Tag Archives: Masculinity

Mendoza The Jew: Boxing, Manliness, and Nationalism

By: Jared Ross, Hon. BA. MA in Cultural and Imperial History

Thank G-D! A Jewish comic that isn’t about the Holocaust. I know this sounds flip, but as a “Jewish intellectual”, in Toronto, I’m always enthused when Jewish history isn’t framed though such a narrow lens. There are so many persecutions to pick from, and while I acknowledge that the Holocaust is important to study, Jewish history shouldn’t be just one sad slow train to Auschwitz.

Enter ‘Mendoza the Jew’, a graphic history of a poor Sephardi Jewish boxer in 18th century London. It represents a different story, and a poorly told one. The style of the comic is quite brisk, with bold colours and lots of action sequences. It is heavily narrated with lots of explanation and the modern author showing up to brief the reader on any vague historical points. Each chapter begins with a Hebrew letter that spells out Daniel. The comic is only one part of the piece, with a section of primary sources as well and an explanation of the writer’s process as well.

MendozaTheJew
Title
: Mendoza the Jew: Boxing, Manliness, and Nationalism: A Graphic History
Author: Ronald Schechter
Illustrator: Liz Clarke
Published: Oxford University Press (2013)
Pages: 240 pages
Dimensions: 25.1 x 3 x 20.1 cm
Other Specs: Softcover, colour cover and interior
Purchase: In the Ad Astra Online Shop

Expelled from England in the 14th century, Jews were allowed back into England by Oliver Cromwell and it became a home for Sephardic Jews who came from Spain via the Netherlands. The Sephardic community was already well established when they were joined by Ashkenazi Jews from the Pale of Settlement in Eastern Europe (Modern day Russia, Ukraine, Poland and Romania) in the late 19th and early 20th century.

It is in part due to figures like Mendoza that the Sephardic community was so successful. Taking advantage of England’s “tolerant” attitudes towards religious minorities and the effects of the Enlightenment, the Jewish community was allowed a degree of integration that was not possible in most of Western Europe. While still suffering persecution, it was as an old prof of mine used to say, “run-of-the-mill 19th century anti-semitism”, in contrast to the race-based dehumanizing persecutions that mark the 20th century.

"What do you mean, 'your people', chump?"
“What do you mean, ‘your people’?”

Daniel Mendoza’s story illustrates the tension between tolerance and assimilation quite nicely. The son of a Schochet, (a kosher butcher), Daniel Mendoza soon discovers that a quick way to acceptance is boxing, a sport that was embraced by both the working class and the gentry as quintessentially English (like tea and sado-masochism). Mendoza wins several high profile bouts, and parlays his success into running a series of boxing academies for both nobles and the working class.

After losing a rather shady match to his old partner, John Humphries, Mendoza agreed to a rematch, with each writing letters to the newspapers of the time challenging each other’s health, manliness and honesty.

dureaux_fisticuffsMendoza won the rematch and with it a princely sum of 2000 pounds. He then went on to beat Humphries in a third rematch (one that took 72 rounds).

The author speculates this was due to either gambling, alcoholism, bad investments or a combination of all three. Defaulting on his debts and jailed in 1797, Daniel took on a variety of jobs including as a publican and pedlar. He continued to box and stage exhibition matches, but died penniless in 1836.

MendozatheJew_engraving
In the words of the author, the story of Mendoza fits into the school of “history from below” and helps to illustrate why Britain avoided a revolution, unlike France. He points to Britain’s religious tolerance, free press and ability to harness a nascent British identity as a reason for its relative political stability. In this the author is right, but he also neglects to mention that Britain was able to co-opt many of its subject people, ethnic minorities like the Irish and Scottish Highlanders into replicating the same structures of rule and control in an Imperial context, and as such use migration as a pressure valve, something that was not done in France.

So let us evaluate the author’s claim. ‘History from below’ in this context is also very much a history of whiteness. The 18th century marked the rise of scientific racism. The work of Blumenbach, dividing humanity into five races, was published in 1779. The idea that each race had a separate origin (polygenesis) was a tool of imperialist expansion and the justification for slavery as an ideology. Jews as a category were always hard to classify. Were they white? Were they intelligent? How could they be separated from the Aryan/ Nordic White Anglo-Saxon?

Interestingly enough, Mendoza also acted as a second for Tom Molineaux, a freed Virginian slave. The author does not mention this.

The push of this ideology of race was stubbornly resisted. Manliness and ideas of masculinity were a weapon that Jews deployed to prove that they were just as manly as the White man. This subverted the ethnocentric language of white supremacy and allowed some Jewish men to express their identity in ways that were culturally permitted. This strategy had a long shelf-life. In the aftermath of increasing anti-semitism following World War One, Jewish veterans used the language of patriotism and masculinity to protect themselves from discrimination. One particular case was the Jewish flying aces, considered among the most masculine of war heros during World War One. In an excellent article by Todd Samuel Presner, “Muscle Jews and Airplanes: Modernist Mythologies, the Great War, and the Politics of Regeneration” there is a discussion about the efforts of Jewish flyers to publicize their deeds and claim that because of their military service, they should be recognized as German nationalists. Unfortunately this was all for naught, as the Nazi’s expunged their service records, and while allowing for special treatment for some, sent others to camps.

