Monday, October 10, 2005

The Lost Men

I like Lost. I like it a lot. The mystery of the island is intriguing and keeps my narrative desire piqued, but what I really like is the show’s exploration of the “self.” Now don’t get me wrong – I don’t think the show is particularly deep or groundbreaking in this exploration. However, the mere idea that a mainstream TV show is at least tossing around ideas about whether or not a person can fashion or reinvent him- or herself is still pretty cool. And the way the show structures that exploration – through the use of flashbacks, rather than through a linear narrative – is quite smart. I don’t know if the writers and directors regularly use (or have even heard of) the word palimpsest, but that’s what they’ve made of each character: a text whose previous forms are visible in bits and pieces that have been imperfectly rubbed out. And the interconnectedness of all the characters prior to the plane crash actually reminds me of my favorite modernist novels, particularly of the moment in Mrs. Dalloway when Clarissa imagines an invisible, unbreakable thread connecting her to all the people in her life, past and present, as she rides a London bus. (The potential of modern transportation to bring us together and also to break those connections is present in that moment, if I recall correctly, as well as very obviously in Lost.)

In short, everything about Lost is very clever and well-made. But what I really, really like about the show is its exploration of the masculine self, something that I think this season in particular is focusing on, at least for the time being. Again, I don’t think the show is being terribly groundbreaking – after all, television, for all its self-congratulatory whoop-de-do about breaking boundaries, is a relatively conservative medium (or at least it toes the line of the status quo) – but it’s simply kind of cool that a mainstream show, one my parents watch, is thinking about gender roles at all, especially about masculinity, which for even the cool kids is something taken for granted as supposedly “natural” even as they think about how femininity is culturally constructed. For the moment Lost seems to be giving short shrift to female gender roles and female characters, though last season did more of that and I’m sure they’ll get back to these stories this season as well. Kate is still a major player so far this season, for instance. (None of this particularly bothers me – I’m just noting it for the moment.) But as the Boyfriend rightly pointed out while we were watching the Season One clip show/recap that aired before the Season Two premiere, the choice of stories to recap gave a sense of what the creators thought were the most important narratives for people to know or remember as they started Season Two. So whose stories did they recap? Jack’s, John Locke’s (now that name can’t be an accident, can it?), Sawyer’s (and hello! speaking of names that resonate!), and Michael’s – all of them men with “daddy issues.” The first three have histories of abandonment by or conflict with their fathers or father-figures, while the last has a fraught history of trying not to be an absentee dad and then just trying to be dad. While you might say that Steven Speilberg has been there and done that, saturating late twentieth and early twenty-first century pop culture with the absentee-father theme ad nauseam – and you would be right – I think Lost is doing something a little different with it. Each of these male characters started off as or could have become stereotypes of masculinity – the outlaw (Sawyer), the type-A, control-freak surgeon (Jack…OK, he’s still a little bit that), the Iron-John-style seeker (Locke), the ne’er-do-well, black “baby-daddy” (Michael) – but each one’s narrative (as much as we’ve seen on and off the island) shows them struggling with and against those stereotypes. I think Michael’s and his son Walt’s story is particularly compelling, especially since it played with the audience’s presumed and very racially coded assumptions about why Walt didn’t have a relationship with his father, only to reveal later that Michael didn’t have much of a choice about being involved in his son’s life. (I am a little troubled that the narrative makes Walt’s mother into the career-woman-bad-guy too easily [softened a little bit by her genuine concern for Michael’s success as an artist and worry about his ability to take care of Walt, but still…], but that’s for another post on the Lost Women someday.) And the other men’s stories have had a similar back-and-forth pattern, making you think one thing only to turn your assumptions on their head and then back again.

In addition to all that, there’s room for more exploration, in these characters and the rest. The other male characters – Jin, Charlie, Hurly/Hugo, Said – have all sorts of possibilities left and already we’ve had hints that we shouldn’t assume anything. Their characters, too, started as stereotypes of masculinity – or at least types (the mobster, the rocker, the fat guy, the soldier) – with complexity slowly revealed. And like I said above, though the show seems to be concentrating on masculinity, it has looked at femininity and probably will turn back to it. The women, too, started as types (in this case, of femininity) – the capable tomboy-next-door (Kate), the submissive Asian wife (Sun), the gold digging manipulator (Shannon), and the knocked-up, bubble-headed blonde (Claire) – but turned out to be nothing or the sort or at least more complicated than that. Although I kind of saw it coming, I think the creators were trying to surprise you when Kate turned out to be the dangerous fugitive, for example. And Jin’s and Sun’s marriage has become one of my favorite conjoined storylines, constantly twisting and turning.

Finally, back on my main topic of masculinity, the sheer fact that we have so many different male characters expressing varieties of masculinity (though conspicuously absent is homosexuality – at least so far), some of them in direct conflict with each other, is a healthy thing for American television, imho. No, I don’t think it’ll change the world. And most people won’t even consciously think about it for a minute. But it sure as hell beats the televised masculine images my male peers grew up with: the Dukes of Hazzard, the Six-Million-Dollar Man (btw, how hilarious dated is that dollar amount?), the men of Dallas, the Love Boat crew…need I say more?


boyfriend said...

That hurts, after I have worked so hard for 30 years to pattern myself after Oscar Goldman...

Dr. Virago said...

LOL. Sorry hon, you're right. Oscar Goldman is a *fine* role model -- just as long as you don't have his action figure hidden away somewhere! :)

HeoCwaeth said...

Does it make me a sexist that I have basically seen the men of "Lost" as eye candy up until this point?

Oh, fine. I'll try to love them for their minds.

Dr. Virago said...

*smacks head* Oh yeah -- *that's* why I like Lost! :) LOL.

Yet another good thing about Lost: it's an equal opportunity eye candy show. I think it's just about the only show that the Boyfriend and I can watch where we *both* find someone in the cast appropriate fantasy material. My problem, though, is how to *choose*! Seriously, is that not the most appealing cast of men ever, or what??