Thoughts from my study of Horror, Media, and Narrrative

Posts tagged “Fantasy

I Want to Break Free

It seems only fitting that Queen’s “I Want to Break Free” begins with a domestic scene that features a housewife vacuuming, for perhaps no time in recent history has been as evocative as the mid-20th century matriarch.[1] Arguably trading potential for security, women were indeed presented with “overchoice” as hundreds of new products became available for consumers—but although the sheer number of choices available increased, one might also argue that the meaningful choices that a woman could make also decreased as society restructured itself in the years following World War II. Science fiction offerings by authors like Pamela Zoline and James Tiptree, Jr. point to various roles for women in America at the time, illuminating the narrow ways in which women could insert themselves into a world that was not their own. Moreover, the path highlighted society lay fraught with ennui, boredom, monotony, and despair—so much so, in fact, that Pamela Zoline’s Sarah Boyle attempts to disrupt her routine and, in so doing, bring about the heat death of the universe (and the end of her suffering).

Fast forward fifty years and we again see another batch of Desperate Housewives, who suffer from some of the same emotions as their 50s counterparts. Restless and losing a sense of self, the women on Marc Cherry’s drama attempt to illustrate that even well-to-do mothers living in gated communities still struggle to have it all.

And, in many ways, Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror have dealt with the same issues throughout the years, with witches in the 60s like Samantha Stevens (Bewitched) going through the same sorts of domestic trials as the modern Halliwell sisters (Charmed). Important in both of these shows is the presence of the accepting/tolerant (White) male who, although occasionally lacking in comprehension of women or their magic, is certainly understanding. In the case of Bewitched, we see a male who puts up with his wife’s misdeeds and tolerates the existence of magic even as he discourages its use.

Additionally, we see women in these shows often struggling with the expectations of motherhood, which raises notions about feminine identity, female bodies, and reproduction. Explored by Octavia Butler, we are introduced to the theme of male pregnancy, which often results in disastrous consequences for men.[2] Men’s bodies, it seems, cannot handle the task of birth as they are often destroyed in the process of labor.

Although uncomfortable, I believe that these types of fiction allow our culture to wrestle with pertinent questions about our relationships to our bodies. Although some scenarios seem impossible (at present, for example, biological males are unable to give birth to offspring), the idea that technology might eventually intervene and allow men to carry to babies to term does not seem to be out of the question. Should such a day come, we can refer back to fiction like that of Octavia Butler in order to better articulate our views on reproduction and sex as we come to see that what we have long considered “natural” is, in fact, merely socially constructed.


[1] Additional layers of meaning of course exist given the drag performance of Queen’s lead singer Freddie Mercury.

[2] Here I think about the work of David Cronenberg and the deformations of male bodies in conjunction with the Alien series.

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Eye Rape

A scene that has always stuck with me, from my early days in Fantasy/SF, was a bit about a man who extracted information from a robot without her consent. Her response was that he had raped her and, afterward, was trying to convince her to be okay with it. There’s no direct analog (and rape itself is tricky, as is violation), but it’s sort of like this True Blood situation.

From what I can gather–and obviously this is not to diminish the significance of rape, what with Tara and Holly and all–there does seem to be this sad moment when you know the end is coming and that you can go back to being “normal,” but you can never go back to being yourself. In the best version, the new self is better in ways that you never anticipated…but it’s never the same.


A Light in the Dark

The sound is both unmistakable and unforgettable. Equal parts siren call, banshee cry, and woeful lament, the anguished scream of the female horror victim is a primal utterance that instantly evokes unsolicited dread from somewhere deep within.

This noise, often accompanied by a stabbing pantomime reminiscent of Psycho, is the typical response that greets me whenever I mention my research interests in horror. Many of my peers, in speaking about their brushes with the genre, mention how media has instilled a perpetual sense of fear in them:  to this day, friends will trace a hatred of clowns back to It or apprehension about blind dates to Audition. Those around me see horror as the representation of a force that serves to limit action, crafting a clear binary that contrasts the safe and acceptable with the foreign and dangerous.

To be sure, there is a certain amount of truth to what my friends believe; to live in a post-9/11 world is to be familiar with fear. As an American, I have been engaged in a “War on Terror” for my entire adult life, warned that illicit drugs fuel cartels, told to fear invasion, and have heard that everything under (and including) the sun will give me cancer. Fear has become a modern lingua franca, facilitating discussion that ranges across economic recession, immigration, religion, and moral politics. Perhaps worse, I internalized fear as I struggled to get the best grades and test scores in an unforgiving educational system, desperate to find meaning in my college acceptances and hoping for validation in achievement—growing up, there were so many ways to fail and only one way to succeed. Whole parts of my identity have been defined by my fears instead of my hopes and although I rebel, I realize that fear continues to have a haunting effect on my life:  I continue to quell the fears that I will not live up to expectations, that I will become frail, and that I will one day forget what I am worth.

