Machiavelli’s “Small Volume”: The Legacy of the Stage Machiavel (29 April 2016)

“Bearing in mind all the matters previously discussed, I ask myself whether the present time is appropriate for welcoming a new ruler in Italy, and whether there is matter that provides an opportunity for a few-seeing and able man to mold it into a form that will bring honour to him and its inhabitants.”

-Machiavelli

As we’ve been considering the seemingly timeless quality of the figure of the stage Machiavel, it is worth remembering that the archetype is drawn from a series of highly specific moments in history.   The quote at the top of the page reminds us that Machiavelli is writing during a period of intense civil unrest in Italy, following a major foreign invasion and the dissolution of a number of seemingly stable governments and it was written as a gift for a single man—Lorenzo de’ Medici.[1]  Even so, while English audiences found themselves largely disinterested with Machiavelli’s specific appeals to Italian cultural history or his interest in the maintenance of armies and auxiliaries, there was something about the Florentine that caught fire in the cultural imagination of England.  Through stage representations, his political ideas were spread to a population that would have otherwise had little access to them,[2] and the staging tropes that helped to disseminate a basic overview of Machiavellian thought have remained with us ever since.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been looking at popular representations of Machiavellian politics with an eye turned towards the ways in which contemporary audiences share the same fascination with Machiavelli that defined early modern representations.  For the last 400 years, Anglophonic audiences have been fascinated by attempts to understand Machiavelli’s political beliefs, and I have only touched upon a small sample of the most popular contemporary representations.  The goal here has been less to say anything about Machiavelli’s actual politics than to examine the process by which cultural understandings of those politics end up in our popular fiction.  The stage Machiavel offers an interesting case study for examining the ways in which popular representations of political philosophy can make those theories more accessible and the ways in which those same representations can participate in shaping public discourse concerning those theories.   While printers would eventually receive license to legally print The Prince in England, decades of being represented as a ruthless stage villain certainly colored the reading practices of English audiences.

This in turned has dramatically impacted our cultural perception of virtually everything connected to Machiavelli.  Period fiction set during the early 16th century frequently turns to him as a ready-made villain in the same way that Christopher Marlowe utilized Machiavelli to introduce The Jew of Malta.[3]  He has appeared as a character in texts ranging from Showtime’s The Borgias to Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed II.

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Machiavelli in The Borgias

Just as his name became shorthand for a duplicitous schemer, his person has entered into the stable of stock historical villains.  Just as stage representations of Machiavellianism would brand any act that was remotely morally questionable as Machiavellian, modern pop culture representations label any act of political scheming as inherently connected to Machiavellian thought.  Even though the characters that I examined in the last few weeks of posts frequently display a number of profoundly non-Machiavellian beliefs,[4] the image of the stage Machiavel still informs the way in which we understand those characters.

In closing up my month of blog posts, I hope to have demonstrated the ways in which the tropes of the early modern stage have remained with us throughout the past five centuries.  In the wake of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, it becomes worth considering the ways in which it isn’t simply the texts of the early modern theatre that have stuck in our imaginations.  While we certainly imagine Machiavellianism differently than audiences did in the 16th century, many of the same questions and concerns still exist in the fiction that we create.  We may not be interested in the complex history of English kingship that exists in The History of Henry IV part 1, but we do still have an investment in the questions that the play asks about how a ruler should act.  While representations of Machiavellianism are not the only entry point into understanding the continuities that exist between early modern and contemporary practices of representation, the stage Machiavel does provide a fairly clear example of an early modern stage trope that continues to capture our imagination well into the 21st century.

[1] The Prince was not published until 1532, five years after Machiavelli’s death.

[2] The Prince could not be legally published in England during the 16th century and literacy rates were fairly low.

[3] This habit of making Machiavelli a central character in narratives about 16th century Florence dates back to the mid-19th century at the latest, as George Eliot’s Romola features extended cameos by a pre-Prince Machiavelli.

[4] I noted last week that Machiavelli would likely have hated Frank Underwood for being a self-invested conspirator.  Beyond this, Cersei Lannister would likely be chided for her absolute disregard for the opinions of the populace and the fact that so few people actual trust Peytr Baelish suggests that he lacks the fox-like qualities that Machiavelli lauds in his schemers.


Evan Hixon is a first year PhD 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.

Privileged Positions: House of Cards and Frank Underwood’s Machiavellian Monologues (22 April 2016)

“Since a ruler, then, must know how to act like a beast, he should imitate both the fox and the lion, for the lion is liable to be trapped, whereas the fox cannot ward off wolves…[b]ut foxiness should be well concealed: one must be a great feigner and dissembler.  And men are so naïve…that a skillful deceiver always finds plenty of people who will let themselves be deceived.”

-Machiavelli

At the conclusion of Act 4, Scene 3 of Hamlet, after convincing Hamlet to sail to England, the stage is cleared for Claudius to address the audience.  Though not marked as an aside, Claudius uses these 11 lines to announce that he has sealed letters “conjuring to that effect/The present death of Hamlet” (4.3.62-63).  By this point in the play, audiences have little reason to trust the words of Claudius, but at this moment, he utilizes the empty stage as an opportunity to pull back the curtain of his deception to reveal to the audience the machinations of his plot.  This was a common theatrical device on the early modern stage, in which the soliloquy or the aside would offer characters a chance to directly address the audience.  In this particular example, Claudius drops the façade of the Machiavellian liar to reveal his true intentions.  In doing so, he reveals truths about himself to the audience that he had kept hidden from the rest of the characters within the play, confirming what they already knew—that Claudius could not be trusted.

Turning to modern representations of Machiavellian villains, this is a device employed with frequency by Frank Underwood in Netflix’s House of Cards, a political thriller that owes a great deal to the tradition of the stage Machiavel.

House of Cards

Machiavellianism, American style

Frank Underwood, the Democratic House Majority whip, is introduced to audiences as a ruthless pragmatist, directly addressing his audience to explain the principles that guide his philosophy. In this moment of revelation, it is not only important that audiences witness Underwood’s actions, but also that he shows himself capable of pulling back the veil that is assumed to exist between his character and his viewing audience.

Here, he, like Claudius, is revealing truths about himself to which only his audience will have access.  Through the later use of these asides, Underwood is presented as a consummate liar, a man capable of sabotaging the administration in which works from within and he is often heralded as a prime example of a modern Machiavel.[1]  He represents what modern writers understand to be an idealized form of Machiavelli’s Fox-Lion politician, capable of crushing those he feels have wronged him while deceiving the world into believing that he remains loyal to their cause.

Frank Underwood, like Claudius, participates in affirming for audiences what they already believe to be true.  In Hamlet, the moments in which Claudius reveals himself to be a treacherous usurper affirm that which audiences could only speculate upon prior to his confession.  In a similar vein, Underwood’s casual asides become revelatory for audiences, but what they reveal is political rather than personal. These tiny acts of revelation say a great deal about how House of Cards conceptualizes the modern political landscape.  Underwood is able to speak truths to the audience as if he were a kind of omniscient chorus, well versed in the inner workings of Washington politics and able to speak with an authority which other characters lack.  As the Machiavellian fox, capable of lying to and manipulating those around him, Underwood’s monologues seem to remove the veil of calculated dissimulation and therefore come as unfiltered truths about the political system, and in a sense they simply affirm what audiences already believe about the operation of power.  Even though we may know that they are presented through the voice of a liar, by framing them as asides directly to the audience, they are granted a significant measure of authority.  In these brief asides, the figure of the liar takes off his mask, but instead of revealing guilt, he reveals how easily he is able take the reins of the political system to his own advantage.

