p12810389_b_v8_aa‘Man is a rope, fastened between animal and Übermensch – a rope over an abyss.’ —Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra (Prologue)

Before I embark on this review, I should point out that I am neither Australian nor Aboriginal. I don’t research either of these cultures either, so there will be gaps in the areas of the series that I can actually address. You should definitely seek out reviews and opinions from people with more authority on these topics. Like this one, this one, or this one.

I first heard about the five-episode television series Cleverman (airing on ABC in Australia and SundanceTV in the US) on the website The Conversation, which described it as the story of ‘Australia’s first Aboriginal superhero’. The original article used this statement with the best of intentions, to distinguish the story from the typically American superhero narratives that tend to dominate the contemporary media landscape. To say this, though, is to miss the point of Cleverman, and when I finally watched the show this past week, I was surprised to find something quite different.

Cleverman is set in a near-future version of Australia, where a race of beings called Hairypeople (‘Hairies’ for short) have recently stepped out of the shadows and into the eye of the media. Before that, they had been living with us on Earth for over 60,000 years, in secret. Hairies live longer than an average human, are stronger and faster, and are covered in a Neanderthal-like coat of hair. Because this is Australia, the Hairies are immediately classed as subhuman, and stern measures are taken to protect a frightened public from the dangers they think the Hairies pose. Some Haries are taken to prisons and camps. Some end up in The Zone, an area that has been ‘gifted’ back to the Aboriginal peoples living in the region by the Australian government.


The show is based on elements of Aboriginal mythology, and features a diverse and complex cast of main characters – men and women, Hairies and humans, European and Aboriginal Australian. As the Hairypeople crisis unfolds, we are introduced to the story of the Cleverman, a figure from Aboriginal tradition who presides over a mythological realm known as the Dreaming. He is responsible for the people’s spiritual well-being, and can commune with the ancestors and the spirits who populate the Dreaming.

Jimmy, The Zone’s resident Cleverman, must pass on the title to a successor. He is given the choice between two half-brothers: the calculating Waruu, who acts as The Zone’s political leader, and the impulsive Koen, who has essentially abandoned The Zone and now runs several shady operations with his friends. In the end it is Koen – who is half White, and resentful of his Aboriginal heritage – who assumes the mantle of the Cleverman. Koen explores his powers (which include classics like quick healing and telekinesis) with enthusiasm at first, only to discover that they come with a great price. Over the course of the season, Koen slowly comes to accept his new title, and the heritage that comes with it.


So far so good – this sounds a lot like the recipe for your average superhero story.  Cleverman distinguishes itself from this genre in a number of ways, however.

Firstly, unlike most superhero narratives, it has no clear hero. By this I don’t just mean that Koen is an anti-hero – the story may literally not be about him at all. This stops the narrative from espousing the kind of conservative utopianism found in many superhero comics: hero against the world, protecting it even though he is rejected from it. In ‘The World Ozymandias Made: Utopias in the Superhero Comic, Subculture, and the Conservation of Difference’, Matthew Wolf-Meyer explores why comic book utopias are narratively impossible. He explains his theory as follows:

I find that the majority of comic book readers are limited to a specific reading of any given superhero – there is very little room for interpretation given to them by the authors of the text. Rather, to participate in the discourse of superhero comic books is to eschew one’s ability to interpret in favor of a conservative reading ideology, in much the same way that a religious text forces its readers to interpret its message; a comic book reader cannot read Superman as a supervillain any more than the Christian can read Christ as adversary. […] Because superhero comics are predicated on preserving the status quo, they expect of their readership a conservative reading strategy that translates into desire for conservative narratives – utopia achieved would be a radical narrative, whereas utopia attempted and failed retains the conservative status quo while appeasing the proposed conservative ideology of readers.

Superheroes, in other words, hold a necessarily privileged position in the superhero narrative. This story is about them. They are its heroes, whether or not they exhibit heroic behaviour. In a utopia the superhero would become obsolete and insignificant.

In Cleverman, which plays out as a series of vignettes that never really materialise into a single narrative, Koen’s story is just one among many. With a few exceptions, the show only gives us the bits that fit around the traditional, Western superhero narrative. We can choose to imagine a superhero structure inside it if we so desire, but this is left entirely up to the viewer. If anything, Cleverman is the story of how one people with a long history of oppression struggle to spare another people from this fate. Where can you rely on in such a situation? Your own people, who are finally beginning to recover from their oppression? The oppressed themselves? The government that first oppressed you?


There are no easy answers, and that’s the second thing that disqualifies Cleverman from being a superhero narrative: there’s no clear supervillain. Each character has their strengths, flaws, and agendas, and while the Australian government is the main antagonist, there is no clear way to solve the problems the people in The Zone face. By the end of the first season, in fact, conflict has only escalated. The only real catharsis comes in Koen’s defeat of the Namorrodor – a monster from the Dreaming that has been committing murders the local authorities blamed on the Hairypeople.



