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Fairy Nerdmother

11 Dec

I wanted to draw pictures to accompany this post. I feel like it needs pictures. I don’t know if words can do justice to The Contact Story: Part 2; I don’t know if words can image-erise a grown man backed into the corner of his quite trendy mannish lounge room, eyes wide with fear and disgust, mouth enveloped by both hands in an attempt to protect the gross concept from entering it; kids leaping around me, screaming with terrified joy…

But there’s no pictures…


I woke up the morning after the most traumatic experience of my young life with BOTH my eyes, I’m pleased to say. Both eyes and a contact lens. Somewhere.

Pony and I had to pick up the kiddlets from their dad’s house (I shall name him Mr Argonaut for the purpose of this blog). According to Pony, Mr Argonaut was WAY experienced with contact lenses and eye-touching – he’d worn contacts for a bazillion years, until he had lasik eye surgery. He was Da MAN! when it came to eye stuff. It was possible that Arggy possessed special skillz re. my predicament. If we weren’t going to get to an optometrist this day, he was our next best bet.

When Pony and I arrived there were nice “hellos” and hugs and “come ins” and “how’s it goings?”

Pony: “Um, actually Arggy, Rae had a little mishap with one of her contact… [Mr A runs to the back corner of the room – see first paragraph] lenses…”

From behind one hand came a muffled “it’s stuck behind your… isn’t it?” the other hand was spared for the important task of indicating to his eye.

I nodded in confirmation.

Cue Sippy and Fil who were suddenly inches from my face; loud expressions of horrified fascination and ecstatic disgust; general flailing and springy room circumnavigation throughout. It was quite an event.

Mr A, after a gentle rebuke from Pony, (“You used to wear contacts ALL THE TIME! You said eyes didn’t worry you!” “MY eyes didn’t worry me!”) made his way towards me to inspect the damage. He very bravely (and I say this most sincerely, if it was me in his situation I would have stayed in the back corner of the room gagging) confronted my eye – “look up, down, to the right…”

No sight of the contact yet, no observable damage. Back to waiting.

The rest of this day’s events took place with that damned contact stuck somewhere in my face: The Amazing Spider-Man; walking around San Diego getting complimented on my Doctor Who/Portal t-shirt (like five separate times, nerdholes!); the Nerdist podcast taping; meeting Jonah Ray (twice); meeting Chris Hardwick and Matt Mira; locking eyes with John Barrowman (BFFs); meeting my Fairy Nerdmother. All of it.

Maybe it was my lucky charm…

While the whole day had been immensely plesant, the first bit of out-of-the-ordinary luck occured while I was waiting to pick up my Nerdist tickets from will call (for Aussies, “will call” basically means picking tickets up at the venue) at the Balboa Theatre. Pony and I were second in line but it was taking AGES to get to the window. The lady at the desk was very emphatically telling the gentleman in front of us that she couldn’t give him his passes until he presented the correct identification. He kept gently yet urgently arguing with the woman, but it wasn’t until he looked at his lady friend with exasperation that I realised it was JONAH RAY!!!!!!!!!! From the Nerdist podcasts. Like, Jonah Ray the guy who was meant to be onstage!!! Jonah Ray who was on the poster above the ticket window for that night’s event!!!!!!!!

Jonah Ray was desperately trying to explain this to the will call lady, but to no avail.

I got the giggles – it was like watching some B-grade farce. Mr Ray turned around to apologise for the delay. I remember saying, “That’s ok, it’s  entertaining” (SMOOTH!), while Pony looked thoroughly confused (this was her initiation into the world of Nerdist, so she had no idea why the whole line by this point was whispering and nudging each other and looking awkward).

The unmovable will call woman eventually asked Mr Ray to stand aside while she dealt with the rest of us. A guy further up the line must have been taking pictures of the happenings during this time because Jonah was all “You know, I’d be happy to take a picture with you, you don’t have to pap me” – the guy took him up on his offer which I thought was pretty courageous because Jonah’s expression suggested he was totally unimpressed with this ticket situation and probably wanted to inflict pain on someone.

Pony and I had a lovely chat to his friend while he generously posed for pictures with people (which still wasn’t enough to convince the will call lady that he was who he said he was, she was determined to get the right identification, dammit!).

I psyched myself up and for the first time in my life asked a human whose name was on a poster if I could get a pic with them. If I couldn’t go to Comic-con, I was fridging-well going to pimp my nerd wherever I got the chance.

I love this picture because Jonah looks really disgruntled and I look like I’m about to drop my carefully constructed pile of handbagless handbag contents (ahh, carry-on baggage restrictions). Special moment.  But seriously, what a champ*.

I encountered Lady Fortune again that night as she escorted Pony and myself to our seats. Front row…ish!!!!!

There’s nothing like eye contact to turn famous-foreign-media-mediated-images into actual humans – although, I desperately tried to avoid eye contact during the Quemment session. I mean, listen to this and you’ll know what I mean (nsfw). Still, John Barrowman and I are like *this* now [insert picture of fingers crossed to indicate tight, personal closeness].  Within the first few minutes of the show the final traces of my no-Comic-Con jealousy had well and truly disappeared. I don’t think I would ever have experienced such coolness from such a prime position at the convention centre.

It’s not in the recording of the podcast, but during the first ten minutes of the show, without knowing it, I saw my Fairy Nerdmother.

