Thoughts from my study of Horror, Media, and Narrrative

Religion

Not Just Black and White

American Horror Story - Shaun Ross

In his review of “Burn, Witch, Burn” The A.V. Club’s Todd VanDerWerff articulated a thought that I had been working toward in previous posts:  this season of American Horror Story, more than any other, seems to lack a core narrative. If we were not feeling particularly kind we might contextualize this increasing lack of focus in a broader history of shows helmed by Ryan Murphy that have gone off the rails (i.e., the success that allows for latter seasons also permits Murphy’s staff more latitude in riffing on themes in ways that are not as controlled) but I continue to think that a larger influence in this season’s flailing stems from the way in which place is incorporated (or not). For me, the constraints provided by the physical structures themselves (a house and an asylum) necessarily helped to focus the action as viewers on some level wondered “What is the mystery of this place?” This season, neither Madame LaLaurie’s house nor New Orleans as a whole offer any similar sense of intrigue and although we might be momentarily curious with Spalding’s deranged attic, Miss Robichaux’s Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies also holds relatively little intrigue.

Without the centrality of place in the series we are left with a season that contains many ideas (or fragments of ideas) but whose transmission is hampered by characters that one does not necessarily care about. VanDerWerff notes the way in which this season is written around the talents of Jessica Lange (and it is no secret that Murphy favors her) and this emphasis on a single person fundamentally comes into conflict with what made the show interesting in previous seasons. More than any other season, it seems like the current theme of persecution could benefit from a story that walked the line between personal responsibility for bigotry and the way in which individual characters did not matter so much as the roles that they fulfilled in the grander picture. In short, recognizing that although individuals have agency and are capable of action they are still subject to movement from forces that are greater than them—both magical and social—would have been both an interesting theme and the backbone for a narrative arc.

And although I find myself increasingly disinterested in the show, there are a couple of things to note with regard to this particular episode, both of which revolve around the rather conspicuous inclusion of zombies.

The first point—and ultimately less meaningful one—is that there seems to be a bit of confusion here about the role and function of the zombie in New Orleans voodoo as compared to the depiction of zombies in a post-Romero (i.e., Night of the Living Dead) context. While I do not think that American Horror Story is consciously/necessarily jumping on the zombie bandwagon (I’d like to think that the show is smarter than that), the presence of the zombies in this episode does nothing but recall the popular image of the zombie horde/apocalypse that seems to have pervaded popular culture in the past few years.

There is, for example, a stark contrast between the way in which voodoo leverages the threat of the zombie more than the actual creature itself in order to maintain social control and the way in which the relationship between the zombie and the attacked is of a more personal nature. Whether it be a plantation owner/worker or a blood tie, the ancestors of New Orleans and Haitian zombies seemed to have a more intimate relationship than the post-Romero figure, which was largely a commentary on mass culture and society. Thus, if the zombies featured in this episode had been limited to LaLaurie’s daughters, I think we could argue for a more sophisticated understanding of the monster on the part of the show.

In and of itself, this use of zombies is not particularly consequential on a thematic level but definitely hinders the narrative of the show:  in a world in which death is already rendered relatively meaningless by the presence of Misty’s power of resurgence (and we will get to Fiona and the baby in a bit), why do viewers even care that the witches are getting attacked? There is no tension at all here and the indiscriminate violence on the part of the zombies is both unusual and meaningless, as is Zoe’s wielding of the chainsaw.[1]

As example of how things might be different, we only need to look at The Returned, a French television show currently airing on The Sundance Channel. In some ways similar to the BBC show In the Flesh in that both worlds explore what it means for outsiders/dead to reintegrate themselves back into the lives of the living, The Returned offers a much more interesting treatment look into the effects of people brought back to life.[2] The crucial difference here is less of a focus on the destructive physical power of the zombie and more of an emphasis on how the zombie’s presence (i.e., that the zombie even exists in the first place) is the very thing that renders a type of emotional violence.

The second point—slightly more abstract but farther-reaching—is the way in which the zombies in “Burn, Witch, Burn” contributed to a larger theme of violence written on bodies. Here we saw the aftermath of Cordelia’s acid-burned face, Queenie’s showdown with zombie Borquita and burning Myrtle’s hand, Spalding ripping off Madison’s arm, the whole zombie mess, and, of course, more scenes of Madame LaLaurie’s horrors.

As I have already mentioned, the constant onslaught of violence on the show is not particularly meaningful or poignant—the thing that American Horror Story sometimes forgets is that the things that we come up with in our heads are infinitely more terrifying than whatever could be shown on cable and that violence is often best used to underscore a particular emotional moment. Had we skipped the Chamber of Horror scene (a wry joke that ultimately detracted from the ongoing story), seeing LaLaurie’s slave break Borquita’s leg would have been that much more arresting.

That being said, the violence happened and the only way to salvage it is to think about why we were made to watch it. LaLaurie presents an interesting case as we have now seen her be both incredibly horrible to her daughters and also distraught over their death; violence to LaLaurie, then, is not necessarily about hate but rather about the exercising of power over others. We have violence visited upon black bodies and white bodies, on bodies of family, on bodies of allies and of innocents, and one’s own body. And, yet, despite bodies getting attacked left and right we never see black on black violence. Feeling cynical, I suggest that this is likely a symptom of how writers on the show conceptualize race[3] but I secretly hope that is some sort of larger commentary on how black women have often understood the truth about coalition building long before white women ever did.

As a final note, I am curious about the difference between Misty’s power of resurgence and Fiona’s power to covey life. As the Supreme, it seems evident that Fiona is able to duplicate Misty’s power and bringing the dead child back to life in the hospital that can’t pay its electric bill is a giant shrug (although solid stuff from Lange). What interests me here is the difference between that resurrection and Fiona’s action to literally breathe life back into Queenie in the previous episode. Evocative of the Judeo-Christian belief that conceptualizes life in terms of God’s breath and read against the inclusion of FrankenKyle, one cannot help but think about the implications of the Jewish golem on this season’s proceedings.

Although Charles T. Rubin’s essay, “The Golem and the Limits of Artifice” goes beyond the scope of what is necessary to read American Horror Story through this lens, the piece generally outlines some arguments worth considering with regard to nature, technology, and life.

[Byron] Sherwin begins his book with an overview of the golem story, and he has two very specific points he wants to make as he tells it. First, the nature of the golem, viewed across time, is very far from fixed in its character and meaning. Sherwin makes significant use of this flexibility, using the term “golem” to describe science, technology, and the modern state — after all, they are each “creations of the human mind.” Second, and more importantly, he points to the distinctly Jewish significance of golem creation. Following up a grammatical oddity in the Genesis story (in Genesis 2:3), Sherwin suggests that the world was “created to be made” — that is, God created the world with the expectation that human beings would carry on His own creative activity with the raw materials He created out of nothing. Moreover, Sherwin suggests that we see ourselves as co-creators of the world along with God, tasked with working “toward completing the process of creation begun by God.” Indeed, we are created in God’s image precisely to the extent that we possess and employ “moral and creative volition.” Sherwin alludes repeatedly to a passage from the Talmud (to which we will return) about human beings having the potential for being “God’s partners in the work of creation.” Sherwin finds further support for this outlook in, among other places, some of the writings of the real-life Rabbi Loew, and in a parable of uncertain origin about a king who leaves servants piles of flour, flax, and grapes, rewarding the one who turns them into useful goods and punishing the one who simply guards them in the form given to him.

