Posted in Modern Mythos, Pop Culture

A Persephone-Cation of Spring

And the grand tradition of opening puns continues.

Over the past week, I have been marveling at the miraculous transformation that takes place in Michigan in the springtime. Trees that were bare one day may be budding by the next. Animals emerge from their hidden winter homes, of all kinds: I have seen birds, squirrels, swans, skunks, raccoons, muskrats, even turtles and toads.

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The world is still beautiful on rainy days.

Everyone I meet makes jokes about the weather.

“Seems nice today – but wait twenty minutes!”

or

“Is this Michigan, or Tennessee?”

You know what I mean.

Which made me think about the ways we’ve personified spring in our cultures. Some places suffer from nearly constant rain(April showers bring Mayflowers, and all that). Other places may already feel like summer. And yet, around the world, even in different hemispheres, we experience the same cycles of birth and rebirth, of winter’s death and spring’s new life.

This picture of death meeting life reminds me, obviously, of the myth of Hades and Persephone. For those of you unfamiliar with Greek and Roman myths, let me break it down for you: one day, Hades, the god of the Underworld(not death, though that’s a common misconception), was taking a little day-trip up to the mortal realm. While there, he sees Persephone, a beautiful demigoddess, daughter of the goddess Demeter. Hades pulled a standard creeper-move and kidnapped Persephone(though I’m pretty sure there were no windowless vans involved), and dragged her down to his palace in the Underworld.

Demeter, of course, notices that her daughter is missing, and goes all Mama Berry on Hades(she’s the goddess of agriculture; get it?) She demands that Persephone come home immediately, young lady! Everything looks like it will go back to normal, except for one small mistake.

Persephone ate some seeds.

To be fair, pomegranate seeds are delicious(I have a roommate who will attest to this). But would Persephone have eaten them if she knew they would sentence her to a splitting her time between a control-freak mother and a kidnap-krazy husband?

I wonder.

In any case, due to Persephone’s habitual snacking, Demeter and Hades reach a compromise. Persephone will spend half of the year in the Underworld with her new husband, and the other half on earth. This is why fall and winter always look so sad: Demeter misses her daughter. Then, in the springtime, they reunite as the best mother-daughter team ever and make the world beautiful again.

This story has stuck with me for several reasons. First of all, I’ve always found Persephone lack of self-control #relatable. Secondly, I’ve often considered Demeter to be more manipulative and controlling then the myths give her credit for. But also, it’s this idea of compromise, that we must wait through the winter in order to reach the spring. There’s a life lesson in there that can be hard to come by, let alone accept.

Whenever I picture spring, there are two things that come to mind. Firstly, “For the Beauty of the Earth;” I’m a sucker for a classic hymn. But I also think of this sequence from Fantasia 2000 that my family had on VHS as a kid, featuring Igor Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite.”

The complete metamorphosis of the landscape gets me every time.

And it brings me back to my own life. At the point I am writing this, I graduate from college in nine days. My life will undergo a radical transformation, and it’s one that I am eager to start. There is comfort in knowing that things are born, and reborn, new and renewed, in cycles. Where I am today is not where I will be tomorrow, and that’s an exciting prospect.

Now is not the winter of my discontent; now is the anticipation of spring!

 

Posted in Pop Culture

Oh, Thank Frog: The Meme Trinity

This post comes with a prelude: a semi-recent conversation with my friends unearthed some intriguing insights into internet meme culture.

Now, you might not be as meme-fluent as we are(Let’s face it, memes tend to be a weird millennial thing that people in “real” life sometimes have trouble understanding). But it’s okay: I’m gonna break it down for you.

So this conversation arose from a dialogue concerning frog memes. As in, more than one. As in, there are three very popular frogs in meme culture, and each signify different things.

They have been dubbed by some(meaning me) as the Meme Trinity.

First, we have the classic Pepe.

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For those of you unfamiliar with meme history, let me further elaborate. Pepe is the creation of American artist Matt Furie; he appeared in Furie’s web comic titled “Boy’s Club” in 2005. Over the next few years, his Pepe character appeared in various forms, especially on 4chan. Pepe rose to even further popularity in 2015, when the concept of collecting “rare Pepes,” or rarely seen versions of the Pepe meme, spread across the internet.

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Unfortunately, Pepe has also recently been adapted as a meme for some racist political views. It’s okay, Pepe; we know it’s not the real you.