Similarly, this device places audiences in a privileged position of knowing what other characters do not.  In Hamlet, the titular character is never given the clarity of truth concerning his uncle that audiences receive thanks to the decision to stage Claudius’s confessions as spoken upon an empty stage.  Likewise, none of Underwood’s victims are given the privileged knowledge that we as spectators enjoy thanks to our frequent glimpses into Underwood’s rationale for his actions.   In essence, by revealing his status as a Machiavellian dissimulator, Underwood affirms the value of Machiavellian dissimulation.  By announcing himself as Machiavelli’s fox and granting audiences a privileged glimpse into the rationale of the fox, we affirm the maxim that a man must be like a fox if he is to succeed in the world of politics.  House of Cards, like Game of Thrones, utilizes Machiavellian thought to demonstrate the ruthlessness and dissimulation that these programs believe underscore successful politicking.  While certainly not an affirmation of the political beliefs of its characters, our introduction to Frank Underwood in House of Cards breaks the 4th wall to convince audiences of what they already believed to be true:  Washington politics is a game of deception and ambition where ruthlessness trumps idealism.

[1] It is worth noting that Machiavelli would likely despise men like Frank Underwood.  Much of The Prince is presented as a guidebook for ways in which a ruling prince can avoid being undermined by duplicitous schemers like Underwood.


Evan Hixon is a first year PhD 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.

“You win or You Die”: Game of Thrones and Machiavellian Amorality (15 April 2016)

“However, how men live is so different from how they should live that a ruler who does not do what is generally done, but persists in doing what ought to be done, will undermine his power rather than maintain it.”

-Machiavelli

Note:  Spoilers for the first four seasons of Game of Thrones and for Richard III

One of the major reasons that early modern audiences reacted so negatively to Machiavelli’s political philosophy stemmed from the idea that he advocated for amorality in both politics and in life.  Treating politics as a science, Machiavelli urged rulers to focus their attention on preserving themselves and their state, even if this meant doing things that were traditionally understood to be immoral.  This was not an altogether unfair reading, as Machiavelli did suggest that rulers should be more concerned with appearing noble and moral than with actually being noble and moral.[1] However, this translated into the popular consciousness as Machiavelli advocating for a total discarding of traditional morality in the name of personal gain.  As a result, stage Machiavels—a term used to describe theatrical characters meant to be associated with Machiavellian politics—were not only framed as amoral, but they tended to treat this amorality as something that offered them greater insight into how the world actually functioned.

This language of embracing the material reality of the world against an idealized vision of how we would like the world to operate became a key topos of many of the well-remembered early modern Machiavels.  Richard III argued that morality and social decorum were merely niceties that could be overlooked if one were powerful or ambitious enough.  In arguing for his right to use whatever means necessary to seize power, he famously suggested that “[c]onscience is a but a word that cowards use, /Devis’d at first to keep the strong in awe:/ Our strong arms be our conscience,” (V.iii.309-311).  Here, Richard expresses the belief that structures of idealism and morality, things like conscience, honor or love exist only to discourage the strong from seeking power.  In essence, the early modern Machiavel articulates a belief that social conventions are arbitrary constructions designed to keep men in line.

As I mentioned last week, a good case study for examining modern interest in Machiavellian politics can be glimpsed in HBO’s Game of Thrones.[2]  Much of the early series focuses on the political aftermath of the death of king Robert Baratheon and the ensuing series of civil wars and back-room politicking that occurs as a result.   Central to this conflict is the complicated political maneuvering undertaken by courtly figures such as Petyr Baelish and Cersei Lannister who, among others, frequently articulate the idea that the only way that power can be maintained is by acknowledging that one must be willing to engage in wrongdoing in order to secure oneself in an a disorganized and chaotic political environment.

Cersei Lannister and Petyr Baelish discussing what truly makes one ‘powerful’.

If Game of Thrones has a central thesis, it is a conscious rejection of idealism and a desire to ground high fantasy in a ‘veneer of reality’ that often slides into cynicism. Characters like Cersei and Petyr are drawn in direct contrast against figures such as Eddard Stark and his son Robb, who stand in as representatives of a kind of idealized heroism aligned with more traditional fantasy heroics.  Following the Machiavellian injunction to focus on “how things are generally done” rather than how “they ought to be done,” Game of Thrones constructs for itself a universe in which conventional ideas of morality and heroism fail.

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Eddard Stark’s Execution.  Such is the fate of idealistic men in Game of Thrones.

In this environment, good men die, because in the world of G.R.R. Martin’s Westeros, good men are frequently being undermined by individuals who better understand how the world works.[3]  The series embraces a decidedly Machiavellian logic concerning what makes a successful politician and through five seasons, the series shows little sign of subversion.

Petyr Baelish may as well be echoing Richard III when he comments that, “Chaos isn’t a pit.  Chaos is a ladder.  Many who try to climb it fail and never get to try again.  The fall breaks them.  And some, are given a chance to climb.   They refuse, they cling to the realm or the gods or love.  Illusions.  Only the ladder is real.  The climb is all there is.”[4]  For pop culture Machiavels like Baelish, nothing matters except the acquisition of power.  Everything else is immaterial.  Thus, as one of the most successful Machiavels in Westeros, Baelish’s words seem to ring true throughout the series, as ideals like love, family and trust constantly fall short when those who embrace them are forced to confront the ‘realists’ of the series, who tend towards dissimulation, deceit and violence.[5]  Game of Thrones may not consciously be invoking the rhetoric of Machiavelli, but the series seems to affirm the Machiavellian idea that those who understand how power operates (in this case amorally) succeed where others fail.

The major difference to draw out between how early moderns thought about this aspect of Machiavellianism and how modern audiences think about it stems mostly from how much credit we are willing to give the Machiavellian position regarding the nature of men.  Game of Thrones is often praised for its more ‘realistic’ depiction of fantasy topos and for its rejection of an idealistic image of medieval fantasy.  While Baelish and Richard III are both the villains of their respective series, Richard III ends with the Machiavellian usurper defeated in righteous combat by the divinely ordained King Henry VII.  In the world of the early modern, the just order is preserved and the good, righteous ruler replaces the amoral Machiavel.[6]  In contemporary fiction such as Game of Thrones, even when it seems clear that the villainous Machiavel is a character we are meant to revile, the show seems to still affirm that they do simply have a better understanding of how the world works than the characters they manage to out maneuver.  While figures like Cersei Lannister and Petyr Baelish may not be the heroes of our fiction, in a series such as Game of Thrones, they certainly seem to have a better understanding of the amoral, calculating political environments in which they traffic.  In moments such as these, modern audiences seem much more willing to accept Machiavelli’s argument that how the world works and how we would like it to work rarely align.

[1] “[A ruler] must be prepared to vary his conduct as the winds of fortune and changing circumstances constrain him…not deviate from the right conduct if possible, but be capable of entering upon the path of wrongdoing when this becomes necessary.”

[2] Game of Thrones remains incredibly popular through its 5th season, drawing in over 8 million viewers for its season finale:  http://variety.com/2015/tv/news/game-of-thrones-finale-ratings-jon-snow-cersei-1201519719/

[3] Petyr Baelish betrays Eddard Stark:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VdmnL1lY-UM

[4] For a more detailed examination of what Baelish’s politics can teach us about history, see:  https://metathesisblog.com/2015/01/13/game-of-thrones-theory-of-history-nasty-brutish-but-definitely-not-short/

[5] In some cases, as with Eddard and Robb Stark, the ideals of loyalty and love prove to be actively detrimental, as a belief in the importance of those concepts result in the deaths of those characters.

