Champion by Ring Lardner

two men one in foreground boxing one in background his manager

Champion” is a short story about boxing by Ringgold Lardner, who was an American sports columnist as well as a short story writer. He had three main subjects: sports, marriage and theatre.

Lardner’s family was wealthy, he had to wear a brace on his foot until age eleven, he and his one wife had four sons and he died age 48 due to tuberculosis.

“Champion” is a rags-to-riches story.

by Charles Dana Gibson, Life Magazine. Possibly a picture of James J. Jeffries being followed by scores of children who regarded him a hero. Big Jeff (The Boilermaker) was the first heavyweight champ to retire undefeated until pulled out of retirement as “the great white hope” to fight Jack Johnson. (He lost.)

STORYWORLD OF “CHAMPION”

“Champion” starts out in Chicago (shortened to “Chi” later in the story). Midge moves around to other places such as Milwaukee, New York, New Orleans. The eventual setting fiction about Midge is that he also has a wife up in Canada (outside the range of the American media) with five sons, all ‘dead ringers’ for Midge: the ultimate dream for a man who has dreams of being all-powerful.

The pattern of domestic abuse isn’t so different from how it works today, with the following noteworthy addition:

“I’ll put you in a hospital where they’ll keep you quiet.”

Last century, sending ‘crazy’ wives and girlfriends to mental asylums was one strategy used by men to get rid of partners they no longer wanted. This was considered an alternative to divorce, for which the man could not be blamed. It was more common in the 1800s, but continued into the 1900s.

a list of reasons women were admitted to insane asylums, including masturbation and novel reading

CHARACTERS OF “CHAMPION”

The cast of characters in “Champion” is a long one, because the point is that Midge goes through people like they’re nothing, one person after another after another. They are listed again at the end, to remind us of all the people he has screwed over.

For a full list of the characters, see here.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “CHAMPION”

This story is dialogue heavy and written in a working class Northern American lower class dialect of a century ago. All considered, it’s amazingly simple to read, and I’m sure it’d be satisfying to listen to.

Legend has it that his spelling wasn’t very good, though he was super smart academically. In those days, spelling alone could let  you down in school.

SHORTCOMING

Midge (Michael Kelly) is a man who uses violence like a workshop tool. He could be a sociopath, and this serves him well. Midge is more like a robotic horror opponent than a fleshed-out main man with human shortcomings and needs. I don’t even code his sociopathy as a shortcoming.

Instead, we see the cast around him suffer because of their own shortcomings. “Champion” is a good case study in stories which create a cardboard ‘main character’ then delve into how that person wreaks destruction on those around him.

Tony Soprano is a similar character in that regard.

Champion 1949 film poster

Interesting that when this story was adapted for film in 1949, the screenwriters gave Midge more humanity.

Possibly we should be grateful that the makers of the film have sweetened the character just a little from the way he was in the tale, for Mr. Lardner’s Midge Kelly was as cruel and contemptible as they come.

New York Times

Reason given: the audience can put up with a one-dimensional psycho for main character in a short story, but watching him on screen for full movie-length would be highly unpleasant. In other words, you can’t get away with one-dimensional main characters in works of length.

DESIRE

As Midge observes, everyone around him wants a piece of him for his fame, his money, his prestige.

OPPONENT

Everyone in Midge’s life is an opponent, because this is a man incapable of friendships and genuine romance.

PLAN

Nothing stands in Midge’s way because he has the superpower gift of his fists. So when he gets in trouble for beating up his disabled brother, he simply leaves home to make his fortune. And so he does, going from strength to strength.

BIG STRUGGLE

Because this guy is a fighter we see an endless stream of punches and kicks. There’s no big fight that will determine the course of this guy’s future — after a while we know he’s going to win.

Is it just me, or is everyone else waiting to see Midge get his punishment? I thought the industry itself might chew him up and spit him out. Most stories are conservative in their values — bad characters meet bad endings.

ANAGNORISIS

But this story subverts that expectation and ends with the following message: Once people are champions, their audience wants them to remain champions.