In the 18th century Daniel Mendoza and other Jewish men used the language of nationality and masculinity to combat persecution by putting themselves forward as paragons of strength, athleticism and sportsmanship; values dear to the English nationalist project. After World War one, German Jewish veterans tried the same tactic. In England, it was to some extent successful; in Germany, it was not It remains to be seen whether a minority should ever try to embrace the cultural and gender norms of a society to end their own persecution.

* * * * *

Jared N Ross is a museum and history enthusiast who has worked in museums and education for 10 years. Starting as a lowly summer-student playing a 19th century British soldier, he has continued to work at many Museums and historic sites, including Fort York, Mackenzie House and Black Creek Pioneer Village. He has presented to thousands of students on all aspects of 19th century life, from the power of the original mass media (the printing press), to the first waves of immigration in 19th century Toronto. He completed his Undergraduate Honours in History at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick, and a Master’s in British and Imperial History at York University. He hopes one day to lead a Klezmer-Celtic Fusion band.

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#SuperMOOC Week 2: Superman and Reflections of Masculine Idealism

superman_idealist

We’re nearing the end of Week Two over at Ball State University’s Gender Through Comics, (Twitter hashtag: #SuperMOOC), and we’ve been reading Superman Birthright by veteran comics writer, Mark Waid. I enjoyed listening to Instructor Christy Blanch’s interview with Mark last Thursday, which actually led me to pick up Birthright again–I’d put it down after 1 1/2 issues on Wednesday night, cause I just couldn’t get into it. But it definitely started to come together for me, and I’m glad that I’m now much more acquainted with one of the world’s oldest superheroes.

I’ve developed my own thesis by which to tackle Superman: he reflects our evolving notion of masculine idealism. A lot has changed in terms of how we perceive the “perfect” man or woman in the last 100 years. Superman keeps getting re-invented to reflect this. But what connects them? How is the Superman of the 1930s’ Action Comics still Superman just as much as Clark Kent in Superman Birthright? Maybe, to do this, we should look at what is noticeably different?

superman_vegetarian
“Living things have a kind of glow around them. They’re surrounded by a halo of colours. …I’m not sure if that halo is a soul or an aura or what. I do know that at the end of the life cycle, it fades pretty quickly and what’s left is… hard to look at. Empty in a way that leaves me empty, too….But when it’s there, my God, how it shines.”

Kent’s Vegetarianism

This is an interesting update–one that Mark Waid touched on in the interview, explaining that this wasn’t intended to just be New Age mumbo-jumbo, and I agree. I think he is effectively exploring a higher understanding by way of Kent’s alien super-abilities. I believe this to be one of the many positive effects of sci-fi culture on modern pop culture, equivalent to Christianity’s influences of divine idealism on the Renaissance, if that makes any sense. That is, we as humans develop notions that don’t actually exist, but come into existence by us imagining them as notions of God or another higher being, like an alien. Thus we develop interpretations of inalienable rights, Utopias, …. and, well, places where we don’t have to kill other living things just to survive. That is an idealism entrenched in lots of Sci-Fi, and Waid has selected it as a “Superman” trait. I think this was an excellent decision, and emphasizes that an ideal masculine trait, now, is to be able to empathize and connect with life around you.

Kent begins his identity as Superman by travelling the world and searching out knowledge and adventure. This is compared to Pa Kent’s time in the Army in Issue #3 of Birthright, but it reminds me a lot of Che Guevera in the chapter of his life when he wrote his Motorcycle Diaries. It reflects a deliberate and positive step in the maturation process.

superman_isolatedThis ‘search for himself’ is coupled with the reality that Kent struggles with his identity and the gap that exists between himself and his [not-so-fellow] man. He describes that it never takes long for his relationships with other people being to break down, once his abilities become known. “Invariably, they freak,” he says. “They become retroactively paranoid, wondering what else Clark Kent is hiding from them.”

In my mind, this narrative runs parallel to the concept of privilege. In addition to being an alien with superhuman abilities, Clark Kent also happens to be an able-bodied white male, who was raised in the most powerful and militarily aggressive country on Earth: the United States. It shows him attempting to make friends with non-Americans in his travels, to no avail once they discover just how much more powerful [privileged?] he is than they are.
He struggles with balancing his desire to help people without isolating himself from them. He longs to be accepted as a human.

superman_whitemansburdenWhen Kent tries to advise a local African leader not to march because he foresees violence against him, the villagers are right to point out that he is a white outsider trying to dictate to them. It doesn’t mean Kent has bad intentions, and some readers may think that this objection makes the characters simple and petty, but there is real history and politics there that he is not, or has chosen not to be, aware of. If anything Waid downplays this in the story; in real life, I think a man like Kent would be facing serious trust issues well before he started lifting buildings.

