Strong Women Refusing to Smile in Marvel’s Agent Carter

7 Feb

I just watched the Marvel’s Agent Carter episode “Smoke & Mirrors” (Season 2, Episode 4) and it struck me that perhaps the writers are trying to say something about asking women to smile.

First of all, I think it is absolutely fabulous that these first two seasons of Agent Carter have pitted Peggy against strong, intelligent, and kick-ass women. These women, just like Peggy, have been overlooked because they are women so they have been able to get away with more, but, again like Peggy, they have also just been really good at what they do. The current baddie Whitney/Agnes is extremely intelligent and knows exactly how to work the system to get what she wants. In this episode we get some back story for both Peggy and Whitney and we begin to see how their lives have shaped who they have become. Interestingly, Peggy was not always on a straight path to fabulous spy. Who would have thought that she had chosen marriage and a form of subservience even when offered the chance to become a spy? Whitney, on the other hand, is a well-known actor and the wife of (potentially) the future president of the United States, but she was the one who wanted to buck the system and become a scientist. This back story comparison alone gives the episode a certain re-watchability just to suss out the contradictions.

Whitney’s story, in particular is interesting because, while Peggy was encouraged by her brother to follow her path, Whitney fought to be herself every step of the way. This definitely speaks to an element of privilege on the part of Peggy that hasn’t really been too obvious in previous episodes or the Captain America films because we only ever see her fighting against the expectations of her gender. I now realize that this privilege should have been obvious last season when pitted against Angie and her story of captivity and forced training as an agent, but I think Angie’s role was used differently in the storyline. The direct comparison of the two characters in this recent episode does, of course, highlight Peggy’s privilege as well.

During Whitney’s backstory we see that her mother was, essentially, a “kept” woman and there is an implication that the man involved would have moved on to Whitney/Agnes as well if she had only been “nice” to him. The young girl is asked to smile for him and be nice so that he will like her and then, when she is a teenager and her mother is rejected by this man, we learn that it was a girl only slightly older than Whitney/Agnes who enticed him. Her mother blames Whitney/Agnes and tells her that no one cares about her brains. The only thing people will ever be interested in is her face and her looks. At this point Whitney/Agnes has refused to smile at a man she does not like and has continued to pursue her dreams of one day being a scientist. She has furthered her education on her own and spent time tinkering with objects like a radio. Once she receives a rejection leader for formal education and her mother is kicked out of the house they’ve been living in, Whitney/Agness becomes more desperate. The next time we see her, she is too broke to buy herself a ticket to see a movie — something she enjoys doing to escape from life. Here yet another man asks her to smile, but this time she does it. Perhaps she has learned the harsh lesson her mother wanted to teach her or maybe she felt it was safer to humour the creepy man who approached her. Of course, it turns out he is an agent and suggests she could model or be in movies and we can then see how she ends up as a famous actor.

Essentially, the episode shows us just how creepy and/or condescending many unsolicited requests for women to smile actually are. I don’t think I’ve ever really seen this portrayal done in this particular way in another show. We see creepy murderers make similar requests of women on  crime dramas all the time, but it doesn’t have the same effect, I think, as this depiction of the reality of the situation. Obviously, the men in this episode of Agent Carter are not representative of all men who request that women smile, but the implication that they smile for his pleasure is almost always present. And Whitney/Agnes, like most women, never escapes it. She marries a man who is focused on how his wife’s beauty can advance his political career. Her mother’s beauty paid the bills, and now her beauty does the same. All she has to do is smile on command … and forget her silly little desires to challenge herself intellectually.

I guess what is really interesting for me with this episode is the comparison of Peggy and Whitney/Agnes. While their lives were quite different, they have essentially come to the same place — both are working in a world designed for men. Peggy can be open about her career and abilities, but only among the people with whom she works (and sometimes she’s still better off pretending to be more delicate as we saw in the first season). Whitney, on the other hand, must hide her role in her husband’s business. Both women, however, have perfected themask they share with the regular world. Both women are, in fact, perfect spies simply in their ability to hide in plain sight. In fact, Angie (the previous baddie) also shares this ability. So perhaps the writers are reminding us that women have always had to hide themselves due to and through the application of societal norms and expectations. Now Whitney is ready to tear down those expectations and Peggy is pushing back harder than ever at the norms that constrain her. Both women have given up smiling on command and embraced their true natures. Unfortunately, Whitney’s nature seems to have gone a bit dark.

Here be Spoilers! Star Wars: The Force Awakens

21 Dec

Spoiler Alert!! This is seriously your last chance to get away!

Star_Wars_The_Force_Awakens

(Image credit: starwars.com)

I don’t usually talk about movies as soon as they come out. This is partly because I don’t always get to see them in theatres, and partly because I get distracted by other things. This time I was doing a bunch of writing on the Star Wars films leading up to the new release so, not only did I see it early (on the 18th no less), but I was also in a place to think about it as situated within the previous films, and I have a few hours to kill while on a working vacation. I guarantee that my thoughts will be somewhat disjointed and based on my very first impression. I did not take my notebook into the theatre with me for this viewing because I really wanted to shut off the part of my brain that has been writing about this universe and these films for my first viewing so I’m not only discussing my first impressions, but really my memory of my first impressions.

First let me say that, despite how this post goes, I actually really did enjoy the movie. It was a fun ride and it made me feel good about the SW universe. I am also quite excited for future movies — and not just because I have never not known Star Wars (no, I am not younger than the movies, but I might as well be). I’m excited because I think this film is getting us ready for a new storyline that remains true to the spirit of the earlier films, but with a new relevance.

And now for the part of the blog where I sound like a bad fangirl.

