Freaks and Geeks

27 Feb

I have a new favourite show.

It’s called Freaks and Geeks. It was broadcast in 1999 -2000, lasted only one season, but it’s become a cult classic. For good reason. It’s fantastic.

I did a bulk Amazon order a couple of weeks ago, purchasing a truck load of nerd related media – it’s actually quite expensive keeping up with nerd culture. This order included a nice shiny box set of Freaks and Geeks.

My entire family have become addicted to this show. Even my Grand Designs-loving dad would get home and request an episode of Freaks and Geeks. It’s like TV crack.

I think Freaks and Geeks was before its time. If it had come out even five years later I’m pretty sure it would have lasted more than one season. I’m not complaining though, the fact that it didn’t continue means it didn’t have time to wreck itself, the whole show gets to remain perfect. And even though I think it missed its “ideal” time and context, shows like this have paved the way the for our current nerd-centric pop culture landscape.

Freaks and Geeks is one of the earliest mainstream texts I can think of where the protagonists are nerds who are depicted with complexity, sympathy and affection. The way it focuses on the experiences of the marginalised American high school fringe is supremely nuanced. I don’t know if there is a show that achieves such as faithful, subtle and ultimately joyful representation of being an outsider, even now. The blending of teen experience with geek experience seems to be hard for television creators. It’s almost as though the two themes have become distinct generic conventions that refuse to be used together.

Lots of high school dramas tend to be unintentionally gratuitous in their desire to authentically portray the hardships and angst of adolescence. I’m thinking of shows like Skins. I mean, I love Skins (especially the first two seasons) but it’s a little like watching Jackass meets Glee. By the third season I think the creators conflated awkward and experimental with disgusting and dangerous. Sure high school can be messy and confusing, but Skins takes it to an extreme that ends up representing what I think is a most limited version of the high school experience. Everyone is SO trendy and SO bad and SO quirky and SO messed up and SO selfish that every character is a caricature.

Then you get high school dramas like Degrassi, 7th Heaven and Glee that are so didactic they make you want to roll in garbage just so you can re-establish healthy grit equilibrium. Stop telling me how to behave Schuester! You’re creepy… dancing with children…!?

On the other hand, in shows that have nerd protagonists, the nerds tend to lack subtlety, think Big Bang, IT Crowd or even Numb3rs (lol! Pun! I totally didn’t even intend that but now it’s there I think it needs to stay. Hilarity!). When I say shows like these lack subtlety, I mean that the geeky protagonists, despite often being loveable, are completely defined by their nerdiness; they have little characterisation beyond “oh, this situation reminds me of Star Wars”, or “I’ll use maths to resolve this problem in our relationship”. And while there’s a diverse array of these types of characters, they’re still relatively two dimensional.

Freaks and Geeks, however, manages to blend teen drama and geekdom without falling into these conventions that are so prevalent in mainstream entertainment. The show is balanced. Simple as that.

I don’t know how to explain it any better than “balanced”. But I feel it deserves more explanation, so, here are my top 5 favourite things about Freaks and Geeks:

5. Sam Weir’s laugh. It’s the cutest most genuine and unselfconscious little character trait. He might be on the social fringe, but he’s not too cool to be enthusiastic and happy about the things he likes… if that makes sense.

(It’s really hard finding a clip of Sam laughing, so this will have to do)

4. Bill’s physicality. How can the way someone moves make you feel so much!? I think what makes him so sympathetic is his unpracticedness. He moves like no one is watching him, and that’s really kinda refreshing. I just want everything good in the world to happen to Bill.

