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.
4 out of 5 dentists agree. Or so we’re told. But how often do we stop to question how this data was obtained—just who are these dentists? Although the catchphrase has managed to burrow itself into our collective psyche, the data behind this survey has never been released to the public (not that it really matters anymore, anyway).
I suggest that, above and beyond attributions of authority or group preference, the Trident slogan works because we exist in a society that demands data, equating the presence of scientific inquiry with legitimacy. We have come, since the Enlightenment, to accept Science as the structuring philosophy of our world (perhaps in lieu of Religion) and what else is data but evidence of that process? Although data is itself abstract, it represents something tangible (or at least quantifiable) for opinions were counted, preferences measured, and votes collected. We have become trained to respond to data, unaware of how statistics and “facts” can be manipulated. We have become reliant on data’s ability to simplify our world, unwittingly engaging in a trade-off that ignores nuance in favor of broad strokes; in a world rapidly becoming overwhelmingly complicated, we demand clear and readily apparent answers.
What we do not demand, however, is scientific rigor.
As a public, we do not generally care how data is obtained, only occasionally pausing to note flagrant violations in collection methods (exceptions are of course made for specific lines of inquiry but the broader point here is one of everyday experience). How often, for example, do we take the time to ask how respondents were selected for a candidate popularity survey? What types of questions were asked and what language was used to ask them? Were the questions asked in a particular order? And, again, just who are these people being asked? We not only fail to demand rigor from those who would present data, but also from ourselves as we blithely accept that the graphics on the nightly news broadcast represent “the truth.” Data tells how we are different from others but it is to our detriment that we rarely ask ourselves why.
One consequence of this lack of action is the overwhelming influence of the social sciences on Americans’ thinking (as noted in Sarah Igo’s The Averaged American), with an especially profound impact on the way that we conceptualize ourselves, particularly in relation to others. Once the practice of surveys had been generally accepted, it seemed that most anything could be measured and therefore every aspect of life, identity, and thought had a theoretical mean; the legacy of this new paradigm was (and still is) a perpetual state of unease as self-evaluation through data sets coupled with a mid-century culture already juggling paranoia, neighbors, the suburbs, and conformity.
And surveys, like Alfred Kinsey’s (in)famous investigation, laid bare the most private aspects of our lives even as it refocused our attention on the concept of normalcy—a shift that directed our attention toward commonalities instead of outliers. In retrospect, this change seemed somewhat natural as the intent of the surveys being conducted in the mid-20th century was to establish and define a national identity with the data collected suggesting that an “average American” was indeed a possibility. In other words, our thoughts about who we were (along with who we could/should be) came out of exposure to heretofore unseen aspects of ourselves—moving forward, our theories were shaped by our experiences as we incorporated our knowledge of data into various identities (e.g., personal, community, national).
Experiences, it might be argued, have much to do with the formulations of our theories, as exemplified by the role of the black swan (the animal, although Kinsey would undoubtedly have much to say about the recent Aronofsky offering) in Early Modern Science: once presumed to be a nonexistent creature, discovery of black swans in Australia pointed to the possibility of highly improbable outliers that caused a fundamental rethinking of prior assumptions. Prior to the discovery of black swans, an entire set of assumptions was made by philosophers/scientists grounded in the idea that swans could only ever be white; based on a lifetime of experience, people came to see the world in a particular way, which determined the types of questions the way in which they viewed the world, the types of questions they could ask, and perhaps more importantly, kept them unaware of the types of questions that could not be asked.
Experience, then, can cause investigators to develop a type of confirmation bias as they unconsciously (or consciously!) begin to collect data that confirms preexisting beliefs about how the world operates. Although the scientific method exists to shield us from this type of behavior, experience can be a difficult influence to mitigate as it ingrains in us a particular way of seeing/interacting with the world and constantly challenging stable environmental patterns would cause us much cognitive stress. To take this practice to the extreme would be unfeasible as we would be paralyzed by inaction while we analyzed the veracity of everything around us so instead I suggest that we, as a first (and smaller) step take a page from epistemology and simply begin by training ourselves to ask the question, “How is it that I know what I know?” As responsible scholars we need to be transparent about our theoretical foundations and honest with ourselves as we actively reflect on our process and our results.
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.
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?
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.”
There was, for conspicuous consumption, perhaps no time quite as memorable as the 1980s in the history of the United States. In particular, the ideology codified by Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho encapsulated past transgressions while simultaneously heralding the arrival of a new trend in domestic identities. Patrick Bateman, the book’s protagonist, continually relates to his environment through image and demonstrates an adept understanding of social structures, using the language of branding to translate goods into value. For Bateman, manufactured products play an integral role in defining the nature of interpersonal relationships and his emotional state is often linked to the relative worth of his possessions as compared to the property of others (Ellis 1991). The brand holds such incredible power for Bateman and his peers that Patrick is not surprised at a colleague mistaking him for Marcus Halberstam, another character in the book—Bateman reasons that the two men share a number of similar traits, noting that Marcus “also has a penchant for Valentino suits and clear prescription glasses,” thus cementing, for Bateman at least, the connection between definition of self-identity and consumer goods (Ellis, 89). In the view of individuals like Patrick Bateman, the clothes literally make the man.
While the example of American Psycho might appear dated to some, one only needs to update the novel’s objects in order to glimpse a striking similarity between the pervasive consumer-oriented culture of the 1980s and that of modern youth. Apple’s iPod has replaced the Walkman, caffeine has become the generally accepted drug of choice, and an obsession with social networking profiles has supplanted a preoccupation with business cards. To be sure, Ellis’ depiction does not map precisely on modern teenage culture as some elements of society have changed over the years (and Ellis describes a world of professional twenty-somethings who participate in a setting somewhat alien to most contemporary high school students), but one can argue that the core theme of identification with branding creates a common link between the world of Ellis’ 1980s Manhattan and the space inhabited by current college applicants.
In order to further understand the effects that consumer culture might have on modern youth, this paper will first explore a brief history of branding in the United States throughout the 20th Century in order to develop a context and precedent for the argument that the current generation of students applying to college has developed in a society that is saturated with branding, marketing, and advertising; this environment has, in turn, allowed youth to conceptualize themselves as brands and to think of their projected image in terms of brand management. During the course of this article, discussion will also mention the history of the term “teenager” to demonstrate that it was closely linked with marketing since the descriptor’s creation and that this sentiment has impacted the manner in which American society has conceptualized the demographic. By reviewing the modern history of branding, I hope to demonstrate that although the consequences of a consumer culture might manifest uniquely in today’s youth, the oft-lamented incident is not merely a product of our times.
This paper will also attempt to address the commoditization of the college applicant by examining the confluence between branding culture, youth culture, and the admission process in order to show that students are not the only ones whose perspectives are shaped by the influences of consumerism. After a proposal of how and why branding affects modern culture, I suggest that we, as admission officers, can unconsciously encourage students’ dependence on the paradigm of branding (and its associated vocabulary) as we come to rely on the ability of the framework created by branding culture to activate networks of associations that, in turn, further aid us in readily understanding and conceptualizing applicants. To this end, the cognitive organizational function of branding as a type of narrative structure will be explored. Further supporting this position, an argument will be made that latent biases in the college application process may also help to reinforce the high/low culture dichotomy by privileging particular kinds of actions and experiences over others. A trickle-down effect then encourages youth applying to college to adopt the language of branding in order to present themselves as an ideal candidate for a particular institution, thus consecrating the importance of branding in the bidirectional relationship between the individual and the institution.
Living in America at the End of the Millennium
The history of consumer culture in the United States provides an important context for understanding the actions and attitudes of contemporary applicants. In fact, to discuss the history of the American teenager is to recount, in part, past socio-cultural effects of marketing. Exploring the roots of consumerism in the 1960s,[i] the following account will attempt to, with broad strokes, relay key points regarding the integration of branding and marketing into youth culture.