On this note, I can’t help but point out that a summary of this plot line smells a bit of “white man’s burden”. Kent wants to help people who need help the most, so he goes to help a minority tribe in Africa. Some of the images depicting this are particularly noteworthy, like this one to the right, which could also be critiqued from a perspective of gender as well as race. What can I say? It’s hard to write realistic stories without touching real-life issues like politics, gender dynamics, race relations, histories of colonialism and imperialism, etc. Comics have traditionally been comfortable in their own universe[s], but that is slowly, slowly changing, and I think panels like this are an indication of both an attempt to be more real, while also clinging to old stereotypes. (I mean, really, how long has Abena known Kent? Two weeks? If I were her and this guy came out of no-where with mega perception and rock-hard abs, I’d think he was CIA–hands down.)

Waid uses a great term in the #SuperMOOC interview: comics are a “visual short-hand” form of storytelling. I acknowledge that it’s hard not to simplify human conditions and relationships. Duly noted, but I wouldn’t be doin’ my job if I didn’t point this stuff out.

A side-note: The epitomy of “cheeziness” is the absence of believability. Superhero stories are in a constant struggle to maintain believability. To do that, Superman is all about depicting things on the edge of what we can sense and understand: that means everything from the constant introduction of new concepts (logically), to the depiction of senses that we find difficult or impossible to detect, such as superhuman sight, hearing, and movement. The illustrations in Birthright are vital to this, and really carry the story.

superman_crying
Linked to the first image explaining why Kent is vegetarian, here he sees his friend’s “aura” fade away, and he knows that he is gone forever. This effect emphasizes the pain and loss Kent feels, and is in turn emotional for the reader.

Superman crying: this is part of the evolution of masculine idealism, as well as the creative struggle for believability. The idea that men are supposed to hide their emotions is thankfully falling out of date as a prejudice that is both detrimental to men and world around them. Furthermore, emotion is an essential element within the anatomy of epic narrative: battles where life and death hang in a balance must make emotional connections. Crying , at least for any writer worth their salt, is not a sign of weakness in a character, but an indicator that they understand and are intimately connected with that world. As well, we ideally expect to see story characters crying around the points in the story when we, the readers, feel like crying. This connects the protagonist not only to the world around them, but to their audience as well, and creates a better story experience.

superman_perfectmaninimperfectworldPart of Superman’s modern-day struggle, invariably, becomes one of masculine idealism vs. realism: can a near-perfect man exist in an imperfect world? Since man can influence the world through his abilities and actions, and this man does, despite the world remaining imperfect—is he still a perfect man / an ideal? Is he still “Superman”?

Superman has traditionally had a strong father-son bond. This is a part of masculine idealism: ideal men come from ideal father-son relationships. This explains the place of prominence for Kah-el (Clark Kent’s birth father) in previous Superman narratives—as well as Pa Kent.

Pa Kent and Clark struggle to understand their connection, now that Clark wants to explore his extraterrestrial roots.
Superman is always an optimist. This distinguishes him from new superheroes, who are often expected to take on a “more realistic” perspective on the world, as well as old superheroes who have been reinvented within the modern “anti-hero” framework.

What to make of Lois Lane?

superman_loislane
superman_loislane1944Superman is as much a reflection of the evolution of gender perceptions as just about any pop culture icon that outlasts a generation. But what do we make of Lois Lane? In the very first Superman comics, Lane was a very attractive, feisty and smart news reporter who is dedicated to her career and her independence, despite the occasional dramatic lapse of utter dependence on Superman and his supernatural abilities. In the most recent remakes of Superman, we see Lane as…. A very attractive, feisty and smart news reporter who is dedicated to her career and her independence, despite ALSO having the occasional dramatic lapse of utter dependence on Superman and his supernatural abilities. Despite some subtle changes, (and one really confusing case of Lois Lane turning Black for a day), the woman has remained much more glued to her original form.

If Superman has changed so much over 75 years, why not Lane? Was Lois Lane classic, at in her inception, already a progressive enough reflection of the female gender? Are comic creators’ notions of women and their ‘social evolution’ simply stagnant—it just doesn’t get any better? I’m unsure about this one, and want to give it some future thought. I actually think that it presents an interesting argument: gender perceptions of men have changed more than women in the history of comics. This is despite massive social, political, and economic changes in the status of women in that time.

I’m looking forward to reading others’ thoughts on this, as we continue with the #SuperMOOC class. Thanks for reading. More to come with Week 3.