Next, here comes Dat Boi.sc552x414

This is another weird one. Dat Boi emerged from a short animation clip of, you guessed it, a frog riding a unicycle.

That’s it.

That’s literally it.

It’s a frog, riding a unicycle. No other context needed.

(Though, to be clear, the animation was developed for a physics textbook. Why can’t all textbooks have built-in memes?)

And the final piece, to complete the meme mythology: Kermit memes.

And really, Kermit the Frog represents two different mainstream memes, so this might almost be cheating. First, there’s the classic Kermit sipping tea meme, aka “But That’s None of My Business.”

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And then, there’s Dark Kermit.

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This is one of those unique cases where the subject of the meme, Kermit, is already known to us. We know he isn’t real; we know he’s a puppet. We even know that he’s in love with a pig. But none of our previous experiences with Kermit the Frog prepared us for his influence on meme culture.

Which naturally leads us into that overwhelming question: why? Why are there not one, not two, but three predominant memes featuring frogs? What’s it about? WHAT’S WITH THE FROGS?!

Simple answer: they’re freaking everywhere.

Here’s a map of the world’s distribution of frogs. Feast your eyes.

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In other words, frogs are #relatable. They are on every major, habitable continent, and most islands(sorry, Greenland and Iceland). I don’t know about you, but I certainly have my share of frog stories. For instance, I once shoved a frog carcass the size of my arm down a storm drain to hide its dead body from a group of 4-11 year olds.

Good times. Good times.

But even more than that, these frogs represent another dimension of meme culture, one that you should know I’m quite fond of: absurdism.

First, we have the collection of rare Pepes. Some of us might save our favorite memes for later, maybe even print out a few for the sake of an inside joke, but for the most part, our “collections,” so to speak, are entirely theoretical. Memes are digital: they’re never going to disappear. How many times have we heard it said: “if it’s on the internet, it’s there forever.” Memes, it seems are here to stay.

Then there’s Dat Boi.

Oh, shoot.

Waddup.

There is no reason why a frog needs a unicycle. Or would be on one in the first place. They hop, for goodness’s sake. Put them on a pogo stick or something. Why a unicycle?

But therein lies the humor. Dat Boi needs no unicycle, but there he is. All we can do is just accept him.

Which brings us full-circle, back to Kermit. He’s a puppet. He’s entirely controlled by the whims of others. The idea that he operates under his own volition, choosing to mind his own business, is beyond ridiculous; this is then tempered by the idea that Kermit can fall prey to the persuasion of others.

Of course he can.

He’s a puppet.

But we relate to him. We feel the same pull to the darkness. We spiral out of our own control. Or is it simply the pull of what we really want? Is it finally taking control?

To be honest, I don’t know.

But that’s a lot of subtext for a couple of frog memes.

 

Posted in Modern Mythos, Pop Culture

Knick-Knack, St. Patty’s Back!

It’s almost spring. The snow is gone, the skies are blues, the rivers are green. Time to celebrate the season with everybody’s favorite saint: that small guy with the lucky charms who lets you pinch your clueless friends.

Wait a minute. I feel like I’m confused. Who are we talking about, again?

St. Patrick, of course, but the story of his life seems to have been so editorialized that it doesn’t seem far-fetched to imagine him as the green-hatted leprechaun of Saturday morning commercials. For the sake of history, let’s review what we know about him, besides all the clover stories.

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Let’s go back to a simpler time: the turn of the 5th century AD. When he was fourteen or sixteen years old, Patrick did not sit around and play video games like some young men we knew. He was captured by pirates and sold as a slave from his native Britain to the island of Ireland(which, believe it or not, will not be the plot of a Pirates of the Caribbean movie, though it totally should be). After six years, he escaped and returned home, choosing to become a Catholic priest before going back to Ireland to convert its people.

In other words, he was a missionary, and a good one at that. To this day, most of the island of Ireland remains loyal to Catholicism, not to the nearby rule of the Anglican church.

From there, most of us are familiar with his legendary exploits: frolicking in clover fields, banishing all snakes, turning sticks into trees, etc. And his influence still stands today: all hail the seasonal Shamrock Shake.

But history is complicated, and St. Patrick is no exception.

You see, no one is really sure who St. Patrick was. We don’t even know if that was his real name. In fact, evidence also points us to the idea that who we know as St. Patrick could be a combination of early church fathers from Ireland.