Chris Hardwick had come on stage to introduce the show. He noticed that the entire front row was empty and began riffing about why this might be the case.  A few minutes in  – and after John Barrowman had thrown a garbage bin across the stage, I can’t remember why – a few people filed into the auditorium down to the front. Chris launched into a very entertaining interrogation of these poor people, who it turns out were late because they had decided to pick up dinner on the way or something like that (whatever it was, it was a fairly lame excuse that provided a nice bit of comedic fodder for the Nerdists). The riffing continued and started revolving around the last remaining empty seat at the front – the hypotheses for what might have detained this last person got progressivly more ridiculous.

The door to the auditorium opened. Down to the front rolled a young man in a wheelchair**.

The guy who came in late was good humoured, and like a pro, Chris Hardwick converted the awkwardness to hilarity. And so began the official show which you can listen to in the link above.

I met Lady Fortune for a third time that evening (someone’s totally crushing. I’m just sayin’) whilst standing in line, a VERY long line, in desperate need of a loo, feeling all eye-twitchy, and hoping to scab a signature from le Nerdists in my copy of The Nerdist Way by Mr Chris Hardwick (it’s one of the texts I use regularly in my research, so it was full of sticky-tabs. I was pleased I had tangible proof that I’d read it – as though everyone else who wanted their copy signed was totally faking their audienceship 🙂 ). I noticed that the guy next to us was the guy in the wheelchair who’d come in late. He’d also contributed a quemment to the Quemment session. I caught his eye and complimented him on his quemmenting.

So began The Chat.

He inquired after our accents. Asked where were we from. What do we do? Was I there for Comic-Con? I told him my sad story about missing out on tickets.

“I can get you in.”

Let that sink in for a second. “I can get you in” – to COMIC-CON!!!!!!

I can’t describe to you all the thoughts my brain thought during the milliseconds after this comment. Part of me immediately thought the guy was bluffing. Part of me didn’t want to come across as needy and all taking-advantagey. Part of me thought I’d miss-heard what he said. Part of me had decided he was talking to someone else and I was ashamed I’d been so presumptuous as to assume he was talking to me. Part of me was ridiculously excited. All I managed in reply was “Comic-Con? Oh, yeah, nah, um, that’s cool…”

Thank goodness Pony was with me. “Really!? Are you serious? That would be awesome! Rae would love that!  Wouldn’t you, Rae!?”

“Um… yeah, but… um? Really?” (cool, Rae, really cool)

The guy  nodded in confirmation, “Yep, I have a spare ticket. I can get you in.”

Numbers were swapped (again, thank goodness Pony was there, I would not have had the presence of mind to get his number). I was going to Comic-Con!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

And that’s how I met my Fairy Nerdmother.

The cherry on the top of what had already been one of the most brilliant ice-creamy nights of my life was getting to briefly talk to Mr Nerdists. It’s weird reflecting on these moments; these sorts of meetings are simultaneously artificial/manufactured/shallow (you’re just one of hundreds requesting a slither of a moment of a famous person’s attentions) and super affecting (I was shakingly, on-the-edge-of-anxiety-attack excited that I was about to come into contact with people who were constantly present in my lived experiences, people who without knowing it have shaped my work and, therefore (or because of) and necessarily, my world view). I’m pleased to say the sticky-tabs instigated a quick convo with Chris, which was really nice. It feels good being able to tell someone that you liked the thing they made enough to use it in your research. It feels really nice to have that person seem interested and surprised that you use the thing they made in your PhD. Lots of really nice feels.

(Weird perspective crouchy photo!)

But this night didn’t just have one cherry. Oh No. It had TWO cherries. A cherry made out of my stalker, Lady Fortune.

In the taxi on the way back to Mr Argonaut’s house I continued my attempts at moving the contact around to the front of my eye (sounds fancy and intricate, but I was basically just rubbing my eye). At some stage it felt like something moved and my sight got extra blurry. My whole brain started screaming. Did I just ruin my eye FOREVER or did the elusive contact just come out from hiding?

Whatever it was, I sure as hell wasn’t going to move my eye until I got to a mirror.

I’d played calm in the taxi, but as soon as we got to Mr A’s he knew something was up. In another moment of courage he took a look at my eye. So did Sippy.

Mr A, very calmly: “Ok, Rae, I’m pretty sure I can see the contact, it’s moved to the front of your eye. If you go into the bathroom now you’ll probably be able to get it ou…”

Sippy (something to the effect of): “OH! MY! GOSHHHHHHH! PUSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS!!!!!!!!!!! YOU’RE EYE’S ALL PUSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! ARRRRRRRGGGHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

Springy leap flail.

I rushed to the bathroom. Mr A was right, the contact was no longer behind my eye. It was back within the potential removal zone. Sippy was (kinda) right too. There was a lot of gunk. Not puss. But definitely eye gunk.

Deep Breaths.

Cotton-bud on a stick.

Ninja spirit summoned.



Adrenaline shakes.

I have very rarely ever felt relief like that before. It also looked impressive, all folded onto itself. When I unfolded it I realised that I had pinched it too hard the night I had first tried to take it out. It had a jagged hole in the middle of it – like a donut. Donut contact. I wanted to keep that contact. We’d been through a lot together. I wanted to thread string through the middle and wear it like a war trophy around my neck. However, I resisted my inner hoarder and deposited donut contact in the bin.

Much to Pony’s dismay, I wasn’t going to be a pirate (she tried to convince me to wear an eye-patch for a while to freak out the family back at home – an amusing but ultimately uncomfortable ruse).

I wasn’t going to be a pirate. But I was going to Comic-Con!

*I did drop the teetering pile not long after the photo was taken.

**psssst – two hours in the future this guy became my Fairy Nerdmother.


The Magical Land of Nerd

24 Aug

Death and Catwoman hit da town – what up Nerrrrds!

