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.

Female Gothic Histories

Illustration of a woman reading a Gothic novel, Artist Unknown, 1833 Bentley Edition of Jane Austen's Novels
Illustration of a woman reading a Gothic novel, artist unknown, 1833 Bentley Edition of Jane Austen’s Novels

‘But history, real solemn history, I cannot be interested in. […] I read it a little as a duty, but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all—it is very tiresome.’ —Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey (1818), p. 123.

Every year at Cardiff University, the Assuming Gender journal and research group invites a distinguished guest speaker to give a lecture within the broad subject of gender studies. Last year Professor Catherine Belsey delivered a lecture on ‘Women in White’ across cultures and fictions. The year before, Professor Nicola Humble offered a delightful look at gender and the literature of food. This year, Professor Diana Wallace sketched the written tradition of ‘Female Gothic Histories’. Her abstract outlined a bold range of concepts:

If the term ‘historical fiction’ is a kind of oxymoron which yokes together supposedly antithetical opposites (‘fact’ and ‘fiction’, ‘history’ and ‘literature’), then adding ‘Gothic’ into the mix complicates it further. This lecture will explore a tradition of Gothic historical fictions which stretches from Sophia Lee in the eighteenth century to Sarah Waters in the twenty-first century. Conscious that women have often been left out of traditional historical narratives, such female writers have turned to Gothic historical fiction as a mode of writing which can both reinsert women into history and symbolise their exclusion.

As the abstract suggests, Professor Wallace began her lecture by bringing together two genres that are often considered distinct: history and Gothic fiction. Dubbing historical fiction a ‘bastard genre’, she categorised it as traditionally female, and cited this as one of the reasons why fictional historiography—especially Gothic historiography—is worthy of deeper study. Wallace relied on a number of psychoanalytical concepts throughout, and she described Gothic fiction as the ‘uncanny return of the repressed past’. In a patriarchal tradition that tends to write women out of history, historical Gothic fiction potentially offers us a window into the way female writers relate to the past. It also helps us to question the distinction Walter Scott helped to establish between this genre and his own historical novels, which he describes in Waverley as being ‘more a description of men than manners’.

Cardiff in the mist. Image © Megen de Bruin-Molé.
Cardiff in the mist. Image © Megen de Bruin-Molé.

Professor Wallace’s lecture delved deep into Sophia Lee’s The Recess; or, A Tale of Other Times (1783-85), Vernon Lee’s Penelope Brandling: A Tale of the Welsh Coast in the Eighteenth Century (1903), multiple rewritings of Jane Eyre, Victoria Holt’s pulp novels (including Mistress of Mellyn, pub. 1960) and the modern Gothic, before finally coming to settle on Sarah Waters’ 2009 novel The Little Stranger. In this survey, Victorian fictions were intentionally sidelined, specifically because they already loom so large in discussions of women writers, the Gothic, and historical fiction.

For each case study, Wallace explored the approach the work’s author takes to gender identity and relations. She also suggested how this might be related to the text’s depiction of history. In The Recess, as in many Gothic fictions of the time, the fates of the central female characters are in the hands of a rather sinister collection of men. In Penelope Brandling, the protagonist’s woes stem largely from patriarchal structures, rather than any single man. Mistress of Mellyn and other pulp novels of the mid twentieth century turn their gaze to the other woman. In an article appropriately entitled ‘Somebody’s Trying to Kill Me and I Think It’s My Husband’, Joanna Russ describes how such fictions enact a Freudian drama, in which the male protagonist is the Father, wrongly accused, and the other woman/first wife of the protagonist becomes the Mother, who must be destroyed in order for the Gothic heroine to achieve her goals.

Image © Megen de Bruin-Molé
Image © Megen de Bruin-Molé.

