Reader Request 2005: Beatles, Batman and They

These from Greg Morrow:

Beatles or Rolling Stones?

Superman or Batman?

“He or she” or singular “they”?

First: The Beatles, obviously. First, they’re not pathetic posers like the Stones. I mean, Mick Jagger went to the London School of Economics. He’d be a banker now, if it weren’t for the Stones, whereas Lennon would have been the most sarcastic milkman in Liverpool. If he were lucky (Keith Richards, incidentally, would have become an Anglican minister. Trust me on this). Rock and Roll saved the Beatles; it merely was another economic oportunity for the Stones.

Second, the Beatles had the stones (so to speak) to break up and stay broken up, meaning that their canon is undiluted from years of post-creative suckage. The Beatles era is nine years, 1961 – 1970, and in those nine years, they sucked exactly twice: The Magical Mystery Tour (the TV show, although the album squeaks by), and Let It Be (the album, although the movie squeaks by because of the rooftop concert). (Some people will tell you that half of the songs on the White Album sucked, too — but since no one can agree on which half, the Beatles are still golden). Meanwhile, the Stones were notably more inconsistent during their legend years (Satanic Majesties Request, anyone?), and it’s an unassailable fact that there hasn’t been a good Stone album — or come now, a good Stones’ song — since Tattoo You. There are 24-year-olds running around who have never not known the Stones to not suck, and that’s just sad. Or to put it another way, the Stones have sucked more years than they were ever good.

Now, I can see how some of you might say it’s unfair to diminish the Stones’ better work because of the unregenerate crap emanating from Steel Wheels or Voodoo Lounge. And 100 years from now, everything the Stones did after 1981 will have vanished in the fog of history and they’ll probably look better. But in the here and now, two and a half decades of suckitude counts against them. In contrast, Paul McCartney’s nearly three decades of solo suckitude do not count against the Beatles, because the Beatles can’t be blamed for “Say Say Say” or Liverpool Oratio. That’s all Paul, baby.

Also, in 100 years the Beatles will still be kicking the Stones’ asses (except for Charlie Watts. Charlie rocks). Really, I’m surprised this is even a matter under consideration any more.

Second: Batman, and again I’m surprised this is an issue. Look, Superman got his superhero-ness handed to him on a platter — dad punted him to a planet with a yellow star and lighter gravity, and that’s all she wrote. Superman didn’t have to do anything to become Superman. Whereas Batman worked for it. Yes, Batman did have immense wealth left to him by his parents, while Superman grew up in a humble small town in Iowa. But, you know, a guy who can compress charcoal into diamonds with his bare hands is not someone who has to worry about his economic situation, either. Take away Superman’s undeserved advantages and you’ve got a moderate Republican representative from the great state of Iowa. Take away Batman’s undeserved advantages, and he’s still friggin’ Batman. No offense to moderate Republican representatives from the Midwest, but I know who I would rather be.

Third: They. There are times when sexual differentation is grammatically relevant, but most of the time it really isn’t, and there’s not a single person who actually believes that the generic “him” isn’t actually the work of some long-dead grammarian with a micropenis and a pathological fear of speaking to chicks. Screw Mr. Micropenis. Long live “they.” Having said that, there are times I’ll use “he or she” or will use “him” or “her” generically, because I want to. I’ll also use it when I’m writing professionally, because it’s not generally worth my time to piss off a copyeditor, whose job it is to preserve the long-dead Mr. Micropenis’ editorial strictures because that’s what their employer demands of them. I’ll just use it on my own time and maybe as more people think as I do, the great publishing houses of the world will tell the unlamented Mr. Micropenis to take a hike.

42 Comments on “Reader Request 2005: Beatles, Batman and They”

  1. Good work, John, you were only wrong on one of three 8) While I groove on a good Batman tale, and while he’s the more interesting character considered as a person, Superman’s a better superhero; when I’m interested in reading superheroes, I go for superheroes more like Superman than Batman. For me, that’s one of the major draws of superheroes: they have superpowers.

