Thursday, December 11, 2008

Monkey Shines

In re this clip of the opening from Monkey Shines: an paper I once wrote analyzing the show from a sociological perspective. I'm reprinting it in full below.

We Have Met the Monkey and He is Us:


Who among us doesn’t remember Monkey Shines, that classic sitcom that, despite its truncated tenure on television, managed to win itself a place in the canon of childhood staples? Who among can't still hum its catchy opening theme Monkey Business? Who hasn't caught himself using the catchphrases that it made a part of our language: 'Monkey Attack!', 'What was the baby using?', and, of course,'How many monkeys does it take?'

Yet from a sober, academic perspective, Monkey Shines is notable not for the entertainment that it provided, but what it taught us about ourselves, both in its messages and in its ultimate cancellation. Monkey Shines was a daring ideological experiment, ahead of the monkey-related conceptions of its time and even of our own; it dared to confront The Man with The Monkey. At the same time, the limitations of society's mindset, unconsciously existing even within the writers, subtly blunted, subverted, and eventually silenced this cutting edge message.

As I discussed in my earlier article Monkey Tropes in Popular Culture: From Gilligan's Island to the Justice League, humanity necessarily fears the message of the monkey. In him, we see too much of ourselves, and yet a version of ourselves that we are not ready- or able- to accept. As a result, portrayals of the monkey in popular culture necessarily transform the monkey into the 'other', and marginalizes his message via a variety of tactics. Monkey Shines sought to change this; its very premise was that Man could and should learn from Monkey. Nevertheless, the classic marginalization tactics can be seen within the show itself. Beyond that, the show's untimely cancellation proves how unready society was to hear even the muted version of the voice of the Monkey that Monkey Shines was willing to provide.

In this paper, I will briefly illustrate the use of these marginalization tactics and discuss how the fate of the show and its protagonist reflect the failings of our society in terms of acceptance of the monkey psyche.

A. Vilification

The easiest way for Man to escape the message of the Monkey is to convince himself that the Monkey is evil. By doing so, he avoids having to confront and assess the truth of the monkey. Although Monkey Shines seemingly avoided this pratfall by casting the monkey as a hero instead of a villain, nevertheless, the monkey is subtly cast as a dangerously chaotic character.

Take, for example, the very first episode, in which the monkey steals from rich Jonathan Crouton, and is therefore ordered to serve as his butler. How can we not be disturbed by this blatant portrayal of the monkey character as a criminal? Such a portrayal, furthermore, is strengthened by the recurring motif of the "Monkey Attack", in which the monkey was shown leaping at one of the human characters' heads without warning. Cute, no doubt. Charming. But what sort of implicit messages about monkeys was it drilling into our subconscious? That they are dangerous, erratic, and unpredictable.

And these same messages were reinforced by the 'comedic' rants put in the mouth of the irascible drunken writer played by Neil Gaiman. Frequently, and most notably following his failed attempt to use the monkey to write him a novel by chaining him to a computer (a glaring case of exploitation, which warrants further examination beyond the scope of this paper), he would launch into anti-monkey invective. Granted, the show put such vitriol in the mouth of Gaiman, by no means the hero of the show, and it can be argued that the viewer was supposed to side with the monkey in such circumstances. Nevertheless, in view of the show's premise and the 'Monkey Attack', it is difficult not to notice a trend of vilification of the monkey, even in this show intended to counteract such stereotype.

B. Infantilization

When it is impossible to view Monkey as evil, he is often reduced to an infantile position, allowing us to subconsciously denigrate his message and thus, once again, escape it. This trope is startlingly clear in Monkey Shines, perhaps because its more subtle impact made it more difficult for the writers to identify.

Throughout the show (a simple viewing of the title sequence will support this assertion), the monkey was shown being held and/or cuddled by other characters. Crouton's character went so far as to carry the monkey around on his back, in a manner reminiscent of similar backpacks for children. This, despite the fact that the monkey was, in fact, 44 in monkey years, making him older than any of the other characters on the show. In the episode A Very Special Monkey Shines, this child-like image was further reinforced by deliberately paralleling the monkey with a young child learning about appropriate touching. This attitude was reinforced by the fact that he was never allowed even a passing love interest, unlike all the other roommates. The sole exception would be the scene in A Threesome, a Monkey and a Whole Lot of Ripple, in which his crush on a pretty girl led the roommates to invade a hotel dressed as sheikhs. Nevertheless, viewers will recall that the love interest quickly paired up with the rich Crouton; the monkey's status as the adorable child character thus remained unchallenged.

C. Anthropomorphism

Lastly, to deal with the reality of the Monkey which our society and our minds are not yet willing to accept, we eliminate the unique monkey point of view by recreating him in our image. Monkey Shines did not escape this failing. Beyond the smaller examples of the monkey's modern dance obsession and his Christmas sweater, can we not see the entire premise of the show as an example of this theme? The monkey- the paradigmatic free spirit- is transformed into a butler, forced not only into the human construct of employment, but into the role of a servant. This is, perhaps, the most poignant expression of the failure of the show's ambition.

