On Creating the Visual

As an addendum to my “final post”, I was thinking about issues of how and why it’s difficult to communicate in different media. I‘m a pretty good fiction writer, an average academic writer, and I have no visual creativity. Which wasn’t a revelation to me this semester, but putting together my thoughts on how I function as someone who creates academic work has crystallized a lot of this for me.

I write fanfiction. I’d been writing for a few years when I realized that what I was writing in that context was making many of the same arguments as what I was writing academically (which sometimes led to repurposing story ideas for papers). Looking at that in the context of my struggles to create visual media, and text that incorporates the visual in an integral way, I’m wondering about the efficacy of the way I use different types of communication and I’m more convinced than ever that academic arguments can be made in almost any medium. Just possibly not by me.

the right to the "wow factor": Fat Fashion and Beauty as Agency

I have been following fat fashion blogs for a few years now, first through the politically oriented blogs that referenced the fat acceptance community and then through the more mainstream-seeming blogs that were linked from non-plus-size independent fashion blogs. The personal social justice blogs that I read often incorporated academic theory with personal stories and activism, which led me to position this paper in that tradition: blogging as a way to comment on the social underpinnings of performance of identity, while positioning the argument in my own space to reinforce its importance as my experience.

One of the trends that I have noticed is the rise of more blogs that feature fashion editorial styling, partnerships with fashion retailers, and the decline of an emphasis on the problems of finding attractive, well-fitting clothing with an attendant rise in discussions of following mainstream fashion trends. In this paper I will be looking primarily at the fat fashion bloggers whose work is in conversation with the logic of the fashion industry, with an overview of the bloggers who reject those standards, and how both approaches are successful attempts to create an agentive self.

One of the starting points for finding blog networks that I will be using is the Young, Fat and Fabulous conference website. Gabi, the blogger who runs Young, Fat and Fabulous, has risen from being a completely independent blogger who posts outfits of the day to one of the central hubs of what I term the "glamour" contingent of the fat fashion blogger community. This is the particular portion of the community I will be exploring in this paper, despite the existence of many plus-size bloggers who post outfits of the day in much the same manner as the bloggers profiled in this paper do. The reason I focus on this subset of the community is that it is more clearly in conversation with the conventions of the mainstream fashion industry, and the visual presentation of the bloggers themselves, in addition to the jobs that they hold in many cases, has more in common with Vogue and Marie Claire than many of the other bloggers do. This paper covers bloggers working in a variety of countries, with a particular emphasis on French and US bloggers.

End of Semester Blogging Reflections

Blogging for this class has been difficult and frankly frustrating for me, as someone who has long kept a blog that discusses a lot of the issues and topics that we cover in the class. I know how to make jokes and link things I like and speak informally, but the process of making sound arguments that I actually back up with references is not something I’m used to doing in this venue. One of the hardest parts has definitely been my inability to find an academic voice that is casual enough for a blog setting. I often have things to say about the texts I consume, but I’m used to having a definite line between the academic voice and the casual voice, even if I’m saying substantially the same thing.

And I wish I had done more video essays with the blog, because I think the process of working with texts has fundamentally changed how I academically engage with them.

The most interesting aspect of this process is that I have a constant internal voice that says, “This isn’t important enough for a blog post,” even when it’s something I would write a full academic paper about. Partially I think this is the perception of audience. I am constantly aware that someone might actually take the time to read this stuff, which makes every post a performance. I am the opposite of shy and retiring, so experiencing the tension between playing to the audience and using the venue as a workspace was often stymying.

As it pertains to the topics of the class, this is actually a really interesting issue to work through, because so much of what we’ve discussed has to do with creation and presentation of the self. I had no idea that there was any venue in my life in which I would feel uncomfortable exposing my every thought, but the knowledge that a change in context can change how comfortable I am with presenting myself, even though I am used to working in this medium, taught me a really valuable lesson about perceptions of control of persona.

I plan on keeping this blog and continuing to learn to meld my academic voice with my interests. If for no other reason than the fact that having to actually articulate academically what I find interesting about various texts helps me to see which topics are viable research interests.

Sesame Street, available on your computer

I’ve become obsessed with the PBS video archive, which I’ve had running in the background for a couple of days now. I’ve been sticking with the history and science stuff that I’m used to watching (Nova, Frontline, American Experience) but there’s so much there that I’m planning to delve into when I have the time.

