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.

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.

Historical Feminists (and Feminism) in Modern Television

Our lady Jane (Austen)

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the mythologisation of great women writers, artists, and other historical figures.

As feminist scholar Christine Battersby points out, writing against the postmodern impulse to declare the author or great genius ‘dead’:

The concept of genius is too deeply embedded in our conceptual scheme for us to solve our aesthetic problems by simply amputating all talk of genius, or by refusing to evaluate individual authors and artists. Before we can fundamentally revalue old aesthetic values, the concept of genius has to be appropriated by feminists, and made to work for us. [Gender and Genius: Towards a Feminist Aesthetics, 1989, p. 15]

In other words, Battersby frames the mythologisation and popularisation of female historical figures as inherently good, and feminist. In her book this is a convincing argument, and I believe representation is a very necessary part of equality. Naturally things are usually more complicated in practice than they are in theory, though.

Screenshot from Harlots (2017)

Dr. Rosanne Welch has written (/podcasted?) about some of the recent depictions of historical feminists in popular television, and raises related concerns:

Recently, in watching television shows and films set in the past I’ve begun noticing a proliferation of female feminists who are eventually aided by male feminist characters in the quest to be treated equally and I can’t decide if I like this new trend…. or not.

Screenshot from Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries (2012-2015)

So as a feminist and as a writer, you’d think I’d love to see the kinds of feminists that are popping up on several new historical fiction shows I’ve found on Netflix recently — women detectives like:

Phryne Fisher and Dorothy Williams in 1929 Australia on Miss Fisher’s Mysteries or female medical doctors like Julia Ogden and Emily Grace in 1898 Toronto on Murdoch Mysteries or Samantha Stewart in 1940s London on Foyle’s War — or perhaps the most famous recent historical fiction feminist on television — Sybil Crawley in 1912 England on the wildly popular Downton Abbey.

Those last 2 shows I found thanks to PBS, which was our only window into international television before the advent of Netflix so I wanted to make sure and give credit where credit is due. The other thing that sparked my mind about this idea of ‘fake frequent feminists’ was an interview with Alan Rickman [on] a film he directed and co-wrote (with Jeremy Brock and Alison Deegan ) called A Little Chaos. Apparently, it’s set in the court of Louis XIV and involves two landscape architects involved in designing the gardens — one male (who existed in real life) landscape artist André Le Notre, and one female — who is entirely fictional.

Publicity still from Downton Abbey (2010-2015)

 

In an interview with Variety Rickman said he enjoyed the historical inaccuracy of the story:

“But there was something unmistakable about the dialogue and the fact she’d created a leading female character who couldn’t possibly have existed then — it’s a complete fantasy. But that’s what the movies can do, you can take a period of history that’s incredibly male dominated and you can inject into it a very modern independent woman and make a point about feminism through a prism of history. So if anyone says the story’s implausible, you just say: Well, yes.”

Rickman gave us one of the many reasons for the many feminist characters we are encountering these days. Another is that post-Buffy (which I discussed a couple of shows ago) women want to see empowered women, rather than victims — and the networks and studios know this. Also, writers know that characters need to be active to be interesting, not passive. They also know that stories need to focus on unique and dramatic events, not boring average everyday living. So what’s the problem with that?

I fear all these feminists in the past are giving young girls the idea that it’s always been easy to demand and receive our rights in various countries around the world, when nothing could be farther from the truth.

You can read the rest of Welch’s piece (which contains a few more examples and some suggested solutions) over on Medium.

Publicity image from the forthcoming Mary Shelley biopic.

Steampunk, Disability, and World Building

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The Steampunk Professor Xavier Wheelchair by Daniel Valdez.

Last week I posted about disability in the Victorian age. This week, by some brilliant stroke of coincidence, I came across the following article on Steampunk Journal:

In 2014, Mina was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Fibromyalgia. One of the significant symptoms is a weakness of the muscles which meant she required living aids to assist her with raising her son. “I went into the local mobility shops and was dismayed to see that the limited range of aids were all fashioned towards elderly people or people with little appreciation of the more alternative ways of fashion,” said Mina. “My main issue came when I was invited to a wedding. I had a great outfit but my living aids make it look so ghastly! So I had to go without and suffered, leaving the event early.” It was then that she struck on the idea of modifying them herself. She did the same thing with her wrist and knee supports.

Mina, who runs a Steampunk accessories shop on Etsy, adapted her subculture’s aesthetic to her living aids. The idea took off quickly. After seeing Mina’s own living aids, one of Mina’s customers asked if she could craft a set of steampunk ear and eye protectors, so the customer could enjoy going out to clubs with friends. ‘In the near future she’s looking to customise back braces, adult neckerchiefs, joint supports, ring pens and walking aids’, the article concludes.