The film had a lot of action, but not so much that the story got lost. It really was a bit of a thrill ride, but more so for fans of the earlier films than for new viewers. Each new scene included a reference to a previous element in the earlier films. In some cases the scene was just ramped up a bit from previous films. For example, the Millennium Falcon has some new moves that are big improvements on the slight listing to the side type of manoeuvres we saw in A New Hope. Poe Dameron is also a much better and flashier pilot than either Anakin or Luke ever were, mostly because JJ Abrams has access to newer technology than Lucas had for any of the films.  Other scenes though, were direct references. The one that bothers me the most is the sudden trench run inserted into the finale. The Resistance pilots have been dive bombing this one power station on the new super duper Death Star planet, but during the last run a trench suddenly appears for Poe to fly down. I get the symmetry (and even appreciate it a little), but it pulled me out of the story because I just didn’t see why it was necessary.

I think Kylo Ren is going to be a great villain and I get that we’re watching his growth here. What bugs me is that, once his mask comes off, it never seems to go back on. Again, I can see why it was necessary for the mask to stay off: we needed to see his face when he kills his father to watch the decision happen and to give us hope that he might accept the light. His mask also needed to be off while fighting Rey so that she could scar him (forcing the mask in future films), but he just seemed far too willing to show his real face to his underlings. This is sure to change their perspective of him.

And now for the death. I’m actually not at all upset about this one. It was the right thing to do and is definitely something that Ford has been pushing for since Empire. It was necessary for Ren’s character and Solo’s. Both of them needed to grow or change in some way and this one move did that for both of them. My only complaint is that it was a little obvious for me. Again, this is likely because I’ve been spending so much time researching and writing about Star Wars, but Solo’s death was inevitable. I thought it might happen once Han began acting like a fatherly figure toward Rey (she must suffer the same loss that Luke did when Obi-Wan Kenobi was killed), but it was absolutely guaranteed when Leia begged him to bring their son home. In that moment Han Solo’s death warrant was signed.

Finally, I think it’s important that I talk a little about the fact that this movie was, for the most part, made by fans of the films. This is, like some sequels, much more of a retelling of the original story with new characters than a completely new tale — then again, the fairy tale nature of the Original Trilogy would virtually require such a situation. The fan connection here manifests itself in the fact that the repeat of these scenes are not allusions to previous moments (like Darth Vader’s scream of anguish when he learns of the death of his wife matching up with Luke’s cry when learning he is Vader’s son), but homages to some of the moments most appreciated by fans over the years. I suspect that we will see fewer of these in future films as the mythology builds itself anew, though the perpetual bad feeling of the characters will likely remain — in the numbered films anyway.

Working Toward a more Global Digital Humanities

28 May

[Another long post as this is a paper I submitted to my Digital Humanities class (mentioned in my last blog) at York taught by T.V. Reed.]

Digital Humanities as a formal field of study has a number of problems when it comes to issues of race, class, gender, sexuality, disability, and globalization. The insular nature of the field as it has been established makes it difficult for outsiders to find a way in, but the digital nature of the field also creates its own barriers to inclusion. As people within the field are so fond of suggesting, ubiquitous access to technology offers wonderful opportunities for collaboration, which is a hallmark of this field of study. Unfortunately, a great deal of that collaboration occurs within specific circles. By considering funding, institutions, and issues of race, class, and physical space, I outline some of the problems with a consideration of the digital humanities as a global field of study. I then offer some suggestions for ways to improve this situation with examples of some projects that are already making this happen.

One of the issues that is regularly left out of the digital humanities discussion is the problem of global access. Digital humanities is often presented from either a technologically determined point of view, or as a given that must be critiqued. That is, digital technology is presented as something that can save the humanities or academia in general (Kolowich 2011), or it is seen as a space in which we can begin to criticize the digital world in which we live and the digital tools we take for granted. Inherent in this position is the understanding that the digital is ubiquitous when, in fact, it is not if we consider the global society to which technology claims to have connected us.

Daniel P. O’Donnell suggests that many mid- and low-income areas of the world, while increasingly digital in terms of cell phone data use in particular, are not being served by digital humanities research centres (2012). While this may seem a trivial concern, it seems inappropriate that these areas of the world, with greater or equal digital use are not being adequately served by critical digital research or tools. This issue could be, as Babalola suggests, partially due to a lack of knowledge of digital humanities (2014), but it is also due to the ways in which digital humanities as a field relies on funding to accomplish its goals. It is, in part, for this reason that the majority of the digital studies centres are based in North America and Western Europe (Terras 2012). Funding is a major issue for digital humanities researchers in many parts of the world. While North Americans have the benefit of federal granting organizations (the National Endowment for the Humanities in the United States and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council in Canada), many established research groups and universities in other parts of the world must fight for funding with scholars of the hard sciences. This need to fight for funding from science-oriented organizations can mean that projects must be adjusted to highlight the computing or science aspects. Likewise, quantitative research methods are often valued over qualitative studies. As such, the amount of money allocated to humanities-based projects will be much less in such situations.

At the same time, the lack of established digital humanities research centres can, in fact, be quite useful in ensuring that there is more diversity in research content. In North American funding structures, the focus can often fall upon the product that will result from a particular project. Additionally, the focus of such projects is often quite conservative, reinforcing canonical structures. Lothian and Phillips, for example remind us that institutions have the power to “shape what scholarly work gets done” (2013). The overarching control of such institutions can limit the content available for funded research. Also problematic, however, are the ways in which digital centres can restrict scholarship and research themselves. Neil Fraistat suggests that digital centres help to bridge the gap between the humanities and computing, but that they can become silos (2012). It is for this reason that collaboration, one of the tenets of digital humanities as a field, is particularly important within and between digital centres as well as between those centres and outside researchers or members of the community.