[6] Also, Henry VII was the grandfather of Elizabeth I, so this ending worked to affirm the authority of the Tudor monarchy.


Evan Hixon is a first year PhD 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.

Hated, Feared and Loved: Popular Representations of Nicollò Machiavelli (8 April 2016)

“A controversy has risen about this: whether it is better to be loved than feared, or vice versa.  My view is that it is desirable to be both loved and feared; but it is difficult to achieve both and, if one of them has to be lacking, it is much safer to be feared than loved.”

-Nicollò Machiavelli

The word Machiavellian, denoting a duplicitous schemer or an unscrupulous politician entered into the English language in 1566,[1] decades before a formal English translation of Machiavelli’s most famous work, The Prince, would be legally available for the general population.

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Picured: An unscrupulous politician

 

In England, Machiavelli’s reputation proceeded him and this led to a tremendous interest in the early modern consciousness concerning exactly how his more controversial ideas should be handled.  He became the era’s go-to reference point for political duplicity, amoral scheming and atheism.  Historical villains were rechristened as followers of the Florentine and an entire theatrical archetype was invented to leverage an emerging public discourse which framed anything associated with Nicollò as a ready-made symbol of evil.

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Richard III, as understood by Tudor propaganda

This series of blogposts intends to examine not only the historic and literary history of representations of Machiavellianism, but also more contemporary representations and discourses, which remain closely connected to many of the same rhetorical movements and ideas that informed 16th century repudiations of Machiavelli.   While we may not have the same relationship to the Florentine as Elizabethan audiences did, we still express many of the same doubts and fears about men and morality that Machiavelli ignited in the early part of the 16th century.

Early modern representations of Machiavelli took the worst excerpts they could draw from The Prince and ran with them.  Marlowe, Shakespeare, Kyd, and countless other dramatists exploited the public fear of the Machiavellian image to construct dozens of scheming political climbers that would populate some their most famous plays.  Villains such as Claudius, Iago, Edmund and Richard III would become closely tied to the image of the Machivel. Tapping into a cluster of fears among English play goers, early modern representations of Machiavellianism tended to emphasis its amorality, its belief in justified cruelty and its connection to Southern Europe.[2]  While some of these writers may have had some amount of sympathy for elements of Machiavelli’s politics, when invoking the man himself, few popular representations of Machiavellianism offered any sympathy or nuance.   In the early days of representation, the figure of the Machiavel had lived up to his prodigious reputation.

Despite a long history of being transformed into a symbol of unrepentant villainy and amorality, Machiavelli still seems to inhabit a special place in our consciousness.  The word attached to his name still possesses tremendous currency, as we use it to discuss any number of politicians,[3] fictional characters,[4] sports personalities,[5] among countless others.  Further, in a political environment which sees increasing public support coalescing behind anti-establishment rhetoric and campaigning, here understood to represent politicians who don’t outwardly appear to ‘treat politics as a game,’ or who appeal to a sense of honesty and integrity that implicitly suggests that this integrity represents a break from the norm, a sizable population seems to be looking at modern institutions with the same wary eyes with which Machiavelli’s philosophical detractors wished to view their own world in the waning years of the 16th century.   Part of the fear that early modern audiences saw in Machiavelli was in his suggestion that politics was a game of misdirection and manipulation, a place where liars and cheaters stood above moral men.  As a result, Machiavelli was never far from the political fiction of his time, and the last four centuries seem to have done little to remove him from our imaginations.

One need to look no further than the recent resurgence of political thrillers to see that this suspicion still underlies a section of our popular culture in much the same way that it informed the popular culture of early modern England.  Richard III, the deformed usurper of Shakespeare’s The History of Henry VI Part III, who wishes to “set the murderous Machiavel to school,” (III.ii.193), bares more than a passing resemblance to modern popular figures such as Frank Underwood or Petyr Baelish,[6] whose political machinations drive the plots of their respective series.

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As political schemers, intent on raising themselves through the ranks by whatever means necessary, figures like Baelish and Underwood are cut from the same cloth that gave Anglophonic culture villains like Iago and Lorenzo.  While the pop culture Machiavel is still villainous, there is some newfound pleasure to be found in watching the devious and duplicitous anti-heroes maneuver their way into power.  The popularity of series that make explicit their Machiavellian theme suggests that there exists a disconnect between the way that audiences are conceptualizing real world politics and the way that we choose to stage and consume fiction about politics.   The next in this series of posts will look in greater detail at a few case studies to examine how Machiavellian political thought is being fictionalized in contemporary popular culture.

[1] “Machiavellian, n. and adj.”. OED Online. March 2016. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com.libezproxy2.syr.edu/view/Entry/111832?redirectedFrom=Machiavellian (accessed April 05, 2016).

[2] Despite being framed by writers as an atheist, Machiavelli is frequently connected to the other big early modern fear coming out of Italy, the Catholic Church.

[3] Virtually every candidate in the 2016 primary cycle has been compared to or compared against Machiavelli in some capacity.

[4] http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-22537324

[5] http://www.newyorker.com/news/sporting-scene/the-infinite-mercy-of-bill-belichick

[6] Between the Lannisters, Tyrells, Martells and Lords Baylish and Varys, the political subplot of HBO’s Game of Thrones could best be described as a contest between a dozen Machivels trying to out maneuver one another.


Evan Hixon is a first year PhD 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.

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Part II: Wicked Women and the Negotiation of Female (Dis)empowerment (1 April 2016)

“Not only did she dupe me into believing she still loved me, she actually forced me to implicate myself. Wicked, wicked girl. I almost laughed. Good Lord, I hated her, but you had to admire the bitch.” – Nick Dunne

Gone Girl, (Flynn 345) [1]

The majority of Gone Girl’s masterful storytelling depends on Flynn’s fascinating, journalistic style of characterization and description, a thriller’s requisite plot twists and explosive reveals, and the unreliability of the two narrators, Nick and Amy Elliott Dunne.[2] Throughout the majority of the novel’s first part, “Boy Loses Girl,” while Nick narrates the present-day events concerning the disappearance of his wife, readers learn about Amy through various diary entries, the first of which details the night she and Nick met at a writer’s party – a charming, witty, and thoroughly romantic meet-cute scenario that plays perfectly into the image of a happy couple destined for a wrong turn, somewhere, somehow. After all, no one is perfect, least of all Amy Elliott herself.

The thing is, though, Amy knows this. From the start, she laughs at her own claims of being a writer – even as the author of the diary, Amy undermines her own narrative authority by admitting that she only writes personality quizzes for tween magazines. Such a confession makes Amy likable and relatable, with a sweet girl-next-door kind of charm. She acknowledges her shortcomings as a daughter, and tells the story of how her parents actually created a literary avatar of a perfect child – aptly named Amazing Amy – that represents, in Amy’s words, a plagiarized correction of all her life’s faults, which “was not just fucked up but also stupid and weird and kind of hilarious.” (27). In comparison to her husband, Amy is refreshingly honest. She is forthright, self-conscious of her own faults without being too teeth-grittingly self-effacing, and tries so hard to be a decent, good woman – a good wife. She faces the economic downturn, the loss of financial security, and the gradual dissolution of her marriage to Nick with the occasional emotional outburst. These, however, are quickly quelled by confessions of “being a girl,” coupled with declarations to rise above the stereotype of the embittered wife: “I won’t blame Nick. I don’t blame Nick. I refuse – refuse! – to turn into some pert-mouthed, strident, angry-girl” (65).

