“I am Richard II, Know Ye Not That:” Drama and Political Anxiety in Shakespeare’s London

[5 minute read]

In last week’s post, I talked about the public reaction to a 2017 performance of a 1599 play featuring the execution of a Roman Consul who had been made-over to look like a contemporary politician. This week, I will be looking at the performance of a 1597 play that took place in 1601, similarly featuring the execution of a monarch perceived to look like a contemporary politician. During the late Elizabethan and early Stuart periods, a time now remembered as one of the heights of English dramatic production, there was a common belief that the theater was dangerous because it was a kind of art that could easily reach a broad, popular audience. The theater ripe for criticism: it was seen as a den of vice and disease,[1] and as a threat to public decency, particularly as it involved the interpretative labor of a population that might be spurred to sin or rebellion by the content performed upon the stage. This led to a wide range of so-called ‘anti-theatricalist’ literature, which sought to condemn the worst excess of the theater and its audiences. Writers denounced the theater as tempting audiences in the same way “[t]he deceitful physician gives sweet syrups to make his poison go down the smoother: the juggler casts a mist to work the closer: the siren’s song is the sailor’s wreck.”[2] The central worry was that audiences were being lured in by representations of sin, heresy and disobedience.

frontimage“The schoole of abuse contayning a pleasaunt inuectiue against poets, pipers, players, iesters, and such like caterpillers of a common wealth”

As a result of this fear – and combined with a general culture of political repression – the public theater was heavily scrutinized by the Elizabethan regime. Political authorities engaged in a number of censorship practices designed to limit writing that could be considered seditious, particularly restricting and suppressing any play dealing with “either matters of religion or of the governance of the estate of the common weal.”[3] Playwrights were arrested on suspicion of treason, and several, including Thomas Kyd, were tortured. Most of these convictions dealt with religious heresy during Elizabeth I’s crackdown on Catholicism. However, locating these efforts within the space of the theater suggested that individuals within positions of power shared a skepticism concerning the theater.[4] The underlying assumption that a play might incite audiences to open treason carries with it a powerful statement about the relationship between dramatic representation, interpretation and political anxieties. As a part of the public bureaucracy, this also constrained playwrights to working around censorship laws to avoid losing their license to perform.

EssexRobert Devereux, the second Earl of Essex

While these fears surrounding the theater certainly seem exaggerated, the persistent belief that the theater might be a site of political subversion did have significant real-world ramifications. The most famous case of the theater intersecting with open political rebellion during Shakespeare’s contemporary moment was likely the Essex Rebellion in 1601. One-time court favorite Robert Devereux, the second Earl of Essex, attempted a coup in London with the intent of shifting power in the English courts towards his own party. A small part of this coup involved paying a substantial amount of money to the Chamberlain’s Men to perform Richard II (a play written several years earlier) on the days leading up to the rebellion, seemingly hopeful that a play about the deposition and overthrow of a weak monarch by a powerful usurper would win support for the imminent coup. While it seems odd to think that a performance of a play might have had any impact on public opinion, Elizabeth I shared a similar fear, once remarking “I am Richard II, know ye not that,”[5] tying herself to the deposed monarch and commenting on the frequency of the play’s production. Here, the stakes of interpretation and the willingness of a population to read Richard II as a seditious text is not merely a historical curiosity; rather, it was part of the logic justifying state control over the theater, and greatly impacted the way playwrights navigated the politically vexed world of the Elizabethan stage.

None of this is to suggest that the controversy I discussed last week carries the same stakes as it did in the Elizabethan era. What I hoped to demonstrate in this blog post is that discourses surrounding how politics are represented on the stage (and the associated issues of audience reaction and interpretation) are baked into the very DNA of early modern drama, particularly as writers attempted to navigate an outwardly hostile social landscape. Given the place that certain theatrical works, such as those of Shakespeare, occupy in the contemporary cultural landscape, it is worthwhile to think about the context in which these texts were first produced, and how it shaped their content – especially as we continue to repurpose these texts to service our own anxieties in the contemporary political moment.


[1] This was true both metaphorically, as opponents of the theater saw them as examples of public sickness and distress, but also literally, as fears of epidemics and plagues saw the closure of theaters to prevent viral outbreaks among London’s poorer population.

[2] Stephen Gosson, The School of Abuse, 1579.

[3] Queen Elizabeth I, proclamation “Prohibiting Unlicensed Interludes and Plays, Especially on Religion or Policy” qtd. http://internetshakespeare.uvic.ca/Library/SLT/literature/publishing/censorship.html

[4] It is also worth remembering that to work against the teachings of the Church of England during the late 16th century was viewed as a state crime, as religion was a matter of state identity.

[5] There is debate over whether this anecdote is apocryphal, though the general distress at the political power of the theater was not invented, even if this quote was.

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“I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him:” Shakespeare and the Politics of Interpretation

[5-7 minute read]

During my last month writing for Metathesis, I talked about the contemporary desire to find political meaning in Shakespeare’s plays. Then in June, Shakespeare in the Park staged a performance of Julius Caesar in which the actor playing Caesar consciously invoked the image of President Trump, mimicking his vocal affectation and his mannerisms. This performance was met with public backlash, as voices responded with anger at the idea of a publicly funded art institution staging the assassination of the sitting President. As someone who studies early modern drama, it was a surreal moment to see the nation spend a few days in the middle of Summer having a conversation focused on how to properly interpret Act 3 of Julius Caesar. For a moment in June 2017, the text of a play from 1599 about the death of a Roman Consul in 44 BC was at the heart of a public debate over the relationship between art and politics.

Image 1Per the performance, this was a Caesar who could stab a man on fifth avenue and not lose a supporter.

Most surprising to me was the outpouring of reactions to the controversy that framed it as one over interpretations of the play. These responses attempted to announce, as clearly as possible, that Julius Caesar is not a play that endorses political violence – and they were built upon textual arguments and close-readings.[1] These responses, from sources like The Guardian and The New York Times to The AV Club and The Atlantic, centered on the idea that a sufficiently skillful reading of the text of Julius Caesar would clear up any confusion over whether or not the production supported the actions of the Roman conspirators. By extension, this assumption meant a skillful reading would also appropriately address – and perhaps deflate – any anger of what the play was perceived to say about President Trump. For these responses, the portion of the public angry about the performance was simply missing the point of the play, or as Atlantic frames it, it was a case of “[m]isplaced [o]utrage.” The Guardian piece brings in Stephen Greenblatt to explain how dissenters are missing “the point of the play.” Even the statement by the theater itself is built partially on this premise, stating “Shakespeare’s play, and our production, make the opposite point: those who attempt to defend democracy by undemocratic means pay a terrible price and destroy the very thing they are fighting to save.” Invoking the authorial voice of Shakespeare alongside their own production decisions, the statement reads as not only a defense of artistic integrity, but also a pointed claim: at the heart of the controversy is a misreading of Julius Caesar.

Now, these responses also seem intent on producing a singular interpretative lens through which to view the play. These readings gloss over the idea that while one can read Julius Caesar as a play that is deeply skeptical about the conspiratorial action of figures like Cassius and Brutus, it can also be read as a play in which a demagogue exploits a mob of Roman citizens and preys upon their anger and resentment to compel them to destructive violence. This notably includes a scene in which the mob tears a poet to shreds because they dislike his verses, an equally prescient interpretation. However, for me, the fascinating aspect of these responses lies less in the specific interpretations that they provide for Julius Caesar, and more in the underlying assumption that the entire ordeal stemmed from a debate over the textual meaning of Act 3 of Julius Caesar, with the accompanying suggestion that this would be cleared up through the authoritative voices of individuals who were simply better readers. This move signals an important divide in how the various voices in the conversation conceptualize the place of the stage (and other arts) in public discourse. Shakespeare, these responses seem to imply, is more in danger of being misread than anything else. The political undercurrents of the play are not dangerous; rather, the possibility that they will be misunderstood is dangerous and that must be warded against.

Central to this conversation is the implication that the theater is a site of political tension and that the interpretation of this tension can be, and often is, a deeply political act. This is certainly not a new debate. For another examination of the relationship between theater and the present administration, see Ashley O’Mara’s Persuasive Performance: Theater and Conversion. Tensions surrounding the theater and the role of drama in the Anglophonic world date back to the foundation of the first public theaters and in my next post, I’m going to explore how debates over the place of the theater in public political life have evolved since Shakespeare’s work were first performed on the London stage.