Which brings up an interesting point. Modern Christianity, by and large, operates under the assumption that the people we learn about in Bible class and Sunday school are real, living people with real, living faith. There is very little confusion about their names and their actions: even figures like that “most excellent Theophilus” have at least attempted explanations.

Sainthood is another story. So many of their histories are passed down through stories that are more like legends than factually-based accounts. Historians have enough trouble trying to piece together what really happened in those times without having to verify the miraculous claims of early Christian figures.

Now, with St. Patrick, at least we have some writings that seem to prove his, or at least someone’s, existence. It almost certainly was not the same as what we, as a culture, have regarded it to be, but that doesn’t make it have any less of an impact.

Still, it strikes me as strange that even 1500 years after his death, we celebrate his life with irreverent behavior and color-coded wardrobes. I think that if St. Patrick could see what we do in his name, he’d be very confused. Almost as confused about that whole snake thing.

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All this to say that these days, St. Patrick isn’t much different from Santa Claus in terms of his editorialized past. Next time you see a “Kiss Me, I’m Irish” shirt, remember that he was British.

But always keep in mind: some things do make better stories(and yes, I’m still talking about the snakes).

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Happy St. Patty’s Day.

Posted in Pop Culture

Meme-ries, All Alone in Moonlight

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All Broadway jokes aside, cat memes are the best of them all.

Flashback to 2007 with me. Akon’s Smack That has taken the radio by storm. YouTube has only just started to become popular. All the boys you know play Runescape. And then, one day, you discover I Can Has Cheezburger: the memebase.

It was the stone age of internet memes(which your mom probably referred to as “mee-mees” the first time she saw them). Most included pictures of cats, often photoshopped. We’ve lived through it all, folks: Nyancat, Bad Luck Brian, you name it.

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All jokes aside, I remember the first time I heard the word “meme” refer to something other than a funny image shared between friends. I was a sophomore in college, sitting in a gen-ed psychology course. The professor asked us why schoolchildren place spoons underneath their pillows; we answered that it’s because they wanted to have a snow day in the morning. His next question was astounding(clickbait intended).

“Why?”

None of us knew where the superstition came from, but we all knew the reasoning behind it. In the same way, other cultural memes have existed forever, but the term was only coined by Richard Dawkins in the 1970s. Interestingly enough, this same thread of nonsensical nostalgia seems to continue in today’s widespread, easily accessible internet meme.

Consider, for instance, the Arthur meme:

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Those of us who watched Arthur as children instantly recognized the screencap in this meme. He’s wearing his everyday costume, standing in front of his family’s pink house. But the idea that Arthur, an aardvark created to entertain children, clenches his fist in social protest to the treatment of a gorilla named Harambe, is ridiculous.

And we eat it up.

Half of the humor associated with memes pertains to the fact that they refer to events taken out of context. Let’s take another look at the evolution of the Arthur meme.

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Here we have another layer of meta-meme: manipulation. Using the God-given tools of Photoshop, users have changed the layout of the image, either mirroring it, or erasing parts of it completely.

Obviously, most of us have heard the phrase, “steal like an artist.” True, we don’t usually associate art with memes, but bear with me.

Let’s take a look at Dadaism.

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Have you ever seen anything more meme-worthy? Object (Le Déjeuner en fourrure) is a sculpture from 1936 created by surrealist Méret Oppenheim as part of Dada, the anti-art movement in post-WWI France. And yes – that is a cup, saucer, and a spoon, covered in fur.

Art is weird.

But it’s this same vein of absurdism that makes it so relatable. I don’t think I’ve ever met a person who didn’t find the above image at least somewhat revolting. And what is a meme, after all, if it’s not #relatable?

Over eighty years later, the scripts have been flipped. Now every person with Photoshop and an internet connection is a creator, with the potential to create absurdist art and distribute it across the globe without leaving the luxury of a padded office chair.

Memes have become a post-modern artform. They are adaptable, sharable, and quick to create in a fast-paced society. The infinite flexibility of their structure continues to show the broad spectrum of their potential.

All this to say: a new wave of memes hits every few weeks, and we’re due for another one soon. Next time you’re scrolling through a social media feed, stop for a moment. Think about what the meme is saying, not just content-wise, but creation-wise.

If not, well…

deb

 

Posted in Modern Mythos, Pop Culture

Why Superman is “Cooler” Than Batman

I know what you’re thinking.

