Marxism

“The Illusion of Choice”: Forced Freedom in Mr. Robot and Late Capitalist Society (30 October 2015)

I experience a fleeting feeling of freedom whenever I go to the grocery store.  It offers me a reprieve from the stress and anxiety that creeps up on a daily basis as I worry about deadlines approaching or what I’ll do next after I finish graduate school. And then there’s always the peripheral flutter of unending concerns about issues that most people are able to accept as out of their control––rampant deforestation; rising PH levels in the ocean; increasingly endangered coral reefs, polar bears, and countless other species; the 50 million people in the U.S. who experience food insecurity; the factory workers in third-world countries without decent rights or wages making my clothes; the innocent victims of wars perpetuated by military-industrial complexes; the staggering racial injustice of the U.S. prison-industrial complex…the list literally could go on forever.

It’s no wonder that I get in a rut sometimes as I encounter more staggering statistics and tragic stories. I tend to feel debilitated in these moments when I must confront the fact that I’m just one individual who does not have the time, talent, or resources to combat all evil at once, and so it will be time calm down.   So I go out of doors and, when it’s too cold to appreciate nature, I will go to a grocery store looking for comfort food, clearing my head by distracting myself with, ironically, more stacks of stuff.

It’s not a habit I’m proud of and that I want to remediate, and so the first thing I have to do is understand it.  It seems to me that what is tantalizing about the experience of shopping is the ability to exercise some kind of control through the act of consumer choice.  Perhaps as someone who constantly feels like her life is barely under control, the ability to swipe a card to pay for stuff somehow is empowering, inevitably stemming from the sordid allure of ownership.  But of course it’s only a temporary feeling.  Once the chocolate bar is gone, it’s back to square one, and I then realize I don’t own the things that I buy:  the things that I buy own me…

*

It’s not very often that one can turn to a network television show in order to illustrate just how vice-like global capitalism’s grip is on everyday life, at least in any way that’s meaningful, yet this is exactly what I have recently discovered in USA’s new show Mr. Robot.  Its main character, Elliot, is a genius hacker who suffers from social anxiety and craves world revolution.  Although he works as a techie at a cybersecurity firm to pay the bills, in his free time he hacks into the various accounts of people he suspects to be petty criminals and, like a digital Batman, anonymously tips the police or blackmails the evil-doers into righting their wrongs if he stumbles across illegal or immoral conduct.  But what the entirety of the show is predominately about is Elliot and a group of other hacker individuals known as “fsociety” who are attempting to do the impossible:  completely overthrow the corporate overlords, redistribute the wealth entirely, and usher in a new era freed from the systemic acts of injustice perpetrated by the greed of the excessively wealthy.

robot1 It would be impossible for me to summarize here even just the main plot points of the first season, and at any rate what I want to talk about is the second episode in particular in which Elliot grapples with the question all progressively-minded millennials like yours truly battle with daily: Do any of our choices really matter?  At this point in the show, Elliot has already been inducted into fsociety but remains timid and wary of the revolutionary candor of its leader, Mr. Robot, who has proposed that their next exploit involve blowing up a facility where all of the crucial servers for E Corps (also derogatorily referred to as “Evil Corps”) are located.  The problem with the plan, like so many violent acts of rebellion, is that the destruction from the blast would also inevitably entail the deaths of many people in the town adjacent to the facility, something Mr. Robot insists is merely a price they have to pay for the revolutionary cause. Elliot refuses to endanger the lives of innocent civilians.  Mr. Robot rolls his eyes.  He tells Elliot that in life, like in computer code, there are people who are “ones” and people who are “zeroes”––people who act vs. people who don’t; heroes vs. cowards. Elliot shrugs him off in the moment but clearly remains vexed as he attempts to return to a normal life. While sitting through a therapy session in which he usually remains silent, when asked how he’s feeling Elliot uncharacteristically decides to oblige his therapist’s request for specifics by launching into a slow, melancholy monologue:

How do we know if we’re in control? That we’re not just making the best of what comes at us and that’s it and trying to constantly to pick between two shitty options… Coke and Pepsi. McDonald’s or Burger King. Hyundai or Honda…It’s all part of the same blur, right? Just out of focus enough.  The illusion of choice.  And half of us can’t even pick our own cable––our gas, electric, the water we drink, our health insurance.  Even if we did, would it matter?  Our only option is Blue Cross or Blue Shield.  What the fuck is the difference?  Aren’t they the same? Nah, man… Our choices are prepaid for us.  A long time ago…

What’s the point, right?  Might as well do nothing.
This is not an unfamiliar attitude; articles are written about millennial malaise more and more these days as moments of activism like Occupy Wall Street rear their heads for an exciting moment only to dissipate and the status quo continue.  Scholars have weighed in on the cause of hesitation among young people like Elliot who know that injustice exists but nevertheless believe there’s little to nothing they can do about it.  There are many explanations, primary among them the fact that fear and anxiety is at an all-time high for millennials for whom “student debt is at its highest” with a “fear of unemployment and poverty” as a result.  It’s no wonder America’s youth is afraid of challenging the establishment when what they’re worried most about is putting food on a table for one.  I myself have suffered from similar fears, although my own therapy via career counseling has begin to allay some of my anxiety about entering soon into “the real world”––but the fact that I, and so many others, need reassurance is telling in itself.  My counselor has told me time and again “I wish you would be more confident.” I wish I could too.

robot2

Enough said.

What Elliot expresses above and continuously throughout Mr. Robot is an implicit awareness of existing within what the critical theorist Jean Baudrillard called “simulacra”–– that is, when “reality” disappears as it is subsumed by the models or maps that seek to not only represent reality, but to overtake it, in effect becoming “hyperreal.” What was once the representation of reality becomes reality, and this then means the two cannot be separated nor distinguished from one another.  We no longer travel, for example, without consulting Google Maps. In fact, we locate ourselves in relation to this digital representation of streets and addresses to the point that we can no longer navigate without it; the little red pin on the map and the actual place are one and the same.  When Elliot laments that the choices we make are “illusions” already predetermined for us, he is expressing the anxiety of living within simulacra wherein “we are confronted with a precession of simulacra; that is, the representation [that] precedes and determines the real.”  How many of us choose to deviate from the path determined by GPS or feel anxious when we seemed to have taken the wrong turn?  We only go where maps will lead us. Ergo, Elliot’s comment that, in reality, our options are limited and so is our power, which is the reason why Elliot concludes that one “might as well do nothing.”

Yet because we are implicated in a system, there is no choice that can be made that will not impact another person somewhere in the world. If Elliot decides to “do nothing” and let the corporations continue to exist with impunity, he will likewise have agreed to others’ lives be negatively affected when he had the option (as his therapist reminds him) to do something. Contrary to Mr. Robot’s dismissal of his moral compass, Elliot’s fear of hurting others in the pursuit of revolution is a real fear that should be taken seriously, for it is the quintessential dilemma for people of conscience throughout the world who are painfully aware and wary of the fact that their actions will inevitably affect someone, somewhere, somehow.  For example, in the election season right now, though I am a die-hard supporter of Bernie Sanders’s campaign, I nevertheless wonder what might happen if we tax Wall Street speculation so ruthlessly.  Will they move their operations elsewhere to countries whose government’s have abysmal labor laws, thus exploiting potentially even more third-world workers than we already do now? The answer seems to me to be, honestly, “Maybe.”

In fact, there are infinite possibilities when it comes to the consequences of our actions, which is what makes the precautionary contemplation of worst-case scenarios cease to be useful after a certain point, especially when it inhibits further action.  In Absolute Recoil, Slavoj Žižek discusses the notion of “radical acts of freedom,” which he insists “are possible only under the condition of predestination” wherein we “know we are predestined, but we don’t know how we are predestined, i.e., which of our choices is predetermined,” and yet paradoxically it is in “this terrifying situation in which we have to decide what to do, knowing that our decision is decided in advance, [which] is perhaps the only case of real freedom, of the unbearable burden of a really free choice––we know that what we will do is predestined, but we still have to take a risk and subjectively choose what is predestined” or, if considering the “simulacra,” what is predetermined (68).

robot3

Oxymorons are popular in critical theory, as is staring gravely into space.

