Born Digital Cultural Heritage – Angela Ndalianis & Melanie Swalwell

The collection and preservation of the ‘born digital’ has, in recent years, become a growing and significant area of debate. The honeymoon years are over and finally institutions are beginning to give serious consideration to best practice for digital preservation strategies and the establishment of digital collections. Digital technology emerges and disappears with incredible speed, as a once-new piece of hardware or software becomes old and is replaced by the next technological advancement. What happens to: videogame software and hardware of the 1980s and 90s? The web browsers, blogs and social media sites and content they once displayed? The artworks that relied on pre-2000 computers to create art? Are these – amongst many other – digital creations fated to be abandoned, becoming only memories of individual experience? Are they to be collected by institutions as defunct objects? Or are they to be preserved and revived using new digital technology? These are but a few of the serious questions facing collecting institutions. The question of who is responsible for collecting, preserving and historicising born digital cultural heritage is a crucial one, as is the issue of best practice – what are the best ways to preserve and make accessible such born digital heritage?

In June 2014, our “Play It Again”[1] project team ran an international conference on “The Born Digital and Cultural Heritage” that aimed to convene a forum where some of these issues could be discussed. “Play It Again” was a three year project focused on the history and preservation of microcomputer games written in 1980s Australia and New Zealand, but as the first digital preservation project to be funded as research in this part of the world (at least to our knowledge), it also had a broader significance. We tried to use it to raise awareness around some of the threats facing born digital cultural production more broadly, beyond 1980s digital games. Two of the project’s aims were to “Enhance appreciation for the creations of the early digital period” and “To build capacity in both the academic and cultural sectors in the area of digital cultural heritage and the ‘born digital’”, both critical issues internationally. A two-day event held at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne, the conference’s remit was thus deliberately wider than the focus of the Australian Research Council Linkage Project.

The need for cooperation between different stakeholders – legislative bodies, professionals working in different types of institutions, and the private sector – was a key recommendation of the 2012 “Vancouver Declaration,” a Memory of the World initiative (UNESCO). Born digital artefacts often require multiple sets of expertise, therefore our call for papers invited proposals from researchers and practitioners in a range of disciplines, spheres of practice and institutional contexts concerned with born digital heritage. This included libraries, archives, museums, galleries, moving image institutions, software repositories, universities, and more besides. We wanted to create a space where communication between the different types of professionals dealing with preservation of born digital cultural heritage could take place. Archivists, librarians, conservators, and moving image archivists share many challenges, yet, we suspect, often they attend conferences which are profession based, which enforces a kind of silo-ing of knowledge. Particularly in small countries such as Australia and New Zealand, there’s a need for conversations to take place across professional boundaries, and so we sought to bring people who perhaps don’t normally move in the same circles into contact.

The presentations during the conference ranged in approach from theoretical, to practical, to policy-oriented. We gloried in the range of papers that were presented. There were game histories, reflections on the demoscene, on and other forms of media art, on born digital manuscripts, robots, twitter accounts and website archiving. As well as papers addressing different forms of heritage materials, there were also technical reports on the problems with hacking and patching disk images to get them to emulate, on software migration, and legal papers on copyright protection, and the ‘right to be forgotten’. (Audio of many of the presentations is available here. The variety of presentations made painfully visible the enormous task at hand in addressing born digital cultural heritage.

While Refractory focuses on entertainment media, in this issue we recognise that born digital entertainment media share many of the challenges of non-entertainment objects. Here, we have collected article versions of selected papers from the conference. The topics and subjects are varied – from those looking more broadly at approaches to born digital heritage and the preservation of digital art, to the documentation of and public discourse about early game histories, and to future creative writing practice facilitated through the collection of digital manuscripts.

In his paper “It Is What It Is, Not What It Was: Making Born Digital Heritage” (which was a keynote address), Henry Lowood examines the preservation and collection of digital media in the context of cultural heritage. Lowood is concerned with “the relationship between collections of historical software and archival documentation about that software” and poses the question “Who is interested in historical software and what will they do with it?” He argues that “answers to this fundamental question must continue to drive projects in digital preservation and software history”. Using the examples of ‘The Historian’, ‘The Media Archaeologist’ and ‘The Re-enactor’ his paper raises important questions about the function, purpose and varied approaches to the digital archive. The historian, he states, is interested in the digital archival material in order to interpret, reconstruct and retell its story in history. For the media archaeologist, “media machines are transparent in their operation” and, rather than requiring interpretation, speak of their pastness by making possible the playback of “historical media on historical machines”. Finally, for ‘The Re-enactor’, ‘authenticity’ is a crucial factor for digital preservation; however, the question of authenticity is fraught with debate – on the one hand, the re-enactor at one extreme insists on a “fidelity of play” with the software that engages with technology (hardware and software) in its original state, and at the other extreme is the re-enactor who is willing to forgo the historical machine in favour of emulation and virtualisation that recreates an embodied experience of ‘playing’ with the original software, whether a game or word processing program. In either case, as Lowood explains, “Re-enactment offers a take on born-digital heritage that proposes a commitment to lived experience.”

In their article “Defining The Experience: George Poonhkin Khut’s Distillery: Waveforming, 2012”, Amanda Pagliarino and artist George Poonkhin Khut present an account of Khut’s sensory artwork, Distillery: Waveforming 2012, which uses the prototype iPad application ‘BrightHearts,’ which was acquired by the Queensland Art Gallery. The Curator of Contemporary Australian Art requested that the acquisition “was captured in perpetuity in its prototype state”. The authors explain that this biofeedback artwork is ‘iterative’ and Khut continued to develop the work in other iterations that include updates for the BrightHearts app for touch screen devices. This article describes the development of the artwork and the issues that were addressed in its acquisition, archiving, and the consultations that took place between the artist and the collecting institution. As the writers argue “to secure the commitment of the artist to engage in collaborative, long-term conservation strategies is extraordinary and this has resulted in the Gallery acquiring an unparalleled archival resource” that includes documentation and description of the interactive principles and behaviour of the artwork in its early state and as it evolved in Khut’s art practise. This archival resource will make it possible for the work to be reinterpreted “at some point in the future when the original technology no longer functions as intended”. In this respect, Distillery: Waveforming is understood as a “legacy artwork intrinsically linked to past and future iterations” of Khut’s larger Biofeedback Project.

The next article “There and Back Again: A Case History of Writing The Hobbit” by Veronika Megler focuses on the iconic text adventure game The Hobbit (Melbourne House, 1981), which Megler co-wrote during the final year of her Bachelor of Science degree at Melbourne University. This paper is a case history of the development of the The Hobbit (based on J.R.R.Tolkien’s novel of the same name) into a game that could run on the first generation of home computers that were just beginning to hit the market. Little has been written about the development of the first generation of text-based computer games; this case history provides insight into this developmental period in computer game history. Megler describes the development process, the internal design, and the genesis of the ideas that made The Hobbit unique. She compares the development environment and the resulting game to the state-of-the-art in text adventure games of the time, and wraps up by discussing the game’s legacy and the recent revival of interest in the game.

Jaakko Suominen and Anna Sivula’s article “Participatory Historians in Digital Cultural Heritage Process — Monumentalization of the First Finnish Commercial Computer Game” continues with games, analysing how digital games become cultural heritage. By using examples of changing conceptualisations of the first commercial Finnish computer game, the article examines the amateur and professional historicisation of computer games. The authors argue that the production of cultural heritage is a process of constructing symbolic monuments that are often related to events of change or the beginning of a progressive series of events, and the article presents an account of the formation of games as symbolic cultural monuments within a Finnish context. Whilst many researchers and journalists have claimed that Raharuhtinas (Money Prince 1984) for Commodore 64 was the first Finnish commercial digital game, its status as such is controversial. As the authors explain, “in this paper, we are more interested in public discourse of being the first” and how this relates to the cultural heritage process. The case of the ‘first’ game, it is argued, illuminates how items are selected as building material for digital game cultural heritage.

In “Retaining Traces of Composition in Digital Manuscript Collections: a Case for Institutional Proactivity”, Millicent Weber turns to digital manuscripts, their collection, preservation and digital storage by collecting institutions. Weber argues that libraries, archives and scholars have not addressed the content of future digital or part-digital collections, or their capacity to support sustained scholarly research. This paper examines the potential content of future collections of poetry manuscripts and their capacity to support research into the process of composition. To predict this capacity, the article compares a study of compositional process, using handwritten and typewritten manuscripts, with a small-scale survey of early-career poets’ compositional habits. The draft manuscripts of three poems by the poet Alan Gould and three by the poet Chris Mansell are used to describe each poet’s compositional habits, while the survey component of the project obtained information about the drafting practices of 12 students of creative writing and poetry at the University of Canberra. Weber concludes that the results indicate both the great diversity of manuscript collections currently being created, and the importance of archival institutions adopting an active advocacy role in encouraging writers to create and maintain comprehensive and well-organised collections of digital manuscripts.

The collection and preservation of born digital cultural heritage is of critical importance. In the digital era, “Heritage refers to legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what should be passed from generation to generation because of its significance and value” (UNESCO/PERSIST Content Task Force 16). If we want to ensure that records and works from this era persist, we will need to substantially ramp up our efforts. Cooperation between different stakeholders is critical and the research sector has an important role to play, in undertaking collaborative research with cultural institutions to tackle some of the thornier challenges surrounding the persistence of born digital cultural heritage.

Works cited

UNESCO. “UNESCO/UBC Vancouver Declaration, The Memory of the World in the Digital Age: Digitization and Preservation.” N.p., 2012. Web. 17 Dec. 2012.

UNESCO/PERSIST Content Task Force. “The UNESCO/PERSIST Guidelines for the Selection of Digital Heritage for Long-Term Preservation.” 2016. Web.


[1] The “Play It Again” project received support under the Australian Research Council’s Linkage Projects funding Scheme (project number LP120100218). See our research blog and the “Popular Memory Archive” for more information on the project.



Associate Professor Melanie Swalwell is a scholar of digital media arts, cultures, and histories. She is the recipient of an ARC Future Fellowship for her project “Creative Micro-computing in Australia, 1976-1992”. Between 2011-15, she was Project Leader and Chief Investigator on the ARC Linkage Project “Play It Again“. In 2009, Melanie was the Nancy Keesing Fellow (State Library of New South Wales). She has authored chapters and articles in both traditional and interactive formats, in such esteemed journals as ConvergenceVectors, and the Journal of Visual Culture. Melanie’s projects include:

  • “Creative Micro-computing in Australia, 1976-1992”. Watch the filmhere.
  • Australasian Digital Heritage, which gathers together several local digital heritage research projects. Follow us onFacebook & Twitter @ourdigiheritage
  • Play It Again: Creating a Playable History of Australasian Digital Games, for Industry, Community and Research Purposes”, ARC Linkage, 2012-14. Follow us onFacebook & Twitter @AgainPlay, and visit the Popular Memory Archive.


Angela Ndalianis is Professor in Screen Studies at Melbourne University, and the Director of the Transformative Technologies Research Unit (Faculty of Arts). Her research interests include: genre studies, with expertise in the horror and science fiction genres; entertainment media and media histories; the contemporary entertainment industry. Her publications include Neo-Baroque Aesthetics and Contemporary Entertainment (MIT Press 2004), Science Fiction Experiences (New Academia 2010), The Horror Sensorium; Media and the Senses (McFarland 2012) and The Contemporary Comic Book Superhero (editor, Routledge 2008). She is currently completing two books: Batman: Myth and Superhero; and Robots and Entertainment Culture. She is also a Fellow of the Futures of Entertainment Network (U.S), and is the Hans Christian Andersen Academy’s Visiting Professor (2015-7), a position also affiliated with the University of Southern Denmark.   

It Is What It is, Not What It Was – Henry Lowood

Abstract: The preservation of digital media in the context of heritage work is both seductive and daunting. The potential replication of human experiences afforded by computation and realised in virtual environments is the seductive part. The work involved in realising this potential is the daunting side of digital collection, curation, and preservation. In this lecture, I will consider two questions. First, Is the lure of perfect capture of data or the reconstruction of “authentic” experiences of historical software an attainable goal? And if not, how might reconsidering the project as moments of enacting rather than re-enacting provide a different impetus for making born digital heritage?

Keynote address originally delivered at the Born Digital and Cultural Heritage Conference, Melbourne, 19 June 2014

Let’s begin with a question. When did libraries, archives, and museums begin to think about software history collections? The answer: In the late 1970s. The Charles Babbage Institute (CBI) and the History of Computing Committee of the American Federation of Information Processing Societies (AFIPS), soon to be a sponsor of CBI, were both founded in 1978. The AFIPS committee produced a brochure called “Preserving Computer-Related Source Materials.” Distributed at the National Computer Conference in 1979, it is the earliest statement I have found about preserving software history. It says,

If we are to fully understand the process of computer and computing developments as well as the end results, it is imperative that the following material be preserved: correspondence; working papers; unpublished reports; obsolete manuals; key program listings used to debug and improve important software; hardware and componentry engineering drawings; financial records; and associated documents and artifacts. (“Preserving …” 4)

Mostly paper records. The recommendations say nothing about data files or executable software, only nodding to the museum value of hardware artefacts for “esthetic and sentimental value.” The brochure says that artefacts provide “a true picture of the mind of the past, in the same way as the furnishings of a preserved or restored house provides a picture of past society.” One year later, CBI received its first significant donation of books and archival documents from George Glaser, a former president of AFIPS. Into the 1980s history of computing collections meant documentation: archival records, publications, ephemera and oral histories.

Software preservation trailed documentation and historical projects by a good two decades. The exception was David Bearman, who left the Smithsonian in 1986 to create a company called Archives & Museum Informatics (AHI). He began publishing the Archival Informatics Newsletter in 1987 (later called Archives & Museum Informatics). As one of its earliest projects, AHI drafted policies and procedures for a “Software Archives” at the Computer History Museum (CHM) then located in Boston. By the end of 1987, Bearman published the first important study of software archives under the title Collecting Software: A New Challenge for Archives & Museums. (Bearman, Collecting Software; see also Bearman, “What Are/Is Informatics?”)

In his report, Bearman alternated between frustration and inspiration. Based on a telephone survey of companies and institutions, he wrote that “the concept of collecting software for historical research purposes had not occurred to the archivists surveyed; perhaps, in part, because no one ever asks for such documentation!” (Bearman, Collecting Software 25-26.) He learned that nobody he surveyed was planning software archives. Undaunted, he produced a report that carefully considered software collecting as a multi-institutional endeavor, drafting collection policies and selection criteria, use cases, a rough “software thesaurus” to provide terms for organizing a software collection, and a variety of practices and staffing models. Should some institution accept the challenge, here were tools for the job.

Well, here we are, nearly thirty years later. We can say that software archives and digital repositories finally exist. We have made great progress in the last decade with respect to repository technology and collection development. Looking back to the efforts of the 1980s, one persistent issue raised as early as the AFIPS brochure in 1978 is the relationship between collections of historical software and archival documentation about that software. This is an important issue. Indeed, it is today, nearly forty years later, still one of the key decision points for any effort to build research collections aiming to preserve digital heritage or serve historians of software. Another topic that goes back to Bearman’s report is a statement of use cases for software history. Who is interested in historical software and what will they do with it? Answers to this fundamental question must continue to drive projects in digital preservation and software history.

As we consider the potential roles to be played by software collections in libraries and museums, we immediately encounter vexing questions about how researchers of the future will use ancient software. Consider that using historical software now in order to experience it in 2014 and running that software in 2014 to learn what it was like when people operated it thirty years ago are two completely different use cases. This will still be true in 2050. This may seem like an obvious point, but it is important to understand its implications. An analogy might help. I am not just talking about the difference between watching “Gone with the Wind” at home on DVD versus watching it in a vintage movie house in a 35mm print – with or without a live orchestra. Rather I mean the difference between my experience in a vintage movie house today – when I can find one – and the historical experience of, say, my grandfather during the 1930s. My experience is what it is, not what his was. So much of this essay will deal with the complicated problem of enacting a contemporary experience to re-enact a historical experience and what it has to do with software preservation. I will consider three takes on this problem: the historian’s, the media archaeologist’s, and the re-enactor.

Take 1. The Historian

Take one. The historian. Historians enact the past by writing about it. In other words, historians tell stories. This is hardly a revelation. Without meaning to trivialize the point, I cannot resist pointing out that “story” is right there in “hi-story” or that the words for story and history are identical in several languages, including French and German. The connections between story-telling and historical narrative have long been a major theme in writing about the methods of history, that is, historiography. In recent decades, this topic has been mightily influenced by the work of Hayden White, author of the much-discussed Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe, published in 1973.

White’s main point about historians is that History is less about subject matter and source material and more about how historians write.

He tells us that historians do not simply arrange events culled from sources in correct chronological order. Such arrangements White calls Annals or Chronicles. The authors of these texts merely compile lists of events. The work of the historian begins with the ordering of these events in a different way. Hayden writes in The Content of the Form that in historical writing, “the events must be not only registered within the chronological framework of their original occurrence but narrated as well, that is to say, revealed as possessing a structure, an order of meaning, that they do not possess as mere sequence.” (White, Content of the Form 5) How do historians do this? They create narrative discourses out of sequential chronicles by making choices. These choices involve the form, effect and message of their stories. White puts choices about form, for example, into categories such as argument, ideology and emplotment. There is no need in this essay to review all of the details of every such choice. The important takeaway is that the result of these choices by historians is sense-making through the structure of story elements, use of literary tropes and emphasis placed on particular ideas. In a word, plots. White thus gives us the enactment of history as a form of narrative or emplotment that applies established literary forms such as comedy, satire, and epic.

In his book Figural Realism: Studies in the Mimesis Effect, White writes about the “events, persons, structures and processes of the past” that “it is not their pastness that makes them historical. They become historical only in the extent to which they are represented as subjects of a specifically historical kind of writing.” (White, Figural Realism 2.) It is easy to take away from these ideas that history is a kind of literature. Indeed, this is the most controversial interpretation of White’s historiography.

My purpose in bringing Hayden White to your attention is to insist that there is a place in game and software studies for this “historical kind of writing.” I mean writing that offers a narrative interpretation of something that happened in the past. Game history and software history need more historical writing that has a point beyond adding events to the chronicles of game development or putting down milestones of the history of the game industry. We are only just beginning to see good work that pushes game history forward into historical writing and produces ideas about how these historical narratives will contribute to allied works in fields such as the history of computing or the history of technology more generally.

Allow me one last point about Hayden White as a take on enactment. Clearly, history produces narratives that are human-made and human-readable. They involve assembling story elements and choosing forms. How then do such stories relate to actual historical events, people, and artifacts? Despite White’s fondness for literary tropes and plots, he insists that historical narrative is not about imaginary events. If historical methods are applied properly, the resulting narrative according to White is a “simulacrum.” He writes in his essay on “The Question of Narrative in Contemporary Historical Theory,” that history is a “mimesis of the story lived in some region of historical reality, and insofar as it is an accurate imitation, it is to be considered a truthful account thereof.” (White, “The Question of Narrative …” 3.) Let’s keep this idea of historical mimesis in mind as we move on to takes two and three.

Take 2. The Media Archaeologist

My second take is inspired by the German media archaeologist Wolfgang Ernst. As with Hayden White, my remarks will fall far short of a critical perspective on Ernst’s work. I am looking for what he says to me about historical software collections and the enactment of media history.

Hayden White put our attention on narrative; enacting the past is storytelling. Ernst explicitly opposes Media Archaeology to historical narrative. He agrees in Digital Memory and the Archive, that “Narrative is the medium of history.” By contrast, “the technological reproduction of the past … works without any human presence because evidence and authenticity are suddenly provided by the technological apparatus, no longer requiring a human witness and thus eliminating the irony (the insight into the relativity) of the subjective perspective.” (Ernst, Loc. 1053-1055.) Irony, it should be noted, is one of White’s favourite tropes for historical narrative.

White tells us that historical enactment is given to us as narrative mimesis, with its success given as the correspondence of history to some lived reality. Ernst counters by giving us enactment in the form of playback.

In an essay called “Telling versus Counting: A Media-Archaeological Point of View,” Ernst plays with the notion that, “To tell as a transitive verb means ‘to count things’.” The contrast with White here relates to the difference in the German words erzählen (narrate) and zählen (count), but you also find it in English: recount and count. Ernst describes historians as recounters: “Modern historians … are obliged not just to order data as in antiquaries but also to propose models of relations between them, to interpret plausible connections between events.” (Ernst, Loc. 2652-2653) In another essay, aptly subtitled “Method and Machine versus the History and Narrative of Media,” Ernst adds that mainstream histories of technology and mass media as well as their counter-histories are textual performances that follow “a chronological and narrative ordering of events.” He observes succinctly that, “It takes machines to temporarily liberate us from such limitations.” (Ernst, Loc. 1080-1084)

Where do we go with Ernst’s declaration in “Telling versus Counting,” that “There can be order without stories”? We go, of course, directly to the machines. For Ernst, media machines are transparent in their operation, an advantage denied to historians. We play back historical media on historical machines, and “all of a sudden, the historian’s desire to preserve the original sources of the past comes true at the sacrifice of the discursive.” We are in that moment directly in contact with the past.

In “Method and Machine”, Ernst offers the concept of “media irony” as a response to White’s trope of historical irony. He says,

Media irony (the awareness of the media as coproducers of cultural content, with the medium evidently part of the message) is a technological modification of Hayden White’s notion that “every discourse is always as much about discourse itself as it is about the objects that make up its subject matter. (Ernst, Loc. 1029-1032)

As opposed to recounting, counting in Ernst’s view has to do with the encoding and decoding of signals by media machines. Naturally, humans created these machines. This might be considered as another irony, because humans- have thereby “created a discontinuity with their own cultural regime.” We are in a realm that replaces narrative with playback as a form of direct access to a past defined by machine sequences rather than historical time. (Ernst, Loc. 1342-1343)

Ernst draws implications from media archaeology for his closely connected notion of the multimedia archive. In “Method and Machine,” he says, “With digital archives, there is, in principle, no more delay between memory and the present but rather the technical option of immediate feedback, turning all present data into archival entries and vice versa.” In “Telling versus Counting,” he portrays “a truly multimedia archive that stores images using an image-based method and sound in its own medium … And finally, for the first time in media history, one can archive a technological dispositive in its own medium.” (Ernst, Loc. Loc. 1745-1746; 2527-2529.) Not only is the enactment of history based on playback inherently non-discursive, but the very structure of historical knowledge is written by machines.

With this as background, we can turn to the concrete manifestation of Ernst’s ideas about the Multimedia Archive. This is the lab he has created in Berlin. The website for Ernst’s lab describes The Media Archaeological Fundus (MAF) as “a collection of various electromechanical and mechanical artefacts as they developed throughout time. Its aim is to provide a perspective that may inspire modern thinking about technology and media within its epistemological implications beyond bare historiography.” (Media Archaeological Fundus) Ernst explained the intention behind the MAF in an interview with Lori Emerson as deriving from the need to experience media “in performative ways.” So he created an assemblage of media and media technologies that could be operated, touched, manipulated and studied directly. He said in this interview, “such items need to be displayed in action to reveal their media essentiality (otherwise a medium like a TV set is nothing but a piece of furniture).” (Owens) Here is media archaeology’s indirect response to the 1979 AFIPS brochure’s suggestion that historical artifacts serve a purpose similar to furnishings in a preserved house.

The media-archaeological take on enacting history depends on access to artifacts and, in its strongest form, on their operation. Even when its engagement with media history is reduced to texts, these must be “tested against the material evidence.” This is the use case for Playback as an enactment of software history.

Take 3. The Re-enactor

Take three. The Re-enactor. Authenticity is an important concept for digital preservation.   A key feature of any digital archive over the preservation life-cycle of its documents and software objects is auditing and verification of authenticity, as in any archive. Access also involves authenticity, as any discussion of emulation or virtualization will bring up the question of fidelity to an historical experience of using software.

John Walker (of AutoDesk and Virtual Reality fame) created a workshop called Fourmilab to work on personal projects such as an on-line museum “celebrating” Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine. This computer programming heritage work includes historical documents and a Java-based emulator of the Engine. Walker says, “Since we’re fortunate enough to live in a world where Babbage’s dream has been belatedly realised, albeit in silicon rather than brass, we can not only read about The Analytical Engine but experience it for ourselves.” The authenticity of this experience – whatever that means for a machine that never existed – is important to Walker. In a 4500-word essay titled, “Is the Emulator Authentic,” he tells us that, “In order to be useful, an emulator program must be authentic—it must faithfully replicate the behaviour of the machine it is emulating.” By extension, the authenticity of a preserved version of the computer game DOOM in a digital repository could be audited by verifying that it can properly run a DOOM demo file. The same is true for Microsoft Word and a historical document in the Word format. This is a machine-centered notion of authenticity; we used it in the second Preserving Virtual Worlds project as a solution to the significant properties problem for software. (Walker, “Introduction;” Walker, “Analytical Engine.”)

All well and good. However, I want to address a different authenticity. Rather than judging authenticity in terms of playback, I would like to ask what authenticity means for the experience of using software. Another way of putting this question is to ask what we are looking for in the re-enactment of historical software use. So we need to think about historical re-enactment.

I am not a historical re-enactor, at least not the kind you are thinking of. I have never participated in the live recreation or performance of a historical event. Since I have been playing historical simulations – a category of boardgames – for most of my life, perhaps you could say that I re-enact being a historical military officer by staring at maps and moving units around on them. It’s not the same thing as wearing period uniforms and living the life, however.

Anyway, I need a re-enactor. In his 1998 book Confederates in the Attic, Tony Horwitz described historical re-enactment in its relationship to lived heritage. (Horwitz) His participant-journalist reportage begins at a chance encounter with a group of “hard-core” Confederate re-enactors. Their conversation leads Horwitz on a year-long voyage through the American South. A featured character in Confederates in the Attic is the re-enactor Robert Lee Hodge, a waiter turned Confederate officer. He took Horwitz under his wing and provided basic training in re-enactment. Hodge even became a minor celebrity due to his role in the book.

Hodges teaches Horwitz the difference between hard-core and farby (i.e., more casual) re-enactment. He tells Horwitz about dieting to look sufficiently gaunt and malnourished, the basics of “bloating” to resemble a corpse on the battlefield, what to wear, what not to wear, what to eat, what not to eat, and so on. It’s remarkable how little time he spends on martial basics. One moment sticks out for me. During the night after a hard day of campaigning Horwitz finds himself in the authentic situation of being wet, cold and hungry. He lacks a blanket, so he is given basic instruction in the sleeping technique of the Confederate infantryman: “spooning.” According to the re-enactor Scott Cross, “Spooning is an old term for bundling up together in bed like spoons placed together in the silver chest.” (Horwitz) Lacking adequate bedding and exposed to the elements, soldiers bunched up to keep warm. So that’s what Horwitz does, not as an act of mimesis or performance per se, but in order to re-experience the reality of Civil War infantrymen.

It interested me that of all the re-enactment activities Horwitz put himself through, spooning reveals a deeper commitment to authenticity than any of the combat performances he describes. It’s uncomfortable and awkward, so requires dedication and persistence. Sleep becomes self-conscious, not just in order to stick with the activity, but because the point of it is to recapture a past experience of sleeping on the battlefield. Since greater numbers of participants are needed for re-enacting a battle than sleep, more farbs (the less dedicated re-enactors) show up and thus the general level of engagement declines. During staged battles, spectators, scripting, confusion and accidents all interfere with the experience. Immersion breaks whenever dead soldiers pop up on the command, “resurrect.” In other words, performance takes over primacy from the effort to re-experience. It is likely that many farbs dressed up for battle are content to find a hotel to sleep in.

Specific attention to the details of daily life might be a reflection of recent historical work that emphasizes social and cultural histories of the Civil War period, rather than combat histories. But that’s not my takeaway from the spooning re-enactors. Rather, it’s the standard of authenticity that goes beyond performance of a specific event (such as a battle) to include life experience as a whole. Horvitz recalled that,

Between gulps of coffee—which the men insisted on drinking from their own tin cups rather than our ceramic mugs—Cool and his comrades explained the distinction. Hardcores didn’t just dress up and shoot blanks. They sought absolute fidelity to the 1860s: its homespun clothing, antique speech patterns, sparse diet and simple utensils. Adhered to properly, this fundamentalism produced a time travel high, or what hardcores called a ‘period rush.’ (Horwitz, Loc. 153-157)

Stephen Gapps, an Australian curator, historian, and re-enactor has spoken of the “extraordinary lengths” re-enactors go to “acquire and animate the look and feel of history.” Hard-core is not just about marching, shooting and swordplay. I wonder what a “period rush” might be for the experience of playing Pitfall! in the mid-21st century. Shag rugs? Ambient New Wave radio? Caffeine-free cola? Will future re-enactors of historical software seek this level of experiential fidelity? Gapps, again: “Although reenactors invoke the standard of authenticity, they also understand that it is elusive – worth striving for, but never really attainable.” (Gapps 397)

Re-enactment offers a take on born-digital heritage that proposes a commitment to lived experience. I see some similarity here with the correspondence to lived historical experience in White’s striving for a discursive mimesis. Yet, like media archaeology, re-enactment puts performance above discourse, though it is the performance of humans rather than machines.

Playing Pitfalls

We now have three different ways to think about potential uses of historical software and born digital documentation. I will shift my historian’s hat to one side of my head now and slide up my curator’s cap. If we consider these takes as use cases, do they help us decide how to allocate resources to acquire, preserve, describe and provide access to digital collections?

In May 2013, the National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program (NDIIPP) of the U.S. Library of Congress (henceforth: LC) held a conference called Preserving.exe. The agenda was to articulate the “problems and opportunities of software preservation.” In my contribution to the LC conference report issued a few months later, I described three “lures of software preservation.” (Lowood) These are potential pitfalls as we move from software collections to digital repositories and from there to programs of access to software collections. The second half of this paper will be an attempt to introduce the three lures of software preservation to the three takes on historical enactment.

  1. The Lure of the Screen

Let’s begin with the Lure of the Screen. This is the idea that what counts in digital media is what is delivered to the screen. This lure pops up in software preservation when we evaluate significant properties of software as surface properties (graphics, audio, haptics, etc).

This lure of the screen is related to what media studies scholars such as Nick Montfort, Mark Sample and Matt Kirschenbaum have dubbed (in various but related contexts) “screen essentialism.” If the significant properties of software are all surface properties, then our perception of interaction with software tells us all we need to know. We check graphics, audio, responses to our use of controllers, etc., and if they look and act as they should, we have succeeded in preserving an executable version of historical software. These properties are arguably the properties that designers consider as the focus of user interaction and they are the easiest to inspect and verify directly.

The second Preserving Virtual Worlds project was concerned primarily with identifying significant properties of interactive game software. On the basis of several case sets and interviews with developers and other stakeholders, we concluded that isolating surface properties, such as image colourspace as one example, while significant for other media such as static images, is not a particularly useful approach to take for game software. With interactive software, significance appears to be variable and contextual, as one would expect from a medium in which content is expressed through a mixture of design and play, procedurality and emergence. It is especially important that software abstraction levels are not “visible” on the surface of play. It is difficult if not impossible to monitor procedural aspects of game design and mechanics, programming and technology by inspecting properties expressed on the screen.

The preservation lifecycle for software is likely to include data migration. Access to migrated software will probably occur through emulation. How do we know when our experience of this software is affected by these practices? One answer is that we audit significant properties, and as we now know, it will be difficult to predict which characteristics are significant. An alternative or companion approach for auditing the operation of historical software is to verify the execution of data files. The integrity of the software can be evaluated by comparison to documented disk images or file signatures such as hashes or checksums. However, when data migration or delivery environments change the software or its execution environment, this method is inadequate. We must evaluate software performance. Instead of asking whether the software “looks right,” we can check if it runs verified data-sets that meet the specifications of the original software. Examples range from word processing documents to saved game and replay files. Of course, visual inspection of the content plays a role in verifying execution by the software engine; failure will not always be clearly indicated by crashes or error messages. Eliminating screen essentialism does not erase surface properties altogether.

The three takes compel us to think about the screen problem in different ways. First, the Historian is not troubled by screen essentialism. His construction of a narrative mimesis invokes a selection of source materials that may or may not involve close reading of personal gameplay, let alone focus on surface properties. On the other hand, The Re-enactor’s use of software might lead repositories to fret about what the user sees, hears and feels. It makes sense with this use case to think about the re-enactment as occurring at the interface. If a repository aims to deliver a re-enacted screen experience, it will need to delve deeply into questions of significant properties and their preservation.

Screen essentialism is also a potential problem for repositories that follow the path of Media Archaeology. It is unclear to me how a research site like the MAF would respond to digital preservation practices based on data migration and emulation. Can repositories meet the requirements of media archaeologists without making a commitment to preservation of working historical hardware to enable playback from original media? It’s not just that correspondence to surface characteristics is a significant property for media archaeologists. Nor is the Lure of the Screen a criticism of Media Archaelogy. I propose instead that it is a research problem. Ernst’s vision of a Multimedia Archive is based on the idea that media archaeology moves beyond playback to reveal mechanisms of counting. This machine operation clearly is not a surface characteristic. Ernst would argue, I think, that this counting is missed by an account of what is seen on the screen. So let’s assign the task of accounting for counting to the Media Archaeologist, which means showing us how abstraction layers in software below the surface can be revealed, audited and studied.

  1. The Lure of the Authentic Experience

I have already said quite a bit about authenticity. Let me explain now why I am sceptical about an authentic experience of historical software, and why this is an important problem for software collections.

Everyone in game or software studies knows about emulation. Emulation projects struggle to recreate an authentic experience of operating a piece of software such as playing a game. Authenticity here means that the use experience today is like it was. The Lure of the Authentic Experience tells digital repositories at minimum not to preserve software in a manner that would interfere with the production of such experiences. At maximum, repositories deliver authentic experiences, whether on-site or on-line. A tall order. In the minimum case, the repository provides software and collects hardware specifications, drivers or support programs. The documentation provides software and hardware specifications. Researchers use this documentation to reconstruct the historical look-and-feel of software to which they have access. In the maximum case, the repository designs and builds access environments. Using the software authentically would then probably mean a trip to the library or museum with historical or bespoke hardware. The reading room becomes the site of the experience.

I am not happy to debunk the Authentic Experience. Authenticity is a concept fraught not just with intellectual issues, but with registers ranging from nostalgia and fandom to immersion and fun. It is a minefield. The first problem is perhaps an academic point, but nonetheless important: Authenticity is always constructed. Whose lived experience counts as “authentic” and how has it been documented? Is the best source a developer’s design notes? The memory of someone who used the software when it was released? A marketing video? The researcher’s self-reflexive use in a library or museum? If a game was designed for kids in 1985, do you have to find a kid to play it in 2050? In the case of software with a long history, such as Breakout or Microsoft Word, how do we account for the fact that the software was used on a variety of platforms – do repositories have to account for all of them? For example, does the playing of DOOM “death match” require peer-to-peer networking on a local area network, a mouse-and-keyboard control configuration and a CRT display? There are documented cases of different configurations of hardware: track-balls, hacks that enabled multiplayer via TCPIP, monitors of various shapes and sizes, and so on. Which differences matter?

A second problem is that the Authentic Experience is not always that useful to the researcher, especially the researcher studying how historical software executes under the hood. The emulated version of a software program often compensates for its lack of authenticity by offering real-time information about system states and code execution. A trade-off for losing authenticity thus occurs when the emulator shows the underlying machine operation, the counting, if you will. What questions will historians of technology, practitioners of code studies or game scholars ask about historical software? I suspect that many researchers will be as interested in how the software works as in a personal experience deemed authentic.   As for more casual appreciation, the Guggenheim’s Seeing Double exhibition and Margaret Hedstrom’s studies of emulation suggest that exhibition visitors actually prefer reworked or updated experiences of historical software. (Hedstrom, Lee, et al.; Jones)

This is not to say that original artefacts – both physical and “virtual” – will not be a necessary part of the research process. Access to original technology provides evidence regarding its constraints and affordances. I put this to you not as a “one size fits all” decision but as an area of institutional choice based on objectives and resources.

The Re-enactor, of course, is deeply committed to the Authentic Experience. If all we offer is emulation, what do we say to him, besides “sorry.” Few digital repositories will be preoccupied with delivering authentic experiences as part of their core activity. The majority are likely to consider a better use of limited resources to be ensuring that validated software artefacts and contextual information are available on a case-by-case basis to researchers who do the work of re-enactment. Re-enactors will make use of documentation. Horwitz credits Robert Lee Hodge with an enormous amount of research time spent at the National Archives and Library of Congress. Many hours of research with photographs and documents stand behind his re-enactments. In short, repositories should let re-enactors be the re-enactors.

Consider this scenario for software re-enactment. You are playing an Atari VCS game with the open-source Stella emulator. It bothers you that viewing the game on your LCD display differs from the experience with a 1980s-era television set. You are motivated by this realization to contribute code to the Stella project for emulating a historical display. It is theoretically possible that you could assemble everything needed to create an experience that satisfies you – an old television, adapters, an original VCS, the software, etc. (Let’s not worry about the shag rug and the lava lamp.) You can create this personal experience on your own, then write code that matches it. My question: Is the result less “authentic” if you relied on historical documentation such as video, screenshots, technical specifications, and other evidence available in a repository to describe the original experience? My point is that repositories can cooperatively support research by re-enactors who create their version of the experience. Digital repositories should consider the Authentic Experience as more of a research problem than a repository problem.

  1. The Lure of the Executable

The Lure of the Executable evaluates software preservation in terms of success at building collections of software that can be executed on-demand by researchers.

Why do we collect historical software? Of course, the reason is that computers, software, and digital data have had a profound impact on virtually every aspect of recent history. What should we collect? David Bearman’s answer in 1987 was the “software archive.” He distinguished this archive from what I will call the software library. The archive assembles documentation; the library provides historical software. The archive was a popular choice in the early days. Margaret Hedstrom reported that attendees at the 1990 Arden Conference on the Preservation of Microcomputer Software “debated whether it was necessary to preserve software itself in order to provide a sense of ‘touch and feel’ or whether the history of software development could be documented with more traditional records.” (Hedstrom and Bearman) In 2002, the Smithsonian’s David Allison wrote about collecting historical software in museums that, “supporting materials are often more valuable for historical study than code itself. They provide contextual information that is critical to evaluating the historical significance of the software products.” He concluded that operating software is not a high priority for historical museums. (Allison 263-65; cf. Shustek)

Again, institutional resources are not as limitless as the things we would like to do with software. Curators must prioritize among collections and services. The choice between software archive and library is not strictly binary, but choices still must be made.

I spend quite a bit of my professional life in software preservation projects. The end-product of these projects is at least in part the library of executable historical software. I understand the Lure of the Executable and the reasons that compel digital repositories to build collections of verified historical software that can be executed on-demand by researchers. This is the Holy Grail of digital curation with respect to software history. What could possibly be wrong with this mission, if it can be executed?   As I have argued on other occasions there are several problems to consider. Let me give you two. The first is that software does not tell the user very much about how it has previously been used. In the best case, application software in its original use environment might display a record of files created by previous users, such as a list of recently opened files found in many productivity titles like Microsoft Office. The more typical situation is that software is freshly installed from data files in the repository and thus completely lacks information about its biography, for want of a better term.

The second, related problem is fundamental. Documentation that is a prerequisite for historical studies of software is rarely located in software. It is more accurate to say that this documentation surrounds software in development archives (including source code) and records of use and reception. It is important to understand that this is not just a problem for historical research. Documentation is also a problem for repositories. If contextual information such as software dependencies or descriptions of relationships among objects is not available to the repository and all the retired software engineers who knew the software inside-and-out are gone – it may be impossible to get old software to run.

Historians, of course, will usually be satisfied with the Archive. Given limited resources, is it reasonable to expect that the institutions responsible for historical collections of documentation will be able to reconcile such traditional uses with other methods of understanding historical computing systems? The Re-enactor will want to run software, and the Media Archaeologist will not just want access to a software library, but to original media and hardware in working order. These are tall orders for institutional repositories such as libraries and archives, though possibly a better fit to the museum or digital history centre.

In Best Before: Videogames, Supersession and Obsolescence, James Newman is not optimistic about software preservation and he describes how the marketing of software has in some ways made this a near impossibility. He is not as pessimistic about video game history, however. In a section of his book provocatively called “Let Videogames Die,” he argues that a documentary approach to gameplay might be a more pragmatic enterprise than the effort to preserve playable games. He sees this as a “shift away from conceiving of play as the outcome of preservation to a position that acknowledges play as an indivisible part of the object of preservation.” (Newman 160) In other words, what happens when we record contemporary use of software to create historical documentation of that use? Does this activity potentially reduce the need for services that provide for use at any given time in the future? This strikes me as a plausible historical use case, but not one for re-enactment or media archaeology.

Software archives or software libraries? That is the question. Is it nobler to collect documentation or to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous software installations? The case for documentation is strong. The consensus among library and museum curators (including myself) is almost certainly that documents from source code to screenshots are a clear win for historical studies of software. Historians, however, will not be the only visitors to the archive. But there are other reasons to collect documentation. One of the most important reasons, which I briefly noted above, is that software preservation requires such documentation. In other words, successful software preservation activities are dependent upon technical, contextual and rights documentation. And of course, documents tell re-enactors how software was used and can help media archaeologists figure out what their machines are showing or telling them. But does documentation replace the software library? Is it sufficient to build archives of software history without libraries of historical software? As we have seen, this question was raised nearly forty years ago and remains relevant today. My wish is that this question of the relationship between documentation and software as key components of digital heritage work stir conversation among librarians, historians, archivists and museum curators. This conversation must consider that there is likely to be a broad palette of use cases such as the historian, media archaeologist and re-enactor, as well as many others not mentioned here. It is unlikely that any one institution can respond to every one of these use cases. Instead, the more likely result is a network of participating repositories, each of which will define priorities and allocate resources according to both their specific institutional contexts and an informed understanding of the capabilities of partner institutions.



Allison, David K. “Preserving Software in History Museums: A Material Culture Approach. Ed. Ulf Hashagen, Reinhard Keil-Slawik and Arthur L. Norberg. History of Computing: Software Issues. Berlin: Springer, 2002. 263-272.

Bearman, David. Collecting Software: A New Challenge for Archives and Museums. Archival Informatics Technical Report #2 (Spring 1987).

— “What Are/Is Informatics? And Especially, What/Who is Archives & Museum Informatics?” Archival Informatics Newsletter 1:1 (Spring 1987): 8.

Cross, Scott. “The Art of Spooning.” Atlantic Guard Soldiers’ Aid Society. 13 July 2016. Web. Originally published in The Company Wag 2, no. 1 (April 1989).

Ernst, Wolfgang. Digital Memory and the Archive. (Minneapolis: Univ. Minnesota Press, 2012). Kindle edition.

Gapps, Stephen. “Mobile monuments: A view of historical reenactment and authenticity from inside the costume cupboard of history.” Rethinking History: The Journal of Theory and Practice, 13:3 (2009): 395-409.

Hedstrom, Margaret L., Christopher A. Lee, Judith S. Olson and Clifford A. Lampe, “‘The Old Version Flickers More’: Digital Preservation from the User’s Perspective.” The American Archivist, 69: 1 (Spring – Summer 2006): 159-187.

Hedstrom, Margaret L., and David Bearman, “Preservation of Microcomputer Software: A Symposium,” Archives and Museum Informatics 4:1 (Spring 1990): 10.

Horwitz, Tony. Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War. New York: Pantheon Books, 1998. Kindle Edition.

Jones, Caitlin. “Seeing Double: Emulation in Theory and Practice. The Erl King Study.” Paper presented to the Electronic Media Group, 14 June 2004. Electronic Media Group. Web.

Lowood, Henry. “The Lures of Software Preservation.” Preserving.exe: Toward a National Strategy for Software Preservation (October 2013): 4-11. Web.

Media Archaeological Fundus. Web. 21 Jan. 2016.