The 1960s marked a particular period of unrest in America as Baby Boomers began to clash with the G.I. Generation. Perhaps most significantly, the focus of discourse at this time shifted toward issues of youth culture with deep-seeded frustrations beginning to turn into anger as young adults struggled to define and express their individuality; the anti-establishment movement desperately wanted to break free from the control exuded by the State and corporations, eventually maturing a countercultural sentiment started by the Beat Generation into a milieu that gave birth to hippies and war protests. Baby Boomers, as a demographic group, also occupied a rather unique place in American history, coming into young adulthood during a time of post-war prosperity and the solidification of the middle-class. Suddenly, upward social movement became increasingly possible for a generation that enjoyed increased amounts of leisure time and disposable income. This period simultaneously saw the birth of the Cultural Studies movement, which began to recognize that individuals were not merely passive consumers but people who possessed a sense of agency (Arvidsson 2006). Although formal study would not flourish until the 1970s, the creation of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies would prove to be a pivotal milestone in the understanding of branding and youth, for social scientists now had a systematic way to investigate the phenomenon brewing in the hearts and minds of the Baby Boomers.
Cultural observers also quickly noticed the shifting economic trend and began to express their findings in prominent publications of the time; Dwight MacDonald labeled the American teenager as a “merchandising frontier,” a comment that would not go unnoticed by marketing companies looking to capitalize on this new trend (1958). In fact, although the term “teenager” had only recently emerged in literature, companies such as Hires Root Beer had already begun peer-to-peer campaigns among youth in order to promote a product, thus demonstrating recognition of the teenager as a potential consumer (Quart 2003a). The understanding of the teenager as a marketing demographic would prove to be a label that would continue to influence youth through the rest of the century. The development of the teenage market, along with the corresponding rise of teen-oriented culture and identity, caries through to the present: seeds sown by Beatlemania have helped to develop an environment that permits fervor for teen idols like Justin Bieber. Perhaps more disconcerting is the relatively recent extension of this phenomenon, with marketers aiming at the “tween” audience (loosely conceptualized as 8-12 years of age) using children’s programming media such as animation and Radio Disney as their chosen vehicles (Donahue and Cobo 2009; McDonald 2007). However, irrespective of their status as tween or teen, American youth can arguably be understood to exist in an aspirational culture that highlights the benefits of consumption.
Before proceeding further, it should be noted that the connection between youth and products is a rather neutral manifestation despite its current negative connotation. We can, for example, consider how individuals in the 1970s appropriated products in forms of resistance and how the movement of Punk essentially imbued recycled products with new and innovative meanings in the creation of a powerful subculture. The current generation of students has also matured in a culture of new media, whose hallmark is that consumers are simultaneously producers. Many are most likely aware of the possibilities of these new platforms—from Twitter, to Facebook, to YouTube—on some level, but the extent of production may elude those who are not actively involved; even individuals wholly enmeshed in this environment might not consider how mainstays like the creation of Internet memes (e.g., LOLcats), the various “Cons” (e.g., ROFLCon, VidCon, Comic-Con, etc.), and a culture of remix serve to position individuals squarely in a setting defined by its consumptive and productive practices. The challenge is, however, that the current generation’s products have become less tangible and more abstract: products now consist of things like data, intellectual property, and Negroponte’s “bits” (1995). Ultimately, it is the focus on individuals’ relationship to consumerism, often embodied, but not necessarily caused, by a connection with products, that results in observed negative aspects.
The most readily salient effect of this consumerist culture mixed with the cult of celebrity—and, if recent documentaries like Race to Nowhere are to believed, an overemphasis on achievement—is that children start to focus on their inadequacies as they begin to concentrate on what they don’t have (e.g., physical features, talent, clothes, etc.) rather than on their strengths. Brands, however, provide an easy way for youth to compensate for their feelings of anxiety by acting as a substitute for value: the right label can confer a superficial layer of prestige and esteem upon teens, which can act as a temporary shield against criticism and self-doubt. In essence, one might argue that if teens aren’t good at anything, they can still be rich and be okay (Quart 2003b). For some, this reliance on branding might explain a relative lack of substance amongst the teenage population, but the ramifications of a culture dominated by consumerism extend much further.
Brands can also be understood in the context of their ability to create and foster communities, prominently demonstrated by users’ sworn allegiance to Macintosh computers and Apple.[ii] The concept of a brand (or even a logo) can provide many of the benefits that come with membership to a group and, as such, also serve to define adopters’ identities. Conceptualizing brand as a community is a particularly powerful thought when considering teenagers, an age group comprised of individuals who are arguably searching for a sense of belonging. Indeed, the very act of consumption can be thought of as a practice whereby individuals work to construct their self-identities and a common social world through products and the shared sets of meaning that those goods embody (Kates 2002; Belk 1988). In a manner that mirrors the underlying theme of American Psycho we thus begin to see that manufactured items start to possess a value beyond their utilitarian function through a process that seems natural and inherent; it is only when we begin to privilege particular commodities—and communities by extension—that we being to understand the negative role that branding can play for teenagers.
Further complicating the relationship, branding culture also exerts an influence on youth through lifestyle. Although the basis of this connection can be seen in the relationship between consumer culture and branding, brands can affect the process in more indirect ways. A number of factors, for example, from the media emphasis on teen culture to increased pressure surrounding college admission, might be forcing adolescents to classify themselves earlier than ever. Emphasis placed on entrance to selective universities provides an excellent demonstration of the drastic changes that young people have had to undergo in the early part of their lives; for many students aspiring to elite schools, college acceptance (and attendance) confers a particular type of status and failure to achieve this goal by the age of 18 represents an extremely large disappointment. In order to secure this dream, young people might begin to package themselves—a “successful applicant” is no longer a student who did his best, but rather one who meets a specific set of criteria—turning their lives into a product, which they hope to sell to colleges and universities.
Branding associated with college admission showcases how marketing has developed into the promotion of a particular lifestyle, as opposed to a means of distinguishing and differentiating products (or, perhaps more cynically, as an extension of this process). In many areas, the mystique of the brand has become the important factor for consideration; the actual quality of an item does not seem to be as important as its perceived value.
The Rise of the Ad (Captandum)
When considering the state of modern youth, however, one might not see the packaging process associated with college admission as much of an anomaly. Children growing up in recent decades have been exposed to large amounts of media and advertising, which has served to cultivate a latent affinity with embedded narrative forms. The term “Adcult,” coined by University of Florida professor James Twitchell, depicts contemporary American society as an arena saturated with the lingering influences of commercialism (1996). Although the phrase results from a combination of “advertising” and “culture,” one can easily imagine Twitchell describing a group whose ideology revolves around concepts of marketing through a play on the word “cult.”
Advertising and branding, largely products of consumer culture, have a rather obvious economic impact; while one can certainly debate the mechanism(s) behind this process, one need only compare similar products with and without marketing schemes to ascertain that advertising can have an impact on manufactured goods. Rooted in the economic sphere, the development and presence of advertising is closely linked to surpluses in products—excess space in media, radio parts, and merchandise have all forwarded the need for, or existence of, advertising—and thusly can be understood in terms of monetary systems. As a pertinent example, compare the presence and impact of advertising on culture before and after the Industrial Revolution, when machinery allowed for the development of excess amounts of merchandise.
Staying solely within the framework of Economics, consider that advertising can help individuals to organize knowledge and to make informed choices about the world. In some ways, advertising tells consumers how their money can be best spent or utilized, given that currency is a limited resource. Yet, while arguably functional, anyone who has experienced a good piece of advertising knows that the reach of marketing exceeds the limits of economics—exemplary ads have the power to make us feel something. Although informal research can support the idea that memorable advertisements often influence us on an emotional level, a study by Stayman and Batra suggests that affective states resulting from advertising exposure can be stored and retrieved for later recall (1991). While the authors freely admit that they did not ascertain the exact mechanism for this process, one might posit that emotional responses to ads could result from the way that advertisements interact with our established belief systems and identity structures.
