Historical Feminists (and Feminism) in Modern Television

Our lady Jane (Austen)

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the mythologisation of great women writers, artists, and other historical figures.

As feminist scholar Christine Battersby points out, writing against the postmodern impulse to declare the author or great genius ‘dead’:

The concept of genius is too deeply embedded in our conceptual scheme for us to solve our aesthetic problems by simply amputating all talk of genius, or by refusing to evaluate individual authors and artists. Before we can fundamentally revalue old aesthetic values, the concept of genius has to be appropriated by feminists, and made to work for us. [Gender and Genius: Towards a Feminist Aesthetics, 1989, p. 15]

In other words, Battersby frames the mythologisation and popularisation of female historical figures as inherently good, and feminist. In her book this is a convincing argument, and I believe representation is a very necessary part of equality. Naturally things are usually more complicated in practice than they are in theory, though.

Screenshot from Harlots (2017)

Dr. Rosanne Welch has written (/podcasted?) about some of the recent depictions of historical feminists in popular television, and raises related concerns:

Recently, in watching television shows and films set in the past I’ve begun noticing a proliferation of female feminists who are eventually aided by male feminist characters in the quest to be treated equally and I can’t decide if I like this new trend…. or not.

Screenshot from Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries (2012-2015)

So as a feminist and as a writer, you’d think I’d love to see the kinds of feminists that are popping up on several new historical fiction shows I’ve found on Netflix recently — women detectives like:

Phryne Fisher and Dorothy Williams in 1929 Australia on Miss Fisher’s Mysteries or female medical doctors like Julia Ogden and Emily Grace in 1898 Toronto on Murdoch Mysteries or Samantha Stewart in 1940s London on Foyle’s War — or perhaps the most famous recent historical fiction feminist on television — Sybil Crawley in 1912 England on the wildly popular Downton Abbey.

Those last 2 shows I found thanks to PBS, which was our only window into international television before the advent of Netflix so I wanted to make sure and give credit where credit is due. The other thing that sparked my mind about this idea of ‘fake frequent feminists’ was an interview with Alan Rickman [on] a film he directed and co-wrote (with Jeremy Brock and Alison Deegan ) called A Little Chaos. Apparently, it’s set in the court of Louis XIV and involves two landscape architects involved in designing the gardens — one male (who existed in real life) landscape artist André Le Notre, and one female — who is entirely fictional.

Publicity still from Downton Abbey (2010-2015)

 

In an interview with Variety Rickman said he enjoyed the historical inaccuracy of the story:

“But there was something unmistakable about the dialogue and the fact she’d created a leading female character who couldn’t possibly have existed then — it’s a complete fantasy. But that’s what the movies can do, you can take a period of history that’s incredibly male dominated and you can inject into it a very modern independent woman and make a point about feminism through a prism of history. So if anyone says the story’s implausible, you just say: Well, yes.”

Rickman gave us one of the many reasons for the many feminist characters we are encountering these days. Another is that post-Buffy (which I discussed a couple of shows ago) women want to see empowered women, rather than victims — and the networks and studios know this. Also, writers know that characters need to be active to be interesting, not passive. They also know that stories need to focus on unique and dramatic events, not boring average everyday living. So what’s the problem with that?

I fear all these feminists in the past are giving young girls the idea that it’s always been easy to demand and receive our rights in various countries around the world, when nothing could be farther from the truth.

You can read the rest of Welch’s piece (which contains a few more examples and some suggested solutions) over on Medium.

Publicity image from the forthcoming Mary Shelley biopic.

Steampunk, Disability, and World Building

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The Steampunk Professor Xavier Wheelchair by Daniel Valdez.

Last week I posted about disability in the Victorian age. This week, by some brilliant stroke of coincidence, I came across the following article on Steampunk Journal:

In 2014, Mina was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Fibromyalgia. One of the significant symptoms is a weakness of the muscles which meant she required living aids to assist her with raising her son. “I went into the local mobility shops and was dismayed to see that the limited range of aids were all fashioned towards elderly people or people with little appreciation of the more alternative ways of fashion,” said Mina. “My main issue came when I was invited to a wedding. I had a great outfit but my living aids make it look so ghastly! So I had to go without and suffered, leaving the event early.” It was then that she struck on the idea of modifying them herself. She did the same thing with her wrist and knee supports.

Mina, who runs a Steampunk accessories shop on Etsy, adapted her subculture’s aesthetic to her living aids. The idea took off quickly. After seeing Mina’s own living aids, one of Mina’s customers asked if she could craft a set of steampunk ear and eye protectors, so the customer could enjoy going out to clubs with friends. ‘In the near future she’s looking to customise back braces, adult neckerchiefs, joint supports, ring pens and walking aids’, the article concludes.

© Gothianna and Steampunk Journal
© Gothianna and Steampunk Journal

In the light of last week’s post, which described Victorian attitudes towards the disabled as ‘a combination of fear, pity, discomfort and an idea of divine judgement’, it was encouraging to see that the neo-Victorian update doesn’t share these feelings in any way, shape, or form. The steampunk subculture’s love of crafting has effectively turned disability—often a marker reserved for evil or monstrous characters in popular culture—into a superpower.

It turns out that this topic (like many topics) has been on the steampunk community’s collective mind for a while. Steampunk Tourist talks about why this subculture is a better fit with disability than others:

When it comes to Steampunk […] one isn’t restricted to that sort of rigid rule set. Rather than being a predetermined cast of characters, Steampunk is an artistic style. While it can stand alone, it can also be added to other things to make them Steampunk. You don’t have to be someone else; you can create your own character. What that means to a person with a physical disability who relies on a device is that their device – be it a wheelchair, cane, oxygen tank, leg braces, or even glasses – can be dressed up and blended into a costume, or even made the centerpiece of it. […] Within the world of Steampunk, those things don’t make them stand out as “others”; they’re merely smart, fashionable accessories. And one can easily imagine that were someone brave enough to dress up a prosthetic limb with Steampunk flare, they would most likely find themselves the belle of the ball at any event, and for all the right reasons.

