Cultural Studies

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.

Monsters and Men Part I: Gaston, Trauma, and Toxic Masculinity

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

Gaston rears his fist back, he’s intent on striking the man in front of him, Belle’s father, who has just said that Belle will never be with him. This is the most glaring example of his raging temper up to this point in the narrative.

But LeFou is there, stepping between them, holding his hands up as one might approach a snarling lion, shushing the beast that is the object of his affection. His voice is calming. “Remember the war, the blood, the bodies, the explosions,” he says.

Gaston pauses, emotions track across his facial features, his fist lowers as fury is quelled, replaced by a spreading maniacal smile on his face.

***

Out of all the moments in Disney’s new live-action remake of the classic animated Beauty and the Beast (1991), this is the scene that stayed with me, tossing around in my head over and over long after I left the theatre. It wasn’t the moment where the film made a tongue-in-cheek nod to drag, or the three seconds of screen time where LeFou dances with another man in the film’s much-hyped, historic “gay” moment. No, it’s a strange scene that presents a clearly disturbed and traumatized war veteran in a moment of mindless rage.

Now, I do not bring this up to come to Gaston’s defense and claim that he’s an upstanding fellow. He has certainly been a chauvinist pig in previous iterations (the original Disney animation, the musical), embodying all the baser points of toxic masculinity. He is self-obsessed and cruel, driven by violence and a need to dominate. He has served to normalize unacceptable destructive and possessive behavior behind the guise of the “man’s man.” Gaston has never been a “good” guy. But Disney’s re-make creates a backstory for Gaston that complicates both his character, and the film’s statements about trauma and mental illness.

Gaston is more sinister in his villainy this time around, going so far as to tie Belle’s father, Maurice, up in the forest and explicitly leave him there for the wolves to eat so that Maurice will not stand between Gaston and his pursuit of Belle. When Maurice survives this ordeal and returns to town, Gaston plots behind LeFou’s back and prepares to cart Maurice off to an insane asylum. He goes so far as to force LeFou to lie on his behalf to the townsfolk about his behavior toward Maurice. Then, after tossing Belle into the cart with her father as a response to her rejection, he whips the villagers into a frenzied mob and heads to the castle.

By this point, even his faithful sidekick cannot bear the level of evil that Gaston has stooped to; during the song that ensues on their journey to the castle, LeFou acknowledges that Gaston has become the monster in this story, staring side-long at the man he once called friend. This plummet into monstrousness by Gaston is directly opposed by The Beast, who moves from a place of blind rage and reactionary behavior, “monstrosity,” to a place of humanity and compassion over the course of the film (more on The Beast next week).

***

There is a distinct difference though, between this version of Gaston and those that have come before: this Gaston has explicitly seen warfare, gruesome warfare involving “explosions,” and “blood,” and “bodies.” While the original animated Gaston is portrayed as a hunter, he is not a war veteran. In this new version of the film, Gaston’s experiences with the war clearly shape his behavior and responses toward the people around him.

Gaston’s behavior in the previously mentioned scene demonstrates several clear behaviors linked to individuals suffering from PTSD. First, Gaston enters a blind rage, a state of emotional hyperarousal. His emotional response happens suddenly and to a level not commiserate with the events of the moment. Additionally, he resorts to physical violence in an attempt to reassert control over the situation. His response mimics a threatened animal that chooses to fight instead of flee. LeFou recognizes Gaston’s fit of rage as behavior related to his war experience and uses iconic moments from the war to remind his friend that they are no longer on a battlefield. It is only after LeFou is able to bring Gaston back from his moment of reliving war-like conflict that Gaston sinks into a rather manic state of non-violence. His strange smile in the end of the encounter highlights this still-anxious state of emotional hyperarousal even though he has curbed his rage. [i]

Gaston is a man caught in the past, shaped by the traumatic experiences of the war in which he participated. Returning from battle, he has no ability to successfully reintegrate with his community. Instead, he depends on his homosocial bond with LeFou, forged during their time in the war. The praise lavished upon him by his companion, grants Gaston worth and meaning in the space of the village. His continues to hunt because his value to the village lies in his ability to commit violence. It is this attachment to violence that dooms him. Gaston is unable to step away from the violence of warfare, consistently seeking out an adversary, from his near fistfight with Maurice, to his final pursuit of The Beast. In the end, he meets his match in the castle of The Beast where he plummets from a tower to his death in the recreation of the classic fight scene.

