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.

 

WORKS CITED

 

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.

 

FILMOGRAPHY

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.

 

Notes

[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.

 

Playing At Work – Samuel Tobin

Abstract: People play games at work, especially digital games, rather than asking “why” this paper starts with “how”? To do so the game Minecraft and its players are used as a focus to address how people manage to play while at work and in workplaces. This data is drawn from public online forums where hundreds of Minecraft players offer tips for circumventing technical, bureaucratic, social and ethical play constraints and share their feelings, experiences and successes. In these specific and detailed accounts of media practices constrained and engendered by the demands and expectation of workplaces we see the shifting nature of public and private, of work and leisure.

Minecraft-Banner

Playing at Work         

This paper focuses on the way people play the game Minecraft (Mojang, 2001) at work and the ways in which they talk about that play and the practices that support it.  The Minecraft players I study write about this play and the tactics needed to engage in it at work as a combination of subterfuge, escape, challenge, invention and guilt-ridden compulsion. I show how this complicated relation to their play is informed by the ways in which play, games, work and the work place are continuously redefined through these players’ practices and discourse. I focus on adult players of the game Minecraft and the ways they manage to play while they are at work. This data is drawn from the forum reddit.com, where hundreds of Minecraft players offer tips for circumventing technical, bureaucratic, and social play constraints. These online discussions detail a range of technical and play practices constrained and engendered by the demands and expectation of workplaces. In these practices and discourse we see the continuously shifting nature of public, private, work, leisure, mobility and most of all play.

From the Minecraft subreddit on reddit:

thread title: who plays Minecraft at work?

I’ll be honest, this game has pretty much destroyed my productivity recently. I work in IT so I’m on the computer all day. I also have my own office so people cruising by and catching me building really isn’t an issue. Since I bought thisgame 2 weeks ago I’ve wasted more time at work than I even care to admit. Everyday I tell myself I will focus and do actual work, and everyday boredomsets in and I am drawn to Minecraft like a moth to a flame. I am a sad pathetic   individual. Who else is with me? – Apt Get

The short answer is “lots of people.” But what these people mean when they say “Yes, I play Minecraft at work” and refer to themselves as “sad pathetic individuals” is complicated. To address these complicated and complicit issues, I focus on the central problem for these players: “How do you bring your game to work?”  In the sections that follow I rework the phrase “bring your game to work,” stressing different words to expose what is at stake in these spaces and practices of work and of play. First, however, we need to ask what people might or could mean by Minecraft. In exploring how people play Minecraft at work (or any game), we are asking “how” not just in the sense of “How do you manage” but also “In what manner” do you play at work.  The manner or way of playing changes the nature of the game, redefines it, pushes certain aspects of the game forward while eliding others.  As we will see below, players redefine Minecraft, sometimes radically, as they need to in order to play it.

Here at the outset are some general observations and caveats.  At the time of this research (2011-2012) few posters in the subreddits (as the forum threads of reddit are called) mentioned mobile or “Pocket” versions of the game when discussing how to play it at work. This may be due to a kind of self-selection of Minecraft fans in the threads.  People who like the game enough to read and write about it on an online forum may not be interested in playing it on platforms other than the PC or laptop.  In any case, the issue of mobility for most reddit users is not as much about buying a Minecraft app for a smartphone, as getting Minecraft onto their work computers. What we see when we look at the responses people gave to the question “How do you play Minecraft at work?” is a move to redefine what Minecraft play can be while referencing a core experience and object: PC-based Minecraft play.

playing at work

Foregrounding the “at” in the phrase “playing at work,” focuses our attention on “work” as “workspace,” a space constituted by labor, and also by architecture, furniture, expectations, routines, and movements.  We need to attend to the implications of bringing play materials and practices into the workspace, and to the movements such play demands.  The workplace context and the practices it demands make mobile a game which otherwise might not be. This complicates definitions of mobile games, while reinforcing the importance of space and situation to the understanding of game play.

To play Minecraft at work, players need to find ways to bring the game with them to the office. The barriers to this are technical, securitized, cultural and practical. In order to access saved games through workplace firewalls, players trade tactical tips on online forums on how to load Minecraft files onto thumb drives, email zips to themselves, and to otherwise convince their work networks that no barriers have been breached and that nothing is amiss.  Commenters discuss issues of visual surveillance and subterfuge, with extensive discussion of monitor tilting, lines of sight, glare, minimizing routines, hotkeys, and ways to arrange a play mis en place that looks like work (a point we will return to).  These commentators are not always employees contriving to avoid being caught by their boss: the thread at the top of this piece was originated by a boss, Apt Get, who wants to hide his play from his peers as well as from his underlings, and ultimately from himself. These techniques of circumventing lines of sight and firewalls allow people to play at work and at the same time shape and define what that play can be. This play is both proscribed and defined by the context. While details and the differences are important, what these players in all sorts of work contexts share is an array of needs, worries and techniques developed in order to play at work.

It is easy to see how work could be a hostile environment for Minecraft play. Yet in many cases, for some players, work is a less fraught play space than other alternatives. As Apt Get’s comments later in his thread on playing Minecraft at work shows:

Glad to know I’m not alone. I am also guilty of sketching things on graph paper during meetings when I am without a computer. I am married and have 2 small kids, so work is about the only time I get to play.  – Apt Get

This comment reminds us not to assume a neat split between workplace and labor on one side, and domesticity and leisure on the other. The nature of the relation between work and play is a key issue for any study of play or games. In Games of Empire (2009), Greig de Peuter and Nick Dyer-Witheford discuss the historical transformation of this relationship through their critical account of games, capitalism and immaterial labor. In Free labor: Producing culture for the digital economy (2000), Tiziana Terranova makes similar points. Julian Kücklich’s account of computer game modification, or “modding” as a strange mixture of labor and play or “playbour” (2005), also helps us historize the shifting relationship between play and work, and the new hybrid modes that emerge from these categories. In “Alienated Playbour: Relations of Production in EVE Online” (2015),  Nicholas Taylor et al. show how what we might assume is “just” play can in fact be work.

These questions of the work-play relation predate contemporary developments in game studies. We see the relation and separation enforced to different degrees in classics such as Roger Caillois’s Play and Games and Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture. Hannah Arendt writes in the Human Condition: “(A)ll serious activities, irrespective of their fruits, are called labor, and every activity which is not necessary either for the life of the individual or for the life process of society is subsumed under playfulness.” (1998) Similarly, in the “Sociology of Sociability,” Georg Simmel expresses an interest in play because of its very apartness from other ‘material’ spheres of life, including work (1949). Separation for these authors is a matter of motivation, economics and necessity.

For Apt Get and many responders at reddit, work is defined spatially. Apt Get asks: “Do you play Minecraft at work?” rather than asking, “Do you play Minecraft instead of work?” Work, for Apt Get and many other players, work is defined more as a place than an activity. This definition of work as a location means that itretains its status as a place for labor even when play is brought in to it. To understand what is at stake when people bring their Minecraft play to work, we need to pay attention not just to what they mean by “work” and “at work” but also to what they mean by “home” and what they do “at home.” For Apt Get, his job is where he can play, even if it is difficult to do so. He can’t or won’t play at home. His posts suggest it is more difficult for him to play at home than it is a work. No doubt many of us recognize ourselves and our workplaces in these posts. What we find in the threads is a complicated and contradictory range of attitudes, experiences and ideas about the appropriateness, pleasures, worries and requirements of playing Minecraft (and other games) at home as well as at work.

Is playing at work always a modified, compromised form of Minecraft play? Not necessarily. This author, who has the luxury of work of an office with a door, a personal computer, and students who rarely take advantage of office hours, is able to play Minecraft in an as unfettered manner as one could hope for. Indeed like Apt Get, time at work was the only time I really could play Minecraft or, for that matter, wanted to. Game play is never “free-play,” as it is always defined and constrained as well as afforded in by the exigencies of everyday life (office, door, computer, students, teaching preparation, publication pressures). Play is always in relation to the everyday, to the rhythms of leisure and labor and socialization and movement and the un-freeness of free time.  Playing at work then is not (or not just) a more constrained or diminished form of play, even if it is often viewed this way.  Playing at work is a compromise, but a compromise that can lead to new and interesting permutations of play.

Minecraft play is typically described as open-ended, free, and creative, in short as the kind of play celebrated by ludic utopians of every stripe.  But what we see in the Minecraft “subbreddit” is a discussion of an even more expansive and “free” play, one perversely bounded by the space of work, as we can see in following two examples, which while specific and personal, are not outliers, and which give glimpses of play tactics and techniques shared in the Minecraft forums, when responding to the question: “How do you play at work?”

Figure 1. A player shares an image of how he "plays at work."  He has used his companies’ Maple computer algebra system to model a possible Minecraft construction.

Figure 1. A player shares an image of how he “plays at work.”  He has used his companies’ Maple computer algebra system to model a possible Minecraft construction.

Figure 2. A player shows how he "plays at work" by stacking shipping boxes in a recognizably Minecraft manner.

Figure 2. A player shows how he “plays at work” by stacking shipping boxes in a recognizably Minecraft manner.

These are very different ways to play Minecraft.  They are different from each other and different from our expectations of how people play Minecraft. These (seemingly) radically different approaches to Minecraft play result in part from differences between these two posters’ workplaces.  However what these two players share are places of work filled with tools and objects of labor. Both players use the stuff of their jobs to build things as Minecraft play practice.  Each is playing Minecraft, but in a kind of play that arises out of and reflects the specific contextual affordances and constraints of their work. Each plays in a way that is both in contestation and conjunction with work and its boundaries.  These two images of Minecraft play would not exist without the work and work places that shaped them. These are just two examples of how the space and tools of one’s work shapes the kinds of play needed to fit those contexts. For every job site and set of tools or materials, we might expect to find different play practices. These examples point to the need to account for a thicker, messier kind of play for playing not just Minecraft, but for all kinds of games played at work.  And while Minecraft may be especially suited to these ludic perruques, it is not unique in being a game people like to play when they are otherwise expected to be working. For each game, as for each work site, we can expect new play practices, cultures and experiences.

With these new practices we get new discourse. How do the Minecraft forum commentators talk about their relationship to this place into which, against which, and with which they forge new play practices?  Many commentators, Apt Get included, use negative and loaded language borrowed from substance abuse and addiction to describe their relationship to their Minecraft play. In my book, Portable Play in Everyday Life, I found that Nintendo DS players use these same metaphors to describe games that they play intensely (2013). We see similar language going back all the way to David Sudnow’s Pilgrim in the Microworld. The angst conveyed by this fraught language seems to go against the perspectives we see in work by researchers like Leonard Reinecke (2009) or Paul Mastrangelo et al. (2006), who argue that play at work is useful or salutary in the sense that it helps one to work better or longer. This perspective may seem managerial or exploitive, but it is also useful for those of us who are invested in a critical approach to games, and to further examining the connections between play, work, playbour and leisure. The reddit commentators are much more likely to talk about their play as transgressive, criminal or pathetic, than restorative. Their discourse is not one of break-rooms and recharging, but of addiction, subterfuge, and tricks. I suggest that this kind of player language should be read as not (only) about compulsion or addiction, but also as code for a particular kind of pleasure and awareness of the larger cultural context for understanding and describing that pleasure. It is a compliment to call a game addictive. It is not only a self-flagellating or distancing remark.

play at work

This discourse brings with it the habitus of the addict: of secret drunks and self-deception.  In order to keep the activity going, there needs to be subterfuge, evasion, cover and camouflage. This is a different kind of playing, a “playing at.” This is playing at in the sense of playing as make believe, as “acting as though.”  This approach to playing at work owes much to Johan Huizinga’s sense of play as always secretive, even in plain sight, and as having a “pretend” quality (Huizinga 1955). It also carries a bit of the sense of calling out something as deceptive, as bullshit, as in the phrase: “What are you playing at?”

The kind of pretense most essential for these commentators is pretending to work while “really” playing.  The hidden or furtive aspect of playing games at work is neither new nor endemic to Minecraft.  Older Macintosh users may remember the “quick the boss is coming” feature from games such as Othello, a command which would instantly bring up a mock spreadsheet to hide your game.  The personal computer’s WIMP interface (windows, icons, menus, pointer), with its layers upon layers of windows, allows a kind of slight of hand and easy hiding of games or other NSFW (Not Safe For Work) activities.  Digital games can be harder to sneak into work outside of white-collar office settings. But as desktop and other types of computers increasingly are used in stores as point of sale systems, in entry ways, and at front desks, we can suspect that many are being used to play games, although it is impossible to know how many, how often — I know that I played a lot of web based games while a clerk at a wine store.  This kind of video game playing at work has clear connections to la perruque (“the wig”) as described by Michel de Certeau, except instead of “a worker’s own work disguised as work for his employer” it is a worker’s play disguised as work. This has more in common with how de Certeau mobilizes la perruque to describe a whole range of practical détournement (s) of time and space (2002).  The time and the spaces which are constituted by work are not our own but spaces of the other. As de Certeau writes:

(A) tactic is a calculated action determined by the absence of a proper locus. No delimitation of an exteriority, then, provides it with the condition necessary for autonomy. The space of a tactic is the space of the other. Thus it must play on and with a terrain imposed on it and organized by the law of a foreign power (2002).

We should take literally de Certeau’s suggestion that the tactic “must play on and with a terrain imposed on it.”  In the case of Apt Get and his interlocutors, this terrain is one of cubicles and frosted glass, but also of box trucks, servers, firewalls, nosey neighbors, and if we merge terrain with time, deadlines, lunch breaks and all-nighters.

If we look back to the algebra-derived model above, or think of design doodles in meetings, or other more expansive ideas of what constitutes Minecraft play, we see that these are perhaps unsurprisingly also potentially cases of perruquesque tactics.  The shipping box stacking, while not at all subtle, takes advantage of the fact that the thing being used in play is also the thing used at work, here not just boxes, but also the act (and skill) of stacking them.  This points not just to a flexibility inherit in the tactics needed to play at work, but also to a more fundamental relationship and tension we see in cases where objects of labor are used for play or pleasure.  This is especially common in digital play (think of the keyboard and mouse of pc gaming), but as the shipping box example demonstrates, not unique to digital play. The tools employed in the case of Minecraft play at work, whether the PC in orthodox forms of Minecraft play, or the diverse workplace materials (graph paper, algebraic software) of the more outré tactics, are always ready to shift back and forth between ludic and mundane. Whatever is reworked towards play always shifts back.  This too, is consistent with de Certeau’s understanding of the tactics of everyday life; whatever tactics of subterfuge might win us, we must be willing to readily discard (2002).  Minecraft play at work is a kind of playing at the level of mimesis and pretense as well as duration; it is, in the best sense of the word, improvised.

To close, let’s return to the two images presented above of work-place play (or work/place/play). If we (mis)read these as being about Minecraft play, and not forms of Minecraft play itself, we leave behind these practices and these players. If we leave exclude these players and their play from our definition of what Minecraft play really is, we must then face the realization that there is no center to hold on to in defining Minecraft play: When is it real, really? In adventure or survival mode? When one is playing alone, or only in groups? Networked or not? To better understand all forms of digital play we must take the limit or fringe cases seriously.  Stacking real boxes at work at first may seem like a strange way to play Minecraft, but it is also somehow the most Minecrafty practice one can think of.  This is due to the creativity of the player, but also to the centrality of space and context for determining what play looks like and what play can be.  We move then from the ideal to the possible, from the discrete to the situated, from the simulated workspace of the mine to the real and contested work place of the player.

This is a move that we need to make when we study games in general, a move towards the world of the player rather than just the world of the game. This is important not only for understanding work-themed games played at work, or mobile games played on the go, but also for understanding more seemingly stable arrangements between player and place, from the historic arcade, to the tavern, to the couch and TV coupling of the home.  These spaces are in many ways as mysterious and as contested as any mine, dungeon, or alien galaxy. When we listen to players talk about how they play rather than just what they play we can begin to attend more to the nuances of these mundane spaces to understand the situated, contextual and contingent nature of play and to see play as always complicated and complicit.  We may well then arrive at an understanding of play as more like the rest of our lives: complicated, compromised, and vital.

 

References

apt_get. “How Many of You are Playing Minecraft at Work?” http://Minecraft.reddit.com/r/Minecraft/comments/dtbiz/how_many (accessed November 2011)

Arendt, Hannah, and Margaret Canovan. 1998. The human condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Caillois, Roger, and Meyer Barash. 2001. Man, play, and games. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

De Certeau, 2002. Michel The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Dyer-Witheford, Nick, and Greig De Peuter. 2009. Games of empire: global capitalism and video games. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Huizinga, Johan. 1955. Homo Ludens: a Study of the Play-Element in Culture. Boston: Beacon Press.

Mastrangelo, Everton, and Jeffery A. Jolton. 2006. “Personal Use of Work Computers: Distraction versus Destruction,” CyberPsychology & Behavior. 9, no. 6, 730-741.

Reinecke Leonard. 2009. “Games at Work: The Recreational Use of Computer Games

During Working Hours” CyberPsychology & Behavior 12, no. 4 461.

Simmel, G. and E. C. Hughes. “The Sociology of Sociability.” The American Journal of Sociology 55, no. 3 (1949): 254-261.

Sudnow, David. 1983. Pilgrim in the microworld. New York, N.Y.: Warner Books.

Taylor, N., Bergstrom, K., Jenson, J. & de Castell, S. 2015. “Alienated Playbour: Relations of Production in EVE Online,” Games and Culture 365-388

Tobin, Samuel. 2013. Portable Play in Everyday Life, Basingstoke and New York, Palgrave Macmillan.

