Meshes Of The Afternoon - Narrative Syzygy: Why Are Heroes Typically Men?

Thoughts On: Meshes Of The Afternoon (1943)

An exploration of cinematic narratives as male and female and characters as male and female.

In the realm of cinema, films and movies, we are in times of considerable and noticeable change. Much of this change is centred on questioning the role of women in movies - which has been on-going since the early 70s. One of the questions asked in this regard is: Why are heroes typically men?

This question has been asked and answered in many ways. Key theories use Freud and Lacan, and whilst I won't engage these theories directly, I am interested in formulating an answer that may be slightly different and oppositional to much of what has been proposed already by using Jung. However, before starting, we must question what kind of change cinema is going through.

The most considerable and noticeable change of modern cinema is in the American blockbuster, in a vast array of films from Star Wars to Moana to Arrival - to mention a very small few. These films centralise female characters and, some, turn females into heroes. Some of these films have been lauded in response to this, but there exists mid to low-level films that, whilst they centralises women and makes heroes out of them, does so with techniques that are shallow and rather meaningless. It is then not uncommon to see female heroes simply step into the shoes of men. Narratives do not change positively in many of these circumstances, stock characters do not really change; nothing of substance emerges from this switch. In some cases, however, such as Wonder Woman, a female becomes the male hero, and whilst little changes around the character, she is a genuinely constructed person. This kind of switch is subtle and, though it does not see a substantial change in the meaning and operation of a narrative, works very well. In other cases, like Star Wars, male hero becomes female and there is a negative and meaningless change; she is suddenly all-powerful, a Katharine Hepburn on steroids, just about perfect as she is and pretty much unbeatable. Many call this character the Mary Sue (there is an element of the Star Wars films, especially the most recent, that I like but I agree with this position to a good degree). This kind of character, the Mary Sue, brings with them empty statements of change and 'progression' that are sometimes lauded, but, in reality, are merely the products of lazy writing and pandering (probably to make a quick buck and access wider audiences).

There are, it seems to me, three primary types of new(ish) female characters in Hollywood blockbusters. The first is the female-as-male hero, the second is the masculine female and the third is the female where there was male. Only one of these is a particularly negative archetype in my view: the female-as-male hero. For discussed reasons, this kind of character is disingenuous and shallow. She carries with her nonsensical political aphorisms that are temperamentally fuelled and entirely disengaged from philosophical questioning and the true semiotic, mythological narrative.

On the other hand, the masculine female (or the strong female) that can be seen in the likes of Moana is not a new character, but, she has evolved from the 20s when sexual expressiveness typified this archetype. This kind of character, if she was the only kind of female character in movies, may be interpreted as negative, but she seems only to broaden the range of female characters. She is then, at her best, not just a statement on freedom and liberty, but a movement into the dark, the confounding and the real. She becomes a real adventurer set upon a quest of depth and substance.

Lastly, there is the 'female in the place of male' character. We have been seeing this character recur since the 70s in films such as Alien that utilise role reversals. This kind of female character slots into a role that is sometimes like the masculine female role, but is often, when constructed well and true, abstract from the ghost of her counterpart. That is to say, whilst gender plays a role in the likes of Alien or a newer film such as Arrival, it is of no use to question where the male has gone because of how naturally the female fits into what would have once typically been his place. This kind of character proves, to a specific degree, that there is a place of equality in narrative where men and women are more or less the same (not completely the same, but highly similar). Sometimes, she does become the female-as-male hero as can be seen in films such as Logan - but that is the complexity/difficulty of the character.

These new characters and the change they bring into cinema are sometimes forces of great good. The majority of the time they only reflect the change that is going on in society and thus they are neutral. Sometimes, however, they reflect the ways in which the progressives working in cinema overreaches with depthless ideology. I then think there is value, for audiences and filmmakers, in diving deep into narratives to properly understand what has changed and what is changing in the most fundamental sense when we talk about these characters. In understanding the techniques of narratives under the guise of gender, I believe we will have a set of tools to watch and engage cinema with greater depth and direction.

To begin our main line of questioning, it is paramount to ask the most fundamental question we can: What is male and what is female? I am not of the belief that these are simple ideas, nor do I believe that they are constrained to the individual or the society around them. Looking at male and female from a Jungian perspective, one can argue that the two concepts are unconsciously mimetic and transcendent of the literal. That is to say, male and female are not just ideas manifested by mimicking, but are manifested by mimicking something transcendent of our current understanding. Male and female are in the unconscious, and they were put there before we were human. Jung makes this point in The Archetypes and The Collective Unconscious (page 101) as such:

How else could it have occurred to man to divide the cosmos, on the analogy of day and night-world peopled with fabulous monsters, unless he had the prototype of such a division in himself, in the polarity between the conscious and the invisible and unknowable unconscious?