[1] Putting my own personal interpretative cards on the table: Julius Caesar is not a play that endorses political violence. Also, it should be noted that the original story that generated anger around the performance neglected to mention that the play in question was Julius Caesar.

Evan Hixon is a third-year Ph.D. student in the English Department. His studies focus on Early Modern British theater with an emphasis on Shakespeare, political theory and Anglo-Italian relations. His current research work examines the rise of English Machiavellian political thought during the reign of Elizabeth I.

Valuing Difference: An Ace on Food, Friendship, and Fluffy Companionship

[5 minute read]

(CW: pet death)

 

For a year, two of my colleagues shared an office across from mine. They were best friends, and they stocked their space with craft beer and a reclaimed yellow armchair, squishy and velveteen, and spent their office hours in conversation together. Maybe it was because my own best friend lived abroad and my office lunches were pretty lonely, but this scene instantly became my image of hashtag-friendship-goals.

toffee1Except with cookies instead of craft beer.

Friendship is extremely important in ace communities, both on its own and as a comparison point for describing the other kinds of relationships an ace might want to participate in (romantic, queerplatonic, etc.). Meanwhile, food is an important part of my friendships. If I am friends with you, I will bake for you at some point. We will go out for ice cream and lunches, and linger talking over tea. For me, sharing food is a manifestation of how our relationship is mutually sustaining. Maybe it’s a Catholic thing, since Catholics experience communion with the divine through bread and wine. Maybe it’s an ace thing, since so many of our memes describe food as better than sex.

toffee2Exhibit A(ce).

What might be my favorite Sherlock fic describes Sherlock and John’s asexual relationship in a way that draws upon this nourishing sensibility:

Marvellous feeling, this. […]

Beside him in the bed, John is sound asleep.

Companion. Late Latin. Literally; bread-fellow. Same with the Germanic equivalent; meal-mate. Etymological identicality—another joy. Replaced an older word meaning travelling partner. John was both. A companion at the breakfast table and on the train. Gefera. Wayfarer. Gemate. Eating at the same table. Mate. One of a wedded pair. Com-pan-ion. With bread.

— Canon_Is_Relative, “Comfort”

*

My bunny, Toffee Touchstone, died a year ago this week. During his long illness, I spent a lot of time calling the Cornell Companion Animal Hospital, but we also spent a lot of time together watching Doctor Who. We watched the Tenth Doctor struggle with the romantic expectations others placed upon him, and fight (unsuccessfully?) to save the last member of his race in the hope that one day he might be converted from evil. We watched him mourn the loss of his Companion Rose and find new friendship in his Companion Martha.

toffee3Toffee mooning the Daleks.

When we weren’t watching Doctor Who, Toffee’s and my relationship — perhaps not surprisingly, given the interests of bunnies — revolved around fluffy cuddles and food. A lot of the food portion of things, especially when he was sick and nauseated, involved keeping him supplied with fresh snacks that he liked: parsley, cilantro, kale, crisp young endive, and dandelions picked from the yard (through the snow, if necessary). It involved racing around the carpet for treats and sorting the weeds from his hay. It involved coaxing him out of the kibble cupboard when he jumped into it and very carefully cooking so as to minimize the unnatural smell of fried onions or warm bread. It involved luring toddler Toffee into my lap with parsley bribery, and coaxing adult Toffee into climbing onto my back – to give me a massage – with a handful of dandelions between my shoulders.

But our relationship also included sharing food. You couldn’t peel a banana for breakfast without a bun showing up at your feet for samples. Eating blueberries meant picking out a few to share. One of my most favorite memories is of sitting on the floor to eat my apple after a long day on campus, and having Toffee join me for a few bites.

Toffee and me, sharing an apple.

In Toffee’s last months, I found a solution to my struggle to name our relationship. My grandmother (who would pass away a couple months after Toffee did) always told him to “go find your mama,” a name which never sat well with me. Gendered attributes in general make me cringe, but a mother–child relationship just didn’t make sense to me for us. “Pet and owner” was even more alienating: these terms relied on capitalist hierarchies, and just didn’t capture our emotional symbiosis. How to describe me and my food-sharing furry friend?

We were the Doctor(al student) and her Companion.

Normalizing Difference: Redefining Asexuality

[5 minute read]

The problem with asexuality, as I’ve discussed before, is that it is hard to talk about on its own terms — even in a grammatical sense.

For example: If you’re homosexual, you can say, “I’m sexually attracted to people of my same gender.” If you’re pansexual, you can say, “I’m sexually attracted to all genders.”

These are positive constructions: I do experience attraction to x. But if you’re asexual, the sentence structure use is a negative construction: “I don’t experience sexual attraction.” Etymologically, it’s a negative identity: it literally means not-sexual. I’m not-something. This is Parmenides’ dilemma: the Greek philosopher’s famous poem describes how the goddess told him not to contemplate “not-being,” for it is categorically impossible to fathom that which is not. No wonder then, that asexuality is always rendered in terms of allosexuality. As we saw in journalism and in fanfic, an asexual person is always compared to an allosexual norm in order to describe the ace’s asexuality.

blogasexual1Parmenides suffering the effects of contemplating “not-being.”

But what if that weren’t the case? Asexuality obviously exists independently of allosexuality, so how might we describe it in its own terms? One scholar who has boldly gone where no Greek philosopher has gone before is Benjamin Kahan, the author of Celibacies: American Modernism and Sexual Life. Although contemporary discourse about asexuality is careful to distinguish celibacy (the abstention from sexual behavior) from asexuality (a state of being which exists independently of sexual behavior that a person may or may not practice), Kahan uses celibacy to describe what we might otherwise call asexuality. At first, this seemed an unnecessarily confusing choice, especially since Kahan dedicates his last chapter to aromantic asexuality. But I came to realize: casting celibacy as only a religious or political choice assumes that that person would otherwise behave “normatively” sexually. Such a rhetorical move erases the very real potential that celibates do not, in fact, repress any sexual desires, but instead desire their own celibacy — perhaps in the same way that aces might desire their own asexuality.

blogasex2Desiring celibacy? Say what?

Popular images of celibates — priests and nuns, spinsters and forty-year-old virgins — represent celibacy as anti-sexual frigidity, a cover for sexual “perversity,” or the pitiful pining of total losers, but never something desirable in itself. However, Kahan argues that we’ve been approaching celibacy all wrong when we imagine it as the opposite of sexuality. Asexuality, when its existence is recognized, has at least managed to be classified as one of many sexualities like bisexuality and heterosexuality, even if that classification is complicated by its etymology: not-sexuality. But celibacy, Kahan argues, is not not-sex; it is another mode of doing sex. I would argue the same is true of asexuality. By re-sexualizing nongenital attractions, we get closer to understanding asexuality as a positive construction. We might be able to answer what it is that aces want — what pleasures they’re attracted to in a nongenital sense, if not sex with other beings or objects.

blogasex3Come, let us enter together the door to new a/sexual possibilities.

This is the driving force of Kahan’s argument. His book underscores the importance of “understanding celibacy not as an absence or as a stigmatized identity but in positive terms as an attractive identity with its own desires and pleasures.”[1] If we apply the same principle to asexuality, it becomes imperative to reorient hegemonic ideas about asexuality. We must look beyond the language of lack and assumptions of asexuality’s opposition to erotonormativity, and instead locate what it is in and of itself. What does asexuality look like when it isn’t compared to another sexual orientation? What do aces want?

To answer this, I suggest looking at how Kahan grapples with answering a similar, though distinct, question: what do celibates want? When he says that celibacy is a form of sex, Kahan is careful to distinguish celibacy from kinks; although celibates (like aces) can have kinks, celibacy and asexuality are not coterminous with kinks. For Kahan, bringing nongenital attractions back into the realm of sexuality seems to mean recognizing other, asexual attractions on equal footing with what we’ve historically known to be sexual attractions — not as a substitute for or deferral from sexual attraction, but a sexual attraction because it offers the same kind of fulfillment that normative sexual attractions do. Essentially, Kahan wants us to expand the definition of what qualifies as attractive desire to include the attractions of the celibate. Specifically, Kahan writes, “rather than desiring something lacking and trying to obtain it” — for instance, desiring a sexual relationship and going for it — “the celibate desire is the reiteration of celibacy itself.”[2]

What does the celibate want? To be celibate. To maintain their celibacy, to revel in their identity. What does the ace want? I would tentatively suggest the same. Perhaps aces want to be ace.

