Archive | November, 2011

Confession

29 Nov

This might be a bad time to make this public confession. I haven’t had much time to build up a facade of authority or credibility*. But I’m just going to go for it. Get it out in the open. Let the world know a more complete version of me.

I am Raewyn Campbell and I’m a Twihard.

With the recent release of Breaking Dawn: Part 1, interest and public discussion surrounding the Twilight Saga has been reinvigorated. And every time the fervency of the debate increases the more I want to speak back in defence of Twilight. Woe betide anyone who crosses my path while I’m in Twilight Defence Mode. The likelihood of being given a verbal essay is high.

Usually my – ahem – ‘passionate critiques’ take place in a face-to-face context. Small scale. Private. However, I broke this trend last year and voiced my opinions in a more public forum. That’s right. I sent an email to the letters section of a magazine. BAM! Like a boss!

It was even published.**

This year I have a blog. That beats a letter to a magazine. I don’t have to keep to a short pithy word count. I can ramble somewhat uninterrupted! THE POWER!!!!

So, to the discussion at hand. My defence of the Twilight Saga stems from dissatisfaction in what I see as the conflation of personal taste with moral absolutes.

There is no doubt that the sentence structure and language use in these books is pretty dodgy.

Many aspects of the narrative are problematic, especially in terms of gender and ethnicity. Some feminist and post-colonial critics might even see it as a gift – easy fodder.

It shows a lack of consideration for generic conventions and traditions that have come before it.

The fashion sense of certain characters’ is drastically and distractedly out-dated.

And these things can be hard to over-look. These things should be investigated and critiqued. But it doesn’t mean that Twilight is absolutely and essentially bad. I fear that sometimes criticisms of Twilight end up reinforcing the discursive regimes they set out to critique.

Too often in these arguments the vast fanbase of the saga becomes understood as mindless dupes. Easily manipulated by mass-marketing institutions. Spoon fed meaning. Homogenised. Uncritical. Victimised.

The female protagonist becomes the perpetual victim. Weak. Unaware of the abusive relationship she unwittingly fights for. A poster girl for female subjugation. The invisible maintainer of patriarchal dominance outside of the text.

I have a problem with this. I think Twilight has become the scapegoat for inequalities within a wider discursive regime. In the process it has placed those who like it – and let’s face it, its fanbase is predominantly female – in an awkward position, and has hidden (or in some cases glorified) other things that may contribute to power imbalances within countries such as Australia, the US, UK and many, many others beside.***

The protagonist of these books is Bella Swan, a teenager who falls “unconditionally and irrevocably” in love with a gorgeous vampire, Edward Cullen. The intensity of the relationship is such that these two go to extremes – emotionally, physically and mentally – to be with or protect the other. In many ways it verges on, evens steps clearly into obsessive, controlling and abusive territory; an example of this that sticks out most clearly to me comes from Eclipse. In this book Edward disables Bella’s car so she can’t see her friend Jacob. He also effectively has her kidnapped by his sister so Bella can’t hang-out with Jacob while he’s out of town. This behaviour is inexcusable. And you know what. Bella calls Edward on it. And he stops.

Then Bella has smoochies with Jacob only hours after accepting Edward’s marriage proposal. Victimised? Oppressed? Not necessarily.

Bella may mope about after Edward who is often a controlling, mopey doofus. But to argue that she is the perpetual victim disregards her agency in the things that happen to her and the decisions she makes in the books: she chooses to stay with Edward because she is deeply attracted to him – sexually, intellectually, emotionally – someone try to explain to me how love is ever rational. She chooses to become a vampire because she wants to match Edward physically in strength, beauty and life expectancy – how does her affection for a man invalidate her desire to reach the pinnacle of physical prowess? She fights to keep her unplanned child despite hostility and aggression from all sides – including from Edward – and despite the physical danger it poses for her own health. If you’re pro-choice, you’re pro choice… right? Bella might verge on emo, but she certainly has her moments.

To delegitimise Bella as a role-model (and who’s to say audience members see her in this way in the first place), I would argue, also disregards the agency of the audience. Cultural Studies 101: Texts are polysemic. This pretty much means that a text can mean lots of different things to different people – or even to the one person. To assume that every reader who reads Twilight takes the same message from it and is affected in the same way by it, is a very large assumption to say the least. It is an even bigger assumption to say that the effect of Twilight on those who read it is ultimately to their detriment – that the audience will sanction abusive, controlling relationships, that they will look unrealistically for their very own Edward, that they will become dupes of patriarchal power structures etc. This may very well happen for certain audience members, but I can’t help but think it’s akin to saying that playing violent video games makes those who play them violent. Effects research – as my supervisors are constantly telling me – is complicated. You can’t just reduce audience reception into one neat story.