Newman, James. Best Before: Videogames, Supersession and Obsolescence. London: Routledge, 2012.

Owens, Trevor. “Archives, Materiality and the ‘Agency of the Machine’: An Interview with Wolfgang Ernst.” The Signal: Digital Preservation. Web. 8 February 2013.

“Preserving Computer-Related Source Materials.” IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 1 (Jan.-March 1980): 4-6.

Shustek, Len. “What Should We Collect to Preserve the History of Software?” IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, 28 (Oct.-Dec. 2006): 110-12.

Walker, John. “Introduction” to The Analytical Engine: The First Computer.” Fourmilab, 21 March 2016. Web.

— “The Analytical Engine: Is the Emulator Authentic?,” Fourmilab, 21 March 2016. Web.

White, Hayden. The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1987.

Figural Realism: Studies in the Mimesis Effect. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2000.

— “The Question of Narrative in Contemporary Historical Theory.” In: History and Theory 23: 1 (Feb. 1984): 1-33.



Henry Lowood is Curator for History of Science & Technology Collections and for Film & Media Collections at Stanford University. He has led the How They Got Game project at Stanford University since 2000 and is the co-editor of The Machinima Reader and Debugging Game History, both published by MIT Press. Contact:


1970s Disaster Films: The Star In Jeopardy  –  Nathan Smith

Abstract: In this article, I marry star studies to haptic theory in order to explore the complex meanings of space and stardom in 1970s disaster films. I use the The Poseidon Adventure [1972] as my case study, a film often cited as one best epitomising the genre. I examine the way The Poseidon Adventure uses the physical space of the ship at the centre of the film to heighten the chaos of the sinking ship, and mediate the way we experience the (old and new) stars on screen. I consider how in disaster films we see great Hollywood stars battered, bruised, and beaten on screen and argue this allegorically signals a generic and cultural transition in American cinema, with old Hollywood film practices shed in favour of the politics and energies of New Hollywood. This paper offers insight into the underlying star politics of 1970s disaster films, which are often mediated only through the spectacle they provide audiences.

Figure 1. An original advertisement for The Towering Inferno where the two male stars are separated by the fiery burning tower in the centre, while their co-stars line the bottom of the poster.

One of the defining film genres of the 1970s was the disaster film. Depicting scenes of mass carnage, the disaster film came to prominence in the 1970s in a wave of films staging shipwrecks and airplane crashes, joined by a band of new and old Hollywood stars facing these dangers on screen (Keane 2001 2). Critically and commercially, the most successful films disaster films of the 1970s were: Airport (1970), The Poseidon Adventure (1972), and The Towering Inferno (1974), all of which lead to the popularity of other films or franchises including Earthquake (1974), Airport 1975 (1974), Airport ’77 (1977), and When Time Ran Out (1980) (ibid. 3). While critical scholarship on the genre has mostly centred on how disaster films were widely successful and critically lauded because of the way they allegorised America’s political, social, and economic plights on screen, many of these films actually instantiate other cinematic concerns. There is actually a dearth of scholarship that moves beyond the commercial and political currency of these disaster films.

Although the spectacles themselves in these disaster films are central, this essay assesses the way the disaster film utilises space on screen, in attempt to legitimise to their importance as a cinematic genre. Disaster films actively integrate discourses of cinema as travel experience and engage with the politics of star system to offer complex commentaries on cinema’s haptic meaning and the Hollywood star culture. I argue for the importance of combining the cultural and semiotic language of the star system with haptic theory in order to demonstrate the potential of extending the meanings of disaster films. It is only by marrying the two seemingly unrelated discourse that we can garner the more complex tensions that motivates so many audiences to see and engage with disaster films.

Stars in the 1970s disaster film have an allegorical and cultural function in the literal spaces contained within the text. Films like The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno embody allegorical meanings that comment on the death of the Hollywood star system and the rise of “New Hollywood” cinema (Roddick 1980 248).[i] I argue the disaster film engages in discourses on travelling and architecture in an effort to not only heighten the spectacle of its disasters, but also to create its own reference points about cinema and physical space on screen, in particular spaces for travelling (the ship, the plane, and airports). By reconsidering the haptic and star meanings of the disaster genre – examined centrally through The Poseidon Adventure here – the affects and emotional meanings of cinema and architecture can be understood away from the ocular-centricism that has dominated critical discourse on cinema for decades (Jay 1988 310).

Cinema has long been cloaked in its own aesthetic, critical, and discursive aura that has privileged the visual experience over the haptic pleasure it provides viewers (see Mulvey 1975; Sontag 1977; Deleuze 1983; Jay 1988; Thomas 2001). In recent years there has been a growing scholarly and artistic (recuperative) interest in resurrecting the intersections cinema makes with architecture. While these intersections have a longer tradition than the twenty-first century, it is only in the last decade that we have seen more explicit interventions – and marriages – between these two discourses. In Atlas of Emotion (2002), American scholar Giuliana Bruno constructs an “atlas” of philosophical, affective, and psycho-geographic responses to art, cinema, and architecture, coalescing all in an attempt to demonstrate how “site” (physical space) and “sight” (visual experience) are inherently married to each other. Likewise, The Architecture of the Image (2008), film scholar Juhani Pallasmaa examines how architecture – like cinema – works around ideas of time, space, and movement, and similar to Bruno, attempts to collapse the distinction between “sites” and “sights” in order to emphasise the potency of haptic embodiment.

These recent works highlight the emerging discourse of haptics and cinema, privileging the physical responses to architecture and cinema alike while de-emphasising the long-standing ocular approach to the world of film. Pallasmaa makes the point that every film contains an image of an architectural space (2008 4). From this, we can see an inherent relationship begin to operate between the two (ibid. 5). Whether it is a building, a room, or even specifically Central Park in New York City, film engages in the poetics and politics of architecture: they define space, grid and demarcate a physical area, while centring narrative meanings and affects around this site.[ii] Indeed disaster films – which are addressed in more depth later – are sound examples to demonstrate the potency of haptics – they are characterised by physical movement on screen. Whether it is a moving plane (the Airport series), a sinking ship (The Poseidon Adventure), or the chaotic physical destruction of Los Angeles (in Earthquake), they offer viewers a type of journey experience.

Many of these writers on haptics draw on Walter Benjamin’s seminal essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936) in which Benjamin considers the notions of authenticity and originality in art. In his essay, Benjamin writes on the connections between cinema and architecture, arguing that on the contrary both are “tactile arts” (1936 225). While cinema seemingly stresses its visuality and architecture emphasises its physicality, both cinema and architectural space generate and provide kinesthetic experiences to viewers and participants. Indeed vision is just as important to haptics as haptics is to film. As Kester Tauttenbury writes,

Architecture exists, like cinema, in the dimension of time and movement. One conceives and reads a building in terms of sequences. To erect a building is to predict and seek effects of contrast and linkage through which one passes . . . In the continuous shot/sequence that a building is, the architect works with cuts and edits, framings and openings (1994 35).

By re-evaluating architecture in cinematic terms – and vice-versa by re-evaluating cinema in architectural terms – the two artforms imply a kinesthetic way of experiencing space. This intersection functions importantly in The Poseidon Adventure by problematising the architecture of stairs. Poseidon is concerned with the idea of “Hell Upside Down”, or an overturned cruise ship that forces its passengers to climb “up” to the bottom of the ship in order to escape. Staircases are an excellent example of how an architectural site has been utilised repeatedly by cinema to mark meaning, divide spaces, and represent political and familial hierarchies. For Peter Wollen, “The staircase is the symbolic spine of the house” (1996 15). Here is an instance where architecture and cinema unite. The staircases are places of movement and transition that are directly experienced by the body. The stairs in cinema stage political undertones of the private/public and unseen/seen dichotomy: either one can exit to a private space or enter a social public place through a set of stairs.

The Poseidon Adventure is driven by an intersection of architectural space and cinema. The film is about the “S.S. Poseidon” cruise ship making its last journey from New York City to Athens. On New Year’s Eve, however, the ship is overturned by an enormous tsunami caused by an underground earthquake (Keane 2006 72). The film is a metaphor for this cultural and cinematic conflation with architecture and stardom. Symbolically – because the ship is overturned – the notion of this staircase is inverted in Poseidon. Hence the characters do not “climb up” the ship but “climb downwards” to the ship’s haul.

A major turning point in the narrative is when one of the surviving co-captains tells all the passengers to stay where they are (in the central dining room, near the top deck of the ship) since they are closer to the top deck of the ship. Reverent Scott (Gene Hackman) pleads with them not to listen to the co-captain and instead them that they must go “up” (down) to reach the ship’s haul, since any attempt to escape needs to be made closer to the water’s surface. Although allowing a means for escape for a select few, this inversion figuratively reverses the hierarchies of title and power on the ship and placing a small group of the passengers in charge of the ship, as the co-captain drowns (and, by extension, allows others to drown) in the sinking vessel. I would push this analogy further, arguing how this inversion demonstrates the allegory of a transition of Old Hollywood values into that of New Hollywood. Given that it is the younger Gene Hackman – the then star of the drug-themed crime film The French Connection – who leads the fight for survival (leaving the mostly-older ship-goers to drown), the allegorical meaning is rich. Indeed this moment demonstrates how Poseidon privileges its younger stars and begins to kill off its older stars, seen frequently in other 1970s disaster films (see Dyer 1975, 1979).

poseidonThe “guiding” cinematic experience of these disaster films – in particular Poseidon – is the way it exploits cinema as a travel experience. In Atlas of Emotion (2002), Bruno writes that “film is affected by a real travel bug” and that the “film ‘viewer’ is a practioner of viewing space – a tourist” (76, 61). Bruno asserts cinema has always been preoccupied with the travel experience, signalling how early cinema itself was composed on narratives of travelling to the moon (Goerges Melies’s A Trip to the Moon 1902), to outer space (Georges Melies’s The Impossible Voyage 1904), or train travel (Lumiere Brothers’ The Arrival of the Mail Train 1896).This ongoing preoccupation with not only capturing travel movement (trains, travel) onto the moving image itself but also with providing viewers with the experience of “statically travelling” is what informs the terms of references of the disaster genre (Bruno 2002 7). Given the socio-cultural climate these films were made in – with the rising popularity of the transgressive styles of New Hollywood and their interest in new filmmaking techniques and strategies – the disaster film drew on these early cinematic discourses on travel as a means to rework their cinematic and cultural meanings. Here they are reframed in light of the emerging 1970s counterculture and anti-establishment politics (Wood 2003). By this, the template of cinema as traveling/traveling as cinema began to be manipulated and exploited in texts like Poseidon and the Airport series through the presence old Hollywood stars alongside new ones.

The poetics embedded within the moving space (ship, aeroplane, blimp, bus, rollercoasters, all of which were vehicles utilised in one disaster film or another) are what serve as the central cultural, political, and cinematic meanings that the disaster film seeks to problematise. As Bruno notes, “There is a mobile dynamics involved in the act of viewing films, even is the spectators is seemingly static. The (im)mobile spectator moves across an imaginary path, traversing multiple sites and times” (2002 55). What Bruno addresses is the way film negotiates physical spaces on screen viewers can vicariously experience, while also emphasising the staticity and immobility of the viewer in their seat all at once. If we consider Poseidon – often cited as the cinematic epitome of the disaster film – the captain calls the ship in the film “a hotel with a stern and boor stuck on each end” (Roddick 1980 246). The emphasis is on the ship as a site/sight of luxury, relaxation, and pleasure. The irony in this comment, as we see later, is that indeed it is the fact that the Poseidon is not a hotel that causes it to sink – it is a ship. This comment literalises the paradox Bruno address: the hotel does not move; a ship does. These series of meanings evoke the cultural and connotative meaning that representing travel on screen embodies in the disaster genre.

The moving space – whether it is encaged within the narrative of Poseidon Adventure or in the moving airplane in the Airport series – represents an intervention in the spatial and haptic experience of cinema. In terms of narrative, the site/sight of the exploded airplane, the sinking ship, or the burning hotel makes the spatial environment contained within the film dangerous, claustrophobic, and unsafe. Bruno observes, “Film inherits the possibility of such a spectorial voyage from the architectural field, for the person who wanders through a building or site also absorbs and connects visual spaces … In this sense, the consumer of architectural (viewing) space is the prototype of the film spectator” (2002 55). Bruno’s dialogue between an architectural space and the physical space controlled by the film instantiate many of the same haptic experiences and her re-prioritisation of the affective (as opposed to the visual) qualities of cinema is what I utilise in my analysis here. The disaster film itself – in this case, Poseidon – although preoccupied with spectacle, equally engages with problematising the relationship between physical space on screen and the cultural status and capital of its old Hollywood stars.

What makes the disaster film so palpable as a cinematic experience is the way the old Hollywood stars of the film are battered, bruised, and ultimately killed off (see Dixon 1999, Feil 2005). Richard Dyer writes that while a star is a reflection of the dominant social and political ideologies, they also are symptomatic of the “fissures” in these hegemonic ideologies and have the potential to be read in profoundly different ways (1979 3). I argue two central points on stars within the disaster genre: the death of the stars in the disaster genre allegorically comments on the decline of the Hollywood studio system which had dominated America film-making since the 1930s; and second, the stars act as stand-in for the audiences to vicariously experience the wreck and ruin wrought by the destruction of the travel experiences. Bruno argues this when she writes that we must move from “optical to haptic” (2002 6). This approach figures importantly in my reconsideration of the disaster film. My contention is that Poseidon kills off its former Hollywood greats as a figurative attempt to signal the death of the Hollywood studio and star system, and legitimise the emerging tides in Hollywood cinema.

Therefore, the cultural, cinematic, and semiotic meaning of the star functions importantly in the 1970s disaster film. The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno are major films that demonstrate the intersection of spatial destruction and the harm this carnage reaps on its Hollywood stars. The original advertisements for both films highlight how the stars are the central identifying features for mediating the experience of the film. The posters also imply the internal disasters within the narrative threaten the stability and indeed safety of these stars within the confines of the story. On a poster for The Towering Inferno (Figure 1), the star image of the actors is central with Steve McQueen and Paul Newman as the male leads battling not only each other (and their masculine bravodo) but to attempting to control the blazing skyscraper. The poster demonstrates the intersection of destroying the stars through floods, fire, chaos, and death. This advertisement also has a row of other Hollywood stars that appear in the film – such as William Holden alongside Faye Dunaway – and although these are ostensibly the supporting cast of the film, nevertheless, they too are presumably encaged within the wrath of the fiery tower. The original movie poster for Poseidon (Figure 2) evokes a sense of claustrophobia with its stars bordering a drawing of waves of water overflowing a ballroom. Called “Hell, Upside Down”, the graphic is engulfed with seawaters. The poster encourages viewers to believe that not all the stars of the film will be saved by narrative end. These advertising meta-texts embody the important formation these films bridge between the collapsing of space and the destruction of the star.

To demonstrate this transition, I examine Shelley Winters’ role in Poseidon. The most striking physical feature of Winters’ performance as Mrs Rosenburg is her overweight and bulging body. Winters purposely gained weight for the role and insisted that she do all her own stunts (Keane 2006 76). A successful supporting actress throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Winters’ re-emergence in this film allegorically aligns itself with the transition of Old Hollywood to New Hollywood.[iii] With the rise of more countercultural subjects and constructed around less bureaucratic institutions such as film studios, New Hollywood sought to dislocate the institutionalisation of films with the rigid studio structure (Berliner 2010 62). Winters, who embodies these cultural, star, and cinematic ties to the studio system, is forced in Poseidon to undergo a gruelling and exhausting escape that she is truly not capable of. Symbolically, her bulging and overweight body is suggestive of the hedonism and profits of Old Hollywood that is no longer able to meet the challenges of cinema of the 1970s. Winters’s Mrs Rosenburg is a figure of comic relief as the carnivalesque quality of her squatting, falling, and struggling index her weight and the fact this obese figure is the great Shelley Winters – or “that fat old cow” as another character calls her. Therefore, Winters – like Jennifer Jones’s character in The Towering Inferno – metonymically acts as a figure of the old studio system.[iv] Both Jones and Winters not only signal the star system but also are utilised by both films to heighten the danger, destruction, and claustrophobia nature of these restrictive and deathly spaces on screen (Yacowar 1977).

The disaster film “must be consider[ed] as a single group” and as part of “a long tradition of screen catastrophe”, fitting in with traditions of cinema representing spectacles on screen to heighten their haptic value (Roddick 1980 244). I argue disaster films declined in the late 1970s and early 1980s because they became an overused template that could not meet the demands of the changing cultural landscape. However, the template resurfaced in other different generic arenas such as the sci-fi action (The Terminator [1984], Die Hard [1988]), while being altered in the 1990s with less stars (Twister [1996]), or simply remade in the 2000s (Poseidon [2006]). Unlike the original 1970s disaster films, however, these later generic templates are less concerned with an ensemble of stars and are instead driven more by special effects (Keane 2006 101). As with the changes in cultural demands, the later series of films with disaster as a main narrative and thematic pull did no need to alter the star status or star value of their actors unlike the 1970s series of films – they were the reference points with which to exploit and parody the star to batter and bruise them in the film.

In this way, the disaster films of the 1970s instantiate many more complex and important cultural and cinematic meanings than existing scholarship suggests. Indeed, while the literature on the disaster film has mostly considered the financial, aesthetic, or commercial value of these films, this essay has privileged the star iconography and haptic meanings of these films to revise their cultural and cinematic value. Although this essay has only concentrated only on The Poseidon Adventure, this film nevertheless embodies many of the tropes of the disaster film, having been cited as the “epitome of the genre” (Roddick 1980 246). The disaster film marries the concerns of architecture with the haptic meanings of cinema, utilising space as a means to comment on the status of stars in the 1970s cultural milieu. Given the rise of scholarship examining the haptic experience of cinema, reconsidering bodies of cinema that have only be considering for their visual value has immense importance in understanding and legitimising some of the more meaningful concerns these films embody. This essay has explored the growing scholarship considering the physical responses cinema can provide spectators while also revising the dominant interpretations of the disaster film, arguing that in particular The Poseidon Adventure draws on histories of film as a travel experience. Ultimately, in reprioritising the spatial and star elements in films like The Poseidon Adventure, the haptic and affective experiences can be more palpably felt.




Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Trans. Maria Jolas. Boston: Beacon Press,1994.

Benjamin, Walter. ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.’ Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. Ed. Hannah Arendt. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken Books, 1968. 217-252.

Berliner, Todd. Hollywood Incoherent: Narration in Seventies Cinema. Austin:University of Texas, 2010.

Bruno, Giuliana. Atlas of Emotion: Journeys in Art, Architecture, and Film. New   York: Verso, 2002.

Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema 1: The Movement-Image. Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and     Barbara Habberjam. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986.

Dixon, W. W. Disaster and Memory: Celebrity Culture and the Crisis of Hollywood          Cinema. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.

Dyer, Richard. ‘American Cinema in the ’70s: The Towering Inferno.’ Movie 21   (1975): 30-3.

—— Stars. London: British Film Institute, 2008.

Elsaesser, Thomas & Hagener, Malte. Film Theory: An Introduction through the Senses. London: Routledge, 2009.

Feil, Ken. Dying For A Laugh: Disaster Movies and the Camp Imagination. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2005.

Jay, Martin. ‘The Rise of Hermeneutics and the Crisis of Ocularcentrism.’ Poetics Today 9:2 (1988): 307-326.

Keane, Stephen. Disaster Movies: The Cinema of Catastrophe. London: Short Cuts, 2006.

Mulvey, Laura. ‘Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema.’ Screen 16:3 (1975): 6-18.

Roddick, Nicholas. ‘Only the Stars Survive: Disaster Movies in the Seventies.’Performance and Politics in Popular Drama: Aspects of Popular Entertainment in Theatre, Film, and Television 1800-1976. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980. 243-269.

Sontag, Susan. On Photography. New York: Picador, 1977.

Tauttenberry, Kester. ‘Echo and Narcissus.’ Architecture and Film (Architectural Design). Ed. Maggie Toy. London: Academy Press, 1994. 20-38.

Thomas, Deborah. Reading Hollywood: Spaces and Meanings in American Film. London: Short Cuts, 2001.

Wollen, Peter. ‘Architecture and Cinema: Places and Non-Places.’ Rakennustaiteen Seura 4 (1996): 10-29.

Wood, Robin. Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan … and Beyond. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.

Yacowar, M. ‘The Bug in the Rug: Notes on the Disaster Genre.’ Film Genre: Theory and Criticism. Ed. B. K. Grant. London: Scarecrow Press, 1977. 90- 107.



Airport. Dir. George Seaton. Universal Pictures. 1970.

Airport 1975. Dir. Jack Smight. Universal Pictures. 1974.

Airport 1977. Dir. Jerry Jameson. Universal Pictures. 1977.

The Arrival of the Mail Train. Dir. Auguste & Louis Lumiere. Lumiere. 1896.

Die Hard. Dir. John McTiernan. Twentieth-Century Fox. 1988.

Earthquake. Dir. Mark Robson. Universal Pictures. 1974.

The Impossible Voyage. Dir. Georges Melies. Star Film Company. 1904.

Poseidon. Dir. Wolfgang Petersen. Warner Brothers. 2006.

The Poseidon Adventure. Dir. Ronald Neame. Twentieth-Century Fox. 1972.

Terminator. Dir. James Cameron. Orion Pictures. 1984.

The Towering Inferno. Dir. John Guillerman. Twentieth-Century Fox. 1974.

A Trip to the Moon. Dir. Georges Melies. Star Film Company. 1902.

Twister. Dir. Jan de Bont. Warner Brothers. 1996.

When Time Ran Out. Dir. James Goldstone. Warner Brothers. 1980.



[i] “New Hollywood” refers to a period in the late-1960s and early 1970s when a wave of new American directors began producing films that moved against the classic Hollywood cinema grain. New Hollywood films, such as Bonnie & Clyde (1967) and The French Connection (1971), resisted traditional Hollywood narrative techniques, used grittier film methods, and often valorised the anti-hero at the centre of the story (Berliner 2010 51).

[ii] It is beyond the scope of this paper but also see The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard [Trans. Maria Jolas. Boston: Beacon Press, 1958] for a comprehensive rumination on the poetics and subjective meanings invested in physical spaces.

[iii] Winters was nominated for multiple Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actress, winning for her roles in The Diary of Anne Frank (1959) and A Patch of Blue (1965). In most of her film work (like A Place in the Sun [1951] and Lolita [1962]), Winters was often sidelined to a supporting role, with her characters later killed from the narrative. Her roles in the aforementioned films see her play a very emotional, sometimes hysterical female character. In A Place in the Sun and Lolita she is convinced that her male partner is cheating on her. (Which, in fact, prove correct in both films.)


Bio: Nathan Smith is a graduate student at the University of Melbourne specialising in queer and star studies. He is also a freelance culture writer whose work has appeared in The Daily Beast, The New Republic, and Salon.


Morality, Mortality and Materialism: an Art Historian Watches Mad Men – Catherine Wilkins

Abstract: In 17th century Netherlandish painting, artists employed a complex visual system to assign a symbolic value to everyday objects, in a sort of visual shorthand for lengthier moral concepts and narratives. Such “disguised symbolism” was often used to reflect as well as express concern about the period’s wealth, hedonism, and habits of consumption through the accoutrements and, thus, the terms of the material world. This article will explore the adoption of disguised symbolic iconography in the television series Mad Men.  The article will focus on certain objects – the mirror, the watch, the egg, and the oyster – that have acquired and accumulated meaning over time, based on art historical traditions and the past experiences of their collective viewers.  The article will argue that the way in which these objects were used, both in 17th century Netherlandish painting and in Mad Men, promotes contemplation of morality, mortality, and materialism. Ultimately, they transcend the function of a visual narrative device and allow viewers access to “Truth” about consumption that is relevant to their own lives, as well as to those of the show’s characters.

Figure 1: AMC’s Mad Men, ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’ (2007)

Figure 1: AMC’s Mad Men, ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’ (2007)

AMC’s critically-acclaimed Mad Men (creator: Matthew Weiner) is a television series in which style and visual aesthetics are regularly praised for both enhancing the depth of the fictional narrative and contributing to the historical authenticity of the program. For instance, Jim Hansen has argued convincingly about the importance of appearances and the layers of meaning to be unpacked in regard to the corporeal image of Don Draper (Hansen 2013, 145-160). Meanwhile, Jeremy Butler has written about the “profound nature of things:” the objects that comprise the mise en scene as signifiers of 1960s culture and evidence of Weiner’s attention to historical visual literacy (Butler 2010, 55-71). So far, however, there has not been an attempt to combine these two valuable perspectives – Hansen’s search for deeper meaning through style with Butler’s focus on material paraphernalia – in regard to Mad Men. Yet, for art historians, it is a familiar practice to interpret the appearance of objects as a means of unveiling deeper meaning and creating an experience of revelation for the viewer. Employing the tradition of 17th century Netherlandish painting as a point of comparison, this article will explore the use of disguised symbolic iconography in Mad Men. The frequent insertion of historically symbolic item such as the mirror, the watch, the egg, and the oyster promotes contemplation of morality, mortality, and materialism. Ultimately, the inclusion of these objects allows viewers of Mad Men access to “Truths” about consumption that are relevant to their own lives, as well as to those of the show’s characters.

The basic tenets of semiotics are essential in drawing a comparison between the use of symbolic objects in both Mad Men and Netherlandish painting. A simplified semiotic approach to the subject would argue that images (whether painted or motion picture) are signs, that signs are designed to represent something beyond themselves, and that an inherent part of human experience is to interpret the signs that we encounter in our daily lives. The act of creating any image is an act of arranging compositional elements to convey meaning; and the act of viewing an image is an act of translating and deciphering such elements to create significance. Hence, representations of objects – whether depicted in a painting or in a television program – always contain layers of potential meaning and symbolic value.

In Derrida’s semiotics, this process is constantly being negotiated and both sign and signified are always in flux, with authorship becoming less significant than viewership for determining value and meaning (Derrida 1982, 313-323). According to Bryson and Bal, an image is “by definition repeatable…[o]nce launched into the world, the work of art is subject to all of the vicissitudes of reception; as a work involving the sign, it encounters from the beginning the ineradicable fact of semiotic play…works of art are constituted by different viewers in different ways at different times and places” (Bal and Bryson 1981, 179). In his influential text Ways of Seeing, art historian John Berger argues that images acquire and accumulate meaning over time, based on the past experiences of their collective viewers. The reason that certain historic images may still convey specific symbolism or meaning to us today is because our current experiences are not altogether unlike those of the individuals who first made and viewed the images in question (Berger, J. 1991, 24-33). Therefore, to argue that certain “signs” (symbolic objects) convey a similar meaning in both 17th century painting and on Mad Men in the fictional context of the 1960s, we must investigate potential similarities in context that would affect the production and reception of these images, all the while keeping in mind how the context of this article’s writing influences our interpretation (Derrida 1979, 81).

Madison Avenue in the mid-twentieth century was, in many ways, not so different from the Grote Markt district of Antwerp in the seventeenth century. Over the course of the previous hundred years, Europe had become socially and economically modernized and, proportionately, the Low Countries had financially benefited much more than any other area of the continent during the Renaissance (Snyder 2004, 433). Better methods of transport there led to massive increases in trade, empire, resources, and urbanization. These factors caused a shift in the distribution of wealth, as the flourishing of commerce elevated the social and material status of merchants, bankers, and those involved in the service industry, giving rise to a true middle class that was capable of consuming and patronizing the arts. On a visit to Antwerp in 1520, the renowned German printmaker Albrecht Dürer noted the socioeconomic diversity of the urban environment, commenting upon his interaction with “workmen of all kinds, and many craftsmen and dealers…shopkeepers and merchants…horsemen and foot-soldiers…Lords Magistrates…clergy, scholars, and treasurers” (Durer 1889, 96). Among these various strata of the population, the new influx of material wealth was readily apparent despite vocalizations of concern about the sins of gluttony and greed (Schama 1987, 3-15). Northern European cities were becoming renowned for every conceivable type of consumption, from “business [to] bourse…breweries [to] brothels,” even though members of the population expressed anxiety about the way in which these practices countered traditional religious beliefs (Snyder 2004, 433). Art itself became a commodity, treated by some as an investment, by others as pleasurable decoration for increasingly large homes (Alpers 1983, xxii).

Figure 2: Simon Luttichuys, Vanitas (c. 1655)

Figure 2: Simon Luttichuys, Vanitas (c. 1655)

It was in this context, of increasing material wealth combined with Christian guilt at overabundance, that disguised symbolism became prominent in the paintings of the era. As described by Erwin Panofsky, disguised symbolism was a complex visual system that was, nevertheless, understood by a wide audience. Artists employing this strategy assigned a symbolic value to everyday objects, in a sort of visual shorthand for lengthier moral and historical concepts and narratives (Panofsky 1953, 131-148). Disguised symbolism was used as a vehicle to “create an experience of revelation” (Ward 1994, 12) through the accoutrements and, thus, the terms, of the material world (Lane 1988, 114).

Intended as a means to “celebrate the triumphs of the Dutch culture of commodities [yet…] moralize against consumption” (Berger, H. 2011, 37-38), familiar objects were transformed into “emblems of mortality to remind the viewer how transitory and fragile his pleasures are and how easily beauty and life are broken” (Slive 1962, 488). In 1984, the art historian Ivan Gaskell convincingly argued that the inclusion of disguised symbolism is ultimately about a desire to reveal Truth. In his article, “Vermeer, Judgment, and Truth,” Gaskell compares the iconography of a particular painting – Woman Holding a Balance – to Biblical verses, other period artworks, and 16th century guides to visual symbolism in order to demonstrate that the painting can be read as a contemplation of Truth as an antidote to the imbalance of worldly vanities (Gaskell 1984, 557-561).

The notion of balance that was integral to the emergence of disguised symbolism in 17th century painting was once again relevant in post-World War II America, when conflict about consumption again reared its head. Then, the United States experienced extreme economic expansion, fueling – and, in part, fueled by – a growing advertising industry with its locus of power on Madison Avenue in Manhattan. Between 1945 and 1960, America’s GDP doubled, and grew by an additional 46% in the ensuing decade, with major growth taking place in the service sector and in the manufacturing of consumer durables (Vatter and Walker 1996, 129). Plentiful jobs, higher wages, and better educational opportunities led to the rapid growth of the middle class and an increasing market for everything from processed foods to refrigerators, cars to a home in the suburbs. Television sets, in particular, became much more affordable to many Americans, and ultimately were made a ubiquitous part of post-war cultural life, with nearly 90% of all US households owning one by 1960 (Jordan 1996, 798).

Yet, many Americans were uneasy with such newfound wealth and increasing consumption. According to historian Elaine Tyler May, the fear that spending would lead to decadence was rooted in a long-standing sense of pragmatism and Christian morality that was skeptical of luxury and opulence (May 1988, 148). The advertising industry was highly influential in challenging these doubts, and took advantage of television’s ability to transmit messages straight to the living rooms of a public with more leisure time and greater disposable income than ever before. Corporate spending on advertising doubled in the decade immediately following the end of World War II, then doubling again within the course of just the next five years (Vatter and Walker 1996, 129). Representations of conspicuous consumption abounded in both print ads and television commercials of the era, demonstrating the power of the image by effectively encouraging Americans toward increasingly materialistic values and practices (O’Guinn and Shrum 1997, 278-294). As the market became saturated and consumers became younger and savvier over the course of the 1960s, a creative approach that would continue to attract and influence Americans was necessitated. Wit and humor, narrative and personality were incorporated into advertising, and subtly began to define not only the products being sold, but also the advertising industry itself. More and more Americans began to associate the trade with modernity, youth, and hipness, in addition to its traditional connotations of wealth, luxury, and indulgence (Meyers 1984, 122; Frank 1997, 132-167).

With the actual historical and locational context of the fictional program Mad Men aligning with that of the Netherlands in the 17th century, we may now begin looking in earnest for shared “signs,” recurring images that appear in the television program and in historical Dutch paintings, encouraging deeper analysis as examples of disguised symbolism. Though there are many incidences of potential disguised symbolism to be found throughout Mad Men, this article focuses on four symbols – the mirror, the timepiece, the egg, and the oyster – that were of especial significance in the 17th century, and whose historical symbolism resonates particularly well in the 1960s storylines that Weiner constructs.

The very first episode of Mad Men (“Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”) introduces the mirror as a symbolic element, of reflection and confrontation with a true image of self that is often denied. The opening scene finds Don sitting alone at a bar table, an empty book of matches and three snuffed-out cigarettes in the ashtray before him and a mirror above him, reflecting the bar’s patrons (Figure 1). Trying to come up with a new advertising strategy for Lucky Strike cigarettes, Don asks the barman about his smoking habits. After a moment’s hesitation, he explains that he loves smoking, but then goes on to state that his wife “hates it” and that “Reader’s Digest says it will kill you.” The camera then pans to the bar, at which the dozens of happy patrons, male and female, who were reflected in the mirror above Don’s head are seen puffing away on their cigarettes. Whether the smokers are oblivious to the dangerous nature of their habit, or just unwilling to confront it, the viewer is put in the position of an omniscient observer of Truth, privy to the reality and self-deception taking place in the scene, and the balance between the pleasures of the physical world and their potential relationship to death.

Even a casual observer might detect the symbolic possibilities that a mirror possesses, and their potential applications in Mad Men. A mirror is a vessel of verisimilitude, confronting the user with an image of self that might not correspond to the user’s perception of self. The mirror’s ability to strip away vanities and deception and reveal truth lends power to this object, as well as symbolic value. The fact that the image that appears in the mirror is temporal in nature, subject to change or vanish altogether when the subject himself moves or disappears, adds another layer of meaning to the mirror, suggesting the transient nature of self-awareness, if not life itself. In the disguised symbolism of the 17th century, this object was used to suggest the impermanence of youth, beauty, and earthly delights as well as the foolishness, the deception, in valuing such ephemeral things.

When watching Mad Men, the viewer often occupies a position similar to that of a spectator of such a 17th century Netherlandish genre scene. The century prior had seen the development of a fascinating new artistic convention: the inclusion of reflective surfaces that depicted people or objects outside of the actual area of the representation, oftentimes the artist or symbols of his craft. For instance, Simon Luttichuys’ painting Vanitas (Figure 2, c. 1655) contains several elements historically representative of the passage of time and inevitability of death, including the hourglass, the fading flower, the blank page, and, of course, the skull. A mirror is also included in this assemblage, demonstrating that the symbolic value of this object is aligned with that of the others. Indeed, it reflects the back of the skull, suggesting that, though we often turn to the mirror for superficial reasons, to satiate our vain impulses, the mirror can actually reveal the fleeting nature of youth and beauty and demonstrate, instead, the true end that awaits all things of this world. In addition to the skull, another object appears in the mirror: an artist’s easel, with a canvas upon it. This inclusion invites the viewer to not only identify painting with a reflection of truth, but to identify personally with the artist, the omniscient maker of meaning, by seeing the scene from his point of view (Stoichita 1997, 186-197). The invitation to witness a moment in time from this vantage point – from which we can see both an object and its reflection, perception and truth, and are left to draw our own conclusions about the difference between the two – is also extended to viewers in Mad Men.

Figure 3: AMC’s Mad Men, ‘Maidenform’ (2008)

Figure 3: AMC’s Mad Men, ‘Maidenform’ (2008)

Figure 4: AMC’s Mad Men, ‘Maidenform’ (2008)

Figure 4: AMC’s Mad Men, ‘Maidenform’ (2008)

Mirrors abound in every season of the program, offering views of several characters that both reveal the characters’ focus on superficiality and self-perception, yet allow us to also see a more critical, corrupted, “realistic” view of their true moral character – from an overweight Betty tightening her stomach in front of a mirror in Don’s new apartment, to Megan, sobbing in front of a bathroom mirror after her acting abilities are criticized, to Don, peering into his mouth with a mirror to look at his rotting tooth, a potent symbol of a decaying soul. “Maidenform” (Season 2, Episode 6) is an episode particularly dominated by reflection and repeatedly offering the viewer the opportunity to stand outside of the scene being depicted and to see the dual function of the mirror: as an object involved in vain pursuits as well as in the revelation of the fraud involved in such self-deception.

The episode opens with the three primary female characters – Betty, Joan, and Peggy – reflected in bedroom mirrors as they are donning undergarments. Here, the mirror represents the superficial focus of women striving to satisfy the gaze of self and/or other. Each woman attempts to construct a youthful and beautiful façade, to appear trim, well-formed, and tan (respectively), whether for their own approval or for that of those who might observe them (Figure 3).[1] Similarly, Peter Campbell uses a mirror in the same episode to seemingly overlook his own lusty sins and see instead a successful and desirable spouse. This scenario arises when Pete returns to the apartment he shares with his wife after a fling with a potential Playtex bra model who still lives at home with her mother. Creeping into a darkened house, Pete puts down his briefcase and catches a glimpse of himself in the hall mirror. After looking himself in the eye for a moment, he gave a slight, smug smile and looked away, perhaps relishing his newfound studly self-perception while ignoring the obviously roguish dimensions of his character. In all of these cases, the mirror is engaged in its primary function, serving as a reflective surface that allows those who stand before it to see what they want to see – a flattering version of themselves that is nonetheless constructed of fleeting qualities such as youth, beauty, and sexual desirability.

Later in the episode, the mirror takes on its second function, revealing to the omniscient viewer both the superficial reflection as well as the often-unpleasant Truth about what or who is shown in its surface. For example, midway through the episode, Don meets Bobbi Barrett in her hotel room, where she pours two glasses of champagne in front of a mirror. She looks up at Don, who approaches her from behind, and has a verbal exchange with him that ends in his request for her to “stop talking,” perhaps because her speech disrupts the desirable image that he saw reflected in the glass. They kiss and turn away, while the viewer continues to watch their lusty embrace in the mirror. Though the couple is surely attractive and desirable on the surface, the viewer sees in the mirror two individuals who are violating their marital vows as they head toward the bed that lies in shadow. Indeed, the scene quickly goes sour when Bobbi, in that bed, verbally reveals this truth that Don doesn’t want to face: he has developed a reputation around town for being a connoisseur in the field of extra-marital affairs.

Figure 5: AMC’s Mad Men, ‘Doorways’ (2013)

Figure 5: AMC’s Mad Men, ‘Doorways’ (2013)

In the final scene of the episode, the exchange with Bobbi is revisited, in a sense, as the viewer witnesses Don shaving before a mirror. His daughter Sally comes into the bathroom to observe him, reassuring her father that she “won’t talk” so as not to disturb him in the process – a verbal reminder of his own request to his mistress. He stops to look at her, then back at himself in the mirror. He is visibly shaken, and cannot continue his act of grooming, first looking himself in the eye, then averting his own gaze before sitting down on the toilet, with his back to the mirror above the sink, demonstrating an inability to confront his own infidelity as reflected back to him. However, the viewer is still privy to a mirror image of Don for, as the camera pulls back, we see the image of the “real” person slipping off-screen to the left, as a reflection of him in the mirror on the back of the bathroom door comes into view on the right side of the screen. For a moment, both images inhabit our field of vision, before the scene fades to black (Figure 4). Just as in Luttichuys’ painting, the viewer is put in the position of the omniscient meaning-maker, confronted with dueling dimensions of reality: Truth and perception. Here, the deceptive nature of the glass now becomes visible not only to Don, but to the viewer as well, whose ability to stand outside the scene and observe that which is simultaneously represented and that which is not, highlights the discrepancy between reality and reflection and drives home the need to challenge the acceptance of superficial appearances with honest assessments of cost and benefits.

The appearance of the wristwatch and its significance in several episodes of Mad Men also speaks to self-deception, particularly in regard to the denial of one’s mortality. The wristwatch, like the hourglass in Luttichuys’s painting and many other Netherlandish genre scenes, reminds the viewer that time is passing and will eventually catch up with us all, that the pleasures of indulgence and consumption will pass, and that we – like all material things – will ultimately age and die. This symbolism is driven home in Season 6, Episode 1 (“Doorways”), for example: an episode almost entirely about death. The episode opens dramatically, with the camera pointed toward the ceiling, a woman screaming, and a doctor’s face looming large up above, performing chest compressions on the person whose perspective the viewer occupies, putting us in position to contemplate the potential for an imminent and unexpected death. The scene fades to black, as the voice of Don reads the first sentence from Dante’s Inferno: “Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray from the straight road, and woke to find myself alone in a dark wood.” A scene comes into view, of Don reading and Megan sunbathing on Waikiki Beach. Just a moment later, he picks up his wristwatch to check the time for Megan, only to discover that the watch is not working (Figure 5). He holds it to his ear, scrutinizes the dial, then hands it to Megan, who insists that Don must have gotten the watch wet. After a moment of consideration, she hands it back to him saying, “Who cares what time it is?”

Figure 6: Peter Claesz, Vanitas Still Life (1630)

Figure 6: Peter Claesz, Vanitas Still Life (1630)

Figure 7: AMC’s Mad Men, ‘Ladies Room’ (2007)

Figure 7: AMC’s Mad Men, ‘Ladies Room’ (2007)

Figure 8: Jan van Eyck, Lucca Madonna (1436)

Figure 8: Jan van Eyck, Lucca Madonna (1436)

The meaning behind this opening sequence revolves around an interpretation of the stopped watch as a symbol of death. In paintings, all watches and clocks are, of course, stopped, frozen by the artist at a distinct moment in time, for all time. Yet it is equally obvious that, in the disguised symbolism of 17th century paintings, the appearance of a “stopped” timepiece was not a mere side effect of the painting process, but a deliberately symbolic inclusion. In Peter Claesz’s 1630 Vanitas Still Life (Figure 6), a skull and bone rest atop a table, next to an empty and overturned glass, a common symbol for a life brought to an abrupt end. Beside the glass is an elaborate pocketwatch, open, with a mirror in its lid reflecting nothingness and its hands frozen in time. The watch, viewed in conjunction with the skull and glass, can be read as implying the end of time that precedes the darkness, the truth we wish to avoid, seen in the mirror. As the watch stops ticking, so, too, we are left to gather, does the heart of its owner.

This interpretation is particularly relevant in light of the juxtaposition of images – heart attack victim and Don’s stopped watch – seen in “Doorways.” The fact that Megan disregards the stopped watch may be a sign of her youth and naivety, her sense that there are still many more moments to be experienced, despite the fact that one never knows when he will run out of time, so to speak. Yet the observant viewer likely can recognize that this is a symbol not to be ignored, especially since it has appeared before – in Season 2, Episode 3 (“The Benefactors”), in which Don’s watch is again described as having stopped, only later to be repaired by Betty. Perhaps there, the broken watch was more metaphorical, a representation of Don’s marriage nearing its expiration date (this was, after all, the episode in which he begins his affair with Bobbi Barrett that later led to his divorce). In “Doorways,” however, the close visual link between the stopped watch and stopped heart suggest a more fatalistic reading in keeping with the vanitas imagery of the 17th century, which overtly drew parallels between timepieces and the end of all time.

The second-ever episode of the series, “Ladies Room,” seems to likewise directly reference the disguised symbolism popularized by 17th century Netherlandish painting. The opening sequence of the episode is a beautifully composed still life activated by the presence of the motion picture camera. In the first shot, an egg is cracked and broken, with the yolk poured out into a small bowl. A disembodied hand then reaches for a dish in which a lemon sits, halved. One half is taken away, placed in a cloth napkin, and squeezed over the yolk. In the background, the viewer can discern other bowls, piled high with croutons, cheese, and lettuce – the makings of a Caesar salad (Figure 7). Yet the focus is clearly on the egg, a highly symbolic food item that makes its way into dozens of 17th century paintings, as well as several future episodes of Mad Men.

