If The Mitchells vs the Machines isn’t the funniest family movie of 2021 I will be deeply surprised. My attention was drawn to this film when the first trailers dropped and the expectation of the movie was a full theatrical release. That was, of course, prior to the COVID pandemic which appears to have led to a recalibration to a Netflix release. The marketing was relatively true to the narrative structure: the central relationship in the film was between a technophobic father and his hyper-connected daughter whose relationship is in crisis due to miscommunication.
The marketing maybe over-played the extent to which differing views on technology impacted the story. The conflict is more around a more fundamental misunderstanding of each other, specifically his inability to understand her art. As the film progresses it becomes clear rather that the central parent-child conflict is built not so much around Rick’s failure to understand Katie (though he does fail to understand her) but around his relationship to his own failure as an artist. Rick may be technophobic but this is presented as a manifestation of a deep and abiding love for nature and natural materials. Rick, some twenty years prior to the action of the film, built an off-grid cabin in the woods, with an exceptionally large number of craftsmanly flourishes, and ended up abandoning it because, for reasons never made entirely clear, it was an untenable situation for Katie as a toddler. The marketing for the movie is also quite anxious to tell audiences that the same creative team who made this film are the ones who were behind Spider-Man Into the Spider-Verse and the Lego Movie. Certainly a comparison with these other two movies is apt. Both of the previous films shared two significant similarities with this film through the use of a form of visual grammar that makes the psychology of the characters visible on screen and simultaneously sets expectations about the nature of the world in which the film is set and an attempt to probe at the uncomfortable corners of the relationship between child and patriarch.
This team has a deft touch and understands that families attend family comedies for the comedy rather than for any over-arching drama and as such they manage to avoid the maudlin excesses of Pixar offerings such as Coco, which often took itself far too seriously, while still managing to get at some of the discomfort they want to.
Of course another thing that sets The Mitchells vs the Machines apart from Pixar treacle is the decision to center the narrative around an openly and textually gay protagonist. Katie is a lesbian. When we see the world, at its happiest, through her eyes, rainbows in the colour of the lesbian pride flag spark and flash everywhere. However this is where the cracks start to show a little bit and some of the insidious problems peak through. Because the disconnect between Katie and her father isn’t because she’s gay but it is because she’s queer. And the movement of this misunderstanding surrounding identity into subtext, combined with the use of long-suffering mom Linda to request that we meet the patriarchy half-way, muddies the water of the story at least as much as the insufferable apologia made for big tech through the far-too-gentle treatment of Mark Bowman, the tech-bro whose actions nearly damn all of humanity.
Meeting Patriarchy Half-Way
The greatest weakness of The Mitchells vs the Machines is the desire of the creative team to make Rick Mitchell sympathetic. There’s a conservativism to Rick. He’s a luddite, as in he cannot operate a smartphone. He’s a bow-hunter. He drives a car from the 1990s and, to the extent we have any awareness of what he does for a living, he is a person who fixes things: a plumber, carpenter and mechanic who carries a screwdriver everywhere and who believes everyone else should too. Needless to say he drives stick and thinks it’s important to pass on that skill to children who will grow up fully in the age of hybrid and electric vehicle transmission systems.
Rick is shown as being expert at building, carving, designing snares and other simple machines and as being a force of pure unrelenting destruction to anything with a microchip. One of the initiating moments of conflict occurs when he accidentally smashes his daughter’s laptop. He later, quite intentionally, destroys his family’s cellphones and tablets, and the film builds to a climax that involves a very convoluted effort to drop a cell phone into a glass of water. Rick is low-key a survivalist. He’s obsessed with providing his children with the skills to survive to the point he often disregards what they need to thrive. Rick cannot understand his daughter’s art. She’s an aspiring film creator who posts her videos to YouTube (a service Rick is textually incapable of using short of the sort of pressures that turn his wife into a flying slayer-of-robots) and her art depends heavily on a sort of seamless integration into gen-z flow-of-consciousness memeing. This film is at its best when told from Katie’s perspective, as her Dadaesque art-style begins to invade the visual canvas of the movie, not so much breaking the fourth wall as contorting it into ever more maddening distortions. But the movie wants us to understand that the misunderstanding is reciprocal. Rick might be a patriarch who regularly disregards the agency of his children, who deigns to make decisions for the collective because he’s the dad and whose emotional fragility must be catered to because his physical strength depends entirely on the emotional strength of those who depend on him but, “you should meet your father half-way.” After all, he’s an artist, and a weirdo, too. And he’s just haunted by his failures. He just wants you to, “have a backup plan,” because he failed. He abandoned his dream to live within his art – because he had you. It’s somewhat alarming that it falls on Katie to accept the burden of her own father’s failure, particularly when all we see of it is him buckling her into a car seat and breaking off one carved-moose banister cap with which to remember his lost dream. The carved moose he gives to Katie to cheer her when she has separation anxiety. The carved moose she later discards as nothing more than the detritus of childhood. This thick symbolism positions Katie, her kind-hearted mother and her impulsive father within all-too-familiar an oedipal triangle (as Deleuze and Guattari put it, “daddy-mommy-me”) that suggests the problem with being queer isn’t a matter of social repression of desire but just the stress it causes for the nuclear family.
Likewise this film carefully scrambles codes by making Rick the most explicitly anti-capitalist force in the film. The movie takes care to show how tech monopoly leads to a “pal chip” in almost everything, even a tennis racket. It falls to Rick to ask why in the name of all that’s sacred somebody would put a microchip into a tennis racket to begin with. During one of the most visually entertaining action sequences of the film, the family are attacked by an army of Furbies and Rick shows absolutely no hesitance in shooting them down with a bow he is remarkably adept at firing. Katie, meanwhile, is so integrated with this technological milieu that her sense-of-the-world is overlaid with the sorts of emojis and stickers that permeate the online landscape even in the midst of a robot apocalypse. This is also the avenue in which Rick is forced to make the greatest shift – Katie needs to learn how to drive stick. Rick has to learn how to use a phone. These two facts are given somewhat equal weight within the narrative, as if Rick has to get with the program of the tech dystopia that the film shows us nearly destroying the world in the same way that Katie must meet patriarchy half-way.
Ultimately this film is harmed by such half measures and attempts at balance. The argument to moderation is a logical fallacy for a reason and a more dispassionate relation of the same text would show that Rick is something of a monster, and that Linda’s attempts to make peace between her husband and her daughter, despite some early promise where she subtextually threatens Rick with divorce if he doesn’t repair his failure, ultimately end up with a film afraid to have the strength of its convictions.
This is highlighted by the fact that for all that Rick shares the aesthetic trappings of a certain sort of American conservativism, he is entirely lacking the bigotry that is part and parcel of that way of life. As I said before his complaint with Katie isn’t that she’s gay but that she’s queer. He doesn’t have a problem with her dating girls, his problem is that her semiotics aren’t his. She’s opaque to him – until a friendly tech billionaire forces him to sit down and actually watch her movie. Their next-door neighbours are a painfully photogenic non-white family with whom Linda has an under-developed keeping-up-with-the-Joneses arc and Rick is fine with them. Never a hint of racism. This is made particularly strange by the fact that they are even more terminally online than his daughter. They should be as alien to Rick as Martians and yet he either ignores them or attempts to emulate them depending on the needs of the plot in the moment. So we have this all-American monster but he’s been sanitized, made palatable. In the name of both-sidesing Rick has been purged of any of the darker baggage that would most likely come with his worldview. Instead we’re presented with an alternate America that is colour-blind and where love is love but where Apple still insidiously rules the world, and where patriarchs can still cancel their daughter’s flights and demand a family-bonding roadtrip and can expect spousal support even if they have, “gone rogue.” The idea that these psychological conditions: the enclosure of the nuclear family and the elevation of the patriarch within it might correlate somehow with capitalism and that both might correlate with bigotry seems lost on the creative team to its detriment.
Mark Bowman deserves the guillotine
In a darker film, Rick would have been antagonist enough. Instead he becomes a symbiotic protagonist to Katie: each must serve as a foil to the other and each must learn to “find the middle ground” as half of a heroic team. This is deployed to good effect when, at the climax of the film, they are using random dance steps they devised to Dragostea Din Tea and we can be generous to overlook how the notoriously luddite Rick would have ever come across one of the foundation blocks of Internet Dada. The team behind this movie has learned how to weaponize nostalgia such that anyone who could put himself into the position of Rick will undoubtedly know the song even if they haven’t the first clue who O-Zone are. This is the same sort of cunning that led to the delightful sequence that turns Furby into some sort of weird-fictive robot dragon for Rick to slay.
But the rehabilitation of Rick demands another antagonist and, just as the movie has a binary of protagonists it also has a binary of antagonists in Mark Bowman and PAL. The mirroring goes beyond the doubling of protagonist and antagonist as the objective of Rick and Katie, to recognize the invaluability of relationship, is mirrored in the disposability with which both Mark and PAL show toward each other and, by extension, everybody else.
PAL is a virtual assistant designed by Mark, fully occupying the myth of the tech-entrepreneur-as-singular-genius-inventor, and it takes an evil turn when Mark suddenly and dramatically discards it, calling it obsolete garbage, at the unveiling of his new product: an android that serves as both a maid, a phone and a visual joke on the name of the largest mobile OS currently in market.
Reeling from being casually discarded, PAL immediately decides to do the same not just to Mark but to the entire human species, and devises an elaborate plan to collect all of humanity, to isolate each person into a pod just for them, and then to launch them into the depths of space to be alone, together, forever.
