Women in Red

IMG_7444It’s both International Women’s Day today and Day Without a Woman, and taking the day off (in red) to celebrate. In honour of one of my favourite red-clad heroines, here’s an excerpt from Angela Carter’s short story ‘Wolf-Alice’ (full text available on Biblioklept):

Could this ragged girl with brindled lugs have spoken like we do she would have called herself a wolf, but she cannot speak, although she howls because she is lonely–yet ‘howl’ is not the right word for it, since she is young enough to make the noise that pups do, bubbling, delicious, like that of a panful of fat on the fire. Sometimes the sharp ears of her foster kindred hear her across the irreparable gulf of absence; they answer her from faraway pine forest and the bald mountain rim. Their counterpoint crosses and criss-crosses the night sky; they are trying to talk to her but they cannot do so because she does not understand their language even if she knows how to use it for she is not a wolf herself, although suckled by wolves.

Her panting tongue hangs out; her red lips are thick and fresh. Her legs are long, lean and muscular. Her elbows, hands and knees are thickly callused because she always runs on all fours. She never walks; she trots or gallops. Her pace is not our pace.

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Image © solitarium on DeviantArt

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.

‘Embrace Your Dark Side’: Penny Dreadful‘s Season 3 Trailer

PrintAbout two weeks ago a proper trailer for the next season of Penny Dreadful was released. Various other obligations have kept me from looking at it properly, but this week I’ve finally been able to sink my teeth into it. Without further ado, then, my take on this 1-minute-and-45-second trailer.

(Note: there will be spoilers for seasons 1 and 2).

To start, you can watch the whole thing here on Penny Dreadful‘s YouTube channel:

The trailer starts out strong with a shot of the much-touted star of the series Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), before swiftly introducing us to an exciting new location (North America?):

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We’re then treated to a none-too subtle shot of the moon, in case we needed a reminder that everyone’s favourite Penny Dreadful werewolf was last seen bound for the New World:

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Let’s hope Penny Dreadful handles the skinwalker associations better than J.K. Rowling did.

Also returning are ‘world-renowned explorer with an axe to grind‘ Malcolm Murray, (Timothy Dalton), American werewolf in London Ethan Chandler (though, as we discovered last season, that’s not his real name; played by Josh Hartnett), Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway), his monstrous creation Caliban/John Clare (Rory Kinnear), the depraved Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney), and the delightful Lily Frankenstein (Billie Piper).

Newcomers to season 3 include Dr. Seward – presumably a nod to Dracula’s Jack Seward – played by Patti LuPone (who also played the cut-wife in season 2),  Dr. Henry Jekyll (followed by Edward Hyde?) played by Shazad Latif, and a Native American warrior played by Wes Studi.

And apparently this girl?
And apparently this girl? Nice addition to the long-running Gothic tradition of creepy women in white, in any case.

We can only hope that Shazad Latif and Wes Studi’s characters fare better than Sembene (Danny Sapani), who died brutally last season – in what was sadly only the last of several appearances that were apparently only designed to help move the storylines of the white characters along.

Don't hold your breath,
Don’t get too attached.

We also get to see some obligatory hints about the Showtime-level sex scenes we’ll be treated to:

Naturally when Vanessa says she's been 'touched by Satan' she means it in the sexual (and gratuitously bloody) sense. 
Naturally when Vanessa says she’s been  ‘touched by Satan’ she means it in the sexual (and gratuitously gory) sense. It’s Showtime, dammit!
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Is the woman sleeping with John Clare in this scene black? In a trailer where the tagline is ’embrace your dark side’? If so I see a series of thesis paragraphs on unfortunate colonial subtext in my future.

Not a bad trailer by any means, but some of the things it teases are worryingly familiar to me. I’ve written before about how, despite that fact that I absolutely love the show on a personal level, on an academic one it has some issues with the way it represents monstrosity. Specifically, it capitalises on a number of the characteristics of monsters established by critical theorists, without actually delivering on most fronts. It also has a problematic relationship with its LGBTQ characters, despite show runner John Logan’s frequent linking of monstrosity and his own homosexuality.

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Except the cheesy classic werewolf font. The show delivers all the way on that one.
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Also (potentially) the Bride of Frankenstein front. Give me more of Lily Frankenstein – but less, please, of the ‘prostitute with a heart of gold‘ stereotype and the ‘Strong Female Character with a sexually traumatic past‘ stereotype.

For Judith Halberstam, while the monster always foregrounds physical difference and visibility, ‘the monsters of the nineteenth century metaphorized modern subjectivity as a balancing act’ between a series of binary oppositions, frightening precisely because they stood poised to transgress established identities and social parameters (Skin Shows, p. 1). Ultimately,  despite its self-advertised exploration of identity binaries, Penny Dreadful uses monstrosity (and its Victorian setting) in a way that constructs a false sense of diversity, disturbance, and change. In its attempts to represent ‘everyone’, it instead shuts out all but the privileged minority it represents on-screen.