© Gothianna and Steampunk Journal
© Gothianna and Steampunk Journal

In the light of last week’s post, which described Victorian attitudes towards the disabled as ‘a combination of fear, pity, discomfort and an idea of divine judgement’, it was encouraging to see that the neo-Victorian update doesn’t share these feelings in any way, shape, or form. The steampunk subculture’s love of crafting has effectively turned disability—often a marker reserved for evil or monstrous characters in popular culture—into a superpower.

It turns out that this topic (like many topics) has been on the steampunk community’s collective mind for a while. Steampunk Tourist talks about why this subculture is a better fit with disability than others:

When it comes to Steampunk […] one isn’t restricted to that sort of rigid rule set. Rather than being a predetermined cast of characters, Steampunk is an artistic style. While it can stand alone, it can also be added to other things to make them Steampunk. You don’t have to be someone else; you can create your own character. What that means to a person with a physical disability who relies on a device is that their device – be it a wheelchair, cane, oxygen tank, leg braces, or even glasses – can be dressed up and blended into a costume, or even made the centerpiece of it. […] Within the world of Steampunk, those things don’t make them stand out as “others”; they’re merely smart, fashionable accessories. And one can easily imagine that were someone brave enough to dress up a prosthetic limb with Steampunk flare, they would most likely find themselves the belle of the ball at any event, and for all the right reasons.

The Steampunk Professor Xavier Wheelchair by Daniel Valdez
The Steampunk Professor Xavier Wheelchair by Daniel Valdez

Talking about a peg-legged character in one of her steampunk novels, Rebecca Diem likewise writes:

Steampunk literature is a disruption of the historical narrative. When I’m creating a universe for my characters, I treat history like the icing on the cake. Or, sometimes, the rosettes. I am creating a world with airships, sky pirates, auto-baubles and appropriated Victorian aesthetics. I pick and choose which parts I borrow from our history and which parts to embellish.

[…]

So, in a steampunk setting, what does accessibility look like?

In the Tales of the Captain Duke, Professor Sewell is the morally-ambiguous Tony Stark figure. She becomes one of the first students at Lovelace University, a school founded by Mary Somerville and funded by the heirs of Ada Lovelace. She pioneers the field of biomechanical engineering with her incredible prosthetics and reshapes the Victorian understanding of disability. The classic image of the crippled, impoverished veteran pushing himself on a scooter is undone, reshaped into a foreman supervising work at a factory on eight-foot legs.  The Professor disrupts society with her inventions, and challenges her peers’ understanding of the possible.

Do you have an example of how steampunk approaches disability? I would love to hear about it!

 

Stereophotography: The Victorians in 3D

A cabinet card depicting a Victorian couple with their stereoscope.
A cabinet card depicting a Victorian couple with their stereoscope.

One of the joys (and sorrows) of research is all the interesting information you find on one topic while doing research on something completely different. While researching spirit photography, for instance, I came across this fascinating account of the Victorian stereoscope in the art book for National Museums Scotland’s exhibition ‘Photography: A Victorian Sensation’.*

If you think the 3D film craze is a new thing, think again. The stereoscope is one of its many historical predecessors. Essentially a pair of fancy spectacles, the device allowed you to view two nearly identical images side-by-side in a way that would make them appear three-dimensional. Alison Morrison-Low describes how enthusiastically the Victorians took to the technology:

Hundreds of thousands of stereoscopic images were sold […] in a major craze which reached every middle-class Victorian drawing-room. The demand appeared insatiable. In 1854, George Swan Nottage (1823-85) set up the London Stereoscopic Company. ‘No home without a stereoscope’ was its slogan. It sold a wide range of stereoscopes, costing from 2s 6d to £20 (about £10 and £1550 today), and became the largest photographic publishing company in the world. [p. 63]

A Victorian stereoscope from the collection of the NCC Photographic Archives
A Victorian stereoscope from the collection of the NCC Photographic Archives

The vast numbers of stereo photographs can be divided into four main categories: travel, news, social scenes and comedy. By far the largest group was that of travel. […] The beauty of the English, Welsh or Irish countryside was frequently illustrated, as well as that of Scotland. Rural poverty and derelict cottages were seldom shown, as a Romantic portrayal of scenery prevailed. [p. 67]