Eggs have, in many cultures and for many millennia, been considered a symbol of fertility, reproduction, and regeneration. The egg’s physical characteristics and actual function – a vessel for a new life hidden within a rounded form that has been compared to both a testicle and a breast – are clearly responsible for these attributes, which occur in the art and mythology of societies as diverse as that of ancient Egypt, China, and Finland (Newall 1967, 3-32). The Christian artists of the Northern Renaissance imbued the egg with additional levels of disguised symbolism that were carried on in the works of 17th century Netherlandish painters. Within the Christian tradition, the egg became representative of the Resurrection of Christ (Jesus rising from the dead as the chick springs forth from a seemingly inert object) as well as the Incarnation (with the egg representing the womb of Mary, impregnated with the Christ child).

Jan van Eyck’s Lucca Madonna (Figure 8, 1436) illustrates this latter interpretation of the egg, demonstrating the new, distinctly religious dimension to the pre-Christian association of the egg with regeneration and fertility. In this painting – as well as other images of the Madonna by van Eyck, such as the Ince Hall Madonna – the Virgin Mary is enthroned in a domestic interior, nursing the newborn Christ child on her lap. To the right are objects such as a basin filled with water and a clear glass vessel that are traditionally read as symbols of baptism and of Mary’s intact virginity, respectively.[2] On the left side of the picture plane is a large leaded glass window through which light passes: a potentially symbolic inclusion, as Christ is often called the light of the world, the means by which divine truth is illuminated. The light beams pass through the intact glass (again, symbolic of the undisturbed virginity of Mary) to illuminate not only the Madonna and child, but two eggs that sit directly on the windowsill. The symbolism of the eggs parallel that of the other objects represented in the scene, in that they speak to the idea of new life being created and contained within something unbroken and intact. The fact that there are two eggs – mirroring the two human figures present in the painting – suggests that van Eyck is referring not only to the Incarnation of Christ, but to the Immaculate Conception of Mary herself. In both cases, fertility and reproduction were stripped of the “sinful” stain of sexuality; instead, they were connected to ideas of purity, wholeness, and the sacrality of familial life, which the egg, as a versatile symbol, took on.

Figure 9: AMC’s Mad Men, ‘Three Sundays’ (2008)

Figure 9: AMC’s Mad Men, ‘Three Sundays’ (2008)

In Season 2, Episode 4, “Three Sundays,” the egg appears in a way that corresponds with the disguised symbolism just described. This episode focuses on Peggy Olsen and her relationship with religion in the aftermath of giving birth to Peter Campbell’s son. Despite her struggles with spirituality and the institution of the Catholic Church, Peggy agrees to do some pro bono advertising work for her home parish and develops a friendly relationship with the young pastor in the meantime. Through dialogue with her family, the pastor, Father John, finds out about the child Peggy bore out of wedlock. At the end of the episode, the third Sunday – Easter Sunday – has arrived, and an egg hunt is taking place on the church grounds. Father John approaches Peggy and the camera zooms in, then holds the image of the priest pressing a blue egg into the palm of her white gloved hand, “for the little one” (Figure 9). The Easter interpretation of the egg – as a sign of the risen Christ – is here eclipsed by the other symbolic value of the egg, as a sign of fruitful femininity and the proliferation of family life through new birth. Though Peggy’s virginity is, of course, no longer intact, the priest’s gesture seems to suggest a desire to restore wholeness to Peggy herself, and to her family life. Peggy, who ultimately gives her child up for adoption, seems uncomfortable with the gesture, perhaps not only shocked by Father John’s knowledge of her illegitimate child, but unwilling to adhere to the model of femininity and family life implied by the intact egg and visualized in van Eyck’s Madonna paintings.

Understanding the egg as a symbol of fertility and family with sacred undertones helps inform an understanding of an even more frequently seen image, repeated in several episodes of Mad Men: that of the broken egg. If the intact egg is a symbol of wholeness, virtue, and the life-giving role of sexuality in a familial context, the broken egg represents the shattering of innocence, integrity, and the familial bond. Broken eggs can frequently be found in Netherlandish paintings representing the cost of intemperance, particularly as it relates to sexuality and family life. For example, Jan Steen’s raucous Interior of an Inn (Figure 10, c. 1665) depicts a barmaid whose skirt is being lifted by an inebriated patron. Though she places one hand on his arm as though to restrain him, with her other hand, she touches her breast in a sensual manner. Two other men look on, one openly laughing and the other provocatively stuffing the bowl of his long-stemmed pipe with his pinky finger while staring at the female subject. On the floor before them all are opened mussel shells (the symbolism of mollusks to be discussed at length later in this article), an empty frying pan with an exceedingly long handle, and many broken eggshells.

While there might be a logical interpretation of the eggs’ appearance – surely, in a scene of such boisterous behavior, its reasonable to assume that a fragile food item might be disturbed – their staged appearance on the floor, in conjunction with the other objects that surround them and the previously established symbolic value of intact eggs, suggests disguised symbolism at work. The indulgence in the vices of smoking and drinking are overtly pictured in the work. Additionally, sexual indulgence is implied through the gestures of the painting’s characters and the phallic allusions of the pipe stem and pan handle juxtaposed with the receptive voids of the pipe’s bowl and pan’s bottom. The broken eggs add a moralizing component to this otherwise festive scene, alluding to the destruction of purity in the domestic ideal expressed by the intact egg, and signifying especially fallen womanhood (Thomson and Fahy 1990, 11).

Figure 10: Jan Steen, Interior of an Inn (c. 1665)

Figure 10: Jan Steen, Interior of an Inn (c. 1665)

Figure 11: AMC’s Mad Men, ‘Red in the Face’ (2007)

Figure 11: AMC’s Mad Men, ‘Red in the Face’ (2007)

Breaking eggs serve a similar iconographic function in Mad Men, and are especially abundant in Season 3, appearing in Episode 4 (“The Arrangements”) and Episode 5 (“The Fog”) alike. In both cases, the egg’s historical value as a symbol of incarnation, birth, and familial life is relevant, but the fact that the egg is shown breaking seems to indicate the fracturing and dissolution of family life. In “The Arrangements,” the premise by which the breaking egg is introduced is, again, the making of a Caesar salad. Gathered around the table this time are Don, Peter Campbell, and Horace Cook, Jr. (“Ho-Ho”), one of Pete’s old school friends. Ho-Ho is presented as a spoiled rich kid, about to waste his inheritance by investing in jai alai. The dinner conversation revolves around father-son tensions – particularly, the distaste Horace Cook, Sr. has for his son’s leisurely lifestyle and investment choices – a theme that will repeat throughout the episode. As the men talk around the table, a new camera angle is presented, which places the salad preparation table – and, significantly, the breaking of an egg – in the foreground of the shot. Perhaps not coincidentally, this same episode features Gene, Betty’s father, dying, as well as an insomniac Don getting up in the middle of the night to stare at a picture of his father and step-mother: families shattered, just as the egg was.

In “The Fog,” Betty Draper gives birth to Gene, the child conceived even as her marriage with Don was falling apart. Again, the egg is given a place of importance, visually and, this time, in regard to dialogue as well. Don, taking care of Sally and Bobby while Betty is hospitalized, is shown cooking a late night snack of eggs and corned beef hash. He holds an egg up to the light, “checking for a chick” as Sally astutely guesses, before the camera closes in on the frying pan to show Don breaking the egg over the sizzling meat. Sally says that her teacher taught her that eggs from a store could never become a chicken, “even though they came from a chicken.” Sally then awkwardly transitions into a question about whether or not the baby will live in Grandpa Gene’s old room. The new life of the Gene, Jr. is juxtaposed with the death of Gene, Sr., visualized by the breaking of the egg. Perhaps as well, Don’s futile search for new life in the egg (the lack of a chick and Sally’s statement that he will never find a chick in eggs like that) represents the inability for his family to be reborn and recover from his adultery.

The image of the broken egg again reflects generational conflict and families divided due to intemperance in Season 4, Episode 2, “Christmas Comes But Once a Year.” Taking place in the aftermath of the Drapers’ divorce, this episode finds Sally’s close friend Glen Bishop breaking into the family home (now occupied by Betty and her new husband, Henry Francis) and vandalizing it with the help of his friend. Glen, the product of a broken home himself, has been motivated to engage in this behavior by the confidences of Sally, who confesses extreme unhappiness in her new familial environment. The two young boys focus their destructive energies on the kitchen, and are shown dumping out the refrigerator contents on an empty counter. While there are a few food elements that are clearly visible (such as ketchup and cereal), there is again a focus on eggs, with the boys removing a carton and breaking individual eggs all around the kitchen. It is a scene of simultaneous abundance and squander, infused with anger. These representatives of the younger generation lay waste to the fruits of capitalism and consumerism as they express frustration with the seeming selfishness of their parents. The boys’ unhappiness with the divided Draper household – and their own, as well – is reinforced by the symbolic connection between broken eggs and broken families that echoes through the seasons of Mad Men.

A final symbolic element to appear in Mad Men is the oyster, verbally and visually alluded to in several episodes of the series. Throughout, the oyster serves as a symbol of luxury and indulgence, often with intemperance as an undertone. For example, in Season 2, Episode 2 (“Flight 1”), Peter Campbell finds out that his recently deceased father was insolvent, having spent his money on “oysters and travel club memberships” – seemingly frivolous and fleeting pleasures. This verbal association of the oyster with self-indulgence is enhanced by imagery in the series as well, such as that seen in Season 1, Episode 7: “Red in the Face.” Don and Roger, out for a bender of a lunch, are enjoying copious amounts of oysters and martinis. At the 34:33 mark, as Roger is ordering another pair of drinks and more oysters, the camera focuses in on the table before them. On the red and white striped tablecloth sit two platters piled high with the remains of a decadent lunch. Each hosts a dozen empty half-shells and several squeezed lemon wedges nestled on a bed of lettuce alongside a partially-full bowl of cocktail sauce. On a small plate between the two main dishes are two lemon wedges, one untouched and the other appearing squeezed. Directly adjacent to this plate is an ashtray, full of cigarette butts and ashes. Two small carafes of water appear half-full, and Roger’s martini glass, nearly empty (Figure 11). The visual connotes both extravagance and waste, abundance spent, with symbolism and a moralizing tone that are both borrowed from Netherlandish painting.

Ubiquitous in 17th century genre scenes, oysters were – then and now – a food that connoted luxury and indulgence, yet also perhaps danger. The European fascination with the oyster can be traced back at least as far as Greek mythology, which initiated the association of the erotic with the shellfish by situating the birth of the goddess Aphrodite on an oyster shell. “The oyster remained a symbol of Aphrodite throughout antiquity, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and continued into the Baroque era,” bringing with it through the ages an association with the characteristics of “fertility, pleasure, and sex” that were attributed to the goddess herself (Cheney 1987, 135-6). The rise of the Dutch empire in the 1600s added another layer of symbolic meaning to the oyster. As the Dutch conquered the Portuguese in the waters of the Indian Ocean around the mid-century mark, pearl fisheries and oyster-rich waters came under the domain of the Netherlands, and the oyster became an accessible – if rare – edible indulgence that simultaneously represented the increasing power and possessions of the nation.

When seen through a moralizing lens, however, the positive identifications of the oyster with abundance, wealth, and sensual pleasure can be correlated to the deadly sins of greed, pride, gluttony, and lust. Indeed, many Dutch genre painters employed the image of the oyster in their works as a strategy for documenting the increasing luxury and materialism of their time while suggesting the fleeting nature of such earthly passions. In his 1618 tome Symbolorum ac Emblematum Ethico-Politicorum, Joachim Camerarius explained that paintings that illustrated the drinking of wine and eating of oysters spoke not only to pleasure, but to the dangers of over-indulging in physical desires (Camerius 1618, 120). The scholar claimed that the inclusion of oysters in an image were a means by which a nouveau-riche society that was, at the same time, historically abstemious could grapple with such conflicting aspects of its character (Camerius 1618, 121).

The duality of the oyster’s symbolism has much to do with the potential peril involved in its actual consumption. Raw shellfish carries a risk for bacterial contamination that can cause serious illness in those who consume a tainted sample. Illnesses such as hepatitis, typhoid, or even death by septicemia were not uncommon in centuries past, when refrigeration was lacking and proper handling techniques were not always employed. The literal link between indulgence and the possibility of an untimely death made the oyster a symbol ripe for exploitation by Netherlandish vanitas painters.

Figure 12: Jan Steen, Easy Come, Easy Go (1661)

Figure 12: Jan Steen, Easy Come, Easy Go (1661)

As such, it became “the focus of many genre paintings…frequently the principal food depicted, serving as a vehicle for moral comment” in scenes both superficially merry and serious (Cheney 1987, 135). For example, in Jan Steen’s Easy Come, Easy Go (Figure 12, 1661), the oyster meal is at the center of a seemingly festive gathering loaded with disguised symbolism. In the dining room of a lavishly appointed home, an elderly servant opens oysters for her laughing master, while a beautiful young woman offers him a full glass. The contrast between these two female figures is enough to indicate a negative interpretation of the oyster; associated with old age, not youth and beauty, with death rather than the full life that the brimming cup signifies. Other aspects of the painting add layers of meaning to the oyster’s symbolism. Behind the master of the house is a statue of the goddess Fortuna mounting a die and surrounded by strange sculptural elements. For example, beneath her are two cornucopias: the one on the right (the side of the young woman) overflowing with fruit and coins, while the one on the left (the side of the elderly woman and oyster) full of wilting brambles. Similarly, on the left side of Fortuna is a weeping putto, while on the right, a cheerful one reigns, scepter in hand.

The duality of the imagery here is reinforced by the inscription on the mantelpiece beneath Fortuna that reads “Easily Won, Easily Spent.” A simple explanation for this composition might relate the message and symbolism to the gambling that is taking place in the background of the scene: the viewer sees two men standing around a gaming table through a doorway painted in the upper left corner of the canvas, rolling dice in a game of backgammon. However, the action taking place in the foreground of the scene may be even more pertinent to understanding the fullness of the moralizing message Steen wished to express. Here, an oversized lemon is place on the seat of a chair in closest proximity to the viewer, its peel twisting off in a way that was meant to imitate the inner springs of a clock, symbolizing the passage of time. The lemon is placed next to a juicy oyster, though several empty shells also occupy the seat of this chair, as well as the floor. To the left of this chair, also in the foreground of the scene, is a representation of a boy adding water to wine, suggesting not only religious ritual, but the tempering that is desperately needed in this scene. Behind him on the ground are two empty glasses, perhaps representing the emptiness – even the death – that can be avoided through moderation. Overall, the oyster here serves as a symbol of indulgence and wealth, but is simultaneously associated with chance and even death. The contrast suggests the transient nature of earthly delights and urges moderation and restraint.

Steen’s intention, and that of the other painters of the 17th century symbolic genre scene, was to visualize the decadence of their culture that many members of the up and coming middle-income class of patrons idealized or perhaps even experienced. Yet, these artists sought to simultaneously problematize indulgence by reflecting on the true nature of mankind’s mortal existence and the ultimate cost of consumption by using symbols and signs that a contemporary audience could understand. Thus, Dutch artists could access the often complex, conflicting feelings – of both desire and guilt – that their audience possessed through images that were equally layered with duality of meaning. A similar sort of disguised symbolism works in Mad Men not only because the cultural climate of the 1960s had much in common with that of the Netherlands in the 17th century, but because our contemporary 21st century context does as well.

Since Mad Men debuted seven years ago, its Western audiences have enjoyed the highest standard of living the world has ever known — but with the knowledge that this abundance of riches often comes at the expense of other people, animals, and the environment. Like the Dutch as well as their American predecessors in the 1960s, the 21st century audience of Mad Men is experiencing the attraction of material pleasures (made all the more alluring by the ubiquitous advertising of our age) while simultaneously witnessing the social and environmental cost of consumption. The continuing conflict between consumption and conscience suggests that the use of disguised symbolism in Mad Men can transcend the function of a visual narrative device, and may also point viewers toward a course of action that is as relevant today as it was in the 17th century: to seek Truth and strive for balance in the complex relationship between mortality, morality, and materialism.


Works Cited

Alpers, Svetlana. 1983. The Art of Describing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Bal, Mieke and Norman Bryson. 1991. “Semiotics and Art History.” The Art Bulletin 73/2: 174-208.

Berger, Harry. 2011. Caterpillage: Reflections on Seventeenth-Century Dutch Still Life Painting. New York: Fordham University Press.

Berger, John. 1991. Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin Books.

Butler, Jeremy. 2010.”’Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’: Historicizing Visual Style in Mad Men.” In Mad Men: Dream Come True TV, edited by Gary Edgerton, 55-71. London: I.B. Tauris.

Camerarius, Joachim. 1618. Symbolorum ac Emblematum Ethico-Politicorum. Middleburg.

Cheney, Liana De Girolami. 1987. “The Oyster in Dutch Genre Paintings: Moral or Erotic Symbolism.” Artibus Et Historiae 8/15: 135-158.

Derrida, Jacques. 1982. Dissemination. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Derrida, Jacques. 1979. “Living On: Border Lines.” In Deconstruction and Criticism, edited by H. Bloom, et al., 75-176. New York: Continuum Publishing Group.

Dürer, Albrecht. 1889. Literary Remains of Albrecht Dürer. Ed. W.M. Conway. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Frank, Thomas. 1997. The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Gaskell, Ivan. 1984. “Vermeer, Judgment, and Truth.” Burlington Magazine 126/978: 557-561.

Hansen, Jim. 2013. “Mod Men.” In Mad Men, Mad World: Sex, Politics, & Style in the 1960s, edited by Lauren Goodlad, Lilya Kaganovsky, and Robert Rushing, 145-160. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Jordan, Winthrop. 1996. The Americans. Boston: McDougal Littell.

Lane, Barbara. 1988. “Sacred vs. Profane in Early Netherlandish Painting.” Simiolus: Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art 18/3: 107-115.

May, Elaine Tyler. 1988. Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era. New York: Basic Books.

Meyers, William. 1984. The Image Makers: Power and Persuasion on Madison Avenue. Los Angeles: Times Books.

Newall, Venetia. 1967. “Easter Eggs.” The Journal of American Folklore 80/315: 3-32.

O’Guinn, Thomas and L. J. Shrum. 1997. “The Role of Television in the Construction of Consumer Reality.” Journal of Consumer Research 23/4: 278-294.

Panofsky, Erwin. 1953. Early Netherlandish Painting (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Schama, Simon. 1987. The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age. New York: Alfred Knopf.

Slive, Seymour. 1962. “Realism and Symbolism in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Painting.” Daedalus 91/3: 469-500.

Snyder, James. 2004. Northern Renaissance Art. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall.

Stoichita, Victor. 1997. The Self-Aware Image: An Insight into Early Modern Meta-Painting. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Thompson, James and Everett Fahy. 1990. “Jean-Baptiste Greuze.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 47/3: 5-54.

Vatter, Harold and John Walker, eds. 1996. History of the United States Economy Since World War II. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.

Ward, John. 1994. “Disguised Symbolism as Enactive Symbolism.” Artibus et Historiae 15/29: 9-53.



[1] This idea is reinforced by Don’s pitch to the Playtex company later in the episode, in which he says, “its about how they [women] want to be seen by us, their husbands, their boyfriends, their friends’ husbands.”

[2] While the basin’s likeness to a baptismal font makes for a relatively straightforward comparison, the importance of the glass carafe is understood best in light of period sources, such as this Nativity song quoted by van Eyck in another composition: “As the sunbeam through the glass passeth but not breaketh, so the Virgin, as she was, Virgin still remaineth.” See Panofsky 1953, 144.


Bio: Dr. Catherine Wilkins is a faculty member in the Honors College at the University of South Florida. She received a M.A. in Art History (2003) and an interdisciplinary Ph.D. in Cultural History (2008) from Tulane University. The subject of her doctoral dissertation was post-World War II German landscape painting and its use as a vehicle for social critique. Dr. Wilkins’ research on this subject was recently published as Landscape Imagery, Politics, and Identity in a Divided Germany, 1968-1989 (London: Ashgate, 2013). Her current research interests cover a range of topics in modern and contemporary art and popular culture. Additional publications include “Performing Art History’s Problems with New Media: ‘Capitalist Realism,’ the Northern Renaissance, and Gerhard Richter.” NMediaC, Vol. 6, No. 1 (Summer 2009) and “Constructing Individual Identity in a Cybernetic Age.” Gerard Lange Cartograph/Jared Ragland Apropos (Rocky Mount, N.C.: Barton College Press, 2010).

When a Good Girl Goes to War: Claire Adams Mackinnon and Her Service During World War I – Heather L. Robinson


Claire Adams Mackinnon and her contributions to the war effort 100 years ago are largely forgotten. The product of two Canadian military families, she put aside her burgeoning film career when war broke out to train and work as a nurse before returning to the silent screen. This article examines available evidence to reconstruct this period of her career (1914-1919), encompassing her nursing experience, her role in a fundraising drive for the US Red Cross, and her starring role in a government sexual hygiene campaign, which ignited one of the first censorship storms of the early film industry. I will argue that the choices Adams made reflect not only a determination to aid the war effort, but also place her at the vanguard of the women’s movement during the volatile years of the mid-1910s. This successful actress, who spent the second half of her life in Melbourne and regional Victoria, has largely been forgotten by film history. However, by placing this early period of her work within a firm historical context, one dominated by the fight for women’s suffrage, sex education and the First World War, we gain an appreciation of her significance within the early film industry and the origins of her ongoing community service.



For anyone with a passing interest in silent film history, Claire Adams Mackinnon is an intriguing transnational figure. A British subject for much of her life, she was born in Canada to an English father in 1896. A singer and an actress, on both stage and screen, she was a child performer using her real name “Beryl” Adams before gaining success as a motion picture actress in New York. As a teenager in early Thomas Edison productions she was known first as “Clara” then “Peggy” Adams before publically assuming her family pet name “Claire” in 1918. In 1920 Adams moved to Los Angeles and enjoyed an eight-year Hollywood career. In 1931 she became an American citizen prior to spending the last forty years of her life as an Australian.[1] Today, however, she remains largely unknown, despite appearing in some of the silent era’s most influential, popular and profitable films alongside some of the best-known artists and producers of the era.

If Adams is remembered at all it is within select circles in Victoria, Australia. Following the death of her first husband, Adams enjoyed a whirlwind courtship and marriage to Donald Scobie Mackinnon, the scion of a Melbourne legal and horseracing family. Together they reinvented the Western District homestead Mooramong, creating a jazz age delight redolent of the Hollywood Hills lifestyle she had left behind. Now in the hands of the National Trust of Australia (Victoria), Mooramong remains defiantly anachronistic in a district better known for its bluestone piles and weatherboard restraint, a monument to a much-loved couple reflecting their sophisticated tastes and cosmopolitan life experiences. Mrs Mackinnon’s career is reduced to a prelude to her second marriage, like a folly of youth indulged before her adult life began.

Figure 1: Mooramong homestead, Skipton, Victoria. Image used courtesy of National Trust of Australia (Victoria).

Figure 1: Mooramong homestead, Skipton, Victoria. Image used courtesy of National Trust of Australia (Victoria).

An intensely private person throughout her life, Adams was enigmatic from her earliest interviews and has left little evidence to enable a simple or personal interpretation of her career.[2] Unlike many of her more famous contemporaries, she was not a movie star created by a studio publicity department: she was an experienced working actress, appearing across genres for a number of companies and eschewing the celebrity lifestyle. This independent approach resulted in a comparatively low public profile.[3] Nor was Adams in Hollywood when the studios began to construct their historical legacies. As such, she appears infrequently as a footnote in popular and scholarly accounts of the silent era, including the one written by her first husband, Benjamin B Hampton.[4] Eminent film scholars welcomed Hampton’s text as an authoritative account of the history of the early film industry.[5] If even her husband did not think she warranted more than an image caption, one could easily conclude that Adams was not terribly significant. However, as Lesley Speed suggests, Adams’s career is significant not only for the continuity of her workload, but for the time in which she was active, “spanning a period of major changes in the American film industry, including the transition from short films to feature-length productions, the industry’s relocation from the East coast to Los Angeles, the establishment of the star system and the formation of vertically-integrated major studios” (Speed 2015, 4).

Like the majority of women who dominated the ranks of the early motion picture industry, Adams has fallen through the gaps of film history’s indeterminacy.[6] However, as more scholars analyse the period and primary sources become more accessible, we are able to reconstruct a more accurate representation of the industry, the individuals and the era during which Adams was active, and the picture that emerges is one dominated by the women’s movement. Women made up at least 83% of the cinema audience at a time “when women’s voices were particularly valued” (Stamp 2012, 6). Women’s history scholars note that from the late 1910s “young women could not help but be influenced by the currents of the age” (Banner 1974, 151). As a young woman in New York City during the First World War, Adams was surrounded by the opportunities, debates and challenges confronting the first generation of young women free to pursue a career as a choice rather than a necessity. She was amongst the target audience for orators and activists such as Margaret Sanger promoting the birth control movement and key figures campaigning for Women’s Suffrage, which would not pass into legislation until 1920. We have no evidence that Claire Adams identified herself as an early feminist. However, through her career choices, she reflects the values and ideologies synonymous with the movement, a cultural catalyst which grew in parallel with the development of the motion picture industry.

By mainly focussing on two of her early feature films, this article will demonstrate that Claire Adams deserves recognition not only as a well-respected, adventurous and greatly admired actress of her day, but also as a young woman navigating the perils and opportunities opening up for women in the early twentieth century. She is also a representative of the forgotten contributions of countless women working in early cinema. I will examine her work of one hundred years ago, when she stepped away from Edison Studios and the early motion picture industry to train as a nurse, only to return to motion pictures in support of the troops heading off to the battlefields of Europe. By placing these early works within a firm historical context we will gain a more complete understanding of the scale and intersections of her careers, as both nurse and actress, her role at the vanguard of contentious social issues of the mid 1910s and her active participation in landmark moments of the early American film industry.

Real Life Drama

According to the Australian Dictionary of Biography, Claire Adams worked as a nurse for the Red Cross during World War I (Maxwell, 2000). This description conjures evocative images of mud and blood, battlefields and field hospitals. What drove an aspiring young actress away from the movie studio and into a hospital theatre? What data is available to determine how much official nursing she contributed to the war effort one hundred years ago?

Figure 2: Figure 2. A young ‘Clara’ Adams (centre) with co-stars from left: Marion Weeks, Yale Boss, Elsie McLeod and Gertrude McCoy in The Office Boy’s Birthday (Charles M. Seay, 1913). From Kinetogram, 1 January 1913. Source: Seaver Centre for Western History Research, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

Figure 2:  A young ‘Clara’ Adams (centre) with co-stars from left: Marion Weeks, Yale Boss, Elsie McLeod and Gertrude McCoy in The Office Boy’s Birthday (Charles M. Seay, 1913). From Kinetogram, 1 January 1913. Source: Seaver Centre for Western History Research, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

In 1912, Adams began performing for Thomas Edison’s film production company under the stage name “Clara” Adams and appeared in 17 motion picture shorts in two years (Internet Movie Database, 2015). At the outbreak of war in 1914, she was almost 18 years of age. Both her grandfathers had served in the British military in Canada and India before entering business and public service (Letourneau 1982; Manitoba Historical Society 2009). This family tradition and tales of exploits on the battlefield inspired Adams and her brother Gerald as children (Will 1978, 30). As young adults, they were determined to emulate their forebears and sought opportunities to volunteer for the war effort.[7] Together they had grown up in an environment that was conservative and under the influence Anglo-Victorian social strictures of duty and community service. These strictures included a strong sense of volunteerism, which saw upper- and middle-class young people from across the British Empire come forward to support their King and Country (Quiney 1998, 190). Adams set aside acting to make an active contribution to the war effort.

Like thousands of young women across the British Empire, Adams applied to join the Voluntary Aid Detachment or V.A.D service, a corps of nurses and ambulance drivers trained and managed for the Red Cross by St John’s Ambulance. However, owing to her youth and inexperience, she was turned away (“Claire Adams, Starring in ‘The End of the Road’ Is Real Western Canada Girl”, 1920). She could not change her age but was able to address her skillset. Adams enrolled at Detroit’s Grace Hospital Training School for Nurses, one of the most respected institutions of its kind in North America (“Claire Adams, Starring in ‘The End of the Road’ Is Real Western Canada Girl”, 1920). Grace Hospital was just over the border from Canada on the shores of Lake St Clair, close to Toronto where she was living with her father Stanley Adams (Sweet & Stephens transcript). By 12 June 1915, Adams was listed on a ferry passenger manifest as an eighteen-year-old student nurse travelling between the two cities (, 2009).

Unfortunately the enrolment records for the Grace Hospital Training School for Nurses from this time period do not survive, but the institution’s prospectus does, specifying a strict and rigorous lifestyle for their live-in student nurses.[8] This training would equip the young ladies to assist senior staff with both male and female patients in the hospital’s surgery, children’s ward and the obstetrics wing. Other extant records from Grace Hospital include the lists of graduates, and Adams’s name does not appear there either.[9] However this would not have prevented her from gaining employment as a nursing assistant, especially at a time when people with any medical or first aid experience were in high demand. Many students enrolled and failed to make it through the rigors of training or were unsuited to the prohibitive lifestyle required of those living in (Kathleen E. Schmeling, pers. comm.).

The Canadian Red Cross website describes how anyone working as a volunteer at a hospital during the Great War was referred to as a Red Cross nurse. Unfortunately records of the thousands of people who gave their time and energies to help have been either destroyed or did not exist in the first place.[10] What do still exist though are the Canadian census records taken in 1916 (, 2009). They record that Adams was staying with her mother in Winnipeg and working as a “doctor’s assistant”. As happened across the Empire, she was most likely one of the thousands of women who volunteered to work in their local hospital. Deer Lodge was one of many country houses and hotels across Canada converted to military hospitals dedicated to convalescent soldiers returning from the front (Deer Lodge Centre, 20014). The English Government was short of both funds and infrastructure to deal with the number of wounded generated by the new means of mechanised warfare. Deer Lodge was established as a repatriation hospital in Winnipeg in October 1915 following a request made by the English Government to Commonwealth nations contributing troops to the war. Each country or dominion of the British Empire became responsible for the convalescent care of their own when casualty numbers exceeded British expectations and resources.[11]

Moving back to Winnipeg to reside with her mother Lillian, a piano teacher, also offered Adams the chance to participate in another historical event. In January of 1916, the women of Manitoba Province were the first in Canada to be granted the right to vote in municipal elections and hold public office. This occurred 2 years before most of their countrywomen and 4 years ahead of women in the United States (Jackal & Millette, 2015). Even during times of war, this would have been something worth celebrating and hard to ignore.

Following the Battle of the Somme in July 1916, the number of wounded Canadian troops requiring convalescent care rose from 2,620 in July 1916 to 11,981 by the year’s end (Veterans Affairs Canada, 2015). Adams may not have experienced the action on the front, but she would have witnessed the consequences it had on soldiers. In whatever capacity she was serving, she would have been expected to meet the demands of a near five-fold increase in the number of shattered patients, some approximately her own age, in the makeshift over-crowded wards ill-equipped to deal with them.

In 1916, Adams was still only 19-years-old. The physical toll of nursing accompanied by emotional exhaustion were the reasons Adams later gave to explain her return to motion pictures, admitting that she “collapsed finally under the strain of her work” (Goldbeck 1920, 27). Although equipped with some training and experience, she may not have been capable of maintaining an emotional distance or remain objective from the suffering she confronted. Well before the Armistice was declared in November 1918, she was back with Edison Company performing for the cameras. In doing so, she continued contributing to the war effort, but it was on a scale that exceeded anything she could have achieved had she remained a doctor’s assistant in Winnipeg.

Returning to the screen in 1917 with the stage name “Peggy”, Adams appeared in 8 Edison Productions. These included Barnaby Lee (Edward H. Griffith, 1917), her first feature film running over four reels (48 minutes), and the first of several in which she was directed by Edward H Griffith.[12] She starred in Your Obedient Servant (Edward H. Griffith, 1917), the first adaptation of Anne Sewell’s classic novel, Black Beauty (see Figure 3). Her next production, Scouting for Washington (Edward H. Griffith, 1917) was a melodrama set during the American Revolution. Wild Arnica and Shut Out in the Ninth (both Edward H Griffith, 1917) show a very young Adams, all dimples and dark curls, revelling in simplistic comedy.[13]


Figure 3: Claire Adams with Pat O’Malley in Your Obedient Servant, (Edward H. Griffith, 1917). Edison Conquest Pictures. 1917. Source: UC Irvine Special Collections and Archives.

Figure 3: Claire Adams with Pat O’Malley in Your Obedient Servant, (Edward H. Griffith, 1917). Edison Conquest Pictures. 1917. Source: UC Irvine Special Collections and Archives.

The following year, Adams would make the pivotal films of her early career. They started with a short vignette, one of a series of social satires titled Girls You Know. It would be the last time she appeared in a motion picture produced by the Edison Company. Each sketch “featured a different type of American girl personally selected” by James Montgomery Flagg, the prodigious illustrator, cartoonist and photographer (“Edison Releases Flagg Social Satire Series.” 1917). The First World War was something of a career peak for Flagg. He’d had film experience, was a widely read social satirist and artist and produced recruitment and patriotic propaganda posters for the US government. Flagg’s most recognised image was his creation of Uncle Sam, the grizzled old patriarch on the recruitment posters who “Needs You for US Army”. [14]

Flagg was commissioned to provide the “one-reel photo-sketches … depict(ing) the grace, charm, foibles and frailties of ‘Girls You Know’, the likable types” (“Recollections of ‘Girls You Know’”, 1918). These “likeable types” featured such stereotypical characters as “The Art Bug”, the “Spoiled Child”, the “Bride” and “The Artist’s Model”. Adams was cast as The Man-eater (Jack Eaton, 1918). The influence of the war in this film is obvious. Adams’s character Nina bids a tearful farewell to her uniformed fiancé and dreams of medals pinned to his broad manly chest. Nina is a sprightly little flirt travelling to a picnic with friends, harmless but annoying in her need for male attention. She is eventually “doused off”, pushed into the river, pulled ashore then scolded like a half-drowned kitten.[15]

The Girls You Know vignettes were produced as light and satirical entertainment for the troops and for those on the home front. They also reflect the restrictive caricatures of young women in the early motion picture industry, characterisations of women indulgently pursuing or experimenting with a career (“The Artist’s Model” and “The Art Bug”). Others were defined by their relationships with parents or male partners (“The Spoiled Child”, “The Bride” and “The Man-eater”). As “the Man-eater”, shunned and dunked for her sexually assertive manner, Adams’s character suffers the entrenched social consequences as punishment for her morally dubious behaviour. The cast of the series were promoted as having been “all selected from (Flagg’s) models – the most famous in New York”, though featuring leading women “with no experience but clever ideas and no actresses of note” (“Recollections of ‘Girls You Know’”, 1918). Adams, however, was by this stage a well-established performer, and three of her four “Girls” colleagues also had previous motion picture experience.[16] Flagg, the producers and indeed audiences, may have been more attracted to a fresh pretty face than a talented individual with an identity, reflecting the low opinion many still held of the acting profession.[17] There is no small irony that she was at this time living against tradition, earning a respectable wage and supporting herself independently as a professional young woman.[18]

The Spirit of The Red Cross, (Jack Eaton, 1918)

When the United States entered the European conflict in 1917, the US chapter of the International Red Cross was charged by the government to raise funds and volunteers to maintain an active presence on the battlefields of Europe. The subsequent rise of American humanitarianism and the specific formation of a nation-wide Red Cross campaign coincided with a period when “sensationalistic mass media began to dominate American culture”. These forces, dominated by new motion picture technologies, were responsible for the “reshaping American ways of seeing, feeling, and responding to suffering by treating violence and pain as pleasure-producing commodities” (Rozario 2003, 426).

The Red Cross recognised the timeliness of motion pictures as an effective and expedient medium for stimulating potential donors and volunteers across the country (Rozario 2003, 429). The National Association of the Motion Picture Industry (NAMPI), chaired by famed producer Jesse Lasky, was appointed to the American Red Cross to promote and “interpret the organization for the American People” through the production of a suitable motion picture (“Spirit of the Red Cross 1918). Flagg was engaged to write the script. Jack Eaton, also of the Girls You Know series, was brought in to direct. Adams was cast as the lead, a nurse named Ethel, the image and embodiment of the International Red Cross. Lasky’s production expertise ensured that the resulting film, The Spirit of the Red Cross (Jack Eaton, 1918) presented “some of the best work done in motion picture making” (“Spirit of the Red Cross 1918). With such an accomplished and professional team involved, this 2-reel film was certain to not only hit but exceed the patriotic, inspirational and philanthropic targets for which all parties were aiming.

Adams’s lead character Ethel was the sweetheart of “an American youth” Sammy, played by Ray McKee. When Sammy enlists with the army and sails for France, Ethel volunteers as a nurse. The film portrays the work of the Red Cross in the field, assisting refugees, nursing and caring for the wounded. The New York Times described Sammy heading for the battlefield, envisioning “Ethel in her white uniform, watching over him”, until:

After a charge, he lies on the ground with a bullet in his chest, half conscious. The vision of Ethel awakens him, just as a German comes forward slaying the wounded. Sammy grips his revolver and shoots the enemy. Later, removed to base hospital, Ethel finds him and nurses him back to health. [19]

The Red Cross were not averse to engaging exaggerated propagandist images for the benefit of their cause.[20] Their tactics owed much to the pulp media, sensationalist newspapers and war magazines, aiming to provoke the outraged and patriotic public into “acts of benevolence” (Rozario 2003, 430). What makes this campaign remarkable is that it was the first time such techniques had been mobilised so effectively on a broad national scale, utilising the emotive mass cultural medium of motion pictures.

The American Red Cross expected their national fund raising drive to receive “considerable impetus” from the release of The Spirit of the Red Cross (“Spirit of the Red Cross”, 1918). Newspaper listings from across the country noted that cinema proprietors were donating all takings from the screening to the cause.[21] The New York Times quoted that the goal of the organisation was to raise one hundred million dollars, or around $1.8 billion in US dollars today (Measuring Worth, 2014). By the time the Armistice was declared in November 1918, only 7 months after the film’s release, the Red Cross had raised approximately four times that sum (American Red Cross, 2014). The film is credited with playing a major role in the campaign’s success. By the war’s end, one-third of the US population, approximately 39 million people, were either contributing members of the Red Cross or serving as volunteers.[22] At the cessation of hostilities, war movies were the most successful types of films in the country and “spectacle was in the ascendant” (Rozario 2003, 439).

The promotional poster Flagg created for The Spirit of the Red Cross depicts the diaphanous vision of Adams’s character floating over the battlefield. Ethel valiantly directs stretcher-bearers toward the unseen wounded. The plaintive caption declares: “Not one shall be left behind” (See fig. 4). For the many, perhaps the millions, who attended the film or saw the poster, Adams represented the thousands of nurses serving in the field, saving the fallen and tending the refugees, even though she was not entirely happy with her performance (Lake 1922, 51). She may not have been directly ministering to the wounded any longer. However, through her contribution to this film, Adams achieved more for the war effort as a nurse on screen than would have been possible had she remained one in life. Well into her old age it was commonly accepted and reiterated in biographical entries that Adams had been a nurse for the Red Cross during the First World War. Having taken part in such a high profile and hugely successful campaign, it is fair to say that Claire Adams was not simply “a nurse” for the Red Cross: she was The Nurse, the face on the movie poster, the selfless guardian of the wounded and indeed the embodiment of The Spirit of the Red Cross.

Figure 5: Figure 4: The Spirit of the Red Cross (James Montgomery Flagg, 1918). Source: World War 1 Posters from the Elizabeth Ball Collection, Ball State University Archives and Special Collections. Ball State University, 2011. All rights reserved.

Figure 4: The Spirit of the Red Cross (James Montgomery Flagg, 1918). Source: World War 1 Posters from the Elizabeth Ball Collection, Ball State University Archives and Special Collections. Ball State University, 2011. All rights reserved.

Adams was well positioned to maximise the opportunities offered by both the emancipation of women in general and the freedoms and opportunities offered by the motion picture industry. At the dawn of the Twentieth Century, middle-class women in North America were still expected to abide by the traditional Victorian roles of marriage, motherhood and marital obedience. As the 1920s loomed, however, “a woman’s alternatives to marriage were not only possible but exciting” (Banner 1974, 48). This social shift was influenced by women’s experiences backfilling male positions in the workforce and volunteering for the war effort (Quiney 1998, 193). By the time Armistice was declared, Adams was twenty-two years old with an independent motion picture career, an exciting new option embraced by increasing numbers of young women in the West. As such she exemplifies the symbiotic relationship between two new cultural forces at play, demonstrating that “Cinema history and history cannot be separated from one another”: “In the field of tension between the history of cinema in the 1910s and gender history, a movement of emancipation takes place” (Schlüpmann 2013, 24).

Women were not only welcomed but were highly valued in the early motion picture industry, occupying positions from theatre staff to major writers and directors. Like Adams, despite their prominent positions, most did not publically identify themselves with the early feminist movement (Slide 1996, 1-3). Crucially Adams had also proven she had the talent, experience and determination to excel. Having starred in the commendable The Spirit of the Red Cross, she had also gained her family’s acceptance and support (Lake 1922, 51). From 1919 she was known publically not as “Clara” or “Peggy” but as Claire Adams, the “pet name” favoured by her family. Following The Spirit of the Red Cross, there were several projects to which she would dedicate her talents. One of these was a leading role in Romance and Brass Tacks (Martin Justice, 1918), “the new Flagg comedy starring pretty Peggy Adams, the famous Broadway beauty” (“An Unusual Comedy at Vining Theatre” 1918). The next motion picture Adams found herself starring in was another high-profile government sponsored film, also made for the war effort and proving remarkably popular. However, it also drew the kind of attention that few respectable young ladies from Winnipeg may have welcomed. Adams starred in one of the first major censorship scandals of the motion picture industry.

The End of the Road (Edward H. Griffith, 1919)

Young girls, thrilled with patriotism, sometimes fail to realize that the uniform covers all the kinds of men there are in the world; men of high ideals … or, in the worst instances, men who feel that their own physical appeal must be gratified, no matter who suffers. And so, through ignorance, through emotion, take steps which will lead to bitter regret.

(Katherine Bement Davis from Colwell 1998, 73)

Following The Spirit of the Red Cross and the additional projects with Flagg, there is evidence that Adams returned to theatre. In May 1918, she is named amongst the cast members of a patriotic play called Loyalty, written by George V. Hobart and staged at the Belasco Theatre in Washington DC. Belying both Adams’s preference for patriotic pieces as well as the public’s support for them, Loyalty is described as:

Something more than a mere dramatic entertainment … the play also carries a message of hope to a world suffering from the hardships and horrors of war (“Loyalty Will Make First Appearance At Belasco Tonight” 1918, 14).

The war may have been over but the horror continued on the home front. The “The Spanish Flu” evolved in the trenches of Europe from a moderately innocuous virus into something quite lethal. The appearance of the disease in New York City, borne by returning soldiers, was first reported in August 1918. The vius attacked the young and healthy, becoming more infectious and lethal with each mutation. Many industries, including motion picture companies and theatres, were unable to operate normally or in some instances were forced to close. Adams may have been forced to take time off or found work options cancelled or postponed. By the time the city recovered months later, it had lost 20,000 to 24,000 of its six million citizens. (Dominus, 2009). However, influenza was not the only infection rife amongst the troops.

In her essay, “The End of the Road: Gender, the Dissemination of Knowledge, and the American Campaign against Venereal Disease during World War 1”, Stacie A. Colwell provides a detailed account of the social and political context which gave rise to Adams’s next project (Colwell 1998, 44-82). As the US entered the war, the number of new recruits infected by venereal diseases appalled doctors conducting medical examinations.[23] As had been customary for generations, many young men of the time were engaging in unprotected pre-marital and extra-marital sex, ignorant or uncaring of the consequences. This practice was intensified during the heightened emotional climate of the war. Young women at the same time were becoming more personally independent, challenging the social order and demanding equal rights and freedoms to men. These included sexual freedoms.[24] They were unfortunately doing so within a vacuum of ignorance, a symptom of the perennial code of dual morality encouraging young men to explore their sexuality while young women were kept sexually innocent, unaware of their body’s functions and frailties. Many, deeply smitten, unknowing or unable to say no, found themselves bearing the physical and social consequences of sex with strangers or sweethearts they feared they’d never see again. The result was a perfect storm of ignorance, class-based bigotry and misbegotten morality, and Adams stepped right in the middle of it.

