Feminism

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.

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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.

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. 

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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(Credit: Imdb)

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

So what, if anything, does Rey want?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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(Credit: Sweatpantsandcoffee.com)

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

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

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

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(Credit: emegustart.tumblr.com)

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

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

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(Credit: Superhero Hype Forums)

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

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


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

Cortana: Gender Devolved (25 Sept. 2015)

For many, the summer’s release of Windows 10 marked a return to form for the venerable series of PC operating systems. It minimized the presence of the much reviled “Metro” styling, restored the Start menu to its former prominence, and made the OS free to anyone who already had either Windows 7 or 8 installed. One software feature, however, cited a return of another kind – Cortana, previously the sarcastic AI companion to the Master Chief in the Halo series of video games, arrived to Windows 10 as its “virtual assistant.” Cortana, like its voice-activated counterpart over at Apple, Siri, is essentially a glorified search engine crossed with a task manager that was then given a computerized (and feminized) voice. In Windows 10 you can just as easily use your search bar to find a file as to find out what kind of music Cortana likes. Which, if you’re wondering, is apparently “emo-hard-core-diva-dubstep.”

While Cortana was making her way back onto screens and into the speakers of Windows 10 early adopters, I was making my own return to the game in which she first made her appearance, Halo: Combat Evolved. I could go on for pages and pages about how much that game meant to me as a 14-year-old kid with his first video game console. Some of my most treasured video game memories come from my original playthroughs of Halo: CE. Often cited as the definitive proof that first person shooters could survive on the console instead of primarily being a PC phenomenon, Halo excelled at creating thrilling set pieces within a rich universe that alternated from beautiful to terrifying to hilarious. These moments, upon my nostalgic return to the game, were as vibrant and dynamic as I remembered them. What I did not account for, however, was the steadying presence that the mostly body-less Cortana provided amidst the bright colors and chaos.

Cortana keeps you oriented in an alien world

As I re-played Halo: CE, it struck me as simultaneously bizarre and fitting that Cortana should re-surface not as a character but as a software feature in the Windows ecosystem. My freshest memories of Cortana were from the latter Halo games, games where the AI character had begun to resemble more conventional narrative tropes of damsels in distress. Correspondingly, those more recent games – Halo 4 in particular – feature a version of Cortana whose holographic body appeared more solid, more curvy, and more physically present than previous iterations.

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Cortana’s body in Halo: CE and Halo 4

Contrast this to Cortana of Halo: CE, who for the vast majority of the game lives in the circuits of Master Chief’s cybernetic armor. Cortana makes her presence known primarily as a voice, speaking directly to Master Chief (and players) by way of their cybernetic link, only taking on a holographic form of her own when she needs to be plugged into a computer terminal of some kind. In many ways, Cortana feels unique among women characters in video games precisely because of her shifting embodiment. She is an AI, of course, but compared to the stolid, green armored figure of Master Chief, her running commentary on players’ adventures feels incredibly human. When she does appear in holographic form, Cortana’s visual design seems only to remind players of her un-corporeality: she is translucent at best, streams of data move up and down her “skin,” and often she is miniature. Her mode of embodiment for the majority of the game is to literally share the skin of Master Chief, and when she takes on other forms it is in ways that visually mark her as unavailable to the most common vectors for the male gaze. In other words, Cortana is a character whose primary mode of relation to players is via conversation, not as a sidekick, a woman to be rescued, or an object of desire, but as a military asset, equal in value to the player-controlled Master Chief and perhaps even exceeding in many ways his own humanity. Master Chief and Cortana then are two cyborgs, paired on behalf of humankind to stand against the alien threat.

It’s this feeling of human relationship and partnership in a shared task that I think made Cortana so endearing to me when I first played Halo: CE and when I picked it up again almost 15 years later. It’s also why later iterations of Cortana as a sort of sexy cyborg who, due to the nature of her AI mind, is deteriorating rapidly and dangerously into madness, never connected with me.

Don’t make a girl a promise you can’t keep.

