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.
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. 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 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.
 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.
 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?”
 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).
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.
The importance of music in personal history and the construction of identity became oddly salient recently with the broadcast of HBO’s Phil Spector. It 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.
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.
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…
 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.
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.
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.
 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.
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” (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 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. 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. 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. 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.
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. 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.
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
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
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.
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.
“The end is nigh!”—the plethora of words, phrases, and warnings associated with the impending apocalypse has saturated American culture to the point of being jaded, as picketing figures bearing signs have become a fixture of political cartoons and echoes of the Book of Revelation appear in popular media like Legion and the short-lived television series Revelations. On a secular level, we grapple with the notion that our existence is a fragile one at best, with doom portended by natural disasters (e.g, Floodland and The Day after Tomorrow), rogue asteroids (e.g., Life as We Knew It and Armageddon), nuclear fallout (e.g., Z for Zachariah and The Terminator), biological malfunction (e.g., The Chrysalids and Children of Men) and the increasingly-visible zombie apocalypse (e.g., Rot and Ruin and The Walking Dead). Clearly, recent popular media offerings manifest the strain evident in our ongoing relationship with the end of days; to be an American in the modern age is to realize that everything under—and including—the sun will kill us if given half a chance. Given the prevalence of the themes like death and destruction in the current entertainment environment, it comes as no surprise that we turn to fiction to craft a kind of saving grace; although these impulses do not necessarily take the form of traditional utopias, our current culture definitely seems to yearn for something—or, more accurately, somewhere—better.
In particular, teenagers, as the subject of Young Adult (YA) fiction, have long been subjects for this kind of exploration with contemporary authors like Cory Doctorow, Paolo Bacigalupi, and M. T. Anderson exploring the myriad issues that American teenagers face as they build upon a trend that includes foundational works by Madeline L’Engle, Lois Lowry, and Robert C. O’Brien. Arguably darker in tone than previous iterations, modern YA dystopia now wrestles with the dangers of depression, purposelessness, self-harm, sexual trauma, and suicide. For American teenagers, psychological collapse can be just as damning as physical decay. Yet, rather than ascribe this shift to an increasingly rebellious, moody, or distraught teenage demographic, we might consider the cultural factors that contribute to the appeal of YA fiction in general—and themes of utopia/dystopia in particular—as manifestations spill beyond the confines of YA fiction, presenting through teenage characters in programming ostensibly designed for adult audiences as evidenced by television shows like Caprica (2009-2010).
Transcendence through Technology
A spin-off of, and prequel to, Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009), Caprica transported viewers to a world filled with futuristic technology, arguably the most prevalent of which was the holoband. Operating on basic notions of virtual reality and presence, the holoband allowed users to, in Matrix parlance, “jack into” an alternate computer-generated space, fittingly labeled by users as “V world.” But despite its prominent place in the vocabulary of the show, the program itself never seemed to be overly concerned with the gadget; instead of spending an inordinate amount of time explaining how the device worked, Caprica chose to explore the effect that it had on society.
Calling forth a tradition steeped in teenage hacker protagonists (or, at the very least, ones that belonged to the “younger” generation), our first exposure to V world—and to the series itself—comes in the form of an introduction to an underground space created by teenagers as an escape from the real world. Featuring graphic sex, violence, and murder, this iteration does not appear to align with traditional notions of a utopia but does represent the manifestation of Caprican teenagers’ desires for a world that is both something and somewhere else. And although immersive virtual environments are not necessarily a new feature in Science Fiction television, with references stretching from Star Trek’s holodeck to Virtuality, Caprica’s real contribution to the field was its choice to foreground the process of V world’s creation and the implications of this construct for the shows inhabitants.
Taken at face value, shards like the one shown in Caprica’s first scene might appear to be nothing more than virtual parlors, the near-future extension of chat rooms for a host of bored teenagers. And in some ways, we’d be justified in this reading as many, if not most, of the inhabitants of Caprica likely conceptualize the space in this fashion. Cultural critics might readily identify V world as a proxy for modern entertainment outlets, blaming media forms for increases in the expression of uncouth urges. Understood in this fashion, V world represents the worst of humanity as it provides an unreal (and surreal) existence that is without responsibilities or consequences. But Caprica also pushes beyond a surface understanding of virtuality, continually arguing for the importance of creation through one of its main characters, Zoe.
Seen one way, the very foundation of virtual reality and software—programming—is itself the language and act of world creation, with code serving as architecture (Pesce, 1999). If we accept Lawrence Lessig’s maxim that “code is law” (2006), we begin to see that cyberspace, as a construct, is infinitely malleable and the question then becomes not one of “What can we do?” but “What should we do?” In other words, if given the basic tools, what kind of existence will we create and why?
One answer to this presents in the form of Zoe, who creates an avatar that is not just a representation of herself but is, in effect, a type of virtual clone that is imbued with all of Zoe’s memories. Here we invoke a deep lineage of creation stories in Science Fiction that exhibit resonance with Frankenstein and even the Judeo-Christian God who creates man in his image. In effect, Zoe has not just created a piece of software but has, in fact, created life!—a discovery whose implications are immediate and pervasive in the world of Caprica. Although Zoe has not created a physical copy of her “self” (which would raise an entirely different set of issues), she has achieved two important milestones through her development of artificial sentience: the cyberpunk dream of integrating oneself into a large-scale computer network and the manufacture of a form of eternal life.
Despite Caprica’s status as Science Fiction, we see glimpses of Zoe’s process in modern day culture as we increasingly upload bits of our identities onto the Internet, creating a type of personal information databank as we cultivate our digital selves. Although these bits of information have not been constructed into a cohesive persona (much less one that is capable of achieving consciousness), we already sense that our online presence will likely outlive our physical bodies—long after we are dust, our photos, tweets, and blogs will most likely persist in some form, even if it is just on the dusty backup server of a search engine company—and, if we look closely, Caprica causes us to ruminate on how our data lives on after we’re gone. With no one to tend to it, does our data run amok? Take on a life of its own? Or does it adhere to the vision that we once had for it?
Proposing an entirely different type of transcendence, another character in Caprica, Sister Clarice, hopes to use Zoe’s work in service of a project called “apotheosis.” Representing a more traditional type of utopia in that it represents a paradisiacal space offset from the normal, Clarice aims to construct a type of virtual heaven for believers of the One True God, offering an eternal virtual life at the cost of one’s physical existence. Perhaps speaking to a sense of disengagement with the existent world, Clarice’s vision also reflects a tradition that conceptualizes cyberspace as a chance where humanity can try again, a blank slate where society can be re-engineered. Using the same principles that are available to Zoe, Clarice sees a chance to not only upload copies of existent human beings, but bring forth an entire world through code. Throughout the series, Clarice strives to realize her vision, culminating in a confrontation with Zoe’s avatar who has, by this time, obtained a measure of mastery over the virtual domain. Suggesting that apotheosis cannot be granted, only earned, Clarice’s dream of apotheosis literally crumbles around her as her followers give up their lives in vain.
Although it is unlikely that we will see a version of Clarice’s apotheosis anytime in the near future, the notion of constructed immersive virtual worlds does not seem so far off. At its core, Caprica asks us, as a society, to think carefully about the types of spaces that we endeavor to realize and the ideologies that drive such efforts. If we understand religion as a structured set of beliefs that structure and order this world through our belief in the next, we can see the overlap between traditional forms of religion and the efforts of technologists like hackers, computer scientists, and engineers. As noted by Mark Pesce, Vernor Vinge’s novella True Names spoke to a measure of apotheosis and offered a new way of understanding the relationship between the present and the future—what Vinge offered to hackers was, in fact, a new form of religion (Pesce, 1999). Furthermore, aren’t we, as creators of these virtual worlds fulfilling one of the functions of God? Revisiting the overlap between doomsday/apocalyptic/dystopian fiction as noted in the paper’s opening and Science Fiction, we see a rather seamless integration of ideas that challenges the traditional notion of a profane/sacred divide; in their own ways, both the writings of religion and science both concern themselves with some of the same themes, although they may, at times, use seemingly incompatible language.
