criticaltheory

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.

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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.

The Erotics of Evil

Among the harmful tropes of Hollywood, the figure of the Sissy Villain is one tainting LGBT representation in film and television. Despite the improvements of LGBT rights outside of film, the image of men in women’s clothing is one that pervades the genre of horror in particular. Such figures at Buffalo Bill, Cillian Murphy’s John/Emma of Peacock, or James McAvoy’s multiple-identity’d character of the controversial Split perpetuate this notion of dangerous men being made all the more terrifying by their eschewing of gender norms by dressing in women’s clothing. The argument made by these films is clear — men in dresses are dangerous, perhaps even more dangerous than brilliant psychologist-cannibals.

hannibal-wallpaper70664Promotional image for NBC’s Hannibal

Because of this, a second, more subtle argument is made by Hannibal’s narrative about the “right” way to be a killer. The pop-culture juggernaut of Silence of the Lambs isn’t the terrifying Buffalo Bill, or even the feminist darling Clarice Starling, but rather the slick and seductive Hannibal Lecter, whose presence in psychological thrillers spans three books, four films, a television series, and endless fanworks. The audience — casual viewers and “Fannibals” alike — is charmed by Lecter, largely due to the way he departs from other popular fictional killers. Lecter is not a brute: he does not resemble the slasher-killers of the gory teen film franchises; he is no Freddy Kruegar or Michael Meyers. Nor is he the pure psychological villain such as those made popular by the Saw franchise. Instead, Hannibal performs a meeting of the two, all of their strengths and seemingly none of their weaknesses.

Though he is never seen working out, Hannibal is physically fit, shown to be extremely strong and agile; he is able to easily overpower police officers and threatening patients, and, like any proper serial killer, he shakes off injuries that would cripple anyone else. Despite this strength, Hannibal is lean; his bone structure is that of a dancer. His physical presence is catlike and easily predatory. This effortless strength is the kind of appealing danger that typically befits the slender femme fatale, but Hannibal subverts this by having its hero-villain emulate these traits. His graceful-killer performance is further emphasized by the raw, calculating intelligence he displays. When his cannibalistic secret is revealed to Jack, Lecter attempts to fight his way out.  When FBI agent Jack Crawford puts him in a stranglehold, Hannibal goes limp, playing dead. In Jack’s moment of ensuing confusion and hesitation, Hannibal takes up a piece of broken glass, stabbing Jack in the side of the throat. As Crawford bleeds out in Hannibal’s pantry, Lecter is able to make his escape.

hannibal-clip-1Hannibal uses an improvised weapon in his fight with Jack Crawford

Logically, Hannibal should not be able to overpower a highly trained federal agent, but his combination of strength and wit allow him to move beyond the killer roles his gender suggests. He deliberately avoids the highly-phallic, hypermasculine killer forms, seen in Michael Meyers, Jason Voorhees, Pyramid Head, and many others, as does he avoid the physical frailty of the feminized mastermind. Although Hannibal embodies the sissy killer, his success[1] in the television series speaks to his performance of this trope. He navigates between men and women’s worlds with ease, and confidence. This confidence is what is most critical. Hannibal is never shown to struggle. His acts are effortless. Those that struggle to express themselves, fashionably, romantically, sexually, or otherwise, are portrayed as desperate, fawning, trying too hard. Hannibal paints a clear image of its wannabe villains — either you’ve got it, or you don’t. And Hannibal has “it” in spades.

This charm is instinct, intuition. Hannibal is a natural leader, drawing moths to his flame. It is predatory power. He is described by a childhood acquaintance as “charming, like a cub is charming before it’s learned to be one of the big cats.” His therapist describes him as wearing “a well-tailored person-suit.” His danger is magnetic, sensuous. Even in his most threatening moments, the men and women surrounding Hannibal are drawn to him. He works a cobra-dance, expertly weaving aesthetic, philosophy, and manipulation together to entangle his victims. And yet, they are glad to be wound in his web. The violence (and resulting cannibalism) is filmed like sex: lush, lingering shots of stolen breath and trembling bodies.

hannibal-182Hannibal experiencing a completely innocuous projector malfunction

Though Hannibal’s victims are male and female in similar ratios, his only (onscreen) sexual relationship is with a woman, whom he later attempts to murder. However, he engages in his erotic, sensual seduction with men and women alike. In an interview  with Entertainment Weekly, director Brian Fuller opened up on his view of Hannibal’s sexual preferences. “I think Hannibal is a very broadly spectrumed human being/fallen angel, who probably is capable and interested in everything humanity has to offer.” This interpretation of Hannibal positions him in a unique position of the sissy villain. Being presented as a figure with attractions all over the gender spectrum both embroils Hannibal in gender and distances him from it. He never indicates a preference for men or women in particular, but in this lack of preference, Hannibal is presented as a man who samples from any and all areas of the spectrums of gender and sexuality.