She is also a skillful liar, a schemer, an angry sociopath, and a very, very vengeful scorned wife.

The title of the novel’s second part is “Boy Meets Girl,” and insinuates a re-discovery, a recovery of alternate meaning. Just as Nick unravels his wife’s treasure hunt of punishment, humiliation, and retribution that frames him for her murder, readers are also made aware of their own identification with Nick[3] – outsmarted, outwitted, and duped by an unreliable narrator and a literary lie. Even if we don’t share in Nick’s philandering ways, repressed misogynistic impulses, or his present role as entrapped husband and suspected killer, we too have been beguiled by Diary Amy and her romantic fiction.

“I’d like you to know me first,” Amy writes. “Not Diary Amy, who is a work of fiction (and Nick said I wasn’t really a writer, and why did I ever listen to him?), but me, Actual Amy. What kind of a woman would do such a thing? Let me tell you a story, a true story, so you can begin to understand.” (220)

And yet, from this point on, the narrative spirals into a multiplicity of Amys: Diary Amy finds herself cast off by Actual Amy (220), who merges in and out of Dead Amy (234), Ozark Amy (244), Other Dead Amy (246), and under the pseudonyms of Lydia and Nancy. Besides these alternate versions of her self, Amy has had close to four decades to cycle through a laundry list of “people I’ve already been” (236), which reads like a closet of Barbie-identities, suitable and discarded as soon as the wearer begins to tire of it.

As a first-time reader, I understood some of Nick’s reluctant admiration. Personally, my moral compass didn’t encourage identifying with or cheering on a wicked woman who accused a man of rape just to teach him a lesson, who would gaslight a teenage girl into nearly committing suicide, or vindictively wish for her husband to be ass-raped in prison.[4] On the other hand, Amy Elliott had significant truth bombs to drop, and drop them she did. “I hope you liked Diary Amy. She was meant to be likable…She’s easy to like…I wrote her very carefully, Diary Amy. She is designed to appeal to the cops, to appeal to the public should portions be released. They have to read this diary like it’s some sort of Gothic tragedy…They have to like me. Her” (237-8), Actual Amy now confides to the reader, and the shock – dare I say the magic – of the narrative manipulation is no less deft for the revelation of such.

Ironically, in successfully duping the reader alongside beguiling her cheating husband, the cops, and the entire American public, Amy shows her hand. Actual/Real Amy’s anger lies in the fact that Nick fell in love with one of her personas – Cool Girl Amy, specifically – and then out of love with her unadorned, real self. “Can you imagine,” she seethes, “finally showing your true self to your spouse, your soul mate, and having him not like you?” (225). Add infidelity to the list, Nick has thoroughly shaken his wife. By his inelegant actions, he has reduced her to “Average Dumb Woman Married to Average Shitty Man. He had single-handedly de-amazed Amazing Amy” (234), and toppled the wicked woman from her throne. Not only does it sting to be thrown over for a younger Cool Girl model, but Amy’s anger mingles with shame – to rekindle the romance, she had actually been willing to retry her hand at being the Cool Girl that she so deplored, and Nick loved.

In the end, while Amy gives into her misreading of Nick’s rekindled love for her true self, and the marriage continues with both partners acting their part – for the arguable betterment of both – Amy nearly gets the last word on her self-fashioning and the definition of her identity. She is no mere “psycho bitch,” as Nick accuses; she sees through his attempt to label her as a lazy cop-out. “It’d be so easy, for him to write me off that way. He’d love that, to be able to dismiss me so simply” (Flynn 394) – which indeed, Nick takes morbid pleasure in having married “the world’s foremost mindfucker” (271). But despite her success, the thought of waking up every morning, and being herself, doesn’t thrill like she thought it would.

What then, wicked woman?

“It’s not a particularly flattering portrait of women, which is fine by me. Isn’t it time to acknowledge the ugly side?” Gillian Flynn writes, calling for a triumph of “violent, wicked women” over the watered-down “girl-power” rhetoric of a supposedly post-feminist era. “Dark sides are important. They should be nurtured like nasty black orchids.”[5] If exposing wickedness by showing its construction gives such women a chance to shine, it also weakens the mystification of the wicked woman’s power – dispelling the myth, tarnishing the shine of glorification, and making wickedness just a little bit more human.

[1] Flynn, Gillian. Gone Girl. New York: Broadway Books, Random House. 2012.

[2] The majority of this blog post will examine both Flynn’s novel and David Fincher’s 2014 film adaptation, of which Flynn wrote the screenplay. Given the emphasis on acting, deception, and the unreliability of signs in reading the self, I consider the literary and visual text alongside one another to heighten the instability of self-depiction/description and markers of identity.

[3] In some ways, life imitates art: Ben Affleck’s partial Irish heritage, working-class roots, and troubled relationships fit characterizations of Nick Dunne perfectly. “I have a face you want to punch: I’m a working-class Irish kid trapped in the body of a total trust-fund douchebag” (32), Nick admits soon enough, and most of my students agreed that Affleck had been a rather stellar casting choice for that quality alone.

[4] Gillian Flynn responds to accusations of misogyny and anti-feminist rhetoric in the novel by turning the tables on such a script, and argues for an expansion of feminism to include villainous women. For more, see The Guardian interview: “Gillian Flynn on her bestseller Gone Girl and accusations of misogyny” (May 2013).

[5] “I was not a Nice Little Girl.” For Readers – Gillian Flynn. Web. 20 March 2016.


Vicky Cheng is a third year Ph.D. student and teaching associate in Syracuse’s English Department. She studies Victorian literature and culture, with an emphasis on feminist and queer readings of the body. When not reading for forthcoming qualifying exams, she can be found drinking tea, napping, or having strong feelings about Star Wars, Marvel films, and Hamilton.

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Part I: Wicked Women, Active Deception, and Narrative Opportunity (25 March 2016)

 

Recently, my thoughts have been preoccupied with wicked women.

As a student of the humanities – namely, English literature, and even more specifically, Victorian literature, in all its verbosity – whose field of study recognizes the pivotal inextricability of words from complex networks of cultural meaning, contemporary and historical connotations, and critical scrutiny, I feel the need to explain what I mean.

Just that assertion, the typical aha, gotcha! factor necessary for any captivating opening line, required some consideration and several revisions. “Evil” brings to mind Miltonic images of Eve’s “golden tresses wore / Dishevelled, but in wanton ringlets waved”[1] or of equally mythic personages such as the so-called Blood Countess, Elizabeth Báthory, who bathed in the blood of virgins – an apt model for Stoker’s brides of Dracula. “Naughty,” on the other hand, has already been so thoroughly appropriated for the weirdly incongruent rhetorical camps of child-minders and the marketing of adult entertainment, which intersect in disturbing cases of the Lolita-inspired schoolgirl: the jailbait, childish version of the seductive vixen, all grown-up save in physical form. “Bad” may suit well enough, but those who have experienced attempting to explain ‘90s slang to an older or younger generation may understand the shortcomings of that particular descriptor.