Rather than using the past to discuss present-day issues, as it claims, the show instead presents the issues of certain Victorian outcasts – many of whom are now far from marginalised. In a sense, then, Penny Dreadful uses its Victorian setting to reclaim monstrosity for the privileged.

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For instance, what is this tasty bit of Orientalism? ‘We may be monsters, but those foreign monsters are way scarier’.

In addition to the predictable issues and reveals, there are a number of scenes where I genuinely have no idea what’s going on:

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Who is this creepy dude and why is he smelling Vanessa? Tell me more.
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…Dorian and Lily take down a sexual slavery ring? Again, intrigued as to the context of this scene.

I am, however, very interested to find out. With just under two months to go until the premiere of season 3, and a few months more until it’s spun out all nine episodes on broadcast television, Penny Dreadful has plenty of time to change my mind about its politics of the monstrous.

And let’s be honest – they’ve already gone a good way towards placating my non-academic brain with this shot of Timothy Dalton in a cowboy hat:

Oh Timothy Dalton. You will always be the only James Bond in my books.
Oh Timothy Dalton. You will always be the only James Bond in my books.

What do you think? Are you excited for the new season of Penny Dreadful?

What They Do in the Shadows is Basically What We Do, Too

Whatever I had been expecting from vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows, it wasn’t what I got in the end. And I mean that in the best possible way. Where to start? With plot, I suppose, though that may be the least interesting part about this film. What We Do in the Shadows follows a film crew documenting the lives of five vampire flatmates in Wellington, New Zealand, in the run-up to the annual Unholy Masquerade Ball.

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Meet the boys.

They may be eternally youthful in the stories, but in pop culture vampires are kind of old. It’s more or less all been done before, and there’s a lot of baggage to engage with. What We Do in the Shadows runs us through the stereotypes of vampire folklore and cinema. You’ve got Petyr, a silent, Nosferatu-esque vampire who’s over 8,000 years old. Then there’s the medieval noble Vladislav (a.ka. “Vladislav the Poker”), a tongue-in-cheek reference to Vlad the Impaler, often cited as the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Next up is Deacon, a mere 183 years old, who considers himself the “bad boy” of the group and enjoys pulling the turning-food-into-worms gag from The Lost Boys. The most recent addition is the two-month-old Nick, who goes around telling people he’s “that guy from Twilight”. The description is more accurate than he knows: he doesn’t make a very good vampire in the traditional sense, and honestly he’s kind of a douche. Plus all of his bragging eventually brings a vampire hunter down on the house, with upsetting consequences.

Finally there’s Viago, the primary narrator. A dandy from the 17th century who is basically a mashup of Louis and Lestat (you probably know them as Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt) from Anne Rice’s Interview With the Vampire, Viago tries to keep the peace between his flatmates, feed on victims without getting blood all over his antique furtiture (unsuccessfully), and entertain the camera crew, all while pining for his lost love Katherine.

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Poor Viago. He can never quite keep the house clean.

The film may be a mockumentary, but it also uses a lot of horror tropes, mostly for the sake of a joke. The typical melodrama found in contemporary vampire movies is turned on its head to highlight how ridiculous classic phrases and scenarios sound when taken even slightly out of context:

“Leave me alone to do my dark bidding on the internet!”
“Whatcha bidding on?”
“This table…”

The typical glamour of the vampire lifestyle also gets flipped around in the mockumentary. Like Ann Rice’s bored and decadent vampires, you can see that the five flatmates in What We Do in the Shadows basically make it as vampires because they were (and are) so bad at being people. Ironically this is also what makes them sympathetic as people.While we’re laughing at their quirks and misfortunes, ours feel small in comparison. Their mistakes may have bigger and bloodier consequences – though is blood harder to get out of upholstery than red wine? – but most of us can empathise with their failures and frustrations. And if that fails, we’ve still got Stu the IT guy.

You rock, Stu.
You rock, Stu.

What I honestly didn’t expect was how funny or engaging I would find this movie, something that has to do with how good of a parody it is on several levels. It takes a poke at a lot of different things – pop culture, New Zealand, bachelors, the elderly, support group slogans (“werewolves, not swearwolves”) – but it also does a great job at using vampires to pick apart our ideas about loneliness, immortality, and just generally being human. Ironically, this makes What We Do in the Shadows a good vampire movie in addition to a good parody. Though some have accused the film of being shallow, for me it was a much-needed breath of fresh air in the otherwise stale crypt of vampire cinema, and it delivered everything we want from our vampires in this specific place and time.

Without casting any literal reflection themselves, vampires still manage to reflect our needs, interests, and emotions, even in 2015.

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They know what we want more than anything right now is ghostly floating teacup antics.