Terranova, Tiziana. 2000. “Free Labor: Producing Culture for the Digital Economy.” Social Text, 63 (Volume 18, Number 2), Summer 2000, 33-58

 

Bio

Samuel Tobin is an Assistant Professor of Communications Media and Game Design at Fitchburg State College in Massachusetts who studies play, media and everyday life. He is the author of Portable Play in Everyday Life: The Nintendo DS (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.)

 

 

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.

 

Notes:

[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).

‘Rock‘n’roll’s evil doll’: the Female Popular Music Genre of Barbie Rock – Rock Chugg

Abstract: Fostering male tradition in popular music, rock’n’roll history often underrated the early Girl Group chart-topping era of 1958-63 after Elvis and before Beatlemania. By the 1990s-2000s, Riot Grrrl and Girl Power success was again devalued by that homosocial music scene. Beset by neoliberal managerialism, even academic and market research played it safe, recognising corporatist Indie and nationalist Brit-Pop, while Riot Grrrl revolt into Girl Power style components of a new female genre went unrecognised. Consecutive social exclusion (Riot Grrrl) and social capital (Girl Power) factors in the sound, dubbed Barbie Rock from stereotyped songs, like global hit ‘Barbie Girl’ (1997-8) were intensified by the shifting role of primary and secondary definers in digital media. For popular music, such shifts included 1) rock-press computerisation; 2) moral panic news; and 3) video monopoly. Illustrated with quotes from Barbie Rock fanzine Polymer, the paper culminates in an in-between Riot Grrrl and Girl Power case study of Barbie Rock front-woman, Caroline Finch. The high profile of female pop music today (‘rock’n’roll’s’), although demonised (‘evil’), confirms the ongoing influence of this 1990s genre on a now digitalised era of the plasticised body (‘doll’).

        

Barbie, Barbie, still in her teens
Bell of the parties, a tom boy in jeans

                                      ‘Barbie’ – The Beach Boys, 1962

Figure 1: Polymer News 

Figure 1: Polymer News

Introduction: ‘rock’n’roll’s evil doll’[1]

Apparently nothing new happened in 1990s music. ‘I shall not be discussing new genres’ says genre expert Negus, ‘this would require the lucky researcher to be in the right time and place to chart their emergence’ (1999: 29). If we take the risk society seriously, that ‘time and place’ has disappeared into the virtual reality of an information age. Even postmodern criticism is unsure of the extent to which contemporary ‘art’ is ‘mediocrity squared. It claims to be bad – “I am bad! I am bad!” – and it truly is bad.’ (Lotringer, 2005). The prevailing view finds entire cultural scenes, let alone popular music, in lockstep vicious recycle mode. Yet a revolution turned counter-revolution, keen to dismiss new female music as dissipated ‘victim-babes’ (Greer, 1999) or incongruous as ‘a camel on a bicycle’ (Raphael, 1995), is met with ‘Riot Grrrl’ resistance (Riley, 1994) and ‘Spice Girl’[2] dissent (Lumby, 1998). While self-exclusion glossed by token inclusion maybe the virtual failure of ‘Barbie Rock’ (see part 4 below), what men don’t know and Grrrl Power understands is that for rock‘n’roll this is also its actual success.

My illustrative data for the Barbie Rock genre was captured in opened-ended research from primary sources. Tanner endorses musical genres as ‘better addressed with more qualitative research’ (2008: 189). In this case over fifty musicians, writers and experts were interviewed in Polymer magazine between 1997 and 2002. Semi-structured and tailored questions, snowballed from celebrity participants, drew diverse reactions to the sexed genre, ranging from fanatical gusto to detached cool. Attentive to notoriety, it was considered true to their initial fanzine sample to ‘spell out’ the names of participants, with reference to Bourdieu’s precedent (1988: 278). Artefact of intense independent and mainstream media activism (fanzine to glossy magazine), Barbie Rock integrated original low fi ‘potty mouthed’ Brat Mobile Riot Grrrls with high tech ‘wanna be’ Spice Girls Power. Théberge corroborates magazines, ‘as a central element in the “framing” of popular musical forms’ (1991a: 271).

Formulated in a context of hung-parliament cartels, the notion of ‘social exclusion’ unites Blair’s New Labour to Giddens’ Third Way, linking a potential for improved poverty studies with criteria like ‘non-participation’. In practice, contradictory accounts noted the social wage benefiting low-income groups while high-income group levels fell (Bradshaw, 2004: 173). Or alternately, loss of the public realm, social individual and democracy based collective provision (Hall, 2005: 328). Predictably, events like increased economic polarisation and exclusion,[3] uncorrected by token multicultural inclusion or mutual obligation, largely confirm the latter view. Less a non-participatory than anti-intellectual check on popular culture, utopian neoliberal policy moved business cycles away from subversions dear to rock-press turned academics (Reynolds, 1988), now co-opted in education rehab. Stale formats from industry models of 1980s ‘Indie’ underculture (Hesmondhalgh, 1999: 35) consoled post-genre quietism accompanied by neutralising trivia, like the TV ‘rock quiz’. Against these general factors of resistance to new genre subcultures Hesmondhalgh concedes particulars, like an ‘increased policing of copyright, in ways that have favoured the oligopolistic corporations dominating cultural production, actually inhibits creativity rather than promotes it’ (2007: 88). Such life experience pressures on primary and secondary media definers, overriding female music innovation, displaced a normally creative function of both the rock-press and musician alike:

No, rock’n’roll has no future, absolutely not! – Craig N. Pearce, journalist (Quatro)[4]

Sorry, are like you suggesting that the Paradise Motel can be referred to as ‘Barbie Girl’? – Merida Sussex, Paradise Motel (Stone)

Figure 2: Polymer Stone

Figure 2: Polymer Stone

Addressing the theme of social exclusion directly, Bayton itemised ‘“constraints” facing the potential female musician’ as ‘material’ (money, equipment, transport) and ‘ideological’ (hegemonic masculinity and femininity). ‘What was interesting was the way in which women are able to overcome or evade…exclusion’ (1998: 189). Interestingly, she suggested ‘escapes’ or ‘resistances’ (role models, feminism and lesbianism) centred on theories of symbolic interactionism. Contextualising the argument further, here I suggest that the social ‘exclusion’ of significant genre experience was determined not only by the classic sexism targets of feminism, but the refractions of popular music by new technology. Explored below, these are described as institutional driven rock-press computerisation; moral panic reportage; and video monopoly. Based on ideas from Baudelaire to Bataille, such shifts are haunted by Baudrillardian ‘evil’ or demonisation of women (‘Lilith’). Whether already noted as industry/culture problems of ‘production’ (Negus, 1998), or ‘commodification’ by the male ‘producer/record company/music business’ (Stras, 2010: 3) this sexed nexus also facilitates the first female genre of popular music.

I bought her a full length Barbie silver fox,

But she just lies in her Barbie box

                     ‘Barbie’ – Shower Scene From Psycho, 1986

 

1 Rock-press computerisation: speak no evil

Founded on the ‘existence of valuable relationships’, Bradshaw argues that ‘social capital does not seem to be particularly related to poverty, possibly because the poor have more time to maintain them’ (2004: 184). Cultural industry data shows that most ‘genre’ pop artists live on low incomes in semi-poverty, buoyed by a successful ‘star system’,[5] comprised of marketing formats to counter unpredictable sales. However, the raw material of music is exchangeable form, not ‘industrial’ content or ‘consumer’ style. The expert or ‘primary definer’ (Hall et al., 1978) and management or ‘entrepreneur’ (Martinelli, 1994), value-add to these music forms recorded from studio or live performance. In official male-dominated pop decades from the 1950s for example, rock journalism (‘hacks’) in this role credibly claimed to operate outside vested economic or political interests. But since the professionalisation of writing or ‘routinisation of innovation’ (Martinelli, 1994: 480) effect of internet technicism (‘hackers’), biopower fragmentation and niche marketing have led to social exclusion and music sales decline (Mathieson, 2006). Factors perpetuating a homosocial trend of ‘exclusion of femininity from rock’ (Davies, 2001).

Both the ‘corporate strategy’ focused concept of Indie genres (Hesmondhalgh, 1999), and academic ‘theory’ of genres (Fabbri, 1980: 6) overlook the creative role of primary definers or cultural intermediaries (Negus, 1999: 18). For Hesmondhalgh, Bourdieu’s ‘cultural intermediary’ concept is ‘confusing and unhelpful’ (2007: 67). Harley and Botsman’s ‘No payola and the cocktail set’ examined this function in the heyday of a pre-internet, extra-institutional and under-theorised rock-press (1982). After three decades of rock’n’roll genres, the 1980s academic finally itemised this journalistic discourse of ‘hacks’ as downplaying the ideological and commercial outcomes of popular music writing in terms of airplay, sales and popularity (‘historicising, idolising and posing’). For these researchers, the Sex Pistols were approved on ‘tactical’ grounds, unlike romantic ‘Punk’ recycling charismatic ideology of race-music Rockabilly and vitalism Psychedelia. Punk hagiography only repeated this personality cult logic of the 1950s and 1960s. Ensuing 1980s Post-Punk parent versus subculture readings were also seen as trapped ‘within an overworked and useless construction of power’ (1982: 252). However, Harley and Botsman’s reservation about an entrepreneur rock-press is finally offset by the self-conscious reflexive method of Londoners Paul Morley and Ian Penman. In journalism similar to Australian Craig N. Pearce or American Lester Bangs, this rock-writer-as-intellectual as its vital media illusion preceded the internet techicism Diaspora.

According to sociology, ‘the weakening of the role of the innovative entrepreneur is seen as a basic factor, although not the only one, of the crisis of capitalism’ (Martinelli, 1994: 479). Conversely, cultural studies visualise the role of institutional ‘primary definer’ as ultimately vested by, ‘branches of the state and its fields of operation – through the formal separation of powers; in the communications field it is mediated by the protocols of balance, objectivity and impartiality’ (Hall et al., 1978: 220). With a variable supply of social capital, stringer to freelance rock-press journalism shuttled between these commercial entrepreneur to state primary definer roles. ‘Definition of rock journalism: People who can’t write, doing interviews with people who can’t think, in order to prepare articles for people who can’t read’ (Zappa and Occhiogrosso, 1990: 221). Recognised as its highpoint, the contrasting 1980s reflexive rock-press ushered in, ‘the progressive decay of the entrepreneurial function by virtue of the routinisation of innovation’ (Martinelli, 1994: 478-9). Although trivialised as ‘thin cultural studies’ (Beilharz, 1995: 133) and ‘the cultural turn’ (de la Fuente, 2007: 120), while it lasted, the professionalisation transition that succeeded this flashy journalism did actually deliver some valuable insights into popular music.[6]

Rather than ‘romantic Punks’ or ‘parent versus subculture’, with ‘increasing reliance on “expert” opinion’, today’s ‘professional’ tends to overlook the ‘popular consciousness’ (Abbot-Chapman, 2007: 242). Opposite of the ‘sociologism’ that claims a ‘genre community’ is ‘always…conscious of their precise role in musical reality’ (Fabbri, 1980: 6), this rock-press devaluation thwarts participants from self-defining their primary knowledge based on lived experience. Thus routinised female music goes ‘unreported in the [rock] press’ (Bayton, 1998: 78):

Barbie Rock! Very good – what’s that? – Caroline Kennedy, Dead Star (Hex)

Sure, if they want to call it Barbie Rock, then call it Barbie Rock! – Ian Meldrum, journalist (Hex)\

In the 1990s, the professionalisation or ‘bureaucratisation’ (Brett, 1991) of writing was driven by an internet technicist computerisation overseen by university research. Unlike New Zealand, Australian sociology is university centred (Germov and McGee, 2005). Bayton refers to radio Disc Jockeys as the significant rock‘n’roll gatekeeper. But the ‘hegemonic’ male journalism she identifies (1998: 3) is today fuelled by an ex-Cold War internet over-researched as computerisation. On it women are routinely devalued in ‘sexual’ terms. By arguing ‘we can no longer speak Evil’ (or a demonised female music genre), Baudrillard refers to this computerisation (2009: 97). In the above quotes from Caroline or Ian, the effect is validation doubt about a devaluated genre experience (cf. ‘degenerate’ modernist art militarily repressed until 1945 (Bradbury and McFarlane, 1976)). In Australian contemporary journalistic and scholarly studies of rock‘n’roll appearing after Riot Grrrl and Girl Power, the female genre is not acknowledged. The authors paid their dues in the 1990s street press (Mathieson, 2000), 1980s news media (Breen, 1999) and 1970s rock-press (Walker, 1996). While Mathieson joined the corporation, describing the ‘Indie’ music scene interestingly as a ‘Sell In’,[7] Breen and Walker were later to hitch their stars to the university. Contrasting this commercial or institutional cooptation, the new as yet unidentified genre would remain viable if seen ‘as a tacitly condoned mechanism of Subversion and foil to State control’ (Chugg, 1989: 64).

She’s very smart,

She can dance well,
Bang,
bang, bang,

Twist Barbie

’Twist Barbie’ – Shonen Knife, 1992

Figure 3: Polymer Inner City

Figure 3: Polymer Inner City

2 Moral panic news: hear no evil

Unlike genetic or animal research for drug based solutions of ‘social inclusion’ (Bonner, 2006: 4), while noting such ‘behaviourist ideological baggage’, Bradshaw argues cogently that ‘social inclusion is not necessarily the opposite of social exclusion – though the emphasis of the state as agent is welcome’ (2004: 184). But like privatisation creep, such interventions can cause social exclusion. For example, Hubert shows how technology is ‘creating a new category of socially excluded children’, also suggesting that ‘people who are medically cured in Western terms may not return’ from ‘social death’ (2000: 3-4). In Australia, this logic is demonstrated by a high-incidence of child abuse in the whole community on the one hand (Herald Sun, 2007); and the indigenous peoples nominated as scapegoat on the other. Clearly such ‘relegation of people to nature’ behaviourism appears a ‘way of legitimating exploitation and exclusion from civilised society’ (Hubert, 2000: 5). The initiating moral panic debuted on television (ABC, 2006) amplified by the press (Age, 2006) then military intervention (Age, 2007), eventually earned under-reported opposition from the UN. Similar disproportionate media reaction was already noted in the mid-90s as, ‘moral panic in response to rock and roll more generally’ (Grossberg, 1995: 368).

Developing the work of Cohen (1973), Hall et al. (1978: 222) frame ‘moral panics’ as a crisis of consent or ‘hegemony’, at times escalating into ‘general panic’ when, ‘all dissensual breaks in the society’ are perceived as threats to ‘law and order’. Media definers, ‘play a crucial but secondary role in reproducing the definitions of those who have privileged access, as of right, to the media as “accredited sources”’ (1978: 58). Two decades later, McRobbie and Thornton argue that subculture and genre ‘marketing strategy’ functions of moral panics are ‘priceless PR campaigns’ (1995: 565). However, unequal readerships of large circulation dailies compared to limited distribution fanzines contradict this thesis. The experience of fanzines, like Polymer, Thunderpussy, or Riot Grrrl is a case in point. Each gained only a small circulation despite huge music chart sales. Yet by including such demonised minority ‘folk devils’, moral panics present a smallest number utilitarian calculus tailored to the ‘biopower’ set theory of primary definers (Foucault, 1981). These xenophobic primary definitions of sex, race, class or age bring ‘life and its mechanisms into the realm of explicit calculations’, submitting ‘life integrated into the techniques that govern and administer it’ (1981: 143). McRobbie later refits this ‘biopolitical strategy’ set theory (2007: 730) for post-feminist ‘Top Girls’ to deconstruct revived sexism in Blair’s New Britain. Conversely, ‘Barbie Rock’ is a way of subverting stigmatising stereotypes, like ‘virgin, mother, and prostitute’ (Stras, 2010: 4):

That’s why heavy metal’s become so popular, because it’s tribal. Female rock stars they come and they go, but they never seem to leave a mark – Dr Pepper, journalist (Stone)

I actually agree with you. I think that there is more interesting, the most interesting bands at the moment are either female led or have got girls in them – Justine Frischman, Elastica/Suede (Hex)

The measure of women’s significant success in rock‘n’roll, a female genre was already anticipated as far back as the 1980s. Saxophonist Louise Brooks of critically acclaimed group The Laughing Clowns believed, ‘barring incredible turns to the right, that is a trend that will continue. Quite possibly, women conceptualise differently, but if so, it’s quite invisible’ (Shien, 1987: 84). Yet key events, like a ‘Women in Rock’ issue of Rolling Stone (1997) gave the nod (if seen as ‘pitifully small’ after Destiny’s Child and The Spice Girls’ triumph – Stras, 2010: 5) while dodging the genre. In the bigger picture, a ‘social inclusion’ military Intervention on demonised aboriginals (lower socio-economic class ‘social death’ by a discredited ‘race’ scientism) confirm ‘incredible turns to the right’ fears. Unjustly blamed for the larger ‘white’ society in denial. Similarly, media sexism that reduces women musicians, for example to ‘glamour shots’ (Bayton, 1998: 14) deactivates their female popular music genre. The quoted biopolitical doubts of David, Justine and Louise are vindicated. For Baudrillard, the evil demon of media images occurs as a ‘precession’ of the real by models. These ‘invert the causal and logical order of the real and its reproduction’ (1984: 13). For instance, if not for homage to aboriginal Buried Country (Walker, 2000), 1990s Barbie Rock assimilated to 1970s Punk by Australia’s ‘pre-eminent critic and historian’ with inaccuracies like ‘1991: The Year Punk Broke’ (Walker, 1996: 280) may also have telescoped his oeuvre into demonisation.