When not trying to kill and eat his paramours, Hannibal performs the role of an attentive lover, acting with sensitivity and romance. He remembers food and drink preferences, washes his lover’s hair, teaches them to play instruments. He draws beautiful European landscapes, plays the harpsichord, and, of course, cooks. Although it is often used as a way of disposing of his victims, Hannibal’s love of cooking also expresses a departure from gender norms. He delights in feeding his friends (and, on more than one occasion, feeding his friends to his friends). He uses food for care-taking, for seduction, for friendship, and for art. Such expertise furthers his aura of effortless skill, and the appeal of his power to those around him. He works with precision and tenderness — many shots see him lingering lovingly over smells and tastes, clearly impressed by his own work. (And with Hannibal, we know that’s the only opinion he truly values.) This delicate care is a humanizing moment of tenderness, one that allows him to embrace his gentler side.

tumblr_n384sbtQkJ1tx4u06o3_1280Hannibal enjoying the fruits of his labors

Hannibal is the true Renaissance man, an exquisite dandy in bespoke suits. Alongside the cannibalism and culinary skill, Hannibal is known for his stunning fashion sense. His suits are finely tailored, the colors and patterns unique, precise, and often mirroring the color scheme of the episode. Dedicated fans have compiled a list of images for a complete look at Hannibal’s wardrobe over the television series. Hannibal’s suits tend to depart from traditional male attire, often featuring colors and patterns most would not attempt. Hannibal wears them with confidence, embracing a look that is not traditionally masculine. He also wears ascots and unironic bowties, many articles of clothing that are reminiscent of queer menswear. And yet, his unique style is celebrated among straight and cisgender male fans. Men’s fashion websites even offer instruction on “How to Dress Like Hannibal Lecter”.[2] Through fashion, Hannibal is shown to thread a delicate dance through gender expression that is very often lauded by those who would never describe themselves as queer.

hannibal_3Promotional image featuring Hannibal Lecter for the NBC television series

In Hannibal’s nuanced performance of gender, he embodies the danger of the Sissy Villain while also working to appeal to an audience across the entire spectrum of gender and sexuality. However, rather than a Buffalo Bill-esque performance that disturbs both audience and characters, Hannibal is deeply appealing to both. This suggests that there is a correct amount of sissiness to be played to still remain attractive and desirable, even when the subject in question is a serial killer and cannibal. For Hannibal, his effortless performance allows him to glide through gender in the “fallen angel” manner his creator intended.


[1] Here, success is defined as Hannibal’s ability to escape danger and pursue his sadistic goals.

[2] The how-to guide is prefaced not by a disclaimer that emulating serial killers is wrong, but that Hannibal was canceled due to the fact that “most people would rather the quality of McDonald’s over the quality of a 5-star restaurant.” Hannibal would approve of such haughtiness

 

 

The Queer Response to Trauma in Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal

The representation of queer figures in cinema is politically fraught, with the anxieties of difference manifesting in portrayals of queer figures. These anxieties are particularly keen in the horror genre where the other is demonized. This other represents the danger of the unknown: race, religion, sexual orientation, and gender presentation. Within horror, these characteristics of the other are representative of perceived cultural threats, dangers to our ideologies. Following the trends of villainy in horror films can create a fascinating map of American anxieties throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. For this week, I shall be focusing exclusively on the representations of queer figures in Jonathan Demme’s 1991 thriller Silence of the Lambs and Bryan Fuller’s 2013 television series Hannibal, both adapted from Thomas Harris’ popular novels. I believe that the vital differences in the queer audience’s reception of these two works illustrates the key difference between the queer-coded figures in Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal.

Due to the genre-typical violence involved in Harris’ works, extremes are to be expected, particularly in the others who fill the roles of antagonists. For Harris, it is not enough to have Buffalo Bill be a serial killer, not when he’ll be forced to act as a foil to the legendary killer-cannibal Hannibal Lecter. Therefore, Buffalo Bill embodies all extremes. Not only is he exceptionally violent, he is also sexually deviant; viewers are shaken by the shock of his perversity. When recalling images of the film, it is not the cannibalism that shocks viewers, but the memory of Buffalo Bill’s dance. Draped in gauzy fabric, wearing the scalp of one of his victims, Bill makes love to his reflection, admiring his nipple rings. “I’d fuck me,” he concludes, posing nude with his penis tucked between his legs. With the camera in the position of the mirror, the scene is deeply uncomfortable, voyeuristic.

Amid the extreme gore and violence of the films, this scene stands out as somewhat more explicit, more difficult to watch. While Bill is clearly wearing the scalp of one of his victims, it is his atypical nudity that disturbs the viewer (such that I didn’t notice the tucking in the scene until rewatching the film several years after the first time I saw it – I always looked away in embarrassment). The othering here is that of alternate gender presentation, displaying it as deviant. The scene is clearly understood – men who dress in women’s clothing are to be feared as figures of sexual deviance. Buffalo Bill takes this a horrifying step further by dressing literally in the body of a woman, her scalp and ultimately her skin.

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Buffalo Bill’s (in)famous dance.

There is some minimal effort made within Silence of the Lambs to suggest that Bill is not trans.[1] While profiling the killer, Hannibal states “Billy hates his own identity, you see, and he thinks that makes him a transsexual, but his pathology is a thousand times more savage and more terrifying.” Indelicate language aside, Hannibal suggests here that “Buffalo Bill” believes he trans as a result of trauma – that his own self-hatred is enough to alter his gender. However, Hannibal states that this trauma alone is not enough for Bill to be authentically trans, that Bill does not perform trans-ness correctly. Even Clarice Starling agrees that Bill does not fit her understanding, citing that “transsexuals are very passive.” Buffalo Bill does not, evidently, perform “trans-ness” correctly. The film suggests, rather, that it is Bill’s own psychosis that leads to his desire to play dress-up with women’s clothing, hair, and skin. His goals are grotesque, skinning women to make a flesh-suit from their bodies, but Bill’s gender presentation and homosexual relationships are treated as a symptom of his monstrosity, rather than a facet of his identity.

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Buffalo Bill as the queer-coded villain.

In emphatic objection to this characterization, LGBT activists protested the 1992 Academy Awards. While there are a few transgender women who have adopted Buffalo Bill as a trans icon (some even mirroring the character’s tattoos), most regard the film as a harmful continuation of the queer killer trope. Without adequate representation in the media, characters like the effeminate, queer-coded Buffalo Bill are reluctant sources of queer media.

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Margot is introduced through her implied sexual assault.