Finally, as creator Ryan Griffen points out, this is an Aboriginal story. It draws some inspiration from contemporary comic book narratives, but while the Cleverman may be ‘Australia’s first Aboriginal superhero’ it is then also one of the first superhero stories, period. To appropriate it so readily into Western superhero culture is to overlook its hybrid origins. Griffen writes:

I wanted to create an Aboriginal superhero that [my son] could connect with, no matter what others said. I wanted a character that would empower him to stand and fight when presented with racism. Just like the old dreaming stories, Cleverman would be able to teach moral lessons; not only for my son, not just for Aboriginal people, but for many more out there as well.


We could sit in the writers’ room and come up with something amazing that hit all the genre beats to make a great hour of television, but if it crossed the line of what we can say and do around Aboriginal culture and Aboriginal stories, then we had to revise our thinking.

To return to Wolf-Meyer’s analysis of the superhero narrative, Western superheroes are often too busy considering their own big picture to actually change the life of a regular person for the better:

As agents of the law, the vast majority of superheroes are intent on retaining the status quo, subservient to the popular politics and will of the people they endeavor to protect. These heroes fail to uphold the philosophical responsibility that Friedrich Nietzsche thought so vital to the position of the übermensch, whose purpose was to ‘‘go under,’’ to bring to humanity the lessons learned, metaphysical or otherwise, as post-humans, in an attempt to affect utopia.

The Cleverman, a post-human in the supernatural sense, but also in the role of an oppressed other, teaches us that utopia is hard, and perhaps even impossible. The first season concludes at the start of a battle that seems destined to be lost. But rather than declaring utopia wholly defeated (‘until the next issue!’), Cleverman seems to suggest that we should continue to fight. Because it draws its myth from the ancient past rather than the future or an alternate present, it is able to remind us that humans continually find new ways to hurt each other, while also assuring us that someone is still looking out for us – not on a utopian scale, but on a smaller, personal one.

Jimmy, played by Jack Charles. © Lisa Tomasetti/ABC
Jimmy, played by Jack Charles. © Lisa Tomasetti/ABC

Cleverman was recently renewed for a second season, so this won’t be the last we see of this story. With any luck, it will stay true to its Aboriginal origins, and will continue to resist the mould of the superhero narrative just as its characters rally against the many and varied stereotypes that seek to limit them.

You can watch the trailer for the first season here:


The Feminist Politics of Star Wars

This week started off with some exciting news: I get to draft a chapter for Star Wars and the History of Transmedia Storytelling, a collection of academic essays on the franchise edited by Dan Hassler-Forest and Sean Guynes. This collection is scheduled for publication in 2017, to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the first film release.



The Project

In forty years a lot has changed for Star Wars, and my chapter focuses on the franchise’s feminist politics.

A recent YouTube video cut together all the lines spoken by women in the original Star Wars film trilogy, apart from Princess Leia. The total runtime was just over a minute. Women have been well represented among the ranks of Lucasfilm and LucasArts, but historically the franchise is not known for its groundbreaking portrayal of female characters on-screen. Even so, women have made up a significant and vocal portion of the franchise’s fanbase from early on. Though Princess Leia’s example is a powerful one, what else draws women to Star Wars, and how has the franchise adapted itself to tap into this market?

R2-KT, the pink astromech droid. First created for a little girl with cancer, later honoured with a place in Star Wars canon – to the chagrin of some uninformed fans.

As you can read in the original call for papers, the focus of the collection is on transmedia revision both in and outside of the films:

The chapters in this collection will ultimately demonstrate that Star Wars laid the foundations for the forms of convergence culture that rule the media industries today. As a commercial entertainment property and meaningful platform for audience participation, Star Wars created lifelong fans (and consumers) by continuing to develop characters and plots beyond the original text and by spreading that storyworld across as many media platforms as possible.

Ashley Eckstein, the voice of Ahsoka Tano and founder of HerUniverse.
Ashley Eckstein: Star Wars fan, voice of Ahsoka Tano, and founder of the clothing line HerUniverse.

From the myriad female-led stories in the Star Wars ‘Legends’ (Expanded Universe) novels, to the casting of stars Ewan McGregor and Liam Neeson in The Phantom Menace, to the popular success of female characters like Ahsoka Tano in The Clone Wars and Rey in The Force Awakens, the first half of my chapter will provide a survey of the tactics used to quietly cater to an imagined female audience, from the earliest days of Star Wars’ transmedia empire. This is a complex subject, and I won’t be able to cover everything in the 5,000 words I’m allotted, but I’ll be doing my best to highlight key examples.

'Encounter on Dathomir' © wraithdt on DeviantArt
‘Encounter on Dathomir’ © wraithdt on DeviantArt

In the second part of the chapter, I plan to tie things together by using the matriarchal planet of Dathomir – first depicted in the bonkers (and bestselling) ‘Legends’ novel The Courtship of Princess Leia (1994) and later re-imagined for the canonical Clone Wars animated series (2008-2014) – as an illustration of the franchise’s own evolving relationship with feminist discourse.

