So the musical “Into the Woods” is pretty much entirely about sex, right?

So for the purposes of this post, I’m going to be referring to the stage version of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s musical-to-end-all-musicals. Having now seen the movie, I was actually surprised that I liked it, but my heart was eternally won by the original Broadway recordings and the various stage productions I’ve seen over the years.

Here’s the thesis: all of the main themes of Into the Woods are about sex and it’s trappings, the desire for it, pursuit of it, changes and consequences that come along with it. This seemed so readily obvious to me that I never even thought to talk about it, but I haven’t seen anybody else say it either. So I just want to make sure we’re all on the same page here: Into the Woods is just all about getting your freak on, right?

Considering where this splendid play is drawing its source material from, this is almost inevitable. The fairy tales of central Europe 1 are stacked to the rafters with sexual imagery and commentary about people’s sex lives. My favorite example is a bit absurd, but worth sharing. In one of the older versions of the tale that has become “Little Red Riding Hood” called “The Grandmother“, we get this lovely little passage about a third of the way in (emphasis mine):

“Good day, grandmother. I have brought you a hot loaf and a bottle of milk.”
“Put it in the pantry, my child. Take some of the meat that is there, and the bottle of wine that is on the shelf.”
While she was eating, a little cat that was there said, “For shame! The slut is eating her grandmother’s flesh and drinking her grandmother’s blood.”

Yeah, that’s all that cat shows up to say; she just has to make it clear what the girl’s actions are supposed to be reflecting about her character. This shit shows up all over the place in old stories2. Sometimes it’s straight up raping a sleeping girl until she’s pregnant in some of the versions of Sleeping Beauty. Sometimes it’s just the incesty overtones from a dude trying to marry his daughter in Allerleirauh.

So Sondheim and Lapine are starting from source material that’s got a lot to say about sex, but you know, they dive in whole hog themselves. Sometimes, it must be said, they’d don’t have far too go. Little Red Riding Hood has already got a bunch of overtones of sexual predation in it, and the commentary from the Wolf during “Hello Little Girl” seems pretty blatant to me (as always, emphasis mine):

Think of those crisp, aging bones
Then something fresh on the palate
Think of that scrumptious carnality
Twice in one day…

So I know that ‘carnal’ can be sort of broadly applied to an base desire, but written by a modern hand for modern ears, it’s certainly intended to read as sexual.  As an aside, some productions play this side up more than others. I’d especially like to call attention to the costume design used in the PBS America’s Playhouse version3. Look at that wolf, with his leather jacket, rippling muscles and, what the fuck, are those genitals? This play probably birthed a thousand nascent furries.

And if you’re thinking that this is just about the predation of an innocent, I’d like to direct you to Red’s refrain after the Baker saves her:

I had been so careful,
I never had cared.
And he made me feel excited-
Well, excited and scared.
When he said, “Come in!”
With that sickening grin,
How could I know what was in store?
Once his teeth were bared,
Though, I really got scared-
Well, excited and scared-

I love that Red get’s excited by the Wolf’s bared teeth. She’s been taken in but it’s because she’s given in to a temptation, which was the Wolf’s whole bag. Red’s come through this relatively all right, and learned a lot about the kind of company she keeps. “…though scary is exciting, /Nice is different than good.”

But LRRH is low hanging fruit, it was already about sex. So let’s look at Jack and his beanstalk. Jack’s encounters with the giants happen off screen, but we get his account of it after the fact. Let’s skip over the fact that he say’s “giant breast” merely to keep this high brow, and look at the lines just after:

And you know things now
that you never knew before,
Not till the sky.

Only just when you’ve made
A friend and all,
And you know she’s big
But you don’t feel small,
Someone bigger than her
Comes along the hall
To swallow you for lunch.

Just like Red’s song, Jack talks a lot about new knowledge that comes from his experience. His journey is one of discovery, which he plays out with a member of the opposite sex, and he seems to think of the giantess as a person rather than a monster. I also like how the giant’s reaction can be read as finding them in flagrante delicto.

At the end of the song, Jack sums it up nicely:

And you think of all of the things you’ve seen,
And you wish that you could live in between,
And you’re back again,
Only different than before,
After the sky.