After he falls, Gaston disappears from the story entirely. LeFou’s decision to change sides during the final battle necessitates that he not mourn for his villainous friend after the battle has ended. Indeed, no one in the castle so much as mentions him after he falls. But as a viewer, the death of Gaston didn’t leave me with the resolution that hovered over the castle in the end of the film. Instead, it left me conflicted and pondering. No matter how wicked Gaston might be, there is reason behind it, method to the madness. Gaston is no longer simply the arrogant chauvinist from classic cartoon, the villain I could easily hate and dismiss. Instead, he is a deeply troubled character who cannot escape from the war and toxic masculinity that has structured his identity and behavior. He inspires both empathy and revulsion in equal measure. This new film makes spaces for nuance in both monsters and men.

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

[i] For information on PTSD symptoms and treatment related to war trauma, see https://www.ptsd.va.gov/


Hillarie ‘Rhyse’ Curtis is a Ph.D. student at Syracuse University where she studies (and occasionally writes about) queer narratives, masculinity, trauma, war, and fan fiction, among other things. 

Clark’s

I’m at a local beer place. They have three dozen beers on draft and a menu that consists of roast beef, roast turkey, pickled eggs, and maybe sometimes beef stew. I am tired, I am breaking my alcohol fast, and I am trying to revise a shitty document into something less shitty so that when I meet with my adviser tomorrow I can look him in the eye without this defensive lump in my throat.

There’s a guy I can hear out by the bar. He sounds like he knows everyone here, but I’ve never seen him.

I haven’t written anything new in a couple hours. I’ve watched some car reviews instead. I ate my sandwich. I’ve had two beers which, because of my fast, feel like four. Maybe I’ve overshot it.

The loud guy sees my local sports team apparel. He initiates local sports team chant at point blank. There is no one around to help me, it’s just me alone, and this man needs a response. I want to oblige. I repeat local sports team chant but am quiet about it. He tries again. I am again quiet about it. Another time; I laugh mumble something about being worn out. He punches my arm and says “I didn’t know they made introverts in Buffalo” before taking a seat with some people who said they would be leaving in four, not five minutes.

The guy making my beef and cheddar says, “You hiding upstairs?”

“Yeah.”

“WiFi?”

“Mostly Word.”

“Work?”

“Yeah.”

“Cheers.”

I have watched four different car reviews: Honda S2000. Ford Focus ST. 1991 Honda CRX Si. Corvette C7. There’s a whole YouTube channel of these things that takes each of these cars as a case study in American masculinity. I cannot tell if any of this ironic. I am pretty sure it is, but I think if it isn’t, I probably still like these videos. I wonder what the loud guy drives.

My Word document reads:

“My project will argue

The Questions my project will answer are”

~ ~ ~ ~

In a year’s time the local beer place will have closed already, suddenly. I’ll be there on its final night sitting with colleagues and friends, new puppy getting passed around the table like a peace pipe. We’ll be sitting outside on some crappy metal chairs that will soon be sold off at a discount to pay the bar’s debts. The weather will still be warm and nobody will have that overworked look yet.

There are conflicting reports about the reason for the bar’s closure. The owner is getting too old for the restaurant game, the renovation of our downtown theater hasn’t driven as much traffic as expected, the space is too big, downtown parking is a pain in the ass, constant construction put a dent in their summer clientele, etc. I get the feeling, drinking a beer there outside, that this place just got tired. Thought it had gotten in shape after a long hiatus, went for the comeback, and found that our city had moved on. The mixed signals are unfortunate – it seemed like everyone was excited for the grand opening, buzz was solid, and the pickled eggs were good. I go in to order another drink; there are only a few taps left alive. A little ways down the bar from me a couple middle aged guys talk over their wives about how this all makes sense even though it’s a shame. They confess to the bartender that they didn’t get down here often enough. He shrugs, starts talking about a six-pack of craft beer from Vermont he recently got a hold of and talks about moving somewhere else. A different guy hands me my beer, puts it on my tab and I head back outside.

There have been a string of new restaurant openings here in the past year. Leihs downtown, a place called the Evergreen, Aster, The York; each one starts up with the energy of a gauntlet thrown, daring our city to let another establishment die off. Their menus are complicated and sporadically local. Utica greens and chicken riggies. None of them have wi-fi and a quiet corner to watch a YouTube man crack dirty jokes about Nathaniel Hawthorne and Lee Iacocca, which makes sense. That seems like it was a bad business model all along.