Within the novels that Hannibal is loosely based off, the character of Margot Verger is another queer icon of questionable origin. The Margot Verger of Harris’ text is exceptionally masculine in her gender presentation. Margot is heavily muscled, and Starling even wonders to herself if Margot “tapes down her clitoris.” Again, this fixation on altered genitalia shows how both the straight-coded characters and the viewers are troubled by nonbinary gender presentation (or, in the case of Margot Verger, even the thought of nonbinary presentation). To further her masculine appearance, Margot also heavily abuses steroids and hormones, pumping up her muscles to the point that she has rendered herself infertile. Margot’s chemical use is difficult to read. Some read the character as trans in the same disbelieved vein as Buffalo Bill. Others view her as a lesbian, as her canonical romantic and sexual relationship is with another woman. The exact nature of her identity is left deliberately ambiguous. What is more clearly suggested is that this queerness is the result of sexual trauma sustained at a young age, from her brother. Rather than being “aggressively” queer, Margot is defensively queer, eliminating the parts of herself that were most subject to abuse. This refusal to accept bodily vulnerability is relatable for many queer viewers, and yet it also posits an extremely harmful view of queerness, suggesting that Margot is queer due to her trauma, rather than her queerness existing as another facet of her identity.

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A much more femme Margot.

In Hannibal, Fuller worked to change Margot’s presentation to make it clear to the viewer that her queerness was inherent, not a product of trauma. In lieu of her masculine book appearance, Margot is a china-doll femme fatale in riding pants and lush lipstick. Despite the tortures of her brother, Margot remains a collected, intelligent, dry-humored force in the narrative. Her power is in her rationality, her ability to manipulate her brother through her knowledge of his sadism. This change was Fuller’s attempt to restore a queer voice in the narrative. In a 2014 interview with Collider, Fuller states:

In the book, Margot is a lesbian character, but it’s not clear if she is transgendered, or if she is just so pumped full of steroids and hormones that she’s become more masculine in her appearance. So, what I didn’t want to do is say that being transgendered or being gay is a direct result of horrific sexual trauma, because it’s not. I think being transgendered and being homosexual are natural things that occur in the creation of biological beings.

In Hannibal, Margot is presented as a deeply traumatized individual. After the death of her tycoon father, Margot is trapped living with her sadistic brother – the sole recipient of her father’s enormous fortune. Per their father’s will, the Verger fortune will go only to a male heir, or else the entire estate will be transferred to the show’s tongue-in-cheek homage to Westboro Baptist Church. This puts Margot in a difficult position. As she states, she “has the wrong parts, and the wrong proclivities for parts” to ever hope for escape from her brother. (When she attempts to overcome her “proclivities” long enough to allow Will Graham to impregnate her, her brother immediately drugs her and performs a violent hysterectomy.)

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Despite Margot’s extensive traumatic history, there is never any indication given that her queerness is due to her trauma; rather, her queerness flourishes despite it. Together with Hannibal’s defenestrated lover, Alana, a passionate and fulfilling romance blooms between the two women, seemingly in defiance of the trauma they experienced. While many female romances on-screen are either fetishistic or overtly chaste, Margot and Alana’s sex scene is both beautiful and bizarre. Their nude bodies kaleidoscope into each other, the shot a twisting tangle of ecstatic limbs. And, due to the necessary censorship in television, all genitals, binary or otherwise, are obscured. This allows the viewer to embrace the emotional component to the scene rather than wholly on the physical.

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Margot and Alana’s relationship is introduced with this hypnotic scene

Together, Alana and Margot manipulate and overcome their captors, escaping from the mansion with a baby of their own. (In a violent off-screen moment, Margot harvests her brother’s sperm by sodomizing him with a cattle prod, and uses that sperm to impregnate Alana, effectively finding a loophole in her father’s will.) With queer female character deaths at an all-time high, Alana and Margot’s escape marked a welcome shift, and queer fans rejoiced. The happy ending to a queer couple on a deeply unhappy show was a victory, and yet there is still enormous ground to tread. In a perfect world, Margot will be allowed to present in any gender she chooses, rather than being feminized for an easier narrative. Buffalo Bill’s gender dysphoria would be treated as a serious facet of his character, and the trauma implied to create queerness will be understood as queerness alongside trauma.

Next week: Exploring the Erotics of Evil: The Seduction of Hannibal Lecter

[1] “Trans” here refers to the broad spectrum of nonbinary gender identities.


Molly is an MA student pursuing her degree in English Literature with a focus on Game Studies and New Media. She uses these fields to explore her additional interests of race, gender, sexuality, and LGBT representation. She has also studied Victorian literature, the Gothic, and 19th century American literature. Her teaching interests include film, graphic novels, and popular culture.

Monster and Men Part II: Healing Toxic Masculinity, Disney’s new Beast

!Spoilers for Disney’s new live-action Beauty and the Beast follow!

Last week, I discussed Gaston from Disney’s new live-action version of Beauty and the Beast. I was interested in how the film makes space to complicate Gaston’s character while opening into a discussion concerning trauma and scenes of toxic masculinity.

This week, I’d like to talk about the new Beast from this latest film, and how his character functions within the story to reveal methods for healing situations of trauma, grief, and toxicity, especially when read alongside Gaston. As I previously suggested, viewing the Beast’s progression throughout the narrative reveals a path from reactivity, rage, and domination, to a space of receptivity and self-reflection. This runs directly counter to the character of Gaston, who moves into a more and more violent and toxic space as the film progresses. The Beast models a series of behaviors that allow for growth into a more empathetic, and, as the film insists, “love-able” character. It is this change in behavior over the course of the narrative that reveals the most important distinctions between Gaston and The Beast. While The Beast introspects and self-analyzes, Gaston pontificates and self-aggrandizes. The Beast takes a role of waiting, giving Belle the space to make her own decisions, restoring her agency. Gaston continues to pursue Belle as an object, his prize to be won, to dominate through his masculine power. The Beast is willing to take on modes of behavior traditionally considered “feminine” in order to move past his beastly behavior, while Gaston is certainly not.