And I don’t think I’m alone.

As a genre, horror touches on our collective desire to explore fear along with other states of liminality, pushing the boundaries as we attempt to expand the extent of the known. We find fascination in Gothic figures of vampires and zombies as transgressions of the norm or discover exhilaration in horror’s potent blend of sex and violence as a means of violating cultural standards without suffering the real life repercussions. Underneath oft-cited morality pleas (“Good girls don’t!”) we negotiate themes of power, gender, and sanctity of life in a rich field ripe for exploration. As one example, torture/survival films, which most definitely assume a different meaning in a post-9/11 world, potentially facilitate an exploration of humanity at its extremes:  both assailant and victim are at limits—albeit very different ones—of the human condition and provide us with a vicarious experience of dominance and helplessness.

Despite my interest in the various mediated manifestations of horror, television holds a special place in my heart as a representation of shared cultural space that serially engages with its audience. Not being an active churchgoer, I find that television is my religion—I set aside time every week and pay rapt attention, in turn receiving moral messages that reflect and challenge my vision of the world. Building off of this connection, I have begun working with Diane Winston in order to understand how lived religion in television programming can convey community, values, rituals, and meaning making in a function analogous to that of institutional religion. Admittedly not a theologian by training, I hope to extract themes from religion (e.g., the enactment of religion through bodies and the alignment of religious belief with practice) that will provide additional perspectives on my central interests of horror, myth, and narrative. I have begun to realize that religion, like horror, prompts individuals to contemplate the mystic and the infinite; although they employ different approaches—religion concerns itself with the path toward while horror obsesses over the inescapable nature of the great abyss—both frameworks ask, “What lies in the void?” Auditing “Religion, Media and Hollywood” has cultivated a solid foundation in the shifting concepts of sacred/secular and re-enchantment, which in turn have provided additional theoretical support for an understanding of how narrative structures are propagated, transmitted, and interpreted by individuals and groups. Prompted by Dr. Winston, I have learned that “good” television has the ability to assume varied meanings for its audiences, providing multiple narratives (and thus entry points), and lends itself to a reworking by viewers whose productions then become a part of a larger cultural context. Through television, I have learned that “my story” is really “our story.” Or, more accurately, “my stories” overlap with “our stories.”

Vanquishing Demons

Growing out of a childhood filled with the fantasy of Piers Anthony along with a healthy appreciation for classical mythology (and an unhealthy one for Stephen King), my head became filled with stories of wondrous alternate places. Enraptured as a young teen, it was only later that I began to understand exactly how much these fictions had allowed me to explore alternate expressions of self, causing me, on some level, to consider existential questions like what it meant to be human, how I defined justice and morality, and why I valued life.

In 2004, during a memorable viewing of Saw—which I soon realized was a spectacularly poor choice for a date movie—my head spun as I fought off a surge of terror, contemplating questions I had long avoided:  What gave my life meaning? What would I do to survive?

My stomach shrank as I felt something inside of me break. While the gore was not exceptionally appealing (the fear of suffering before dying was firmly placed in my mind after an ill-advised viewing of Misery in my younger days), the sinking feeling that I experienced came from the realization that, if this scenario were real, I would be a target of the Jigsaw killer for I didn’t appreciate my life. Long after the movie had finished, I remained terrified that I would be abducted and end up in a basement chained to a wall. “After all,” I thought to myself, “Didn’t I deserve what was coming to me? Just a little bit?

After a week of sleepless nights, I finally realized that the solution to my problem was actually rather simple:  start living my life in a way that was meaningful and fulfilling. Instead of being terrified, I chose to work through my fears and be empowered; I challenged myself to start taking risks and to do things that scared me.

A Light in the Dark

My personal history with the genre is part of the reason that I am excited to explore the opportunities present within horror, which spans across such seemingly disparate areas as the occult, Gothic, science fiction, slasher films. The seeds planted by the relatively simple pop culture themes of my childhood have now turned into my academic focuses:  aliens have become an interest in exploring the Other, witches have given me insight into alternate forms of female power, Greek myths have caused me to question the presence of gods (or God) in our lives, vampires cause me to consider an obsession with eternal life, and zombies raise notions of decay and paranoia. An interest in horror, Fantasy, and Science Fiction has sparked a quest to understand the structuring role of narratives, replete with a questioning of not just how the world is but how the world could be and should be. And the world could be—and should be—better.

