Planets and progeny: ’90s parenting according to sci-fi

Ripley

Ripley and Newt in Aliens (1986)

Edith uses sci-fi stories to re-imagine herself as a kick-ass kid who doesn’t need adults to tell her what to do or to save the world for her. And lucky for her, the ’90s was somewhat of a golden age for sci-fi films and television. Den of Geek published this hilarious how-to list for parenting in the ’90s, as exemplified by its sci-fi cinema. Though the list is mostly light-hearted, this quote really sticks out when thinking about what draws Edith (and Kenny and Benji) to sci-fi:

How come sci-fi has such a connection with the issue of parenthood? Perhaps that’s natural, considering it deals with the future of humanity. But it’s worth bearing in mind that all science fiction is not so much about the unknown as the uncomfortable. It makes us view, with a fresh degree of objectivity, the problems that face us right now in the present time.

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Traversing space by halves: Isolation and Filipino immigration

One of the threads running through our conversations around EDITH has been how the time period — the pre-Internet and cell phone ’90s — and Midwest setting of the play serve to isolate the characters. Left to fend for themselves on the abandoned farm, Edith and Kenny inhabit an even more insular world. Benji, who begins the play solidly in the care of a loving, over-protective mother, is fascinated by what he sees as the Tolentino siblings’ freedom. He marvels that Kenny can cook and frequently asks after the whereabouts of Kenny and Edith’s Dad, who we learn is a doctor.

This brings up the question of how did Kenny and Edith end up in a farm in the middle of nowhere? Little information is given about Dad and Mom, who remains present in the stories Kenny tells and meals he cooks for Edith. “[Mom] felt like he was distant … if you want proof that space cannot be traversed, he’s it….” is all Kenny has to say about Dad when he finally opens up to Benji about his own under-protected home life. Though Filipino families are generally tight-knit and stay connected across several generations, Edith and Kenny seem to have no extended family. An answer to their familial and geographical isolation may lie in the immigration patterns of Filipinos to America.

The migration is generally divided into four waves, starting when the Philippines were still under Spanish rule in the 1830s. In 1898, the United States and Spain engaged in conflict, which the U.S. won. As part of the settlement treaty, Spain sold the Philippines to America. The U.S. did not grant independence to the Philippines and instead occupied the country as a U.S. colony. Governor-general William Howard Taft (who became president in 1909) believed that educational cross-pollination was important in establishing a good relationship with Filipinos who resisted American rule. Thus, the U.S. sent teachers to the Philippines and subsidized the American education of almost 15,000 Filipino students, or pensionados, between 1903 and 1938. Because the Philippine islands were now a U.S. colony, Filipinos were allowed to travel to and settle in the States as American nationals. This second wave of immigration caused the Filipino population in America to skyrocket, and Filipinos became the third largest group of Asian immigrants in America. Many young Filipino men moved to Hawaii and California, seeking work as laborers and migrant workers on sugar and produce farms.

The status of Filipinos changed again in 1934, when the Philippines became a commonwealth under the Tydings-McDuffie Act. The Act paved the way for Philippine independence but reversed the status of prospective emigres, who were no longer considered American nationals. By law, only 50 Filipinos per year were allowed to move to the U.S.

World War II halted Filipino immigration to America almost altogether when Japan invaded and occupied the Philippines. Following WWII, however, the U.S. finally recognized the independence of the Philippines, and 100 Filipinos per year were granted leave to emigrate. Significantly, this count did not include Filipina spouses of U.S. servicemen, who were allowed to join their husbands without restriction. The post-WWII decade saw another important Educational Exchange Act pass in 1948. This act allowed foreign nurses to come to America for further professional training and study; better pay encouraged many of the Filipino nurses who took advantage of the law to stay in America, where a nursing shortage provided plenty of opportunities for work as medical professionals.