Now obviously, on the surface this description seems to ignore all the queer Star Wars fans out there. Please don’t think you’re not also important! Your fandom is a vital part of this research, especially because you’ve long been ignored by marketers. As the previous paragraph states, what I’m looking at here is the perceived audiences for canonical Star Wars products, not the actual ones. I will be on the lookout for slippage between these two groups. I’m also interested in the way the franchise queers itself over time – allowing for multiple readings of the same characters and stories – in order to adjust to changing ideas about gender.

How You Can Help

While I have the wealth of the internet and my own experiences to draw on, as well as the invaluable research of people like Michael Kaminski, J.W. Rinzler, and Will Brooker, ideally I want to take this research further. The information available online about Star Wars‘ marketing and mythmaking is pretty sparse before 1995 – no surprise, given that the internet wasn’t really a big thing until then – and there’s no way I can buy up all the paper fanzines, adverts, articles, and reports I would like for this project on a PhD student’s salary.


So. Here’s where you come in. Do you remember reading anything that described Star Wars as a boys’ club, or recall seeing an appeal to female audiences either in storytelling or in marketing? What kinds characters, stories, or merchandise has the franchise marketed with a clear idea of ‘men’ or ‘women’ in mind? What are some of the ways (good, bad, and hilarious) in which the Star Wars franchise has tried to appeal to women over the years? What kinds of things have been perceived by the media as gender-pandering?


I’m particularly interested in concrete examples from before the prequels (so 1977-1999), and am prioritising officially sanctioned attempts to sell Star Wars to women over grassroots projects, but would welcome anything you can send my way.

The Paper Time Machine

grid-cell-27443-1475225552-7In a previous blog post, I mentioned the Ellis Island immigrant portraiture of Augustus F. Sherman. I wrote:

Sherman was an amateur photographer working as Chief Registry Clerk at New York’s Ellis Island station from 1892 until 1925, and he photographed some of the twelve million immigrants to pass into the USA before the station closed in 1954. Many are photographed in their native dress, which Sherman appears to have encouraged, but which also seems logical given the nature of the passage these people had just completed. If you couldn’t carry it with you, you had to leave it behind. Though Sherman’s photographs are clearly staged rather than candid, unlike some of Lewis W. Hine’s work, there is a certain sense directness or frankness to the images that lends them an air of historical authenticity. These portraits are only accompanied by a date, and the subject’s country of origin.

Recently, Wolfgang Wild, the creator and curator of the Retronaut website, and Jordan Lloyd, the director of the colour reconstruction team at Dynamichrome, have teamed up to create The Paper Time Machine. This book, which they are currently crowdfunding over at Unbound, takes famous black-and-white photographs (including Sherman’s) and renders them in full colour. The project description promises both historical accuracy and a tantalising level of historical engagement:

Each element in the monochrome images has been researched and colour checked for historical authenticity. As the layers of colour build up, the effect is disorientatingly real and the decades and centuries just fall away. It is as though we are standing at the original photographer’s elbow.

You can judge for yourself whether they’ve achieved this goal – both the crowdfunding page and this recent BuzzFeed article let you view a selection of the images side-by side.

In the gallery below, you can also view some of the black-and-white images I displayed in my original post in all their full-colour glory:

The book describes itself as ‘a collection of historical “remixes” that exist alongside the original photographs but draw out qualities, textures and details that have hitherto remained hidden’. Wild and the team at Dynamichrome have also added their own annotations to the photographs, explaining the rationale for selecting these particular images and offering some insights into material features like clothing or architecture. Where the colorisation process brings the images to life for contemporary audiences visually, these descriptions add a sense of touch, as well as the occasional sound or smell.

Check out The Paper Time Machine (and score yourself a crowdfunding copy) over at the project page.

Left-Wing Populism and the Arts

© Ben Stainton
© Ben Stainton

All art is political. As Toni Morrison put it in a 2008 interview with Poets and Writers (issue 36.6):

All of that art-for-art’s-sake stuff is BS […] What are these people talking about? Are you really telling me that Shakespeare and Aeschylus weren’t writing about kings? All good art is political! There is none that isn’t. And the ones that try hard not to be political are political by saying, ‘We love the status quo.’ We’ve just dirtied the word ‘politics,’ made it sound like it’s unpatriotic or something.

If this is true (and I believe that it is), what kind of politics does the historical monster mashup represent, and how does this play out in the texts themselves? To help me answer this question, I’ve been reading up on contemporary political theory. Today’s selected readings were on populism – specifically Twenty-First Century Populism: The Spectre of Western European Democracy (2008), edited by Daniele Albertazzi and Duncan McDonnell, and Populism in Europe and the Americas: Threat or Corrective for Democracy? (2012), edited by Cas Mudde and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser. At first glance you might be wondering what the historical monster mashup could possibly have to do with populism or populist art. Surely it’s impossible for the realm of art, as a space of ‘free speech’, to conform to a populist aesthetic.

