Reception Studies

“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.

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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.

Sept1

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.

Sept2

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.

Sept3

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.

Sept4

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.

Sept5

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.

 

“Remarkable Boy…I Think I’ll Eat Your Heart.”

[7-10 minute read]

The exploration of queer representation in Hannibal allows for a greater understanding of the conventions of gender and sexuality within the thriller genre. Highly-fictionalized thrillers such as Hannibal thrive on extreme relationships, but also rely heavily on non-traditional erotic relationships to further depict the extremes of personalities in its central characters. The cop-vs-serial killer subset of the thriller genre adds an element of intense, personal desire to what would otherwise be a genre categorized by rote sleuthing. So it is in Hannibal, where the main draw of the series (besides its stunning visuals) is the eroticly-charged cat-and-mouse game between FBI agent Will Graham and cunning killer Hannibal Lecter. Several characters of the series equate the furious obsession the two men share for each other to love. This suggestion troubles the relationship between the two men, indicating that their painful, self-destructive relationship is based simultaneously in love and hate. They are unable to pull away from each other, just as they are unable to completely become one. Instead, their relationship serves to complicate the viewer’s understanding of desire and the desire to kill.

Remarkable1

Hannibal stabs Will in the opening shots of the film Red Dragon (2002)

To fully understand the complexity of Hannibal and Will’s relationship, we must return to one of the first incarnations of this relationship in the 2002 thriller Red Dragon.[1] What is unique about the Silence of the Lambs trilogy is that no one film depicts Hannibal’s time before prison in great detail.[2] Hannibal’s crimes are defined largely through rumor and his own description; Hannibal is the arbiter of his own mythos. However, there is a significant gap in the viewer’s understanding of the relationship between Hannibal and Will. This is deftly remedied in the opening scene of Red Dragon. Over the opening credits, Will Graham, here played by Edward Norton, comes to the shuddering realization that the mysterious killer is eating his victims — and that the killer is none other than his close confidante. At the crescendo of Will’s understanding, signified by the drawing of his gun, Hannibal sinks his knife into Will’s stomach. Despite the violence of the action, there is unmistakable tenderness as well. The stabbing mirrors a lover’s embrace; Hannibal rests his chin on Will’s shoulder, hushing him gently. In this scene, Hannibal gains no visible pleasure from hurting Will. Instead, he is careful, tender. “Remarkable boy,” he says. “I think I’ll eat your heart.” The reverent, intimate delivery of the line, coupled with the way Hannibal holds the fallen Will around the waist like a dance partner suggests a fond tenderness that goes beyond the bounds of homosocial friendship. Their intimacy serves to hint at a homoerotic bond that is only briefly touched upon in Red Dragon.

Remark2

Hannibal embracing Will

This highly-charged bond is given far more screen time and consideration in Hannibal. The two men are far closer in age, diminishing the mentor/pupil relationship present in Red Dragon[3] and emphasizing a more equal footing. Furthermore, the first two seasons of Hannibal take place prior to the moment of understanding in Red Dragon that culminates in Will’s stabbing. The challenge of Hannibal then is to balance the painful anticipation of this “breakup” with the pleasure of watching the budding relationship between two fascinating, electric men. And a pleasure it is. Hannibal and Will have a powerful chemistry that obsesses the narrative. They share intense, longing looks, have little regard for each other’s personal space, and have many moments of strangely endearing domesticity. Hannibal is always cooking for Will, seeking to impress him with increasingly elaborate presentations. Food in Hannibal is always a matter of seduction and charm, a way for Hannibal to exert power over his guests (Will most frequently) while simultaneously providing them with nourishment and artistic pleasure.

Remark3Hannibal preparing a rare non-human delicacy for Will.

