Hot Guys in Helmets

adam driver rolling stone

The cover of this week’s Rolling Stone

So because we’re total pop culture junkies and apparently sheep, the hubs and I have already subscribed to Disney +, and we’re watching The Mandalorian. And yes, we love it, and yes “Baby Yoda” is the cutest darned thing ever, and yes I think it’s a great addition to the Star Wars canon, and I can’t wait to see how it comes out. But as a romance novelist, I have another reason for liking it that has absolutely nothing to do with any reasonable consideration of story or production.

The Mandalorian is really hot.

Which is crazy, right? I mean, we’ve never seen his face. If his vows to his compatriots are to be believed, we aren’t ever GOING to see his face. Setting aside that this story has no room for any kind of romantic subplot and that sexuality is almost certainly a non-issue in the first place, why should a guy in full armor with his face completely covered make me want to start pricing helmets as a Christmas present for my husband? Consideration of this burning question made me start thinking about all the masked and helmeted heroes that have given me the vapors over the years. Some of them, like the Mandalorian, stay masked all the time. Others use the big reveal as a signpost to character or purpose; with faces bared, they become someone else. But in every instance, the mystery of the mask adds hugely to their love monkey appeal, whether they mean it to or not.

1 – The Other Star Wars Guy: Unlike my little sister, Alexandra Christian, I’m not really a Kylo Ren fangirl. He’s a little too damaged, a little too controlling, a little too brat-prince batshit crazy to work as an object of my vicarious desire. But I must admit, that big moment in The Force Awakens when Baby Vader takes off his mask and reveals the soulful eyes and misshapen beauty of Adam Driver hit me right where it was meant to. That’s the moment for Rey and for the audience when we start hoping he can be better. And how well his story works for us going forward depends very much on how effective that reveal continues to be every time he does it–you’ll notice that by the end of The Last Jedi, he’s barely ever wearing his mask at all. If we’d never seen him in the mask, if we didn’t have that contrast, he would be stripped of a whole lot of his seductive power. I’ll be very curious to see how the mask as fetish is played out in The Rise of Skywalker.

2 – The Stig: I had never heard of the TV show Top Gear until I married my husband. I don’t even drive. And yes, the lead host of the show’s heyday, Jeremy Clarkson, was an absolute horror show of white male privilege; his own co-hosts referred to him as “the orangutan.” But in every episode, their “tame racing driver,” The Stig (a joke about how all the best racing drivers seem to be Scandinavians named Stig) would test drive some incredibly exotic and impractical dream car around the track and set a best possible lap time. He never appeared without his helmet; the mystery of his identity was a running gag throughout the run of the show; they sold promotional teeshirts that read “I Am the Stig.” When the real live guy in the helmet, Ben Collins, finally outed himself in a book, he was fired from the show and pilloried forevermore by the rest of the presenters. Collins is a pretty nice-looking guy. But The Stig was Hot As F*ck. He never showed his face; he never even spoke. But he drove, better and faster and harder than any other human on the planet, all with perfect calm, perfect cool, perfect efficiency. And I think that was what did it for me, just watching this man perform at the absolute top of the game he had chosen without ever breaking a sweat. If I had seen his facial expressions changing, heard him talking about engines or describing the thrill, I don’t think I would have been nearly as affected. The mystery of the man inside this magnificent machine was what flipped my switch completely, and I doubt very much I was alone.

3 – The Dashing Rogues: These are the kind of guys Errol Flynn used to play, guys like The Scarlet Pimpernel and Antonio Banderas as Zorro and, more particularly, Cary Elwes as The Dread Pirate Westley in The Princess Bride. (I know, I know, the Dread Pirate Roberts was his secret identity; Westley was his real name.) Elwes was playing the Platonic ideal of this archetype for laughs, but it worked as more than just a joke because he looked and sounded amaaaaaaazing doing it. And he works the transformation; he fully embraces the power of the mask. When he leaves as the Farm Boy, he’s serious, determined, and blandly besotted–the male version of his beloved Buttercup. But when he returns in that black mask with that ridiculous little mustache, he’s snarky Superman. It isn’t just that he can out-fence, out-fight, and out-wit all comers. It’s that he takes such obvious delight in his powers. Hiding his identity frees him to embrace his inner bad guy even as he saves the girl. And it’s very, very sexy.

4 – The Superheroes: Some superheroes take the idea of a dual identity way beyond Clark Kent’s glasses, guys like Batman and Ironman and my favorite lover of the bunch, Deadpool. Unlike Ironman and Batman, whose disguises are weapons in themselves, Deadpool is hiding a deformity. The mask is his beauty look; underneath he’s the monster. It’s a very Byronic, Phantom of the Opera-kind of character, except that he’s also a total smartass. He hides from his beloved because he fears her rejection, and when he takes off the mask, it’s funny (I dearly love the Hugh Jackman mask gag), but it’s hugely romantic, too, the ultimate display of vulnerability. Batman scores points every time he shows his true face to one of his many love interests; Ironman hides from no one, but the moment Pepper discovers the suit is a big step in their relationship. But for me, Deadpool takes the prize.