Populism in Europe and the Americas is specifically interested in whether populism should be seen as a good thing for democracy (and all its associated rights) or bad thing. First, though, it is tasked with actually defining  populism and democracy, which have both been approached from a wide number of directions. The introduction by Mudde and Kaltwasser ultimately concludes that populism can be minimally defined as an ideology

that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogenous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ and ‘the corrupt elite’, and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) or the people […]. This means that populism is in essence a form of moral politics, as the distinction between ‘the elite’ and ‘the people’ is first and foremost moral (i.e. pure versus corrupt), not situational (e.g. position of power), sociocultural (e.g. ethnicity, religion), or socio-economic (e.g. class). Moreover, both categories are to a certain extent ’empty signifiers’ (Laclau 1977), as it is the populists who construct the exact meanings of ‘the elite’ and ‘the people’ [pp. 8-9, emphasis modified]

In other words, depending on the context and culture populism can potentially be found everywhere – among all social classes and backgrounds, and in both left-wing and right-wing politics.


Twenty-First-Century Populism likewise opens by pointing out the frequent abuse of the term ‘populism’ in contemporary politics:

Much like Dylan Thomas’ definition of an alcoholic as ‘someone you don’t like who drinks as much as you’, the epithet ‘populist’ is often used in public debate to denigrate statements and measures  by parties and politicians which commentators or other politicians oppose. When an adversary promises to crack down on crime or lower taxes and yet increase spending on public services, it is ‘populist’. When one’s own side does so, it is dealing with the country’s problems [p. 2]

Before we can go about deciding what populism means, then, Albertazzi and McDonnell argue that we first need to account for the term’s negative connotations in politics and popular culture.

After an extensive definition of democracy (and its different facets and levels), Mudde and Kaltwasser conclude that populism is generally beneficial to a democracy when it opposes it from the outside [p.25], serving to critique the system and keep its power in check. Populism becomes most harmful to democracy when emerges from within the government, subverting the system’s own ‘checks and balances’ [p. 24] in the name of the popular majority to undermine minority rights, or for personal gain.

Neither of these books comments in any depth on the function of art in populist politics (though Twenty-First-Century Populism does contain a chapter by Gianpietro Mazzoleni on the role of the media in promoting and exploiting populist figureheads). Could historical monster mashup be categorised as populist? That will have to be a future blog post, but at the moment I’m just enjoying learning about a subject area I had never really engaged with. This week’s reading should come especially handy in the light of the American presidential elections.

ITV’s Victoria is Neo-Victorian Fiction at its Purest

‘I’m afraid the truth is vastly overrated’ – Lord Melbourne, ‘Doll 123’ (Victoria, episode 1)

Image © ITV Plc

After a busy summer, I’ve spent the last few weeks catching up on all the reading and viewing I had on hold. Last week, a scathing review by James Delingpole sent ITV’s Victoria to the top of my must-watch list. The show, he wrote, is ‘silly, facile and irresponsible’, and its popularity is all down to the ‘feminisation of culture’. Delingpole may well be right, but not for the reasons – or with the effects – that he imagines.

Rampant sexism of the article aside (it’s essentially clickbait), Delingpole does make one point worth commenting on. It deals with the question of historical accuracy, and the responsibility entertainers have to what he calls ‘the known biographical facts’:

Taking the odd liberty is one thing but doing so with such brazen shamelessness feels to me like one giant upraised middle finger to all those of us — we’re a minority but we do exist — who value history and who want to be informed at least as much as we want to be entertained.

From ITV VICTORIA Embargoed until 16.30 11th August 2016 Pictured: JENNA COLEMAN as Victoriaand TOM HUGHES as Albert. This photograph is (C) ITV Plc and can only be reproduced for editorial purposes directly in connection with the programme or event mentioned above. Once made available by ITV plc Picture Desk, this photograph can be reproduced once only up until the transmission [TX] date and no reproduction fee will be charged. Any subsequent usage may incur a fee. This photograph must not be manipulated [excluding basic cropping] in a manner which alters the visual appearance of the person photographed deemed detrimental or inappropriate by ITV plc Picture Desk. This photograph must not be syndicated to any other company, publication or website, or permanently archived, without the express written permission of ITV Plc Picture Desk. Full Terms and conditions are available on the website For further information please contact: 0207 1573044
Image © ITV Plc
With ‘brazen shamelessness’, Delingpole seems to be referring to Victoria‘s tendency to sexualise and sensationalise its characters. The show is indeed guilty of both, and we’ve only had five of the promised eight episodes. While the historical Queen Victoria, Lord Melbourne, and Prince Albert could all have been described as comely in their time, they were no match for actors Jenna Coleman, Rufus Sewell, and Tom Hughes. The passion virtually oozes from every garment, glance, and camera angle, with frequent cuts between faces and eroticised body parts – hand, neck, lips – all designed to emphasise the physical as well as emotional attachments between characters. The scene that concludes the third episode (‘Brocket Hall’) is particularly evocative (talk to Daný van Dam about the sexual connotations of the piano in neo-Victorian fiction), not to mention the royal wedding night. Episode four even contains a quote that I will absolutely be using at next year’s BAVS conference, ‘Victorians Unbound’. Stopping Victoria from retying her hair after their forest romp (with all the sexual tension, but none of the sex), Albert tells her: ‘I like to see you unbound. You are not so much a queen.’