The homoeroticism of food and eating crescendos in Hannibal’s second season, when Hannibal and Will share a meal of songbirds eaten whole. In an interview with Logo, director Bryan Fuller comments on this feast below:

We really want to explore the intimacy of these two men in an unexpected way without sexualizing them, but including a perception of sexuality that the cinema is actually portraying to the audience more than the characters are. There’s a scene at dinner where we were tackling in the edit bay because it was so transparently homoerotic. They were doing something that was not sex or anywhere near sex, but it was shot so suggestively that they may as well have been…

This scene lingers lovingly over open mouths, swallowing throats, and blissful expressions. In mood, framing, and aesthetic, it is a sexual scene. And yet, everyone’s clothes remain on. The evident homoeroticism of the scene is tempered by its modesty. There is power and seduction, but the lack of sexual acts and romantic physical gestures such as kissing leaves it clear that the relationship is not a traditionally romantic one.

For LGBT audiences, representation in film and television is an obstacle course of flirtation with canon. This battle with on-screen depictions of queer couples is often waylaid by a phenomenon known as queerbaiting. Queerbaiting teases the viewer with hints to a homosexual relationship in order to entice LGBTQ viewers, but this potential relationship ultimately remains unfulfilled. (Shows such as Supernatural are notorious for queerbaiting its fans.) Despite accusations of queerbaiting when it became apparent that central characters Will and Hannibal’s relationship would never be a physical one, queer fans nonetheless rejoiced at Hannibal. While Will and Hannibal would not explore a homosexual relationship on-screen, which frustrated some fans, many others were content in the highly-aesthetic, subtext-heavy portrayal of Hannibal and Will’s relationship.

Remark4

“Hannigram” fan art by DeviantArt user Look-ling

Fans of this relationship, which is affectionately dubbed “Hannigram,” are quick to admit that the relationship between the two men is certainly an abusive one. For all of the intimacies between Will and Hannibal, their relationship is one built on manipulation, violence, and entrapment. However, for many, this is part of the attraction. The intensity and darkness is appealing, especially with two lead actors with significant fanbases. Many elements of “Hannigram” are aesthetic; there are large sects of fanworks dedicated to the sheer beauty of the show and its actors. However, the appeal of “Hannigram” is not wholly artistic. The cat-and-mouse element of their relationship, emphasized by a history of serial killer/cop films with similar relationships, is characterized by danger and seduction. In a show about the art of violence, “Hannigram” dances alongside the violence, rather than shying away from it. The honesty of the appeal of “Hannigram” in (largely female) fans allows for a deeper exploration of the intimacy of violence between Will and Hannibal.

This violence culminates in a stabbing, just as in Red Dragon. In Red Dragon, the stabbing is presented as a shock. In Hannibal, however, there is great anticipation for the moment. While this could be, in part, due to lingering audience familiarity with the source material, it is more likely a reading of the tone of the scene. Red Dragon amplified the shocking element, playing off of Will’s horrified revelation about Hannibal’s guilt. In Hannibal, however, we anticipate the betrayal. Will has spent the season desperately, obsessively working to prove Hannibal’s guilt. And yet, when the time comes to make the arrest, Will balks; he reveals the ploy to Hannibal. When he finds that Hannibal has not run but instead done grave violence to Jack and Alana, Will is heartbroken. “You were supposed to leave,” he says, his voice low and devastated. Hannibal responds by touching the side of Will’s, and stabs Will like an apology, like a betrayal.

Remark5Hannibal pulls Will close after stabbing him

The embrace that Will and Hannibal fall into speaks to the unsustainable nature of their relationship. They are so deeply caught up in each other’s obsession that they are desperately linked. They are fated to trap each other. While their romance departs from traditional depictions, Will and Hannibal are still star-crossed, their mutual erotic obsession only just beginning.


Next week: Seduction and Devastation After the Betrayal

[1] There is also an adaptation of Red Dragon even before Silence of the Lambs, a thriller titled Manhunter released in 1986. However, this did not enjoy the same popularity as the later Harris-based film trilogy.

[2] A later film, Hannibal Rising (2007) attempts to remedy this, but it is considered separate from the trilogy.

[3]This is not to say that mentor/pupil relationships lack homoerotism. Rather, this particular relationship is strengthened by a different power dynamic.