3. The way it treats women. I mean, Freaks and Geeks isn’t perfect in this respect, but it still does a pretty good job of providing female characters who are multifaceted, intelligent (socially, emotionally and educationally), interesting, friendly, independent and considerate. Even subsidiary characters who are only in the show for a few minutes total, like Bill and Neal’s mums, are more than simple cardboard cut outs. I find the end of the series particularly uplifting in regards to representation of gender. It also passes the Bechdel Test.[1]

(Ok, this doesn’t really prove my point, I just like it. I couldn’t find any of the clips I was looking for…)

2. Sets up the cliché then rips it to shreds. This makes it sound like a fractured fairy tale or something: Sleeping Beauty…… IS A GANGSTER!!!! But it’s not really like that, because that has become clichéd itself. Freaks and Geeks is like a minotaur called Degrassi: Next Generation who is running straight for you and then, just as it’s about to collide with you, you elegantly pirouette to the left (or right, it doesn’t really matter), where you find yourself safe and sound with your brain remaining intact.  That’s what it’s like.

(no clip for this, I feel like I’ll ruin entire episodes if I just put up the punch line)

1. There’s lots of unexpected niceness (even if it is often marijuana-induced…) . I’ve been doing a lot of research on student experiences and status power in American high schools, and it’s actually been really depressing. I thought Hollywood movies exaggerated the cliquiness of American student bodies. But, according to a lot of my reading at least, they do tend to depict an unfortunate truth. So my brain has become trained to expect the worst when it comes to depictions of outsiders’ experiences at school. But in Freaks and Geeks there are remarkably few characters who are unrestrainedly nasty to those lower down on the high school status hierarchy, while those characters who are really cruel tend to undergo satisfying character development –WIN! Cheerleaders and scary freaks will start amiable conversations with geeks, burnouts will participate in sing-alongs with the unusual Christian mathlete, conservative parents will take in stray freaks, gym teachers will be considerate of the non-athletic nerds. Freaks and Geeks doesn’t take the easy way out by deriding those who are traditional fodder for ridicule.

Hopefully this is indicative of a broader student experience across the US. Or that those who watch it see options for alternate performativity (that’s right, I want viewers to LEARN A LESSON! 7th Heaven-style! Ambivalence alert).

Basically, Freaks and Geeks has an over-all attitude of “I don’t give a fuckedness”. One of my field research participants used this phrase when she was talking about defining features of nerds, and I really liked it – I think it’s one of the clearest articulations of the combination of genuineness and unselfconsciousness inherent in nerd identity. The ways Freaks and Geeks does this is not by being extremely anarchic, or bolshie, or cruel, rather it’s through things like Sam’s laugh, the friendliness of characters, the lack of didacticism. This show doesn’t care about being cool, or having a lesson to teach, or being angsty, or beautiful. And in this way I think it’s one of the most accurate and hopeful portrayals of the nerd experience out there.

Go watch it.


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Respite

6 Feb

Something kinda strange happened to me last night. It was the culmination of a couple of weeks’ worth of stress, lack of sleep, and full immersion in the fictional place from which I was grabbing snatches of mental respite.

I don’t know if it will translate into words. I don’t know how I can possibly articulate the complexity of the all-encompassing sense of truth, immensity and ordinariness of the internal process that took place. I had been rereading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows before I went to sleep. I was about two thirds of the way through, and for those of you who have read it you’ll know that after the half way point there is no opportune point to put the book down – the narrative becomes relentless as events take place one after another without any emotional reprieve.

I had that lovely struggle where your body wants sleep but your mind needs to continue the story. But I knew I had uni the next day, so around 12:30 I finally relinquished the book and settled reluctantly into sleep. The next thing I remember was being surrounded by music and singing; phoenix song that was very obviously signalling that Ravenclaw’s Diadem, the final Horcrux, had been destroyed. And instinctively, though I knew The Dark Lord was furious beyond belief, the time had come to face him and defeat him. It was time to fight. I sat up in my bed shivering with adrenaline and fear, knowing what I was about to walk into but couldn’t avoid. The phoenix’s song was still vibrating in the air all around me. I reached for my watch – I needed my watch – my watch was important – but I had trouble getting it on with my slightly shaky hands. But I was resigned to my fate, a calm-ish numbness had joined the internal procession taking place inside of me making it possible for me to move.

