Popular Culture

The Eco-Zombie: Using Biology to Imagine Zombies Beyond the Human

[10 minute read]

In this month’s posts on Metathesis, I have discussed the metaphorical uses of contagious disease and examined the figure of the zombie in some popular late twentieth and twenty-first-century texts. In my final post of the month, I would like to turn to a unique sub-genre of the zombie narrative that unsettles the survivor-centered perspective of zombie outbreaks: the eco- zombie.

Zombies present an interesting study in the metaphor of contagion because they embody contradictions and create questions that disturb our sense of self and communal identity. The most obvious of these contradictions, of course, is that zombies are the “living dead”: two oft-mutually exclusive terms in the human experience. One is generally alive or dead, but not both simultaneously. The biological science of how zombies actually work is often left somewhat fuzzy in zombie science-fiction, which tends to give more emphasis to the latter portion of the hyphenated genre, rather than the former. These complex biological questions are typically subsumed by the drama and urgency of the survival story. One stunning example of this is in the 2105 film World War Z, when the viewer is introduced to a brilliant young epidemiologist who only minutes later slips unceremoniously in the rain and accidentally blows his own head off.

In terms of popular story-telling, this emphasis makes sense: the redemption narrative of survivors makes for a more emotionally engaging and compelling drama with which readers, viewers, and players can identify. Part of the power of the survivor’s narrative is that we can imagine ourselves in their shoes. This perspective aligns with the zombie’s function to horrify and disgust the reader, viewer, or player in an act of dis-identification with the dead. In short, the horror of the zombie is centered upon the fact that nobody wants to become one! In fact, it is impossible to even imagine what it is like to be a zombie, given the way zombies embody a complete lack of supposedly distinct human capacities – including a sense of individuality, empathy, personality, and sociality. This narrative dynamic makes thinking outside of the standard human vs zombie conflict relationship difficult.


However, two recent zombie narratives have given us a new spin on the zombie narrative by taking inspiration from biology, and imagining the dead living in symbiosis with the natural world. In both The Last of Us (2013), a highly-cinematic survivor horror videogame from developer Naughty Dog, and The Girl With All the Gifts (2016), a novel and feature-length film developed from M.R. Carey’s short story “Iphigenia In Aulis,” a rampant fungal infection of Ophiocordyceps Unilateralis infests the human population. Known colloquially as the “Zombie Fungus,” Cordyceps is a true-to-life fungus that consumes and takes control over the bodies of ants and wasps. It manipulates genetically determined behavioral patterns of the ants it infects, compelling them to climb high above the forest floor, where they then clamp their jaws on a leaf, and remain as the fungus grotesquely protrudes from their body.


A “zombie ant” infested with Ophiocordyceps Unilateralis


Joel battles an “infected” human from The Last of Us

The Cordyceps-infected humans in these stories aren’t specifically identified as “zombies” in either text – they are referred to as the “infected” in The Last of Us and as “hungries” in Carey’s story and its film adaptation – but they can be easily identified as such by their appearance and behavior, especially their cannibalistic rage. Because the “zombie ants” that host the Cordyceps fungus in real life are, if anything, less violent than their healthy counterparts, the violence of the human Cordyceps victims in these texts can be interpreted as making reference to “genetically determined behavioral patterns” recognizable in the aggressive human species.


Melanie and a group of “hungries” in The Girl With all the Gifts


A very zombie-like “Infected” human from The Last of Us

In both texts, the symbiotic relationship between the infected humans and the Cordyceps fungus allows the infected to maintain a scientifically stable relationship to the natural world. This relationship is also markedly distinct from the fuzzy biological uncertainty of most zombie films. Cordyceps really exists, and it only takes a small logical leap to envision humans under the organism’s control. Rather than being presented as monstrous doubles of humanity, these versions of Cordyceps zombies represent an ecological and biological world which is rebounding against human civilization and industrialization. In both The Last of Us and the film adaptation of Carey’s story, visuals which depict the overgrowth of nature into formerly urban spaces play an important role in signifying how the viewer and player should interpret their monsters.


Overgrown London in The Girl With All the Gifts


Overgrown Salt Lake City in The Last of Us

The encroaching vegetation in these scenes infests the urban landscape and reclaims the landscape for nature, turning the city into a space both uncanny and sublime. The vegetation subsuming the metropolis transforms it into a dilapidated, ivy-embossed maze filled with ghostly relics. Similarly, the Cordyceps infection presents itself on the human body through grotesque, bubbly growths, signifying a biological excess overtaking both the human body and society. The overgrowth of nature on the infrastructure of the city and the Cordyceps fungus on the human body call attention to the material excesses of human cities and urban life. By reclaiming the city and the human body for the natural world, these infestation suggest that humanity has also overgrown, and as a result disrupted biological homeostasis and ecological balance.


Melanie and survivors navigate overgrown London in The Girl With All the Gifts


Interestingly, in both The Last of Us and The Girl With All the Gifts, the Cordyceps infestation creates a scenario in which a young woman with a unique resistance to the infection presents an opportunity for a “cure.” However, in order to process the cure, she must be sacrificed. In both texts, characters must weigh the life of the innocent individual against eradication of the human species. In the dramatic conclusion of the narrative arc in The Last of Us, the player must decide if they will save Ellie, the young girl that they have spent hours of gameplay guiding and protecting through a maze of zombies, with the knowledge that her survival means the end of the world. In The Girl With All the Gifts, Melanie makes this choice herself, choosing to transform the whole world with Cordyceps and found a new zombie society based on the teachings of Miss Justinaeu, the only person who treated her sympathetically.


A doctor attempts to convince Joel (the player) to sacrifice Ellie for the greater good of mankind in The Last of Us

By using biological science to reimagine the biological impact of the fungus among us, these texts break the mold of the standard zombie narrative. The Last of Us and The Girl with All the Gifts imagine zombies through a perspective of biological symbiosis and ecological balance, rather than racialized contagion or scientific terrorism. In doing so, these texts reshape how the metaphor of the zombie can be interpreted in an age when an excess of humanity and human impact threatens to push the ecosystem out of balance.

Zombies are harbingers of an inverted natural order and the embodiment of the redistribution of power. While this disruption of the order of life and death is violently disturbing for survivors, there are signs in many zombie narratives that the collapse of human society might actually be to the benefit of nature and the organic world that zombies inhabit. If we begin to reimagine zombies not as a gross corruption of humanity, but as organisms that are a balancing force of an interconnected biological world moving towards homeostasis, we begin to get a different picture of zombies and their relation to the metaphor of contagion. Eventually, they come to represent not a teleological progression from life to death, but a seasonal, circular, progression reflecting a desire for environmental balance, and a commitment to imagining the world through the changes and returns of life and death on a larger and longer scale.


‘Build That Wall!’: Studies in the 21st-Century Plague Zombie

[10 minute read]

In this month’s posts for Metathesis, I have been looking at how the metaphorical deployment of epidemic disease operates, and how we might understand the metaphorical function of plague zombies in contemporary texts. Why is it that the figure of the plague zombie features so prominently in the twenty-first-century imagination? If the plague zombie is a vehicle for addressing social issues, how have plague zombie narratives confronted the zombie threat? Of course, the traditional method for dealing with zombies is simply to kill them. While this method might work when zombies are a minority, when the zombies outnumber survivors, they can be dangerous and difficult to deal with. Often, the best solution for survivors is to find or build structures to separate themselves from the living dead. These structures are reinforced with the belief that those within are safe, and those outside are threats. This week’s post focuses on the construction and failure of such barriers, and their centrality to the plague zombie narrative.