I’m nursing a stout that I don’t like very much because it’s all they have left. There aren’t any more beef and cheddars, no stew, no pickled eggs. Some people show up with take out Chinese, stay for a few minutes and move on back home after petting the pup.

~ ~ ~ ~

For now though, this place is open. My Word document currently says things like:

“Methodologically, I intend to approach this dissertation with feet firmly planted in that most traditional of literary practices, close reading.”

and

“I wonder, briefly, if Lara has misgivings about her short shorts.”

and

“Video games are the textual lingua franca of a networked society.”

I am throwing half cooked spaghetti at the wall and hoping it sticks. Loud local sports guy has left, it’s almost midnight. Some dudebros downstairs are arguing about how they would rank the Star Wars films in terms of quality. I suggest that The Force Awakens was way less fan servicey than the most recent Star Trek films and for that should be commended. They don’t agree and I go get a third drink before packing in my computer for the night.

The best thing about this local beer place is its ring toss game. In the dining room there are two brass hooks mounted to two different posts. A heavy metal ring hangs from a bit of string above the hooks. The goal here is to swing the ring in such a way that it settles into place on the hook instead of glancing off with a clang. It’s the perfect drunk game. There’s a sweet spot you have to feel out as the night goes on where you’re just tipsy enough to really feel the weight of that ring in your hand, but not so drunk that you can’t line up your shot. After the third beer I check to see where I am. First shot, miss, second shot miss, move to the other post, hole-in-one.

I feel good. Think, the fact of this place proves this city isn’t all bad. Think, as long as this place stay open there’s a chance I’ll finish this degree. It’s cold outside, it’s January. The temperature gives me hiccups as soon as I step outside. The tables have been put away because who wants to sit outside on a night like this?


Jordan Wood is a Ph.D. candidate at Syracuse University where he writes about video games and other things.

A row of people with their right hands raised; some hold documents and small American flags in their left hands; spectators crowd on the steps behind them.

Un/natural Citizens: Naturalization and Conversion

“No Person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President …” (US Constitution)

“Naturalization is the process by which U.S. citizenship is granted to a foreign citizen or national after he or she fulfills the requirements established by Congress” (USCIS)

November 2016. In the week after the election, when white supremacists were convening in Washington, DC, a group of scholars gathered on the other side of Washington at the Folger Shakespeare Library, where we discussed the politics of conversion in Early Modern theatre. Throughout the symposium, a collaboration with McGill’s Early Modern Conversions project, the past pressed heavily on the current political situation in America — 425 years later and an ocean away. This month, I will share some of the more powerful moments that resonated with me, in the city where laws and policies that will impact our future will be made.

But first, a detour. Like most Americans, my family comes from immigrants: some from seventeenth-century England, some from twentieth-century Lebanon, and everywhere in between. In one post-election conversation, a relative who recently earned their US citizenship expressed dismay that they could run for a senatorial office but could never become president. As we all know from the “birther” controversy, the US Constitution declares that only a “natural born citizen” can serve as president. Constitutional scholars and courts repeatedly interpret that phrase as referring to only a person granted so-called “birthright citizenship” — generally, someone born in the US or to an American parent.

In theory, for the Founding Fathers, that provision would have prevented England from planting a foreign-born US citizen who would get elected President and reunite America with England against the will of the American people …

meet-the-pr-firm-that-helped-vladimir-putin-troll-the-entire-country

But who needs a foreign-born naturalized citizen to sabotage a nation, right?

 

… However, this constitutional clause continues to make so-called “naturalized citizens” in effect second-class citizens by mere accident of their birth. Though these former foreign nationals are given all the ordinary rights and privileges of “natural-born” citizens, the extraordinary eligibility for presidency remains exclusive to those with “birthright citizenship.” There remains an assumed latent threat inherent in the foreign location of their birth.

This conversation reminded me of the research on English Jewish converts to Christianity presented by Steven Mullaney (University of Michigan) at the Folger. From the eleventh into the eighteenth century, the Domus Conversorum (“House of Converts”) in London housed and boarded Jews who converted to Christianity and found themselves displaced from their former communities. With financial support from the state, converts lived together in pseudo-monastic community. Though they took no vows, they remained apart from the rest of the world — among neither their Jewish nor their born-Christian brethren. They existed in an in-between state in an in-between space.

Home for converted Jews, or Domus Conversorum, Oxford

“Home for converted Jews, or Domus Conversorum, Oxford” from J.R. Green’s A Short History of the English People (Macmillan, 1892).