Eugenics, racism and class tensions exacerbated both the fear and apportioning of blame for the spread of venereal diseases (Schaefer 1999, 21). At a time when eugenics was still considered to be a viable scientific theory, some believed that the spread of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) such as syphilis and gonorrhoea served a deliberate political or religious agenda.[25] Others saw the epidemic as an insidious weapon activated by the working masses, crowding into industrialised urban centres to breed out the richer, more refined classes (Colwell 1998, 72). The front line troops in this intimate means of class warfare were believed to be not simply prostitutes (who had a surprisingly low level of infection due to regulatory frameworks and inspections of brothels), but liberated “diseased and promiscuous” women seducing innocent men of means who then passed the infection onto their wives (Colwell 1998, 72). In turn, these ‘pure’ middle- and upper-class women would be driven mad, infertile, or both, by the ravages of the disease.[26] With many changes being made to the social order and a popular culture rife with inflammatory propaganda regarding invaders from abroad, there’s little wonder that this kind of imbalanced fear and paranoia infected the home front, like another disease.

The U.S. War Department, ever the pragmatists, saw the issue quite clearly – sick soldiers were bad for morale, an additional expense and made for a weakened army (Colwell 1998, 47). The challenge of addressing this issue fell to the War Department’s Committee on Training Camp Activities. This committee was confronting disciplinary issues relating to groups of young, independent and assertive New Women moving to towns and areas surrounding the training facilities. Schaefer implies that some were probably entrepreneurial prostitutes. Others were most likely “the khaki mad girls”, opportunists who simply loved a man in uniform and weren’t afraid to show it (Colwell 1998, 73). The troops themselves, predictably, were considered relatively blameless.

The momentum generated by the war to stem the spread of STDs provided an opportunity for diverse community organizations with similar concerns to affiliate with the War Department. A consortium of public health and volunteer organizations was incorporated under the banner of the American Social Hygiene Association (ASHA). Combined, they represented “a hybrid of social purity and sex education movements” (Colwell 1998, 46). These organizations pressed for a means of educating the population about the facts of life, the evils of STDs and pre-marital (or extra-marital) sex. Yes, it was bad for the War Effort. However for ASHA, the spread of venereal diseases was due to ignorance within a paradoxical culture. On the one hand young people had been loosened from the corset-like confines of the Victorian moral order, yet on the other were still bound by obscenity laws that made it illegal to disseminate medical or preventative information regarding STDs.[27] A “conspiracy of silence” reigned: people did not speak openly of such things and had few available sources of information (Schaefer 1999, 21). The volatility of the subject was amplified by the controversies surrounding the birth control movement. As Margaret Sanger and her supporters discovered, it was still considered obscene and illegal in the United States to distribute materials addressing the use of prophylactics and other forms of contraception.[28] Some considered it more socially repellent to talk of venereal disease in public than to actually contract a case and not mention it (Schaefer 1999, 21). ASHA concluded that a range of sensitive and educational, yet frank and fearless, vehicles were required, aimed at both men and women to address the facts of life and some of their indelicate consequences. As the Red Cross had realised before them, the military and their new allies embraced the power of motion pictures to educate and inform the public of America. A motion picture offered an additional bonus: In the darkness of a movie theatre, no one can see you blush.

Their strategy involved dividing the audience along gender lines. Fit to Win (Edward H. Griffith, 1919) was crafted to appeal to the needs and experiences of young male recruits.[29] The End of the Road (Edward H. Griffith, 1919) was aimed at young women who, out of curiosity, ignorance or early “girl power” gone awry, were finding themselves in physically and morally perilous positions. The film was to be screened with a pre-show lecture by a medical practioner in “Ladies Only” sessions at public cinemas. In order to make the subject matter more palatable for a “delicate” female audience, the educational aspects were wrapped up in a charming love story.[30] Conveniently, director Edward H. Griffith had been drafted into the War Department’s Committee on Training Camp Activities. Previously engaged by Thomas Edison Company, and with acting experience of his own, he played a major role in the production of several films supporting the war effort. During his time at Edison, Lt Griffith had made four films with Claire Adams. She was cast as Mary, the heroine of this sensitive story, opposite renowned actor Richard Bennett, who had enjoyed an expansive and celebrated theatre career before taking to the screen.[31]

A key figure within ASHA, Katharine Bement Davis was brought in to write The End of the Road. Davis described her contribution to the project as having “been most carefully worked out in consultation with physicians on the side of fidelity to medical fact, and with teachers as to the psychological effect” (Colwell 1998, 48). Davis had an established career in education, penal reform and public health, involving intensive research into the social causes of delinquency, the efficacy of reform programs for female prisoners, as well as surveys into the nature of women’s sexuality.[32] Her work had inspired John D. Rockefeller Jr. to establish the Bureau of Social Hygiene as part of his newly established foundation (Encyclopædia Britannica Online, 2014).

The film was produced under the supervision of the Surgeon General of the US Army, a protective political arm supporting the enterprise. Additional collaborators included the National War Work Council, the YWCA, Rockefeller’s Bureau of Social Hygiene and the Famous Players-Lasky Corporation (American Film Institute Catalogue, 2015). This was a high-powered group of influential stakeholders with an interest in the film’s success. There was more than the usual amount of pressure and expectation placed on the actress playing Mary, the leading lady in this high-stakes drama. The following synopsis is from the American Film Institute Catalogue:

Mary, whose mother has instructed her about love, marriage and sex, leaves her boyfriend Paul to become a nurse in a New York hospital. Vera, encouraged by her mother to marry a rich man, takes an apartment from a young millionaire who promises marriage but only gives her syphilis. Mary and her doctor treat Vera and show her examples of the ravages of the disease. Mary meets other suffering women: an Irish servant girl betrayed by a chauffeur who dies after her baby is born; a garment worker who contracted syphilis from a soldier’s forced kiss; the invalid wife of a wealthy man whose philandering caused her condition, the blindness of her child and the suicide of another of his conquests. Paul, about to enlist, suggests that he and Mary have sex before her goes. Disappointed in him, Mary also rejects the proposal of her doctor, but later in Europe after seeing the kind of man he is, she accepts him.

On all fronts, this was a brave role for Adams. Some of the scenes featured actual patients scarred and suffering from venereal diseases, filmed on location at the women’s wards of Blackwell’s Island, New York City.[33] In her role as the nurse Mary, Adams is seen conversing with these obviously frail patients, gently supporting them as they present for the camera.[34] Most of the film was shot at the Rockefeller estate at Pocantico Hills in Mount Pleasant, New York State (Colwell 1998, 63). As a resident of New York City at this time, it would have been difficult for Adams not to be aware of the campaigns for and against women’s suffrage and access to birth control, including the incarceration and exile of Margaret Sanger, all of which received widespread publicity between 1916 and 1918 (Banner 1974, 103). There is also the possibility that she may have had first-hand experience with the physical, social and psychological impacts of these diseases during her training and duties in the obstetrics ward at Grace Hospital in Detroit. That possibility becomes more probable when considering her contact with repatriated soldiers in Winnipeg. Perhaps this experience galvanised her willingness to participate, in spite of the risks. Her participation in The End of the Road reflects the influence of her family’s military and public service background as well as her own compulsion to help others. She would require the strength of the first and her faith in the latter to confront the controversy this film was about to generate.

Figure 5: Claire Adams as the nurse Mary Lee with a patient in The End of the Road (Edward W. Griffith, 1918). Source: UC Irvine Special Collections and Archives.

Figure 5: Claire Adams as the nurse Mary Lee with a patient in The End of the Road (Edward W. Griffith, 1918). Source: UC Irvine Special Collections and Archives.

The spark that ignited a furore was the sudden end of the war. This timing meant everything. Audiences and the industry had had enough of both war and sex.[35] The military units and programs that sponsored the film’s production were disbanded. Several key elements and references of the storyline were no longer relevant or threatened to offend peace-time sensibilities. Davis, however, successfully argued that the need to educate young adults, particularly young women, about their bodies remained, and that this justified public screenings. The project was permitted to “continue until a clear opinion has developed concerning the desirability or undesirability of its being shown through commercial channels” (Colwell 1998, 66). The ASHA gained control of the copyright of the film. The distribution and exhibition remained (for the time being) under the auspices of the Surgeon General, with safeguards in place to protect the film “from sensational exploitation”. Women’s groups and other officials were invited to preview screenings to judge its value and suitability for local audiences (Colwell 1998, 64).

The film premiered on 16 February 1919 in Syracuse, New York. There were fifteen hundred people at opening night and it went on to capacity crowds in a number of other cities (Schaefer 1999, 28). Most of the film’s key personnel were not there to see it. By opening night, Griffith had gone west. Davis sailed to post-war Europe pursuing her new role as General Secretary of Rockefeller’s Bureau of Social Hygiene. There was only one participant left with any skin in the game who made herself available to face down the critics and attend the film’s premiere. Colwell notes: “For the record, actress Claire Adams, who played Mary Lee, did travel to both Syracuse and Pittsburgh to defend the film she had starred in” (66). The New York Times reviewed the film in March 1919 and enthused that The End of the Road was “the most valuable motion picture of its kind yet produced.” The picture is not pleasant or euphemistic. Neither is the subject with which it deals. It is unpleasant, however, only to the degree necessary for force, and plain spoken only to the extent necessary for clearness. It is never morbid. One feels clean after seeing it (“Opening the Road” 1919). Acknowledging that audience responses would depend upon their own moral convictions, The New York Times also reassured readers: “No film would be effective without competent acting and directing and it is an important virtue of ‘The End of the Road’ therefore, that it had both in its making … Claire Adams and Joyce Fair, in the two leading female roles, were attractive in appearance and intelligent in their interpretation of their characters” (“Opening the Road” 1919).

Despite positive support in the mainstream media, critics of the film began protesting as soon as it was released. As The New York Times forewarned, the acceptance of the film was divided along the lines of the individual’s moral view and tolerance of the story’s unique premise: it was not just “patriotic prostitutes”, “army flappers” or “camouflage dames” responsible for the spread of STDs. The film dared suggest that decent middle class men played an active part.[36] The End of the Road was the first film to present the case that STDs did not always originate in women of the lower classes, demonstrating that “syphilis and gonorrhoea are equal opportunity diseases” (Schaefer 1999, 33). This perspective contributed to establishing a new set of social and political battlelines, just as the Great War ended.[37]

The pendulum swung back to a more conservative side of society, basking in victory and longing to normalise culture and behaviour (Schaefer 1999, 34). As a government sponsored project, The End of the Road drew intense criticism, more so than other sensational films that had preceded it (Schaefer 1999, 29). ­­­­­­­­­­According to critics in Moving Picture World, copies of The End of the Road and Fit to Win had also “fallen into the hands of individuals who are allegedly exhibiting it to mixed audiences composed of men, women, boys and girls” (“Association Goes After ‘Fit to Win’”, 1919, 1141). Prominent church figures denounced the film, led predictably by the Catholic Church (Schaefer 1999, 32). By July 16, 1919, it was banned in Philadelphia. National Association of the Motion Picture Industry (NAMPI), so successful in their production of The Spirit of the Red Cross, succeeded by the end of 1919 in having the film banned across the United States. This reflects what Löhrer describes as “a specific American moral panic at play” (Löhrer 2011).

Although the film could no longer be shown in the US, The End of the Road travelled abroad.[38] In May 1920 it was exhibited in Canada under the auspices of the Canadian National Council for Combating Venereal Diseases and the principals of local colleges. Demonstrating her ongoing commitment to the work, Adams reached out to her fellow Canadians with a personal message printed in The Vancouver Sun, subsequently reprinted across Canada. She is an unbowed advocate, certain “that every girl in Canada could see this play”:

The message it conveys is one that society must learn, and I feel that this powerful drama is the most wonderful method of telling the important story to girls everywhere. I played my part with that thought in my mind, and in my heart the feeling that at least to the best of my ability I was performing a real service to womanhood (“Message to Girls Through Film By Claire Adams” 1920).

The End of the Road found welcoming and respectful audiences even further afield. There is evidence that the film was used as an educative tool in military training campaigns as far away as Vladivostok (McMaster 2014, 5). Over the next decade The End of the Road was also shown extensively across Australia, where Adams would spend the second half of her life. Promoted in The Sunday Times in October 1920 with the US plan in place to segregate audiences along gender lines, the film opened at the Sydney Town Hall on Saturday 6 November 1920 and played for 5 weeks. The Evening News described how it had been shown the previous week at a private screening for representatives from the clerical, medical and legal professions, and was granted approval to be screened by the Minister for Womanhood. A search of Australia’s digitised newspaper archives shows that the film travelled through major metropolitan and regional centres across the country, from Muswellbrook NSW to Charters Towers QLD, Clare SA to Katanning WA. There is little criticism of the film evident: rather it received endorsement from civic leaders, educators and the press across the country.[39] Adams received rich praise. In Melbourne it was shown at the Palace Theatre on Bourke Street where the Table Talk reviewer declared in March 1921, “Nothing better has been shown on the screen than the perfectly moulded features of Claire Adams.” When The End of the Road reached Hobart in June 1921, The Mercury reported that over 5,000 had already seen it in Launceston. The reviewer from The Advertiser in Adelaide, who had seen the film at the Adelaide Town Hall, enthused in July 1921 that “The picture defies description. There is a touch of genius in it. The screen has never disclosed a purer or more impressive lesson.” The following week, the same paper discussed how several members of the public showed great interest in Adams, enquiring after her background and identity. They make much of her youth, talent and beauty, but pay particular attention to her patriotic service during the war and her nursing experience at Grace Hospital in Detroit.

The film continued across Australia until July 1928, when The Goulburn Evening Post reported that the reels had been stolen in Broken Hill. By that time, however, Adams had retired from her successful Hollywood screen career. One decade later, Claire Adams migrated permanently to Australia, stepping off the ship in Melbourne on Valentine’s Day in 1938, where there may still have been more than a few moviegoers who remembered her work. There is evidence to suggest that Claire Adams Mackinnon had a copy of both The Spirit of the Red Cross and The End of the Road with her when she came in Australia. It is not known, however, if they were shown beyond the bounds of her new home, or if those who saw them during one of her movie nights had any idea of the films’ impact during and in the aftermath of the First World War.[40]

Figure 6: Claire Adams as Justyn Reed, the fiancé of Jim Apperson, played by silent screen idol John Gilbert in The Big Parade (King Vidor, 1925). Image ©Warner Bros. Source: Author’s private collection.

Figure 6: Claire Adams as Justyn Reed, the fiancé of Jim Apperson, played by silent screen idol John Gilbert in The Big Parade (King Vidor, 1925). Image ©Warner Bros. Source: Author’s private collection.

Adams’s performance in The End of the Road drew the attention of producers in Los Angeles and New York, where they were deep in debate regarding proposed censorship measures within the motion picture industry. In 1920, independent producer Benjamin B Hampton, who had also seen her work in The Spirit of the Red Cross invited her to Hollywood to star in his productions (Lake 1922, 51). They would marry in 1924. By the time she retired in 1928 she had starred in over forty feature films alongside some of the most popular and defining artists of the era. These included Tom Mix, Rin Tin Tin, Jean Hersholt, Lon Chaney and Clara Bow. Adams’s also appeared opposite John Gilbert in his break through role in The Big Parade (King Vidor, 1925), noted in the AFI catalogue as being “frequently described as the most successful silent film of all time”. Adams played Justyn Reed to Gilbert’s doughboy Jim Apperson. Justyn is a blithe ingénue, somewhat reminiscent of Adams’s flirtatious character Nina from The Man-eater, gaily encouraging her fiancé to enlist so she can see how handsome he’d look in uniform. These characters, both Nina and Justyn, could well have been constructed from characteristics of the sexually liberated yet innocent/ignorant young women who were the target audience for The End of the Road. As such, The Big Parade is a strangely coalescent bookend for her career, which practically began and ended with blockbusting war films.


The value of the Claire Adams films discussed here is lost when they are removed from their historical context. They are very much a product and reflective of the era in which they were produced, which was both defining and tumultuous. The confluence of war, the women’s independence movement and the development of the motion picture industry offered women a new degree of independence and a more active role within their own lives as well as within their culture, both as consumers and producers. This relatively small period from Adams’s career encapsulates those opportunities, as well as the threats and challenges available to women in general and within the motion picture industry in particular. She is a mediator between the realities and the fictions; a nurse playing a nurse addressing current issues both on and off-screen, lending more than a modicum of verisimilitude to the productions. Her characters in The Spirit of the Red Cross and The End of the Road were strong female protagonists, created to inspire audience members and advocate for action, encouraging all women to change their lives and in doing so play an active role in changing their world.

Amidst the international commemorations of the centenary of The Great War, it is timely to assess Adams’s life of service in front of the camera and behind the scenes, not only in Australia, but also for our allies in the conflict – Canada and the United States of America. She was, after all, a proud citizen of each country at different stages of her life. That her achievements have been forgotten is also symptomatic of the times. The role of women in the motion picture industry has been undervalued and overlooked for most of the previous century, so the “loss” of Claire Adams from film history is not unusual. The scale of public awareness generated around the superstars of Silent Hollywood, fed by the scandals, stereotyping and celebrity culture that engulfed the industry, has diminished the memory of her career, especially if it is measured and evaluated in terms of current and historic memory. My biography of Adams (in progress) explores her significance, of the difference she made as an actress and as a private citizen, and how she never lost the sense of public service first demonstrated in the choice of roles discussed here. Indeed, Adams continues to support community causes, including the Australian Red Cross, via a substantial trust established after her death in 1978.[41] By avoiding the superficiality and pressures of the studio system, Adams may have missed out on Hollywood immortality. However, her personal and professional choices demonstrate that she was not overly concerned by the vagaries of popular opinion. Her priorities were always much closer to home.




Many people in Australia, the US and Canada have contributed to this article and my research into the life of Claire Adams Mackinnon. However, I would like to dedicate this article to Mr Roger Mayer, who passed away in March 2015. Some will remember him as the recipient of the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Academy Award in 2005. Others will for his longstanding leadership of the U.S National Film Preservation Foundation. I will always remember him as a kind gentleman who upon hearing of my interest in Claire Adams insisted I pursue it with the words “Every piece of the story is worth saving”.



American Film Institute Catalogue. “The End of the Road.” Accessed 29 August 2014.

“An Unusual Comedy at Vining Theatre.” Ashland Tidings. Tuesday 31 December 1918. 1. Library of Congress., “Census records for District 15, Province of Manitoba. 1916. Census of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. 51.”, Canadian Census Records. 1916. Accessed 27 October 2009., List or Manifest of Alien Passengers Arriving Port of Michigan, June 1915, Sheet No. 35, Border Crossings: From Canada to U.S., 1895-1956, accessed 27 October, 2009., Petition for Citizenship, Claire Adams Hampton, United States of America, No. 3441, 4 February 1931, U.S. Department of Labor, accessed June 2014.

“Association Goes After “Fit to Win””. 1919. The Moving Picture World. May 24. 1141. Margaret Herrick Library, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Banner, Lois W. 1974. Women in Modern America: A Brief History. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc.

Barnaby Lee. The American Film Institute Catalogue. Accessed 29 August 2014.

A Brief History of the American Red Cross, The American Red Cross, accessed 19 August 2014,

The Canadian Red Cross. 2014. “About the Canadian Red Cross”, Accessed 15 August 2014,

“Claire Adams, Starring in ‘The End of the Road’ Is Real Western Canada Girl”, 1920. Saskatoon Phoenix. June 19. Library of Congress.

Colwell, Dr Stacie A., “The End of the Road: Gender, the Dissemination of Knowledge, and the American Campaign against Venereal Disease during World War I.” In The Visible Woman: Imaging Technologies, Gender and Science, edited by Paula A. Treichler, Lisa Cartwright and Constance Penley, 44-82. New York: New York University Press, 1998.

Dall’Asta, Monica and Duckett, Victoria. 2013. “ Kaleidoscope: Women and Cinematic Change from the Silent Era to Now.” In Researching Women in Silent Cinema: New Findings and Perspectives. Edited by Monica Dall’Asta, Victoria Duckett, Lucia Tralli. Women and Screen Cultures. Vol 1. University of Bologna in association with the Victorian College of the Arts, University of Melbourne and Women and Film International. 8-11.

Deer Lodge Centre. 2014. “History.” Accessed 19 August 2014.


Dominus, Susan. 2009. “In 1918 Flu Outbreak, a Cool Head Prevailed.” The New York Times. May 1.

“Edison Releases Flagg Social Satire Series.” 1917 Motion Picture News, Vol 16. No 26. December 29. 4591. The Seaver Centre for Western History Research, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

Encyclopædia Britannica Online, 2014. “Katharine Bement Davis”. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc.. Accessed 17 Aug. 2014

“The End of the Road.”1921. The Advertiser. 11 July. Retrieved from TROVE, National Library of Australia.

“The End of the Road.” 1921. The Advertiser. 16 June. Retrieved from TROVE, National Library of Australia.

“The End of the Road.” 1921. The Mercury. 8 June. Retrieved from TROVE, National Library of Australia.

“The End of the Road.” 1921.The Northern Daily Leader. 10 February. Retrieved from TROVE, National Library of Australia,

“End of the Road.” 1920. Sunday Times. 31 October. Retrieved from TROVE, National Library of Australia,

““End of Road” Barred.” 1919. The Moving Picture World. July. Margaret Herrick Library, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

“End of the Road Barred.” 1919. Variety. 18 July. Margaret Herrick Library, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

“The End of the Road: a Movie of Disease.” 1920. Evening News. 3 November. Retrieved from TROVE, National Library of Australia,

Goldbeck, Willis, “My Lady Claire”, Motion Picture Classic, 1920, from Mooramong Collection, National Trust of Australia (Victoria).

Hampton, Benjamin B., History of the American Film Industry from its beginnings to 1931, Dover Publications, Inc., New York, 1970, ed. Richard Griffith, Curator Emeritus, The Museum of Modern Art Film Library.

Hampton, Benjamin B., A History of the Movies, Covici, Friede, New York, 1931.

Hellier, Donna, Endnotes to “Social History Report” included in O’Connor, John and Thurley, Mooramong Buildings and Structures: Conservation Analysis Report for the National Trust of Australia (Victoria), July 1989.

“Items of Interest”, Goulburn Evening Post. Tuesday 17 1928, Retrieved from TROVE, National Library of Australia,

Jackal, Susan and Millette, Dominique. Revised 2015. “Women’s Suffrage”. Historica Canada. Accessed 12 June 2015.

Katz, Esther. 2000. “Margaret Sanger.” American Dictionary of Biography Online. Accessed 3 February 2015. )

Lake, J. Marion. 1922. “A Young Lady in Earnest.” Motion Picture Classic. May.

Letourneau, J. A. Rodger, “Kennedy, William Nassau”, Dictionary of Canadian Biography, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003. Accessed August 13, 2014.

Löhrer, Gudrun. Conference Report. Communicating Good Health: Movies, Medicine and the Cultures of Risk in the Twentieth Century. 26-27 May 2011. Brocher Foundation. Geneva/Hermance, Switzerland. Accessed 18 August 2014.

Louisiana Film History by Parish, Hollywood on the Bayou. 2015.

“Loyalty Will Make First Appearance At Belasco Tonight.” 1918. The Washington Times. 26 May. Library of Congress.

The Manitoba Historical Society, “William Herbert Adams”. Last modified 24 December 2009.

Marshall, Edward. 1914. “New York’s First Woman Commissioner of Correction”, The New York Times, 11 January.

Maxwell, Virginia. 2000. ‘Mackinnon, Claire Adams (1896–1978)’. In Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, Accessed 15 August 2014.,.

McMaster, Christopher T., “The International Military Police and the Allied Intervention in the Russian Civil War”, Student Pulse, Vol 6, No. 04, Retrieved 18 August 2014.

“Message to Girls Through the Film By Claire Adams”, The Vancouver Sun, May 21, 1920. Proquest.

Measuring Worth. Williamson, Samuel H. “Purchasing Power of Money in the United States from 1774 to Present.” 2013. URL:

“Opening the Road.” 1919. The New York Times. March 2. Proquest.

“Park Avenue at 40th Street, 1920s”. Digital Murray Hill from the Mina Rees Library. Accessed 2 December, 2011.

Petition for Citizenship, Claire Adams Hampton, United States of America, No. 3441, 4 February 1931, U.S. Department of Labor, from, accessed June 2014.

 Prospectus of the Grace Hospital Training School for Nurses, 1888. Grace Hospital Collection Papers 1880-1978, Walter P Reuther Library, Wayne State University.

Quiney, Linda J. 1998. “Assistant Angels: Canadian Voluntary Aid Detachment Nurses in the Great War.” Canadian Bulletin of Medical History. 02/1998. Accessed 15 August 2014.

“Recollections of ‘Girls You Know.’”1918. Motion Picture Magazine, V15, No 5, June, 78.

Rozario, Kevin. 2003. “Delicious Horrors”: Mass Culture, The Red Cross, and the Appeal of Modern American Humanitarianism.” In American Quarterly, Vol. 55, No. 3 (September). American Studies Association, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 417-454.

Schaefer, Eric. 1999. Bold! Daring! Shocking! True! A History of Exploitation Films, 1919-1959. Durham: Duke University Press.

Schlüpmann, Heide. 2013. “An Alliance Between History and Theory.” In Researching Women in Silent Cinema: New Findings and Perspectives. Edited by Monica Dall’Asta, Victoria Duckett, Lucia Tralli. Women and Screen Cultures. Vol 1. University of Bologna in association with the Victorian College of the Arts, University of Melbourne and Women and Film International. 13-26.

Slide, Anthony. 1996. The Silent Feminists: America’s First Women Directors. London: The Scarecrow Press, Inc.

Spartacus Educational. “James Montgomery Flagg.” Accessed 14 August 2014.

“Spirit of the Red Cross.” 1918. The New York Times, 21 April. Proquest.

“Splendid Work of American Red Cross Society Graphically Told in Series of Single Reel Motion Pictures Now Ready for Screen”. 1918. Exhibitors’ Trade Review. December 7. Vol 5. No. 1.

Stamp, Shelley. 2012. “Women and the Silent Screen”. In The Wiley-Blackwell History of American Film. Edited by Cynthia Lucia, Roy Grundman, and Art Simon. University of Santa Cruz. Accessed 10 January 2015.

Theatre advertisements. 1919. The Youngstown Daily Vindicator. 4 April. Library of Congress.

“V.A.D Hospitals in Northumberland and Durham 1914-1918.” Donmouth Local History Society. Accessed 18 February 2015

“What People are Saying and Doing.” 1921. Table Talk. 10 March. Retrieved from TROVE, National Library of Australia.

Will, Beverley. 1978. “Gallant and Romantic were the days of Claire Adams.” Green Place. October. Mooramong Collection, National Trust of Australia (Victoria).

The World War 2 US Medical Research Centre, Accessed 29 January 2015.

Unpublished sources:

  • Hone, Geoff. (Chair of the Scobie and Claire Mackinnon Trust.) Email to author. June 2014.
  • Miley, Nancy. Adams Family History, Unpublished Manuscript. Author’s private collection.
  • Schmeling, Kathleen Emery. (Archivist) Grace Hospital Archives, Wayne State University. Email to author, May 21 2014.
  • Speed, Dr Lesley. “‘In the best film star tradition’: Claire Adams and Mooramong”, Screening the Past, due for release 2015.
  • Sweet, Jill and Stephens, Barbara Adams. Oral History Transcript, Author’s private collection.


  • Caneva, Lina, 2009, Mooramong – Private Hollywood, Caneva Media Productions.
  • Eaton, Jack, 1918, The Man-eater, Thomas A. Edison, Inc.
  • Griffith, Edward H., 1917, Scouting for Washington; a tale of the Revolution, Thomas A. Edison, Inc.
  • Griffith, Edward H., 1917, Shut Out in the Ninth, Thomas A. Edison, Inc.
  • Griffith, Edward H., 1919, The End of the Road, American Social Hygiene Association, Famous Players-Lasky Corp & US War Department.
  • Vidor, King, 1925, The Big Parade, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.



[1] Adams’s petition for US citizenship document confirms that she was a subject of the British Dominion of Canada and that her last foreign address was in Toronto. From there she entered the US permanently at Detroit on 12 June, 1915. She first declared her intention to become a US citizen in September 1922, two years before she married Hampton. Her petition for citizenship was granted in Poughkeepsie on 4 February 1931, having resided in Pawling, NY since 1 September 1928.

[2] Willis Goldbeck in Motion Picture Classic (1920) described Adams as “instinctively Britishly reserved, a person whom one cannot hope to know in a day, or a month.”

[3] As of this date, I have yet to find Claire Adams on the cover of either fan or trade magazines, though several profile interviews and letters to editors indicate she had a fan base. Without a studio publicity department behind her, and as part of a company that promoted all-star casts, she was able to enjoy a more private life and manage her own profile accordingly, hence my concept of her as an independent artist.

[4] Originally published as A History of the Movies, by Covici, Friede, New York, 1931, Hampton’s work was reissued in 1971 as History of the American Film Industry from its beginnings to 1931, edited with an introduction by film historian Richard Griffith.

[5] In his introduction to the second edition of Hampton’s book, Griffith asserted “That it is the best history of the movie business to date there can be no doubt’, and positions it in terms of authenticity and objectivity above Terry Ramsey’s A Million and One Nights (1926) and Lewis Jacobs’ The Rise of the American Film (1939).

[6] As described by Monica Dall’Asta and Victoria Duckett in “Kaleidoscope: Women and Cinematic Change from the Silent Era to Now.” 2013, 8.

[7] At only fifteen years of age, Gerald ran away to join the Scottish Highlanders, but was dragged back to London by his Great Aunt Mabel Adams with whom he was staying. As soon as he was old enough he enlisted, but had only just completed training when the war ended. He never saw any action on the front. Nancy Miley,“Gerald Drayson Adams (1900-1988)” from Adams Family History Notes, Unpublished Manuscript.

[8] This prospectus was written late in the 19th century. The Grace Hospital School of Nursing (GHSN) offered two years of vocational (if somewhat rudimentary) instruction during which time students would be under constant supervision, on and off duty. Students were permitted one afternoon off per week and were encouraged for the sake of their own health to spend one hour each day in the open air. They were allowed two weeks leave per year, one evening off per week and required permission from the school’s Principal to be out later than midnight. In return, the students would receive training in elements of hospital work, namely the dressing of wounds and burns, applications of fomentations and poultices, making beds and methods for avoiding bedsores.

[9] Adams’s name on all official documents was her birth name, Beryl Vere Nassau Adams, but this does not show up on the list of graduates either.

[10] According to the Red Cross Canada website, “Red Cross nurse” was a term applied to anyone volunteering in a hospital in any capacity, including letter writing and visiting. Millions of young women contributed to this international effort and there was simply not the capacity to establish or maintain complete records of every volunteer. “About the Canadian Red Cross”, Accessed 15 August 2014,

[11] A New Set of Needs, from the website of Veterans Affairs Canada, describes the inadequate hospital infrastructure, and venues converted to repatriation hospitals following England’s requests to the Dominions to take care of their own wounded. Accessed 11 January 2015,

[12] According to the American Film Institute Catalogue entry, Barnaby Lee was probably not widely released.

[13] Scouting for Washington, Wild Arnica and Shut Out in the Ninth were viewed by the author at the Library of Congress, Washington D.C.

[14] Flagg asserted that his Uncle Sam became “the most famous poster in the world”. As quoted on the American Treasures of the Library of Congress website, accessed 13 February 2015,

[15] The Man-eater was viewed by the author at the Library of Congress, Washington D.C.

[16] The other lead roles in the “Girls You Know” series were played by Dorothy Wallace, Mary Arthur, Martha Mansfield and Peggy Hopkins. According to IMDb, Hopkins had appeared in 2 Columbia productions. Dorothy Wallace had one previous film credit. Martha Mansfield had four previous motion picture credits and seemed destined for a successful career. In 1920 she starred opposite Lionel Barrymore in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (John S. Robinson, 1920). Mansfield died in horrific circumstances in 1923 after her period costume caught fire on set. See IMDb

[17] Banner suggests that it was considered “a disgrace for a woman’s name to appear in public print” though this began to change before the war (20).

[18] According to Nancy Milley, her father Claire’s Uncle, Ernest Adams and her Grandmother, did not approve of Claire’s profession, even into the 1920s when she was at the height of her career. “Ernest Dupin Adams” from Adams Family History Notes, unpublished manuscript, author’s private collection.

[19] Several scenes were shot in the Jackson Barracks in New Orleans, which was in use as a training and processing facility for the United States Army. This suggests that recruits may have been used as extras in the film, perhaps to add a layer of verisimilitude to the scenes of battle and troop movements. From website Hollywood on the Bayou, Louisiana Film History by Parish,

[20] The Red Cross War Council subsequently established a “Bureau of Pictures” in early 1918 “to tell upon the screen the splendid story of the Red Cross”. These single reel shorts featured such titles as “Broken Lives”, “Victorious Serbia” and “Russia: a Land Worth Saving”, reflecting their ongoing work in Europe and with veterans up to and following the Armistice. From “Splendid Work of American Red Cross Society Graphically Told in Series of Single Reel Motion Pictures Now Ready for Screen”. 1918. Exhibitors’ Trade Review. December 7. Vol 5. No. 1.

[21] In the El Paso Herald, for example, the proprietors of the Grecian Theatre placed a large advertisement, paid for by another local business, outlining a special “Red Cross War Fund Benefit”, from which they would donate all proceeds from the evening’s entertainment to the cause. Patrons were encouraged to “make your quarters jingle” at the box office as “Lives Over There” depended on their support. Wednesday 15 May 1918, 5.

[22] The release of the film was also accompanied by a nation wide door knock appeal (American Red Cross, 2014).

[23] The World War 2 US Medical Research Centre estimates that during the Great War, venereal disease “had caused the Army lost services of 18,000 servicemen per day.” Accessed 29 January 2015.

[24] As described by Banner, early feminists saw male sexuality as being at the heart of female oppression. Even before the war, early feminist Inez Milholland wrote that “we are learning to be frank about sex … and through all this frankness runs a definite tendency toward an assault on the dual standard of morality and an assertion of sex rights on the part of women” (116).

[25] According to Schaefer, “Discourses on venereal diseases and eugenics were so tightly intertwined as often to be inseparable” (21).

[26] The irony is that throughout the nineteenth century, prostitutes were seen as a necessary evil in order to protect the virtue of pure women. The North American sex industry operated in relatively structured or semi-licensed conditions where the workers were regularly checked for STDs (Banner 1974, 76). The change came in the early twentieth century when sexually active young women identified sex with strangers as a possible way out or momentary escape from the drudgery of their working class lives. If they accepted payment for sex, they could earn two to three times more than they could as a domestic servant or salesgirl (Banner 1974, 81).

[27] Schaefer laid out the confluence of concerns that surrounded the spread of STDs in American society, which included Eugenics, Industrialization, Abstinence and Prohibition. The constituents incorporated under the ASHA banner represented most of these concerns. Progressives were concerned about the political and social boundaries being blurred by the urban, industrial and technological developments of the early Twentieth Century (18 – 23).

[28] According the Katz, Sanger had already experienced exile from the US in 1914 when in 1916 she was arrested and imprisoned for opening the nation’s first birth control clinic. In 1917 she had also made a motion picture titled “Birth Control” which had been confiscated by New York authorities.

[29] Fit to Win was shown at training camps where a lecturer would be available to explain some of the finer points of the storyline and address any medical questions.

[30] The film’s writer, Katherine Bement Davis, had already conducted extensive research into the possible impact of sex education on young women, which contradicted prevailing Freudian based theories that too much knowledge of sexuality and its consequences could permanently damage young women (Colwell 1998, 60).

[31] In 1914 Bennett made his movie debut with Damaged Goods, a film adapted from the theatre script that “pictures the terrible consequences of vice and the physical ruin that follows the abuse of moral law.” Bennett had married his co-star from Damaged Goods, Adrienne Morrison, with whom he had three daughters, two of which would go on to major Hollywood careers: Joan and Constance Bennett.

[32] Banner describes Davis as a leading figure of the Progressive movement, instigating major studies and reforms in the fields of urban poverty, women’s prisons and sex education (Banner 1974, 98). The New York Times ran a major profile of Davis when she was named New York’s first female Commissioner of Correction in January 1914. See Edward Marshall’s “New York’s First Woman Commissioner of Correction”, The New York Times, 11 January 1914.

[33] The location where these scenes were shot is mentioned in the notes section for the catalogue entry for The End of the Road in the American Film Institute Catalogue accessed 29 August 2014, Schaefer describes how many of the more confronting scenes of open wounds were cut in order to please the censors and keep the film in theatres, but some scenes were later reintroduced by exploitative distributors (29-30).

[34] The End of the Road was viewed by the author at the Library of Congress, Washington D.C.

[35] The issues facing the film were compounded by the film industry’s wish to appear respectable and beyond moral reproach in the face of a growing amount of sex scandals and exploitation films (Schaefer, 30). There was also an acceptance of sex education taking place within schools, making the role of sex education films in public cinemas largely redundant (Colwell, 69).

[36] According to Colwell (71), there were around ten other films addressing the spread of STDs, however they depicted women as the source of infection and transmission. The End of the Road differs significantly by drawing attention to the complicity of men.

[37] Schaefer notes that Damaged Goods (Thomas Ricketts, 1914) also starring Richard Bennett was the first to have established this premise on film. Damaged Goods reinforced the claim that venereal diseases were the scourge of the lower classes and inflicted upon young men of means and family during moments of weakness caused by drunkenness or deliberate seduction by fallen women from the lower classes (23).

[38] The copy viewed by the author in the Library of Congress was in Dutch, indicating it was intended for audiences in the Netherlands and other Dutch-speaking colonies.

[39] This section could not have been conducted without the use of Trove, the National Library of Australia’s online database of Australia’s newspapers. The articles directly referenced are noted in the above reference section.

[40] The Mooramong Buildings and Structures: Conservation Analysis Report for the National Trust of Australia (Victoria) of July 1989 contains a list (Appendix A) of 48 motion pictures “compiled from film reels held at Mooramong”. The fate of these films is unknown.

[41] According the Geoff Hone, the Scobie and Claire Mackinnon Trust have donated approximately AU$2 million to the Royal Children’s Hospital as well as other significant amounts over the years to the Australian Red Cross.


Bio: Heather L. Robinson is a Research Associate & PhD Candidate in the School of Humanities and Creative Arts, Flinders University. She is also an Honorary Research Associate (History) at the Los Angeles Natural History Museum.

“You gave me no choice”: A queer reading of Mordred’s journey to villainy and struggle for identity in BBC’s Merlin – Joseph Brennan

Abstract: This essay performs a queer reading of the Mordred character—that great archetype of the treacherous villain—from BBC’s Merlin (2008–2012) so as to examine his role in a series that garnered a devoted following among ‘slash fans,’ who homoeroticise male pairings. By charting the various catalysts that set this villain on his path, we are privy to insights into the representations and (queer) metaphors of this popular British series and what these elements have to tell us about this reimagined legendary villain. This reading is supported by analysis of slash fanart (known as ‘slash manips’), which support my reading and delve into typologies that help examine the construction and journey of Mordred as the archetypal villain, as well as his multiple identities of knight and magician, and queer associations of his struggle for self. This reading offers insight into the reimagining of an iconic villain, as well as the various types and queer metaphors the character’s journey in this popular series illuminates.


The Arthurian legend’s Mordred, like Bram Stoker’s (1897) Count Dracula or Arthur Conan Doyle’s (1894) Professor Moriarty, is one of literature’s most iconic villains; his portrayal in the legend’s best-known rendition, Thomas Malory’s (1485) Le Morte d’Arthur, for example, is as a Judas figure. (For those unfamiliar with the legends of King Arthur, Aronstein 2012 is an accessible introduction.) The Mordred character’s morphological qualities as the archetypal villain (see Propp 1968), combined with his weight in Arthurian literature, meant his appearance and relationship with Arthur—that great hero of Western literature and folklore, fated to die at Mordred’s hand (see Sutton 2003)—was highly anticipated from the start of the BBC’s recent television adaptation of the legend, Merlin (2008–2012). Mordred was also a major source of tension for the titular character in the series, ‘Merlin the Magician,’ who in this adaptation keeps his magical identity as the most powerful wizard in all of Albion (Britain) secret from ‘Arthur the King’ until Arthur’s death at an also-magical (and also-knight) Mordred’s hand in the climactic Battle of Camlann, which ended the program’s five-year run. This essay performs a queer reading of the Mordred character so as to examine his role in a series that has garnered a devoted following among slash fans, who create artistic works that actualise latent homoeroticism in popular texts. This reading is bolstered by analysis of select ‘slash manips’ featuring the character. A form of visual slash, these images help to anchor this author’s reading by connecting it with fans’ own queer interpretations of Mordred and his interactions with other men, Merlin and Arthur specifically. By charting the various catalysts that set this villain on his path, we are privy to insights into the representations and (queer) metaphors of this popular British series, and what these elements have to tell us about this reimagined legendary villain. Further, such a reading allows us to hypothesise about how Mordred’s villainy could all have been avoided if only his dual identities of Magician and Warrior had been accepted by his mentor, Merlin, and his master, Arthur.

Merlin (2008–2012)

Spanning five years and 65 episodes, Merlin chronicles the namesake’s acceptance and fulfilment of his destiny to assist Arthur in becoming the king of legend. Advising him along the way is his guardian Gaius (Richard Wilson) and a dragon Kilgharrah (voiced by John Hurt); while King Uther (Anthony Head), and later Morgana (Katie McGrath) and Mordred (Alexander Vlahos), are his main hindrances. It differs from most interpretations of the King Arthur legend by making Merlin and Arthur (portrayed by Colin Morgan and Bradley James, respectively) contemporaries (Sherman 2015, 93) in a world where magic is outlawed. The resultant need for secrecy from Merlin became a central narrative drive throughout the series, with the character only revealing his true self to Arthur in the final episode—an eventuality anticipated from the pilot. For many fans, Merlin’s ‘magic reveal’ in the final episode invites comparison with coming out as homosexual, for it is only after revealing his true self to Arthur that the pair’s love for each other may be acknowledged. Queer viewers can easily identify with characters such as Mordred and Merlin, who keep their identities secret in fear of an unaccepting society, forming a “wishful identification” (see Hoffner and Buchanan 2005) with such characters’ struggle for acceptance and identity in a universe hostile to ‘their kind.’

The finale saw the death of King Arthur in the arms of his manservant, Merlin, an event that was foreshadowed from the first episode of the final season.[1] Arthur is slain by his former knight and surrogate son, Mordred, who feels betrayed by both Arthur and Merlin, two men that represent two sides of himself—Warrior and Magician—that he failed to reconcile. This essay’s queer reading of the Mordred character is from the position of an aca–fan (an academic and fan, see Brennan 2014b). It is written with the belief—put forth by Henry Jenkins in his seminal text on television fan cultures, Textual Poachers—that “speaking as a fan is a defensible position within the debates surrounding mass culture.” (1992, 23) To this end, I use fan readings of the series and analyse select photo montaged fan works (known as ‘slash manips’), including some from my own practice, to support my reading and delve into typologies that help examine the construction and journey of Mordred as the archetypal villain, as well as his multiple identities of knight and magician, and queer associations of his struggle for self.