This use of the zombie as a simple “vehicle” for larger social critique is central to many of the texts that comprise the explosion of “plague zombie” narratives in the new millennium. Some of the most acclaimed texts of this period include Robert Kirkman’s 2003 comic book series The Walking Dead and its AMC television series adaptation that began in 2010; Max Brooks’ book The Zombie Survival Guide, also published in 2003, along with its follow up novel World War Z (2006), which was adapted into a film of the same name starring Brad Pitt in 2013.[1] In each of these “plague zombie” universes, how survivors choose to socially respond to the zombie epidemic occupies the central narrative concerns of the text. In such stories, zombies themselves appear as deadly environmental hazards to be mitigated; they operate as a collective metaphor for existential threats to society and humanistic values in modern society, as well as threats to the lives of individual survivors.


In both The Walking Dead and Max Brooks’ World War Z, as with many other zombie narratives, physical infrastructure is important for managing survivors and zombies alike. Zombies, for all their persistence, tend to have problems with doors and walls. In the AMC adaptation of The Walking Dead, Rick Grimes and his rag-tag band of survivors ramble about the Georgia landscape in search of architectural as well as social stability. In most cases, the former is prized over the latter. The Southern U.S. setting plays a prominent role in The Walking Dead, and the racial and economic tensions of the South are reproduced in the movement of Grimes’s migrant group. Whereas the urban center of Atlanta has been completely overrun by the dead, the plantation-esque farm is enveloped in a surreal calm.


An overhead shot of the zombie-infested Atlanta streets in The Walking Dead Season 1


The main residence of Hershel Greene’s Farm in The Walking Dead Season 2

This survivalist reimagining of the urban-rural racial and economic divide values isolationism and segregation. In season 3 of the series, Grimes and his group find sanctuary in a prison, whose labyrinthine walls provide layers upon layers of security from the zombies who stalk its fortified perimeter. However, after developing a feud with a nearby town of survivors, the prison becomes a constant reminder of the limits and dangers, as well as the constant state of isolation, that survivors face because of the outbreak.


Survivors contemplating the prison in The Walking Dead comic series

This narrative inversion turns the prison from a place of punishment and entrapment into a place of refuge and freedom. However, when a flu outbreak within the prison coincides with siege from without by a competing group of survivors, the prison and must be abandoned.

The centrality of security to The Walking Dead’s exploration of the urban-rural/town-prison divisions underscores a key theme of zombie narratives: population control. The threat of the zombie isn’t just in its mindless cannibalism or its role as a vehicle for a deadly contagion – the zombies’ power, and their threat, is in their overwhelming numbers. The disease they carry, whatever its fictional genesis, harbors a nearly universal ability to transform individuals—people with their own individual lives and narratives—into singular, homogenous, monsters. The epidemic empties the infected person of their identity and replaces their individuality with the terrifying singular hunger of the zombie. Through this process, zombies become a figure of contagious otherness; they are the once-minority that has become the now-majority threatening the stability of society and the existence of survivors. The plague zombie becomes a way to play out the fearful tensions of a society terrified of being overrun by those beyond our borders.

This is especially true when ethnic and racial tensions are made an overt aspect of the zombie narrative. In Brooks’ World War Z, Israel’s controversial partition wall is reframed as a barrier against the zombie outbreak, and the Palestinian people are invited into the protected space of the settler colonial nation that once denied their political existence. In the novel, the significance of the partition wall is inverted. That which once stood as a symbol of division and colonial expansion quickly converts into a nation-encasing quarantine barrier, and becomes a symbol for unity and reconciliation.


Survivors entering Jerusalem in World War Z (2013)

This is a condescending and problematic rendering of the Israel-Palestine conflict in that it places Israeli military-nationalism in a role to act as the benevolent saviors of the unprepared Palestinians. This unbalanced rendering is made more apparent and troubling in the 2013 film adaptation. During one of the film’s most dramatic scenes, the sound of singing Palestinian refugees incites the zombies outside of the wall to pile over and subsume both the wall and those it protects. The zombies construct their own structure, a sort of zombie-ladder, which allows them to quickly overrun the now-trapped citizens of the city. The organic, shifting, and adaptive structure of the zombie-pile is markedly distinct from the solid and immovable infrastructure of the partition wall, and attributes a certain vivacious, almost instinctual creativity to the zombie menace. The failure of the partition wall to stop the organic flow of bodies from one space to another is rendered as catastrophic, and the zombies themselves seem to move not as individuals, but as a massive singular organism.


Enraged zombies form their own type of structure to climb the reimagined partition wall in World War Z (2013)

By imagining the racial and ethnic “other” as a zombie or potential zombie, these narratives illustrate the stakes of the social issues lying just below the surface of plague zombie narratives. If we understand plague zombies as vehicles for larger social issues, narratives like The Walking Dead and World War Z show us the problems that attend the safety of isolation and exclusion. The walls within these texts represent the faith our society places in structural safety –be that the division of nations and ideologies as in the partition wall of World War Z, or in the medical capitalism of the Umbrella Corporation in Resident Evil (see last week’s post for more about Resident Evil). When societies build walls to keep imaginary threats at bay, it comes at the cost of innocent lives. Taking another look at the plague zombie narrative asks us to consider the extremes to which society will go for an ultimately false sense of security. These stories also ask us to imagine how we might treat each other under the worst of circumstances, and how we might reimagine society differently in the wake of its collapse. Of course, these narratives also show us how visions of utopia inevitably turn into twisted realities of isolationism, segregation, and violence.

These texts show us how systems and structures designed to isolate us from the problems of the world may comfort us in times of existential crisis. But ultimately, the metaphorical and material walls appearing to protect us become the cages that keep us from moving beyond the boundaries of our own fears and comforts.

[1] I would also add that Danny Boyle’s 2002 film 28 Days Later played an important role in the revival of the zombie, but I won’t be discussing that film here.

Know Your Zombie: Understanding the Living Dead

[7 minute read]

Last week I discussed the use of contagion and metaphor, and mentioned how zombies can serve as “vehicles” for the metaphor of contagious disease. This week I continue my discussion of zombies, but before diving in, I want to draw a distinction between the two major representations of zombies in popular culture: what I somewhat reductively will refer to as the “Voodoo Zombie” and the “Plague Zombie.”

Although zombies have become somewhat synonymous with the spiritual practice of Voodoo in popular culture, the spiritual practices many of us refer to indiscriminately as “voodoo” have a rich and complex historical, spiritual, and cultural background far exceeding their limited representation in much of U.S. culture. In many instances, Voodoo involves casting spells of protection rather than curses, although it would be equally inaccurate to say that curses and other violent intent do not play some part of voodoo. Voodoo has also played an important role in historical movements of political resistance and cultural revolution, which has led to its vilification by many colonizing populations. The zombie figure is intertwined with both of these components—magical and cultural—and, like other aspects of this complex spirituality, has been largely distorted by popular culture’s appropriation of it.


The cover of Wade Davis’s book.