I’m a Barbie girl in the Barbie world,

Life in plastic it’s fantastic

‘Barbie Girl’ – Aqua, 1997

Figure 4: Polymer Thing

Figure 4: Polymer Thing

3 Video monopoly: see no evil

According to the social theory of Daly and Silver (2008), social capital and social exclusion can be at once opposites (rather than inclusion) and interchangeable; one the antidote (to the other) and both merged into a continuum. Ultimately, ‘social capital may actually increase social exclusion’ (2008: 556). Resisting assimilation, they also retain the distinction between cultural studies (social capital) and sociology (social exclusion). In social practice, Bourdieu’s example of a relational ‘hiatus’ between the ‘statutory expectations’ of déclassé academics with devalued social capital and lack of ‘opportunity’ leading to social exclusion, explains the student unrest of ‘May 1968’ (1988: 163). Baudrillard’s cultural example is the ‘virtual’ music ‘restored to technical perfection’ by excluding ‘noise and static’ that has to reinvest in some noise to restore musical capital (2007: 28). Bayton finds such ‘a relational hiatus’ in Riot Grrrl technophobia of live and studio ‘technical skills’ restored by technophile training (1998: 7). Reynolds and Press similarly describe Riot Grrrl creativity as limited to music ‘content’ that excludes ‘form’ (1995: 187). This polarisation of social exclusion and social capital coheres as the limit of lo fi Riot Grrrl technophobic content, opposed to hi tech Girl Power technophile form and interposed by a relational hiatus of Barbie Rock technical skills. Like ‘social’ media adapted to female ends, the genre of 1990s rock‘n’roll lies here.

The horizon of all popular music, in Jazz (for Riot Grrrl, Tracy Chapman’s roots music) sociologists argue that, ‘objects do not possess sociality, people do, and it is through the embodied nature of inter-subjective human social action that objects come to have contingent relevance’ (Gibson, 2006: 185). Gibson locates this relationship between normative frameworks of performance and limiting parameters of musical instruments, creatively minimised by musicians who reach sufficient degrees of technical facility for improvisation. Contrarily, for cultural studies, ‘the technical mastery of space and time contributes not only to the rationalisation of musical production, but also to the creation of a myth of community’ (Théberge, 1991: 110). Rather than inter-subjectivity, Théberge highlights both the simulation of community through increasing spatial rationalisation of audio material in separation recording, and the star-system driven and cost efficiency control of overdubbing (for Girl Power, Destiny’s Child’s dance music). In this mode, creative improvisation is reconstructed in the studio, refuting the classless ‘myths of technology’ technicism of ‘McLuhanesque’ leftists (1991). Today this digitally anatomised community, when ‘social control’ over women and ‘sexist jokes abound’ (Bayton, 1998: 6), has again been profoundly transformed by, ‘the predominance of music videos in the marketplace’ (Théberge, 1991: 109).

Banks traces the ‘incorporation’ of live and recorded popular music into a video monopolised ‘market place’ back to the arrival of privatised cable channel, MTV (1998: 293). This raised a small 23% percentile of top 100 Billboard acts with videos in 1981 to 97% by 1989 (295). Hesmondhalgh confirms the 1990s transition to a two-dimensional ‘stabilizing pop mainstream oriented towards video promotion, and synergies with visual mass media.’ Like Polymer participants, Indie labels were ‘determinedly against these commercial methods’ (1999: 38) for ‘trivialising them, and dealing with them solely in terms of their physical attractiveness’ (Bayton, 1998: 25):

It’s OK to play music if you’re a beautiful girl, and I felt like it was getting a bit too much of that image – Laura McFarlane, Sleater Kinny/Ninety Nine (Vee)

I think I’d be comfier with ‘Barbie Rock’ if it turned out that really you were talking about the strange new breed of boys that seem to have no hormones and no sperm count – Paul Morley, journalist (Hex)

Reviving 1960s Psychedelic versus 1970s Punk role-set conflict and simulating slick TV advertising, by the 1990s visual clips had replaced live tours as the means of self-promotion, modelled on performance (‘authentic’) and concept (‘synthetic’) formats now feted in annual video awards (Banks, 1998: 295). With privatisation creep prioritising money-making visuals over musical talent (303), the ‘hot’ 3D sound of radio was digitised into ‘cool’ 2D sight of TV, unreceptive to the Barbie Rock limit genres of Riot Grrrl revolt into Girl Power style. Grossberg reads the ‘hip attitude’ of TV as a ‘refusal to take anything…seriously’ (1995: 376), where the ‘explicit conjunction of images and songs seems to multiply the possibilities of interpretation’ (370)[8]. The neutral mood, affect or emotion standing apart from ideas. A neutrality Breen (1999) ascribed to the Girl Power pop of Kylie Minogue, supposedly eclipsed by Midnight Oil’s Brit-Pop style nationalism.[9] ‘Where rock was considered to rely on a set of established practices based on musicianship and a relationship to audience, pop was a disposable image of little lasting value’ (1999: 67). But if TV ‘screens out’ new genres or sexual inequality evils (Baudrillard, 2007: 78), it also facilitated free to air music in Australia. Albeit excluded in late-late night programs, like the ABC’s Rage or ‘youth’ radio JJJ biopower. At least complete ‘commercialisation’ (Hesmondhalgh, 2007: 305) failed to eventuate.

Kids don’t like me,

Moms are mad,

I’m going off the market,

‘Cause I look so sad

’Bitterness Barbie’ – Lunachicks, 1995

Figure 5: Polymer Vee

Figure 5: Polymer Vee

4 Barbie Rock and sexism: beyond good and evil

Social exclusion is a ‘multidimensional concept’ (Bonner, 2006; Hubert, 2000), that tends to ‘deflect attention from ever-increasing income inequality and class conflict’ (Daly and Silver, 2008: 554) or poor social capital. Poverty measures of ‘physical’ or ‘financial’ capital are enhanced, social exclusion theory argues, by non-participation indicators of ‘discrimination, chronic ill health, geographical location or cultural identification’ (Burchardt et al., 2002: 6). Women own one per cent of ‘physical’ titled land and are seventy per cent of the world’s ‘financial’ poor (MX, 2008)[10], making ‘cultural identification’ (in this case ‘genre’) indicators more relevant, in the context of popular music. Frith (2001: 46) and Hesmondhalgh (2007: 23) define genres as a record label method or ‘format’ for coping with risk. The ‘irrational’ behaviours of audience ‘taste’ or artistic ‘talent’ in the ‘star system’. Similarly Breen (1991: 193-4) refers to a ‘pre-existing system’ of market fact versus authenticity fiction. For Bayton (1998: 15) the ‘objectification of performers’ derives from this ‘star system’ (‘creating product loyalty’ and ‘simplifying promotion’) as ‘another record company strategy to secure profits’. Proof of powerless media in technophile times, Barbie Rock escaped notice because of such ‘cultural’, ‘irrational’, ‘pre-existing’ or ‘loyalty’ factors. Since the 1950s race-culture of Rockabilly and Doo-Wop, 1960s counterculture Psychedelia of Surf to Folk, 1970s subculture Punk fused with Reggae, and 1980s underculture Swamp joined to Hip-Hop, reconciliation of such opposites has defined rock’n’roll. By the 1990s, homieculture Riot Grrrl and Girl Power linked Barbie Rock through a series of ‘answer records’ (a ‘bizarre’ tradition for Dawson and Propes, 1992: 132), like ‘Twist Barbie’, ‘Barbie USA’, ‘Bitterness Barbie’, ‘Barbie Girl’, ‘Barbie Be Happy’ and ‘Career Barbie’.[11]

Not without precedent, the bridging phase between the fadeout of Rockabilly in 1959 and British Invasion by 1963 was important for more than Keitley’s sexist reference to a ‘lost spirit of rock‘n’roll’ (2001: 118). This was also a moment of ‘exciting and energetic “girl groups”’ (Gaar, 1992) with chart-topping songs, like The Bobbettes, The Chantels, The Chiffons, The Crystals, The Dixie Cups, The Exciters, The Ronnettes, and The Shirelles. Music primary definers tend to dismiss these ‘in-between years’ of rock‘n’roll, when popular music suffered a supposed ‘near death experience’ (Keitley, 2001: 116; Birch, 1987: 165). Devaluation of female success in ‘monetarily dry’ times hid a reality of controlled artists, withheld royalties and ‘black’ women excluded by secondary definer media (busy re-racialising a newsworthy Watts Riot). The Ed Sullivan Show, for instance showcased both a ‘white’ 1950s Elvis and 1960s Beatles. ‘Radio may have been colour blind but television was not: none of the black girl groups of the early ‘60s appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show no matter how many hits they had, whereas a minor contender like Britain’s Cliff Richard, who had only two U.S. Top 40 hits at the time, appeared three times’ (Gaar, 1992: 51). So much for confident claims that ‘rock and roll has always been on television’ (Grossberg, 1995: 371).

Viewed in this way, while Stras concedes ‘the genre’s seemingly contradictory historic importance as a fostering ground for feminine and racial equality’ (2010: 21), the Girl Groups of enlightened scholarship based on biopolitical race, class, age or sexual identities seem to reiterate an ‘evil’ problematic of mistaking effects for causes (Baudrillard, 1984: 13). Stras’ assent to agist ‘rites of passage’ from ‘girl’ to ‘woman’, for example leaves her idea of ‘adolescence’, now complicit with ‘adult’ moral panic, open to charges of propaganda for the very sexual inequality evils that she criticises. Launched during this Girl Group era and seen as the paradigm ‘of young girls’ aspirations and fantasies’, Barbie™ the doll ‘embodied a fixed ideal of emerging womanhood for the English-speaking world’ (2010: 15). This identity neutral ‘respectability’ was an unattainable norm. Stras argued that the only option open to Girl Groups was to ‘dissemble’ their nature. Pretending to do/think one thing, while actually doing/thinking another (2010: 19). Much later, a plastic era of Riot Grrrl lo fi, Girl Power hi tech or Barbie Rock technical skills emerges to decode that ‘essentialised myth of woman tied to nature’ (Toffoletti, 2007: 79).

Surpassing 1960s Girl Group success and sexist discrimination on a larger scale over a longer period, the 1990s saw another social exclusion of the new female Heavy Metal meets Girl Group emergent style. Increasingly eclipsed by new technology and over-invested ‘poor chic’ cinema, MTV-centric privatised ‘cable’ television shifted music priorities from audio to telegenic visuals. Homan (2007) and Mathieson (2000) note how less profitable radio turned to ‘standardised playlists’, while record companies kept to the research based ‘objective repertoires’ of 1980s Rap or 1970s Punk. Yet the female counter-practice, registered in both chart success and innovation, spanned Olympia’s early self-misspelt ‘Riot Grrrl’[12] to ‘Girl Power’ global hit ‘Barbie Girl’ by Denmark’s Aqua. A ‘homie’ (cf. Hip Hop curfew neologism, ‘homegirl’) glocalised genre cross-section would include the popular success of Aqua, Breeders, Cardigans, Cub, Destiny’s Child, Donnas, Echobelly, Elastica,[13] Killing Heidi, Shonen Knife, Skunk Anansie, Spice Girls, Superjesus and Tiddas. Male bands could only offer passé feeding contexts (Nirvana, Pixies, Suede, Living Color) of retro subgenres, such as Punk-Metal,[14] Grunge or Britpop. But if the experience was certain, like Punk, dissensus not consensus was a norm for many participants:

No, evil ha ha…I have a big problem with females in music at the moment, if you’re talking about your, in my eyes, Barbies – Ella Hooper, Killing Heidi (Hex)

The ‘Barbie’ part I can see, the horror [Heavy Metal] I don’t – there is psychological horror, but I think horror is the wrong word to put on it…terror is more like it – Greil Marcus, journalist (Hex)

‘Specular’ (Irigaray, 1985) Riot Grrrl’s many Heavy Metal cover-versions allocated bands like Heart, the Runaways and Girls School as significant influences, disturbing this alleged misogynist boysclub genre with intuitive ‘cool grrrls’.[15] Going further, Girl Power ‘overmimed’ media secondary definitions, untying the definitive gaze of MTV clips with a reflexive awareness that ‘to define “woman” is necessarily to essentialise her’ (Moi, 1985: 139; Straw, 2001; and coolgrrrls.com, 1998). A presentation of self, like symbolic interactionist stigma logic (Goffman, 1979), rock’n’roll genre formation from 1950s ‘Rockabilly’ (variant of hillbilly), 1960s ‘Psychedelia’ (mental hallucinations), 1970s ‘Punk’ (prison putdown), and 1980s ‘Swamp’ (country urbanism) to 1990s ‘Barbie’ (plastic female) displaced and reversed a once mild pejorative term.[16] Hebdige traces this progression back to inverted labelling of ‘black’, ‘funk’, ‘superbad’ and ‘jazz’ (1980: 62-3). Sensing the very real community demand for a subversive female genre in 1998, Rock’n’roll Highschool recording studio’s Stephanie Bourke suggested, ‘it would be great if someone could bring us all together…the scene is definitely there for it’ (Polymer ‘Stone’: 15). While rarely recognised by media secondary definers, pop culture slang and entrepreneur primary definitions do occasionally transmute into mass genre accreditation. Subcultures seeking publicity or ‘street cred’ are criticised for cultivating moral panic (McRobbie and Thornton, 1995: 572). Even Barbie™ doll copyright holder Mattel Corp, after unsuccessful litigation against Aqua (The Beat, 1997), now capitalise with authorised Barbie Party Mix CDs. Yet as Elastica discovered, ‘intellectual property rights are the motor driving much of the music business’ (Breen, 1999: 70).[17] According to Baudrillard, translation of evil (or sexual demonisation) into mere ‘misfortune’ can lead to, ‘a whole culture of misfortune, of recrimination, repentance, compassion and victimhood’ (2007: 145).

In the industry of romance,

New ways to enhance,

Her beauty,

My little doll,

Beauty comes from the soul

‘Barbie Be Happy’ – Essential Logic, 1998

Figure 6: Dissent, Linoleum [with permission from Universal Music]

Figure 6: Dissent, Linoleum [with permission from Universal Music]

5 Dissent: the compact disc

‘Of crucial importance’ to a sociology of rock, album reviews ‘seek simultaneously to provide a consumer guide, to comment on a culture, and to explore personal tastes’ (Frith, 2001: 174). In terms of a consumer guide’, Straw suggests, ‘the genre as the context within which records were meaningful accompanied the rise of the “serious” record review’. That ‘generic economy’, drawn according to Straw from ‘film criticism’ important to academia (2001: 103), might also be traced to Jazz writing. But because ‘most journalists are male’ reviewers, Bayton argues that ‘a hegemonic masculine view tends to predominate in the music press’ (1998: 3). Her comment on the culture’ notes 1990s music as, ‘a genuine female youth subculture with the explicit aim of moving in all areas of the rock world’ (3). A ‘lucky researcher in the right time and place’ (Negus, 1999: 29), I[18] too discovered ‘an attempt was made to create an organised network amongst all-girl bands, via fanzines’ (Bayton, 1998: 75). This distinguished Barbie Rock from the genre symbiosis of Heavy Metal for which, Straw (2001) argues, ‘audiences do not constitute a musical subculture’. Conversely, Metal’s devotion to rock‘n’roll cover versions (rebutting ‘consistent noninvocation of rock history/mythology’ charges – 102-3) is consolidated by the Grrrls own genuine delight in Metal covers. With such reference groups of Punk-Metal cementing Riot Grrrl to Girl Power, exploring personal tastes’ in the 1990s amounts to Barbie Rock Invasion of ‘the most male dominated of rock forms’ (109).

 

Yeah, I mean I’m not familiar with the Linoleum LP you’re talking about, so I can’t really comment on that – John Peel, journalist (Hex)

Barbie Rock?! Hahahaha…tell me, which exponents of Barbie Rock do you feature? – Caroline Finch, Linoleum (Vee)

As the title suggests, Linoleum’s first album (1997) is sexed dissent to rock’n’roll mythology. Summing-up Barbie Rock, singer Caroline Finch says, ‘Dissent is a different way of looking at things, and it’s a different way of song-writing and bringing up things that other people know but don’t usually bring up from a female perspective’ (Finch, 1999: 35). Linoleum encountered the same obstacle course experienced by more high-profile groups, like Elastica (settling out of court with flattered Punk bands, Wire and The Stranglers). ‘We had problems in Australia certainly because another band called “Linoleum” showed up out of the blue…I think they’d put a single out a while before us, and they started demanding huge amounts of money from us for our name. So I know we had quite a lot of difficulty in Australia getting press and things, because we recently weren’t really allowed to be called Linoleum out there. That was a bit of problem. Yeah I think the industry is in a bit of a mess at the moment’ (34). Riot Grrrls were also banned by popular music media (recalling a blanked out Sex Pistols at No. 1) for manifestos, ejected male slam dancers or heckler abuse texta scrawled on bodies. ‘I wonder, I mean there doesn’t seem to be a lot of coverage of female bands.’ Yes, the rock-press also practise social exclusion of music.

Musically, Linoleum’s Barbie Rock vector surrounded Caroline’s cutesy high-pitch to contralto vocals, delivered as rapping Girl Power overmime segués into room tipping specular Riot Grrrl in 4/4. An under-rated lead guitarist for these unidentified times, musician Paul Jones’ high-action manoeuvring wrung out the Heavy Metal power chord with duck walk riffs, surf licks, and free-form feedback. ‘Paul’s got a good set of new pedals and things, so there’s some interesting sounds on our new stuff. But they’re still coming out of the guitar, even if they don’t sound like it. I think that Paul’s particularly good at playing his guitar so that it doesn’t sound like a guitar sometimes. He plays not exactly in a traditional way, so I think that’s how come we get those results’ (34). Caroline’s rhythm converging on Paul’s created the classic dynamic duo of rock’n’roll guitars, only interrupted by Dave’s snap to deep rumble drum or Grunge fuzz faithful bass of Emma. A white noise, wall of sound energy that, ‘takes power out of the hands of the dangerous people…and puts it back into the people who are being creative.’