Meanwhile, there’s a secret thrill that accompanies the concept of the wicked. The very concept invites a conspiratorial grin, a winking with the one eye while closing the other against the injunctions of a too-stringent, too-prudish society; an empowerment, a tantalizing call to action for personal gratification, or just enough fun in the rebellion to make any censure worth the risk. When gendered, the mystique becomes doubly attractive – male wickedness seems tame, in comparison to the female strain of the same.

Sing along; you know you want to…

The greater part of this peculiar interest stems, as it should, from my current reading material: amidst the host of blushing heroines of angelic disposition, graceful white arms and nary a selfish thought in their heads, much less the least shred of wickedness in their souls, I happen to stumble across a Jezebel and a Delilah, a Lady Macbeth and a Cersei Lannister. Presumably, any a reader may hesitate to define what “wicked” means, but could beyond a shadow of a doubt name a fictional female representative of such an epithet.

If pressed to apply an admittedly narrow descriptor to such women, one befitting their literary status, and in homage to another house bearing green iconography, we might find ready meaning in the words of the Sorting Hat: “Those cunning folk use any means // To Achieve their ends.”[2]

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“There’s not a single witch or wizard who went bad who wasn’t in Slytherin,” they say. I say: Slytherins, represent! 

For those more comfortable with the precise, authoritative statements given in reference texts, the following may provide an apt grounding for the following investigation:

Wicked, adj (n. and adv)[3]

Etymology: Middle English (13th cent.)

  1. Bad in moral character, disposition, or conduct; inclined or addicted to willful wrong-doing; practicing or disposed to practice evil; morally depraved. (A term of wide application, but always of strong reprobation, implying a high degree of evil quality.)
  2. of a person (or a community of persons).
  3. of action, speech, thought, or other personal attribute; also transf. of a thing connected in some way with such action, etc.
  4. Designating a stock evil character in a fairy-tale, as Wicked Fairy, Wicked Stepmother, Wicked Uncle, etc. Freq. transf.

From the vast assemblage of personages inspired by this “term of wide application,” my subject of inquiry over the next two weeks will focus on two characters who thoroughly earn the infamously attractive epithet. They play their parts to beguile, to perform, and master the sympathies of the naïve and, significantly, even the knowing reader, who cannot help but stand amazed. In other words, a wicked woman, as proven by Vanity Fair’s Becky Sharp, and Gone Girl’s Amazing Amy, must be an impeccable actress.

The Victorians held an ambivalent attitude toward actresses – some, like the celebrated Ellen Terry, enjoyed a prosperous stage career and earned enthusiastic acclaim particularly for her role as Lady Macbeth, as immortalized in John Singer Sargent’s painting. On the whole, however, most held suspect – especially those who could not, or would not give an “honest” account of her character. Like their maligned cousins, the French ballet girls or opera singers, these were women who not only dared to labor for wages, but stooped so low as to perform onstage and in public, to adorn their bodies with artificial rouge and roguery, to sell their person for entertainment – in short, to channel physical charms and feminine wiles through the unnatural art of deception. Despite the emerging trend in Victorian celebrity culture that patronized and flattered literary lions such as Harriet Martineau and Charles Dickens, actresses represented a common, immodest kind of woman cultivated from the same fallen stock as prostitutes.

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Mary Robinson as Perdita, (left) and Ellen Terry (right)

Mary Robinson (1758-1800) was an English actress, novelist, poet, and perhaps one of England’s first female celebrities. At the age of twenty-one, she played Perdita in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, caught the eye of the then-Prince of Wales, later King George IV, and became his first public mistress. Ellen Ternan (1839-1914) – who must not be confused with her contemporary, the aforementioned Ellen Terry – remains a much more controversial figure, and is best known as the young actress with whom a married and middle-aged Dickens engaged upon a sustained love affair, a secret intrigue starting when the former was eighteen years old.

Robinson’s constructed public persona worked greatly to her advantage: as the Prince’s mistress, she gave up her acting career and was left to negotiate the disastrous aftermath of a ruined reputation when her lover eventually broke off ties. Throughout the affair, she thus crafted a representative identity through careful stylizing of fashionable dress, and later reinforced that image through her own literary productions, determining who would have the privilege of seeing her, of reading her body through the scripts she wrote. The image of Ternan, on the other hand, has up until recently been largely ignored by the majority of Dickens’s historians, fans, and those who would guard his legacy; their correspondence burned, the woman herself effaced from the historical record.

Were these women wicked? By Puritanical standards, maybe.

But in comparison, neither Robinson nor Ternan fit the same type as William Makepeace Thackeray’s small, French, social-climbing governess, or Gillian Flynn’s calculating Manhattanite who wields a Master’s degree in psychology with more finesse than any weapon. The type of acting that interests me pushes beyond the bounds of mere self-fashioning; it is a rampant, powerfully manipulative, chameleon-like reinvention of the self. This clever and constant re-writing of one’s image implies more than a comprehensive knowledge of signifying codes; it urges readers to stand in awe at the character’s mastery of the fluidity of meaning.

The seductive reach of the wicked woman extends beyond her textual place. She threatens to hold both fellow fictional characters and readers enrapt, against better senses. She has elevated wickedness into an art form, manipulating social signs encoded through appearances, behavior, and culturally reinforced signifying practices.

Next week, I will discuss how Becky Sharp, an orphan who rises through the ranks of society through her quick wit, a penchant for intelligent scheming, and an aptitude for changing her manners with every elevation or drop in station dwarfs the position of the stock character that her satirizing author would make for her within the narrative. Against this vivacious but rather two-dimensional character, I will bring in the formidable Amy Eliott, the merciless, sociopathic trust fund daughter turned scorned wife, who uses the sensational media and private narrative to turn popular opinion against her philandering husband, and perhaps even earns a hearty cheer of support from the reader in the process. In these two characters, ambition mingles with the skill of dissimulation, and issues of modesty, silent long-suffering, and fidelity – the common lot of many a female character – quickly become irrelevant. Perhaps, then, we who have longed for so much more than these in women’s narratives, like their wickedness all the much more for it.

 

[1] Paradise Lost.org, (4.303-304).

[2] J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Chapter 7: “The Sorting Hat.” (113-130). New York: Scholastic, 1998.

[3] “wicked, adj. 1 (n. and adv.).” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2016. Web. 18 March 2016.


 

Vicky Cheng is a third year Ph.D. student and teaching associate in Syracuse’s English Department. She studies Victorian literature and culture, with an emphasis on feminist and queer readings of the body. When not reading for forthcoming qualifying exams, she can be found drinking tea, napping, or having strong feelings about Star Wars, Marvel films, and Hamilton.

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Part II: Female Identity, Subjectivity, and Knowing the Self (8 March 2016)

“There’s been an Awakening in the Force” – but what kind?

Warning: This post includes potentially triggering discussions of nonconsensual physical and mental assault.  

Last week’s post opened an exploration into the narrative obfuscation of Rey’s identity, and considered the advantages of such inscrutability, both to the character’s further development in Episodes VIII and IX, and to fans eager to argue for a myriad of markers in the signifying process. If, as previously discussed, The Force Awakens presents the mystery of Rey’s origin and selfhood without providing a clear narrative resolution, such representation also obscures access to knowing what this character wants and desires.