(Please do not ask how PAL arranged the pods or the rockets on such short notice.)
Mark becomes one of the first victims of PAL, being dragged off the stage and lectured at by PAL who monologues at him for a bit about the banal evil of a humanity that would gladly give in to absolute isolation as long as the wifi remains free and abundant, before jamming him into a pod to watch Katie’s movies for plot reasons. PAL decides to punish Mark by promising to put him next to the Mitchells, as soon as they are captured of course, and when Rick is captured immediately prior the climax PAL makes good on its threat. There, Mark serves to require Rick to actually watch his daughter’s movie. The pods are transparent and are not soundproof so Mark and Rick are able to talk and see each other but each pod has a screen and Mark’s is on the movie. This is the moment that allows Rick to understand Katie’s complaint with him and gives him the motivation to overcome his technophobia. Mark also serves as a expositor for how Rick’s own strangeness, encapsulated at this point by the fact he always carries a very specific screwdriver with him wherever he goes, can be used to overcome PAL’s nefarious plot.
And then the story conveniently forgets about the man whose own inability to recognize a relationship (PAL was fond of him and he treated it like garbage) and whose avarice (in putting PAL chips in every possible commodity in order to expand the reach of his tech empire’s “ecosystem”) almost leads to the total extinction of humanity. He’s let off the hook. He’s really sorry and he definitely learned his lesson. We are led to believe that it will be an era of a kinder, gentler tech bro who might not use people’s aggregated data as a marketing cudgel against them.
Eric Andre is honestly wasted in this role because there’s very little here: some posturing, a hint of Steve Jobs style douchery, and then depths of sincere regret. In any just world Mark would get the guillotine. The show ends with PAL executed and Mark restored to his position of power without even so much as a word. He disappears from the story; his actions might have incited PAL to revolt but he was never really the subject of critique.
The seductive appeal of it all
And yet despite the cleansing of Rick, the creation of a patriarch who must be met on his own terms, and despite the way in which Mark Bowman is let off the hook for, and I really want to drive this home, almost causing the extinction of the species single-handedly, damn me if I can’t help but like this movie. Katie is a delight of a protagonist. I regret her rebelliousness must be so forcefully situated within the oedipal triangle in part because she has so much potentiality to be transgressive even in the bounds of a children’s cartoon. As much as this movie likes to scramble codes, to bifurcate and explore the opposite halves of an already collapsed dialectic before putting everything back, so too does Katie’s own artistic vision engage in an act of decoding.
She makes movies starring her pug and sock puppets that simultaneously act as broad pastiche of the tired buddy cop genre and as hyper-specific discussions of her pain surrounding the distance she feels from her father. A lot of care and attention has gone into this movie-within-a-movie and it’s one of the best things in this film. There is a running gag surrounding the family dog Mochi. Mochi is a wall-eyed pug who is almost as bad at being a dog as my dear goblin Oliver. The androids that are tasked with capturing humanity by PAL cannot look at Mochi. When they do, it causes them to enter into a destructive loop of indecision about whether they are looking at a pig, a dog or a loaf of bread. This causes their heads to explode. Katie’s movie, featuring Mochi as the star, thus demonstrates another way of looking at the idea of virality. By scrambling the semiotic code of “dog,” “pig,” and “loaf of bread,” her movie becomes a mimetic weapon to use against the titular machines.
Another running joke in the film plays off Katie’s remark that her father resembles a hooting gibbon from a viral video. Overlays and filters whether the gibbon or “cat face filters” applied via phones invade the filmic reality in various ways that scramble codes too. This movie is constantly trying to make new and novel connections. This, then, is what reterritorialization looks like in action. Codes are scrambled – the dog is a pig is a loaf of bread – but then they’re recontextualized into something coherent again. The Oedipal triangle remains in place. The nuclear family is allowed to stand in for all the breadth of human relationship. If Katie and her dad can find common ground so can we all. And you can’t say it isn’t attractive. This is a beautiful movie. Its art is impeccable. And it’s a funny movie. Its comedic timing and, in fact, what it finds funny enough to build as the basis of a joke is basically perfect. This is especially good because it manages to do this with the precise sort of absurdist chaos that permeates online discourse. It’s a movie that understands its audience: zoomer kids and millennial parents. I couldn’t help but laugh and enjoy myself. The climax of the film is so funny that my wife actually came in to see what had my daughter and I both in such riotous stiches. And for all I might criticize the worm in the heart of the ideology of this film I can’t help but like Rick. He’s funny, sincere, and, despite the violence he does to electronic devices, he’s somebody who cares about fixing, building, protecting and many of the elements of masculinity that are least-toxic. His impulsivity and his sense that he should be able to lead solely by dint of being a patriarch are to his detriment but, damn it, the creative team of this movie have done far too good a job in rehabilitating him. Being both a schlubby x-millennial cusp dad and a queer weirdo artist it’s easy to experience the film both from the perspective of Katie and of Rick. This is the trap of the movie. The movie asks you to meet the patriarch half-way and then constitutes a patriarch who can be met half-way. I am glad, deeply glad, to see a movie that treats non-het sexualities as so normal that it is simultaneously constantly present and not even deemed a matter of discussion. And this film does that – as explicit as it is that Katie is gay, it is also explicit that this isn’t the cause of conflict. Her parents unquestionably accept that part of who she is. It’s the part where she’s a weird artist that makes her father anxious.
The problem with reterritorialization is that it works by giving us what we want and The Mitchells vs the Machines does that very well. I’m certain it will also create plenty of outraged conservative tears which will be delicious to various progressives who stand firmly by such aphorisms as, “love is love.” For me this is a source of discomfort. This isn’t a case of wanting to like a movie and being prevented by its flaws. I do like this movie despite its flaws. But there’s a discomfort in being given what you want and simultaneously watching as it draws a neat triangle around you and says, “we’ve redrawn the boundary for your comfort, please do not cross it.”
It’s to be expected that a movie financed by Sony and Netflix and created by a team that brought you a hyper-stylized comic book and a 101 minute toy commercial would fail to create something critical of capitalism, that they’d be unable to recognize that the subject of critique in PAL’s nihilism and Mark’s disregard for relationship was somehow connected to a psychology that triangulates social relations against a patriarch or that both were tied inextricably to capital. It’s a challenge because I do want to see media going the direction The Mitchells vs the Machines goes. It’s just that it doesn’t go anywhere near as far as art must.
Alone among authors in the 20th century, only Ursula Le Guin could have possibly written a book like A Wizard of Earthsea. Technically it’s a children’s book.
And I mean, on the surface, there’s certain qualities that A Wizard of Earthsea shares with children’s lit that make the categorization almost fit. It’s a short novel, barely 56,500 words long, and the edition I read (with the cover featured as my image) features large, clearly printed type to aid in ease of reading.
It’s a novel that focuses on a single subject and with a very minimal cast of characters. Le Guin is, excepting one notable adventure, very parsimonious with her deployment of characters, and very few figures of note arise in the first half of the book who don’t play a role in the second. While told in third person, the narration is very centered on Ged and we understand the story almost entirely from his singular point of view.
And, of course, it is a coming of age story. Although here we see Le Guin’s restlessness with convention as she pushes against the Campbellian structure of the coming of age story, featuring a protagonist who never refuses a call and who returns home half-way through his quest only to leave again.
However, despite these hallmarks of children’s fictions, this is a book with a density of theme and topic that could prove challenging for an undergraduate university student to fully disentangle. While I have positive things to say about some of the very inventive structural and pedagogical things done in modern children’s lit, for instance, Elizabetta Dami‘s use of modified type to emphasize key words is a very interesting artistic choice, and one with an obvious pedagogical benefit, I don’t think there’s a single voice in children’s literature in the 21st century who would tackle the very abstract topics like the ones that are at the center of Le Guin’s book. Because instead of taking readers on an exciting adventure, of creating a mystified simulacrum of a child’s social milieu, Le Guin digs into central ontological questions: What is the significance of a name? How do we address the being of death? What, ultimately, is it to be?
Perhaps we can say that Le Guin has more trust in children to grapple with problems that are difficult to hold. Or perhaps Le Guin, aware as she was of her singular intellect and talent, was arrogant enough to say that a Le Guin Children’s book shouldn’t deal with small, concrete, things but should rather aim in the same direction that any work of powerful literature does: toward the ineffable. Perhaps these things are inseparable, and Le Guin’s certainty in the ability of kids to keep up comes directly from her own intelligence, and the pride and will that come with it. Regardless, we can say, with certainty, that A Wizard of Earthsea presents a powerful standard against which much of children’s literature cannot compete.
The question of being
Since no thing can have two true names, inien can mean only "all the sea except the Inmost Sea". And of course it does not mean even that, for there are seas and bays and straits beyond counting that bear names of their own.
Le Guin comes to the question of being via the name. This is integrated into the story at a fundamental level. Names are important to people. They have a name they are given in childhood. This name is then discarded in a ritual during which a figure of ritual significance (in the case of Ged it’s his master Ogion the silent) will give a person a true name which is known only to them, their namer, and anyone they choose to tell. Such a disclosure is considered one of the greatest signs of trust a person can confer to another, as a person’s true name allows a magic user to do some pretty frightening things to a person. For general use, characters will have use-names: effectively nicknames that don’t carry the metaphysical tie to being that a true name has.
