Friday, November 29, 2013

DROIDS: My Favorite TV Theme Song

A friend of mine recently threw my favorite kind of party; a Saturday Morning Cartoon party.

We watched shows from our youth and when we couldn't take full episodes, we just watched openings.

I love openings of shows, because they're basically music videos a lot of the time, and the animation is usually better than the shows because the job of an opening is twofold; it has to dazzle you to get your attention, and it also has to tell you what the show is about.

Anime openings tend to lean more towards just being music videos because the song is usually part of the marketing of the show, and in North American, animated shows are generally aimed at children and the people producing these shows often think that kids are stupid, so the openings tend to be really simplistic and direct (often to the point of being condescending), often having songs that are literally "This is exactly what this show is about."  
And sometimes that's ok...there are some really charming openings that just say what the show is about right up front (Gummi Bears and Ducktales jump immediately to mind as good examples, and Mummies Alive jumps immediately to mind as an awful one).  But the really sweet ones...the ones that stay with me...are the ones that manage to communicate what the show is about while (A) not just telling you straight up and (B) sounding like a real song.  It's a tricky balancing act.

Which brings us to the favorite opening song of my childhood, which I only recently remembered thanks to my friend screening it at the aforementioned Cartoon-a-palooza; the opening to DROIDS.

STAR WARS was huge in the 80's...way bigger than it is even now.  As rabid as todays Warsies are, the marketing of STAR WARS in the 80's makes it pale in comparison, and LucasFilm sourced out the creation of two spin-off cartoons to Nelvana, EWOKS and DROIDS to capitalize on this.

I loved both shows, but if I'm being honest, I liked DROIDS better.  Robots just appealed to my adolescent more than alien teddy bears, and the show was exciting with it's lightsabers and laser guns and speeders and space ships and aliens and what-have-you.

And going back...DROIDS is actually still a pretty decent show.  The premise is solid; C3-P0 and R2-D2, lost and alone after their adventures in the original trilogy, seek out new masters and bumble into various adventures.  This allowed the show to tell both serialized stories that built from episode to episode, but also in small arcs designed to end, with the Droids moving on after having helped their new master succeed and finding a new one as they looked for both a purpose and a home like some kind of cyborg Littlest Hobo.  Sure the animation is limited, the designs are dated, and the dialogue is cheesy, but it's still got some solid storytelling and a strong premise.  I find I have an appreciation for this show that I didn't have a kid.

And a lot of that has to do with the opening.

The animation and the images used aren't particularly impressive, but juxtaposed with the song, they offer a compelling narrative.

As an intellectual exercise, I'm going to break this down.  I'm not saying that any of this was the creators intent, it's just my reading of it, but if it was their intent...I have profound respect for treating 6 year old Derek Halliday like an adult.

The song, TROUBLE AGAIN, was written and performed by Steward Copeland of the POLICE, and the lyrics are as follows:

Steppin' softly in a danger zone
No weapon in my hand
It's just this brain, designed by man
It's got me in trouble again
In trouble again
I put my life in jeopardy
In the service of my friends
I wouldn't care but it's a dangerous affair
'Cause I’m in trouble again, trouble again
In trouble, in trouble, in trouble
Firstly, it's a pretty good song.  It sounds like STAR WARS, but it also sounds like 80's pop.  None of the lyrics state anything specific about the show...they don't say the shows name, they don't reference the characters, they don't tell you who they are or what they do, so the song stands alone as a song.  I also like the slightly melancholy feel the song reminds me of the LITTLEST HOBO in that regard.  It sounds upbeat but slightly regretful.
Now, if you break down the lyrics, you get a pretty interesting commentary on the existence of the Droids in the STAR WARS universe and how they view their lives.
The first verse tells you what their average day is like...they are constantly put in danger that they have little to no ability to deal with, but they also are compelled to confront due to the circumstances of their creation.  The cause of their woe is, "...just this brain, designed by man."
As Droids (robots, sic), they are intelligent beings with a certain level of self awareness.  Unlike humans, though, there is no great mystery as to their creation or their greater purpose in the universe...they were created by men to serve a specific function.  Droids know who their creators are, and interact with them all the time.  So might not a robot, put in constant danger, question why he was created to suffer, or whether his compulsion to meet dangerous situations was programmed into him?  A Droid would not believe in a greater power, because they weren't created by a greater power, they were created by flawed men.  They know that their decisions are not their own, but the result of a program...they wouldn't curse God for their situation, but their own flawed minds, and their inability to violate the programing which compels them into situations they can't control.
The second verse acknowledges that the Droids put their lives in danger as a service to others, and the use of the word "friends" implies that this is a noble thing.  But the third line, "I wouldn't care but it's a dangerous affair" contradicts this, and again, it implies that the Droids are aware that their choices are not free ones, but part of their programing that they are helpless to change.
As any good nerd (and let's be're only reading this if you're a nerd) knows, Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics are:

(1) A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

(2)  A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

(3)  A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Assuming that the Droids in Star Wars generally follow these laws (and it's safe to assume that most standard service model Droids would, even though we know that there are Droids built either without the First or Second Laws, or modified First and Second Laws), the second verse of this song is an interesting lamentation on the conflict in the Droid's lives; are they capable of being selfless?