Sherwin’s is by no means an unorthodox reading of Jewish tradition on this point about human creativity; one can find similar-sounding sentiments in, for example, the writings of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Sherwin is at pains to suggest that there is nothing sacred about unaltered nature per se, nothing problematic about imitating divine creativity so long as it does not involve thinking that that creativity is unnecessary. Hence, in our scientific and technological accomplishments and strivings we are not “playing God” in any pejorative sense. Recalling another passage in Genesis, he notes that “beneficial human interventions in nature fulfill the divine mandate to human beings to subdue nature and to establish their dominion over it.”

Rubin’s essay is worth reading in so far as that it propels one to view the actions of Fiona and Madame LaLaurie in a new light with respect to the way in which they seek to create a world in their images. Given Murphy’s rather shallow of treatment of religion in previous offerings, work like Rubin’s is thought-provoking in that it gestures toward an integration of morality with the themes of biopolitics that we see on screen.


[1] In a truly horrid special effects sequence wherein Zoe splits a zombie down the middle I could not help but groan and think about how someone in the writers’ room had gotten a hold of Carol J. Clover’s Men, Women, and Chain Saws. The sad thing is that there is actually a very interesting way in which the material in Clover’s book could have been used here as a counterpoint to the women/magic/power theme.

[2] I am also still unsure of how to interpret the visual stereotypes that are present in American Horror Story’s zombies:  both last week’s and this week’s episodes zombie hordes featured a Confederate soldier, a flapper, and a Native person (based on costume) and while one might be tempted to contemplate the ways in which this selection of people speaks to a specific history that has come back to haunt white people, I remain unconvinced that it is little more than something played for amusement by the writers. The notion that most of the organic materials would likely have decomposed into a state that was, by 2013, somewhat less recognizable makes it seem as though the costume choices were made intentionally prominent and I am again left wondering, “To what end?”

[3] I am curious about the inclusion of albino blacks like Shaun Ross figure into the show. My distrust of the show leads me to believe that they were included because of their “strangeness” and something just seems off. In contrast to Jamie Brewer (Nan), who has Down Syndrome but always is a person, the albino black men in this season are essentially handymen. Worse, they are symbolic of the way in which the Salem witch culture only accepts blackness that is literally made white (i.e., whitewashed).

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Bouncing Off the Wall

Personalization, as exemplified by the popularity of music services like Pandora, has become a defining characteristic of a 21st century American musical sensibility; with an increasing number of Americans gaining access to on demand content, it would seem that the creation of a contemporary Great American Songbook is not only unlikely but quite possibly unwanted. And yet, despite the growing insularity of listening habits, it would seem that American popular culture continues to present individuals with auditory cultural touchstones in the form of viral singles. For better or for worse, creations like Rebecca Black’s “Friday” have become entities that we organize around, forming taste communities grounded in our reaction to the song.

Phil Spector Hair MemeThe importance of music in personal history and the construction of identity became oddly salient recently with the broadcast of HBO’s Phil SpectorIt is, I think, all too easy to get caught up in ridiculing the appearance of Phil Spector. A notable recluse in his later years, Spector was thrust into the spotlight while on trial in 2003 for the murder of Lana Clarkson; somewhat given to eccentricity in both lifestyle and presentation, publicized images of Spector lent themselves to commentary that, more often than not, almost necessarily included mention of Spector’s hair.

 

And although we might criticize the movie for overacting and underdeveloped characters, upon reflection what struck me as particularly poignant about the film was the way in which it reminded me that Phil Spector songs have had a memorable influence in my life.[1]

Using Spector as a jumping off point I began to think this week on the relationship between music, technology, and American social history; although it is tempting to look back and claim that landmark songs “changed” American culture, I instead want to pick up on the idea from this week’s readings that technology and culture (both in the form of music and more broadly) are mutually constitutive processes.

It is, for example, difficult to talk about the impact of Phil Spector’s songs without referencing The Wall of Sound. Born out of a (in retrospect) rather stubborn refusal to embrace stereo sound, Spector engineered a technique wherein sound from the musicians was piped down into echo chambers and then recorded, in effect creating a metaphorical “wall” of sound.

Having not studied music extensively as an academic subject, I find myself still struggling with some questions and concepts. Does the Wall of Sound provide an example of Simon Frith’s (building on Andrew Chester) assertion that Western popular music absorbed Afro-American forms and conventions, producing an “intentionally” complex artifact? As Firth notes, an intentionally complex structure “is that constituted by the parameters of melody, harmony and beat, while the complex is built up by modulation of the basic notes and by inflexion of the basic beat.” (269)

More importantly, however, I wonder how Spector’s technique builds upon conventions that had long been established in African American gospel music and to what extent it was really “new.” Consistent with a larger move in rock music at the time, I marvel at how Phil Spector’s early songs helped to elevate ethnic minorities into the spotlight but also, at the same time, claimed their cultural practices for mainstream America.

 The-Jingoism-of-BioShock-Infinite

Music, History, and Bioshock Infinite

Consistent with Phil Spector, what I am most interested in is the way in which we use fiction to look back on a past that is both imagined and real. How do we make sense of things in retrospect and what does our thought process tell us about the way that we understand the present? Although my thoughts are not fully formed on the subject, I am curious about how pieces of our cultural past are strategically deployed to foreground certain parts of our cultural history while obscuring others.

Bioshock Infinite is a video game premised on a many worlds theory, presenting an alternate history of America in the form of the utopic/dystopic floating city of Columbia. Reflecting sentiments from early 20th century America, the city evidences strong tones of nationalism, theocracy, and jingoism. And, given our continuing struggle with race (see “Accidental Racist”), I wonder about how something like Bioshock Infinite speaks to the way in which we see ourselves in relationship to our own history.

To be sure, the game plays fast and lose with history as it incorporates musical easter eggs throughout the world. “God Only Knows,” a song influenced by Spector’s Wall of Sound technique, makes an appearance early on in the form of a barbershop quartet.

Although rather charming, there is a way in which this type of action reflects a modern sensibility that songs (or perhaps moments in history in general) can be divorced from their surrounding context and transplanted as discrete units. Given the game’s logic I am fully willing to concede that a composer could have peered through dimensions and lifted this song but it seems unlikely that he would know why such a song was popular in the first place. This move seems to be much more about the developers trying to establish a relationship with players than creating a world (which is fine), but the way in which they have gone about it makes me worry that our understanding of cultural artifacts ignores the way in which they are part of systems.

As a parting gift, Bioshock Infinite also features this…


[1] This is, to be sure, an intentional on the part of writer/director David Mamet who even has Phil Spector suggest at one point that his song was playing the first time that his lawyer was felt up.