Continuing in the same vein, 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, 110). While some might object to the mixing of influences in areas such as Advertising, Religion, Education, or Art, (interestingly some overlap is acceptable but the issue remains murky) 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. Ideologies such as Religion or Advertising tell believers, in their own ways, what is (and is not) important in society, something that Twitchell refers to as “magic” (1996, 29). 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, the forces of Advertising, Religion, Education, and Art 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. Cynics might note that this phenomenon is not unlike the practice of carnival sideshows mentioned in Twitchell’s Adcult—it does not matter what is behind the curtain as long as there is a line out front (1996). Although the attraction may assume different forms, it survives because it continues to speak to a deep desire for structure—the myth of advertising works for the same reasons 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.[iii]
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 and Prusak 2005, 16). 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, 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 and Gross 1976).
The Medium Is the Message
Understanding the process by which the framework of branding affects contemporary society enables modern scholars to conceptualize how consumer culture can shift (or even create) paradigmatic structures that have far-reaching effects for college applicants. Recasting branding and advertising as manifestations of modern myths proves crucial to understanding how the messages, as narrative, help to convey complex ideas in a relatable format, making sense out of a potentially overwhelming wave of information. Consider how the first iterations of narrative, myths and legends, informed the populace about the rules of a world (e.g., why the sun rose or how humans had come to be) in a process that mirrors one of the previously discussed functions of advertising; although many have now come to accept scientific explanations in lieu of (or possibly in conjunction with) these tales, the fact remains that stories can serve to develop cognitive scaffolding as we evaluate foreign concepts. Narrative structure provides a guide for people to follow as they absorb additional information, easing the progression of learning (Perlich and Whitt 2010). This educational element, similar to the one existent in the concept of play, allows individuals to learn and internalize intricate lessons without any overt effort. However, when considering this process, it is important to realize that narrative, in choosing which facts to highlight, also chooses which facts to exclude from a story, which might be just as significant.
For some, the process of inclusion and exclusion might seem oddly similar to the creation (or recording) of history; certain facts become relevant and serve to shape our perception of an event while others fade into obscurity. If we were to take a second, however, and think about this notion, we would realize that narratives often served as the first oral histories for a given population. Individuals entrusted with this position in these societies were the “keepers of information,” whose ability to recount narrative shaped their community’s collective memory, and, thus, a key part of the community’s combined sense of identity (Eyerman 2004; Williams 2001). Performing a similar role as the oral historians of the past, modern society’s sense of shared knowledge can be understood to be influenced by the commercial storytelling that is branding (Twitchell 2004). The ramification of branding’s ability to affect American culture in this manner is profound: with its capacity to color perceptions, branding can influence the communal pool that forms the basis for social norms and cultural capital.
The notion of narrative’s impact on the sense of self is an interesting one to consider, particularly in youth-oriented marketing, as it affects individuals who are in the process of forming their identities (as opposed to adults whose self-concepts might be, one might argue, more static); in a process analogous to branding, adolescents try on different personalities like clothes, looking to see what fits. While not entirely insidious, teen marketing can exploit this natural process by providing shortcuts to identity through the power of branding. Altering perceptions, branding can activate particular sets of associations that have been engrained by marketing into adolescents and therefore act as a value heuristic for youth. For teenagers navigating the social circles of their peer groups, labels can make an enormous difference.
Tricks are for Kids?
Young people, however, are not the only ones prone to mental shortcuts; adults—including those who make evaluative judgments—have also been conditioned to rely on heuristics as guidelines, using experience to help them determine which rules to keep (Dhami 2003; McGraw, Hasecke and Conger 2003). While heuristics generally provide users with an accurate conclusion, they are notoriously fallible and consistently exploitable.[iv] The question then becomes: if adults are subject to heuristics in decision-making processes and these heuristics are sometimes faulty, what heuristic(s) might be active during the evaluation of candidates for admission and how might this affect our method?
Even if we grant that the particular nuances of the application review will differ by individual institution, we can still examine the admission process in terms of branding culture. File evaluation partially rests upon our ability to sort, organize, and simplify massive amounts of information in order to gain perspective on our applicant pool. While reading the application, we filter the information through our own unique lenses—the networked set of thoughts, associations, and biases that we bring to the table—as we attempt to develop a context for the student represented by the file in front of us. Buzzwords (e.g., “President,” “Scout,” “Legacy,” “2400,” “Minority”) in the application, acting like puzzle pieces, instantly activate particular collections of neural pathways as we begin to ascribe value; buzzwords, then, can be understood to function in a manner similar to brands and advertising.
Harkening back to the continuum of high culture and low culture, we can also think about how some key terms are privileged over others. How, for example, does the president of a school club differ from the president of an online guild? Knowing nothing else, I believe that many of my colleagues would favor the established activity over the unknown. For these individuals, I would argue that past experiences with students had most likely factored into the development of a heuristic regarding student desirability, resulting in a series of mental leaps that, over time, would grow into instinct. While good readers learn to continually challenge themselves and check their biases, there might be a systematic devaluation of particular identities in the admission process—an opinion piece by Ross Douthat in the New York Times suggests that lower-class whites might just be such a demographic (2010)—not out of active bigotry but simply because the brand does not resonate with any of our pre-set associations regarding a successful student. Worse, perhaps, we unwittingly privilege individuals with large amounts of social capital (and its inherent advantages), favoring those who know to participate in the “right” activities.
In a similar vein, my research at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism hopes to provoke discussion in this area by attempting to look at the trajectory between popular culture and civic engagement; in essence my colleagues and I hope to discover how seemingly innocuous activities in the realm of pop might actually allow students to develop skills that allow them to participate meaningfully in their communities. We believe that popular culture can act as a training ground for young people, allowing them to cultivate skills in the areas of rhetoric, agency, and self-efficacy before applying their talents in the “real” world. We recognize that the actions and experiences undergone in the world of pop culture can be ambiguous and difficult to understand; we also argue, though, that these traits are no less valuable to youth because they are not easily comprehendible. For us, some of the most amazing things happen in fandoms related to the iconic world of Harry Potter, YouTube communities of Living Room Rock Gods, and political statements in World of Warcraft (From Participatory Culture to Public Participation 2010). Ultimately, we hope to challenge public perceptions regarding participation in fan communities, demonstrating that popular culture fills a uniquely productive role in the lives of its participants.
The Next Big Thing
In our attempts to do good, we preach admission tips at college fairs and workshops telling students how they can develop their applications and stand out from their peers without coming across as packaged. We tell applicants to cultivate a point of view, or an image, or a passion—yet, how is this, ultimately, different from asking a student to define and market a brand? Are we subtly encouraging our youth to turn themselves into products with the additional askance that they not seem like man-made fabrications? What is our ethical responsibility in responding to a college culture infused with lovemarks and their concept of loyalty beyond reason (Roberts 2005)? Does the structure of our applications cause students to begin to consider themselves in terms of taglines and talking points as they scramble to mold themselves into the image of the ideal student? This is not our intent, but I fear that it is our future. If we, as professionals in Higher Education, do not understand the possible implications of branding culture upon ourselves, our students, and our occupation, we cannot hope to begin to address the commoditization of college applicants.
[i] A more complete history would begin with the post-war economic boom of the 1950s, but mention of this is omitted in the interest of space as it is not directly relevant to the youth population. There are, however, interesting examples in this decade of branding’s movement away from mere signification to a means of differentiating the self in a culture dominated by norms of conformity. More information on the phenomenon of conformity and avoidance of ostentatious display can be found in William Whyte’s The Organization Man (1956).
[ii] It should be noted that Apple seemed to grasp this concept fairly early on and developed a successful series of ad campaigns around the idea of community, most notably the “Think Different” slogan and the recent rash of “Mac vs. PC” television spots. The “Think Different” campaign, in particular, positioned users of Macs as a group in league with great thinkers of the modern era and also invoked the principle of psychological reactance in order to further strengthen the inter-community bonds.