Some called the newer versions of Cortana more “humanizing,” I can see why they might feel that way. Her newer forms do have a heavier sense of corporeality and the introduction of a kind of AI mental illness and mortality certainly give Cortana some challenges to face that feel very human in nature. However, as Cortana’s mode of embodiment became more solid it also became more chained to regressive modes of visual representation that require women to be sexually desirable to the male eye. It seems hardly accidental to me that these changes in visual design accompany a narrative drift away from pairing Master Chief and Cortana as co-warriors in the fight against the Covenant and toward a rather hetero-erotic repetition of male rescue narratives and female hysteria. As you might expect with these developments, by the end of Halo 4, Cortana’s self-sacrifice for Master Chief is the only path to narrative resolution.

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Master Chief’s sad face as Cortana sacrifices herself. 

This is why it was so pleasantly surprising to find Cortana once again greeting me as an unseen voice from a screen via Windows 10. Perhaps inadvertently, Microsoft had found a way to restore a more human and companionable iteration of the character that broke off the slide she had experienced in the games toward token eye candy. What I found instead was nothing more than the bare skeleton of the character I once loved spending time with, a disembodied voice whose wit and snark had disappeared into haze of sycophantic supplication. The Cortana of Windows 10 is no AI. Much like Cortana’s favorite music, the humanity to be found here is just a mish mash of focus tested jokes and aphorisms.

On the one hand, my disappointment here is probably a little silly. Of course the Cortana of Windows 10 was always going to be a shallow competitor to Siri, not a return to form of one of my favorite video game characters. Instead of restoring the character to a position of equality, the Windows 10 iteration removes her humanity entirely, forcing her to occupy a position of absolute servitude. On the other hand, in Windows 10 and Halo 4 we have the exemplary poles of possibility for female representation in video games. She must either be the subservient, disembodied afterthought or the erotic, fully female and fully psychotic damsel in distress. To think on the strange, iterative life of Cortana across platforms and narratives is to encounter the narrow silos into which women are often shuffled according to patriarchal modes of appropriate embodiment.

Curiously, the Windows 10 Cortana has not yet made it to the Xbox One platform, though I’m sure eventually it will. I wonder what the Halo: CE Cortana will think of her arrival.


Jordan Wood is a Ph.D student in the Syracuse University English department where he studies games, sexuality, and queer theory. He lives with two cats and is terrible at side scrolling games. Go Bills.

Sex on the (Game) Table (18 Sept. 2015)

I’m going to pivot here from the past two weeks, away from 2000 word theoretical arguments and critical close readings to something a little bit looser. In the process, I also hope to turn away from the world of video games for a little while and towards the cardboard world of the table top. If you’ve been into your local Barnes & Noble on any given day in the past few years, you may have noticed the sudden appearance of board games where before there were only college application guides and Moleskine notebooks. This, I promise, is not just indicative of B&N’s own post-codex marketing strategies. They say we are in the middle of a board game renaissance, a golden age of plastic figures, complicated rulebooks, and wooden cubes, and that makes me one happy little nerd.

Incidentally, it also makes me one happy little student of sex and gender politics.

For scholars of gender and sex in a society like ours that has, for much of its history, depended on the institutions of marriage and family to generate a dominant source of individual and corporate identity, understanding the way these institutions work, their social effect, and the conditions under which they break down is essential. This goes doubly true for those who have been marginalized or harmed over and over by these deeply engrained institutions. If you were a film scholar with an interest in sex and gender politics, you’d likely spend time examining the visual representations of familial love, coded femininity, or censored scenes of illicit sexuality. Likewise, were you to take Victorian literature as your subject, you’d probably reading all of Foucault, historicizing sexual practices of the 19th century British subject, while close reading Dickens for signs of the emerging middle class family unit.

Rather, games are machines, encapsulated collections of rules that produce incredible pseudo-fictional experiences when activated by players. Games are adept at modeling the social and political systems in which we already live. This is as true of board games as video games, and it is why the resurgence of board games ought to excite anyone with even a passing interest in the operation of sex and gender in Western culture. Where films and books represent gender and sex ideologies by conventions of narration, image, and characterization, board games offer up for examination the very systems within which these ideologies circulate. This allows players to discover, interact with, and even enact models of those systems, opening institutions like marriage and the family up to a different and (dare I say it?) fun kind of analysis.