On Obsession with Choice

A couple of weeks ago I found myself leading an exercise on marketing ethics for an introductory marketing class in the Marshall School of Business. Structured more as a provocation than a lecture, we covered basic concepts of persuasion and manipulation before proceeding to engage in a discussion about whether particular marketing practices were considered ethical (and how such a determination was ultimately made). During the course of our discussion many of these students expressed an opinion that it was, generally speaking, the responsibility of the consumer to know that he or she was 1) being marketed to and 2) potentially being tricked. I recorded this sentiment on a whiteboard in the room but didn’t comment much on it at the time. However, toward the end of the session I presented the class with a thought experiment that was designed to force the students to struggle with the concepts that they had just encountered and to push their thinking a bit about ethics.

Case (A):  Smith, a saleswoman, invites clients to her office and secretly dissolves a pill in their drinks.  The pill subconsciously inclines clients to purchase 30% more product than they would have had they not taken it but otherwise has no effect.

Case (B):  Smith, a saleswoman, hires a marketing firm to design her office.  The combination of colors, scents, etc., inclines clients to purchase 30% more product than they would in the old office but otherwise has no effect.

Question:  Are these two scenarios equally ethical and, if not, which one is more ethical?

After running this session multiple times a clear pattern began to emerge in students’ responses: the initial reaction was typically that Case B was more ethical than Case A and, when pushed, students typically reported that their decision resulted from the notion that individuals in Case B had a measure of choice (i.e., they could leave the room) while individuals in Case A did not.[1]

Although I didn’t think about it as such at the time, the notion of choice situates itself nicely alongside the empowerment of the self that Sarah Banet-Weiser writes about in Authentic. The takeaway that I had from working with students in this exercise was a profound realization about how choice was construed for them and how, generally, marketing was considered unethical only when it impinged upon an individual’s ability to make a choice.

Linking this back to the earlier statement that the burden of responsibility largely rested upon the consumer, I tried to incorporate examples from popular culture to suggest to the students that, for me, the most insidious effects of marketing are exemplified by its ability to limit or remove choices that you didn’t even know you had.

Because I am old, I invoked a scene from The Matrix Reloaded but drove the point home with a discussion of The Cabin in the Woods, a movie that, among other things, prominently evidenced philosophical questions of agency and free will.

Without spoiling anything, there is an interesting line in the movie where a character essentially argues that the free will of potential victims is preserved because outside forces can lead individuals to an open door but cannot ultimately force them to walk through it. Reflecting the idea that an individual is ultimately responsible for his or her fate, The Cabin in the Woods was particularly helpful for urging students to consider that they tended to focus on choice as an individual transaction instead of taking a step back to look at how behavior was permitted/controlled within a larger system of actions.

After the exercise concluded I found myself talking to the professor of the course about how I was slightly nervous for the future of business if these students held onto their mentality that consumers always acted rationally and were largely responsible for their own fates (to the exclusion of marketers taking responsibility for their campaigns). Now, as I muse on the prominence of the individual and the self in this cohort, I am reminded of an essay written by Kathryn Schulz about the prominence of self-help culture in America and the development of the concept of the self. As I reread the Schulz piece, I found myself revisiting Authentic’s chapters on consumer citizens and religion as I thought through the examples in terms of self-help rhetoric.


[1] For the record, I initially considered both of these cases to be equivalent in nature and suggested to students that part of their abhorrence to Case A had to do with perceived influence crossing the body/skin boundary and becoming physically incorporated into the self. Invariably students raised the notion of the pill causing some sort of change in brain chemistry and the thought experiment is designed to suggest that marketing’s true power does not lie in the realm of the directly observable.


True Women and Fruitful Femininity: Evangelical ideology and women’s bodies

The rhetoric of war has become somewhat commonplace in the contemporary American political sphere, used by pundits and journalists to describe everything from the ongoing physical conflict abroad in Afghanistan to contestations over domestic ideology manifested via the War on Christmas. War, it seems, has become the de facto term used to label conflict on a national scale and the casual use of the phrase is rather indicative of the heightened political rhetoric of our time. Noting the prevalence of this existing sentiment, it makes a certain amount of sense that a phrase introduced via Tanya Melich’s The Republican War against Women in 1998 would be resurrected during the 2010 campaign season and popularized during the elections of 2012. Primarily used to describe the deluge of legislation related to women’s healthcare on both national and state levels—for example, restricting or eliminating funding for Planned Parenthood, the institution of “right-to-know” laws and waiting periods for abortions, accessible birth control, and transvaginal ultrasounds—“the war on women” was coined in order to signal a new round in the ongoing efforts of socially conservative politicians to institute control over women’s bodies.

            It is against this backdrop that Ann Romney took to the stage during the 2012 Republican National Convention to announce, “I love you women!” Regardless of Romney’s personal feelings on the subject, her declarative statement served as a recuperative effort to address the Democratic Party’s accusations that Republicans were engaged in an assault on women. Described as a “myth” by conservative sources (Merkel, 2012), or alternatively addressed by a tu quoque argument about conditions facing women elsewhere (Van Susteren, 2012), the Republican assertion that the party was women friendly stood in contrast to the very real ways in which Republicans, as a generalized political bloc, had systematically attempted to curb the rights of women in the 20th and 21st centuries. Although novel in their wording, the movements encapsulated by “the war on women” are not radical in their position; best understood in a context of Republican legislation reaching back to the 1970s, the war on women can be seen as an on-going battle. Without diminishing the important potential implications of current bills like House Bill 290 in Ohio, which would deprioritize Planned Parenthood clinics for funding in a manner that effectively eliminates federal support, these acts must be located within a broader socio-historical context in order to gain a fuller understanding of the situation at hand.

            In order to help situate the aforementioned war on women, this article will attempt to look at the intersection of conservative politics and religion as they pertain to the discipline and surveillance of the female body. Although an initial correlation can be readily made between these two categories, the relationship is not one of simple causation; rather, it will be argued that a deeper ideology about the body that springs from Protestantism has coevolved with American concerns about the body in order to inform the current legislation that comprises the war on women. Through explorations of issues surrounding recent mentions of rape and abortion, this article hopes to illustrate how ambivalence over the body that arises from a Protestant tradition results in conflicting views over the regulation and management women’s bodies and how the resurgence of the Evangelical movement in America has helped to transmit these ideas to a new generation of Christian youth through the creation of a lifestyle that successfully integrates politics and religion into everyday practices. One important limitation to note in this endeavor, however, is the way in which discussion of groups like women, evangelicals, and politics demonstrates a sensibility that is decidedly white and middle class. Although there are undoubtedly ways in which segments of the populations mentioned in this article reflect an experience that deviates from what is described, these minority positions derive their identities from their oppositional stance to the white male ideology that dominates evangelical Christian culture and, thus, the exploration of this phenomenon through such a lens remains valid if admittedly incomplete in its scope. Additionally, a longer paper would benefit from analysis of different forms of feminism, paying particular attention to the way in which modern American bodies are defined in part through practices of consumption on literal and metaphoric levels. Ultimately, the article aims to argue for feminists to situate events like “the war on women” in a broader socio-historical context that recognizes the importance of deeply-rooted and seemingly unrelated beliefs.