The beauty of Mr. Robot and critical theory is that it forces us to see our incessant anxieties about the efficacy or consequences of our own actions as ultimately ones that come from fear of our own freedom.  To run in the other direction, to “do nothing,” or to do what is safe or neutral, inevitably perpetuates the violence that, today, is mostly hidden from us as the simulacra distorts the reality lying just underneath its veil.  The question of whether or not anything we do actually “matters” often comes from the fearful question, as it does for Elliot, that what we will do will matter in harmful way.  While the simulacra may predetermine the parameters of our reality, it does not mean we are without power to intervene.

Which leads me back to my own initial questions for my blog series as I wrap up my time with Metathesis this month:  Do they “matter,” the messages popular culture send us? Do we need to spend our time deciphering texts or television shows for hidden ideologies?  Why should we keep English departments around? Why bother with critical theory?  With the help of Mr. Robot, I’ve come to the following conclusion: To be able to decipher cultural “codes” is itself a kind of hacking.  It is a project that when done seriously, and with the intention of changing the world, has real power just as Elliot does so long as he chooses to recognize it.  There is one crucial difference though: Whereas not all of us have the gift of deciphering code and understanding complex data, we do have the gift of thought and critical thinking.  The most tantalizing belief of our global capitalist, “post-modern” world is that our choices do not matter, a belief that prevents thinking too much out of fear of futility––i.e., “What’s the point, right? Might as well do nothing…”

But if there’s one thing critical theory teaches us it is that what is “true” is not objective, nor is it relative, nor is it a given.  What is “true” is tied to power relations and therefore to systems that create logics.  If all there is, then, is power, and if we are here to empower the disempowered, then that must mean we have to begin to interrupt the program to bring a more important message and, most importantly of all, not be afraid to.  We are in control of more than what we choose to eat or wear, maybe more in control than many of us want to admit. But if that’s the price we pay for our freedom, might as well do something.


Liana Willis is a second-year English M.A. student genuinely interested in all branches of critical theory, but in particular traditional Marxist and neo-Marxist cultural materialisms.  When not teaching, reading, consulting, or writing, she can be found somewhere nearby discreetly practicing yoga asanas and wishing she could be sleeping right now.

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Rude Wastes of Space: Race, Class, and the Othering of the British Hoodie

One of the more interesting parts of writing my dissertation so far has been investigating the phenomenon of the British hoodie. My dissertation focuses on the post-2000 British horror resurgence, and the hoodie horror cycle has been one of the more prolific cycles within the more general boom.

kidulthood_poster
Menhaj Huda’s 2006 film Kidulthood is often identified as one of the first hoodie films.

Hoodies are usually working-class teen delinquents who wear hooded sweatshirts. During the first decade of the 2000s, hoodies became prevalent in a variety of forms of British popular culture. There were frequent news stories citing hoodies as a consequence and contributor to “Broken Britain,” a cultural discourse that maintains that Britain is more lawless, chaotic, and dangerous than ever before. Cinemas screened films like Kidulthood (Menhaj Huda, 2006) and Harry Brown (Daniel Barber, 2009), while various television channels produced and aired programs like Misfits (2009-2013, E4) and the reality series Kick Ass Kung Fu (2013, Sky1 HD), wherein a Shaolin monk trained hoodie-clad teens from “bad areas” to channel their aggression and stop being “rude waste[s] of space,” as one of the show’s hoodies put it. Even Piers Morgan produced and directed a documentary on hoodies for Sky1, Hoodies Attack (2005). At least one London gym began offering a much-publicized “Chav Fighting” class wherein middle class customers could learn to put the world to rights, while the Thames Valley Police had their officers swap their uniforms for hoodies and tracksuit pants in an attempt to blend in and stop anti-social behavior (though the officers did not wear baseball caps, which were thought to make them look “too American”).

Like the Teddy Boys, punk rockers, and, most recently, the club kid ravers, hoodies are set apart from so-called normal society. The Teddy Boys’ association with the rise of American rock and roll, and their reported rioting and dancing in theaters’ aisles during screenings of Blackboard Jungle (Richard Brooks, 1955), positioned them as importing the dangerous violence of American teens via the bad influence of American rock and roll. In particular, their sartorial borrowings from the African-American community set out their cultural borrowings as dangerous not only because of their Americanized nature, but because of their origins in communities of color.

teddy boys
Source: Flashbak

Hoodies are set apart by their mode of dress (face-obscuring hooded sweatshirts), their musical preferences (most often assumed to be rap and hip-hop), and an anti-authoritarian attitude that sometimes places them on the wrong side of the law. And, much like the moral panic surrounding the Teddy Boys in the 1950s, fear of hoodies belies not only a fear and distrust of young people but a fear of the Americanization of British culture.