The Voodoo zombie is, in many ways, the “original” zombie. This incarnation of the zombie emerges out of the traditions and spiritual practices of Haitian voodoo. It represents a person who has died, or was near death, and has been resurrected by a “bokor” or sorcerer. One of the most famous (or infamous) modern Voodoo practitioners was the late Max Beauvoir, known as the “Voodoo Pope,” who claimed to know Voodoo priests who had resurrected the dead. Before his death in 2015, Beauvoir introduced anthropologist, ethnobotanist, and Harvard professor Wade Davis to a man who claimed to have been dead in 1962, but was resurrected to work as a slave on a sugar plantation. Davis’s The Serpent and the Rainbow (1985) chronicles his search to understand the botanical recipe of the “zombie powder” used to intoxicate and control alleged victims of zombification. In 1988, this book was adapted into a Wes Craven horror film of the same name.


The poster for its 1988 film adaptation by famed horror director Wes Craven.

The Voodoo zombie is tied to specific cultural practices and geographies (for example, Haitian Voodoo), and so the contextual “meaning” of the zombie is specific and discrete. Unlike their contagious cousins, which began to appear in popular culture late into the twentieth century, Voodoo zombies are not aimless, shambling corpses; they are people transformed into purposeful creatures. Voodoo practitioners like those described by Beauvoir and Davis resurrect the dead for specific reasons, including but not limited to slave labor, control, or revenge. Voodoo zombies are personal, medicinal, and spiritual; they do not appear in hordes, their state is not contagious, and their place between life in death is mediated and maintained by the sorcerer who controls them. They can even recover from their state of zombification, and may return to their justifiably surprised and horrified friends and family.

Anthropological works such as Davis’s and popular films such as George A. Romero’s 1968 horror classic Night of the Living Dead are in part responsible for introducing the zombie figure to popular culture. However, the zombie as we know it now has undergone radical mutation from its origins in the Voodoo zombie figure, becoming what I’ll refer to as the “plague zombie.”

This type of zombie emerged from, but radically alters the trajectory of the original zombie myth, and became an increasingly powerful feature of contemporary horror texts in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. While the Voodoo zombie’s cultural specificity and its conjuror’s intentions for it make for a rather rigid metaphorical reading, the metaphorical and interpretative pliability of the plague zombie has made it an adaptive and increasingly popular trope of the new millennium. Recalling last week’s discussion of I.A. Richard’s “tenor-vehicle” model as a way of understanding metaphor, a zombie operates as a “vehicle” allowing us to form connections between what the living dead are (the reanimated corpses of strangers, friends, and neighbors) and what they represent (hunger, contagion, mindless consumption, loss of control, and a disruption of the natural process of life and death).


The cover of Capcom’s Resident Evil (1996)

The popularity of the plague zombie began to rise in the 1980s and ‘90s in the wake of the devastating HIV pandemic, and the emergence of deadly new viruses such as Ebola, Marburg, SARS, and MERS; it reached a fever pitch in the late ‘90s and first decade of the 2000s. One of the most popular and enduring depictions of the “plague zombie” was the third-person horror videogame Resident Evil (1996), a franchise that has spawned twenty-nine video games across multiple platforms, six feature films, four animated films, seven novels, and a comic book series. In the Resident Evil franchise, the central narrative conflict is the Umbrella Corporation’s creation and not-so-accidental release of the “T-Virus.” Players, viewers, and readers must unpack the bureaucratic and capitalistic functions of Umbrella Corp to understand why they released the virus, who helped them, and how to cure or mitigate the impending viral apocalypse. As with many plague zombie narratives, the central conflict of Resident Evil isn’t that the dead are rising from their graves to stalk the living, but that there are arcane political, medical, and economic forces that would permit (or encourage) the advent of a zombie epidemic.


An in-game promotional advertisement for the fictional Umbrella Corporation. The tag line “Quality Medical Care You Can Trust Since 1968” is not only a sarcastic jab at the advertising style of pharmaceutical corporations, but also an allusion to George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, which was released in 1968.

The threat to social stability that zombies nearly always embody is the “tenor” of their metaphor. The contagion or plague zombies carry and transmit connects the tenor and vehicle of the metaphor together, connecting the abject horror of living dead to issues of social cohesion, security, and medical ethics among the living. In plague zombie narratives, how the ever-present survivors of the zombie epidemic respond to their situation is always as important, if not more so, than the existence of the zombies themselves. Next week I will be discussing one particular trope of the plague zombie narrative: the wall. Walls separate survivors of zombie epidemics from the living dead that stalk them, but they also separate survivors from each other and create material and metaphorical divisions in post-apocalyptic society. Tune in next week for a discussion of how the walls we build to protect us can become the cages that entrap us.


“Dumbshows and Noise:” Hamlet and The Problem of Audience

[5-7 minute read]

During Act 3 of Hamlet, while preparing the travelling players for the evening’s performance, Hamlet provides the actor’s company with a lengthy speech concerning the proper methods of acting he would like them to employ. During the speech, he makes a note on clowns, saying “and let those that play/ your clowns speak no more than is set down for them;/for there be of them that will themselves laugh, to/ set on some quantity of barren spectators to laugh/too.[1] Here, Hamlet urges caution to the players: their clown should speak only those words written upon the page, lest his frantic ad-libbing set the audience to laughter, and risk missing “some necessary/question of the play be then to be considered.”[2] This moment reminds the audience of how seriously Hamlet takes the theater and how he believes the supremacy of the page should define the worth of theatrical performance. Hamlet’s worry is that that clowns and fools pose a threat to the political power of drama. Given the political implications of Hamlet’s play, the worry here is that a particularly boisterous fool may risk causing the entire theatrical endeavor to come crashing down. Moving too far from the text, or otherwise reducing its importance as a single-authored object of reverence, threatens to rob it of its political weight, and reduce it to airy nothingness.

William KempeWilliam Kempe: Shakespeare’s first fool and likely the reason that this speech exists

Particularly key here is the sense that ‘some quantity of barren spectators’ will become wrapped up in the clown’s performance. Clowns were understood to be figures of the theater beloved by the commons; they were the wild antic-makers who, along with the jigs and songs that would accompany a public theatrical performance, successfully brought London’s poorer audiences into the theaters. This moment of directly – and assertively – attacking the figure of the fool is explicitly transformed into a jab at the kinds of audiences who would enjoy the labor of the clown and in turn, would rob the text of its dignity. Here, the assault on the fool is an instrument for critiquing the baser kinds of audiences who enjoyed the fools’ antics above the artistic merit of the tragic monologue. While Hamlet extends this beyond the antics of the clown (also critiquing players whose voices remind him of the town-crier), the thrust of the speech remains in the suggestion that the theater is a site of high art that must not be threatened by actors who would “split the ears of the groundlings, who/ for the most part are capable of nothing but/ inexplicable dumbshows and noise.”[3] A key component of this critique is misdirection; in other words, this critique emphasizes a playwright’s worry that his audience will fail to understand the gravity of the text, and will instead allow themselves to be enamored by disposable and unimportant moments that are not worthy of artistic labor. Within this speech, the antipathy towards the unwashed masses and their inability to properly relate to the artistic production of the theater is palpable, and framed through rhetoric reminiscent of critiques leveled against mass public audiences in virtually any contemporary moment.