I’m finding the whole idea of an online repository like this really interesting because of it’s non-commercial status. I think the fact that it can function as an actual educational repository is really fascinating. But beyond that, PBS’ position in terms of government funding has been so contentious throughout its life that I wonder if the ability to narrowcast will affect it at all. And I want to know about the copyright implications for classroom use, but that’s a whole other issue.

I also wonder how the PBS bigwigs are conceiving of this website: is it a library or is it streaming Netflix? Is there really a difference any more? Does the ability to “shop” for the videos in much the same way that one does on commercial streaming sites moves the material to more of an entertainment realm? Maybe I’m the only one who likes documentaries on the history of lobotomy or safe working conditions in obscure Georgia factories, but I think it could be interesting if PBS promoted the site as an entertainment site, especially with the impending Hulu subscription move.

The videos have been available on the websites of each of the shows for a while now, but putting everything together in a Hulu-like format encourages an interaction with the material that I hadn’t been expecting. If PBS can position itself like a for-profit network (interstitial ads, wide variety of programs) it may be easier for an audience to engage with it in the same way they do with those networks. Even with the added pleas for donations.

Moving in the World as an Immortal White Guy

Throughout this semester, I kept meaning to make blog posts about my random media observations, so there will be an influx of seemingly random 500(or so)-word dissections of the stuff that has crossed my mind that I haven’t gotten around to talking about. Mostly TV, because that’s how I roll. First up, Doctor Who.

I have this obsession with immortal/long-lived characters, probably from a childhood spent bingeing on comic books and fantasy novels. I never had a time-travel fantasy as a kid, because I had an inkling that “black” and “woman” were not going to serve me well in most of the places that the characters I liked traveled to, but I still loved the concept. So Doctor Who and Highlander were go-to media products for me as a kid and teenager, and the New Doctor Who has been one of my favorite shows. Here’s the thing I find interesting in watching Doctor Who now that I didn’t as a kid: extended age, with all its attendant implications of wisdom and experience, is a white male domain. Yes, I get it, when you’re casting a UK/US show, your protagonist is a white guy. I’m not talking about the reasons for why this happens, I’m talking about the values it imparts to the show and how those casting strictures end up constructing a certain reading of those qualities.

On Highlander (the TV show), there was a character named Methos who was 5000 years old. He was a recurring character, and most of the storylines involving him used him to make a point about we poor benighted mortals and how we spent too much time on the wrong things, and how he’d lived, you see, so he could understand that our petty differences were insignificant. The casting was apparently race-blind, and they just happened to find a white guy who was the best for the part (in British Columbia. I know you’re shocked). The interesting thing here in terms of how whiteness is constructed is that it is an unmarked category. The character is placed in all kinds of situations across 5 millennia and he is always accepted without question, and rarely with a discussion of, “hey, what’s that white dude doing here?”

This works to normalize the idea of default whiteness, where of course a white man can enter any situation and not have to worry about his cultural position relative to his surroundings. The characters who occupy a different cultural position are guest stars, not POV characters, and they are not meant to be part of the fantasy role-playing for the audience. The show places the audience at the same level as the main characters (all but one of whom are white men, the last is a white woman), and says, “you could be here! If you found yourself in 9th century China as a white guy, everyone would think you were just one of the gang!” Highlander serves as just one more example of how one of the insidious parts of default whiteness in casting is that it frequently makes no sense and blinds the audience to the fact that the people who are not white are also protagonists in their own story that the current text is just not telling.

Doctor Who, which prompted this rant, is a slightly different case because there has been discussion about casting the character with a non-white actor. Oddsmakers were laying bets on Paterson Joseph before the last casting decision (and he would’ve been awesome.)

My problem with Doctor Who is not so much the default whiteness, because, at least in the new series, people talk about race! The black girl says, “oh hey, is it safe for me to be here?” like I expect I would say when transported to the past in Europe. Where the issue for me comes in is the buildup of a national mythological figure, who is presented as nearly omniscient, and is always embodied in a white male figure. And embodied in increasingly young white male figures as time goes on. It isn’t a problem with the actors. In fact, the most recent incarnation is a 26-year-old, and I find him more believable as a character his age (over 900) than previous actors. The issue is that it’s taken for granted that these characters will be believable, and the argument against a woman or a person of color among fans is frequently that they would not believe the character were it not a white man. It’s never stated directly that there’s an assumption of authority in that particular body, but it’s underlying in the outrage against other options (alongside the racism and misogyny.)