This is absolutely mimetic to real life. It works especially well for white men. We have seen it over the last few years in men who have been accused of assault then come back and keep on doing whatever’s been making them money. I’m sure Ring Lardner witnessed this himself, while working as a sports journalist. He must have wondered how such assholes can keep doing what they’re doing.

NEW SITUATION

The answer, of course, is that an audience loves a champion.

It’s about wish fulfilment. We project our own wish to be famous and powerful onto celebrities and if they fall, we fall. There’s also the cognitive bias of sunk cost, in which we tend to stick with those into whom we’ve already invested our attention. It’s related to status quo bias, in which we prefer things how they are, even if that thing happens to be a patriarchy powered by toxic masculinity.

COMPARE AND CONTRAST

the wrestler movie poster with mickey rourke bending forward looking defeated

In one way this short story reminds me of the film The Wrestler, which is about how the modern American wrestling entertainment industry uses their wrestlers up and spits them out, without looking after them when their bodies become too broke to fight. But the main character of The Wrestler is a sympathetic figure and he is the underdog. Midge is no sympathetic underdog. Because I’ve seen The Wrestler, I know to expect he will get his comeuppance from the industry itself.

But no. Midge remains top dog. But even in The Wrestler, broken fighters remain top dog in the minds of the audience, and that’s what brings in the bucks.

If we met Midge at the end of his life, we might find someone looking more defeated, as Mickey Rourke looks in that poster.

Sarah Marshall Has A Stalker, For All The Receptionist Knows

Forgetting Sarah Marshall

Forgetting Sarah Marshall is a silly, fun film, designed to appeal to an audience of teenage boys.  The film was produced by Judd Apatow. The script was written by its star, Jason Segel. Some critics have applauded the film for turning the ‘crazy ex-girlfriend’ trope on its head.

(Inversion does not equal subversion.)

I don’t aim to review the entire film because then I’d have to watch the entire film, but I’d like to offer a single scene as an example of storytelling which can have damaging real life consequences, depending on what the audience brings.

In common with all Judd Apatow movies, beautiful young women are found at every turn and they all seem to find the underdog Joe Shmoe lead attractive. A classic male fantasy, it would seem.

The problem with this scene, even as fantasy: Jason Segel’s character appears before the receptionist as a stranger. He ‘just so happens’ to be holidaying at the very same resort. Next (as shown in the clip) he makes an awkward (but also really creepy) ironic joke about coming to the hotel to kill his ex-girifriend. Then he laughs, because OBVIOUSLY, that’s just a joke, right?

Any intelligent woman in Mila Kunis’s position would hear alarm bells. She already knows he can’t afford the only room available. She would back away from the desk and hope he leaves soon.

The statistics around stalking and real world intimate partner violence should shock us all. The most dangerous time for a woman — the time she’s most likely to be killed — is when she has just left a man who was formerly an intimate partner. (Rachel the receptionist knows exactly when this pair of strangers broke up because she’s just been told.)

Stalking is still not illegal in many countries, but this is slowly changing. Stalking became an offence in England and Wales in 2012. “About 120,000 victims, mostly women, were stalked every year.” Here in Australia, stalking laws were first introduced in the 1990s, but it has always been very difficult to prove someone’s behaviour constitutes stalking. “Stalking, as a discrete concept, is a surprisingly recent phenomenon, relatively unknown until towards the end of the 20th century.”

In Western society, we have a very strong cultural belief in the romance and intensity of unrequited love as a narrative that conveys magnificent emotional intensity of which humanity is capable. Whether this narrative ends in the object appreciating and reciprocating the love, or the subject dying nobly through loss of this love, the general theme is one which has gained cultural reification across the centuries, enough to be celebrated in literature, performance art and the continuation of historical accounts.

ALC.gov.au

(For more on stalking in storytelling see my post The Ideology Of Persistence.)

The audience of Forgetting Sarah Marshall knows that Jason Segel’s character is not stalking his recent girlfriend. We know it’s a complete coincidence that he’s at the same hotel. There’s even a setting reason given for the coincidence.

