American Gods: Visualising Christian Identity as Gothic in Contemporary America

This post was originally presented as a paper at the 2017 Gothic Bible Conference in Sheffield. It has been reproduced here with minor changes and corrections.

The hit television series American Gods (2017–present), created by Brian Fuller and Michael Green, and distributed by Starz and Amazon Prime, adapts Neil Gaiman’s 2001 novel of the same name. Both are fantastical narratives. In both the book and the television series, an agnostic named Shadow meets and begins working for an old man named Wednesday, who turns out to be more than he first seems (the Norse god Odin). With Wednesday, Shadow travels across America, stumbling into a war between old, immigrant gods and new, secular ones. All are personified in humanoid form—they are real people who feed on human belief. Without giving too much away, through his experiences Shadow eventually discovers the power of faith, and how it relates to his own identity as a mixed-race American.

WIRED Magazine suggested that Fuller and Green’s television reimagining of American Gods ‘gives “faithful adaptation” all-new meaning’. And the show does indeed manage to capture the wild, dark, and strangely reverent world of Gaiman’s novel. There are a few key differences that are especially interesting to examine in light of this conference, however. Specifically, where Gaiman’s novel is whimsical and fantastical, engaging primarily with pagan mythology and the heroic epic, as I will show, the television adaptation explicitly links itself both to contemporary visual Gothic, and to Christianity.

Strictly speaking, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods is not a Gothic novel. There is no innocent heroine, no villain with terrible appetites. The novel is set in the present, not the past, and while it contains supernatural elements, they are designed to inspire awe and wonder, rather than horror, terror, or apprehension. Generically American Gods is difficult to categorise, however. As Gaiman himself puts it in the Author’s Preferred tenth anniversary edition, American Gods was ‘fortunate enough to receive a number of awards, including the Nebula and the Hugo (for, primarily, SF), the Bram Stoker (for horror), and the Locus (for fantasy), demonstrating that it may have been a fairly odd novel and that even if it was popular nobody was quite certain which box it belonged in’. It has made its way into the 2016 Encyclopedia of the Gothic, edited by William Hughes, David Punter, and Andrew Smith, where it appears once, under the entry ‘secret histories’, but it is rarely found on scholars’ definitive lists of contemporary Gothic fiction, or even contemporary American Gothic.

The show, in contrast,adopts a very distinctive visual Gothic mode, which is also a staple of its co-creator Bryan Fuller. WIRED elsewhere speaks of ‘Fuller’s gothic sensibility’, and Fuller’s previous series Hannibal (2013-2015) also employed extensive religious iconography. Talking about the season one episode ‘Coquilles’ (Episode 4, 23 April 2013), The AV Club wrote that it has ‘a Gothic, almost religious, sensibility to it’. Critics are often vague about what it is that gives Fuller’s work this ‘gothic’ quality, and scholarship on his shows is still ongoing, but if we look at American Gods we can see a number of distinctly Gothic visual markers, which can also be found across Fuller’s other shows (HannibalPushing Daisies, etc.), and which are often built around religious motifs.

Gilda Williams argues that the Gothic forms a ‘flexible cluster of visual traits, combined with a narrative-based and often dramatic context recounting a set of oppressive conditions usually inherited from the past’.[1] Williams catalogues several aesthetic qualities that are particularly prominent in the visual Gothic, including ‘fragmentation, subverted notions of beauty, dramatic lighting’ as well as its recurring ‘visual triggers’, like ‘the emphasis on surface and texture’, ‘the literalization of idea into form’, and ‘claustrophobic space and disintegration, signalling a history of unhappy relations with the past’.[2]Together, these characteristics help distinguish the things we call Gothic from related categories in the visual arts. Catherine Spooner likewise suggestsa number of features that can be identified as part of the ‘Gothic style’, breaking them down into two broad categories. In popular culture, this includes ‘intensive chiaroscuro, crowded space, intricate detailing, distorted proportions, a saturated colour palette, ornate fonts and deliberately retro or aged styling’. Gothic in the fine arts, in direct contrast, is often ‘governed by the adoption of narrative themes and tropes of the Gothic rather than a consistent “look”’.[3] The title sequence for American Gods is a good example of this:

Not only does this clip contain a number of Gothic visual traits—darkness, claustrophobic space, chiaroscuro, saturated colour palette, retro styling—but the music, which combines Gothic Industrial beats with higher-pitched trumpets and squeals, is also designed to create discordance and discomfort. The show maintains this audio-visual aesthetic throughout the eight episodes of its first season, especially in the ‘Coming to America’ vignettes that punctuate each episode. We’ll come back to those in a minute.

Another relevant difference between American Gods the novel and American Gods the TV series (for today’s purposes at least) lies with the specific gods Fuller and Green chose to bring to the screen. Like the novel, the television series introduces godsfrom Norse, Slavic, and Ancient Egyptian mythology. But in Gaiman’s novel, Christianity is noticeably absent, as is Jesus. The word ‘Jesus’ appears only 16 times in American Gods (a book of some 400 pages), and just three of those refer to the Christian deity personified. The rest are expletives.

Gaiman originally intended to include Jesus in American Gods, and even wrote a scene in which Jesus and Shadow meet over a glass of wine, but ultimately Jesus didn’t make it into the published novel. Gaiman discusses this omission in the tenth anniversary edition of the book, writing:

‘I’d been looking forward to writing the meeting of Shadow and Jesus for most of the book: I couldn’t write about America without mentioning Jesus, after all. He’s part of the warp and the weft of the country.

