I used to be one of those ideological pseudo-purists that only engaged with media that jived with my politics—a totally sustainable way of life if you want to think about !!Important Issues!! 24/7. Don’t get me wrong: I’m still all about Racebending and #WeNeedDiverseBooks, but American popular culture sure doesn’t make the struggle easy. Before I started working full-time, I had the mental fortitude to read plot summaries and cast lists to seek out media that passed the Bechdel Test at the very least, but the pacifying ease of shitty media slowly brought me over to the
Dark Bland Side. I had so few fucks to spare after standing in a 120˚F kitchen for 10 hours, and that’s how I ended up watching The Phantom of the Opera productions every night for three months.
Of course I rationalized it, passionately defended it to friends, and parroted a line found in every think piece: “But it’s actually really smart!” I’m standing in the cold, unfeeling light of Acceptance now, but it’s been a struggle. Here’s how it went down:
DENIAL, or “It’s more sophisticated than you think, OK?”
On a whim one day, I started watching the 2004 film adaptation of Phantom on Netflix, and the opening sequence, the overture set to a montage of the day-to-day workings of the Opéra Populaire, was electrifying. It’s all ballerinas drinking booze straight from the bottle, pointe shoes grinding into chalk dust, craftspeople in a prop workshop, just a bunch of artists working like imperfect gears in some slapdash machine. The sequence works, and it reminds me so much of how it feels to work in a restaurant. ‘This is basically a live-action Spirited Away,” I thought. That’s when I put my blinders on, and not even Gerard Butler’s tortured singing could knock them off.
At the peak of this phase, I postulated that Phantom was a whole lot of things: a lowbrow portrait of highbrow entertainment (see above), a racial passing narrative (The Phantom might be Persian?), an obscure birthing-horror allegory (The Phantom might be a fetus?). Even within the most liberal interpretation of the death of the author, these theories ignored too much, prioritizing the discovery of pennies over the act of sifting through cow dung to find them.
ANGER, or “Fuck you Raoul”
When it became harder to deny that certain parts of the Phantom story might possibly be not-that-great, I became frustrated with particular things, like movie Raoul’s hairdo. I directed a lot of my ire towards the Raouls in general, for nitpicky reasons as well as his symbolic role as the bourgeois lifestyle that Christine chooses over the more primal world of creative anarchy symbolized by the Phantom. I’m not proud to admit that this was the #TeamPhantom troll phase of my disease.
BARGAINING, or “If we lived in a non-patriarchal utopia this would all be fine.”
I was in trouble once spamming “fuck raoul and his stupid haircut (ಠ益ಠ)ノ” in YouTube comment sections lost its fire. The fever started to break. Somehow, Phantom‘s shittiness became all my fault. If I could only let go and let my senses abandon their defenses, this out-of-control web of headcanons and obsessive GIF sets would have never clogged up the series of tubes that makes up my brain.
Then it was the showrunners’ fault: Phantom could be so much more awesome if its directors would dare have more challenging interpretations of the text. What about a female Phantom or a trans Christine? One of the more adventurous iterations of Phantom is the even more terrible 1998 Dario Argento film, wherein the Phantom is a normal-looking Italian man raised by rats. (This one sexually assaults Christine but she’s ultimately fine with it.) The potential for greatness was there, but it was wasted in favor of shock horror and a conventionally Manichaean romance. If we could have a film with the plot of the 1989 Freddy Kruger-like Phantom film (wherein his mask is made of HUMAN SKIN) and the musical quality of 25th Anniversary Phantom, then we’d be cooking with some quality grease.
DEPRESSION, or “Patriarchy Never Dies ;_;”
I just started feeling bad for Christine. Not the fictional character necessarily, but all Christines who felt trapped between two bad lives. “For either way you choose you cannot win,” the Phantom sings when he snags Raoul, his rival, in the “Punjabi lasso.” (It’s just a noose.) Christine can either choose to stay with the Phantom and save Raoul’s life, or she can reject the former and get the latter killed. This was the worst part for me.
Just run out of the fucking cave, Christine, and let the mob take both the stalker and the condescending rich boy. Don’t wait for either of them to tell you what you are. Talk to Meg about normal things again, so we can forget that Love Never Dies ever happened.
ACCEPTANCE, or “It’s no better than Twilight.”
I’m still wavering between this pole and, frankly, DENIAL. There are times when I’m watching or hearing Phantom and it feels like I’m still making out shapes in the clouds. Sometimes you get so invested in thinking about how ideas and situations can be better than what they are that you forget what they are in the first place. Christine is just a girl encountering a lot of wild, life-altering shit all at once. Raoul is just a rich asshole. The Phantom is just one of those creeps who gets all pissy about being in the “friend zone.” (Pissy enough TO KILL!)
But whatever, I just like the music.