Titilola Babalola shows that digital access in African countries like Nigeria is limited by access to wireless, frequent power outages, and the cost of data usage (2014). In addition to this lack of access for citizens in general, Babalola states that the “unavailability of wi-fi connection access on most of the university campuses in the country affects the quality of research done in these academic communities” (2014). A number of digital projects, particularly those created by the stars of digital humanities, require a great deal of processing power and memory in order to work properly. Sometimes, the issue is not only bandwidth access, but also access to computing power.

One of the important questions that must be asked when we consider a global digital humanities is one Natalia Cecire has asked of digital humanities in general: “who can afford to be a ‘hacker’ or a ‘builder,’ with the concomitant ethos of collaboration and niceness?” (2011). This question refers not just to funding, as in the above discussion, but also to issues of race, class, gender, sexuality, and ability. There are, as Lothian and Phillips suggest, people who choose to remain separate from the digital humanities in order to maintain their positions, but also to avoid negative reception due to their positions as non-academics or due to their social status (2013). Browner suggests that “there are exciting materials now available to anyone with Internet access, but scholars of race and ethnicity do not yet get online and find themselves in a deep, comprehensive, well-linked and indexed world of materials” (2011, 209). This is a side effect of the funding issues mentioned above. Without funding, the number of projects, let alone easily accessible and user-friendly projects, is limited. The problem of deciding who gets to say what is and is not digital humanities is entirely linked to this issue of global access. A number of projects occurring in areas not served by digital research centres can be incomplete or less extravagant due to lack of resources or experience as researchers devote only their own free time to the projects. This “focus only on completed works fails to look critically at the many realities facing so many of these digital projects, particularly financial and human resources in both the Global North and South” (Jaksch and Nieves 2014). Jaksch and Nieves further suggest that we should consider the proposed as well as partial and completed projects in order to get a more complete picture of the digital humanities landscape.

Funding for digital projects does not come from university research groups alone. We can take Africa as an example of a continent that has seen an increase in the percent of the population with access to the internet, often through mobile phones (Babalola 2014; Jaksch and Nieves 2014). This increase has drawn interest from outside investors. Jaksch and Nieves suggest that increased investment from Asian corporations could lead to “a kind of second or third wave of colonial rule over emerging knowledge systems — a rule that may be naively perceived as benign global transnationalism by many Western outsiders” (2014). Likewise, Mark Zuckerberg and his internet.org movement are looking to tap into the previously unconnected parts of the world (Russell 2015). While this movement, like the globalisation of the Asian investors, may appear to be a positive influence, it can be linked to colonialism and financialization of people. Internet.org states on its website that it wants to connect people to others around the world as well as connect people to jobs and important local information. The company wants to do this through a mobile phone app that will provide free access to specific websites as well as finding new ways to provide infrastructure. These goals seem altruistic. It would be extremely useful for people to access such information without having to pay exorbitant fees in areas where access to data is at a premium, but this desire to help is tainted by the fact that one of the available apps is Facebook, providing Zuckerberg’s company with an income stream as users upload their data to the social networking site and it is resold to others.

Internet.org’s intrusion into Africa is not specifically a digital humanities problem, except that this introduction will increase the number of mobile users online and the number of investors interested in digital projects specific to the continent. These investors will not be as interested in finding culturally appropriate ways of furthering knowledge or digitizing artifacts; they will be interested in finding ways to sell products to this new market. With every “free” click on Facebook, users are helping the company to generate advertising revenue. Mark Coté and Jennifer Pybus call this kind of work “immaterial labour 2.0” (2011). These users are poised to become mid- to low-income working class members of the global economy in order to have access to something we in the West are increasingly thinking of as a human right (Kravets 2011). Without consistent local scholarly criticism of all things digital, the extension of cognitive capitalism will continue unchecked. At the same time, digital humanities as a field can not focus solely on new technology while completely ignoring the cultural context for that technology.

While access to funding, technology, and technical knowledge are all important aspects of ensuring a truly global digital humanities, it is important to remember that these problems with project creation also occur in areas that are being served by grants and research centres. This is a problem of culture, for the most part. Amy Earhart, for example, talks about the ways in which the introduction of the World Wide Web offered a land of opportunity for scholars hoping to share research on virtually unknown peoples and works of art (literature, in particular) (2012). Earhart suggests that the hope in the early days of the internet was that it would offer the opportunity for unheard voices to be heard, but the reality is that funding opportunities have limited the voices to those of the canon. Instead of adding many new books to the canon with all of the new, available, seemingly less fragile space online, the internet actually proved to simply solidify the canon (2012). This does not mean that smaller projects were not created, nor does it mean that they continue to be created, it simply means that the larger, more stable projects have better funding and are more likely to have an influence as well as remain viable as the internet grows.

Johanna Drucker would suggest that the larger problem here is a lack of humanistic enquiry and too much of a focus on the digital. I definitely agree that much of digital humanities has become overwhelmed by the promise of technological advances, to the detriment of the field as a whole. I think, however, that Drucker’s position should be tempered with some more cultural criticism such as suggestions offered by Alan Liu, Adeline Koh, or Roopika Risam, for example. The problem is not simply a case of humanities versus sciences. Drucker suggests that “[t]he basic conclusion [with early digital projects] was that to play in a digital sandbox one had to follow the rules of computation: disambiguation and making explicit what was so often implicit in humanities work was the price of entry” (2012). While the assumption is that things have changed, this is still a requirement. The difference here is that we can recognize that the problem is not simply the difficulty in trying to fit qualitative research into a quantitative framework, it is also a problem of language. This can be seen in the fact that sustainable digital projects require knowledge and use of specific tagging and coding regulations set out by English-speaking organizations (Text Encoding Initiative and the World Wide Web Consortium) using English-based programming languages.