Like the conversos of Inquisition-era Spain, Jewish converts in Early Modern England were treated as inherently suspicious, their fidelity always under question. Even though they had embraced what the English political system deemed to be the only true faith, in so doing they walked away from their heritage and family, which could be read as an essential act of betrayal. Anyone that could play the turncoat once was presumed to be inclined to do it again. One never fully shook their former identity. Thus, residents at the Domus Conversaron remained sequestered where they never got the opportunity to fully integrate into the English Christian community. In the wider English cultural imagination, there was always a threat that the converted Jew would revert to their former way of being.

The same applies to many naturalized American citizens, especially those whose otherness is visible or audible in their body. Though the constitutional ban on achieving the presidency might be the only explicit demarcation of naturalized citizens’ second-class citizenship, that contingency extends into the day-to-day operations of American political culture. Any naturalized citizen who has been asked where they’re “really” from has experienced the contingency of their status as an American, as if the Americanness they chose to adopt were somehow less real, less essential than the nationality they were born into.

Much of the xenophobic rhetoric lobbed around during and since the 2016 election, calling for Latinx-Americans to “go back where they came from” and for Muslim-Americans to seek out the terrorists in their communities, marks the limits of citizenship even for natural-born citizens whose allegiances are expected to be somewhere outside the invisible borders of America. Their American roots are anticipated to be shallower than those of white Christian Americans, more readily excavated or corrupted. Like the residents of the Domus Conversaron, their doubted loyalty to the nation alienates them from American political systems and their perpetual alienation prevents them from ever fulfilling white America’s artificial criteria for full Americanness. They remain in-between.


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

Empathy and the Danger(s) Disengagement

 

 

 

For the past couple of years, I’ve been keeping a list.

Admittedly, it’s not an original concept, being a mental exercise adapted from one of many optimistic Pinterest boards encouraging meditative mindfulness and gratitude in the upcoming New Year. Instead of coming up with a soon-to-be neglected resolution, this effort at self-improvement requires little more than keeping a record of positive memories, noteworthy events, or otherwise “good things.”

In addition to brown paper packages tied up with strings, my list of “Good Things to Remember from 2016” ranged from personal achievements, to exciting sport victories, cultural and artistic high points, and celebrated milestones: in February, the Carolina Panthers – my home state’s football team – made it to Super Bowl L, where a spectacular halftime performance by Beyoncé Knowles-Carter called attention to the Black Lives Matter activist movement on the biggest stage in televised sports. In April, Knowles-Carter released her powerful visual album, Lemonade, an unflinching tribute to black women, honoring their voices, and acknowledging the struggle of living while black in the United States. My sister was married in May, my brother graduated from high school in June, and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s transformative musical, Hamilton, was nominated for sixteen Tony awards, and won eleven. After nearly eight months of intensive study, at the end of September I successfully passed my department’s Ph.D. Oral Qualifying Exam, and I subsequently took an impromptu celebratory trip to visit an old friend in Halifax.

Looking back, however, it’s easy to see the gaps in the record. Sometime around early June, the number of items in the list began to dwindle, and around mid-November, the documentation completely stops.

2016

Unsurprisingly, as pieces of cultural commentary, Internet memes are more productive and illuminating than many realize.

To say that the year 2016 has been fraught with tension is a tremendous understatement.[1] As Thomas Paine wrote, these are the times that try men’s [and women’s] souls, and in these past twelve months, it seems like we’ve run the gauntlet, a hundred times over. This is the year that Taiwan may be the first East Asian nation to achieve marriage equality, and the year that the deadliest shooting in American history was carried out against LGBTQ+ people at the Pulse Club in Orlando. This was the year of the United Kingdom’s decision to withdraw from the European Union, of the spread of far-right populist fervor across Europe, and the rise of white supremacist ideologies in the highest political offices and pulpits in the United States. The 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro saw, for the first time, a Refugee Olympic Team competing as independent participants, and this is the year that the Syrian Refugee Crisis reached its most desperate peak.

Political forces and governmental stratagems seemingly out of control dominated the domestic and international landscape, plaguing media outlets with misinformation and fake news. We watched tragedies unfold in real time,[2] counted the deaths of too many beloved and inspiring figures, and anxiously waited for the other shoe to drop, and keep on dropping.