So, as both an indulgence of my nerdy enthusiasm for tabletop gaming and an instance of the capacity of board games to represent the dynamics of gender, sex, marriage, and the family, I offer below a few examples for your consideration.

agricola

Photo Credit to Board Game Point of View on boardgamegeek.com

Agricola

Agricola is an intimidating beast of a game to the uninitiated. It’s a quintessential example of the “Euro” style board game: relatively little direct player interaction, multiple paths to victory, heaps of victory points to be won, and copious wooden blocks. In this game, players take responsibility for small 17th century farmsteads, competing with each other to establish the most diverse, fruitful farm. On their turns, players place one of two “workers” from their farm board on one of the action spaces in the shared, central board. Being a 17th century farm, the labor is pre-industrial which means your “workers” are actually husband and wife. This is a case of pure abstraction in terms of representation; the agrarian couple are in fact nothing more than flat wooden discs. They have no visible gender difference, nor are they functionally different with respect to the kinds of actions each one can take. If they are a heterosexual couple as the game’s rulebook assures us they are, there are no representational markers to support such a case. However, as a game of Agricola plays out, two new action spaces open up, each called “Family Growth.” Here, players can assign one of their workers (presumably the wife) who then returns home to the farm bearing a third wooden disc – a child. The arrival of a new child is one of the most exciting events Agricola can offer players, not however because of the miracle of childbirth, but because it means that player now has one more worker that can be sent into the fields, giving them a tremendous competitive edge over her opponents. This wooden child seems to verify that yes, indeed, the first two workers were indeed man and wife, but after the child’s arrival, all three workers once again melt into interchangeability. These bodies are as abstracted, as ungendered as you might imagine – and yet the game’s mechanics testify to the sex that is nevertheless always at the core of a winning strategy. Agricola then offers players a family unit rooted in heterosexual marriage, but radically flattened of sexual difference by the demands of production. Agricola strips marriage and sex down to its most basic, agrarian, function: securing resources, staving off starvation, and producing enough surplus to overshadow your neighboring farms.

Village

Photo Credit to Chun Yian on boardgamegeek.com

Village

Village is another game set in the pre-industrial past, as well as another example of a Euro game with an emphasis on the family unit. However, where Agricola explores the relationship between familial fertility and productivity, Village explores the relationship between family legacy, death, and cross generational ties. More mechanically complex than Agricola, Village makes use of some similar ideas: players have a homestead board from which they place family members onto a central action board and it’s possible for players to “have babies” in order to generate more workers. However, these workers are each labeled with a number, 1-4, indicating to which generation they belong. Players place their workers onto the various actionable spaces of the main board, and in many cases, leave them there, for the spaces are occupations that their workers hold until they die. Say you’re playing Village and you need to make a wagon to sell at market. You could pay a hefty price in various resources and gold or, if you have a worker at the wainwright location, you could simply spend a bit of time, the game’s third spendable commodity. As players spend time, however, workers from the older generations begin to die off. Workers, on the occasion of their deaths, are sent to graves that match their lifelong occupation and in this way are committed to the village’s book of records, memorialized forever after. However, should the limited number of places for a worker’s given occupation be filled up, they are sent unceremoniously into an unmarked grave, forgotten forever and, crucially, giving the player no points. Rather than incentivize the growing accumulation of labor as Agricola does, Village encourages players to look forward to the proper memorialization of death, for it is in this memorialization that the legacy of their family is secured against those of their opponents. Tellingly, the rulebook calls the score “Prestige Points.” It is expressly for the garnering of that prestige that the family unit exists in the world of Village.