And then I wrote their first scene together in chapter fifteen, and it didn’t work for me; I felt like I was alluding to something that I couldn’t simply mention in passing and then move on from. It was too big.

So I took it out again.’

In the novel this makes sense. Gaiman is writing about religion and national identity in a pre-9/11 world, and while the political and nationalist tensions behind Christian identity were certainly present in the late ‘90s, they were perhaps not as pronounced as they have become since. Nor were they as easy to weave into a religious immigrant narrative.

Christianity is something Fuller and Green’s American Gods IS able to tackle, though, and Jesus plays a prominent rolein the television series. Moreover, Christianity is explicitly Gothicised and politicised in thisversion of contemporary America. Framing the act of worship or belief as a personal and political revelation, in the show’s first season Fuller and Green directly link religion to contemporary identity politics. This television adaptation also engages in a deeper and more nuanced portrayal of the Christianities that populate America’s repressed histories than Gaiman’s novel does. In the show, Jesus is still doing well in the sense of having many followers, but something has gone wrong. Fuller and Green have taken Gaiman’s idea of multiple Jesuses for multiple countries and run with it. So where the rest of the American gods have one incarnation, Jesus has many—he is a fragmented deity. America may be ‘one nation under God’, but each American has a different understanding of what that god looks like. In episode 3, ‘Head Full of Snow’, Wednesday introduces Shadow to this concept:

“You’ve got your White, Jesuit-style Jesus, your Black African Jesus, your Mexican Jesus, and your swarthy Greek Jesus.”

“That’s a lot of Jesus.”

“Well there’s a lot of need for Jesus, so there is a lot of Jesus.”

In Fuller and Green’s American Gods, then, the Christianity of the Puritans is not that of the Southern evangelicals, and certainly not that of the Catholics, but all of them merge and collide in Christian America, producing not just one Jesus, but multiple Jesuses.

Proceeding from Chris Baldick’s definition of the Gothic’s ‘fearful sense of inheritance in time’, many critics again point to the continuing importance of historicity and the past in Gothic fiction.[4] Markman Ellis argues that the Gothic ‘is itself a theory of history: a mode for the apprehension and consumption of history’.[5] Sean Silver, likewise, describes how important ‘the Gothic way of telling history’ has actually been to ‘the development of the modern British nation-state’.[6] The genre’s anachronistic way of imagining grand and ancient pasts impacts how we view our national history in the present, he argues, and perfectly describes ‘the experience of modernity as continually routed through and ruptured by the past’.[7] This is precisely the approach Fuller and Green’s American Gods adopts as well, particularly in its ‘Coming to America’ sequences, which dramatise past events—from 14,000 years BC to recent history—in order to comment on the present. In the show (as in the novel), each ‘Coming to America’ vignette tells the story of how a god first came to America, following their worshippers.

In their Gothic re-imagining of Gaiman’s American-road-trip tale, Fuller and Green use godly avatars to represent the country’s repressed colonial and racial tensions, speaking directly to contemporary concerns. This reading is encouraged precisely through the juxtaposition of contemporary Gothic and religious iconography. In American Gods, America’s gods are at war because their worshippers can’t live together peacefully. The traditions, cultures, and worship of the old gods are being colonised, usurped, and erased by those of the new. In Fuller and Green’s television adaptation this colonial metaphor is made even more explicit with the addition of Christianity. Writing a year before the show’s release, Fuller and Green state:

We wanted to get an indication of the relationship between the old gods who have retained their power and old gods who have lost their power. Jesus Christ, being 2000 years old and some change, is a relatively “new” god of the older god category—and has done quite well for himself, in terms of worship. Bringing him in is a compare-and-contrast for how Christianity usurped and absorbed many other religious iconograph[ies].

We see this particularly clearly in season one’s final episode, ‘Come to Jesus’, where Ostara (the ancient goddess of spring) is holding an Easter party for Jesus and herself.

Wednesday and Shadow crash the party, and Wednesday upsets both Ostara and the Jesuses with the following tirade:

Wednesday:Until the day that Jesus Christ crawled out of his stinky old grave, folks would paint eggs with dandelions and paprika. For her to exchange as gifts at the first sign of spring in her name. […] Serious question, my dear. I have no doubt that millions upon millions exchange tokens and observe the rituals of your festival, all down to the hunting of the hidden eggs, but does anybody pray in your name? Do they say it in worship? Oh, they mouth your name, hmm, but they have no idea what it means. […] Same every spring. You do all the work, he gets all the prayers.

Jesus Christ:I feel terrible about this…

Easter:[consoling Jesus] No. No!

Wednesday:It’s her day. You took it. You crucified her day. When they started following you, everybody else got burned. In your name. Happy fucking Easter.

This parasitic relationship serves as a metaphor for the American gods (and for America) in general, and the show ultimately positions the old, immigrant gods (Odin, Anansi, and even Jesus)against the new, dominant, ‘post-religious’ gods (Media, Technology, Globalisation), who have appropriated all the nation’s belief (even in Jesus).

This point about American Christianity’s place between the old religions and the new, and its relationship to both religious devotion and capitalist exploitation, is made earlier in the series as well. Crucially, our first meeting with Jesus in American Gods is in one of the show’s ‘Coming to America’ vignettes, from episode six, ‘A Murder of Gods’.

In this clip, which displays all the markers of the popular visual Gothic highlighted by Williams and Spooner, we also get a horrifying (and highly politicised) portrait of American Christianity, played out as a Gothic history. Mexican illegals, who worship a Catholic Jesus, are gunned down by American vigilantes—ironically also Christian, as we can see from the inscriptions on their guns: ‘Thy Kingdom Come’, a quote from the KJV translation of the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6:9-13. The scene is based on real-life accounts of of US border militia, where, as Fuller and Green put it, ‘these people who think of themselves as defenders will quite legally go hunting for immigrants’.