Roberts_F
Still from Johannes Roberts’s hoodie horror film F (2010)

Hoodie teens are seen as having brought American gang culture, as promulgated by American rap and hip hop and American films, to the streets of the UK. In particular, the UK garage music scene was seen as, in the words of political and social commentator Deborah Orr, a “bad-seed” offshoot of UK youth culture that is heavily influenced by US gangsta rap culture (or at least seen by middle class commentators as heavily influenced by gangsta rap). Of course, UK garage music, because of its perceived links to US gangsta rap culture, made an easy scapegoat, and condemning UK garage for promoting violence was a way to more implicitly condemn the working class urban populations and racial and ethnic minorities who listened to UK garage.

Hoodie horror films often signal this link between hoodies and Americanization through rap-heavy soundtracks or having the evil hoodies listen to or perform rap in the diegesis. For example, in James Watkin’s Eden Lake (2008), the hoodie gang brings a boom box to the beach and plays rap music; this music plays at a lower level of the sound hierarchy, just loud enough to act as a menacing, unintelligible buzz that haunts the scene and foreshadows their coming attack on the middle class protagonists Jenny and Steve.

Eden_Lake

The imagery of hoodie horror mirrors the aural distinctions between the Americanized hoodies and their respectable victims. In this image, the trailer serves as a clear visual delineation of the line between acceptable, middle-classness, as represented by Jenny on the right, and the film’s villains, on the left: the unacceptable, Americanized, working-class hoodies who antagonize and torture Jenny and her boyfriend throughout the film.

These links to Americanization make it even easier for the media (as well as some filmmakers and audiences) to Other hoodies; they are not only working-class and young, but they can be seen as more influenced by American and Americanized culture than respectable middle-class Brits. Of course, this Othering places an additional mark upon hoodies of color, who are already also Othered by their racial and/or ethnic status.


Lindsey Decker is a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate studying Film and Television in the Department of English.  Her dissertation examines questions of transnational cinema in self-reflexive British horror films.

Nightcrawler: Not the Satire You Think It Is

On its most basic level, Nightcrawler (Dan Gilroy, 2014) is a heavy-handed satire that indicts the “if it bleeds, it leads” mentality and the normalization of violent and gruesome images on television news. Since images of the Vietnam War made their way into people’s homes via television screens, there have been debates about how much is too much, and what one can and cannot show, ethically, on television.

However, Nightcrawler also contains a much more interesting satirical thread in the figure of its ruthless entrepreneur Lou Bloom,* played by Jake Gyllenhaal, a young man who films accident and crime scenes and sells the footage to the news. The film satirizes the discourse of bootstrapping and “job-creating” entrepreneurism that rose (from its continual background presence) to particular visibility during the 2012 presidential campaign.

The last campaign may seem like a distant memory for many, particular given our 24-hour news-cycle mindsets. My students this semester didn’t even remember “binders full of women.” Remembered or not, the Romney/Obama campaign cycle focused heavily on how to lift the country out of the Great Recession. For Romney, that meant eliminating the minimum wage, increasing unpaid internships, and stimulating private-sector entrepreneurs to create the jobs and reduce unemployment. He was skewered by liberal and mainstream media outlets for depicting himself as having bootstrapped his way to riches (“Everything that Ann and I have, we have – we earned the – old fashioned way. And that’s by hard work”), for advising college kids to start businesses by borrowing a little money (like, $20,000) from their parents,** and for his now-infamous 47% remarks. Discursively, Romney was framed as a man who didn’t care about the average American, or the average employee, and who promoted a broken and ruthless brand of entrepreneurial capitalism that would serve to make the rich richer without improving the lives of “average” people.

ironing
Image source: Mitt (Greg Whiteley, 2014; available on Netflix)