[iii] 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.
[iv] There are many volumes written on this subject from the perspectives of both Social Psychology and Advertising. As a brief example, I will mention that a fairly common heuristic positions cost as directly proportional to value. The foundation for this equation lies in the belief that more expensive items tend to be better quality, more exclusive, or somehow desired. For a more comprehensive review of heuristics in the realm of persuasion, please see Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion (Cialdini 1984).
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.”
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.
“We live in a land that you can choose one or the other, same-sex marriage or opposite marriage…and you know what, in my country, and in my family, I believe that a marriage should be between a man and a woman. No offense to anybody out there, but that’s how I was raised…”
-Carrie Prejean, Former Miss California 2009
These words, spoken in response to a question posed by blogger (and then acting judge) Perez Hilton, reignited simmering tensions as the issue of gay marriage was again thrust into the national spotlight during the 2009 Miss USA pageant. Although he had hoped for an answer from Miss Utah (Denizet-Lewis, 2009), Hilton nevertheless took advantage of his opportunity, forcing national attention toward the subject of gay marriage legislation; outspoken, media savvy, and an unapologetic gay man, Hilton had capitalized on his moment, engaging mass audiences in what had become an embroiled topic of conversation. Particularly poignant was the fact that Perez Hilton resided in California, which had just narrowly defeated Proposition 8 (otherwise known as the California Marriage Protection Act) and was, at the time, in the thralls of a back-and-forth battle of escalating appeals. Although questionably worded—the choice of the term “opposite marriage” with its non-normative connotations would come to haunt her in the coming months—Carrie Prejean’s response represented a fairly standard beauty pageant answer to a relevant and noteworthy current issue. Hilton, however, did not seem content with Prejean’s reply and expressed his displeasure in a video blog, calling her a “dumb bitch” (Vasquezama, 2009), a catalytic move that helped vault the incident to the status of a media event.
Based in part on the work of sociologist Simon Cottle, this paper will present a background of mediatized rituals and, as a subset, media events in order to contextualize the Carrie Prejean/Perez Hilton controversy. Concerned more with the unfolding of this particular story, and less with value judgments of “right” and “wrong,” I will also draw upon French philosopher Jean Baudrillard and media theorist John Fiske in order to argue toward a position that seeks to understand how and why discussion of gay marriage came to involve the figures of Carrie Prejean and Perez Hilton; I will also strive to demonstrate that although much discussion centered around these two figures for a period of time in 2009, the much ballyhooed incident was in fact indicative of a much larger set of concerns.
Figuring It Out
In some ways, the controversy stemming from the 2009 Miss USA pageant seems somewhat surprising as both Carrie Prejean and Perez Hilton appear incredibly unqualified to spearhead discussion of gay marriage; prior to this incident, neither seemed to be respected as a particular expert on the issue of gay rights or identified as a pundit with any sort of political acumen. Yet, despite an arguable lack of obvious credentials, Prejean and Hilton had managed to meet one important criterion: they were on national television. Although the viewership of the 2009 Miss USA pageant hit a record low (Keveney, 2010), the simple fact that the controversy occurred on a mediated large-scale platform indicated two noteworthy (and interrelated) factors: (1) the reach of television as a broadcast medium is widespread and singular in its presentation; (2) the only way to experience the event for most people was through media.
The first factor—which is more readily apparent but ultimately less important—came about as a result of developments in communication technologies that allowed for a global system of satellites and near-instantaneous transmission of news and information (Friedman, 1999). Building upon a model that had its roots in the radio and television culture of the early 20th century, mass communication throughout the late 20th and early 21st centuries allowed an increasingly large proportion of people to simultaneously experience an occurrence; this idea is significant because it develops a common reference point that then serves as the seed for the germination of a mediatized ritual or a media event. Although recent developments in online culture have increasingly proven to support divergent points of view, broadcast media, by its nature, continues to provide a central communal narrative. Additionally, the scale of exposure is also an important factor to bear in mind as broadcast media can make the difference between niche market and national scope.
More important, however, was the notion that, for most people, the incident only existed in its mediated form. According to media scholar John Fiske, this fact meant that audiences could only operate on and conceptualize what Baudrillard terms “hyperreality,” as opposed to the “real” (Fiske, 1994; Baudrillard, 1994). For people living in a post-modern world, the representation of the exchange mixed with its reality, causing the two levels to become effectively indistinguishable from one another—for viewers, everything about this particular media event was, in short, hyperreal. Moreover, for the majority of the audience, both Carrie Prejean and Perez Hilton did not exist as actual people per se, but instead as media personalities; our entire construction of these individuals’ identities stemmed from their portrayals in and though the media.
And, in some ways, the “real” Carrie Prejean and Perez Hilton are somewhat immaterial for our purposes as most people involved in the ensuing discussion will never come to know either of these individuals directly—for most of us, the representation is much more powerful and salient; who we perceive these two to be is more important than who they actually are. Speaking to this concept, Fiske introduces the concept of the “figure” as an embodiment of deeply-seeded conflicts, emotions, and/or feelings within a society (1994). Although Fiske uses individuals like O.J. Simpson and Clarence Thomas to make a series of points about figures and racial tensions, we can perhaps employ his thought process to draw similar analogies with Carrie Prejean and Perez Hilton regarding the issue of gay marriage.
The Voice of the People
In line with Fiske’s description of figures as manifestations of underlying contestations, the response from Americans (to both Prejean and Hilton) was swift and vocal; having been provided with a tangible focal point for their perhaps previously unarticulated and unfocused sentiment, individuals on both sides of the debate began to write letters to newspaper editors in order to express their opinions (Rubin, 2009; Morris, 2009). Combing through opinion pieces from the time of the incident, one notices a stark trend: authors seem less concerned with debating the relative merits of the situation at hand and instead tend to express outrage that others do not see the world as they do.
Eventually, as the months continued, the narrative surrounding Carrie Prejean would grow as Prejean and her supporters began to cite the contentious answer as the reason—notably, not one reason of many possible factors, but the reason—she had placed second in the Miss USA pageant (The Chicago Tribune, 2009); individual citizens like Judith Martin would go a step further and attempt to contextualize the negative response to Prejean’s answer as part of a larger disruptive pro-gay marriage movement (2009). Prejean, it seems, was the victim in all of this, being vilified by a left-leaning minority public who was hypocritically intolerant.
It is at this point that we begin to see the breakdown in communication between opposing perspectives in conjunction with a general unwillingness to understand the other side of the issue: those supporting Prejean felt justified in their counter-critique of gay marriage supporters, but were in effect calling for advocates of gay marriage to tolerate an ideology that perceived to violated civil rights. From their vantage points, both sides had a valid argument and were not going to back down.
With supporters of Perez Hilton losing much of their moral high ground thanks to the blogger’s aforementioned “dumb bitch” comment, both sides of this issue were rapidly enmeshed in emotional mudslinging as they attempted to shout down the other side. In retrospect, the rapid escalation of the argument (and perhaps our personal investments in the outcome), caused us to forgo a rational discussion of the real issues alluded to by the incident; as academics and professionals, we have learned that we live and die by our ability to argue a point—rhetoric and intelligent discourse are our hallmarks—and we have also come to understand that criticizing ideas is acceptable and appropriate but assailing character is uncouth. Yet, by responding to Prejean’s answer with a personal attack (and simultaneously showcasing the danger of “lay journalism”), Hilton instantaneously altered the course of the conversation and changed the focus of the gay marriage debate as it pertained to this particular case.