I continued to struggle with my watch as I walked up the stairs to join the battle. While I slowly ascended the stairs I thought about how I might best approach it. I needed to check the living room to see if my sisters were still up. They needed to be kept safe. As I reached the top of the stairs I came alongside the study. I saw light coming out from underneath the door and music from within. My brother was still up then. I poked my head around the door and whispered “Are you ok?”. He turned and looked at me with this expression of confusion and annoyance.

And then, it was as though someone was softly peeling dot-points off me one by one; it didn’t happen all at once, it was slow.

  • My brother is listening to music.
  • The music is not from a phoenix.
  • The music is my brother’s.
  • The Horcrux hasn’t been destroyed.
  • There is no Horcrux.
  • There is no battle.
  • We’re all safe.
  • What’s my brother watching?
  • Oh, a song from a cartoon!
  • Cool.
  • I should go back to bed.

I had obviously been verbalising these thoughts to some extent because my brother went from looking annoyed to smiling pityingly at me. I have a track record of sleep walking and sleep talking. I can’t remember ever being this conscious during an episode though…

I remember trying to cover my tracks by saying something about the cartoon he was watching, “Oh, I’m pleased you like this show. It makes me proud that you watch this. I like this song. Well. Good night” [“Proud”!? What the frak insane sleepy Rae!?? My sleep-walker self is patronising apparently].

And I checked to see if my sisters were still in the living room. They were. And I went back down to my room, deliberately avoiding looking into the dark passage that led to the dungeon/laundry in case I caught a glimpse of the Grey Lady.

It probably goes without saying that Harry Potter has been a dominant feature of my last two weeks. And there’s a reason for that.

When I first started my PhD the university put on a workshop about how to be a successful PhD student. It was great. Really helpful. Really inspiring. I remember sitting there thinking: I’m going to be SO organised and SO effective, and SO mentally healthy over the next three years. I was super excited about my topic. How could it ever not be awesome!? While I took note of what we were being taught by the people running the workshop – that at some point in our candidature we wouldn’t like it anymore, that at some point our thesis would probably be hard and painful – I couldn’t feel the truth of what they were saying. I wasn’t in that place so it didn’t really resonate. They showed us a picture of a roller-coaster with stages we could expect to experience over the next three years or so. High points. Low points. Crashes. But I was at the high point, so the other stages didn’t really worry me.

But I’ve been at a low point lately. I’ve been that little guy dangling off the edge of the track, holding on for dear life with one hand. I’ve been researching things that are difficult to understand and that I don’t enjoy. I’ve reached the bits that have to be done whether I like them or not. I have to articulate and organise and make coherent that which is not any of these things – fraking culture! It is almost physically impossible to write. I don’t like my thesis anymore… at least not at the moment. And it’s stressful. It’s stressful trying to hold on AND be effective AND coherent all at once. But that’s the gig.  I keep telling myself this is a stage that can be expected. But it still feels like the dementors have descended and I’m about to lose my soul.

My partronus of choice – Harry Potter!!!!! It had been a while since I’d read any of the Harry Potters. Since I was 12 years old it’s been my go-to world when feeling overwhelmed – it was my escape from the HSC for example (this might be TMI, but I kept copies in the loo and chugged glass after glass of water just so I had a “legitimate” excuse to leave my study and go read). On top of this, many of the people I’d been studying kept mentioning the Harry Potter-verse. My friends had also just organised a trip to the Harry Potter Exhibition at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney for the end of the month[1]. The universe was telling me it was Harry Potter time.

Immersing myself in something I love connected to my thesis has not necessarily made writing it any easier, but it has helped me remember why I wanted to do it in the first place. It’s been brilliant rediscovering old friends.  But I forgot one important aspect of the books (especially the last couple); while they might provide perfect respite from the dementors of reality, they certainly do not provide emotional respiteJ[2]. As they would say on Tumblr: ALL my feels!!!