What I wonder is where I stand in terms of accepting the characters that don’t fit this paradigm. When reading about characters who aren’t white men who live long lives or are immortal, I have little problem accepting the character. But when watching these characters, I find myself thinking, “Is anyone going to treat them unfairly? Will someone call attention to their race/sex? Is it safe to be that person is that position?” The process of seeing the character makes them more embodied for me, and cuts off options for imagination. And reveals that the extent to which I’ve accepted the concept of whiteness and maleness enabling one to move in the world freely is really disturbing.

Southland and Realism

I am stupidly excited that my favorite show, Southland, got renewed by TNT, so I will have more than just thirteen episodes of excellence to revel in. I cannot explain well enough how great this show is, but here are a few highlights:
- It’s a gritty cop show that has a writing staff entirely made up of women.
- It’s one of the more feminist things I’ve seen on TV. Even with a cast made up of mostly men, it regularly passes the Bechdel test.
- Two of the main characters, the ones who get the most critical buzz and are central figures in the story, are a gay man and a black woman. And they carry guns and boss people around and have actual interior lives.
- It reflects that there are actual people of color in Los Angeles.
- This is on top of it just being a well-told story that doesn’t talk down to its audience.

But I’m not going to talk about that. I am going to make a long overdue post about the use of documentary techniques in the way the show is produced. One of the stylistic conceits is that none of the language is softened for broadcast. Rather, profanity is censored, but still easily understood. This is generally played as way to heighten the “realism” of the show, rather than prohibiting the use of language that people in the situation would not be expected to refrain from using. This remained purely an audio choice, without an analogue in the visual style, until the second episode of the second season, entitled “Butch and Sundance.”

Two of the main characters enter a crime scene where three people have been raped and murdered, and the camera follows a normal crime show style, shooting around corners to heighten suspense. This is where the style changes slightly. Normal crime shows never show the faces of the dead, shooting at angles that let the scenery or the other actors obscure the body. Southland has previously chosen to show bodies fully, sometimes lingering on faces or wounds to demonstrate the brutality of the murder. Southland chooses in this instance to show the victim fully, but blur her face, in a style reminiscent of true crime shows that follow police.

There are two things I’m interested in here. First, the mimicry of real life shows afforded by the use of blurring helps to ground the show in the vernacular of the true crime shows whose style it imitates. This, along with the bleeping of profanity and shooting on location, adds to the sense that the show is telling the inside story of what really happens.

The other effect of the images that I like is how the absence of detail increases the sense of something horrible having happened. In some scholarship on gothic novels and horror films, there’s a distinction made between horror and terror (I hate to link to Wikipedia, but it has the best rundown of the difference.) Horror is the display of scary/disturbing elements, whereas terror is the absence of the details of those elements, used to provoke the audience into feeling dread and anticipation. Most slasher films are horror, and something like “The Haunting of Hill House” is terror.

This isn’t quite the same as what’s happening with the choice to obscure the face, but it serves much of the same purpose, because it functions in a way that makes the audience imagine the terrible thing that has happened to the woman, rather than seeing it and being revulsed. In doing so, while still maintaining the style of true crime shows, the show manages to simultaneously preserve its realistic style and increase the drama and emotional reaction to the images.


What to say about making a B-movie?

I’m the kind of academic writer who theorizes on the fly; I never have any clue what I’m going to write until I start writing it. I was really shocked to find that this was true with making this mockumentary, too. What we set out to do was make a movie that commented on the nature of documentaries, and then a movie that commented on the nature of zombie movies. There was a lot of conversation about what we were saying with the project in the script revision process (and here I need to thank Tim for an amazing script that he happily adapted, Saralyn for coming up with concrete additions, and Eric for raising a lot of questions that sparked more nuanced thinking for me), and up until the day we were continually discussing how we were going to communicate our theoretical viewpoint within the framework of the film.

This did not prepare me for the actual filming. I’ve only been involved in two student film projects (in 1998 and 2002) and never in any sort of creative capacity, so I had no idea what I was getting into. There were two aspects I found particularly surprising when we filmed: 1) the unexpected thematic shift, and 2) the seeming reality of the experience.

