her life. Gabe, the main character’s son and the character who sings this song, wants to pull his mother back into the past and prevent her from moving on and confronting the reality of her present, much like Beloved does with Sethe. 

To me, some really key lyrics of the song are when Gabe sings, “I’m your wish, your dream come true/And I am your darkest nightmare too.” He also asserts that he is both, “what you want me to be” and “your worst fear” and that he will both “hurt” and “heal” his mother. Like Beloved, he represents the past as both a place of comfort that people can be nostalgic for (because it was a time when a lost loved one was alive) and a place of horrors and trauma (in Next to Normal, because of Gabe’s tragic, premature death; in Beloved, not only because of Beloved’s tragic, premature death but also the many other horrors Sethe faced). And although this strange dichotomy exists, it is also true that part of what makes the past so dangerous to dwell on is how good parts of it were– that is the seductive part that keeps people from moving on, recovering, and getting to a better present. 

  1. Mama Who Bore Me” from Spring Awakening

This song deals with a young woman’s resentment toward her mother because her mother shelters her and wants to keep her a “baby” forever rather than allow her to learn about the harsh reality of the world. While I have never actually seen Spring Awakening, and so don’t entirely know the young woman’s mother’s motivation for sheltering her daughter, this song reminds me of how Sethe wants to protect her children from everything. Not only does Sethe attempt to kill all of her children to prevent them from being enslaved, but before the reader even finds out about that, she is shown keeping Denver inside 124 and treating her like she is much younger than she actually is, much to Paul D’s frustration. As Sethe says on page 54, “‘I don’t care what she is. Grown don’t mean nothing to a mother. A child is a child. They get bigger, older, but grown? What’s that supposed to mean? In my heart it don’t mean a thing.’” (54) I find “Mama Who Bore Me” a really beautiful song, and think its general theme, as well as its use of motifs that also show up in Beloved (such as sleep, religion, and fire), would fit the Beloved soundtrack very well. 

One other thing that is interesting about this song that also reminds me of Beloved is that the character who sings it at first sings that her mother made her “sad” and then later sings that her mother made her “bad.” I feel like this relates to how the pain and suffering that Beloved experienced (for example, on pages 248-252, when she recounts being on what seems to be a slave ship and being abandoned by the one person she loves and feels like is “herself”) is what causes her to become a toxic person who drags other people down. Beloved is not just a “devil-child” who derives pleasure from doing evil, but rather a character who is so deeply sad and broken that she cannot help but poison everyone around her with the sadness and brokenness that seeps out of her through her behaviors (such as clinging to Sethe and not permitting her to take care of herself in any way). She is “bad” because she is “sad.” I think this holds true whether she is merely a ghost of Sethe’s daughter or a personification of past sadness.

Where in the World Are Nadia and Saeed?

When I began to read Exit West, I wondered about the setting of the book, as it is never stated. It clearly is our world, or at least an alternate version of it, because there are references to places such as Australia, Japan, and the United States. However, the city that the two main characters, Nadia and Saeed, call home is never named, nor is their country or even general region of the world. Although it is never specified what religion the characters practice or what is predominant where they live, as I read I began to assume they live in a majority-Muslim area, primarily because their names can be Arabic in origin and because they reference evening prayers and Friday religious services (someone please correct me if I’m wrong, because I’m not Muslim, but I believe traditionally Muslims pray multiple times per day and observe the sabbath on Fridays). However, I wondered why the author, Mohsin Hamid, chose not to specify what place that might be. Obviously, it was a very deliberate choice and a very noticeable one. 

In a video we watched in class, Hamid mentioned that Nadia and Saeed’s city is based off his home city of Lahore, Pakistan, but that the situation that is occurring there is more based on the situations occurring in certain places in Syria, such as Aleppo. This made me wonder why he didn’t just set the book in Aleppo. It does not seem like it would cause any major plot issues if he adjusted the events in the book to be historically accurate to what has been occurring there over the past few years. However, this may just be my ignorance; it is possible that things have occurred in Aleppo that I don’t know about and that would have been impossible to include in the book. 