The Rape Thing

            The months leading up to the 2012 election seemed to be rife with socially conservative politicians on all levels of government voicing a series of positions on rape that became highly publicized:  Linda McMahon’s mention of “emergency rape” (Vigdor, 2012), Ron Paul’s use of “honest rape” (Benen, 2012) and John Koster’s employment of the phrase “the rape thing”[1] (Kaminsky, 2012) all helped to illustrate the various ways in which the issue of rape is understood and deployed in American culture at the present moment. Perhaps the most memorable story from this series of events, however, was Representative Todd Akin’s invocation of the now infamous term “legitimate rape” during a televised interview (Moore, 2012). Although Akin would later claim that he used the word “legitimate” in order to distinguish between true and false reports of rape, the context of the phrase made such a reading rather unlikely. To quote Akin from his appearance on The Jaco Report, “It seems to be, first of all, from what I understand from doctors, it’s really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut the whole thing down” (2012).

            In response to the outrage that followed his comments, Akin claimed that he “misspoke” in a move that essentially deflected attention away from the ideology underlying the original statement. Suggesting that Akin’s position was not merely a poor choice of words, Orange County Superior Court Judge Derek G. Johnson reportedly made the following statement during the sentencing of a convicted rapist in 2008:  “If someone doesn’t want to have sexual intercourse, the body shuts down. The body will not permit that to happen unless a lot of damage in inflicted.” (Goffard & Marble, 2012; Moxley, 2008). Although Johnson did not use the term “legitimate rape,” the choice of language here is eerily similar to that of Akin, replete with the notion that the (female) body somehow “shuts down” in order to prevent unwanted and/or unsanctioned sexual intercourse.

            Although the comments of Representative Todd Akin and Judge Derek G. Johnson suggest a way in which science has been commandeered to support inaccurate medical positions, they also raise an important point regarding the way in which rape is popularly conceptualized:  rape is something that only happens to women and is perpetuated by men. Before castigating Akin and his conservative colleagues, however, we should consider the way in which this view of rape is enshrined within the American legal system as a whole:  according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting program, “forcible rape” has been defined as “carnal knowledge of a female [emphasis added] forcibly and against her will” since 1927 and was only revised in 2012 to read as “the penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim” (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2011; Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2012). Here, the modifier “forcible” is employed in order to differentiate this particular type of rape from statutory rape, which is, by definition, excluded from this particular category.

            Consistent with this differentiation and demonstrating that a firm definition of rape is not just a problem ascribed to socially conservative individuals, Whoopi Goldberg’s asserted on the television talk show The View that director Roman Polanski was guilty of statutory rape, but not “rape rape” (Kennedy, 2009). On some level, viewers of may have understood that Goldberg was trying to differentiate between degrees or types of acts based on use of force or violence but the statement revealed an underlying assumption that a form of “true” rape exists; to put it another way, Goldberg’s phrasing suggests that although “legitimate rape” may not exist, particular categories of rape are indeed legitimized.

            Indeed, the issue of rape has only become more confused in recent years with terms like “gray rape” appearing in Cosmoplitan to describe, as the author puts it, “A New Form of Date Rape” (Stepp, 2007). In her article, Stepp points to the apparent gray zone that exists when consent is unclear and effectively introduces a measure of doubt designed to attack the popular understanding of what constitutes rape. Here, it should be noted, Stepp’s words reflect an established position regarding consent given by women that is rendered ambiguous by intoxication and enacted as part of a hookup culture. Encapsulated by individuals like Katie Roiphe (1994)—who suggested in The Morning After:  Fear, Sex, and Feminism, “If a woman’s ‘judgment is impaired’ and she has sex, it isn’t necessarily the man’s fault; it isn’t necessarily always rape”—is a stance that remains entrenched in a moralizing and apologist discourse. Yet, aside from reaffirming the notion that rape is something happens solely to women by men, perhaps the most damaging aspect of this article is the way in which Stepp comingles the language of empowerment for women with restrictive gender roles in a manner that garners approval as it avoids blaming the victim even while proffers a solution reminiscent of the arguments that stemmed from the backlash to Second Wave Feminism.

            In her article, Stepp tells the story of Alicia[2] who is hesitant to describe her post-hookup experience as rape because Alicia considers herself to be a strong woman and sexually independent (2007). Here, the insistence on understanding the categories of “strong woman” and “rape victim” as mutually exclusive is particularly problematic for individuals as it not only prevents the reporting of a crime but also reinforces a good-bad binary:  under this false construction, to declare oneself as a victim of rape is to necessarily disempower oneself. The solution that Stepp provides to this dilemma is decidedly anti-feminist as she states that “A generation ago, it was easier for men and women to understand what constituted rape because the social rules were clearer. Men were supposed to be the ones coming on to women, and women were said to be looking for relationships, not casual sex” (2007). The emphasis on the good-bad girl dichotomy is clear, with a desire for casual sex (as stand-in for poor judgment in general) being associated with negative consequences. Undoubtedly influenced by social conservatism and postfeminism, we see here that Stepp’s clever choice of words asks readers, who are ostensibly women, to align with the perspective of Alicia as independent and sexually powerful person while attributing the root cause of gray rape to the ambiguity that stems from modern gender roles; the paradoxical problem, then, is women as a whole but not women as individuals.

            On one level, this debate over rape would appear to be about the issue of consent:  what is it, whether it is revocable, and who can give it.[3] While further exploration of this concept is certainly warranted, we can draw upon work by feminists like Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin to consider the larger framework in which sexuality and choice are framed. What this discussion ultimately points to is the way in which rape has yet to be singularly defined in American legal and social spheres and this, in turn, stems from varying views on who should be in control of a woman’s body. In contrast, consider that domestic violence, an issue that has historically predominantly affected women, has become utterly abhorrent due in part to the 1994 campaign, “There’s no excuse for domestic violence.” Although the campaign is subject to criticism for its overrepresentation of white middle-class women, the series of public service announcements ardently worked to establish a common definition for what constituted domestic violence (The Ad Council, 2003). Stepp’s elaboration on her article in a panel discussion at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice on the topic of gray rape reinforced apparent themes of vagueness and confusion while opponents responded with the finality of “rape is rape” (Chan, 2007). The note of uncertainty in Stepp’s position and the corresponding desire to find reassurance in retreat is important to note, however, as it speaks to the way that, in a world of ambiguity, the female body is the thing that we return to as that which we can control.

The Cult(ure) of Life

            In order to more fully understand the themes of retreat and uncertainty, it is helpful to remember the context in which the discussion of rape was placed during the 2012 election season:  in most cases, discussion of rape was nested within a larger ongoing discussion about the Republicans’ positions on abortion, a political issue that becomes almost inseparable from religious beliefs in contemporary debates. Abortion, very much a Catholic concern in 1973 when the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade, became an Evangelical issue partially through the work of Francis Schaeffer, who produced a book and film both entitled Whatever Happened to the Human Race? On some level, the idea that religion influences abortion policy seems rather obvious with suppositions made about the pro-life leanings of conservative Christians and indeed, as a rule of thumb, such assumptions may not be incorrect. However, a deeper examination helps to illuminate how elements of Christianity, in addressing questions of ambiguity and uncertainty, support the particular policies that are currently manifesting. In this, it is particularly instructive to situate the current political and religious climate within a larger history of American religious activities.