I’m going to skip the details of my second day in ‘Murrrrkah! Not that it wasn’t super brilliantly fun, I mean, I woke up to a splendid plate of pancakes and fresh summer fruit, and got my hands on not one, but TWO really good coffees – which immediately exceeded my food expectations for the States. This was most welcome as it made me feel I would be gastronomically safe for at least the next ten days.

The adventures really began on my third day in SoCal. Even though I wasn’t able to go to Comic-Con, San Diego goes ALL OUT during the week of the convention. Lots of smaller nerdy fringe events take place across the city – professional nerds have come from all over the world to appear at SDCC, they’re going to make it worth their while. So I’d managed to get tickets for a couple of “fringe” events. There were also a few smaller sub-cons like Nerd HQ which had its doors open to the public for the duration of the convention.

Even though I knew I wouldn’t be completely excluded from the nerdstivities, my heart broke a *little* when we went into the city for the first time. All the geeks walking around with their human-sized Comic-Con bags and stylish neck tags. Every pop-culture character that ever existed was walking around the streets of San Diego. I could only imagine what it would be like at the hallowed convention centre. I was surprised at my levels of jealousy.  I was like a five year old watching another kid have a birthday.  I had to practice some serious head-talk to stay atop the envy:-)

I was on my way to a swanky comic-book themed party. I was going to a live taping of the Nerdist Podcast with JOHN BARROWMAN as the guest the next night. Life wasn’t too bad.

([the rest of my brain] jealoussssssssssssssssss….)

Pony had discovered that a comic book themed party was taking place at the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego. Guests were expected to dress as a comic book character. This slightly freaked me out for three reasons.  1. Pony is notoriously amazing when it comes to costumes. This meant I wouldn’t be able to fudge it all last minute-style. 2. The non-fudged costume would have to be transportable from Australia to the States. 3. The costume options for female comic-book characters are fairly limited – lycra, boobalicious, butt-flashy, maybe a tiara.

Not my favourite things to wear.

(except tiaras – yes to tiaras)

After much deliberation and consultation with the siblings I decided to go as Death from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics. She’s a pretty cool, perky goth. Pony had organised a Catwoman costume. Damn those humans who can pull-off Catwoman. They should be pushed to the edge of society and poked repeatedly with a sharp stick.

The party itself was estupendo! (yeah, I’m all over that Spanish now I’ve spent 10 days on the Mexican border. Sadly I was not so bueno at Spanish when I ordered a beef tongue taco. I would have liked knowing that’s what “res lengua” meant before money had been exchanged.) Lots of artsy nerdery took place at the doo. Body painting. Cyborg dancing. Superhero photoshopping. Keith Richards was even there![1]

But I think my favourite parts of the evening were the bookends – the hectic getting ready process/testing out my swanky new camera, and the post-party stalker drinks at the Hilton. It’s really fun putting on goth make-up. Try it some time. It’s also really fun being the only two people in a fancy bar with (presumably) fancy famous nerdy people, sporting an accent that is considered cool (yeah, I was cool for a whole 16 days!) dressed as, well, as Catwoman and Death. I’d recommend doing that sometime too.

By the end of the evening, Catwoman was in desperate need of a wheelchair and my wig was starting to itch. But the most… exciting?… adventure was still to come.

We headed home. I went to take out my contact lenses. I’ve written about my experiences with contact lenses before. I’m still fairly new to them. The thought of wearing them whilst overseas unsettled me because I wouldn’t have my fabulous optometrist safety net in case anything went wrong. I practiced some more head-talk. Told myself to stop being stupid, nothing has gone wrong since I’ve had them. The universe doesn’t think “oooh, she’s away from her safety net, let’s mess with her”. That’s crazy Rae. Crazy.

The universe is a bum-face.

First contact came out like a champ. The second one snapped as I pulled it out and got stuck behind my eye. TERRIFYING! Absolutely TERRIFYING.

Shout-out to Pony who was amazingly brave during the ordeal. I woke her up with the words “I’m sorry to get you up, but my worst nightmare has just come true”. Eyes are gross. I find my own eyes gross, let alone someone else’s. Pony managed to keep the gagging to a minimum and sat on the edge of the bathtub patting my back as I poked around in my eye for a while.  She did an excellent job comforting in the face of such grossness.

After quite a few calls to Australia to gather advice and comfort from the contact-experienced-father-shaped parent and my optometrist (“Um, hi. It’s Raewyn Campbell. My contact broke and is stuck in my eye and I was wondering what I should do…?” “Come in!” “Well, I’m actually in the States at the moment…”) I felt assured that I had a few days up my sleeve until my future as a pirate was sealed[2].

The plan was to go to an optometrist as soon as we had a spare moment. It wasn’t a complicated plan. It was a good plan. The only problem was that the next day was going to be hella busy with little cousin retrieval, Spiderman, and the Nerdist podcast, so we’d have to aim for Saturday morning. Deep breaths. Pirates get parrots, so, silver-lining.

But kids, there’s a lesson to be learnt from this traumatising event. Eyes are resilient. Eyes can withstand a surprising amount. And you’ll find that out for definite in the next blog post.

[1] By “Keith Richards” I of course mean an old, stoned, leathery man Pony and I had weirdly met only that morning at the coffee place and who had turned up to the comic-book themed party dressed as Keith Richards. As you do.

[2] Just to reassure people who might find all this too disturbing. My dad once had a contact stuck behind his eye for about two weeks and didn’t even realise until it moved itself to the front one day all folded up and easy for the removal. Eyes are hardy. Deep breaths. Everything is ok. Optometrists are super adept at fixing this type of situation as well. I think the opt’s words were “simple procedure”.