Ultimately, however, the most powerful statement made by Caprica comes about as a result of the extension to arguments made on screen: by invoking virtual reality, the series begs viewers to consider the overlay of an entirely subjective reality onto a more objective one. Not only presenting the coexistence of multiple realities as a fact, Caprica asks us to understand how actions undertaken in one world affect the other. On a literal level, we see that the rail line of New Cap City (a virtual analogue of Caprica City, the capital of the planet of Caprica) is degraded (i.e., “updated) to reflect a destroyed offline train, but, more significantly, the efforts of Zoe and Clarice speak to the ways in which our faith in virtual worlds can have a profound impact on “real” ones. How, then, do our own beliefs about alternate realities (be it heaven, spirits, string theory, or media-generated fiction) shape actions that greatly affect our current existence? What does our vision of the future make startlingly clear to us and what does it occlude? What will happen as future developments in technology increase our sense of presence and further blur the line between fiction and reality? What will we do if the presence of eternal virtual life means that “life” loses its meaning? Will we reinscribe rules onto the world to bring mortality back (and with it, a sense of urgency and finality) like Capricans did in New Cap City? Will there come a day where we choose a virtual existence over a physical one, participating in a mass exodus to cyberspace as we initiate a type of secular rapture?
As we have seen, online environments have allowed for incredible amounts of innovation and, on some days, the future seems inexplicably bright. Shows like Caprica are valuable for us as they provide a framework through which the average viewer can discuss issues of presence and virtuality without getting overly bogged down by technospeak. On some level, we surely understand the issues we see on screen as dilemmas that are playing out in a very human drama and Science Fiction offerings like Caprica provide us with a way to talk about subjects that we will confront in the future although we may not even realize that we are doing so at the time. Without a doubt, we should nurture this potential while remaining mindful of our actions; we should strive to attain apotheosis but never forget why we wanted to get there in the first place.
Lessig, L. (2006, January). Socialtext. Retrieved September 10, 2011, from Code 2.0: https://www.socialtext.net/codev2/
Pesce, M. (1999, December 19). MIT Communications Forum. Retrieved September 12, 2011, from Magic Mirror: The Novel as a Software Development Platform: http://web.mit.edu/comm-forum/papers/pesce.html
 Although the show is generally quite smart about displaying the right kind of content for the medium of television (e.g., flushing out the world through channel surfing, which not only gives viewers glimpses of the world of Caprica but also reinforces the notion that Capricans experience their world through technology), the ability to visualize V world (and the transitions into it) are certainly an element unique to an audio-visual presentation. One of the strengths of the show, I think, is its ability to add layers of information through visuals that do not call attention to themselves. These details, which are not crucial to the story, flush out the world of Caprica in a way that a book could not, for while a book must generally mention items (or at least allude to them) in order to bring them into existence, the show does not have to ever name aspects of the world or actively acknowledge that they exist. Moreover, I think that there is something rather interesting about presenting a heavily visual concept through a visual medium that allows viewers to identify with the material in a way that they could not if it were presented through text (or even a comic book). Likewise, reading Neal Stephenson’s A Diamond Age (which prominently features a book) allows one to reflect on one’s own interaction with the book itself—an opportunity that would not be afforded to you if you watched a television or movie adaptation.
 By American cable television standards, with the unrated and extended pilot featuring some nudity.
 Much less Science Fiction as a genre!
 One could equally make the case that V world also represents a logical extension of MUDs, MOOs, and MMORPGs. The closest modern analogy might, in fact, be a type of Second Life space where users interact in a variety of ways through avatars that represent users’ virtual selves.
 Although beyond the scope of this paper, Zoe also represents an interesting figure as both the daughter of the founder of holoband technology and a hacker who actively worked to subvert her father’s creation. Representing a certain type of stability/structure through her blood relation, Zoe also introduced an incredible amount of instability into the system. Building upon the aforementioned hacker tradition, which itself incorporates ideas about youth movements from the 1960s and lone tinkerer/inventor motifs from Science Fiction in the early 20th century, Zoe embodies teenage rebellion even as she figures in a father-daughter relationship, which speaks to a particular type of familial bond/relationship of protection and perhaps stability.
 Although the link is not directly made, fans of Battlestar Galactica might see this as the start of resurrection, a process that allows consciousness to be recycled after a body dies.
 In addition, of course, is the data that is collected about us involuntarily or without our express consent.
 As background context for those who are unfamiliar with the show, the majority of Capricans worship a pantheon of gods, with monotheism looked upon negatively as it is associated with a fundamentalist terrorist organization called Soldiers of The One.
 One might in fact argue that there is no such thing as an “objective” reality as all experiences are filtered in various ways through culture, personal history, memory, and context. What I hope to indicate here, however, is that the reality experienced in the V world is almost entirely divorced from the physical world of its users (with the possible exception of avatars that resembled one’s “real” appearance) and that virtual interactions, while still very real, are, in a way, less grounded than their offline counterparts.
 Readers unfamiliar with the show should note that “Caprica” refers to both the name of the series and a planet that is part of a set of colonies. Throughout the paper, italicized versions of the word have been used to refer to the television show while an unaltered font has been employed to refer to the planet.
Despite not being an avid fan of Science Fiction when I was younger (unless you count random viewings of Star Trek reruns), I engaged in a thorough study of scientific literature in the course of pursuing a degree in the Natural Sciences. Instead of Nineteen Eighty-Four, I read books about the discovery of the cell and of cloning; instead of Jules Verne’s literary journeys, I followed the real-life treks of Albert Schweitzer. I studied Biology and was proud of it! I was smart and cool (as much as a high school student can be) for although I loved Science, I never would have identified as a Sci-Fi nerd.
But, looking back, I begin to wonder.
For those who have never had the distinct pleasure of studying Biology (or who have pushed the memory far into the recesses of their minds), let me offer a brief taste via this diagram of the Krebs Cycle:
Admittedly, not overly complicated (but certainly a lot for my high school mind to understand), I found myself making up a story of sorts in order to remember the steps. The details are fuzzy, but I seem to recall some sort of bus with passengers getting on and off as the vehicle made a circuit and ended up back at a station. I will be the first to admit that this particular tale wasn’t overly sophisticated or spectacular, but, when you think about it, wasn’t it a form of science fiction? So my story didn’t feature futuristic cars, robots, aliens, or rockets—but, at its core, it represented a narrative that helped me to make sense of my world, reconciling the language of science with my everyday vernacular. At the very least, it was a fiction about science fact.
And, ultimately, isn’t this what Science Fiction is all about (at least in part)? We can have discussions about hard vs. soft or realistic vs. imaginary, but, for me, the genre has always been about people’s connection to concepts in science and their resulting relationships with each other. Narrative allows us to explore ethical, moral, and technological issues in science that scientists themselves might not even think about. We respond to innovations with a mixture of anxiety, hope, and curiosity and the stories that we tell often reveal that we are capable of experiencing all three emotional states simultaneously! For those of us who do not know jargon, Science Fiction allows us to respond to the field on our terms as we simply try to make sense of it all. Moreover, because of its status as genre, Science Fiction also affords us the ability to touch upon deeply ingrained issues in a non-threatening manner: as was mentioned in our first class with respect to humor, our attention is so focused on tech that we “forget” that we are actually talking about things of serious import. From Frankenstein to Dr. Moreau, the Golem, Faust, Francis Bacon, Battlestar Galactica and Caprica (among many others), we have continued to struggle with our relationship to Nature and God (and, for that matter, what are Noah and Babel about if not technology!) all while using Science Fiction as a conduit. Through Sci-Fi we not only concern ourselves with issues of technology but also juggle concepts of creation/eschatology, autonomy, agency, free will, family, and society.
It would make sense, then, that modern science fiction seemed to rise concurrent with post-Industrial Revolution advancements as the public was presented with a whole host of new opportunities and challenges. Taken this way, Science Fiction has always been about the people—call it low culture if you must—and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I want to start out with a provocation: In our current age, television has become a form of religion, with the screen our altar and actors our saints.
