Monday, November 22, 2010

Barbie Saves Ganesh from Scopophilic Binoculars: Story at 11

The other day, my 6 year old put on a 'puppet show.' There were tickets with our names on them, seats, and a curtain that also sometimes doubles as a homemade fabric-painted superhero/princess cape.

The plot of the show was fascinating - rife with transcultural references to our new globalized world order. Gender, myth, tradition, and ritual were all critically examined and challenged, as were thinkers like Freud, Judith Butler and Laura Mulvey.

Most importantly, the performance underscored the critical connections between old and new stories (check out Ganesh with his laddus and the cable remote over here), the importance of, as fantasy writer Cindy Pon has recently said, recognizing how connected mythological traditions and folk stories are across national and cultural boundaries. And of course, how important it is, when writing about myths and traditions, to both be respectful, but not, well, lose the fun of it.

So back to my obviously brilliant daughter's show. What was the plot? In short - the scene opens to danger. Ganesh is in trouble. He is being chased ("Help! Help!") by a magical lanyard snake (*cough* phallic symbol anyone?) and the voyeuristic desires of a giant pair of binoculars ("Don't LOOK at me like that!"). The tension mounts. The audience is on the edge of their, well, sofa pillows that have been arranged on the floor. And just when we think that poor Ganesh, Hindu god and remover of obstacles, is going to be, like, obliterated, the heavens open and an apsari arrives. No, actually, it's actually not a divine feminine figure from Hindu mythology. Rather, it's that divine symbol of gendered Western commercialism - Barbie. And wouldn't you know it? Even without her pink plastic convertible (this isn't Malibu Barbie we're talking about, after all), my girl Babs, like, totally saves the day!

Deep, right?

So then it occurred to me that, gosh dang it, kids say the darnest things. (and then, "Dude, my kid is sooo getting into Harvard.")

I mean, come on, wasn't it incredibly insightful of the playwrite to interrogate Ganesh's performance of masculinity as a site of serious Hindu cultural tensions? (For those of you who aren't familiar with the Hindu myths: Ganesh, elephant headed son of Parvati and uber-masculine Shiva, has always been a bit of a mythological mama's boy: created by Parvati alone while Shiva was out of town on a millenia-long mediation retreat, he is the ultimate son of a single mother. In fact, it was Ganesh's father's inability to recognize him that made Shiva - who's always had issues with anger - blow off his, er, head. And then, realizing it's *bummer, dude* his son, Shiva goes and gets the head of an elephant to replace it with.)

So here was my daughter enacting that crisis of masculinity (hello? your father can't recognize you as his own as you guard your mother's bathroom door and therefore - at least temporarily - kills you?) with that symbol of the attacking lanyard phallus. (Thank goodness the Lord Ganesha, rolly-polly lover of sweet laddus, never had to go to Camp Vrindavan and make lanyards with the other divine/mythological kids - he would definitely have been picked last for volleyball team.) In fact, even when his mother Parvati (also called Durga) insists Ganesh get married - being the first son of the family and all - he can't replace his mother's power and her role as his #1 leading lady - so he marries a banana tree.

And then there's the cross-cultural crossover and gender role reversal issues enacted by Barbie. I mean, it so didn't matter that this particular Barbie was dressed in, like, some seriously satiny and sparkly pink princess dress. NOR that her stomach plays a weird version of Brahm's Lullaby (I think that's what it is) when you press her (rather flat - she must do a lot of pilates) abs. No, none of those trappings of consumerist femininity mattered, man. Barbie kicked some serious butt in this play. She swooped in swept poor Ganesha right off his feet. If he was wearing glass slippers he would definitely have lost them (of course you shouldn't wear shoes during acts of Hindu worship, so he wasn't). 

Although The Gita is a bit sketchy on references to the divine acts of Barbie, that's obviously a serious shortcoming of the Hindu holy book. I mean, Barbie didn't just save Ganesh from the attacks of a mainstream masculine expectation ("rock on, Mama's boy, there's room for all kinds of masculinity" I almost heard her saying), but also from the scopophilic desires of an all-seeing eye.  As the makers at Mattel clearly know, it was Michel Foucault who taught us that the power of the state over individual bodies is enacted through the gaze - for those of you unfamiliar with cultural studies or French philosophy, think the unblinking 'eye of Sauron' in The Lord of the Rings. And dude, what other feminine superhero knows what it is to be oppressed by the voyeuristic gaze than Barbie? (or maybe Wonderwoman - that bustier-like superhero suit was clearly meant for the gaze of the masculine Other, not her own invisible-plane-flying convenience.)

But Babs wasn't having it, man. She wasn't going to give into the enactment of state power. She wasn't going to be a docile body. Nor, for that matter, was she going to stand around, all perky-chested, and allow her fellow gender-role-transgressor to be oppressed. Nope, she was all for solidarity across mythic traditions (Hindu, US consumerist), and against gender binarisms.  She kung-fu-ed that lanyard and those binoculars to Kingdom-come. (or at least, all the freakin' way across the family room fireplace, which is far, dude.)

So the writing lesson from my daughter's fabulous theaterical extravaganza? To play with mythological traditions, and across them. To do unexpected things. To enact politics in writing without hitting people over the head with them. To have fun - fill your writing with wit and whimsy and extravagant things.

Culture isn't only serious. Myths are living, breathing, and dynamic stories that can give insight into deep philosophical questions, but also hours of family fun.

My new favorite "kids book that will never get written" is Barbie rescues Ganesh. What are some of yours?


  1. I can almost see the youngest TED speaker in the making!! And please tell me you've got a video grab of this sigficant event!!

  2. So jealous I missed it! And she probably will make it into Harvard. (Or at least Brown. :)) I especially like the binoculars. The best version of the all-seeing eye I've heard of in a while!

    I think we should match up some more recent "mythological" characters with the old standbys. Maybe Hulk meets Athena. Or SpiderMan Saves Diana. Hmmmm. How about Green Arrow vs. Apollo?

  3. I'm not joking around here, Kari - I absolutely LOVE the idea of Spider Man convincing Diana to question the whole virgin huntress thing and come swinging with him. Or what if Wonder Woman like gave Zeus a run for his money? AWESOMENESS! (and yes, "emeraldpond" your niece is definitely going to be some hip-hop cultural studies maven - you clearly could recognize the brilliance of her first forays into theater and performance art!)

  4. Spider Man always was my favorite. If anyone could convince Diana to change her's probably him!