  2. I also say wrong on 1 of 3, but a different one – how can you attribute the generic “him” to malice aforethought? “They” is a plural noun. “He or she” (or, god forbid, s/he) is an ugly construction. The only simple and sensible way to do it is to just stick with tradition and use one of “he” or “she”. It doesn’t matter to me which, just so long as your pronoun agrees with your (assumed) antecedent.

  3. “The only simple and sensible way to do it is to just stick with tradition and use one of ‘he’ or ‘she’.”

    Actually, the only sensible thing to do is *not* to use a construction which implicitly excludes half the human population without cause (or assigns them an incorrect gender). As for “they” being a plural noun, I’m guessing you might be able to think of another noun which is both singular and plural, and to which no one objects its doing double duty. And you if you can’t, maybe one of the rest of you can.

  4. Cute.

    Thinking some more about it, singular they doesn’t bother me when the gender is actually indeterminate (Everyone who comes here loves thinking about their grammar.) so much as it does when the gender is determined but unknown (The suspect ate lunch before they committed the crime.)

    I’m not really sure why that is, but there it is.

  5. I find myself in complete agreement with you on all three counts. Clearly you are a wise man.

    My only remark on removing Batman’s early advantages would mean that he probably wouldn’t have had all that gadgetry he carries. Especially the Batmobile. Designing & building a custom car with a rocket sprouting out of its rear is more than a little expensive. Most likely it’d just be the Batmotorcycle.

  6. “Most likely it’d just be the Batmotorcycle.”

    The Batmoped! Or, when in Rome, the Batscooter.

    Brandon: Agreed — if you actually know if it’s a he or a she, it feels better to use the correct gendered pronoun. At least it does to me.

  7. One outta three, baby! ‘Batman,’ obviously. ‘They,’ clearly. But the Beatles were -never- good. They’re Early Hanson, that’s all. The Stones aren’t much better, but at least they were raunchier than Punky Brewster.

  8. Beatles or Stones: Beatles all day long, they have had 20 number 1 singles on the Billboard charts. A record they still hold. Comparing them to Elvis might have made it a contest.

    Batman or Superman: Batman, he’s just cooler. Superman may be able to fly but he will never be cool.

  9. “But the Beatles were -never- good.”

    Dude, you’re high.

    Anyway, everyone knows the Jackson 5 were the early Hanson.

  10. Frank: Beatles = early Hanson? Early Beatles, you could make a case for (although I’d still disagree), but surely the later Beatles songs aren’t so mindlessly pop. Also, they get points for rocking the bowl cuts.

    John: I think Brandon’s going farther than what you’re agreeing with, in that he doesn’t like the use of “they” as a singular when talking about a particular subject with an unknown gender, not simply when the gender itself is known.

    Also, while I’d rather read about Batman, I think I’d rather be Superman… although that would depend on the abundance of kryptonite in our hypothetical situation.

  11. Well, obviously Beatles, without a doubt. No need to argue that one.

    And I have to go with Superman, too. Because the whole revenge motivation, either as subtext or text, makes Batman creepier. Invite him to dinner and he talks forensics all night; invite Superman and you can get him to tell you about the fifth planet around Vega…

    However, I simply cannot abide the singular ‘they’. It causes nearly physical pain. So, the answer is to use “He or She”, look at it for a while, decide it’s ugly, and rewrite the entire paragraph to avoid the need for either construction.

  12. Iowa?!? Clark Kent is from Kansas. Radar O’Reilly is from Iowa. You live in a rural area, you need to know these things.

  13. Actually, I liked STEEL WHEELS, though I’ll admit it was on autopilot and Bill Wyman was pretty much out of it.

    OTOH, the follow up to TATTOO YOU, which was DIRTY WORK, has exactly one good passage on it, not even a whole song: The opening salvo of “One Hit to the Body.”