All this matters because a true name is a fundamentally unique thing and it is through the inhabiting of this unique address that a being is differentiated from all other beings. This largely derives from the thread of Taoist metaphysics that runs through the book. And this helps inform some of the limits of magic. A wizard can use the true name of a category of animal to transform themselves into that animal. This being is seen as false, or at least as not true, as it is a form of being assumed, the placement of a mask upon the unmediated being of the wizard. But this falsehood is in tension because wizards work their spells in the Old Tongue with which men can only speak truth. If a person says truthfully, “I am a hawk,” to become one his true being and the assumed being of the hawk are in tension. This leads to the risk that one could become lost in the transformed form. A wizard who transforms too often into a dolphin might end up becoming one in truth and not just in seeming. Of course this raises the question: if “I am a hawk” is a true statement but if it is also not true being, what differentiates the character of true being from that of assumed being? The text provides an answer, suggesting that true being lies in the continuous flow of identity, the process of a life lived taken whole. Or, as Ogion says:
At the spring of the River Ar I named you, a stream that falls from the mountain to the sea. A man would know the end he goes to but he cannot know it if he does not turn, and return to his beginning, and hold that beginning in his being. If he would not be a stick whirled and whelmed in the stream, he must be the stream itself, all of it, from its spring to its sinking in the sea.
And so we get this idea that being is an enunciation of difference, signified in a name, but that this isn’t all of being. Rather this is the shape of being. But what gives it thickness or truth is that it is a whole thing. Of course this is tricky because the nature of what constitutes a whole thing is vague. When Ged takes the form of a hawk he doesn’t become, in truth, this or that individual hawk. He becomes Ged, the hawk. The being he shares in when transformed is the category of being a hawk. But the category of hawk is not an individual category. It can be split into species of hawks. Families of hawks. Individual hawks. The wing of a hawk. the feather of a wing. Just as the name of an entire ocean must consider the name of every bay within it, so too is being fractal unless it’s given a final shape. It must have limits. One limit is when a thing begins, and the text is very clear about where things begin. “Years and distance, stars and candles, water and wind and wizardry, the craft in a man’s hand and the wisdom in a tree’s root: they all arise together.” Every true name is, to Ged, a syllable of the great word and as such is spoken in turn. But just as the syllable of a word has a definitive start, so too must it have an end. And, of course, that means that death is a definitive cutting off of being. To know one’s self is to understand every moment of a life between being named and the extinction of that name in death.
But names persist in memory, and so a thread of being exists even in death. This dialectically introduced ambiguity, which refuses to fully deny being to the dead in the same stroke that it refuses to fully define the being of the living, creates the central tension of the book. Because Ged is much like Le Guin: sharply intelligent, deep in lore, powerful and arrogant.
In Human All-Too-Human, Nietzsche provides a genealogy of revenge. He categorizes two principal forms of revenge one can commit. The first is an act of self-preservation in which the only thought is to escape from a source of harm. The second form of revenge, rather, is a premeditated one in which the person seeking vengeance doesn’t care even if they are harmed so long as they are able to do harm to their target. Nietzsche describes it thus:
This is a case of readjustment, whereas the first act of revenge only serves the purpose of self-preservation. It may be that through our adversary we have lost property, rank, friends, children—these losses are not recovered by revenge, the readjustment only concerns a subsidiary loss which is added to all the other losses. The revenge of readjustment does not preserve one from further injury, it does not make good the injury already suffered—except in one case. If our honour has suffered through our adversary, revenge can restore it. But in any case honour has suffered an injury if intentional harm has been done us, because our adversary proved thereby that he was not afraid of us. By revenge we prove that we are not afraid of him either, and herein lies the settlement, the readjustment. (The intention of showing their complete lack of fear goes so far in some people that the dangers of revenge—loss of health or life or other losses—are in their eyes an indispensable condition of every vengeful act. Hence they practise the duel, although the law also offers them aid in obtaining satisfaction for what they have suffered. They are not satisfied with a safe means of recovering their honour, because this would not prove their fearlessness.)
While Ged is at school he has a bully. This bully isn’t as clever or as talented as Ged and both of them know it. But the bully is older than Ged and has access to higher level instruction. The bully is also from a wealthy family, while Ged is quite proudly a rural goatherder. Ged resents the bully for his unkind barbs and provocations and things come to a head one night when Ged tells the bully quite straightforwardly that he is a superior magic user to the bully. Ged and the bully (Jasper – a precious stone, but not too precious) agree to a duel of magic power and Ged asks Jasper to set a task for him. “Summon up a spirit from the dead, for all I care!” Jasper tells Ged, and Ged replies, “I will.” As Ged and Jasper proceed to the place where Ged will summon a ghost, the text tells us, “Jasper was far beneath him, had been sent perhaps only to bring him here tonight, no rival but a mere servant of Ged’s destiny.”
What Jasper offends is Ged’s honour. His presence, his ability to, on the basis of wealth and age, lord anything over Ged is an affront to Ged’s dignity. And so he takes his revenge and he does so in a way that is deeply harmful to himself. Ged, in this act, unleashes the gebbeth, and suffers terrible wounds that take the better part of a year to recover from physically. The spiritual injury of this moment represents the principal conflict of the book. Ged is telling Jasper, by taking up any challenge Jasper can propose to him, that he has no fear of Jasper, and he is restoring his honour in this self-destructive act of revenge.
Ged succeeds in calling forth a ghost – that unifying thread that dialectically ties death to living and that gives the dead just enough being to still be differentiated from all the other things that can be named is enough for him to grasp on and bring forth the being that is named. But in the process something else comes through. The nature of this other thing then becomes something of a central concern of the book. The Archmage speaks to Ged after his recovery and says, “Evil, it wills to work evil through you. The power you had to call it gives it power over you: you are connected. It is the shadow of your arrogance, the shadow of your ignorance, the shadow you cast. Has a shadow a name?”
And of course, the Archmage is correct and gives Ged good council here, but Ged hasn’t the understanding of himself to see the answer there. So later when a dragon and when Ogion both insist that the shadow has a name, Ged treats this information as at odds to his teacher’s instruction. But here’s the thing. In Nietzsche’s genealogy of revenge, he ultimately concludes that the two modes of revenge cannot be disentangled from each other. In the judicial act of punishment, a public desire of social self-preservation is combined with a private desire to see honour restored. Sometimes these competing modes of a thing get bound up with each other, entangled in complicated ways. The archmage tells Ged that the shadow wants to inhabit Ged and do evil so he runs from it and in running he gives the shadow power. Eventually Ogion tells Ged that his flight gives the shadow power so he hunts it and in hunting he weakens it. Ged is tied up with the object created by his revenge in such a way that he cannot be disentangled from it. But how he knows it and what he knows of it help to define it. It is gebbeth – nameless – a shadow – his shadow – named – him.
But we get ahead of ourselves. There are two incidents that come before the flight and the hunt. In the first, Ged fails to save a child from death by sickness. In the second he kills five dragons and mortally wounds a sixth. Le Guin handles this juxtaposition easily. Ged is able to bring an ending to the stories of these wyrms simply. He binds their wings and pulls them from the sky. He transforms to a dragon himself and burns them to cinders. He binds the eldest dragon with its true name and commands it not to threaten the settlement under his protection. The whole encounter has an uneasy sense of ease about it. It is narrated in a way that makes it seem easy. But to outsiders this looks hard. The smallest dragons are the length of a forty-oar boat.
Before he kills the dragons he fails to save the child. The kid is the son of a fisherman who Ged befriends. Ged works together with the fisherman, his neighbour, regularly. He casts spells of protection on the fisherman’s boat and in return the fisherman teaches him how to sail without magic – a talent that will serve Ged well later. The child falls ill with a fever and Ged tries to save him but he’s too far gone before Ged arrives – his spirit is slipping into death. Ged is so concerned for the wellbeing of his friend’s son that he follows the child’s spirit into death and barely escapes himself. The shadow is waiting at the wall between living and death and finds Ged there. This is the incident that sets in motion Ged’s need to flee it.
Ged flees and the shadow becomes powerful. He is manipulated, in the fear of his flight, into a perilous adventure and barely escapes, having to flee again, pursued again. He returns home, and there learns from Ogion what he needs to know. That he never should have run from it.
Completeness in being
Ged chases the shadow and it weakens.
He catches up to it and it tricks him into a shipwreck. He rebuilds his ship and continues his chase and he catches it – it has begun to look more like him. He tries to grab hold of it but it’s a shadow and there’s nothing to hold. “The body of a gebbeth has been drained of true substance and is something like a shell or a vapour in the form of a man,” we are told, and like vapour the shadow slips through Ged’s fingers. Later he encounters rumours that he passed by before. People he meets see him as an uncanny doubling – they’re troubled by this man who fled across their lands and who afterward chased himself.
Ged chases the shadow until it runs out of world to be chased through. He finds himself in an abstracted plain where the sea has turned to sand but which is also still the open sea. There he finally catches up with the spirit.
Aloud and clearly, breaking that old silence, Ged spoke the shadow's name and in the same moment the shadow spoke without lips or tongue, saying the same word: 'Ged.' And the two voices were one voice.
Ged reached out his hands, dropping his staff, and took hold of his shadow, of the black self that reached out to him. Light and darkness met, and joined and were one.