It is arguably one of the most darkly Gothic scenes in the series, avoiding the carnivalesque overtones present in much of the show. Again, this is a result of the way the show adapts past events to fit the needs of the present. American Gods finished production during the election of Donald Trump as US President, with all the surrounding immigration debate—a debate clearly reflected in this scene, which Fuller and Green chose to add, and chose to give a darker tone following the election. Green explains:

[A]s a result of the election and the ugly rhetoric that has become all too common[…] this is the only Coming to America we have so far that doesn’t have either wonky charm or humor. All of our Coming to Americas occupy a tonally different space, but this one is more reverential and liturgical and ultimately quite terrifying. We made an effort to make sure that the blood we see in this one is not our typical “candy blood.” When blood flies and is spilled, it hurts. It hurts our feelings to see, because it’s such a perversion of the American dream to see these people be hunted.

Later in the episode we discover that the guns and bullets used to kill Jesus were manufactured by the Vulcan Corporation, owned by the Roman god of fire, forge, metalworking, and volcanoes, who has learned to “franchise” his faith from the new gods, and tapped into the commercial culture of gun-worship. It is him the killers are actually worshipping when they hunt down immigrants.

In Fuller and Green’s adaptation of American Gods, then, they are able to tackle a subject that Gaiman considered ‘too big’ for his novel. They do so precisely by probing the Christian heart of America, with its Gothic multiplicity, fragmentation, and historical baggage. Fantastical Gothic fictions do not necessarily pretend to be objectively realistic, or to convey historically plausible events. Instead, they suggest how history itself is both uncomfortably real and increasingly distant or surreal. As Baldick argues, ultimately the Gothic’s ‘historical fears derive from our inability to convince ourselves that we have really escaped from the tyrannies of the past. The price of liberty, as the old saying tells us, is eternal vigilance’.[8]


[1]Gilda Williams, ‘Defining a Gothic Aesthetic in Modern and Contemporary Visual Art’, in The Gothic World, ed. by Glennis Byron and Dale Townshend (London: Routledge, 2014), pp. 412–24 (pp. 420–21).

[2]Williams, ‘Defining a Gothic Aesthetic’, p. 420.

[3]Catherine Spooner, ‘Twenty-First-Century Gothic’, in Terror & Wonder: The Gothic Imagination, ed. by Dale Townshend (London: British Library Publishing, 2014), pp. 180–205 (pp. 184–85).

[4]Chris Baldick, ‘Introduction’, in The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales, ed. by Chris Baldick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), pp. xi–xxiii (p. xix).

[5]Markman Ellis, The History of Gothic Fiction(Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000), p. 11.

[6]Sean Silver, ‘The Politics of Gothic Historiography, 1660–1800’, in The Gothic World, ed. by Glennis Byron and Dale Townshend (London: Routledge, 2014), pp. 3–14 (p. 6).

[7]Silver, ‘Politics of Gothic Historiography’, pp. 9, 12.

[8]Baldick, ‘Gothic Tales’, p. xxii.

What is Frankenfiction?

Image via Editorial Planeta

The remix, the mashup, and the reboot have come to dominate Western popular culture. These texts are the ‘monsters’ of our age—hybrid creations that lurk at the limits of responsible consumption and acceptable appropriation. Like monsters, mashups offer audiences the thrill of transgression in a safe and familiar format. And like other popular texts before them, they are often read by critics as a sign of the artistic and moral degeneration of contemporary culture.

With this context in mind, my research explores the boundaries and connections between contemporary remix culture and its Others (adaptation, parody, the Gothic, Romanticism, postmodernism). It often does so by examining remix culture’s most ‘monstrous’ and liminal texts: Frankenfictions, or commercial narratives that insert fantastical monsters into classic literature and popular historical contexts. In this definition, Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein serves as a touchstone, offering an ideal metaphor for appropriative creativity in the twenty-first century.

Frankenfiction includes direct appropriations of classic literature, like the bestselling Quirk Classics novels, but also literary-historical dramas like the Sky/Showtime TV series Penny Dreadful (2014–2016), the depiction of monsters through an historical aesthetic in Travis Louie’s photorealistic paintings, and much, much more. It is monstrous not only because of the fantastical monsters it contains, but because of its position on the boundary between remix and more established modes of appropriation. Too engaged with tradition for some, and not traditional enough for others, Frankenfiction is a bestselling genre that nevertheless remains peripheral to critical discussions of remix. 

Space Bitches, Witches, and Kick-Ass Princesses: Star Wars and Popular Feminism

Regular readers may remember my call for testimonials from other Star Wars fans, in which I asked ‘is Star Wars a boys’ club?’. The result of this research is now available as ‘Space Bitches, Witches, and Kick-Ass Princesses: Star Wars and Popular Feminism’, a chapter in a new edited collection.

You can read the chapter in full at this link, where it is available courtesy of the Utrecht University Open Access fund.