Kahan’s argument about celibacy might not fully answer what it means to be asexual. Reiterative desire is only one kind of nongenital attraction, and there’s a possibility that pulling asexuality back into the realm of normative sexuality erodes some of its characteristic queerness. But by insisting that we consider what celibacy is on its own terms — positive terms — Kahan’s argument show us the possibility of self-definition, and positive asexuality.


[1] Benjamin A. Kahan, Celibacies: American Modernism and Sexual Life (Durham: Duke University Press, 2013), 3.

[2] Ibid., 69.

Abnormalizing Difference: Sexual Normativity in Asexual Sherlock Fanfic

[7 minute read]

(CW: discussion of sexual violence in fanfic.)

Can I tell you a secret? I knew the titular character of BBC’s Sherlock had become one of the mascots of the ace community before I even watched the show — and I defended his reputation as such before I watched it, too, as evidenced in a text conversation between myself and my best friend:

Best Friend: Omg, you have to watch Sherlock. They’re so gay.

Me: No Sherlock isn’t! He’s supposed to be asexual!

Judging by the events of series four (spoiler alert), we both might have been a little optimistically defensive of our interpretations of Sherlock’s sexuality; but I think I was justified in my devotion to Sherlock-as-ace. Until Archie’s Jughead last year, and Bojack Horseman’s Todd this year, aces had no authentic canonical representations of themselves to turn to in popular fictional media (let alone celebrities).[1] So we appropriated other characters for ourselves. No other fictional character had given voice to the experiences I considered uniquely ace quite like Sherlock did: his quick jump to defend himself from what he perceived as John’s eventual sexual advances by claiming “I’m married to my work” (“A Study in Pink”); his refusal to recognize Irene’s overt sexual advances by protesting “Why would I want to have dinner if I wasn’t hungry?” (“A Scandal in Belgravia”); and his deft evasion of imaginary-John’s insistent questions about his seemingly absent sexual desires by insisting that “Nothing made me” the way that Sherlock is (“The Abominable Bride”). In my eyes, Sherlock actively distances himself from the erotonormative expectations of the people around him, like I do, and I loved him for it (platonically, of course).

fic1Asexuality is A-okay.

However, for all the refusal of normative sexuality that Sherlock performs in the BBC series, there exists a perversely normalizing trend within asexuality-themed Sherlock fanfic. When I ran out of new Sherlock episodes to watch, I found a thread on the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network’s message board, wherein users recommended ace Sherlock fanfic that they had come across. Although I would later read fics featuring other interpretations of Sherlock’s sexuality (inspiring this earlier Metathesis post), the first few Sherlock fics that I read all featured an ace Sherlock, and, in one case, an ace John. But, with one notable exception, these first few fics also featured its ace character experiencing some form of sexual harassment or violence.

In one graphic fic, Sherlock tolerates tacitly unwanted sex with John out of fear of losing his companionship. In another fic, college-aged Sherlock evades his boyfriend’s sexual contact one too many times and gets called a freak. In a more light-hearted fic, Sherlock recounts narrowly escaping losing his virginity at a brothel after his brother pressures him into visiting one. In other fics, Sherlock feels that he’s a dysfunctional human for being ace and denies himself platonic intimate contact for fear of sending mixed signals. Although these fics and those like them generally end happily or at least peacefully, with John understanding and affirming Sherlock’s asexuality, or John and Sherlock negotiating their sexual boundaries together, this upbeat ending can come only after a moment wherein erotonormativity’s current stranglehold on sexuality is reasserted — indeed, normalized.

Maybe there is something unique about the BBC series that affords the exploration of how dominant ideas about sexuality make aces vulnerable to sexual harassment and violence; for instance, I haven’t yet dug very deeply into Doctor Who’s limited selection of ace fic, but so far, I haven’t experienced the same phenomenon. Perhaps where Doctor Who institutionalizes some nonsexual companionships and allows for alternative — albeit alien, in both senses of the word — normalized ideas about human behavior, Sherlock’s long refusal to directly address Sherlock’s sexuality encourages fic writers to render Sherlock’s cryptic rejection of sexual advances as discomfort with his asexuality. Whatever the cause of this trend in Sherlock fic, it reproduces some of the narratives about asexuality that I described last week. Asexuality is, however briefly, depicted as freakish: subhuman, antisocial, pathological. Furthermore, ace Sherlock must find a way to educate his companion about his asexuality, often in terms that privilege his companion’s sexual needs and desires over his asexual needs and desires. Erotonormativity haunts these fictional narratives as much as it does real life.

fic2The show doesn’t really disabuse people of this norm, either.

Understandably, fic writers looking to positively represent asexual experiences want to show their characters contending with, and eventually overcoming struggles that are common to the ace community. These often include the threat of so-called reparative rape when erotonormativity says that everyone should want sex; the miscommunication that occurs when erotonormativity codes otherwise nonsexual gestures as sexual innuendo; and the internalized doubt and dismissal of one’s asexual desires when erotonormativity insists an allosexual partner’s sexual desires must be catered to, because asexuality is outside the norm. This is, after all, the general state of affairs aces have been told to anticipate from those who are not asexual, and art has been known to imitate life — especially when ace writers are looking for a space to test out reactions to situations and ideologies that they might face in their lives outside fiction writing.

But fanfic is, of course, fiction. Many fics already have an extremely distant relationship to both reality and the canonical source text they’re drawn from. Why not imagine a world wherein asexuality is normalized, aces don’t have to explain themselves, and their desires are privileged? I’m concerned that “asexual experience,” insofar as experiences can be generalized, is becoming characterized only in relationship to erotonormativity, perhaps in a similar way to how queerness is sometimes characterized only in opposition to heteronormativity. What would it look like to accept asexuality on its own terms? This is what I’ll be exploring the rest of this month for Metathesis.


[1] Technically USA’s Sirens featured a canonically out ace, but we’re all still applying brain bleach to erase that representation from our memories.

Misrepresenting Difference: Objectifying Asexuality in Journalism

[10 minute read]

The media we consume shapes our implicit biases. It is one factor among many, but I saw it at work among my Fox News-watching relatives during the 2016 election. I saw it at work among rosary-praying priests putting my femininity on a pedestal. I saw it at work after 9/11, when I started getting spooked by Arab-looking passengers at airports — even though my family is Arab-American. The dominant popular media narratives about categories of difference like race and gender routinely reinforce stereotypes that serve the interests of dominating ideas of racism and patriarchy. But one oft-overlooked dominating idea is what asexuality scholars call allosexism or erotonormativity: the belief that everyone should experience sexual attraction.

Internet news on asexuality is scattered with clickbait articles characterizing asexuality as “controversial” in their description of the sexual orientation. After the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network’s (AVEN’s) Facebook page reposted this article, I broke my polite internet silence to express my frustration. It wasn’t so much that asexuality was “controversial”; rather, sensationalizing articles like these make asexuality controversial. When several dozen AVEN followers liked my response, I knew I had identified a common sore spot in our community: We’re sick of being a spectacle.

In her 2013 essay “Spectacular Asexuals: Media Visibility and Cultural Fetish” (139–161 here), asexuality scholar Karli June Cerankowski has written at length about how AVEN’s mission of visibility may be contributing to this “journalistic” phenomenon to our own detriment. It’s a useful argument and I recommend reading it, but here I’m more interested in how journalism does that on its own by continuing to represent asexuality from the perspective of allosexuals (that is, not aces) and/or for an allosexual audience.