Medieval (Homo)Eroticism, Queer Readings, and Slash Manips

Scholarship on the series, in the form of chapters in edited collections (see Elmes 2015; Meredith 2015) and journal articles (see Foster and Sherman 2015 for a special issue on the subject in Arthuriana), have begun to explore its significance. In particular, scholars have examined its representations and the value of its unique version of a legend that is broadly familiar to most viewers (Britons particularly). Such familiarity, as Jon Sherman points out, makes up much of Merlin’s appeal (2015, 97). Among this scholarship is my own article (see Brennan 2015), which performs a queer reading of the Lancelot character (the great Romantic archetype) as he appears in this BBC series and the works of Thomas Malory, T.H. White, and Marion Zimmer Bradley. In this recent article, I situate the popular series in the long heritage of Arthurian adaptation. The article also includes an examination of a tradition of using queer theory to analyse Arthurian texts (see Brennan 2015, 21–22). In particular, I explore the proposition by certain medievalists (see Burger and Kruger 2001; Zeikowitz 2003) that a ‘queer approach’ (see Halperin 1995) to texts of or set in the Middle Ages can be useful in making “intelligible expressions of same-sex desire.” (Brennan 2015, 21) The applicability of queer readings to this series is perhaps illustrated best by the fan followings it has inspired, which contribute to its status as a ‘cult text.’ (See Hills 2004 and his definition of cult television as a complex interaction among television texts, discourses about them, and the fan practices these texts inspire; also see Machat 2012, who examines Merlin fanfic trailers to explore how fans of the series remix the canon relationship of its male protagonists.)

Of particular relevance to a queer approach to television series such as Merlin are the products of ‘slash’ fans and their exploration of homoeroticism in popular texts, often of which lack representations of homosexuals (see Russ 1985; Bacon-Smith 1992; Jenkins 1992). Slash derives its name from the convention of using a forward slash (/) to designate sexual male pairings, such as ‘Arthur/Mordred’ (see Jones 2002, 80). Slash fans produce texts in the form of fiction, video, and art to depict their (often subversive) homoerotic readings. The attraction of Merlin to many slash fans can be read as a result of Merlin and Mordred’s secret identities as sorcerers in a world where the practice of sorcery is punishable by death. For many fans, magic here is a metaphor.[2] And when magic is read as a metaphor for homosexuality, as David M. Halperin reminds us, the term ‘queer’ becomes available: to “anyone who is or feels marginalized because of her or his sexual practices.” (1995, 62) I have examined the Merlin/Arthur pairing previously (see Brennan 2013) in an article that also introduces a form of slash that had at that time yet to receive scholarly attention, namely ‘slash manips.’ (See Brennan 2014a for more on the significance of slash manips with respect to how slash practice has been defined.)

Slash manips remix images from the source material (such as high resolution screen shots or promotional images from Merlin) with images from scenes selected from gay pornography. Most commonly, these works come in the form of two characters’ heads (often with expressions of exertion) digitally superimposed onto gay porn bodies (that generally match the physicality of the characters in question). It is a process I describe as the ‘semiotic significance of selection’ (see Brennan 2013). This present article includes analysis of select slash manips involving the Mordred character, all of which are reproduced here with the permission of the respective artists. The inclusion of these works is useful in the context of a queer reading of Mordred because the visual impact of these digital manipulations, in addition to complementing discussion of symbolism of certain scenes, also themselves are distinctly ‘queer.’ Such imagery is in of itself an embodiment of the “project of contestation” this is queering, in addition to helping disrupt “our assumptions about medieval culture and textual practices.” (Lochrie 1997, 180)

Reading Character: Mordred-as-Villain

In his seminal syntagmatic structural analysis of folklore, Morphology of the Folktale, Vladimir Propp (1958) develops a typology that identifies seven character types in folktales, each with a role to play in forwarding the narrative, namely: Villain, Donor, Helper, Princess, False Hero, Dispatcher, and Hero. By focalising the story through Merlin, two central heroes emerge in this retelling: Merlin and Arthur. (Ordinarily Merlin would be the ‘helper’ character type, the hero’s guide who prepares Arthur and provides him with magical assistance.) As my close reading will demonstrate, with Merlin-as-hero Mordred is consigned to the villain type, as he is never viewed by this character with anything other than suspicion of villainy; from the perspective of Arthur-as-hero, conversely, Mordred is a false hero, a character once viewed as good who becomes evil, much like the series’ other false hero, Morgana (known to legend as Morgan le Fay), who in this version of the legend, Mordred turns to after being betrayed by the heroes of the story. This essay explores how the heroes’ own categorising of Mordred’s character ensures his path as villain, as confirmed by Mordred’s final words to Arthur: “You gave me no choice.” (V.13 [abbreviated season and episode number]) This reading is similar to Mary Stewart’s 1983 novel, The Wicked Day, which retells the legend from Mordred’s perspective, portraying him sympathetically as a victim of circumstance and confirming that we are all the heroes of our own story.

Mordred as he appears in Merlin is fascinating not only because he is a villain of the series—and villains are often fascinating in queer readings—but further because he bridges the central characters of Merlin and Arthur, or ‘Merlin/Arthur,’ who are described in the series as “two sides of the same coin” (Kilgharrah, V.3). In a queer reading, Merlin (manservant)/Arthur (master) as two sides of the same coin create a binary chain of tails/heads, bottom/top, passive/active, sorcery/non-sorcery, intuition/rationality, magic/strength, feminine/masculine, homosexual/homosocial. Mordred as both sorcerer and knight, straddles these positions in Merlin, moving freely between them, which is in part why the titular character—with his intention to “Keep the magic secret” (a series tagline)—can only ever see Mordred as a threat. Conversely, to Mordred, Merlin represents someone with magic like himself. Someone who can help him negotiate his dual identity of knight/sorcerer. As this essay’s close reading of select episodes will reveal, by not trusting him, what Merlin ultimately denies Mordred (freedom to be himself), is also what he ultimately denies himself.

Reading Character: Mordred and the Magician/Warrior Archetype

William P. McFarland and Timothy R. McMahon (1999) employ the four masculine archetypes of King, Lover, Magician, and Warrior (see Moore 1991; Moore and Gillette 1990, 1992) to outline the respective benefits of each to homosexual identity development. The King archetype displays “qualities of order, of reasonable and rational patterning, of integration and integrity” (Moore and Gillette 1990, 62); the Lover is “deeply sensual, sensually aware, and sensitive to the physical world in all its splendor” (ibid., 121); the Magician bears the characteristics of “thoughtfulness, reflection, and introversion,” exhibiting “the ability to connect with inner truths” (McFarland and McMahon 1999, 51); and the Warrior incites others to “take the offensive and to move out of a defensive or holding position about life’s tasks and problems” (Moore and Gillette 1990, 79).

These archetypes are useful in introducing the characters of Mordred, Merlin, and Arthur, each of whom, in addition to being literal personifications of these archetypes, display a combination of the corresponding traits in their representation: Mordred (as Lover, as Magician, as Warrior), Merlin (as Lover, as Magician), and Arthur (as King, as Warrior). These archetypes are useful in plotting the binary of Arthur/Merlin, primarily King/Magician, and the manner in which Mordred belongs to both men, while ultimately struggling and eventually failing to exist in the grey area between the well-defined and policed binaries the men embody. For while being Magician and Lover affords Merlin (as Helper) attributes that Arthur both needs and does not possess himself (as King and Warrior; hence the earlier ‘coin’ metaphor), these are identities that Merlin conceals, that bring shame within the context of the series, for they also bear feminine (Lover) and queer (Magician) connotations; and thus Merlin is treated as such in the series, excluded from Arthur’s homosocial circle of knights, and ridiculed for his sensitivity, his lack of masculine worth—“Pathetic. You’re pretending to be a battle-hardened warrior, not a daffodil.” (Arthur to Merlin, I.2). By being King, Arthur “stabilizes chaotic emotion and out-of-control behaviors” (Moore and Gillette 1990, 62), he controls the unruly feminine, which is how sorcery is defined (and portrayed by Morgana), and thus needed to be outlawed, by the ultimate Father and King, Uther.

In this essay I examine the otherness of Mordred and how his pole personas of Warrior/Magician, knight/sorcerer, hero/villain, toy with Merlin and his efforts to maintain separation between such identities. In particular, I consider the Druid boy’s appearances over the final season of Merlin and his transition to Arthur’s favourite knight, as well as the fluidity and openness with which he occupies positions of otherness, as is supported by slash manips featuring the character. The essay also explores how Mordred subverts the homosocial order of Camelot in a way Merlin never could, eroticising the sacred bonds between Arthur and his men.

Arthur/Mordred: The Erotic Bonds of Heroes and Villains

Figure 1. The Arthur/Merlin/Mordred homosocial triangle (V.1).

Figure 1. The Arthur/Merlin/Mordred homosocial triangle (V.1).

Male heroes and villains of legend and myth share obsessive bonds and a covert homoeroticism (Battis 2006). The villain becomes obsessed with the hero’s body, “with finding his weakness, with penetrating or shattering or inflicting violence upon him” (ibid.). In his obsession, the villain becomes a “failed version” of the hero, needing to eradicate the hero to validate his own perverse ethical agenda, not just interested in ruling the world, but in “ruling the hero’s body” as well (ibid.). Writing here on the comic book tradition and the queer potential of the central antagonism of Clark Kent/Lex Luthor as they appear in the television series Smallville (2001–2011), Jes Battis’s description is also suited to the rivalry of Arthur/Morgana.[3] As villain and woman, Morgana seeks to disrupt and possess all that Arthur is—chivalric order, his reign, and his legacy—so as to impose her own worldview on the realm. “I want his annihilation, Mordred,” she tells him in V.2. “I want to put his head on a spike and I want to watch as the crows feast on his eyes.” While not homoerotic, there is a taboo eroticism inherit in Arthur/Morgana due to their blood relation, and the romantic references to the pairing in season one—such as in I.5, when Guinevere confides in Merlin that she hopes one day Arthur and Morgana will marry. Mordred, who responds to Morgana’s blood thirst by urging her to “calm yourself,” (V.2) is different. He is, in the end, fate’s and Morgana’s pawn—particularly when compared with other adaptations in which the character appears, T.H. White’s The Once and Future King particularly (see Thomas 1982). That Mordred’s villainy is an extension of Morgana’s perverse agenda is an idea put forward by Erin Chandler, who argues that at times (such as in season three):

the series focuses on Morgana playing what is essentially the legendary Mordred role, turning against her father, Uther, and everyone dear to him for his past actions and his refusal to acknowledge his errors. (2015, 109–10)

After all, while in Merlin Mordred may wield the sword that delivers the fatal blow, Morgana is the one who makes it unbeatable by forging it in dragon’s breath (Edwards 2015, 81).

Mordred’s portrayal as pawn explains why interest in the character from the perspective of slash fans seems to be less about his antagonism with Arthur—though there is certainly homoeroticism in that regard—and more about the love and devotion that turns sour and leads to respective betrayals of each other. Mordred defies Morgana at the start of season five, in fact wounds her in favour of Arthur’s vision of a nobler way, making the transition from Druid nomad to Arthur’s favourite knight in the space of a few episodes. As a man of magic, who also wishes to prove to Merlin his devotion to Arthur, the character self-sacrifices for the greater good until Arthur asks of him a sacrifice that is too much: to allow the woman he loves to be executed. To have done so, to have let the girl die, which would be to betray himself (the Lover). In the end Mordred is as betrayed by Arthur and Merlin (his mentor, his ‘helper,’ if you like) as he himself betrays. Until their mutual destruction he still desires Arthur, smiling when Arthur returns a mortal wound, welcoming the opportunity to join Arthur in death.

Mordred enacts a kind of homosocial, or ‘erotic’ (to appropriate Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s use of the term, see 1985) triangle with Arthur and Merlin, challenging Merlin and his decision to maintain secrecy. He also is endeared to Arthur, trusting him completely, a trust that is in his eyes betrayed; although there is more to it than that, Mordred has a part to play in Arthur’s fate. The triangle enacted by these men is visible from their first meeting as adults (V.1). In this scene (to be explored further in the next section), as Merlin recognises Mordred for the threat he is, an instant bond is formed between Arthur and his future knight (see Figure 1). Concerning the bond of Arthur and Mordred, there are traces of erotic connection between the men in the literature also. In Wilfred Campbell’s 1895 play Mordred: A Tragedy in Five Acts—in which the character is cast in the role of tragic anti-hero rather than villain—Mordred makes the point that Arthur’s affection for Launcelot “outweighs his affection for the queen, suggesting a possible homosexual subtext and therefore implicitly threatening Arthur with sexual blackmail.” (Yee 2014, 15) Benjamin Franklin Fisher IV takes this observation further when he suggests that Mordred’s suspicions in this play are not entirely unfounded; for, as Launcelot says, “I love thee, King, as doth no other man.” (1990, 171) The significance of such a suggestion of eroticism—whether valid or not—is that, as Pamela M. Yee argues: “the fact that Mordred introduces the possibility of inappropriate conduct between king and knight indicates that both he and Campbell are preoccupied with definitions of proper masculine behavior”. (2014, 16) In the second half of this essay, I will consider via close readings of episodes and analysis of slash manips, the ease with which Mordred negotiates and simultaneously inhabits dual positions—knight/sorcerer, hero/villain, lover/destroyer. A quality that renders him an intriguing and highly ‘slashable’ figure throughout the final season of the series, and a character that has something important to say about the villain’s journey.

V.1: Arthur’s Bane is Mordred’s Destiny

Figure 2. Mordred (V).

Figure 2. Mordred (V).

Mordred (portrayed by Asa Butterfield, I–II; Alexander Vlahos, V) is first introduced as a young Druid boy in three episodes over seasons one and two (I.8, II.3, and II.11). He is the first to call Merlin by his Druid name, ‘Emrys,’ and plays a crucial role in introducing Morgana to sorcery early in the series. He is saved initially when Arthur allows him to escape execution by Uther, an act of mercy that endears Arthur to the character and explains the bond they later share: Arthur does, in a way, give Mordred life. Kilgharrah the dragon prophetesses that the young Druid will bring about Arthur’s demise and therefore that Merlin “must let the boy die.” However it is only at the end of this episode (I.8) that viewers learn this character is in fact the Mordred of legend. As Sherman points out, in Merlin the plot device of “introducing a figure or object from Arthurian legend while withholding his, her, or its name” (as with Mordred, Geoffrey of Monmouth, and Excalibur, for example) is a pattern that is repeated throughout the series (see Sherman 2015, 91 and 94). Resultantly, when the character returns in season two, Merlin attempts unsuccessfully to have him captured, knowing he will be killed if he is. These are actions Mordred vows never to forgive and never to forget. He does not return again until the final season (V.1). Recast as an adult (the 24-year-old Vlahos, see Figure 2), he becomes a central character until the series’ end twelve episodes later (V.13). There is significance to be found in this recasting. For the Mordred of season five, while an adult, remains still somehow younger, more innocent, more easily corrupted than the other men who sit among Arthur’s ‘circle.’ He is also now at a suitable age to be ‘paired’ by slash fans with other adult males.

Mordred’s reintroduction comes while Merlin and Arthur are separated from the Knights of Camelot and being held as captives of slave traders. Mordred’s entrance is by way of intervention, preventing one of the men from killing Arthur: “Shouldn’t we leave it to the Lady Morgana to decide their fate?” Assisting Arthur up from the ground, their hands still clasped, Mordred says, “You don’t remember me do you? You saved my life once, many years ago.” The scene (see Figure 3) in which Arthur and Mordred first meet as adults is rich in visual symbolism. Mordred, with his black fur, clean appearance, and well-tailored-yet-exotic attire stands apart from the filthy brutes of the party he travels with. His pallid complexion, blue eyes, blood red lips, and black, curly hair makes him an alluring presence, set against a woodlands backdrop of lush greenery. All this contrasts with Arthur’s golden hair and reflective armour: he sits stark in the shot. Mordred’s appearance in furs and associations with the Druids make him almost wolf-like in appearance, a lone wolf boy with bushy fur and piercing eyes. Combined with the appearance of the character in Merlin’s dreams throughout the final season, such imagery is phallic and homoerotic, as Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic reading of the ‘Wolf Man’ myth reveals (see 1955). The ‘Wolf Man’—as Freud’s patient has come to be known—is a case that appeared in From the History of an Infantile Neurosis. It details “the primal scene,” the witnessing by a child of a sexual act. In this case from the 1910s the patient, a Russian aristocrat, has an anal fixation: a predilection for heterosexual relations in which he penetrates his partner from behind, and where he is unable to move his bowels without an enema administered by a male attendant. The patient has a recurring dream of a tree full of white wolves, which Freud relates to a time when, just age one-and-a-half, the patient was exposed to his parents having coitus a tergo (“from behind”), and thus a “repressed homosexual attitude” developed (Freud 1955, 64). As Lee Edelman writes, “the Wolf Man observed at first hand what being used from behind entailed.” (1991, 96) Edelman, in connecting the case with passages in texts that depict sodomy between men, argues that the Wolf Man case “carries more specifically the psychic inscription of the anal-erotic organization.” (98)[4] The erotic potential of Arthur and Mordred’s first adult meeting is explored in my 2013 slash manip, The Coming of Mordred (see Figure 4). The work employs binary symbolism of colour and physiology (gold/black, muscular/slight, hairless/hairy, light/dark) to represent the contrast in the Arthur/Mordred dynamic; while the connection of their bodies, their hands exploring each other’s naked flesh, foreshadows the (erotic) intimacy to follow. Like the base image onto which the characters have been placed, it is a work of foreplay.

Figure 3. Mordred and Arthur’s first meeting as adults (V.1).

Figure 3. Mordred and Arthur’s first meeting as adults (V.1).

There is an unkempt wildness to Mordred that resembles Morgana, a character who has undergone a transition from colourful and regel gowns (I–III) to black furs and unkempt sensuality (IV–V), from the warmth of the ward of Camelot to the icy climate of exile; a transformation from young and beautiful into the series’ main antagonist (Mediavilla 2015, 52), a transformation that coincides with her embracing sorcery. Cindy Mediavilla argues that the televisual format “presents many opportunities for characters to evolve from one season to the next.” (2015, 52) And that of all characters, “Morgana’s transformation is, by far, the most profound.” (ibid.) Making Morgana “one of the most complex and fascinating Arthurian characters depicted on television.” (ibid.) Further, summing up the connection between the journeys of Mordred and Morgana in the series, Elysse T. Meredith argues that in Merlin, “Mordred’s path is a rough reversal of Morgana’s.” (2015, 165) In many regards a resemblance in the evolution of these characters is fitting, especially given that in many retellings of the legend, Mordred is the unwanted son of Arthur and Morgana (Edwards 2015, 50). There is a quality of heightened sexuality signified by the appearances of the adult Mordred and season five’s Morgana, which ties the sorcerer with the sexual, and the taboo of magic with the taboo of unbridled sexuality, at odds with the chaste chivalric order of Arthurian knights.

In the first episode of season five, despite travelling with their captors, Mordred continues to protect Merlin and Arthur, even smuggling them food. And when the pair escape and Arthur is presented with the opportunity to kill Mordred, he restrains, “He showed us kindness.” When Mordred is reunited with Morgana, she is both delighted and surprised to see him alive. “Sorcery frightens people,” Mordred says, “even those who claim to support it.” He is of course speaking of Merlin, whose decision to keep his identity secret, Mordred never fully reconciles. “You see a lot,” Morgana replies. “I’ve learned to,” Mordred says. “I’ve had to. If I was not to be burned at the stake or exploited for another man’s gain.” We realise at this point that Mordred too has changed, he no longer associates with the Druids. He is an outcast, like Merlin, having to hide in plain sight to survive. We never learn why this is, the mystery of his background adding to the suspense of the character and his intentions. Morgana becomes hostile when Mordred informs her that they had Arthur in their grasp and that he escaped. She accuses Mordred of letting him go. Mordred is clearly taken aback by Morgana’s outburst and detailing of how she wishes for Arthur’s head on a spike. Their reunion is cut short when the alarm is sounded: Arthur has come to free his men.

Figure 4. The Coming of Mordred, Merlin/Mordred slash manip. By chewableprose.

Figure 4. The Coming of Mordred, Merlin/Mordred slash manip. By chewableprose.

While Morgana is successful in capturing Arthur, she is stopped from killing him by Mordred, who decides in a moment of intensity to change sides. It would seem that Arthur’s willingness to risk his life—“Had to free my men.”—inspires Mordred to literally stab his own kind in the back with a dagger. In the following scene, a confused Merlin asks the Diamair—the key to all knowledge—“If Mordred is not Arthur’s bane than who is?”, to which the Diamair replies, “Himself.” This is Arthur’s betrayal of Mordred to which I earlier referred. Mordred does, by all appearances, change sides; however it is Arthur’s later decisions that ultimately lead Mordred to double cross him, decisions ‘helped’ by Merlin. Mordred returns to Camelot and is knighted. In the scene following, Merlin offers to remove his cape, and queries Mordred’s defection:

MERLIN          You saved Arthur’s life, why?

MORDRED Because Arthur is right, the love that binds us is more important than the power we wield. Morgana had forgotten that.

Merlin disrobing Mordred is a titillating sight for slash fans. It connotes a changed dynamic for the former rivals. While Mordred was previously an outsider and Merlin had Arthur’s ear, now Mordred is granted access to Arthur’s inner circle. Merlin is now subservient to Sir Mordred, and must interact with him accordingly. Such is the symbolism attached to the removal of the ceremonial cape. Yet there is also subterfuge in the scene. Merlin veils a threat of exposure through the line, “if Arthur knew.” A threat that is of course empty, as Mordred holds the same damning knowledge over Merlin. Theirs is a stalemate. Merlin resists the shift of power, the subtext of this scene being his jealousy.

Mordred and Merlin are “not so different,” as Mordred identifies earlier in the episode. His rationale for turning on Morgana bears uncanny semblance to a scene from the previous season (IV.6), when a captured Merlin accuses Morgana of knowing nothing of loyalty, caring only for power. Also, they both keep their magical identities hidden from Arthur. This essay suggests that Merlin’s suspicion of Mordred is misplaced, and in fact helps ensure his eventual betrayal (as is argued below in regard to the events of V.5). As the focal character of the series, Merlin’s suspicion—however unwarranted—manifests itself in slash art that exploits the potential power, symbolic and supernatural, Mordred has to control Merlin. My 2013 slash manip Like A Beast is a case in point. In the work, I exploit the derogatory connotations of the ‘doggystyle’ position (of being fucked “from behind,” to refer back to the Wolf Man myth) and signifieds of dispassionate, focused, in control (Mordred) versus shocked, overwhelmed, distant (Merlin) in my selection of facial expressions. Merlin’s expression in particular evokes all the passivity, phallus-accommodating, and penetrative potential of the toothless, gaping mouths of side show carnival clowns ready for ball play. Such imagery is also supported by Merlin’s performance in the series of a medieval fool.[5] The Camelot banner and digitally-engorged scrotums combined with the ‘movement’ of the sexual position—Mordred employing elements of the ‘leap frog’ doggystyle variant, ‘balls deep’ inside Merlin—helps convey my intended subversion of Merlin, the power afforded to Sir Mordred, and the fallacy of his knighthood, which is built on a lie and a constant ‘threat-of-outing’ game with Merlin.

Other artists have also explored the new power differential between Merlin and Mordred, and further, the new affordances with Arthur that come as a result of Mordred’s knighthood. In an untitled 2014 work by wishfulcelebfak, who posts his works to LiveJournal, Mordred sits on Arthur’s cock (perhaps symbolic of a throne). In text accompanying the work, the artist situates the image:

Arthur (bradley james) helps druid Mordred (alexander vlahos) come out of his shell, by introducing him to “knights of the round table” aka sex buddy club.

Morgana can only offer Mordred some cheap magic tricks and a wooden dildo, but Arthur can offer him unlimited gay sex with all the hunks of the kingdom. Which side will Mordred choose? (wishfulcelebfak 2014)

Expressed in the above are the benefits that come with Mordred’s inclusion in the Knights of the Round Table, including certain ‘homosocial rituals,’ which wishfulcelebfak has (homo)sexualised. The work of Ruth Mazo Karras is useful here, her 2002 From Boys to Men, for example, examines formations of masculinity in late medieval Europe through a queer reading of the bonds that ignite among knights. The message of this manip is just how much Arthur has to offer.

Similarly, a 2012 work titled Breaking in a New Knights by endless_paths, also a LiveJournal artist, depicts Arthur entering Mordred ‘from behind.’ The accompanying text: “Who needs merlin when you have knights” (endless_paths 2012a), makes clear the role (once occupied by Merlin) that Mordred now fills; or in the context of the sexual act depicted, the willingness of Mordred to provide a ‘space’ for Arthur to fill. The artist implies that Mordred’s hole is more compatible with the cock of a king than that offered by his manservant. This implication is in much the same spirit as the erotic rituals that may have taken place between knights, such as bathing in front of each other to verify health and masculinity, as recounted in the 1300s by French knight Geoffroi de Charny in his Book of Chivalry (as noted by Zeikowitz 2003, 64–65; Zeikowitz also details intimate interactions between knights in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, author unknown). Concerning the erotic rituals of Arthur and his knights, Mordred specifically, my 2014 slash manip It’s Good to be Bad, describes just such a ritual:

Mordred knew it was wrong that, when the other knights were not looking and the Queen was away, he would get down on his knees in the grass in that private spot behind the castle and take Arthur’s manhood in his mouth, and keep it there until the King moaned, withdrew and showered him with his seed. Mordred knew it was bad to be so suggestive in front of the others in gesturing for his King to repeat the ritual more and more, but such dangerous displays were also what made it feel so good (chewableprose 2014)

In Arthur’s eyes Merlin and Mordred are entirely different (a theme explored in endless_paths’s manip): one is brave and noble and knightly, the other a friend and manservant yes, but not possessing qualities necessary to be a knight. Mordred is given recognition and place at Arthur’s right side, which is everything prophesised, but not realised, about Merlin and Arthur’s relationship. In Kilgharrah’s words to Merlin: “The Druid boy, his fate, and Arthur’s are bound together like ivy around a tree.” (V.3) While the legend is clear about the significance of such a statement, in Merlin there is the implication that it is the character Merlin’s unwillingness to trust Mordred’s sincerity that in part ensures Arthur’s grim fate. That Merlin may have had a role to play in the death of Arthur is supported by Chandler, who argues that in Merlin, and indeed much of the literature on which it is based, there is no single contributing factor in Arthur’s downfall (2015, 110). As Gaius, Merlin’s most trusted friend, tells him: “People change, perhaps you should give [Mordred] the benefit of the doubt.” (V.2) Merlin never does.

Seeking a Father, Seeking a Son: Arthur and Mordred’s Search for Each Other

Etymologically Mordred is Latin and means “painful,” an apt descriptor for a character difficult to watch. From a slash perspective, he is painful because he had so much promise. The promise was despite the character’s “weight of history,” a phrase used by series co-producer Julian Murphy to explain certain inevitable conclusions to the series (see Brennan 2015, 37; also see Sherman 2015, 83 who discusses audience expectations around Arthurian retellings). Being introduced as an adolescent to the ‘of age’ Merlin and Arthur early in the series, understanding Mordred’s portrayal relies on remembering that he is much younger than contemporaries Merlin and Arthur—easy to forget given that Alexander Vlahos, the actor recast in the role, is aged within two years of Merlin actor Colin Morgan. In the legend the character is often Arthur’s illegitimate son (to Morgause in Malory and White, and to Morgana in Bradley’s 1982 The Mists of Avalon), which perhaps explains Arthur’s father-like devotion, and Morgana’s protectiveness in this version of the story. Mordred wishes to please Arthur, and when that fails, repurposes this wish for Morgana. He gives up Merlin’s secret identity late in the final season (V.11) as demonstration of his devotion to Morgana’s cause, committing himself to the destruction of his father-figure, and the Law-of-the-Father (see Lacan 1977, 67).

The Oedipal potential of the Arthur/Mordred/Morgana relationship is plain to see, and has been noted by scholars (see Worthington 2002) in their readings of other iterations of the Arthurian legend. In renouncing Arthur and turning to the ‘dark side’ (see Figure 5) Mordred also foregoes all knightly, chivalric artifice. He embraces the sorcerer, traitor, feminine side of the binaries he once moved between. Keeping in mind Mordred’s age and his search for guardianship, before shifting sides, Arthur and Merlin emerge as two potential surrogate fathers, the erotic potential of which is as pronounced in Merlin as it is in the incestuous unions that spawned Mordred in many other adaptations (most notably in Malory). Mordred’s search for a father is met with Arthur’s search for a son and heir and is most evident in V.5. It is a search at odds with Merlin’s own quest to prove himself to Arthur, the tragedy of which rings true when we consider that Arthur dies before producing an heir.

Figure 11. Left–right: Mordred in service to Arthur; Mordred in service to Morgana (V).

Figure 5. Left–right: Mordred in service to Arthur; Mordred in service to Morgana (V).

In a scene from V.5 that follows a training session, Arthur makes clear to Merlin his intention to mentor Mordred, and speaks with an admiration and pride he does not of any of his other knights. Mordred’s prowess with a sword confirms how little we know of his life in the intermediary years since we last saw him. Where did he learn to fight in a manner that would impress the king? Furthering the surrogate father metaphor, Mordred is half Merlin, half Arthur, he has both of their skills and the potential to become the best of both men.[6] Mordred reaches out to both men, and while Arthur reciprocates Mordred’s love, Merlin shuns it. This is despite Gaius’s—Merlin’s own father-figure—efforts to convince Merlin that Mordred will not necessarily betray Arthur:

The future has many paths, that is only one. […] Seeing’s not the same as knowing, and we must know before we act.

In this episode Merlin acts before he knows, seizing an opportunity to ensure Mordred dies, actions that in fact ensure Mordred’s survival and the continuation of the prophecy of ‘Arthur’s bane.’

V.5: “I Cannot Save the Life of a Man Destined to Kill Arthur”

Arthur displays his faith in Mordred by inviting him on a routine patrol of the woods surrounding Camelot. Merlin objects in an early scene that labours his inability to afford Mordred the opportunity to prove himself, suggesting yet again that there could have been a very different outcome for all concerned if he had. The purpose of the patrol is to confront a rogue sorcerer, Osgar, who when confronted presents Arthur with a relic of the ‘Old Religion.’ Such relics and reference to magic as an ‘Old Religion’ adds to the mysticism of magic as it is represented in the series (via glowing eyes, potions, collection of herbs for poultices, etc.). Naturally, given his unsuperstitious nature and traits of King and Warrior (Moore and Gillette 1990, 62, 79), Arthur is not too concerned. The sorcerer dies from wounds sustained in his confrontation with the patrol and is buried in secret by Merlin. Mordred notices:

MORDRED What would the king say? Sorcerers are not permitted marked graves. It’s all right, Merlin, I’d have done the same. He was one of us, after all.

MERLIN          It won’t always be like this. One day we’ll live in freedom again.

MORDRED You really believe that?

MERLIN          I do.

MORDRED Until then, we go unmarked in death as in life.

It is their first scene alone since Merlin disrobed Mordred following his knighting. And Mordred begins as Merlin had before, with a veiled threat of exposure. Before the sorcerer Osgar had died he had told Arthur there was still time to find his “true path.” This warning mirrors Gaius’s “many paths” comment to Merlin. Kilgharrah confirms this later in the episode when he tells Merlin: “The future is never clear, there are many paths, they do not all lead to Camelot’s ruin.” It follows, therefore, that not all paths lead to Mordred’s villainy. Within Merlin, Mordred is seeking someone with whom he can confide, someone with magic like himself who can help him negotiate his dual identity. This is what Merlin ultimately denies him, and himself. Merlin is so used to keeping his identities separate, he is unable to understand Mordred, a man who refuses to give up on others knowing that side of himself. That becomes clear in this scene as Mordred seeks surety that he will not always have to hide who he is. In the end, it is Morgana who gives him this certainty of self. In the episode, Gaius convinces Arthur to investigate the relic, a journey that takes them to the White Mountains and the dwelling of the ‘Disir,’ representatives of the Old Religion (all women). When conflict inevitably follows, Mordred is gravely wounded while protecting Arthur. Mordred’s only hope for survival is Merlin’s magic, which Merlin will not use because of fear of who Mordred will become. Gaius rightly notes that letting someone die based on a prophecy of what they may one day do is out of character for Merlin. Interestingly, this scene is similar to the scene between Arthur and Morgana in V.1 that convinced Mordred to change sides:

ARTHUR          What happened to you, Morgana? As a child, you were so kind, so compassionate.

MORGANA      I grew up.

Merlin remains committed to his decision to let Mordred die for the greater good, as the experience of ‘growing up’ has taught him. This is perhaps where Mordred’s youth, as a man yet to ‘grow up’ and thus in need of guidance and understanding, becomes significant. Believing it his only recourse, Arthur returns with Merlin to the Disir, prepared to lay down his life for Mordred’s. The Disir tell Arthur he must embrace magic, and is given the night to decide. “My heart says do anything I can to save Mordred,” Arthur says to Merlin that night by campfire, a recurrent setting of intimacy and phallic symbolism (“tongues of flame” [Freud 1930, 37]) for the men. “But I have seen what misery unfettered sorcery brings. Before my father outlawed magic, Camelot was almost destroyed by sorcery. In my own time, Morgana has used it for nothing but evil. What would you do? In my place?” Arthur seriously considers the prospect that magic may not be as evil as his father thought, and even if it is, seems prepared to accept that threat in exchange for Mordred’s life. He asks Merlin for his advice on what he thinks they should do: “So what should we do? Accept magic? Or let Mordred die?” Merlin chooses the latter, and seals the fate of both men: “There can be no place for magic in Camelot.”

Arthur tells the Disir of his decision, returning with a heavy heart to Camelot. When he arrives he is delighted to discover that Mordred is alive and well, Mordred running and embracing Arthur. Merlin then realises in a scene with Gaius that by influencing Arthur not to allow magic to return to the realm, he had ensured Mordred’s path to bring about Arthur’s death:

MERLIN          How could I have been so stupid?

GAIUS             You did what you thought was best.

MERLIN          I assumed the best way to protect Arthur was to kill Mordred.

GAIUS             A perfectly natural assumption.

MERLIN          But all I did was make sure he lived. That was the Disir’s judgment. Mordred’s life is Arthur’s punishment for rejecting magic.

GAIUS             You mustn’t blame yourself.

MERLIN          But it is my fault. Mordred is alive and well. He’s free to play his part in Arthur’s death and there’s nothing I can do to prevent it. Nothing.

I am inclined to disagree with Merlin’s logic, as expressed in the above dialogue. Given reference in this episode to the many paths of fate, and the Disir’s promise to spare Mordred’s life should Arthur accept magic, it seems more plausible that it is not Mordred’s life that is punishment, but rather forthcoming catalysts—namely the character Kara—that will lead Mordred to stray onto a different path. Merlin is right in so far as this cannot now be prevented; the sentence has been passed: Arthur will die at Mordred’s hand, and Merlin ensured it. This reasoning makes sense when considered in relation to a key fan criticism (see Caspers 2013) of Merlin ending when it does, which is that the prophecy of Merlin and Arthur side-by-side, uniting the lands of Albion and returning magic to the realm is never realised. It would seem this is the hero’s critical mistake. As Gaius words it, Merlin did what he thought was ‘best,’ but not what was ‘right.’ As Arthur prophetically told Merlin in V.1: “No matter what adversity we face, we stand for what is right. To betray our beliefs, Merlin, that is what would destroy everything we strive for.”

This is the tragedy of this particular retelling. By betraying the beliefs that Arthur and Merlin had lived by, and that had seen them escape certain death many times previous, Merlin had ensured Arthur’s destruction. This point also explains another fan criticism of the plotting of the final episode (see Caspers 2013), which is that Arthur and Merlin had survived worse in the past. This time was different, this time Arthur’s fate was decided in advance. The earlier scene where Mordred doubts whether magic will ever not be outlawed lends further credence to the argument that had Arthur chosen Mordred’s life over his decree, Mordred would not need to go on “unmarked in death as in life.” The episode ends with Arthur with his arms around Mordred, hoisting him into the air (see Figure 6), it serves as grim reminder—for Arthur/Mordred shippers[7] particularly—of what might have been.

Figure 6 Arthur hoists Mordred into the air in a playful embrace (V.5).

Figure 6. Arthur hoists Mordred into the air in a playful embrace (V.5).

V.9: “Three’s Better than Two, Isn’t That Right, Merlin?”

Mordred continues to reach out to Merlin in the lead-up to the cataclysmic event that reroutes him onto the path of Arthur’s destruction. And Arthur continues to treat Mordred like a son. The events of V.9 are a good illustration of this. In the plot for this episode, Mordred and Leon are the only knights Arthur trusts with information of a plan intended to disrupt potential leaks in the ranks. The episode is the final in the ‘evil!Guinevere trilogy,’ in which Guinevere is enchanted to serve Morgana, and in it Merlin and Arthur set out with an unconscious Guinevere to meet ‘The Dolma,’ a mysterious elderly female sorcerer, in hopes of a cure. Mordred, having noticed Merlin acting strangely, follows them. It is just as well he does too, coming to the rescue when a cliff fall leaves Merlin unconscious and Arthur pinned beneath a boulder. Mordred is praised that evening around a campfire: that site of homoerotic significance. There, sitting around erect flames, Arthur makes reference to the triangle Mordred effects in the Arthur/Merlin dynamic: “Good to have you with us. Three’s better than two, isn’t that right, Merlin?” That evening, Mordred once again confronts Merlin, expressing a desire for amicable relations between them:

MORDRED You don’t trust me do you, Merlin?

MERLIN          I believe you to be a fine knight.

MORDRED But not one to be trusted. It’s all right, I know you have the king’s best interests at heart. I only wish you would believe that I do too. One day I shall prove my loyalty to you and the king. Then I hope we may be friends.

MERLIN          I would wish for nothing more.

When an attack from Morgana renders Mordred unconscious, Merlin convinces Arthur to leave him for dead. Yet another refusal by Merlin to believe in Mordred, which in turn facilitates Morgana and Mordred’s first meeting since his defection:

MORDRED Why don’t you kill me?

MORGANA      My argument’s not with you, Mordred. How could it be? We’re of a kind.


MORGANA      You wear the uniform well but we both know what lies beneath. Do you think Arthur would tolerate you for one minute if he knew the truth? One of his knights, a sorcerer.

MORDRED One day he will know. One day we will be accepted.

MORGANA      Your naïveté would be charming if it wasn’t so dangerous.

Mordred defeats Morgana using magic, his eyes glowing gold: symbolising the fire Morgana has ignited within (see Figure 7); ambers of doubt—and of Camelot’s destruction, as the prophecy goes—are being fanned, which again would not have been the case had Arthur embraced magic in V.5. At the episode’s end Mordred reveals that he had known the mysterious sorceress Arthur had gone to meet was in fact Merlin, and vows to keep his secret yet again, to trust that Merlin’s intentions are just: “Have no fear. I will not divulge your secret. I admire you. It can’t be easy to do so much for so little reward.” This episode and the meeting with Morgana marks the beginning of the end.

Figure 13. Mordred defeats Morgana using magic (V.9).

Figure 7. Mordred defeats Morgana using magic (V.9).

V.11: “You’re Breaking His Heart. You’ll Lose His Trust”

Arthur’s sentence—to die at the hands of a Druid—begins with Mordred’s betrayal in V.11 and is complete only two episodes later. In V.11 Mordred (as Lover) shelters a childhood friend and implied lover, Kara, who is subsequently captured and sentenced to death after killing several of Arthur’s men and making an attempt on Arthur’s life. Mordred pleads with Arthur on Kara’s behalf for clemency, weeps and kneels before him, “I beg you, Arthur.” Arthur is moved by the display and responds in a father-like manner: “You know there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for you.” Yet refuses to yield the sentence, for she is a danger to his people. Merlin watches these events unfold with great interest, well aware of what is a stake, and pleads to Arthur on Mordred’s behalf:

MERLIN          You’re breaking his heart. You’ll lose his trust.

ARTHUR          There’s nothing I can do. In time Mordred will understand that. He’ll come to forgive me.

MERLIN          I fear you’re wrong, Arthur.

Kara exploits Mordred’s feelings for her, poisoning him against Arthur to further her own cause against Uther’s doctrine: “No matter what he preaches, he is no different from his father.” Mordred resolves to free Kara and smuggle her out of Camelot. However before he does, he returns to Arthur to apologise for what he is about to do, and to say goodbye: “You took me in. I will always remember that, and everything you’ve done for me.” Recognising Mordred’s speech for what it is, Merlin confronts Mordred and his intention to free Kara. Mordred warns Merlin not to betray his trust. “Tell me you wouldn’t do the same for the woman you love,” Mordred says. “You see, you can’t.” When Merlin discusses the situation with Gaius, he is reminded that what Mordred is planning: “It’s nothing you haven’t done yourself a hundred times before.” And yet, as Merlin has always done, he applies a double standard where Mordred is concerned, betraying his trust and telling Arthur of Mordred’s intentions. It is one final failure on Merlin’s behalf to choose another path for Mordred, the man who so admires him.

Mordred and Kara are captured in the woods beyond the castle, Kara having killed a guard during the escape. They are imprisoned, Kara’s sentence standing and Mordred’s pending. Merlin makes another attempt to persuade Arthur to free Kara. And it works. The next morning, in the throne room before all of the court Arthur offers Kara a chance: “If you repent your crimes, I will spare your life.” Arthur’s love for Mordred is such that he would betray his own beliefs—allowing a sorcerer and killer to go free—if it will mean winning back Mordred’s favour. Slash manip artist endless-paths speculates on Arthur’s devotion and the seductiveness of the Mordred character in a 2012 Arthur/Mordred manip titled A Knight Doing His Duty. In a brief statement accompanying the work and setting up the action depicted, endless_paths writes: “Sometimes the power of a sorcerer is to [sic] much to resist.” (2012b) The manip configures the two in the missionary position and is set in Arthur’s chambers, two qualities that connote intimacy and familiarity between the pair: they have done this before. In line with the ‘semiotic significance of selection’ (Brennan 2013) in the work, Mordred, as you would expect, is slighter in stature, while Arthur is particularly limber. In a plank position, Mordred folds Arthur’s knees back and by his sides, elevating his arse for deeper penetration. Arthur’s arms reclined behind his head; his toes pointed and clenched; and his chin pressed to his chest allowing for full view of Mordred’s cock entering him: Arthur is entirely committed to the act and maximising the full range of his penetrator’s motion. Both men have relaxed expressions and line of sight to each other.

Despite Arthur’s best efforts to
alleviate tensions with Mordred via an offer of clemency, Kara
remains resolute: “You deserve everything that’s coming to you, Arthur Pendragon.” Mordred never learns of Arthur’s offer to pardon Kara. In a state of acute grief, Mordred uses magic to free himself following her execution (see Figure 8) and travels to Morgana directly, to whom he reveals that the identity of the man who had been stalking her dreams, Emrys, is none other than Arthur’s manservant, Merlin. Once again, connection can be made here between Mordred and Morgana’s journeys to villainy, in particular this critical episode and its sequence of events, which can be compared with a storyline from season one. As Jennifer C. Edwards explains, after witnessing Uther’s resolve to execute a man of magic (Alvarr in I.12) who had provided her with comfort, “Morgana changes from a loving ward to a treacherous rebel and even goes so far as to plot Uther’s death.” (2015, 51) A similar fate befalls Mordred here, whose “betrayal of Arthur results not from inherent malevolence but from the death of his childhood sweetheart.” (Meredith 2015, 165)

Figure 14. In a state of grief, Mordred uses magic to set himself free from his cell and from Arthur (V.11).

Figure 8. In a state of grief, Mordred uses magic to set himself free from his cell and from Arthur (V.11).