In discussing the formation of the modern individual alongside and through the cultural rise of the novel, literary critic Nancy Armstrong describes the subjectivity of a person as:

  1. Culturally constructed and historically-informed
  2. Defined by desire and operating within a contract between the sexes
  3. First and foremost, a woman

Through the ideological influence of literature, eighteenth-century writers and thinkers began to delineate what a man ought to desire in a woman – and, consequently, what a woman ought to be. This process of domestication and feminization, as effectively realized through fiction, eventually came to reorient male desire away from the erotic, physical, and all too material body of the woman, and toward a self-regulated interior depth characterized by emotions and constructed through words. “I am convinced,” Armstrong asserts, “that the turn-of-the-century preoccupation with the unconscious arose in response to the question of what women want.”[1]

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The grand mystery of the universe, answered by artists as diverse as Christina Aguilera and Virginia Woolf.

So what, if anything, does Rey want?

For the most part, a character’s identity relies on the public or private formulation, realization, and eventual acknowledgment of their aims, hopes, and desires – that is, what motivates a character through the ongoing narrative, fleshed out through backstory, and that which functions as integral to invoking a reader or viewer’s sympathy. Moments of subterfuge may allow temporary disguising of one’s “true” identity, but well-rounded storytelling rarely admits a sudden revelation or engineers a redemptive arc without first sowing the seeds for this later evolution. Within the Manichean universe of the Star Wars galaxy, where the split between good and evil has so effectively been named as, respectively, the Light side versus the Dark side, viewers may easily determine a character’s allegiance – and thus, moral stance – through obvious hints: the Imperial march, the proclivity for wearing all black, or rather unsubtle allusions to Nazi imagery amidst grand declarations of superior rule.

Often, the reluctant or unaware hero/ine’s narrative represents a journey toward realizing the burden of fate, or finally accepting the path destiny has laid out for them. But if Jedi only wish to restore balance to the Force, and the Sith are those who have succumbed to the seductive power of negative energies, what becomes of the wayward heroine who only desires to survive while awaiting the return of those who left her?

“Know Thyself,” the Oracle says. Completely different science-fiction universes, though the mystique of subjectivity remains the same.

“I am a Jedi, like my father before me,” Luke Skywalker declares at the end of Return of the Jedi, after some soul-searching under Yoda’s tutelage and advice from Obi-Wan (Ben) Kenobi. While on Dagobah, his Force-induced vision in the Dark Side Cave imparts a warning against his potential failings – whereas the flashes of memories constructing Rey’s vision receive no such elucidation. Instead, viewers must rely on Maz’s counsel, which suggests a course of action, but fails to deliver satisfactory interpretive meaning:

“Dear child, I see it in your eyes…you already know the truth. The belonging you seek is not behind you. It is ahead…Whoever you were waiting for on Jakku, they’re never coming back.”

Compare, then, this scene of revelation-via-Force to the forced exposure of Rey’s memories at the hands of the film’s conflicted villain, Kylo Ren. In the interrogation chamber, a scene set with uncomfortable signs of bondage and reminiscent of Poe Dameron’s earlier torture, the unmasked Ben Solo looms over a fully restrained Rey and grimly informs her of his ability to just “take what [he] wants.” At Rey’s continued resistance, Ren/Solo uses the Force to enter her mind, exposing her innermost thoughts by speaking them aloud: her loneliness, fantasies of a faraway ocean, and burgeoning admiration for Han Solo as a paternal figure.

The last of these is that which Ren/Solo sneers at the most, providing the scene with traces of Oedipal tension, a prime element for any psychoanalytic reading. Here, a supposed expert – with the Force – delves past repression and resistance into the mind of a couch-bound patient, in order to arrive at and expose the truth at the most foundational level of the self. Whereas Freud would propose such truth to be founded upon genital sexuality, Ren/Solo initially only seeks information Rey has acquired through visual perception. Yet, as he casually flaunts his power of mental penetration, the struggle between intrusion and resistance takes on a darker tone: it is the scene of a male character assuming the right to speak Rey’s thoughts, to determine her desires, and to authorize her identity – all without her consent.

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(Credit: Yahoo Entertainment)          (Credit: Star Wars Wikia)

The film’s early interrogation of Poe Dameron brings to mind Darth Vader’s similarly situated, though purely physical torture of Han Solo in The Empire Strikes Back.

Although the methods of, and intentions behind the interrogation are the same, a significant factor distinguishing Poe’s cross-examination from Rey’s interaction with Ren/Solo comes in the form of the dangerous erotic charge inherent in an unbalanced gender dynamic.[2] Seeing the villain’s surprisingly youthful features may have ruined the aura of evil for many a viewer, but this act of unmasking stands as Ren/Solo’s response against Rey’s accusation of “being hunted by a stranger in a mask.” Uncovering his face allows him the authority to directly contradict and negate Rey’s words, and to demand that she, in turn, uncover herself per his demand.

“I’m not telling you anything,” Rey flatly states, to which Ren/Solo scoffs, “We’ll see” – then, in one of the most powerful struggles in a film titled The Force Awakens, instead of bowing under the mental assault, Rey does tell him something: about himself.

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“You, you’re afraid…that you will never be as strong as Darth Vader!”

Surely, this must have come as a pleasant surprise to viewers well acquainted with former Princess – now General – Leia’s sudden silence after her capture in the lair of Jabba the Hut, and subsequent degradation in the infamous “slave bikini.” In this pivotal moment of struggle for subjectivity, Rey reveals to the audience more about Ren/Solo’s inner conflict than anything about herself.

This mystery and show of power embarrasses Ren/Solo as much as it intrigues him, and he takes it upon himself to reassert some kind of superiority in “offering” his services as her teacher – a telling demand, especially since he hasn’t even gone through the trouble to learn Rey’s name.

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Caption: Someone needs to write a The Force Awakens and Legally Blonde crossover now.

The effacement, silencing, or flattening out of female characters in the grand narrative of the Star Wars canon has unfortunately been all too prevalent in a family that takes its name from Shmi Skywalker, the apparent Virgin Mother of the Chosen One. However, as that title passes onto Rey, unknown as her identity may be at this point in time, one can hope and expect the embodiment of great things to come. May the Force be with you, Rey.

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[1] Nancy Armstrong, Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel (Oxford UP, 1987): pg. 8, 224.

[2] There are of course fans who note the potential for an equally dangerous, similarly nonconsensual erotic imbalance during the scenes of Poe Dameron’s interrogation, and have begun to create works theorizing on the former friendship between a young Poe and Ben Solo, which can be found at: http://archiveofourown.org/tags/Poe%20Dameron*s*Kylo%20Ren/works


Vicky Cheng is a third year Ph.D. student and teaching associate in Syracuse’s English Department. She studies Victorian literature and culture, with an emphasis on feminist and queer readings of the body. When not reading for forthcoming qualifying exams, she can be found drinking tea, napping, or having strong feelings about Star Wars, Marvel films, and Hamilton.

That Roman Numeral: it’s correct. I checked.

Part I: Female Identity, Representation, and the Inscrutable Self (1 March 2016)

“There’s been an Awakening in the Force” – but what kind?

Feeling the franchise fatigue? It’s understandable. Whether through filmic expansions on original texts – Parts 1 & 2, for your viewing pleasure and box office sales – recalling nostalgia for a past childhood – I’m looking at you, Finding Dory (June 2016!) – or in the face of Marvel’s ever-expanding arsenal of white male superhero fantasies – poor Peter Parker, doomed to repeat high school once again – viewers all around are perfectly justified in just waiting for the next recycled sequel to hit Netflix or Redbox.

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Presented without comment.

(Credit: Reddit.com/r/Showerthoughts)

And then, came a day that shook up the status quo; a day to live on forever in the hearts of fans everywhere: December 18, 2015.