In the face of all this, we have prepared to resist, and continue to call others and ourselves to higher standards of vigilance and accountability. We must continue to read, to think, to create, to teach and engage. This month’s series on empathy and education has attempted to provide a space for admitting our fears, confronting difficult questions regarding possible failures, and supply encouragement for the task now, and ahead.

Every winter, my family stages a viewing of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, and the scene captured above, from The Two Towers, has always proven to be enormously compelling. Coming at the end of one of the film’s two climactic battle scenes, Frodo’s haggard vulnerability and Sam’s motivational speech resonates with pathos, and displays the power of oral tradition, the written word, and the driving force of narrative in general.

While stories may drive us, oftentimes, “most fantasy provides an excursion from the normal order of things, in the same way that carnival and Saturnalia were an inversion of the normal order, a letting-off of steam in order to facilitate a return to business-as-usual.”[3] Following the Electoral College’s dispiriting conformity to historical tradition, and several weeks after the initial shock, we find ourselves now couched in the festive spirit of holiday celebrations, and all-too-ready to turn over a new leaf. It may be tempting to “get on with our lives,” as the president-elect lately urges, and to pull back from the front lines, and not necessarily forget, but forgive and quietly disengage.

In times like these, although stories remain important, I think more often of the impassioned plea Merry issues to the Ents on their decision to abstain from action, to “weather such things as we have always done.”

“You are young and brave,” the hobbit is told, by much elder and wiser folk, then cautioned, “But your part in this tale is over. Go back to your home.” His friend Pippin tries to reason with him and says, “It’s too big for us. What can we do in the end?”

Fiction can no longer serve only as an escape from reality; academics can no longer afford to distance themselves from that which appears too startling, too surreal,[4] too beyond our capabilities to successfully engage. My list of “Good Things to Remember from 2017” may be a bit more difficult to attend to, but one of the first things at the top of that list will be the opportunity to keep on teaching, and to lead students through learning about race and literary texts, to seek out difficult yet productive discussions, and to foster communication and understanding.

There is good to look after, and our part in this tale is never too big to fight for.

[1] For those in need of hopeful optimism, it is equally important to recall that a lot of positive changes have been put into effect this year. To begin, here is another list, this one detailing “99 Reasons 2016 was a Good Year” (https://medium.com/future-crunch/99-reasons-why-2016-has-been-a-great-year-for-humanity-8420debc2823#.6zrnibfvu)

[2] In an insightful piece on the consciousness of language use and suicide, Chinese author Yiyun Li complicates the concept of a tragedy in terms of private pain and public acknowledgement: “That something is called a tragedy, however, means that it is no longer personal. One weeps out of private pain, but only when the audience swarms in and claims understanding and empathy do people call it a tragedy. One’s grief belongs to oneself; one’s tragedy, to others” (“To Speak is to Blunder.” The New Yorker: Personal History. 2 January 2017 Issue).

[3] This fascinating article analyzes the differences of empathetic and intellectual effort necessary when engaging in the genres of science-fiction versus fantasy, and analyzes the models of resistance offered up by key texts from each genre: https://godsandradicals.org/2016/12/03/models-for-resistance/

[4] Ultimately, instead of “fascism,” Merriam-Webster selected “surreal” as the 2016 word of the year.

 

Exploring Space: A Walk among the Gravestones

 

I suppose it speaks to my interest in the virtual that I wrote a whole post about spatiality last week without moving an inch. On the surface, that doesn’t seem quite in line with the so-called “spatial turn” I mentioned in my last post: the trend in humanities scholarship towards the importance of place and space to ideas and power. Then again, many of the concepts we associate with the spatial – the panoptic nature of surveillance, the power of the wanderer versus a top-down view of the world, the distinction between geographic space and humanized place, that sort of thing – were probably for the most part mulled over in armchairs, in the mindscape of the scholar. I wonder how much all things are born from the virtual…

I was probably thinking something along those lines as my phone announced it was beginning to die. Yanked out of my own head for the time being, I found myself back in Oakwood Cemetery, on the steps of a mausoleum, with a tattered American flag in my hands. It wasn’t often I strayed off the path during my runs – my feet followed a 5k race route whose markers faded long ago – but since I found myself in a wandering mood, I decided to do some exploring.

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Founded in 1859, Oakwood Cemetery lies about a block away from Syracuse University in what used to be the outskirts of town. The graveyard is sprawling; at 160 acres, Oakwood plays host to over 60,000 individuals and counting. Between the oaks, monuments, and mausoleums plotted along the rolling hills wind approximately 10 kilometers worth of trails (some paved, others dirt) shared by visitors and mourners alike. It is very easy to get lost among the stones, as I soon found out.