    And it’s not even the Stones playing it. It’s Jimmy Page from Led Zeppelin. (Rest of the song sucks like a Hoover on steroids.)

    Since STEEL WHEELS, I am reminded that the Beatles did, indeed, break up at the right time, Led Zep also called it quits with a decent final album (though we could do without Bonzo’s OD), and Roger Waters should have packed it in and left the rest of Floyd carry on instead of vomiting forth the bloated FINAL CUT in 1983. (Um, Rog? It’s called a band. That means there are three other people not necessarily entitled to your opinion. So quit remaking THE WALL every four years. ‘Kay?)

    Thus spake Winter-struthsa. (Queue dung-flinging chimps learning the art of war.)

  14. “Iowa?!? Clark Kent is from Kansas.”

    Actually at the beginning Smallville’s state wasn’t specified. It wasn’t until the movies that it was settled in Kansas. I don’t think Kansas feels right, though. I’m holding out for Iowa.

  15. He, She, or It

    Over at the Whatever, John Scalzi takes on a few reader questions in today’s post. The whole thing is good, but being someone who writes technical manuals for a living, I was particularly amused by his commentary on “‘He or she’ or singular ‘they’?”

  16. He, She, or It

    Over at the Whatever, John Scalzi takes on a few reader questions in today’s post. The whole thing is good, but being someone who writes technical manuals for a living, I was particularly amused by his commentary on “‘He or she’ or singular ‘they’?”

  17. Not only are the Beatles the total shit, but the older I get, the better the early, pre-art stuff sounds.

    I used to profess Revolver and wince a little at Please Please Me. Now the opening of a song like “There’s A Place” sends shivers down my spine. (Learning first-hand how fucking hard it is to write a good pop song has a tendency to change my outlook.)

  18. For those that prefer Superman, if you’re going to impugn the Dark Knight’s possibly-psychotic motivations I think it’s only fair to remind you about Superman’s own freakishly stunted personality. If you’d rather be Superman, would you also want the whole mincing, kitten-saving act to go along with it?

    But John’s got it right, because the comparison isn’t about alternate realities where these characters might exist. The comparison is between two fictional characters. One has a rich realm of interesting possible conundrums both personal and plot-wise. The other is utterly boring and ridiculous, either alternating or simultaneously.

  19. There’s nothing wrong with the Beatles (other than overexposure!), but I’d still rather listen to “Hot Rocks” than any of their albums or compilations. I do love that one guy mentions the fact that the Beatles had more hit singles as if that means anything, though. It is kind of annoying when people act as if the Beatles’ superiority is a fait accompli (to a lot of people, it isn’t), but I know at least some of the “no, they suck!” that gets tossed out there in response is just knees jerking in the face of the smugness of (some) Beatles fans.

    And Batman, completely. I’d rather be Superman, but that’s actually one of the things that makes Bats a better hero…

  20. Well, to be clear, the Rolling Stones in their prime deserved the hype. They really were all that. I’ve got Hot Rocks myself. I don’t dislike the Stones. But if I had to make a choice — and I did — then I know how I would swing.

  21. Does everything old fashioned have to be oppressive?

    I agree that when you refer to the person who broke into the liquor store, it is unfair to automatically characterize him as a male.

    I agree that when you write about your secretary, it is sexist to assume she is a woman.

    But when someone leaves his car keys at the bank and someone else finds it, and then she calls him and tells him to meet her the next day so that she can return his keys, then it doesn’t matter what !@#%%ing gender anybody is, and no one’s being hurtful or mean-spirited about it either way.

    It’s just grammar people – sometimes it matters, but sometimes it just doesn’t…

  22. Does everything old fashioned have to be oppressive?

    Of course not.

    Singular they is centuries old, after all.