American producers Paul Kolderie and Sean Slade (also veterans of Hole and The Pixies) engineered and mixed in multi-layered studio flow a creation upgraded to vinyl quality audio depth. The Erik Nitschean-style Mod red, white and blue sleeve design, backed with fresco secco group miniatures, was initially packaged in real lino. ‘The fact that it’s quite tacky and it’s…I love linoleum because it’s not what it appears to be. Especially when it looks like a very glamorous floor and it’s not. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen our records that are packaged in linoleum? We didn’t make that many of them. Ever since we first started up all our flyers, and our first singles were actually packaged in floor covering, which is quite fantastic.’ (37). Track listings for this floored Barbie Rock genius explored matters of masochist masquerade [‘Marquis’], alienation shock [‘Dissent’], risk chic [‘Dangerous Shoes’], social snobbism [‘On a Tuesday’], remote control [‘Restriction’], substance abuse [‘She’s Sick’], post-modern angst [‘Unresolved’], and ad hominem [‘Smear’]. ‘It’s certainly a view of dysfunctional relationships, there’s a questioning of things that don’t work, and I find all these kind of issues more interesting’ (35).

Yeah I wanna be like her,

Ride the bus in my underwear

’Career Barbie’ – The Kowalskis, 2002

Figure 7: Polymer Hex

Figure 7: Polymer Hex

Concluding remarks

Recent music research on sexed subgenre revolutions has examined both Riot Grrrl (Schilt, 2004) and Girl Power (Martin, 2006; Strong, 2007). But this is the first to recognise their interconnection as phases in the key 1990s genre of Barbie Rock, while avoiding assimilation to established genres (but see Riley, 1994; Lumby, 1998; Chugg, 2005). The unidentified factors (Parts 1-3 above) behind social exclusion and social capital until now pre-empting full recognition as a popular music genre are, in a word (detected earlier by Hesmondhalgh), ‘technicism’. In this gatekeeper scenario, 1) a ‘computerisation’ of cultural intermediaries like rock-press hacks succeeded by primary definer world-wide web hackers, 2) accompanied by secondary definer media ‘moral panic’ implosion, and 3) 3D radio freeze-frame to 2D ‘video dominated’ freeze-out (if not ‘cool’), overshadows the all but not seen and not heard infant terrible genre. Technology has ‘inhibited creativity’ (Hesmondhalgh, 2007: 88). However, whether at odds with fashionable iconoclastic slogans like, ‘down with genres’ (Deleuze and Parnet, 1987: 17), this new technology has also empowered creativity. As the very fact of Barbie Rock demonstrates (Toffoletti, 2007).

Yet there is another tendency, apparently inescapable in even the most enlightened works of men, at times unheard by women (Part 4). The men are easy to find (check out Lester Bangs’ ‘Back Door Man and Women in Bondage’). But when Reynolds and Press portray Riot Grrrl’s Huggy Bear ‘in full awareness of its connotations’ as ‘“asking for it”’ (1995: 331). Or female Bayton argues a Girl Power audience would be, ‘only too delighted to give her [Courtney Love] an ironic f***’ (1998: 79), a sense that such projective hysteria stems from internalised sexism is hard to avoid. In that case, men who ‘determine the marketplace’ (Stras, 2010: 4) are uncontested (but see Part 5) rivalling ‘evil speaking evil’ or evil speaking good (including my mere maleness?) noted by Baudrillard (2010: 39). The theory of evil is a leitmotif for ‘the conspiracy of art’ or demonisation of Barbie Rock. In this ‘obstacle race’ of unsung female artists, indicating a ‘social exclusion’ by the arts, the ‘impotent’ (Baudrillard, 1996: 122) hysteria of male ‘rape’ appears the most fitting explanatory metaphor because, ‘it is no longer decency that is threatened with violation, but sex, or rather sexist idiocy, “which takes the law into its own hands”’ (122).[19] Nevertheless, as even their Satanic Majesties, The Rolling Stones signify with their latest best of Grrr, the lived experience of rock’n’roll – from Riot Grrrl to Girl Power – lives on in the music of Barbie Rock.

Most people would look at it as sarcastic right now; cause like no one really talks about it in the genuine sense anymore, even though I love mine – Donna A, The Donnas (Hex)

 

Acknowlegements: Thanks to Jo Grant from NEIS [New Enterprise Incentive Scheme]; Stephanie Bourke of Rock n roll Highschool; Jacqueline Gallagher at Monash University. Also special thanks to Farrago [University of Melbourne], and Rabelais [Latrobe University] for supporting Polymer.

 

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Notes

[1] A song by Captain Beefheart, ‘Rock’n’roll’s Evil Doll’ (1974) encapsulates male fear of women in music for even the most enlightened artist.

[2] Riot Grrrl is an ‘underground feminist punk rock movement’ (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Riot_grrrl) according to Wikipedia; whereas Girl Power, ‘as a term of empowerment, expressed a cultural phenomenon of the 1990s and early 2000s’ (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/girl_power).

[3] Ten per cent of national income redistributed from labour to capital (Frankel, 2001: 24).

[4] Quotations are from Polymer back-issues: News (1998), Stone (1998), Inner City (1998), Thing (1998), Vee (1999) and Hex (2000-1).

[5] ‘It’s always useful to remember…that the history of popular music is really traced through the losers rather than the winners, because there are far more of those’, says John Peel (Hex, 2000-1: 30)

[6] For outstanding cultural studies typical of this period, see Grossberg (1984); Straw (2001); and Brophy (1987).

[7] See also Hesmondhalgh (1999: 36) on ‘sell out’ and ‘burn out’.

[8] See Chugg (2007)

[9] Alternately:

Australian avant garde rock then, starts and finishes with the fact that the people born and/or living in Australia make Australian avante garde rock. But such a subcategory carries no mysterious subcultural traits that can differentiate its content and substance from avant garde rock around the world. It is no wonder that groups from Seattle, Brussells, Cornwall, Vancouver and Canberra can provide remarkably similar work without ever having heard each other’s work, simply by plugging into the same historical sources and references from both the histories of art and rock. As in so many instances, “Australianism” might work as a qualification but not a description – (Brophy 1987, pp. 140-1)

[10] I argue that the concept of ‘social exclusion’ retains relevance in cultural contexts.

[11] By Shonen Knife (Japan, 1992), Gloo Girls (USA, 1994), The Lunachicks (USA, 1995), Aqua (Denmark, 1997), Essential Logic (UK, 1998) and The Kowalskis (USA, 2002), respectively. (Now even crossing-over to Country, with Unknown Hinson’s ‘Barbie Q’, and Jack Ingram’s ‘Barbie Doll’)

[12] For ‘grrl’ or ‘grrrl’ spelling, see Raphael (1995: xxiii).

[13] Destiny’s Child was the most successful US female group; Elastica’s album became the fastest selling debut in the UK, et cetera.

[14] Contrasting Punk, Straw highlights Heavy Metal’s ‘triumph of craft production…“empty” virtuosity and self-indulgence’ (2001: 100).

[15] Barbie Rockers covering Heavy Metal include: Babes from Toyland, Baby Animals, The Breeders, Belly, The Cardigans, The Clouds, Concrete Blonde, The Corrs, Daphne and Celeste, The Donnas, Lita Ford, Fur, L7, Linoleum, Ninety Nine, Nitocris, Rebeccas Empire and Superjesus.

[16] For another commodity research double entendre, see Ritzer’s (2004) ‘McDonaldisation’ (itself labelled ‘McWeberian’).

[17] A well-known example is Girl Group, the Chiffons’ ‘He’s So Fine’ plagiarised by ex-Beatle George Harrison – later disclaimed by Chiffons members citing label legal pressures (see also Rimmer, 2007: 40-53).

[18] A mere male.

[19] In this context, ‘sexist idiocy’ is determined by technicism: ‘has not rape perhaps become the unacknowledged by-product of a technological emergency that is becoming routinised?’ (Virilio, 2005: 70)

 

 

Biographical Note: Rock Chugg is a freelance sociologist from Melbourne, with recent research appearing in publications like Continuum, Refractory, and Meanjin.

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

Abstract:

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.

 

Introduction:

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 (Ancestry.com, 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 (Ancestry.com, 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.

Conclusion.

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.

 

 

DEDICATION:

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”.

 

Bibliography:

American Film Institute Catalogue. “The End of the Road.” Accessed 29 August 2014. http://www.afi.com/members/catalog/DetailView.aspx?s=&Movie=15366

“An Unusual Comedy at Vining Theatre.” Ashland Tidings. Tuesday 31 December 1918. 1. Library of Congress.

Ancestry.com, “Census records for District 15, Province of Manitoba. 1916. Census of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. 51.”, Canadian Census Records. 1916. Accessed 27 October 2009.

Ancestry.com, 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.

 Ancestry.com, 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. http://www.afi.com/members/catalog/DetailView.aspx?s=&Movie=2108

A Brief History of the American Red Cross, The American Red Cross, accessed 19 August 2014, http://www.redcross.org/museum/history/ww1a.asp

The Canadian Red Cross. 2014. “About the Canadian Red Cross”, Accessed 15 August 2014, http://www.redcross.ca/who-we-are/about-the-canadian-red-cross/history-frequently-asked-questions

“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. http://www.deerlodge.mb.ca/aboutHistory.html

 

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 http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/152802/Katharine-Bement-Davis

“The End of the Road.”1921. The Advertiser. 11 July. Retrieved from TROVE, National Library of Australia. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article73372048

“The End of the Road.” 1921. The Advertiser. 16 June. Retrieved from TROVE, National Library of Australia. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article35249538

“The End of the Road.” 1921. The Mercury. 8 June. Retrieved from TROVE, National Library of Australia. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article23515162

“The End of the Road.” 1921.The Northern Daily Leader. 10 February. Retrieved from TROVE, National Library of Australia, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article104816157

“End of the Road.” 1920. Sunday Times. 31 October. Retrieved from TROVE, National Library of Australia, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article120516928

““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, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article117303505

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, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article102527976

Jackal, Susan and Millette, Dominique. Revised 2015. “Women’s Suffrage”. Historica Canada. Accessed 12 June 2015. http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/womens-suffrage/

Katz, Esther. 2000. “Margaret Sanger.” American Dictionary of Biography Online. Accessed 3 February 2015. http://www.anb.org/articles/15/15-00598.html )

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. http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/kennedy_william_nassau_11E.html.

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. http://www.learnaboutmovieposters.com/newsite/louisiana/Parishes/Orleans.asp

“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. http://www.mhs.mb.ca/docs/people/adams_wh.shtml

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. http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mackinnon-claire-adams-10996/text19553,.

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. http://www.studentpulse.com/a?id=891

“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: www.measuringworth.com/ppowerus/

“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. http://library.gc.cuny.edu/murrayhill/items/show/271

Petition for Citizenship, Claire Adams Hampton, United States of America, No. 3441, 4 February 1931, U.S. Department of Labor, from Ancestry.com, 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. http://spartacus-educational.com/ARTflagg.htm

“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 http://www.donmouth.co.uk/local_history/VAD/VAD_hospitals.html

“What People are Saying and Doing.” 1921. Table Talk. 10 March. Retrieved from TROVE, National Library of Australia. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article146718304

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, http://www.med-dept.com/articles/venereal-disease-and-treatment-during-ww2/ 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. http://www.screeningthepast.com/
  • Sweet, Jill and Stephens, Barbara Adams. Oral History Transcript, Author’s private collection.

Filmography:

  • 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.

 

Notes:

[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, http://www.redcross.ca/who-we-are/about-the-canadian-red-cross/history-frequently-asked-questions

[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, http://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/steannes-hospital/about-us/history

[12] According to the American Film Institute Catalogue entry, Barnaby Lee was probably not widely released. http://www.afi.com/members/catalog/DetailView.aspx?s=&Movie=2108

[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, http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/treasures/trm015.html

[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 http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0543806/bio?ref_=nm_ov_bio_sm

[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, http://www.learnaboutmovieposters.com/newsite/louisiana/Parishes/Orleans.asp

[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.” http://www.med-dept.com/articles/venereal-disease-and-treatment-during-ww2/ 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, http://www.afi.com/members/catalog/DetailView.aspx?s=&Movie=15366. 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. http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/result?q=The+End+of+the+Road

[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.

Days of YouTube-ing Days of Heaven: Participatory Culture and the Fan Trailer – Kyle R. McDaniel

Abstract: This study analyzes the aesthetic content and user-generated feedback of fan-appropriated film trailers exhibited in on the Internet. The aim of this research is to gauge participatory culture’s involvement in the transformation of promoting archival motion pictures on the Internet. This research study looks to fan trailers as unique media entities that exist as visually empowered narratives created through specific acts of fandom. Specifically, this study investigates the audiovisual and discursive elements of competing trailers for Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978). The findings suggest that fan trailers are capable of generating myth and nostalgia for aging motion picture properties through user-generated acts. The broader goal of this project is to understand the relationship between participatory film cultures and studio-controlled motion picture content available on video streaming and sharing media channels.


Fig. 1: The memorable and Biblically referential swarm of locusts in the film Days of Heaven.

Fig. 1: The memorable and Biblically referential swarm of locusts in the film Days of Heaven.

Introduction: Trailers at a Turning Point

A YouTube video by an unknown director can suddenly blow up on the marketplace, and there will be three studios bidding for it. (Without having yet met the director!)…Maybe execs are busy watching YouTube instead of hearing pitches. Our work is virtual.   

-Lynda Obst, Sleepless in Hollywood (2013, 27).

In April 2014, an online user released a high-definition film trailer on YouTube for David Fincher’s forthcoming thriller, Gone Girl (YouTube 2014a). Several hours after the trailer’s debut, an impressive 186,000 fans had accessed the content with 276 of that number contributing written feedback to the message board on the webpage. While film fans were sharing interest and excitement for the trailer on YouTube, News Corp., the media entity that financed Gone Girl through 20th Century Fox, perceived a threat of digital piracy. The following day, the conglomerate removed the trailer and the fan commentary. In the absence of this content, News Corp. left a statement reading, “FOX has blocked [the trailer] on copyright grounds” (YouTube 2014b). This incident is representative of the contemporary state of affairs between media conglomerates with a controlling interest in motion pictures and film fans in online spaces. The presence of film trailers on the Internet presents a specific set of issues for both parties as well, especially in relation to film marketing and promotion, in addition to content ownership and control over copyright.

This study engages with how film fans interact with once-profitable motion picture properties through fan trailers on the Internet. Here, the fan trailer is defined as the act of re-editing and re-exhibiting abridged film content through online channels. Fan trailers are realized through specific and largely collective acts of user-participation, and have the potential to revitalize interest in aging film properties. This article explores the audiovisual and content-related aspects of fan trailers in comparison to a distributor-owned trailer for Days of Heaven (Terrence Malick 1978). Furthermore, the feedback or commentary on message boards is also investigated as part of this research project to locate how such discourse speaks to the collective memory of Hollywood archives. In order to understand the issues surrounding the emergence and popularity of the broad spectrum of Internet trailers, this study looks to literature on the relationship between the evolution and of fan involvement with digital cinema and new media, as well as scholarship on the history of film trailers and film promotion and advertising. The findings from this article suggest that fan trailers play a crucial role in continuing the lifespan of aging Hollywood properties or archival films. The proliferation of fan trailers through video streaming and sharing websites as well as the message board commentary suggests that fan participation is instrumental to building relationships between film and viewer. In turn, participatory cultures that interact with older film titles in online channels incorporate aspects of their public and private selves as part of this creative process. The following research questions are designed to further explore this relationship between film fans inhabiting online spaces and the evolving state of fan trailers in digital cinema: What are the content-related (i.e., audiovisual) similarities and differences between the distributor-controlled, official trailer and the fan trailers under study? And what role(s) does user-generated commentary or feedback play for these trailers?

Fig. 2: A black-and-white still of Terrence Malick on the set of the film.

Fig. 2: A black-and-white still of Terrence Malick on the set of the film.

Film Promotion in the Digital Age: New Strategies, New Rules

For much of the 2000s, Hollywood was reluctant to promote film content through online channels for fear of losing theatrical and home video revenue (Sickels 2011a). The film industry seemed confused by the ever-growing presence of the Internet and related online technologies for film exhibition. But to effectively reach a global audience, the studios and their parent media conglomerates were eventually forced to adapt to the changing media landscape. As Sickels (2011) stated: “Deals with Netflix and the like are only going to delay the inevitable…Audiences don’t want to wait, and they certainly won’t when their only reason for having to do so is an artificial time structure concocted by the studios…”(145). By the second decade of the century, the industry’s fears had become a reality, with on-demand film and television viewing radically altering the industry.

Scholars have pointed to the different complexities of film marketing in the digital age and the associated challenges for the U.S. film industry (e.g., Cunningham and Silver 2013). In Perren’s (2010) words, “A wide range of economic, cultural, political, and formal factors are at play; different entities have distinctive stakes in online distribution” (77).  In other words, films with a greater potential to appeal to a global audience receive preferential treatment from media conglomerates, as well as promoters, marketers, and distributors. With video-on-demand (VOD) revenue climbing steadily since 2010, the studios are looking to different methods for advertising motion pictures beyond the more traditional formats, which includes one-sheets of film posters and theatrical and television spots (Roxborough 2013). Film trailers on the Internet are a viable option in this evolving landscape. The Internet Movie Database and YouTube are the most frequently visited websites supporting online film trailers, with both entities supporting numerous trailers for new releases and older Hollywood titles. In effect, the spectrum of film trailers on the Internet presents a number of potential issues for the film industry. Trailers, historically controlled by studios for advertising and publicity purposes, are increasingly pirated by outside entities. One scholar argues that film industry insiders are the ones largely responsible for leaking studio-controlled content online, with the availability of illegal anti-encryption and watermarking software to bypass copyright restrictions playing a role as well (Bettig 2008, 200-201). Since the release of the DVD De-Content Scramble System (DeCSS) in 2002, film content has been descrambled and decoded for public access and use, despite the studios efforts to control motion picture content (Litman 2002).

