Culture Conservative - Arts and Cultural Criticism
Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale is a cultural phenomenon. Since the debut of the new Hulu series starring Elisabeth Moss, the novel (originally published in 1985) has earned a new crop of readers, including people who have not yet seen the new web series. I am one of those people.
The world of Atwood’s Tale is a totalitarian Christian fundamentalist nation called Gilead, which was founded after a bloody takedown of the U.S. government. Gilead enforces levitical law more literally and brutally that any Jewish or Christian sect in history. Adultery, fornication and pornography are capital crimes, of course, but Gileadeans may even endanger their lives by owning fashion magazines or wearing makeup. Clothing is Taliban-modest and color-coded to indicate the caste of the person donning it.
The new arthouse film Lady Macbeth is a deeply moral movie – and a damn good one.
As the film opens, Catherine, a very young beauty, distractedly sings a hymn in an ancient church. Her heart-shaped face is veiled in white. She is the bride, but she doesn’t beam. Her marriage has been arranged, and she had no say in the matter. That night, her drunken, middle-aged husband reveals to her his cruelty, possessiveness, and sexual impotence. Before her marriage, her greatest joy was taking a walk in the open air, but her husband and father-in-law now forbid even that small pleasure. She is here for one reason: to produce an heir, who will inherit her father-in-law’s vast estate.
I’ve always loved Robin Hood. As a little boy, the Disney movie was my absolute favorite. When I was ten, my younger brother and I were inspired by the swordplay and melodrama of the Kevin Costner film. At that time, the two of us spent hours “playing pretend” in our backyard. Besides the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, our favorite characters to inhabit were Robin Hood and Little John. We robbed a lot of imaginary noblemen in those days. My dad had built a platform for us in one of our two fruitless Mulberry trees, and my brother and I would wait up there for our quarry. When trains of imaginary noblemen came by, we would jump down to our trampoline, which was strategically placed below, and have an epic sword fight, with lots of flips and flying kicks. When we had exhausted ourselves, we rolled off the trampoline, pulled out the bows and arrows we had gotten for Christmas, and shot card board boxes, pretending to kill the Sheriff of Nottingham’s men. We racked up a huge body count.
Inherit the Wind, a drama by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee, tells a highly fictionalized version of the famous Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925. In the real trial, The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes, a substitute high school teacher was accused of violating Tennessee’s Butler Act, which prohibited teaching human evolution in state-funded schools. But it was not a trial of real facts – it was a phony case manufactured by the American Civil Liberties Union.
In honor of International Women’s Day, Kristen Visbal created a statue called Fearless Girl, an image of a girl, hands on hips, striking a defiant pose. This image was then placed in from of another statue called Charging Bull (the one that represents Wall Street and America’s economic might). Fearless Girl recast Charging Bull as a symbol of misogyny, with the Girl acting as a symbol of “women in leadership.”
In George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, Henry Higgins says that we Anglophones should be proud of English because it’s “the language of Shakespear[e] and Milton and The Bible.” Since the Bible was originally written in Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic, it’s a laugh line, but it also makes a serious point: The greatness of English is largely due to its rich literary heritage.
In case you’ve missed the controversy over the past couple of months, an artist named Kristen Visbal recently sculpted a statue called Fearless Girl, which depicts a little girl in a flamboyantly defiant pose. Visbal then placed Fearless Girl in front of a much more famous statue: Charging Bull. In doing so, Visbal has staged a wonderfully dramatic scene: It looks as if a giant bull is rushing the girl, and that she is completely undaunted.
Charging Bull is that giant Wall Street bull you’ve seen in a hundred movies. It has become an icon for America’s can-do spirit and economic vitality. This is exactly what the Bull’s creator intended it to mean. So, if the Bull represents America’s financial strength, you may ask, what sense does it make to place a sassy little girl in front of it?