            Awakenings, movements born during times of upheaval and uncertainty, characteristically began with an appeal to traditional values as large numbers of people converted to, or reaffirmed their faith in, Christianity. Although a detailed discussion of America’s Great Awakenings is beyond the scope of this paper, consider that the First Great Awakening occurred roughly between 1730 and 1760 while the Second appeared between approximately 1800 and 1830; both of these movements foreshadowed the most pivotal domestic wars in the history of the United States and were indicative of periods of civil unrest that precipitated conflict on a massive scale. A Third Great Awakening then came at the start of the 20th century as concerns over modernity and industrialization once again introduced ambivalence about the future and man’s place in the world.[4] Understanding that the notion of uncertainty is vital to the appearance of Great Awakenings and we might consider how current developments in science and technology have once again worked to decenter mankind’s position as the center of the universe, causing us to engage in an ongoing renegotiation of our senses of self. In this context, the intellectual retreatism that manifests around issues like climate change and the body makes a certain amount of sense; whether or not we are ready to label the current project as the Fourth Great Awakening, it is difficult to deny that the framework of the Awakening provides a possible lens through which we can attempt to understand the phenomena that we have witnessed in recent history with the late 20th and early 21st centuries playing host to a number of interrelated issues that range from abortion to stem cell research and artificial life support that are united through their exaltation of life.

            Popularized by Pope John Paul II in the late 20th century, the “culture of life” was rapidly adopted by American evangelicals in order to connect a set of theological beliefs about life to public policy (1995). The culture of life assumes, in a manner reminiscent of the Great Chain of Being, that life is fundamentally different from inert matter and furthermore that human life is substantially different from all other forms of life. For those who ascribe to this particular philosophy, there is a particular way in which life evidences a measure of agency and self-direction with human life (as opposed to animal life) being distinguished by a unique animating principle. Although this specific view on life descends from a vitalist tradition that may or may not have considered the unique spark to be the soul, the “culture of life” as a product of Catholic theology unapologetically described this essential life essence in terminology that references the soul. Consequentially, the culture of life positions this human exceptionalism as a direct result of divine will, meaning that God has implanted a soul within each individual body. Given that this differentiation between forms of being is what structures the universe, challenges that threaten to upend this order take on increased significance; the fight for any one individual life, then, is a fight to preserve the sanctity of all life.

            Exemplifying the attitude of the culture of life in this matter was the case of Terri Schiavo, who was at the center of a protracted legal battle over the ability of Schiavo’s husband, Michael, to remove Schiavo’s feeding tube and thus end her life. Schaivo’s case was notable in that garnered national attention and resulted in the passing of health legislation—the Palm Sunday Compromise—designed solely to benefit a single person. The president at the time, George W. Bush, rushed back to Washington D.C. from a vacation in Texas in order to sign a bill designed to move Schiavo’s case from state to federal court and issued this statement of support:  “It should be our goal as a nation to build a culture of life, where all Americans are valued, welcomed, and protected—and that culture of life must extend to individuals with disabilities” (2005). A few months later, President Bush would go on to declare his opposition to embryonic stem cell research while simultaneously supporting an ongoing war in Iraq that is estimated to have killed between tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of Iraquis (Iraq Body Count, 2012). The culture of life, then, would appear to have an inherent ambivalence about the concept of life, or, at the very least, lives that are of value.

            Returning to the larger framework from which the culture of life derives, however, we see that any notion of ambiguity is addressed through the hierarchal structure of life that orders the universe. The underlying structure of a hierarchy—along with the presumption that white American males sit at the top of the heap—legitimates policy that works to support systemic social inequality and would otherwise appear unjust. This drive to fight for life at the expense of lesser forms slides readily into a justification for the domination of everything else under the guise of protection; a worldview informed by the hierarchal nature inherent in the culture of life is reflected in policy that covers everything from universal health care to advanced interrogation techniques and the environment.

The Issue of Women and Their Bodies

            One group, in particular, that the culture of life’s hierarchical structure often works to subjugate is women and, in this, the issue of abortion presents a fruitful subject of inquiry as it resides at the nexus of issues regarding theology, politics, gender, and the body. Bodies in general, and women’s bodies in particular, have traditionally represented an additional source of ambivalence and anxiety for socially conservative Christians. In fact, the concept of the body was used throughout early Christianity to reinforce the hierarchy established by constructs like the Great Chain of Being. Church doctrine formalized a gendered hierarchy that designated the man of the house as the “head” as the center of reason and logic while woman was associated with the body.[5] From Ephesians chapter 5, verses 22-24:

Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.

            For evangelicals, who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, this particular passage is key as it establishes the basis of female submission and lays groundwork for the belief that men not only have the right but the divine duty to control women and their bodies. This is not to suggest, of course, that this particular passage is cited as justification for legislation designed to restrict women’s health but rather to argue that evangelicalism forms part of an underlying ethic that then serves to inform such policy.

            Addressing this very issue, radical feminism argued to point out the way in which women’s identity has been historically defined in relationship to that of men. Here, in contrast to previous iterations of feminism that understood inequality in terms of legal and class systems (i.e., liberal and Marxist feminism), we witness a movement that calls the legitimacy of patriarchy into question and, with it, the primacy of heterosexuality’s influence in society. Radical feminism’s opposition to the ethic of evangelicalism is important to note because strains of thought established by radical feminism are precisely what socially conservative Christian culture continues to battle today. To quote conservative evangelist Pat Robertson, “[feminism] is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians” (1992). Admittedly extreme in its view, Robertson’s quote nevertheless speaks to the way in which contemporary forms of feminism are associated with radical feminism and, as such, are subject to an incredible backlash. The danger here is that, the disparaging of radical feminism and its core ideals means that patriarchy further solidifies its hold and works to further entrench the legitimacy of men over women.[6]

            But it is not just women as a category that is addressed by Ephesians for the passage also speaks to the subjugation of the body and it is the linking of the two that has historically been a feminist concern. By creating an association with the body and the material—as opposed to the idealism and rationality represented by men—women’s bodies, and women by extension, have historically come to be regarded as objects. Successes from liberal feminism have helped to ensure that women’s bodies are no longer considered property but contemporary forms of feminism continue to struggle with ways in which control and surveillance of women’s bodies has become integrated into culture.

            As a site of investigation the body holds particular importance for it was through the body that anxieties about the world and one’s place in it were addressed:  early Christianity seized upon the desire for order and used the body to physically manifest notions of morality. The body, following a tradition established throughout medieval practice and ushered into the early modern era via Calvinism, became a barometer for the condition of the soul and fitter bodies indicated fitter souls. For many, efforts to secure salvation were enacted through the disciplining of one’s body as asceticism expanded to guard against excesses of food, sex, and the body.  One consequence of this is the rise in Christian fitness culture, a theme that is explored in R. Marie Griffith’s Born Again Bodies. For Griffith (2004), there is a key distinction to be made regarding the way in which the body is configured in American evangelism in that the American disciplining of the body is removed from earlier practices of penitence or identification with Christ’s suffering. The body has become a site of ambivalence as the entity that is responsible for the promulgation of sin while simultaneously acting as the conduit through which one demonstrates devotion to God. For American evangelicals, controlling the body is an end in and of itself.