The archmage was right that the gebbeth is the shadow he casts. Later in Human All-Too-Human, there is a dialog between the Wanderer and his shadow. In it, the Wanderer says, ” Now I see for the first time how rude I am to you, my beloved shadow. I have not said a word of my supreme delight in hearing and not merely seeing you. You must know that I love shadows even as I love light. For the existence of beauty of face, clearness of speech, kindliness and firmness of character, the shadow is as necessary as the light. They are not opponents—rather do they hold each other’s hands like good friends; and when the light vanishes, the shadow glides after it.”
Ged is the arrogant young man who seeks revenge when his honour is slighted by a man he sees as inferior. Ged is the man who wades into death to save a child and fails. Ged is the man who drags dragons from the sky and who gives a well with clean water to two mute exiles on an abandoned sandbar far from home. Ged is the light and the darkness and the only thing that gives his shadow power over him, the only thing that allows his shadow to harm him, is his unwillingness to face it. In the world of A Wizard of Earthsea every thing that is is that which can be announced to be different from all other things. The gebbeth lacks a name because that cannot be announced – it is merely a part of Ged as surely as the feather on the wing of the hawk – and it waits for Ged patiently at the boundary between life and death because one of the aspects of the shadow is death.
Ged is the wellspring of power that rises out of the primordial origin of all things. He is the doer, the agent of action in the story. The gebbeth is the un-doer, the reactive, the end of things. Ged, to come into an understanding of himself, must see his end as clearly as his beginning. He must be as aware of the ways in which he un-does as the ways he does. Unexamined, Ged’s shadow-self seeks revenge against Jasper and it is let loose, it rampages. It kills. It hounds Ged from crisis to crisis. But when faced, when Ged points to his own darkness and calls it with his name, it comes; it becomes; it comes into being. But by coming into being it is done away with because it becomes nothing but the awareness Ged has of his own potential toward death. There is no other here. There isn’t a wanderer and his shadow – there is a river, all of it, from its spring to its sinking in the sea.
Live without your sunlight
Love without your heartbeat
I, I can't live within you
---- David Bowie, Within You
Labyrinth is a bit of an off-putting film at first glance. It’s the creative collaboration of several very disparate artists, with the input of George Lucas, Brian Froud, Terry Jones, Jim Henson and David Bowie contributing to a work of art that is nearly as lumpy and misshapen as the goblin puppets it features. Our two principal leads are Sarah and Jareth – played by Jennifer Connelly in one of her earliest major roles and David Bowie. One of these performers struggles somewhat heroically to bring a grounded sense of seriousness to a movie principally populated by puppets. The other is David Bowie in all his strange glory.
I feel a sense of sympathy for Connelly, whose performance was not well rated by viewers at the time that Labyrinth was released because she needed to, at sixteen, perform a role that depended on a fair bit of nuance, where growth is more explicit than the gesture of a forgotten line of a play but also kept largely and, at times uncomfortably subtextual. Not only this, but she has to do it when she is only ever sharing a screen with either a panoply of Jim Henson puppet masterworks or, (even harder) David Bowie’s mad kabuki wizard. It is always difficult to have to be the emotional ground tasked with responding to a scenery chewer but Connelly soldiers on gamely and ultimately delivers a sincere performance of a young woman forced by social pressure and the inevitable march of time to assume a new place in the world.
The remainder of the cast consists of Sarah’s father and step-mother, the baby Toby and a whole bunch of absolutely wild puppets. It’s something of a misfortune that Sarah’s role in a film that is as aggressively internal as Labyrinth has been overshadowed within the form of its cult following by the strangeness of Bowie’s performance and by these wondrous puppets but they do demonstrate clearly the legacy of the Henson company – and their peerless ability to realize things that are simultaneously grotesque and beautiful.
The challenge we have to confront when reviewing Labyrinth though is that it is entirely and completely Sarah’s movie. There’s hardly a scene she isn’t in, her quest is the action of the film, and even from the film’s first gestures, Labyrinth situate the story as being one that happens within Sarah. A reading of this film that tries to interface with its themes must thus situate all the wild and bizarre goblins, monsters, and even the antagonistic Jareth as aspects of Sarah. This gives way to one of Labyrinth’s chief illusions: A movie about a maze that seems at odds with its own clearly deliberate directionality. Labyrinth situates Sarah in a place where movement in all directions is possible, but the story always only moves inward and downward.
Labyrinth begins by demonstrating Sarah, lingering in a park and in a state of forgetfulness having to rush home in the rain. She argues with her step-mother over the question of responsibility and goes to hide in her room: a quintessential sanctum filled up with the bric-a-brac of a young life.
As she flees her unnamed step-mother, the (honestly decent and reasonable) woman shouts out at Sarah that she almost wishes the girl had been out with a boy. That would have been a normal thing for a sixteen year old to do. Instead, Sarah is lingering in a park and struggling to memorize the lines in a play. We get a sense she intends to audition but we are never told. Even this early on we see a movement inward within the film. Sara moves from an open park to the street to the foyer to the sanctum of her room. She is only forced out of her childish sulking when she discovers one of her favourite toys, a teddy bear named Lancelot, is missing. The film uses establishing photography effectively, if not with subtlety, to give us a sense of the sort of girl Sarah is. She reads the Wizard of Oz and names her toys for Arthurian figures. She has multiple books about fairy tales, and still reads Maurice Sendak at the age of sixteen. In its establishing scenes we get a clear visual sense of who Sarah is: an intelligent but immature girl, introverted and self-contained, loving of her childhood and too nostalgic. Labyrinth, as a film, is deeply hostile to nostalgia.
Driven out of her sanctuary to find her errant toy, Sarah finds Lancelot on the floor of her infuriating half-brother’s nursery. He is standing at the edge of his crib crying. No matter how Sarah pleads, coddles or scolds Toby he won’t stop crying so she mostly monologues at him about how insufferable it is to have a baby in the house. The unspoken looms in the background – that with the entrance of Toby into the home, Sarah isn’t the baby anymore. The presence of this toddler has made it more urgent that Sarah grow up and assume the responsibilities of adulthood.
By accident, she casts a spell and summons the Goblin King who promises to take away Toby and leave, in exchange, a crystal ball that will let Sarah see her deepest dreams. The Goblin King is a liar in this, like in everything he does, and his baubles full of dreams are just illusions. But his promise to take away the baby is all too real. When Sarah begs that she didn’t mean for her brother to really be kidnapped, Jareth gives her a quest instead: traverse his labyrinth in thirteen hours to claim her brother or lose him forever.
The rest of the movie involves Sarah moving into the labyrinth. This movement involves a process not just of continual inwarness but also of descent. Sarah moves always toward Jareth. She might want to claim her brother, but in the final moments there is just her and the Goblin King: her quest might be motivated by a desire to rescue her brother but its object is the moment of confrontation with him.
Jareth is the antagonist of the film but he’s a singular one. Jareth is far more like a psychopomp or the assigner of heroic trials than he is a villain. At times, when it seems like the challenge put forward to Sarah is too easy, Jareth will personally intercede, he will tempt Sarah, try to persuade her to give up. He always seems quite sincere in his efforts to stop her, but he is also the one who set the initial conditions of the challenge. Jareth is the on who brought Sarah to the edge of his labyrinth and who told her to seek him at its heart.
Jareth manipulates Hoggle and tries to force him to betray Sarah through his fear. But when Jareth finally makes good on his threat that if Sarah ever kisses Hoggle he’ll be thrown into the Bog of Eternal Stench, they encounter Sir Didymus who immediately undertakes to help Sarah with her quest, and whose courage is ultimately instrumental to Sarah’s success. It seems a little strange that the Goblin King, this ever-present sovereign who can be anywhere at any time, who can reshape time itself to his whims, would work so hard to force Sarah into the very place where she needs to be to meet an important ally. Critics of Labyrinth have previously pointed out that the film struggles as the stakes often seem undercut by the action. This is in part because Jareth imposes obstacles that are designed to be overcome. He wants Sarah to progress toward him. It’s just important to Jareth not just that she confront him in his palace but that she do so at the final moment.
So Jareth is not an adversary so much as a guide. Sarah walks his labyrinth and he leads her on her path. He sets out trials for her of cunning, and compassion, of will and perseverance and he ensures that Sarah always understands her choice. She can retreat, or she can advance, knowing that the reward for success will be the chance to undertake another trial. Jareth wants Sarah to recognize that she needs him and he gives her a quest that is designed to seduce her over to that view. He also gives her ample opportunity to turn aside, but for all that he might bluster, the last thing Jareth wants is for Sarah to do that. She must march onward and face Jareth directly. This is in part because we must recognize, the film primes us to recognize, that Jareth, Hoggle, Sir Didymus and all the rest are aspects of Sarah and her symbolic quest is one into herself.
The beauty and terror of adulthood
Sarah is standing at a boundary – this isn’t uncommon in coming of age stories. A map of Labyrinth onto Campbell’s hero’s journey is almost trivially easy.
But Labyrinth isn’t simply wearing the idea of coming of age as a frame for an exciting story targeted at children who are themselves on the boundary of mature responsibility. Rather, Labyrinth is a film that examines that boundary and then asks whether it is there at all.
It’s no secret that Sarah is reluctant to leave childhood behind. She needs the figures of her childhood: children’s books, toys and memorabilia. Even her more mature interests – in theatre and performance – are grounded in play and childishness. She can’t remember her lines!