Read an excerpt of the chapter below:

Over the past few years, the Star Wars franchise has been widely praised for its feminism—especially since its acquisition by Disney in 2012. New heroes like Jyn Erso and Rey are hailed as feminist triumphs not just for Star Wars, but for mainstream entertainment more broadly. New characters aimed at a new generation of fans, like Rebels’s pink-clad fighter-cum-artist, Sabine Wren, and new novels devoted to existing characters like Leia Organa and Ahsoka Tano (from the animated series The Clone Wars),[1]are often cited by mainstream news outlets as part of a growing commitment to female characters, and to feminism by association. Likewise, thanks partly to its alliance with Disney’s princess powerhouse, the marketing force of Star Wars can now be felt as strongly in female-targeted sectors (make-up, fashion, dolls) as it is outside of them.[2]Does all of this mean, as one reviewer put it, that starting with The Force Awakens, Star Wars “finally awakens to a feminist world”?[3]Such assertions have certainly rubbed some long-time fans the wrong way—after all, women have made up a significant and vocal portion of the Star Wars fanbase from the beginning.[4]Moreover, one source’s assessment of what constitutes a “feminist world” (and of who is responsible for building it) is often fundamentally different from another’s.

As one fan commented, “I’m sure that people went ‘Wow!’ when they saw the first female Jedi in the prequels. The fanfic of the 1970s had women Jedi all the time and women smugglers. Nothing new there for the older fans.”[5]Will Brooker has also argued that the original female fans made the franchise their own through grassroots community-building, crafting, and fanfiction.[6]In other words, their fandom is built on free engagement with the storyworld, and many do not feel a strong need to be validated or greeted as consumers of licensed merchandise.[7]Fan activity, of course, is not an official part of the franchise, and the kinds of stories that are sanctioned as canonical can certainly have a significant impact on a storyworld’s feminist potential. While Leia’s example is a powerful one, and although there are certainly more female role models in the franchise now than there were in 1977, can we call these official Star Wars products—the films, the franchise itself—feminist?

Design © 2016 by Hayley Gilmore.

Broadly speaking, feminists believe in and advocate social and political gender equality, but as Mary Hawkesworth points out, feminism is “a collective noun,” with many interpretations and aims.[8]As this statement indicates, what it means to experience Star Wars as a female fan, and what it means for Star Wars to be feminist, are questions too big for this chapter. The topic of Star Wars and feminist discourse could fill volumes—and indeed, several academic journals and books have already devoted attention to the subject. Rather than trying to condense a rich discussion of feminism in Star Wars into just a handful of pages, then, I offer a few examples from very different corners of the Star Wars storyworld. They illustrate some of the diverse “interpretations and aims” of feminist discourse that are created by the complex interplay between fans and the multi-authored, media-industrial franchise that is Star Wars. First I will look at discourses of feminism and the representation of women in Star Wars, paying special attention to the stories outside of the films. Then I will explore the way the storyworld’s non-narrative paratexts—toys, clothes, and merchandising—impact its engagement with feminist discourse. Finally, I will look at some of the ways in which fans and storytellers have politicized Star Wars, and what this may tell us about the future of the franchise. These examples will also provide a brief but informative glimpse at the history of Star Wars’s engagement with feminist discourse, and the wealth of material still to be explored. One thing is certain: Star Wars is not just for boys, nor has it ever been. But the question of whether Star Wars is feminist has been controversial throughout its forty-year history.

Read the rest of the chapter here, in the Open Access version of Star Wars and the History of Transmedia Storytelling, eds. Sean Guynes and Dan Hassler-Forest (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2017), pp. 225-240.


[1]Claudia Gray, Bloodline (London: Random House, 2016); E. K. Johnston, Ahsoka (Glendale, CA: Disney Book Group, 2016).

[2]Lisa Richwine, “Disney’s ‘Star Wars’ Marketing Force Reaches for Female Fans,” Reuters, December 15, 2015, http://uk.reuters.com/article/us-film-starwars-women-analysis-idUKKBN0TX1J720151215.

[3]Michael Roddy, “Star Wars: The Force Finally Awakens to a Feminist World,” DNA India and Reuters, December 16, 2015, http://www.dnaindia.com/entertainment/report-star-wars-the-force-finally-awakens-to-a-feminist-world-2156317.

[4]As one famous Star Wars fanzine essay asks, “If there are men in media fandom, they’re certainly very quiet. To turn about a feminist phrase then, why is half the human race so poorly represented in Star Wars and other media fandoms?” Pat Nussman, “Where the Boys Are,” in Alderaan: The Star Wars Letterzine, vol. 15 (Toledo, OH: Kzinti Press, 1981), 2.

[5]Tish Wells, private e-mail correspondence, November 14, 2016.

[6]See Will Brooker, Using the Force: Creativity, Community and Star Wars Fans (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2002), 199–220.

[7]Jonathan Gray, Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts (NYU Press, 2010), 17.

[8]Mary E. Hawkesworth, Globalization and Feminist Activism (Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006), 25.

Global Media Management: Transmedia Experience (25 April 2018)

I’m currently hard at work as a Teaching Fellow in Digital Media Practice with the University of Southampton (Winchester School of Art). This means that I get to teach and organise all kinds of fabulous activities for our MA students in Global Media Management. The latest of these is has been a ‘transmedia experience’: a self-guided tour of film locations around Oxford, which formed part of the programme’s annual study visit.

The first part of the study visit involved a trip to the Oxford Story Museum. The museum creates immersive, interactive spaces designed to bring books and stories to life and to deepen engagement with the story. During students’ visit to the museum they took part in the Building Narrative Environments workshop. This workshop looks at the principles behind the museum’s approach to transmedia storytelling, and how they go about creating their spaces. Students also learned about the other ways in which the museum provide immersive experiences—for example their story session for toddlers, or their Extreme Reading Adventures project, which provides immersive experiences to re-engage reluctant or struggling readers. The Oxford Story Museum aims to take children into the world of the story, and they look at story in all its forms: oral, written, film, digital.