16 Aug


I’m in the US! I’ve been here for six days and I cannot believe the amount of stuff that has happened since I left Australia on Tuesday. So many adventures that must be chronicled.

But first: BACK STORY.

1. It’s not the most interesting backstory in the world, however backstory is necessary in order to provide context; context which will hopefully enhance feelings of triumph attached to some incredible moments of fortune.

This trip has officially been planned since January but has been in the workings ever since I started my research on nerd identity. I’ve always wanted to take the pilgrimage to Nerd Mecca, Nerdvana – COMIC-CON! Seriously, how can you do a PhD on nerds and not go to Comic-Con!? There is no way that I could experience nerdom on such a massive collective scale in Australia. And in the last few years Comic-Con has become a major port from which nerdom is exported across the world. I’ve been desperate to know whether the nerdom I experience everyday is at all similar to the nerdom I observe – through many layers of mediation – in the States – the place where the nerd label originated. How much negotiating and modification takes place in the exportation of nerd identity from the States to Australia?[1] There’s no way to adequately answer this, but I sure as hell can get closer by going to SDCC. It would be a sort of ethnographic pilgrimage.

So I’ve been saving up for a few years with such a trip in mind. In January one of my close friends (she is Canadian, from here on in she shall be called: The Canadian Friend) called me up and said that she and some of her friends were going to road trip from Toronto to San Diego for Comic-Con (nerds are CRAYYY-ZEE-eee!) and asked if I would like to join them. I said yes.

Now, planning a trip to Comic-Con is hard. Especially if you live in a timezone outside the States. The dates of the event are available quite early in the year, however, very little notice is given for when tickets go on sale. You basically have to stalk the crap out of the SDCC site everyday for months, then when you do find out, the tickets inevitably go on sale at 3 in the morning for Aussies. If you don’t check the website for a week, or set your alarm, you can pretty much guarantee you have missed out on tickets. On top of this, hotels in San Diego are booked out almost a year in advance of the event.  Getting to Comic-Con is a hassle and a half.

So, because the tickets go on sale so close to the event, if you’re travelling from overseas you need to take a gamble. You need to book airfares and accommodation without knowing whether you’ll actually get to go to SDCC. I took this gamble.

Lady Fortune likes me though. I have family who live in San Diego. So a trip to Comic-Con would not just be a trip to Comic-Con, it would also involve a ridiculously special catch up with my lovely cousins with the bonus of free accommodation.

Having relos in San Diego turned out to be a very good thing, because I did miss out on tickets to Comic-Con, and a few other things I’d applied for fell through (it’s best to spell your name correctly on forms – just a handy hint for people), and The Canadian Friend couldn’t make it to SDCC after all. SO. I was going to be in San Diego at Comic-Con time, but wouldn’t be going to Comic-Con. Bummer.

But HOORAY for family!! And HOORAY for (a kind of) holiday[2]!!

The end of back story: Start of ‘MUrrrrkAH!

It takes a long time getting to LA. Left Wollongong at 5:30am to get to the airport on time. Boarded plane at about 8:30am. Landed in LA at 10am the same day I left but 14 hours later. Very little sleep, probably got about an hour and a half the whole trip. But, on the plus side, I had an isle seat and there was no one sitting next to me which meant I was able to score extra pillows and blankets to form an amazing cocoon-like structure around me, expand myself over a large area, and in the process become one of those horrible passengers that others have to do gymnastics to push past in order to get to the loos. There’s power in being that person.

I’d heard a lot of unsettling stories about getting through American customs, so during the flight I was bracing myself for a bit of hostility and bureaucracy.

Again, loooooong lines waiting for customs (customs officials must get REALLY bored, no wonder they look so uncheerful).

Finally got to the front counter. Passport. Declaration form thingy. Fingerprints. Face scan. Short, disguised interrogation: “What brings you to the US? How long are you here for? What do you do back in Australia?”

“I’m a student”

“Ahh. What do you study?”

“I’m doing my PhD on nerd identity”

“Nerd identity!? You can DO that!?”

Customs Officer launches into a five minute monologue on nerd identity/ culture and the history of changing attitudes towards nerds since a particular American basketball player started wearing thick nerdy glasses about 7 years ago.

Felt sorry for all the people waiting in line behind me. Felt more sorry I didn’t have my Dictaphone at the ready.

Post-Customs Anti-jetlag program initiated .

Turns out the best thing to unfreak someone who is slightly twitchy after navigating a large-busy-unknown-foreign-place-post-14-hour-cramp session is the sight of three screaming family members[3].

Best. Arrival. EVER.

Now, I’m not a screamer. But it’s hard not to get swept up in it when everyone else around you is talking in capslock and exclamation marks. It feels liberatingly deviant.

After we had screamed/hugged/flailed ourselves out, my cuz filled me in on the plans for the day. Her anti-jetlag policy was to keep travellers awake until 10:30pm. On this particular occasion she was taking me and the kids to Universal Studios in order to achieve this.

Best. Intro to America. EVER!

Summer weather, rollercoasters, studio tours, Mexican food, more screaming = no sleep = no jetlag.

Went past the Hollywood Walk of Fame and then stopped at an amazing tiny Manhattan Beach restaurant for dinner on the way back to San Diego (was served an entire chicken). Got a bit delirious during the drive down the coast. There is a point where tiredness is painful and the line between awake and asleep gets seriously blurred.

But the pain was worth it when I met the love of my life: The Princess Bed.

Not a bad first day in The Land of Nerd.