To devalue Twilight on the basis of written quality and artistic merit also puts the fanbase in an awkward position where their affection for the text is regarded as lack of discernment on their part – they only like it because they don’t know quality when they see it. I like McDonalds cheese burgers. I know they are cheap and whacked together by a bunch of sweaty unskilled teenagers. But I’m gonna keep eating cheese burgers. I think they taste nice. Telling me you don’t like how they taste isn’t going to do a thing for my taste buds. And just because I like cheese burgers doesn’t mean I don’t like myself a roast carrot and avocado Moroccan inspired salad. What I’m trying to say is my personal enjoyment of Twilight is not contingent upon its literary quality or value. I like it. I don’t necessarily know why. I just do. That’s affect for you: pre-cognitive intensity. Thanks Massumi.

Ultimately Twilight is part of a wider discursive regime where, I believe, white males come out on top. But I don’t think it should be isolated and villanised because it shows traces of this heritage. Critique it, investigate it, talk about it. This is good and useful. I will do this until the cows come home.

However, it would be dishonest of me not to own that I spent almost a week of my Christmas holidays three years ago never getting to sleep before 4am, rarely leaving the lounge, consuming nothing but cups of tea, and ignoring every person who spoke to me because I was completely, unconditionally and irrevocably engrossed in these books. And I’m pretty sure there are a few other people who had a very similar experience.

*Ha! Like that was ever a possibility.

** See!

*** This is what I wrote about in the letter to SFX. I’ve copied the whole letter below:

It seems, from the July 2010 SFX vampire special edition, that gender inequality is only worthy of criticism if it is not mediated by the display of boobs.

I’ve just been flicking through this edition and was interested to note that the major criticisms of The Twilight Saga, expressed particularly in the article ‘Twilight On Trial’, stemmed from perceived gender inequality within the text. For example, Jayne Nelson writes “I think she’s [Bella’s] horribly wimpy […] you can’t deny that Bella is a bad role model for girls.” (83) and “my biggest problem with Twilight – in fact, it’s with New Moon – is that it’s about a girl trying to kill herself because her boyfriend’s left her. I know she’s not really trying to die; she’s only doing it to get his attention. But that’s shocking to me” (83). Despite Nelson herself admitting that she has straw-manned sexism within Twilight, I think a popular text such as Twilight is indeed worthy of rigorous critique, particularly regarding issues of gender and power. However, I believe it is also important to recognise that Twilight is not the only text which can, and should be scrutinised. Looking through the rest of the magazine, it seems that women continue to be disempowered. Yet it appears that, as male privilege is being reinforced through the objectification of women and their bodies (rather than via a young woman’s post-breakup depression and a male denying potentially violent sex) it is somehow less worthy of criticism.

Based on a very rough count, there are at least 72 images throughout the rest of the magazine which depict women in sexualised poses, emphasis being placed on the female body through focus on legs, skin, cleavage, skin-tight clothing etc, of women having sex with other women, of women having sex with men, of women bare chested/naked, and of women as victims of violence (often whilst naked). Somehow, it seems that objectification has become conflated with empowerment. These 72 images compare to a mere 11 images (some of these overlap with the above mentioned female images) of men in sexualised poses, revealing bare skin, or violence being inflicted upon them; 6 of these bare-chested male images come from New Moon – perhaps Twilight is actually the most subversive vampire text of the bunch…

Sexing Chickens*

22 Nov

I’ve been trying to refine my definition of ‘nerd’. It’s difficult, but necessary. I’ve discovered that this is what most people are interested in: a definition. In fact, what I think most people are actually interested in is whether or not they are a nerd.

At a family lunch earlier this year my grandad interrogated me about my thesis; what was I doing and why and therefore**. A week later I decided to show him the research proposal I submitted for the scholarship committee.

“I can see why you had trouble explaining it last week!” he commented after he had read it through a couple of times.

However, this didn’t stop him asking again:

“Therefore…? A nerd is…?” He looked at me, “I still think there needs to be a ‘therefore a nerd is’.”