The fourth wave of Filipino immigration began in 1965, when the U.S. further relaxed immigration restrictions, giving preference to people re-uniting with family members already in the U.S. and people trained in high-skill jobs. Thousands of Filipinos already trained as doctors and nurses entered the U.S. post-1965 to take advantage of the continuing U.S. need for doctors and nurses. Because of the shortage, Filipino medical professionals were often recruited to work in rural areas of America that were most in need of doctors. Filipino immigration continued to climb after 1965, reaching its peak through the ’80s and ’90s. Today, Filipinos and Filipino-Americans still represent a high percentage of medical professionals; nearly 20% of the Filipina-American population in the U.S. works in the medical field, most often as nurses and nurse practitioners. Given this timeline, it is perhaps likely that Kenny and Edith’s parents were children of such highly-skilled immigrants, or even themselves part of the fourth wave of Filipinos to immigrate to America.

The possibility that Dad and Mom could have immigrated to America without the aid or support of family and friends adds a heartbreaking layer to Edith and Kenny’s story. The knowledge that Dad is a doctor who spends his time away from his own children caring for others colors the way the audience sees him all through the play — until the revelation in the final scene that Dad may be more than just the “interruption” that Kenny accuses him of being.

Further reading on the history of U.S.-Philippine relations and Filipino immigration can be found here. In 2013, AsianWeek ran a great in-depth look at Filipina nurses in America.

Edith and “Ein Mannlein”

In rehearsals this week, we’ve been thinking about the moments when Edith sings a German opera aria that she is learning in school. Specifically, Edith sings “Ein Mannlein steht im Walde” from German composer Engelbert Humperdinck’s opera HANSEL AND GRETEL. The opera is based on the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale, and Humperdinck wrote the music at the urging of his sister Adelheid, who had written songs based on the fairy tale for her children. Humperdinck completed HANSEL AND GRETEL in 1893, and it premiered on Christmas Eve at the German National Theater. Though usually performed by adults, the opera has been popular among children and remains a traditional Christmas-time entertainment.

Old School HG

The story of HANSEL AND GRETEL itself has several thematic resonances to EDITH, and the aria “Ein Mannlein steht im Walde” plays similar roles in both stories. In the opera, Gretel sings the aria at the top of Act II — she and her brother Hansel (also played by a woman in the opera) have been sent to the forest by their angry mother to collect strawberries for dinner after they have spilled a jug of milk. Gretel weaves a crown of flowers and sings the aria about “a little man in the forest” as she and Hansel stray into the darkening forest. The little man never appears, but serves as a comforting imaginary presence.

Edith uses the song in a similar fashion. She sings it when she is awake in the dark farmhouse, protecting Kenny, and tells him that she discovered she could “fly” from the rafters of the barn after coming there to vent her frustration through singing when Dad became angry that she was practising the song in the house. Kenny reminds her of their own imaginary presence when Edith refuses to dress nicely for her recital of the aria — their mother will be watching, he says, even though she isn’t physically there, so Edith has to look nice. Later, Edith uses the aria to prove how responsible she is to Kenny: ” I learned all that German for my choir solo. I can shoot an aluminum can from fifty feet away.”

Check back soon for more connections between EDITH and HANSEL AND GRETEL.

Watch Gretel sing the aria in SUNYPurchase Opera’s production. Like Edith, Gretel finds a high vantage point before she starts singing. (And with good reason — notice the witch lurking behind her.)

Ch-ch-changes

When you’re a teenager, sometimes the right song, book, or movie has the power to change your world. As Kenny and Benji begin to realize that they are more than just friends, they use the underground comic book SHADE THE CHANGING MAN as a touchstone for their burgeoning relationship.

Shade_the_Changing_Man_001 Shade Kathy Lenny

SHADE is more than just a random comic book from the 1990s. This dark, subversive story was one of the first comic books to explore transgender issues and same-sex romance, and its story arcs surrounding creating your own family, struggling with identity, and traveling across an America rife with larger-than-life dangers resonate with EDITH.