Much like the new war backstory for Gaston’s character, we also learn about a past trauma in the life of The Beast (known as Prince Adam when not be-horned and fuzzy). The film indicates this event as causation for the development of much of his toxic behavior. We learn in this new version of the film that Prince Adam’s mother dies when he is a child. Within the scene that depicts this backstory, he is pulled from his mother’s deathbed by his disinterested-looking father. He is given no time to grieve, which necessitates his internalization of loss and feelings of abandonment. Lumiere also leads us to understand that Adam’s father, who raised him from that moment forward, was a cruel and cold man who taught Adam nothing but to mimic his heartless behavior.

I would argue that Adam’s obsession with lavish parties and his desire to be wanted by every woman in the room, evidenced by the film’s opening narrative, springs from this upbringing; he longs for power, prestige, and feminine attention. Additionally, his lack of ability to sympathize with the bedraggled woman who visits his castle leads directly to his curse when she transforms into the enchantress after his callous attempt to eject her. His own self-interest and toxicity are the very reason behind his current hairy predicament. He must come to a place where he understands his own toxic behaviors in order to transform and learn to love, which necessitates his ability to care for another more than himself, and empathize with Belle’s emotional experience.

This transformation demands several important realizations on the part of The Beast which stem directly from introspection. He must acknowledge his own privilege, the wrong of his past behaviors, and the necessity to forgo brutish, domineering behavior in order to enter into a loving relationship. This metamorphosis and the steps taken to achieve it take place in small scenes throughout the film, but are highlighted especially in The Beast’s musical number, “Evermore.” Composed for the film, but related loosely to the Broadway Beast number, “If I Can’t Love Her,” this musical number interjects into the narrative after The Beast releases Belle and sends her to find her father, an action which indicates his growth. Unlike the Broadway tune, which still carries elements of dominance, including the lyric “I could have loved her, and made her set me free,” “Evermore” takes a completely different tact. (See the song here.)

In the beginning of this song, The Beast makes three important statements: “I was the one who had it all, I was the master of my fate, I never needed anybody in my life, I learned the truth too late.” These short phrases go a long way in addressing The Beast’s understanding of the underpinnings of toxic masculinity that have already been parsed throughout the rest of the story: The Beast acknowledges his previous position of privilege, notes his attempt to master every part of his life including those parts which are out of his control, and admits to his attempt at brutal self-sufficiency devoid of support or partnership. These realizations about his past behavior, which led to his curse, must come from introspection and acts of remembering. Part of his healing process requires self-analysis, which runs counter to impulsive, reactive behavior.

Moving into the chorus of “Evermore,” The Beast reveals that he has finally moved past this rugged individualism and has allowed Belle close to his heart. By valuing her feelings over his own, he has granted her power to “torment,” “calm,” “hurt,” and “move” him. He accepts that loving another, and giving up the tight-fisted control which characterized his toxic behavior, involves the potential for hurt and grief, something he was not allowed to experience as a child. He then goes on to indicate just how far this shift from domineering power has gone when he admits to moving into a role of waiting and receptivity: “Wasting in my lonely tower, waiting by an open door…” He has given the power of choice and agency over to Belle in this situation, granting her control. If they are to fall in love and live together forevermore, she must make the decision to act and return to him. Until then, he will wait for her.

The key to The Beast’s healing here relates to his ability to be self-critical. He chooses to direct his critical energy inside, at himself, acknowledging his past flaws and failures and working to rectify those behaviors. This happens directly parallel to Gaston who consistently deflects by critiquing others. In the moment when the townsfolk are most likely to turn on him for his toxic behavior, he creates threats from outsider “others” (Maurice and The Beast) in order to divert critical view from himself. The Beast’s introspection makes him capable of growth as he accepts the necessity of his own grieving process, and his need to alter past behaviors in order to grow and learn to love.

However, The Beast’s personal transformation is not the only important move the film makes concerning toxic masculine behaviors. The film also works to reveal the societal frameworks and communities that allow for this type of behavior to flourish. Lumiere admits to Belle that the castle servants, who were Adam’s only friends, did nothing to curb his behavior or teach him more appropriate methods of interaction than those instilled by his father. The implication is that, if the community would have stepped in and told young Adam that his behavior was unacceptable, then his toxic behavior, and the curse it causes, may have never come to pass. Lumiere insists then, that the community surrounding The Beast is partially responsible for the development of his toxic behavior. This impact of community toward structuring toxic behavior is also highlighted in respect to Gaston in the tavern scene involving reprised version of his song, “Gaston.” The song has been changed from the original, and at one point during the tune, Gaston admits that he “needed encouragement,” to which LaFou replies, “Well, there’s no one as easy to bolster as you.” Here, Gaston admits that he needs continued encouragement in order to feel justified in his piggish, bullheaded and chauvinistic behavior patterns. LeFou’s response is more than hero worship, it indicates a pattern of affirming behavior on the part of LaFou and the other townsfolk which is reinforced by the rest of the scene. Their collective embrace of Gaston, and subsequent praise of the very behaviors which make up a large part of his toxicity, highlights the danger of a society where destructive masculinity is allowed to flourish because it has been normalized and held up as virtue.