This sense of the importance of the play is complicated by the performance Hamlet is discussing. While in the last few weeks we looked at texts that were assumed to have represented political leaders on stage, Hamlet’s intent is explicit, as he notes “the play’s the thing,/ wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.”[4] Hamlet is certain of the play’s ability to foreground the reality of Denmark’s corruption, despite the incongruity separating The Murder of Gonzago from the text of Hamlet. Hamlet’s audience, both on the stage and in the theatre, is meant to understand that the goal of the play is to “hold a mirror up to nature[5] — and this in turn will reflect the rank villainy that has seeped into the Danish court. While Hamlet is not hoping that his play will stir a popular revolt,[6] he is assuming the play itself will have the power make the invisible sins lingering within the state visible, and furthermore, force a moment of confession and revelation to justify his act of regicide. His speech to the player kings also suggests a belief that if the play is not treated with the necessary reverence for the art form, it will be prone to fail. The stakes of this performance as so much greater than the enjoyment and applause of Hamlet’s hypothetical barren spectators, and so must be presented with the proper audience in mind.

While there is reason to be hesitant in ventriloquizing the voice of Shakespeare through Hamlet, it is worth considering the ways that this discourse was present during the period, and the ways in which Hamlet’s advice has become part and parcel with the discourse surrounding the theater in our contemporary world. As the theater has become a stable and lauded artistic institution, clowns and dumbshows in Shakespearean tragedies nevertheless remind us of their popular origins. As I noted in my first post this month, there was a sense among defenders of Julius Caesar (2017) that it was a case of audiences simply missing the “question of the play.” Those who then missed the question became like the lowly personages Hamlet critiques here, incapable or unwilling to grapple with the complexity of the dramatic representations put before them, and wasting energy in focusing on the wrong part of the text or performance. Though these complaints are not framed in the same language Hamlet proposes, the premise that underscores them remains worth considering. In our contemporary affirmation of the theater as weighty and serious art capable of enacting the kind of political labor early modern audiences feared, there is a danger that we have also affirmed Hamlet’s suggestion. Perhaps, this assertion also bolsters the belief that groundings, past and present, and their inability to fully understand the weight of artistic representation, act as a threat to the value of the theater as an institution. This becomes a highly contentious notion regarding who can enjoy the theater and what it means to ‘watch a play properly,’ lest we become the clown-loving audiences Hamlet chides. At its heart, these debates all return to the relationship between the theater and the general public, and this is the subject that I will explore in my final post this month.

[1] Hamlet III.ii.39-43.

[2] Ibid, 43-44.

[3] Ibid, 11-13.

[4] Hamlet, II.ii, 633-634.

[5] Hamlet, III.ii. 23.

[6] By contrast, Laertes does lead a popular revolt.


Valuing Difference: An Ace on Food, Friendship, and Fluffy Companionship

[5 minute read]

(CW: pet death)


For a year, two of my colleagues shared an office across from mine. They were best friends, and they stocked their space with craft beer and a reclaimed yellow armchair, squishy and velveteen, and spent their office hours in conversation together. Maybe it was because my own best friend lived abroad and my office lunches were pretty lonely, but this scene instantly became my image of hashtag-friendship-goals.

toffee1Except with cookies instead of craft beer.

Friendship is extremely important in ace communities, both on its own and as a comparison point for describing the other kinds of relationships an ace might want to participate in (romantic, queerplatonic, etc.). Meanwhile, food is an important part of my friendships. If I am friends with you, I will bake for you at some point. We will go out for ice cream and lunches, and linger talking over tea. For me, sharing food is a manifestation of how our relationship is mutually sustaining. Maybe it’s a Catholic thing, since Catholics experience communion with the divine through bread and wine. Maybe it’s an ace thing, since so many of our memes describe food as better than sex.

toffee2Exhibit A(ce).

What might be my favorite Sherlock fic describes Sherlock and John’s asexual relationship in a way that draws upon this nourishing sensibility:

Marvellous feeling, this. […]

Beside him in the bed, John is sound asleep.

Companion. Late Latin. Literally; bread-fellow. Same with the Germanic equivalent; meal-mate. Etymological identicality—another joy. Replaced an older word meaning travelling partner. John was both. A companion at the breakfast table and on the train. Gefera. Wayfarer. Gemate. Eating at the same table. Mate. One of a wedded pair. Com-pan-ion. With bread.

— Canon_Is_Relative, “Comfort”


My bunny, Toffee Touchstone, died a year ago this week. During his long illness, I spent a lot of time calling the Cornell Companion Animal Hospital, but we also spent a lot of time together watching Doctor Who. We watched the Tenth Doctor struggle with the romantic expectations others placed upon him, and fight (unsuccessfully?) to save the last member of his race in the hope that one day he might be converted from evil. We watched him mourn the loss of his Companion Rose and find new friendship in his Companion Martha.

toffee3Toffee mooning the Daleks.

When we weren’t watching Doctor Who, Toffee’s and my relationship — perhaps not surprisingly, given the interests of bunnies — revolved around fluffy cuddles and food. A lot of the food portion of things, especially when he was sick and nauseated, involved keeping him supplied with fresh snacks that he liked: parsley, cilantro, kale, crisp young endive, and dandelions picked from the yard (through the snow, if necessary). It involved racing around the carpet for treats and sorting the weeds from his hay. It involved coaxing him out of the kibble cupboard when he jumped into it and very carefully cooking so as to minimize the unnatural smell of fried onions or warm bread. It involved luring toddler Toffee into my lap with parsley bribery, and coaxing adult Toffee into climbing onto my back – to give me a massage – with a handful of dandelions between my shoulders.

But our relationship also included sharing food. You couldn’t peel a banana for breakfast without a bun showing up at your feet for samples. Eating blueberries meant picking out a few to share. One of my most favorite memories is of sitting on the floor to eat my apple after a long day on campus, and having Toffee join me for a few bites.

Toffee and me, sharing an apple.

In Toffee’s last months, I found a solution to my struggle to name our relationship. My grandmother (who would pass away a couple months after Toffee did) always told him to “go find your mama,” a name which never sat well with me. Gendered attributes in general make me cringe, but a mother–child relationship just didn’t make sense to me for us. “Pet and owner” was even more alienating: these terms relied on capitalist hierarchies, and just didn’t capture our emotional symbiosis. How to describe me and my food-sharing furry friend?

We were the Doctor(al student) and her Companion.


Abnormalizing Difference: Sexual Normativity in Asexual Sherlock Fanfic

[7 minute read]

(CW: discussion of sexual violence in fanfic.)

Can I tell you a secret? I knew the titular character of BBC’s Sherlock had become one of the mascots of the ace community before I even watched the show — and I defended his reputation as such before I watched it, too, as evidenced in a text conversation between myself and my best friend:

Best Friend: Omg, you have to watch Sherlock. They’re so gay.

Me: No Sherlock isn’t! He’s supposed to be asexual!

Judging by the events of series four (spoiler alert), we both might have been a little optimistically defensive of our interpretations of Sherlock’s sexuality; but I think I was justified in my devotion to Sherlock-as-ace. Until Archie’s Jughead last year, and Bojack Horseman’s Todd this year, aces had no authentic canonical representations of themselves to turn to in popular fictional media (let alone celebrities).[1] So we appropriated other characters for ourselves. No other fictional character had given voice to the experiences I considered uniquely ace quite like Sherlock did: his quick jump to defend himself from what he perceived as John’s eventual sexual advances by claiming “I’m married to my work” (“A Study in Pink”); his refusal to recognize Irene’s overt sexual advances by protesting “Why would I want to have dinner if I wasn’t hungry?” (“A Scandal in Belgravia”); and his deft evasion of imaginary-John’s insistent questions about his seemingly absent sexual desires by insisting that “Nothing made me” the way that Sherlock is (“The Abominable Bride”). In my eyes, Sherlock actively distances himself from the erotonormative expectations of the people around him, like I do, and I loved him for it (platonically, of course).

fic1Asexuality is A-okay.