Placed on the defensive, Carrie Prejean positioned herself on the side of truth, stating that she had given her honest opinion in response to Perez Hilton’s question and simultaneously invoked faith, becoming, in essence, a martyr figure (The Staff at wowOwow, 2009; Foreign Mail Service, 2009). As a result of this development, popular readings of the First Amendment were also invoked as Prejean’s supporters questioned the preservation of free speech, not seeming to understand that Prejean’s rights were never threatened (Sullivan, 2009). Here again we see that Prejean fulfilled the definition of a figure, serving as a focal point for discontent in America; although the incident itself had little to do with Constitutional rights, the perception that Prejean’s speech was being impinged upon allowed a certain subset of Americans to adopt the event as their own banner moment. Writing a response to the incident later that year, one author noted that Prejean “all too quickly became a heroine for those who are sick and tired of Hollywood and the thought police” (Hagelin, 2009)—clearly, then, Prejean was thought to stand in as champion for all Americans who had grown disenchanted with the (arguably) corrosive factors represented by celebrity culture and the stifling adherence to political correctness. Regardless of our own stance on the issue of gay marriage, the dissent characterized by Prejean indicates that we have, as a country, failed to promote an environment that fosters rational discourse; those on the right feel as though they are unable to adequately express their opinions and this frustration has developed into outright anger as we near the mid-term elections of 2010.
Additionally, casting her experience as a test from God further entrenched Prejean and her supporters as she became infallible—when framed as a choice between lying to win a beauty competition or pleasing God, how could Christians not support Prejean’s choice (offensive as it might or might not be)? Elevating the discussion to the next level, Prejean also sued the operators of Miss California USA for alleged religious discrimination (Business Insurance, 2009). Suddenly, a personal religious trial had become an assault on Christianity; Prejean, no longer a mere defender of personal integrity, became a crusader for Christianity and all it represented (Homan, 2009). Seemingly all too happy to embrace this new direction, the public began to more closely identify Carrie Prejean with traditional Christian values and morals as she became affiliated with conservative groups (Family Research Council Action, 2009).
The repercussions of Carrie Prejean’s new stance were swift and graphic: within a few weeks, a variety of scandals surfaced—ranging from rumors of breast enhancement surgery to semi-nude photos, bad behavior, and a sex tape—possibly in order to discredit Prejean’s position as a blameless and righteous victim (Coutts, 2009; Abrahamson, 2009; Gensler, 2009). Again raising the notion of Prejean as a figure in the Fiskian sense, we might argue that while it is doubtful that many cared about Prejean’s sex tape per se (i.e., the backlash did not censure Prejean for having/producing a sex tape but rather for being duplicitous), the revelation of the artifact’s existence mattered immensely in regard to the public perception of Prejean’s character. Whether he had intended it or not, by attacking Prejean personally, Perez Hilton had opened the doorway to a moral absolutism that ran counter to his originally stated goal of gay marriage as a legal issue (vasquezama, 2009); instead of being productive, the discussion had become focused on media figures and again fragmented into the prevalent left/right talking points that have propagated throughout the nation in recent years.
Although the memory of Carrie Prejean and Perez Hilton has somewhat faded in the present, we have continued to see a surge in the disconnect between left- and rightwing politics as the mid-term elections approach: the rise of the Tea Party (admittedly a diverse group of individuals who are interested in a range of issues) demonstrates the growing separation between competing ideologies in America. While figures like Christine O’Donnell have replaced Prejean in the national spotlight, we continue to see similar themes of God, country, and Constitution reflected in the talking points of the Republican Party. As the issues raised by the figures of Prejean and Hilton in 2009 have not been adequately addressed or resolved, they continue to manifest in the public sphere as points of contention. Having firmly established that Prejean and Hilton reflected the Fiskian conceptualization of the figure, we now turn to work by Simon Cottle in order to further understand how such representations function at the intersection of media and life.
Mediatized Rituals as Disruption
Although some might consider the controversy embodied by Carrie Prejean and Perez Hilton to only be suitable for display on infotainment outlets like Entertainment Tonight and Access Hollywood, we have seen that the back-and-forth pop-culture-based battle evidences very real political issues; although mainstream media might become caught up in discussion of Prejean and Hilton as representations, we can also conceptualize the emergent discourse as an example of a mediatized ritual. Despite a historical resistance to its study (Scannell, 2001), scholars have recently reintroduced the importance of spectacle in everyday political processes, arguing that to delegitimize spectacle is to discount the possible role it plays in people’s lives (Duncombe, 2006; Cottle, 2006).
Employing sociologist Simon Cottle’s argument that mediatized rituals “open up productive spaces for social reflexivity and critique,” we can gain a theoretical perspective on the Prejean/Hilton incident as we see Americans contemplate the discrepancy between how society is and how society should be (2006, p. 411). Although Cottle describes six different classes of mediatized rituals, the most valuable framework comes from the notion of mediatized public crises.
In contrast to a media scandal, which represents a fairly isolated transgression, the story of Carrie Prejean and Perez Hilton morphed throughout its deployment to encompass a range of issues as previously demonstrated. Reflective of deeply personal issues (and highly contestable ones!), the Prejean/Hilton controversy embodied a mediated public crisis as the event “exhibit[ed] narrative progression, unfolded over an extended period of time, and [was] theorized in relation to discernible phases” (Cottle, 2006, p. 424). Once conceptualized as a mediated public crisis, we can plot the milestones of the Prejean/Hilton saga in a trajectory that showcases a struggle for validation, legitimacy, acceptance, and ultimately power. Moreover, understanding the incident in the context of an ongoing, and constant, debate over gay marriage and gay rights, we see that the issue was never really about Prejean or Hilton—sooner or later two opposing figures would have said similar things that would have sparked the tinderbox of controversy. Correlation, as they say, is not the same as causation.
 The clip of Hilton’s response to Prejean appears on YouTube and was uploaded by user vasquezama, which accounts for the use of lower case in the citation. Attempts to find the original video blog by Hilton referencing the event were unsuccessful.
 Although off-topic for this particular paper, I am much more familiar with this same idea in regard to the genre of Horror and the conceptualization of monsters. A particular fan of American Gothic, I see the continued resonance of vampires, zombies, and werewolves as indicative of the fact that we, as Americans, have not yet come to terms with what these figures represent (e.g., death, paranoia, etc.). It is my position that we create monsters in order to grapple with the underlying issues as we are generally less likely to confront concepts like our mortality head on due to their associated cognitive duress. I would also add that a similar function is performed by Science Fiction and its creatures as we attempt to reconcile our feelings toward the integration of technology and scientific advances into our society. For me, Horror touches on our desire to explore these sorts of fears 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 for they represent a transgression of the norm and find exhilaration in Horror’s potent blend of sex and violence as a means of experiencing violations of the cultural standard without suffering the real life repercussions. Underneath the morality pleas of many horror films lies a valid method of exploration for audiences. Even scenes of torture, which most definitely assume a different meaning in a post-9/11 world, can be understood as a method of exploring what humanity is like at its extremes; both assailant and victim are at limits (albeit very different ones) of the human condition and Horror provides us with a voyeuristic window that allows us to vicariously experience these scenes.
 There is admittedly some overlap between categories as noted in Cottle’s paper, with the Prejean/Hilton incident reflecting elements of media scandal and moral panics at various points in the chronology of the controversy. I have focused here on mediatized public crises due to the narrative/unfolding elements of the case study.
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.
Down, but not out.
“Unvanquished” presents characters, in various modes of survival, grasping at straws and fighting to create life. Foreshadowed by an opening sequence that shows the building of a mechanical frame (that, 50 years from now, will embody a very human spirit), we as an audience are asked to contemplate how we construct our conceptualization of life. Do we, like Daniel Graystone, hope to live a life free from pain (but also one of numbness)? Do we stretch ourselves and reach for the divine, seeking life everlasting through apotheosis like Clarice? Do we live a life that views our physical bodies as an impediment—a manifestation of our sin—and are we desperate to punish/cut/wound/shed them in order to let our spirits reconnect with God? Do we choose the life of a made man? Do we choose to develop a life of certainty and rational thought or do we choose to be surprised?