The second part of the study visit is the transmedia ‘tour’ of Oxford, realised in an interactive Google Map. Students used this to explore of some of Oxford’s most famous filming locations, immersing themselves in the ‘world’ of stories like The Mummy (2017), Transformers: The Last Knight (2017), and the Harry Potter franchise (2001-2011). They were also asked to add something to these storyworlds themselves, by taking photographs and video at each location and tweeting them using the #GMMTransmedia hashtag.

Featured fictional worlds included:

The Mummy (2017)

Transformers: The Last Knight (2017)

Dr Strange (2016)

X-Men: First Class (2011)

The Golden Compass (2007)

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001)

Inspector Morse (TV; 1987-2000)

 

Star Wars: The Last Jedi Roundtable on HenryJenkins.org

Last month I participated in an online roundtable discussion of Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) on ‘Confessions of an Aca-Fan’ (the official weblog of Professor Henry Jenkins). Other participants included Dr William Proctor (who convened the roundtable), Dr Rebecca Harrison, Dr Suzanne Scott, Dr Mar Guerrero-Pico, and Professor Will Brooker. The first instalment can be found here.

Professor Jenkins introduced the roundtable as follows:

Over the weekend, Warwick Davis, noted for his performances in various Lucas-directed films, weighed in on current controversies around The Last Jedi: “It’s a piece of entertainment, it’s not about making political statements. It’s just there for people to enjoy. You go in there and are supposed to lose yourself in the world the director has created. Star Wars has always been a great example of that – it’s pure escapism and you can forget the 21st century for a couple of hours. That was George Lucas’s philosophy with Star Wars– to make a fun adventure.” This is characteristic of a Hollywood move which seeks to distance itself from politics and thus absolve itself from critical discussion: “Get a life! It’s only a television series.” The reality is that Star Wars has always been about politics — if nothing else, Lucas’s choice to base the stormtroopers on, well, stormtroopers or to tap the aesthetics of Triumph of the Willfor the final moments of A New Hopemeans that he was tapping certain political narratives to give the story much of its punch.

So, the question is not whether one group or another is “politicizing” Star Warsbut whether what kind of politics seems “natural” within the context of a Hollywood blockbuster franchise and whose politics seems intrusive, whose politics gets read as, well, “political.” The discussions around The Last Jedi allow us to take certain soundings about where our culture is at in terms of embracing an ethos of diversity and inclusion, in terms of rethinking old genre formulas to encompass people whose stories have not been told in that term before.

This is an important part of the story of The Last Jedi‘s reception, but it is ONLY one part of the story. There are also questions about how we define notions of quality in a transmedia era — and what notions of quality are appropriate when factoring in somewhat different and still emerging narrative expectations, ie. what information needs to be contained in the film, what we may legitimately access from other sources, what expectations we have about closure or plot development as the unified Hero’s Journey narrative whichStar Wars helped to popularize in Hollywood gives way to what Jeff Gomez has called “the collective journey” structure.

And there are also issues around how fandom gets represented in the media, how we break through what is often a monolithic conception of Star Wars fans in the hand of journalists, and how we deal with a legacy of gender politics which still breaks fandom down into male and female binaries despite efforts towards greater fluidity.

[…]

The resulting exchange is lively and thoughtful. I don’t necessarily agree with every perspective represented — I am personally pretty enthusiastic about The Last Jedi(not necessarily as the best of all possible Star War Movies but as a step forward for the franchise) — but I have learned something from all of the participants here.

There are moments of tension in the discussion, but the participants are able to work through their disagreements with some degree of mutual respect and with some openness to each other’s arguments. You will get four installments of this discussion. And the discussion will continue further as, coming soon, we launch a new podcast, How Do You Like It So Far?, which I am developing with Colin MacClay from the Annenberg Innovation Lab and which will take up The Last Jedi as our first extended case study. Watch for more soon.

Read more here.

Studying the Force: A Star Wars Symposium

Next month I’ll be speaking at a Star Wars symposium in Portsmouth, hosted by the Faculty of Creative and Cultural Industries and organised by Dr Lincoln Geraghty.

Celebrating Star Wars Day (4 May 2018) through discussion and debate, this symposium will offer us the opportunity to interrogate why the franchise has been so successful and how much it has impacted on popular culture.

Dr William Proctor (Bournemouth University) will talk about the global research project on Star Wars after Disney’s acquisition, discussing changes and shifts in the franchise seen since The Force Awakens, and then turn to consider The Last Jedi as site of struggle between
fan “tribes”.

Dr Matthew Freeman (Bath Spa University) and I will analyse the multimedia storytelling of the franchise, both historical and contemporary. Dr Freeman will discussing Splinter of the Mind’s Eye and the 1970s culture of transmedia contingency. I’ll be looking at Forces of Destiny, plastic representation, and transmedia story strategies in Disney’s Star Wars

There will be a special screening in the afternoon, introduced by staff from the School of Media and Performing Arts, followed by a Star Wars-themed quiz with prizes.

The day will begin at 9.30am in ELW 1.09, and will end at 6.00pm.

Registration is free though Eventbrite, and a full schedule of events can be found here.

Gothic States (CfP)

Here’s another great-looking conference CfP, for an event at the University of Pennsylvania, from 29-31 March, 2018:

Since its inception, the Gothic has been a favorite aesthetic of artists exploring extreme states, whether psychological, political, or numinous, at times of imperial expansion, social protest, world war, global revolution, and government oppression. At the same time, its history dovetails with the emergence of new media from early modern tragedy to eighteenth-century travel writing and circulating library fiction, nineteenth-century melodrama, early photography and cinema, comics and graphic novels, popular music and television, and digital entertainment. Even today, the Gothic thrives as a viable, living language for those features of the psyche, the social order, or the cosmos that are least susceptible to representation and least liable to be controlled and assimilated.