You never really understand just how odd a graveyard is until you try to walk among its stones. The place is full of conflicting messages. The architectural features of so many grave markers beckon visitors closer, whether than be because of interesting architectural features, places to sit, or just tiny print. Or all three, in the case of this massive monument:

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This makes sense, of course – graveyards, like funerals, are for the living. We are encouraged to visit the resting places of our loved ones to mourn or to give gifts or simply to talk. In Western culture, at least, these acts help to create an aura of reverence around those who have passed on, sanctifying the ground under which their remains are buried. Much like the concept of nationhood, this layers a virtual space upon material reality, giving what were stones and dust the weight of the secret and the sacred.

This makes things incredibly hard to navigate when you have something like this blocking your path:

 

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For the superstitious or the particularly pious, a graveyard is a nightmare to navigate. Perhaps the dead do not mind people stomping all over their resting places. There is, after all, six feet of earth and a coffin to insulate them from the tremors of the world above. But once I knew there was someone beloved under there, I created a virtual barrier of reverence in my mind. Such a thing is hard to unsee.

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Another odd thing about graveyards is their aesthetic of incompleteness. All around Oakwood were stairs that led to nowhere, pillars holding nothing up, archways huddled over aborted paths, locked iron doors without working handles, and yards and yards of unused space. Even some of the gravestones themselves like stray slabs from unfinished foundations, especially those that have been overgrown or worn down with age. All of this lends cemeteries the same uncanny air a ruin might have, hinting at some former glory that now goes unremembered.

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Oakwood in particular also has more mausoleums than I’ve ever seen in a graveyard, and these fascinate me most. They sit in the muddled middle between monument and place, having all the fixings of shelter but (for the most part) being eternally locked to anyone who would want to enter. Whereas headstones seem to jut into the physical space of the living, the barred doors of these larger structures create a clear barrier between the living and the dead. Gravestones can be touched, stroked, grasped as if they were virtual stand-ins for the one interred; the remains within mausoleums, it seems, can only be peered at through barred or broken windows.

How does one mourn at a mausoleum? Must it be opened to bridge the void between the living and deceased, or does the distance not matter? And what does it mean to sit on the steps while pondering these questions only to find you are standing on an actual welcome mat?

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(Seriously, why is there a welcome mat?)

Graveyards are odd places, to be sure, but they are also very human (perhaps I repeat myself). The burial of the dead is one of those cultural touchstones that seem as ancient as they are ubiquitous, and are perhaps the oldest constructed spaces known to humankind. As easy as it is for some of us to put them out of mind in day-to-day life, it is important to remember that these “Cities of the Dead” (as one old flyer for Oakwood proclaims) are built for the living. This not only means that we are obliged to respect and protect them – burial grounds are frequently neglected, littered, or (all too frequently) bulldozed – but that we ought to find time to visit them in order to look into ourselves. We will all end up like those buried beneath, after all, and I find graveyards are one of the few urban places that are quiet and empty enough to allow for self-reflection.

So, what I’m saying is go visit a graveyard. Turn off your phone and take an hour to meander the grounds, read the epitaphs, pick up any litter that’s blown in. Take a look at what there is to see before it gets too cold. If you’re anything like me, you’ll find there is life among the stones.

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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.

Imagining Space: America the Virtual

I went on a run today—something I mean to do more often than I actually do, it seems—and my feet took me down a familiar route to Oakwood Cemetery. On my way down the looping paths, I saw a crumpled piece of red and white fabric on the side of the trail. It was a tiny, tattered American flag, the type mourners like to put by the gravestones of loved ones who have served.

I stopped and picked it up, turning the torn, cheap fabric in my hands over and over again. The object struck a strange chord with me, and I ended up sitting on the steps of a mausoleum and just staring at it until my phone battery drained down to 10%. The entire time, I didn’t notice a single person walk by.

A lot was going through my head then, and still more is going through it now. It got me thinking about space, place, and what it means to be home—“affective spatiality”, as one might translate the thought into an academic paper. The idea might loosely be defined as how spaces tell stories, convey emotion, and allow for meaningful interactions within them regardless of whether they are material or virtual. As such, these posts could conveniently be swept up in the dizzying amounts of ongoing “turns” within humanities discourse—the spatial turn, the affective turn, the turn towards digital technologies—all of which will be explained in good time. But right now, I’m not interested in the vertigo that can come from navigating the shifting sands of academic trends. Right now, I’m interested in a flag.

