Sodom and Gamora
So the other day I was watching Louis Theroux’s new documentary, Surviving America’s Most Hated Family, all about the more-or-less collapse of the Westboro Baptist Church. The WBC were essentially the boogyman when I was a teenager. My 14-year-self, crouched in a corner with a laptop watching them scream homophobic slurs, could barely think of anything more evil than them.
Well, obviously my 14-year-old self was very, very wrong. But anyway.
Theroux spends a lot of this documentary being charmingly, Britishly baffled at the actions of the Westboro members who remain. At one point, he’s told he lacks compassion by a man holding a sign saying “WHY DID GOD DESTROY SODOM?” That’s the sort of thing we’re dealing with here. It’s almost funny, and I think Theroux expects that we’ll laugh, but it’s also crushingly sad.
Theroux also spends some time interviewing the people who’ve left Westboro. At one point he drops into the house of Fred Phelp’s granddaughter Rachel Hockenbarger, who absolutely DOES NOT look like a member of WBC anymore.
I liked Rachel from the moment I saw her. She let Theroux in and showed him her tattoos. One of them in particular stood out, and the camera lingered on it so we could all see what it said: “Whatever nightmares the future holds, are dreams compared to what’s behind me.” That was a line from Guardians of the Galaxy, Rachel explained, said by Zoe Saldana’s character Gamora. She was a hardened assassin and killer until she changed her ways and became a good guy.
I’m a massive Gamora fan. Huge. However I think Rachel, rainbow-clad Rachel, is the person who deserves the accolade of her number one fan. She handed Theroux a drink in a Gamora-shaped mug. “Does that mean anything to you?” he asked of her tattoo. “Yeah,” she said simply. “Just trying to move forward.”
Is it fair to say superheroes helped rip Westboro apart? When Megan Phelps-Roper left the church and denounced it, she quoted Catwoman to explain why she had done so. “There’s no fresh start in today’s world. Any twelve-year-old with a cell phone could find out what you did. Everything we do is collated and quantified. Everything sticks,” was the opening line of her public statement. “Don’t act surprised that I’m quoting Batman.” Catwoman was a thief and a villain until, wait for it, she changed her ways and became a good guy.
In Megan’s first ever non-Westboro statement she explained how the church used pop culture for its own ends. “At WBC, reciting lines from pop culture is par for the course. And why not? The sentiments they express are readily identifiable by the masses – and shifting their meaning is as easy as giving them new context,” she wrote. But luckily for Megan, and unluckily for the cult she belonged to, you can’t keep a good comic book story down.
The transformative power of fandom has been spoken about many times, by far smarter people than me. People see themselves reflected in the hero, or the villain who becomes the hero, and act accordingly, spurred on by the thought that hey! Maybe the world finally sees them. That’s why we today make so much of the importance of representation. There will always be black children who need a noble king in T’Challa, Polynesian girls who need a steadfast adventurer in Moana, and so on. Favourite characters turn into little voices in your head telling you go on, you can do it, I did.
It was Gamora and Catwoman, lady villains-turned-heroes who aren’t even the main characters of their respective franchises, who transpired to be the things girls like Rachel and Megan needed to see. I find something so, so satisfying in that.
Everyone loves a good redemption story, I guess.