    As for Batman, Superman and creepiness: Superman is way creepier. Batman makes sense — Superman is a freaking alien. In fact, Superman has only ever inspired even the slightest interest in me when viewed from the outside, when he’s acting like a freaking alien (as in his two-page appearance in the recent Countdown to Infinite Crisis. Superman is floating a foot or so off the ground in a series of propaganda-poster poses, and the Blue Beetle is trying to talk to him but keeps losing it because he’s Superman. Supes says, ‘Relax, Ted. Take a breath,’ — and keeps floating and posing. He’s not being a jerk, he just doesn’t get it — he’s not an alien just because he’s from another planet).

  23. Another fun post, but I have to take issue with some of John’s assertions about Superman. Yes, his powers are a gimmie, but they resultantly present him with ethical dillemas and tests of character that Batman can only dream of. I’ve no doubt that if I were somehow vested with the powers of Superman, I’d become an abominable tyrant in less than 72 hours. Supes, on the other hand, chooses to abide by the letter of the law in his battle against Lex Luthor even though it would be all to easy to merely incinerate him from orbit.

  24. Superman. I’m with Grant Morrison and Mark Waid on this. Superman, properly written, is an almost Christ-like figure. He’s the ultimate Good Guy:

    “In a larger sense, what appeals to me most about Superman is that his actions are a continual validation of a basic, childlike moral code that, right or wrong, wise or naive, I hold dear: Doing the right thing is its own reward.”

    You can quibble with that, but as I’ve grown older I’ve found the notion ever more appealing. (Not more plausible. Just more appealing.)

    Batman is interesting, but he’s nuts.

    Doug M.

  25. In contrast, Paul McCartney’s nearly three decades of solo suckitude do not count against the Beatles, because the Beatles can’t be blamed for “Say Say Say” or Liverpool Oratorio. That’s all Paul, baby.I’d be happy if I heard three new albums last year I liked as much as “Band On The Run.” And MJ-creepiness aside, you gotta admit that “Say, Say, Say” is a catchy little number.The trouble with Mac is that he is a freak-genius songwriter on the order of Irving Berlin or Richard Rodgers, but (post-Lennon) he hasn’t really had anyone to call him on it when he’s not trying hard enough. Someone should lock him in a room with Steve Albini.

  26. But you gotta admit that “Satisfaction”, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” rock the house much better than anything the Beatles ever wrote. OTOH, the Beatles made pretty pop tunes, something that the Stones were absolutely incapable of doing. So it all balances out, right?

    I’ll stick with the Stones, though.

  27. Squid:

    I wouldn’t recommend citing Countdown to Infinite Crisis as evidence of anything. A more wretchedly awful book I haven’t read since, oh, Identity Crisis…DC’s on a roll, right over the curb into the gutter.

    The thematic point of Superman’s upbringing by the Kents was the triumph of nurture over nature (or, more accurately, the immigrant experience): Superman is a midwestern boy on his own; he’s only an alien in physiological terms.

  28. I think you nailed the first two, missed the third. I came late into appreciating music in general, and still haven’t heard the entire oeuvre of either group, so I can say that there’s something more deeply exciting about hearing a Beatles song for the first time than a Stones song. You have less idea what to expect. The Stones innovated some really cool things. The Beatles invented some really cool things.

    Batman is cooler because he’s smarter. His story is less about what he can do and more about how he does it. This also, incidentally, forces his opposition to be smarter and more interesting: Superman’s villains only have to keep some kryptonite handy and go on about their business. Then they fail for some really simple reason, like they left the kryptonite on a shelf in the same room. Batman’s villains have to work harder to take him down, usually on several levels. Their plans are complicated and twisted, and their reasons for failure are often more entertaining.

    (OTOH, although I never really doubted who would win in a fight, I still wish I could step into an alternate universe where _The Dark Knight Strikes Again_ had never been drawn.)

    My problem with “they” isn’t the gender ambiguity. It’s the number ambiguity. That sort of imprecision bothers my engineering brain.