It is also true that online projects must be sustainable. Daniel Pitti, when speaking of how to design sustainable projects, states that “the scholar must have sufficient comprehension of available technologies, in order to judge their suitability for representing and exploiting the resources in a manner that best serves his intellectual objectives” (2004). While the context for this statement is a conversation about creating tools for researchers already within the digital humanities, I think this speaks to one of the problems for those with limited access.

As such, digital humanities needs to not only consider the socio-economic conditions under which current projects are being designed, built, and used, but also the socio-economic conditions of the growth of the field as a whole. Additionally, the history of digital humanities as a field plays an important role here. As a field with a history based in both the humanities and computer science, there is an element of exclusion inherent in such a history. Computer science requires a certain skill set that is very specific to its field. As such, outsiders have often had trouble finding a way into the field. This connection to exclusion by required skill set is easily carried over to the discussion of exclusion by socio-economic conditions.

What can we do about this problem then? One response has been to try to bring people from areas not served by digital research centres into conversations already underway. Domenico Fiormente says however, that “colonized, de-colonized, and post-colonized … people do not need to seek legitimation from the ‘center’ of the world” (comment in thread posted 12 May 2013), suggesting that bringing people who have been “othered” by colonialism and now digitization is not the solution. Like those who work on digital humanities projects but do not align themselves with the field, the need to find a direction outside the academy is exactly the right approach for some. This does not help the field of digital humanities grow in terms of global representation of content, physical space, or researcher backgrounds though. There are some projects, organizations, and individuals that are trying to make the digital humanities more global in reach, recognition, and research.

Jamie “Skye” Bianco suggests that “[i]t’s time for a discussion of the politics and particularly the ethics of the digital humanities as a set of relationships and practices within and outside of institutional structures” (2012). There is a need to look seriously at the way digital humanities has become institutionalized. We need to avoid chasing the technology just to sacrifice the work and/or ethics. If we look at digital humanities as existing beyond its own “field,” then we can begin to see ways of incorporating the global into digital humanities and vice versa. Saklofske, Clements, and Cunningham suggest that we see “digital humanities as a means of breaking down the exclusivity of disciplinary silos and encouraging exposure to technological opportunities across disciplines” (2012). This is more than just the current popularity of interdisciplinarity though; it extends beyond disciplines entirely — as a field intricately linked to the digital should in such a digital world.

There are ways to incorporate the global into the digital and the digital into the global. This can especially be done pedagogically in universities. Melanie Kill, for example, suggests that using Wikipedia can be an effective way of teaching digital knowledge and our place in the digital world: “classroom discussions of free knowledge and information open space to address with students the politics of the web as a complex generative space for negotiating social progress built on shared resources” (2012). Likewise, Wikipedia as a teaching tool allows students to make real world contributions to the world of knowledge. In this way students can share information on the course subject matter with the world. Depending on the topic, this could mean sharing information about global digital issues and/or projects. One of the biggest issues is the need to consider the “global” in everyday conversations about the digital and the digital humanities. The more we can combine elements of the global with the digital for students and scholars, the better chance we have of working toward incorporating the two in the field itself.

A push toward adapting the education of new digital humanists (whether working in the field or not), to include a discussion of the global — projects, knowledge, issues, etc. — can help to make the field of digital humanities truly global itself. If nothing else, incorporating the digital into courses on the global and bringing the global into courses on the digital will increase the likelihood that the two become linked more actively. Browner reminds us that “it is equally important for scholars to recognize the power they have to shape the questions, courses, syllabi, and research agendas that, in turn, can ensure that the digital revolution does not simply recapitulate the biases and limitations of the print world” (2011, 221). At the same time, scholars should not limit themselves to traditional course content. A focus on MOOCs could help information spread more quickly to those who may be more interested in creating their own do-it-yourself digital projects. Such online courses could feature global digital projects in an attempt to show the world what is happening and how such scholars worked to find ways around restrictive programming languages or a lack of bandwidth or new ways of incorporating culture into the digitization process.

It is important to note that, while there are few digital centres outside of Europe, North America, and Japan, there is a great deal of work happening worldwide. Likewise, there are attempts to make the rest of the world aware of that work. Alex Gil and company created Around DH in 80 Days as one such project. While the presentation of 80 digital projects either based around or on different parts of the world is an excellent resource for those interested, the accompanying spreadsheet with all of the submissions to the project makes the work even more valuable. At the same time, projects like HuNI (Humanities Networked Infrastructure) in Australia are working to connect researchers and cultural content. This platform allows for crowdsourcing of content and connections while demonstrating the work that is happening in Australia.

Essentially, these projects show that a great deal of work is happening, but the missing element is a way to connect with others and recognize the projects that are happening and that could be relevant to individual researchers. GO::DH is an organization affiliated with a number of digital humanities organizations with a mandate to connect global researchers and projects to one another. This is still a fairly loosely organized group as the intent is to crowdsource resources as needed, make connections, start conversations, and provide a base for new projects related to the global digital humanities. GO::DH links to projects like Gil et al.’s Around DH in 80 Days and Roopika Risam and Adeline Koh’s Rewriting Wikipedia. The organization has also recently started a working group that came out of the DH2014 conference on “minimal computing.” As yet, this working group has shown very little public online activity, but the promise of a working group less focused on the newest technology is visible even in the bare bones of the group.

Finally, having a central organization for discussions of the global and the digital is an excellent way to ensure people can connect and are aware of the work being done, but the digital humanities as a field needs to recognize that digital work happens in all areas, regardless of technological or bandwidth access. For this reason, digital humanists should consider the platform on which they make their research available to others. While major digital projects may require a certain level of access, information about those projects and the results gained does not. Gil et al.’s Around DH in 80 Days, for example, makes a concerted effort to present information on projects via a platform that works well even in areas with low bandwidth. The use of such a platform means that the information contained therein is more easily accessible to all. Finding ways to include such simple decisions into the process of disseminating information can help the digital humanities become more global overall.