The Steampunk Professor Xavier Wheelchair by Daniel Valdez
The Steampunk Professor Xavier Wheelchair by Daniel Valdez

Talking about a peg-legged character in one of her steampunk novels, Rebecca Diem likewise writes:

Steampunk literature is a disruption of the historical narrative. When I’m creating a universe for my characters, I treat history like the icing on the cake. Or, sometimes, the rosettes. I am creating a world with airships, sky pirates, auto-baubles and appropriated Victorian aesthetics. I pick and choose which parts I borrow from our history and which parts to embellish.

[…]

So, in a steampunk setting, what does accessibility look like?

In the Tales of the Captain Duke, Professor Sewell is the morally-ambiguous Tony Stark figure. She becomes one of the first students at Lovelace University, a school founded by Mary Somerville and funded by the heirs of Ada Lovelace. She pioneers the field of biomechanical engineering with her incredible prosthetics and reshapes the Victorian understanding of disability. The classic image of the crippled, impoverished veteran pushing himself on a scooter is undone, reshaped into a foreman supervising work at a factory on eight-foot legs.  The Professor disrupts society with her inventions, and challenges her peers’ understanding of the possible.

Do you have an example of how steampunk approaches disability? I would love to hear about it!

 

Stereophotography: The Victorians in 3D

A cabinet card depicting a Victorian couple with their stereoscope.
A cabinet card depicting a Victorian couple with their stereoscope.

One of the joys (and sorrows) of research is all the interesting information you find on one topic while doing research on something completely different. While researching spirit photography, for instance, I came across this fascinating account of the Victorian stereoscope in the art book for National Museums Scotland’s exhibition ‘Photography: A Victorian Sensation’.*

If you think the 3D film craze is a new thing, think again. The stereoscope is one of its many historical predecessors. Essentially a pair of fancy spectacles, the device allowed you to view two nearly identical images side-by-side in a way that would make them appear three-dimensional. Alison Morrison-Low describes how enthusiastically the Victorians took to the technology:

Hundreds of thousands of stereoscopic images were sold […] in a major craze which reached every middle-class Victorian drawing-room. The demand appeared insatiable. In 1854, George Swan Nottage (1823-85) set up the London Stereoscopic Company. ‘No home without a stereoscope’ was its slogan. It sold a wide range of stereoscopes, costing from 2s 6d to £20 (about £10 and £1550 today), and became the largest photographic publishing company in the world. [p. 63]

A Victorian stereoscope from the collection of the NCC Photographic Archives
A Victorian stereoscope from the collection of the NCC Photographic Archives

The vast numbers of stereo photographs can be divided into four main categories: travel, news, social scenes and comedy. By far the largest group was that of travel. […] The beauty of the English, Welsh or Irish countryside was frequently illustrated, as well as that of Scotland. Rural poverty and derelict cottages were seldom shown, as a Romantic portrayal of scenery prevailed. [p. 67]

 Stereocard depicting market women in Welsh costume, by Francis Bedford, 1863 - 1884. IL.2003.44.6.6.296 © Howarth-Loomes Collection at National Museums Scotland
Stereocard depicting market women in Welsh costume, by Francis Bedford, 1863 – 1884. IL.2003.44.6.6.296 © Howarth-Loomes Collection at National Museums Scotland

And speaking of the Romantics…

Charles Breese (1819-75) of Birmingham and Sydenham sold his highly thought-of quality slides at 5 shillings (£20 today) each. Entitled ‘Breaking Waves’, 1870s-80s, it comes with a quote from Lord Byron: ‘Sea with rocks and a half moon / the deep blue moon of night, Lit by an orb / Which looks like a spirit or a spirit’s world’. [p. 76]

Photograph of 'Breaking Waves' by Charles Breese & Co., from Howarth-Loomes Collection at National Museums Scotland
Photograph of ‘Breaking Waves’ by Charles Breese & Co., from Howarth-Loomes Collection at National Museums Scotland

*All page citations refer to Alison Morrison-Low, Photography: A Victorian Sensation (Edinburgh: National Museums Scotland, 2015).

Star Wars and Political Discourse

7d7This post represents a section of my chapter for Star Wars and the History of Transmedia Storytelling that was cut for the sake of space. It looks at some of the ways Star Wars has explicitly engaged with political discourse over the years. 

Star Wars has always been a deeply political franchise. Not just in its themes, which include war, totalitarianism, multiculturalism, and civil disobedience, but also through its use in political debates and activism. George Lucas has consistently claimed that the first Star Wars film was an analogy for the Vietnam war, and that the villainous Emperor Palpatine had a specific real-life counterpart: “Richard M. Nixon was his name. He subverted the senate and finally took over and became an imperial guy and he was really evil. But he pretended to be a really nice guy.”[1] The franchise is also steeped in historical references which, while not directly political, certainly contribute to its politicisation by various groups. The Stormtroopers and other, visual parallels between the Empire and Nazi Germany are just one example.

© Billy Ludwig
© Billy Ludwig

The franchise has also frequently been read as making a specific political statement, as in Ep III, where Anakin Skywalker tells Obi-Wan “If you’re not with me, you’re my enemy.” This caused many US conservatives to protest that the film caricatured former President George Bush’s post-9/11 assertion that “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”[2] Ronald Reagan’s 1983 anti-missile defense initiative was dubbed “Star Wars”: a move that irked Reagan, but was shrewdly deemed good publicity by assistant secretary of defense Richard Perle, who reasoned: “It’s a good movie. Besides, the good guys won.”[3]

In a 2012 article, Jonathan Gray wrote about how fans used a scene from Ep V, in which a Rebel snowspeeder takes down an Imperial Walker with a grappling hook, as a metaphor to protest Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s Budget Repair Bill in 2011. One man played the scene on a loop using his iPad, chanting “The Rebels brought down Walkers. So can we!”[4] Others carried Star Wars slogans on signs, or dressed up as the vehicles from the films. The Star Wars references served as an important point of “morale and community building” among the protestors.[5] In another article, Andreas Jungherr describes how Darth Vader was used by the SPD (a German political party) to discredit Angela Merkel in the 2009 German federal election.[6]

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Stay tuned for the full article, on Star Wars and popular feminism, later this year!