 Stereocard depicting market women in Welsh costume, by Francis Bedford, 1863 - 1884. IL.2003.44.6.6.296 © Howarth-Loomes Collection at National Museums Scotland
Stereocard depicting market women in Welsh costume, by Francis Bedford, 1863 – 1884. IL.2003.44.6.6.296 © Howarth-Loomes Collection at National Museums Scotland

And speaking of the Romantics…

Charles Breese (1819-75) of Birmingham and Sydenham sold his highly thought-of quality slides at 5 shillings (£20 today) each. Entitled ‘Breaking Waves’, 1870s-80s, it comes with a quote from Lord Byron: ‘Sea with rocks and a half moon / the deep blue moon of night, Lit by an orb / Which looks like a spirit or a spirit’s world’. [p. 76]

Photograph of 'Breaking Waves' by Charles Breese & Co., from Howarth-Loomes Collection at National Museums Scotland
Photograph of ‘Breaking Waves’ by Charles Breese & Co., from Howarth-Loomes Collection at National Museums Scotland

*All page citations refer to Alison Morrison-Low, Photography: A Victorian Sensation (Edinburgh: National Museums Scotland, 2015).

Star Wars and Political Discourse

7d7This post represents a section of my chapter for Star Wars and the History of Transmedia Storytelling that was cut for the sake of space. It looks at some of the ways Star Wars has explicitly engaged with political discourse over the years. 

Star Wars has always been a deeply political franchise. Not just in its themes, which include war, totalitarianism, multiculturalism, and civil disobedience, but also through its use in political debates and activism. George Lucas has consistently claimed that the first Star Wars film was an analogy for the Vietnam war, and that the villainous Emperor Palpatine had a specific real-life counterpart: “Richard M. Nixon was his name. He subverted the senate and finally took over and became an imperial guy and he was really evil. But he pretended to be a really nice guy.”[1] The franchise is also steeped in historical references which, while not directly political, certainly contribute to its politicisation by various groups. The Stormtroopers and other, visual parallels between the Empire and Nazi Germany are just one example.

© Billy Ludwig
© Billy Ludwig

The franchise has also frequently been read as making a specific political statement, as in Ep III, where Anakin Skywalker tells Obi-Wan “If you’re not with me, you’re my enemy.” This caused many US conservatives to protest that the film caricatured former President George Bush’s post-9/11 assertion that “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”[2] Ronald Reagan’s 1983 anti-missile defense initiative was dubbed “Star Wars”: a move that irked Reagan, but was shrewdly deemed good publicity by assistant secretary of defense Richard Perle, who reasoned: “It’s a good movie. Besides, the good guys won.”[3]

In a 2012 article, Jonathan Gray wrote about how fans used a scene from Ep V, in which a Rebel snowspeeder takes down an Imperial Walker with a grappling hook, as a metaphor to protest Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s Budget Repair Bill in 2011. One man played the scene on a loop using his iPad, chanting “The Rebels brought down Walkers. So can we!”[4] Others carried Star Wars slogans on signs, or dressed up as the vehicles from the films. The Star Wars references served as an important point of “morale and community building” among the protestors.[5] In another article, Andreas Jungherr describes how Darth Vader was used by the SPD (a German political party) to discredit Angela Merkel in the 2009 German federal election.[6]

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Stay tuned for the full article, on Star Wars and popular feminism, later this year!

[1] Christopher Klein, ‘The Real History That Inspired “Star Wars”’, History.com, 2015, para. 4 <http://www.history.com/news/the-real-history-that-inspired-star-wars> [accessed 24 February 2017].

[2] Derek R. Sweet, Star Wars in the Public Square: The Clone Wars as Political Dialogue (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2015), p. 10.

[3] Frances FitzGerald, Way Out There In the Blue: Reagan, Star Wars and the End of the Cold War (Simon and Schuster, 2001), p. 39.

[4] Jonathan Gray, ‘Of Snowspeeders and Imperial Walkers: Fannish Play at the Wisconsin Protests’, Transformative Works and Cultures, 10 (2012), para. 1.2.

[5] Gray, para. 3.2.

[6] Andreas Jungherr, ‘The German Federal Election of 2009: The Challenge of Participatory Cultures in Political Campaigns’, Transformative Works and Cultures, 10.0 (2011), para. 5.6 <http://journal.transformativeworks.org/index.php/twc/article/view/310> [accessed 10 February 2017].

The 7 Worst Academics in Popular Culture

Screenshot 2017-03-01 22.43.47A recent article on the Times Higher Education website marked the release of Barbara Tobolowsky’s new edited collection, Anti-intellectual Representations of American Colleges and Universities: Fictional Higher Education, by doing a short piece on how popular culture portrayals ‘devalue academia’, and the real work students and academics are actually doing.