5 – My Favorite: Anybody who knows me at all knows I dearly adore me some Russell Crowe. I don’t care how old or fat he gets or what kind of role he might be playing, just watching him makes my heart go pitty-pat. And I can tell you exactly the moment that unbreakable bond was forged:

Holy moley mooley moo. When Gladiator came out, my gal pals and I spent much time and breath exclaiming over that helmet. My story, “The Dragon,” in Eat the Peach, functions quite nicely as Maximus fan fiction, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. But why does that moment make such a difference? What is the deal with the helmet?

When Max puts on the helmet, it’s to hide his face from the Emperor and kick ass. He proves himself a killing machine without equal and a leader of men. Max in the helmet is the ultimate war machine in the same way Deadpool is the ultimate assassin and Stig is the ultimate driver. But when he takes it off, he reveals his fearsome broken soul. He is “the father of a murdered son; the husband of a murdered wife.” The helmet doesn’t just function practically as armor; it functions as a buffer between his anguish and the world. When he takes it off and reveals that anguish … well, all I can say is, it works a treat for me.

And I think the Mandalorian is a version of the same thing. We don’t see his face, but we do see his behavior. We see him fight and win; we see him fight and lose and keep trying. And we see him with The Child–his body language, his decisions. We see the tenderness behind the warrior. And because of the helmet, we can project onto that any face we choose. So yeah, not a romantic story. But a very romantic hero all the same.

 

 

 

 

When In Doubt, Read More Books

So exactly one month ago, I moaned extensively about how all art lately has been making me sad. (Read it here if you can stand it.) Since then I’ve been taking my favorite cure–reading fiction. I asked for a bunch of books for Christmas, and I’ve been burning through them, reading every night. And I’m pleased to say, they’ve made me feel a whole bunch better.

So here’s what I’ve finished since January 2, 2018:

The Princess Bride by William Goldman

I’ve loved this book since I was a teenager. I read it years before the movie came out. That first time, all I really engaged was the story inside the story, Westley and Buttercup. I read it again as a grad student and was all about the postmodern narrative and how the fantasy story reflects the story of Goldman the writer as a character–much equating of Buttercup and the starlet in the pool. Now as a middle-aged writer myself facing all those same doubts, that’s the story I see. And it’s still great. I wish he’d never bothered with all the Buttercup’s Baby stuff, but that’s not up to me. It’s an evolving story, and it’s completely his.

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

It is precisely what it reads on the cover–a very readable retelling of the high points of Norse mythology from the guy who wrote Stardust and American Gods (and many many other awesome written things). These ancient stories are told with intelligence and a whimsically twisted humor that should feel very familiar to anybody steeped in contemporary pop, goth, and geek culture. But while the tone feels current, the scale of the stories is still epic; it’s not hipster-lite mythology. I’m no scholar of the great sagas, but I would bet he gets the details right–that’s certainly the way it feels. Because these are myths, the characters are archetypes, but they’re all very specific and well-drawn–I rarely found myself referring to the glossary of names at the back; I usually remembered everyone once they were mentioned. I can’t say I particularly identified with them or felt any great emotional connection to them, but I enjoyed their tales very much. I read the whole book in a weekend. I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in Norse culture, especially young readers. Yeah, there’s some crazy, perverted stuff that goes on, but it’s all told in a matter-of-fact, humorous style that should keep any interested middle-schooler from being scarred for life.

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

This one was so wrenching, I actually put it down halfway through, meaning to take a break from it, but I couldn’t. I ended up reading the second half straight through and ended up a soggy, emotional wreck–and a huge Jesmyn Ward fan. The best, truest, most heart-wrenching, most horrifying ghost story I’ve ever read. Deserving of all its awards, including last year’s National Book Award for best fiction book. But I was afraid I would have to spend the next month reading nothing stronger than Winnie the Pooh stories just to recover.

Leia, Princess of Alderaan by Claudia Gray

This was the first YA book I’ve read in a long time, and it’s a good one. Gray’s version of Leia at 16 is strong, smart, and winning while being both a realistic teenager and true to the character I know and love from the movies. And I was surprised by how exciting the plot was–this is no standard feisty princess tale; it’s a tense and well-paced Star Wars adventure. I would recommend it to young adults new to Leia’s story but also to older fans like me who have loved her since A New Hope.

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

This is the easiest, most purely pleasurable reading experience I’ve had in quite a while, and I read a lot. The shorthand synopsis is that it’s a modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice, and it very much is. If you’re familiar with Austen’s famous novel, one of the pleasures of this book is seeing all the clever, twisty ways Sittenfeld has worked all the sparkling facets of the original into this new version. But even readers who have never touched eyes to Austen and wouldn’t on a bet will enjoy this story. Witty without ever being mean, hilarious without ever being stupid, and romantic without ever being schmaltzy, this is the modern woman’s romance for readers who loathe “chick lit.”

So that was my January. Right now I’m reading back and forth between The Briar King by Greg Keyes and Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff–two great tastes that so far taste great together. And I also proofread an extremely fab anthology as part of my editing gig that I look forward to telling you all about when it releases. In the meantime, go to the bookstore. It really, really helps.