But since I didn’t know for certain that Exit West’s plot required it to not be set in a specific city, I began to wonder about other motives Hamid might have had for leaving its setting unnamed. So I looked online, and found that Exit West was first published in Great Britain and the United States, not Pakistan. This made me wonder—was Exit West meant to provide a view of migration that was palatable to a Western audience? By this I mean, did Hamid purposefully avoid giving the characters in his novel a nationality so that all readers, but especially people in Great Britain and the United States who would make up the majority of his readership, would be able to better identify with them? And if he did this, was that the right choice?

Watching the clip of Hamid’s talk that we did in class, I saw clearly that a major goal of his was to humanize and “de-other” refugees. He said this was why he decided to include magical doors that his characters travelled through to a different place in the world rather than having them undergo a long and arduous journey to get there: he wanted to focus more on what made them the same as non-refugee readers rather than on what made them different, and a dangerous journey would have made them different as it is something many people who have never been refugees could never imagine experiencing. 

I realized the same logic would apply to not giving his characters a nationality or religion. Making them say, Syrian, or even mentioning outright that they are Muslim would put up another divide between them and Western or non-Muslim readers, make those readers come in with all kinds of preconceived notions and even more of a reason to say “Those characters are not like me at all.”

However, I question Hamid’s decision to leave the nationality and religion of Nadia and Saeed ambiguous. While I understand the appeal of making them more relatable to Western and non-Muslim readers, I wonder if by not giving them a clear nationality or religion, Hamid fails to challenge those readers’ tendencies to “other” and refuse to relate to Muslims and people from places such as Syria. In my opinion, Nadia and Saeed are extremely likeable characters. I mean, Nadia is a total queen. She’s a strong, independent woman who is surviving on her own against all the odds. And Saeed is sweet and charming; he’s a respectable family man and always a perfect gentleman toward Nadia. I, and I imagine other readers as well, immediately feel attached to them and root for them just because of their personalities. If Hamid were to make them from an actual place, such as Syria, I believe it would have a powerful impact and lead Western readers to better humanize people from that place rather than pitying or fearing them. And I believe if he specifically mentioned they were Muslim rather than just hinting at it, it would have the same effect: non-Muslim readers would grow in empathy for Muslims.

However, by leaving their nationality and religion ambiguous, Hamid does not challenge Western and non-Muslim readers to put aside their preconceived notions. Readers get comfortable with Nadia and Saeed because they, by nature of the fact that those characters are not stated to be from any particular country or religious group, do not connect too closely to our world. My fear is that Western and non-Muslim readers’ comfort with Nadia and Saeed might not translate to real people from real places, because Nadia and Saeed are simply not real enough without a real country or religious group to be from. Therefore, Exit West might not go far enough to challenge xenophobia and Islamophobia. 

What do you think? Why do you think Hamid chose to leave Nadia and Saeed’s nationality and religion ambiguous, and how does that impact the story he’s telling? Or, am I just dumb and there’s a really obvious plot reason that I’m missing for why Exit West is not set in a specific place? If the last one is the case, someone please let me know!

Existentialism: Not an Excuse to Be a Jerk

I don’t know about other class periods, but my class has been having a lot of debates about whether Meursault is a perfect existentialist who has achieved radical subjectivity and is free from society’s oppressive power structures or is just a bad person. I would like to suggest that the answer is, well, both. Meursault is undoubtedly an existentialist. He has accepted that nothing in life has meaning. However, the answer to the question of what sort of person he is, morally, lies in how he deals with that knowledge. 

As a result of the realization that life is meaningless, Meursault is sort of a jerk. He does things that hurt others, such as writing a letter to Raymond’s ex-girlfriend that he knows is going to get her into a bad situation and murdering a guy, under the premise that “nothing matters” and these actions are “meaningless.” However, that’s just wrong. His actions do matter. They matter to the people they affect. Even if Meursault is enlightened and knows that none of our suffering matters in the long run, that doesn’t give him the right to inflict unnecessary suffering upon other people, because that is infringing upon their freedom and subjectivity. 

