What is more important for superhero characters: their status as icons, or their status as commodities?

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This question was asked in the GEH1067 module, iteration AY17/18 Sem 2 under Dr Ian Gordon.


What is more important for superhero characters: their status as icons, or their status as commodities?
The question asked suggests that there is a binary, that superheroes have to be seen either as icons or as commodities. Much of the discussion and scholarship suggests, complete with examples, that they can never be one without the other. Having taken all that into account, I would argue that superheroes will be icons only in certain contexts and time periods but they will be commodities all the time. Furthermore, their statuses as icons in a particular time allows those who make them commodities to use them. For this essay I define icons as persons worthy of veneration and characters as persons in plays, novels or films.

To begin with, Bart Beaty discusses the need for ‘audience strategies’. This suggests that audiences are connected to the characters and to each other through their shared love for the characters. They view these characters as icons, declare their adoration for these icons and through their participation in these profit-making ventures, allow for these characters to be commodified for them. Examples include the creation of the cinematic universe (Beaty 319, 321) where audiences find affinities with characters through narratives like the Iron Man, and Thor origin stories as well as develop an understanding of characters’ interpersonal relationships. These stories as Beaty also suggests, have ‘easter eggs’ (322) which audiences pick up on and this helps them to connect movies together in the cinematic universe. This creation of characters as icons to the audience aids in the icons’ commodification as ‘audiences can join at any time’ and can ‘grow easily’ (Beaty 320), meaning that box office profits as well as accompanying merchandize sales would increase for the producers accordingly.

Secondly, this argument would help to explain the natural transition of superheroes from comic book medium to television and eventually to film. The creation of the cinematic universe could be even argued to have its roots in transmedial storytelling that began in the 1920s with cross-industrial collaborations (Freeman 220). Superman’s narrative was argued by Matthew Freeman to be intentionally created to be too large to stay in one medium that other mediums had to be co-opted in to assist in the production and broadcasting of it (Beaty 217). The end goal was that the profits accrued would not accrue only to one company but to many. Therefore, the creation of the ‘iconic’ narrative of Superman was eventually for the purposes of it being a commodity that was so large its outreach could be expanded immensely for consequent exponential profits.

To add on to that, some may argue that Superman is indeed iconic but I would rather posit that he was a product, a literal commodity of his time, similar to Captain America and other characters. The argument is also further emphasised when one sees that the demand of audience for characters is determined by contextual and historical problems. Superman was popular during the war because he was an icon of what America was fighting for (Freeman 220, 221-226). But he as an icon, together with the medium he was portrayed on, declined because they were only commodities. Once the war was over, the commodity of comic books as motivation was less necessary and neither was the war-time superhero. How iconic he was depended very much on whether he was useful as a commodity in that particular time. Similarly, Captain America was created at a time when the enemy fought was an ideological one, Communism. This fight was graphically portrayed in the Captain America vs Hydra clashes where the stereotypical propagators of this ideology, the ‘Russians’ were always depicted as the villains. This helped increase the popularity of the character as an icon, a bastion of democracy in contrast to Communist symbols and thereby increase demand for the movie. It also being part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Captain America functions as an icon with his own backstory as well as a character in the grander scheme of Marvel’s profit-making world.

In conclusion, the transition from comic book to television as well as the creation of a narrative world of the cinematic universes where characters were crafted and built as icons allowed audiences to gain affinities and connections with these icons and this affinity was very much based on the contexts of the time. Having audience fixed on these iconic characters allowed for the capitalist propagation of these icons as commodities. Finally, their popularity was not determined by how iconic they were but more so how much good were they as products of their time.

 

Works Cited

Bart Beaty (2016) Superhero fan service: Audience strategies in the contemporary interlinked Hollywood blockbuster, The Information Society, 32:5, 318-325,  DOI:10.1080/01972243.2016.1212616

Matthew Freeman (2014) Up, Up and Across: Superman, the Second World War and the Historical Development of Transmedia Storytelling, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 35:2, 215-239, DOI: 10.1080/01439685.2014.941564

Randy Duncan and Matthew J. Smith, eds. Icons of the American Comic Book: From Captain America to Wonder Woman. Santa Barbara, Calif: Greenwood, 2013. Select chapters.


 

Pic credits: https://jlonnett.deviantart.com/art/Avengers-Banner-245648755
Essay grade: A+
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Why is my name Esther?

(This post was originally an essay assignment for Introduction to Sociology in NUS Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, module taken in AY17/18 Sem 2 under Dr George Radics. This assignment was really fun and interesting to do so I decided to post it here for keepsake and because well, it’s about me)

The essay question requires one to find out the origins of their name and decide what has influenced one’s parents in giving them the name, also to question whether the individual’s life keeps to or goes against the values that the name suggests.