If the Droids follow the Three Laws (or have some kind of similar programming that is equivalent), then any sacrifice would not be a choice, but a compulsion.  The line, "I wouldn't care but it's a dangerous affair" implies that the Third Law is being superseded by the First Law...the compulsion to jeopardize their existence is not a selfless act because it's not a choice in the first place.  Knowing this makes the Droids question whether any of their actions can be considered heroic or noble, despite the fact that their are risking their own existence.  The "I wouldn't care" suggests that, if they had the choice, they WOULD chose to endanger themselves for their friends, but they'll never know if that is a choice that they would freely make.

Listening to the theme song now gives the show a whole new depth to me, even if I'm just reading too deeply into something that isn't really there...I just like the idea of C3-P0 and R2-D2 as going on an existential adventure, and questioning the nature of their existence.  They were created to be comedy relief and comedy is a human affectation, so it's easy to forget that they are non-human entities and that they're thought processes would not be human ones.  To me, the song is a lamentation of the Droid's inability to change their fate because they can never know if their choices are free ones or simply the result of their programming.  They cannot be noble or heroic, even if they might aspire to be, because they are incapable of making a selfless sacrifice, since such sacrifice is part of their programming...even as their programming may also be telling them to selfishly preserve their own life.  This seems especially true of C3-P0, who seems to have a stronger Third Law bias than R2-D2...but, then, they are made for two very different purposes.  C3-P0 is a Protocol Droid, and thus probably pretty expensive and fragile, while R2-D2 is a service Droid built to affect repairs in hostile environments.

That's how I see it anyways.  Thanks for indulging my cartoonishly over-the-top analysis of a cartoon theme song that no one remembers!

Thursday, January 17, 2013

A Reponse to Mary Oliver Leeds RE: Feminist Anime/Animation

I was alerted to a new comment on one of my recent posts today by a student writing her dissertation on the representation of women in media, specifically animation.  She did not leave an e-mail address with which I could answer her questions directly, so I will instead reply in the form of this blog post and hope that she finds it in time for it to be helpful.  At the very least it generates content and is a discussion worth having.  ^_^

The comment was as follows:

"I am currently writing my dissertation based around the representation of women in animation and media and would love if you could answer some questions surrounding this issue. Do you think that work produced solely by women show more respect for the equality of women rather than those produced by men? What do you feel are the greatest misrepresentation of women today? In the new Pixar animation ‘Brave’, did you feel that it genuinely tackled the issue of a female lead? Do you believe it is important for animated films to reflect womens varied roles in modern society or are they the last opportunity to escape from political correctness?

'Thank you in advance,

'Mary Oliver Leeds College of Art"

I would first like to say that I am flattered by your interest in my opinion, and will answer to the best of my ability, but please keep in mind that I am hardly an expert on either media representation or feminism.  If it's helpful I can try and put you in contact with a few of my friends who are more knowledgable if you are interested (looking at you Tory and Stacy), but for now here are my thoughts.

1)  Do you think that work produced solely by women show more respect for the equality of women rather than those produced by men?

The short answer is, no, I do not, but I will elaborate.  I think it is easier to create something that you have first hand experience with, IE being a woman and the issues and concerns of a woman, but I do not think that works produced by men about female characters are any less relevant or respectful, and (sadly), a lot of what is out there representing women comes from male creators because it is still a very male dominated world.

There is a wealth of sophisticated and sensitive portrayals of women in media generated by men which still manage to speak to a female audience.  Jaime Hernadez LOCAS series and his brother Gilbert Hernandez PALOMAR and LUBA series in LOVE AND ROCKETS have positively and realistically (to the extent which comics can) represented women for decades.  Writer Greg Rucka has worked almost exclusively on comics featuring female leads for Marvel and DC, and the books he's written with male leads always have a strong female presence, such as his recent run on PUNISHER in which he introduced a female protege for Frank Castle who is every bit as ruthless and driven as her male counterpart.  Joss Whedon is famous for creating television with female leads such as BUFFY and DOLLHOUSE, as well as championing same sex representation.  Hyao Miyazaki has created some of animes most endearing and enduring female characters in NAUSSICAA, KIKI'S DELIVERY SERVICE, and SPIRITED AWAY, and even his male lead films such as PORCO ROSSO, CASTLE IN THE SKY, and PRINCESS MONONOKE have a strong female presense that resonates with that audience.

I wish there was more being produced by women for a female audience (which is not to say that that work is not being created, but it would take a whole other conversation to go into the problems surrounding why that work is not being published/produced) in North America (Japan does not have this problem...women thrive in comics and animation and targetting a female audience has always proven lucrative, which makes North America's resistance even more baffling), but that does not mean that work being produced for a female audience by men is less respectful or sensitive to that audience.