I had endeavoured to capture the sense of nerd identity in the first line of the proposal: The nerd identity encompasses notions of intellectuality, obsessive interests, esoteric knowledge, and social awkwardness.

This was apparently not enough for The Grandfather, who continued to give me the same look he gives Pollock paintings.

I really didn’t want to meet the Blue Poles wrath, so I decided to go down the ‘nerd identity is really hard to pin down because it’s actually quite huge and means different things to different people’*** route of explanation. I explained that a person could be considered a nerd if they tinker with the minutiae of computers, just as a person who dresses up as Darth Vader and attends conventions could be considered a nerd.****

“So, is a scientist a nerd?”

The conversation turned to old scientists and philosophers and whether they were nerds or not. I decided that in retrospect they might be considered nerds. Conversational tangents which touched on cultural expectations, racism and gender took place at a confusing and alarming rate, but somehow, SOMEHOW, this train of conversation lead to a discussion of the computer revolution and how this had a significant impact on cultural valuing of nerds; that through this nerds had became necessary, their interests were practical and in demand.

We were now in a galaxy far, far away from definitions. I liked this. This was safer. This was good…

For the next few minutes we discussed nerds as professionals, nerds as amateurs, and scientist geeks. Participation in the conversation had expanded to include my uber-nerd uncle who works in a chemistry lab, programs computers, builds machines and is WAY into astronomy, music and western philosophy.

Then, while I was in the midst of receiving a history lesson on Henry Ford (go figure: “you can have it in any colour, as long as it’s black”), The Grandfather got to what had been plaguing him all this time:

“I don’t know how I could be put in the same category as him!” He almost exploded.

He wasn’t talking about Henry Ford, he was pointing at The Uncle. It seemed to come out of the blue, it took me by surprise, but this was it, this was the heart of the matter for The Grandfather. The week before I had made an off-hand remark calling him a nerd – his voluntary involvement in philosophy classes at his local university campus, his level of engagement with the subject matter, his choir and music obsession, and even his love of cross-words led me to call him a nerd. That I labelled him as such hadn’t been brought up since that conversation. But it had obviously stayed with him.

“Oh, ok. Here I’ve been thinking we’ve been trying to define what constitutes a nerd, but really, you’ve just been trying to work out whether you are a nerd or not! Well, that’s a different matter all together!” said The Uncle smiling. “’I mean, being a nerd is fine, but I just don’t think I am one!’”

It became very silly after this, Seinfeld quotes abounded. But I think it revealed something quite important. Actually, a few things that I think were important. Nerds might be becoming socially acceptable, but they are still not quite – “He was a nerd, not that there’s anything wrong with that”. It also showed that even within one tight-knit family, there are several different understandings of the term.

And perhaps most significantly, I realised that I still wasn’t exactly sure myself what I thought a nerd was. Slowly, as I’ve read more, my ideas of nerdidity have expanded and I’ve neglected to refine as I went along. This lunchtime I realised my definition of nerd was now so broad that its integrity had been severely compromised. It had lost its specialness, and therefore it had lost much of its power.

At the moment, it seems a little like identifying a nerd is like sexing chickens*****. I’m not sure how we do it, but somehow we do.

*Gutter: mind out of!

**”If you’re a carpenter you put up shelves, and you can put things on shelves. What is your thesis for?” Well, you will be able to put things on it…

***woefully imprecise even:-)

*** This example was somewhat ambitious since The Grandfather holds Star Wars in deep contempt. It probably wasn’t the best way to win him on side:-)

***** For more on the exciting world of chicken sexing: http://cogprints.org/3255/1/chicken.pdf

Aca-Fan*

21 Nov

PhD office sharing can be interesting sometimes. If you’re lucky you get into a groove with the other person. You notice this most when you work in a different space for a bit. You become hyper aware of everything you do, every move and every sound you make. You realise you move too much, or you jiggle loudly, or you drink so much water you should consider taking up abode in the ocean. This makes you really thankful for the office sharing groove you’ve built up with your regular office mate.

But every now and then the groove is disrupted.

The strength of the groove can be measured, I would argue, on the time it takes to re-establish it post groove -offense.

I’m glad to say that my office mate and I have a pretty strong groove. Twirling, jiggling, napping and (what we like to think of as) dancing are not at all uncommon in our little work space. And she, at least, is pretty quick to recover after an offense takes place.