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In light of heavy-handed promotion, plenty of folks were warning against Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens fatigue even before the film premiered. At present, however, close to two months and 2.028 billion USD[1] in earnings, fans have already begun to anticipate the next installment, set to premiere in December 2017. Fueled by set photos posted on Twitter, cast lists, and conspiracy theories,[2] the Star Wars fervor continues. Amidst all the rumors, one central mystery inspires and drives forth the bulk of narrative speculation:

Who is Rey?

Bringing in a cast of young, diverse, new characters while reintroducing the old seems like a good way of reinvigorating a franchise arguably dulled by lackluster prequels, although naysayers will have their complaints. Put a lightsaber in the hands of a young woman of mysterious origins and incredible Force sensitivity, and absolutely everyone loses their collective bantha-shit.

Popular theories diverge into two camps:

Whether cast as Luke Skywalker’s illegitimate daughter with yet another absent-possibly-deceased mother, or as Kylo Ren’s long-lost sister (which leads all Reylo shippers into a rather uncomfortable position; a mistake twice made in the same franchise), proponents of this theory usually point to the instant affection expressed by both Han Solo and General Leia Organa upon meeting a young woman who, on all accounts, ought to be a complete stranger. This is, of course, in addition to the unreadable look Luke gives his own maybe-daughter while doing his cool posturing on the edge of a cliff.

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“Luke…you ARE the father!”

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Sure, Jedi aren’t supposed to give into strong emotion, much less foster long-lasting relationships outside the realm of fraternal or familial affection, but hey, Obi-Wan Kenobi was quite the suave character. Not to mention, he must have sought out some company whilst in exile on Tatooine.

A third camp proposes Rey might be completely unrelated to the tightly enclosed Skywalker family, and thus unconnected to the rather incestuous network of characters who have been causing imbalances to the Force and disruptions within the galaxy for decades. This minority expresses excitement over the introduction of a new and potentially unaffiliated player to the already crowded chessboard, especially given the evidence of parallel narrative structures inherited from the original trilogy.

Alongside the ongoing primaries, you could make your voice heard! Vote here!

But how does Rey define herself?

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“Classified, huh? Yeah, me too.”

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“I’m no one,” she protests to the keen-eyed Maz, who can tell even without her magnifying goggles that Rey’s estrangement from a nuclear family unit matters little in the grand scheme of epic adventure, inherited destiny, and lightsaber-chosen fate. Some quick-witted fans have already made the connection to Odysseus’s claim of being “Nobody,” extending their conjectures about Rey’s role into a full-fledged allegorical analysis following the Greek hero’s epic journey.

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In the words of another modest recluse, “I’m Nobody! Who are You?”

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But while Rey might feel better off in the comfortable obscurity of being “no one,” the lack of properly signifying markers referencing a stable identity produces both excitement and unease. Who left Rey alone on Jakku as a helpless child? What trauma might have happened in the long stretch of years since that abandonment, and whose return does she so faithfully and tragically anticipate, despite all evidence of permanent separation from her former life?

In her artifact-triggered, Force-induced vision, Rey comes face-to-face with the child-version of herself, wearing similar garb, and even the same hairstyle as her present appearance. While recalling the uncanny encounter of looking at one’s younger self and experiencing one’s memories as in a mirror, the image suggests simultaneous development and stasis. The younger Rey pleads for the return of an unidentified entity, object, or individual – a deliverance still unrealized in the life of the adult, and finally surrendered as an irrecoverable loss. Yet even with this presumably unfiltered glimpse into Rey’s mind and subjective memory, her identity remains murky. Ultimately, such revelations give rise to more questions than they answer.

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Rey as a child, pleading with a departing ship.

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As a character composed of complex signifiers that fail to reveal a cohesive legible image, Rey is an inscrutable character. She represents a text both oversaturated with possible meaning from an overflowing archive of materials in the Star Wars universe, and, at this specific liminal moment, an identity constantly under revision.[3] In contrast to George Lucas’s writing of Luke Skywalker as his own self-insert, the potential for Rey’s development appears all the more infinite given the wealth of questions The Force Awakens stubbornly declines to answer.

Certainly, viewers can anticipate the unfolding of Rey’s identity throughout Episodes VIII and IX, and despite the opacity of her narrative backstory, the popular reception of this new heroine has been overwhelmingly positive. Despite numerous instances of the purposeful exclusion of Rey’s character in available toys and merchandise, the revelation of which resulted in the trending of #WheresRey in backlash, there are those who continue to celebrate the opportunity that such inscrutability grants. Filling in narrative gaps with their own relevant meanings has long been a common fan practice, an exercise in claiming representation, and a process of interpretive meaning. Although Rey appears uncertain as to the ins and outs of her own identity, the construction of such as a work-in-progress appears far more relatable than any pre-made Self.

[1] Scott Mendelson, “Star Wars: Force Awakens Passes Avatar Today to be Top Grosser of All Time in U.S.,” Forbes.com, Jan. 6, 2016.

[2] Exhibit A: Jar-Jar Binks’s triumphant return as Supreme Leader Snokes?? (http://moviepilot.com/posts/3738681)

[3] According to a host of news sources, the postponing of Episode VIII to December of 2017 came as a result of rewrites focusing on characterization  and groundbreaking representation of queer characters.


Vicky Cheng is a third year Ph.D. student and teaching associate in Syracuse’s English Department. She studies Victorian literature and culture, with an emphasis on feminist and queer readings of the body. When not reading for forthcoming qualifying exams, she can be found drinking tea, napping, or having strong feelings about Star Wars, Marvel films, and Hamilton.

 

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Adaptation Nation: Popular U.S. Film Originality 2010-2015 (26 February 2016)

Walking into a movie theater last week I noticed that nearly all of the films being advertised were for sequels or adaptions of already existing franchises. As I settled down with my popcorn to watch the film I had come to see (itself the 7th episode in a series called Star Wars—you might have heard of it), I tried to remember the last film I saw in theatres that wasn’t based on a pre-existing story. From adapted novels and comic books, to sequels, to films based on TV shows or even other films, pre-packaged narratives seem to dominate the contemporary film landscape. In this post I examine what originality looks like in popular US film.

By taking a short look at the most popular films of the last half-decade, the depth of US fascination with follow-ups and adaptations becomes clear. Out of the top 20 US grossing films of each of the last 5 years (a total sample size of 100 films) 84% were either based on a piece of literature (novel, comic, fairytale), a direct sequel to another film (e.g. 2010’s Toy Story 3), or based on another film or TV show (e.g. 2014’s Godzilla). Only 16% of top-grossing US films could then be considered “original”, or developing a narrative that is not derivative of another text in any major way.

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Of the 16% of films that were not based on other media, a few notable categories can be clearly defined:

Biographies: These films tell the “true” life story of a person or group of people. Examples are Lincoln (2012), American Sniper (2014), and Straight Outta Compton (2015). These films were among the best reviewed and highest grossing of the non-adaptions. However, some might argue that these films are not “original” narratives because they take their source material from the lives of already extant people (American Sniper for instance is directly influenced by Navy Seal Chris Kyle’s autobiography). Biographies like these are interested in introducing, or re-introducing, a well-known person to the movie-going public and therefore play into America’s taste for a familiar story told in a new way, a primary draw biographies share with many adaptations.

Comedies: Offering irreverent entertainment without the burden of extensive plot or narrative, comedies like Adam Sandler’s Grown Ups (2010), Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane’s Ted (2012), and the Seth Rogan frat-meets-family vehicle Neighbors (2014) represent an uninspiring picture of creativity in popular US film. While these films may certainly have their fans, and many made a considerable amount of money, it is hard to make the argument that a film based on a foul-mouthed teddy bear is a high-water mark for artistic expression.