Out of the frying pan and into the fire.


[2] Cite: uncontrollable weeping. This is not appropriate in a crowded bus.

Holiday Nerdery

9 Jan

Back to work after 17 days off. I’m pretty out of practice with my writing, so doing a blog sounds like a good jumping off point. Also, I haven’t posted anything for months, so it’s about time I get back to it.

As a way to ease myself back into my research I thought I’d go through some of my favourite holiday nerd moments. Because the truth is, while I might be freaking out about how I’ll ever manage to get back into work mode, the reality is, it never really went away.

6. Portal 2. My sisters and brother have been badgering me for months to finish playing Portal 2. I would be watching TV and all of a sudden I’d hear this whisper: “Play Portal….” And then another voice would join in and the chant would begin: “Play Portal. Play Portal. Play Portal”. And then my brother would walk past, my sisters would beckon, he would crouch behind the lounge (think Evil Demon Bob) and join the crescendo-ing chant: “Play Portal. Play Portal. PLAY PORTAL”. I shut them up by saying I’d play it in my Christmas break. Which I did. It’s hard to beat an afternoon involving GLaDOS, chicken Twisties, and the lounge. But turrets*!? What the crap Aperture Science!? I hate you.

5. Contact Lenses. This might sound a little anti-nerd, but I feel it intersects with the realm, so I’m mentioning it in this list. Almost two years ago to the day I went to the optometrist and he said I’d need glasses. All-the-time glasses. It took a while, but I really like my spectacles now. Yet every now and then you get ready to go out, you get your makeup right, or you’re going to a festival or something, and you think it would be really nice not to have to wear glasses. So I went back to the optometrist and asked about contact lenses.

When the lenses came in the optometrist showed me how to use them. I was in there for over an hour and in that time only managed to get one lense in myself. He ended up having to put the other one in, and after lots of fishing around and stressing out and a phone call from my brother saying he was locked out of the house, the optometrist took the lenses out for me. As I was leaving he gave me a pair of practise lenses to try the next day. His parting words were: ‘I’ll stay here until 6 o’clock. If you can’t get them out by 5:30 ring me and I’ll take them out for you.” He’s so nice.

I managed (after about 45 minutes worth of trying and my dad cheering me on) to get them in the next day. I got home from uni at about 4pm. I fished around for about an hour trying to get the damned things out my self. I stopped trying not to cry. I induged myself perhaps a little too much in the crying, partly in the hope that I could maybe cry the lenses out. In the end I rang the optometrist and took him up on his offer.

I walked in all puffy and mascara smeered. He asked if I’d like to give it one last go myself. My hands were amazingly steady as I washed them in preparation. The optometrist turned around to get something behind him. And like a ninja I had my fingers in my eye, the contact pinched, and before I knew what was happening I had got the right one out. I wasn’t very cool in my triumph. There was a lot of cheering and chest puffery. Buoyed with my success the other one came out just as easily. I couldn’t even feel bad that I had wasted the poor guy’s time. I was proud as punch. I went home with another practise pair and bragged to my family about how amazing I was.

The sad thing is, this scenario of tears, time and eventual triumph has been repeated a few times over. But it’s slowly getting better. It only took me ten minutes the last time I wore them to get them out myself. TEN MINUTES NERDS! No tears! Like a winner.

Basically, conquering contacts this holidays was pretty special.

4. Neil Gaiman. I’d bought my sisters and myself tickets to see Neil Gaiman in Sydney. Along with a couple of my Gaiman loving friends we drove up to Newtown (NEWTOWN!! Yep, I drove in the city! Rae: Conquering contact lenses and city roads since 2011!) to see this entertaining and clever man. He was accompanied by a string quartet called FourPlay who were pretty brilliant. We got seats in the second row, so we were close enough for him to spit on us… not that he’d do that, but, you know, if he’d wanted to he could have got us easy.

I think my sister described the night the best: Neil Gaiman last night was amazing – a lot like bedtime stories, a little like a dream. SO good.