In this live-action production, Disney has created interesting and timely commentary on the nature of masculinity, grief, trauma, and societal reinforcement and intervention. It provides for a whole new set of thoughts and concerns surrounding the figures of The Beast and Gaston, which were far flatter characters in previous iterations of the film. Here, now, are complicated men who demonstrate the embodiment of toxic masculinity and the sorts of behaviors necessary to overcome that behavior. As Gaston models attachment to domination, destruction, and violence which leads to his own demise, The Beast models behaviors of self-reflection, empathy, and receptivity which allow for healing not just for himself, but for the community that surrounds him. In this new tale, The Beast becomes a man, and the man becomes a monster.

Empathy and Education: The Double Burden (Part 1)

A couple of weeks ago, toward the end of our class’s unit on “Thrills, Sensations, and the Ethics of Nonfiction,” I assigned my students the University of Chicago’s Welcome Letter to the Class of 2020 alongside Sara Ahmed’s thought-provoking “Against Students” (June 2015). The former, a document separately decried or praised as patronizing and oppressive or timely and appropriate, comes from a private University that prides itself as “one of the world’s leading and most influential institutions of higher learning,”[1] and has a notorious reputation among academics for fostering an ultra-competitive – and potentially hazardous – environment for its students.

Following a word of congratulations, the letter states:

“Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.

Fostering the free exchange of ideas reinforces a related University priority – building a campus that welcomes people of all backgrounds. Diversity of opinion and background is a fundamental strength of our community. The members of our community must have the freedom to espouse and explore a wide range of ideas.”

A number of think pieces had their say, and the talking heads gave comment. In response, educators and administrators from various institutions defended their policy of creating safe spaces and giving trigger warnings; using the same terminology, they all argued for the same purpose: academic freedom and “moral responsibility.” Proponents of the University of Chicago’s pedagogical stance lauded this strike against so-called “political correctness,” insisting that incoming students should stop expecting a protective safety net to cushion controversial speech and difficult issues. Safe spaces, it was implied, or outright declared, are a cocoon of muffled sensitivities freshmen ought to have outgrown by their first semester of college.

Ahmed’s piece, while predating the University of Chicago’s letter by almost a year, exposes similar “sweeping” generalizations made in critiques of higher education, while laying bare the ideological contradictions the letter claims to espouse. Students who are often blamed as oversensitive, coddled, and otherwise too entitled to address “difficult issues” bear the brunt of critique in the wider battle of, and backlash against the dreaded brand of PC-neoliberalism. In actuality, those who oppose trigger warnings often do so at the expense of marginalized groups and students as a whole, and not in service of a wider range of critical discussion.

“The idea that students have become a problem because they are too sensitive relates to a wider public discourse that describes offendability as a form of moral weakness and as a restriction on “our” freedom of speech. Much contemporary racism works by positioning the others as too easily offendable, which is how some come to assert their right to occupy space by being offensive…

This is how harassment can be justified as an expression of academic freedom.”

Rhetorically, those who use this toxic, masculinist mantra to “man up and quit being so offended” imagine its directed audience as a bunch of whiny, thin-skinned spoiled brats. It has become a “no guts, no restriction of hateful speech, no glory” approach modified for instructional spaces. Unsurprisingly, it represents yet another attack upon we Millennials of the generation of participation trophies; we special snowflakes-turned-Social Justice Warriors; we who dare protest for a minimum wage of $15/hour, refuse to consider any human being “illegal,” and demand equal rights under the law for an ever-expanding catalogue of identities, intersectionalities, and sexualities.

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The thing about we who make it our job to deal in words is that we know what they say about us. Sometimes, we respond with sarcasm and memes.

Apparently, to many, intellectual boldness – or the tricky concept of free speech in general – is incompatible with thoughtfulness, compassion, or the necessity of imagining and reflecting upon the consequences of such speech. But at its core, intellectual efforts rest upon a foundation of empathetic engagement, curiosity, and responsible efforts to give voice to those who have previously been silenced.

For the most part, we who teach are expected to keep personal politics out of the classroom. Each student ought to have their say, and must not fear their grade may suffer due to a difference of religious, political, or personal ideological belief. The classroom is a place for critical engagement and analytical inquiry, but it should not act as a place of conversion, or the base of any particular soapbox.

On the other hand, we introduce students to the concept of ideology, and invite them to critically question previously held beliefs; we encourage students to critique ideas, and not the individual espousing them. Disagreement should not deter discussion, so long as speech remains respectful and productive. We are all here to learn, is the unspoken catchphrase of the liberal arts education, and we learn best when we question what it is we think we know.

I presented the University of Chicago’s welcome letter to my class without trepidation – not because I expected every student to agree with the material, or to contest it straight away; rather, their job was to consider the rhetorical strategies being employed, and foster an interpretive reading based upon textual evidence. Thus far, we had studied texts through the framework of social critique and purposeful writing, interrogating the usefulness of nonfiction texts that have outlived their writers. We questioned the boundaries of truth and fiction, fantasy and reality, and spent a good portion of the semester discussing the importance of readers’ ethical responses to texts presenting themselves as unproblematic, factual, and objective. They held productive class discussions on tone-policing, white privilege, and the conflation of violence with sensational journalism and the commodification of wartime horror. These students, most of them incoming freshmen, rose quickly to the challenge of tackling these subjects, with vigor and great respect for the material, and one another.

The students of this generation “aren’t snowflakes, and they don’t melt,” Yale professor Steven Berry writes, in admiration of the resiliency of students who were still able to attend class and complete an exam the morning of November 9th. The same resiliency we admire in our students becomes so much more difficult to embody when we, students and scholars and educators alike, consider how much more dangerous our world has suddenly become.