Ultimately, working to make digital humanities more global in every respect can only help the field as a whole. The true test lies in working for that change without forcing an idea of the global on others. Essentially, digital humanities needs to work towards the global without resulting in colonialism. Change, in this case, must come from the areas least served. We must move the table to the world, rather than make the world come to the discussion table.

Digital Humanities — Some Thoughts

5 Jan

I am about to start a new course on the Digital Humanities so I have been thinking about this area of research in preparation for the first class. I have some experience with DH through coursework (I took a data visualization course and you can see my final project here and my write up on DV here. I also took a course that questioned the new humanities and I wrote some on the crisis in the humanities and a very little bit about DH for that blog here and here), and journal work (I was managing editor for Digital Medievalist, worked with Digital Studies/Le champ numerique, and published a book review on Gold’s Debates in the Digital Humanities that you can read here if you like). This amounts to just barely dipping my toes into the DH waters, but I would like to continue getting wet, so to speak. It is for this reason that I am taking this course, though I also recognize that my research will engage with the digital quite a bit (including digital-born material and digital native subjects) so the more experience I can get in the field, the better my research will be. As such, I decided to make a few comments here that will probably be added to in later blogs as the semester goes on (or later in my research). This blog starts with my consideration of the number of blogs and articles that speak to the ability of DH to save the humanities.

There is a danger in continually referring to DH as a way to “save” the humanities (and I have been guilty of this as well). First, this assumes that the humanities need saving, which is not exactly true — the humanities may need some upgrading but what they really need is better PR management (and maybe an overhaul that includes professional development plans for students too).

Second, and perhaps more importantly, this assumes that the only reason for DH is to bring the humanities into the twenty-first century which, in turn, assumes that we need to change the humanities — neither of which is true. DH is a separate part of the humanities, computer sciences, and even social sciences to a certain extent (because we’re not just examining the technology or re-examining the humanities through technology, we’re also engaging with social media and the people who use technology). DH is necessary not just as a tool for more immense genre studies, for example, it is also a community that engages in critical analysis of both the technology and our use of it. For this reason we must recognize that DH is not (just) a methodology, it is a field of study that exists autonomously.

DH has come a very long way since the early days of digital fiction or humanities computing — it is criticism of the technology we use daily or for specific research, as well as the creation of technology for research purposes. Its position as a separate field of study has been cemented by the recent spate of publications that are finally beginning to critique the field itself (rather than continuously working to define it). While there is still an element of definition required in many of these texts, the push to question and build a space for this work and these questions shows that it is setting itself apart from its various parent disciplines.

While it may appear that the humanities could eventually become a part of DH, I think that DH will continue to remain separate from its parent disciplines. We need a field of research that questions the tools that are (or will be) ubiquitous and the humanities as they exist now are not set up to effectively question digital methodology. The connection to computer science is absolutely necessary in this case. Just as I think that those researchers coming out of computer science that are working within DH will not fit easily into the parent discipline. There is a need to combine these two areas of research given the technological environment in which we live. Likewise, I think DH is necessary to force researchers to consider the global aspects of our digital world. Both the interconnectedness and related policies (and/or political concerns) offered by communications technology as well as the lack of ready access to such technology globally (and “our” — read, Western — lack of understanding of this global discrepancy). DH is the perfect place to consider all of these aspects of digital technology and digital-born media.

I’m on a Podcast! (Plus fanfiction, strong female characters, and other randomness)

11 Sep

This summer I was asked to join a university friend (from my undergrad) on his podcast to talk about fanfiction. This was a new and pretty fun experience for me. I love being able to talk about my research and my interests in any situation, but this was also fun because I was able to catch up with a friend in preparation for the actual conversation. I also really enjoy any speaking situation where I can assume an audience understands a lot of what I’m saying without added explanation. Fan conventions are great for this, for example, because I can use fan terminology without censoring myself. Additionally, I had just completed my MA and it was wonderful to speak to that research without the stress of an oral examination and in anticipation of my upcoming PhD research. I will say that Luke and I obviously don’t share as many similar fandoms or viewing interests outside of Whedon products, but the Firefly (2002-2003) connection is enough for a large chunk of conversation. I’d also like to credit Luke with being the person who introduced me to Firefly, so it makes sense that we would discuss it throughout the podcast. I wanted to link to the podcast here, but also comment on it a little bit more. It is difficult to have this kind of a conversation and still keep the timeframe close to an hour and I always have more to say about pretty much everything.

First of all: the podcast is “Episode 38: Jessica Bay” on Luke Annand‘s Ramblings of a Guy From Regina podcast. Luke has been doing this since 2010 and he regularly gets former students and other friends and colleagues to join him for interesting conversations. I’m fairly certain I’m the only one of those friends that chose to pursue film studies over film production, and I’m also the only one, as far as I know, who has continued on with the hopes of a career in academia.

So, the first thing I have to say is that I made a couple mistakes (probably more than I noticed), so I apologize for those missteps (for example, the episode I reference on Supernatural is “Meta Fiction,” not “Meta Writing.”). That’s one of the problems with recording a conversation that’s not scripted, particularly first thing in the morning, but I stand by my comments generally. I’d also like to apologize for most of the background noise. The timeline required I was visiting with my brother’s family during the recording so my niece and their dog make audio appearances for parts of the conversation. Beyond that, I think we had an interesting conversation about a lot of things.