Our chosen theme (‘Gothic States’) brings together these concerns by asking scholars to consider the Gothic’s function across differing ‘states’ as a language for addressing incipient nationalisms, whether to endorse or to critique them, as well as for representing divided consciousness, whether sexual, political, filial, or religious. The most powerful Gothic texts, in fact, place these concerns in dialogue with one another, depicting individuals and communities under duress in times of social and political upheaval. We therefore aim to galvanize our understanding of the Gothic as a single aesthetic tradition and invite scholars to create new perspectives on the Gothic in a transnational, trans-media, and comparative context. What role has the Gothic played in how we imagine the constitutions of both individuals and nations? How has the mode been visualized across different media and technologies of representation? Finally, what lends the Gothic its power? What produces the ruptures, fears, and anxieties we associate with it? What fuels its ability to cross media with such opportunistic ease?

Image via the Guardian

 

Please send a 150-word vitas and 250-word abstracts (papers will be 15-20 minutes) to Michael Gamer (mgamer@english.upenn.edu) and Marina Della Putta Johnston (johnston@sas.upenn.edu) by 1 January 2018.

The conference’s plenary speakers will be:

  • Maurizio Ascari, University of Bologna
  • Robin Furth, Marvel Comics, co-author of the Steven King Dark Tower series
  • Diego Saglia, University of Parma
  • Angela Wright, University of Sheffield

The conference is sponsored by the Center for Italian Studies and the Department of English at the University of Pennsylvania, with generous support provided by the School of Arts and Sciences, University Research Foundation, the Penn Humanities Forum, the Program in Comparative Literature, the Program in Cinema Studies, the Restoration-Victorian reading group, and the Gen-Sex Reading Group.

Alexander McQueen, ‘Savage Beauty’ at the V&A

The Gothic Bible (CfP)

‘The Great Conflict in Heaven’, by Gustav Dore for Paradise Lost (1866, Cassell & Co, p. 24)

Though I’m not sure whether I’ll be able to submit something to this conference, it looks like a very tempting post-summer project. You can find the original abstract here

SIIBS and The Centre for the History of the Gothic are pleased to announce an interdisciplinary one day conference exploring the theme ‘Gothic Bible’. Since the creation of the Gothic genre in 1764, religion and the Bible have proved to be major influences on Gothic fiction, and our event aims to explore this important and enduring relationship. The conference will take place at the University of Sheffield on Tuesday 31st October 2017.

This event is part of the Gothic Bible project, which is an ongoing research theme at SIIBS and in partnership with The Centre for the History of the Gothic and The University of Auckland. The project seeks to explore the relationship between the Bible, theologies, and the Gothic, and we hope to encourage existing and new academic interest in this area. We welcome papers that examine the Bible, religion, and theology within the Gothic—including but not limited to: novels, plays, poems, films, TV shows of any period—as well as papers that examine passages or narratives within the Bible or other religious texts that can be read through a Gothic lens. We welcome and encourage papers that approach this theme using interdisciplinary methods.

The Gothic Bible conference is open to researchers from any level (including, but not limited to, undergraduates, postgraduates, and Early Career Researchers) and from any discipline. We invite the submission of abstracts of no more than 250 words to be sent to GothicBible@sheffield.ac.uk along with a short bio. The deadline for submissions is Monday 14th August.

Topics may include, but are not limited to:

  •   Theological explorations in Gothic texts
  •   Gothic readings of Biblical passages or narratives
  •   Gothic appropriations and adaptations of biblical characters and narratives
  •   Depictions of The Wandering Jew, Lilith, or other mythological/religious characters
  •   Depictions of religious communities and identities within Gothic fiction
  •   Biblical vampires and other supernatural characters and phenomena
  •   Biblical spaces
  •   Biblical influences in contemporary horror film and TV
  •   Apocalypse and End Times narratives
In conjuction with this event, and as part of the Gothic Bible project, Sheffield Gothic will also be hosting an ongoing Gothic Bible blog series exploring the broad theme of ‘Gothic Bible.’ As always, blog posts can be an informal and fun way to explore a topic that interests you, whether it be through a TV series, a film, a book, or a particular bible passage, narrative, or character. Extensive knowledge of the Bible, Biblical Studies, or the Gothic is not required – so if you want to explore the Gothic Bible theme, and want to blog for the Gothic Bible series, get in touch!
‘The Witch of Endor’ by Washington Allston, 1820
For more information about the conference, the blog series, or the Gothic Bible project, please email us at GothicBible@sheffield.ac.uk or contact us on twitter at @GothicBible.
You can also view the project website – where you can find details about the project, future events, and the project leads – at: www.sheffield.ac.uk/siibs/sresearch/gothic-bible-project

Going Gothic at Strawberry Hill House

Horace Walpole, painted by John Giles Eccardt in 1754.

This excursion report was first shared on the Cardiff Romanticism and Eighteenth-Century Seminar (CRECS) blog. You can find the original post here.

On 1 March, 2015 the Walpole Trust reopened Strawberry Hill House to the public. As the former home of Horace Walpole, famed (and famously eccentric) author of the first Gothic novel, the house has been a popular tourist destination since it was first built up in 1749.