The Bodies of the Future

            Evangelical youth in particular have renewed this effort to avoid excess, with movements ranging from modesty clubs to straight edge culture and participating in programs like The Silver Ring Thing. And, for evangelicalism, popular culture has, in a broad sense, been seized as a medium to transmit the messages and values of the movement and nowhere is this more apparent than among youth. This is not to imply, of course, that evangelicals believe that all instances of pop culture are performing the work of God but rather to suggest that popular culture—as the culture of the people—has been appropriated by evangelical movements and successfully integrated into a lifestyle for its followers.[7] There is a powerful community forming in this next generation of evangelical youth, united by their love for God and increasingly supported through an ever-widening network of rock concerts, skate parks, megachurches, prosperity gospels, and youth ministries that understand the importance of tapping into ethos that is driven by a profound need to belong. It is here that we see how the current movement of Evangelical youth has adopted lessons from the countercultural movements of the 1960s; employing the language of difference feminism for very different ends, young women understand sisterhood as a bond forged through the celebration of traditional social roles as devotion to God.

            If radical feminism coined the phrase “the personal is political” in order to argue that the everyday experiences of women were inextricably tied to political processes, the evangelical youth movement, in denying that it is about politics, performs a rather ingenious countermove:  it has cast the political as the everyday and thus makes itself more accessible to the next generation of activists. Although they may be hesitant to articulate it as such, politics, in the view of evangelical youth, has become a powerful combination of what you do, what you believe, and who you are. The political, in other words, has become personal.

            Even the very process of coalition building, championed by prominent feminist scholars like Bernice Johnson Reagon, has been assimilated into the toolkit of evangelism but unlike the feminist movement, this generation of evangelical activists has not been challenged to critically consider the implications of difference, instead focusing on messages of acceptance and cohesion through God’s love. The formation of cultural identity has become dependent on definition through disidentification with the Other and the incorporation of substantial difference is ignored. In a way movements like Mars Hill Church in Seattle represent the inversion of coalition politics for they champion the very sense of nationalism that Reagon warns is insufficient to survive in a modern world full of diversity (1983).

            Looking back to look forward, it is precisely this sense of retreatism that makes evangelical youth a population worth of study for we can study our nation’s history to understand what happens when deep cleavages are allowed to persist. The goal here is not to castigate evangelical youth movements but rather to issue a call to the corresponding members of the next generation of progressive activists:  if you are truly interested in forwarding the cause of feminism, remember the words of Bernice Johnson Reagon and push yourselves to see the linkages between seemingly disparate issues.  By turning politics into a lifestyle, evangelical youth movements have developed a structure that makes it almost impossible for a believer to be a single-issue voter and although there are assuredly differences between individuals, the sense of collective action that arises from this group remains one of their biggest successes.

Works Cited

Akin, T. (2012, August 19). The Jaco Report. (C. Jaco, Interviewer)

Benen, S. (2012, February 6). Ron Paul and “Honest Rape”. Retrieved from The Maddow Blog: http://maddowblog.msnbc.com/_news/2012/02/06/10331008-ron-paul-and-honest-rape?lite

Bush, G. W. (2005, March 17). President’s Statement on Terri Schiavo. Retrieved from The White House: http://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2005/03/20050317-7.html

Chan, S. (2007, October 15). ‘Gray Rape’: A New Form of Date Rape? Retrieved from The New York Times: http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/10/15/gray-rape-a-new-form-of-date-rape/

Federal Bureau of Investigation. (2011, September). Forcible Rape. Retrieved from Crime in the United States: http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr/crime-in-the-u.s/2010/crime-in-the-u.s.-2010/violent-crime/rapemain

Federal Bureau of Investigation. (2012, January 6). Attorney General Eric Holder Announces Revisions to the Uniform Crime Report’s Definition of Rape. Retrieved from National Press Releases: http://www.fbi.gov/news/pressrel/press-releases/attorney-general-eric-holder-announces-revisions-to-the-uniform-crime-reports-definition-of-rape

Goffard, C., & Marble, S. (2012, December 13). Judge Who Said Rape Victim “Didn’t Put Up a Fight” Later Apologizes. Retrieved from The Los Angeles Times: http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/lanow/2012/12/judge-who-said-rape-victim-didnt-put-up-a-fight-later-apologized.html?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitter&dlvrit=649324

Griffith, R. M. (2004). Born Again Bodies: Flesh and Spirit in American Christianity. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Iraq Body Count. (2012, December 10). Iraq Body Count Database. Retrieved from Iraq Body Count: http://www.iraqbodycount.org/database/

John Paul II. (1995, March 25). Evangelium Vitae. Retrieved from The Vatican: http://www.vatican.va/edocs/ENG0141/_INDEX.HTM

Kaminsky, J. (2012, November 1). Republican Candidate Calls Aborting Rapist’s Child “More Violence on Woman’s Body”. Retrieved from Reuters: http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/11/01/us-usa-campaign-abortion-idUSBRE8A006A20121101

Kennedy, M. (2009, September 29). Polanski Was Not Builty of ‘Rape-Rape’, Says Whoopi Goldberg. Retrieved from The Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2009/sep/29/roman-polanski-whoopi-goldberg

Merkel, J. (2012, April). War on Women is a Myth: Nikki Haley and the Top 5 Republican Women. Retrieved from PolicyMic: http://www.policymic.com/articles/5958/war-on-women-is-a-myth-nikki-haley-and-the-top-5-republican-women

Moore, L. (2012, August 20). Rep. Todd Akin: The Statement and the Reaction. Retrieved from The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/21/us/politics/rep-todd-akin-legitimate-rape-statement-and-reaction.html?_r=0

Moxley, R. S. (2008, October 30). The DA’s Office Reacts to a Naughty Episode of Prosecutorial Misconduct. Retrieved from Orange County Weekly: http://www.ocweekly.com/2008-10-30/news/moxley-confidential/

Reagon, B. J. (1983). Coalition Politics: Turning the Century. In B. Smith (Ed.), Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology (pp. 356-368). Boston: Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press.

Roiphe, K. (1994). The Morning After: Fear, Sex, and Feminism. New York: Back Bay Books.

Stepp, L. S. (2007, September). A New Kind of Date Rape. Retrieved from Cosmopolitan: http://www.cosmopolitan.com/sex-love/tips-moves/new-kind-of-date-rape

The Ad Council. (2003). Domestic Violence Prevention (1994-Present). Retrieved from The Ad Council: http://www.aef.com/exhibits/social_responsibility/ad_council/2472

The New York Times. (1992, August 26). Robertson Letter Attacks Feminists. Retrieved from The New York Tmes: http://www.nytimes.com/1992/08/26/us/robertson-letter-attacks-feminists.html

Van Susteren, G. (2012, November 14). The Real “War on Women” – The One We Do Not Hear About! And Has Facebook Joined the War on Women? On the Wrong Side? Retrieved from GretaWire: http://gretawire.foxnewsinsider.com/2012/11/14/the-real-war-on-women-the-one-we-do-not-hear-about/

Vigdor, N. (2012, October 17). McMahon Reverses Stance on Hospital Birth Control Mandate. Retrieved from Connecticut Post: http://www.ctpost.com/news/article/McMahon-reverses-stance-on-hospital-birth-control-3954682.php


[1] Here Koster was attempting to elucidate his position on abortion, indicating that he would support an allowance if a mother’s life was in danger but not in cases of incest or rape. According to Koster, incest occurred with such minor frequency that it was not worth including in legislation. Rape, however was referenced repeatedly as “the rape thing,” which at best could be translated as “on the point discussion that is rape” but at worst could be taken as a phrase that indicates a dismissive and casual attitude toward rape.