Film fans, however, have argued that such laws overwhelmingly favor those with a financial stake in motion picture properties, thereby inhibiting individual and collective acts of creative expression (Boyle 2008). As such, studio-backed restrictions have resulted in more frequently cited instances of pirated motion pictures as well as an upsurge in websites devoted to streaming and downloading studio-owned film content (Sterbenz 2014). Scholars and journalists reporting on the film industry have addressed some of these issues in relation to film trailers. For instance, Rothman (2014) discussed how theatrical trailer standardization discourages user interactivity. Tolson (2010) reported that fan participation with film content suggests an increase in technological “play” that disrupts the traditional model of media production to consumption. Others have looked at how trailer “mobility” is encouraged in a cross-platform media environment, and the effects of contemporary trailer length and message on the viewer (see Franich 2013; Johnston 2008). While many of the issues surrounding film promotion in online spaces remain unanswered, trailers continue to serve as a primary marketing tool for motion picture studios and their parent conglomerates. Fan involvement with film trailers is a burgeoning area of contemporary film marketing and new media, but scholarship on this subject is lacking. Therefor, how participatory cultures connect to older film titles in online spaces through the fan trailer remains an unexplored avenue of study for cinema and media scholars.

Fig. 3: The film’s main titles are appropriately positioned in the concluding seconds of the Paramount Movie’s YouTube-exhibited trailer.

Fig. 3: The film’s main titles are appropriately positioned in the concluding seconds of the Paramount Movie’s YouTube-exhibited trailer.

Trailers in Transition: A Brief History and Contemporary Definitions

The most time-honored marketing strategy for film promotion is the movie trailer, commonly referred to as the “preview.” Kernan (2009) traced the genealogy of film trailers to 1919, citing the National Screen Service (NSS) as the first unified company responsible for creating these advertising spots. The author asserts that the evolution of the film industry during the 20th century affected changes in the types of motion pictures produced, thereby altering the aesthetics and meta-messages of trailers in the ensuing decades. A transition in film marketing occurred during the 1970s, and then again in the 1980s, with a rise in independent filmmaking, an upsurge of art-house theaters, and eventually, the summer blockbuster. During these decades, films trailers debuted on network television in thirty-second spots, visually supported by moments lifted from the film, and complete with the now-familiar and once-prominent voice-of-God narration. By the contemporary era, trailers had become “unique form[s] of narrative film exhibition, wherein promotional discourse and narrative pleasure are conjoined (whether happily or not)” (Kernan 2009b, 1). In essence, this period saw the rise of distinct promotional film advertisements alongside the audience’s familiarity and ability to detect such media forms.

Scholars regard the modern film trailer as both complex and historically shifting media type. A leading scholar on the history and transition of motion picture trailers suggests that these forms are specifically targeted, easily recognizable visual media that are created to capture, direct, and guide viewer attention (Wyatt 1994). Today, both media entities and online film fans aid in determining trailer standards and audiovisual elements. Trailers are guided by audiovisual messages through structured narratives to connect with the largest number of viewers through multi-platform distribution. Some have argued that film trailers in the digital era are defined by their dynamic if fleeting presence, asserting that contemporary trailers are forced to compete with other media forms to encourage audience-driven participation or feedback (see Rombes 2009a). Smartphones and digital tablets indicate an increase in trailer mobility and interactivity on behalf of audiences, who are receiving different media in shorter, eye-catching bursts (Grainge 2011).  Scholars have also argued that the efforts of fans on the Internet extend film capital beyond traditional home video or cable and network replay through film mashups or distributing abridged content (e.g., Sickels 2011c; Hoyt 2010a). Tyron (2009) traced the inception of the digital movie trailer to a fan preview for The Shining (Stanley Kubrick 1980) that gained Internet traction the same year as the inception of YouTube. According to the author, the fan trailer was an outgrowth of DVD culture “that allowed viewers to recognize that texts were ready to be ripped apart and reassembled in playful new ways” (151). Lazzarato (2006) described these types of fan creations as influential because they are “activities involved in defining and fixing cultural and artistic standards, fashions, tastes, consumer norms, and, more strategically, public opinion” (132). In sum, film fans use popular film properties to engage with and further promote such content to a wider range of consumers.

Re-appropriating and exhibiting film content is oftentimes understood as a group effort. Rose (2012a) argues that the cyclical discourse that occurs in online social networks encourages is what engages users to interact with film properties. Citing Avatar (James Cameron 2009) and The Lord of the Rings (Peter Jackson 2001-2003) trilogy as examples, the author maintains that a strong and relatable narrative or story is of the key to fan involvement. According to Rose, online visual narratives must be able to entertain as well as challenge participant-viewers, thereby encouraging individuals to take part in the creative act (233). Through user-participation and online media channels, the modern film trailer appears in transition. In an environment increasingly dominated by new media platforms and social networking, video-sharing websites are stimulating the development of relationships among social actors.

Defining Participatory Cultures and Digital Cinema

Participation raises the question of whose story is it? And, the answer I think is, it’s all of ours. In order to really identify with the story, in some way we have to make it our own.

-Frank Rose, The Art of Immersion (2012b).

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Online users are now affecting many aspects of the motion picture industry and most recently, have turned to collaborative involvement with film trailers. Through an increasing number of video streaming and sharing websites, fans are producing and exhibiting short and hybrid motion picture forms from existing film content. Jenkins (1992) defined networked individuals who engage with and repurpose existing media materials as members of participatory cultures. These persons “speak from a position of collective identity, forge an alliance with a community of others in defense of tastes which…cannot be read as totally aberrant or idiosyncratic” (23). The author attributed the roots of this phenomenon to fan communities that built up around popular television programs, such as Star Trek, and who communicated and bonded through sharing information at conventions and fan clubs. More recently, Jenkins (2006a) has adapted his definition to include new media and social networking. Although optimistic about the endeavors of participatory cultures, Jenkins has noted the drawbacks of these communities as well, including the shifting power dynamics of group members and the involvement of corporate entities. In addition, the author has described the illegal activities of some members of participatory cultures, specifically those parties who undermine media conglomerates through acts of digital piracy and copyright infringement. Jenkins (2006b) has also commented on the burgeoning relationship between participatory cultures and digital cinema:

[I see] media fans as active participants…seeing their cultural products as an important aspect of the digital cinema movement. If many advocates of digital cinema have sought to democratize the means of cultural production and distribution to a broader segment of the general public then the rapid proliferation of fan-produced Star Wars films may represent a significant early success story for that movement (551-552).

In other words, the upsurge in digital cinema is dependent on fans in much the same way that fans are dependent upon interacting with cinematic creations. Digital cinema, as such, is oftentimes described as an outgrowth of online fan participation. Rombes (2009b) claims that collective acts of nostalgia, personal expression, and the adaptation of new technologies play a role in shaping digital cinema. Beginning with the rise of digital video and cinematography in the mid-1990s, the author discusses an additional factor in the relationship between digital cinema and the actions of participatory cultures: “There is a tendency in digital media – and cinema especially – to reassert imperfection, flaws, an aura of human mistakes to counterbalance the logic of perfection that pervades the digital” (Rombes 2009c, 2). In consideration with Rose’s (2012) insistence on powerful storytelling, Rombes argues that digital cinematic forms are generated and desirable because of factors such as pixilation and noise, which appear to mirror human imperfections. While fan intervention in existing film content raises questions for the future of digital cinema and a general understanding of what constitutes motion picture archives, participatory cultures have contributed to film marketing and promotion since the late 1990s. According to Erickson (2009a), who studied Internet film campaigns for The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez 1999) and others, studios appropriate fan-based advertising strategies if fan efforts prove financially successful.  This article is concerned with how participatory cultures repurpose and interact with the content of older motion picture titles. The entrance of fan trailers through online video streaming platforms suggests new territory for digital cinema, as well as the possible extension of the lifespan for archived film properties.

Fig. 4: A still image from the opening titles of a student-generated video essay for Days.

Fig. 4: A still image from the opening titles of a student-generated video essay for Days.

Case Study Film: Days of Heaven

Since it was first released, “Days of Heaven” has gathered legends to itself…[it] is above all one of the most beautiful films ever made. Malick’s purpose is not to tell a story of melodrama, but one of loss. His tone is elegiac. He evokes the loneliness and beauty of the limitless Texas prairie.

-Roger Ebert (1997a).

In the contemporary media marketplace, conglomerates and studios overseeing film distribution and exhibition pay close attention to the role of technologies in film promotion and branding. This is also true when considering how older film titles are released, with potential revenue gained from cable and network television broadcasts, DVD rentals and sales and most recently, VOD. Those with a financial stake in film archives oftentimes publicize and rerelease only a select number of dated film titles per year, with those properties having the most commercial potential regarded as particularly valuable on the marketplace. While some noteworthy and popular motion picture titles are available for little-to-no pay through video-sharing online services, media conglomerates use Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and iTunes, for instance, to promote their most commercially viable films. It is here that the role of participatory culture and the evolution of the fan trailer in the archival value of film properties must be taken into consideration. Days of Heaven is significant because of its longstanding popularity amongst fans, its continual re-emergence in the public arena, and its location in cinematic history. Malick’s film arrived at a turning point in the New Hollywood of the 1970s. The competition between fledgling studio productions and a burgeoning independent film movement marked much of the decade’s releases (see Thompson and Bordwell 2010; Biskind 1998, et. al.). “But by the late 1970s,” Thomson (2012) writes, “there began to be fewer grown-up pictures meant to disturb and provoke” (459).

Before and after its release, Days of Heaven was considered an oddity for Paramount Pictures, a none-too-profitable feature that rested on the short reputation of its filmmaker.[1] Malick spent his early years in Hollywood penning several projects for other directors until his first feature-length film, Badlands (Terrence Malick 1973), gained traction from both audiences and critics, garnering a reputation as the second Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn 1967). Patterson (2007) said Malick’s film offered the director the chance to “work outside more conventional parameters” (28). The filmmaker’s follow-up, however, was grander in scope and presented to audiences as a thematic American period piece. Set in the Great Plains of the 1910s, the narrative focused on a romantic amongst two migrant workers and a land baron. Morrison and Schur (2003) described Days as “wed[ding] Whitman’s poetic ideal of the democratic vista to the interior landscapes of Henry James, with a plot that evokes The Wings of the Dove and ends with a quasi-biblical plague of locusts” (23) [Fig. 1]. Indeed, the locusts were memorable, as was a lengthy scene in which wildfire spreads rapidly across the grasslands, scorching a vast swath of farmland. But much of the film’s storyline involved the happenings of Malick’s starring quartet – Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, Linda Manz, and Sam Shepard – with the characters’ muted emotions drawn out in close-ups paired with character voiceover.

Fig. 5: Gere and Adams’s characters traveling atop a railcar with other migrants in the film.

Fig. 5: Gere and Adams’s characters traveling atop a railcar with other migrants in the film.

Much of the film’s legend was only realizable years after its release. For one, Malick departed from filmmaking for two decades after Days, leaving a questionable legacy for a motion picture whose long-term stability rested on the director’s reputation and the film’s much-discussed cinematography. Over time, those perfectly composed images of man and nature, or what Kehr (2011) glowingly referred to as, “aesthetic shock effects [that] create vast, harmonious wholes,” were responsible for keeping the film in the minds of journalists and cinephiles (23-24). The film’s cinematography eventually became something of Hollywood lore [Fig. 2]. Ebert (1997b) detailed the infighting between credited director of photography, Nestor Almendros, and his predecessor, the notoriously cantankerous Haskell Wexler, in his “Great Movie” review of the film. Over the years, rumblings over credit for the look and feel of the film have led to a reconsideration of the man responsible for capturing such well-regarded images. In the years since its release, Malick returned to filmmaking and has garnered generally favorable reviews and some commercial success.[2] No fewer than ten book-length volumes are dedicated to the filmmaker’s resurgence, including The Terrence Malick Handbook (Smith 2012), and a number of academic and trade journal entries have surfaced on the canonical worthiness of Days (e.g., Crofts 2001; Woessner 2011; Koehler 2013, et. al.). Not surprisingly, praise and frustration for the film reigns on the Internet as well. The number and popularity of video clips available on video streaming and sharing websites suggests additional enforcement of the scholarly and journalistic discourse devoted to the film as well. While Days remains a much-debated and discussed film more than 35 years after its theatrical release, the role of trailers for the film on the Internet deserves attention in the era of cross-platform film promotion.

Selection of Trailer Case Studies: The Presence of Days of Heaven Online

The “Paramount Movies” channel on YouTube, overseen by Viacom, offers an original trailers for Days of Heaven [Fig. 3]. The Criterion Collection, responsible for marketing and distributing the Blu-ray and HD-DVD versions of the film, also displays an official trailer on its homepage for Days.[3] Mysteriously, Paramount’s trailer has received few visitors on YouTube while Criterion’s showcases an impressive 153 user-generated comments. The seeming randomness of attracting viewers to trailer content in online spaces is represented in this brief comparison, which appears to crossover to fan trailers as well (YouTube 2014c; The Criterion Collection 2014). The volume and popularity of fan trailers and video clips of Days showcased on YouTube overshadows this corporately controlled material in several ways as well. For one, the power of the video sharing website’s status as a social networking outlet is immediately evident. The “WorleyClarence” YouTube channel, for instance, has reposted an official version of Paramount’s trailer with an astonishing 360,000 views and 97 message board posts.[4] “JokerTreePictures,” described as an umbrella channel for three student filmmakers, has created a seven-minute video essay for Days that has gathered significant attention [Fig. 4]. Another YouTube user offers a promotional video compiled from scenes from Days matched with the music of Rod Stewart’s pop single, “Broken Arrow.” The sum of this content, which includes fan-exhibited interviews with the cast and crew as well as scenes lifted from the film, is evidence of the film’s presence on the Internet (YouTube 2014d).

For this study, three trailers were chosen as individual case studies based on the following criteria: 1) the recognizable differences in their audiovisual content, 2) the number of online views (i.e., “hits”), and 3) the number of message board posts or available online feedback. Two fan-appropriated trailers exhibited on YouTube were selected based on these requirements, as was the aforementioned trailer available through The Criterion Collection. The necessity of the trailer selection process was to compare and contrast elements of fan trailers with an official trailer approved by a media outlet in an effort to answer the research questions for this study. Many trailers that did not meet the research criteria were not selected because of factors such as conflicting content with the selected trailers, a lack of available user-generated discourse on message boards, and/or the number of recorded views or hits online. After completing the selection process, trailers were coded A (“WorleyClarence” YouTube Channel), B (“cnharrison” YouTube Channel), and C (The Criterion Collection), respectively. The researcher conducted individual and comparative audiovisual analyses on trailers A, B, and C and made notes on narrative structure and trailer content. This was followed by a qualitative content analysis of the online commentary or feedback on the message boards for each trailer’s webpage. In effect, the trailer selection process and resulting analyses were guided by the research questions for this study: What are the content-related (i.e., audiovisual) similarities and differences between the distributor-controlled, official trailer and the fan trailers under study? And what role(s) does user-generated commentary or feedback play for these trailers?

YouTube. 2008. “Days Of Heaven – Trailer (1978).” Last modified April 17, 2008.

YouTube. 2013. “Days of Heaven – Trailer.” Last modified on April 13, 2013.

YouTube. 2013. “Days of Heaven–A Video Essay.” Last modified on October 16, 2013.

Fig. 6: Adams and Shepard photographed in silhouette, with the symbolic farmhouse looming in the background.

Fig. 6: Adams and Shepard photographed in silhouette, with the symbolic farmhouse looming in the background.

Days of (Online) Fan Trailer Heaven

Trailer A opens with an image of Paramount Pictures’ trademark logo. The studio’s signature emblem fades into an image of brooding clouds looming over a wind-worn prairie. Thunder bellows on the soundtrack, and a shot of a bird of prey morphs into a backlit figure of a man standing in the grasslands at sunset. “In 1916, America was changing,” the narrator says in the trailer’s opening seconds. An image of a railcar passing over a bridge fades into a scene of factory workers digging through heaps of coal, followed by another wide frame of an empty sunbaked wheat field. The viewer is then swept into close-ups of the rough-hewn faces of the film’s stars – Gere, Shepard, and Adams – amidst passing railcars and horse-drawn carriages en route to the barren frontier [Fig. 5]. One minute and fifteen seconds into Trailer A, the serene mood and tone of the narrative changes abruptly. The narrator’s voice states that the film is “the story of a man who had nothing…the woman who loved him…and the man who would give her everything for a share of that love” (YouTube 2014e). With these words, the imagery moves away from the thematic scope of the land and its inhabitants and into the romantic dilemma at the heart of the film. A scene in which Gere’s field hand runs from law enforcement on horseback is juxtaposed with a quieter moment of his character embracing Adams in a quiet meadow. The next shot is an extreme close-up of Shepard’s watchful gaze, as if overseeing these scenes from afar.