With few exceptions, the 250 articles (including news, magazines, and major blog hubs indexed by Google News) that featured asexuality in 2017 generally fall into one of three categories:

  1. Asexuality 101
  2. Asexual Freakshow
  3. Asexual Representation

 

  1. “Asexuality 101” articles attempt to be a primer on the definition of asexuality as the absence of sexual attraction (although they often get this point wrong by confusing attraction with desire). Sometimes they discuss the concept of romantic orientation and how asexual relationships can look just like sexual relationships, but without the sex . This is a journalistic process of heteronormative assimilation similar to the “Love Is Love” movement that moved gays and lesbians into larger mainstream acceptance by downplaying their essential queerness.

asexual2A typical infographic supplied by AVEN.

  1. “Asexual Freakshow” articles play up the peculiarity and even the perceived perversity of asexuality. They usually attempt some of the explanatory work of Asexuality 101 articles, but frame the explanation in a way that exaggerates our alleged prudishness, or makes us the object of subtle ridicule or skepticism. These articles’ authors like to dwell on the incidence of masturbation and sexual fantasy among aces, or ask fellow allosexuals to share their shock that people can walk the planet without feeling lust.

asexual3Oh no…not the finger…

  1. “Asexual Representation” articles typically recognize a newly “out” celebrity, politician, or fictional character, or note the enduring absence of asexual figures in popular media. These articles are less likely to do the defining work of Asexuality 101. They often still explore the experiences exclusive to aces that are thus un/represented in the media (sometimes with nuance), as in the case of The Mary Sue, a pop-culture web magazine that often publishes sophisticated analyses of aces in visual media, often by ace authors. Unfortunately, articles about asexual celebrities might still frame the announcement in Asexual-Freakshow clickbait terms.

urlCheck out that URL.

Articles that don’t feature asexuality but instead mention it in passing (or list it among other subjects) don’t deviate much from the patterns I describe above. Features about Pride Month or LGBTQ resource centers do brief work in Asexuality 101; sex-ed articles addressing asexuality share a wink and a nudge with allosexuals; and pop-culture news often completely misunderstands asexuality as distinct from celibacy or gender-neutrality, or briefly reflects on the absence of ace role models.

To a degree, the abundance of Asexuality 101 articles unfortunately makes some sense. As Asexual Representation articles point out, known aces are frustratingly absent from public sight. Our A appears irregularly in the LGBT(QIAP+) acronym, and even when it does appear, it’s often appropriated to represent “ally” instead: most egregiously by American Apparel to sell bags in 2016 and by Equinox Gym to make a viral video in 2017. If allosexuals don’t know we exist, they can’t look for us, or be good allies to us; therefore, education is necessary. Even shoddy Asexuality 101 articles and the clickbait education of Asexual Freakshow articles can put information in front of people who wouldn’t have seen it otherwise.[1]

asexual5That’s…that’s not how it works…

But for those of us who have already discovered we identify as ace, the endless parade of explanatory articles describing us as if we were some curious or kinky novelty dominates the conversation. These articles aren’t written for us but rather about us. Cerankowski has observed that we are made into “objects for consumption” for a voyeuristic audience (141). Perhaps because aces themselves aren’t in charge of how we’re written about or what gets published, we are continually framed as eternally new, strange, and dubious in the service of others’ entertainment; not our own.

Last year was a particularly disappointing year for the objectification of aces in the news. In the articles I surveyed in December, twenty-five of them had headlines that either asked a question (“Is It Normal to Not Want Sex?”) or promised answers (“All Of Your Questions About What It’s Like To Be Asexual Answered”), all addressed at an audience presumed to not be ace. Prominent AVEN user Siggy compiled no less than 16 pseudo-journalistic takes on a study showing that aces have sexual fantasies (though not necessarily in the same way, for the same ends, or to the same extent that allosexuals do, a fact crucially omitted from the articles); one ace Tumblr user kindly compiled these articles’ tendencies to pathologize aces’ “condition” that prevents their “turning sexual fantasy into lived reality” at the same time as they sensationalize those sexual fantasies.

asexual6“Mostly White People Laying Down,” a collage of images accompanying articles about aces’ sexual fantasies (by sound-overlord.tumblr.com)

We’re either exhibited as circus freaks: can you imagine people who don’t have sex? (Even if some aces do have sex and the article conflated attraction with libido.) Or we’re shunted into the shadows of allosexuals: they might be repressed, or really closeted gays, or actually they’re really horny just like us and goodness knows why they don’t do anything about it. (Even if “not doing anything about it” can be its own desirable ends  —  and thus we’re not repressed.) On the one hand, we’re a desirable novelty pushed into a vulnerable spotlight. On the other, our existence discomforts some allosexuals so much that they try to dissolve our existence into their own.[2]

This year’s batch of articles shows some slight improvement. There are the usual Asexuality 101 suspects like “Asexuality: Can a relationship without sex work?”; and Asexual Freakshow headlines like “13 asexual people explain what things can turn them on” and “I’m Asexual And Here’s What Sex Feels Like For Me.” But peppered among the standard objectifying fare are a thoughtful interview with the showrunners of an ace podcast; an interrogation of the absence of aces from Pride festivities; savvy coverage of a sex toy review site by and for aces, and a dating app for aces. Even the alt-right’s favorite “news” site managed to spotlight research on microaggressions toward aces without trashing aces (cached link; don’t read the comments).

By and large, though, the only news articles that didn’t attempt the voyeurism Cerankowski describes or even Asexuality 101 were Asexual Representation articles on pop-culture subjects. And 2017 has been a banner year for ace representation. The new season four of Bojack Horseman finally confirmed the asexuality of Bojack’s sidekick Todd when it featured an episode dedicated to his coming out as ace and finding an ace community. Meanwhile, television series Shadowhunters confirmed the asexuality of one of its major characters, and Emmerdale suggested that it might be headed in the same direction. Teen Vogue and Bustle both called out Riverdale for erasing Jughead’s canonical aromantic asexuality, the comic-book confirmation of which generated much excitement for aces and articles on asexuality last year.

asexual7A scene from Bojack Horseman that I never thought I’d see with my own two ace eyes.

As a scholar of textual studies, this is my glimmer of hope. Where journalism neglects to represent aces as subjects rather than objects, narrative art increasingly tries to represent our diverse subjectivities on our own terms. This kind of storytelling invites aces to be participants in an empathetic audience, rather than experience constant subjection to being involuntarily paraded for others to ogle. Not only can allosexuals learn (hopefully more fully) about aces’ varied experiences, but also, aces can receive all the affirmation and pleasure that allosexuals have in narrative depictions of their straight and queer desires. Importantly, in ace stories, aces can see how other (even fictional) aces navigate the particular social and emotional terrain of asexuality.  This is, and has long been the end goal of representation: to be on the stage instead of inside a circus ring; to be in an audience instead of being an usher who disappears into the shadows of the theater, knowing that this show isn’t for them.

This is why it is so important that media narratives represent minorities on their own terms. What magazines and news sites might call “objectivity” in reporting on minorities is often indistinguishable from “normativity,” no matter whether it appears in its patriarchal, heterosexist, racist, classist, or ableist form. By centering within popular media voices from the margins, we can dismantle the mainstream misconceptions about asexuality and other categories of difference that continually cycle through news coverage.


[1] Even as (Cerankowski argues) bad representation potentially calcifies stereotypes (140).

[2] This is a move troublingly similar to that of some gatekeeping queer people who insist aces are not really queer because we’re somehow really straight  —  but that’s another story.

Ashley O’Mara is a PhD student and teaching associate in the Syracuse University English program. She studies celibacy and the queer politics of Catholicism in Early Modern English literature. In her down time, she is a freelance writer who listens to a lot of Mashrou’ Leila. She has very strong opinions about hummus.

How We Talk about Trauma: Gaslight and the Importance of Maintaining a Bi-focal Critical View

[7-10 minute read]

Recently, my coursework on Hollywood Melodrama engaged me with reading portions of Helen Hanson’s book, Hollywood Heroines: Women in Film Noir and the Female Gothic Film.[1] This text represents an amazing work of scholarship, connecting well-researched critical feminist histories, studies in the formation of literary and filmic genres, and close-readings of the narrative representations of heroines in Classic Hollywood films.