Sexiness aside, if we stick to bare facts Victoria is no more or less informative or historically accurate than the highly acclaimed biopic Lincoln (2012). But because the latter is ‘dignified’ in its emotion rather than giddy or indulgent, it is deemed superior. Why should it enrage viewers like Delingpole if a piece of historical fiction chooses to view its object from a sexual and emotional perspective, rather than a cerebral or rational one? The answer, of course, is that these perspectives are not assigned equal levels of value in contemporary culture. The rational is privileged above the emotional, just as other traditionally masculine traits are still praised over traditionally feminine ones. By focusing on sex and sentiment rather than traditionally interpreted historical evidence, the show doesn’t just turn off male viewers, Delingpole argues, it also betrays the objective truth of history, which is based not on sentiment but on cold, hard facts.

This is not a new way of looking at history. It’s not a view held by many contemporary historians, however. Though the historian has a certain level of responsibility to ‘the facts’, reassembling these facts into a coherent picture of the past always involves some measure of narrativisation. Take historian Robert Rosenstone, who has argued that ‘the history film […] helps return us to a kind of ground zero, a sense that we can never really know the past, but can only continually play with it, reconfigure, and try to make meaning out of the traces it has left behind’ (p. 163-4). The absolutist (or ‘rationalist’) view of history is also one that many neo-Victorian authors (male and female) have built their success on challenging.

Image © ITV Plc
Image © ITV Plc

In a recent blog post, Victorianist Barbara Franchi reflects on the symmetry between Victoria‘s title character and its subject matter:

With its intertextual references to literary classics, its serialised form and its self-reflexive tones on the epoch taking its name from the series’ protagonist, Victoria is a feast of nineteenth-century literature and culture brought to our screens. One could hardly find a more apt place to reflect on the contemporary fascination for the nineteenth-century past than the fictionalised story of the woman who, with her name alone, has made consuming the Victorians possible.

Victoria is neo-Victorian fiction at its purest, engaging with and under-writing our perception of the era’s most recognisable figure, who has already been sold to us in a thousand forms. It even employs all the stereotypical tools of the neo-Victorian novel to do so. Franchi argues that Victoria uses this narrative vocabulary to comment on contemporary society as much as on the historical Victorians.

If Victoria is interested in contemporary politics as well as nineteenth-century ones, what exactly is it trying to tell us through this particular retelling of history? The show manages to remain about as politically neutral as its main character (i.e. not very – nobody wants to align themselves with slavery, after all), though it also manages to avoid siding firmly for or against Tory conservatives, past and present. It can do so mainly because the party it does support, the Whigs, has itself faded into history, and the show makes little effort to give it a contemporary parallel in the Labour Party. The show does an interesting dance with the subject of immigration, given how much of Victoria’s family could not strictly be considered ‘British’, but it remains to be seen how the issue will ultimately be handled. Will Albert adapt to England through integration, or will the court and country learn to accept him in his difference?

Image © ITV Plc

Exoticised foreigners? Check. Erotic corset-lacing scenes? Check. Obligatory prostitute with a Heart of GoldCheck. The show is thus firmly neo-Victorian, bringing us emotionally close to Victorian characters and issues without necessarily replicating the period worldview. This second type of distance is very important. In an insightful post that also reflects on the recent ‘BAVS 2016: Consuming (the) Victorians’ conference, Birmingham-based lecturer Serena Trowbridge explains why emotional engagement must be tempered not just by fact, but by temporal detachment. The past, she reiterates, can never be fully recaptured:

[E]motions such as love, anger, jealousy etc might have been the staple diet of literature for hundreds of years, but the way in which we express them, and indeed the way in which we feel them, is subject to change dependent on the society in which we live. But because we want to understand the Victorians, we make them more like us, and this means that we have to fictionalise, turning Victoria into a consumer item neatly packaged for 21st century audiences who probably don’t know much about her.

Image © ITV Plc
Image © ITV Plc

In conclusion, Trowbridge raises several of her own concerns about Victoria’s sexualised portrayal of the young queen:

As a woman in power, and one who clearly enjoyed the exercise of that power, both Victoria and [Theresa] May provide subjects for debate; we haven’t had many queens, and even fewer female Prime Ministers. The series is timely for raising this question of how a woman can rule, and one suspects the general confidence in Victoria as queen was only slightly lower than that in May as Prime Minister (based on her gender, not views of her politics). ‘Victoria’ suggests that naturally she was a good queen: she might have been impulsive, scared of rats and prone to falling for her Prime Minister, but she was pretty, soft-hearted and prepared to defy those who want to control her. In many ways I think Victoria was a fairly good queen, but ‘Victoria’ is setting her up to be effective only because she has gendered traits which make her recognisable and likeable to modern viewers.”

