body image

Physical Politics in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns

Hate him or love him, Frank Miller-creator of (among other things) Sin City and 300 is very good at what he does. And what he does is propagandize. Ok. So what. All creators are propagandists.

So what’s my problem? Well, let’s avoid the whole tendency to draw swastikas whether there is a need or not, and move into the visual in-group/out-group world Miller creates

I recently watched the animated adaptation of Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, a comic I had first read when I was a youngling. Batman, I saw, could still kick a lot of ass at 55.

Batman at 55. I should age so well.

For those unfamiliar with the plot,  The Dark Knight Returns is a conservative fantasy. Hardy, masculine, go-getters MEN are marginalized by liberal PC society, and the whole place has gone to heck because of it.

Superman also answers to Ronald Reagan. I’ll get back to that.

Now, this plot I mentioned.

The new police commissioner, who’s in over her head.


A woman!

Her first tasks on the job are to ineffectually deal with the youth crime of Gotham and to place a warrant on Batman.It’s quite strongly suggested that gets her job due to gender politicking by the higher-ups. And, she doesn’t agree with Batman’s principles.

Neither does this guy, the psychiatrist.

He is a ruthless send-up of leftist intellectuals,  always with a theory of some sort, spouting semi-Freud while blaming society, or the government, or the overt masculinity of Miller’s Batman, while really only trying to make a name for himself.

These two are visual stereotypes; for Miller they represent liberalism. Miller encodes them carefully; the first only having her job because she is a woman, the second only really interested in personal gain. Visually, their bodies are thin, frail, weak; this being an intertextual, (how images/words/ideas of a culture relate to other images/text/ideas of a culture)  reference to society-at-large’s belief in a sound mind in a healthy body.

Miller intends for these characters to be reviled, or at least have negative connotations attached to them. This we know by comparison, the rhetorical highlighting of differences. Bat-hunk, Superman, even the lefty Green Arrow, Miller draws as big, physical men. They solve things with their fists, they are full of the ethereal quality of “gumption.” These are characters side-lined or frustrated by, as Miller’s Superman remembers, “Parent Groups and sub-committees,” mired by liberal bureaucracy, forced to the margins. Their very existence is a threat to liberal world, and as Superman warns Batman, “We must not remind them that giants walk the earth.”



Problems with a Face

As a kid, one of the movie genres I really just consumed was the pulp series put out just after the Depression, stuff like Charlie Chan, Lone Ranger, Mr. Wong, Detective: stuff my grandparents knew from when they were young. Good movies, fun, I really enjoyed them.

Boris Karloff as Fu Manchu. Notice how facial features have been changed: eyebrows arched, eyes have been taped to give them slants, mustache added in stereotypical “Oriental” style.

But as an adult, I don’t get the same amount of pleasure from them when I try to watch them.

The big reason is that a lot of the movies I was exposed to are face movies, or at least have face characters. I hope that I don’t seem like I’m bemoaning the fact that my liberal leanings are forcing me to avoid these movies, because that’s not what i’m trying to do.

If you aren’t sure what I’m talking about, the most well known example is blackface, but it is also manifested for other ethnic groups, redface for Native Americans, yellowface for Asian, etc.

Ok, so what is the problem?

The portrayals are inherently racist and serve as very powerful visual rhetoric.

Visual characters like this seek to establish themselves as typical of African-Americans. Lips and hair has been embellished, as has the overall backwards-ness of appearance.

Well, like I said, these portrayals are inherently racist and in the least appropriative.  Too often, the characters in “face” makeup are bumblers, lazy, slow, vain, greedy, subhuman. This establishes a stereotype, and the face character is a visual cue; audiences know what to expect from them when seen onstage. Being able to recreate the same features from actor to actor for a face role is a visual manipulation, allowing the movie makers to disregard the diverse realness of humanity and reduce POC to an idealized icon. What POC are actually like is not important. The negative is idealized, exaggerated, and displayed, in order to broadcast/reinforce the message that these aspects are all the targeted culture is. In doing this, POC go from individuals to characters that the audience doesn’t need to get to know; they already understand how they will act. The face character-one person, one role, one character, is allowed to stand for the whole people. Such characters are visual affirmation of race myths.

Johnny Depp’s recent portrayal of Tonto continues the traditions of redface: facepaint, broken English, quasi-mysticism. Is this how we perceive Natives?

These performances do not encapsulate the whole experience of the culture or do them real credit. (There is also the cruel twist: black/red/yellow face performers have also been members of the culture they are stereotyping, often it was the only work they could get. However, this only served as an affirmation of the performance’s reality.) Face performances, in picking and choosing what they want to convey, confirm the idea that the races being mocked are this way, and so deserve to be mocked, and treated as inferiors. We must also remember that these roles are created by a dominant section of society, and are therefore used to reinforce their position of power.


There’s something the matter with Henry

Trigger Warning: Gore.

Even Hollywood comes up with some new ideas, now and again.

In an earlier post, I talked how physical deformity is often used as a clue towards explaining the relative evilness/untrustworthiness of a character. You couldn’t count the number of facial scars, eyepatchs, or claw hands if you tried.

By 1986, horror was just lousy with trope portrayals of killers, ensured by the massive success of Friday the 13th, Halloween, their sequels and imitators. Everywhere you looked, mass murderers were idealized as masked murders, monolithic, calculating reapers. The killers were not men, not people, they were death given form.

Wow, such death, very spoopy.

As effective as these killers were, and they undoubtedly, and deservedly did and do inspire terror, they cannot compare to Henry.