You’re thinking, “Meredith, I can’t believe what I’m reading – Batman is so cool, his name is literally synonymous with JUSTICE. And Superman? He’s just so, you know, basic. He can do anything, defeat anything, and even with kryptonite, he’s so boring. You’re a writer; you understand, right?”

Listen to me: Batman is a dweeb who literally can’t stop naming things after bats. Batmobile. Batcave. Bat signal. Face it, nerds, your favorite hero can’t even look in a thesaurus or a city zoo to find another animal to pattern his entire life after. So much for the brooding vigilante archetype.

And as for Superman, I’m out to blow your mind as I explain to you why he’s my favorite superhero of all time. But to do that, we’re going to have to go…BACK IN TIME.

It’s 1933. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, both children of Jewish immigrants, are still in high school when Siegel writers “The Reign of Superman,” which was originally the story of a villain. In time, however, Superman evolved into a superhero, eventually published in 1938 by Detective Comics (DC). (However, despite Superman’s success, Siegel and Shuster saw practically none of the sudden windfall from their venture, but that’s a tragic story for another day).

Aside from the brief history lesson, the creation of Superman seems like an interesting, albeit bland, piece of pop culture. But, as I soon discovered after researching and reading other articles after recently rediscovering my love for the man of steel, the origins of Superman are more culturally significant than you would think (also, on an unrelated note, but one that I absolutely had to include, modern scientists have postulated that realistically, due to the constant exposure to the source of his powers, if Superman actually existed, he probably would have been black. Sorry, Henry Cavill.).

First of all, both Siegel and Shuster were familiar with the worldwide Jewish diaspora, especially as Hitler and Nazism began to rise to power in Europe. Antisemitism had always been popular, ever since before the Middle Ages, but Siegel and Shuster were inspired by their Jewish heritage to write a character that displayed three key values of the Jewish faith: truth, justice, and peace (although obviously, the best was to bring about peace is through conflict – go figure). Presented in the figure of an alien, the last of his race in a strange land, it isn’t difficult to trace the threads of Jewish history found in Superman’s backstory.

The story of Superman even mirrors that of several Old Testament and the Tanakh, starting with the story of Moses. Moses was sent down the Nile river in a basket as a baby by his mother to avoid certain death; Superman, or Kal-El, was sent down from the planet Krypton after being placed in a spaceship by his parents to avoid certain death. Moses eventually ran off into the wilderness and came back wielding the power of God; Kal-El came to earth with God-like powers, courtesy of our yellow sun.

Siegel and Shuster were also inspired by the story of Samson, who was almost the original Superman, with an even worse weakness than Superman. He had been blessed by God with superhuman strength, which he eventually lost after getting a haircut(granted, his barber was a beautiful woman, so whether or his real weakness was his lack of hair or his sinfulness goes hand in hand). At least Superman could get a buzz-cut without fear of becoming powerless like the rest of us.

One could even point out how Superman could be a direct reference to the concept of the Jewish messiah, or even to the figure of Jesus Christ (as pop culture has already explained for me). But there are even more examples of Superman’s inherent Jewishness to be discovered, like the fact that he wears a symbol across his chest that is constantly misinterpreted because it looks like something it’s not (that’s not an S on his chest, that’s Kal-El’s family crest, signifying hope, which mirrors the frequent misinterpretation of the Star of David, but I digress.). Even Superman’s real name is Jewish: Kal-El translates directly to “the voice of God.”

So let’s review for a moment, because we’re still got a long way to go: the modern myth of Superman has direct correlation with the narrative of the Jewish people.

But what about his “alter ego?” What about Clark Kent?

You see, here’s where we get into some interesting differences between the mythos of Superman and the mythos of Batman. The thing about Batman is, almost all of his significant relationships stem from the fact that he’s Batman, not because his real name is Bruce Wayne. When Batman is Bruce Wayne, he’s constantly fooling the people around him, putting on an act of being a playboy, a Tony-Stark, a man who doesn’t care about the wellbeing of Gotham City. But when Batman is Batman, he flirts with Catwoman, he fights the Joker, he adopts three different proteges as Robin (with often disastrous results, but what do you expect from a guy who runs around his basement at midnight making bat puns?).