The division of the cosmos that Jung initially references here is seemingly a nod to the Taoist concept of yin (dark, cold, moist, feminine) and yang (light, warm, dry masculine). The night and day he then elaborates on are the negative and positive of yin and yang manifest in the human understanding of the world, and the 'fabulous monsters' that populate this place are his archetypes: the mother, father, shadow, anima, animus, etc. He suggests that we were given these ideas in the form of a 'prototype', and it arises from the polar relationship of conscious and unconscious. In turn, Jung is suggesting here that the universe was masculine and feminine, was yin and yang, and manifested us with these ideas within ourselves. We took what the universe gave us and mapped it onto the worlds we created, turning unconscious gifts into conscious constructs. As a result, we constructed masculine and feminine over again for ourselves - and are still trying to figure out what is exactly what.

It is important to emphasise that, when Jung speaks of masculine and female, he is not necessarily talking about me, you, your mother or your brother. Whilst we are men and women, Jung believed that we are first and foremost imitating the masculine and female in the universe and, furthermore, that there is both masculine and feminine in all of us. What defines the masculine is having the proclivity to imitate the universal masculine, the yang, over the universal feminine, the yin. The female operates vice versa: she imitates yin above yang. It is paramount not to forget that yin and yang is in all, however.

Jung called this unified masculine and feminine that is in all a 'syzygy', which simply means a pair. If we are to understand narrative and mythology, I believe that we have to consider the fact that, not only are narratives entities into which we project syzygies, but that they have a syzygy themselves. That is to say, we have yin and yang play out in our stories whilst stories themselves are yin and yang.

To elaborate, I have to first propose that stories have three foundational entities: theme, drama and character. Theme and drama are the gods of story and characters are their play-things. Theme is then the domain of all narrative; theme is the representation of the storyteller's story-hypothesis and thus it is the network of ideas that form the logic and world of a narrative and cinematic space. Drama is the means of exploring theme; it is the adventurer that investigates the domain of narrative; it is action itself. Theme is the Ancient Grecian 'poetry', which is to say that it is creation itself, and drama is the Ancient Grecian 'drama', which is to say that it is action. When theme and drama meet, we have the basis of story: poetry in action. And so this is where character enters. Characters populate this dream as a new yin and yang; the universe is born and so it gives birth. Characters thus become the archetypes that Jung discusses at length and in incredible detail. In truth, they only became this to a degree. Characters are manifested by two entities: spectators and artists. Thus, the individual spectator projects their own 'deep-archetypes', those of the Jungian class, whilst artists project 'surface-archetypes', those of the general class that mediate between conscious and unconscious, unlike the Jungian archetype, which is only in the unconscious. Alas, a characters' purpose is to investigate and embody theme and/or character; their syzygy is contrasted with the narrative's syzygy. They are surrogate humans in a surrogate universe, and each has their yin and yang.

To reframe this set of thoughts, I feel it pertinent to introduce Jung's Eros and Logos into the frame. Eros, for Jung, presided over the female aspect of unconsciousness as a force of great binding. Conversely, Logos presides over the male unconscious as a force of discrimination. The Eros combines whilst the Logos separates. As a result, Eros comes to present a domain of sorts. In story, this domain is one of theme; one of collected ideas. Logos in story is drama, which is to say, it explores the domain by trying to separate it and pull it apart via conflict. This is the syzygy of the foundational narrative, and it is into this space that minor syzygies, characters who embody the syzygy of artist and audience, are injected.

It is now, then, that we can begin to question the purpose of characters, of which there are two main classes. The first class is the male character and the second is female. I am not yet talking about actual people, I am referring to the 'male character' as a force tantamount to yang and presided over by Logos and the 'female character' as yin presided over by Eros. And, with that in mind, male characters embody drama and explore theme. That is to say that male characters produce conflict as to explore the ideas and domain of a story. Female characters on the other hand embody theme and are themselves explored by conflict. In turn, they so often are ideas presented with conflict. Many story analysts pick up on these two types of characters and describe them as active and passive. Uncoincidentally, they are describing them as yin (passive) and yang (active). Jung has made a similar comment in regards to female as passive with this:

... emptiness is a great feminine secret. It is something absolutely alien to man: the chasm, the unplumbed depths, the yin.
Emptiness is this regard is the potential in the universe; it is the quality of creation and subsequent togetherness. Only the passive, the domain of ideas, can be populated. And an idea is represented in story through theme.

Narrative is a structure undefined, unpopulated and meaningless until it has ideas: themes. The structure, once it is populated, can be moved and explored by drama. Whilst male characters classically explore this domain of ideas, female characters operate in a way in which the idea is questioned and embodied whilst drama revolves around them.