Surely you can look at this as him standing on the cusp between adulthood and childhood and wishing he could have the best of both, but his mentioning of feeling different than before makes it clear that he’s crossed a threshold, something important is different. That something, that difference, may well be his virginity.

So, let’s move on to Cinderella. This one isn’t hard either. Cinderella wants desperately to go to a ball, to get out  from under her restrictive and hateful step-mother’s thumb, and she sort of stumbles into being the object of affection for the charming Prince4. After the third night, we get her lovely song “On the Steps of the Palace” describing her moment of reflection when she’s trapped by the prince’s ploy.

This song is entirely a pondering of a question: should she let this relationship continue, to advance to a more serious level, or run away from it? She’s amenable to letting him “catch” her but is more worried of his response when he finds out who she really is, which she’ll admit that she doesn’t even know.

Why not stay and be caught?
You think, well, it’s a thought,
What would be his response?
But then what if he knew
Who you were when you know
That you’re not what he thinks
That he wants?

And then what if you are?
What a Prince would envision?
Although how can you know
Who you are till you know
What you want, which you don’t?

Whereas Jack and Red seem to be caught between childhood and adulthood, Cinderella is caught between the world of the slut and the prude. She wants to leave her cloistered life, to have experiences, and wants the prince but isn’t sure she is, or can be, the thing5 that she thinks the prince wants. Interestingly, her choice is the “no choice” option, where she manages to maintain the princes’ pursuit, and thus the pleasure of being desired, without actually getting caught yet.

This is the point where we ought to talk about Rapunzel, but she’s so tied up with the Witch that I’m going to roll her into that section.

So we come to the Baker and his wife. Although their stories seem to be inextricably tied at first, they’re really dealing with two different things. The Baker, who wants a child, spends act one trying to cure his impotence. Remember, it’s his tainted bloodline that’s keeping his wife from getting pregnant. Their childlessness is “his problem” that he feels he must solve. It’s during this act as well that we see him dealing with trying to solve his figurative impotence. He starts out very firm on the stance that he must solve this problem on his own and reacts to every attempt by his wife to help as if its an insult, because he feels like she’s emasculating him.

He comes around on this issue by the time they sing “It Takes Two”, which is notable that the pair’s rather chaste relationship suddenly starts to heat up. The Baker’s wife suddenly actually starts to express interest in him, and he in her. The events of the woods rekindle what seems to have been a rather dead bedroom for the two of them, and perhaps its this that leads to the resolution of their baby-making problem.

And then we have the Baker’s wife’s own tale. Even in act one, her eye is wondering, pestering Cinderella for tales of excitement and splendor from the ball. She’s especially interested in the prince and his charms, more so even than his future wife. Then in Act 2, when everything’s gone all to hell, she get’s her moment in the woods, with the prince.

They meet, they kiss, fade out to another scene, and then back, he bounces off and she’s left alone. This is when we get “Moments in the Woods” as the Baker’s wife contemplates her brief affair. The laments how boring her life is with the Baker and child, how she loves them but wants more:

Must it all be either less or more,
Either plain or grand?
Is it always “or”?
Is it never “and”?

But she knows it’s not sustainable. She can’t live in the woods, can’t have a life of moments. She resolves not to put it all behind her though and not forget it. The implication is that the verve she felt from the affair is part of what makes life back with her dull Baker worthwhile.

Just remembering you’ve had and “and”,
When you’re back to “or”,
Makes the “or” mean more
Than it did before.

And then she get’s squished by a giant lady.

Finally, we have the Witch. Oh lord, the Witch. Allow me a quick aside to mention how much I love Bernadette Peters. I’d listen to that woman read the phonebook and be entertained.  She is both slots one and two on my Guilt-Free-Three.

But, about the character, yeah. OK, focus Scott. Yeah, the Witch.

The Witch has issues, issues that cause a ton of trouble for herself and others. As a mother, the Witch prefers to lock her daughter away from the world, not as punishment, but to protect her. We get some insight into how she views the world in the song “Stay With Me”:

Don’t you know what’s out there in the world?
Someone has to shield you from the world.
Stay with me.
Princes wait there in the world, it’s true.
Princes, yes, but wolves and humans, too.