Don’t Mind Me, Y’all

Spoilers for Stranger Things Season One; Star Wars: The Last Jedi; and Game of Thrones. And Lord of the Rings if you still haven’t gotten around to seeing that one.

I realized last night I have blindly stumbled into a total asshole phase where I don’t like anything. I didn’t like the new Star Wars; I didn’t like Stranger Things Season One; I didn’t like the ending of the latest season of Game of Thrones (okay, I loved some things about it, but the overall place everybody was in when they left it made me sad and not in a wistful, angsty way but a frustrated, defeatist way). The last thing I really, really liked was Westworld. Here’s how bad it is, y’all – I’m re-reading the original William Goldman novel The Princess Bride, and all I can see is what I don’t like about it. And I adore that book; I have always adored that book. But now I find myself constantly thinking, “does Buttercup REALLY need to be THIS stupid for the adventure fantasy to work for him?” And I know it’s not the art; it’s me. I see the smart and sensitive people with the same tastes in story all around me loving this stuff; I see the looks of shocked incomprehension and, from the ones who actually give a crap what I think, disappointment on their faces when I say I don’t. And on the one hand, so what; it’s just TV and movies. But on the other, I feel myself losing that connection with people I love, and that IS important–and it makes me think that not liking this stuff is a symptom of something else.

One of the themes or plot points that has become really popular of late in science fiction and fantasy is a kind of existential defeatism played out against an enemy so powerful and so evil and so single-minded they can’t ever be vanquished, only managed for brief periods of blind joy and secret dread. I call it Borg Syndrome.

In Star Wars, even though we saw the big ewok barbecue at the end of Return of the Jedi and the fireworks over Coruscant, within the lifetime of the main characters, it all apparently went to shit–to paraphrase Don Henley, the rebels be rebels all over again; the First Order comes out of nowhere and takes control of everything and it’s like the big victory it took us three movies and almost a decade of avid movie-watching investment to achieve never happened at all. In Stranger Things, an evil lab under the auspices of the Department of Energy experiments on children, opens up a portal to another dimension and releases an apparently-mindless oogie-boogie without a face, and more children are tortured and devoured, and in the end, the good guys are just happy to have the one kid back and to hell with any accountability for the baddies who made it all happen because they’re just too powerful to be touched. The main evil scientist guy gets devoured, and that’s awesome, but the big machine rolls on–I know this; I’ve watched the first two episodes of Season Two. And in Game of Thrones, the king of the snow zombies has a zombie dragon that can take down the ultimate defenses of the good–wait, slightly-less-bad–guys in less than a minute, rendering pretty much everything we’ve seen over the course of seven seasons moot in favor of Night of the Living Dead, Medieval Fantasy Edition.

What the genuine fuck, y’all? Have we gotten so cynical and so saturated with antidepressants that we can’t even conceive of a happy ending that isn’t a sick joke, even in our most escapist fantasy? Are we making art designed to reassure us that there’s really no reason to get off the couch because we can’t accomplish anything real or lasting anyway? Am I just a wackadoo old person who’s ready to subsist on reruns of The Waltons on MeTV because I can’t handle the hard stuff any more?

I don’t think so. I keep thinking back to the end of Lord of the Rings. Frodo, with massive amounts of help from everybody else, saved Middle Earth from the darkness, but in the end, he was too broken, too damaged to live in the world he had saved. He had taken too much darkness inside to ever really purge it. So he sailed off into the west, and I bawled my eyes out, but it made sense to me; I loved it. Because his sacrifice mattered to the big picture–the rest of Middle Earth was saved for generations to come. (Yes, evil always comes back, but maybe not next week?) And broken as he was, he had a place to go. He had the self-awareness to know the rotten way he felt was not the necessary norm of hobbit psychology and the faith to know there was something left inside him that could still be healed in the west. Tolkien was a Christian and so am I, and I know that’s a big part of why that story feels right to me, and no, I don’t expect everybody else to buy in.

But I don’t see an atheistic adherence to reason and knowledge in the new fantasy or a celebration of the human spirit; far from it. Knowledge is deeply suspect or discounted or laughed at or ignored–evil scientists are evil; burn the Jedi texts and laugh; Samwell Tarly is a comic figure cleaning bedpans while the real heroes kill things and sleep with their relatives. And people, generally speaking, are either evil shitheels or stupid but nice. And the goals of the nice people are either assumed to be hopeless–like in Star Wars and part of Game of Thrones–or extend no further than their own nuclear family–like in Stranger Things and the other part of Game of Thrones. Our heroes are now either Sisyphus or Forrest Gump.

But again, maybe it’s just me. I’m not being cute when I say that; I’m absolutely serious. Maybe the one who’s having a hard time believing in the light these days is me; maybe the one who sees herself and her fellow humans as either evil or stupid is me. And if that’s the case, I’m sorry; please feel free to ignore me. I promise I’ll be better soon.

PS: Westworld rocks, and one reason is, the people being exploited ARE smart and DO make a change to their world, even though they are literally programmed into a Sisyphean loop. No wonder I loved it so much.

PPS: The Princess Bride is sexist as hell because William Goldman is a hellacious sexist. He’s also completely brilliant and so is his book.