He’s just eating a sandwich.


He isn’t creepy at all.


Oh, I see.

Jason and Michael Myers are wolves in wolves’ clothing; Henry is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

That’s what, for me, makes Henry the scarier. The movie emphasizes the real over the ideal, leaving Henry to play cards and buy cigarettes. He has an unremarkable area of Chicago, no haunted lake or long-abandoned house for a home base.

The mundane surroundings is also visual rhetoric, the same selection of real vs. idealized. His average face, the could-be-a-million-places feeling of his backdrop produces the terror. Unlike Jason, Henry can be anyone. Anywhere. And that’s scary. That’s the real fear of Henry. His face is a mask, and you worry how many others like him are hiding behind masks. He knows it, and tells us, is too smart to use the same method more than once to avoid recognition for what he is.

In showing killers how they really look, rather than relying on idealized icons, Henry, Portrait of A Serial Killer provides chills by stripping away any of the audience’s ability to dissassociate the actions of the killer with the face of a regular Joe.

Proposal: Do we want to be fat or skinny?

The US can’t seem to decide it’s ideals in terms of nutrition.  On one hand, every company is now promoting itself through the ways they can benefit a healthy lifestyle.  Numerous new apps are pointed to fitness, for example, and even fast food chains are trying to give customers seemingly “healthy options.”  From organic food to activewear commercials, the general consensus seems to be toward a healthier, more informed living.

On the other hand, we can’t stop idealizing poor lifestyle concepts. The Victoria’s Secret fashion show and other modeling ideals promotes nearly starving women, and photoshop makes every picture fit the mold of a “perfect” woman, no matter how beautiful or healthy the female already is. On the other side of the spectrum, shows like Here Comes Honey Boo Boo or Huge, featuring a viciously unhealthy lifestyle, are some of the most watched on television.  The number of “Fat TV” shows keeps growing, and they’re not even about competing to lose weight anymore.

My mashup will show these contradictions, from the idealization of beauty to health to the reality of the situation – that people still choose to go to McDonalds.  To do this, I will take clips from “Fat TV” shows to show that fat people are dehumanized in our culture, clips from older nutrition commercials that promote “health” and fitness, and clips that show the contrasting side of promoting nutrition.  The mashup will be a majority of advertisements in which the viewer will be able to see some of the many contradictions we see every day and the stark contrasts between the types of natural bodies people have.

One possible risk is the wrong message being portrayed, and the mashup appearing to criticize overweight people.  The juxtaposition may come off as trying to subject others to a certain lifestyle, so I’ll need to carefully make sure that I am not pinpointing certain individuals, but that show the larger scale of the problem.  I’m not sure about the music that I want to use yet, but I want to find something upbeat and contemporary because I feel like it goes with the theme.

One way to make an unexpected turn is to take the “skinny” side of the argument into the brutal.  One of the clips in the ABC’s of Death is X is for XXL, in which an overweight woman is so overwhelmed with seeing skinny models that she literally cuts off her fat in her shower with a knife and emerges bloody and skeletal before she dies.  If I contrast moments of extremism like these with the fitness images, I can show the pressure of the society, and why so many search for an easy route.

Twisted Mind, Twisted Body

Think about 1931’s Frankenstein. Doesn’t matter if you’ve seen it. Not really. You can picture the main characters. The big, ungainly monster. The well-meaning, but tormented Frankenstein. His twisted, evil assistant.

We know instinctively that Dwight Frye’s character is evil, and his actions later in the film only serve as validation of our preconceptions.

But how are we so assured of his defective character? Audiences know because of the body scriptwriters gave him. (And it is important to remember that Frye’s Fritz/Igor character was invented for the movies.) That they gave him this body was no accident.

If you ever can’t figure out how something got started, it’s best to go to ancient Greece. And it’s from them that we have gotten our ideas about the body. Plato, one of the most well known philospohers and a huge influence on Western/Christian thinking, considered the condition of the body important for the growth of the soul. And the Roman author Cicero acknowledged that the shape of the soul was determined by the body.

A Sound Mind In A Healthy Body.

What happened to Greek babies that didn’t fit the mold? They were relegated to the shadows, the fringes, or in the extreme world of Sparta, tossed of cliffs.

Speaking of Sparta, there is an Igor in that story, as well.


In the 1961 story, and more than likely in real life, he looked something like this.

But in Frank Miller (and Zak Snyder’s adaptation), the need to emphasize his betrayal exists. (There’s a really great article on the many problems with the movie over here at Disability Quarterly.)

And so he becomes this.

Surrounded by these guys.

This is again, by design, an effort to ensure that the audience connects with the Spartans. Their bodies are like ours. We see ourselves in them. The disabled Ephialtes is rather firmly Othered, only barely human.

Semantically, it reinforces a very negative lesson. The behaviors of these characters are related directly to their bodies; the movies leave no question about this. There is no sound minds in healthy bodies in these characters; they are petty, self-serving, debased. Their attitudes, their reactions are not like ours, and the inference that we make is that it is because of their bodies.

So the body on the screen, in visual representation, and in real life, becomes a signal. This body is twisted, the visual semantics tell us, and so therefore is the spirit within the antithesis of the Roman thought.

But these body types are not the imagination of Hollywood. This is where the problem lies. The semantics invented as visual clues in a movie spill over onto real people who must live in these bodies. As consumers, we must avoid dwelling in the thrill of revulsion offered to us by Tod Browning’s Freaks consider why the characters have been given the bodies they have been assigned, and what we are being asked to think of them.