Nightcrawler takes the ideas espoused by the Romney campaign, and the discursive fashioning of that campaign by an unsympathetic press, to their logical extreme. Lou starts the film unemployed; he has turned to stealing manhole covers and copper wire from abandoned buildings to make money. But he’s also self-educated; he combed the wealth of the internet and imbibed all of the employment advice and entrepreneurial common sense he could find. Early in the film, as he tries to weasel his way into a job at the scrap yard where he is selling his ill-gotten goods, Lou gives his elevator speech:

“Excuse me, sir. I’m looking for a job. In fact, I’ve made my mind up to find a career that I can learn and grow into. Who am I? I’m a hard worker. I set high goals and I’ve been told that I’m persistent. Now I’m not fooling myself, sir. Having been raised with the self-esteem movement so popular in schools, I used to expect my needs to be considered. But I know that today’s work culture no longer caters to the job loyalty that could be promised to earlier generations.”

Lou’s words appear benign. Who among us doesn’t want to think they are a hard worker who sets goals and has persistence? And Lou seems humble, actively countering the anti-millennial discourses that indicts that generation for its entitlement and narcissism. He’s a go-getter, what critic Anthony Lane calls “an entrepreneur, in a fine, self-improving American tradition.” But Lou is also ethically blind—he cannot understand that the scrap yard owner won’t hire a thief.

creepy
Also, he’s super creepy looking.

Lou’s hard work, high goals, and persistence eventually lead him to blackmail and sexual exploitation. After selling one short clip to a news channel for a few hundred dollars, he begins to tell people he runs “a successful TV news business.” He hires an unpaid intern, Rick (Riz Ahmed), continually promising a promotion and a wage that he never intends to deliver. When he tells Rick that “Good things come to those who work their asses off,” it isn’t a motivational truism but a thinly-veiled physical threat. Lou is a capital creator and brand creator (with his company’s name, Video News Production), but not a job creator, and certainly not a nice-guy bootstrapper who plans to pull others up with him.

so stable

Like the high-profile white collar professionals who brainstormed the subprime mortgage fiasco that contributed to the Great Recession, Lou exhibits a reckless disregard for ethics and the well-being of others, and this recklessness leads him to financial success. Some critics have taken Lou for a sociopath or as suffering from some other mental illness. However, pathologizing the character undercuts the film’s satire and denies the pervasiveness of this sort of mindset within corporate America. Lou’s “sociopathy” is just everyday corporate practice, and his big break delivers a stinging satirical bite: Lou makes his break while exploiting an affluent white family. The second set of footage he sells to the news networks to conclude the story makes him enough money to expand his operation by investing in several vans–and several more unpaid interns. His big break shows that no one is safe from his unethical entrepreneurism, regardless of class or economic status, cementing the film’s reactionary liberal satire of the sort of values that Romney embodied and promulgated on the campaign trail.

 

 

*Yes, James Joyce’s Ulysses and Leopold Bloom resonates here as well, the wandering man drifting through his city.

**This incident, while still definitely indicative of class and economic privilege, was pretty overblown by some media sources. Romney was telling the story of Jimmy John, the sandwich shop owner and franchiser. Romney said, “We’ve always encouraged young people take it, take a shot, go for it. Take a risk, get the education, borrow money if you have to from your parents. Start a business.” In this story, though, he also said that Jimmy John, “said he borrowed $20,000 from his dad” to start a restaurant, and it didn’t seem to occur to Romney at the time that a pretty high percentage of American parents cannot give their child $20,000 because they’re living paycheck to paycheck, or are underwater on their mortgage.


Lindsey Decker is a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate studying Film and Television in the Department of English.  Her dissertation examines questions of transnational cinema in self-reflexive British horror films.

Leave your Message, not your Trash

On a frigid yet sunny day in January 2014, I happened to find myself a couple of blocks away from the annual March for Life in Washington, DC. I was in the capitol visiting the Folger Shakespeare Library for some research, and had arrived early in the morning for a long day of archival exploration (or, let’s face it, geeking out over old books). As the day went on and I occasionally stepped out for food or sunlight, I slowly realized what else was happening that day on the Hill. It was a special year for the March—the 40th anniversary—and thousands had managed to show up despite the 10-degree weather and recent city-stalling snowstorm. I myself am avidly pro-choice (and have been since I read The Cider House Rules in high school) so I will admit I was less than pleased to find myself among the throng of pro-life advocates. But I tried not to begrudge them their right to free speech, and instead went about my day just hoping that by the time I exited the archive for my evening commute, the hullabaloo would be over.