I think the choice of wolves is important here. The Witch knows the forest and the Wolf is the forest’s resident sexual predator. She puts Princes, humans, and this predator into the same line, equating them. This is how the witch views the world, full of dangerous men with their penises. Note her choice in the prologue that when the Baker’s father steals from her he is “robbing me, raping me.” She brings this up again in “Last Midnight”:

I’m the hitch.
I’m what no one believes,
I’m the Witch.
You’re all liars and thieves,
Like his father,
Like his son will be, too-
Oh, why bother?

The witch has a fixation on men and views them as dangerous and immoral. If I was the type to do so, I’d peg her as a former victim of abuse (or close to someone else who was) who’s taken on a lot of fear of men as a representation of her attacker.  Sexual assault seems to loom large over how she views the world.

Note that it is especially hurtful to her for Rapunzel to spurn her for the love of a man6. She scolds her adopted daughter, guilts her, gives her one last warning about the world and then tosses her out into it, as if the touch of a man has tainted her or created some irrevocable divide between them.

I think that covers the largest set of story-lines. Maybe I’ve spent this whole time just restating the obvious, but sometimes that’s a reasonable exercise. Maybe I’m just dirty minded, but I certainly can’t help that.

So yeah, Into the Woods? All about sex.

The Corruption of Fire

I’ve been rewatching Avatar: The Last Airbender lately and made an observation that I feel is worth exploring: The Court of the Fire Lord itself seems to corrupt people and actual physical removal from it appears to be necessary  for a character to escape this effect.

There could be an in universe explanation for this; perhaps, among else, the culture of the court, molded by the monarchy’s lust for power above all, is especially conducive to selfish, amoral behavior. There is certainly a literary explanation; the Court of the Fire Lord is the symbolic heart of the Fire Nation’s own corruption and power and it’s there that it is strongest.

We know of two characters who definitively escape this influence, Iroh and Zuko. Both do so after extended absences from the court itself.

Iroh appears, from what little we know of his youth, to have been a good example of a Fire Prince in his youth, dutifully attempting to to conquer the Earth Kingdom and succeeding beyond any before him. It is during this extended time away though, that the most influential events of his life occur, the death of his son and meeting the dragons. Iroh comes back a changed man, incongruous with what we see of the court. It’s noteworthy that of all the members of the royal family he is shown at the palace the least1.

Zuko’s journey we see in detail. He never quite displayed the same lack of heart as his father, grandfather, or sister. The triggering event for his banishment was him expressing concern over the fate of troops, people far removed from him but, I think importantly, still definitively of  the Fire Nation (emphasis mine):

“Those soldiers love and defend our nation. How can you betray them?”

We have to give him credit for showing more compassion than any of the generals or Ozai, but it’s comes from a nationalistic our-side-versus-them viewpoint. His objection isn’t to the wholesale slaughter, but the betrayal of abusing one of their own to gain an upper hand against the enemy.

It’s clear that the boy who leaves his father’s palace at 14, vengeful and angry, with a narrow idea, of the world, his nation and his place in it, is not the same one who returns 16, who is by then is at war with himself over what is right, true, and what role he and his nation are to play.  Like his uncle, almost all of Zuko’s developmental steps happen far from home: being saved by his enemy at the north pole, his travels as a refuge in the Earth Kingdom, his time building a new life in Ba Sing Se.

The one striking exception is the catalyst for his final break with his family and nation: the war meeting where the destruction of the Earth Kingdom is planned, which is a scene deliberately in parallel with the one that has him banished.  Here the wrong that shows him just how far gone his father, family, and nation are is not against their own as before, but an act against the Earth Kingdom, the other, their enemy. His concern now is for innocents of another nation; his actions to stop their destruction are truly altruistic.  We see just how far his time away has brought him.

Likewise, I think Ozai is an important metric on this scale. Ozai, who is pretty much just a flat evil villain, is deeply associated with his palace, his court. He also almost never seen outside of it. For the first two seasons, the audience is kept from seeing his whole face. Thus, his throne room and by extension his palace, act almost as a surrogate face for him. Proximity to the palace is so important to his character that even during the Day of Black Sun, when it would be clearly advantageous to be as far from the invasion as possible, he stays in a bunker just under his own palace.