At this point, Wallace was interrupted by a mysterious fire alarm—an event that was also, appropriately, to be found among the attributes of the haunted house in Sarah Waters’ work once the lecture resumed. The Little Stranger plays with all of the Gothic stereotypes and traditions outlined in the rest of Wallace’s lecture, giving us a ghost story through the eyes of an unreliable male narrator, who may or may not have committed the crimes attributed to a poltergeist. Within Gothic fiction, Wallace thus sees a progression of thought in the way gender, horror, and history are intertwined.

Wallace closed, fittingly, with one quotation from Luce Irigaray’s monograph Thinking the Difference, and another from Jane Austen’s Gothic parody Northanger Abbey:

If the rationale of History is ultimately to remind us of everything that has happened and to take that into account, we must make the interpretation of the forgetting of female ancestries part of History and re-establish its economy. (Thinking the Difference: For a Peaceful Revolution, trans. Karin Montin, 1989, p. 110)

[Y]et I often think it odd [history] should be so dull, for a great deal of it must be invention. (Northanger Abbey, p. 123)

‘I’m just a guy on the internet’: An Interview with Kevin J. Weir

'Princess Juliana' © Kevin J, Weir
‘Princess Juliana’ © Kevin J. Weir

On this blog I’ve previously written about Travis Louie and Dan Hillier, two fine artists whose work I’ve been researching. I also wrote a post for the Victorianist on Colin Batty, who paints monsters onto old Victorian cabinet cards. A fourth artist whose work I’m writing about is Kevin J. Weir, though he wouldn’t necessarily consider himself under that label.

Weir works full-time in advertising, but is perhaps best known for his Tumblr account The Flux Machine. For this project, which started out as a way to practice his Photoshop skills, he takes images from the Library of Congress’s online archive and turns them into ghoulish gifs.

Despite including very little paratextual material or source information, Weir’s work is still very much story-based, and can be considered as a kind of historical fiction. Though gifs represent a relatively new field in the world of art, in many respects they are essentially short, silent films on a continuous loop. In Weir’s words, they are the ‘shortest of stories’. Weir’s brand of historical fiction is the most ghoulish of the four, and arguably the most affecting, but is also the least transformative. All he does is combine existing images and animate them – and in some cases he simply animates the background of a single image. Nevertheless, early on the animations took around a week to build. Weir would draw 80 to 100 frames in Photoshop, ‘cutting things out into layers, moving them a little bit, making a new layer, moving that a little bit’ until the moving image could be compiled.

'Peekskill' © Kevin J. Weir
‘Peekskill’ © Kevin J. Weir

What Weir particularly likes about the format is how ‘it allows you both to use suspense and to freeze one moment’. At first blush the idea of suspense runs counter to the looped nature of the gif, which repeats the same series of images over and over again. By adjusting the length of time at the end of each loop, however, Weir creates a moment of calm in the image, in which everything returns to normal. This pause between loops sometimes extends to eight seconds. These images also gesture towards a sense of historical repetition more generally. Before every loop of the gif exists a moment where the viewer wonders whether things might turn out differently. As interviewer Paula Cocozza notes, however, ‘it is just a moment of illogical hope’. The cycle cannot be changed.

Consider ‘Peekskill’, ‘Doberitz’, or ‘Decoy Howitzer’. These images are already ominous, not only because they are old and uncannily familiar, but because in our minds we presume to know know what comes after the events photographed. Those pictured have died, and in many cases were murdered or killed on the battlefield. They already represent something grim to us. What Weir is actually doing, then, is diffusing the horror of war through popular Gothic, which in part exists to make horror manageable. His animations paradoxically make these images less terrible, by making them horrific. By forcing its viewers to experience past horrors through the lens of popular Gothic, it both re-enacts past horrors and layers on contemporary ones, all without using a single ‘original’ image.

'Decoy Howitzer' © Kevin J. Weir
‘Decoy Howitzer’ © Kevin J. Weir

I’ve been in touch with Kevin Weir about his work, and he was kind enough to give me a brief interview. You can find an edited version below:

Have you ever considered yourself as mashup artist, or as an author of historical fiction?