[1] Actually, the question needs to be even more specific than this. Does Comic-Con as an event shape the idea, performance and appearance of nerd identity, and how much of this (if indeed it does) get transported to a small city in Australia such as Wollongong? Basically, does my experience of nerd identity align closely with the experience of others who live more than a 14 hours plane ride away?

[2] Thesis writing needed to continue – there are no breaks from thesis.

[3] I was staying with my Mum’c cousin (here on in: Pony) and her two kids, Sippy and Fil. My Mum used to look after Pony when she was little; Pony looked after me; and I have looked after her kiddies.

Strange Confusing Feelings Part 2

9 Jun

Read Part 1 first

The discussion which spans these two posts has been a bit like a Simpsons episode – start somewhere, end up in a very different place. So here I’ve come. To the reason why I wanted to write this set of blog posts in the first place. I have a lot of friends who are fervently against Cap presumably for the reasons I discussed in the previous post. But I think there’s more to Cap than this, therefore here are three reasons why I think Cap isn’t necessarily a clear-cut easy target poster-boy of American cultural imperialism.

1. The idea of American cultural imperialism is itself a shaky concept. Is every other nation, really that easily culturally conquered? Are they/we really that weak and passive? Are audiences really that impressionable and malleable? Remember: texts are polysemic.

And what is “American” culture? There’re a lot of Americans, a lot of individual experiences, belief systems, and backgrounds that go into making America. Does a nation have a single culture that they then organise and disseminate in an orderly and uncontested fashion? Governments can barely keep track of their paperwork, let alone organise a major cultural offensive… I mean, defensive…

Captain America may be draped in symbolism of the USA, but I think it’s safe to say the USA means different things to different people – the semiotics of the costume/character can and will be read in a number of different ways – as I’ve been saying, I read it several different ways that seem to be completely at odds with one another all at once.

This isn’t to say some discursive regimes don’t become more obvious or powerful at certain times. That certain groups, individuals, belief systems don’t ever become dominant – but they are always being contested, are always in a state of flux, are always needing to re-win consent to remain ascendant. Change might take a while, but it can and does happen. And maybe Cap can contribute to the effectiveness of challenges to the not-so-good parts of the mainstream because he is like a ready-made red, white and blue Muppety-Trojan horse.

2. I think Cap becomes the scape-goat for criticism of textual themes such as ‘great white hope’, ‘patriarchal dominance’, etc within The Avengers. However, The Avengers, Marvel, even the comic book industry in general are dripping with these themes. The superhuman “aggregator” in the Marvel universe is called S.H.I.E.L.D for goodness sake! Cap might have a shield – but a significant portion of superheroes in the Marvel universe work for and under one. DC isn’t much better, in fact, it’s probably more overtly Anglo-Christian in its ideological leanings; the DC equivalent of the Avengers is – let’s say it together – The JUSTICE League. The Justice League includes Superman who stands for – once more together – “Truth, justice and the American way!”

Cap is just one of a bazillion characters who reside in and are created by people who are a product of their cultural context. In the case of high-profile comic books, that context is dominated by discursive regimes where, unfortunately, white males are most privileged. See, here’s a really depressing set of graphs:

These inequalities are not going unnoticed – there’s a bunch of scrutiny taking place which is brilliant. And what’s more, I think comic-books – like any cultural product – can be used as a platform to discuss and negotiate necessary change, or even just to articulate cultural ambivalence. This brings me directly to my third point…

3. Captain America is a character that has clearly changed over time. He was a character created in the midst of a ridiculously devastating war. I can only imagine the importance a character such as Captain America played in helping to legitimise American involvement in WWII to the American population –  right, noble, brave, defenders of the weak . Think politics of plausibility again.

More recently however, Captain America has been used rather subversively. Between 2006-2007, Marvel comics had a company-wide story-arc called ‘Civil War’. In this series the superhuman community was divided as the American government tried to implement a compulsory registration system for all superhumans (this includes mutants – as in, the X-Men type) which would require them to make their private persona public and work officially for government/military bodies like S.H.I.E.L.D – much like soldiers or police officers are employed. Some superhumans were pro-registration (Tony Stark/Ironman was one of the proponents of the Act), while Captain America was leader of the anti-registration resistance movement. Anti-registrationers argued that the act was a violation of civil liberties. You can find a summary of the series here if you’re interested and don’t mind massive spoilers.

This storyline mirrors events taking place in America post 9/11, particularly the USA Patriot Act which, among other things, relaxed restrictions on the measures law enforcers’ could take to gather intelligence (detaining suspects for longer with less evidence etc). This is where Captain America becomes Muppet Man – sneaking in the thing that hasn’t been allowed (ie, subversive/challenging ideologies) in the guise of a recogniable ally you feel comfortable with. All the symbolism contained within Cap: of America as defenders of justice, defenders of truth, defenders of the weak, gets caught up a hardcore challenge to people’s taken-for-granted perceptions and definitions of patriotism.

What’s more, Cap ends up being assassinated on the steps of a court house after he is tried for criminal acts committed during his anti-registration efforts.

Death of America…

Subversive much!? And majorly political.

TL:DR. What I’m trying to say is, when I watch The Avengers, I don’t only see the problematic patriotic semiotics of the character. I’ve had the benefit of growing up with comic book geeks who entice me to read up on these storylines, to keep track of the wider transmedia narratives of (in this case) the Marvel universe. For me, the gentle, innocent, older brother-type Captain America in The Avengers movie is inextricably connected to the beacon-of-hope Captain America of the 1940s, and the Captain America who fought and died for civil liberties not all too long ago in the comics. He is representative of these themes just as much as he signifies ugly American self-righteousness. And that is why I think Captain America deserves a little more credit than he is given.