Superman, on the other hand, is just a face. Yes, he has the powers of a God, but who do his friends know him as? Clark Kent. Clark Kent is the one who’s friends with Jimmy Olsen, who works under Perry White, who’s in love with Lois Lane. Superman has no one – he sits in his Fortress of Solitude and waits for desperate cries for help. Clark Kent is the one with a family, Clark Kent is the one with friends. We always think of Clark Kent hiding behind his glasses, when in reality, Superman seems to be his real mask.

So if Bruce Wayne is Batman’s mask, and Clark Kent’s mask is Superman, what does that even mean?

It means that Clark Kent, the mild-mannered bumbling reporter, is the one who lives out Superman’s morals daily. Yes, he lies to protect his identity, and just like Bruce Wayne, he does his own fair share of play-acting, but it’s only to take care of the people he loves. And it’s Clark Kent’s inherent goodness, his ingrained morality, which threatens his loved ones most of all.

Buckle in, kids. This is about to get real.

Many people like to compare and contrast Batman versus Superman (see what I did there?) in terms of the means to their ends. Batman tends to kill his adversaries, whereas Superman usually tries (and sometimes fails) not to. Batman doesn’t really have any superpowers, and a few of his villains don’t either, but he usually gets the job done. Superman’s adversaries, however, tend to be a little less straightforward.

Take, for example, Superman’s archnemesis Lex Luthor. In most of the comics, Lex has no superpowers, only occasionally wearing a Warsuit that enhances his natural abilities, and yet he’s Superman’s most dangerous enemy.

Why?

Because Lex Luthor represents THE SYSTEM.

Lex Luthor doesn’t walk into the middle of Metropolis and start shooting people like the Joker. Lex Luthor organizes crime rings; Lex Luthor funds scientific experiments to create superhumans; Lex Luthor does respectable business. Lex Luthor uses other people for his dirty work and somehow keeps his own hands clean.

And Superman can’t do a thing about it.

Because of course Superman knows Lex Luthor is evil. This isn’t Lois Lane we’re talking about (you brave, capable, clueless woman); Clark knows exactly what’s going on, but his hands are tied. If Lex Luthor came at him with a knife, a gun, even a stapler, he would have just cause to fight him, but if Lex Luthor isn’t linked to any of the crimes, how can Superman take action against him?

He can’t, and that’s the point. Lex Luthor, the bald, rich white man who holds all of the power, cannot be stopped unless he makes a mistake or unless Superman betrays his core values of justice (which of course, begs the questions that if Superman values justice so much, why didn’t Clark join the police force? Because men like Lex Luthor own the police force; corruption in Metropolis runs that deep.).

And of course, if Superman can’t even defeat Lex Luthor, who looks as dangerous as a half-gallon of spoiled milk, then what’s going to stop Lex or his other enemies from taking his loved ones and using them as bait, leverage, or blackmail?

Absolutely nothing.

Which conveniently brings me to my next point: Lois Lane(who is not, in fact, so much a damsel in distress as she is a busybody who literally can’t stay out of anybody’s business.). She is Superman’s greatest weakness, even more so than kryptonite, because although that can break his body, only Lois can break his heart. She is the love of Clark Kent’s life, and he would do literally anything to keep her safe.

Even at the cost of his own morality.

It’s inherently selfish. It stands in direct contrast to everything Superman is supposed to stand for. He would risk the welfare of the greater good for one headstrong, nosy reporter, and do it over and over again (although he does usually find a way to save both, thankfully). In every situation, Superman chooses her.

The truth is, kryptonite isn’t even Superman’s kryptonite: his real kryptonite is the deep and constant conflict between his morality and his humanity.

“But Meredith!” you say. “That’s my inherent struggle, too!”

That’s because Superman doesn’t really represent God, no matter what the media says: he represents the every man. Clark Kent, an alien from another planet, who is faster than planes, trains, and speeding bullets, is just like us. He tries his best to do what is right, he fails, and then he tries again, a universal symbol of hope.

Batman’s narrative, in my opinion, has always displayed more godlike themes than Superman’s. If Superman’s story is one of morality and humanity, then Batman’s is one of the balance between revenge, justice, and mercy. This is the crux of the issue: Superman has the power of a god, but Batman is the one who acts like one.

To conclude: Superman, who might be best described culturally as a black Jew, represents the ideals of a persecuted race while displaying the virtues and vices of a man trying his best to protect and promote humanity. He is a messiah figure, he is a message of hope in an otherwise Batman-centric universe, and he is one of us.

Now what’s so boring about that?