Trowbridge raises an important issue here, though it will be necessary to see how the rest of the series plays out before coming to a more definitive conclusion. In addition, to dismiss Victoria as frivolous and sentimental just because its heroine often is – something Trowbridge herself never does – would be to miss the point. The young queen, perhaps like many modern viewers, is somewhat ignorant of the politics of her time. As a ruler, Victoria has a great deal of power, but most of the men in her life still look down on her (literally and metaphorically). She is currently no more in charge of the era that will be named for her than the viewer is. She is also still a human being, with human desires and appetites. Victoria embodies traditionally female virtues and vices in the ITV series, but the same could also be said of its male heroes. Lord Melbourne is every inch the feminine, Byronic type so praised by the Romantics, and Albert’s quiet sensitivity and devotion to Victoria (and Victoria alone) stands in contrast to his brother Earnest’s confident, womanising, and traditionally masculine ways.

I’ll be most interested to see how the show develops as an analogy for contemporary gender politics. Will Victoria succeed in balancing her public and private lives, and will the male characters on the show be held to the same standard? How will ITV’s Albert come to terms with being the husband of the most powerful woman on Earth, and (more interestingly) what will it tell us about the roles of men and women in the twenty-first-century workplace?

Image © ITV Plc

Lauren Porter, who curated a Windsor Castle exhibition from the Royal Archives in 2014, comments that a love letter from Albert to Victoria (quoted in ITV’s Victoria), ‘provides a fascinating personal insight into the depth of Prince Albert’s thoughts and feelings for his bride-to-be. Such a heartfelt expression of love and devotion is particularly striking as it sits in contrast to the popular idea of the Victorian era being a period of emotional restraint.’ If nothing else, Victoria makes a valiant (and very neo-Victorian) effort to ensure that the stereotype of the austere and supremely rational Victorian does not persist into the twenty-first century.

These days we could all use a bit more Victorian love, and a bit less Victorian austerity.

Welcome to the Asylum

On a beautiful long weekend at the end of August, I experienced my very first major steampunk event.

Image © Joe Slatter
Image © Joe Slatter

The Asylum Steampunk Festival – so-named because of the converted mental asylum that forms one of its key venues – takes place every year in Lincoln, and is the largest and longest-running event of its kind in the UK. I went to learn more about the musical acts performing there, and also to steep myself in the subculture, for context.

Image © Stitches of Time
Image © Stitches of Time

When I tell people about going to a steampunk festival, the first question from many people’s lips is ‘what did you wear’? Alas, I spent the Asylum as a civilian in jeans and t-shirts (and occasionally a flaming red rain parka, to combat the weekend showers). I wasn’t the only person underdressed for the occasion, but the extent of the costumes ranged from a simple pair of brass goggles to a dress inspired by Gothic cathedrals (pictured). No one’s attire really felt out of place, and no one was excluded from an event based on what they were wearing. Of course, those with especially fabulous costumes had a harder time than the rest getting from place to place, since everyone wanted to take their picture.

Some scheduling decisions were tougher than others.

There was no shortage of things to do and see at the Asylum festival, and most of the daytime features were free to wristband holders. There were crafting workshops and live performances, galleries, exhibitions, and markets, competitions and roleplaying events. Many of these involved the participation of the attending steampunks, who had signed up for particular events in advance or been selected to participate because they had won an event at another convention. In one event, participants raced the wheeled contraptions they had built down the castle promenade.

Behold my giant slice of 'Steampunk Cake' (with absinthe-flavoured icing).
Behold my giant slice of ‘Steampunk Cake’ (with absinthe-flavoured icing).

In addition to the steampunk vendors who had come to Lincoln specially for the festival, the city’s regular shops had gone out of their way to appeal to the steampunk community. In some shops this meant a steampunk-themed window display. Others offered special discounts to wristband holders. Many food vendors had steampunk-themed cakes, drinks, and other treats. Favourite flavours were absinthe (aniseed), lemon, and gin.

The city itself was no slouch. Within a very small radius were a castle, a cathedral, a lovely old town and more modern shopping area (separated from each other by the mother of all hills), as well as a myriad other historical buildings and attractions.

I also very much enjoyed the evening concerts I attended at the Engine Shed – an appropriately named venue for the occasion. I got to experience the bands I had been researching for the past few months up close, and discover some new bands in the process. I will definitely be picking up albums by Frenchy and the Punk for my own collection, and Before Victoria is now at the top of my research list.

The Engine Shed – steampunks not pictured.
The Engine Shed – steampunks not pictured.