Strange Confusing Feelings Part 1

9 Jun

I really wanted The Avengers to be good. I mean really.

Most of this was because I wanted Joss Whedon to come out shiny. I wanted audiences beyond his “cult” to experience the joy every Whedonite has felt many times before them. I wanted Marvel studios to be unequivocally validated in having picked the right guy for the job. I wanted the stupid-heads who cancelled Firefly to face-palm and hang their heads in shame and regret the day they alienated a genius worthy of their respect and broadcast space.

I’m a little ashamed that I deep-down wanted this movie to be a recognisable success by mainstream/institutional/official standards – I genuinely don’t believe official sanctioning makes anything any more valuable or culturally worthy, in fact, part of nerdom’s appeal as I’ve discussed before, is its doesn’t-give-a-fuckedness, that it actively and/or unselfconsciously eschews external/mainstream/official approval.  However, I found myself still wanting that approval, mainly so I could feel all “see, I told you!”-y[1] and partly because, let’s face it, there’s a feeling of security that comes with fitting with the majority/dominant[2].

It’s like the difference between listening to a song on your own personal listening-to-songs-device, and hearing it play on the radio. Somehow it’s always slightly more exciting when you hear it via a publically accessible forum. I mean, it’s not as though you lack access to the song, that its existence somehow hangs in the balance when you listen to it in your own private sphere; it’s not as though you need permission to listen to it or like it – you probably already do like it since you have a copy of your own that you play at your leisure in your own space – external validation be damned!

But I find when “my” song plays on the radio it somehow feels real-er. It’s definitive proof that other people know about it, that it’s actually a THING that EXISTS.

A thing that exists BEYOND ME.

And that’s a bit comforting.

So, even though I like being part of a not-so-small yet still niche-like fan group, I wanted this film to be good because this is how a lot of people would become aware of Joss Whedon and most importantly his stuff which has, quite frankly (and, admittedly, tritely), been a significant part of my life[3]. I wanted the external proof of the existence of the lump of creations I loved to be publicly and positively evidenced. Because of safety and what-not.

I was doing some serious internal bracing in the lead up to the film’s release. My Mum used to tell me that things are never as good or bad as you expect them to be, that expectation outweighs actuality. For example, the things you fear are often not as bad as you thought they would be when they actually happen, while on the flip-side, things you have been looking forward to generally  don’t meet your expectations either. In my experience this seems to be true, which is awesome when it comes to the bad stuff, but kinda sucky when it comes to good things[4]. I didn’t want my high hopes and expectations to ruin The Avengers.

The first time I saw The Avengers I was a bundle of vibrating squee.

It was *colours explode out of face* awesome!

And gosh does it feels good to see it Hulk-smash the box office. *cough* personalvalidation *ahem*.

But one of things that surprised me most was how much I liked Captain America. I have strange confusing feelings towards this character which are more than pretty-butt deep.

I am not alone in finding the muscly white man who leaps into situations wearing stars and stripes to literally shield people from danger ideologically unsettling.

Great white hope.

Patriarchal supremacy.

American hegemonic dominance.

*SPOILERS exist in this next section* Each of these highly problematic tropes was exemplified most clearly in the scene where the nefarious Loki multiples himself to surround a group of German civilians in Stuttgart (which is in Germany hence the Germans) and makes them all kneel before him. One lone old guy refuses to kneel (there are allusions to the ideology and tyranny of the Nazi regime here). Loki lifts his magic staff. He’s about to shoot the old guy. A shot of killer magic leaves Loki’s staff. It is aimed straight for the old guy. BUT Cap drops down in front of the old guy and shields them both with his vibranium be-starred shield!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! OMG!

This made me do two things: wince as though the culturally oppressive tropes cause physical pain, AND instinctively smile because the cool old guy isn’t dead. I actually got tingles. Damn you Cap. How does that even work!? How can I wince and cringe and hate the semiotics of that scene, while at the same time be affected with goose-bump inducing pleasure?

A lot of it probably has to do with the swelling music and bright colours. But I don’t think I’m *that* easily distracted. I can’t be that shallow can I?

Maybe I am. And/or maybe it’s because, like it or not, I have grown up in a culture that celebrates the idea that people shouldn’t be shot with magic. That people should actually be saved from being shot with magic. That if you have a frikkin’ huge impenetrable shield, you should use said shield to protect people. It’s living within the privilege circle again.

I know that the semiotics of Cap leaping around shielding people maintains the tropes I mentioned above (which have very real material and cultural implications). It ties into narratives which legitimise American cultural dominance by making it seem benign and essentially right.

Benignity is evident in Cap’s weaponry of choice: a shield. Cap defends. That’s what a shield symbolises – defence. An attack has been made on YOU and you’re just protecting yourself and yours[5]. The fact that Cap is defending himself under the moniker “Captain America” in a costume that is basically a skin-tight American flag extends the symbolism  – America doesn’t attack people, it defends people (and sometimes it might, you know, throw its defensive shield at someone, and maybe shoot them. But totally in defence and everything).

Assumed access to and proponent of an essential rightness is a little more subtle in this story in relation to Cap. Personally, I find this to be the aspect that is potentially most problematic, because it’s almost invisible. It takes the shape of things (now, I’m about to make some MASSIVE generalised claims, so feel free to pick me up on them) that a huge portion of westerners believe and take for granted – Cap breaks up fights, he’s helpful, kind, selfless, brave, persevering. I like these attributes. I think they’re good. And I think the majority of people from Anglo-Christian, democratic, neo-liberal economic cultures like these attributes too. It’s interesting that even Chris Evans, the actor who portrays Cap, seems to find the overt patriotism of Captain America and everything this could stand for unsettling as well. But he, like me, like a lot of others I would assume, seems to justify the continued existence of the character based on the sort of attributes I’ve mentioned above[6].