The Erotics of Evil

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

hannibal-wallpaper70664Promotional image for NBC’s Hannibal

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

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

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

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

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

hannibal-182Hannibal experiencing a completely innocuous projector malfunction

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

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

tumblr_n384sbtQkJ1tx4u06o3_1280Hannibal enjoying the fruits of his labors

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

hannibal_3Promotional image featuring Hannibal Lecter for the NBC television series

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


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

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

 

 

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

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

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Fiennes’ Coriolanus

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

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

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

Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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(Credit: Imdb)

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

So what, if anything, does Rey want?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ReyRen%3aSolo

(Credit: Sweatpantsandcoffee.com)

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

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

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

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(Credit: emegustart.tumblr.com)

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

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

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(Credit: Superhero Hype Forums)

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

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


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

A life is made of critical appreciation

The curious thing about the arts is how they flow across geographical limitations like no other stream of study or career. Art has an organic capability to mold itself in the vision of its audience no matter what its origins were. The story of a French boy who finds an extremely spherical balloon that has a mind of its own (Albert Lamorisse’s The Red Balloon) can create vivid emotions for a college student living in a busy metropolis in India. The painting of a couple embraced in a passionate kiss amidst stark hues of yellow and green, created by an Austrian painter (Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss) could mean very different things for an American artist and a Turkish student. A Sufi song could be interpreted as a prayer to God or an ode to eternal love.

Just like any form of art, good television content flows across borders as well. When I started watching The Good Wife while still in India, I was mesmerized. The last time I was that mesmerized was when I discovered gratuitous nudity and sex on the US version of Queer as Folk. What made The Good Wife good, besides the brilliant cast and their on-point acting skills, were the stories it spoke of—the flawlessness in every episode’s script, every season’s arc and in the series’ overall progression. But I also realized that good television was not just about what the show creators put on our screens. It was also about our critical appreciation of them.

As a teenager, Friends used to be my favorite show. I loved each and every thing about it. I can still repeat most of the dialogues without the slightest hesitation. But as I have grown, something changed. I still love the show and its many situations, but it’s not my favorite anymore. Throughout the series, one joke was constant: being ‘gay’ in any way was laughable and mock-worthy. Chandler had a bad childhood because of his parents and yet, somehow, it is always easier for him to forgive his cisgender straight mother than his father who came out as a transgender woman while he was still a kid, even though he is embarrassed more than once about his mother’s “promiscuous and unruly” persona. Ross has always been less than thrilled about Carol leaving him for a woman and has never hidden his discontent with her “lesbian status”; even after giving her away at her wedding, Ross consistently treats Carol’s wife, Susan, as something less than human.

And yet, Friends is also a champion of myriad social issues of the time. The show broadcast one of television’s very first lesbian weddings that transpired from a long-standing and successful relationship. It wittily showcased the awkwardness of the heteronormative concept of “coming out” when they turned the tables and made Phoebe’s presumed gay, green card husband come out as straight. Phoebe went against all sorts of societal pressures and decided to turn the stigma of surrogate motherhood of the 90s on its head by carrying her brother’s triplets in her womb. Rachel showed the world that it is not easy being a single mother, but it is definitely not impossible; she raised her daughter as a single woman and went on to have a successful career in the fashion industry. Chandler’s father showed the world that there is absolutely nothing wrong or embarrassing in being a transgender woman. You have just got to know how to own it with the right sequins and a hat to match. To tease out this tension is to appreciate, but appreciate critically—to enjoy, but to think.

After accepting her GLAAD Vanguard Award at the GLAAD Media Awards this year, Kerry Washington said, “There is so much power in storytelling, and there is enormous power in inclusive storytelling, in inclusive representation.” Compound that with the skill of critical appreciation and a whole new world of perspectives comes alive. For me, graduate school and the different individuals I met on my journey here made all the difference. I mean, for God’s sake, I don’t watch Queer As Folk for the sex anymore.


