Do We Need Violence?

I was intrigued last year by Steven Pinker’s argument that despite all our fears & moaning, we’re actually living in the safest time in history. (You can see the TED talk he gave on this subject here, if you don’t want to take the time to read his book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined.) Pinker looked at death rates & causes of death throughout history, as well as death rates & causes in those few remaining cultures we call “primitive,” and compared them to today. He found a steady decline in a man’s chances of dying violently at the hands of another, from 60% in ancient times and primitive societies to less than 1% today for most men. And that’s including all the deaths of all the wars in the 20th century.

Pinker’s argument is that we only think things are worse now because we’ve become so sensitive to violence. In earlier times, people were used to it and so didn’t think about it much. In fact, they went to see torture or hangings or beheadings for entertainment! But we’re so unused to such things, we react with horror and think it means things are going very very wrong. And it’s that reaction, Pinker says, that is actually making us safer. As a culture, we’re becoming more and more gentle with each other. And now when we fight, we do it at a distance; we shoot each other in “drive-bys” from the safety of a moving car and fight our wars through computers and drones. Even the spectacle of “wrestling” where huge men posture and beat their chests and pretend to hurt each other is obviously fake. The days of mano a mano fighting are, for most of us, long gone. 

But that’s not what we see in the movies or on TV. Violence is front and center in most of them, particularly the big blockbusters: people fight each other constantly and are killed in every way possible (with impalement being a favorite method), there’s tons of gore, buildings if not entire neighborhoods are destroyed, cars crash, and oh lordy, the explosions! Everything blows up, including people – usually in the most messy way possible, so that everyone around gets spattered liberally with their remains.

What is up with this in-your-face violence and blood, if we’re so squeamish about it in real life? What is it accomplishing?

We know that the human forebrain – the part that reasons – is still evolving. But the older parts of the brain, the “animal” (or even “reptilian”) parts of us, aren’t keeping up. Those older parts still operate from instinct, and their responses are limited to “is it safe, or should I run away? Should I fight it? Can I eat it? Can I have sex with it? Do I need to protect it?”

Yet we’re living in a world where most of the time, none of those instincts apply. It’s the forebrain that’s squeamish about violence, because it’s thinking “first of all, I could get hurt, and second, it’s illegal and I’d go to jail, and also, my moral code forbids it and people will judge me for it, and after all, I don’t really want to be that kind of person.” Right now there’s a lot of attention being (rightly) paid to the idea that a person can’t always have sex with someone else even if the animal brain thinks they can; hopefully the social pressure against rape will soon be as strong as the social pressure against murder.

Still, the animal brain isn’t going to go away. And it does have its purpose. We do encounter danger, even if it’s not frequent. There was a time in my life where the animal brain served me well: I woke up in my dorm room to find a man standing over my bed, pulling the covers off of me. Without hesitation I sat up and socked him in the face as hard as I could – hard enough to knock him down – and then leapt up, screaming at the top of my voice, and chased him out of the room. I was so pumped up on adrenalin I was ready to beat the crap out of him. I weighed all of 118 pounds at the time, but the fighting instinct gave me the edge in that moment, right when I needed it.

Fear and anger serve us. The problem is, it’s easy to trigger those reactions, but often either there’s no actual threat to fight, or we’re forbidden to fight. Our forebrains may tell us that’s okay, but they can’t make us not have those reactions. (Unless you are a highly trained Buddhist monk, apparently.) Our reactions require that we do something, but most of the time, we can’t!

Which is why anxiety is such a problem for many today. Fear is supposed to trigger an immediate action (either fight or flight) that then relieves the fear. Anxiety is fear that either has no apparent cause or about which nothing can be done. It’s fear with no relief.

So what do we do, if real life doesn’t give us a chance to use or relieve those instinctive reactions? We do what the psychologists call “project” – we let others act it out for us. And where better to “project” our instincts than onto a movie or TV screen? (We also “project” our changing ideas there – you can tell a lot more about where a society is headed by watching TV than by listening to politicians and demagogues – but that’s a separate issue.) So we go to the movies to see the violence that we have willfully denied ourselves and that our instinctive natures cannot relinquish, so we can experience both arousal and relief. (And yes, this also explains why internet porn is so popular and not going away any time soon.)