Ten days after the U.S. election, eight hundred sixty-seven hate incidents were reported to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the majority of these occurring in K-12 schools. Since then, an organization named Turning Point USA, which purports to “fight for free speech and the right for professors to say whatever they wish,” has created a Professor Watchlist, with profiles of “professors that advance a radical agenda in lecture halls” – the majority of those listed professors being women and persons of color.

post-election-hate

“Ten Days After: Harassment and Intimidation in the Aftermath of the Election” Source: Southern Poverty Law Center, https://www.splcenter.org/20161129/ten-days-after-harassment-and-intimidation-aftermath-election

Without giving into paranoia, the project of providing safe spaces appears more daunting than ever. Despite this, while the classroom may not be a pulpit or a soapbox, it nevertheless remains a platform for instruction. Our determination to forge ahead despite fear and anger represents both the privilege and the burden of educating with empathy, and an ethical responsibility we owe to ourselves, and those we aim to instruct.

[1] This quote comes from the University of Chicago’s Wikipedia page (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/University_of_Chicago); the university’s homepage and admissions proudly greets visitors as “a private, nondenominational, culturally rich and ethnically diverse coeducational research university…committed to educating extraordinary people regardless of race, gender, religion, or financial ability.” (http://www.uchicago.edu/)


Vicky Cheng is a fourth-year Ph.D. student whose research and teaching interests center on nineteenth-century British literature and culture, with a specific focus on queer and feminist readings of Victorian texts. Her proposed dissertation project finds its structure through queer methodology, and will investigate Victorian novels and conflicting representations of gendered bodies within. Other scholarly interests include mediations between textual description and visualization, the structures of power surrounding the interplay of non-normative bodies and disruptive desires, and the complexities of embodied sexualities.

“Bring in The Crows to Peck the Eagles:” Rewriting the Politics of “Coriolanus”

Compared to a number of Shakespeare’s other tragedies, Coriolanus does not frequently enter into the popular consciousness.  While T.S. Eliot may have called it Shakespeare’s “[m]ost assured artistic success,” the play has not historically been viewed as one of Shakespeare’s great tragedies.  Despite this, the play has long been the subject of critical scrutiny over its deeply political narrative and its treatment of war and peacetime governance.  Coriolanus is a play in which the victorious Roman warrior Caius Marcius Coriolanus has returned to Rome after winning a prolonged campaign against the Volscian army.  Rome is in a state of civil unrest and the citizens stand in revolt against Coriolanus and the rest of the Roman aristocracy.  After a pair of tribunes, Junius Brutus and Sinicius Velutus manipulate the citizens into supporting the banishment of Coriolanus, he turns traitor to Rome and eventually dies a tragic death following the brokerage of peace between Rome and its enemies.[1]  In the 1930s, the play was briefly banned in France over the perception that the narrative, one of a powerful war hero brought low whose attempts to govern are destroyed by a population that is given too great a voice, could be too easily understood as pro-fascist.[2]  Likewise, the play was heavily critiqued in post-war Germany for being too militaristic and doing too much to celebrate the image of the glorious warrior brought low by his own fellow citizens, demonstrating that during times of particular political anxiety, Coriolanus tends to return to the public eye.

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Fiennes’ Coriolanus

In 2011, Ralph Fiennes directed and starred in a version of Coriolanus which brings to the forefront a number of key political questions raised by the text.  The production ostensibly takes place in a setting meant to be associated with Rome, as indicated by its title cards and maintenance of the play’s language and characters, but the aesthetic is decidedly contemporary, with modern dress and a presentation of warfare that is modeled after military conflicts from the last two and a half decades.  Fiennes’ Coriolanus centralizes the impact that his time at war had upon Coriolanus, bringing to the production an interpretation that focuses on a post-9/11 investment in the state in which soldiers return from war.  It transforms the play into a meditation on the impact that war has, both on the individual and the society that sends those individuals to fight. Fiennes also modernizes the political crisis occurring in Rome.  In his version, Brutus and Sicinius, for instance, are presented as wealthy political insiders whose appearance and actions invoke a modern discourse of class struggle and income inequality, framing them as clearly distinct from the much poorer citizens whom they manipulate into banishing Coriolanus. Critical of both the actions of Coriolanus and the state of perpetual warfare that has impacted both the tragic hero and the citizens of Rome, Fiennes’s vision of the play attempts to utilize Shakespeare’s tragedy as a site for contemplating then-contemporary issues of war and its impact upon citizens.

Earlier this month I quoted Thomas Marc Parrott’s criticism that we could not think of Shakespeare as having an opinion on democracy, and while he certainly wouldn’t be able to have an opinion on the kind of representative democracy that we are most familiar with, the text of Coriolanus does not shy away from examining the idea of the consent of the governed.  It is a play in which a civilian rabble becomes the tool of a small cabal of aristocrats who oust Coriolanus, and the early scenes of the play present the rabble as easily strung along by learned Roman rhetoricians, suggesting the dangers of placing too much authority within the hands of the population.  In addition, if we are to read Coriolanus as a tragic hero, even one brought low by his pride, we must at least entertain his suggestions that the populace of Rome is making a grand error in banishing him, as they are banishing one of their betters, a belief that Coriolanus returns to time and time again.  This is, perhaps, a moment in which it is worthwhile to remember that in Elizabethan England debates over the merits of the consent of the governed and democratic rule were often very pessimistic about the capacity of the citizens of a nation to govern themselves.