Image from tv.com

Aishik Barua is a 2nd-year MBA student concentrating on media marketing. He is particularly in love with TV shows (from The Sopranos to The Flash), books (from The Little Prince to the Harry Clifton series) and a myriad number of modern era conspiracy theories. When he is not screwing his eyes at some website’s Google Analytics page, he could be found doodling with his sketch pencils, cooking a new dish or simply engaging in general goofiness.

The Fertility of Miró

I have never quite gotten surrealist, post-modern art. (Left to my own devices I happily spend my museum visits floating around the impressionist era.) I look at abstract symbolic paintings and feel that I miss the intended emotion or meaning—as if the painters and their devotees speak a language I cannot understand.

That changed when I stumbled upon an ephemeral relationship between the art of Miró and fertilization research from the early 1980s to mid 1990s. This connection provided me with a whole new way to view, understand, and appreciate Miró. His art was no longer a remote, confusing abstraction, but rather an artistic reflection of the same questions about life, reproduction, and behavior I think about as a scientist.

It all started with a magazine article written by two incredible scientists, Gerald and Heidi Schatten in 1983.[i] (Fun fact, Gerald Schatten and I both attended Stuyvesant High School in NYC, albeit about 50 years apart). The Schattens illustrate the history of research in fertilization starting from Hippocraties, and the paucity of information about the female gamete that persisted until the late 1800s. As scientists probed the mysteries of the egg they found it was active in the fertilization process and discovered intricate mechanisms through which the egg cooperates to bring the sperm through its layers, fuse the maternal and paternal nuclei, and initiate development. New microscopic technologies revealed the complex internal structure of the egg that facilitates many of these key fertilization events.

Miro2

In addition to describing research for a public audience, the article also included three paintings by Joan Miró, as well as works by Alexander Calder and Pablo Picasso. Nothing in the text describes the art. They are just there: full page, color reproductions, with no explanation. However, when I looked at the paintings included in the article alongside the Schattens’ scientific images of the earliest moments of sea urchin fertilization, I understood. The spherical shapes evoke the female gamete. In the painting Amour, the letters spelling the title spill out from a point on the large purple/blue shape that could be the site of fertilization. The flurry of lines, dots and shapes within the red circle of The Broken Circle captures the energetic egg paradigm the Schattens describe.

I was curious why Miró’s paintings, in particular, had been included in the article. I turned to Google, searching for something that might explain the connection between his work and reproductive biology. Although nothing on the Internet provided me with a conclusive answer, I did uncover additional incidents where Miró and fertilization research intersected.

I found an article from the Chicago Tribune in 1990 about the scientist Yury Verlinsky’s discovery of a new in vitro technology for genetic testing.[ii] If a couple is worried about having a baby because of a genetic disorder that could be inherited, Dr. Verlinsky’s technique would allow scientists to test the egg for the disease before it is even fertilized.  The test is performed on DNA of the polar body, part of the egg that is extruded in the cellular divisions during maturation, and determines whether or not a baby made from that egg would inherit the genetic disorder. The article described that Dr. Verlinsky came up with the idea looking at a Miró painting:

“Relaxing after a day spent pondering the earliest stages of fetal development, Verlinsky visited a Jerusalem art gallery. He contemplated an untitled 1935 painting by the great Spanish abstractionist, Joan Miró. In Miró’s typically droll style, the painting consisted of two disks floating in space, one red, the other yellow. Just underneath the red disk was another round object, black and very tiny. Verlinksy stood and stared for a long time. The more he examined Miró’s colored disks, the more they looked to him like human eggs. Maybe the red disk became the yellow disk after it kicked out the black dot, he mused. “

I became obsessed; I needed to see the painting that had inspired the flash of genius to test polar bodies. The paltry clues included in the article were of little help. I acquired the entire catalogue of Miró’s paintings[iii] and scoured through 1935, staring at anything with even a close resemblance to the description, but nothing matched. As I resigned myself to work through Miró’s entire collection, I worried that I would accidentally skip over or not recognize the painting. My fears were unfounded. I knew immediately when I came to the The Magic of Color, 1930 that I had found it. To me, it was definitely not droll. It was glorious.