This is, of course, not to say that television supplants other forms of traditional religion (and I would go further to suggest that any antagonism or dissonance between these types of worship says more about you than it does about the strains of belief themselves), but merely that our relationship with the medium has come to reflect many of the qualities that we associate with institutional religion as television has come to assume a pervasive, public, and central part of our lives, with our identities constructed, in part, around our position to TV. We form rituals around television viewing, regularly sitting down in front of our sets to watch True Blood instead of in pews. Or, if we judge importance through money spent instead of time, we might consider how a television is likely the single most expensive appliance we own or just how much we spend on cable per year. And, for some of us, television is the venue through which we connect to foreign others, supplementing the worship of God with a steadfast belief in Albus Dumbledore.
And what is religion, anyway?
I’ve always found it slightly ironic that my name alludes to the support of a religion that I often find myself at odds with; growing up, I had always associated the term “God” with a prominent figure in Western monotheistic religions. When I was younger, I recognized that, on some level, this notion of the Christian God was being forced upon me and I spent much of my life forming my identity in opposition to this conceptualization—I needed to escape from the oppressive and pervasive nature of the theology in order to attempt to craft my own sense of self. It has been difficult to learn that there is more to Christianity than evangelicals and that not everyone is trying to tell me how to live my life. Kant has had a large influence on my worldview and I do not think that God’s existence can be proven (or disproven); I also do not believe in a God that created the universe or exiled Adam and Eve from the Garden. This does not, however, mean that God’s existence does not have any impact on my life—God exists for those who believe in Him and the actions that result from those beliefs are very real to me. Moreover, many of the tropes that inform my work in identity and narrative derive from Christian tradition; religion, along with myths, fairy tales, and a host of other informal stories, all shape the way that we learn to view ourselves and our relationships to the world around us. So, although I continue to refrain from identifying as Christian, I would argue that I am closer to God today than I have ever been and that part of this process has come about through critical reflection on the incredible amount of television that I watch.
And stories, whether they are found in religion or on television, possess the ability to convey incredibly complex ideas to us in a way that we cannot always fully articulate. For example, take the story of Caprica’s “There Is Another Sky,” which is a familiar one if you’ve been exposed to any amount of entertainment growing up; it is the story of Alice, of Dorothy, of Neo, and of many others who have gone on a quest to become a hero. And, although he would not have described himself in terms of heroics, it is also partially the story of Jesus. Throughout the episode, various characters were admonished to “wake up” or expressed a desire to return home. Each has been ushered along by guides who have demonstrated that the power to change, to belong, to be, or become, existed in us all along. These heroes have all ventured into the darkness and found their way back to the world of the living; each of these heroes has woken up and tapped into the power that this revelation brings.
This journey is the same one we undergo when dealing with grief and death: when our loved ones die, we travel with them to the land of the dead; for a time being, a part of us dies as well. We hear the call to come back to the world of the living but also whispers from the underworld. We are scared to embark upon this path because we fear that we will become lost and will not be able to make our way back to the land of the living; we fear that we will lose ourselves in the darkness. (As a side note, this is also what the “There Is Another Sky” of the title refers to via an Emily Dickinson poem.) Funerals, whether experienced in a church or through a screen, act as rituals to transcend the everyday, allowing us to learn a script for letting go of the dead and returning to the surface.
So if we take a step back and consider Berger’s argument for the cyclical relationship between society and human beings through a process of production/externalization and consumption/internalization in conjunction with Gerbner and Gross’ Cultivation Theory, we can readily see a case made for television fulfilling some of the same core functions of religion. Television, as a product of man, follows its own internal logic and, through its existence and subsequent consumption, forces an in-kind response by its audiences. Television’s logic, then, structures and orders the world in a fashion similar to that of religion, with Gerbner and Gross suggesting that the process of identification is proportional to the amount of television consumed. In short, television, like religion, helps us to make sense of our world.
1) Reality television, in particular, provides a fruitful arena for further exploration of these concepts due to its current popularity and ability to blur the line between authenticity/fabrication. Borrowing from a heritage in documentary film making, the genre assumes a sheen of objectivity while nevertheless evidencing elements of manipulation by editors and writers. Moreover, the accessibility of its “stars” (due to their status as “normal” people) make the salience of their behavioral scripts that much more evident for people who would wish to use them as models of successful/unsuccessful behavior. Although dangerous due to a general lack of situational information/context, viewers might be tempted to repeat behavior that they see on screen, hastening the process of internalization, for it was undertaken by someone “just like me.”
2) Making a similar case for advertising’s ability to act as religion, James Twitchell contends that, “like religion, which has little to do with the actual delivery of salvation in the next world but everything to do with the ordering of life in this one, commercial speech has little to do with material objects per se but everything to do with how we perceive them” (1996). While some might object to the mixing of influences in areas such as advertising and religion, a certain amount of comingling is inevitable if we classify each entity as a belief system—a certain way of seeing the world complete with its own set of values—and understand that individuals might incorporate multiple elements into their particular worldview. (I might also suggest that a large part of the Catholic church’s growth was due to its efforts of self-promotion and advertising.) Aspects such as religion and advertising tell believers, in their own ways, what is (and is not) important in society, something that Twitchell refers to as “magic” (1996). Each characteristic also professes a particular point of view and attempts to integrate itself into everyday life, drawing on our desire to become part of something (e.g., an idea, a concept, or a movement) that is larger than ourselves. Perhaps, most importantly, these forces play on this desire in order to allow humans to give their lives meaning and worth, with a common thread being that followers can classify themselves in terms of the external: God, works of art, name brands, etc. Although the attraction may assume different forms, it survives because it continues to speak to a deep desire for structure—advertising works the same reason that we believe in high art, higher education, and higher powers.
The process of ordering and imbuing value ultimately demonstrates how advertising can not only create culture but also act to shape it, a process also evidenced by marketing techniques’ ability to consume and/or reference previously shared cultural knowledge while simultaneously contributing to the cultural milieu. The concurrent horizontal and vertical spread of advertising is reminiscent of memes, a concept created by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. According to Dawkins, memes represent discrete units of cultural knowledge that propagate in a particular society (analogous to genes) through a number of transmission methods (1976). While the concept of memetics certainly spans across areas other than advertising, Dawkins notably included, as examples of memes, catch phrases (i.e., slogans), melodies (i.e., jingles), and fads. Consequentially, although advertising inevitably forms a new type of culture in societies, ads also serve to broaden exposure to, or strengthen the connections of, existing aspects of culture for those subjected to it as they burrow deep into our collective society.
Despite the intricate and multi-faceted nature of its impact, we can use the narrative characteristics of advertising as framework for understanding its influence. On a basic level, the format of advertising typically takes the form of a loose narrative, complete with implied back-story—television spots, in particular, provide a salient example of this. Yet, the messages present in advertising can also cause us to question our sense of self as we evaluate our belief systems and values as previously mentioned. Consider how personal identities can result from narrative or actually be narrative; sentences containing “to be” verbs can be unpacked to reveal a larger narrative structure that can help us to “cope with new situations in terms of our past experience and gives us tools to plan for the future” (Sfard & Prusak, 2005). Twitchell supports this idea by mentioning that “the real force of Adcult is felt where we least expect it: in our nervous system, in our shared myths, in our concepts of self, and in our marking of time” (1996, p. 124). Advertising, it seems, not only allows us to construct a framework through which we understand our world, but also continually informs us about who we are (or who we should be) as a collection of narratives that serves to influence the greater perceptions of youth in a manner reminiscent of the role of television in Cultivation Theory (Gerbner & Gross, 1976).
Dawkins, R. (1976). The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Gerbner, G., & Gross, L. (1976). Living with television: The violence profile. The Journal of Communication, 26(2), 172-199.
Sfard, A., & Prusak, A. (2005). Telling identities: In search of an analytic tool for investigating learning as a culturally shaped activity. Educational Researcher, 34(4), 14-22.
Twitchell, J. (1996). Adcult USA: The Triumph of Advertising in American Culture. New York: Columbia University Press.
In a move long-suspected by many, Texas governor Rick Perry officially declared his intention to seek the office of President this past Saturday. Perry, who garnered national attention with his rally, The Response, once again invokes—or at least should cause one to question—the manner in which religion has been interwoven into a political climate that has, of late, seemed to largely fixate on the economic issues of budgets, debt, and unemployment.