Fiennes seems to deny this somewhat pessimistic attitude towards the populace’s complicity in the tragedy of Coriolanus with his presentation of the assorted Roman citizens.  His version centralizes their plight and their desire to resist a Roman system that denies them access to food, with an opening scene framing Roman defense of its grain supply as a militarized police force led by a fatigue-wearing Coriolanus beating back hungry protesters.  While the argument that we are meant to side with the citizens in Shakespeare’s play is by no means unfounded, Fiennes’ invocation of contemporary political struggles against state sanctioned violence leverages a very modern understanding of political crises in order to frame Coriolanus as a tragically flawed individual.  We read Coriolanus’s speech concerning the instability, intemperance, and ignobility of the citizens as proud, unfounded, and misguided in large part because of the visual language of this scene, rather than extracting that interpretation wholesale from the original text that Fiennes recites.

Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus

There is, in this vision of Coriolanus, a certain desire to collapse the current and the historical, both to demonstrate a series of momentarily important political ideas but also to point towards their seeming timelessness nature.  An implicit idea present in Fiennes’ Coriolanus is that the lessons of the text of Coriolanus have a specific relevance that transcends the historical moment of its original production.  This, however, requires Fiennes to traffic in a language of visual and political iconography that makes these lessons legible to a modern audience far removed from the world of the Roman aristocracy.  I bring this up not to denigrate Fiennes’ Coriolanus, but to suggest that the act of attempting to find specific modern lessons in these plays necessarily requires us to reconstruct Shakespeare’s texts to suit our current political climate and we must remain aware of this practice of reconstructing Shakespeare when we attempt to garner political lessons from his plays.

The function of this examination of Coriolanus isn’t to produce a unified reading of the play’s political message, but rather to demonstrate how malleable that message becomes when we attempt to understand it with contemporary eyes.  Fiennes’ Coriolanus is not a more or less valid representation of Shakespeare’s text, but it is transparently bringing a highly modern perspective to the text in order to make its political commentary clear.  This does not invalidate the things that Fiennes’ production can teach us about the political questions that inform Coriolanus, but it demonstrates the ways in which any attempt to parse out the lessons of a text necessarily brings to bear our own political investments upon that text.  This is true for the audiences in the first half of the 20th century who saw the play uncomfortably courting with fascism, and it is true in the case of Fiennes’ Coriolanus, which attempts to use that same text to understand a set of more contemporary questions about war, social dissidence, and the consent of the governed.

[1] This is, admittedly, a highly abridged account of Coriolanus.  A full treatment of the play’s richly complex handling of issues such as the construction of masculine identity, the role of motherhood in the lives of individuals and the state or its examinations of the costs of war alone would consume an entire blogpost.

[2] Coriolanus is far from the only play that has garnered attention for how it might help us understand fascism.  For a particularly unsubtle example, see Ian McKellen’s Richard III.

“In Troy There Lies the Scene”: Teaching Students to Think about Shakespeare

While teaching Troilus and Cressida this semester, one of the assignments that my students were tasked with was to write an essay on the ways in which the play made visible or commented upon an issue that was facing 16th century England.  Students were given a brief lesson on the political and social troubles of early modern England, then they were told to construct an argument which would demonstrate a line of continuity between Shakespeare’s reading of the Trojan War and the contemporary troubles facing London audiences.  Underlying this assignment was an assumption that looking at this play would offer students greater access to the historical problems facing theater goers in the 16th century, but also that these were deliberate inclusions within the play that theater going audiences would have picked up on.  At the time, I didn’t think about it, but looking back on it, this assignment was constructed to teach students to look for ways in which art teaches us lessons about the contemporary historical moment, even when the subject matter that the text is drawing from frames itself as temporally distant.  While not a perfect parallel, we were teaching students to think of Shakespeare’s texts as “containing” veiled contemporary commentaries that could be unearthed with through and careful examination.

This is not to suggest that such an endeavor isn’t worth having students undertake.  Troilus and Cressida, itself being a reworking both of legend of the Trojan War as well as a somewhat explicit reimagining of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, does examine many of the political concerns that would be of interest to a contemporary British audience and it deliberately reworks a number of the issues that Chaucer raised in his 1380 poem.[1]  The play, for instance, features an early monologue during which Ulysses pontificates on the nature of social hierarchy and the dangers that would result if the political hierarchy (that places Ulysses at the top) were called into question.  Pleading for order and stability within the Grecian camp, he suggests that “[t]ake but degree away, untune the string,/ And hard what discord follows.  Each thing meets/ In mere oppugnancy”.[2] This speech, regardless of whether we read it as a critique of Ulysses’ support for a system that benefits him at the expense of others or we read it as an endorsement of Ulysses views on the importance of a stable social hierarchy, would be of particular relevance to an Early Modern audience with very real concerns about the stability of the English monarchy.[3]  Here, Shakespeare is mobilizing a shared cultural literary memory to begin to think through the very different political conditions of Early modern England, or at the very least, this is the move that we ask our students to identify Shakespeare making.

This is a mode of processing the past that Shakespeare would return to frequently.  Owing to strict censorship laws and tightening government control over the theater, any attempt to address the contemporary political climate in Tudor and Stuart England needed to be moved outside of the present moment.[4]  This created a practical explanation for Early Modern playwrights use of the past as a site to understand their own historical moment.   While we give students the tools to understand these historical contexts and the reasons that Shakespeare might use Ulysses as a voice to critique or affirm the status quo, there is still a sense in which we are teaching students to approach literature as a site in which truths about a contemporary world can be made visible to an audience regardless of setting or surface level content.  This isn’t meant to be understood as a value judgement against this approach to teaching literature, as I think there is a value in thinking about how this mode of teaching students allows us to think of Shakespeare as both an author who lived in a very specific historical moment and a writer who is still worth reading four hundred years after his death.