However, for all the refusal of normative sexuality that Sherlock performs in the BBC series, there exists a perversely normalizing trend within asexuality-themed Sherlock fanfic. When I ran out of new Sherlock episodes to watch, I found a thread on the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network’s message board, wherein users recommended ace Sherlock fanfic that they had come across. Although I would later read fics featuring other interpretations of Sherlock’s sexuality (inspiring this earlier Metathesis post), the first few Sherlock fics that I read all featured an ace Sherlock, and, in one case, an ace John. But, with one notable exception, these first few fics also featured its ace character experiencing some form of sexual harassment or violence.

In one graphic fic, Sherlock tolerates tacitly unwanted sex with John out of fear of losing his companionship. In another fic, college-aged Sherlock evades his boyfriend’s sexual contact one too many times and gets called a freak. In a more light-hearted fic, Sherlock recounts narrowly escaping losing his virginity at a brothel after his brother pressures him into visiting one. In other fics, Sherlock feels that he’s a dysfunctional human for being ace and denies himself platonic intimate contact for fear of sending mixed signals. Although these fics and those like them generally end happily or at least peacefully, with John understanding and affirming Sherlock’s asexuality, or John and Sherlock negotiating their sexual boundaries together, this upbeat ending can come only after a moment wherein erotonormativity’s current stranglehold on sexuality is reasserted — indeed, normalized.

Maybe there is something unique about the BBC series that affords the exploration of how dominant ideas about sexuality make aces vulnerable to sexual harassment and violence; for instance, I haven’t yet dug very deeply into Doctor Who’s limited selection of ace fic, but so far, I haven’t experienced the same phenomenon. Perhaps where Doctor Who institutionalizes some nonsexual companionships and allows for alternative — albeit alien, in both senses of the word — normalized ideas about human behavior, Sherlock’s long refusal to directly address Sherlock’s sexuality encourages fic writers to render Sherlock’s cryptic rejection of sexual advances as discomfort with his asexuality. Whatever the cause of this trend in Sherlock fic, it reproduces some of the narratives about asexuality that I described last week. Asexuality is, however briefly, depicted as freakish: subhuman, antisocial, pathological. Furthermore, ace Sherlock must find a way to educate his companion about his asexuality, often in terms that privilege his companion’s sexual needs and desires over his asexual needs and desires. Erotonormativity haunts these fictional narratives as much as it does real life.

fic2The show doesn’t really disabuse people of this norm, either.

Understandably, fic writers looking to positively represent asexual experiences want to show their characters contending with, and eventually overcoming struggles that are common to the ace community. These often include the threat of so-called reparative rape when erotonormativity says that everyone should want sex; the miscommunication that occurs when erotonormativity codes otherwise nonsexual gestures as sexual innuendo; and the internalized doubt and dismissal of one’s asexual desires when erotonormativity insists an allosexual partner’s sexual desires must be catered to, because asexuality is outside the norm. This is, after all, the general state of affairs aces have been told to anticipate from those who are not asexual, and art has been known to imitate life — especially when ace writers are looking for a space to test out reactions to situations and ideologies that they might face in their lives outside fiction writing.

But fanfic is, of course, fiction. Many fics already have an extremely distant relationship to both reality and the canonical source text they’re drawn from. Why not imagine a world wherein asexuality is normalized, aces don’t have to explain themselves, and their desires are privileged? I’m concerned that “asexual experience,” insofar as experiences can be generalized, is becoming characterized only in relationship to erotonormativity, perhaps in a similar way to how queerness is sometimes characterized only in opposition to heteronormativity. What would it look like to accept asexuality on its own terms? This is what I’ll be exploring the rest of this month for Metathesis.

[1] Technically USA’s Sirens featured a canonically out ace, but we’re all still applying brain bleach to erase that representation from our memories.


Misrepresenting Difference: Objectifying Asexuality in Journalism

[10 minute read]

The media we consume shapes our implicit biases. It is one factor among many, but I saw it at work among my Fox News-watching relatives during the 2016 election. I saw it at work among rosary-praying priests putting my femininity on a pedestal. I saw it at work after 9/11, when I started getting spooked by Arab-looking passengers at airports — even though my family is Arab-American. The dominant popular media narratives about categories of difference like race and gender routinely reinforce stereotypes that serve the interests of dominating ideas of racism and patriarchy. But one oft-overlooked dominating idea is what asexuality scholars call allosexism or erotonormativity: the belief that everyone should experience sexual attraction.

Internet news on asexuality is scattered with clickbait articles characterizing asexuality as “controversial” in their description of the sexual orientation. After the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network’s (AVEN’s) Facebook page reposted this article, I broke my polite internet silence to express my frustration. It wasn’t so much that asexuality was “controversial”; rather, sensationalizing articles like these make asexuality controversial. When several dozen AVEN followers liked my response, I knew I had identified a common sore spot in our community: We’re sick of being a spectacle.

In her 2013 essay “Spectacular Asexuals: Media Visibility and Cultural Fetish” (139–161 here), asexuality scholar Karli June Cerankowski has written at length about how AVEN’s mission of visibility may be contributing to this “journalistic” phenomenon to our own detriment. It’s a useful argument and I recommend reading it, but here I’m more interested in how journalism does that on its own by continuing to represent asexuality from the perspective of allosexuals (that is, not aces) and/or for an allosexual audience.

With few exceptions, the 250 articles (including news, magazines, and major blog hubs indexed by Google News) that featured asexuality in 2017 generally fall into one of three categories:

  1. Asexuality 101
  2. Asexual Freakshow
  3. Asexual Representation


  1. “Asexuality 101” articles attempt to be a primer on the definition of asexuality as the absence of sexual attraction (although they often get this point wrong by confusing attraction with desire). Sometimes they discuss the concept of romantic orientation and how asexual relationships can look just like sexual relationships, but without the sex . This is a journalistic process of heteronormative assimilation similar to the “Love Is Love” movement that moved gays and lesbians into larger mainstream acceptance by downplaying their essential queerness.

asexual2A typical infographic supplied by AVEN.

  1. “Asexual Freakshow” articles play up the peculiarity and even the perceived perversity of asexuality. They usually attempt some of the explanatory work of Asexuality 101 articles, but frame the explanation in a way that exaggerates our alleged prudishness, or makes us the object of subtle ridicule or skepticism. These articles’ authors like to dwell on the incidence of masturbation and sexual fantasy among aces, or ask fellow allosexuals to share their shock that people can walk the planet without feeling lust.

asexual3Oh no…not the finger…

  1. “Asexual Representation” articles typically recognize a newly “out” celebrity, politician, or fictional character, or note the enduring absence of asexual figures in popular media. These articles are less likely to do the defining work of Asexuality 101. They often still explore the experiences exclusive to aces that are thus un/represented in the media (sometimes with nuance), as in the case of The Mary Sue, a pop-culture web magazine that often publishes sophisticated analyses of aces in visual media, often by ace authors. Unfortunately, articles about asexual celebrities might still frame the announcement in Asexual-Freakshow clickbait terms.

urlCheck out that URL.

Articles that don’t feature asexuality but instead mention it in passing (or list it among other subjects) don’t deviate much from the patterns I describe above. Features about Pride Month or LGBTQ resource centers do brief work in Asexuality 101; sex-ed articles addressing asexuality share a wink and a nudge with allosexuals; and pop-culture news often completely misunderstands asexuality as distinct from celibacy or gender-neutrality, or briefly reflects on the absence of ace role models.