Without diminishing the importance of these topics or their coverage, the recent debates in Iowa suggest that understanding the potential impact of religion in the various GOP campaigns is of value whether one identifies as Republican or not. Beyond the gaffe of news anchor Ainsley Earhardt, and the larger discussion (and negotiation) of Mormonism that it references, religion’s presence seems to have manifested in subtle, but potentially significant, ways throughout this campaign season.
Responding, perhaps, to a recent poll that indicated Americans’ preference for a strongly religious President (despite not being able to correctly identify the specific beliefs of major candidates), Fox News displayed a graphic during the Iowa debates that indicated three pieces of information: religion, marital status, and number of children. Interestingly, this graphic was paired with another image showcasing each individual candidate’s political experience, perhaps suggesting that Fox News considered these two sets of information equally important for viewers.
And, in a way, maybe they are.
During the debates on Thursday, Byron York asked candidate Michele Bachmann about how her religious beliefs—specifically her belief in the virtue of submissiveness—might affect her behavior, citing her prior decision to become a tax lawyer as a result of her understanding of God’s desire as channeled through her husband. Although this inquiry elicited a strong display of displeasure from the audience as extraneous or unfair, the question seemed designed to probe Bachmann’s decision-making process in the past as well as what might shape her choices in the future if she were to become President.
So maybe the relevant concerns aren’t necessarily what religion a person is or isn’t (although this does not excuse the propagation of misinformation), but rather specifically how these beliefs influence a candidate’s perception of the world and the behavioral responses that those filters elicit. Undoubtedly, religion plays a role in shaping our understanding of the world and the range of perceived actions that is available to us at any given moment.
But beliefs aren’t exclusive to the religious community: if the recent skirmishes over the federal debt ceiling have taught us anything, it is that we demonstrate a potential aversion to complexity or are perhaps slightly overwhelmed by the enormity of problems posed by the modern world. Our own response to these looming presences is to streamline the world, tending to engage with our environment in the specific, and limited, ways that align with our mental picture of the world.
So, before we criticize Rick Perry’s drive to ask God to fix America—as tempting it might be for atheists and secularists—we need to examine the human desire to seek out, and ascribe to, simple answers that are readily available in times of crisis. This impulse, which seems to have largely assumed the form of religious rhetoric in the current round of Republican campaigns (and one might even argue that the content itself is not necessarily spiritual in nature if we look at the reverence given to the invocation of Reagan) seems to be the real, and often under-discussed, issue at play. Although a more arduous task, I believe that appreciating the power and presence of religion in this process will afford us a richer understanding of the American people and their relationship to contemporary politics.
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.
In today’s world, it seems that “secularization” is all too often matched with a sense of loss: whether it be the decline in institutional religion or the dissipation of enchantment, we seem to employ the term in order to forward the idea that we are moving away from something that was once valued. And, to be fair, this is true. The modern age has, since the Enlightenment, been, in fits and starts, shifting away from a life infused with religion. But, I also think that “secularization” can also speak to something larger, and more significant, than that.
Unfortunately, it appears as though “secularization” has become synonymous with Science and been placed in opposition to Religion–atheists rigidly adhere to a rather static ideology that denounces aspects of religion, preferring the explanations proffered by experiments and equations. Yet, are we simply trading one set of dogma for another as we move between extremes? For me, Science works best when it challenges Religion (and vice versa) to keep pace with the developing world. The sense of awe, mystery, and wonder inherent in religion keeps scientists humble and science reminds us that some holy laws must be reconciled with modern culture.
One of the most welcome and quoted new books on the subject is Taylor’s A Secular Age, an 896-page opus that argues that secularization has been largely positive — as long as it leaves open a “window on the transcendent.”
The spiritual and religious impulse in humans will never die, says Taylor. Even if religion doesn’t dominate a society, as it once unfortunately did in Europe and elsewhere, people will always seek the transcendent; something ultimate, larger than themselves.
The great sociologist of religion, Robert Bellah, author of Habits of the Heart, says what is needed most now is new forms of religion that work in a secular age, where they are subject to analysis and don’t rely on political endorsement.
We are seeing this today. Many open-minded forms of Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism and of smaller spiritual movements, including meditation, yoga and healing, are maintaining a sense of the transcendent in some secular, pluralistic societies.
We can partly thank the Enlightenment for the rise of secularism, with the era’s emphasis on freethinking, rationality and science. But many thinkers, including 19th-century sociologist Max Weber, also credit the advance of secularism to Protestantism.
The Protestant Reformation rejected the absolute authority claimed by the Roman Catholic church of the time.
It brought a new wave of reform, choice and intellectual questioning to Christianity. By the 19th century, Protestants were critically analyzing the Bible and trying to discern the difference between the “historical Jesus” and the Christ of unquestioned mythology.
This so-called “critical method” wasn’t an attack on the faith, as some traditionalistic Christians continue to argue today. But it was what many consider a valid attempt to challenge the taboos that surrounded Christian orthodoxy.
Seeing the synthesis of these two areas is what makes studying modern religion so fascinating. Despite a formal training in Natural Sciences, I have gradually come to appreciate the power inherent in religion and am quite excited to be in some other great minds at the USC Knight Chair in Media and Religion blog.
“There are some genuinely bad people who would like to infiltrate our country and we have got to have the guts to stand up and say ‘No.’”
By now, Newt Gingrich’s comments at the first New Hampshire Republican Presidential Debates have made the rounds, spreading across blogs, mainstream news outlets, and, of course, The Daily Show. Positioning Muslims alongside Nazis and Communists as those who would infiltrate our country, Gingrich has once again invoked anti-Muslim sentiment in the name of patriotism.
Although Gingrich’s polemic likely raised a few eyebrows, it was admittedly not all that surprising given his recent stance on the subject; highly visible in a movement that would label American Muslims as forever foreigners, Gingrich seems to have crafted himself into a candidate who is willing to engage with the popular topic of American Muslims. Despite the recent spate of coverage, Justin Elliott notes that the mainstream media has generally shied away from what might very well be the real story: the evolution of this particular brand of rhetoric by Gingrich.
Perhaps the American public is partly at fault as it clamors for briefs primed to incite moral outrage and hungers for stories that whet an appetite for spectacle. Yet, as we know, journalism also has a role to play and it is perhaps neglecting its duties in this regard. An issue larger than a simple lack of coverage, there seems to be a fundamental absence in the training of many journalists who would cover religion.
And yet religion continues to have a large presence in the current state of politics, manifesting concerns separate from the intricacies of traditional voting demographic blocs. With Rick Perry hosting an event for governors named The Response, and Reverend Gaddy of the Interfaith Alliance calling for a reduction in religion’s political presence, it appears as though this upcoming race will see the resurgence of a negotiation between the public and private aspects of religion that was recently highlighted by the Ground Zero mosque.
But it’s not only politicians who struggle to understand how religion figures into the everyday, with salvation to be had at venues unlikely as cowboy church. However, despite the potential collapse of the private/public dichotomy, are we really encouraging people to think about the role that religion plays in both of these spheres? Has our news coverage been affected by an upswing in atheism’s popularity? Religion, faith, and spirituality all bridge the gap, with values formed in private undoubtedly affecting actions displayed in public. Why, then, do we hesitate to engage in meaningful discussion of religion’s potential political impact, focusing more on what a particular individual’s religion is in lieu of an attempt to understand how and why that particular philosophy permeates a candidate’s positions? If we are content to simplify our interest to buzzwords like “pro-life” or “against gay marriage,” never challenging ourselves to understand the root causes of the issues we hold dear, how can we ever hope to convince the other side that we may in fact have a point? We insist that others see it our way and never take the time to talk to them in words that they might actually be receptive to. Rather than avoiding the issue entirely, perhaps we should encourage people to make the discussion of religion a routine practice—and provide them with the information and rhetorical tools they need in order to facilitate intelligent discussion.
Chris Tokuhama is a doctoral student in the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism where he is pursuing media/cultural studies with a concentration in Gothic Horror as an articulator of cultural anxiety. A biologist by training, Chris currently endeavors to understand transformative bodies through lenses as varied as narrative studies, media, and religion, a process that has resulted in an upcoming chapter in The Hunger Games and Philosophy focusing on issues of authenticity in celebrity. Follow his quest to find the perfect cup of coffee on Twitter at @TrojanTopher.