Miro3

However, I was still not satisfied. I delved deeper into the pages of my Google search results until I came across a sentence in An Intimate Distance: Women, Artists and the Body by Rosemary Betterson[iv] that told of an exhibition in 1992, organized by the Joan Miró Foundation[v] on In Vitro fertilization. I scoured the recesses of the Internet to find any reference of this exhibit and came up empty handed. I was ultimately able to get my hands on both the exhibit catalogue[vi] and record of the accompanying symposium.[vii] The exhibition In vitro. From the mythology of fertility to the boundaries of science, initiated by KRTU a cultural branch of the Catalan government, was not explicitly about Miró; rather, it explored the boundary between science, history, and art in our relationship with fertility.

“We have arranged the exhibition in such a way as to show, through various nuclei, the traces and faces (archaeological, linguistic, gastronomic, artistic, ethnographic, scientific, etc.) of fertility myths, the current situation in the fight against infertility, and the prospects current research is now opening up.” – Vicenc Altaio and Anna Viega, Curators of In Vitro. 8

Pages away from each other are the Venus statues of early humans and ancient Greeks, Miró’s bronze figures of women that emphasize female secondary sexual characteristics, and tools used by midwives and obstetricians. The speculums and dilators are so structurally intricate they are at home alongside the famous sculptures. Powerpoint slides on IVF technologies that could have been pulled directly from a course in reproductive biology for conservation I took while studying abroad are nearly touching reproductions of the Virgin Mother and Child.

As a post baccalaureate fellow in the lab of Dr. Carmen Williams at the NIEHS [viii] I learned how to do in vitro fertilization of mice. I manipulated micropipettes with a joystick to hold and inject eggs in order to change their gene expression. I spent so many hours mouth-pipetting ooctytes to remove the cells that surround them when they are collected from the ovary that I would get home, close my eyes, and see them imprinted on my eyelids. In the In vitro exhibit the same images I saw, starting down a microscope, were suddenly art. Were discussed in the same breath as the biological drawings of Erns Haeckel and the renowned paintings of Picasso, Dali, and Miró.

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“The beauty of the scientific images and the beauty of the artistic images – even if we are unable to read them when we are unfamiliar with their code – would suffice by themselves to justify the exhibition…”
– Vicenc Altaio and Anna Viega, Curators of In Vitro.8

My winding exploration of Miró provided me with an entirely new perspective of not only surrealist art, but also the aesthetics of my own research. More than that, Miró’s paintings reminded me of the humanity of my research. Although we are using different techniques, terminology, and mediums, fundamentally I ask the same questions about how life begins. If I am receptive to it, I can find the themes of my research in reproduction reflected throughout culture. For these reasons, and so many more, it delights me that the acronym for artificial reproductive technologies is ART.

P.S. If anyone reading this is computer programming inclined, I desperately require an app that will allow me to use Miró symbols as emoji’s. I’ll call them: Miróji’s.

 


Figure 1: Miro, 1967. The Gold of the Azure. http://www.fundaciomiro-bcn.org/coleccio_obra.php?idioma=2&obra=709

Figure 2: Bottom left – G. Schatten, scanning electron micrograph (SEM) image of sea urchin fertilization http://worms.zoology.wisc.edu/dd2/echino/fert/pronuclear/pronuclear.html Top are from 1. Left – Miro, 1964. The Broken Circle. Center – Miro, 1925. The Birth of the World. Right – Miro, 1926. Amour.

Figure 3: Miro, 1930. The Magic of Color. http://catalogue.successiomiro.com/catalogues/paintings-i/painting-the-magic-of-color.html

Figure 4: McDonough, C.E. and Bernhardt, M. MII egg GFP experiments.

 

[i] Schatten, G. and Schatten, H. 1983. The Energetic Egg. The Sciences.

[ii] Gorner, P. and Kotulak, R. 1990. Gene Screening: A Chance to Map Our Body’s Future. Chicago Tribune. http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1990-04-15/news/9001310515_1_genetic-yury-verlinsky-gene-screening

[iii] Dupin, J and Lelong-Mainaud, A. 2003. Catalogue raisonné. Paintings. Vol. I – VI. Successió Miró A.D.A.G.P., Paris.