Reflecting on her experience of the aftermath of a public execution of a criminal during a residence in Scandinavia, Mary Wollstonecraft (1802) writes:

[…] executions, far from being useful examples to the survivors, have, I am persuaded, a quite contrary effect, by hardening the heart they ought to terrify. Besides, the fear of an ignominious death, I believe, never deterred any one from the commission of a crime; because, in committing it, the mind is roused to activity about present circumstances. It is a game of hazard, at which all expect the turn of the die in their own favour; never reflecting on the chance of ruin, till it comes. In fact, from what I saw, in the fortresses of Norway, I am more and more convinced that the same energy of character, which renders a man a daring villain, would have rendered him useful to society, had that society been well organized. (208)

Wollstonecraft’s reflection is resonant with the execution of Kara, which is the catalyst for spurring Mordred the Lover to betray and destroy his King. In her critique of the spectacle of the public execution, Wollstonecraft makes the case that villainy is not innate, but rather due to some external, societal failure. Such an observation is comparable with my argument in this essay about the Mordred character, that great archetype of the treacherous villain. That the societal failure of a pre-unified Albion, in which magic is banned and Merlin the Magician feels the need to hide himself, is what leads Mordred onto his villainous path. This reading offers insight into the popular reimagining of an iconic villain, as well as the various types and queer metaphors the character’s journey in this popular series illuminates and rouses within the minds of fans. The inclusion in this essay of works by slash manip artists both demonstrate the appeal of a queer reading of the Mordred character, while also supporting broader queer readings of Merlin as a program full of homoerotic potential.

T.H. White’s adaptation of the Arthurian legend has been read by some scholars as an allegory to the horrors of the Second World War. In it Mordred is a Hitlerian character. He turns to new technology to bring about a ‘New Order’ (1958, 620–21). If Hitler sought to destroy civilisation; in White, by valorising power above honour, Mordred destroys chivalry (Thomas 1982, 50). In Merlin, Mordred is more a pawn of fate than an agent of destruction; he carries out Arthur’s sentence from the Triple Goddess (V.5) under Morgana’s—High Priestess of the Triple Goddess—instruction. He stands as example of the dire consequences of secrecy. Merlin’s unwillingness to trust him, and resolve to remain closeted about his secret identity, seals Mordred and Arthur’s fate of mutual destruction. When Mordred strikes the fatal blow in V.13, he says to Arthur: “You gave me no choice.” When Arthur returns with a fatal strike of his own, Mordred smiles, he will not go into death unmarked or alone.



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[1] During Arthur’s quest to save his knights from Morgana in V.1, Merlin encounters a Druid seer who tells him of ‘Arthur’s bane,’ the prophecy of Arthur’s death at the hands of a Druid (Mordred). Merlin is told: “Now more than ever it is you and you alone that can keep Arthur safe.” It sets a sinister tone for the final season. Coupled with the season’s tagline “The die is cast,” it suggests that Arthur’s death is an inescapable destiny, which ushers back to season one’s tagline, “You can’t escape destiny.”

[2] See Tollerton 2015, who discusses the “freer hand” Merlin has “to gesture toward modern concerns and make ethical judgements on issues of diversity and society.” (123)

[3] Not surprising, given that the format of Smallville (depicting Clark Kent before he became Superman) served as principal inspiration for Merlin (Brennan 2015, 39).

[4] Also see Padva 2005, who uses Freud’s reading of the homoerotic symbolism in the wolf dream to read a gay male comic, Jon Macy’s ‘Tail.’

[5] In a scene from V.1, Arthur delights in the opportunity to humiliate Merlin, forcing him to juggle for the entertainment of Queen Annis and her guests.

[6] Producing offspring based on a digital composite of two male faces is a popular practice among digital slash artists.

[7] A ‘shipper’ is a fan who wishes for a particular pairing to share a romantic relationship (see Scodari and Felder 2000).


Joseph Brennan
is a sessional lecturer in the Department of Media and Communications at the University of Sydney, where he was recently awarded his Ph.D. His doctoral work involved textual analysis of photo-montaged fan works inspired by BBC’s Merlin. Known as ‘slash manips,’ in these photo remixes fans layer images of male characters from popular media with gay, and often pornographic, material. He argues that these works are of scholarly interest because they have something to tell us about sex and bodies, about the divides we erect within male sexuality, between popular and pornographic, homosocial and homosexual, the implied and the explicit. He was Teaching Fellow at the University of Sydney, 2012–2013, and a critic with Australian Art Review, 2008–2013.

Digital Memories: The McCoy’s Electronic Sculptures – Wendy Haslem

Abstract: This article investigates the connections between history and new forms of memory that are produced, configured and mapped with the tools of digital media. Digital memories are contained within, and inspired by Jennifer and Kevin McCoy’s electronic sculptures. The article explores the potential for new media technologies to re-imagine the intersection between history and memory as digital ‘lieu de mémoire’, a version of Pierre Nora’s memory sites that block the possibility of forgetting by remembering for us.

The Eternal Return – The McCoys (2003)

The explosion and expansion of digital tools and communication transforms definitions of memory and refines the intersection of memory and history. Digital natives and digitally literate adopters have tools at hand to practice as cartographers, genealogists, archivists, and chroniclers, even historians. This results in the creation of new connections and communities, archives that become virtual as well as material, histories that might be both real and imagined. Image and text based sites like You Tube, Vimeo, Flickr, Wikipedia, Pinterest, Twitter, Facebook and the range of pervasive blogging sites across the Internet provide new ways to produce and disseminate digitally configured histories and memories. The influence of the virtual on material sites of exhibition, particularly galleries, museums, cinematheques and public sites is evidenced by an increased reliance on digital tools, particularly digital screens, to reconfigure memory and history. Digital technologies enable myriad approaches to history, expanding definitions beyond the dominance of the empirical or sequential, bringing memory into contact with history. The obsession with the present in status updates, uploads, new blog posts and the seemingly immediate availability of content brings memory into the present. Exceeding the acceleration of history characteristic of Fredric Jameson’s definition of postmodern culture (1991), the present is rapidly superseded by an immediate future/past or the past eternally returning. Concurrently, definitions of memory produced, distributed and exhibited by digital technologies result in the proliferation of innovative forms of remembering and new ways to imagine histories by prioritizing memory. The electronic sculptures produced by Jennifer and Kevin McCoy that reveals how digital technologies can be used to reflect processes of memory and to map new connections. Installations produced by the McCoys frame and direct memories, they don’t remember for us, but instead, they reveal how memories are indebted to, provoked by and shaped by aspects drawn from the archive of visual cultures. But this interrelationship between memory and history, mapped and imagined through digital technologies was not always perceived as entwined, let alone contingent.

The historian Pierre Nora argues that history and memory exist in violent opposition (1989, p. 8). He describes history as a static, incomplete attempt to reconstruct a past that no longer exists, whilst memory is more fluid, involved in a process of rediscovery that “remains in permanent evolution” (Nora 1989, p. 8). In Nora’s words, “history is perpetually suspicious of memory, and its true mission is to suppress and destroy it” (1989, p. 9). This dynamic collision between history and memory is the result of the acceleration of history at a time that Nora defines as: “a turning point where consciousness of a break with the past is bound up with the sense that memory has been torn-but torn in such a way as to pose the problem of the embodiment of memory in certain sites where a sense of historical continuity persists” (1989, p. 7). The notion of memory as ‘torn’, no longer complete, singular, trusted, no longer emanating from a defined date, moment or time, provides impetus for memory as imagined, embodied and defined in sites beyond the scope of the traditional archive. Nora identifies memory as fluid and transformed by its passage through history. “Memory remains in permanent evolution open to the dialectic of remembering and forgetting, unconscious of its successive deformations, vulnerable to manipulation and appropriation, susceptible to being long dormant and periodically revived” (Nora, 1989, p. 8).  In Nora’s words, memory’s vocation is to record and whilst delegating to the archive the responsibility of remembering, “it sheds its signs upon depositing them there, as a snake sheds its skin” (13). Nora perceives modern memory as above all, archival, relying on the materiality of the trace, the immediacy of the recording, the visibility of the image (1989, p. 13). Whilst Nora’s argument focuses predominantly on French national identity and politics, his discussion of the transformation of history and memory offers a particularly pertinent approach for an investigation of the impact of digital media on remembering. New forms of communications media provide increased access to memory, creating very specific structures for sites of remembering and producing an illusion of memory as immediate, reflexive and interconnected. The digital reshapes the production, distribution, dissemination and exhibition of memory producing innovative approaches to mapping, interacting with memory, and new sites of remembrance. Once captured, memory may contribute another strand of history.

For Nora, lieux de mémoire are sites where “memory crystallizes and secretes itself”, memory sites that block the possibility of forgetting and act to remember for us (1989, p. 7). Nora writes that the “most fundamental purpose of the lieu de mémoire is to stop time, to block the work of forgetting… all of this in order to capture a maximum of meaning in the fewest of signs” (1989, p. 19). In these sites history besieges memory as, “moments of history torn away from the movement of history, then returned” (Nora 1989, p. 12). Memory sites can be actual spatial forms like archives, exhibitions, personal shrines, and they can be tangible objects: collections of photographs, objects, diary entries, notes, tickets and souvenirs. They can also be more ephemeral, taking the form of thoughts, reminiscences and spoken word stories. Lieux de mémoire originate with the sense that “there is no spontaneous memory, that we must deliberately create archives, maintain anniversaries, organize celebrations, pronounce eulogies, and notarize bills because such activities no longer occur naturally” (Nora 1989, p. 12). Nora’s conception of lieux de mémoire arises from the acceleration of history. He writes that: “if history did not besiege memory, deforming and transforming it, penetrating and petrifying it there would be no lieux de mémoire” (Nora, 1989, p. 12).

Extending Nora’s lieu de mémoire into the realm of the visual historical archive, these sites can be reimagined as electronic databases, multimedia projections, or interactive exhibits, sites that preserve, but also revise, reshape, and inspire new memories. Electronic lieux de mémoire are used to construct and deconstruct memory in the multimedia artworks produced by the American artists Jennifer and Kevin McCoy. Across their oeuvre, the artworks build on and complicate definitions of memory, situating it in relation to an archive of recent popular cultural history. Laura U. Marks describes the McCoy’s web based work (1999) as noophagic – sucking in, eating information from other sites, reprocessing images and text and emerging with the advertising, branding and even the special offers of a new, artificial, corporation mined from corporate language on the web (2002, p. 189). is a web-based artwork that trawls commercial sites and creates networks of text, jargon, still images and footage from security cameras in the workplace. Lev Manovich defined Jennifer and Kevin McCoy as postmodern media artists who “accept the impossibility of an original, unmediated vision of reality; their subject matter is not reality itself, but a representation of reality by media, and the world of media itself” (2002a, np). Manovich develops the notion of soft cinema as database art, a specific type of new media art that is indebted to the archive, but reverses the opposition traditionally associated with the syntagmatic and the paradigmatic (2002b, pp. 230-231). For Manovich, database art values the paradigmatic, the tangible range of possible choices, options or possibilities over the syntagmatic, the virtual flow of words and images. Producing art that prioritizes memory, but refuses to narrativize it in classical form, the early installations can be understood as offering a matrix of impressionistic sequences, reflecting the illogical, sensuous workings of memory. In their database art installations, the McCoy’s work opposes rigidity and linearity, even when it is derived from the delay-filled, repetitious parallelisms characteristic of serial narrative form. Instead, the installations offer multiple possibilities and perspectives, splitting and fracturing spectatorship, creating new ways to map memories and a diverse range of possible narrative forms. The ‘electronic sculptures’ created by the McCoys rely on paradigmatic contingency to complicate the notion of memory as personal and individual by reworking and interweaving popular visual histories into their artwork. The resulting new media art reinvent Nora’s lieux de mémoire using miniaturized cinematic technologies, database narration and electronic sculptural dioramas.

The expansion of cinema towards the digital and into the art gallery, produces new ways of mapping, engaging and exhibiting memory. Anne Friedberg identifies the transition towards the digital resulting in an increasingly mobilized, virtual experience of visual cultures (2006). Jennifer and Kevin McCoy’s collaboration creates art that juxtaposes personal with collective memories, offering viewers an interactive experience in encouraging an intervention by the deconstruction and reconstruction of popular narrative. Their art creates a matrix of reference points drawn from some very recognizable popular iconography to exhibit an inextricable connection between individual and collective memory. The installations that were created at the turn of the millennium combine the interactive potential of the database with the seemingly endless array of visual motifs, generic tropes and narrative threads recognizable from popular televisual serials. Every Shot, Every Episode (2001) is a deconstruction and recreation of the Starsky and Hutch (1975-1979) series resulting in a new taxonomy consisting of two hundred and seventy-eight categories. Individual shots and scenes from the series were excised and reorganized to feature new paradigmatic, aesthetic and cinematographic categories including: ‘Every Bloody Clothing’, ‘Every Yellow Volkswagen’, ‘Every Sexy Outfit’, ‘Every Stabbing’, ‘Every Character Looks Left’, ‘Every Insult’, ‘Every Speculation’, ‘Every Extreme Close Up’, ‘Every Pan Right’, ‘Every Tilt Down’, ‘Every Zoom In’ and ‘Every Reaction Shot’. This approach reveals the degree of repetition and the importance of generic tropes and conventions, the foundations of serial television. The shelves of DVDs mounted on the gallery wall positioned next to a suitcase containing the small DVD player and screen offers an impression of open access to secretive imagery. Every Shot, Every Episode reconstructs imagery that blurs the division between individual and collective memory. Viewing and re-viewing sequences, visitors become interactive cartographers, mapping and re-mapping as they select and view paradigmatic sequences from Starsky and Hutch. Nora’s description of memory as “intensely retinal and powerfully televisual”(1989, p. 17) is resonant in the ways that these sequences reflect the fragmented, impressionistic workings of memory. The linearity of television series is here reconceptualised by prioritizing the elements that comprise narrative form. Every Shot, Every Episode points to the tendency to prioritise moments, sensations, effects, color, action or gesture in recalling the larger structure. Paradigmatic selection parallels the ways that specific impressions might be remembered whilst larger narrative structures are forgotten. In turn, the archive of images and narrative that forms the referent – in this case Starsky and Hutch – is modified and transformed by Every Shot, Every Episode.

Every Shot, Every Episode (2001)

This approach was elaborated in Every Anvil (2001). In this interactive installation Looney Tunes (1942-1969) cartoons are deconstructed and reimagined according to generic tropes and violent themes including: ‘Every Explosion’, ‘Every Poisoning’, ‘Every Whacking’, ‘Every Evil Genius’, ‘Every Beg and Plead’, ‘Every Kiss’, ‘Every Slipping and Sliding’, ‘Every Sneaking’, ‘Every Flattening Character’, ‘Every Cooking a Character’ and ‘Every Tornado Spin’. The individual action, aesthetic and cinematographic sign is excised from the animated series, altering the temporal framework to highlight the preeminence of the moment over continuity across the series. Every Anvil, Every Shot, Every Episode along with a further installation, 448 Is Enough (2002), a deconstruction of episodes of Eight Is Enough (1977-1981) displays the McCoy’s interest in dissecting syntagmatic logic whilst recombining the imagery to highlight paradigmatic selection. The use of the new media database helps to develop incursions into conventional narrative form, resulting in sequences that are reconfigured according to impressionistic structures more common to dreams or memories. The McCoy’s subsequent installations use miniature forms to interrogate the exhibition of time, space, narrative, scale and identity. All installations situate popular culture as pivotal in the production of memory.

Every Anvil (2001)

Memory, according to Maurice Halbwachs exists unconsciously in the mind as psychic states of recollection where each act of recollection involves the reconstruction of the memory in the context of the present (1992, p. 24). Memories are constructed and facilitated in association with (or in contrast to) other individuals. Memories as a reconstruction, rather than a faithful recreation of the past are the crucial element in this context. Halbwachs argues that, paradoxically, an individual remembers by placing himself in the perspective of the group, but, by contrast, the memory of a group realizes and manifests itself in individual memories. (1992, p. 22). The McCoy’s practice involves accessing, researching and deconstructing large sources, provoking memories contingent upon popular culture. In an interview, Jennifer McCoy reveals the focus on interactivity and connection between visual culture and memory in their artwork when she suggests that: “one’s memory of a show are placed next to real memories and become part of your mental collection” (2006, np)

Soft Rains (2003-2004) is a serialized collection of six installations that use miniature figures and diorama as the base of these electronic sculptures. The miniature static sets appear as single fragments of time, or frames of film. These tiny sculptures freeze time into instances with the miniature figures representing a single instant, without an indication of the preceding or succeeding events. These instants are resonant. The conflation of the narrative, or genre into instants reiterates the selectivity of memory. In On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection, Susan Stewart writes that, “miniature time transcends the duration of everyday life” (2003, p. 66). Miniatures, for Stewart, offer “a narrativity and history outside the given field of perception – is a constant daydream that the miniature presents. This is the daydream of the microscope: the daydream of life inside life, of significance multiplied infinitely within significance” (2003, p. 54). Each of the six installations that comprise Soft Rains has its own thematic focus.

Soft Rains (2003-2004)

In Soft Rains #6: Suburban Horror (2004), the miniature imagery becomes decidedly Gothic. A diorama built on the melodramatic iconography of a 1950s scene imagined through a dark cinematic aesthetic reveals suburban settings and suggests the surrounding menace. A woman stares longingly out of a kitchen window, suggesting entrapment and her desire for escape. A car traveling down a road indicates travel to a remote cabin, but the scene at the cabin contains details of blood and dismemberment, revealing a couple that had been murdered with an axe. This installation incorporates fragmented imagery signifying isolation, alienation, multiple time frames and the darker side of the imagination. Screens display low-resolution imagery, where colors are blocked and blurred, drawing from the aesthetic of colorized postcards, or perhaps the saturation and low definition imagery characteristic of 8mm film projections. Soft Rains was inspired by a David Lynchian surrealist aesthetic, and the gruesome imagery also recalls slasher films like the Friday the 13th series. Each diorama is surrounded by lights and tiny cameras suspended and directed onto the scenes via flexible metal arms. Shots are illuminated and filmed by the miniature technologies surrounding the tiny scene. These shots are then projected onto an adjacent screen in the gallery. Exposing sets, lights and cameras, alongside the fantasy projected on the screen deconstructs the illusion, defamiliarizing and reinventing the contemporary Gothic narrative. Suburban Horror draws from the archive of familiar Gothic tropes and imagery to produce disarming miniature fragments, moments that resonate with memorable sequences within the history of cinema. This series of installations rely on tropes of the Gothic and horror genres, impressionistic, distilled, miniaturized and deconstructed. The scale reflects how scale is often distorted by memory, miniature objects are enlarged on screen. In its allusions to iconic cinematic tropes, genres and aesthetics Suburban Horror mimics the potential for memory (and the database) to create a dialogue across time.

How We Met was originally exhibited at Postmaster’s Gallery and then very briefly shown in a decommissioned terminal at JFK Airport in 2004. How We Met is an elaborate series of miniature sculptural dioramas, each representing a moment in time. At first glance the platforms seem to depict aspects of the memory of Jennifer and Kevin’s first meeting as both reach for the same suitcase as it circles a carousel at an airport in France. The dioramas that form the base of How We Met are constellations of small gestures and figures, actions suspended in time with their stillness highlighted by the revolving carousel. These fragmented moments are reminiscent of Nora’s description of ‘true memory’ as comprised of gestures, habits, unspoken knowledge and unstudied reflexes (1989, p. 18). On one platform a miniature figure of Jennifer waits for her bag to emerge whilst Kevin stands to her left, seemingly distracted by a mysterious blonde woman in a red dress. At the edge of the diorama, their moment of connection is depicted through a simple gesture as two disembodied hands reach for the same suitcase. On another platform, a cab waits outside the airport terminal, offering a hint of a transition towards a new space. One camera that is positioned to shoot within the actual airport space incorporates impressions of human sized viewers alongside the miniatures. Customized computer software receives and connects the ‘live’ images, projecting a seemingly random range of sequences onto the screen. This combination of the static miniature diorama with the spectator entwines past with present. Further, baring the device for illumination, recording and projection produces a fractured, but all encompassing vision of moving image and apparatus. The result is that the memory depicted is deconstructed and reconstructed, expanding time into instants and exploding space across the dioramas. Reconstructing the experience in miniature renders the projected sequence dreamlike and impressionistic.

Whilst the title, How We Met, promises a cause and effect sequence, the constellation of images that emerge from the pivotal central gesture, opens up a matrix of connections. Mary Ann Doane perceives cinematic time as diachronic and contingent (2002). She writes about divergent temporal registers that are linked by chance and contingency, a relationship that is characteristic of the cinema.  Chance and coincidence become powerful forces in How We Met, however, this avowal of memory (from the title, from the reconstruction, from the autobiographic presence of the artists in miniature) is playfully recontextualised with the revelation of the extent that this artwork is indebted to the cinema. How We Met consciously references and remixes the bag swapping sequence from Peter Bogdanovich’s screwball comedy What’s Up Doc? (1972). What appears coincidental is in fact memory depicted through the prism of popular film. The slippage between intimate, personal memories and popular visual histories is no more evident throughout the McCoy’s oeuvre than in How We Met. In this electronic sculpture, sequences from film history are inextricably entwined with personal memory.

How We Met – detail (2004)

The recreation of real and imaginary spaces plays an important role in the function of memory. Spaces that include airports, taxi ranks, the cinema, the dance hall and the gallery become actual and imagined sites of remembrance in the McCoy’s installations. These very public, transitory spaces are described by Marc Augè as ‘non-place’, a location created through the excessive logic, space and information of ‘supermodernity’ (1995). Supermodernity arises through excess and extension of time, and in spaces that result from the shift in global scale where distance is reduced by immediate and effective communications technologies. Non-places are essentially empty spaces, locations of solitude, even when they are full of people. These are places of movement and transit where there is little sense of community or connection. The non-place exists as an urban space of little or no distinct identity or particular history. These are temporary, sometimes provisional spaces. Non-places can also be generic spaces of consumption like airports, transit lounges, supermarkets or petrol stations. However, in the installations produced by the McCoy’s, non-places become sites of memory.

Our Second Date (2004) also interweaves the McCoy’s memories with iconic sequences from the history of film. Memory here is contingent upon French New Wave cinema. This electronic sculpture presents an imagination of personal histories as sequences from film, creating a memory site that reveals the influence of film in both content and form. In Our Second Date miniature scenes are positioned at various points on a large tabletop diorama. Each of these scenes blurs the distinction between memory and film particularly when miniature models of Jennifer and Kevin appear inside a tiny cinema watching Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend (1967). Weekend becomes the key visual source for the remembrance of their second date. The table also features a large, slowly spinning disc, a recreation of the traffic jam, complete with carnage, from the film. As the road revolves, the illusion of movement is projected onto the screen. The heightened colors combined with the now familiar use of a soft focus that blurs outlines, produces a dreamlike sequence of moving images. Memories are expressed through screen memories in these exhibits. Digital technologies are used to capture celluloid and possibly personal memories, highlighting the non-linearity crucial to the film, to the exhibit and to the McCoy’s memories. Our Second Date uses cinematic processes like narration, projection and exhibition to provide the framework for and signifiers of memory. Like Godard’s cinema, the McCoy’s Date series defamiliarizes processes of narration, reconfiguring the counter-narrative experiments of the French New Wave, producing a beginning, middle and an end, just not in that order.

Our Second Date (2004)

The McCoy’s create electronic lieux de mémoire by interweaving public, collective and personal, individual memories within the history of visual culture. It is the blurring of public and private, individual and collective memory that distinguishes their new media art. The memories exhibited by the electronic sculptures need not have an actual referent in the viewer’s memory, or even in the McCoy’s experience. Alison Landsberg describes ‘prosthetic memory’ as a link to those histories that do not originate from direct and lived experiences (2004 p. 26). Prosthetic memories are derived from media engagement and arise through a direct connection to screen imagery. Landsberg defines prosthetic memories as: “memories that circulate publicly, that are not organically based, but that are nonetheless experienced with one’s own body – by means of a wide range of cultural technologies” (2004 p. 25-26). Prosthetic memories are direct and indirect – direct in their audio-visual presentation as images, and indirect in that they always refer to another spatio-temporal realm. They are collective, but also individual in that they become part of a specific range of experiences, virtual and real. Prosthetic memories produce an experiential relationship based on a virtual world rather than a ‘real’ world experience. They are created, produced, received and shared via technologies that consciously construct memories in processes of presentation and representation. Echoing the description provided by Jennifer McCoy, Landsberg suggests that prosthetic memories, “become part of one’s personal archive of experience” and that the memories that cinema affords might be as significant for the viewer in constructing, or deconstructing, the spectator’s identity, as any lived experience (2004 p. 26). The McCoy’s installations position memory as contingent on the history of visual cultures. In the case of How We Met, the artwork is indebted to popular film. In this artwork the difference between embodied and prosthetic memory is indistinct. It is possible that the bag sequence, heavy with the romantic tropes of chance and coincidence from What’s Up Doc? stands in for, and could even be entirely unrelated to, the memory of how Jennifer and Kevin McCoy actually met. Accordingly, whilst referencing cinema, exposing the machinations of the apparatus and reworking counter-narrative, Our Second Date may well also define memory as selective, constructed and prosthetic.

The power of the fragmentary detail within photography is well known in the writing on the ‘punctum’, by Roland Barthes (1984, p. 25-62). Writing during the 1950s, Barthes defines history as outside of his lived experience, but inextricably linked to his maternal bloodline. He explores the importance of subjectivity and emotion – eidos – in his encounter with history via photography. Barthes conceptualizes photography working according to a dual system of representation. He perceives the ‘studium’ as those coded, recognizable signs that are open to everyone, whilst the punctum is specific and subjective (Barthes 1984, p. 27). Barthes argues that the apprehension of the punctum is a sudden recognition of meaning that exceeds normal boundaries. This excess becomes an encounter with the self and history. Barthes’ punctum refers to the fragmentary detail of the photograph, the detail that holds significance, so much so, that it overwhelms the context. Barthes describes the effect of the punctum as akin to a sting, a recognition that he feels with a visceral physical intensity. It is this focus on detail, those smaller memory fragments, miniature signs or metonymic symbols that open out to more expansive revelations of the interconnection between memory and history, that structure the McCoy’s electronic sculptures. Whilst Barthes’ punctum refers to a detail within a photograph that linked him to his blood relations, prosthetic memories can provide a similar affective ‘pinch’, by provoking memories arising from his/her visual literacy of the popular culture archive. Prosthetic memories can also link viewers across cultures and across histories. These media images allow identification, perhaps even a visceral response from the virtual or the imagined. In a larger, perhaps more utopian context, prosthetic memories can forge the ground for new identifications, new political realignments through recognition, identification and empathy. Landsberg argues, “prosthetic memories have the potential to generate something like public spheres of memory” (2004, p. 21). The potential for cinema to generate and disseminate memories is highlighted in the work of Marita Sturken who argues that films contribute to the development of ‘technologies of memory’ where memories are shared, produced, archived and given meaning by new communications media (1997).

Eternal Return (2003) inspires the creation of prosthetic memories by situating anonymous miniature figures caught up in the rapture of dance. The presence of Jennifer and Kevin McCoy is less visible in this exhibit, but perhaps evident in the forms and concepts that spin out of the installation. Featuring a nostalgic, black, white and sepia toned dancehall; this elaborate sculptural diorama depicts a scenario set entirely within a distant past. The emphasis on cyclic rotation and repetition performed by unidentified miniature figures adorned in formal ball gowns and tuxedos, create invitations to become swept up in the nostalgia and romance of the exhibit. The wedding cake couples dance and spin in a wistful symbolization of the wheel of time. More than any other electronic sculpture, Eternal Return offers numerous entry points into the past. Encompassing imagined scenes from the 1930s dancehall, iconography and choreography akin to the films of Busby Berkeley, all mirrored in reflective surfaces, Eternal Return, as the title suggests, is a pure fantasy of another time and space. This ‘pure’ memory site renders its temporality cyclic by the repetition of movements and gestures, enhanced by the revolutions of the dioramas and giddy miniature figures. There is no identifiable narrative in this installation, no recognizable characters, endpoint or closure, just endless cycles of repetition.

Eternal Return (2003)

Common to all other projected sequences, images of the diorama are filmed, edited and they repeat and return in a combination ordered by the bespoke computer software. More than any other exhibit, the complexities of the apparatus on display in Eternal Return become part of the spectacle. Exhibiting the intricacies of the technologies involved, demystifies, but its partial concealment also re-mystifies the exhibition. Such a kinetic spectacle, featuring unidentified dancers, imagined spaces and distant past points to history and memory, but also incorporates the present amid the swirl of contingent temporalities. Quoting Gilles Deleuze’s third synthesis of time in the title of the installation, the Eternal Return refers to the complex return of difference, one that may not have existed previously (1985). This installation also manifests Walter Benjamin’s achronological history imagined in The Arcades Project. In this incomplete work Benjamin visualised history by creating a collage of quotes and reassembling fragments through montage, defining history as connection, rather than a linear taxonomy (1999), Eternal Return is built on endless repetition and eternally returning fragments of projected pasts and futures. Quotes from early film history inspire a montage of prosthetic memories, external memories that may not have materialized previously.


The notion of artist or auteur is insufficient to account for the McCoy’s oeuvre. Whilst Jennifer and Kevin McCoy create an impression of quite intimate work in installations like How We Met and Our Second Date, the idea of an individual, coherent worldview expressed across a body of work is not enough to account for the dual dioramas presented back to back in Double Fantasy (2005). Double Fantasy identifies the differences in childhood dreams by using miniature models where images from each are randomly selected and projected onto a screen. There are two contrasting impulses in Double Fantasy. The doubled diorama emphasizes difference, but the screened stills juxtapose and interweave projections of disparate dreams. Dream Sequence (2006) extends this doubling and splitting further, projecting dual visions of dream imagery emanating from two revolving dioramas onto adjacent screens and by incorporating impressions of the miniature dreamers below their dreams. Dream, fantasies and memories are individual, shared and collective.

Dream Sequence (2006)

The McCoy’s lieux de mémoire inspire new ways to perceive and imagine history and memory. Miniature scenes and narrative forms expand the realm of memory by highlighting connections to film, television, nostalgic fantasies and projected histories. The conflation of real and imaginary spaces reflects the potential for locations to provoke memories. Airports, taxi ranks, the cinema, the dancehall and the gallery become sites of remembrance in the McCoy’s exhibitions. Non-places like the airport represent the location of a first meeting, a miniature cinema becomes the place of a second date and the revolving imagined space of the dance hall distills memories using movement, gesture and sound and reproduces them as memory sites.

Their electronic sculptures and database art revise and exhibit memory by incorporating intertextual references to the history of cinema and visual culture. The re-vision of memory through multimedia technologies can instill a sense of hyper-engagement, connecting viewers with personal or public histories. It can also blur the distinction between prosthetic and embodied memories. Whilst many of these works emerge from archives of popular culture and are exhibited in art galleries, they are also made accessible via the McCoy’s website ( and Flickr which includes views of the documentation and images of the live feed of their installations. Such multiple forms of exhibition extend the scope and lifetime of each artwork and, simultaneously, feed the imagery back into the database. In the gallery space and in the virtual world, the McCoy’s art situates the viewer centrally and actively within a matrix of visual references, paradigmatic associations and generic conventions, highlighting the strength of the currents connecting popular iconography with personal memory.

The memories exhibited and inspired by the work of Jennifer and Kevin McCoy have the potential to tease out the hard edges of ‘true’ memory (Nora 1989, p. 13). The electronic sculptures display memory “in permanent evolution” (Nora 1989, p. 8). Furthermore, these artworks display memory as not exclusively linked to an individual, but instead linked by association, or contingency. The McCoy’s electronic sculptures actively exhibit memories as evidence of Nora’s description of recent shifts in history and memory as he describes it “from the idea of a visible past to an invisible one; from a solid and steady past to our fractured past; from a history sought in the continuity of memory to a memory cast in the discontinuity of history (1989, p. 17). Memory is inspired, produced and exhibited according to images outside of the self, popular visual histories. Nora suggests that, “the lieu de mémoire is double: a site of excess closed upon itself, concentrated in its own name, but also forever open to the full range of possible significations” (1989, p. 24). With new and multiple forms of digital technologies, the McCoy’s electronic sculptures illustrate precisely such a doubling whilst emphasizing the increasingly intimate proximity between memory, screen memories and the history of visual culture.


This is an extended and expanded version of ‘Exhibiting Miniature Memories: The McCoy’s Electronic Sculptures’, AntiThesis, March, 2009, pp. 7-11.



Augè, M 1995 Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, London, Verso.

Barthes, R 1980 Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, translated by Richard Howard, London, Flamingo.

Benjamin, W 1999 The Arcades Project, Cambridge, Mass, Harvard University Press.

Deleuze, G 1989 [c1985] Cinema 2: The Time Image, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press.

Doane, MA 2002 The Emergence of Cinematic Time: Modernity, Contingency, the Archive, Cambridge, Harvard University Press.

Frieberg, A 2009 The Virtual Window: From Alberti to Microsoft, Cambridge, Mass, MIT Press.

Halbwachs, M 1992 On Collective Memory, edited, translated and with an introduction by Lewis A. Coser, Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

Himmelsbach, S 2006 ‘Interview With Jennifer and Kevin McCoy’, Automatic Update: MOMA, Viewed 1st of February, 2009

Jameson, F (1991) Postmodernism, Or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Durham, Duke University Press.

Landsberg, A 2004 Prosthetic Memory: The Transformation of American Remembrance in the Age of Mass Culture, New York, Columbia University Press.

Manovich, L 2002a ‘Generation Flash’, Viewed 1st of February, 2009

Manovich, L 2002b The Language of New Media, Boston, MIT Press.

Marks, LU 2002 Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press.

Nora, P 1989 ‘Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire’, Representations, 26, Spring, pp. 7-24.

Sturken, M, Thomas D, Ball-Rokeach, SJ 2004 Technological Visions: The Hopes and Fears that Shape New Technologies, Philadelphia, Temple University Press.

Stewart, S 2003 On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection, Durham, NC, Duke University Press.

A/V: (Jennifer and Kevin McCoy, 1999)

Double Fantasy (Jennifer and Kevin McCoy, 2005)

Dream Sequence (Jennifer and Kevin McCoy, 2006)

Eternal Return (Jennifer and Kevin McCoy, 2003)

Every Shot, Every Episode (Jennifer and Kevin McCoy, 2001)

Every Anvil (Jennifer and Kevin McCoy, 2001)

How We Met (Jennifer and Kevin McCoy, 2004)

Our Second Date (Jennifer and Kevin McCoy, 2004)

Soft Rains (Jennifer and Kevin McCoy, 2003-2004)

Weekend (Jean-Luc Godard, 1967)

What’s Up Doc? (Peter Bogdanovich, 1972).



Wendy Haslem is a lecturer in Screen Studies & Cultural Management and Director of Undergraduate Studies at the University of Melbourne. She is currently involved in researching and writing Gothic Projections: From Méliès to New Media an investigation of the evolution of the Gothic narrative and aesthetic from silent film to digital media.

The Digital Gesture: Rediscovering Cinematic Movement through Gifs – Hampus Hagman

Norman in Psycho.

An animated gif uses the Graphics Interchange Format to create movement from still images. The outcome is a short clip with jerky motion that has been described, quite aptly, as a “digital flip book”.[1] The device has been around since the 1980s, but due to its bite-size format, the ease of circulating it, and the availability of tools for creating one, the gif has in the last few years returned to become a widely popular item on blogs and tumblrs. Content-wise, animated gifs frequently consist of a few frames culled from a pre-existing movie. This brief moment is then looped in order to give the impression of a (somewhat) continuous movement. What is noteworthy about these mini movies is that they, quite often, focus on the “minor” moments of a film, such as, for instance, scenes from Gone With the Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939) with Hattie McDaniel rather than the more memorable scenes of, say, the “Frankly, dear, I don’t give a damn” caliber.[2] Of course, the more iconic scenes get heavily referenced as well, but due to the brevity of the format, gifs are more suitable for mannerisms and gestures than “big” dramatic moments. The gifs that work the best are therefore those that manage to withdraw themselves from being representative of the films from which they are sourced in order to create a logic and economy of motion wholly their own.

It has been suggested that the compressed nature of the gif is ideal for our contemporary culture of distraction.[3] According to this view, the “video-shorthand” of the format corresponds to a cultural tendency toward ever-increasing abbreviation of information output and decreased temporal commitment.[4] Are we to believe, then, that gifs are part of the same contemporary logic that makes us prefer the quickness of twittering to the more time consuming activity of writing a blog post? Considering that gifs appear frequently on microblogging platforms such as Tumblr, maybe so.

But I think we miss something crucial about the attraction of the gif if we only take it to be a cultural symptom of our hectic times. The gif is more than just an easy means to share clips from favorite TV shows or movies in unaltered form. That the gif would be little more than a less time consuming, shorthanded replacement for the movie that it references is contradicted by the fact that, more often than not, the technology is used to alter the content of the original, sometimes beyond recognition. The gif, in other words, is more a matter of creation than recycling. At the heart of this creative intervention lies a recognition of cinematic movement as a force of differentiation and metamorphosis. As I will argue, the impetus behind the animated gif is as old as cinema itself.

Some historians and theorists of the moving image have pointed out that before film was organized into narrative sequences and stories, what enthralled filmmakers and spectators alike was the sheer fact that the images moved.[5] The central procedure of the gif consists in the restitution of fascination with the fundamental element of cinema: movement. It thus reveals a commitment to cinema rather than a devaluation of it. The animated gif is characterized by the attempt to make movement strange again, to assert a power of movement all its own, liberated from the responsibility of making it mean and carry out narrative goals. This inclination can be stressed by viewing the animated gif as a form of gesture.

In his short essay “Notes on Gesture” philosopher Giorgio Agamben argues that “the element of cinema is gesture and not image”.[6] A true gesture, suggests Agamben, is neither a means to an end nor an end without means, it is means as such, the manifestation of pure mediality. Cinema¾at least in its earliest manifestation and the chronophotographic experiments that paved the way for it¾liberates human movement from being purposeful, it is the exhibition of the medium of movement for and by itself. Stephen Crocker lucidly brings forth this point:

The effect of Muybridge’s photographic and filmic experiments such as Man Walking at Normal Speed was to take recognized gestures and, through the technical capacity of film, to remove them from the sensory motor schemas and purposes in which they are usually embedded. Early film and photography revealed the sheer taking place, or the “means” of human embodiment. The arm swinging is no longer part of a march. It is simply an arm swinging, arrested in its being toward some completed activity. If it were allowed to continue in its stride, the swing would be a means to carrying out some ambulatory goal. Removed from its terminal point, however, it is simply a gesture, a means of moving the human body in a yet to be determined pattern. This decontextualization of movement allowed a new understanding of human embodiment, which spread into psychology, physiology and other sciences. For Agamben, it suggests that cinema is not defined by the image and the dialectic of reality/representation, so much as its ability to display the “pure mediality” of our actions.[7]

However, it should be noted that narrative cinema tends to subordinate the gesture to the larger whole in which it is embedded and through which it receives its meaning. Hereby, the gesture is not allowed to stand by itself “decontextualized”, in the word of Crocker’s elucidation but becomes goal-oriented and causal in nature. As Benjamin Noys points out, Agamben is quite hostile to narrative cinema. His sympathies rather lie with avant-garde cinema since it more prominently exhibits the medium as such. Appropriately enough for our purposes, Agamben regards repetition of images as a way to “free the gestures within them”.[8] When gesture is liberated, its pure mediality manifests itself as potential, and because of this, Agamben sees in the gesture a political and ethical dimension.

As noted above, the gif, too, employs repetition not as a principle of sameness but as a principle of difference. By virtue of its looped repetition, movement is displaced from the circumscribed meaning it had in its original context and never reaches its narrative telos. When this happens, one is able to see beyond the representative content of movement and instead become aware of the altering force of movement to produce other meanings. I would like to argue, therefore, that the animated gif emerges in recognition of this pure potentiality of the gestural motion of cinema. By liberating a moment from its hosting narrative, the gif restores to cinema the gestural quality that has been veiled by its causal embeddedness. The gif can be said to perform the sort of decontextualization that Crocker writes of, and thereby cinematic movement is rebooted—given a second life as it were—outside the strictures of the narratives from which they originate. Hereby, the original meaning of a movement or gesture counts for little. Rather, it is the potential of movement to be put to other purposes that is asserted. Can we not, then, see the gif as a means to salvage the gesture from a cinema that has rendered it merely a means to an end and values it mainly for its accomplishment of narrative goals? A great many gifs are based on films with strong linear and causal structures. But what they do is to take hold of the excess inherent to them, to the effect that their original meanings are subverted, or at least opened up to recontextualizations.

The site GIFuniverse revels in this excessive power of movement.[9] The principle of repetition is here not only deployed temporally, but also spatially. Combining the successive repetitiveness of the gif with the spatial juxtaposition of the split screen, the whole screen is here filled with row upon row of pulsating, rhythmic and dancing imagery, all set to an accompanying musical soundtrack. The images displayed are of decidedly varied origin and content (amateur home videos appear next to clips from films and television; animation next to live action; scientific models next to low-brow visual gags) but their musical setting makes the visual field less chaotic than one might imagine. It is rather as if all the images were interacting components in a common rhythm: as if one were witness to some heterogeneous balletic choreography. Before the contemplation of specific content or the identification of visual forms can take place here, what strikes the viewer is the sheer excess of movement.

Cinematic culture has always been fascinated with the transformative and autonomous powers of movement. In his essay, “Loïe Fuller and the Art of Motion”, Tom Gunning relates how the invention of cinema was welcomed by the changing aesthetic ideas of movement in the late 19th and early 20th century. Spearheading a lot of the new thoughts on movement was philosopher Henri Bergson, whom Gunning approvingly quotes: “In reality, the body is changing form at every moment; or rather, there is no form, since form is immobile and the reality is movement. What is real is the change of form: form is only a snapshot view of transition.”[10] In line with such thinking, the Symbolists and the Futurists saw “motion as force in itself, a plasmatic energy that creates form rather than simply moves them about”.[11] Gunning takes Loïe Fuller’s serpentine dances as the exemplary demonstration of this metamorphic dimension of movement, but early cinema too celebrated movement for its own sake, with little or no narrative concerns. This leads Gunning to speak of movement as a matrix of meaning rather than meaning itself.[12]

So, is this detour through early cinema meant to imply that the animated gif heralds a return to a more “pure” state of the moving image? Blogger Kelli Marshall suggests something along these lines.[13] Indeed, as Marshall points out, on a technical and receptive level gifs do bear striking similarities to early cinema, or even proto-cinema: they are silent, they are viewed in private (Marshall is here making a comparison to the Kinetoscope in particular and how it allowed for viewing by only one person at a time) and they run on a loop. But, in addition to Marshall’s account, what is most striking about many gifs is their almost fetishistic fascination with pure movement, something they share with early cinema. The capacity of movement to transform is celebrated in many gifs. Through the circular continuity of the loop, a familiar bodily activity is rendered strange and bereft of regular sensorimotor causality. Through such forces of repetition and extension, the gif seems to tap into the matrix of movement that Gunning writes about. Gunning’s account leads us to recognize the excessive character of cinematic movement, which entails that it can take on meanings different from the one that it has reified into by serving as an agency of causal structures. Viewing the gif through the lens of Agamben’s gesture underscores this matrixial quality of movement, its dimension of pure mediality. As we shall see, however¾and this is where the digital component enters the equation¾the gif carries the gesture of movement to an ethical level beyond mere subjective cinephilia. The main difference from earlier cinema is that the gif makes our fascination with movement communicable and shareable, rather than just being the source of private consumption.

But before the gif can enter into circulation we must shed light on the logic that produces it in the first place. We must, in other words, explore what aspects of the film experience may count as “gestural”, and how these may be allowed to stand by themselves even in the face of films that work to neutralize them.