There are those who argue that violence on screen leads to violence in real life. That may be true in a few cases, but for most of us, I suspect the opposite is true.

Personally I find the violence and explosions and gore are overdone. A little bit goes a long way for me, and I find it more effective if the violence, and also the sex and the scary monsters, are mostly left up to my own imagination instead of done as graphically as possible on the screen. Imagination is a trait of the forebrain; animals don’t have it. And our forebrains keep growing.

Here’s what I hope: more and more people will, in time, find movies that speak to the projections of the forebrain or stimulate the imagination do more for them than movies that satisfy the animal part of our natures.

Capturing Generational Change: The Queen

“The Queen,” a 2006 film by Stephen Frears starring Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II and Michael Sheen as Tony Blair, was on TV last night. I’ve seen it before but I got sucked in and watched every minute of it again. 

When I first saw it, I thought it was about British politics and the phenomenon of Princess Diana. But this time around, I saw something else at work. Once again I have to wonder if the film-makers knew about this particular dimension of the film, or if they captured a truth about how our society is changing without realizing it. I did find a telling quote in an interview with Frears:

“My mother is uncomplaining, stoic, never sees a doctor, would be in incredible pain and never mention it, thinks aspirin is decadent, walks around turning the lights off and wears clothes that are 30 years old,” he said. Such an attitude contrasts with the “narcissism and intolerance of pain of our generation, to whom happiness is a God-given right,” he said.

He does see the generational difference, then. And like so many, he admires “the Greatest Generation” for being how they are. They had to be stoic. Most of them were born about the time of World War I and the great influenza pandemic of  1918, experienced the Great Depression when they were children, and came to adulthood at the time of Hitler and World War II. They had to be tough and stoical to survive. The queen, who became the monarch when she was only 25, had to be even tougher.

They were the last generation to be like that. Pendulums swing. Or perhaps, the fairies intervened, for this tight-lipped, highly private, perfectly groomed generation gave birth to changelings. Their children grew long hair and beards, wore loud and ragged clothing, and spoke out on everything. They gave a voice to those who had been forced to be even more silent than the stoical ones: people of color, women, people with disabilities, people of different sexual preferences. They spoke out for the planet. They spoke out against family traditions of incest, abuse, and alcoholism. They bared their souls (and often their bodies) in public.

No wonder their parents were horrified and bewildered. Nothing was sacred any more. Nothing was private. Like Frears, they saw much of this behavior as narcissistic and self-indulgent.

The movie captures this generational difference beautifully. But I think it captures something else as well. 

Steven Pinker, a Harvard professor of psychology who specializes in cognition and psycholinguistics (the role of language in human development), wrote a book a couple of years ago called The Better Angels of Our Nature, a line from Lincoln’s first inaugural address. In it, he argues that violence has been steadily declining in the West for centuries, because of “changes in our cultural and material milieu that have given our peaceable motives the upper hand.” One of these changes, he thinks, is an increased sensitivity to violence. People used to be used to violence. They went to see hangings for fun, and put babies out on the hillside if they weren’t perfect. But for many reasons (too many to list here), over time we’ve become less inured to violence–and injustice, I would add–and so we get more upset when it happens. And more likely to object to it and try to stop it instead of just saying “oh well, that’s the way things are.”

We’ve also become more connected to each other, thanks to our global media. We get used to seeing and start to care about the people we see onscreen, even if we’ve never met them or ever will.

Diana evoked a lot of this caring from people. She was young, she was beautiful, she was vulnerable, and she was mistreated by her husband and her family – or so people saw things. She also spoke out and worked for social causes, like the effort to get rid of land mines. She was “the people’s princess” for the modern age, while Elizabeth was the queen for the earlier  hard times.