Flailing, lingering, drifting; in a word: restless. Horror is filled with those who cannot sleep. Ghosts, perhaps our first association, are ultimately the least helpful for they have one thing that all other undead envy: a purpose. Conversely, modern day vampires struggle to reconcile their “true natures,” cyborgs wrestle with post-humanism, and despite zombies’ evident drive, they are still miles away from truly possessing purpose. In their own ways, members of the undead horde toil without rest. Although we continue to tell tales, huddled in the dark, perhaps the decline in ghost stories means that we are no longer haunted by our pasts, instead unsure about our futures.
Narcissistic, apathetic, bored; in a word: restless. Modern youth have increasingly been painted in negative terms, each indicative of declines in the current generation. Yet, instead of castigating youth, how might we use the undead as a lens to sympathize with teenagers’ search for meaning? Both groups exist in worlds that have begun to move away from institutional and overt aspects of religion—how does each endeavor to fill the void? In a post-modern world, where all paths are equal (and hence, equally unhelpful), how do the undead and youth both fight to inscribe meaning through lived religion?
“Lost” is perhaps the best one-word characterization of ABC’s Lost (2005-2010); in varying ways, individuals on the program frequently find themselves physically displaced but also, possibly more significantly, spiritually or psychically fractured. Accordingly, although the healing properties first observed on the island manifest in the form of bodily restoration, the real power of the island lies in its ability to heal wounded souls. Although the effects of the island can be traced along a number of individual characters’ trajectories, John Locke evidences a number of incredibly intuitive arcs, if not the most immediately relatable.
One of the episodes that delves into John’s past, “Deus Ex Machina,” presents Locke’s life prior to his arrival on the island and thusly invites the viewer to puzzle the relationship between the two depictions, particularly as the character explores the role of the potential powers inherent in choice and destiny. Lost, however, is not a program that lends itself to overly simplistic representations or one-dimensional readings and, as a result, evidences additional meanings when examined through the lens of banal religion (Hjarvard 2008). The opening scene, for example, depicts the game Mousetrap and features Locke explaining the rules of the game to a curious child, including the phrase, “If you set it up just right.” While this bit of dialogue could easily be written off as innocuous, we can think about the relationship of Mousetrap to a larger religious context: this particular game requires that players follow a precise sequence of predetermined rules and Locke’s statement is indicative of his belief that control and rigid structure are prerequisites for success. Supporting this idea, our reintroduction to Locke’s characters in the “previouslies” comes in the form of him shouting, “Don’t tell me what I can and can’t do.” Locke, before the island, is a character who lashes out because he does not yet understand the bigger picture.
Compare this incident of machine building with Locke’s attempts to construct a trebuchet that will break into a mysterious hatch. In some ways, although Locke has now professed a belief in the will of the island, his actions demonstrate a failure to understand that fate cannot be forced; had Locke actually internalized this message, he would most likely not have even attempted a trebuchet in the first place. Although Locke later fully embodies the Man of Faith, we see that he is still growing at this point in the series. Fittingly, the trebuchet not only collapses but also physically injures Locke—the island is taking back the mobility it had bestowed. However, rather than view this as a punitive gesture, we can understand that the island is instead arguably attempting to teach Locke a larger lesson that only beings to manifest at the end of the episode as he struggles to carry Boone back to camp despite his weakened legs: our limitations can be overcome but we must be willing to exert effort.
 Along with Jack, Locke’s actions support the ongoing series conflict between Science and Faith. In “Deus Ex Machina” Jack demonstrates the dominance of Science through his diagnosis of Sawyer’s hyperopic vision (i.e., Science is one path to the truth) and the equation of phantom smells with a brain tumor, which builds upon Emily’s (Locke’s mother) schizophrenic condition and the notion that hallucinations and irrationality are negative qualities. Contrast this subplot with the validation of Locke’s dream and we begin to see the virtually invisible ways that the episode weaves together competing ideologies.
 Whether in the form of a mind-control ray, manipulation, enchantment, mesmerism, being a slave to fate, Haitian zombies, possession, or being bound to a wheelchair, we continuously encounter the same themes; the manifestations vary with each telling but they all partially speak to a latent fear of losing our free will and our personal sense of agency. This is, I feel, such an issue for us because we have developed in a society that ascribes to Individualism—there is, in fact, an “us” to lose.
For the better part of the 20th century, American ideology found itself forever altered as the superhero archetypes embodied by the Golden Age of Comics filtered throughout society. These indelible hand-drawn figures were, for a generation, undoubtedly novel but also simultaneously a manifestation of mythic themes that had arisen time and again in human history. Much like in any folklore, however, the retelling as a juxtaposition of the new and the old—here I refer to both the act and the product—informs savvy observers about the nuances present in the culture of the storytellers. For a scholar, the questions posed by the audience are just as important as the answers. Thus, when NBC’s Heroes appeared on television screens in 2006, academics paid attention as audiences immediately began to contemplate the age-old role and representation of heroes albeit in a modern setting: What does it mean that heroes don’t have costumes? Are heroes appearing around the world? Does this mean that I could be a hero?
While all of these musings are important to consider, one of the most fundamental questions series creator Tim Kring asks is, “How do we react to, respond to, negotiate with, and acknowledge power in society?” As American audiences, we have come to understand the concept of power in terms of its abuse—we are a country built on the protection and conservation of freedom and have grown to abhor the curbing of our perceived personal liberties. Moreover, in a post-9/11 environment we have again come to believe in the myth of American Exceptionalism, the idea that our nation embodies good in the world and we, as citizens, are tasked with defending that ideal. Or perhaps we feel powerless as we live with the knowledge that a bomb (nuclear but also possibly biochemical) could wipe us out in an instant; our notions of invulnerability have been shattered and we are desperately seeking to regain a sense of safety and security. Ultimately, this is one of the true strengths of Heroes: the genius of the show rests in its ability to have potentially threatening themes hide in plain sight. For although we may shy away from discussions of power in political arenas, we feel free to discuss the same ideas when they are conceptualized as special abilities in the realm of superheroes. Underneath the veneer of science fiction, we find all too familiar issues as discussions of Heroes’ genetic mutations (both in the show and amongst audiences) parallel conversations that invoke Social Darwinism and the imagination of ourselves as potential heroes positions us to contemplate the role of choice and agency in our lives.
So while some might argue that the show appears to ascribe to a secular philosophy, with its focus on the individual and a palpable scientific undercurrent, I would suggest that it also demonstrates that a deep-seeded sense of wonder continues to exist within us as we begin to discover and wield our own powers. Although we may not be able to read thoughts like Matt, have regenerative bodies like Claire, or copy others’ gifts like Peter, we realize that, in their place, we have developed the ability to speak our minds, access rejuvenating spirits, and, perhaps most importantly, exhibit the qualities of compassion and empathy. Slowly, we come to understand that being human is not a limiting quality as we once thought; instead, it is precisely because we are human that we can accomplish extraordinary things. “Yatta!” indeed.
 In his essay, “Chiariidaa o Sukue, Sekai o Sukue!” Rudy Busto makes reference to the ordinary as extraordinary (2009), a thought supported by the work of Darko Suvin who describes the ability of science fiction to encode the ordinary (1979). While I do not disagree with this point of view, I tend to occasionally conceptualize the relationship in slightly different manner: instead of seeing the ordinary as something that gives birth to the extraordinary, the ordinary is the extraordinary.
HBO’s Six Feet Under (2001-2005) presents viewers with a rather paradoxical situation: although ostensibly a show saturated with death (the main characters work for a family-run funeral home), the series’ core is a frank exploration of human existence in the wake of the deceased. Quite literally, the show is about life after death.