  29. Steve Eley:

    My problem with “they” isn’t the gender ambiguity. It’s the number ambiguity. That sort of imprecision bothers my engineering brain.

    When this consideration can cause problems, that’s when I contemplate using “it” instead of “they”. It makes my misanthropic heart fill with glee.

  30. We have a royal “we” for singular first person. English has long since ditched “thee” and “thou” for the universal “you” for singular second person. “It” just doesn’t cut it as gender non-specific third person. A generic “they” for singular third person is not only doable, it fills a void. I’m sorry, but picking between “he,” “she,” and “it” doesn’t cut it.

    Though to those who find singular “they” grating, I do think we can agree that the royal “we” is monstrously stupid.

    OTOH, maybe we should adopt singular “they” and forbid the royal “we” since the rest of the English speaking world is not amused anyway.

  31. I agree with Jim Winter that singular “they” is filling a void. Many other languages have a gender-neutral singular third person. Many other languages also have a plural second person, which is why I have no problem with people saying “y’all”.

    When it makes sense, I rather like alternating: if i’m giving examples involving some hypothetical persons I’ll use “he” for one example, “she” for the next, and try to avoid the construction where I can.

  32. meta, I ain’t gonna’ argue agin’ anoyone advocating the use of the word y’all…

    Guess that’s my southern roots showing – there ain’t a dye job in the world that can hide ’em…

    I suddenly have a hankerin’ for some cheese grits… :)

  33. Actually, I’ve been led to understand that “y’all” is the singular, while “all y’all” is the plural.

  34. Both “y’all” and “all y’all” are plurals. The former is limited, the latter is inclusive.

    For usage:

    I am planning a trip up to Ohio, and I inform you “I hope to have a chance to see y’all while I up there”–this would mean everyone chez Scalzi–humans, cats, dogs, and other critters.

    If I were to say “I reckon all ya’ll must be very tired of snow up by now” this would mean everyone in the general geographic area, whether directly connected to John Scalzi and his household or not.

    Another example: “We inherited a house out of state–y’all have dealt with property in two different places. Does it complicate your income taxes much?”

    as opposed to: “Do all y’all in Ohio have to settle for rooting for the Reds or the Indians, or are their some Pirates fans in the eastern part of the state?”

    As these should show, “y’all” would be a specific, limited plural, while “all y’all” is a more general plural–“You Tor authors are lucky–when you visit your editors, y’all get to see an architectural landmark up close,” refers to a limited group with a specific connection. In a more general usage: “You authors! It jsut amazes me–when all y’all get together, do you ever talk about anything besides the size of your advances?”

    For another usage of “all y’all”–I inform a colleague that I can get him free tickets to something, and then say to the others present
    “All y’all feel free to let me know if you’d like any–I can get plenty.”

    I can see why the limited plural could be beaten down into a singular usage, but it didn’t start out that way, trust me.

  35. Once you cross the Mason-Dixon line I think you’re required by law to change from “y’all” to either “you’uns” or “youze guys”.

    As in “I’m goin’ to da Jewels. Youze guys wanna’ come with?”

  36. The royal “we” makes sense for actual royalty… since they are, hypothetically, speaking for each and every one of their subjects.

  37. Superman’s politics: seeing as how Lex Luthor is president in the current story arcs, one might guess he’s anti-incumbent.

    For a storyline that really gets to the core of what makes both Superman and Batman great, see Batman: Holy Terror, set in an alternate universe where America is a Christian theocracy. If you’re a DC continuity geek, there are some wonderful hidden nuggets and red herrings in the storyline.

    Finally, my favorite one-panel description of the two comes in a recent JLA storyline. Batman has gone off to scout an enemy base. Superman is talking with the Martian Manhunter (a guy with most of Supe’s powers, plus a few more), scanning the horizon, and says, “He never ceases to amaze me. Can you even see him?” Manhunter: “No.”

    Batman appears in the panel behind them and says, “Okay, let’s go.”

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