I am not the type who usually wears patriotism on my sleeve, but I’ve only ever identified as an American. Branches of my family have been here since at least the Civil War, sluffing off our Anglo-European identities somewhere during our trek across the Midwest. Myself, I grew up in the suburbs of Eagle River, Alaska, a conservative state with a relatively high proportion of national parks and military bases scattered across its landscape. Perhaps it was these facts that fueled my reaction to the flag on the ground. There is something tragic about it. Forget the fact that this particular flag was a one of a million identical facsimiles, the fact it was probably mechanically mass-produced overseas; forget the fact that the Stars and Stripes have been emblazoned on everything from party trays to boxer shorts—that flag stands for a place I have called my home, and it didn’t feel right to see it dusty and torn.

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But what kind of place is America? In one sense it is very material, as tangible as the dirt caking the edges of that flag. Haven’t we taken pride in those “amber waves of grain”, those “purple mountain majesties” that adorn our anthems and postcards?  Don’t we take a similar pride in our great cities—Chicago, New York, Boston, LA—those behemoths that have been raised out of the earth by paid and unpaid labor in order to feed and clothe and house the human form? And yet, to see only the material was to see the object before me as cheap fabric and inexpensive dyes. From Florida to Alaska, from Puerto Rico to Guam, “America” is a name we give to acres and acres of material things which in and of themselves have no concept of ownership at all, despite our insistence to the contrary.

No, the America I am more interested in (both as a bumbling pop-culture/new media scholar and bumbling human being) is the immaterial “placeness” of America, the virtual America. In one sense, “virtual” means constructed and mediated. The South, the Midwest, the Northeast, the West Coast, Red States and Blue States, even the concept of States all together—America is a patchwork of these virtual places, each of which carries meanings and connotations that go beyond the geographic and into the human. Our identities are formed by these arbitrary distinctions, whether they are made by us or for us, and through us they are given actual, material form. That is why it bothers me to see a discarded flag; interwoven with those cheap threads are the virtual expressions of nationhood, and a tear in one seems to suggest a tear in the other.

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But there is also an older sense of the virtual in which I am interested. As new media theorist Marie-Laure Ryan describes the concept in her book Narrative as Virtual Reality 2, “the virtual is not that which is deprived of existence but that which possesses the potential, or force, of developing into actual existence” (18). The virtual is the oak that lies dormant within the acorn; in other words, the virtual is about what could be rather than what is, the openness of multiple futures rather than the closed conception of one truth.

When I look around at Black Lives Matter Protesters and police officers, First Peoples and ambitious industrialists, ideologues from both sides of the aisle and the spaces in between, I see people who have put their faith into their own virtual America, an America not yet (nor ever) complete, but one moving ever closer to new potentialities. That is, to me, the core of American optimism.

Does that make us unique? No, or at least I’m not qualified to say. But I think that does make us American.

To be clear, I do not agree with all of these visions or the ones who try to weave them into our flag—my virtual America is one that will fight to keep particularly hateful virtualities from ever becoming actual—but I know that all of these people are my People. I cannot see them as otherwise. Regardless of how they constructed their virtual America—whether on an idealized version of a forgotten past or new understandings of the principles on which this nation was founded—they are all still fighting for a vision of the same material land on which we stand. As for me, my virtual United States depends upon a state of unity, at least on a human level of civility. That is the place and people that come to mind whenever I see a flag, no matter how superficial or gale-torn it may be.

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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.

“Isn’t That All in the Past?”: History and the Privilege of Cultural Amnesia

As I’ve been stressing throughout this month’s series of posts, privilege works in a number of pernicious and insidious ways in our everyday lives. Much as we might collectively like to believe that it doesn’t exist, it is only by dragging it kicking and screaming into the piercing light of day and scholarly/critical inquiry that we can begin to undo the pernicious ways in which it renders itself invisible. Indeed, it is precisely through rendering it visible that we can both deconstruct privilege and the systematic inequalities that it renders possible.

This week, I want to talk about the ways in which history can also be a locus of different types of privilege. Though this might appear counterintuitive to some (how can history be a site of privilege?), I would argue that history is always saturated with various types of privilege and raises significant questions about the function that history serves and in whose interests it is often purveyed. For example, who has the privilege of having a history in the first place? On the flip side, who has the privilege of forgetting (or at least selectively choosing) moments of historical importance?