In fact, Evans articulates this particularly interestingly in one of the interviews he did to promote the movie. He says Cap does the right thing because it’s the right thing to do.

While this is a nice sentiment, in practice it’s a really vague idea. How open for interpretation is it!? And who made America (remember, this is what Cap symbolises) the arbiter of what is right!? Even if you break it into those smaller attributes I opened with, they are still contentious: what constitutes a fight for one person might constitute a healthy dialogue/discussion/debate/necessary confrontation for another; what is deemed helpful for one person might be deemed patronising and infantalising by another; the same goes for kind, selfless, brave etc – definitions are a tricky business. Giving one person, one nation, one religion the power to decide definitions and impose – and when I say “impose”, I obviously mean “defend” – their definitions on everyone else is a tad scary, and maybe not so “right” after all.

Now, I’m aware of these unsettling features of the Cap character. But I still really like him. I like that he’s nice to people. I like that he continues to fight when he’s obviously shattered. I like that he is an intelligent strategist. I like that he’s a big ol’ nerd at heart. I LIKE Captain America. Really, I’m just lucky that the things he stands for are part of my naturalised belief system. And, at least for me, he gets away with the things I don’t like because he fits other conditions of plausible hero-ness – he might be patriotic, but he’s not bigoted; he might be authoritative, but he’s not arrogant; he might be physically jocky, but he’s a unassuming.

Cultural Materialist Alan Sinfield says that conditions of plausibility are crucial as they “govern our understandings of the world and how to live in it, thereby seeming to define the scope of feasible political change” (807). Cap gets away with the things I don’t like, because he shields it with the things I do. Maybe the best way to explain the idea of the politics of plausibility is the Muppets. You know how the Muppets would climb up on to each other, disguise themselves in a long coat, hat and sunglasses in order to get into places they wouldn’t normally be allowed into…? Yeah? Well that’s how the politics of plausibility work, they dress the bits that are meant to be exempt in things that are acceptable, and the exempted things are able to sneak into the place they haven’t been able to get in to.

This makes me think though, perhaps, an inversion of this scenario is applicable too. Perhaps modern Cap is getting away with more liberal behaviour/attitudes because he does it under the plausible conditions of glorious conservative American values of patriotism and confidence? Perhaps Cap gets to be the most subversive Avenger because his subversiveness gets to ride to coat-tails of this:

To be continued…

[1] Because being a fan of something that does well reflects positively on me as an individual, of course…

[2] Honestly, there’d probably be less of a gap between dominant/marginal (lessened sexism, racism and queer-o-phobia) if the privileges that came with the dominant didn’t feel so darn good.

[3] Taking a quick moment to indulge my Buffy feels. More than any other Joss creation, Buffy has infiltrated the deepest recesses of my Self. Not only has it provided me with a gazillion hours worth of pleasure, it has woven its way into my life outlook, it’s been a conduit to friendships, it’s been a comfort and anchor to sanity when my whole brain is going skjhfs ldigsv gslhigdflhj, it’s shaped my vocabulary, and provided me with a bunch of songs that are part of my default repertoire that unconsciously slip out all willy-nilly without me realising. It’s even one of the things that instigated my study of nerd identity almost 5 years ago. Basically, Buffy is special. Feeeeeels

[4] The last 5 years or so I’ve deliberately tried to bask in the feeling of anticipation as much as/more than the thing I’m anticipating. I practise this most at Christmas time – the weeks leading up to Christmas are MAGIC! I’ve found that anticipation of good things often exceeds the goodness of the good thing, so I actively try to enjoy the anticipation while it’s there… sense?

[5] Now, this is already a problematic assumption, because sometimes what is “yours” is not so clearly defined. When it comes to people, countries, political ideologies, etc ownership becomes particularly messy.

BCM112 Week 7 Lecture Slides

18 Apr

Raewyn Campbell: BCM112 Week 7 Lecture

Week 7 Lecture slides for BCM112 Convergent Media Practices – ‘How and Why Nerds Became Chic’.

16/4/12. Rae Campbell

– In order to access the videos you need to tick a box that says (among other things) ‘enable content’. This box should pop up when you first open the file.

(A couple of the slides have errors on them – the Nerd Machine PSA is not from The Late Late Show, and some words are hidden by images on a couple of slides – why is it that even if you’ve looked  at things a thousand times it’s only after you’ve made them public that you find the errors…!?)

What’s it take to be a nerd these days!? Part 1

26 Mar

Let me tell you a story.

One day my siblings were talking about something they’d seen on the internet. Or a game. Or maybe a comic book. Anime? The details elude me, I was slightly traumatised by the situation that followed so have practised repression…

Anyway, my siblings were talking about this thing they liked and I asked something about it and my youngest sister looked at me with this patronising ‘oh, bless’ expression and said (I quote verbatim) “Stop trying, Rae. You’re not really a nerd”.

Wha!? Not really a…


I picked up the pieces of my shattered self image and walked away to watch reruns of Sabrina the Teenage Witch by myself.

The next day at uni I told The Office Mate about my sibling’s comment and her response was, “Well, you’re not”. What’s more, The Office Mate decided to gather support for her opinion at a party-like-gathering the following weekend, and I found myself amongst a group of people sagely nodding along with her assessment of me.