To a degree, the abundance of Asexuality 101 articles unfortunately makes some sense. As Asexual Representation articles point out, known aces are frustratingly absent from public sight. Our A appears irregularly in the LGBT(QIAP+) acronym, and even when it does appear, it’s often appropriated to represent “ally” instead: most egregiously by American Apparel to sell bags in 2016 and by Equinox Gym to make a viral video in 2017. If allosexuals don’t know we exist, they can’t look for us, or be good allies to us; therefore, education is necessary. Even shoddy Asexuality 101 articles and the clickbait education of Asexual Freakshow articles can put information in front of people who wouldn’t have seen it otherwise.[1]

asexual5That’s…that’s not how it works…

But for those of us who have already discovered we identify as ace, the endless parade of explanatory articles describing us as if we were some curious or kinky novelty dominates the conversation. These articles aren’t written for us but rather about us. Cerankowski has observed that we are made into “objects for consumption” for a voyeuristic audience (141). Perhaps because aces themselves aren’t in charge of how we’re written about or what gets published, we are continually framed as eternally new, strange, and dubious in the service of others’ entertainment; not our own.

Last year was a particularly disappointing year for the objectification of aces in the news. In the articles I surveyed in December, twenty-five of them had headlines that either asked a question (“Is It Normal to Not Want Sex?”) or promised answers (“All Of Your Questions About What It’s Like To Be Asexual Answered”), all addressed at an audience presumed to not be ace. Prominent AVEN user Siggy compiled no less than 16 pseudo-journalistic takes on a study showing that aces have sexual fantasies (though not necessarily in the same way, for the same ends, or to the same extent that allosexuals do, a fact crucially omitted from the articles); one ace Tumblr user kindly compiled these articles’ tendencies to pathologize aces’ “condition” that prevents their “turning sexual fantasy into lived reality” at the same time as they sensationalize those sexual fantasies.

asexual6“Mostly White People Laying Down,” a collage of images accompanying articles about aces’ sexual fantasies (by sound-overlord.tumblr.com)

We’re either exhibited as circus freaks: can you imagine people who don’t have sex? (Even if some aces do have sex and the article conflated attraction with libido.) Or we’re shunted into the shadows of allosexuals: they might be repressed, or really closeted gays, or actually they’re really horny just like us and goodness knows why they don’t do anything about it. (Even if “not doing anything about it” can be its own desirable ends  —  and thus we’re not repressed.) On the one hand, we’re a desirable novelty pushed into a vulnerable spotlight. On the other, our existence discomforts some allosexuals so much that they try to dissolve our existence into their own.[2]

This year’s batch of articles shows some slight improvement. There are the usual Asexuality 101 suspects like “Asexuality: Can a relationship without sex work?”; and Asexual Freakshow headlines like “13 asexual people explain what things can turn them on” and “I’m Asexual And Here’s What Sex Feels Like For Me.” But peppered among the standard objectifying fare are a thoughtful interview with the showrunners of an ace podcast; an interrogation of the absence of aces from Pride festivities; savvy coverage of a sex toy review site by and for aces, and a dating app for aces. Even the alt-right’s favorite “news” site managed to spotlight research on microaggressions toward aces without trashing aces (cached link; don’t read the comments).

By and large, though, the only news articles that didn’t attempt the voyeurism Cerankowski describes or even Asexuality 101 were Asexual Representation articles on pop-culture subjects. And 2017 has been a banner year for ace representation. The new season four of Bojack Horseman finally confirmed the asexuality of Bojack’s sidekick Todd when it featured an episode dedicated to his coming out as ace and finding an ace community. Meanwhile, television series Shadowhunters confirmed the asexuality of one of its major characters, and Emmerdale suggested that it might be headed in the same direction. Teen Vogue and Bustle both called out Riverdale for erasing Jughead’s canonical aromantic asexuality, the comic-book confirmation of which generated much excitement for aces and articles on asexuality last year.

asexual7A scene from Bojack Horseman that I never thought I’d see with my own two ace eyes.

As a scholar of textual studies, this is my glimmer of hope. Where journalism neglects to represent aces as subjects rather than objects, narrative art increasingly tries to represent our diverse subjectivities on our own terms. This kind of storytelling invites aces to be participants in an empathetic audience, rather than experience constant subjection to being involuntarily paraded for others to ogle. Not only can allosexuals learn (hopefully more fully) about aces’ varied experiences, but also, aces can receive all the affirmation and pleasure that allosexuals have in narrative depictions of their straight and queer desires. Importantly, in ace stories, aces can see how other (even fictional) aces navigate the particular social and emotional terrain of asexuality.  This is, and has long been the end goal of representation: to be on the stage instead of inside a circus ring; to be in an audience instead of being an usher who disappears into the shadows of the theater, knowing that this show isn’t for them.

This is why it is so important that media narratives represent minorities on their own terms. What magazines and news sites might call “objectivity” in reporting on minorities is often indistinguishable from “normativity,” no matter whether it appears in its patriarchal, heterosexist, racist, classist, or ableist form. By centering within popular media voices from the margins, we can dismantle the mainstream misconceptions about asexuality and other categories of difference that continually cycle through news coverage.

[1] Even as (Cerankowski argues) bad representation potentially calcifies stereotypes (140).

[2] This is a move troublingly similar to that of some gatekeeping queer people who insist aces are not really queer because we’re somehow really straight  —  but that’s another story.

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


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.


Valor Narratives



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.


“What more does the Traveler want of Me?”: Destiny 2, Ghaul, and the Sci-Fi Villain

[7-10 minute read]

As its title screen fades to black, Destiny 2 (2017) sets itself up to follow the familiar science fiction trope of moral disambiguation. After destroying the last vestiges of human society on the planet, the new villain of the series – the not so subtly named Ghaul – has just thrown your player avatar off a hovering space craft to plummet toward earth. His final words to you hang in the air, a sinister snarl: “I am Ghaul, and your light…is mine.”

This “light” references the power bestowed on your character by a roving god-like entity known as The Traveler. In the first game, guardians chosen by this entity have the power of light bestowed upon them, granting them exceptional abilities. These powers are granted to them in order to facilitate their fight against the enemy of The Traveler – again, the not subtly named, “The Darkness.” Destiny is not aiming for subtlety in the moral lines that it draws. This idea of clear cut sides, of a “right” side and a “wrong side,” serves to anchor Destiny not only within the genre of science fiction, but within the medium of video games.

Science fiction has a long history of “black and white” narratives. Both Star Wars and Star Trek, arguably the two most popular science fiction texts in 20th and 21st century American culture, utilize a rather simplistic moral framework. Star Wars relies on “The Force” with characters falling to either the “light” side or the “dark side.” While the occasional “grey” character may emerge,[1] on the whole, Star Wars falls back on characters that are motivated either by selfish interests (the dark side, the Sith) or general good will and honor (the light side, the Jedi). “Light” side characters in the franchise films (the most widely and frequently consumed Star Wars texts) often receive ample development time on screen, leading to what Murray Smith calls “alignment,” a form of audience identification with a character that results from our exposure to information about that character within the film.[2] The motivations of the texts’ central heroes are made fairly explicit; for example: Luke wants off his home planet, wants to help the mysterious and beautiful Leia from his droid’s recordings, and wants to escape the Empire who murdered his aunt and uncle. However, the major villains of the franchise receive little-to-no attention: Emperor Palpatine is evil because of “reasons,” or simply because he’s Sith.