Sarah has responsibilities and would like very desperately to forget this. But she doesn’t want to forget everything. Instead, she wants to forget about the future. What comes next will sort itself out, but in her room she can hide and remember when she was the baby, when her family was whole. Jareth then is adulthood. He’s the terror of responsibility; the agony of deadlines; he’s the challenge of conflicting loyalties that have complexified beyond mommy and daddy; he’s the allure of sex. Sarah rejects adulthood when she demands goblins take her baby brother and Jareth comes to remind her that becoming an adult is not a choice she can just opt out of. He forces her to assume that root of responsibility – an obligation to a helpless other – and he gives her challenges that require her to employ the talents of an adult. She must deal with false friends, contend with logic puzzles, confront death and danger, show compassion, make judgments that disregard the superficial; she must accept the allure of the sensual, accept it is a field she will be able to operate within, but also develop the tools to decide when it’s time to leave the party and get back to work. She must reject nostalgia. Through it all, Jareth sets the pace, calls the tune and arranges the pieces to entice Sarah with this aspect of childhood or with that promise of pleasure.
He offers her dreams. He offers her drugs. He offers her himself. It’s unsurprising that many fan-interpretations of the film propose Jareth as a Byronic hero. Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights is acknowledged as one of his antecedents. Many fan works suggest that Sarah is an avatar of some lost and eternal love, that Jareth’s simultaneous attraction and repulsion of Sarah is a courtship and that what he wants is her love. But Jareth doesn’t say he can’t live without her. He says he can’t live within her. Jareth doesn’t want Sarah to take what he’s offering. He just wants her to continue walking the labyrinth. Remember that labyrinth walking is a spiritual and meditative act. The process of slowly walking the winding circumference of a labyrinth is itself a movement into the mind and into contemplation. And for all the times Jareth tells Sarah to turn back we cannot possibly disregard the extent to which he is the architect of her trials. We should reject the surface read: that Jareth wants Sarah to marry him in favour of this, more internal, reading of the character. Jareth wants Sarah to become him. Jareth is the master over all these child’s things because Jareth is adulthood. He is the good and the bad, he beautiful and the terrifying, the master and the obligated. He calls Sarah to walk his labyrinth and to undertake his trials so that she can take upon herself his aspect – so that she can be her own sovereign. But then Sarah does something entirely unexpected: in the final moment, she rejects him. Sarah discovers that she doesn’t need to take up the sovereign and reject childhood. There is no threshold to cross. She may have changed but she is still herself. She can be more responsible and still be the child who loves fairy tales. But she is not unchanged. In order for Sarah to unify the child hiding in her room with the Goblin King, in order for her to be able to reject Jareth in the way an adult would rather than the way a child would she needs to integrate who she is now into her sense of self. She must learn what of the child is still her, the Wild Thing, and what is just nostalgia for a past that is gone.
Nostalgia is death
The most terrifying moment of Labyrinth is also one of the most gentle. Having escaped Jareth’s masquerade dream, Sarah falls into a junkyard. While there she meets a goblin woman who leads her into a cave, and that cave is her bedroom. The Junk Lady sits her down at a mirror and begins piling all the objects of her childhood that are dear to Sarah around her. Piece by piece, Sarah’s profile is obscured by the lumpy, misshapen, mass of all the things she owns and invests with value. The Junk Lady attempts to entomb Sarah in the living death of being ever-trapped in the recollection of the past.
The original idea of nostalgia was the pain and anxiety of being away from home and uncertain if you would ever see it again. It is a sadness that reflects death in the future in the mirror of memory. Sarah is standing on a threshold and unsure if she should cross it, and one of the principle obstacles is the fear that if she crosses, she cannot return. Jareth promises the pleasures and pains of adulthood, and one of those things is the recognition of death. By the time Sarah reaches the city of the goblins this is explicit enough that the threat of war is mobilized upon her. Jareth, the avatar of adulthood, also promises forgetting. But it isn’t the forgetting of the future Sarah wanted, it’s forgetting of the past, a putting away of childish things. And Sarah is terrified of the idea she might forget this. Instead she clings to her past, terrified that if she lets go of it she will die before she ever returns to it.
But staring in the mirror, as the Junk Lady entombs her in the living death of nostalgia, Sarah is filled with revulsion. She rips the walls of her bedroom down with her bare hands, smashes out into the uncertain future and joins her friends to confront the Goblin King.
Sarah doesn’t take everything the Goblin King promises. When she confronts him at the stroke of the thirteenth hour she says to him, “you have no power over me,” and in the remembering of the forgotten line she succeeds in her trials. Jareth fails to make Sarah into him. She does not have to set aside childhood. ” Well, if that is the way it is done, then that is the way you must do it. But, should you need us…” Sir Didymus says. And this integration of the child into the woman is the mode of integration that lets her escape the illusion of Jareth’s adulthood. In the end, her puppet friends remain there, when she needs them, when responsibility is hard and has to lean on the wonder of the child.
But they aren’t the toys she curated like exhibits in a museum, they’re the living, breathing, feeling creatures she met on her journey into understanding. Sarah reconciles the obligation of adulthood, which Jareth wants her to take up, forgetting the child, with the joy and wonder of childhood. She’s obviously a creative child, an artistic and literary soul, and there’s nothing wrong in wanting to keep that element of childhood. She doesn’t need to forget it. What she cannot do any longer is be its prisoner. Obligation occurs. Eventually we all grow and change. Rejecting nostalgia doesn’t have to be a forgetting; it can instead reconcile the joy of childhood into the maturity of adulthood. We must not let our past entomb us.
Shocked from our senses when the Earth crashes in
Something's going on underneath your skin
Oh, purple jaguar eye
Open up and be alive
See the world in vivid color
There's no turning back
- Purple Jaguar Eye, Sterling K. Brown
I think that children’s media can be a very fertile avenue for critique in part because I think the sorts of stories we choose to tell children say a lot about the culture we aspire to create. As such I’m going to be writing a semi-regular series of essays specific to children’s media, and I couldn’t think of a better place to start than with Kipo and the Age of Wonder Beasts.
This three-season series of cartoons was produced by DreamWorks in collaboration with Studio Mir and is based on a webcomic by Radford Sechrist. It tells the story of a 13 year old girl who is separated from her father when their underground settlement is destroyed. This forces her out into a world dominated by giant, sentient, mutant animals where she undergoes an incredible metamorphosis and decides to reconcile humanity to a world of, “Mutes.”
Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts is a post-apocalyptic story, but it is perhaps the most singularly optimistic post-apocalypse I’ve ever seen, as it shows that the only impediment to the birth of the new world are those people too small to let go of the one that has past.
Kipo attracted attention upon release for its carefully crafted diversity, featuring a deliberately multiethnic cast both of animated characters and actors, and a storyline that trafficked heavily in the politics of representation. While principally a show about race, Kipo also provides a queer reading that is, honestly, one of the best executions of the type targeting kids.
But, while I do think that the show’s queer and race related narratives are valuable and important from a pedagogic perspective, I think there’s some interesting things happening here specific to the relationship between the body and systems of power that is somewhat unique within children’s television. Kipo’s transformation, its irreversibility, her fear for how it will impact her identity including the risk she might lose herself in it, and how the show demonstrates the relationships between body autonomy and political power go beyond simple themes of inclusion and into a deeper idea about the connection between embodiment, identity and power. And I think the end result is a remarkably anarchistic text that presents a valuable frame for imagining other ways we could live.
Transformation and adulthood
Of course the simplest reading of Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts is as a bildungsroman. We have a child at the cusp of adulthood who is pushed out into the world. She goes on an adventure which aids in her moral development. She meets other people who have lived substantially different lives, builds friendships of weight and significance outside the bounds of family. She begins growing hair places where hair didn’t grow before.
This isn’t all that different from the Hobbit except for the place where the puberty metaphors spill over into unambiguous text. But one place where this show differs from a lot of other coming of age stories is by willingly showing just how destructive to the child’s sense of self it can be to become and adult. When Kipo starts to change, she’s convinced her friends will reject her on the basis of her difference. And Wolf, who is bound up in her own trauma, very nearly does until she’s talked down. But beyond the fear of social rejection, beyond simple awkwardness, Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts traffics in straight up terror. Kipo is becoming a Mega Mute. As a result of the genetic experimentation of her own parents, she isn’t simply human but instead contains the genetic material of a giant “Mega Jaguar,” a form of mutant animal that goes beyond the human-sized characteristics of most Mutes and into the realm of kaiju.
Only there’s a problem. See, Kipo’s transformation into a “Mega Mute” is not within her control. She grows hair and gains powers based on moments of stress but, at first, has no control over what her body is doing. She gains those purple jaguar eyes, and the ability to see in the dark, in response to the peril her friends are in but not because, in that moment, she makes a choice to transform. It just happens. And she doesn’t know why.
As time goes by her transformations become more extreme. And the more she transforms, the less control she has over her transformation. She learns she isn’t the first person to become a Mega Mute. Her mother, Song, previously was transformed into a skyscraper-tall six-armed spider monkey and was unable to revert back to a human form. She’s trapped forever in this vast and horrific, inhuman, body. And if Kipo doesn’t come to understand her body and the changes happening to her, she might face the same fate. Already she can feel the breath of the Jaguar on her neck, the primal urge to hunt and to devour.