But sometimes, in real life, like the receptionist in that scene, we encounter someone desperately looking for a family member. “Have you seen this woman?” he asks. “I’m so worried about her. I haven’t seen her in a week. I’m worried she may have done something stupid…”

If you ever encounter someone asking you that, I want you to use Rachel from Forgetting Sarah Marshall as your negative role model.

Never give details of a woman’s whereabouts to a man who is looking for her. She may have left him for a damn good reason. You can’t tell whether a man is dangerous from his affable Hawaiian shirt, his underdog sob story or his everyman looks. If you’re in attendance for an estranged couple’s encounter, do what you can to keep the woman safe. Maybe don’t check in her former boyfriend if you’re running a resort… because statistics.

It’s also possible a woman doesn’t need help in keeping safe. The backstory might be completely different. But that’s for the authorities to work out. In this scene, the look on Kristen Bell’s face offers more than enough information about her discomfort, and an empathetic character such as Rachel the receptionist would have picked that up.

I haven’t forgotten that these are fantasy women, written, directed and produced by men.

And if everyone watching that scene understood all of that about women and who tends to stalk and murder who, I might accept Forgetting Sarah Marshall as pure entertainment. Instead I worry that movie scripts function as subconscious real life scripts.

Story is powerful.

Beauty And The Beast by Carter and Schroeder

Beauty and the Beast front cover_600x709

Beauty and the Beast is a strongly mythic tale: A girl goes on a journey and ultimately finds her true self.

PARATEXT

Beauty and the Beast back cover

Beauty and the Beast is a tale featuring multiple levels of misogyny and much has already been said about that. For example, Was Disney’s Beauty and the Beast Re-Tooled Because Belle Wasn’t Enough Of A Feminist? Angela Carter has rewritten the tale in a way that feminists may find cathartic. It’s called “The Courtship of Mr. Lyon” and can be found in Carter’s collection of feminist fairytales retold: The Bloody Chamber.

The Bloody Chamber Angela Carter includes Beauty and the Beast revisioning

In this picture book version, intelligently illustrated by German artist Binette Schroeder in the mid 1980s, the coincidentally similarly named Anne Carter retells a tale which — I was surprised to learn — dates only so far back as the mid 1700s. This is a ‘literary fairy tale’, meaning that unlike a ‘true’ fairy tale, it did not originate from any oral tradition (unlike a tale such as Little Red Cap, for instance). It was written by a French governess who had the most erudite sounding name it almost sounds fictional in its own right: Mme Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont.

That said, Anne Carter explains in the afterword that this tale is quite similar to a Greek myth about Cupid and Psyche called The Golden Ass. This dates from the second century A.D. Both stories feature:

  • the palace
  • nasty sisters
  • the return home

The main differences:

  • In versions of the Greek myth the monster turns out to be merely invisible
  • Psyche’s is a journey towards intellectual/spiritual love; Beauty’s is a journey towards understanding the difference between the superficial and the real.

The main differences between the original tale by Mme LePrince de Beaumont and many modern retellings is that the original author

  1. Wrote the tale for adults, not children
  2. Emphasised that what makes for a good partnership is respect, understanding and the ability to see past your partner’s superficial charm and into their deeper soul. Modern retellings tend to sensationalise the romance.

Anne Carter’s retelling is not in any way subversive, but the afterword is definitely worth a read because it puts the story in historical context.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “BEAUTY AND THE BEAST”

SHORTCOMING

With a modern reading, Beauty is indeed a flawed character. She is far too willing to please. But to a contemporary audience, Beauty was perfection itself. A model of feminine virtue, sacrificing herself to the needs of the men around her and acquiescing to her older sisters in the family hierarchy.

It’s possible that Beauty’s mother died in childbirth. I think that because she is the youngest in a large family and because women often died in childbirth in the 1700s. Perhaps Beauty’s ‘ghost’ or backstory, is that she feels guilt for bringing this misfortune upon the family, and why she feels she needs to be her father’s stand-in female companion in his old age.

DESIRE

Beauty wants to stay with her father and be his loyal companion.

OPPONENT

Beauty’s opponents are her older sisters.