I really liked the discussion of young adult adaptations, but feel like it could have gone a lot further. This is an area that I’m going to be writing about for the next four years with my current research so I’m sure I will flesh it out a lot more with time, but I think that some of the studios are doing a great job of adapting YA novels for the screen. Unfortunately, other studios are falling short of spectacular. I think the biggest problem in those cases is a lack of understanding of the audience and, therefore, tone of the film. My example in the podcast is The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones (2013) because I was disappointed in this film. I have another blog planned that will delve into this issue more, but the biggest problem in my mind is that the creators of this film chose to remove almost all of the main female character’s agency. Other films though, have done a great job of adapting the material for filmic consumption. As much as I tend to rally behind fangirls and fans in general, I am not saying that the poor examples of adaptations failed to listen to the fans, or that the great adaptations did what the fans wanted. In fact, I think part of the problem with City of Bones is a reliance on the fan (and author) voice. I think there definitely has to be a balance between what the fans want and what will make a good film and/or sell the story to others. Including little Easter Eggs for the fans of the source material is a great way to accomplish this. DC/Warner Bros/The CW are doing a great job of this with Arrow (2012-), as are Marvel/ABC with Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D(2013-). Not only have these shows gained strong followings of both existing and non-comic book fans, they have also spawned a rebirth in comic book television. Adding little-known existing comic book characters or naming streets after comic creators or even returning to a beloved version of a character’s costume are all nods to the comic book fans that let them know they are being recognized, while not becoming a love letter to the fans or the source material. Regardless, I am excited for more successful YA adaptations that continue to feature strong female characters.

The Rule

From Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For (c.1985)

On the subject of strong female characters, I think it is important to note that I really do think it is necessary to have diversity … of all kinds. Strong characters are not all physically, mentally, or emotionally strong, but they are real representations. This does not mean that Wonder Woman can’t be a strong character because she is not a realistic representation of any woman as superheroes do not exist. It does mean that Wonder Woman can be a real representation of a woman who just happens to have super human abilities. The character should come before the abilities or the necessities of plot or any other story element that removes personality from female characters. We have more than enough representations of how this can be achieved in traditionally male-dominated genres to prove that women as attractive accessories or plot devices are no longer necessary. I’d also like to reiterate here that the Bechdel Test is not a real test and it is not, by any means, a marker of quality.  This test really is the lowest standard that we who want diversity in our media are asking of creators when it comes to female characters. Women and girls in movies should be able to have a conversation together about something other than a man. Male characters regularly have conversations together about something other than women — often the actual plot of the film, in fact. The Bechdel Test doesn’t even begin to cover other elements of diversity such as race, class, sexuality, or genders other than female, for example, and Hollywood still has a difficult time passing the test. Why does this matter? Well, women are half of the population, they should represent more of the media we consume. Likewise, women contribute an increasing amount of the profit for such media in almost all genres. Finally, women and girls should be able to see themselves onscreen in roles other than mute love interest so that they can see themselves in more diverse roles in reality.

On a lighter note, I will mention that I’m not embarrassed by my high school Shakespeare fanfiction. I do not think it is necessarily well-written, though I haven’t looked at it in ages, but I am not embarrassed I wrote it. Our teacher gave us an assignment and I decided to challenge myself by writing a sequel to MacBeth in period verse. My issue with it is that my understanding of the dialect and rhyming scheme were not well-researched (I was 16 years old and it was the early 1990s, before the Internet could answer every question I could ever have), and it was common for me to complete assignments at the last minute so my plot suffered from time constraints. I would probably do it again given the chance — and am bolstered, in fact, by the currently popular Shakespearean adaptations of pop culture icons such as Star Wars or Doctor Whonot that I would suggest my abilities are at this level, but I would consider them in my own reimaginings — though I may want to spend more time on its completion. I think that the act of creating any fan work is worth the time and effort put into it, and that we should not be afraid to claim this work as our own. In fact, the movement within fandom (as within visual arts in general) is to give and claim credit appropriately to recognize the work that fans do as valid and as having value. By disowning or ignoring our fan products, we suggest that they are “less than.” Less than “valid” works by paid creators. Less than “original” work. I do not begrudge people who choose to remain anonymous, but I do think that we should not disown works because the genre itself is seen as inherently poor.

I have so many feelings about all of the shows we discussed on the podcast that I may have to write blogs on all of them. I have proposed a paper on Sleepy Hollow (2013-), a show I love, and I will probably write it even if our panel is not accepted. I think the podcast shows I have an interest in a few shows, even if it does focus on Supernatural (2005-). I think this focus comes from the fact that Luke and I are Facebook friends and I was posting a fair amount of Supernatural-related images earlier in the year. This is my fandom for fun. I am interested in what is happening with the show, but I am really just there to enjoy it and the fandom. There are a number of fan studies scholars working on this fandom and the show itself already so I don’t feel a need to develop a project surrounding it, but I also think that I really just want to be allowed to completely fangirl over something. The two most prominent scholars on the Supernatural fandom (Lynn Zubernis and Katherine Larsen) discuss their own difficulties crossing the line from academic to fan and back again in their first works related to the show (Fandom at the Crossroads is the book aimed at the academic audience and begins by discussing their reservations and difficulties with their dual status — a problem that many acafans struggle with — while Fangasm is accessible to the fans themselves). This, of course, doesn’t mean I don’t think critically about the show or the fan works I enjoy, but most fans engage critically with their favourite products. In the podcast Luke complains about digging deeply into franchises and developing debates that can last decades (as I said, I am definitely in the “Han shot first” camp), but it is this kind of engagement that most resembles media criticism (an argument made by Paul Booth in his Digital Fandom: New Media Studies) and makes the case for active rather than passive viewers of content.