[1] Christopher Klein, ‘The Real History That Inspired “Star Wars”’, History.com, 2015, para. 4 <http://www.history.com/news/the-real-history-that-inspired-star-wars> [accessed 24 February 2017].

[2] Derek R. Sweet, Star Wars in the Public Square: The Clone Wars as Political Dialogue (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2015), p. 10.

[3] Frances FitzGerald, Way Out There In the Blue: Reagan, Star Wars and the End of the Cold War (Simon and Schuster, 2001), p. 39.

[4] Jonathan Gray, ‘Of Snowspeeders and Imperial Walkers: Fannish Play at the Wisconsin Protests’, Transformative Works and Cultures, 10 (2012), para. 1.2.

[5] Gray, para. 3.2.

[6] Andreas Jungherr, ‘The German Federal Election of 2009: The Challenge of Participatory Cultures in Political Campaigns’, Transformative Works and Cultures, 10.0 (2011), para. 5.6 <http://journal.transformativeworks.org/index.php/twc/article/view/310> [accessed 10 February 2017].

The 7 Worst Academics in Popular Culture

Screenshot 2017-03-01 22.43.47A recent article on the Times Higher Education website marked the release of Barbara Tobolowsky’s new edited collection, Anti-intellectual Representations of American Colleges and Universities: Fictional Higher Education, by doing a short piece on how popular culture portrayals ‘devalue academia’, and the real work students and academics are actually doing.

Since I’m deep in piles of academic work at the moment (teaching, articles, conference planning, thesis deadlines, you name it), I thought I would gift myself a lighter week and give you some of my top picks for the absolute worst depictions of academics and academic life in contemporary popular culture.

7. Victor Frankenstein (every Frankenstein adaptation ever since 1818)

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Why he’s the worst: Ok, so technically Frankenstein isn’t actually a doctor. Nowhere in Shelley’s novel is he awarded a PhD or MD—technically he’s just a ‘natural philosopher’. Still, this mad, Romantic genius is one of the classic bad academics, he’s been giving scientists a bad name for nearly 200 years. Trying to monopolise the entire experiment, not listening to the advice of colleagues, robbing graves. That’s just bad scientific practice.

6. Edward Alcott (Loser, 2000)

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Why he’s the worst: This literature professor knows everything better, and puts down curious students at virtually every opportunity. Plus, he’s sleeping with (and emotionally abusing) one of his young students. While he may sadly not be completely fictional, he’s definitely not someone who belongs in academia, or who will have a place there for much longer.

5. Indiana Jones (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, 1984)

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Why he’s the worst: This guy launched 1,000 PhDs in archaeology, but when they finally got there they discovered that no, as an academic you don’t generally get to explore booby-trapped temples, fight natives, or casually destroy priceless artefacts. When you do get to the fun part out in the field, it’s mainly brushing, measuring, and meticulously cataloguing. And unlike Indiana, you certainly don’t get endless months of teaching leave and funding with which to do it.

4. Ted Mosby (How I Met Your Mother, 2005)

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Why he’s the worst: Does ‘Professor Mosby’ actually have a PhD in archeology? Does he even have an MA? Does he…does he even actually know what he’s talking about? The show doesn’t really care, since his teaching is just a funny thing he sometimes does to break up the monotony of drinking at MacLaren’s, having an awesome time with his friends, and getting into and out of terrible relationships.

Also, no way he could pay for that Manhattan apartment on an adjunct’s salary.

3. Daniel Jackson (Stargate SG-1, 1997)

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Why he’s the worst: Egyptologist Daniel Jackson is the ultimate Gary Stu. He’s not taken seriously by any of his academic colleagues, because he’s basically a crazy conspiracy theorist. Then, all his theories are validated because it turns out aliens actually did build the pyramids, so he becomes a chief advisor to the U.S. Air Force. He speaks a bajillion languages and knows everything about science, mythology, and whatever the show needs him to know. Because that’s apparently part of what egyptologists learn in grad school. Also, hot women are constantly and unexpectedly attracted to him.

2. Robert Langdon (The Da Vinci Code, 2003)

Image © djinn-world on Deviantart
Image © djinn-world on Deviantart

Why he’s the worst: I take it back—Robert Langdon, ‘Harvard University professor of religious iconology and symbology’, is the real Gary Stu. All Dan Brown’s books have an awesome hero who looks vaguely like Harrison Ford, and this guy is ‘Harrison Ford in Harris tweed’. He is a genius and brilliant and has an eidetic memory, but doesn’t speak Italian or know anything useful outside of what he needs to solve all the mysteries in the story. From the novels we can deduce that what he does all day at work is talk cryptically about things and try to look smart.

Also, fake academic discipline is fake.

1. Clayton Danvers (Bitten, 2014)

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Why he’s the worst: This guy, man. I know technically that asking him to be realistic in any way is missing the point, since his real role in this show is to be eye candy, and also to mope around and tell us how awesome Elena is. It wasn’t enough for him to be sexy and loyal, though. Clay is the Man Who Has it All. Seriously, this is the end of his character biography on SyFy.com: ‘Now a Professor of Anthropology, Clay divides his time between his scholastic research and enforcing the pack code while keeping errant Mutts in line.’

From his melodramatic anthropology lectures about ‘deep desires’, ‘the beasts within us’, and ‘the mask behind which we hide’, his students must think he’s Batman or something—and they wouldn’t be too far off. Clay is supported in ridiculous luxury by his pack family, has a fabulous office filled with a treasure trove of ancient artefacts, and a prestigious job that isn’t so demanding he can’t constantly drop everything to romp around the forest with his wolf bros. He can’t even be bothered to type up his own research notes, which is how he actually meets Elena in the first place. There is this, though:

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Who do you think is the worst academic in pop culture? Did I miss someone great (i.e. awful) from Victorian popular culture? Who are your favourite on-screen academics? Let me know! I would love to make a follow-up list or two in the future.