In contrast to conventional notions, full of frozen faces and cowering victims, I see the field of horror as an incredible space to explore some of the concepts that most challenge society. While it may be true that storytellers working in the genre aspire to scare us, they do so as a means to a larger goal:   fright is used as a provocation that forces us to consider why we are terrified in the first place. Whether we realize it or not, exposure to horror allows us to understand the mechanisms of fear and, in the process, realize that the unknown is becoming the known. Although not necessarily therapeutic, areas like horror can be enlightening and potentially empowering. When we choose to experience a work of horror, we make a concession that the content could (and probably will) frighten us—an acquiescence that gives media the freedom to explore psychically stressful issues. I focus on horror because I am fascinated by the genre’s potential for self-exploration, but I choose to study media and culture because I am more broadly fascinated by the ways that stories intersect with identity:  we continually create narratives and are, in turn, shaped by them.

More than a mere research interest, I fight to study mediated narrative and popular culture because I see them as spaces for the negotiation and development of voice for youth. From Buffy in “Hush,” to Disney’s Ariel, to Echo (both the Active and the nymph), the media we experience and love often deals with issues of voice and my hope is to use these mediated representations to begin a dialogue with young people about their voices and the power contained therein. Inspired by scholars such as Carol Clover, Nina Auerbach, Judith Halberstam, and James Twitchell, I endeavor to recast the minority voice, transforming it from one of terror to one of triumph. Realizing that I was lucky enough to have discovered my voice early in life, I am compelled to help others find theirs. From my work with the non-profit 826LA, which helps to build writing skills in youth, to my involvement with the Norman Lear Center, USC’s Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis, and Asian Pacific American Student Services, I am racing to build my skills in new media literacy and cultural studies so that I can empower young people to think critically about the world around them and to reclaim their voices. Driven by my desire to advocate for youth, I see a responsibility to leverage my education as a Ph.D. student into meaningful change, helping other students understand the impact of popular media and to realize that they can be incredibly powerful if they only let themselves be.


The Agony and the Ecstasy

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” (herehereherehere, 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.


Egging and a Side of Bacon

Which is most useless:  dating or girlfriends?

My colleagues and I were sitting around on a Friday night playing a game called “Apples to Apples,” where you essentially had to guess how another player would associate words.

“Who put ‘dating’?” asked Ross as he leaned toward the table. “Yeah, screw you.”

The thing that I enjoy about my job is that the people in my office are not just coworkers, but also good friends. I spend a significant portion of my waking hours with these individuals and would still hang out with them every day of the week and twice on Sunday (sometimes literally).

We continued playing throughout the early morning, eventually drifting out the apartment door and onto the street. I, as always, savored the drive back home after a night out as the cool air and city lights gave me a chance to clear my head for a bit. In the darkness, nothing existed outside of my car and I began to mull over my thoughts.

Throughout my life, I have generally been able to understand what my friends are thinking (part of the reason that I did fairly well in the games); I was highly confident that Ross would have thought that, given the two options, “girlfriends” were ultimately useless. Yet, as I talked to Kim the next day over coffee and an issue of Cosmopolitan, I realized that my knowledge wasn’t really intuitive but was due to the fact that I ask people questions.

When I’m with someone in a sexual relationship, I naturally want to know things like:  “What are your fantasies? What’s the hottest sex that you had? What’s the craziest sex that you’ve had? What are you willing to do (and not do)? What turns you on?” Cosmopolitan seemed to think that the only way to get the answers to these questions was by playing a game of “Truth or Dare” with your partner—something that I vehemently disagreed with. (I also don’t understand the ever-present article touting “100 Ways to Please Your Man” because I don’t understand why you wouldn’t just ask your boyfriend what he wanted you to do.) Perhaps it is my slightly different connection to sex, but I tend to ask these kinds of questions early in the relationship and I think that it’s important for me to share my answers as well.

Talking about sex is something that I do regularly (and for this blog!) and so it seems odd (but understandable) to me that others have difficulty mentioning these sorts of things. To me, the challenge that many young people face in this process is the judgment they might receive from their partners or from their friends. After all, anybody who has more sex than you is a slut and anybody who has less sex is a prude, right? But it’s important for me to talk sex even though it might make me occasionally uncomfortable because I believe that communication is part of a healthy relationship. I refuse to be embarrassed about sex and I have just come to own it. I also don’t have time to waste having bad sex.

I have mentioned the idea of discussion before, but I keep coming back to it because I feel that it is incredibly important. I believe that in order for young people to have a positive association with sex, they must first be able to talk about it without fear or shame. So, while the majority of the information on this site concerns sexual health education, which I think is valuable, I also feel that it’s not enough just to have information. Knowledge might be power, but people also have to feel empowered. I understand that the process is difficult, but talking about sex is sort of like sex itself—it’s awkward at first but the more that you do it, the better you’ll be at it.