When I finally left the Folger, the march had finished and individuals were making their way out of DC. Yet what remained in their wake was the trash. Heaped in garbage bins up and down the streets were mounds of signs, flyers, stickers and other protest paraphernalia from that day’s rally.  I first encountered the one below on the corner of 2nd and C street, SE, a block away from Independence Avenue. As I continued making my way to the Capitol South Metro stop, I came upon a large, discarded mass of signs apparently left by protestors afraid or unwilling to take them into the Metro station. There, gleaming under the setting winter sun, they lay discarded. As I made my decent down the escalator, I could see signs and flyers littered across the tiled floor, soaked in snow and mud from the previous day’s snowstorm; an overall-clad metro employee worked diligently to pick up the signs and place them in an already overflowing trash can.

Welshans 21.1

I am positive that the amount of trash left by this protest is not unique.  In fact, the conservative internet was abuzz with critiques of similar trash heaps left behind by climate protesters in New York City in September. Those critiques highlight the apparent hypocrisy of a protest which championed environmental stewardship, yet left masses of trash in its wake.  Upon seeing the litter left by those attending the March for Life, I was taken aback by a similar sense of hypocrisy. A mere two weeks before the protest, Pope Francis had delivered his New Year’s Address to the Vatican Diplomatic Corps which included, among other things, a critique of “the throwaway culture.” This culture, wherein individuals frequently throw away “food and despensible objects” with impunity, upholds the value system that encourages women to discard unborn fetuses like food waste, the Pope claimed.

In this same address, the Pope also noted that “the greedy exploitation of environmental resources” is also a “threat to peace,” and that Catholics are called to pursue “policies respectful of this earth which is our common home.” In his New Year’s address Pope Francis called for an end to a culture of excessive trash and an increase in environmental activism. On that January day, I could not help but read the streets around me, littered with the snow-soaked signage of that day’s protest, as symbolic of the contradiction between the protestors’ message and its aftermath. If the individuals present were protesting the “throwaway culture” that can lead to abortions, they were doing so in a way that no doubt provided local landfills with an influx of trash.

The current protestors in Hong Kong have been praised, among other things, for their demonstration of environmental stewardship. As one protestor told the New York Times, “In this protest, we want to show our citizenship and our will to have a democratic government. Although this cleanup is a small thing, it is something that shows the values that all Hong Kong citizens should have.” For demonstrators in Hong Kong, their commitment to reducing conspicuous waste underscores their activist commitments; they see the connection between environmental rights and human rights.

Whatever the protest, it is worth considering the message conveyed by protest paraphernalia both during the active protests and after. The trash left by those marching against global warming in effect fueled the right’s criticism of the movement. Similarly, I could not take seriously a march that championed the sacredness of life, yet seemed to care so little for the planet on which future lives will live—or the lives of those who would spend over-time hours restoring the city to its pre-march condition.  Yes, posters and signs are an effective means of communicating a message at a particular moment in time. But it behooves us to consider where those signs end up when we are done.

 


Melissa Welshans is a PhD Candidate in English at Syracuse University and is currently working on her dissertation The Many Types of Marriage: Gender, Marriage and Biblical Typology in Early Modern England. Melissa’s research is concerned with issues of gender and sexuality in early modern England, especially as it pertains to the institution of marriage. In her free time Melissa practices her nail art skills and snuggles with her husband and their two cats. 

Regeneration, Rebranding, Republicans; or, Reince Priebus is not your boyfriend

In case you were camping over the last three days, the Republican Party took control of Congress on Tuesday night. To paraphrase an oft-heard line on the Capitol floor, I’m not a social scientist—so I’m not interested in the actual, complex causes of the victory. I am, however, interested in the rhetoric around the victory, particularly the conversation about Republican “rebranding.” On 2 October 2014, Reince Priebus, the Chairman of the Republican National Committee, introduced the next in the cycle of what MSNBC called “A Perpetual State of Republican Rebranding”:

 Republicans will unveil a rebranding effort Thursday aimed at changing its image as a political party focused solely on obstructing President Barack Obama’s agenda to instead a champion of ideas and action.

