Golden Compass – it’s about sex, really

This weekend, with 70 degrees F in Chapel Hill, it would have bin a sin to remain indoors. So I didn’t. But in the end, at twilight today, my daughter and I went to see Golden Compass, the movie whose first-weekend box-office earnings I wanted to boost.
I made sure not to read any reviews of the movie beforehand. I am, unlike most people who already wrote about it, one of those people who has never read the Pullman books on which the movie is based. Thus, like the majority of the target audience, I was a Pullman “virgin” and I wanted to watch it just like anyone else going out to see a movie on a weekend, with no big expectations.
Of course, there was no escaping knowing at least something about it. Before seeing the movie, I knew that:
– the books are supposed to have a strongly anti-religious sentiment, growing stronger as the story moves to the third book. But, I have no idea if the anti-religious sentiment is against the religion in the sense of belief in the supernatural, or the mythology, or the ceremony, or the community-building aspects (“us versus them”), or the top-down hierarchical structure of the religious organization.
– Pullman is a first-generation (“born-again”) atheist. This gives him a different view of religion than someone like me who was born and raised an atheist, in an atheist family, in an atheist country. His childhood religion colors him as a person, and his adult rebellion against religion also colors him as a person. He knows how it feels to be religious. I don’t. For me, religious people are curiousities, perhaps interesting as potential subjects to study: how is it possible for a human being to believe obvious untruths and how does such belief result in particular anti-social behaviors? It is like starting one’s research career by studying cockroach behavior because you want to eradicate the pest, but after decades of study you realize that you quickly forgot the fact they are pests and got fascinated by their brains, how they work and how they lead to particular cockroach behaviors. Having Gregor Samsa join your research group would be fascinating as he would bring new angles, yet also would bring biases that a merely human researcher cannot have.
– there was a controversy before the movie came out. Atheist groups protested the watering-down of the anti-religious sentiment compared to the books. The most extremely anal political organizations that like to voice their opinions publicly as if they speak for religion, voiced their disapproval of the movie and called for boycotts.
So, that’s all I knew. We got popcorn and sodas and went in.
And then, I loved the movie. It was fast-moving, it was fun, it has great acting, great characters, great scenery, great special effects and a fun story. My daughter loved it as well. We both now want to read the books (we have all three, sitting on the shelf right next to the Harry Potter series, still unread by anyone in the household, but that is soon to change).
Of course, the story is a typical fantasy story – it has all the elements such a story has to have. There is the main protagonist who is an unlikely hero, too young and inexperienced for the job, yet nobody else can do. Events thrust the protagonist into the role of the hero. This involves a journey. An older, wiser character serves as a teacher. There is a funny, yet also wise sidekick. The enemy is a jealous authoritarian (surrounded by a slimy posse of thugs) who wants to rule the world. An object is lost and needs to be retrieved. The hero finds help and shelter from a group at the edge of society that cherishes freedom. The journey is perilous, and each dangerous event on the road teaches the hero something new and adds crust and courage to the character (i.e., the character is built). Unexpected family ties are discovered (“I Am Your Father, Luke!”). The crescendo of events leads to the final battle between Good and Evil in which Good triumphs and the hero, irreversibly changed, rides off into the sunset.
So yes, all the archetypes are in the movie. And so they are in every adventure, fantasy, coming-of-age story in history. From Illiad to Winnie-the-Pooh and Alice in Wonderland to James Bond. From 1984 and Fahrenheit 451 to Brave New World. From Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings to Star Wars and Harry Potter. And so they are in the Golden Compass as well. Does it make the movie bad? Of course not – there is a reason why those elements are always in the story – they work! They appeal to something in all of us, make us identify with the hero and makes the adventure exciting!
So, what is special about Golden Compass? It’s sex. Everything in the movie has an interesting sexual or gender connotation. The hero is a heroine – a smart and brave girl. And, although there are many, many characters in the movie, very few are female. The society is entirely patriarchal. Thus, it is not just the age and the spunk, but also the gender of the heroine that rubs many other characters wrong (on both sides of the Good/Evil divide).
