Monday, June 28, 2010

Hobbits, Ants reports that the delays and legal wrangling on the Hobbit movies appear to have yielded Peter Jackson as the director instead of just producer, which means abandoning his plan to direct one of the Tin Tin movies.  Fine with me.

And an upside to Joss Whedon directing the Avengers movie in 2012 is that Nathan Fillion, who was not picked to play Captain America, will reportedly play Ant-Man.  I’m smiling with amusement at that thought already — even though he’d make a fairly convincing spouse-abuser, if they get into that disturbing subplot from the comics.

And while we’re talking about his wife, the Wasp (Janet Van Dyne), let me add that despite growing up in New England, it took me decades to get the ethnic joke inherent in the combination of her codename and wealth/social status.


Dan Hand said...

According to Wikipedia, however, the Wasp premiered in June 1963; whereas, the acronym WASP was reputedly coined in a 1964 book by sociologist E. Digby Baltzell, of the University of Pennsylvania. “Van Dyne” would not have been a very apt choice for a White-Anglo-Saxon-Protestant character’s name, regardless. Now, of course, the term has become essentially an epithet, and so expansive as to take in almost anyone of White-European-Christian descent– except, of course, Iberians.

Jacob T. Levy said...

According to Wikipedia, the acronym was first used in 1957. Baltzell popularized it. And it was always a partly-unkind word. (Which is not the same as “epithet,” a word that doesn’t actually mean “those racist words I like to say.”)

The old-line old money Dutch of the mid-Atlantic states– the Vanderbilts and Roosevelts, say– were absolutely always part of the category, which was always kind of a jokey reference to the old-line Protestant elites, not a precise ethnic marker. Van Dyne is clearly meant to be part of that social world, and, yep, I’ve always thought she had a wickedly funny pun name.

“Anglo-Saxon” is a make-believe ethnic marker anyways; no one’s ever been disqualified from it by virtue of being upper English aristocracy, even though that might make them majority-Norman in ancestry; or a member of the royal family, and so modern-German in ancestry.

On the planet Earth I inhabit, WASP is still limited to Protestants. It’s had slight category creep to include Scandinavians, but those from Orthodox and Catholic countries are still outside of it– and, to people with creepy racial views, Italians and Greeks and Poles and Russians are often still seen as suspiciously Ethnic.

Dan Hand said...

So, Professor Levy, do you believe that the creators of the Wasp comic-book character, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, had read Andrew Hacker’s 1957 article in the American Political Science Review (51:1009-1026)? Or, did they instead get their idea for the comic-book character’s name from Erdman B. Palmore’s 1962 article in The American Journal of Sociology? Regardless…


epithet |?ep???et|


an adjective or descriptive phrase expressing a quality characteristic of the person or thing mentioned : old men are often unfairly awarded the epithet “dirty.”

• such a word or phrase as a term of abuse : he felt an urge to hurl epithets in his face.

• a descriptive title : the epithet “Father of Waters,” poetically used for the Mississippi River.


If you have not heard “WASP” used as an epithet, Professor, you really need to get out of the office more often. I have heard it frequently used as such– as well as a catch-all for (the aforementioned) White-European-Christian Americans, including Roman Catholics. I myself have been lumped in with WASPs many times– and it is neither because I come from a socio-economically elite family nor because I come from one that abjures the Holy See. Whether or not any professional academics use it in such an overly broad sense, it is used in such a sense by the hoi polloi, and even by well-educated pundits, on the planet Earth that I have inhabited far longer than you have. As that same Wikipedia entry states (in its main body, not in a footnote):


Sociologists William Thompson and Joseph Hickey noted the impreciseness of usage.

“The term WASP has many meanings. In sociology it reflects that segment of the U.S. population that founded the nation and traced their heritages to [...] Northwestern Europe. The term [...] has become more inclusive. To many people, WASP now includes most ‘white’ people who are not [...] members of any minority group.[3]”


Roman Catholics are no longer treated as a minority group in American society. Along with being by far the most populous religious denomination– more than four times as large as the next largest denomination, Southern Baptists– Catholics are about half again as numerous in the United States as all of its Mainline Protestants combined, with the once-dominant Episcopalians barely mustering two million members now, a fraction of one percent of the current American population.

Would you say that I, as a half-Slovak (along with being Irish, English, Scottish, Welsh, Dutch, German and Alsatian) from a devoutly Roman Catholic family (including a priestly brother, down in El Salvador, who is a dual citizen of here and there) would be “often seen as suspiciously Ethnic [sic]“– or would you prefer merely to go on insinuating (for a third time now) how incorrigibly and creepily racist I am? (My favorite word from my two years of university Italian comes to mind; but, Todd might recognize it from the mean streets of New York City….)

By the way, Professor, if it is so clear that your comic-book heroine’s name was meant to be “a wickedly funny” play on the ethnic acronym, why do you suppose that it took the brilliant Todd Seavey decades even to notice it?

Todd Seavey said...