Brilliant examples of female characters - feminine in the universal sense of Eros - come from the cinema of Maya Deren. It is Deren that deals with character as the embodiment of abstract theme. Conflict is around Deren's characters, but, one cannot form a chronology and a logic out of the conflict like the Logos may desire. Without discrimination, Deren's films are pure potential, and her characters are forces of equal stature; they are potential, they are the domain of the story and they seem to fall into the story and world around them, they do not try to sort it out; they live through it. You can see this done masterfully in Meshes of the Afternoon:

In this masterful short, there is no plot and no chronology to speak of. This is because Deren does not engage the masculine traits of story; she does not see drama discriminate ideas and spaces from one another to formulate a strict plot and a clear message. Deren instead embraces a purely and fundamentally female narrative form by focusing on time and characters as becoming; characters integrating into, and existing within, the universe, the space and time, around them.

Chantal Akerman is another filmmaker who operates with the purely female narrative. It is in Jeanne Dielman that we then watch a character exist. What matters in this film is theme and character; being and becomingness in space and time. Andrei Tarkosvky, too, makes very feminine films. For example, Mirror journeys into the anima of a man to explore theme abstractly and see characters engage their abstract domain, not manifest drama. Other films of true feminist descent, complex and serious in their approach to the female through narrative constructs that are, themselves, female, can be seen in Campion's The Piano, Varda's Vagabond and Almodóvar's All About My Mother. Each of these films engages the domain of being with focus on theme and character as idea. Almodóvar is a somewhat difficult example as he is deeply engaged with plot constructs, but so often does this ironically and absurdly. What's more, though Almodóvar seems to be making very feminine films, he is a strange character whose conception of male, female, mother and self seem very confused. Alas, these are a few select examples and many more can be found.

The feminine narrative has been established. What becomes of particular interest from this point is the masculine counterpart to this feminine kind of storytelling. This masculine story is, pretty much, the standard Hollywood film. It is one in which drama is put to the foreground and theme the background; one of strict plots and characters, conservatively parcelled and precisely structured. Particularly masculine films and cinematic narrative forms can be found in the crime and mystery film, which is heavily focused on plot over theme. Moreover, so is the action film. Mediating between the highly common masculine film and the relatively uncommon feminine film is the male-female film that often has emphasis on male. These are the most popular narratives: romances and adventures. These films are about both theme and drama (in Hollywood, emphasis is put on the drama and hence masculine). What is more, they are so often about the falling apart and coming together of male and female. There emerges many complications in this process which can be critiqued and analysed, but we won't discuss them here for the sake of retaining focus.

Let us then ask our initial question again: Why are heroes typically men?

Men are usually heroes because popular narrative forms focus on drama. Masculine characters embody and drive drama, thus, we manifest masculine characters in men. It is not coincidental that narrative forms focus on drama, however. Especially in cinema, we seek answers before we seek to question. I do not believe that this is particularly desirable. However, drama so often provides answers which can then be questioned. We reserve questions that can then be questioned, films all about theme, for the arthouse audience. That is because these films are difficult to engage, because the feminine (potential, yin) is difficult to engage. To then secure a greater position for truly feminine story forms, there would have to be a revolution in the way in which general audiences engage narrative meaning and theme. How this change would be put into place, I cannot know. I make the attempt by writing about the meaning of film which would support narrative forms of all classes, but much more would have to be done in the world of cinema to elevate the art form to a place that, arguably, no art form has truly achieved in popular culture.

But, whilst we hit a slight dead-end when questioning the presence of purely feminine story forms, we can look to modern cinema and see the feminine presence changing and expanding. What we are then seeing in modern blockbusters of the complex and positive kind - in my opinion, Moana is just one such example - is the place of the male as the only purveyor of the masculine element of story questioned. Character is then understood as, not just female and not just male, but, as bearing the Jungian syzygy by films with new(ish) female archetypes. As I have then explored, a film such as Moana will explore the animus and the Logos of a female. Other films, such as Arrival or Wonder Woman, will insert female characters into positions where characters would have a near-balance of anima and animus, Logos and Eros, within them. That is to say that they come to represent both drama and theme almost equally. It is this character, especially the type presented by complex and profound films such as Arrival, that seems to be the driving force that is taking us towards more feminine stories in the strict and true sense. And it does not just take an actress to expand upon this movement as a man in a lead role can also have a balance between Logos and Eros, and thus carry drama and theme. Great films of the past which have male characters, even classical films such as Rear Window (which many feminists find problematic) do just this. Modern films that are exacerbating and novelising the expansion of the characterological syszgy in narratives, films that utilise cheap techniques and shallow ideals to replace male with female and diminish the role of the male and idealise the role of the female, are of no help here. That said, mediocre and trashy films always have their place in cinema.

To bring things towards a close, I should emphasise the importance of the syzgy in narrative form and in character. Disregarding the position of male and female as abstract forces at each of these levels disables story and reduces it to non-art and cheap spectacle without meaning or purpose. This syzygy of narrative is what connects us to the transcendent. The more complex and truthful it becomes, the more powerful cinema becomes and the better we, as individuals, become.

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