When Diana died, the queen did not understand the upwelling of grief and the people’s need to speak up and to have her speak up about it. Tony Blair did, and eventually got the queen to give her people what they needed. At the end of the movie, Elizabeth admits to Tony that she has always tried to be the queen that the people want, but that she doesn’t know anymore what that is. 

The Power of Film to Change Reality

In my upcoming book on how women write the story of the wandering heroine, I make the claim that authors can change our reality by imagining a new future, a new way of being, that becomes a goal for people to achieve in real life. For example, Doris Lessing’s 1962 book The Golden Notebook had as protagonists two independent women who made their own ways in the world and who expected men to treat them as equals. Lessing said she wrote as if the Women’s Liberation movement had already come to pass, but in 1962 that movement was barely in its infancy. The role models Lessing gave women with her characters Anna and Molly helped shape the ideals of the movement. While Lessing wryly commented that these characters “came as a surprise” to most male critics, women readers recognized them immediately and wanted to be like them.

The same thing happens onscreen. Lt. Uhura of Star Trek was the first black female character in a lead role in a television series. When comedian Whoopie Goldberg, then a child, saw the show, she exclaimed to her family “I just saw a black woman on television; and she ain’t no maid!” Uhura inspired Mae Jemison to apply to NASA and become the first black woman in space. Uhura and Lt. Sulu, a Japanese-American character, allowed us to imagine a future where race did not matter. The character of Ensign Chekov, a Russian, suggested that in this future, nationality and past political differences would not matter either. This opened the way to “colorblind” casting where the race of the actor is irrelevant to the story, as with Morgan Freeman’s Ned Logan in Unforgiven

Likewise, the show Will and Grace showed us a gay man who behaved in every way like any other man might, except in his choices of sexual partners. Ellen Degeneres dared to come out in her own sitcom Ellen and her talk show is now one of the most popular shows on television. Nowadays, race and sexual orientation, like gender, is mostly treated as no less or more important than other factors; each plays a role in how a character behaves, but the character’s individual personality is allowed to shine through.

I’m watching with approval how movies and TV shows are widening the net of “normal” to include people who differ in other ways. The show Life Goes On, which ran from 1989 to 1993, had a lead character who had Down Syndrome. The current hit show Glee also has a character with Down Syndrome who made the cheerleading team. Willow, the 1988 film by George Lucas, featured Warwick Davis, a dwarf, in the lead role. Willow and Davis broke the ground for subsequent film roles for “little people” in not just fantasy films and shows like Game of Thrones, but serious movies like The Station Agent and TV shows like Seinfeld.

We become accustomed to what we see. The more we see different sorts of people portrayed on screen, the more we get used to them and think of them as normal. Then it’s no big deal when we see them in the neighborhood, at school, or at the workplace. And thus our society is gently changed.

Aspie Heroes?

A writer friend recently posted on Facebook that he was having trouble not giving his detective hero “too many autistic traits.”  This struck me, as I have recently found myself wondering whether Mr. Darcy,  hero of Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice and literary crush of countless women, might have had Asperger Syndrome.

People with Asperger syndrome (“Aspies”) supposedly demonstrate limited empathy, a tendency towards obsessive behavior, and are physically clumsy, at least as children. The diagnosis itself has been eliminated from the upcoming Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders; instead, people will be labeled as having a “mild” form of autism.

Personally I think that the line between “normal” (or “neurotypical” as current jargon has it) and autism is pretty fuzzy. There’s a lot of folks out there who are kind of clueless about people and have their little obsessions. We used to call them nerds. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me that quite a few heroes of books & screen popular today seem to land near the autism end of the spectrum.

Consider Sherlock Holmes. He’s obsessive all right; he can identify different soils and types of cigarette ash at a glance. He has very few friends and says of his time at university, “I was never a very sociable fellow, Watson, always rather fond of moping in my rooms and working out my own little methods of thought, so that I never mixed much with the men of my year.” He is indifferent to the feelings of others, even his friend Watson. We seem pretty obsessed ourselves with Holmes; there are three avatars of Holmes at the moment, played by Robert Downey Jr. in the movies, Benedict Cumberbatch on British TV, and Jonny Lee Miller on American TV.