It's a different story if you look at media produced by men for a male audience though.  There is a lot of material featuring female characters that is directed at a male audience that is not very well representative of the female experience, but that material is not being made to appeal to a female audience...for the most part.  WITCHBLADE was a comic created by a four men and one woman, Christina Z, who wrote the series at the beginning, was a comic created for a male audience featuring a female lead which found a devoted female audience.   This was back in the mid 90's and comics was a mostly male market, so this may have been a case of women finding something that was close enough an adapting, but in it's close to 20 years of being published WITCHBLADE has taken notice of that audience and has very carefully straddled the line between positive representation of women and titilating men...well, until Tim Seeley took over, anyways.

2)  What do you feel are the greatest misrepresentation of women today?

I'm not sure exactly what context you are addressing with this question; do you mean broad trends or are you asking me to cite specific works?

There will always be broad stereotypes, but that goes across the board.  Media still portrays gays on TV as flamboyant charicatures, men as meat-headed chauvanists, and women as objects, and nerds are anti-social rejects.  It's easy to resort to stereotype because it's's almost become a shorthand.  I do think that media has become BETTER representative than it ever has been. 

There is more representation for homosexuals now that there ever has been.  If you look at who our recent male action heroes are you'll find that the ultra-masculine muscleheads of the 80's/90's have given way to the more sensitive and female friendly men like Chris Hemsworth or Joseph Gordon Levitt.  As for women...that's a growing market! 

TWILIGHT, as much as I may not respect the work, played an important role in changing how media markets to a female audience.  WOMEN...HAVE...MONEY, and they WILL SPEND IT.  As with all things, money talks, and if there is a profitable market demographic that is STARVED for content, someone will seek to fill it.  TWILIGHT proved that marketing at women is not only viable but insanely profitable.  You can thank TWILIGHT for much better HUNGER GAMES.

If you want me to cite specific works, I refer you to this post I wrote about SUCKERPUNCH.  SUCKERPUNCH is what happens when a guy that does not know he is a misogynist tries to make a girl-power movie.  It is AWFUL.

3)  In the new Pixar animation ‘Brave’, did you feel that it genuinely tackled the issue of a female lead?

Again, I'm a little confused on the wording of this question; what is the issue of a female lead?

Frankly I cannot think of a better female driven movie than BRAVE.  Merida is a great and engaging character, and the underlying theme of the film could not have been more relevant to the female experience...either from Merida's perspective as the daughter or Queen Elinor's perspective as a mother, as well as being and exciting and humorous piece of fantasy and entertainment.  Whatever the issue of a female lead is, I do think that BRAVE tackled it head on, in every possible respect that it could.

4)  Do you believe it is important for animated films to reflect womens varied roles in modern society or are they the last opportunity to escape from political correctness?

This is not an easy question to answer, particularly since the subject we are discussing is escapist entertainment.  Animation in particular is firmly in the realm of fantasy; for example, I highly doubt you will see an biopic about Susan B. Anthony or Gloria Stienem.  I also do not not think that not being completely PC precludes positive representation.  PITCH PERFECT was a filthy gross-out comedy filled with vomit jokes and a just AWESOME menstration pun from Elizebeth Banks, but it was also a successful comedy with an all female cast (similarly BRIDESMAIDS).  Positive representation does not need to come at the expense of entertainment value.

For me, the most important thing that animation can do with it's representation of women is to provide young girls with heroes.  Our relationship with animation in North America is predominantly that it is a medium reserved almost exclusively for children.  Now, this is slowly changing as my generation (80's Baby), which grew up during something of an animation boom where animation aimed at children went from just entertainment to marketing (GI JOE, TRANSFORMERS, HE-MAN, MY LITTLE PONY, RAINBOW BRITE, etc were all built around media tie-ins), and now, as adults, there is a new market for nostalgia and those things are being remarketed at us as big budget motion pictures and related media tie-ins, but animation is still predominantly viewed as something for children. 

When I was a kid, my heroes where on TV and in comics, and they had a HUGE impact on me.  KIDS NEED HEROES.  And there have been so few for girls until recently.  Now you have Merida and Korra (of AVATAR: THE LEGEND OF KORRA), and with the introduction of anime to North America, a huge variety of female heroines aimed at girls in a variety of genre's, be it magical girls like Sailor Moon and Card Captor Sakura or angsty teens such as Makino Tsukushi in HANA YORI DANGO (and numerous other shoujo series that are probably more popular, relevant, and recent...I just can't think of one off the top of my head), or Katniss Everdeen in THE HUNGER GAMES, etc etc.  There needs to be more of that, and there is a market for it.

I think the most important thing that animation or any type of media can represent about women is that they are strong, intelligent, and beautiful, and can be heroes.

I hope this has helped.  If you have any follow up questions or wish to further discuss this subject, please e-mail me at