One of my creative associates (who may have words with me at that particular phrasing in the name of identity plausible deniability) has a discussion piece up on Friends of the Text today about the premise of being chosen within texts and the idea of being chosen by texts. Thematically relevant to the stuff that interests me? You bet.
But also, of course, thematically relevant to my life. It’s easy to say, I think, and Balaka says as much in the piece, that everyone wants to be chosen. It is, she notes, like winning in the passive voice. But I wonder. Do boys want to be chosen as much as girls? Is the chosen part of the narrative what makes Harry Potter and Star Wars exciting to the male segments of their audiences? Do men have a Pygmalion narrative in their fantasies, one in which they are the transformed and not the transformer? Are women more socialized to this idea of being chosen? Is that why Twilight flies off the shelves? What’s it like, I wonder, to grow up, wanting to choose. Who is that person? And how are they formed? Were they once waiting to get chosen and finally got sick of not having magic powers or not becoming a star just for sitting at the table in the window of some diner?
It’s a sticky, nasty, uncomfortable question. At least for me. Because it touches, potentially, not just on ideas of gender, but also on ideas of dominance and submission and of leadership. It speaks to the troubling idea that chosen just means, “you’re good enough to be transmuted into gold.” It’s not just that you’re nothing without being chosen, it’s the suggestion that you’re nothing without acquiescing to the consequences of being chosen, and they are legion.
For me, this whole chosen business also speaks to ideas I have about the directorial imagination and my fears about whether I have enough of one. And it speaks to the doubt I have about the idea that the best thing anyone can do for themselves is get over that fantasy of being chosen, even though I know that waiting isn’t how to do life, poetic, rigorous, and narratively enticing though it may sometimes be.
Of course, I work in industries that largely are about “winning in the passive voice.” I write something, and then someone snatches it out of a pile of slush and publishes it. Sure, sometimes I get asked for things up front, and sure, I have to write things (which is an active endeavor) before waiting for them to get chosen, but “winning in the passive voice” is definitely the right description of the experience of it. At least for me.
Acting can be even more bizarre in that regard. You get a call; someone likes how you look; can you come in now and show us what you can do? It’s “winning in the passive voice” before there’s even a chance of winning in the active voice, and trust me, when they say you’ve got it, and it’s a contract, it doesn’t, in that moment, feel like you did anything, other than get plucked out of a crowd. A week later, you might recall how damn hard you worked for that opportunity, but the first flush of reaction is, at least for me, and I suspect for many other performers is “They picked me! Me!” Chosen.
“Winning in the passive voice.” It implies all of the benefits and none of the hard work of this success thing, doesn’t it? Seems snazzy. But there’s a real brutality that underlies it, one of clay in the kiln, and the insidious possibility that it might have actually been a certain peculiar and shifting inadequacy that brought you to attention. To be fair, I grew up as a dancer, and being chosen meant being told how you were wrong and being pressed harder and further into shapes to which you did not yet conform. But I suspect, regardless of background, that for a lot of people, it is this idea of brutality that appeals.
To return us to matters of the text and this idea of being chosen by the text, it makes me think about the work I’ve done regarding death and mourning. Or, at least, the tangential experience I’ve had in having done that work of seeing a lot of anger and distress from audiences in which beloved characters do die. Does this speak, I wonder, to this idea of being chosen by the text, and then finding out — for those who have had negative reactions to these fictional deaths — that this was really not what you signed up in that moment where you felt the text chose you. Conversely, for those of us who have felt vastly satisfied in those losses, is it because of the relief of encountering the expected brutality in our selection by the text?
And it’s not just on death that texts can brutalize us. Look at Bella in Twilight and look at our reactions. Is not the inspired longing for that type of impossibility a brutality of the text? Is not what Bella experiences in the face of the love she endures another brutality of the text, this one intradiegetic, instead of extradiegetic?
What, ultimately, do these narratives of being chosen suggest to us about the ethics of favor and brutality in our relationships with texts and in texts’ relationships with us? And how much choice do we have about those relationships, when the narratives themselves are, at base, about not having choice, and the supposedly great good fortune of that condition? Nobody ever asked Harry Potter if he wanted to save the world.
Thinky thoughts are a double thumbs up. Please make sure to give Balaka’s post some love too, especially if your reactions are more about her work than my little digression/extrapolation here. I would also particularly love to hear here from men on the subject of Pygmalion narratives and anyone who feels they are instinctively wired towards being the one who chooses.