[iv] Betterton, R. 1996. An Intimate Distance: Women, Artists and the Body. Routledge.

[v] http://www.fundaciomiro-bcn.org/fundaciojoanmiro.php?idioma=2

[vi] Altaio, V. and Viega, A. curators 1992. In Vitrode les mitologies de la fertilitat als limits de la cencia. Fundació Joan Miró, Barcelona.

[vii] Altaio, V. and Viega, A. curators 1992. In vitro a Debat Simposi. Fundació Joan Miró, Barcelona.

[viii]http://www.niehs.nih.gov/research/atniehs/labs/rdbl/pi/reproductive/index.cfm

 


Caitlin McDonough is a first year biology graduate in the Center for Reproductive Evolution. When not dissecting fruit flies, she plays rugby, draws and disrupts conventional scientists by talking about feminism and queer studies. More information can be found at her website cemcdonough.com or fledgling blog ideaspermatheca.com.

Perils of Click-Bait Science Communication, or There’s Many a Slip ‘twixt the Cup and the Lip

Science communication plays an integral role in bridging the gap between academia and the public. Science writers have the tricky job of distilling complex ideas into digestible pieces, and explaining highly-specialized experiments in a way the public might find interesting. Research highlighted in the media can become part of a larger cultural conversation and have a more direct impact on people’s lives. However, in this process, a research article undergoes multiple reinterpretations, and can become detached from the original material. As a result of this process, science for public consumption tends to overemphasize human relevance, lose qualifiers or context, and frequently employs ‘click-bait’ methods of choosing catchy titles that distort the results and implications of the research.

A particularly painful example of the pitfalls of a catchy title happened in the highlight of an article on primate sexual behavior. In December 2014, a group of researchers published a study on reproductive conflict and male aggression in chimpanzees. [1] They found a correlation between high-ranking male aggression toward females during the females’ non-fertile period, and the amount of offspring that male fathered. The scientists hypothesized that sustained male aggression played a role in sexual coercion. The title of their article was relatively innocuous: “Sexually Coercive Male Chimpanzees Sire More Offspring. However, in a companion piece meant to attract attention and describe the research for a more general audience, the title lost some nuance: “Sexual Conflict: Nice Guys Finish Last.”[2]

Nice guys finish last is a trope that has been increasingly adopted by the MRA (Men’s Rights Advocacy) movement to disparage the sexual choices of women. Although the use of this phrase was likely to add levity and attract attention with no ill intention, I was startled to see Nice guys finish last used so flippantly in a scientific journal without any consideration of the broader cultural implications. Especially last year, when misogynistic ideologies perpetuated violence against women that could not be ignored,[3] it was disturbing to see this phrase used in a way that normalized as natural biological behavior male violence towards women.

Popular science writing about fruit fly sexual behavior can also be extremely anthropomorphic and distasteful. I have come across a couple of examples in my own research area that set my teeth on edge.

About a dozen years ago scientists identified a gene that when mutated resulted in male fruit flies courting and trying to mate with other males. Their article “Conditional Disruption of Synaptic Transmission Induces Male-Male Courtship Behavior in Drosophila” discussed this gene in terms of regulation of fruit fly reproductive behavior and the flies’ ability to distinguish between females and males.[4] Misguidedly, a news post on the Science journal website decided to make this research stand out by suggesting it had direct relationship with human sexuality. In an outrageous cognitive jump, the piece was called “How to Make a Fly Bi” and included a figure caption and other language that insinuated bisexuality was the equivalent to lowered inhibitions and increased promiscuity.[5] Bisexual advocates struggle to combat the misconceptions that bisexuality is equivalent to a lack of discernment or confusion. But here, popular writing associated with  a respected science journal perpetuated in these misconceptions and problematic assumptions about bisexuality.