Star Wars Identities

star-wars-identities-stormtrooper-posterLast month I visited the Store Wars: 40 Years of Merchandise exhibition in Hoorn, NL. It was a small, intimate affair that took a loving look at the way Star Wars has affected merchandising and fan practices. A few weeks ago, I took a trip into London for the travelling Star Wars Identities exhibition at the O2 Centre. Despite sharing a broad subject, the two could not have been more different. Identities features a number of original props, costumes, and concept art from the pre-Disney era. In practice this meant I got to see stuff from the original trilogy (1977-1983), the prequel trilogy (1999-2005), and the Clone Wars animated series (2008-2015). The Force Awakens‘ BB-8 also made an appearance.

The exhibition was, perhaps logically, much larger than the one in Hoorn. It also had quite a few more visitors. Tickets had to be booked for specific time slots, and once we arrived we were admitted in groups of 10 to 15. Although you sometimes had to wait a few moments for a path to the next costume or prop to clear, there was plenty of space and time for all of us to enjoy the exhibits—and to take lots of photographs, which almost everyone did.

Exhibits were often grouped by theme: droids, podracers, Jedi, ships. Major characters whose development was especially extensive or technical, like Yoda or Jabba the Hutt, had their own sections. I had no idea that it took so many concepts to arrive at the Yoda we know today. I’m half-relieved that Garden Gnome Yoda didn’t make the final cut, but would also love to see someone edit him into a fan version of Star Wars.

I’m not necessarily a believer in the sacredness of ‘original’ objects, and I won’t say I was paralysed with awe by Luke Skywalker’s jumpsuit, or the mural that hung behind Palpatine’s chair in Revenge of the Sith, but it was pretty amazing to be surrounded by so many objects that made up such a big part of my childhood. I’ve seen Ralph McQuarrie’s art so many times in books that it was somewhat surreal to see the pieces hanging up at an exhibition. Sort of like unexpectedly stumbling across a portrait of a distant relative at the National Portrait Gallery. There were many other great pieces of concept art as well.

The staging and lighting of the exhibits was very well done overall. I won’t lie that Darth Vader’s (or should I say, David Prowse’s?) suit, displayed in all its black glory against neon lights, gave me a little thrill. I was also excited to see the model Slave I and suit of armour belonging to its owner. As a girl I was most interested in the Jedi, but as an adult Boba Fett is my hero. The model Star Destroyer from A New Hope and the AT-AT and Snowspeeder used in the filming of The Empire Strikes Back were also personal favourites.

In addition to being visually stunning, there were a few neat technical aspects to Star Wars Identities as well. Each visitor was given a headset, which would activate when we faced certain exhibits. This let us focus on a particular video or audio clip without any distractions from other corners of the space. It also made me feel a bit like the exhibit was coming to life as I approached.

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These were our characters.

The highlight of the exhibition from an interactive standpoint, though, was definitely the ‘identities’ component. In addition to their headset, each visit received a bracelet at the start of their tour. When touched to various sensors throughout the exhibition, this bracelet would allow visitors to create their own Star Wars characters through a series of choices. After choosing things like race, appearance, and name, the exhibition takes you through your own Star Wars story—from birth, to crisis, to the ultimate choice between good and evil. At the end of the exhibition you can view the character you created, and e-mail yourself a copy of your character’s story as a memento of your visit.

The exhibition also asked visitors to think about the process of narrative and identity in general. What makes people who they are? What makes a person good or evil? What forces shape the characters of Star Wars, and what forces shape us? While at times this narrative felt a little contrived, it gave visitors of all ages something fun to do while waiting to get a peek at another exhibit.

This is not the exhibition’s first stop, nor will it be the last. Star Wars Identities is at the O2 Centre until 3 September 2017, after which it will set up shop in a new city. If you’re a Star Wars fan near London with £25 to spend (£18 at the concession rate), it’s definitely worth a visit. All in all I spent about two hours looking, reading, and listening.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

This week, I finally got a peek at the Spring syllabus for an undergraduate course I’m co-teaching. Sadly my students won’t be watching Blade Runner or reading Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? this year. I will be teaching a session on ‘the death of the book’, though, and science fiction plays an increasingly important part in this discussion.

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© Deep Dream

Several years ago, Google released strange, surreal pictures its neural network ‘Deep Dream’ had painted from random noise. In an article entitled ‘Yes, androids do dream of electric sheep’, The Guardian described the process as follows:

What do machines dream of? New images released by Google give us one potential answer: hypnotic landscapes of buildings, fountains and bridges merging into one.

The pictures, which veer from beautiful to terrifying, were created by the company’s image recognition neural network, which has been “taught” to identify features such as buildings, animals and objects in photographs.

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© Deep Dream

They were created by feeding a picture into the network, asking it to recognise a feature of it, and modify the picture to emphasise the feature it recognises. That modified picture is then fed back into the network, which is again tasked to recognise features and emphasise them, and so on. Eventually, the feedback loop modifies the picture beyond all recognition.

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© Deep Dream

Since then, Google has also launched Magenta, which aims to use ‘machine learning to create compelling art and music’. One of its first products was this computer-generated piano variation on ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ (drum added later by a human):

 

And let’s not forget Aaron, the AI that’s been painting since the 1970s:

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© AARON
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© AARON

Early last year, MIT Technology Review‘s Martin Gayford looked at several of these examples of robotically generated art to try and get at the question of what makes art ‘art’ in the first place:

The unresolved questions about machine art are, first, what its potential is and, second, whether—irrespective of the quality of the work produced—it can truly be described as “creative” or “imaginative.” These are problems, profound and fascinating, that take us deep into the mysteries of human art-making.

Computers have broken into the art world, then, but what about writing? There, too, AI has been making great progress. The Verge‘s Josh Dzieza delved into the strange world of computer-generated novels back in 2014, shortly after Google released its ‘Deep Dream’ images:

Narrative is one of the great challenges of artificial intelligence. Companies and researchers are working to create programs that can generate intelligible narratives, but most of them are restricted to short snippets of text. The company Narrative Science, for example, makes programs that take data from sporting events or financial reports, highlight the most significant information, and arrange it using templates pre-written by humans. It’s not the loveliest prose, but it’s fairly accurate and very fast.