As well, of note is that the only mentions we have of Ozai’s participation in a happy family life are not tied to the palace, but to the vacation home at Ember Island. Zuko mentions that Ozai hasn’ been there “since our family was actually happy” and its there that we see the artifacts that show them as a somewhat normal family. Ozai’s villainy is so symbolically linked to his place near or on the throne, that one must leave the continent to find any evidence of him being part of a loving family.

Finally, we have the dual examples of Roku and Sozin. I don’t think it’s by chance that these two best friends, raised like brothers, start their story at the Fire Lord’s Palace together. They seem both like good people, kind and friendly. But Roku leaves Sozin behind, travels the world and learns about it. By the time he has returned, the good man he once new has started to change. Like his grandson, Sozin never seems to leave his palace2 and there he festers, growing his ambition and planning for seize power. The Avatar and the Fire Lord show a side by side comparison of what different men these boys become.

Because, and I think I’m reasonably well supported here, the message of this extended metaphor is about the virtues of pluralism, about the dangers of looking only inward for answers. Iroh and Zuko learn the same lessons: that the peoples of the world are all the same and all different but neither better nor worse, that there’s value in other viewpoints. It’s no coincidence that Roku’s tales of traveling the world and learning from others is contrasted with a scene a few minutes later of Sozin’s nationalism.

The corruption of the Fire Lord’s court is one of closing one’s mind to those who are unlike you, to valuing the “us” or even the “I” above all else, to thinking oneself inherently above. All of those illusions are broken best by actually leaving the echo chamber of one’s own “home” and seeing the world at large in all it’s splendid diversity. To learn about others reduces the hate you can feel toward them and makes you and all better for it.

And so, we come to Azula, who needs a multi-part series to really dig into. Seeing as she’s away from the Fire Kingdom for the whole of a book, she sort of screws up the strict “leave home, get better” nature of my thesis3, but she certainly follows the deeper message. Azula never looks to learn from the people she encounters. She seeks, and often succeeds, to prove the dominance of herself over others. She is not open to learning or connecting with the people she meets on her travels. If the lesson of the narrative is that one grows by going out and really seeing the world, Azula certainly hasn’t learned that. Her ultimate fate is not clear4 but I think it is pretty clear that if she is to get change, it won’t be at home.

A Brief Speculation

This was originally part of a much larger post, but  it was a digression to that topic. I think it’s interesting enough to break out on its own.

Something that struck me as a little odd during my last rewatch of Avatar: The Last Airbender was Fire Lord Azulon’s reaction to Ozai in the flashback  in “Zuko Alone”.  In reaction to Prince Ozai requesting to become the next hair apparent over Iroh, Azulon declares that he must “learn the pain of losing a first born” and orders the death of his grandson, Zuko. It seems simultaneously overly harsh and an ineffectively punishment.

On the one hand, he demonstrates that he’s willing to execute a child just to make a point about Ozai respecting Iroh.  But at the same time if he’s making a point to Ozai, he’s not hitting the right button to do it effectively.

Ozai’s contempt for his eldest child was already laid bare by this point. This is especially true in the flashbacks feature in The Search comics. It’s hard to imagine Azulon, provided he is aware of this, thinking that Zuko’s death would effect Ozai. So it seems strange that he’d target Zuko as a way to get at his father.

Moreover, Azula1 and Zoku has just made it plainly obvious before both men who was the more talented of the two. With Lu Ten’s recent death, Azulon had to be aware that, whether Iroh takes the throne or not, the line of succession now ends with Zuko.

It seems very likely to me that Azulon’s order to kill Zuko had more to do with merely ridding them of a weak and problematic heir and putting Azula in line for the throne. Ozai’s actions merely presented an excuse. Perhaps this is giving Azulon too much credit for rationality and he was just reacting to the insulting demand Ozai, ignorant of his son’s distaste for his grandson, but this being about the succession seems like a much more compelling motivating in my opinion.

Kuvira and the Great Rejection

After reading all of the fantastic analyses over at LokGifsAndMusings, I fired off an email and thus found myself in a lively conversation with the wonderfully wrinkly brain behind that blog. A conversation in which we both mutually geeked the fuck out over The Legend of Korra Book 4 villain, Kuvira. Thus, I’ve spent some extra time lately giving that character a really good hard think1. Since my fanfic efforts are in that frustrating “two thousand words written, fifteen hundred edited to deletion” stage, I’m feeling the need to take a breather and present some of those thoughts here.