Both sound pretty apt in describing the flux machine project. On a personal level, I think that I’m just someone who makes a lot of stuff. This is just one project. I have another project where I make GIFs of birds being sassy, using nature documentary footage (sassybirds.tumblr.com) and I wouldn’t consider myself a bird artist.

Have you ever sold prints of your work?

I’ve never sold physical copies of my work, but I have been commissioned to create GIFs for the occasional brand or film. Tumblr has a program called ‘Creatrs’ where they pair up clients with artists on their platform, and I’ve been lucky enough to get a bunch of those opportunities. Other times, people will reach our directly. I’ve also created GIFs for digitally-savvy authors who want to promote their book online.

Some of the monsters and creatures you add to your art don’t look like they come from archive material. Do you draw them in yourself? If not, where do they come from?

Everything is either built from little bits of other things I find or created from scratch. Some pixels from here, other pixels from there, some videos filmed in my apartment, etc. Every GIF is a mishmash of a hundred different bits.

'Doberitz' © Kevin J. Weir
‘Doberitz’ © Kevin J. Weir

Are there specific kinds of monsters and horror that particularly inspire your gifs?

Surrealist humor, fantasy and sci fi books, video games etc. Specific inspirations would be Lovecraft, Tolkien, Terry Gilliam, Cyriak (incredible animator) and Miyazaki.

Would you call your work nostalgic?

I’m not sure. I think that the work I create lives in more of a science fiction, fantasy or horror fiction world. In my mind, these are modern musings on past events. Or reimaginings of old worlds and explorations of alternate histories. The flux machine project (which draws from the library of congress archives) started out as rather playful, but has certainly gotten a little dark as I’ve grown more interested in the actual history of the photos I’m using.

'Krupp Von Bohlen' © Kevin J. Weir
‘Krupp Von Bohlen’ © Kevin J. Weir

You use images in your art that are out of copyright, but that depict real events and people. What would your response be if someone were to ask you about the ethics of using these people’s likenesses in your art?

These photos are very very old, which is part of what draws me to them. They’re representative of a history that feels almost unknowable. So I guess the factor of age and history makes me feel like I don’t have all that much to worry about in terms of likenesses or ethics. I don’t think I’m profaning history. And even if I am, the internet is a culture of remixing. Everything’s up for grabs. It’s what you do with what you dig up that matters. If someone were to come to me with a sincere concern about something I made that is a hurtful affront to their family history or something, then I’d probably respect that. Hasn’t happened yet though.

Do you see yourself as a full-time or part-time artist?

I’ve never thought about that. I never really set out, with flux machine, for it to be an art project, or an outlet for me as an artist. I guess, as someone who is always making stuff on the internet, that I am a full-time artist? I don’t know. I always considered my dad, who has an art studio in his backyard and paints with oils, an “artist.” I’m just a guy on the internet. Maybe that means we’re all artists?

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.

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 www.itvpictures.com For further information please contact: Patrick.smith@itv.com 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?

victoria-episode-3
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?

106751228-victoria-culture-xlarge_transeo_i_u9apj8ruoebjoaht0k9u7hhrjvuo-zlengruma
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.

Star Wars, Remix, and the Death of Originality (Part Two)

ghvfgaua5xsmsckl1nclWhat follows is part two of a spoiler-free discussion of The Force Awakens (the new Star Wars movie), and its cultural context in science fiction, fandom, and nostalgia culture. You can find part one right here.

Last week I started my breakdown of The Force Awakens with the disclaimer that I am a long-time Star Wars fan. I looked at arguments that this most recent film is unoriginal, that it is powered by nostalgia rather than innovation, and I supplied a few counterarguments to these claims. Do we always have to see nostalgia as bad, and originality (assuming originality even exists) as good?