[2] Stepp notes that this is a pseudonym, which is understandable given the nature of the incident being reported. There is, however, an interesting discussion to be had regarding the way in which the use of a pseudonym can be used to consider the differences between empowerment as an abstract concept and embodied action.

[3] As example, it was only in 2008 that the state of Maryland overturned an existing law that prevented an individual from revoking consent once he or she had given it (see Maouloud Baby v. State of Maryland, 2008), meaning that, until that time, individuals could not be convicted for post-penetration rape in Maryland.  Here we see rape’s definition tied solely to the initial act of penetration, meaning that once consent was given to enter the body, rape could not happen even if the penetrated party changed his or her mind at a later point in time.

[4] As a side note, the Third Great Awakening happens to occur before and during World War I but this Awakening does not maintain the same connection to war as its predecessors. Looking at the Revolutionary War (First Great Awakening) and the Civil War (Second Great Awakening), we can see that conflict was the result of an ongoing negotiation over national identity that was not present as a motivation for World War I.

[5] In a somewhat complicated extended metaphor St. Augustine would go on to suggest that, mirroring the relationship between men and women, all of mankind constituted a type of body to the “head” of God.

[6] Progressive evangelical feminists have argued for a rereading of Ephesians in light of 5:21 (“Submit yourselves one to another in the fear of God”), suggesting that the passage actually speaks to the humbling of all humans in the face of God and calls for a renewed understanding of submission. Despite the popularity of biblical feminism in the 1970s and 1980s, groups like the Evangelical and Ecumenical Women’s Caucus and the Evangelical Women’s Caucus have declined in stature within the evangelical community, suggesting that progressive evangelical feminist discourse is not currently widely circulated.

[7] An analog for the Left might be President Obama’s understanding and deployment of social media during his election campaigns as indicative of the way in which politics comingles with the everyday practices of individuals.


Merry Christmas. War is…Over?

I’m not sure when it started, but I am told that there is most definitely a “War on Christmas” occurring in America at the present moment. Well, reoccurring to be more accurate. In response we see comedian Jon Stewart formally declaring a (mock) “War on Christmas” even as other media outlets attempt to understand what the fuss is all about. What is a journalist to do? To ignore the situation seems neglectful, but to acknowledge the dispute is to grant a measure of legitimacy. In short, what is one’s responsibility when it comes to reporting something like the “War on Christmas”? Is there a way to contextualize the issue without engaging directly, perhaps seeing the fervor as the product of a channel that must find news (or create it)?

Part of the struggle, I think, lies in the notion that the commercialized Christmas has invariably become part of the traditional Christmas story in America. Even children’s specials support this notion, for despite Charlie Brown’s speech that commercialism will not ruin his Christmas, it is only after his sapling is transformed through the trappings of commercial celebration that it is allowed to bring the children together. This is not to suggest that we confuse Santa Claus with Jesus, but that both figures have become central to the Christian understanding of the season. If there indeed is a “War on Christmas,” are we even fighting the right enemy?

But beyond the rabble rousing, I am incredibly interested in the sensationalist deployment of “Nazi” in order to challenge those who are seen as hindering Christians’ ability to celebrate Christmas for one of Nazism’s goals was the unification of the German people through the perceived threat imposed by the Polish. In line with a position heavily influenced by Social Darwinism, Nazism construed this assault in terms of a mortal danger—in this model, there would only be one type of winner and Nazis most definitely intended to ensure their own survival.

What happens, then, if we remove Nazis from the discussion (and, along with them, the inherent negative connotations) and instead consider the process employed by the National Socialist party? We must recognize that this sort of community building is not inherently evil nor is it a product of Nazism—to label it as such would be to ignore the larger ideological developments at play and to fail to understand its relative import to us today. This, to me, seems to be the real story at the heart of all of this rhetoric:  what are the ways that dominant ideology paints itself as a victim in order to garner support?

As others have noted, the “War on Christmas” is perhaps really just a battle in the larger “War on Christianity.” Viewed in this way, we can situate the current discussions alongside Lowe’s decision to remove its ads from All-American Muslim and concern over religious iconography on military bases. For me, the larger area of concern is not whether Christianity is in fact jeopardized but rather how such a war is being constructed in the first place. If we look back at tactics employed during the Nazi assertion of power, we can better understand the potential benefits of fostering an environment that finds itself in a perpetual state of battle with the secular Other threatening imminent demise.

Chris Tokuhama is a doctoral student at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism where he studies cultural anxieties that surround the social construction of the body. Throughout his work, Chris attempts to use Post/Transhumanism, Early Modern Science, Gothic Horror, and religion to answer the question, “How do we become more than our bodies?” 

Read up on Chris’ pop culture musings or follow him on Twitter as he endeavors not to eat his weight in holiday snacks.


Why the “Cult” of Mormonism Misses the Mark

The question of Mormonism’s role in this election cycle refuses to die.

Over the weekend, much ado was made regarding Reverend Robert Jeffress’ assertion that Mormonism was a cult, with editorials and articles appearing across media outlets. Although I recognize that the dispute supposedly at the heart of this matter is whether or not Mormonism is, in fact, a form of Christianity, I also suspect that this entire discussion is being overplayed because of its proximity to the Republican nomination process. I, for one, have not seen many (if any) crusades to dissuade Mormons from calling themselves Christians in other contexts. For that matter, this is not the first time that America has broached the subject, but we seem to have forgotten that Mitt Romney had to defend his religion the last time we went through all of this four years ago. We could go back and forth over the distinction between religion and cult—see other discussions regarding the nature of Scientology or the perception of early Christianity in a Jewish society—but I believe that this would be time spent unwisely.

Instead, the more problematic line from Jeffress at the Value Voters Summit was, “Do we want a candidate who is a good moral person, or do we want a candidate who is a born-again follower of Jesus Christ?” Putting aside the false dichotomy between a “good moral person” and a “born-again follower of Jesus Christ”—which incidentally suggests that a candidate who identifies as born-again Christian is not a good moral person—the underlying message subtly implies supporting Christians over good moral people. Of course the two categories are not mutually exclusive, but I think that reporters missed a great opportunity to disentangle emotionally-charged words from thoughtful political action. Even when the topic was mentioned, discussion quickly moved onto another distraction:  the Constitutional injunction against religious testing prior to assuming public office. Instead of publishing headlines like “Cantor Doesn’t Believe Religion Should be Factor in 2012,” which, besides being misleading and not truly reflective of the article’s body, news media have an obligation to explain to voters why religion does matter in the political process. Values do matter and religion undoubtedly speaks to a portion of that—just not all of it. We know from reports like those of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press that religion does impact voting, so why pretend otherwise? The opportunity that the press has, however, is to challenge pundits, politicians, and the public not to use “religion” to mean more than it should.