Hanson’s history of gothic fiction, which makes up the majority of her second chapter, related several functions of the gothic mode:

  • “In its ability to express, evoke and produce fear and anxiety, the gothic mode figures the underside to the rational, the stable, and the moral” (34).
  • “In Gothic fiction certain stock features provide the principle embodiments and evocations of cultural anxieties” (34).
  • “The narratives of gothic literary fictions and films commonly deploy suspicions and suspense about past events. . . In its moves across the present and the past, and its tension between progress and atavism, the gothic forces witness [of] the present as conditioned and adapted by events, knowledge or values pressing on it from the past. . . It is within this retrogressive narration that the gothic embodies cultural anxiety, and it is this that mobilizes its potential as social critique.” (35).

In all of these forms, the gothic mode[2] traverses between the past and present, highlighting tensions between society’s desire for progress, and an ever-present fear of change. In this way, it serves as a mirror for cultural anxieties; a mirror which frequently attracts the attention of new and veteran scholars alike.

Dracula is one famous example frequently discussed in college classrooms; the text thrives on the anxieties of the British public in the late Victorian period. It addresses fears of foreigners through the figure of Dracula, an aristocrat from Eastern Europe. It reflects the fear of new modes of emerging femininity in the form of the New Woman as embodied in fragmented forms by Mina Murray and Lucy Westenra. Even concerns about tensions between religion and rationality find voice in the pages of the novel.

anxiety1Bela Lugosi as the foreign and inscrutable Dracula (1931, Universal)

However, these “cultural anxieties” of the past represent fears that the novel both critiques and re-inscribes in equal measure. Dracula is a foreign danger, but he is foiled in part by the American foreigner Quincey Morris. Mina’s technical literacy as a New Woman becomes essential for the defeat of Dracula. More importantly, we can now look back on these “cultural anxieties” and acknowledge the foolishness of their sources: sexism regarding women’s positioning outside the domestic sphere, and a xenophobia of foreigners moving into Britain from all corners of its crumbling empire. These anxieties feel “backward” now: an ideology from another time.

While these instances from criticism of a single specific text do not constitute a full definition of “cultural anxieties,” they do help to situate the term within its common usage. “Cultural anxieties” usually indicate societal fears that a contemporary reader can acknowledge as dependent on historical context. These fears may no longer function in the same way in the current cultural environment – one which the terminology implies has ostensibly progressed from the past.

The tendency of historiographic critique to locate anxieties in a moment from the past continued to haunt me as I moved forward through Hanson’s argument. This notion of “past-ness” lent to topics by the use of the term “cultural anxieties” felt particularly troublesome as I engaged Hanson’s reading of the 1944 film Gaslight.[3] This film revolves around Paula (Ingrid Bergman) and her relationship with the abusive Gregory (Charles Boyer), who uses deception, contradiction, and misdirection to convince Paula that she is losing her mind, and that her grip on reality has faltered.

anxiety2Gaslight poster, 1944 (MGM)

As Hanson approaches her discussion of female gothic films, Gaslight among them, she quotes feminist film critics Tania Modleski and Diane Waldman, who suggest that the female gothic cycle in Hollywood “expresses anxieties of shifting gender roles, and the social upheaval of World War II, from a female perspective.” She goes on to quote them directly: “The fact that after the war years these films gradually faded from the screen probably reveals more about the changing composition of movie audiences than about the waning of women’s anxieties concerning domesticity” (47-8). Not only are the anxieties displayed in Gaslight rooted in the specific moment of Post-WWII America, they also revolve specifically around an “anxiety concerning domesticity.”

This exemplifies the trouble that I came to while thinking about our role as critics: Just as Paula is discredited for her emotional responses in Gaslight, so too is the film discredited from its ability to comment on an ongoing and ever-present feature of patriarchal society by its relation to the term “cultural anxiety.” By tying these films to notions of anxiety, and a “retrogressive narration” that focuses on the past, contemporary critics and modern scholars alike miss something vitally important. Paula’s experience is not some rumination on past treatments of women alone. It is not tied solely to the shifting gender norms in Post-WWII America. It is a visceral consideration of the everyday violence suffered by women under patriarchy.[4]

anxiety3Gregory corners Paula in an early scene of accusation. (MGM)

How many women have been told they are over-reacting, being too emotional, or not thinking clearly? How many women have had their experience of reality challenged by men and other women in misogynistic terms? How many women do not even trust their own minds because of this behavior? (There seems an easy tie-in here with the ways that domestic violence victims blame themselves for the behavior of their abusers, internalize the abuse, and even succumb to Stockholm syndrome). This is a constant and consistent experience for women living in a patriarchal society that values rationality over feeling. By tying these films to anxiety and the past, these texts are stripped of their commentary on this insidious — and constantly active — aspect of the patriarchy.

Instead of allowing for the recognition and critique of current violence against women, the historiographic location of Gaslight as a film about Post-WWII “cultural anxiety” may instead serve to elide the accusatory and critical nature of its content, and its application to our present moment. While our habit to historicize serves as a vital and useful aspect of the discipline, it may be equally important as feminist scholars to acknowledge the ways that these cultural anxieties go unresolved across time.

In the end, this reflection becomes less about the use of any one term (although the build-up of rhetorical weight and precedence placed upon, and into critical terms certainly merits further consideration). Instead, what it has prompted me to consider is the very nature of historicizing patriarchal violence. By historicizing a text so thoroughly within its time, we reap the rewards of insights that only a text’s context may grant us. However, we also run the risk of limiting the text’s ability to witness to a larger, historically mobile female experience of marginalizing violence. Hanson argues for this form of critique as well. She soundly rejects the psychoanalytic readings of early feminist engagement with female gothic melodrama (which often produced a deterministic reading) in favor of suggesting a critical vision that offers “a narrative trajectory as a female journey to subjectivity. This journey has a change in relation to socio-cultural shifts in gender relations coincident in the period” (xvi). Here, her attention calls for a scholarships that locates without functioning deterministically; one which approaches a text both in the local context of its era, and the trans-historical mode of its critique.

If current readers and critics keep this bi-focal view, looking at texts in both their local and trans-historical forms, we gain the ability to ask why a film so tied to the gender politics of 1940s America can still speak so directly to women’s experiences in 2017.


[1] Hanson, Helen. Hollywood Heroines: Women in Film Noir and the Female Gothic Film. No City: I.B. Tauris, 2007.

[2] The “female gothic” rises out of this gothic mode. First discussed by Ellen Moers in her book Literary Women (1963) the term female gothic refers specifically to texts written by and for women.

[3] Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play Gas Light originated the term now used in common parlance to describe the manipulative psychological abuse which functions by instilling in the victim a doubt of their own experiences of reality. This play serves as the source material for the 1944 film, directed by George Cukor.

[4] My argument here is meant in no way as a disavowal of the arguments presented by Hanson, Modleski, or Waldman, but rather a reflection on the rhetorical weight of the terminology that our discipline utilizes and the methodological practices we employ.

Scholarship and Affect: Merging Critical and Fan Identities

[7-10 minute read]

Take an adventure with me through my affective and critical experiences with a few texts I encountered during my first year and a half of my Ph.D. program:

*****

I am sitting in the theatre in the last showing of the night for Star Wars: Rogue One. I have just come from my house where I have been drinking a bit of wine with friends. I am happily relaxed after a rather arduous first semester of Ph.D. study. It’s December, Christmas is coming on quickly, and as an early present, I get another Star Wars film.

Thirty minutes into the film, the protagonist, Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), navigates through city streets on a desert planet, searching for her childhood mentor. Her companion, Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), becomes increasingly agitated, and when Jyn questions him, he says the city “is about to blow.” Moments later, a tank full of Stormtroopers rumbles down the street with Imperial propaganda chiming out of loud speakers affixed to the machine: The Empire is a beacon for “truth and justice,” saviors to a city being terrorized by a radical revolutionary.

I nearly choke on a mouthful of popcorn.

Seconds later, when these “radical revolutionaries,” complete with headscarves, suicide-bomb the Stormtroopers, I have lost my place in the fantasy. I’m not a fan watching another Star Wars film. Terms like “Islamophobia” and “Extremists” swirl through my brain alongside Rhetoric and Ideology.

I lean over to Adam: “Well that’s not very subtle.”

He is getting used to my inability to “simply watch” films anymore.

*****

Rewind. It’s November of 2016. I am sitting in a darkened theatre, wearing yellow and grey and black. I feel a squeal rise up in my throat as the familiar theme plays.