Dr. Sheldon Cooper of the hit show The Big Bang Theory is clearly an Aspie. He’s bewildered by other people and obsessive about physics and science fiction. And Mr. Spock of Star Trek is even worse. Any display of emotion is ignored as “illogical” while he pursues the rational course of action.

Those are obvious examples. But what about Mr. Darcy? In Austen’s book, he says “I certainly have not the talent others possess . . . of conversing easily with those I have never seen before. I cannot catch their tone of conversation, or appear interested in their concerns.” Sounds like an Aspie to me.

I’ve been watching the brilliant online “Lizzie Bennet Diaries,” a modern version of Pride and Prejudice set in America and told through various characters’ video logs. Lizzie takes against William Darcy at first because he’s withdrawn and socially awkward, which she interprets as being stuck-up. We later find out that he’s a genius in certain areas. But he can’t read people, and as a result meddles disastrously between Jane Bennet and Bing Lee, which of course also upsets Lizzie. Later, Darcy confesses to Lizzie that “I’m not very good at communicating what I mean.” 

Why do we make such people into heroes? When I was much younger, a friend and I made a list of the traits we found most attractive in a movie or TV male character. It was pretty short: dark, tall, with an accent, and aloof or distant. We didn’t like “players,” we liked the guys who pretty much ignored women except for the one exceptional woman to whom they would give their heart forever, as Mr. Darcy gives his to Lizzie. Of course we wanted to be that exceptional woman who inspired such love.

These characters’ aloofness suggests mystery, unplumbed depths that few are privileged to enter – and that may contain hidden treasures. The slightest gesture of respect from one of these people means far more to us than any gushing compliments from people who are always effusive. Watson is wounded in one story. The wound is slight, and he is shaken far more by Holmes’s response – the first evidence that Holmes cares at all for his friend. “For the one and only time I caught a glimpse of a great heart as well as of a great brain.” And that great heart cared for him. it was a moment he never forgot.

Perhaps that’s the hook. We want to believe that these great minds are accompanied by a great heart. We accept that only a privileged few will ever be allowed to see that heart, because we hope to be one of those few.

Lars and the Real Girl

In my post on yin and yang heroes and heroines, I wondered what a yin heroine might look like today, as opposed to the sweetly smiling mom of the 50s who stayed at home and kept the house perfect for her husband and children (like the mother in Pleasantville).

One answer may be found in Lars and the Real Girl. Lars, played by Ryan Gosling, is a repressed, skittish fellow who cannot bear to be touched and avoids most social interaction entirely unless within the safe structures of work and church. He lives in the garage of the house he and his older brother Gus (Paul Schneider) inherited from their father, despite repeated invitations from his brother and Gus’s wife Karin (Emily Mortimer) to move in and live with them.

We find out in time that the brothers’ mother died while giving birth to Lars, their father was profoundly depressed and withdrawn after that, and that Gus got out as soon as he could, leaving Lars alone with their father. Lars carries the baby blanket his mother knitted for him all the time.

Things take a turn for the worse when Karin becomes pregnant. Lars becomes even more withdrawn, although he expresses his concern for Karin by giving her the baby blanket to wear when she comes to his door on a winter day to ask him to dinner. (He becomes very anxious without it and soon goes to ask for it back.)

Then one day he appears at their back door and announces that he has a girlfriend that he met online and may he bring her to dinner. Gus and Karin are ecstatic . . . until they meet Bianca. For Bianca is a life-sized, realistic sex doll. As they sit open-mouthed, Lars fills them in on Bianca’s history as a missionary and nurse in South America, then asks if she can stay with them in the house; as good Christians, they cannot of course stay overnight together in Lars’s little garage apartment.