In addition to the research on steampunk music I originally went to Lincoln to conduct, I came back from the Asylum with a few things to mull over.

The first thing that struck me about the festival was the age of the attendees. Specifically, the steampunk community is older than I had expected. The vast majority of the steampunks at the Asylum seemed to be somewhere between 40 and 60, though there were also a good number of attendees outside of that age range as well. It was pretty spectacular to see a 60-year-old, moustachioed gentleman in a pith helmet walking around the same events as a 12-year-old steampunk Rey. Having been to very few events of this kind, I can’t comment on whether this age distribution is usual or not (let me know if you can!).

img_6403Other features and themes that stood out for me over the weekend had do with steampunk’s traditional bone of contention: its glorification of colonial and imperial imagery. One workshop I attended, given by crafter and copyright lawyer Peter Harrow, discussed the challenges inherent in adapting Star Wars characters to the steampunk aesthetic. This is something that happens quite frequently, as creative fans bring their love of one world into another. The sculptures Harrow displayed during the workshop, however, all shared a rather disturbing theme that was largely glossed over – a bell jar containing the shrunken head of Jar Jar Binks, an Ewok-skin rug, the mounted head of a Sand Person, wearing a Foreign Legion fez.

img_6405These sculptures attempt humour by tapping into the strong (and often negative) feelings Star Wars fans have for these characters, but in doing so they also strongly evoke tribal and colonial imagery. This representation of natives as trophies a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away has two effects. It glorifies the Imperial Army responsible for taking the trophies in the Star Wars universe, and associates it with the imperial British army responsible for oppressing native peoples in our own universe.

On several occasions present-day politics also came to the forefront at the Asylum. Many of the political opinions voiced at the festival came from left-leaning, anti-royalist, and anti-imperialist steampunks, particularly at the musical concerts. It was clear that not everyone shared these views, however. When Marc Burrows, frontman for Before Victoria, described Princess Charlotte as being ‘like Kate Middleton except she had a point’, boos could be heard throughout the audience. These quickly turned to laughter as Burrows added, ‘uh oh – if you’re booing that, you’re really not going to like this next song’.


At the Queen’s Parade (an event where steampunk societies could march together and present themselves to a Queen Victoria impersonator at Lincoln Castle), the organisers stopped to offer a word on ‘all the people in uniform serving today’, which may well have rubbed some of the non-British participants the wrong way. These were all grouped under a banner naming them ‘The Most Honourable Legion of Extraordinary Foreigners’, with the tongue-in-cheek subtitle ‘We are not asylum seekers – we’ve already found The Asylum!’.

And, of course, it wouldn’t be a steampunk festival without copious amounts of tea (another colonial product). There was tea drinking, tea duelling, and even a tea referendum, to answer the burning question: ‘Milk: Before or After’? (‘Milk After’ was the eventual winner, to the dismay of many a ‘Milk Before’ steampunk).

The most civil of all referenda?
The most civil of all referenda?

For me, despite the many sights to see and issues to ponder, the real highlight of the festival was the warm, polite atmosphere that prevailed. Everyone seemed cheerful and enthusiastic, and genuinely accepting of the wide range of ‘doing’ steampunk practiced by those in attendance. Whatever the issues on the table, it always felt like there was space to discuss them civilly and honestly. I would certainly go again, and I may even get the chance: next year it will overlap with the British Association for Victorian Studies conference, ‘Victorians Unbound’.

I may have to pack my parasol and pith helmet this time.

Image © Chahinez Loup‎
Image © Chahinez Loup‎

Reflections on BAVS 2016

bavs-poster_castleThe 2016 British Association for Victorian Studies annual conference, ‘Consuming (the) Victorians’, officially closed at Cardiff University on Friday. Today, I finally put in a full and productive day of work again after a long weekend of post-conference recovery. It’s one thing attending a three-day international conference. It’s a whole different thing organising one. Despite a fantastic organising team – and an equally fantastic bunch of delegates – four days of conference mode (preceded by a year’s worth of planning) takes its tole. Fortunately, it was still an amazing experience overall, and one I would gladly repeat… though perhaps not immediately.

Today I spent several hours putting together Storify threads of all the Twitter highlights from each day of BAVS 2016, and got to re-live the moments that made it special. I was also overwhelmed by just how many tweets there were. Just counting those I retweeted from the official @BAVS2016 account, there were more than 3000 tweets between 31 August and 2 September. On the first day, the #BAVS2016 hashtag was among the top fifty Twitter trends in the UK. Not bad for a group of 350 Victorianists – especially given that their presence on Twitter mostly consisted of PhD students and early-career scholars.

Without further ado, then, the Storify feeds for BAVS 2016:

BAVS 2016 – Day One (31 August, 2016)

BAVS 2016 – Day Two (1 September, 2016)

BAVS 2016 – Day Three (2 September, 2016)

BAVS 2016 – Aftermath

We couldn’t have achieved all this without our team of bursary tweeters, who volunteered their skills in exchange for a small subsidy (which in turn was graciously provided by BAVS and Cardiff University). They produced around a third of the live tweets during the conference.