Religion, in some ways, has less to do with the actual manifestation of heaven (manmade or otherwise), being so much more concerned with how we get there. What do we do in the pursuit of heaven—the pursuit of a dream?
How do we create life?
So far gone, there was no way out; she exploded in a burst of light, once again becoming beautiful.
As difficult as it is to watch someone die, it is, for me, always more painful to witness the depiction of suffering; growing out of an undergraduate career steeped in a study of Biological Science, I regularly ate while watching surgeries (don’t judge me) but never really learned to stomach pain. Now, as a graduate student, Horror has taught me to distance myself in order to study what I see on screen, at times necessitating a psychological barrier to keep from experiencing shock. Although I am certainly capable of comprehending the notion of anguish, recognizing the deleterious nature of chronic pain, it has taken an enormous amount of effort to actually empathize with the feeling. Looking at the picture of Gina above, I cannot help but but be overwhelmed with sadness–and this, I realize, is a good thing.
There has been much talk lately about the rash of suicides in America among gay teens–and suicide, for anyone who knows me, is a subject that strikes me at the core. Every life we lose is not just a travesty, but a failure that reflects back on us: we, as a community, have failed our young people in some way for we have not helped them to develop coping skills and have not successfully addressed some of the core issues at play. We are, in some small way, all culpable for these deaths and although we are racing to change things, every life lost is one too many.
As I sat at my desk, I waded through Twitter feeds, RSS dumps, and e-mails from friends that mentioned, in various ways, suicides and their connection with Higher Education. I mulled over last week’s mention of suicide bombers in Caprica, and began to contemplate the connection between violence, religion, and media.
Our class has been exposed to a wide range of violences in media: violence against others, violence against the self, violence against the material, and violence against the spiritual (categories iconic, perhaps, to Dante). We explored the uses of torture in 24 and Battlestar Galactica–which is where we were exposed to Gina–and began to understand the ways in which violence could be enacted. Caprica continues and extends our understanding, figuring religion in a context of violence against the self, violence against others, and violence against the natural order.
Although perhaps not surprising in a series that routinely deals with issues of technology, politics, and religion, we can understand Caprica to be a show that continues in the storied media tradition of aligining religion and violence (Stone, 1999). An important consideration in the history of these media is that religion was not juxtaposed with violence, providing a viable alternative, but instead conscripted in the service of religion; the melodramas present in television and film created a readily identifiable white hat and positioned religion as justification for a fight against some great evil, legitimizing the use of force in the process. Often, we see connections between overt displays of religion and violence (how many acts of violence have taken place in a church and who hasn’theard of The Passion of the Christ?), which makes some sense given that television and film are visual media–part of the story is the setting. While these connections are certainly valid, our class endeavors to incorporate other expressions of religion into our media studies and it is these, more subtle expressions, that I’d like to focus on.
In Caprica, we see individuals who are only too happy to pull a gun (or set a bomb) in service of their God (or, on the other end of the spectrum, attempt to wash their hands entirely). Although we can certainly read this in the context of traditional religion, I instead suggest that we look at the actions of “Retribution” in the context of a theme that I brought up last week: what is the role of religion (and God) in the material as opposed to the spiritual? “Retribution” features a host of adults, clamoring about like so many crabs in a bucket, consumed with retribution that is anchored in the physical world. Is it our place to mete out retribution on God’s behalf? Additionally, what is the role of violence in religion and how is this depicted on screen? Is this particular use of violence anAmerican phenomenon and has its use changed as we have begun to adhere more closely to the myth of American exceptionalism in a post-9/11 world? Is violence becoming more normalized and is its incorporation into religion a product of this movement? Or, has religion, as Rene Girard suggests, always been steeped in violence (1977)?
The constant rains in “Retribution,” along with the episode’s title itself, call forth echoes of Noah’s Ark (and deluge myths in general), a story that was, among other things, focused on divine retribution. God, it seems, can be vengeful, smiting the wicked and cleansing the earth; the myth itself speaks also, however, to notions of rebirth and regeneration in the aftermath. How, then, does violence purify us in the same way as ritual? We speak of heroes who have been forged in fire (and who also have messiah complexes and represent Christ figures), and many of our modern super heroes embody transformation through violence. Likewise, we see the birth of the Sixes and the Fours (in spirit, if not in body) through Daniel and Clarice; the Cylons learned all that they know from us.
Throughout “Retribution,” we see characters seeking (and obtaining) vengeance, but certainly not justice; we can rationalize violence all we want, but we have lost sight of the fact that the majority of our story lies in the journey, not the destination. We are looking for simple answers to complex questions and create artificial binaries (e.g., you are a believer or a non-believer, you are with us or against us, etc.) that only serve to further divide us from one another. We have begun to confuse earthly justice with that of the divine. We have failed to recognize and honor autonomy, seeing others as means to an end and not ends in and of themselves. We claim to be working for God, but are most decidedly not doing God’s work.
Struggling, he was condemned to bear the weight of the heavens; challenging the gods always had its price. He had dared.
Within minutes of its opening, “Unvanquished” presents us with two figures from Greek mythology (three, if you count the Daniel/Phaeton/son of Phoebus connection) who dared to transgress and, as a result, suffered weighty consequences. The gods of antiquity, it seemed, were not kind to those who opposed the natural order of things. On one level both of these stories speak to a notion of control—the manifestation of patriarchal hegemony in the form of story—but we can also think about how these two characters form a bridge between heaven and earth through their bodies.
Religion (and, I would argue, strains of philosophy in general) has continually attempted to explore the role and purpose of the physical body (Coakley 1997, Dennett 1978, McGuire 2003), in effect attempting to define the relationship of the body to heaven and earth. Centuries of discussion have resulted in a plethora of outcomes and no definitive answer; the body continues to serve as a site of contestation in a struggle that is portrayed beautifully in “Unvanquished.”
In particular, our class seemed to gravitate toward Barnabas as he convened with his cell in a blood ritual (you can find mentions here, here, here, and here). Blood has previously played a very particular role in the series, suggests Anthea Butler, both as a figurative term and a literal commodity (2010). I would argue that Butler’s arguments, although originally applied to another episode, hold true for “Unvanquished” as well; while not as overtly blood-filled as “Pyramid Scheme,” punishment of the body raises interesting notions regarding the role of the physical and material in the context of religion.
For example, what view must one take of the body in order to become a suicide bomber? Is the body nothing more than the instrument of God? Is the body something to be sacrificed in the ongoing struggle as one religion attempts to battle another?
But we also understand that religion isn’t necessarily about prayers, God, and churches (although it certainly can be): we are, at one point, exposed to lingering shots of Tauron tattoos in a sequence that evokes notions of the male gaze as traditionally applied to female bodies. We understand that the tattoos of the Taurons are inextricably linked with religious ritual (see “There Is Another Sky”) but also with achievements and rites of a more secular sort. In their own way, we can see these tattoos as evidence of what Stig Hjarvard terms “banal religion” (2008), a phrase that helps us to understand the forms of religion that exist outside of traditional interpretations. However, unlike Barnabas, who considers the body as an entity without meaning (and arguably detestable), Taurons have been shown to regard their bodies as an integral part of their religion; the body is literally the site upon which religion is enacted and recorded.
This episode also exposed us to the machinations of Clarice, who championed the rather complex notion of apotheosis: while Clarice talked about grand notions of heaven, true believers were still embodied as virtual avatars. Clarice, then, offers a trade of sorts: a material body for an incorruptible one. Rather than advocate for a religion mired in conventional notions of heaven and earth, Clarice chooses a path that has one foot placed firmly in both realms; Clarice believes in elevation, transformation, and transcendence of the body.
Finally we also see a contrast between the manufactured bodies of the U-87s and the, in some ways, very fallible bodies of humans. The episode opens with a sequence of shots that allow us to glimpse the U-87 manufacture process—these, as we are told, are the next generation of bodies that will not need sleep or food. In contrast, we see human bodies in disrepair a la Daniel Graystone but are also reminded, as one student noted, that even mechanical bodies are subject to burial. What do we make of the fact that this particular body once held the spark of life? Is this body merely a golem that has lost its breath?