Like EDITH, SHADE THE CHANGING MAN follows a trio of young people. The eponymous Shade is an alien from the planet Meta sent to America to battle the American Scream, a madness born out of consumerism and greed enveloping the country. As his name suggests, Shade can shift form, using a powerful garment called the M-Vest. Shade teams up with Kathy George, a young girl whose parents have been murdered by a deranged killer. Later, the two meet cool, collected Lenny. She serves as a protector and voice of reason for the fragile Kathy, and later, she and Kathy begin a relationship. The two try to keep their relationship a secret, but Shade discovers it in the issue that Kenny references, when Shade manifests as a blanket on which the two girls have sex. Later, needing a new body as host but also jealous of Lenny, Shade takes the shape of a woman, and manages to sleep with both women. Though his body is female, Shade still retains the mindset of a man. When Kathy discovers his deception, she abandons him, though the two eventually reconcile.

The original 1977 version of Shade, before his Vertigo makeover

The original 1977 version of Shade, before his Vertigo makeover

SHADE was originally created for DC Comics in 1977 by Steve Ditko. The series only lasted eight issues — in that time, Shade was given new parents because his first set failed the parenting exam. At age 13, Shade was given an operation that made him a rational adult. These tidbits live on in Edith’s made-up story about her multi-parented home planet and battle with “evil, shape-changing aliens.” Perhaps Edith has copies of the original comic stashed away in the barn?

Peter Milligan's Shade, the Changing Man

Peter Milligan’s Shade, the Changing Man

The Shade story arc that Kenny and Benji reference launched in 1990, when British comic writer Peter Milligan appropriated Ditko’s character, turning him into a much darker, tortured character. Shade’s M-Vest became the Madness Vest and gave Shade the power to warp reality as well as change shape. The original 1977 storyline was explained away as a story Shade made up to entertain himself while traveling to Earth. (We can see why Edith likes this guy!)

Milligan’s SHADE took on much edgier content. Shade required a human host for his travels on Earth, so he inhabited the body of recently-executed serial killer Troy Grenzer — the man who had killed Kathy George’s parents. Throughout the series, Kathy and Shade both struggle with madness and delusions because of their traumatic experiences, and this alternately bonds them and tests their relationship. Milligan used SHADE to critique what he saw as a vacuous, commercial American culture; The American Scream manifests as a skeleton dressed like Uncle Sam, and his victims’ private insanities are turned into reality. Benji’s Mom definitely wouldn’t want Benji reading about Shade’s adventures against the Scream, which include a re-enactment of the John F. Kennedy assassination; a battle against a possessed Hollywood film camera; a mission quieting the delusions of a man filling New York City with trash to protest “the Nameless” (homeless people and vagabonds); and the prevention of a man torturing those he sees as “abnormal” by running them through a horrific “normalcy machine.” A unique feature of Milligan’s comics, illustrated by Chris Bachalo, is the use of a bright, neon 90s color palette, despite the horror and violence of the stories.

Probably no one would mind if Edith shot the American Scream

Probably no one would mind if Edith shot the American Scream

Though SHADE remained a niche comic book, readers clearly had a taste for its dark, edgy content. In 1993, DC editor (and totally rad lady) Karen Berger created an imprint of DC called Vertigo, which featured comics geared toward mature readers that tackled heavy themes. The SHADE comics made the switch to the Vertigo brand in Issue #33 and were part of the “British invasion” that found a creative home with Vertigo. Other popular titles included the work of British writers Neil Gaiman and Grant Morrison, with SANDMAN and ANIMAL MAN, respectively, as well as the comics of American writer Alan Moore.

In the early 90s, Kenny would have had to go out of his way to find the SHADE comics. Even today, the seventy issues have not been collected into one volume, and it takes a bit of Internet digging to find all the issues in the series. The presence of the comic in EDITH speaks to its young characters’ determination to find a story that expresses who they are. Kenny shares his comics with Benji, and Benji shares his dictionary definitions with Kenny. Edith makes up her own stories. As we explore the stories that are important to Edith, Kenny, and Benji, we wonder what other stories and pop culture hit home with you growing up?

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