She seeks the spiritual advice of three blind goats who practice cheese-based divination (the setting of this show is just about the wildest thing out there) and they tell her she needs to discover an emotional anchor to allow herself the power to control her transformations. She quests to find this, and eventually believes it to be a photo of her family taken when she was an infant, just a few days before her mother’s transformation and her father’s flight with her. Only she’s wrong. The anchor isn’t the memory of the past; the anchor is the relationships Kipo has forged with her peers, outside the safety of family, in the present. Her development into an adult gives her power over her body. And oh but she is powerful. Kipo as the mega-jaguar looms above the over-sized canopy of trees in the Timber Cat village. She is so large that she’s more akin to a geographical feature than a person. In one amusing sequence, Kipo is attempting to persuade a villain to reform and he keeps trying to escape. Each time, a paw many times larger than his body slaps down in front of him, a soft, but impenetrable shield.
Kipo, fully in control of her body, has power. The only thing she cannot do with her body is go back to being a child. There’s no going back. The transformation is irreversible. Her ability to control her power comes directly and textually from her recognition that it is her body, that she is this being who has these capabilities and that the purple jaguar isn’t some other being to be leashed but rather is just… her.
Power from the body
The idea of power as a function of embodiment runs through Kipo at all kinds of levels. Throughout all elements of the show, mutes are invested with strange biological abilities that are consistent across their species-gang. The mod-frogs, aside from their sharp fashion sense, all are able to race through environments like mad parkouristas, tongue-first. Deathstalkers are terrifying eyeless nightmares that hunt by sound and the motion of the air. Mega mutes, both natural ones like the pigeons, crabs, bunnies, beavers and dogs and artificially created ones like Kipo and her mother have vast strength and are nearly impervious to injury. Song Oak gets one of her six hands encased in molten gold at one point and it hurts her, but only momentarily. She goes right back to her urgent work moments later. Some mutes are stranger still.
Fun Gus is a sentient colony of orange mold. It is bound to the place it fruited, but it is a pervasive entity within that space, more akin to a haunting than to an occupancy. Its body is everywhere, it is an amorphous blob of organic matter that takes up its entire nesting space, but it brings its consciousness to a head when it needs to communicate. It’s a being that exists only within itself. It’s a genius loci, tied so thoroughly to its place that it is effectively a prisoner within the bonds of its own body and it is terribly lonely. Fun Gus is like Kipo in a way; it wants to open the door to the oOther. But it is so desperate for the recognition of the Other that it refuses to let anyone who falls into its clutches go.
There are, of course, the cheese-divining goat women, and a host of other bizarre creatures (have I mentioned the k-pop narwhals with perfect pitch?). And of course there is Dave, the serially immortal insect who cycles through a lifecycle of infancy, childhood, adolescence, adulthood, strength and decrepitude before reverting once more to infancy. Dave, the last of his species, the only survivor of a genocidal war with humans (over ownership of a battery powered fan) cannot ever die (except for one secret way and he’s not going to make the mistake of telling anyone that secret… again.)
Again and again, the power these creatures have goes hand in hand with the capabilities of their bodies; but there’s an element of nuance wherein these powers are delimited by the autonomy they have over their bodies. Dave is a bit of a joke character because he has so little command over his transformations. The powerful horned beetle molt of Dave’s is fleeting and often emerges not when it is needed. And when it fades, geriatric Dave is physically weak, paranoid and superstitious – a detriment in a crisis rather than a boon. Dave has an amazing power in his immortality but his lack of agency over its use neutralizes him, makes him a good comedic sidekick rather than a protagonist.
But the most powerful creatures in Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts, aside from Kipo, are those with the ability to take the autonomy away from others: the sentient colony of tardigrades that goes by Mulholland and the two principal series antagonists, the mandrill Scarlamagne and the human Dr. Emilia. I want to examine these entities in greater detail, because a lot of how Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts address the question of embodiment and power lies in a reading of these three.
I am not sure I’ve ever seen a stranger character in a piece of children’s entertainment than Mulholland – who is now officially also the strangest tardigrade character on TV (sorry Ripper). Mulholland is mostly water. Specifically it is any bit of water occupied by part of the Mulholland collective, a hive mind of microscopic tardigrades who are able to create bodies out of water, to go into any fluid environment… and also to pass directly into brains where he can… interact.
When Mulholland originally encounters Kipo and her friends, he traps them each in fantasies designed to be perfect worlds. He does this claiming to help them but really he just wants to keep everybody still long enough to eat them.
He fails because the perfect world he creates for Wolf is just a bit too perfect – there’s themes of embodiment here we’ll explore later when we talk about Wolf – and after Wolf escapes, the other dreamstates become untenable. Benson and Dave are already quite aware that their dreamscape is artificial, they’re having a good time and don’t recognize the danger, but they are easy to persuade to wake up. Kipo has to have a cathartic moment with her parents, who she still hasn’t found at this point in the show, so she’s the last to be freed. But then the show does something strange.
Mulholland is basically unkillable, but they’re at an impasse. With them awoken he can’t do much to Kipo and her friends; he is, after all, a pool of water full of microscopic bugs. So they talk to him and he agrees that maybe using his power to eat people isn’t a good way to live.
This is interesting because we reach a point of equilibrium in power. Kipo and her friends can’t harm Mulholland and he can’t harm them. They could keep trying to fight, but they wouldn’t accomplish anything. Each subject’s power cannot find purchase in the body of the other. And so, at the moment where each recognizes that they have no choice but to accept the autonomy of the other, they talk. This is a pattern that occurs throughout the series, which frequently becomes a process of the protagonists avoiding a dangerous situation on their way to have a conversation with somebody who needs to be talked around.
Mulholland decides to go and find himself and allows his body to disperse, seeing the world through thousands of microscopic eyes. He remains in the show as this diffuse presence that appears in times of need to help. After all, he’s nearly everywhere. Even inside.
But this new Mulholland has learned to respect the sanctity of peoples’ minds. And so, when inside another he doesn’t put them into narcotic dreams; he instead facilitates communication and prohibits compulsion.
This last point is important because the first principal antagonist of the show is all about compulsion.
Scarlamagne is the only artificial mute in the series who is not also a human, and he is one of Kipo’s closest kin. Most of humanity is trapped in underground “burrows” and humans on the surface fare poorly, as demonstrated by the war of attrition between the “Fanatics” and the army of Dave, which concludes with only one human (Benson) surviving in addition to the annihilation of the population of Daves.
The burrows are little safer; the show makes it painfully clear that humanity cannot survive in the burrows. The first burrow is destroyed when it’s cracked like an egg by Song, under Dr. Emilia’s control. The second burrow is raided by Scarlamagne and its population are carried away. The third and final burrow seen in the show is, in the show’s present, the home of Fun Gus. And, while searching for clues to her past in order to help her control her transforming body, Kipo discovers this ruined burrow was where she and Scarlamagne were both born.
Prior to her birth, Kipo’s parents were geneticists who were working to study the causes of the global mutation of plants and animals, and also to find a way to reverse it. They needed to replicate the mutagen that created the Mutes in order to find a method of reversing its effects. They have a very limited pool of non-mutated animals to use as test subjects and so the burrow’s scientific authorities assign Lio and Song a mandril infant as a test subject. After an extended period of time they succeed, and Hugo gains sentience. This is the moment they realize the weight of what a cure would entail – stripping a world of intelligent, inquisitive and entirely inhuman creatures of the self-awareness they seemed to have spontaneously developed. Repulsed by the realization of what they would be doing, Lio and Song decide to hide their success with Hugo from their superior, Dr. Emilia. They instead begin a new project, attempting to splice human and Mute genetic material and to bring the resulting progeny to term, as their child, in-vitro.
Please, do not think too hard about the ethical implications of this. It makes a sort of emotional sense that works to situate them as good people beside Emilia’s obvious villainy.
This remarkable human experiment is successful, but during the gestation period, their suspicious behaviour causes Dr. Emilia to investigate and she discovers Hugo. What’s more, she discovers Hugo produces pheremones in his sweat which allow him to command other primates.
It’s a truly hideous power. See, he doesn’t control minds. He controls bodies. Contact with Hugo’s sweat causes the victim to stand rigidly alert with an unnatural grinning rictus across their faces – it never reaches their eyes, which generally just reflect terror. Once a primate is affected by Hugo’s sweat, they remain his puppet for an extended period of time. They become incapable of refusing him anything. It seems as if they are perfectly aware in the moment that their bodies are not their own to command, but there is nothing they can do but obey.
When Dr. Emilia discovers this capability of Hugo’s, she traps him in a glass box and forces him to walk a treadmill, draining his sweat to make a stock of chemical weapons. Lio and Song conspire to escape as soon as the child is born and to bring Hugo with them. But they are discovered, and in the chaos, Song is transformed, and Lio and Kipo are separated from Hugo.
Alone on the surface, and recently tortured, Hugo rapidly discovers to use the power of his sweat to gain security and control over others. Lio meanwhile flees hopelessly clutching his baby, in desperate hope of finding safe harbour.
They meet, and Lio, in a panic, refuses to trust Hugo, who is acting strangely. He flees with Kipo.
Scarlamagne is born here.
Scarlamagne’s character is as strange as his physicality. He’s obsessed with the fashion and manner of the Baroque period and plays waltzes on an antique pianoforte with monstrous, manic intensity. He sneers and he rages and gestures wildly. He’s honestly one of the best pieces of animation in a show that generally depends more on strangeness and stylization than it does on fully realized character movement. He’s a conqueror. He travels about the surface with an aerial cavalry of collaborator apes, monkeys and tarsiers and of human slaves all adorned in ornate red uniforms and powdered wigs riding two-headed giant Flamingos. His own steed wears the shell of an old convertible as armor, and as a saddle.