 

C Wright Mills believes that the Sociological Imagination can help people to link what is happening or has happened in their lives to the larger picture of society and history. This would help them understand their own experiences when they locate themselves in this period (Mills, 21), as well as comprehend the values upheld and issues plaguing their society. He recommends this so that people do not confuse personal troubles with societal issues, both which are inherently linked but distinct. In this light, I posit that my parents named me ‘Esther’ in hope that I would be a powerful woman whose decisions were based on the conservative Christian values, leading me to display utmost loyalty for my community and its upheld values which I argue to be true to my life currently. In this essay, what would be discussed would be my parents’ background and beliefs, a brief history behind the name ‘Esther’ as well as how the historical significance of the name links to present day context with regard to my personal experiences. Mills asks three questions in his piece which acts as a guide to understanding the link between the society of Queen Esther, the society my parents were brought up in and eventually the society I currently situate myself in

The society my parents grew up in was harsh, traditional and one in which they had to fend for their survival. My father had a rough childhood, watching his father go from riches to rags when he was disowned by his parents as he chose to become a soldier in WWII. My grandfather’s children were left to fend for themselves and in the process my dad came to Singapore to make a living. My mother grew up with a single parent and left her education early on to support the family. They left their families and past connections, they were very much on their own, free from the traditional Chinese values. Instead, both chose to uphold deep conservative Christian values that they were taught since young, shaping their world view and mine too, in time to come. They got married and lived (till now) in a very tight knit Christian community. During a church sermon from the book of Esther (from the Bible) that they realized they wanted to name me after Queen Esther of old.

Esther was an orphan, originally known as Hadassah (Jewish equivalent), but named as Esther (Persian equivalent), brought up by her cousin, a devout Jew. According to the Biblical story, the then king of the Persian Empire, Ahasuerus, had divorced his wife Vashti for insubordination and was looking for a new queen. A beauty contest was held which Esther won and she became the new queen, winning the heart of the king both in looks as well as in wisdom. However, she was strictly charged by her cousin not to reveal her identity that she was a Jew. Years later, the most high-ranking court official, Haman, was jealous of the Jews as they were prospering and he wanted to commit genocide by royal decree, attempting to blackmail the king into giving the ring of his approval. Esther then revealed who she was to her husband, risking her life as she went in to the king unannounced, and begged him to not let the decree pass. In this act she saved herself and her people from genocide.

With regard to Mills’ first question (Mills, 22), the social order of Queen Esther’s time and mine do not differ much. She was from a minority group – the Jews, religious, traditional and community-oriented, who were considered inferior to the Persians as they were foreigners and of a different culture. My parents believed that the Christian values they espoused were in contrast to the ‘then-becoming-liberal’ values of the times. Therefore, the values I was brought up in were community over self, filial piety and the Bible as the final authority.

This societies of the Jews and the Christians differ but have many similarities as well. Besides the latter having roots from the former, both societies are often less individualistic and view the greater good of the community as more important. There is an element of collective consciousness in both Jewish and highly conservative Christian societies especially in the former, in which generations pass down the shared values of community and loyalty. These societies defend their culture from dilution at all costs. My parents who situate themselves in such a tight knit Christian community are compelled to appreciate the transition from a localized traditional society to an increasingly global and technology driven one, thus the values from various parts of the world become spread and inevitably, dilution to the traditional culture happens

It is in this light that I agree with Mills that ‘…it is the uneasiness itself that is the trouble; it is the indifference that is the issue’ (Mills, 25). Considering the link between the historical narrative and the present day, the dilemma comes for me as did it for Esther of old when her personal troubles were tough to be dealt with in the light of the ongoing issues of the time. She was one of a minority having to stand up for what she believed in at risk of death, for the sake of her people. Yet she hesitated to do so until she was prompted because she was afraid to disrupt comfortable life in the palace as the issues outside did not directly concern her. For me, I have to find my identity in the midst of the barrage of both public issues such as the increasing emphasis on individualism especially with the millennial generation’s cries and the private issues of conservative values and loyalty to the community over the self. As the cries of secular society become greater and greater through the voice of the social media and the atmosphere of intellectual education in the tertiary institutions, the question is whether my current possession of the sociological imagination will help me better understand my place and create an identity with it or remain in a state of uneasiness.

 

References

Mills, C. Wright (1997 [1959]) ‘The Promise’ (from The Sociological Imagination) in Henslin, James M. (Ed.) Down to Earth Sociology: Introductory Readings. 9th Edition. New York. Free Press (pp.19-26)