The first time I saw Wicked, it was 2005, and my high school musical’s cast, crew, and a passel of chaperones had come to New York to see the sights—including the still relatively new show. We sat in the very last row of the very last balcony, and I cried like a baby at the end. (I still do, even just listening to the soundtrack.)
Time passed, and a million fairy tale retellings, Ozian and otherwise, came and went, inundating movies, books, television, and comics. But no matter how these stories ebbed and flowed in popularity, Wicked has stayed strong and stayed open, belting out its loving but revisionist history of L. Frank Baum’s fairytale world eight times a week at the Gershwin Theatre in New York. However, I haven’t seen the show in years, and the last time I saw it was with the national tour, rather than the Broadway version. So when a good friend came to visit me in NYC a few weeks ago and asked if I wanted to go see the show, her treat, I was delighted to agree. I was surprised to find, however, that despite the show’s age, it seems more relevant now than ever.
We live in tumultuous and uncertain times, and for many of the most vulnerable people in the United States, especially minorities, fear has been ramping up in their everyday lives. Comparisons between the newly elected President Trump and Adolf Hitler abound, and not without reason. Just before Trump’s inauguration, the second season of the Amazon original series The Man in the High Castle premiered. While the alternate history series had been fascinating and compelling ever since its premiere last January, in light of recent events, its poignancy has been downright spooky. It presents a picture of what life in the United States in the sixties might have looked like if the Axis powers had won the Second World War and divided up the U.S. between Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany. The series is based on the novel of the same name by Philip K. Dick, and follows Juliana Crain as she and the people close to her become caught up in resistance activities orchestrated by an unseen, eponymous mastermind. Besides being exceptionally well-written, one point that separates this from other alternate World War II histories (and there are an abundance) is that in The Man in the High Castle, a few characters have ways of glimpsing alternate paths of history and incomplete pictures of possible futures, which they desperately try to piece together to understand how to change the dystopian world they live in.
With Wonder Woman’s tenure as the United Nations Honorary Ambassador for the Empowerment of Women and Girls coming to a somewhat unceremonious end, I can’t help wanting to do a postmortem on her appointment and the controversy surrounding it. In addition to finding the whole affair oddly fascinating, I found it revealing—not only about global attitudes towards feminism but on how the most recognizable symbols of pop culture feminism are often inherently polarizing.
While I do not question that all parties involved genuinely had nothing but good intentions, there were some serious objections raised almost immediately (after the collective online shout of “cool!” dissipated, anyways) and they bear further examination, especially in light of the apparent success of said objections.
The three things that were most controversial about this “appointment” are all significant. The primary objections were that Wonder Woman is overtly sexualized, that a fictional rather than a real woman was unacceptable for such a role, and that giving “Wonder Woman” that voice for women was effectively just handing it to the DC Comics marketing department. While there were a few objections related to her history of violence and some that simply being a comic book character delegitimized her, the former was not really unique to this case in any particularly interesting way and the latter is something I won’t dignify with a response.
No matter your thoughts on the politics of the campaign, this is an ad you’d probably want to stop and look at.
Before I jump into the fallout over all this, it’s probably a good idea to recap what exactly happened. While this was a big deal in geek and/or feminist circles, it was quick and a lot of us may have missed most of it. In October of 2016, the UN announced that Wonder Woman would be named an honorary ambassador. The press release mentioned that as part of a campaign with DC and Warner Bros, Wonder Woman would be connected to everything from fighting abuse to promoting examples of women making a difference. What would WW actually do though? Primarily, be featured in various social media campaigns to promote gender equality as part of the United Nations’ sustainable development goals.
Without getting into depressing (and obvious) specifics, I’ve been thinking about fascism lately—specifically the concept of “utopian fascism”. As is often the case when grappling with such issues, I turned to science fiction for a guide. Fortunately, there is a fictional government perfectly suited to explore the question “can democracy and universal prosperity ever be successfully combined with fascism?”: Star Trek’s Federation.
The Federation’s exact political structure is sometimes difficult to pin down, but it seems to be a combination of a democratic interplanetary parliament, a massive military alliance, and a totalitarian bureaucracy.
This isn’t what it looks like.
Now don’t panic! This isn’t going to be super depressing nor is it going to be about space Nazis (unless you count the above-pictured episode TOS episode “Patterns of Force”). When I talk about fascism, I’m talking about the philosophical concept as it dates back to Rome, not the actual horrific reality of modern-day fascism. I am not about to ruin all of our moods by writing some anti-Starfleet propaganda… at least, not too much of it. What I will do is take a look at how the Federation is utopian, how it’s fascist, how (and if) the two can be combined, and what that all says about our vision of a perfect government.
But by opposing the Iraq War—or rather, by claiming to have done so from the start—Trump staked out an unusual position for a right-wing candidate. This should have been a liability: how can a Republican run so far from the party’s last president, much less hold that position against a Democratic critique? Yet it was enough to give Trump a victory.
The only way I’ve been able to cut through it is by looking at John Rambo, and the complex critique of the Vietnam War in First Blood and its sequels, even as they lionized the consummate American soldier. Rambo offered a vision of America so contrary to Marvel’s Steve Rogers, that it’s easy to forget that the two protagonists tread very similar paths.
Ever since that famous scene in Planet of the Apes with the temple dedicated to an unexploded nuclear missile, I’ve been fascinated with the concept of post-apocalyptic theology. The duality of simultaneously worshiping death and finding ways to validate the lives of those who continue to survive takes on a very literal dynamic in these stories and it allows for some unique and fascinating narrative possibilities. While numerous classic geek works from Tank Girl to Adventure Time examine this in one way or another, I have long been particularly fascinated by the Children of Atom from Fallout. Granted, with the amount of time I’ve spent playing Fallout games, I know more about their beliefs than I do many real-life religions, but something about the Children of Atom hits right at the issue of what our artistic musings about post-apocalyptic religion really say about us as a culture.
Top: Warboys pray at the altar of V8 in Mad Max: Fury Road. Bottom: High Confessor Tektus leads the Children of Atom in praying to a nuclear submarine in Fallout 4.
While we don’t know what a post-apocalyptic religion would actually look like, we have real-life cults with apocalyptic visions that share some commonalities. We also have real-life mainstream religions that reference apocalyptic events. Large-scale death and destruction are a historical part of most major religions, in some cases as an allegorical component to the philosophy and in some cases as a literal part of the religion’s history, often both. Many of these stories are given apocalyptic qualities in their retelling. But “fictional anthropologies” of future religions are incredibly revealing and deeply fascinating. From the various “mini culture” city-states deifying gasoline and automobiles in the wastes of Mad Max’s Australia, to a monk guarding the knowledge of the past in Canticle for Leibowitz, to a tribe worshiping the power of the Ringworld engineers’ long abandoned buildings, there are some common themes among our favorite works in this sub-genre that are worth exploring. To me, the Church of Atom is an arguably perfect example of those themes, so I have chosen to focus mainly on them throughout this post.