The place-time looks Victorian – I actually recognized the scenes filmed at Queens College and the Radcliffe Square in Oxford. And the society is Victorian as well. The school where Lyra goes to employs only men. The students, apart from her, are all men. White men. The only other female character at the college is the maid.
The Gyptians, while Billie’s mother appears to be a prominent member of the group, are still led by a group of old bearded men – she does not sit at their table when they make decisions.
With the polar bears it is hard to tell who is male or female, but there is no question that the King has to be male.
And of course, the Magisterium is led by a bunch of ugly, old, nasty, white guys who are the prime target audience for the Viagra commercials, if they only had anyone to use the blue pill with. Their sexual frustration, combined with the fear of death, turns them into power-hungry control freaks. If they can’t get it, nobody will! Thus, nobody, especially children, shall even know about sex, …er, Dust. Familiar?
In this world, every person has a daemon. Daemon is an animal and it is the place where the person’s soul resides. It is also a representation of the person’s sexuality. In kids, deamons are innocent and cute and change shape and form (aka species) all the time. At puberty, the species gets fixed. The soldiers have wolves. The farmers’ souls are horses. The servants’ daemons are dogs – higher in hierarchy, bigger the dogs, with the top servants walking around with Great Danes. And what are the daemons of the top leaders of the Magisterium? All are Great Cats. Now, why do you think these middle-aged guys are walking around with black panthers and snow leopards? Of course, for the same reason that their modern counterparts drive Jaguars to the grocery store.
And the very top dog, the leader of the cult? His daemon is a snake. Yes, really – a snake. The guy is constantly holding and playing with his python!
The king of the bears, the guy who likes to play with the dolls, is stupid enough to fall for the trick because the sweet-talking was delivered by a pretty girl who knows how to stroke his masculine insecurity.
The other bear, the good guy, also has some issues – he is a loner, a drunk, and a warrior. And as macho as can be. “Are you sure you want to ride me?” he asks, not being able to believe his good luck!
The other major female character, the ice-cold Mrs. Coulter – the brilliant stroke of lucky coincidence in naming, useful at pointing out to the dense what her role in the society is – is between the rock and a hard place. While the leaders of the Magisterium, all men, can sit around with stern faces, fluffing each others’ self-importance, Mrs. Coulter, being a woman, is supposed to actually do the work. She is doing the cleaning of the house. Being a woman, she is judged by her performance. Being a woman, she is dispensable if she screws up or becomes too uppity for their taste. They lust after her, and they hate her because they cannot have her. So, they own her and play with her destiny. And she, an independent spirit when younger, decided to play within the system, by their rules, choosing to have some power and temporary safety within their hierarchy in return for obedience. And she does it with a vengeance. If they are nasty, she has to be ten times as nasty just to be tolerated in their society.
Her project, an experimental splitting between kids and daemons, is a form of castration. Which she does with gusto. Except in one instance when her own offspring is to be rendered infertile. Her genetic immortality is more important to her than anything else in that moment of weakness.
So, is this movie anti-religious? Yes and no. It is primarily anti-authoritarian, so, as much as all organized religion is authoritarian, it is anti-religion. I do not know how the books are, but the movie does not mention God or even mention even a little bit of their beliefs and theology. We do not see anything from their sacred texts, do not hear the liturgy or see the ceremony. All we see is the social organization of the Magisterium which is decidedly authoritarian and bigoted, and on the other side, the Good side, the people are free-thinking and all-inclusive. The wiches, the bears, the Gyptians (who look like sea-faring Gypsies, the most despised and oppressed and simultaneously most romanticized nation in the world – for their love of freedom), the funny guy with a Texas accent – they never eye each other with suspicion for a split-second. Tolerance is in their blood.
But an authoritarian, hierarchical organization need not be limited to religious organizations. Political organizations, and others, can also be organized in the same way, motivated by greed, fear and sexual repression. Just because the leaders of the Magisterium wear funny robes, does not mean that the movie attacks priesthood in just religious organizations. Other, secular organizations also have their priests and uniforms. And of course the leaders of such organizations will want to headquarter their operations in as big and phallic buildings as possible, thus the cathedrals shapes in the movie. Again, the brilliant coincidence of the name of the second major female character….
And just because the audience is expected to want a “big one” as well, this little questionnaire produces, in about 90% of the trials, a Big Cat:


15 responses to “Golden Compass – it’s about sex, really

  1. When you read the books, I think you may well find your intuition confirmed 🙂 However it’s not just about sex, but also about sex as a symbol and metaphor for all the kinds of creativity and individuality which totalitarian control-freakery cannot tolerate.

  2. I think this is one of your best blogs. I don’t know about other people, but I’d be interested in reading more about your life hinted at in para 5 – being raised in an atheist environment and whether or not there was an underground of missionaries or religious proselytiziers – if you can find the time and generate the interest in writing such a blog.

  3. Very nice summary of the gender issues in the movie; I’m a big fan of the books, but you’ve still pointed out a few things I didn’t catch.
    One other thing I think is interesting about gender and daemons is that in every case I can think of, both in the movies and the books, the daemon is the opposite sex from the humans in that world (and I don’t specifically remember any, but it’s been a while since I read the books), what sex their daemons would be.

  4. Stacey, in the books there is at least one mention of a person whose daemon is the same sex as the person. They are described as “rare people” and I assumed they were homosexuals. Nothing is really made of it.
    I’m re-reading the series now and have been disappointed by reviews I read of the movie, but if you were able to extract this much meaning from it (in addition to enjoying the adventure story) then maybe it’s better than I was expecting!

  5. Possible minor spoiler alert ….
    I too found the first book to be a lot more about sex than religion. And while I look forward to seeing Nicole Kidman go over-the-top as a villain (she is *such* a good villain), I didn’t like where Pullman takes her character in the next two books. It struck me as both a false path for the character and as validating a very traditional religious message about women’s roles. Then, I found the last book in particular to have a self-sacrificing tone about sex, saying essentially “yes, sex feels good but you should and must give it up … sex and sexual love are not really important, because the platonic pleasures of mind/spirit are different from and better than the bestial pleasures of the body … and, anyway, sex is terribly dangerous and if you have sex, everyone *but* you will suffer … and won’t you feel guilty then?” a message that I considered distinctly Christian.
    Interestingly, I read the books before I knew Pullman was an atheist and that the books were supposedly “atheist.” I thought he was Christian (albeit anti-authoritarian) and the books were written from that framework.
    I’ll be curious to hear your take after you’ve read them.

  6. Thank you. I’ve seen very little discussion of anything but the religious aspects of the movie or book, which makes them sound boring. You make it sound like they might be worthwhile.

  7. I would disagree a little bit about the Magesterium and big cats. What I noticed was that the deamons of the Magesterium hierarchy (other than the top snake) tend to be insects, and not your pretty little butterflies and moths, but your nasty predatory insects. The big cat seemed to belong to Lord Asriel, someone definitely outside the Magesterium hierarchy.

  8. The guy who tried to poison Asriel (somewhat lower in their hirerarchy) had a nasty bug, but the top leaders seen walking into the dome to meet had all sorts of black panthers and such. A mix, probably.

  9. Very good review. Makes me want to see the movie! I read and loved all 3 of the books and hope he wrights more. Yes, I’m an adult, but the only difference btwn this type of adolescent oriented fantasy novel and the adult oriented ones is the lack of talking about actual sex.
    I didn’t think the books alluded to sex at all (besides the focus on Lyra as a female & a hero, & how’s that possible 🙂 which was great). I didn’t think they criticized religion at all either, so we each just read into them what we will.

  10. Pelican,
    The third book is anti-sex? Not the book I read. The message I got was that the supporting cast had problems with sex. Lyra on the other hand? You need to remember that all through the books she is a pubescent girl. As with our society the world of His Dark Materials conflates puberty with menarche, when they are two entirely different things. Menarche is part of puberty for girls, it is not puberty itself.
    Then you have Lyra’s idyll with her best friend near the end of the third book. An idyll where the two of them are often alone, naked. Not only naked, but naked in an active, playful, physical context. Two young adolescents recently consciously aware of their sexuality. A scenario that has played out in real life innumerable times, and always with the same result. A scenario that doesn’t need to be laid out for people who won’t lie to themselves.

    Yes Alan, I agree.
    But then, after a few days of bliss, they must separate forever, sacrificing their love and sexual connection or … all of reality will be destroyed and the dead will suffer for all eternity ? That’s a pretty big price to pay- worse than an unintended pregnancy, even! And, Will’s likely faithfulness to Lyra for the rest of their separate lives- his intended lifelong chastity- is presented as admirable?
    So, Will and Lyra will sit on a bench in their respective Oxfords once per year and … remember one another?
    While looking forward to being eventually be reunited after death as … atoms? Sounds pretty asexual to me.
    BAH! Maybe it’s just me, but I didn’t find the ending to be sex-positive, despite the clear acknowledgment that these kids were having sex. I think Pullman was trying to end the book on a sacrificial note to make a point about altruism not being tied to religion.
    But, having these kids sacrifice their sexuality in particular to “save the world” seems to derive from the Catholic tradition, particularly in the context of the highly dysfunctional sexual/romantic relationships modeled by the adult characters. I mean really, *no one* in those books seemed to have a happy sexual life for more than the first few honeymoon months … after that, it was nothing but one abandonment/sacrifice/bitter feud/improbable reconciliation/murder after another. Even the gay angels were an annoying couple.
    So, clearly, I would have written the ending differently. But, just as clearly, I’m not an award-winning children’s book author, so what do I know?

  12. Whoops, got carried away with the bolding … bold text should end after “eternity?” Sorry.

  13. I am Arphenia, a raccoon …

  14. Big Cat, hrm…
    I have thought long and hard about questions regarding fate etc. and never came to an end, doubting everything and especially myself. So in the first run a few months ago, when the website was quite fresh, I took the test and had to say “I don’t know” pretty often, which I interpreted a “Neutral”. I mean, does anyone KNOW that life isn’t deterministic? Anyway, the result was…
    wait for it…
    a ladybug.
    I was less than impressed. It was nice and red and all, but apparently refusing clear answers, on the grounds of having not enough information to draw conclusions, is the same to them as being “Meh, I don’t care…” and that makes you small and weak.
    So now, for the second run, I forced myself to some opinions and got a raven. Lesson learned: have some opinions, so others may know what to make of you.