I’m back at Hogwarts.

I’m back to being 11, 12, 13, waiting for an owl with a letter that I know won’t come but I still love to make-believe anyway.

The film ends and I’m crying, sniffling, smiling.

Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is the man I want to be. He is gentle, empathetic, fiercely loyal and protective, kind. He feels. He cries.

Critique1Look at his beautiful smile at that tiny walking stick critter! (Warner Bros.)

Two days later, and every thinkpiece on my Facebook feed is about his tender, non-normative masculinity.

Part of me wishes I could have written them; part of me is ever so glad that I just reveled in my yellow and grey shirt and smiled with happy tears streaking my face.

*****

Mid-December 2016 again. My husband and I are watching episode one of The Magicians on Netflix.

The main character, Quentin Coldwater (Jason Ralph), starts the episode in a psychiatric ward.

The main character starts the series in a psych ward.

The main character openly struggles with depression.

The main character struggles with depression to the point of committing himself to a psychiatric ward, and he will be our hero.

I’m out of the fantasy.

Minutes later, when Quentin’s best friend, Julia (Stella Maeve), comforts him at a party and pecks him on the cheek as her boyfriend walks into the room, I’m further gobsmacked.

Instead of ire, James (Michael Cassidy) responds with a joke and leaps onto the small twin bed where his girlfriend and Quentin are lying beside each other.

I think of Neurotypicality, Compulsory Jealousy, Toxic Masculinity.

*****

December, 2016. Blizzard releases the Overwatch comic titled “Reflections.” Tracer is officially gay. The Internet loses its mind. Tumblr is an inarticulate mass of squeals.

Critique2The panel that launched a thousand flame wars. (Blizzard)

I’m excited about this. It’s about time we have more LGBTQIA+ characters in our popular culture texts. I hold off on darting away to join the bustle of posts about our favorite lesbian time-traveler. Two pages later and I am literally squealing myself:

Hanzo has an undercut! And piercings! And a cowl neck sweater! One of my favorite characters looks not far from my own aesthetic.

Critique3Earrings, a upper bridge piercing, and an undercut hairstyle. Merry Christmas! (Blizzard)

I have nothing articulate to say. I feel a flare of imposter syndrome rear up in my chest. Am I really a scholar if I have nothing to say? I should compose something intelligent, praise the company for creating space for non-normative representations, but all I can do is smile and text my other queer friends to ask if they’ve seen it. I remind myself it’s Christmas break, and it’s okay to just love this.

*****

March, 2017. KONG: Skull Island. The military man, Samuel L. Jackson’s Preston Packard, is full of rage. His masculinity is driven by violence, misplaced aggression, and a need to dominate. He tries to kill Kong; I try to feel something other than detached speculation about the root of his rage and what history the film does not reveal to us.

Toxicity

Valor Narratives

PTSD

*****

March, 2017. Beauty and the Beast.

I am so ready for the first representation of a gay man in a feature film.

I am so ready for a peck on the lips between two men, on screen, in a feature film!

I am thrilled with LeFou’s (Josh Gad) fawning over Gaston (Luke Evans).

Gaston has war trauma and unprocessed grief.

Gaston acts out of a place of rage that is only calmed by LeFou’s careful and caring interventions.

LeFou gets 2 seconds of dancing with a random man in the final ballroom scene.

Critique4Yes, that is someone’s shoulder nearly blocking our revolutionary “gay moment.” (Disney)

I am annoyed.

I write a blog post about toxic masculinity, trauma, and grief in the film for Metathesis.

I am still annoyed.

*****

March, 2017. Power Rangers.

The yellow ranger is officially a lesbian. Her admission is explicit. It is not seen in a glance on a dance floor packed with people. She openly discusses her orientation with the other rangers. They accept it and no one makes a single fuss about it. I cry during that scene.

The blue ranger is on the autism spectrum. The other rangers value his ability to see the world differently. No one makes a fuss. No one makes a big deal. He is just as much a hero as any of the others.

I’m torn between posting about how amazing the representation in the film was, and how nostalgic and happy it made me. I need to justify my affective experience. I gush about the representation and the animal-shaped mega-bots.

*****

It is June, 2017. The film I’m about to see has been talked about ad nauseum for almost two weeks already.

“The skirts are too short.”

“The heels are not historically accurate.”

“Themyscira can’t be historically accurate.”

“There’s no need for a romance narrative.”

“The romance narrative flies in the face of cultural norms.”

“Gal Gadot is a woman of color.”

“Gal Gadot is most definitely not a woman of color.”

“We need to nuance our terminology when discussing women of color.”

I watch Diana (Gal Gadot) stride into No Man’s Land and my body shoots with gooseflesh. Before she takes more than two steps, I have tears running down my face. This is a woman, striding into No Man’s Land, where no man can stand, and she is marching into it, claiming ground, claiming space. I am weeping before she ducks behind her shield under a hail of bullets.

I do not post about the film. I relish the experience of seeing a woman, clad in armor, marching into No Man’s Land. I imagine how I might have felt to see that film as a child of 12. I weep too for that little child that I was, who never saw Diana make that march.

*****

October, 2017

It’s the Halloween event for Overwatch and that means Halloween skins for the characters.[1] The Halloween and Christmas events are my favorite because the skins tend to be holiday themed and generally fun to look at. I appreciate them with the same part of myself that cried during Fantastic Beasts and Wonder Woman.

Symmetra’s Halloween event skin is a Dragon:

Critique5Symmetra’s skin in all its scaled glory. (Blizzard)

But Symmetra is not my first encounter with this skin. I encounter it first as a fan-made modification to the skin, created for one of my favorite characters, a gunslinging cowboy named McCree.[2] The skin is the creation of Twitter user, Loudwindow.

Critique6McCree, with a modified dragon skin. (Blizzard Entertainment/Loudwindow)

I immediately retweet this post on Twitter. “I need this Queer McCree skin in my Overwatch life immediately,” I proclaim.

Then I pause for a moment in a bit of horror. Twitter represents my platform for the majority of my academic contacts, where I comment on posts by scholars and critics who I respect (and honestly probably fan over a bit too). My cohort follows me and I follow them. A few of my professors follow me. Here I am reposting a skin from a videogame not because I have something profound or critical to say about it, but because I find it aesthetically pleasing; because a slightly feminized masculine character who I frequently read about in fan fiction looks incredible with a dragon skin and a crown of horns.

I scramble to think of something intelligent to say about it, latching on to the name the creator gave the skin:

“I’m fascinated by how this skin feminizes the character while announcing him as the object of female desire through the Incubus myth.”

I’ve turned my own aesthetic fascination with the object into a sort of critical inquiry, not so much into the skin itself, but my own affective relationship to it. I follow up my pseudo-astute tweet with another: “Less critically, I find this skin incredibly aesthetically pleasing as a queer, androgynous take on my favorite character.” Hopefully I have succeeded in covering over my moment of excessive affect for this skin with some sort of critical commentary.

For days I am troubled by my response. Why did I feel the need to justify my love of this popular text? Is it because it rises out of my own desire and I’ve therefore villainized it, made it dirty with my ever-clinging Evangelical guilt?

While I’m sure this is part of my motivation, one of the many pressures acting on me as I produce the performance of myself as queer scholar and fan and spouse and student and teacher, reflection has made me consider another reason for this response.

In The Limits of Critique,[3] Rita Felski states the following about our scholarly habits of critique:

Critique is a remarkably contagious and charismatic idea, drawing everything into its field of force, patrolling the boundaries of what counts as serious thought. It is virtually synonymous with intellectual rigor, theoretical sophistication, and intransigent opposition to the status quo . . . For many scholars in the humanities, it is not one good thing but the only imaginable thing . . . To refuse critique . . . is to sink into the mire of complacency, credulity, and conservativism. Who would want to be associated with the bad smell of the uncritical? (8)

This description of critique speaks directly to how I experience the compulsion to justify my own affective attachments to texts. How did I come to internalize this need to critique everything? What can I do now that I recognize it? Is this just a symptom of my profession – not unlike the experience of those versed in music who cannot listen to a concert in the same way as someone less knowledgeable in musical theory?