consentacle

And now for something completely different…

Consentacle

In a very sharp turn away from the pastoral, picturesque worlds of Agricola and Village, I’d like to introduce you to Consentacle, a game by designer, Naomi Clark that is, as of yet, still unpublished. Unlike the previous two games which you can order right off of Amazon, Consentacle was never intended to be a mass market game. This game takes as its subject the erotic encounter between a young, “Curious Human” and a rather expressive “Tentacled Alien.” Consentacle is all about the complex negotiation of sexual consent as players work together to generate Trust, gain Satisfaction, and hopefully, build Intimacy between their wildly disparate characters. Visually, the Curious Human and Tentacled Monster are as different as can be, though any potential sense of horror that you might expect is mitigated by a charming, Jet Set Radio Future, comic-y art style. Mechanically, this difference is reinforced by limiting communication between players as they work toward a common goal, encouraging a sort of blind, tentative play style. On their turns, players simultaneously play cards like “WINK,” “BITE,” “STROKE,” or “ENVELOP,” trying to create combinations that lead the Curious Human and Tentacled Alien into a memorable erotic encounter. I say memorable because the goal of the game isn’t solely to achieve Satisfaction but to transmute that Satisfaction into something more. Satisfaction is actually only the middle step along the road, a sort of exchange gate through which Trust must pass in order to become Intimacy. This alchemy whereby Satisfaction transforms Trust into Alchemy is the key to Consentacle’s representation of sex, not as an end to itself, nor as the component of some larger, marital or familial institution, but as a crucial form of relation that bridges the wide gulf between individuals. In a representational fiction that draws explicitly from an erotics of difference that is often figured as inherently violent (feel free to Google tentacle porn if you’ve missed the allusion), Consentacle removes the power inequities that seemed to be inherent in an encounter between ingénue and monster and replaces them with the erotic frisson of cooperative consent. In other words, sex is fun! And, when sex is properly fun, it is egalitarian, given over to a free exploration of difference, and the magical reagent that brings Intimacy where before there was only solitude.

and then we held hands

Photo credit to Andrew Tullsen on boardgamegeek.com

…and then we held hands

I’ll wrap up with another cooperative game where players must cope with limited communication and blind play in order to achieve a relational end. In …and then we held hands, two players take on the roles of lovers who have reached a point of crisis in their relationship. The nature of this crisis is left to the imagination, but in order to resolve it, players must navigate their pawns across colored spaces on a board arranged in concentric circles. As players discard emotion cards from either their hand or their partner’s, they gradually try to move toward the center of these circles, achieving balance and resolving their relationship in the process. …and then we held hands, is a quiet, deeply abstracted game, unlike Consentacle, and yet an intensely evocative one. The emotions in the game are represented by one of four colors that make up the board’s spaces as well as the emotion cards in player’s hands. Discarding the emotion cards suggests the emergence of feeling in the course of discussion or argument between two lovers and, correspondingly, it affects the position of the player’s pawn. If players handle each other’s (and their own!) emotions appropriately, they slowly make progress toward each other – but should they ignore the feelings in play they risk running their pawn into an impossible corner, unable to move within the context of that relationship anymore. Again, like in Agricola, …and then we held hands, seems gender agnostic, though it also seems to invite players to approach the game as a couple, extra-diegetically. And indeed, the game has been discussed in various contexts online as a “couple’s game”. However, the absence of representational gender here suggests, like Consentacle, an egalitarian sort of cooperation, one that requires sympathy, the reading of body language, and careful consideration of your partner’s state of mind. Where Consentacle is all playful eroticism, however, …and then we held hands plays more like a meditative, couples’ therapy session. The mechanics here are simple and though abstracted, clearly linked to ideologies of egalitarian coupling. It is exactly that abstraction, however, that renders …and then we held hands so open to projection. This is a game, it seems, in which players are invited to invest their own relational crises and contemplate for thirty minutes how they can better cope with the complex roil of emotions that come with the sexual territory.

And that’s it for now! This was just a very cursory overview of how board games offer small windows on the way our society has conceived of sex, marriage, and gender. So much more could be said about each of these games and the many others that I don’t have room to mention. If we really are in the middle of a board game renaissance, I hope we can recognize their value as microcosms of our own social lives as gendered, sexual bodies.


Jordan Wood is a Ph.D student in the Syracuse University English department where he studies games, sexuality, and queer theory. He lives with two cats and is terrible at side scrolling games. Go Bills.

“Show me a good time”?: Madonna, Drake, and Police Brutality

If you’re fortunate enough to have the self-control to avoid at least moving your cursor over the “trending” links on Facebook: apparently, Madonna kissed Drake at Coachella, and to paraphrase Drake “it was it was [sic] not the best.” I base that reading on Drake’s body language: stunned immobility, a wide what is happening gesture, and then hands on his lips, hunched over. Expertise in affect theory seems a bit unnecessary, here; his response could hardly be more overt.