Some of it, like Darius Kazemi’s ‘Teens Wander Around a House’ or Michelle Fullwood’s ‘Twide and Twejudice’ I even want to read myself.

To top it all off, you have the trend of super-realist art, or human-made art that itself looks very similar to what these machines are producing. Writing about Juan Geuer’s Water in Suspense, scientist Michael Nielsen describes how this kind of art works:

Water in Suspense reveals a hidden world. We discover a rich structure immanent in the water droplet, a structure not ordinarily accessible to our senses. In this way it’s similar to the Hubble Extreme Deep Field, which also reveals a hidden world. Both are examples of what I call Super-realist art, art which doesn’t just capture what we can see directly with our eyes or hear with our ears, but which uses new sensors and methods of visualization to reveal a world that we cannot directly perceive. It’s art being used to reveal science.

Although I’m not an artist or an art critic, I find Super-realist art fascinating. Works like the Hubble Extreme Deep Field and Water in Suspense give us concrete, vivid representations of deep space and the interior structure of a water droplet. For most of us, these are usually little more than dry abstractions, remote from our understanding. By creating vivid representations, Super-realist art provides us with a new way of thinking about such phenomena.

Regardless of whether we think machines will kill art, or take it to the next level, I’m very much looking forward to bringing these kinds of questions to my first-years.

The Political Landscape

'Matalas Mountain' by Jacob Pierneef
‘Matalas Mountain’ by Jacob Pierneef

Could there be art less political than a landscape?

Despite agreeing wholeheartedly with Toni Morrison that ‘All good art is political! There is none that isn’t’, on first viewing of Jacob Pierneef’s paintings at the British Museum’s ‘South Africa: The Art of a Nation’ exhibition I would never have guessed that they were used in the defence of apartheid.

One online biography describes Pierneef’s influences as follows:

His early works reflect the fashions of Europe in the late 19th and early 20th century, particularly pointillism and the landscapes of the Dutch masters that he was exposed to when his parents moved to the Netherlands during the Anglo-Boer War. But the most patent and lasting influence on his work was his architectural studies at Hilversum. Still, he was not European, he was African-born, and was drawn to the palette of Bushmen rock painters and the pastel shades of his beloved Highveld surrounds.

So far, so neutral, right?

'Composition in Blue' by Jacobus Pierneef
‘Composition in Blue’ by Jacobus Pierneef

Even if you don’t pick up on Pierneef’s Dutch influences, you do immediately get a sense of how quiet and empty his paintings are. This is no accident—the absence of people in Pierneef’s landscapes is a central part of his nationalist message. As Jennifer Beningfield writes in The Frightened Land: Land, Landscape and Politics in South Africa in the Twentieth Century:

A member of the Broerderbond from 1919, Pierneef increasingly embraced the agenda of the Afrikaner Nationalists, referring to himself as a ‘Voortrekker’ for the arts during the 1930s and 1940s. It has been argued by the art historian N.J. Coetzee that Pierneef’s landscapes are inseparable from the contemporary political agenda n which they were produced. Coetzee maintains that Pierneef’s work offers a visual means through which the veld, and in particular the landscape of the Transvaal province, could be imagined as the fatherland of the Afrikaner.

[…]

Pierneef’s success in developing a distinctive style of landscape painting which resonated with the contemporary Afrikaner cultural and political concerns meant that his paintings were collected as status symbols by those who considered themselves to be ‘true Afrikaners’ The majority of Pierneef’s wealthy patrons lived an urban existence and the paintings became almost displaced fragments of the land itself; magical totems invoking the land in its purity and stillness. Not only were the landscapes representations of remote ‘natural’ places, desired from within the confines of the city, but also they became integrated into the narration of the past, the political ambition for the future and the construction of Afrikaner identity.

In other words, Pierneef ‘didn’t celebrate South Africa’s people, he celebrated the land itself’—land that, in his view, belonged to the white Afrikaners and not to its black, native populations. As John Peffer wrote in 2003:

In Pierneef’s painting the South African landscape is cast as God’s land, and by extension the providence of His Chosen People, the Afrikaner volk. His view of Apies River, Pretoria, is one purged of any evidence of the Ndebele and other African people who were defeated by Boer commanodoes and scattered as labor onto white farms near Pretoria after 1883. Also erased from the picturesque landscape of rolling hills and bubbling stream is any hint of the city of Pretoria itself, especially the Union Buildings, which would have been an irksome reminder of British rule. Pierneef’s landscapes represent a form of idyl more extreme even than the utopic fantasies of some of his Afrikaner Nationalist colleagues. […] For Pierneef the landscape was frozen in a state of empty apartness, perpetually ready for white settlement, and timelessly open for the prospect of white prosperity.

Pierneef’s art will be joining my repertoire of teaching texts that, while seemingly neutral, can pack an intense ideological punch.

'Thorn Tree at Dusk' by Jacob Pierneef
‘Thorn Tree at Dusk’ by Jacob Pierneef

If you’re in the London area, I highly recommend ‘South Africa: The Art of a Nation’. It runs until 26 February 2017, and features a wide selection of South African art, from a variety of cultural and political backgrounds.

Women of Star Wars

Image © Jeremy Selwyn
Image © Jeremy Selwyn

I’ve been writing a lot about Star Wars lately, and I’m afraid there will be a few more posts on the subject in the weeks to come. What can I say. When you’re working on something—especially something that was once a childhood obsession—it can hard to tear yourself away. This week I’m taking a little break from exhibitions and feminist analyses, though, to reflect on something small and unexpected and great that I discovered while doing research for my article.

There are a lot of interesting women behind Star Wars.