These questions have no answers for or from me at the moment, and I suspect they might be a specter that haunts many in my profession. I have to believe there exists a happy medium between a devotion to the value of critique and an ability to appreciate a text without critiquing it. It remains for me to discover how to straddle the spaces, how to be comfortable with both critical and affective experiences, with texts that leave me speechless, leave me reveling in an excess of experience. As Walt Whitman (another author of the texts I approach more as fan than critic) has said, “I contradict myself, I contain multitudes.”


[1] Skins refer to different sets of aesthetic based costumes which you can unlock for your characters via gameplay. They make up the bulk of rewards for continuous play on Overwatch, a fantasy First Person Shooter game from Blizzard Entertainment.

[2] Fan-made content does not exist within the actual game and usually involves gender-bending or character-bending skins that the game has officially released. Character-bending would involve taking a skin made for one character and modifying it to fit another character, while gender-bending refers to taking a skin made for a male-bodied character and modifying it to fit a female-bodied character or visa-versa.

[3] Felski, Rita. The Limits of Critique. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015.

“What more does the Traveler want of Me?”: Destiny 2, Ghaul, and the Sci-Fi Villain

[7-10 minute read]

As its title screen fades to black, Destiny 2 (2017) sets itself up to follow the familiar science fiction trope of moral disambiguation. After destroying the last vestiges of human society on the planet, the new villain of the series – the not so subtly named Ghaul – has just thrown your player avatar off a hovering space craft to plummet toward earth. His final words to you hang in the air, a sinister snarl: “I am Ghaul, and your light…is mine.”

This “light” references the power bestowed on your character by a roving god-like entity known as The Traveler. In the first game, guardians chosen by this entity have the power of light bestowed upon them, granting them exceptional abilities. These powers are granted to them in order to facilitate their fight against the enemy of The Traveler – again, the not subtly named, “The Darkness.” Destiny is not aiming for subtlety in the moral lines that it draws. This idea of clear cut sides, of a “right” side and a “wrong side,” serves to anchor Destiny not only within the genre of science fiction, but within the medium of video games.

Science fiction has a long history of “black and white” narratives. Both Star Wars and Star Trek, arguably the two most popular science fiction texts in 20th and 21st century American culture, utilize a rather simplistic moral framework. Star Wars relies on “The Force” with characters falling to either the “light” side or the “dark side.” While the occasional “grey” character may emerge,[1] on the whole, Star Wars falls back on characters that are motivated either by selfish interests (the dark side, the Sith) or general good will and honor (the light side, the Jedi). “Light” side characters in the franchise films (the most widely and frequently consumed Star Wars texts) often receive ample development time on screen, leading to what Murray Smith calls “alignment,” a form of audience identification with a character that results from our exposure to information about that character within the film.[2] The motivations of the texts’ central heroes are made fairly explicit; for example: Luke wants off his home planet, wants to help the mysterious and beautiful Leia from his droid’s recordings, and wants to escape the Empire who murdered his aunt and uncle. However, the major villains of the franchise receive little-to-no attention: Emperor Palpatine is evil because of “reasons,” or simply because he’s Sith.

Img1The Poster for the most recent installment makes the split between good and evil readily apparent. (Lucasfilm/Disney)

Star Trek carries this same tradition: The Borg are defined by their inhumanity, the Klingons and Romulans are aligned with their cultures of violence, imperialism, and war; all alien species that fight against the United Federation of Planets quickly become coded as vicious, violent, and evil. Even when the series investigates the motivations behind its antagonists, there is no question about who we view as villain and hero: Khan’s devotion to slaughter in Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013) is reprehensible and unforgivable, even if he is responding to manipulation on the part of the Federation. Struggle between a righteous, noble humanity and a violent alien “other” quintessentially characterizes much of the science fiction that populates our popular culture.

This convention rings even more true for video game narratives where the developers must establish not only the moral framework of the world, but do so in such a manner that motivates the player by interpolating them into this struggle. The Halo (2001-2017) series utilizes humanity vs. The Covenant, and the Mass Effect (2007-2017) series explores the fight between humanity and “the Reapers.” In both cases, the player knows immediately which side they should root for – that is, which side is the victim in need of a hero – because it is the side their avatar fights for within the world of the game. Even in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (2003), which allows players to choose a side in Jedi vs. Sith battles, the Jedi are still coded explicitly as good, and the Sith as evil.

This overwhelming generic convention has followed gamers down the pipeline to their first encounter with the world of Destiny in 2014. The presence of this science fiction trope for moral disambiguation made it easy to buy into the clearly delineated light vs. darkness world of good vs. evil present in the first game. Immediately, within the game’s opening cinematic, players know they are in the right, aligned with the Traveler and his Light against the forces of The Darkness, and justified in the goals of the first-person shooter/ MMO-hybrid: shooting and killing everyone who shoots at you. Narrative turns act in concert with these game mechanics to structure your behavior and pit you against alien “others.” The initial player encounter with aliens in the game, creatures known as The Fallen, is introduced by your robot guide stating that he “needs to find you a gun before the Fallen find you.” From this point forward, information about the various aliens species encountered in the game comes filtered to the player through their robot guide and the various leaders of the human resistance on Earth. Cut scenes within the game focus on the player’s hero, or on members of the human resistance, but never on the aliens. Again, they are evil simply because they are pitted against the hero, and bent on the same goal as the player: to kill rather than be killed. Their motivations remain vague, clothed in the language of “domination” (The Imperial Cabal), “dark ritual” (The Hive), “resource theft” (the scavenging Fallen), and “technological superiority to non-robots” (The Vex). In all cases, the aliens act as violent aggressors, while the humans simply attempt to defend the remaining human population.

With this framework from the first game, our return to the Earth of Destiny feels familiar in the opening moments of Destiny 2. The surprise comes not from a new alien threat, but from the success of this threat to obliterate the majority of humanity’s last bastion on Earth, and to cripple the heretofore invincible character avatar, the guardian. Destiny 2 opens by insisting that the “good” guys might not win this time.

Img2Ghaul prepares to boot the player’s guardian off the Cabal command ship. (Bungie/Activision)

The narrative continues this insistence on mortality in the following scene, reducing the heroic guardian from the first game to a limping, weaponless shell that must navigate the ruins of the Earth outpost. Mechanics force the player to experience this powerlessness alongside their character: stripped of all the powers and abilities that made their guardians super-human, as well as the ability to jump or run, the player instead can only control the direction of their guardian as the figure limps through burning rubble at a crawling pace that stretches the moment out interminably.

Something else is different in this opening sequence as well, a change whose significance becomes clear as the game’s cut scenes begin to unfold. In the beginning cinematic, Ghaul, the player’s new alien enemy, is presented to us with a recognizable face. Up until this point in the series, members of the alien species of The Cabal enemies faced by the guardians have all been helmeted, with a single exception encountered if the player seeks out lore hidden throughout the worlds of the game.

Img3The usual Cabal suspect. (destiny.wikia.com)

In contrast to this, Ghaul’s face is open to us, or at least his eyes and head:

Img4Dominus Ghaul (destiny.wikia.com)

The impact of seeing his face, and of the eye contact made with the camera (and therefore the gaze of the audience) startles the player. In no small part, this rises from the forces of abjection functioning in this moment of reveal.[3] Here, the face of the other, scarred, mangled, red-eyed, and trapped behind a breathing apparatus, nevertheless still looks human in shape. Ghaul still has eyes which gaze at the player the player gazes at him. The barrier of helmet that helped to define the Cabal as “other” more easily for players is torn away, causing an encounter with an abject other that may be closer to the self than the helmet allowed.

This almost “humanizing” moment in the opening of the game serves as prelude to the function of the rest of the narrative. Where the first Destiny centered cut-scenes almost exclusively on characterization for the player-guardian and their companions, Destiny 2 instead focuses half of its cut-scenes on Ghaul and his ongoing dialogue with The Speaker, a human who serves as a sort of voice for The Traveler. During these scenes we discover that Ghaul is motivated toward his conquest of The Traveler’s light not by some abstract evil, but by victimization he suffered as a child coupled with manipulation wrought by his mentor, The Consul, a disgraced Cabal scholar. Born a runt and albino in a culture that prizes physical domination and strength, Ghaul was abandoned to die. Though The Consul saved him, it was only so he could mold him into a tool to use for conquest and destruction. Ghaul’s childhood abandonment clearly still impacts him, regardless of his accumulated power and prestige as the leader of the Red Legion. His continuous plea to The Speaker and The Traveler rises from the insecurity of his childhood trauma, as he calls for them to “see” him: “Do you see, Traveler, all that I have done? Grace me with your light.”