In his latest book, Remaking History (2016), Jerome de Groot talks about the role of historical fictions in the cultural imaginary. ‘It is necessary’, he argues, ‘to look on novels, or films, or plays, or games, or TV series, not as poor versions of history, nor within a binary wherein they are the margins of a centrifugal culture, nor as parasites on “proper” historical knowledge and practice, but as establishing historical modes of awareness, engagement, narrarivization, and comprehension’ (p. 6). For me Star Wars, with all its nostalgia, and its fetishisation of various historical aesthetics, very much fits into this discussion about how we represent and engage with the past – and by analogy, how we build the future. Speaking specifically about Westerns, De Groot suggests that they ‘are not myths at all, but complex historiographical entities enabling the unpicking of foundational stories and histories’ (p. 61). Star Wars may not be a full-blown Space Western, but it too contains these inherent possibilities. The real question is, who is actually allowed to do the unpicking of our stories and histories? Who is the ‘we’ in this scenario?

This brings me to another question that The Force Awakens has raised.

Is The Force Awakens essentially fan fiction?

A short answer to this question is yes. Another, even shorter answer is no. Both answers are correct.

Like many of us, J.J. Abrams is a long-time fan of Star Wars. It’s shaped him as a creator, it’s been referenced in his previous work, and (ironically) influenced his work on Star Trek. The chance to actually make an official Star Wars movie must have seemed like a dream come true, and Abrams’ love of the series comes through in every frame, and every piece of referential symbolism and imagery. The fact remains, though, that Abrams is an industry professional as well as a fan. His devotion to other stories and worlds is generally read as a point of inspiration and homage, rather than an insular fantasy.

J.J. Abrams and producer Kathleen Kennedy on the bridge of the Millennium Falcon.
J.J. Abrams and producer Kathleen Kennedy on the bridge of the Millennium Falcon.

Not even Abrams can escape the scorn levelled at fan culture in general, though. The Guardian‘s Catherine Shoard applauds Disney for its choice of Abrams, a ‘highly expert, professional superfan’, to helm The Force Awakens. She points out that returning the reigns to franchise creator George Lucas would only have resulted in more fan disappointment. Problematically, though, she goes on to characterise fans as parasites, bullies, and spoiled children:

The Disney deal looks set, then, to go down as the moment when ownership of cultural properties officially passed from creators to consumers. Those people raised on video games and talkboards are no longer prepared to tolerate the concept that fictional worlds exist only within the imagination of one person. In fact, they are indignant at being denied the keys. Like cross toddlers dodging bedtime, they will have their stories.

This is simply an unfair and inaccurate depiction of fan communities, in a long history of unfair and inaccurate depictions. Recent media coverage of ‘Cumberbitches’, for example, has inevitably fixated on the intensity of fan devotion to actor Benedict Cumberbatch, characterising his followers as infantile, obsessed, and irrational. As Henry Jenkins and others have pointed out, female fans are especially at a disadvantage in terms of how they are represented in popular (or academic) media.

It’s true that fan communities – like all communities – have their issues. Hale Goetz has an especially enjoyable reading of The Force Awakens (with minor spoilers) that reads villain Kylo Ren as a manifestation of one of fandom’s more prominent problems. In her reading Ren is a gatekeeper, of the type that is very concerned ‘about the presence of fake nerds mucking up their beloved franchises’.

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Image © Eduardo Valdivieso

But it’s important to remember that Star Wars fans can be found in all genders, cultures, and walks of life (though who they root for may differ). Star Wars fans want more Star Wars, yes, but most also want good Star Wars, and are perfectly capable of fulfilling their own need to engage with the narrative gaps and opportunities the franchise creates. It didn’t take long at all for truly fantastic fan art based on The Force Awakens to begin rolling in, and excellent fan-made films, short stories, and communities have been making the rounds since before there was an internet.

These fan projects all display profound originality and creativity – they just happen to be inspired by a universe created by someone else. When we get down to it, isn’t that what all storytelling is, in one way or another?