As the narrative for Trailer A moves towards its conclusion, Adams and Shepard are photographed in silhouette inside the latter’s large estate, while the bedraggled face of Gere’s character peers up at the duo through a windowpane from below. This moment is framed from Gere’s perspective, with the actor and the encompassing field bathed in the deep blues of a Midwestern dusk, suggesting the loneliness his character will face with the coming of night. The film’s title appears over this closing shot, foreshadowing a troubled outcome for the trio. Trailer A presents much of the entire film’s narrative in under two minutes; what begins as a broad glimpse of turn-of-the-century westward expansion in the U.S. evolves into a minor tale of lost love [Fig. 5]. Thematically, the trailer’s primary audiovisual message suggests a heightening of nostalgia for both the American West and the Hollywood of the late 1970s, with the mythic qualities of innocence and utopia highlighted in the cinematography and production design [Fig. 6]. The professionalism of the editing in Trailer A, including the pairing of shots and sequence evolution provides a seamless story arc. Thus, the inclusion of Paramount’s introductory logo, the ‘70s-era voice-of-God narration, and the production elements suggests that this user-exhibited fan trailer was re-appropriated without revising the original trailer’s content. Therefore, Trailer A is most likely an original trailer for the film repurposed by one or more online fans. Trailer B also provides a visually compelling narrative to signal nostalgia and romanticism for the American West. But here, the viewer is immediately transplanted into to the lives of the film’s primary characters without the broader introduction of the land and its inhabitants as witnessed in Trailer A [Fig. 7].

Fig. 7: The film’s use of natural light to emphasize dramatic elements is also highlighted within the trailers.

Fig. 7: The film’s use of natural light to emphasize dramatic elements is also highlighted within the trailers.

The opening shot in Trailer B, a striking low-angle image of Gere, Adams, and the younger Manz running to catch a moving train, introduces the film’s predominant family dynamic.[5] Next is a shot of moving railcars topped with migrant travelers that segue into multiple close-ups of these characters’ hardened faces. Already, the viewer is guided toward the themes of travel and migration. The following image shows the Gere, Adams, and Manz trio atop one of the railcars, amidst the masses, fleeing the East for better opportunities. The rest of Trailer B’s running time focuses on the romantic triangle that ensues. Several important elements in Trailer B suggest a greater degree of user- repurposing. Manz’s tinny backwoods drawl, taken from the film’s narration, guides the trailer’s audio track for much of the running time, and is backed by a second musical track of delicately plucked guitar strings. In addition, the caption for Trailer B, located just below the video player on YouTube, states, “Bill, Abby, and sis arrive on the panhandle,” a sentiment only marginally correlated with the majority of the trailer’s visual narrative (YouTube 2014f). Another item that speaks to user re-appropriation is the individual shot duration, which moves at a more leisurely pace here, and seems to have been edited mostly to match Manz’s voiceover.

Further suggestive of fan involvement with Trailer B’s content is the abrupt segue from Manz’s voice and the guitar string audio tracks to the ambient sounds of trotting horses and rolling wagon wheels. Visually, the nonprofessional editing is emphasized at this point as well, with a sequence in which Gere’s character is propositioned for work by a land baron, a moment that is abruptly interrupted by a long shot of migrants moving en mass across the prairie. Throughout the two and a half-minute running time for Trailer B, the mood and tone shift in favor of different scenes from the film that drive the trailer towards a questionable conclusion. Marketing and film promotion is immediately evident on the webpage for Trailer C [Fig. 8]. The Criterion Collection offers viewers the option of purchasing several DVD versions of the film, reading a written essay on the film’s historical significance, a list of DVD special features, and links to related films from the company in addition to the trailer.

The trailer itself, however, is constructed from film content not included in Trailers A and B. In this much-abridged version, the guitar audio track preceding Manz’s narration is audibly fragmented and disassociated from any cohesive visible narrative. As such, the film’s primary visual content is made up of close-ups of the nondescript faces of migrants overlooking a land of grazing crows and antelope on the abandoned prairie. Here, Manz’s brief narration serves to introduce the film’s quiet mood and leisurely pacing. The aforementioned scene of Gere interacting with the land baron is cut prematurely in Trailer C, presumably for purposes of keeping the trailer’s length under the running time of one minute. In this version, the scene that introduces the bullhorn-gripping farm owner is interrupted by an establishing crane shot that places the viewer in the midst of migrants scampering towards the opportunity of work. Each of these moments take up several seconds worth of running time, and Criterion’s trailer closes abruptly with a surprising fade-to-black.

Fig. 11: Criterion’s webpage for Days of Heaven offers visitors a number of options to interact with the film.

Fig. 11: Criterion’s webpage for Days of Heaven offers visitors a number of options to interact with the film.

Whereas the finales of both fan-appropriated trailers on YouTube are classically structured to mirror the resolutions found in many trailers of the 1970s, the transition to a black frame in Trailer C suggests a different kind of closure. The trailer concludes by returning to a still frame of six farmhands standing in awe of an insect downpour, a somewhat iconic image from the famous “locust scene” in the film. This visual placeholder is representative of Criterion’s idyllic version of the film’s significance. As such, this striking still image speaks directly to curating the memory of Days, arguably more so than the totality of the narrative for Trailer C. Although the design of the distributor’s webpage is simultaneously content-heavy and visually arresting, this emblematic still frame stands apart, begging the visitor to click, watch or re-watch and possibly, purchase the film from the distributor.

Feedback on Heaven: The Online Discourse of Cinematic Aesthetics & Nostalgia

The contents of three hundred user-generated message board posts for Trailers A, B, and C were analyzed for this study. Most of this feedback was found to be praiseworthy of Days, with many of the user-posts lauding the film’s cinematography. The discourse on Criterion’s webpage for the film was overwhelmingly positive and found to reflect the distributor’s marketing intentions. “A beautiful spectral and view of the early 1900s mid-western America,” Mike Santoro wrote on the message board. “I love Malick’s brilliant direction in this [film]” (The Criterion Collection 2014b). Others commentators on this webpage used specific discourse that intertwined aspects of their real-world lives with the film’s history and nostalgia. “My first Malick movie, discovered when I was watching every movie on rogerebert.com’s ‘101 Movies To See Before You Die,’” Taylor P. stated. Bennett Duckworth wrote, “…thanks Dad for introducing this movie to me.” And mimicking Manz’s drawl in the character’s narration, Arthur Mhoyan said, “There were people sufferin’ in pain and hunger. Some people their tongues were hangin’ out of their mouths” (The Criterion Collection 2014c).

While single-word and somewhat elusive statements, such as “Breathtaking” and “Beautiful,” were found on the Criterion message board as well, much of the feedback was more detailed and descriptive. The lack of negative comments on the message board is further indicative of Criterion’s approach to online publicity and distribution for the film. In turn, the majority of user-feedback for Trailers A and B on YouTube was specifically targeted at the film’s cinematography. Equal parts excitement and praise for the film’s imagery was evident on both message boards, suggesting that the film’s visual approach is endorsed through fan-recall on these video-streaming webpages. For example, the “GregF” channel wrote, “…all 5 [of] Malick’s movies are beautiful but there are no words to describe Days Of Heaven…pure magic.” The “44eelz” channel posted, “i haven’t seen this movie yet but the cinematography looks amazing.” The “ErikHutt” channel added that “[Days] was shot in Alberta,” and the “MrKeepitunderyourhat” channel said, “To be honest, I’d say that the most famous aspect of the entire film is its magic hour cinematography” (YouTube 2014g).

The similarities in the content and tone of the statements analyzed across all three webpages suggest that fans are fond of the film’s historical significance and imagery. The cause-effect nature of this discourse also acts as an effort to keep the film in memory while promoting it to others. The content of this rhetoric also signifies the film’s ability to evoke an era in Hollywood history in which aesthetic power swayed and captivated audience members. In sum, much of this online discourse speaks to how film fans in online spaces curate the myth and nostalgia of aging mainstream film properties. Much of these statements reflect a sincere familiarity with Malick’s production design and the aesthetic properties of the cinematography. The statements under analysis, therefore, speak to the role of message boards in film advertising as well as the intricacies of fan-generated promotional feedback.

Promoting Hollywood Through the Fan Trailers: The Archive in Transit

YouTube. 2015. “Honest Trailers.” Accessed February 11, 2015.

This article investigated how participatory cultures use fan trailers to engage with aging Hollywood titles in online spaces. The findings suggest that online film fans utilize fan trailers to interact with others while drawing attention to archival film properties. In effect, the findings from this study demonstrate several ways in which trailer repurposing and exhibition on the Internet aids in developing fan support around older motion pictures. An upsurge in fan trailers on the Internet is a burgeoning avenue of marketing for Hollywood studios and film distributors. Through new media platforms, fan trailers have the potential to reach global audiences and encourage social networking and commentary. In this study, the number of fan trailer views and user-generated message board posts was found to play a role in supporting interest in online film content. The audiovisual elements of both fan trailers for this study were generated from existing film content and repurposed to varying degrees. Specifically, the fan-edited trailer content was found to draw attention to the emotive properties of the film text. Collectively, the trailer narratives for this study presented an overwhelmingly favorable image of the case study film, as well as its historical significance and nostalgic qualities. The textual or written discourse analyzed in message boards on the webpages under investigation was found to shape the collective memory of the case study film as well. The content from this portion of the analysis also helped in preserving a positive view of the film itself, with much of the user-generated feedback positioned to promote the film’s cinematography and production design.

The composite findings indicate that fan trailers play a detrimental role in reviving older studio properties. The unintended consequences of these actions suggest a new avenue for media conglomerates and/or film distributors in marketing older motion pictures in the digital era. With Hollywood making fewer “midrange films [with] distinctly American subject matter,” such as Days of Heaven, smaller production companies and independent channels are overtaking this once-profitable market (Goldstein 2012). The role(s) taken on by members of participatory cultures, as well as the long-term effects of their interventions in online spaces, remains to be seen. For aging Hollywood film, fan trailers appear to offer one example of a promotional tool for film distribution and archiving. In June 2015, more than 88 million viewers had accessed 107 mock fan trailers through Honest Trailers, the YouTube-hosted channel by Screen Junkies (YouTube 2015). As Erickson (2009b) suggested, “with rapidly evolving technological features and equipment, tomorrow may yield an entirely new approach to using the Internet in a film promotion campaign” (51). As technological advancements in cinema and digital media continue to unfold, new online platforms and Web channels are creating an increasing number of spaces for participatory cultures and motion pictures. While many of these changes are on the horizon, scholars have predicted a continuous stream of content-related interruptions from tech-savvy film fans, as well as an evolution in the blending of virtual selves with cinematic information in cyberspace (e.g., Hansen 2006; Hardt and Negri 2004). Although the art of re-appropriating film content on the Internet has ballooned into a truly mass phenomenon, the future and direction of the fan trailer will depend on the negotiated balance between online cinephiles and digital control of motion picture properties.

REFERENCES 

Bettig, Ronald V. 2008. “Hollywood and intellectual property.” In The Contemporary Hollywood Film Industry, edited by Paul McDonald and Janet Wasko, 195-205. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2008.

Biskind, Peter. 1998. Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock-‘n’-Roll Generation Saved Hollywood. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Boyle, James. 2008. The Pubic Domain: Enclosing the Commons of the Mind. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Cunningham, Stuart and Jon Silver. 2013. Screen Distribution and the New King Kongs of the Online World. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Crofts, Charlotte. 2001. “From the ‘hegemony of the eye’ to the ‘hierarchy of Perception’: The reconfiguration of sound and image in Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven.” The Journal of Media Practice 2, no. 1: 19-29.

Ebert, Roger. 1997. “Great Movie: Days of Heaven.” RogerEbert.com., December 7. Accessed January 20, 2015.

Erickson, Mary P. 2009a. “Co-opting ‘independence’: Hollywood’s marketing label.” In The Business of Entertainment: Movies, Vol. 1, edited by Robert Sickels, 129-152. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.

Erickson, Mary P. 2009b. “KingKong.com verses LOLTheMovie.com: Toward a framework of corporate and independent online film promotion.” In The Business of Entertainment: Movies, Vol. 1, edited by Robert Sickels, 37-54. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.

Franich, Dennis. 2013. “Do audiences actually WANT shorter movie trailers?” Entertainment Weekly, June 7. Accessed November 13, 2014.

Goldstein, Patrick. 2012. “Hollywood’s global strategy: Made in America, but not for Americans.” 24 Frames: Movies: Past, Present and Future (Los Angeles Times blog), January 10. Accessed December 17, 2014.

Grainge, Paul. 2011. Ephemeral Media: Transitory Screen Culture from Television to YouTube. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Hansen, Mark B. N. 2006. Bodies in Code: Interfaces with Digital Media. New York: Routledge.

Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri. 2005. Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire. New York: Penguin Books.

Hoyt, Eric. 2010. “The future of selling the past: Studio libraries in the 21st century.” Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media 52. Accessed January 18, 2015.

Internet Movie Database. 2015. “Days of Heaven.” Accessed March 12.

Jenkins, Henry. 1992. Textual Poachers: Television Fans & Participatory Culture. New York: Routledge, Chapman and Hall, Inc.

Jenkins, Henry. 2006a. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York University Press.

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Johnston, K.M. 2008. “’The coolest way to watch movie trailers in the world’: Trailers in the digital age.” Convergence 14, no. 2: 145-160.

Kehr, Dave. 2011. “Days of Heaven.” In When Movies Mattered: Reviews from a Transformative Decade, 23-27. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Kernan, Lisa. 2009. Coming Attractions: Reading American Movie Trailers. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

Koehler, Robert. 2013. “What the hell happened with Terrence Malick?” Cineaste 38, no. 4: 4-9.

Lazzarato, Maurizio. 2006. “Immaterial labor.” In Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential Politics, edited by Paolo Virno and Michael Hardt, 132-146. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Litman, Jessica. 2002. “War stories.” Cardozo Arts & Entertainment Law Journal 20, no. 2: 337-365.

Morrison, James and Thomas Schur. 2003. The Films of Terrence Malick. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.

Obst, Lynda. 2013. Sleepless in Hollywood: Tales from the New Abnormal in the Movie Business. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Patterson, Hannah. 2007. “Two characters in search of a direction: Motivation and the construction of identity in Badlands.” In The Cinema of Terrence Malick: Poetic Visions of America, edited by Hannah Patterson, 27-39. London: Wallflower Press.

Perren, Alisa. 2010. “Business as unusual: Conglomerate-sized challenges for film and television in the digital arena.” Journal of Popular Film and Television 38, no. 2: 72

Rombes, Nicholas. 2009. Cinema in the Digital Age. New York: Wallflower Press.

Rose, Frank. 2012. The Art of Immersion: How the Digital Generation Is Remaking Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and the Way We Tell Stories. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Rothman, Lily. 2014. “Movie trailers will get shorter, but won’t become interactive anytime soon.” TIME, January 27. Accessed October 3, 2014.

Roxborough, Scott. 2013. “Global on-demand revenues to top $6 billion by 2018.” The Hollywood Reporter, August 14. Accessed September 8, 2014.

Sickels, Robert. 2011. American Film in the Digital Age. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger Publishers.

Smith, Emily. 2012. The Terrence Malick Handbook – Everything You Need to Know about Terrence Malick. Unknown Location: Tebbo.

Sterbenz, Christina. 2014. “How sketchy streaming sites really work – and why some are illegal.” Business Insider, April 24. Accessed January 10, 2015.

The Criterion Collection. 2015. “Days of Heaven: Terrence Malick.” Accessed on October 22, 2014.

Thompson, Kristin and David Bordwell. 2010. Film History: An Introduction (3rd ed). New York: McGraw-Hill Higher Education.

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Tolson, Andrew. 2010. “A new authenticity? Communicative practices on YouTube.” Critical Discourse Studies 7, no. 4: 277-289.

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Wyatt, Justin. 1994. High Concept: Movies and Marketing in Hollywood. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

 

Filmography

Avatar. 2009. Directed by James Cameron. USA: 20th Century Fox.

Bonnie and Clyde. 1967. Directed by Arthur Penn. USA: Warner Brothers.

Days of Heaven. 1978. Directed by Terrence Malick. USA: Paramount Pictures. 

Gone Girl. 2014. Directed by David Fincher. USA: 20th Century Fox.

The Blair Witch Project
. 1999. Directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez. USA: Haxan Films.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. 2001. Directed by Peter Jackson. USA: New Line Cinema.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. 2002. Directed by Peter Jackson. USA: New Line Cinema.

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. 2003. Directed by Peter Jackson. USA: New Line Cinema.

YouTube. 2008. “Days Of Heaven – Trailer (1978).” Last modified April 17, 2008.

YouTube. 2009. “Days of Heaven – Terrence Malick (1978).” Last modified on November 9, 2009.

YouTube. 2013. “Days of Heaven – Trailer.” Last modified on April 13, 2013.

YouTube. 2013. “Days of Heaven–A Video Essay.” Last modified on October 16, 2013.

YouTube. 2015. “Honest Trailers.” Accessed February 11, 2015.


Notes
[1]
Days of Heaven’s 1978 box-office gross was $3.5 million nationwide. Compare this figure to other mainstream studio releases of 1978 that received Oscar attention and critical acclaim, such as Heaven Can Wait ($81.6 million) (Beatty 1978), The Deer Hunter (roughly $49 million) (Cimino 1978), and Midnight Express ($35 million) (Parker 1978) (BoxOfficeMojo 2014).

[2] At the time of this writing, three Malick-directed films are in various stages of development, with his next feature, Knight of Cups, scheduled for wide release in 2015.

[3] The one-hour, thirty-three minute feature film is also available for rent or purchase on YouTube.

[4] Paramount Pictures’ YouTube channel displays fewer than 4,000 posts.

[5] This image is also used near the end of Trailer A, primarily to symbolize the passage of time for migrants moving from urban to rural areas.

Bio:

Kyle R. McDaniel is a doctoral candidate in the School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Oregon. His research interests include the intersections between American cinema and digital culture in the 21st century. His forthcoming dissertation focuses on the usage and repetition of visual effects in contemporary documentary film.