Moreover, another missed opportunity for the media was Jeffress’ assertion that Romeny was a “fine family person” but still not a Christian, given that he was speaking to a crowd ostensibly gathered in support of family values. Shouldn’t this statement, particularly at this function, cause reporters to question exactly what types of values are being upheld? Doesn’t Jeffress’ statement call for an examination of exactly what is meant by terms like “Christian” and “Mormon”? Ultimately it is these values that will determine the potential President’s policy, not the moniker of a religion.

_________________________________

Chris Tokuhama is a doctoral student at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism where he studies the relationship of personal identity to the body. Employing lenses that range from Posthumanism (with forays into Early Modern Science and Gothic Horror), the intersection of technological and community in Transhumanism, and the transcendent potential of the body contained in religion, Chris examines how changing bodies portrayed in media reflect or demand a renegotiation in the sense of self, acting as visual shorthand for shared anxieties.

Read up on Chris’ pop culture musings or follow him on Twitter as he tries to avoid the Flavor Aid.


Underneath It All

WARNING:  The following contains images that may be considered graphic in nature. As a former Biology student (and Pre-Med at that!), I have spent a number of hours around bodies and studying anatomy but I realize that this desensitization might not exist for everyone. I watched surgeries while eating dinner in college and study horror films (which I realize is not normal). Please proceed at your own risk.

At first glance, the anatomical model to the left (also known as “The Doll,” “Medical Venus,” or simply “Venus) might seem like nothing more than an inspired illustration from the most well-known text of medicine, Gray’s Anatomy. To most modern viewers, the image (and perhaps even the model itself) raise a few eyebrows but is unlikely to elicit a reaction much stronger than that. And why should it? We are a culture that has grown accustomed to watching surgeries on television, witnessed the horrible mutilating effects of war, and even turned death into a spectacle of entertainment. Scores of school children have visited Body Worlds or have been exposed to the Visible Human Project (if you haven’t watched the video, it is well worth the minute). We have also been exposed to a run of “torture porn” movies in the 2000s that included offerings like Saw, Hostel, and Captivity. Although we might engage in a larger discussion about our relationship to the body, it seems evident that we respond to, and use, images of the body quite differently in a modern context. (If there’s any doubt, one only need to look at a flash-based torture game that appeared in 2007, generating much discussion.) Undoubtedly, our relationship to the body has changed over the years—and will likely continue to do so with forays into transhumanism—which makes knowledge of the image’s original context all the more crucial to fully understanding its potential import.

Part of the image’s significance comes from it’s appearance in a culture that generally did not have a sufficient working knowledge of the body by today’s standards, with medical professionals also suffering a shortage of cadavers to study (which in turn led to an interesting panic regarding body snatching and consequentially resulted in a different relationship between people and dead bodies). The anatomical doll pictured above appeared as part of an exhibit in the Imperiale Regio Museo di Fisica e Storia Naturale (nicknamed La Specola), one of the few natural history museums open to the public at the time. This crucial piece of information allows historical researchers to immediately gain a sense of the model’s importance for, through it, knowledge of the body began to spread throughout the masses and its depiction would forever be inscribed onto visual culture.

Also important, however, is the female nature of the body, which itself reflected a then-fascination with women in Science. Take, for example, the notion that the Venus lay ensconced in a room full of uteruses and we immediately gain more information about the significance of the image above:  in rather straightforward terms, the male scientist fascination with the female body and process of reproduction becomes evident. Although a more detailed discussion is warranted, this interest spoke to developments in the Enlightenment that began a systematic study of Nature, wresting way its secrets through the development of empirical modes of inquiry. Women, long aligned with Nature through religion (an additional point to be made here is that in its early incarnations, the clear demarcations between fields that we see today did not exist, meaning that scientists were also philosophers and religious practitioners) were therefore objects to be understood as males sought to once again peer further into the unknown. This understanding of the original image is reinforced when one contrasts it with its male counterparts from the same exhibit, revealing two noticeable differences. First, the female figure possesses skin, hair, and lips, which serve as reminders of the body’s femininity and humanity. Second, the male body remains intact, while the female body has been ruptured/opened to reveal its secrets. The male body, it seems, had nothing to hide. Moreover, the position of the female model is somewhat evocative, with its arched back, pursed lips, and visual similarity to Snow White in her coffin, which undoubtedly speaks to the posing of women’s bodies and how such forms were intended to be consumed.

Thus, the fascination with women’s bodies—and the mystery they conveyed—manifested in the physical placement of the models on display at La Specola, both in terms of distribution and posture. In short, comprehension of the museum’s layout helps one to understand not only the relative significance of the image above, but also speaks more generally to the role that women’s bodies held in 19th-century Italy, with the implications of this positioning resounding throughout Western history. (As a brief side note, this touches upon another area of interest for me with horror films of the 20th century:  slasher films veiled an impulse to “know” women, with the phrase “I want to see/feel your insides” being one of my absolute favorites as it spoke to the psychosexual component of serial killers while continuing the trend established above. Additionally, we also witness a rise in movies wherein females give birth to demon spawn (e.g. The Omen), are possessed by male forces (e.g., The Exorcist), and are also shown as objects of inquiry for men who also seek to “know” women through science (e.g., Poltergeist). Recall the interactivity with the Venus and we begin to sense a thematic continuity between the renegotiation of women’s bodies, the manipulation of women’s bodies, and knowledge. For some additional writings on this, La Specola, and the television show Caprica, please refer to a previous entry on my blog.)

This differential treatment of bodies continues to exist today, with the aforementioned Saw providing a pertinent (and graphic) example. Compare the image of a female victim to the right with that of the (male) antagonist Jigsaw below. Although the situational context of these images differ, with the bodies’ death states providing commentary on  the respective characters, both bodies are featured with exposed chests in a manner similar to the Venus depicted at the outset of this piece. Extensive discussion is beyond the scope of this writing, but I would like to mention that an interesting—and potentially productive—sort of triangulation occurs when one compares the images of the past/present female figures (the latter of whom is caught in an “angel” trap) with each other and with that of the past/present male figures. Understanding these images as points in a constellation helps one to see interesting themes:  for example, as opposed to the 19th-century practice (i.e, past male), the image of Jigsaw (i.e., present male) cut open is intended to humanize the body, suggesting that although he masterminded incredibly detailed traps his body was also fragile and susceptible to breakdown. Jigsaw’s body, then, presents some overlap with Venus (i.e., past female) particularly when one considers that Jigsaw’s body plays host to a wax-covered audiotape—in the modern interpretation, it seems that the male body is also capable of harboring secrets.

Ultimately, a more detailed understanding of the original image would flush out its implications for the public of Italy in the 19th century and also look more broadly at the depictions of women, considering how “invasive practices” were not just limited to surgery. La Specola’s position as a state-sponsored institution also has implications for the socio-historical context for the image that should also be investigated. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, scholars should endeavor to understand the Medical Venus as not just reflective of cultural practice but also seek to ascertain how its presence (along with other models and the museum as a whole) provided new opportunities for thought, expression, and cultivation of bodies at the time.