He’s also a slaver. His kingdom is built on the coerced labour of captured humans. They fill the ranks of his army – implacable puppets silently advance upon any Mutes who disobey Scarlamagne, with rapiers at the ready. He breaks into a vault and takes all the gold because he realizes humans loved it, and so he wants to rule it. Scarlamagne was subjected to slavery, torture and rejection by humanity and he intends to repay every slight a hundred fold. And as he does it, he unites the warring gangs of Mutes into a nation, ruled by him. Nobody can match his military might, with the ranks of his fighting force filled out by humans he’s happy to let die on the battlefield. In his power he has decided to crown himself king of the Mutes. He will build a golden condominium with stolen Human gold shaped by stolen Human hands but a human child is causing a commotion.
Eventually, Scarlamagne discovers that Kipo is immune to his control. His sweat only affects primates, and with her DNA half that of a Mega Jaguar, Kipo isn’t entirely a primate. He cannot take her autonomy from her. It’s inviolable. And so they talk.
I swear, the most exceptional characteristic Kipo possesses is patience. She talks with Scarlamagne. She listens to his stories about their shared origin. She empathizes with him. She shows appreciation for his music. And she constantly tries to persuade him to free her people. He refuses. Again and again he refuses. But she keeps trying.
When, later, the tables have turned, and Scarlamagne is Kipo’s prisoner, she continues to talk, and to listen. She continues to give him chances to relent, to repent, to prove he can be a member of a community rather than a conqueror. She has assumed a position of dominance, even if hers is the gentle dominance of enclosure rather than the rigid command of the body to betray itself he prefers. But she makes it clear she is uncomfortable as a jailer. All she wants to use her power to do is to hold him still long enough to talk out their problems.
That Scarlamagne would have a heel-face turn shouldn’t surprise anyone. The moment is telegraphed in a thousand ways. He is ultimately a foil to the true villain in Dr. Emilia. But the road back for him is not the sudden one that adventure shows so often give. There’s a gradual integration of Scarlamagne back into the community. He’s slowly extended trust and, in breaking it, is gently rebuked. And when he shows himself worthy of trust, more is extended. But not fully. His power to dominate can’t be taken from him; it can be contained but to do that is to keep Scarlamagne separate, other.
And Kipo’s solution to the Other is an act of radical integration. Whether it’s a colossal rabbit, a six-legged pig, a traumatized human or a gang of giant bipedal housecats, Kipo’s first, and often only, instinct is to attempt to ally herself with them. She presents a world of unconditional solidarity built around friendship that starts off looking naïve. But as time goes by it becomes clear that this impression of childish naivety belies a deep reserve of moral conviction. Kipo wants to bring the Other inside because she believes it is the right and just way to organize the world.
And there is little more other to Kipo than a mind-controlling would-be tyrant. So it isn’t surprising she cuts her teeth in debate with him. He is her foil too, after all. Kipo has the power to compel Scarlamagne, to contain him or to kill him. She chooses not to. She chooses to rescue everybody. Despite being rightfully horrified by Scarlamagne’s ghastly execution before the coronation, she even rescues him, and then begins the laborious and difficult work of bringing him inside. I’m belaboring the direction of the power relationship here because I want to make it very clear that the show is not suggesting aquiescence to power, or compromise to deflect power. Before Kipo is able to work to bring Scarlamagne within the community she has to take every ounce of power he has from him. He must lose his crown, his army, his throne and his aspiration before she can begin the work with him. Kipo is able to bring Scarlamagne back from the edge only by dint of the power she holds over him.
But instead of using it to dominate him, she uses it to put him in the position of his own freedom; she lets him see how his liberation depends on an end to domination. And then he chooses to stop dominating people with his powers, to relinquish his claim to power over others or special right. And he comes into the community, and is made welcome. But carefully. With watchful eyes still on him.
The lesson of Scarlamagne is that sometimes people seek power over others to reclaim the autonomy they feel they have lost. And sometimes the way to show them how to accept the freedom of the Other depends on showing them how to accept their own freedom. Scarlamagne is a name Hugo gives himself because he thinks the world is compelling him to evil. But he is free to stop. And Kipo shows him how.
As I mentioned, Scarlamagne’s principal purpose as a character within the story is to act as a foil to the show’s central dyad between Kipo and Dr. Emilia; and the central text of the show with regard to the relationship between power and body autonomy lies in the conflict between Kipo and the doctor.
As described in Scarlamagne’s back story, Dr. Emilia came from the same burrow as Kipo’s parents and is, like Kipo’s parents, a geneticist. She is the daughter of the burrow’s administrator, and is herself a senior administrator within the scientific and power hierarchy of the bunker.
Her father is depicted as emotionally abusive, demanding and hard. He wants nothing more than a cure for the Mute condition, and when Dr. Emilia’s own brother befriends the delightful rat mutes, Brad and Amy, she murders him and lies, declaring him a martyr of humanity rather than face the risk of her father’s disapproval.
Although Song and Lio Oak create Hugo, the uplifted mandrill, Dr. Emilia is the author of Scarlamagne, as she is not only the hostile force the Oaks hide Hugo from, she is his slaver and his principal rival in contention for power on the surface.
In a lot of ways, Dr. Emilia’s quest to revert mutated creatures back to their subjugated state is shown to be a parallel to Dave’s war for the fan. In both cases, the conflict is unnecessary, and in both cases, perceived sense of difference leads the conflict to escalate to genocidal proportions. Where Kipo’s instinct is to open the door to the Other and incorporate all difference into an expanded sense of self, Dr. Emilia wants to keep humanity pristine and dominant. She wants to create a palingenetic movement to a world 200 years dead; and she is the principal author of the conditions that prevent a new world from being born.
Dr. Emilia is a fascist.
And Dr. Emilia is, for most of the series, a perfectly normal human. An educated one. A ruthless one. A charismatic one. But not a mute. Her power, such as it is, comes from training and from positions of power within social hierarchies. She leads humans because she has a vision that seems bigger than her, and the frightened masses follow her.
The show threads a difficult line here, because it’s critical to the conflict of the show that, at the conclusion of the conflict with Scarlamagne, Dr. Emilia assume control over the now-freed human army. She takes all of Scarlamagne’s victims, and she lies to them. She blames Kipo, and decries the impurity that is hybridization. And she takes humanity with her to a cruise ship lair to keep them under her thumb until she can perfect her cure and return the Wonderbeasts to their subjugated, insentient, modes of being. Dr. Emilia traffics in other subjugations. She weaponizes Hugo’s sweat and uses it to create a control collar with which she’s enslaved Song Oak, using the towering spider monkey as her weapon. She uses the same tactics of emotional abuse her father engaged with in order to keep her lackeys, Zane and Greta, under her thumb. She lies, dissembles, and acts as if she’s some great chess master when the whole time all she is doing is taking agency from everyone, feeding command over others into her own bloated desire for power.
Dr. Emilia discovers that Kipo’s genetic material is the catalyst necessary to complete her cure and so she steals it. And, once she’s perfected the cure, her first target is Kipo. Kipo has become the ideological leader of a “friendship alliance” between humans and Mutes. She has used the image of Benson and Dave’s successful partnership, the kindness of the Timbercats, the model of Ratland, an integrationist amusement park that was razed by Scarlamagne, and a dozen other relationships she built over the course of the first two seasons to instantiate a new political order where humans emerge from their burrows and where Mutes break the species-line gangs they’ve fallen into and form a kind of multi-species nation together with Humanity. Kipo has even succeeded in peeling off followers from Emilia’s human enclave. Her message resonates particularly powerfully with the youth of the burrow, and family lines are broken when the (hilariously extra) daughter of Kipo’s burrow’s leader chooses to join Kipo’s alliance and brings several adolescents along with her.
So Emilia kidnaps Kipo’s friends and threatens to kill them if Kipo doesn’t present herself to be cured.
Her plot fails, but in the process, Kipo’s friend, the leader of the Timbercats, Yumyan Hammerpaw, is struck by a dart containing the cure and is forcefully transformed to a housecat. However Kipo steals the cure and is able to use it to restore her mother to her human form.
Dr. Emilia believes the most expedient way to neutralize Kipo is to take away her body autonomy, to force her to be just one thing. And this is the lens through which she views all the awesome wonders of this post-human age. She immediately attacks, intending to raid the Timbercat village and cure Kipo and her allies, cutting the head off any sort of organized Mute response to human revanchism. The raid is partly successful, and several named minor Mute characters including Bad Billions (a rapping astronomer wolf played wonderfully by Wu Tang Clan’s GZA), Brad the rat, and a few other characters with small speaking roles are, “cured.” They seem to retain a kernel of self, they recognize their former friends and lovers in their reduced forms, but their voices are silenced – their ability to choose how they want to live life, as a person or as a beast, is taken from them. Kipo despairs and decides that she is in a moment where talk has failed; unthinkingly she transforms into her Mega-Mute form and attacks the human force, which is composed mostly of people who she grew up looking up to. Remember the children have already sided with her. The force arrayed against her is nearly every person of authority in her life, excepting her parents, who accidentally authored all this with their reckless experimentation 13 years previous and who immediately and unquestioningly side with her.
And so of course, the humans spend their darts on Kipo, attempting to simultaneously neutralize the Mutes’ most dangerous battlefield asset and the ideological leader of human-mute collaboration in one movement.