The other day I was looking through Harry Potter fan art on the website deviantART (if you’re not sure what this is, Google it, there’s some pretty cool stuff there). It initially began as a study of online nerd related communities where fans become fans of fans. But, as often happens with my research, I began toeing the line between researcher and fan. In fact, I think the line was steadily moving further and further away from researcher the more I looked through the artists’ galleries.

I was particularly enamoured by work done by an artist called burdge-bug**. Her drawings of characters from Harry Potter were so close to my mental images it was spooky and exciting and thrilling! I was really getting into a little series of pictures she’d done of James and Lily Potter (Harry’s parents for those who haven’t read the books.***). These depicted Lily and James during their teenage years and after they’d left school. People forget (cough – Warner Bros –cough) that Lily and James were in their early twenties when they had Harry. They were MY age!! Burdge had this DOWN. Lily and James had personality in these pictures. They had a story. They had FACES! They were so in love.

Next picture.

James is dead and Lily is weeping and pleading with an encroaching Voldemort, trying to protect her baby Harry. We all know Lily is only seconds away from being murdered herself.

Before I knew it, I was a weepy mess. The Office Mate wasn’t at uni yet so I didn’t even try to stop. I cried and cried and cried. For the first time since I was 12 years old I felt incredibly sad about the murder of these two fictional characters. They were no longer mere necessary plot devices. Thanks to these pictures there was now emotion attached to their demise which subsequently made Harry’s story all the more affective.

So, puffy, wet and snotty I continued my sobbing when all of a sudden the office door was open and The Office Mate stood in the doorway just looking at me.

“Are you ok?”

It took all my strength to utter two words: Harry. Potter.

She slowly backed out of the room. “I’ll just give you a minute…”

Door closed.

Face palm.

Time taken to recover groove = as long as it takes to put something in a fridge.

Groove = STRONG.

50 points!!

* See: http://henryjenkins.org/

** linkity link: http://burdge-bug.deviantart.com/

*** Really!?

Gallery

Gettin’ my fan on!

21 Nov

I was talking to my friend one lunch time who recounted something she’d heard Lady Gaga say. It was something to the effect of: if you’re watching someone do something so cool it makes you feel sick with jealousy, it probably means you should be doing it.

People’s deviantART pages did this to me. There are so many talented people out there. It made me want to draw pictures of my favourite things too!! So I am.

Here are some of my early attempts. I drew quite a lot while I was in high school and then I stopped for ages. I quickly realised that I’m very out of practice. So the pictures are a bit wonky. Hopefully they’ll get straighter the more I do it:-)  I feel it’s worth noting that David Tennant’s face is refusing to be drawn. However, I in turn refuse to let it defeat me. I will draw you Tennant! Mark my words, I will draw you if it’s the last thing I do! So, basically, expect a whole heap of Tennant inspired pics as I attempt to conquer his visage:-)

Woefully Imprecise

16 Nov

The name of this blog comes from a phrase used in Michael Chabon’s Manhood For Amateurs. In the chapter ‘The Amateur Family’, Chabon talks about his family and their quirky cultish interests. He loves the eccentricity and enthusiasm his children show for things such as Doctor Who and comic books. He wants to encourage and nurture it. And yet, he seems dissatisfied with the labels frequently used to describe such behaviour. In this chapter he says:

I had always hoped and worked with patience and care – offering running seminars in Vulcan physiology, Jon Anderson lyrics, the history of the Marvel universe – to have geeky children, though the term geek, like its common synonym nerd, is woefully imprecise, with connotations of physical awkwardness, high-water trousers, loserhood, emotional retardation, etc […]

Perhaps there is no perfect word for the kind of people I have raised my children to be; a word that encompasses obsessive scholarship, passionate curiosity, curatorial tenderness, and an irrepressible desire to join in the game, to inhabit in some manner – through writing, drawing, dressing up, or endless conversational riffing and Talmudic debate – the world of the endlessly inviting, endlessly inhabitable work of popular art. (294)

I love this description. It beautifully captures the joy in nerding. I get that bursting, colourful excitement that comes when you feel understood and connected. And despite Chabon’s claims that terms like nerd are inadequate, I think his description is the closest thing I’ve come to a definition of nerd identity. He articulates so clearly the intangible aspects of what it’s like being geeky – the bits that don’t necessarily have accessories or any sort of materiality – the bits that I believe make being a nerd all the more worthwhile, whether it be for participation or for research.