And, ultimately, what is “unvanquished”? Our bodies? Our spirits? The term as we understand it could certainly be applied to a number of entities in this episode: Daniel, Clarice, the religion of the OTG, Amanda, Zoe, and the concept of faith all seem worthy of this descriptor. In their own way, each of these people or ideas had dared to challenge the status quo and has been met with resistance and hostility; down, but not out, we see the struggle for survival continue.
As we continue to delve into the rest of Season 1.5, the issue of bodies will be an interesting one to keep in mind. What will transpire, for example, when the “dead walkers” become more well known? Reports of them are sure to flood through Caprica and what will Clarice do when she realizes that her dream of apotheosis has been achieved? Will people choose to live on as code—as a digital representation—rather than consign themselves to the strain of mortal life? What is the function of religion in the lives of the inhabitants of Caprica? What of Zoe’s thoughts on generations and fractals? If she understands how to make trees more “treelike,” might she not also be able to make heaven more “heavenlike”? The possibilities with code are seemingly endless, limited only by our ability to manipulate it. Will this cause us to become disenchanted with the world? Classmates have debated about the relationship between technology and enchantment (here and here) along with the general ability of Caprica to re-enchant the world. Who is winning in the ideological war between reason and faith? Or are we merely misunderstanding the issue entirely? Our class also looks at the presence of ritual in the show, from the overt (the aforementioned Barnabas), to the rituals of sport and the mediatized ritual of channel surfing.
Culling together our knowledge through class discussions and blogs, we hope to increase our understanding of religion in Caprica. Although we have an entire demi-season in front of us, there is also much to be gleaned from the show’s previous offerings. My hope is that classmates will build upon their arguments and the positions of others, synthesizing the discussion (and their burgeoning knowledge of the show) into posts that allow us, as a class, to reflect on salient themes.
Shoes clicking, she walked through the streets with thoughts in her head and a gun in her hand; she was the queen of New Cap City—in time, would become its god—and didn’t even know it. But that is her future. Right now, she is just a girl who has finally awakened.
Inspired by the analysis of Jacob [and apologies for parroting your ideas–this is my take on your take], I began to think about how the story of Caprica’s “There Is Another Sky” 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 left on a quest and come back a hero. Throughout the episode, various characters (e.g., Sam, Tamara, and arguably Zoe) expressed a desire to return home or were admonished to “wake up” and each has, in turn, been ushered along by guides who have demonstrated that the power to change, to belong, to be, or become, has existed in them (and us!) all along. These nascent heroes, like their fictional forbearers, 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.
And ultimately, this is the message of the poem by Emily Dickinson, from which this episode draws its title.
There is another sky,
Ever serene and fair.
And there is another sunshine,
Though it be darkness there.
Never mind faded forests, Austin,
Never mind faded fields—
Here is a little forest,
Whose leaf is ever green;
Here is a brighter garden,
Where not a frost has been;
In its unfading flowers,
I hear the bright bee hum:
Prithee, my brother,
Into my garden come!
The story of the hero is the struggle to preserve light in the darkness; the story of the hero is braving the depths and finding our way home.
The story of the hero becomes our story as we deal 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. Caught in a stasis—a kind of unholy limbo—we hear a call to return to the world of the living but also suffer whispers from the underworld. When faced with death, we close ourselves off, afraid to embark upon the path that leads toward resolution because we fear that we will become lost: we fear that we will not be able to make our way back to the land of the living and we fear that we will lose ourselves in the darkness. So we use funerals, like the one shown at the end of the episode, to act as rituals that transcend the everyday, providing a space for us to let go of the dead and to return to the surface; funerals remind us that we belong to a community of the living who will draw us back. This is also what Dickinson’s poem alludes to: there is darkness, but there is also light.
The story of the hero becomes our story as we sit in front of computer screens alone and afraid, living out heroic adventures online but terrified to make the transition into real life. We say that the game allows us to be something; we are so desperate to be something—anything—other than what we are that we forget our worth. We forget that we could be so much more if we only let ourselves be.
We forget that we could be so much more if we only let ourselves be.
As someone who works with teenagers on a regular basis, I am privileged to witness some remarkable feats by young people (more impressive, perhaps, than some of the things that I will ever accomplish) but am also privy to some of the great struggles that individuals go through. In some ways, I think that being a teenager—like Tamara and Zoe—is scary because it is the time when you begin to figure out who you are (and who you want to be) and we don’t always like what we see. So, instead of taking a risk, we simmer in quiet desperation, forever anxious about what might be and forever shameful of our sin. I don’t mean to belittle this—I feel it more deeply than you might ever know—but I choose to embrace the darkness and to call forth the light (you might call it God).
I believe that God exists everywhere and in everything; I believe that we are all interconnected, all part of the life stream (to borrow a phrase from Leoben, who will rock the world of Caprica 50 years hence), and all part of God. I believe that God resides in all parts of our beings, which means that he also exists in those parts of us that we repress and find horrid. In fact, I believe that God’s light shines the brightest in these spaces, for it is where He is needed the most. I believe that God does not love us any less because we have darkness, but also that love is not the same thing as approval. I believe that the solution is not to build more walls, further closing ourselves off from the darkness, but to bring these parts of ourselves to light and to learn to resolve them. We need to realize that one of the greatest gifts God ever gave us was Grace, but that this is a gift that we get to bestow upon ourselves. God never deserts us, but also doesn’t do all of the heavy lifting—we, like our heroes, have to discover that we had the strength all along.
The discovery of God in the blackest places is similar to the voyage that I encourage all of you to take; I challenge my students to confront the darkest parts of themselves and to be secure in the knowledge that they’ll find their way back to the surface. I feel that if students are not able to identify the worst parts of themselves, they’ll never be able to reconcile them and that this leads to a whole host of issues later on. Being comfortable with yourselves—all of you—is, in a way, analogous to finally waking up or finding your way back home.
On the bottom shelf of my dresser sits a shirt from my college days. Back when I almost exclusively wore t-shirts with slogans on them, I had an item from a company called Blacklava that said “Got Privilege?” on the front and sported pictures of various items on the back. At the time, I thought that I was cool for bringing various plights to light by wearing a t-shirt (yes, it was silly) and I honestly haven’t thought much about the garment for a while—I’ll still wear it every now and again but no longer with the hope that I’ll get questions. Memories of the shirt came flooding back, however, when I happened upon some comments by one of my students
I had to stop for a second and look at the screen. “He can’t be serious,” I thought to myself as I quietly began to lose my composure. There are few things in the realm of sex and sexuality that really shake me, but I could feel myself quickly getting to a place were all I could feel was anger. In front of me lay a half-formed argument that men have some sort of divine prerogative to be leaders because they were created before women in the Bible (God made men first so they must be more important, right? There’s no way that a book written by men would use religious influence to disenfranchise women.)
“It is not your responsibility,” I wanted to scream, “to fight injustice and be a provider because you are a man, but because you are a person. Because you are a human being.”
Digging my nail into my palm, I took a measured breath. It is this kind of thinking that makes it unacceptable for men to make less money than their wives or for males to be bested in something that they care about. I mean, it’s all right that women know how to cook and clean, because that’s what they’re supposed to know—real men don’t do that sort of thing. But a woman who is an expert in sports? An authority and not just interested? Dangerous. In my mind, all of this stems from a desire to keep things simple, to keep people in easily defined boxes, and to have an unwavering sense of gender roles and identity. Men like this will tell each other to “be a man” or to “have some balls,” not realizing that it comes from the same hateful place that considers being called a “pussy” or a “fag” an insult.
The student went on to argue that, even biologically, men were designed to be the penetrators perpetrators of action. That is how rape happens. Thinking that possessing a penis grants you some sort of God-given right to be the dominant force in a situation is precisely the foundation for forcing yourself upon someone else.