Below, we see how psychologically separate the sisters are from the heroine. There are not one but two frames (doorways) between them; the sisters are from another world entirely.

beauty sewing with dog
Notice how the dog — its eyes, its colouring and its open mouth — look very much like the Beast when we meet him in the night garden. If this dog can love Beauty, so can the similar-looking Beast, apparently. Note also the bird, depicted in the same pink and greys as Beauty — who chooses not to fly away even though the cage is open.

The Beast appears to be an opponent but we find out he is a false-enemy ally. (Or he’s meant to be. I code him as a coercively controlling menace.)

Here's the Beast, looking very much like Beauty's little dog. He is depicted in this story as a chimera. Even more terrifyingly, his castle is full of chimeras — most startlingly, the table with leopard legs.
Here’s the Beast, looking very much like Beauty’s little dog. He is depicted in this story as a chimera. Even more terrifyingly, his castle is full of chimeras — most startlingly, the table with leopard legs.
table chimera

PLAN

When Father returns with the news that one of his daughters must marry a terrifying Beast, Beauty offers herself as sacrifice, feeling that the rose incident, too, is her fault.

It’s worth remembering that Christianity in the 1700s looked a bit more like modern-day fundamentalist Islam in the respect that the devout really, truly believed that if they lived their lives according to the word of God, they would find themselves in a Heavenly paradise. When Beauty sacrifices herself to the Beast it is clear that she believes she is going there to die. But she also believes she will end up in celestial Heaven due to having been good all her life.

The Hans Christian Andersen tales are based on the same belief. That’s why the ending of The Little Match Girl, who dies from hypothermia and goes to meet her grandmother in Heaven, was written to be a ‘happy ending’, and the evolution of Christian belief is why modern young readers usually fail to find it so.

The atrium with its glass ceiling gives the characters a direct view of the Heavens. The stairway symbolises Beauty's ascent to Heaven. That's where she thinks she's going, after all.
The atrium with its glass ceiling gives the characters a direct view of the Heavens. The stairway symbolises Beauty’s ascent to Heaven. That’s where she thinks she’s going, after all.

BIG STRUGGLE

The Battle is a Christian-like test. The Beast (in god-like fashion) is testing Beauty when he allows her to go home to visit her natal family. Will she come back or not?

It is the Beast who goes to the edge of death rather than the beautiful and noble Beauty.

ANAGNORISIS

As Anne Carter says in the afterword: ‘for Beauty the challenge is to move from the superficial to the real, to see through the loathsome outward appearance to the goodness within. Only then, when Beauty knows and loves the virtue of her Beast, can the transformation take place.

Dreams and revelations are prominent in this tale. Anagnorisis is delivered via dream.
Dreams and revelations are prominent in this tale. Anagnorisis is delivered via dream.

NEW SITUATION

Beauty and the prince were married in great state and lived together throughout the length of their lives in the most perfect and deserved happiness.

See Also

My own revisioning of Beauty and the Beast is called Winter Rose.

Even going by the most generous estimates, Mrs. Potts, the Beast’s faithful housekeeper, is clearly way too goddamn old to have given birth to her “son,” Chip. […] 

A Theory That Will Change How You See Beauty And The Beast

Honest Movie Trailer for the Emma Watson adaptation

The Beauty and the Beast. Illustrator – Margaret Evans Price

Beauty and the Beast taught me that I can be just an awful shitmongrel and still expect a beautiful woman to find and save me if I accidentally start doing the least. Am I doing this right

Studio Glibly

Stockholm syndrome is often mentioned in relation to Beauty of Beauty and the Beast, but Pop Culture Detective makes an argument in favour of avoiding that term, because it heaps undue blame on the female victim, assuming she has been brainwashed. In fact, these characters show great resilience in the face of extreme abuse.

Warwick Goble (1862-1943), English children's book illustrator. Beauty and the Beast 1913
Warwick Goble (1862-1943), English children’s book illustrator. Beauty and the Beast 1913
Beauty and the Beast as illustrated by Angela Barrett is also wonderful.
Beauty and the Beast as illustrated by Angela Barrett is also wonderful.