3. Avatar: The Last Air Bender. See entry on Portal 2, but insert ‘Avatar’ in place of ‘Portal’.

My siblings love this funny little show. They’ve been wanting me to watch it for a long time. I always come in when they’re half way through a season and they don’t want me to be spoilered, but they also don’t really want to start again from the beginning just so I can see it. Like Portal I said I’d watch it in my break. I’m about 16 episodes in. It’s strangely addictive. What really gets me is the animation, the almost unnoticeable background details, little superlative movements, or facial expressions, or sound effects. They crack me up; like a group of villagers demurely cheering the return of the Avatar while one lone man goes completely hysterical to the point of mouth frothing  **; or Momo (Aang, the Avatar’s pet lemur) constantly stealing people’s food in the background, or Aang crashing into things or fidgeting behind other characters exchanging serious dialogue, or the ‘boing boing’ noise when someone is poked in the head. Watching Aang try and shove Momo into a tiny air vent was also surprisingly hilarious.

2. Doctor Who. This year was the second time since The Lord of the Rings films first came out that I was looking forward to Boxing Day more than Christmas. Because this, like last year, was the day the Doctor Who Christmas special was airing. I had been preparing my extended family for this event for weeks. We were going to my Aunty’s house for second Christmas on Boxing Day. I’d taken to just subtly throwing into conversations about Christmas prep the inevitability of the viewing: “So, I’ll make a trifle. Also, Doctor Who’s on that night, 7:30. We’ll need the telly. And salad? Yep, I’ll remember ”.

To their credit they remembered and generously allowed their geeky kin to withdraw and shed happy tears over their special show. The episode was beautiful; silly, funny, and magical. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is one of my all time favourite books, it gives me tingles. It’s one of those stories that gets closest to feeling tangibly magical. To have this combined with Doctor Who, which also manages this magic thing was super affecting. Hearing the Doctor ask “What do they teach you in school these days!?” was a definite highlight***.

My sister also got series 6 of Doctor Who on DVD, so I spent quite a bit of the holidays re-watching episodes from that. It was also nice going over to my friend’s house on new year’s day to relax and geek out with some Who. What can I say, the show brings people together:-)

1. Everyday Nerdery. I loved the taken for granted nerdy things that just went on in the background every day. Things like over-hearing conversations like this:

Mum to brother who had just got home after spending New Years Eve playing some roll-play game about Cthulhu… probably… I just remember hearing him tell Mum he was going down to Nowra to participate in an “eldritch abomination” to bring in the New Year.

Mum: How was the game?

Brother: It was great! I played this rich guy. Actually, I was kinda a bad ass. (Lots of details about his bad assery and what happened in the game. I think there was a buggy or a carriage or something and maybe explosions…?)

Mum: (doing an admirable job of sounding interested) Cool! Where did you stay the night?

Brother: At my mansion. I had this massive estate that had heaps of rooms for guests (continued to describe his fancy house)

Mum: Oh, um, I mean, in real life…

Brother: Oh. At Grandma’s.

LOL!

This is what nerdity is all about. Right there. The imaginative becoming the real. It makes me happy.

I also loved consuming an entire season of Community in a day. And losing time on Tumblr. And having my sister ask which shoe I wanted and then telling me it was fighting another shoe that my other sister had chosen to represent and as such we must fight each other to death on behalf of the shoes. And re-realising I love The Cook and the Chef (problematic gendered implications re. the title but they’re both just so darn nice). And having one of my sisters attempt to explain the storyline of the Sandman comic book series by Neil Gaiman before we went to see him. And being jealous of my cousin’s sonic screwdriver screwdriver. And my other sister watching cricket and working out how it worked in terms of how it is like Quidditch and then describing how it should be more like Quidditch. These everyday nerdy things made the Christmas/ New Years break all the more enjoyable. So thanks to everyone who contributed.

As you wish xx

*

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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:-)