Img1The Poster for the most recent installment makes the split between good and evil readily apparent. (Lucasfilm/Disney)

Star Trek carries this same tradition: The Borg are defined by their inhumanity, the Klingons and Romulans are aligned with their cultures of violence, imperialism, and war; all alien species that fight against the United Federation of Planets quickly become coded as vicious, violent, and evil. Even when the series investigates the motivations behind its antagonists, there is no question about who we view as villain and hero: Khan’s devotion to slaughter in Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013) is reprehensible and unforgivable, even if he is responding to manipulation on the part of the Federation. Struggle between a righteous, noble humanity and a violent alien “other” quintessentially characterizes much of the science fiction that populates our popular culture.

This convention rings even more true for video game narratives where the developers must establish not only the moral framework of the world, but do so in such a manner that motivates the player by interpolating them into this struggle. The Halo (2001-2017) series utilizes humanity vs. The Covenant, and the Mass Effect (2007-2017) series explores the fight between humanity and “the Reapers.” In both cases, the player knows immediately which side they should root for – that is, which side is the victim in need of a hero – because it is the side their avatar fights for within the world of the game. Even in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (2003), which allows players to choose a side in Jedi vs. Sith battles, the Jedi are still coded explicitly as good, and the Sith as evil.

This overwhelming generic convention has followed gamers down the pipeline to their first encounter with the world of Destiny in 2014. The presence of this science fiction trope for moral disambiguation made it easy to buy into the clearly delineated light vs. darkness world of good vs. evil present in the first game. Immediately, within the game’s opening cinematic, players know they are in the right, aligned with the Traveler and his Light against the forces of The Darkness, and justified in the goals of the first-person shooter/ MMO-hybrid: shooting and killing everyone who shoots at you. Narrative turns act in concert with these game mechanics to structure your behavior and pit you against alien “others.” The initial player encounter with aliens in the game, creatures known as The Fallen, is introduced by your robot guide stating that he “needs to find you a gun before the Fallen find you.” From this point forward, information about the various aliens species encountered in the game comes filtered to the player through their robot guide and the various leaders of the human resistance on Earth. Cut scenes within the game focus on the player’s hero, or on members of the human resistance, but never on the aliens. Again, they are evil simply because they are pitted against the hero, and bent on the same goal as the player: to kill rather than be killed. Their motivations remain vague, clothed in the language of “domination” (The Imperial Cabal), “dark ritual” (The Hive), “resource theft” (the scavenging Fallen), and “technological superiority to non-robots” (The Vex). In all cases, the aliens act as violent aggressors, while the humans simply attempt to defend the remaining human population.

With this framework from the first game, our return to the Earth of Destiny feels familiar in the opening moments of Destiny 2. The surprise comes not from a new alien threat, but from the success of this threat to obliterate the majority of humanity’s last bastion on Earth, and to cripple the heretofore invincible character avatar, the guardian. Destiny 2 opens by insisting that the “good” guys might not win this time.

Img2Ghaul prepares to boot the player’s guardian off the Cabal command ship. (Bungie/Activision)

The narrative continues this insistence on mortality in the following scene, reducing the heroic guardian from the first game to a limping, weaponless shell that must navigate the ruins of the Earth outpost. Mechanics force the player to experience this powerlessness alongside their character: stripped of all the powers and abilities that made their guardians super-human, as well as the ability to jump or run, the player instead can only control the direction of their guardian as the figure limps through burning rubble at a crawling pace that stretches the moment out interminably.

Something else is different in this opening sequence as well, a change whose significance becomes clear as the game’s cut scenes begin to unfold. In the beginning cinematic, Ghaul, the player’s new alien enemy, is presented to us with a recognizable face. Up until this point in the series, members of the alien species of The Cabal enemies faced by the guardians have all been helmeted, with a single exception encountered if the player seeks out lore hidden throughout the worlds of the game.

Img3The usual Cabal suspect. (destiny.wikia.com)

In contrast to this, Ghaul’s face is open to us, or at least his eyes and head:

Img4Dominus Ghaul (destiny.wikia.com)

The impact of seeing his face, and of the eye contact made with the camera (and therefore the gaze of the audience) startles the player. In no small part, this rises from the forces of abjection functioning in this moment of reveal.[3] Here, the face of the other, scarred, mangled, red-eyed, and trapped behind a breathing apparatus, nevertheless still looks human in shape. Ghaul still has eyes which gaze at the player the player gazes at him. The barrier of helmet that helped to define the Cabal as “other” more easily for players is torn away, causing an encounter with an abject other that may be closer to the self than the helmet allowed.

This almost “humanizing” moment in the opening of the game serves as prelude to the function of the rest of the narrative. Where the first Destiny centered cut-scenes almost exclusively on characterization for the player-guardian and their companions, Destiny 2 instead focuses half of its cut-scenes on Ghaul and his ongoing dialogue with The Speaker, a human who serves as a sort of voice for The Traveler. During these scenes we discover that Ghaul is motivated toward his conquest of The Traveler’s light not by some abstract evil, but by victimization he suffered as a child coupled with manipulation wrought by his mentor, The Consul, a disgraced Cabal scholar. Born a runt and albino in a culture that prizes physical domination and strength, Ghaul was abandoned to die. Though The Consul saved him, it was only so he could mold him into a tool to use for conquest and destruction. Ghaul’s childhood abandonment clearly still impacts him, regardless of his accumulated power and prestige as the leader of the Red Legion. His continuous plea to The Speaker and The Traveler rises from the insecurity of his childhood trauma, as he calls for them to “see” him: “Do you see, Traveler, all that I have done? Grace me with your light.”

As the game progresses, Ghaul’s desire to be worthy becomes more and more desperate. He begs the Speaker to “help [him] understand,” to reveal to him why the Traveler will not bestow its light on him. Even though he could simply tear the light out of the Traveler and claim it for himself, he insists that the Traveler must recognize him and what he has accomplished, and gift to him the light instead. When The Consul insists that taking the light by force is the only way, Ghaul retorts, “Not for me.” At the surface level, he is driven by selfish thirst for glory and power that we have come to expect from villains, but beneath that, he is an abandoned child seeking to repay his mentor for rescuing him by raining revenge on “an empire that failed him” – and the game makes sure that we, the players, know this. Unlike past Destiny villains, we know what drives Ghaul: not an abstract concept, but a relatable need for acceptance that feels all too human. His final demand of The Speaker reiterates his desire toward worthiness: “Tell me, Speaker. What more does the Traveler want of me?” It is only after this moment that The Consul leverages his power over Ghaul, and questions his loyalty and the value of his word. In the face of failing the man who raised him, the man who “chose” him, Ghaul consents to take the Traveler’s light.

While the end of the video game’s narrative resolves to place Ghaul squarely in the role of the evil villain in order to generate the medium’s essential boss battle and clean narrative closure, this expository work throughout the bulk of the game’s campaign serves a significant purpose. In our current political environment of creeping fascism and nationalism that relies so heavily on rhetoric of “us vs. them,” a genre that bends conventions to serve up a complicated and pitiable villain creates a bold political statement. Ghaul, ostensibly the enemy, reveals his motivations as hubris and a need for vengeance against those who hurt him. He asks us to question our notions of a black and white world. He presents a narrative of moral ambiguity that reflects back on our reality of human experience. He causes us to question our easy moral binaries, and the lines we draw between others and ourselves.