At noon on 16 May, 2017, twenty-three students and scholars from Cardiff University stepped blinking into the parking lot of Strawberry Hill House, out of the darkened bus that had carried them from rainy Wales. The weather in Twickenham was hardly Gothic-appropriate, but since the tour of the house had been arranged for the late afternoon, we had several hours to eat our bag lunches, stretch our legs in Strawberry Hill’s gardens, and snag a leisurely drink along the sunny banks of the Thames. By the time we returned to the House at 4 p.m., the group was happy, slightly sunburnt, and ready to be thrilled, amazed, and educated about Walpole’s ‘little Gothic castle’.

Gothic History

Our guide was Carole, a soft-spoken woman with a sharp wit and extensive knowledge of Strawberry Hill’s history, heritage, and restoration. The tour began outside the house, where we learnt how Strawberry Hill went from a small cottage to the massive, three-part castle it is today. Following Walpole’s death in 1797, the residence passed to various relatives, many of whom led quite dramatic lives. The stories Carole shared included the Engilsh sculptor (and wealthy widow) Anne Seymour Damer, illegitimate heiresses, a ‘slightly illegal wedding’, and a fall into debt that resulted in the sale of most of the house’s contents.

Strawberry Hill House after the 2012 renovation.

In 1861, the thrice-married Countess Frances Waldegrave took up residence. She established the House as a thriving social salon after her fourth marriage to Liberal politician Chichester Parkinson-Fortescue, who encouraged her to buy back some of the auctioned-off estate. In 1923 the House was bought by St Mary’s University, which still has its campus in the western wing.

A grand Gothic fireplace is the centrepiece of the purple bedroom. Photo by Megen de Bruin-Molé.

Through this intricate history, Strawberry Hill House was rebuilt and redecorated again and again. When the Walpole Trust set about restoring it to its original glory in the twenty-first century, the first question was how to go about it. After all, there was nothing ‘original’ about the House to begin with—from its revivalist architecture to its papier-mâché walls and ceilings, Strawberry Hill House is fake through and through.

In this, it is utterly Gothic. As Catherine Spooner notes, ‘[t]he construction of fake histories is integral to Gothic texts’.[1] Jerrold Hogle, likewise, writes that the Gothic is ‘grounded in fakery’ from its earliest origins.[2] Walpole himself famously stated that ‘my buildings, like my writings are of paper, and will blow away ten years after I am dead’, but today the House seems as solid as ever.

Gloomth and Glory

Our Cardiff tour group took the same route Walpole’s own guests would have, entering onto the base of a dark, curving staircase and ending in a series of glorious gold and blood-red chambers on the upper levels. Virtually every room is decorated in a different, vibrant colour, though all radiate that wonderful ‘gloomth’ (Walpole’s own word, a counterintuitive combination of ‘gloom’ and ‘warmth’) which continues to be so characteristic of both his house and the Gothic genre he initiated. One bedroom, painted a deep lilac and ornamented in pale wood, was apparently never even used. Of the libraries—Walpole had three at Strawberry Hill—the opposite was true. He read voraciously, and none of his books were just for show.

One of Walpole’s three libraries. Photo by Megen de Bruin-Molé.

The Castle of Otranto is visibly linked to the house in which its author first dreamt of it, and Walpole himself described Strawberry Hill as ‘the scene that inspired’ the novel. The play between light and dark in the house alone is fascinating, as sunlight and candlelight cast marvellous shadows through the intricate designs in the windows, walls, and balustrades. At the top of Strawberry Hill’s gloomth-laden staircase, Carole read us a passage from the Castle of Otranto, inviting us to imagine walking through the house’s halls at night, by the light of a single candle.

Carole reads to us from The Castle of Otranto. Photo by Michael Goodman.

One of the tour’s undergraduate attendees, Laura Robinson, comments on this aspect of the House as well, suggesting: ‘It cannot be doubted that Horace Walpole’s eccentric and unique Strawberry Hill House reflects the Gothic literary tradition that began in the Romantic Period. Strawberry Hill’s architecture and the atmosphere created inside the house itself through the manipulation of light—particularly surrounding the staircase—creates a Gothic impression that we still recognize today’.

Restoration and Revival

The final room of the tour. Photo by Megen de Bruin-Molé.

Throughout the tour, we saw signs of the restoration project still underway. Teams of volunteers have re-painted, re-woven, and re-embroidered the House’s various embellishments, using historically accurate techniques. The House also contains several pieces of furniture built to spec by the students of a nearby design school. The restoration workers were able to reproduce these designs so faithfully both because Walpole describes them extensively in his records, and because he commissioned a series of watercolours detailing each of the rooms. Even when it was brand new, then, Strawberry Hill House was already busy writing its own history.

Ironically, the pieces of the restoration that felt most faithful in light of Strawberry Hill House’s elaborate self-performance and fakery were not the painstakingly hand-embroidered bedclothes, but the digitally-reproduced sketches and paintings, machine-copied down to the last bump of oil paint. In one of the bedrooms hangs a magnificent, 3D-printed picture frame, which was then gilded and retouched using traditional methods. It perfectly embodies the elaborate, delightful sham that is Strawberry Hill House.

This 3D-printed frame was photographed from 400 different angles so it could be reproduced. Photo by Megen de Bruin-Molé.

All in the Details

In addition to the grand history Carole shared with us, small details and stories gave us a glimpse into Walpole’s own person and psyche. A muted, pastel-green room once contained Walpole’s curio collection, including numerous heirlooms from his beloved mother. In the dining room hangs a portrait of Walpole’s deceased aunt, who allegedly haunted the house. The legend varies: she either died of smallpox or was pushed down the stairs. Through the window of the best bedroom, we even got a glimpse of the cottage where Walpole would hide himself away during tours of Strawberry Hill House.

Walpole’s cottage hideway has been sold off and expanded since his death, but the building still stands. Photo by Megen de Bruin-Molé.