Flies

Research on changes in female fruit fly behavior after mating suffered a similar fate in popular media. A study titled “Drosophila male sex peptide inhibits siesta sleep and promotes locomotor activity in the post-mated female” found that a specific component of the male ejaculate decreased the amount a female sleeps after mating and also increases foraging activity. [6] In a blurb on the research by the University’s publicity office the title became “Female fruit flies do chores after sex”.[7] An article by a clinical psychologist on the HuffPost Healthy Living Blog took it even further: “Housework After Sex, Not Sleep.” [8] These accessible articles drew a direct relationship between fruit fly behavior and women’s “domestic-type duties or housework” that were not implied in the original research. Although I do think changes in postmating behavior in fruit flies have some fascinating implications for changes in human behavior during gestation and birth, a direct comparison cannot be made. I am concerned about the way the popular media twisted the scientific research to reaffirm underlying assumptions of a woman’s domestic role and primary childcare provider.

Popular science writing wants to attract public interest. As a result, the cautious conclusions that scientists make with clearly stated caveats and limitations can be distorted and aggrandized in the process. Scarily, it can then be used to further a political or philosophical agenda. There is a clear responsibility for science journalists to be more rigorous in reporting the intricacies of science research, as well as be more cognizant of the ways their reporting uses research to reaffirm cultural stereotypes. As a scientist, I also wonder what is our responsibility after we publish a paper? Are we completely out of control of the dissemination of information to the public? If research is taken out of context, or absurd associations to humans are drawn, if the scientist is appalled with the implications derived from their work, what should we do? Scientists need to become more involved in the science communication process, and to be trained how to explain and our research in ways that the public can understand, but that still situate it appropriately in broader contexts. The challenge is finding the time and a platform for a scientist to make sure the totality of their research message makes it safely, with only minimal slips, to the public.

 


[1] Feldblum, J.T., Wroblewske, E.E., Rudicell, R.S., Hahn, B.H., Paiva, T., Cetinkaya-Rundel, M., Pusey, A.E., Gilby, I.C. 2014. Sexually Coercive Male Chimpanzees Sire More Offspring. Current Biology. 24: 2855 – 2860.

[2] Thompson, M.E. 2014. Sexual Conflict: Nice Guys Finish Last. Dispatch, Current Biology. 24: R1125 – R1127.

[3] http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/may/24/elliot-rodgers-california-shooting-mental-health-misogyny

[4] Kitamoto, T. 2002. Conditional Disruption of Synaptic Transmission Induces Male-Male Courtship Behavior in Drosophila. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sciences.

[5] Beckman, M. 2002. How to Make a Fly Bi. Science News Biology http://news.sciencemag.org/2002/09/how-make-fly-bi

[6] Isaac, R. E., Li, C., Leedale, A.D. 2009. Drosophila male sex peptide inhibits siesta sleep and promotes locomotor activity in the post-mated female. Proc. Royal. Soc. B.

[7] http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/09/090929203941.htm

[8] Breus, M.J. 2010. Housework After Sex, Not Sleep. Huffpost Healthy Living Blog. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-michael-j-breus/housework-after-sex-not-s_b_345568.html

 


Caitlin McDonough is a first year biology graduate in the Center for Reproductive Evolution. When not dissecting fruit flies, she plays rugby, draws and disrupts conventional scientists by talking about feminism and queer studies. More information can be found at her website cemcdonough.com or fledgling blog ideaspermatheca.com.

The Greatest Show on Earth!: The Historico-Biblical Epic, Excess, and the Sublime Historical Experience

A few weeks ago, when I published my post on Game of Thrones and its theory of history, one of my colleagues asked me about the nature of excess–of violence, of sex, of things (clothes, sets, technologies)–that typically stand as one of the hallmarks of the epic genre. At what point, she asked, does excess simply overwhelm the viewer, force them into a state of suspension, of sensory/sensual overload that causes them to disengage? I’ve been thinking a great deal recently about the function of excess in terms of historical representation. I’ve come to believe that the genre of the epic, perhaps more than any other type of historical film or television series, allows for an experience of the strangeness and otherness of the world of antiquity. Following in the footsteps of such scholars as Vivian Sobchack, I suggest that the historical epic provides contemporary spectators with an experience of the past that exceeds questions of accuracy, and allows them to know (or to attempt to know) the past in a way that exceeds language and disrupts the discipline imposed by traditional historical discourse.