I willed the tension to go.
These thoughts swirled in my mind as I remembered the t-shirt that lay in my drawer. Sure, “Got Privilege?” was a great way to get people to start thinking about the issue but how would I go about making them feel it? Maybe part of a poem by D.A. Clarke would help.
It’s simple really, privilege
Means someone else’s pain, your wealth
Is my terror, your uniform
Is a woman raped to death here, or in Cambodia or wherever
Wherever your obscene privilege
Writes your name in my blood, it’s that simple,
You’ve always had it, that’s why it doesn’t
Seem to make you sick to your stomach,
You have it, we pay for it, now
Do you understand?
Do you understand?
“It’s been a long night,” I thought to myself as I dragged my tired body into bed. Part of me knew that I should take off my shoes at the very least, but a voice inside my head argued that the removal of footwear would require me to move from the now all-too-perfect spot on my pillow.
“What is it now?” I glanced angrily at my cell. “Shut up and let me go to sleep!” Flipping over on my side, I hit buttons of my phone to discover a Tweet from Jay Brannan announcing a new music video. “I’ll check it out tomorrow,” I thought, dropping the phone back on to the headboard and settled back into the sheets.
I’ve been a fan of Jay ever since I saw him in the movie Shortbus (which itself is rich with blog topics). Performing in such a film is certainly admirable, but the film also exposed me to Jay’s music, which I have been listening to for a couple of years now.
While many of the songs on Jay’s album, “Goddamned,” are enjoyable, one song in particular strikes me when I put on my sex blogger hat: “Home.” While the track describes the certainly relatable experience of being a young person in a large city, it also contains the following lines, which are some of my favorite:
Why don’t the Gideons leave condoms in the drawer?
Bibles don’t save many people anymore.
Sure, there are many ways to argue this sentiment (declining condom usage is fodder for another article), but I do think that it’s an interesting point of view although I’m admittedly biased because safer sex is much more my religion than Christianity/Judaism ever would be. Why do hotels leave Bibles for their patrons and not condoms? Is saving one’s immortal life more important than potentially saving one’s mortal being? Is it practical to try to save both?
The interplay of religion and science has been around since the early stages of civilization and these forces are often pitted at odds against one another (even if not in direct conflict). As Emily Dickinson, one of my favorite poets, once wrote:
Faith is a fine invention
For gentlemen who see;
But microscopes are prudent
In an emergency.
Although there has been some recent conflict between the two camps, I can’t help but believe that the goal of both schools of thought is the development of guidelines to keep their believers safe. In my world, the original role of religion was to keep its members safe (from the world and each other), healthy, and to encourage propagation of the species. Science-based sexual health education, too, I would argue, aims to do many of the same things. I think that both ideologies have things to offer and that it is incredibly presumptuous to think that one side has all of the answers, or the only answers.
Like many young people, I had a dream of one day becoming a spy. I wanted to work for a government, living a life of danger as I dodged in and out of countries (complete with all of the technological accoutrement, of course). As I grew up, I came to see that my image James Bond was quite different than the reality of the situation: operatives didn’t have fantastical car chases or always get some exotic beaut. Although I never got the chance to go off and work as a secret agent, I realize that many aspects of my profession allow me to do things that I aspired to when I was smaller: I get to uncover information and, if I do my job well, outsiders will never know that I’ve been here, only that the result was accomplished.
I recently came across an individual who told me of his struggle to reconcile his faith with his sexual identity. This person mentioned his struggle throughout high school to understand who he was and mentioned how he viewed his orientation as something negative. Although he viewed himself as gay (and not by choice), he wanted to work toward becoming straight.
I should say that I read many stories every day but these accounts rarely affect me the way that this one did. As the message of this student processed through my brain, I flashed through the traditional stages of coping, working my way from anger to acceptance in record time. After the student had finished, I sat in stunned silence, letting waves of emotion pass over, and through, me.
I was never angry at this student, really, but more upset at the situation that he had found himself in. I was furious at the world that made him feel shame for what he was. What made me cry a little bit inside was the sense, to me at least, of self-hate that was evident in his voice; on a larger level, I was just heart-broken. I knew that it was not my job to mend him or even presume that he needed fixing, but I couldn’t stop myself from wishing that things were different for him or even just a bit easier.
I get the idea of not being proud of one’s minority status. I thoroughly enjoy my ethnic heritage, for example, but I’m not necessarily going to be participating in a festival. I mean, I’d go and walk around, but I just don’t care enough to host a booth or anything. But what I don’t understand, and honestly probably don’t ever want to understand, is the continued doubt, anxiety, and guilt that you place upon yourself for something that you can’t change. I know why the feelings are there in the first place, but I just don’t understand it when people refuse to let it go. And, while I recognize that you don’t have to like it, I do think that you have to accept some aspect of it.
I realize that as a minority you receive constant messages from society saying that you are “less than” or “different” or “other” but what happens when you start to internalize that thought? What happens when you view a part of yourself as a curse and a plague? We draw arbitrary lines in the sand, and around ourselves, defining who “we” are and daring others to cross. Our lives are a search for identity (and in that identity find meaning), a journey to understand how we fit in with the rest of the people who happen to inhabit this planet—so much of our self is relational. What happens when we begin to believe society’s message that who we are is all that we can ever be? What does it take to commit a form of genocide against ourselves, against our own people, killing off the very thing that makes us real? In this person’s battle, it seems as though he feels betrayed—but which part of him jumped ship?
I have a theory that we are so used to defining ourselves in certain terms because society at large says something about who we should be; if we let go of this characterization we have to craft a new identity for ourselves, which is a frightening prospect. It’s so tough to let go because we have to take a leap of faith and hope that we’ll discover something about ourselves on the other side of the chasm: all we can focus on is the idea of, “If I’m not that, who am I?” I don’t claim to have all of the answers, but one of the stories in “The Joy Luck Club” has always informed me: the idea that people often don’t know what they’re worth. There’s a power, I believe, in fundamentally understanding who you are but, in order to tap into that force, I think that you have to accept who you are.
I shift in my chair and realize that I agree with the individual’s claim that he could feel however he wanted, but I wonder if he can ever become not gay. Maybe it’s possible…I don’t know. I guess, at the end of the day, I’m filled with sorrow for the burden that this student has to bear. Life wouldn’t be easy for him even if he was “just” gay, but he seems to be struggling with an additional weight that only he can lift. Life isn’t simple for anybody and we all have our own baggage (often of our own making) but I just hope that he works this out. I don’t know him or his relationship to God, but something inside wants to scream, “I don’t believe in your God but I believe that your God loves you. God is love. One of God’s faces is the manifestation of love in its purest form. How can He not love you as you are?” I want to tell this person that life doesn’t have to be like this, that life isn’t always this difficult, and that I wish that he had someone to talk to.
I imagine that it would be difficult for anyone who has had to struggle with self-acceptance to read this student’s story, but, despite everything, I am also hopeful. I am hopeful that this individual gets to a place where it’s no longer about hate, or blame, or shame; a place where it’s no longer “us” versus “them.” I hope that he comes to a place where it’s not about fighting but about peace. I hope that this individual gets to the point where the lines blur and he realizes that we’re all “us” and we’re all “them”; I hope that this individual realizes that the solution has only ever been acceptance of some form. I hope that this student learns that it’s a process of growing, and, in that process of growing, developing acceptance. While I would say that this person doesn’t have to live a gay lifestyle if that’s not what he wants, I do wish that he would find a sense of calm. I am hopeful because this individual managed to take a risk, becoming uncomfortable for a second even though he ended up crashing and burning. I am hopeful that the fires of this student’s Hell will dissolve all that is unnecessary and allow the spirit underneath to shine. I am hopeful that this student will one day see that it is really about love, even if it’s just about learning to love yourself (which is the greatest love of all).