 

“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.

Introduction

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.

MORDRED Never.

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).

Conclusion

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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Notes

[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).

 

Bio:
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.

Volume 26

Contents

  1. “Children should play with dead things”: transforming Frankenstein in Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie –  Erin Hawley
  2. “You gave me no choice”: A queer reading of Mordred’s journey to villainy and struggle for identity in BBC’s Merlin  –  Joseph Brennan
  3. Days of YouTube-ing Days of Heaven: Participatory Culture and the Fan Trailer  –  Kyle R. McDaniel
  4. When a Good Girl Goes to War: Claire Adams Mackinnon and Her Service During World War IHeather L. Robinson 
  5. ‘Rock‘n’roll’s evil doll’: the Female Popular Music Genre of Barbie Rock  –  Rock Chugg
  6. Morality, Mortality and Materialism: an Art Historian Watches Mad Men – Catherine Wilkins
  7. Playing At Work  –  Samuel Tobin
  8. 1970s Disaster Films: The Star In Jeopardy Nathan Smith

 

 

“Children should play with dead things”: transforming Frankenstein in Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie – Erin Hawley

Abstract: In this paper, I explore the possibility of retelling Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein in a children’s media text.  Like most material within the horror genre, Frankenstein is not immediately accessible to children and its key themes and tropes have traditionally been read as articulations of “adult” concerns.  Yet Frankenstein is also a tale with surprisingly child-centric themes.  With this in mind, I consider how the Frankenstein tale has been transformed within the constructed space of a child’s worldview in Tim Burton’s 2012 animated film Frankenweenie.  I argue that the film neither simplifies nor expresses great fidelity to Shelley’s novel, but instead cultivates a sense of curiosity and cultural literacy regarding the Frankenstein tale and the horror genre itself.

Sparky the dog. Frankenweenie (Tim Burton, 2012)

Sparky the dog. Frankenweenie (Tim Burton, 2012)

The horror genre has long been considered “off limits” to children.  From the rewriting of fairytales to erase their violent and scary content (Zipes 1993) to the literal defacement of eighteenth century children’s literature to remove traces of the Gothic (Townshend 2008), efforts to disentangle children’s texts from horror have given rise to the notion that children cannot derive the same sort of pleasure from “being scared” that adults can.  Recent scholarship has suggested, however, that children can and do take pleasure in horror material.  In her work on child cinema audiences in Britain, Sarah Smith has found that horror films in the 1930s were “extremely popular with children” due to the “mixed feelings of fear and fun” they evoked (2005, 58).  Writing of James Whale’s film Frankenstein (1931), Smith observes that children were “fascinated by its appeal and attended in droves” (2005, 70).  Similarly, David Buckingham’s research into children as horror viewers reveals that, while fright reactions to horror material can be powerful and long-lived, child audiences also take pleasure in the conventions of the horror text – they enjoy watching “evil destroyed” but also watching it “triumph”; they enjoy the feeling of fear itself and, like adult viewers, find pleasure in horror’s momentary destabilisation of societal norms (1996, 112-116).

The pleasures of horror from a child’s perspective have also been explored by Neil Gaiman (2006), who tells an interesting story about his daughter’s fascination with James Whale’s The Bride of Frankenstein (1935).  “My daughter Maddy loves the idea of The Bride of Frankenstein,” he writes: “she’s ten”.  Such fascination leads to dress-ups and play, and eventually to young Maddy and her friend watching the horror classic under Gaiman’s supervision.  When confronted with the movie itself, however, the enthusiasm wanes: the kids don’t get it.  As Gaiman observes, “They enjoyed it, wriggling and squealing in all the right places. But once it was done, the girls had an identical reaction. ‘Is it over?’ asked one. ‘That was weird,’ said the other, flatly. They were as unsatisfied as an audience could be”.

To some extent, this reaction is not surprising.  The Bride of Frankenstein is based on Mary Shelley’s Gothic novel Frankenstein, a text that – like most material within the horror genre – is usually read as an articulation of decidedly adult concerns.  From the original novel to its more recent manifestations in popular media, the Frankenstein tale is peppered with depictions of violence and violation, murder and misogyny; across the long history of its remaking in popular culture it has been interpreted as a story about genetic manipulation (Waldby 2002, 29), sexual transgression (Mellor 2003, 12-13), and post-partum depression (Johnson 1982, 6), to name just a few of its more adult-centric resonances.

Yet Frankenstein is also a tale with surprisingly child-centric themes.  At its heart, it is a story about what it means to be an outsider and what it means to encounter, experience, and negotiate otherness; these are themes that have more recently been explored by writers of children’s and young adult fiction from Roald Dahl to Stephenie Meyer.  As Barbara Johnson has pointed out, Frankenstein is also essentially a story about parent/child relationships: with its themes of monstrosity and technology, Johnson tells us, Shelley’s novel explores “the love-hate relation we have toward our children” (1982, 6).  Building on Johnson we can suggest that by offering us a glimpse of the world through the monster’s eyes the novel also briefly presents this “love-hate relation” from the child’s perspective, and that decades of Frankenstein movies continue this by offering the misunderstood monster as an icon of all that is unruly, confused, and frightening about childhood itself.

The story Gaiman tells about his daughter’s fascination with The Bride of Frankenstein and her reaction – “that was weird” – to the movie itself is a lovely articulation of the way children may be simultaneously drawn to and locked out of the Frankenstein tale.  It is interesting to note that Gaiman’s daughter and her friend were not frightened by the film or put off by its horror elements (indeed, they seemed to enjoy this aspect of the movie, “wriggling and squealing in all the right places”); instead, it was a certain indefinable strangeness that informed their ultimately “unsatisfied” reaction.  All this suggests that children can engage meaningfully and pleasurably with material in the horror genre, especially if that material is rewritten with a child’s perspective in mind.

In this article, I explore the relationship between Frankenstein and young audiences and consider the possibility of retelling Shelley’s novel in a children’s media text.  My analysis is inspired by the recent appearance of characters from Shelley’s novel and its various adaptations in three children’s animated films: Frankenweenie (Tim Burton, 2012), in which a boy named Victor Frankenstein reanimates his dog Sparky after a tragic car accident; Igor (Anthony Leondis, 2008), in which a hunch-backed laboratory assistant brings a female monster to life; and Hotel Transylvania (Genndy Tartakovsky, 2012), in which the Frankenstein monster and his Bride join Dracula and a host of other characters from the horror genre.  This trend towards engaging the Frankenstein myth in children’s media begs the question: how have such texts made Shelley’s tale accessible to young audiences, and with what degree of success?

Below, I take up this question with specific reference to Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie.  Not only is Burton’s film (as we shall see) the most highly regarded and in some senses the most successful of these three texts, it is also the most complex and arguably does not “dumb down” its source material.  My analysis of Frankenweenie will examine how the film constructs a “child’s eye view” and transforms the Frankenstein tale so that its characters, themes, and narratives make sense within the imagined space of a child’s world.  I will demonstrate that Burton’s film captures the spirit of its source text without necessarily striving for fidelity.  I will also consider some of Frankenweenie’s extra-textual material, exploring how reviews, product tie-ins, and even the film’s intertextual references contribute to its overall project of transforming but not simplifying the Frankenstein tale for children.

Adaptation, simplification, and transformation

Victor and his dog Sparky from Tim Burton's homage to the Frankenstein story, Frankenweenie (2012).

Victor and his dog Sparky from Tim Burton’s homage to the Frankenstein story, Frankenweenie (2012).

Frankenweenie is a stop-motion animation inspired by Burton’s earlier live-action film of the same name.  Here, the Frankenstein tale is relocated to one of Burton’s characteristic suburbia-scapes (“New Holland”), complete with manicured lawns, hedge sculptures, and monstrously mediocre residents.  Within this new narrative space, “Victor Frankenstein” is a child: a troubled, creative loner who spends his time tinkering in the attic, playing with his beloved dog Sparky, and making movies.  Tragedy enters Victor’s life when Sparky is killed in a car accident.  Inspired by his science teacher, the delightfully dour Mr Rzykruski, Victor steals Sparky’s body from the pet cemetery, drags the corpse back to the family home, and reanimates him in the attic.  When Victor’s classmates learn his secret, they try to replicate the experiment.  Chaos ensues as pets both living and dead are transformed into monsters who descend on New Holland, leading to a climactic showdown at the windmill overlooking the town.

The relationship between Frankenweenie and its source text, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, is complex.  Burton’s film both diverges from and intersects with Shelley’s novel, defining itself through patterns of fleeting fidelity and moments of spectacular transformation.  At the same time, the film makes reference to a plethora of other texts both within and beyond the Frankenstein mythos, thereby demonstrating the ways in which “adaptation” approaches and merges with “intertextuality” (see Elliott 2014; Martin 2009; Leitch 2003).  In other words, Frankenweenie is by no means a “faithful” retelling of Shelley’s Frankenstein.  It should be noted, however, that Shelley’s novel – despite being adapted many times in the centuries since its publication, across different media and in different genres – has not tended to inspire fierce fidelity in adapting authors.  As Albert Lavalley points out, Frankenstein tends to be “viewed by the playwright or the screenwriter as a mythic text, an occasion for the writer to let loose his own fantasies or to stage what he feels is dramatically effective, to remain true to the central core of the myth, [but] often to let it interact with fears and tensions of the current time” (1979, 245).

The notion of “fidelity” to an original text as the means of measuring an adaptation’s success, strength, and value has itself been thoroughly contested and problematised in recent years.  Fuelled particularly by the work of adaptation theorists such as Robert Stam (2005), Thomas Leitch (2003, 2007), and Imelda Whelehan (1999), this problematisation of the fidelity model has been an intervention in established ways of thinking about the relationship between an adaptive text and its source material.  As Will Brooker observes, though, fidelity criticism may be “outmoded and discredited within academia” but it has managed to “retain its currency within popular discourse” (2012, 45); in particular, it still informs the critical reception of films that adapt well-known novels or works of literature.  Even within academia, moreover, fidelity criticism has tended to linger in discussions of children’s media texts, particularly when the texts in question are retellings of classic or literary works.  It is often assumed that such adaptations carry some degree of responsibility for encouraging children to read and connect with the source material (Napolitano 2009, 81); in this way, the issue of fidelity becomes more urgent in the context of children’s media.

Concerns about fidelity in children’s adaptations are compounded by the issue of simplification.  Frankenweenie, for instance, is both an adaptation of a literary text and a reworking of classic horror films within the space of a child’s animation: the question we may immediately wish to ask, then, is “what has been lost in this process?”.  Both Shelley’s novel and the films of James Whale are today held in high regard as cultural classics, while the Frankenstein myth itself is a repository of ideas and cultural conversations about selfhood, embodiment, subjectivity, life, and death.  Potentially, the simplification of this myth for children would involve more than just a strategic removal of violent and sexual content in order to achieve a PG rating: it would be a process of dumbing down, a cleaning up of a story that works best when it is not “clean”.  It would also be a form of commercialisation, a reduction of a complex tale so that it can be packaged and marketed to young audiences.

These problems of simplification, commodification, and the dumbing down of source material are frequently mentioned by analysts of children’s adaptations, especially when the adaptation in question is a Disney product (as is Frankenweenie).  Writing in 1965 for the journal Horn Book, Frances Sayers refers to the “sweet” and “saccharine” nature of Disney adaptations and argues that, in order to both address and construct a child or family audience, Disney texts present life as lacking “any conflict except the obvious conflict of violence” (609).  Her concerns have been echoed by Hastings, who writes of the “conscious effort [by Disney] to produce children’s movies with no alarming moral ambiguities” (1993, 84).  Zipes, in turn, laments the way Disney has “‘violated’ the literary genre of the fairytale and packaged his versions in his name through the merchandising of books, toys, clothing, and records” (1995, 38).  Marc Napolitano’s work on the “Disneyfication of Dickens” is particularly relevant here because it explores the intersection between adult literature and children’s media.  Napolitano argues that the films Oliver & Company and The Muppet Christmas Carol – both Disney texts that retell canonical works by Charles Dickens – are “simplified and sanitized adaptations of Dickens that were marketed to families by the Walt Disney Company” (2009, 80).  In Oliver & Company in particular, Napolitano argues, Disney “lightens the material significantly and uses cute, cuddly animal characters, all of whom would be reproduced as stuffed toys, McDonald’s Happy Meal prizes… and countless other types of child-friendly merchandise to market the film to kids” (2009, 82).

All such criticism of Disney’s treatment of literary material is important, and functions as part of a wider interrogation of the seemingly “apolitical” and “critically untouchable” world of children’s animated film (Bell, Haas, and Sells 1995, 2).  As analysts of Disney products, it is essential that we disentangle ourselves from our own enjoyment of the Disney “magic”; this is part of what Zipes has called “Breaking the Disney Spell” (1995).  At the same time, however, claims about “Disneyfication” can be problematic when they make sweeping assumptions about young audiences, their levels of media literacy, and the ways in which they engage with media texts.  In other words, when accusing a children’s text of simplification we ourselves risk making an overly simplified reading of the child audience.  The charge of simplification becomes especially problematic when it lapses into what Semenza (2008) has termed the “dumbing down cliché”: the notion that adapting a literary text for children must always and automatically involve a process of reduction and commodification.

In the context of these concerns, Frankenweenie provides us with an interesting example because it resists the simplification process and simultaneously encourages its young audience to reconnect with the source material through means other than fidelity.  The film’s refusal to “Disneyfy” the Frankenstein tale is signified by the transformation of the Disney logo in the opening sequence: lightning strikes the familiar Disney castle and the picture turns black and white, a suggestion that there will be no fairies or cute, singing animals in the film that follows; that there will be no attempts to render the Frankenstein tale “safe” and “simple” even as it is opened up for young viewers.  While this transformation of the Disney logo is indicative of the mediating presence of Burton in the adaptation process, and of the supposed clash between the Disney and Burton brands, it can also be read as a resistance to simplification – a suggestion that the film will be “Frankenstein for kids” but not “Frankenstein lite”.

In what follows, I explore how Frankenweenie transforms (rather than simplifies) the Frankenstein tale within the imagined space of a child’s world.  I use the term “transformation” with an awareness of its applicability to studies of animation as an art form, a technology, and a mode of representation.  As both Susan Napier (2000) and Paul Wells (1998) have noted, animation has metamorphic qualities that distinguish it from live-action cinema and that manifest at the levels of story, body, and space.  Wells has also argued that the process of adapting a literary text into animated film can involve “an act of literal transformation which carries with it mythic and metaphoric possibility” (2007, 201).  In this way, the idea of transformation allows us to discuss children’s animated films as adaptations without making assumptions about animation as a medium (for instance, that it is inferior to live-action cinema) or about children as audiences (for instance, that they are incapable of understanding textual and intertextual complexities).

Transformation and the child’s eye view

In her analysis of the filmic adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s beloved picture book Where the Wild Things Are, Sarah Annunziato (2014) explores the construction of a “child’s eye view”, arguing that the film – while drawing attention and public comment for its scariness and mature themes – is appropriate for young audiences because it imagines the world as seen through a child’s eyes.  Similar claims can be made of Frankenweenie, which constructs a child’s view of the world and repeatedly invites its viewers to inhabit this childlike space.  In both these films, the creation of a child’s eye view specifically involves moments of scariness rather than excluding them.  The relationship between Frankenstein and Frankenweenie differs, however, from that between the book and film versions of Where the Wild Things Are because it involves a shift from adult to child audience.  In Burton’s film, therefore, employing a child’s perspective allows for a significant rethinking of the original tale.

In its simplest sense, this child’s eye view is visible in the depiction of New Holland and its residents.  While certainly reminiscent of some of Burton’s other visions of suburbia, New Holland is best described as a small town landscape seen through a child’s eyes: a place of long shadows and neat lines, of fantasy and darkness, of strange children and menacing adults.  The frequent use of low camera angles to depict some of these adult characters (such as the mayor Mr Bergermeister and the science teacher Mr Rzykruski) aligns us with Victor and invites us to adopt a child’s perspective.  While not menacing or imposing, Victor’s parents, too, are adults as seen by children: simplistic to the point of caricature, caught up in trivial or meaningless “grown-up” concerns (Victor’s father talks endlessly about his work as a travel agent; Victor’s mother is repeatedly seen vacuuming the house and/or reading romance novels).  On the other hand, the world of Victor (the child’s world) is depicted as complex, detailed, and intricate.  This is best represented by the attic, a cluttered space of creativity, invention, and play – and a notable contrast with the rest of Victor’s house and suburb, which are neat, sparse, and boring.

This inherent difference between adults and children – and the resultant conflict, always seen from the child’s perspective – is central to the plot of Frankenweenie.  From the opening scenes we learn that Victor is misunderstood by his mostly well-meaning parents, who worry that he spends too much time alone and will “turn out weird”.  His father encourages Victor to take up baseball, which leads inadvertently to Sparky’s death: the little dog meets his doom while chasing a ball hit by Victor.  The subsequent depiction of Victor’s grief is highly moving, all the more so because his parents do not seem to understand the extent of his sadness.  His mother offers clichés and platitudes: “If we could bring him back, we would” and “when you lose someone they never really leave you – they just move into a special place in your heart”, which Victor interprets as hollow and macabre (“I don’t want him in my heart”, he objects, “I want him here with me”).  These early scenes suggest a sense of turmoil beneath the calm surface of even the most loving parent-child relationship: a version, perhaps, of the “love-hate relation” that Johnson (1982, 6) detects within Shelley’s visions of monstrosity.  They also reveal that the world seen through a child’s eyes is not a simple place, even though it may be dominated by fantasies (such as the desire to bring Sparky back to life, which Victor soon fulfills).

