Saturday, April 12, 2008

#119 - Hiawatha and Harry Potter

Hiawatha and Harry Potter

4/12/08 (#119)

There were two essential lessons that the boys in my neighborhood learned from mid-20th-century American cinema:

First, villains make atrocious marksmen. You can put four of the antihero's henchmen in a hallway with semi-automatic rifles, 30 feet from the star, and the sum damage inflicted by 1,000 rounds of ammunition will be the shredding of every door jamb between the shooters. Apparently, villians are not allowed to go to the same practice ranges as the heroes, each of which possessed uncanny shooting abilities rivaling Natty Bumpo's improbably accurate musket shots in J.F. Cooper's The Deerslayer, able to deliver a head-shot in the dark while simultaneously ordering a pizza and balancing their check book.

Second, a villain being an atrocious marksmen is an irrelevancy, as heroes are not affected by bullets. You can disable a bad guy with grazing gun shot across the thigh or even with a hard-thrown walnut, but the hero can take four shots to the torso and still manage to kung-fu his way through a Shriner's parade of enemies and escape, leaving the room looking like the aftermath of an earthquake at the mannequin factory. Better still, each bullet exponentially increases the drama of the event, even if the event is eating breakfast: Will three caps popped into the belly of the star stop him from finishing his Denver omelet? Of course not---what kind of hero loses his appetite after ingesting a few tiny chunks of lead?

These lessons held true for war movies, westerns, spy movies, et al, so their accuracy was irrefutable. Thus, when we engaged in role-playing games, every boy wanted to be the hero, so every boy in my neighborhood considered himself a master at getting shot.* Even the most errant issue from a fictional rifle, shot from behind a bush and midway through a forward roll, offered the opportunity for an overly dramatic blow to the body that would make even the hammiest community theater hack scoff: Slow motion was never slower, the shroud of death never pulled so languidly as it was over the eyes of a victim of one (or fourteen) of our imaginary bullets. Of course, we lived to get shot---maybe in real life the combatants would find effective hiding spots and stay low for hours, but our backyard games featured Hollywood editing, the dull stretches conveniently removed.

In the early 1970's, our most common playtime adversaries were cowboys and indians. Being children, we were unaware of the nuances of the Vietnam war, but at least one of the "big kids" on our block had gone off to war, so it felt too close to home to be an enjoyable game. Cowboys and Indians offered a less ambiguous framework for a shoot 'em up, as the movies had clearly defined the roles: The cowboys were heroes, white-hatted and worthy of adoration; the indians (who were still years away from being called Native Americans) were villains, dangerous and untrustworthy and certain to lose any mock battle.

Since we all wanted to be heroes, almost every boy wanted to be a cowboy; fortunately, there were a couple of kids who regularly volunteered to be the Indians, children who likely grew up to be either liberals (whose early sense of racial justice encouraged them to offer the Indians a fair representation on the fictional playing field) or corporate barons (whose sensed early that much could be accomplished while attention was focused on the so-called hero.) Being an Indian offered the same advantage of volunteering as an outfielder in little League Baseball or opting to play bass when every teenage peer is playing guitar: Less limelight, but more consistent playing time. Indians could plan their attack, develop signals that impersonated sickly birds, sneak up and ambush the enemy; the cowboys, on the other hand, were just waiting for the opportunity to be shot. Not killed, mind you, as our fictional ammunition depots didn't hold enough firepower for the Indians to win. It just didn't happen that way---refer to any movie as evidence.

We didn't have any Native Americans in my neighborhood, so we were never concerned (or even cognizant) that the game was stacked against the Indians from the outset. (In that way, our play was likely an unfortunate reflection of what the Native Americans faced in everyday American life.) The cowboys were valiant and virtuous, saving the day from the heathen hordes who had the audacity to defy our pale-face manifest destiny. We never pondered how the Cowboys and Indians game was played amongst a large Native American population: Was each game a new reenactment of the Sioux and Cheyenne victory at Little Bighorn? Did some Iroquois children grudgingly play the cowboys, requisite roles that were necessary for the game but doomed from the start? I imagine so, as an intrinsic element of these childhood games was a sense of good defeating evil, no matter who you defined as the good guys. Evil needed to be vanquished---I've never heard of kids playing war games where one team was soldiers from Switzerland and the other from Sweden. ("We don't pretend to shoot each other, we just pretend to report on the wars being waged in the next neighborhood.")

The Indians were only one example of Hollywood's history of presenting a contemporaneous version of evil, with art reflecting life with regards to the vilified: In the middle of the 20th century, the Germans were cast as evildoers; during the cold war, Russians and communists received the choice arch-enemy roles; as the date odometer on the 20th century rolled over, the likely nemesis was someone of Middle Eastern persuasion. For a nation that prides itself on being a melting pot, we have a disconcerting history of defining our adversaries based on broad-stroke stereotypes, cultural inaccuracies and irrational fears. "C'mon, they're just movies," some insist, but repeated inaccurate representations establish equally inaccurate perceptions. (If you disagree, ask the nearest blond how they feel about blond jokes.)

Stating the obvious, defining an enemy by race and/or culture has the unfortunate impact of defining anyone of that race or culture as an enemy. In the battle of Us vs. Them, audiences are attracted to these simplified ideas of "them" because it allows for easier sorting; unfortunately, as Timothy McVeigh, John Allen Muhammad and Lee Malvo, and the rash of teens who have dispatched their classmates over the last decade will confirm, the so-called "them" often looks just like us.

So what is the proper Good vs. Evil scenario today, when political correctness (a term I use here to describe racial sensitivity, not inaccurately euphemistic language) makes playing what would now be called Cowboys and Indigenous Americans offensive to more than just those folks who no longer want their high school team to be called the Braves, and war is once again a topic too close to home to allow for enjoyable role-playing activities? How can 21st century children explore the classic conflict without associating a real face with the fictional foe?

Enter Harry Potter. J. K. Rowling's incredibly creative books are worthy of all of the lauding they've received, masterfully imagined and cleverly penned, but they also allow children to take sides in the eternal struggle between good and evil without giving either side a particularly distinctive face. Rowling's characters, generally, look alike. (Okay, when I say "look alike", I'm referring to the characters in the movies, but my wife, whose enthusiasm for the books was such that each new release ensured a day or two of "Mom's busy right now", assures me that the casting was consistently satisfying.) Severus Snape and Mad-eye Moody are both suspicious characters, yet in the battle of Good vs. Evil, they play for opposing sides. (Though perhaps with limited team spirit.)

In Rowling's world, evil is revealed as arrogance, avarice and conceit---a choice of actions, not a color of skin or a cultural birthright. General Custer versus Geronimo involves real people whose successes and failures appear in historical records (though perhaps with limited accuracy); Harry Potter versus Draco Malfoy allows for a battle of apparent peers, even though we're obviously meant to hope that little Malfoy brat will soon be the victim of the Cruciatus curse.

My friend's son is having a Harry Potter themed birthday this week, and I'm eager to observe the role play at the party. Of course, what I really want to see is how many times these faux Potters and Weasleys can be hit by a spell and remain standing, ready for more battle against the fictional Lord Valdemort---if Harry absorbs half a dozen hits of a magic wand and then pause to wolf down a few bites of cake, I'll know the adage is true: The more things change, the more they stay the same.

* This is not a gender-biased statement, but an accurate reporting of facts: The girls on my block never showed any interest in dirt-diving for the sake of collecting fake lead pellets in the chest. Perhaps because they had no role models in the movies, or perhaps because the boys looked like buffoons.

©2008 wpreagan