As I read back through this, I realize that it rambles quite a bit and has become a collection of thoughts and ideas loosely related to the podcast. I am only slightly sorry for that. Please listen to the podcast and let me know what you think. As I mentioned in a previous blog on the public humanities, I think engagement outside of academia is important to the dissemination of research and content. For that reason, I am open to the possibility of doing this kind of thing again.

[Edited: I originally stated that Luke has been doing his podcast since we were in university, but he started it in 2010.]

Trigger Warnings: Where do they fit in public presentations?

16 Apr

I am presenting as part of two panels at the Calgary Comic and Entertainment Expo April 24-27 and I am very excited for both presentations. One of them I have done before as part of a larger panel at a University of Calgary’s Communications and Culture department presentation. I will be talking about the character of Ender as a hero in the Ender’s Game movie (2013) and book (1985). The second presentation is new and is the one I’m interested in talking about right now. My title is “Why girls love the boys who hurt them (on TV)” and is part of a panel on supernatural creatures on contemporary television. I’m specifically talking about the normalization of abusive relationships for teenagers through the use (and excuse) of different supernatural species on two tv shows aimed at teens: The Vampire Diaries (2009 – ) and Teen Wolf (2011 – ). This topic is something I’ve been interested in for a long time. As both an avid reader/watcher (when I have the time) and a student of urban fantasy and paranormal romance I have often struggled with the cognitive dissonance that comes with knowing that the actions of most male characters in the stories are violent and/or abusive while still wanting them to end up with the protagonist. I am speaking only of novels that feature heterosexual relationships here as I just haven’t read as many with any other forms of sexuality. These genres are two of the more popular, particularly among women readers and I know I am not the only person who has ever felt this way. There are threads on nearly every forum or online book discussion that deal with the fact that women readers recognize the danger inherent in these characters yet continue to ship them with a protagonist with whom they identify. For example, Felicia Day runs an online book discussion and monthly hangout where she and three of her friends (Veronica Belmont, Kiala Kazebee, and Bonnie Burton) discuss the monthly book selections of often paranormal romance novels. Often discussions on the GoodReads thread and the actual hangout of this Vaginal Fantasy Book Club turn to discussions of how “rapey” the main love interests appear to be. The question often surfaces because these (women) readers feel concerned that they like this character when they know that they would hate him if he were real. One difference between these characters and reality, in the genres of urban fantasy and paranormal romance anyway, is that they are not human. The male love interests tend to be vampires, werewolves, angels, wizards/warlocks, members of the fae, trolls, dragons, genies, or any other supernatural creature you can imagine. Since these characters are otherwordly, we can often forgive their more violent character traits as specific to their species. In fact, the species designation is regularly used as an excuse for certain behaviours. For example, a love interest that is overly possessive is probably a werewolf because it is in their nature to mate for life and protect all those they consider part of their pack. Vampires are often considered naturally violent predators who can hide or shut off their emotions so female protagonists can expect a certain amount of violence from a distant lover. In my Calgary Expo presentation I talk about these behaviours in the characters of Stefan and Damon from The Vampire Diaries and, to a lesser extent, Scott and Derek in Teen Wolf. The issue here though is that, in discussing these issues, I will be showing a short clip of Stefan acting somewhat violent toward Elena (and her forgiveness of both Stefan and the violence). He never strikes her but it is still a display of violence. As this is a public presentation as opposed to an academic talk, I wonder how much I have to prepare audience members for potential triggers. In this case, the panel description mentions the shows we will be discussing but does not discuss violence as I am the only panelist looking at the creatures in that way. If I feel trigger warnings are necessary, how do I broach the topic? Can I assume that most of the audience will have seen the show already? Does that even matter if I’m drawing attention to something that a long-time viewer might not have noticed before? Regardless what I do in this case, I will have to consider how to include a trigger warning on any future public presentation abstract I submit.

The presentation has been uploaded and my video clip didn’t work anyway. Thanks so much to the other presenters for including me in this panel.

Teen Movies Empowering Young Girls?

28 Feb

I recently spent an afternoon with my teenaged sister watching a number of movies and tv episodes focusing on teens with teen girls as main characters. Two of these films in particular dealt with how the teen girl protagonists responded to bullying by other girls in terms of their childhood upbringing and, arguably, abuse. First we watched Carrie (2013) followed by Kick-Ass (2010) and then Kick-Ass 2 (2013). Carrie is a remake (Carrie 1976) of an adaptation of a 1974 novel of the same name by Stephen King. The film tells the story of a young girl (Chloë Grace Moretz) raised by her extremely religious mother who views Carrie as an abomination, possibly even the devil’s spawn. As such, Carrie is regularly punished by being locked in a closet to pray, most notably in the film when she experiences her first period. Being completely unprepared for this physical rite of passage when she experiences it in the school locker room showers, Carrie is terrified at the sight of her own blood while the other girls taunt her and throw feminine hygiene products at her. Consequently, one of the other girls (Sue Snell played by Gabriella Wild), feels guilty about her part in the bullying of Carrie so she convinces her boyfriend Tommy (Ansel Elgort) to take Carrie to the senior prom. At the same time, Carrie discovers that she has some powers of telekinesis and begins to develop them against her mother’s wishes. Finally, when Tommy and Carrie are named Prom King and Queen the worst bully (Chris played by Portia Doubleday), who has since been ostracized by the other girls and expelled as well as refused entrance to the prom, and her boyfriend (Alex Russell) dump a bucket of pig’s blood on Carrie while a video of her harrowing experience in the girls’ shower plays for all to see on screen beside her.