In the post-war period, and increasingly in our own, the epic has sought out religious subjects in its articulation of what the antiquity looked like and how it worked. In the historical world produced in the epic film, religion is  intricately tied to the body and sexual desire. Conversion is a key site for this intersection between bodies, sex, and religion. The act of conversion takes many forms: moving from pagan to Christian; or, in the case of pre-Christian figures such as Samson, from sexual desire to union with God; from the world of the flesh to that of the transcendent spirit. These transcendent conversions are paradoxically predicated on leaving behind one form of sexual desire while inhabiting another: for example, as men are led to abandon the licentious women of Rome for the allegedly chaster women of Christianity. Such a transition, however, carries with it its own danger:  the process of conversion involves a measure of jouissance, a perilous pleasure that reminds us of the body even as it seeks to transcend it. Indeed, the very essence of religious conversion often manifests in these films as a form of excess, often of emotion, as in the case of Richard Burton’s almost hysterical performance as a converted centurion in The Robe, or as in the excesses of fleshly, sublime agony of Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.  Religion intersects with history here to allow us to encounter the terrifying too-muchness of the past, to confront a world terrifying in its overwhelming scale.

In the epic, spectacle always bears with it a double valence. On the one hand, epic spectacle inundates us with the pleasures of the visual:  Nero’s Technicolor robe in Quo Vadis, the digitized Colosseum of Gladiator, the truly breathtaking long shots of Exodus. On the other hand, epic spectacle challenges us by asking to suspend our attention to narrative and to fixate ourselves on the pleasures of the visual.  These objects call to us, ask us to encounter a world that provides a means by which we can escape the poverty and the banality of our everyday lived experience through the history’s epic visuality and sensuousness. What is more, they also ask us to abandon our current subjectivity, to inhabit that previous, precious moment–if only for the time that we watch the text. Again, these are elements of the past that cannot be contained within words or within narrative, either in the films themselves or in the academic study of history. That extra-linguistic, extra-narrative element of the epic is the source of the power they have and the experience they provide of a past-ness (even if, again, the politics associated with that past-ness are not to our liking).

For all that narrative attempts to control the excess it utilizes to bring the world of antiquity to life, it also creates for modern spectators a sense of the past as a place just beyond the realm of linguistic representation. Epic film proposes a different way of engaging with the world of antiquity, one that does not rely upon words or closure to bring us an experience of that world. As Robert Rosenstone so memorably puts it, historical film “forces us to live in a most uncomfortable sort of world—a world in which we cannot control or contain our past with words; cannot tame its full meanings within the discipline of a discourse because the meanings themselves—encoded as images as well as words—ultimately elude words.” What he refers to as the unruly meanings of the past trouble us even as they excite and pleasure us.

At the same time, this world of plenitude and excess, this past that holds so much visual/visceral appeal to the contemporary modern spectator, must also eventually be disavowed for us to enable to function as modern subjects. This simultaneous attraction and rejection produces what historian Frank Ankersmit has termed a sublime historical experience. In order to know that world, in order to make sense of the impossibly distant and fragmented world of antiquity, we must return it to the realm of language, to our historical understandings that underpin so much of our relationship to the past. And yet, paradoxically, some measure of that excess always remains, haunting our collective imagination, a perpetual reminder of what has been given up in order for us to become who we are today.

 


T.J. is a Ph.D. Candidate in Film and TV Studies in the Department of English. His dissertation examines theories of history as articulated in epic films and TV series set in antiquity. He teaches courses on film, popular culture, race, and gender, and in his free time enjoys watching The Golden Girls and nerding out over the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and their various adaptations. He frequently blogs at Queerly Different. You can follow him on Twitter @tjwest3.