Methods of extraction: cinephilia and excess

One of the fundamental dictates of textual analysis is that the part is interpreted in light of the whole. For the cinephile, on the other hand, it is of little concern how something may or may not fit into the objective structures of meaning. Christian Keathley, quoting Paul Willeman, defines cinephilia as ”what is seen [that] is in excess of what is shown.”[14] Cinephilia is hence a stance of dissociation; of taking a detail from a movie and extracting it from the flow into which it is embedded. It is, as Keathley argues, a form of fetishism. The “cinephiliac moment” has nothing to do with those scenes inscribed into our collective memory banks, which is to say moments that are designed to be memorable, such as, for instance, the shower scene in Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960). It is on the contrary those moments of purely subjective enjoyment, whose precise appeal may be difficult to communicate to others. The gif can be regarded as a way of visualizing this subjective fetishism for a wider public. The animated gifs that are encountered all over the internet very seldom tell a story: on the contrary they seize hold of those purely excessive moments that carry little to no narrative purpose.

There exists a minor tradition in film theory that seeks to shed light on those moments of films that are not contained by more dominant signifying structures, but that are, simply, excessive. In the essay “The Third Meaning”, Roland Barthes ponders a collection of stills from Eisenstein’s films and wonders just what it is that affects him about them. He reaches the conclusion that beyond the “obvious meaning” contained in the informational and symbolic levels of a film there exists a third meaning that is not as easy to pin down. He attempts to capture this dimension by writing about how different stylistic elements in the mise-en-scene interact with one another. There is one still in particular that attracts Barthes’ attention. It is of an old woman from Battleship Potemkin (1925), and in it, Barthes finds that there is something striking about the purely formal relation between the lines of the woman’s headdress, her closed eyelids, and the shape of her mouth. To the scientific mind, Barthes ruminations may appear completely arbitrary, but this is exactly the point. The obtuse meaning escapes objective determination, it has its base in subjective reaction. Despite his assertions to the contrary, Barthes appears a proper cinephile when writing: “I believe that the obtuse meaning carries a certain emotion. […][This] emotion is never sticky, it is an emotion that simply designates what one loves, what one wants to defend: an emotion-value, an evaluation.”[15]

Barthes points out that the “third meaning” might only be accessible through the film still, the fragment. In the normal course of watching a film, the third meaning is drowned in the flow of images. However, as we can see from Keathley’s text, the cinephile knows how to cling onto these fleeting moments and details, even in the process of viewing a film. One reason that s/he is able to do so is because the cinephile is prone to repeat viewings.

Kristin Thompson has built upon Barthes’s discussion of the third meaning in order to develop a “concept of cinematic excess”. Excess is that which is not contained by a film’s unifying structures: “At that point where motivation fails, excess begins.”[16] Thompson suggests that one way to become aware of excess is through experimental films that examine already existing films, rearranging and repeating their components and bringing forth other qualities than those relating to narrative. After discussing films that have proceeded along these lines, such as Ken Jabob’s Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son (1969) and Joseph Cornell’s Rose Hobart (late 1930s), Thompson disclaims that she “mean[s] to imply that the spectator or critic will be led to aesthetic creations of their own as a result of watching for excess.”[17] And yet, this is precisely what has happened. A gif do not require particularly sophisticated technology. Anyone can make one: software is available for free online and there is an app on the iPhone.[18] The availability of means to intervene into a movie¾to dissect and reconfigure its components¾has entailed that the excessive details from movies that were previously stored in the private memory banks of individual cinephiles have now become public property. By intensifying the excessive moments through repetitive looping and posting them online, viewer has now become purveyor of cinephiliac moments.

Some sites manifestly thrive on the excessive details of cinema. The blog If We Don’t, Remember Me wears its cinephile tastes on its sleeve.[19] Originator Gustav Mantel here posts shots from classic films such as The Seventh Seal (Ingmar Bergman, 1957), Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960), Full Metal Jacket (Stanley Kubrick, 1987), 8 ½ (Federico Fellini, 1963), and Peeping Tom (Michael Powell, 1960) to mention but a few. The technique he uses to present them is called “cinemagraph”, which makes use of the gif format, but is visually different from traditional animation uses of it in that it can more properly be described as a combination of still photography and video. The results are “living movie stills”, as Mantel calls them: images that are essentially still but for a small part. Many of the images collected on the blog appear, at a casual glance, completely still. But attending to them long enough, something suddenly jolts into motion.


In an emblematic image, Edward Norton from Fight Club (David Fincher, 1999) sits with his eyes closed in an airplane chair—as if frozen in a dream—for what appears to be a quite significant amount of time. Suddenly, the image springs into motion the very same moment that he opens his eyes to directly face the viewer.[20] The effect is not unlike the moment in Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962) when, in the midst of a film composed of still images, there is a sudden eruption of movement as the girl opens her eyes. The coinciding of the opening of eyes with the moment of animation makes the sequence resonate with symbolic implications in regard to the gif’s repurposing of cinematic movement. According to one of the founding stories of cinema, the first exhibition of the Lumière brothers’ film L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat in 1896 started with a still image. Only after a while was it jolted into motion to render the impact of movement all the more striking. Similarly the cinemagraph explores the relation and difference between stillness and movement in order to let the viewer see movement anew with, as it were, freshly awakened eyes.

Even though the creators of the technique of the cinemagraph states that it was “born out of a need to tell a story in a fast digital age”[21] it is used more frequently to intensify a moment that may have little to no narrative purpose. The animated gif can therefore be seen as a properly cinephiliac gesture, underscoring minor moments that are lost in the more regular circumstances of viewing a film. Consider, for example, two gifs of Marlon Brando, the first from A Streetcar Named Desire (Elia Kazan, 1951), the second from On The Waterfront (Elia Kazan, 1954). The first intervenes in a flirtatious scene between Stanley Kowalski (Marlon Brando) and Blanche DuBois (Vivien Leigh). Brando leans toward Leigh and cracks a little smile. Decontextualized and looped, the original meaning of these gestures never reaches their assigned destination. Instead, Brando here takes on an almost vampyric quality, appearing as if about to take a bite out of Leigh.[22] In the clip from On the Waterfront, Brando points to his nose while chewing gum and arching his eyebrows.[23] Nothing more significant than that. Here meaning is drained from the image to the extent that it is difficult to make any sort of determinations or analogies as to the proper content of these gestures whatsoever. Rather, it’s all about the gestural interplay of the lines and shapes of the image: the way Brando’s profile lines up with the angle of his finger and the way that his arched eyebrows serves as an exclamation mark to this little fugue of movement.

“The third meaning: Brando demonstrating the excess of movement”

That it is Marlon Brando that appears in these clips is therefore highly symptomatic from the viewpoint of excess. His method acting offers a gallery of eccentric mannerisms and excessive gestures, all ripe for cinephiliac appropriation. Originally, of course, Brando’s technique was developed in view of lending psychological depth to his characters, and hence meant to be deployed in the service of narrative. But as Kristin Thompson notes a propos excess, “stylistic elements may serve at once to contribute to the narrative and to distract our perception from it.”[24] Once we are consumed by the excessive detail it parts way with the (objective) story and enters into another (more subjectively defined) story. This is why Thompson regards excess as counter-narrative.

Trying to describe the strange, twitching movements contained in these clips I find myself struggling to find words. This is not exactly the stuff of high drama, which is why it is quite hard to capture the exact appeal of the gif, or even offer an adequate description of it. Their reconfiguration of human embodiment by technical means places them in the Freudian category of the “uncanny”: they are both familiar and unfamiliar. The meaning they communicate is indeed “obtuse”, to use Barthes’ word. Barthes suggests that the obtuse third meaning cannot be described, that it resists meta-language. It is a “signifier without a signified” and, as such, can only be indicated by “pointing” to it rather that representing it in words.[25] This is why, according to Barthes, the third meaning is where the specifically “filmic” resides. The third meaning accentuates what language is not: the part in a film which escapes the grasp of words and therefore asserts itself as a wholly different medium. This returns us to Agamben’s gesture. The gesture displays nothing more than its own potentiality, it has no meaningful content. The gesture displays nothing more than its own potentiality, it has no meaningful content. Gesture is about suspending and supporting, about “enduring” rather than accomplishing and carrying through.[26] The gif asserts this supportive power of movement through its presentation of looping as a method of continuation.

Looping as enduring

Most gifs do not offer closure. As I have suggested above, their purpose is not to capture an event in its entirety, where beginning and end are clearly marked, and the loop is just a way to show the sequence all over again. The point is rather to make the looping structure enter into the perception of the content. The challenge of the gif is to isolate a moment from a film that is compatible with the technique’s looping structure. To this end, the most successful gifs make use of the repetitive or circular motions already present in the original source. It is no coincidence that animated gifs are frequently used for porn. The repetitiveness of the thrusting motions in porn makes the intervention of looping nearly indistinguishable from the original content. In these cases, the gif carves a slice out of a fleeting moment of movement and extends it to a hypothetical infinity that is already a logical possibility of the activity inherent in the original source. The satisfaction is that of isolating a moment of motion that appears self-sustaining, closed in on itself in a perfect loop. They can hereby be said to employ excess as a method of suspension and continuation. Through this logic we are presented with, for instance, Jeff Bridges as “the Dude” stirring his White Russian in The Big Lebowski (Joel Coen, 1998),[27] or Charles Foster Kane’s resolute clapping in a scene from Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)[28] extended, hypothetically, ad infinitum. The natural repetitiveness and circularity of these kinds of activities puts them in close proximity to the artificial manipulation of looping. What is striking about these extensions of movement is their excessively useless character. Their purpose is not to represent anything or carry some point across. It is simply to sustain a basic motion for as long as possible.

“Motion as sustaining force: The Dude locked in a perfect loop”

There are, of course, “punch-line” gifs that carry a more explicit purpose. In these cases, a movement is altered by the structure of the loop in order to suggest a repetitive action with a meaning that subverts the original content. It is popular, for instance, to loop a hip movement in order to give it a sexual connotation that it does not have in original form.[29] But in both its extending and altering modes of movement the gif can be said to explore movement as nothing more or less than a sustaining force. The motions produced by these gifs are not inherent to the original sources. Nevertheless, we are able to read them as continuous activities. But the movement is neither a means to achieve goals beyond itself (it is not employed to carry out narrative goals), nor is it an end (to be quite literal about it, the looped gif does not come to an end: as is evidenced by the examples above, movement can here be extended to a hypothetical infinity). Agamben writes: “What characterizes gesture is that in it nothing is being produced or acted, but rather something is being endured and supported.”[30]

“The punch-line gif: the altering power of movement: Twilight”


Gesture as circulation

This is what the gif does: it shows movement as pure support; as the medium that carries actions and events. It is not a matter of communicating a particular content, but of showing movement as a medium of communicability as such. In itself, it is pure becoming and process, and this is key to understanding its success as an item of networked circulation. Through its decontextualized status as pure medium, it is free to enter into many different contexts. Gifs are frequently used to answer a question from a follower on a blog. In these contexts the gif can be supplied with a more definite meaning. When the gif is recontextualized as a response to a question, the excess set free at the first stage is “sutured”, given a home as part of discourse, and is hence supplied with a more definite meaning. [31] We might say that in these cases, the empty signifier of the gif is completed with a signified with the consequence that pure gesture is reified into image. But the reason it can do so is that it is recognized in its pure mediality in the first place. Recontextualization is hence only a by-product of a preceding decontextualization of movement. And it is this momentary suspension of movement that makes it resonate in many different contexts and hence spurs on its circulation. The gif presents movement not as a vehicle for achieving a particular goal (for instance narrative closure) but as pure mediality and communicability.

If we may so bold as to call the art of the gif an ethics of cinema, it is because it emerges in recognition of movement as a medium of support and circulation. The gif is gestural not only in the sense that it, in a cinephiliac manner, feeds off and liberates the gestures of cinema, but also in the sense that the gif itself gestures toward further use. The distributive chain of movement as gesture that the gif performs, and which I have here attempted to sketch, can be summarized thusly: a (cinephiliac) viewer recognizes an element of excess in a movie. By “giffing” it, this element is detached from its original meaning, but not, necessarily, in order for it to take on another definite meaning. What is released at this creative stage is simply movement as a deterritorialized force. Posted online, another viewer recognizes the strange and altered form a (possibly) familiar moment from a film has taken, and hence becomes aware of movement as pure potential. Quite literally, it gestures to him or her. Maybe this viewer has a blog and decides to use the gif for his or her own purposes. Now, integrated into a personal discourse, it can receive a temporary meaning. But another viewer can put it to other purposes. Hence, the gif can achieve many different closures in many different contexts rather than one absolute, determinate meaning. Hereby the gif asserts the generalizable character of gesture, its status as example. As Stephen Crocker writes: “to stand out as an example, the phenomenon must be able to suspend its own functionality and purpose, because only then can it show how it belongs to the set. What it displays in that case is not only its own singularity, but also the thing in its medium of activity.”[32]

Showing the thing in the “medium of activity” demonstrates a potential and can hence instigate further activity. This is why Agamben attributes to gesture an ethical and political dimension. The gif can in accordance with this be considered an ethical gesture not only in the sense that it liberates and re-potentializes cinematic movement, but also in the sense that it gestures toward further circulation and sharing of the moments of cinema.


Agamben, Giorgio. “Notes on Gesture” (1992), in Means Without End: Notes on Politics, trans. V. Binetti and C. Casarino, Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2000.

Barthes, Roland. “The Third Meaning” (1970), in Image-Music-Text, transl. by Stephen Heath, New York: Hill and Wang, 1977.

Bergson, Henri. Creative Evolution, trans. Arthur Mitchell, Boston: University Press of America, 1983.

Cubitt, Sean. The Cinema Effect, Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005.

Gunning, Tom. “Loïe Fuller and the Art of Motion: Body, Light, Electricity, and the Origins of Cinema”, in Camera Obscura, Camera Lucida: Essays in Honor of Annette Michelson, eds. Richard Allen and Malcolm Turvey, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2003.

Keathley, Christian. The Cinephiliac Moment”, in Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media, issue 42, 2000.

Oudart, Jean-Pierre. “Cinema and Suture”, in Screen, 18 (4), 1977.

Thompson, Kristin. “The Concept of Cinematic Excess” (1981), in Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology: A Film Theory Reader, ed. Philip Rosen, New York: Columbia University Press, 1986.


Online References

Alexander, Leigh. “Why We Love Animated Gifs”, posted May 24, 2011 on

Crocker, Stephen. “Noises and Exceptions: Pure Mediality in Serres and Agamben” published 3/28/2007 on

Marshall, Kelli. “Animated Gifs, Cinemagraphs, and our Return to Early  Cinema”, posted on June 8, 2011 on

Nelson, Noah J. “So Long Animated GIFs, Hello Cinemagraph”, posted  April 20 2011, on

Noys, Benjamin. “Gestural Cinema: Giorgio Agamben on Film” in Film-Philosophy Journal, Vol. 8, No. 22, July 2004 on

Wortham, Jenna. “Instant Loops of Images, From an iPhone App”, posted  April 7, 2011, on the New York Times blog,


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Fuck Yeah Reactions:

GIF Party:


Gif World:

If We Don’t, Remember Me:

Reaction Gif:

Tea, Earl Grey, Hot:



[1] Jenna Wortham, “Instant Loops of Images, From an iPhone App”, posted April 7, 2011, on the New York Times blog,, checked November 9, 2012.

[2] See the blog A Pebble in my Shoe:, checked November 9, 2012.

[3] Leigh Alexander, “Why We Love Animated Gifs”, posted May 24, 2011 on Thought Catalog, checked November 9, 2012.

[4] Ibid.

[5] See for instance Sean Cubitt’s The Cinema Effect, Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005. Cubitt proceeds from the pure difference of movement¾which he conceptualizes as “the pixel”¾ as the theoretical and historical first principle of cinema which is only secondarily tamed by narrative.

[6] Giorgio Agamben, “Notes on Gesture” (1992), in Means Without End: Notes on Politics trans. V. Binetti and C. Casarino Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2000. 55.

[7] Stephen Crocker, “Noises and Exceptions: Pure Mediality in Serres and Agamben” published on, 3/28/2007., checked November 9, 2012. Unpaginated.

[8] Benjamin Noys, “Gestural Cinema?: Giorgio Agamben on Film” in Film-Philosophy, Vol. 8, No. 22, July 2004., checked November 9, 2012. Unpaginated.

[9], checked November 9, 2012.

[10] Ibid. 87. Bergson’s quote is from Creative Evolution, trans. Arthur Mitchell, Boston: University Press of America, 1983. 302.  

[11] Tom Gunning, “Loïe Fuller and the Art of Motion: Body, Light, Electricity, and the Origins of Cinema”, in Camera Obscura, Camera Lucida: Essays in Honor of Annette Michelson, eds. Richard Allen and Malcolm Turvey, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2003. 80.

[12] Gunning beautifully sums up Loïe Fuller’s serpentine dances in these words: “As the embodiment of Symbol, she was meaning divorced from specificity, an image unmoored by reference or representation, becoming purely the flow of movement in all its sensuality and its constantly changing, evocative pursuit of analogy – the pulsing matrix of meaning itself.” 81. See also p. 85.

[13] Kelli Marshall, “Animated Gifs, Cinemagraphs, and our Return to Early Cinema”, posted on June 8, 2011., checked November 9, 2012.

[14] Christian Keathley, “The Cinephiliac Moment”, in Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media, issue 42, 2000. Available online:, checked November 9, 2012. Unpaginated.

[15] Roland Barthes, “The Third Meaning” (1970), in Image-Music-Text, transl. by Stephen Heath, New York: Hill and Wang, 1977. 59. Emphasis in original.

[16] Kristin Thompson, “The Concept of Cinematic Excess”, in Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology: A Film Theory Reader, ed. Philip Rosen, New York: Columbia University Press, 1986. 135.

[17] Ibid. 141.

[18] See, checked November 9, 2012.

[19], checked November 9, 2012.

[20] Come to think of it, many of Mantel’s clips revolve around eyes that are suddenly opened to look out at the viewer. See for instance clips from Psycho, Darjeeling Limited, Moon, Persona, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, Orlando, Solyaris, Alphaville.

[21] Noah J. Nelson, “So Long Animated GIFs, Hello Cinemagraph”, posted April 20 2011,, checked November 9, 2012.

[24] Thompson, “The Concept of Cinematic Excess”. 134.

[25] Barthes, “The Third Meaning”. 61.

[26] Agamben, “Notes on Gesture”. 56.

[29] See for instance, checked November 9, 2012.

[30] Agamben, “Notes on Gesture”. 56.

[31] I am here riffing on the theoretical notion of “suture”, popular in the 1970s and 80s. According to the importer of the term into film theory, Jean-Pierre Oudart, the purpose of the reverse-shot in film is to answer the question that is posed for the spectator in a previous shot. Suppose, for instance, that we are shown a shot of a landscape. After a moment’s enjoyment of this view, the spectator soon begins to wonder why it is being shown to her or him. The reverse shot gives the answer to this query, because in it we are usually shown a character to whose vision the previous shot supposedly belongs. One image hereby bestows meaning upon another, to the effect that the spectator is released from interpretive responsibility. Jean-Pierre Oudart, “Cinema and Suture”, in Screen, 18 (4), 1977. The blog Everything You Love to Hate is notorious among its followers for its “cheeky” use of gifs in response to questions and comments. Some examples:,,, links checked November 9, 2012. On a related note, there are entire blogs devoted to “Reaction gifs” that just seem to cry out for re-appropriation. Some examples:, and, links checked November 9, 2012.

[32] Crocker, “Noises and Exceptions”. Unpaginated.



Hampus Hagman is putting the finishing touches to his dissertation, which examines the split screen as a meta-reflexive device for the management of unrepresentable content. He is also a freelance writer.    



Moving Through The Narrative: Spatial Form Theory And The Space Of Electronic Literature – Lai-Tze Fan

Geoff Ryman’s 253.

The way that a narrative unravels has traditionally been understood to occur over time: the time that it takes to read words on a page and to process meaning, and the time frame of events as depicted in the narrative. As we increasingly encounter electronic literature, which are narratives that operate on the computer and through computer systems, it becomes necessary to examine how the facilities of new media offer different methods of communication and therefore different methods of storytelling. We must account for qualities unique to new media: the screen, for example, is a space in which the status of text is subordinated by the image.[1] In fact, the screen can hold a variety of representational modes that may be utilized in electronic literature, causing a reader to move among narrative spaces. This possibility raises the question: what does it mean to navigate through these spaces in storytelling? To answer this, my paper offers an understanding of how space operates in the electronic narrative and how it may be mediated through the electronic narrative in a self-reflexive, metanarrational manner.

One approach that can be used to inform an understanding is an examination of how space has been described in a branch of narratology related to reader-response theory. Spatial form theory is the perception that “a degree of spatiality may be achieved [in narrative] through leitmotifs or extended webs of interrelated images.”[2] The structures and modes of operation described in spatial form theory are directly aligned with how they occur in electronic literature. For example, a person reading a hypertext must explore a network of webpages in order to generate enough content for a narrative. So too in spatial form narratives is the reader “confronted with an open-ended array of thematically interrelated factors he must weld into a picture – into a ‘spatial form.’”[3] I will use spatial form theory to examine electronic literature as a spatial reading experience as well as a temporal experience. Following a theoretical exploration of reading literature on the computer, I will demonstrate the execution and mediation of spatial reading through a pioneering hypertext, Geoff Ryman’s 253.[4]

Reading into the “Jump” of Electronic Literature

To begin, I will examine how the spatial qualities of hypertext can be approached by reader-response theory, particularly by spatial form theory. Hypertext differs from print text in its incorporation of hyperlinks, which are embedded upon each webpage, and through which a reader may jump from page to page. These jumps point toward aspects of digital media that dictate the production and execution of digital communication. That is, through the novelty of electronic literature, we recognize that as digital media operate in an ephemeral medium, they inevitably possess unique characteristics of time and space.

In order to better understand these characteristics, I turn to new media theorist Lev Manovich, whose foundational text The Language of New Media proposes five principles of new media.[5] In attempting to distinguish new media from old media, these principles describe methods of communication that are identified in computer-based media. Of concern to my argument are the second and fourth principles: modularity and variability. The principle of modularity describes how the structure of new media is formed through separate parts: as each part is stored independently, the deletion, substitution, and addition of new parts is made simple.[6] The principle of variability explains that, in correlation with modularity, new media artefacts possess branches in their programming; with regards to new media, a user must navigate through these branches to operate the media.[7] As hyperlinks allow a hypertext to operate through branching-type interactivity, Manovich states that a hypertext reader must follow links to retrieve a version of the document.[8] The phenomenon that he identifies is multilinearity, a style that is not common in the traditional narrative. The narrative as defined by print culture has followed the customs of linear storytelling: whether a story begins in the beginning, middle, or end of a narrative, all facets of the story are revealed to the reader. A multilinear narrative, however, possesses more than one narrative trajectory, and the interweaving of these trajectories is what Espen J. Aarseth calls a multicursory narrative.[9] Multicursory storytelling adds an element of interactivity to reading that can be found in hypertext, digital film, and video games.[10] A reader must choose which sections to read first or which to read at all, thereby changing the reader’s experience of the story so that he or she is indeed left with a version rather than a whole.

Therefore, hypertext is unlike print because it is has a modular structure and is prone to variability. Also, it does not possess a material form except in the technological machine within which it operates. Despite these unique structural and operative techniques, “hypertext theorists frequently employ spatial imagery to describe the relations made possible by links and textons … This rhetoric fails to hide the fact that the main feature of hypertext is discontinuity – the jump – the sudden displacement of the user’s position in the text.”[11] The jump must be accounted for, as it is inherent in the hypertext form; with adequate understanding, the jump of the hyperlink provides for hypertext fiction a claim to being a literary genre in its own right.

The jump has in fact been identified as an important element of reader-response theory. The mental processing of a jump in literary narratives has been explored by Wolfgang Iser, who posits that in any given text, meaning is not derived solely from the explicit statement, “but aims at something beyond what it actually says. This is true of all sentences in literary works, and it is through the interaction of these sentences that their common aim is fulfilled.”[12] Iser proposes a theory of the Implied Reader, whose act of reading is “a dynamic, transcendent, meaning-making activity negotiated through the gaps or indeterminacies of a text by the reader.”[13] We may situate Iser’s readerly gaps by recognizing that, in the context of computer-based media, they are reified as hyperlinks. Through the selection of hyperlinks, a reader is able to jump between Iser’s gaps – or the cyberspace between webpages – in order to fill in the text’s meaning.

Manovich’s alignment of new media operations with cinematic principles allows us to examine aspects of film under the terms of modularity and variability,[14] and by extension, under the terms of Iser’s Implied Reader. The cinematic technique of montage follows that elements are also organized in separate sections, each with its own meaning and figurative agency for meaning-making. While variability does not exist for traditional cinema in the way that it may for new media, one may argue that digital cinema, in engaging a viewer with different trajectories of a film narrative, operates in a multicursory manner. Digital film can be understood as interactive because the Implied Reader must, as over the space of celluloid, fill in a text’s meaning frame by frame, shot by shot. The possibility of the digital montage’s direction, however, has now been multiplied over cyberspace.

The Implied Reader also becomes the writer of the hypertext, so that readers of hypertext fiction may also be referred to as “users,” in that they control the sequence of the narrative through the activation of hyperlinks. This paper will hereafter refer to hypertext readers as reader-users. Sarah Sloane explores the way in which hyperlink gaps are filled by re-assessing the act of reading in the face of hypertext. Drawing from Andrea Lunsford and Lisa Ede’s theory of “writing types,” Sloane considers the readerly counterparts to these types. Reading up is how she describes content-based reading, the process of cramming and regurgitating information.[15] Reading out and back are akin to reading aloud or to repeating information to an audience, thus engaging a reader with others.[16] When reading into and between, one reads into a text and between the lines;[17] that is, to read into and between is to have a deep engagement with and absorption of the text. From an internal mediation of content, a deeper meaning can be extrapolated. From each of these types of reading, there occurs the reader’s externalization of him or herself towards the text – a uni-directional movement.

Conversely, hypertext fiction functions in a medium with its own operative logic and is therefore able to engage with the reader-user. We concern ourselves with a different type of reading: reading across, whereby the reader and text reciprocate each other’s actions. There exists a permeable border of which reader-users are the gatekeepers and the decision-makers of how a text unfolds, and these decisions are executed as hyperlinks are chosen. I liken reading across to media guru Marshall McLuhan’s aphorism, process over product, as, in a reader-user’s process of interaction with a text through hyperlinks, he or she will execute the imagination and make mental connections between webpages.

Spatial Form Theory and the Implied Reader-User of Hypertext


Spatial form theorist David Mickelsen describes the reading of spatial form narratives in a way that could be interchangeable with the exploration of a hypertext: “Transitions are perfunctory or entirely ignored, and the arrangement of episodes is apparently not governed by a developmental principle. The chapters are blocks that might have been arranged at random without significantly altering the outcome – either for the protagonist or the reader.”[18] Regardless of the outcome of transitions, the human mind is able to configure elements of a text (whether static or fluid, whether print or hypertext) into a larger whole. The formation of this “whole” is the product of the act of reading, where

to complete the process of telling a story – of exchanging a narrative – the receiver must be constructive and produce or reproduce a coherent understanding of the message. Meaning is never contained or guaranteed by the text alone but requires the reader’s engagement and creative relationship to the text. The user relates to the given parts and generates a whole that makes sense in the receiving context.[19]

Mickelsen draws upon the Implied Reader’s style of reading for the purpose of articulating the act of reading spatial form narratives, as, “the reader’s collaboration and involvement, his interpretation [to fill in the gaps]. If ‘exploration’ is to be winnowed to ‘assertion,’ the reader must do it. Thus the ‘implied reader,’ in Wolfgang Iser’s phrase, in spatial form is more active, perhaps even more sophisticated, than that implied by most traditional fiction.”[20] The eagerness of spatial form theory to adopt Iser’s notion of the Implied Reader mirrors that of hypertext theory, and both have turned to metanarrative theory to describe the reader-user’s experience of interacting with a text.

Metanarratives, as described by Ann Daghistany and J.J. Johnson, are especially sensitive to relationships of fragmentation, which encourage reference and connection:

The reader of a spatial-form narrative cannot perceive the characters of their actions as he does in a traditional narrative – that is, he does not perceive separate, individual characters developing and interacting in a linear time frame, because this linear temporal development is largely missing. Instead, as he grasps the relationships between the parts through reflexive reference, the attentive reader of spatial form begins to perceive a pattern or whole form.[21]

By appropriating the notion and discourse of the Implied Reader, hypertext theorists may explain the self-reflexive processes by which the reader-user is able to make sense of the text. Other hypertexts that may also be examined through spatial form theory include Mary Flanagan’s theHouse, which simulates a three-dimensional space in which text can appear, and Lance Olsen and Tim Guthrie’s 10:01, which is a multimodal narrative utilizing images, text, sound, and multilinearity in its methods of storytelling.

253’s Self-Reflexivity of Spatial Movement

In this section, I will offer an example to demonstrate how electronic literature and hypertext operate through and are reflexive of digital space. I have chosen 253 because it is widely considered a pioneering hypertext. Published online in 1996 by Geoff Ryman, the hypertext demonstrates self-referentiality of the digital medium’s use of time and space.

253 is a hypertext that takes the form of a website with constituent webpages. 253 tells the story of a London Underground subway train travelling on the Bakerloo line and heading toward its destination of Elephant and Castle station. The reader-user is told that the train will not brake at Elephant and Castle, but instead, will hurtle past the station and crash in 7.5 minutes. The title of the hypertext refers to the fact that at full capacity, an Underground train carries two-hundred-fifty-two passengers across seven carriages – two-hundred-fifty-three including the driver. The “narrative” of the text consists of two-hundred-fifty-three passenger profiles, which reveal the following information about each passenger: “outward appearance: does this seem to be someone you would like to read about?”; “inside information: sadly, people are not always what they seem”; and “what they are doing or thinking: many passengers are doing or thinking interesting things. Many are not.”[22]

Each profile contains hyperlinks that reveal relationships between and among passengers, thereby allowing reader-users of 253 to form mental connections – figurative links – between people, and these links are explicit, provoked by Ryman, or arbitrarily conceived by the reader-user. In this way, 253’s theme of linking exists in its two related types of reading: reading through webpages as a reader-user explores links and jumps from page to page, and reading relationships between passengers. As such, linking exists in both the text’s form and content. In order to draw the reader-user’s attention to the theme of linking in form and content, the profiles are coupled with a series of false advertisements and explanatory hyperlinks, which the reader-user may access at any time, providing the possibility that these advertisements and explanations may also become part of the narrative. These additional links accompany and frame the profiles, making tongue-in-cheek references to the theme of linking in form and content, and referring back to the interactive style of reading 253. Whether the advertisements and explanatory links are accessed prior to, during, or after reading the passenger profiles, they serve as self-reflexive commentary on Ryman’s theme.

Self-Reflexivity of Medium

Geoff Ryman’s 253.

First, 253 is self-referential of its structure by calling attention to the medium in which it operates. In the text’s introduction, “253? Why 253?” Ryman states, “Numbers [sic] are reliable. So that the illusion of an orderly universe can be maintained, all text in this novel, less headings, will number 253 words.”[23] The illusion of 253 as an orderly, static, and autonomous object is not actually maintained, as Ryman illustrates the artificiality of the text’s structure through its rigid numerical structure. The “End of the Line” page refers to the temporal novelty available to 253 as a hypertext, as one may choose this option at any point of the narrative. Should a reader-user tire of reading profiles, he or she may go the route of “sensationalism and violence,”[24] and discover the fate of all seven cars. This section has the opposite temporal effect of the majority of the text, as, rather than expand 7.5 minutes of travel into the time it takes to read two-hundred-fifty-three passenger profiles, the reader-user may instead skip to the ending, jumping from A to B, and engaging in a temporal ellipsis. In this way, the linearity of a traditional narrative is shattered as the reader-user is allowed to explore different spaces and times of the narrative.

Self-Reflexivity of Structure and Operation

The advertisements are perhaps the most self-referential aspect of the 253 reading experience, as they call attention to the structure- and content-based linking of the text, while at the same time presenting both as “natural.” Advertisement 7 encourages the reader-user to make connections between passengers, whether they are explicitly stated or need to be arbitrarily created by the reader-user. The text becomes self-reflexive of the branching-type interactivity offered through new media structure when Advertisement 7 promotes the binary-based Ascii Code as a way of forming relationships between passengers. Ascii Code – American Standard Code for Information Interchange – is a numerical code system that uses the numbers one and zero to represent letters on computers. Whether the reader-user realizes it or not, 253 as a text is an exercise in using Ascii Code to form relationships, as all computer data – including hypertext and hyperlinks – are composed of binary code. When a reader-user jumps from page to page, he or she does so through binary code. His or her exploration of passengers and consequent relationships are formed through the use of code, and what appears to be a random means of association is in fact integral to the process of reading a hypertext.

Ryman suggests using Ascii Code in order to select a profile, so that a reader-user may begin the process of forming relationships. He suggests flipping a coin repeatedly to generate the numbers one and zero into a pattern, landing at a number that will dictate which passenger the user considers reading about next. In titling this webpage “The 253 Way of Knowledge,” it is suggested that, like the Ascii Code system, the “knowledge” that the reader-user gains of passengers may be as arbitrary as flipping a coin. The knowledge is based on chance, on the likelihood of the reader-user choosing a particular hyperlink and arriving at its specific code. Unless a reader-user explores the entirety of 253, those passengers whom he or she gets to learn about is based on chance as well. Chance, then, is a subtheme of how one explores the space of the hypertext.

Self-Reflexivity of User-Generated Content

Following the logic of filling in Iser’s informational gaps, the reader-user similarly makes connections between and across profiles in 253. The text becomes self-reflexive of the act of reading in hypertext, and especially of the role of the reader-user, which 253 likens to that of a Godlike observer. New media studies have long emphasized user-generated content as having a huge stake in the production of online information. By calling the reader-user a Godlike observer, Ryman reveals two things: first, that the reader-user’s choices of links will shape the outcome of the text, and second, that in this series of choices, the reader-user moves through the narrative, from subway car to car, from character to character. The reader-user weaves through different elements of the text.

On the first link of the hypertext, Ryman explains the position of the reader-user: “do you sometimes wonder who the strangers around you are? This novel will give you the illusion that you can know. Indeed, it can make you feel omniscient, Godlike.”[25] The illusion offered is one of omniscient power over a text; the reader-user is situated as an observer of the passengers. The role can be best described using literary critic William Spanos’ formalist treatment of metanarrativity: “the critical act begins for the formalist not at the beginning … but only after the reading or perceptual process terminates; at the vantage point, that is, from which, like an omniscient god.”[26] The omniscient Godlike role is reiterated on a second webpage, in which Ryman describes a hypothetical situation in which the reader-user has an omniscient knowledge of others. This webpage functions as a reminder of the reader-user’s “vantage point” in the space of 253, where, similarly to spatial form narratives, “the reader is encouraged to identify not as a particular human being with particular characters but as a human mind experiencing a form, such as a square or a labyrinth, created by the interaction of fictional beings with one another and with their environment.”[27]

Interestingly, the agency of the reader-user in directing the time and space of the hypertext is also counterbalanced by Ryman when he urges, “Please remember that once you leave 253, you are no longer Godlike. The author, of course, is.”[28] While he ascribes to the reader-user a seemingly powerful role, in fact, the reader-user is only “user” insofar as he or she may activate preordained links. The non-diegetic reader-user of 253 has no control over the direction of the links, which all lurch, temporally and spatially, towards the inevitable ending.

Concluding Statements

As reader-users of hypertext, what we encounter is a literary form that may play off of expectations of print narrative, and then invert them so to upset expectations of genre and medium. When asked by journalist Leo Winson, “Do you think hypertext fiction has to break away from traditional concepts to be effective in this new form?” Ryman responded, “Sure do. I’m not sure the word is effective, though. Justified is more like it. Why waste time and energy if the same thing could be done in print?”.[29] With the intention of justifying the hypertext as a unique method of storytelling, Ryman sets out to teach the reader-user as much about the “new form” as possible. The communication is different, the exploration of plotline or plotlines are different, the execution is original, and the reader navigates through the narrative in more than one way. Therefore 253 reveals its own underbelly: the text is conscious of what it and its genre offers the reader-user. It is not the passenger profiles of the text that mediate the hypertext’s form and style, but everything that couples those profiles: the additional links, which shake the reader-user into awareness – awareness of the novelty of digital space. By engaging with this space through electronic literature, the reader-user may recognize that the hypertext engages actively, and forces him or her to make choices and read in a different way. In drawing attention to its interactive nature, hyperlinks and the readerly jump become their own instruction manual. 253 is thus a crash course on hypertext fiction, where the reader-user learns the genre by doing the genre.



Aarseth, Espen J. “Nonlinearity and Literary Theory.” Hyper/Text/Theory, 51-86. Edited byGeorge P. Landow. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

Aarseth, Espen J. Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.

Daghistany, Ann, and J.J. Johnson. “Romantic Irony, Spatial Form, and Joyce’s Ulysses.Spatial Form in Narrative, 48-60. Edited by Jeffrey R. Smitten and Ann Daghistany. New York Cornell University Press, 1981.

Iser, Wolfgang. “The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach.” New Literary History Vol. 2 (1972): 279-299.

Jewitt, Carey, and Gunther Kress. “Introduction.” In Multimodal Literacy, 1-18. New York; Berlin: Peter Lang Publishing, 2003.

Liestøl, Gunnar. “Wittgenstein, Genette, and the Reader’s Narrative in Hypertext.” In Hyper/Text/Theory, 87-120. Edited by George P. Landow. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1994.

Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 2001.

Mickelsen, David. “Types of Spatial Structure in Narrative.” In Spatial Form in Narrative, 63-78. Edited by Jeffrey R. Smitten and Ann Daghistany. New York: Cornell University Press, 1981.

Page, Adrian. “Constructing Xanadu: towards a poetics of hypertext fiction.” The Question of Literature: The Place of the Literary in Contemporary Theory, 174-189. Edited by Elizabeth Beaumont Bissell. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002.

Ryman, Geoff. 253. 1996.

Sloane, Sarah. “The Materials of Digital Fiction.” Digital Fictions: Storytelling in a Material World, 65-106. Connecticut: Ablex Publishing Corporation, 2000.

—. “Muddy Readers, Malestreams, and Splitting the Atom of “I”: Locating the Reader in Digital Fiction.” In Digital Fictions: Storytelling in a Material World, 147-184. Connecticut: Ablex Publishing Corporation, 2000.

Smitten, Jeffrey R., and Ann Daghistany. Spatial Form in Narrative. New York: Cornell University Press, 1981.

Winson, Leo J. “A Reactive Interview with Geoff Ryman author of 253.” Dark Lethe. Reactive Writing. Web. 10 June 2012.



[1] Carey Jewitt and Gunther Kress, Multimodal Literacy (New York; Berlin: Peter Lang Publishing, 2003), 16.

[2] David Mickelsen, “Types of Spatial Structure in Narrative,” in Spatial Form in Narrative, ed. Jeffrey R. Smitten and Ann Daghistany (New York: Cornell University Press, 1981), 68.

[3] David Mickelsen, “Types of Spatial Structure in Narrative,” in Spatial Form in Narrative, ed. Jeffrey R. Smitten and Ann Daghistany (New York: Cornell University Press, 1981), 78.

[4] Geoff Ryman, 253, 1996,

[5] Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media (Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 2001).

[6] ibid., 30.

[7] ibid., 38.

[8] ibid., 38.

[9] Espen J. Aarseth, Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), 44.

[10] ibid., 48.

[11] Espen. J. Aarseth, “Nonlinearity and Literary Theory” in Hyper/Text/Theory, ed. George P. Landow (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994), 69.

[12] Wolfgang Iser, “The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach.” New Literary History Vol. 2 (1972): 282.

[13] Sarah Sloane, “The Materials of Digital Fiction,” in Digital Fictions: Storytelling in a Material World (Connecticut: Ablex Publishing Corporation, 2000), 76.

[14] Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media (Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 2001), 141, 142.

[15] Sarah Sloane, ““Muddy Readers, Malestreams, and Splitting the Atom of “I”: Locating the Reader in Digital Fiction.”,” in Digital Fictions: Storytelling in a Material World (Connecticut: Ablex Publishing Corporation, 2000), 158.

[16] Sarah Sloane, ““Muddy Readers, Malestreams, and Splitting the Atom of “I”: Locating the Reader in Digital Fiction.”,” in Digital Fictions: Storytelling in a Material World (Connecticut: Ablex Publishing Corporation, 2000), 158, 159.

[17] ibid., 160.

[18] David Mickelsen, “Types of Spatial Structure in Narrative,” in Spatial Form in Narrative, ed. Jeffrey R. Smitten and Ann Daghistany (New York: Cornell University Press, 1981), 66.

[19] Gunnar Liestøl, “Wittgenstein, Genette, and the Reader’s Narrative in Hypertext.” In Hyper/Text/Theory, ed. George P. Landow (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1994), 98.

[20] David Mickelsen, “Types of Spatial Structure in Narrative,” in Spatial Form in Narrative, ed. Jeffrey R. Smitten and Ann Daghistany (New York: Cornell University Press, 1981), 74.

[21] Ann Daghistany and J.J. Johnson, “Romantic Irony, Spatial Form, and Joyce’s Ulysses.Spatial Form in Narrative, ed. Jeffrey R. Smitten and Ann Daghistany. (New York: Cornell University Press, 1981), 53.

[22] Geoff Ryman, 253, 1996,

[23] ibid.

[24] Geoff Ryman, 253, 1996,

[25] Geoff Ryman, 253, 1996,

[26] Ann Daghistany and J.J. Johnson, “Romantic Irony, Spatial Form, and Joyce’s Ulysses.Spatial Form in Narrative, ed. Jeffrey R. Smitten and Ann Daghistany. (New York: Cornell University Press, 1981), 50.

[27] ibid., 53.

[28] Geoff Ryman, 253, 1996, .

[29] Leo J. Winson, “A Reactive Interview with Geoff Ryman author of 253,” Dark Lethe, accessed June 2, 2012.



Lai-Tze Fan is a Ph.D. Student in the Communication & Culture Program at York University, Canada. Her dissertation focuses on the influence of new media poetics on contemporary print literature. As such, she is invested in the critical evaluation of an emerging and experimental body of literary texts, and in how literary, new media, social, and cultural scholars negotiate these texts in relation to – and while we are still in – the information age.


On Cinema, Stars, Boleros y Comedia: Contesting Cold War Repression through Mexican American Popular Culture in the pages of La Opinion – Soledad Vidal

Abstract: This article explores the role that La Opinion, a Mexican American press that rose to meet the growing needs of Mexicans of first and second generation in the U.S. Southwest, played in addressing migrants through a pedagogy of ethnic consciousness. It is argued that through Mexican forms of entertainment that addressed audiences in a familiar Spanish language, the paper enabled the community to simultaneously be immigrants, Mexican and American subjects. Helping promote Mexican entertainment niches, La Opinion encouraged audiences to visit the cine Mejicano to preserve culture, support the Mexican film industry during labor strikes, and enjoy relief from Cold War-related layoffs, union demonstrations and increased discrimination.

Figure 1: José Pedro Infante Cruz, better known as Pedro Infante, the famous actor and singer of the Golden Age of Mexican cinema

“Mexico, dearly beloved, if I die far away from you
let them say that I’m just sleeping and
may they bring me back home to you.”
                  ~ Jorge Negrete

Suburbanization, coupled with the decline of public transportation, affected 1950s entertainment patterns across the United States as suburban families traded their love affair with the big screen for the privacy of television viewership in single family homes. As suburbia spread, those who did not have access to transportation found it increasingly difficult to reach downtown centers and go to the movies.  Despite the postwar growth of the U.S. suburbs, Mexican immigrants continued to move into and revitalize urban ethnic neighborhoods transforming Los Angeles entertainment sites into their own. La Opinion, a Mexican American press that rose to meet the growing needs of Mexicans of first and second generation in the U.S. Southwest addressed migrants through a pedagogy of ethnic consciousness. The paper emerged as a form of immigrant support system and a coping institution that addressed themes centered on the economic, social and racial assimilation problems that resulted from World War II. Since 1900s, Mexican immigrants, more than any other group, had served as the backbone of the American Southwestern economy responding to America’s vacancies in labor.[1] As Mexican Americans joined the ranks of the National Guard, the Army reserve, enlisted in the United States Military, and signed agricultural agreements to tend U.S. fields, they relocated north providing a service to the United States and laying the roots of community in the process.