I’ll field this one: Todd failed to notice because growing up in New England meant that pretty much everyone except Jacob was a WASP, so the category barely ever crossed my mind (Jacob’s from New Hampshire — like my father, who never saw a black person with the naked eye until he was a teenager).

Also, clearly, some of us WASPs are not all that bright, though comics are pretty sophisticated, so I think I can be forgiven if they sometimes went over my head (and by my teenage years, I’d drifted away from Marvel toward DC, so I should note that for a long time I didn’t really think about the Wasp, either).

But despite the somewhat homogeneous ethnic background in which I was raised in Connecticut, let the record show I never felt a tribal sense of violation at the thought that the Wasp might breed with “Africanized” bees.

Jacob T. Levy said...

For what it’s worth, the acronym was used in the New York Times, a source Lee and Kirby might well have read, as early as 1962. Even if they didn’t read it, that suggests that it was in semi-popular circulation before the 1964 book.

Dan Hand said...

Absent more compelling evidence– like, say, a claim from one of the two gentlemen who created the Wasp character that they were deliberately making such a deep sociological implication– I am fairly sanguine that William of Ockham, if he had he been living in the mid-1960s, as I was, would have been quite content to assume that they had chosen “the Wasp” because it was in keeping with the insect motif of the Ant-Man himself. Beyond that, wasps have a narrow portion, the petiole, that could be seen as analogous to a woman’s naturally narrower waist.

At any rate, I believe that there were far fewer non-WASPs in comics back then than there were in New England when you two were growing up there in the 1970s et seq. (I first visited there, from Indiana, in August 1979, and I saw plenty of non-WASPs who caught my eye– especially at Todd’s alma mater, which is where I stayed during the three days that I was in New England with my travel-mates, two of whom were attending a Math-Psych convention there.) Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson were rich WASPs, as I recall (the only comic that I can recall buying was a Batman one, just before the television series began on ABC, in January 1966); but, even now, I do not believe that either bats or robins have any particular sociological implication(s) about the respective characters’ demographic particulars. Sometimes a wasp is just a wasp, as Dr. Freud might have noted (and actually have been correct, for a change)!

Dan Hand said...

P.S. As to that included link to “The New York Times” archive, Professor Levy, only the first of those 27 citations was to a story published prior to the debut of the Wasp, in June 1963. Who wrote that article, from Sunday, March 18, 1962? Why, it was coincidentally written by someone named Andrew Hacker! Do you suppose that that might have been THE Andrew Hacker, the noted political scientist and public intellectual, Professor? (I, for one, am not going to expend $3.95 to prove what is already obvious; “Res ipsa loquitur!” as we used to say in law school. Nor will I pay that to see whether the author ever used the acronym “WASP” in it, as well as the full phrase “White Anglo-Saxon Protestants.”)

If Dr. Hacker’s using the phrase and/or the acronym in one article in “The New York Times” in 1962, in addition to his aforementioned usage in that professional journal article, back in 1957, qualifies to you as proof, or even a reasonable suggestion, that the term was “in semi-popular circulation” in the United States (or even in New York City) prior to the Wasp’s premier, in June 1963– which is the real issue, after all– then I really would need to question your professional judgment as an academic social scientist!?!

Todd Seavey said...

Complicating matters, I suspect later writers (like Stan Lee, often Jewish New Yorkers) had the pun in mind regardless of whether it was in Lee’s at the outset, given how often her wealth and status as a somewhat vapid heiress were emphasized (even as she was surrounded by plenty of other millionaire characters who didn’t act quite as entitled).

But her atoms were scattered in battle recently and then sent by Thor to an alternate dimension, leading to this sad, strange summary of her fate (as discerned by her husband, Hank Pym, a.k.a. Ant-Man) from Wikipedia:

Using dimensional technology, Hank Pym established a headquarters known as the Infinite Avengers Mansion in a realm called “Underspace.” He soon deduced that this was the dimension to which Thor sent the dying Janet Van Dyne. Janet was transformed into a massive celestial entity, with the Mansion seemingly residing within her eye.

Dan Hand said...

Well, I will give them all this: They are a lot more original than the Bard ever was! Now, you just need to pick up the Joe Papp mantle, Todd, and start an annual “Avengers in the Park” series. What comic role would be best for, say, Al Pacino next summer?

Todd Seavey said...

Pacino should be Kang to Peter Coyote’s Immortus.

That would attract some attention.

pulp said...

Gentlemen–thank you for providing the most intelligent and well-documented argument concerning comics/popcult ephemera that this casual spectator has seen in quite some time.

For the record–I think Stan Lee would likely have been aware of the veiled reference to WASP in its mildly pejorative sense. He was a serial reflector of contemporary tastes and trends. If not– a lucky connection that we can benefit form today. Afterall, those two (and, to be fair, it was really mostly Kirby) had a string of hits not seen often in the blackened-thumb field of comics.

pulp said...

Pacino could be Willie Lumpkin.