For some unknown reason, I had not considered that filming a group of men talking about a world that is devoid of women (except for the one filming them) would bring up really interesting gender dynamics. Luckily, we ran with it. A lot of the boys’ fantasy vibe that the finished product has is, I think, a product of editing. There is something in the repetition of seeing men on screen talking to a woman and about women, but never actually seeing a woman, that we really didn’t anticipate but which added a dimension of commentary on the genre.

The other effect of letting the camera run and having the “actors” speak for themselves was how authentic the story started to feel to me, as a filmmaker. I always hesitate to use the word “authentic,” but the juxtaposition of real events from our actors’ lives with this completely fabricated but apocalyptic situation made me very hesitant to do a project that would involve me asking questions like this of real people. The process of provoking emotionally heavy or volatile reactions from subjects is one that I found too manipulative. I’ve never had a problem watching documentaries that tackle difficult subjects, but I don’t know that I could participate in one.

Overall, the project accomplished more than we anticipated. And there were only a few injuries.

video essay

video essay from Cristen B on Vimeo.

In trying to figure out how to approach doing a video essay, I found myself drawn to Shooting Down Pictures. The videos there, text analysis that acknowledged that the video itself is a text to be manipulated and referenced, used a style I found very approachable. My biggest problem in creating the essay was finding a subject with which I could actually work.

What I discovered was that my normal standards for subjects to do academic work on apparently apply in this new medium as well: something I love enough to know it well, and know well enough to see its problems. I chose Glee because, despite what I argue in the essay, I think it does a better job than most media (and high art) at showing that the world is not made up of straight, white, able-bodied, Christian people. I expected to find what I did find, that the show shortchanges many of its characters, but I also found that it does it in a consistent patterned way, which I doubt I would have noticed if I hadn’t been looking for visual cues. I had no idea the show had such a consistent style until I picked up patterns and realized that scenes were blocked in certain ways to communicate certain things across episodes, and that the breaks from that style meant the show was saying something different.

For example, I had not realized until I began pulling together clips across episodes that the show uses its minority characters as a Greek chorus to comment on the lives of the main characters, and only when separating those characters off by themselves does it allow them to comment on their own lives. The style changes, putting certain characters in different positions in the group, and having consistent choreography to communicate relationships, and I would not have noticed that without having to look for patterns. I actually felt hampered by the time constraints, because there was so much footage and it was hard to make a general argument about the show within a short amount of time. I wish I had another ten minutes to cover just the leitmotifs in choreography, because that’s something that can only be communicated visually.

The ability to use video to communicate my argument was also useful in studying this particular text because it is as much musical as it is visual, and I’m not sure that the text can be fully understood without being able to both see and hear it.

On True Gender and Love Stories

The class discussion of Judith Halberstam’s article on Boys Don’t Cry made go rewatch the 1996 British film Different for Girls, another trans love story. Like Boys Don’t Cry, Different for Girls uses an actor of the character’s birth sex rather than their stated gender to play the role (you could write a whole book about who gets to play trans people and what it means) but Different for Girls struck me differently this time after reading Halberstam and discussing the article in class.

As we discussed, Boys Don’t Cry seems to resolve some of its romantic conflict by making Brandon “truly” Teena at the end, all but stating that the solution to the problems is for Brandon and Lana to go off and be happy lesbians together. Different for Girls doesn’t do that. It states really clearly that the male lead is in a heterosexual relationship with the female lead, and that no matter who the lead used to be, she is a woman now.

This is especially clear when comparing the two films’ treatment of nudity. Kim, the trans character, has a full frontal nude scene, which on the one hand seems to be kind of ham-handedly signaling to the audience, “hey, everything’s exactly where it should be!” But it is also played erotically, showing that she’s attractive to the male lead.

Comparing the two films, I wonder if this has to do with ideas of acceptable boundaries of gender expression for men and women. One can be extraordinarily butch and still be a woman, but men’s roles are more structured, and there’s only so far you can go and still be considered a man.

We discussed in class some of Peirce’s motivation in making Boys Don’t Cry seem like a lesbian story by the end and, while I don’t like to speculate on artist intent, I think this is one way to read the film. I don’t think Peirce was consciously trying to invalidate Brandon’s gender identity, but by presenting the romantic relationship as honest only when Brandon’s biological sex is factored into the equation, she achieves the same result.