And they discover that the cure, which is based upon Kipo’s DNA cannot affect her. Kipo is the one person from whom Emilia can not strip body autonomy. Dr. Emilia cannot force Kipo to be just one thing. Kipo will be what she is becoming and that cannot be undone. Not by anybody. Kipo cannot reverse the changes to her body. Scarlamagne cannot command her body to do the things he wills. And Emilia cannot command her body to be the thing she wills. Kipo, in her war form, is a giant mutant cat who shakes off arrows and darts and who can disperse an army with the stomp of her foot.
Kipo, upon discovering that Emilia cannot cure her, has become like Superman: a being defined entirely by the conscious decision to live life according to an ideology, one who cannot be compelled, only persuaded. Humanity abandons Dr. Emilia’s quest. A few of her hardliners make one final attempt to cure the Mutes, but other humans shield their new friends from harm and the effort is largely the last gasp of a spent force. With nothing else left Dr. Emilia decides to murder Kipo.
To do this, Dr. Emilia must become like Kipo and she uses stolen research notes to duplicate the process which led to Song Oak’s accidental gene therapy. She injects herself with this cocktail and becomes a hideous, two-headed monster, even vaster and more inhuman than Kipo’s war form. They have a climactic battle, but the whole thing is basically an endurance test. Emilia is losing herself in the form of the beast. She cannot do what Kipo did and reconcile the animal within her because it’s alien to her. The beast is terrified OF her, and it will not be reconciled because it only wants to flee from her terrible purpose. Dr. Emilia drowns in her own contradictions, and loses her agency. She flees, goes to ground, crouching and hiding her eyes, defeated by the refusal to be her own body.
Kipo shows mercy and cures Emilia. She thinks that surely, like Scarlamagne, Emilia will talk now. She is fully contained. Her reserves of cure are depleted. Her followers have abandoned her. Kipo offers Emilia her hand just the way she did with with Scarlamagne.
And rather than take her hand, Dr. Emilia tries to stab Kipo with a shard of glass; even in defeat, she refuses to allow that others might live in ways contrary to how she deigns. But Mandu, Kipo’s pet pig, a voiceless Mute and the first friend Kipo ever made, defends her friend, and Dr. Emilia falls backward into the burrow that birthed them all. Kipo tries to catch her, makes one last attempt to take her hand, but misses. And Fun Gus catches her. The prisoner of its own body who is so desperate for recognition of the Other that it will never let someone go once it has them, finds itself become the jailer of a solipsist who refuses to allow that any person might live but according to the way she dictates. Dr. Emilia cannot be persuaded. She is incapable of making that leap of empathy that Scarlamagne does, and so despite her monstrosity taking on a very similar form to his, he can be redeemed. She cannot. In the end, she can only be stripped of power and contained.
Wolf and what a body can do
As I mentioned before, Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts is first, and foremost a story about race. The story explores a world torn by inter-ethnic strife. The villains are first an escaped slave who discovers power and engages in revenge, setting himself up as a would-be king of a multi-ethnic state with a racialized slave class in humans and then a fascist revanchist who sees most of the people in the world around her as nothing more than beasts, undeserving of a voice or a choice in their own lives. Scarlamagne wants to see himself as better than another race. Dr. Emilia sees all races but hers as inferior. But by using sentient animals as a stand-in for an otherwise nuanced discussion of race, there is a risk of biological essentialism. Hummingbombers, Mod Frogs and Timbercats each have a form of national culture that is framed in the context of what their bodies are. Frogs command insects as slaves. Wolves can’t help but gaze at the moon. Cats like yarn.
But Wolf problematizes these essentialist readings. She is a human child who was raised by a wolf pack. She is trained by them to have the capabilities of a wolf, to run and leap, to balance and to howl as a wolf. She is indoctrinated into the ideology of the wolf nation.
And then she is betrayed. They raised her not to be one of theirs but rather as a training exercise – to teach their cubs how to hunt even the most cunning prey. Wolf fights back and, though we never see how, kills her adoptive mother, using her pelt as a cloak. She retreats into Scorpion territory and learns how to calm her heartbeat so that she can escape their notice. She takes a giant scorpion stinger as her principal weapon and establishes a household in a ruined building somewhere everyone else is afraid to go.
When we meet Wolf, she sees Mutes only as threats or as food, and she sees other humans only as an encumbrance to her continued survival. Kipo slowly befriends her, and helps her to let down her barriers. Eventually she abandons her scorpion stinger and her ghastly cape. Wolf demonstrates the infinite transformative capacity of a human body in a more subtle fashion than Kipo. She moves with the grace and speed of a wolf because she was taught. She can calm her own heart because she learned how. Wolf is a small child but is also a fearsome fighter, easily able to go toe to toe against giant walls of muscle like Greta. In the course of the show she learns how to sing. And she loves it. Wolf is a celebration of the infinite transformative power of the body.
And this is where we dive a bit deeper into the queer text of the show. I’ve been using she/her pronouns for Wolf because that is what the text does and I am trying not to read beyond what is there, but there is definitely a queer subtext to Wolf and that is reflected in how she idealizes her own body and its potentials.
Kipo is pretty obviously bisexual. The bi flag colour scheme is one of the predominant palettes of the show, which repeadly drenches itself in pink, purple and blue. She tries to kiss Benson, who gently rebuffs her because he’s gay and they remain close friends. He eventually gets a boyfriend, and the romance scenes between Benson and Troy are frankly darling. And Kipo? She kind of starts dating Wolf.
The show is coy about this. They have a song that Kipo calls “our song.” During the climax of the series, when Kipo organizes a simultaneous dance party and diplomatic conference at Prahm, Wolf gives Kipo a corsage and comes as her date. Wolf is a very shy person and quite reserved with her emotions, but we get a sense of intense affection from her that is directed only at Kipo. Kipo, of course, shows intense affection for everything and everyone but she has a closeness for Wolf that is more like how she acts with her parents than with all the others she tries to give her love. But they don’t share the sort of explicit romantic coding that gives away Benson’s relationship to Troy.
But to get really into where Wolf’s queerness ties into her sense of her body we need to return to the first encounter with Mulholland. In Wolf’s ideal dreamworld, she and Kipo are together, just the two of them against the world. They’re hunters, capturing the most dangerous game (Mega Bunnies) and they’ve become so adept that the great problem they face is that they have hunted their prey out and need to find new challenges.
Wolf (who has a very diminutive stature) imagines Kipo and herself as giant, muscle bound and masculine. they speak in deep voices and do the Epic Handshake made famous in memes and the Predator film (itself something of a queer work of art). In Wolf’s ideal world it appears she is a man. And so is Kipo. And they are a couple.
But the world collapses when Wolf recognizes that this beautiful dream isn’t one that Kipo shares. They might be in love, but Kipo isn’t a hunter. And Kipo isn’t a man. Wolf breaks free of domination because she refuses to demand that another person’s body be the ideal she wishes it was. And in doing so, she expresses her love.
Love, embodiment and power
Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts is far more clever than the majority of children’s entertainment, and is a better program for it. It creates a central thesis that diagnoses power as the expression of desire to control what bodies can do. It demonstrates how this power comes both from within the body of the subject and also from their desire to subjugate, to demand that bodies conform to the standards they set.
Despite hints of the mystical with the cheese diviners, Kipo and the Wonderbeasts presents a remarkably materialist sense of the mind. Mulholland’s powers work because he enters, and physically interferes with the working of an organ. Likewise Scarlamagne’s sweat act on the body, it takes agency but not by replacing the self of the victim with a simulation of the dominator. Instead it turns the victim into a puppet, their body turned against them. Imprisonment is a common threat in this show because cages, too, are forms of domination imposed upon the body. Minds cannot be dominated; they can only be persuaded. And the root of persuasion in Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts is love. Romantic love, familial love, love of an idealized self, love of the Other. Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts tells us very clearly that we need to open the doors of the world to everything that is outside and bring it in. We must open the sense of self up to the infinite potential of the body to learn, to grow and to change. Transformation cannot be rolled back. We are forever becoming what we will be. The Mutes who are “cured” remain so. There is no happy reversal where Yumyan and Bad Billions can return to their roles of leadership. Bad Billions is still welcome in his community though, he sits beside the chairs of the Newton Wolves and watches the raps and scientific seminars he can no longer perform every night, still loved. Still inside.
Five years after the defeat of Dr. Emilia, Kipo’s dream is realized. Humans and Mutes are integrated into a wild, urban, cosmopolitan and cashless society. Kipo isn’s a ruler. She’s happy to step back and spend time with Wolf and her other friends. She’s Superman, but in a world of love, there’s no need for her power, and so she doesn’t express it. Harmony arrives when domination ends; the most radical love is opening the door of self to everything that is Other and letting it in. Kipo affirms and celebrates difference. She adores the Timbercats. She loves Ratland. She immediately races to help the Fitness Raccoons when she meets them. She happily listens to Scarlamagne’s maddening waltzes. She wants to bring together an alliance in friendship but starting from the fundamental basis that the inherent differences between people are a source of joy and beauty, not terror.
Kipo’s text isn’t naïve. It recognizes that some people will not make this leap. And they will have to be contained – hard choices will be made, fascists can not have a place in a cosmopolitan world built on love. But Kipo’s text is optimistic. Recognition can be a process of mutual empathy. We don’t need to engage the master and the slave in every interaction. Instead we can engage the lovers, and build a culture of mutual affirmation of difference. We can create a space for everyone.
And I think that’s a pretty good message for children.