As Josie Powell, one of the undergraduate students on the tour, relays: ‘Strawberry Hill embodies all the typical Gothic conventions; vast spaces and dark colours create a sense of entrapment. Yet Walpole’s Strawberry Hill is more than just a Gothic building. It contains so much attention to detail that it is an invaluable example of social history’.

We are very grateful to CRECS (who generously organised and funded the tour), to Learning and Education Coordinators Sally Stratton and Charlotte Hawkes, and to our fabulous guide Carole, who made the house and its tales come alive for us in all their Gothic glory.

CRECS goes Gothic at Strawberry Hill House. Photo by Michael Goodman.

References

[1] Catherine Spooner, Contemporary Gothic (London: Reaktion Books, 2006), p. 38.

[2] Jerrold E. Hogle, ‘The Gothic Ghost of the Counterfeit and the Progress of Abjection’, in A New Companion to the Gothic, ed. by David Punter (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2012), pp. 496–509 (p. 497).

Nasty Women in Popular Culture (CfP)

Fannie Lou Hammer

Dr Alexia L. Bowler, Dr Adele Jones & Dr. Claire O’Callaghan are putting together an edited collection on ‘nasty women’ in popular culture:

Donald Trump’s now infamous phrase ‘such a nasty woman’, uttered about his then rival Hillary Rodham Clinton in the 2016 U.S. presidential debates, was rudely used to patronise and belittle Clinton, who is known for being a strong, independent (and feminist) politician.

In reality, Trump is not the only figure to characterise today’s women in this manner. Indeed, the alt-right commentator and Trump supporter, Milo Yiannopoulos, argues that feminism is ‘a cancer’ and suggests that fixing the so-called online gender wars is merely a matter of women exiting public space. Similarly, in the ‘community beliefs’ section of his Return of the Kingssite, the neo-masculinist, self-styled pick-up artist and infamous internet misogynist, Roosh V, suggests that the elimination of traditional sex and gender roles increases female promiscuity and diminishes the rightful centrality of the nuclear family, for which he blames, among other things, women and feminism.

Imperator Furiosa, from Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Nonetheless, in a demonstration of the power of the internet, the phrase was rapidly taken up (and continues to be used) by social media as a rallying cry for feminists, women’s rights groups and their supporters. The result of Trump’s comment was a spectacular subversion of his attempts to discredit Clinton and marginalise women’s voices. Alongside existing feminist slogans such as the Fawcett Society’s ‘this is what a feminist looks like’ and Laura Bates’s the #everydaysexism project, the ‘nasty woman’ slogan has gone viral; used in Twitter hashtags, on a range of merchandise, and as memes. It has inspired poems, theatre, exhibitions, music and collected responses, as well as sparked political activism, visible in the global Women’s Marches that took place across the globe in 2017 at which banners celebrating feminist ‘nastiness’ could be seen: ‘Stay Nasty’, ‘The Future is Nasty’, and ‘I am a Nasty Woman’

From the global Women’s March on 21 January, 2017

Alongside this, the rise in visibility of strong, complex and vocal women in popular media, including television and film, suggests that the time of the ‘nasty woman’ is not over but about to begin. This collection will interrogate and contribute to this ongoing debate by bringing together new scholarship focusing on the idea of the ‘nasty woman’, and the embrace of this label, in late 20th and 21st century popular media and culture. The collection will ask how can we best theorise ‘the nasty woman’? What characterises or who is the ‘nasty woman’ and where can we find her? Is her central characteristic anger, strength, crudity, power, or all of these things? Finally, it will consider the question of whether she bears responsibility for others and what, if anything, makes her different to previous iterations of the arguably feminist female figure?

The collection will both celebrate and problematise the application and endorsement of the term, considering recent debates, responses and trends in popular culture and feminist scholarship.

We seek contributions that engage with the notion of the ‘nasty woman’ in all forms of media (including recent film and television) and popular culture in late 20th and 21st century sex and gender politics.

Comedian Tina Fey

Possible topics could include but are by no means limited to:

  • Theorising the ‘nasty woman’
  • Television and Film (e.g. Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road, Claire Underwood in House of Cards, Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag)
  • Relationship with other feminist movements such as ‘this is what a feminist looks like’ movement and everyday sexism projects, among others
  • Nasty women and bad language
  • The ‘nasty woman’ of comedy (e.g. Amy Schumer, Melissa McCarthy, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Sharon Horgan, Phoebe Waller-Bridge)
  • Nasty women of pop (e.g. Madonna, Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus)
  • Nasty women of fashion, TV, film, theatre, gaming
  • Nasty women of history as viewed by contemporary culture
  • Issues of responsibility and shared identity
  • Politics, the media and the nasty woman
  • Controversial commentators and the idea of the nasty woman (e.g. Roosh V, Milo Yiannopoulos, Katie Hopkins, Ann Coulter, Camille Pagilia)
  • Nasty women in different global contexts

Please address any enquiries and expressions of interest to the editors, Dr Alexia L. Bowler (a.bowler@swansea.ac.uk), Dr Adele Jones (Adele.M.Jones@swansea.ac.uk), and Dr Claire O’Callaghan (Claire.Ocallaghan@brunel.ac.uk).

Abstracts of 500-600 words, for chapters of between 6,000-7,500 words, along with a short biographical note, should be emailed to both editors by 1st August 2017. Successful proposals will be notified by 1st September 2017. Completed chapters will be due by 31st January 2018.

A full proposal will be submitted to I.B. Tauris’s Library of Gender and Popular Culture series in autumn 2017.

Beyoncé in Lemonade (2016)