Gus tries to tell Lars that he’s delusional, but Lars doesn’t hear. Karin suggests that perhaps Bianca should have a check-up, to which Lars agrees, and they all go visit the wise local family doctor who also happens to be a trained psychotherapist. Dr. Dagmar (Patricia Clarkson) tells Gus and Karin that “Bianca is here for a reason” and suggests that they play along with Lars’s delusion and see what happens. Gus is resistant, but in time he and Karin manage to get the people in their church and in fact most of the people in their small town to go along. When one church elder objects, tart Mrs. Gruner (Nancy Beatty) takes him to task, pointing out all the foibles that they put up with in each other.

Bianca, of course, does nothing more than sit there and look beautiful. As the movie unfolds, however, she takes on life as everyone around her projects their own issues and feelings about women and men onto her. When Mrs. Gruner comes to take Bianca to a party on a night when Lars thought they were going to stay in and play Scrabble, he stages a fight with Bianca, because he expects a girlfriend to do what her boyfriend wants. Mrs. Gruner flares up and says “you sound just like my husband! Bianca is her own woman!” and then mutters to Bianca “big babies!”

In another scene, Lars tells Karin that no one cares about him, and Karin — who is pregnant after all, but also deeply concerned — flies off the handle and lists all the things people have done for him and Bianca, “because we love you! So don’t tell me no one cares!” and stomps off.

This is not the last fight Lars has with Bianca. Instead of the perfect – and perfectly passive – woman he thought she was at first, he starts to find that she can be difficult and obstinate. And she speaks up. “Stop yelling at me!” he shouts as he parks the car and jumps out in one scene, then stomps about for a bit before coming back to the car and asking if she’s calmed down yet. So Lars, who has managed to avoid much interaction with women all his life, finds himself not just interacting but in conflict with women because of Bianca . . . and it’s not so bad.

Then when he asks her to marry him, she “says” no. Some part of Lars knows that Bianca is not what he really wants.

Because of Bianca and his troubles with her, Lars starts to confide in his brother and Dagmar. Dagmar helps him to overcome his aversion to being touched and also gets him to reveal his fear that Karin will die in childbirth as his mother did. He also asks his brother “how do you know when you’re a man?” — a beautiful scene in which the older brother, at first hesitant, answers “Well, it’s not like you’re one thing or the other, okay? There’s still a kid inside but you grow up when you decide to do right, okay, and not what’s right for you, what’s right for everybody, even when it hurts. . . . Like, you know, like, you don’t jerk people around, you know, and you don’t cheat on your woman, and you take care of your family, you know, and you admit when you’re wrong, or you try to, anyways. That’s all I can think of, you know – it sound like it’s easy and for some reason it’s not.” Lars later repeats some of these words to the young woman at work that he is becoming attracted to, rehearsing out loud what it means to be a grown-up man.

Gus also apologizes for leaving Lars and their father. “He was just so sad . . . I never should have left you with him.”

Dagmar suggests on their first visit that Bianca might have a medical problem. She never says what it is, only that it “might” be serious. This allows Lars to kill Bianca off when he no longer needs her as the mirror in which he can reflect upon his own past and issues. After Bianca is buried in a full funeral, Lars asks the young woman from work if she would like to go for a walk, and they both smile shyly at each other.

We carry our own demons with us, looking for the perfect person to project them onto and then blame that person for them. Most people never do learn that what angers or upsets us — or attracts us — about another person is just a projection, a fantasy or delusion about who they are that says volumes about who we are. And until we realize what we are projecting onto other people, we will be controlled by it instead of in control of it. Lars and the Real Girl is an object lesson in how projection works, and how we might integrate back into ourselves those things we try to make others carry for us.

Destroying the World

This last week I went to see “Skyfall,” which I thoroughly enjoyed, especially the bits where Bond pulls one of his old-school moves (like the Aston with the machine guns). I also liked that they gave us a villain who, unlike every other villain of Bond movies and superhero movies, is not out to destroy or dominate the world. (Although it’s strongly implied that he could if he wanted to.)

The 12th Harry Dresden book, “Cold Days,” also came out this week. Some friends and I were discussing how two characters in Jim Butcher’s Harryverse might actually be the same being. When one person questioned how that could be, I brought up Steven Brust’s definition of a god is someone who is immortal and can exist in more than one place (and time) at once.