Carrie’s response to this situation is violent.Image She has learned to harness her powers and now she brings them to bear on the whole school. Carrie kills or injures almost every person in the school gym, saving only the gym teacher (Judy Greer) who showed her compassion and gave her hope. Not only does she wreak vengeance on the students in the gym, but she also pursues Chris and her boyfriend, ultimately killing them both and incinerating them in a ball of fire. Upon returning home in an attempt to find solace and comfort from her mother, Carrie breaks down for a moment and realizes the horror of the acts she has perpetrated. She also finally allows herself a moment to feel the sorrow and pain of the loss of a normal life. This is the ultimate loss in this film, the ability to fit in with her peers after a brief glimpse of how wonderful normalcy could be.

In Kick-Ass 2 we again see Chloë Grace Moretz as a teenage girl facing an inability to fit in with the normal world of society. Her character, Hit Girl/Mindy Macready, also has special powers of a sort in her super hero training and knowledge. In this film however, Hit Girl doesn’t want to fit in, at least not at first. She is quite happy to continue her deceased father’s mandate to protect the city from evil. Unfortunately, she makes a promise to her guardian Marcus (Morris Chestnut) to give up the dangerous and illegal life of a vigilante super hero. As such, Hit Girl must become Mindy full time. The film actually does a pretty good, if exaggerated, job of portraying Mindy’s and Dave’s (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) teenaged journeys to understandings of their own senses of being throughout the film.

Mindy’s first steps into a normal non-super society of teen girls is represented by a moment at her first sleepover during which she views a music video by a boy band and feels the first stirrings of romantic desire (again sex-related activities indicate normalcy). This moment allows Mindy to recognize the similarities she shares with other teenage girls. The recognition combined with her promise to Marcus pushes Mindy to continue finding her place in this world of normalcy. Unlike Carrie, Mindy is able to use her powers to help her fit in – she impresses all of those around her during the dance team audition by pretending she is battling four attackers. This dance audition however, represents Mindy’s downfall. The popularity and accolades she gains are enough to make her let her guard down and begin to enjoy this new world of teenaged normalcy. Unfortunately, the popularity Mindy gains inspires Brooke (Claudia Lee), previously Mindy’s “sponsor” into the world of popularity, to plot her downfall. Mindy has finally decided to turn her back on Hit Girl and the life of a super hero by rejecting Dave and refusing to help him and choosing instead to go on a date like a “normal” teenage girl. At this moment however, Mindy faces her moment of embarrassment and taunting. Unlike the violence of Carrie’s blood bath, Mindy’s moment is a fairly mild, but still public, “date ditch.” Mindy’s date drives her out to the middle of the woods while professing his interest in her, but when they get out of the vehicle Mindy is presented to a group of laughing teens led by Brooke who all confirm Mindy’s earlier fears that she will never fit in with normal life. Broken emotionally and unsure of her direction, Mindy visits Dave and asks for his advice. Dave reminds Mindy that she is better than the other girls and tells her that she has to be true to herself – Hit Girl – not the mask she wears at school. Image

 This pep talk spurs Mindy to take Dave’s words literally; she dresses up like the other girls and puts on a mask of make-up to fit in with others. Unlike the other girls though, Mindy uses a “weapon” from her super hero arsenal to publicly invoke violent bouts of vomiting and diarrhea in the girls who shamed her and tossed her out of their world. This violent, yet non-violent action represents Mindy’s reaffirmation of her (super hero) self, Hit Girl.

Interestingly, both Carrie and Mindy face a crisis of identity; both have some level of powers unavailable to others; and both decide their futures after enduring bullying. At the same time, the two girls take completely different paths. Carrie is excited about but still very secretive of her powers of telekinesis and this excitement is partially tied to the excitement of being brought in to the fold of normalcy and womanhood. We see Carrie growing as a person by making decisions for herself, asserting those decisions even in the face of the punishment of her mother, and learning to use her abilities. Similarly, Mindy is also breaking from the desires of her father by making a contradictory promise to her guardian. This moment represents her personal growth and the beginnings of her journey of discovery of self. Ultimately, these girls make very different life choices – Carrie chooses death after the torment of embarrassment and the recognition that she killed her own mother while Mindy chooses a life a Hit Girl even if it means she must leave Dave and Marcus – but the important thing is that they have made those choices for themselves.

While both films highlight the extreme level of bullying teenage girls perpetrate on each other, they also show the strength that can come from understanding the hierarchy and recognizing one’s own abilities. I think Kick-Ass 2 does a better job of showing this as Mindy, being a self-actualized young woman before being broken (and then rebuilt) by the popular girls at school and having a friendship to fall back on, is better able to see what is happening from the outside. During her retaliatory strike on Brooke and her friends, Mindy also provides another girl with that knowledge by informing her that all it takes to look like the popular girls is money for clothes and make-up, not subjection to their wishes. This recognition is something that Carrie was denied.

From this afternoon viewing I could suggest that movies aimed at teens featuring teen girls are attempting to show their viewers that bullying can be overcome through self-actualization but I fear that this is too optimistic a view. First of all, two films, does not a genre make. Secondly, that conclusion is only one of many and is actually quite problematic. For one thing, Carrie is not rewarded for her understanding of self – Sue is, to a certain extent as Carrie saves her and allows her to keep her child – Carrie is actually destroyed by her sudden understanding of self. It is possible to suggest that she is only punished because she uses such extreme violence in response to the bullying she endures, but she is punished throughout this movie for every indication that she is becoming a woman of her own. Mindy is not punished and is actually rewarded with freedom and her first kiss at the end of the movie but that doesn’t change the fact that she is not the featured character of this film or its previous installment. While we can argue that a large part of the story is taken up by Mindy’s story, she is not the title character and the story is ultimately about Dave’s realization that every man, no matter his powers or lack thereof, can be a hero to someone just by working with others to make the world a better place. Regardless these objections, I will still see these films as rays of hope in a group of teen movies that continue to portray young girls negatively.

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