La Opinion celebrated Mexican political and civic contributions to claim a stake in Americanism during the Cold War period. However, the paper also revealed its vision to help establish a Mexican community that reflected in many ways the Mexican homeland that migrants left behind.  Through Mexican forms of entertainment that addressed audiences in a familiar Spanish language, the paper enabled the community to simultaneously be immigrants, Mexican and American subjects. Mexican American entertainment and more specifically, the “Cine” (movie) section of the paper emerged as the most resistant to assimilative rhetoric and as the paper’s most visible stronghold of Mexican cultural heritage. La Opinion reserved its popular cultural pages to appeal to the Mexican community’s desire to assimilate into American society within a space of Mexican cultural affirmation. Movie-goers who lived and labored in Los Angeles turned to Mexican entertainment to fill a void in Mexican representation in U.S. cinema and to cope with the nostalgia of missing home.

La Opinion’s entertainment section revealed a deep affection for Mexican performers showcasing Mexican actors, mariachi singers and comedians in glamorous downtown movie houses in Los Angeles. Through “painful self-recognitions” as captured in satires, critiques, political commentary and melodramas, Mexican entertainers connected Mexican American audiences to their homeland.[2] During this period, Hollywood catered to middle-class and American-born patrons. Through location, thematic content and cost of attendance the United States film industry demonstrated “a general indifference toward the treatment of Hispanic themes.”[3]  Yet La Opinion reveals that Los Angeles’ Mexican-descent readers responded to the absence of representation in mainstream Hollywood productions through the creation and support of their own cultural niche. Lining the Los Angeles historic center, movie palaces like the Million Dollar and the Mayan emerged as centers of Latin American showcase.[4] Located at Broadway and 3rd Street in Los Angeles, the Million Dollar’s lobby was decorated with large posters from beloved 1950s stars such as Pedro Infante, El Trio Los Panchos, Cantinflas and Tin Tan.  Mexicans living in Los Angeles flocked to local Los Angeles movie houses to watch stage shows featuring Mexico’s biggest stars. The experience of dressing up in style, waiting in line for over an hour, and cheering on their favorite actors revealed the role of Mexican entertainment to a truly integrated community. Bruce Corwin, the president of Metropolitan Theaters company that leased the Million Dollar on and off in the 1940s remembered the excitement of parents, grandparents and children as they awaited the shows. “To them,” stated Corwin, “the Million Dollar was a magical name” eliciting memories of larger-than-life stars.[5]

The Cine (cinema) section of La Opinion promoted and affirmed cultural productions from Mexico by encouraging local Mexican communities to seek Mexican entertainment at local glamorous houses. Frank Fouce, who leased the Million Dollar Theater in 1949, is credited from saving it from downtown’s decline by refocusing entertainment to suit the Hispanic community’s tastes.[6] By the 1950s, the postwar push to the suburbs turned the Million Dollar theater from a Hollywood movie house where Charlie Chaplin had once performed into a showcase of Mexican talent.

Helping promote Mexican entertainment niches, La Opinion published big advertisements on upcoming stars and musical and comedic tours. The paper also delved into popular gossip about las estrellas (movie stars) hooking readers by leaking stories about undercover romances and ego-fueled confrontations between divas and idols. Whether viewers stepped out to watch Un Divorcio (Emilio Gomez Muriel, 1953), Salt of the Earth (Herbert J. Biberman, 1954), or Los Hijos de Maria Morales (Fernando de Fuentes, 1952) among many other Mexican productions, La Opinion encouraged audiences to visit the cine Mejicano to preserve culture, support the Mexican film industry during labor strikes, and enjoy relief from Cold War-related layoffs, union demonstrations and increased discrimination. Mexican comedies in particular played more than an entertainment role. They were promoted by La Opinion as healing mechanisms and uplifting popular culture venues that helped the Mexican American community cope with layoffs in transportation and the food industries.[7] In June 11, 1950, for example, the Cine section praised the movie “Enredate y Veras” (Get Entangled and See, Carlos Orellana, 1948), claiming that while the community was affected by the tram and bread maker strikes, “Mexican humor [was] the best antidote to temporary unemployment.” In the process of prescribing film as a treatment for economic uncertainty, La Opinion advanced two important goals: promoting the financial prosperity of local business by helping raise film attendance to local Mexican theaters, and serving as a defender of the Mexican migrants facing discrimination during the Cold-War period.

Figure 2: A poster advertising Mexican Cinema features at Los Angeles’ Million Dollar Theater

During and shortly after World War II, Mexican cinema inside Mexico received a boost, as the war lessened foreign competition in filmmaking, and the U.S. focused its films on war-related themes that, according to film critics writing for La Opinion in 1954, “were disliked and deemed distasteful by Mexican audiences.”[8] During its Golden Era, Mexican cinema had achieved a level of economic, artistic, and popular success unprecedented in any other Latin American country.[9] Spanning roughly from 1935 to 1955, Mexico’s Golden Era witnessed a vast expansion of the Mexican film industry across Latin America in a manner comparable to the influence of Hollywood on the English-speaking world. By 1948, Mexico had out-produced filmmakers throughout Latin America with approximately 2.5 million tickets sold with foreign sales amounting to 75 percent of admissions.[10] Mexican film during this period focused on narratives of belonging that emphasized moral teachings, social problems, and the melodrama, a genre of film that delved deep into personal relationships and, more pointedly, on problems rooted in the family.

Mexico’s focus on the family resulted from influences stemming from the aftermath of World War II, as Hollywood filmmakers working in a variety of genres from westerns to thrillers turned to the family. The genre to most effectively address the institution of the family was the melodrama. The box-office success of Mexican films continued after the end of World War II when Mexican cinema became focused on commercial films. Mexican melodrama idealized Mexican life and emphasized the importance of family and national unity at a time of economic and social crisis.[11] As Jackie Byars explains, Hollywood melodramas also assumed various shapes, such as patriarchal melodrama; maternal melodrama, typically set in a community of women and children where the patriarch is absent; and lover-centered melodrama which most directly “laid bare the family’s internal contradictions.”[12] Big stars such as Marga Lopez, whom La Opinion described as “la artista argentina del cine mexicano” (the argentine artist of Mexico’s cinema), played numerous leading roles in melodramas helping to usher in the golden age of Mexican female depictions. Revered by La Opinion as one of Mexico’s most talented stars, Marga Lopez left an imprint in melodrama through her masterful performances as a loving, suffering wife. Born in Argentina, she arrived in Mexico when she was a young girl and made her film debut with German Valdes “Tin Tan” in El Hijo Desobediente (The Disobedient Child) directed by Humberto Gomez Landero in 1945. Her performances led to four Ariels (Mexican awards in film). After establishing herself as a great dame of Mexican cinema, Lopez became a Mexican citizen in 1955, eventually transitioning her career from film into TV telenovelas (soap operas).[13] In the period that preceded Lopez, female roles had pushed beyond the traditional fiery, frivolous, and sensual senoritas, for stronger parts that cast Mexican women in bolder roles.[14] However, by the 1950s the quality of female roles entered into a period of decline, as the narrative of the family returned women to the home.[15]

Family melodramas, also known as maternal melodramas, women’s films, or “weepies” centered on the problems of love, sexuality, and parenting.[16] Typically promoting a female centered plot, “weepies” addressed a female audience and focused on women, their lives, and their relationships with other women, a trend that feminist film theorist Nancy Chodorow argues was significant considering that women had been marginalized in other film genres.[17] Un Divorcio, (A Divorce, directed by Emilio Gomez Muriel, 1953) a Mexican film starring Marga Lopez and Carlos Moctezuma, was revered in La Opinion as an example of a superb melodrama that delved into maternal problems, women’s conflicts, and the dangerous threat of divorce.

Un Divorcio’s lead actor, Carlos Lopez de Moctezuma, who played the stoic patriarch in the film, was regularly featured in the Cine section of the press. “Our villain,” as La Opinion warmly referred to him, had built a prosperous film career by being cast as a “malo” (antihero); a personality trait that contrasted “his radiant personality.”[18] In an interview with La Opinion, Moctezuma revealed that his career in acting had started with his love for theater. Yet due to the flexibility of the Mexican entertainment industry, where theater and film actors frequently crossed over, Moctezuma eventually chose film, appearing in more than 96 motion pictures throughout his career.

I went to the movies to earn money and then lost it taking theater roles. In the end, I gave up my love for theater, choosing film. I cannot complain. I have built a long career in film, even though I have always been cast in villain roles. The industry classified me in that role and I have adapted to it and very happily obliged.[19]

Villain or hero, La Opinion adored Moctezuma and frequently published candid interviews with Mexico’s favorite stars. However, the early 1950’s film critic’s corner of La Opinion addressed problems inherent in the protection of a star-studded system that featured the same actors who, while dear to the Mexican viewership, appeared to monopolize roles leaving no room for new talent.[20]   On October 11, 1952, La Opinion film critics pleaded with the Mexican film industry to make room for fresh talent:

We need young actresses and actors. There is a crisis in young acting talent. The lack of new young actors is affecting theaters and movies that now operate at a minimal capacity. In our movies one rarely sees young actors. Instead, we are exposed to the same actors in many repeated roles. These beloved stars, who started their film careers in their youth are now aging yet they are still playing the same protagonist roles. This is not going to be attractive for much longer, as leading stars become grandparents, yet keep playing seductive roles. Even though the beautiful stars are photogenic, their souls are aged and this affects film.[21]

The article added that young talent was rarely cast in protagonist roles. Relegated mostly to secondary parts, young actors, stated La Opinion, “fear taking leading roles.” For their part, movie producers, too, worried that promoting new talent would affect ticket sales as the public, unfamiliar with new talent, would be hesitant to watch films with unknown actors. La Opinion disagreed with the old model that protected a few acting elite and instead advocated change.  “So then,” stated the paper, “we continue with our antiquated movie cast of 10 or even 15 years ago as if time has stood still.” Movie viewers, stated the columnist, “are tired of the same old faces. They can even anticipate the actor’s facial gestures, the dropping of the eyes, their punch lines, their melodramatic acting style and at times even predict the next line. The only thing that changes is wardrobe.” Pressing for a change, the paper argued that “we need new young talent now. We have a serious problem facing the future of our film. If things keep going as they are, we will find ourselves without talent 30 years from now.”[22]

La Opinion boldly critiqued aspects of Mexican film that could potentially affect Mexico’s reputation as a respectable cinematographic industry. When it came to favorite genres, the paper praised melodramas as “Mexico’s movie genre that captured Mexico’s history and its people.”[23] However, during the 1950s La Opinion also advertised a new film genre: the social protest picture, which emerged as a reaction to the Cold War practice of blacklisting actors and technicians who worked on anti-capitalistic films. While La Opinion promoted itself as a progressive, pro-liberal press, the Cine section revealed some internal ideological contradictions, as the paper supported both capitalistic practices as well as films that critiqued U.S. discrimination against Mexican Americans. One of the most advertised social problem films was Herbert Biberman’s Salt of the Earth. The film focused on the 1951 strike by a branch of the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers operating in Baynard, New Mexico. At the core of its message, the film highlighted the sacrifices of the miners who challenged the Empire Zinc Corporation over wages and working conditions. Salt of the Earth triggered the suppression of both the film and the Mexican labor union at the height of Cold War America.[24] In order to produce the film, Biberman recruited the services of blacklisted screenwriter Michael Wilson and also enlisted actual members of the local union who had participated in the strike. Miners and their families agreed to participate in the film as long as Biberman allowed them a measure of control over the script to ensure its accuracy in the representation of the mining community.[25] The members of Local 890 insisted on a portrayal that would reveal how they came together as a community to counter oppression from Anglo interests. As a condition of performing, the miners refused to play into any gendered stereotypes that referenced machismo, subordination of women, illiteracy, ignorance, or weakness. Biberman accepted the miners’ requests and thus began production of the story. Salt of the Earth would be told through the eyes and experiences of Esperanza Quintero, played by Mexican actress, Rosaura Revueltas. The film emphasized the exploitation of Mexican employees through low wages, poor safety conditions and inadequate housing. Led by Esperanza Quintero, miner women, too, organized, fought and picketed for improved conditions.

Figure 3: Rosaura Revueltas in Salt of the Earth.

Reporting on the film, La Opinion published an interview with Revueltas on October 12, 1952. In this interview, Revueltas told journalist Pedro Martinez that she was headed to Hollywood to “take part in a film that due to its social content will be tremendously transcendental.” Martinez reported that the U.S. was interested in keeping a close eye on Revuelta’s film since “this movie will raise the question of discrimination of humble Mexican miners who work in the mines of New Mexico.” Martinez warned that “this movie will not show in the U.S. due to its drastic censorship.” Praising Revueltas and Salt of the Earth, La Opinion lauded the film’s “realistic style similar to Italian films,” and added that Salt of the Earth was filmed on site and without fake sets.  At the conclusion of the interview, La Opinion thanked Revuelta for bravely taking the role and for helping to bring justice to hard-working Mexican Americans.

               Salt of the Earth’s story explored many firsts, addressing the struggles of Mexican American miners, while also highlighting gender inequality within the same community. Anglo abuse and Mexican gender inequality emerged as themes that revealed dual systems of abuse.  While initially welcoming women’s participation in all aspects of the strike, the film showed that Mexican male miners initially resisted women’s public roles. However, when workers won the strike in the end, the men realized that they, too, had contributed to their community’s abuse. The film, which premiered in 1954, was immediately censored in the U.S. The film was produced independently from the Hollywood studio system during the hysteria of the Cold War and was virtually banned from ever being shown in the U.S. In 1954, however, the film played briefly in Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco.  It was released in Canada and in Europe to widespread acclaim, and was shown again in the U.S. in 1965. Salt of the Earth’s repression revealed the pervasive impact of Cold War ideology in Hollywood productions. The film’s depiction of Mexican American mine workers’ struggles in the copper mines of New Mexico exposed the U.S. government’s harassment of labor unionism, particularly targeting the Mexican American workers in the early 1950s. [26]

In addition to workplace violations, the film exposed gender inequality in the Mexican American community through the central character of Esperanza. Salt of the Earth highlighted women’s participation in the strikes through various roles including public activities, letter writing, and picketing. According to Deborah Rosenfelt, Salt of the Earth addressed domesticity and child rearing as important political issues. The film condemned macho attitudes as women battled to subvert their inferior places within the family and the community.[27] The picture was shot in 1953 and underwent many battles in its effort to reach completion and distribution. Salt of the Earth fought a string of uphill battles including boycotts, congressional red baiting, local vigilantism and lockouts from Hollywood’s technical facilities.[28] While the film was well received abroad, it was denied regular commercial distribution in the United States but was advertised as showing in local Mexican theaters in La Opinion. Pirated copies of the film found their way to colleges and communities where audiences gathered to view the forbidden film’s stories of worker rights and gender equality. [29]

During her interview with La Opinion Rosaura Revueltas confessed that she had waited all her life to play Esperanza.[30]  In her recollections, she mentioned that production of the film had been postponed several times; however, the producer, director and crew refused to give up on the important story. This film came close to Revuelta’s heart. Growing up in a miner family, Revueltas learned firsthand of the miners’ struggles and sorrows. Her upbringing, she told the press, developed her social conscience and passion to understand the nature of inequality and injustice. “From the moment I became an actress I longed to play a role to honor “my people,” recalled Revueltas.[31] When Salt of the Earth came into production she accepted without hesitation and began dreaming of her role as Esperanza, the miner’s wife she would portray in the film. When asked about the censorship of the film, Revueltas remembered being interrogated on several occasions by U.S. immigration officials who visited the lodge in Silver City where the cast and crew were staying. “They wanted to see my passport,” said Revueltas, and, she added, “they came to arrest me on the grounds that my passport lacked an admission seal. They told me that it was not serious that I could return to work the next day if a $500 bond was posted in El Paso” On March, 22, 1954, La Opinion reported on the censorship of the film under the title “Censura en Sal de La Tierra.”[32] (Censorship in Salt of the Earth). The article stated that the movie had been filmed in U.S. territory and, echoing Revuelta’s recollections, it had been interrupted under Washington’s order because “the U.S. government felt that the dialogue had communistic undertones and tendencies.”  Actress Rosaura Revueltas was deported after being detained for hours, stated La Opinion. The unfinished scenes were completed at a later time.[33]

Revueltas recalled interrogations into her political allegiance; specifically, if she was a member of the communist party and if she was doing a communist film. In her memoir, Revueltas revealed that producer Paul Jarrico followed her to El Paso to post the bond. As a result of her leading role in Salt of the Earth, Revueltas states that she was described as a “dangerous woman” who belonged in Mexico. Due to the political pressure demanding that she leave, Rosaura returned to Mexico while filmmakers continued on with the film. “I carried home with me the spirit that had made this picture possible, the determination that would see it completed, and the inner assurance that a handful of ignorant and frightened men could never prevent its being shown to the peoples of the world.” [34] According to La Opinion, after much review, Mexico had authorized Mexican audiences to see the film once Spanish subtitles were added.[35]

La Opinion celebrated Mexican leading actresses and actors, such as Rosaura Revueltas, even when controversial stories surrounded their favorite stars. In addition to promoting Mexican estrellas, La Opinion advertised Mexican musicians touring the U.S. Southwest with equal zeal and support. In the year 1950, for fifty cents a ticket, La Opinion encouraged audience members to attend affordable Mexican performances. The Trio Los Panchos was reviewed by the press as a popular traveling act from Mexico playing at the Los Angeles Teatro Mason where they were received with “open arms.”[36] La Opinion praised the group’s big personalities, saying that they knew “how to capture an audience right from the start. Their voices are sweet and expressive, the tone is emotional and their lyrics profound.”[37]  Discussing the group’s performance, La Opinion argued that the musicians’ appeal stemmed from their “masterful interpretation of a variety of Latin American music.” However, La Opinion liked the Trio Los Panchos best when “playing their own melodies and songs.” The incredible fan based generated by the Trio’s stemmed from the group’s struggles. Their songs reminded Mexican-descent fans of Mexican culture and traditions. “When they go home,” stated La Opinion, “Mexico inspires them to write and play new lyrics, and we benefit here when they play them in the United States.[38]

Part of their appeal resulted from their ability to play a variety of Spanish music that included the Argentinean tango, the Colombian cumbia, the pasodoble from Spain and samba from Brazil. The group earned labels such as “the ambassadors of romantic music,” masking the  group’s battle with depression, the isolation that came from leaving home and “the hell of drugs and alcohol,” that afflicted the musicians as a result of feeling rootless and at times dejected. [39] Throughout their sixty-year history the trio developed a unique style known as “the pachista style,” three voices, two guitars and a requinto, an instrument invented by one of the group’s members, Alfredo Gil. The Trio Los Panchos performed at local Los Angeles’ theaters, receiving accolades by La Opinion music reviewers. The group initially came together in New York in 1944, singing popular Mexican corridos and rancheras, yet later, the group gained international fame throughout Latin America and Spain with romantic boleros. At a time of Cold War discrimination against immigrants, The Trio came to the U.S. with dreams of conquering the country through their song. Their popularity with the Mexican community in the U.S. did not go unnoticed.  The U.S. military invited the group to help raise the spirits of soldiers serving in the war.  As a result, the group received contracts and invitations to perform in many venues, including combat zones where U.S. soldiers were stationed.

As Mexican Americans enlisted into the ranks of the U.S. military to demonstrate support of US defense goals, Mexican entertainers realized, too, that music could also be used to respond to the patriotic call of service. The U.S. had created a program to entertain and support injured soldiers in combat. In order to participate; however, La Opinion reported that Mexican performers had to become U.S. citizens and renounce their Mexican citizenship. In the case of El Trio, musician Hernando was already a citizen through his Puerto Rican heritage; however the remaining members temporarily embraced American citizenship in order to perform in military camps earning high praise from the press.[40]  Following the war, the musicians returned to Mexico to find that they could not work there due to their US status. In a show of allegiance to Mexico, they renounced their U.S citizenship and renationalized themselves as Mexicans.

Figure 4: El Trio Los Panchos

La Opinion celebrated the group as a truly Mexican band and announced shows, locations and the accessibility of entry fees.  Through advertisements that praised Mexican style, culture and community La Opinion helped the careers of Mexican entertainers on the other side of the border. The film industry in Mexico capitalized on El Trio’s popularity and signed them to appear in over thirty three movies.[41] Alternating between recordings, live shows and tours, El Trio performed in California during the 1950s decade for 14 weeks, making a reported twenty thousand dollars per week.[42] The group participated in an extensive tour that started in 1944 and lasted through 1951. Commenting on the tour, La Opinion referred to the group as “the most perfect musical trio in America.”[43] Their ability to play multiple Spanish style songs led their appeal to reach the east coast, capturing audiences in New York, especially Puertoricans and Dominicans. In 1948 the group relocated to Mexico, where they were received with open arms by Jorge Negrete, a beloved member of the Mexican acting dynasty.

Jorge Negrete received frequent praise on the pages of La Opinion. Like the case of El Trio, Mexican audiences in Los Angeles embraced Negrete’s love of Mexico, which he poured into his songs. Negrete’s music echoed the familiar sentiments of homesickness felt by working-class immigrants living in the U.S. Fiercely nationalistic, Negrete poured his love of Mexico into his songs: “Mexico will always be first and foremost….Mexico, dearly beloved, if I die far away from you let them say that I’m just sleeping and may they bring me back home to you.”[44] Adored in Mexico as in the U.S. southwest, Negrete embodied Mexican regionalism, traditional customs, inspiration and hope. “A profoundly loved man,” as his daughter described him, he helped to raise the reputation of Mexico’s cinematographic industry and “prevented the chaos within it.” Negrete would prove instrumental in the development of Mexico’s international film recognition. He contributed to the spreading of Mexico’s artistic industry within the international market, especially while leading as the president of the acting association in Mexico. Negrete would help El Trio singers expand their careers into film. In turn, the group remained thankful for Negrete’s support, especially when Negrete battled cirrhosis, which ultimately cost him his life.[45] When Negrete became gravely ill, the group visited him in the hospital, a touching meeting captured by La Opinion which quoted Negrete scolding El Trio for their bad habits: “You, gentlemen, who have abused alcohol, drugs and been bandits in this life look so healthy, and me I have been a sober man and this fatal illness falls upon me. Why?” He was described as a “corajudo” (quick tempered man) who took everything to heart.  When Negrete died in Houston in 1953, his remains were sent to Mexico, as Negrete had always wished. The popular actor died as he was preparing for a week long engagement at the Million Dollar. Reports of his death prompted an outpour of grief, as fans rushed to the theater and the Cedar-Sinai medical center hoping that news of his death had been nothing but malicious rumors. La Opinion reported on his illness, keeping an anxious community apprised of the decaying health of their beloved star.

On August 28, 1953, Mexican comedic superstar Mario Moreno Cantiflas, sent Jorge Negrete,  his “best regards and wishes for a speedy recovery.” “Strange,” stated La Opinion, “since Mario Moreno Cantinflas and Negrete were not speaking.”[46] While La Opinion’s entertainment section hailed the virtues of its beloved artistic Mexican talents, the paper also enjoyed reporting on animosities between the stars, highlighting disagreements between performers and uncovering secret romances and explosive outbursts on set.  The paper’s frequent commentary on Mexican entertainers’ moral character helped to propel popular actors into rising stardom. When entertainer Mario Moreno Cantinflas visited the dying Negrete at the hospital, La Opinion stated that Cantinflas’ visit had been “thoughtful, well received and kind.”

At the height of his popularity, La Opinion praised Jorge Negrete’s films and also published gossip on his whereabouts and his presumed romances. On August 28, 1953, La Opinion broke the undercover romance with Mexican diva, Maria Felix who was said to be promised to another. “Even though Maria Felix is engaged to Carlos Thompson, she and Negrete are living a happy romance which, our sources tell us, will lead them to the altar.”[47] In the gossip column, La Opinion asked, “Can you believe that Maria Felix, a woman with beauty, money and fame would settle for Jorge Negrete? She’s been picking him up every night after his film Tal Para Cual ( To Each Their Own, Rogelio A Gonzalez, 1953). She’s been driving a luxurious car and trying to hide so no one will know she’s in love with him.” While La Opinion had declared Maria Felix “out of Negrete’s league,” Felix married him, becoming his third wife and staying with him until his death. Heartbroken, Maria Felix oversaw an honorable burial for her husband in Mexico as had been his wish. She would reject a Mexican DC-3 airplane sent by the Mexican government to bring Negrete’s remain back to Mexico, deeming the aircraft  “unsuitable” to carry Negrete and to his legacy. [48]

La Opinion’s mixed reviews of Negrete, his life and his work echoed the star’s contentious reputation in Mexico where he was both loved and abhorred. In Mexico, Negrete had boldly taken on the film industry’s biggest battles regarding salary disputes emerging as the most vocal advocate of the film industry’s labor union. Negrete’s unwavering support of labor unions earned him both fans and enemies. As his daughter, Diana Negrete, recalls in the biography of her father, Negrete worked tirelessly for the creation of the Sindicato de Trabajadores de la Produccion Cinematografica de la Republica Mexicana, a labor union that protected the rights of cinema employees in the republic of Mexico. Negrete longed to create a true brotherhood of Mexican and foreign actors across the world.[49] In 1951 La Opinion published a story retelling Negrete’s efforts to bring financial prosperity to all Mexican actors:

I am very committed to helping my fellow actors work within an environment of fairness, equity and justice. I am fighting their fight. The artistic field does not offer any support nor guarantee to actors and I do not think this is fair. I do not think that actors should be used as helpless lambs that labor themselves to the ground while others enrich their pockets at the actors’ expense.[50]

Negrete and Mexican popular comedian, Mario Moreno “Cantinflas stood out among La Opinion’s most talked about stars. Like the case of Negrete who through song and acts helped Mexican immigrants in Los Angeles recall nostalgic memories of home, Cantinflas would rise to stardom through his use of humor to elicit sympathy for the Mexican underdog. Mexican immigrants in the U.S. connected to Cantinflas’ portrayals of a Mexican working man struggling to survive. The comedian typically portrayed an outcast who accepted his socio-economic place in a harsh world while poking fun of the system that oppressed him. Through his use of double talk, jumbling together multiple conversations that typically undermined authority Cantinflas portrayed the shiftless migrant who triumphed through trickery over authorities in the United States.  In his book, Cantinflas and the Chaos of Mexican Modernity, Jeffrey M. Pilcher compared Cantinflas to Charlie Chaplin. As Pilcher put it, “Cantinflas represented the human debris of industrialization, rootless migrants to the big city who survived by their wits in a bewildering environment.”[51]  Mario Moreno Cantinflas, says Pilcher, became a symbol of Mexican national identity during Mexico’s transition from a traditional agrarian society to an industrial urban one.[52]

Through his popular performances advertised in La Opinion Cantinflas’ allowed Mexican working classes “a momentary release through laughter from the psychic demands and anxieties of masculine behavior.”[53] While his critics saw him as a symbol of the lowbrow Mexican working class, La Opinion celebrated him and promoted him enthusiastically throughout the 1950s. On March 23, 1954, he was listed as the actor earning the highest salary in Mexico. According to the Asociacion Nacional de Actores, Mario Moreno Cantinflas had earned an impressive one and a half million Mexican pesos between movies, theaters and tours in 1953 alone.[54] La Opinion helped to turn Cantinflas’ films into tremendous commercial successes in the U.S. Southwest. While intellectuals in Mexico critiqued his manner of speech, Cantinflas had a strong appeal with the masses and especially Mexican migrants and blue-collar workers. Prior to making it big, Cantinflas had experienced poverty in his childhood and occasionally gone hungry. His early struggles led the masses to embrace him.[55] Like Negrete who fought the fight of the lesser known actor, Cantinflas was concerned with the plight of the poor and used humor to critique and ridicule abusive leaders.

La Opinion helped Mexican comedians touring the U.S. to reach stardom.  Advertising performances with slogans such as “popular con precios populares,” (popular at affordable prices), Cantinflas’ artistic earnings were second by another popular entertainer German Valdes “Tin Tan,” who earned 200,000 Mexican pesos in 1952. However, despite advertising performances by Cantinflas and Tin Tan La Opinion frequently critiqued the stars on the same page. La Opinion movie experts referred to mass-appealing entertainers as low-brow comedians who tainted Mexico’s reputation as a reputable film house. The entertainment section of La Opinion captured the paper’s contradictions between profit advertisement for mass audience shows and La Opinion’s own stance on high brow and low brow Mexican film productions. During a critique of Tin Tan’s performance in Matenme Porque Me Muero (Kill Me Because I’m Dying) directed by Ismael Rodriguez, in 1951, an anonymous film reviewer stated that the film failed to entertain and would likely appeal to a very narrow margin.[56] The critic expressed his dislike for poor quality comedies and blamed the low brow comedic genre for giving Mexico a bad reputation in film-making.

Figure 5: Mexican popular comedian, Mario Moreno “Cantinflas”

“For those who do not care about refined themes and classical acting, then this film is a win. However, it is a true shame that Mexican comedies are limited to exploitative, grotesque sensualities or vulgarities that devalue the audience’s intellectual abilities and our morality. Film producers and participants who contribute to the making of Mexican films ought to know that the audience needs and wants more.”[57] The critic went on to argue that in the desire to make movies for popular appeal and the alluring quick profit motive, Mexican filmmakers “produce the worst form of propaganda against Mexico outside its republic.[58] However, not all film critics writing for La Opinion agreed with this judgment of Tin Tan or his comedic style. On January 9, 1952, Tin Tan’s El Ceniciento (Cinderell-o, directed by Gilberto Martinez Solares in 1952) was reviewed as “another triumph for Tin Tan who accomplished his primary goal as a performer: to make people laugh and laugh hard.” The critic praised Tin Tan stating that whether the characters he represented washed clothes or shined shoes, his performances focused on turning everyday situations into a comedy.[59]   Like the case of Cantinflas, Tin Tan had risen above cultural distinctions and “helped to unite audiences above languages because he mixed them in his speech. He rose above prejudice because he ignored it.”[60] His daughter described Tin Tan as a man who brought cultures together; who was able to “a matrimoniar a los Americans con los mexicanos” (to marry Americans with Mexicans).”[61]

Tin Tan developed a particular form of conduct, opting to ridicule himself to ease the antagonistic relationship between his mother, who was of humble Mexican background, and his grandmother, a woman of Italian descent who thought of herself of superior racial background. To cope with the racial and generational tensions at home, Tin Tan used humor as a defense mechanism, a reaction through which he was able to negate his reality and instead create another. His dedication to uplift discriminated workers through humor helped him to build a tremendous career as a Mexican comedic hero in the US southwest.  La Opinion routinely advertised Tin Tan’s performances through cartoonish images of the actor, portraying him with exaggerated big lips, a huge grin and baggy clothes.  He was considered one of the architects of Spanglish who popularized the image of the Pachuco, a Mexican American youth who belonged to neighborhood gangs. Tin Tan appeared in over one-hundred films and dubbed three of them for Walt Disney Studios.  La Opinion frequently referred to him as one of the most important Mexican entertainers of all time, and advertised his traveling act throughout Los Angeles’ venues.[62]

The Cine section of La Opinion helped readers connect and reflect upon a shared public culture. The actors and entertainers were widely known to the Mexican public who adored them. Mexican movies and actors were depicted as ambassadors of Mexican culture and represented in La Opinion as both popular and elite. Entertainers played a key role integrating the community through performances that recalled familiar Mexican problems. Promoted by La Opinion, Mexican stars journeyed to America were lucrative tours awaited them. And while La Opinion boosted attendance to films and shows, the paper’s film critics emerged as arbiters of taste attempting to sacrilize culture by establishing guidelines for the appropriate ways to read and analyze Mexican cinema. [63] Through advertisements and reviews La Opinion played a role in disciplining and training audiences. Thus, columnists contributed to the paper’s larger project of cultural uplift, “educating and refining a laborious people.”[64]

The community appreciated the accessibility of Mexican popular entertainment away from home. In a diverse nation, the criteria for Mexican culture’s aesthetic promoted Mexican cultural pride on the basis of separation and unwillingness to assimilate into Hollywood ways.  Movie critics and advice columnists were champions of Mexican culture promising both relief from disorder and an avenue to cultural legitimacy.  As audiences “escaped into culture” entertainment served as a mechanism that made it possible for Mexican audiences living and working in Los Angeles to retreat into their own private spaces and transform them through their own rules.[65] Attending the Teatros Mayan, Million Dollar and California allowed audiences to turn local spaces into enclaves of culture where audiences could indulge in their own cultural predilections and feel connected through performances that echoed familiar modes of behavior that were shared and commonly understood.  By promoting news, interviews, and gossip La Opinion helped Mexican performers traveling to the U.S. southwest to receive a cultural and sales boost. In the process, the paper hailed Mexicanness and encouraged the community to continue living and working in the U.S. without forgetting home.



La Opinion, (Los Angeles, California).

Los Angeles Times, (Los Angeles, California).


Alejandro, Julio. Un Divorcio. VHS. Directed by Emilio Gomez Muriel. Mexico, DF, Mexico: Argel Films, 1953.

Cortazar, Ernesto. Los Hijos de Maria Morales. VHS. Directed by Fernando de Fuentes, Mexico, DF, Mexico: Diana, S.A., 1952.

Cortazar, Ernesto. Tal Para Cual. VHS. Directed by Rogelio A Gonzalez. Mexico DF, Mexico: Mier Y Brooks Producciones,  1953.

De Urdimalas, Pedro. Matenme Porque Me Muero. VHS. Directed by Ismael Rodriguez, Mexico, DF, Mexico: Estudios Churubusco Azteca, SA., 1951.

Garcia, Juan. El Ceniciento. VHS. Directed by Gilberto Martinez Solares. Mexico DF, Mexico: Mier Y Brooks Producciones, 1952.

Gomez Landero, Humberto. El Hijo Desobediente. VHS. Directed by Humberto Gomez Landero. Mexico DF, Mexico: AS Films Producciones Grovas,  1945.

Wilson, Michael. Salt of the Earth. VHS. Directed by Herbert J. Biberman. Bayard New Mexico, USA: Independent Productions, 1954.


Published Primary Sources, Books, Articles

Byars, Jackie. All that Hollywood Allows, Re-Reading Gender in the 1950s Melodrama. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1991.

Chacon, Ramon D.  “The Chicano Immigrant Press in Los Angeles: The Case of El Heraldo de Mexico, 1916-1920.” Journalism History 4:2 (1977): 48.

Chodorow, Nancy. Feminism and Psychoanalytic Theory. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989.

Correa, Armando. Legends en Español: The 100 Most Iconic Hispanic Entertainers of all Time. New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2008.

Fernandez, Celina. Los Panchos. Madrid: Ediciones Martinez Roca, S.A., 2005.

Groves, Martha. “Restoration Planned for `Million Dollar Building Developer Buys Downtown Landmark.” Los Angeles Times (Pre-1997 Fulltext), Feb 10, 1989.

Gurza, Agustin. “Culture Mix: Million Dollar Dream; Robert Voskanian has Spent the Legendary Theaters Title Sum to Restore it as a Multicultural Venue.” Los Angeles Times, Apr 12, 2008.

Hershfield, Joanne .Mexican Cinema/Mexican Woman, 1940-1950. Tucson, AZ: The University of Arizona Press, 1996.

Johnson, Reed. “Culture Monster; The Global Stage; Many Faces of a Mysterious Land; Astrid Hadad Takes on the Highs and Lows of Mexico at the Million Dollar Theater,” Los Angeles Times, Oct 19, 2011.

Keller, Gary D. Hispanics and United States Film: An Overview Handbook. Tempe, AZ: Bilingual Press, 1994.

Levine, Lawrence. Highbrow Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997.

Lipsitz, George. Rainbow At Midnight: Labor and Culture in the 1940s. Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1994.

Lorence, James J. The Suppression of Salt of the Earth. How Hollywood, Big Labor and, Politicians Blacklisted a Movie in Cold War America. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1999.

Negrete, Diana. Jorge Negrete. Mexico, D.F: Editorial Diana, 1987.

Noriega, Chon. The Ethnic Eye. Minneapolis, MN: The University of Minnesota Press, 1996.

Pilcher, Jeffrey M. Cantinflas And the Chaos of Mexican Modernity. Wilmington, DL: Scholarly Resources Inc. Wilmington, 2001.

Quintanilla, Michael. “Fashion Landmark / A World-Famous Store is Losing its Struggle to Survive.; Once Bustling, Now Bust; Victors, a Once-Popular Haberdashery, has Few Customers and is for Sale. the Downtown Buildings Widely Known Murals Tell of the Citys Rich Mexican Heritage. what Will Happen to them?” Los Angeles Times, Dec 25, 1998.

Rodriguez, Clara E. Latin Looks: Images of Latinas and Latinos in the U.S. Media. Boulder,CO: Westview Press, 1998

Rosenfelt, Deborah. Salt of the Earth. New York, NY: The Feminist Press, 1978.

Luis Rutiaga, Mario Moreno Cantinflas. D.F. México: Grupo Editorial Tomo, 2004.

Trevino, Joseph. “Million Dollar Theater Set to Reopen; Seeking New Life for the Former Showcase of Hollywood and Latino Stars, Managers Schedule Weekend Variety shows Catering to Hispanic Audiences,” Los Angeles Times, April 8, 1999. (accessed August 8, 2011).

Valdes Julian, Rosalia. La Historia Inedita de Tin Tan. D.F. México: Editorial Planeta Mexicana, 2003.

Woo, Elaine. “A New Chance for Pershing Square to Get a Fresh Start.” Los Angeles Times (Pre-1997 Fulltext), Dec 02, 1990.



[1] Ramon D. Chacon. “The Chicano Immigrant Press in Los Angeles: The Case of El Heraldo de Mexico, 1916-1920.” Journalism History 4:2 (1977): 48.

[2] Reed Johnson, “Culture Monster: The Global Stage; Many Faces of a Mysterious Land; Astrid Hadad Takes on the Highs and Lows of Mexico at the Million Dollar Theater,” Los Angeles Times, Oct 19, 2011. (accessed September 21, 2011).

[3] Gary D. Keller, Hispanics and United States Film: An Overview Handbook (Tempe: Bilingual Press, 1994), 9.

[4] La Opinion movie and entertainment section referred to the Mayan theater as El Maya. The historical landmark opened in 1927 in downtown Los Angeles. El Maya initially showcased musical comedies. By 1929, audiences attended the theater to watch Hollywood films. The popular theater transitioned into Spanish language films in the 1940s while continuing to host occasional stage shows. It was designed by Stiles O. Clements and Mexican artist and archeologist Francisco Cornejo was hired to sculpt the building’s Mexican, Mayan and Aztec motifs. The theater underwent renovations during the 1990s and now thrives as a nightclub.

[5] Joseph Trevino, “Million Dollar Theater Set to Reopen; Seeking New Life for the Former Showcase of Hollywood and Latino Stars, Managers Schedule Weekend Variety shows Catering to Hispanic Audiences,” Los Angeles Times, April 8, 1999. (accessed August 8, 2011).

[6] Joseph Trevino, Los Angeles Times, April 8, 1999.

[7] La Opinion, June 11, 1950.

[8] La Opinion, March 21, 1954.

[9] Joanne Hershfield, Mexican Cinema/Mexican Woman, 1940-1950 (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2006), 4.

[10] Hershfield, 4.

[11] Hollywood melodramas also critiqued women’s roles in the 1950s casting leading actresses as glamorous beauties caught in the conflict between careering and domesticity. See Dolores Tierney, “Silver Sling-Backs and Mexican Melodrama: Salon Mexico and Danzon,” Screen 38:4 Winter (1997): 361.

[12] Jackie Byars, All that Hollywood Allows, Re-Reading Gender in the 1950s Melodrama (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1991), 93.

[13] Armando Correa, Legends en Español: The 100 Most Iconic Hispanic Entertainers of all Time (New York: Penguin Group, 2008), 114.

[14] Clara E. Rodriguez, Latin Looks: Images of Latinas and Latinos in the U.S. Media (Boulder: Westview Press, 1998), 131.

[15] Jackie Byars, All that Hollywood Allows, Re-Reading Gender in the 1950s Melodrama, (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1991), 131.

[16] Byars, 54.

[17]  Nancy Chodorow, Feminism and Psychoanalytic Theory (Polity Press: United Kingdom, 1989), 103.

[18] La Opinion, September 5, 1953.

[19] La Opinion, September 5, 1953.

[20] La Opinion, October 11, 1952.

[21] La Opinion, October 11, 1952.

[22] La Opinion, October 11, 1952.

[23] La Opinion, September 22, 1951.

[24] James J. Lorence, The Suppression of Salt of the Earth. How Hollywood, Big Labor and, Politicians Blacklisted a Movie in Cold War America (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1999), 6.

[25] George Lipsitz, Rainbow At Midnight: Labor and Culture in the 1940s (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 293.

[26] Lorence, 9.

[27] Deborah Silverton Rosenfelt, Salt of the Earth (New York: The Feminist Press, 1978), 24.

[28] Rosenfelt, Salt of the Earth , 94.

[29] Rosenfelt, 94.

[30] La Opinion, October 18, 1952.

[31] Rosenfelt, 176.

[32] La Opinion, March 22, 1954.

[33] La Opinion, March 22, 1954.

[34] Rosenfelt, Salt of the Earth, 176.

[35] La Opinion, March 22, 1954.

[36] La Opinion, June 11, 1950.

[37] La Opinion, June 11, 1950.

[38] La Opinion, June 11, 1950.

[39] Celina Fernandez, Los Panchos (Madrid: Ediciones Martinez Roca, S.A., 2005), 35.

[40] Fernandez, Los Panchos, 34.

[41] Fernandez, Los Panchos, 43.

[42] La Opinion, November 17, 1950.

[43] La Opinion, November 17, 1950.

[44] Correa, Armando, Legends en Espanol: The 100 Most Iconic Hispanic Entertainers of all Time  (Penguin Group: New York, 2008), 146.

[45] La Opinion, August 22, 1953.

[46] La Opinion, August 28, 1953.

[47] La Opinion, August 28, 1953.

[48] La Opinion, August 28, 1953.

[49] Diana Negrete, Jorge Negrete (Mexico, D.F: Editorial Diana, 1987), 12.

[50] La Opinion, October 22, 1951.

[51] Jeffrey M. Pilcher, Cantinflas And the Chaos of Mexican Modernity (Delaware: Scholarly Resources Inc: Wilmington, 2001), xv.

[52] Pilcher,Cantinflas And the Chaos of Mexican Modernity, xvii.

[53] Pilcher, xviii.

[54] La Opinion, March 28, 1954.

[55] Luis Rutiaga, Mario Moreno Cantinflas (Mexico, D.F.: Grupo Editorial Tomo, 2004), 2.

[56] La Opinion, January 9, 1952.

[57] La Opinion, January 9, 1952.

[58] La Opinion, January 9, 1952.

[59] La Opinion, January 9, 1952.

[60] Rosalia Valdes Julian, La Historia Inedita de Tin Tan (Mexico, D.F.: Editorial Planeta Mexicana, 2003),12.

[61] Ibid, 12.

[62] Correa, Legends en Español, 88.

[63] For theories on the sacralization of culture, see Lawrence Levine, Highbrow Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997), 88.

[64] Levine, 201.

[65] Levine, Highbrow Lowbrow, 177.



Soledad Vidal is the author of “Politics, Community And Pleasure: The Making Of Mexican-American Cold War Narratives In The Pages Of La Opinion.” The dissertation is organized around the discourse of the American dream; specifically, how the desire for consumption, liberal citizenship and labor in post World War II America produced specific accounts of migration in the pages of La Opinion. Her research interests lie in print culture and immigrant histories. She currently works at Soka University of America as a Writing Center Manager and Visiting Assistant Professor in Rhetoric and Composition.