Animated Films: Making up the majority of “unique” popular films are digitally animated children’s movies such as Frozen (2013), Home (2015) and Inside Out (2015).  And while at first it may seem disappointing to more distinguished film fans that children’s films make up the majority of “original” popular films, these stories often take up progressive social issues in ways that are ignored by many “serious” films. Disney’s Brave (2012) was praised for its representation of its protagonist Merida, a strong female character that defied the company’s long-established trope of the helpless princess awaiting rescue and also rejected the traditional waif-like body of Disney women for a more positive and realistic body shape. 2015’s Inside Out contained an underlying message about mental health, depression, and emotional stability that was surprisingly complex and nuanced for a film targeting younger audiences. Far from being the throw-away fluff that children’s films are often perceived to be, these “original” animated films develop new ways of imagining the world, rather than reformulating tried and tired narratives.

The “Man Story”: There are a small number of notable films that are exceptional in that they are neither adapted from other media, nor one of the three categories listed above. They include Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012), David O. Russell’s American Hustle (2013), and Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014). These films deal with the past, present, and future of a uniquely American mythology of masculinity, simultaneously leveling critiques of US racism, capitalism, and imperialism without disrupting their underlying status-quo of American male exceptionalism. These films may be “original” in many ways, but are firmly rooted in perspective of the boot-strapping, frontiersman, US male who learns to dominate his environment and the women around him.

I am by no means suggesting that films that adapt other texts are in any way deficient compared to films of unique inception in terms of creativity, expression, or reception. Remediation and adaptation have always been popular and successful techniques in cinema. However, I do think it worth-while to examine the “original” films that compose this small sampling of texts, and think about what it means to tell a unique story in film. As a scholar of both literature and film, I find that adaptations can be the entry-point into a number of compelling critical conversations about authorial agency, visual rhetorics, and representation. Adaptations can also be an excellent way of getting students whose main experience of textuality is through popular media like film and television to engage with literary texts. However, I believe it is also important to give credit to those films that do take the leap into new realms of creativity, using the medium of film to transcend the familiar rather than rehash, reboot, and remake the stories we already know.


Max Cassity is a 2nd year PhD student in English and Textual Studies. His studies encompass 20thand 21st Century American fiction, poetry, and digital media. He is currently beginning a dissertation that studies fictional representations of epidemic diseases in American and Global modern literature and digital narratives including Ebola, Cancer, and Pandemic Flu.

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Zen and the Art of the Course Description (19 February 2016)

Course descriptions bridge the gap between the university’s corporate model and the classroom’s pedagogical space, aiding in achieving satisfactory enrollment “numbers.” In this way, the description of a class has to do the work of both an advertisement and an infomercial, appealing to students as well as cuing them about the course’s content. Despite our idealistic desires about learning for learning’s sake that might suggest otherwise, it is important, then, that a course seem interesting or “fun” so that students will actually register for it. However, this can be a fine line to walk: if an instructor goes overboard with trying to make the course appealing, students who do take the course can end up with something like academic buyer’s remorse—feeling that the course they signed up for is not represented in the classroom they occupy. Typically, this means that the student expected to have a lot of fun and (surprise!) the course turns out to be a lot of work. A balance must be struck between appealing to students’ interests and hinting at the rigorous intellectual labor required of a college course. The course description can be the first clue (and compelling advertisement) for how students and instructors will achieve these ambitions together.

As I tried to formulate my own course description for a class I plan to teach next Fall semester (ETS 181: Class and the Literary Text PLUG!), I began to consider how the course description is the first glimpse into what the educational future holds for students. For some, this tiny blot of text is the first step into opening their mind (and consciousness) toward the fundamental questions of the humanities: Who are we? What are we doing in the classroom? What are the forces that shape our world? How can we be engaged members of our classroom, society, and world? These are, of course, age-old questions that teachers have asked for hundreds of years. As I meditated on how to describe the content and objectives of my own course, I came to realize that a profound dialectic of instructional philosophy found in Zen Buddhism could also be found in the humanities classroom.

The practice of Zen Buddhism can be conceptually described as having two schools, each of which can represent different pedagogical ideologies that surface in humanities classrooms. Rinzai Zen practice is centered on the use of the koan, an absurd or impossible question engineered to push the mind away from dualistic thinking and toward “enlightenment,” a state of total awareness and detachment. The most well known example of a Rinzai Zen koan is “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” A practitioner may work on the same koan for weeks or even years. Working through the experience of frustration and confusion that results from a koan allows a student of Buddhism to better understand the limits of their own internal logics.

Many humanities classrooms follow a strikingly similar logic as Rinzai Zen, asking students to formulate their own answers to questions of aesthetics, ethics, and ideology like “What is beauty?” or “Can society achieve equality?” that are as seemingly absurd or impossible as any koan. For many humanities instructors, the goal of asking such questions is not for the student to answer, once and for all, what beauty or truth is, but to get the student to ask “Why is it important that we must ask these questions?” This metacognitive approach can seem like the equivalent of a student’s enlightenment: finding a contemplative state rooted in higher-order concerns that engender critical thinking.

However, this goal-oriented approach is not the only way for students to come to a greater understanding of their role in the classroom. As many instructors have experienced, sometimes it is in the least-planned moments that students learn the most. Soto Zen, Rinzai’s competing school, rejects the centrality and formality of the koan as well as the goal of a particular “enlightened” state. For practitioners of Soto Zen, there is no goal to be achieved beyond the practice itself; the only object is to be awake and aware of the here and now. Translated to the humanities seminar, this practice asks the students to be fully immersed in learning, but also to move outside of ideology into subjective and intuitive experiences of the classroom and the world. In my experience, some of the best discussions come from this place of open awareness and improvisation. By letting strict lesson plans and pre-designed questions take a backseat to the participation and engagement of students in the moment, instructors can encourage students to seize their own agency, develop a community of ideas, and make the classroom their own.

Getting students to that “a-ha” moment of realization can be rewarding for the instructor, but often times, students get the most sustained intellectual value from pedagogical experiences that remain open-ended. By moving pedagogy away from structured goals, and, yes, even grade-oriented experiences, students can continue to build their knowledge years later, rather than leaving their experience, and their transcript, at the door of the classroom.

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Every student learns differently. For some people, the Rinzai approach to the humanities will best allow them to reach their educational aspirations, and they will emerge from the University system with a degree that is the material evidence of a more “enlightened” state. For these students, a course description should explain exactly what they will learn—the why is less important. For others, education is a lifelong process that doesn’t start and stop on an academic schedule. These students might benefit from a Soto approach that allows them to “sit” with their new knowledge and apply it to their life inside and outside the classroom. For these students, a course description should explain why they want to be in that class now, and why it will still mean something to them in 2, 10, and even 50 years. A well-balanced course description hopefully appeals to both types of students and ideally makes them excited about the possibilities their learning experience holds. But regardless of why the students are there, the course description has facilitated the most important function of a classroom: the students have chosen to find their way to it.


Max Cassity is a 2nd year PhD student in English and Textual Studies. His studies encompass 20thand 21st Century American fiction, poetry, and digital media. He is currently beginning a dissertation that studies fictional representations of epidemic diseases in American and Global modern literature and digital narratives including Ebola, Cancer, and Pandemic Flu.