Image by @KeiWaiyee (‘Marxist Baking’), a BAVS 2016 delegate

It was a fantastic three days, but now it’s time to turn my thoughts back to all the projects I’ve been neglecting in the run-up to the conference – and to BAVS 2017: ‘Victorians Unbound’!

Consuming (the) Victorians

IMG_6342 (1)Today I won’t be posting a new research blog, because I’m busy running the international Victorianist conference ‘Consuming (the) Victorians’ (BAVS 2016). In addition to being a co-organiser, I’m behind all the conference website and social media for the event.

So check out our website, look us up on Twitter (@BAVS2016), and see what we’re up to (or chat to us) using the hashtag #BAVS2016!

I will be back next week with more historical monster mashup research.

Photographs from Aeroplanes

IMG_3597This week I’m taking a break from research blogging to celebrate an important milestone. It’s been two years since I accepted a PhD bursary at Cardiff University, and also two years that my partner and I have been living apart. Happily, after much job hunting, he also found work in the UK, and we have just recently moved back in together, but the past 24 months have involved a lot of planes, buses, trains, and other forms of travel.

During that time I’ve casually snapped a lot of travel photos, many of them from the windows of airplanes, and flipping back through them now I found the simultaneous difference and sameness strangely calming. Sometimes you can spot the location from the image, but sometimes the new perspective renders things alien and unplaceable. It’s another world up there, and it looks new with every trip.

So without further ado, here’s what two years’ worth of photographs from aeroplane windows looks like:


Black Chronicles: Photographic Portraits 1862-1948

IMG_6089‘There’s nothing like a photograph for reminding you about difference’, reads a quote by Professor Stuart Hall, printed large on the walls of the National Portrait Gallery. ‘There it is. It stares you ineradicably in the face’.

The images that form the ‘Black Chronicles: Photographic Portraits 1862-1948’ exhibit this quotation adorns represent ‘difference’ in various ways for the people gathered to view them. For some, it’s primarily a temporal difference. For the most part, the images show people who are long dead. For others, it’s a racial difference – and the absence of visual representations of black individuals from this period in history is part of what The Missing Chapter, an ongoing archive research programme supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, aims to remedy.

I was in London over the weekend, and decided to pop in for a visit. I deal a bit with photographic representations of otherness in my thesis, and it’s an area of research I find particularly interesting. Travis Louie, one of the artists I’m researching, has explicitly tied his decision to reproduce the Victorian photographic motif to the ‘the immigrant experience in North America from the late 18th century through the early 20th century’, which he sees as ‘a convincing record of such things’.  Himself a descendent of Chinese immigrants, Louie recalls seeing old, black-and-white photographs hanging in the homes of childhood friends, and wondering why his family had none. Quite simply, he discovered, his ancestors were too poor to afford this kind of historical capital, and so their image has since faded from memory. For Louie, this lack of retrospective representation contributes in part to present-day racism and discrimination. You can read a bit more about Travis Louie’s work here.


On the exhibition homepage, the National Portrait Gallery explains the importance of making these images visible:

These portraits of individuals of African and Asian heritage bear witness to Britain’s imperial history of empire and expansion. They highlight an important and complex black presence in Britain before 1948, a watershed moment when the Empire Windrush brought the first large group of Caribbean immigrants to Britain. Research is ongoing and new information emerges continuously.

The exhibition is smaller and less obtrusive than I expected – except for the first room, which contains the quotation by Professor Hall and a number of enlarged photographs. This room is intentionally arresting; walls painted black, instantly visible from the stairway. The images themselves also stop you in your tracks, enlarged and printed in incredibly high quality. Unless you were to read the captions (or, in some cases, to note the clothing) you would never assume they were more than 100 years old.


The images can be found in three rooms of the gallery, and in the last two rooms you have to spend a moment or two searching. Despite the added trouble, I actually found this to be a very apt choice, as it makes the photographs feel like an important, embedded part of the gallery as a whole. While the first room holds a series of enlarged portraits, the rest of the collection mainly consists of smaller photographs and cabinet cards. These, like the larger images, seem chosen to evoke a sense of connection between the viewer and the picture, and I found myself eager for more information about these people, beyond the brief descriptions offered alongside the photographs.

IMG_6099Too often in historical representation, perhaps especially in Victorian representations, we get only one, very narrow perspective on the past. Now, certain movements and moments – neo-Victorianism, postcolonial steampunk, this exhibition – are confronting us with the narrowness of out experience. The result, in my opinion, is extremely rewarding.

‘Black Chronicles: Photographic Portraits 1862-1948’ will continue to run until 11 December 2016, and I highly recommend it – not least because it’s completely free. There will also be a one-day conference on 21 October, which will mark the end of the project’s three-year funding.