 

One thing that the sister works of Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra do spectacularly well is to present interesting villains. There are only a couple of mustache twirlers in the bunch, the most prominent being Ozai. In fact, arguably one of the most interesting and well developed characters of both series is Zuko, who spends a season and a half as one of the principal villains.

I could, and perhaps will, do a whole post on where each of the series’ villains falls on the spectrum of Ozai to Zuko, but one particular note on that subject is that the last two Big Bads of LoK, Zaheer and Kuvira, both fall in the same category. We get enough  information about them to understand that they’re definitely not stock or cliche villains. We know what their goals are and see their sides of the arguments for why those goals are worthy, even get a glimpse into why these things in particular are so important to these characters. However we aren’t really let all the way inside their heads; their back stories leave some huge questions unanswered.

They’re intriguing mysteries.

 

So let’s delve a little into the things can’t know about Kuvira, but that we can at least theorize about2. Something has really struck me about The Great Uniter;  despite all her rhetoric about doing what she does for the good of her nation, her ego plays a much larger role in her actions.

Nobody would buy that Kuvira is a humble individual, but it is telling that she consistently frames herself as synonymous with her movement and the Earth Kingdom/Empire as a whole. Kuvira also appears to be building a pretty healthy cult of personality with herself at the center.

When addressing the bandits in 4×01, she tells them to swear loyalty to her, not the earth kingdom or her movement to restore order3. The Kuvira’s supporters, likewise, are not touting their nation but their leader.

Later on, when Zhu Li Moon is caught trying to desert with Varrick and Bolin, she pleads with Kuvira to take her back and uses very personal language to convince her. She doesn’t praise Kuvira’s goals or her movement, but specifically praises Kuvira herself, saying of the man that she previously thought had the greatest mind in the world that “compared to [Kuvira], he’s a fool.” And targeting the Great Uniter’s ego works to buy Zhu Li a stay of punishment and a cushy new job helping Bataar Jr.

Kuvira’s ego also helps explain a line that has troubled me until now. I’ve never really bought Kuvira as repentant at the end of the series finale. When brought from the spirit portal by Korra, Kuvira doesn’t tell her troops that her invasion was wrong or that they went too far, but merely that “the Avatar possesses a power I could never hope to match.” However, if Kuvira’s real goal up until this point had been to prove that she was the biggest baddest best person on the planet, of course the most important thing to tell her supporters is that she’s been proven not to be. In that sense, Kuvira’s own perception of her power was, to her, more important than the war itself or any moral questions thereof4.

I think we can get a pretty good understanding of why, too. The biggest wound in Kuvira’s life was her orphaning, about which she only has only this to say (emphasis mine):

“Don’t pretend you know what it felt like. The Avatar is adored by millions; I was cast aside by my own parents like I meant nothing to them.”

Korra’s response to this is about how Kuvira wishes to never be vulnerable again, and the Avatar isn’t wrong. Vulnerability does have a lot to play here, but I think it’s really important that Kuvira chooses to say that Korra is blessed with the love of strangers while Kuvira herself wasn’t even granted the love of her own parents. She’s taken her orphaning as a rejection.

By the time Kuvira is taken in by Suyin, that rejection has really dug deep into the young girl’s own idea of herself, that she’s not worthy of anything, least of all love. I’m not going to get into depth about Kuvira’s life with Suyin here because it’d inevitably be full of headcanon and would probably be a couple thousand words, but I will point you to these two articles and try to do the short version. As evidence, I’ll present what Suyin has to say about The Great Uniter’s childhood (again, emphasis mine):

“She was more than that; she was like a daughter to me. I took her in when she was eight years old and nourished her talents. Kuvira was smart, a natural leader, and quickly rose through the ranks. I saw myself in her. “

Suyin only praises Kuvira’s abilities and then pivots to talking about Kuvira’s time with the Zaofu security force5. Despite saying she was like a daughter, Suyin doesn’t speak about Kuvira like a child of her own. She obviously values what Kuvira can do and thinks she’s very capable, but it’s hard to see any love there. I think it’s this that Kuvira learned about herself in Zaofu. Being a helpless little kid doesn’t get you any form of love, but showing skill and power gets you praise and recognition, which is a lot like love. She carries that philosophy forward.