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I don’t just mean the characters on screen or page, though you can take your pick of those as well. Behind the scenes, women have also been a direct and important part of the Star Wars story, whether they worked on the crew of one of the films, for one of Lucasfilm’s many divisions, or in a managerial capacity. Though I already knew how important some of these women were to the universe I know and love, I’ve learnt a lot more about them over the past few months, and have discovered a few more in unexpected places. It’s been fascinating, and I would love to take the research further at some point.

Below are five ‘women of Star Wars’ you might find interesting too, whether you already know of them, or have never heard of them before. Each has impacted the franchise in her own important way, but it’s an eclectic collection. Let me know if there’s someone you think I should have included!

marcia2_thumbMarcia Lucas

While you’ll probably recognise the surname, you may not know just how much of an impact George Lucas’ ex-wife had on the first three Star Wars films. Besides editing them (she won an Oscar in 1978 for her work on A New Hope), she influenced their narratives on other levels as well. Michael Kaminski, the author of The Secret History of Star Wars (2008), wrote an extensive and illuminating article about her life and work. You can read the entire thing online, but here’s an excerpt:

Mark Hamill […] notes in 2005 how her sensibilities influenced the content and structure of [George Lucas’] films:

“You can see a huge difference in the films that he does now and the films that he did when he was married. I know for a fact that Marcia Lucas was responsible for convincing him to keep that little ‘kiss for luck’ before Carrie [Fisher] and I swing across the chasm in the first film: ‘Oh, I don’t like it, people laugh in the previews,’ and she said, ‘George, they’re laughing because it’s so sweet and unexpected’– and her influence was such that if she wanted to keep it, it was in. When the little mouse robot comes up when Harrison and I are delivering Chewbacca to the prison and he roars at it and it screams, sort of, and runs away, George wanted to cut that and Marcia insisted that he keep it.”

photoLucy Wilson

Wilson has held many roles at Lucasfilm. She started out as George Lucas’ assistant, and is said to have typed up the the script for Star Wars. She also worked as finance director in Lucasfilm’s licensing department, as head of publishing, and finally as head of the nonfiction George Lucas Books. In 2010 she retired, though if her Twitter account is any indication it looks as though she’s still keeping very busy.

Most importantly (to me, anyway), she seems to have been largely responsible for the launch and success of the Star Wars Expanded Universe books, which had a long and profitable run. In a post on the Barnes and Noble blog, Andrew Liptak explains how it all went down:

“I was trying to bring quality literature to a licensed fictional universe,” Wilson recalled. She also wanted to do something different from the typical tie-in novel. With the Star Trek novels as their main competition, Wilson knew she needed to differentiate her books. “[Star Trek was] constantly rebooting their program with new storylines. I didn’t want our plan to be like theirs, and one big difference was to make ours have one over-arching internal consistency.” Additional stipulations were that the stories had to take place after Return of the Jedi, none of the characters who were featured in the films could be killed off, and characters already dead could not be resurrected.

ken09-15_aKathleen Kennedy

If you haven’t heard of Kathleen Kennedy yet, it’s certainly only a matter of time. The heir to the Lucas empire following its sale to Disney, Kennedy has worked in Hollywood nearly her entire life, with some of its biggest names. Her production company, Kennedy/Marshall, is second only to Stephen Spielburg in terms of domestic box office receipts.

Since she took over from Lucas there have been a number of in-depth news reports on her career and her plans for the future. And though she hasn’t yet nominated a female director to helm a Star Wars movie, she has pulled together a diverse executive team.

IGN wrote:

Lucas stepped down, Kathy was named President, and now has full control over the future of the lucrative franchise. Considering their close working relationship, one can only assume that Kennedy and Lucas began discussions well before work on Lincoln began, and indeed, that the Disney deal was always a part of these discussions. The Disney/Lucas revelation rollout is still ongoing. But one thing is for certain: George Lucas has complete faith in Kathleen Kennedy.

“I don’t have to give advice to Kathy,” he said, during the most recent of his chat series with the producer. “She knows what to do. I mean, she knows better than I do.

“She has all the qualities to run a company like this. To make it great.”

We’re likely to be hearing a lot about Kennedy in the future.

kiri_hart-bab4846cc9d8Kiri Hart

Hart has been working at Lucasfilm for over 20 years in various roles, but in 2012 she became the Development lead for the company’s new Story Group. Basically, this group keeps track of the existing Star Wars continuity, and makes executive decisions about what kinds of stories will be told in the future. The Daily Dot explains it like this:

From a fandom perspective, the Story Group put itself on the map by torpedoing the Expanded Universe (EU), a vast network of tie-in materials that populated the Star Wars franchise for decades. Along with stories filling in the time between and after the movies, it introduced beloved characters like Grand Admiral Thrawn and Mara Jade Skywalker. Then in April 2014, Lucasfilm decided it was too unwieldy to link with the upcoming slate of movies. The EU was declared uncanonical, making way for a new universe encompassing episodes I-VI, the two animated series, and everything that came after April 2014. Now, everything goes through the Story Group, which provides background material and steers writers away from topics that will be covered in other corners of the franchise.

[…] The Story Group’s influence is everywhere, from the design of star maps in spinoff books to the diverse casting of the new movies—almost certainly stemming from the input of Kathleen Kennedy and Kiri Hart. The question now is how long this ecosystem can thrive. Other studios have hit serious problems trying to balance innovative creators with big-budget franchise properties. On the other hand, no other company has the same level of control as the Lucasfilm Story Group, which benefits from having an executive team full of lifelong Star Wars fans.

 

screen_shot_2015-11-23_at_15-10-28Sigurlina Ingvarsdottir

This video game developer and Senior Producer with EA DICE was responsible for 2015’s Star Wars Battlefront. Ingvarsdottir doesn’t work for Lucasfilm directly, then, but with one of their many licenses. She’s also a self-labelled Star Wars fan. While the game received mixed reviews for its price-to-content ratio, it still shipped over 13 million copies.

When Fortune magazine asked her how other people can get into the business of video games, she replied:

“I encourage people to spend time playing, to spend time prototyping and making games using all of the free engines and software available out there,” she says. “Most people have some understanding that to make games you need to be a programmer or a designer. But there are so many fields today. You can be a lawyer and work in games. You can be an economist and work in games. There are so many roles and so many ways you can be a part of making games.”