This is, however, not quite the same thing as turning to Shakespeare to understand our contemporary political moment.  I feel that the assignment I’ve described lays the ground work for logics that allow us to see our historical moment in Shakespeare, but to see our world in Shakespeare, we need to impose parts of our world upon Shakespeare (or any literary text).  Just as Shakespeare brought a 16th century world view to Troilus and Criseyde in order to make Chaucer’s Trojan epic more contemporarily relevant, we too bring a 21st century worldview to Shakespeare so that we can make visible the elements of the text that help us make sense of our contemporary political moment.  Sometimes, this is done rather explicitly, as with modern retellings of the play or adaptations which make significant thematic changes.  Other times, the move is subtler, simply directing readers to carefully examine a specific element of the plays so that our contemporary experiences can be more easily written onto them, as I see happening in Greenblatt’s op-ed piece on Richard III.  Next week, I plan to examine some examples of repurposing Shakespeare for political purposes in order to continue thinking about the various ways in which contemporary audiences turn to Shakespeare as a means of understanding the political world in which they live.

[1] Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida is much more cynical than Troilus and Criseyde, and it is much more explicit it its rejection of a greater spiritual order that will render political conflicts on earth less meaningful.

[2] Troilus and Cressida I.iii.113-115

[3] Dating Shakespeare’s plays is difficult, but Troilus and Cressida was likely written either near the very end of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign or near the beginning of James I’s.

[4] Shakespeare frequently addressed this problem by setting his plays in the Pre-Tudor past or on the European continent.


Evan Hixon is a second 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.

Appreciating Space: “Minecraft” and Empowerment

For the last two summers, I’ve worked as an instructor for the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Kid College program, which is basically a mix between a summer camp and course series about technology for kids aged 9-14. Most of the classes I taught were about game design, and the most popular courses by far were the ones about Minecraft. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the game, it might be described as an infinitely large, semi-randomly-generated world made up of multiple types of blocks that players can use to build structures, craft items, and fight off monsters. I tended to describe it to parents or adults as “digital Legos with fighting and exploration mixed in.” (Avid players might say it is a bit more complicated than that, but let’s work with that for now.)

In the course of teaching, I have occasionally had parents voice the concern that their child has been “spending too much time on Minecraft” and ask me for some advice on how to change that. Now, those sort of parental decisions are above my paygrade at this point in my life, and how one ought to approach limitations on computer activity depends too much on parenting styles and a child’s personality for me to say anything useful in that regard. But the way they phrased the question points to a bit of a misunderstanding of what the game really is: kids are not on Minecraft, they are in Minecraft.

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Like many contemporary games, Minecraft is as much of a space as it is a system of rules. Each time they make a new world, players are dropped into the middle of a sprawling landscape which is constantly generated based on a set of algorithms (an operation known as procedural generation, in game terms). Grasslands and deserts, mountains and jungles, cave systems and mushroom-filled islands, even villages and abandoned temples have a chance of appearing every time a player reaches the edge of the known map. And this process never ends: the world only gets bigger and bigger as the player explores. With no mini-map to aid them initially, players are forced to make meaning out of the environment – taking note of landmarks, following the curve of riverbeds, getting to higher ground – as they seek out shelter before nightfall.

Besides being infinitely vast, the worlds of Minecraft are also infinitely transformable. Players can harvest, collect, or mine just about every type of block in the game and use them for their own creations, whether that’s smelting iron to make a sword or placing wooden planks down for the walls of a house. In this way, players are constantly leaving their mark on the environment and making it their own. Every hastily-made shelter, every empty mine shaft, every scar in the mountain or crater in the earth becomes imbued with meaning as sites of the player’s failures and accomplishments. But these structures and stories do not remain confined to the game world: they are shared by players across every medium available to them, whether through screenshots, videos, or merely word of mouth. Every voxel has a ballad, and every player becomes a bard, expanding the space of the virtual world even further into the material one.

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That may have gone a bit too far into the poetic, but there is a sort of magic to a game space that (for many people) doesn’t make the transition to the real world. This is especially true for kids in my hometown of Anchorage, a city which has long winters, not insignificant criminal and animal dangers, and long distances between destinations – not to mention the general lack of a safe “third place” for youth to gather and play of their own accord. Yet Minecraft is a place that is infinitely traversable, a place children can exercise their agency and reveal their intelligence, a place that they can make their own without the help of adults and where they can play with their friends on top of it all. Is it any wonder why this is the place kids decide to spend their days?

I understand the danger in gaming compulsion – it is very addicting to find such a place of empowerment. I also understand the necessity of getting outside – you can’t grow up in Alaska without getting at least some taste of that lesson! – but there is so much more to Minecraft and similar games than sitting in front of a TV or killing time with YouTube videos. The only way to truly understand that fact is to take the game for what it is: a place of empowerment as well as play.

Minecraft 5.pngMy reaction to the parents who are skeptical about the value of games or who think their child is playing too much is to first ask them much they know about Minecraft. Some have watched their children play the game or even have an account themselves, but more often than not they have only heard their child speak about it ad nauseum while having very little familiarity beyond the confusing jumble of jargon and technical language that is frankly hard to keep straight unless you have seen it in action.

And that is exactly my piece of advice to these parents: let your child show you their space. Treat the experience as if you were a tourist trying to get an understanding of a different country. Ask questions, try out the language, pick up the controls and let your guide coach you if need be, but give them a chance to show you what this virtual space means to them. Only after understanding what it means to exist in this space can you truly understand what it would mean for them to lose it. Perhaps you can show them what they love about the space can be found elsewhere as well.

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The same advice can really be said of almost any game and almost any social relationship: if you want to know someone’s feelings, let them show you the places they like to go. In the spirit of that mindset, I want to show you a place I like to go when things are not particularly bright. But that is a task for next week.


John Sanders is a second year PhD student in the Syracuse University English department where he studies games and new media. He considers himself an extroverted optimist, which can make mornings difficult for his roommates.