The other part of Brust’s definition is that a god can do things that would be immoral if a human did them. And that got me thinking about the destructive aspect of the divine. Every religion has to deal with this issue. There’s even a term for the conundrum of “if God is good, why do bad things happen?” It’s called theodicy, and every religious scholar and most believers have to wrestle with this at some point. The monotheisms pretty much resort to blaming the victims; if a bad thing happens to you, you deserved it somehow. And anyway, who are you to question God? But other religions take a more detached view and say “that’s just the way it is, accept it.”

I also came across a program on the Science channel titled “Serial Killer Earth” that’s all about natural disasters. Even if you don’t believe that there’s some kind of divine being sending troubles upon us, there’s no denying that the planet itself kills people and destroys stuff quite often. Sandy and Katrina, the recent big earthquakes, the tsunami a few years back . . . we’re all living on a knife edge all the time. Not to mention the fact that our own bodies can and do fail, sometimes abruptly, more often slowly but inevitably.

No one gets out alive. If you’re religious, then you have some comfort in thinking there’s an afterlife. If you’re not, you may be comforted by thinking “but I won’t know or care.” But either way, we all have to accept that this life will end.

Which brings me back to our fascination with villains who develop weapons that can destroy entire cities, or plagues that wipe everyone out in a matter of days or turn us all into zombies, or meteors that are going to wipe out all life on earth, or a sudden and catastrophic change in the weather that will make half the planet uninhabitable. I love these movies. I actually laughed at “2012” in which the magnetic poles reverse all of a sudden, causing the Yellowstone Supervolcano to erupt, earthquakes that make California fall into the sea, and tsunamis so high they lap at the face of Mount Everest. Great fun.

But why are we so fascinated? Is it because we live – consciously or not – with the knowledge that the world, our personal world, our own lives and the lives of those we love, could end at any moment? Most of us have in fact lived through that moment where we realized that life had suddenly and irrevocably changed forever. Are disaster movies and supervillains our way of embracing that fear, putting it into a form we can see, and pretending for a while that a brilliant scientist or a superhero or James Bond is going to step in at the last minute and save us? Only at the movies can we pretend that there’s a way out after all and stop holding our breath and relax, if only for a few minutes.

It feels really good.

Yin/Yang Heroes & Heroines

In the course of writing about Jung’s concept of the animus (the internalized masculine aspect of women), I came across a different idea that is now coloring how I see movie heroes and heroines. Genia Pauli Haddon proposes that instead of dividing everything into the polar extremes of feminine and masculine, we think in terms of four different ways of being. Jung would actually approve, I think, since he kept saying that four was the number of completion. Certainly our old idea of male-is-male and female-is-female omits a lot of possible ways of being.

Instead, Haddon says, we should think in terms of yin and yang. Yin is soft, receptive, flexible, adaptable, subtle, often hidden or in the shadows. It is allied with the moon, earth, water, and night. People associate yin with the feminine. Yang is active, hard, focused, aggressive, unyielding. It is allied with the sun, sky, fire, and day. People associate it with the masculine.

Haddon’s idea is that both men and women can behave in either yin or yang ways. A yin woman and a yang male correspond to our traditional ideas about the sexes. But a yang woman and a yin man fall between these opposites. A yang woman is not like a yang man. She is assertive rather than aggressive, for one thing. Where a yang man makes things  happen in a direct and determined fashion — often battering down all obstacles — a yang woman works with the situation, fostering something new in a way that honors the process as much as the outcome. Haddon likens the way a yang woman works to the uterine contractions of birth, pushing out a child in a rhythmic way that protects the baby. I think of a masseuse gently working with a tight muscle to encourage it to relax.