A couple of weeks after this, one of my post-grad friends stopped by my office and as we were chatting he said “You know how some people are in denial about being a nerd, well, I think you’re in denial about NOT being a nerd”.

I just sat there not knowing what to say. I looked around me and all I could think was “Is he being serious?” I mean, look at my office! Here, see, pictures! This is what I was sitting in when he suggested I was not a nerd.

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I mean, really!?

Now, having this many people in such a short period of time tell me I’m not something that, quite frankly, is a dominant aspect of my sense of self, well, it’s a little confronting. Each time these (unusually) blatant statements were made, I felt an instant urge to defend myself. I wanted to thrust my One Ring to Rule Them All in their faces, dangle my Buffy staked Edward shirt in front of their eyes, and point out that MY eyes have thick rimmed glasses around them BECAUSE I CAN’T SEE WITHOUT THEM. I wanted to assault their ears with wizard rock and make them experience the uncomfortable situation of watching me weep over ‘Doomsday’. I wanted to make them throw a ball at me just so they could see it smash into my face thus exemplifying my complete lack of coordination and athleticism. I wanted to make them sit through a slide show of my high school years – set to MORE wizard rock. I wanted to correct their assumption that nerd identity is somehow an essential and biological trait of a person. I WANTED THEM TO NOTICE THAT A CORRECTION LIKE THAT IS ITSELF AN EXAMPLE OF ME BEING NERDILY PEDANTIC. dammit.

I desperately wanted to remind them that I spend most of my days sitting in front of a computer. Surrounded by books and printouts of critical theory, computer history, and nerd reflections. Writing a PhD thesis. In Media and Communications. ON NERDS!!

It’s funny, I had just started writing this blog post when I picked up Chris Hardwick’s self-help book for nerds, The Nerdist Way: How To Reach the Next Level (In Real Life). I experienced one of those “the-universe-is-totally-on-my-side” moments where external factors seem to align with your internal process and it’s all a little bit freaky but mostly it’s just awesome. Early in the book, Chris discusses the definition of ‘nerd’ (he is perhaps a little more cavalier in his definition then I am – oh the luxury of not having to be academically reviewed at the end of the writing process) and in this section he tells a story about his personal experiences with the nerd label:

Many times I have been told I’m not a Nerd because I don’t “look like one.” I think I kind of understand what this means, but it’s always slightly offensive to me. Like if you tell someone you’re Jewish and they say, “THAT’S funny. You don’t LOOK Jewish!” Really? Offensive much? What does that look like exactly? Oftentimes, I get the Nerd denial from members of the Nerd community, which is shocking to me because if ANY group should understand the merits of exercising open-mindedness and tolerance…

I think what they’re trying to say is that I don’t seem socially awkward. Nor do I have a lightsaber attached to my hip (though for Halloween last year I was Luke Skywalker Texas Ranger and had a lightsaber awkwardly attached to my hip). (p.5)

Chris’ response to people questioning his nerd credentials was similar to mine. He tried to fight back*.  Chris  uses his words to defend and prove his nerdiness. In fact, one could argue this entire book is his response to scepticism regarding his nerdity, just as this blog post is (finally) mine. But most importantly, Chris and I had both unintentionally fallen into a wider cultural dialogue about authenticity.

The subject of authenticity is huge, so I’m going to write about it across a number of posts. However, I quickly need to note here that authenticity is a construct; it’s not biological or essential. It’s a narrative that draws on notions of essentialness, truthfulness, and realness with a flow-on effect of rendering something more valuable or worthy**. Chris goes so far as to liken nerdom to ethnicity. I don’t quite feel comfortable going as far as Chris goes in his analogy, mainly because I don’t think nerdom yet has a community, heritage or culture as strong and precedented as that of an ethnic group. But I can see his point. There are some potentially helpful parallels that can be drawn between nerd identity and ethnicity. In fact, the more I read about it, the more I think critical theory surrounding ethincity can provide super significant insights into the construction and deployment of nerd identity. In many ways, race, like nerdom, is constructed. No one is born with an Australian gene, or even a Jewish gene. People are, however, born into a shared heritage, tradition, lineage, family, history, and narrative; a culture. And just because these things are not biologically essential, it doesn’t make them any less important, powerful or valid. The reason I wanted those who questioned my identification as nerd to understand and acknowledge the deep affective ties I have with the realm, was purely because they are deep and affective. And, even if it’s not biological. Even if there is no nerd gene. Even though definitions are wibbly-wobbly and contextual and constructed. It’s personal.

Stories of authenticity affect powerful implications; authenticity is a gatekeeper of inclusion and exclusion, of participation and the material benefits that come from these. In the next couple of posts I will be considering narratives of authentic nerdery and some of the implications of these narratives.

*Claiming I “fought back” is perhaps an over statement, unless you count general arm-flailing and exclamitory noises like “whaahh” “bah”, and “ner…” as fighting back. The desire for eloquent rebuttle was at least definitely there…?

**I realise this is a contested issue, but, at least today, I find “anti-essentialist” arguments on the issue most compelling – I’m particularly liking E. Patrick Johnson’s work on blackness and authenticity at the moment: “Inevitably, when one attempts to lay claim to an intangible trope that manifests in various discursive terrains, identity claims become embattled, or […] “color” or “blackness” becomes a “dangerous phenomenon.” Because the concept of blackness has no essence, “black authenticity” is over-determined – contingent on the historical, social, and political terms of its production.”(p.3) Who woulda’ thought critical theory on blackness would be so relevant to a study of nerd identity…?

Johnson. E. Patrick. Appropriating Blackness: Performance and the Politics of Authenticity. Durham (NC) : Duke University Press. 2003