Since I’m deep in piles of academic work at the moment (teaching, articles, conference planning, thesis deadlines, you name it), I thought I would gift myself a lighter week and give you some of my top picks for the absolute worst depictions of academics and academic life in contemporary popular culture.

7. Victor Frankenstein (every Frankenstein adaptation ever since 1818)

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Why he’s the worst: Ok, so technically Frankenstein isn’t actually a doctor. Nowhere in Shelley’s novel is he awarded a PhD or MD—technically he’s just a ‘natural philosopher’. Still, this mad, Romantic genius is one of the classic bad academics, he’s been giving scientists a bad name for nearly 200 years. Trying to monopolise the entire experiment, not listening to the advice of colleagues, robbing graves. That’s just bad scientific practice.

6. Edward Alcott (Loser, 2000)

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Why he’s the worst: This literature professor knows everything better, and puts down curious students at virtually every opportunity. Plus, he’s sleeping with (and emotionally abusing) one of his young students. While he may sadly not be completely fictional, he’s definitely not someone who belongs in academia, or who will have a place there for much longer.

5. Indiana Jones (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, 1984)

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Why he’s the worst: This guy launched 1,000 PhDs in archaeology, but when they finally got there they discovered that no, as an academic you don’t generally get to explore booby-trapped temples, fight natives, or casually destroy priceless artefacts. When you do get to the fun part out in the field, it’s mainly brushing, measuring, and meticulously cataloguing. And unlike Indiana, you certainly don’t get endless months of teaching leave and funding with which to do it.

4. Ted Mosby (How I Met Your Mother, 2005)

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Why he’s the worst: Does ‘Professor Mosby’ actually have a PhD in archeology? Does he even have an MA? Does he…does he even actually know what he’s talking about? The show doesn’t really care, since his teaching is just a funny thing he sometimes does to break up the monotony of drinking at MacLaren’s, having an awesome time with his friends, and getting into and out of terrible relationships.

Also, no way he could pay for that Manhattan apartment on an adjunct’s salary.

3. Daniel Jackson (Stargate SG-1, 1997)

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Why he’s the worst: Egyptologist Daniel Jackson is the ultimate Gary Stu. He’s not taken seriously by any of his academic colleagues, because he’s basically a crazy conspiracy theorist. Then, all his theories are validated because it turns out aliens actually did build the pyramids, so he becomes a chief advisor to the U.S. Air Force. He speaks a bajillion languages and knows everything about science, mythology, and whatever the show needs him to know. Because that’s apparently part of what egyptologists learn in grad school. Also, hot women are constantly and unexpectedly attracted to him.

2. Robert Langdon (The Da Vinci Code, 2003)

Image © djinn-world on Deviantart
Image © djinn-world on Deviantart

Why he’s the worst: I take it back—Robert Langdon, ‘Harvard University professor of religious iconology and symbology’, is the real Gary Stu. All Dan Brown’s books have an awesome hero who looks vaguely like Harrison Ford, and this guy is ‘Harrison Ford in Harris tweed’. He is a genius and brilliant and has an eidetic memory, but doesn’t speak Italian or know anything useful outside of what he needs to solve all the mysteries in the story. From the novels we can deduce that what he does all day at work is talk cryptically about things and try to look smart.

Also, fake academic discipline is fake.

1. Clayton Danvers (Bitten, 2014)

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Why he’s the worst: This guy, man. I know technically that asking him to be realistic in any way is missing the point, since his real role in this show is to be eye candy, and also to mope around and tell us how awesome Elena is. It wasn’t enough for him to be sexy and loyal, though. Clay is the Man Who Has it All. Seriously, this is the end of his character biography on SyFy.com: ‘Now a Professor of Anthropology, Clay divides his time between his scholastic research and enforcing the pack code while keeping errant Mutts in line.’

From his melodramatic anthropology lectures about ‘deep desires’, ‘the beasts within us’, and ‘the mask behind which we hide’, his students must think he’s Batman or something—and they wouldn’t be too far off. Clay is supported in ridiculous luxury by his pack family, has a fabulous office filled with a treasure trove of ancient artefacts, and a prestigious job that isn’t so demanding he can’t constantly drop everything to romp around the forest with his wolf bros. He can’t even be bothered to type up his own research notes, which is how he actually meets Elena in the first place. There is this, though:

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Who do you think is the worst academic in pop culture? Did I miss someone great (i.e. awful) from Victorian popular culture? Who are your favourite on-screen academics? Let me know! I would love to make a follow-up list or two in the future.