Do you know of more interesting ‘women of Star Wars’? Let me know so I can add them to my list!

Rogue One Was the Movie I Needed This Year…But It Wasn’t the One We Deserved

This post contains spoilers for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016). If you haven’t yet seen the film, and would prefer to watch it with fresh eyes, stop reading now. As my final post of 2016, I wanted to write about something that allowed me to reflect on the year as a whole. Please note: I don’t mean to undermine anyone else’s opinion about Rogue One with this review. There are many valid understandings of what ‘good’ cinema (and good feminism) entails, and I firmly believe conflicting opinions about this subject can and should exist.

The internet is in general agreement that 2016 has been the worst year ever. It was a year that saw a seemingly never-ending stream of human suffering, war, political strife, and celebrity deaths. On social media and the news, it often seemed like there was nothing but fear, hate, and darkness in the world.

Enter Rogue One, a film Variety called ‘the most politically relevant movie of the year’. The first standalone film in Disney’s planned sequence of Star Wars tie-ins, Rogue One tells the story of the team of rebels who stole the plans to the first Death Star, revealing a small, key weakness in its construction and enabling Luke Skywalker destroy the doomsday weapon in the very first Star Wars film (Episode IV: A New Hope, 1977). The team is led by reluctant hero Jyn Erso (played by British actress Felicity Jones), the daughter of the scientist responsible for inserting the key weakness into the Death Star, and for notifying the Rebel Alliance of its existence.

Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) Photo by Jonathan Olley, © 2016 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

I wrote a bit about Rogue One when the first trailer was released, and I went to see it on December 15th, the day it opened in the UK. Because I’m currently working on an academic article that explores whether or not the Star Wars franchise can be said to have a feminist agenda, I approached the film in two minds: on the one hand as an academic, and on the other as a life-long Star Wars fan. I came away from it in two minds as well. A part of me loved it, and wholeheartedly agreed with the many reviews that hail it as a victory not just for feminism, but also for diversity and subversive politics in mainstream entertainment. Another part of me remained unconvinced, and even disappointed with what I saw as a series of missed opportunities. A third and final part of me, shaken by yesterday’s news that Carrie Fisher (writer, mental health activist, and the actress who portrayed Princess Leia) had died, continues to cast about for a way to tie these conflicting emotions and opinions together.

So, here it goes.

Concept art for Rogue One
Concept art for Rogue One.

To understand why I felt the way I did about Rogue One, it’s necessary to give a bit of background about the film’s place in the franchise. In the Star Wars universe, the films have always been the firmest decider of what is ‘canon’, and tend to be the part of the franchise that will reach the widest audience. Since Disney acquired Star Wars in 2012 there have been signs that this could change, but the films have played a large part in establishing audience faith in the franchise, and in setting the mould for what Star Wars will look like in the future.

2015’s The Force Awakens broke box office records by being doggedly faithful to the things fans loved most about the films from the 1970s and ’80s. Rogue One represented Disney’s first attempt to take Star Wars in a truly new direction, and establish a series of stories and properties that fit within the Star Wars universe, but that weren’t limited by the Skywalker narrative that dominates the central films. If The Force Awakens was Disney’s opportunity to show me it could make a Star Wars movie, Rogue One was its opportunity to show me that Star Wars could do something different while still feeling like Star Wars. (Side note: for those interested in the concept, Bioware’s 2003 video game Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic did a damn good job of using a familiar universe to tell new and interesting stories in new and interesting ways.)

TL;DR: Rogue One had a lot to do in just 133 minutes. And as a Star Wars fan I’m very happy with the way it did so. I found the experience visually and emotionally arresting, and thought the story was well-written, unexpectedly bold, and did a good job of balancing its enormous cast of central characters. Would I buy an extended version that takes the time to flesh out some of the characters more thoroughly? In a heartbeat, but I also felt that the film gave me more than enough subtle characterisations to help me understand and relate to each of its key characters from the get-go. The film was also chock full of references to (and cameos from) the original film trilogy, keeping my inner fan very entertained.

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A boardroom scene in Rogue One.

From a political perspective, I also admired the way the film depicted the Rebel Alliance as a collection of determined, action-oriented people who also happen to be largely made up of the marginalised in our own Western society: people of colour, women, the elderly. When Cassian Andor (played by Mexican actor Diego Luna) tells Jyn that ‘not all of us get to choose to rebel’ [not an exact quote, please do correct me], for me the implications were unmistakeable. It was a message straight to to all those out there who are fortunate enough to be able to ignore racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination that are still widespread in our culture: you may think you’re an ally, but make sure you understand what that means. Not everyone has the luxury of leaving a situation when things get bad. Jyn Erso may be a relatively privileged white woman, but she gives her mind, heart, and body to the rebel cause, even when it is no longer strictly necessary. She also knows when to move aside and give other people the chance to step up. Ultimately, she shares the same fate as the rest of her team, dying on Scarif after successfully transmitting the Death Star plans to the Rebel Alliance.

This was exactly the message I needed at the end of 2016. It was a year that left many of us feeling helpless and hopeless, and Rogue One delivered a powerful message in response, from the marginalised, outnumbered, and outgunned members of the Rebel Alliance. ‘Welcome to the real rebellion,’ it seemed to say. ‘We’ve been fighting here for decades. Now that you finally understand what it feels like, and what we’re fighting for, here’s what you can do about it’. It was a call to fight terrorism (from left and right), totalitarianism, and discrimination, even when that fight is ultimately doomed.

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The central cast of Rogue One.

So far, so good. This reading is the one most reviews have taken in the aftermath of Rogue One, and if we only look at the story itself I think this reading is a good one. For ‘the most politically relevant movie of the year’, though, I feel obligated to dig a bit deeper than that. I’ll start by explaining why I don’t really agree with the people who think Rogue One is a feminist film.