This has become a particularly pressing question in light of the recent attention being paid to the long history of police violence and brutality against people of color, as well as the deeper, far more insidious racist histories of which said violence is but the most recent manifestation. The protests of Colin Kaepernick and others expose these histories, forcing all Americans to take a piercing look at the ways in which racism and the exploitation of bodies of color has structured and undergirded the entire expanse of American history.

Those who strenuously condemn Kaepernick continue to insist that those who are protesting lack an awareness or a proper appreciation for the sacrifices made by those who have served. Embedded within this criticism is an assumption that somehow those who kneel for the National Anthem are either ignorant or dismissive of a history that should make them proud and willing to uncritically accept American society as it is, rather than dare to raise the specter of criticism.

Naturally, those who make those claims conveniently overlook and ignore the deep roots that make systemic racism and exploitation possible  Just as importantly, these also critiques also overlook the fact that, as Jason Johnson has observed, the song in question (unsurprisingly) contains racist lyrics (that are, it has to be said, frequently not sung during performances). History, in this instance, troubles the very stability that it purportedly supports.

All of which leads me to ask again:  who has the privilege of ignoring history? Who has the ability to pretend that somehow the unpleasant realities of the past several hundred years have not taken place? Who benefits from the ability to pretend that the past is safely buried and has no bearing on the present and the structures that currently impact the daily lives of people everywhere? Who gets to pretend, who is able to pretend, that we somehow live in a perpetual present?

The easy answer, of course, is those who benefit the most from forgetting about the past so that they can go on about their everyday lives as if they do not and have never participated in the racist legacies that remain baked into the collective social, cultural, legal, and political DNA of the United States of America. For them, this colossal act of forgetting is in some sense necessary in order for them to continue going on about their daily lives. Confronting these realities in any meaningful way would, in most cases, simply be too painful, too complex (or so the argument goes) to be adequately addressed.

It is much harder for those who continue to live with the legacies of slavery and genocide that have so profoundly influenced America’s sense of itself to ignore those histories or to pretend that they don’t exist. America’s institutions, its structures, its ways of being are so reliant upon and indebted to a racist and colonialist past that it is hard to imagine an America without them. It is this vast, almost incomprehensible scope and depth that, I suspect, lead to inability of many to even begin to acknowledge, let alone accept, their complicity and their benefit from these histories.

Thus, when I ask my friends and family back home in Appalachia (West Virginia, in particular), about how they think about race and the fact that so many people of color remain systematically cut out of the benefits that American life seemingly offers all of its citizens, they really struggle to understand how the actions and structures of the past continue to exert a smothering pressure on the present. For them, it is incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to think outside of the twinned epistemologies of presentism and individualism that structure their way of understanding and being in the world. For them, they cannot understand how it is that their present position near the bottom of the economic latter constitutes a privilege, nor can they see beyond the fact that their ancestors did not own slaves.

If, as I have repeatedly asserted throughout this month, we are truly invested in making the world a better, more just place for all of its citizens, we must continue to press against and challenge this kind of inherently privileged thinking. We have to recognize and come to terms with the conflicted and painful histories of which we are a part. Continuing to turn a blind eye to the injustices of history and pretending that it hasn’t happened is itself a form of violence, a violence all the more pernicious in that it masks itself as innocence rather than complicity.

As Vann R. Newkirk II remarks in The Atlantic, the recent opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC offers a rare opportunity for America as a whole to meaningfully contend with the painful legacies of slavery, Jim Crow, and the other aspects of American history that have proven so intractable in our attempts to make sense of contemporary race relations. While I agree that there is something deeply and powerfully symbolic about erecting a museum devoted to African American history in a city founded upon and built by slave labor, I also think that it will take a great deal more on the part of each and every American citizen to make progress.

It will require frank and uncomfortable conversations within and among our various communities, both in person and in digital spaces. It will require frank and unambiguous acknowledgment and acceptance of the darker parts of history. Going to a museum devoted to the experiences of people of color is definitely an important first step, but it must be followed by an actual change in the way(s) that we collectively think about our past. It will require actual changes in our everyday lived experience and ways of being in the world, actual changes in what we think and how we do it.

I see these posts as one part of the larger cultural conversation. Hopefully, they will resonate with those who, like myself, desire to make the world a better, more just, more peaceful place for everyone.

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.

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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(Credit: Slytherinhouserules.tumblr.com)

“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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 (Credit:Wikiart.org)  (Credit: charlesdickenspage.com)

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.