A  yin man is more like a yang woman than a yang man. He too works with the situation in a behind-the-scenes way. But he’s more likely to have an agenda. Haddon suggests that the masculine way of doing something — whether yin or  yang — is goal-oriented. The point is to accomplish something, to make something happen. The feminine seeks rather to enable something to come into being on its own terms. It’s a subtle distinction.  One way to think about it might be the difference between the coach who trains a kid to be good at a sport, and the supportive parent who drives the kid to practices and meets and buys the uniform and cheers from the sidelines. The coach’s agenda is impersonal: s/he wants the team to win. The parent’s agenda is personal: s/he wants the kid to have a positive experience of the sport. (Hopefully.)

I taught a class on “The Avengers” this last week, specifically on Trickster characters in the movie. As we discussed the Black Widow, I quoted from Lori Landay’s book Madcaps, Screwballs, & Con Women: The Female Trickster in American CultureLanday says that the female trickster is captivating, manipulative, sexually attractive but not sentimental, and able to  “survive in situations specifically hostile to women.” Joss Whedon loves such women; he points out in his commentary on “The Avengers” that he always has a female character who appears fragile and extremely feminine, but who turns out to be tougher than anyone around her: Buffy of the “Buffy” TV series, River Tam of the “Firefly” series and “Serenity,” and Echo of the “Dollhouse” series. Joss didn’t write the character of the Black Widow, but she is just his cup of tea.

As we discussed the Black Widow, I realized that she is a perfect example of the yang heroine. Coulson sends her to enlist Bruce Banner to the cause, knowing full well that Banner needs persuading, not pushing. (Banner/The Hulk is an example of someone who flip-flops between being all yin & passive — Banner is forever on the run, trying to NOT DO anything — and all yang/aggressive when he’s in Hulk mode. He eventually learns how to integrate the two.) She also tricks Loki, the trickster-god, into revealing his secrets by seeming to yield to Loki’s mind games. The character of Pepper Potts is another yang heroine who ably assists Tony Stark in everything he wants to do, while at the same time encouraging him in certain directions.

The movie has its share of both yin and yang males. Captain America and Thor are pure yang heroes. They are big men with bulging muscles, they always cut straight to the point, and — let’s be honest — they don’t have much of a sense of humor. They’re serious about everything all the time. They both have an overly developed sense of responsibility, and in a fight, they hit hard, overwhelming their opponents by sheer strength.

In contrast, the yin hero Tony Stark makes a lot of jokes, wanders around poking and prying at things, and adapts immediately to any situation. Hawkeye appears to take a back seat, but he’s got his eye on everything and sees into the situation in a way no one else does. Just as Stark is close to Pepper, Hawkeye is close to the Black Widow; the yin man and the yang woman work well together.

Thor’s love, Jane Foster, has been sent away for her own safety; although she’s the most intelligent of the women, she, like Thor, is likely to barge into situations without thinking. Jane’s a perfect example of the woman who tries to be yang like a man would be: extremely intelligent and working in a male-dominated field, she thinks that she has to argue and push to accomplish her goals. She is precisely what Jung called the “animus-possessed” woman. But Haddon makes the argument that many women from the 1960s on tried to be yang in this way because, while they aren’t cut out to be yin women, they haven’t had a role model for how yang femininity works. I’m so cheered to see movies offering this model.

Similarly, yin men have had a difficult time of it, because the alpha males are the ones we’ve celebrated in this culture. But this is changing as well. I recently came across an article in Cosmopolitan (it was lying on the stack at the gym and I needed something to read while I put in my 30 minutes on the treadmill) about how male “sidekick” characters in movies or TV shows are becoming as popular, if not more so, with women viewers.

Yin & yang are inextricably bound together; they need each other. I wrote some time ago about all the shows that now feature a smart, kick-ass woman paired with an intuitive, easygoing man. I hadn’t encountered Haddon’s idea then, but now I’m seeing this as another expression of the yang woman and the yin man.

We still love our yang heroes. I don’t think we’ve totally lost the yin woman either. Next week my class will be looking at “Lars and the Real Girl,” which features a truly yin woman. Only problem is, she’s not real. Does this mean we don’t know what to think about yin women, any more? Stay tuned . . .