Is The Force Awakens culturally lazy, or even dangerous?

Like any major franchise, particularly in the adventure genre, The Force Awakens has its downfalls – though for the moment it has escaped some of the homogenising tendencies of blockbuster cinema. It does definitely still represent that specific brand of cultural imperialism that Hollywood is known for, but politically it sides with the left-wing branch of populism rather than its right-wing counterpart. It’s not particularly deep in the film school kind of way that some fans seem to expect, but neither is it as unimaginative and derivative as some critics would have you think.

As I argued last week, The Force Awakens simply takes both the visual pastiche that characterised the original Star Wars and the subsequent culture of pastiche that has since sprung up around the franchise, and combines them into one big, tongue-in-cheek mashup.

Although its portrayal of the fight between good and evil is unpleasantly conservative, The Force Awakens is part of a greater story arc, and the series has the potential to nuance this portrayal in later films. Many equal (and greater) films suffer from the same, lazy good/evil binary, and occasionally this can even serve an important purpose. Consider the recent Mad Max: Fury Road, Django Unchained, or even Nolan’s Batman films, each of which seem to care relatively little about their villains’ personal motivations for being evil (‘being bad is just so much fun!’), and yet still manage to tell important and compelling stories, with equally important and compelling political agendas. Fury Road has been heralded as a feminist masterpiece (though not everyone agrees), and for Jerome de Groot Django Unchained presents ‘an aesthetic of the past that does not ignore the horrors of the past and that, through excess, might achieve a better communication of the grimness of events than can be achieved by a discourse – costume drama – that is somehow now a compromised mode’ (Remaking History, p. 179).

Django Unchained: part revenge fantasy, part historical revision.
Django Unchained: part revenge fantasy, part historical revision.

Even if subverting this conservative good/evil binary is not at the top of Disney’s current agenda, The Force Awakens and its sequels have the potential to shift other Hollywood trends in a positive direction. The film’s balance of gender representation easily blows past all the earlier Star Wars movies, and its racial diversification is almost as solid – though naturally the fact that almost all the main characters speak Western variants of English is one of those problems science fiction and fantasy have been running into for ages. The film even leaves space for multiple sexual identities, and one of the franchise’s new official novels features an openly gay character. These are representations we’ve only ever really had in Star Wars fan fiction, never in the franchise itself. While it could (and should) be argued that this is also part of the Disney’s new marketing strategy, I just can’t see it as a bad thing.

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A Hispanic man, a black man, and a white woman in The Force Awakens’ three starring roles. Seems like a good start to me.

The nostalgic, historical aesthetic of Star Wars (‘A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…’) only serves to increase the impact of such representation. If this is what the past looks like, what’s so bad about building the future on it?

If anything, my reservations about The Force Awakens are still largely personal. At the risk of mixing traditionally rival fan cultures, I’m reminded of that episode of Star Trek: TNG where Captain Picard lives a whole lifetime in the span of 25 minutes. He comes back to the Enterprise, and suddenly all the people he knew and loved, and all the experiences he had, are nothing more than a memory. It feels strange to live in a world where the 50-odd years of EU history following the original trilogy have suddenly ceased to be, and where my favourite Star Wars characters don’t (yet) exist.

Tenet Ka and Mara Jade. Apparently I have a thing for kickass redheads.
Tenel Ka and Mara Jade. Apparently I have a thing for kickass Jedi redheads.

I reserve the right to change my opinion about The Force Awakens. So please, leave a comment disagreeing with me. I am very interested in discussing this with you. As I think about The Force Awakens more – as I watch the Blu-Ray release in April, the original trilogy spin-off Rogue One (2016), and the next official sequelEpisode VIII (2017) – I may well come to feel very differently about it all. But for the moment I’m quite content, both as a fan and as a critic. And that’s an achievement that should be applauded no matter how ‘produced’, nostalgic, fan-driven or unoriginal it may be.