It reminds me of my own experiences with my siblings. Some of my favourite moments have been sitting around, not just discussing what had taken place in whatever texts we’re obsessing over at that point in time, but theorising about them, getting so into them that we had to whip out pens and paper and record our imaginings:

“What would happen if Buffy met The Doctor?” “… the Doctor would probably kill Giles thinking he was an evil Krillitane bat thingy…”

“I think Mary Poppins is a Time Lord! Think about it…”

“Ultimate army?” “The Doctor and Buffy strategising while the Harry Potter wizards hold the evils at bay – Gandalf is the go-between. Herminone and Willow BFFs! Aslan would be the ULTIMATE victor!” “Is it cheating to let Aslan join?…”

Cue the fan art and battle diagrams.

It’s like the texts are our own; as though we can, and indeed do, inhabit them. “Conversational riffing”, “Talmudic debate”!? I don’t think Chabon could have chosen better words.

The more I research, the more I understand Chabon’s trouble with using a single word to describe this unique yet vast and diverse identity. I have had a hell of a lot of trouble trying to articulate and in some way delineate the boundaries of nerdom. If I’m spending three years of my life researching nerds and nerd culture, I should probably have a clear idea of who and what I mean by ‘nerd’. Surely!?

But as Chabon so eloquently points out, the terms ‘nerd’ and ‘geek’ are often woefully imprecise, perhaps especially for those who identify as such. And any attempt to explain this identity and the culture that surrounds it, I’m too quickly discovering, is always going to be woefully imprecise. In fact, my working title for my introduction is ‘wibbly-wobbly, nerdy-werdy’*.

But I think this lack of specificity is ok. I think anything else is reductive. I’m just going to plod away, and piece by piece assemble a picture that hopefully resembles the wibbly-wobbly nerd in all its woefully imprecise glory.

*Too nerdy?:-).

I’m a blogger now. Bloggers are cool

15 Nov

My name is Rae. I’m a PhD student in cultural studies. My thesis is on changing attitudes to nerds/geeks and the implications of this shift on power relations (with a particular focus on gender and ethnicity). New media is a big part of my study, so I thought it was probably time I practiced what I preached (I think new media is pretty cool and important but I’m a bit of a luddite). Ultimately this blog is for a couple of things. 1. It’s for writing about where my life intersects with my research. 2. It’s also for keeping people up to date with my study.

I actually decided to start a blog months ago. I set it up. I made passwords. I wrote stuff. I drew stuff. It was great. But that’s where my blogging ended. I had the space, I had the content, but putting that content on my space was just too scary.

The idea of keeping a kind of public diary freaks me out a bit. Even the idea of ordinary, unpublic diary keeping unsettles me. My paranoid self tells me no matter what precautions I take, someone will find it and read it and that would be, you know, bad.

But that’s my paranoid self. However, my more rational side is slightly unsettled by it too. I was watching the Ken Burns documentary series The Civil War with my dad recently. Diary keeping was huge among the soldiers during this time. The fervency with which these men kept records of their experiences was incredible. One soldier’s bloodstained diary was found at Cold Harbor; he’d spent his last moments writing “June 3. Cold Harbor. I was killed”. I thought stuff like that only happened in fiction (I always zif* the bit in LOTR where Balin and the Dwarves keep writing when they are about to be attacked by orcs. I mean, put down the frickin’ pen and run!). Yet, apparently it happened.

After seeing this doco on the American Civil War, I found it slightly disconcerting that these people would go to so much trouble and place so much importance on keeping a record of their lives. I found it a bit sad. It’s almost like the record became more important than the life. Sometimes I worry that living takes second place to making sure that people knew you existed.

In a strange way this fear of missing out on living is what has finally compelled me to stick my content on my space. It got to the point with my research that I felt I was just distantly critiquing nerddom and no longer participating in it. I was getting increasingly jealous looking through other people’s blogs, vlogs, and deviantART pages. I missed the fun involved in being a nerd.

This is my space to be a nerd: I’ll write, draw, squee and keep people up to date with my research. And hopefully it will be fun:-)**

* For more on “ziffing” see:  (it’s around the 4 minute mark). Or better still, buy the whole series!:-)

**At least for me… I can’t guarantee this for people reading it.