As the game progresses, Ghaul’s desire to be worthy becomes more and more desperate. He begs the Speaker to “help [him] understand,” to reveal to him why the Traveler will not bestow its light on him. Even though he could simply tear the light out of the Traveler and claim it for himself, he insists that the Traveler must recognize him and what he has accomplished, and gift to him the light instead. When The Consul insists that taking the light by force is the only way, Ghaul retorts, “Not for me.” At the surface level, he is driven by selfish thirst for glory and power that we have come to expect from villains, but beneath that, he is an abandoned child seeking to repay his mentor for rescuing him by raining revenge on “an empire that failed him” – and the game makes sure that we, the players, know this. Unlike past Destiny villains, we know what drives Ghaul: not an abstract concept, but a relatable need for acceptance that feels all too human. His final demand of The Speaker reiterates his desire toward worthiness: “Tell me, Speaker. What more does the Traveler want of me?” It is only after this moment that The Consul leverages his power over Ghaul, and questions his loyalty and the value of his word. In the face of failing the man who raised him, the man who “chose” him, Ghaul consents to take the Traveler’s light.

While the end of the video game’s narrative resolves to place Ghaul squarely in the role of the evil villain in order to generate the medium’s essential boss battle and clean narrative closure, this expository work throughout the bulk of the game’s campaign serves a significant purpose. In our current political environment of creeping fascism and nationalism that relies so heavily on rhetoric of “us vs. them,” a genre that bends conventions to serve up a complicated and pitiable villain creates a bold political statement. Ghaul, ostensibly the enemy, reveals his motivations as hubris and a need for vengeance against those who hurt him. He asks us to question our notions of a black and white world. He presents a narrative of moral ambiguity that reflects back on our reality of human experience. He causes us to question our easy moral binaries, and the lines we draw between others and ourselves.


[1] Han Solo and Anakin Skywalker both exemplify these “grey-area” characters: Han due to his questionable motivations of wealth rather than honor, and Anakin due to his slaughter of the entire sand tribe rising out of a uncontrolled rage over the violence done to his mother

[2] For an easily accessible overview of Murray Smith’s theories on audience identification see Greg Smith’s chapter, “How do we identify with characters,” from his book What Media Classes Really Want to Discuss, Routledge, 2011.

[3] The term abjection and the theory surrounding it is pulled from Julia Kristeva’s book Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, Columbia UP, 1982.

Hillarie Curtis is a second year Ph.D. student in English at Syracuse University where they study masculinity, monstrosity, censorship, and queer representations in Classic Hollywood films and Popular Culture texts.

Special Edition: How I Misplaced my Faith

[5 minute read]

Last month, when teaching a Metathesis post I previously wrote about being a Catholic scholar, I felt like a bit of a fraud. My intention in using this post was to give my students a look at my research on a rare book they had examined for class. However, when one of my students immediately remarked that the book smelled “you know, like when you’re at Easter Mass, and the priest is using incense”, my response was one of disconnect, rather than recognition. Between submitting my syllabus for approval in April and teaching the content in September, I had misplaced my faith somewhere.

Somewhere, I say, but I know exactly where I misplaced it. I left it in the run-down Amtrak station in Schenectady, New York: a tiny room with a manual train schedule, a contaminated drinking fountain, and an air freshener that whined every quarter hour. I know I left it there because I spent my layover from Syracuse to Montréal in an airport-style seat bank, squished between my piles of luggage, reading Kaya Oakes’s The Nones Are Alright.

AshleyOct1

My unglamorous road from Damascus

Oakes, a freelance writer and lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley, who will be giving the annual Borgognoni lecture on Monday, compiled this collection of first-hand narratives to represent the faith processes of those who belong to (as the subtitle describes) “A New Generation of Believers, Seekers, and Those in Between.” The book finds its premise in the 2012 Pew report on American religion, which identified that over a third of Americans have no religious affiliation. Some are “nones” — spiritual but not religious, they might be seeking a religion where they feel at home, or they might not. Some are “dones” — spiritually burned by their previous religious affiliation, they seek no association with formal religion. Some have never had religious affiliation; some had it, but found themselves unable to believe anymore. Whatever their motivations, a large population of Americans do not identify with religion as an institution, or as we previously knew it.

Image2An updated version of the Pew Research Center’s findings from 2014.

With her book, Oakes looks beyond the numbers of the report to compile and showcase the stories of these “nones.” The pages are populated by lifelong nonbelievers, sudden converts to atheism, and exploratory practitioners of multiple faiths, as well as exiled divorcees, gay ex-Jesuits, and women scalded by institutional sexism. But as I sat in the chilly station, one story about a Jewish seminarian-turned-Jewish atheist almost seemed to be talking about me. This man had built his life and his career around institutional Judaism. But although he was able to negotiate a personal agreement whereby he would teach nontraditional classes in Hebrew school and observe Jewish holidays, after reflection, he discovered that he could not bring himself to worship a being in whose existence he could no longer believe.

TitleCoverKaya Oakes’s The Nones are Alright (Orbis Books, 2015)

Although I started my degree as a (technically) non-practicing Catholic and described myself to colleagues as more intellectually than spiritually interested in Catholicism, within a year I was fully embedded in my research on Early Modern Catholicism, both academically and personally. I felt like I’d finally embraced — with a few provisos and quid pro quos — the faith I’d grown up in for my own. I was a Catholic scholar writing about Catholicism with aspirations of tenure at a hippie Catholic college. Sometimes it all seemed a little excessive; the other Catholic scholars I interacted with (who weren’t Jesuits) led much more diverse lives. But I had a brand, a kind of a fandom, and the symmetry made so much sense.

Yet here I was, beneath the dingy fluorescent lights of the train station, where the phrase “agnostic Catholic” struck me with such a resonance that I felt as if the text had directly addressed me. I’d never been able to completely buy into large chunks of the catechism. In the meanwhile, I practiced. The rites and rituals, but also the leadership positions and committee work — I practiced and participated in these because they seemed meaningful, because I could, and because I should. I’d always just assumed, or hoped, that someday, someone would explain it all to me in a way that I could believe in. I realized now that I’d confused faith with trust: and the more I distrusted the systems of oppression embedded in the Church (or that the Church was in bed with), the less I could truly believe that it all was true. I didn’t know what I believed anymore. And so I found myself in a little city, in a tiny Amtrak station, in a kind of long-distance communion with these “nones” — these people with whom I’d sympathized, but never empathized with before – now, my new fellow travelers.

I say I’ve misplaced my faith, because I wonder if it’s still around here somewhere. Like the Winnie-the-Pooh headband I’d misplaced as a child, that I had known must have been in my childhood bedroom somewhere, and which I’m still half-convinced is in one of the boxes my family never unpacked after our big move nineteen years ago. Maybe someday I’ll find that headband; maybe one day I’ll stop feeling like an imposter when I go to mass, or write for religious magazines.

newstationLet me know if you see my faith in the lost-and-found.

Schenectady tore down its Amtrak station a few weeks after I passed through. An artist’s rendering of the future new station depicted an elegant, white, modern building, ostensibly with computerized schedules and clean drinking water. Maybe I’ll find my faith still there when I next pass through. Maybe I’ll be a believer again. Or maybe I won’t: maybe I’ll always be a seeker. Or, maybe, I’ll be somewhere in between.


Kaya Oakes will be leading a discussion for graduate students about her work on Monday, October 9, 10:30 AM – 12:30 PM in Hall of Languages 504, Syracuse University. RSVP to Ashley O’Mara (amomara@syr.edu) for readings.

Ashley O’Mara is a PhD student and teaching associate in the Syracuse University English program. She studies asexuality, celibacy, and the queer politics of Catholicism after the Reformation in Early Modern English literature. In her down time, she writes creative nonfiction and listens to Mashrou’ Leila. She has very strong opinions about hummus.