Tricksters, Fools, and MST3K
Some decade and half ago or so, I was having a conversation with a friend about Mystery Science Theater 3000. He was a big fan, and though I’d always avoided it in the past, he’d managed to get me into it, too (that’s a long story in itself, and for another time). We were discussing one of the big topics of MST3K fandom, namely Joel vs. Mike, and who might make a good third host should Mike leave and the show continue. This was in the Mary Jo Pehl days, when she had replaced Trace Beaulieu as the main nemesis, playing Pearl Forester, the ostensible mother of Beaulieu’s Clayton Forrester (I guess I should note here that parts of this post are going to be very much “inside baseball” and that non-fans may need to go Googling some of this stuff). My friend suggested the possibility of a female lead, putting forth Pehl as an example of the type of comedienne who could do so. I disagreed. I need to emphasize that I am all for equality and am proud to call myself a feminist. However, there are some differences, obvious (men don’t bear children) and subtle (women are better at verbal skills, on average, men at spacial perception). I didn’t have anything so exalted in mind here, though, and though I was adamant that it had to be a male in the lead role for MST3K, I couldn’t quite say why.
I thought about it on and off, and came up with some tentative thoughts on the matter, but never pursued them. I even saved the original template of this post, since I thought the subject would be interesting, but never could quite come up with a clear exposition. Finally, a few years ago I encountered the fascinating and excellent book The Trickster and the Paranormal, which had been suggested to me by Chris Knowles at the Secret Sun blog. The book revolutionized my views on several things. One of the less important, but still interesting, such things was the question of who should host MST3K. Specifically, I now could articulate clearly why I thought, against my feminist impulses, that the prisoner on the Satellite of Love would have to be a guy. The short answer, the unpacking of which will encompass the rest of this post, is that a girl would not fit the necessary Jungian archetype for the role.
On the one hand, I tend to assume a fairly high level of understanding on the part of my handful of readers–I assume that otherwise they probably wouldn’t be reading what I post, anyway. On the other hand, I’m a teacher and I always want to explain. I don’t want to go too deep and make this post too long; but I don’t want to leave people hanging, either; so I’ll briefly define “Jungian archetype”. According to the great psychologist and erstwhile disciple of Freud, C. G. Jung, there are certain ideas, images, motifs, and concepts that are innate within human consciousness. These are characteristic of all humans and are part of what he termed the “collective unconscious“. These archetypes are universal, manifesting differently in different cultures, but having common characteristics and similar functions in all. For example, the archetype of the wise old man/wizard pops up as Laozi, Merlin, Väinämöinen, Gandalf, and Obi-Wan Kenobi in China, Britain, Finland, and modern novels and film, respectively. The characters (some historical or semi-historical, some fictional) may be different in many ways, but the similarities–wise old man, usually bearded, often a hermit, holder of arcane knowledge and (often) wielder of magic powers–are profound. As can be seen from the last two examples, such archetypes turn up even–one might almost say especially–in pop culture. Whether these archetypes are somehow passed on physiologically (e.g. by genes), culturally, or metaphysically (telepathically, etc.) is not germane to the discussion here. That they exist is the main point.
What I want to assert is that the Joel Hodgson/Mike Nelson role on MST3K is an instantiation of the archetype of the Trickster or of the Holy Fool, two closely related though not completely overlapping archetypal categories. What I further assert is that this archetype is best fulfilled by a male. Finally, I assert that this archetype is quite common in modern pop culture, the most prominent exemplar being Weird Al Yankovic. In order to make this argument, and to avoid the metastasis typical of my posts (alas!), I’m breaking this into two posts. I’ll use the remainder of this one to delineate briefly the characteristics of the Trickster and Fool archetypes. Next time, I’ll show how these apply to Joel Hodgson, Mike Nelson, Weird Al, and others, and why it’s difficult if not impossible for a woman to manifest the archetype.
- Liminality–The trickster is associated with times of transition, change, or alteration from one state to another.
- Antistructure–The trickster is opposed to stable, well-established structures and tends to operate outside of them or to oppose them actively.
- Boundaries–The trickster moves back and forth across societal boundaries, and is found more at the margins than at the center.
Specific traits of trickster figures are
- Marginal–Tricksters are at the margins of conventional society, lacking power or wealth, and either partially or fully separate from their more “respectable” peers. Even when they are prominent, they remain borderline figures (e.g. a court jester is still “just” a jester).
- Deceptive–Tricksters—well, play tricks. Deception, fraud, misdirection, and lies are all characteristic of tricksters.
- Humorous–Humor and comedy are often associated with tricksters. The classic example is the court jester.
- Liminal–Tricksters (as mentioned above) are associated with crossing boundaries and times of change.
- Ambiguity–Tricksters tend to blur boundaries between the real and the imaginary, the good and the bad, and between various social categories such as gender, race, class, and so on.
- Sexual ambiguity–Tricksters are often homosexual or bisexual, or sexually ambiguous. They often cross-dress, and may also be asexual. More broadly, they manifest sexuality that is considered strange, unusual, ambiguous, or deviant by society.
- Paranormal–Tricksters are often associated with magic, occultism, mysticism, religion, or the paranormal, and strange phenomena are often manifested in their presence.
- Gender–Finally, tricksters are almost always male.
Examples of tricksters include
- The Coyote, as he appears in Native American folklore
- Loki, of Norse mythology
- Hermes/Mercury of Greco-Roman mythology
- Anansi, of Afro-Caribbean folklore
- Court jesters
The last point is why I think you couldn’t have a woman in the Satellite of Love, but that’s getting ahead of myself. Next time I want to discuss in detail why I think Joel, Mike, and Al are indeed tricksters, and what implications that has for pop culture.
Posted on 03/02/2014, in pop culture, society, television and tagged anthropology, archetypes, folklore, George P. Hansen, holy fool, Joel Hodgson, Jung, Jungian archetypes, magic, Mike Nelson, MST3K, Mystery Science Theater 3000, pop culture, psychology, sociology, The Trickster and the Paranormal, trickster, Weird Al Yankovic. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.