Rogue One needed to prove to me that it could be a different kind of Star Wars movie, which it did very admirably, but Disney and Lucasfilm still haven’t convinced me that they aren’t the evil Empire in this scenario. They seem to insist on maintaining the stats quo because it’s the safe bet and it’s ‘what sells’—even when the message audiences are buying directly contradicts that idea. The Rebel Alliance—clearly the good guy in Rogue One, despite some new grey areas—is racially diverse, but the film’s protagonist is white, as is the leader of the rebellion (Mon Mothma). The titular ‘Rogue One’ team may be led by a woman, but the ratio of men to women in the film (± 7.7:1) is bad even by Hollywood standards. And though Lucasfilm executive Kathleen Kennedy prides herself on the gender parity of her executive team, she has essentially stated that the Star Wars franchise is not willing to be the one to break the gender bias in big-budget directing.

The women of Lucasfilm's executive team. Image © Christopher Patey.
The women of Lucasfilm’s executive team. Image © Christopher Patey.

As Cassian makes so explicit, it’s not enough to pay lip service to rebellion. We need to get our hands dirty, and this is something Star Wars the franchise still seems unlikely to do. This is evidenced not only by Disney’s haste to distance itself from the political implications of the film, but also in Rogue One’s overwhelming lack of gender parity in both cast and crew, and even in its CGI recreation of Grand Moff Tarkin (originally played by Peter Cushing, who died in 1994) and a young Princess Leia. This last point is relatively minor, but as a fan of Peter Cushing from his work with Hammer Horror, I found it surprisingly ghoulish. I remain unconvinced by John Knoll’s argument that a CGI clone is somehow equivalent to a new actor performing in tribute.

I also can’t forget Carrie Fisher’s open letter to Princess Leia upon hearing that she would be appearing in new Star Wars films. She wrote:

[W]hile you will forever be remembered loitering in star-infested landscapes, existing endlessly in imaginations and onscreen, I putter noisily in that infamous closet of celebrity—expanding, wrinkling, stooping, and far too often, stupid with age. Here we are enacting our very own Dorian Gray configuration. You: smooth, certain, and straight-backed, forever condemned to the vast, enviable prison of intergalactic adventure. Me: struggling more and more with post-galactic stress disorder, bearing your scars, graying your eternally dark, ridiculous hair.

Here Leia appears in Rogue One, then, as young and sure as ever. The audience is not even allowed to remember the Carrie Fisher of the past. Instead, we are given another version of the eternally young Princess. We haven’t even begun to untangle the ethical issues raised by digitally resurrecting the deceased for profit—even with the permission of their estate.

A young, CGI Leia in Rogue One.
A young, CGI Leia in Rogue One.

What about feminism, then? Rogue One makes a few feminist choices in terms of narrative, but on an industry level it could have been pushed much further. To be honest, I’m baffled as to why Disney is even playing it safe. Like The Force Awakens before it, Rogue One was both lauded as feminist by mainstream media and decried as ‘Social Justice propaganda’ by so-called mens rights activists (MRA). Both perspectives would seem to indicate that Rogue One is indeed feminist. It features a female protagonist, and women seem to fill all kinds of roles throughout the film, from diplomat to pilot to rebel insurgent. In a way, Rogue One is very much a story of how sacrifice knows no boundaries—be it gender, race, or class. At a young age Jyn watches her mother die in a largely symbolic gesture, trying to stop Director Orson Krennic from forcing her husband, herself, and her young daughter to serve the Empire. By the end of the film, we have come full circle, and it is Jyn who gives up her life for a lost cause. Neither Jyn nor her mother are expected to be particularly useful or relevant against the Empire, but each builds on the sacrifices of the other in the slow battle towards freedom. In this, Jyn becomes a proud successor to Princess (later General) Leia Organa, who strangles her oppressor with the very chains he used to bind her in Return of the Jedi (1983). She refuses to give up, and when there seems to be no hope, she makes her own.

In 2016, however, an empowering story is not enough.

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Leia takes out Jabba the Hutt in Return of the Jedi.

Rogue One could have taken the opportunity, with its first ‘original’ Star Wars movie, to go all the way. It could have given us a film that showed us how Hollywood films should be, not just in terms of racial and gender diversity on-screen, but in the way it navigated the industry. It took a bold chance, but it could have taken a much bolder one. Give us a cast and crew with gender parity, that includes people of all ages and economic backgrounds, and that is racially diverse. If any franchise had the money and the opportunity to do this, it was Star Wars. I won’t even go into how this film spectacularly failed to subvert the franchise’s serial obsession with heterosexuality. As a guaranteed blockbuster, but also as a relatively safe ‘spinoff’ film, now was the time to take the big risks.

As MRA website Return of Kings concluded after actually viewing the film, ‘Rogue One shows that Hollywood is listening to our complaints about feminism in films’. The rest of the review echoes many of the things I found so disappointing, and the fact that they were able to come to this conclusion shows just how much further Disney should have gone. As a film, I don’t think Rogue One was particularly feminist, or even particularly rebellious. As Michelle Goldberg’s aptly titled article on Slate argues, 2016 was also ‘the year the feminist bubble burst […] People who are committed to gender equality will try to salvage what they can of the last 40 years of progress. They’ll try to maintain their morale, but living in total opposition to the zeitgeist is hard.’ The odds are still firmly against equality. And Star Wars still has a long way to go.

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General Leia knows what I’m talking about.

Rogue One was the movie I needed this year, both because it reminded me of all the things that still need to be done, and because its story showed us where we can start. It reminded me that we need to keep hoping and fighting. We need to do something—anything. This is also the lesson that I will take from Carrie Fisher’s story. One of her many quotes that’s currently making the rounds of the internet feels especially relevant in the light of this review:

Stay afraid, but do it anyway. What’s important is the action. You don’t have to wait to be confident. Just do it and eventually the confidence will follow.

At the time she was speaking about mental illness, but Carrie Fisher was outspoken about social justice as well. So was the Star Wars character she embodied: General Leia Organa. Both Fisher and Jyn Erso show us that suffering, loss, and even death need not be the end. They inspire us to follow their example, and to take up the fight that they have been forced to abandon.

So let’s get to it.

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