I'm trying not to call this post Vampire Weekend

This weekend I’ve been watching all the episodes of The CW’s The Vampire Diaries. Hey, I’m stuck in bed with a cold and I ran out of episodes of Criminal Minds. There were a lot of things that struck me: that you apparently no longer need a Very Special Episode to show teenagers smoking, drinking, and having casual sex; the heroine who asks questions and fights back; that the show has decided that its seat of female power will be light-skinned black women; and the only barely subtextual incestuous vibe between the two male leads (really, I had no idea the titillation bar was set that high.)

But what really stuck out to me was that the show doesn’t function like Dawson’s Creek (Life Unexpected, also on The CW, is DC+10 years), and it doesn’t function like The OC or Gossip Girl. It functions like a Harlequin novel from 1975. And so does Twilight. And (sacrilege!) so did Buffy, on a couple of levels.

Quick rundown of the show: Two brothers, Stefan and Damon Salvatore, are vampires. In the 1860s, they loved the same woman. Currently Stefan has enrolled in high school because he’s found Elena, a teenager who looks just like the woman they lost. Hijinks ensue.

So, in the 80s, around the time that Janice Radway published Reading the Romance, there were about six books published telling us that romance novels were demeaning to women and portraying abusive heroes, and we were all going to hell in a handbasket. Obviously, I kind of disagree, if only because I think it can be dangerous to police fantasy spaces, especially women’s fantasy spaces. But what the arguments did articulate was a sense of what kind of narrative was being told in mainstream romance publishing at the time: the strong, brooding hero with a past and the heroine who needs to be rescued from her miserable life. It was a formula that had been working since about 1912. The problem with looking at those theories now is that romance novels don’t do that anymore. If you pick up your average Harlequin today, the hero and heroine probably have the same job, have similar goals, and no one needs to be rescued. So that fantasy had to go someplace. And I think one of the places it went was teenage vampire romances.

I’m sure I’m not saying anything new here. There are probably lots of arguments, mostly around Twilight, about the way in which these stories replicate the kind of stories we don’t explicitly tell anymore. But what I find interesting is why they’re sold to teenagers in this context when they’re no longer sold to adults in the same manner. The two main reasons I can come up with are that the stories depend upon two conceits: 1) that boys are an unknowable species, and 2) that it’s okay to play the damsel in distress because the story demands it. The first reason, and the key to the teen aspect as far as I can see, is the concept of boys as an entirely different species. These stories are aimed at teenage girls (and consumed by women of many different ages, but that’s a different post.) There’s an implication running throughout them that boys are strange and complicated, and if only he would just explain what he was doing in Venice in 1923 with the witch’s crystal then you could live happily ever after. The anxiety of not knowing why men do what they do, and the assumption that they do different things than women, is part of the ideology of the story.

The second is built into the narrative. The stories give the heroines (and the female viewers) the option of playacting weakness because of the strength of the heroes. In presenting the heroine with a hero who is supernaturally older and more powerful, it removes any need to be the decision-maker. The heroine can get away with dressing up in a petticoat and lounging on a fainting couch, because her boyfriend is two hundred years old. In Romance and the Erotics of Property, Jan Cohn discusses how, in Gothic novels, “the locus of dangerous male power is the villain. In the course of its development, the romance has taken that power, all that sexual and economic energy, and bestowed it on the hero. (Cohn 50)” By presenting a hero who is rich, old, and has to fight to keep himself from killing the heroine for her blood, the modern vampire story does that, too. The heroine has little power to resist, and so can’t be blamed if she doesn’t. There were many theorists sympathetic to romance novels who argued that the heroine conquered the hero with her submission to him, a notion that may not fly with grown women nowadays. It seems to be a story that can now only be widely accepted with a teenage heroine, possibly because of the heightened power differential.

I don’t know if I’m okay with this. I mean, I read Christopher Pike young adult horror novels from the age of nine, and in every one of those someone had sex shortly before being butchered. And then there was V.C. Andrews. It’s not like titillating material for teens is something new. But the trend of this kind of story is making me wonder what buttons it’s pushing for people. Twilight, both books and movies, broke records. The Vampire Diaries is The CW’s best performing show. Clearly the story is working on some level.