It follows quite naturally, then, that the third season episode “Twilight” concerns itself less with the moral arguments surrounding capital punishment and instead chooses to focus on the effects that the act has on those who survive. Taking this argument a bit further, we can see that while, on one level, the opening teaser of “Twilight” could be viewed in terms of lethal injection and punishment, it also more broadly sets up a theme that resonates throughout the rest of the episode: in what ways do we choose to let things die (symbolically or otherwise)? In effect, “Twilight” asks us to consider that capital punishment isn’t necessarily something that is solely defined by midnight stays and candlelight vigils; we make choices in our everyday lives that sentence others to a kind of death, whether it consists of the termination of a relationship, accepting the reality that a missing loved one might be permanently gone, or having an abortion. Importantly, while displaying all of this, the show does not pass judgment on individuals, but instead examines the inner turmoil incurred as part of the decision making process and suggests that although the choices made by the characters might indeed be the right ones for them, they do not come without emotional consequences.
Six Feet Under thusly takes a rather unexpected third position in the debate over capital punishment: instead of proclaiming the deed right or wrong, the show asks viewers to consider if they are prepared for the emotional fallout that comes from literal or figurative execution. This episode, like many others in the series, asks us to contemplate the role and power that death has in our lives—and I would argue that determining this answer for oneself greatly impacts one’s view on the morality of capital punishment. Ultimately, as we struggle with the notions of how and why life is sacred, we are also challenged by the show to consider the ways that we routinely (and virtually without notice!) determine that a life, or lives, are not worthy.
 The title of the episode also evokes a sense of the liminal state with twilight literally representing a sort of transition period but also manifests as a sedative taken by Claire during her abortion procedure and is described by the nurse as invoking a state in which “You’re not really gone, but you’re not really here.” There is, perhaps, no better line in the episode that describes the relationship of the dead to the living.
 As noted in Gary Laderman’s Sacred Matters, our constant preoccupation with death manifests in myriad ways, from Gothic Horror (my particular area of interest) to popular music to philosophy. The significance of the condition is also demonstrated by the various rituals that we have constructed to deal with death and dying—from the often-present funeral and wake (which are, to me, mainly an effort by the living to create a sacred space that confers a sense of community during a time of crisis) to the rite of the last meal and the rather morbid recording of prisoners’ last words in the state of Texas (http://www.tdcj.state.tx.us/stat/executedoffenders.htm). The existence of these rituals indicates that we continue to struggle with the uncertainty and finality of death and also place particular emphasis on actions undertaken prior to crossing over.
It is, it seems, increasingly difficult in today’s media landscape to sustain a television series focused on characters that overtly represent figures drawn from traditional religion. At best, we might expect to see a priest, rabbi, or monk as a tertiary character who appears every now and then to impart advice to the main cast; at worst, we can anticipate seeing these same figures relegated to roles filled by guest cast in a one-off that often attempts to make an explicit point condemning the hypocrisy of religion (or, in a reversal, makes audiences feel guilty for their readiness to judge religion). Add to this the progressively more visible outrage from religious groups about the portrayal of their faith on television and it seems easy to understand why network television, which often strives to appeal to the lowest common denominator in entertainment, tends to stay away from the issue of religion.
Some of this indignation, I would argue, stems from the inability or unwillingness of religious groups to work productively with media in order to create programming that portrays fully-formed characters that embody positive aspects of institutional religion. Without liaisons that understand the constraints and demands of television’s economic realities, religion has little hope of convincing producers and network executives to move away from the salacious, defamatory, blasphemous, and lucrative content presently on the air.
And yet, underneath the turmoil, religious displays continue to quietly manifest in a nebulous middle ground labeled by viewers and characters as faith or spirituality according to S. Elizabeth Bird. It seems as though extreme examples of religious expression (or lack thereof) have become targets for attack in television as audiences have become accustomed to religious structures or ideologies that depict a strident belief in a vague, yet ever-present, other power. As a result, discussions of faith have become coded and are not readily apparent until one begins to think deeply about what is being shown on screen.
My favorite example of this process, which relates to Bird’s exploration of House, comes in the form of David Fincher’s Fight Club. Read simply, the movie seems to advocate for gratuitous violence and wonton destruction but, upon closer inspection, one quickly realizes that although the movie is saturated with violence, it is not about violence. Rather, we can think about Fight Club as a form of communion that allows disaffected and disconnected men to come together in ritual that satiates their desire to feel. Here, in the sacred circle, men feel a profound sense of community and also remember what it means to be alive; the movie ultimately features a respectful discussion of some of religion’s central tenets carefully balanced out by the satirical appearance of a pugilistic priest despite not being about religion.
 This is certainly not to say those protesting have come to represent the entirety (or even majority) of their faith, but that online tools have made it easier for these groups to find each other and to consolidate power. These same online tools have also renegotiated the distance between audiences and networks, also allowing disgruntled groups to be heard and seen much more effectively.
 Bird, S. E. (2009). True Believers nd Atheists Need Not Apply. In D. Winston (Ed.), Small Screen Big Picture: Television and Lived Religion (pp. 17-41). Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press.
 Here I focus on the movie for its similarity to televised media, although the original novel by Chuck Palahniuk could evidence similar comparisons and arguments.
 The main character is in fact so disconnected from himself that he manifests two entirely different personalities and is so unable to reconcile the two that he ultimately shoots himself in the face in order to kill off his alter ego!
Although the answer is more complicated, it isworth it as the simple act of believing possesses the power to be transformative in and of itself.
Reading about Jesus as a Hufflepuff in this blog post. Which, of course it’s not that simple but Helgawas gracious in ways that the others were not. Self/others + tangible/intangible categorizations become murky with this one…
“We’re just left with the monolith, the Harry Potter Experience, which feels distinctly Muggle-wrought: theme parks, movie memorabilia circling the globe, and Pottermore, Rowling’s new digital project, which, despite her promises of a fan-dominated site, may have been created simply to sell e-books.”
Shots fired. A breath taken. Reset, reload, refocus. Faith tested and testaments of faith.
Indeed, on one level, “Blowback” was an episode rife with tests: from the A story of Lacy to the background created by Daniel and the literal blowback of Durham/Clarice, we see characters subject to various types of tests. Who succeeds? More importantly, who fails? Why?
But also consider that our main cast suffers setbacks, learning to triumph in their own ways. Facing challenges small and large (Lacy’s whole trip to Gemenon–and her life in general–is, in its way, one big setback, is it not?), we see characters hardening before our eyes. Although the easy connection presence of faith in the show can be discussed in the context of mono/polytheists, terrorism, and the kissing of Apollo’s arrow, I would argue that a more interesting discussion to be had centers around the role of faith (is it even there?) in the face of adversity.
This week, our class continued to explore ideas of gender in the world of Caprica. Focusing primarily on the women, students began to contemplate the ways in which sexuality and gender intersect. Although I study this particular overlap extensively in respect to Horror, our class evidenced some interesting ideas in this arena and I will leave it to them to carry on the discussion.
Before proceeding, I should take a quick second to differentiate the terms “sex” and “gender”: I use “sex” in reference to a biological classification while I see “gender” as socially constructed. Although patriarchal/heteronormative stances have traditionally aligned the two concepts, positioning them along a static binary, scholarship in fields such as Gender Studies and Sociology has effectively demonstrated that the interaction between sex and gender is much more fluid and dynamic (Rowley, 2007). For example, in our current culture, we have metrosexuals coexisting alongside retrosexuals and movements to redefine female beauty (the Dove “Real Beauty” ads were mentioned in class and their relative merits–or lack thereof—deserve a much deeper treatment than I can provide here).
Although a number of students in our class focused on the sexuality ofAmanda Graystone, Diane Winston poignantly noted that the character of Amanda also invoked the complex web of associations between motherhood, women, and gender. Motherhood, I would argue, plays an important part in the definition of female identity in America; our construction of the “female” continually assigns meaning to women’s lives based on their status as, or desire to be, mothers. (Again, drawing upon my history with gender and violence, I suggest that we can partially understand the pervasive nature of this concept by considering how society variously views murderers, female murderers, and mothers who murder their children.) In line with this idea, we see that almost every female featured in the episode was directly connected to motherhood in some fashion (with Evelyn perhaps being the weakest manifestation, although we know that she has just started down the path that will lead her into becoming the mother of young Willie).
