Thursday, 7 January 2010

Stereotypes, Archetypes and Iconic Characters

Earlier today, I watched Wonder Woman: Daughter of Myth, a roughly 25 minutes long documentary piece provided as a DVD extra on Wonder Woman (the animated feature length film from 2009), and the term archetype kept being bandied about a lot. Now, the notion that the realm of superhero comics play with archetypes is far from new, but what made me react a little bit aversely to it here was the fact that several people seemed to overuse the term, to the extent where it was used even when it wasn't strictly speaking archetypal patterns they were talking about.

First of all, one of the people, rather simplistically, equated archetypes with stereotypes, which ruffled my feathers from the get go. A stereotype, according to Merriam-Webster, is defined as either "a plate cast from a printing surface" (which admittedly has no bearing on this discussion) or "something conforming to a fixed or general pattern; especially : a standardized mental picture that is held in common by members of a group and that represents an oversimplified opinion, prejudiced attitude, or uncritical judgment." Apart from the fact that the word obviously carries rather negative connotations, it is clear that it is about reducing something to an assumed characteristic. An archetype on the other is defined as one of three things:
1 : the original pattern or model of which all things of the same type are representations or copies : PROTOTYPE; also : a perfect example
2 : IDEA 1a
3 : an inherited idea or mode of thought in the psychology of C. G. Jung that is derived from the experience of the race and is present in the unconscious of the individual
For the sake of my discussion, I would like to say that it is definitions 2 and 3 that are of importance, very much so, because the Jungian notion taps into that of the second definition. Following the link to definition 1a of the word "idea" gives us "a transcendent entity that is a real pattern of which existing things are imperfect representations," which along with Jung's psychological application of it provides us with an understanding of something far from reduced; something which is rather (imperfectly) embodied in representations. It is probably not an coincident that Jung's research came to affect the study of storytelling and mythology through its application and further development within those fields by in particular Joseph Campbell. After all, the Platonic relationship implied in the very nature of an archetype nicely mirrors that of mythological gods taking on earthly flesh and form, known to us from Hindu mythology as avatars. As such, I would argue that, while the stereotype is reductive in nature, the archetype more resembles a type of Platonic projection upon the cave wall, providing a pattern that can be seen in various places (though never looking exactly the same, due to the inherent imperfection in the representation). Or put differently, it could perhaps be said that (unlike the stereotype) it is not the archetype but its representation which is the reduction.

Moving on to the overuse and perhaps misuse of the term archetype in the documentary, I would first of all agree that archetypes project recognisable patterns. Just as a Platonic idea of say a chair is recognisable no matter the look of the actual physical chair in front of us, simply because its elements or patterns correspond to our understanding of that idea (linguistically speaking), an archetype will be recognisable to us as a symbolic role or a narrative pattern. That in the case of the archetype, however, does not mean a direct visual recognition. A person unfamiliar with the Wonder Woman mythos would not immediately recognise the archetype, or even archetypes, involved in her character and her stories.

Yet, in this day and age, Wonder Woman is a visually recognisable character. Some of the comments in the documentary quite clearly related to this very notion, the visual on-sight recognisability, but kept referring to that as related to the archetypal power of the character. However, that would imply that Wonder Woman herself is the archetype rather than a visual and narrative incarnation of an existing archetype or even several intersecting archetypes (in terms of stories told using the character). Rather what these comments refer to is the character's iconic status.

Returning to Merriam-Webster, we can look at in particular definitions 1, 2 and 4 of the word "icon":
1 : a usually pictorial representation : IMAGE
2 [Late Greek eikōn, from Greek] : a conventional religious image typically painted on a small wooden panel and used in the devotions of Eastern Christians
[- - -]

The visual aspect of the word is quite obvious from these definitions, but also that it is a recognisable image (cf. definition 2). As such, we can talk about a certain sense of iconicity when dealing with certain superheroes, simply because they have become not merely recognisable characters in a simple visual sense, but in one related to the public consciousness. Show an image of say Wonder Woman, Superman, Batman or Spider-Man to a number of people and it is highly likely that they will not only superficially recognise them, but also name them, perhaps even provide some basic character data. Obviously this is far from true about most comic book characters (or other fictional characters in general for that matter). In fact, apart from the four mentioned, I would be rather unwilling to add further candidates (from the comics medium), with the possible exception of Robin (whom I think might be carried along with Batman's iconicity), Hulk and (with slightly more doubt) Captain America.

At the end of the day, I find the concept of iconicity just as fascinating as that of archetypes, but I would still stress that there is a difference between the two concepts (just as there is between archetype and stereotype), and that difference is far from a superficial "po-TAY-to" / "po-TAH-to" matter.

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