Some might say that Meursault’s complete apathy and disregard for the things and people around him is the only natural response to existentialism. But I disagree. I believe that there is another way to respond: the idea that because there is nothing but this life, we have to spend it making the most positive impact on the world that we can, reducing the small fraction of the suffering of others that it is actually in our control to reduce. We have to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, fight for the rights of the marginalized, et cetera. 

While this idea may initially seem counter to existentialism, it actually fits with it perfectly. Because there is no afterlife that people who suffered on earth will get to enjoy after death, we should make sure that they suffer on earth as little as possible so that the entirety of their existence is not miserable. Sure, it’s ultimately meaningless, but it’s nice to do anyway. After all, nobody likes to suffer, and it’s kind of a jerk move to say to someone, “Well, suffering is inevitable, and everyone eventually dies anyway, so I’m not going to help you out from under that fallen tree that is crushing you lifeless.” Because if you were the one suffering, even if you knew it was meaningless, you probably would appreciate if that suffering could be diminished or removed. 

What I like about the “helping others” response to existentialism is that it can coexist with mutual recognition. Existentialism, no matter what, allows the existentialist to be a subject. However, if the existentialist realizes that others are subjects as well, their natural response will be to want to help them. In this light, existentialism can be a force for good not only for those who practice it but for the whole world. 

Altogether, I would say Meursault offers insight into one way an existentialist life can be lived, but certainly not the only way. Existentialism can make us apathetic, yes, but it also can rouse us to action. After all, life is meaningless, but we have to spend it doing something. Why not spend it doing things that make others a little bit happier?

Alison Pope: Damsel in Distress?

“Victory Lap” was one of my favorite short stories we read this unit, and part of why I liked it so much was its unique voice–particularly during the first section, which is told from Alison’s point of view. However, as I continued reading, I became confused. The part of the story that had drawn me in, Alison’s unique voice and perspective, seemed to have little bearing on the larger story overall. As the story went on, it become focused on Kyle–his heroism, his taking action to claim his own power and subjectivity, his breaking free from the control of his parents in order to do what he saw as right and save the day. Alison, fascinating, quirky Alison, whose inner life Saunders had devoted several pages to at the outset of the story, seemed suddenly reduced to the cliche of a “damsel in distress”–a young woman who finds herself in a dangerous situation and cannot get out of it by herself, needing instead to be saved by a man. Why would Saunders write such an interesting character and spend so much time developing her fully, only to suddenly shove her to the margins of the story for the sake of the character development of the male protagonist? I could tell from Sanders’ unique and intriguing writing style that he is a thoughtful, talented writer. Too thoughtful and talented to fall back on a tired, sexist trope. This made me wonder–why did he make the choices he did with Alison’s character? Why did he develop her so fully, then push her to the side so abruptly? Was it possible that Alison’s character was meant to be a satire of sorts, to play with and challenge the concept of the “damsel in distress”?

The first few pages, written from Alison’s perspective, provide a wealth of tongue-in-cheek humor, compelling evidence that Saunders meant to be satirical with her. First, Alison is stereotypically “girly” to the point of being comical. She prances around her house via ballet steps, speaking to herself in French and daydreaming about meeting her Prince Charming. She also daydreams about talking to a baby deer in the woods whose mother has been shot by a hunter:

Are you afraid? she asked it. Are you hungry? Do you want me to hold you?

Okay, the baby deer said. 