Amanda, the easiest depiction to deconstruct, voices a struggle of modern career women as she feels the pressure to “have it all.” Although Amanda tells Mar-Beth that she suffered from Post-Partum Depression, and explains her general inability to connect with her daughter as a newborn (the ramifications of which we have already seen played out over the course of the series thus far), she later informs Agent Durham that she circumvented Mar-Beth’s suspicions by lying (we assume that she was referring to the aforementioned interaction, but this is not specified). For me, this moment was significant in that it made Amanda instantly more relatable—something that I have struggled with for a while now—as a woman who may have, in fact, tried desperately to connect with her daughter but simply could not.
Both Daniel and Amanda, it seems, had trouble fully understanding their daughter Zoe. While Amanda’s struggles play out on an emotional level, Daniel labors to decipher the secret behind Zoe’s resurrection program (a term charged with religious significance and also resonance within the world ofBattlestar Galactica). Here we see a parallel to the female notion of motherhood–Daniel, in his own way, is giving birth to a new life (he hopes). Yet, as the title alludes to, Daniel experiences a false labor: his baby is not quite ready to be let loose in the world. Moreover, like his wife, Daniel attempts to force something that should occur naturally, resulting in a less-than-desired outcome.
For Daniel, this product is a virtual Amanda, who was discussed by some of our class as they pointed out stark differences in sexuality and sexualization. Although the contrast between the real and virtual versions of Amanda holds mild interest, the larger question becomes one of the intrinsic value of “realness.” Despite Daniel’s best attempts, he continues to berate the virtual Amanda for not being real, much to her dismay as she, through no fault of her own, cannot understand that she is fundamentally broken. Although not necessarily appropriate for this course, we can think about the issues raised by virtual reality, identities, and reputations along with our constant drive for “authenticity” in a world forever affected by mediated representations. Popular culture has depicted dystopian scenarios like The Matrix that argue against our infatuation with the veneer—underneath a shiny exterior, some would argue, we are rotting. Images, according to critics like Daniel Boorstin and Walter Benjamin, leave something to be desired.
Sub-par copies also appear in Graystone Industries’ newest advertisement for “Grace,” the commercial deployment of Daniel’s efforts, along with a contestation over image. Daniel quibbles about his virtual image (which is admittedly similar to the one that Joe Adama saw the first time that he entered V world) but doesn’t balk at selling the bigger lie of reunification. (Exploring this, I think, tells us a lot about Daniel and his perception of the world.)
On one level, what Daniel offers is a sort of profane/perverted Grace that is situated firmly in the realm of the material; although it addresses notions of the afterlife and death, it attempts to exert control over them through science. Drawing again from my background in Horror and Science Fiction, we can see that while Daniel’s promise is appealing, we can come back “wrong” (Buffy) or degrade as we continue to be recycled (Aeon Flux). Media warnings aside, I would argue that the allure of Daniel’s Grace is the promise of eternal life but would ultimately be undermined by the program’s fulfillment. In a similar fashion, religion, I think, holds meaning for us because it offers a glimpse of the world beyond but does not force us to contemplate what it would actually be like to live forever without any hope of escaping the mundanity of our lives (Horror, on the other hand, firmly places us in the void of infinity and explores what happens to us once we’ve crossed over to the other side).
Perhaps more importantly, however, the reunited parties in the commercial for Grace reconstitute a family: after panning over a torch bearing two triangles (which, if we ascribe to Dan Brown’s symbology lessons, could represent male/female), we see a husband returned to his wife and children. Needless to say, the similarities between the situation portrayed and Daniel’s own are obvious. On one level, the commercial has a certain poignancy when juxtaposed with Daniel’s low-grade avatar but also subtly reinforces the deeper narrative thread of the family within the episode.
Picking up on a different representation of the family, classmates also wrote about the contrasting depictions of motherhood as embodied in Mar-Beth andClarice. Although some students focused on the connections between genderroles and parenting, others commented on the divergent views of Mar-Beth and Clarice concerning God and family. One student even mentioned parallels between Clarice and Abraham in order to explore the relationship between the self, the family, and God. Culminating in a post that considers the role of mothers and females in the structure of the family, this succession of blog entries examines family dynamics from the interpersonal level to the metaphysical.
Although we each inevitably respond to different things in these episodes, I believe that there is much to gain by looking at “False Birth” through the lens of the family. For example, what if we look back at a relatively minor (if creepy) scene where Ruth effectively tells Evelyn to sleep with her son? Much like Clarice (and arguably Mar-Beth) is/are the matriarchs of their house, Ruth rules over the Adamas. Since we are exploring gender, let’s contrast these examples with that of the Guatrau, who holds sway over a different type of family—how does Clarice compare with Ruth? Ruth with the Guatrau? How does the organizational structure of the family in each case work with (or against) religion? We often talk about the ability of religion (organized or lived) to provide meaning, to tell us who/what we are, and to develop community—and yet these are also functions of family.
Hinted at by the inclusion of Atreus, whose story is firmly situated in family in a fashion that would give any modern soap opera a run for its money, we begin to see a pattern as the writers continually reinforce the connections between family and the divine. The short version of this saga is that Atreus’ grandfather cooked and served his son Pelops as a test to the gods (and you thought Clarice was ruthless) and incurs wrath and a curse. After Pelops causes the death of his father-in-law, Atreus and his brother Thyestes murder their step-brother and are banished. In their new home, Atreus becomes king and Thyestes wrests the throne away from Atreus (after previously starting an affair with his wife). In revenge Atreus kills and cooks Thyestes’ son (and taunts him with parts of the body!) and Thyestes eventually has sex with his daughter (Pelopia) in order to produce a son (Aegisthus) who is fated to kill Atreus. Before Atreus dies, however, he fathers Agamemnon and Menelaus, two brothers with their own sordid history that includes marrying sisters (one of whom is the famous Helen). As most of you know, the Trojan war then ensues and Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia; although Iphigenia is happy to die for the war, her mother, Clytemnestra, holds a grudge and sleeps with Aegisthus (remember him?) and eventually kills Agamemnon out of anger. The son of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon, Orestes, kills his mother in order to avenge his father and, in so doing, becomes one of the first tragic heroes who has to choose between two evils. If we want to take this a step further, we can also examine the resonance between Orestes and Mal from Firefly, to bring it back full circle.
The name of Mar-Beth may be an allusion to MacBeth (although it is entirely possible that I am reading too much into this), which is also a story about power, kings, and family. Although I am most familiar with Lady MacBeth and her OCD (obsessed with her guilt, she is compelled to wash invisible blood off of her hands), I would also suggest that Lady MacBeth overlaps with Clarice and the relationship between the MacBeths is similar to that of the Clarice and her husbands.
As much as our class does not focus on institutional religion, a background in the Christian concept of Grace provides some interesting insight into Daniel’s project. Although I am not an expert in the subject—I very much defer to Diane—I think that we could make a strong argument for the role of Grace in Christianity and its links to salvation as thematic elements in “False Labor.” Building off of my reaction post, we might think about the role that Grace plays in Daniel’s life and how Joe’s words to Daniel on the landing of the Graystone building speak to exactly this concept.
There seems to be an interesting distinction developing between notions of the earth/soil and the air/sky. The Taurons/Halatha, as we have seen before and continue to see in this episode, evidence a strong spiritual connection with the soil (and are also called “Dirteaters”) as Sam utters a prayer before he is about to be executed. We also see the Halatha grumble when the figure of Phaulkon on a television screen, whose name can be associated with flying and the sky. Moreover, in their ways, Daniel and Joe embody this duality as they both show concern for their families but attempt to resolve their issues in different ways–Joe, as is his want, concentrates on the material while Daniel looks toward the intangible.
I see you.
To see is to dream. To see is to know, to understand, and to accept. To see is to recognize what is still pure and true underneath all of the lies. To see is to unearth all that I have tried to hide, all that is broken and dirty.
To forgive is not to wipe the slate clean; to forgive is not to forget. To forgive is to love in spite of what you know. To forgive is to love because of what you know. To forgive is to love more than you ever thought you could, in the process becoming more than you ever thought you could. To forgive is to truly see.
And to truly see is to look past the facade–the image, the representation–as an inferior copy of who I really am (and maybe it’s not really even me at all). To truly see is to love.
I see you.