The idea that a party is a brand suggests that voters are consumers, that politics is a commodity to be sold and bought. To think about rebranding and the rhetorical commodification of politics, I turn to an unlikely pairing: the BBC’s Doctor Who.

A little more than a month before Reince Priebus rebranded the Republican Party for the umpteenth time, the Doctor rebranded for the twelfth. A core mechanic of Doctor Who is the Doctor’s “regeneration,” his ability to reincarnate whenever he suffers serious injury in the plot—or more importantly, when the actor playing the Doctor changes. Between series 7 and 8, the 11th Doctor (Matt Smith) gave way to the 12th (Peter Capaldi), to the chagrin of many (shallow) fans who resent Capaldi’s age (he’s all of 56-years old). Though the 1st Doctor was portrayed by the then 55-year old William Hartnell in 1963, the show’s reboot saw 34-year old David Tennant and 26-year old Matt Smith change the role of the Doctor into a character surrounded by discourses of sexiness. The show itself deepened this association through romances between the Doctor and the young (emphasis on the coded-as-young) women who played his companions: an explicit relationship between the 10th Doctor and Rose Tyler (23-year old pop-icon Billie Piper), and ever-present sexual tension between the 11th Doctor and his companions Amy Pond (21-year old Karen Gillan) and Clara Oswald (26-year old Jenna-Louise Coleman).

In Capaldi’s first episode, the show rather heavy-handedly responded to fans’ ageism. The villains are ancient robots who have repaired their cybernetics with human organs for millennia in order to survive; their predicament prompts the Doctor to wonder if one is still the same individual if one replaces all one’s parts. Clara insists, “I don’t think I know who the Doctor is anymore”—and the show spends the rest of the episode berating her for it. The coldly pragmatic moral compass of the episode, Madame Vastra, castigates Clara: “He looked like your dashing young gentleman friend. Your lover even. […] But he is the Doctor. He has walked this universe for centuries untold. He has seen stars fall to dust. You might as well flirt with a mountain range.” The most telling moment, when the Doctor seems to speak directly to disappointed fans, comes at the tail-end of the episode:

The Doctor: I’ve made many mistakes. And it’s about time I did something about that. Clara, I’m not your boyfriend.

Clara: I never thought you were.

The Doctor: I never said it was your mistake.

I’m not the only one to recognize this as a gesture outside the text, but I would like to particularly call attention to that final line. The show passes some of the blame on itself: it coded the Doctor as sexy, and now, it has to step back from that.

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Devotion to fans aside, capital is the core motive behind the message that the Doctor is still the Doctor even if he’s replaced all his parts. The franchise needs consumers to retain its enormous profit margin. To keep viewers tuning in (and buying commodities like my 10th Doctor Sonic Screwdriver pen), the message must be clear: we’re different, but we’re still the same; buy us.

The Republican Party has walked this tightrope for the last several years as they simultaneously cater to their base and try to attract new voters. A series of wonky and casually misogynist ads targeted women by painting Obama as a bad boyfriend, or Democratic candidates as hideous old wedding dresses that women need to cast off in favor of the sexy new Republican dress. I’ll leave out any actual discussion of the party’s thinking on race, class, and gender because in fact, as The Daily Show’s coverage of the election suggested, when it comes to branding, ideas don’t matter—money does.

This is not merely a matter of removing money from politics. When an election costs about $3,670,000,000 (writing it as $3.67 billion obfuscates the immensity of the cost), we’re talking brand marketing, not politics. Capitalist democracy gives the lie to arguments like Michel de Certeau’s theory of consumption as resistance, because here, consumption remains just that: consumption. Republicans offered a “new look, same great taste,” and voters happily purchased it. The parts are new; the Doctor is the same.

But Reince Priebus is not your boyfriend.

 


Peter Katz is the editor of Metathesis and a fifth-year Ph.D. student in Victorian Literature and Culture. His dissertation focuses on sensation fiction, the history of science, and the history of the novel.