[1] Han Solo and Anakin Skywalker both exemplify these “grey-area” characters: Han due to his questionable motivations of wealth rather than honor, and Anakin due to his slaughter of the entire sand tribe rising out of a uncontrolled rage over the violence done to his mother

[2] For an easily accessible overview of Murray Smith’s theories on audience identification see Greg Smith’s chapter, “How do we identify with characters,” from his book What Media Classes Really Want to Discuss, Routledge, 2011.

[3] The term abjection and the theory surrounding it is pulled from Julia Kristeva’s book Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, Columbia UP, 1982.

Hillarie Curtis is a second year Ph.D. student in English at Syracuse University where they study masculinity, monstrosity, censorship, and queer representations in Classic Hollywood films and Popular Culture texts.


Seduction and Devastation

[10 minute read]

In my final foray into Hannibal, I will examine the final season and its tragedy and seduction. After the violence of “Mizumono,” the season two finale, Hannibal escapes to Italy, his pursuers scattered and recovering from their injuries. Driven by vivid hallucinations and a grisly murder, Will sails the Atlantic to seek Hannibal out. Will’s obsession with Hannibal lures him into a deep web of seduction, mirroring, and finally, unity through violence.

Before we are able to fully understand the tragedy of the reunion between Hannibal and Will, it is important to explore the extent of Hannibal’s trauma in “Mizumono.” Rather than anger, Hannibal responds as if he has been hurt, acting as the betrayed party. In a flashback, Hannibal discusses forgiveness with his therapist-confidante, Dr. Du Maurier. “Betrayal and forgiveness are… best seen as something akin to falling in love,” she explains. However, Hannibal counters this, saying “You cannot control with respect to whom you fall in love.” The framing of this conversation makes it clear they are both speaking of Will. In Hannibal’s grief, he reaches out to Will in his typical fashion.


Will finds Hannibal’s broken heart 

Impersonating a museum curator, Hannibal befriends a young, attractive man, Anthony Dimmond.[1] When he is invited to the home Hannibal and du Maurier share (playing the role of husband and wife), Dimmond casually and flirtatiously proposes a threesome. After looking to du Maurier for guidance, Hannibal admits “it’s not that kind of party.” Rebuked but intrigued, Dimmond falls right into Hannibal’s trap: he beats Dimmond with a decorative statue and savagely breaks his neck. Hannibal then transports the body cross-country, mutilating it to form the shape of a human heart which he leaves in a church for Will to find. It’s a gruesome Valentine, and one with a clear message: Hannibal’s heart is broken. Italian detective Pazzi observes “Is Will Graham here because of the body, or is the body here because of Will Graham?” The aftershocks of Hannibal and Will’s mutual betrayal are felt as distantly as Europe, placing them in a difficult and peculiar position of forgiveness.

Will’s response to Hannibal’s hurt is not a pursuit, but a seduction. Upon tracking Hannibal to a maze of church catacombs, Will calls into the darkness “I forgive you.” The exceptionally painful nature of the relationship between these two men muddies the scene. In their previous moments together (in the season two finale) Hannibal guts Will and murders Abigail, a young woman that Will had begun to view as a surrogate daughter. And yet, despite this pain, there is no uncertainty or disingenuousness in Will’s voice.[2] Rather, it is Will’s method of signaling the start of their web of seduction and violence. After Will makes this statement, he leaves immediately. He does not pursue Hannibal aggressively, but instead invites him to give chase by retreating back to Hannibal’s childhood home.


Will leaves Hannibal a Valentine of his own

In an attempt to better understand Hannibal’s history and trauma, Will seeks out Hannibal’s birthplace in Lithuania. There, he begins to understand Hannibal’s genesis as a killer, starting with Hannibal’s forced cannibalization of his young sister Mischa. With new insights, Will leaves to reconnect with Hannibal, but not before leaving behind a gift of his own: a body presented in a remarkable fashion, reaching out to Hannibal through the man’s own art form.

When Will finally returns to Hannibal, it is from a place of understanding and confidence. Although the nature of Hannibal as a character makes it impossible to fully understand him, Will’s revelations about Hannibal’s past offer clarity into their relationship. Will admits that he already defines his life in terms of his relationship with Hannibal, but understands that Hannibal’s own expression of his past is blurrier. However, their paths forward are linked; they are led inescapably to each other.


Will and Hannibal reunite in the latter’s favorite art gallery

Despite the inevitable weight of the past, the long-awaited reunion of Hannibal and Will is powerful moment of brightness and pleasure. “If I saw you every day, forever, Will, I would remember this time,” Hannibal remarks, gazing at Will with adoration and open affection. There is a sense of palpable relief as the two men come together. Surrounded by the beauty of the art gallery and the symmetry of the shot, it is easy for us to forget the trauma that Will has experienced at Hannibal’s hands. We can almost believe forgiveness. Remarking upon the twisting intimacy of their relationship, Will explains “We’re conjoined. I’m curious whether either of us can survive separation.” This comment speaks frankly to the relationship between Will and Hannibal. They remain obsessed with each other to the point that they are all the other can think about, all the other longs for.


An image from the show’s opening credits shows Hannibal and Will’s edges blurring together

The tender moment in the museum is shattered as the two men walk out side by side. In a moment painfully resonant with “Mizumono,” Will attempts to stab and kill Hannibal. This attempt is thwarted by Hannibal’s childhood caretaker, Chiyoh, who shoots Will through the shoulder, saving Hannibal. True to Will’s prediction, he cannot be separated from Hannibal, attempts to do so only bring them closer. Once Hannibal has dragged Will to safety, he disrobes him, embraces him, and tends to his wounds. The intimacy of the scene is gentle, but unsteady. The camera lingers over Will’s delicately arched neck and vulnerable form. Even when Hannibal literally places the knife back into Will’s hand, it is to emphasize his weakness. “You dropped your forgiveness, Will,” Hannibal says, seeming more intrigued than hurt. He is fascinated by Will, and by their inability to fully separate.


Will and Hannibal in their final moment of unity

Will and Hannibal’s link reaches its crescendo in the season three finale “The Wrath of the Lamb.” Having chased and been chased by serial killer Francis Dolarhyde, Will and Hannibal are finally united in their violence. In a final and bloody confrontation, the two men kill Dolarhyde with knives and teeth, each giving themselves over fully to the fervor of the fight. With Dolarhyde slain, Will and Hannibal fall into each other’s arms, coated in each other’s blood and exhausted from the fight. “This is all I ever wanted for you,” Hannibal finally says to Will. Hannibal is delighted by Will’s violence, the joy he has taken in killing. “It’s beautiful,” Will admits, before pitching them both over the cliff’s edge and into the turbulent waters below.

Will and Hannibal are unable to survive separation. Like a rubber band, attempts to pull away only send them back together until the only option left is to break.. Their trauma and torment is so wrapped up in the other’s existence that even living is impossible while the other still breathes. Will’s final act of murder-suicide allows the only modicum of agency in his relationship to Hannibal: choosing when it will happen. By taking responsibility for Hannibal’s destruction, Will accepts their unity, but is unable to allow Hannibal his freedom. His victory is bittersweet, but it is ultimately heroic.

[1] In many ways, Dimmond resembles Will: the same dark, curly hair and scruffy jaw.

[2] This is especially important as Will’s character is shown to have difficulty lying.

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