To this day, I still remember the first time that I rejected Gender Studies as a valid area of concern: in college, a friend had joined the Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance and I had declined an invitation to attend. I was, at the time, sympathetic toward women but still too caught up in notions of second wave feminism to identify with a cause in any formal way (well, that and the challenge to the already fragile male ego made joining such an organization an impossibility for me at the time). I am not proud of this moment, but not particularly ashamed either—it was what it was.
How ironic, then, that issues of gender have become one of my primary focuses in media: the representation, construction, configuration, positioning, and subversion of gender is what often excites me about the texts that I study. Primarily rooted in Horror and Science Fiction, I look at archetypes ranging from the Final Girl and New Male (Clover, 1992), to the sympathetic/noble male and predatory lesbian vampires of the 1970s, to the extreme sexualities of the future.
In particular, I enjoy the genres of Horror, Fantasy, and Science Fiction because they allow us to grapple with deeply-seeded thoughts, feelings, and attitudes in ways that we could never confront directly. And, unlike traditional religion, which often attempts to tackle “the big questions” head on, media can provide a space to explore and experiment as we struggle to find the answers that we so desperately seek. The challenge for our students is that so much of American culture is steeped in traditions that reflect underlying aspects of patriarchy; from economics, to religion, to politics and culture, America’s values, thought, and language have been influenced by patriarchal hegemony (King, 1993). All of a sudden, we begin to question what we have been taught and wonder how history has been inscribed by men, afforded privilege to males, restricted the power of the female, and subjugated the female body (Creed, 1993).
And, the female body, as a site of contestation, provides a solid point of entry for a discussion of gender issues; gender is inextricably linked with sex—Clover, for example, argues that sex follows gender performance in Horror films (1992)—and also inseparable from discussion of the bodies that manifest and enact issues of gender. Consider how women’s bodies have traditionally been tied to notions of home, family, and reproduction. The basic biological processes inherent to women serve to define them in a way that is inescapable; as opposed to the hardness of men, women are soft, permeable, and oozing. On another level, we are treated to an examination of the female body through depictions of birth gone awry: from Alien, to possession (and its inevitable consequence of female-to-male transformation), to devil spawn, we have been conditioned to understand women as the bearers of the world’s evil.
Issues of birth also raise important notions at the intersection of science, gender, and the occult. Possession movies, in particular, have an odd history of female “victims” that undergo a series of medical tests (evidencing a binary that our class has come to label as Science vs. Magic/Faith) and feature male doctors who typically try to figure out what’s wrong with the female patient—they are literally trying to determine her secret (Burfoot & Lord, 2006). Looking at this theme in a larger context, we reference the Enlightenment (which was previously discussed in our course) and La Specola’s wax models as examples of scientific movements in the 17th century (and again in the 19th century) that sought to wrest secrets from the bodies of women, evidencing a fascination with the miracle of birth and understanding the human (particularly female) body. (La Specola as a public museum had an interesting role in introducing images of the female body into visual culture and into the minds of the public.) Underscoring the presence of wax models is a desire to delve deeper, peeling away the successive layers of the female form in order to “know” her (echoes of this same process can assuredly be found in modern horror films). It seems, then, that the rise of Science has coincided with an increased desire to deconstruct the female body (and, by extension, the female identity).
In similar ways, we saw echoes of this mentality embodied by Daniel Graystone as he struggled to understand Automaton Zoe’s secret earlier in the season. Speaking to a larger ideology of Science/Reason/Logic as the ultimate path to truth (as opposed to emotion/intuition), we again see an example of the female body being probed. And although Automaton Zoe is not a cyborg in the strictest sense of the term, we can understand her as a synthesis of human/machine components–this then allows us to incorporate previous readings on the presence of the female cyborg in Science Fiction.
Given our class’ focus on faith in television, however, we can also consider how female transgression has roots in Christian tradition as demonstrated by the story of Eve (which is also a story about the consequences of female curiosity in line with Pandora and Bluebeard)—how many ways can we keep women in check?
Restricting depictions of female sexuality and pleasure represents one such method according to Kimberly Pierce, director of Boys Don’t Cry (Dick, 2006). Tied to a morality influenced (in America, at least) by Christianity, we have come to consider sexuality (in general, and female sexuality in particular) as something sinful and worthy of shame. We see sex as something grounded in the material, or indicative of lust; sex, necessary on a biological level, can cause tension as we fail to reconcile its presence in our lives.
Addressing this notion, Gary Laderman argues that we might benefit from a reconsideration of our moral position on sex and religion, likening an orgasm to a religious epiphany or ritual. In essence, Laderman suggests that, as we climax we are released from the concerns of this world (even if for just a moment!) and exist in a timeless space where our individual sense of self melts as we commune with an entity/feeling that is larger than ourselves (2009). Put simply, we transcend. Further, as we continue with issues of the sacred and sex, we begin to see that the relationship between religion and sexuality becomes more complex as we look to Saint Teresa (as popularized by Bernini’s sculpture) and Saint Sebastian with an eye toward BDSM. Here, we have religious ecstasy depicted in visual terms that mirror the orgasmic andcontend with issues of penetration with respect to male and female bodies.
Picking up on the discrepancies between male and female bodies, our class began to note ways in which traditional gender archetypes of male and female were challenged by “Things We Lock Away” (here, here, here, here, and here) while others chose to examine the ways in which lived religion was embodied by females. Are these particular manifestations of lived religion typical for women? To what extent does the show support traditional gender norms and it what ways does it challenge them (if at all)? We can argue that Zoe takes charge of her life, but she does so by ascribing to the role of “Woman Warrior,” a role that might be viewed as empowering, but is, in fact, degenerative as aspects of femininity are stripped away–in becoming a warrior, the female transforms her body into that of a male through the use of force. (We can also certainly talk about the imagery conveyed by the sword as Zoe’s weapon of choice.) Women, in short, are powerful when they emulate men. Contrast this with portrayals of the “new” female hero as seen through the eyes of Miyazaki (Spirited Away) or del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth) and we begin to understand just how much Zoe ascribes to traditional notions of masculine/feminine.
But all is not lost. “Things We Lock Away” saw the birth of Chip Zoe (in reference to Chip Six from Battlestar Galactica), who, like her namesake, represented a manifestation of the divine born out of a connection with that which makes us human. Recasting power in terms of self-acceptance and love, the truly progressive feminist heroes and heroines are the ones who tap into the strength that we all have, showing us that we all have the potential to become more than we ever thought that we could (think Buffy before and after the end of Season 7 minus the Slayer Potential birthright).
But, as we all know, braving the depths of ourselves and coming back alive is no easy task–we need only look back at “There Is Another Sky” in order to understand just how fraught this path is. And so, throughout the episode, we see examples of people suppressing and repressing their base instincts: running to V world and indulging in illicit behavior in order to remain “civilized” in Caprica City; the lingering shot of Daniel’s floor, upon which Tom Vergis’ blood will forever be inscribed (notice the one at peace is the one who acknowledged the brutality of the situation at hand); Amanda and Lacy allaying their guilt over their acts of betrayal; Tamara clinging to her human identity as the only sense of self that she’s ever known. When it comes to our humanity, we hide, protect, obsess over, and fetishize the best and worst parts of ourselves; if only we could take a page or two from the new hero and realize that the answer has always been–and will always be–love.
It’s that little voice in the back of our heads that never quite goes away; tinged with shades of guilt, fear, shame, and regret, we hide the things that remind us that we are fallible. We lock away the things that make us human. We transform, grow and stretch—we become—and we hide the traces of who we were. Desperate to be clean, we compartmentalize the worst and call ourselves civilized.
Clarice, still clinging to the one idea that she ever had (not, I would add, unlike Joe Adama from earlier in the season), chases after Zoe for all the wrong reasons. What Clarice doesn’t know—and will probably never understand—is that Zoe has already become a face of God. (The avatar has allowed her to achieve eternal life, but this is, as we know, not the same thing.)
Ultimately, the universe of Battlestar Galactica and Caprica has only ever really taught us one thing with respect to salvation: God is love. The rub, however, is that we must learn to love as God loves: without question and without discrimination; we must learn to love all of ourselves, which is, after all, the greatest love of all.