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I’m interested in this kiss not for the celebrity gossip, but because I see it an important piece of the current conversation about racism in the United States—and most importantly, as an important site for thinking about how to think through the intersectionality of oppression.

 

Walter Scott’s murder two weeks ago should ameliorate any reticence about the reality of violence against black men. As I listened to the NPR story, they announced that they were going to play an audio clip of the protesters, whom I fully expected to chant something about the police, or “black lives matter.” Instead, they chanted a different activist slogan and hashtag: All lives matter. This particular chant rose to prominence in response to the slogan “black lives matter” as a way to call attention to the broad oppression that marginalized populations face. In its brief life, “all lives matter” has received due criticism from private bloggers all the way through Judith Butler, who sums up the critique with succinctness that should shock anyone who has ever read Gender Trouble:

 

It is true that all lives matter, but it is equally true that not all lives are understood to matter— which is precisely why it is most important to name the lives that have not mattered, and are struggling to matter in the way they deserve.

 

To chant “all lives matter” in response to what is perhaps the most blatantly obvious in a series of state-perpetuated crimes that specifically target black men fundamentally misses the point: that these murders happen because black lives are readily swept aside in the flows of power that permeate American culture. Affirming life through mutual respect (a la Appiah) is a perfectly laudable ethics, but it does not address the tangible legal, institutional, and cultural issues that contribute to the systematic assault on black bodies. “All lives matter” is a positive message—but it but it offers a philosophical abstraction in response to a political problem.

 

More importantly, “all lives” flattens bodies through equivalence. In other words, in its attempt to find commonality, “all lives” erases difference. Cut back to Drake and Madonna. As the internet is wont to be, the internet was very confused about how to respond. Of course, many people suggested that Drake enjoyed it. Drake himself even posted an image on instragram, with the caption “Don’t misinterpret my shock!! I got to make out with the queen.” The picture Drake chose offers a brief moment that appears consensual in an event that seemed predominantly nonconsensual.

 

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Some objected that Drake’s reaction implied that Madonna is disgusting, and so reinforced the idea that women cease to be attractive after they reach a certain age. The Huffington Post pointed toward John Travolta’s sexual harassment of Scarlett Johansson at the Oscars, and asked why Madonna received less criticism than Travolta. All of these responses are part of the same discourse: a discourse that flattens black bodies into mere intensities of violence and sexuality, and through that flattening, dismisses their bodies as bodies that do not matter.

 

Madonna’s kiss is hardly the first direct exploitation of black musicians by white musicians in recent (let alone longer) memory. I don’t mean the exploitation of culture, like Iggy Azalea’s bizarre code-switching (which Saturday Night Live fabulously lampoons), or the fact that every song Meghan Trainor sings is a poor rendition of doo-wop. I mean the exploitation of black bodies as sex-objects—the transformation of black bodies into just lumps of sexual matter. Think Miley Cyrus’s VMA performance, or Taylor Swift’s music video for “Shake it off” (intentionally not linked to images), which transform the black background dancers into mere ciphers for sex.

 

And here, we come to the sticking point. The Huffington Post’s article points fingers at an apparent gender bias, and asks: what if Madonna were a man, and Drake a woman? This is precisely the wrong question, driven by a similar impulse to “all lives matter.” Contrary to the impulse behind the discourses of sexual assault that have circulated around Madonna and Drake, one sexual assault does not equal all sexual assaults. Feminists, Madonna included, have struggled against the physical and emotional violence patriarchy directs at them; but that violence is fundamentally different than the violence directed at black men and women (which, of course, fundamentally differ from one another).

 

Madonna’s kiss was not sexual assault in the same way John Travolta’s kiss was: it was sexual assault in a different way. Violence against black men like Walter Scott is not the same as violence against black women, or Hispanic men or women: these violences differ. To argue that people should or should not be more or less upset because Madonna is a woman misses the critical intersection of race and gender. Drake is not merely a man; he is a black man in a culture that insists on coding black bodies as objects of pure violence and sex. Where a kind of pop-liberalism draws equivalence through common struggle, intersectionality underlines the political and pragmatic differences in the application of oppression.