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.