This is why Kuvira doesn’t understand why Suyin doesn’t step up and lead the effort to stabilize. Kuvira still looks up to, perhaps even idolizes, Suyin at this point. Suyin holds a privileged place in Zaofu society as a the founder, leader, and greatest bender. She is synonymous with the city the way Kuvira later is with the Empire.  Kuvira’s first argument for why Suyin should lead the stabilization is how Zaofu, and thus Suyin by proxy, has always been a beacon of progress and this is their chance to extend that to the world.

Suyin’s response is that she doesn’t want to wage a war and Kuvira dismisses that by saying there are already wars and reiterates her point that this is their chance to spread their influence to “change things”.  It’s telling that Kuvira doesn’t refute that this will cause  a war, just that the war will be worth it. It seems her ‘ends justify the means’ philosophy was already in place even here.

It’s Suyin’s refusal to take this opportunity that Kuvira seizes on, reluctantly or otherwise, to move beyond her mentor’s shadow and I think she finds that in her new role, the praise and respect she gets from so many people is a reward worth having. Over the next three years, she cultivates a huge following and proves herself “worthy” over and over against with her abilities. It’s got to be like a drug for her.

I’d like to digress a little and point out that the paragraphs above present a single facet of a multifaceted character. I am not saying that Kuvira is only motivated by ego, by securing ‘love’ from her followers. For example: her desire to stabilize and protect her homeland is not entirely a construct of the desires I’ve outlined.

However, I think it’s this aspect of her character that explains what pushes her over the edge from being an dutiful solider, working for the good of others, to being a despot capable of committing great evils for what might otherwise be a good cause. For example, her invasion of the United Republic is pretty much unjustifiable as “protecting” anyone. The Republic is stable, safe, and hasn’t really been part of the Earth Kingdom for nearly two hundred years.

Kuvira wants the Republic because she wants the win, because she is the Earth Empire and the larger it grows and the greater its victories, the greater her power, her acclaim, her worth are.

I still don’t have her all figured out; we just aren’t given enough information to really know everything. For example, I’m still unable to decided what her real feelings for Bataar “don’t-call-me-junior” Jr. are. Did she really find a connection which him? I don’t have any compelling evidence either way. But if she did, why wasn’t his love for her ‘enough’ for her?

Likewise, is she beyond redemption? She certainly did evil things but does that mean she couldn’t be brought back from beyond the pale? What would it take?

So many questions unanswered, but that’s kind of the best bit.

Thinking Too Hard about Fictional Surnames

I can understand a fictional world where nobody’s got surnames or everybody does. I can understand a world where most people have them but we don’t really find out what most of them are. I can understand a world where only certain cultures use surnames.

But there just doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason behind them in the Avatar universe.

We’ve got two pretty prominent surnames between two series, Sato and Beifong, and then a smattering of random side characters who could appear to have them as well1. We even found in in the finale of Legend of Korra that a couple of fairly familiar characters have been hiding extra names from us this whole time.

It definitely isn’t something localized to one culture. The Beifongs are from the Earth Kingdom and Varrick is South Water Tribe. It’s harder to tell with the Satos2, but going of the general propensity for each nation to pull names from real life cultures, it would appear that “Sato” should originate in the Fire Nation.

I’d be inclined to say that it’s something powerful families establish for themselves, using the Beifongs, Varrick, the Morishitas as my case. However, Zhu Li doesn’t appear to hail from an important family and Hiroshi Sato was born in a poor borough of Republic City. I’d be inclined to say he acquired the ‘Sato’ name later in life, as an ostentatious sign of his wealth and influence, but his most famous invention, the Satomobile, seems to indicate that he was using that name early in his career, before he was established enough to warrant one.

The “important family” theory has a few obvious negative cases too;  Mai’s family being the most obvious in that category. Her father’s a governor and they appear very wealthy.  They’d seem like obvious candidates for snatching up a surname to show off, but alas, they have none3.

I know the out of universe answer to all of this, of course. Characters got surnames when it was useful for the writers. But I want it to make sense in universe as well.

It’s also a niggling detail that makes writing in the universe or swapping it to an alternate universe4, mildly infuriating.