It is through these early depictions of conflict, death, and grief that the film captures the thematic spirit of Mary Shelley’s novel.  In Shelley’s text, Victor Frankenstein is driven to create his monster by a desire to suspend mortality and escape the horrors of death and decay: Shelley’s Victor is both haunted and inspired by the death of his mother, Caroline, which leads him to seek out scientific means of “renew[ing] life where death had apparently devoted the body to corruption” (Shelley 1993, 43).  For children, the death of a pet is often a first experience of mortality; thus in Frankenweenie it is the dog, Sparky’s, death that allows Victor to confront the notion of perishability that so horrifies his predecessor in Shelley’s novel.  This experience of death and perishability also precipitates the story events and initiates the move into the horror genre by inspiring Victor’s act of monster-making.

The scene in which Victor reanimates Sparky provides Burton and his team with much opportunity to revel in horror movie history and to pay homage to the films of James Whale, particularly Frankenstein (1931) and its sequel, The Bride of Frankenstein (1935).  Lightning flashes and thunder crashes as Victor sews Sparky’s body back together and fixes bolts to his neck; the body is then covered by a sheet and raised through the roof to receive the life-giving electric charge.  Yet here, too, the child’s eye view is at work.  Attentive viewers will notice that Sparky’s body is laid out on an ironing board, and that toys, appliances, and other household objects form part of the elaborate life-giving apparatus.  Signifiers of “childhood” and “ordinariness” are thus interwoven with the signifiers of life, creation, and monstrosity borrowed from Whale.  Instead of fingers twitching and eyes opening, Sparky’s “alive-ness” is signified by a wagging tail; and instead of proclaiming “It’s alive!” like his predecessor in the Whale films, young Victor Frankenstein says “You’re alive”.  This shift in language reveals that the monster has been created according to a child’s desires and wishes: the moment of creation is framed by Victor’s desire not only for Sparky to still be alive but for the friendship, happiness, and unconditional love that a pet often represents.  Accordingly, the child views the monster as a friend and companion (you) rather than as the product of an experiment (it).

This transformation of Frankenstein to suit a child’s perspective certainly involves a degree of softening, a removal of some aspects of violence and conflict that define the original tale.  For instance, Shelley’s novel and most of its adaptations are constructed around the conflict between monster and maker – this conflict is not present in Frankenweenie.  As we would expect given the film’s target audience, Burton and his screenwriter John August also de-sexualise the Frankenstein tale: another notable absence is Shelley’s sub-plot involving the creation of a mate for the monster, and the resultant murder of Victor’s bride Elizabeth on their wedding night.  This does not mean, however, that Frankenweenie shies away from an exploration of monstrosity and horror.  Indeed, while Sparky himself is not depicted as a true monster, the film is replete with images of monstrosity.  These come particularly in the form of the creatures that Victor’s classmates bring to life: pets and other icons of familiarity, domesticity, and innocence (sea monkeys, a fluffy white cat, a dead hamster) who become snarling, terrifying, rampaging beasts.  The image of these monsters running amok through the fairground of New Holland encapsulates the film’s transformation of its source material.  This scene is only tenuously connected to Shelley’s plot, yet it resounds with Frankensteinian questions and dilemmas, particularly as they might be understood by children: When you have created your monster, what are you going to do with him/her/it?  And what happens if your monster (your game, your story) escapes your control?  While exploring the lighter side of monster-making, then, the film also explores the darker side of play, re-interpreting the Frankensteinian themes of creativity, perishability, and the life/death boundary so that they are seen from a child’s perspective.

Paratexts, intertexts, and the complex world of Frankenweenie

From Frankenweenie: an Electrifying Book. One of the many examples of the process of stop-motion animation and the making of Sparky.

From Frankenweenie: an Electrifying Book. One of the many examples of the process of stop-motion animation and the making of Sparky.

While not a notable box office success, Frankenweenie received a generally positive critical reception.  The film is rated highly – at 87% – on the aggregate review website Rotten Tomatoes, and is frequently described by reviewers as an enjoyable product for both children and adults (see, for instance, Paatsch 2012; Chang 2012; Mazmanian 2012).  Occasionally, charges of simplification are levelled at the film: Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian describes Frankenweenie as “a sentimental kind of retro gothic lite, appearing under the Disney banner” (2012), while A.O. Scott in the New York Times writes that “the movie, a Walt Disney release, also feels tame and compromised” (2012).  Other reviewers found the film dark enough to be entertaining, with many making positive mention of Burton’s ability to balance the sweetness of a children’s story with the darkness of a horror film.  Leigh Paatsch in the Herald Sun, for instance, commends the film for “deftly balancing blatant eeriness with a chipper cheeriness that excuses many a macabre event” (2012).  Lou Lumenick in the New York Post praises the film for its “creepy but basically sweet humor” (2012), as does Matthew Bond in the Daily Mail Australia who describes it as “strange, but also touching and lovely” (2012).  In Time magazine, Richard Corliss addresses the film’s boundary-crossing quality when he notes approvingly that “Frankenweenie’s message to the young” is that “children should play with dead things” (2012).

This positive reception sets Burton’s film apart from other recent children’s films that play with horror tropes and characters, such as the aforementioned Hotel Transylvania and Igor, both of which received lukewarm reviews.  Hotel Transylvania in particular was frequently criticised for its shallow approach to the narratives it draws upon, including Shelley’s Frankenstein (see, for instance, Reynolds 2012; Collin 2012).  L. Kent Wolgamott in the Lincoln Journal Star (2012) observes that while Frankenweenie did not perform as well at the box office as Hotel Transylvania, it is “by far, the superior film” (and he contextualises this comment by urging readers not to “consider box-office returns to be the only measure of a film’s success”, adding that with Frankenweenie Burton has created a “masterpiece”).

Some reviews of Frankenweenie mention the construction of a child’s eye view.  Adam Mazmanian in The Washington Times, for instance, identifies this as the means by which the film “draw[s] in young audiences”, adding that its “knowing winks at horror-movie history will appeal to grown-ups” (2012).  It is interesting that Mazmanian feels the need to separate the film’s audience into these two distinct categories, and that he distinguishes the “adult” and “child” sections of the audience by an ability (or lack thereof) to “get” the film’s intertextual references.  Wolgamott takes this further, praising the film for its references to classic horror movies but adding “that’s not anything the preschool through middle school animation crowd is going to get, or could possibly care about” (2012).  Both critics agree that intertextuality is a means by which Frankenweenie resists simplification and becomes something more than a light and fluffy children’s film.  At the same time, both critics produce distinct readings of the film’s child and adult audiences, and locate the qualities of media literacy and cultural awareness (which might enable the decoding of the film’s intertextuality) squarely within the adult space.

It is certainly true that Frankenweenie is littered with intertextual references: to other texts in the Frankenstein mythos (particularly the films of James Whale), to films in Burton’s oeuvre (such as Edward Scissorhands), and to texts in the horror genre more broadly (such as the Japanese monster movie Gamera).  This is coupled with a playful self-reflexivity that we often see in filmic adaptations of Frankenstein.  As Esther Schor (2003) has pointed out, adaptations of Shelley’s novel – from the early stage productions to the first known Frankenstein film in 1910, and beyond – often depict the monster’s coming-to-life in a spectacular and self-referential way; most filmic versions, in particular, play upon what William Nestrick (1979, 292) has termed the “myth of animation” – a thematic link or bridge between the Frankenstein tale and cinema’s own powers to bring a still image, body, or scene to life.  Frankenweenie, of course, is an animated film, and this brings new meaning to Nestrick’s “myth”.  The technologies of movie-making and, specifically, stop-motion animation are spectacularised in the image of Sparky’s coming-to-life, adding another layer of intertextuality to a film already rich with cultural references.

It may be tempting to assume, as do Mazmanian and Wolgamott, that children are excluded from this intertextual conversation.  Indeed, it has become increasingly common for children’s films to engage in a dual mode of address, enchanting children with stories, songs, and imagery while offering jokes, intertextual references, or clever moments of self-awareness to adults.  The implication is that long-suffering parents should be rewarded for watching films with their children or otherwise lured into the watching process by the promise of adult-centric entertainment.  Burton’s film is somewhat different because the intertextual references are closely bound to the narrative – they are less an amusing aside for adults than part of the film’s very fabric.  They are also, potentially, a means of encouraging audiences to connect with the source material.  While Frankenweenie does not openly strive to generate reverence for (or even awareness of) Mary Shelley, her novel, and the act of reading Frankenstein, it arguably promotes a more complex form of literacy that speaks directly to the process of adaptation itself.  By referencing the movies of James Whale, in particular, Burton positions his film within a web of Frankenstein texts and also destabilises the primacy of Shelley’s novel as source text: adapting Frankenstein, we are told, is a complex business that involves the engagement with already apparent intertextuality rather than the “recovery” of a single source text from out of the depths of adaptation history.

It is likely, furthermore, that many of the children who constitute Frankenweenie’s primary audience are able to decode the film’s intertextual references due to their familiarity with the horror genre and its tropes, characters, and conventions.  As noted above, children have traditionally been locked out of the horror genre; in recent years, however, encounters between young audiences and horror have been initiated through a plethora of child-friendly horror texts: as well as Hotel Transylvania and Igor, these include the films ParaNorman (Sam Fell and Chris Butler, 2012) and Monsters vs Aliens (Rob Letterman and Conrad Vernon, 2009), the video game Plants vs Zombies (PopCap Games, 2009), the books and television series Grossology (Sylvia Branzei, 1992-1997; Nelvana Limited, 2006-2009), and Chris Riddell’s Goth Girl books (2013-2015), as well as older but still relevant texts such as The Simpsons (which frequently lampoons the genre through its “Treehouse of Horror” episodes).  Meanwhile, imagery and tropes from the Frankenstein tale have been so pervasively circulated in popular culture for such a long time that children are likely to have some degree of familiarity with the tale even if they do not connect it to its original source.  Indeed, it is not uncommon for children’s texts to make passing reference to the tale and its characters (for instance, an episode of the cartoon Spongebob Squarepants is entitled “Frankendoodle”, while Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants books contain a character named “Frankenbooger”).

It is also likely that children today are familiar with complex levels of intertextuality and are adept at negotiating intersecting currents of media; thus Cathlena Martin writes of the “overlapping intertextual nature of children’s culture” (2009, 86).  In her analysis of the transmedia adaptation of the novel Charlotte’s Web, Martin claims that an enjoyment and understanding of intertextuality may come more naturally to today’s children, who “experience transmedia stories on a regular basis” and therefore “no longer view the printed text as the only way to experience [a literary classic such as] Charlotte’s Web”, whereas adults are more likely to “resist multi-media adaptation, relying on the supremacy of print text as ‘high art’” (2009, 88).  This returns us to the concept of “fidelity” to an original text, and suggests that in discussions of adaptation for children fidelity is likely to be a concept imposed by adult readers and critics rather than something inherently understood or valued by children.  If this raises concerns over the disappearance of “the book” as a cultural object, it also demonstrates that “simplicity” is not a concept that sits well with the highly interconnected, transmedia quality of children’s culture today.

The promotional release of the free Frankenweenie: an Electrifying Book. The e-book explores the production of Frankenweenie: readers are given access to production photographs, original artwork, and interviews. This is a promotional mock poster for a film titled "Return of the Vampire Cat".

The promotional release of the free Frankenweenie: an Electrifying Book. The e-book explores the production of Frankenweenie: readers are given access to production photographs, original artwork, and interviews. This is a promotional mock poster for a film titled “Return of the Vampire Cat”.

Interestingly, the promotional material for Frankenweenie played upon this ability in young audiences to understand and enjoy intertextuality.  Elliott reminds us that “[t]ie-in merchandise produces and distributes the culture of Disney beyond the cinema” (2014, 195); yet the marketing campaign for Frankenweenie took a very different route from the usual toys, games, and Happy Meals associated with Disney and with the process of Disneyfication.  Instead, the film was promoted through such unusual means as the release of six mock B-movie posters each featuring one of the child characters together with the monster he/she creates (including Night of the Were-Rat: a Tale of Terror featuring “Edgar E. Gore” and Return of the Vampire Cat featuring “Weird Girl”).  These promotional texts not only foreground the film’s child protagonists (as opposed to its adult characters) but serve to locate “childhood” within the parameters of the horror genre and within monster-movie history.  If entryway paratexts guide and instruct our viewing of a media text, as Gray (2010) suggests, these posters invite us to connect childhood with monstrosity in a way that “preps” us for the viewing of Frankenweenie itself (whether we are adults or children).  They also underscore the overall playfulness of the film and relatedly its resistance to the processes of Disneyfication and simplification.  Due to the foregrounding of the child characters, furthermore, the posters specifically address child audiences and clearly include them in the film’s intertextual conversation.

Another key aspect of the film’s promotion was the release of a free e-book entitled Frankenweenie: an Electrifying Book.  Designed for audiences of all ages, the e-book explores the production of Frankenweenie: readers are given access to production photographs, original artwork, and interviews, with particular emphasis on the process of stop-motion animation and the making of Sparky (who we can view as a sketch, a 3-D model, and a finished “product”).  In this way, the e-book allows children access to Nestrick’s “myth of animation” and to the idea of animation as a “bridge” between the narrative and the technology of Frankenweenie.  The e-book also makes the film’s intertextuality more evident.  It begins, for instance, with a foreward by actor Martin Landau accompanied an image of the character he voices (Mr Rzykruski); Landau discusses his previous collaboration with Tim Burton, the film Ed Wood, and his role in this film as Bela Lugosi, star of the horror classic Dracula (Tod Browning, 1931).  A pop-up button informs us that Landau’s character is also “a nod to Vincent Price, the late actor known for his iconic roles in various horror films” (Disney Book Group, 2012).  The e-book thus enables or enhances the ability of any audience member (including children) to decode the film’s intertextual references – and even, arguably, leads young audiences back to the various source texts that inspired Frankenweenie.

In this way, the film (together with its promotional material) both assumes and encourages a level of cultural literacy regarding the Frankenstein tale and, more broadly, the horror genre itself.  As this analysis has demonstrated, the film’s intertextuality works together with its paratexts to cultivate an awareness of what lies beyond its own textual boundaries.  Frankenweenie thus imagines and constructs its audience to be a media-literate and curious child.

Conclusion

Prior to the release of Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie, the thought of an animated film based on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and released under the Disney banner might have horrified literary purists and fans of horror cinema alike.  An animated Frankenstein, in which darkness and moral conflict are replaced by cute animal side-kicks and catchy songs, may well have been taken as a sign of Disney’s cultural domination and its ability not just to appropriate literary material but to colonise sites of literary and cultural meaning.  Burton’s film, however, demonstrates that “Disneyfication” is not the only route to adapting a literary classic for children, and that the transformation of such a tale within the space of a child’s worldview need not involve a simplification process.  As noted above, we can contextualise Frankenweenie within a recent trend in media and popular culture that has seen the horror genre re-imagined for young audiences; yet Burton’s film can be read not just as an example of “horror for kids” but as a startlingly successful transformation of a previously inaccessible tale in line with the concerns that define a child’s world.  Importantly, Frankenweenie’s most powerful images are not cartoonish renditions of monsters and mad scientists – they are the images of Victor grieving for Sparky, and of the neighbourhood kids struggling to control the monsters they have unleashed.  These themes of loss, and of losing control, are central to the film’s re-imagining of a classic horror tale according to a child’s eye view.  In this way, Frankenweenie makes Frankenstein accessible to children and also gives adult viewers a sense of what horror, otherness, and monstrosity could mean to a child.

 

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Townshend, Dale.  2008.  “The Haunted Nursery: 1764-1830”.  In The Gothic in Children’s Literature: Haunting the Borders, edited by Anna Jackson, Karen Coats, and Roderick McGillis, 15-38.  London and New York: Routledge.

Waldby, Catherine.  2002.  “The Instruments of Life: Frankenstein and Cyberculture”.  In Prefiguring Cyberculture: An Intellectual History, edited by Darren Tofts, Annemarie Jonson and Alessio Cavallaro, 28-37.  Cambridge and London: MIT Press.

Wells, Paul.  1998.  Understanding Animation.  New York: Routledge.

Wells, Paul.  2007.  “Classic Literature and Animation: All Adaptations are Equal, but Some are More Equal Than Others”.  In The Cambridge Companion to Literature on Screen, edited by Deborah Cartmell and Imelda Whelehan, 199-211.  Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.

Whelehan, Imelda.  1999.  “Adaptations: the Contemporary Dilemmas”.  In Adaptations: From Text to Screen, Screen to Text, edited by Deborah Cartmell and Imelda Whelehan, 3-19.  London and New York: Routledge.

Wolgamott, L. Kent.  2012.  “Frankenweenie a box-office bomb, but superior film”.  Lincoln Journal Star, October 10.  Accessed August 6, 2014.  http://journalstar.com/entertainment/movies/l-kent-wolgamott-fran…b-but-superior/article_42409e82-89b9-5794-8082-7b5de3d469e2.html.=

Zipes, Jack.  1993.  “The Trials and Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood”.  In The Trials and Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood, edited by Jack Zipes, 17-88.  London and New York: Routledge.

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Films cited

Burton, Tim.  2012.  Frankenweenie.  USA: Walt Disney Pictures.

Leondis, Anthony.  2008.  Igor.  USA: Roadshow Entertainment.

Tartakovsky, Genndy.  2012.  Hotel Transylvania.  USA: Columbia Pictures.

Whale, James.  1931.  Frankenstein.  USA: Universal Pictures.

Whale, James.  1935.  The Bride of Frankenstein.  USA: Universal Pictures.

 

Bio:

Erin Hawley teaches in the Journalism, Media, and Communications program at the University of Tasmania.  Her current research interests include children’s media culture, adaptation, and media education.