Here came the hunter now, dragging the deer’s mother by the antlers. Her guts were completely splayed. Jeez, that was nice! She covered the baby’s eyes, and was like, Don’t you have anything better to do, dank hunter, than kill this baby’s mom? You seem like a nice enough guy. (5-6)

The scene in which Alison daydreams about talking to the deer with the dead mother invokes classic Disney films such as Bambi and Snow White, as well as the common trope of the maiden able to communicate with and protect woodland creatures. However, the phrase “Her guts were completely splayed” brings fresh humor to the otherwise familiar scene by injecting it with crude realism and making it read more like a parody of one of those Disney stories than the original. In fact, Alison’s entire character reminds me of a parody of a Disney princess. For instance, another way in which Saunders satirizes a familiar female character trope is through Alison’s unrelenting optimism. In her ethics class, she confidently spouts views on life that could be easily plucked from a children’s television program, even as her jaded teacher clearly thinks they are ridiculous:

In their straw poll she have voted for people being good and life being fun, with Mrs. Dees giving her a pitying glance as she stated her views: To do good, you just have to decide to do good. You have to be brave. You have to stand up for what’s right. At that last, Mrs. Dees had made this kind of groan. (10)

Positivity and pure-heartedness are staples of a female heroine of the “Disney princess” variety, and Saunders shows how Alison lives with these ideals in a real world full of real people such as Mrs. Dees who couldn’t agree with them less. The result is quite humorous.  

However, the first section of the story also provides small, yet powerful details that humanize Alison and show that she is not merely a caricature. Saunders hints at the fact that Alison sometimes has to deal with issues much more serious than fit with her rosy worldview. For example, she describes a borderline dangerous encounter with a local boy, Matt Drey: 

Kissing him last night at the pep rally had been like kissing an underpass. Scary! Kissing Matt was like suddenly this cow in a sweater is bearing down on you, who will not take no for an answer, and his huge cow head is being flooded by chemicals that are drowning out what little powers of reason Matt actually did have.

What she liked was being in charge of her. Her body, her mind, Her thoughts, her career, her future. (7)

In this quote, it is clear that Alison was in a situation with Matt Drey in which he coerced her into doing something she did not want to do and she was scared. Saunders states outright that it is important to Alison that she has agency. This quote makes it obvious that just because Alison is extremely girly, cheerful, and a touch naive, it does not mean that she is okay with being treated by boys or men however they want to treat her. She is still her own person who does not deserve to be violated. What is interesting to me about the line, “What she liked was being in charge of her. Her body, her mind, Her thoughts, her career, her future,” is that not only does it stand in a paragraph of its own, but it seems incredibly different in tone from the rest of Alison’s section of the story. This line seems a lot more straightforward and serious than the rest of the story. It doesn’t use any of Alison’s quirky slang, and it mentions very mature, adult things like “career” and “future” that Alison has not mentioned before. This shift in tone made this sentence stand out to me a lot. I believe Saunders included it to make it clear that no matter how girly, cheerful, naive, absentminded, or ridiculous a person, particularly a woman, is, it does not mean that she does not deserve subjectivity and to be in control of herself. 

After focusing in on Kyle’s actions for several pages, Saunders returns to Alison at the end of the story. At the end, Alison prevents Kyle from killing the near-rapist by shouting at him to stop. She fulfills the traditional feminine role of preventing violence and showing mercy even to the scum of the earth. Her parents praise her for this, her father telling her that she “Did beautiful” (27). To me, her father’s word choice seems particularly meaningful. Beautiful is a word often used to describe women, especially those who are follow traditional gender norms. It almost seems as though Alison is being praised for being the “right” kind of girl, one who embraces gentleness rather than vengeance. However, being this “right” kind of girl has not given Alison peace of mind. She is still haunted by her traumatic experience, having nightmares about Kyle actually going through with the murder. Saunders makes it clear that just because Alison is the “perfect girl”, princess-like in her innocence and happiness, she is still fully human and still suffers psychological consequences after undergoing something traumatic, just as anyone else would.

Altogether, I believe Saunders subverts the “damsel in distress” trope in two ways: by making fun of it and its associated traits (communicating with woodland creatures, relentless cheerfulness), and by humanizing his “damsel” by showing her feeling both the innate human desire for subjectivity and the realistic effects of trauma.