D. Where are they now?

Such tactics, however, were not sufficient to save the show from Man's opposition to any positive portrayal of Monkey. From our perspective, perhaps, Monkey Shines did not go far enough; from the perspective of its era, it went much too far. Can the show's cancellation and 'disappearance' be regarded as mere coincidence, in light of the messages that it forced society to confront? The opinion of this author is unequivocally 'No'.

Equally troubling is an analysis of the eventual fates of the show's stars. All four of the human protagonists went on to semi-successful careers in their chosen fields; where is the monkey now?


In the end, Monkey Shines must be viewed as a brave, but ultimately failed attempt to confront Man with the message of Monkey. Its primary message, that a man could and should learn from a monkey, was too bold, too daring for its time and perhaps even for our own. The pressures of society and the limitations of our minds muted the message, subverted it, and at last silenced it. But by remembering both its message and its failings, we can remind ourselves of one basic truth: the monkey is a part of ourselves that we must confront, no matter how frightening or how difficult. Monkey Shines, in the end, forced us all, like Crouton in the opening titles, to look into the mirror and see, to our horror, the monkey looking back at us.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Jezebel's Letter

And Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and also how he has slain all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger unto Elijah, saying, "So let the gods do to me, and more also, if I make not thy life as the life of one of them by tomorrow about this time."
-I Kings 19:1-2
You know I'll win.
You knew it even on your hill,
even as you stood there in your rainstorm,
clutching your fiery truth.
You knew.

Whether you heard it whispered
in your holy-haunted dreams,
or glimpsed it in their ovine eyes,
you and I have seen their naked hearts
and know your Truth is nowhere in them

And don't you wish that you were wicked
and could savor it like hot revenge?

Well, go run to your cave and warm your hands
on your little truth and your mighty rage.
Go enjoy your righteous misery
as I enjoy my wickedness.

And they'll go on, self-delighted,
their fingers in their ears so hard
they gouge their brains out.
And they'll enjoy that too.

Monday, December 01, 2008

How Romantic Comedies Train Women to be Abused Wives

Today, I had a lecture basically about the Battered Wives' Syndrome (in the technical context of self-defense as a defense for criminal responsibility in cases of murder). As the professor lectured about the typical behavior patterns of the abusive husband before and after the marriage, I realized that a lot of them sounded quite familiar. And that is because I have consumed my fair share of chick flicks in my life.

What do I mean? Well, firstly, I don't mean that chick flick heroines, immediately following the ending credits, would become abused wives (even if they were bereft of the protection offered by fictionality). The movies are written with certain implicit assumptions about time compression and such like that make it impossible to judge the actual relationship. But a lot of the behaviors exhibited by abusive husbands, even long before they become physically abusive, are the very behaviors that chick flicks laud, expressly and implicitly, as healthy and/or romantic. Examples*:

1) The Big Romantic Gesture: Abuse generally works in escalating cycles, typified by extremes on both ends of the spectrum. Immediately after the abuse (and particularly in the earlier stages of the abuse, which usually starts just after the wedding), the husband is effusively apologetic, romantic, sweet. He buys jewelry, presents, new furniture to replace anything that he destroyed. (One police officer says that every time a woman came to report abuse, he could tell how often she hadn't reported it by counting her rings, necklaces, and bracelets.) Every good romantic comedy has a scene in which the hero engages in some over the top romantic gesture to atone for something that he has done to the heroine; the gesture proves that he is a good guy, that he truly loves her, that he will never hurt her again. Obviously, this is never physical abuse, but the core idea of "Gestures atone for misdeeds" is well-established.

2) They're all Just Jealous: Abusers typically seperate the wife from family and friends who attempt to stand in the way of a relationship that they see as problematic. They have never really understood her; they are just jealous that her relationship is succeeding; they want to keep her for themselves; they don't understand how happy she is; they are over-protective; will they never be happy for her? This serves both to silence any voices of protest and to cut the woman off from other people who might be able to help her get out of the situation later. In the romantic comedy form, there is usually only one over-protective parent or jealous friend/sibling and in the end they always acknowledge their flaws and the beauty of the relationship. Nevertheless, the idea that you should listen to your heart and boyfriend over your family is pretty well-rooted.

3) The Stalking of Love: Abusers typically slowly take over every aspect of their partner's life. They want to be with them at every moment, they pop up at unexpected times, because they always just want to be with them. Romantic comedies are full of this stuff, and it's hard not to notice the creepiness even without the abuser stuff going on. Nonetheless, even if the behaviors are exaggerated, the idea that there is something romantic about them wanting to spend every moment with you, and popping up in every aspect of your life, is reinforced. To make matters worse, romantic comedies often have an aspect of fixing your life as you find your man, who is often the one to point out that character flaw that you need to fix to make yourself happy and healthy. Of course, in the romantic comedy, he is generally absolutely right. This does not change the controllingness of the situation, or weaken the message that the man should be introducing major changes into your life.

The list continues, my time does not. In summation: Chick flicks are more than innocent cotton candy for the mind- they reflect some seriously twisted conceptions of love, and not just those of the "love conquers all variety".

*Based on one 1.5 hour lecture on a slightly different subject